Feast or Famine.

Have you noticed my absence?  Maybe not.  I have never felt like the popular girl, never the one that everyone would notice is suspiciously missing from the school picture.  I'm more like the girl buried in the back of the yearbook, my photo included with the rest of the yearbook staff photos.  True story. (Except that I was also included in those high school picture days.  If our school had given perfect attendance pins I'm quite certain I would have received one.)

The truth is, I feel like this space online immediately reflects my home life, the things made, decorated and eaten.  And I've been so busy lately that I feel like I have to make myself pause to catch my breath.  I'm still making and eating, but it's last minute and inspired and not worthy of recording.  Gone are the days (at least for now) of watching over sprouting wheat berries and growing microgreens in the dining room.  Fall bread baking has picked up, a few loaves make their way onto Facebook or flickr, but most are only enjoyed privately, a few make their way out the door to others that I've baked for.

Whenever I start to get that rare feeling that I don't know what to do with myself, work comes in by the wheelbarrow load, and that is exactly what has happened to me lately.  I do my civic duty as a poll worker, which for the upcoming presidential election includes early election voting shifts at our city hall.  I bake treats for church parties.  I help out with some catering and shifts at a cafe a friend owns.  And make time for a visit from my Mom, some trick-or-treating, attending birthday parties, and just today a walk up to the Kiddo's school to share lunch.

I have also started revealing to people that I have been "hired" to write a small cookbook on canning and preserving!  It's my first real writing and photography gig, and I have a short deadline.  Any free moments are spent reading tech-heavy books on digital photography to improve my photos for this project.  I'm thankful to know just enough people in just the right areas of expertise to be able to shed welcome glimmers over my overwhelming naivety in all aspects of such an endeavor.  This is indeed the best schooling I've yet to receive.

mango & toasted coconut tart (GF)

But I confess that I'm not used to being so busy, not used to having to schedule in my laundry-doing and bathtub-scrubbing.  Take for instance this gluten-free shortbread that I was trying to master.  It began 2 weeks ago, when I had ripe mangoes to use up and wanted to concoct a fruit dessert to share with a neighbor.  Using a base recipe, I replaced the tart crust's flour with a GF version of homemade flour I lifted from a recent read:  Artisan Gluten Free Cookbook.  I really enjoyed reading this book, and intended to make all kinds of things from it for a full report.  That will have to wait I guess.  All I was able to manage was the all-purpose flour blend, which upon first trials seems to be very nice. 

My tart crust went unaltered from the original Gourmet recipe except the GF flour addition.  I froze the crust for a couple of hours, and popped it into the oven - docking it with a fork about 20 minutes after it began baking... when I remembered that such things need to be docked.  I glanced in at it and it was puffing up and actually, that was a happy accident, since I then took a stainless measuring cup and pushed the tart back into shape, creating a much neater finished appearance.  

What I didn't enjoy so much was the mango filling, which I set with 2 teaspoons of gelatin and premium non-homogenized heavy cream.  It was a bit vegetal; I couldn't help be feel that it would have been better served alongside some basmati rice.  I tried to help it with more lime zest, and additional whipped cream, but it remains one of the things I'll revisit another day when time abounds.

The crust, however, was genius.  A melt-in-your-mouth toasted coconut shortbread.  I googled "shortbread".  Wiki told me that shortbread is 1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, and 3 parts flour. I never knew that!  And sure enough when I made the time to weigh out my next trial, it was exactly the 1-2-3 ratio.  I needed to add 1/2 teaspoon of water to help my gluten-free version come together.  Unfortunately in my haste I made the cardinal mistake of shortbread: I forgot to get it nice and cold before baking.

Instead of something well defined to cut into wedges, I got a really good tasting, giant cookie with butter-crumbled edges.  Delicious, but messy and I still haven't had the time (or the stomach space) for another trial.  (The "failure" was undeniably great on top of some maple syrup sweetened ice cream I nabbed from The Green Market Baking Book.)

For the record, I used 44g. sugar, 88 g. butter (which was just about 7 tablespoons), and 130 g. GF flour (of which the GF flour weight was added to the 1/2 c. toasted coconut weight).

toasted coconut
toasted coconut shortbread3
toasted coconut shortbread2

I had hoped the shortbread would be sturdy enough to stand up to some preserves.  I cracked up the first jar of blueberry citrus preserves since jarring it up this Summer, and had to settle for it on some bare naked sourdough.  I'm not complaining.  I do feel like I have to rein in my sweet teeth; it seems all this talking about jam somehow ends up with me eating sweets again with gusto. 

blueberry preserves

So please forgive me if I seem absent.  I've even been behind on reading my favorite blogs. (But after hitting publish, I am making time to read about this savory fig and goat cheese danish that I noticed this morning...)  I won't give up on the gluten-free toasted coconut shortbread either.  I just need to catch up a little, and enjoy the business of working hard for the next while.  I know all too soon I'll feel the deep Winter chill of famine.  Fortunately for me, I'm equally happy with both.

