Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Bread deals with living things, with giving life, with growth, with the seed, the grain that nurtures. It is not coincidence that we say bread is the staff of life.
Lionel Poilane

ItalicI love baking bread. Unfortunately, it's not something I take the time to do as often as I'd like. For me it's relaxing, comforting and warm. There are many recipes that allow you to fit the bread into your day rather than making your day about the bread. But the thing of it is, I like to make my day about the bread. Every element of baking bread I love - the smells, sounds and feel. The silkiness of the flour. The wild smell of the yeast. The special wooden bread spoon. The old yellow ware bowl where I set my doughs to rise.

The smell of bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.
M.F.K. Fisher

At times I am successful and true to myself. Indulging in the most basic of pleasures. Bringing something delicious to life. Watching it grow before my eyes. The yeasty smell, a hint of what's to come.

Bread is the warmest, kindest of words. Write it always
with a capital letter,
like your own name.

Every year, particularly in the fall and winter, I promise to indulge myself more often and bake bread. Attempt the recipes that I have clipped. Work through an entire shelf of books devoted to the craft. The process is so gratifying. One that can't - or at least shouldn't - be rushed. A process made better by the passing of hours.

All sorrows are less with bread.
Miguel De Cervantes - Don Quixote

That said, I was so excited to see Jim Lahey's book, My Bread. The master of New York City's Sullivan Street Bakery. His practically foolproof method, allowing for the pleasures of bread, slowly and forgiving of time.

Flour, water, salt and a tiny bit of yeast stirred together and allowed to rest for 12-18 hours. Folded a few times and rested again on a generously floured cloth.

Baked in hot oven in a heavy pan with a lid.

Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of all feats.
James Beard

Over the course of 15-21 hours, mostly unattended, the above result is a beautiful reward. When I can't dedicate myself solely to bread, which is more often than not, it's wonderful to still be able to put a great loaf on the table.

The best bread was of my mother's own making---
the best in all the land.

Sir Henry James - Old Memories

And that is what it's all about.

No-Knead Bread

Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, plus more for work surface.
1/4 t. instant yeast
1 1/4 t. salt
Olive oil, as needed
Cornmeal or wheat bran, as needed (optional)

In a large bowl, combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 1/2 cups water and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Coat a second large bowl with olive oil. Transfer dough to oiled bow and cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, bu preferable up to 18, in a room about 70 degrees in temperature. When surface is dotted with bubbles, dough is ready.

Lightly flour work surface. Place dough on work surface and sprinkle with more flour. Fold the dough over on itself once or twice. Loosely cover with plastic and let rest about 15 minutes.

Sprinkle just enough flour over the work surface and your fingers to keep the dough from sticking; quickly and gently shape the dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton dish towel (not terry cloth) with flour, cornmeal or wheat bran; place dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, cornmeal or wheat bran. cover with a second cotton dish towel and let rise until it has more than doubled in size and does not readily spring back when poked with a finger, about 2 hours.

After 1 1/2 hours, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place in a 6-8 quart heavy covered pot, such as cast-iron or Pyrex, in oven as it heats. When dough has fully risen, carefully remove pot from oven. Remove top towel from dough and slide your hand under the bottom of the towel; turn dough over into pot, seam side up. Shake pan once or twice if dough looks unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover and bake 30 minutes. Uncover and continue baking until browned, 15-30 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

Yield: 1 1/2# loaf

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Good Night, Ladies!

It's that time of year. Time to take apart the garden and begin discussing, "Next year, when we....". Pull the sad plants of summer past, put away the pots, split the hostas and begin the arduous task of raking all the leaves to the curb. Then beginning again, raking still more leaves to the curb.

This year, with all the rest, I have to put the ladies to bed. One of the many things I've learned in my first season of beekeeping is that I am a poor (at best) fire maker. Getting this smoker to smoke is the bane of beekeeping for this beekeeper.

