Friday, December 30, 2011

House Fit for a Queen (Bee)

Look what Maggie got for Christmas! It's a bee house, designed and built by Maggie's friend Doug (dad of Maggie's boyfriend, Nate.) I have a feeling that she is planning to move it over to Foxhollow Farm, where she lives and works. But in the meantime, it is stationed at Farm Dover (in our living room) and I'm loving looking at it. So beautiful...

Under the copper roof is the super (2nd floor)
and the hive body – where the honey frames are – makes up the 1st floor.
The bees come and go from the opening at the bottom. Lucky bees!

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree...

"I never thought it was such a bad little tree.
It's not bad
at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love."
-Linus, from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

When we moved to the country Mary requested that we have a "real" Christmas tree. I decided that it would make sense to buy a tree that we could replant on the farm -- and watch grow in the coming years. But by the time I got around to it, I could only find a smallish tree. I never thought it was such a bad little tree. 

It wasn't bad at all, really. Maybe it just needed a little love.  So we loved it, and planted it, and watered it, and now we'll watch it grow.

Mary and her friend John loving our little tree.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Clearing Trails

Ed and I spent the better part of a recent sunny day clearing a trail that we hope will someday soon circumnavigate our property.

We started at a fallen tree on the far side of the lake and worked our way all the way down to where the creek crosses the back tree line.

Along the way, Ed split some wood for our winter fires.

Armed with chainsaw, clippers, and a weed whipper, we worked our way through a thick and thorny briarpatch.

It was tough, but rewarding work. Here's how it looks so far.

I think it is lovely and can't wait to take a hike down to the creek, with picnic basket in tow.
Hope you will come join me....

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Missing Our Buddy

Our Buddy is far away this Christmas in Germany. We all miss him so much...and I think he is missing us as well. Here are the Christmas greetings that we got from Jack this morning.

Merry Christmas to all.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Profoundness of the Everyday

There are certain dishes that I make only once a year and I make them only at certain times of the year. Osso Buco is one of those dishes. Sometimes I make it at Christmastime, sometimes on a cold January night, and occasionally it shows up on Valentine's Day; but never in the months between March and November.

Tonight, the house is filled with the smells of veal braising with onions, carrots, celery, tomatoes, pancetta
and a splash of Madera. Two hours and counting until we sit down for a "fortress-like look of tender shanks floating on a moat of risotto." I didn't make that up, it is paraphrased from a poem by Billy Collins, who, in my opinion, is a master at taking everyday occurrences and somehow making them profound. (He's been called "the most popular poet in America" by the New York Times.) Here's how he describes an Osso Buco meal his wife prepared: 

Osso Buco
I love the sound of the bone against the plate
and the fortress-like look of it
lying before me in a moat of risotto,
the meat soft as the leg of an angel
who has lived a purely airborne existence.
And best of all, the secret marrow,
the invaded privacy of the animal
prized out with a knife and swallowed down
with cold, exhilarating wine.
I am swaying now in the hour after dinner,
a citizen tilted back on his chair,
a creature with a full stomach--
something you don't hear much about in poetry,
that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation.
you know: the driving rain, the boots by the door,
small birds searching for berries in winter.
But tonight, the lion of contentment
has placed a warm heavy paw on my chest,
and I can only close my eyes and listen
to the drums of woe throbbing in the distance
and the sound of my wife's laughter
on the telephone in the next room,
the woman who cooked the savory osso buco,
who pointed to show the butcher the ones she wanted.
She who talks to her faraway friend
while I linger here at the table
with a hot, companionable cup of tea,
feeling like one of the friendly natives,
a reliable guide, maybe even the chief's favorite son.
Somewhere, a man is crawling up a rocky hillside
on bleeding knees and palms, an Irish penitent
carrying the stone of the world in his stomach;
and elsewhere people of all nations stare
at one another across a long, empty table.

