Thursday, May 27, 2010

The English (Muffins) Are Coming!

Two months ago I purchased a big lot of tulips at a local plant sale. I can’t pass up a good sale, even when it means sorting, drying, and storing HUNDREDS of tulips bulbs that may or may not ever bloom again. But look at their faces…didn’t they deserve a chance?

The final batch of tulip bulbs, aided by a sudden heat wave, are dried at last. Now they can be stored in the basement, away from the damp, until I’m ready to plant them.

The peonies are popped...

…and my Endless Summer hydrangea is unfurling more delicate pink petals every day.

I love cottage gardens, but I don’t have the space for a real one. In my tiny yard, I like routine and predictability, and plant my garden accordingly. I study garden guides to ensure that I have a nice balance of complementary colors. Each plot of newly-sown seeds is carefully labeled, watered, and watched.

Every year, however, one plot fails to thrive…usually a simple, carefree plant, the type recommended for small children just learning about gardening. This year, for me, it’s dill. Weeks of care but not a seedling in sight (“It’s dill-iberate,” I groused to my husband).

However, in another plot, something mysteriously flourished. I knew it wasn't a weed, but I had to study it for a week or so to determine its true identity.


I haven’t planted hollyhocks for 2 years. This year, however, dozens of them…uninvited, unlabeled, uncared for…are sprouting in my flower beds and even, mysteriously, my container gardens. Lusty, healthy, and thriving, and growing far more quickly than my coddled marigolds and zinnias. How did they get there? I don’t know, but I’m sure glad to see them.

I was surprised by this patch of lettuce in my container garden, which apparently reseeded with no help from me. It came back on its own, and so did parsley and thyme…and a rogue patch of dill!

Lots of these little surprises around, which must be plucked quickly if I don’t want a forest of maple trees in my back yard. I think they’re quite beautiful, though, and it’s so interesting to see how they’ve grown out of their little kidney-shaped seeds.

The promise of new life!

So much time in the garden has influenced my knitting habits this week. I put aside my red stockings and started knitting a hat from the skein of vibrant green yarn (Cascade 220 in the Ireland colorway) I got last week. The hat is criss-crossed with cables and a leaf motif. The pattern is Ysolda Teague’s Snapdragon Tam and although I’m knitting a winter item, using my bright green yarn to knit little leaves feels quite summery. You can see the little leaves forming out of the hat brim if you look closely.

Of course, I’ve been in the kitchen too. I’d planned on making a fun dessert this week, but the desire to try another sourdough recipe before storing it in the refrigerator won out over the desire for something sweet. I decided to make some English muffins, but didn’t want to use a two-day recipe. I’m a big fan of instant gratification, and although I could stand to learn some patience, I’m not about to start with my kitchen. I found a great recipe in the Best of the Best of Alaska cookbook and tweaked it just a bit.

Same-Day Sourdough English Muffins

1 teaspoon dry yeast

1/4 cup warm water

1/2 cup warm milk

1 1/2 cup sourdough starter

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

3 - 3 1/2 cups flour (I used half white and half wheat)

3 tablespoons melted butter

First I took measured out my lively sourdough starter...

…and mixed it with the warm milk, baking soda, salt, and 2 cups of flour. I let it rise for an hour, and then mixed in the yeast, butter, additional cup of flour, and a bit of water, and then gave it another one hour rise. You want a dough that’s not too dry, but not so wet and sticky that it clings to your fingers. You can play with a water-flour ratio until it feels right.

A note: the recipe asks you to add the yeast before the first rise, but I’d hoped my sourdough was active enough to rise without the yeast. However, my dough wasn’t wet enough and didn’t rise very much. It got a nice rise after adding the yeast, of course, and its late entry didn’t affect the taste one bit!

I rolled the dough to ¾ inch thickness and cut out the muffins. If you don’t have English muffin molds like these, you can use an empty tuna can.

