Friday, October 30, 2009

No more excuses

Shortly after my birthday, a box from Amazon arrived in the mail. In it were three cookbooks, courtesy of my mother: The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz, and The Pie and Pastry Bible and The Bread Bible, both by Rose Levy Beranbaum. I promptly started giggling gleefully, and then I had to whoop and holler too, just to release all that pent-up giddiness.

I’ve been poring through the cookbooks, patting sticky notes on the pages of recipes that appeal to me and then jotting down the special ingredients on those same bits of paper, the better to make my future grocery lists. I love immersing myself in another person’s style of cooking, gradually catching on to their rhythms and methods, getting inside their minds so to speak. And of course I’m learning new information that, when added to some basic kitchen ingredients, gets transformed into something edible, and if I’ve done it right, delicious. In those cases, I’m not the only one who benefits from that birthday box of books.


Yesterday I made hamburger buns.


I’ve made my own hamburger buns before, but the resulting buns were always too bready and heavy and no one really liked them, so it just wasn’t worth the effort. As a result, when we eat our burgers and dogs and sloppy joes, they’re usually couched in cheap white buns (once in a while, in a moment of extravagance, I do purchase the more expensive brand of fortified air).


But after last night’s dinner—sloppy joes on homemade buns and bowls of vegetable soup—I no longer have an excuse to buy those chemically-laced buns from the store. I now can make something better, much, much better—light-as-air homemade hamburger buns. I am totally impressed with myself.


(My kids were genuinely ecstatic. Yo-Yo came out to the kitchen and peeked under the cloth at tray of cooling buns and then ran out of the room yelling to his siblings, “Hey, guys! Mom made buns for supper! She made the buns for the sloppy joes!” Based on their level of enthusiasm, you would think I’ve never made bread before...)


Light-As-Air Hamburger Buns
Adapted from The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum

This bread is not a healthy bread, nor does it pretend to be, but it certainly is a step up from store bought buns, no doubt about it. Rose quotes Michael Betterberry, publisher of Foods Arts magazine, as saying, after tasting this bread, “‘Mmmm. . . . This is what Wonder Bread, in its soul, really always wanted to be!’”

Rose’s recipes are fussy, but she has a reason (always has a reason) for why she does what she does. However, I cut out some steps and meshed methods and the bread still came out fabulous.

4 ½ cups plus 1 ½ tablespoons (1 pound and 7 ounces) all-purpose flour, divided
1 3/4 scant cups (14.3 ounces) cool water
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (1 ½ ounces) honey
1 ½ teaspoons yeast, divided
1/4 cup dry milk
9 tablespoons butter, softened
2 ½ teaspoons salt
1/4 cup sesame seeds, optional

For the sponge:
Combine 2 1/4 cups plus 2 ½ tablespoons (12 ounces) flour, the water, honey, and 3/4 teaspoons yeast, stir vigorously, cover the bowl with a shower cap and set aside.

For the dough:
In another bowl, whisk together the remaining flour (2 cups plus 3 tablespoons or 11 ounces), the dry milk, and the remaining 3/4 teaspoon yeast. Sprinkle it over the top of the sponge mixture, spreading it out evenly, but not mixing it in. Cover with the shower cap and set aside for one to four hours.

Mixing the dough:
Add the butter to the dough and mix (either with a sturdy wooden spoon or with a Kitchen Aid mixer) till combined. Let the dough rest for 20 minutes.

Add the salt and mix vigorously for 7 to 10 minutes (a Kitchen Aid is a lovely creation). The dough will be sticky.

Grease another mixing bowl with oil or butter and dump the sticky dough into it. Cover with the shower cap and set in a warm place to rise till double.

Baking the buns:
When the dough has risen, dump it out onto a well-floured counter. Using a knife, divide the dough into 16 pieces. With light hands (don’t overwork the dough—you want to keep as much air in the dough as is possible), quickly shape the dough into buns and place them seam-side down on a baking sheet that has been greased and then sprinkled with cornmeal. Pat the buns down so they are somewhat flat. Do not overcrowd the buns (I only had eight buns on each baking sheet)—you want them to rise out and up, not up and into each other.

Cover the buns with a towel and let them rise for 45 to 60 minutes, or until doubled. If using the sesame seeds, spritz the buns with water and sprinkle them lightly with the seeds.

Bake the buns for 15 to 20 minutes (rotating the pans after the first ten minutes) in an oven that has been heated to 400 degrees. Cool the buns completely before slicing (the dough is so tender that it will mush if you cut them while they’re still warm).

