Mantle lights

Tiny tree lights

Give this cat an ironing board and a wet garment of clothing and she's set for days

Host/hostess gift

She guards the bathroom door

Stone Fence

Waiting for food to hit ground
I get up in the dark, I come home in the dark. I don't know what this house looks like in daylight except for on the weekends. I am grateful for the winter solstice because I know the days grow longer after its passing.

A few years ago, I read a book called The Geography of Bliss, about which countries' "happiness quotient" are highest. I will forever remember its depiction of Iceland, one of the happiest places, though during the winter, it gets about 4 hours of daylight. The author described a place in which community was formed through a sort of shared survival mentality. They gathered together, they drank, they got through it. And their lives seemed to be better for it. I think about that a lot.

This is the time of year for game nights and drinking, in other words. Which is what we are doing. And it's the time for brandy. Calvados, in this case. It's warm and apple-y. That Stone Fence pictured above is a drink I highly recommend. It's a shot or so of Calvados, topped with hard cider and some ice.

If you find yourself feeling down in the dumps in the darkness, find either a St. Bernard with a cask of brandy, or a good friend with a bottle in one hand and a deck of cards in the other, and cozy up and settle in. We can do this. A few more days and we're on the better side of winter.


On nurturing your favorite cook and/or baker this Christmas

When I got my first apartment after college, I bought a handful of things for the kitchen, probably from an aisle or two at Target: measuring spoons and cups, a dish-drying rack, some kitchen towels. Nearly everything else was covered by gifts and hand-me-downs. For someone who's never had a wedding registry, I've cleaned up quite well over the years, thanks to the loving folks in my life who know how much time I enjoy in the kitchen.

Perhaps you're already done with your shopping, but just in case you're out of ideas, here are a few things that I highly recommend for cooks - from the newbies to the ones who seem to have everything.

Little somethings
  1. Measuring spoons. Most people already have a set, but having two sets can be a lifesaver from time to time. Plus, they come in all sorts of fun designs, like these, these and these ones
  2. Pan scraper. Because new and seasoned cooks alike get stuff stuck to the bottom of the pan. The best ones are the size of a credit card and are just as flexible, but I've learned they're not easy to find unless you go to the right kitchen store (we stocked up at a store in Petaluma, Calif., knowing we might not find them elsewhere). They are also a dream for scraping out dough remnants from your mixing bowl. If you don't know the difference, a hard plastic square variety still works great.
  3. Paring knife. Another item it doesn't hurt to have a few of. I like the ones that come with their own plastic sheath, making it easy to stash in a lunch bag.
  4. Cookie and biscuit cutters. People like me don't need much of a reason to make cookies, but the opportunity to use fun cookie cutters is a compelling incentive.
  5. Poach pods. I'm lousy when it comes to poaching eggs the traditional way, so these silicone wonders changed my breakfast life. You simply simmer some water in a pan, crack an egg into each pod, float them on the water, cover the pan, and in 6-7 minutes you have a perfectly poached, English-muffin sized egg. It's really fun.
Joel uses the microplane for fresh nutmeg topping on our adult drinks
Solid gifts
  1. Microplane. Your life is made instantly easier and fancier in owning one of these. I use it almost every time I cook for mincing ginger and garlic, zesting citrus fruits and grating nutmeg and really hard cheese. 
  2. Baking stone. Those who are serious about good pizza and crusty loaves, and who don't happen to have a wood-burning pizza oven, shouldn't attempt either without a baking stone.
  3. French Press or Aeropress. I don't like taking up space on my counter with coffee machines, which is one reason I've loved my French press for so long, plus it makes really good coffee for one or two people. After developing a post-dinner espresso habit, however, the Aeropress came into our lives, and none to soon. We love it so much, it even comes on vacation with us. It's lightweight, stashable, simple, and makes a mean cup of coffee and espresso-like sips. 
  4. Whirley Pop: I am normally not an advocate for single-purpose appliances like these, but for people like me who make a lot of popcorn and like having a seasoned pot for it, the Whirley Pop brings much joy. Include a bag of Tiny But Mighty heirloom popcorn for extra loveliness. 
  5. A cutting block with a good chef's knife. Don't underestimate the power of one good knife on a sturdy surface. 
  6. Pasta maker. It took me awhile to drum up the courage to make pasta, but after my first successful try (after a major fail), I was hooked. I started off with an Imperia, before I got my Kitchenaid attachment (even more fun to use), which came with two attachments for spaghetti and fettuccine noodles. Once you know how to make pasta, I say, you're set for life.

Cookbooks: The basics
  1. The New Best Recipe cookbook (or any big book from Cook's Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen). This was a gift to myself right after college, after one of my friends used it for a recipe for calzones with perfect results. Years later, I still use this regularly for basic recipes and guiding principles, and its recipe for molasses spice cookies. There are no photos, which I think is important because it makes you read their detailed instructions carefully. 
  2. The Art of Simple Food. Alice Waters is a wonderful teacher in showing us how to prepare food in a way that celebrates what it is, without all the fancy nonsense.
  3. Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. I love venturing into this beauty of a book whenever I want to tackle something new. Turns out that it's not all that difficult. 
Once you know how to do it, you can bake these babies anywhere. These were made at Mom and Dad's.

