Plugging Away

  • Marmalade, In The Style of Vermeer

  • Bread Love

    People like to ask me what my favorite thing is to bake. I tend to stammer and stutter "cookies? cakes? depends on the day, really." But lately my answer to this question would definitely be bread.

    Making bread is evoking kitchen alchemy at its finest. There is nothing more satisfying on a cold, gray morning than the soft, yeasty scent of a rising loaf, other than the toasty smell of that very same loaf baking. One of my goals for 2011 was to learn how to make bread using a natural starter instead of commercial yeast (and apparently, this is not a common goal for non-food obsessed people–my husband laughed when I told him). Thanks to Doug, bread baker extraordinaire at Murray Hollow, I acquired some established starter that was already making fantastic breads for him and was able to get to it. Although I generally reinvent a recipe every time I make it, I've stuck with and tried to perfect the "My sourdough" recipe from the River Cottage Bread Handbook.  My only adjustments have been adding some rye and whole wheat flours to the dough, and adding enough water to make an exceptionally moist loaf. It's amazing how good only flour, water, starter, and salt taste when they are combined and allowed to rise slowly, then are baked quickly in a very hot oven.

    I'm going to recommend that if you haven't made bread yet this winter, do so now. You will instantly feel satisfied. And if you need some recipes to try, start here or here with focaccia or rye bread recipes that I developed for Culture Magazine. Although they are meant to accompany cheese, they are equally good slathered with butter or served with soup.

  • Tough


    This place where I live makes me tough. It makes me push past my fear repeatedly with a desire to lead a normal life, a desire to not be limited by bad roads, animals, accidents.

    I have a perfect walking trail right behind my house. On days when the weather cooperates, I happily head out for an hour, knowing that my mind will be clearer and I'll be more relaxed when I come back. My walks took a sinister turn a few years ago when my neighbors' dogs decided I was threatening to their owners as I went to walk around them.  Both of the dogs bit me, hard, and I limped home with tears running down my face. I was injured first of all, but I was most upset that my sense of peace had been shattered. It took me awhile to go out alone for a walk. At first, I carried a stick, or sometimes rocks, weapons in both of my hands. Finally, I felt comfortable enough to carry only mace, first clutched into my tight fist at the ready, then tucked into a jacket pocket. I felt comfortable again. This weekend, from inside, we spotted a large coyote standing on the trail and I felt a little crack in my rebuilt confidence. I debated whether to go out today.

    But I did. I had to. If we let fear rule our lives, no one would enjoy anything. Nothing would get done. My walk today was a little victory. I clutched my bright orange whistle in my left gloved hand and had the mace readily accessible to the right. I felt alive in the damp, cool air and dull light of January.

  • Baking Instincts

    I would like to say that I've wholeheartedly embraced the idea of a new year. However, I still feel like I'm on the cusp of wrapping up 2011 and readying myself for this year. The good news is that I feel headed in the right direction.

    In early December, I had a bit of a revelation. I hadn't baked since the November farmers' market, and I was starting my holiday truffle extravaganza. Brainstorming flavors and garnishes had started weeks earlier, but it wasn't until I was actually in the kitchen that I felt entirely at peace. Happy to be back in the kitchen, making, happy to be working towards a goal, and happy to be working for myself.

    This was a huge discovery because I've always enjoyed doing lots of different things (those of you who have known me for awhile might have taken out some of my origami cranes to hang on your tree this year!). Sometimes I still wonder what would've happened if I had followed my initial path of music or continued to make jewelry. I was not a naturally talented musician (and even verged on tone-deaf to some degree), and I really had to work at being an oboist. And it pains me to admit it, but I don't think I'm a natural artist, either. I love making books (and I loved making jewelry), but everything I craft is too analytical and almost stubborn in demeanor. I couldn't quite express myself in any of these pursuits.

    Somehow, baking seems to be the most natural of all the things I have tried. I never took making sweets seriously because it was such an easy part of my life. I'm starting to come to terms with the baking thing and even expand the idea of it this year. I see 2012 as a challenging and fulfilling year for me once I'm ready to push full steam ahead.