Once the smoke was working, I went in for one last check. Most of the hive activity had moved below into the two hive bodies where they would spend the winter. Look what they have done! Even capped comb - can you hear the pride in my writing? I was able to snitch a little taste, sweet honey with tiny bits of chewy comb. I only added one super box this year, the box(es) from which any harvest would come. Since we have one shallow super full of honey, I've decided to let it sit. Harvesting one very small box, seemed like a lot of work and most important is a strong hive going into winter.

I've put the entrance reducer back to keep out draft and squatting mice. Some beekeepers in cold winter areas, will cover the bee hive with roofing paper. The black paper absorbs warmth the limited sun of winter offers. I would assume it protects from some draft, too. I was able to cover 3 sides before everyone got upset. I'll go back out and finish the front in the next day or two.

It's sad to tuck them in. I am proud to have gotten through our first summer albeit without honey for me. I'll miss stepping into the weedy corner where their home sits and just watching them work. I'll worry about them in cold, windy and sunless days. I'll look forward to spring in a new way. I'll be anxious to check on the brood and God-willing, happy to see them once again.

Good night, ladies. We're going to leave us now.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Potato Harvest/Famine of 2009

Here, in all its glory, is our 2009 potato harvest.

I have planted potatoes before and always been disappointed by the results. This year, encouraged by a friend's success, I used the garbage can method. We purchased a "cute, old-fashioned" galvanized garbage can and placed it in the garden, between the herbs and the teepee of pole beans. We drilled holes in the bottom for drainage and started our organic potato sets in organic garden soil. Then we waited...

The plants grew and we covered them with $7 of organic soil. They grew a bit more and we covered them with $7 of organic soil and so on and so forth. I envisioned the kids helping me to dump the can and root through the beautiful soil searching for a myriad of fingerlings. Organic, new potatoes at hand - soups, gratins, easy roasted sides making meals so fresh and easy.

Last weekend, doing some fall yard cleaning, I was alone in the garden, clearing out squishy yellowed tomatoes and frozen bean vines. I decided I wanted to surprise the family with our potato harvest. I dumped the heavy can to find barely enough potatoes to fill a 6oz. ramekin. Most of them were so tiny, I told everyone I found them in Henry's ears!

When I shared the results with Doug his response was the same as mine. "We're never doing that again!", recalling the many dollars of organic soil now spread atop the bean patch.

Then in true die-hard gardener and food-lover fashion he added, "Well, maybe just one more time."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Happy 100th!

I am happy to share this, my 100th post. There aren't many things I can say I've done 100 times. To have continued, enjoyed and not grown tired of this project, I am so proud. I hope it's getting better and with time might be exactly as I'd like it to be. I love to be able to take the creative outlet I find in my kitchen one step further. This has fueled my passion, and I like to think is a path to bring me where I want to go, wherever that may be. Most importantly, I am grateful to have this forum to document the small things that make life in the yellow house ours.

As is fairly well known, I believe that all celebrations deserve a cake. (is that an NPR worthy essay?) The only fitting way to celebrate this special milestone is to eat cake. I knew I wanted something "fall" and apple-y. If it could incorporate the vats of applesauce I've made, that the kids seem to be growing immensely tired of by the moment, so much the better. Enter Martha. She saves the day again.

Martha Stewart Baking Handbook, Apple Spice Layer Cake with Creamy Goat Cheese Frosting. (pg.161-3) I couldn't resist it, since it incorporated all of my desires AND the opportunity to pair goat cheese with a touch of sweet. With a few of my own modifications it was exactly what I was searching for.

Butter, sugar and honey were the base. Honey, yet another reason to be sold on this recipe. I used the end of the honey I bought when "up north". Not local, but certainly supporting a rescuer of bees.

A final folding of homemade applesauce guaranteed a moist and just dense enough cake. My last applesauce making adventure began with a 1/2 bushel of assorted "seconds". Of course, that's why there is soooo much of it. I usually seek out McIntosh, just McIntosh, to make really good applesauce. I couldn't pass up the deal my favorite fruit seller, Sarah, offered and the sauce made with my mixed bag produced sweet-tart sauce with just the right texture.

