about bliss

Thursday, December 25, 2008

happy christmas!

holiday greetings and chocolate visions!

Just a quick post today to wish everyone a Merry Christmas! Yesterday I made a Yule Log cake, a.k.a. Bûche de Noël, for the very first time. I followed a cake recipe in the Gourmet cookbook for a chocolate roulade--a souffle wonder! I then improvised a coffee flavored buttercream, infusing half and half with coarsely ground coffee beans, adding it to powdered sugar and butter. I then glazed the entire cake with a bittersweet ganache and fashioned mushrooms out of marshmallows. Though it's a little more square-ish than rounded, it's cute and promises chocolate deliciousness for my family!

Santa was kind to me, and I now have a digital camera! Look for improved photographs in the new year.

I hope the holiday--whether Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, or Festivus--finds you happy and healthy. Thank you for spending time with me on this little blog:)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

let it snow + candy cane cookies

Luckily, I left Wisconsin on Saturday morning and made it to Michigan before the a) blizzard warning; b) lake effect snow advisory; and c) winter weather advisory. We're slowly building up to our 3rd foot of snow here in Western Michigan, as you can see from these photos taken from the toasty inside of my parents' home, looking out into the yard:

pines laden with snow remind me of a poem I wrote as a child when these trees were so much smaller

half of the fence is already buried, and the snow is as high as the porch

I want to trek through the woods and the pristine snow, walking into the eternal hush of the forest, but so far I've stayed inside where it's warm, reading poetry for my winter session class, baking cookies, visiting with my parents, cooking soups, and practicing yoga to help me overcome this nagging cold that keeps me feeling just less than 100%. I'm waiting for my brother to arrive tomorrow to share in some holiday hijinks, and adventures outdoors, which will invariably include a noisy and smelly but exhilarating ride on the snowmobile.

Today I made a batch of Chocolate Candy Cane Cookies, a delicious sandwich cookie from Bon Appetit.

Do you think they'll tempt Santa?

Tomorrow's baking extravaganza: Buche de Nöel

twd: real butterscotch pudding

a pale pudding, dressed up with chocolate chips

"It tastes good, but I'm not sure what it is," said my Dad, as he dipped his spoon back into the tea cup for another bite of the mystery dessert I foisted on him.

"That's going in the blog," I laughed, as I explained that this was no ordinary butterscotch pudding, but an upscale concoction that featured his favorite liquor, Crown Royal.

"It doesn't taste very butterscotchy, but it's good," he exclaimed. My Mom tasted one bite, not being a fan of butterscotch favored things and concurred.

I tasted a bite and was rather disappointed--the caramel flavor wasn't very deep, and the texture was marred by a slight curdling that never disappeared. Not having a food processor, I used a more traditional pudding preparation involving tempering the eggs and constant whisking. The eggs were lovely--no scrambling there--but the slight curdling remained nonetheless beyond the point where Dorie says it might first appear.

C'est la vie...

I made a few minor adjustments to the recipe, namely using skim milk and half and half instead of whole milk and heavy creamy. This could account for the textural issues. And, lacking real Scotch Whiskey, I turned to our neighbors to the North, and selected Crown Royal from my parents' liquor shelf for the finishing touch.

Thanks to Donna of Spatulas, Corkscrews, & Suitcases for choosing this recipe--check out the delectable pie she made using this pudding.

Monday, December 22, 2008

winter haiku

large flakes fall slowly
another inch, another foot
winter wonderland

Greetings from snowy Holland, Michigan, where blizzard warnings have now expired, yet piecy snow continues to fall...

Saturday morning I followed the contour of Lake Michigan, traveling from my home in Wisconsin to my parents' home in Holland, timing my journey between massive storms. I'm enjoying the laziness that comes at the end of the semester and the enforced hibernation of blizzard warnings outside and rhinovirus inside.

I'll be back tomorrow with my holiday retrospective AND the story of Dorie's butterscotch pudding, bound to be a favorite for my Dad!

Safe travels and happy holidays to you all!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

twd: buttery jam cookies

pink cookies! pink holiday!

If you can't already tell from reading my blog and just seeing the profusion of pink in my photos (my KA is pink:), I have a thing for pink. I always have. And so, when I added raspberry jam to my cookie dough and watched the soft mass turn a delightful shade of pink, I clapped my hands and dreamed of tea parties...

Because, really, these bite size morsels, ever so slightly sweet, and just this side of a biscuit or scone, are more suited to a tea party, with dainty treats and mismatched vintage tea cups, than to a last day of class party, as I discovered yesterday. My students and I managed to stay on schedule all semester and so our last day of class was open--no more stories to read, no more presentations to make. How to win over college students on the brink of finals? Food! Party! I brought the buttery jam cookies and some of last week's sugar cookies I had tucked away in the freezer, but they were no match for the store bought holiday cupcakes and the fruit torte billowy with whipped topping brought by my students.

Thanks to Heather of Randomosity and the Girl for choosing this week's recipe.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

honey vanilla fleur de sel caramels

the same holiday scene, with caramels, wrapped and unwrapped

This weekend, when I wasn't tidying up my home or grading papers or setting up my holiday decorations, I watched cooking shows on television, including one on PBS that showcased holiday treats, including handmade sea salt caramels. I've always wanted to try making caramels and other candies, and emboldened by the new baking frontiers I've encountered in TWD, I decided to find a candy thermometer and transform sugar into chewy caramel.

Living in a land distant from any *good* cooking shops, whether local or national chains, I hoped that TJ Maxx or Target in the next town would have a thermometer, and thankfully Target had one model for candy, though many models of meat thermometer, not particularly helpful for a baking and vegetarian!

I needed a block of time to devote to the candy making, and the weather gods, together with my University administration, provided me just what I needed today, in the form of 10 inches of snow and a snow day! Furthering my good luck was the fact that I'm in between essay assignments, so my only work related task was to read Jhumpa Lahiri's charming and devastating story "Sexy" for my American Lit class tomorrow.

And so it was that I gathered together my supplies and began the simple but time consuming process of caramel making. I used a recipe from Epicurious, and made a few small changes: half and half instead of heavy cream, honey instead of corn syrup, and a splash of vanilla for good measure. I also splurged for some really good butter--because the recipe is simple and the ingredients few, using the purest products you can find will greatly increase the final taste of the product. I've included my altered recipe below.

Caramels are simple to make, if you can resist the temptation to stir when the sugars are first beginning to caramelize, if you can judge a "light golden caramel" color accurately, and if you can patiently stir occasionally and watch the candy thermometer for however long it takes to creep up to 248 degrees, the firm ball stage. The recipe claims this last step should take 10-15 minutes, but it took a good 30-45 minutes for me. I had the heat on medium low to keep the mixture at a very gentle boil. I also think my stove--glass top electrical--might be slower that a more direct, controllable source of heat like gas.

No matter--I multi tasked, executing lunges and squats and calf raises in my small kitchen as I intermittently watched the thermometer and stirred the bubbling sugar. I needed to pre-emptively work off the extra calories I was bound to consume once the candies were finished.

Finally, the mixture reached the magical point of 248 degrees, and I poured them out into an 8 inch square pan lined with quick release foil (per Dorie's suggestion). After cooling for two hours, the caramels were ready for a final sprinkle of Fleur de sel. I ran my rolling pin over the top to press the salt crystals into the candy, cut them into small squares, and painstakingly wrapped them individually in squares of parchment paper. Voila!

After sampling one...or two...or three, I declare them delicious. These are the caramels for which master candy makers and gourmet food shops charge $15-20 per pound, and with a little effort and a bit of time, you can make 40+ candies for a fraction of the price.

Honey Vanilla Fleur de Sel Caramels
*adapted from Epicurious.com*

1 cup half and half, Organic Valley
5 TBS unsalted butter, Organic Valley unsalted European cultured
1 tsp. Fleur de sel, trader joe's
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup honey, Wisconsin Clover
1/4 cup water, filtered
1 tsp. vanilla
extra Fleur de sel for sprinkling

Line an 8 inch square pan with buttered parchment or quick release foil.

