Blackberry — and a little sage — Fruit Tarts

My favorite farmer’s market opened last Saturday, first one of the year, and most of the city seemed to be there when I finally got there at 10:30.  I’m not sure what the allure is, because I don’t eat a lot of vegetables, or buy organic honey or homemade soaps (I make my own soap).  But there’s something about all the white tent tops and the aisle that leads through a sea of people in a parking lot and all those glorious mounds of fruit.  I start craving farmer’s market sometime in February.

Our favorite family farmers were back, with corn and yellow onions and basil and the like, none of which I needed yet.  They’re also my favorites for tomatoes when it’s time for tomatoes (which is another way of saying When it’s time for salsa and When it’s time to just bite into fresh tomatoes.)

This time I was looking for blackberries and apricots, both of which I found, along with strawberries I didn’t even try to resist.

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Back when it was cold and snowing I came up with an idea for blackberry tarts – graham cracker crust, vanilla pastry cream, blackberries dredged in sugar and scented or flavored gently with sage.

What I ended up with was different than what I imagined, but wonderful, once it made its strange trek to the table.

The Graham Cracker Crust

I’ve never made a graham cracker crust before.  It never seemed like there’d be any point – surely the ones made by elves and pressed into an aluminum pan with a plastic cover were more than good enough, right?

Right.  But making my own allowed me to add (toasted almonds, chopped fine) and subtract (all the additional sugar, and any preservatives).  Plus it was fun.  Until the part where I forgot the almonds and had to back up several steps.

I toasted the almonds on Monday.  Then I put them in cupboard so I wouldn’t see them and simply eat them.  I know myself.  I know myself around toasted almonds.

Then Tuesday I made the crusts.  I was 5/6 of the way through pressing them into tart pans when I remembered the almonds.  All the crusts got dumped back in the bowl and I started over.  Which doesn’t sound that troubling, but the crumbs wanted to stick to me, not the pan.

It was so worth it.

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1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs, crushed under a heavy rolling pin*

7 tablespoons salted butter, melted and cooled

½ cup toasted almonds, chopped fine

Mix the crumbs with the butter, stir in the almond pieces, and press the mixture into whatever size tart pan or pans you’re using.  Bake at 375 for 7 minutes.  Set aside to cool.

(*We were completely out of baggies.  It is possible to crush graham crackers inside a folded up piece of parchment paper, but you’re going to have to sweep afterwards.)

The Berries

I live in Northern Nevada.  High desert.  The idea of sage was to celebrate summer and desert.  Not a close encounter with a bunch of tiny ants or to go buy sage from a grocery store.  But that’s what happened.

From what I can tell from reading up on it, culinary sage and sagebrush are two different things anyway.  I didn’t want to poison anyone who ate the tarts, but I had wanted to just go pick some sage.

I didn’t.  I bought it.  And used it sparingly, about 2 long, silvery leaves chopped up in 1 ½ cups of sugar poured over 2 dozen berries.  If it added any flavor whatsoever, I missed it.

The berries I dredged in granulated sugar, separating blackberries from strawberries in separate bowls.  I hoped they’d act like lemons that macerate in sugar for Shaker Lemon Pies.  They kind of did, but the developed crusts of hard sugar and bits stuck to them.  I didn’t want to glaze any of the berries, so I didn’t mind, but I’d hoped they’d be sweetened, hold their shape, and flavor the sugar.

They didn’t do any of that.  Oh, well.  They were still heavenly berries.

The Pastry Cream

I ended up making two recipes of this.  The first used half-and-half and I followed every instruction but it came out grainy and I think the half-and-half was more liquid than when it went into the mix.  The eggs, meanwhile, had almost solidified when whipped with cornstarch.  I have no idea why it didn’t work, but it tasted lovely and I had to throw it out before drinking it all.  I was, at least, positive it would work with the graham cracker crust, since the leftover graham crackers dipped in it were wonderful (I didn’t throw it all out).

The second recipe is a No Muss, No Fuss Pastry Cream from Martha Stewart, and uses whole milk.  I quite like the flavor and it handled really well and set up nicely, but next time I think I’ll try half-and-half instead of milk.

½ cup granulated sugar

¼ cup cornstarch

Pinch of coarse salt

2 cups whole milk

4 large egg yolks

2 tablespoons salted butter (original calls for unsalted)

1 teaspoon vanilla

Whisk together sugar, cornstarch and salt in a medium saucepan.  Whisk together milk and egg yolks in a measuring cup.  Add milk mix to pan with the butter.  Cook over medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil.

Boil for one minute.

Remove pan from heat and add the vanilla.  (I was out of vanilla.  I’m always running out of vanilla.  But I had only run out the day before with the first, runny pastry cream attempt.  So I added a teaspoon of water to the vanilla bottle and shook it rigorously.  It worked.)

Strain the cream into a bowl through a fine mesh sieve.  Cover the top of the cream with cling wrap (parchment paper works here, too, if you don’t have cling wrap or wax paper).  Refrigerate anywhere from two hours to two days.

Just before using, whisk pastry cream until smooth.

Putting it all together

I wanted to do everything at once.  So with six tart pans, I made six different tarts.  In the picture below, left to right, top to bottom, they are:

Sage-dredged blackberries on top of cream in which plain blackberries have been mashed;

Plain blackberries atop pastry cream;

Strawberries on top of pastry cream;

Strawberries on top of pastry cream in which plain strawberries have been mashed;

Sage-dredged blackberries on top of pastry cream in which sage-blackberries have been mashed;

Pastry cream over dark chocolate-laced crust and topped with dark chocolate was drizzled.

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We tried them last night.  Rick can take or leave berries – the chocolate was for him.  The hot chocolate hitting the pastry cream meant the design on top lifted off, one of those grace notes I’ve never achieved on purpose.

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I had one with plain blackberries on cream.  And one was sent to work with him for a coworker, who heartily approved the sage-dredged berries on top of blackberry-filled cream.

