Monthly Archives: December 2014

Gnocchi night

Some years ago, a local grocery store/deli had a gnocchi night. The wonderful man who owned and ran the deli portion of the store was from Italy. Wednesday nights, he would cook homemade gnocchi. Sauce-wise, it was whatever was in season, always with a meatless option for us non-meat-eaters.

Gnocchi with gorgonzola, gnocchi with zucchini and onions, gnocchi with truffles or chanterelle mushrooms, or just with the plain old tomato sauce. Fire under the skillets as he heated the sauce and gnocchi together, lots of laughter, live music, and cheap Italian red wine.

When Mario sold the restaurant, there was no more gnocchi night. But he and his wife did come to my house one night and show me how to make them.

Tonight, we had gnocchi. It was good, but damn I miss Mario’s gnocchi nights.

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The making of the Yule Log cake

24 Dec 14

It’s Christmas Eve morning and it is raining buckets here in Western Oregon. It was so loud on the roof this morning that it woke up my husband (who then woke me). I am happy that I am going to make a Buche de Noel (Yule Log Cake) today, to bring to a friend’s house tomorrow. I used to make them annually for a Solstice party I would host, but have not made one in years. Making a fancy dessert makes me happy. The recipe I follow is an “easy” one, not as complex as Julia Child’s, and it lacks some of the traditional features (marzipan, chestnut filling, meringue mushrooms). It is still very delicious and fancy-looking, however.

I dragged out my sifter this morning, something I don’t often use. However, for the texture of this cake, it is an important tool indeed. My sifter is old, a long-ago gift from a friend who swore he used it to clean his weed in college in the 70s. Personally, I don’t think it would be that effective for cleaning weed, and weed nowadays doesn’t have seeds and stems (or SO THEY SAY, not that I would know).  It IS fun to think about when you use a sifter, though.

Clean some weed with this?

Clean some weed with this?

A note on cake flour:  if you are like me, and never have any, you can make some by substituting 2 tablespoons of corn starch for 2 tablespoons of the flour.  Sift together well!

And in an inconsistent move, as a non-meat-eater, I am using gelatin to stabilize my whipped cream so it will still be firm tomorrow. The compromises we make to have a fancy dessert and avoid weepy whipped cream! I am also adding some cherry-infused brandy to the whipped cream (in lieu of the Drambuie recommended by the recipe). The cherries that have been sitting in the brandy since we picked them in July might get dipped in chcolate as an extra treat. They will likely be better than meringue mushrooms.

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Gelatin! Brandied cherries!

 

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Carefully peeling the waxed paper off the warm baked cake. Cake is on a powdered-sugar-covered kitchen towel. Bonus points for using tie dye.

 

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Roll the cake when warm; unroll when almost cool; spread with whipped cream and re-roll without the cool towel

 

Best chocolate frosting ever

Best chocolate frosting ever

 

The finished product looks good — I hope it tastes great! I know for sure that the frosting does. I made way too much. Darn.

I am not so big on decorating, but it does have some snow sprinkles...

I am not so big on decorating, but it does have some snow sprinkles…

Happy holidays and happy baking!

Thinking of the Mayans on the Solstice

In honor of the Winter Solstice, here is a little taste of our recent trip to the Mayan city of Tikal.

7 Dec 14 0-Dark-30

We got up at 0-Dark-30 today, literally. 0330. In order to take the sunrise tour at Tikal, we met in the hotel lobby at 0350. We walked in the dark, under a full moon, with flashlights, for about 45 minutes and climbed 200 wooden stairs up to Temple IV. Then we sat in the dark and waited for the jungle to wake up and the sun to rise. It would have been meditative if not for the loud American girl talking/flirting with a German guy. He spoke in a low voice, but we could hear her every utterance. Ignoring her, I got into my zen and sat in the dark fog, waiting and thinking about the Maya. How did they possibly build these huge temples without metal tools, the wheel, or any modern equipment or engineering? Who once sat up here before dawn, waiting for the light?

