From the Herb Garden: Lemon Balm Tea Bread

I love herb gardens: in the clamor of the world, they are oases of peace and tranquility. Warm, intoxicating fragrances float in the air, and often the only sound is the soft hum of bees.

Long ago, I wanted an herb garden, but got waylaid by many other interesting plants. I notice, though, that my garden is turning into an herb garden, after all. St. Fiacre, the patron saint of gardening, presides over golden lemon balm, sage, basil, a pot of rosemary, valerian, oregano, apple mint, lavender, and soft mats of thyme.

Saint Fiacre, the patron saint of gardens

Yesterday, after a turn in the garden, I riffled through my herb file and found a recipe for a pound cake flavored with lemon thyme. I have golden lemon balm, and decided to use that. (There are many lemon herbs, so many that there is a whole book devoted to them.) Lemon basil would also be interesting here.

lemon balm, a bit greener than normal because it is slightly shaded

As it turned out, this little cake is delicious: the creamy, fine-grained cake is showcased by the tart lemon glaze.

Lemon Balm Tea Bread

3 ounces cream cheese softened
3 tablespoons butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
1 tablespoon chopped fresh lemon balm leaves
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
Lemon Glaze (recipe follows)

Grease an 8x4x2″ loaf pan; line with parchment paper, and grease lightly again. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter until smooth and fluffy. Add the sugar, beating well again. Add the egg and beat until smooth.

In a small bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder and salt. Sift into the butter/egg mixture alternately with the milk, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Stir in lemon peel and chopped lemon balm leaves. Spread batter into prepared pan. Bake for 45 minutes. Cool in pan for about 10 minutes. Remove and place on plate.

Make glaze. Mix together 1/2 cup powdered sugar, 1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel and about 2 teaspoons of fresh lemon juice. Drizzle over still warm cake.

Baking notes: This can be made with a spoon–just be sure to thoroughly cream the softened butter and cream cheese. When you add the milk and flour, the batter will be slightly lumpy–this is okay. If you don’t have herbs, the cake will still taste delicious and lemony with only the grated lemon peel.

Below: Lemon balm, cream cheese showing how to cut three ounces off, batter, making the lemon glaze, and a book on lemon herbs.

 

Decorating the tea cake is a type of zinnia called Andes Jewel, from Burpee. They are small but very pretty. The petals are slightly translucent, and have a coppery undertone.

The bird story right now is how much the goldfinches love the sunflowers!

Below: apple mint in flower. Peace to you. Fran

 

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Basil Beer Bread

Plain ol’ beer bread has long been a staple for bakers. Just pour a bottle of beer into a bowl containing three cups of self-rising flour, bake, and out comes a nice loaf of bread.

I had tried beer bread and liked it pretty much, but it was a bit too sweet for my taste. But I recently ran across a recipe for Basil Beer Bread, in a book called “Cooking with Herbs,” by Tolley and Mead. I have tons of basil, and there was beer in the refrigerator, so I had to try it!

Before I headed to the kitchen, though, I did a bit of research, and found that some bakers pour butter on the batter before baking. Then I tried an experimental free-form loaf, sprinkling it with grated Parmesan. Not all experiments are successful, and, in this case, the bread looked like a big blob of nothing. But it tasted wonderful! Then, I realized that I had forgotten to add the sugar. Of such things are recipes made.

The next loaf, I added the Parmesan to the batter, left out the sugar again, and baked the batter in a loaf pan. Well, this is a big, big winner. The bread is buttery and fresh basil-y with a crunchy, buttery crust. It slices beautifully, and makes fabulous toast. Here is the recipe:

Basil Beer Bread

3 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups beer
1/3 to 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
handful of grated Parmesan
1/4 cup (half a stick) butter, melted

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare a 9 x 5″ loaf pan by greasing with shortening. Set aside. Pour the beer into a two-cup measure, and allow the foam to settle. You want 1-1/2 cups beer. Coarsely chop the basil leaves (don’t use the stalks)

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together into a big bowl. Add the grated Parmesan and the chopped basil. Then pour in the beer. It will foam up. Stir until a shaggy moist mass of dough is created, with all flour incorporated. It will only take a minute or two. Scrape the dough into the prepared pan, and smooth down. Pour the melted butter over the dough. Bake for about 35 to 40 minutes or until the top is golden. To check for doneness, upend the loaf into a dishtowel, and check to make sure the bottom is golden, as well. If not, put back into oven for another 5 to 10 minutes. Allow to cool before slicing.

