Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Still Eating

From the looks of this posts for a'd think we'd stopped eating of something. The truth is that I've almost stopped cooking. Having everything pulled out of your kitchen will lead to that. It's been almost two weeks and last night was the first time I really used the alternate kitchen that Sweetie created in my art studio.

We had both used the sink a few times for washing up, but lately we have been eating prepared foods. I cooked some things and put them in the freezer before the demolition, but we have also enjoyed Pasta King lasagna, bagged salads with tomatoes from the farm stand and similar foods. Steamed freshly picked green beans are possible using the microwave in the living room.

Yesterday I decided that the time had come to do some real cooking, but I still wanted to keep it simple. I used the toaster oven mid-day to bake some boneless, skinless chicken thighs. After cooling slightly, they went into the studio fridge. Closer to dinner time. I used the studio microwave to boil broth in a large glass measuring cup. I added a flavor packet from a package of couscous. That mixture was poured over a bowl of couscous from the package, covered and it sat for 5 minutes to allow the couscous to absorb the broth.

While the couscous was cooking, I cut up the chicken and basil, juiced the lemon and rounded up the pepper grinder. I had forgotten to get the feta from the fridge in the living room, so I added it once I went back in the house. All of the ingredients except the lemon zest (which I skipped...who knew where the zester had gotten to?) and feta were stirred into the fluffed couscous.

 All that was left was to add the feta, heat some bread and serve it up.

Sweetie has always loved this recipe and was thrilled to have a home cooked meal that was this delicious. Tomorrow we may be back to bagged salad to use up the rest of the chicken, but I'll bet I'll be cooking in the alternate kitchen the next day. I'll try to post what I cook, but the next few days are full of flooring work and wall painting, so who knows if I'll have the energy. I do love to paint walls, but it does tire me out.

Hope you make this dish. It is a lovely meal for a summer day with bright, fresh flavors and it's easy, too.

Mediterranean Chicken Couscous
Serves 8 (more if part of a buffet or potluck)

1 1/4 cups low-sodium fat-free chicken broth
1 (5.6 oz.) package toasted pine nut couscous mix
3 cups chopped cooked chicken
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1 (4 oz.) package crumbled feta cheese (I used about half that amount)
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 1/2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind (optional)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Garnish: fresh basil leaves

(Note:  Substitute 3-4 teaspoons (I used 3) dried basil if you can't get fresh. 3 cups of leftover cooked chicken or turkey in large dice works fine, too.)

Microwave chicken broth and seasoning packet from couscous package at HIGH for 3-5 minutes or until broth begins to boil. Place couscous in a large bowl, and stir in broth mixture. Cover and let stand 5 minutes. Fluff couscous with a fork, stir in chicken and next 6 ingredients. Serve warm or cold. Garnish with fresh basil leaves or a sprinkle of toasted pine nuts, if desired.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Rosemary - That's For Remembrance

Flowers and herbs used to have secret, hidden meanings, sort of like a secret handshake or something. Rosemary is for remembrance, but I almost forgot to post today...things have been hopping around our house as the first part of the kitchen remodel is underway and almost complete...and we are starting work on the second part. Fortunately, I baked this bread the first time in June and the second time a few weeks ago when all my baking supplies were still in their usual place.

The Bread Baking Babes Kitchen of the Month, Cathy of Bread Experience, chose Panmarino, an Italian bread created in Ferrara near Venice for our baking and eating pleasure. Perhaps the ultimate gift of this bread is that the scent of rosemary permeates the kitchen while it bakes and also rises up when you take a bite. 

Of course that requires fresh rosemary, not dried, with all its delicious and scented essential oils. I'm fortunate that the people who owned our property before we did planted a small rosemary shrub in the perfect spot. I know it's the perfect spot because it has grown and grown over the years and now covers an area about the size of a VW bus. Plenty of fresh rosemary to go into my favorite lamb marinade, plenty of long skinny branches of rosemary to use as skewers for food for the BBQ, plenty more for baking with olive oil coated potatoes, and lots to go into bread, too. If you don't own a rosemary plant, you might consider planting one. If you put it in a good sized pot, but one not too heavy to move, you can find a sunny spot for it and be able to move it indoors if it gets too cold outside. Keep the soil on the dry side and don't give it too much fertilizer and you, too, can have lots of fresh rosemary.

The first time around I was in a hurry and didn't allow enough time for rising, nor for baking. The result had great flavor, but was dense and under-cooked.That'll teach me to try to rush bread making. Tsk, tsk.

The second time I made some changes, partly because I seem to be compelled to change recipes and partly because I wanted a bread that was less dense.

