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onward

December 31st, 2009 | 17 Comments »

For all the angst that entered my life in 2009, the accidents and stress and overall sense of “What the….?” that occurred, this year that I will happily forget has ended on a pretty high note.

Let me introduce my newest niece Sara.

She made her entrance with one day remaining in 2009, and we have been eagerly awaiting her arrival. She is the tiny little sister of Nina, a well-known face on this blog.

As for all that went before, well….I’m happy to walk away from this past year, to drop a match into the midst of it all and bid it farewell. There have been monumental lessons learned in a gripping and tough-love sort of way; I’ve not been very good at keeping my perspective positive and genial, but in looking back, the one thing that keeps coming forefront to my thoughts is that I survived it all and came out today, December 31st, generally unscathed. And with a deep sense of humility.

These past few months I have done a lot more looking inward. And plenty of gazing through a camera lens. I’ve found so much beauty that I’ve failed to notice before. In 2010, I look forward to enjoying this more. I’m pretty simple in my photo-taking life. There’s my basic point and shoot digital, and I’ve discovered that the iPhone camera, while it does have limitations, can be relied upon to capture some rather dramatic and stunning images. Like this one:

And this one:

And that really, it isn’t about what kind of camera, the amount of money, a lens that is above all others….what it comes down to is that when you lift it to your eye, the world opens up and you click the shutter at just the precise moment to capture life happening around you. This is one of my goals for 2010: Project 365. A photo a day for the entire year. Keep your eyes open for it.

I don’t make resolutions. They’ve always failed me, or maybe I just am a failure at them. This coming year is more about stepping up, being present, lifting my head and accepting grace. I think I may have fretted a bit more in the past year, fought against the tide and been resentful of being in a place that I didn’t feel I deserved. What I didn’t do, and should have, was stop and really examine where I was, and maybe think about the fact that it probably was just what I needed, and yet wasn’t willing to realize. Even in our trials, and through very, very dark times that seemed like they were endless and painful, the most amazing of life’s moments shone right through. And I often refused to even look at them. I spent too much time focused on the darkness and that just can’t happen anymore.

So 2010 has potential- like the seeds of a milkweed. All new beginnings do, and we shouldn’t wait until a new year to make subtle and lasting change happen. Why not November? Or July? And when we resort to being human, and we make mistakes, why not be soft and forgiving to ourselves, get back up and start a new day again, with a fresh perspective? Last November, right around Thanksgiving, I decided that I was tired of being heavy and out of shape. I embarked on a plan that I’ve stuck to the entire last year. I’ve lost 20 pounds and almost three pants sizes. It wasn’t a resolution, but a serious lifestyle change. And during the past year, if I faltered, skipped some workouts or simply felt unmotivated, I allowed myself to be all right with it. And so should you, with whatever personal gain you take on this year. The perspective, and the journey is often far more important than the goal, and I hope you don’t lose sight of that like I did this past year.

“It’s been a long December, and there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last”


Happy Blue Moon New Year’s Eve, everyone. May many blessings, much love and gentle peace be yours in the year ahead.


The time in between years

December 27th, 2009 | 10 Comments »

I’m not sure whether I feel sadness or relief that Christmas is over.


Some years, it’s a combination of both.

This year it seems to be more relief, as I struggled to bring the holiday forefront in my life. I am more eager for this coming New Year’s Day. I’ll be happy to throw out the last calendar page of 2009, thinking this month I might rip it into tiny pieces before fluttering them into the recycle bin, watching the last of a year to forget slip through my fingers. Maybe the metaphorical shredding will empty my heart of the effects of too many trials and ongoing stress. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for that.

Our Christmas celebrations were nice, as they always are. There was plenty of good food and family time. There was lots and lots of snow, Minnesota-style. We even had some rain, which led, of course to ice and then on top of that, more snow. I love how when I look out over a fresh snowfall, I feel giddy again like I did as a kid. It’s nice to feel that sense of wonder still inside me.


The more adventurous of our two cats had enough curiosity to venture onto the front steps, but that was about it. The sound of the snowblowers was a bit too much for him.


