Monday, March 30, 2015

Tapped Out

The end of Winter and the beginning of Spring mark the season for maple sugaring. Maple sap runs best when the temperatures are above freezing during the day, but still fall below freezing at night. During this time, sugar maple trees are tapped and the watery liquid collected in buckets, after which it is boiled down into the viscous, distinctively smokey natural sweetener we all love. Since maple syrup is so firmly linked to breakfast, I see no reason to try and alter that perception - although you can certainly enjoy these muffins any time!



Maple-Pecan Breakfast Muffins

Dry ingredients:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup chopped pecans, divided

Wet ingredients:
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup pure maple syrup, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup whole milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a standard 12-cup muffin pan with muffin liners; set aside.

Stir flour, baking powder, salt and 1/2 cup of the pecans together in a small bowl. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar together until fluffy, then mix in maple syrup, eggs, and vanilla. Blend in half of the dry ingredients, stir in the milk, then add the remainder of the dry ingredients and combine until just smooth. Divide evenly among the liners (about 2/3 full each). Sprinkle tops with remaining 1/4 cup pecans and bake for 20-22 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Notes: These muffins mix together quickly, and the simple flavors of the maple and pecans really shine through. If you prefer, substitute another kind of nut for the pecans, or leave them out altogether. I'd love to know how they would taste if you substituted cooked, crumbled bacon for the nuts - let me know if you try it!


>o<

Friday, March 27, 2015

Well-Seasoned

I had an idea to make my own seasoned salt, only a simpler version of what you might find pre-made at the store. I didn't want to use a flotilla of ingredients, either, but just a few well-chosen ones that would make an intensely savory, all-purpose seasoning. I scoured recipes online, paying close attention to the main ingredients in each, as well as the proportions used. I narrowed my selections down, and created this version:



Seasoned Salt

Ingredients:
1 part kosher salt
1/2 part celery seed
1/4 part sweet paprika
1/4 part dried thyme

Stir all ingredients together. Store in an airtight container or glass jar with a tight-fitting lid.

Notes: This really IS intensely savory, and pairs well with naturally sweet foods, like root vegetables and pork. Of course, it's great with chicken and fish, too! As with my other mixes, this makes a great host/hostess gift on its own, or as part of a gift basket with other foodie items. If you like other flavors in your seasoned salt, use this as a base and create your own personalized blend by adding your favorite herbs and spices.

>o<

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Best Laid Plans

I first saw this recipe for a cream cheese and lemon pound cake a few years ago, and I knew I had to make it someday. I was even able to locate the recipe again after all that time, and when I finally had the requisite ingredients, I set to work. I only wanted to take a tiny, insignificant little detour - cut the recipe in half and make just enough batter to fill a 12-cup muffin tin, yielding a dozen portable pound cakelets. It sounded like a plan! I carefully noted the smaller amount of each ingredient next to the original, and started mixing:

Beaten, not stirred.

I normally mix things by hand, but I knew this type of cake required machinery to get the right consistency. Things were looking fluffy and light, and when the sugar was fully incorporated, I started folding in the rest of the ingredients, alternating the dry with the wet as instructed. The batter looked beautiful and tasted divine, except...except it wasn't as thick as I had expected, and there was a LOT more of it.

And then I realized.

Because even though I had noted the proper amount of milk for my half-recipe, I had measured out the WHOLE amount. Twice as much as I needed for my cakelets. Yet the batter still looked good, so I quickly buttered a 9 x 13 inch pan and got the cake in the oven. It rose nicely, browned evenly along the edges, and when a toothpick came out clean, I removed it and let it cool. The once beautiful, fluffy cake that came out of the oven then sunk utterly and completely - but that was just cosmetic, and I was sure it would taste fine. Maybe I could still make a recipe from it, even post it on the blog as intended, with suggestions for toppings or pairing it with fresh berries. It would all turn out okay.

I cut myself a piece the next day. The cake was dense, heavy, and had an odd texture. And though it tasted fine, it seemed somehow uncooked, and sat in my stomach like a pile of wet laundry. It was not okay. I could not let anyone else eat this. I didn't even want to toss it outside to the critters for fear of upsetting their little tummies. So I did the thing I hate the most: I THREW IT AWAY. I was sad, disappointed, and more than a little unnerved by the waste of ingredients.