Cookbooks for expanding horizons
  1. Ratio by Michael Ruhlman. This book, along with Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal, has made me a much more confident cook because it's taught me principles of cooking. No longer do I need a recipe for a vinaigrette, beef stock or bread dough because I know the ideal ratio and key ingredients for making them. This breeds much creativity in cooking, too; people might think you're a real whiz kid.
  2. Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. A great companion gift with the baking stone. There is no easier way to make your dinner more luxurious than by pulling a crackling round of bread from the oven. Thanks to this book, you'll usually find a bucket of dough in my fridge, ready to parse out over a couple weeks' time for loaves and pizza crust.
  3. Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. There's a good variety of beautiful and approachable recipes in here. I make Deb's recipe for granola regularly.

An old trick on cold winter nights - soup on the stove, bread under the broiler, hands near all elements.
Pièce de résistance gifts
  1. Pots and pans. This was my parents' Christmas gift to me when I was a senior in college. It made me feel like I'd arrived. I still love the set. It was from Macy's (Belgique brand) and it came with a stock pot, a large, medium and small sauce pan, a 10-inch skillet, and a steamer pot that fit on the large saucepan. I use them all.
  2. Stand mixer. I was shocked when I received my Kitchenaid for Christmas. I was totally fine with the handheld mixer I had, but having the ability to machine-knead dough and whip egg whites while I readied other ingredients changed everything for me. And they come in such pretty colors.
  3. Food processor. Another thing I didn't realize how much I'd love until I had one. I love mine for pasta dough, pie crust, big batches of well-whipped hummus, and pureeing nuts.
  4. French or Dutch oven. My 5-quart red Le Creuset gets a lot of love. Everything I make in it looks so much more thoughtful, expertly assembled and delicious. And it just cooks things better, I'm convinced.
  5. Cuisinart griddle/grill/panini press combo: I have fallen in love with this thing. I use it to grill meat, smash panini and fry pancakes. It's versatile and easy to clean, and I learned you can also buy waffle plates for it (!!). 


Vegan and gluten-free apple crisp

Just a quickie to share a really simple, incredibly yummy apple crisp we enjoyed over Thanksgiving. You know it's good when the baking dish disappears to a corner where someone is eating the remnants. 

I'm always looking for great vegan and gluten-free options, particularly the kinds that require simple ingredients. The Minimalist Baker has become a great resource, which is where I found this recipe. They call for a blend of apples, but I used all Granny Smiths. 


My new go-to baby shower gift

After I first learned how to knit, I routinely knit baby booties to give to expectant mothers. They are quick to knit up and there's something so fun about holding a little baby bootie, knowing a little baby foot will go in there.

Then I found a sewing pattern for terrycloth-lined baby bibs on Purlbee. The booties are quick, but these are even quicker, and it's easy to make four at a time with just a half-yard of terrycloth. So...it's cheap. I went to my favorite fabric store and picked out 4 different fat quarters (you only need a fat eighth), which kind of made my day. I'm not a quilter, but I'm always looking for projects that use just a little bit of fun fabric like this.

I made the mistake of cutting the pattern before sewing it to the terrycloth, but it didn't harm the end product, other than making it about a 1/4" smaller all around. Next time I'll be sure to follow the directions a little more carefully (sigh...a common theme for me). The longest part of the process was hand-sewing the snaps. Either way, I finished these in about 3 hours. So fun!


Recipe test: Edna Staebler's corn pudding

I just remembered a spare shelf I had high up in the kitchen where I've stashed the cookbooks I use less often. Over the last few nights I've taken a few of them to bed with me and marked some recipes to try. This is why, on Saturday morning, I made a very old-fashioned thing called corn pudding. It came from a cookbook from my Oma's collection: Food that Really Schmecks: Mennonite Country Cooking, written by Edna Staebler, published in 1968. It's my favorite kind of cookbook in that it really is a good read - you learn about Edna and her family and friends. I've read through this book a few times and love her no-nonsense, honest way of writing about community food, which is a collection of her mother's and friends' recipes, namely those from a friend named Bevvy. She writes about the first time she invited prominent people to her cottage home in Waterloo County, Ontario, how she pored over recipes she'd collected, and those from cookbooks in the library, hoping to impress these well-traveled guests. Finally, she realized, a typical North Waterloo County meal would be perfect because you couldn't have it anywhere else: "My dinner would not be elaborate, or exotic, with rare ingredients and mystifying flavours." She treated them to bean salad, smoked pork chops, shoo-fly pie, schmierkase and apple butter with fastnachts. "They ate till they said they would burst," she writes. Her food, and these recipes, are the result of recipe-swapping between Roman Catholics and Lutherans from the same European areas who settled among the Mennonites in North Waterloo, "till a way of cooking developed that is unique and indigenous to this heaven-blessed area that rejoices in its cultivation, preparation and tranquil digestion of irresistibly good-schmecking (tasting) food."

It was nice to learn that Edna lived to 101 years old.

