Dishes: Dirty and Otherwise

I don’t have a dishwasher. To be more correct, I don’t have a working dishwasher. The old, nonworking dishwasher that occupies the space in my kitchen that a working dishwasher could occupy is filled with plastic containers of all sorts, which endure various states of order and disarray, leaning most of the time toward controlled chaos. They do not complain and therefore get attention infrequently, but this is beside the point.

When you have company (or in general a lot of people), a dishwasher is nice. I remember. After my fifth child was born, I got one in the house we lived in then, and we lived there till he was eight. I remember the dishwasher being handy during those years. For the past week or so, the number of people at my dinner table has ranged from seven to nine. I cook. That’s a lot of dirty dishes. They usually don’t fit on one drying mat. This is especially challenging when you have a lot of oddball dishes that sometimes (but don’t necessarily) stack well.

I like my oddballs, don’t get me wrong. I use these little (3×4-inch) chicken dishes when grandchildren come and when I am exercising portion control. Trust me, not that many crackers fit on one of these!

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How can using a chicken dish not make you smile?!

Plates are more than functional. I love giving my granddaughters the option of whether to use the girl with the green dress or the girl with the purple dress. Rise and Eppie always choose purple and green respectively, and Ellie and Piper choose one or the other at each meal with no evident reason or pattern. I got these plates decades ago on a trip to Germany and they remind me of those days – I love the memory! – and they add an element of fun for the girls. Nothing wrong with that.

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I have a lot of oddballs and I love them. Back in the day when I worked at the hotel, we ordered from a Villeroy and Boch rep who sent samples for us to look at when we were going to be ordering a new set for tea service, and then didn’t want them back. “Take them home,” she said. “Give them away if you want.” I took them home. Thus the lovely variety of different salad-size plates in my cabinet.

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The way I see it, if you have a lovely variety, you can choose the one that calls your name on any given day. Having that choice, plus the feel of a pretty plate in my hands, is a benign, delightful pleasure for me, even if no one else understands it.

I know I could use disposables. But I am way too environmentally conscientious for that. So I do a lot of dishes. Samuel does a lot of dishes. It’s not the end of the world. You develop a rhythm, a system, a groove. You figure out how to arrange the drying dishes most efficiently and most effectively, such as standing large knives up in the back corner point-down so they are out of the way and air gets all around the blade and allows optimal drying (however will they dry properly if you lay them flat?).

It gets done. During the process you can listen to music or sing to yourself, you can enjoy nice conversation if someone works alongside you, you can review the day in your head, plan upcoming events or fantasize in ways you are not required to share. You tidy up when the last pot or salad bowl is clean and the basin has been dumped, rinsed and wiped out. In its designated place you put the dishcloth (or sponge, if you are a sponge person, though we will save the serious conversations about the pros and cons of cloths vs. sponges for another day!). You walk away knowing you have done a small job well. I’ll take my tiny bits of satisfaction, thank you.

The dishwasher that came with this house I bought (going on eight years ago now) worked when the inspector inspected the house prior to closing. I don’t know what happened. All I know is that it doesn’t work. Getting a new one has never reached the top of the priority list. But there is good in that too. If I have everything, what is there to look forward to?

I look forward to a new kitchen someday. It will have a dishwasher. I will probably be in my sixties by the time this happens, but I can wait. Some people never get a new kitchen, let alone a dishwasher, and I never want to forget that. I am grateful for hot water coming out of the faucet, for lovely dishes to use, for strength to stand and wash them. Taking stock of what we have while at the same time keeping our dreams alive seems to me a good place of balance.

A Birthday Cake Worthy of Mom

My mom likes gooey frosting. If you are going to make a cake for her, that’s the first thing to know. If you are going to make her birthday cake, that’s perhaps the main thing to know. She will eat all around the frosting, saving the best for last, and savor every melt-in-your-mouth bite until it hardly looks like there was any cake at all on the plate.

I take that back. If you are going to make her birthday cake, the main thing to know is that the cake should be worthy of her. What is a birthday after all? To me it’s a time to celebrate that a person was born, that they came into the world, that they are part of your world. Clearly moms are in the enviable category of people essential to the fact of our own existence. But that doesn’t make them necessarily good, or in my case, great. I know I am blessed. My mom is amazing and I love her to no end. For as long as I can, I will celebrate her.

Last year, Mom moved to Charlottesville. For the first time in my adult life, I was close by – ten minutes from her place to be exact, as compared to six or seven hours as in the past. This year, on this birthday, she is happy and settled and nearby. Let the baking begin!

Fortunately for me, Mom not only loves gooey frosting, she also loves coconut. I’ve seen her eyeing those coconut-smothered cakes in the glass cases in bakeries. I’ve long known of her love of coconut macaroons, with or without a chocolate base. I’m safe putting as much coconut as I want on a cake. Does this look like enough? For a person who doesn’t eat nuts, oh, how I love coconut!

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This is the finished cake. It is two layers of sponge cake (also called genoise) with a filling of homemade lemon curd that has fresh raspberries and blueberries imbedded in it. The white fluffy frosting is a mix of buttercream and cream cheese appropriately smothered with coconut and decorated with more fresh raspberries. It is possible that I never made a cake for anyone that I was so anxious to eat myself!

The sponge cake part was new to me. What I mean is: I do not have a tried-and-true recipe for sponge cake nor do I remember ever having made one. To make this one, I did what any self-respecting wannabe baker would do, I consulted with an expert baker, or at least a credible one, which nowadays you do online. When you get a recipe online, you get not only the recipe, but often the many comments that others have made after trying said recipe. That’s a good bit of credibility, though not foolproof. I went with Natasha’s Kitchen and followed the instructions for her easy sponge cake.

