Our New Blog!

•June 3, 2014 • 6 Comments

As promised, here’s a link to our new blogging home:

Life Up North

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We made our first official post, yesterday, and are still tweaking a few things, but I think we’re ready for the grand unveiling.

You’ll find the new blog has a different format and feel, and — best of all — James will be making posts from time to time. In upcoming posts, you’ll find photos from our latest excursions and culinary conquests and occasionally some reflections and musings.

We’re excited to be working on a new blog together and looking forward to staying in touch with all of you — our friends and family.

One Last Bouquet

•December 26, 2013 • 18 Comments

IMG_7214“We’d better take a picture of these,” James said, placing the bouquet on the table and looking critically on his work, “they’re probably the last ones from the garden, this year.” I agreed, but only half believed my prediction. You can never be certain about the transition from autumn to winter — will it be gradual, will it be sudden — but you can always tell when it has happened.

Not more than two weeks after James picked those flowers from the garden — which was full of plants, overblown and tired but still putting out blooms — a frost came and ended the garden for the year. And, as it turns IMG_7215out, it also ended autumn. No sooner had the first frost come, but the first snows (yes, plural) soon followed. Though the winter solstice (the official beginning of winter) wouldn’t be for another few weeks, winter made his first icy footprint on the landscape in November and has been unpacking his things, making himself at home ever since.

No doubt you’ve noticed I’ve not made any posts since August. My fingers were not frozen by winter’s grasp, but perhaps in a way my mind was (at least the blogging part of it). October began a nose-to-the-grindstone period of fun but time-consuming work. I was chopping, simmering, and packing away the harvest; putting the garden to bed; performing as oboist in a local production of Les Miserables; putting finishing touches on a home recital for early November; attending several rehearsals and concerts as oboist with the NMC Concert Band; and, of course, all the responsibilities and pleasures of filling out both the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons.

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In my time away from Tales of Thyme & Place, I realized I began to speak of the blog in past tense — first, only in my mind, when I’d remind myself I’d not made a post in an unspeakably long time. Soon, though, I began referring to the blog in past tense more frequently, as though I were trying out the idea for size and feel.

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You may be surprised to learn this blog was not originally intended to be a photography/essay/recipe blog. Believe it or not, it began as a personal effort to distance myself from Facebook while still keeping in touch with far-flung friends and family. Suddenly, I began adding more and more photos. IMG_4327Descriptions turned into paragraphs, paragraphs into anecdotes. Before long, a “blog voice” took shape in my writing and in my patterns of observation. The voice was mine, thank goodness, but it was different than the voice of the first dozen or so posts. I liked what I was reading and it seemed that many other people did, too.

After sharing and exploring in this venue for over three years, I’ve lately begun to feel the need to move on. In years past, when I’d go two or three weeks without posting, I’d consider quitting the blog. Inevitably, IMG_1804though, my penchant for completion would take over, the inspiration would come flooding back, and I’d make several more posts. Recently, however, a feeling of comfort and completion came over me as I considered ending rather than quitting. I love finishing a project! So, at last, I came to the conclusion that I was ready to write the final page of this particular story — the tale of this journey I’ve been spinning since May 2010.

Tales of Thyme & Place contains more than 140 posts — including more than 70 recipes and countless photos. To celebrate the journey, here are some “top-rated” posts based on visitor statistics (click on the post’s title to view the post):

“Tales of Thyme”

Recipes have always been the most popular posts. I’ve never ceased to be amazed by this, considering how many other cooking blogs and entire websites devoted to cooking there are out there cyberspace.

First Place
Irish Chicken Stew

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    It seems the world yearns for more Irish recipes, and this particular recipe was a big hit. Over 300 visitors read the recipe on St. Patrick’s Day 2013 — the most visitors the blog has ever had on a single day. Since it was posted, my stew has been viewed 2500 times. I am humbled!

Second Place
White Almond Cake with Cherry Cheesecake Filling

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    Oh my… this cake will live on and on! James and I worked with an excellent baker to put this cake together for our wedding in 2010. To celebrate our second wedding anniversary in 2012, I set about to make a homemade version. It was a labor of love, but every bite was worth it!

Third Place
Chickpea & Herb Dumpling Soup

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    Can a simple soup be worthy of a special occasion? How about when it’s got the fluffiest, cheesiest dumplings in it?! This recipe is a perennial favorite in my repertoire and (according to Google) quite a popular search term. In fact, since writing it, the post has been viewed more than 900 times.

Fourth Place
Irish Pork Roast

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    You see?! Irish recipes rule! This was a slow-cooker recipe I developed that’s worthy of dinner parties or just for a casual, hassle-free evening. (It goes great with my Brown Bread recipe, by the way.)

Fifth Place
Lake Michigan Granola Bars

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    Because most of the viewers of this recipe tend to come from Pinterest, I’d be willing to bet that more people have drooled over the photos of these chewy granola bars than have actually made them. But, if that’s the case, those folks don’t know what they’re missing. These are not only super tasty, but very easy to make, customizable for ingredients you may have on-hand, and make excellent traveling food.

“Tales of Place”

When I wasn’t writing about food from the home kitchen, I wrote about our adventures — either “far away”, or right at home.

First Place
In Search of the Northern Summer: Part III

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    Looking back at this post, it reads like an eerie bit of foreshadowing. Less than a year and a half after writing about our stay at Leelanau County’s Snowbird Inn, we moved to Leelanu County. Now, we often pass the inn when running errands and have even run into the innkeeper while milling around the streets of Leland.

Second Place
Christmas Tree 2010

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    I likely have photo-gobbling Pinterest to thank for the popularity of this post. As it turns out, cyberspace is hungry for wintry photos of a Christmas tree farm covered in snow. When I read through this post, though, it’s the fond memory of that day that comes back to me. Then again, when you get a live Christmas tree, the hunt for that special tree is a memory renewed every year.

Third Place
The Herbal Tea Garden

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    On our balcony in the Evanston apartment, I grew as many things as the sunlight and our space would allow. Among those things were tea herbs for all my tinkerings with herbal tea blends and herbal medicine. At the end of the post, I gave a recipe for one of my favorite homemade teas.

My Favorite Posts

So, those are our most popular posts — posts that are reportedly the most viewed. But, maybe you were wondering what my favorite posts were. Ironically, my favorite posts were often the least “popular” and (fittingly) the wordiest. It’s difficult for me to choose a favorite anything, so pardon me for only being able to narrow this down to six posts (in no particular order).

In Search of the Northern Summer: Moonrise Over Bowers Harbor

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    I tried to capture in words and photos the peace we found one night perched above the crystalline waters of the moonlit Grand Traverse Bay.

Gathering Up the Leaves

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    James and I took a quick jaunt north to see the last remnants of fall color before settling into winter. Emmet County, Michigan, was picture perfect in spite of the iffy weather. I took some of my all-time favorite photos of autumn on that trip.

Winter’s Slow-Moving Tale

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    After enduring my second blizzard in Leelanau County, I summoned the inspiration to write about why I still love winter.

Winter On Wheels

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    I can’t read this post without chuckling at the memory of forcing James out of the apartment to come bike riding with me… in January. In spite of my immense lack of forethought, it actually turned into a fun day.

