Entertaining Angels

“Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so some have even entertained angels without knowing it.”  Hebrews 13:2

It was actually something my husband and I discussed quite a bit before we got married – hospitality. I was raised around a table that often had guests seated at it and I wanted to continue that practice in my own home. Alex took that a step further and said that we must always have a spare bedroom for the guests who needed a place to stay the night. He lives with the assurance that we could travel nearly anywhere in the United States and have a bed waiting for us, his friends and relations are scattered across the map and would welcome us. He wanted to be such a spot on the map, a place of promised welcome.

In the almost two years of our marriage, our little home has been pressed into service more times than I can count. There is an empty bed and several empty chairs waiting for company, and that’s exactly what how we want it.  We have had the privilege of entertaining friends, family and strange angels alike and hope to do the same for many more as long as we have a roof and food to share.

The meals are often far from perfect (like my soupy lasagna, or the lemon pie with the inedible cardboard crust) and the spare room isn’t always completely free from storage (guests can go to sleep after counting boxes of diapers and spare cookbooks), but I like to think that we make up for that in warmth and good conversation!

Our little son is turning into quite the host, giving our visitors his best grins and entertaining them with long stories about his morning bath or nap time woes before demonstrating the strength of his tiny lungs or the great size or his appetite.  I think his charm is going to go a long way towards smoothing over the rough edges of imperfect cooking! This past week we had one of Alex’s childhood friends over for dinner. Mike lives in California now and was back in the area visiting his family and we asked him over for the evening. We had baked chicken, wild rice pilaf, and roasted butternut squash and then ice cream for dessert. Alex said that the squash was one of the more delicious things I’ve made to date so I thought I would share that recipe.  Squash is a perfect side dish this time of year. You can get all different varieties of squash at the local markets, but our favorites are acorn and butternut.  I have used this recipe for sweet potatoes, too and found it quite delicious!

 

Roasted Butternut Squash

1 large or 2 small butternut squash

2 Tablespoons olive oil

2 Tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt

1 Tablespoon poultry seasoning

1/4 cup maple syrup

13″x9″ baking dish

350 degree oven

 

Peel and dice your squash into 2-3 inch chunks – seems like a simple enough task, but I’ve been trying for years to find an easy way to go about this. So far, the most tear-free way I’ve found is thus: peeling the squash with a sturdy veggie peeler then using my Big Knife to halve it and chop it into cubes after the ‘guts’ have been scooped out with a sturdy spoon.

Toss the cubes into the waiting baking dish and add the remaining ingredients. Give it all a good toss to mix it together before popping it in the oven for about an hour. It’s ready to serve when the cubes are easily pierced with a fork or knife.

This is a good season for opening our doors to family, friends and angels, even as the windows are closing and cold weather is setting in, you never know who is going to bring an unexpected blessing with them. The food doesn’t need to be complicated as long as the hearts are warm that offer it!  Enjoy…

 

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in the morning

Somehow I thought there would be more tea and cozy robes…

Welcome to 6 am on a Tuesday morning. Something has just smacked me in the chin and when I open my eyes I find myself staring into the large, brilliant and dark eyes of my two month old son. A look of victory flashes across his infant face before he dissolves into tears. Piteous, moaning, “I really mean this”, morning tears accompanied with much grabbing and banging – he’s starving, fading, waning, expiring and something must be done. I’m not quite coherent as I begin to feed him and check the time. I’ve been asleep for all of two hours. He’s been doing so well with the whole ‘sleeping’ thing, but every so often we hit a bit of a hiccup and neither of us sleeps. This was one of those hiccupy nights. I think of tea and my cozy robe and suddenly enjoy a swell of warmth as I start to fall back asleep, hoping that he will do the same. My little one coos and gurgles and I feel myself reluctantly opening my eyes again. This time he is smiling broadly. His smile has more charm and finesse than you would expect from a person who has no teeth, it’s rather irresistible. I pat his back, hoping a burp will make its way up and realize that the warmth I felt washing over me was not only the thought of tea and coziness – we are both soaking wet. Soaking, I say.

Bruin lies there, smiling his charming, gummy grin, both full and empty in all the right places. I realize at that moment that the morning will be filled with laundry and baths.

