Tuesday, September 24, 2013

weekend escape

On Saturday we went to Index, to help out my in-laws who are replacing their deck, and to generally visit. This is how I always think of Index: the promised land. It's so incredibly beautiful up there - the crisp mountain air, the trees, these gorgeous peaks. We are so very lucky to have family there. I love getting to visit.

Eventually, we ran out of work. The deck supports had been braced with the six available 2x6s, and I'd put a second coat of stain on all the decking boards. I started putting a first coat on some other boards, but then they needed to sit for at least two hours before we could do the second coat.
So, what's a girl to do? Why, strip a branch of the neighbour's quince tree of unwanted fruit, of course! This look of pure joy brought to you by not having to pay $6-per-pound. And childhood nostalgia - we grew up with quince trees, though my parents never harvested the fruit. Still, I love the smell. I used to climb and play in our quince trees, even into my teenage years.

My in-laws encouraged me to go harvest whatever I wanted from the garden, as much as we could possibly take. "We're sick of it," they said. It's been a great year and they were tired of having to pick at this point. I get it, I really do. Even I was feeling this fatigue, earlier in the year, and I didn't have the gardens to tend that my in-laws do.

This is one of their gardens, tucked into a piece of property left vacant since a historic building collapsed during one of the big snowstorms in the winter of 2008. My in-laws live across the street and just till under the soil, add compost, and grow stuff there, since no one else is doing anything with it. It's a beautiful space: tons of dahlias, gladiolas, corn, big pumpkins, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, several kinds of squash, beans, sunflowers (grown for the birds, actually), nasturtiums tumbling everywhere .... and at the back is the sheer rock cliff that locals call the "town wall." (I find the understatement amusing.)
After harvesting we went for a nice family walk together, out through the woods and back along the river. We stopped on the bridge into town and watched the salmon spawning in the shallows. It was pretty amazing to see these noble creatures, who are so important to the culture of our region. They were so far from their ocean homes, and so close to death, returning to the place of their own births to mate and die. The river in Index is so crystal-clear that you can see right through to the stones at the bottom. Already hree silver bodies lay there, motionless. I wonder how many are there now.
Peggy told me to pick plenty of dahlias to bring home - for both myself and my neighbor, who is also a big dahlia fan. This is my half. Aren't they stunning?

I turned a bag of apples (some 10 or 15 lbs.) into a deep dish apple pie and four quarts of apple sauce (I processed three of them and put one quart in the fridge for immediate eating enjoyment).

That pan full of tomatoes that I'm holding in the picture above, combined with all the tomatoes I picked in my own garden in the past week, cooked down to two quarts of thin sauce. It'll need a fair amount of cooking to make a Bolognese sauce or a marinara for lasagna or pasta, so I'll probably actually keep these quarts and use them to make tomato soup this fall. I plan to sauté an onion and some cloves of garlic (chopped), then throw in some stock (probably chicken) and one of these quarts, and cook until it has reduced by half. I'll run the whole thing through the blender to make it smooth, and then add a pour of cream or milk and season with salt and pepper to taste. Maybe I'll even throw in some herbs - thyme, or rosemary. We love tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches in this house.

I'm kind of lazy and don't like to skin or juice tomatoes when making sauce, so I simply cut the larger tomatoes in halves (or quarters), threw them in a pot with a little water, and cooked them until everything was soft. Then I put them through the food processor and blended up the skins with the fruit. I put the puree back on the stove and reduced it by half, then packed it up. These tomatoes were acidic enough that when Cass took a little bit of the puree and added cream to it (to make himself a little bowl of "tomato soup" for dinner), the cream curdled. I probably didn't need to add citric acid to the jars, but I did, anyway (1/2 tsp per quart jar), just to be on the safe side. I processed for 15 minutes in a hot water bath after canning.

Friday, September 20, 2013

a look back

as the day clouds up and the weekend forecast is full of storms and rain, it's hard to believe it was ever so warm that I blocked the sun out of the house from morning until noon. My anemones flourished, a profusion of pink blooms waving on six-foot-tall stalks. They've all faded now, and I've since cut the bloom stalks back. The leaves remain, lush and green, but the crinkling edges of the leaves on the King George currant promise that it won't be long before those fade, too. 

I dyed two more scarves during those hot summer days. The one above is perhaps my favorite of the lot, gorgeous soft lavender and copper like a penny.

This one is more berry-hued, with bronzed forest greens. Both were attempts to recreate with dyes a beautiful sight one evening, on a long drive home: the sun was just setting. The last golden rays had turned a fir bronze. That tree glowed against a pale lavender sky, and the moon rose like a creamy golden pearl.

