Monday, January 26, 2009

Bringing back the bread

I can’t believe it’s been a year since I regularly baked bread. As a consequence, I’ve lost my rhythm and actually had to consult the recipe for my cinnamon raisin variation. I used to be able to bake this blindfolded.

I remember when I first moved here, I took one look at the tiny kitchen and decided my days of elaborate cooking and baking were over. That early May weekend I made a lot of decisions that amuse me now and this is among them.

Thank goodness Dirtman had the foresight to prevent me from doing anything so drastic as to get rid of plates and kitchenware. And he had the good grace to not say a word when, as my psyche began to heal, I began to look for all the kitchenware that I’d apparently instructed my brother to sell on E-bay (I don’t remember doing this – I don’t remember a lot from that weekend). I ask where something is and Dirtman pulls it out of wherever he stashed it until I was sane again. It’s kind of like getting presents.

I’ve come to adjust and even love my tiny kitchen. I have to order people out of it sometimes and the dogs have to be reminded to go lie down somewhere other than on my feet. But everything is within my reach and I don’t have to walk miles to get it.

And so bread. It was the best thing I could think of to usher in a spell of snowy weather that I know everyone else is dreading. Me? Bring it on! I’ve got milk in the freezer, tons of discounted, couponed CVS toilet paper and paper towels and now cinnamon raisin bread.

Hmm…I wonder where he stashed my pasta attachment…

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

And this is all I have to say about that

Dirtman followed through on his plan to have an All-Inaugural Day. I was in and out and have experienced enough of Keith Olbermann and his pomposity to last me the rest of my lifetime and then some. I told Dirtman I'd watch with him if he could make Olberman shut up.

So we watched on C-SPAN. Blessedly devoid of inane commentary.

I am pleased that Barack Obama is now our president -- really I am. My view of the presidency is, while I respect the office, it requires a politician to get there, making the individual's character suspect to begin with. Oh, I understand the historic significance of Obama's election -- but that speaks more to the will of the people than anything else.

And Obama seems to be a man of integrity, which I honestly don't think we've seen since Jimmy Carter (who never got anything done, so perhaps integrity is not a good thing to have if you're the president).

When Cal Ripkin broke Lou Gerhig's record and brought fans back to a sport decimated by the baseball strike, I remember commenting to Dirtman that he (Ripkin) had better not turn out to be a druggie or a womanizer because it would really devastate a lot of people. (I must say, Ripkin has turned out to be true blue, so to speak. Now if he could only spread a little of that integrity into Little League Baseball...).

Anyway, I feel the same way about Obama.

Though in the past the press has not been one to suffers fools gladly (and boy-o-boy, did they get the opportunity to prove it with the last administration...), they're so enamored of the new president every move is seen through a very different lens than the one they had been using.

Yesterday is was rather refreshing amidst Olbermann and Chris Matthews' effusing over the slightest arch of Obama's brow, to hear NBC's Chuck Todd (who took David Gregory's place as White House correspondent) point out that the inaugural speech contained basically the same points that every other president made for their inaugural speeches. Later on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart actually dug out speeches by George W. Bush as spliced they alongside Obama's speech. It took a lot of courage to do that when everyone else thinks that this morning they will wake up to no recession, a glut of employment opportunities and the international community forming a global circle around our country singing "Kum Ba Ya."

The media does know, doesn't it, that Obama hasn't done anything yet, right?

But I'm willing to be dazzled. I'm anxious to say I was wrong to doubt. If Obama's mere presence changes the mood and attitude of this country, all the better.

I'm not sure this will even post tonight (it didn't). We've been told our internet problems stems from our proximity to Washington, D.C., and the Inaugural festivities, so it's not so much to put up with temporarily.

Monday, January 19, 2009

It occurs to me that...

...perhaps Ungnome has way too much time on his hands.

...Or maybe it wasn't a good idea to exempt him from his final exams this week, giving him even more time on his hands -- Ungnome, I mean.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Cookin' the books

Everyone has their favorite cookbook for specific occasions.

My go-to method book has always been Fannie Farmer, even though I possess a Joy of Cooking – Fannie synthesizes things in a way that speaks to me.

My favorite Italian cookbook is Romeo Salta very unpretentious and most of the recipes remind me of the way the old Italian ladies used to cook when I was very little. Inspiration-wise – Nigella Lawson, hands down.

For cake baking, though, I seem to gravitate toward this.

This was the second cookbook and last item my mother bought for my Hope Chest.