The second time I increased the water and the milk a little, added more yeast, reduced the salt in the dough a bit and kneaded the rosemary into the dough after its first rise. That way I could have nine dinner rolls with rosemary, a round loaf with rosemary, and a sandwich loaf without rosemary. I skipped the slashing and salt crystals this time, so it wasn't authentic, but it was lighter in crumb (Sweetie said the crumb was perfect!) but still sturdy, had a nice crust (yes, I did put ice cubes in a preheated pan for extra steam), and delicious. It makes great toast!

You are going to want to try this bread, then take a photo, write up your experience and e-mail them to  Cathy so that you can be a Buddy. Deadline is July 29. Do visit all the other Babes to see what their bread looks like, too. I think you will find variations on a theme. We are baking fools and love to have you visit and see what fun we have been having.

I also want to make a moment of remembrance of my son Maxwell. He was only a few weeks short of being 17 when we lost him 15 years ago tomorrow in an auto accident. I remember his smile, his generous and loving ways, and his curiosity and empathy. He was blessed with so many talents and many friends. Perhaps the rosemary plant has grown so large because we have so much good to remember. I miss him very much.

Makes: 4 Loaves  Original Panmarino created in Ferrara near Venice

Biga (which I made exactly as described):

Bread flour 143 grams/  5 ounces
Water 122 grams/  4 1/4 ounces
Pinch of instant yeast

Final Dough:

Bread flour 884 grams/  1 pound 15 ounces
Water 487 grams/  2 cups
Milk 2 ounces/ 1/4 cup
Biga 265 grams/  9 1/3 ounces
Salt 1/2 ounce/ 2 teaspoons
1 teaspoon instant yeast
Olive oil 88 grams/  3 ounces
Chopped fresh rosemary 9 grams/  1/3 ounce

Preparing the Biga:
Combine the bread flour, water and yeast in a large mixing bowl. Stir with a wooden spoon until well blended.  Scrape down the edge of the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rest at 75 degrees F. for 14 to 16 hours.

Making the Final Dough:
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the water, milk, and biga. Using the dough hook, mix on low speed until blended.

Add the salt and yeast to the bread flour in a bowl and whisk to combine. Add bread flour mixture a cup at a time and mix on low speed until incorporated, then add more. When about half the flour is added, add the olive oil, mix with the dough hook to combine, then continue to add the flour mixture. You may need to add by tablespoonfuls at the end. Mix with dough hook on low for 5 minutes.  Increase the speed to medium and mix for about 7 more minutes, or until the dough is smooth.

Lightly oil a large bowl. Scrape the dough into the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough ferment for 45 minutes.

Remove the dough to a lightly-floured work surface and knead in the fresh rosemary. Divide the dough into four 450-gram /16-ounce pieces (or divide into three pieces to shape as desired, as I did). Shape the dough pieces into rounds. Cover with plastic wrap and let them bench rest for 15 minutes.

Place two couches on a separate work surface or bread board and dust them with flour.

Uncover the dough and, if necessary, lightly flour the work surface. Gently press on the dough to degas and carefully shape each piece into a tight and neat rounds (or into rolls or loaves, as I did. I also shaped my round loaf in a heavily floured brotform).  Place one loaf on one side of the couche, fold the couche up to make a double layer of cloth to serve as a divider between the loaves, and place a second loaf next to the fold.  Repeat the process with the remaining two loaves and the second couche.  Cover with plastic wrap and proof for 1 hour.

About an hour before you plan to bake the loaves, place a baking stone (or tiles) into the oven along with a steam pan (underneath) or iron skillet (on the top rack) and preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Uncover the dough and score the top of each loaf in a star pattern using a lame or sharp knife. This particular formula doesn't say to do this, but you can sprinkle sea salt into the crevices as the original baker did to make it "sparkle with diamonds."

(I did this with my first try, but didn't with my second. Didn't think it contributed much to the bread.)

Carefully transfer the loaves to the preheated baking stone using a peel or the back of a baking sheet. To make the steam, add 1 cup of ice to the iron skillet or steam pan.

Bake for 40 minutes, or until the crust is light brown and crisp and the loaves make a hollow sound when tapped on the bottom.

Remove the loaves from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

California Blondes

I was working at a drugstore in the cosmetics department when a hair coloring company found the model Cheryl Tiegs and had her be the image of the California Blonde for their ad campaign. She was immediately the 'it' girl for young women. The company sold a lot of blonde hair color kits. The song "California Girls" was in that same era, and the Summer of Love wasn't far behind. Everyone wanted that sunny California look, or to live in California. Of course the older generation saw all of the sex, drugs and rock 'n roll as a sign that California was the hotbed of degeneracy and a land of fruits (gays) and nuts. Having lived in California most of my adult life, they may have a point, but there are just as many ordinary folks here as anywhere else...the wild ones and ones that seem different just get more media attention. Being someone who often felt different while I was growing up, I like the feeling of' being accepted for who I am' that is a California hallmark, at least in much of the state.

