October 30, 2009


Sometimes I think I must be a little bit insane. This week, today in fact, we have both weekend guests coming and a party that we are throwing for most of our local acquaintance. Both of which I love. As Will would say, I live for this shit.

And of course, with a party and guests come the inevitable last minute to-do list a mile long, house cleaning, food planning, fix that trim that we hadn't quite gotten to-ing. We've painted, we've build shelves, we've organized the basements, the closets, the drawers, mowed (ok, well, Elvira mowed for us. We love you Elvira!) We've cleaned every speck of the house, rewashed all the sheets and blankets just in case, I've baked and cooked and cut and mixed. Needless to say this week has been a little chaotic.

But none of that is why I'm nutty. No. I'm crazy because in the midst of this all, while cleaning out the kids closet (which, by the way is a total mess again- kids!) I came across an old bathroom cupboard that we've had for years and has gotten so grotty looking that it was relegated to outgrown clothing storage. As I was clearing away the mess around it I though "hum, that wouldn't be a bad little night stand between the kids beds. A little sprucing up a little paint and some fabric. It could work." And then THEN, like an idiot, I decided that between all the cooking and cleaning and fixing and painting and organizing, this was a project that needed to be done RIGHT NOW.

And here's the thing. I was telling myself the whole time that I did NOT need to be doing it. But I kept on. Really it took almost no time at all, but still, what is WRONG with me. So while I go off and have fun at my party and see some of my oldest and dearest friends, I'll leave you with a picture of the finished project. Sadly the befores seem to have disappeared off the camera. Not sure what I did, but I'm sure the sheer chaos of the week had something to do with it.

Happy Halloween!

Found the photos of the before! For some reason they were stored out of chronological order. Or I just dont get how to use the new iphoto. Either way here they are!

Not bad from a distance but get close and...


October 28, 2009

So the BREAD!

The Bread. The bread was seriously good, especially after it had cooled enough to allow for a crispy crust but was still hot inside. If there were any leftovers I'd be eating them now but, well, there weren't. Especially after a certain seven year old snuck down and swiped the last slice a good hour after he was supposed to be in bed.

The book is called Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. It's full of delicious sounding recipes that I can see are not going to help my diet any, but hey, you only live once. Besides, who can resist Brioche? Not me. That's next on my list for sure.

Basically, the recipe makes enough for four one pound loaves that you mix all at once, let rise and refrigerate until you need it, up to two weeks. Then you cut off a chuck, do a little shaping, let it rise a but more and bake. Bread at your fingertips. My idea of heaven.

The "Master Recipe" is for a basic french bread that can be altered in a variety of ways, too numerous to go into, you'll have to go get the book for that, but for the basic, yummy round "boule" here's the drill

3 cups of lukewarm water (about 100 degrees)
1 1/2 T yeast
1 1/2 T Kosher salt
6 1/2 C All purpose flour (not sifted, they ask you to "scoop and sweep, meaning that you scoop out of your flour bin and gently sweep off the top so you don't compress the flour. Funny, that's how Ive measured flour for years, I always thought I was lazy but it turns out I was ahead of my time!)

Now they recommend using a pizza peel and a baking stone, neither of which I have, so I'll tell you how I did it and you can do it my way if you are tool challenged and their way if you aren't!

In a five quart bowl mix the yeast into the warm water, don't worry about getting it to dissolve. Mix in the flour with a wooden spoon, or, if it gets too difficult, with wet hands. You aren't kneading, your just trying to get a uniform wet dough consistency. This should only take a few minutes.

Cover the dough (not with anything that make the container air tight though) for about 2 hours, I let it rise for more like three because my house was FREEZING yesterday and it was a little slow on the rise. Pop it in the fridge until about an hour and a half or so before you want to eat. You can use it right away but it's pretty sticky so having it cold makes the next step easier.

When your ready to get going on it again, sprinkle flour or cornmeal on a piece of parchment and a little flour on the top of the bowl of dough. grab about a fourth of the dough and cut it off with a serrated knife. Form it gently and quickly into a smooth ball by pulling the edges under then plop it down on the parchment and let it rise for about 40 minutes. Halfway thorough the second rise (it will rise just a little, don't expect it to get huge) put a cookie sheet and a broiler pan into the oven (different shelves) and preheat both the pans and the oven at 450.

Dust the top of the ball of dough with flour and slash it with a serrated knife, I used the "scallop" style of slash marks but an "x" or a "tick-tack-toe" works too. Slide the parchment and the bread onto the hot sheet pan and pour a cup of hot water into the broiler pan, shutting the door quickly to trap the steam. The steam is the trick to the whole crusty outside, chewy inside thing it seems. Who knew? Bake for 30 minutes and then let the bread rest for a bit to allow for the crust to get nice and crispy.