What Am I? Homemaker.

It is a very contemplative day, being Easter and all. I spent most of the week strangely ill, hoping the near full week I spent without cooking at all would completely heal the last of my wounded hands. When complete recovery finally hit yesterday, I felt aptly renewed, a fresh appreciation for good health. I felt a new determination to be thankful in my everyday life, even as things seem to crash and fall around me with strange and strategic frequency lately.

I feel floundering, unsure (as I've mentioned before) of my place in my world, what to do with myself that is most beneficial to others and also makes me happiest. As I munched this cookie last Sunday after a Chinese lunch with my Parents, I couldn't help but wonder when this statement might possibly come true.


It wasn't until I sat here at the computer, looking over the photos I've liked this week - which weren't many since I barely ate at all - that I realized that I have regularly written things into this space now since April 8th of 2009, three full years of near spontaneous foods that have sprouted, risen and baked off into what I have regarded as my profession. A profession that has yet to pay a single cent, but one that has made me a better baker, a better cook, a full-fledged preserver, and a decent communicator in an online environment that prior to CakeWalk, I could never have imagined.

I'm not sure if it's my age ticking away that makes me wonder about the past with such frequency, the tickle of retrospect that whispers near constantly in my ear if I would have just done one or two little things differently that my whole life would be different. If I had only known that I loved food so much at 20ish years old then maybe today I'd know how to make a Bearnaise sauce, indeed all of the French sauces, off the cuff, and maybe I would know what to actually do when presented with meat, other than to slow cook it or most likely overcook it in a cast iron pan. Maybe my early mornings would be met with vats of dough, shaped and baked in my own steaming deck oven, round lumps of world-flavored bread emerging, goldened from my work visas to Italy, France, and the Middle East.

Yesterday I cast my votes in the supremely fun Saveur Best Food Blog Awards, and I read all of the blog posts in the category for Best Piece of Culinary Writing. They were all wonderful. Distinct voices of people who were grounded in their lives, having come to a point of "where-they-are-ness" that I really have not. While my internal voice seems to shiver, shirk, or shout depending on the variance of foodstuff or music listened to while writing, I do maybe know a few more things about myself since starting a food blog and they are:
  • If I were in a professional kitchen, and if my hands were miraculously healed and I could do it without tearing skin and fingerprints from my digits, I would be perfectly happy being a dishwasher or a line cook. More than inventing and being ever-amicable, I know now that I am most happy serving people, working hard, cleaning thoroughly and with an eagle-eye, and hopefully being well appreciated in the process.
  • If I had endless money, I would buy cheese without ever glancing at the price. I would drink stellar wines, the ones that bring a tear to my eye when the unbelievable scent of it gets even the nearest proximity of my nose. I would finally find an olive oil that knocked my socks off and I would make mayonnaise with it. I would buy a truffle because few things in life could rival it. (And for the record, and since I kinda need a car, I'd get a Fiat Abarth, which my current car crush and is only *slightly* more affordable than the Audi R8.)
  • I never want to write a cookbook, but I want to help you write one if you make food that I love. Call me a ghost, or call me your right hand man, it would make no difference because what little recipe testing I have done confirms that I absolutely love helping someone do something passionately important to them, spinning off ideas and hopefully adding to their inspiration.
  • I would much rather eat simple food at home or at your home, than luscious, well prepared food out. I do love fine dining, but it intimidates me and I'm not sure why. It could be in part because my minuscule appetite can't ever live up to course meals, and I often feel full for days. I also own next to nothing decent to wear - that isn't really a stretch either.
  • If I could really understand only one thing in my kitchen life, it would be the bread. I want to know what makes it really live, how to figure out baking percentages in split seconds and how to judge weather, time and flours accordingly. I want to know how to make it adapt to wherever I am, so I could bake while traveling without much fuss. I want to know why it seems like whenever I feel confident in my bread, my bread changes the rules and makes me feel sophomoric in my bread making once again.
  • I write best on deadlines, and when a specific idea is involved. Not maybe on this personal food blog, but in general anyway.
  • If you ask me to do something for you, I will do it. Sometimes even if I'm not sure at first if I want to.