Those of you too young to know about Hope Chests, back in the day mothers began compiling housewares for their daughters from the time they were born to be used when they married. I have stress the word “married” because the Hope Chest was not to be used when the daughter moved out of the house upon adulthood. That’s because “nice” Italian girls didn’t move out of the house unless it was to get married.

I was comparatively old when my mother started my Hope Chest – she didn’t have the money when I was little. And her period of collection was rather brief because she again didn’t have the money once she got sick and everything went toward medical care. So we’re talking a window of, say, three years.

The first item of my Hope Chest was also half my gift for graduating junior high -- a Good Housekeeping Cookbook (Roget’s Thesaurus was the other half, thanks to Papa, and the gift I had asked for). Then I got this Pillsbury Bake-Off cookbook along with a casserole dish.

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, comprises the entire contents of my Hope Chest, which wasn’t really a chest so much as a cardboard liquor box.

I am well-versed in baking layer cakes and they do have their place for birthdays and so forth. But I find an interesting 13x9-inch cake with interesting texture, flavor and toppings is always more versatile than a meticulously decorated, filled and frosted layer cake.

So I am constantly turning to this book, where I can always find cakes to make from scratch that feature ingredients I always have around the house.

The sad thing is that they come out with this book for every Pillsbury Bake-off held, yet none of the other books has ever been quite so convenient as this one. It has a nice balance of no-fuss and incredible cakes – often it’s as easy or even easier to make one of the cakes in the book than it is to make a simple cake mix.

I might add, cake mixes have their place, especially in this family. I must, at all costs, have something dessert-like around or, budget or no, disgusting grocery store pies and Little Debbie crap will find its way into the house. At least if I bake, I can control to some extent portion size and content. So when I find a really good sale on mixes, I stock up and use it when I don’t have the brain power to devote to measuring out baking powder. (Here's a tip: When making chocolate mixes, toss in about a teaspoon of instant coffee. You can't taste it, but it makes the chocolate taste richer and almost -- almost -- homemade. I keep a tiny jar of Taster's Choice around for just this purpose. It works most excellently on those dirt-cheap brownie mixes you can get.)

But I normally bake from scratch, since I don’t like the artificial taste of mixes – I think it’s the vanilla they use. The rest of the people around here are not quite as picky, though I think they appreciate the fresh stuff the most.

(Incidently, do not bake a cake mix and then ask me to comment on how much it tastes like a scratch cake. I will be too polite to tell you the truth.)

I really like this for weekends, because it's as good for breakfast as it is for dessert or, better, a nighttime snack shared with a loved one straight from the pan while watching Inherit the Wind. Or something. Anyway, Martins had a sale on cream cheese, so I made this crumb cake that has the unfortunate name of “Crumbscious Cake.”

Though – ya know – let’s bring back the word “scrumptious.” Then maybe people will stop using all the forms of “yum” – which annoys me no end.

*I apologize for the lighting in the cake photos. By the time we cut the cake, it was dark out. I wanted to get the picture, though, and it doesn't look like there will be any left in the morning when the lighting is better.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

We've got to call him something

I've decided to name the Red-Bellied Woodpecker.

His name is Danny Kaye.

Do not judge me.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Fetch...or not...

Back when the puppies were little, co-breeder Karen and I had the entire litter tested for temperament. The test, given by Virginia’s very own Dog Whisperer, Corally Burmaster, takes puppies through a series of activities designed to pinpoint specific character traits that are inbred. These are the strengths or flaws the puppy is born with and cannot be undone.

The purpose of this test is, first of all, to help in determining which dogs should or should not be bred (if the character flaw is particularly arresting), but also to help determine what sort of home they need to go to. Some “negative” traits that show up are merely breed personalities. Australian Shepherds are naturally stand-offish with strangers – Abbey, believe it or not, was very shy with strangers when she was a puppy and she still backs off until you call her by name. Then you can’t shut her up even though we keep telling her she’s supposed to be shy.

The reason I tell you all this is that, having experienced a heady dose of endorphins from frolicking in the woods with Zsa Zsa, I decided I needed to take the puppies out once a day for a good brisk rollick, more for my sake than theirs. They already chase each other around and play “Steal the Boney from Uncle Topper.”

So I dug out a Kong ball (which we keep hidden lest ‘Pode, the Parson Russell Terrier sees it and has a nervous breakdown trying to get at it) and went outside.

See – one of the temperament tests is to have the puppy attempt to retrieve a ball. Karen and Corally have a running disagreement whether this should or should not be a part of the temperament test for Aussies specifically, herding dogs in general. Because Australian Shepherds don’t fetch.

When we did the test, every one of the puppies refused to fetch the ball – except Hokie, but I think he was just trying to be polite.

