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seeded cracker breads

April 23rd, 2013 | 1 Comment »

I have a rolling pin in my kitchen that I suspect is older than I am. It belonged to my Mom, and when she passed, I wordlessly picked it up, a flood of childhood memories racing through me; winter afternoons in our kitchen, the laminate tabletop covered in flour and pie tins at the ready. My sisters and I, our eyes eager, would watch our Mom as she pressed, turned, rolled and spun that rolling pin over a disc of fragrant pie dough. The pin whizzed as she pushed, a thwack on the counter as it dropped back on the dough, amidst the crackle of wax paper and the gentle song of a heating oven.

 

Come in to my kitchen…

sugar plums…. a christmas revelation

December 6th, 2012 | 2 Comments »

A few years ago, I had a bit of a revelation in the kitchen. I learned about Sugar Plums. Yes! THOSE Sugar Plums… as in ‘visions of sugar plums danced in their head’; the stuff of lore and childhood wonder on Christmas Eve, the giddy anticipation of morning and a stocking stuffed with toys.

I remember the day quite well; it was a blindingly sunny, brilliantly blue-sky day in December, but the air was frigid with cold, the cold that seems like you could break it with one swift punch. Inside the house, as the furnace hummed, the sunshine on my back so warm that I’d shed my sweater, but kept it close at hand for that magical moment when the sun slips low enough to return the chill to the air. I was gathering ingredients together to make these little gems; dried apricots, figs, and dates, almonds, pecans, pistachios…. it was a heavenly spread laying on the countertop in my kitchen. I had a few round, fat oranges for zest and juice, a jar of honey that caught the sunshine just right, reflecting a golden cast. Everything was measured in to the food processor and I pushed a button. In moments, the mix was reduced to a fine mince and when I popped off the cover, the flood of aromas that swept up to my nose sent chills through me. The hair on my arms stood tall. It was fresh, citrus-y and nutty all at once, and rich with some ancient memory loaded in my mind, far too remote to ever recall correctly. I scraped it all in a bowl, and with a small cup of warm water at hand, I began to form them in to balls. Miles Davis blew his sweet notes on the radio, filling the kitchen with melodious sound, the sun gave the room a drowsy feel, Christmas crept ever closer and in my own two hands, a little Christmas miracle occurred.

Once the entire mass was formed, dredged in coconut or powdered sugar and set in the refrigerator, I felt like I’d stepped in to another dimension in time. Years and years of hearing the same Christmas story, thinking of my own childhood Christmas Eve, laying in bed thinking I will never! sleep! due to all the excitement and waking up with a start, shot through with the thrill of Christmas morning, I never even imagined that such a thing existed as a Sugar Plum. Ages before the Internet could bring anything in your head to reality, I just figured it was a treat of bygone days that no one had any clue how to make. If my Mom didn’t know (because you ALL remember when your Mom knew everything) then it couldn’t possibly be real.

But real they are. And that little treat, passed around to wide eyes as Christmas drew nearer that year, brought exclamations of the same; “These are real?” as eager fingers held one for examination. I nodded. “I know!” and with one bite, a burst of sweet fruit and crunchy nut, with the hint of orange juice and I could see the idea settling in everyone who tried them. At some point, ancient in time I imagine the Sugar Plum was likely something else all together, that slipped from our collective understanding, lost forever. But these are a worthy replacement, ready to be placed front and center in your holiday celebrations.

“I wish I’d known about this years ago.” someone said to me then, biting in to the fragrant mass. “I would have added these to our holiday baking every year.”

“Well,” I said to her, ” now you can.”

Sugar Plums

2 cups almonds, toasted and roughly chopped
1 cup dried apricots
1 cup pitted dates
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons grated orange zest
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon honey
Unsweetened flaked coconut or powdered sugar 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 or powdered sugar. Place on the baking sheet and chill for about 1 hour until firm.

Recipe from Field Guide to Candy by Anita Chu; Quirk Books, 2009

 

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. Or you could use other nuts like peanuts, walnuts, brazil nuts. The possibilities are endless for dried fruit substitutions; raisins both black or gold, cranberries, cherries, currants, pineapple, mango. . Try it with lemon juice and zest for a different flavor, or maple syrup in place of the honey. Use cardamom instead of nutmeg and cinnamon.

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.

These improve, and deepen in flavor the longer they sit in the refrigerator. For optimum flavor, make them a week ahead of time.

REMINDER!!
You still have some time to enter my giveaway for a set of Chinet’s Disposable Bakeware.
Go see THIS POST for more details!  

simply sugar cookies

November 26th, 2012 | 4 Comments »

This is one of my ‘tried and true’ recipes; the one to turn to for comfort and understanding that you know will never let you down. Not that I can’t find a million cookie recipes at the touch of my fingers, for cookies that look amazingly thick, decadent, and pillowy, with that perfect blend of crisp edges and soft interiors and I’m certain that they would be delightful and all, but there’s this thing about cookies and my taste for them; I don’t like to stretch myself all that much. I don’t need fancy in a cookie; I crave basic and and elementary. I might sub in a fancy ingredient, like good quality chocolate chunks for a bag of chocolate chips, but there’s a ceiling of cookie indulgence above me and it’s solidly in place. Give me a straightforward cookie, please.

