Friday, December 19, 2014

Cookiemaggedon - 2014 Edition

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Happy Advent, everyone! Silence, silence, silence and then WHAM-O!!! Mega update in one night. That’s how I roll. It's been too busy to write amidst all the baking (except for all the catching up I just did). But I am very happy to report (from my desk, listening to jazz holiday on Pandora while the world sleeps) that I am now in the post-apocalyptic phase of cookiemaggedon wherein I am actively foisting cookies upon hapless visitors and friends. The real point of making hundreds of dozens of cookies (not exaggerating) was to create  nice, thoughtful gifts for my husband's sales clients. Translated for you: 29 platters of cookies to give away (plus 7 plates to keep for our own numerous Christmas functions, 2 packages to mail to out-of-town siblings, 3 plates for classroom parties, and 7 plates to give to wonderful neighbors new and old).

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I made 13 varieties of cookies over a period of 9 days. Not going to lie - it was intense. And intensely messy. A few dozen cookies got burnt. By the end, I was an oven-mitt-wearing, floury-be-aproned kitchen zombie. There were probably pecan bits and coconut flakes in my hair, but my hands had never felt more moisturized after rolling and cutting out about a million buttery cookies. Delicious... Buttery... Cookies...

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The 2014 line-up, hyperlinked for your convenience (the starred ones are new to me this year!):

Rolled and cut out cookies:
My family favorite Sugar Cookies
Classic Gingerbread

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Shaped cookies:
Cranberry Ribbon Icebox Cookies
Split Second Cookies (aka Jam Logs - some apricot and some serviceberry from our trees)

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Bar cookies:
*Raspberry Coconut Magic Bars
Magic Cookie Bars (though I only made them with 6 layers this year... No pecans)
*English Toffee Bars

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Drop cookies:
Gingerbread Drop Cookies (I will add more molasses next year so they aren’t the spiced twin of the PB cookies)
Mint Chocolate Chip Sugar Cookies
*Soft Peanut Butter Cookies
Natalie’s Chocolate Crinkles

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No bake cookies:
*Coconut Pecan Pralines
*Mint Oreo Bark

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Folks, THAT WAS A LOT OF COOKIES! But they were all scrumptious. My underdog favorite turned out to be the Pralines. Too good. Had to give them away! If you like German chocolate cake with The Frosting... Well... Mom and Dad, you'll love them.

I feel very happy and proud to have accomplished such a monumental task. Of course, as is always the case, other aspects of  life suffered… and there was a little bit of cookie snitching and hiding under TV tray tables… but overall it was a good BIG experience for me and filled my need for creativity in the absence of other, less-edible pursuits. And hopefully these small but numerous labors of love will be enjoyed thoroughly my husband’s clients as well as our family and friends.

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Snitched cookies are guilty pleasures.  Sneaking pictures of snitching munchkins… totally guilt-free!

No-Bake Coconut Pecan Pralines

My new favorite no-bake cookie! And gluten-free, if that’s your thing :)

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Coconut Pecan Pralines

Ingredients
  • 2-1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup evaporated milk
  • 1/2 cup corn syrup
  • 1 stick salted butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2-1/2 cups chopped pecans
  • 2 cups sweetened shredded coconut
Directions

1. In a medium sized bowl, combine coconut and pecans; set aside.

2. In a heavy saucepan over medium high heat, stir sugar, evaporated milk, corn syrup and butter. Cook and stir until mixture comes to a full rolling boil -- let boil and stir for 3 minutes.

3. Remove pan from heat and stir in vanilla and coconut and pecan mixture. Stir off the heat for about 4 minutes, until mixture starts to cool and thicken.

4. Drop by large spoonfuls on wax paper (small cookie scoops work well). Let harden completely – a couple hours-- before serving or storing.

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English Toffee Bars

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English Toffee Bars

Ingredients
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup pecan halves
  • ⅔ cup butter
  • ⅓ cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Chips
Directions

1. Heat oven to 350°F.

2. Combine flour and brown sugar in bowl of your food processor. Add butter and process until fine crumbs form. Press mixture onto bottom of ungreased 13x9x2-inch baking pan. Sprinkle pecans over crust. Prepare toffee topping; drizzle evenly over pecans and crust.

