Still Life, With Cats

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Kitchen Adventures


I got up this morning and was full of plans for being super productive. But then I got sidetracked by Plants vs Zombies 2, which sort of killed most of the morning. So really, all I managed to do today was scrub down the shower stall (because hoo boy did it need it), go to the library to turn in books and pay my fine (the result of being sick / too busy to go drop stuff off or pick stuff up), and swing by the grocery store to get sour cream and elbow noodles. And then I came home and I spent a couple hours knitting, all the while telling myself that this wasn’t going to work, this really wasn’t going to work. But we knitters, we are a perverse bunch and sometimes it takes a while for us to finally grasp reality. Eventually, though, I finally hit that point where I accepted the inevitable with no small amount of muttered swearing under my breath, so I set it down in disgust and distracted myself by making this Carroty Mac & Cheese for dinner (primarily because we seem to have acquired a rather startlingly large volume of carrots over the past few weekend trips to the farmers market), and oh by the way, you should go to your kitchen right now and make it and then do your best to avoid standing at the counter and shoveling the entire pot into your mouth with a spoon because it is really that good.

Thus fortified with cheese and noodles and enough carrots to surely counteract the rest of it (shut up, leave me my delusions) and having postponed the inevitable as long as I could, I finally sat down and proceeded to rip out exactly 15,680 stitches (yes, that really is an accurate number) and started over again from scratch.

Thankfully there was leftover lemon cake and ice cream to tide me over. Leftover cake and ice cream can soothe a lot of ills, especially when it involves ripping out vast quantities of knitting.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.

Long proof

Nothing much happened today beyond going to work and knitting. So instead I shall tell you about this year’s Sisters Only Weekend, which actually happened back in July.

For those of you who are new to my little corner of the internet, my two sisters and I have been going away for a weekend (just us, no husbands and no kids) for 11 years now. We started it because we all live relatively far apart (one sister lives in a completely different state, and one sister lives a few hours’ drive away from me) and are all busy with our own lives and it was hard to try to keep in contact and maintain some sort of connection. Now, each year, the emails start flying back and forth in January, and we find something fun to do that is within a short drive or plane flight, and that can be done over a weekend. In years past, we’ve gone to Vegas,  rappelled into a cavern, wandered through pitch-black lava tunnels near Mount Saint Helen, and explored Sacramento on Segways. Each year we try to do something different, with the added caveat that the weekend has to include something a little out of the ordinary – a mandate which was started the first year, when on a whim the three of us did kareoke (something none of us had ever done before).

This year, my older sister and I flew up to Washington, my younger sister picked us up at the airport, and we all headed off to spend the entire weekend baking.

The baking part is not necessarily something new for all of us. My younger sister is actually a trained baker, and I do a lot of baking just because I really, really enjoy it. My older sister, however, hasn’t played with yeast quite as much as us (although we all grew up learning how to make bread from my mom), and we all figured whatever our initial skill level, it would be a lot of fun (and also delicious).

We got there a bit later than expected, since traffic on the freeway was all manner of rush-hour exciting, so we missed the first round of mixing up sponges for a lot of the doughs we’d be working with over the weekend. But we didn’t miss everything – once we’d dropped our suitcases off upstairs, we came immediately back down to the kitchen and were put to work mixing up whole wheat dough, and working on bagels, because we had a *lot* to get through over the weekend. The bread was baked that night, but we put all the bagels onto trays and then played refrigerator Tetris trying to get them all tucked away for the night.

I was really excited about doing the bagels, because I have tried them several times at home and they always turn out flat and disappointing. Alas, these ended up over-rising, and even though we boiled and baked them in a wood-fired oven the next afternoon, they just didn’t quite work out. They were still quite tasty, though.

Saturday was pretty much a crazy whirlwind of baking. We got up, ate breakfast, and then immediately set to work. First up was white bread with cranberries and walnuts (although I opted for only walnuts in mine because I am not a fan of cranberries). We also made foccacia dough, which is an involved process involving a bazillion turns in an oil-filled container. In fact, most of the breads involved a whole lot of turning and resting, turning and resting, and the majority of them started out a much stickier, softer dough than I’m used to using. The lady who runs the place trained under German bakers, so it was definitely fun to learn some new techniques.

