none of the doors in my kitchen close on their own

None of the doors in my kitchen close on their own… except the refrigerator door, which always closes on its own, just seconds before I get there with whatever ‘over-full’ thing I happen to be carrying.  Like Jello. Boiling hot, slippery, liquid Jello, splashing up out of its shallow glass container and cascading to the linoleum below as I bump it into the suddenly sealed-shut fridge door.

It’s moments like these that remind me *why* the kitchen is my favorite room in the house- it has linoleum floors! No matter what I spill, I can always wipe it up and begin again more carefully, this time holding the door open with one foot while balancing on the other and slipping the pan into the bottom shelf where it will stay until all is solid and well.

I just made Jello from scratch for the first time using four packages of unflavored gelatin (obtained at the local grocery store, in the ‘Jello Aisle’) and four cups of white cranberry/peach juice (also found at the store, only in the “Juice Aisle”….)

That’s it. Two ingredients. It is idiotically simple, even though it took me forever to find the directions in the little box (I guess even idiotically simply just isn’t simple enough- woe is me). Come to find out the directions were inscribed on the individual packets of gelatin (duh)… I shall remember that for next time should this grand Jello experiment result in something even remotely Jello-like and we need to repeat the process.

One cup of cold juice gets poured over four packets of powdered gelatin. Three cups of  cold juice are heated over the stove until they are boiling. While the juice is working itself up to a boil, the gelatin is relaxing and swelling in the cold liquid- turning into a fascinating sort of gelatinous glob. Once the juice has boiled, the cold gelatin is stirred in until it is fully dissolved, then poured into a waiting 9×13 pan and sent to sit in the fridge until it is solid and ‘jiggly’. That is, of course, unless you spill it all trying to slip it in before the door violently and arbitrarily slams shut before you… In that case, I would suggest making something less tricky, like Pancakes Barbara.

(Convenient Literary Time Lapse Complete With Comfortable Bluegrass Music and Some Tea)

Here we are at the end of the day. The dishes are almost done, the laundry is almost folded and my child is almost asleep. I hear him in his little room at the end of the hall, murmuring his goodnight song to the stuffed woodland creatures dangling from the mobile over his crib. I’m exhausted and could really go for something cool and fruity.

Has the jello jelled? Yes it has. Hello there, my lovely, how charming you look, all glistening and gelatinous!

Ladies and Gentlemen – we have Jello, and not just any jello, but a perfect Homemade jello with no added sugars, colors, flavors or chemicals – just pure jiggly goodness. And while we are on the subject of jello’s goodness, let me say a few words about the health benefits of gelatin, the reason why jello is so adorably jello-like. Gelatin; it’s good for your aching knees, your brittle hair, your stubby nails, your lack-luster skin, your sluggish digestion and last but not least, your over-worked immune system.  Some studies suggest that the main constituents in gelatin may improve sleep quality and help regulate ones weight. I like those suggestions! It’s exceedingly low in fat and high in protein.  Sounds like much more than just a delicious snack! In accordance with our new year’s resolutions to eat more life-nourishing foods, I’m going to make jello… a lot… and eat it with abandon. The juice aisle is filled with flavors to be tried and I’m thinking chunks of fruit would be brilliant if stirred in before chilling. Oh boy, there is fun to be had here! Enjoy…

but wait, there’s more… nontoxic cleaning with pantry ingredients

What if I told you that I not only use the inhabitants of my pantry to create wholesome dinners for my family and friends, but to make my house sparkling clean as well?

Just like a box of factory-made food, store-bought cleaning products often come slapped with a list of ingredients that take a PhD in chemistry to understand. Who needs all that? Most people are trying to simplify their lives, not add homework! But when I did my homework and learned that most of the unintelligible chemical nonsense is actually quite poisonous to both humans and the environment, I knew that something had to be done.

If I’m going to put time, effort and love into making wholesome food, why would I stop there? If I care so much about what is going *into* my body, why wouldn’t I care about what I’m spreading *around* my body? If I work so hard to eat locally in order to benefit my community, why would I clean in such a way that is harmful to the people around me?

