Samhain

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The end of October also means the end of our Indian Summer.

Another sunny and warmish day here, a friend and I drove out to our favorite Homestead Garden Center this afternoon for pansies, panolas and soil.

With clearance in progress, ahead of the coming Christmas trees and wreathes, we also picked up some end of season ferns and perennials.

 

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We drove home contented, with the back of my auto filled to the brim with trays of plants and bags of good rich compost.

 

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Our conversation was interspersed with,”Look at that!” and ” Oh, how pretty!” our whole way out into the country, and back, as we enjoyed the beautiful trees along the way.

My partner has had an eye to the weather all day. 

 

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It seems we have a n’oreaster in store this weekend.

We don’t expect to see snow, but we’ll have wind and our first truly cool days and nights.  So often these windstorms strip the trees of their leaves just as the color hits its peak.

 

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So gentle October will blow away as two storms converge tomorrow over the East Coast, bringing  the first blast of winter to the eastern United States.

It snowed this morning in Chicago.  Snow on Halloween?  Really?

 

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This is the season of changes; endings and beginnings.

This is a good time to remember that the seeds of the new are always contained in the husk of the old.  Don’t you find that to be true in your own life?

 

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Samhain  is a transition time;  a time of remembrance.

I spent much of the day catching up with friends and meeting new neighbors.

A good way to mark this special day, I think.

 

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And this afternoon I finally dug up the last Begonia “Gryphon” from its spot on the deck, and brought it into the garage for winter.

I’ve been procrastinating, as you have probably guessed; but  finally have almost all of our Begonias indoors.

Those that remain outside are sheltered, and one especially huge pot just isn’t going to come in this year.  (Unless I can figure out a way to wrestle it from the deck into the garage before that first true freeze, that is.)

 

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Finally, I made chocolate spiders for the neighborhood Halloween party this evening.

It is a little late to be giving you the recipe now, I know;  but I’ll write it out so you have the idea for next year.

 

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We have been corralling real spiders in the house for the last few weeks.  It amazes me how they find their way inside.

But we keep a glass jar and an old greeting card handy to catch them and carry them back outside.

The chocolate variety (of spiders)  are big and delicious looking.  They might look especially frighteningly delicious  perched on a huge scoop of pumpkin ice cream.

Whether you celebrate Samhain, Halloween, The Day of the Dead, or even good old Guy Fawkes Day, I hope you have enjoyed it with those you love!

 

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

 

Chocolate Spiders

1.  Pour a bag of milk or semi-sweet chocolate bits into a glass bowl, and microwave on high for thirty seconds.  Stir.  Microwave and stir in fifteen second intervals until the chocolate is melted and smooth.  Stir the chocolate briskly with a rubber spatula for about two minutes to temper the chocolate.

2.  Line a baking pan with waxed or parchment paper.

3.  Stir about two cups of Asian Chow Mein noodles into the chocolate and stir to coat.  Add more noodles, as needed, until all of the chocolate is used.

4.  Lift small lumps of coated noodles using two forks, and place them on the parchment.  Each “spider” should be about a tablespoon of noodles and chocolate.  Flatten the pile slightly, and arrange the noodles so it looks like a spider with many legs.

5.  Use two M&Ms or other small round candies to make the eyes. 

6.  Place the tray of chocolate spiders in the freezer for ten minutes, or the refrigerator for thirty while the chocolate hardens. 

7.  Serve on a platter, bag the spiders individually in candy bags, or serve as a garnish on ice cream.

All that is left... the end of the batch.  These don't have quite as much chocolate as the ones we took to the neighborhood gathering.

All that is left… the end of the batch. These don’t have quite as much chocolate as the ones we took to the neighborhood gathering.  But you get the idea….

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One Word Photo Challenge: (More) Chocolate

"The Forest Floor" chocolate cookies

“The Forest Floor” chocolate cookies

In my world, “chocolate” means just that… chocolate!

I grew up the daughter of a “choco-holic” and learned early that an easy way to please my dad was to make him something with chocolate in it… the more, and the darker, the better.

So here are two variations on an  autumn treat which I’m calling, “The Forest Floor.”

I hope you will try it out this weekend.  If you like it, it might make a fast and easy addition to your holiday spread next weekend as we celebrate Samhain and Halloween.

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Spread out a cup of coconut, a half cup of sliced or slivered almonds, and a half  cup of chopped walnuts or pecans on a baking sheet.    Toast in a medium oven for a few minutes until they are fragrant and lightly browned.  Chop some dried cherries into small bits.   Prepare about a quarter to a half cup of dried fruit.  Chopped apricots, raisins or cran-raisins would also work well.

 

This tempered chocolate looks lumpy because the coconut, cherries, and nuts have been stirred in and coated in chocolate.

This tempered chocolate looks lumpy because the coconut, cherries, and nuts have been stirred in and coated in chocolate.

We begin by melting the chocolate. 

If you’ve worked much with chocolate you probably already know that you must keep water away from it as you melt and temper it.  That is why I prefer the microwave melting method to the double boiler method.  Too often the steam from my double boiler affected the melting chocolate and it “seized up” on me.

No worries, seized chocolate still tastes just fine.  It just doesn’t have the proper consistency for serious candy making.

Select a good quality chocolate, milk or dark, and place 10 to 12 oz. in a glass bowl or large measuring cup.

Microwave on “high” for 30 seconds, and stir.  Continue to microwave the chocolate, 15 to 20 seconds at a time, until it stirs smoothly.  Add 2 TB of real butter near the end of this process.  I also added 1/2 tsp. of good ground cinnamon to the chocolate with the butter for a richer flavor.

Stir the chocolate vigorously for a minute or two to temper it.  I use a rubber spatula to keep the chocolate neatly off the sides of the bowl.  Tempering gives the finished chocolate a smooth, crisp texture and clear color.  It hardens better when well tempered.

Stir a quarter of your coconut, fruit, and nuts into the chocolate as you finish the tempering.

Pour the tempered chocolate into a shallow mold, and tip with more coconut, nuts, and chopped dried fruit.  This milk chocolate is ready to chill.

Pour the tempered chocolate into a shallow mold, and top with more coconut, nuts, and chopped dried fruit. This milk chocolate candy is ready to chill.

The first preparation gives you a solid candy bar.

I used a shallow aluminum pan, left from some delicious frozen something from Trader Joe’s.  Use any shallow mold you have on hand.

Spread the chocolate fairly evenly in the mold.  Top with a generous sprinkle of toasted coconut, nuts, and fruit.

Use the spatula to gently push the toppings into solid contact with the chocolate.

Cover with plastic wrap or slip the mold into a large zip-lock bag, and place the chocolate in the freezer for 10 minutes or the refrigerator for 30.

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When solid, cut into small servings.  Once hardened, this can be stored on the counter in an air tight container.

The second preparation is a bit crunchier and a bit less intense.  It also uses less chocolate for those watching either calories or pennies.

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Cover a baking sheet with foil or parchment paper, and lay out a dozen graham crackers.

Melt and temper 10 to 12 oz. of  chocolate, adding cinnamon, coconut, nuts, and dried fruit at the end of tempering.  I used Hershey’s Special Dark baking morsels because my Dad loves Special Dark above all other chocolate.  Yes, these are going to be a gift for him.

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Divide the chocolate evenly between the crackers, dropping a large spoonful on each.

Spread the chocolate evenly on each cracker with your spatula or a small knife.  Sprinkle more nuts, coconut  and dried fruit on top.  I added chopped pistachios to mine, and finished with a light grinding of sea salt.

Oh, the salt makes all the difference!

 

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Cover the tray with plastic wrap, and freeze for 10 minutes or refrigerate for 30.  When the chocolate is hard, lift the crackers with a broad spatula and cut or break them into serving sized pieces.

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“The Forest Floor” chocolate cookies

 

These will keep in an air tight container longer than it will take you to eat them!

I hope these “Forest Floor” chocolate candies and cookies make it into your holiday menu, and that your friends and family enjoy eating them as much as you enjoy making them!