Here is where we also inadvertently got to do a thing we’d never done before. Friday night we’d been talking about how we do this weekend every year and mentioned some of the crazy stuff we’ve done, and somehow the possibility of taking rides in the bucket truck came up (there just so happened to be a bucket truck on the property because they were doing some work to one of the barns). I thought we were all just joking around, but Saturday morning, the handyman showed up and then before I knew it, we were all standing around outside, taking turns going up in the air in the bucket truck. I suspect the older gentleman who was also part of our class had never imagined that a 3-day course in baking would include a side trip up into the air in a bucket truck, but he jumped right in and had a blast.

After that was done, though, it was right back into the kitchen, mixing up even more dough for the next day, as well as for that night’s dinner. Perhaps the easiest of the yeast doughs we made the entire weekend was the one we used for the pizzas we made for dinner, shaping the dough and then rolling it out onto peels and sliding those into the wood burning brick oven she had on the back patio. Dinner was eaten outside, at a table set up in a gorgeous field, where we could see alpacas in the distance and enjoy the breeze.

Sunday was a rushed day. We tackled scones pretty much as soon as we got up. I’ve done scones before, and learned early on that the key to avoiding a tough, chewy scone is to work the butter in by hand, and then just barely mix in the rest of the ingredients. Her recipe was even lighter than the ones I’ve made – in part, I suspect, because of the inclusion of heavy cream. Everyone got to pick what type of scones they wanted to make, so there was quite an assortment of flavors to nibble for breakfast and the rest of the morning. Then we immediately tackled sweet breads, twisting dough that had been started the day before into complicated shapes filled with cinnamon sugar. And finally, we made beignets, starting with a sweet brioche dough and ending up with a maple and pecan glaze.

This is when it occurred, belatedly, to my older sister and I that we had no clue how we were going to get all this bread home with us (note to self – when attending a baking weekend, bring an extra suitcase next time). So they somehow scrounged up a huge box, and she and I fit every single bit of our baked goodies into it (there was a LOT), and then it was time to head back to the airport and catch a plane home.

I don’t know how long everything lasted at my sisters’ houses, but I stashed most of what I brought home in the freezer and then Richard and I worked our way through it for more than a week after. And also, the following weekend, using the recipe she’d given us, I finally managed to make perfect bagels.


My sisters on the left, me on the right, and the poor guy who was in the class with us (I think he was a bit overwhelmed – my sisters and I tend to do a lot of being goofy when we’re off on our Sisters Weekends).

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.

That time of year

It’s getting colder out there, and there are huge piles of leaves lined up along the roads, with thousands more still falling from the trees, or strewn across lawns. It is the sort of weather where I am very glad I had the forethought to knit up a huge selection of afghans to snuggle under, and where I start to dream wistfully of hot tea,  and cocoa with a drop of peppermint stirred in, and oh yes, soup. It is soup weather out there, and tonight I finally did something about it.

We’ve been talking soup for a few weeks now, during trips to the farmers market, but the timing has never really been right. Nanowrimo is one of those things that just sort of sucks all your free time away, and November is a month where home cooking takes a back seat to cranking out words in a novel. But November is over now, and I am recovering (slowly) from being sick, and after the most recent trip to the year-round farmers market under the freeway, we had everything I needed to make soup.

Potato cheese soup is one of those comfort foods I remember from my childhood. There is something very soothing about dipping your spoon into a bowl of creamy potato soup and then slowly eating it, bite by bite. It is also remarkably easy to make, and has the bonus of being almost virtuous, for all of its creaminess. Basically you take four or five potatoes (white, brown, or red-skinned variety – steer clear of the purple, only because it will result in an extremely unappetizing looking dish, although I’m sure it would still taste just fine), peel them, cut them into quarters, and toss them into a big pot. Peel and chunk up a few carrots – 2 big ones, or a whole bunch of the little ones if you’re lucky enough to find them at your local farmers market. Peel and quarter an onion and toss that in as well, and then pour in about 3 or 4 cups of water. Then stick a lid on the pot, turn the heat onto medium, and walk away for about half an hour. This would be a good time to make some biscuits, by the way, since it’s nice to have some kind of bread to go along side, or alternatively, to go check Facebook and Twitter and then get startled when the timer goes off because seriously, it’s been 30 minutes already?

