Sunday, August 25, 2013

Urban Farming (and an unexpected guest!)

We live on a standard city-sized lot in our town, about 10,000 feet. It's large by some standards, small by others. When we moved here the swimming pool dominated the landscape so we have had to landscape and garden around it. There is no room to put a traditional vegetable garden so I grow tomatoes and basil in the flower beds, mint grows underneath a tree rose, rosemary in another flower bed. We have a raspberry bush climbing up a trellis. An espaliered-apple tree (6 different varieties of apples grow on it!) grows along our back fence and a pomegranate tree is in our front yard flower bed.  I also have a dwarf lemon and a blood orange tree. I just fit things in wherever I can!

I enjoy our little harvests, watching the fruits and vegetables grow through the season, and turning them into dinners and baked goods. Today I harvested basil (probably the last of the season) and the apples.  I really should've picked the apples sooner as many had fallen or the birds had pecked at them! It's been a busy few weeks for me!

A lot of my basil harvest each year goes to making pesto. It's so easy and so yummy! Just throw some basil in the food processor, add salt, pulse a bit.  Then add parmesan cheese, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil and process until smooth.

I usually freeze the pesto in a muffin-sized silicone pan I have.  Once frozen I store in freezer ziploc bags.  It's easy to grab a "muffin" or two to make pasta, add to a soup, make a sandwich. It's one of my go-to freezer staples.



There are many recipes for pesto, here is the one I use.

Pesto Sauce

2 cups firmly packed fresh basil leaves, well dried after washing
Salt to taste
10 tablespoons fresh grated Parmesan cheese
6 tablespoons pine nuts
4 cloves garlic
1 cup olive oil

In a blender or food processor, combine the basil and salt.  Process until chopped, just a few seconds.  Add the remaining ingredients and process until a smooth, creamy sauce forms.

Next on the agenda was Caramel Apple Coffee Cake.  The recipe came from Southern Living (recipe here.) It was very good but next time I make it I will use a sour cream coffee cake base instead. The cake was a little dry for me plus the sour cream would add more richness. Just my two cents! It would be a great coffee cake for a fall brunch or tea and could easily be made the day before.

The cake has multiple steps but each are easy, don't let the recipe intimidate you.  The caramel and streusel topping can be made ahead of time.

The caramel  has honey in it, which is a little different twist from normal caramel.  It actually went very well with the apples. All the ingredients are combined in a pan, brought to a boil, stirring continuously for two minutes.

The coffee cake consists of a layer of the cake, some caramel, sauteed apples and streusel topping.  Once baked and cooled, it's topped with more caramel.

 My husband is on a two-week bicycle/camping trip in Montana but I had the urge to bake. I took this slice for me then promptly walked around the neighborhood passing out plates of cake!  I have three pieces left for the office tomorrow.
 As I was cleaning up the kitchen I noticed that I had an unexpected guest residing on my butcher block.  I suspect he came in with the apples! Praying mantis are great for the garden so I carefully scooped him up and took him out to a rosh bush.  

Monday, August 19, 2013

Birthday Dessert

For as long as I can remember birthday dinners and dessert choices were always left up to the birthday person. (I have had tacos on my birthday for over 50 years now!) I've followed this tradition with our children. We recently celebrated our daughter's birthday. I didn't have to ask what to make for dessert, it's a given that her all-time favorite dessert is cream puff "cake". It's easy, it's decadent and definitely not low-cal, but birthdays are meant to be celebrated with lots of whipped cream, right!

The base of the cake starts with a basic cream puff dough. Instead of making individual cream puffs the dough is spread in a pan, then topped with layers of the pudding filling and whipped cream. It's much easier than making individual cream puffs! Cream puff dough is not difficult to make. I've observed, however, that the mere mention of cream puffs makes a novice baker shake their head and say that's too complicated. In reality, it's one of the easiest things to make!