 

With appreciation to Jennifer Nichole Wells

and her One Word Photo Challenge:  Chocolate

"The Forest Floor" chocolate cookies

Recipes  and Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

 

Good Bread: Sourdough

My guess is that you never even considered baking your own sourdough bread. I certainly didn’t, until quite recently.   For those of us raised on grocery store bread, the whole business of bread baking was somehow mysterious; along the lines of how to put the Tootsie Roll into the center of a Tootsie Pop.  … Continue reading

Good Bread

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A vegetarian pizza made on home made Savory Lentil Bread

Bread is a staple of my vegetarian diet.  I love it warm from the oven.  Fragrant, home made bread is a comfort food, and yet most “diets” suggest that bread be among the first foods one should “give up.”  The white grocery store loaves may not be particularly healthy for us, but there are many ways to make home made bread nutritious and interesting.

Simple white bread, made with all white flour, has a fairly high glycemic index.  The glycemic index is a scale which rates foods based on how quickly they break down in the digestive system into simple sugars.  Foods which break down into sugars quickly leave us hungry again very quickly.  There is little nutritional value to them and much of their sugars end up stored in the body as fat.

Breads made with whole grains, and other healthy add-ins, have a much lower glycemic index, and provide more nutrition.  These breads can pack a lot of nutrition, make us feel full longer, and form the basis for a quick and nutritious meal.  One secret to weight loss relies on eating foods with a low glycemic index and high fiber.  By choosing such foods, one consumes few calories, feels full and satisfied longer, and takes in more nutrients.The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking

Dried apricots and cherries, almonds, honey, and cinnamon pack nutrition into this holiday bread.

Dried apricots and cherries, almonds, honey, and cinnamon pack nutrition into this holiday bread.

Most any ingredient can be added to bread.  I’ve even made a delicious dark chocolate cherry bread on occasion!  Once you understand the basic principles of bread making, it is easy to craft a satisfying and nutritious bread.  My basic bread method comes from that developed by Dr. Jeff Hertzberg, MD, and pastry chef Zoe Francois, published in their books on crafting bread at home.

Many of us think about improving our diets and losing weight in January.  Beans, a low glycemic index food full of vitamins and protein, also contain fiber to help us feel full and lose weight.  I’ve added them to this healthy bread recipe in such a way that only the baker will know!  You’ll also find oatmeal, honey, rosemary, cheddar, and olive oil in this savory winter bread.  It looks and feels like “white bread,” but has a savory aroma, satisfying flavor, and is very high in protein.

To make this recipe even more versatile, you can bake it into a loaf for sandwiches or toast; shape it into dinner rolls; use it for pizza crust, or cook it on the griddle as Asian flat bread.

This dough is finished, and ready for its first proofing.  It should be covered with a damp tea towel and allowed to rise for about 2 hours.

This dough is finished, and ready for its first proofing. It should be covered with a damp tea towel and allowed to rise for about 2 hours.

This is a “Slow Bread” recipe.  Mix it on a day when you are unhurried and can enjoy the process of making bread.  Take your time combining the ingredients.  After the first rise, refrigerate the dough for at least two hours, or over night.  The dough is easier to handle chilled, and time chilling improves both the texture and flavor of this bread.  This recipe makes enough for three to four loaves.  You can mix it on Sunday, and then use the dough several times for different dishes during the week.

Savory Lentil Bread, cooled and ready to enjoy.

Savory Lentil Bread, cooled and ready to enjoy.

Savory Lentil Bread

Rinse 1 c. of red lentils, and combine with 4 cups of water in a large pot.  Add 1 c. of steel cut oats, 1 TB of dehydrated onion flakes, 1 tsp. of sea salt, and ½ tsp. of chopped dried Rosemary.  Bring to a boil, and allow to simmer at low heat for 20 minutes or so until the lentils are tender.  Remove from heat, and pour the mixture into a large bowl to cool.  This mixture must cool to room temperature before you proceed with the recipe.

The finished bread has an even texture.  See any trace of the lentils?  The yellow color comes from the chick pea flour and egg in the recipe.

The finished bread has an even texture. See any trace of the lentils or oatmeal? The yellow color comes from the chick pea flour and egg in the recipe.

When the lentils are cool, mix 1 large egg, ¼ c. sour cream, 1 ½  c. water, 2 TB of olive oil, and 2 TB honey together in a measuring cup.  Whisk until smooth.

In a very large mixing bowl, combine 2 c. white bread flour with ¼ c. vital wheat gluten, 1 ½ TB dry yeast, and 1 c. garbanzo bean (chick pea) flour.  Mix these dry ingredients well so the wheat gluten won’t clump together when the liquid ingredients are added. (You may also add a cup of white whole wheat bread flour if you wish.)   Stir in 1 c. shredded sharp cheddar cheese, and an additional tsp. or so of sea salt.  (add salt to taste- I use a little less than most people like)

Pour the cooled lentil mixture into the flour, and then add the milk and egg mixture.  Stir to combine, and let the mixture rest for 5-10 minutes.  It should begin to look a little bubbly as the yeast is activated.  This is a very loose batter.  Begin adding in white bread flour, a cup at a time, and stir to combine with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon.  Stir from the edges of the bowl towards the center, folding the dough over on itself.  Continue adding flour in this way until the dough forms a firm ball and has lost most of its stickiness, about 5 cups.  More flour may be needed, depending on the type of flour used and whether any whole wheat flour was added.

Allow the dough to rest on the counter away from drafts, loosely covered, for about two hours.  A slightly warm (under 100 F) oven is also a good place for the dough during this first proofing.  Cover the dough with a damp tea towel or a sheet of waxed paper, sprayed lightly with cooking spray.  The dough should double in size, and begin to fall back in on itself.

When the first proof is complete, use a rubber spatula to gently loosen the dough from the sides of the bowl, allowing it to collapse a few inches lower in the bowl, and then seal the bowl with plastic wrap and move to the refrigerator for two hours or more.  (I use a large Tupperware bowl, and use both the plastic wrap and the lid to seal the dough and prevent it from drying out.)

The beauty of this recipe is that you mix the bread once, when you have time, and then use the dough for different recipes over the next several days.  The dough will keep, sealed and refrigerated, for 7 to 10 days.

Begin the pizza toppings with olive oil, salt, and ground spices in a saute pan over medium high heat.

Begin the pizza toppings with olive oil, salt, and ground spices in a saute pan over medium high heat. The stout, made at a neighbor’s brewery here in Williamsburg, is for the cook, not the pizza.  

Sprinkle the chilled dough with ½ c. of flour, and dip a large knife in flour.  Use the knife to cut the dough into 4 fairly equal portions.  Remove one portion to a board sprinkled with bench flour.  Lightly stretch the edges of the dough to the bottom, forming a smooth round ball of floured dough.  Return the remaining dough to the refrigerator for another use.

Sauteing the sweet onions, mushrooms, and spinach allows their moisture to evaporate before adding them to the pizza.  Season the vegetables with salt, pepper, garlic, and herbs to bring out their flavors.

Sauteing the sweet onions, mushrooms, and spinach allows their moisture to evaporate before adding them to the pizza. Season the vegetables with salt, pepper, garlic, and herbs to bring out their flavors.

For a loaf:  Shape the dough into a long oval, and place in a prepared loaf pan.  Allow to rise for an hour, loosely covered with waxed paper.  Preheat the oven to 400 F and brush the top crust with water, or egg white mixed with water.  Sprinkle the loaf with sea salt and sesame seeds.  Bake for about 30 minutes until golden brown.

This is a whole bag of pre-washed organic baby spinach.  It will quicly reduce in volume, absorb wonderful flavors, and add tremendous nutrition to the pizza.

This is a whole bag of pre-washed organic baby spinach. It will quickly reduce in volume, absorb wonderful flavors, and add tremendous nutrition to the pizza.

For a pizza:  Flatten into a round, and then stretch or roll the dough to the desired size.  Form the pizza on a pizza peel to cook on a pizza stone, or form it into a pizza pan.  Add cheese, toppings, and bake at 450 F for about 20 minutes.

For rolls:  Cut the round of dough into 12 equal portions.  Shape each into a ball, and place into a prepared pan.  Loosely cover, and allow to rise out of drafts for 45 minutes to an hour.  Brush with melted butter, and bake at 375 F for about 30 minutes.  Make large sandwich rolls by dividing the dough into portions the size of a lime, and slightly flattening each roll after placing it into the pan.  Space these rolls a little further apart so they spread out slightly as they rise.  Brush the tops with diluted egg white or melted butter, and sprinkle with sea salt and any combinations of seeds and herbs you enjoy.

Stretch the dough to fit a pizza pan, or make a free form pizza on a wooden pizza peel.  My pizza stone is preheating in the oven.  This pan has a perforated bottom so the crust rests directly on the stone.