The rest of the dough can be stored in a lidded (not airtight) container for up to two weeks. I actually made a half batch and have the remaining pound of dough in a yogurt container in the fridge which seems to be ideal. You can buy a larger food grade bucket and do all your mixing and storing in it if you have the room. Sadly, I don't. Which is probably good because then I wont be able to have the bread ALL the time, just MOST of the time.

Let me know if yours turns out well too, I'm curious to see what others think of this method, I think I might even like it better than "no knead"! Blasphemy!

October 27, 2009

Holy French Bread Batman!

Yum. Now that is one great book!

Excuse me while I go stuff myself with more bread.

High Brow Low Brow

Thanks to my darling husband whisking my children off for an hour of moonbounce at the gym last night I was able to accomplish the impossible and finish BOTH costumes in one sitting. Whew, am I glad that's done! Cant wait to see Evie in her Minnie Mouse get-up. I had her try it on for a quick fitting last night but have had it hidden again since the fitting resulted in a long desperate plea to "pleeeeze let me where my red tutu. I waaaaannnnt to be a mouseeeee!!!!" Thank goodness I put it off till the week of Halloween, I think she might have burst a blood vessel if she had longer to wait.

So onto other things. Today I'm experimenting with a bread making book that my grandmother recommended to me, which my cousin recommended to her. The idea is that you make one big batch of bread dough, let it rise and then cut out hunks to make a loaf of bread when you need it. The original called for enough to make four-one pound loaves but since my refrigerator is small I cut the recipe in half and have one ready to cook for tonight and the rest in a yogurt tub in the fridge for tomorrow.

I'm interested to see how it works out. My cousins loaves have been beautiful so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that mine will too. Bread has always been a conundrum for me. I'm not a good kneader. I get too bored. Last week I made a loaf of basic white bread and kneaded it half way then put it in my KitchenAid to finish it off and it BROKE MY BREAD HOOK! So obviously I'm not meant to be a big kneaded bread girl, which is why I love no knead and soda bread so darn much. This book also eschews kneading, good thing too. I'm still pissed about my bread hook. I don't think I could have brought myself to knead something entirely by hand after that episode.

That's the highbrow part of the post. Fancy bread. Not that that is super high brow, but you get the idea. Now for the lowbrow.

TO accompany what I hope will be a fabulous loaf of artisan bread I am preparing the first meal Will ever cooked for me. Well, other than Pasta-Roni. According to him it's called Chicken Gustav. I've done a few Internet searches and haven't' found any kind of official recipe that resembles it but it's what we call it in our house. Back when we were poor poor poor and it was a real splurge to buy anything other than Ramen, Pasta-Roni or Mac and Cheese, Will would cook this dish when he wanted to be fancy and romantic. We haven't made it in eons. Probably not since we had kids and real jobs and places to live that did not share walls with questionable neighbors. So for kicks I've made it tonight.

It reminds me of the old Kraft Cookbooks my grandmother used to have, the Make-a-whole-meal-out-of-boxes-and-cans type of things. I'll be honest, I'm not sure if it's any good when your a grownup, but if you want, give it a try.

Will's Chicken Gustav

1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts
1/4 pound sliced Swiss cheese
1 can of cream of chicken soup
1/4 cup milk
1 cup of Stovetop stuffing (without the seasoning mixed in)
2 T butter-melted

mix the milk and soup in a bowl and set aside. layer chicken and Swiss until you have used it all up, pour over soup mix. Mix the stuffing with the butter and sprinkle over the top of the chicken-cheese-soup mix. Bake at 350 for an hour.

That's Will's version. For tonight I modified it a little, using about a pound and a half of chicken tenders and 1/2 pound of Swiss which I sliced myself. And for stuffing I toasted and cubed three slices of wheat bread and mixed it with finely chopped sage, salt and pepper before adding the butter (which was probably about 4 T rather than 2) I layered chicken, cheese, chicken cheese, soup, cheese then stuffing last. Leetle fancier. But not much.

More to come on the bread....

October 26, 2009

Halloween Countdown

So here's the problem with being able to sew. You can sew. How's that a problem, well, it means that if you can, you feel you should, which isn't always the easiest way. In fact, it often isn't the easiest way. But you still do it because, well, you can.

Such is the way with Halloween costumes. I have made my children costumes since Briton's very first Halloween, when he was all of three months old and we dressed him up as Yoda because he naturally made a Yoda-ish face anyway, And besides, I could make the outfit out of fleece so it would be warm. Not that we went anywhere , but he looked pretty darn cute in his crib.

I'm really a lazy sewer. In high school I used to make skirts that would just barely make it though the day, then I'd wait until the next time I wanted to wear them, mend dropped hems and fraying waistbands (again, just barely) and continue on. I actually remember having to staple a waistband together on one particularly sloppy project so that it didn't fall off in class.