But here, the candles give off their warm glow,
the same light that Shakespeare and Izaac Walton wrote by,
the light that lit and shadowed the faces of history.
Only now it plays on the blue plates,
the crumpled napkins, the crossed knife and fork.

In a while, one of us will go up to bed
and the other will follow.
Then we will slip below the surface of the night
into miles of water, drifting down and down
to the dark, soundless bottom
until the weight of dreams pulls us lower still,
below the shale and layered rock,
beneath the strata of hunger and pleasure,
into the broken bones of the earth itself,
into the marrow of the only place we know.
Billy Collins,
The Art of Drowning
So, it is my hope that on this eve before Christmas Eve the lion of contentment will place a heavy paw on our chests and that we will slip into a dreams so deep that they are below the shale and layered rock, beneath the strata of hunger and pleasure, into the broken bones of the earth itself, into the marrow of the only place we know. 

See what I mean: Osso Buco gets pretty profound with Billy Collins.

Osso Buco
Adapted from Comforting Foods

1 lemon, scrubbed
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley

With a vegetable peeler, cut off the lemon zest into thin strips. Cut the strips into thin 3/4-inch-long pieces. Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil, add the strips of lemon zest, and cook for 2 minutes. Drain well and dry on a paper towel. In a small bowl, toss the lemon zest with the garlic and parsley. Cover and set aside.

Osso Buco:
Four 1 to 1-1/2 pound pieces veal hind shanks, tied around their sides with kitchen string
Kosher salt
Black pepper
All-purpose flour
1 cup olive oil
1 medium-size onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 medium-size carrot, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 medium-size rib celery, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 ounce pancetta, finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh sage
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon tomato paste
One 28-ounce can peeled whole plum tomatoes with their juices
1 cup Marsala
6 cups chicken stock

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Season the veal shanks with salt and pepper and dust them generously with all-purpose flour. In a Dutch oven just large enough to hold the veal shanks in a single layer, heat the 1 cup of olive oil over medium heat. add the veal shanks and brown evenly, 4 to 5 minutes per side and on their edges as well. Remove them from the Dutch oven and set aside.

Add the onion, carrot, celery and pancetta to the dutch oven and cook, stirring until the vegetables are just tender and the onion and celery are opaque, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic, parsley, sage and rosemary and cook, stirring, until the herbs release their aroma, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Reduce the heat to low, add the tomato paste, and cook, stirring slowly for about 3 minutes more. 

Add the canned tomatoes, breaking them up with your hands. Raise the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until their juices reduce to a think consistency, 7 to 10 minutes. Add the Marsala and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid again has all but evaporated, 7 to 10 minutes more.

Stir in the chicken stock and bring the liquid to a boil. Add the veal shanks to the dutch oven. Cover and put it in the preheated oven. Cook the veal shanks until the meat is very tender, about 2 hours. Remove them from the Dutch oven and, with a large spoon, skim the fat from the surface of the cooking liquid. Cut and remove the veal shanks' strings and place each one on a serving of risotto or polenta. Top with gremolata.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

It's What Is on the Inside that Counts

Buddy, it's fruitcake weather!
"A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote

Growing up I was subjected to dozens of my mother's momalies – you know those irritating sayings that every mother tells her children over and over in the hopes that they might actually take heed of them. Among my mother's most often repeated:
  • If you want to fight, go join the army.
  • Smile and the whole world smiles with you; frown and you frown alone.
  • Pretty is as pretty does.
  • It's what is on the inside that counts. 
It seems to me that this last one has some merit – especially as it applies to people and fruitcakes, and maybe even to people who are fruitcakes. 

I'm convinced that if you asked 100 people if they like fruitcakes, 99 percent of them would say "no." If you asked them if they have every actually tasted a fruitcake, 99 percent of them would say "no" to that question as well. 