Stretch the dough to fit a pizza pan, or make a free form pizza on a wooden pizza peel. My pizza stone is preheating in the oven. This pan has a perforated bottom so the crust rests directly on the stone.

For flatbread:  Cut the dough into 10 or 12 equal portions, and roll each portion into a ball. Preheat a skillet or griddle to medium high heat.   Flatten each ball into a thin round with a rolling pin.  Brush each round with olive oil or melted butter, and sprinkle with additional salt, garlic powder, herbs, or other flavorings.  Cook each prepared flat bread for a couple of minutes on first one side, then the other, turning when the bread has lightly browned.  The bread should puff up and blister as it cooks.  Cook flat breads one or two at a time, depending on the size of the griddle, keeping them warm in a slightly warm oven until all are finished.

This is low fat whipped cream cheese, which makes a creamy and delicious base for the pizza.  I've sprinkled garlic powder and finely grated Parmesan over the entire crust, especially the edges.

This is low fat whipped cream cheese, which makes a creamy and delicious base for the pizza. I’ve sprinkled garlic powder and finely grated Parmesan over the entire crust, especially the edges.

Making our own bread gives us tremendous control over our own health and well-being.  We can enrich our breads with nutrient rich foods and whole grains, while leaving out the many non-pronounceable additives commercial bakeries use.  We bake our bread when we intend to use it so it is fresh, and doesn’t require a long list of preservatives.  We don’t have to wonder who has handled it ahead of us, or how much fuel was burned in getting it from the bakery to our table.

But mostly, making our own bread makes the house smell really good, and we all enjoy the anticipation of that first warm slice.

Recipes and Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

“The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight…  [Breadmaking is] one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells… there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of  meditation in a music-throbbing chapel that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.”

M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating: 50th Anniversary Edition

Bio Chemistry

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Three reminders have come my way today about the power of food to heal or to hurt us.  Receiving the same message three times leads me to reflect, and to share a bit of this powerful information.

First, a friend sent an email warning about the unsanitary conditions of food production in a certain large Asian country.  It was graphic and disgusting.  Since I gave up eating meat in the mid-80’s, and haven’t eaten any fish or other seafood since I was 4; I’m not overly concerned about Tilapia production practices in Asia.  The point is well taken, though, that imported foods may not be as clean or healthy for us as we might assume.  Lately we must assume that a lot of imported food has been exposed to chemicals, radiation, waste, and contaminated water in its production and packaging.  A powerful reason to eat locally, and organically, as much as we are able.

The Nixon family has their newly harvested honey for sale at their farm stand at 3004 Ironbound Road, near the Five Forks Farm Fresh, near Jamestown, Virginia.

The Nixon family had their newly harvested honey for sale at their farm stand this autumn.

Then, I found an email from another friend detailing the powerful healing properties of a number of foods.  Not surprisingly, nearly every food on that list was plant based.  It used to be common to hear older folks encourage us with, “Let your food be your medicine.”  There is tremendous truth that what we eat, or don’t eat, is the most important factor which determines our overall health, and our ability to resist disease.

Plant foods are packed with chemical compounds to keep us healthy.  We make new discoveries every day about the powerful “phytochemicals” found in fruits, vegetables, herbs, seeds, roots, and leaves.  These are harnessed to produce many medicines, like aspirin, which was originally made from the bark of the willow tree.

But good health just doesn’t come from a bottle.  It is something we build or destroy bite by bite, and sip by sip.

I read a book a number of years ago by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, titled, Eat To Live.  Dr. Fuhrman styles himself as a doctor of “last resort.”  Most of his patients have already been told they won’t recover from their condition, and they come to him with heart disease, diabetes, cancers, gout, and other severe diseases in a desperate bid to extend their lives.Eat to Live Cookbook: 200 Delicious Nutrient-Rich Recipes for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss, Reversing Disease, and Lifelong Health

Dr. Fuhrman’s patients are desperate enough to “do anything” to extend life, and are therefore willing to take his advice on diet.  He has an enormous success rate with those who follow his guidance.  And, as you might expect, he counsels his patients to give up meat and meat products, along with processed foods.  His book is fascinating because he details exactly how certain foods affect us biochemically.  He helps us to understand what our bodies require for good health, and which foods provide these substances.

Pumpkins, technically fruits, are rich in beta carotene and other important nutrients.  Their seeds are also healthy to eat.  Aloe vera juice heals burns and can be taken internally to heal many conditions.

Pumpkins, technically fruits, are rich in beta carotene and other important nutrients. Their seeds are very healthy to eat. Aloe vera juice heals burns and can be taken internally to heal many conditions.

Now I was raised in the 1960s at the height of the USDA’s outreach to public school students about what to eat for good health.  The old version was concocted primarily to prop up the meat and dairy industries.  My parents were firm believers that meat must be served at every meal, and all children must drink milk through their teen years.  I promise you that made our family meal times far from peaceful, as I disliked both from an early age.

Of course my mother also believed in serving dessert with every meal, even breakfast many days; and so peace was generally restored in some sweet fashion.  My mother is a wonderful cook, an inspired pastry cook especially.  She is known for her delicious meals.  And yes, all of us children were overweight in elementary school.

The accepted wisdom of what is or isn’t good to eat has shifted dramatically over the last 50 years.  We now know more than ever before about maintaining good health, and yet harmful foods are easier and cheaper to get with each passing year.

Diabetes runs through our family, and so I’ve been keen, since my teens, to avoid it.  My first rebellion, in sixth grade, came at the dinner table.  I drastically changed what I would and would not eat, began my own exercise program, and lost more than 50 pounds that school year.   I was proud of that accomplishment, but a neighbor developed anorexia nervosa around that time, and so my parents put an end to my “diet.”

I had to learn that it is more important to eat the “right” foods, than it is to avoid the harmful ones.  Our American diet, so often handed to us in a sack from a fast food window, is based more on what we like to eat than on what maintains our good health.   We are constantly tempted by amazing foods, while also seduced to try the latest diet plan.  Whatever sells, right?

Mushrooms.  These are different from shelf fungus because they are soft, have stems, and release their spores from gills, located under their caps.  These are growing nearby at the base of a Hellebore.

Edible mushrooms provide many health benefits, contain no fat, and are low in calories.  They’ve been used medicinally for many thousands of years.

So I’ve been on a long term quest to learn what to eat for optimum health.  However much I’ve learned from Dr. Fuhrman’s book, and others, I haven’t successfully adopted his diet plan.

Why?  It isn’t easy.  And, I cook for others, so I have to consider others’ tastes and wants along with my own. Our meals are bonding times when families gather together.  Agreement about our food; what, how much, how it is prepared; brings us together, or splits us apart.  Rejecting a dish or a meal is a rejection of the cook.  It is personal.  Deliberately preparing a dish your loved ones won’t or can’t eat carries the same message.  It is hard to change your own diet, to care for your own health, when your friends and family enjoys eating differently.  A different diet sets us apart.  It takes a great deal of self-confidence, and strength of will to maintain.  And often relationships suffer from it.

We Americans use food as recreation and entertainment.  We “treat ourselves” and give in to our cravings for this or that.  We celebrate our holidays with particular menus, regardless of how those foods affect us.  We gather to eat:  pig pickings, covered dish suppers, barbecues, cocktail parties, fish fries, birthday dinners; we are expected to eat and drink the same as everyone else.

So much of our eating is for recreation and entertainment.

So much of our eating is for recreation and entertainment.

“There comes a point when we accept responsibility for our own health, and the connection between our health and our diet.”  That was the third message today from a guest on Fareed Zacharia’s GPS show on CNN.  Another medical doctor, he has consulted with the Japanese, and others, on how to combat the affects of radiation poisoning.  I missed much of the interview, but it seems he is another “doctor of last resort” who helps those in dire straights recover through wholesome food.

Which brings us back to gardening, and plant based foods, and my friend’s email about foods which heal.  Many of the healthiest foods are crops we may raise ourselves- even in pots on the patio.  We can grow these foods for ourselves organically and inexpensively.  We know how they have been handled at each step along the way.  An abundant supply of fresh food growing at  home tends to influence our choice of what to cook, and what to eat.

What are these super foods which bring us health?