For me, breakfast is the hardest meal to deal with. I’ve spoken before about the cruelty I feel is involved with making people cook while still half-asleep, well, how about half-asleep and soaked with an infant who is also half- asleep and soaked? It’s just not going to happen! I’ve lost before I’ve even started.

Let me introduce you to my secret weapon. I actually have *two* secret weapons; the first is called a Rubber Sheet, a magnificent device which is laid down beneath the child to keep the entire bed from becoming damp and needing to be laundered (Ooooooo); the second is called Apple Crisp, a delightful dish that was once only thought of as a dessert option but is now rising with the sun into breakfast glory (Ahhhhhh).  Here’s how I do it…

Firstly, you need apples, about 6-8 cups of peeled, cored and sliced apples. As to peeling, you needn’t be too particular. I figure that as long as I get roughly 55%-67% of the peel off it’s considered good and anything that is left behind is healthful roughage. So there. Add to your apples about 1 Tablespoon of cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg, 1/4 cup maple syrup and 3 Tablespoons flour. Mix well. Dump the lot into a deep, greased 8″x8″ pan. In your bowl put 1 1/2 cups of rolled oats, 1/2 cup flour, 1/4 cup maple syrup, 2 Tablespoons whole or ground flax seed and 6 Tablespoons of butter. Mix this together until the butter has broken into bits and the texture is something like damp sand (with bits of oatmeal, of course…). Crumble this mixture onto the apples and then slide it into a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes or until the crisp is brown and the apples are bubbling.

There are a couple of  ways you can make this an easy fix in the morning. I bake mine in the evening and serve it for dessert after dinner then simply reheat it in the morning with yogurt, or you could put it together the night before and bake it in the morning. Either way, you have an exceedingly nutritious and delicious morning meal that can be enjoyed with or without tea and a cozy robe. Enjoy!

strawberry rhubarb massacre

Hello, my name is Andrea and I habitually burn baked goods.

This is my story.

Once upon a time last week I baked a pie – a strawberry rhubarb pie.  I carefully chopped up my fruit and dumped it in a mixing bowl. I measured in the required amounts of lemon juice, instant tapioca, spices and vanilla. My boldest venture was to substitute the white sugar with half the amount of pure maple syrup, making this dessert something truly Vermont-like and wonderful.

I stirred my pie filling thoroughly and let my shiny **new** oven preheat. My favorite pie plate with the deep dish and charming crimped edges was lined with pastry dough and then filled with the pretty mess. All was ready. My timer stood at attention on top of the stove and the red preheat light clicked off.  I quickly sprinkled some sugar over the delicately slit top crust and then slid the beauty in to bake.

Fifteen minutes later when the first timer buzzed its warning, I dutifully came to the kitchen and turned the heat down before resetting the time. Forty-five minutes after that, I returned to the fragrance of glorious pie scenting the entire front half of the apartment. Crimson juices oozed from the crimped edges and bubbled up between the top crust slits. It was obviously ready to be taken out, but the crust looked slightly pale to me – it was *almost* perfect, but not quite. I envisioned a pie on the glossy front cover of a cooking magazine, golden and crisp and my pie just wasn’t there yet.

There I stumbled and there I fell, gentle reader. When will I learn that sometimes ‘almost perfect’ is as close as I should dare get to a magazine cover? Fools rush in, or so they say, and so I did.

“Let’s stick this bad boy under the broiler for a minute or two – that oughtta brown ’em up!!”

Oh, the pain of stupidity. Temporary insanity set in and it seemed like a good idea, I switched the control over to Broiler with a clever smile and put the timer on for another five minutes.

Five minutes doesn’t seem like a long time, does it? A five minute shower is hardly worth taking, the snooze button on my alarm that doles out extra sleep in five minute increments is a joke and I wouldn’t dream of only giving myself five minutes to EAT pie – but let me tell you, five minutes under the broiler of a brand new oven is something to be reckoned with. In fact, the poor pie didn’t even last the entire five minutes. I came running to the kitchen when I smelled smoke and the blessed timer still had a good minute on it.

Broilers kill, ladies and gents. Should have left well enough alone and not messed with something that was good and nearly perfect. My pie needed to be taken to some sort of pastry burn unit but unfortunately, they don’t exist – yet. We’ll see what happens if I keep on baking, they may open one and name it after me and I will leave something to it in my will.