So, corn pudding. This is pudding in the custardy sense, not in the gelatin sense. You just need corn, eggs, butter, milk, sugar, salt and a little bit of corn starch (or flour). Edna says it's great for any meal - alongside a salad at lunch or dinner, or at breakfast, drizzled with some maple syrup. This is ready for the oven in the time it takes to preheat it, so for that, I give it some convenience points.

As for taste, it was pretty corny. I liked the sweet/saltiness of it, and the custard was fairly light. Maple syrup was a nice topping, in the same way honey is a natural pairing with cornbread. I bet you could mix in some cheese instead, before baking, for a more savory pudding.

I think the main head-scratcher was figuring out what to eat with it. We paired it with some nice salty turkey bacon, which was good. Joel (who describes corn pudding as "interesting") thought it might be good on something, like a piece of toast. I agree with him there, especially since it kind of fell apart with a fork. Which gives it a few negative points for texture. 

Schmecks? I'll give it a B+.

Here's the recipe if you'd like to try it for yourself:

Corn Pudding
adapted from Food that Really Schmecks by Edna Staebler

2 c. corn - fresh, frozen (thawed) or canned
1 tsp. salt
2 eggs, beaten
2 T. butter, melted
1 T. sugar
1 T. flour or cornstarch
1 c. milk
pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350, and grease an 8x8" baking dish. In a bowl, combine corn, salt, pepper butter, sugar, and flour. In a separate bowl, whisk eggs and milk together, then pour into corn mixture and combine. Pour everything into the prepared dish and bake 35-40 minutes, until the sides look puffy and barely brown. 


Simple gifts

When it gets to be around Thanksgiving time, two songs tend to enter my brain: "Over the River" and "Simple Gifts." The first, I assume, is due to the truth it conveys about the weather. "Oh, how the wind does blow...it stings the toes and bites the nose." Indeed. As for "Simple Gifts," I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's because it's folky and Aaron Copeland-y, and with all the woodsmoke and crunchiness in the air, it just seems right. But the lyrics are surely something my subconscious is telling me to listen to:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be, 
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

I just wanted to share a few glimpses of our magnificent autumn around here (a few from Coeur d'Alene), now that the arctic blast has arrived and pushed us into winter mode. The fall has always been a sentimental season for me, and this year it seemed to be especially filled with those things that make me pause with wonder and emotion: how a stranger could be so generous; how a once-tiny child is now grown and is captivating a congregation with her music; how many shades of yellow are within my immediate view; how loving and warm this living-room tableau is; how sweet it is to sit at the table with a nice thing to eat.

When the leaves have fallen and the frost has arrived, when our senses aren't filled with color and sounds of other seasons, perhaps nature is giving us a space to rest and focus on these simple things.


Best self, best shelf

A couple weeks ago, I got a do-over. We have a lovely little room that wasn't getting much use - technically my "Kraft Zimmer" (translation: power room, with the intentional Kraft/craft confusion). It ended up being more of a place to fling stuff, stuff which I'd later pick up anytime I actually needed to use the room for sewing projects or ironing. Because I didn't want to deal with de-cluttering, I tossed aside many sewing projects and almost completely dismissed the need to iron anything. But Joel surprised me one day by clearing out the old futon that was in there, making way for  whatever I could dream up for the space. I started envisioning walls of bookshelves, cute organizing baskets, ripping off the wallpaper, and a bundle of other ideas, but in the end, a little reorganization of stuff I already had was just what I needed to start making this little room a cozy space that we actually wanted to spend time in.

I cleaned out a bookshelf and put in all the books that inspire my creativity. That meant hauling cookbooks in from the kitchen and organizing my craft books by type. I'm spending so much more time with them now because I can see them so clearly from the cozy chair in the corner.

Last Sunday morning, I laid on my stomach with a bunch of cookbooks open to things I wanted to make in my immediate future.  I consulted my giant I Know How to Cook book and bookmarked the recipe for Potage Bonne Femme, a delicate vegetable soup. With a fresh loaf of bread, it turned out to be a lovely rainy day dinner that lasted a couple days. In this season when I feel like I have to make recipes with squash but don't want to deal with peeling the dang things, this is a great alternative. See, it even looks squashy.

Potage Bonne Femme
Adapted from I Know How to Cook by Ginette Mathiot

2 large leeks, or 3 medium ones, white and light green parts, sliced fairly thin
4 carrots, peeled and diced
5 small Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced
1 T. unsalted butter
6 c. water
2 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper

for finishing
Heavy cream
Minced chives

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium. Add the veggies and cook with a good pinch (or more) of salt and pepper, stirring occasionally, until they begin to soften, about 5-7 minutes. Don't let them brown. Add the water (freshly boiled water is ideal), cloves and bay leaves and simmer for about 30 minutes, until the vegetables are quite tender. Remove the cloves and bay leaf. At this point, you can stir in cream and season to taste, or, if you like a blended soup, as I do, take your immersion or regular blender and puree the soup. Stir in a glug of cream, season with salt and pepper to taste, and spoon into bowls. Top with chives.

Serve with warm, crusty bread or toast.