Dark, leafy greens  Dr. Fuhrman’s diet suggestions build meals around spinach, kale, collards, lettuces, and other fresh, raw vegetables.  He explains how these vegetables pack in proteins and other necessary nutrients with very few calories.  He builds a good case for calorie restriction as the cornerstone of longevity.

There is great truth to the saying, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away."

There is great truth to the saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Beans  Many cultures use protein rich beans as their main protein, and the mainstay of most meals.  Beans are versatile enough to use in many different types of dishes and to flavor in many different ways; from beverages through to dessert.  Bean seeds are easy to grow in pots or in the garden.

Fruits   Every sort of fruit is good for us.  Although some pack more sugar than others, all contain antioxidants to protect our health, keep our cells younger, and make us feel more vibrant.  Each sort of fruit has its own particular gifts, including fiber.  They are high in vitamins, many help us maintain a healthy alkalinity, and they are delicious.  Keep in mind that many vegetables, like tomatoes and squash, technically are classed as “fruits.”

Garlic  Garlic offers many benefits, and is one of the healthiest food/medicines out there.  One worth mentioning is its anti-viral properties.  Eating it regularly helps our bodies fight off illnesses to which we’ve been exposed.  There is some evidence that it also has antibiotic properties, and helps protect the heart.  Onions and shallots share many of the same health benefits which garlic offers.

Herbs   Herbs can raise metabolism, protect us from viruses, settle the stomach, improve our memories, along with many other wonderful things as they flavor our foods.  Herbs are very easy to grow, easy to use, and are beautiful in the garden.

Figs

Figs

Other health-giving foods, that we might not be able to grow for ourselves, include coffee, tea, coconut oil, honey, mushrooms, ginger, dark chocolate, red wine, and tumeric.  All have been in the news recently and have been the subject of various studies.

Coffee is said to ward off depression, especially during the winter.  Tea and chocolate are both rich in antioxidants.  Honey is an antibiotic and an antiviral substance.  Whether rubbed on the skin to heal a wound, or drunk in tea to soothe a sore throat, it speeds healing.  Red wine slows aging.

Ginger has anti-inflammatory properties and settles the stomach, but also controls the fats which clog our arteries.  It is used in Indonesia to treat blood clots.

Echinacea, or purple coneflower, is a powerful medicine which fights infection.

Echinacea, or purple coneflower, is a powerful medicine which fights infection.

When I taught middle school, I took Echinacea daily, and kept a bottle in my desk drawer.  Children think nothing of sneezing on their homework or quiz paper and then handing it in.  I used Echinacea and Vitamin C to fight off all of the little “bugs” the children brought in with them each day.  You may know Echinacea as Purple Coneflower.  Native Americans have used it for centuries as a medicinal herb.  Purple Coneflower is easy to grow and beautiful in the garden.  It attracts butterflies and gold finches.

Our gardens can be our greatest resource for health and healing.  As we plan our 2014 gardens and place our orders for seeds and plants, let’s keep in mind the wonderful healing properties of the plants we grow.   In some cases we might begin using things already in our gardens, like rose hips and Echinacea roots, which we’ve never used before.  Or, we might try growing something new, like ginger or Goji berries.  I’m planning to give Goji berries a try this year, and hope the squirrels will leave them alone….

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

Pineapple Mint with Lavender

Pineapple Mint with Lavender

Last of the Holiday Bread

The last loaf of holiday bread, resting on a beautiful board made by Michael Laico.

The last loaf of holiday bread, resting on a beautiful board handmade by Michael.

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It was past time to bake the last batch of Christmas bread still lingering in the refrigerator.

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This dough has rested in the refrigerator for a little over a week.

This dough has rested in the refrigerator for a little over a week.

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And there were also two small containers of leftover home made marzipan which couldn’t be left to go to waste.  I’m usually not overly enthusiastic about leftovers, and decided today had to be the day to use these while they are still good.

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January 11, 2014 bread 004*

My bread recipe is engineered to keep.  In fact, as it sits chilling in the fridge, its flavors deepen and take on the traditional “sourdough twang.”  The dough is generally good for up to 10 days, stored in an air tight container in the coldest part of our refrigerator.

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The dough is sprinkled with all of the leftover marzipan I could find in the refrigerator.

The dough is sprinkled with all of the leftover marzipan I could find in the refrigerator.

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This was actually an “After Christmas” formulation;  a riff on the fruit filled breads I made before Christmas, with a bow towards I recipe I read in a new cookbook from my parents.  The new recipe is a mock sourdough, made with a healthy 1/2 c. of sour cream.

And sorry, there is no written recipe to share.  But I can tell you that it is made with coconut milk, butter, cinnamon, cardamon, vanilla, chopped dried apricots and cherries.  I also substituted white whole wheat bread flour, and 1/4 c. o f vital wheat gluten, for 2 cups of the white bread flour I would normally use.  It was an attempt to make a slightly healthier bread, but it may be what threw this recipe a little “over the top.”  The dough is slow to rise.  Great flavor, but a dense texture.

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January 11, 2014 bread 008

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Today I turned out what dough was left, smoothed it out with a little kneading and folding, and then rolled it into a large oval.

I smoothed all of the leftover almond mixture over the dough, rolled it into a long log, and then stretched it even a bit longer as I settled it into a round baking pan.  I cut a sunburst of little slits in the top of the dough to allow for expansion.

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Prepare the baking pan with cooking spray, and a sprinkle of flour or cornmeal across the bottom.  Rising and baking in the pan will keep the loaf perfectly round, and force it to rise rather than spread out.

Prepare the baking pan with cooking spray, and a sprinkle of flour or cornmeal across the bottom. Rising and baking in the pan will keep the loaf perfectly round, and force it to rise rather than spread out.

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Bread can be slow to rise in winter, so I turn the oven to “warm” for two to three minutes while the bread goes into its pan, and then turn it right back off.  The bread gets covered with waxed paper, sprayed lightly with cooking spray so it won’t stick to the dough, and then popped into the slightly warm oven for its final rise.  The oven prevents drafts and maintains a moist heat for the final proof.

The dough must be removed before preheating the oven for baking.  Even with the extra care, I still let this loaf rise for about an hour before taking it out to preheat the oven.  I also gave it a wash of egg white mixed with an equal portion of water, then brushed over the top crust.  Any extra wash just rolls off and collects, adding extra moisture to the oven during baking.  The final touch is a generous grind of sea salt over the entire crust.

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January 11, 2014 bread 015*

A bread this dense will brown nicely on top before it is done through.  I could have baked it directly on a pizza stone for a better bottom crust, but I baked it in this Fiestaware dish, and needed to shield the top crust with a piece of foil long before the bread was done.

Bread is one of the oldest foods known to man.  I’m convinced that bread was invented right there along with grilling meat and brewing beer.  There is deep satisfaction in making one’s own bread, chock full of healthy and delicious ingredients.  The fragrance of cooking bread lingers for hours, perfuming home with the aroma of love.  It is good having a loaf of home made bread on the counter, and a bit of cheese to go with it.

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January 11, 2014 bread 018

Fragrant and ready to eat, our bread rests on the beautiful cutting board  hand made especially for us by Michael over at Michael’s Woodcraft and Blog.

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Here is our last little taste of the holidays as we settle into our wintery new year.

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Update:  Since writing this post, my baking technique has evolved.  Allowing the bread to remain in the oven during the pre-heating gives an additional opportunity for the bread to rise.  Simply remove the waxed paper covering the dough, brush the crust with the egg wash, and then return the bread to the oven.  Set the oven temperature and count cooking time from the point when the oven reaches full temperature.  WG

Making and Breaking Bread (Forest Garden)

Cookies at Christmas

Dec 8 2013 ccx 014

Sweet and spicy aromas fill our homes as December passes towards Christmas day.  We bake special cookies and cakes filled with spices, and drink warm spice infused concoctions of fruit juice and wine in the evenings as friends and family gather.

Returning crusaders brought spices such as ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, anise, cloves and nutmegs home with them when they returned from years spent in the Middle East.  By the 11th century Europe enjoyed its first taste of spices.  I’m sure you know the history of world exploration based upon looking for shorter, less costly routes east to support the spice trade.

Not only were these spices delicious, they helped preserve food and mask the flavor of meats in the days before refrigeration.  Even breads and pastries stay fresh longer when infused with ginger and other spices.Dec 8 2013 ccx 022

It didn’t take long for Europeans to fall in love with “ginger-bread.”  Ginger had been used in cooking centuries before in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, and through most of Asia.  Its healing properties were well known.  It came home to Europe, however, with the crusaders, and recipes multiplied.