Hard questions to be sure, but thankfully there is a rather easy answer and it’s to be found in the kitchen cabinets!

Here are a couple of recipes that I use on a weekly, if not daily basis in my home. I have a strict set of criteria for my cleaning products: they must work well – I need something I can rely on to get the job done the first time. The product must be as ‘clean’ as possible, meaning that it can’t contain any ingredient I wouldn’t put directly on my skin. I have a little one now and the thought of scrubbing out the tub he is going to soak in with a toxic cocktail of chemicals sends a shudder down my spine. The last thing is that they have to be efficient. I’m not too interested in something that may work – but it takes an untoward amount of time or effort to do so. Again, I have a little one and not a lot of time to spend putzing around with elaborate cleaning schemes.

Alright then! Having said all that, let’s get to it… and just in time for cleaning house before the holidays!

Window Cleaner/ Daily Shower Cleaner/ All Purpose Cleaner

*I use this to clean just about everything, from windows to floors…

1 cup vinegar

2 cups  hot water

2 tsp dish soap or 1/2 tsp castile soap

10 drops essential oil such as lemon, lavender or tea tree (optional)

Mix all ingredients in a spray bottle and use as desired.

Scouring Powder Replacement

* I use this any time I need a scouring agent – on baking dishes, cutting boards, stubborn stains, in the toilet bowl…

1 cup baking soda

5-10 drops of essential oil

Mix well and fill a parmesan cheese shaker. Use as you would scouring powder. To boost the effectiveness, I add a few drops of vinegar to create a powerhouse of cleansing foam that breaks down just about every mess I’ve encountered.

Bleach Alternative Spray

*this is one of my favorite recipes!

1/2 cup hydrogen peroxide

1/4 cup lemon juice

water to fill a spray bottle

5-10 drops tea tree essential oil (adds a cleansing, disinfecting boost)

Use to remove stains, to disinfect and deodorize, pour 1/2 cup of the mix in your white load of laundry in lieu of chlorine bleach. I use this on my whites and baby clothes and they come out squeaky clean.

Gunk-be-Gone

* for all your sticky messes!

Mix together equal parts of baking soda and coconut oil. Rub onto your sticky residues and then wipe off.  This works wonders, I love it!

So what do you think? Are you ready to make your home a little merrier for the impending holidays? An hour or so in the kitchen with a few simple ingredients could set you up with an inexpensive, powerful, people and earth-friendly arsenal of cleaning products that will make your house shine! Enjoy…

I can

I can.

As a teenager, canning season (with the exception of Christmas and Thanksgiving) was the most anticipated time of the year.  My mom and I and often a boy or three spent day upon day in our sweltering kitchen preserving batches of food we had either grown, gleaned or gained by gifts from over-burdened gardening friends. We were encouraged by the hot breezes that forced their way into the crowded room and the knowledge that our hard work produced a harvest that would be welcome come winter. We canned everything that wouldn’t run away starting with plump June strawberries and ending with thick, dark, highly-spiced apple butter late in the fall.  For months it seemed our kitchen overflowed with the steam of the canner, pots and pans filled with food bubbling away while waiting its turn, and hot, sweaty people working day and night to get it all done while the season lasted.

Our store of preserved food was a great source of pride and comfort for us. We were rather poor folk if you saw us in passing, or peeked in the windows and saw our homey but plain sort of lifestyle , but we felt rich indeed when we thought of the many boxes of canning jars filled with good food stashed around our little house. In every closet and under every bed were boxes of jars – apple sauce, pie fillings, green beans, tomato sauce, jams and jellies; mingled among books on shelves and underneath end tables draped with cloths – peaches, ground beef, brandied pears, spaghetti sauce, cherry juice, green tomato butter, chicken broth and even sweet breads. It was a treasure as real as if we had bricks of gold hidden in every corner. We studied long and hard to find the best places to keep things, things we used frequently like tomato sauce were stored in easy to reach locations where brandied pears and other such delicacies were often put high on back shelves to be saved for the holidays. I remember joyously traveling out to the far corner of the house to retrieve a jar of the delicious pears for Thanksgiving dinner, my heart swelling with the memory of sitting around the table, my family and I, late into the night peeling, coring, and slicing pears we had picked from a neighbor’s forsaken old tree, laughing and talking all the while. Nothing ever tastes so good as that food which is seasoned with good memories!

