Go Big Or Go Home

I have about a million things I want to share with you. Recipes, photos, ideas. I’ve been working on Thanksgiving and summer at the same time, and a million other things.

I’ve been making jam, and getting ready for pickles season to begin in earnest. I’ve been drinking a lot of delicious smoothies and unsweetened coffee. I’ve been working on my tan and somehow finding time to read the books I’m obsessing over (while brushing my teeth, while stirring the jam, etc.).

I’ve been cooking a lot of recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi’s book Plenty, and it’s going a long ways towards building the anticipation for our upcoming trip to Israel. I like to think it’s what’s been keeping me on track with getting my eating habits back in order. I’m also hoping that Lilli decides she really likes Israeli food because right now she is being a super picky toddler and it’s Driving. Me. Crazy.

I’ve been berry picking at least once a week for the last 3 weeks with quarts of frozen berries to show for it, and I’ve been harvesting fennel pollen like crazy so far with little success. Not sure what’s up with that.

The truck has been taking a lot of my time. Between getting it all gutted and looking at appliances, scouting the markets looking for likely vendors for our raw ingredients, catering weddings, and recipe testing, it’s been a busy month indeed. I hope you don’t hate me for neglecting you, but a very wise friend once said to me “never apologize” so I’m not going to. I’m just going to tell you that it will all be worth it in the end.

Those tomatoes? They are the best. We served them at the wedding we catered last weekend (for which I also did the cakes–yes, 4 of them–and am kicking myself for not taking time to photograph). I got the recipe from Ashley Rodriguez who writes Not Without Salt, and it’s the best way to eat heirloom tomatoes that I have ever come across in my whole life. I can’t wait for all the tomatoes in the front yard to start getting ripe so I can devour them bathed in fragrant vanilla. They’ll probably all start getting ripe while we’re in Israel so my sister–who’s house-sitting for us– will be the lucky one who gets the first harvest.

This week James (my biz partner) and I put up about 40 lb worth of nectarine jam. It’s divine. It’s chunky and fruity. I can’t wait to serve it on some warm toasty skillet cake in a cozy little brown box off the truck. I can’t wait for that window to slide open with a sign hanging next to it that says “Come and get it!”

In the meantime we’re preparing for back to back dinners this weekend–our first matched set. We’ve been selling them all out, and are planning a brunch in September that we’re super excited for. There are few spots left for each date next month, so if you’re interested you should get on the list ASAP.

This is what’s been on my mind for the last 2 days, though, so I’ll share it with you. We’ve been eating a lot of nectarines lately–I think they’re way better than peaches, and consequently can’t get enough of them. Neither can Lilli. She’s been eating like 3 a day, if she can get away with it. This incarnation of jam is very simple, though it does require some patience. If you don’t want to spend so much time slaving away, you can always make a berry jam and just add the lemon zest to that as well, it will be just as nice.

Nectarine Jam with Lemon

6 heaping cups nectarines cut into 1″ chunks
3 cups sugar
zest from one organic lemon plus juice

Add the fruit, sugar, and zest to a large heavy pot over high heat and stir it all up. Bring it to a rolling boil, stirring occasionally. Once it’s really boiling, set a timer for 30 minutes and come back to stir it every couple of minutes. Towards the end this becomes almost constant stirring–you don’t want to fruit to start sticking to the bottom of the pan or all the sugars will burn. After 30 minutes, turn off the heat and add the lemon juice. Put into hot sterile jars and process 15 minutes in a water bath for pint jars. This batch will make about 3 pints with a little bit leftover for your toast the next morning.

The Mistake

What happens when you take a bowl full of raspberries, a big drizzle of honey, and some greek yogurt and mix them together?

You should get some delicious popsicles, if you know what you’re doing. Which apparently–some days–I don’t.

I was super stoked about making these popsicles. I even talked about it over on Facebook. I decided to make raspberry and honey with greek yogurt when we got to the P-patch and saw the berry bonanza going on in my plot, and remembered the jar of deliciously floral honey we picked up in Manson when we were visiting Lake Chelan a few weeks ago.

I don’t really know what went wrong. They had all the makings of what should have been a killer batch of delicious popsicles.

Then I added some liqueur to them, which I think is where it all went downhill. Even the heady scent of good vanilla couldn’t save the day.

Usually adding a bit of booze to things is a win. With these babies though, it turned the texture to weird creamy with bits of straight up ice lodged throughout. Between the ice and the seeds in the whole berries, they were too much crunch and not enough creamy goodness. And to make matters worse, the liqueur had a weird flavor when it froze–supposedly raspberry but more like rotten grape juice.

I know, this is really making your mouth water. I bet you wish I would give you the recipe to make these tempting delights.

But, lesson learned. I mean, I did it for you, friends. I made these popsicles so you wouldn’t have to, and now we all know what happens when you mix these things together and freeze them.

