March 25, 2009

Dessert for a Friend

Its a curious thing, how so much time and space can come between friends, but, when reunited, its as though there had been no distance at all. My friend Jamie was visiting last week from Thailand, which has been her home for the past year. We've known each other for years, starting in high school, then ended up in the same place for college and have seen each other pretty regularly since then. But now we are mostly connected by the shouting back and forth of email and sometimes a letter or postcard. So much gets lots between those exchanges as life goes on in small ways and big: things have changed for each of us. It seemed like a year of not seeing each other would make it hard to reconnect, but then there we were and it was so normal that I hardly knew what questions to ask her about her time away.

I just always marvel at how everything that has happened since you last saw each other doesn't really matter when you reconnect with someone. It means more stories of adventures and challenges and less time, maybe, to talk about the books you've been reading or other small things. The great thing about an old friend is that there is no pretense, no need to impress, just the delight in each other's company.

When Jamie called me and we made plans to have dinner the following night, I immediately thought: I should bake a cake! I should make a really fabulous special dinner. But it was eight-thirty at night, I was tired, and I had to work all day the next day. My elaborate quickly faded. The next day, after a walk, and some tea, I suggested to Jamie that I could make risotto (which I don't think she found in Thailand). As the rice bubbled away, I was still racking my brains for some sort of celebratory dessert. I began shuffling through cookbooks to see if there was anything I could make with what I had on hand. I don't remember how I came upon the chocolate pudding cake, but it sounded good and it seemed ridiculously easy to throw together.

Its actually a version of something my mom used to make, called Denver Chocolate Pudding. I think I would call it Chocolate Lava Cake or Chocolate Swamp Cake. The point is that, while its not pretty, it can be made in just a few minutes and bubble away in the oven while you eat dinner and listed to stories from far away lands. It's sort of a step down from all of the incredibly rich dark chocolatey desserts which certainly have their place, but its perfect for a Monday night dinner with a good friend.

Chocolate Lava Pudding Cake
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Celebrates

It may look slightly scary, but its a wonderful combination of spongy cake and gooey pudding. Be sure to admire the molten chocolate lava that comes bubbling up from the cake when it is ready. I would let it cool quite a bit before tasting, to prevent burnt tongues but also because it will have a more pudding-like consistency. You could use soy milk instead of milk and it probably wouldn't be hard to substitute a gluten-free flour mix. On the other hand, I think it is best served with lots of whipped cream. To make it more chocolatey, increase the amount of cocoa slightly or use hot coffee instead of boiling water.

1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk (or soy milk)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1 1/2 cups boiling water

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Oil a 9x13 inch glass baking pan

In a mixing bowl combine 3/4 cup of granulated sugar, 1/4 cup of the cocoa with the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Stir in the milk, oil and vanilla and beat well to form a thick batter. Spread this batter into the prepared pan.

In a separate bowl, mix together brown sugar with the remaining granulated sugar and cocoa. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the top of the batter in the pan. Pout boiling water over the whole thing.

Bake until the cake is set around the sides and the top is loose and bubbling, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Serves 4-6

March 22, 2009

The Light


Across the gardens, across the schoolyards
Across the chapels where lovers have leapt
Across the table in our old kitchen                 
Across the cities where our future slept         

It's the light that's changing                             
It's the light that's changing                              
It's the light that's changing                               
It's only the light                                                   
                                                     -Mason Jennings                       

I finally finished a spring project.  I've had the fabric for a while now, but I became extra motivated by the bright sun that's been shining all around.  When we moved into our apartment, heavy dark curtains hung over all the windows.  I took most of them down and replaced them with others, but the curtains in our bedroom have stayed.  They kept out the winter drafts that seeped through the newly replaced windows, but they also kept it quite dim in there.  

Our apartment is on the first floor and most of the windows are on the north side of the building, so I am always eager for whatever sunlight shines in and this time of year there is more and more.  Living on the first floor, I like to have curtains, especially at night, though I don't think there are many people looking in our windows.  It's still nice to have some privacy.  
The curtain project went swimmingly.  Usually in my sewing (and many other things) there are a few mishaps, but I only had to rip out and re-sew one tiny seem this time.  

I made panel curtains from this  Joel Dewberry fabric which I bought at my local fabric store.I bought two yards which was just enough to make two half-curtains with attached loops to hold them up.  I thought half curtains would work well to let in more light, but keep the bedroom a private space.  I do love looking up at the blue sky while lying in bed.  Alas, here was my mishap. Our windows are adjacent to the neighbor's driveway and on the off chance that someone upstairs looked out they might see into our bedroom window.  Am I being overly concerned about this? I love the way they look in the room, but I think they might let in too much of the outside world.  Once again I have that familiar feeling of, how can I fix this mistake?  But the curtains themselves are perfect, just not for that room.