Before we moved East we spent the preceding year selling off all furniture that could be spared and settling our little farm into a peaceful place of sleep. We carefully wrapped over 500 jars of preserved food in old newspapers and packed them up for the long trip. We wouldn’t have dressers and chairs in our new home, at least not at first, but we knew that whatever happened we would have food. In the end, that food kept us going during our first  months out here while we found steady work and housing. Each time we opened a jar we were flooded with the tastes, smells and comforts of Home.  We had made it that far, we could keep going a little longer.

It’s canning season once more and this summer my greatest harvest was a little boy born in July. There doesn’t seem to be much hope of canning anything this year!  Nevertheless I managed to pack up several quarts of refrigerator pickles from the cucumbers in our small, townhouse garden. It was a small return for much effort (as anyone who has every tried to do *anything* with a four week old will understand) but it was immensely satisfying. I introduced an entire new generation to the wonder, pleasure, work and reward of preserving the harvest which seems to be more of an accomplishment than the six jars of kosher dills in the fridge. I am looking forward to many more years of canning with and for my family, making memories that will last longer and be even sweeter than the fleeting summer harvest captured in glass.  Here’s hoping you enjoy *your* harvest.

wilted beet salad

One summer, when I was much younger, my family stayed on a farm way out in the country for a couple of months. We had been living in an expansive trailer park that was more like a factory farm of metal boxes lined up on cement. Going from that broiler oven to being surrounded by luxurious fields, a huge yard filled with trees and secret places to hide away in and visit with fairies and other imaginary friends was nothing short of miraculous. I was enchanted – there were raspberry bushes and strawberry patches and mulberry trees, swings and chickens and a *gigantic* woodpile that was reborn into a magnificent fortress that my brothers and I defended form the wrath of the two angry geese who patrolled the back yard.

One day I remember Jan (for that is the woman of the place’s name) telling me that men don’t often notice cobwebs behind doors, but most women do and that’s why you must be careful to always dust behind the doors. We were preparing for a Tea that she was hosting at the farm and she and my mother were busy cleaning and cooking and getting things ready for the afternoon. I was so excited, being under the age of ten and longing desperately for the prestige and privilege of a grown up woman, I had been included in the Tea. Mom and Jan were always willing to involve me in their womanly activities, letting me sit up with them at night and talk about the deep things in life over tea while the lightning bugs filled the fields like fallen stars and crickets serenaded us from under the porch windows. I felt grown up in all the ways that mattered to me at the time and it satisfied me tremendously.

I don’t really remember how the Tea that we were preparing for came off, my young mind fixed on one dish in particular that was being mixed together in the big, old kitchen and everything else remains a happy blur.  This was the first time I had a Wilted Salad. I haunted the kitchen even then, feeling that room contained all the important business of the house. Jan mixed together a warm salad of greens, bacon, vinegar and sweetening and it tasted like heaven to me.

Over the years we have repeated her recipe, adjusting it and adapting it to different greens and not always saving it for special occasions! This is an excellent side dish to throw together for any summer dinner. It tastes like that sweet and tart time in life when I was so young and yearning to be so much older.

Wilted Spinach and Beet Salad

3 red beets (with or without their greens)

1 lb  raw spinach

1/4- 1/2 lb bacon (depending on how much you like)

1 medium onion, sliced

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1-2 tablespoons of honey, brown sugar or maple syrup

Firstly, cook the beets and their greens if you have decided to use them. I like to boil mine in their jackets. Once they are cooked, slip them out of their coats and chop them into bite-sized pieces. If you are using the greens (which should be boiled with the beets until tender) chop them up too.

