books, Personal

Goodbye, 2016

I had many goals for 2016, and I achieved a pleasing number of them, but my most resounding success may have been my reading goal: I set out to read 100 books I had never read before during the course of this year, and as of today I have read 102.

I read novels, biographies, plays, poetry, and comics. I read fantasies, mysteries, romances, histories, and a few children’s books. I read ancient classics and books published last year. Some of my favorites were Ivanhoe (knights!) by Sir Walter Scott, and Tooth and Claw (dragons!), by Jo Walton. I read books in every format: paperback, hardback, on my Kindle, on my phone. I listened to many audiobooks, some read by volunteers and others by professionals.

2016 was a good year for me in some ways, but I’m not sorry to move forward into 2017, where many more good reads await me, I’m sure. Happy New Year, everyone!

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baking, Christmas, Christmas baking, dessert, food, Holidays

Crème Brûlée

This Christmas I received a very exciting present: a chef’s torch, which neatly combines my love of making fancy desserts with my love of setting things on fire. I have wanted one since I was about 15 years old, and this year my husband obliged me. It was easy to fuel and use, not to mention being a (literal) blast!

The recipe I used was from King Arthur Flour’s website: Crème Brûlée. Straining the custard is very important for achieving the incredibly smooth and creamy texture. I used turbinado sugar instead of demerara, but it worked fine and caramelizing it was really fun. The instructions are simple, but so is the dish! Aside from all the equipment required . . .

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baking, food

Cinnamon Rolls

This recipe comes from The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion, which is a great baking resource, as the title suggests.

Cinnamon Buns/Rolls

  • makes 12 buns
  • baking temperature 350°F

Dough

  • 3 1/2 unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp instant yeast
  • 3 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 Tbsp granular lecithin (optional, but helpful)
  • 2 Tbsp nonfat dry milk
  • 1 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 large egg plus enough water to make 1 cup
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 Tbsp soft butter

Filling

  • 1/4 cup (2 ounces) soft butter
  • 3/4 cup sugar mixed with
  • 1 Tbsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup nuts, raisins, or chocolate chips

Icing

  • 3 Tbsp heavy cream or 2 Tbsp water
  • 1 cup (four ounces) confectioners’ sugar

For the dough

Mix and knead together all the dough ingredients by hand or mixer to form a soft, smooth dough. Place it in a greased bowl, cover, and let it rise in a warm place for 1 to 1 1/2 hours; it should almost double in size.

To assemble

Turn out the dough onto a lightly greased surface and roll it into a rectangle measuring about 11 x 20 inches. Spread a thin layer of soft butter over the dough, leaving about 1 inch uncovered on the short side nearest you. Sprinkle with the cinnamon sugar and nuts, raisins, or chips of your choice. Starting with the short edge covered with filling, roll the dough into a log. Use a serrated knife to gently saw the log in half, then cut each side of the log into six equal pieces. Place the buns in a lightly greased 9 x 13-inch pan, pressing down slightly. Cover the buns and let them rise in a warm place for 45 minutes to 1 1/4 hours, until they are quite puffy (see pictures for all these steps).

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the buns for 20-25 minutes, until they’re golden brown. Remove from the oven and let them cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn them out of the pan and let them cool to just slightly warm before frosting.

To make the icing

Mix the heavy cream and confectioners’ sugar to make a creamy glaze; use water for a thinner glaze. Spread the icing on the buns.

 

Holidays, Personal

Happ(iness) Halloween

It is late October, almost time to set out a jack-o’-lantern and welcome Spiderman and Queen Elsa to help themselves to one’s candy. The leaves on the maple tree which shades our western window have all fallen*, or more likely, been forcibly parted from it by the wind.

The sky is overcast, but it doesn’t feel gloomy to me. For some reason, I am almost happy this morning, easily able to feel the good in the season and in the world. Forgive the possible descent into pomposity, but I’ve been thinking about happiness (there, I warned you. Proceed at your own risk). Happiness is often spoken of as if it existed outside ourselves, and most of us just can’t remember where we set it down last; perhaps we left it in the car? But when we go to check, it isn’t there.