And it's not that I didn't know how to sew properly, my grandmother made me pre-wash fabric, iron patterns and press down seams with every project we did. but when I got home and had the sewing machine to myself I became sloppy in an "I don't have to follow the rules" teenagery kind of way.

The first time I remember feeling like I was sewing like a grown up was when I made Briton a Curious George costume when he was two. And the only reason I followed the rules that time was that I couldn't figure out how to fudge the steps without getting totally lost. So I ironed and pressed and cut the little triangle markers out in the right spots and low and behold, the costume came out beautifully. I was actually surprised at how well I'd done. Not that it stopped my lazy sewing habits, but I did realize that if I really wanted to make something right, I had to make it RIGHT!

So now it's costume season again. I spent an hour at the fabric store on Saturday, battling for a spot in line amongst the other harried mothers who had put off the costume making for their children. I flipped through the books, (which, by the way, are FULL of slutty adult costumes. Somehow I cant imagine anyone young enough to wear them to be patient enough to make them, but what do I know) Found a bat-ish cape pattern (Briton, in the same vein as asking for a Duncan Heinz cake wants to be a bat, which is kind of boring, I mean, if I'm going to sew, at least challenge me kid!) and did not find a Minnie Mouse pattern that I could add the crazy polka dot tutu I have hidden in my mudroom to. But I did find a puffy sleeved dress that will work. And today, instead of starting dinner or finishing the massive basement organizing project that I started last night, I cut out black vinyl and red and white polka dots.

And that's what my week will be, stealing minutes from the day not to write or cook or make a start on that TV remote tray whose parts are stacked on my makeshift desk. I always dread lugging the machine out and getting started on a project, I forget that once I get going I do love to sew (as long as it's going well, if I'm ripping seams I DO NOT love to sew) And in the end, when I watch them twirl around (or in Briton's case, flap around) I'll be glad to have made it through yet another Halloween making the costumes myself. At least I hope I will. I guess we'll know by Friday.

October 23, 2009

Because nothing says Swine Flue like some Lemony Goodness

Well I don't know what you've been up to the past two days but I've been dealing with a seven year old with the flu, yes, THAT flu. Actually other than the house arrest and the VERY bored preschooler, it hasn't been too bad. He's sick, which sucks, but he isn't so horrible that I have to hover over him, and he's still in the sleeping all the time stage so it's really been pretty quiet around our house. Other than the aforementioned bored three year old. And the constant stream of movies I've been playing to try to keep her occupied and quiet and him satisfied to lie still and rest between naps and Motrin doses.

Partly because of the flu thing and partly because it's Friday, my normal cleaning day and also partly because it's gray and dull outside and I needed a little pick me up, I went a little crazy with the cleaning thing today. Into the washing machine went all the sheets, comforter covers, pillow cases and liners, slipcovers, throw pillows, lap blankets... you get the idea. And once I'd washed and dried everything (I love my new washer and dryer by the way, it's amazing how, when your machines aren't 20 years old, you can dry more than one thing at a time without having to run it multiple times, CRAZY!) and put all the covers and sheets and blankets etc back on, swept the floors, washed out the sinks, dusted the shelves and so on, I still felt the need to perk up the house, so out came the recipe books. After a little page flipping I settled on these lemon butter cookies form Chocolate and Zucchini. It's been a while since I mentioned this blog but I really do love it, and it's always fun to try her recipes because generally they are pretty darn good, these included

Sables au Citron

1 lemon
1 cup plus 2 T flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
7 T chilled butter, diced
1 large egg yolk
1 cup powdered sugar

zest the lemon (it should give you about 2 T of zest) and set the lemon aside for the glaze. I rolled the lemon before zesting so that it would be easier to juice later. Mix the zest with the flour, sugar and salt and then work in the butter with a pastry blender or your fingers (washed REALLY well if your kids has the flu, well, really well even if your kid doesn't because let's face it, they have all sorts of germs on their grubby little selves don't they?)

Add the yolk and blend with a fork until a dough forms, if it seems dry, add a little ice water, I needed about 1 T for mine to really pull together as a decent formable dough.

Divide the dough in two and roll into logs about 1 inch in diameter. Wrap in parchment or plastic wrap and pop them in the freezer for 30 minute before slicing into 1/4 inch rounds. Bake at 350 on a parchment covered baking sheet for about 12 minutes or until the edges are just starting to turn golden.

Pull the parchment and cookies off the pan to cool (or use a wire rack). Once they are cool you can glaze them with a mixture of the lemon juice whisked with the powdered sugar. They are great without the glaze as well though.

I think these are going to wind up in my Christmas baking file, they would be a great light treat around the holidays. If you taste the dough you may find it a little salty but it works beautifully in the finished product. If I had a cookie press I think this recipe might be altered to work well there as well. Humm, maybe an early Christmas Gift for me! Well, off to take temperatures and administer another dose of medicine. Stay well everyone!

