Welcome…

When I began writing this blog, I expected it to be about the need to create some structure in retired life. Over time, however, blogging about the stage of my life and career —I am “demi” retired—became less interesting than writing about the pleasures and occasional frustrations of everyday life in general. Another way of putting this is that while time marches on, life around you, if you allow it to, also becomes more interesting, more stimulating, and even a tad freer… and age, in fact, matters less and less. 

Lost… and found

I promised to let you know.

After writing yesterday’s blogpost, I went about my business for an hour or so, texted my cousin Liz that I’d had no luck so far, then sat down to do something or other.  I’d bothered St. Anthony enough for one day, so I tried to distract myself with some last-minute online shopping. 

Not five minutes into the shopping trip, an image began to coalesce in my head. I was upstairs, in one of the guest rooms, moving things around in the closet so that my cousins could use it. I picked up the bin that held my summer shoes (espadrilles!) and put it down in the far corner of the closet. Then, miraculously, the Aha! moment:  I realized that the books were in that closet. I’d checked the closet at least three times before, of course, but always the shelves,  never the floor, in that corner.

I bounded up the stairs, turned on the closet light, and picked up the bin. And there they were: two copies of Tony’s Wife. One to give, one to keep for myself.

Ah, sweet relief! I had not lost my mind. St. Anthony had not failed me. Liz, who the night before had said, “You’ll find them tomorrow,” was right. 

Plus, and no small accomplishment this, the bookshelves were dust-free.

Life is good.

Note: If you want to read more about why I love Adriana Trigiani’s books so much, read this post from last year.

The Tale of the Missing Macaroni Stick

Note: This post actually isn’t about books (see the photo) or the macaroni stick. It’s about what happens when we lose things. And find them. Or not. 

My mother’s macaroni stick, I am convinced, was enchanted. With it she created flawless “homemades” and ravioli, holiday after holiday, year after year. She made her last batch of ravioli for Easter, just a few months before she passed at 88.

Even though I don’t have the skill or patience to stretch and whip the dough over that long dowel my father crafted for her, I made my claim to the macaroni stick very clear. Eventually, it passed into my hands.

Imagine my horror, then, a few years ago, when I couldn’t find it anywhere. There were many long months when just the thought of it provoked near hysteria. I summoned St. Anthony, over and over. I sent Facebook messages and texts to friends and relatives asking if I’d loaned it to them. I tore the house apart. I looked in incredulous places. I pouted. I cried. I drove my poor husband crazy.  

Then, a year or more after I realized that the macaroni stick was missing, I found it. In the very back of my baking cabinet, behind my rolling pin, as I reached for a pie plate. It had been there all along, of course. I cried again, this time out of happiness and relief. Too bad I’d wasted so much time mired in grief and guilt, so much time feeling stupid and careless, when  all along, it had been in its rightful place. There’s a moral there, somewhere.

Now I have a new lost-but-not-found tale. Just after Thanksgiving, I ordered several books: Louise Penny’s latest (and boy, is it stunning!), Kingdom of the Blind, plus three copies of Adriana Trigiani’s new release, Tony’s Wife. I laid these books aside for a week because we were about to have guests (you’ll hear about our elves in another post) and didn’t think about it again until the house had emptied out. I devoured Kingdom of the Blindand wrapped one copy of Tony’s Wifeto ship for Christmas. Then I went looking for the other two. 

I thought I’d put them in a shopping bag of presents to wrap, but when I emptied the bag… no books. I went to the bookshelves, thinking I’d jammed them into an empty space… no books. I went upstairs to the guest bedrooms, where I typically stash Christmas paraphernalia and gifts bought ahead of time… no books. I tore through every empty drawer and both guest closets… no books. 

