The Chicken Banishment-Harassment Conundrum

Pecking order is a very real thing. What should I do with a bully chicken that has been unmercifully pecking the silkies recently? This is the question of the day. I gave the offender, Goldyneck, time-out by putting her in the coop with the big girls, and I know very well that her brain is miniscule and will not in any way connect her new location to her crime. I also know that the tables have turned and she is the one now subject to bullying, shunning and other downsides of her present banishment.

For example, I had a small watermelon in the fridge that sadly I had not been able to get to last week, and it was a bit soft. You don’t want soft watermelon, to say nothing of the vague strangeness of eating watermelon in November, which I could handle better if the fruit were not bordering on mushy. But the combination of too-soft plus nip-in-the-air put me over the edge and the watermelon went to the chickens.

Clearly Miss Goldyneck is being left out here. C’mon, girlfriends, let me have some!

watermelon1.jpg

She circled around and tried to come at it from the other side.

watermelon24.jpg.crdownload.jpg

Forget it, sister. No one invited you. They are not making room for her, no way. Finally she gave up and walked away.

watermelon3.jpg

Not only that. I went in later to give them some other food – fabulous picked chicken carcasses that my local deli manager ok’d me taking home. (I was at the deli and saw that they had pulled the meat off the rotisserie chickens for chicken salad. Those carcasses were just sitting there… I asked for them and they kindly gave them to me and my mother said, “You have no shame.” I said My chickens will love this stuff! They will pick every possible bit of what’s edible off these bones! It’s protein. They eat bugs!)

Anyway, I went in to give them a portion of these bones that I brought home and didn’t see Goldyneck. A slight moment of panic was followed by a glimpse of black feathers.

hiding1.jpg

No, she wasn’t dead, she was hiding under the coop. I scattered the carcass bones such that she could get to some of them without problem. There was enough to go around. (Thank you, my deli manager!) My poor offender got some, no doubt.

hiding2.jpg

You don’t know what it’s like for me! These monster chickens are always bothering me! Save me! (So I can go back to bothering the silkies!)

Are you feeling sorry for her yet? Part of me does, I admit. But I am torn. This is the same chicken who was harassing my silkies in the other coop. While saving the silkies from harassment, I am subjecting the harasser – who has no capacity to see reason – to the same. In protecting victims, I create a victim. The obvious parallels to our human prison systems do not escape me.

Chances are also good that in the silkies are now being harassed by the second most aggressive chicken in the Bridge Club, who is relieved that Goldyneck is gone so she can practice her own techniques. I might not have made anything better. I don’t know if this is true, but it could be, and I will continue to watch this drama unfold.

Last night I went to check on them after dark and found the shunning continuing. There she is, by herself, under the roosting ledge, alone in the world!shunned 2_LI (2).jpg

There are no easy answers to this situation, but your thoughts are appreciated. I don’t know what to do!

Chicken Time-Out

It isn’t every day you get mad at a chicken. But today, on this cold Thanksgiving morning (32F), while other people are already basting the birds in their ovens, I was trying to discipline one in my coop. I had to – again! – put Goldyneck in time-out. Do chickens learn? Will she cease and desist her bullying if she gets a taste of her own medicine?

Probably not. Like people, chickens are who they are, and some of them are nastier, pushier, more aggressive. Some are meek and go about their own business and don’t randomly peck other chickens on the back! I have never been able to tolerate a bully.

This is the culprit.

the culprit (2).jpg

She’s very pretty. The chicks we got in March included this one, a mix – part silkie, part black copper maran – and no other chicken I have has visible traits of both. You see the bad hair day going on – though not as bad as the silkies – on top of her head. And of course the shiny black feathers of the maran, though hers are fluffier than the other marans.

Goldyneck does not pick on the other marans. They are bigger than she is, being pure maran (her silkie half means she is smaller). The other day I caught her pecking at a silkie. In particular she was pecking at One-Eye, the silkie we almost lost to an eye infection when she was just a few weeks old. Bullying is bad enough, but bullying the weakest among her group was too much for me. I’ll show her a thing or two about bullying.

I banished her. I did not go so far as to relocate her to the woods – I’d have to be really mad for that. But I put her into the other coop I call the Sewing Circle because they almost all have distinctive feathers circling their necks. Here she would have to mix with the brahmas, Rhode Island reds, cinnamon queens and the lone old gray auracana – all of which are bigger than the marans. I wondered what would happen.

Sure enough, a few hours later I came out to bring some scraps to them, and all the Sewing Girls came toward the door, eager to see what I might bring. Goldyneck was right there with them, but the space there is tight. She is smaller and was closest to the door, closest to me, and within seconds not one, not two, but three of her coop-mates gave her a peck on the back – a very clear signal. Move, sister! Move to the back of the line! You do not rate the front of the line! Back she went!

