Wednesday, December 19, 2007

971 Years Later, A Poet Is Relevant Still

Today is the birthday of the Chinese poet Su Tung-po, born in 1036 in what we know as the Sichuan province. One of his poems is a perfect observation of early winter, even here in Austin:

Pu suan tzu

A fragment moon hangs from the bare tung tree
The water clock runs out, all is still
Who sees the dim figure come and go alone
Misty, indistinct, the shadow of a lone wild goose?

Startled, she gets up, looks back
With longing no one sees
And will not settle on any of the cold branches
Along the chill and lonely beach




Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Zebras are Out! - Eight Layer Shortbread Cookies

We're reaching the end of November, and fast approaching Christmas. One constant in our family is the almost obscene amount of baking we do. Cookies, cookies and more cookies! Here is one recipe that is a "must make" every year.

EIGHT LAYER SHORTBREAD, AKA “ZEBRA SHORTBREAD”
Everyone’s Christmas favorite
2 ¼ cups flour
½ cup cornstarch
1 ¼ cups butter, room temp
1 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 egg white, whisked

Sift flour and cornstarch together and set aside. Beat butter and sugar in a bowl until blended. Add vanilla. Gradually beat in flour mixture to make a soft dough. Divide in half. Knead cocoa powder into half the dough, adding a tablespoon of butter if necessary to keep from being too crumbly. Flatten both doughs and wrap separately in waxed paper, then chill at least an hour. Roll each batch of dough between two sheets of waxed paper into an EXACT 10” square. (Make a 10” square cardboard template for this) Push dough sides in to make absolutely even using the blade of a chef knife or wide long spatula. If dough gets too soft or sticky, refrigerate on a cookie sheet for a half hour and resume. Remove top sheet of waxed paper from the vanilla dough. Brush top with the egg white. Remove waxed paper from the chocolate dough, and brush top with egg white. Let stand a few minutes to set egg white. Invert the chocolate dough onto the vanilla dough, matching up the sides exactly. Cut into 4 EQUAL 10” X 2 ½” strips. Brush with egg white. Stack dough strips neatly to make eight alternating layers. Wrap each stack in plastic wrap and chill several hours, up to one week.

To bake: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Slice dough with a very sharp knife while dough is very cold into 1/8’ thick slices and transfer onto an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 9 to 11 minutes, until set and slightly pale golden at edges. Transfer to a rack to cool. Store in tins a cool, dry place up to a week.

Makes about 5 dozen shortbread

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Wednesday: Deja Vu

While I was growing up in northwestern Pennsylvania, the neighbor behind us owned the lot beside ours, where he grew a fence row of concord grapes. The grapes would set on the vine early in the summer, the tiny pea-green pearl clusters growing ever-larger by the week, until the abundance of warm rains and summer sun would coax them into first blushing rose, then purple, then blue-black in early September. But they were far from ripe, and it wouldn't be until late September or early October, when the first frost kissed the earth, that the grapes were sweet enough to eat. When that happened, my neighborhood pals and I would raid the vines, sitting beneath the leafy canopies, inhaling the rich fragrance of the then-sweet grapes, plucking them one by one and eating them until we were sated. It was the highlight of our year, always, and we gorged ourselves sick every time. Then we'd go back for more the next day. And the next day. Until the vines were picked clean by the neighbor, who transformed them into jelly in small glass jars sealed with paraffin wax.

While grocery shopping the other day, I was startled to see concord grapes offered in a clear plastic clamshell, priced at the outrageous sum of $4.99 for the pound container. But how often have I seen these AT ALL since my childhood? Not very often. In fact, I bet fewer than ten times in the last forty years. Of course I reached for a container. Once home, I rinsed them well and settled them on a plate, allowing their distinctive rich aroma to bloom and fill the room over a period of a couple of days. Yesterday I couldn't wait another second, and, like the day after those first frosts, I sat and plucked the grapes, one by one, savoring their rich dusky taste and recalling the pleasant Indian Summer days as a kid doing the same thing. A small container of grapes is merely a tease. But the memory it called up has lasted decades.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Saturday: Moments of Claire-ity


