Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Simple Pleasures

Yesterday I developed what my mother always called a ‘splitting headache’ and I really felt very sorry for myself. The children had made messes in every room, Justin had failed to clean up after a most fabulous dinner* last night, and the baby wouldn’t have his nap. I was just about to have a nervous breakdown when I bethought me of the chicken broth I’d made a few days before. I’ve recently begun cutting up whole chickens rather than buying parts, and I often have small amounts of broth made from backs, necks, and wings, which is very useful. This time I had just a bit over 2 cups of broth, and happily that’s about how hungry I was. So I put the broth on to heat and inspiration hit: why not juice a lemon, whisk it with an egg, and temper this mixture into the broth? In short, why not try making an avgolemono soup? I’d seen recipes before, but instead of looking one up I cooked by instinct, and it paid off. The soup was simple, yet delicious, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Afterwards, Robin brought in the mail and amidst the bills and junk mail I found a Christmas card. The soup and the card were sufficiently healing that I was able to tidy up the downstairs while the children played upstairs. But I didn’t make dinner. Instead I gave the children leftovers and Justin and I got Chinese carryout. In which I found a bug. Seriously.

Here is how to make avgolemono:

Start with 2-3 cups of chicken broth. If you don’t have homemade, commercial is fine, but I would add a few sprigs of fresh thyme, or a teaspoon or two of dried. I happen to think thyme goes very well with lemon, but if you have another favorite herb use it instead to perk up the broth. In any case, put the broth on low heat. In a small bowl, whisk one egg with the juice of one lemon. When the soup begins to steam, add a spoonful to the egg and whisk. Add another spoonful and whisk, and yet another, whisking each time. When the egg mixture is warm, add it to the hot broth, whisking all the while, and heat until slightly thickened and steaming. Keep the heat very low indeed, and don’t let the broth quite reach a simmer or your eggs will curdle. If they do, don’t worry! Simply pour the soup through a sieve into your bowl. Or, leave them in – they’re basically just soft scrambled eggs and it’s up to you whether you enjoy their presence or not.

*the fabulous dinner was chicken cutlets with tarragon leek pan sauce, buttered papparadelle noodles, and perfectly cooked peas with shallots and mint, and it created a LOT of dirty dishes. Dinner tonight is simply pasta with spinach and parmesan, and a little dusting of nutmeg. And perhaps the tiniest splash of cream.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Barn in Garrett County, MD near our cabin

Whoa, what happened to November? Oh, yes, I remember. We spent a week in a cabin in the woods, playing games, making fires, taking walks and (not) seeing any black bears. Except for a ceramic cookie-jar one that some fiend bought right out from under me. Which was a good thing, considering it’s price, but still! Then I spent 3 weeks sorting through and thrifting old toys, clothes, books (yes, even books). Then I spent a week scrubbing, dusting, and vacuuming.

The Great Autumnal clean-up culminated in Robin’s birthday party, at which I served thyme-scented focaccia, , kalamata olive dip, feta-yogurt dip, greek-style meatballs, wheat salad, and the best chocolate cake I’ve ever made or eaten. I’m quite proud because every recipe was new to me and, aside from the chickpea fritters (about which, more in future entries), everything was delicious. The kalamata dip and greek-style meatballs were faithful renditions of Georgia Sarianides’ recipes in “Nosthimia” which belongs on everyone’s cookbook shelf.

The wheat salad was your basic tabbouleh, with rather a lot of Aleppo Pepper and perhaps more mint than is usual, and no tomatoes or cucumbers, which is why I wrote ‘wheat salad’ and not tabbouleh. I was improvising, and I only wish I’d taken the trouble to note quantities because it was well worth reproducing. The feta yogurt dip was also an improvisation; I couldn’t decide between Georgia’s feta dip or the yogurt dip from Arabesque, so I mashed up some feta with Georgia’s seasonings and a generous helping of Greek yogurt. Justin loved it and wants to have it again, and so he shall.

The focaccia was from Baking Illustrated, and I had little faith when I saw how sticky and soft the dough was but oh my gracious! Such a thin, crispy crust surrounding bread perfectly balanced between soft and chewy. Oh yummy, yummy, yummy focaccia! The cake was simply the “Old Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake” also from Baking Illustrated, with the recommended icing, a sort of chocolate ganache with some corn syrup to improve the texture. It doesn’t keep well, but since we only had one thin sliver left over, I didn’t care.