Later, when all had put themselves to bed after dark, I went to check on them. Another form of you-do-not-rate was in effect – shunning! Here she is, farthest back, apart from the rest. Hanging her head no less!!

shunned_LI.jpg

I let her spend the night in this purgatory and in the morning decided she could rejoin the Bridge Club, her own group so named because most of them are bantams (smaller breeds of chickens). B for Bantam. B for Bridge Club. (Sewing Circles and Bridge Clubs are both groups of ladies, and we must differentiate. We must help our brains with tricks!)

I was hopeful, as I am ever hopeful, with most things, though a friend did say Chickens Don’t Learn. A full day went by. I was busy and did not spend much time in close observation. I was busy enjoying my cottage guests who were enjoying my chickens. How it thrills me when people – especially young people – hold them, watch them, have fun. The silkies are especially docile and love to be picked up. Okay, maybe loved is too strong a word. They graciously tolerate it. Most of the time.

Halen 11.21.jpg

Then this morning, immediately upon letting the Bridge Club out of their house/palace, didn’t Goldyneck immediately start pecking on a silkie! It got my dander up, so I moved her again. She was clearly confused. In this image, she is perhaps appealing to the marans on the other side of the barrier fence in her own chicken way.

Hey, how come I’m over here and y’all are over there? Wait, this isn’t right. I’m all alone!

banished.jpg

Not for long. Surely having heard the hullabaloo, the Sewing Circle then woke up.

Oh, no, here they come. Help!

oh no here they come.jpg

It wasn’t long before they started showing her whose space this is. First a red, then a brahma. The pecking happens really fast – definitely a peck-and-run technique – so these images, blurred as they are, will have to suffice in showing what I mean. Better move!

better move.jpg

Goldyneck tried to get out of the way, but she stuck close to the fence that divides her from the chickens she would love to be with/dominate. The reds are after me! Do something! Then she turned around and a brahma gave her that proverbial taste of her own medicine. Gotcha!

gotcha.jpg

Generally I am a tender-hearted person, and I am aware that this action of mine may forever affect your impression of me. The good and the bad will be weighed, and then someone will say Yes, but remember that time she left that poor chicken in with the big girls! But let it be understood that I also removed the offending chicken from those she was bullying! And then I walked away. I did. We will see what happens….

Yummy Cookies Baked When You Need Them

I have hosted Airbnb guests at my charming cottage for more than four years. Among other gifts, I leave them something home-baked, usually cookies. If I remember right, last year I had guests 161 nights. That’s a lot of cookies. Imagine if – each time – I got out the butter and sugar? Creamed them in a bowl? Added eggs, vanilla, flour, etc. and mixed it all up and spooned the dough onto baking sheets and baked the cookies? No way would I have time for this.

You learn a lot if you keep your eyes open. Depending on where you are, you learn a lot about certain things. I spent eleven years working in a luxury resort, and a good bit of that time in and out of the kitchens there. Professional chefs have remarkable skills, including knowing how to manage feeding a lot of people at different times and making it all (seem so) fresh. One thing I learned from the pastry chefs but should have learned from Ben and Jerry: Cookie dough freezes well.

We all knew this. Ben & Jerry made chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream famous.

ben and jerry's.jpg

If you have tasted this frozen decadence, you will remember how the cookie dough part freezes hard but not too hard. Hard enough to be frozen, but soft enough to bite into. (Oh yum! If only they would make this with a chocolate base!)

Now think about it: If you can bite into frozen cookie dough, you surely can put a knife through it. And there we have the solution to my needing fresh cookies very often – homemade slice and bake! I mix up a batch of dough, portion it out, freeze it in little logs, then slice and bake as needed for incoming guests. Voila! Everyone has fresh baked homemade cookies! (I once heard a speaker say that the secret to success is Preparation, Preparation, Preparation. This applies to cookies too!)

The log-freezing method is great for guests, but also for those who enjoy their cookies fresh, soft and chewy, right out of the oven — like you! Realistically, you can eat only so many this way, and the rest go in a tin and, well, they aren’t as good in a few days. By freezing the dough in smaller amounts, you can spread out the joy of fresh-baked without getting out the ingredients and going through the whole process every time.

Think co-workers, neighbors at the holidays — or make them for random, unexpected gifts. Prepare ahead and bake only as many as you need for each person or occasion. Fresh every time! (So-and-so invited us to dinner, honey… What?? … Oh, I could bring along some freshly baked cookies! Watch this — super quick!)

