November 28, 2014

Time to be still

I took these photos a few weeks ago. Now everything is covered with snow and we've left the time of year when the leaves are gone, the light is weak and the world is in shades of gray. I love this in between season because it is still and muted, waiting but not hurried. Then the snow arrives brightening everything, laying it's cozy, festive blanket over the ragged brown grass and scattered leaves.

In this part of the world we are just on the edge of winter and I haven't yet gotten tired of the short days and the cold. I like the stillness of the woods where to do lists and obligations can be forgotten. The barren feeling that is already being eclipsed by holiday preparations, gatherings and cheer. In the midst of this season which can get way too busy, find time to be still, to appreciate, to observe.

November 24, 2014

Baking, Eating, Judging

There's been a lot of pie on this blog over the years. I probably share them here as often as I make them which is usually once in the summer and again around Thanksgiving. Over the weekend, we held our fourth annual pie contest. Usually there are two pies in the competition, one by Ray and one by me. This year we decided that eating lots of pie a few days before Thanksgiving sounded like a great idea, so we invited friends and family to join us in baking, eating, and judging.

We ended up with seven pies and ten adults. There were pumpkin pies, apple crumble, key lime, and both chocolate and banana cream. Everyone voted for their favorites in best crust, best filling, best non-traditional, and best over all. The competition was close and I am sure that every pie got at least a few votes. After announcing the winners for each category, it was clear that with so many pies and such full bellies we all won.

I will say that the recipe I am about to share did not win best overall but it tied for best crust and best non-traditional. After working at a bakery over two Thanksgiving seasons, I am really comfortable making a classic butter crust, so I decided to go out on a limb and dreamed up the chai spiced pumpkin pie with chocolate crust and coconut cream. I wanted to make the pie gluten and dairy free but I wasn't sure if I could make it from an idea to a finished pie. The number one rule of our pie contest was that no disclaimers or other discussion of your pie were allowed before judging happened. You know, Julia Child's rule that you never apologize if your food doesn't turn out well? It is so tempting to explain what went wrong before sharing something that you make, though usually no one else notices. We all, mostly, held our tongues about the possible short-comings of our creations and instead filled our mouths with pie.

Chai Spiced Pumpkin Pie with Chocolate Crust and Coconut Cream

This pie is gluten and dairy free (not vegan because it uses eggs). I adapted the crust from this recipe, substituting coconut oil for butter and almond flour for flour. I was inspired to try the spices in this filling recipe, but I used coconut milk instead of creme fraiche or cream. This recipe could be made with regular flour, butter, and milk but it was fun to make something a little different that some our friends who couldn't eat gluten or dairy would also enjoy. Either way you make it, you will have a dense chocolatey crust and a thick, creamy filling.

Chocolate Crust
1 cup almond flour
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
4 ounces coconut oil
1 egg
4 ounces semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350'  

Lightly grease a 9 inch tart pan with coconut oil. Combine the flour, sugar, cocoa, salt and spices. Add coconut oil and beat with a mixer on medium speed until the coconut oil is mostly incorporated. Add the egg and beat until it forms a soft dough. Refrigerate for 20 minutes (for easier pressing) or press the dough into a tart pan without refrigerating. Make sure the dough is pressed evenly on the bottom and sides of the pan. Prick the tart dough on the bottom in a few places with a fork. Place a piece of parchment paper over the tart pan and fill the inside of the tart with dry beans, uncooked rice, or pie weights. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove the parchment and weights and bake for another 3-5 minutes until the crust seems mostly dry. Once the crust is out of the oven, sprinkle the chocolate chips over the bottom of the tart crust. Let them sit for a few minutes and then spread the melted chocolate evenly over the bottom of the tart. Set aside to cool.

While the tart crust is baking or cooling, make the filling.

Chai Spiced Pumpkin Filling
15 ounces pumpkin or butternut squash (canned, or baked and then pureed until smooth)
8 ounces coconut milk
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 eggs

If you are using canned pumpkin you can skip the step of cooking the pumpkin and just combine the ingredients in a bowl. If you are using baked pumpkin (not from a can) then combine it with the coconut milk, cornstarch, spices, sugars, maple syrup, and salt in a sauce pan. Stir over medium heat until the pumpkin is shiny and slightly thicker about 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat, scrape into a bowl, and let cool for 5 minutes. Add the three eggs to the pumpkin and whisk until everything is completely smooth and combined. 

Pour the pumpkin into the cooled tart shell and bake for 30 minutes or until the pie is set in the middle. Let it cool for several hours and refrigerate overnight if you are not serving it until the next day. Garnish with coconut cream.