As for the chickpea fritters, the idea was from Andy Harris’ “modern GREEK” (his punctuation – I suppose his publisher thought it edgy and modern) and they didn’t turn out at all. I liked the idea of cooking dried chickpeas instead of using chickpea flour, but the batter was too thick even before I added the astonishing 1 2/3 cup of flour, so I added 2 extra eggs and some water and none of the flour. They crumbled apart when I fried them and although they tasted pretty good I couldn’t serve them because they were all crumbly and ugly. I think the chickpeas were underdone to begin with, and perhaps the flour is needed to hold them together, so I am very nobly taking the blame and I will give Andy’s recipe one more chance. Stay tuned…

Dinner tonight: bean soup with leeks (more Georgia Sarianides) and thyme-scented focaccia, this time with kalamata olives.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Wren is 10!

My baby girl is double-digits old now, and I'm so grateful for her presence in my life. After losing Atticus, we had a hard time getting pregnant. I remember taking a long drive with Justin, sobbing and screaming because I couldn't do anything the 'natural' way; I couldn't have a vbac because I had a huge T-incision in my womb, and now I couldn't even get pregnant without fertility drugs. We talked about not having any children at all, shutting that door and opening a new one. I dreamed about going back to school to study forensics, applying to culinary school, starting an alternative school of my own, homesteading, moving to Europe, and all kinds of crazy things that, in another lifetime, might have worked out fine.

But I wanted children. So I made another appointment with the gyn/fertility specialist and she recommended clomid. I had to take a pregnancy test to rule out the impossible before beginning the treatment. A week after the appointment I was cleaning our apartment when the phone rang. I had a wild thought that this would be Dr. Kennedy, and that she was calling to tell me I was pregnant. I answered, and as soon as I heard her voice ask "Mrs Cooke?" I knew it was real. I drove to the card store, picked out one of those Anne Geddes 'baby' cards that were ubiquitous in the late '90's, and scrawled "Guess What!!!???!!!" inside -- hardly an original way of announcing a pregnancy -- and raced over to the dealership where Justin worked as a mechanic. I tried so hard not to smile while handing him the card, but I was beside myself with joy, and he knew before opening the card.

Seven months later (I'd been 4 weeks along, and she was 3 weeks early) on October 20th, 1997, Wren Marian was born late at night via c-section. I was in lala land immediately afterward, but Wren was bright-eyed and alert, and fascinated by the recovery room lights. She charmed all her father within seconds, as well as her grandparents who'd rushed to meet her. She was the sweetest, most peaceful little baby imaginable and her infancy was one of the happiest periods of my life.

She's a little feistier these days, and we have our differences, something that I wouldn't have believed possible during her first 3 years, but she remains a kind-hearted, affectionate, and sweet-natured young lady. I'm a very lucky mother.

dinner tonight (in lieu of the weekly menu): whole wheat fettuccine with spicy garlicky broccoli and fontina cheese

Monday, October 08, 2007

I bought this Spicebush, along with a Serviceberry at a native tree sale this weekend. I'll eventually need at least one other Spicebush, unless I'm very lucky indeed, because it's one of the few dioecious plants. Dioecious plants have either male flowers or female flowers, and so require two of opposite genders to set berries or fruit. If I'm very lucky, my spicebush will be one of the odd specimens that has a few flowers of the 'wrong' gender, or a few 'perfect' flowers. A perfect flower, you may have guessed, has both boy and girl parts (stamens and pistils) and so can pollinate itself. I think. I'm no botanist, and this is what I've gleaned from about 30 minutes of research. The Serviceberry is self-fertile but will set more berries if it has a mate of the same genus (Amelanchier). Apparently apples are like this as well. My current Serviceberry had flowers in the spring, but no berries in June, so I'm hoping the two will inspire fecundity in one another. The berries are, of course, mostly for the birds, though I'm sure the kids and I will snack on them now and again. The trouble is that the birds eat them before they're quite ripe to human tastes. Sneaky! My distant dream is to have a flock of Cedar Waxwings visit my spicebushes one autumn day, and spend the afternoon eating while I look on in wonder.

My weekly menu:
Black bean and corn tortillas
Orzo and feta with lemon caper dressing and kalamata olives
Spaghetti with bacon and spinach

Fried tilapia, spicy black beans, salad

Moroccan chicken stew with sweet potatoes

Maple baked beans, brown bread, applesauce and braised greens

Roast turkey breast, baked butternut squash, and green beans

Monday, October 01, 2007

Menu Monday!!

I would love to live within easy walking distance of a daily, open-air market so that I could do as so many of my favorite cookbook authors do, and plan each evening's meal based on what was freshest and best that very morning. I make do with a good weekend market and several good grocery stores and ethnic markets, several of which I can walk to, and all of which are an easy drive or a torturous* bus trip away. I go to the markets with some ideas in mind, and adjust to what I find. Even if I haven't had time to plan anything, I have enough meals in each season's rotation that I can usually shop without a list. The fun begins when I get home and shape my market haul into the week's menu. I try to have one chicken and one fish meal, and the rest either vegetarian or nearly so (by which I mean any meat is more by way of a flavoring agent or condiment than a main course) and at least one bean and one pasta meal, for econcomy's sake. I usually end up at the grocery store, conveniently located next door to my local coffee shop/book store, several times a week, so I can pick up any bits and bobs that I need along the way. I've been struggling with keeping our grocery spending within budget lately, so I thought I'd start posting my menus each Monday ('cause I can't resist an alliterative title!) and review them each month to see where the extravagence comes in, and where I might cut back. Of course, I also just think it's fun to read and write about food, cooking, and menu planning!

