Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Well, I've had a life changing experience that I simply must share. I got to try macarons!

In case any of my few but proud readers don't know what a macaron is, it's a French sandwich cookie of simple egg white and almond flour cookies with jam or butter cream fillings. They come in a panoply of flavors and a rainbow of gorgeous pastel colors that make them as lovely to look at as they are to eat. Go here to look at their loveliness, sigh, and come right back. I'm not through exulting.

Oh,good, you're back! Weren't they pretty?

The ones I was privileged to eat were from that very same Parisian confectioner, but my box looked different than the one in the background of the cookies. It may be more lovely. Look.

Leave it to the French to make a cookie box a work of art.

When I excitedly told my husband on the phone that I was going to keep the box forever, he said "A cardboard box?" People, this is just a box like a Tiffanys box is just a box. Everyone knows that certain shade of blue that stands for beauty and luxury and a dream of life. This box is like that for me, representing delicacy, devotion to craft, and a fineness about which I only fantasize. Unlike my one Tiffany's experience, albeit in Cinncinati and not New York, the macaron experience was not a mild disappointment. (Believe it or not, the only item in Tiffanys that made me at all wistful was--are you ready for this?--a set of dishes.) Those adorable cookies, on the other hand, were every bit as delicious as the buzz about them has been loud.

The delicate crust gives way to an airy and perfectly chewy cookie interior and then the extra flavor wallop of the fillings. In my box was an assortment of flavors that could only be delightfully guessed at, since the package could contain any of the regular or seasonal flavors listed on the accompanying paper. We still weren't sure what all of them actually were even after consuming the entire dozen, but it was great fun trying to figure it out. We did identify some obvious ones, like dark chocolate, which created a much bigger immediate chocolate explosion on the palate than the pale color and dainty size of the cookie made us expect, the pistachio with its customary pale green color, and salted-butter caramel, from the bracing combination of its eponymous components. The ones I couldn't place were so good, who cared?

I say "we" and "us" because I was sharing them with someone, the someone to whom they technically belonged. He received them as a gift for house sitting for friends while they went to Barcelona and Paris. When he wanted someone to properly appreciate the taste adventure with him before their "best by" date had passed (as in, that day), he thought of lucky me because I'm not only a foodie, but a Francophile. I was touched, thrilled, and transported.

No, really, I was. There I was, sipping a cup of hot tea (another rare occurrence in the middle of the day) and nibbling fabulous cookies direct from Paris in a regular old office in a small town in Kentucky, where most residents probably don't know what a macaron is. It was as if someone arrived with stardust for me to sample, so exotic and unexpected was it. I mean, macarons were something I read about, especially here. Then through the magic of jet travel, these fragile and rarified cookies were transported from another world to mine. And their world is one that happens to have a hold on my imagination at the level of fantasy, the kind of fantasy that you don't expect or need to become reality. (Ah
Paris! I roamed her streets in the days of my youth, before the macaron craze.) It was absolute delight that somehow a part of her came to me that day.

The best part is that the experience did indeed measure up to the expectation, unlike my sampling of fois gras and caviar. (I believe the current expression is meh?) I found not one crumb of disappointment in that beautiful box. It was a fantastical few moments in the middle of an ordinary day that I will probably treasure forever, along with the unnecessarily beautiful box. In fact, I feel a sparkle just thinking about it. And that definitely makes life a finer thing.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Vegetables Ruled Today

The Lunch of Veggie Winners

I feel so virtuous. When I told My Beloved, during our dinner of roasted butternut squash soup and cider-baked pears, what I'd had for lunch, I realized that I was having an actual plant based day!

This healthy feat isn't accomplished as often as I would like because, unfortunately, eating multiple servings of vegetables in a day generally requires cooking, which isn't possible or desirable in the middle of most of my days. Unless there are leftovers, the fall back noon veggie option is "baby" carrots, which of course aren't babies at all, but shaved down mature carrots. (I always picture them on some kind of miniature lathe, but I'm sure that's just my fanciful imagination.) Other vegetables could be eaten raw, but they aren't very appealing that way, at least not without a dip that I would feel compelled to make in order to avoid the nasty additives in purchased ones. Even if there are veggie leftovers, I still have to solve the problem of a protein source or be ready for Second Lunch before 3:00. Thus my difficulty in making vegetables a large part of a 5 a Day--or is it 9 a Day?--goal.