These are best eaten fresh. If you are not going to eat them within a few hours of baking, cool them to room temperature and then package in plastic bags and freeze. Thaw at room temperature and serve immediately (you may briefly warm them in the oven).

Sloppy Joes
Much adapted from the March 2009 issue of Country Living magazine

I sometimes add 2 tablespoons of tempero in place of, or in addition to, the onion and garlic. If using tempero, omit the salt.

2 pounds ground hamburger
1 medium onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
4-6 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon dry mustard
½ teaspoon paprika (I used smoked paprika)
½-1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
2/3 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

Put the hamburger, onion, and garlic in a large kettle and cook till browned. Stir in the remaining ingredients, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 20-30 minutes.

Serve on airy rolls.

Note: I am submitting this post to yeastspotting.

About One Year Ago: Ideas and Suggestions, in regards to reading material, fruit juice in granola, and pumpkin.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cleaning up

I’m cleaning up the blog—it’s gotten a little messy over there on the side.

Here’s the 2009 Food Preserved List, for posterity:

Rhubarb: 3 1/2 pints jam; 7 pints, frozen
Spinach: 18 pints, frozen; 5 10-oz bags, frozen
Strawberries: 12 quarts, sliced with sugar; 5 1/2 pints, dried
Peas: 8 pints, frozen
Snow Peas: 1/2 pint, frozen
Snap Peas: 5 1/2 pints, frozen
Red Raspberries: 8 1/2 pints, frozen
Swiss Chard: 7 quarts, frozen
Broccoli: 7 1/2 quarts, frozen
Basil: 12 recipes pesto (11 pints), frozen; 2 pesto tortes, frozen
Garlic Scapes: 1 pint pesto, frozen
Zucchini: 10 1/2 pints relish, canned; 7 pints, frozen; 2 gallons, soup, frozen
Garlic: 21 heads, braided
Green Beans: 49 quarts, frozen; 24 quarts, canned
Oregano: 4 recipes "pesto" rub, frozen
Peaches: 46 quarts, canned; 7 pints (runny) jam, canned
Applesauce: 102 quarts of Summer Rambo, canned; 39 quarts of Ginger Golds, canned
Sweet Pickles: 15 quarts and 2 pints, canned
Corn: 36 quarts and 64 pints, frozen
Beets: 11 pints pickled, canned
Roma Tomatoes: 8 quarts and 1 pint red wine sauce, canned; 15 quarts and 11 pints and one-half pint salsa, canned; 5 quarts and 4 pints stewed, canned; 17 pints pizza sauce, canned; 6 quarts oven-roasted, frozen
Juice Tomatoes: 23 quarts and 1 pint juice, canned; 15 quarts and 9 pints stewed, canned
Nectarines: 2 pints jam, canned; 3 quarts dried
October Sky Beans, dry: 1 pint for seed, frozen
Nicaraguan Red Beans, dry: 3/4th five-gallon bucket
Apples, dried: 18 quarts
Grape juice: 25 quarts, canned
Cherokee Trail of Tears black beans, dry: about ½ gallon
Butternuts: A few measly ones
Chickens: Butchered 34, about 20 were for us

***

Notes to self:
*Don’t make garlic scape pesto again. It’s too strong and no one likes it.
*Never grow garlic again. It all rotted. It’s cheaper (and lots easier) to get it from the grocery store.
*Plant more black beans, three times as much.
*Double the applesauce. That means buy eight bushels. Summer Rambo is good and has the best yield.
*Stayman apples (October) are good for fresh eating, but too dry and mushy for baking. When dried, they taste grainy and draw your mouth. They store beautifully.
*Jonathan apples (September?) are good for baking, but they don’t store very well.
*Empire apples (October) are delicious baked and dried.
*Double the rhubarb patch and double the harvest.
*Plant fall lettuce because you crave greens in the fall.
*Grow a small row of sweet potatoes.
*Grow potatoes and don’t let them catch blight next time.
*Six basil plants should be enough.
*Plant yellow sweet corn instead of white. Yellow is more visually appealing. The bi-color might be nice.
*Plant lots and lots of yellow cooking onions and less Vidalia.
*Do more oregano "pesto" rub, enough for at least eight roast chickens.
*You’ve always had more success growing flat-leafed parsley. If only you could remember that.
*12 Roma plants and 12 juice tomato plants was a perfect amount. You even had some to share.
*Plant the same kind of heirloom green beans that you did last year, but don’t plant them too early. Use a full pound.
*If you’re going to plant mustard greens, it might be nice if you actually use them.
*Two hills of zucchini is perfect.
*Plant six hills of cucumbers.
*You can not successfully grow butternut squash. Give up, darling.
*It’s time to plant a new bed of strawberries.
*Prepare a plot for blueberry bushes. Do it right this time.
*The leeks were a failure.
*The kids don't like canned green beans. But you do.
*Buy two bushels of nectarines and make lots of tarts.
*You’ll want four bushels of peaches.
*A basket of plums might be nice.
*Plant hull peas, please.