Sunday: Spaghetti and Meatballs

Monday: Parsnip Soup, Cranberry Nut Bread

Tuesday: Arroz con Pollo

Wednesday: Curried Lentils with Basmati Rice, Peas, and Carrots

Thursday: Black Bean and Corn Burritos

Friday: Fried Salted Cod, Skordalia, Salad

Saturday: Meatloaf Muffins w BBQ sauce, Smashed Potatoes, Green Beans (courtesy of my children and Rachael Ray)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Here's another variation of the 11th hour hat, this time with an i-cord loop and garter earflaps and ties. I'm getting a lot of mileage out of my new favorite hat formula -- each of my kids' winter hats this year will be some variation on the theme, and I've just heard of another baby to be born in late winter/early spring who will get one as well. I still haven't cast on for Piper's hat, and I'm a little stuck because I accidentally bought wool instead of cotton for her. My bil claims a wool allergy, and there's really no polite way of finding out whether he simply remembers a scratchy sweater made of cheap wool or whether even the softest merino would give him hives -- however politic I try to be, I'm sure I'll come across as a wool-fiend in total denial of the mere possibility of a wool allergy. Which, I suppose, I am. Sort of. I'm willing to accept that a very small number of unfortunate souls have a true allergy to wool, and that a fair number of people with sensitive skin will experience contact dermatitis after touching any coarse fiber, including some wools, but I admit I smiled broadly when I read Elizabeth Zimmerman's approach to wool allergies in Knitting Without Tears. As it turns out, a quick google search corroborated my hunch and clued me in to the existence of an International Wool Secretariat. It sounds almost Machiavellian, but it's apparently just a trade/research organization. Well. However I may feel, I'm not going to take a chance on making an innocent (and, can I say, breathtakingly gorgeous) baby suffer. So even though the Debbie Bliss baby cashmerino is very soft indeed, I think I'd better use a plant fiber for the new niece, just in case.

dinner tonight: Orrechiette with Italian sausage, tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella, green beans vinaigrette, and fresh figs

Friday, September 07, 2007

When the Blue Sky yarn I'd ordered for a couple of baby hats was swiped off my porch, I panicked. My beautiful new niece Piper, being family, wouldn't mind if her welcoming gift were delayed, but young Master Roan might take it amiss if I showed up empty-handed at our first meeting. This was an emergency of the highest order, and I felt justified in removing my credit card from the basement rafters, where I'd stashed it only weeks before as part of my living-within-my-means/debt-reduction plan.

Happy in the thought of a guilt-free trip to the yarn shop, and with dreams of Malabrigo dancing in my head, I herded the kids into the car and buckled myself in. When the car declined to start, refused even to try, I at first thought that the Universe had turned against me, and in a big way. First, a stolen package, now a dead battery -- whatever next? But as it happens, the Universe had my best interests at heart all along. Driven to desperate measures, I found some very nice brown and tan merino in my closet, leftover from a pair of socks I knit for a long-ago exchange. The yarn was from Knit Picks and I remembered that the KP website had a pattern using this very yarn for an "11th Hour Hat*" available as a free download.

I don't need a pattern for a simple watch-cap, but I recalled that something about the bottom band of the hat had intrigued me. It's a long narrow band of garter stitch with the stitches picked up along the long edge. I could knit it with alternating bands of brown and tan, and they'd appear as vertical colored stripes -- brilliant! I also planned to top the hat with a couple of knitted acorns, dangling from i-cord. Alas, the acorns didn't work out; when I asked some friends to guess what they were, they said 'ice-cream cone' and 'I have no idea.' I used Nikki Epstein's pattern, and I think if I'd shortened the bottom part and used more acorn-y colors, they would have worked. Lesson learned -- small knitted shapes are more a suggestion than an accurate representation of 3-dimensional objects, and, as such, require realistic colors to be effective.

This left the classic pom-pom top, and I have to say I didn't relish the thought of making one. I'd never made a proper pom-pom, and I was sure it would be both tedious and difficult. It was tedious, but not at all difficult. As you can see, I did not trim it into anything like a perfect sphere, but I think it turned out pretty cute. I have some dark green merino that I might whip up into a little pointed elf's hat tonight, but I think I'll rope one of the kids into making the pom-pom!