Once you have them all cut out nicely…

…grease and heat a griddle. It needs to be fairly hot, but not so hot it will burn your muffins. Once droplets of water sizzle on its surface, it’s ready to go. Drop your muffins on and brown each side, but be patient…it can take up to 15 minutes before each batch is done! Don't worry if you've removed them from the griddle prematurely. They continue "cooking" on the inside and you can always cheat and use a toaster to get things going!

It’s worth the wait. These little lovelies were crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, with a hearty flavor that begged for fresh butter or jam. They're even better the second day! They freeze easily, so you can have fresh, tasty English muffins at a moment's notice.

So delicious! A plate of these, warm and toasted and dripping with honey, eaten with my honey…what better way to spend a quiet evening at home?

Happy toasting!

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Boo-tiful Surprise

I love playing amateur backyard naturalist. So many times I walk to my car through the yard and see nothing, just grass that needs to be mowed, or maybe some rogue pots that need to be stacked. When you take a little time, though, you can see some amazing things in that small space. These vibrant leaves are from one of my columbines. The leaves range from this bright green to a deep purple, and I'm fascinated by the intricate veins that trace their surfaces.

My achillea is showing promise. You might know it by its common name, Yarrow. This hardy perennial produces white, yellow, red, or purple flower clumps. Bees and butterflies love them! As an added bonus, achillea features amazingly soft and delicate ferny leaves. I love to press them and slip them into letters.

Although it's early, there's still some color in the garden. These wild strawberries provide a sweet treat to our resident blackbirds. The runners can be invasive, though, so they must be watched carefully!

I adore the small clusters of mushrooms that come up after heavy rains. Yesterday I encountered a small family of slugs, feasting on the shorter ones. It looks like we have enough mushrooms to keep them happy for a while...that is, until my husband mows the yard.

It hasn't been all play in the yard. I've been quite busy in the kitchen, too. Company coming from out of town gave me an excuse to make some things I normally wouldn't make...a little too tempting to have around the house. I'll be posting some recipes soon, but for today, pictures will have to suffice.

A braided lemon loaf with homemade lemon curd and cream cheese filling from Smitten Kitchen's blog...

A fabulous rustic fruit tart from Baking With Julia...

Finally, to use up the extra lemon zest left over from the bread, I made some lemon poppy seed mini-muffins. A nice refreshing treat!

I'm still in the midst of knitting miles and miles of knee socks. I had to take a break to knit a little something I've had my eye on...

Hmmm...what could it be? A brown fish with a misshapen tail?

A potato with eyes?

Surprise! It's Boo the Bat...a delightful pattern from Ravelry. A quick one-day knit...there's definitely something to be said for instant gratification. It's not too fiddly, either, which is my chief complaint when knitting toys. For an added bit of whimsy, a clever button helps him go from sleeping... wide awake and ready to charm! My husband is charmed, anyway, and insists on taking him to work next week.

I've always loved bats. Growing up, I used to sit on my great-grandmother's front porch and watch them flit about at dusk, chasing insects and twittering in their strange, high-pitched language. A few years ago, I found a rustic wooden bat house and promptly installed it in the living room. It looks like a miniature old-fashioned potato bin. I can't wait to move to the country, when I can really put it to use!

I gave my husband his "boo-tiful" surprise, but he gave me one in return: several skeins of Cascade 220 in some of my favorite, green, and golden tan. Cascade 220 is 100% wool and great for felting, although I can't bear to felt it. It's a delight to knit with. I can actually feel a little lanolin as I handle it, and I imagine that besides looking great and knitting up beautifully, it softens my hands a bit.

The green and the golden tan are in sweater-quantity lots so I'm excited to comb through my saved patterns to make the perfect fiber-sweater match!

This is definitely going in my gratitude journal. A gratitude journal, in case you're unfamiliar with the term, is a simple notebook where you can jot down your daily small joys. At night, even tense shoulders tightened by hours of stress can be relaxed and daily woes forgotten by meditating on your list of little blessings. If I didn't pay attention, I might forget about the traffic-free trip to the post office, the beauty of the newest flower budding out in the garden, or finding a forgotten treat in the back of the refrigerator. But at night, as I ruminate over my list, I see the small delights God set out for me to see that day, and I thank Him for them. I believe that any good thing that happens is from God, and counting those small blessings every day are a key to real happiness.