Sometimes, you have to just take the things that come to you. Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of lemons. I guess that’s why I made lemonade. It’s been a lot of hit and miss these past few weeks and I’m happy to say that I have been doing my best to move on. I’m getting back on the bandwagon of deliciousness, with recipes forthcoming that a girl can be proud of.

I might still be battling the chickens to stay in their designated area. I might still be neglecting the p-patch only to show up and find that someone has stolen all of the best artichokes off of my plants. I might even continue to pretend that the weeds aren’t getting as tall as Lilli, but at least I will be taking the time to enjoy the rest of summer while it still lasts.

And with any luck, I’ll be making more popsicles. Like these ones. Or maybe these.

Or maybe, these. Hopefully they will redeem me from the circle of hell reserved for people who mess up that easiest of summer treats, the popsicle. I made these ones after realizing I still had a quarter of a watermelon in the fridge that I didn’t want to eat in it’s current form.

They are a snap to make and are highly refreshing. Not as picnic friendly as whole watermelon, but are perfect for a night on the porch with friends.

Watermelon Margarita Popsicles
makes about sixteen (16) 1/4 cup popsicles

about 4-5 cups watermelon chunks–seeds removed
1/4 cup good tequila
1/4 cup simple syrup, chilled
1/2 cup fresh squeezed lime juice

Puree the watermelon. You’ll need 3 1/2 cups of juice for this recipe, which you should get from 4-5 cups of solid watermelon, but if you need more juice, puree more melon until you have enough juice. If you happen to get more than 3 1/2 cups, just save it for something else. Non-frozen watermelon margaritas perhaps.

Add the syrup, lime juice and tequila and give it a good stir. Carefully pour juice into your popsicle mold, cover and add the sticks. Freeze until solid then run a thin stream of warm water over to remore. Store frozen popsicles in a zipper bag and freeze the remaining mixture. Before serving sprinkle a tiny pinch of crunchy sea salt over one side of the popsicle for a true margarita experience.

All the Fun

The second half of July whizzed past me. I cannot believe it’s already August (my birthday month, yay!) , and it’s going to be another insanely busy month. I’ve been having all the fun and am not stopping anytime soon.

Though sometimes, I need to just sit still for like 30 seconds and make sure that I am taking time for myself. Lately, I haven’t been doing a good job of that and reached a point of near exhaustion.

This week, I’m back on track and being good to myself in a way I haven’t been in a long time, even though it’s really really hard.

I started back up again keeping a food journal, which I’ve found to be the only effective way for me to be accountable to myself for what I eat and when I am physically active.

This isn’t a diet blog, it’s not even a healthy lifestyle blog. It’s a blog about food and I have to stay true to that. I love to eat (and drink) but it’s been getting me into trouble lately because I haven’t been paying any attention to what I’ve actually been consuming. Being busy does that to a person.

So this week while I’m getting over the cravings hump, I am just going to share a few little things.

I made this killer lemon syrup last week using coconut sugar and sugar I made with pomelos. The syrup was used as a base for jelly shots that were consumed at kickball. (Which I’m both elated and totally depressed is finally over for the year.)

It goes really well in just about any beverage though, provided it’s cold and refreshing. Paired with just ripe nectarines and sparkling water it makes for a very refreshing afternoon pick-me-up, with a smooth transition into happy hour–should your day need one of those–by adding a jigger of vodka and a crushed mint leaf or two.

Sparkling Nectarine Lemonade

For the Syrup (makes about 2 cups)

1 cup lemon juice from a bottle
1 1/2 cups sugar–any kind will do, but using half coconut sugar added a nice earthy flavor
3 lemons cut into 8ths, juice squeezed out
1/2 cup or so of water

Put all ingredients into a large, non-reactive pot and bring to a boil. Simmer for several minutes until the syrup starts to thicken a bit, then strain out the solids. Stored in a jar in the fridge, this syrup should keep for a several weeks.

To make the lemonade just pour a little syrup into a glass–about 1 tbsp for a not very sweet 8 oz or so of sparkling water–then smash a couple of slices of ripe nectarines into it. Add a squeeze of lemon for extra brightness, and put in some ice if you like. Then top with sparkling water.

Champions

This week, we beat the only other undefeated team in our kickball league.

Don’t misunderstand me though, we have never actually won a kickball game, at least not this season. What we do best is tease or “taunt” the other team. (It’s sort of hard to explain. There’s lots of costumes, good natured ribbing, and drinking involved in our kickball league–we have an extraordinary amount of fun.)

My costume for kickball this week included some Mayan inspired make-up and a feather headdress. Photo credit Jillian Mednick

We’re a creative bunch, and the beginning of the week was spent gluing feathers onto headbands and spray painting liquor boxes gold. Wednesday was the big stand-off, and we came out on top. It was an awesome feeling: being at your best and getting recognition for it.