Fruits, on the other hand, are much easier to fit in. Many of them are go
od to pack, or grab, and go: bananas, oranges, apples, pears, grapes, etc. But I'm thinking that vegetables are more nutritious, and we all know we need them. It's a matter of actually making it happen.

Somehow today it did. I can't take credit for planning my nutritional success. I just happened to be desirous of making dishes that were chock full of veggies. My latest favorite blogger over at Poor Girl Gourmet (there are so many wonderful lives out there!) wrote about sweet potato-bacon cakes and butternut squash soup, both of which inspired me to duplicate them. With the former left over and the latter on the menu for tonight, I was accidentally blessed with a perfect storm of vegetables and fruits.

So here's my successful rundown of the day.
  • Breakfast: plain Greek yogurt and home made granola
  • Lunch: leftover sweet potato and bacon cake with honeyed sour cream and micro-steamed broccoli
  • Supper: roasted butternut squash soup, foccacia, and cider baked pears
Given the quantities on the broccoli and the butternut squash soup, I think I actually made it to SIX fruit and veggie servings today. Why, if I'd added some fruit to my breakfast bowl, I would have made it to SEVEN! I'm feeling flushed just thinking about it. If that sounds silly, perhaps you haven't counted up your own plant food servings lately. Every time I have in the past, I've come up short. This is a big day.

It may also be a motivating day. Not that I haven't had the good intention to "eat more fruits and vegetables" before. I may get over the whole thing by tomorrow morning, when I tentatively plan to make French toast with sour cream and jam. But if I find a a fruit to throw in there, I still have a chance of another winning day: Lupper (Lunch + Supper = Lupper) will be Mediterranean sandwiches of sauteed odd bits of zucchini, eggplant, and red pepper with feta cheese, so there's hope. If we have fruit for dessert. (OK, second course. My maintenance dose of chocolate is not negotiable.)

See how hard this is for mainline American eaters? It takes real effort and thought to get the amounts of fruits and vegetables that we know are healthy for us. Meat-n-taters abound, but the vegetables and fruits containing those annoyingly necessary little details called vitamins and fiber are hard to come by. And I haven't even talked about eating out. That's almost a lost cause. Just ask my husband how geekily challenged I am to find vegetables on restaurant menus.

I'm sure that with intentional focus, I could pack in those 5 a Day, at least when eating food that I've prepared. But I need something else crying out for my focus like I need a stake in my eye.

Still, we are what we eat. And I want to be healthy for as long as possible. If I don't feed my body well, I won't make that goal. With that motivation and vegetable dishes that are as enjoyable to eat as the aforementioned sweet potato-bacon cakes and roasted butternut squash soup, plus a teensy bit of focus, I could be a...a High Fiver!

Now if vegetables just came with more protein. I need a snack.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Random Reason to Rejoice #6

The days when the bread turns out just right.

The dough is happy--warm, smooth, and elastic. Not too soft, not too heavy.
The rising loaves are nicely domed and equal in size.
The completed loaves are pretty outside and moist inside.
They even smell better on the good days.
Homemade bread is always good, but sometimes it's near perfect.
On those days, I pat my babies and give a little sigh of contentment.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Time to Make the Doughnuts

Normally I am a committed healthy eater who tries to live on whole grains (my blood sugar thanks me), control my portions, and get at least some vegetables into my diet. But every once in a great while, I have my feasts. Last Saturday was one of those. We hosted a doughnut fry at our barn.

Aren't they gorgeous? These calories are worth it.

I thought my urge to fry doughnuts--an urge I haven't had since at least 6 years ago--would be a good way to get better acquainted with the neighbors we've met since we moved in. Besides, the last time I scratched the doughnut frying itch, I had to call in neighbors and deliver to friends just to get rid of all the doughnuts. I hadn't fully comprehended that I was using my More-is-Better boss/friend's recipe that makes at least four dozen. That's just a little more then my then ten-year-old son and I could eat alone. This time I was prepared. The neighbors got invited first.