About One Year Ago: A leftover creation.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

It's over

I’m still alive and actually doing quite well, surprisingly enough.


The kids are more or less okay, though their coping skills are melting away bit by bit. I’m sitting on the floor of Sweetsie’s bedroom to type this, waiting for her to fall asleep. She’s in the depths of despair, scared of a Somethingorother, even though it’s broad daylight outside and she has three large windows in her room. I decided not to fight her on this one, though. It’s not wise to argue with a five-year-old who only had six-and-a-half hours of sleep and so much junk food that she threw up at one point (and no, she’s not sick, not in the traditional sense, at least).


Making s'mores in the rain.

The event was a success, I believe. The boys departed this morning with all their teeth and limbs intact.


Nobody got hit with the piñata stick, no one fell into the fire...






...and no one got run over with the mower (yes, we are hicks—we ride our zero-turn mower for kicks).


It’s kind of amazing that no one got hurt, seeing as the boys favorite pastime involved running with sticks and brandishing them at each other.


I only yelled once, and that was at 11:45 p.m. when the girls (it was the girls who caused problems) were still up in their little room talking and squealing. My little tirade went something like this: IT IS ALMOST MIDNIGHT AND I AM EXHAUSTED AND IT IS TIME FOR YOU TO BE ASLEEP. I WANT YOU TO LAY DOWN AND TURN THE LIGHT OUT AND SHUT YOUR MOUTHS, JUST SHUT THEM. And then, because I realized I wasn’t sounding all that pleasant and it’s not nice to have to fall asleep with the madam of the house mad at you, I politely added, “And sweet dreams.” They were asleep in five minutes. Lesson learned? Yell at them the first time you tell them to go to sleep.


Yo-Yo says that the presents were his favorite part.


He kept disappearing upstairs to play with them. This was most odd, considering that my son is such an extrovert, but I guess it’s to be expected when you flood a ten-year-old with a wash basket load of toys, books, and clothes. (Even though it might have been normal behavior, it wasn’t acceptable, so we kept hauling him downstairs to mind his manners, consoling him by saying You can play with your toys after your friends leave. Oh, the ironies!)


Here’s a picture of the house that the boys weren’t allowed to come into. At my behest, Mr. Handsome rigged up the white lights around the periphery of the porch. He also put a strand of lights in the clubhouse to provide the boy quarters with a bit of ambiance.


By the way, every parent needs a clubhouse for when their boys have sleepovers. It is such a stress-reducer. All the wet clothes and stinky shoes stayed out of my house, and they could eat popcorn and throw it around and there was no need to chastise them.


They still managed to wake me up in the morning, though. We had cracked our back bedroom window so we could hear them and at 6:30 I was awakened by whooping and hollering the likes of which should never be heard at that early hour. I sighed deeply, martyr that I am, and shuffled downstairs to make my coffee. Soon Yo-Yo stuck his head in the door and plopped a large-sized toad on the floor. Shortly after that, another boy appeared at the door with a freshly laid egg, and then, a little later, he appeared with another one. I almost asked them if they were squeezing the hens to pop out the eggs, but then decided against it—I didn’t want to give them any ideas.

Before long, kids of both genders started harassing me for breakfast. By the time I was nearly done frying the pancakes, they were almost in a panic, pressing up against the doors, watching my every move, and even daring to enter my domain. For that I yelled, and Mr. Handsome shooed them out, explaining my bad behavior to the boys by telling them I was The Wicked Witch of Northwest Rockingham County. Yep, that’s me alright.


The kids scarfed their giant-sized pancakes and sausage links and slurped down multiple cups of milk. Wouldn’t you know, I ended up pouring the syrup and buttering their pancakes. It was easier that way. I just stood at the end of the table and served (and refilled) everyone’s plates for about ten intense minutes, and then, quite abruptly, the meal was over.


Buttermilk Pancakes
I’ve gotten this recipe from different sources (Aunt Valerie is one, of course, and my girlfriend Michael Ann), so I think it’s probably a well-known classic.

2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons salt
4 eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups buttermilk
½ cup oil

Stir together the dry ingredients in a large bowl.

In another bowl, stir together the wet ingredients.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir gently until the ingredients are just barely combined (there should still be lumps in the batter).

Cook the pancakes on a buttered cast-iron skillet.