The Christmas celebrations had plenty of high points; my son, our little carnivore, got his fill of good meat, a gift in and of itself. We caught up on some much needed sleep and my sister-in-law gave me a beautiful, warm hand-knitted shawl that I am completely uninterested in removing from my shoulders any time soon. We’ll have a new niece or nephew any day now and the anticipation is very high. There is much to be joyful about, and this is no lie. Even in my pensive state I am well aware of the multitude of blessings that surround us.  And I am here now, in the last few days of one year, a year I can’t imagine ever wanting to re-visit again, eagerly full of hope, mystery and the potential of something far better starting in the new year on Friday. I’ve always been in wonder over the fact that you can lay down to sleep on December 31st, and wake up to a whole new stretch of months ahead, a new numbered calendar year, a lineup of days, blank and exciting to make into what you wish. I remember being young, ushering in a brand new year, and unaware that life had the potential to keep kicking you after you’ve tripped and fallen flat. I always thought it should look different, that switch from one year to the next; I expected the new year to dawn bright and shiny, unblemished and superbly fresh, like that moment you step out of the bath. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the ability to place your burdens on the ground, the stroke of midnight imminent, and step over some magical threshold into 2010, closing the door and leaving them behind? Spiritually this is full of possibility. I hope to be able to do just that, the best I can this coming Thursday evening. I think about changes I wish to see in the coming year. I think about stress relief, smiling more, hoping more, praying more. I think about rising up to a better level of personal contentment, stretching my culinary wings, digging deeper, loving more fully, reaching out farther, accepting life more gracefully with less judgment. What’s the next step? The right step? Maybe my best option is simply to keep myself open to immense possibility.

And let’s talk about immense possibility, with regards to this Cornbread Stuffed Poblano Pepper.


I came across this idea while blog surfing one day and had yet another ‘Eureka!’ moment. If I recall correctly, we ate it for dinner that night and I was swirling with the potential of greatness to be found in this simple option. Like the New Year ahead, it’s bright with new promise and endless outcomes. I think about chunks of pork, mixed with green chile sauce and topped with cornbread mix nestled into a dark green pepper, baked to perfection and steaming hot, topped with avocado and a spot of sour cream. I think about chili beans too. Maybe spicy chicken pieces. I like thinking in terms of potential, for both my life in the 12 months coming rapidly my way, and for my food. It makes future endeavors seem much more delicious.

For your Cornbread Stuffed Poblano Peppers:

Buy as many poblano peppers as there are people to serve. Look for firm, unblemished peppers with as much roundness as possible, not the easiest option in a poblano. Heat the oven to 375° and cover a baking sheet with foil. Spray the foil with cooking spray.  Slice the peppers the long way and trim out the core and seeds. Prepare your favorite cornbread recipe, reducing the liquid up to 1/3. A more dense cornbread won’t spill out of the peppers as it bakes. Jazz up the cornbread by adding a chopped jalapeno, or a 4-oz can of diced green chilies, some sharp cheddar cheese, a spoonful of minced chipotle peppers. Be creative with the additions. Spoon some of the cornbread mix into each pepper half, just enough to barely touch the top. Sprinkle extra cheese over the top. Any remaining cornbread can be baked as muffins, or any option you wish. Bake the peppers until the cornbread is cooked, about 18-20 minutes. Serve immediately.

A savory meat or bean layer underneath the cornbread strikes me as a delicious option for these, turning a healthy side dish into a delightful main course meal. Oh, the possibilities……..

Merry Christmas to all….

December 24th, 2009 | 6 Comments »

Every year, with the boxes all around me and the tissue paper pushed back, I gaze at my life in ornaments and baubles and am in awe yet again at the wealth of memory and nostalgia that we place on the accepting branches of our chosen tree.


That gorgeous crocheted Santa, aptly named Lunar Santa, was made by my sister. It’s one of my most favorite ornaments. And I still have a handful or ornaments that my Grandma made for us. Every year when she came for Christmas, she would bring a box of her handmade treasures. They had tags on them, with our names in her perfect script. Several of mine still hold those tags, that memory of her permanently in ink. Some of the items on our tree were made by Griffin’s paternal Great-Grandmother too.

I love this faded and fragile paper Christmas tree, with Griffin’s tiny little face in the center. He made it in Kindergarten and I hope I never forget the look on his face when he brought it home to me. He swelled with pride when we placed it on our tree that year. Next to it, see that even more faded little paper chain? I made that in Kindergarten, thirty years earlier that the date on Griffin’s tree.

The year that Christmas almost wasn’t was when Griffin was three. It was a pretty hard time of my life and the ocean of sorrow that swirled around me left me almost broke and lacking much holiday spirit. A friend of mine refused to let me wallow, and said “You need to celebrate for your son’s sake.” They took me shopping and bought me a few ornaments, a tiny little tree and stand and a few groceries. Among the ornaments was a box of these old-fashioned styled glass baubles in all sorts of shapes and colors.