One of the comments had to do with the consistency of the batter after it has undergone eight minutes of whipping in your stand mixer. The instructions said to whip the batter for 8-10 minutes and a reader said she had a trick to know if you had whipped it long enough: Detach the whisk attachment, lift it above the batter, make a figure 8 and see how quickly the 8 sinks into the batter. She said if you can count to ten and the figure 8 is still visible, you had whipped it long enough. At eight minutes (I used my phone timer) I stopped and did this trick. My figure 8 sank before I had counted to 2. I gave the batter another two minutes of whipping. It sank again. Uh-oh. Natasha said 8-10 minutes of whipping. I gave it one more minute on high and my 8 still sank. That’s where I said Bother this, it has to be good now, and poured it into the pans. It was very good.

The best part of this recipe is the suggestion to cut out circles of parchment paper for the bottoms of the cake pans. After the designated baking time, I let the two layers cool in their pans for ten minutes or so on a rack, then took them out of the pans, and let them cool the rest of the way, they wrapped them tightly in plastic wrap and froze them. This paper peeled easily off the frozen cake layer when I was ready to assemble and frost the cake. Another hint if you try this recipe. Use three pans instead of two. The amount of batter the recipe makes divided into my two standard cake pans spilled onto the sides of the pan. In the end this meant trimming off the edges when I took the cakes out of the pans, which left me having to eat them! Oh, yummy preview! Hmmm, maybe this extra, spilled-over part is not such a bad thing?!

Sandy brought marvelous raspberries the day before, and they are so pretty and so delicious, I wanted to use them in and on the cake. But they need something to sit in. On top they will sit in the frosting but in between the layers they needed something. Lemon curd seemed just right. Again I went online, this time to Taste of Home, having never made homemade lemon curd.

Again I followed instructions, and again the mixture didn’t seem thick enough after the amount of time it said to stir in a pot over a flame. I got impatient at that point and put a teaspoon of cornstarch in a cup and added just enough water to stir it into a thick paste, then added that paste to the hot lemon mixture. This worked. I can’t say whether the curd would have been fine with more patience and without my remedy. Probably it would have.

My last bit of improv concerned the frosting. You make a buttercream frosting with butter, confectioner’s (powdered) sugar and a little milk (and vanilla if you want but I ran out last time I used it, and know I have another bottle around here but couldn’t find it, so no vanilla this time). Again I used the stand mixer because I wanted the frosting really fluffy, so I let the whisk beat it like mad for ten minutes or so. But I got concerned that I didn’t have enough frosting for the sides and top of the cake, and I used up all the powdered sugar I had, so I decided that I could add some leftover cream cheese frosting (from another cake sometime recently) just to make sure there was enough. I let this all whip together in the mixer. When I relayed this story at the table while we were eating the cake, my daughter Marie said this example of make-do illustrated my lifelong culinary style. So be it. The frosting worked 😊

The last essential birthday cake element in my house is the plate that is used for the Birthday Girl’s piece (or Boy’s, as the case may be). Long long ago I got this plate and have always brought it out along with the other plain dessert plates. I am not good with balloons for calling attention to the person we are celebrating. But a plate I can do!

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I can’t say I like this plate’s design all that much, and have never been crazy about the orange, but it’s what I have and what we’ve used and it serves! Mom’s piece went on this plate.

Whether or not my children follow this birthday-plate tradition, I don’t know. But I hoped they would. At one point a few years ago I searched on ebay and got them each a birthday plate. My favorite is the one I found for Marie. I have always been enamored with the original Winnie the Pooh stories and illustrations. Could there be a better Happy Birthday plate than this? I hope she uses it on everyone’s birthdays!

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Our tradition, like many people’s, is that we bring the cake with lighted candles in from another room while singing Happy Birthday.

We sang,  Mom blew out her candles and we celebrated this wonderful lady I get to call Mom!

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Where our tradition differs from most people’s perhaps is that after the Birthday Girl or Boy blows out the candles, she or he gets to make the first slice into it. They do not cut their whole piece, just the first slice into the cake, which Marie said was my way of retaining control over portion size, but this is not actually true – that’s just the way my mom did it, so I did! Mom never explained why she did it, but the way I always saw it was that the Birthday Girl or Boy gets to be involved, gets to start the process, but is not burdened with the work of cutting up the cake (which, c’mon, can be messy and tricky and require more concentration than a person celebrating a birthday can rightly be expected to have at that moment) – a perfectly plausible alternative reason to do it this way, wouldn’t you say!?

Mom cut the first slice and I so enjoyed watching her enjoy her piece – down to the last bit of gooey frosting! And I enjoyed mine too!

Creamy Rice and Cheese Croquettes

I am on a roll with recipes because my daughter and her husband and their darling little ones are coming to visit for five days. I have more food in the house than we could eat in two weeks, but I’m ready for them! Besides bananas, grapes, a persimmon (thank you, Jerry!), banana muffins, coleslaw in a jar, salad fixings, bracciole, manicotti and numerous other things, I now also have a pile of creamy rice croquettes ready to reheat in the oven one of these evenings.

If you like mac and cheese, if you count it as a comfort food, if you enjoy the creamy cheese sauce complementing the texture of the pasta, get ready for a variation that adds a little crunch and a little spice. These croquettes use rice instead of pasta, and are bound up in a cheddar cheese sauce that’s flavored with paprika, formed into a patty and pan-fried.

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The recipe is another one from my mom. Thanks, Mom! I had these as a kid and made them for my own family as well. They are another tried-and-true. Gotta love tried-and-true.

You cook up the rice, set it aside (even overnight), make a regular roux and add extra egg yolks and a bit of paprika, and stir together the rice, the creamy roux and the cheese. Quantities are as follows (I quadrupled this recipe today, so I needed my biggest bowl!)

1 Tablespoon butter

2 Tablespoons flour

½ cup milk

2 eggs, separated

2 cups cooked white rice* (2/3 cup uncooked**)

½ cup grated sharp cheddar cheese (Cabot cheddar from Vermont gets my vote!)

¼ teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1 cup fine bread crumbs

If you have never made a roux before, you’ll be glad to learn the technique. It comes in handy for thickening so many things – not only cheese sauces, but also many gravies and soups. Melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium flame and add the flour.