Serve with lots of butter and syrup (either the real stuff or the imitation).

About One Year Ago: Signs, news, and daydreams.

Friday, October 23, 2009

For the party pancakes

As I was doing the food prep for tonight’s party, it occurred to me that having buttermilk pancakes for Saturday morning breakfast means that I need to have syrup. I have syrup, very expensive and delicious Grade B maple syrup from New York State. We use this syrup judiciously; only adults are allowed to pour it.

Then it occurred to me, Did I want to pour syrup over the pancakes for all those children? Come to think of it, Did I want them to eat my precious maple syrup? The answer was a resounding NO! No, no, no, no, no.


So I made a brown sugar syrup. I don’t care if this syrup goes to waste, and I don’t care if they decide to guzzle the stuff. The kids are going back to their parents immediately afterwards and can unleash their sugar high in their respective homes. Parents, you’re welcome.

I will, however, be watching my children’s syrup-pouring abilities like a hawk. I’m not a total glutton for punishment, and I know we’re in for a couple rough days as it is—syrup by the spoonful might put us all over the edge. (I’m already thinking along the lines of detox meals.)


Brown Sugar Syrup
Adapted from my Aunt Valerie’s recipe

We use this syrup other times, too, not just when we’re feeding the masses. It’s a decent alternative to other syrups, though it can’t hold a candle to real maple syrup, of course.

It’s on the runny side; a little goes a long way. (Updated on April 9, 2010: Just made more of this syrup this morning. While the sugar water was coming to a boil, I dissolved two tablespoons of Therm Flo with a little bit of water in a small bowl. Then I stirred the milky-smooth paste into the boiling liquid and proceeded as normal. The result was a slightly thicker syrup, more along the lines of a maple syrup. I like it this way, so I'm adding the changes into the recipe.)

3 cups white sugar
½ cup packed dark brown sugar
3 cups water
2 tablespoons Therm Flo
1/3 teaspoon maple extract
2/3 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine the water and sugars in a saucepan and bring to a boil.

In a small bowl, combine the Therm Flo with a couple tablespoons of water. Stir the paste into the boiling liquid.

Simmer the syrup for 10-30 minutes (no need to stir) before removing the sauce pan from the heat and allowing it to cool for a bit. Add the flavorings and stir to combine. Pour the syrup into a jar, cap with a lid, and store in the refrigerator.

Yield: One quart

PS. It’s raining. Did you hear me? IT’S RAINING!!!

I thought I was mentally prepared for this turn of events, but as I sit here in a darkened house, the rain pounding down, the wind whipping the leaves off the trees, the concrete porch turning slick with water, I’m not so sure. In fact, I feel like crying. I wish Mr. Handsome would hurry up and get home so I could boo-hoo and whine to somebody...

Nope, no truck in the driveway yet. You’ll have to suffice. Boo-hoo. Sob. Moan and groan. Whine. Sniffle.

Thanks.

About One Year Ago: Love, The Tooth Fairy. A bit out of order time-wise, but appropriate considering that today my first baby turns ten.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Party panic

A minor multitude of ten-year-old boys will descend upon my house tomorrow. They will run around with sticks and yell and knock each other over. (Don't worry, we'll try our best to keep them far away from the more dangerous farm implements.)


They will camp out and have a bonfire and eat lots of hotdogs and candy.


They will stay for 17 hours. It’s supposed to rain the entire time.


They will sleep outside in the fort, no matter what.


I’m in denial about the rain.

I’m also in flat-out party panic mode.

I’ve been coaching Mr. Handsome on his part in this affair: You will be with the boys the entire time. You will play with them, sleep with them, eat with them, talk to them. You will not sit down once. Do you hear?

As for me? I will be hiding in the house with the girls (they are each having a little girlfriend over to keep them company during the entire pubescent testosterone hoopla) and The Baby Nickel. I will pat out the burgers and put candles on the cake (another one!) and stand guard at the door so that no errant muddy boy can sneak inside. Not even for a minute. Not even to pee.

Well, I might let them pee.

I'll make buttermilk pancakes for breakfast, too.


Yo-Yo better love this party cause I don’t think I’ll be able to pull off another one for a very, very, very long time.


About One Year Ago: Yo-Yo's birth story.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

While I'm at it...

...I might as well give you the recipe for Mr. Handsome’s birthday cheesecake.


Maybe once I get all the cakes off my chest, I’ll be able to clear my mind of cake and move on to something different, like the soup I made the other day—a rich creamy cheesy chicken-and-cheese chili, not that it’s much different from a cheesecake, considering I use the same adjectives to describe both of them.