This Christmas season, I challenge you to give fruitcakes a chance. It helps if you can find a homemade one (baked in the fourth quarter of 2011) and if you know what is in it. Here's the ingredient list from the recipe that I've made every year since 1983:

golden raisins
dark raisins
candied cherries
chopped dates
chopped prunes
chopped dried apricots
chopped mixed candied peel
freshly grated lemon rind
freshly grated orange rind
fresh lemon juice
fresh orange juice
green apple, peeled, cored and diced
unsalted butter 
slivered almonds, ground
all-purpose flour
freshly grated nutmeg

If you go down the list, you may find, as I do, that you actually like all the ingredients (except perhaps the bright red cherries that always remind me of Shirley Temple drinks).  A bunch of dried fruit, a jigger of whiskey, a splash of Drambuie, and enough eggs, butter, sugar and flour to barely hold it together: What's not to like?

I spent the morning making fruitcakes, a holiday tradition. Can I serve you a slice?
Here's the second part of your assignment: Find a copy of Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory." Slice a piece of fruitcake, brew a cup of tea, settle into a comfy chair and read (or reread) this holiday masterpiece about seven-year-old Buddy, his eccentric and elderly cousin, and their Christmas ritual – baking of fruitcakes – that so symbolizes their special love for each other. 

Another holiday tradition for me.


Queen’s Own Highlanders Fruitcake
I’ve been making this recipe for 30 years. Jack often helps. We enjoy it a Christmastime and always make an extra cake for brother-in-law George. The recipe first appear in Gourmet magazine in the early 1980s.

2-1/4 cups golden raisins
2-1/4 cups dark raisins
1/2 cup chopped candied cherries
1/2 cup chopped dates
2 tablespoons chopped prunes
2 tablespoons chopped dried apricots
1/3 cup chopped mixed candied peel
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon rind
1 teaspoon freshly grated orange rind
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1/2 small green apple, peeled, cored and diced
1/4 cup whiskey
2 tablespoons Drambuie
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 cup slivered almonds, ground
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a large bowl combine well the golden and dark raisins, the cherries, the dates, the prunes, the apricots, the mixed peel, the lemon and orange rinds, the lemon and orange juices, the apple, the whiskey, and 1 tablespoon of the Drambuie and let the mixture macerate, covered with plastic wrap, in a cool place, stirring well every 24 hour, for 1 week.

Preheat oven to 275 degrees.

In a large bowl with an electric mixer cream together the butter and the sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy and beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the almonds and add the fruit mixture, stirring until the mixture is combined well. Into a bowl sift together the flour, the nutmeg, the cinnamon, and the salt and stir the flour mixture into the fruit mixture.

Line the bottom and side of a 9-inch round cake pan, 2 inches deep, with a double thickness of wax paper and butter (or spray) the wax paper. Pour the batter into the pan, smoothing the top and pressing the fruit into the edges of the pan, and bake the cake for 2 hours and 30 minutes to 2 hours and 45 minutes, or until a tester comes out clan. Pour the remaining 1 tablespoon of Drambuie over the cake and let it cool. Invert the cake onto a plate and peel off the wax paper gently and wrap in foil and store in a tin.

The cake will keep for up to one month (although George claims it keeps for months -- if you add a bit more whiskey ever now and then!)

makes 1 cake.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Baking Memories

I was alone in the kitchen today baking an early batch of holiday cheesestraws. I wanted to get a tin of them mailed off to Jack in Germany -- a bit of love packed in a brown box full of other Christmas greetings.  But I wasn't really alone. I was with Grandmommy in her Cannons Lane kitchen; I was in our kitchen on Rainbow Drive with Maggie, Jack and Mary -- ages 6, 8 and 10; I was with Maggie in her Lathrop Street apartment in Madison, WI.

This time of year always brings a flood of cheesestraw-baking memories back to me. I like the memories as much as I like the spicy-cheddary nibbles. Grandmommy started the tradition. Seems to me she used to make them with her friend Amelia, and then one year Amelia wasn't there anymore and I was recruited to help her.

