Garden Walk

In the past week, the air has been cool, fresh and moist, and you can almost hear the garden growing. Everything seems to be blossoming at the same time, and I hear the cheeping of baby birds everywhere, though the nests are carefully hidden. So I thought I would take you for a walk through the garden–hope you enjoy. The flowers include celandine poppies, mayapples, jack-in-the-pulpit, dame’s rocket, lunaria, wild columbine, wild geranium, and sweet cicely (the white fluffy flower). And, of course, there’s a chipmunk and a catbird!

Vanilla Bean Sugar Cookies

IMG_3436Making this recipe for Vanilla Bean Sugar Cookies is a sensory joy, not only because they are a delight to the tastebuds, but because the vanilla sugar, which is one of the ingredients, will perfume the whole house. I purchased my vanilla bean at a local spice store, but they can usually be found in the herb and spice section of a grocery store. They seem to vary greatly in price, so you might want to shop around. The cookie is basically a butter cookie perfumed with real vanilla beans and encased in a crackly vanilla sugar crust. The vanilla sugar is made first and allowed to dry. Seeds from a vanilla bean are then scraped into the butter cookie dough for a double vanilla whammy. Yum! Here is the recipe:

Vanilla Bean Sugar Cookies

vanilla bean

vanilla bean

Vanilla Sugar
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cookie
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup butter, softened
1 vanilla bean
1 egg
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

To make the vanilla sugar, combine 1 cup sugar and 1/2  teaspoon vanilla in a small bowl. Spread onto a piece of waxed paper and let stand while you make the cookie dough.

Heat oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine 1 cup sugar and 3/4 cup butter in a large bowl. Beat until light and fluffy. Split the vanilla bean with the tip of a sharp knife, and scrape out the seeds. They are tiny and moist, and will seem like a paste. Add to the butter mixture and beat in. Add egg, and continue beating. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt together, and stir into the butter mixture.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Dip top of each ball into water, then in vanilla sugar. The sugar may have caked up–loosen by mashing with a fork. Place 2 inches apart onto cookie sheet, and bake for about 12 minutes, or until bottom of cookie is golden.

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split bean and seeds

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You can see the tiny vanilla seeds, if you look closely.

The scraped bean can be added to the leftover sugar and used in another recipe.

The scraped bean can be added to the leftover sugar and used in another recipe.

IMG_3441Last week I went to Hausermann’s Orchids and purchased a vanilla orchid. Yes, vanilla plants are orchids. They flower and produce vanilla pods. I have seen (and inhaled) pods from Madagascar and Tahiti–one is more flowery than the other, and one is more spicy, though I can’t remember which is which! I doubt that my plant will produce pods, but it’s fun to have, nevertheless.

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Meanwhile, flowers are popping up everywhere, including the above forget-me-nots. These are escapees in the alley behind my house.

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This is a perennial geranium–Geranium macrorrhizum  (bigroot geranium). Below are the beautiful, jewel-like buds.

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And, lastly, a cute little chickadee, stopping by the feeder. Peace to you. Fran

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A Fig Jam Tart and a Walk Through the Spring Garden

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The recipe du jour is a Fig Jam Tart, made with a sugar cookie crust. The above photo makes it look like an obliging elf left it in the garden for me, among the flowering iberis. Wouldn’t it be fun if there were such pie-making elves? They could strike without warning, and the world would be a better place. At any rate, the inspiration for this came after reading luscious descriptions of Italian fruit tarts in an Italian cookbook. The author mentioned how difficult the crusts were to make, and I hesitated. The phrase “difficult crust” leaves me leery. However, I did come across a recipe for a so-called Blueberry Dessert Pizza, with an easy sugar cookie crust, and after some wrestling and modifications, a Fig Jam Tart emerged. The crust is an all-butter pie crust/sugar cookie crust and is easy. I got the fig jam at Aldi–it was a special item, and they may never have it again, but feel free to use any good quality jam or preserve that appeals to you. If summer were a little farther along, I might feel moved to strew slivers of fresh basil over this tart, figs and basil having an affinity. Here is the recipe.

Fig Jam Tart

2 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup butter, softened
4 to 5 tablespoons cold water
2 tablespoons sugar

fig jam, or jam or your choice
1/4 cup chopped pecans

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Combine flour, 1/4 cup sugar and salt in a bowl. Rub in softened butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Sprinkle on the water (start with 4 TBS), adding more if necessary, and stir until mixture forms dough. Knead lightly and bring together into a ball.

On a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, roll out dough into a 12″ circle, and flute the edges. Sprinkle bottom and edges with 2 tablespoons sugar. Prick dough with a fork. Bake for 12 minutes, or until edges just begin to brown.