My family had some ornaments like this when I was very little and they reminded me of a better time of life, a time when we just had no clue as to the difficulties that lay ahead. Now, when I pull out the tin that lovingly holds this collection, not only do I remember some beloved childhood treasures, but I also recall the support and guidance of someone who gave selflessly to me at a critical time of need.

It really isn’t fully festive during our decorating time unless someone grabs the Santa-inspired tree skirt and dances around the house with it around their waist. Usually it’s me. This year it was Griffin and I almost collapsed from the hilarity. But shhhhh….don’t tell him I mentioned that here. He is 15, you know.

And me? I’m way beyond the need to shake the packages under the tree in a vague attempt to identify their contents, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel the urge every year when they start to accumulate.

I hope that your Christmas is full of treasured people, whether it’s family, or the friends that feel like family. I hope there is delicious food, warm genuine smiles. I hope it is peaceful, because I sure know about celebrating Christmas when it’s the last thing you want to do. I hope snow is involved, if the climate allows, and twinkling lights fill your eyes. We’ll be staring at magical Christmas snow in amazing abundance this year. It is a VERY white Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Yes, it's those Sugar Plums

December 20th, 2009 | 14 Comments »

Those Sugar Plums, the ones that dance in the head during the long winter slumber in the most familiar Christmas story that’s likely ever been written. How did I get to be this age, with a teenager and a husband, long gone away from treasured annual reads of that classic story each year, the retelling of Santa’s magical visit, and not have any clue what a real sugar plum entailed? I want to kick myself.

Because, I’ll tell you something, and this is no small truth. Had I known about these delightful, sweet and simple little treats prior to this past week, how easy they are to put together and how eager and surprised everyone looks when you pull out a container and say “These are Sugar Plums. Yes! THOSE Sugar Plums!” I’m telling you, it would be all I need and I’d have been cranking out these nutty fruit-filled, orange-scented orbs the moment the calendar page flipped over to the month of Christmas.


My hope now is that I don’t go so far into overkill that I never want to see a dried apricot again. The delight and flavor and simplicity of these might possibly have that effect on me. Good thing Christmas is just a few days away. It’s a bit embarrassing, really, to be so interested in food of all kinds, the history of it, the stories it can tell and not be aware of this confection. But that’s what we have friends for, isn’t it? To enlighten us? To share the wealth?

And little could be simpler than combining rough-chopped nuts and dried fruit in a food processor along with honey and orange juice and whirring it all into an utterly fragrant crush of flavor. Even the rolling of the mixture was contemplative, as the sun warmed my backside and Miles Davis kept me company with his sultry trumpet. A late afternoon of putting together a Christmas fiction and ballet classic that I know I will love for years to come left me feeling a lot more festive than I have been lately. With the addition of a fragrant tree, dragged through a snowy wood, and boxes filled with a lifetime of memories and nostalgia also added some much-needed holiday spirit to my life. If all I need to do that is a few packages of dried fruit and some bags of nuts, then holidays from now on could become much more simpler. One can only hope, anyway.

Sugar Plums

Recipe from Field Guide to Candy by Anita Chu; Quirk Books, 2009    (and Susan)

2 cups almonds, toasted and roughly chopped
1 cup dried apricots
1 cup pitted dates
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons grated orange zest
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon honey
Unsweetened flaked coconut for rolling

1. Line a baking sheet with parchment or wax paper.

2. Combine almonds, apricots, dates, cinnamon, and zest in a food processor and process into a finely ground mixture.

3. Add orange juice and honey, and combine until the mixture becomes a sticky ball.

4. Pinch off pieces of the mixture and form into 1-inch balls. Roll in coconut. Place on the baking sheet and chill for about 1 hour until firm.

KATE’S NOTES:
I used two cups equivalent of nuts, utilizing pistachios and pecans as well as almonds. It’s my holy trifecta of nutty favorites.  I might have used figs in place of dates, and on another go-round of this recipe, I probably will do just that along with dried cherries. The possibilities are endless for substitutions. Use raisins both black or gold, dried cranberries, currants, pineapple, mango. Other nuts like peanuts, walnuts, brazil nuts. Try it with lemon juice and zest for a different background of flavor.

I also added a teaspoon of ground nutmeg to the mix. Cinnamon and nutmeg are culinary best buds. They really get along so well together that it’s a shame to leave one out when the other is present.

