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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Boxing Day

Because the Monday following Christmas is Boxing Day in the UK, I thought it appropriate to post this particular piece this week. 

It was a recurring theme throughout my childhood: boxing up homemade baked goods, magazines and assorted ‘you-can’t-get-that-over-here’ requests from my brothers in the military. If you could get a passport stamp for every country mailed to, my mom would surely be receiving medals and accolades from the Explorers Club.

I grew up in a family with a long, proud history of military service stretching from time immemorial and now a new generation of family members continues to serve in various posts and war zones around the globe.

As the sixth of nine children, I sometimes got a little lost in the shuffle. I was one of those kids who didn’t take orders well and no one really expected much from me as far as military service. Even my teachers early-on in military base schools would point this out to my parents. “That one certainly marches to her own beat…”

I did have talent, though. I learned to package from the best. I was in elementary school during the Vietnam War but still remember the ritual of double or triple wrapping and packing personal items, books and cookies, then paper wrapping the exterior of the boxes and tying the whole thing firmly with string. I had the best string finger in the house. I knew exactly when to pull out, keeping the string taught until just before it was pulled tight enough to take off an errant fingertip. There was a strict protocol for mailing packages overseas in those days and encouraged to be good soldiers at home, we followed the rules to the letter. My mom lived for this. Give that woman a project and hell and high water could not stop her. Damn the politics of the war, these were our boys and if they wanted cookies, by god, they would have them. And they got there, mostly.

We waited confidently for confirmation on the results of each and every cookie, magazine and paperback book mission. Unaccounted-for boxes were mourned at length and there was much speculation about its final resting place and talk of the potential careless private, no doubt using our sturdy box as a stepstool in some far off warehouse.

Some posts are more difficult than others. Mailing to Vietnam was tough. You had to guard your package against monsoon rains and the ruthless humidity that would quickly soften & mold even the snappiest of gingersnaps. And solid packaging was a must. Thousands of packages mailed to who-knows-where outposts in the jungle would mean the measly little shoe boxes sent by lesser informed moms would be crushed under the weight of military supplies in a heartbeat.

When my brother e-mailed from Afghanistan last year stating that any sister who really cared would send him brownies, I knew I was up to the task. I had a little recent practice sending boxes to Iraq; first to my two nephews Jason and Michael, then to our good friend Curtis. I knew they were arriving in about 10 days to 2 weeks depending upon the soldier’s station. Afghanistan, however, was another story.

I had forgotten to ask the most important of all questions and had broken the cardinal rule of military mailing: KNOW YOUR TRAVEL TIME. This little fact allows you to tailor your perishables to ensure that they are still edible in the end. In my defense, Jim was no longer actually military, but now a contractor living in a metal box under a pile of hot sand in the desert. He was there over a period of five years as head of an EOD team – Explosive Ordinance Disposal- blowing captured munitions to smithereens before they could blow our guys to smithereens. Not an enviable environment and definitely well worth the effort of a brownie mission.

Jim did, eventually, receive the box and thanked me. He wasn’t quite sure what I had sent, the mass being completely unrecognizable at that point – some five-plus weeks later. Home now, working in the California desert, he recently reminded me of that oh, so-painful-for-both-of-us operation and I reminded him about the nice bottle of Jameson I bought him upon his return.

Undiscouraged and true to my genetics, I did recently, successfully mail a package to my 24 year old nephew Ryan, now in Iraq on his second tour. Informing him on Facebook of the parcel in transit his reply was “cookies?! did i read cookies! aunt sharon, in short, you rock. you're the dogs bollocks.” I have no idea what that means. I do believe that with cookies involved, however, that it must be a positive statement.

Some of his latest online photos show him looking older than I imagined. 
There are desert scenes, random images of soldiers in front of various local landmarks and pictures of daily Army life in a war zone. There is a tiny bunk overhung with a Texas flag, helmet and weapon within arms reach (in fact everything appears to be within arms reach) and a shot of Ryan eating Thanksgiving dinner out of a styrofoam takeout container while standing - dressed in full battle gear. A can of what is clearly Mountain Dew with an Arabic label completes his meal. Scrolling through his online scrapbook I realize for a moment what the stress of his daily life must be like. My mom was definitely right about one thing: the only thing worse than living and fighting in a war zone would be to do it without homemade cookies. 

I received confirmation of delivery through Facebook today. Mission accomplished. Mailing that little bit of holiday cheer to a faraway place may seem like a small thing to some but the bond we feel as family, however scattered, is real. I am beginning to understand, as perhaps my mother did some 35 years ago, that whether we like the politics of the place or not is irrelevant when a member of one’s own family is placed in a dangerous situation. Where rocket fire, mortar attacks and IED’s are all a part of daily living, a small connection to home that can be shared with other soldiers is a great comfort.

Yesterday, I called Jim in California and offered a second try on the brownies. I figure I owe him one after all, but he declined. He said things are heating up in Afghanistan and he has to get in shape. He is leaving next month for another year – maybe two.

post script: This was written in 2008. Ryan is home now - he arrived safely last year at about this time after his second Iraqi tour working as a medic. My brother Jim did not to return to Afghanistan and is working as the Director of IED Services for a firm in DC. I sent him the brownies.

The following recipe is based on one from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great American Desserts. If you are in the midst of your search for the best-ever brownie recipe, you just got a lot closer. These are intensely chocolaty, almost flourless and devoured wherever they appear (and they pack well for shipping). The fiori di sicilia contributes an orange flavor that works well with the chocolate. 

Boxing Day Brownies

2oz good quality Unsweetened Chocolate
4oz good quality Semisweet Chocolate
4oz Butter
¾ c Sugar
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp Fiori di Sicilia (or Vanilla Extract)
2 large Eggs
¼ c Flour
½ tsp Cinnamon
1 c lightly toasted Pecans

Melt the butter and 2 chocolates in a pan. Cool slightly. Add sugar, salt and Fiori di Sicilia and mix until sugar is well combined. Add eggs, one at a time and beat well after each. The mixture will become very glossy. Add the flour and cinnamon and mix well. Stir in nuts.

Pour the mixture into a foil lined, buttered 8” square pan. Bake at 325 degrees for about 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Chill the brownies in a freezer for about an hour or until firm. Remove foil and cut into 16 pieces.

Use the best ingredients you can afford. The freshest spices, best chocolate and real butter make all the difference. If you are unfamiliar with fiori di sicilia it is basically an intense orange and vanilla flavoring. It is available through King Arthur flour.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Spiced Basmati Rice Stuffed Pumpkin

Looking for a quick and easy vegetarian option for your holiday meal? You can make this in any winter squash with good results. Vary the spices to your taste. The rice also makes a wonderful stuffing for a chicken, turkey or game bird.

Spiced Basmati Rice Stuffed Pumpkin

1 small “sugar pie” pumpkin or winter squash

butter or olive oil
¼ cup diced carrot
¼ cup diced onion
¼ cup diced celery
1 cup Basmati or Jasmine Rice
½ tsp cardamom
½ tsp ginger
½ tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp cloves
2 Tbsp raisins
2 Tbsp almonds
2 Tbsp cashews
2 Tbsp dried apricots
2 cups vegetable stock
S&P to taste

Cut the 'top' off a pumpkin or squash and clean out the seed cavity. Lightly sprinkle salt and cinnamon into the cavity.

Melt butter or heat olive oil in a pan. Saute the carrot, onion and celery until softened. Add the rice and saute 1 minute, stirring. Add spices, fruit and nuts, stir to combine. Add stock.

Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer and stir occasionally for 10 minutes (If using brown rice, cook until about ½ done). Rice will not be fully cooked. Spoon into the pumpkin or squash and replace the top.

Bake in a 375 degree oven for 35-40 minutes or until squash is soft and rice is heated through.

Let stand 10 minutes. Place on a serving plate and quarter with a sharp knife. Wonderful hot or at room temperature. Serve with Chutney and fresh Naan.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Lessons from my Golden Retriever

It’s a bright, cold winter day; below zero this morning. I have filled the bird feeders and put out suet again but the only taker so far appears to be a small rabbit, snacking on some spilled feed on top of the snow. Christmas is just a week away, the daylight hours are at their shortest and everything seems still around me. As he has every week or so, our neighbor, Leroy, brings fresh caught sunfish that he has pulled from their watery home under the ice and cleaned for me. A delight. 

A barred owl flies from the yard into the adjacent woods as I come around the corner from the feeders. This, surely, is the baby we saw in the spring, now nearly full grown. On the other side of the yard, skeletons of summer greenery cling to the garden fence where cucumbers wove their way through the wire months ago. I should have torn down the vines but now they bring back the memory of summer and the smell of pickles and warm me up a little.

Maggie hops and prances alongside me as I walk to the mailbox, begging me to play in the snow. “Can we go for a walk? C’mon!” Then, she stops and abruptly buries her nose in the snow, suddenly aware of some small creature crawling beneath the cold white crust.

Golden Retrievers are tireless at play and as her chosen and nearly constant companion, she begs me daily. When rebuffed, “I have to WORK, Maggie” she sighs loudly as she ‘schlumpfs’ to the floor with her stuffed toy as if complaining, “Why CAN’T we play?” A periodic, pitiful whine is audible from across the room.

After a morning of work, she gets her way. “Alright girl, let’s go.” I bundle up, dead animal hat and all, and head out into the bitter air. A walk it is. Alive in the outdoor air, she is all action. Running ahead, racing back to meet me, running ahead again and digging in the snow for some undetectable (to my wimpy human nose) and clearly irresistible smell. I watch her and marvel at her sheer delight in her surroundings. Why CAN’T we play? We get so obsessed with working more to earn more money to buy more shiny new ‘stuff’ and in the end, all we have is a pile of stuff and no life. No play. Hmm.

When we get home, I go to the kitchen bookcase and rummage through the shelves until I find it: Baking for Your Dog - Tasty Treats for Your Four-Legged Friend by Ingeborg Pils. Crispy Bacon Rolls? Dixie’s Cheese Crunchies? Oh, here we go, Crunchy Sesame Bites. Some cheese, a couple of eggs and whole grains – I could add a little bacon…Easy enough. In no time we have them in the oven.

At the end of the day, I pile a bunch of pillows from the couch on the floor, bring my cup of tea and a few treats and curl up with my buddy to watch a film. When the crunching is over, I get a quick lick on the forehead from this ever-more-grey-haired old lady. A little thank you from my old friend. In a week, ‘dad’ will be home and we will be back in our busy daily routine but for now it’s just the two of us. A couple of snoozy old ladies at home in the woods. 

Bacon Sesame Snacks
adapted from the book Baking for Your Dog - Tasty Treats for Your Four-Legged Friend by Ingeborg Pils

2 c Six Grain Flour
2 Eggs
4 oz Shredded Swiss Cheese
3 oz Cream Cheese, softened
2 Tbsp Bacon Bits, if desired

Sesame seeds

Mix all of the ingredients except Sesame Seeds and Knead into a ball. (Add a tsp or two of water if needed.) Roll Tbsp size pieces of dough into oblongs, flatten slightly and dip one side into the seeds. (You can also make smaller bites for daintier palates.)

Bake the snacks, seed side up, on parchment paper at 350 degrees about 30 minutes or until lightly brown and crisp. Let dry overnight uncovered at room temperature before storing. Snacks should be very hard and dry. 

This book is a fun gift from dog to dog or dog owner to dog owner. 
Whether you give the book or its products, it will be welcomed by 
two and four legged friends alike. – It’s Maggie Recommended.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What Happened to My Peanut Butter Sandwich?

Salmonella in commercially produced peanut butter, High Fructose Corn Syrup in commercially produced jellies and Bromates in commercially produced bread. When did my PB&J become hazardous material? Maybe the sandwich is not the common denominator, maybe the factory is. 

In our never ending quest to create cheap food in this country, and we have succeeded, we appear to have traded nutritional value for dollar value. The baby boom generation grew up in a post WWII world where industry was king. Industry brought us plentiful, higher paying jobs with fewer hours spent at work, affordable cars and homes and cheap ‘convenience’ foods.

Want to make a cake? Buy a cake mix. Scalloped Potatoes? Just add water. Love your Mom’s homemade Mac n Cheese? Ours isn’t as tasty and isn’t actually made with cheese, but MAN is it fast! Dinner on the table in 20 minutes? No problem. Vegetables? Who needs ‘em? And we bought it. Literally. Hook, line and sinker. Fast forward to a new century where entire generations have grown up without learning where their food comes from or how to prepare food that is not processed or prepared for them.

Take bread. A simple combination of flour, water, yeast, salt and time. That is all it takes, though even yeast and salt are not a necessity. We have taken the simplest of foods, put it into the hands of corporations and asked them to take care of it for us. And they did.

Factory made bread never touches human hands. Often mixed in 500 pound batches, 1200 loaves an hour is not an unusual production number and would be a low number for many commercial bakeries. The product is usually leavened using a “chemical slurry” (actual yeast is too slow to react in this process) an instant action chemical mixture that mimics yeasts action. A marvel of modern science.
Now meet Potassium Bromate, a white crystalline powder often added to factory produced breads as a ‘flour improver’. It decomposes at 370 degrees and under the right conditions is completely baked off in the bread. If, however, too much is added to the flour or the bread is baked at too low a temperature or not quite long enough, residual Potassium Bromate will remain in the baked product and can be ‘harmful if eaten’.

Whoa. Back that up. Would you buy a food product marked “May Be Harmful if Swallowed”? Would you feed it to your family? You may have been doing just that for years.

Potassium Bromate may be listed in bakery products as Bromic Acid, Potassium Salt, Bromated Flour or it may simply be dumped into the vague category “dough conditioners”. It is considered a likely carcinogen and is banned in Europe, the UK, Canada, China, Nigeria, Peru, Brazil and many other countries. California has required a warning label on products containing Bromated flour and while the FDA has ruled that Bromates are “safe and legal” they have also, since 1991, urged bakers to voluntarily stop using it.

Why not ban it altogether? Because it was approved as ‘safe for use’ in food products before the Delaney Clause, which bans the approval of cancer causing chemicals for use in food. Notice the Act does not prohibit the USE of these agents if they have already been approved, simply the APPROVAL of new substances found to induce cancer. As long as it goes unchallenged as “safe”, even though it has been shown to induce cancer in mammals in laboratory settings, it remains legal for use in our food.

Why do commercial bread producers continue to use Bromated flour even though the FDA urges them not to? Bromates chemically speed up oxidation in bread, creating stronger dough that stands up better to commercial mixers, rises higher and reduces the time it takes to produce each batch of bread. Ascorbic Acid (vitamin C) works in much the same way and many bakers use this instead, though it does not work exactly the same way and is not as successful in big, commercial applications. So in the end, it comes down to dollars and what we as consumers are willing to tolerate and pay for a loaf of bread. The faster and more cheaply the bread can be produced, the greater the profit.

As long as we are willing to pay a factory to produce cheap bread we show our willingness to accept the lowest possible quality in food – or to quote Michael Pollan, “food-like substances”.
Each time we make our own bread or buy bread made by hand we connect ourselves with the process of providing for ourselves, choosing to know what is in our food and participating in our local community.

The Easiest Bread You Will Ever Make

So, why not bake your own bread? “Ha!” you scoff, “I have no time! It’s too complicated! I hate the kneading! I have never done it before!“ I have news for you kids, even if you have baked bread from scratch your whole life as I have, it just got a whole lot easier.

What if I told you that you probably have all of the ingredients in your house right now, That you could mix up a batch of bread dough in 5 minutes, let it rise and throw it in your refrigerator for a week. During that time, all you have to do is tear off the size you want, shape it into a loaf, let it rise for an hour or so and bake it fresh anytime you want it? Interested now?

When I first heard about the book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, I laughed. “Gimmick. There is no way. Won’t taste as good as real bread.”

When I ran across a no-knead bread recipe on the King Arthur Flour website that originated in the book, I decided to give it a try. My response was a resounding OMG!
This is the fastest, easiest way to bake bread fresh whenever you want it. I was hooked. I bought the book the next day and have been baking my way through the pages. Today's bread was an English Granary Loaf – FANTASTIC. Soft inside, chewy crust with bits of malted wheat for texture.

You need no equipment other than a bowl and a spoon – actually the spoon is optional, you can use your hands if you like. I do have a few additional tools that I find helpful, but they are not necessary for perfect results.

Mixer with a Dough Hook. I do mix my dough with my Kitchenaid mixer and dough hook but that is just easier for me as it mixes it quickly and I already own the mixer. These are literally No-Knead breads so don’t worry about it - you only mix the dough for about 60 seconds.

Dough Bucket. I bought a dough bucket his year and I love it because I can see the dough level instantly, but any large bowl will do. p.s. never put the lid on the dough bucket tightly. As the dough expands it will literally blow its top.

Bread Stone. I have 2 types: a ½ inch thick bread stone that I have used for years in the oven and on the gas grill for pizzas and simple unglazed clay tiles. I bought the 6”x6” unglazed clay tiles at a hardware store for 44 cents each. 6 of them cover my oven rack perfectly and work exactly like the bread stone.

Hint: preheat the stone or tiles in the oven for 1 hour before baking to get a great crust on your bread. I also preheat a small empty bread pan and after placing the dough on the stone I pour hot water into the pan and quickly close the oven door to create steam and a crispier crust.

Parchment Paper. I let my dough rise on a piece of parchment paper on a cooling rack. When the dough is ready, I slide the dough, paper and all, off the rack onto the bread stone. This will also help you to remove the bread from the oven easily.

I use Unbleached All Purpose Flour unless the recipe calls for bread flour. Pillsbury, King Arthur, Bob’s Red Mill and many others make good unbromated AP flour. You can also go to your Coop or Organic food store and find a variety of high quality flours. If you are unsure about your favorite brand, email or call the company.

I also use Kosher Salt at home. Ever tasted your salt? Try this. Taste a tiny bit of kosher salt or sea salt. Tastes like salt, right? Now taste table salt. Taste like chemicals? That’s because it is loaded with anti-caking agents and other chemicals.

I keep my Yeast in the freezer. You can use it directly from the freezer with no ill effects to the dough and you don’t have to worry about it going bad as quickly.

We have good quality water from our own well but many people have heavily chlorinated water. If you have concerns, use spring water for your breads. The water should be warm, not hot. You can kill the yeast if you overheat it. If you can't hold your hand comfortably under the running water, it is too hot.

More than anything, know that YOU CAN DO THIS. Once you try it, you will be hooked on the speed and simplicity. I certainly am.

Oh, and let me know how your bread turns out!

The Recipe

3 cups of Warm Water
1 ½ Tbsp instant Yeast
1 Tbsp Salt
7 cups All Purpose Flour

Place water, yeast and salt in a bowl. Stir to mix. Add flour and stir or mix just until everything is combined. It will be a sticky, rough dough. Let the dough rest at room temperature, loosely covered for 2 hours. The dough will expand until more than double and may deflate as well – let it 'do it's thing'. All is well.

At this point you can either put the dough in the refrigerator, loosely covered, for up to a week or bake some or all of it right away.

When you are ready to bake, tear off a softball size piece of dough, form a ball or loaf, and let it rise on a piece of parchment paper or in a lightly greased loaf pan for 45 minutes to an hour. If you are baking dough that was refrigerated, this may take a little longer.

Just before baking, make cuts into the dough with a knife or kitchen scissors about ½“ deep. This will keep the crust from tearing as it bakes. Pop it into the oven for 25 – 30 minutes and out will come your beautiful bread.

Find recipes and tips for baking loads of great no-knead breads at King Arthur Flour by visiting their website.
You will be baking like a star in no time. 

Friday, December 10, 2010


The Celtic celebration of the winter solstice has always intrigued me. This ancient pre-christian winter holiday on December 21st marks the longest night of the year, traditionally heralded by orchard wassailing (singing to trees in apple orchards to promote a good harvest for the coming year), house wassailing (singing house to house), gift giving, feasting and bonfires to encourage the sun to come back from its long winter slumber.

While I have no apple trees to wassail, I will invite my friends for a bonfire, rum-spiked hot cider and spice filled treats to celebrate the return of the sun. In Medieval Europe, ginger was an important spice and Lebkuchen (gingerbread), Papparkakor (sometimes called peppernuts) and similar cookies became synonymous with winter festivals from that time forward.

I have been tinkering with various versions of my own ginger cookies for over 30 years and have come to prefer them crispy outside, chewy inside with bits of fiery-sweet crystallized ginger added. If you have never made your own crystallized ginger, it is a simple process with the added bonus byproduct of ginger syrup. The crystallized ginger slices can be stored in your cupboard for up to a year and the syrup refrigerated for months and added to baked goods, hot drinks and cocktails*.

Crystallized Ginger
Expensive to purchase and easy to make, crystallized ginger gives baked goods and jams an extra kick.

½ # fresh Ginger Root
2 cups water

1½ cups water
1½ cups sugar
½ tsp Cream of Tartar

Granulated Sugar for coating

Peel and slice fresh gingerroot into thin slices or strips. Place ginger in a small pan with 2 cups
of water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Drain and reserve slices.

Place 1½ cups sugar and equal water into the pan. Add cream of tartar and a pinch of salt. Heat to boiling to dissolve sugar. Add ginger and simmer 30 minutes. Remove pan from heat, cover and let rest at room temperature for 8 hours or overnight.

Return pan to heat. Bring to a boil, and continue boiling until temperature reaches 230 degrees on a candy thermometer. Reserve liquid. Lay ginger on a rack to dry. 

Slices are ready when they are no longer moist. Toss in sugar to coat. Let dry at room temperature for 1 additional day. Ginger can be stored at room temperature in a sealed container for up to 1 year.

Pour the ginger syrup into
a jar and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

*Try Julia Child’s Gingerbread Baby Cakes from the book Baking with Julia. While still warm from the oven, poke holes in the top with a toothpick and brush with warm ginger syrup.
Cocktails anyone? Ginger simple syrup, a squeeze of lime, fresh mint, Tanqueray Rangpur Gin and tonic over ice is one of my favorite cocktails.

Soft Gingersnaps
These are wonderfully soft & chewy with a spicy zing from crystallized ginger.

1 cup sugar
¼ cup dark unsulphered molasses
1 egg
¾ cup organic shortening*
2 cups flour
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp cloves
2 tsp baking soda
¼ cup crystallized ginger, chopped

Mix all ingredients, roll into walnut sized balls & roll balls into sugar. 
Bake at 325 degrees about 8-10 minutes or until lightly brown. These cookies freeze well and mail well.
*Organic shortening is made with palm oil and is non-hydrogenated. It is not cheap, but I use very little shortening over the year and it is not a major expense. I have found that substituting butter or other fats do not give me the same texture.  

Monday, December 6, 2010

Serious Business

As a small child, one thing continually confounded me. Every morning, my mother got up and made a huge breakfast for the family but never joined us at the table. She served us all, got everyone off to school and work and then sat down alone to her own breakfast.

As an adult, the answer is, of course, clear. My mother had nine children. After the clatter of dishes, scuffling of siblings, paper lunch bag filling and pulling on of winter gear for the race to the school bus, she could finally, alone, relax.

My mother was an outstanding cook in her day, by any standard. Her knowledge of scratch cooking, everything from handmade pasta to fresh pastries to cooking all manner of wild game looked so relaxed but was a remarkable daily feat. I was the one child she could never quite shoo out of the kitchen and despite the busyness of her daily routine, I absorbed a great deal in that room. The only time I was completely banished with the others was on holidays when my mother and grandmother made spectacular Midwestern feasts. They alone were allowed to cross the threshold into the kitchen and I remember there was always a great deal of discussion between them about creating the perfect gravy. My grandfather, a professional chef, would sometimes enter the room at this point to taste and confer with the two women until a consensus was gained. This was serious business.

Recently, my children, now grown and beginning their own traditions, began asking me for some of the recipes they enjoyed in their early years. “That coffee cake you used to make on Saturday mornings” and “those reeeally good applesauce spice cookies” are now being baked in their own kitchens.

To me, there is something remarkable about family traditions, especially those that emanate from the kitchen. It is the way we connect the generations of our families. Knowing that my sister Barbara, in Texas, will make the same Fresh Apple Cake recipe each year for the holidays that she and I have made for 30 years, connects us. That we will each tell that story again, about the first holiday we shooed Mom and Grandma out of the kitchen and made the feast ourselves (fully stuffed from ’tasting’ by the time dinner was served), though we will do the telling in separate states, binds us. It makes us remember that we are family.

In the hustle of your holiday preparations this year, I hope that you can take a little time to include those giggly kids who are peeping around the corner from the dining room and give them the memory of mashing the potatoes or whipping the cream for the pie for the first time. They may just tell that story for years to come.

Barbara’s Fresh Apple Cake with Caramel Topping
This simple cake freezes well after baking if you can hide it long enough to do so. I like to bake little ‘baby cakes’ in small baking pans. To take it over the top, purchase some good quality caramels, melt them slowly with a tiny bit of water and drizzle the baked cakes with this – crazy good.

