Apple-Cheddar Muffins and Little Sparrows

IMG_1706Somehow it’s muffin weather, and I have already consigned my sandals to the back of the closet (sob). So I was thinking muffins and when Jim brought back a bag of the first new apples of the season, started thinking of apple muffins. I found an interesting recipe for Apple-Cheddar Muffins in a Williams-Sonoma cookbook called Muffins & Quick Breads, and went for it. Oh, joy, they were really nice, with a fine, moist texture, little nubbins of apple and the indefinable, glowing, buttery flavor of the cheddar–you only catch interesting little hints of actual cheese. This muffin instantly won a permanent berth in my baking repertoire–they would be as at home on the Thanksgiving table as in a lunch bag or for a morning snack.

IMG_1684Apple Cheddar Muffins

12 muffins

IMG_17071 large, crisp apple
1-1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup uncooked oatmeal
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup milk
2 eggs
1/4 cup butter, melted
3/4 cup finely grated Cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place paper cupcake liners in pan.

Peel, halve and core the apple. Cut it into 1/8-inch dice; set aside.

In a large bowl, toss together the flour, oatmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside. In a medium bowl whisk together the milk, eggs and melted butter until smooth. Stir in the apple and cheese. Add to the dry ingredients and stir just until blended.

Spoon into the muffin tin, using all the batter in the 12 liners–it won’t overflow when baked. Bake for about 20 minutes; cool in tin for 3 minutes, then remove.

Baking notes: When I chopped up the apple, it came to 1 cup, and that worked. But I don’t think it’s a problem if you have a little more or a little less. Also, I didn’t peel the apple.

The garden is winding down, but I keep seeing interesting little creatures, like this dragonfly. I’m calling him Old Blue Eyes!

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I must have birds on the brain, because this cloud looks like its flying.


The hostas are in bloom . . .


and the sparrows are as sweet as ever.



Here’s a young sparrow. Love him!


and, here is the newest addition to our household–we haven’t decided on his name. Jim opts for Moose (he’s a big cat), but I like Teddy (he’s big and cuddly). So we’ll see which one sticks! We found him at the Anderson Animal Shelter, and it was love at first sight. He had been abandoned, so much of his fur was matted and they had shaved it off–so he looks a bit moth eaten. Also, he doesn’t have all his teeth and is 8 years old. But he’s ours! He’s been busy exploring the house.


Turns out he is a natural food stylist! Here he is adjusting/eating some leaves.


Peace to you. Fran




Cinnamon Toast Cake and Milkweed Pods

IMG_1551I have a stack of old Pillsbury Bake Off recipe books, and really enjoy looking through them, especially from the older contests. (The Bake Off started in 1947.) It’s in the older books that you find family heirlooms and gems, like this recipe for a Cinnamon Toast Cake. The moment I saw the recipe, I knew I had to try it. My Mom made cinnamon toast for us when I was a kid. She toasted bread, slathered it with butter, and sprinkled it with sugar and cinnamon. Then she cut it into fingers. It was a real treat. This recipe is made with a thin layer of cake that is topped with melted butter, sugar and cinnamon. This is comfort food, and I am sending Jim off with it to work or else I will eat too much of it myself! Unlike cinnamon toast, this is best cut and eaten when completely cooled.

Cinnamon Toast Cake

Grease a 15 x 10″ jelly roll pan and lightly flour the bottom. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

IMG_15472 cups flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup raisins, if desired

Sift together the dry ingredients. Blend together the milk, melted butter, and vanilla. Pour into the dry ingredients and mix just until blended. Turn into the prepared pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown.

While the cake is in the oven, melt 1/2 cup butter and combine 1/2 cup sugar with 2 teaspoons cinnamon.

When the cake comes out of the oven (don’t turn the oven off), pour the melted butter all over it, smoothing it with a spoon. It will seem like a lot of butter, but keep pouring. Then sprinkle the cinnamon sugar over all, trying to sprinkle it evenly. Put back into the  oven and bake for 10 more minutes. It will come out golden brown.

Baking notes: When you are spreading the batter in the pan, it will only by about 1/2″ high. Also, the original recipe called for raisins, which I’m not usually crazy about, but I think they would be a plus here. I did add some freshly grated nutmeg to add another flavor note, and it was nice.

I really like this recipe–it’s easy and chances are you’ll have all the ingredients on hand. It would be a nice treat for Christmas morning.


I’m still caught in the surprisingly strong grips of goldfinches, try as I might to be indifferent. They may be a common bird, but they are so sweet! I took these photos an hour ago.