My pie – oh, my pie. It was blackened and acrid smelling. The lovely juice that once oozed from its crust resembled a tarry black river of cooled lava. The sugar that so delightfully decorated the top had bubbled up into angry, swollen worts of Burnt. It was awful.

Thank God for the men in my life, who scraped away the charcoal top layer and enjoyed the goop that remained, saying that it gave the pie a “brûléed-type flavor”. They were actually quite impressed and honestly, so was I -that is by far the most damage I have ever done to a baked good, I have taken my dessert destruction to a whole new level.

Next time I will be content with almost perfect, unless, of course, I get a better idea.

the first man whose heart I won and the cookies that did the job

Roger lived up the road from the tiny homestead we lived on when I was a teenager. “Up the road” is common enough to hear out there, even though all the roads are flat as can be. To this day, my brothers and I have to say the words in our best ‘German Midwest bachelor farmer’ accent, followed by a deep sigh and then, “Poor Bob….” It’s become a tradition, and you’ll have to ask me about it another time.

But – back to Roger. I believe he parked his old truck on our front lawn the first day of fair weather the year we moved there, introduced himself and told us in great detail about having died after a heart attack and how the miraculous physicians at the Toledo hospital had resurrected him. My brothers and I stood amazed and slightly terrified on the stone driveway, but we very quickly came to realize that Roger had a talent and deep passion for telling amazing and terrifying stories, and sometimes they were even true.

He was sixty-five and retired from a life of doing anything and everything that was dangerous and just barely decent. When he was young, brave and insanely good-looking he shipped himself off to the jungles of who-knows-where to fight some smokey war and when he came home he married a fiery Quaker girl and kept right on fighting. He was a widower now with not much adventure left in his hard-used heart, so he took up with our farming ventures and was always deeply interested in whatever it was we had going on. He would park his truck on the side of the road and lean against our fence and talk for hours if we’d let him. He never came in the fence, never stepped foot inside the house, he was just as happy as could be standing on the side of the road telling stories and doling out advice.

One day I baked him cookies and he ate them right there.

“Annie – I swear you’re gonna make some poor shmuck a good wife someday! Mark my words. Why, if I were a hundred years younger, your mama would have me to deal with!”

I blushed deeply and didn’t know what to say. I was fifteen and still reeling from the dizzying heights of my most awkward phase.  “You know, you remind me something of my Marty – she was quiet and all domestic and ornery as heck! ” I tucked his words inside and kept them there as protection against the spinsterhood I saw rapidly approaching (at fifteen!!)

He would spoil us with warm, juicy Indiana melons in the summer – a luxury we could never really afford, and we baked for him. One spring he presented me with the loveliest yellow rose bush that fragranced my entire garden. He watched us ‘grow out our pinfeathers’ as it were, and go from a bunch of ambitious kids to a handful of dreamy-eyed young adults bent on moving far from home and finding adventure of our own.

 

Roger’s Oatmeal Cookies

1 cup butter or shortening

1 cup each brown and white sugars

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

1 1/2 cup flour

1 teaspoon each baking soda and salt

3 cups old fashioned rolled oats

1 cup raisins

I admit, this recipe doesn’t seem to hit the mark health-wise but it certainly reminds me of good times and the sweet man who lived up the road and made a very awkward, frizzy-haired teenager feel pretty with his blatant praise. In my old recipe notebook I’ve scribbled out the proportions for tripling the recipe, which goes to show you how well-loved these cookies were, simple though they be!

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Cream together the fat and sugars then beat in the eggs until the mix is ‘fluffy’. Add the vanilla and stir again, then add your dry ingredients. Stir to combine well then drop the cookies with a cookie scoop onto a lightly greased baking sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes.

Share with a neighbor, served with icy milk on a warm Spring day.

 

bread in a dutch oven – O the brilliance

Someone is getting a gold star.

I’m not sure who it is but I have tucked a shiny new star in my pocket along with a handful of confetti and a recording of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and when I find that wonderful person I am going to tag them with the star, baptize them with glitter and give them a round of applause, because they’ve made my bread-baking life into something glorious.