Leaving nothing to chance, Martha generously included a lovely garnish suggestion. Caramelized lady apple halves to top the cake. I didn't have access to the lady apples suggested, or didn't go in search of them. I opted to use the Jonathans on hand in thin slices. Cooking sugar in a dry pan until amber, a bit of butter and the a few minutes to cook the apples.

Placed on a silpat after being removed from the pan, I think they look okay. I should have sliced them on a mandolin or v-slicer for consistent thickness. Should I do this again, I would attempt to find lady apples. The dimension of an apple half would make a better statement as a garnish perched atop the cake. I like the little stars in the middle though.

In the original recipe, it's made as a layer cake without full frosting. When I dumped my cakes from the generously buttered and floured pans, the edges weren't the least bit attractive. The picture perfect smooth sides make me think of a cake baked in a pan really...really... really sprayed with Baker's Joy. Fried til smooth, if you will. In the end, as much as I'd love a picture perfect cake, I'll stick with my butter and flour method. Since I changed the cake size, I was concerned about having enough frosting. I did, even with the whole cake frosted. An initial crumb coat, even made the rough sides disappear.

Here it is, my celebration cake. It is delicious. It didn't get nearly the response I had hoped for, but Ella loved it. She has eaten most of it. Okay, I may have helped a bit - but didn't I bake it for myself?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Grape Jam

A few weeks ago Doug and I went to the last Aurora Farmer's Market. I was excited to see Concord grapes from Michigan and brought home 2 quarts. You may remember that I made grape jelly a few weeks ago. It was made with the grapes in my yard that when purchased were supposed to be Concord, but they're not. My best guess is Scuppernong. Bummer. At least it's fun to say.

Since the weather has been so horrible as of late, it seemed a little out of season to be blogging about the really tasty grape jam I made. Today on this beautiful fall day, a day we so justly deserve, I felt I needed to strike while the iron was hot, or as sun is still shining, to share my adventures in grape jam-making.

When I was a kid, my friend Holly, had Concord grapes in her backyard. The aroma of these ripened violet jewels sends me back. I love their flavor and eating them off the vine. Snacks, free for the taking, without having to ask permission is thrilling as a child. I think this is why I have a few low producing raspberry brambles overtaking my tiny garden and try to plant yellow pear tomatoes every year.

A whole beautiful basketful!

The dusty bloom is a sign of freshness as are the fresh green, yes, green stems. When was the last time you saw green stems in the produce department?

Purple Concords and white Scuppernongs and Muscadines are considered slip skin grapes. The fleshy skin cleanly slips off the pulp. People complain sometimes about the skinning of grapes for preserving. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, but I enjoy every minute of it.

Stripped clean and ready to move onto the cooking process.

The skins and fruit are separated until the cooking.

Puree the skins with sugar and then turn out into a pan along with the fleshy centers. Bring the pot to a boil, and allow to simmer. Press the solids through a sieve, the seed are left behind and the grape mixture is returned to the cooking. Most often further cooking is needed to bring mixture to a proper jelling point.

Poured into sterile jars and processed as desired, you are done. If you'd like to try your hand at this jam check out The Hungry Mouse. Her photos and tutorial were immensely helpful and far more detailed than mine.

To me this project was easy, fun and very gratifying. If this little story inspires you to try it, I am so very pleased. What more can I want besides a peanut butter and grape jam sandwich?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

It's a Party!

Friday we had Ella's Birthday Party! She turned 9 in June but a crazy summer made a slumber party for 9 girls a little difficult so the festivities were delayed until now. I found the invitations on the clearance rack at Hobby Lobby. The envelopes were polka dotted manilla envelope "style". Super cute. She filled them out herself and hand delivered them to friends.

The girls arrived to pretty table set for dinner. A dear friend crafted napkins for each placesetting that were taken home to be packed into future garbage-free lunches. Yaaayy! Vintage linen cloth, cake stands and milk glass surrounded the cupcake centerpiece.