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Fall has appeared here on our doorstep quite suddenly, rattling us with gusts of cold wind. I found these milkweed pods in the act of launching their silky seed parachutes off to the universe.

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Peace to you. Fran



Garden Scenes and an Extra Chocolate-y Muffin

Birds have a mysterious way of suddenly appearing in big, excited flocks at the feeder, or of disappearing altogether. Where are all the goldfinches when they are not nibbling black oil sunflower seeds? I don’t know, because I don’t see them up in the trees. A question for an ornithologist. So when I saw this robin posing on a fence post, I had to take his picture!



I also saw the fellow below, resting. Whether he is a dragonfly or a damselfly, I’m not sure. He swooped out of nowhere and caught a bug in mid-air–here he is resting and digesting. Kind of made me glad that I am large enough not to be of interest to him!



I have a few more photos from Cantigny Gardens. The flowers are coneflowers and it shows how far plant breeders have come with this species. I wrote down ‘Cheyenne Autumn’ in my notes, but I’m afraid I don’t know which is which here. They’re all pretty!

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Finally, we come to the Extra Chocolate-y Muffins! This is a recipe from Muffins A to Z by Marie Simmons. I baked them in parchment tulip cups from the Paperchef, so they not only are extra chocolate-y, but extra cool in presentation. These muffins rise high, so if you don’t like muffins that flop over and spread, these are for you.


Extra Chocolate-y Muffins

IMG_1477Makes 12

2 cups flour
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1/3 cups milk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips, divided

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place paper muffin liners in pan.

In a large bowl, combine flour, cocoa powder, sugar, baking soda and salt. Stir to blend evenly.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the milk, oil, eggs and vanilla until spoon. Add the liquid ingredients and 1/2 cup of the chocolate chips to the dry ingredients and fold just until evenly moistened.

Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups. The batter will come right up to the edge of the paper liner. Sprinkle the muffins evenly with the remaining chocolate chips.

Bake for 18-20 minutes. When you press the top of the muffin, it might seem a bit underdone, but that’s ok. Cool and eat!

Baking notes: The first time I made this recipe, I baked in for the time indicated in the original recipe–22 minutes, and they were dry and I was disappointed. The 18-20 minutes time works much better.


Also, I baked these both with the Special Dark cocoa and regular baking cocoa, and to be honest, couldn’t see a lot of difference. Either way, they are chocolate-y. You can certainly use regular paper liners. If filling the regular paper liners right to the top makes you nervous, make 14 to 15 muffins, instead. They will still be nice and and high. Lastly, these muffins are not super rich, just nice and chocolate with a certain understated quality. So if you are tired of gooey desserts, you will enjoy these. One more thing–I think these would be good with a teaspoon or so of instant espresso coffee mixed in just for a bit more oomph. And (last thing, I promise!) with the quantity of ingredients shown, I haven’t seen these muffins slop over, but am not sure what would happen if you add anything else, such as nuts or more chips–you’ll be on your own!


Naked muffin!

I’ve enjoyed watching the chickadees on our new round feeder. Upside down nibbling seems to work.




Fall is coming, and today is such a beautiful day! Peace to you. Fran


Solomon’s seal


Glorious Zinnias and an Antique Coffee Cake

IMG_0950Zinnias are among my favorite flowers, being colorful and unpretentious, and last Friday when Jim and I took a drive through some nearby country towns, we saw stands of glorious zinnias everywhere. They are often touted as being easy to grow, but I’ve heard enough tales of zinnia woe from fellow gardeners to know that they have their ins and outs. I think what can happen is that sometimes when they are sown in place, the emerging seedlings are eaten by rabbits. Also, they need full sun, and regular water, but not too much. So they do have their demands. Here are some of the zinnias I saw during my recent foray at Cantigny Park, in Winfield.

They create magic at Cantigny! The white zinnia is echoed with the white Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ and then the pink of Celosia ‘Flamingo Feather’ is picked up by the ruby coleus.  You could also pair the white zinnia with annual baby’s breath and choose your own third color.

A white zinnia shown with Euphorbia 'Diamond Frost' and Celosia 'Flamingo Frost'.

A white zinnia shown with Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ and Celosia ‘Flamingo Frost’.

Zinnia ‘Zahara Sunburst’ is bright but pretty at the same time. These low-growing zinnias are easy maintenance and drought resistant.

IMG_0979This is the white version–Zinnia ‘Zahara Starlight Rose’.


I loved these neon zinnias! They are grown here with a white angelonia.


An unnamed multi-colored zinnia.


