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!

No comments:

Post a Comment