I know that chocolate chip cookies are an all-time favorite, but I have preferred to make oatmeal cookies with mini chocolate chips in them. Somewhere in my brain there is better justification for cookies that have whole grain in them. Often I also put dried cranberries or golden raisins in them, but this time I didn’t because … I forgot.

The recipe I use has been in my cookbook forever. Here is the list of ingredients:

Oatmeal (Chocolate Chip) Cookies

3 sticks (1 ½ cups) butter, soft (use the defrost setting on your microwave if you want)

2 cups brown sugar

1 cup white sugar

2 eggs

½ cup water

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 cups flour

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

6 cups oats

(For the cookies I make for my guests, I also add a teaspoon of cinnamon, 2 cups of mini chocolate chips and often a few handfuls of dried fruit.) BTW, other cookie doughs work well with the log method, including shortbread cookies.

First cream the butter and sugars with a strong wooden spoon. This mixture will pull away from the sides of the bowl.

butter and sugars.jpg

Adding the eggs, water and vanilla changes it quite a bit. Now it looks almost grainy. Notice I changed to a whisk to be sure it all got mixed in thoroughly.

pre flour.jpg

Once you stir in the flour, salt and baking soda, the consistency changes to almost velvety smoothness. Look how beautiful! (And back to the wooden spoon!)

pre oats.jpg

Now add the oats. How’s this for action photography!?

dumping oats.jpg

I put my oats tin in this photo too because (like the allspice tin I showed in Colonial Pumpkin Pie) it is another one that has been around for a long time and is among my favorites.

Once you have the oats in the bowl, add the mini chips too.

chips and oatmeal.jpg

Stir it all up till it looks like this.

dough.jpg

Now clear your biggest surface (for me this is my table) and lay out as many pieces of waxed paper as you want. I give my guests 8-10 cookies on a plate (under a glass dome) and have found that a log about 6 inches long yields that many cookies. That means 16 pieces of waxed paper and between ½ and 2/3 cup of dough on each one.

ready.jpg

I don’t measure the dough – I just divvy it up into approximately equal size blobs. It doesn’t matter if it’s exact. In my case it only matters that they are about the same amount, and this is the amount that makes 8-10 cookies. You can make your logs however long you want, some longer than others if you want. Just remember you need longer paper for longer logs!

To make the logs, I hold the paper underneath, cradling the dough and using the paper to help form the log.

Use your fingers from underneath to mush the dough into the log shape. I make mine about 1 ½ inches in diameter, but you can do what you like. Once you are happy with your log, wrap it up snug in the paper.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Do the same with all your blobs until you have a neat pile of wrapped logs.

wrapped.jpg

My very dark table is making them look suspended in mid-air, don’t you think? Okay, maybe not a prizewinning photo, but still cool.

Put these wrapped logs in a plastic freezer bag and freeze them. When you are ready to bake some, take out a log and cut it into the slices about 1/2 -inch thick.

cut.jpg

Place cut-side-down on your baking sheet and bake at 375F until they look not quite done. In my oven this was 13 minutes today. If you take them out when they look just a little bit uncooked, just ever-so-slightly brown at the edges, they will be chewier. I love them that way. If that sounds good to you, try it!

done.jpg

 

Colonial Pumpkin Pie

When it’s soon to be Thanksgiving, you almost can’t help but think of pumpkin pie. I’ve had my share over the years, some better than others. Let’s say there’s a scale of 1-10 with ten being the best. If you’ve only ever had mid-range, 5-6ish pies that lean more toward bland than flavorful, you might think: Pumpkin pie, so what? I’ll tell you what – you want to try this one!

It’s only natural that the tastes we grow up with become the ones we categorize as authentic and normal (and hopefully good!). Thus it is that my mom’s “Colonial Pumpkin Pie” tastes perfect to me. And once again I say: Thank you, Mom! If you have a recipe that you love from your mom or dad or grandma, by all means go ahead and use it. But if you don’t, this recipe might very quickly taste like home to you. (Why it’s called “Colonial” I never asked. Your guess is as good as mine. Did the colonists have all these spices? Maybe?)

One part of this process that’s fun for me is checking if it’s done. Many times recipes call for a toothpick inserted into the middle, and if it comes out clean, the pie or cake or bread is done. This one calls for a knife. A very sharp knife is not necessary, but don’t use a thick one either. Your regular knife that butters toast will be just fine. Notice there are two slits in this pie. First knife: Not clean!

done.jpg

But I get ahead of myself.

As flippant as I can be about some recipes (little of this, little of that) I am pretty darn exact about this one. As I copied it long ago from Mom’s recipe book, this is it, spatters and all, and I don’t change a thing.

recipe.jpg

P.S. I never omit the molasses. Why on earth would anyone do that?