  • We Were Not Alone

    As I mentioned previously, it was just me and my husband for the holidays this year. We did not travel, and no one ventured to Vermont to visit. Despite the lack of actual family, our holiday were rich with familial memories in the form of food. There were Christmas cookies inspired by my Aunt Barb, peanut butter blossoms topped with milk chocolate Hershey's kisses. Christmas dinner was an ode to Matt's family, an Italian feast modeled on Ma Mia's braciole, accompanied by fresh pasta, a winter caprese salad (made with our very own sun-dried cherry tomatoes), and a Meyer lemon semifreddo.

    I got the urge to make latkes–my dad is Jewish, although this meal was generally the extent of our Hanukkah traditions while I was young. I followed this fabulous recipe and managed to utilize my CSA parsnips which would have languished in the veggie drawer for some time. For a New Year's Eve get together with friends, I made trifle for dessert. My mom makes this nearly every year for Christmas Eve, so I had been scheming on how to fit it into the holiday festivities, preferably when other people could also enjoy it (and it wasn't just us eating an entire bowl of dessert). Although I took some liberties with fruit choice and construction, the foundation of a pillowy hot milk sponge cake was my mom's time-honored recipe. It tasted like home.

    So, to those loved ones who I wasn't able to see this year, you were with me anyway, despite the many miles of separation–I hope to see you soon.  I wish a bright and happy 2012 to all.

  • A Christmas (Cookie) Story

    For the first year ever, we're staying here in Vermont for the holidays. It was a hard decision to make, and I know I'll really miss seeing my family. But beyond missing the people that I love, I'll miss the Christmas cookies most.

    In my memory, I associate family members with specific cookies that they've made over the years. My mom's steady contribution to the cookie plate is a chocolate chip oatmeal cookie, her attempt to make a sweet virtuous with the addition of oats and whole wheat flour. In the past she made tiny butter cookies, squeezed into shapes of trees and Santas with the cookie press, then sprinkled with coarse colored sugars and round sprinkles. There were also thumbprints, soft, buttery balls dunked into egg white, then coarsely chopped walnuts, and finished with my small thumb making a dent in the center. They were always requested by my aunt Barb, and though I loved the cookies filled with jam, my aunt preferred them filled with frosting. Mom made frosting in pastel colors, flavored with extracts to make two or three flavors (usually orange, lemon, and lime) that we carefully dolloped onto the cookies, where it set into a crusty, sugary lump.

    My grandfather's wife, Roselee, also made thumbprints, but only the jam-filled ones, and snickerdoodles, whose silly and seemingly made-up name appealed to me. The snickerdoodles reminded me of cinnamon toast, which I loved, and the fact that I only saw them once a year at Roselee's house made me covet them even more. My aunt Barb made peanut butter blossoms, peanut butter cookie balls with an entire Hershey's kiss pressed into the center. These were my very favorite cookies when I was young; I would carefully eat around the kiss, then savor the inner bites of soft chocolate and peanut butter mingled together.

    My other favorite cookie was a sugar cake that my grandmother made. These were a simple, down-home cookie, soft and vanilla-y with a topping of colored sugar or cinnamon sugar. After she passed away, no one made them anymore, namely because shortening was an important ingredient. I decided to bring them back last year, changing the shortening to butter and oil and substituting buttermilk for the milk. I was so happy to bring them to my family and to share memories of Mama while enjoying the soft, cakey cookies. My husband couldn't understand the appeal of such a seemingly bland sweet, but each family has its own traditions and foods, and they don't necessarily make sense to others. And certainly, each family has its own cookie traditions, which is what made it so hard for me to choose only a couple this year. To start with, I'm making my aunt's peanut butter blossoms, and I'm trying a new cookie from Dan Lepard that I've been eyeing ever since I saw a photo of the craggy sticks. Lepard's bonfire cookies are filled with warm spices, perfect for a cold Vermont day, and perfect to warm my heart with memories of family and friends this Christmas.

  • Holiday Orders

    I am taking orders for truffles, vanilla bean marshmallows, and dried fruit and nut cakes right now. Please go here to place your order. And come visit me at the farmers' market this coming Saturday!

    Thanks to everyone who placed orders! Enjoy your sweets and have a happy holiday!