* the original post had a link to the pattern, but the pattern is no longer available on the KP website. Sorry!

dinner tonight: Spaghetti with tomato, garlic, and basil sauce; plum cake for dessert

Monday, August 27, 2007

I hope I’m not the only crafter who has a stash of unfinished projects languishing in the closet. I have a bad habit of starting more projects than I can finish, and I’m determined to check this tendency. After my m*th infestation last year, I decimated my stash. I kept only my cotton yarn and the projects pictured above. I also resolved not to buy any more yarn until I’d finished the works in progress. Knitters will be unsurprised to learn that I did, in fact, buy more yarn within months. Most of that yarn has been knitted up into charming objects of great beauty, I’m happy to say, so I can focus once more on de-stashing.

As soon as my current project is finished (Wren’s lace cardigan) I’ll tackle this lot. I’ve made a prioritized list, beginning with the blue striped rompers, of which one leg is pictured just to the right of the green sweater. I’d actually knit both legs, joined them and knitted up to the bib shaping when I realized that I simply don’t have the skill to shape them without unsightly edges. If Finch were a girl I’d be able to knit or crochet a cute edging to hide the shaping but he wasn’t so I stopped in dismay. Then he outgrew them, as babies will, so I ripped out all the way down to the join. They’re wide enough to fit several of his little legs, so I’ll just make both legs longer, join, and make some wiggle pants instead. Next in line is the tweedy-green sweater there at the top, next the romper leg. I stopped work on that as the weather heated up and Finch’s birth put an end to all knitting. I’ve lost the chart, but since I got all the cables from Barbara Walker’s First Treasury, I’ll be able to make another. My goal is for Robin to wear it by October

Next in line will be the blue longies pictured at bottom. Those also fell victim to hotter weather and a demanding baby, but I’m sure I can knit them up pretty quickly once I get to them. Goal for the longies is November. The rainbow scarf will be next. I love Feather and Fan lace, and even the reverse side is attractive, but oh. my. word! Those ends are going to be a bore -- it really does make sense to weave in as you go, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be disciplined enough to do so. No goal for this one, except to finish it One Day. The other striped scarf is probably dead-in-the-water, at least until one of my kids decides to finish it – I started it years ago when garter stitch stripes were the height of my skill, but I got bored pretty fast, as you can see.

The green and white hat is finished except for the weaving in; Finch outgrew it before I finished so I suppose I might frog it and prep the yarn for another use. More likely it’ll languish forever, poor thing. The multi-colored cotton ruffly thing on the bottom is another project that will probably languish. It was going to be a halter-top for Wren, but I don’t really like the yarn anymore. Comment if you’d like to trade for the yarn. The baby-cable socks in green wool are likewise in danger of languishing, and even if I finish that one I doubt I’ll ever make it’s mate. Sad but true – I’m no sock knitter.

That leaves the orange sweater in the middle, which is a challenge. I started it for Robin using the random cable pattern from knitty. I like it, really I do, but it’s just not coming together for me. Eventually I’ll knit a swatch to see how the fabric feels after a wash, and hopefully it’ll tell me what it wants to be. Any ideas?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Market Day

A small sampling of Saturday's loot

Saturday is market day. We usually go to the 32nd Street Market in Waverly, just a few miles away. Sometimes we hit the larger downtown market on Sunday, but it is overwhelming and my favorite orchard doesn’t have a stall. Both markets open at 7am, and if we get there much past 7:30 we have to contend with the crowds, and that makes me tense and angry. Why, oh why must folks bring their dogs and jogging strollers and wagons to a crowded market – do they enjoy frustrating their friends and neighbors? They must. It’s the only answer.

But I digress. Market day, if I get to the market early enough, is a joy. What a succession of sights and smells! The herb guy has terrific prices, even if his basil bunches have gotten a little smaller this year, and I love to bury my face in an armful of cilantro, dill, parsley, basil, sage, and thyme and wait for the inspiration to hit – I usually go to the market with a list, but it’s not until I smell the herbs that I begin to know for sure what the week’s menu will be.

Then I head over to One Straw Farm, the organic growers, for my leafy greens, squash, eggplant, beets, beans –whatever looks and smells good. By now, my first bag is full, and the menu has definitely taken shape. I’ll usually have made space for corn on the cob somewhere, so I visit each of several corn stands to find what looks and feels the nicest. I look for luxuriant, golden silk and plump ears. Sometimes I squeeze the tip of a few ears to see if they’ve gone soft. One wagon in particular tends to have excellent corn that is mildly sweet and rarely starchy. A dozen ears of corn (a farmer’s dozen of 13) fills up the 2nd bag, and it’s time for my tomatoes. I bring separate, smaller paper bags for them, so they won’t get crushed.