October 22, 2009

The dog walk, iphone protecting, money for treats toting wallet thingy

Long title, little project.

Between the beautiful weather we've been experiencing the past week or so, the dog that needs a couple of walks a day and my general dislike of driving unless absolutely necessary, I've been doing a lot of walking lately. And because we live just a stones throw from our lovely little downtown, I usually end up walking there. The problem is that I usually find myself down there thinking "ugg, I should have brought my library card so I could pick up that book." or, more frequently it's the kids who are thinking "ugg, mom should have brought her wallet so we could get a cookie at the cookie store!"

But with two kids and a dog (who is after all a puppy, and a SPRINGER puppy at that , no, really she's pretty darn good, but she is a puppy after all) I just cant juggle my phone and my wallet and my keys and the leash and still be able to hold hands. I know what your thinking, bring your purse dork, but really, who wants to haul a purse along on a nice little afternoon stroll. SO more often than not I either don't bring any of it (and then either a) get chewed out by my husband for not locking the doors- he's paranoid or b) get locked out of the house, neither of which is fun) or I find myself with bulging pockets and dropped phones.

So last week when a friend sent me this link I was really excited, until I realized that, as cool as it looks, it really only protects the phone, it doesn't help you hang on to it, or to anything else. But it did give me some inspiration.

I tried this first with regular old felt but that turned out to be too saggy so with round two I went with the stiffened craft felt that they sell in big 11x17 sheets at the craft store. And I'm thinking next I might try using a felted sweater, if I can find one in a color I like.

So here's the basic process. Cut a piece of felt roughly 1/2 inch wider than your phone and about 1 inch longer.Also cut a second piece the same width but shorter by two inches, this will be your money pocket. Keep in mind that this was for an iphone, which is pretty flat, if your phone is thicker you might have to play around with the size. The good news is felt is cheap, and a 11x17 sheet will give you lots of room for error!

Next cut a slit a little more than an inch down from the top. I rounded mine but you could cut yours any which way you want. Cut a piece of felt in a contrasting color slightly larger than your front piece as well as a strip two inches by 10 inches long. Set the strip aside. Stitch the three layers of the pocket together using a very small seam margin, maybe 1/4 inch at the widest.

Once you have the pocket together you need to put two grommets in, one for the pocket and one joining the two ends of the strip so you'll have a handy little wrist strap. Grommets sound complicate and hard but really, you buy a little set that includes a tool for assembling at the fabric store, whack it with a hammer a few times and your good to go. Honestly, don't let the grommets hold you back, in fact, they're kinda fun to use and once you have the tool, you'll find all sorts of things to grommet.

Last step. Connect the two pieces with a key ring and add a clasp (a carabiner would work too, you just want to be able to hook your keys on and off easily) and your set. Ready for some fall color gazing, cookie eating, kid and dog tiring walks!

Just in Case...

Well, in case you haven't heard this from me already, an excerpt from the book I've been working on for the past year and a half was published this week in the Maryland Literary Journal The Northville Review. So if you ever wondered what on earth I was scribbling away at all this time. Hop on over and take a look.


October 21, 2009


Before we bought this house I visited a neighbor whose home is a model of uncluttered lovelieness. I sat in her knick-knack free living room and marveled at how CLEAN everything looked, vowing to come home and get rid of all the crap that I have EVERYWHERE. Then, of course I got home and realized that I couldn't possibly live in a house without all my crap. Because I love my crap. Especially my books.

The first two houses we lived in were adorable little Potland Bungalows with built in bookshelves and china cabinets that I filled with my collection of old (and new) books. And I've never really gotten over those two houses. I spent hours wandering the asiles of Powells Books adding to my shelves (this is before children of course, who has time to spend hours doing ANYTHING once you have children, let alone wander a giant bookstore in peace. Ahhh Powells...) And the only time I got rid of a book,even a book I didn't particularly like, was to sell it in order to buy another book.

Every place we have lived since has dissapointed me on the shelving front. I've moaned about the lack of bookshelves, groaned about not having all my books out where I could see them, grumbled over the temporary shelves we've been forced to use. So one of the things I really wanted in this house was a whole wall of bookshelves and my darling husband has been workign over the past few weeks to give me just that. Remember that IKEA trip we took, where our car looked like it was going to explode cardboard? Well, that overloaded car was full almost entirely of bookselves, and after some assembling, trimming out and color codeing (yes, I color code my books, I'm weird, but it means I can find what I'm looking for every time, unless, say, someone takes the dust cover off of your Harry Potter book so that instead of being tucked away in the reds it's found it's way into the blacks so that you cant find it when you PROMISED the neighbor she could borrow it...) I have my very own happy wall.