3. Bake 20 to 22 minutes or until topping is bubbly and golden; remove from oven. Immediately sprinkle milk chocolate chips evenly over top; press gently onto surface. Cool completely in pan on wire rack. Cut into bars.

TOFFEE TOPPING: Combine 2/3 cup butter and 1/3 cup packed light brown sugar in small saucepan; cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a boil. Continue boiling, stirring constantly, 30 seconds. Use immediately.

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Cranberry Ribbon Icebox Cookies

I adapted this amazing recipe from a site called From My Sweet Heart, only because I was too lazy to type out the recipe shared with me by the Tholen family. My generous and fun college roommate was the lucky recipient of a care package from her mom one year near finals, and it contained some of these… I don’t think I had ever eaten anything rivaling my love of chocolate before then, but we agreed that these cookies were IT. And still are. Thanks for that care package, Mama Tholen!!
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I wanted to use only cranberry instead of the cherry preserves (which I did not have on hand, unlike the 4 pounds of fresh cranberries), so I made my own cranberry preserves to substitute (in case that suits your needs too). Pretty sure the jam recipe I used is here on Popsugar. I used some and put some up in jars some for the future. Tasty!
This recipe is so delicious and makes such pretty cookies, but it makes you work. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
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Cranberry Ribbon Icebox Cookies
Ingredients
  • 2 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt
  • 3/4 cup of sugar
  • 1 Tablespoons of unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 Tablespoon of pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 5 oz. of dried sweetened cranberries
  • 1/2 cup of cherry jam or preserves (I subbed my own cranberry jam)
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons of sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon of almond extract
Directions

For the cranberry filling:

Place the cranberries, jam and sugar in a food processor and process until it is coarsely pureed. Transfer to a small saucepan and heat over medium-high, stirring occasionally. When the mix just comes to a boil, remove from heat and let cool. Stir in almond extract and cover and refrigerate for 1 hr. and is well chilled. This can be made up to 4 days in advance.

For the shortbread dough:

Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside. With an electric mixer on medium, cream sugar and butter until smooth and well blended. Add the egg, vanilla and almond extracts and beat till well blended. Add the flour mixture and beat until well incorporated.
Line a 4 ½ by 8 ½ inch bread pan with tin foil (I used parchment paper), leaving about a 3 inch overhang over the long sides of the pan. On top of the foil, repeat this procedure using 2 long pieces of plastic wrap.

Divide the dough into quarters. Gently roll one quarter of the dough into a shape that will roughly fit the bottom of the bread pan. Place the dough into the pan and pat it to spread as evenly as possible. Smooth 1/3 of the filling over the top of the dough. It will be stiff, but an offset spatula works best to push the jam evenly over the dough. Repeat the process in the same way with the remaining dough and jam. Wrap the plastic wrap over the top of the dough and place the pan in the freezer for at least 1 ½ hours or longer.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Line your baking sheets with parchment or spray your pans with nonstick spray. Remove the dough from the pan using the tin foil ‘handles’. Remove the plastic wrap. Cut the loaf crosswise into thirds. Trim and cut the sides as necessary to make sure the blocks of dough are straight and not flared. Work with one block at a time, keeping the others in the fridge, and cut each third into ¼ inch thick slices. Wipe your knife clean between cuts if necessary. Place each slice on a baking sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake one sheet at a time, in the upper third of your oven for about 10-15 minutes, or until just slightly brown at the edges. Immediately transfer to wire racks to cool.

Store in an airtight container for up to a week or freeze for up to a month. (Yeah right! Good luck with them lasting that long!)

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I tripled this recipe and layered it in two long pullman loaf pans. That worked marvelously for my big batch needs, for those of you who also mass produce Christmas treats!

Classic Gingerbread Recipe for Rolled Cookies (also good for Gingerbread Houses)

Another worthy repost with updated pictures.