Spread jam on partially baked hot crust; sprinkle with chopped pecans. Continue baking for 10 or so more minutes, or until crust is golden brown. If desired, thinly slice some strawberries to decorate. Cut into slices to serve.

Baking note: Be sure to stir the jam so it’s easy to spread. I added a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to spark it up.

This large glass bottle works well as a rolling pin--it stays cool.

This large glass bottle works well as a rolling pin–it stays cool.

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Rolled out crust, just before pricking with a fork.

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After this last winter, which I think was a hard one for everyone, as it was long and cold, and after this last week, which was hard for me and Jim, losing our cat Moose, it was a dreamy pleasure to walk through the garden this morning. Unexpected delights abounded–little irises popping up, festoons of bleeding hearts unfurled for spring, and columbines gleaming in dark corners. If anyone is philosophical about life and death, it’s a gardener, seeing the transiency of life every day. Here is a walk through the spring garden.

A Brownie Cake, and a Catbird Flies Away

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As you may have noticed, I like recipes that are really good, but also really easy. I’ve done enough baking to know that you can make complicated, brow furrowing things that taste good, but finding that recipe combining easy and good is not so easy! So here’s a nice Self-Frosted Brownie Cake. You mix it in one bowl, top it with brown sugar and chocolate chips, and, there you are–a Self-Frosted Brownie Cake. It’s beautifully light textured, and the topping is crunchy. Just be sure to soften your butter well, and I recommend using an electric mixer for this–it will come together in no time.

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Self-Frosted Brownie Cake

IMG_33171-3/4 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup baking cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup semi-sweet mini chips

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Add milk, softened butter, egg and vanilla. Beat at medium speed with an electric mixer, scraping bowl often, until well mixed. Stir in pecans by hand.

Spread batter into a greased 13×9-inch baking pan. Sprinkle with brown sugar and chocolate chips.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely before cutting.

A cat bird appeared this morning and I caught these pictures. Unexpectedly, cat birds are among my favorite birds–even though not bright and colorful, they are sleek and subtle, and I enjoy them.

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I must confess that my heart is heavy today, because our dear cat Moose is very ill. I’m not usually superstitious, but seeing the cat bird fly away made me wonder if it wasn’t a sign–that Moose will be leaving, too. Hope not, but it doesn’t look too good. All things in this world seem to be connected. Please take care. Fran

5/3 I am sad to say that Moose didn’t make it. We will miss him so much. Fran

 

Shoofly Coffee Cake and a Vintage Knitted Potholder

IMG_3271Here’s a cake that’s a kissing cousin to Shoofly Pie, which is so-called because its molasses sweetness apparently attracts flies. Perhaps not all that appetizing to think about! I can assure you, though, it’s too early in the season for any buzzing creatures to hover around this delicious coffee cake. It’s moist with sour cream and molasses and would be perfect for a picnic or potluck dinner, or for lunch boxes, for that matter. Here is the recipe:

Shoofly Coffee Cake

Grape Hyacinths

Grape Hyacinths

3/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 cup molasses
3 cups flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1-1/3 cups sour cream

Filling: Mix 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup finely chopped nuts and 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a Bundt cake pan. Prepare the filling and set aside. Mix together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt, and set aside. Mix softened butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla and molasses in a large mixing bowl. Beat until thoroughly combined–about 300 vigorous strokes by hand. Stir in the flour mixture, alternating with the sour cream. Start and end with the flour, and stop stirring the moment it’s mixed in.

Spread 1/3 of the batter into the Bundt pan, and sprinkle with some of the filling. Repeat two times, ending by sprinkling the top with the filling. Bake until a skewer comes out dry–about 50 to 55 minutes. Cool slightly (about 10 minutes) before upending from pan onto plate. This cake can be refrigerated and kept on hand for up to five days.

Baking notes: As with much baking, starting out with well-softened butter is important. It shouldn’t be melting or separating, but it should be soft enough to mash and then beat with a spoon.  You can also bake this in two 9 x 5 x 3 inch loaf pans.

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I’ve been on a potholder knitting binge, something that as a modern woman, I’m not sure I want to admit to. I should be leaning in! Rather be sitting and knitting potholders, though. This pattern came from an old copy (circa 1951) of Workbasket Magazine. It’s quite mesmerizing, like knitting your way around a mandala, and I am on my third one. Must stop! If you know the garter stitch, and how to slip a stitch, and make a yarn over, you can make this. I used Lily Sugar’n Cream cotton yarn, and two #3 double pointed needles.

Here are the instructions. I am hoping that you can highlight them, and run them off on a printer.

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Here’s the Goldfinch of the Day–I just took his picture this morning. Goldfinches often seem deep in thought, though I’m pretty sure that’s not the case!