The tomatoes are gorgeous – red of course, but also yellow, purple, and green. Fat beefsteaks, long Romas, tiny sweet millions, and a host of other varieties tempt me. Mortgage Lifters, Arkansas Traveller, Amish Paste, Uglies, and others --- surely tomatoes are the most varied fruit on the planet! I usually settle for a pint of snacking ‘cherry’ tomatoes, a few big slicing tomatoes for sandwiches, and a few pounds of Roma for pasta.

Whatever money I have left from my market budget is now available for fruit. The family I buy my fruit from are always ready with advice about what’s at its peak, and what’ll be ready next week or the week after. If I’m not sure which variety of plum I want, they hand me one of each so I can taste and decide for myself. Whatever I buy, they’re sure to throw a few extra into the bag. If I have anything left over (I usually don’t) I might visit the lady who sits under her big yellow umbrella selling slices of 7-Up cake, and then to the Ginger Lemonade folks next to her. If I’ve neglected to order my meat and dairy from the farm, I have my choice of 3 stalls, all of which have delicious meats, cheeses, milk, and yogurt.

By now, it is just about 8am, and the market is filling up. I stagger away with my loot, to the corner where Justin picks me up, and we head to the grocery store to pick up whatever wasn’t available at the market, and then head home. I nurse the baby down to sleep while Justin and the kids put the groceries away. The market produce they leave for me – I’m particular about how each item is stored, and anyway I like to have my riches before me as I write the menu, to be sure I don’t forget something. Few things are as disheartening as finding an herb or vegetable, far past it’s prime, languishing in the back of the crisper drawer at the end of the week.

This week’s menu:

Grilled tequila-lime chicken thighs, corn on the cob with chipotle-lime butter, tortilla chips and tomatillo salsa

Spaghetti with Tomatoes and Basil

Black bean and corn burritos with queso blanco

Apple-sage turkey burgers and roasted beets topped with gremolata

Tomato lime soup, quesadillas

Homemade papparadelle with Italian sausage and sweet peppers sauce

Friday, August 10, 2007

"Eggs all gone, baby!"

I've been dissatisfied with a lot of our meals this week. The corn chowder and
Niçoise salad were a delight, but the rest of my nearly* vegetarian menu fell flat. The zucchini from Saturday's market were over mature and seedy, so the summer stew lacked the delicate sweetness that makes it so good. I'd also underestimated the amount of lemon juice needed to balance the olive oil in my wheat salad, so the entire meal was dull and uninspired. The falafel-stuffed pitas were pretty good --- after all, how wrong can you go with falafel? -- but the yogurt cucumber dressing was too garlicky and insufficiently dilly. By the time I got around to black bean and corn salad, the corn had lost it's sweetness and the cilantro was flavorless -- a dead loss.

Yesterday I was daunted and dis-spirited, but not utterly defeated, so I opted to go ahead and give the kids their long-anticipated blueberry pancake feast. They inhaled them, smothered as they were in butter and maple syrup, but I know the sorrowful truth -- half of them were pale and undercooked and the other half were spotty and scorched. Pancakes are simple but they do require that the pan is just the right temperature, and I couldn't find the sweet spot so to speak, so I was constantly adjusting the flame up and down. I used to think myself above such things as electric griddles, and I thought I had the touch for this stove but I know what my next kitchen purchase is going to be!

So, after a week of mediocre cooking I wasn't feeling up to anything more ambitious than a bowl of cereal, but naturally we were out of milk this morning. Despair. Then I remembered how easy and delicious is a pan of soft and buttery scrambled eggs. I had half a dozen jumbo, double yoked eggs from the Italian deli that were, of course, unsuitable for baking, and a few Tablespoons of half and half if I sacrificed my morning coffee. I wish I could say that one look at my hungry children's faces decided me, but I actually was leaning toward coffee for me and dry cereal for them when I spied a fresh pint of half and half -- of course! I'd just been to Trader Joes! We were in business.

I know most folks have their own favorite method for scrambling eggs, from high heat and fast scrambling to low heat and gentle turning, but I've also eaten some tough scrambled eggs in my time, so the following is for anyone whose scrambled eggs are tough and always seem to have that awful brown skin with it's attendant metallic taste:

Simple Scrambled Eggs for 4-6

Heat a 10" pan over low medium heat for several minutes.
Meanwhile, crack 6 eggs into a bowl and whisk lightly with a pinch of salt, just to break up the yolks and mix in the salt.
Put 1T butter in the heated pan -- if it sizzles immediately and starts to brown, your pan is too hot -- the butter should take about a minute to melt, foam up, and subside.
Pour the lightly beaten eggs into the pan, and allow to set for a minute. Then, using a spatula, gently pull the eggs from the edge of the pan to the center, as though making an omelette. How frequently you pull will determine how big the 'curds' are -- I like 'em nice and big, so I pause for 30 seconds each time. I also gently flip them a few times while they're cooking.
When the eggs are almost done, but with a little bit still liquid, pour in 1-3 T of half and half (or milk, but half and half is better!) and gently mix and turn with the spatula until the eggs are done to your liking. My kids and I eat our eggs pretty soft, but I leave my husband's share on the heat for a minute or two longer -- he likes his a little on the dry side! The baby is especially fond of these, as you can see from the pouty face he made when I told him they were all gone!

