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!

 

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!

Randos and Meatloaf

If you typed the sentence below into a blank page in Word document on your laptop, one word would come up with a red line under it, telling you to check your spelling because it’s unknown to the internal Word dictionary. If you tried to play that same word in Wordfeud or any of the online scrabble-type games, it would reject that word as “not a word.” Here’s the sentence:

Last night my son Samuel came home from a tech meetup and told me there had been some randos there.

Did you guess which word I mean?

“Some randos?” I said to him. From the context I guessed: “You mean random people?” He smiled. “Randos?” I repeated.

“Yeah,” he said, still smiling. Clearly I am so out of it that my ignorance is amusing. “Random people who show up who don’t necessarily belong.” To prove his point, he said, “I’ll show you in the slang dictionary.” He put rando in a google search. “Oh!” he said, “not the slang dictionary. Merriam-Webster!”

Indeed, rando is a word, randos being the plural. From the Merriam-Webster page https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/rando:

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Who knew? Obviously I didn’t. According to M-W, “The first known use of rando was in 2003.” Ah, a millennial word. To further his amusement and my education, he then pulled up a song on youtube that humorously includes much of the millennial lingo. To further yours, I humbly suggest checking out Millennial Love https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUendT_dGks&start_radio=1&list=RDMUendT_dGks

New words enter the lexicon all the time. Notice “meetup” in the original sentence about randos. Why can’t young people say they are going to a meeting? Because when young people want to gather in a group, they don’t meet. They don’t meet together. They meet up. The verb in “Let’s meet up” turned into the noun in “I’ll see you at the meetup.” I myself would be tempted to add a hyphen for the noun, as in “I’ll see you at the meet-up.” But no. Why would a millennial bother with hyphens?

Now that I am clear and settled on this new word (which somehow I missed for the last 15 years) I can reflect on the endless supply of almost everything in this world. Recipes, for instance. Just last night I was making meatloaf. I put the ingredients in a bowl. In this case, ground beef, bread softened in milk, eggs, minced red onion, parmesan cheese, fresh chopped parsley, salt and pepper.

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I mixed it all together and found that it was a little too wet. I added a handful of (dry) old-fashioned oats. It was still too wet so I added another handful. This made it just right. A long time ago I had a recipe book that used oats to “stretch” the meat the way my mom had always used leftover bread. I always thought oats were a good idea, as in more “pure” (one ingredient instead of everything that’s in the bread), more natural, more fiber. But while going through my pantry yesterday I had found some dried old bread and thought to use it up with the ground meat I had thawed the day before. But when I had added milk to soften it, I’d added too much, thus the need for more stretch ingredients, i.e. the oats.

I shaped two thin loaves (so it would bake faster, I was hungry) and baked it in a very hot oven (450, I was hungry) which also gave it some crispiness. The meatloaf came out great, even if meatloaf never really looks that great.

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I thought about sharing my meatloaf recipe and was constructing the ingredient list and preparation steps in my mind when I realized that, well, normally I don’t put minced red onion in. I just happened to have one already peeled in my fridge and it stared at me when I went in for the eggs.

Also I would normally use oats, not bread, for reasons above. But I used the bread yesterday because there it was. A lot of people, including my mom whose meatloaf is fabulous every time, use bread and that’s okay. She squeezes hers to get the excess moisture out, and I think uses water instead of milk to soak it in.

If you don’t have fresh parsley, dried will serve.

How many eggs? Two or three per pound of meat? That depends on 1. how moist you like your meatloaf and 2. how big your eggs are. Mine from the silkies and d’uccle are very small, so I would have used three if I had not poured too much milk on the bread.

I like to use the “meatloaf mix” you can get in the meat case at the store, where they grind up beef, veal and pork together and package it specifically for meatloaf, but that’s not what I had taken out of my freezer, so yesterday’s was just beef.

My sister Lynn makes a stiffer mixture, flattens it out, puts stuff inside (I can’t remember: salami? cheese? cut up veggies?) and rolls it up before baking the loaf. This is always delicious.

Some people bake their meatloaf in a loaf pan. I prefer a freeform elongated football. A very skinny football if I’m very hungry.

My point is: There are endless ways to make meatloaf just as there are endless new words and new expressions in our lexicon.

Go to the greeting card section of any store that sells them. There are endless ways to say Happy Birthday or I’m so sorry for your loss.

Decide to build a porch on your house. There are endless ways to design it (not all of them sensible, feasible or economical, I grant).

Watch the political campaigns happening around you. There are endless ways to say Here’s why you want to vote for me.