These Sugar Cookies are perfect. They’re quietly uncomplicated, yet worthy in flavor of bringing back memories of a Sugar Cookie I loved as a child. I’ve passed this recipe on to many people and all the feedback I’ve had has been nothing short of glowing. Stellar all on their own, they accept decorative toppings in any form, making them a must for holiday cookie-making. You can scoop the dough or roll it out and use cookie cutters too. It freezes beautifully too, as do the finished cookies themselves.

 

Basic Sugar Cookies

1 c. softened butter, no substitutes (reserve one of the wrappers)
1-1/2 c. white sugar
2 t. pure vanilla extract
1 egg
2-3/4 c. AP flour
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. baking powder

Heat the oven to 375° and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Place about 1/3 of a cup of white sugar on a small plate and set aside.

Cream butter and the 1-1/2 cups of sugar together until very light and fluffy. Add in egg and vanilla extract and blend thoroughly until smooth and creamy. You really can’t overmix at this point. You want a base that is smooth and creamy as it makes the end result stupendous. Stir together flour, baking soda and powder, and with mixer on low, gradually add to butter until fully incorporated and mixture is in large, somewhat dry chunks. It will not be a smooth batter, but granular, like pie crust. The dough should hold together when pressed between your fingertips. If it doesn’t, give it a few more turns with the mixer. Here’s where you don’t want to mix more than necessary. The dough will come together when it bakes.

Using a small scoop (I used a #60 sized) press dough tight into a ball and drop onto cookie sheet. With your butter wrapper, wipe the bottom of a smooth glass, then dip the glass onto the sugar you’ve set aside. Gently press down on the cookie dough, dipping the glass before each one. If any dough falls loose, lightly push the pieces into the sides of the cookie. Bake for 8-10 minutes, reversing trays from front to back, and swapping top to bottom about halfway throughAllow to cool slightly on the sheet, then remove to a cooling rack.

 

KATE’S NOTES: I find that the super fine bakers sugar elevates the texture of these cookies quite a bit. You can mix up white and wheat flour if you wish, the end result will be darker though. I have substituted 1/2 c. of honey for the white sugar and love how tender it makes them.

date and nut oat bars

November 5th, 2012 | 3 Comments »

I’m a total rebel.

It’s November, and everywhere you look is pumpkin. In everything. Or butternut squash. In everything. There’s sweet potatoes lurking over there; an acorn squash holding an adorable filling, perfectly browned edge glinting just so. It’s the season for all things roots and orange.

People are already gearing up for Thanksgiving, too. Decorations for Christmas have come out in certain stores. WHAT!!? Gah.

And here I am, dreaming of gooey dates and a crumbly oat bar.

Sarah at The Yellow House recently wrote a post about her Mother’s recipe box, and a particular recipe memory she was seeking, in the stumbling way that a motherless daughter tries to find answers to the questions that can never be solved. Sarah’s post, even in it’s despair and sadness, triggered something in me because I know all about that bitter walk after your Mother dies, the questions you wish you could ask, the reassurance like an anchor, that a Mother brings. She sought answers about a particular barbecue sauce recipe, and for me, the always unattainable answer I sought from my Mom’s spirit was for a treasured Date Bar recipe.

I’m pretty biased towards these iconic baked goods as they’ve been a favorite ever since I could remember stepping up to a kitchen counter, reaching up to place my hands on the worn edge and leaning hard around my Mom’s arm to see what she was doing. A recipe box open, the mass of dates simmering on the stove, the bowl of oats and sugar standing silently, waiting. The small pan ready. A kitchen warmed by an oven.

But then in a flash, I’m grown up, and my childhood kitchen dissipates. I’m a parent now, too. When my tiny boy reached his own chubby fingers towards that kitchen counter, I pulled up a chair and got him situated. We stirred together. We mixed and measured, my hand over his as his blue eyes watched closely. I gave him a knife and he carefully trimmed vegetables. He pushed his luck against my stern warning that yes, indeed that stovetop is still hot even though the burners are no longer red. I dried those tears and soothed the burns. We soldiered on. Pans of Brownies and chocolate cake came and went. Chocolate chip cookies- of course!- and Oatmeal Raisin, Snickerdoodles and Dark Chocolate Drops; Oatmeal Scotchies and Applesauce Cake, cookies every Christmas. Full bellies and full hearts, him and I.  His interest wavered, waned and often, he was absent as he grew too cool to stand by my side. Then, in some great moment of clarity, he returned to the kitchen again, a young man. Now he cooks his own food. Experiments. Expands. Still, if he said to me ‘Can you please make ______ ?’ I would likely tell him ‘Yes.’ and reach for the flour canister.

Because when I would sidle up next to my Mom as she thumbed through a cookbook, or pulled out her recipe card file for inspiration, often she would turn to me and say ‘Got any requests?’ and in my little girl, eager way, I would say “Please make those Date Bars!” And she would, smiling as she pulled the corner piece out of the pan to hand to me, it’s edges chewy and firm and we’d eat ’til our bellies were full, her and I. Eighteen years after her passing, her words still ring strong in my mind, for her baking was her love language, her moment to tell us how much she adored our faces, upturned and eager towards her as she pulled down worn metal tins of flour and sugar, turned the knob on the stove and sought out the warped, old cookie sheets, the favorite baking pan, drawing the aging cookie tin from the cupboard, the big round one with the roses on the top. I still have her recipe box, and I’ve poured over her it in vain, searching for that Date Bar recipe that she made for me, the one that was always just perfect, but I never found it. I poured pan after pan of warm date puree over an oat crust, trying to replicate the taste, seeking her smile in my memory and the love from a chewy corner piece but every time I bit down, the past wasn’t there. I wanted it to be, so badly. I reach for a container of flour, a sack of sugar,  thinking it will restore the dull ache in me that still echoes after nearly two decades. Sometimes the very act of baking will quiet the roar; other times, those first bites just make it more acute.