I added a bit more honey and orange juice, as the amount in the recipe didn’t seem to be enough to make the mixture as sticky as it needed to hold together. Adjust it according to your taste preferences.

Embracing winter darkness

December 18th, 2009 | 3 Comments »

This time of year it isn’t unusual to find the long winter shadows start to appear around early afternoon. With the swift approach of the Solstice, the darkness seems almost interminable. But the nice thought is, after Monday, the days grow progressively longer. And Spring will be three months away.

Are you one of those, at least those of us in the grasp of a northern hemisphere Winter, that feel the night descend so hard that the 7:00pm darkness can often feel like midnight? Like we need to be going to bed instead of finishing up the dinner dishes and thinking about how to manage the evening ahead? We’ve been plagued with that quite a bit at our house. And I’m never sure how to get past it except to just roll with the changing light and keep in mind that the tilt of the Earth always brings us back to warmer weather, dripping eaves and bare brown patches that miraculously change into green again. And up until recently, I never considered actually embracing that darkness. It was always about trying to get away from it. Then I read this essay by Jeanette Winterson. And I read it again. It struck a chord in me and suddenly the coming darkness that evening didn’t seem so daunting.

Winterson’s essay is all about the enjoyment of darkness for many things considered normal in our lives. She speaks eloquently of the effect of the night on love, cooking, thinking, creativity and all manner of human purpose. Most of it I’ve never considered at all, especially the cooking aspect, at least not in the way that she explains it.

She talks about how our culture has phased out the night, treating it more like failed daylight than a time of slowness and silence, which she urges us to acknowledge as a correction of the day. I especially loved how she talked about the slim hour of time where the day and night meet, where the darkness slowly envelops the light.

City or country, that sundown hour is strange and exhilarating, as ordinary spatial relations are altered: trees rear up in their own shadows, buildings bulk out, pavements stretch forward, the red wrapper of brake lights turns a road into a lava flow.”

In the wintertime, this twilight, or “blue time”, as a friend of mine has coined, is my absolute favorite moment of the otherwise dark and chill that surrounds it.  It’s perfect for reflection, a cup of tea and the rather soothing way that the shadows turn the snow from white to opal to purple and then finally to the deepest blue-black of a December night.

Sometimes, if we’re lucky enough to lift our eyes to the sky, we can be rewarded with sunsets like this:

Which, to my utmost surprise on this particular evening, not only painted the western horizon in this creative and colorful light, but tossed pastel tinted clouds all over the eastern sky as well….

And the sight of it all nearly gave me whiplash as I spun back and forth trying to catch the prime moments happening on both sides of me. With this kind of beauty ushering in our winter darkness, it almost seems a shame to turn on the lights and chase away the winter night. But that’s what we do. Most of the time anyway. For one night, while the guys were gone, I decided to defy that urge and do what Winterson suggests. Sit among the dark, with a fire and candles, and relax in the moment. I actually looked forward to the hours ahead. But I cheated just a little in terms of light though, loving the twinkling look of this bakers rack that resides in the corner of our kitchen.

Fortified after an intense outing on my cross country skis, I made sure that a simple dinner was on hand. A baked sweet potato and a cabbage salad seemed perfect for a solitary night with a few candles and the fireplace. I wished the evening was temperate enough to be out at the fire pit, enjoying the crackling of a true wood fire. Our gas fireplace as all the ambiance of watching a bunsen burner, but the warmth it puts out left the room cozy and comforting. The cats settled on the sofa with me, the contentment seemingly catchy. The flickering candles had a soothing effect on my thoughts, and I found that I had no urge to push through the hours until I could go to bed. It was a nice surprise to find that I really was enjoying myself. With 2010 bearing down on me, and a less than stellar 2009 fading in the rearview mirror, I welcomed the opportunity to reflect and look forward to starting something new again. I enjoyed my simple meal, and more importantly, my own solitary thoughts. I likely will repeat this in the coming months. Anything to break up the monotony of those long, dark hours. I hope it instills in me a new appreciation of these inevitable winter months.

“Food, fire, walks, dreams, cold, sleep, love, slowness, time, quiet, books, seasons – all these things, which are not really things, but moments of life – take on a different quality at night-time, where the moon reflects the light of the sun, and we have time to reflect what life is to us, knowing that it passes, and that every bit of it, in its change and its difference, is the here and now of what we have. Life is too short to be all daylight. Night is not less; it’s more.”

And it was more, for one night anyway.