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Things I’d do different if I Made These Again

There’s so many different things to make and ideas to realize, it’s hard to make something again.  If I did, though, I might try glazing the berries with something other than jelly (I saw that suggested somewhere).  And I’d use the pastry cream recipe above, but try it with half-and-half, and actual vanilla.  The grainy version was creamier and richer, which is probably just the half-and-half.

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In the meantime, it was a great kickoff to summer and the reason why this morning, when a storm was rolling in and it was 55 out and windy and cold, I took a half hour hike I didn’t want to take – just to burn off some of that.

Worth it.  Happy Summer!

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Two Lemon Pies, One Rattlesnake

It all started because I had a quart of buttermilk. I don’t even remember what I bought it for, though whatever the main recipe was, it was the second quart purchased for it, because I drank a lot of the first one. When I figured out there would be a lot of buttermilk left over after the recipe got made, I started imagining this lemon and buttermilk pie recipe I’d seen in one of my cookbooks.

That recipe might still be out there. Or I may have remembered it wrong. Or imagined it. But I didn’t find it this time. There was a buttermilk pie recipe in one of the cookbooks, but it had no lemon, and I also had a bag of sunny, bright yellow lemons that were encouraging each other to go bad. The thugs had to be removed and the rest needed to go somewhere good.

Flipping through Martha Stewart’s New Pies and Tarts, 2011, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. I came across a Shaker Citrus Pie.  I’ve made probably half a dozen Shaker lemon pies since finding the recipe in 2013. That summer I wrote about the cookbook How to Build a Better Pie by Millicent Souris, 2012, Quarry Books, for edible Reno-Tahoe COOKS! It’s a bright, summery pie, very light, with a sweet filling and tart lemon topping.

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The first time I made that version, I used the crust from the cookbook, which is step-by-step for anyone nervous about attempting pie crust, and quite good. But my go-to crust for the last 10 years of so is from Baking with Julia, by Dorrie Greenspan and Julia Child, 1996, William Morrow Cookbooks. When I bought Baking with Julia, I stopped using frozen or premade crusts.

With two variations of Shaker lemon pies in open cookbooks right in front of me, and a bunch of lemons and oranges looking beautiful in the sun on the kitchen counter, it was only common sense I was going to make both of them.

And only logical that life would intervene. Which is how I can say for certain that if, once the fruit is cut paper thin and macerating in the rather astounding amounts of sugar, there’s no time to make the pie, the whole thing can be left in the refrigerator for at least four or five days. Mine were on the counter and did just fine, though the day before I finally made the pies, the weather changed and the daily highs shot into the high 70s – refrigerating is probably always the best option.

The Martha Stewart pie is different because it uses a pate brisee for a crust, which is an all-butter crust that’s described as flaky and sturdy at the same time.  It mixes up easily, is light and a slightly sweeter, richer crust than the Shaker pie from the Build a Better Pie book. The pie itself has no brown sugar, unlike the straight lemon version, and uses oranges in addition to lemons, giving the pie a little more sweetness in the fruit. It also mixes some of the macerated citrus in the filling, not just layered on top. My fruit was already many days macerating by the time I read I should julienne some of the pieces, so I just cut them roughly and threw them into the mixer when doing up the eggs and lemon syrup for the filling.

I found the way the citrus pie came together easier than the Build a Better Pie lemon version, because there’s no liquid poured over the carefully arranged citrus fruit. When pouring the liquid over the lemon version, I’ve had the lemons float up and find their own places to sit, which I resent – I’d like them to stay where I put them, and not act like cats and head off wherever they please.

The Build version is tart and explodes with flavor. The egg and brown sugar mixture poured over the lemons is sweet and the lemons tart despite all the sugar, probably because they’re only lemons, no other citrus. I love lemons and my husband doesn’t, so I’ve given away half a dozen of these pies. This one I had a couple slices of and then pulled the fruit off the top.

The fruit layer of the Martha pie is light and both sweet and tart; the oranges make the flavor pop. The filling is very sweet. Once I pulled the citrus off the top and told myself to stop eating it, it was hard to really do so. The crust was shiny with juice that had baked in, like a glazed cookie, if there is such a thing (if there isn’t, there should be).

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I made the pies Thursday May 4, a warm, sunny, still day in Reno’s North Valleys. I’d made both crusts the day before, then ran out of time and forgot to move them from the quick-chill in the freezer to the refrigerator, so I had to wait for them to thaw. Once they were in progress, I spent in between times reworking old short stories in the sunlight at the kitchen table.

This is where the rattlesnake comes in. When both pies were out and cooling, I wanted photographs of them on big rocks overlooking the dry lake and the valley, since the dry lake is full of flood waters and the valley gorgeous. I thought rocks, bright sun, beautiful vista, sunny pies would all complement each other.

Packing the pies into shopping bags because – strangely – I don’t have containers for toiling up steep, rocky foothills with pies in both hands (imagine!), I drove over to one of my favorite places to climb. Backpack on, phone strapped to arm, pies in each hand, I hiked over broken trails where flooding has etched deep channels in what used to be trail, and soft sand has silted into the new stream beds. The path itself is steep at the beginning, and made up of coarse, dry sand over hard dirt, which is slippery (since buying trail running shoes last year, I haven’t slipped once). When that trail makes a 90 degree turn and heads straight up the foothill, it becomes coarse dirt, hard dirt and rocks that have run off in storm after storm. It’s slippery and ankle-turning-dangerous. It’s also very, very steep.

It also doesn’t have big photogenic rocks on top. The rocks are another hike across more up and down and I didn’t have it in me to go the extra distance because by then, I’d met the snake.

When hiking to hike, I’m always looking around to see what animals might be nearby. Hikes are rated on the number of jackrabbits and cottontails, occasional coyotes, crows and magpies and little redheaded zombie birds I see. (Someday I’ll explain the zombie birds. Maybe.)

