23 April, 2012

Experiments in … baking!


Sister enjoying the sweet simplicity of wisteria in bloom.  aaaaaah.

There are some times in life in which all of the disparate ingredients of the moment come together so beautifully as to create an even more perfect experience.  You know those moments, right?  It doesn’t have to be a big event.  In fact, it could be something so simple and sweet that it just takes your breath away with its purity.  A summer sunset after a gentle rain.  A four-leaf clover in a field of weeds.  The first time a baby smiles.  A string of green lights when you’re driving toward your holiday destination. 

Summer Sunset over Pohnpei, FSM - 2011

Baking is like this.  It is like intentionally creating one of these moments and then allowing it to nourish you from the inside out.  The cookies I made this weekend are like this.  They are like little perfect moments to savor whenever you need them. 

In my last post I mentioned making Lemon Lavender Shortbread Cookies.  You may remember that those cookies came out a little too lavendery … even for someone like me who loves eating lavender.  Well, here I’ve taken that same Joy the Baker recipe and adapted it again.  This time I made them into Coco-Lime Shortbread Cookies.  They weren’t gluten-free as I was running too low on the gluten-free flour, but they were delicious!  Very subtle coconut sweetness peeked out through the rich buttery cookie base.  And the lime brightened the whole thing and kept it from being too rich or heavy.  I was quite pleased.  These little cookies are like serendipitous coins of delight.  Yes, I did just type that.  And, yes, I even meant it, too.  If you whip up a batch yourself, I think you’ll see what I mean.  Go ahead … do it!  You know you want to!  Let yourself have a beautiful moment.  You deserve it!

Coco-Lime Shortbread Cookies
(adapted from Joy the Baker)

Makes about 30 cookies.

Ingredients:

2 T. unsweetened coconut shavings (the little kind, not the big flakes)

zest of 2 limes

½ c. + 1 t. granulated sugar

2 sticks room temperature plugra butter (you can also use regular unsalted butter, if you wish)

2-3/4 c. all-purpose flour

¼ t. Himalayan sea salt

extra sanding sugar, for coating (or, even better, lime sugar to coat!)


Directions:

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour and salt


In a large bowl, using a hand mixer, add butter and sugar.  Cream on medium-low speed until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Add the coconut and the lime zest.  Mix on low only enough to incorporate.  Add the flour/salt mixture in three turns, mixing on low speed after each turn to combine.  The dough will likely be quite crumbly, but should come together as it mixes.  If, after about 5 minutes of mixing the entire batter, it still isn’t holding its form, then sack the mixer and get your [clean] hands in there and knead it until it is.  Dump the dough out onto a clean surface and for into two logs with your hands.  (If logs are too unwieldy, you can form into balls.)  Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Line cookie sheet(s) with parchment paper and set aside. 

Place sanding sugar (or lime sugar) in a rectangular container.  (I used a small ceramic baking dish.)  Set aside.

When dough has been cooled sufficiently, remove logs from refrigerator and unwrap.  Roll each log in sanding sugar to coat.  (You may need to cut the log of dough in half to fit inside your sugar container.  No biggie … do what you need to do!)  Once your dough is nicely bathed in sugar, take a very sharp knife and slice it into ¼ inch rounds.  Easy breezy!

Preheat oven to 350°F. 

Place rounds on lined cookie sheet(s).  Refrigerate for another 5 minutes while oven is preheating.  Then pop these little buttons in the oven.  Bake for 6 minutes, rotate your pan, and finish baking for 6 more minutes.  (Note: Since ovens vary, your timing may be different.  Keep an eye on your cookies, and don’t let them burn, okay?)

Allow cookies to cool on the pan for about 5 minutes.  Then transfer cookies to a wire rack to cook for another 10 minutes or so. Then … savor each beautiful bite!

Lime Sugar

Ingredients:
Lime zest (how much you add is really up to how limey you like things … I’d start with 1 lime)

½ c. sanding sugar (or whatever sugar you’re feeling, or have on hand, really)

Directions:

In a small spice grinder (or coffee grinder, food processor or mortar + pestle) grind up the sugar the zest.  Presto!  You now have lime sugar!


19 April, 2012

whirls of wind

This has been a very eventful past several days. Whew! What a whirlwind of occurrences! But it’s all been of the good variety, so I’ll accept this busy-ness with a greedy grin and open arms.