Boil cream, butter, and salt, then remove from the heat. This stabilizes the cream, and, I believe makes the caramels keep longer.

Boil sugar, honey, and water, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Keep boiling, but do not stir, until the mixture reaches a "light golden caramel" color.

Stir in cream mixture--be careful, because the entire mixture will bubble up Continue stirring occasionally until the temperature reaches 248 degrees. I added the vanilla somewhere in the middle of this process.

Pour the mixture into the pan, cool two hours, sprinkle with Fleur de sel, cut into squares, and wrap. Enjoy making people smile with pleasure and deliciousness:)

a poor quality photo from inside my house, looking out at my deck, covered with snow!

twd: grandma's all-occasion sugar cookies

holiday scene, complete with cookies

Some years the holiday spirit is strong, while others it seems to sputter. Since the holiday season and the end of the academic semester coincide, I'm often caught in a frenzy of paper grading and gift making and traveling that leaves me exhausted by the time Christmas Eve rolls around. This year, however, I'm managing the stress better thus far, and the generous, loving spirit burns strong. The early December snow has created a Winter Wonderland, and I long for two weeks to spend with family and friends enjoying leisurely days and treks in a world of white.

This morning I'm home instead of at work because of a snow day--a blessed event for all students and faculty who need just a smidge more time at the end of the semester to catch up on that paper writing and grading. As for me, I'm in between essay grading, and so I'm baking and blogging and watching Martha Stewart. As luck would have it, it's cookie week!

This week's TWD recipe, Grandma's All-Occasion Sugar Cookies, was selected by Ulrike of Küchenlatein, a delightful blog to test my undergraduate German minor (she also offers an English translation). I've baked Dorie's sugar cookies before, and I have to say that they're delicious! My great-grandma, Cookie Grandma, always made a brown sugar cookie, but it wasn't a roll out dough, therefore we don't have a sacred family sugar cookie recipe. I feel no qualms about declaring my unequivocal love for Dorie's version.

Dorie's dough is buttery and easy to manage. Like any roll out cookie, this one needs constant cooling. I rolled the cold dough out into a thin sheet, and popped it in the freezer for about 10 minutes. I then cut out the cookies and then popped it bake in the freezer before placing the sheet in the oven. The cold temperature should help the cookies hold their shape.

I made tiny trees, snowflakes, and hearts, because the holidays are all about love.

As the snow continues to swirl outside, and the world is awash in white, my mind is clear, and my heart is open, ready to share the abundance of the holiday season.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

twd: linzer sables

hearts and trees

Here in my corner of the world, we have six inches of fluffy new snow draping everything, and all I want to do is cozy up with a deliciously long novel, an endless pot of tea, and a stack of cookies. Alas, this is also the busiest time of the semester in my little academic world. Students are melting down as they race to finish research papers, read the last novel, and beg for extra credit once they realize their dire grade situation. My colleagues and I are also buffeted by stress--all those papers to grade, all those agonizing final grade decisions, coupled with holiday parties and events, and, for me, looming travel plans.

This morning I'm looking out my east facing windows at a world of white snow, pale blue sky with a band of yellow as the sun rises, and in the far distance, a sliver of Lake Michigan that looks frozen in motion. Joni Mitchell's "River" is playing (thanks to Shari of Whisk: a Food Blog for quoting from my favorite holiday song). My coffee is hot and strong, I have 2 hours before I teach my first class, and I have finally finished baking my Linzer Sables. At the moment I'm content.

The Linzer Sables, chosen by Dennis at Living the Life, were simple to bake, despite their fancy and fussy appearance. The greatest difficulty I had was lifting the cut cookies to the pan without breaking them--the little christmas tree cut-out left some thin borders in places, and made them a bit more fragile. The house still smells nutty and warm this morning after my late night baking session. The hazelnut with nutella filling is wonderful--the nutella adds a touch of sweetness, ramps up the hazelnut flavor, and the chocolate is essential. These cookies would be just the right touch of sweetness after a meal, and are just the right pick-me-up in the middle of a paper grading session.

And now I'm inspired to begin the holiday baking, turning to old family favorites like buttery thumbprint cookies and English toffee, as well as my new classics like chocolate peppermint sandwich cookies (the ne plus ultra of sandwich cookies, from Bon Appetit magazine, December 2005). I'd love to make either a gingerbread house or a buche de Noel, a grand, intricate pastry wonder.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

the cookie dough is in the freezer...

...and will be baked tomorrow, once I a) catch up from being gone for the long Thanksgiving holiday; b) catch up grading student essays; and c) finally have time to devote to these gorgeous cookies, hazelnut and nutella linzer sables.

Thanks to Laurie for giving the TWD bakers a little freedom this month with baking and posting...

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

twd: thanksgiving twofer pie

close up of my pecan crusted twofer

I wasn't going to bake this pie.

You see, I had this idea that I didn't like pumpkin pie. And why waste all those precious pecans on pumpkin?

And so I spent last Sunday night peeling Jonathan apples and composing a poem, "After Apple Peeling," as a riff on Robert Frost's delightful and dark meditative poem "After Apple Picking." Only these apples were bad. As in every single one I started peeling was half brown and mushy. I suspect that they are last year's crop posing as new, relatively local fruit. Ugh.

And so, Monday morning I threw the remaining unpeeled apples and a single peeled one as evidence into my trunk, intending to return them to the grocery store after work. (Am I really now the woman who returns produce to the grocery store? So it would seem). Not wanting to deal with more apples, and missing the communal adventure of baking the week's TWD recipe, I gave into the promise of Dorie's Thanksgiving Twofer Pie, selected by Vibi of La casserole carrée. I filled my cart with all the goodies I needed, and headed home to bake.

Now, Monday night was one of those catch-up-and-cram evenings, in which I graded a handful of essays, read three short articles for class, talked to my best friend S, and made the Twofer. And hence I made this rookie mistake--I baked and talked. On the phone. And so I forgot the bourbon I was going to use instead of the rum. And I mixed the pecans into the gooey syrupy filling (I used maple syrup instead of corn syrup because I'm a little crazy about avoiding corn syrup) instead of following Dorie's advice to layer them over the pumpkin. And so my pie was a little messy and a little haphazard, but I can unequivocally say that it's also delicious. I would eat Pumpkin pie like this all day, all season long.

I brought the pie to a multi-cultural club harvest feast on Tuesday, and it was a lovely finish to a meal with foods as diverse as pierogi, papaya salad, Italian macaroni and cheese, and stollen.

For my family, I made my classic Maple Bourbon Pecan Pie. I use an all butter crust, and a Bon Appetit recipe from the November 2003 magazine, replacing the corn syrup with dark/Grade B maple syrup. My parents and I polished off the last large piece today before we drove through the snow so I could fly back to Wisconsin after a fabulous long weekend. It was the sweetest end to a delicious holiday.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

mad about madison!

photo of Wisconsin State Capital, Madison, taken by Darin ten Bruggencate, courtesy of wikipedia, and licensed by GFDL

"Well, if there's a long wait at the Nepali restaurant, then we could go to the Greek place," so said M as he, D, and I walked up and down State Street in Madison deciding where to eat.

Now that's a sentence you don't often utter when considering places to dine on a remarkably chilly evening. Or any other evening, for that matter.

Lucky for us, there was an open table by the window in the tiny restaurant, and we settled in for our very first Nepali meal at Himal Chuli. Or anywhere else, for that matter. I selected the Roti, Dal, and Takari, and I further chose the Chana Takari with chickpeas, potatoes, and carrots. The food was delicious--utterly familiar and vastly different than any other food I've ever eaten because of the spice and herb combinations binding together favorite foods. A gentle heat underscored the dal and the takari, and the mild soft, buttery bread was a perfect accompaniment.

We headed back out into the cold, in search of a basement bar where D and M could drink Strongbow hard cider and I would sip a Bombay Sapphire G & T as we talked about the conference on Liberal Education that had brought us all together from various corners of the state to the Capital city.