Today’s hike was awkward (pies), dusty (there were too many ATVs out, by which I mean two), ill-timed (I’d wanted to go early, and now at evening, the sun was angling into a glaring decline). I was watching the ground right in front of me, planning where to step. Usually I take the hard, rocky trail, moving back and forth over tire ruts to the least rocky sections as I go. But with the pies and the pace I was setting and it being my second hike of the day, I cut to the grassier section. The grass isn’t long and the tire ruts head over it, but it’s less rocky and easier.

And occupied. The rattlesnake was six to eight feet from me when I looked up farther than the next few steps and saw it. Diamond-shaped head, rattler design, coiled and shaking its tail at me and making no noise. Rattlesnakes shed their scales at some point, but I have no idea when. Maybe it hadn’t yet reached that level of annoyance, but it was shaking its tail and it was coiled and it was aggressively jutting its head in my direction.

I thought a bunch of stuff, all at exactly the same time:

Oh, bleep.

That’s a rattlesnake.

That’s way too close.

Move.

The non-thoughts, those that didn’t come in cartoon thought bubbles, included my distance from the snake (about six to eight feet, my shadow was nearly touching it and the sun was still high at 5:30), the snake’s probable length (about three feet, which is either as far as it can move in one strike or half what it can move in one strike, and I need to look that up again but am kind of past-tense afraid to).  I also thought that being on rocky, uncertain-footing ground, I couldn’t run or move fast, and that given the time of year, and my lack of knowledge about when snakes reproduce, I wasn’t going to blunder about without looking.

In other words, no leaping sideways and away.

It didn’t lunge. It didn’t strike. I obviously didn’t go any closer. I looked all around me, then gingerly moved to the left, back to the rocky path, where every single rock, stick and shadow now looked like a snake. I made a very large circle around it –

And then stopped to take pictures. I don’t know why. Except that I thought I was far enough away and I was kind of fascinated.

And probably kind of an idiot.

And then I went on to the top of the hill. Where my rocks weren’t.

My rocks weren’t where I left them. This happens to me a lot with anything even remotely geographical. By the time I saw they were another down and up, I gave up. The pies were heavy carried in bags, and the snake encounter left me shaking with adrenaline. I took a few photos from the top of the hill, and then made my very cautious, jumpy way back down, looking for the snake and never seeing it again, which was far less comforting than might be supposed.

This will be my fifth summer tramping about in the hills, and my second rattler encounter. Last year I passed a section in the same path, much farther down, and heard the unmistakable susurrus coming from a sagebrush. I’d heard rattles and dry rasps before and wondered, but the real thing strikes an atavistic response – there is no doubt what you’re hearing. I’ll never again wonder if a jackrabbit preparing to flee or a bunch of quail wanting me to go away are actually a snake. Snakes are snakes. The hackles on the back of my neck know the difference.

Theoretically if you don’t bother them they won’t go out of their way to bother you, which is good, but not all that reassuring. Rattlesnakes are aggressive.

And while I came out of the experience completely unscathed, I note this morning I’m letting the sun come up without my being out there running or hiking. It’s going to take a day or two, and some gratitude that this experience wasn’t any more up close and personal.

As for the pies, there’s only two of us in this household and I’m the only one who likes lemon. They’re delicate pies and ephemeral and I’m not going anywhere today, so no chance to give one away. Instead, I’m pulling the toppings off both and freezing them until I can figure out a good cookie recipe to chop them into.

Hopefully on that day it will be two batches of cookies, no snakes.

 

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These are not my rocks. These are miniature rocks.

 

 

 

 

Simple, Satisfying Calzones

One of my go-to’s for easy dinner. Dress this up with a green salad and a glass of wine, or with a hot vegetable on a cold night. Or take it leftover and cold for a picnic. Or just any time.

Rick and I like totally different things in the realm of food. So I make two of these calzones. They’re big enough most nights for the easy part of dinner we just have half to two-thirds of the calzone and call it good without bothering with salad or dessert or fruit or much of anything.

The calzones take about 1 ¾ hours to 2 hours at 5000 feet, rising faster in summer, slower in winter. The dough is simple and doesn’t require a ton of kneading and if I could find pre-grated Monterey Jack they’d be easier still. The pepperoni in Rick’s I buy in stick form – somehow freshly cut rounds in whatever size I determine seem to have more kick than the paper-thin sliced bagged pepperoni (which isn’t bad either, in a pinch).

I bake them in pie pans for the simple reason that they leak, oozing chewy, hot, melted cheese throughout the pan which I know from unfortunate experience, can set the oven on fire. I also rarely bother to cut slits in the finished calzones before they go in the oven because by then the dough is a little sticky and generally creates its own gaps.

In the photos I rolled out one round and cut it in half so the finished calzones look a little oddly shaped. It was nice for the photo but the dough spent the time I was preparing the stuffing trying to form itself back together. Separation anxiety. It was hard to separate the two pieces. That said I usually roll it into an oval and form it into a long tube. Fancier and probably just as easy would be to roll the dough into a circle and fold it neatly over the filling, creating a half moon, then use a fork to crimp the edges.

Fancy or not, these are simple and tasty.

Dough for 2 Calzones

1 cup very warm water

2 teaspoons active dry yeast (not rapid rise)

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons canola oil (olive oil if you prefer it; I don’t care for it in crusts)

2 ½ to 3 cups all-purpose unbleached flour

Dissolve the yeast in the hot water in a medium to large mixing bowl. Sprinkle the salt over top, add the oil, then add 2 cups of the flour. Stir for form a sticky dough. Stir in enough remaining flour that the dough can be scooped out of the bowl onto a floured board.

Knead for a couple minutes. This dough doesn’t need a ton of working. Add as much reserved flour as necessary so the dough just barely still feels sticky, then scrape out the mixing bowl till it’s fairly clean and return the dough to the bowl to rise, covered, until double. Usually I only use a total of 2 ½ cups flour. Dough is somewhere between the size of a large softball and a small cantaloupe.

