Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"Leaf" It To The Experts

Our new house is surrounded by trees, and after a windy weekend, they all looked like this:

I couldn't believe the sheer number of leaves in the yard.  Todd estimated that we had the equivalent of hundreds of bags of leaves.  Leaves filled the gutters, and several feet of replacements waited in line above.

Leaves gathered in every corner...

...and choked every path.

Leaves drifted calf-deep in places on the deck. 

And, when piled up, they easily hid a person.

Leaves covered all the stairs and matted in the bushes.

I stopped using the driveway behind the house because the leaves obscured it completely and I was afraid of driving off the road, or hitting a hidden stump.

For the first time, since we didn't have the requisite tool (a leaf blower) and are still getting settled in, we hired out our yard work.  A man came over and cleared off the front and side yards and the driveways.  We left the leaves under the trees to decompose and add nutrients back into the soil.  I must say that it made quite a difference, having those areas cleared!

In these late fall days, we're still seeing a lot of wildlife.  Daily deer...


...and little grey squirrels, which amuse me with their antics.

All of these creatures can be devastating to gardens, so it will be interesting to see how we're able to peacefully co-exist this spring!

Oh, and we've got some wild animals inside, too:

They may not look vicious, but they'll defend their sleeping spots to the death!

Several years ago, I worked at the City County Building in downtown Indianapolis.  Wednesdays were open-market days for local farmers, but some vendors had a permanent booth in the City Market, which was directly adjacent to my building.  Occasionally I'd have lunch there with co-workers, and I always got a toffee cookie from Just Cookies.  My homemade efforts paled in comparison.  How were their cookies so soft, rich, and buttery?  I've been looking for a recipe to beat or at least match theirs, and I think I finally found it.

Rich, thick, and soft.  Deeply buttery.  Easy to make.  One-bowl delicious.  I think I've shared this recipe before, but I'm going to share it again, because these make great neutral fillers for your cookie plates.  Leave out the chocolate chips and add white chocolate...or nuts...or caramel...or peppermints...or toffee...or all of the above.

The secret?  Brown butter.

Making brown butter (or beurre noisette) is easy, but it must be watched carefully.  Melt your butter over medium heat, stirring constantly.  First your mixture will foam white, and then clear.  Continue to whisk, and your mixture will eventually turn a deep amber color, with little dark brown bits at the bottom of the pan.  Remove it from heat immediately and let it cool in a separate container before adding it to a recipe.  It have a rich, nutty flavor that just can't be beat.  

Perfect Base Cookie
How Sweet It Is

2 cups + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) of unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg + 1 egg yolk, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup of your favorite mix-ins

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees and brown your butter, setting it aside to cool for a few minutes.  Once cool, add your sugars and beat.  Add your egg and egg yolk and mix well, and finally, add the vanilla.  Scrape down the sides of your bowl and then toss in the flour, baking soda, and salt.  Mix, and then fold in your mix-ins.

I like smaller cookies, so I make walnut-sized balls, flatten slightly, and bake for about 7 minutes.  However, you could make much larger cookies - say 2 tablespoons of dough - and then bake for about 13 - 14 minutes.

Cool, and eat.

 Brown butter, I love you.  Just Cookies, it's been nice knowing you!  :)

Have a great week!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Back Yard Inspiration

This weekend, Todd and I went to a candlelight Christmas historical reenactment at Ashtabula, a South Carolina plantation built in 1790.  I found it hard to pay attention to the actors, however.  I was transfixed by the use of magnolia leaves as Christmas foliage.  Of course!  It didn't occur to me because I'm new to South Carolina and am unused to the flora here, but naturally you would take inspiration from your back yard and use whatever greenery you had there.  In South Carolina, you've got magnolias.  Bingo!

Inspired, I returned home and cut several branches from one of our big magnolia trees, with a few sprigs of local berries.  I arranged them on an antique wooden box with a few red IKEA accents.  I am very pleased with the result!

We've got this flat-leaf fir tree in the back yard, too.

I cut a few branches, with more berries...