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Classic Gingerbread Rolled Cookies

Ingredients

· 6 cups sifted all-purpose flour
· 1 teaspoon baking soda
· ½ teaspoon baking powder
· 1 cup butter
· 1 cup packed dark-brown sugar
· 4 teaspoons ground ginger
· 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
· 1½ teaspoons ground cloves
· 1½ teaspoons salt
· 2 large eggs
· 1 cup molasses
Directions
In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Set aside. In an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Mix in spices and salt, then eggs and molasses. Add flour mixture and combine on low speed.
Divide dough in thirds and wrap in plastic and flatten into approximately 1” bricks. Chill for about 1 hour. Heat oven to 350°. On a heavily floured surface, roll dough 1/8”-1/4” thick (depending on preference). Cut into desired shapes. Transfer to ungreased baking sheets. If dough will not hold shape well, refrigerate cut-outs for 15 minutes before baking. If dough is too stiff to roll without cracking, allow to warm up before rolling and cutting.
Bake about 8 to10 minutes, until puffed but not darkened, or longer if you prefer crispier cookies. Allow cookies to cool on wire racks, and then decorate as desired.
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As with all of my hand-piped cookies, I use royal icing. Need specifics? Ask Martha.

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Soft Peanut Butter Cookies

I adapted this yummy recipe from Averie Cooks… my cookies are smaller and the process here is a bit less fussy. The cookie? Uncompromisingly good.

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Soft Peanut Butter Cookies
Ingredients
  • 2 large egg s
  • 1 cup creamy peanut butter (not natural or homemade, too runny)
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoon baking soda
  • pinch salt, optional and to taste
  • granulated sugar, for rolling
Directions

Preheat oven to 350F, line a baking sheet with a Silpat or spray with cooking spray; set aside.

Beat egg, peanut butter, butter, sugars, and vanilla on medium-high speed until fully incorporated, light and fluffy. Add the flour, baking soda, salt, and beat on low speed until just incorporated. Scrape down the bowl as needed.

Use a 1” cookie scoop or your hands to make balls. Rolls each in granulated sugar and place on prepared cookie sheet. Bake for about 9-10 minutes, or until tops are juuuuuuust starting to get the teeniest bit golden.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Raspberry Coconut Magic Bars

This recipe I luckily found on the interwebs (specifically at Mom on Timeout) after enjoying some of these delights made by a friend’s mom at a baptism party about 3.5 years ago. These are magical, have no doubt!

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Raspberry Coconut Magic Bars

Ingredients
  • 3 1/3 cup graham cracker crumbs
  • 1 cup butter, melted
  • 4 Tbls sugar
  • 6 cups sweetened, flaked, coconut
  • 2 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 cup seedless raspberry preserves {or the flavor of your choice}
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 2/3 cup white baking chips
  • 2 tsp shortening
Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Combine the graham cracker crumbs, butter, and sugar in a small bowl.

3. Press into a lightly greased 9x13 baking dish.

4. Sprinkle the coconut over the crust and drizzle the sweetened condensed milk over the top.

5. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until coconut is lightly browned.

6. Let cool completely.

7. Spread the preserves over the cooled coconut crust and sprinkle with pecans.

8. Melt the chocolate chips in the microwave and stir until nice and smooth. Drizzle over pecans.

9. Melt the white chips in the microwave and add shortening. Stir until nice and smooth. Drizzle over the top.

10. Let chocolate firm up in the fridge or on the counter and cut into bars.

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Mint Oreo Bark

I found this keeper on a fun site called wineandglue.com. It looked good and tasted even better. I love mint. And Oreos.

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Mint Oreo Bark
Ingredients
  • 15.5 oz package of regular Oreos (about 40 cookies)
  • 48 oz almond bark
  • 1 tsp of peppermint extract (or more or less, to taste)
  • green food coloring to your liking
Directions

Break the Oreos into a bowl, maybe roughly into quarters. Melt the almond bark according to the directions on the package. Quickly add the peppermint and food coloring. Then stir in the Oreos. Pour the mixture into two wax paper or parchment paper lined pans and spread it out as much as possible (thinner spreading makes it easier to break, and bite!). Put the trays in a cooler area for two hours or until thoroughly hardened throughout. Break it up and enjoy!

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Karen’s Favorite Sugar Cookie Recipe

I have posted this recipe before, but here it is again with current pics. Bake and enjoy (in several days cuz these puppies take a while)!