And then I had the usual panic and made an extra batch of dough and threw some away anyway because we were doughnut-done after two hours of frying (Dave got really good at that) and nibbling. Besides, I ran out of powdered sugar to glaze any more! And they just aren't the same without the glaze.

So much sugar.

This was another dream-made-real food event for me. I baked up a breakfast casserole, filled the slow cooker with spiced cider, Dave brewed a little coffee, and the frying began shortly before the neighbors and the in-laws started breezing in. Everyone seemed to enjoy both the treat of freshly fried doughnuts and visiting with each other, which doesn't always happen even though they're neighbors. Bringing people together to share food and each other is one of the joys of this new phase of our life as hosts, part of the dream.

One of our guests felt right at home because her family is Dutch in origin and has a tradition of frying doughnuts every New Years Eve. She jumped right in and helped glaze like an old pro, as did my mother-in-law. My father-in-law, on the other hand, stood right near the stove and consumed five doughnuts while watching his son's fry-chef action. He also tried something new to him--the breakfast casserole. I was surprised that he'd never had that dish, since it has one of his favorite things in it--sausage--along with safe foods like bread, cheese, milk, and eggs. Nothing gourmet to scare him off there. I got a big hug from the mother-in-law when they left, which is not an everyday occurrence, and a phone call from the father-in-law later in the day to see if we had any doughnuts left! I think they liked our doughnut party.

Did I already say that this was another dream come true for me? I did? Well, I said it again because it's so true! I was on a social contact high for about 48 hours afterward. Life feels so fine when you're doing your true thing. It was even worth paying Williams-Sonoma prices for the doughnut cutter, and prepping dough and casserole after being in the far city all day, and getting up and at 'em early even though I was up later than usual to provide teenager related transportation. Yes, even then, it was wonderful.

In case you suspect that doughnut frying might be one of your true things, here's the recipe. Don't worry. It's not rocket surgery, as My Beloved always says.

Makes about 4 dozen (Half the recipe if you want less.)

2 packages active dry yeast or about 4 teaspoons* bulk yeast dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water
2 cups milk
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 eggs
6-7 cups all-purpose flour

1 pound powdered sugar
1/2 cup milk, warmed
1 teaspoon vanilla

Mix up your yeast and water and set aside to get bubbly.

Combine the milk, melted butter, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. This mixture needs to be warmed, so I use a microwave safe bowl and warm it in...well, the microwave...because a) it's easy and b) it cuts down on the dirty dishes (When I was a professional baker, I became all about dirty dish minimization). Beat in the eggs and then whisk in the yeast mixture.

Now it's time for flour, starting with the minimum measurement. Here I do waste an extra bowl in which to measure out the flour ahead of time, so that I can dump it in at all at once. I have this belief that quick addition of flour makes for more even mixing, but it may be a quirk of mine. The important part is that the flour goes in and goes in last. Stir it in by hand, although you could use a mixer if you wanted. Just don't beat it vigorously. Gluten development and tender doughnuts are mutually exclusive. If the dough seems really wet and sticky, add more flour, but do not exceed the maximum 7 cups. A little restraint with the flour is part of what makes for fluffiness.

Cover the dough and let it sit for about an hour. That's right. There is no kneading. Sweet.

When the dough is risen
, it's time to roll it out. If you're not sure, poke two fingers into it. If the dough holds the indentations without springing back, it's ready. But it will probably be fine if you go on just the time instructions. You will need a generous amount of flour on your surface to keep it from sticking, due to its aforementioned softness, so dump away. Roll the dough out to about a 1/2 inch thickness or so. I never do this part perfectly evenly, but guess what? We end up with doughnuts (or pie crust or whatever) anyway. Cut them out with your over priced (But you had to do it. There was company coming!) doughnut cutter and transfer them to trays, lightly floured if they seem stickish. And yes, puff the holes for frying, too. You weren't going to throw them away, were you? Let the proto doughnuts rest for about 30 minutes, til they're nice and puffy. You'll know they're ready when they start to look rounded, not flattened any more from the rolling and cutting pressures.