I still want to make this pound cake. I still want to make it into little cakelets, perhaps with a fresh berry compote on the side, and post it here for everyone to enjoy. It still sounds like a plan! Only it may be a while until I'm ready to make the attempt again :-)

>o<

Friday, March 20, 2015

Card Sharp

I started making handmade notecards many years ago, and still continue to make some from time to time. Although I've tried various designs and embellishments, my favorite is a simple one of plain cardstock overlaid with a patterned paper. They make for a substantial notecard that's easy to make and a pleasure to send. These can easily be packaged as a set for gift-giving as well, and hopefully encourage that old-fashioned pastime of writing to friends and family:



Handmade Notecards

Materials:
Patterned scrapbook or other paper of your choice (8 1/2 x 11 inches, or any size that can be trimmed to 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches)
Plain cardstock in coordinating colors (8 1/2 x 11 inches)
Adhesive tabs or double-sided tape
Paper cutter
A2 envelopes (4 3/8 x 5 3/4 inches)

Cut cardstock in half to make two pieces of cardstock that measure 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches (you will get two cards for every piece of cardstock). Once done, trim an 1/8 inch from one shorter (5 1/2 inch) end of each piece - this will ensure the edges don't peep out from under the top layer. Cut the patterned paper to create the same number of 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 inch pieces as your cardstock. Fold all pieces in half and press down firmly along the crease. Using the adhesive tabs or double-sided tape, place a piece in each corner of the backside of your cardstock, then insert into one of the patterned pieces and press down to secure. Repeat with your remaining pieces until done!



Notes: If your overlay paper is very unusual or handmade, do a dry run of lining them up with the inner cardstock to see which half you prefer to be the "front" of the card. It is only necessary to secure the cardstock on one side - this will also prevent the cards from buckling and make them easier to insert in the envelopes.



>o<

Monday, March 16, 2015

Can-Can

This Winter has definitely been a challenge, including when it comes to food - not only did the endlessly bitter-cold days curb my appetite, I sometimes couldn't get out to the store even if I had been hungry. Thankfully, I try to keep some high-protein canned goods in my pantry, and one day I was able to pull together this tangy, filling salad to tempt my stomach:



Salmon and White Bean Salad

Ingredients:
1 can (6 oz.) boneless, skinless salmon, drained and flaked
1 can (15 oz.) cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup olive oil
2 Tablespoons champagne vinegar
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon, crumbled
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large bowl, gently toss salmon and beans together with a sprinkling of salt and pepper. In a jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine olive oil, vinegar, mustard and tarragon; close tightly and shake until emulsified. Pour over salad and mix to combine - taste for seasoning and adjust if desired. Serve with veggie sticks, crackers, chips, or over baby greens. This will be great alongside a juicy, ripe tomato in the Summer!


Notes: Cannellini beans are my favorite, but use whatever beans you enjoy most. You can also substitute your favorite vinegar for the champagne vinegar, your favorite herb for the tarragon, and certainly canned tuna for the salmon. I wasn't fussy about measuring the ingredients for the dressing, so just go by eye - you can always add more of something if needed afterwards. Please do add some finely chopped onion/scallions, celery, or bell pepper for more flavor and crunch (I just didn't have any in the house that day).



>o<

Friday, March 13, 2015

High Times

The first day of Spring is just a week away, and everyone has been waiting anxiously for it, myself included. But before I left Winter behind, I had a special trip on my list - and, for the first time last month, I visited The High Line:


The High Line, previously an abandoned rail line, has now been converted into a pedestrian concourse and public park. One of its key features is the integration of existing plants and grasses (the ones that had grown during the decades of the line's disuse) with new plantings of similar, native specimens that are also allowed to grow, bloom, and reseed themselves naturally. In addition, the designers created numerous spaces for people to explore, sit, and enjoy, with the original tracks still visible underneath it all:


As The High Line's excellent blog will tell you, one of the most striking plants there during Winter is, appropriately enough, winterberry. It's an easy-to-spot shrub with those distinctive red fruits that birds love:


Another brightly-colored specimen is the "Midwinter Fire" bloodtwig dogwood, able to display its fiery stems without any obscuring foliage this time of year:


Although much of the High Line is rather bleak during a Winter ramble, it's far from barren. In fact, many passages feel just like a Winter Wonderland:


I plan to return again in Spring, Summer and Fall this year, so I can enjoy the life cycle of this unique space throughout the seasons. It will be well worth the effort, and I'm really looking forward to it. So, until next time...