2 cups chopped fresh apple
¾ c sugar
1 egg, beaten
½ c vegetable oil
1 ½ c flour
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp allspice
¼ tsp nutmeg
½ c raisins
½ c toasted pecans or walnuts, chopped
½ c coconut

6-8 Handmade or good quality caramels
1 tsp water

Mix together apples and sugar. Lightly beat egg and oil together, add to apple/sugar mixture.

Sift dry ingredients together, add all at once to apple mixture and stir just until all is combined. Add raisins, nuts and coconut, as desired.

Secret weapon number 415? The freshest spices I can find. I often use Tradewinds Spices from Stillwater Minnesota. Penzys is also a great source and Williams Sonoma just came out with a line of high quality spices and spice blends. If your jars of herbs and spices don’t smell strongly when you open them, throw them out and buy fresh.

Use a nutmeg grinder or a microplane to grate your own nutmeg– the smell and flavor are fantastic. They are relatively inexpensive tools that pay off big in the kitchen.

Bake in a lightly greased 8” pan at 350 degrees until golden or bake in smaller individual pans. Use toothpick test for doneness. Baking time varies on pan size used. An 8” pan takes 30-40 minutes. My Texas muffin size individual cakes took 25 minutes.

In a small bowl, microwave the caramels and the water for 1 minute. Stir to create a smooth texture similar to melted chocolate. Turn cakes onto rack to cool slightly. Place a piece of parchment under the rack and drizzle the caramel over the warm cakes. Serve warm or at room temperature. You can take it totally over the top by going ‘a la mode’ with cinnamon ice cream.

Kids in the kitchen? They are tireless caramel unwrappers and though a few go missing in the process each time, no one seems to notice.

Sources for spices:

Sunday, December 5, 2010

In a Northern Kitchen

It is a beautiful night. 7:30 and fully dark, it feels more like September than November outside as I walk the dog. Completely still, the sky is covered in stars. No moon so far tonight. My husband Woody is still working in Alaska, he returns in a few days. His three week on, three week off schedule is nice in a way. Three weeks of all-about-us and three weeks of all-about-me. With no children at home to worry about, it works. If I can’t sleep and get up in the middle of the night to write, no one cares. Even the dog stays in bed.

Maggie, my nearly constant companion, saunters into the yard, pees, picks up her tennis ball and gives me a look only a Golden Retriever can muster. “Not tonight, sister. I don’t need you to meet a skunk on your way to find your tennis ball.” She sadly brings it indoors, giving one last look over her shoulder at the bird feeder for any errant nocturnal squirrels.

This is a different life than the one I used to champion. Constantly on the run, driving from state to state opening restaurants, training, performing inspections; making more money to buy more ‘stuff’. I was on a steady diet of restaurant fare and rarely had anything in my refrigerator that wasn’t in a styrofoam container from last night’s meal out. A lot of the time it was fun and a most of the time exhausting. When I was home, I knew it was only temporary – not unlike the recent movie ‘Up in the Air’. My life was on the road, home was a nice, temporary vacation.

And then, my life changed. I met my husband, bought a house in the north woods and over a period of several years started to enjoy a life again. It seemed frightening to walk away from a good salary and benefits to work on my own at first, but as my life slowed down, I found I truly enjoyed it. I couldn’t spend money on the latest $250 handbag or pair of designer shoes, but neither did I find a desire to buy them. Somewhere in there was a paradigm shift where I wasn’t buying into the mega-consumer system anymore. I began to teach cooking, garden again, can and preserve fresh foods and rediscovered what it was like to be home. I had time to research, read and to throw a dog’s tennis ball on a regular basis.
I have always been an advocate of organics and realized as I taught classes that there is an entire generation whose idea of cooking is mixing ‘a box of this with a can of that’ – the ‘semi-homemade’ generation. They have come to expect a long list of chemical ingredients in their food and pay little attention to the label. This is not to say that they don’t care, they just feel powerless over it and often feel they don’t have time to start from scratch.

This blog is an effort to help those who want to learn more about food and cooking without adding loads of processing and chemicals to their meals. Convenience food isn’t all bad, but there are loads of healthy alternatives. My goal is to balance truly homemade ‘faster food’ for busy families with canning and preserving and a smidgen of gardening. Always wanted to know how to bake bread from scratch without the all day ordeal? Or can tomato sauce like your grandmother used to? Or grow those fancy-schmancy Russian Fingerling potatoes that cost $4 a pound in the grocery store? Come on over. I’ll be cooking and gardening and teaching – online. See you soon.