Nonetheless, out I went with the ball and the Aussies, who were excited by the fact I was going outside with them for something other than to hang out laundry.

I showed them the ball. They look at it, then at me, than at each other, back to the ball. Obviously this was something Da Mama treasured, so perhaps it commanded a certain amount of attention. It triggered some ancient memory in Topper’s mind and he gave a little play pounce. So I threw it.

Topper ran after the ball, the puppies ran after him, Zsa Zsa brought up the rear telling them all to shut up and stop fooling around. Topper brought the ball back and placed it by the back door.

I went and got the ball and he pranced proudly by my side. Then I threw the ball again saying, “Go get the ball!” and the look on Topper’s face was one for the books. He looked like, “If you wanted it, why’d you throw it away again?”

The puppies, though, having witnessed Topper’s retrieval, went after the ball and fought over who was going to bring it back. Abbey the brat, of course, prevailed and trotted it back to me pretty as you please and let me take it from her mouth. I threw it again.

This time Topper and Hokie looked at me like I’m some kind of idiot. Abbey went after the ball, less enthusiastically this time, and brought it back.

Now they are behind me and they're growling to each other.

“She’s not going to throw that damn thing again, is she?”

“Well, I’m not going after it this time.”

I throw the ball. There is a pause and more growling in the ranks. Abbey plods on over, picks up the ball, plods back and drops it. Then she goes back to the others.

“I think she’s senile.”

I throw the ball again, “Go get the ball!”

No one goes. They’re all the way across the yard, tumbling around.

Except Zsa Zsa, who gently walks me over to the ball and observes as I pick it up. Then she slowly walks me to the back door –

I suppose to make sure I don’t wander off somewhere.

Mystery bird revealed

This guy has been driving me crazy for over a month. He wouldn't tell me who he is and I could never find a photo that matched.

He is not actually as pudgy as in this photo, which kind of made it even harder for true birders to help me with identification. But it's winter and cold and he's perched on metal, so he's puffed up for warmth. Whenever I explained him to anyone their first answer was "female cowbird," which I knew he's definitely was not.

He seems to be the only one around -- though I'm sure spring will bring more of his kind -- and he absolutely loves the birdbath. He gets along well with others, even with the Bubba, the Blue Jay, who is a bit of a bully and a whole lot of a hog when it comes to peanuts.

Finally I Stumbled on a birding site that made another suggestion to my ambiguous "gray bird, white wing bars." Then I googled that suggestion, just to make sure.

He is a Northern Mockingbird.

I know. This is a "so what?" moment for most of you. But it just tickles me.

Oh, and also at the feeder --

The Red-bellied Woodpecker finally found the suet that's been over his head for two months now.
(That's a Goldfinch looking on.)

Now that he's found it, though, he absolutely won't leave. Bubba has come and gone (in a huff, I might add), I've gone out to get something out of my car parked not six feet away and still Red clings to the feeder, stuffing his face.

And, NO, I do NOT imagine they talk to me.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ungnome caught in the act

Workin' for The Man

Always glad for work around here and, if it forces me out of the house and into the fresh air, all the better.Zsa Zsa and I headed out with Dirtman to do a soil study for our best and most dependable client. I have to add, that my entire contribution to the day was helping to carry stuff and holding one end of a tape measure.

Dirtman, meanwhile, listened to dirt.

And wrote down what he heard.

Zsas and I frolicked in the woods. (Yes, I said frolicked. It wasn't a run, exactly; but we weren't walking morosely. We were dignified, but it was an official frolick.)

Okay, for Zsa Zsa it was more a hunt for deer poop,

...but at least we've gotten her to stop eating it like she used to...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Gnorm's tormentor revealed

Ungnome -- Gnorm's evil twin.

And here I've been blaming Heir 2 all this time.

Friday, January 09, 2009

When other people cook

It's no secret that I love to cook and I love to eat. I enjoy taking something I've enjoyed somewhere and trying it out at home or something everyone assumes has to be bought ready-made and breaking down its components to make it from scratch.

That's all the fun part of cooking.

Then there's cooking's dark side: coming up with something to eat three times a day, seven days a week. Because sometimes I'm just not in the mood to cook or I'm tired or the pantry echoes when I talk into it or every food item available is not something I feel like making or eating. And, let's face it -- boiling up stone-ground oatmeal was novel at first, but when you do it every single Monday, well it's about as glamorous as throwing a load of towels in the washing machine.*

Then there's the challenge of keeping food costs low and trying to use up every scrap of food I possibly can. It's so easy to get stuck in a culinary rut, especially when working within a budget because you tend to buy the same ingredients without much variety.