I think this is the first time in five or six years that all my books are out of boxes. And to be honest, I think there may be more somewhere int he basement still to be uncovered. But the bulk of the books are out, which tickles me pink. Now I wonder if I could talk him into building me a whole library...

October 20, 2009

Zucchini Love

I spent the summer after high school graduation blissfully avoiding the OJ Simpson trial on the island of Sardinia, carrying out the family tradition of student exchange. Except, I sort of cheated. My mother (and my aunt as well) spent an entire year abroad, attending school, learning the language, soaking up the culture. The idea of delaying my first year of college only to slog thorough yet another senior year of high school was not my idea of acceptable. I couldn’t stand the thought of being a high schooler again, especially not just weeks after finally walking across that stage in a cap and gown. But spending a summer lolling on an Italian beach did sound like my kind of thing, so rather than the full year, I opted for a short, eight week stay, just enough time to get a little culture and a tan before heading off to college.

One of my goals, besides learning to drink wine and swear in another language (other than French, I could already swear in French, sorry Madame Hoffman!), was to learn about Italian food. I’d just read A Year in Provence and had been fantasizing about all the cheeses and breads and sauces and meats that I would be devouring during my exchange. Of course, I’d also just read A Room with a View and was half expecting to fall madly in love while I was there. On both counts I was a little disappointed. Other than some mild flirting, romance was not blossoming on the beaches of Cala Gonone that summer, and the food, well, it was good, don’t get me wrong, it was just that my family cooked the same thing EVERY DAY. Pasta in red sauce. In fact, they only cooked it once a week. Every Sunday a huge pot of tomato sauce would simmer away on the stove all afternoon before being tucked onto the top shelf of the fridge. After that, every lunch and dinner would see a few scoops of sauce ladled out, warmed up with a scattering of meat, a spread over pasta. There were very few variations and the extra journal that I’d brought with the sole intention of filling with recipes filled instead with the words to silly songs I learned, terrible poetry that that I wrote (remember my extensive poetry experience?) and a few journal entries that were too personal to put in the account I was keeping for my parents.

I did record that sauce recipe (tomatoes, wine, basil, not much else, it was good though) and a few others that I ran across including my first meal with my host family, a recipe that started my love of zucchini and made me think, just for a day, that my journal full of recipes dream was going to be a reality. Zucchini Ripiene. The thing about this recipe, which, bear in mind, was written down in English by someone who spoke no Italian what-so-ever and was translated using a very battered and dated Sardo to English dictionary (my host family spoke Sardo, a dialect so strong I think it is sometimes considered a whole different language, which made learning Italian a little difficult) so I take no responsibility as to the spelling or the exact proportions of this recipe, but the thing about it is, it’s really hard to make in the US because it requires severely overgrown zucchini. And while there are =plenty of jokes out there about people being overtaken by giant zucchini, I‘ve found that most gardeners so fear the dreaded giant zucchini that they vigilantly pick their produce when they are still small and manageable. So if you want to make this, you pretty much have to grow your own massive marrows. Whenever I have a garden I try to leave a few zucchini on the vine each year just for this recipe.

But as I did not have a garden this summer and since I still love zucchini, I’m always on a mission to find great recipes to use the vegetable (or is zucchini one of those, not a vegetable but actually a fruit species) to its best advantage. And having fallen in love with the River Cottage Family Cookbook last week, this week I’ve moved on to the original River Cottage tome, and there it was. My new, favorite zucchini recipe.

The best part thing about this recipe, other than that it is really good, is that it’s really fast. And fast is the name of the game in our house on the weekends. If I can’t get it made in 15 minutes or less, we’re heading to the Bodo’s for a bagful of bagel sandwiches. And frankly, after spending the day painting doors, laying out garden beds, mounting bookshelves, or hanging lights, I really don’t want to spend an hour cooking anyway. This particular recipe can be made in the time it takes to cook pasta. So really, it’s even faster than Mac N Cheese, and the kids were just as happy to dig into a plate of this, as they are the ubiquitous yellow noodles.

Zucchini Pasta (adapted from The River Cottage Cookbook)

2 medium zucchini, grated finely
2 T olive oil
2 T heavy cream
a handful of grated Parmesan
salt and pepper to taste
Pasta of your choice.

The original called for sautéing onions into this first but since my house if full of onion whiners, I left them out, but I think it would make it even better.

Put the pasta to cook in boiling water.

In a heavy sauce pan heat the oil and toss in the zucchini, keeping the heat low enough so that the zucchini doesn’t brown but instead just melts into a gooey mass. Once it’s nice and soft (but still bright green!) stir in the cream, cheese and seasoning and stir, if it seems a little thick you can either add more cream or, if you want to be healthy, a ladle full of pasta water. Drain the pasta, toss with the sauce and grate some cheese over the top. See, told you it was fast!