Baking notes: Bottles of beer may be 11.2 to 12 ounces. The 11.2 ounces is exactly 1-1/2 cups beer. So go by the cup measure, not by the ounces. I used about 1/2 cup fresh basil, but I could see using more. I used unbleached flour, but you could use all-purpose.

The picture below shows the dramatic moment when the beer is added to the flour mixture. This is why you need a fairly large bowl!

Below: Basil, the ingredients, the chopped basil, batter with butter poured over, and slices of the bread.

Toasted with melting butter.

My photography assistant. Caught him just in time!Another crop of baby goldfinches has appeared. They have fledged, but still have the crumpled feathers and slightly worried look of the very young. I heard chirping and wing flapping, and took some photos of this little bird, who wants his dad. In the last two photos, the father is feeding him.


Peace to you. Fran

 

 

Cookies with a Kick

As per usual, I was trying to avoid watching the news, so instead riffled through a cookbook called “Sophisticated Entertaining,” by Jeanne Benedict. The sophisticated angle in this book is that every recipe contains booze! And that includes the chocolate chip cookies, which contain two tablespoons of Scotch whisky. I had to try.

So, I found myself last Monday morning in the murky depths of Sav Way liquors, buying a tiny (50 ml) bottle of J&B Scotch. The bottle is so tiny that I think the size is 50 ml, but even with my glasses, I couldn’t quite read much of the label.

As it turns out, the cookies themselves are excellent: buttery and soft with crisp edges and with just the right amount of chocolate chips. The Scotch itself emerges mildly as a faint smoky flavor–very tasty. As you will see, I kicked the recipe up a notch by concocting a Scotch whisky glaze and dipped the cookies in that. Woo hoo! Here is the recipe.

Scotch Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Prairie spurge in a vase

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
2 tablespoons Scotch
2-1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1-1/4 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped coarsely chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Beat the butter and sugars together until smooth and fluffy. Add the eggs and Scotch, and beat until incorporated. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together, and beat into the butter mixture. Stir in the chocolate chips and walnuts.

Drop by heaping tablespoons 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes or until edges are golden brown. Cool, and dip one side of each cookie in the Scotch glaze. The cookies can still be a bit warm–the glaze will melt and become transparent.

Scotch glaze: Mix the remaining Scotch in the bottle (about 2-1/2 tablespoons) with enough water to make about 5 tablespoons liquid. Stir into two cups of powdered sugar. You want a creamy glaze, and may have to add a few teaspoons more water.


Baking notes: You can also use Bourbon, which is an American whiskey. Also, walnuts are expensive, so I used a small bag of chopped walnut halves and pieces, not a whole cup. The Scotch whisky glaze really makes these cookies look special, and I could see these as part of a holiday cookie spread.

Meanwhile, always back to birds. Sometimes our garden looks like an amusement park for goldfinches and the other day I noticed a young goldfinch using a hosta stem as a trampoline. Young goldfinches, by the way, have a very persistent chirp, and flap their wings to get the attention of mom and dad.

two young goldfinches wing flapping
a young bird flies away
Finally Dad gets to eat in peace.

We have some new additions to our bird family. Hummingbirds!

Lastly, a goldfinch with a sunflower has a bit of competition from an incoming finch. Peace to you. Fran

Bird Kerfuffle

Sometimes our garden looks like the Peaceable Kingdom: birds, bunnies, chipmunks, butterflies, and gnats quietly coexist and all is well. But sometimes, bird kerfuffles erupt. Here is the sequence of events from a few evenings ago, all taking place within ten minutes. The cast of characters at the feeder changed from second to second, and things got pretty wild! All’s well that ends well. A few minutes later, there were no birds to be seen.

Here are some blackberry lilies against blooming phlox, and a picture of our cat Puff. Peace to you. Fran

Museum of Ancient Times

Jim and I were recently invited to attend the wedding of my niece, Anne. It may seem ludicrous, but the first question that popped into my mind was, “Should I wear pantyhose?” Way back when, every woman wore pantyhose with her dress or skirt, or she was not dressed. (Click here for four reasons to wear pantyhose.) I hated to feel like an old lady, but habit won out. I dug around into the very bottom of the top drawer of my dresser, and found a pair, unworn for at least ten years. It felt like an archeological dig. And there were no runs in them, which was a miracle!

It made me think about other items and habits that used to be common and which have receded into the past. For instance, hankies. As a kid, I always had a balled up handkerchief in my pocket, and it was every bit as unsanitary as you can imagine. I still have a little pile of hankies in the top drawer of my dresser, and can’t bring myself to throw them away. There even used to be satin-lined trays for storing hankies.

Also, people used to write letters to one another. Here is a nice letter my sister Janet’s mother-in-law sent me along with some cookie recipes I had asked her for. Very few people nowadays take the time to do this.

