Toasty Oatcakes

It’s a cold, rainy, dreary day, just perfect for making Scottish oatcakes! I’d been rearranging my cookbooks the other day (a mindlessly pleasant activity), when I ran across my Scottish recipe file. Scots are not known for their cooking, but they are world famous for their baking. Buttery shortbread, crusty breakfast rolls called baps, and toasty oatcakes are just a few of their specialties.

I say “their,”  but both of my parents were born in Scotland, and I feel Scottish to my core. We ate oatmeal for breakfast every morning when I was a kid, and oatmeal is my ultimate comfort food. Nothing better than a big bowl of porridge topped with cream!

So I picked up a bag of Bob’s Red Mill Scottish Oatmeal, and, using the recipe on the package, baked some oatcakes. They are delicious! They are crispy, and taste of toasted oats and roasted butter. They are not cookies! They are vehicles for butter, for jam, for cheese and I’ve heard they go well with a wee drap of whisky! Here is the recipe:

Scottish Oatcakes

1-1/3 cups Bob’s Red Mill Scottish Oatmeal
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup melted butter
1/3 cup hot water

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Mix the oatmeal, flour, sugar, salt and baking powder together in a large bowl; stir together. Add the melted butter and stir until evenly distributed. You may want to use the tips of your fingers to help work the butter in. Add the hot water, and stir with a large spoon. Knead a bit to bring the dough together (it’s not sticky), and pat into a ball. Sprinkle your work surface with two tablespoons oats. Roll the dough out  1/4-inch thick. Cut into circles with a 2-3″ round cutter. Scraps can be re-rolled. Place on the prepared baking sheet–they will not spread, so they can be placed close together. Bake for 25 minutes. Let cool on a rack. Makes 12 (depending on size of cutter).

Baking notes: Be sure to use Scottish oats. So-called “steel cut” oats are not ground finely enough for making oatcakes, and can be hard as little bullets unless thoroughly cooked. Also, rolled oats are not the right texture. The recipe said to “bake until golden,” but although they will color slightly, they are actually an oatmealy, tweedy light brown, and that’s fine.

A Scottish piper and the ingredients.
The dry ingredients, showing the fine texture of the Scottish oats (left side of bowl).
Dough ready to roll out.
Dough being cut out with 2-3/4″ round cutter.
Ready for oven.
Delicious with a cup of tea. The flower is my approximation of the bluebells of Scotland!
Packed away and ready for snacks.

Birds

I didn’t see any birds for much of last week, and wondered why. Then I saw this guy (a Cooper’s hawk) at the birdbath. Turns out he’d been patrolling the neighborhood for days.

He seems to be gone now, and the bluejays, the cardinals and the robins have returned

There’s a cardinal in here somewhere.
A magnificent bluejay–their numbers are recovering from West Nile disease.
Shaking off his feathers after a bath.
A robin’s turn.

Peace to you. Fran

 

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Lemon Ginger Cookies and a Butterfly

Riffling through my files, I found an article clipped from an August 1982 issue of Family Circle called “Best Cookies from the Best Bakeries.” Instantly, it became a matter of which cookie out of a tempting bunch to try, and I decided on “Cousin Helen Heavenrich’s Lemon Ginger Cookies.” Well, may the angels sing to Cousin Helen, wherever she may be, because these cookies are so melt-in the mouth good. If you have ever baked gingerbread or gingersnaps that are hard, not crispy, try this recipe. They are buttery, gingery, and lemony all at the same time, with crispy edges and a just slightly soft center.

A suggestion: Keep this cookie in mind for Christmas, which is barreling down on us like a runaway locomotive. A small, beribboned cellophane bag of these cookies would make a delightful gift for friends and neighbors.

Lemon Ginger Cookies

2-1/2 cups sifted flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup unsulphured molasses
1 tablespoon grated lemon rind
1/4 cup granulated sugar

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

Mix the sifted flour, baking soda, salt, ginger and cinnamon in a small bowl. In another bowl, beat the softened butter with the brown sugar until fluffy. Add the egg and again beat until fluffy. Stir in the molasses and grated lemon rind. Stir in the flour mixture, half at a time. Finish by kneading slightly, to make sure all flour is incorporated.

Roll dough into balls, one level tablespoon at a time, and then roll in the granulated sugar. Place 2 inches apart on the cookie sheet. Bake for 10 minutes. They will puff up, and then deflate, with cracks, when they are done. Do not overbake. Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

Shown below: grated lemon rind (from one lemon), adding the rind and molasses to the dough, the dough ready for forming, how much dough to measure for each cookie, and rolling dough in sugar. Also, my favorite china–it’s for children, and I only have three pieces, but I love it!

