Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Saving Lives

Quote of the Day:  I truly believe that when people face death, when they face the loss of all the trivia of modern day society and are face to face with the "bare essentials" of what is human, that they are the happiest, with less to gripe over and less to worry about.  I think people are people only when they suffer! Chaplain Ray Stubbe in a letter home from Vietnam, 25 November 1967. From the book Grace Under Fire - Letters of Faith in Times of War

We arrived a bit late for the Memorial Day service.  They were saying the prayers as we walked closer.  I regretted missing the message from the speaker, hearing the band, and yet, I was glad I'd taken the time to pick up my boys and bring them here.  We heard the 21 gun salute.  We saw the soldiers pause and reflect.  We were reminded of the extreme sacrifice of many so that we could enjoy living in freedom.

The boys noticed new things this year - all the flags for the soldiers, the larger headstones for families who lived and died here, and how large the cemetery is.  I explained that not everyone buried here is a soldier.  It's a community cemetery that goes back about 100 years.

I felt grateful to be walking around above ground, to have my boys at my side, and to watch them play.  We stopped at a playground where I soaked in the sun and the joy of the day, took pictures, and wondered how long they'd still like playing at playgrounds.

How long will they feel the carefree life of being a kid?

And, I felt grateful that my home has not experienced disaster, especially after reading Doris' blog, "Hold my Hand" a social worker's blog, which has a moving story of how the medical community responded to the disaster in Joplin, MO.  Dr. Kevin Kikta wrote about the chaos and the care during the first hours of the devastation.  He writes, "Tragedy has a way of revealing human goodness."

Go. Create. Inspire!

Journaling Prompt:  What are you feeling grateful for today?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Chocolate Cocoa Nib Cookies . . . (Cocoa Nibs: A Startling and Delightful Flavor Conundrum!)

Maybe this is too personal, but I just have to ask . . . Are you into cocoa (aka cacao) nibs? Because I am. And I love 'em. What are they, exactly? They're fragments of shelled, winnowed, roasted cacao (pronounced kuh-KOW) beans, the precious beans that bring us chocolate. Okay, big deal, you say. So what makes them remarkable? Well, I'll tell you. Each tiny nib is its own special-delivery parcel of profound flavor. Bite down, and it's like a little grenade going off in your mouth--intensely bright and dark at the same time. Ka-boom!

The effect a modest sprinkling of nibs can have on an otherwise mundane recipe is startling. Stir a handful into cookie dough. Sprinkle them judiciously over waves of whipped-cream on a mocha cream pie. Swirl them into homemade ice cream before you put it into the freezer to ripen. Add them into that buttery almond brittle recipe you're so famous for. Do you see where I'm going with this? Limitless possibilities, fellow bakers!

They taste kind of like coffee, but not as bitter, with a complex and curious finish that evokes tropical fruit. Sometimes I can even picture a banana in there! No kidding. And, of course, they also taste like dark chocolate, but not overtly so. You'd think they'd be chocolate-chocolate-chocolate all the way through, but that's not always the case. They're a mysterious and delightful conundrum.

And as for texture? Nibs, while hard and crunchy, are apt to shatter between your teeth more readily than something like a roasted coffee bean or a toasted almond. If you're unfamiliar with them and a little gun shy, try this: Put a few nibs on your tongue--not too many--close your eyes, and concentrate. Pay attention when you bite into them. If the grenade analogy is too scary for you, think of it as a flavor-parade marching through your mouth. You can't ignore a parade, can you? Definitely not. Cocoa nibs are like that. Once they're in food, they won't be ignored.

Though they're scarce in regular markets, you can often find them in health/gourmet food stores, where they're sometimes sold in bulk and are not necessarily too pricey. Maybe you, too, should add them to your baking arsenal?

About this recipe . . . 

Adapted from the luscious new cookbook, Milk & Cookies, by pastry chef Tina Casaceli of New York city's Milk & Cookies Bakery, these treats are easy to toss together and will more than satisfy your cocoa craving. I customized the book's "base chocolate dough" recipe by adding in a half cup of nibs, along with dark chocolate chips and semisweet chunks. I also  increased the amount of salt, and used coarse kosher; the very subtle saltiness is a critical component of this cookie's character. And, as usual, I fiddled with the recipe's directions, reflecting exactly what I did.