I didn't want to serve pizza again, homemade or not, but did want to serve something the girls would like. Ella and I decided upon homemade macaroni and cheese, garlic bread and Izze sodas. All amongst Ella's favorites that the average 4th grader will eat. Typically, kids love or hate my homemade, whole food. I am happy to say the majority of the crowd loved the mac and cheese - even though it didn't come from a box. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the raspberry coffeecake I made for breakfast. Beggars can't be choosers, right?

Vanilla cupcakes with rich chocolate frosting. Love the big candy dot sprinkles and pink, green and white sparkle sugar. Thank you Wilton!

The fastest way to a 4th grader's list of "cool moms"? - individual cartons of ice crem. Who knew it was so easy? They were a surprise offered from a basket lined with more of Carol's cool napkins. See the cute cupcake pattern? (damn, I wish I could sew)

I wish I had gotten better pictures and that all of the girls were able to spend the night. In the end though, the girls had a great time, the boys survived Hannah Montana reverberating through the house and I got to plan another birthday party for my Ella. She loved it, which means a lot - especially from a 4th grade girl.

The Best Macaroni and Cheese
adapted from Cooks Illustrated February 1997

2 large eggs
1 12 oz. can evaporated milk
1/4 t. red hot pepper sauce
2 t. salt
1/4 t. ground black pepper
1 t. dry mustard, dissolved in 1 t. water
1/2# elbow macaroni
4 T. unsalted butter
12 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, grated

Mix eggs, 1 cup of the evaporated milk, pepper sauce, 1/2 t. salt, pepper and mustard mixture in a small bowl; set aside.

Meanwhile, bring water to a boil in a 2 qt. saucepan or similiar. Add 1 1/2 t. salt and macaroni, cooking until almost tender,about 7 minutes. Drain and return to pan over low heat. Add butter and toss to melt.

Pour egg mixture over buttered noodles along with 3/4 of the cheese; stir until combined and cheese starts to melt. Gradually add remaining milk and cheese, stirring constantly until creamy. It will appear as though the remaining cheese will never be incorporated but be patient, it will take about 5 minutes.

Serve topped with buttered bread crumbs or stir in pieces of baked ham.

Serves 4 as a main dish or 6/8 as a side

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Piece Out

When in Chicago last weekend, we finally had the opportunity to eat at Piece on North Avenue. I had been told the pizza was great and the micro brew worth the trip. I couldn't wait to experience it myself.

As we waited for a table we had excellent beer. Excellent beer. The Golden Arm, a German-style Kolsch, was refreshing and light. The Top Heavy Hefeweizen was my favorite, great body and complex flavor. Comparable to a Blue Moon but less sweet and no need for citrus. In hindsight, I wish I had grabbed a growler to enjoy later.

We had the always classic goat cheese appetizer, topped with red sauce and served with garlic toast. I thought it was a bit too hot and the goat cheese was melted into the sauce and overwhelmed. Chalk it up to a crazy busy Saturday night. Not a deal breaker.

The pizza - I love that it's oddly shaped, a sure sign of really rustic pizza in my book. Basic pizza, extra sauce and pepperoni is Doug's carb load of choice pre-run. The thin crust was just a bit chewy, just the way we like it.

Our hosts chose mushroom and black olive. I love the earthy flavor of mushrooms and olives (of any type) are a bonus on pizza. Lots of topping. I love lots of topping.

Not being one to discriminate, I chose to sample both. There wasn't a clear cut winner.

I think I need to go back for further research and a really good beer.

Monday, October 12, 2009

He Did It...Again!

Sunday was the 32nd running of the Chicago Marathon and Doug was among the 33,000 finishers. Yaaaay, Doug! The race starts and I run (I mean fast walk) off to see him at various points throughout the course. Usually, I search for him among thousands of runners and never see him. This year we were lucky and we saw each other twice. The first time at mile 2 and again between miles 12 and 13. See him in the blue Make-A-Wish shirt?

The way this day works is that Doug runs and runs and runs and runs and in between looking for him, I wait and wait and wait and wait.

It was certainly much easier to be me, sipping tea on a cold, cold Chicago day.