The next afternoon, after attending more sessions and parting ways from new and old friends, I bundled up in an extra layer, slung my messenger bag across my shoulder, and walked up State street to the Capital Square. I made it to Cafe Soleil just before they stopped serving lunch, and enjoyed a Dairyland classic: grilled cheese. This one melded together several artisan cheeses and caramelized onions and thinly sliced tomatoes. I stopped by fromagination on the recommendation of several fellow bloggers, and selected a cheese to bring to Michigan for Thanksgiving, dried cranberries, local chocolate, and local crackers. One more stop: Barriques Coffee Trader, a brilliant coffeeshop cum wine shop, stocked with reasonable bottles of wine and an espresso bar. I purchased a French pinot noir and an Argentinian torrontes. Loaded down, I walked back down State Street, past the hippie shops and fair trade coffee shops, smelling nag champa incense whirling on the air and mingling with a thousand cuisines.

And then it was back to my car and a long drive across the state, past a graceful field of wind turbines and rolling farmland, and back home.

Monday, November 17, 2008

twd: arborio rice pudding

arborio rice pudding pre- Big Chill

The first gentle, shimmery skiff of snow to drape on roofs and line my deck fell tonight--a preview of months of whiteness (and grey, but don't let's speak of those more-than-touches-of grey tonight) to come. Despite my despair at never ending months of winter, that first snow has a holy, mystical quality, especially when it comes gently like it did here and not en masse as it did on my native side of Lake Michigan (drive slower, dear brother of mine!). I'm almost tempted to haul the antiquated VCR out of the closet to watch "First Snow," an episode of Northern Exposure where the town celebrates this very moment (though I'm not sure I can look at Alaska quite the same way again post-Palin).

And so, after reading the weekly dose of Annie Dillard for class tomorrow--her delightful chapter "Stalking" that recognizes the convergence of quantum physics and mysticism --and grading more painful-to-read research essays that require me to wield a pink highlighter with utmost precision--I took to the kitchen to cook this week's TWD recipe, arborio rice pudding (black or white or both) from Isabelle of Les Gourmandise d'Isa.

In my 30+ years of existence, I have never eaten, much less cooked rice pudding. I was always skeptical of this "Dessert," which seemed much too virtuous to be in the indulgent category that I generally reserve for Desserts (simple fruit concoctions notwithstanding). Now, Dorie suggests a chocolate variation, but still, chocolate and rice? Don't misunderstand--I ♥ rice, but in Dessert? I needed some convincing.

Luckily, my grocery store has a nifty little natural/organic/bulk foods area where, among many other rice varieties, one can purchase arborio rice. I love working with this starchy powerhouse, which makes for a simple and delicious risotto, a lovely dish to prepare when one needs a little kitchen zen. Say, after a stressful day of grading and navigating certain political waters, not to mention coming to terms with the seismic seasonal shift (I swear I'll adapt to winter one of these days, or at least stop bringing it up in every paragraph).

Though the rice pudding didn't demand as much stirring as a typical risotto, it was still a quiet, calm dish to prepare. No powerful whirl of the Kitchen Aid. No vigorous slapping (!) of dough. Just the soft, metallic scrape of my squared off spoon on the bottom of the pot. And the fleece-blankety warmth of hot milk and vanilla wafting through the house.

It is now chilling overnight, and in the morning, in lieu of my daily oatmeal, I will sample this heretofore unknown delicacy, feeling indulgent because I'm eating Dessert for breakfast.

Bon Jour! After a long chilly walk along the lake shore, the zebra mussel shells encased in frost, the hoary grasses reaching for the sun, I returned to the warmth of my kitchen to taste the rice pudding...while it did not thicken as much as I expected overnight, the flavor and texture wrapped around me with shouts of vanilla! comfort! home! I topped my little portion with dried cherries and pecans and savored every luscious bite. Hooray, arborio rice pudding!

breakfast time!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

root vegetable lasagne

root veggie lasagne

Are you familiar with Lynne Rossetto Kasper's delightful radio program The Splendid Table? I've been listening to podcasts of the show on my daily walks and learning much about food, cooking, and gastronomic trivia. For instance, I learned that lasagne is the proper spelling of the completed dish, as lasagna is the word for a single noodle.

This afternoon as I walked along the Lake Michigan shore, bundled in fleece, down, and wool, crunching over the empty zebra mussel shells and watching freighters crawl across the lake, I listened to Lynne and thought about dinner. I remembered the enticing photo of root veggie lasagne from one of my fellow foodie's blogs (whose is now escaping me), and remembered the recipe from this month's Cooking Light magazine. My pace quickened as I headed back to the house to make a grocery list and procure the few missing ingredients.

The house now smells spicy and roasty and I am well fed: the aforementioned lasagne, a wedge of crusty bread, sauteed broccoli and chickpeas, and a glass of pinot noir. A delightful Sunday evening!

weekend waffles

My Dad has a thing for food traditions--like Mexican food Wednesdays and Weekend Waffles. Last night I was talking to my Mom, who was prepping waffle batter (we make the yeasted, refrigerate overnight variety) for a Sunday morning breakfast with my Grandpa, and I was inspired to make waffle batter too.

The recipe is adapted from Cook's Illustrated. I like to make a half batch when I'm a) low on milk and b) low on freezer space to store the extra waffles. I have a Cuisinart Belgium Waffle maker, and this recipe makes 2 and 1/2 batches (i.e. 5 single rectangles).

7 oz. skim milk
2 TBS butter
1 c. flour (I used 1/2 cup white whole wheat and 1/2 c whole wheat)
1/2 TBS sugar (I used raw sugar)
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. yeast
1 egg
1/2 tsp. vanilla
cinnamon to taste

Heat the milk and butter until butter is just melted; cool until just warm to the touch.

Mix together the dry ingredients in one bowl, and whisk together egg and vanilla in another bowl.

Add the cooled milk/butter mixture to the dry ingredients and whisk until smooth. Finally, whisk in the egg mixture. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning, remove the bowl from the fridge and allow it to warm up as your waffle iron heats. Follow the directions for your waffle maker, and enjoy! I like to top my waffles with local maple syrup and nuts--pecans or walnuts--and whatever fruit I might have. This morning I ate fresh pineapple slices on the side, along with a cup of orange juice and a mug of hazlenut coffee with the very last dregs of milk, steamed to frothy perfection.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


I've been thinking about friendship quite a bit lately, as I settle more into my new home and my new job and continue to make new acquaintances. Building community proceeds slowly and hinges as much on serendipity as intention--the few non-work friends I have in M- are people I met either at the Farmers' Market or volunteering for a political campaign this fall.

But more I've been thinking of friends from other stages in my life, those thoughtful men and women who joined me for part of my journey, whether through the awkward days of high school, the halcyon days of undergrad, the fleeting years of my Master's program, and the intense days of my doctoral program, not to mention the in-between post-grad years before I landed this tenure-track position. Living the rather itinerant decade or two of life that higher education and life in academe requires, I've becoming increasingly separated from these friends, not only geographically but also in life stages. We email, facebook, or chat on the phone occasionally, but it's hard to bridge the distances between our lives when faced with so many competing demands and new challenges.

In the idealistic world in my mind, we would move along together at a similar pace. But, priorities shift, new locales beckon, unforeseen opportunities and new relationships arise, setting us on an altogether different course than our dear friends. And the beauty of it is that we learn and grow from one another, even as our paths diverge. I think it was Anne Shirley, the plucky heroine of my childhood favorite Anne of Green Gables series, who famously declared that true friends were together in spirit, a sentiment that seems fitting and comforting.

Monday, November 10, 2008

twd: kugelhopf

a hot loaf from the oven...

Yesterday afternoon I took a break from my winterizing frenzy to begin the long process of making this week's twd recipe, kugelhopf, from Yolanda of The All Purpose Girl. The dough came together easily, and it kept me awake longer than usual since it requires periodic monitoring and slapping, yes, slapping.