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Whisk together until it begins to pull away from the pan. Get all the flour whisked in.

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Add the milk in increments, stirring carefully until the milk is thoroughly incorporated and the texture is smooth – each time you add milk, bring it to smoothness again. This is with the milk just added.

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This is with the first addition of milk incorporated.

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And with about 2/3 of the milk stirred in.

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By the time you add all the milk, the roux is a thick, smooth liquid and looks velvety smooth like this.

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Now is when you add the egg yolks. Whisk them right in. If you forget, you can add them when you are mixing the rice together with the cheese and sauce (not that anybody I know did that… this time…).

I love adding the paprika because it is such a pop of color.

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Mixed in, the speckles are still pretty!

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I had made my rice the day before, so it was cold in the bowl. To this I added the grated cheese.

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And mixed it in.

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Then I poured the sauce over the top.

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And mixed it in.

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To form the patties that become croquettes, I tried both with and without plastic gloves. The gloves worked better! My croquettes looked like this, but you can make yours any size or thickness that suits you.

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The egg whites are for the breading process. Dredge the croquettes first with egg white, then with crumbs. I like to mix a few tablespoons of flour in with my bread crumbs. I use two forks to move the croquettes from one bowl to the next – carefully. Forks make this part a little less messy than doing it with your hands, but try not to break the croquette! (I broke one today, but someone has to taste-test and that would be me! The broken one serves this purpose very well.)

I use shallow soup bowls for the bread crumbs and egg whites.

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Once breaded, the croquettes look like this.

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Pour a few tablespoons of olive oil in your favorite flat-bottomed frying pan. Turn on the flame and let the oil get hot for about a minute (not so hot that it’s smoking though!).

And into the pan go the patties!

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I made so many croquettes today (instead of 2 cups of cooked rice, I started with 8!), I needed two pans. One was my largest copper-bottom Revere Ware that I’ve had for 30+ years. Love that pan. The other (the one you see in these photos) is cast aluminum and has been in my family since 1947. I know this because my grandfather scratched 1947 into the inside of the lid to this pan. Love this pan too.

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Once you flip the croquettes, you start to want to eat them! This is when I discovered an advantage to making so many! No one will notice one more missing…

Just like mac and cheese, these rice and cheese croquettes are a main dish that’s great with a salad next to it. But unlike mac and cheese, if you make a lot like I did, you can freeze some. When you are ready for them in a few weeks, take them out, let them thaw, and reheat on a baking sheet in a 350F oven for 25 minutes. Simple, done, yummy!!

Notes:

*Of course you can use any rice you like: brown, wild, whatever!

**To cook white rice, bring to a boil double the quantity of water as rice. So for one cup of rice, boil two cups of water. When the water is boiling, slowly pour the rice into the water, add a teaspoon of salt, stir to make sure none of the rice is clumping, cover, turn down to low, and set the timer for 20 minutes.

Mom’s Delicious Bracciole

My daughter and her family are coming to visit and it’s Mom’s birthday on Sunday, so I am making a special dish – manicotti (prepared with homemade crepes) – a meal Mom doesn’t make for herself very often. I planned on having a good baguette, warmed up, and a big green salad on the side, as well as some pan-fried Italian sausage, always a delicious extra protein. But yesterday I happened to see “Beef Top Round Thin Cut” in the meat case and thought Why not make bracciole?  That’s what any person would think if they saw meat like this, right?

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When I was a kid, Mom would make bracciole (pronounced brah-zho-lie) every now and then. I’m not sure why it didn’t appear on the table more often, maybe Mom will tell us. Bracciole is thinly sliced beef, rolled up with yummy parmesan or romano cheese and bread crumbs inside (that cheese was affectionately known in my family simply as “grating cheese”), seared in olive oil, then covered with your best red spaghetti sauce (affectionately known in my family simply as “sauce”) and cooked until tender. Oh yum!

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I asked my sister Lynn for her recipe because it’s not in my cookbook and I wanted to be sure I made them just like Mom used to. Perhaps I don’t have the recipe in my book because it’s so simple I thought I didn’t need the recipe? Lay out the meat, put bread crumbs, grating cheese and salt, pepper and seasonings on top, roll, secure, sear, smother in sauce, cook till done.

One step at a time, and with measurements, that process looks like this. My package contained eight slices. Start by carefully separating the slices from each other and laying them on a flat surface.

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One half cup of bread crumbs was just the right amount to sprinkle on these pieces. Lynn’s recipe called for seasoned bread crumbs but I didn’t have those, so I sprinkled Italian seasoning on the crumbs. If you don’t have Italian seasoning as a mix, use basil, oregano and garlic powder. I bet the Italian seasoning had parsley in it too, but I cannot be sure. Go with parsley too. One tablespoon of the mix was enough for these eight. Some people would use chopped fresh parsley, basil and oregano and minced garlic instead of the dried seasoning. I’m sure this is also wonderful. But in my family we kept it simple.

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I sprinkled salt and pepper on them too, then ¾ cup of grated parmesan cheese.

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Let the rolling begin!

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Nice and tight.

Normally I would roll with the fingers of both hands, but it’s mighty challenging to roll with two hands and take a photo with your phone at the same time! I can roll with one hand, but using two goes faster.

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My rolls looked like this.

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Do you see the toothpicks? I used two in each roll, stuck in at angles so they crossed each other in the middle. This holds the roll together during the searing process. You could also use string, the kind that holds pastry boxes together. I couldn’t find any string so I managed with toothpicks. It’s a little harder to get the sides all seared in the pan when you use toothpicks, but somehow I got through that.

Into the pan I put about 3 tablespoons of olive oil, enough to coat the bottom well, and let it heat up for a minute or so on a medium flame. Then into the hot pan went the meat rolls.

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Give them a few minutes to brown on that bottom side, then turn them to brown them on another side. Turn again when the second side is brown and let a third side brown. Now depending on two things (1. your level of patience and 2. whether you’ve browned them in thirds or fourths), you might need to turn them one more time.

By this point your kitchen smells really good, by the way.