Coconut Cream
1 can of full fat coconut milk that has sat long enough to separate the thick coconut milk from the thinner coconut water
1 tablespoon of powdered sugar

Carefully open the can of coconut milk and scoop out the thick coconut milk into a bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the sugar and beat on medium high until the coconut milk has thickened to a whipped cream consistency. 

November 20, 2014

Pumpkin Ginger Cookies

pumpkin ginger cookies

One of the delights of living in Maine again is that we are lucky enough to live near many of our good friends. Not just any good friends, but friends we can invite for dinner at the last minute. If you ask me, this might be the best kind of get together. The kind that happens with some spontaneity, not too much worry, and leaves your plates scraped clean and filled with gratitude for this unexpected gathering.

We are entering a time of year full of gatherings, most of which require planning a few days or weeks ahead. It is, of course, a busy time on top of the busy times that happen every other day of the year. Maybe it is because schedules don't often align without a lot of planning that it feels magical to share a good meal on a Tuesday or Sunday evening. We pull the kitchen table out from the wall and squeeze a few extra chairs around it or sit on the living room floor and make trips back into the kitchen for seconds. Its not too different from our usual weeknight family dinners but sharing food with friends makes it special.

Sometimes I like to throw together a quick dessert and these pumpkin ginger cookies are just right this time of year. I created the recipe when I wanted a ginger cookie but didn't have any molasses in my cupboard.

Pumpkin Ginger Cookies
For a bit more "pumpkin spice" you could also add a 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg and cloves.

2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder 
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
4 ounces/1 stick unsalted butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 cup cooked pumpkin or butternut squash
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

Preheat the oven the 350. Combine flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon in a small bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until combined. Add the egg, pumpkin, and ginger and beat until everything is incorporated. Add the flour and mix to form a smooth, stiff dough. Roll 2 tablespoons of dough into a ball and place on a baking sheet, repeating until all the dough is used. Bake for 12-15 minutes.

Makes about 24 cookies.

P.S. Pumpkin Cake with Ginger Cream Cheese Frosting, Pumpkin Chocolate Tart, Pumpkin Ice Cream.

November 10, 2014

Tiny Project #3

We walked into the kitchen and I dropped the grocery bag on the chair. Amos wasted no time in exploring the contents of the canvas bag. He pulled out a plastic bag full of unpopped kernels of corn and lost interest in anything else that we had brought home. He dropped the bag on the floor, delighted by the sharp sound as it hit the tiles. Sliding his feet back and forth as he stepped on the bag, he explored the texture of hard kernels under his feet. He picked it up, carried it around, dropping it, squeezing it.

It was a relief to me that this bag of popcorn could keep him occupied for so long. It crossed my mind that the bag would probably, eventually break but after a whiney, difficult, tired morning I didn't care as long as he played happily while I did some of the things I needed to do. While we both continued our activity, I waited for the inevitable scattering of seeds across the floor. With this barely a worry in the back of my mind, I thought of bean bags. If Amos could enjoy a plastic bag of kernels so much, maybe he would like something he could play with all the time. Instead of waiting until sometime later to make the bean bags, why not now?

I grabbed a jar of old popcorn which no longer popped into the fluffy, crunchy treat I can always eat by the handful. The old kernels could go to better use as bean, er corn, bags. It took no more than 10 minutes to stitch the squares together, to carefully fill them with popcorn, and to bind the open edge shut. I tossed each one on the floor behind me and they landed with a satisfying smack. Amos might be more drawn to something out of the grocery bag or cupboard, but this homemade toy has so much more potential. Bean bags are great for throwing when wooden blocks and other hard things are not. They fit into cups and bowls instead of water which is best left in the bathtub. They have a wonderful weight for tossing and catching over and over again. They are the easiest thing to sew and they don't have to be square or even as long as as they are stitched tightly so none of the kernels or beans can escape.

If you don't have a small child, an interest in juggling, or an urge to play lawn games, you can also make a very nice eye pillow by cutting a rectangle instead of a square. If you use rice or flax seeds then you can warm the pillow in the microwave for relaxing treat. Perhaps while your child amuses himself with beanbags?

Cotton fabric
Popcorn kernels, small dry beans, or uncooked rice to fill the bags

Cut two squares of cotton fabric. 4 inches by 4 inches (or a bit larger) is a good bean bag size. For an eye pillow you could cut two 9 by 4 inch rectangles.

Line up the squares with the right sides (printed sides) together. Stitch around 3 sides of the square, about a half inch in from the edge of the fabric (this is the seam allowance). Turn out the square so that the right sides of the fabric are facing out. Pour in enough corn kernels, beans or whatever you are using to fill it about half way.