* the
Niçoise salad had anchovies and tuna

dinner tonight: probably carry-out --- the eggs were good but I'm not pushing my luck!

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Hot Milk Cake

I fulfilled a week-long yen for Hot Milk Cake this evening, to the delight of my children. Once the cake was in the oven I had a crisis that lasted several agonizing moments over whether to embellish it or not. Hot Milk Cake is very plain indeed, and cries out for something sweet and sticky on top, but a hunk of it cold from the fridge and unadorned first thing of a morning is oddly satisfying. There is just a hint of sharpness in the flavor that is muffled by the sweet and sticky. However, I went with the embellishment, which decision occasioned further agonizing; should I go for a thick, fudgy smear, a la Berger Cookies, or the old standby 7 Minute Frosting? What about a thin glaze of simmered and cooled raspberry jam, sprinkled with powdered sugar? Tempting, very tempting. But, gooey toasted coconut frosting won out in the end. I almost regret the jam and sugar, but, I do adore gooey coconutty frosting. Half of each of the finalists would’ve been good too. My recipe:

Hot Milk Cake

This makes a 9 x 13 cake – halve the recipe for a 9” square


3 T butter

1 cup milk

4 lg eggs

2 cups sugar

1t vanilla

2 cups all-purpose flour

¾ t salt

2t baking powder

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease pan (or spray with baking spray) pretty generously. Heat milk and butter together until butter is melted and milk is just steaming. Remove from heat. Meanwhile, in mixer bowl, beat eggs together with sugar until light and fluffy and increased in volume – several minutes at medium speed. Mix in vanilla. In separate bowl, mix the flour, salt, and baking powder with a whisk until well combined. Alternately fold flour mixture and milk mixture to the eggs, beginning and ending with the flour. Pour batter into prepared pan, and bake about 30 – 40 minutes until ‘springy’ – a cake tester should come out with a few moist crumbs and the top should be golden with a few lt brown spots. Allow cake to cool if using jam or 7 minute frosting, but if making a gooey coconut frosting, frost while hot and pop under the broiler to toast the coconut – be careful not to let it burn!

Gooey Coconut Frosting

1 stick + 2T butter

1/3 to ½ cup brown sugar

2-4 T milk or cream

1 ½ cups coconut (the sweetened, flaked kind)

½ cup walnut pieces (optional)

Heat the butter and sugar to boiling over medium high heat, stirring occasionally. Add the milk or cream, and bring back to a simmer. Turn heat off and stir in coconut and walnuts, if using. Spread over cake while still hot, then pop under the broiler. Check frequently – broilers vary – and remove when the coconut is nicely toasted and the frosting is bubbly. This takes my broiler about 4 minutes, but seriously, rely on your instincts and sense of smell here, not on the recipe! Devour while still warm!

Or, allow cake to cool while you heat to simmering 1/3 cup of your favorite jam or jelly. When jelly is cool but still liquid, spread it evenly over the cake with a soft brush. When completely cool, dust artfully with powdered sugar.

Dinner tonight: spaghetti carbonara, wilted spinach salad

Friday, May 11, 2007

We celebrated Finch's first birthday at Rehoboth Beach, with just the 5 of us and no frills. Finch was suitably impressed with his first sight of the Atlantic Ocean -- he stared with saucer eyes and a gaping mouth while we walked along the beach for a mile and then back. Later, when I set him down in the sand he tasted it and played for a few minutes before crawling straight toward the water. Unlike his siblings at that age, he shows no fear and takes a good deal of vigilence. He especially enjoyed standing in the surf while I held his hands and let the water wash over his little fat feet. He also liked crawling all over our sandcastles like a marauding dragon. I think his favorite thing was watching the seagulls -- he crawled after them laughing and squealing until I thought he'd burst with the joy of it. I dug dozens of mole crabs up just so he could watch them burrow back down over and over and once I let him hold one for a moment -- I'll treasure the memory always.