The Voyage Home

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    This was my last post before we moved to our new home in Northern Michigan. In it, I reflect back on a voyage my paternal grandfather guided me and my brothers on while tentatively looking ahead to the daunting upheaval of packing up our entire lives and leaving home.

Swiss Oatmeal

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    This post was a recipe, yes, but it was also a story — one that takes me back to a time and place when my life’s hopes and dreams teetered along a precarious edge of uncertainty. I was blessed to have shared those uncertain times with two very special people who are a part of this story (and, in a sense, part of every story I’ll ever tell).

Maybe you’re wondering where things will go from here, now that I’m closing out the final chapter of Tales of Thyme & Place. After all, James and I aren’t planning to leave our little ten acre kingdom any time soon. And, I’ll always be obsessed with the four seasons, gardening, quilting, cooking, music… and on and on. I’m actually considering starting a new blog in the coming months — or maybe even TWO blogs that will run simultaneously: one would showcase our more photogenic adventures and the other might explore my various musings and writings. (stay tuned for more info)

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One of my favorite lines from Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh comes at the very end where the narrator announces we’ve arrived at the final chapter. “Oh no!” cries Pooh, his mouth full of IMG_7349celebratory honey, “Can’t we just go back to the beginning and start all over again?” As a little boy, watching that movie, I occasionally did just that — hit the rewind button (remember rewind from the pre-historic days of VCR’s?) and relived the whole thing anew, laughing along with Pooh and his friends as though I didn’t know the movie by heart.

Whether I begin a new blog, two new blogs, or no new blogs, I will always keep these tales and recipes here — maybe for myself just as much as for you — to rewind and relive over and over. I don’t plan on making any new posts on this blog, but if you ever feel like commenting on a post or asking a question about a recipe, I’ll always try to send a reply your way.

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Over the past few years, all of your comments and encouragement have been so meaningful to me and to James. I’ve enjoyed hearing about your experiences with the recipes you tried, the memories we have in common, and even just the kind words passed back and forth. So, until we’re together again, thanks for reading.

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Postcards from a Summer Almost Past

•August 27, 2013 • 11 Comments

IMG_6739I remarked in a recent entry that this spring was “like an elegant beauty, slowly descending the long staircase in her gauzy gown of green and gold, sprinkling white, purple, and buttery yellow flowers as she goes.” Given such a grand entrance and a remarkable performance, you could argue summer had a tough act to follow. And so — as you would expect — summer turned out to be the bashful boy hiding in the shadows of his mother’s gauzy gown, peeking out every once in a while to boast moments of warmth and attempt brazen acts of bravery only to quickly retreat into the safety of the shadow of spring each time.

It was cute the first few times, this timidity. I’m never in too big a hurry to wander into summer’s heat-induced torpor, after all. But — when it was mid-July and I found myself wearing a hoodie well into the afternoon and even questioning whether or not I should wear shorts when heading out to the garden — I was a bit annoyed.

With all the busyness surrounding the garden, tending to the harvests in the kitchen, and hosting our summer guests, I’ve sorely neglected this blog. And, now, summer’s nearly gone — just a mere three weeks until the official beginning of autumn! Rather than write eleventy entries in a futile attempt to bring you all up to speed, today I decided to give you a photographic review of all that’s happened while we’ve been out of touch — little postcards that captured our summer’s activities and aspirations.

We’ve, thankfully, had lots of sunshine to make up for our lack of summer heat. Though the tomato crop is hesitant to blush and ripen, nevertheless, the garden has been overflowing with blossoms and bounty — doing its best to outwit the tantrums of a summer still clinging to its mother’s skirt-tails.

Marty’s garden (the flower/herb garden at the center of our vegetable garden) was awash in all sorts of colors, this summer.

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I think the most gratifying moments in the flower garden, this year, were spent just sitting back and watching as the plants established themselves and filled in the beds maybe a little more snugly than I’d anticipated. The most exciting, of course, was waiting as buds finally formed and then the color of the blossoms were revealed. Most of the flowers we started from seed, this year, were in the form of “blends” and “mixes”, so you can never be sure which colors will be present from the seedlings that survive. It was a veritable rainbow by the middle of summer!

And, of course, the vegetables — those unsung workhorses of the garden whose work may be less picturesque but no less valuable…

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Not pictured, above, are the rows and rows of red and yellow onions we ripped from the ground earlier this month so they could begin curing for winter storage; my first-ever successful harvest of not one but four heads of cabbage; the massive harvest of collard greens we blanched and put into the freezer; and the pending harvest of pumpkins that I’m too superstitious to claim before they’re picked. And, of course, how can you depict in a photo the heroics of a lettuce that refuses to bolt in the heat of summer, providing you with fresh salads all summer long — even giving you the joy of bringing guests out to the garden so they can watch you harvest dinner?

Oh — and our guests and the places we went together! What a fun time we’ve had sharing with all our friends and family who’ve come to visit, this summer. Summer weather wasn’t always here for your visit, but hopefully the warmth of the welcome made up for it!

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When you live in Northwest Michigan — where the promise of summer may be the only reason to get up in the morning (at least in March) — you find your summertime wanderlust is pretty minimal. No matter where you are, you’re never far from a beautiful beach, a secluded hiking path, kitschy shopping, or nice restaurants… so why leave home?! Still, while mom was in town, we decided to venture just a bit further north to visit Petoskey, Bay View, and Harbor Springs (where we’ve also visited in autumn).

For just a few nights, we left our own slice of summertime heaven to experience summertime elsewhere. While there, we did a little shopping, a little hiking, a little dining out… you know, all that good stuff. The sunsets and wildflowers were just beautiful — such a privilege to witness them in their shining moments.

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And now, as summer is waning, I watch as the maples hint at so many colors other than emerald. As nature begins its gradual winding down, things have been getting rather busy in the kitchen. The canning pot boiling away, the jam pot steaming and simmering, the cutting board in constant use, odd stains on the fingers, pepper and tomato seeds showing up in very random places about the house and body… yep, it’s not quite summer and not quite autumn — it’s canning season.

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When I look back on this summer, what will I think of most — which moment or memory will pop into my mind’s eye first? Every season has its own unique beauty, its own sense of harmony and balance. IMG_6885What I’m beginning to notice, within this beautiful cycle of four seasons, is that the lingering sensation lies in those few things that do not change even amidst the most astounding metamorphoses which delight your senses momentarily before fading. Maybe the biggest gift of change is gratitude for the simple and unchanging.

Welcome to Our 2013 Garden

•June 30, 2013 • 9 Comments

IMG_6678Our 2013 garden began with the removal of our 2012 garden — a rough and rugged sort of “out with the old” time spent hunched over and reawakening certain muscles that had retreated over the long winter.

Within just a few weeks’ time, the view from the northern corner had changed fairly dramatically. What was barren — a veritable petrified forest of has-been sweet corn and sunflowers — was at last tidier-looking with even a few hints of green poking out.

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Our 2013 garden also began with the discovery of new life we’d not anticipated — quite a lot of it, actually. Marty’s center garden — the one we’d filled in 2012 with flowers and a few bunches of catnip for good measure — had (with the help of wind and rain) spread throughout the entire garden. In the walkways, on the sides of beds — in every corner of the garden, there were pansies of all hues plus mallow, alyssum, catnip, and lots and lots of chamomile! It became a delicate situation when we tried to remove opportunistic weeds while leaving the cutesy flowers and herbs behind.