 

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Slowly the sky brightened and we could see a few distant temples begin to take shape. We could see the trees below us. More and more light, less fog. We could hear birds and monkeys and see the restored monuments as islands floating in the fog. We didn’t see the beauty of a pink, orange and lavender sunrise but we saw the park wake up all the same. Our first view of Tikal was one that incrementally appeared from the darkness. It was magic.

 

Iced holiday cookies

I got this dough recipe from Vegetarian Times eons ago. They called it “4 in 1 cookie dough,” and listed various cookies that you could make from it. I always use it for iced cut-out cookies. When I am in holiday baking mode, I usually work in stages. First, I made the dough, form it into three portions and then freeze it in zip-top bags. When I have time to bake, I take out a portion, thaw it in the fridge, roll it out, bake the cookies, and then put the cookies in the freezer. The final step is right before gifting or serving — I frost the still-frozen cookies.

The recipe makes a LOT. Most years, I usually make 2/3 of this size batch.

4 cups all pupose flour
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
2 T baking powder
1/2 t salt
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, softened (three sticks)
2 cups sugar
3 eggs at room temperature
2 T vanilla extract

Mix dry ingredients in a medium sized bowl and set aside. Using an electric mixer beat butter in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Add sugar and beat. Add eggs one at a time. Add vanilla. Beat well. Slowly add flour mixture and mix until combined.

Chill dough 30 minutes or freeze for future use. When ready to bake, roll dough on a lightly-floured surface until about 1/4″ thick. Cut into shapes and bake on ungreased baking sheets for about 10 minutes at 350 degrees.

Icing
Mix powdered sugar with a bit of soy milk until a thick, spreadable paste forms. Add a little bit of almond or vanilla extract and any food coloring you desire. (Sorry I don’t have proportions here — since I usually frost smaller amounts of cookies at a time, I tend to play it by ear.)

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A week without internet!

If you are reading this, you have access to the internet. How much time do you spend online? Being without the internet for a week on an island off the shore of the Belize has been a good lesson for me. How much more enjoyable and memorable is travel when you don’t have internet? What’s different? Here is what I have come up with so far.

1. People talk to each other. I talk to people more. In many places where you see strangers when travelling, every person is looking at a screen (smart phone, tablet). People are not interacting because they can sink into their online worlds. When no one has internet, you talk more. You meet people, you have real conversations. You also talk to your partner more. And you talk about real things — shared experiences, prior travels, people’s lives back home. You don’t talk about something you read online or what a friend posted on Facebook.

2. I realized that there is no such thing as boredom. And what you think is boredom, that you are “curing” by looking at a device, is your mind aching for some real stimulation. Clicking around online isn’t going to assuage that ache. It’s just a nervous habit to click online, check email, check social media. A nervous habit tht doesn’t provide much real substance. Reading, writing, doing, talking, really looking at things, thinking — these will get you to new experiences, to learning things, to learning more about yourself, to having insights.

3. I enjoy travel more without the internet. Sure, I can’t communicate with friends back home, can’t post pictures and see people’s comments, won’t know of any emergency, can’t check the weather or make a blog post. Those things are fun, but they take me away from the present moment. I can do them all at home when I am in my cozy house, looking out on the rain, in my routine. Why do them here, on a beautiful island? Or why did I do them in Italy during my birthday trip? Trips are short. I need to stop asking for the wifi password everywhere I go and spending time trying to connecting to the internet. Life is happening!! Connect to it.

4. Legitimate travel uses of the internet can serve as an excuse to waste time browsing. Getting directions to your next destination, checking in for your flight, making or cancelling a hotel reservation — all necessary things that the internet makes easier. But I find that when I say I need to log on to do one of those things, I often spend more time browsing (e.g., not pay attention to my travels, not thinking) than I did doing the online travel task.

5. I sleep better. I have read in past that “experts” say screen time interferes with sleep. I have slept better without internet and TV. Of course, being on a tropical island, hearing the surf all night, and swimming during the day might all contribute to a better night’s sleep.

I am curious whether others find the internet to be a necessity, a convenience, a distraction or an intrusion when they are travelling? It seems like there are fewer and fewer places in the world WITHOUT internet access, and that maybe there should be more.

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