What all this creativity means though, is that I spent the week away from the kitchen and so I didn’t have much to share with you all. I managed to squeeze in some gardening time, pulling out bolted cilantro and harvesting peas, and filling in a few bare spots with veggie starts picked up on a whim. Nothing notable happened in the eating department though–mostly just nachos and salad.

We’re hosting another dinner tonight, and just sold out the next dinner (Aug 24th). This week might be the best menu yet: grilled whole trout, corn chowder, salad with beets and fresh ricotta. Lemon balm ice cream for dessert, with plum coulis.

This plum coulis is versatile. It’s simple. It’s a very good way to use some of the stone fruit that’s booming right now. The hibiscus adds a nice floral note to contrast the tartness of the plums.

Put it on ice cream, over pancakes, into sparkling water. Maybe a cocktail or two…

Plum and Hibiscus Coulis
makes about 1 quart

1 lb plums, any dark skinned variety
1/2 cups sugar (or more if your plums aren’t very sweet)
1/2 cup honey
3/4 cup dried hibiscus flowers
1 cup water

Wash and pit the plums. Cut them into small pieces, about 8 per plum. Put them all into a big, heavy bottomed pot and add the water (keeps the bottom from scorching) and hibiscus flowers. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer until very soft and the peels are pretty much separated from the fruit, about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally. Strain, pressing on the solids to extract as much juice as possible.

Return the liquid to the pot and add the honey and sugar. Bring to a boil and taste for sweetness, adding more sugar if you like. I like mine a little bit tart, it goes better with ice cream that way. Turn down the heat and simmer until the syrup has thickened up a bit, maybe 15 or 20 minutes. If you want it thicker, just boil it longer. While it simmers, stir it every once in a while to make sure it doesn’t burn. Stored in a jar in the fridge, it will keep for several weeks.

Thinking Inside the Box

Usually by this time of year, I’m rolling in lettuce and other greens, bringing in snap peas by the bushel, and harvesting radishes left and right.

But right now, my garden is almost 100% bolted greens and sad tomatoes, planted a little too late and still straggly.

The slugs ate all my beans, most of the basil, and the nasturtiums never took off like most years. The chickens killed most of the strawberry starts. The only thing I’m really getting a decent crop of is the peas, which are still less than other years.

I blame it all on starting a business and having a toddler who can’t actually come out into the garden with me unless I want more things to get un-done than done.

Thank goodness for farmer’s markets…when I can actually get there, which this year has only been about 3 or 4 times.

So, when I got asked if I would like a CSA box courtesy of Oxbow Farms in exchange for a little shameless promotion for the farm, I jumped on it. I have been a CSA member with that farm before, in fact, and I buy their produce at the market all the time. It was a perfect fit with my schedule too, since I was able to pick the box up the day before I hosted the first “public” dinner in our summer backyard dinner series.

I had Joe pick up the box, since he works close to where the pick-up location was, at Melrose Market. He strapped the whole thing to the back of the scooter and speedily brought it home for me to inspect.

What a bounty waited in that small box for me. There are 2 different sizes of shares you can purchase, and this one I believe was one of the small shares. Some things didn’t last past the next morning, but we are still eating the lettuce, and I still have some broccoli and a bunch of chard left, with plans to finish them up this weekend.

As for the other items in the box, I knew right away to what use they would be put. A simple salad to showcase the greens and baby root vegetables that Oxbox farms excels at. When we were getting a CSA box regularly, it was so awesome to always have fresh things to cook and eat that I didn’t have to work hard to provide. It always came with recipes from the farm to help us get creative with ingredients we might not have used before. Not to mention how outstandingly fresh everything was. Then our garden became much more productive and we decided that we could do without the box for a while. With me going back to work full time, getting a box on a regular basis is looking better and better…

I’ve been dreaming of this magical pistachio dust ever since I saw it. I wanted to try making it with sunflower seeds, mostly because I really can’t ever make a recipe the way I see it written. I first made it with the pistachios as called for, then I made a batch using the sunflower seeds. It was excellent. And then I mixed the two batches to go over a huge salad. EVEN BETTER.

Spread lustily and shamelessly over a deep bed of red tinted lettuce, sweet roasted baby beets and turnips, and a few handfuls of snappy green cucumbers, it was a salad that couldn’t call for much more. A little drizzle of good olive oil and a shake or two of champagne vinegar was all it needed to become a delicate tumble of sweet and savory, crunch and silk.

This recipe is incredibly free form, which goes along with how it is to work in a garden. You just have to go with the flow sometimes and take what you can get–much like when you sign up for a CSA box, and you are at the mercy of Mother Nature and how she has treated the farm that week. And it fits in with my “French” theme from the past couple of weeks too, as it’s a salad I’m sure any frenchman would be glad to have on a warm summer evening as part of a larger meal.

