Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Going Bananas Over Fall

When Todd and I went for our daily walk this morning, it was 65 degrees. At last, fall is getting closer. Ironically, it's now, at the end of the season, that I'm finally starting to get a few tomatoes on my vines!

The bees are busy in the flowers, getting as much pollen and nectar as they can.

They're so busy in their work that they don't notice me watching, and I can get quite close. This bee uses his front legs to grasp the flower...

...and later, uses those same legs to clean his face after a successful meal!

The grasshopper I found last week has been reduced to a frail, dried-out husk. This is the work of a mantis, make no mistake!

Other creatures are stirring. This green lacewing (Chrysopidae), with distinctive ruby eyes, is looking for aphids near my marigolds.

Also nearby is this mosquito, resting after a night of bloodsucking. She's the reason I haven't been outside very much lately. I develop quarter-sized welts when bitten by a mosquito, and they itch for over a week. Sometimes they scar. I had to laugh...I was going through some old pictures this weekend and found a photo taken this week last year of my red-speckled ankles. It seems that I always look like a plague victim this time of year.

This Ailanthus Webworm Moth (Atteva aurea) is resting, too. They feed primarily on Ailanthus altissima, the tree made famous in Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Conveniently for the webworm, this tree has spread vigorously and is an easy-to-find source of food and shelter for it.

A shield bug is having a nibble in this ornamental wheat plant. I've heard that these have gotten quite bad in the east and are spreading westward rapidly, but I haven't seen too many around.

Another sign of fall...so many things are going to seed! This cosmos plant is still beautiful as it awaits its final transformation to brown, spiky seeds.

My rose of sharon bush is covered with brown seed pods.

My goldfinches and other little seed-eating birds have stripped many of the seeds from my dessicated zinnia plants.

The delicate Queen Anne's Lace, too, is ready to drop its seeds at the slightest puff of wind. I love their spindly little seeds!

Not everything is dying, though. Some plants are too tenacious to die, like this plant, which gets a stranglehold on everything near it as it grows.

Then, it develops a long, conical shape...

...before opening up every morning in a lovely display of color. It is, of course, the morning glory, which I planted once, eight years ago, and have been pulling up yearly ever since. Lesson learned!

My blackberry lilies are in bloom. I like to call them my 'tiger lilies', even though they aren't really tiger lilies, because of their spotted petals.

I love the way they roll up at night !

My lettuce plants have sent up long, spiky shoots covered in these yellow flowers.

My autumn sedum isn't showing any pink yet, but it's definitely coming.

Even my slow-as-turtles tomato plants are still sending up blossoms! I'd say that we still have a few weeks of summer left, after all.

I've been working on THREE top-secret knitting projects recently. Look at all the stitch markers in this one!

My desire to cook normal meals and experiment with interesting desserts ebbs and flows as my attention focuses on other areas and interests in my life. However, every once in a while, no matter what I'm working on, I get a hankering for a good muffin. Usually I make my favorite lemon blueberry crumb-topped muffins, but this one is a close second, and only because I'm not a huge banana fan. These muffins are sweet, tender, and definitely the best I've ever tasted.

The secret is the cinnamon sugar crumb topping that forms a light, crispy crust over the top of the muffin.

Crumb-Topped Banana Muffins
From food.com
Makes 12 big muffins

1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large ripe bananas, mashed - the riper the better!
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted

1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
1 tablespoon flour
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon butter, cold

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, mix together the first four ingredients. In a separate bowl, mix together the bananas, sugar, egg, and butter. Combine with dry mixture and stir until just moistened. Add to greased muffin tins. In a separate bowl, combine first 3 topping ingredients, and then cut in butter and mix until crumbly. Top muffins with mixture and bake for 15 - 18 minutes.

They're so tender and flavorful. I hope you give them a try.

Have a great week!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Birds, Bees, and Birthday Kitties

Even though the temperature is still close to 90 degrees during the day, fall is coming. I know it. Signs are everywhere! The acorns are falling...some not quite ripe, but they're getting there.

The bees are busier than ever at the flowers.

Squirrels are cranky, scolding us whenever we interrupt their winter gathering tasks.

Oleander aphids (Aphis nerii) are covering vining weeds, deliriously sucking up the plant juices en masse. An interesting fact: oleander aphids are all female. They reproduce by giving birth to live "clones" of themselves.

This beautiful bronzed grasshopper rests motionless on a sage plant. Grasshoppers are definitely more noticeable toward the end of summer. I read an article recently about their strange behavior during this time of year. They have already mated and laid their eggs in the soil, and so they have fulfilled their 'biological imperative.' They are basically waiting to die - to be killed off by the freezing temperatures of winter. They have no more purpose, so they're a little off-kilter, eating paint chips from a house or nibbling on window screens. The article wonders...are they bored? Senile in their 'old age'? It's an interesting question.

I haven't seen many butterflies this summer, so I was really pleased to see a group of monarch butterfly caterpillars demolishing a milkweed plant near my house.

You'll notice that monarch caterpillars look very similar to the black swallowtail caterpillars we've got in our yard, but monarchs have wavy black antennae at both ends. These little guys are eating as much as possible to prepare for their chrysalis states, to then emerge as some of the last butterflies of the fall.

Since so many flowers are going to seed, I'm picking more bouquets while I'm able. My favorite new combination is long, slender stems of russian sage with a few bright orange cosmos.