I'd initially hoped for cookies that would be thicker and not quite so spread out, but their thin, chewy/crispy quality was actually rather appealing. (But the next time I make them, I think I might add in a few more tablespoons of flour and see if that helps reduce the spreading.) Even after a couple of days, the baked cookies didn't harden completely but remained chewy-crispy. Tuck one of these babies into a petite scoop of vanilla ice cream, and it makes a mighty satisfying dessert.

Chocolate Cocoa-Nib Cookies . . . with Chocolate Chips

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Preheat oven to 350. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

2 and 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup Dutch processed cocoa powder (I used Penzey's brand. Really good.)
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt (I used coarse kosher salt.)
1/2 cup cocoa nibs
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
1 and 1/2 cups dark chocolate chips (I used Ghirardelli brand.)
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips (Actually, I used Nestle semisweet chunks; they're about twice the size of regular chips.)

In a medium size bowl, gently whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, cocoa powder, and cocoa nibs. Set aside.

In the large bowl of your mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat the butter for about three minutes or just until light and creamy. Still on medium speed, gradually pour in the white and brown sugars; keep beating until the mixture again looks light and creamy.

In a small bowl, break up the egg yolks, and lightly mix the eggs together with the vanilla. Pour this into the mixer bowl in two parts, beating to incorporate the liquid. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl after each addition.

On low speed, slowly add in the flour mixture, and beat just to combine. Take the bowl off the mixer and briefly stir by hand, using a spatula or wooden spoon. Add in all of the chocolate chips, just to evenly combine.

Chill the dough for at least an hour if it's extremely soft.

Use a small scoop or tablespoon to portion the dough onto the parchment, and leave plenty of room between each cookie (a couple of inches) since they spread quite a bit. Bake the cookies for about 12 minutes. They are done when they seem slightly browned/dry around the edges but still slightly soft in the middle. Let them cool for a few minutes on the cookie sheet before removing them to a cooling rack.

The cookie dough can be successfully frozen for about a month, or kept in the fridge for about a week.

(If you'd like to comment on this post, or to read any existing comments, please click on the purple COMMENTS below.)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Memorial Weekend Recipes

I don't know about all of you but I love a great get together with great friends and great food.  Since Memorial Weekend is the kickoff to backyard get-togethers for most of us, I wanted to post some of my favorite grill friendly recipe,s side dishes, and, of course my favorite part of any meal, desserts to go with them.  Enjoy!

Salt Rub Chicken on the Grill

BBQ Sauce for the chicken

Fresh Corn Salad

Warm Potato Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing

Calico Beans

 Roasted Red Pepper Dip

Prosciutto Wrapped Asparagus

Margarita Cupcakes

Lemonade Floats

Black and White Brownies

Friday, May 27, 2011

Pray for Peace

Quote of the Day:   from Matthew 24:6-7 (The Message)
Jesus said, "Watch out for doomsday deceivers. Many leaders are going to show up with forged identities, claiming, 'I am Christ, the Messiah.' They will deceive a lot of people. When reports come in of wars and rumored wars, keep your head and don't panic. This is routine history; this is no sign of the end. Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Famines and earthquakes will occur in various places. This is nothing compared to what is coming.

News of the end of the world took me by surprise.  I didn't know it was coming until sometime late on Friday when a facebook friend linked an ad. for dog care after the rapture.  Huh? Doesn't the end of the world mean the end for everyone and every living thing?

The passage above is a modern translation of the Bible. I love the clarity in the language.  When I was a kid, I thought that "wars and rumors of wars" and earthquakes, and "nation rising against nation" were signs that the end was near.  Then, I thought, people who were living in times of the great wars, especially WWII, must have thought, this is the end.  But, it wasn't.  Generations were born and grew up and fought more wars, new wars, old wars, wars that never cease.

Instead of spending our energy and resources figuring out how to most efficiently kill each other, we could be using our wonderful minds and talents to determine when the next natural disaster will occur.  We can give out warnings, and have aid available.  We could concentrate on preserving life and saving people, on beauty and creativity and lifting each other up.

We don't need an army of people to stop one power-crazed man.  We need an army of people to stop his army of followers.