Then I find this one, a perfect Date Bar with a crunchy oat crust that browns and crisps in the oven, snapping apart to shower on the plate, crumbs falling in your lap that you happily pick up on moist fingertip, the rich dates cooked to a tender chew, gooey edge and all.

And the taste, smell and memory all come together in a tiny piece of cookie, too undeserving to be saddled with the burden of answering the questions of our past, but when I shut my eyes and bite, it’s all there. She’s all there. It’s swift and sharp, a nick of knife metal, barbed hooks caught against the heart. A moment meshes between child and adult, past and painful present wrapped in one oat crust, me as Mom and then, my Mother, with so many similarities between.

Oat and Nut Date Squares

1 8-oz package chopped dates (or equivalent of fresh)
1/4 c. black raisins
1 c. water
Zest from half an orange
2 t. orange  juice
1/2 c. ground almonds ( sub in walnuts or pecans if desired)
1/2 c. each whole wheat flour and all-purpose flour
1/2 t. sea salt
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground nutmeg
1/8 t. ground cloves
1 c. packed brown sugar
1-1/2 sticks unsalted butter, diced, softened but still fairly cold.
1 c. old fashioned rolled oats

Preheat oven to 350° and spray an 8×8 baking pan with cooking spray. Line with parchment paper so that it hangs over edge of pan, then spray the paper.

In small saucepan, combine dates, raisins and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally until all liquid has been absorbed and fruit is a thick, concentrated paste. This should take about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in orange zest and juice and blend well. Scrape onto a plate and spread to cool.

In the bowl of a food processor, place ground almonds, both flours, salt, soda and spices. Pulse to combine. Add in brown sugar and pulse to blend. Scatter butter over top and pulse until mixture is like coarse uneven meal. There should be lumps of butter in all sizes. Pour this into a large bowl and stir in the oats.

Press 2/3 of the mixture into the prepared pan, pressing down firmly. Spoon cooled date mixture over, spreading it to cover crust completely. Sprinkle remaining oat mixture over the top. Bake until top crust is golden brown and crisp, 30-40 minutes.

Cool bars completely on a rack, still in the pan. Once bars are at room temperature, gently lift them out of the pan using the parchment paper. Slice into 2″ squares to serve. These bars are delicious when chilled. Keep in airtight container or refrigerated.

 

{{adapted from an original recipe, author unknown}}

refrigerator pickles for a memory

August 10th, 2012 | 2 Comments »

Something glorious happened in Minnesota in the last week; that stifling, oppressive heat and humidity finally was swept away and in it’s place is cool, breezy sunshine, temperate nights and audible sighs of relief. A pair of jeans even made an appearance lately.

Now I do realize that August can still be hot and sticky, but I am really crossing my fingers that the worst of it is over. I enjoy my outdoor time, my biking and fresh air and I would really love to get back in to this without taking a bath in my own sweat.

And it is that time of year too, for pickling, for canning, for preserving. I haven’t leapt headfirst in to the preserving craze that a  lot of home cooks are on these days, but this year, faced with an abundance of cucumbers from our garden at the lake, I did tackle making refrigerator pickles and I’m so glad that I did. These pickles pack a punch of memory that I love with each crunchy, sweet-sour bite.

When I was very little and before my parents split, we spent a few summers enjoying a vacation at a resort near Detroit Lakes. It was a perfectly idyllic week for both parents and children, as this resort had all sorts of activities planned out, guaranteed to keep kids happy and occupied, while parents had their own time to sit and relax. Every morning, the staff would gather the kids right after breakfast, and some days, keep us busy until we arrived, breathless, grimy and sunburned back at the dining hall for dinner. Three squares a day were served, and at dinnertime, a relish plate was on every table that held carrot and celery sticks and tiny, sweet-sour pickles that I loved. The vegetables, inevitably, would absorb some of the pickle brine, so everything sort of tasted the same, but I loved nibbling off that plate and had no idea how much I missed that flavor until last Fall when my sister-in-law brought a jar of refrigerator pickles to a family gathering and I lifted one to my mouth for that first, long forgotten crunch.

It was like rapidly falling backwards in time to being 5 years old, reaching across the huge rectangle table in that massive dining hall, with floor to ceiling windows open to the summer breeze and surrounded by the last memories of my family completely intact. That sweet, salt, celery and mustard seed flavor had eluded me for a lifetime and I didn’t even know it until I tasted those pickles. I was flooded with memories, scents and nostalgia. I could smell the lake, our cabin, the cotton sheets we slept on, suntan lotion, the hot dry grass underfoot. I could see that resort in it’s entirety. I could recall the fun and laughter and the sheer exhaustion of falling asleep after a long, busy and exciting day. It was the last memories of perfection in life, before fracture, before pain and shouting and the upheaval of divorce. It was the end of one life and the beginning of another. But now, where life is happy and easy, where the love abounds, the flavor comes full circle. And I’ve made six quarts of these lovely little pickles, and we’re all enjoying them greatly.

There’s very little work involved in making these pickles, outside of stuffing the jars with cucumber slices. Our garden cucumbers from the lake were quite round and large by the time I got hold of them; with smaller cukes, the stuffing becomes much easier. Add in slices of onion and peppers, crushed cloves of garlic, slices of jalapeño for kick. I made my quarts with garlic and love the flavor. One 12-hour period in the refrigerator and you’re done.