Green Salad with Roasted Root Veggies
serves 8-10 as a salad course, 4-6 larger servings

1 medium-large head of good romaine type lettuce, washed well and dried
1 bunch very tiny beets
1 bunch baby turnips, or more beets if you prefer
3-4 small persian cucumbers
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil
champagne vinegar

Heat your oven to 400ºF. Remove the tops from the root veggies (keep them to sauté another time, if they are very tender) leaving about 1/2″ or so of stem attached to the bulb. Scrub them all well and trim off most of the long root part of the beets. In a glass baking dish, drizzle with just a touch of olive oil and roast until tender. This could take anywhere from 1/2 hour to an hour depending on the size of the veggies. You want them to be soft enough for a knife to slice into with no resistance.

While the root veggies roast, wash and dry the lettuce well. Slice each leaf down the middle, stack, then chop into bite sized pieces. Toss into a bowl and cover with a damp towel until you are ready to serve the salad.

Cut the cucumbers in half and then into slices, and keep covered in the fridge until just before tossing the salad.

Once the root veggies are done, let them cool just a bit, then cut any larger roots into small bite sized pieces. Add these pieces, along with the cucumber, to the lettuce and drizzle a couple of tsp each of olive oil and vinegar over it all, starting with just a little, tossing, and tasting before adding more. There should be no liquid in the bottom of the bowl, just enough to barely cover the leaves and vegetables. Add some salt and pepper and toss again. Cover the whole thing in a light blanket of pistachio dust and serve, passing more dust if need be.

Optionally, you can leave the salad undressed and unadorned and it will keep in the fridge for a couple of days to be dressed and eaten as needed.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary box from Oxbow Farms in exchange for this post, but all the words, photographs and opinions are my own.

One!

A year ago today I was dreaming wistfully about the cabbage and mango slaw I had eaten earlier in the week. From the looks of the few pictures it was warm, but probably not quite warm enough to eat outside.

Today, I am at a wedding on the East Coast. It is murderously hot and humid and I wish I could be naked as the day I was born.

Today though, it’s this blog that is as naked–maybe even nakeder–than the day it was born. A year ago, I didn’t know what to do with the words going through my head. There were a lot of them, all jumbled up in there trying to get out. I was still so new to being at home all day with kids, and I needed a creative outlet. I chose to start writing because it seemed natural at the time: Joe had been telling me for months blogging (or something similar) would be a good way for me to do something for myself, and I finally decided he was right. I believe that my writing has improved since then. I have learned to be more honest with myself and by extension, the page.

I have learned that writing a blog post doesn’t mean that I need to bottle it up and be happy every time, and that it’s OK to tell people I write a food blog–even though I still blush on the inside when I do say it.

Back then, my camera was not yet an extension of my hand. I was still getting a feel for how it saw, and how the differences between the way it sees and they way I see could be reconciled. I still have a long long way to go, but I feel more complete now that I can make the camera do what I want instead of the other way around. Most of the time, anyway.

My birthday wish for this blog would be that I could learn to make it bigger. I wish I could foresee success in some tangible way beyond feeling good about sharing the recipes that grow out of the moral code my family lives by. I’ll be heading to the BlogHer Food conference in a couple of weeks, and hopefully I’ll pick up some useful info. The truth is though, that I kinda know what I need to do. I need to get my hands a little dirtier. I need to be even busier than I already am.

I have some things in the works that could be the solution to my quandary. I and a friend are going to be hosting some backyard dinners this summer and early fall, and I’d love for you to get in on the action. The dinners are a fundraiser of sorts, and a way for us to work towards something even bigger on down the road. They will be prix fixe, and hopefully all will have good weather. Each menu will be seasonally focused and as locally sourced as possible. We’ll be testing out some recipes that will play a part in future plans for a venue where I will be serving food to the public and doing what I do best–sharing myself over a good meal.  If you are interested in attending a dinner, please do let me know. We’d absolutely love love love to have you.

In the meantime, I have a teaser for you–a birthday cake, if you will.

This cake has it all. It’s the cake you were waiting for. The cake of your dreams. And it comes with ice cream, so what could be better than that?

This trio is the embodiment of all the best parts of spring. The chiffon cake is airy and spongy like the soil in a well tended garden after a light rain. It’s warm and billowy with a delicate crumb that’s reminiscent of the way raw silk feels on the skin. The subtle fragrance of cardamom envelops you the way a just blooming flower bed’s intoxicating aroma would.

The snap of rhubarb left raw–green and grassy and tart with that unmistakable rosy cheeked smile hiding underneath–is the perfect pairing with rich, alluring ricotta ice cream. An ice cream as silky smooth as you could hope for, but lacking the aggressive sweetness of vanilla that might overpower the delicate flavors of it’s plate mates.