To start it's a basic process of combining butter & water and letting come to a boil; stir in flour and stir until the mixture pulls away from the pan.
At this point eggs are added, one at a time, until you get a shiny, sticky dough. This process can be done with a spoon but I find it so much easier to plop the mixture into my mixing bowl and let the mixer do the work!
If regular cream puffs were being made this is the point where the puffs would be piped or spooned onto a baking sheet. In this version the dough is spread in a baking pan, spreading part way up the sides, to make a receptacle for the filling.
Steam forms as the puff bakes, and the strong gluten structure formed by beating the dough stretches to hold the steam. The puff will be golden brown, with a hollow center crisscrossed with soft filaments of dough.   If the middle is too puffy I will often take a small wooden skewer and make a few holes to let some of the steam out.  This flattens out the puff some, making it easier to spread with the filling.
Now fill with the pudding and whipped cream layers and you will have a dessert that is as good as any cream puff and much less labor-intensive!

Cream Puff Cake

1 cup water

½ cup butter

1 cup all-purpose flour

4 eggs

1(8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened

4 cups milk

3 (3.5 ounce) packages instant vanilla pudding mix

1 (12 ounce) container frozen whipped topping, thawed (I used freshly whipped cream, sweetened to taste)

¼ cup chocolate syrup

Preheat oven to 400°.

In a large heavy saucepan, heat butter and water to boiling over medium-high heat.  Add flour and reduce heat to low.  Cook and stir until it forms a ball and pulls away from the pan.  Remove from heat and transfer to a large bowl.  Beat in eggs, one at a time, beating well after each egg.

Spread in bottom and up the sides of an ungreased 9x13-inch pan.  Bake at 400° for 35 minutes.  Cool completely.

To make the filling: In a large bowl, combine cream cheese and milk and beat until smooth.  Add pudding mix and beat until thickened.  Spread over cooled shell.  Top with whipped topping, and drizzle chocolate syrup over the top.

I'm joining in at Inspire Me Tuesday.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Healing the Heart

For the most part I live a very blessed life. Every now and then, however, life can really kick in and slam me in the gut.  The last few weeks have been very hard for my family.  Lots of tears, heartache, anger, bewilderness. Because of that my brain hasn't been fully engaged and I've not been doing the normal things I love to do like being in the kitchen, gardening, sewing (even blogging!).

This weekend my soon-to-be three year old granddaughter helped bring me back around. Her hugs & kisses, her "I wuv you", her laughter, her curiosity, her joy of everything around her filled my heart. She reminds me that even when I think things are as bad as they can be, there is still so much good around me.  It's been said that life is easier if you hear the steps of grandchildren walking beside you. Thank you, Avery, for taking that walk with your Nana.

Whenever I have stressful things going on in my life I find I have to do simple things to keep the stress level to a minimum. These simple things, through the eyes of a toddler, are so joyful.

Watering the sunflowers (they have gotten huge!)...

Blowing bubbles with Harley...

Feeding the birds...

Playing in the dirt...

We made cookies Friday night.  Easy cookies, cookies that kids and adults all like.  Cookies that don't require a lot of kitchen clean up (that's important, too!)

Licking the beater...

Stirring the M&M's in...

M&M's Cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup white sugar
2/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup M&M's (I use the whole bag!)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt.

In the bowl of your electric mixer, beat the butter and sugars until light and fluffy (about 2-3 minutes). Scrape down the sides of the bowl.  Add the egg and egg yolk, beating until well combined.  Beat in the vanilla extract.

Gradually add the flour mixture to the creamed mixture and beat just until incorporated.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Stir in M&M's.

Using an ice cream scoop or two spoons, drop batter onto parchment-lined baking sheets (or spray baking sheets with Pam). Bake the cookies for about 13-15 minutes, or until light golden brown in color and just set around the edges. Remove from the oven and let the cookies cool a few minutes on the baking sheet before transferring them to a wire rack to cool.