In a *big* skillet, fry up your bacon until it is crisp, drain most of the fat away then add the onions and let them cook until they get slightly clear. Add the vinegar and sweetener and let it all simmer together for several minutes before dumping in your chopped beets and their greens. It’s really starting to smell good now!

Wash your spinach and drain it,  then pile it on top of the dressing in the skillet and cover for about five minutes. The heat will start to wilt your spinach and then you can begin to mix everything together. Turn off the heat and stir until the dressing has completely covered the spinach. The spinach shouldn’t be soggy and cooked, just wilted.

Serve immediately and Enjoy!

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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Hunter’s Breakfast

Here I am, cuddled away under layers of flannel pajamas and an over-sized hooded sweatshirt. The sun is just coming up and the quiet beams of light illuminate the icy stars etched on the window next to my bed. The frost has outlined the glass and framed the world outside like a perfect picture, crimson and orange leaves are waking and shaking off their night’s worth of ice and I can’t help but think of the determined people out among the frost, hunting. My next immediate thought concerns breakfast.

It’s the time of year when people don a contradiction of blaze orange and woodland camouflage and no one thinks anything of it. We see them at gas stations with large, hot coffees, at the diner grabbing a quick bite to eat, or walking along the outlying roads of the town.

I’ve known many hunters and they each have their reasons for gearing up each fall and winter and heading to the wilds. Some like the sense of getting their meat ‘the old way’, some enjoy the solitude, some are thrilled with the sport of it, and then I’ve known some who just really like the taste of wild game.

My husband and I were up visiting some friends in Northern Maine and they served us this delightful breakfast casserole made with moose sausage. It was incredible. Not only was it simple to make and good for a crowd, but it could be made ahead and cooked up when it was needed. I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a breakfast so much, accompanied by fresh, hot coffee and a cinnamon roll – I felt ready to go out and conquer the wilds myself!

Hunter’s Breakfast Casserole

1/2 pound game sausage

4 eggs

4 slices of bread, cubed

1/2 cup milk

1 cup shredded cheese

1 Tablespoon flour

1 Tablespoon butter

1 teaspoon basil

1/4 – 1/2  teaspoon each salt and pepper

 

*You could very easily substitute regular pork sausage for the game, if you so desired.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease an 8×8 baking dish.

The first step is to brown the sausage in a frying pan, breaking it up into small pieces as it cooks. Once it is thoroughly browned, turn off the heat and scoop out the sausage  onto a plate that has been lined with paper towels. This will help to absorb any excess fat from the sausage, especially if you are using pork. I don’t believe game is as greasy and you might be able to skip this step if yours is dry enough already.

While the sausage is draining and cooling, beat together the milk and eggs in a mixing bowl. Add the flour, salt, pepper and basil, stir well, and then add the bread cubes and shredded cheese. Once everything is mixed, add the cooled sausage and stir once more. Pour the whole thing into your waiting baking dish. Cut the butter into small pieces and place around on top of the casserole.

I usually put the baking dish onto a baking sheet before putting it in the oven, just because the eggs can be a little bit excitable and spill over the sides sometimes. The casserole needs to bake for 30-45 minutes, or until the center of the dish is rather firm.  Remove and let it sit for about 5 minutes before serving.

If you are saving the dish for another day you have two options; you can bake the casserole and let it cool before covering with foil and keeping in the fridge until it is wanted – in which case you would gently heat it up in the oven, covered, at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, or you can assemble the casserole and *not* cook it, but cover and keep in the fridge to bake in the morning – uncovered.

This meal could easily switch ends of the day and be served as a dinner, just add a cup of cooked spinach, broccoli florets, sauteed onions or bell peppers – you are only limited by your imagination!

Happy Hunting!