  • I have a hard time accepting money for things I love to do. Related: I have a hard time charging for things I love to make.
  • If you push me to do something out of my comfort zone, I will do it. (I'm winking at you Deena.)

remains of egg, <span class=

My years writing this blog seem like instrumental ones. As I sat uploading the last picture of nopal trimmings that I simmered for a salad tomorrow, my now 5 1/2 year old son sat across the table from me with a candy cane pen and paper writing notes that he cut out and folded in half. The one he walked over to me simply said MOM in big letters across the top, with two stick figures, one big and one little. The little one is missing any trace of hair, but the face was perfectly nuanced with just eyes, nose and smiling mouth is looking upwards, one thin stick arm holding hands with mine.

I blinked back tears actually, looking at it - thinking how obsessed I've been lately with figuring out what I should do with myself but realizing that I am doing a good job of doing what I have been called to do. Making peanuts into peanut butter, taking time to Lego, too many things to count actually, that knit closely together into a pattern of years that somehow feel both gone in an instant and stretching out for forever simultaneously.

first lunch in a week.

Will I garner fame and fortune or just money for groceries and cookbooks as a result of this work of CakeWalk? Not sure. Fortunately, I am in good supply of Artistic reminders that I am where I should be, and I do what I should be doing. I make, I eat, I occasionally mend and repair. I cook, bake, ferment, wash, dry, fold, organize, shovel, hoe, mow, walk, hug, kiss, drive to school. I write.

For the upcoming 4th year of CakeWalk, I'll likely tackle more of the same traditional, real foods I've become so fond of, along with plenty of bakery to be sure. But I'll also try to make a better effort to be reminded that whatever job I'm doing is the right job at the right time. My profession right now isn't really food blogger or writer, it's homemaker. I'm just a homemaker who happens to love making or trying to make it all myself, and sometimes I need to remember that a little help or a shortcut isn't a bad thing.

<span class=

In the Moments before Autolyse...

This morning after I had just got home from church, and was standing over my KitchenAid to continue a bread that began yesterday, I got the text message than my Gram had passed away a half hour before. I knew this day was close, and that her body was rapidly failing, but I still read the words with a tinge of disbelief. I haven't lost many people in my family, none so close as she was to me, but the grief I felt seemed somehow laced with joy. Joy that she is in a new and better place, joy that she is no longer in pain, joy that a flood of good memories could overwhelm me.

I think grandparents are so tremendously important, and my Gram was certainly an amazing woman and an important fixture in our lives. Since our houses were only about a half mile apart, we saw her nearly daily all throughout my childhood. She provided us with goat's milk in glass bottles with paper stoppers, she knit us woolens from her flock of sheep, she shared the bounty of her garden and her pantry. After I started 1st grade, my brother and I would get off the school bus at her house after school, where there would be remnants of lunch for us to pillage from the Shop kitchenette for a snack. (My Gram and my uncles ran an upholstery business, and my Gram brought lunch over from her next-door home every day. There were always leftovers.)

My Mom was the only girl, the middle of two older and two younger brothers, and even as a child I could sense the bond between a mother and her only daughter, something I have come to know with my own Mom, but something I'll never know with a child of my own. It somehow felt very fitting that I read this news when crafting a bread, the backbone of my daily life, the staple I am most proud to make myself and one that my Gram was very proficient in herself.

There isn't a whole lot that hasn't already been written about bread, sometimes I feel like it's a subject that is somewhat exhausted though nonetheless interesting. The bread I have made for the past year has been mostly "slow" bread, wild yeast bread that is at the mercy of it's environment, a product as much of the weather as of my contributions to it. I can never tell if it will work the way I want, but strangely it is always edible - something good always coming from what at times seems like disaster. The loss I'm feeling now is not that different, the timing of mixing a new loaf just as the old one was down to it's last slice: it is the inevitable circle of life that propels me forward as a cog in it.

It could feel insignificant, each person moving in his or her own circles, briefly moving along the motions of life that sometimes connect us and sometimes do not. But people like my Gram bury themselves deep inside you, the twinkle in her blue eyes that never dimmed even as she could no longer see. She had a profound love of life and the ability to make the most of it, be it with meager rations or with plenty. I have a feeling that she touched more people than she realized, and I know she meant more to me than I ever probably conveyed. She has left an incredible impression on me, a stellar example of how to be independent and productive as well as faithful and diligent.