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Once they are seared to your satisfaction, douse with red sauce (meat or marinara, whichever you like best) and turn the heat down to low. Cover and let this cook about an hour.

I let mine cool, removed the toothpicks, put them in a serving dish and covered them tight. I will heat them up again on Sunday (will probably just put my serving dish in the oven for half an hour on 325F) to serve with the manicotti. I have no doubt they will be scrumptious!

Soon I will show you how to use the same thinly sliced meat to make rouladen, the German variation of this dish, also totally delicious, but rouladen would not go with manicotti!

A New Twist on Cole Slaw

You can never be quite sure what’s going to do well in the garden. Last year I had cucumbers galore, this year not so many. Last year the beets were few and far between, this year lots. I planted both red and green cabbage this year. The reds were so pitiful, I didn’t bother even trying to salvage anything from them. But the greens!

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It’s hard to tell size from this picture, but that head is almost as big as a volleyball.  They don’t come one at a time. I had six at once in June. What do you do with six large heads of green cabbage?

I shredded one head and sautéed it with sliced onion and a little bacon for flavor. A little salt and pepper and 45 minutes on a low flame (covered) makes a very fine side dish. I wrapped three heads carefully and put them in the fridge downstairs. That left two. Cole slaw is nice, I thought, but I am not as wild about using mayonnaise in dressings, and I don’t buy bottled dressings. Vinegar and oil would work, but I wondered about lemon, so I experimented.

I chopped up two heads very fine, added chopped red onion and shredded carrot and made a lemon dressing. Yum! Two heads of cabbage make a lot of cole slaw, so after the meal I packed the remainder in wide-mouth quart-sized mason jars and refrigerated it. I found that the flavors got even better the next day and the next. I gave one jar to my neighbors Jen and Quin, and one to Lincoln and Julia, and they loved it too.

A few weeks later I made more, using the last of the garden heads, and we enjoyed it just the same. That was in August. Today I got a hankering for Lemon Cole Slaw again.

Get yourself a nice head of green cabbage. (It’s very cheap!) Chop it fine. I use my 10-inch chef’s knife, preferring to do it by hand because 1. I control the size of the chop and 2. I get a bit of a workout which makes me feel better about dessert 😊

Start by quartering the head and cutting out the core. Slice like this first:

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Then crossways until it looks like this.

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Certainly you may use a food processor or some other chopping device. I like to add red onion and carrot for both color and flavor. To the one head of cabbage I bought and chopped finely today, I added two finely chopped red onions (each onion was the size of a golf ball) and four small carrots from my garden. Use however much of each as seems reasonable to you. Use a big bowl. The biggest one you have is probably best.

For the dressing, I adapted the sweet-sour dressing I use for Carrot-Raisin Salad from a favorite old (1976) cookbook called Bakery Lane Soup Bowl.

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For the lemon dressing I used 1/3 cup sugar, ½ cup lemon juice, ¼ cup olive oil and salt and pepper to taste (for me that’s about 1 ½ tsp salt and ¼ tsp pepper). The salad looks pretty once you mix it all up with the dressing and it tastes light and refreshing.

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We had some for dinner and I put the leftover in one small jar and one large jar. Pack it in tightly! It keeps well stored in the fridge. I can’t say how long, but am guessing a week or so. Mine doesn’t last that long!

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The smaller jar here is special to me because Claudia’s dad makes his own honey on their farm in Betzigau in southern Germany and packs it in these jars. I save the jar of course because it reminds me of him and his wonderful gift to me. This jar is from the honey Claudia brought last year. One time when I was returning from a trip there and had forgotten that even creamed honey is considered a liquid and put it in my carry-on so that I could be more careful with the glass jar (do you see where I’m going!?), I had to watch the airline security official throw it in the trash (!!!!) because it was a “liquid.” “It’s honey!” I told the woman, “It’s like gold to me!” She just threw it in the trash… Moral of this story: Put honey in your checked bag!

If you want to make Carrot-Raisin Salad, peel and shred 2 pounds of carrots and mix with this same dressing only using cider vinegar instead of the lemon juice (same quantity). Mix in a cup of raisins (golden or regular) just before serving. Some people don’t like the raisins, so I usually divide it in half and add raisins to only one of the bowls. If you have leftover of the one with the raisins and you store it in the fridge, the raisins will absorb some of the dressing and be soft and all puffed up the next day. I don’t mind this at all, and it doesn’t hurt anything, just know it will happen.

These salads-in-a-jar are so nice to have on hand. No last-minute salad prep when it’s time for dinner. Oh, look, here’s salad!

 

Building Skills for Building Stuff

For four years now I have been hosting Airbnb guests at the cottage that Bradley and Beth built on my property.

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As a kid Bradley always loved to build things in the shop – I remember when he was a teenager and I prayed he would be careful with dangerous power equipment. He was, and he taught himself many aspects of carpentry that he later incorporated into the cottage, such as the coffered ceilings, cherry tongue-and-groove floors, all the custom-made windows,

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and the beautiful railings in the loft.

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During the building process, he and Beth worked tirelessly at full-time jobs and the work on the cottage.

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I worked too, but mainly many hours at my job at the hotel. I paid the bills, made food and talked through material and design decisions with them.

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Here and there I contributed actual labor, but as anyone in their 50s knows, there is a big difference energy-wise in what you can do in your 50s compared to what you can do in your 20s. I marveled at their energy! I wanted to help! But plain and simple I was too tired, emotionally and physically, by the end of the day. It was their amazing project.

During a few of the cottage-building years, my son Lincoln and his wife Julia lived nearby. Lincoln worked at a woodworking shop in Richmond, honing the skills he himself had been developing. He and Bradley together built not only the original chicken coop, but also skillfully remade the base of my antique dining room table using solid mahogany – they designed and built graceful, perfect legs and gave new life to a family heirloom.