  • Un-gift Guide

    You may have guessed that I'm one of those people who make the majority of their holiday gifts. I do–but not always in the most well-intentioned way. After an entire month of making things for the farmers' market and focusing on what other people want to give their loved ones, I become gift-stupid. I forget about the gifts I'm supposed to get until a few days before we load up the car to drive south and visit family. Then my husband will conjure a list which has been in his head for the previous few days and gets worriedly translated to mine with our rural, limited shopping venues to keep in mind. Then, I'm in the basement staring down the least popular jams that are lingering on the shelves and wondering about the shelf-life of wrapped biscotti. After piecing together the most desirable edibles left over from the holiday market and any finished craft projects that may have been gathering dust for the past three years, some sort of homemade present takes shape. I don't necessarily feel proud of my efforts.

    This year, I feel slightly more prepared for the season. I am trying to think about presents pre-emptively, order things, and have cute packaging on hand before I get busy making candies, truffles, and cookies for other people. One of my favorite things to do is to check out the gift guides: best books of 2011, best kitchen gadgets–really any sort of "best of" list instantly grabs my attention. I like looking at all of these things, but I don't imagine actually buying any of them. The guide that I am most inspired by so far is the one at Design Sponge for gifts made with your hands. And while they mention all the usual suspects, the guide could have been subtitled gifts made with your heart. It wasn't about invoking your inner Martha Stewart, but about really thinking about the recipient of your gift. What would she like? What would make her life better/easier/calmer? It made me think about how often we don't do that for people, even our close family and spouse. We get so wrapped up in finding the perfect thing that we forget why we're buying it in the first place.

    So, maybe the true gift to put on your list this year is compassion. Imagine yourself in someone else's mental space for a minute. Maybe this person has been especially grouchy or happy or angry this year. There's probably a good reason even if it's not something that you can rationalize. Don't judge her, or tell her to snap out of it; instead, be accepting of where she is. And then cook her dinner or make her bath salts while keeping in mind why she's so important to you. Let everything else go.

  • Quiet

    Life has been quiet lately. While that is certainly not a bad way to live, I've debated what I want to share here so it seems like something is happening. I think that's why my updates have gotten lazy and a little moody, like late afternoon in early winter. Luckily, the weather has cooperated and been just as quiet as life. I know most people refer to this in-between time as "stick season," the ugly duckling time between beautiful fall foliage and winter blankets of snow, but I find it a time of subtle beauty. You can examine the skeletons of the trees that you live with all year, otherwise ignoring their structures until just now when there is little else to look at. You notice the few rattle-y leaves that still cling to the branches and the lichens that have taken up residence on the trunks. The light seems more dramatic against the subtleties of brown and gray and sharp hints of red and orange. It's been unseasonably warm, which I don't mind one bit. I would be perfectly happy if it stayed just like this another month or so...and similarly my life. While sometimes it's so quiet around here that I fixate on the ticking of a clock like it is my heart, I am okay to remain in this peace for another month.

  • Disappointments

    Fall can be both hopeful and disappointing. It is a glorious time of year, colorful, full of crisp air and a sense of renewed vigor for being in the kitchen and making wholesome, hearty meals. Sometimes warm weather holds out and peppers and tomatoes keep merrily producing fruit. Or, winter can move right in with barely an apology and dismiss your careful fall preparations with wrathful cold and snow.

    Our first disappointment of the fall was the apples. Our apples were beautiful this year, a good year for them, everyone told us. We were eagerly watching the variety called Goldrush, a tart apple that is perfect for winter storage, and wondering about the ideal time to pick. One morning we noticed the trees no longer bent under the weight of the fruit and far less of the green-gold orbs dangled from the branches. Matt went out to discover that deer had decimated the apples, taking leaves and tender shoots with them as well. He was so forlorn, picking the untouched fruit that was only one third of what we had before. My dreams of applesauce, apple jelly, and dried apple rings burst when I saw the one small basket that held our harvest.

    Now there is snow on the ground from the two times it snowed last week. Bright leaves scatter over the melting snow as if they're trying to take their season back. I'm rooting for fall to prevail for a few more precious weeks.

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Plugging Away

I'm trying to enjoy the quiet stillness of winter. We've had lots of snow (and snow days) and rain, which has made for long weeks of nasty weather. I'm drawing daily and I can see myself steadily improving.