In the early days, ginger bread was a mixture of ground almonds, dried breadcrumbs, ginger, honey, rosewater, and other spices.  No eggs or flour were used.  This paste was pressed into carved wooden molds to shape it, and then decorated with gold leaf paint or white icing to reveal the design.

These small edible tokens, often illustrations of favorite stories or small motifs such as hearts, were tied with ribbons and sold at market days and fairs.  A whole industry grew up in northern Europe, especially in areas now part of Germany.

Eventually the recipe changed to include flour, eggs, sugar, molasses, treacle, and other ingredients.  Gingerbread could be crispy and wafer thin or thick and cake like.  It was extremely popular throughout much of Europe during the Middle Ages, and came with the early German settlers to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Queen Elizabeth was famous for giving “gingerbread men” to her favorite guests and courtiers, decorated to resemble the recipient.  Gifts of gingerbread were very common at the time.  Later, as families decorated Christmas trees in northern Europe, decorated gingerbread cookies tied with ribbons were popular gifts hung on the trees.Dec 8 2013 ccx 012

The story of Hansel and Gretel was based on a witch living in a house made of gingerbread and candies, who imprisoned two children to fatten them up.  They were allowed to eat the candies on her house.   Once the Brothers Grimm published their version of Hansel and Gretel in 1812, gingerbread houses appeared on the scene in parts of Europe and in the United States.  Never very popular in Britain, they caught on in Germany and Eastern Europe, and of course in America where Germans had settled.  Traditionally called, “lebkuchenhaeusle,” they are an important part of Christmas tradition for many families.

Our neighborhood has a long tradition of neighbors gathering in December to exchange home-baked cookies.  These Christmas Cookie Exchanges were hosted by our neighborhood Women’s Club for many years beginning in the late 1960’s.  Each participating family bakes 4-5 dozen cookies from a favorite recipe and brings the cookies and a copy of the recipe to a cookie party.  The cookies are tasted during the party, and everyone leaves with an assortment of several dozen cookies baked by their friends to enjoy during the holidays.100_6588

The tradition died out here sometime in the 90’s.  Some friends and I decided to revive the tradition three years ago and open it up to the entire neighborhood to participate.  Instead of being a party just for the ladies, we invited entire families to participate.  With craft activities for the children and light refreshments, other than cookies, for all; we wanted to make it a family gathering in our community center.

Light refreshments were available so we didn't all eat too much sugar!

Light refreshments were available so we didn’t all eat too much sugar!

And this year, we decided to include “gingerbread houses” for the children to decorate.  This is project which can be as simple or complex as your time and imagination permit.

Gingerbread houses with pre-baked pieces, ready to assemble, are available from many stores and catalogs this time of year.  There are also many molds, cutters, patterns, and recipes for those who want to begin with a bag of flour and a jar of dried ginger.  I’ve heard so many horror stories from those who tried to bake their own.  If you use a recipe with eggs, baking powder or soda, or one with too much shortening, the pieces often rise unevenly and distort in the baking.  If you go this route, please use a recipe for structural gingerbread!

We had a small subdivision of cookie houses ready for the children to decorate!

We had a small subdivision of cookie houses ready for the children to decorate!

We took a middle way and skipped the gingerbread altogether.  We built our houses from graham crackers.  Like gingerbread, graham crackers are hard and thin enough for building and will hold up for a long time.  Their basic rectangular shape makes it easy to build a simple little bungalow for a little child to decorate.  A tip:  If you need to cut the graham cracker, first wrap it in a moist towel and microwave for 5 seconds or so.  Then cut, gently, with a plastic picnic knife.  Graham crackers are notoriously brittle.  Buy more than you plan to use, as many are lost to breakage and nibbling during construction.

Use Royal Icing to assemble the house.  Again, this is a structural icing which hardens like mortar.  Mixes are available, but we used liquid Egg Beaters and confectioner’s sugar.  We used a recipe from Alton Brown and had great results.  This icing kept well in sealed baggies from Friday to Sunday, and would probably keep longer.  It needs to be soft to stick, so again, heat it for a few seconds in the microwave to soften it as you work.

Place icing into a pastry bag, or simply put it into a zip lock bag and snip a tiny corner off of one end.  (Tiny means no more than 3 mm, or the icing will pour out too fast when it is hot.)

Dec 8 2013 ccx 013We constructed the houses on the tops of shoeboxes, covered in foil.  Since the houses had to make it safely home on a rainy night, we kept the boxes to go home as covers.  These could be made at home on a cake stand or a pretty plate, and the “yard” around the houses created from icing and candy.

A handful of us had a seven hour marathon on Friday producing a total of 19 houses.  We made up all the icing we needed for construction on Friday and decoration on Saturday going through over 17 pounds of sugar.  The building was sweetly scented with sugar and vanilla as we worked.

To make your own graham cracker “gingerbread house,” secure one whole graham cracker to the center of your base with a strip of royal icing.  Lay two whole crackers beside the base to form the sides of the building.  Trim two more crackers to form the ends and eaves, to the correct height.  This is the tricky part.  Use a light sawing motion and little or no pressure to make the cuts.

Using warm royal icing, run a line of icing along the lower edges of the whole cookies for the house sides.  Set each into place along the long edge of the base, so icing touches both the base cookie and the foil covered box top.  Allow these to set up for a moment, straightening them if they lean in.Dec 8 2013 ccx 017

Run a line of icing along the lower edge and sides of the end pieces, and set them in place at either end of the house.  Again, let the bottom edges touch both the base cookie and the foil.  Seal the gaps at the corners with additional royal icing.  Allow the houses to set up for a minute or two, straitening any leaning walls.

Finally, use two whole crackers for the roof.  Run a line of icing along both short ends of the cookie, and gently place them, icing side down, on the diagonal cut of the eaves.  The roof cracker may try to slip down.  Patiently adjust it as the icing sets.  The edge of the cookie needs to come up to the pointed peak of the eave.  Run icing along the two short edges of the second roof piece, and position it on the other diagonal cut of the eve.  Run additional icing along the top of the roof where the cookies join.  Touch up any other seams or holes with additional icing, and set the house aside to set up and dry.

After a few hours, or the following day, decorate the houses using royal icing as the glue.

There are so many wonderful choices for decorating these houses.  We asked for donations of candy, and many gave us left over Halloween candy or purchased traditional Christmas candies like peppermints.  Gumdrops, pretzels, licorice, chocolate, sprinkles, marshmallows, breakfast cereal, and most any other small edible you can imagine can be incorporated into the design.

Families and friends gathered to decorate the houses last night.  We had grandmothers helping grandchildren, teens helping toddlers, and lots of happy children licking sticking fingers.  The cookies were almost an afterthought in the fun of decorating the cookie houses.Dec 8 2013 ccx 015

Decorating gingerbread cookie houses is a wonderful American tradition, with its roots Medieval Europe.  All around the world there are displays of beautifully decorated gingerbread houses at Christmas time, including the famous White House gingerbread houses produced each year by our White House pastry chefs.

For the more adventurous, stained glass windows can be created by melting colored hard candies in the microwave.  Melt them in a pretzel frame for an interesting effect.  Make marzipan people and animals.  Color the Royal icing with food colors, and make up some colored fondant to mold walkways, ponds, or to create architectural details and icicles.  Use “tiles” of shredded wheat or crackers on the roof.  There are so many delicious possibilities.

Gingerbread has a long history here in Colonial Williamsburg.  It is one of the signature treats visitors here look forward to at Christmas time.  Gingerbread cookies and cider are sold along Duke of Gloucester Street, and Gingerbread is on the menu in many of the restaurants.  It was a favorite treat throughout colonial Virginia, as it was up and down the East coast.  Molasses was readily available and perfumes our traditional recipes.