Today, I’m dusted the bookshelves, at my cousin/my elf Liz’s suggestion. Sadly, no luck. zLi is joining me in entreaties to St. Anthony, in whom I normally have a lot of well-documented confidence. I’m not as hysterical as I was over the macaroni stick, which is priceless and irreplaceable in so many ways. After all, I can replace these books with one click. Still, I’m preoccupied and frustrated. The bigger problem is that when something like this happens, you a) become obsessive and b) start to think you’re crazy. I’m hoping the latter is not the case. Did I mention that I’m also   ripping mad that I haven’t been able to read Tony’s Wife yet?

There are often happy endings to such stories. Consider the macaroni stick. I’m reminded of an Austrian friend who every year made the most sensational Viennese pastries and Christmas cookies. Because her husband and two sons would have devoured them long before the holiday, she did all her baking when no one was around and carefully hid batch after batch. The hiding place changed from year to year. Then one year, a week or so before the holiday, she set out to retrieve the precious sweets and had hidden them so well that she couldn’t find them. A year later, as she was preparing for Christmas, she discovered all those luscious treats, untouched in their tins. 

I’ll let you know if I find the books.

Ramp up to Turkey Day

I woke to this early AM text:
I’m supposed to be brining the bird right now. Know what I’m doing? Playing solitaire on the computer! What’s wrong with me?

Apart from a good chuckle, that text reassured me (as I did its author), that I’m not the only one who bogs down in the hoopla of this holiday week. I’m not a runner, but if I were, on the day before Thanksgiving, I would be somewhere in the last miles of the Boston marathon, with the Newton Hills just ahead. Preparing for Thanksgiving always feels that way. The push always comes at the end.

First off, let me say, unequivocally, that Thanksgiving is a lovely, tradition rich holiday, with a more reasonable expectation level and a much shorter “to do” list than Christmas. But Thanksgiving dinner, though not difficult, isn’t my favorite meal to prepare. Theoretically, you can do the prep, bake the pies, and—assuming those TV cooks are correct—even mash the potatoes ahead of time (which I don’t). Still, a lot has to happen at the last minute if you want everything to be hot and on the table at the same time.

Before you commiserate too much, let me confess. First of all, I’m an only, and Hubby’s brothers and their families are at opposite ends of the East Coast. Our stepsons and their families are scattered, too. Our Thanksgiving Dinner is very small by most people’s standards. On occasion we do have an additional guest, but mostly, it’s my 95-year-old godmother and another relative who was widowed a few years ago. My kids tell me they like the fact that we always make sure these two have a place to go for Thanksgiving and Christmas. That makes me smile.

Second, I’m very lucky to have a daughter who’s a trained chef, a son who’s a fine cook, and a Hubby whose mashed potatoes are always perfect. I happily cede control of the kitchen to them as necessary on Thanksgiving and other major holidays. (Note: I had to learn to do that!)

Third, I don’t gild the lily. Thanksgiving is an extremely heavy, carbohydrate-laden meal; I don’t see the need for appetizers, dinner rolls, additional sides, or extra fancy desserts.

Given that we have only one oven, it’s important to be organized and to do what I can ahead of time—the TV cooks are right about that. Last night I made the cranberry sauce and cooked and strained the butternut squash* for pie filling. I’ve made these from scratch for as long as I’ve had my own kitchen and don’t see any need to resort to canned. As you may have read in my last blog post, the applesauce is defrost in the fridge, as is the chicken stock for the stuffing.

Today I’ll make the apple and the squash pies and prepare the vegetables for the stuffing and relish tray. On Thanksgiving morning, my son, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, will put the stuffing together and my daughter will take charge of the turkey** that she’s brined in salt water and apple cider. She’s also made the turkey stock for the gravy. She’s been gardening the last several years and always provides the corn for the  corn pudding. There’s no green bean casserole on our table; our green vegetable is usually brussels sprouts,  served more or less au naturel. In the Italian tradition, the relish tray always includes fennel. I usually make the gravy. My son whips the cream from grass-fed cows at Apple Valley Creamery in Adams County, PA. It’s so thick you could almost whip it with a fork.

And, simple though it may be, that’s our dinner. Now that I’ve written it all down, it really doesn’t seem so daunting.