This part can be a bit tricky. Taking care to keep all of the beans inside, fold the raw open edges down about a half inch toward the inside of the bean bag. Pin or hold the folded sides together and stitch them shut.

Toss the bean bag toward any interested person. Make another if you want.

P.S.  Tiny projects #1 + #2

October 28, 2014

Beet Hummus

There are many reasons why I like having people over to our house. Inviting others into our cozy nest, providing sustenance and relaxation to our friends, the chance to connect with people we care about. I also love the opportunity to make food that we might not eat on a night when it is just the three of us. I know it is best not to attempt a complicated new recipe when you are serving guests and ideally we all want to serve food that we are certain will taste delicious. Fortunately, I don't feel the need to impress our guests. I aim to provide a really good meal, but I don't worry about whether I will achieve perfection.

When you're sharing food with good friends there is not a lot of fussing required. It's the people who don't mind if your house smells like burnt popcorn, who bring you a bottle opener with the wine, who don't hesitate to make themselves comfortable on the floor, or at the stove. Absolutely none of this is expected or required but I am happy to welcome people into my home and hope that they feel comfortable here.

Over the weekend we were glad to find that our new place has easily enough room for a pack of toddlers and their antics along with their parents and friends. I made some of my fall favorite foods for the gathering, including cranberry salsa, a butternut squash almond pie, the best chocolate chip cookies, and beet hummus. This bright pink spread is excellent on bread or for dipping chips and crackers. The flavors of sweet earthy beets and nutty tahini bring out the best in each other.

Beet Hummus
This recipe should be adjusted to your taste, but here are the basic amounts. If you really don't like beets, you can substitute 2 cups of cooked butternut squash for the beets which also makes a delicious spread.

6 small to medium beets, stems a roots trimmed off
1 small garlic clove
3 tablespoons tahini
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cumin 
1/4 cup olive oil

Place the beets in a pot, cover with water and simmer until they can be easily pierced with a fork. Let them cool until they are not to hot to touch. Slip off the skins (this is sometimes easier under running water). Place the beets, garlic, tahini, lemon juice, salt and cumin in the bowl of a food processor. Puree until smooth. While the food processor is running, drizzle in the olive oil. Adjust ingredients to taste.

October 21, 2014

Fall Planting

Over the weekend we spent a few hours sheet mulching my dad's garden in preparation for next season. I planted a small bed of garlic which will overwinter and start growing in the spring. In contrast to those hardy garlic cloves which sleep soundly through the freeze, I brought some more delicate green things into our house.

I am very happy to finally have some plants in our living space. Our new apartment gets lots of wonderful light so I hope I can give these plants a good environment in which to thrive. The greenhouse where I chose the plants had a sign saying that you need something 15-18 plants to purify the air in 1000 square feet. I was tempted to bring home more plants, but I decided to make sure that I can keep these few alive until the garlic begins to sprout. I usually find house plants more difficult than garden annuals but I have done some research and I hope to give them the best care I can. Having some living green things inside helps our house to feel even more like a home.

Do you have any favorite house plants?

October 14, 2014

The Stuff of Life Every Day

We're living in crisp falls days with so much blue sky perfectly accented by red, yellow, orange, and still some green. The leaves are gathering in crunchy clusters, pushed around by the wind and kicking and swishing feet through the piles. October is the month for soaking in the sun whenever it can be found. I sit in patches on my living room rug to warm my bare feet and avoid the shade when I am outside. It is especially nice to walk with the sun on my back temporarily storing heat in my dark gray sweatshirt.

We are getting outside as much as we can while the weather is still very pleasant. It seems like the ideal part of autumn where, depending on the temperature and time of day, cozy and free can both be enjoyed. We're not trapped inside or sick of root vegetables yet. I keep cooking butternut squash and pureeing it with a generous amount of butter, salt and pepper. Amos has long outgrown purees, but he loves spooning this baby food into his mouth (also squeezing it in his fist). We have months ahead for cooking squash every which way.

I've been knitting as much as possible. So far just hats, one for each of us. Most years I don't start knitting until well after we need the warm woolens but for some reason this October I am already knitting around and around and around. I think a lot about these little projects, the foods I prepare regularly for us to eat, the stuff of every day life that is also a satisfying creative outlet. They are the things that I could, if I had the money and the desire, outsource to companies and manufacturers but I do them myself because I want the connection and rhythms of every day life. I always want to give more credit and value to these every day things. Filling the pantry, making dinner, writing a letter, things that don't cause big excitement but we do them day after day, season after season. They should be valued and enjoyed because it is these small things that life is made of.