Oh well, when I get in a rut (in any rut, be it culinary or otherwise) I spin around helplessly for a while till someone offers to come hoist me out. In this current rut, I’m churning up lots of crumbs and cream and nobody has extended a hand (or recipe) to help pull me out, I’ve noticed. So I’ll keep cake-making my way into a big fat hole.


At least it’s sweet down here.


Classic Cheesecake
Slightly adapted from Aunt Valerie’s recipe

I have yet to eat a better cheesecake. (Feb. 4, 2011: Except, er, I have another recipe here called "The Perfect Classic Cheesecake." I think it's better.)

Notes:
*Don’t you dare use reduced-fat anything.
*Farm eggs make the cake look yellowish. If it’s a white cheesecake you are after, use anemic store-bought eggs. (I used farm eggs for this cake.)
*You must, absolutely must, put a pan of boiling water on the bottom rack of the oven. It’s the key to making a moist, creamy cheesecake.
*The topping is not optional.
*Make the cake the day before you eat it. Those few extra hours in the fridge make it that much better.

For the crust:
2 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup sugar
½ cup butter, melted

Stir together the cracker crumbs and sugar. Add the butter and stir to combine. Press the moist crumbs into the bottom and (three-quarters of the way) up the sides of a 10-inch springform pan. Bake the crust at 350 degrees for five minutes. Remove the crust from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees.

For the cake:
3 8-ounce packages of cream cheese, at room temperature
1 ½ cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 eggs, separated

Beat the egg whites till stiff peaks form. Set aside.

Using the egg-white-y beaters, cream together the cream cheese and sugar. Add the vanilla and the egg yolks and beat thoroughly. Fold in the egg whites.

Bring a couple quarts of water to a rolling boil. Pour the boiling water into a 9 x 13 metal pan and set the pan on the bottom rack of the oven.


Pour the cake batter into the pre-baked crust. Put the cake in the oven, on the rack above the pan of water.


Bake the cake at 325 degrees for 50-60 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and starting to crack around the edges and the center is almost set (it will still jiggle a little). Remove the cake and cool to room temperature. It will sink as it cools.


For the topping:
1/3 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla
½ cup heavy whipping cream

Whip the heavy cream till peaks form. Set aside.

Stir together the sour cream, sugar, and vanilla. Fold in the whipped cream.


Spread the topping on the cooled cake, the whole way out to the edges.


Cover the cake with plastic and refrigerate overnight.

Serve plain, or with fresh fruit or a fruit sauce.

About One Year Ago: Apple Tart with Cider-Rosemary Glaze.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

More on cake

It’s Sunday afternoon, cold and blustery outside, but warm and toasty inside by the fire. Mr. Handsome is upstairs resting with The Baby Nickel, Sweetsie is in her room (sleeping, hopefully), and the three older kids (Yo-Yo has a friend over) are outside doing who-knows-what (I don’t really care as long as they’re quiet and leaving me well enough alone).


I’m feeling pensive and muse-ful and gentle inside. If I could purr, I would. I’m not sure why I’m feeling so calmly pleasant, but I have a couple good guesses: first, I had some good conversations at church this morning and I laughed a lot; second, I’m wearing leggings and a flow-y gray dress that makes me feel like a cross between a hip hippie and a damsel from the Elizabethan period; third, I’m drinking coffee and eating (have eaten, rather) a piece of Italian Cream Cake; fourth, I have a number of creative projects and ideas that are inspiring me rather than overwhelming and frustrating me (though that is susceptible to change at the drop of a hat); fifth, a bottle of homemade elderberry wine, gifted to Mr. Handsome by the owner of the house where he’s been working lately, is sitting on the kitchen counter, calling to me (all hippie damsels drink homemade elderberry wine, right?); sixth, my girlfriend and her kids are coming over tomorrow morning and we’re going to play One Room Schoolhouse which will be fun and productive and will hopefully counteract the Monday morning blues that have been plaguing us these past few weeks; seventh, the house smells like apples because we’re drying them by the bushel.


But back to the cake.

We’ve been eating a lot of cake recently, if you haven’t already figured that out. There was the birthday cake that my mother made for me and then two weeks later Mr. Handsome’s birthday cake, a cheesecake. Yo-Yo has requested a chocolate cake with mint icing for his birthday this coming Friday. As if the birthday cakes haven’t been sufficient, I’ve been experimenting with other cakes—apple cake (one was a keeper; two were chicken food) and an Italian Cream Cake, another keeper for sure. That’s a lot of cake.