I hope you're inspired to start a gratitude journal, too!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

First Sourdough!

It's another rainy day here and Bosewichte's definitely suffering from cabin fever.

Just look at that face. If he had vocal cords, a working knowledge of the English language, and, well, opposable thumbs, he'd be gripping the doorknob and yelling, "LET ME OUT!"

Despite the rain, lots of creatures are still out and about...

...and the flowers are thriving.

A dreary day outside gave me a good excuse to bring a little color inside, in the form of these electric-green spider mums. I decided they needed a little foliage, so I tucked in some lilac branches. Instant sunshine!

A great day, too, for a little bread baking. There's nothing like floury hands and the warm smell of fresh bread baking to make a rainy day seem a little brighter. My sourdough starter has been growing for 2 weeks, so I decided to give it a test run. I chose the Rustic Bread recipe from Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery.

2 2/3 cups cool water
2 cups + 2 tablespoons white starter
1 teaspoon yeast
8 3/4 cups white flour
1 tablespoon sea salt
3 tablespoons cold milk
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

To begin, I tossed 2 1/3 cups water, the white starter, yeast and flour in my KitchenAid. Nancy recommends a little hand mixing to moisten the dough before turning on the mixer, and then mix at medium speed for 6 minutes. After, let the dough rest 20 minutes.

Wow. I use my KitchenAid a lot, but until this recipe, it's barely broken a sweat. This dough was so incredibly stiff! I can't imagine trying to mix this by hand. My poor KitchenAid, jerking, quivering, and steaming, was finally able to beat the dough into submission.

After the 20 minute rest, add the salt and mix a bit to incorporate. In a separate bowl, mix together the milk, remaining water, and olive oil, and VERY SLOWLY add to the dough as it's mixing. I thought I was adding at a good rate, but liquid still sloshed everywhere. It was interesting to see the dough, at this point, take in the liquid. It had an almost plastic stretch. I mixed for about 4 minutes for full incorporation. What a sticky dough this makes!

Another rest, this time for 2 1/2 hours. And after...a lovely rise!

The dough was soft, supple, and impressively puffed.

The next part was easy: flour a surface and dump the dough out. It's so wet, it spreads out fairly naturally. However, the move from bowl to surface must be absolutely exhausting if you're a ball of dough, because yet another rest period was necessary...this one for 20 minutes, covered in a dish cloth. After this little nap, the dough must be properly shaped before it's popped into the oven. Gently press it out into an 8 x 10 oval...

...and then dimple the surface.

Yawn! So sleepy! Another 2 1/2 hour nap.

This recipe makes 2 loaves, but I decided to make breadsticks out of the second ball of dough. I used a pizza cutter to slice them, and topped the slices with a little olive oil and poppy seeds. This dough was so alive that bubbles formed after just a few minutes of resting. Can you see them in the photo below?

Preheat your oven to 500 degrees, with your baking stone inside. Carefully transfer the strips to the stone and reduce the temperature to 450 degrees. Spritz the inside of the oven several times in the first five minutes to give the crust that chewy, crunchy, artisan texture. I baked the first batch for 15 minutes but they were a little too done. Well, that's the thing about cooking. It's all trial and error. The next batch cooked for for about 10 minutes and were perfect!

The loaf went in for about 20 minutes. Despite my overly-generous dusting of flour, it turned out just fine.

Ahhhh...the fruits of my labor!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Raindrops on Roses...

I was so pleased after our big storm yesterday. With the rain and now a bit of warmth, the peonies are about to pop! Peonies are nearly my favorite flower. My great-grandmother had dozens of bushes at her house and I loved touching the silky petals and inhaling their fragrance. I'm not the only one who loves them...

I don't know why ants are so fond of peonies, but they seem to love them as much as I do.

I thought I'd like to introduce myself a bit more by posting about a few of my favorite things. Really, there are too many to list, but a few things stand out. First, my pottery.