Today's cookie celebrates the fruits and nuts, as well as the sunny because it's a blondie, the sister of a brownie because it's like a brownie without chocolate. I added fruits and nuts and used plenty of vanilla. It makes a moist, rich, delicious bar cookie, a bit on the sweet side like a young California girl. Hope you enjoy your California Blondes.

California  Blondes
A variation of a recipe by Jill O’Connor in Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey, Desserts for the Serious Sweet Tooth.

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
2 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon baking powder

2  cups mixed nuts – I used half and half of pecans and walnut pieces
1 cup mixed dried fruits - I used regular and golden raisins and dried cranberries
1 cup white chocolate chips
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Position oven rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Use cooking spray to lightly coat a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.

Melt the butter and sugars together in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the butter and sugars are blended and completely melted and starting to bubble gently. Remove the pan from heat and let the mixture cool slightly.

In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, vanilla and salt. Slowly whisk the cooled butter and sugar mixture into the eggs just until combined. Whisk in the flour and baking powder to form a loose batter. (Make sure the batter is cool before stirring in the remaining ingredients, otherwise the chocolate will start to melt before the bars are baked.)

Stir the chopped  nuts, dried fruits, and white and dark chocolate chips into the cooled batter. (I mixed all of the "mix-in" ingredients together in a very large measuring cup before adding to the batter. That way I knew that there wouldn’t be a clump of nuts here and a clump of white chocolate there, but rather a nice mix of all the goodies.) Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula.

Bake until the top is shiny and slightly crackled and feels firm to the touch, 30 – 35 minutes. A wooden skewer inserting into the batter should come out with moist crumbs clinging to it. Let cool on a wire rack to room temperature, then cut into bars and serve.

Makes 16 large or 32 small bars.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


The kitchen remodel is coming along. The old front hall will become my baking center in less than a week! Because I have decided to get rid of grout as much as possible in this house, I was looking for another treatment than tile for the back splash between the counter material and the upper cabinet. A few months ago I began thinking about a mural. This past week I actually painted a mural, sort of a bird's eye view of the bay area water and hills, with some vineyards and golden summer fields, too.

I've never painted a mural, so I was really anxious about starting. I decided to do it in pieces, starting with a sketch, using a white paint pen over the pumpkin butter wall color. After that I used some wall paint samples that didn't work out, one in a very pale gold and one in a khaki color, to paint in the general design...sort of creating a canvas. The photo at the start of the post shows how that worked out.

The following day I used more paint samples and some acrylic paints that were a gift from Straight Shooter. This allowed me to put some color on those hills and in the sky and on the water, making them very much three dimensional.

Now I was feeling more confident, so the next day I added the golden fields, trees and shrubs near and far, other detail, depth, and even some washes of color.

The best part was later in the day when I was able to add the details to the fields and more shades of green to the trees, plus closer trees on the left (below). That really made it work for me. Sweetie suggested that I add a horizon line and he was right. The deeper gold out past the hills, on the left, works very well. The whole painting is about 48 inches wide by 20 inches tall. There is a window just to the left, so it gets light from that side. That's why I had the light in the painting coming mostly from the left. The very upper and very lower sections will be covered by cabinets and counter top material, so not much work needed to happen there.

Today I deepened some color, added a wash of blue at the top of the hills and over the right side to suggest distance, then used tiny dots of yellow and white paint to suggest flowers in the nearest field. No photo of that yet, but when the cabinets are installed, I'll take a photo that shows how it all turned out and share it with you.

It has been a lot of fun learning how to get the effects I want and letting the paint take over some of the time, too, and just enjoying the unexpected results. My experience doing watercolor really helped, and my love of color and skill with color mixing helped, too. I'm often glad that I have creative talents, but today I really felt like an artist when I saw the finished mural. The cabinets arrive next week and then I'll be able to see how it all fits together. Best of all, I can enjoy looking at it while I bake once everything is finished!

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Summer Simple Pie

There are all kinds of pies but, by their nature, pies are approachable. A butter cream embellished multi-layered cake is fancy and fine, but pies are usually much more simple. A pie like the one I made a few days ago is simplicity crust, a mixture of fruit dusted with some flour to help thicken the juices, a brush of milk over the finished crust for color and a sprinkle of sparkling sugar for crunch. Even simpler would be to make it with one kind of fruit. If that fruit were, for instance, blueberries, then there is no peeling or cutting; no prep to speak of except of washing the berries and drying them off a bit.

I had fresh, ripe peaches on hand which only required peeling and cutting into curved slices. The pits and skins went into the wet garbage, but could also go into the compost pile. Strawberries needed to be hulled and some were large enough that I cut them in half. Blackberries from the bushes down the driveway were rinsed along with the blueberries and allowed to drain and air dry a bit while I prepared the crust.