I have made this pie with canned pumpkin most of the time. Be careful to get the can that is strictly pumpkin, not the one you can find sometimes that has spices already added to it. You want pumpkin pure and simple to start with. Pumpkin is bright orange. Bright orange is the authentic pumpkin color. But you may know me well enough by now to know that I am going to be unconventional sometimes. I am still going to follow the recipe, and all it says is 1 1/2 cups cooked pumpkin. I had cooked down and pureed some homegrown pumpkins that had white flesh, and I wanted to use that, but look, in the bowl, it’s too white. See what I mean? It’s just not right.

pumpkin white.jpg

Some things have to be the way they are supposed to be. Or maybe just not so far afield. I decided the best remedy was to double the recipe. I added the same amount of canned (orange) pumpkin…

pumpkin white and orange.jpg

…stirred it up…

pumpkins.jpg

…and then doubled everything else. Hmmm, I wonder which is the dominant color?! Anyway I felt better and could carry on.

Another reason I like this recipe is that it calls for allspice, which is not, as the name implies, a bunch of (or all) spices mixed together, but rather a kind of pepper native to the Greater Antilles, southern Mexico and Central America. It is also called pimento, Jamaica pimento or myrtle pepper. Neither its origin nor its name is why I like using it though. I like my tin. Check this out. I’ve had this allspice tin for decades and who knows if I even bought it new (maybe it was my mother’s!). I can tell you that the front and the back are exactly the same as each other, and both sides are the same as each other except for the seam in the metal being part of one side.

No UPC, no warnings, no ingredients list, no metric weight, no zip code for Elmhurst, no trademark. I love all my tins, but this is one of my favorites. I have refilled it over the years but could never bear to part with it. Perhaps refilling is a very bad idea (sticking to the insides is some very old allspice!), but I haven’t died yet, so I will continue my system.

The rest of the ingredients, added but unstirred, all except for the milk, look like a funky continental United States map to me: The shiny molasses like rain in Seattle at the 10:00 position, the eggs like a storm tracking from Texas to the mid-Atlantic, the brown sugar like high desert from Arizona to North Dakota. (Some people see castles in the clouds. I see a storm tracking in the eggs – what can I say!?) And hey, why not see the whisk stuck in the middle as the teacher saying Now, children, do get along! Granted, the real U.S. is wider than it is high, and California, New England and the Great Lakes are more or less missing in this rendition, but Imagination Art is not required to be accurately representative.

ingredients.jpg

I digress! Apologies!

Whisk those ingredients together thoroughly, getting to a rich golden brown color.

all except milk.jpg

Then add the evaporated milk and whisk again. This is what it looks like when the milk is mostly stirred in but not all the way.

almost all stirred in.jpg

Mix the milk in until it is thoroughly blended, then get ready to pour into a prepared pie crust (purchased or homemade, you know which mine is). You might recall that I doubled the recipe because of wanting to use the white pumpkin. Half of this amount – a very full quart – I poured into my crust. The other half I put in a quart container and froze. When I thaw it and pour it into another crust, it will be just as good.

Note well: The mixture will be very liquidy.

The most delicate part of this operation comes next, the part where you want to make sure there are no small children running about or random dog toys underfoot likely to trip you up. Moving the pie dish from the counter to the oven with this very soupy mixture in it requires a steady hand and no surprises. Trust me on this! I speak from experience. Goopy, soupy pumpkin pie mixture that has dripped down and worked its way into the crevices of your oven (you are not fast enough to catch it!) is a pain to clean up if you spill it. For a while, unwilling to risk the same big mess, I put the pie plate with its empty crust on the oven rack and then poured the mixture in! But this has its own challenges, including how to pour it within a confined space. In the end, I am just super careful with this part.

oven ready.jpg

For some reason pumpkin pie tastes best in the fall. Is it that I am (and maybe we all are) conditioned that way, having had it only at Thanksgiving for many years? Is it that the cinnamon/cloves/ginger/molasses combo – these stronger, winter flavors – inherently and mysteriously taste “right” when the weather is cooler? I don’t know. I don’t eat pumpkin pie only at Thanksgiving, but I do wait till there’s a nip in the air!