The dough should take 45 minutes to just over an hour to rise. Preheat the oven to 425 while preparing the filling.

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Really anything could be filling. My favorite is a cup of cottage cheese, half a cup of shredded skim milk mozzarella, half a cup Monterey Jack, half a cup of pimento-stuffed green olives, chopped or sliced, and a good hearty sprinkle of oregano. Place in the greased pie pan.

Rick’s is a smear of favorite pizza sauce, half a cup of Monterey Jack, half a cup of mozzarella, a very small grating of sharp cheddar (it can easily overpower everything else) and somewhere between half and one cup of sliced pepperoni. Sprinkle on the oregano and seal it up.

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These don’t have to rise. The minute they’re sealed they can go into the oven for 25 minutes at 425. Check at 25 minutes and maybe give them another 2 or 3 minutes. Remove from oven when they’re nicely golden and let cool on a rack for about 5 minutes because they’re now sizzling like fajitas do and the insides are hotter than the sun.

These are kind of a compromise dinner for me when I go into a low carb high protein phase. There’s obviously carbs in the flour, but the insides are as protein packed as can be with the cheese and fat never alarms me like carbs do. Plus the fillings could easily be traded out – salami in one, or pepperoni and pineapple, or ham and green peppers or ham and pineapple, or all cheese (though that seems kind of wanting, somehow). Or even a nicely slow-cooker cooked steak with sautéed yellow onions and a burgundy.

Now I’m dreaming of meat pies. If you come up with a variation on this theme, let me know in the comments – I’d love to try something new.

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Antioxidants, Heart Health, and Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

My husband sometimes makes me look like I have a healthy diet, and that’s saying something, because one of my daydreams is to wake some morning and discover that pizza and cheesecake are health food and leafy greens are, like I’ve always maintained, rabbit food.  Or better yet, green will be recognized as nature’s way of telling us food has gone bad.

When Rick worked construction, before the abrupt and insane rise of residential construction in Nevada and then complete and total fall of it with the last great recession, he ate terrible breakfasts on the run.  He’s not a coffee guy but he’d pick up a Dr. Pepper and a chemical-laden, fat-and-carbohydrate-filled muffin the size of his head and eat it on his drive.  Thinking that I’d like to be with him for a good many years, I scrounged around for alternatives.  Neither of us is ever going to leap out of bed (or even crawl, groaning) early enough to make breakfast.  Not even a semi-healthy cereal, which wouldn’t have lasted him all morning anyway.  Getting him to actually eat oatmeal – as oatmeal – was what I figure asking your average 8-year-old to eat broccoli would be like.

So I dredged up an old family recipe for oatmeal cookies.  Because the family member who loved the recipe liked them big and soft, with crispy edges, they’re made enormous – the entire batter turns out eight or nine cookies. These had always been made with walnuts, so I started fiddling with them to see what I could do to turn them in to a not-hopelessly-bad breakfast alternative to the commercially produced muffin.

Oatmeal is generally considered fairly healthy.  So I started with that.  Then came the welcome news that dark chocolate is a powerful antioxidant and good for high blood pressure, which runs in Rick’s family.  There’s an article in Web MD that explains the whole healthy chocolate thing. 

In addition, walnuts are heart healthy antioxidants so I started throwing walnuts into the mix.  They’re still cookies, but I cut the sugar – which was kind of at egregious levels – by a third.  There’s also two eggs and a stick of butter in the recipe.  I suppose I could go one more step and use half whole wheat flour, but he eats these and I feel pretty good about that.

Since the recession Rick works in a totally different, non-construction job and two big fat cookies aren’t enough to keep going for five and a half hours before lunch.  He’s been eating Jimmy Dean biscuity things that remind me of a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin® which I find a lot like two stones surrounding a couch cushion and some tasteless sausage.  I’m hoping to experiment with actual Jimmy Dean sausage, the kind that comes in the roll and is cut up, and floury Scottish Baps, which are lovely with an egg and some sausage or bacon in them.  The meat could be cooked the night before, the baps made and frozen to be microwaved, or made on Sunday and tossed by Wednesday.  Just, no idea how to get the egg cooked.

Because we’re still not getting up any earlier than we have to.    

The Dough

2 eggs, room temperature

1 stick salted butter, softened (13 seconds in the microwave will do wonders for softening butter)

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1/3 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

2/3 cup granulated sugar

1 ½ cups all purpose flour

2 cups old fashioned oatmeal, uncooked 

1 handful walnut pieces

1 handful dark or bittersweet 60% cacao chocolate chips (we love Ghirardelli)

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper, or use nonstick cookie sheets, or grease the sheets.

Break eggs into a separate bowl to avoid getting eggshells into the batter.  Transfer to a mixer bowl with the butter, vanilla, baking soda, salt, brown and white sugars.  The baking soda for some reason doesn’t mix well into the batter and will sit about in little lumps if added with the dry ingredients.  I add the salt at the same time because if I don’t and the soda’s already added, I’ll forget.  Mix well on medium speed, until ingredients are blended.

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Remove the bowl from the mixer and stir in the flour, then the oatmeal.  This is a really, really thick, sticky batter, which will stand a spoon straight up with no problem.  Dig the spoon into the bottom of the bowl, because dry ingredients in this one tend to accumulate there.  Add the nuts and chocolate chips and mix well.

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I make these big, about the size of the palm of my hand when flattened out, and maybe half an inch thick.  The entire batter usually yields about nine cookies.  Bake for 17 minutes at 350, then remove and transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool.

 It‘s possible to feel almost virtuous when having these for a snack.

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Desert blooms on baking day.

 

Of Fake Lakes and Friday Night Pizza

This morning was my first hike of the season in one of my favorite parts of the valley. There’s a circle turnout off the street at the base of it, and the way up is very rocky, very steep, where once I encountered a jackrabbit in the sagebrush I was about five feet away from and we gave each other heart attacks as I blundered up the hill and he blasted out of the brush. From the top of the hill there’s an amazing view of the valley – and the fake lake.