When the vegetables are all soft, puree the whole mess together until it’s perfectly smooth. You’ll notice that it’s got a lovely pale orange color, thanks to the carrots.  The next step is to stir in about half a cup of grated cheddar cheese, then stir the whole thing until the cheese has completely melted. Final step – salt and pepper to taste.

We had big bowls of this tonight for dinner, with homemade rolls slathered with homemade spiced apple pear butter.

Ah, I’ve really missed you, soup weather. You’re quite delicious.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.

Eggs. Stir. Mix. Bake.

For Richard’s 40th birthday, 5 years ago, I threw him a surprise party and made him a Cthulhu cake. For this most recent birthday, I decided to make an army of Daleks.

We used a recipe I found on the BBC website as a jumping off point (yes, I made Richard help me, but only because assembling these things took a lot longer than I’d been expecting). The day before the party I made 2 dozen cupcakes and one regular sheet cake. Then we peeled all the papers off the cupcakes and used an appropriately sized biscuit cutter to slide out 24 cylinders from the sheet cake, and I whipped up a batch of chocolate butter frosting and applied a crumb coat to all of the cupcakes and the cylinders, and then we stuck them in the fridge overnight to set. The day of the party I made a second batch of frosting and assembled all the bodies. Richard was in charge of applying peanut butter chips down the sides to mimic the side bolts of the Dalek body, and I assembled arms and eyestalks out of pretzel sticks dipped in chocolate.


As should be painfully obvious from both the Cthulhu of five years ago, and the Dalek cupcakes of just a few days ago, no one will ever accuse me of being a cake decorator. But it was fun to put together something a little out of the box that fits into Richard’s nerdly sensibilities, plus pretty much everyone there recognized what they were right off the bat. Also they were tasty, which is really the most important qualification when it comes to cake.

Dozens of little men

I got this recipe from my mother, who likely got it from her mother. The directions are pretty sparse, and consist simply of a list of ingredients, the baking temperature and time, and a rough approximation of total number of cookies made per recipe.

When I was younger I used to continue my family tradition of making all sorts of different types of cookies. But these days, now that we’re older and (until recently) both worked in tiny offices so there weren’t as many people to foist cookies onto, I usually only make a few treats. This is the one cookie that gets made in our house nearly every year (sometimes the only one).

Gingerbread Men

1 cup white sugar
1 cup butter
1 cup molasses
1 cup sour cream or buttermilk
2 teaspoons baking soda
5 teaspoons ginger
Pinch of salt
Flour (to make dough stiff enough to roll – about 4 – 6 cups)

Bake at 350 degrees (F) for about 10 minutes. Makes about 50 men.

– – –

Here is the thing about these cookies. The amount of flour listed is NEVER enough. And it always makes a whole lot more than you are counting on. Also, you need to remember to have raisins and red hots on hand, because that is what you use for the eyes and the nose. You have to have made rolled, cut cookies before so you have some idea of the relative thickness of dough you’re aiming for (I have no idea; I just roll it out until it feels about right, which I realize isn’t the remotest bit helpful to someone who might never have done this but…that’s the best I can tell you).

The best thing about these cookies is that they are actually better the next day, once they’ve cooled and the ginger has had a chance to really come to the foreground.

Some people, I suspect, would decorate them once they’re out of the oven – give them little icing smiles and put candies on them for buttons and other adornments. But I never bother with that. I like my cookies plain (have never been that much of a fan of icing anyway – it’s far too sweet for me).

I baked an entire batch tonight. Most of them have been put into tiny bags, for a cookie exchange later this week. But as I mentioned above, this recipe always makes more than you think. So there are a few – just enough – left to nibble here and there. And the house smells deliciously like sugar and ginger and butter and Christmas.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.