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And here are a few more pictures of the grape hyacinths. The white flower is the perennial arabis.

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Namaste. Fran

A Spicy Fruit Salad and a Noble Cardinal

IMG_3226And now for something completely different! Not a cookie! I have made this Spicy Fruit Salad several times, and it’s really delicious–juicy, sweet, hot, and tart–all at the same time. It calls for a mango, and while I can’t say I’m a mango expert, choose a mango that’s a bit soft, like a ripe peach or an avocado. In other words, don’t go by color. A ripe mango may be almost entirely green. I have also found that a slightly underripe mango is ok–it will be firmer, but still tasty. So that’s all I know about mangos! Here is the recipe:

Spicy Fruit Salad

1 cup chopped mango or papaya
8.25 ounce can of crushed pineapple, drained
1/4 cup finely slivered red onion
1/4 cup slivered sweet red pepper
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 to 4 teaspoons finely chopped fresh
jalapeño pepper
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

In a medium mixing bowl, toss together all the ingredients. Cover and chill in the refrigerator for several hours before serving to allow flavors to blend. Taste, and add more lemon juice, if necessary.

Notes: The original recipe called for 1 cup finely chopped fresh pineapple, but this made for a lot of chopping, and the well-drained crushed pineapple works well. I used a device called a mandoline slicer to slice the mango, red onion and red pepper (see below). This salad will still taste fresh and good without the ginger, but it does add a zing. You can make it as hot as you like by adding more jalapeño, or by sprinkling with chili powder.

Below is the mandoline slicer. It does a great job slicing and is easier to clean than a food processor.

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I love the colors in this salad! It’s a pleasure to make.

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I saw a cardinal perched behind our house and took some pictures. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m really seeing until I upload the images to the screen. I think this is an older cardinal who has lived through some winters. His beak is battered, and his crown a bit moth-eaten. Well, we can’t all be young and beautiful, and I admire his nobility and his gentle expression.

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This last picture looks like a cardinal selfie! It can’t be easy holding a selfie stick with a claw!

Jim and I drove across the river and walked through Bennett Park. The grounds were covered with these scilla. It was quite a sight!

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It was a beautiful spring day! Namaste. Fran

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Pansies and a Topsy-Turvy Banana Crunch Cake

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IMG_3147Spring is a sort of delirium, and the last few days have brought roaring winds, including a tornado that flattened a town just fifty miles away, in DeKalb County. Birds have been in a state of twittering excitement and moments of knife-like cold alternate with balmy warmth. I can almost see the single-minded daffodils emerging from the wet earth. I never see Spring as being a sweet and pretty thing, and find it quite unsettling. I am thinking of the people, so nearby, who have lost their homes. The winds, the rains, the tropical warmth, the biting cold–it’s when I become aware of the power of the earth.

Flower-wise, though, Spring makes me think of pansies, and I bought a potful yesterday, just to enjoy their luscious colors. On an even more prosaic note, I had several bananas rapidly turning brown and unusable, and I had a Jiffy Mix for yellow cake, and decided to make the following Topsy-Turvy Banana Crunch Cake. I’ve made this twice, once to see what it was like–as it turned out, moist, fine-grained, utterly luscious–and then the second time to tweak and to photograph. This is the sort of thing that people devour–I found that everyone likes it, even nut haters.

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Topsy-Turvy Banana Crunch Cake

One and a half medium bananas yielded 1/2 cup of mashed bananas.

One and a half medium bananas yielded 1/2 cup of mashed bananas.

1/3 cup uncooked old-fashioned oatmeal
3 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons chopped pecans
1 package (9 ounces) yellow cake mix (Jiffy Mix)
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup mashed banana
1 slightly beaten egg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease an 8-inch square baking pan.

Make topping: Combine oats, brown sugar, flour and cinnamon in a small bowl. Mix in butter with fingertips. Stir in pecans.

Combine cake mix, sour cream, banana and egg in medium bowl. With a big spoon, stir until combined, and then beat vigorously with about 100 strokes of the spoon. Spoon half of batter into prepared pan; sprinkle with half of oat topping. Top with remaining batter and topping.

Bake 25 minutes or until a skewer inserted into center comes out clean. Cool completely before slicing.

Baking notes: The second time I made this, I threw in a handful of semi-sweet mini chips, and I upped the cinnamon from 1/4 teaspoon to 1/2 teaspoon. Otherwise, the recipe as it is, is a keeper, and is so convenient with the Jiffy Mix.

Here are the pansies, front and back.

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Noticed this robin standing on the fence, looking noble as a king.

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Here is puschkinia coming up through the leaves.

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And here is a squirrel, also topsy-turvy. Take care. Fran

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