This brings us to beautiful handwriting, something that has really fallen by the wayside. I think it matters how something is expressed. (Please see “A Story About the Little Word ‘And'” for more on this.)

Speaking of recipes, many women collected recipes from friends and relatives, and kept them in a little recipe box. This belonged to my mother-in-law, Nancy. Each card was a memento from the past.

No one seems to mail postcards anymore, but it used to be that if you were on a vacation, you conscientiously mailed postcards to all near and dear. Here is a postcard I sent to my sister Janet, from Stonehenge, circa 1974.

 

Here is an ancient telephone, from sometime in the 1970s, covered with dust and cat hair. We use it as an upstairs phone, and it’s fine.

Sometimes as I look at photos on someone’s smart phone, whizzing past hundreds of images, I can’t help but wonder if old style photos weren’t better. There were fewer of them, and are precious. Below, two photos of my dad, and me with my grandmother.

Hula hoops. All I can say is that in 1959, hula hoops were big. I was so excited.

Somewhere in the 1960s, a hairstyle called a “flip,” was big. You had to wear rollers, and I can remember sleeping on the rollers, to get the flip. I can also remember using empty orange juice concentrate cans as rollers. It seemed like such a good idea. Also, as straighter hair came in, I remember laying my head on on ironing board (object also eligible for Museum of Ancient Times, come to think of it) and ironing my hair. I was careful to use the “low” setting.

And from the cookbook, “McCall’s No Time to Cook: Meals in Minutes,” comes a recipe for a pineapple cheese ball that is a testimony to the times. Sociologists may disagree, but this particular recipe may have been responsible for the women’s movement. Women all over American, as they measured the bottom circumference of the cheese ball (it had to be 15-1/2 inches), threw down their sliced olives, and went marching.

Somewhere in 1962, I got a letter from my cousin Elizabeth, who lives in Grangemouth Scotland, mentioning a fab group called the Beatles, and it seems like, with the strum of a guitar, everything changed, and with Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, ¬†brought us to the world we live in now. Below, a song that reminds me of the old days. Peace to you. Fran

Summer

All I can say today is: summer. We’re in the thick of it. The basil is glossy and neon green, and I will be dreaming about it in January. The daylilies are in full song, there are dragonflies, bumblebees . . . I’m a bit drunk with it all.

Yesterday Jim and I went for a drive in the country, and stopped by Heritage Prairie Farm, in Elburn. I have written about it previously, and we couldn’t resist a return visit. Attracted by their melodious bleating, we visited with the goats, who looked like they were living in goat heaven, with plenty of green grass to nibble and a great view from their paddock.

We also stopped in the farm store, and purchased goat cheese and a little box of heirloom cherry tomatoes. We got a tip from the store manager on what to make with these treasures.

Then I noticed a coffee making machine, and asked for one cup of coffee–it would be mostly for Jim, and I would have just a sip, as it was getting late in the day. First, we were asked if we wanted it hot or cold. Rarely do we have that choice, and in the spirit of trying something new, I asked for cold. Jim’s eyebrow went up. Did we want honey in the coffee? Honey? The bees were right over our shoulder in a special hive that you could see from inside the store–I didn’t want to offend–certainly not anger them–so said yes. Jim’s other eyebrow went up. Did we want goats milk or regular? Goat’s milk in our coffee? I said yes, and if Jim had had another eyebrow, it would have gone up. Ambling out of the store with our coffee, Jim said, “You first.” Well, it was incredibly delicious. There was the deep roasted, smoky flavor of the coffee, then the faint hint of the honey sweetness, like music heard from a faraway mountain, and then the goat’s milk, which tasted like the creamiest cream ever. How could I have doubted the goats? Soon, we were fighting over it, down to the last ice cube. This coffee has pretty much spoiled me for just regular coffee, and I hope to have it again soon, though certain pleasures are ephemeral, never to be repeated, and this may be one of them.

We went home, and I made the appetizer recommended by the store manager. I speared cubes of the goat cheese with a leaf of fresh basil and a cherry tomato. If the tomato was large, I halved it. I arranged this all on a plate, and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. I am an uncertain drizzler, but did the best I could. This was so good: the creamy goat cheese literally melted in your mouth, then there was the fresh, sharp green flavor of the basil, and then the sweetness of the tomatoes, spangled with droplets of tart, smoky vinegar. What can I say? Very good–another summer pleasure.

Photos below: fresh basil from my garden, and other ingredients. The goat cheese came from Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery, in Champaign, Illinois. I visited their website, and it looks like a wonderful place—you can visit the goats, watch cheese being made, and other delights.