While they're puffing along, mix up the glaze. Basically, just stir all three ingredients together, and it's ready for baptizing. Then get out a 6 quart or so pot and fill it about two thirds full of a neutral oil like canola or "vegetable" (Why don't they just say soybean, already? They're not fooling me!). Heat the oil to about 350 degrees. A candy thermometer that clips onto the side of the pot is handy here for finding the right heat setting to hold that good frying temperature. If you don't have one, medium heat will work. You can always sacrifice a doughnut hole or two to the learning gods. Either way, you'll get the hang of it. My husband had never fried dough of any kind in his life, and he had it mastered in about two practice runs.

When your oil and the doughnuts are ready, place enough doughnuts in the pot to float on the surface without crowding. You'll know they're ready for turning when you start to see goldeness showing around the edges. If in doubt, lift one up and see. Flip them over and fry the other side until they're the shade you like best. Some folks like them light golden and some like them deep brown. Suit yourself. They're your doughnuts.

Drain the doughnuts briefly on paper towels and let them cool a bit. Then drop them one at a time into the glaze, turn them over once, lift them out (An old fashioned fork works nicely here. It fits right into the hole.), let some of the glaze dribble back into the bowl, and place them on a rack to drain further and crust over into wonderment.

Now eat. Eat as many as you like. Because you made them, and they are wonderful, and you will not be doing this every day. If we all stuffed ourselves with the glories of sugar- encrusted fried dough only when we produced it at home, we'd eat less doughnuts but enjoy them more deeply while probably maintaining our waist lines at the same time. That's my theory anyway. Anybody up for research?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Random Reason to Rejoice #5

The sounds that drift in through my open windows.

Warbling bugs and chirping birds.

Skittering of fall leaves on the road when the wind blows.

Chatter of children walking home from school.

Church bells playing hymns.

Clip-clop-clip of an Amish horse and buggy.

Tinkling music from the ice cream truck.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My Idea of Fast Food

Monday was one of those full days that ran a little longer than planned. I had monthly financial reports to prepare, and Dave had a dentist appointment. We got home a full half hour later than usual--charmed by the autumnal views during our drive, but famished. That kind of situation used to be a recipe for culinary compromise in the form of ordered pizza or a bowl of cereal. Luckily, that day I had a plan.

To be honest, I had had no plan earlier in the day. For some reason, even though dinner is my hobby that usually gets hours of menu dreaming and scheming each Sunday afternoon, I had been plumb blocked on the subject of Monday's dinner. What I had were some options floating around the back billboard of my mind and some trust that I would figure out something. That trust thing is new. I'm still savoring it.

Then, in a few free minutes between finishing my reports and leaving the office to pick up Dave for his dentist visit, I indulged myself with the reading of some of my beloved blogs. That pleasure was my mealtime salvation. Farmgirl Susan had posted about a salad she'd been wallowing in for days that instantly made me say to myself "That's what I want for dinner tonight."

A bed of greens was topped with sliced and seared sausages, cherry tomatoes, and homemade ranch dressing, among other things. It looked hearty, satisfying, and, most important, quick. This I could pull off no matter what time we got home because I already had some romaine and homemade ranch dressing in need of using and time to hit the grocery store for tomatoes and crusty bread while Dave's pearly whites were getting their semi-annual buffing. My dinner dilemma was solved.

Now we could hold hands and enjoy the scenery on the way home, knowing that dinner was only about 15 minutes away once we hit the door--without being disappointing or nutritionally disastrous. I found some lively, mozzarella-speckled Italian style sausages that were lean and nitrite/nitrate free; greens and tomatoes contain actual vitamins; and homemade ranch dressing doesn't have all the unpronounceable chemicals of commercial dressings. Add a glass of red wine (for the cardiovascular benefits, of course), and you've got a quick, hearty, and palate pleasing dinner.

And I must say that the salad was indeed hearty--perfect for the man at the table and for the season. He man enjoyed the heft of meat and creamy dressing and lots o' flavor. She enjoyed the spiciness of the sausages balancing the assertiveness of the fresh garlic she had used in the dressing. The components and flavors nodded at fall but accommodated the unseasonably warm temperatures we were actually having. It was just a spot on salad for our day.