Fry lady

I decided that, in honor of Hanukkah this year, I would make latkes.

I decided this mainly because a friend was talking about making them and it occurred to me that I am not sure I have ever *had* a latke, and really, how can you go wrong with a dish that involves potatoes and frying, but seeing as it is currently the middle of Hanukkah, that seemed a good time to try them out.

I did my usual recipe search on Google (all hail Google) and found a few different options. Richard went and bought potatoes and onions because we didn’t have either in the house, and I broke out the food processor and turned 3 large potatoes and 1 small sweet potato that’s been lurking in the drawer for weeks and really needed to be used, and half an onion, into something that ended up looking an awful lot like very lumpy orange sherbet. It was actually kind of….disturbing. And that is being very kind.

Then I added an egg and some flour and some baking powder and a little salt and I stirred it all together and it sat there in the bowl looking like creepy melted sherbet while I heated up a pan of oil, and then I dumped in the first glob and learned my very first Latke Lesson: make them small, because large ones will splatter oil ALL OVER THE KITCHEN. In my defense, I have never made these before – in fact, I cannot honestly recall the last time I tried to deep-fry *anything* – and the recipe did say to dump in 1/3 cup of batter at a time (serves me right for paying attention to the recipe, apparently), but that was all manner of exciting there for a while.

Eventually, however, I started getting the hang of this whole ‘frying’ thing, and I put in much smaller little globs of creepy orange sherbet goo, and added more oil to keep the pan at the proper level of sizzling + splattering (because why waste any opportunity to make even MORE of a mess in the kitchen!).

Once the first batch was done, we stood at the kitchen counter and we each tried our very first latke (well, it was *my* first latke; Richard thinks maybe he has had them once before). And oh my. Those are really, really good. A little chewy, and a little crispy, and just all around awesome. Plus, once fried, the crusty brown exterior totally disguised the fact that the inside still looked a bit like we had tried to deep fry orange sherbet.

We ate our latkes with sour cream and with dollops of homemade apple butter on top. They were absolutely delicious.

We will not speak of the current state of the kitchen, however. Or of the smell of fried things that hangs in the air all over the house. Sometimes it is just better to pretend.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.

A bit of this and a bit of that

I like to cook. I am not a gourmet chef by any stretch of the imagination, but I prefer to use fresh ingredients when possible, and we’re really focused on minimizing the use of anything from a can or a box (unless it was something I canned myself). I subscribe to dozens of food blogs and bookmark tons of recipes and I love trying to make new things. Sometimes they’re successful; other times, not so much, and then that’s why delivery pizza is such a wonderful invention.

I cobbled together two things recently that turned out pretty tasty. The first (which I tossed together on Friday) involved some chicken breasts and mushrooms and a large onion, chopped, plus a few frozen cubes of Meyer lemon juice (from last year’s crop), and a bunch of garlic, tossed into a crockpot and cooked slowly all day. I tasted it near the end and it was kind of flat, so I tried adding a bit more garlic, and then I tried adding in a bit of thyme, but nothing really seemed to do the trick, plus I was really looking for that lemon flavor, and then I remembered that last year, when faced with a bumper crop of those aforementioned Meyer lemons and not wanting to make another metric ton of lemon curd (and I do love lemon curd but seriously, there is only so much of that we can consume in a year, and our tree, while small, is prolific), I put up a whole half-gallon jar of preserved lemons. And they have been sitting in the refrigerator for about a year, because I had no clue what to *do* with them.

Preserved lemons, by the way, are nothing more than lemons cut into quarters, seeded, and packed into a jar with a whole lot of salt and then left in a dark corner of the refrigerator to sit and marinate for a while. The salt extracts the juice and breaks down the rind, so that when you finally dredge out a piece later, the rind is soft and pliable. They are very salty (obviously) and very bitter since you’re basically eating the rind, but they have just the strong lemon flavor I was looking for. I pulled out four segments, tossed the slimy pulp and then chopped up the rinds up into teeny pieces and stirred them into my chicken creation. Perfect! Granted, I have no clue how to recreate this, since aside from the lemon components, I didn’t bother measuring anything else I threw in there. Ah well.