A cheerful orange zinnia paired unexpectedly with a rich red coleus.


The gomphrena and zinnias make a striking combination. Why does it work? They both have underlying blue tones.

A butterfly enjoying some Verbena bonariensis nectar.


Meanwhile, I continue to riffle through my cookbooks and files–it’s a way of relaxing for me. The other day a yellowed newspaper clipping fell from an old cookbook, and I looked at it curiously. It was a recipe for “Filled Coffee Cake.” Somehow it called to me, challenging me. It didn’t have a pan size, a baking temperature, or a baking time, but I had to try it! Kind of to my surprise, it was absolutely delicious, with a vein of moist brown sugar and butter running through it.  So here is my recipe for an Antique Coffee Cake, which must be at least 60 years old. (I know this because I did a little History Detective work. There was a cartoon on the reverse side of the clipping featuring “Granny Lou and Pap Henty.” This was from a cartoon called “Sunflower Street” that was discontinued in 1950.)


Antique Coffee Cake

Recipe clipping.

Recipe clipping.

2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup milk or cream

Grease an 8″ round cake pan. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Make the filling by mixing one cup brown sugar, one teaspoon cinnamon, 3 tablespoons flour and 4 tablespoons butter. Mix until the butter is completely incorporated. Set aside.

Mix together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Cut up the butter and rub it into the flour mixture with your fingertips until no lumps of butter remain. Add egg and milk and mix to make a soft dough. Scrape half the dough into the prepared pan and pat down. Cover with the brown sugar mixture. Flour your work surface, and scrape out the remaining dough onto it. Knead very briefly, and pat into an 8″ circle. (This only need be approximate.) Flour it very lightly, and fold in half. Place it on top of the brown sugar mixture, and unfold. Pat so it’s even. Place in preheated oven and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until brown.

Second piece!

Second piece!

Note: My only slight change in ingredients would be to add a teaspoon of vanilla to the batter along with the milk and egg. It would round out the flavor nicely. The coffee cake can be served directly from the pan, or, do as follows. Wait until the coffee cake is cooled, and run a knife around it. Place a plate over it, and upend. Immediately place the serving plate over it and upend again, so it’s right side up. This cake comes out from the pan easily. Then, sprinkle it with powdered sugar or drizzle with a powdered sugar icing.

The original recipe suggested also adding 1/4 cup raisins to the filling, along with 1/4 teaspoon grated orange rind. Sounds good! And, I suddenly have another thought–could baking cocoa be added?


Just took this picture of the swamp milkweed going to seed–sending out its little silk parachutes. Peace to you. Fran





Gazpacho Salad and a Goldfinch


Picture from Gourmet Magazine

Picture from Gourmet Magazine

It’s been hot and humid and I found myself thinking more about making a cool salad rather than turning the oven on for cookies. A riffle through my salad file found a Gazpacho Salad recipe in an old Gourmet clipping. The usual gang of summer veggies such as tomatoes, green peppers, onions, and cukes are diced and then layered in a jar. Then a vinaigrette dressing is poured over all.

The downside of this recipe? Chopping the vegetables, though if you use a nice sharp chef’s knife or cleaver it will go quickly, I promise. The upside? Opening up your refrigerator and seeing it there–ready for dinner, cool and delicious. I’ll be giving the recipe as it comes from Gourmet Magazine, and then mention some changes I made, because if ever there was a recipe that can be altered to your needs, this is it. You could add a layer of crisp celery, or some olive salad, fresh basil, use green onions or . . . ?

In the fridge, ready to go.

In the fridge, ready to go.

Gazpacho Salad

In a glass jar arrange alternate layers of 2 cucumbers, peeled and finely diced, 4 tomatoes, seeded and finely diced, 2 green papers, seeded and finely slivered, and 1 onion, finely chopped. Sprinkle the layers with salt and pepper and intersperse the vegetables with 5 or 6 rolled anchovies and 5 or 6 black olives. Then mix 2 cloves of garlic that have been put through a press with a little salt and a pinch of ground cumin seed. Beat in 1/4 cup vinegar and 1/2 cup olive oil, and stir in 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley. Pour the dressing over the salad and chill it for 2 to 3 hours.

Salad notes: I used a 24 ounce jar, which is smaller than what they showed. For the salad I used 2 plum tomatoes (less seeds that way) along with half a cuke, half a green pepper, and half an onion. I did not use the anchovies–I didn’t have any, for one thing, and thought the salad would be fine without them. It is!


I really am not obsessed with goldfinches, but when they are so cute, I can’t resist posting their pictures. So here is a little goldfinch.