If I had been more present during those years, how much I could have learned from them both! I remember thinking this, remember admiring them, remember longing to work alongside, remember sitting exhausted in a chair…

Lincoln and Julia moved to Vermont in 2013 and Brad and Beth left for Seattle in August of 2014. The decision to try hosting through Airbnb, to “share” this gem of a cottage with others who might appreciate it, seemed reasonable. It took till early October 2014 to get everything ready, but from the get-go, literally within hours of posting the details of my cottage on their site, I had my first guests, and it has been great guns ever since. For two years I managed both the cottage and my job at the hotel (a bit of a juggling act). Then in a good-sized leap of faith in October 2016, hoping that I could get by with just the cottage, I resigned my position at the hotel.

Now I have time and energy for building things! Or unbuilding things, as the case may be. Sandy handed me the drill and up I went on the roof of the old chicken coop run to unscrew the metal panels in order to clean them and put them back on a rebuilt frame.

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Filling holes with concrete? I can do this.

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I can also dig out earth to make a level place for a deck to connect the old and new chicken coops.

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And build the coop deck’s framework with scrap 4x4s and 4x6s in rows to support the decking boards.

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I worked with my Uncle Ernie to make a bench for that deck, getting a little more comfortable with the chop saw. I still don’t like using the table saw.

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And once that all was finished (and huge thanks to Sandy for doing the lion’s share of the work) — oh, how beautiful it looks to me on this rainy November morning —

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we turned our attention to the house foundation

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and front porch project. I’m the grunt labor, I know this. Sandy is the energizer bunny, working for endless hours, bringing skill and ideas, and has way more confidence in my capabilities than I do. And Joe and Samuel have been invaluable in this getting so much of this work done so quickly.

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A few years ago, I assure you I did not envision myself nailing in joist hangers!

What happened? Yes, I now have more time, and yes, I am not so sapped of energy as in the past. But there is something else. Actually two somethings.

  1. I have always admired the things people accomplish when using their hands/bodies together with their brains, but in my world it was the men who were building and fixing things. My hat is off to all of them evermore, but while Bradley and Beth still lived here, my friend Peggy one time gave him some of the tools she didn’t need any more that she herself had used for years for woodworking and for fixing things! She is the first woman I knew who was not intimidated by machines or carpentry. I expect she has no idea how I marveled at her, how I admired that aspect of her great character. She also gave Bradley a SHOP sign that he proudly affixed to the shop door. I think of her every time I see it. Thank you, Peggy!

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2. I was always intrigued by the concept that you are never too old to learn something new. Back in the homeschooling days, I read a lot of John Holt’s work. I paraphrase here a story he told of someone who wanted to learn to play the violin but was 50 years old. “I’ll be 55 by the time I can play it decently,” the person said. “Yes,” he replied, “but in five years you’ll be 55 anyway, so wouldn’t it be better to have learned to play the violin during those years?”

In five years you’ll be 55 anyway.

That phrase stuck with me. I stretched it to not only:

I’m x-years old now. I want to learn [pick a skill]. In five years I’ll be x+5 years old anyway. Wouldn’t it be better to have learned that skill in those five years – even if not to the master level – than to get to x+5 years old and still be wishing I could do that thing?

But also to:

I’m x-years old now. I struggle with [pick a subject]. In five years I’ll be x+5 years old anyway. Wouldn’t it be better to find a way to make some strides in that area in those five years than to get to x+5 years old and still be struggling in the same way with that thing?

So here I am, cutting decking boards on a chop saw, knowing the difference between a rim joist and a sill plate and a ledger board, toenailing deck joists in place to hold them until it’s time to screw in the hangers. In a conversation with my son Lincoln the other day, he said, “It’s very cool to see you learning how accessible and simple all this building stuff is. Not just some magic that you have to ask some pro woodworker to do every time. Measure, mark, cut, secure, repeat!” I told him I have my limitations: I am not very strong and I am scared of some of the equipment. He said, “Well you should be scared of those tools! Every safe woodworker is.”

Today I am grateful for all the people I’ve known who have woodworking skills, all the encouragement I’ve received from people I love (in ways they are probably not aware of) and all the enthusiasm of friends and family who cheer on these projects. All of this has developed in me a greater interest in the craft and a hunger to learn more. One of these days I might do more than the grunt work, but if I don’t, that’s okay. I’m having fun and there’s a wonderful result!

Here we are now, with temporary steps on the side! For the first time in almost a month, we can go in and out through the front door 😊

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The Batmobile on a Road Trip

I can’t say I ever gave too much thought to ornamenting a tire. Tires have always been purely functional for me. They turn. When they do, the heavy vehicles they carry move from Point A to Point B. You can have the fanciest engine in the world, but without tires, the vehicle’s not going anywhere.

Hubcaps are tire ornaments. They have many different circular designs, like simplified versions of the fantastical views you get inside a kaleidoscope. But the Batmobile doesn’t have a fancy hubcap. It has a tire ornament like no other tire ornament.

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If I was the Batmobile and was moved to a new place of display, I would definitely not say, “Here we go again. A bunch more fools are coming to look at me: ‘Oh, look! The Batmobile!’ they say. ‘I remember the Batmobile!’ Yeah, so what! You think I asked for this look?”

Such disdain is so unbecoming. I imagine the Batmobile instead in a rather humble strut, if this is not too much a contradiction of terms. Its look is super cool. “Oh boy, here they come,” it says gleefully to itself. “More admirers! I love admirers! Look at me, look at my tires, look at my sleekness, my gleam, my cool windshields! I don’t have to try very hard, you know, I just am this beautiful!”

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People like me say “Oh, look! The Batmobile!” because you don’t see the Batmobile every day and because somebody had a lot of fun thinking of how to ornament it!

Samuel and I didn’t plan to see it. We planned to float around downtown Roanoke, Virginia, exploring this small southern city, getting a feel for its character, its energy, its good people working hard to make it a great place to live. We strolled through the city marketplace, got a generously large “small” ice cream cone at Bayou Snowballs, ate a fabulous wagyu burger at Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint (where they do not serve burgers with lettuce and tomato, btw) and watched the proprietor of La De Da make a candy dress (yes, a candy dress – I will come back to this).