Whether you’re in the US celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow, or you are elsewhere in the world, I wish you every blessing. We all have much to be thankful for, don’t we?

*Our preference over pumpkin.
**For the last few years, my daughter has bought us a beautiful heritage breed Naragansett turkey at Snouts and Sprouts in Chester County, PA. I can tell you that the flavor and texture bear no resemblance to a typical grocery store bird. If you have access to a farm that produces naturally raised birds, you should explore the option.

‘Scratch’ applesauce

It’s a great thing that so many young cooks are taking up the “fresh and from scratch” cause. Some of the best recipes and tips I’ve found in food blogs have come from folks with far less “kitchen history” than my own. All that being said, I can’t for the life of me understand why more home cooks don’t make their own applesauce. It takes far less time than baking a batch of cookies. With a good mix of fall apples, the flavor (and color) will be far superior to anything you’ll find on a supermarket shelf. Probably cheaper, too.

My mother always made her own applesauce. I’ve done the same. In fact, it was one of my babies’ first solids foods. I use only fall apples and never add sugar. Mix up your apples and Mother Nature will provide all the sweetness that you need.

If you’re expecting a “recipe,” forget it—I don’t have one. But I will share the method with you.

Go to your local orchard or farm market. Everything tastes better when it’s local. Read the “best use” labels on the available varieties. Look for a sweet/tart flavor and apples that are well suited to cooking. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. My mix this time included Braeburn, Gala, Stayman, Cortland, and Jonathan. I would have liked Pink Lady for the color, but none were available that day at the farm market. (Note that mixing it up works well for pie or crisp, too.)

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You need two pieces of kitchen equipment: a big kettle with a lid and a food mill. Mine is a Mouli, but that wonderful, old-fashioned kitchen staple, the Foley, works equally well. Note that with both blenders and food processors, it’s too easy to reduce the applesauce to mush. Unless you’re making baby food, I don’t recommend them.

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Wash the apples. I core them, too, but if you’re using a food mill, you really don’t have to. If you’ve managed to find apples grown organically or with minimal intervention, don’t peel them—the skin will provide color and added flavor. You can halve or quarter them or even leave them whole. The only effect that bigger pieces will have is to lengthen the cooking time.

Put the apples in the kettle with a few inches of water. The goal is to prevent scorching without making the consistency watery. Cover and cook on low to medium heat, watching them carefully and  stirring several times to assure that nothing sticks. As you stir, you will see the apples begin to soften. Cooking time will vary depending on how full the pot is and how big your pieces are, but don’t “stew” them to the point of mush—they should keep their shape. I cooked about eight good-size apples; the total cooking time was less than 20 minutes.

When they’re done, let them cool a bit. Put your food mill over a bowl large enough to perch it securely and begin feeding spoonfuls of apples through. As you turn the mill, it will press the sauce through and leave the skins. Clean the skins from the mill periodically if you’re doing a large batch. This takes ten minutes or less.

Applesauce freezes beautifully. If you make a large batch, plan to enjoy some immediately, then cool and pack the reminder into freezer containers. I filled a large one for a family dinner and several smaller ones that are just the right size for the two of us. I also add applesauce to the Thanksgiving table for guests who don’t like cranberry sauce. I make that from scratch, too, and for me, it may be the best part of the dinner.

Santa, if you’re listening, here’s suggestion number two: Yankee Magazine editor Amy Traverso’s  The Apple Lover’s Cookbook.

 

The baguette experiment

It’s fall, and I’m back to making bread. I know I’m like a repeating decimal when it comes to the joys of home-baked bread, but few activities in the kitchen give me as much pleasure. l love the pungent smell of yeasty dough bubbling under the light at the back of the stove as much as the aroma the whole house seems to take on when there’s a loaf in the oven.