The sunrise and my alarm clock came too early and too chilly this morning. My friend H arrived at 6:30 and we headed out for our Monday morning run along Lake Michigan, and changed our return route to take in a stop at a cute little coffee shop. We walked the rest of the way to my house sipping steaming coffee in the twenty degree chill, and chatted about the week ahead before she left for home and I prepared for the day. On Wednesday mornings, I drive to her house for a run along another stretch of the Lake. We've pledged to continue these early morning jaunts through the winter, though I can imagine blustery days when it will take something stronger than a cafe au lait and a brisk jog to drag me out of bed!

After a long day at work wringing my hands because my lovely composition students are posting to the class blog and *not* citing sources in their entries, I returned home to check on the dough and set it out of the cold confines of the fridge. I did not order a kugelhopf pan--a gorgeous fluted tube style baking pan. My tube pan is huge, and bundt pans too cute, so I opted for my emile henri loaf pan. I patiently waited while the dough rose, attending to a quick chili and a pan of corn bread.

Finally, as I read student rough drafts in which the citations did not follow any of the *rules* I provided, I placed the risen (?) dough in the oven. After 10 minutes, the elemental smell of yeast blanketed me, and I faced a conundrum: what is better--the smell of chocolate baking or of bread? I might equivocate and say chocolate bread, like the babka my friend N and I made at Christmas time two years ago, eating thick slices and drinking a King Estate Pinot Noir she brought from Oregon.

The kugelhopf continued to rise and to brown, and I finally removed it from the oven after about 25 minutes total baking time. I quickly unmolded it, spooned melted butter over the golden edges, and sprinkled with raw sugar. I ate a piece of crust that stuck in the pan and thought of brioche. The texture, so light and airy; the flavor so delicate and rich; the dried cranberries, soaked in maker's mark bourbon, so tart-sweet.

While my cake cooled, I finished reading "Fecundity," from Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for class tomorrow, one of the darkest chapters in the entire text. I thought of my student who just lost her grandfather and want to tell her not to read. I want the rest of my students to crack open their dictionaries or go online and learn Dillard's vocabulary of memento mori and anathema and fecundity itself...

And then I checked the cake, which was nicely cooled, and I sprinkled just one corner with powdered sugar, and cut a narrow slice. I fixed an earl grey latte, a neat trick from H: steam milk with honey and brew half a cup of earl grey tea; combine and enjoy. The floral overtones of the bergamot infused tea nicely highlighted the subtle flavor of the cake.

In all honesty, I wasn't thrilled about this week's recipe, but after baking, I can say that I very much enjoyed the change of pace. Using my Kitchen Aid mixer, I hardly did any work transforming the raw ingredients into a queenly loaf. The cake, really more of a bread, is simple and the sort of thing I would serve at a holiday brunch or tea party. Or on a just-winter evening, with a tea latte, and a surfeit of words.

unmolded and not exactly pretty, but definitely delicious

Sunday, November 09, 2008


snowflakes, against an autumnal backdrop, view from my deck, november 8, 2008

Yesterday I drove one hour to a six hour meeting (seriously? a work meeting on a Saturday?) in the first *real* snow of the season. Fat flakes fell fast, and melted into puddles on the road, preventing any driving difficulties. There's no more hoping for Indian Summer--winter teases and beckons every other day or so now...

And so, after a contemplative and quiet and lazy morning, I set about winterizing my little home. It was time to lower all the storm windows. Time to cover the patio furniture on my second floor roof deck and stow the umbrella in the garage. Time to rake the front yard again,and time to empty the terra cotta pots of withered plants--goodbye, ghosts of summer, may you sweeten the compost pile! Time to change all the bedding from filmy cottons to heavy flannels and faux down. Time to store the straw purses and set out my hats and gloves and scarves.

It's time to stock up on tea and cocoa powder. Time to read new soup recipes and then experiment in the kitchen. Time to shift my exercise increasingly indoors. Time to visit my yoga mat and to savor a square of dark chocolate each day, those little antidotes to SAD.

Time to kindle the creative fires, and time to find that inner light to stave off the coming darkness and greyness that months of winter bring. It is time.

And though I'm never quite ready, never quite prepared for the immensity of winter, today went a long way in signaling the season shift. I want, now, to feel a shift inside me, an eye towards the beauty of fresh snow; a mind towards new creative paths; and a heart open to comfort and love.

Monday, November 03, 2008

twd: rugelach

Oh, tonight I'm a bundle of nerves waiting for tomorrow...I want all readers to feel welcome, so I shall keep my political views and hopes quiet, as hard as it is at this moment when I want to shout from the rooftops of the world...and so this blog post will be brief...

Instead, let me share this plate of rugelach with you! I'd like to thank Piggy of Piggy's Cooking Journal for choosing this delicious pastry cookie. I've never made, much less eaten, rugelach, though they've beckoned me from the shelves at Zingerman's Bakehouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I read the recipe, and pondered fillings. Then, at lunch a few days ago rugelach served as a safe, diversionary, bi-partisan topic to engage friends of differing political persuasion who were being mocked by other colleagues at the lunch table. Our little corner of the table focused on baked goods and not shallow political jabs, and B. gave me tips for making the dough (lots of refrigeration) and filling ideas (poppy seed and honey being a most intriguing possibility).

In a marathon round of Sunday baking, I made homemade butternut squash ravioli--I even made my own pasta! I made foccacia--which crusted nicely despite the absence of steam in my oven. And, I made the rugelach. My homemade raspberry jam is on its last dregs, and I cannot abide store bought jam, and I couldn't find directions for the poppy seed filling my friend mentioned, and so I decided to improvise. Honey, walnuts, brown sugar, and cinnamon proved a classic filling that my other friend B said was akin to Baklava when I brought him a cookie today. I'm waiting to hear B's assessment of my pastries--he and his wife are experts!

I used 1/3 less fat cream cheese in my dough, which rolled out smoothly and quickly. I had no problems rolling up the crescents, and they baked to golden nut-studded loveliness in no time at all. I like these cookies--they are very subtly sweet, romantically rich, and perfect with a mug of dark roast coffee or a cup of delicate darjeeling tea. I could use one right now to soothe my nerves, but I left them in my office to share with all who vote for deliciousness:)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

farewell, farmers' market

This Saturday was the last farmers' market until next May...it was with a heavy heart that I walked down to the market, my trusty market bag filled with a mini apple pie I made for the T's, my favorite farmers' market vendors and friends.

apple pie, made with a melange of fruits

I stocked up on cranberries--one of Wisconsin's unique crops--and a selection of Apples--Cortlands, Empires, Jonagolds, and Russets--for Election Day pies. I snagged a half gallon of cider that I'm now afraid to drink--not because it's unpasteurized, exactly, but because of my oral allergy to raw apples. A few years ago I realized that whenever I ate raw apples (or grapes), my mouthy would feel scratchy and like something was stuck at the base of my throat...so now I only eat apples that are cooked. Say, in pies, or applesauces, or crisps, or other delicious goodies. I have a marvelous apple cupcake recipe that uses both apples and cider--the perfect autumn treat!

And, from my friends, I purchased spinach, carrots, garlic, onions, and peppers to last at least a week. And then it will be back to the grocery store...

the season's bounty

And so, another sign that summer is *officially* long gone, fall is fading, and winter is returning. It's time to cook with a vengeance, to fire up the stove for breads and roasted vegetables, to simmer pots of soup and steaming, endless mugs of tea, coffee, and hot chocolate.

Monday, October 27, 2008

twd: chocolate-chocolate cupcakes

a single scary cupcake...

As I mentioned in my last post, the chocolate-chocolate cupcakes were the finishing touch to the first annual Wine Club gathering at Chez Dharmagirl...I imagined and inspired commingling of chocolate and pinot noir, as both meld heartbreak and bliss...

Friday night I mulled over the decorating possibilities, and reading Dorie's suggestions for filling the cupcakes with marshmallow cream put me in mind of a Martha Stewart cake creation, filled with 'mallowy meringue and a profusion of cute ghosts fashioned out of multi-sized marshmallows...