What does Memorial Day mean to me?  planting flowers at gravesites, a somber parade followed by a meaningful service.  It's families taking time to be together and making the Earth a more beautiful place.  They're planting flowers, mowing lawns, doing projects, and remembering.

Thank you to all the people who have sacrificed for freedom.  We salute you.

John Lennon's song Imagine is probably the most brilliant song ever written. imagine all the people, living life in peace...

Blogger has been quirky lately, making it hard to leave comments. I found that horribly frustrating. I mean, how will you know I've stopped by for a visit, if I can't leave a note? Here's a suggestion I read in the comments of a fellow blogger:

"Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said... the way around the blogger commenting error is to sign out of blogger and then sign back in, but to UNCLICK the "stay signed in" box. Worked for me" 

It also worked for me.  Thanks, Sarah!

Go. Create. Inspire!  And, remember the reason for the holiday.

Journaling Prompt:  Write your reflections on Memorial Day.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sharing a Sugar Swan . . .

Sometimes we try to do extraordinary or unusual things in my Pastry II class. Sometimes we succeed. Other times, not so much. Yesterday was one of the good days. We made these delicate swans and I just wanted to share mine with you guys.

The swan's body is made from blown sugar; the wings, feathers, flowers, and leaves from pulled sugar; and the base from poured sugar. Well, not sugar exactly, but a sugar substitute that pastry chefs use for this sort of thing called isomalt, which is derived from sugar alcohol. It's edible, of course, but not particularly intended for consumption.

The swan is no more than 7" tall and perhaps 6" long from front to back, and sits on a base of about 8" in diameter. Here's how it was made, in a nutshell: Its body is formed from a golf-ball sized glob of hot isomalt that you, first, mold with your hands into sort of a light-bulb shape (and, believe me, you're wearing plastic gloves--maybe even two pairs--the entire time you're working on this). Then, you attach the narrower end of that to the tube end of a small, primitive-looking, rubber hand pump, not unlike the pump used on a blood pressure cuff. You gently pump air into the sugar glob, which you're cradling in one hand, and, if you're very lucky, it expands cooperatively to about the size of a large lemon. Then, you pinch a bit of the hot sugar with your fingertips, from the non-tube end of the swan, and pull it upwards, curling it over to form the neck and head. At this point, you let the whole thing cool. Then you heat the tail end so you can remove the air tube (when that's done, you say a prayer of thanks that the whole thing hasn't shattered yet).

The wings are formed from small separate globs of hot sugar. To do this, you grab a bit of hot sugar, hold it tightly between thumb and forefinger, and then pull it out into the shape of a thin wing, and immediately use a pair of scissors to cut the feathering onto one side. The tail feathers were formed similarly, but without any scissor cuts. You heat just an edge of the wing and quickly attach it to the body.

The eyes were made by taking a very small, straight strand of colored sugar, letting it completely cool so it was like a tiny stick, and then reheating just the very end of it so it would melt into a drop. Then that melted tip was dabbed onto the swan's head on each side. The beak was made by pinching off bits of the same color sugar and pulling them into the appropriate shape, then gluing them on by quickly heating them on one edge.

 The little flowers were made by pulling a ribbon of sugar and then quickly rolling and tucking it up, very simply. The leaves were formed much the same way the wings were. And the dark blue base that the swan is sitting on was made from extremely hot isomalt that was poured into a shallow, round, rubber mold and then left to cool.

Occasionally, I don't necessarily think all that much of what I've made at school on a given day, but then I get whatever it is home (assuming it's something we get to bring home, which doesn't happen all that often) and have a chance to look at it in a completely different setting. And, I think to myself, "Wow--that's actually pretty cool." That's kind of how I felt about this little swan. I honestly don't know if I could ever reproduce him at home, partly because I don't have any of the needed equipment, but even if I never make anything else like this in my life, I enjoyed working on this feathery fellow.

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Writing Support

Quote of the Day:  I like to write when I feel spiteful; it's like having a good sneeze. - D.H. Lawrence

You can be a little ungrammatical if you come from the right part of the country. - Robert Frost

Grammar is a piano I play by ear.  All I know about grammar is its power. Joan Didion

I found those quotes in a little book called Writers on Writing.  I picked it up at a used bookstore in Lincoln City, OR, when I was visiting my sister last summer. (That's Joy in the background looking at funny music books.)