But then it started raining and was only 3pm. It was a cold icky rain. The observatory at the top floor of the science museum was closed for a private event, so Samuel suggested we go to the top of the parking garage and look at the city. For this we got the umbrella from the car and went up five levels. Other than struggling with our umbrella hilariously turning inside out more than once on account of the wind (umbrellas really do this!), we got a nice view. St. Andrew’s is an especially handsome church.

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You can see how dreary the weather was, but this church! Captivating. Gorgeous. If you get the chance, go see its glorious vaulted ceilings, perfect hanging light fixtures and polished marble floors, all in pristine condition. We did. See if you don’t think it rivals European churches. We do.

But we still had time and it was still raining. The Virginia Transportation Museum had been suggested to us. Okay, sure, let’s go there. The Transportation Museum has a railyard containing many old but beautiful locomotives. This too is fantastic to see.

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Here we are just in front of the railyard. There are lots of wonderful exhibits in this museum calling attention to not only the engines themselves, but also the workforce that made the railroad industry possible, its marching band, its women’s auxiliary and the way trains changed the lives of people. All good, all very well done.

We wandered in the museum the way people wander. Wandering is good sometimes. It gets you to places you did not expect, like the car exhibit. Samuel loves cars – their design, their speed – he is enthralled, way more enthralled than I am. I have generally looked at cars as a thing that transports you quickly and conveniently. It doesn’t matter much what it looks like as long as it does its job.

Stop cringing, you car lovers! I know! How can I not appreciate the graceful lines of the body, the intricacies of the motor that enhance performance, the purr, the roar? I know. Give me time. I might get there. I might be a little closer after seeing this exhibit. I might have to appreciate cars a little more after seeing the Batmobile in person.

As we entered the car bay and saw the 20 or 30 cars lined up on display, I thought Cars, a means of transportation. Of course the Transportation Museum has a car display. I can look at cars. Note my enthusiasm.

But then a museum staff member did a wise thing. He told us, in words, out loud, that the owner of a number of famous movie cars had lent his collection to the museum for a short while, a month or so, and we might enjoy seeing them. Museums use a lot of signage, and this is good, but I don’t know it we would have ventured to the far side of this huge bay had he not spoken to us directly. It was the end of the day. We had seen the trains, marveled at the trains. Enough, right?

I soon changed my mind.

Who doesn’t love Back to the Future? Here was the DeLorean! The 1981 DeLorean DMC-12! “The way I see it, if you’re going to build a time machine into a car, why not do it with style?”  Only 8987 of these cars were produced.

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They had the ambulance from Ghostbusters.

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They had the 1950 Mercury Monterey driven by Sylvester Stallone in the 1986 movie Cobra, a muscle car if ever there was one.

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I loved its license plate.

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We saw “Boss Hogg,” the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, driven by Burt Reynolds in The Dukes of Hazzard, a 2005 film also starring A.J. Foyt IV, Willie Nelson and Lynda Carter. It is one of the last automobiles driven by Reynolds in a feature film.

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Check out the car handle.

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And yes, it has the horns up front!

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Who can’t smile looking at the 1974 Ford Gran Torino “Striped Tomato” from the Starsky & Hutch TV show?

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Or stare incredulously at one of the two 1970 Dodge Chargers that survived without damage from Fast and Furious?

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If I owned the Batmobile, the DeLorean and all these cars, I would send them on a road trip too. A change of scenery does us all good. Their road trip did me good! Beyond making me smile, they reminded me that humans have a creative, fun side, yet are incredibly capable of taking an idea and making it a reality. These are just cars, but what cars! Immortalized cars! (Did I really type that!?)

There’s hope yet, Samuel. Cars are cooler to me than they were two days ago.

Jacking Up the House

My house sits up on a hill. Down below, about a mile away, trains rumble by several times a day. The house rattles a bit every time. It’s not intense. I don’t have to worry about pictures falling off the walls. But the sound and the vibration are enough to remind me of the air spaces between solid objects like dinner plates that seemingly sit squarely one on top of the next. The train moves the earth just enough to upset the plates just a little. If it upsets the plates, you have to think it upsets other things.

Over time, train after train after train, the nails that were pounded into wood 45 years ago during the construction of the house might loosen up just a little, then maybe just a little bit more. Tiny cracks form. Over time, storm after storm after storm, some rain seeps through the cracks but not very much air, so the wood can’t dry out once it gets wet. Insects look for hiding places and nesting places and make a meal of the yummy, wet, softening wood. Over time, bite after bite after bite, the now-rotten wood is not so strong.

That’s about the time when, in the proper order of things, we humans come along and fix it. After we get over our initial disgust at finding spongy wood hidden under the front porch under the front door, we make a plan: Jack up the house, cut out the bad boards, replace them with good, new boards and give it another 45 years.

I’m not saying we liked the plan or felt comfortable with the plan. Jacking up a house is not fun, let us be clear. This is my house we’re talking about and what if something slips and we are under it (worst case scenario) or what if we make the problem worse (second worst case)?! But you can’t get around it. You can’t get the old boards out unless you give yourself a little bit of space to get a saw in there and cut through the nails that hold them in.

A quarter of an inch. Six or seven millimeters. That’s all the space we need. Okay, let’s lift the house a quarter of an inch, sure. How do you do this? How much does this corner of the house weigh?

Wouldn’t you know it – someone thought of this before us and came up with floor-to-ceiling jacks that hold 38,000 lbs (minimum extension) or 20,000 lbs (maximum extension). You can buy these. And Sandy did because, you know, we might need them again someday. Would the information on this box be reassuring to you?

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I notice it says, “Supports the weight of heavy furniture, appliances, or remodels.” It does not say, “Supports the weight of a house.”  Or even, “Supports the weight of a corner of a house.” Perhaps that is implied by “Supports the weight of … remodels.” That seems vague to me, but with two of them we should be fine, right?

Some things you just have to do. You can hem and haw all day but that doesn’t get the thing done. Breathe deep and put the jacks in place.