It was a two-day process. Two full days. On day one, we would grind our own blend of sharp and mild cheddar cheese. We'd mount a grater contraption to the kitchen countertop and I'd feed blocks of cheese into a funnel while Grandmommy cranked. When her arm would tire, we would switch jobs. We'd add two sticks of Fleishmann's margarine to each bowl of 4 cups of cheese and top each bowl with Saran Wrap and place it on the floor of Grandmommy's kitchen, near the hot air vents so that it would warm up overnight. The next morning, no matter how early I'd show up, Grandmommy would be up and hard at work cranking out sheet after sheet of squiggly dough. She had special cookie presses, special baking sheets, even a special spatula to slide the hot finished product onto foil paper. Once they were cool, we'd carefully pack up the mountain of cheesestraws into Christmas tins. When all that was left were the crumbs, Grandmommy would fill a tupperware of the "crumbs" as her cache.

The year before she moved from her home to the Episcopal Church Nursing Home, she packed up all her cheesestraw equipment and brought it over to our kitchen on Rainbow Drive. She was there to pass on to me not only a canvas bag full of assorted graters and cookie presses, but the mantle of being the one to continue the tradition. I suggested that we use Kraft bags of already shredded cheese and perhaps even real "butter." She wouldn't have any of it. "Don't mess with what you know works," she admonished me. That was our last time together baking.

For next several years, Maggie, Jack and Mary would pitch in. They come through the kitchen and help me press out one or two sheets of squiggles and then they would be off to sports, or homework, or whatever else consumed their lives those days. If I was lucky, they would deliver them to neighbors and their favorite teachers.

When Maggie was senior in college she asked me to come to Madison and bake cheesestraws with her. The plan was for me to fly to Chicago, take the Badger Bus to Madison, bake with her the next day, hang out while she delivered cheesestraws to her crew teammates and took her last final and then drive home with her for Christmas break. As we baked, the snow started to fall. It snowed and snowed and snowed: 18-inches of fresh, fluffy, beautiful snow. For the first time in the University of Wisconsin's history, school was called off. Heading south to Kentucky wasn't even an option. So we shoveled Maggie's sidewalk, took a city bus downtown to a movie (we were the only ones in the theatre), did a little Christmas shopping on Regent Street and just hunkered down until life returned to normal. Don't tell Maggie, but it was a very special time for me.

This year the cheesestraw tradition continues. Mary has already requested a day in the kitchen baking cheesestraws for her friends. She comes home on Saturday, so one day that next week, we'll haul out the presses, the cookie sheets and the special spatula. Maybe Maggie will come join us. Grandmommy would be so pleased.


Mary Rinehart's Christmas Cheesestraws

This recipe fills about 6 medium tins (5"x7") 

2 stick of Fleishmann’s unsalted margarine (226 gr) -- left at room temperature until it is soft
2 cups of finely grated sharp cheddar cheese - room temperature (8 oz package)
2 cups of finely grated mild cheddar cheese - room temperature (8 oz package)
3-1/2 cups sifted Swans Down Cake Flour (14.5 oz)
1 level teaspoon cayenne pepper (or slightly more if you want them spicy!)
3-1/2 teaspoons salt

Preheat over to 350 degrees (convection)
Combine margarine and cheeses in standing mixer. (I use the coated flat beater attachment.)
Sift flour together with salt and cayenne pepper.
Add flour mixture to cheese mixture and mix well.
Form into “large bullets” and put mixture into cookie press fitted with a star attachment. If dough seems cold or stiff, put it in the microwave for 15 seconds.
Crank out onto light colored cookie sheets in “snakey” pattern.
Bake for 13 minutes, or until just slightly brown. If not using a convection oven, switch cookie sheets half way through baking.
Once cooled, slide straws off onto foil paper and let cool completely before packaging in tins.

Give only to those you really love.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Early on a Frosty Morn

Ed was up and out early this morning. I, on the other hand, was snuggled in bed much later than usual. When I finally got up, I turned on the fire in the study and seriously contemplated not going out for my morning walk/jog down the drive. It was so cold out, so warm in.

I'm glad I decided to go. Look what I would have missed had I stayed cocooned inside...