My cookies for the exchange last night were not gingerbread cookies.  I opted for a Spicy Mexican Chocolate cookie.  These are definitely adult cookies with a kick.  Or is that a bite?  Delicious with good coffee or hot chocolate, they are wonderful on a cold, wet wintery night, like tonight.  See for yourself:

Spicy Mexican Chocolate Cookies

Mexican Chocolate Spice Cookies

Spicy Mexican Chocolate Cookies

preheat to 350 F

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, ½ c. cornstarch, ¼ tsp. baking soda
2/3 c. dark, unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1/4 tsp. salt, 1/4 tsp. pepper, 1/2 tsp. expresso powder
3/4 cups butter, softened
½ c. packed brown sugar, ½ c. confectioner’s sugar, 1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract, 1 egg white

1.  In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, soda, cocoa, cinnamon, cayenne, salt and pepper and stir in the expresso crystals.
2   In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg white and vanilla. Mix on high for 2 minutes until light and fluffy.December 10 parkway eagle 002

 
3.  Slowly add the dry ingredients until they are fully blended into the dough and no traces of the flour mix remain.

 
4.  Divide the dough in two and roll each half into a log that’s 10 inches long. Wrap each log in waxed paper and chill for at least 2 hours, until firm.

5.  Roll each log in Demerara sugar before slicing it.  Using a sharp knife, cut ¼” cookies and place on a baking sheet covered in parchment paper.  Bake at 350° F for 10 minutes, or until edges are firm. Allow cookies to cool 30 seconds to a minute, then transfer to a wire rack to cool.

6.  Melt white chocolate  and drizzle on cooled cookies to garnish, or sift a sprinkling of confectioner’s sugar over them to look like newly fallen snow.

Most photos by Woodland Gnome, some borrowed from a friend and fellow conspirator

Dec 8 2013 ccx 009

Fresh (and Dried) From the Garden

An herb garden on Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg

An herb garden on Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg

Once upon a time most of the makings for a merry Christmas came from the garden.  Although most of us today might begin at a big box retailer or the grocery store, up until the last generation, Christmas was mostly home-grown.   Even so, much of what we purchase today still comes from someone’s garden or farm.

Artichokes growing now will bloom in the spring.

Artichokes growing now will bloom in the spring.

Pomegranate growing near the Bruton Parish garden.

Pomegranate growing near the Bruton Parish garden.

Even as the agricultural year is at its lowest ebb, and snow covers much of the country this weekend, there is a great deal to be gathered outside.  Solstice celebrations have honored trees since earliest times.  The Egyptians  brought palm fronds indoors in late December to honor the rebirth of Ra.  Trees have been a potent symbol of life and longevity for time out of memory.

Trees in the garden at Colonial Williamsburg

Trees in the garden at Colonial Williamsburg

Evergreen trees hold a special place in solstice celebrations all over the world and symbolize everlasting life and promise the return of the sun.  Evergreens with red berries, like holly and Nandina are especially popular winter decorations since the berries are symbolic of the returning sun.  So branches of trees and shrubs, cut from one’s own garden  or purchased from a nursery, are first on our list merry-makings from the garden.

We include mistletoe among the evergreens.  Growing on trees, though not a tree itself, it is an evergreen plant full of myth and meaning.  It is an important part of our decorations.

Even bare branches make beautiful decorations.  I love white twinkle lights laced through the bare branches of crepe myrtle.  Once I decorated an entire spiral staircase with dead branches pruned from mountain laurel shrubs, wrapped in white lights.  It was perfectly beautiful and I kept it lit each evening until spring.

We also gather every sort of cone and seed.  Whether used as is, or painted white or gold; cones are beautiful in wreathes, swags, sprays, centerpieces and hung on the Christmas tree.

Wreath in Colonial Williamsburg

Wreath in Colonial Williamsburg with cones, artichokes, apples, dried fruit, and seed pods on an evergreen base.

Nuts and nut shells can be used in the same way to make decorations.  Nuts are also gathered for wonderful Christmas foods like cakes, cookies, fudge, puddings, and breads.  Walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, and almonds grow over much of the United States.  It’s always wonderful to have a nut tree in one’s own garden or the garden of a friend.  Peanuts, although not from a tree, are an important food at Christmas all over the southern United States and can be grown at home.

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A different wreath, using much of the same fruits, cones, and vegetables for decoration.

We also enjoy every sort of fruit and berry at Christmas.  Except for persimmons, pomegranates and the occasional late fig, most of us have to use dried fruit or preserves.   Local apples are still available in Virginia, but they were picked and stored weeks ago.  We import oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes from Florida and California.  Whether used in wreathes; stuck with cloves and set out in bowls; sliced into mulled wine or Wassail; or peeled and eaten out of hand, citrus is an important part of our Christmas celebration.

Many crops still wait to be harvested in the CW garden.

Many crops still wait to be harvested in the CW garden.

Cranberries don’t grow well in Virginia, but they fill whole shelves of the produce section at the local groceries.  We eat them from Thanksgiving through the new year baked into cakes muffins and breads.  We grind them with oranges to make cranberry relish and cook them with sugar and other fruits to make preserves.  Those that don’t get eaten are strung onto garlands or stuck into wreathes.

Virginia had a lively trade with islands in the Caribbean during Colonial times and has maintained those ties.  Pineapples are an important symbol of hospitality in Virginia.  Pineapples, imported from the islands, were available for Virginia Christmas celebrations.

Wreathes for sale in the Colonial Williamsburg garden on Duke of Gloucester St. use pineapples, feathers, oyster shells, apples, English holly, and dried flowers in their designs.

Wreathes for sale in the Colonial Williamsburg garden on Duke of Gloucester St. use pineapples, pine cones, feathers, oyster shells, apples, English holly, and dried flowers in their designs.

And of course grapes are enjoyed on party trays with cheeses, or savored as wine.  We bake raisins into cakes, cookies, and puddings. We use grapevines as the base for wreathes and garlands.

We even have greens and produce in the garden.  Our holiday meals are built around potatoes, carrots, celery, kohlrabi, collards, cabbages, kale, salad greens, broccoli, and brussel sprouts.  Many of these are still out in the garden with a little winter protection, or have just come in for winter storage.

Some might count eggs, since many keep their own chickens or buy eggs locally.  Eggs are used in such huge quantities as we bake our way towards Christmas day.  Likewise honey, an important part of the holiday, and a gift from our gardens.

Flowers, like lavender, Achillea, roses, hydrangea, baby’s breath, and cockscomb; dried last summer,  come out to play their part in our decorations. Whether worked into our wreathes, or tucked into the branches of the Christmas tree, they remind us of fragrant summers past.

December 5 2013 DOG St 031Herbs can still be cut here in Williamsburg, for both cooking and for decorations.  We still have sage, rosemary, thyme, parsley, germander, and some fragrant geraniums living in the garden.  Many more dried herbs and spices shine at Christmas.  How could we bake without cinnamon?    Cinnamon sticks. star anise, and cloves work their way into our decorations with dried citrus and herbs.  Sprigs of herbs tied into a bow make a Christmas gift fragrant.  Herbs and essential oils melted with beeswax and Shea butter or mixed with salt or sugar make special indulgent gifts for loved ones.

The garden at Colonial Williamsburg was bustling with activity when we visited on Thursday afternoon.  In fact, it was the busiest place we visited.  So many beautiful vegetables are still growing in the garden.  The shop is full of tempting wreathes, arrangements, dried materials, tools, and books.  As garlands and wreathes continue popping up all over town, we see the wintery landscape transform into a beautiful botanical paradise.

A centerpiece in the garden shop at CW will make a local table very festive this month.

A centerpiece in the garden shop at CW will make a local table very festive this month.

Everything we need is at hand to make our Christmas merry and bright, waiting for us in someone’s garden.

Here is a recipe to make your Christmas a little more flavorful.  Mulled wine and mulled cider are traditional at Virginia Christmas parties, as they are in England.  Mulled wine, or Gluehwein, is served at Christmas markets all over Germany, Switzerland, and Austria today.   I’ll be  making this tomorrow afternoon for our neighborhood cookie exchange party.  December 5 2013 DOG St 017After helping to construct nearly 2 dozen little houses from graham crackers and royal icing, I’ll be more than ready to sit back and sip a cup while watching the children decorate the houses with candy.

Mulled Wine or Gluehwein

Combine 1 1/2 c. of water and/or orange juice and 1 1/2 c. sugar in a large pot and simmer on medium heat as the sugar dissolves.  Wash, and cut 2 oranges, a large lemon, and an apple into narrow wedges or slices.  Stick whole cloves into the sliced fruit to use between 12 and 20 cloves.  Add the fruit to the simple syrup along with a 2 tsp. of cinnamon or a cinnamon stick.  Allow the syrup and fruit to simmer on a very low heat for at least 20 minutes before adding two bottles of red wine.  I like to use a Shiraz or Syrah as they are bold, fruity wines.  Once the wine is heated through (do not boil) transfer the mixture to a crock pot to keep warm, or serve directly from the cooking pot for informal events.