On his birthday proper, we had a lovely morning playing in the sand and surf. Then Finch napped while I made cupcakes and a simple cream cheese icing for after dinner. We all took a walk on the boardwalk and the siblings each picked out a toy for their baby brother at Browseabout Books before we headed back for dinner. Finch loved the candle and the singing and, especially, his first ever bite of cake. I don't think anyone ever taught him to say 'Mmm, mmm' while eating, but he picked up on it somehow and said it over and over while cramming in the cupcakes. I'm glad we did this. It was quite a contrast to Wren's first birthday -- she had a dozen pink and yellow balloons, a dozen pink and yellow roses, a 4-layer butter cake with strawberry buttercream (I made several batches and spent hours practicing piping her name and little rosebuds!) as well as lots of guests and a huge pile of presents. It was a lovely birthday party, and I think the fuss and excess were the right thing for then, just as our pared-down version was right for now.

dinner tonight: lasagna, salad, garlic bread, and chocolate banana pops -- yummy!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The white-throated sparrows will soon leave Baltimore for points north -- this little guy was the last to visit my feeder so far. I'd never had one at my feeder before this year, but when I heard one of them singing in the neighbor's tree, I scattered some seeds on the ground hoping to entice them. It worked, and they quickly learned to eat from the tube feeder, though their preference is still to eat from the ground. I love these little guys! Finch's favorite birds are the fat and somewhat stupid mourning doves who peck about the ground below my feeder looking for dropped seeds - they've benefitted enormously from my sparrow feeding and I've come to enjoy them for their comical gait and posture. Finch is determined to pet one, and crawls determinedly toward them time and again, only to have them fly away at the last possible moment. He laughs at the whistling of their wings as they flutter off, and reaches his baby arms up, as though to gather them to himself. Robin was a pigeon-fancier at much the same age, and loved to chase them along the downtown sidewalks. He also laughed to see and hear them take flight. I am glad and grateful that all of my children have so far shown great love for and interest in the natural world, and that even here in a tired old city, among the soot, broken whiskey bottles, and discarded syringes, we have an abundance of life to nurture and enjoy.

dinner tonight: Spaghetti with Bolognese Sauce and Cucumber Orange Salad, both a la Marcella Hazan

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Wren had a lovely time today as Alice, a young scholar at Seneca Schoolhouse in 1880. I think her pinafore turned out well, but I definitely need to improve my sewing skills. While Wren joined in her first historical re-enactment, the boys and I walked along the C&O Canal (at Swain's Lock -- roughly mile 17) during Wren's historical re-enactment, where we saw many cardinals, canada geese, mallards, and titmice, as well as a downy woodpecker -- all birds we see pretty regularly. I didn't see any lifers, but we were very excited to see a red-headed woodpecker, a great blue heron very close-up, a bald eagle, and two species of turtle that we couldn't identify -- maybe it's time for a field guide to reptiles and amphibians!

Monday, April 16, 2007

I've attempted to sew some dozen garments over the years, but only 3 turned out to be really wearable, all of them children's clothes. This skirt, from Sew What! Skirts is my 4th success, and I'm nearly done a pinafore for Wren that will make the 5th. I'm especially proud of this skirt because I drafted the pattern myself. True, 'drafted' is rather grandiose considering how easy it was, but I learned some important things about sewing that I don't think I would have had I simply followed a commercial pattern. For instance, I never knew that I had my choice of cutting 'on grain' (with the length of the skirt along the warp of the fabric) or on the 'bias' or diagonal. Commercial patterns come with a cutting layout, but none of the ones I've followed explained why the pieces were laid out as they were, which is partly to conserve fabric, but also to ensure that all the pieces are cut 'on grain'. In fact one of my early failures included two halves of a sleeveless dress, one cut on-grain and one cut crosswise because I was working with spare bits of fabric. Now I know why it looked so awful and puckery! Something the book didn't warn me about was that the hem of a flared skirt will bunch unless one does something about the extra fabric. I guess it's sort of obvious that the circumference of the bottom edge of a flared skirt is greater than the circumference and inch or so from the bottom, but it didn't occur to me that the extra fabric would cause trouble. My solution was to sort of ease the extra fabric in as I sewed, and I have some ideas for how to manage if I ever make a fuller skirt. For now, I'd like to make a duplicate of the above pattern in nicer fabric and with an elastic waist rather than a drawstring -- Wren flips the waistband over to keep the drawstring on the outside where she won't feel it, but it looks sort of silly.

Dinner tonight: Cannelini beans with turkey sausage, parsley, feta, and olives

Monday, April 09, 2007

I stitched this guy, from a Sublime Stitching transfer, with a dear friend in mind. I'd intended sewing it onto mulberry paper, then affixing it to cardstock, but I think the traditional muslin I turned to in frustration was a better choice. Stitching onto paper was a fiddly, fussy process, and it didn't look half as good as I wanted after spending twice as much time as I'd intended. I like how the rat turned out on fabric, but I wish I'd taken greater care over the blanket stitch. I meant for it to look crudely charming, or charmingly crude, or something l ike that, but I'm afraid it just looks amateurish.