This is a trio of desserts that allows you to pick and choose. You can easily leave out the ice cream and do a simple very lightly sweetened whipped cream instead. You could leave out the cardamom if you like. You could even roast the rhubarb, if you don’t think you will like it raw (though I heartily encourage you to try it that way). You can switch it out entirely for a different fruit if that would please you. The only thing this cake and it’s accompaniments begs it simply to be shared with those you love, preferably in a pool of caressing sunshine–at the end of the day or at the end of a brunch. Even, perhaps, as a mid-afternoon snack.

Cardamom Chiffon Cake with Ricotta Ice cream

For the ice cream (makes 1 Quart)

1 lb whole milk ricotta cheese, as fresh as you can find
1 cup cream
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup sugar
juice of one lemon

First, in the bowl of an electric mixer or other heat proof bowl, heat the egg yolks with a tiny splash of water and the sugar, whisking constantly, until the sugar is just dissolved. Remove from the heat and continue whisking unti it becomes light in color and thickens (ribbon stage).  Whisk until completely cool. Next, heat the honey with the cream just until melted–you don’t actually want the cream to get hot. Whisk in the ricotta, then fold in the egg mixture. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve and let chill in the refrigerator for several hours. Freeze following the instructions for your ice cream maker, then return to freezer to set. Either the custard base or the ice cream itself can be made a day in advance of when you plan to serve it.

For the cake (makes one 9-10″ cake, in a tube pan)

2 1/4 cups cake flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 1/4 tsp cardamom
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup melted butter, cooled
5 eggs, separated, plus 2-3 extra egg whites
3/4 cup cold water
2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp cream of tartar

Preheat oven to 325ºF.

Into a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, and cardamom. Make a well in the center and add the egg yolks, melted butter, water and vanilla. Next, whip the eggs whites together with the cream of tartar until stiff peaks form.

Pour the first mixture over the egg whites and slowly fold the two together with a spatula. Pour into an ungreased tube type pan and bake for 50 minutes, rotating half way though. At 50 minutes, check doneness by pressing with a fingertip–it should spring back quickly. If it’s not quite done, give it another couple of minutes, being careful not to let it over-bake or it will dry out. Remove from the oven and cool upside down on a rack.

While the cake is cooling, wash and slice the rhubarb–about 1 stalk per person. Toss with a couple of Tbsp sugar per stalk and let sit unrefrigerated until service. You can just as easily replace the rhubarb with any fresh, seasonal berries or stone fruits.

Birthdays Rain or Shine

Remember back when I said that the beautiful weather we were having was bound to be temporary? Well it was true. The weather around Seattle has pretty much reverted back to fall weather, except that it’s daytime for about twice as long. I’ve been keeping myself busy though–mostly going to birthday parties.

About this time 2 years ago, I was spending a bit of time with tiny babies. We had several friends who all had babies within about 2 weeks of each other, and it was very exciting because we had just announced that we ourselves were going to be having a baby in October (Lilli’s originally expected birth-month).

And at this same time just last year, I was preparing to launch this baby–the blog you are reading now. (Big plans for that birthday–not all of them cake related!)

And the list goes on with a whole bunch of other May birthdays in our family: the births of both my mom (57 yrs ago) and my dad (56 years ago), Joe’s mom (60 years ago), the twins’ mom (32 years ago) and also the twins themselves (9 years ago).

With so many birthdays this month, we have been busy indeed. Busy making cards and birthday treats. Busy picking out the perfect children’s books as gifts for our youngest friends, busy painting wrapping paper especially for them. There has been brunch parties and dinner parties, kid parties and grown up parties. Who doesn’t love a month full of parties?

Of all the treats I made this month, probably my favorite was a set of cookies for one of those young friends. It was a glorious sunny day when we were planning to spend the afternoon celebrating the birth of Niko, and I wanted to make a special treat for him. I had some gingerbread cookie dough saved in the freezer from when Lilli was on an “I’m the gingerbread man” kick the week before, so I took out the last of it and cut out one cookie for each of the letters in his name. I baked them just right, and then I let them cool.

I frosted them with a thick, lemony, and not too sweet icing and dipped each one in a rainbow of sprinkles. The sprinkles are the key. Bright and cheerful and fun, they make just about any birthday treat that much better.

The best part about these cookies is you don’t even really need a recipe. Just use any dough that would be rolled out and cut, and decorate with a thick frosting that dries hard–I used about 1 cup of powdered sugar turned into a thick paste with the juice of about 1 lemon. Dip the cookie frosting side down into a dish full of whatever sort of sprinkle you want and let it harden before you pack them up.

It’s easy enough that you can do it even if you have 100 birthday parties to go to all at once and they made exactly the statement that I wanted them to make: that I took my time and made something special just for the birthday boy.

The Nature of Comfort

The other day I found myself singing a song to Lilli that I never in a million years ever expected to be singing to her. It was “Getting in Tune” by The Who.

I’m not going to lie: I am a big Who fan. I even have a tattoo inspired by Pete Townshend. And no, I am not joking either.

I am also not joking when I tell you that I recently started making my own brown sugar. Because I didn’t want to pay for someone else to mix molasses into my white sugar when I am perfectly capable of doing that myself. An extra bonus to saving money is that it tastes more molassesey. I don’t think that’s a word, but it is a real thing.

Anyway. That song isn’t really a kids song, but it did fit the moment. We were not getting along particularly well, and then she asked me to sing her a song and that’s what came out. (By asked me to sing her a song, I mean that she picked up a candlestick, put it to her mouth like a microphone and said “do, do, do” and then put it up to my mouth. Toddlers are hilarious.)

The song was an opportunity for me to take a breath and get closer to her, which was what she needed in the first place so that she wouldn’t be so toddler-ish.I took my cue.I’m trying very hard to be a better mother than I feel like I am some days. I know this is all part of parenthood, but for somebody who has been doing it for an extra 6 years before I ever actually became a real-life mom, I get down on myself because I am a perfectionist and I feel like I should be doing it better already. Sometimes I have to remind myself that it doesn’t really matter at all if I’m perfect, and that really, nothing is.

(That is sort of a confusing sentence. Sorry. I’m totally failing at having a working brain right now. Bare with me…it’ll pay off in the end.)

What it really comes down to is comfort. I am uncomfortable feeling vulnerable, which is what being a parent to kids who aren’t my own makes me feel. They are uncomfortable feeling close to someone who isn’t their actual Mom, so they take it out on me. Lilli gets uncomfortable when she sees that there is tension between the boys and I, and then she acts out because she doesn’t know how else to handle the situation. And then I fall back into my very old and very ingrained habits and seek out comfort the only way I know how. To Eat.

I’m very good at comforting with food. I comfort myself with it, and I comfort others with it. I have slowly started to back away from the tendency to comfort with typical comfort foods and to try and replace them with snacks that are lighter, or even walks. I am struggling lately though, not least of all because I sense that others in my life also need comfort.

This week I made a pie for a friend who recently returned home from a prolonged anti-vacation. He was stuck somewhere he didn’t want to be stuck, and he was stuck there for a long time without any friends of family to feed him. So when he got back, we decided to fill him with comfort by being there to entertain him with wii Pictionary and Thanksgiving-esque foods.

I brought dessert, of course.

There is nothing about apple pie that doesn’t say comfort. Especially not this apple pie. This is a pie that is rich enough to take you shopping at all the bougie Pacific Place shops and then take you to a light supper and the symphony after. But, it isn’t so rich that you’ll feel weird wearing holey jeans while you eat it. The tart green apples are just beyond soft, and the all butter crust has everything you could ever want–as long as all you could ever want is deliriously perfect pie crust with no lard in sight. The extra molassesy brown sugar doesn’t hurt either.

I recommend that you do like I did, and share this pie with many people. Otherwise, you might need a more comfortable pair of pants, and that’s just not the sort of comfort I am going for here. I think I’m going to share it again this weekend, with my Mother and Grandmother, who appreciate good pies and are my original comforts.

Deep Dish Caramel Apple Pie with Oatmeal Streusel

For the Crust:
(Totally optional. If you don’t want to make pie crust from scratch, just add the cinnamon from this recipe into the filling itself)

1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1/2″ cubes and frozen
6 oz all purpose flour
1 big pinch salt
1 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4-1/3 cup ice water

For the Filling

3 lbs tart green apples, such as granny smith
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 Tbsp all purpose flour
pinch salt

For the Streusel Topping:

1/2 cup each brown sugar, all purpose flour and rolled oats mixed together in a small bowl. Add 1 Tbsp ground cinnamon. Take about 4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) very warm-melty butter and mix with your fingertips to combine, until the topping starts to form lumps that stick together when you squish them. (Don’t hate. Squish is a scientific term, I can assure you.) Set aside.

For the Crust:

In a food processor, pulse the dry ingredients for a few seconds, just to combine. Add the butter and pulse about 5-6 times, until the chunks have become about the size of garbanzo beans. Next, add a couple Tbsp of water and pulse again 2-3 times. Keep adding water and pulsing just once or twice until the dough starts to look lumpy and the largest butter pieces are about the size of small peas. Dump all the dough into a quart size sip-top bag and mush it all together until it roughly forms a disc about 5″ across. Set in the fridge to chill and relax for at least 1/2 hour, but up to overnight. (The dough can be frozen for up to a couple of months at this point, if need be.)

When you are ready to assemble your pie, take the dough out of the fridge and put it between 2 sheets of parchment paper at least 12″ square. Roll out the dough, making 1/4 turns every couple of strokes with the rolling pin. Use flour if the dough starts to stick to the paper too much, but you want to limit the amount of extra flour as much as possible. Once the dough reaches about 11″ across, remove it from the paper and gently fold in into quarters to transfer it to a 9″ deep dish pie pan, or a 9″ cake pan with at least 2″ sides. Let it hang loosely as you ease it down into the corners of the pan, and then leave the excess dough hanging from the edges. Put the whole thing into the fridge while you prepare the filling.

For the Filling:

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Place a rack in the top third and another just underneath that.

Peel and core the apples, and cut them into 8ths. In a heavy bottomed skillet, melt the butter and sugar until golden and bubbling. Add the apples, cream, flour and salt all at once. Stir quickly with a wooden spoon to coat the apples and encourage the caramel to emulsify. Cook, stirring occasionally, just until the apples start to become tender, about 5-6 minutes.

Pour it all into your pie crust, being sure to scrape all the caramel out. Put the topping over the apples, then fold the overhanging pie crust up over the edges of the pie. Bake on the top rack with a cookie sheet underneath to catch drippings, about 45 minutes, then check for doneness. You want the apples to be soft enough for a fork to pierce with no resistance, but not so soft they’re mushy. Rotate if necessary for even browning, and give it 5-10 minutes more if you feel like it needs it.

Allow the pie to cool for several hours before slicing, to let the caramel set up and for the pectin in the apples to come back together a bit. I heartily encourage you to eat this pie a la mode, even though a slice by itself is plenty indulgent on it’s own. After all, if you’re going for comfort, you might as well go all the way.

Sweet Mourning

This weekend I got some time to myself. Just me and a friend and a few sad bee carcases.

I know, it’s a little morbid. But you have to be realistic when you keep bees. You will inevitably kill a few by accident in the process, and sometimes, you lose a whole hive.

One of the hives I keep with my friend Meghan didn’t survive the winter. Our theory is that they got chilled when the roof of their hive body sprung a leak of sorts and the walls of the wooden boxes they called home became damp and mildewy. Meghan also said she suspects the queen was never very strong to begin with, and that she thinks she died back in November. It’s taken till recently for the last of the colony to die off in the cold, lonely winter.

It made us both a little sad, but it also made us a little bit happy because there was still some honey in those combs!

The harvest took us longer than we expected due to problems with mold on some of the combs, so mid-harvest I had to head home to eat lunch with my favorite people. As a result I didn’t get to see how much honey there was in the end. I did however get to sneak away with a little jar of sweet goodness. We all sampled it with our lunch and it was very good indeed.

I said a little thank you to the bees who gave their lives to provide us with something so amazing, and I said the same little thank you yesterday morning when I poured a tiny drizzle over the pears I sauteed to go with our breakfast–a bread pudding made of leftover wacked out sourdough.

Friday night I took a loaf of sourdough out of the freezer for our Shabbat bread. A pretty miserable loaf of sourdough at that. When I originally baked it on Monday, I baked it in a hurry, which is ironic considering it took three days to actually make the bread itself. In my haste to get it in the oven on time for dinner guests after arriving home late to start our meal, I forgot to slash the tops. It was like adding insult to injury–the bread was slightly underproofed. It baked up flavorful but on the dense side, and the crust never really browned, just toughening up as it went along. It was so weird.

It did make killer bread pudding though. I mixed it up Saturday night and popped it in the oven first thing Sunday morning: I cut off most of the offending crust (the top part was OK, and I like the chewiness of a little bit left in a bread pudding) and cut it into rough cubes, poured on some custard and let it soak overnight. It’s the closest you can get to a decadent breakfast that makes itself. I will spare you the pictures. It wasn’t pretty in the least.

This isn’t a traditional bread pudding. It’s eggier to satisfy a morning hunger, and it’s less sweet than usual to make room for the sweetness of the pears I set alongside. I hope you’ll give it a try next time you have an ugly loaf of bread sitting around, offending your sensibilities.

It was the perfect thing to eat before a trip to the Sunday Farmer’s Market. A trip that was made (mostly) in the sun.

And yes, we still ate a huge muffin as a snack.

Cardamom Breakfast Bread Pudding with Sauteed Pears
makes one dish about 9″x 13″ or a comparably sized pan, serves 6-8

For the Bread Pudding:
1 loaf sourdough bread, crust removed (or mostly removed)
6 eggs
2 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup cream or half & half (you can use all milk if you like, it will be less rich)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp ground cardamom
1/2 Tbsp ground cinnamon
pinch salt
butter to grease the pan
1 cup raisins or other dried fruit cut into small pieces, optional

For the Pears:
6 small–or 4 large–firm pears, such as Bosc
1/2 cup honey, more or less to taste
2 Tbsp butter

Make a day in advance for the most satisfying results. Bake in an oven preheated to 375ºF.

Cut the bread into thick slices and then into cubes about 1″ in size. Set aside.

Mix the eggs, milk, cream, sugar, spices and salt in a large bowl. Add the bread and, using a large spoon or your hands, turn to coat all the bread evenly with the milk mixture. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning, turn on the oven (375ºf) and grease your pan. Pour in the bread mixture, stirring well one more time before doing so. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until completely set. It might take longer if you bake it in a deeper pan.