For a non-alcoholic treat, use apple juice or cider, or a combination of apple and cranberry juice in place of the wine.  Skip the water, and mull the fruit and spices in the fruit juices.  Add a little rum to individual servings as needed.

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

December 5 2013 DOG St 026

Something Good With Cranberries

November 25 cranberry preserves 020A good friend left Saturday morning for a week out of town, but before she left, she brought me a gift of beautiful seedless red grapes and a bag of fresh cranberries.  “Do Something with them,” she asked, expecting me to have a recipe at the ready.  She had hoped to make a cranberry grape preserve for the coming holidays, but had run out of time.

This photo was taken before I remembered my sack of muscadine grapes in the refrigerator.  I simply added a second orange to the mix to balance the grapes.

This photo was taken before I remembered my sack of muscadine grapes in the refrigerator. I simply added a second orange to the mix to balance the grapes.

So we very gratefully accepted her gift, and this morning I got down to the business of “doing something” with them.

I am an intuitive cook and rarely follow recipes.  Which means, that just because I’ve made something we all like today, there is absolutely no guarantee I’ll ever make it again in quite the same way.

In other words, I wasn’t able to find any written record today of how I made last season’s cranberry preserves.  And last year, I didn’t have beautiful grapes, anyway.  But,  it didn’t take long to find three or four good recipes with grapes and cranberries as the main ingredients online.

The grapes are beginning to cook in a cup of sugar and 1/4 c. of water.

The grapes are beginning to cook in a cup of sugar and 1/4 c. of water.

Reading others’ recipes is just a warm up for me, as I always switch them around, anyway.  But, reading first gives me a little boost of confidence that I won’t waste whatever beautiful produce is at hand.

To make this morning’s project even more interesting, after my friend’s grapes were simmering in sugar water, I remembered a sack of muscadine grapes we had purchased from our favorite vegetable stand a few weeks ago.  I had good intentions to cook them with some figs, but never made time to do it.  Luckily, the muscadines were still good, and so got thrown into the pot with the rest.  The result is a jewel colored, deeply delicious preserve which we will enjoy with our Thanksgiving dinner.

Slice the oranges very thinly so you don't end up with any large pieces of rind in the final product.  Zest the ends of the orange.

Slice the oranges very thinly so you don’t end up with any large pieces of rind in the final product. Zest the ends of the orange.

Two jars are set aside for my friends when they return home.  We will enjoy some, a jar will go with us to my parents’ home for Thanksgiving if weather permits our trip, and a jar for another good friend who allows me to photograph her garden.   Oh, the luxury of delicious jars of preserves to enjoy and to share with loved ones.

After any grape seeds are fished out and the grapes have softened, add the cranberries and another cup of sugar.

After any grape seeds are fished out and the grapes have softened, add the cranberries and another cup of sugar.

This is a very easy recipe, and you can certainly freeze what you don’t want to eat right away if you don’t want to can it in a hot water bath.  I use a very simplified hot water bath method with recycled jam and olive jars.  It works just fine if you aren’t planning on long term storage.  And, I have no illusions that any of this batch will last past the new year.   So, if you haven’t done anything with your cranberries yet, here is an interesting recipe to use as a starting point .  Go ahead and personalize it to make it your own.

Cranberry Grape Preserves  (yields 4-5 pints)

Ingredients:   1 bag of cranberries,  about 6-8 c. red or black grapes,  2 navel oranges, thinly sliced

Once the cranberries have all "popped", stir in the wine and spices.

Once the cranberries have all “popped”, stir in the wine and spices.

2 c. white sugar, ½-3/4 c. wine or fruit juice, ¼ c. water

¼ tsp. ground cloves, ¼ tsp. ground cardamom, ½ tsp. ground cinnamon

Wash and slice grapes in half, removing any visible seeds.

Combine water, 1 c. sugar, and grapes in a heavy pan over medium heat.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the grapes soften and can be easily smashed with the back of a spoon.  Remove any visible seeds.

Here the preserves are nearly ready to can.  Notice they are noticeably thicker, and the orange peels are nearly translucent.

Here the preserves are nearly ready to can. Notice they are noticeably thicker, and the orange peels are nearly translucent.

Thinly slice 2 navel oranges, catching any juice.  Remove any seeds.  Use a paring knife or grater to zest the orange peel away from the pith on the two ends of the orange.

Wash and pick over the contents of one bag of cranberries, about a pound.

Once the grapes have cooked down somewhat and all seeds have been removed, add the second cup of sugar and the cranberries.  The berries will begin to “pop” as they heat.  As they pop, continue to crush the berries and grapes to further break them down.

Add the sliced orange, zested peel, and any reserved orange juice to the pot. Stir to combine.  Once the fruit is bubbling once more, add a cup of wine and spices to taste.

Allowing the jars to stand upside down for about 10 minutes helps them to seal

Allowing the jars to stand upside down for about 10 minutes helps them to seal

(Note:  natural pectin from the grape skins and the cranberries will thicken the juices as the fruit boils.  Total cooking time from when the grapes begin to cook until canning should be 30-40 minutes.  The longer you let it bubble, the thicker it will be.  Notice the wine is added at the very end…   If you choose to use fruit juice, add it earlier in the process)

While the fruit continues to bubble, boil clean jars and lids to prepare them for canning the preserves.

Allow the jars to completely cool and seal before moving them so the preserves set.

Allow the jars to completely cool and seal before moving them so the preserves set.  What a beautiful color the grapes and cranberries make when cooked together.

When the fruit is visibly thickened, about 10 minutes after adding the wine, ladle it into clean, hot jars and seal immediately with boiled lids.  Follow standard directions for water processing to seal the jars.  Remove from the boiling water bath and allow to cool completely before moving them so the preserves set up.

I’ve dressed up my recycled jars a little with paper bonnets.  To make your own, cut a pretty paper napkin into quarters, and center it on the metal jar lid with a bit of  tape or a spot of glue.  Use ribbon or twine to tie the paper securely around the neck of the jar.  Add a card or label with the contents and date made.

Our very best wishes to you for a delicious Thanksgiving this week!

Preserves dressed, and ready for gifting.

Preserves dressed, and ready for gifting.

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

Making and Breaking Bread

November 21 finished bread 006

As the year turns towards Thanksgiving here in The United States we begin to dust off favorite recipes and think of favorite foods.  As there is less and less to occupy our time out in the garden, some of us turn back to the kitchen and enjoy projects a little more involved than hot coffee, tossed salad, and stir fried vegetables for dinner.

I have always loved good bread and the rich way it smells when baking.  I remember the peculiar smell of rolls baking on a German passenger ship when I was a child.   They were unbelievably delicious with fresh sweet butter.  Each country and continent seems to have very distinctive bread based on the grain it raises.   I was raised mostly on supermarket loaves and rolls, and one of my life’s ambitions was to learn to bake good bread in my own kitchen from yeast, water, salt and flour; no mixes or machines involved.Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day

If you also love good bread, allow me to recommend the books by Dr. Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day and Healthy Bread in Five Minutes A Day.  The good  doctor and his friend the pastry chef have developed a wonderful method for making bread at home with a minimal investment of time and effort, using only fresh, healthy ingredients.  This method is easy, does away with lengthy kneading, and offers recipes which actually improve with time as the dough rests in the refrigerator for up to a week.

The recipe I’m offering in this post is my personalization of the recipe for Stollen which Hertzberg and Francois published in their Healthy Bread book.

Michael published a beautiful recipe for his Christmas rum cake  on his blog earlier this week, which reminded me of this delicious rum scented holiday bread.  I’ve made the recipe many times over the last few years in late December, giving away most of the loaves to friends and family.

My dear friend was coming for tea this afternoon, and so it seemed a good day to make this Stollen, photograph the steps, and share the recipe with you. 