The bread that continues to rise now and will bake later tonight will continue to remind me of her, and I'm figuring the number of loaves out of the oven for the next several weeks will as well. Let them be a testament to her life, her steadfast and sureness, all of her reminders to me through her quiet ways to live my life well, so that I have no regrets at the end.

A Short, but Complete, Story.

Every cook must have stories, tales that pop into mind during mundane kitchen tasks. These instances usually attack me when I'm least expecting it, flooding my mind with moving pictures of things that happened long before my birth - but things that have woven their magic into my psyche. The stories become my stories, I become a child of the Great Depression stretching the last of the sauce, weaving the fabric of the tales and changing the pattern into my own.

I have not a stitch of Italian ancestry, but this afternoon when I transferred what red sauce I made to a storage jar I thought of all the stories that I claim as mine. I heated my red pot with the olive oil in it, thin slivers of garlic heating up with the oil as Marcella Hazan recommends. Nearly every time I start a sauce, I do it her way to coax a silkier, less bitter hot garlic into being. I feel like I came to this country with my Husband and did not speak a word of English. That I stood in the supermarket looking at packaged chickens in plastic wrap and wondered at the lack of connection between these Americans and their food.

When I grated a peeled carrot into the pot, I remembered my longtime ex-boyfriend's mother, a tremendous cook and baker. She was not Italian either, but sweetened her sauce with carrots, and tamed the sweetness with a splash of red wine which bubbled up vinegary before she added her tomatoes. No matter what vegetables I try to sneak into my sauces these days, I add the carrot and red wine for her, thinking of all the meals that she shared with me over the years, the implements in my kitchen that came from her endless rummaging and thrifting, her generosity that still holds fast in my heart even though things were not to be with her son.

My sauce finished, I sliced and fried some eggplants cut into circles, wondering all the while if I could convince my Kiddo to eat it. I was not a picky eater, and neither were my two brothers. When one brother and I visited my Grandparents in the "city" (now, Stevens Point does not really seem so urban...) as small children, my Grandpa would try to coax us into finishing our breakfasts by telling us of the park bench in our bellies. I still see this cartoon bench deep in my stomach, a full glass of orange juice sitting there with a smile on it's face just next to a strip of wavy bacon, also smiling. Yes, the pancake is there too, the same silly smile plastered on his face. Hardly a breakfast goes by when I don't think of that time when I honestly believed that there was such a thing as a park bench in my belly, and that I shouldn't waste what is on my plate since the food already waiting on the bench will be lonely without company. I have already employed the story of the park bench, and I wonder if little eggplants with smiles on their faces will join the glass of milk and corn on the cob in my Kiddo's stomach when dinner emerges from the oven...

After assembling my Eggplant Parmesan, I used the ladle already in the pot to transfer the leftover sauce to a jar. After scraping most of the sauce in, a brief thought of washing the pot without scraping every last bit out crossed my mind. Did I really want to dirty a spatula to get those last tablespoons? The story that immediately came to mind was one that was told to me second hand by my Mom. When my Gram was newly married and living in Chicago, she went on a picnic lunch with my Grandfather. They brought hard cooked eggs, didn't eat them all and rather than pack them up, they left them in the woods. A day passed and they were hungry and remembered those eggs. They went back to see if they could find them. Now, my details of this story are fuzzy, but when it was first told to me I wondered, "Who goes to look for eggs that were left outside a day later?" "They were hungry, I guess..." I remember my Mom telling me.

I grabbed my spatula and scraped the pot, nearly a quarter cup of sauce appearing magically from the bottom and sides. A quarter cup I imagine my Depression Era Gram stretching into a meal somehow, and the portion I now remember to be thankful for.

Pie in the Sky July.

So it's July. What a strange year this has been in the Midwest. It seems everything is taking it's time to ramp up into full fledged Summer, and a turn of the calender recently only first brought some seriously hot weather. I know I'm a bit young for a midlife crisis, but I find myself in a crisis of sorts: why didn't my re-seeded radishes sprout? Why does the day seem to evaporate in 20 minutes? Why am I procrastinating a ton of kitchen projects? Why can't I find any tart cherries anywhere without driving half a day away? If you are wondering where I've been, it's probably because I'm too busy knitting myself a shawl for my complete transformation into "older adulthood". Granted it's a crazy color Noro shawl, but still...

The start of July also brings birthdays for both of my boys, my Husband on the 1st, and my soon-to-be 5 year old on the 9th. Both are good excuses to make cake, and this year I tried a recipe from The Art and Soul of Baking. The book is a Sur la Table book, and since the first Sur la Table opened recently in Wisconsin and I saw this book at the library, I figured I'd make a masterpiece and then have something fitting to gush over. Things never happen the way you figure however, and though the cakes tasted great, they totally lacked in the visual department.

