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.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In a Jam (Donut)

I've just come in from feeding Clarence, the neighborhood stray. He's got his routine down pat. First he peers through the glass on our screened-in front porch...got any grub today?

Then he has the requisite stare-down with Bosewichte. Yeah, I know this is your house...but a guy's gotta eat!

Then, success! A handful of cat food, eaten in the shade of our big viburnum bush.

Finally, the full-belly catnap.

Clarence isn't the only one out and about. My oriental lilies have been blooming for almost two weeks. I never expected such a performance from one lone stalk, but it's produced at least ten blooms that seem to open, as if one cue, as the one before it wilts.

I have some healthy Feverfew plants just budding out. Feverfew, steeped in water and sweetened with a bit of honey, is perfect for headaches, upset stomachs, and even arthritis!

To me, these brilliant cosmos petals look as if they were painted on with a bold stroke. I have white, pink, orange, and purple cosmos and they are tall, stately beauties.

I'm always on the search for flowers that bloom in this vibrant green color. My marigolds, already five feet tall, are finally beginning to flower.

I grow marigolds around my tomato plants, because the pungent smell drives away certain invasive pests. I would grow marigolds even if they served no purpose, of course, because I love their bright faces.

I was gratified to see this honey bee on my bee balm plant. I was forever getting stung as a child as bees swarmed thick on the wild clover in our yard, but every year it seems like there are fewer and fewer of them around. I've heard reports that many hives are suffering from Bee Colony Collapse, caused by a combination of environmental stresses and mites. I can't wait to start my hives to help build up the population a bit in my area!

Buoyed by the flowers on my Bronze Fennel plant, this tree wasp pollinates as it travels.

This brown cricket is one member of a bustling colony that makes its home in a yarrow clump. I grew up listening to crickets chirping, and I like the sound. Only male crickets chirp, and they do so to attract a mate and to warn off opposing suitors. An interesting old wives' tale says that if you count the number of cricket chirps you hear in 15 seconds and add 39 to that number, you'll have the temperature!

There are over 24,000 different varieties of butterflies. This one uses his proboscis to sip nectar from the flower.

I had to get on a stepladder to get a good shot of this jewel-like insect, called a Green June Beetle. They can grow to almost 2 inches long, and have a special love of the soft, rotting fruit that carpets the ground beneath fruit trees at this time of year. Their grubs can be quite invasive.

This butterfly might be a Grey Comma, the most social of butterflies. He certainly didn't mind my presence as he gathered nectar from this cosmos blossom.

I've been digging around in my knitting basket lately. I want to continue to challenge myself, so I learned a new method of sock knitting this week...toe up! It's a bit fiddly to begin, and after several needle stabs to the fingers I almost gave up. But once I got an inch of fabric and continued to work my way up, I began to relax. Many people knit their socks two at a time, and if you'd like to use every bit of your yarn on your particular socks, toe up is an attractive method. As soon as you see your yarn running low, you can quickly add a few rows of ribbing to complete the socks, then bind off. Not so easy if you're knitting top down, when you're at the mercy of your ball of sock yarn, spending the last few inches of the sock crossing your fingers that you've estimated the amount correctly.

I finished a project for a friend's son this week, too. It was meant to be a soft ball made up of 12 gently sloping hills, but I ran out of yarn two 'hills' from the end. I have no idea where this yarn came from or its name. Thankfully, necessity is the mother of invention. I decided to knit two final 'hills' topped with red button 'eyes' that were meant to mimic eye stalks on a slug or snail. I'm not entirely sure I was successful.

Here is a view of the 'normal' and more respectable angle.

A bit of a disaster in the kitchen this week, too. I found a recipe for baked jam-filled donuts on the My Kitchen Snippets blog. Certainly healthier than the fried variety, and what a treat to bite into an innocuous-looking bun and discover the fruity center! I decided to try it. Armed with my icing piper and some watered-down jam, I contemplated the pile of smooth, golden biscuits and fearlessly seized the first one. How hard could it be?

It was an unmitigated disaster. The bag split. Seeds clogged the icing spout and great clots of jam sprayed the wall like an abattoir when I tried to use pressure to force it out. The small amount of jam that did make it through the spout refused to fill the bun but instead, resentfully, leaked out the bottom like a weeping sore.

However, the biscuits were delicious. Soft, light, and faintly sweet. Served jam-less but with a tablespoon of honey on top, they were divine. Have it either way!

Baked Jam-Filled Donuts
Taken from the My Kitchen Snippets Blog


¼ cup lukewarm water
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp dry yeast
2 ½ cups flour
½ tsp salt
¼ cup sugar
3 tbsp melted butter
1 egg
¾ cup lukewarm milk

1. In a small bowl, mix the yeast, 1 tsp sugar and 1/4 cup lukewarm water. Set it aside until foamy.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, salt and 1/4 cup sugar. Pour in the yeast mixture, melted butter, egg and the milk, use a mixing spoon and keep stirring until everything well-combines, for about 5 minutes. (The dough will be super sticky, pretty similar to cake batter)
3. Cover the bowl and let the dough proof until double its size. Prepare and line a baking pan with parchment paper.
4. Since the dough is super-sticky, make sure the work table is well-floured, and pour the dough on the table; it would spread out by itself since it's very soft and lumpy. Do not knead or pat it too hard (as it will deflate the air bubbles and your donuts won't be that airy).
5. Pat the dough lightly to about 2 cm. Dip the round cookie cutter with flour first and cut the dough, use a spatula to help you transferring the round dough onto a large baking tray. Cover the dough and let it rest for 20 minutes.
6. Pre-heat the oven to 375 degree F. Brush the donuts with some melted butter and baked the donuts until lightly brown. It will take about 12 minutes (depending on your oven). Cool the donuts on a rack.
7. Prepare a pipping bag fitted with a long round cake decorating tip (I used Wilton No 402-23o round tip). Fill it up with your favorite jam or custard and pipe it into the donuts. Lightly dust it with some powder sugar before serving.