Italian cream cake is coconut cake with cream cheese pecan frosting. It’s delicious fresh, and it’s even better chilled (I’m keeping it in the fridge because of the cream cheese frosting). It has, after only two pieces (and a number of not-so-discreet snitches), positioned itself on the sacred list of My Favorite Cakes, right up there with cheesecake and chocolate cake. That’s saying a lot.


Mr. Handsome (he finished putting The Baby Nickel down) came to sit beside me on the sofa to eat his slice of cake. As he forked the last bite into his mouth he turned to me and said in a puzzled, pleasantly surprised sort of way, “That is really good cake.” It was almost offensive the way he said it, though I know exactly where he’s coming from, seeing as he’s sampled a greater number of chicken cakes than is normal.

Of this cake, though, the chickens will not be getting a crumb.*


Italian Cream Cake
Slightly adapted from Sarah’s blog

The original recipe called for half butter and half shortening, but I used three-quarters butter and one-quarter shortening (because that was all the shortening I had on hand). I think next time I will use all butter, or I may experiment and sub a little of the butter with coconut oil.

Also, I didn’t have buttermilk, so I put a couple tablespoons of plain yogurt in the bottom of a one-cup measure, topped it off with milk, stirred to combine, and voila, made buttermilk.

1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
5 eggs, separated
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup sweetened coconut
1 recipe cream cheese pecan frosting (see below)

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Set aside. (I do this part first so that I don’t have to wash the beaters more than once.)

In a large mixing bowl (and with your egg white-y beaters), cream the butter with the sugar. Add the vanilla and egg yolks and beat some more. Add the dry ingredients (the flour and baking soda) alternately with the buttermilk. Stir in the coconut. Fold in the egg whites.

Divide the batter between three eight-inch cake pans (well-greased and lined with wax paper). Bake the cakes at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Turn the cakes out onto a wire rack and remove the wax paper. Cool completely before icing.

Cream Cheese Pecan Frosting

Thanks to the nuts, this icing is a cinch to spread; you needn’t worry about bits of cake and coconut flecking the creamy icing since it is already pebbled with the golden crunchy pecans. And the textured icing lends itself to artful swirls and swoops.

1 cup chopped pecans, toasted
1 8-ounce package cream cheese
½ cup butter
16 ounces powdered sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon vanilla

Beat together the cream cheese and butter. Add the vanilla and beat some more. Beat in the sugar. Add the pecans and mix well.

*Which is not totally true because there were a few scraps left on certain children’s plates that ended up getting dumped into the compost bucket. I did contemplate eating the abandoned morsels but decided that I needed to exercise some control.

About One Year Ago: The Stash, a list (and pictures) of all the food we stockpiled. Seeing all our hard labor consolidated into one list is deeply satisfying...and totally exhausting, even to me.

Friday, October 16, 2009

On wanting cake

Apple season is here and I’ve been searching for the perfect apple cake. I didn’t want a cake that was vaguely reminiscent of apple—I wanted a cake that was chock-full of the tart chunks of fruit, well-spiced and wholesome.


I looked at a handful of recipes and made a couple flops (of one of the duds, Yo-Yo said, This cake doesn’t have any flavor; it’s just stuff against your tongue), and then I spied a recipe for apple cake in our local paper. The recipe itself didn’t strike me as being a winner, but after studying it for a bit, I realized that it provided the perfect groundwork for some culinary imagination.


So I commenced to imagining and measuring, tweaking and stirring, hoping and waiting (and washing up the dirty dishes). Just so you can fully appreciate my culinary genius (ha!): I subbed half of the white flour for whole wheat, cut the sugar in half and switched to brown, doubled the apples, dialed back the nutmeg, glugged in some blackstrap, and tossed in the yogurt, ginger, and wheat germ. It was fun.

Then, finally, I tasted. And what do you know? I got what I was looking for!

Moral of the tale? It pays to have an imagination.


Apple Cake
Wildly adapted from The Amish Cook

This cake is a humble affair, nubbly, nutty, and nutritious, but a dollop of whipped cream dresses it up just enough to make it presentable for company. I dimpled the top of the cake with a slurry of melted butter and brown sugar, but it wasn’t necessary (though it did add a sweet goo factor) so I didn’t include that part in the instructions.

It’s muffins you’re wanting? Then spoon the batter into muffin tins and sprinkle with a crumb topping of your choosing.

1 cup flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons raw wheat germ
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons minced candied ginger
½ cup canola oil
½ cup plain yogurt
2 eggs
2 tablespoons blackstrap molasses
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 cups chopped tart apples (cored and peeled)
½ cup chopped walnuts
½ cup golden raisins

In a large bowl, stir together the first nine ingredients (through the candied ginger). In another bowl stir together the oil, yogurt, eggs, molasses, and vanilla. Add the wets to the dries and mix gently. Add the apples, walnuts, and raisins and stir to incorporate.