Sometimes, I envy kids because they have so many opportunities handed to them.  Grown-ups have to make their own opportunities. Take last week's Young Authors Conference.  The kids could choose from 18 different presentations by professional authors.  In fact, we were all wishing we could rove around and sit in on each other's classes. They were diverse and interesting and filled with inspiration.  They could learn about Jackhammers and Mount Rushmore, sharing secrets, and writing scenes for a screenplay, to name a few. I would have loved being a kid that day.

Where do you turn for inspiration? Have you taken any classes lately?  Used any online services?  One place students can go is college support services.  We visit blogs, read about other's success, buy the craft books, take courses, and attend workshops.

My idea of a great vacation would be to escape to a camp for grown-ups who like to create things.  We'd have theatre games, time to write, time to interact, great food, campfires with wild, imaginative stories, late night swims, and a bit of romance.

Ya, that's the kind of summer camp I'd sign up for.

Journaling Prompt:  Where do you go for support and inspiration?  Do you want to join me in my virtual summer camp?  Have you ever been to a camp or retreat center that nurtures your creativity?  Your sense of romance?

Monday, May 23, 2011


Quote of the Day:  We are marching in the light of God music and text from a South African hymn.  As the text indicates, this is a march tempo.  The words repeat.  We can set our books down and march together.  Additional action words: dancing, singing, praying, walking.

When we walk together, we don't have to walk alone.  This is the first year that I'm walking in the Race for the Cure Walk for Breast Cancer, and I'm a team captain!  I'm in a group called Mothers of Multiples (MOMs).  One of our members is battling inflammatory breast cancer.  If you want to walk with us, be a spirit walker, or donate, you can go here.  Our team name is MOMS for MAMS.  Kinda fun.

I'm writing a story for our local women's magazine on The Buddy Walk, which is a walk for families and people who have Down syndrome.  I've talked to three local families, and they all have a unique story.  What is common is the desire to build community, to walk together.

Here I am walking, (well, drinking coffee and talking after a long day with middle schoolers), with two of my favorite writers from this region.  We were all presenters at the Young Authors Conference (YAC) in Nothern Minnesota.  If you'll remember Friday's post, I was nervous about going, questioning if I belong, and despite that crazy talk, found success.  In fact, we had a great time.  Some of the highlights include: reciting poetry at the dinner table on Tues. night, singing random songs, discussing religion, and serenading the full moon and a couple birthday girls with Amazing Grace.

Roxane (Bob Marley in the above photo) has more details of the fun at YAC on her blog, Peacegarden Mama.

Journaling Prompt:  Have you walked for any causes?  Do you know someone with Down syndrome?  How do you experience community?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Passion Fruit Cream Cake . . .

One of the most pungently tasty items I've learned to make in the last year or two, hands down, is fruit curd. Fruit curd is a rich substance, cooked on the stove with egg yolks and butter, and can be used in much the same ways you'd use a really good jam. We make it now and then in pastry classes at school, and it's often a predictable citrus flavor--lemon, lime, or orange.

But last week, browsing through cookbooks at home, I found a recipe for a simple genoise layer cake that included a passion-fruit curd filling, with the curd being made from frozen passion fruit puree. Serendipitously, I happened to have a package of passion fruit pulp in my freezer, and it was getting antsy to be used. Frozen fruit pulp, which I've sung the praises of before, can be remarkably inexpensive. It's not to be confused with the shockingly costly, concentrated fruit purees that professional pastry chefs buy in quantity to have on hand in their enormous freezers. Those purees are of exceptional quality, no doubt about it, but they're another animal altogether. For those of us with no access to wholesale prices on those sorts of goods, we'd easily have to pay $15 to $20 for a 1-kilo container.Yeah, I know. Not bloody likely, right?

The type of fruit pulp that I'm talking about is often found in Hispanic food markets, but it can increasingly be found in mainstream grocery stores, gourmet markets, and even health food stores. Brace yourself for the price I paid for one package of this gorgeous, golden, passion fruit pulp: $2.05. That's right. Two bucks and minimal change. Unbelievable, isn't it? You've gotta get some. Granted, it's not high-brow, but it's still pretty darn good.