This is partially because I used chocolate chips to make the ganache and they contain a stabilizer to prevent total melting, but it's also in part because cake knows that when I want it to rise extra high it needs to rise not quite so high. I cut out the centers of the cake to fill with whipping cream, and you can see the disks of replaced cake underneath the lumpy ganache glaze. The good news is that when refrigerated, they turned into a dense, heavy-handed chocolate punch in the face, so I was happy. And, happy that I also made full 5 egg yolk vanilla ice cream to go alongside.

I glazed them over a pan, and collected all the run-over ganache into a bowl and ran it through a strainer, something I should have done to begin with. A little jar of perfectly silky ganache is my reward, though I've been doing little but eating it by the spoonful...

I've enjoyed a string of unusual lunches recently. My Husband has been working later in the evenings lately, which cause me to feel even more like a diner's short-order cook. I hardly mind that, but instead mind that when we don't eat together my picky Kiddo (I think at 5 years old he's graduated to an older moniker) gets off easier in the trying something new department. I do usually get a bite or two of something new in him without too much fuss, but I tell you I am perplexed with his eating habits. For a kid who from birth was introduced to everything under the sun, I have no idea where it comes from. When I made the blackberry jam and insisted that he try a spoonful, he screamed and ran to his room. Jam! I have serious troubles.

While at dinner I am more demanding that we eat the same thing, lunches are a different story and we eat "leftovers" - whatever is already made or can be made from stuff already made. Here are a few of my favorites. They were also posted on my facebook page, if some of you think they sound familiar.

Eugenia Bone's recommend of omelet topped with pickled radishes. The pickled radishes are some of my favorite things in a long time, and I feel like this year I have given them my personal press that I did the candied jalapenos in the past. Amazingly, they are good on almost everything, and the leftover vinegar in the jar is great on salad. I use Bragg's cider vinegar, and hope sincerely that this Fall I can start my own cider vinegar. I think I'll have an apple press to get me on my way if I'm lucky.

Burnt-bottom pizza crust topped with hummus, bolted cilantro and well-fermented cortido. When I grilled pizza and the Kiddo didn't immediately devour his dough I knew something was amiss - it was that the bottom of his small dough was black. Not black in spots, but completely black. I actually stood with the half of leftover black-bottom crust (his idea of pizza is dough and sauce only, nothing else) in my hand over the garbage for a full minute before deciding to save it, and I was so glad I did. The black burnt bottom was surprisingly tasty when combined with cortido, and as I bonus, I remembered that I should eat the cortido that I lacto-fermented last August.

This one was actually supper, since it was an evening without all of us. I fried 3 pieces of bacon, "bacon ham" being one of the meats that my Kiddo happily eats, and used most of the fat to cook some red onion and a bunch of rainbow chard that I had got at the farmer's market last Saturday and then piled it on top of some scrambled eggs. I forget how much I love chard, and forget why I don't make it more often, since greens of any kind are something my Husband loves. When I ate it, I actually topped it with the other half of the sourdough English muffin - still one of my favorite things. English muffins are my Summer Bread Saviors since I always have them in the freezer, a good thing when I don't feel like heating up the kitchen.

It's not like I'm not cooking or eating or enjoying both cooking and eating lately, but it seems like I've not a lot to report. We're spending a whole lot of time outside and eating and cooking comes usually without too much planning. I spend more and more time away from the computer, am dreadfully behind at keeping up with my Internet friends. Part of this Summer weighs heavy on me since my boy is growing right before my eyes. I find myself just staring at him, wondering how he grew so fast, and in an instant I feel older. He will go to school this Fall all day. All Day! When he first nestled into my arms at 20 inches long, I never could have imagined that a big part of my day wouldn't contain him at some point, yet that is the barrel I'm staring down. I'm not that glowing new mother with a beautiful baby anymore. I'm the one that looks a little frazzled from repeatedly asking her wild kid to behave in public.

What time I feel I don't have to freely explore the worlds of cheese (and vinegar - I just had to dump my developing once-gorgeous wine version when I discovered black mold across the mat), I know I'll have in spades when I'm drinking my morning coffee in silence in a couple of months. Meanwhile, I fight back against this new feeling of "oldness", that my naturally night-owled self is transformed to an early to bed, early to rise self due to a Kiddo that can't wait to play himself into an early supper, bath, reading, and sleep regimen. If I seem a bit sparse this Summer, you may now know the reason why.