 

Refrigerator Pickles

For the Brine:
1 c. white vinegar
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 T. kosher salt
1 t. celery seed
1 t. mustard seed

In a non-reactive pot, bring ingredients for brine to a boil, stirring well to help dissolve the sugar and salt. Place sliced cucumbers and any extra flavor additions in quart jar. Pour brine over, screw down the top and shake gently to distribute. Allow to cool slightly, then place in refrigerator for a minimum of 12 hours. Make sure you’re putting the jars in the refrigerator while they are still fairly warm. You should be able to hold them, but still feel the heat.

Give the jars a good shake the next day to redistribute the brine and slices. This recipe should make enough brine for 1-2 quarts.

 

RECIPE NOTES: I doubled this recipe for my first batch, which made three quarts, easily. The next batch, in which I had 12 huge cucumbers to use, I packed 4 quart jars, made a 5X batch and ended up with quite a bit of brine left.

Be sure you are really packing the jars well. These will shrink considerably while pickling.

For both batches I made, I used a small amount of brown sugar in place of the white. It gives the pickles a bit more deep flavor. It’s not necessary at all, just an option.

 

radishes! radishes! radishes!

July 16th, 2011 | 7 Comments »

People, I’ve madly fallen in love with radishes.

(photo courtesy of Really Natural)  
 

I do remember not particularly liking them as a kid. But then again, I didn’t care for much then anyway, being raised on a typically 1970′s diet, I was your typically picky little thing. Fresh foods weren’t that present in our home so my exposure was lacking and my palate not particularly advanced; it’s no shock I wasn’t at all enamored with the radish’s peppery bite, a sting to the tongue that I found unpleasant. My sister Karen loved them, dragging them through a plate of table salt before popping them in her mouth. Even that typical dressing did nothing to take the edge off the flavor. So for the most part, I’d ignored them.

Then something happened a few years back. On a trip to the Farmers Market, I spied a large bunch of red, white and pink radishes- it was an enormous amount- and was only a dollar. I picked them up, passed a buck to the farmer and placed them in my bag. Once home, I stared at them and thought ‘Great. Now what?’ I ate one, and it was divine. Fresh, snappy, crisp and tart, but not harsh and sour like I recalled. Still, I didn’t leap headfirst into devouring them. I remained rather skeptical. And they languished in my fridge until I was forced to do something, anything, with them.

So I pickled them. On a whim. And went tuckus over teakettle for the crisp little discs, eating them on sandwiches, with my fingers and finally with a fork to grab the last little slices from the dredges of their vinegary brine. And it was soon after that when I first dragged a cold fresh radish through a slab of creamy butter to discover one of the best, and most surprising treats I’ve ever tasted. My eyes were now opened to the radish. Once again. Adulthood is a wonder around every corner, especially when discovering the foods from your childhood that once caused you to turn up your nose are now part of your regular gustatory delight.

So they’ve happily made a comeback; the inexpensive little things can be had sometimes on a 2-fer deal with any farmer willing to move their bounty. I scrub them down and place them in a baggie where they happily keep for days on end, willing that they last that long in my fridge. I eat them for breakfast a lot, sliced thick on good toasted bread with slices of butter, or most recently, this delicious sandwich creation that I’m thoroughly ga-ga over.

A cooked egg, nice and firm is placed a top a bed of greens on nicely toasted bread, and covered with several shredded radishes. The key is to shred the radish directly over the egg. Something about the fresh spray of liquid released makes for a much better flavor. I like spinach with this, but I’ve used spring greens, garden lettuce and romaine as well. This is a summery breakfast, if I’ve ever dreamed of one.

I took my radish love one step further too, recently, when I roasted an entire batch of them.

Roasting radishes takes the sharp flavor away, and replaces it with a mellow soft rendition that is palatable to anyone, even the most avowed radish hater. One would hope, anyway. I could have eaten these like candy, but instead, I caramelized a big pan of vidalia onions and made the two of them into a delicious tart atop a flaky puff pastry crust.

This was a sweet, tender and amazing hand held meal, soft like summer nights, fresh as the season and when topped with just a little Gouda cheese, a bit of savory tang that balanced the vegetables perfectly. Eating a slice of it, on my patio, with a lovely glass of Rosé wine and a perfect summer night surrounding me, I felt a million miles away from my life, but in the simplest way possible. I love how a good meal, with gentle ease can transform an ordinary day into something surreal and dreamy. That’s the magic in a plate of really, really good food.

So…. do you like radishes? What do you like to do with them?

Roasted Radish & Caramelize Onion Tart

Scrub one bunch of radishes well, removing tops and roots. Cut into halves or quarters and toss with a bit of seasoned oil of choice. Roast at 400° until tender. It won’t take too long, maybe 10 minutes.

Slice two Vidalia onions and place in a hot skillet. Cook onions over medium heat, turning frequently, until browned and tender, about 15 minutes. Reduce heat to low, add a few tablespoons of brown sugar (or a drizzle of good honey) a tablespoon of kosher salt and a dash or two of balsamic vinegar. This is my favorite way to caramelize onions, but you may have your own method. Continue cooking the onions for about 20-30 more minutes, or until they are very soft and richly browned. Stir them on occasion, and be careful not to let them burn.