Pour the batter into a greased 9 x 13 pan (use a rubber spatula to spread it evenly) and bake the cake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes. Cool to room temperature.

Serve with billows of whipped cream.

About One Year Ago: Another fall cake, Pumpkin Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Getting it right

A couple weeks ago when we were sick, going through a hard time, or getting back from a trip—I can’t remember which—my brother’s family brought us supper and ate it with us. The meal consisted of green beans fresh from the garden, coleslaw, sweet onion corn bake, and chocolate cake with strawberry sauce. Of all that delicious food, I was most excited over the corn bake. I couldn’t quite tell what it was. Cornbread? Creamed onions? Baked corn? It was all those things but in one dish, the flavors and textures perfectly melded into a new concoction. I demanded the recipe.


I made the corn bake two different times with drastic alterations. My goal was to figure out how to make it without using the called-for Jiffy Cornbread Mix and can of creamed corn while still tasting as delicious as what my sis made for us.

The third time around I made it for a Sunday potluck. We were getting kind of sick of eating pans of not-quite-perfect corn bake, and the kids didn’t really like it anyway, so I figured I would make it one last time, take it to the potluck, and then be done with the whole thing (for the present; not forever). Except that at the potluck it all got eaten before I even got through the line.


Potluck remains. The bowl contained a potato salad that I intend to tell you about soon.

I felt like crying, and I did do a little dramatic whimpering, but then I sucked it up and made it for the fourth time.


Here you go. I hope you appreciate my efforts. (And even if you don’t, I do because from now on I will be able to make this corn bake whenever I want to, no experimentation necessary.)


Sweet Onion Corn Bake
The original recipe is quite different from what I make, so I’m calling the recipe My Own Creation, though the recipe can be traced from my sister-in-law, and from her to my mother, and from my mother to I have no clue who.

The recipe called for Vidalia onions, hence the reason it is called a “sweet onion” bake. I use regular onions, and I think any kind would be just fine, though Vidalia onions will make the final product a bit sweeter, I guess. (Not that the dish needs to be any sweeter. I think caramelized onions of any ilk are totally sweet.)

It is very important to fully bake this casserole—if it is at all under-baked, the center tastes “wet.” If your oven tends to burn things, it might be wise to reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees after the first twenty minutes of baking time and keep the casserole in the oven longer.

2 giant onions, or 3 large
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup sour cream
½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/3 cup milk
½ cup yellow cornmeal
½ cup flour
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons oil
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons canned green chilis (or 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper)
1 ½ cups corn, fresh, frozen, or canned
2 tablespoons heavy cream
½ cup, packed, grated Gruyère

For the sweet onion part:
Thinly slice the onions and then quarter the slices. Saute them in the 3 tablespoons butter until softened and translucent, about 15 minutes, taking care not to brown them. Set aside to cool.

In a medium-sized bowl, stir together the sour cream, cheddar cheese, 1/4 teaspoon salt, parsley, and milk. Add the cooled onions and stir well. Set aside.

For the cornbread part:
In a small bowl stir together the corn, chilis, and 2 tablespoons cream. Set aside.

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, stir together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and ½ teaspoon salt. Partially stir in the beaten egg and 2 tablespoons oil; the mixture will be very dry. Add the creamed corn; the mixture will no longer be very dry. Spread the corny cornbread in a greased 9 x 13 pan.

Top the cornbread with the sweet onion mixture and spread it with a spoon so that the cornbread layer is completely covered with the onion-cheese layer. Sprinkle the Gruyère over all.

Bake the casserole at 350 degrees for at least 45 minutes, and more like 60, if you can pull it off without burning the whole thing. When done, the casserole should be quite brown and very well set.

Serve warm.

About One Year Ago: Fort Construction. It's still not done. Apparently that's not the point.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Puzzling it out

I’m fascinated by how people do what they do. How does Minerva juggle a 40-hour workweek, husband, kids, and house? Or what about Juliet and her house filled with biological, adopted, and foster kids, and all the resulting emotional issues—how does she handle all the intensity? And how in the blessed world does Ethel manage to take care of her own small children plus other people’s even smaller children and not go absolutely raving mad herself?

I wonder about these things. A lot.

I know people wonder the same thing about me. In fact, I get the How-Do-You-Do-It Question all the time. Actually, people don’t ask it that way—they usually say, I don’t see how you do it. And then they shake their heads like I’m a 1000 piece puzzle that’s missing six pieces—in other words, I’m complicated and impossible to put together.