Friday, September 13, 2013

harvest 2013: backyard damsons

back in August, I spent a couple days in Portland visiting a friend and washing her apartment's floors. Ha, I know that sounds strange. But she'd been a bit down and needed a boost. I came down to cook and clean for her for a few days; I think life gets much more manageable when you come home from work to find your apartment shining, flowers on the table, and dinner ready - you know what I mean?

On the first day there, I swept the alley behind her apartment clear so I could make trips to the recycling/garbage/compost as I prepared dinner. There was a damson plum tree back there, growing over the fence from a neighbour's yard and little plums had fallen all over the place.

This was an opportunity!

Before I headed home, I took a plastic bag from the kitchen and filled it with damsons, a good 8 quarts of them once I'd halved and pitted them and thrown them into a saucepan.

I cooked these with a little water and some lemon juice and lemon zest until they'd begun to break down. I put them through a food mill to make a mash and then continued to cook them with some spices (cloves, I think, and cardamom pods and who knows what else), adding just a little sugar and a splash of brandy near the end...

at which point I had reduced eight quarts to just over six cups of rich, yummy plum butter.
I regret not saving a couple to make plum dumplings for Cass. On the other hand, I found a recipe for trdlniky on the web. Stay tuned; I might actually jury-rig a trdlo and make myself some plum trdlnik this autumn. (You can take the girl out of Prague, but apparently you can't stop her from contemplating Czech pastry.)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

harvest 2013: lavender sachets

back in July, I cut my lavender, just as it was starting to fully open. I tied it up and hung it to dry for a week or two. After they'd dried, I worked all the flower buds off the stems and placed them in a big brown paper sack.

I knew I was going to make sachets, and I wanted to stretch the lavender buds a bit further. So this year, I combined the garden lavender with a couple ounces of dried meadowsweet that I bought at Dandelion Apothecary in Ballard.

Meadowsweet is a traditional strewing herb. It was used in the medieval era to sweeten linen cupboards and floors, so I knew it would be pleasant. Its scent is sweet and grassy, about what you'd expect, based on the name.

Then one afternoon I cut out a bunch of rectangles from my favorite toile-printed cotton duck fabric. With right sides of the fabric together, I stitched three sides of the rectangles together, and then turned them right side out. I stuffed each one tightly with the lavender and meadowsweet before turning under the top edge and hand-stitching each closed.

Then we tossed 'em into our drawers. Every time I'm pulling out a shirt, if I can see one of the sachets, I grab it, squeeze it a bit, and toss it into another part of the drawer. The other day my overshirt smelled of lavender and meadowsweet all day. It was wonderful to inhale!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

a little gilding

This is Laura Lombardi's Mida Necklace. I pinned it last year, to remind myself to track down the brass oval pieces and get some chain to make a version for myself. The original is $130 on Lombardi's bigcartel shop, but I saw one of these necklaces in a boutique here in Seattle priced as high as $212.
It's a simple piece, really; four pieces of chain, and 50 or 100 little brass blanks. The brass blanks or spacers are shaped like ovals. They are drilled twice - one hole on each side (the long way) of the oval. Simply connect the ovals/blanks/spacers to the chain with a jump ring (one on either side). Repeat, repeat, repeat. That's all it is.
I thought it would be easy and quick to reproduce.
Then I started trying to find those brass blanks for sale somewhere.
Oh sure, I could find them ... but not in the quantities that I needed, and my local bead shops were charging about a dollar each for them.
After months of searching, I finally struck gold: I found them available in bulk packets of 100 each, sold online through Yakutum's etsy shop. They weren't expensive (all in all, the brass blanks, chain, clasps, and jump rings probably came to $12 - $14 per necklace, including shipping fees), but because Yakutum is based in Turkey, there was a long wait (over a month) for the packet to get through customs and here into the US.

However, the rest was easy! It came together in a single evening of crafting.

My DIY necklace looks a bit more elongated here than the original does in the product shot above; that's just because it's hanging around my neck and not laid out flat. Well,  admittedly, we should've used a slightly larger gauge of chain. It could've been a bit larger. Still, I'm pleased with the result. The tightly-packed brass blanks feel like scales or chain mail to the touch.

And the necklace hangs nice and long. I love it!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

harvest 2013: ground cherry jam

Last year - or was it two years ago? - was the first time I'd ever heard of a ground cherry. What's a ground cherry, you ask? Well, it looks kind of like a small tomatillo plant as it grows; the cherry-tomato-sized fruits develop in green papery husks and are ready to harvest when they fall to the ground. They will last longer if you leave them in their husks, so don't peel off the husk until you're ready to eat! They range in colour from pale yellow to deeper orange and taste rather like pineapple. I've read that one shouldn't eat too many of them raw, as this can cause indigestion, but I haven't tested this and don't really know that it's true (some folks claim that they grew up eating them raw, by the handful, and never had a problem; I wonder if all those upset stomachs may have simply been caused by ingesting a large amount of a new food?) Anyhow, most sites recommend making pies or jellies out of them - which is, obviously, the route I chose.