Honestly, my husband isn’t’ a big zucchini fan and he loved this and Briton, who does like zucchini ate a huge bowlful. Even Evelyn, who doesn’t really eat anything other than yogurt, ate a good helping.

And just in case you have a few overgrown zucchini sitting in your garden just begging to be eaten up.

Zucchini Ripiene

2 large zucchini (a good 4 inches across when sliced) cut crosswise into thick (five inch long) pieces.
1/2 lb hamburger meat
1-cup breadcrumbs
1 large can good stewed tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 clove crushed garlic
a few basil leaves, torn
salt and pepper to taste

Standing the zucchini chunks upright on a pan, bake them (350 ish) until the centers are soft. Scoop out as much of the centers as you can without the whole thing falling apart. Sauté the onions and garlic until soft, add meat and drained tomatoes and a little of the cooked zucchini. Mix in chopped basil and breadcrumbs and fill the zucchini shells, popping them back into the oven until heated through.

It seems like there was probably cheese grated on the top of these, I didn’t write that down but I know when I’ve baked it since I grate a good amount of hard cheese over the whole thing before it goes back into the oven, because really, what isn’t better topped with cheese?

October 15, 2009

Christmas Baking, Part Two

When I was twelve we spent the winter holidays in England for a real English Christmas. Or at least, I thought it would be a “real” English Christmas. Even at twelve I had read too many books featuring Victorian House Parties or windswept winter moors. Needless to say, we did not spend our afternoons tromping through the woods looking for Yule logs or listening to a caroling party. Instead we tromped though the wet streets of London, spending our afternoons entranced at the Christmas displays at Harrods and Fortnum and Masons. Which was just as enchanting. WE ate fish and chips wrapped in greasy day old newspaper. We went on a tour of the Parliament building where a guard gave my brother a rubber band “the Queen’s Rubber!” which awed a five year old Garrett into silence. And when it was almost Christmas Eve we drove out to Cornwall, at trip that , despite being only 250 miles took two days and one overnight stop in a little village where we stayed at the Bear Inn which I was convince was haunted, (someone gave me Jamaica Inn to read on the trip, maybe not the best idea for an over imaginative child)

Cornwall was rugged and beautiful and magical. My great Aunts house was, well, not. My overwhelming memory of that house involves being made to eat multiple helpings of Bubble and Squeak, which to this day gives me the willies to even think about. And I have no memory of eating a Christmas Pudding, although I can’t imagine that was left out. The boiled, mashed and fried brussel sprouts probably just overwhelmed all other food memories.

It wasn’t until we were living in Ireland that I had a real Christmas Pudding. We spent Christmas day with a group of friends having a pot luck dinner. Roast turkey, bread sauce (oh, I have to remember to make that this year! That was good!) “Chuffed” potatoes, cranberries in port, (we brought Frenches Green Bean Casserole just for kicks, it wasn’t particularly well received. “What are those shriveled brown things on top?”) and to finish it off, a flaming plum pudding with brandy butter dripping down the sides in a glorious golden pool.

So all this is leading up to the fact that the Christmas Fruit Cakes are mixed, baked and tucked away in their foil to wait till Christmas, and now I’m trying to decided if I want to make a Plumb Pudding as well.

I have all the fruit (leftover from the fruitcake extravaganza) I LOVE plumb pudding (although I think I'm really the only one) but what I don't have is a pudding mold. Every year I flip though the molds on ebay and waver over buying one. It isn't that they are expensive, I could pick one up for under ten dollars probably. The problem lies in this. One) do I need yet another pan in my cupboard, particularly one that gets used once a year? And Two) since I will probably be the only one eating it, do I really need the calories that would come along with it, especially with the brandy butter. The answer to both is of course, no. But still I waver. Yes I could use a bowl and cover it with parchment and foil, but where's the fun in that? Yes fruitcake is pretty much the same thing and yes I could slather brandy butter on that, which I probably will anyway, but there's something delectable about a Christmas Pudding. The dome of sticky brown cake with a sprig of holly tucked under the edge, the flames, the, oh, have I mentioned the brandy butter? No? Well, yummmm, the brandy butter. You see the dilemma I'm facing, don't you?

Well while I ponder I'm going to give you my grandmothers fruitcake recipe. BUT you have to promise to keep it sacred. Don't, you know, go and put it up on the web somewhere. It will be our little secret. And also, don't you dare give a slice to those naysayers. They don't really need to know what they are missing anyway.