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Karen’s Favorite Sugar Cookies
Ingredients
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup shortening
  • 2 cup white sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 teaspoon salt
Directions

In a large bowl, cream together the butter, shortening and white sugar until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then stir in vanilla. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir into the creamed mixture. Cover dough and chill for at least one hour. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease cookie sheets, if necessary. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/4” thickness. Cut into desired shapes with floured cookie cutters (or use a large clear quilting ruler and a pizza cutter to cut perfect squares and rectangles, as I did here for gift-shaped cookies). Place cookies 1 1/2” apart onto cookie sheets. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes (I like these soft, so I only bake them for 6 minutes). Remove cookies from baking sheets to cool on wire racks. Cool completely before icing.

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Notes

I use a royal icing recipe that includes powdered sugar, meringue powder, vanilla, and water. Consistency is up to you, but I like mine to be able to spread with a knife (to do the base color of the gift) and also pipe on the bows. Ice cooled cookies and decorate with sprinkles if desired. Dry until icing is fully set (several days would be great… the icing helps keep the cookies fresh and chewy even after that long!). Enjoy!

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Adventures with Hard Cider

I have always had an interest, however passing, in brewing. Back in my study-abroad days, I was enrolled in microbiology… and not all of it was scary stuff. Some of it was really amazing and delicious! Cheese and beer. Worth the hype.

Now that I am more-or-less grounded once again (and happily so), I have wanted to attempt some sort of easy, non-risky fermenting. Perhaps you don’t share my fascination, but feeling the intoxicating effects of something I have fermented myself was a bucket list bullet point until now. Like Steve McQueen’s potato concoction at the Fourth of July party in The Great Escape, but tastier and with less burning.

What is the gateway homebrewed beverage? CIDER, my friends. Hard apple cider is the answer.

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It is hard to even call this a recipe, and others have given an even easier method (“leave the cider in your basement and forget about it for 2 weeks”). But here is what I did after some amount of actual research and a trip to our trusty local home brewing store for airlocks (about $2 each) and champagne yeast (about $1 for a packet that can handle 5 gallons). I procured my apple cider at Costco for a meager $4 per gallon. I haven’t seen it cheaper (and still preservative-free) anywhere else.

Homebrewed Hard Cider

Yield: About 1 gallon

Ingredients:

  • 1 gallon pasteurized, preservative-free apple cider
  • 2 cups white sugar (optional, for higher alcohol content and/or sweeter cider)
  • Champagne yeast

Directions:

  • Sterilize (or not) a clean glass jug (or other container that can accept an airlock (or not). Add 2 cups of sugar and enough champagne yeast to the jar. Add half of the cider, and swirl to dissolve the sugar. Add the rest of the cider (or until the jug is full with a bit of space for bubbles, as shown) and close with the sterilized (or not) airlock. If you don’t have an airlock and you don’t want to let any other microbes in, you can cover the top with a balloon, and just poke several holes to allow the air pressure in the jug to remain positive (so air only flows out). Apparently you can leave it loosely capped without an airlock too, but I understand it is best practice for the most predicable results.
  • Leave the cider at about room temp (or slightly cooler… 55-65 degrees) for 5-21 days. It will start to bubble and release CO2 through the airlock in a day or two. The shorter fermenting times will yield sweeter, slightly sparkling ciders with lower alcohol content. At a certain point, around the 14 day mark (depending on temp and sugar content), the yeast will have consumed all the sugar and the cider will be dry and still (not my favorite, but good for mixing with fresh cider). I think 7-11 days is a good fit for my general reference for sweeter cider and moderate alcohol content.
  • Whenever you decide to drink it, it should be cooled to help the yeast settle out, and then siphoned off directly into glasses or a secondary storage container to avoid drinking a lot of yeast. Alternatively, it could be bottled then with or without extra sugar to make it sparkling, but that sounds laborious and not as easy to get a buzz (safely) while so doing. You choose.

This is a fun process and my kids greatly enjoyed watching the airlock (as did I). Here is the airlock in action (it is sort of mesmerizing to watch the bubbles… when it really got going, a bubble escaped about every 7 seconds #nerdalert):

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Since I have been making my own cider, I have been saving some of the yeast that settles out as a starter for my next batch (obsessed much?). My new sorta-secret plan is to make a BIG batch of this for our annual Thanksgiving party. Homemade booze in bulk? Yes, please. And thank you!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Adventures with Sourdough (or, Meet my New Pet)

Hello there. I’m easing back into blogging by sharing with you my growing fascination with cultured foods. Today: homemade sourdough bread.