 

Baking notes: Be sure to sift your flour. This isn’t necessary for all recipes, but it is for this one. To do this, you must measure twice. Measure out your flour, and sift it onto a large piece of waxed paper. Then, pour back into the measuring cup(s). You will probably have a bit of flour left on the waxed paper, because aerated flour takes up more space. This is a bit of a pain in the neck, but it will guarantee light, crisp cookies. Also, I used light brown sugar, and it was fine.

A Painted Lady Butterfly

Last week was dry and hot, this week is crisp and cool, after a weekend of rain. This is by way of saying that I took these photos of a painted lady butterfly last week, when it was hot and summery, which seems ages ago. Suddenly, now it’s fall! The genus of painted ladies is Vanessa, a lovely name for a lovely butterfly.

Her bejeweled wings. Peace to you. Fran

Flavor Bombs and Sweet Finches

I was still thinking about Medjool dates, whose deliciousness puts all other dates in the shade (where they are not happy), when I came across a suggestion in the “Hay Day Country Market Cookbook,” by Kim Rizk, to stuff the dates with an assortment of cheeses to make delicious appetizers.

I was soon at Aldi, where I picked up dates, Brie, a hunk of Parmesan, roasted almonds and other good things, and made the stuffed dates this morning. Well, here’s the thing: these are delicious flavor bombs, whose flavors explode on the palate with sweet, soft, salty, crunchy sensations all at once. And the date stuffed with the hot chutney goes “woosh,” too, as flames rise on your tongue. You can’t ask for more from an appetizer. They rated five “mmm’s” from husband Jim. These are easy to make, and go well with the fresh simplicity of strawberries and grapes, crunchy wheat crackers and a sparkly, dry white wine like a Prosecco.

I made four different kinds. I have made some adjustments of my own, including using an easy plum chutney recipe from “Hot Stuff,” by Jessica B. Harris. These directions are slightly loose, and you will probably be left with surplus cheeses and nuts. The particulars depend on how many dates you have (in my case about 25) to work with, and how many of each you make.

In all cases, begin by cutting each date open and removing the pit.

Stuffed Medjool Dates

Walnut and blue cheese: Mix well two tablespoons of chopped walnuts and two tablespoons of crumbled blue cheese. Stuff each date with about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of the mixture. If you have whole, roasted walnut halves, that looks and tastes good, but they are pretty expensive.

Brie and smoked almonds: Stuff each date with a sliver of brie and top with a smoked almond. The original recipe called for camembert, but Brie works perfectly.

Shards of Parmesan: This is the easiest one. Just slice off shards of Parmesan cheese, and use to stuff the dates.

Hot Chutney and Crystallized Ginger: Whoa. Fill the date with about half a teaspoon of chutney (recipe follows) and a few slivers of crystallized ginger. There is a texture thing going on here, with the soft chutney, the chewy date and then, bang, the crystallized ginger.

Hot Plum Chutney

This jammy mixture is hot, sweet, fruity and tart all at the same time. The recipe makes one cup. Tastes delish on leftover sliced chicken.

6 medium-sized plums, pitted and chopped coarsely
1 to 3 small hot peppers, chopped
1/3 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup sugar

Mix the chopped plums, pepper(s), raisins and red wine vinegar and process in a blender until it turns into a puree. Pour the puree into a medium saucepan and add the sugar. Cook over low heat for about half an hour. The mixture will thicken and darken, and become like a jam. Allow to cool. Pour into a jar, and store in refrigerator.

Below (contains photos for making the chutney and ingredients for stuffing dates): black plums, plums cut open, plum mixture in blender, peppers from our garden, including the Brazilian Starfish Hot Pepper, finished chutney, ingredients for stuffing dates, and the walnut/blue cheese mixture.

 

On the bird front: I was feeling down because the hummingbirds have left, and for such tiny birds, they left a big hole in my heart. But I am nothing if not fickle, and late in the afternoon yesterday I heard the insistent chirping of a young goldfinch, and picked up my camera to photograph the following. I have learned that young goldfinches are still fed by their mothers for days after fledging. The young birds flap their wings and chirp insistently to get their mother’s attention. The first photo shows the mother calmly feeding.

Adorable young goldfinch.

Eye-to-eye with mom.
Feeding by regurgitation.

More wing flapping.

Dinner is over. Peace to you. Fran

 

 

Bread, Birds, Bees

Here’s a recipe for the easiest bread I know: a focaccia from “No Need to Knead,” by Suzanne Dunaway. (My recipe is slightly modified.) Actually, since I discovered this recipe, it’s just about the only bread recipe I use, because not only is it easy (no kneading, just stirring), but it’s delicious, with a moist crumb and chewy crust.