Sadly, I didn't get more than this one little jar because I planted my ground cherry in a pot and grew it on my deck. It's hotter there, but I think it was a little stunted - and I never did plant a bunch of other ground cherries, as I'd planned this year. Oh well! Next year! (The gardener's eternal refrain, no?)

But this little jar is full of lemony pineapple goodness, though maybe a little sweet for my taste (Cass will love it). I think I'll open it right at the start of December or maybe even January, and bake some nice warm scones one morning. We can split them open and slather them, steaming hot, with butter and a bit of this jam and won't that be a sunshiney pick-me-up during the dark grey months of the year?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

harvest 2013: pickled huckleberries

awhile back, we took a weekend day and escaped to the mountains with two of our friends, to go berry picking at some of our favorite secret spots in woods near my in-laws' house. Though we found tons of red huckleberries, blue hucks were pretty hard to find - and the ones we did find were on shrubs that otherwise looked like red huckleberry bushes (not the denser, shorter evergreen huckleberry, with its thicker, more leathery leaves).

Still, I got a few jars of pickled huckleberries out of our haul, and made alpine blackberry jam as well (post forthcoming). I used both of Christina's recipes from the now-defunct Nettletown blog (sad; I always wanted to eat there, but couldn't get the time during my doctoral studies), though I omitted the shallot (and the chiles, too, I think) from the first recipe, as I love the bright zingy flavor of pickled hucks just on their own and wanted to preserve it for winter dinners, to enjoy with goat cheese. I processed mine in a water bath for 10 minutes so I could put them up in the pantry and save for winter.

Above are red huckleberries with juniper and fennel. Below are red huckleberries (left) and blue huckleberries (right) with star anise and balsamic. In the middle? Some pickled asparagus I threw together, using Molly's recipe on about.com.

Monday, September 2, 2013

a birthday cake

this was all that remained, the next day, of Cassidy's birthday cake - and thank goodness, because this thing was dense and rich.  I'm long overdue for posting recipes for this "Mounds Bar" cake (chocolate and coconut), but it was so good that I wanted to share everything, along with my notes. This is a chocolate cake (made with a bit of coconut oil for subtle coconut flavor), with a thick coconut filling (modeled on a recipe for homemade mounds bars) and a coconut mousseline buttercream frosting.

First, let's talk about the coconut cream, as this is what I used to achieve a good coconut flavor in my frosting while preventing it from becoming way too sweet. I bought Let's Do Organic brand coconut cream in the 7 oz tetrapack. This coconut cream is WAY thicker than what you might find in a can. It is, essentially, ground up coconut meat mixed with a bit of coconut oil to make a paste. When you first open the tetrapack, the coconut meat will probably have separated from the oil. I took advantage of this fact and scooped out all of the oil into a little bowl. I then put the ground coconut meat in another bowl. I added little bits of coconut oil at a time and worked the coconut meat into a thick paste - like a really thick peanut butter - but reserving as much of the oil as I could (I combined this leftover coconut oil with some other coconut oil I had on hand, and used it in lieu of the vegetable oil in the cake layers). Save the thick, unsweetened coconut paste for filling and frosting.

First, for the cake layers, used the Double Chocolate Layer Cake recipe at Epicurious. This is our standard chocolate cake recipe, with only a few changes/substitutions for the Mounds Cake: 1.) I always use freshly-brewed espresso instead of coffee, and 2.) this time I used 3/4 c. coconut oil instead of vegetable oil and 3.) I didn't have buttermilk on hand, so I mixed together a bit of cream and a bit of skim milk, added some lemon juice and let it stand for about 5 minutes to thicken. I used this thick curdled cream in lieu of the buttermilk.
Ignore the recipe for the ganache that accompanies the cake! Bake the layers the day before serving, allow to cool, and then wrap tightly in plastic wrap. This seals in moisture so the cake is fudgy and tender.
For the filling: I used this recipe for homemade Mounds bars as my model. But instead of using canned sweetened condensed milk, I made my own and added coconut cream to imbue it with coconut flavor.
To begin, I used this recipe to make homemade confiture de lait (or sweetened condensed milk), but I halved the recipe and used cream instead of milk.

So: I combined 3/4 c. cream, 1/3 c. sugar, and 1/2 tsp vanilla extract in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. I heated it to a simmer over low heat (patience is key here, so it doesn't burn!) and cooked it, whisking often to prevent sticking/burning, for 2 or 2 1/2 hours. When the mixture had reduced by half, I stirred in1 1/2 Tbl. of the coconut cream paste (instead of butter). Then I put this in the fridge to chill. Put the rest of the coconut cream paste in a container and refrigerate it as well; you will pull it out again when you make the frosting.