And so it was that I headed home from the store with a bag of classic jet puffed marshmallows, a bag of mini's, and a jar of cream (otherwise affectionately known as fluff). Buying commercial marshmallows forces me to willfully suspend my disbelief, or at least overlook my objections to these puffy delights on the grounds of vegetarianism (gelatin) and whole-unprocessed-foods-ism (corn syrup, likely of the high fructose variety). I know you can find vegan alternatives, gourmet products, or make your own...but when you have a bevy of tiny ghosts to make and you live in a small town some distance from gourmet foodstuffs, sometimes you have to compromise food values.

I set about making the cupcakes, selected for the indefatigable TWD bakers by Clara of I♥foodforthought. They came together nicely, and I was eager to taste the batter--a delicate yet rich, bright chocolate flavor, more nuanced than my standard 6 minute chocolate cupcakes from the Moosewood Cookbook. I poured my best chocolate into these cakes, using my the last of my Valrhona cocoa powder and bar chocolate. I baked them a tad long, as they were a bit dry, a problem many other bakers experienced. I take full responsibility for not checking them soon enough. I stripped the cupcake papers, filled their centers with the aforementioned fluff, and topped them with the shiny glaze.

As I talked to my college friend E., catching up on months of news, I fashioned 36 diminutive specters, drawing on eyes with leftover glaze. Arranged on stacked cake plates, the ghoulish cupcakes looked more kitschy than scary.

When my friends arrived, they marveled at all the little marshmallow ghosts and likely wondered at my sanity. What I realized an hour into the ghost assembling process is how much I love doing fancy detail work, and how I only seem to spend the extra time for a big event, like Wine Club or the holidays. I'd like to change that, and to allow my full creativity time to flourish. I suspect that the baking creative spirit will invigorate my writing and vice versa, much as it did when I was writing my dissertation those several years ago when I began baking in earnest...

As I look ahead to November and my participation in NaNoWriMo, I need all the inspiration I can find, through Dorie and Martha and, mostly, through all y'all:)

a towering ghoulish mass...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

return to race day

chicago half marathon, october 2006

Yesterday morning I laced up my trusty asics, grabbed my iPod shuffle, and drove to a local park to meet my friends B, K, and J for my return to "competitive" running...

My last race was October 1, 2006, when I ran the Chicago half marathon. Since then, my running has mostly fizzled out. This fall, however, my friend H and I decided we would run together two mornings a week, and soon I felt the peaceful easiness returning to my feet and lungs.

And so when I heard of this local race, I recruited a few of my guy friends who run to join a team with me...

And so on a chilly, colorful autumn morning, we set forth, battling winds, gravel hills, and the stench of a petting zoo (seriously. the trail wound behind the local zoo). I quickly lost sight of my friends and was fairly certain I was the last person in the pack, but I paid no mind...

This is your motivation to train longer, and harder. To make fitness a true priority once again. This is your moment to realize you don't have to be first, and you can even be last. To be in the now, to breathe, to know that all things change constantly.

As I picked my way up the steep gravel hill, I heard my friends cheering me on: "You're almost there! Keep it up!"

I rounded a corner and hit the straight away. The clock came in sight: 29:39. I can actually make it under 30 minutes! I sprinted to the finish line, with a race time of 29:50. Not anywhere near my best time, but so much faster than I thought I would be after such a long hiatus.

And, imagine my surprise to receive a 3rd place medal for my age group (okay, so there were only 4 people in my age group...). And, my team, the Hillside Hipsters, won first place in the team division, thanks to our ringer, J, who ran the race in 18:05. K and B ran in the mid 20s to round out our stunning finish (in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that there was only one other team). We're already planning to enter another race in December--the question is whether I should run the 2 mile race or the 5 mile race...

heartbreak grape + brie en croute

brie en croute with homemade raspberry jam

My friends/colleagues spent many idle moments last year discussing our plans for a book club...we mentioned books we would like to read, shared horror stories of other book clubs we've known, and then proceeded to forget to make any plans. This summer my friend H. gave me an Andrea Immer Wine Tasting DVD and I decided that the solution to the book club inertia was to change the shared medium. Hence, Wine Club was born.

Last night was our inaugural session and since I was the host, I selected the wine varietal--Pinot Noir--and provided the snacks. I spent all afternoon making marshmallow ghosts á la Martha Stewart to top Dorie's chocolate cupcakes (you'll have to wait for tomorrow for the entire entry). And then, I created my very first Brie en Croute...

I used David Leite's recipe, which uses frozen puff pastry, and I used a supermarket Brie--the Light Brie from President. In another moment of Martha inspiration, I brandished my mini leaf cookie cutters and decorated the edge of the pastry with autumn's finest leaves. When the puffed, golden pastry encrusted cheese came out of the oven, I topped it with my homemade raspberry jam. Stunning in presentation and utterly simple in execution--party perfection!

My friends arrived, bearing bottles of Pinot Noir and even more cheeses (this is Wisconsin after all). We toasted the evening with a bottle of Larry Mawby's sparkling Wet, and then filled my living room to watch the inimitable Andrea Immer give us a brief history of this finicky, sensitive grape. Although the information was useful and interesting, the bubbles had already gone to our heads and we couldn't take a word she said seriously and spent most of the video taking her words out of context...merriment ensued.

We opened the four bottles of Pinot Noir and tasted them in turn while noshing on the various cheeses, crackers, dips, and olives. Laughter and warmth overflowed, and we managed to keep work talk to a minimum (something that is not always easy when we're together).

At the end of the evening, we enjoyed the cupcakes, and planned our next gathering, to be held at B and M's home between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Viva la Wine Club!

recipe: almond and michigan dried cherry biscotti

At long last, here is my favorite biscotti recipe. My best friend S's cousin J shared it with me after serving these rich, flavorful treats one summer morning. This recipe makes enough biscotti to send to far flung friends...or you can halve it and have enough biscotti to share with your family and/or co-workers. Enjoy!

3 3/4 c. all purpose flour (I use King Arthur, unbleached)
2 1/2 c sugar
4 eggs + 2 egg yolks
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. almond extract (I use Penzeys)
2 c. raw almonds, roughly chopped and toasted
3/4 c. softened butter
1/2 c. dried cherries or cranberries (I generally use more so the biscotti are chock full of fruity goodness)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare a baking sheet or two. I use parchment paper; you could use a silpat or butter and flour the sheet.

Place flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl; make a well in the center of the bowl.

Place eggs, yolks, butter, and flavorings into the well; combine into a sticky dough.

Work in the almonds until the dough is smooth; add the cherries. Knead for 5 minutes.

Roll dough into logs 2 1/2 inches wide and 10 inches long. If you like larger biscotti, make the logs wider. I usually flatten the logs a bit before baking.

Bake the logs for 40 minutes; remove from the oven and cool for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 325 degrees. Cut the logs diagonally. Place cookies on their sides, and return to the oven for 15 minutes. Cool.

Enjoy with your favorite mug of rich, dark coffee.

Monday, October 20, 2008

twd: pumpkin muffins

an autumn still life

Something about this time of year, when the wind whips the remaining leaves on the hardwoods into a golden frenzy, when temperatures dive close to freezing at night, when I change my summer bedding for primaloft and flannel, when I hold more tightly onto pockets of sunny warmth and vibrant color makes me nostalgic.

Sunday afternoon I drove to S-town to purchase a few sundries from Target and to snap up any deals at TJ Maxx. Listening to Simon and Garfunkel's greatest hits as I drove down the highway, I noticed the increasing paucity of leaves and the unmistakable thrust of bare branches. There's no more denying that autumn is upon us, and, in this little corner of the world, about to succumb to winter. My mind started ranging over losses--far flung friends who I talk to sporadically, former friends who are now strangers, and those who have passed on. Suddenly I wanted to be driving to meet my best friend S. at Starbucks in Eastwood Towne Center. I thought of our Sunday evening rituals two falls ago when we would share tears as well as coffee as every week brought worse news about S's father, who was losing a battle with liver cancer. But, alas, S. lives a state and a half away, and that Starbucks was closed in the massive shop closure several months ago. Loss.