Jam-less though they were, these donuts were still a nice after-supper treat. I don't know if I've ever worked with such a soft, silky dough. If you're feeling lucky, try the piped method, or simply spoon it on top for a stress-free treat.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

An Old-Fashioned Getaway

I went camping frequently as a child. I remember the thrill of anticipation as our old pickup truck chugged down forgotten county roads, kicking up dust and gravel. We'd pick a campsite shaded by tall canopies of trees. Once our camp was in order, I'd spend my time scouting around for interesting insects and flowers to add to my collection. We were up with the chickens at 4 a.m., because everyone knows the fish bite best in the early morning hours. I'll never forget those early morning sounds: the gentle waves lapping rhythmically against my grandpa's old aluminum boat, the slap of the wire fish box hitting the water surface and then sinking below, waiting patiently to be filled by bluegill, bass, and trout. Dawn is a magical time to be out on the water.

Seized by a fit of nostalgia, I decided that a quick camping trip was in order. The heat had broken, our schedules were clear, and I'd just been told about a state park with great camping and hiking that was only 40 minutes from our house.

We set up our tent in the waning light of the day. Only a few campsites were occupied, so we had some much-desired breathing room. We read for a while, and then turned on our propane lantern and set up our Scrabble board. As the darkness intensified, the sounds of tree frogs filled the air. I hadn't realized that there were tree frogs in Indiana, but the sounds were undeniably coming from above and later research showed three varieties of tree frogs that live in Indiana: the green tree frog and two types of grey tree frogs.

Against the obbligato of croaks, we played Scrabble. The light from the lantern drew moths of all shapes and sizes. Moths are phototactic, which means they automatically move toward light. There are many theories about why this occurs, ranging from navigational reasons involving the moon (which the moth mistakes your light for) to nutrient-gathering (the moth thinks your light is a big pale flower). It was charming and somehow otherworldly to be playing Scrabble in flickering lamplight, nudging moths out of the way in order to spell words. They clung to our clothing and hands, too. I felt very much like the "moth whisperer," moving my letters around with moths adorning my fingers like dark jewelry.

I was just able to capture this photo of a wild delphinium as the sun was setting.

We had a poor night's sleep due to forgetting a crucial article (AIR MATTRESS) but it was easy to forget our burning eyes and sore backs as the light filtered through the trees so nicely.

My knee is better, so I was able to hike around 4 miles. I was surprised to see this rather large burl protruding from a small tree. Burls are caused by an attack on the tree by insects or environmental stresses. The wood of a burl is very unusual, with twisted and whorled grains. It's considered unusually beautiful and it's prized by furniture makers and wood sculptors.

Such pretty veining and bold colors in this little leaf!

Lichen attached to many of the trees on our trail.

I usually find these empty shells around, but this shell contained a live cicada, crawling slowly up the tree trunk. It's a little late in the season to be in this state, so I'm sure it will molt soon.

Here is an interesting link if you'd like to see it in action:


This swallowtail butterfly has beautiful coloring. The wings are covered with very tiny scales and, in many cases, employ cryptic coloring, aiming to look like a leaf or a pair of eyes.

This Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) was heading for an unknown destination. You can see by the various shades of brown on his shell how easily he blends into the leaves on the forest floor.

After our walk, we shook out our thick plaid blanket and spread it beneath a shady tree. In the dappled sunshine, we relaxed and read for hours. What a pleasant way to end our old-fashioned getaway!

This week, I worked doggedly on my commissioned project. My husband's co-worker had requested a difficult pattern, and I wanted to have a polished finished project. The knitting was easy, but there were so many knitted pieces to seam together. As I worked, I realized that this pattern could be modified to knit in the round...the legs, and then rapid increases for the body. I didn't want to experiment with this particular project, though, so I gritted my teeth and seamed for days. I'm not terribly pleased with the final result, just because the seams look so bumpy. My husband's co-worker was happy with it, though, so I'm glad, and ready to move on to something new!

Blueberries were on sale this week, so I had to buy some for one of our favorite desserts.

I have a wonderful blueberry muffin recipe that I've modified just a bit. I'll include the original but show my modifications. This recipe comes from my go-to site for good food: recipezaar.com.

Best Blueberry Muffins
Makes 16 muffins

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature (I reduced to 1/4 cup)
1 cup sugar (I reduced to 1/2 cup)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cup fresh blueberries
2 cups flour (I used half whole wheat)
1/2 cup milk

1 tablespoon raw sugar (granulated is fine), mixed with
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cream butter and sugar together, then add eggs one at a time, beating after each one. Beat in vanilla, baking powder, and salt. With a spoon, fold in half of flour, then half of milk; repeat. Fold in blueberries. Spoon into greased muffin tins and sprinkle topping onto each muffin. Bake 18 - 25 minutes.

They are so good. I had a warm muffin and a cold glass of milk yesterday and it was the perfect way to end a meal. Those blueberry stained fingers are a bonus!