They are held up by expandable tension curtain rods which I love because you can move them from window to window or apartment to apartment. For now I have hung the curtains in our project room/office, a chaotic and sunny corner of the apartment where we make all kinds of things, especially lots of messes.  I guess I'll be on the look out for more curtain fabric and time to sew them before daylight savings time ends!

March 19, 2009

This Lawn is Your Lawn

Borrowing a phrase from this great campaign, I must rejoice at the news that Michelle Obama (along with various staff gardeners and kids from a local school) is planting a garden on the White House lawn!  I know that many people have been dreaming of this becoming a reality, myself included.  I sort of didn't think it would happen, but they will soon break ground.  They plan to have raised beds, use White House compost and grow 55 varieties of vegetables plus herbs and berries.  They will have bees and it will be organic.  I'll be interested to see what happens with this -- maybe they should have a white house garden webcam.  Hopefully it will be a victory for healthy food and an inspiration for others to try.

March 17, 2009

A Hint of Green

seeds

The first days of spring are a fragile pleasure. Though the mornings are cold, the sun is slower to leave in the evening, it is warmer and brighter, too. I want to throw myself whole heartedly into what feels like the beginning of this delightful season, but I know that March is fickle and the weather could change at any minute. Even into April, in southern Maine, we can't count on spring entirely. Despite this, the warmer days are more than welcome and everyone (people, animals, and plants alike) seems to be making the most of this change. Like the snow drops I saw peeking out of a garden bed in a sunny corner, we are all ready to shake off the cold and dark and stretch out into spring.

As much as I'm sure everyone would like to be done with every last bit of the cold weather, this transition won't happen as quickly as we would all hope. But this time of year something changes every day. The sunlight is more abundant, there are more birds singing in the early morning. Hardy bulbs sprout their tiny flowers, buds begin to swell -- change is evident, even as it seems like winter is slow to leave. Its still well below freezing at night and fairly cool during the day, but I have been thinking a lot about planting at the community garden. I guess its hard to be patient and spring doesn't even officially begin until later this week.

All winter I have been wanting to do some sprouting in my kitchen and finally last week I started the process. I had forgotten how simple it is to do, and after the process began I was annoyed that I hadn't been doing it all winter. Its a great way to have some homegrown veggies when the ground is still frozen and local greens are hard to find. I think this is a good time of year, though, to grow sprouts. When it begins to feel more like spring, I always wish for lighter greener foods and since I can't buy these locally in March this is the perfect time to begin growing some.

Perhaps the idea of growing sprouts seems absurd considering that they aren't particularly hearty, filling or gourmet. But sprouted seeds are a simple way to grow some of your own food, even in cold weather and they have a crisp, earthy taste that is great in salads, sandwiches or a stirfry.

There are a variety of seeds that are good for sprouting. Radish, broccoli, alfalfa, and mung beans all make good sprouts. You can also get sprouting mixes and all of these can usually be found at natural foods stores. In addition to seeds you will need a quart sized jar with a piece of mesh (such as cheese cloth) that will cover the top and can be held securely in place with a jar lid or rubber band.

Add two or three tablespoons of seeds to the jar and fill with water. Cover the top of the jar securely with the screen. Rinse the seeds and then cover with water again. Let the seeds soak like this overnight. The next day, pour the water out of the jar (without removing the screen). Place the jar upside down in a bowl so the remaining water can drain.

sprouting

Rinse the seeds at least twice a day, or more if needed. The seeds (which will begin to sprout in a day or two) should not dry out, but they should not be too wet, either. I find that cooler months are best for sprouting because the seeds don't dry out too much and they stay fresher as they begin to grow.

seeds

Continue rinsing the seeds for a few days. Its best to keep the jar in the bowl someplace out of direct sunlight or high heat. I keep mine near the kitchen sink so I don't forget to rinse them and they get some indirect light so they are greener.

sprouting

The sprouts are ready when they are about half- to one-inch long. At this point I dump them out of the jar into a bowl of clean, cool water and give them another rinse. The seeds which didn't sprout will sink to the bottom, although its okay to eat those, too. Sprouts are best eaten when they are really fresh, and should be stored in a container that doesn't keep them too wet or compact them too much.

sprouts

March 8, 2009

Small Joys

Time flies by and by the end of the week the beginning seems like a distant, vague memory. The weeks swing round and I find myself in the same spot I was a week ago like no time has passed. But in between are all the small things that make up all of life. For these I rejoice.