What happened? Go ahead and ask because I would love to tell you. Go ahead.

I read a book in which someone wrote that someone else said (the mystery person I am searching for) that you can reproduce the effects of crusty, hearty artisan loaves hitherto unattainable to myself by simply baking them in a covered Dutch Oven. Oh yes. Oh yes indeed.

Thank you, lovely random man, because it works. It really, truly, honest-to-goodness works. I’ve done it twice now.

Baking a basic ‘lean’ bread dough (flour, salt, yeast and water) in an oiled Dutch oven creates a gorgeous loaf of bread fit for the snoodiest of artisan tables. My husband and I love a good rustic crust you can tear at and dip into stew without the threat of disintegration and I’ve finally achieved it. Seriously folks, this can only be topped by giving birth (which I am fully intending on doing in a few short months).

The best part is that it’s so simple. So Simple. I made baguettes once and it was an elaborate process, absolutely worth it in the end but very time consuming and impractical for everyday eating. After hours of rising and kneading and rising and kneading, I baked the baguettes in a hot oven where an iron pan was sitting in the bottom. To this day I am not sure exactly *how* I managed it, but somehow I slipped the bread into the oven and poured a glass of water into the pan before shutting the door quickly and tightly. The hot pan immediately created the steam bath needed as the final step in making a truly chewy crust. Success, but at a price.

Oh, how differently this works! After the first rising, the dough is kneaded down and then placed in the oiled dutch oven to rise again. Then, when the dough is doubled and the oven is heated to the right temperature, the loaf is brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with coarse salt and the cover is placed on top. This bakes for 20 minutes and the bread makes its own steam – how clever is that?!? Once the crust is firmed, the cover is removed and the bread finishes baking, browning and bubbling and making itself perfect.

Perfect, I say. We can hardly wait to eat it – and often don’t. Is there anything better than fresh, hot bread drowning in butter? Or – perhaps fresh hot bread dipped in garlicky olive oil and balsamic vinegar? I didn’t think so.

***throws glitter and claps***

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dealing with failure with grace, or, beating the Kitchen Mob at their own game and looking good while doing it

So what happens when a recipe goes wrong? I mean, really wrong – BAD – and for no apparent reason.

Who do we blame? What excuse do we make to ourselves and the world around us?

I think every home chef needs a Fall Guy, some thing or some one one who can step in and take some of the heat off the cook who really has done their level best, followed a recipe to the letter and still ends up disappointed.

I have my proverbial scape goat  and I call it – The Kitchen Mob. We can’t all be culinary superstars and ‘they’ know it. When something goes wrong with a recipe that I’ve tried in good faith, I know exactly what’s going on – it’s a case of kitchen thuggery, pure and simple. Sabotage of the same ilk as fast food menu pictures (because really, who has EVER gotten a burger that looks like that in real life…) and ideas for children’s parties in women’s magazines (“…make these adorable cake pops for your 3rd grader’s class party – it’s as easy as 1-2-spend all day and $50 dollars creating something that took our expert test kitchen staff a whole month and four years of rigorous culinary training to make…”)

I object. Not just to cake pops, but to the whole elaborate Kitchen Mob scene. I object to “Them”.

Is it to keep us humble? Is it to keep us on our toes? Is it to keep us from becoming complacent and lazy? Do we really seem this desperate for a little excitement in our lives?

What about my carrot cake – now buried and wept over – the cake I so carefully made for my beloved on Valentine’s Day? If we had wanted a slab of carrot-flavored play dough I am sure there are easier and less heartbreaking ways to achieve that. I followed the recipe – perfectly – and it bombed.

After such an incident, I find myself looking for something a little fool-proof, something that I can whip up like a pro and look good serving to boot, something I KNOW will turn out perfectly and get my confidence back up where it should be. Then I am ready to return to the ring once more and take on the Kitchen Mob and all their schemes. I am going to share such a recipe, a  loud “HA!” in the face of failed attempts for that home chef out there who has had a frantic week, or whose computer spontaneously combusted while they were frantically trying to type out their cooking column, or who just happened to pick a bad recipe out of the stack… this is for you. We shall beat them at their own game and laugh while we do it.