Diane's Christmas Fruit Cake (altered a little bit by her granddaughter)
1 cup of rum (I like to stick a vanilla bean skin or two in my rum to soak for a few weeks before)
10 eggs
1 C molasses
1 cup grape juice concentrate
1 cp of VERY strong tea
2 cups sugar, 1 white and 1 brown
1 box of raisins
1 medium container of candied pineapple
1 large and one small container of candied cherries
1 small container of candied lemon or orange peel (or both if your feeling frisky!)
1 large container of candied mixed fruit (you will only use abotu 2/3 of this, but they don't come in smaller containers I've found)
1 pound of butter
4 cups of flour
2 T baking soda
2 T milk
4 t pumpkin pie spice (or a mix of cinnamon, mace, cloves and nutmeg will work)

optional (as in, if you must)
1 package slivered almonds

Mix all the fruit (and nuts if you are a nut person) in with the rum, grapejuice, molasses and tea and let it sit AT LEAST overnight (covered, and try not to pick out too many cherries to much on as they soak)

When they've soaked enough, cream the butter and sugar and add in the eggs one at a time. Sift in flour and baking soda gradually. Mix in the milk and the fruit mixture and stir till combined.

Grease 6 loaf pans and line with parchment. Pour batter in pans and bake at 275 for two hours. As the cake cool, sprinkle with sherry or rum. When completly cool, remove from the pan, keeping the paper on, douse again and wrap tightly in foil. Store in a cool place (the freezer works well but a pantry will do) until Christmas, dousing it every week or so with a little more rum or sherry.

*** Edited to add - After the first two weeks of wrapping and unwrapping for dousing I switched tactics and put all the cakes in deep brownie pans lined with foil and gave them an extra good dollop of rum and sherry then wrapped the whole thing up in more foil. Nice and rummy and just in time for the Christmas season! ***

October 13, 2009

After School Fun

Sometimes I feel like I’m living my own childhood from the other side. From the parent side. Which is a good thing because I had an absolutely fabulous childhood. I mean, I’ll never write that “overcoming the horror of my youth” book, but that’s just fine by me. It’s still a little jarring at times to look up from something and realize I’ve seen that before. I’ve seen the little blond pig tailed girl riding on her tall thin dark haired dad’s shoulders on a walk through the woods. I’ve seen the Springer Spaniel curled up by the fire being used as a pillow by the messy haired boy. I’ve seen the child flung out in sleep in the bed my grandfather had made for me. Except this time I’m the one looking on, not the one doing the riding or sleeping or snuggling.

I've been flipping through this book all weekend, a library find that may need to have a permanent home on my bookshelf (no, I wouldn’t steal a library book! Sheesh!).It’s full of fairly basic recipes and lots of photos of children covered in flour or vegetable peelings. When Briton was a baby I wanted to be that mom. Actually before I was even pregnant with him I wanted to be that mom. The mom whose house is where all the kids come to hang out. The mom who with the slightly chaotic but always fun house. Somehow though, the older I get, the more anal I am about a clean house or an orderly, scheduled life. I forget sometimes that cooking with your kids might be a little messy, but it's worth the trouble. Maybe not every night. Some nights I'm lucky to pull a pizza out of the oven. But when it's slow enough, the fun and wonder make up for the chaos.

So yesterday afternoon I spent a good half hour letting Evelyn help me make pasta dough for their after school meal. We measured flour and mushed the eggs in with our fingers and made a huge mess. But it was a ton of fun. Which I feel like I should have known all along. And then when Briton got home we pulled out the pasta roller and rolled the dough till it was almost as thin as paper before cutting it into noodles which they ate with hot melted butter until the pot was totally empty. I sat there watching them slurp noodles at the kitchen island, not even wiling to wait long enough to go sit up to the table and I thought back to all the times I helped my parents roll out pasta dough on the kitchen island of our house in Northern Idaho. We didn’t do it that often, but whenever we did it was like magic to e. I never got tired of cranking the handle, sending in the lumpy, yellow dough over and over until it was smooth, and then once more to cut the noodles.

They helped me chop and peel vegetables to start dinner. Briton read to us while I mashed potatoes for the top of the fish pie, Evie sang me a song while we loaded the dishwasher. It was the best afternoon I’ve had in a long time. And for a few short hours I was the mom I want to be. So I’m making an early New Years Resolution. To be that mom more often. To let my kitchen be a Family kitchen and not just MY kitchen.

October 12, 2009

Fun with Felt(ed sweaters)

I have a bad track record with wool sweaters. I love them. I love wool clothing in general. Have you ever watched "To The Manor Born" I'd take every outfit Penelope Keith wears in that show, well, maybe not the disco era evening gowns, but all the wool sweaters and tweed skirts, ahhh, I love them. The problem is, I'm a lazy laundress. I have a hard time convincing myself that some things just can't be washed. Between a husband who thinks something worn for an hour or so is dirty to a daughter who turns out all her drawers every night, changes clothing three or four tines a day and doesn't understand that the laundry basket is for dirty clothes and not a re-shelving cart, I have enough sorting to do without worrying about wool.

So it's fair to say I've shrunk a decent number of wool sweaters in my time. And I cant help but hang on to them Because someday I'll use them, I'll stretch them back out by some miracle and wear them again, or they'll fit one of the kids. Something. Because I can't just throw them away!