Cherry Coconut Granola

December 16th, 2009 | 3 Comments »

I very distinctly remember the first granola type cereal I ever consumed. It was CW Post cereal. Anyone remember that? It been ages since one could buy it, but when it first came on the market and my Mom brought it home, I probably ate the whole box by myself. It was kind of like granola, way sweeter though. And super crunchy. I recall that my teeth often hurt when I finished.

When I was in college, I used to buy bulk granola from the natural foods Co-Op. I loved it as a snack and it transported well in my backpack, or my bike bag so I could always have something to nibble on. Of course, it was never an easy thing to try and sneak in the middle of a class since the enormous crunch of it always gave me away. For whatever reason, as an adult I never ate granola with milk, like a regular cereal. To me it was always snack food. I love it on soft serve ice cream, and especially in yogurt but I rarely eat it for breakfast.

Granola is everywhere now, and the flavor combinations are endless. My local natural foods store has a decadent chocolate and coconut kind that I love and it’s almost impossible for me to go through there without pouring myself a nice bag to take home. I’ve made a lot of granola from scratch too and am always on the lookout for good recipes to try. Mike loves it too. With a container of yogurt and a bag of granola he has great snacking options. Griffin will even mix up a bowl on occasion, and believe me, I love to see that.

Mike loves dried cherries on his yogurt, so a granola that included those was like finding a recipe that was created just for him. This particular one was from the LA Times, and touted as a nice holiday gift to give. Mmmmm, I thought it was just perfect as a token of appreciation for a hard-working spouse.

Cherry Coconut Granola
from The LA Times newspaper

1 c. shredded or shaved unsweetened coconut
4 T. unsalted butter
1/3 c. honey
1 t. vanilla extract
1/2 t. sea salt
3 c. whole rolled oats
1/4 c. sesame seeds
1 c. chopped almonds (I used both almonds and pecans)
3 T. brown sugar
1 c. chopped dried cherries

Heat the oven to 275°. Line a cookie sheet with parchment and spread the coconut on it in a single layer. Toast in the oven for about 5-7 minutes, or until lightly browned. Timing will vary according to how fine the coconut is shredded. Keep your eye on it. Burnt coconut is NOT fun. Remove from the oven and place in a bowl to cool.

Melt the butter in a large pot over low heat. Add the honey, vanilla and salt and stir well. Pour in the oats, sesame seeds and nuts. Stir well to combine. Add the brown sugar and stir gently to combine. Transfer to cookie sheet (whether you leave the parchment on it is up to you. I did initially but ended up taking it off halfway through the baking as it was slipping all over the place)

Toast the granola, stirring every 15-20 minutes until the mixture is golden brown, about an hour. Remove tray and allow to cool slightly. Transfer to a large bowl and add cherries and coconut, stirring well to combine.

KATE’S NOTES:
Be sure to use whole rolled oats for this recipe. The thickness will hold up better and overall, the taste and nutrition of whole rolled oats is superior. When I’ve made granola previously, I have used barley flakes and if you can find those, they make a nice addition to any scratch granola recipe.

Winter light

December 14th, 2009 | 3 Comments »

I almost feel cheated waking up to a fresh snowfall. After all, watching it come down is the best part.

But then again, I finally got to see this.

And making this trail made my day much better.

Well, hello there Winter

December 13th, 2009 | 3 Comments »

It came on as ferociously as promised and effectively shut down a large portion of the state. What a great metaphor, if you choose to see it that way. The Christmas crazies have taken hold and yet, no matter what your plan, be it a holiday party, a shopping trip, weekly youth group meetings or even dinner out, Mother Nature said ‘Not a chance, bud’ and forced us to stay in, stay warm and just sit, quiet and calmly, during what amounts to some of the nuttiest days of the year. The snow swirled around us, the wind howled and we took a small step away from the frantic pre-holiday race. Honestly, should we be forced to do this every year, I wouldn’t be one to complain.

After a few days of relative inactivity, I bundled myself up to take a chilly hike, ever aware of the need to move, to get the blood flowing and to whittle away not only the pesky excess on the body, but the loud and clamoring voices in my head that I often can’t shut off. I also wanted to see the winter landscape, to find the moments of clarity that come from a fresh snowfall when the hushed silence around us is marked only by the squeak of your boots. I needed the cold, and the cardio output. It helped immensely.