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First things first… allow me to introduce you to Maxwell, my sourdough starter:

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I must preface this next section by telling you that talking about Maxwell the Sourdough Starter embarrasses the pants off my 10 year old daughter. I can’t even talk about it with family members without eye rolls and groans, so imagine her plight when she one day realizes I am blogging about it. I have to laugh. Because this is the ninja girl in question who never ever does embarrassing things of her own (love you, honey!):

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Maxwell lives alternately in my fridge and on my counter. I like to imagine Maxwell is the microbial equivalent of a sheepdog. Here is a pet who earns its keep by performing work I couldn’t otherwise do alone. I have many skills, but converting sugar to tangy acid in a suspension of flour and water is just not one of them. And since I don’t have sheep, a sourdough starter just made more sense than a sheepdog. To each, his own…

I attempted to make my own sourdough starter some months ago when the local wild grapes were ripe, using a naturally-yeasty grape skin to inoculate my would-be starter. I gave it a week of regular feeding, then feared the worst when it was not rising much and smelled funny. Now, however, having successfully grown a store-bought dry starter (I purchased Sourdough Starter'>this one from Breadtopia on Amazon; affiliate link, FYI), it might have been fine and I just panicked as newbies are wont to do when faced with the unknown. I may try again with the wild starter next year, or I may not. Maxwell is enough to care for right now, and I’m not sure I need two pets.

It has been almost 2 months since I rehydrated the unassuming packet of starter, fed it daily, watched it, smelled it, prayed that it would bubble, faithfully fed it more trusting that eventually it would rise, hoped it would double in bulk after a feeding, was disappointed when it got hoochy, gave it a time out in the fridge (to develop a more sour taste), and prayed some more that it would eventually mature. You know, sometimes all you have to do is wait. And wait. And wait.

{{ The short story on starter care and feeding is that, each day, you mix equal weights of starter, water and all purpose flour. You mix it up, and let it sit. It will bubble and rise, and maybe produce a yellowy liquid called hooch. When it is done rising (has “eaten” all the food), it deflates and you do it again. You need to discard, share, or use the excess starter (usually half) so as to not have it multiply exponentially. When you want to use it, you just keep more around until you have the volume called for in your recipe (you have to plan ahead!), then save and feed some to keep around and use the rest. If you aren’t making bread all the time, you can keep the starter in the fridge and just pull it out to warm up, divide, feed, start to rise, then re-refrigerate for another week. Once mature, it is pretty hearty. It could go longer than a week without a feeding in the fridge, and isn’t going to die the moment you let it get hoochy. You can even dry then freeze some of it as insurance in case starter negligence is a real fear. It's really not as scary as I thought when I first got into this alternative lifestyle. }}

Finally, one glorious day after several weeks of feeding, dividing and waiting, Maxwell actually got puffy and bubbly and I knew that THE DAY HAD ARRIVED. It was time to attempt to actually make some sourdough bread.

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I used a recipe from the ever-inspiring King Arthur Flour website for my first go at it: Extra Tangy Sourdough Bread. Except I didn’t make it extra tangy (I omitted the citric acid). It was worth the wait! Definitely as good as store bought sourdough… same distinctive tangy flavor. I am too lazy after all that waiting to reprint the recipe, but I can tell it is going to be a standby. You should definitely check it out if you are interested in a basic sourdough and you have a starter. If you know me in real life and live close enough, I’d be glad to share my starter so you can have your own adventures with sourdough. I suppose the goal, eventually, is to make sourdough bread at home that is even better than store bought sourdough bread, but this still felt like a real win in a world of infinite opportunities to fail.

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There are recipes everywhere for authentic sourdough foods… bread, waffles, buns, English muffins, popovers, biscuits, pretzels, and even cake (!). I really enjoy BREAD, so I haven’t branched out yet. Maxwell and I are just getting to know one another, and I don’t want to jump the gun on a risky recipe and add any extra awkwardness into the mix. I am not in a hurry, and I don’t get the impression Maxwell is either. These loaves took me three days from starter to finish, and I am OK with that. I have since made some more loaves whereby I cut a couple corners to make it fit into my schedule, and, as anyone else might have foreseen, it was not as successful. Back to square one: follow directions :) Also, plan when to start based on when you need to sleep. It just makes sense…

Coming up soon thanks to my obsession with fermenting will be Adventures in Brewing! Hard cider… easier than you think…

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Paralyzing Heartbreak

This has been a bad week by anyone's definition. Last Wednesday morning, my lungs started feeling a little strange. By 5 PM I was feeling very ill, and the next day I couldn't get off the couch. It seems to be a case of classic seasonal influenza with all the toppings - chest congestion, fever, chills, profuse sweating, headache, fatigue, body aches and loss of appetite. On Friday, I developed a whopper cough and a sore throat, but still had to get a kid to a routine checkup at the doctor’s office. It feels miraculous that that even happened. I have been more or less (mostly more) miserable ever since, especially since I have hardly slept in 5 days. If you haven’t already, please go get a flu shot.

During that same interval, we had some minor car trouble, I got to clean up my 3 year old's steamy salami vomit (sorry for the visual), and I received an urgent meal request for a new mom at our parish (organizing care is my volunteer "job", and there is currently no one to cover for me). I have been overwhelmed.

But you know, even as unpleasant as that has been, I would repeat this same week forever if it would change what happened yesterday. You see, yesterday we went to Mass with our family, and we had to simultaneously say hello and goodbye to a beautiful nephew we never got to know in this life. The shock is still hanging in the air. Stillborn. I cannot even imagine the pain and suffering his mom and dad must be experiencing. The loss of a child is said to be one of the most excruciating and traumatic losses a person can experience. I fully believe it is.

I have experienced some death in my life, but nothing so intimate, so crushing to hope and expectation, as the nearness I feel right now. Losing a long anticipated child before he breathes, before he opens his eyes, before his parents get to tell him how much he is loved... As it turns out, grief doesn't come in a neat package, with the weight carefully tallied in pounds and kilograms on the front. Grief is boundless. I understand so much better now that grief cannot be shared, only carried side by side. My cross to carry in this season is the helplessness to shoulder theirs, or even to understand it.

I think my point in writing this post is to acknowledge that this tragic loss happened. I am deeply affected. The beautiful little boy I saw yesterday will always be a part of our family... His mom and dad will carry him around in their hearts every day as long as they live. And yet, we all have to actually go on living. There is no other option. I need to acknowledge his life here before I can to continue to write about inconsequential things like sewing, refinishing furniture, and baked goods in the future. Because, really, those things are nice, but we'd do without them in a second if we could have prevented those we love deeply from experiencing this sort of paralyzing heartbreak. The reality is - often to our deep heartache - that we can't bargain for a different future no matter how much we’d give... It's not within our ability. But we can choose life and hope and joy even in the long shadow of death and sorrow. We can keep loving these grieving parents every day through prayer and action. We can choose to let a hard-purchased strength going forward in this life be part of the legacy of a sweet baby who we will finally get to know when it's our turn to go Home.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

On Hobos, Hipsters, and Being Charitable to Yourself

True story… Yesterday, we decided to pack up dinner and head to a park to eat and play. The park we intended to visit was cordoned off when we arrived for construction, so we switched plans and instead went to a different local park. This other park was not nearly as nice, or as large, but still had some fun features and the kids were excited to play (and hungry). So my husband and I sat down and chatted while watching them, and also made mental notes of the other park-goers. Lots of drinking, obscene music, odd characters milling about. It was not the most family-friendly park, as it turns out.

A totally different park than the one in this story.

At this point, my husband stood up and counted heads. “Just keeping an eye on the hobos leering at our kids. Or maybe they’re hipsters. I have trouble telling them apart.” I laughed, and we decided that we would now use hobo and hipster interchangeably as the situation dictates. We collected the kids and parceled out dinner. Kid #2 promptly dropped her heavily beketchuped hot dog in the dirt and wood chips. My husband had brought 2 for himself, so he gave her one of his. About 30 seconds later, a disheveled 40-something hipster stumbled over and asked, “Got any food I could have?” My husband, with no hesitation, said, “Sure. Here’s half my hot dog.” “Thanks.” The guy plopped down next to kid #3 (obliviously eating his own 2 hot dogs) and ate. He then got up clumsily and mused aloud, “I may have had too much to drink,” and proceeded to weave his way over to a grassy area where he either tripped or passed out. Regardless, the end result was him laying in the grass for a short time, not moving. I was worried we should call someone (the police?) to check on him, but he started moving and was not being ill, so we left it at that. There were enough people around that we figured someone would seek help if needed. We finished eating, then continued on to our regularly scheduled evening plan. It was a very odd experience in our sheltered life.

I was thinking about it later and marveling at my husband’s generosity to this stranger, after his generosity to our own kid. I don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t been there, but he reacted so quickly and altruistically ended up with a fraction of his planned dinner… he officially qualifies as a hero. My hero. I was struck by the fact that this guy needed food… he didn’t ask for money… but nourishment, a basic human need. Didn’t matter that this guy was likely suffering the consequences of his own decisions… he still needed food.

Where is this story going??

It was then that I realized just how uncharitable I was being to myself lately. I had been feeling truly down in the dumps about my seeming lack of progress on arbitrary home improvement goals I had set for myself, irritated that I haven’t blogged more this summer, disappointed by my continuing slow back rehabilitation, annoyed by my lack of fitness, and frustrated that I didn’t have the energy to adequately entertain my end-of-summer-crazy kids to stave off normal sibling bickering. Problems of my own creation. I was treating myself like an utter failure, unworthy of affection and respect, because I wasn’t meeting my own expectations. I was beating myself up over what? Minutiae in the grand scheme of living. Self-respect is a basic human need too, and I was withholding that on the grounds that I didn’t deserve it.

I am NOT a failure of a human being. Going forward, I will be more generous to my internal hobo, just asking for food to get through today’s ordeals. It doesn’t matter what tomorrow looks like, I still need to love myself today, even if I feel like a disheveled, out-of-control mess. And so do you. We deserve it.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

I Corinthians 13:4-8

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Real Life + Berries + Homemade Vanilla Yogurt

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Berry season! Strawberry season. I am writing this post while eating that very bowl of homemade vanilla yogurt (recipe below) covered with homemade strawberry jam. I used the jam recipe offered in the Craftsy class I took last year, Jam and Marmalade the Blue Chair Way*. So good. I am an old pro at the yogurt by now, but for the jam I still had to refer to the class material, just to make sure I knew what I was doing. The two and a half batches of jam I made have turned out perfectly, and it would be a complete and utter success this year if only I would stop giving it away! I love too many people, and I feel compelled to show that by feeding them something I have made myself. But I knew this ahead of time so I froze a couple batches of Michigan strawberries (picked by my kids) to make more jam when the weather isn’t so sticky (we don’t have AC).

The funny thing about all this berry-picking and jam business is, my kids are not jam eaters. I started them out all wrong by making peanut butter and honey sandwiches, so they were never exposed to jam during their small formative years. The 3 year old sometimes gets jam since he forgets to protest, but he’s not excited about it. I try not to feel bad, and console myself that there will be more of this delicious jam for me. Until they hit the age of reason and ravenous appetites. But then, they can help with the jamming so it will all even out in the end.

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Serviceberries. Have you heard of them? They are also called Saskatoon berries or (my favorite) juneberries. They grow on trees, and look a bit like blueberries and taste a cross between blueberries and cherries. The seeds have an almond taste too, which apparently enhances jams made from them. They are not sold commercially for reasons unknown to me, though I think they can sometimes be found seasonally at farmers markets. Their season is very short (a week or two?), so they are a rare treat.

We have 3 downy serviceberry trees at the new house, though I didn’t give them much thought until I was taking some packages out to the mailbox and noticed the ripe berries as I walked under them. I knew they were edible so I ate one, and it was surprisingly sweet. I did a little research to learn more about how to preserve them, then went out with a bucket to pick what was ripe that I could also reach with a step ladder. I picked the amount you can see above (3-4 cups?), and had planned to pick more later in the week when more had ripened and I had more time. But I never did have more time (preparing the house to host a baby shower, while trying not to overdo it with a recovering back), and that ended up being my entire harvest. Real life happens and sometimes we have to sacrifice the wants for the needs, you know? The rest of the berries went to birds, rabbits and deer (I saw them all out there eating the fallen ones on the driveway). Apparently everybody likes them :) I washed and froze them individually on a sheet pan, and they are in the freezer now awaiting a future of hopeful jamming too. Juneberry jam… it sounds so nice and homey, doesn’t it?

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And the last sort of berries in my life right now… wild black raspberries. I was made aware of the existence of these berries along nearby trails by the previous lady of this house, and was told by other wild black raspberry experts (my in-laws) that they should probably be ripe sometime in July. Today, being July 2, seemed like a good day to go back and check if any of the hard, green-white berries I had seen several weeks ago had matured into anything remotely edible. So I dragged my unhappy, screaming 3 year old with me since he could not be trusted on his own at the house for 30 minutes, unlike his older and more trustworthy siblings. We walked the short distance to the woods, passed through a narrow poison-ivy-infested footpath, and were spit out onto an airy paved walkway. The very instant we passed some berries at his eye level, he returned from Hyde to Jekyll and started gleefully plucking the ripe berries anywhere he could reach. He was surprisingly good at only going for the black ones, so I let him go at his own pace while I walked ahead a bit. Every now and then he would call to me, “How you doin’ over dere, mom?” “Great. How are you doing, AJ?” “Great! I pick dem all!!” And so we walked for 15 minutes trying to find the most productive plants before we had to turn around and head home. We had only picked about a cup total since they were just starting to ripen and not many were fully black yet, but never were berries picked with more satisfaction. I also kept an eye out for clusters of wild grape… I will need to try again making wild grape jelly after a major fail last year (so big it went undocumented here).

When we got home, I washed up the boy to prevent him from getting poison ivy… he had walked near some, and that was too close for my comfort (I have a phobia despite never having had it myself)… and then I let him play with the big kids while I took a quick shower. I came downstairs and caught him red-handed. And red-faced. He proudly declared, “I eat dem all!” He had, indeed, eaten every single berry. So, no wild black raspberries to show for our expedition, but he did have fun, and get himself over a nasty tantrum, and also managed to eat some fruit. Real life.

I will go back soon, preferably alone and wearing pants and bugspray, and try to forage for more. I want to apprentice myself to my mother-in-law and learn how to make black raspberry jelly. It is a family favorite, and it would be so nice to be able to put some up for the year (and to give away) if I can collect enough fruit. We shall see what there is to be had.

As promised…

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Crockpot Vanilla Yogurt

Yield: 1 gallon and 1 pint

Ingredients

  • 1 gallon whole milk
  • 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk
  • 4 oz vanilla or plain yogurt (not Greek)
  • 2 tbsp vanilla extract

Directions

  • Pour the milk into a large stockpot, and heat over high heat until a thermometer reads 170 F. Turn heat to low. Remove it from the heat when it reaches 185 F.
  • Allow the milk to cool to 115 F. You can just let it sit, or cool it in a water bath. Make sure that it does not go below 105 F. When it hits 115 F, add the other ingredients and thoroughly mix with a whisk.
  • At this point you can culture the yogurt in any container(s) you like. I like to pour it into canning jars (8-6 oz works well) with a loosely sealed lid ( I always use the plastic lids shown above, available here*) to make portions convenient for grab’n’go, or use a larger plastic container for simplicity and space efficiency. Regardless, the container(s) should be loosely covered and kept at 115 F for the next 6-8 hours.
  • I use a turkey roaster as a water bath, filling it to above the yogurt line on the container(s) with hot water. Once the water bath is at the right temp, I turn it off and cover the roaster lid with a towel. I use a probe thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature, and turn on the roaster for short intervals to heat it back up, if necessary. My thermometer (from Ikea, like this one) beeps when the set temp is reached, so I can be sure I am not going to accidentally heat it up too much.
  • At the 6 hour mark, test a small spoonful of the warm yogurt to see if it the right consistency and tastes tangy enough for you. Too runny? Too bland? Let it go another hour, then test again. Keep going until it is right.
  • Store yogurt, tightly covered, in the fridge. It will keep longer than it will last before you eat it all :) Be sure to save 4 oz for your next batch!

*Affiliate links: If you purchase something through a link here, there is a possibility that I will be monetarily compensated. I only promote products that I use and love myself, and any compensation earned via affiliate links will go straight to my fabric fund. So I can buy, you know, a fat quarter or something :)