The first thing that happened didn’t start out so good, but turned out very well in the end. Without boring you with the details, I will just announce that I turned in my resignation at the inn. It was kind of unexpected, but, also, kind of inevitable. I had been hoping that I could make things work, but, alas, no puedo. So, I’m here one more month, then it’s back to a hodge-podge of part-time gigs again. This arrangement seems to suit me, anyway, so I’m looking forward to it. And some pocket change advice for all of you out there: If something makes you unhappy or uncomfortable, and you cannot find a way to change it for the better, then dump it and move on! Life’s too short, yo! You know it. I know it. The little old lady who lives on your block knows it. So, do something about it!

ahem … and now back to our regularly scheduled blog post …

Okay, where were we? Oh yes, my crazy days of late. So, on the heels of this fairly major life decision, I was invited to a friend’s 40th birthday bash. And (gasp!) I actually went! Yes, that’s right! I went out on the town. I got a little tarted up in a 1940’s inspired dress with my seldom worn, but much adored, satin yellow peep-toe wedge sandals with the gold sequins on the heels. My friend, S., went with me, and darned if she didn’t outshine me in the all-dolled-up category! S. is a whiz with a needle and thread, and also happens to be fantastic at creating effortless looking retro hairstyles. (This is a skill I’m trying to hone, though.) So, we went for a bite at Revolution, then made our way over to Fullsteam Brewery where the festivities were taking place. We met Sister there. The Birthday Boy was beaming in the web of love radiating from so many family and friends. His Darling Wife had arranged this bash with a local karaoke band called Voices Carry playing through the evening. The [evil?] genius behind this band is that they play live 80’s hits while audience members get to sign up to fill the role of lead singer. (They provide lyrics, too, which are very helpful. But, in case they are reading this, I might suggest that they offer some kind of prompter so singers will know when to start singing. I’m just saying … it’s not always easy to remember these things when you are all nervous and on stage and likely in some varying state of inebriation.)

Now, I am one who sings in the privacy of my home, or car when I had one. But I don’t normally offer up my vocal stylings for public consumption. That said, I almost always really want to. I mean really, really want to. So, there is this internal battle waging between the me that likes being a performer and the me that is scared silly by the notion. Usually the latter wins. But this night Birthday Boy’s Darling Wife asked Sister and me to do a song with her, so we bravely accepted. I would like to tell you that it was much better than I anticipated … that my fears were unwarranted … that we rocked the party live. Sadly, I cannot tell you that. In fact we were bad. And not just bad, but downright terrible. Not even in a ‘this is so terrible it’s funny’ kind of way. Just terrible. We cleared the room. The whole warehouse-sized room full of people was pretty much a ghost town by the time we left the stage. It was kinda sad, really. I think the main problems were that only Mrs. Darling Wife could see the lyrics book, and we could none of us seem to figure out when our cues were, so we spent half the song just asking each other “What are we supposed to be singing right now? Where are we in this song, anyway?” (Hence the aforementioned suggestion to the band.) But it was still a wonderful feat of bravery that we got on stage at all. And that, to me, means success!

I managed to stay up way past my bedtime helping Birthday Boy celebrate his big day. (I told you this was a big weekend!) I ended up stumbling into the house around 1:00am, and that was a stumble from dance-weary feet, not booze. (That’s right … that karaoke incident was totally sober. Maybe that was the problem?) I spent the next couple days trying to recover from the lack of sleep, but it was totally worth it. I had a brilliant time! Happy Birthday, K.!! Thanks for letting me party with you, dude!

Note: It pains me to admit that I forgot to take my snazzy new camera with me to this shindig. So, I have no photos to share. I’ll do better next time, I promise.

The next couple days were spent catching up on errands and continuing with my spring cleaning and rearranging projects. I’m still not totally finished, of course, but I did manage to make a decent dent in the to-do list. I plan to finish up on my next days off of work. Let’s hope I don’t make too much of a mess in the house before then. One thing of special note that I discovered while trying to clear out the overgrown garden at my rental is this lovely little flowering vine. I think it may be an oak-leaf hydrangea, but I’m not totally sure. In any case, it’s super sweet and totally lovely. I’m so glad I was able to rescue it from the bottom of the jungle of vinca overtaking the lawn. What fortune!

Amid all the drama and celebration this weekend, I also managed to [finally] finish up my taxes. My accountant is awesome, and I am so thankful for him. I was really procrastinating for a while thinking my travels might make things super confusing and time consuming. Turns out, it wasn’t so bad, really. And I’m even getting a nice refund. That’s right: I’m looking at you, Vitamix!