Besides loving the pulp itself, which comes in several flavors--some of them quite exotic to a Midwestern girl like me (eg., lulo, mamey, soursop)--I love the flat plastic bags in which this stuff is packaged. You can lay lots of these in your freezer and they'll take up almost no space at all. It's the best thing since sliced bread (or maybe I should say sliced fruit).

About this recipe . . . 

I have to tell you at the outset that my favorite thing about this recipe was the curd and, given what I just said above, that's surely not a surprise. But, the fact is, I am not a huge fan of genoise in general. In terms of flavor, it's an eggy cake--one of the classic "foam" cakes similar to a basic sponge--that certainly has its place in the pastry pantheon, but I am not sure it complements this curd in the very best way. And I have always been hypersensitive to anything that's overtly eggy tasting. 'Course, that's just me.

Were I to make this particular cake again, I think I'd use only one layer of the genoise and split it in half horizontally, rather than using two thick layers, which seemed to be overkill. I might also consider brushing the layers with a simple sugar syrup to combat any latent egginess. But you, fellow bakers, should follow your heart. Perhaps you adore genoise? Then by all means use both full layers. In any event, I can strongly endorse this recipe for the passion fruit curd alone. And, who doesn't love whipped cream? We all love whipped cream, don't we? Of course we do. So use that, too.

This dessert hails from the pleasing little book, Luscious Creamy Desserts, by Lori Longbotham. The only change I made to this formula was to add some powdered sugar to the whipping cream, and to reword the instructions, reflecting exactly what I did.

Passion Fruit Cream Cake
(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Ingredients for the fruit curd:
1/2 cup butter, unsalted
yolks from 5 large eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup frozen passion fruit pulp/puree, thawed
1 pinch of salt
2 tsp. fresh lime juice

To make the curd:
 Place a fine mesh strainer over a medium-size glass bowl. Set aside.
Melt the butter in a heavy, medium-sized, saucepan over a medium-low flame. Take the pan off the heat and, whisking constantly, pour in the sugar, fruit pulp/puree, yolks, and salt. Put the pan back on the stove over medium heat. Begin by whisking frequently, and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly for the last few minutes as the mixture thickens. It should seem thicker than gravy but still be easily pourable.

Take the pan off the stove and immediately pour the curd into the strainer over the bowl, encouraging it through with a spoon or flexible spatula.

Whisk in the lime juice. Cool to room temperature. Cover the bowl securely with plastic wrap placed directly on the surface of the curd, to help prevent a skin from forming as it cools. Refrigerate the curd for about 2 hours, until completely chilled.

Ingredients for the cake layers:
1 and 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
6 large eggs
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 unsalted butter, melted

To make the cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom and sides of two 8" round cake pans. Cut a parchment paper circle to fit onto the bottom of each pan.

Sift the flour three times onto a sheet of parchment or wax paper.

Beat the eggs and sugar in the large bowl of your mixer, using the paddle attachment, for up to 10 minutes, until the volume has increased at least three times. The mixture should look thick, pale yellow, and bubbly.

Take the bowl off of the mixer. Sprinkle in half of the flour, folding it in with a hand-whisk just until combined; repeat with the rest of the flour.

Drizzle in the melted butter and whisk only until combined.

 Divide the batter equally between the prepared cake pans.

Bake the layers for 20 to 25 minutes, until the cakes begin to pull away slightly from the sides of the pan. Cool the layers for 10 minutes before removing them from the pans. Peel off the parchment circles and let the layers cool completely before assembling the cake.

For the whipped cream filling:
1 cup whipping cream, very cold
1/2 sifted confectioners' sugar

Whip the cream until soft peaks form. Sprinkle in the confectioners' sugar and whip until stiffer peaks begin to form. Keep the whipped cream cold until you're ready to spread it on the cake.

To assemble the cake:
Place one cake layer on your serving plate. Spread about a cup of the curd evenly atop that.

Spread a thick layer of the sweetened whipped cream over that.

Sandwich the other cake layer on top. Using a fine mesh sieve, sprinkle another tablespoon or two of confectioners' sugar over the filled cake.

Keep the cake refrigerated if you won't be serving it right away.

(If you'd like to comment on this post, or to read any existing comments, please click on the purple COMMENTS below!)