The children were intrigued by the possibilities of what Robin called 'picture sewing' so we had a grand time looking through some vintage and new embroidery transfers together. Both were astonished when I told them they could also draw their own pattern, using tracing paper and a heat transfer pencil. While I finished up all but the hem of Wren's pinafore, they worked on their embroidery designs. We talked about some basic design issues, such as how very intricate details would be difficult to execute in embroidery thread and might in any case get 'lost in translation'. We also talked about the advantages and disadvantages of very large and very small designs, and about the quirky charm of an original, freehand drawing as compared to a copied, symmetrical rendition of the Jolly Roger (Wren's choice).

Robin began with a pretty standard 6 yr. old's version of the human body -- large round head with stringy hair, smiley-face mouth, circle eyes and nose, rectangles for arms and legs, and a dot for a belly button. I asked him if 'that was all' and, hyper-sensitive to the slightest implication that all was not perfect, he started counting off body parts to be sure he'd included them all. I explained that I merely wanted to know if he was well and truly done, but he decided he'd better embellish a bit, and ended up with a 6-armed, 4-legged and very adorable alien. Happily, I have two heat-transfer pencils, so they both could work on tracing their designs right away. I ironed them onto muslin for them and Robin has commenced stitching. He's not keen on outline stitch, but his backstitch is remarkably even and he intends using that for most of his work. Wren, as expected, has lost interest for now, but I know she'll pick it up again eventually, probably at our next handwork club meeting.

dinner tonight: cornmeal-crusted tilapia, spicy black beans and corn, salad

Monday, April 02, 2007

DMC embroidery floss comes in a kaleidoscopic range of pastels, brights, rich, earth, and jewel tones, and neutrals, and it can be mighty addictive at a mere 25 c per skein. Choosing among them is like opening that brand-new pack of Crayolas and deciding which of 64 "Different, Brilliant Colors" to use first -- an embarassment of riches. As I've expanded my crafting beyond knitting, and spent more and more time at general crafting stores, I've known one of my kids would eventually be enchanted by something, and I'm glad it turned out to be dmc floss. It was Robin who spied the stuff on a recent trip to JoAnn's and we walked out with the sewing machine needles I needed, plus some 14 count Aida, 2 embroidery hoops, a packet of needles, and 8 skeins of dmc each. I was thrilled to rediscover embroidery -- that's my little sampler on the right -- and delighted to teach the children (Robin's work is in the hoop.) Wren lost interest after a single row of running stitch, but Robin is as enchanted with embroidery as he is with knitting. He's such a craftsmen -- every stitch has to be perfect, and he picks out his mistakes immediately. Such a contrast to my sloppy habits! I suppose he gets his artistic bent from me and his craftsmanship from his father -- a fortunate combination!

Dinner tonight: White bean salad with tomato, olives, feta, and parsley, with a lemony, garlicky vinaigrette

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Yesterday the potatoes took an unconscionable time to cook, so the kids had leftover pizza and Justin and I picked up Chipotle --- mmm, mmm! Tonight we're having Greek Chicken Cutlets ala Everyday Food (with coarsely chopped rather than whole olives and parsley instead of mint) and Potatoes with Tomatoes and Feta from Paula Wolfert's "Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean." The tomato mixture from Everyday Food is quite good by itself, and I've had to restrict access so that we'll have some for the chicken tonight, which is waiting to be sauteed. This is only the 2nd time I've cooked from Wolfert's book -- it is very much a 'recipe' book and I've had difficulty putting together menus or getting a sense of what Eastern Mediterranean cooking and eating is really like. Also, the first recipe that I ever tried to cook from CotEM called for "Aleppo pepper" and even my local Greek grocery didn't carry it then. Penzey's does now, so I've decided to revisit the book, because I really do like the author and I think I'll really like the food.

Updated to add: Delicious! Both recipes are definitely going to be part of our regular spring rotation.

Monday, March 26, 2007

While I figure out how to merge my crafting and homeschooling blogs into a harmonious uniblog (hey, I bet there's a 'uniblogger' out there -- has to be!) I'm going to just jump into this one without further ado...

Weekly Menu

Monday: Greek-style chicken cutlets, potato stew with tomato and feta, carrot parsley salad
Tuesday: Broiled Salmon with teriyaki glaze, asian greens and carrots over udon noodles with teriyaki sauce
Wednesday: Black Beans and Rice, salad
Thursday: Vegetable Beef Soup, Honey-Wheat dinner rolls (or herbed dinner rolls -- not sure yet!)
Friday: Leek Tart with roasted red pepper sauce
Saturday: Roast Chicken with Lemon and Rosemary, roasted red potatoes, green beans almondine