After 26.2 very long miles Doug finished only a bit worse for the wear. Once again, I am so proud of his commitment to this challenge and his amazing mental willpower. He ran on behalf of kids that maybe can't run. Hopefully his efforts will enable a special boy or girl to experience something wonderful, too.

Isn't he the greatest?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Local Raspberry Treats

The last time I posted I was plum crazy. This is another example of similar behavior only in raspberry. We are lucky enough to have a U-Pick Raspberry farm within 15 minutes of our house. I was out in early September with plans to return many times again. Factor in new schedules, work, weather and illness and it took weeks. Monday I finally returned and spent over an hour in the midst of raspberry brambles. It was a gorgeous bright, fall day full of warm sun, chirping crickets and birds, distant train whistles and the occasional "thunk" as a black walnut fell to the ground. So pleasant it was, I almost forget the pain in my back from hunching over in search of berries. The pain was worth it. My freezer is stocked and we've enjoyed many treats since the raspberries hit the yellow house.

After my first trip, I immediately made raspberry liqueur as I had with strawberries. A few cups of raspberries, sugar and vodka shaken and allowed to sit. I haven't checked on it lately, it's in a dark cabinet. I am sure it's ready to strain and sip with friends gathering next week.

Why the eggs? I used farm eggs to make raspberry lemon curd. This picture was irresistible to me and a shining example of the value of farm eggs. Check out that yolk!

I pureed a small amount of raspberries and then strained them - don't want any seeds in the curd. Rather than bust out the Cuisinart, I used the immersion blender with the cup attachment. Very effective and super easy to clean up.

I love these tall wide mouth jars - any thing you put into them looks fabulous. I do love the look of the Weck jars but the simplicity of a good old Ball jar is something special in its own right. The raspberry curd is delicious and has been enjoyed on countless English muffins and spoons. I see a pudding and maybe a few baby tartes in the future, too. If you'd like to try this recipe or an easy straight lemon version check Everyday Food.

I made a beautiful coffeecake dusted with powdered sugar and garnished with fresh raspberries on the stem, too. It was a donation and unfortunately was rushed out the door without photos. However, as good as it looked, I doubt it could have possibly been as good as these muffins. I make a lot of muffins for easy breakfasts and snacks but more often than not I am disappointed. Perhaps my expectations are too high for a humble muffin, but few do I make twice. These Lemon-Raspberry Muffins were amazing and I can't wait to make them again.

Lemon-Raspberry Muffins

1 lemon
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup vanilla yogurt
1/3 cup canola oil,
1 large egg
1 t. vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cup fresh or frozen (not thawed) raspberries

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.
Line 12 muffin cups with paper liners

Use a vegetable peeler, carefully remove the zest from the lemon in long strips. Combine zest and sugar in a food processor, pulse until the zest is finely chopped into the sugar. You could use a zester but I feel to best incorporate citrus flavor into the sugar it's helpful to start with large pieces of zest. Add buttermilk, oil, egg and vanilla and pulse until well blended.

Combine flour, baking powder powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Add the buttermilk mixture and fold until almost blended. Gently fold in raspberries. Divide batter equally among muffin cups.

Bake until the edges of the muffins and tops are golden, 20-25 minutes. Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes before turning out onto a cooling rack. Serve warm if possible but they are yummy at room temperature, too.

Yield: 12 muffins

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Plum Crazy!

I tend to be a bit compulsive about things in the kitchen. When I teach a pie class, I am all about pie. When it's pasta I am all about pasta. Happens with ingredients, too. June strawberries, July blueberries and peaches.....get the idea? In September I think of plums. They seem to be the oft overlooked fruit that deserves some more kitchen time. When was the last time you ate a plum?

At the Green City Market on a brilliant September these lovelies called me to take them home. Aren't they pretty?

I made this pretty Plum Croustade with them. It was delicious, sweet and tart.

I turned red plums purchased at local farmer's market into Martha's Plum Cake from the September Everyday Food. A basic butter cake with fruit - tasty for snacking or breakfast.