And so when I was poking around doing some research for another writing project and came upon recycled sweater fingerless gloves I realized I'd hit the jackpot. I know, I'm late to the reuse-an-old-sweater craft thing. Who knows, maybe it just wasn't my time, maybe I needed to shrink more sweaters to stuff in the back of my closet so I'd be ready for it.

The fingerless glove thing went off without a hitch (and really, how can you go wrong with cutting the sleeve off and making a slit for your thumb?) but I was left with almost a while sweaters worth of felted fabric.There had to be more.

The Internet is a great thing. Did you know that if you type "felted sweater" into Flickr you get more than 5,000 photos? In fact, there is a "made from recycled sweaters" group! I know! Crazy!

So off I went.

I made a flower pin for my jacket.

A headband.

A coffee sleeve just in case I'm at the coffee shop (almost never) and they are out of wimp wraps (really never). The scraps got smaller and so did the projects.

Bows for Evelyns hair.

A bracelet made from the hem end of the sweater.

A dog bone for Nigella.

And with the tiniest scraps, some little felted acorn to tie on Christmas gifts. Or, you know, to just set in the window. At the end I was left with a pile of teeny little bits.

In a fit of craftiness I almost saved those too to stuff something at some unknown future date. But since I do not have a desk or storage for my in progress craft projects and I was kind of getting tired of little bits of grey felt, I decided I could let a few buts and pieces go. After all, there will be more sweaters pulled from the washer and cursed over. Sad but true.

October 7, 2009

Christmas Baking, Part One

Yep, I said it. Christmas Baking.

No I'm not insane. Well, I might be insane but not in this instance. Yes, Christmas is more than two months away but when it comes to Fruitcake, the longer it has to settle in, the better it is.

Oh yes, Fruitcake.

Now before you cringe and click away, hear me out. That fruitcake you've had, those cellophane wrapped logs from the grocery store, those overpriced loaves from Harry and David? Crap, all of them. The problem with fruitcake is there is SO MUCH bad fruitcake out there.

This is not that kind of fruitcake.

This is my grandmothers fruitcake. My honest to goodness, English granny's fruitcake (she would have hated to be called a granny though I bet, not her style at ALL!) My grandparents met in England after the War. If my memory serves me correctly my grandmother was a waitress at a bar my grandfather, who was on leave from his posting in Germany, was visiting. After my father was born they moved to California where they raised two sons and where my grandmother made fruitcake every Christmas.

After she died my grandfather carried on the tradition and in the last years of his life he passed the recipe onto my dad and I. The first time we made it was, ummm, interesting. Let's just say some changes must have been made over the years that were not added to the recipe and some frustration ensued after which I became the fruitcake maker of the family. I've had a few years to try out some of the changes that I think were made and last year I think I came pretty close, the cake was rich and dark and sticky and perfect with a cup of tea. But it needed a little more time to sit in the back of the cupboard doused in sherry. So this year I'm giving it an extra month of soaking.

So far it's just a big old pudding basin of fruit soaking in rum and grape juice and molasses and REALLY strong tea, but by the time December rolls around, ummm, it will be perfect. Just you wait.

October 5, 2009

At Last!

Over the past three and a half months the whole baking-all-the-time thing has kinda gone by the wayside. For a while I had no stove, and no counter tops which was a legitimate excuse. And there was the whole moving thing which does tend to get in the way. But to be honest, I've been perfectly able to bake and cook for a while now, I've just been reoccupied by other things. Yes, we've been in constant renovation mode but still, I could, I just don't. In part this is because I just haven't quite gotten into the swing in the new house and with the new school year. My lovely little orderly life that I drew up in a neatly printed schedule a few months ago is still hanging on the wall, but it's not really getting used.

But the cooler weather is lulling back into my old habits. The shock of the cold wood floors as I crawl out of bed in the morning makes me crave hot cinnamon rolls and a big mug of coffee. And when I dashed out before Will left for work for a gallon of milk and FINALLY found a can of pumpkin I saw it as a little nod from the cooking gods, well maybe more of a good shaking than a nod. "Get to it Gillian!"

So today my son will come home to that pumpkin bread that he's been asking for (nothing terribly exciting, pretty much the Cooks Illustrated recipe without the nut because nuts? In something sweet and dessert like? Why?) and if all goes well there will be a batch of chocolate chip cookies in the oven by the time Will comes home from lunch. I even made soup last night. A sure sign that both fall and cooking season are here in our house.

Who knows how long it will last. We have one last renovation push to make it through before the Halloween party that seemed like forever away in July and is now three weeks away. So the cooking might get pushed to the side yet again, and we'll be back to making pizzas twice a week, but I'm hoping this little baking spree will kick me back into the groove. Fingers crossed, it's time to get baking.