...and tucked them into the old wooden window frame I've got propped up over our main fireplace mantle.

We've got a bank of windows overlooking the back yard in the living room, but they've been looking awfully empty and bare...not very festive. 

I took a closer look at the mahonia shrubs in the yard.  They're invasive and must be cut down soon, but their branches look an awful lot like holly.

See the pointy leaves?

It's close enough for me!  I very carefully cut an armful of branches, pricking my fingers countless times.  Those tips are needle-sharp!  It was worth the effort, though.  I tied the branches together with red ribbon and then strung them up in the empty windows.

I love them!

They're so festive...and inexpensive!  I love bringing the outside in!

I bought a few things, too.  Little rosemary topiaries, cut to look like Christmas trees!  I cut some fabric to tie around the base and put it on the mantle with the rest of the Christmas decorations.

It needs some red, but I'll get there!  It joins my little vintage-y cushions.  Joy:

And Noel:

The mantle needs work...more color, less brown.  But, for having just completed a move, I am pretty pleased with it!

It looks just lovely lit:

I've added the Christmas stocking from my childhood, with engraved ornaments for every year from birth to age 8.  I've also added lots of cheerful fabric.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!  ;)

I still have some autumn decorations up.  I brought in a big bough from outside, and set it up on a cabinet with some pumpkins.  Instant fall!

I bought this large shallow leaf dish from Kohl's.  Original price $50, but I got it for $18 + free shipping on Cyber Monday!

I put it in the living room and it's a perfect fit.

I love seasonal decorating!

On a final note...I know I've mentioned this before, but I still cannot believe I have a pack of wild turkeys that visits every afternoon between 3 and 6 p.m.

This is just a few of the pack.  They're quite a multitude...and they're HUGE!

Wild turkeys...can you believe it? 

Just now, too, a huge flock of Canadian geese, honking loudly, circled over the pond and then splashed down noisily.  There's always a new natural delight here.  I can't wait to see what spring brings!

I hope you have a great week!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Birds of a Feather

Now that things are starting to settle down here, I've been able to focus on something that I've been wanting to do for a long time...set up our bird feeders.  I've always been interested in birds and bird identification, but living close to downtown Indianapolis, we didn't get much "bird variety".  Sure, we got lots of chickadees, sparrows, and house martins, and occasionally a European starling to liven things up.  For the most part, though, the vibrant birds that we saw on posters at local state parks never seemed to make it to our back yard. 

When we moved to South Carolina, I was thrilled that our property was wooded, and bordered by trees on two sides.  Surely this would be a birding paradise!  The previous owners had left some dilapidated bird houses on posts in the back yard.  I set up a group of bird feeders there...

...and a trough-style feeder nearby.

I hung a large feeder from our deck, too, and filled them all with local seed.  I sat back and waited for the bird extravaganza...and nothing happened.  Days went by without a single bird.  I couldn't figure it out!  The feeders were all new or recently cleaned.  I chose a bird seed mix that was heavy on the sunflower seeds.  The feeders were a good distance from the house and sheltered by trees.  Where was my bird paradise?  I read online articles and consulted birding guides.  Every resource said the same thing:  BE PATIENT.

Sure enough, after several days, little flitting birds cautiously started to visit the feeders.  Their numbers have increased by the day.  I have been delighted by these little visitors.  So has Tabitha, who watches them with the intensity and confidence of a born hunter.

My favorite, by far, has been the charmingly-named Tufted Titmouse.

With his dove-grey feathers, large black eyes, and a flash of orange under each wing, he's definitely a beauty.  Tufted Titmice have been described as "eager" and "earnest" in various birding guides, with a piercing peter-peter-peter call. 

Tufted Titmice have to be careful, though.  We have a Red-Tailed Hawk that lives in the woods and we've seen him several times, swooping low between the feeders and scattering the song birds.

Interestingly, a group of Red-Tailed Hawks is called a "boil"!  I saw a boil of seven just today, wheeling far above the trees, riding the updrafts and searching for prey.  They are so beautiful...I could watch them all day.  