The daylight you see in the photo below is not the quarter of an inch we raised the house.

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It’s the (partially covered by insulation) hole in the house that we were able to make because of, and only because of, the quarter of an inch gap. From the outside, before we got the board off, you can see the gap. It’s not much, but it’s enough.

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Once the gap happened, once the jacks did (thank heavens!) what they so boldly lay claim to do, the work on the outside started. First, Sandy got a reciprocating saw into that gap on the outside and cut the nails that held the boards together. He also made a vertical plunge cut in the board so we could remove it in two pieces. Then Joe beat at the longer portion with a sledge hammer from the inside. I’m not sure what was worse: the sawing or the beating. This board was integral to the structure of the house, and we were taking it out. Violently. Ruthlessly. In general I am not comfortable with violence and ruthlessness!

When we started to see movement, it was both reassuring and terrifying.

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The board would come out, yes, Would the jacks continue to do their job? Would the vibration caused by the beating upset them or change anything?

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Once the board was out far enough that the hammer could hardly reach it any more, the beast of a crowbar came into play. In this game, we ultimately win. The board loses. C’mon. Out you come.

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It might have been better for me not to be a bystander during this time, but I don’t have the physical strength to do what Sandy and Joe were doing, so all I could do was watch, hope, pray…

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There we go. The house is still standing. Now the other piece.

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Great. Now we have a hole in the house. Between the floor joists and the top plate had been a 2×2 sill plate, which Joe and Sandy found laughable. You can see it where we found it in this photo

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and in this photo where it was still attached to the old (longer) board that we took out.

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They made a new sill plate with a 2×6 ripped to a width that fit perfectly, which was about 2×3½. Then we connected the upright, reinforced, three-boards-wide 2×6 studs through the top plate into the sill plate with 8-inch GRK “rugged structural” a.k.a. ÜberGrade screws.

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Then we could put in the new rim joist using the same screws but in 3-inch size. This I can do.

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Once the new rim joist is in, securely in, you can breathe. You can take down the floor-to-ceiling jacks and breathe. You can add the ledger boards and begin to visualize the porch that will be here soon.

I want to think the worst of this project is over. We had to remove the old front porch, excavate along the entire front perimeter to basement-floor level, shore up the foundation on the outside with liquid asphalt and 6ml plastic, add perforated drain pipe and drainage gravel, add backfill, dig post holes, fill post holes with concrete reinforced with steel cages, build a retaining wall, shore up the foundation on the inside, fix some electrical issues, remove and replace a rotted rim joist and add ledger boards. We have needed an excavator twice (once a big machine and once a mini), a bottle jack, two floor-to-ceiling jacks, a chop saw, table saw, reciprocating saw, plunge cutter, drills, all manner of hammers, screws, wrenches, levels, squares, hoes, rakes, shovels, 21 bags of concrete mix and lots of muscle.

We did all of this in the past 27 days. In between, when the rain made it too wet to dig, we finished siding the coop with the oak clapboards. I feel sooooo proud of this team, of the energy, skills, humor and experience that Sandy and Joe bring with them every time they come and of Samuel adding strength and assistance (to say nothing of Coco, Queen of the Dirt Mound) at just the right times.

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I’m so grateful to them all for keeping a good spirit despite the rain delays, for tolerating my ignorance and many questions, for dealing with mucky mud, icky rot and various other unpleasantries. They are all so amazing.

A new front porch is coming – one step at a time.

What’s Under Your House?

Funny how we can avoid some things for a long time. I can’t see the serious rot in this picture (hiding under the porch as it was) so everything must be fine, right? On October 7, the front porch looked like this.

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The steps are fairly new but the rest of the porch doesn’t look great, I’ll grant. It shows signs of age. It’s not going to win any prizes. But for seven years we could walk on it and use it as people use a porch, as the transition in and out of the house, from earth to indoor space and out again. And for 38 years before that, the previous owners did the same.

Wanting a new thing comes in handy sometimes. I wanted a new front porch. That’s what drives this whole project. I wanted a new one in part, I admit, because the old one looked shabby, but mostly because I knew it was in the way of addressing why we sometimes had water coming into the basement. Water coming into the basement made me nervous. It didn’t happen often, but it happened.

Something was wrong, but what? When you know your foundation is wood, and you’ve got leakage, you suspect the wood has something to do with it. But you can’t get to the problem unless you remove the porch. And once you remove the old porch, you have to build a new porch. See? Wanting a new thing comes in handy sometimes. In the end, I get a new porch!

Reality was unavoidable as deconstruction began.

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The joists that held up the decking boards don’t look terrible from afar. But closer up, their condition is clear.

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Ah, well, those are going away anyway, you say. Nothing even salvageable here. And once the porch was off the house completely, it still didn’t look too terrible.

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Until you got up close.

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There are actually two boards here, one on top of the other, one exterior and one interior. I’ll draw a red line so it’s easier to see what was left of the exterior board after we – easily! – removed the soft, spongy fibers of what used to be solid wood.

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Rot is not as icky as some icky things, but it is nonetheless firmly in that category for me. Rotten wood is soft and dry-spongy and comes apart in shreds and flakes as you scrape at it. When you see rot, you think of the insects and the moisture have been working steadily along for decades (that’s what makes it icky for me), turning a hard, dense, supportive substance into a weak filler. When that weak filler is holding up a portion of your house, you had better do something about it.

It’s not always a pretty world. This rot was under my porch all along. How did it get this way? Time, certainly, will cause wood to rot, but the bigger factor is water.

When you look out of my living room windows, you are facing the Southwest Mountains, foothills of the Blue Ridge, a mountain range that starts in Georgia and ends in Pennsylvania. I love the view but I have to be careful of those windows. When it rains, the rain wants to come in on that side of the house. If I have left windows open in warm seasons and I wake up to the sound of rain in the night, those are the first windows I go check. Guess what else faces those mountains: my front door.