Check out Blue Planet II on amazon. There are endless kinds of sea creatures with endlessly different shapes, colors, habits, habitats, diets, methods of survival, ways of caring for their young, levels of ugliness or cuteness. There’s fire spouting from mountains under the sea. Sperm whales rest vertically!

It would be easy to be overwhelmed by the endless newness and the endless variety, and maybe sometimes we are. But mostly I hope we marvel at the richness of the world and count our blessings that there is always something new to learn. We are never done learning. We never should be.

Who knows? The next meatloaf might be even better than this one was!

Half a Piece of Pie

In the past few months, at least two new pie shops have opened in Charlottesville. There’s something about a good piece of pie, and everyone has their favorite. Or do they? Is cherry better than apple better than blueberry better than key lime? Oh, better than pumpkin?? I had to make a decision today at Quality Pie.

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This pie shop’s selection includes the basics. I looked in the glass case and asked the nice young man to tell me about the cherry pie. “Bing cherries,” he said, “that’s all I know.” Okay, fair enough. I like bing cherries. How about the crust? “All butter,” he said, “unless it’s for one of the savory pies. Then I think they use lard.” All butter works for me.

Their prices were decent too.

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I make pie myself. I love to make pie. But when cherries come into season, I do not think of making a pie with them because they are so good all by themselves. So, yes, the cherry pie called my name. It was wonderful. Hat’s off to the baker at Quality Pie.

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One bite into my very delicious piece of pie, I remembered another piece – half a piece – that made a great impression on me. This half piece came from a pie I made myself when I was still in college at Rutgers University (Douglass College back then, a part of Rutgers). I was living in a small apartment and invited a friend to come for dinner. I don’t remember what I made for the main part of the meal, but for dessert there was pie.

It was good pie. You’ll have to take my word. I served Penelope her piece and served myself as well, and we kept on talking, having a lovely time. Then something remarkable happened. When she was halfway done with her piece of pie, I mean when there was half a piece of pie still on her plate, she put her fork down.

She put her fork down and did not pick it back up again.

I was 20 years old and confronted with something new. Who doesn’t finish a piece of pie?

We kept talking and I tried to ignore this bizarre turn of events. Eventually I couldn’t stand it anymore. I turned into my mother and said, “Is something wrong with the pie?”

She looked me straight in the eye and said, “No, it’s good. I’m just full.”

If she had stood on her head or told me she would turn into an alien if she ate another bite, I could not have been more surprised. Full? I thought. Full? Sure… but… too full to finish a piece of pie?

“Oh, okay, just making sure,” was all I said about it.

Never before had I encountered anyone stopping because they were full. In my house, growing up, you finished what was on your plate regardless. You were grateful. You had vague notions of starving children somewhere. You especially finished pie!

This was a monumentally earth-shattering, life-changing concept for me, I can assure you. In front of me was Penelope, not an ounce of fat on her, politely putting her fork down because she was full. In my mind I saw my family, many of whom (including myself) either on a diet or about to be on one, always finishing what was on our plates. I understand this is a very small sample size and a very unscientific way to draw a conclusion, but I saw that the person who put down her fork when she was full even if she was eating pie was by all appearances healthier than the people I knew who put down their forks only when their plates were empty even if they were full.

I won’t lie. I had a hard time throwing away Penelope’s uneaten half. No chickens in my life then, nothing to do but throw it away. But another thought occurred to me. Penelope was listening to her body in a way I had never done, never thought to do. Her body was telling her to stop, and she listened. I had always listened to my mind, to the words that had been said to me so often: Finish what’s on your plate. Period. No conditions here. No if’s. Just finish. It’s wasteful if you don’t.

But (I now thought) if my body is telling me I don’t need it, if I’m full but I eat it anyway, isn’t that wasteful too, in its own way? Isn’t that asking my body to waste energy doing what it wouldn’t have to do if I didn’t burden it with food it doesn’t need?

Thus began a profound shift in my thinking about food. I still didn’t like having to throw away the half piece of pie, but what if I had given her a smaller portion to begin with? What if I had not assumed what her portion would be and had perhaps asked her how big a piece she wanted? (This too was a foreign concept – a piece of pie had a size, a set size. You didn’t mess with these things.)

What if I had asked her? She might have said Just a sliver please. And there would have been no pie in the trash.

What if I asked myself? What if I thought about my own portion instead of robotically taking what seemed a normal amount? What if I thought about, gave even a few seconds thought to, how hungry I actually was and adjusted my portion? What if I listened to my own body?