 

perfection bread for beginners

I have a *pearl* of a Mother-in-Law, have I ever mentioned that?  I have never met someone so generous with praise and encouragement. She is, without a doubt, the most positive, upbeat and open soul I’ve ever known – but she’s not candy coated. She’s not icky sweet – she stood right next to me and agreed that the trunk of my Volvo would be perfect for hauling groceries… or dead bodies. She’s lovely and smart and interesting and vibrant – and she loves my bread. So I made her a loaf of the bread Alex and I eat week to week and she, true to her self, went wild.

“Ann! This bread is perfection!”

I didn’t have the heart to argue that it was slightly overdone, which means that it would be drier than one could desire – far from perfect. I doubt she would have seen it even if I had pointed it out. So I quietly accepted her big hug and wished that everyone could have someone like her in their life – someone who is just tickled to death with them. Everyone needs an Elaine. Lavish praise, encouragement – however dark the prospects look, someone who always believes that you did your best and is thrilled that you tried.

You would think – or at least I would – that such a reaction would make someone loosen up, be sloppy, not do as good of a job since they knew it would nearly always be accepted with thanks and a smile, but I find it helps me to do even better. I check the bread more often so it *doesn’t* get over done, I knead it more thoroughly – I truly want it to be as delightful as it can be when my loved ones have a slice. It’s a special event for me, not a chore or a test.

So now, on Tuesdays when I get out the ingredients to make my bread for the week, I have to smile because I think of Elaine and how perfect she thinks it is. She has helped me to look at life a little kinder, be a little more patient with myself and others, to be a little quicker to be thrilled and excited than nitpicky and obsessive, to be a little bit braver to get in there and do my darndest.

Perfection Bread

2 1/4 teaspoons dry active yeast

1/2 cup warm water

1/3 cup honey

2 teaspoons salt

2 cups warm water

2 1/2 Tablespoons vegetable oil

2 Tablespoons flax seed

1/3 cup Bob’s Red Mill 10 Grain Cereal

3 cups Whole Wheat Flour (I use the King Arthur brand White Whole Wheat)

3 cups White Unbleached Bread Flour (again, King Arthur is what I use)

Extra flour for kneading, about a 1/2 cup

 

Notes:

I buy Bob’s Red Mill Hot Cereal, which can usually be found in either the baking aisle or the specialty foods aisle. The flax seed I use is usually whole, but you could definitely use ground. To make a simple, plain white loaf, just skip the whole wheat flour and use all white, don’t add the flax or cereal mix. You will have to use a little more flour (1/2 cup) to make up for the missing grain, that is all.

I will try to write out the directions for someone who has never made bread before, so if you are a bread master, bear with us. Everyone starts at least once and I had a great teacher who was very thorough and informative (thanks Mom!). No one is born knowing how to do everything! Now, you beginner, go to it with a brave heart – whatever the outcome, we will applaud your hard work and willing hands.

Directions:

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup warm water. Warm is the key here, you don’t want to kill the yeast by making it too hot, then it won’t work properly. A good rule of thumb is if you can stick your thumb (or any finger) comfortably in the water – it’s not too hot.

In a separate, smaller bowl, add the 10 grain cereal to the 2 cups of *hot* water. Doesn’t need to be boiling hot, just hot from the tap. It helps to soften the grains. Let that sit for about 5 minutes while the yeast dissolves. Then add the salt, honey, oil and flax seed. Stir well before pouring into the yeast mixture.

Now- get out a sturdy wooden spoon and measure half the flour into the bowl with the liquids. Mix well, until all the flour is wet. Add the rest of the flour, cup by cup, stirring well after each before adding another. When the dough gets firm enough that it’s hard to stir with a spoon, dump whatever flour is left from the 6 cups total onto a clean, smooth surface, turn the dough out onto it and begin to knead.

Ah, kneading. Is there anything more therapeutic than feeling a warm bundle of dough under your hands? The dough will still be slightly ‘wet’, or sticky, so incorporate the remaining flour in by getting the ball of dough real dusty with flour, put the heel of your hand on the center of the ball and push away from you, into the counter. Now, fold the stretched piece of dough back onto itself and push it again. Each time it stretches over the flour, it picks up a little more of it, and you’re working the dough so that it becomes glued to itself and makes a nice slice of bread when it’s baked. Every so many shoves, turn the ball of dough so that you’re pushing the opposite side. If your hands get sticky (as they might at first) roll as much as you can off your hands and keep them dusty with flour. I find they stay cleaner if I go quickly, almost smacking the dough with the heel of my hand and turning it quickly. It’s rather energetic once I get going! I don’t like to add too much extra flour lest the bread get dense.