Someone is really happy about the zinnias going to seed. My new favorite bird, the goldfinch (Carduelis tristis), is a seed eater. Goldfinches breed unusually late in the year, probably because of its diet and the availability of seeds in the fall. This goldfinch picked his mate last month, and they likely have a nest nearby. They're always in our zinnias or singing in our pine tree. Their song is the first bird song I've been able to identify.

As an anniversary gift, Todd ordered a goldfinch mug for me from Emma Bridgewater. I love it!

It's gone right in the 'china cabinet' - or rather, the rustic wooden box I picked up at an antique mall a few years ago.

Another sign of fall: Tabitha is approaching her first birthday. It's hard to believe that this little girl:

...has grown up so quickly!

She's brought a lot of pleasure into our lives. One of her most endearing qualities is her love of what I call "biscuits and gravy" - stealing into our bed every night and kneading our backs or stomachs while giving us lots of kisses. If you don't have a pet...or if you have room in your home and your heart for just one more...I encourage you to visit your local animal shelter and consider bringing a little one home. Or, if you're able, consider volunteering - you can help by just playing with the animals! They love the attention and there are just too many of them at the shelters to get adequate attention from their handlers. Your 30 minute visit could be the highlight of their month!

While trying to restrain myself from bringing home every stray I see, I've also been working on several crafting projects lately. One I'm really excited about is Tiny Owl Knits' Beekeeper's Quilt. Using scrap fingering weight yarn, you knit up a tiny hexagon and lightly stuff it with polyfil before closing it up and starting a new one.

They will eventually be loosely stitched together to make a quilt: Beekeeper's Quilt. Isn't it pretty? Each little "hexapuff" can be embroidered, too, with small flowers or animals. I have started unraveling my other fingering weight quilt to supply this project with yarn. I can't help it...I just prefer stockinette stitch and like this project much more!

Thanks to the many sales at Jo Anne Fabrics, I've bought several Martha Stewart crafting kits lately. One of my favorites is the alphabet punch. I used it recently on a card I made for my sister...

...to punch out these colorful letters. I've found that alphabet stamping with rubber stamps is pretty difficult, so I'm glad to have this option!

Lots of activity in the kitchen, too! One of my great discoveries this summer was a basic sweet yeast bread that's rolled flat, covered with your choice of sweet or savory fillings, sliced, stacked, and boxed into a loaf pan. The possibilities are nearly endless and I've been really pleased with both the sweet and the savory options I've tried. Here is a lemon version. By the way, the basic dough is easy to "lighten up." Consider using half whole wheat flour, skim milk, and one egg + one egg white.

Lemon Pull-Apart Bread
17 and Baking
Makes 1 loaf

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons (1 envelope) instant yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup whole milk
2 ounces unsalted butter
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 eggs, at room temperature

Lemon Sugar Filling
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest (3 lemons)
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest (optional)
2 ounces unsalted butter, melted

Cream Cheese Icing
3 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon whole milk
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

First, make your dough. In a small pan, combine the milk and the butter and heat until the butter is melted. Test the temperature: your goal is, as with all yeast breads, to have a temperature between 110 and 120 degrees F. You can always use warm or cool water to raise or cool the temperature of your mixture. Once you've added your 1/4 cup of water to the milk and butter mixture and are satisfied with the temperature, add your vanilla.

In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, yeast, and salt, and then pour in your milk and butter mixture. Add eggs, beating after each addition. Mix on medium speed for about two minutes. Your dough should be slightly sticky. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for about an hour, or until doubled in size.

While you're waiting, make the lemon sugar filling. Add your sugar to a bowl, then grate in the orange and lemon zest.

Using a sturdy spoon, press the zest into the sugar and mix until well combined. The sugar will help draw out the oils in the zest. Yum!

Here's the fun part! Go ahead and preheat your oven to 350 degrees. After your dough has risen, flatten it out on a floured surface. Your goal is to make a 20" x 12" rectangle, but you don't need to be too precise. Brush on your 2 ounces of melted butter - or, if you prefer, just use softened butter that spreads easily. Then sprinkle your sugared lemon zest mixture over the top, evenly. Use a pizza cutter to slice the dough into 5 or 6 even slices.

Stack the slices on top of each other until you have one long, tall stack. Then, use your pizza cutter to slice this thick stack into several pieces.

Stack these slices into your loaf pan. They won't look like they fill the pan sufficiently...

...but you'll cover the pan and let it rise in a warm place for another 40 minutes or so, and it rises nicely.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. I baked mine a bit too long, but it didn't matter. It was still wonderful! What you pull out of the oven isn't a typical loaf of bread. The layers are attached to each other, but pull apart easily. Because each layer is buttered and sweetened on both sides, every slice tastes like the tender middle of a cinnamon roll.

Or, in this case, a lemon-y sweet loaf.

I just can't tell you how delicious this was...and easy to make! If you'd like, you can mix up the cream cheese frosting and drizzle it over the top. I didn't, and didn't miss it a bit.

Instead of adding lemon, you could add cinnamon and sugar to make a cinnamon roll-like loaf...or make it savory! A few weeks ago, I made this basic recipe but added garlic, basil, and a handful or two of cheese to the dough. When I rolled out the rectangle, I added another generous handful of cheese and spices and made my stacks. The cheesy pull-apart bread that was the result was one of the best breads I've ever had. Try any combination you'd like. The sky's the limit!

I hope you give it a try. Have a great week!