If you make this, you may wonder why anyone kneads bread dough at all, and one answer lies in the crumb. A moist, slack dough yields a bread with a fine crumb aerated with big holes; kneading yields a more even-textured bread. At least that’s what I’ve observed. The holes are not defects! They allow you to slather on more butter, especially when a slice is toasted. Also good dipped into olive oil and garlic. At any rate, a very useful recipe.

No Knead Focaccia

2 cups very warm water
1 package yeast
pinch of sugar
3-3/4 cups bread flour
2 to 3 teaspoons salt
olive oil
sea salt

Measure the warm water into a large bowl, and then stir in the yeast and pinch of sugar. Let sit for a few moments until the yeast foams up. Stir in two cups of the flour and the salt and stir until smooth, about two minutes. Stir in the remaining flour, stirring for another two minutes. It should be moist and rough in texture. Cover with a plastic bag, and allow to rise for about an hour.

When the dough is risen, set the oven to 500 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Scrape the dough out onto the baking sheet using a rubber spatula. Drizzle mound of dough with one tablespoon olive oil, then lightly pat it into a large oval, about one inch thick. Make dimples all over the dough with your index finger. Sprinkle with coarse salt, and place into the preheated oven oven. Immediately lower the oven temperature to 450 degrees. Bake for about twenty to twenty five minutes, or until golden brown.

Baking notes: Always think “warm” when making bread. Be sure to use very warm water when dissolving the yeast. The pinch of sugar gives the yeast a nudge to begin growing. Be sure to use bread flour in this recipe–stirring develops the gluten, which creates the interesting big holes in the bread. This dough rises in about an hour, but it depends on your room temperature.

Pictures below: yeast starting to foam, stirred dough, bowl enclosed in plastic bag, risen dough, mound of dough on baking sheet, and patted out dough, baked bread.

Meanwhile, out in the world of flowers, birds and bees, life goes on, and I am so grateful for it. First of all, a bumble bee and a zinnia.

This elegant bird is a young red-winged blackbird. Love his leathery claws!

Alright, so I’ve fallen in love with hummingbirds. It was just a matter of time! Their iridescent feathers, their tiny claws, the feeling that you are blessed when you see them . . . So beautiful. It was a cool morning when I took the photo below, and the hummingbird sat at the feeder all fluffed up for quite a while. Peace to you. Fran

 

 

Watering Hole

Before visiting the watering hole, I’d like to pass along a recipe for Grandma’s Date Bars. The recipe was shared in Reminisce magazine, and the grandma in question was the great grandmother (born in 1868) of a reader. The recipe sounded intriguingly simple; I had a box of Medjool dates on hand, and I decided to try! Medjool dates, by the way, are a special kind of date and are almost insanely delicious. They have been described as having a “rich, honeyed, almost caramel flavor,” and I’ll add that they are meltingly soft, chewy, and you can almost taste the sunshine in them. I got my box from Aldi. The plate shown above, by the way, is from my grandmother’s set of china.

As it turns out, this cookie, which defies all the laws of cookie physics by not containing any fat and not a drop of vanilla or other flavoring, is so good. There’s the brown sugar-y, chewiness of the dates, the crunch of the walnuts, and the toasty flavor of the bar itself. I have one-upped grandma by cutting them into bars and rolling them in sifted powdered sugar. (This is such a simple thing to do, but makes them look like a fancy pastry.) Grandma would probably have had her date bar with a big glass of cold milk. The thought gags me, and I may well try this with a glass of Merlot. These would be so perfect for a picnic, but would look nice on a holiday table, as well. Easy, tasty, and worth a try!

Grandma’s Date Bars

1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped dates
1 cup chopped walnuts
3 eggs, well beaten
powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8×8″ pan, line with parchment paper, and grease again. In a bowl, combine the dry ingredients and mix. Add the chopped dates, and stir and separate any dates that are stuck together. Stir in the walnuts, and then the eggs. (I beat the eggs for about a minute in another small bowl, using a whisk.) Spread in the prepared pan and bake for about 25 minutes. When they are still slightly warm, cut into rectangles and roll in sifted powdered sugar. Allow to cool.

Baking notes: Medjool dates have pits, but they are easy to remove. You can also use precut dates.