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Right now the lake is full. This winter, the one finally, finally dragging to an end, we got most of our year’s worth of water in the first two months or some statistic like that I don’t remember exactly. It was wet out, that’s not an understatement.

The lake here is a dry lake. All summer it’s full of white hardpan and lots and lots of white dust that stirs into dust devils and coats everything in the house after dust storms roll through. But come spring runoff or a good winter of rains and snows (because runoff hasn’t really gotten going yet) it fills up. Across the lake from us is the Nevada/California border, with Bordertown on the other side, reflecting red neon in the water.

I love having a lake that comes and goes. I love how ephemeral the lake is, and how the desert changes from one hike to the next. I haven’t been up this foothill since October when it got too cold. But these weren’t here when last I was.

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Impatience sent me up half an hour before sunrise this morning, because it’s still cold in the morning. Monday I hiked at a little after sunrise and it was in the 40s. This morning I hiked at half an hour before sunrise when it’s first light and when I got back down the foothill 40 minutes later the temperature was 28.

Not much company this morning. Two crows displeased with my appearance. They nest in the rocks and two summers ago actively threatened me, flying lower and lower. Which just delighted me, to see their feet so clearly, so close. Crows apparently have communal nests, because there were three of them harassing me and more in the nest making sure I knew I wasn’t welcome. Today they just soared overhead as I clamored up the hillside.

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My favorite things in life, outside people and cats that I love, include hiking in the foothills, writing speculative fiction, baking.

And pizza.

Putting together the writing, the baking and the pizza, and my friend Robert once said I had invented a whole new fiction genre – pizza writing. It’s true – my characters, unless they have to go somewhere fancy for reasons of plot (and then they complain) head for their favorite pizza place. Not much I can say – so many TV shows, movies and books show characters ordering Chinese food.

I don’t like Chinese food. But I do like pizza. So my characters eat pizza.

And so do I, and so does my husband. My very favorite, despite having worked there in college (usually the kiss of death for a place) is Round Table. Pepperoni, the Maui Wowie thing with bacon and pineapple, a pepperoni and pineapple my friend Samantha once ordered by mistake (she meant ham)…. Our other favorite is Grimaldi’s Coal Brick Oven Pizzeria, located handily near our favorite movie theater in Sparks.

Then there’s mine. Refined over many years of practice, I’ve gone through different sauces, tried making my own (never quite got there), oregano’d the sauce for a long time, stopped doing that. Usually the pizza is split in half – half pepperoni and sometimes mushrooms for Rick, half pepperoni and pineapple or green olives or black olives or tomato on my side.

The recipe I developed started on the back of a package of either flour or yeast. It’s long since vanished, but what remains is the fact that it originally called for amounts that wound up with me having two pizza skins. We didn’t need two. So I turn the other half into breadsticks. Too many breadsticks, so we have a few before the itself goes in the oven, accompanying them with the grated mozzarella and sharp cheddar, the chopped up pepperoni and sometimes the sauce. One or two breadsticks stuffed with leftover sauce, cheese or meat make a nice lunch the next day.

Pizza may not be the healthiest dinner ever, but if the rest of the week is homemade chicken noodle soup and soy sauced pork chops with a side of green beans or a baked apple, it’s probably all right in the scheme of things.

After all, there’s a whole sub-genre of stories with pizza at its core.

The Dough

¼ cup hot water and 1 ¼ cups hot water

1 tablespoon active dry yeast (not rapid rise)

¼ cup olive or canola oil (I do not like olive oil in this, but it’s an option)

2 teaspoons sea salt

4 to 5 cups all purpose flour

In a large mixing bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the ¼ cup hot water. Allow to sit for 2 minutes to dissolve, then mix in the salt, stirring to dissolve, and the oil. Add the remaining 1 ¼ cups hot water and stir.

 

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The yeast and water with salt and oil, looking like a crescent moon and a universe.

 

I generally add the first 3 cups of flour all a once and stir, then turn out the sticky mass onto the lightly floured marble cutting board. I might only knead in another half a cup, or might go has high as 4 ½ cups total, though that’s rare. I try to knead until the dough has just the slightest stickiness or dampness on my hands, but isn’t covering me with dough as I knead. Too much flour will make for hard, dry dough, so I pay attention not only to how it feels under my hands but also to how much flour it’s picking off the board. It the dough isn’t drawing any more into itself, it’s probably just about there. If there seems to be a little too much flour in the dough at that moment, keep kneading – it will probably soften and dampen again.

Scrape the bowl fairly clean of clinging batter and return the dough to it. A clean bowl’s nice for the rise but not a necessity. Cover with plastic wrap or a clean dish towel. Allow to rise until doubled, usually 45 minutes to an hour.

 

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On to the first rise.

 

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Place racks in upper third of oven.

Turn dough out on a cleaned, lightly floured board and punch down. Separate into two uneven sections, maybe 2/3 together and 1/3 by itself. Set aside the larger portion and divide the smaller portion into approximately 6 breadsticks. I don’t measure. I just break off pieces and roll them between my palms like Play-Doh. Place on a foil lined cookie sheet. Melt about half a tablespoon of butter and brush the breadsticks with it. Sprinkle the breadsticks with garlic salt. Bake in preheated oven anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes for a deep golden crust to the tops (time is depending on how stubborn they are at browning this time).

 

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The ineffable pleasure of nicely risen dough.

 

When we first made the switch from margarine to anything else about 10 years ago, I experimented with other things to brush onto the breadsticks. I tried olive oil and didn’t like it on the dough anymore than I do in it. Tried various butters and finally hit on the salted butter, melted, and garlic salt lightly on top.