Peanut Butter and Jelly

Serves 1

You will need:

2 slices of bread

2 Tablespoons peanut butter

2 teaspoons soft butter

2 Tablespoons jam of your choice

 

There’s nothing quite like a properly made peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My mom makes a darn good PB&J and served with a glass of cold milk – well, it doesn’t get much better than that.

On one of the slices of bread, spread out your peanut butter making sure to cover the Entire Surface Of The Bread. This is important, folks. The whole “I hate the crusts” fiasco was probably started by some hasty person who never smoothed the fillings all the way to the edge. It’s important that you do this with the butter on the other slice of bread, too. The butter keeps the jelly from seeping through the bread and making it too soggy – blech. After the slice is sufficiently buttered, slather on your jam. Introduce the two slices, marry them together and get ready for your happily ever after – it never fails. This is a story that always has a happy ending, a recipe that works time after time. We have beaten the Kitchen Mob and all is well with the world once more.

Enjoy!

 

dessert for the dessert-challenged

Desserts are not my specialty. Whenever I am asked to bring one to a gathering or dinner, my heart chokes on a beat a little. My favorite go-to recipe for dessert has been apple crisp or, *gasp*, boxed lemon meringue pie with a homemade cardboard crust and wilted meringue. I do brownies and the occasional cookie – but that’s about it. I admit it –  I’m a dessert disaster waiting to happen to a friendly neighborhood gathering near you.

Add the fact that Alex and I, as well as most of our friends are trying to eat healthier – less sugar, less fat and less dessert in general and you have a first-class dessert emergency.  I need something sweet and satisfying that isn’t going to kill anyone – this removes ooey-gooey brownies from the line-up  and boxed lemon pie with my special crust (which unfortunately may prove to be slightly deadly on its own).

Well, I found an answer that is going to set me up for a while and keep me in good graces for many friendly dinners to come.

Fruit Cobbler. It’s ridiculously easy, quick to make up and doesn’t have enough sugar to throw one of Willy Wonka’s Oompa Loompas into a coma (heaven forbid). I made it the other night to bring to a friend’s house and it was quickly consumed – always a good sign – and there were enough pleasant noises being made to satisfy my wonderings about its success.

Suddenly Fruit Cobbler

makes enough to serve a dessert-crazed crowd of 10 or so.

for the fruit:

3 – 8ounce cans of peaches (I bought the kind that is packed in 100% juice with no added sugar)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

1/3 cup honey or maple syrup

for the cobble:

2 cups flour (you can use whole wheat or white or a mixture of both)

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 Tablespoons brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

4 Tablespoons butter

1 cup milk and 1/2 cup plain yogurt

I know, “You’re using CANNED fruit?”

Yes I am, because this dessert is a balance between *easy* and *healthy*. This recipe was developed in desperate times for desperate situations. It’s a weapon, folks. I’ll tell you what, popping open a couple of cans of sugar-free fruit just about ended the war on time-crunches.

Alright then – on to business. Lightly grease a 13×9 inch baking dish and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Open the cans of fruit and gently pour them – juice and all – into a bowl. I say ‘gently’ because I recklessly dumped them in and was showered in fruit juice. Yum.

Next, add your spices and honey or maple syrup and stir it all together. This gets poured into the baking dish and set aside. In a separate bowl, mix together the dry ingredients. Cut the butter into pieces and mix with a fork, pastry blender or your fingers so that it gets blended into the flour mix. This is always my favorite part for some reason, I love cutting in butter! Your flour mix will end up the consistency of slightly damp sand, holding together when squeezed, but falling apart as soon as you tap it. Pour in the milk and yogurt and stir it all together. You should have something akin to a very thick batter. This is going to be spooned onto the fruit, creating the biscuit top.

It’s baking time! Put that lovely dish in the oven and set the timer for 20-25 minutes. Depending on your oven, it might take a little more or less than that. It’s done when the biscuit crust is well-browned and cracked in the middle, showing just a bit of its fluffy inside. You can serve it warm, in bowls with a bit of the fruit ‘syrup’ spooned over top and a dollop of whipped cream, or it is just as tasty cool.

So – I guess if you invite us for dinner and ask me to bring dessert you know what you’ll get, but that’s ok because it tastes good and until I get my dessert-making down, believe me – you won’t miss the surprise!