>o<

Monday, March 09, 2015

The Mother of Invention

I had an English teacher in high school who admonished her students not to use absolutes in their writing - and she was, in fact, absolutely right. Because when I said I always had eggs in my fridge, I now realize this can't be true. There was at least one time where I had none, when at the same time I had an overwhelming need for chocolate cake. I also had no intention of leaving the house to get eggs. I quickly studied some recipes, calculated the ratio of liquid needed to make up for the missing eggs, and created these cupcakes. And they worked! The frosting, of course, is in honor of St. Paddy's being just around the corner, but I've listed some alternate suggestions below in the Notes. So, if you're egg-free, or just don't have any on hand, this is absolutely the cupcake for you :-) Enjoy!



Devil's Food Cupcakes with Baileys Buttercream Frosting

For the cupcakes:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 Tablespoons butter, softened
4 Tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup plain, whole-milk yogurt (or 1 cup whole milk with a splash of vinegar added to sour it)

For the frosting:
4 Tablespoons butter, softened
1 cup powdered sugar
1 Tablespoon Baileys (or other) Irish Cream Whiskey
Chocolate sprinkles or chocolate for grating (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a 12-cup muffin pan with cupcake liners and set aside.

In a medium bowl, mix together flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt until combined. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugars together until light and fluffy, then stir in vanilla extract. Starting and ending with flour mixture, blend in batches alternately with yogurt/sour milk until you have a smooth batter. Divide batter evenly among cupcake liners (about 2/3 full each) and bake for 18-20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool completely before frosting.

In a small bowl, combine frosting ingredients and blend until completely smooth. Frost using roughly a heaping teaspoon for each cupcake. Top with chocolate sprinkles or grated chocolate, if desired.

Notes: Instead of Irish Cream in the frosting, use any liqueur you enjoy that pairs well with chocolate, such as Grand Marnier, Chambord, Creme de Menthe, or Kahlua. If you prefer not to use liqueur, simply substitute vanilla extract. This amount of frosting is enough for a thin layer on each cupcake, which is plenty for me - however, if you like to pile it on, go ahead and double the amount!

>o<

Friday, March 06, 2015

Peas on Earth

I must say, peas are not a favorite among most of my family members, but I quite enjoy them. I'm not sure what the others have against them - but even liking them myself, I still need to breathe new life into them every once in a while. This is my version of "mushy peas", a traditional side dish in Northern England, typically served with fried fish. With their heavily lemoned accent, I think mine go well with chicken and pork, too. Now, I won't lie - they're not the most photogenic item in the world, but they'll give you something different to try while you're waiting for fresh peas from the garden!



Mashed Peas with Butter and Lemon

Ingredients:
2 bags (about 10-12 oz. each) frozen "petite" or "baby" peas
4 Tablespoons butter
Juice of one lemon
1 teaspoon dried tarragon, crumbled (or your favorite herb, such as thyme or rosemary)
Salt and pepper

In a large saucepan, simmer peas with some water (about 1/4 cup), covered, until hot, then continue to simmer uncovered until almost all the excess moisture has evaporated. Turn off heat and smash with a potato masher (they will hold together, but still have plenty of texture). Stir in butter, lemon juice and tarragon, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot!

>o<

Monday, March 02, 2015

The Seedier Side of Life

With Spring planting just a few weeks away, I'm of course very excited to get back out in the yard and start my garden. In preparation, my first task was to sort through the seeds I already had, and determine what I would need to buy for this year. Although seed packets are dated and expected to be used within the year they're issued, I can't bring myself to throw unused seeds away - it feels too much like throwing food away. I store them in resealable bags in a cool, dark, dry part of the house, and so far they haven't let me down!

As I posted before, my garlic is already in the ground percolating, and I know that my cherry tomatoes will gleefully volunteer themselves all over the place once the soil warms up sufficiently (Who said tomato plants were delicate? They lied). I found I had a number of greens already in my collection as well, plus an abundance of carrot seeds in a separate container:



This year, I want to devote one of the garden beds entirely to edible flowers. I'm planning an outer border of nasturtiums, an inner border of chamomile, with taller borage to fill in the center:



What was left to buy? The one thing I really still wanted was zucchini - and not just any variety, but my all-time favorite, Romanesco:



I may buy single seedlings of a few other vegetables later in the Spring, but the seeds I already have will form the basis of my crops this year. Now, if only all that snow would melt so I could see the ground!

>o<