I wandered around the stores drinking a tall vanilla latte, my classic 'bucks brew, and stopped at my favorite grocery store to buy the Libby pumpkin and chocolate chips I needed to make this week's TWD creation, pumpkin muffins, courtesy of Kelly of Sounding My Barbaric Gulp. I drove home and returned to the prosaic act of grading student essays (rhetorical analyses, always a horror) to bring my thoughts away from Autumnal Sadness and into English Professor Confoundment and Indignation.

And yet, these autumnal tracings lingered, bouncing around my head in lines of poetry I still remember from Humanities class in high school, some 17+ years ago:

Spring and Fall, to a Young Child
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

And, tonight, as I baked the muffins after a frustrating day at work, Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, a favorite from Dr O's class at A. College:

THAT time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day 5
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, 10
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

I mixed together the muffins as I talked to a colleague about foodie and English topics. I used white whole wheat flour--incidentally, you can replace it almost without altering the amount, with the only noticeable change being a bit more "crunchy" texture. And, following the suggestions on the TWD site, I used chocolate chips, the bittersweet Ghiradelli ones, as my add in.

The muffins are a delight--I baked them last year, using pumpkin I "rendered" from an adorable little pie pumpkin, and adding dried cranberries and candied ginger for jewel like touches. I like this year's version better--the consistency of the canned pumpkin is more to my liking (a difficult admission for this whole-foods slow-food foodie to make).

And lest you all be concerned about the melancholic turn of this post, and particularly the bittersweet poetry, fear not. Turning to poetry always signals to me a resurgence of creativity, a determination to seek out the best, to attempt new leaps of faith, and to revel in the beauty of the fleeting moment. As I watch the leaves cascade and the geese fly, I prepare myself for that first magical swirl of snowflakes, of floral frost etchings on my windows, of endless mugs of hot chocolate, soft fleece blankets, and a kitchen and pen full of inspiration.

the excess muffin batter in my favorite paper baking "pans"

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

twd: lenox almond biscotti

chocolate almond biscotti, intelligentsia coffee, and my favorite black dog cafe mug

When I was working on my Master's degree at Michigan State, I took a fiction writing class for fun. I dreamed up the perfect heroine, named her Aurora (hoping to conjure up allusions to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetic bildüngsroman Aurora Leigh), and placed her into fun situations, like playing saucy scrabble matches and munching homemade biscotti with the inscrutable, Kerouac-esque hero Sam.

A few months later, I moved to Auburn, Alabama to work on my Doctorate. Fiction writing courses weren't in my immediate schedule, and so I was thrilled to find a group of women who met every few weeks to workshop creative writing. With great nervousness and trepidation, I printed out eight copies of the Aurora stories and distributed them to the group. They liked the saucy scrabble game, and thought Sam was a suitable hero. But Aurora? She wasn't real. She made her own biscotti, and, really, who did that?

I do! I protested, revealing that the line between fact and fiction was slim at best.

I still make my own biscotti (and still write my heroines as bakers)...Double Chocolate Walnut; Dried Cherry and Almond; Lemon Poppyseed.

This week, TWD baked the Lenox Almond Biscotti, thanks to Gretchen of Canela & Comino. I decided that my playing around would take the form of chocolate chunks and slivers mixed in with the sliced almonds and almond extract. I used white whole wheat flour, without a noticeable difference. The biscotti spread out so much in the pan I was worried they would be too flat, but they turned out alright. After the second baking, the biscotti were still a little soft, so I decided to crisp them up again. This recipe includes cornmeal, which heightens the crunch and textural dimension of the cookies, and also, somehow, makes them seem a little more rustic. I like it, but I still prefer my Dried Cherry and Almond biscotti for overall flavor and texture.

Biscotti are easy to make, and a perfect treat because they last so long out on the counter (unless, of course, you have many hungry eaters roaming your kitchen). They're a moment of joy to accompany that afternoon cup of coffee, and maybe, they'll give you flights of fictional fantasy and help you connect to your inner Aurora--that slightly cooler, more endearing, and quirkily charming version of yourself who is ready to march through the pages of a novel, offering biscotti and poetry to all she meets.

Monday, October 13, 2008

baking, chefing, and chick lit

So I'm currently working on a project looking at baking and/or chefing heroines in Chick Lit novels. Do any of you dear readers have any book suggestions for me? Thanks in advance for any titles you can give me ♥

lasagna and autumnal musings

Fall continues to assert itself, with a profusion of colors, wildly fluctuating temperatures, and a certain distinctive quality to the air. As I step through crinkly leaves, I think of the song "This Time of Year" by Better than Ezra, evoking languorous Friday afternoons and football games. And when I think of football, I think of the Auburn Tigers: war damn eagle. Six years of graduate school, often tortuous, lonely, and hot, are now fading into blissful, social, and temperate as reality melts into memory...

Now that I live back in the upper Midwest, fall comes on a little stronger, a feisty coquette. And, though it's blasphemy, I don't follow Big Ten teams OR the Packers.

Instead, I measure seasons in my kitchen. Simple sautes and salads with fresh nearly raw ingredients give way to slow cooked soups and hearty pasta dishes. And so, tonight, inspired by fresh ricotta from Il Ritrovo and fresh mozzarella from Nala's Fromagerie, as well as abundant spinach and red bell peppers, I make lasagna. I bake enough to tuck away in the freezer for the even colder nights to come.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

butternut squash soup + bittman's biscuits

Today was a gorgeous autumn day--warm-ish temperatures, lilting breeze, multi-colored leaves lining the sidewalk, and nearly imperceptible waves washing up on the shore. After a long walk, during which I listened to a podcast of The Splendid Table and counted political signs (18 to 3), I set about transforming a ginormous butternut squash into soup. The first winter squash of the season...

I sauteed onion and garlic in olive oil and then added cubed raw squash, salt, pepper, fresh sage, and water to cover. Bubble, bubble, toil, and trouble dissolved along with the squash as it veritably melted in the pot. I made a salad with roasted chick peas, shaved carrots, and red bibb lettuce, topped with Wisconsin Parm and balsamic vinaigrette. And, I mixed up a batch of Mark Bittman's yogurt biscuits.

Before dipping into the soup, I drizzled it with honey, walnut oil, and a few chopped walnuts. Quick, simple, and tasty. A crisp, minerally sauvignon blanc would've been a most lovely accompaniment, but, alas, I only have a bottle of L. Mawby Wet, which begs for company...won't you join me?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

locavore potluck + fighting the return to the produce aisle

Tonight was the final event of my campus' Locavore Challenge, two weeks of mindful local eating. I was impressed with the student turn out tonight, and the quiet joy of sharing our favorite foods with one another. By the end of the night, one student and one faculty member were named winners--they'll receive a Green Label Organics t-shirt of their choice. And, still later, we shared stories of childhood foraging and berry picking whilst swapping recipes.

I brought a simple apple crisp, as well as two tiny apple galettes and one jar of my homemade strawberry jam to give to the contest judges in thanks for their service.

I think the Locavore Challenge and programming was successful--on our campus reaching just a small handful of people is, unfortunately, a mark of impressive engagement. I had several thoughtful conversations with students about food issues, and connected with several of my colleagues on a more personal level through the process of planning and attending these events. And yet, I'm glad it's done. I need to think of a new Green Program, but for now, I'm taking a break.

And yet, I feel a deeper melancholy these days as farm stands close for the season and the first tentative fingers of frost creep over the gardens in the deep hours of night. My cucumber plants are finished, though the grape tomato plant is still laden with tiny green fruits. My geranium is gone--removed by my landord's son when he came to "winterize" the yard and porch. I missed last week's farmers' market and am scared at what little I'll find this Saturday. I'm not ready to transition to California veggies just yet. I need a few weeks of local late fall veggies first--broccoli, cauliflower, roasted root vegetables, and, my favorite, homemade butternut squash ravioli in brown butter and sage sauce...