Yesterday, after all my chores and errands were completed, well, all the chores I had energy for, I decided to bake some cookies and watch a movie. Thelma & Louise was the film. I’d rented it from the library and was feeling some lady power was in order! (When is it not?) The cookies were an adaptation of a Joy the Baker recipe. If you aren’t familiar with Joy the Baker, I strongly encourage you to check out her blog. She’s pretty amazing. Seriously, go read her blog right now. You will love it, I’m sure. So, back to the cookies. These were lemon lavender shortbread cookies. I made them gluten free and really lavendery. In fact, I think I made them a little too lavendery. (And yes, I realize lavendery probably isn’t a real word, but it totally should be.) Otherwise, they were pretty delish. I think I’ll try a second batch soon and cut back on some of the lavender. As they were baking, I put a shout out on facebook inviting anyone interested to drop by and pick up some cookies fresh from the oven. I only had one taker, but it was very last minute, and I was glad for the chance to chat with this friend a bit on a balmy night. Next time, I think I’ll aim for more notice and see what happens. I mean, nothing says southern comfort like baked goods and neighbors calling, right?

Today took me back to work. It was a little busy, but I managed to check off an item on my to-do list, during a slow moment. I ordered a Mother’s Day gift for … well … my mother. While I was at it, I went ahead and ordered something lovely for myself, too. win-win! I can’t tell you what I got for mum since she might read this before she gets it, but I can tell you what I got for me! I got the Joy the Baker cookbook. I have wanted it since was released a couple months ago, and finally got myself in gear and ordered it. Yay!

Well, dearies, that’s the update for now. I’ll try to come back soon with some lovely and informative posts. I hope you’ve had a whirlwind of fun and accomplishment and simple treats, too! I wish them for you always!

xoxo,

Melanie


PS: I'll leave you with a few random images I've captured with the new camera. Enjoy!





04 April, 2012

Experiments in ... PIE!


Today is my birthday! But … since today is Wednesday, and I have to work today, I had the main celebration of my birth on Sunday. Sister and I hosted a pie social at Sister’s house. What fun it was!

First of all, how can one not have a great time when pie is involved? And pie times many equals fun multiplied! I made four offerings for the party: a strawberry fields forever pie; peanut butter chocolate pielettes; sweet + savory chicken hand pies (gluten free and plain); and gluten free sugar + spice pie fries with berry dipping sauce. Sister whipped up three different pizza pies: a toadstool pie (shiitake and oyster mushrooms); R+R pie with rutabaga and rye; and a gluten free polenta pie. Other guests graced our heavily laden pie table with such temptations as lemon pie (both gluten free and regular versions), gluten free lemon-blueberry pie, banana pie, blueberry pie, and a dreamy coconut cream cake. Delish!

All this pie was washed down with milk, coffee, tea and homemade hibiscus fizzy water. And, yes, I jumped on the pretty paper straw bandwagon. (And don’t regret it one bit … these straws are beautiful and ecologically better than plastic ones, so it’s a win-win!)

Despite the fabulousness of the pie buffet, the guests were really the stars of this social. It’s always wonderful to celebrate with wonderful folks! We had a house full of beautiful people spanning all ages and all of my various social circles. Much conversation and merriment was had. (Thanks to those of you who came out to celebrate! You are loved and appreciated!)

Guests were sent home with a little gift tin to let them know just how loved and appreciated they are. Each little pie tin contained pie fries and fruit sauce, a peanut butter chocolate chip cookie, a pie social mix tape CD, recipe card thank you note (with a recipe for strawberry curd), and, in a few of the tins, a crocheted doily courtesy of Sister.

We kept decorations simple with a gingham tablecloth, pennant buntings we made from origami paper and crocheted streamers. Sister even slapped a lovely little “happy birthday” sign on the wall. I had planned to play a round of “pin the pie on the party girl”, but didn’t get over to the copy store to enlarge a picture of me with my mouth open, so that, sadly, didn’t happen.

All in all, this birthday celebration was a success! How do you celebrate your birthday? I’d love to hear! In the meantime, here’s a recipe for you …

Strawberry Fields Forever Pie

Ingredients:

1 pie crust

2 c. rosemary roasted strawberries

1 quantity strawberry curd, divided into 2 halves

1 c. heavy cream

1 ½ T. powdered sugar

1 t. Pimm’s liqueur

2 c. strawberries, sliced into discs

rosemary roasted strawberries:

To roast strawberries, preheat oven to 400F. Place 2 cups rinsed, hulled and quartered berries into a bowl with ¼ c. light brown sugar and 2-3 T. finely chopped fresh rosemary. Toss to coat. Dump berry mixture into your favorite roasting dish or parchment lined rimmed baking sheet and pop into the hot oven. Roast berries for ~45 minutes turning a couple times during cooking. It’s a good idea to run a spoon or spatula through them a couple times during cooking, too, to discourage any bottom sticking. Though, the juices produced during the roasting should also help to prevent this. Remove from oven. Using a fine mesh sieve, drain the juice from the berries saving to use for another recipe (it’s delicious!). Set the berries aside to cool to room temperature.

strawberry curd:

3 egg yolks

2 ½ c. strawberries, sliced

1/8 c. cornstarch

½ c. sugar

½ t. salt

zest of 1 lime

1/3 c. lime juice

Place berries in medium saucepan. Cover and cook ~8-10 minutes over medium heat until soupy. (Be careful not to burn these babies!) Set aside.