These dishes are from Wirth Pottery in central Germany. A good friend living there introduced me, and I was hooked. I now have an odd assortment of plates, bowls, cups, candlesticks, teacups, and saucers. Most are chipped from frequent use, but I don't believe in storing something in a cabinet and never using it.

When I feel like a splurge, I look to Emma Bridgewater. I can't really afford her things, but sometimes I can't resist. I've got some of her discontinued dishes from various collections and 6 of her bird mugs. I love birds. When my grandpa built the house where I grew up, he bricked in a special basin in front of the living room picture window. It was always kept full of bird seed and I was mesmerized by the birds, eating and preening. I'd love to get into bird watching.

That little pottery piece in the corner is from ANTA...another place I can't afford to shop!

I'm crazy about old mason jars. I've got them all over the house and they're filled with buttons, acorns, pine cones, or sea shells, like in the picture below.

I also love bells. I've picked up lots of old bells at flea markets and thrift stores. Stars, too, like the one you can see in the Wirth pottery picture. The bell below sits next to some old apothecary jars that have a new life as teeny tiny flower vases.

I'm crazy about buttons, too. As a child, I devoured the Little House on the Prairie books and was captivated by the idea of making my own button string, just like Laura. Now I've got my button string, and a growing button stash! Plastic, ceramic, wood, bone...I love 'em all.

This particular button string is for the Christmas tree. I think it's awesome.

As you can probably guess, I'm crazy about fabrics, too. My favorite is plaid. I've got plaid curtains, plaid blankets, plaid pillows, plaid covers for the couches (which are MORE plaid blankets), plaid get the picture. I'm always drooling over ANTA's catalogues. I've got to start playing the lottery so I can afford a spending spree!

I've got some vintage fabric here at the house, too. Some for quilting, which I'd like to get into, and some for that special project that I haven't discovered yet. This particular one is my favorite. It's from a 1940s dress that I could wear many moons ago. My goal is to get back into it. Cap sleeves, v-neck, cinched waist, knee length...oh, Weight Watchers, you are a terrible and cruel mistress, but I know I need to submit.

What kind of self-respecting knitter would I be if I didn't flash my stash? I've only been knitting for about 1 1/2 years, so it's still pretty small. Lots of greens, browns, and blues, although I can get a little "wild" with my sock yarns. I mainly order from Knitpicks. I love my local yarn shop but Knitpicks gets me more bang for my buck. I occasionally splurge on really nice yarns.

It's a little messy and me.

I try to bring "the outside in" as much as I can. I've got lots of little bowls and saucers filled with cool things I find on walks or in the garden - snail shells, old wasps' nests, empty bird eggs, rocks, etc. I think they're so pretty.

I also collect flowers and leaves when on walks to press and add to cards or letters. When I take a trip, if I'm organized (so, about a quarter of the time), I'll take local plants, press them, and frame them. It's nice to look over my framed goodies and think back about my trip. This is one from the Pacific Northwest:

Of course, I'm not very organized. More often than not, I'll pick up a book to read and see little petals fluttering to the floor, instead of gracing a frame. I'll get better.

Of course, it goes without saying that I'm crazy about flowers. Each season has a particular beauty, and my chief joy in the spring is columbines and lilacs. The statuesque columbines, with their gently bobbing heads and faces turned shyly toward the ground, are so beautiful. They self-seed like crazy, too. From 3 or 4 seedlings I now have at least 12 mature plants tucked away in concrete crevasses and along our fence line. Although they look delicate, they take no care. The lilacs are a bit more delicate, folding over in a vase after a day or two despite the best efforts. Their fragrance and beautiful colors make it worth it, though, and it's no bother to pick a second bouquet after the first has wilted. Best of all, they draw bees from far and wide! Beekeeping is something I'm planning on getting into, once I move to a more suitable location.

That's all for now. I can hear the wind blowing and I can see a bit of blue sky from my current location...I want to go outside and work in the garden. I'll post again soon. ~