For the pizza, roll out the dough to pan size. A heavy dark pizza pan is a great investment – mine is flat, black and heavy, and has lasted a nice long time and the shiny, ridged, aluminum secondary pan I had was disposed of years ago. Top with sauce of choice (my favorite is Contadina Pizza Squeeze), cheeses of choice (mozzarella and sharp cheddar), and toppings of choice.

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Bake for approximately 13 minutes in the 500 degree oven. Transfer carefully to a cutting board. Promise yourself tomorrow’s dinner is a salad or a pork chop, and dig in.

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Spring in the High Desert – First Sunrise Hike of the Year

The year we found bobcat prints in the backyard, I spent a summer getting up at dawn and hiking in the 20 minutes before the sun came up. The only time I ever saw the illusive cat was the very first morning I went out. Just clearing the last steep hill that overlooks the cul-de-sac backyards in the pre-sunrise twilight, I saw about 5 houses away what looked like someone’s dog entering the open desert that runs behind the house. Stray dogs never, ever come helpfully to me so I can check tags and call owners. Stray dogs instead seem to think this is play time and I’m there so they can give me spitty kisses and jump up with their paws on my shoulders.

We’re in disagreement about that.

But another look to see if there were any humans near the putative dog made me do a double take.  Long, lanky legs and a curious gate.  That was my bobcat, jogging confidently up the trail toward me.  I held my breath but the cat disappeared into the tiny ditch behind the houses and from there, probably into the culvert. I’ve never seen him or her again.

Sometime last summer I got out of the habit of doing more than looking for tracks.  There are plenty.  Rabbits, kangaroo rats, quail, dogs people are walking. 

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What I haven’t gotten out of the habit of is the early morning hike, the earlier the better.  This morning I got out at 10 after 6, which was the same time the sun comes up.  I’ll have to leave earlier to catch the really lovely time, the purple time when the desert air is actually wet and all the animals are still out. 

This morning was just over 40 degrees, and turning back toward home and into the breeze was – let’s call it bracing.  During the walk I encountered three jackrabbits, two cottontails, one fat quail and one lone bird who sat and watched me and made disconsolate beeping noises.  My reassurances that I didn’t wish to eat it or its brood, incipient or otherwise, didn’t comfort it.  My leaving did.

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Caramel Sticky Buns & Buttermilk Bread

This recipe started circling through my head a couple weeks ago but there was never any time to give it a shot. Deadlines, more deadlines, taking the cat to acupuncture, taking myself to acupuncture (Note: the cat and I have different doctors…) and then more deadlines.

This past week, though, Rick was off work and we were celebrating our anniversary with a vacation at home – getting to all those things there’s never enough time for, watching the last of the Veronica Mars series (we’d never seen it!) and many, many different Fast & Furious movies as the new movie is hitting theaters. We stayed up way too late on our last night off. Even though we had to be up at 5:30 for Rick to go to work, we watched all of Fast & Furious 2 and had to talk ourselves out of staying up for Tokyo Drift.

 

So with the week off there was time to start the batter Saturday night and see if it could endure a retarded rise overnight in the refrigerator. It did, though if I leave it overnight again I’ll grease the bowl – it was a little hard and a little wrinkled when it came out in the morning. Kind of the way I feel most mornings.

 

I gave the dough half an hour or so to warm up, even though it had risen to the top of the bowl.

 

For the bread, I took half the batter and punched it down on a lightly floured marble pastry board. I had a very small packet of walnut halves I’d coarsely chopped and then roasted at 325 for 15 minutes just on a sheet of foil. (Some time ago I bought a little two part hand-crank nut grinder from King Arthur Flour. It looks like something that Lucy Ricardo would be selling, just like a late night TV ad: “But wait! There’s more!” But it’s actually fabulous. Drop the nuts in, turn in one direction for larger pieces, another for smaller, and the chopped nuts drop into a measuring cup.)

 

I had less than an entire palm-full of toasted chopped walnuts and I scattered them over the bread and kneaded them in, along with what was seriously only a dusting of cinnamon – maybe two very judicious sprinkles and that was kneaded throughout too. Then formed a loaf which remained very small and cold and unfriendly until it went into the oven. It never peeked over the pan, never did anything to prove itself willing to turn into a fragrant, delicious loaf.

 

For the buns, I used a cupcake tin for 12 regular size cupcakes. At first I thought I really wanted a larger sized tin but this turned out perfect. Each cup got about a teaspoon and a half of very cold salted butter, and 2 rounded teaspoons full of light brown sugar. The majority of the toasted walnuts were divided among those cups, then 3 got a sprinkle of cinnamon, 3 got a sprinkle of both cinnamon and nutmeg, 3 got both cinnamon and nutmeg and two slices of frozen and thawed organic peach slices, and 3 just got brown sugar and walnuts.

 

With the exception of the peaches, all of the toppings went into the preheating oven so the butter and sugar could melt and meld. The peaches went in after the melted bits came back out of the oven and were therefore between the caramel and the bun, which worked out very nicely. Pretty as two slices are bracketing the bun top, cutting it into bite sized pieces would stop the entire slice of peach from coming off in one bite.

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The dough for the buns got cut into 12 pieces, rolled into balls and placed in the cups on top of the butter, brown sugar, etc. Bread and buns were covered with a light tea towel and left on top of the oven to warm. Oven preheated to 425.

 

The buns took 15 minutes and came out fantastic. Only problem is when turned upside down onto waxed paper, they left a lot of sticky caramel and nuts on the tin. I thought butter would be enough to discourage that. Next time, then, either nonstick tin or a light greasing with vegetable oil (canola doesn’t seem to leave a vile, Hello, I’m vegetable oil taste).

 

The nutmeg somehow gets lost, though there’s no harm in sprinkling it gently. I’d guess I used less than 1/8 teaspoon for all the cups that had it.