Once the confiture had chilled, I spooned it into the bowl of my food processor. I added approximately an equal amount of unsweetened flaked dried coconut and pulsed them together to make a smooth paste. At first it was a little too sticky and thin, so I added more coconut (a little bit at a time) until I had made something which resembled the filling of a Mounds candy bar.

above: the confiture de lait, mixing up the filling.
I centered one of my cake layers on my cake stand, and began spreading the filling over the top of it. Or rather, I kind of patted it out. The filling was so thick that it was like a sticky dough, so I patted and pinched it between my fingers to make a disc, then laid that disc on top of the cake and gently poked and pushed at the edge to spread it around. Because the filling was very sticky, I had to be careful not to pull up bits of cake from the top of the cake layer as I worked it around. Once I had the filling pressed evenly around the layer, I placed my second cake layer on top of the filling. I pressed down gently, to kind of seal the two layers together with the filling. Then I put three wooden skewers into the cakes to hold it together for frosting, and put the cake into the fridge to chill it. Chilling the cake made the filling firm up and become very solid, which helped hold the whole thing together. Chilling a cake also helps prevent it from causing frosting to melt when you apply the first "crumb coat" to the cake.

above: the disc of coconut-cream filling has been patted and prodded out to the edges of the bottom layer; the top layer is pressed onto the filling, and skewers hold the cake layers in place.


While the cake chills, it's time to make mousseline (or Italian Buttercream) frosting. I used this recipe from The Kitchn as my model, with a few tweaks to give it a rich coconut flavor. Why bother making a fussy Italian buttercream, you might ask? Well, when making a birthday cake for the middle of summer, I find that a standard American buttercream has a tendency to melt and run. This cooked meringue base promised to hold together better in heat, and wouldn't be as sweet as a fondant.

To make my buttercream, I separated six eggs. I saved the yolks for another use and let the whites stand out at room temp for 30-60 minutes before beginning to make my frosting. At this point, I also got the remaining coconut cream out of the fridge, to start warming up and softening it.

Using a hand-held mixer, I beat the whites with a pinch of salt in the bowl of my stand mixer until soft peaks were formed. Then I transferred the bowl back to my stand mixer.

Meanwhile, on the stove, I had combined 1 cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of water with 1/4 tsp of Cream of Tartar in a saucepan. I heated this mixture over medium heat until it reached the soft ball stage (between 235 and 240 degrees Fahrenheit). I actually got out a glass of  ice water to check the accuracy of my candy thermometer - and boy was I ever glad that I did. My thermometer was more than 10 degrees off!

Once the sugar syrup had actually reached soft ball stage, I took the sauce pan over to my stand mixer. I set the mixer running on high, and slowly poured in the syrup in a thin stream into the egg whites. After pouring in all of the syrup, I left the mixer running. According to The Kitchn's recipe, you must let the mixer keep mixing until the sides of the bowl feel "room temp" when you touch them (so it's a good idea to use a metal bowl for this, or something which conducts heat well).

While the mixer was beating the meringue up to fluffy whiteness, I prepped my 2 cups of butter. Only I wasn't going to use two cups of butter: can you guess my secret? Yes, the remaining coconut cream. Measure out the coconut cream (which will probably still be hard; that's okay). I think I had about a half cup left. Combine with enough butter to make two cups. Soften by microwaving for about 5 seconds at a time. As the butter softens, use a fork to mash it into the coconut cream and mix the two together.

Once the meringue has reached room temp, reduce the blender's speed to medium and start adding the butter/coconut cream, one tablespoon at a time. After all the butter/coconut is incorporated, add 1 Tbl vanilla extract (or you could use coconut here; I just didn't have any on hand). Chill the buttercream until firm before applying to cake.

above: pouring hot sugar syrup into egg whites; mashing coconut cream together with butter to make a smooth, creamy paste


Once the buttercream has chilled to a spreadable consistency, it's time to put your first coat of frosting on the cake. This is called a "crumb coat," and the benefit of a crumb coat is that it kind of seals the cake together, so that you won't drag crumbs or bits of cake through your frosting when you do the final coat. The crumb coat should be as thin as you can manage. After frosting the cake with the crumb coat, chill the cake again for an hour to make sure the frosting is firm.

above: chilled cake layers and frosting. Do you notice the granular quality of my frosting? It was a little too cold to use. I let it warm up a bit more and whipped it up with my handheld blender and it became smooth again. At right: the crumb coat is on! Leave the wooden skewers in the cake until you are applying the second/final coat of frosting (and even then, frost the sides of the cake first). They will help provide stability, so nothing slides or slips while you are trying to frost the cake.
After applying the final coat of frosting, chill the cake again until you are ready to serve. Then, enjoy!