Christmas is having a hard time reaching me this year. Not particularly sure why, but given that the last 12 months have been challenging, it would suffice to say that getting festive may be the last thing on my mind. But a part of me wants to drench myself in the spirit, hauling out the decorations in an attempt to impress my mind with the full blown effects of the holiday. There is still plenty to be happy and excited about this season. We are in high anticipation of a new member imminently joining the already large clan on Mike’s side. This Christmas will be more beautiful when sharing it with someone so brand new and perfect, a simple reminder of the true reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place. Fresh promise. New hope. I should be eagerly awaiting the end of December, the turn of a new calendar page, a fresh start to another 12 month saga. I should, really. And I am. But every year is the same; I fight the despicable commercialism of Christmas, the vapid holiday music that is everywhere, and the rush, rush, rush of everyone thinking that somehow there is perfection wrapped in a package, tied up in a bow. One year when I was in college, my cousin took a trip to Europe over Christmas. I remember thinking she was crazy to go away that time of year, but now, looking back, I almost wish I could do just that. Part of me wants to just jump from here to the 31st.

My kitchen repertoire during this quick cold snap turned towards the warm and comfort angle- thick soups, pastas, a delicious meatloaf. It’s a return to the familiar, like the chill wind outside. I don’t complain about cold. It’s inevitable here in Minnesota. Dress warm, keep moving. You’ll be fine. Filling tummies with comfort and warmth is just another step in the process.

This golden and fragrant Spiced Quinoa made it’s way to our table on a dragging Friday, the end of another long week. With the warming spices of cumin and ginger- easily my favorite duo in the kitchen-  the quinoa was rich in flavor, soothing to look at and warm in the belly. It easily took us from busy day to quiet evening, where all I wanted was my couch, my PJ’s and a good movie to engage my mind. It smelled fabulous. And for those frantic days ahead, this could be the easiest and least demading thing you put your energy towards. I spent more time measuring out the spices than doing anything else.

Spiced Quinoa
from the Taste for Life test kitchens

2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1 t. each ground ginger, cumin, coriander and turmeric
1 c. quinoa, rinsed and drained
2 c. boiling water
Fresh cilantro or mint, if desired

In a medium saucepan, warm the oil and brown the spices for several minutes, stirring frequently. Add the quinoa and stir to coat with the spices. Pour in the boiling water, make sure it’s simmering and then reduce the heat to low. Cover the pot and allow to simmer, undisturbed, until the water is fully absorbed and little holes appear on the top of the quinoa. Gently pull back the grain to check for any remaining liquid but do not stir. When all the liquid is absorbed, turn off the heat and allow the pan to sit, covered, for about 10 minutes. Fluff grain with a fork before serving, and top with fresh cilantro or mint if desired. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

KATE’S NOTES:
It’s imperative NOT to stir quinoa when it is cooking. Like rice, it will get mushy if disturbed in the cooking process. One cup of the grain cooks in about 15 minutes or so at a gentle simmer. Quinoa is a perfect alternative to a rice side dish. We topped this option with chopped pepitas (pumpkin seeds). Soy nuts are also good with it, as are chopped almonds or cashews.

Cookies, version 2009

December 10th, 2009 | 9 Comments »

Beyond the sugar, flour and butter of a good cookie, beyond the proper pan, the parchment or silpat on top and the tried and true recipes, even beyond the cookie jar on the counter, rubbed and worn from decades of hands reaching for it, cookies have become infused as a part of me from as far back as I can remember. Thanks to my mom, for certain.

Hey Everyone! You know what time of year it is, right????

Any amount of time in my little obscure corner of the blogging world and you know that my love of baking goes deep. And long. I’ve eaten all manners of cookie; any and all types have passed these cookie-loving lips, of all shapes and sizes and styles and colors and proportions. I’ve had chocolate chip a thousand different ways and oatmeal cookies to swoon over. I’ve had double chocolate rebels and chewy chocolate bites and thumbprints of all manners and madelines that melt in my mouth. I’ve had cakey chocolate drops covered in mocha frosting that nearly made me faint. Gingersnaps both chewy and crisp, macaroons both airy and dense and cheesecake cookies scented with lemon. I’ve had exotic varieties from other lands, sugar cookies of all kinds and shapes, cookies with seeds and nuts and sprinkles and colored sugars and tiny hard candy dots, out of bags, boxes and freezer cases. With one bite I know whether you’ve used butter or not, whether it was built from a recipe or cut from a pre-made log with a brand name on it. I know my cookies. And I think the one item missing from my life, my kitchen and eventually, from my son’s memory is a cookie jar standing on the counter, ready for the next best cookie to fall into it’s fathomless interior. For whatever reason, we don’t have a cookie jar. I love my kitchen, the room where magic occurs and genuine smiles are formed, but my counter does not hold that memorable item.