Thaw one sheet of puff pastry. Roll out sheet to desired thickness on parchment paper, then transfer to baking sheet. Poke holes in pastry with a fork and place in 400° oven, baking until lightly browned, about 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven, spread caramelized onion over the crust then top with roasted radish and a small amount of a good sharp aged cheese of your choice. I used Gouda because I had a some on hand. Fontina and Gruyere would be good options too. Place back in oven and bake for about 15 more minutes, until edges of pastry are crisp and brown and toppings are hot. Allow to cool slightly, then serve. Can also be served at room temperature.

 
 

love your Mom…. please

May 7th, 2011 | 9 Comments »

For as many times as I’ve mentioned my Mom on these pages, the way that I channel her memory in my baking and how a simple bite of something she used to make can bring a flood of memory into my heart, I realize that I’ve never really talked much about her beyond her astral presence in my life. My friends, those close to me anyway, may know the snippets of her that I share with them over time, time that includes others who painfully join the Motherless Club, and I thought that for Mothers Day, it might help ease the reoccurring ache in me to just tell you a little bit about this woman.

I’m not going to give you her history. That’s not important. But I can tell you what she did for me in the 30 years of life that I lived with her guiding me. Because this person who gave me life, gave me so much more than just a form that breathes, with a heart that beats inside my chest.

She gave me my laugh, and I wish those of you who have never even met me in person could just once experience this crazy hooting thing that bursts from my mouth when I’m amused. Which is often. Because she gave me my sense of humor too, and I use it a lot, especially when I can let go and laugh myself silly. I love laughing and really, I think we all need to do it a lot more. Get me laughing and the tears pour from my eyes, I double over with teeth bared as I about break the sound barrier. Get me and my brother Mike in a room together, tell a few funny stories and we’ve got people almost covering their ears because we are so darn loud. But this laugh, this crazy howl is a living legacy to my Mom, a testimony that she never held back when the world seemed ridiculous, and she gave us the same ability to throw our heads back and let loose when the feeling was right.

She also gave me my voice. Mom was not one to shrink away from the truth. I remember a story she told of a woman who worked with her that could never tell anyone ‘No’. Mom told this co-worker “If you can’t say ‘No’ to them, then send them to me and I’ll tell them ‘No’. And believe me, having the ability to say ‘No’ is a gift, people. I know plenty of folks who can’t do it. But the other gift is simply being able and willing to lay it down when it’s needed, meaning that when someone asks me for an honest opinion, I always raise an eyebrow to them and say “Are you sure you want that? Because you’re going to get the truth.” And I’m relieved to meet people who honestly want the truth. The world likes to lie to our faces, sugar-coating every detail and making the perfect glossy picture that looks like nirvana, but the truth is nothing like that. The truth is hard. It’s sharp at the edges and sometimes it hurts, but it’s also completely necessary. And along with the ability to be honest and real, I learned from my Mom that you simply don’t sit down and let the world walk all over you. Keep your chin up, say what you want and more importantly, mean what you say.

My Mom showed me perseverance in life. She lived through many tough times, and they took their toll on her, but she fought and clawed and pushed through them and I’m sure she spent many nights in the dark of her room in tears over the situations we faced, but she still rose each morning to do what needed to get done. I thought about that a lot in the 7 years I was a single parent, and had many of my own nights drenched in a cold sweat over what I was facing, but I never thought to back down and give up. Someone depended on me, and needed me and I couldn’t give in to that anxiety and fear. On so many nights I used to just pray for some good to come in my life, and in response I often heard her voice, crystal clear, telling me that everything was going to be all right. It might have been just a figment of memory, but at those times it felt like she was sitting right there in the dark with me, like she’d done so much when I was little, and the comfort it brought me took the edge off the pain. If she could be a single parent with five kids, I surely could manage with one.

In life, my Mom taught me many things, but in death, she’s taught me so much more. The simplest of those truths is the hardest to accept; you just never know how much time you’re going to have with anyone. Whether it’s your Mom, your Dad, your siblings or a friend, you could wake up today and it could be the last day you ever get to see their smile or feel the power of their embrace. You just don’t know when the end will come. The worst part about being motherless is listening to people complain about their parents, listening to other women grouse over the phone calls they get from their Moms, the way they think she’s trying to butt into their lives, the annoyance they have with what comes down to the simple fact that their Mom wants to stay in touch with them. It makes my heart hurt because I would give my right arm for my Mom to interfere in my life, to bug me with a phone call.

This photo was the last time I saw my Mom healthy and well. Griffin was two weeks old and she came to visit, thrilled to pieces over finally being a Grandma and getting to see her grandson. She was so excited about this new adventure in her life, so eager to be ‘that kind of Grandma’. She couldn’t stop holding him, snuggling him, tickling his little arms and legs and giving him her big wide smile. After the weekend visit was over, as her and her husband headed home to Warroad where they lived, she began to feel sick. Within weeks she was hospitalized and no one really knew what was wrong with her. She ended up at the Mayo Clinic, and passed away on August 25, 1994, barely four months later. I hardly even knew what was happening. One day she was there, in my house as excited as could be, then she was gone. Forever. I stood at her funeral, my baby in my arms and I could hardly believe that I had to raise my son without my Mom. Now, nearly 17 years later, I still can’t believe it. It was such a shocking exit that I reeled through life in deep grief for years. And as I watch friends of mine lose their mothers I wish that I could offer some kind of hope in such a sad situation, but the truth is harsh and brutal; you never get over it. You never recover. You move on, you live and you survive but a part of you dies in her, never to return.