 

The bread came out at 25 minutes. It tapped hollow and turned out of the pan beautifully and it’s really, really good bread. It’s a thick, hearty bread, which makes no sense, since the loaf itself feels light as a feather. I think it could have used 2 to 3 more minutes, so probably depending on variations in ovens, time for the bread is best put as 25 to 30 minutes.

 

The Sponge

 

1 cup buttermilk, room temperature

 

2 packages active dry yeast (not rapid rise)

 

2 teaspoons salt

 

1 tablespoon sugar

 

¾ cup hot water

 

2 cups all purpose flour

 

 In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in the buttermilk. Let stand for 10 minutes.      

 

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The sponge at 10 minutes.

 

 

 Add the salt and sugar. In a large mixing bowl, 2 cups all purpose flour. Make a well in the center of the flour. Add the buttermilk/yeast mixture, and pour in the ¾ cup of hot water. Mix in just enough flour to make a thick paste.

 

Let the sponge rise for 20 minutes, covered with plastic wrap or, if you’re like me and can’t remember to buy cling wrap, cut up a large plastic baggie and drape it over the bowl.

 

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The sponge at 20 minutes.

 

 

The Dough

 

1 to 3 more cups all purpose flour

 

The Steps

 

Mix 1 cup flour into the sponge. When I took the dough from the bowl, it was very sticky, and only had the initial 2 cups + this additional cup. On my lightly floured marble board, I kneaded for about 8 minutes, adding an entire fourth cup of flour.

 

Return to a good sized mixing bowl, cover and allow to rise. This is where I covered the bowl with the savaged gallon plastic bag and put the whole thing in the refrigerator until the next morning. Next time if I leave it overnight I’ll oil the bowl. Otherwise I think a clean or well-scraped bowl would be enough if the dough is just going to rise on the counter.

 

When the dough came out of the refrigerator Sunday morning I let it sit for about 30 minutes to warm, despite it being very well risen. I preheated the oven to 425 while it was rising.

 

On a lightly floured board I punched down the dough and divided it in half. The bread got the dusting of cinnamon, scant handful of toasted walnuts and was kneaded gently to form a loaf. I used a regular sized loaf pan, nonstick, light colored, and lightly greased.

 

For the buns, see above, with the details about caramel sticky topping.

 

Both buns and bread rose under a light clean dish towel on top of the oven as it preheated. Buns baked for 15 minutes, bread for 25; see above for details on the bread – it could have used a little more time.

 

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Rising in well-used & well-stained pans.

 

 

A lovely, fattening experiment that resulted in a guilt-ridden early morning hike today but more than worth it. I get the urge to make sticky buns about once a year, and most of the time have been less than thrilled with the recipes – enough so that I don’t have a go to recipe. This might be the one; definitely the bread was perfect and the buns? Are all gone.

 

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Sunset hike

Tonight was my second hike this year. Our house butts up to open space and rolling Nevada foothills – go outside and head into the hills.  But I’ve been out once earlier this week and once a couple months ago for a hike so freezing I’m kind of not counting it. This has been a long, wet winter, with a normal year’s allotment of rain and snow already by the time we got to March if I remember correctly. This is a desert, but spontaneous lakes have been appearing, and ravines are cut into the desert hardpan in unexpectedly deep cuts.

It was 61 degrees when I left a little after 7 p.m., with roughly 30 minutes until sundown for Reno, though in the hills I had about 20 minutes. The sun had already dropped by the time I got back. The dirt gives up the day’s heat and the sage smells strong in the mornings and evenings. I was out for half an hour, leaving later than I meant to because there was a cottontail in the front yard asking for apples. I took to feeding them when it kept snowing later and later into the year, and am trying to convince them now to eat the plentiful weeds in our dirt-filled third of an acre.  Still, when wild rabbits come running when you call “Rabbits! Rabbits!” it’s hard to resist.

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There were three jackrabbits, two cottontails and one stick I thought might be a snake on my hike. To date I’ve only heard one rattlesnake and I’m coming up on my fifth summer of rambling through the foothills. I thought I’d heard one before but once you hear the real thing, there’s an atavistic response that can’t be mistaken for anything else. I believe I levitated off that part of the trail that day, and remained leery of passing the area for the next many hikes.

Another fake snake alert last summer: I was directly opposite a very large sage, very close, on a slippery, rock-covered, very steep foothill when there was shaking and vibrating of the bush. I was too close and on too uneven of ground to escape well, so I panicked and froze. Seconds later one of the biggest jackrabbits I’ve seen exploded out of the bush and tore off across the foothill.  They’re lovely and enormous and for once, one of them scared me more than I scared it.

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Not the most dramatic skies, but soft and still. There’s almost always wind in Northern Nevada, especially if you’re a runner (I take this personally – it should be impossible to choose a route that leads in a square and have the wind in my face in every single direction). But tonight it was still and the contrails stayed in the air and frayed, turning fainter colors and dying away.

The blue jays I feed by hand – one sits on my hand, the other makes strange sounds like something out of The Ring and comes close but to me – are nesting. I’m not seeing much of them and when I do, Blue takes the roasted peanuts, cracks them from their shell, and carries off most of it to Scrawny.

The quail are nesting, and a squirrel yelled at me from our side yard, so I assume they’re hatching in burrows, if that’s where they live. It’s spring. Time for light sweetbreads and lemon everything and just over a month away from farmer’s market and chocolate cherry pies and peach pies and berry tarts and apricot cakes and just plain fruit eaten in the backyard while reading a good book.

Happy Spring.

Not-So-Red Red Velvet Cake

Easter Sunday was also our wedding anniversary. When Rick and I got married in Reno, the wonderful Cheese Board catered for us. The cake – white cake, custard filling, white buttercream and pink roses with green vines and leaves everywhere – came from The Cake and Flower Shoppe. That was a heavenly bakery on Fifth Street, with delightful ladies who might have been Disney faeries of the Sleeping Beauty variety running it. When you entered, the shop smelled like the best possible bakery, not overly sweet, just enticing. It was also a florist, so roses and carnations battled it out with cakes that weren’t mouth-crunchingly sweet, and it was always cool, because of the flowers. I’m a heat lover and desert sun seeker, but when I’d walk into the shop, it always felt a little magical because of the change of temperature.