I’m imbued with the scent of baking cookies, brought on by a lifetime of saturating myself in the process of making them, the rhythmic scooping, the whir of a mixer, the flour covered countertops that result in a hot tray of tiny fragrant orbs that’s sole purpose is to coat and soothe an otherwise hectic life down to a manageable roar. I recall days as a child where the call of the cookie jar would pull me forward, the familiar squawk of the metal lid being pulled off our old worn canister as I eagerly plunged my hand in to bring forth Mom’s comfort and salve. I would indulge until spent, broken and weary from the sugar high but otherwise calmer than when I entered her kitchen, bent on seeking a balm for what ills I had endured. From my cookie coma, I often wished to simply slip to the floor and lay in the sunshine, brushing the crumbs from my face. Likely I just lay my head down on the formica tabletop. If I thought of anything at all, it was when I would feel ready to eat more. My Mom knew that her cookies were our Achilles heel; she knew what each of us liked and didn’t like. She knew how she could draw us to her by simply announcing that she was baking cookies. She just knew. Through chocolate chips and chopped dates and broken nuts and some old worn cookie sheets warped with age and use, she could reach to us across any barriers we tried to put up and give us a piece of her heart. Mom was not so demonstrative with her love, but she made us cookies, and in turn, it gave me the first of many glimpses into the divine dance that occurs when one cooks for someone they love. She taught me to bake cookies and it taught me how to take care of someone’s heart. I make cookies for my family, but what I might be trying to do, at least in spirit, is to awaken in me the memory of her, to keep her alive and beside me, along with grasping a moment where my own child runs to my side, eyes gleaming and smiling wide to take in the cooling rows of cookies. To watch him eagerly reach for a handful, to see him dip into the container that holds them, eyes shut in his delight as he takes a bite is to see pure love.

[[All right, want the mother-lode of Cookies?? More than you can imagine?]]

Christmas comes, and in my life there’s a cookie exchange each year. I always want to offer something new and different, more to stretch my own concept of a cookie than anything else. There are endless variations to be formed through a bowl and a tiny scoop, or sliced from a chilled log. All manner of ingredients can be used. What’s important is the memory and feeling behind pulling out the stand mixer, getting down the ingredients, the smell of the oven and a hot tray of blissful bites on the counter.  This year, just prior to my annual baking frenzy, my tiny cookie scoop was broken and my search for a suitable replacement was futile. These slice and bake cookies saved the day. And opened my eyes. Life’s little surprises, in the shape of a sweet morsel in your fingers, continue to roll forward.

Earl Grey Cookies (bottom left in the photo above)
(courtesy of Shannalee at Food Loves Writing, and everyone’s friend, Martha Stewart)

2 c. AP flour
2 T. finely ground Earl Grey tea (from about 4 teabags. Can be crushed in a baggie with a rolling pin, or in a blender or coffee grinder)
1/2 t. salt
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 c. confectioners sugar
1 T. finely grated orange zest

Whisk flour, tea and salt in a large measuring cup.

Place butter, sugar and orange zest into bowl of a stand mixer. Mix on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrap the bowl occasionally to insure uniformity. Reduce speed to low and blend in flour, only until incorporated.

Divide dough in half and place each piece on parchment paper. Shape into logs and place in fridge until firm, 2-3 hours. Dough can be chilled overnight too, and frozen for up to a month.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350° and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Remove dough from refrigerator and slice into 1/4″ slices. Place on cookie sheets and bake for 13-15 minutes, or until browned at the edges. Cool on sheets on wire racks. Store in airtight containers.

KATE’S NOTES: The Stash tea I used came very finely ground already. I did not have to crush it any further. I strongly recommend a good quality tea for this cookie. Don’t fear the tea leaves in this cookie; the flavor of these is fresh and lovely, chock full of orange essence. The tea is barely noticeable. I am certifiably crazy about this cookie. As soon as the last one was gone, I wanted to make another batch and I better hurry up and do it quickly before I drink up all the delicious tea.