If your Mom is still alive, please treasure her. Love her, accept her and be gracious to her. Talk to her as much as you can. Show her your appreciation. Remember everything she did for you, even if it wasn’t perfect. My Mom was not perfect, not by any means and many of my memories are painful, but she did the best she could, as everyone does. There shouldn’t be any room for bitterness, because you just never know how much time you have. Don’t waste it.

rewind, recap

December 29th, 2010 | 6 Comments »

Every year seems to pass a bit more quickly than the last, or seem to anyway. I find myself peering at December’s calendar page often wondering how I got there; it’s not like I didn’t watch a glorious Spring burst into bloom in my yard, and beyond, or scuttle my way through the intensely hot summer, sweating in the kitchen at work and honing muscles I never thought I had. I did get all the freedom available to be able to fully appreciate the amazing and wondrous Autumn that landed in our midst, full of stunning color and temperate days of endless blue skies. I know all those seasons passed me, but still, here I am facing the last few weeks of 2010 and I find myself wondering “Just what did I DO this past year?”

And oh folks, when I think about that, I kind of get chills.

Because last year at this time, when I reflected over 2009, I was nearly in tears. Well, I was in tears. 2009 was hard. Very hard. Maybe you’ve noticed I’m a bit tender-hearted? That I feel my life pretty deeply? 2009 was like a constant rasp on my skin that I couldn’t get away from. I was so eager for another year, for the flip of the calendar page that spoke of new promise, of opportunity and chances to climb out of the darkness that seemed to chase after me in 2009. I wanted life to get better, and it far and away surpassed my expectations. 2010 had copious fanfare, waving flags and plenty of ‘Hip, Hip, Hooray!’ moments.

January

How can you NOT think your year will be amazing when in the very first month your life changes dramatically in one night, your simplest food idea ends up on The Kitchn website and sends 1000′s of hits to your humble little blog and you find the world’s most perfect waffle recipe ever?

I knew after I met up with 40 other bloggers from Minnesota last January that something very fundamental began shifting in my life, but I had no idea the lengths it would go to infiltrate the kind of friendships it has. The women I met that night have changed my life, and I don’t say that lightly. They are amazing. And God sent. And beautiful. And real. A year later and I feel as if we’ve only scratched the surface of where it will go. That in itself is incredible. I can’t wait to see where this leads in the year ahead.

February

The second month brought an increased desire to really stop and look at the world around me each day, as I dove into Project 365 with a photo a day. I was posting on Flickr, then stopped, but the habit has more or less continued and I love scrolling back over my photos, seeing what life was showing me each day. This month was filled with some really simple pleasures like Chocolate Toll House Bars, Pumpkin Pancakes and White Bean Salads. It was also the month that a part of my past went up in flames in South Minneapolis.

It was a month where I began to be less concerned about deviating from food posts on this blog, and started exploring other means of using it to talk about my life.

March

March always starts with my birthday. 2009 was a stellar celebration as I turned 45 with a blow-out party. It was quieter this year. There were Oatmeal Pancakes, a pan of Gingerbread that kept mysteriously disappearing every time I looked at it and the discovery of one of my most favorite simple meals. But it ended in a life-changing halt when my beloved Harmon became so sick that we needed to put him to sleep. His 17 years in my life still grips at my heart sometimes with a sorrow that dissolves me.

But then came

April

We renewed ourselves, I discovered how incredible Boursin cheese could be when blended with Spinach, I started seeking out more memories of my life through baking childhood favorites and Eli came bouncing noisily into our lives spreading love and affection at every turn. I also became gainfully employed again, as the Pantry Chef at a local Yacht Club. It was a palpable relief to our finances.

May

I worked. A lot. I thought it was a lot anyway, but in May I had no clue how hard and how much I was about to work. I managed to enjoy the fruits of Spring with Cardamom Spiked Rhubarb Crisp, and Roasted Apricots in Cardamom Syrup. But little else came from my kitchen, as I was absorbed and enfolded into a job that would push me through the next five months like a tsunami in my life.

June

I managed to blog about strawberries soaked in brown sugar and balsamic vinegar, and share a superbly simple and delicious Fish Taco with you all, not to mention a post about the beauty that was bursting out all over my garden. But that was about it. The job engulfed my life. And me.

July

How was your July? Hot? Fun? Did you take a vacation, go to the beach, explore somewhere new? I managed to make a stellar Pizza Burger, found out how wonderful Guacamole can be when you grill all the items first, and captured high summer in my garden. But that was it for me. July? What July? At least I managed to pick Blueberries.

August

Huh? August? Really? I dealt with a bounty of garden tomatoes and I made Chipotle Lime Roasted Nuts. Someone hold me back from the excitement. I worked and sweated more than I thought was possible. At home, I did little else but drink coffee and do laundry. However, at night when I was done and life quieted down, the summer unfolded some amazing night-time weather to enjoy.

September

The ninth month was like one long deep breath for me. Work slowed down enough for me to be able to look around and really see what kind of life was going on. Griffin started 11th grade, the weather turned and I made Applesauce. The colors began unfolding their glory and soup started simmering on the stove. I reflected heavily on ‘Where I’m From’.

October

Glorious, delirious October. Probably the most stunning Fall season I have ever known. Warm days, cool nights and color splashes everywhere, beyond your craziest imagination. We walked around in a fog of delight, enraptured of the weather. Really, it was all we talked about. And work ended in a wave that was full of bittersweet relief.  I utilized thinking on a different view of life, made Apple Streusel Bars and a Blueberry Coffee Cake out of Rice Krispies. But the month ended with a cracked up car and a messed up skull despite the joy of saving 6 feline lives.