I had a full course load that semester in college and was working three different part-time jobs. It was a lot of juggling. And now one more thing to think about, one more thing on my plate! I can’t say this experience brought about an immediate change for me – old habits die hard – but Penelope taught me a great lesson that slowly worked its way into my own eating patterns. Sadly, I lost track of her after graduation and therefore can’t thank her for the part she played in helping me be more reasonable about food. But I wish I could.

A is for Applesauce

For as long as I can remember, I have made applesauce come fall. It’s a signal of the season change, when my best descriptor of the air is “crisp” and my thoughts turn – without intention – to hunkering down and getting ready for the colder, shorter days of winter. It’s fundamental to our primal instincts to get ready for scarcity of food, even if we don’t have to worry about that at all. Applesauce is one of those pure foods that’s good warm, cold or icy, all by itself or next to a slice of pork roast or a potato pancake.

It’s simple. You wash the apples, cut them up, put them in a pot with a little water, let it cook down, press it through a strainer, add some cinnamon if you want, and enjoy! I’ll take you through it step by step.

Amazing apples make amazing applesauce, so start with apples as fresh and crisp as possible and as local as your location allows. I am fortunate to live 20 minutes from a well-established and super impressive family farm that specializes in heirloom apples. https://www.albemarleciderworks.com/

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One day last week I happened to be going right by there, so I stopped in for 40 pounds, my usual portion when applesauce is the goal. (Forty pounds fills three canvas shopping bags a bit more than half full each, in case you wondered.) Normally Albemarle CiderWorks has five or six long folding tables set up along the outside wall of the barn with a box of each kind of apple, one after the next, in a long row on the tables. (There’s a good photo on their web site showing this.) They have small paring knives and paper plates and descriptions of each apple set out in front of the boxes, so that you can sample them and decide what you like best.

But last Thursday it was raining and all the apples were in cold storage. I was escorted into that living-room-sized refrigerator and chose fast! Cold storage is cold!

Different apples are picked at different times, and different apples are best for different purposes. Applesauce naturally comes out best when you use apples that are best for cooking. For me that means they are very firm and a bit tart, which is as technically descriptive as I can get. Last year I got one called Black Twig that was extraordinary, but it comes late in the season and was not available yet. Virginia Gold and Liberty looked good to me in the ten, very cold seconds inside the fridge that I allowed myself to contemplate this decision, and the woman helping me confirmed that they would make great applesauce. Pack ‘em up! Done! Homeward I drove.

Yesterday, following too much rain this past week, the ground was too wet for the final grading in front of the house, so we thought maybe it would be a good time to get the oak clapboards on the coop. That job has been sitting all summer on the back burner while we waited for the wood to be milled and got involved with other things. We had barely started measuring and cutting boards when raindrops came again, so we turned our attention to the basement, more specifically to making order in the basement. A lot of stuff got moved to clear the space in front of the interior wall of the foundation that needs repair, and that stuff had been put here, there and everywhere. It took a couple hours, but all is decently in place now. A bunch of stuff is in the trash.

Then it wasn’t raining anymore, and the coop siding beckoned still. But before heading out, I decided to get the applesauce going. Look how beautiful they are in my sink.

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I rinsed them off and stared at them a bit, admiring their gloss, their unique colorings – every Liberty with slightly different transitions from reddish to greenish, every Virginia Gold with different splotches and spots of brown. I have to admire them before I cut them up. It seems the respectful thing to do.

But once you start cutting, you just cut. The little ones you can quarter, the big ones in sixths or whatever is quickest. Seeds and skins stay; stems go in the compost or trash.

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I can’t be overly specific regarding quantities here because it’s entirely up to you how much applesauce you want to make. Take out a big pot (I used my five-gallon pot) and put about half an inch of water in the bottom of it. Put your cut-up apples in the pot until you can’t fit any more. Mine looked like this.

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Cover the pot, turn on medium and walk away. Go read a book or put siding on the coop. With the lid on top and the water in the bottom, those apples will just steam and get soft. After about an hour I took a break from the siding and checked on them; mine were doing what they are supposed to do: reducing in volume, steaming away, looking like this.

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Yours might take a little less time if it’s a lesser quantity. (What makes me think that not everyone is going to fill a five-gallon pot? You can make a smaller amount, but after you taste it, you’ll wish you made more!) The apples need to cook down slowly, and all they need is time and heat. Give it a stir at this point if you want, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t.

After about two hours it reaches the point of mushiness where you can easily stir it with a wooden spoon and make mash by doing so. By this time the aroma of apples fills your home and you wonder why more people don’t cook.

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See the mash around my spoon? With a few more stirs, it all looks like that and you can spoon it into the strainer that you have set up in a bowl.