A sunny warm walk to the beach, watching dogs play freely and joyfully. After a busy, tiring day at work, a nice restaurant week meal. More sun and warmth on a day that was supposed to be rainy. The time to be leisurely: to take a walk with my favorite guy and puppy dog, to share conversation and a meal with a friend. Riding my bicycle again after it has sat inside for months.

Just sitting in the sun and soaking up the warmth which can be so fleeting in March.

a clean kitchen

The simple joy of a clean kitchen.

cookie making

And the equal delight in making a mess of it.

A lovely mess

March 2, 2009

A Wintry Day

March has arrived looking no different than February and bringing another blast of snow and icy air. This gave me an unexpected snow day, and the gift of sitting warm, and fairly cozy inside working on various projects while outside the snow blows sideways and covers the cold earth. Its been a long winter. I've been glad for the times outside gliding along on new cross country skis. I haven't had enough time to this recently, but I have spent plenty of time as bundled as possible trudging over ice and snow in well below freezing air.

Today, sitting in side, I've finally had a chance to dream about spring. I've been choosing vegetable seeds to plant at the community garden. Its hard to imagine seeds growing in the warmth of the sun right now, but I know that it is coming as the days pass so quickly. I stumbled upon this soon to be film and watching the trailer brought me straight to a field on a summer morning. Just a glimpse of these farms and the farmers who are so passionate and caring about the land is really inspiring to me. I truly can't wait to be involved in all of that. I've been reading about cheese and learning to make some and brushing up on gardening skills and techniques to get ready for the season. Despite the piling snow, flakes driven sideways by the wind, spring lies beneath waiting to emerge. Even as I grip my tea cup for warmth, I know it will be here so soon.

March 1, 2009

Brunch Luck

I am a pretty devoted breakfast eater. The hour and quantity of when and what I eat very quite a bit depending on the day, but I generally eat something before I leave the house or get too far into my day. I don't usually think too much about what I will eat -- usually whatever is on hand that will fill me up nutritiously and keep me going for a few hours. If I have a free morning or some extra time I will frequently bake something for breakfast and snacks.

Though I don't give it much thought everyday, lately I have been cataloging the endless possibilities that can be breakfast. Truly there are unlimited possibilities for every meal of the day and more, but I don't think any other meal has so many options that are so unfailingly delicious and unrelentingly tempting. I've been thinking about this more and more since we started a monthly brunch pot luck at our apartment. First there are the morning classics (with variations only limited by the imagination) which aren't surprises but they never fail to please, especially when homemade. Pancakes! Waffles! French toast! Scrambled eggs, home fries, maybe fruit and yogurt. I don't hear any complaints, just the sound of forks scraping plates. And this is only a tiny tip of the vast iceburg filled with breakfast. Muffins, scones, cinnamon rolls and all the varieties they come in; egg dishes, cereals and cooked grains, breakfast puddings, breads, savory breakfasts I have yet to try...

Anyway, if I had time to make a big breakfast every day, I could probably eat something different every day of the year and not be dissappointed (I also probably wouldn't have to eat lunch or dinner). Lately, though, most of my breakfast planning and making has happened for brunch-luck. This usually involved mulling over all of the possibilities that immediately come to mind, buying a few ingredients and then, just as often as not, changing my mind about what I will make. The whole thing involves a lot of whim.

This was only our second monthly brunch-luck, but I think morning is an ideal time for a potluck. While I really enjoy having people over for dinner, it is always more of an event with more preparations and higher expectations. A brunch-luck on the other hand takes minimal planning -- whim is actually a central element to the whole thing. Since its a regular date, people can show up one month and not the next. We miss them, but we're consoled by the meal at hand. Our friends can come over sleepy and hang out for the morning. Its low key and, like I said before, the possibilities are endless.
fruit salad!
This month I ended up featuring cranberries. I made a simple fruit salad with pears, apples, oranges, toasted walnuts and dried cranberries lightly tossed in lemon juice. A few days before I made a variation of these scones which I froze and popped a few in the oven on Sunday morning. I experimented with cooking grains for a breakfast cereal which still needs some work. I simmered frozen cranberries and blueberries in a bit water and a couple tablespoons of sugar until they thickened into the perfect sauce to put on top of the cereal and Ray's french toast. It turned everyone's teeth an alarming shade of blue, but no one seemed to mind.
Mmm...french toast