November

It was National Blog Posting Month. I blogged every. single. day. I loved it, but I’ll spare you a recap of it all as I mostly resuscitated recipes from my archives (did you KNOW I have a Recipe Index? It’s up at the top of the page!). There was, however, a stellar Peanut Butter Banana Bread, Sweet Potato Biscuits and Whole Wheat Muffins with Quinoa and Squash. It was a delicious month.

And now, it’s

December

entered a contest and my recipe took 2nd Place. I got paid to write a blog post, my very first paid blogging job, and I created an amazing Curried Squash and Corn Risotto. I also baked another memory, which I am swiftly finding to be my most favorite aspect of writing this blog.

And now, time to move on again into 2011. Again I feel that something big is on the horizon, and there is promise already with this blog, which you will read about as it unfolds after the new year begins. It’s going to be a good start to 2011, and one that I hope will lead to a lot of other opportunities. It’s nice at this point to feel so blessed by the past 12 months. It gives me much more hope for the next 12.

perfect christmas

December 21st, 2010 | 7 Comments »

I have a lot of Christmas photographs, wrapped carefully in paper envelopes, high on a shelf in a box in my closet. It’s pre-digital Christmas, numerous shots of Griffin, and my siblings surrounded by piles of paper wrapped gifts, sporting huge smiles. I don’t pull them out much to look at physically because the images are stored in my head; multiple Christmases full of insane laughter and a wide-eyed little boy opening box after box from his adoring aunts and uncles. The year he was three, his pile of presents towered over him, and he proudly stood next to the stack, his eyes shining in anticipation.

(photo from wallpaper sphere)

It was a lot, those piles of gifts. Too much, and I had to gently tell my siblings not to indulge him so much. They couldn’t help it, and it made for a pretty joyful Christmas, especially in those early years with Griffin and I as there wasn’t always the best of circumstances in our lives. My siblings never let my boy go without, and helped me to give him some delightful Christmas experiences.


(photo from hubpages.com)

It's hard to express what a perfect Christmas entails, and everyone has a different opinion about it. It's about the food, or the goodies served, or the decorations. It's the pile of gaily wrapped gifts, with ribbons and glitter. Or it's the gathering of the clan. Our culture has given us George Bailey's Christmas, with the ringing of the christmas bell as the angel gets it's wings, or Ralphie pining for his Red Ryder BB gun. It's also given us Linus, eloquently stating the true meaning of Christmas on a dimly lit stage as his friends watch and listen. But in many ways too, far more than I wish to understand, our culture has forced a sense of commercialized perfectionism on a holiday where the true meaning of why it's celebrated has been painfully lost.

(photo from viewpoints)

It's lean for us this year, far leaner than we expected as we had to replace our furnace last Friday. But we're not a big blowout kind of Christmas family anyway. We're really simple, and most of our gifts, in all honesty, were purchased all together last week. Griffin needed basketball shoes, and asked for a new basketball. I wanted a better computer bag and Mike needed a few items as well and so we just bought them together, making sure we got what we needed. There will be a few wrapped gifts under the tree, but we reflect and focus on the meaning of the season far more than the gifts. We count our blessings amidst the dwindling numbers in our pocketbook. We know..... really, it could be far worse. I've been there. I've been face to face with poverty and want; struggling to feed a little boy and myself, shrinking to the tiniest I've ever been because I wasn't eating enough. I've laid awake at night, listening to the little boy sleeping peacefully, and shook in fear over the speedy onset of Christmas, and being so poor that I couldn't even consider what gifts I could wrap for him. And twice in my life, for two consecutive years, the spirit of Christmas, the generosity that pours out of others spilled into my life like a flood and gave me reason to celebrate when the effort of putting one foot in front of the other was about all I could do each day.
(photo clipart from christmasgifts.com)
In 1996, Griffin was two and Christmas was approaching and I was working a minimum wage job that barely kept us floating. It was really an awful time for me, but my boss became my first Christmas angel when she delivered a box at work for me from her teacher husband's high school class. They'd gathered items to give to charity, and as her story went, they had more than they needed so she asked to bring the excess to me. I don't recall how many years passed before I realized that I was part of that charity, but the box I brought home held enough items for me to be able to give my boy a wide array of presents on Christmas Day and I recall weeping with relief as I removed toy after toy from that carton, along with some very nice items for me. Every Christmas, I think of her generosity and grace, of how she lifted me up without my even knowing. We just recently reconnected on Facebook and I plan to thank her again for being the angel she was that year.

(photo from majorly cool things)

The following year I had a similar experience, and I recounted it in this post about my most favorite Christmas ornaments. Again, a friend stepped up and gave of themselves to help lift my spirits and make a better celebration for my little guy. It was the last year that I struggled against the tide that was trying to push me over the edge, and the remaining years of Griffin’s young life were much more hopeful.


(more from majorly cool things)

It isn’t about the number of packages under your tree, as the Grinch clearly found out. The Who’s down in Whoville knew exactly what it meant, each dawn of December 25th. We’ve faced some pretty mean challenges from life in the past few years but each time we feel like we’re teetering on a cliff about to slip off, something happens and the ground stabilizes. We’re blessed. And we know it. It’s hard to see among the trials we face each day, but when we awake this Saturday, we know in our hearts what really matters. We’ll sit by our lush Balsam pine, thick with ancient memories and stories, with glittery ribbon tinsel and sparkling tiny lights and we’ll smile and enjoy each other and the safety and warmth of our home. We’ll celebrate with family, laugh and drink and eat and laugh some more. The gift is here, right now, with us. It won’t be found in a box, no matter how beautifully it’s wrapped, or a meal that’s carefully thought out and prepared, or even in a plate of cookies.