A while back I read a quote from some chef saying that his idea of fast food was an omelet with fresh chives. I don't know that I would have thought of putting sausages in a salad, but I'm awfully glad that Farmgirl Susan did because an easy, lively, filling dinner like that is my idea of fast food.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Dinner is My Dream

Last Friday another one of my dreams came true. We hosted a dinner party, to put it the old fashioned grown up way. I spent all day in the kitchen and decorating the table. I loved every minute of it. I may not know much, but I know that I wanted that experience, which I hope will be the first of many.

The Menu
Crostini with Tomato-Bacon-Apple Jam and Feta
Cider Braised Pork Shoulder with Onions, Apples & Potatoes

Puree of Roasted Butternut Squash with Maple

Cider Glazed Apple Cake with Whipped Cream and Apple Chip Garnish

Now, I had not made any of the dishes before, and I've only done a multi course dinner one other time--without guests. I just read a reference to an all apple dinner and thought it would be fun. Basically, this was an entirely "test kitchen" experience--a chef with her training wheels still on, so to speak. But don't worry. The guests were advised and willing. People can be so agreeable if you promise them (free) food.

The results? To my great relief, nothing sucked! The appetizer was interesting and acceptable. One guest thought the jam was reminiscent of baked beans in flavor. Not tres gourmet, but not a bad thing either. It means a balance of tangy and savory and sweet. Success number one.

The braised pork shoulder was, of course, falling-apart tender. (You would be, too, if you were in the oven for six hours. ) I'm not sure how I've made it this far in life without relishing a long, slow braise, but I have corrected that oversight. It's my favorite kind of food trick--good and EASY. Once it's in the oven, you're done. Unless you thicken the pan juices with a little buerre manier for sauce, and why wouldn't you? So, I did. Success number two.

My absolute favorite part of the meal was the butternut squash puree. I have to credit the Pioneer Woman herself, Ree Drummond, for the method. Her recipe was the simplest (I want the Lazy Chef award please) and could be done ahead and warmed. In addition, she had enough enthusiasm for the flavor that she lapsed into One. Word. Sentences. And promises of eye rolling and ecstasy. When I tasted it, I gave out a little "Oh, yeah" myself. I seem to remember some involuntary noises from at least one of the guests, too. It really is that good. And easy. And GOOD. Definitely a standby fall and winter side dish. I'm ready for the next Pot Luck. Success number three.

The apple cake, even if the recipe was from a famous Australian chef, did not wow me. I knew what I wanted (one tall layer, moist, crackly on top), but this version fell short. The search continues. And if anyone suggests you make apple chips glazed in reduced apple cider and powdered sugar, and then instructs you bake them on a Silpat--take that last part seriously. Those little buggers were the only thing I have ever baked that stuck hopelessly to PARCHMENT PAPER. I had to, shall we say, improvise to end up with any chips at all. On a positive note, they did taste good and added a jaunty note. On the whole, a weak success number four.

I was also pleased when a guest commented that the apple theme wasn't obvious. It didn't seem that he (or she?) was eating appple-apple-apple all the way through. The fruit's flavor was an influence rather than a star in the appetizer and the main dish, only coming to prominence in the dessert. I felt successful again at that moment, but that wasn't the best one for me.

No, the best part was quietly had during all the feasting when, just as I did during our barn warming, I felt a little more like the me I want to be. Sitting at the end of our handmade, candle lit table covered with my great-grandmother's lace tablecloth and graced by good food and friends, I thought that, for me, this was it. I had come into my own in some small way. It's just a dinner--and not a Martha-esque feature one at that--but it's one of my long awaited dreams. I'm not on the outside with my nose against the glass any more. I don't know what the culinary future holds for me. I just know that I want to have dinners, feed my friends, be the hostess.

But you never know where seemingly tiny desires may lead. If hadn't done theater on a whim and bought a certain red dress, I might never have met my husband and boon companion. So it's just dinner...but then again maybe not. If nothing else, dinner makes life a finer thing while I wonder what's next.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Bad Days, Schmad Days

Sometime last week, I began a whiny post about a bad day--or rather, a day full of bad happenings. The funny thing is that, had I not written down the alleged failures and tried to take accompanying photos, I would not today remember them. Here's the original list of woes.

