Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Beauty in Unexpected Places

Textile designer and naturalist William Morris once said, "The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life." This is a quote I try to live by. I've found that keeping an eye out for interesting and beautiful things in unexpected places leads to many delightful moments in what might otherwise be a rather ordinary day.

A flash of red caught my eye in the garden recently. This dandelion leaf was like a hidden ruby in the weeds. Dandelions are the scourge of lawn purists everywhere, but this leaf provided some redemption with its brilliant red coloring that reminded me of crisp autumn days. I happily brought it inside for pressing.

A mundane afternoon of weeding was enlivened by the discovery of this plant. It was a dessicated weed, but the root, with its lovely color, complicated grain, and symmetrical circles, demanded notice. What a find!

I just happened to look up and see the way the last rays of the fading sun illuminated the pollen-laden "disk flowers" on this zinnia. They absolutely glowed.

Water droplets from an early-morning rain were caught in this tiny spider web, nestled between several leaves on my lilac bush. Lovely!

I love these moments of unexpected beauty in the garden.

Speaking of unexpected, I certainly surprised this praying mantis nymph as he was clambering up a stalk of bronze fennel.

He glances down to see if I'm still in pursuit...

Then, a quick over-the-shoulder: are you still there?

Catching this mantis in profile reminds me again why they frighten me. The grasping forearms with their (surely) razor-sharp spikes, the slavering jaws, and the long, thin wings that are just strong enough to deliver the mantis to my hair...and yet, there's still a bit of beauty in this profile.

A Tiger Moth caterpillar prepares for breakfast. He was well-camouflaged in the dirt but his quivering spines gave him away.

Despite his racing stripes, this mystery caterpillar was content to dawdle as he made short work of a tomato leaf.

I always try to have an hour or so of fresh air in the morning before shutting up the windows and turning on the air conditioning. Reaching to close the kitchen window, I was startled to come face-to-face with this:

A cicada! I rushed outside to get a better look. This particular cicada was beyond my reach, but I was delighted to see another cicada nearby that was willing to pose for shots. I just love the symmetry of the cicada's face.

Their iridescent wings glow in the sunlight.

They have three tiny red eyes on their forehead, as well as the two bulbous eyes at either side of the face, to provide better vision. A face that only a mother could love? I don't think so!

I found some unexpected beauty in my mailbox, too. I received these mini-skeins of yarn in a swap through Ravelry. I will eventually be knitting them into a patchwork blanket at the rate of two squares per week. I love getting these, because it gives me a chance to try several different brands and fibers with no commitment worries!

I knit up this little hat with some spare cotton yarn, for my new nephew. I've shied away from knitting striped projects in the round for a long time because there's always a noticeable "jog" where the new color doesn't quite line up. I found an easy solution that's made a big difference, though! Knit the first row of the new color normally, but when you're ready to start your second row, simply slip the first stitch of the row and knit the rest normally. It's an easy solution to a vexing problem and I felt pleased with the results.

Tiny mittens, coming up!

I was inspired to buy lemons this week to make a fresh, citrus-y dessert, but I can't think of anything better than the braided lemon bread from the Smitten Kitchen website. I made it recently and although it might look complicated, it's not. It looks fancy, though, so I suppose there's no harm in exaggerating the labor involved for a little extra appreciation!

Braided Lemon Bread
From the Smitten Kitchen website

6 tablespoons (3 ounces) warm water
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1/4 cup (1 ounce) unbleached all-purpose flour

Dough Sponge (above)
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) sour cream or yogurt
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons or 2 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs, 1 beaten for dough, 1 beaten with 1 teaspoon water for brushing bread
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups (10 5/8 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
Pearl sugar* or sparkling white sugar for sprinkling

Lemon cream cheese filling
1/3 cup (2 1/2 ounces) cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons (5/8 ounces) sugar
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) sour cream
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons (1/2 ounce) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (2 ounces) homemade (recipe below) or prepared lemon curd

Make sponge: In a small bowl, combine the sponge ingredients. Stir well to combine, loosely cover with plastic wrap, and set aside to proof for 10 to 15 minutes.

Make dough in a stand mixer: Combine the sponge, sour cream, butter, egg, sugar, salt and vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add flour and mix with the paddle attachment until the dough is a rough, shaggy mass. Switch to the dough hook and knead on until a soft, smooth dough forms, about 5 to 6 minutes. Place the kneaded dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise for 60 to 90 minutes, until quite puffy and nearly doubled.

Make the filling (while dough rises): Combine all the filling ingredients (except the lemon curd) in a small bowl, mixing until smooth and lump-free. Reserve the filling and lemon curd until ready to fill the braids.

Prepare bread: Gently deflate the dough and roll it out on a very well floured counter to a 10″ x 15″ rectangle. Transfer rectangle to a large piece of parchment paper (optional; I was fine without). With the side of your hand, lightly press two lines down the dough lengthwise, dividing it into three equal columns. Spread the cream cheese filling down the center section, leaving the top and bottom two inches free of filling. Spread the lemon curd over the cream cheese filling.

To form the mock braid, cut crosswise strips one inch apart down the length of the outer columns of your dough (the parts without filling). Make sure you have an equal amount of 1-inch strips down the right and left sides. Be careful not to cut your parchment paper; if you have a bench scraper, this is a great time to use it. Remove the four corner segments. To “braid”, begin by folding top flap down and bottom flap up over the filling. Lift the top dough strip and gently bring it diagonally across the filling. Repeat on the right side, and continue down the entire braid, alternating strips until you are out. You can tuck the last couple that hand off decoratively under the end of the braid.

Carefully transfer the dough and the parchment paper to a baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic and set it aside to rise for 45 to 50 minutes, until quite puffy.

Bake bread: Preheat the oven to 375°F. Brush the loaves with egg wash, and sprinkle with pearl or coarse sparkling sugar. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the loaves are golden brown and your apartment smells like a doughnut factory. Remove from the oven and cool for 15 to 20 minutes before serving.

Lemon Curd
Adapted from Gourmet

Makes a little shy of 1/2 cup

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon fresh lemon zest, finely grated
3 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Whisk together juice, zest, sugar, and egg in a 1-quart heavy saucepan. Stir in butter and cook over moderately low heat, whisking frequently, until curd is thick enough to hold marks of whisk and first bubble appears on surface, about 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer lemon curd to a bowl and chill, its surface covered with plastic wrap, until cold, at least 1 hour.

Even if you decide not to make the bread, there's nothing like fresh, homemade lemon curd. It's delicious on scones, in cupcakes, on crepes and cookies, or best of all, plain, in a tablespoon.



  1. I love all your garden and bug pix! Also the food and knitting!

  2. Gorgeous photos! I'll be looking at my own garden with a new eye.

  3. You got some great photos - I especially love the one of the root.


  4. Thank you! That's my husband's favorite photo too.

  5. Absolutely LOVE that hat. I'm going to have to try something like that real soon. Right now I'm working on fingerless gloves.

  6. I love fingerless gloves! I didn't understood their purpose, so I decided to knit a pair. They take just a bit of yarn and they're so great for driving or even chilly mornings in the house! I like them better than 'regular' gloves.

  7. Your pictures are fantastic! Love the praying mantis ones.