Monday, October 06, 2008

twd: caramel peanut topped brownie cake

someday I will own a digital camera and take better foodie photos...

Coffee hour is an old-fashioned, even quaint concept--a tradition of building connections, of taking time out of a busy day to slow down over mugs of steaming java, whilst noshing a little something sweet. My friend B. started the school year with a big box of Starbucks coffee he brought in, and last week we decided it was time to bring in more outside coffee (industrial strength as opposed to the novice level served in our cafeteria). We also decided to make Coffee Hour a true event, complete with treats and a formal invitation. We invited all the instructional staff on our hallway and a few colleagues from other buildings who come to our hall to socialize. Though our campus is tiny, people tend to tread well-worn paths to the office, the cafeteria, and the classrooms. Our hall, located next to the gym and past the large lecture hall, doesn't see much incidental traffic. We wanted to reward those who made the trek on purpose.

I decided to bake this week's TWD selection, the caramel peanut topped brownie cake selected by Tammy of Wee Treats by Tammy, early, and so Wednesday night I was scrounging around my chocolate drawer to see what I could find. An 85% Lindt bar would have to do. Unsalted peanuts would work. I had cream left over from the creme brûlée last week. I also found a 6 inch springform pan I had forgotten about, so I greased, floured, and papered it and a wee 4 inch pan for the excess.

Since the cake is true to its name and a brownie style cake that doesn't see a mixer, the batter came together quickly, and in no time the scent of warm chocolate, that most comforting of fragrances, wafted through the house. Once again, I was grading papers, and checking the cake intermittently. The springform cake burned just around the edges--I belatedly remembered the rule about lowering the temperature 25 degrees for dark baking pans. Once the cake cooled, I used my new tomato knife (thanks, Grandma!) to trim off the burned edges, ridges, and even bottom. I hoped that with enough caramel topping, the cake would seem moist and perfect. I also suspected that hoping for the caramel alone to transform what I knew to be a slightly dry cake was akin to putting lipstick on a pig...

I left the student papers behind and set about making the aforementioned caramel. I love making caramel, though I'm always scared that I'll miss the crucial moment and burn the sugar into a disastrous mess. Caramel making, along with any kind of candy creation (besides the too-easy -to-be-believed ganache truffles) is a lesson in patience, in faith, and in observation. I could have cooked mine a tad longer, but I erred on the side of caution. The caramel took a good deal longer than Dorie suggested to turn a golden brown, but eventually it did, and I added the cream and butter to glorious effervescence. I ran my finger around the edge of the spatula and tasted one cooling dollop--like the buttery softness of my favorite cashmere sweater on the first nippy day of fall. I poured the peanuts in the caramel, gave it a swirl, and then spooned the nut studded topping on the brownie cake.

The next morning, my colleagues and I set up the coffee boxes in B's office, and the table full of sweets--naturally--in my office. We pulled chairs into the hallway, and tucked in for enough coffee and treats to arrive at our first morning classes with the java-sugar-jitters. Our conversation ranged near--the local geology of our campus and region--and far--relationship dynamics and who does the baking. Since then, everyone wants to know when our next Coffee Hour will be.

Incidentally, I toted the tiny 4 inch cake to Chicago to share with my best friends--we met for a weekend of shopping, eating, and sitting in coffee shops. After hitting Pops for Champagne, a truly sparkling bar, we headed back to the apartment where we were staying. We ate the cake with plastic forks as we watched the opening sketch on Saturday Night Live, then fell asleep, with sweet dreams for all.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

happy birthday, bliss!

Hooray--today is the two year anniversary of my first tentative post.

I'll share (again) this beautiful cake, Dorie's Perfect Party Cake, page 250 of BFMHTY, with y'all in honor of this special day.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

creme brûlée, part two: the truth about creme brûlée

Oh, for that first bit of creme brûlée: a marvel, a wonder. The complex interplay of hard and soft, hot and cold. The luxurious simplicity, the purity of flavor, the elemental richness, and utter too-too muchness...

And yet. Its seeming facility belies the potential for disaster: a failure of the elements to commingle, a custard that won't set, a crust that won't harden.

The danger of consuming creme brûlée with abandon, without context, and with--horror of horrors--artificiality or false pretense.

But, oh, when it's done right, it's sheer transcendence, ineluctable bliss, utter harmony.

Monday, September 29, 2008

twd: creme brûlée, part one

pre-bruleed espresso custard

Florida heat shimmered outside in counterpoint to the air conditioning blasting inside. A group of five diverse grad school friends, tense after two days of Fort Walton Beach escapades, sat down for a lovely meal at a restaurant whose name escapes me. The tranquil, marine themed ambience soothed the jagged edges of a too-long mini-break with too-many strong-willed women.

My friend S. ordered creme brûlée for dessert, and when it appeared, crackling and beckoning from its shallow ramekin, I edged my spoon closer. The magic of that crack of the sugar crust and the give of the custard, the pure vanilla bliss of that first bite, revealed a whole new world beyond cakes and pies and cookies. I was smitten.

Over the years I've baked creme brûlée at home with mixed success--the trick of any custard is tempering and not scrambling the eggs. Dining out, I used creme brulee as a litmus test of restaurants' dessert menu.

And so, this week's TWD recipe, a classic creme brûlée, chosen by Mari of Mevrouw Cupcake, revived memories of creme brûlées past. I decided to follow Dorie's recipe and cooking directions fairly closely to see if her method was more successful than hot stove top stirring and water baths of my previous attempts at creating a perfect custard.

I made just a few modifications:
1. I halved the recipe and set out three small porcelain ramekins
2. I followed the espresso variation, dissolving instant espresso rather than infusing the milk with freshly ground beans
3. I used one yolk from a jumbo farm fresh egg
4. I used skim milk in place of whole

Because of these changes, the custard didn't set quite as firmly as I would've liked, but Dorie's directions, unsurprisingly, produced the smoothest custard I've ever made. I'll definitely follow her tempering directions again.

I refrigerated the individual custards after baking, and last night after dinner I set one out to warm slightly before sprinkling with raw sugar and sticking under the broiler, as my kitchen torch is on the fritz.

I watched and waited, moving the ramekin with tongs to evenly brown under the broiler. The sugar crystals slowly fused into a slick, caramel expanse.

I hovered over the dish with my spoon, awaiting that magical moment of cracking the crust...

fabulous. The slight bitter acidity of the espresso contrasted and even accented the voluptuousness of the custard in a way that pure vanilla does not. I fought the temptation to a) lick the inside of the ramekin and b) fire up the broiler for another serving.

Dorie's recipe for creme brûlée is simple and rewarding--sheer elegance and depth of flavor achieved with minimal labor. Another delicious revelation!

creme brûlée bliss

Sunday, September 28, 2008

locavore quiche tart

quiche tart, prior to baking

My campus began a Locavore Challenge on Wednesday, and I've been wracked by guilt--I haven't been stretching beyond my pre-existing local boundaries. Eating locally is in some ways harder for vegetarians like myself; while we have lovely grassfed, organic, free range beef and chicken in these parts, local soy products, dried beans, and nuts have been nearly impossible to find.

And so today, with a little extra time, and an egg white left over from making this week's TWD recipe, creme brulee, I set about to make a quiche in my yet unused tart pan. (I lost my pan somewhere in the last year's two moves).

I made a simple Pate Brisee crust, roasted garlic, and caramelized onions with fresh thyme. I wilted handfuls of spinach, sliced roasted peppers, thinly sliced smallish tomatoes, grated stravecchio (wisconsin parmesan style cheese), and chiffonaded basil.

After freezing and then blind baking the tart crust, I assembled the tart. I slipped it into the oven and headed back to the business of answering work emails and preparing for another week of classes.

quiche tart, in its golden, baked splendor

I served the tart with roasted yukon gold potatoes and roasted broccoli. The only items in the entire meal not locally produced and sourced: flour, olive oil, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes. A vegetarian locavore success!

a delicious locavore feast

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

romance and locavores

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I'm taking a break from baking and baking blogging today to share some exciting news: two fun presentations this week!