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Except for the skins and seeds, it’s applesauce now. Why not just peel and core them before cooking them? You can, but that process is tedious and time-consuming, and you lose more of the flesh of the apple that way. I do not have that kind of patience, much as my chickens would love the extra apple they’d get. And these apples are precious to me – I want as much of them as possible going into my applesauce.

Now all you have to do is press the applemash through the holes of the strainer with the back of a spoon. A Foley food mill works well for this too, if you have one of the older models. I found the newer ones problematic and more trouble than they are worth. My sister Lynn loves her Foley food mill; if I still had my old one, I’d probably love it too. But we get used to things one way or another. See what works for you.

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Note that the holes of my strainer are not super tiny. They are big enough for the sauce to go through pretty easily, but not so big as to allow the seeds through. Every now and then scrape the underside of the strainer.

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I discovered quickly that my bowl was going to fill up too fast, so I switched to using my Dutch oven as the bowl underneath. Then when the level of the applesauce reached the bottom of the strainer, I transferred the applesauce to the bowl.

Keep pressing applemash against the sides of the strainer until all you have left is skins and seeds. It will look like this.

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Scrape out the seeds and skins from the strainer into a separate bowl (this is great for your compost or your chickens!) and start again.

With the quantity I made, I added cinnamon each time the bowl became full (instead of waiting till it was all strained through and then adding cinnamon). Now that I think of it, I suppose you could put cinnamon sticks in the pot with the cooking apples, but oh well, maybe next time! I can’t tell you exactly how much cinnamon to use. It’s like salt and pepper: Add what seems right to you. I used about two teaspoons per three quarts of strained applesauce.

I love the swirl of the cinnamon getting stirred in.

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You can put your applesauce in a container and put it in the fridge to eat soon, or you can put it in mason jars and can it in a hot water bath, or you can freeze it. I think freezing is best. It’s easy and allows for icy applesauce at some point down the road.

Quart-size ziplock bags work great. If one person holds the bag open and another person spoons it in, that’s ideal. If you are by yourself, try putting the applesauce in a large measuring cup with a pour-spout or a small bowl with the same, and holding the bag with one hand and pouring with the other. A wide-mouth funnel can be good too. You can also freeze in jars as long as you allow a good inch or so of air space for expansion, otherwise the glass will break. (And you don’t want that!)

I had filled my five-gallon pot to overflowing with cut-up apples and ended up with about ten quarts of applesauce and three cups of seeds and skins which my chickens enjoyed tremendously. Always keep a little out for enjoying fresh.

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Oh, and if you think your applesauce is too watery, just cook it down a little more after you’ve removed the seeds and skins. That’s how you get apple butter – it’s just way-cooked-down applesauce. It might take another hour or so to cook down. Turn off the heat when it’s as thick as you like. In the meantime your house is blessed with apple aroma again! Some people add sugar too, at the end. That’s your call.

For those who are wondering how you get icy applesauce, just thaw one of your frozen bags or jars to the point where you can break the applesauce apart with a fork. Stir until desired smoothness. Oh yum!

And the coop — I love the siding! Claudia calls it a chicken castle! More on that soon 🙂

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Home is Home Because

When you have been away from home for an afternoon, you don’t necessarily think about how wonderful it is to return to your own space. But when it’s been sixteen days, that’s a different story. It’s wonderful! Maybe it’s even more wonderful when you are away much longer than that, but for now I can speak only to the sixteen-day effect.

I have always felt that your own space – the place you call home – should be a place of peace (as much as is in your power to make it so) and a place of sanctuary, where you can be safe and you can be yourself. It should reflect your personality and preferences, and you should be able to move about easily and be (let’s hope) happy there. I want to think that everyone is kind and welcoming to guests.

It’s fun to see other people’s homes. The ones I was in while away have much in common with mine. They have a place for street shoes just inside the door as I do, well-equipped kitchens, comfortable beds and chairs, a large table for eating together, some soft furniture, a good deal of bright lighting, images of family members on the walls or shelves, overlooked smudges and scuffs and selective disorder (or shall we say less-than-optimal order in certain areas? Just like mine!).

Yet they are all different than mine. Most profoundly, my children’s homes all felt like their homes, not mine. This made me think about what it is about your own home that sets it apart from others. Some things are practical, some harder to pin down.

In your own home, you know where things are. We all have our patterns, our routines. We keep certain things front and center and other things in their designated places because our patterns and routines run more smoothly if we know where things are. You know where the outlets are for plugging in your phone charger. You know where extra soap is to replace the empty one that’s perched at the back of the sink. When my children were little, I had a thing about my scissors. If you need scissors, you need scissors, and nothing else serves. If you need to use my scissors, put them back where you found them.