Pictured below: Medjool dates, date with pit, dates chopped up and in a measuring cup. Beaten eggs, chopped dates mixed into dry mixture, the batter, and the baked bars

 

No rain has fallen for weeks, and birds have been flocking to our lopsided bird bath. I change the water every day, and they seem to appreciate it!  So here are some pictures from the daily drama at the “watering hole.” Peace to you. Fran

Incoming!
cedar waxwings

A September Day

When you finally get to retire, people ask you what you do all day. Well, the day starts out for me with a brief moment of happiness that I don’t have to go to work. Then, breakfast. Today, first thing, I’ll work on this blog post. I’ve kept my mind open during the previous week, and ideas fell into it–recipes that I’ve tried, birds I’ve photographed. Then I’ll grab a cup of coffee and go read out on the patio. Right now I’m enjoying on oldie–“Edith Hamilton Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes.” Then lunch, and watching the news. Sometimes we can’t bear watching the news, so we watch Stephen Colbert. Then, a bit of housekeeping, sweeping, laundry, but not too much! Then I go upstairs to my workroom and putter around. I shuffle papers, and then take out my watercolors and a notebook of handmade watercolor paper and start painting hummingbirds. I’m learning.

Suddenly it’s time for supper. Today, I’ll be making Baked Chicken Wings with Potatoes. I don’t usually post recipes for chicken, but after realizing that I’ve made this at least ten times, I thought you might enjoy it as well! The recipe originally came from allrecipes.com.

Baked Chicken Wings with Potatoes

3 tablespoons olive oil
1-3 cloves garlic, pressed
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
salt and pepper, to taste
10 chicken wings

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees, and line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. Combine the oil and seasonings in a big bowl. (I sometimes add a shake of hot pepper flakes.) Cut the chicken wings into three parts–see the photo below. Add the wing pieces (I don’t use the wing tips) to the bowl, and toss with two big spoons to thoroughly coat. Then arrange the wing pieces on the foil. You can add some little potatoes to the mix, if you wish. Roast the wings in the preheated oven for one hour, turning each over once. (Be sure to do this, or they will stick.) For even crispier chicken you can roast it longer. I once forgot about them in the oven, and they were the best ever!

Below: how to cut the wings. Use a big heavy cleaver or chef’s knife–the weight will do half the work for you. Wiggle the wings to find where the joints are. If my garlic cloves are big, I just use one. Not sure why garlic powder is used, as well, but it works!

I feel slightly awkward, segueing from a chicken recipe to bird photos, but here goes. Jim and I have been delighted to have hummingbirds visit our feeder. They are magical little birds. Peace to you. Fran


 

Two Birds

Okay, so I love goldfinches. They have a calm sweetness that is so adorable. Yesterday I noticed these two females perched together above the feeder, just being companionable, perhaps gossiping. Love them! I have a recipe to share, though I apologize in advance for the wonky photo. But there’s a story. For my sister Kathy’s birthday, I decided to bake a pan of Turtle Bars. I had the feeling that we would enjoy it as much as a slice of cake, if not more so. I made the bars, and they were so good. As in too good. Full of melt-in-the-mouth brown sugar toffee and buttery crunchy-ness, and studded with melted chocolate pieces. So good that we all had two or three pieces, and a silence fell over the table that happens when people are really enjoying something.

At any rate, I had some left over, which I photographed and then immediately took to friends at the library. No way was I going to bake another pan of these bars, or we would be in deep danger of being tempted. So here, with a wonky photo, is the recipe for these too good bars! Turtle Bars

2 cups flour
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup softened butter
1 to 1-1/2 cups chopped pecans

Topping:
1/ 2 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup butter
12 oz. milk chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix together the flour, brown sugar and butter. Press into uncreased 13 x 9″ pan. Sprinkle with chopped pecans.

For topping: Cook sugar and butter, stirring to a boil for one minute. Pour over pecans. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until firm. Remove from oven; sprinkle chips over all. Cut when completely cooled.

Baking notes: I lined the greased pan with parchment paper, and then lightly greased it again. It’s easy to lift the bars out for cutting this way, and cleanup is a snap. Don’t obsess over boiling the sugar and butter for exactly one minute. Estimate, and it will be fine. I didn’t use the whole bag of chips–I didn’t want the chocolate to overwhelm the toffee and butter flavors. So I just sprinkled them as you can see above. It’s up to you!

 
Waterfall

Jim and I don’t travel much–not that we don’t want to, but I’m afraid of flying, and get car sick when driving long distances, especially when we go more than 70 mph and are boxed in by semis. It freaks me out. It’s all psychological, I know, but none the less, a powerful deterrent. So we go on small trips. Saturday, we went to a local forest preserve (Jon J. Duerr Forest Preserve, South Elgin, Illinois) in search of a waterfall we had heard about. Waterfalls are not common in this neck of the woods, and we were amazed by its beauty. Below, the waterfall, nearby fields of flowers, the gravel pit crane across the road, and acorns and shagbark hickory nuts.

 

So glad to see that blue jays are back. One stopped for a drink at our bird bath, along with a robin.