Finally, I morphed a few recipes into one, picking and choose ingredients that I had on hand and roasted them into.....

...this warm, garnet topping for good vanilla ice cream. Doug, not usually a fan of sweets, was very complimentary. Quite a testimonial from a man who could take or leave anything sweet.

One last late-season raspberry picking trip (if the rain stops) and it's all apple and pumpkin.....

Honey-Roasted Plums

4 plums, halved and pitted
1/4 cup dessert wine of choice, I used Vin Santo
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
Scant 1/3 cup honey
1 strip orange zest about 2 " long
Pinch of cinnamon
2 T. butter, cut into pieces

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.

Place plums face down in a shallow baking dish. Combine wine, juice, honey and cinnamon, stirring well. Pour over plums, add the orange zest strip and dot with butter.

Roast until tender but still intact, about 35-40 minutes.

After removing from the oven spoon liquid over plums to coat. Serve warm over vanilla ice cream.

Serves about 4

Monday, October 5, 2009

Chocolate + Zucchini Chicago-Style

No, it's still just us in the yellow house and yes, it's still in a suburb of Chicago. Just an obvious play on words. My work is not as successful (yet!) and geographically my location is not nearly as cool but the cupcakes are really good.

Always in search of interesting lunchbox treats and constantly striving to incorporate (or sneak) vegetables into everything. A collection of zucchini recipes in the September issue of (the soon to be defunct), Gourmet grabbed my attention - specifically the cupcake recipe. Go figure.

They came together very quickly and yet it was one of those recipes that kept me checking to be sure I didn't miss anything - in this case liquid. If you try these the batter is very, very, very thick. I used a hand mixer as suggested, but it would probably be easier in a stand mixer. That would make it really easy to double the recipe since they freeze beautifully.

Rich chocolate flavor and a dense but not heavy texture make these cupcakes certain to reappear in lunchboxes soon. Give them a try. Be sure to spend some time checking out the great blog chocolateandzucchini for some great inspiration, too.

Chocolate Chip Zucchini Cupcakes

Gourmet September 2009

1 1/2 cup a.p. flour
2 T. unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. baking soda
1/4 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
3/4 cup + 2 T. sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 large egg
1/2 t. pure vanilla extract
1 cup coarsely grated zucchini
1 6oz. package semi-sweet chocolate chips

Pre heat oven to 350 degrees with rack in the middle. Whisk together flour, cocoa, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Beat together sugar, oil, egg and vanilla in a large bowl with an electric mixer until thick and creamy, 2-3 minutes. At low speed, mix in flour mixture until just incorporated. Stir in zucchini and chocolate chips. Divide among lined muffin cups and bake until tops spring back when lightly pressed, 30-35 minutes. Cool in pan 5 minutes then turn out to cool completely.

Yield: 12 cupcakes

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Henry Is (almost) 6!

When Jake started kindergarten I had this great idea to invite his whole kindergarten class to a special birthday party in our backyard. It has, of course, become a tradition for ALL of the Downing kids. We've had many themes including, Harry Potter, Curious George and Princess, for our only girl. This year, I say with more than a bit of sadness, was our last kindergarten bash. We celebrated Henry's forthcoming 6th birthday with a Backyard Carnival!

As we know, the cake picture is the important one. For this special event I have always ordered a party cake from The Cakery. They made our wedding cake, all of our first birthday cakes and many cakes in between. Bob, the owner, is amazingly talented and bakes a great cake. His butter cream includes butter - need I say more? We gave them a napkin and the above is a perfect replica. Did I say he is amazing and his cakes are great?

In keeping with the theme Henry chose, there was popcorn, peanuts, face painting and tattoos. Inspired by Miss Kim, we had to have Bozo buckets, too. The highlight was the moon jump - a big investment but part of the deal for this extra special event.

Here they are - the class of 2023 (gulp) clowning for the camera. Special old friends, neighbors and lots and lots of new friends finding a special place in our lives were on hand to share in the festivities.

It's the beginning, and a bittersweet end, of an era.