Vanilla Spice Cookies (top right in the photo above)
(from Shannalee again)

1/2 c. butter, softened
1 c. firmly packed brown sugar
1 egg
2 t. vanilla extract
1-3/4 c. AP flour
1/2 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
1/4 t. ground cinnamon
1/4 t. ground cardamom

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat butter at medium speed and gradually add sugar, beating well. Add egg and vanilla and blend. In a separate bowl, combine flour, soda, salt and spices. Add this to the butter mixture on low speed and blend only until incorporated.

Shape the dough into two rolls, about 12 inches long. Wrap in parchment or wax paper and chill until firm, 2-4 hours or overnight.

When ready to bake, heat oven to 350° and line cookie sheets with parchment. Unwrap rolls and slice into 1/4″ slices. Place on cookie sheets and bake for 10-12 minutes. Cool on wire racks and keep in airtight containers.

KATE’S NOTES: I added extra cinnamon and cardamom to these to amp up the spice flavor. They tasted like Chai tea and were just lovely.

Swedish Fruit Cake (Fruktkaka)

December 4th, 2009 | 10 Comments »

No fruitcake jokes. None. This is NOT anyone’s nightmare of a fruitcake, the hefty, dense and vastly feared offering that comes around this time of year. No sir. This is what something labeled ‘Fruit Cake’ should really be.

Of course, with me, if I see anything with figs in it, I’m suddenly propelled to make it. I adore figs. Fresh from the pack and popped in my mouth, crunchy seeds and chewy pulp and I am a very happy girl. Me and figs are tight.

But there was something else about this recipe that touched a distant spot in me, something so long ago that I can’t even begin to place it. This cake, an authentic and traditional Swedish Christmas offering, spoke to me from my past, in a whisper so quiet and unassuming that I barely heard it until the required fruit mixture of raisins, dried apricots and figs was marinating in it’s liquid bath on my counter, and I popped open the lid to stir it around. Has that ever happened to you? A scent stirs in you a touch of something from the dark recess of memory that springs back to life and yet you can’t understand it’s origin. But somehow, you just know you loved it at one point when you were small and trusting, and you’ll love it all over again, as an big grown up adult. We’re built like that, you know. Aroma is so powerful, and your nose can carry you backwards like no other part of your body, leading your mind to a precious but forgotten memory. I love when it happens. That’s why I bake. For the smells.

But it’s also for a plate of this, a moist and densely loaded sliced cake that is buttery, sort of spicy and altogether flavored much like a cascade of tastes that tumble across your mouth as you nibble. The macerated fruit is chewy and tender. A slice jogs that memory and I wish I could place where it started but all I know is I’ve got it now, it’s on a page and I don’t have to be without it again. How wonderful it was to find such a taste that I never even knew I had missed. It tastes a bit like a late afternoon in winter, where the amethyst twilight shares itself with a cup of steaming tea. With lingering aromas of something glorious from the oven, and enchanting like a first snowfall.

It was even enchanting to Harmon.

But then again, we’ve known for a long time that he’s pretty much made out of sugar and spice.

Fruktkaka
From the December 2009 issue of Saveur magazine

4 oz. each dried figs, apricots and raisins- fine chop figs and apricots
1/2 c. dark rum
1 T. orange zest
1-1/2 t. lemon zest
12 T. unsalted butter, softened
1-3/4 c. AP flour
1 t. baking soda
1 c. superfine sugar
4 eggs

Combine figs, apricots, raisins and both fruit zest with rum and stir to combine. Cover and allow to sit at room temperature for up to 4 hours, and as long as overnight. Stir the mixture on occasion.

Heat oven to 350°. Grease the bottom and sides of a standard loaf pan and dust with flour. Tap out excess and set aside.

Whisk flour and baking soda in a measuring cup and set aside. Combine the sugar and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer, and blend on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3-4 minutes. Scrape the bowl a few times to make sure it’s uniform. Add the eggs one at a time and blend thoroughly after each one. Add the fruit, then the flour mixture and blend until fully combined. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the loaf comes out clean. Unmold cake after 15-20 minutes, then cool completely on a wire rack before slicing.

KATE’S NOTES:
I chose to macerate the fruit in apple cider, as opposed to the suggested rum. I’m not a huge fan of rum due to an excess of cheap drinks in college, and I found apple cider to be an appropriate and worthy substitute. Being that I somehow KNEW I was going to love this recipe, I doubled the batch, but the doubled fruit amount was excessive. I did not add it all to the cake or there would have been little ‘cake’ and way too much fruit. The extra fruit compote is perfect on oatmeal, spooned over yogurt or simply enjoyed with a spoon. Warm it up and it becomes even more sublime.