The perfect Christmas is here, in the heart, with us all the time.

Merry Christmas to all,

and to all, a good night!

(photo from teal town)

seeking a memory

December 16th, 2010 | 7 Comments »

Baking has always been about connections for me, most importantly, to my Mom. I treasure many of the delicious recipes that defined my childhood and love seeing some of those old favorites show up in the multiple blogs I follow. Cookies like Chocolate Crackles, a moist fudgey cake-like cookie with a powdered sugar coating,

{photo courtesy of Food Librarian}

and Nainamo Bars, or as we grew up with, Three Layer Bars, a superbly decadent blend of nuts, chocolate, coconut and vanilla pudding, carefully constructed into a glamorous tower that delights not only the eye but the tastebuds as well.

{photo courtesy of small home, big start}

These treats played a significant role in our lives, and it’s been such a joy to re-create these for family gatherings and be able to see my siblings once again appreciate some of the tastes of our past.

I personally have been searching for yet another taste of childhood, one that’s eluded me up until now- the taste of my Mom’s Date Bars. She made these especially for me, and for my sister Karen. We both loved the chewy date filling and crunchy oat topping. I was known to seek out the treasured edge pieces where the dates caramelized in the baking process, becoming firm and chewy, like date jerky if you will. I loved how it kind of stuck in my teeth, a sugary toffee feel in my mouth and I loved the anticipation of how the topping would crumble as I bit into it, catching the errant bits in my hand as they fell.

My Mom’s recipe box sits in my cupboard, but no matter how many times I combed through it, I never found that particular recipe, the only one over the years that’s been outside my grasp. I’ve tried several other versions that have passed my eyes and not one has even been close. It was probably one of those recipes that came on a carton of oatmeal, that she made a few times and somehow lost it in a move, or quite possibly, it was something she’d memorized, a small part of my growing up that went dark when she passed away. I could make her Peanut Butter Fingers, and the Coffee Toffee Bars that we loved; I could make the Sour Cream Drop cookies with the mocha frosting and pan after pan of Oatmeal Scotchies, even a batch of her famous Banana Bread but I could never find a recipe that brought back those Date Bars. I scanned dozens of them, and each one was cast aside, as I knew just looking at it that it would never be what I expected.

Then I happened upon a recipe that sounded like the siren call bringing me back to that sunny kitchen, my Mom’s smiling face and those chewy caramelized edges of a bar that was just perfect.

And years of wishing for one thing, one perfect treat from a time when I was small enough to lean an arm on the kitchen counter and be soothed by a crunchy and chewy bar made just for me, well that all fell away as I lifted the parchment sheet holding the thick mass out of the pan in my own sunny kitchen. The smell of these fragrant date bars made its way to my nose and the memory caught in my throat, threatening to send the tear ducts into overdrive. Smell and taste are so powerful in us, so driving us to seek those parts of our lives that have faded, sometimes too far for us to even recognize any longer. But this one had stayed, regardless of how long it had been, how far back I had to go to retrieve it, one whiff of this recipe and I was a tiny girl again, watching my Mom, with the scent of cooked dates in my head and the anticipation of that first bite, the shards of crunchy oats falling to my open palm, and her smile warm in my eyes.

And I happily welcome back this treasured memory. I’ve been patiently waiting for it to return and now it will have a permanent spot in my kitchen.

Oat and Nut Date Squares
adapted from an original recipe, author unknown.

1 8-oz package chopped dates (or equivalent of fresh)
1/4 c. black raisins
1 c. water
Zest from half a clementine (you can use orange zest, but measure 2 teaspoons for equivalent)
1-2 t. clementine juice  (use 1 t. fresh orange juice)

1/2 c. ground almonds ( sub in walnuts or pecans if desired)
1/2 c. each whole wheat flour and all-purpose flour
1/2 t. table salt
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground nutmeg
1/8 t. ground cloves
1 c. packed brown sugar
1-1/2 sticks unsalted butter, diced, softened but still fairly cold.
1 c. old fashioned rolled oats

Preheat oven to 350° and spray an 8×8 baking pan with cooking spray. Line with parchment paper so that it hangs over edge of pan.

In small saucepan, combine dates, raisins and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally until all liquid has been absorbed and fruit is a thick, concentrated paste. This should take about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in clementine zest and juice and blend well. Scrape onto a plate and spread to cool.

In the bowl of a food processor, place ground almonds, both flours, salt, soda and spices. Pulse to combine. Add in brown sugar and pulse to blend. Scatter butter over top and pulse until mixture is like coarse uneven meal. There should be lumps of butter in all sizes. Pour this into a large bowl and stir in the oats.

Press 2/3 of the mixture into the prepared pan, pressing down firmly. Spoon cooled date mixture over, spreading it to cover crust completely. Sprinkle remaining oat mixture over the top. Bake until top crust is golden brown and crisp, 30-40 minutes.

Cool bars completely on a rack, still in the pan. Once bars are at room temperature, gently lift them out of the pan using the parchment paper. Slice into 2″ squares to serve. These bars are delicious when chilled. Keep in airtight container or refrigerated.