The second was what I had for lunch today. We had a leftover yam in the fridge, and I was hungry, so I chopped up about one quarter of it, tossed it in a pan with a little olive oil, and just about as it was almost cooked, I added in one egg whisked with a dash of soy sauce, and a few heaping spoonfuls of brown rice. The soy sauce made the eggs a little grey, and a few of the yam pieces got a bit burnt when I was distracted removing a certain grey tabby cat from the dining table where he was trying to shove the box of jigsaw puzzle pieces onto the floor, so it wasn’t the most attractive of dishes, but oh my was it tasty. And at least this one I should be able to recreate again if ever I am in the mood.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.


Oh look. It’s October already. And this year that means things get a radical shift in the kitchen. Okay, maybe not all that radical, since we weren’t doing too horribly bad about things beforehand, but this year, Richard and I are taking part in the October Unprocessed challenge. Granted, the word ‘unprocessed’ is a bit misleading for this challenge, since just the act of chopping or cooking is by its very nature ‘processing’. But the point of the challenge is that if it’s not something that the average person could make at home, or the ingredients list includes things that were manufactured in a chemistry lab, it should be avoided.

So far, we’re not doing too badly, although it’s only been two days yet, and weekend days are a lot different than week days when it comes to having time to cook. Of course it helps that yesterday we made our yearly pilgrimage up to Apple Hill, so pretty much the only things we ate all day were made of apples, and were made by hand at the farms (shh, we’re ignoring the ice cream on the pie). Today I made bread and for dinner we made a huge pot of dal. We followed that recipe pretty closely, but added a chopped zucchini (because the monster zucchini plant of doom is STILL producing, for crying out loud). As an aside, should you be interested in that recipe, bear in mind that it makes a LOT. Unless you have a large and hungry family, or are intending to serve this to a crowd, I’d recommend halving the recipe, at a minimum. I ended up stashing about half of it in the freezer, because while it turned out really delicious, there are only so many days in a row either of us is willing to eat leftovers of something before we get completely sick of it (and I suspect that given the amount left that *didn’t* end up in the freezer, we’re going to be bringing leftover dal for lunch all this coming week).

I know we’ll be running into a few interesting surprises as we go through this month. I hit the first one bright and early yesterday morning, when I went to set up my first cup of coffee of the day, took a look at the ingredients in the flavored creamer that I always use, and realized that it did not meet the criteria for ‘unprocessed’ by any stretch of the imagination. Luckily I stumbled across a blog post from someone else who’s doing the challenge who ran into exactly the same problem, and she linked to these recipes. This afternoon I made a batch of the Cinnamon Strudel (which smells just like a freshly baked cinnamon roll) and when I’m done with that, I think I’ll give the French vanilla a try. In the meantime, if anyone stumbles across a recipe to make my own hazelnut creamer, that meets the criteria for the Unprocessed Challenge, let me know!

As I noted above, the zucchini plant is still chugging along, although at a thankfully slower pace than earlier in the summer. The tomatoes are also showing signs of slowing down, although based on the number of tomatoes we put in, ‘slowing down’ still results in me filling the freezer and having to process another dozen or so pints of sauce every few weeks. With what’s left from last summer, and everything I’ve put up this summer, we’re not going to have to buy tomato sauce (or pizza sauce, or marinara sauce) for a good long time. The cucumber and peppers, however, have hit their end point, so this morning we spent about half an hour doing some clean-up, hacking back the worst of the blackberry vines and pulling up an embarrassingly large number of weeds. Then we put in the first batch of cold-weather plants – lettuce, sugar snap peas, scallions, and spinach. Later on, I’ll get some beans and shelling peas started, and maybe even try carrots again, and maybe, if we’re really lucky, the snail and slug population in the neighborhood will take a drastic turn for the worse and we might actually get a decent winter crop.