Also in my garden are rafts of Gloriosa daisies. They are close relations of black-eyed Susans, and will self seed year after year. They are not subtle plants, but if you like your plants bold and brassy, here they are. Every spring I look out for their fuzzy leaves, and let them grow. They are easy to start from seed. Also shown, swamp milkweed with a bee.

Can’t resist mentioning our cat Puff. ¬†He is like a big fluffy cloud in cat form!

Meanwhile, continuing drama at the bird feeder. A sparrow is repelled by the house finches, but a young grackle lurks nearby, and pounces.


Peace to you. Fran

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Cool Little Plates for Summer

A few weeks ago Jim and I attended a food fest hosted by the St. Charles History Museum. Local restaurants offered tastes of their specialties, music played, the sun shone, and it was a nice time. My favorite dish was a small plate of nibbles from a St. Charles restaurant called Vintage53, a “rustic-industrial wine bar.”

Arranged beautifully on a small rectangular plate was a slice of really delicious salami, a slab of nutty cheese, a little bowl of seasoned almonds and another little bowl of olives seasoned with fresh rosemary. Topped with a toasted round of good bread, we nibbled these tasty bites along with a glass of chilled white wine. Then we tried their roasted red grape crostini with fresh goat cheese and prairie flower honey. Also good!

It occurred to me that I could live on this type of food all summer, and would never need to go near a stove for months (unless, of course, I wanted to make my own almond and olive nibbles–see below). The small plate of goodies was filling and would be perfect for a cool summer supper. (Though it didn’t stop us from trying Dave’s burnt pork ends, pierogi with sour cream, pasta with vodka sauce, several adorable (small) cupcakes, a cannoli, a chocolate truffle . . . and a vanilla ice cream sundae with caramel sauce. Reader, I looked longingly at the tiramisu, but knew it would kill me.)

So here is my own take on making a “small plate” of goodies for our cool summer enjoyment. By the way, Italians have their “little plates,” (piattini), Russians have zakuski, the Spanish have tapas, and Middle Easterners have meze–all little nibbles to enjoy. Lots to learn about!

First, we’ll prepare some almonds. This recipe comes from “Cicchetti and Other Small Italian Plates to Share,” by Wildsmith & Sforsza. I have adapted it slightly. (The almonds from Vintage53 were seasoned with fresh rosemary, but I really like these smoky almonds, as well.)

Spiced Almonds

1 teaspoon olive oil
1-1/3 cup whole almonds
coarse sea salt
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika

Heat the olive oil in a a small skillet, then add the almonds and roast over medium-high heat for about five minutes. They will brown a bit and emit a roasted smell. Remove the skillet from the heat, and sprinkle with the smoked paprika and generously with the coarse sea salt. Allow to cool.

Note: I used whole, unblanched almonds from Aldi, and they worked perfectly. Smoked paprika is becoming more and more commonly available as cooks discover how versatile it is. It can be found at World Market stores and at spice shops.

Below, ingredients for seasoned almonds, almonds roasting in pan, and stored in a jar.

Rosemary Olives

This is my take on the marinated olives we had, which included huge, glistening black olives. I had kalamata olives on hand, so I used those. First, drain a 6-ounce jar of pitted kalamata olives. Then heat about two tablespoons of olive oil in a small skillet; add the well-drained olives, three cloves of garlic, about one tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary, and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes. Heat the olives in this mixture for about three minutes. Let the olives cool a bit, and then pour them into a storage jar with several shards of fresh lemon peel and two small fronds of fresh rosemary. These can be eaten warm or cool, but the longer the olives sit in the rosemary-infused oil, the better they are.

Note: A grocery store near us has an “olive bar,” with an assortment of seasoned olives. If you don’t want to cook, this could be an option.

Below: ingredients, olives warming in pan, and stored in jar.

Then the fun begins as you assemble your nibbles. Add to the mix: good quality sliced cheeses, salami such as sopressata, marinated fresh mozzarella balls, roasted peppers, and for something sweet, add the most delicious dates you can find (try medjool), dried figs, fresh cherries, sliced peaches . . . and on and on. This just scratches the surface. Check out Piattini: 12 Small Plate Italian Menu Ideas by Vincent Scordo for more ideas.

Then, slice some of the best French or Italian bread you can find–toast or grill it for best flavor. Then, bring out the chilled Prosecco, and feast!

The cheese was a sharp cheddar and went well with the fresh cherries.
Provide little forks, toothpicks and spoons so everyone can grab a bite.

There is always drama in the world of birds, and I caught this kerfuffle with my camera just a few days ago.

All’s well that ends well. Peace to you. Fran