IMG_1143 IMG_1145IMG_1152IMG_1150 IMG_1151IMG_1157Lastly, some pictures of a foxglove. These are from my trip to Cantigny Gardens. They are a bit of a luxury in our climate, and I guess that they are raised in their greenhouses. They are biennials, showing just leaves the first year, and then flowering the second year. I can grow perennial foxgloves but they are not as gorgeous!

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Peace to you. Fran


Buttery Coconut Bars and a Garden of Roses

IMG_1341The funny thing about this recipe for Buttery Coconut Bars is that I don’t usually like coconut, at least not as used in many cookies where it lurks in an undistinguished supporting role, and in my least favorite cookie, the coconut washboard. But I was riffling through an old cookbook, called the Country Fair Cookbook: Every Recipe a Blue Ribbon Winner by the editors of Farm Journal. The recipe beckoned, and I  took the plunge. The result was a buttery, moist bar loaded with coconut, and it won me over.

It’s only flaw, in my eyes, is that the bar itself looked shaggy and undistinguished. So I took each bar and rolled it in a bit of sifted powdered sugar, so now they look like chubby little pillows of deliciousness!

Coconut Bar Cookies

1/3 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup sifted flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup flaked coconut
about 1/3 cup powdered sugar

Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla.

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Gradually add to the creamed mixture, mixing well. Stir in coconut. Spread in a greased and floured 8″ square baking pan.

Bake in 350 degree oven for 30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool in pan, and then cut into 16 squares. Roll each in a bowl of powdered sugar, and shake off excess.

Baking notes: I used an unsweetened organic flaked coconut, but you certainly could use the sweetened, shredded variety.


I mentioned a few weeks ago that I had visited Cantigny Gardens, in Wheaton, Illinois. I really enjoyed their old-fashioned rose garden–here are a few photos.


And in the butterfly garden . . . there were butterflies! This butterfly was on an annual asclepias.


This butterfly is on a butterfly bush.

Closer to home, I was sitting out on the patio when I heard a nuthatch, and saw him far up in the horse chestnut tree.

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Lastly, a sparrow, posing for just a moment in its busy life. Peace to you. Fran

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Cinnamon Sugar Plum Tart and a Little Sparrow

IMG_1315I enjoy recipes that are simple but delicious (who doesn’t?!), so when I  ran across a recipe for a five-ingredient German Plum Tart, I decided to give it a try, as plums are in season now. There are several nice things about this recipe: While it looks a bit like a pie, the soft dough is pressed into the pie pan, so there is no rolling out of recalcitrant pie dough. The dough is actually a bit cookie-like; the German call it muerbeteig. And the presence of the egg yolk in the dough keeps it tender even if, like me, you are a bit inexpert in pressing it into the pan. The end result is a melt-in-the mouth pastry with warm, jammy plums. It is delicious!

Cinnamon Sugar Plum Tart


I used plums that were about 3″ across.

1/2 cup softened butter
4 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 egg yolk
3/4 cup flour
5-6 medium-sized plums, quartered

In a small mixing bowl, cream butter and 3 tablespoons sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in egg yolk. Add flour, 1/4 cup at a time, until mixture forms a soft dough. Flour your fingertips and form the dough into a rough ball–place in a 10-inch pie pan. Sprinkle with flour, and press into the bottom and up the sides of the pan.

Take time to arrange the cut-up plums neatly.

Take time to arrange the cut-up plums neatly.

Mix the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar with 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. Arrange the plums, skin side up with the edges overlapping, in crust. Lightly push the plums into the soft dough. Sprinkle with the cinnamon sugar. Bake at 350 degrees  for 35 to 45 minutes or until the crust is golden brown and the fruit is tender. Lightly sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving.

Baking notes: You can use any kind of plum for this, whether red, yellow or purple. If you use the little prune plums, get a dozen and use what you need for the pie, and eat the remaining plums fresh. You could also use nectarines for this. Or fresh apricots. Or . . ?

The dough will start looking golden brown after about 20 minutes, but be sure to let the tart bake until the plums are soft and baked. For me, this was at 35 minutes.


Following are some pictures of a female sparrow who sat obligingly while I took her picture. I say “her,” when I am not expert enough to really know if the bird is a young male or a female. But there is something maternal about her, a sweet gravity, that leads me to think she’s a she.


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Sometimes I wish that more exotic birds would fly into my garden, but when I see this little sparrow, who lives with dignity and spirit in a world unaware of her existence, I am happy to have seen her.  Namaste. Fran