When we first moved into this house, rain came in under the front door so bad that it damaged the oak flooring that the previous owners had installed just before selling the house to me. Bradley had taken up the damaged part. When we saw what was underneath, I remember shuddering and thinking yeah, that’s going to need to be addressed sooner or later. He replaced the damaged boards with new boards, Sandy installed gutters that presumably arrested the further development of the rot under the door and we were able to forget about it for a while. All right, for seven years.

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The day after Sandy took the front porch off, Joe dug out the dirt. Then it looked like this.

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All that weight of all that wet earth for all those years in this part of the foundation made the wall weak. Removing the dirt relieved the pressure, but the blade of the excavator nicked the sheet of plywood in the middle and it was enough to push the soft, compromised wood in just a bit. From the inside it looked like this. You can see that plywood, pushed in, as well as the 2×6 next to it with a large crack.

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We put new plywood over the old on the outside, but had to mend the inside of course. We started with a horizontal bottle jack that forced the upright (cracked) stud to a reasonable vertical again, then added a 2×6 to either side of it (and to the upright to the right) for additional support. We also removed those wires and redid the electrical in that area.

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Upright supports were strong again, so then we could address the horizontal rim joist in such bad shape under the door. That involved jacking up the house, the nerve wracking part of this project that no one wanted to do, but there was no avoiding it. More on that soon.

Unbeatable Biscotti

“You could sell these.”

“You should sell these!”

“If you’ll make me more of these, I’ll pay you.”

“These are better than any you can buy.”

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If just one person had said such things about my lemon-anise-almond biscotti, I would have thanked her (or him) and carried on. But these make a great gift – they mail well and keep well – so I have made a gift of them many times. And I have heard similar versions of “these are great!” over and over again throughout the years since I discovered and tried this recipe in the Williams-Sonoma “Cookies & Biscotti” baking book.  I don’t even eat them myself (can’t abide the almonds) so I can’t chime in. Sometimes you have to just take people at their word.

This is the book.

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This is the recipe from the book.

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You can see that the page is wrinkled and has spots of something that spattered on it where it says “Makes about 3 dozen.”

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This is what happens when a book is open near your work area. The marks of use are like a letter of reference or a proof that the book has been opened to this page near splashing ingredients numerous times. You don’t use a recipe over and over that you don’t have success with. The marks on this page are the same as a tattered quilt to me — used, loved, used again.

Not only are these a wonderful gift, but they are a joy to make – even for someone who can’t abide nuts! Start with the mixing of the eggs and sugar. I know I’m partial to my own chickens’ eggs. Yesterday, when I needed one and simply walked out to the coop to get one (and the door was stuck on account of being swollen from the rain and I couldn’t get it open and had to ask Samuel for help!), I thought How many people can just walk out to their coop and get a fresh egg when they need one?

I know my eggs are super fresh, but I think yours would look just as beautiful as this whisked up in a bowl with the sugar.

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When you add the oil (olive oil for mine, I always use olive oil) and it sits on the top looking so separate,

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you might be tempted to wonder how it will incorporate. But a little wrist action brings those pure ingredients together into a smooth, glistening mixture that has its own beauty. I love the gleam.

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I don’t measure the lemon zest. The peel of one lemon, grated fine, has always been perfect not only in amount but also in how it adds to the pleasure of making these biscotti. On and in my grater, the little pieces of peel not only look beautiful, but the lemon oil that gets released fills the air with a freshness like no other. And however much it makes, it makes. I put it all in.

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Next comes the anise, another sensual wonder. You can buy ground or crushed anise, but to crush it yourself in an old-fashioned mortar and pestle, to smell the rich aroma of the anise oils breaking forth from the seeds – well, I’m in heaven.

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Once the grated lemon peel and crushed anise seed have been mixed in, it looks like this. Your nose will tell you you’re on the right track.

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It’s time for the rest: baking powder, vanilla, salt, flour, almonds. The recipe says to use whole almonds and chop them coarsely. If I liked almonds and wanted the joy of that experience (no doubt for almond-lovers it’s right up there with mixing the olive oil in, grating a fresh lemon and crushing anise seed), I would do that. But I simply tolerate the almonds for the sake of those who like/love them, so I cheat here and add the very thinly sliced almonds you can buy. In this case it was raining the other day when I might have gone to the store and Mom had some in her freezer – thanks, Mom!

Notice I moved to a strong wooden spoon instead of the whisk for this part.

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The dough is quite stiff by the time you mix everything in. The strong spoon is better.

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The recipe says to turn this out on a floured board and knead until smooth, about 10 times. I don’t know if I was distracted (that never happens around here!) or if I thought the dough looked smooth enough. Anyway I forgot this part and jumped to the pans. Again not sure what moved me to use parchment paper this time (for the first time ever) but I did, and it was great. I lined the pans. Notice I am not overly generous with the paper. Cheap runs deep!

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And put the stiff dough in.

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Turns out that not kneading the dough did not change the outcome. My loaves baked for the 30 minutes the recipe calls for, and they didn’t look very brown, but I took them out, waited a few and sliced them. It was just right.

Use a good serrated bread knife. You have to get through the almonds, and whether they are finely chopped or thinly sliced, they are an obstacle. Slice carefully.

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Now put those slices, cut-side down, on a baking sheet and right back in the oven.

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After 20 minutes in the oven for this part of the process, I didn’t think these looked quite browned enough, so I left them in another 8 minutes, and I liked that color, so I took them out, let them cool and boxed them up for my sister Joanne and her husband Fred, who were in town for a visit.

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I found just the right box in my handy-dandy empty box collection. Look at that, two layers fit perfectly. My children always laughed at me for saving empty boxes of various sizes, but as any empty box collector knows, all boxes are not the same and there’s something to be said for having a good selection for times such as these, which I did (on account of careful saving), and which came in handy (again). I say, if a thing – say for example my empty box collection – doesn’t harm anyone, shall we perhaps kindly overlook the quirk and allow the collector to indulge? But I digress.

Enjoy your biscotti and prepare yourself for rave reviews!