Also living in the woods is a Pileated Woodpecker, once of the largest birds that we have here in North America.  Some weigh in at close to a pound!

Pileated Woodpeckers have a loud, piercing call that I've heard echoed here many times:

In particular, they search out carpenter ants and other grubs.  They're non-migratory, so hopefully I'll be seeing them all year long!

Besides the herons and geese that I've seen occasionally in the water, and the flock of wild turkeys nearby, we've also got ducks that live on our pond.  I will confess to a certain anxiousness when I first noticed the two mallards (male) swimming lazily, but I was relieved to later see a female join the band, and then another male.

The females, of course, have dull coloring and are easily overlooked.  The males are the stars, with their iridescent heads and bright white bodies, with cheerful flashes of blue on their wings.  I can't wait for the chicks!

I haven't been baking, since our oven has been broken for 3 weeks, but it should be repaired this afternoon...and then I can get down to business!  Hopefully, too, I'll have time to start knitting again soon.

Have a great week!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

wandering and wondering

These past few weeks have been warm in South Carolina...freakishly warm, to me.  It didn't feel like fall when every day was sunny and 65.  It felt strange to wear a t-shirt in November.  My sweaters hung untouched in the closet.  I longed for cold, crisp Indiana weather.

But we went back to Indiana this weekend, and it was cold.  It hovered around freezing during the day, and we shivered into and out of cars as we visited friends and ran errands.  When we returned to South Carolina and another sunny, 65 degree day, it felt good.  Like springtime. 

I have to say that I'm appreciating other aspects of the warm weather besides the comfort factor.  Things live here - plants and animals - that would never survive a harsh Indiana winter.  Lizards, for instance.  I just can't get used to seeing them scurry around outside!

There's a whole new world of insect life that I haven't begun to explore.  For example, I'm used to grey pillbugs in Indiana.  But the pillbugs here - if that's what they are - are orange and black...so vibrant!

We have holly bushes!  Even though I see them everywhere, I'm still afraid to clip too many sprigs.  Maybe soon I'll feel comfortable enough to clip a whole garland.

Despite the fact that it's a few days away from December, there are still flowers blooming.  These look like camillias and remind me of peonies...so beautiful.

They're growing on a huge tree that's absolutely covered in buds - next year's bloom, looks like.  I can't imagine how lovely it will look, all budded out.

I see other shrubs with rose-like flowers on them. 

But what are they?  I have no idea.

They all look slightly different, but their leaves are all stiff and waxy.

I've seen several Mahonia bushes...I'd say we have close to 30.  I've discovered that they can become invasive and I wonder if the elderly people that owned the home before were unable to keep them from spreading.

To me, they look like spindly, messy weeds and have a strange, asparagus-like growth coming out of the circle of leaves at the top of the bush.

In the winter, these spikes bloom with yellow flowers and smell pleasant.  I'll evaluate them this winter, but I will probably end up cutting them down.  They can grow to be 12 feet tall and reseed readily.  Besides, they look awfully...tropical.  I'd rather choose a different type of shrub.  We've already got the tropical japonica on either side of the front door, with its large, shiny leaves...

...and strange, pale yellow 'puffs'.

Insects love them!

Then there's the wild vine covering the little arbor and side fences:

What is it?  Does it flower?  I found this little bud, which would seem to indicate some sort of flower:

I recognize the towering magnolia tree, even though I'm not sure what it looks like in bloom:

I recognize rosemary...

Japanese maple...

And this looks like parsley...

I wonder if this vine will flower?

And this stiff, leafless bush still has a plant tag attached.  Beautyberry.  Lots of possibilities in that name.

Are there bulbs here?

These are the dried-out remnants of a flowering bush.  What color was it?

Are these the tall, graceful alliums I love so much?

Will this groundcover flower?

There are lots of mysteries here, as I walk the perimeter of the property and wonder.  I'll have to wait until spring, though, to get some answers.  Meanwhile, I'll just...enjoy the weather.

Have a great week!