Six Siblings Celebrating

This past weekend I witnessed a remarkable thing in Kansas City. My college roommate and her five siblings have made a habit of gathering together to celebrate every time one of them turns 60, and it was Dina’s turn. They came from their homes in Kansas, New York, Arkansas and Kentucky and spent several days together talking, laughing, exploring the area, enjoying each other’s company. I was invited to join the party and marveled at this group, posing here in front of a Monet at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

six.2.jpg

Kansas City is Dina’s backyard, so she chose the activities, restaurants and agenda. Our excursion at this highly impressive museum had something for everyone. The entrance hall alone gives you some idea of its grandeur.

museum lobby.jpg

I did not expect the exquisite marble interior!

museum 2.jpg

Or the mummy of Ka-i-nefer.

mummy.jpg

Or the mummy mask of Meret-it-es.

mummy mask front.jpg

Or works by Degas.

dancer (2).jpeg

Or Renoir.

Renoir sculpture.jpg

Or Hieronymus Bosch.

bosch painting.jpg

Or parts of a medieval cloister.

medieval cloister.jpg

Or a giant shuttlecock! This one is 18 feet tall – way taller than it looks in this photo. I am standing on a tall ledge.

babminton birdie.jpg

But as absolutely remarkable as everything in the museum was (and I am showing only a fraction of what we saw), it didn’t hold a candle, in my estimation, to how remarkable these six siblings are, shown here after the birthday dinner at Cascone’s.

six.2.jpeg

And here with spouses against the nighttime Kansas City skyline.

nighttime.jpeg

These wonderful people find a way to come together several times a year. They get along, overlook their differences, forgive each other their occasional bumbles, express interest in each other’s separate worlds and not only maintain familial ties, but also have fun and build new memories. The days together included meals of course (this was one breakfast – Dina the Birthday Girl is in pink),

breakfast2.jpeg

and time in the hotel’s hot tub, time for naps, time for a jigsaw puzzle, time for telling stories, time for touring special homes (Fred and Dina in front of this 25-room Victorian mansion called the Cray Museum in Atchinson, Kansas),

Dina and Fred house tour.jpg

and time for Dina’s birthday cake.

cake.JPG

I asked some of them how they manage it, how they are still smiling after the loss of both mother and father, how they navigate diverse political affiliations and life choices, how the physical distances between their homes mean almost nothing – indeed how this many very strong individuals can be so (overall) very agreeable when they get together. The answers were expressed differently, but boiled down to the same thing: mutual respect. No one tries to lord it over anyone else or tell anyone else what they should do or how to think.

I watched and saw numerous examples. They waited patiently while one or more (I won’t say who!) took longer getting through the museum exhibits, even if the rest were ready to get going. Later they all stood outside for a while around that fire pit (in the skyline photo above) even though it was kinda, sorta, yeah quite cold (!) out there – because some wanted to. I watched them give each other room to be individuals, to have different opinions and different preferences. I watched them consistently practice the I Cor. 13:4-5 kind of love that is patient and kind, that does not envy, does not boast, that is not proud, nor dishonoring of others, nor self-seeking, nor easily angered, that keeps no record of wrongs. “Consistently” is a key word here.

I watched Six Siblings Celebrating (try saying that six times fast!!).  When in the future, in another location, they come together again, I have no doubt it will be just as pleasant, enjoyable and meaningful an occasion as this one was. I hope they know what a beautiful group they are, what a wonderful model for their children and friends and others, and how honored and delighted I myself was to have been a part of their amazing circle for a few days.

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!

chicken.jpg

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.

purple and green dress.jpg

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.

salad.jpg

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!

finished.jpg

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!

my birthday plate.jpg

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!

Marie's birthday plate.jpg

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!

53746blowing out candles.jpeg

celebrating

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.

patties done2.jpg

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.

roux1.jpg

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

roux2.jpg

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.

roux4.jpg

This is with the first addition of milk incorporated.

roux3

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

roux6.jpg

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

roux7.jpg

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.

roux adding paprika.jpg

Mixed in, the speckles are still pretty!

roux with paprika.jpg

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

rice and cheese.jpg

And mixed it in.

rice and cheese2

Then I poured the sauce over the top.

sauce in.jpg

And mixed it in.

sauce mixed in.jpg

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.

patties.jpg

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.

egg and bread crumbs.jpg

Once breaded, the croquettes look like this.

patty in crumbs.jpg

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!

patties in pan.jpg

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.

patties flipped.jpg

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?

meat in package.jpg

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!

finished.jpg

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.

meat.jpg

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.

with bread crumbs.jpg

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

ready to roll.jpg

Let the rolling begin!

rolling.jpg

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.

rolling3.jpg

My rolls looked like this.

rolled and ready.jpg

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.

in pan.jpg

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.

seared.jpg

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!

6 (9).jpg

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:

chopping.jpg

Then crossways until it looks like this.

chopped fine.jpg

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.

bakery lane (2).jpg

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.

in bowl.jpg

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!

jars2.jpg

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!