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IMG_6639The chamomile was probably the most unexpected of the uninvited guests, honestly. I’ve never had any trouble sprouting it from seeds in little peat pots, but the very idea that the plants could do it so much more efficiently had never crossed my mind. Wading between the garden beds with fragrant chamomile blossoms tickling your knees was a serendipitous addition to the work of readying the garden for a new season, to say the least. Chamomile has a relaxing, honey-and-apples scent that it releases with the slightest brush against your fingers or even the wind. Rather than having to wait for the new chamomile I’d sprouted to bloom and prosper, we’ve been able to harvest and dry a good bit of it already. Though, admittedly, some of the impromptu chamomile simply had to go!

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As for the things we ourselves planted, this year, I’m happy to report that our earlier start has meant a few tasty harvests, already. Just after the solstice, we were able to harvest a heaping helping of mustard greens. Pretty much any greens — kale, chard, collards, spinach — are best grown in cooler temperatures and can be sown in both spring and late-summer to reward the gardener with two harvests. When the greens are ready for harvest, I cut them about 4-inches above the soil (most greens will keep growing if left in the ground). Then it’s inside for washing, trimming, blanching, then freezing. I like to freeze greens in 10-ounce “packages” so we can substitute them throughout the year in place of the more ubiquitous frozen spinach that so many recipes call for.

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I always grow too many radishes, James is quick to remind me. We don’t really even eat that many of them; we give most of them away. They grow so quickly and mature so rapidly it’s easy to plant too many, and yet they’re so reassuring to see in the garden in late-spring when it’s tempting to believe nothing but weeds and pests will ever come of all your work! Carrots are fickle, and take an eternity to sprout. So, while I wait for their frilly heads to pop out of the spring soil, I take comfort in radishes, spinach and lettuces.

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(Funny story: this lettuce was planted last year, but being of rebellious spirit, waited until this spring to sprout! To teach it a lesson, I plan to eat it.)

We also recently had our first snap pea harvest. I had them picked, cleaned, blanched, and into the freezer in less than two hours! We’re also growing shelling peas, but those are still resting on the vines, plumping up with every passing day. Another crop that demands an early-as-possible planting, this is the first time I’ve ever successfully grown peas!

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Frankly, this was the first time I was able to have a spring harvest of, well… anything. It takes a lot of gumption (not to mention effort) to brave the wiles of early spring enough to actually sow seeds into frigid soil. More often than not, the tiny window for spring planting has come and gone long before we’re ready to seize the moment. Looking back, the best thing about spring planting (other than getting to harvest earlier in the season) is an almost complete lack of pests since most of them are still asleep or not even fully born yet.

Sigh… yes, the pests are now back — some of them with vengeance. If I strain my ears, I could swear I hear the sounds of millions of tiny jaws chewing non-stop. After our run-ins with cutworms, last year, we were at least informed enough to put paper collars around all of our transplants. And, yet, when you sow literally thousands of seeds and countless transplants, you tend to miss a plant here and there. Amazingly, the cutworm manages to find these plants and decapitates them in his usual, efficient manner. The only saving grace is digging into the soil immediately around the victimized plant and vanquishing the nasty perpetrator. When I stomp a cutworm, the shock waves can be heard from far away, at least that’s what I imagine!

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And then there are certain plants which are just so pest prone you have to go to extreme measures to protect them — our cabbage, for instance. Cabbage is a favorite entree of almost every pest I can think of. There have been times when I’ve seen a single plant inundated with at least three different pests at once! Floating row cover fabric is pretty much a last resort in our garden. It keeps the plants safe from incessant attacks, but it also makes for an unsightly garden — especially when you like watching your plants grow as much as I do. I’ll confess: I have never successfully grown cabbage. This will be my third (and possibly final attempt). If the seedlings we transplanted in late May begin to bolt in the summer heat before forming heads, I’m willing to attempt a late-summer planting for fall harvest. But, if that fails, too, all bets are officially off!

I guess that’s pretty much a typical garden for you, though — a mixture of the invited and the uninvited; the planned and the unplanned; the beautiful and the genuinely disgusting! When a self-identifying entomophobe starts digging around in the dirt and arranging plants, adventure is around every corner, under every leaf… buzzing or twitching in anticipation. There are moments, thankfully, where the good and the bad come together to perform an amazing balancing act. Suddenly, you look around, and all you can see is the good in everything that surrounds you.

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I had one of those moments, recently. I was kneeling to tie my eleventieth wayward tomato vine when I happened to look up. The breeze was blowing the scent of chamomile and lavender while the fuzzy heads of scabiosas and fragrant sweet peas nodded in agreement as honeybees danced about between random colorful blossoms. It really isn’t just creepy bugs and heat rash, after all! It’s also the smell of all these little green forces of nature struggling to thrive. It’s the taste of pure sunshine that comes from tasting your first homegrown snap pea… indescribably sweet. It’s in moments like these when I’m glad I’ve talked myself, once again, into having a garden.

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Boston Cream Pie

•June 17, 2013 • 4 Comments

IMG_6552I don’t typically wait this long to share with you James’ selection for his birthday cake, but this spring has been a busy one. We’ve got lots of gardening news to share with you in an upcoming post, but I didn’t want to let James’ birthday cake slip too far into the past before giving you a peek at the deliciousness and inviting you to have a slice for yourself.

I never put any restrictions on James’ options for birthday cakes each year, but I do make one stipulation: it must be a cake. No pies, crisps, tarts, or cupcakes. What’s wrong with cupcakes? I realize I’m in the minority, here, but I don’t think they say “birthday”. Instead, they say, “here is a tiny piece of cake mounded with frosting and surrounded with inedible paper.” No, a birthday cake should be 100% celebratory, 100% over-the-top, and 100% edible.

So, with that one filter in place, IMG_6561James chose to expose a gaping loophole: Boston Cream Pie. Why is it a cake that’s called a pie? This cake has identity issues! According to many baking historians, the recipe originates from Boston in the 1800s when pie pans were more common than cake pans. Essentially, it was a cake baked in pie pans and filled with pastry cream (which is usually used in tarts and other pastries). So, while it is a cake, it’s also pie-like. The name “pie” has stuck with it even though it’s now commonly baked in cake pans so that the sides are kept neat and cake-like.

Neither of us had ever actually had a slice of a real Boston Cream Pie — though we both do enjoy doughnuts of the same name IMG_6571and Ben & Jerry’s pint-sized rendering complete with chunks of sponge cake and a swirl of chocolate and pastry cream in every bite. In effect, this was a cake we’d only seen in photos and had only tasted in theory.

We began the birthday feast with a zesty salad recipe: Pepperoncini Chopped Salad with Romaine, Red Bell Pepper, and Feta. Rounding out his birthday feast, James also asked for Chicago-Style Deep-Dish pizza — I made one pepperoni and one Italian sausage with spinach. I may share that recipe with you, one day, but this post is getting too long already!

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Method to the Madness


When you do a quick internet search for Boston Cream Pie, you find a lot of variations on what is seemingly an easy idea. Some replace the cake layers with regular yellow cake or even a boxed cake mix while others use a vanilla pudding rather than the traditional pastry cream. Though some of the recipes out there would’ve made for a slightly easier process, I had my heart set on making a version that was as authentic as possible.