Right now, the freezer drawers are full of gallon bags, stuffed with tomatoes. And the tomato plants outside are still full of tomatoes – most of them still green, but some of them that probably should have been harvested earlier this week, except that there were too many awkwardly placed spider webs and neither of us felt like trying to dislodge them while they were currently occupied by extremely large garden spiders, nor did we have any idea quite where to put any more tomatoes if we picked them in the first place. I have made red wine marinara sauce, and garden vegetable salsa, and still there are so very many tomatoes left to deal with, and I am running low on clean pint jars into which to put them after processing. Plus we still have plain tomato sauce left – at least a dozen pints of it – from *last* summer. All of which brings me to tonight’s decision to do Something With Tomatoes for dinner, except that I didn’t want to have to go to the grocery store and I didn’t want to have to thaw any of the whole tomatoes, and I didn’t want to have to do anything more than toss something into a pot and then walk away and immerse myself into a book until dinner magically finished all on its own. Or in other words, all of this is just a long-winded explanation of why tonight, I finally tried Marcella Hazen’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter.

I have seen a number of people gushing about this recipe on various food blogs, so I admit I was a bit skeptical about it at first, because I am used to my pasta sauce being full of herbs and chunks of vegetables; the sort of thing that takes a whole bunch of ingredients and a whole lot of time to put together. But there is a reason why people have been gushing about this sauce. It really is just as fabulous as everyone says. It only takes three ingredients, and best of all, even though it takes 45 minutes, it is exactly the sort of recipe where you can just throw everything into a pot and turn on the heat and then walk away.

Here is how you make this sauce (at least my version of it). Chop up one large onion and toss it into a big pot with about 5 tablespoons of butter. Pour in two pint jars of home-canned plain tomato sauce. Simmer over medium heat for about 45 minutes, or until sauce is thickened and the onions are translucent. About fifteen minutes before the sauce is done, start some water boiling for pasta, and if you time it just right, you should be draining your noodles just about the time your sauce is ready to go. If you are like me and only ever use unsalted butter, and tend to can your tomato sauce with no seasoning at all, you’ll probably want to add a few dashes of salt at the very end, but otherwise, resist the urge to doctor it up in any other way.

For such a simple recipe I have to admit, I was really surprised by how delicious it turned out. The onion imparts a lot of flavor into the tomato base, and the butter adds an element of complexity to the flavors. I am always happy when something so simple turns out so well – especially when it’s the sort of thing that makes use of something I’ve got in excess. We’ll definitely be making this recipe again. But next time, I’m going to make sure we have some kind of bread to go with the meal, if only to have some kind of method of somehow extracting every remaining bit of sauce off the plates.


The blackberry vines we planted last year are currently going crazy. Basically, they have spent the last twelve months going from two puny little stalks to doing their level best to take down the fence between us and the next door neighbors. The vines have been covered in flowers, and berries are popping out all over. Only recently, however, have some of them been ripe enough to pick, although admittedly it’s taking us a little while to figure out exactly when that might be. My excuse is that I think berries are horrid, nasty tasting things full of seeds, but Richard loves the little suckers, so I’d have thought at least one of us would be better prepared to distinguish a ripe berry from a not-quite-ripe one. Ah well.

Anyway. Aside from the random strawberry or three every few days, so far the only thing coming out of our garden right now is blackberries. Lots and lots of blackberries. Last night, we picked a great mound of them – big, fat berries that stained our fingers red. So what does one do with a giant pile of blackberries? Do you really have to ask that question? Obviously, I had to make jam.

Time between when they were picked off the vines and when the jars were pulled out of the boiling water bath to cool on the counter – just about two hours. Richard licked the spoon when I was done filling the jars and pronounced it delicious. I did not share his opinion, but that has more to do with the fact that I cannot stand the vile little fruits than any actual commentary on the state of the jam itself.

There are still oodles more of them on the vines, so it’s pretty obvious that we’re going to be dealing with large quantities of blackberries in the near future. I’m looking forward to giving other recipes a try – perhaps some blackberry syrup, or blackberry jelly, or even (if they get too out of hand) squeezing some of them down to juice and using them to dye some yarn (several kitchen towels are now sporting spots of the most beautiful blue).