(Funny Story, inspired because I typed “missing pieces” and it brought to mind the expression “missing screws”—used in sentences such as, “that person is sure missin’ some screws.” The story is this: At our going-away party at the end of our three-year term in Nicaragua, our team was making a candle for us to take with us. Each person came to the party with a small token of what we meant to them, the plan being to layer the small items in the mold along with the candle wax. I don’t remember any of the tokens, sweet though they were, except for one man’s, a good friend of Mr. Handsome’s and a fellow carpenter, someone who totally understood and shared in my husband’s frustration in finding suitable supplies to work with out in the Nicaraguan boonies. This friend had brought a little screw as his token, and as he held it up to the group before laying it in the candle, he said to my husband, “May you find good screws wherever you go!” Raucous laughter ensued and follow-up comments were made, but I’ll stop here.)

I may be complicated, and I might not be put together, but I’m not impossible (though Mr. Handsome may take issue with that last part). However, I can see why some people might be confused. I homeschool my kids, talk on the phone, cook from scratch, garden, mediate (or squash) sibling squabbles, read books, do laundry, attend church council meetings (because I am chair of youth council, not just for the heck of it), tend my blog, make sourdough, lounge around, go for walks/runs, go to church, scrub toilets, micro-manage four children, eat bonbons (I mean, chocolates), do the grocery shopping, can and freeze, and watch movies.

One thing my mom always says when I verbalize my puzzlements about other people’s lifestyle is, “Well, what isn’t she doing?” Here’s what I’m not doing. I don’t mow the yard, watch TV, feed the animals, listen to the radio, have an out-of-the-home job, make (too many) idle trips to town, sort the recycling, put storage items in the attic, draw/sing/dance/play a musical instrument, change the oil in the van, go anywhere, clean house all that much, take care of the chickens, sew, do remodeling projects, play with my children, fix things, earn money, recover furniture, clean the back hall, have company over (much), make my bed, baby my house plants, haul firewood, sleep in, travel, and dust the broccoli plants. And most important of all, other people assist and enable me in my productivity. I have friends and family who step in and help out with the kids on occasion, and Mr. Handsome is a whirling dervish when it comes to work of any sort—he busts his tail doing housework and parenting stuff (not too mention all the outside work, too) in the evenings.

So there you have it. The six irksome puzzle pieces are no longer missing. Now you know how I do what I do and you have no more questions. That’s good.

There’s a problem, though: I still don’t know how you do it (or don’t do it). If you feel so inclined, please fill me in.


(My mother informed me that I don't put enough pictures of myself on the blog. I had to remedy that problem right quick, of course, seeing as my mother calls the shots around this house, even though she doesn't live here. At least not yet.)

About One Year Ago: A Milestone. We have been diaper-bag-less for one whole year. Amazing.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Anticipating the mothballs

Mr. Handsome turned 36 on Friday.


Doesn’t he look thrilled about it?


Oh wait. He’s falling asleep now. The excitement must be too much for him.


He hates having his picture taken. I begged him to hold still for these shots and so what did he do? He made a series of annoying faces! I had to threaten to clobber him. Then I called him some bad names. And then he closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep. The nerve of him! At least then he was still.

Look at those massive hands of his.


Worker hands, I call them. Rough, calloused, and capable, there’s nothing soft about them. I’ve always claimed they were my favorite thing about him, appearance-wise.

Oh, looky. Now he’s gone and put his hood up.


What does this—his dislike of being photographed—say about him? That he’s shy? Embarrassed? Insecure? Evasive? Aloof? Impatient? Or maybe he’s distrustful of cameras, believing that they somehow allow the photographer to see his inner soul. Which I can see just fine, no camera necessary. I thought he already knew that.

***

Despite his apparent imperturbable, cool, and diffident demeanor, Mr. Handsome is gifted in The Art of Agitated Running Commentary (TAARC). Here is just a small sampling of what that means. (The background is that the Baby Nickel flamboyantly and generously took a purple marker to our brown carpet.)

Mr. Handsome, upon discovering the latest artwork: “WHAT?! [Sharp intake of breath.] What happened to the rug? [Huffy-mad expulsion of air from lungs.] I have kids and they mess everything up! [Exasperated sigh, and calmer.] You know, I go into people’s houses and they have clean painted walls and no holes in their furniture. [Defeated sigh of resignation.] Someday when we’re eighty years old and smell like mothballs, we’ll have that, honey.”

Only forty-four more years to go. You’re almost halfway there, sweetie pie.

About One Year Ago: Apple Pie.