You can knead as long as you like, but I generally go until all the flour is absorbed and I have a stretchy, smooth sort of ball of dough that doesn’t tear when I pull it. You want it to have a good deal of elasticity. Now clean out the mixing bowl and grease it up lightly, either with some spray oil or a rubbing of butter. Toss the dough bundle into it and flip it once so that the top gets some grease on it. Cover and let rise for 1-2 hours, or until doubled in size. As unlikely as it seems- it will get there! That yeast will do it’s busy work and the dough *will* rise. It helps if the temperature is right, somewhere around 80 degrees. My kitchen is never perfectly heated or cooled, but it’s the closest to a consistent 80 I can get, so the dough stays there. If it’s cooler, it may take a little longer, in the summer – my bread will rise in 45 minutes! You have to feel as you go, somewhat.

** Fancy time lapse **

The dough – – it has risen. It smells sweet and yeasty and looks ambitious enough to take over the world. Punch it back before it gets the chance… really. Put your freshly washed fist right into the heart of it and push straight down. It will whine a bit, but you’re doing everyone a favor. Grease up two regular sized loaf pans and set them aside. Gently work the dough a little in the bowl and then split it. If you are *that* person, weigh each half so that they are equal. If you are me, just make a good guess and squeeze it in half. Form each half into a loaf shape and place them in their pans. These have to rise again, until they have gotten taller than the sides of the pan. Again, this is a little variable depending on the temperature.

** Time Lapse **

Turn the oven on to 350 degrees, place your well-risen loaves into the oven gently.

They need to bake for about 25 minutes, or until the internal temp is about 190 degrees according to a thermometer stuck into the thickest part of the loaf, *or* until the loaf sounds very airy and hollow when knocked on.

Cool by placing on their sides, every so often flipping sides until the loaf pops out after a gentle nudging.    And there you have it – Bread. It takes a few times to get it *down*, you know? I’ve baked tough loaves, dry loaves, doughy loaves – but a couple perfect ones, too. It just takes time and practice – and a lot of toast!

It’s a good skill to have, homemade bread is cheaper and tastier than store bought (when you figure on buying the special, all natural 10 grain variety which is still not as good as something you can make yourself) and there is nothing more appealing than the smell of baking bread in a home. It’s aromatherapy at it’s best.

Have fun, make bread, applaud. Repeat.

Autumnal Pumpkin Cookies

It’s ten o’clock at night and I should be sleeping. The morning will come quickly, I know, but I hear something outside. I hear Autumn coming. I don’t know if anyone else notices, but Fall sounds different at night than Summer. Its the leaves, I think, changing into their more festive outfits. I can hear them outside rustling and whispering and shivering in the chilly breeze and I can’t just roll over and go to sleep. Tomorrow I might wake up to find that the sound was really Summer fleeing from the cold days to come and all the trees have shed their green and blaze with Autumn color; there must be something that I, too can do to welcome the new season.

I quietly roll out of bed, careful not to wake my sleeping husband nestled deep in the quilts that have lately come out of storage, and head out to the kitchen in my pajamas.

It is cold in our dark apartment, but the windows remain open because I can’t bear to have them closed just yet. In the kitchen I can still hear the whisperings of the leaves outside while I gather up my baking supplies. The town is silent, I seem to be the only one awake in Brandon, accompanied by the small town mouse who lives beneath the cupboards. Flour, sugar, salt, spices and an egg – they all get lined up on the counter along with a big bowl and a wooden spoon. I turn on the oven and stand over it for a moment, warming my chilled fingers before I get started.

The trees are making Fall outside – I shall make it inside.