Yesterday I needed a crowbar at one point. (We all need a crowbar sometimes, right??) Naturally I went to the shed to get one. There are a couple of screws for hanging the crowbars in there. See them, under the blue box?

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Do you see crowbars hanging from them? Neither did I. Being deep (sometimes literally) into the Big Dig (my foundation repair project) as we were yesterday, I groaned, thinking I might have to waste time looking. There are only so many hours of daylight in October, so dammit, where’s the crowbar? Thankfully, when I glanced in the other direction, I found one in the five-gallon bucket that holds a dozen or so random tools like the big loppers. It was the second most logical place to put it if you forgot the right place. Whew! I was spared the frustration.

In your own home, your stuff is familiar. You know what to expect. Fewer surprises are more relaxing. In each household I visited they all drink coffee and/or tea and therefore have something for boiling water. I saw two electric kettles, one stovetop kettle and one Keurig. All of them work, though I am not convinced that the water coming from the Keurig is as hot as it should be. That aside, my own kettle is familiar to me. I can be a bit more on auto-pilot with mine. My muscles know when the weight of it indicates enough water for one cup, two cups or a whole pot of tea. My ears know the sound of it as it gets close to the boiling point. My hands remember how hot the handle can get depending on how much water is in it.

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It is NOT the end of the world to use different water-boiling equipment. It just doesn’t feel like home.

When it comes to tea (and presumably coffee), there is also something about the water itself. Your own water in your own home, whether it comes from a municipal system or straight out of the earth from your well, has its own taste, and you get used to that. When my friend Fred stayed here, he drank tea more than he usually does, and decided he would drink more once he got home. The day before he left, he bought some of the same loose black tea as I have in my house. It tasted different at his house, and the only explanation for that is that his water is different. To get closer to the tea he wanted, he decided to use bottled water. That made it better, though still not quite the same.

In your own home, it smells right. I don’t mean to suggest that other homes smell bad. They don’t. They just smell different. Houses take on smells of the foods prepared there recently (or frequently), of the cleaning products applied there, of the people themselves and the shampoo or cologne they use, of the animals that share the spaces.

Not everyone bakes (imagine!). Not everyone even cooks! But there’s a reason they tell you to have just made a batch of cookies when you are trying to sell your house and have potential buyers coming soon. When there are onions sautéing in butter or fresh bread becoming golden in the oven, or whenever the smells that seem warm and homey and yummy to you are wafting from the kitchen, it’s a kind of embrace that you are drawn into, one that’s hard to resist, one that feels like home.

In your own home, you know the paces and the peculiarities. You know how to navigate regardless of the lighting, how far it is to the bathroom, what flooring is under your feet at what point, what obstacles you might possibly encounter (dog? toys? edge of table?). You know the flow of traffic, where the choke points are and how to avoid them and what’s the best way from Point A to Point B.

The top step of Bradley’s basement staircase has a wider tread than the others. Don’t forget that when you go up or down; it’s a slight adjustment of your footing. The lights in Marie’s living room get turned on by way of a small remote; the first morning when I got up early (still on east coast time), for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to turn the lights on! Drew’s kitchen sink is the oddest shape I’ve ever seen, like a pac-man in the corner, and it doesn’t fit a large pot, so you find another way to clean that pot.

In my house the screen door gets out of whack sometimes. You have to lift it gently but firmly into place every time you go in and out until a good friend (thank you, Sandy!) fixes it. My kitchen countertop is old and white and gets stained, and it sags just a bit over near the stove. The condensation caused by a thawing container of anything sends a slow, predictable ribbon of water toward one corner. It’s better to put thawing things in my sink (until I get a new countertop!).

In your own home, you remember the way it used to be. You have a history with the property, inside and out. You know what was there before. You see changes incrementally. Marie just got new windows in several rooms. They are very nice, but I don’t remember the old ones. She does and is so happy they are gone. Bradley gutted his house before they moved in, moved all the rooms around, creating a new floor plan. Beth did all the electrical work. If you knew the house before, you wouldn’t know it’s the same house. They have vivid images in their minds of what it looked like when they bought it. I needed photos to show me. Drew has a fabulous new rug, adding warmth to his place in a way that he says is much better than what he had before, which I never saw. I’ll take his word.

If they came to my house right now and saw this mum (yes, that’s my chrysanthemum!),

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they wouldn’t know, unless I told them, how three weeks ago it looked like this:

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And three months ago, you could barely see it in front of the beets.

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I loved seeing my children in their own homes, seeing them comfortable, making their spaces their own. But it is always good to come home. This time, it was good to find a beautiful plant in the garden because there was a big hole in front of my house! More on the Big Dig soon!