When you go to this much effort, it makes sense to make a large quantity at once.  This recipe makes four large loaves.  You could certainly divide the dough for one of the loaves into 6 or 12 portions and bake them in a muffin tin as small breakfast rolls.  You could also leave out the almond paste filling and bake the dough as a traditional loaf.   I baked these loaves today with all white bread flour.  You could ramp up the nutrition by substituting whole wheat flour for some of the white.November 21 finished bread 002

This is a very heavy, enriched dough.  If you choose to use whole wheat flour, please also add in the Vital Wheat Gluten called for in the variation in the recipe.  Bread flour has a much higher gluten content than all purpose flour, and so allows the bread to rise more.  The gluten is the protein which gives bread its structure.  Whole grain flours have less gluten than white, and so adding additional gluten into the whole grain flour allows the loaf to rise as though it was made only with bread flour.  The gluten must be mixed into the dry flour before the flour/gluten mixture is combined with any wet ingredients.  Bob’s Red Mill makes a beautiful gluten product usually available wherever that brand is sold.  It is also available online.

“Enriched dough” means that you’ve added eggs, fat, dairy, and sweetener to the basics of flour, salt, water, and yeast.  Many European style breads, especially for the holidays, are enriched breads.  They have a different aroma and texture from a basic Italian bread or sandwich bread.  They are chewier, softer, sweeter, and mildly fragrant.November 21 finished bread 004

The almond meal called for in the filling is also available from Bob’s Red Mill, but I buy it at Trader Joe’s.  You certainly could begin with raw almonds and grind up your own in a food processor or food mill.  You could also purchase Marzipan at the grocery and use it instead.  Otherwise, all of these ingredients are very easy to find.

So, here is my recipe for rum laced Stollen bread.  Feel free to make it without the rum by soaking the dried fruit in fruit juice, or even warm black tea, to plump it up before mixing it into the dough.  If you don’t soak it first, it will draw too much moisture out of the bread and your finished loaf won’t be as light and moist.

Holiday Fruit and Nut Rum Bread (makes 4 loaves)

Total time:  about 5 hours 

Ingredients:  Bread doughNove,mber 21 garden 003

2 c. water, 1c. half and half or coconut milk, and 1/2 c. spiced rum,  1 1/2 TB dried yeast,  1.5 c. dried fruit,  1. cup toasted nuts

6-7 c. bread flour, divided.  (You may substitute 2 c. white whole wheat flour plus ¼ c. Vital Wheat Gluten for 2 c. of the white bread flour if you wish.)  More flour is needed when forming the loaves

1 c. butter, divided,  ½ c. honey,  2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 tsp. salt, 1 TB ground cinnamon, ¼ tsp. ground cloves, and ½ tsp. cardamomNove,mber 21 garden 039  

Confectioner’s sugar to finish, about 1/8 c. per loaf

Filling

2 c. ground almond meal, 1/2 c. softened butter, 1 c. confectioner’s sugar

1 tsp. almond flavoring, ½ tsp. pure Vanilla extract

Enriched dough includes eggs, butter, sweetener, and milk.  The batter looks golden because it has two whole eggs and 1/2 c. honey already mixed in.

Enriched dough includes eggs, butter, sweetener, and milk. The batter looks golden because it has two whole eggs and 1/2 c. honey already mixed in.

Preparation

Chop dried cherries and dried apricots, and place in a bowl with dried cranberries to total 1.5 c. of fruit.  Pour spiced rum to barely cover all fruit, about a half cup.  Loosely cover the bowl with waxed paper and allow it to stand in a warm place at least an hour as the fruit absorbs the rum.  (The red color of the cherries bleeds into the rum and makes the finished loaves brown.  Substitute chopped dates for the cherries to produce a lighter colored bread.)

Toast 1 cup of walnuts, pecans, or filberts in a 350F degree oven until fragrant.  Roughly chop the nuts and set aside.

Dough

Mix the spices and salt into the flour before mixing into the wet ingredients.

Mix the spices and salt into the flour before mixing into the wet ingredients.

In a very large mixing bowl, combine 2 c. warm water, 1.5 TB dry yeast, ½ c. honey, and 1 c. bread flour.  Whisk to combine.  Stir in 2 beaten eggs, a cup of half and half or coconut milk, and 1/3 c. melted butter.  Measure 3 more cups flour onto the liquid ingredients.  Before stirring, measure 1 tsp. salt, 1 TB ground cinnamon, ¼ tsp. ground cloves and ½ tsp. cardamom onto the flour.

Mix the fruit and nuts with flour before mixing them into the dough so they are well separated and suspended in the final dough.

Mix the fruit and nuts with flour before mixing them into the dough so they are well separated and suspended in the final dough.

Combine dry ingredients gently with a rubber spatula, and then stir them into the liquid to form a very loose dough.  Pour the fruit and remaining rum onto the dough along with the chopped nuts, and top the fruit with another cup of flour.  Gently mix the flour with the fruit and nuts, and then fold into the dough with strokes from the sides of the bowl into the center.

Add additional flour, 1/2 c. at a time, until the dough forms a ball and is no longer wet.  Fold the dough over from the edge of the bowl towards the center to stir in the flour.

Add additional flour, 1/2 c. at a time, until the dough forms a ball and is no longer wet. Fold the dough over from the edge of the bowl towards the center to stir in the flour.

Turn the bowl as you work, folding all ingredients into the dough.  Add flour ½ c. at a time until the dough comes together into a ball and is no longer wet looking.  (About 2 more cups)

Cover the dough with a sheet of waxed paper and a damp kitchen towel and allow it to sit in a warm place in the kitchen until it doubles in size, about 2 hours.

This dough is ready to cover and allow to rise.

This dough is ready to cover and allow to rise.

Either form the dough into loaves immediately, or cover the dough with plastic wrap and allow it to continue to develop in the refrigerator for up to 5 days before baking.  The dough is easier to work with if it sits in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours before forming the loaves.

Filling

Almond filling

Almond filling

Combine 2 c. ground almonds, 1 c. confectioner’s sugar, and 1 stick of softened butter (1/2 c.) in  the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade.  Process to combine.  Add 1 tsp. of almond flavoring and ½ tsp. of pure Vanilla extract and process until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl from time to time.  Use immediately, and refrigerate any leftover almond filling in an air tight container.  Allow to warm to room temperature before using again.

Cut the dough into four portions with a floured knife.

Cut the dough into four portions with a floured knife.

Assembling the Loaves:

Sprinkle the top of the dough with flour, and plunge a large knife into flour to coat it.  Sprinkle 1/8th cup of flour onto your work surface.  Cover a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Cut the bowl of dough into 4 fairly equal portions, and remove one portion onto the floured work surface.  Nov 21 stollen bread 011The dough will be sticky, so coat all sides lightly in flour, and gently form into a ball.  Stretch and push the dough into a large oval, about 12 x 14”.  Form about 1/3 c. of almond filling into a long rope the length of the short side of the dough (about 11”) and place it about 4” in from the right edge.  Nov 21 stollen bread 014Lift the other side of the oval and drape it over the almond filling.  Form a second rope of filling and place it on the dough, about 3” in from the left edge.  Lift the free end of the oval and drape it back across the filling towards the left.  You will have a loaf 3 layers of dough thick, folded accordion style.  Gently transfer the loaf onto the parchment covered baking pan.

Repeat with the other 3 sections of the dough to make up to 4 loaves.  The dough can be refrigerated for up to 5 days if you decide to bake only part of it at a time.Nov 21 stollen bread 016

These loaves have risen for 40 minutes, and have been brushed with an egg wash.  They are ready to bake.

These loaves have risen for 40 minutes, and have been brushed with an egg wash. They are ready to bake.

Proofing and preparing to bake.

Cover the loaves with a sheet of waxed paper and allow them to rise for an additional 30-45 minutes if the dough was room temperature, 60-75 minutes if the dough was chilled.  Placing the loaves in a slightly warm or unheated oven will speed the process.

(Remove the loaves from the oven) Preheat the empty oven to 400 F.  Whisk an egg white with 1 TB of water, and brush on to the loaves just before putting them into the oven.  Bake for 30-40 minutes until the loaves are nicely browned.

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November 21 finished bread 003

 

Cool the finished loaves on a rack, and dust with confectioner’s sugar before serving.  The loaves slice best when allowed to cool completely.

Still warm, and with a cup of chai, these beautiful loaves are a heart warming treat.  They are especially good served with sharp cheddar or a savory cream cheese spread.  Please don’t wait until Christmas to make these beautiful fruit and nut studded loaves for your family.  Celebrate this season of abundance with healthy bread, filled with nuts and dried fruit, beginning now.

 

November 21 finished bread 009

Cheers!

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

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