Category Archives: In between

Treasure Among the Weeds

I think the all time scariest Dr. Who episode is Weeping Angels. Weeping Angels are stone statues who will kill you if you blink or look away. So don’t blink – don’t ever, ever blink. Sumac is the plant version of a weeping angel. Some people mistakenly think it is a decorative shrub, which is like saying weeping angels are just statues. While sumac may not kill you like a weeping angel would, you have to be careful because if ignored it will take over your yard. I’m not just talking a little bit, it will become the equivalent of a jungle. Plus it likes to invite its friends – other invasive species such as bittersweet and wild grapevine.

Sumac forest

Sure the birds love it. I will admit it does look pretty in the fall when its leaves turn a brilliant red. In certain cultures they cook with the dried sumac fruit. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright even used sumac as a design motif in one of his houses. Here’s the newsflash though – I am willing to bet cold, hard cash Mr. Wright never ever had to deal with a sumac invasion himself. Either he had a team of gardeners to prune and cut everything back or he left the sumac infected area to go design another house before the invasion became apparent.

wild rose bush

I vaguely remember my parents not liking the sumac in our neighbor’s yard. At that point though I was eighteen and didn’t understand their concern/disdain for the plant. Then twenty years ago my husband and I moved to our house and decided there was really too much lawn to mow. So we seeded a wildflower garden. That was pretty for a few years. While we were lulled into those first few years of flowery abundance the sumac saw its chance. It crept underground from the edges of our property to this open field we had created and started sprouting up. We ignored it because we were busy with other things. So the sumac grew and Grew and GREW. Suddenly we realized we could no longer see our garden or the beehives. In fact the garden itself was getting a lot less sun than it used to. Our wintertime sledding hill had become a dense maze of sumac trunks. We had done the long, slow blink, and the sumac had taken over.

wild black raspberries

So 2013 has become the summer of what I am calling The Sumac Deforestation Project. My kids and some of their friends have been hacking, chopping, digging, pulling, and uprooting all the invasive plants that have done their best to take over our yard. Along the way we’ve come across a few treasures among the weeds. These include clumps of blackberry vines, wild rose bushes, some really delicious black raspberries which we’ve been munching this last week, and an awesome blue stone which will eventually become a step into the playhouse. So deep in the forest of sumac there have been a few jewels, they just haven’t been spectacular enough to justify maintaining the invasive forest.

starting to cut back the sumac

sumac cut and ready to clear

almost cleared field

moving the blue stone

unloading the blue stone

So thanks Isabelle, Russell, Eamon, Addie, Milo, and Shawn. The deforestation project is coming along nicely.

Oh and those black raspberries I mentioned? They’re going on some buttermilk waffles with a drizzle of maple syrup – yum!

Buttermilk waffles with black raspberries

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Leave No Cup Unfilled

"cupcake water trick"

Sometimes you come up short. Not enough change for the parking meter, not enough milk for your cereal, not enough batter to fill all your cupcake cups. For the first challenge I suggest looking under the seat, asking the kids, or if those two ideas don’t result in a handful of change, getting back in your car and finding some free parking on a side street. For the second problem I have been known to go with the bizarre (and some would say disgusting) solution of pouring orange juice over my Wheaties. Or switching to toast. Either one works. The answer to the third kerfuffle is water. A little H2O. Not mixed into the batter, rather poured into any empty cupcake wells. Just a small splash. It keeps that part of the pan from overheating by being unfilled. Surprisingly this little bit of moisture has the added benefit of producing well-rounded tops on the cupcakes.

"miniature chocolate cupcakes with raspberries"

Click here for the chocolate cake recipe.

Click here for the frosting recipe.

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Holiday Baking with Cookie Logs

I’m going to tell you one of my favorite cooking secrets. Cookie Logs. Better than sliced bread, the wheel, or individual packets of nutella. Cookie logs spell salvation for the home cook. The concept is beautifully simple – you take your favorite cookie recipe, mix it up, shape it into logs, and freeze (or refrigerate).

"cookie logs"

Kids forget to tell you they have to bring in dessert for the community supper tomorrow? No worries you’ve got cookie logs. Invited to a going away party for a neighbor but forgot to make something? You’re covered because you have cookie logs and can have fresh-baked cookies in less than 17 minutes. Stressed out with all the holiday stuff you still need to do including finding a ukulele for your husband who wants to learn to play the instrument at age 53? No sweat, Christmas cookies are covered due to a fridge full of cookie logs. I am telling you cookie logs make you feel you can handle whatever culinary curveballs life throws. If you make three or more doughs today and turn them all into logs, you’ve just taken more than half the stress out of baking. Tomorrow (or Sunday or Monday) you will be a slice and bake Queen or King! Guaranteed.

"getting ready to roll cookie dough"

Getting ready to roll.

Martha Stewart puts her logs in empty paper towel tubes to keep them perfectly symmetrical. I’m down and dirty with mine. Plop some dough along a sheet of wax paper, fold over and use a dough scraper or ruler to push the wax paper around the dough and form into a log shape, then twist the ends and throw in the fridge or bag up for the freezer. It really doesn’t mater if they have a slightly flat side – they’ll sit on the counter and not roll when you go to slice them.

I usually give myself a clue as to what is in the log plus note what temperature the particular dough bakes at with a magic marker. Remember lower your baking times. My logs tend to be about the size of a quarter, which is usually smaller than a regular cookie. This means their cooking time is shorter. You’ll smell/see when they are done. Smaller cookies also means you’ll end up with a larger yield. I like this because often all I want is a nibble, not a cookie the size of my hand.

"dough scraper cookie log rolling"

Dough scraper log rolling.

The other thing to know is not all doughs are able to be turned into logs. Anything which ultimately gets rolled out flat, such as sugar cookies, I don’t make into logs. In the past I haven’t “logged” dough that needs to be rolled into balls, but lately I’ve switched over to logging just about everything. With doughs that call for being rolled into a ball, I simply slice off bigger chunks and roll them into marble or walnut sizes depending on the recipe. You also may need to leave those doughs out to soften a bit before attempting to roll them, especially if they’ve been frozen.

"plastic ruler cookie dough log rolling"

Plastic ruler cookie log rolling.

Since my doughs don’t have preservatives I only keep them in the fridge for 5-7 days. When I pop logs into the freezer I place them in zip lock bags to guard against freezer burn.

"slice and bake cookie dough logs"

Slice and bake.

So now you know one of my favorite culinary tricks. I hope you enjoy your cookie logs!

"cookie crown"

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Twelve Days of Christmas Cookies

I love making Christmas cookies. To me they signal Christmas is coming as much as lighting each week’s Advent candle, a yard full of snow, listening to Christmas CDs on repeat, or enjoying a glass of eggnog with rum and freshly ground nutmeg.

"Picking out a Christmas Tree"

Many years ago my friend Marisa Gorgoni and I  tried to cash in on this mutual love we both shared for baking Christmas cookies. Our money making scheme was to sell homemade cookies to people who were too busy to bake. Good idea right? Our basic math skills were sharp enough, though we clearly didn’t understand how to estimate in our time (or for that matter the cost of electricity) when we came up with our prices. Here, in Marisa’s very neat handwriting, were the costs of our cookie ingredients:

"Prices of cookie ingredients"

We sold them to a captive audience – our teachers at F-M High School (I’m guessing our parents probably bought some as well, but that is another story). Here is what we charged:

"Cookie prices"

All I can say is our underpaid teachers got a great deal that year, and they all probably knew it.* Especially our math teacher. When all the dishes were done and the cookies distributed I think we each had made about 5 cents/hour. Lesson learned, ever since I have only “sold” cookies when I was getting well paid for my time (either as a pastry chef or as a food stylist). It doesn’t mean that I haven’t made cookies out of love, as a thank-you, or for a get well present. I do it all the time. I just don’t try to make a career out of it.

With roughly twelve days to go ’til Christmas I am embarking on my annual cookie baking marathon. B.K. (before kids) I would go nuts. Nowadays I’ve settled into a somewhat predictable and slightly shorter cookie roster which consists of Grammy Caldwell’s snickerdoodles, Arlene Sullivan’s Molasses Snaps, Grammy Thompson’s Scandinavian CookiesSugar Cookies, Butterscotch Icebox Cookies, Gertrude’s, and Snowballs. There are plenty of other cookies that I love, I just stay with these since I associate each one with Christmas, especially those of my childhood.

To get the recipes of the first four cookies mentioned above click on the name of the cookie and it will link you to the original blog where I wrote about it. The others I will post as I bake my way through them.

Happy baking to all my readers! I’d love to know what you’re planning on making this holiday season –

"staring to fill up the cookie tin"

*I may not be being fair to my high school teachers when I say they got a real bargin, since you could buy a whole box of girl scout cookies for a little over a dollar in 1978. With that in mind a dollar for a mere dozen cookies may have seemed expensive to them. Of course today I’ve seen a single cookie (and grant you it’s a large cookie) sell for anywhere from $1-2.50 depending on where you’re buying it. Sheesh, I sound like an old curmudgeon so I’ll stop now.

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Favorite Christmas Music

My Christmas music list is pretty eclectic. It all started with a vinyl record my Dad brought home, Twas the Night Before Christmas by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. My brother and sister and I played this album non stop as we decorated the tree each year. Someday they will release it on CD and I will feel my Christmas music collection is complete. Until then all Christmas music in our house is in some weird way or another compared with Fred Waring. What are some of your favorites?

"Twas the Night Before Christmas"

Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanian’s awesome Christmas album

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966 TV version)

The Piano Guys “O Come, Emmanuel”

GRP Christmas Collection, Vol. 3

Wynton Marsalis Crescent City Christmas Card

Mambo Santa Mambo

Angel Voices by the Liberia Boys Choir

*I do realize this is not a food post, but it’s important information for another post I’m writing. Stay tuned.

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