Is there a more Autumnal flavor than pumpkin? They are the choice fruit of fall adorning doorsteps, surrounded with brilliantly colored mums, and finding their way into kitchens, seasoned with cinnamon and brown sugar.

I am going to make Cake-Like Pumpkin Cookies, a slight variation of a recipe I found earlier on in the year and tucked away for such a night as this. In the morning, the mountains will greet us with dew-covered leaves in various states of Autumn dress and  I will see to it that the house is filled with the scents and tastes of Fall.

Cake Like Pumpkin Cookies

makes 2 – 2 1/2 dozen cookies

1/2 cup softened butter

1/2 cup white sugar

1/2 cup light brown sugar

1 cup pumpkin puree

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 Tablespoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1 1/2 cups old fashioned rolled oats

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugars. You might want to use a mixer for this, either a stand or hand one will do. If you are doing it by hand, use a whisk and mix until the sugars and butter are completely blended and sightly ‘fluffy’ looking. Add the pumpkin puree and stir, then add the egg and stir again until everything is mixed well. Add the vanilla, spices and salt, stirring so that they are completely incorporated. Now add the flour and oatmeal and blend thoroughly. There should be no dry spots in the dough. Don’t over mix it, however, and make your cookies tough!

Get out two baking sheets and grease them lightly then drop the cookies onto the trays. They won’t expand much in baking but you don’t want them to be touching. Once you have them placed on the trays they can head into the oven for 8-10 minutes. They will be a little brown around the edges and slightly firm to the touch. Remove them from the trays and let them rest on a rack until completely cool before storing.

I think the best way to have them is while they are still slightly warm, with a glass of milk or a mug of hot tea.

Welcome Autumn!

Harvest Party

It’s coming into harvest time, and what a time it is! Probably my favorite of the year… but I say that about every season, I think…

Our modest little garden has outdone itself and far outreached our meager expectations of it, we’ve had tomatoes like crazy as well as four good pickings of green beans, enough cucumbers to keep us on our toes and all the salad we could eat in earlier months. It’s been wonderful. We planted three types of tomatoes, one was an early producer with well mannered plants and petite, perfectly shaped fruit and the other two are monster heirloom varieties that sprawled everywhere and literally ate one of their unassuming pepper plant neighbors. They produced frighteningly large, misshapen tomatoes and several green peppers (not really, it only seemed like that because I waded into them the other day and recovered the consumed plant, finding that in spite of its interment with the Amazonian tomatoes, it still managed to pop out a couple of peppers… amazing.)

I feel it only fair to mention that Alex took the lovely, well-behaved ones under his gentle wing in the Spring and tied them up nicely and cared for them, thus creating a lush tomato paradise, while the feral heirlooms were my territory. No tying, no gentle wing, just wild, uninhibited growth. One of us is a real gardener, the other is something of a impatient seed scatterer. It will be fascinating to see what comes of our children….

We didn’t grow any zucchini this year, I was banking on the fact that come August, everyone has zucchini in abundance and I would be able to get some for little or no money. I was right! A friend of ours donated three HUGE zucchini to our harvest cause and I was able to freeze seven quarts of shredded zucchini one morning. There is no room for anything else in our apartment-sized fridge freezer, but by golly – we’ll have zucchini coming out our ears till May.

I’ve made nearly two gallons of fresh garden salsa- all from our own tomatoes and peppers and ruined a huge pot of would-be spaghetti sauce, please don’t ask how – it was tragic and I haven’t really forgiven myself yet. Here me now – I will never, ever, ever, ever, EVER, ever again use identical containers to store salt and sugar. I will not forget to label said containers. I will not automatically assume that I have the right container and continue to add the WRONG thing to my sauce, ending with a salty, inedible MESS. Never. EVER. The End.

It’s been grand and we are so thankful to Alex’s mom for giving us her beautiful garden boxes, to our Landlord for letting us hog his tiny yard, and most of all to our Lord, who sent the rain and sun and gave the increase. Praise God from whom ALL blessing flow… Amen.