Needless to say, fresh ideas are heartily welcome and anyone who actually cooks a meal gets major points in Mama's Book of Rewards and Retribution (now in its 21st printing).

So just imagine the point tally under Heir 1's name when we woke up this morning to a spread of banana chocolate chip pancakes (using the bananas that were going brown and would have to be thrown out -- what a guy!), scrambled eggs, bacon and fresh ground coffee.



(wait for it...)

He washed all the dishes.

(I will be taking applications for potential brides. Apply early to get your name on the list.)

Seems he woke up around 4 a.m. and couldn't get back to sleep. (We're glad he waited a few hours before starting to cook.)

Dirtman gets points for coming up with a pork-saving idea. Tuesday's pork roast was not going to tolerate a reheating, but it was a large roast and there were a lot of leftovers that I refused to throw out. Normally I'd make some sort of casserole, though just about everyone around here is rather ambivalent about casseroles.

The pork was destined for something pretty ho-hum. Perhaps it was the threat of a casserole that inspired Dirtman to come up with the idea of shredding the leftovers, dumping a bottle of barbecue sauce on top, simmering the whole mess for awhile then serve it on a kaiser roll with some cole slaw.

Easy enough, so I went along with it -- mostly because it let me check off that night's menu plan. I didn't think it was going to come out very good. I was going to make my own barbecue sauce since I don't usually buy something I can make myself. But I found a bottle in my pantry from one of those CVS deals. It didn't even take the whole bottle and I needed to add a little water so it all could simmer.

I have to add that I'm not a barbecue fan. I don't hate it, but I don't go crazy over it like a lot of people.

But, boy, did that come out good! Dirtman told me to keep the recipe. Recipe?

He also told me to make sure everyone knew who thought of the idea. Barbecue's been around for ages, so I guess he wants credit for being the one who came up with something that substituted for the pork casserole.

*I am my mother's daughter. My family can tell what day it is by what they had for breakfast: Monday, oatmeal; Tuesday, French toast; Wednesday, poached eggs; Thursday, farina; Friday, pancakes; Saturday and Sunday, you're on your own and where's my coffee?

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A puzzlement

Yea for snow days!

Though around here, it's more like ice days. I'd give anything for a lovely snowfall.

But any housebound day is a good day in my book. I did a slow-cooker pork roast for dinner so I wouldn't be stuck in the kitchen and broke out a jigsaw puzzle. This made Heir 2 happy and Heir 1 dizzy.

Heir 2 got a double-sided puzzle of the Beatles' White Album on one side and a picture of each vinyl record (all four sides) on the other. He completed the picture of the vinyl side, but was never able to complete the puzzle on the total white side. But that's not the puzzle we're working on now because it's supposed to be fun...not give you a nervous breakdown.

We do like a challenge, though. So we're doing a 2,000-piece puzzle of a famous painting, which you should be able to make out by just the colors...if not, Heir 2 swears we'll have this done by the end of the week. (Notice he said "the week," not "this week.")

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A Rather Lame First Post of 2009

No. Sorry. No Christmas photographic extravaganza. No solemn New Year’s resolution. If that’s what you’re looking for, move along – there’s nothing to see here.

A very low-key holiday season, you see. A used video game for Heir 1; a poster for Heir 2; and a handknit scarf for each. Oh…and deodorant in their stockings – but that was more an item from the grocery list that did double duty as a stocking stuffer.

I told them this would be the Christmas they would bring up to their own kids when they think the holiday has gotten too materialistic: “Why, when I was your age, all I got for Christmas was some lame scarf my mother knit herself…and I was happy to get it.”

No, it wasn’t as dismal as it sounds. We ate and played board games and ate and cooked and ate and then ate some more.

And then we wrapped up the New Year with optimism, an emotion I never expected to feel again. But there it is.

Perhaps I mis-spoke. I will make a New Year’s resolution after all. I’m not going to apologize anymore when we spend money. It's a habit I've developed, feeling I have to justify every purchase I make. But it’s also something I’ve noticed everyone doing lately and it's extremely annoying because it make the assumption that the other person is rude enough to pass judgment on what should be a personal matter. It’s none of my business how you spend your money and what you consider a want or a need. Those are unique to every person or family. I will assume you will have the good manners to do likewise.

So please, stop apologizing to me about the cup of coffee you bought at Starbucks or that you went out to eat and had dessert. I promise I won’t apologize for ordering two pairs of tights and a set of double-pointed knitting needles. hard feelings, k? Here's some gratuitous doggie pictures of Toppergetdown and Zsa Zsa: