Bumblebee Heaven

The Autumn Joy sedum in my front yard is in full bloom, and it’s become the headquarters for all the local bumblebees. I started taking pictures, and was kind of amazed, first of all that the bumblebees themselves are so beautiful and furry, but also that the sedum–in most books the most pedestrian of perennials–looked otherworldly. I found myself envying the bees–they may not live long, but there is no good or bad, happy or sad in their world, just the flower they are on, and the flower they are going to. Not a bad way to live.

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Here’s a quick and very easy pickling recipe. It calls for a cuke, and some chopped onion and green pepper. Store it in the fridge, and use it within a day or two.

An Easy Pickle Recipe

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 medium cucumber, thinly sliced
1/4 cup chopped green pepper
1/4 cup chopped sweet (Vidalia) onion

In a medium bowl, stir together vinegar, sugar and salt until dissolved. Add the cucumbers, green pepper and sweet onion. Stir thoroughly to combine, spoon into a container, and store in refrigerator up to 24 hours.

Note: In a simple recipe, the ingredients really matter. In this case, using white wine vinegar and sweet (Vidalia) onions results in a nice balance of flavors–sweet and tart. Using regular vinegar and yellow onions would obliterate the cucumber flavor. Also, you could certainly add sliced hot peppers to spice things up a bit. Also, I added some parsley, or you could add some fronds of dill. The container shown has a 1-1/2 cup capacity, or you could could use a pint jar.

The quilt square shown above with the pickle was one of four I found at an antique store. I love the old-fashioned indigo prints! Not sure what to do with them except to admire. Have a good week. Fran

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An Easy Lemon Cake

IMG_4085I’m not a purist when it comes to baking: whether I bake from scratch or from a mix, baking feels like alchemy. If the baking is fun, quick, and easy, so much the better. Here’s a recipe for “Easy Lemon Cake,” that is made from a mix, but tastes like you spent hours in the kitchen. I was looking for a cake to bake for my sister’s birthday, and found this recipe in a Kraft Food & Family magazine. A moist lemon cake is sandwiched together and topped with instant lemon pudding, and then swathed in a cloud of Cool Whip. Yes, purists will scoff–no, scream–but this is a great cake, and I will definitely make it again.

Easy Lemon Cake

IMG_40891 package (2-layer size) lemon cake mix
2 packages (3.4 oz. each) lemon instant pudding
1-1/2 cups milk
1 tub (8 oz.) Extra Creamy Cook Whip whipped topping, thawed

Prepare and bake cake mix in two 9-inch round layers. Cool.

Beat pudding mixes and milk with a whisk for two minutes, or until thickened. Immediately spread over tops of each cake layer.

Stir the Cool Whip so that it is uniformly smooth. Stack cake layers and frost with Cool Whip. Keep refrigerated until serving.

Baking notes: I used Duncan Hines Signature Lemon Supreme cake mix, and it was very good, like a moist, fine-textured sponge cake.

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Allow to cool completely before frosting.

The lemon custard filling is spread on.

The lemon custard filling is spread on.

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I am often (always!) amazed by birds. Here, a grackle, one of the commonest of common birds shows off his beautiful feathers. Peace to you. Fran

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Wildlife and a Cookie

No lions, or tigers, or bears in my garden, but if I look closely, there are some beautiful butterflies and bees. The yellow flower is wild senna (Senna hebecarpa), and it’s been attracting bumblebees like crazy. It’s fun to watch them collect pollen!

My niece Anne just came back from Greece, and brought me back a jar of Naxian Thyme Honey. It’s from the Greek island of Naxos, and just the thought of the Greek bees humming in the sunshine above a carpet of wild thyme made this honey special. It does have a wonderful thyme flower scent. Being a cookie lover, I immediately looked for a cookie calling for honey, and found “Lemon-Honey Drop Cookies” at a Cooking Light web site. It was a five-star recipe, and I agree–it’s delicious. It’s a cakey, moist cookie glazed with a sugary/tart icing. Their recipe called for fat-free yogurt, but that seems like such a sad thing, so I used sour cream. Also, their recipe called for grated lemon rind in the cookie, and sprinkled on top, which you are welcome to do. My knuckles don’t like grating things, though, so I stuck to the lemon extract in the cookie, and fresh lemon juice in the glaze, and it was plenty lemony. Also, I topped each cookie with a little sprig of thyme to complement the honey.

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Lemon-Honey Drop Cookies

IMG_40501/2 cup sugar
7 tablespoons butter, softened
2 teaspoons grated lemon rind, optional
1/3 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
1 large egg
1-3/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sour cream or plain fat-free yogurt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Beat the butter and sugar together. Add honey, extract and egg; beat until well combined. Mix the flour with the baking powder and salt. Add flour mixture to sugar mixture alternately with the sour cream or non-fat yogurt, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Drop by level tablespoons (I used a 1 tablespoon cookie scoop) 2 inches apart onto parchment lined cookie sheet. Bake for about 12 minutes. Makes 24 cookies.

Glaze: Combine 1 cup powdered sugar with 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from one medium lemon) and 2 tablespoons grated lemon rind (optional). Using a pastry brush, brush thickly over hot cookies. Top with grated lemon rind or a sprig of thyme.

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Top Secret Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe!

IMG_4010While not the worst thing in the world, chocolate chip cookies that emerge from the oven as flat as a pancake can be a bit disappointing. There have been whole magazine and newspaper articles written about the flat chocolate chip cookie problem, though, to me, it’s just the way they are: buttery, delicious and flat. I knew that the flatness was a function of the high butter content–butter melts at a very low temperature, so that the traditional chocolate chip cookie actually melts in the oven before it gets a chance to bake. However, just the other day, I tried a new, different chocolate chip cookie recipe, and they came out plump! Just to make sure, I made them again today, and they still were plump! The recipe has a little bit more flour and sugar than the original formula–just enough to avoid the flatness, but still buttery and luscious. They will make you look like a pro baker, and you can decide whether to share the recipe or not! Here’s the recipe, which comes from an ancient copy of Good Housekeeping Favorite Recipes: Bake It!

Chocolate Chip Cookies

IMG_40181-1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
2-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1-1/2 cups mini chocolate chips
handful of sliced almonds (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees, and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. In a bowl, measure flour, baking soda and salt. In another, larger, bowl thoroughly mix the softened butter with the brown and white sugars, until no butter streaks remain. This can be done by hand. Add the egg and vanilla and beat well, until fluffy. Then add the flour mixture. Add in the chocolate chips and the almonds, if desired.

I used a one tablespoon cookie scoop to scoop out the dough. Bake for about 11 minutes. The bottom of the cookie should be a light golden brown, not dark golden. Makes about 24 cookies.

Baking notes: Butter is very sensitive to warmth, and the second time I made these cookies they were slightly flatter than the first, because my kitchen was warmer! The butter in this recipe should be softened just enough to mix pretty easily, but shouldn’t be very soft, oily or runny. You can use any amount of chocolate chips you want. Long ago, I can remember my mother using half a 6-ounce bag of chips, to economize. Nowadays, though, we like lots of chips!

Also, the original recipe had you put all of the ingredients in one bowl, and beat with an electric beater until combined. I will try this next time!

The large hostas are in full flower now, and I always think their flowers are way underrated.

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Puff is the most photogenic kitty, at least to me, so I can’t resist including a few more photos.

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Lastly, just a  goldfinch! But I love his feathered cloak. Have a good week. Fran

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Finches and the Moon

Friday night’s full moon was a blue moon, and I went out into the garden and captured this shot. Blue moons are the second full moon of a month, and don’t come along that often!

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Meanwhile, back on earth, I was in the garden this morning and could hear some finches, just couldn’t see them–it was like “where’s Waldo?” Finally, I spied them, and got out my camera. One seemed to be photobombing!

Have a good week. Fran

A Cat of Many Moods, and Fromage Facile

Our cat Puff is a cat of many moods, and I  hope you enjoy these pix!

On an entirely different subject, I found the following recipe for “fromage facile” in a new book called One-Hour Cheese by Claudia Lucero. These recipes are fun, quick, and the ingredients are easily available. I had already made a fresh chive cheese, from an African cookbook and really enjoyed the process, so I was happy to run across this book. “Fromage facile,” by the way, means “easy cheese,” and it is that!

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Fromage Facile

IMG_39181 quart (4 cups) whole milk
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt

Pour the milk into a large pot. Then heat the milk to 175 degrees F. An instant read thermometer helps here, but if you don’t have one, heat over low heat for about 15 minutes until the milk steams, but is not quite simmering. Stir every few minutes to prevent sticking. Stir in the buttermilk and the fresh lemon juice. Take the pot off the heat and leave for five minutes. Curds will separate from the yellowish whey.

Have ready a sieve lined with cheesecloth, and pour in the curds and whey. Allow to drain for a few minutes, and stir in the salt. Have ready a small bowl (mine was 5″ across) that is lined with a square of parchment paper (I used an 8″ square). Pack the cheese into the paper-lined bowl. Turn out the cheese onto a plate, and peel off the paper.

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Cheese in sieve, ready to be packed into paper-lined mold.

Cheese packed into paper-line bowl.

Cheese packed into paper-line bowl.

Paper being peeled off.

Paper being peeled off.

Note: This is an easy-going recipe, and I think as long as the milk is very hot and steaming, even if it’s not exactly 175 degrees, the cheese will turn out. Milk simmers at about 180 degrees, so it will be right below a simmer. I used a large cast iron Le Creuset pot. This helps prevent the milk from sticking and burning. The above instructions reflect my own experience of the recipe–for more information, please see Claudia’s book.

Glimpsed in the garden, this cabbage white butterfly on a big leaf aster. Love his eyes! Have a good week. Fran

The Earth vs. Pluto

I know I’m not the only one awestruck by the pictures of Pluto–the sheer scientific achievement of the photos is staggering. New Horizons hurtled around a three billion mile roller derby, was violently flung outwards by the gravitational pull of Jupiter, and then picked its way through the rocky Kuiper Belt. Then, as though it were a walk in the park, it started taking pictures.

It is a scientific achievement–perhaps the greatest of all–but I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice that Pluto is cold, dead and rocky. On a good day, perhaps living on Pluto could be interesting, but on a bad day . . . we would be pining after the little glowing pinprick in the sky, our Sun.

So I hope that after a long look at the icy dwarf planet Pluto, our eyes return to our Earth, and we see it anew. We are living in Eden, and it’s so fragile.