When we moved from Reno to Medford, Oregon, an experiment in living somewhere that wasn’t at 4500 feet + and was damp and green, we went less than a year after our wedding and took the top tier of cake with us for our anniversary. That started a tradition of having a cake every anniversary. Our second anniversary cake wasn’t from Cake & Flower Shoppe because we were in Oregon, but we moved home before our third anniversary. For our 13th anniversary, being that we’re geeks and love fantasy and horror, we asked for a “scary 13-themed” cake and they came through – they thought it was weird, but they did it.

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Cake & Flower Shoppe closed in 2011, I think – at any rate, Nicholle Albumbaugh opened Homage Bakery in 2011 in the same building, having bought the equipment from C&FS. Homage is lovely and so in demand I’ve never yet ordered a cake in time for our anniversary. Which means for several years we’ve tried different sources for our cakes – in 2013 we were in Disneyland and celebrated with beautiful cupcakes and Mickey & Minnie cake toppers (also mouse ears bride and groom hats).

 

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This year we made our own.  I’m still working on making things look pretty in addition to tasting good. Rick spread the buttercream on the cake and it looked good until we tried the pink roses. (It didn’t occur to me until we were mid-rose-attempt to do a line of decoration around the edge. Next year.)

The pink blob in the photo – that’s my contribution and it’s a rose. Honest. That’s a rose. In some alternate universe. Where roses aren’t quite what they are here. The Rick and Jennifer bit was Rick deciding nope! He can’t make roses either.

 

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The frosted abomination.

 

It isn’t pretty, but it’s wonderful. I started making this cake in college. The original recipe came from a friend of a friend of a friend so I could make it for another friend who was spending his first birthday away from home and who loved Red Velvet Cake.

This is adjusted for 5000 feet above sea level baking. It’s also adjusted like this:

Red food dye? No thank you! Creeps me out and sometimes makes me sick and adds nothing but a vaguely ink-like taste to foods. So now I add 3 ounces of water to the batter to take the place of 3 ounces of red food color. The result is a lovely soft brown cake, light and fluffy with a delicate sweetness. This cake doesn’t wallop you with sugar. It’s just good.

Vanilla. I am always out of vanilla. I could buy a gallon of vanilla and I would still be out of vanilla in about half an hour. So this time I cut a full vanilla pod in half, scraped the insides and cut the pod into pieces and let it all sit in the 3 ounces of water while I made the rest of the cake.  Seemed to work and was rather simple, no muss, no fuss. For the custard, I cooked the other half of the pod into the custard and pulled it out when the custard was set. Since it still smelled wonderful, I washed it, dried it and stuck it in a small jar full of sugar. Some day when I figure out what vanilla sugar is supposed to be used for (anyone know?) I’ll have some on hand.

Otherwise, the recipe offered here is what I’ve been making periodically since college, with the changes that make it high desert viable. Nothing fell, though the waxed paper clung to the cakes more than I thought necessary. That was all right – we filled in the missing bits with custard and frosting.

 

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The waxed paper had its way with the delicate cake.

 

Red Velvet Cake

¾ cup shortening (not butter – I use regular Crisco sticks)

2 ¼ cups sugar minus 1 tablespoon

3 eggs, room temperature

1 ½ teaspoons cocoa

¾ teaspoon salt

3 cups + 2 tablespoons flour

1 ½ cups + 3 tablespoons buttermilk

1 ½ teaspoons vanilla

3 ounces red food coloring (or replace with water)

1 ½ teaspoons baking soda

1 ½ teaspoons white vinegar

Grease 3 9-inch layer cake pans, dust lightly with flour, bang out excess flour, and line bottom of tin with a circle of wax paper. Preheat oven to 365 (up 15 degrees from 350 for high altitude).

Cream sugar and shortening until well blended. Add the eggs and beat until well combined

 

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I’m not a fan of vegetable shortening, but I love the clean, bright look.

 

In a separate bowl, stir flour, cocoa and salt until well mixed. Add to the batter alternately with buttermilk, beginning with the dry ingredients and ending with buttermilk. Beat on medium speed for 2 minutes. Mix in the vanilla and either food coloring or water.

In a small bowl, carefully combine baking soda and vinegar (I’m convinced this is the elementary school mixture that makes paper mache volcanoes erupt). Gently fold the dissolved soda and vinegar into the batter.

Bake in a 365 degree oven for 27 to 30 minutes for high altitude, or 35 to 40 minutes at 350 for 3500 feet above sea level and below; bake until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Gently remove cakes from pans and cool completely on a wire rack.

 

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Building layers – rack left lines on warm, soft cakes.

 

Custard

Combine 1 ½ cups milk, 1/3 cup flour, and a dash of salt in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring gently, until mixture reaches bubbly stage.  Set to cool.

Cream together ¾ cup of shortening (again, not butter) with 1 ½ cups powdered sugar and 1 ½ sticks of butter (must be butter; my preference is salted sweet cream butter) and 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla. Add to the pudding mixture and beat until smooth.

 

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Custard in lumpy stage before smoothing and bubbling.

 

Vanilla Buttercream

This is a variant on traditional buttercream icing, swiped from More from Magnolia by Allysa Torey (2004).

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened (I used salted…)

6-8 cups confectioner’s sugar (in my dry desert, I used 6)

½ cup milk

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Cream the butter with 4 cups of the sugar, then add the milk and vanilla and beat until smooth and creamy, about 3 to 5 minutes on medium speed. Gradually add in the remaining sugar until the frosting reaches a spreadable consistency.

For the pink that created our blobs and wavering anniversary messages, we used a small bowl of the buttercream and Wilton gel food colors, mixing a few drops at a time with a toothpick.

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