Fortunately, since I was going to be making this cake without having any personal experience with the “original”, I did not have to go very far to find a reliable recipe. America’s Test Kitchen’s Baking Illustrated had a very detailed and streamlined recipe already outlined for me.

The recipe raised a few points I thought were worth highlighting, here:

Don’t skip the strainer: Even IMG_6560though putting the finished pastry cream through a fine-mesh sieve seems like a pointless task messing up yet another dish or two, believe me, it’s worth it. While I couldn’t see any lumps or graininess in my pastry cream, one pass through the sieve showed me my pastry cream could be even creamier. Even though you temper the eggs properly and don’t overcook the mixture, straining the cream before chilling it is worth the effort.

Don’t overbeat the whites: There are many cake recipes requiring you to beat egg whites “until IMG_6548stiff peaks form”. In this case, you definitely want to stop short of stiff peaks, otherwise it will be nearly impossible to fold the whites into the rest of the batter mixture without having to stir and fold so much that you deflate the batter. One reason slightly softer egg whites works for this sponge cake is because a considerable amount of air is beaten into the yolks as well.

Corn syrup in the ganache: I’m definitely not a fan of gratuitously sweetened things or artificially-enhanced foods. So, with a lot of buzz, lately, about high fructose corn syrup, you might be wondering why it’s necessary to put corn syrup in a ganache topping. First, be assured that corn IMG_6556syrup is not the same is high fructose corn syrup. The HFCS is highly-processed to convert dextrose into fructose, making for a very unnaturally concentrated sweetener that’s difficult for your body to digest all at once. GMO concerns aside (buy organic corn syrup if it’s available), regular corn syrup is as safe for you to eat in moderation as honey, maple syrup, or sugar. In this recipe, the corn syrup serves primarily to give the ganache the correct finished texture while simultaneously sweetening the bittersweet chocolate and cream. The end result is a satiny smooth coating that doesn’t turn into a hard, crackly shell but also doesn’t remain a dribbling mess, running off the cake completely.

IMG_6558Spread out the work: While it’s entirely possible you could make this recipe from start to finish in one day, why put yourself through the hassle of coordinating cooling times and messing up several pots, bowls, whisks, etc.? You’ll note the assembled cake should be served within a day, but the individual components can be made ahead. For James’ birthday, I made the pastry cream the day before so it could be chilled and completely thickened. That gave me plenty of time on the big day to make the cake, cool the layers, and do the easy bit of assembly.

Boston Cream Pie
Adapted from Baking Illustrated
Serves 8

    Pastry Cream:
    2 cups half-and-half
    1/2 cup granulated sugar, divided
    1/8 teaspoon salt
    5 large egg yolks
    3 tablespoons cornstarch
    4 tablespoon cold unsalted butter (cut into four pieces)
    1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla paste (or vanilla extract)

    Sponge Cake:
    1/2 cup cake flour
    1/4 cup all-purpose four, plus additional for dusting pans
    1 teaspoon baking powder
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    3 tablespoons milk
    2 tablespoons unsalted butter
    1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
    5 large eggs, at room temperature
    3/4 cup granulated sugar, divided

    Chocolate Ganache:
    1 cup heavy cream
    1/4 cup corn syrup
    8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces

    For the pastry cream: In a medium saucepan, heat the half-and-half, 6 tablespoons of the sugar, and salt over medium heat until just simmering; stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks until thoroughly combined; whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar until mixture is creamy and sugar has dissolved. Whisk in the cornstarch until combined and mixture is thickened and a pale yellow (about another 30 seconds).

    When the half-and-half mixture reaches a full simmer, gradually whisk the entire mixture into the yolk mixture by pouring in a thin stream while whisking constantly to temper the eggs. Return the mixture to the saucepan; simmer over medium heat, whisking constantly, until a few bubbles burst on the surface and the mixture is thickened and glossy (about 30 seconds). Off the heat, whisk in the chilled butter and vanilla paste. Strain the pastry cream through a fine-mesh sieve set over a medium bowl. Press plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming; refrigerate at least 3 hours or up to 2 days.

    For the sponge cake: Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and preheat the oven to 350-degrees. Lightly butter or grease two 9-inch round cake pans; cover the bottoms with parchment rounds, lightly grease the parchment rounds, and then dust pans lightly with flour, tapping out excess.

    In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In a small microwavable bowl, heat the milk and butter for about 20-30 seconds in the microwave until butter melts (do not boil); add the vanilla and set aside.

    Separate 3 of the eggs, placing the whites in a medium mixing bowl; reserve the 3 yolks and the remaining 2 whole eggs in a large mixing bowl. Beat the 3 whites at low speed until foamy; increase the mixer speed and gradually add 6 tablespoons of the sugar, beating until soft peaks form (do not overbeat). Add the remaining 6 tablespoons of sugar to the whole-egg mixture in the large bowl; beat at medium-high speed until eggs are very thick and a pale yellow color and sugar dissolves (about 5 minutes). Add the beaten whites to the whole-egg mixture.

    Sprinkle the flour mixture over the egg mixture; fold very gently with a large rubber spatula. Pour the milk mixture into one side of the bowl. Continue folding until no trace of flour remains and the mixture is uniform.

    Immediately pour the batter into the prepared cake pans, spreading to the edges with an offset spatula. Bake at 350-degrees until cake tops are light brown and spring back slightly when touched (about 15-18 minutes). Immediately run a knife or spatula around the pan perimeters to loosen cakes. Gently invert the cakes onto a flat plate or a small wire rack, remove the parchment round, reinvert the layers onto racks to cool to room temperature.

    For the chocolate ganache: When the cake layers have cooled to room temperature, bring the cream and corn syrup to a full simmer in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Remove from the heat and add the chopped chocolate; cover loosely and let stand for 8 minutes. Stir the mixture until the chocolate is completely melted and mixture is smooth. If lumps of unmelted chocolate remain, place the mixture over lowest heat setting and stir constantly just until melted. To thicken the ganache for glazing, cool the mixture at room temperature until lukewarm and a spoonful drizzled back into the pan mounds slightly.

    To assemble the “pie”: When the ganache is nearly cooled, place one cake layer on a cardboard round set over parchment. Carefully spoon the pastry cream onto the top of the layer, spreading evenly up to the edges, leaving about 1/2- to a 1/4-inch border. Place the second cake layer on top gently, making sure the layers’ sides line up evenly. Once aligned, press the top layer down gently to bring the pastry cream to the edges but not oozing out. Using a ladle or large spoon, pour the ganache onto the middle of the top layer, spreading in circles, eventually letting the ganache flow down the sides. If necessary, use a metal spatula to coat the sides evenly. Refrigerate the cake in a covered container until the ganache fully sets (about 1 hour). Serve the same day or preferably within a few hours.

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For a dessert concept so simple — pastry cream slathered between two sponge cake layers and then covered with chocolate — this was a birthday cake so over-the-top we still refer to it fondly even weeks later! The pastry cream was decadently creamy and vanilla-y without being too sweet or runny to stay put. The sponge cake was light enough to not smash out all the pastry cream and yet imparted a nice flavor rather than being a silent partner. The ganache basically sealed the deal — cementing together both the structure and the taste of this simple yet puzzling dessert.

Here I have to admit to complete photographic failure. I was in such a hurry to slice it up and dig into a slice, that I forgot to take a photo of the finished whole cake. It would’ve been ideal to show you IMG_6577the finished product, right? Halfway through slicing, James asked me if I’d taken a photo… sigh how will this be a bloggable recipe now?! In my celebratory/salivatory state, I snapped this photo of a half-sliced Boston Cream Pie — I didn’t even make sure it was a good photo before continuing toward ganache-covered bliss. I am officially ashamed and will try to do better in the future, regardless of what tempting morsel is before me.

Thankfully, “birthday boy” was once again pleased with his cake selection and another memorable cake recipe has been filed into our rotation. In case you were curious, here’s a rundown of James’ birthday cakes since 2010:

2012: Red Velvet Cake
2011: Peanut Butter-Chocolate Chip Layer Cake w/Roasted Peanut Buttercream
2010: Italian Cream Cake

Spring Vegetable Risotto

•June 1, 2013 • 10 Comments

IMG_6520In my many musings about the seasons, I’ve often expressed how spring and autumn have so many things in common — more than they ought since they essentially head in two opposite directions. Autumn gives way to winter, a time of dormancy and quiet while spring gives way to the boisterous green frenzy of summer. What they have most in common, I think, is the sneakiness of their arrival (usually a snail’s pace) and the hastiness of their departure. Like the rapidly departing beauty of autumn’s leaves and the remnants of the year’s harvest, spring’s vivid flowers and tender blossoms are usually gone within a week or two.

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Thankfully, the cherry and apple blossoms were given their time to shine, this spring (unlike last spring). James and I — for the first time ever — were able to take a drive out into the county to witness the orchards being transformed into billowy, cloud-like clusters of fragrant blooms floating IMG_6517over green meadows blanketed with patches of sparkling yellow dandelions. It’s official: we will compare all future springs to this one!

The orchards were not the only fragrant and flowery places surrounding us. Our own woods were overflowing with graceful trillium, trout lilies, and dutchman’s breeches. This spring, we spent a little more time than usual in our woods. Rather than soaking in the quiet and peacefulness, though, we were also seeking some special, spring culinary delights: ramps and morels. It turned out to be a perfect season for both, and we were ever so delighted with the bounty just beyond our doorstep. With some cloth bags, a paring knife, a trowel, a pitchfork, and our favorite feline escort, we headed off into our woods to forage for these special spring treats.

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Morels, with their dark, earthy taste, are a prized find in the woods, and take quite a bit of practice to spot and confidently identify. So treasured and unique are their taste, IMG_6484most recipes for them have only a few ingredients — nothing is added that would take away from the mushrooms themselves.

Meanwhile, ramps (some folks call them wild leeks) tend to be more abundant and lend themselves to a wider variety of uses in the kitchen. They are becoming more and more popular — so popular that foragers are warned not to over harvest them. Harvesting is pretty easy. Using a trowel, spade, or pitchfork, you dig around the base of a group of ramps, loosen the soil, and then they just pop right out. You should always leave at least half of the ramps behind, never harvesting an entire group. This way, you’ll be sure to have more to harvest next spring. From there, preparing them to use in recipes is exactly like preparing scallions: remove any thick/dirty skin from the bulb portion, discard any damaged greens, trim off the root ends, and wash thoroughly to remove sand and grit.

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Whether eaten raw or cooked, their taste is somewhere between leek and garlic with just a hint of spiciness (or you might say wildness). Like scallions and leeks, their white, bulbous bottoms have the most concentrated flavor, but the greens of ramps are also mildly oniony, taking on IMG_6531spinach-like taste and texture when cooked. So, unlike leeks, ramps are pretty much a zero-waste vegetable.

One of our favorite uses for ramps is to simply chop about 1/2 cup each of the greens and the bulbs and then stir them into an 8-ounce block of softened neufchatel or cream cheese (no need for added salt or any other seasonings). Put this mixture in a covered container and let the flavors meld overnight and you have an excellent filling for omelets, the perfect schmear on an English muffin or bagel… the possibilities are endless!

With such a glorious spring underway, before all the ramps had faded and disappeared beneath the canopy, we were able to pair them with another spring treat: locally-grown asparagus.

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Method to the Madness

The secret to getting all the flavor possible from both the asparagus and the ramps is hidden inside the vegetable stock. Rather than discarding the tough ends of the asparagus and the IMG_6541plentiful greens of the ramps, they’re simmered into the vegetable broth, extracting tons of flavor while enabling you to not overcook the rest of the vegetables used in the risotto.

Though it involves a lot of stirring, risotto is one of the easiest “fancy” dishes you could ever put on your table. If cooking rice is usually something that intimidates you, your worries are over — it’s nearly impossible to mess this up! The key is to cook only over medium heat (too hot, and IMG_6529you might scorch the bottom), and add only a little stock at a time after the initial large amount is cooked away.

Cooks will always disagree on the ideal texture for risotto — be it soupy or stiff. So, I’ll not pretend to have a definitive answer. We prefer it to be somewhere in between soupy and stiff — soupy enough that you get the creaminess of the arborio rice and melted Parmesan in every bite, but stiff enough that each grain of rice has just the eensiest bit of texture to it. The beauty of risotto is it can easily be adjusted to your personal preferences for consistency by adding a bit more stock or cooking just a bit longer until the stock is absorbed.

Spring Vegetable Risotto
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Light & Healthy
Serves 4

    Gremolata:
    2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley (stems reserved)
    2 tablespoons minced fresh mint (stems reserved)
    1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
    1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

    Vegetable Stock:
    1 pound asparagus (tough ends trimmed and reserved)
    1 pound ramps or leeks, greens reserved, remaining parts sliced thinly
    4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
    3 cups water

    Risotto:
    1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, divided
    1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
    1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
    1/2 cup frozen peas
    2 garlic cloves, minced
    1 1/2 cups arborio rice
    1 cup dry white wine
    1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
    1 tablespoon unsalted butter
    2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

    To make the gremolata: Combine the minced parsley, mint, olive oil, and lemon zest in a small bowl; set aside.

    To make the vegetable stock: Chop the tough asparagus ends and ramp greens coarsely. Bring the asparagus ends, ramp greens, vegetable broth, and water to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain the stock through a fine-mesh strainer into a medium bowl, pressing the solids with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the solids. Return the stock to the saucepan, cover, and set over low heat to keep warm.

    To make the risotto: Slice the asparagus spears diagonally into 1/2-inch pieces. Heat 2 teaspoons of the olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add the asparagus spears, 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper; cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp-tender (4-6 minutes). Add the peas; cook until heated through (about 1 minute). Transfer the vegetable mixture to a plate; set aside.

    Combine the remaining teaspoon of olive oil, sliced ramps, 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper in the Dutch oven; cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened (4-8 minutes). Uncover and increase the heat to medium. Stir in the rice and cook, stirring constantly, until the ends of the kernels are transparent (2-3 minutes). Stir in the wine and cook until it has been completely absorbed.

    Stir in 3 cups of the hot vegetable stock and continue simmering, stirring about once a minute, until the stock is absorbed and the bottom of the pan is almost dry (about 12 minutes). Stir in 1/2 cup more vegetable stock every few minutes as needed to keep the pan bottom from drying out and until the rice is al dente (10-12 minutes). You may have up to 1 1/2 cups of vegetable stock left over.

    Off the heat, stir in the cheese, butter, lemon juice, and a large pinch of the prepared gremolata; gently fold in the vegetable mixture. Serve immediately, sprinkling each portion with the remaining gremolata.

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This risotto is rich and creamy enough to be a stand-alone dinner dish, but it’s actually quite light and healthful — especially with the hefty dose of spring vegetables. It’s probably one of the simplest ways to get a bold taste of the brief season of spring on your dinner plate.

Green & Gold

•May 17, 2013 • 11 Comments

IMG_6473I can’t seem to stop comparing this spring to last spring — running over and over in my mind how much more beautiful this spring is. Last spring was a train wreck — a fickle brat arriving early, tearing through the wild leaving a swath of frozen blossoms, burnt foliage, distressed trees. This spring is like an elegant beauty, slowly descending the long staircase in her gauzy gown of green and gold, sprinkling white, purple, and buttery yellow flowers as she goes.

In these days of mid-spring when the trees are finally waking up, you can stand at the window and practically see the buds unfurling, pouring out streams of gold and green, filling the grey and brown void of the forest.

Unlike last spring when we were stressing about getting the garden up and running in time to hopefully latch onto the heels of spring, we’ve been afforded time to observe, explore, and even be inspired by the season. One recent morning, on a trip out to check on the peas, onions, and potatoes in the garden, I glanced over to the south end of our property and noticed — maybe for the first time — a pleasant little wooded knoll in the distance, along the edge of our ravine.

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In the morning, the sun lit the wispy new leaves like a jeweled crown hanging above the ground. But, when I came back out in the late afternoon, the setting sun shone light upon the forest floor, sending light rushing in a different direction. The hill seemed to be lit from within — sending shadows flying in every direction, and beckoning your feet to stroll through the glowing branches.

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I couldn’t resist interrupting James’ work to pull him outside and have him walk over the ridge with me to the spot. I was worried it’d be like trying to find the end of the rainbow or running barefoot toward a mirage, your toes never quite reaching it before it disappears or moves.

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But, no, the light stayed put. We walked over the ridge, through the invading army of sumac, and stood there in this magnificent cathedral of soaring maple and ironwood, carpeted by trillium, wild leeks, and the lush brown shag carpeting of last autumn’s leaves. The sunlight from the closing of a beautiful spring day lit the newly-formed leaves like so many glistening bits of stained glass.

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James and I decided to turn this place into a special little nook — a place to come and not just watch the sunset, but to be inside of it, somehow, letting the light of it pass all around you as it disappears over the horizon. We’ve got a little bit of work to do, of course, to make it a bit more hospitable — a few trees we need to “branch up” to avoid head-on collisions, maybe a light path to mark out — but that will come in time. What a joy to find a vantage point and a few moments to witness and feel the wholeness of spring before it gives way to summer.

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As I Live and Weed

•May 7, 2013 • 7 Comments

“We love our gardens so much it hurts. For their sake we’ll bend over till our backs ache, yanking out fistfulls of quackgrass by the roots as if we are tearing out the hair of the world. We lead our favorite hoe like a dance partner down one long row and up the next, in a dance marathon that leaves us exhausted…

– Barbara Kingsolver, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”

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Could it be anything other than love that enables someone to look upon a scene of such has-been and utter ruin and manage to see potential? It’s just one of the many questions I’ve had time to ponder while slowly turning this scene from plant graveyard to garden all over again. Granted, things might’ve been easier had I taken the time, last fall, to strip all the wearied plants out of the beds rather than waiting until the first snow came, ending all chances of my entering the garden for several months. Lesson learned!

The good news: not all the green you see in that photo is weeds! All of our perennials we started from seed, last year, survived to see the sun again! In fact, many of them are noticeably stockier and hardier already.

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The bad news: quackgrass never sleeps; no, not even in winter beneath two feet of snow. Still, we gave it such a beating, last year, its persistence this year is not so much menacing as it is just annoying.

Other than ripping out practically petrified remains of taller-than-me sunflowers, sweet corn, and the knee-high gnarled stems of peppers and tomatoes, I’ve mainly been busy readying the soil for this year’s garden and — for the first time in my gardening experience — getting some spring crops planted.

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Last year, our fence wasn’t completed until the last week of May and — even then — the garden was still just tilled soil, waiting to be given form and shaped into beds. Now IMG_6457that all of that’s already out of the way, we’ve got onion sets planted and sprouting, potatoes planted, peas sown and beginning to sprout, and a first-round sowing of mustard greens, collard greens, lettuce, spinach, kale, and radishes.

Most of the work in the garden, thus far, hasn’t been so photogenic. But, inside our “plant room” where the grow lights have been glowing since mid-February, there’s all sorts of infantile greenery to amuse and delight. As the days get longer and warmer, more and more seedlings are lining the shelves, taking up real estate beneath the lights and demanding my undivided attention.

Since we had more shelving space, this year, I took it upon myself to start most of our flower seedlings rather than buying so many annuals at the local nurseries. I like having choices I can’t find at garden centers, but flowers can be a lot needier than vegetables when starting from seed: 1) Some seedlings require light to germinate and so can’t be covered with soil and therefore require frequent misting if there’s any hope of seeing a sprout or two; 2) Many tend to grow at a staggeringly slow pace, so they’re often started in the depths of winter and kept on life support for months until it’s finally safe to transplant them outside. There have been some frustrating moments, but I’m hoping we’ll have blooms enough to make up for all the hassle come midsummer.

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From top to bottom: German Chamomile, Four O’Clock, Calendula, and Cobaea Vine.

There has been no shortage of complaints from folks on the peninsula about spring being slow or delayed, this year. Tempting as it’s been to join in, I’ve found it hard to complain, honestly. It did take longer than I’d like for the snow to be completely gone from the garden, but Winter 2012 was hardly a winter at all (half the usual snowfall), and spring was a nightmare which led to zero cherries and several other fruit crops, followed by a near-drought that summer! Fast spring? No thanks!

No, we can’t complain. The days have been getting warmer and warmer all the time, and even the forest has been waking up gradually. Our front garden, too (the one we didn’t plant ourselves), has been coming to life over the past three weeks.

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With the longer days and all that time I’ve been spending out in the fresh air, I’ve had lots of time to take in the spring wildflowers we’ve missed since last year. The light of a spring morning shining through the sparkling leaf buds of maples, aspens, and then illuminating all the colorful flowers is such a welcome sight and a contrast to the predictable color palette of winter. You hate to think spitefully of winter, but spring wins you over every year.

I think spring wildflowers are especially interesting since they’re always in such a hurry. In just a short time, they have to push their way through last fall’s layer of fallen leaves, grow strong stems and leaves, and manage to produce enough flowers to reproduce all before the forest canopy fully unfurls and shades out all of the sun for another year. To look at them, you’d never tell they lived such stressful lives!

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Since the warm-up has been gradual, this year, the flowers have been longer lasting and more plentiful — especially the trout lilies. Each morning, the flowers open and — by noon — have turned themselves nearly inside out, only to slowly close up again by evening. They’re fun to watch.

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With our calendars and our schedules, it’s so tempting to try and pin spring down as if we could make an appointment to enjoy it. Like autumn, spring is scarcely here before it’s gone. With each passing day, the changes are growing faster and faster, heading toward that frenzy of summer when all of nature is a free-for-all and (hopefully) the garden will be full of life once again.

A March Hangover

•April 4, 2013 • 19 Comments

“That’s why God created the month of March:

to show people who don’t drink what a hangover feels like.”

– Garrison Keillor

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If you’ve followed our blog for more than a year, you’ve likely noticed I tend to fall silent in the blogosphere every March. Admittedly, I don’t do this on purpose; in fact, I actually strive to defeat this trend every year and vow to do better next time. And yet, here we are again, the first week of April and I’ve not posted a single thing since mid-February.

When I lived in more southerly climes, my “March” was actually IMG_6401February, but the effect was still the same. The weather stagnates and takes your mind with it. Winter — its body in traction, weakened by the approach of spring — litters the landscape with damp hankies, puddles, and unsightly debris. Spring — the sneaky victor — creeps along in the background, tidying things at a pace almost imperceptible to winter weary eyes. Meanwhile, from his death bed, winter is boring you yet again with another long tale of ice and cold — the magic of which is now completely lost on you after so many repetitions.

And, of course, there’s the man-made tyranny of Daylight Saving Time to contend with. The sandman, himself, coming to tax your mind, exacting from you an hour of slumber in exchange for nothing so early after the spring equinox. I still assert Daylight Saving Time is a delusion put in place to please the impatient — an argument I hold onto as tightly as my extra-large mug of coffee while staring out into total darkness on a Monday morning in DST, knowing somewhere else in the world someone’s smiling at the sheer novelty IMG_6402of enjoying dinner before the sun has gone down. Meanwhile, I’ll be lucky to be conscious by dinner!

Fighting off a March hangover, this year, has been no less a challenge than in years past. James and I have been doing our best to celebrate each and every tiny sign of spring we manage to spot — the little patch of crocuses on the front lawn, the heroic blades of grass popping up at the edge of the woods right in front of the foot-and-a-half snow embankment. I’ve also been busy working on various indoor projects since the outdoors are famously inhospitable this time of year with winter and spring carrying on simultaneously.

This winter has been a particularly fruitful period for me in the sewing room. Since late-November, I’ve completed 3 projects. You can read about one of them on my Other Exploits page. My most recent one — my largest project to date — is a throw for our living room sofa.

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Since our living room is full of windows, the outdoors determines our color palette as much as our furniture. With that in mind, I had James help me pick out a color scheme that would fit in our living room no matter the season. The pattern I chose was called “Bits & Pieces.” Thankfully, I managed to use lots of small bits of fabric that I’ve collected over the past few years. Of course, as is the way in quilting, I also managed to acquire some new fabric in the process.

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Now that it’s done and all the patches have been sewn into place, I can see it’s the perfect size for a generous throw — large enough that you can completely wrap yourself up in it without worrying about your feet being neglected. Plus, it’ll help protect the back of our sofa from wear and tear — especially since our giant, orange cat (Ollie) has annexed it as his own territory. Of course, since I only have a regular-sized sewing machine and I’m a novice quilter, I’m not going to attempt to quilt this giant thing on my wee IMG_6389machine. I’m in the process of finding someone with a longarm quilting machine to make fast work of the finishing touches for me.

Meanwhile, I’ve kept busy in the kitchen tinkering with various new recipes and trying some new things like these tasty pancakes we had recently; but I’ve not really hit on any recipes that sparked my excitement enough to blog about them. Instead I’ve made notes for improving and vowed to return to them at a later date. This might be owing more to my March “hangover” than the actual results of my cooking!

Lastly, our little greenhouse room is at last housing a few seedlings. It does feel strange to be mixing up germinating mix and planting seeds when there’s almost no visible soil to speak of, outside, but spring is already upon is. We’re looking forward to sweeping off the front porch, sitting in the shade of a sunny May afternoon, listening to a cool breeze sweep through newly green leaves in the surrounding trees. These sluggish days of early spring will seem a distant memory by then.

Happy Mardi Gras

•February 11, 2013 • 9 Comments

IMG_6374Maybe it’s the occasional isolation and frequent darkness of a Northern Michigan winter that makes the idea of a dinner party so appealing round about February. If so, it must have been on the evening of a new moon when James and I decided to have not only a dinner party but a full-blown Mardi Gras Party.

James flipped through our photo albums from trips to visit my family in Louisiana to create invitations, inviting all of our neighbors — some of whom we’d not yet had the opportunity to meet. He also sought out endless bundles of purple, gold, and green beads, doubloons, masks, and other carnival finery.

What was my job in all this? The food, of course! I went through my trusty recipe binders for some tried-and-true favorites. We also found some new gems online that only needed just a little spicing up. Before I knew it, we had quite the menu assembled.

Appetizers
Maple-Spiced Pecans
Mini Muffalettas
Smoked Paprika-Glazed Andouille
Louisiana Crab Cakes
Cajun Rémoulade Sauce

Entrées
Chicken & Turkey Andouille Gumbo
Chef John Folse’s Creole Jambalaya
Louisiana-Style Red Beans & Ham

Side Dishes
Okra Creole
Maque Choux
Steamed Basmati Rice

Desserts
King Cake with Cream Cheese Filling
King Cake with Pecan Praline Filling

Cooking Louisiana Style


Louisiana cooking — whether it’s Cajun, Creole, or just plain ol’ southern cooking — can sometimes call for ingredients or techniques that are less familiar once you travel north of the Mason-Dixon line. Allow me to briefly attempt to demystify a few points:

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Spiciness is not a hallmark of Cajun or Creole cuisine — Regardless of what you may’ve heard, this is pure myth. Some people may be fond of dousing their plate with Tabasco or dusting everything with IMG_6358ground cayenne, but that’s all done according to individual tastes. Typically, dishes are served up with just a sneaky hint of spiciness and it’s left up to the recipient to season their portion to taste.

Cast Iron Cookware – While not a requirement, good solid cast iron goes a long way in making the flavors, textures, and overall cooking experience come alive. Cast iron’s heat retention, resilience, and natural non-stick patina can make caramelizing, sautéing, and even simmering easier without any added chemicals or teflon coatings. If you don’t have cast iron, you’ll want to use a heavy-bottomed pot or skillet whenever cast iron is IMG_6383called for, otherwise the food may scorch or burn or you’ll possibly damage your cookware.

Salt-Free Cajun Seasoning Blend – While you can readily find Cajun spice blends in the supermarket, these days, I find that most of them contain salt — and way too much of it. There are also some newer ones that contain a sort of salt substitute that tastes rather vile. So, if you prefer to purchase a ready-made spice blend, be sure it doesn’t contain salt if you’ll be using it in the recipes I’ve posted in this blog. The easier alternative is to mix up a batch at home where you can be in total control of the salt. You can find my recipe here.

Andouille Sausage – This Cajun sausage has become so popular in recent years, you’re likely IMG_6340to find it either pre-packaged near the other sausages or in the meat case at your supermarket. While I love the smokiness and spiciness of andouille, you can substitute a milder sausage if you wish. We’ve even had success using turkey kielbasa!

Ham Bone – Don’t throw out that bone after your Christmas or Easter dinner! Instead, wrap it and put it in the freezer for later or toss it right into a pot to make the flavorful recipe I’ve posted below. If you don’t happen to have a ham bone, you can usually find smoked ham hocks in the meat section at your supermarket. IMG_6385If you really want to kick up the smoky flavor, you could use two hocks.

Cane Syrup – Before the advent of corn syrup and even before molasses there was cane syrup. It’s basically the dark and sweet juices from sugar cane cooked until they’re reduced to a thick and potent syrup that’s distinctively southern. While I don’t put it on my pancakes the way my paw paw often does, the taste is like molasses and yet noticeably rawer. Whenever we’re on a visit to Louisiana, I make sure I pick up a giant jar of cane syrup and a giant jar of unsulphured sorghum molasses.

Want to join in the Mardi Gras fun? Here’s a sampling of recipes from our Mardi Gras buffet:

Maple-Spiced Pecans
A Tales of Thyme & Place Original
Serves 6-8

    2/3 cup maple syrup (Grade B is best)
    1/2 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
    1/8 teaspoon ground chipotle (or cayenne)
    1/8 teaspoon sea salt
    IMG_638412 ounces pecan halves

    Cover a large work surface with a length of parchment paper.

    In a 10-12 inch heavy-bottomed or cast iron skillet, combine the maple syrup, five-spice powder, chipotle, and salt; stir until spices are incorporated into the syrup. Add the pecan halves; stir to coat.

    Turn the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until all of the syrup has crystallized onto the pecans. Remove skillet from heat and pour hot pecans immediately onto prepared work surface. Using the wooden spoon, separate the halves, as necessary, to prevent clumping. Allow to cool completely. Can be stored in an airtight container for 2-3 weeks.

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Cajun Rémoulade
Adapted from Coastal Living
Serves approximately 24

    1/2 cup chopped celery
    1/2 cup chopped green onions (white parts included)
    1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
    4 cloves garlic
    1 cup olive oil-based mayonnaise
    1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
    1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika (or additional paprika)
    2 tablespoons drained capers
    2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
    1 tablespoon Creole or Dijon mustard
    1 tablespoon low-sodium ketchup
    1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
    1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
    1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
    1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce
    1/2 teaspoon sea salt

    In the bowl of a food processor, combine the chopped celery, green onions, parsley, and garlic; pulse until finely chopped. Remove mixture and place in a small sieve to drain away any excess liquid.

    In the food processor bowl, add the remaining ingredients and process until smooth. Add the celery mixture and process again until smooth, scraping down sides as necessary. Pour into a glass or non-reactive stainless steel bowl; cover and refrigerate. Serve chilled as a vegetable dip or as a topping for crab cakes. (Also makes a snazzy sandwich condiment.)

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Okra Creole
Adapted from Southern Living
Serves 4-6

IMG_63433 slices bacon, chopped finely
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup chopped green bell pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
16 ounces frozen sliced okra
1 cup frozen corn kernels
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt-free Cajun seasoning blend (recipe here)
1/4-1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt (to taste)

    Cook chopped bacon in a Dutch oven until crisp; remove bacon with a slotted spoon. To the drippings, add the chopped onion, celery, bell pepper, and parsley; sauté for 3 minutes or until onions are translucent.

    Add the remaining 5 ingredients (okra through salt) and cook over medium-high heat until vegetables have thawed and mixture is bubbling. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer 15 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Stir in the crisped bacon. Serve over rice, if desired.

IMG_6369

Maque Choux
Adapted from Southern Living
Serves 6

IMG_63481 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces andouille sausage
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 cup chopped celery (2-3 stalks)
1 bay leaf
3 cups frozen or fresh corn kernels (thawed)
2 plum tomatoes, diced
1 teaspoon salt-free Cajun seasoning blend (recipe here)
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black papper

    Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until shimmering; add the andouille and sauté until lightly brown, remove with a slotted spoon. To the drippings in the skillet add the onion, bell pepper, celery, and bay leaf; sauté 8 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

    Stir in the corn, diced tomatoes, browned andouille, and Cajun seasoning blend; cook, stirring occasionally, 15 minutes or until tomatoes have broken down and most of the liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat, stir in the green onions, salt, and pepper.

IMG_6339

Louisiana-Style Red Beans & Ham
A Tales of Thyme & Place Original
Serves 6-8

IMG_63231 pound dried red kidney beans
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 large red bell pepper, finely chopped
1/2 large green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 cup finely chopped celery
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon salt-free Cajun seasoning blend (recipe here)
2 whole bay leaves
1 large ham bone or 1-2 small smoked ham hocks
4 ounces lean baked ham, chopped

    Soak beans in cold water overnight, if desired; drain and rinse.

    Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the red and green bell pepper, onion, and celery. Sauté, stirring occasionally, for 5-7 minutes or until onions are translucent and vegetables are soft. Add the garlic, Cajun seasoning blend, and bay leaves; stir constantly for 30 seconds or until fragrant.

    Add the ham bone, beans, and enough water to cover the beans (beans should be covered by about 1-2″ but the ham bone may not be fully covered). Bring to a rolling boil; stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to a moderate simmer and partially cover. Stir occasionally and check periodically to see if more water is necessary (you may need to add about a cup, gradually).

    When beans are tender, remove about 1 cup of them and a small bit of the cooking liquid and mash together in a small bowl until a paste is formed. Stir the paste back into the pot and add the chopped ham; add salt to taste (beans will likely be salted enough from the ham bone). Lower the heat to simmer and cover until ready to serve (remove ham bone and bay leaves before serving). Serve over rice and/or with a side of corn bread.

IMG_6361

Pecan Praline Filling for King Cake
A Tales of Thyme & Place Original
Serves 14-20

IMG_63814 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 tablespoon cane syrup (molasses can be substituted)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup sucanat (or dark brown sugar)
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup chopped pecans, toasted

    Refer to my recipe for King Cake for instructions on rolling out the dough for filling.

    Using your fingers, spread the softened butter in an even path down the center of the dough strip leaving a 2-inch border on all sides. In a small bowl, combine the cane syrup and vanilla; drizzle syrup mixture down the center of the butter path. In a small bowl, combine the sucanat, cinnamon, and salt; spinkle the sucanat mixture atop the butter and syrup mixture. Sprinkle the chopped pecans evenly over the strip. Fold one long side of the strip over the filling stopping just short of the end of the strip. Very carefully, pinch the long seam together to seal in the filling. On both ends, fold the dough carefully and pinch to seal.

    Bend the strip to form a large U-shape. Form a twist then form the twist into a large ring. Pinch the ends together carefully (do not let filling escape). Place the ring onto a parchment-covered baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and then cover with a kitchen towel and place in a warm place to rise for 45 minutes or until doubled in size.

    Bake the cake as instructed in the King Cake recipe.

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Of course, for entertainment, we had a few special guests stop in: Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Fats Domino, Harry Connick Jr., Beau Soleil, and many others. They kept our feet tapping all evening while we chit-chatted and ate our fill, the perfect backdrop for such a Louisiana feast.

The snow was over a foot high just outside the door, but you wouldn’t have known that with a bowl of gumbo in one hand and a hurricane in the other. So many flavors and friends gathered on one evening, winter briefly melted away, and we were all passengers in a street car passing beneath the leafy canopy of oaks in the Garden District. Hopefully all of our guests were as transported as we were.

 
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