While the pudding bakes, core the pears (peel if you like) and cut into eights. Heat a large skillet over medium high heat and add the butter to the pan. Once the butter is melted, add in the pears and let brown for a few minutes before adding the honey. Stir to coat and then turn down the heat and continue to cook until the pears soften but before they turn to mush. Turn off the heat if your pudding still needs a while to bake. Cover, and reheat briefly over medium heat if need be before serving.

Once the pudding is set, take it out of the oven and let sit for about 5 minutes before serving to allow the custard to set a touch more and to bring down to an edible temperature. Serve everything warm.

Marmalade Mash-up

One time I went to three or four different hole-in-the-wall asian markets looking for green papayas to make green papaya salad. It was probably the only legitimate craving I had the entire time I was pregnant with Lilli.

It wasn’t even that much of a craving, really. More of an “I think I want to make this” and then it got more and more important the harder I had to look for those stupid papayas.

Anyway, last week Lilli and I took another journey down to those hole-in-the-wall asian markets, this time with two important differences. One, she was an actual kid and not just a zygote, or whatever. Two, we were looking for citrus, preferably weird varieties, but not with anything too specific in mind. Unfortunately we didn’t find anything that weird.We did come home with a couple of huge pomelos and about 3 pounds of kumquats, all for about 8 bucks.

This is awesome because unless you happen to live in california and have some sort of citrus tree (that actually produces fruit, unlike the one in my dining room) somewhere within, oh, say, 200 miles of your front door, those little babies will cost you an arm and a leg. I knew I wanted to make some sort of marmalade so it really didn’t matter what we found, as long as it was cheap. I have also been collecting other citrus. By the time I was getting ready to go to work on this marmalade, I had a bevy of grapefruit, a small stash of Meyer lemons and more oranges than I could count, of several varieties.

So I set to work reading a ton of awesome posts about marmalade. I read some over at Food in Jars (Whose kumquat recipe I followed…the whole thing. Which is unlike me.), and there’s been tons of good ideas for citrus in general on Punk Domestics. I wanted to make a batch that had just one fruit and also one batch that was a medley. I peeled an orange for Lilli and then set to work chopping everything up.

And then I decided that I am a total crazy person. Making kumquat marmalade is like making strawberry jelly where the first step is taking out each individual seed with a pair of tweezers before you cook the fruit. It’s ridiculously time consuming. As good as it tasted, I recommend you find a crazy-person friend to make it for you instead of attempting it yourself. Unless you’re crazy too, in which case you have my blessing.

The other batch I made was the medley and I kind of just made it up using the rule of thumb that says you should add about 3-4 cups of sugar for every pound of fruit. Marmalade isn’t like other jam. Since it contains the peel of the citrus you kind of need to let it soak and soften and then cook for a really long time. It’s better that way. There are ways to get around it, but not with kumquats.

I used the way around when we made the lemon marmalade back in San Francisco. When I cut up the pomelos I followed this “way around” too. You can basically make supremes of the fruit. First, use a vegetable peeler to take off all the zest in big strips which you then chop into very thin slices. Next, cut the flesh from the membranes, and chop it into smallish pieces, setting aside the seeds and membranes like you would if you had cut them whole. For the pomelos it was kind of the only way to go since there’s so much peel and the membranes can be kind of tough. I added one delicious pink grapefruit, mostly just to give it a little more rosy color than the pomelos would bring and also cut up 5 Meyer lemons. And I let it soak the entire 24 hours, even though I’ve never done that part before.

When I got around to cooking it, I realized I had probably added too much water, because it boiled forever. It boiled for probably over an hour before it hit the jelly point (220ºF), which is sort of on the ridiculous end of the spectrum.

In the end, it was kind of on the bitter side. Not inedible, just a little bit not sweet even though I knew it had plenty of sugar in it. So, I’m not going to share the recipe. I hope you don’t mind. I think it will be excellent as part of a sweet cookie or made into a sauce to go over ice cream…Why don’t I have any ice cream?

Well, good thing the kumquat marmalade was delicious. I guess I’ll have to eat that first.

One thing I did deem a success was the pomelo sugar I made using the rind from one of the pomelos. I had decided that since they’re such a big fruit, I only needed to add part of the zest, and was pretty glad about that later. To use it up (because I hate to throw stuff out if I can help it) I ground it up very very fine in the food processor and then dumped in a couple cups of granulated sugar to absorb all the oils from the rind. The sugar also serves as a medium for the zest to get into whatever it is you want it in.

You can just mix any sort of citrus zest in with some sugar. About one orange or lemon per cup of sugar, or two of each fruit it they are pretty small. Mix it up and then store it in an airtight container. I went the wacky route and physically cut up the zest, but a microplane style grater is the best tool for the job. You can use it anywhere regular sugar would be called for but a hit of citrus would be welcome.