In a larger saucepan combine cornstarch, sugar, salt and zest. Whisk in lime juice to combine. Separately whisk egg yolks until smooth. Whisk yolks into cornstarch mixture. Whisk warm strawberries (with their liquid) into cornstarch mixture until combined. Place saucepan over medium heat. Bring to boil, stirring slowly until thickened. Set aside to cool, ~30 minutes.

Pie instructions:

Place rosemary roasted strawberries into pre-baked pie crust to form bottom layer. Make sure berries cover the entire bottom of the crust.

Next, add one of the 2 halves of strawberry curd on top of the roasted strawberries. We’re making layers here. You know what to do: Spread that strawberry love around!

Now comes the fun part! Let’s whip some cream! Using a hand whisk, or an electric mixer with a whisk attachment, whip the cream to soft peaks. Add the powdered sugar and Pimm’s liqueur (if using) to the cream and continue whisking to medium peaks. Think bouffant hairdo, here. You want it to be tall and fluffy, but still able to hold its shape. Be careful not to overwhip, as you will end up with butter. Butter is delicious, but it’s not what we’re going for here.

Add the remaining strawberry curd to the whipped cream, gently folding it in to create one beautiful pale pink cloud of berry cream delight. Put this cloud in the fridge for a few moments just to chill it out and let it set a bit.

Layer on the sliced strawberry discs for layer number 3 of this berry badass pie.

Finally, spoon on the whipped berry curd/cream to top off your pie. Garnish with strawberry discs and a rosemary sprig or two. I recommend refrigerating the finished pie for about 5 minutes or so before serving. This allows the flavors to really develop while the cold helps keep the structural integrity.

Bon appetit!

03 April, 2012

A Sojourner in The Emerald City - flashback to march



On St. Patrick’s Day, I had the great pleasure of traveling to Greenville, NC (aka: The Emerald City) to visit a friend from college whom I’d not seen in probably ten years. We recently reconnected through the wonders of social media. (Oh, Facebook: part evil, part genius …) I digress. My friend, M., owns a gem of a little shop in downtown called The Sojourner. Peddling metaphysical tools and trinkets, clothing, books, and d├ęcor, the shop also boasts a very well appointed herbal apothecary. The Sojourner, lovingly nicknamed The Sojo by its frequenters, also offers classes in a range of spiritual and healing practices. Definitely my kind of place! The St. Patrick’s Day party at The Sojo is an auspicious one for several reasons. Most obviously, St. Patrick’s Day is a nationally celebrated holiday, and as such is reason enough for a party. But the month of March plays host to the birthdays of M., one of her employees, and the shop, itself. So, we were lousy with reasons to celebrate. And celebrate, we did!




There was a buffet of edible treats set up right in the middle of the shop. And as the evening wore on, two birthday cakes – one chocolate, one vanilla – were presented to the crowd. Sugar buzz, anyone? Spontaneous drum circles popped up throughout the evening. My favorite was the drumming that took place just outside the storefront. It provided a seductive serenade to the ECU students making their way to their nightly haunts. Several kids got together and made paper swords, shields and axes. Then they performed choreographed battles for the adults using their handcrafted embellished weaponry. These performances were lead by M.’s children, L. and N., who are two of the coolest kids I’ve ever met. They are smart, open-minded, well-mannered, creative and kind. (Kudos to M. for raising such great kids!) The party was a blast. Afterwards, M. and the kids were kind enough to let me share their home for the night. M. put the kids to bed, and then we stayed up into the wee hours of the night exchanging stories of the paths our lives have taken since we last saw one another.




The next morning before my departure, we all went to The Tipsy Teapot, an amazing little tea house/bookshop/performance venue, for Drag Brunch. Yes, you read that right: Drag Brunch – a brunch buffet spiced up with drag show performances. Awesome! Three queens and a king kicked things up a bit with some lively song and dance numbers while we all munched on our eggs and sausage. I can think of no better way to cap off an already magickal visit! Thanks to M., her kids, and her beautiful and loyal community for welcoming me for the weekend! I had a wonderful time, and hope to get back to visit again soon!