Although I can make a delightful pie crust from scratch, if I'm going for simple I use a ready made crust. I use the rolling pin to flatten and enlarge it about another two inches all around. Then it goes onto a piece of parchment paper. This time I should have put that paper on a rimmed baking sheet because all of the fruit was very juicy. Even with the flour added I had too much juice seeping from the pie. That juice ended up spilling off of the parchment paper as I removed the pie from the oven. Hot fruit juice went all over the oven! It cleaned up nicely once the oven cooled, but I felt foolish for not containing the pie to avoid the spill.

The finished pie is rustic to look at but very, very tasty. Such a summery mix! Peaches, blueberries, blackberries and strawberries, barely held together with crisp pastry. Each slice had some of the fruit juices from the parchment paper, too. We could have embellished it with whipped cream or ice cream, but it truly didn't need that. It was a simple summer pie and a true seasonal delight.

Simple Summer Pie

1/2 pint fresh strawberries, rinsed,drained, hulled and sliced in half if large
3-4 ripe peaches, peeled, pit removed, and sliced...about 8 slices per peach
1/2 pint ripe blackberries, rinsed and drained
1/4 pint ripe blueberries, rinsed and drained
3-4 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 prepared pie crust round (I use Pillsbury ReadyCrust)
1-2 tablespoons milk
1-2 tablespoons sparkling sugar (optional)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

In a large bowl gently combine the strawberries, peach slices, blackberries and blueberries. Sprinkle with the flour and nutmeg and gently toss the fruit until it absorbs the flour. Set aside.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pie crust round to about 11 or 12 inches in diameter. Place on a sheet of parchment paper. Place parchment paper on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour the prepared fruit mixture in the middle of the crust and mound it, leaving the outer 2-3 inches without fruit. Fold the outer 2-3 inches of crust up over the mounded fruit, pleating as necessary to bring it over the fruit. If needed, use a finger dipped in clear water to lightly wet the pastry at the folds, so that the pastry sticks together.

Use a pastry brush to brush the milk over the crust and sprinkle, if desired, with sparkling sugar. Bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes, then turn heat down to 375 degrees F. and continue to bake until juices bubble and pastry is golden brown.

Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes on a cooling rack before serving. Serves 4-6.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Cool Dinner Salad

Well, here we are in the middle of the year, the beginning of July. Hot evenings are part of that mid year time, at least above the equator. Some evenings the fog rolls in, like last night, and we can enjoy eating indoors and scarfing down a warm lamb braise over rice. (Yes, I know it was national hot dog and hamburger day, the 4th of July, but we had lamb. I'm still a patriot, but it was pretty chilly out around here.)

It was much warmer earlier in the week when we enjoyed this delicious chicken salad with pecans and grapes. I had some a couple of days later for lunch, surrounded by wedges of local tomatoes. Great combo! I had been inspired by a chicken and grape salad I saw at a local deli, but I basically threw together what I thought should go into this kind of salad, without a recipe. Hope you like it.

Chicken Salad with Grapes and Pecans

3-4 cups diced cooked chicken (I poached chicken breasts in chicken broth, with some celery tops and peppercorns added, then cooled them, drained them and diced them up into bite sized pieces)
1 cup red or green seedless grapes, halved
1/2 cup pecans, roughly chopped
3 stalks celery, diced
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup plain yogurt
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
juice of 1/2 a lemon
milk as needed
1 teaspoon Italian parsley, finely chopped

In a large bowl gently mix together the chicken, grapes, pecans and celery.
In a small bowl mix together the mayonnaise, yogurt, mustard, thyme, and lemon juice. Add enough milk to make the dressing as thick as Ranch dressing (a little thicker than heavy cream). Pour over the chicken mixture and gently stir to combine thoroughly. Chill for at least 1 hour.

When read to serve, garnish with the parsley. Serve as is, over a bed of lettuce, in cups made from hollowed out tomatoes, garnished with more grapes or with wedges of tomato.

Serves 4 - 6

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Bee Cake

Although I love to bake, there are times, like last evening's family gathering, when there is too much else going on and a purchased cake is the ultimate indulgence. Although there are a few really great cake places nearby, my favorite bakery for cakes is still Freeport Bakery in Sacramento. I've been enjoying their cakes for a long time and because I only get to have some, on average, about two or three years apart, I really make sure to savor every bite.

For the gathering our Sacramento area contingent brought two of their baked goodies, a delicious Key lime pie and a Bee Cake. Although I enjoyed the pie, I really loved the bee cake, with it's honey butter cream and delicate vanilla cake. If you ever get a chance to visit the Freeport Bakery, I can tell you that every variety of cake I've ever had there has been outstanding, so enjoy and indulge.