1. On Friday I'm giving a talk at my College on popular romance fiction, my current research (and creative) specialty and interest. I'm hoping to share my enthusiasm for the genre and to "redeem" this genre in the face of common charges of formula fiction that's simply wish fulfillment fantasy written by "the damned mob of scribbling women" (said by Nathaniel Hawthorne about the 19th century domestic novelists like Fanny Fern, whose books were outselling his, but echoed in many a review and casual conversation even today). I'm making some classic ganache truffles and bringing sparkling wine, and a friend is making other romantic treats.

2. I've been asked to speak at our farmers' market on Saturday on our campus green initiatives, particularly our Locavore Challenge that starts tomorrow! I'm so excited--I love the farmers' market and I'm so passionate about local foods. I'm also thrilled to represent my school and to hopefully build positive connections between the campus and the community.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

p.s. dimply peach cake...

...tastes caramelly from the brown sugar, and rich from the organic valley pasture butter. The cake puffs up around the sunny peaches, which cook just enough that they're soft but intact. What a lovely before bed snack with a mug of strong Cafe Fair French Roast decaf coffee. Good night, y'all ♥

twd: dimply peach cake

And, here I am again raving about peaches...

Friday night after we drove back to my parents house from the ferry dock, Mom surprised Dad and I with a delicious little nectarine galette. On Saturday, Mom and I were too busy soaking up the late and next-to-last summer sunshine to fuss with pastry and a full blown peach pie. Instead, we made a peach crisp to follow a dinner of farmer's market veggies and Grandpa's stories.

Today I carried a heavy paper grocery bag filled with Michigan fruits and veggies on the car ferry, and when I stepped off on the other side of the Lake feeling a little blue, and a little alone, I decided to use some of the peaches Mom sent home with me to make this week's TWD recipe: Dimply Plum Cake, chosen by Michelle of Bake-en. Dorie suggests peaches as an acceptable alteration.

I buttered and floured my favorite and under-used green Emile Henri pie plate, since my 8 inch baking dish is at a friend's house. I set about mixing the dry ingredients and allowing the cold ingredients to reach room temperature while I washed, peeled, and halved the peaches.

I decided that today was a day to dip into my Organic Ancient Snow Sprout Green Tea, a special occasion tea (read: ridiculously expensive) that I purchased at Great Lakes Tea and Spice in Glen Arbor, Michigan earlier this summer. This shop is actually two little refurbished "out buildings," which are charmingly and simply equipped with shelves of tea and spices and various high tech tea machines and quaint pots. Besides the high quality tea, the best part about the shop is the proprietor, who brewed a pot of the aforementioned tea for us, shared its story, and generally left us--no, not H, because she is happily married (as is, I should mention, Tea Guy), but rather ME--smitten.

And such a lovely green tea asked to be steeped and served in an authentic cast iron Japanese tea pot, so I dug that out too. I eschewed my Japanese tea cups in favor of my pretty, cottagey, vintage Johnson Brothers Rose Chintz tea cup and saucer. I brought the water to a boil, then removed it from the heat for 3 minutes. I poured the hot water over the full tea petals, and allowed it to steep for 8 minutes.

I set about whirling the butter and sugar and eggs and flavorings together, and finished assembling the cake as my tea reached perfection.

I turned on the Americana radio station on my new digital cable and relaxed to Alison Krauss and Shawn Mullins.

I pushed the cake in the oven, sipped my tea, and made a batch of Mark Bittman's crunchy granola for the week: oats, flax meal, walnuts, coconut, dried cherries, maple syrup, and vanilla.

My house is toasty, and while grey skies and fog linger outside, inside I have the clarity of a Bodhisattva.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

fruit flies and peach pies

peach watercolor painting, circa 1895, courtesy of wikipedia

I've been craving peach pie now that peaches are in season. Several years ago--more like 5 or 6, when I was still living in Alabama and visits with family in Michigan were sparse-- my Mom and I made a scrumptious peach pie. Something about that pie, that time spent together, and the sweet card that Mom sent me afterwards, when I was back in the sweltering South, lingers in every bite of peach pie I've eaten since.

Last Saturday I bought 25 peaches at the farmers' market. Our peach person sets up big boxes of peaches, arranged by variety, and a big stack of paper bags, and people line up to fill the bag with however many peaches fit their fancy. I like this system--some weeks are a 7 peach week and others, like this week, are 25 peach weeks.

My intention was to make a pie and to freeze some peaches for a chilly winter day.

Then the first rhino virus of the season descended (incidentally, just in time for the first round of one-on-one meetings with my freshmen composition students. coincidence? i think not, when considering this has happened with a fair degree of regularity the past 4 fall semesters...). The peaches sat on the counter, happy in brown paper bags. I used one each morning, sliced and cooked with my oatmeal.

Pie seemed a little too touchy-feely for a girl with cold germs--I'm firmly in the blend-the-crust-with-your-fingers camp of crust making.

But today, I unrolled the bag: fruit flies! One overripe peach had sprouted mold, so I removed all the peaches from the bag and decided to make a quick peach crisp. I followed Mark Bittman's recipe for the crisp topping, using the oat variation with maple syrup and a lot less butter. Since he suggests blending the topping with a mixer or food processor, I could rest easy knowing my crisp was prepared under the best hygienic conditions for someone with a stuffy head and scratchy throat. I added cinnamon, vanilla, whole wheat flour, and a touch of nutmeg.

**I also want to rave about the butter I found at the Woodlake Market: Organic Valley Pasture Butter, limited edition, available in a half pound. A brighter yellow than most butters, it is also fragrant and extra creamy.**

Back to the crisp...it was delicious and peachy and rather virtuous for a dessert, but I'm still dreaming of pie. Peach pie.

I'm heading to Michigan for a short visit with my family this weekend, and just maybe Mom and I can take to the kitchen and make another baking memory together.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

twd: chocolate chunkers

dharmagirl with a bowlful of chocolate chunkers

Friday afternoon grey skies threatened rain and temperatures plummeted, marking a clear transition to FALL. I'm still dreaming of summer, and these early fall days bring a certain amount of sadness. To combat my blues, I headed to the Weather Center Cafe for a steaming bowl of soup and a creamy cafe au lait. I read through a stack of rough drafts and started drafting another blog entry.

Then, I went to the Woodlake Market, one of my favorite grocery stores in the region. It's a favorite because of their chocolate selection--Scharffen Berger bars, Vosges mini bars--their wine selection--and their wide array of Alterra coffee. I was in search of a decent unsweetened and white chocolate for this week's recipe, from Claudia of Fool for Food, Chocolate Chunkers. I had hoped for Scharffen Berger unsweetened chocolate, but settled for Ghiradelli.

I mixed up the dough on Saturday, starting with chopping all that chocolate--6 oz. of bittersweet (Lindt excellence); 1 oz. unsweetened (the aforementioned Ghiradelli); 3 oz. milk chocolate (Scharffenberger); and 3 oz. white (Ghiradelli). I toasted walnuts, and splashed a cup of craisins with a little Maker's Mark to push the cookies a bit over the top. The dough came together easily and tasted like a loaded brownie. I let it chill for an hour or so, and then set out baking.

Once again, I established a rhythm of filling the cookie trays, reading student essays while they baked, and then starting the cycle over again as I emptied the cookie tray and filled it again.

On Sunday I shared the cookies with my friend B and her sister M who's visiting from California. We sipped coffee and tea, munched on these delicious, lovely textured, and completely chocolate cookies while talking politics and forgetting about the never-ending rain outside.

This TWD adventure has been a joy, connecting me to other baking bloggers, but also connecting me to my friends and colleagues through the fruits of my labor. And, I'm enjoying trying new recipes that I would probably admire but never actually bake. So far I've enjoyed all the cookies I've baked, but this week's cookies are a real winner. Next time I'll use pecans and dried cherries, and hunt down all Scharffen Berger chocolate.