I paid $24.00 too much for a bad hair cut and color job. Now I have two-tone hair and winging bangs. Hat city.

Bad hair! Bad, bad expensive hair!

I forgot to put the yeast in my bread. I didn't notice until I was kneading it. I tried kneading it in, but that didn't work.

Moment of silence for the dead dough.

I made fresh tomato soup because it sounded good and I had tomatoes to use up. Neither of us really liked it very well.

Sunny disappointment in a bowl.

The oil light came on in the car. The dipstick says the oil isn't low. Go figure. But please don't let it be something else to fix.

No photo of my dash. Beyond my current photographic limits.

Those four bummers seemed huge and depressing that day. Here's how things really turned out.
  • My hair is...passable, with no winging bangs after all--so far.
  • I've since learned a trick for working the yeast in when you forget it--from a well known flour company's test kitchen boo-boo repair post. (And yesss! Photographic evidence that everyone really does make mistakes!)
  • So we don't like tomato soup. Big deal. I enjoyed making it.
  • The oil light didn't come on the next time I was in the car. I can go on ignoring that quirk just a little longer.
Which brings me to my next point, kids. Don't smoke.... No, that's not it. (Name that movie!)

Oh, yes. The moral of my story is: Today's bad day is tomorrow's distant memory.

Thankfully, I did have that hard-won wisdom on the ostensibly bad day. It kept me from unnecessary self pity and anger. I keep hoping that one of these fine and good days, I'll believe that fact down to my bones and never be troubled again.

OK, so that's a little unrealistic. At least, I'll know under the annoyance and irritation that, in the words of Saint Therese of Lisieux, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."


And that's enough for now.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Doors Re-Purposed

Unused doors just aren't safe around our house. Then again, maybe they are safe--from uselessness. My sweet husband just can't bear to leave them lying without purpose, and we haven't oodles of money, so if a door isn't useful vertically, we press it into service horizontally. We're getting pretty good at this trick.

When we moved into this house, there were two doors lying about and two that had to come down. The ones we removed had closed off the laundry closet. Unfortunately they didn't work with my front loading washer, so away they went. With $30.00 of Ikea trestles, one of them became my desk at which I type this very moment.

In an example of how things just work out sometimes, I'll tell you that I meant to purchase either white or natural trestles. When the box was opened, they were black. I was about to have my usual traumatic disappointment--the Ikea store is two and half hours away--when I decided to let it go in order to have some kind of desk. It turns out that the black trestles and the natural door work well together because the same assortment of tones are present in the floor. It looks like we meant to do that. Again. I love it when that happens. I'd still love to have a white desk and chair, to further brighten all our woodsiness, but this works for now. Maybe someday I can afford the Pottery Barn desk assembly of my dreams or get crafty with a cheap file cabinet and paint. Until then, ca marche!

One of the doors hanging around was a duplicate of our front door, which puzzled us at first. The former owner cleared that mystery up. It seems that she ordered and painted a new, more energy efficient door but couldn't bring herself to take down the old solid wood door. She has a weakness for wood obviously. She was the one who made the stair railing from cedar
posts (well, one was pine) dragged off her grandfather's land and built the cabinets and island, which used to be a hutch until she put it back together again differently. I think she's my Shop Girl hero.

Anyway, that colorful door, resting on yet more Ikea trestles, is now D's desk. He loves it.

Someday, when he's not looking,
I'll take off the hardware.

The daddy of all the doors, abandoned down in the basement, was a hulking antique pine number, 1 3/4 inches thick with mortise-and-tenon joinery and that lovely honey color pine takes on with age. I agreed with Dave that it was far too impressive not to use somehow. A little measuring verified that it was the perfect size to become a dining room table, which we needed. A local Amish woodworker (who also avowed that it was an impressive door) added a skirt and legs for a quite reasonable price of $180.00, and we ordered glass for roughly the same amount. We've ended up with a unique table for about $400.00 that, if bought, would far exceed that price, if only by virtue of sheer heft.

Mr. Amish Carpenter did a little mortise-and-tenon action, too.

That leaves one last door hanging around downstairs. We haven't any further horizontal needs up here right now, but we haven't even gotten around to setting up the shop, where it's languishing. It just might make a handy work table someday.