Last Saturday, Claire was tinkering around the kitchen and wound up making dinner in the end. We had a lot of basil just waiting to be picked, lots of tomatoes that needed to be used, and a box of fettucine with her name on it. Her creation wasn't just any dinner, but a fragrant, lovely garlic-cream-olive-and-basil infused pasta sauce over fettucine. What a lovely surprise, complete with a pretty presentation. Just had to take a picture of it; it was almost too pretty to eat.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Tuesday: Early morning moment

We have a large and sweeping Littleleaf Elm tree that butts right up against the deck, spreading leafy arms over it and the roof of the house. Last week, it was very windy for several days, and on one of those days, an old nest fell from the tree and onto the deck, behind the glider. It was a huge nest, loaded with scavenged items that were no doubt collected from our neighbors decks and yards: shoelaces, shreds of plastic grocery sacks, twine, bits of rags, tangled weed whacker line, and lots of small twigs, leaves and grass for good measure. It was a neat object unto itself, so none of us moved it, but sort of studied it from its vantage behind the glider.

On waking up this morning, I heard a rustling noise on the deck, and peered out to see a huge squirrel examining the nest, shaking it as if it were a Cracker Jax box, hoping a surprise would fall out. Around and around, the squirrel turned and shook the nest until it gradually fell into separate hunks. The squirrel dropped the nest, picked up the largest hunk (which contained a lot of weed whacker line and shredded grocery bag material) and ran up the tree in a flash. Is he readying for winter, recycling nest parts for his own snug home? Time will tell. Those few moments made my day, and it hadn't even really begun yet.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Monday: A Good Read

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I am loving this book! It's rare that I find a book I can't put down, but this is one of them. If you have ever had your heart broken (and who hasn't) this will touch a chord.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sunday: Pumpkin Bars

What's more wonderful than waking to the smell of cinnamon and baking?

Claire made Pumpkin Bars as her celebration of the season. The recipe makes a large batch, so she left a plateful at home and took the rest to work with her today.

They are fabulous!

Claire's Pumpkin Bars

4 eggs
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
16 ounces pumpkin
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 teaspoons cinnamon

Combine everything in a bowl and blend thoroughly. Smooth batter into an ungreased jelly roll pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. Cool in the pan, then frost with:

Cream Cheese Frosting

8 ounces cream cheese
6 tablespoons butter
4 cups powdered (10X) sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Beat the cream cheese and butter together until blended. Add 1 cup sugar, blend, then add vanilla and salt. Blend in remaining sugar and beat until creamy, about 5 minutes. Frost cooled pumpkin bars.

Makes four dozen pumpkin bars.

Saturday: Zoom zoom zoom

Yesterday, Kent was installing a catalytic converter on my car, so I was without a vehicle. It was also the afternoon for my knitting group at Central Market. Claire had gone off to school to make up some missed work, so the only vehicle left was the Miata.

I can count the number of times that I've used it on one hand. And I know exactly the last time I crawled into it: Memorial Day weekend, when my sister-in-law Debbie and I needed to grocery shop for Liz's graduation party. Kent had disappeared with my car on a mysterious errand, and again, Claire was gone with the Toyota, so we were left with the Miata. But the shopping had to be done, so off we went. You can't imagine the ridiculousness of trying to cram $350 in groceries into every nook and cranny of the thing and still manage to shoehorn two people into it as well. There was no option but to put the top down and stack bags on the back deck a foot high. Great visual, isn't it?

Anyway, I slid into the drivers seat yesterday, did my usual mental refresher course on exactly where the gears are, and took off for knitting. On FM2222, a great thing happened: I began to enjoy the drive in the dratted car. The weather was so fine: In the low 70's, sunny, perfect blue skies, and no wind. It was glorious.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Friday: A good day to start

Here in Austin, the hot weather is beginning to ease, and the days are growing a bit shorter. I am thrilled to welcome cool mornings and deliciously chilly nights. Yesterday, I hauled out the down duvet. It's pure bliss to slither under that weightless downy cloud and feel the heavy night air from the open window on my face.