But perhaps instead of thinking of happiness as being lost, or even found, we should think of it as being made. This idea is both frightening and exhilarating. Frightening, because that implies it’s something we have to do for ourselves, possibly involving hard work and even pain. And for some of us, there is a deep, abiding fear that there is not, cannot be, happiness inside, so it must be outside, if it exists at all.

The exhilaration comes from feeling happiness to be within the scope of our efforts, no longer to be denied us because  of our life’s circumstances or our personalities. When one stops thinking of emotion as being contingent on external circumstances, a new world opens up–not an endlessly blissful landscape, but still one which we have a part in shaping, in whatever way we decide. I’m far from being a Stoic, but I do like this quote from Marcus Aurelius**:

If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now.

I feel there is much truth in this. So I encourage you to make your own happiness. You can do it.

* Hence the seasonal name, fall. This has fallen out of use in British English, but remains current, alongside the more formal “autumn”, in American English.
** A Roman emperor who wrote a whole book on Stoicism.
baking, dessert, food, fruit

Peach Clafouti

It’s peach season! What to do with all those fresh peaches (courtesy of my parents’ fruit trees)?

I looked up peaches in the indices of some of my cookbooks to get some ideas, and I settled on King Arthur Flour’s peach clafouti.

Baking temperature and time: 375°F, 35-40 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups peeled and sliced peaches
  • 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 1/4 cups milk
  • 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Butter a round, 10-inch oven safe pan or skillet (I used a deep pie dish).
  2. Line the bottom of the pan with peaches and sprinkle the brown sugar over them.
  3. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt.
  4. In a separate bowl, mix together the eggs, milk, and vanilla. Blend thoroughly, and then gradually whisk in the flour mixture, smoothing out the lumps.
  5. Pour the mixture over the fruit and bake for 35-40 minutes until a cake tester inserted into the clafouti comes out clean.
  6. Serve warm or at room temperature. I would allow it at least and hour and a half to cool and set.
animals, birdwatching

Bird sighting! Caspian Tern

images.duckduckgo.com It’s been a long time since I posted about birdwatching, though that was the original purpose of this blog. However, on Saturday, I saw a kind of bird I had never seen before, somewhat gull-like but definitely distinct from them. I thought “Maybe it’s a tern!” but then immediately second guessed myself because I didn’t think terns could be found in my area.

When I got back home to my bird book, I discovered that my initial instinct had been correct, and the bird soaring over the lake was in fact a Caspian tern, probably out scouting for fish. So I’m going to put more trust in my first impressions in birdwatching!

baking, dessert, food

Snickerdoodles

These are delightfully chewy, buttery cookies, and very quick to make. Even after a couple of days, their texture is still good.

Baking temperature and time: 400°F for 8-10 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 3/4 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

To coat the cookies:

  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  1. In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together; add the eggs and beat them in.
  2. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend. You can chill the dough or make the cookies immediately.
  3. Roll the dough into small balls and roll each one in the cinnamon sugar mixture.
  4. On a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, bake the cookies at 400°F for 8-10 minutes

 

baking, food, Traditions

Cinnamon Stack Biscuits

These are American-style biscuits, leavened with baking powder. They are much more like British scones than British biscuits.

Makes: 12 muffin sized biscuits

Baking temperature and time: 375°F for 13 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup butter, lard, or shortening
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 1/4 butter
  • Cinnamon sugar (1/4 cup sugar and cinnamon to taste)
  • 2/3 cup raisins
  1. Combine the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl and whisk them together.
  2. Using a pastry cutter or your hands, blend the fat into the flour mixture.
  3. Add the milk to the dough and blend it in thoroughly, making a ball of dough.
  4. On a floured surface, roll the dough into a 12″ x 16″ rectangle.
  5. Melt the 1/4 cup butter and spread it evenly over the dough.
  6. Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar over the dough, then spread the raisins evenly on its surface.
  7. Cut the dough into five equal length-wise strips. Take one strip and stack it on the next. Repeat three times until all five strips are in one stack.
  8. Cut the stack into twelve equal pieces, then put them in a greased muffin tin, with the layers facing up (see pictures).
  9. Bake at 375°F and check after 13 minutes.

These have long been a favorite breakfast treat in my family. They are scrumptious, but it’s also fun to pull them apart to eat them, though not necessary; you can just chomp down on one if you can’t wait anymore!