Not that it isn’t a fun and wonderful appliance, but there’s never been a bread machine in my kitchen. My KitchenAid is well worn after 20 years, but the dough hook is like new. I’d much rather mix with a dough whisk and knead by hand. Getting your hands in a ball of bread dough is a one-of-a-kind experience… it starts out all warm and sticky, and then, as you work it, becomes as smooth and soft as that proverbial baby’s bottom.

I’m no expert, for sure… just a home cook and baker. My end product is never perfectly beautiful—I leave perfection to the professionals—but is always made with love and is usually pretty darn good. Making bread is an adventure, every time, and you’re never 100% certain of where you’ll end up. For as much as any method or recipe can be pronounced “tried and true,” there’s always the possibility that something—undetected moisture in the flour, yeast that has lost a bit of its punch, or, heaven forbid, baker’s error—will throw you off your game. Delightfully, the opposite is equally true:  sometimes your results far exceed your expectations. Hence, this post.

Asked to bring bread to a harvest party last month, I decided to make baguettes. This bold stroke was uncharacteristically risky on my part, but I’d just gotten back from our annual pilgrimage to the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Store in Norwich, Vermont, with a specially designed baguette pan and KAF French-Style Flour. To increase the yield for the party, as well as to experiment a bit, I made two batches of slow-rise dough, one using the recipe on the French-Style Flour package, and the second using a KAF recipe made entirely with all-purpose flour.

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The loaves made only with all-purpose flour. Note that they are puffier.

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The loaves made with the French Style Flour, which for me most approximated a true baguette.

I was absolutely thrilled with the results, and so were the guests. I couldn’t imagine that these crusty loaves, with a lovely open crumb,  were produced in my own kitchen, and with so little effort. Both recipes turned out well, but if I were forced to vote for one, it would be the baguettes made with the French-Style Flour; for me, they were un vrai petit gout de France. The only change I’d make next would be to slightly reduce the salt, which is simply a matter of personal taste. Most of the magic, however, was probably in that marvelous pan, which allows the heat to circulate all around the loaves.

So many things have made home bread baking easier these days. Specialty flours and better quality yeast (SAF is my go-to, always), baking stones and cloches, a myriad of well-researched techniques, and innovations like the KAF baguette pan— all of these have built my confidence and continue to improve my results. A failure once in a while—and we can all claim them—isn’t much of a loss. Just learn and move on…and if you have questions, call the KAF Baker’s Hotline. It’s a treasure.

By the way, KAF makes this same pan for Italian loaves. Santa, are you listening????

 

What I did this summer

I’ve been erratic about writing these last few months. That tendency, to be erratic, is probably one reason why I’m never likely to write the Great American Novel. Serious writers, in my experience, are highly disciplined and highly routinized—and that’s never been quite my cup of tea.

First of all, I probably ate too much ice cream, at Leo’s in Carlisle, PA. But if you had a taste of this luscious stuff, you probably would have indulged too much, too.

Save for a single weekend getaway—a reunion with some dear friends in Annapolis— we’ve spent summer at home. Considering that time with our precious Miss Puppy turned out to be so limited, I am very glad that we were home with her. Still, going into fall, everything feels a bit… fractured… which is a good word to describe today’s post.

I’ve been reading steadily, but after Frances Mayes’ masterful Women in Sunlight, everything has fallen short and—excepting my foray into Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie stories—has seemed way too sad. Thus, I’m really looking forward to Adriana Trigiani’s newest, Tony’s Wife, due in November. If you don’t know her writing, and you love a beautifully told story that is poignant and warm and always rings true—just as she does—you’ll want to put it on your reading list. See my previous post about her and her website, adrianatrigiani.com, where you can also read about the wonderful, life-changing Origin Project.

In the garden, the extraordinary amounts of rain have resulted in huge growth spurts for our shrubs and trees. For the first time in years, thanks to my daughter, we have tomato plants. I’ve rediscovered their unique scent and decided that, fo me, it’s the quintessential smell of summer.

 

There was quality time with kids, grands, cousins, and girlfriends—long walks, a picnic, visits to nearby gardens (one the work of fairies, as you can see in the cover photo), and an alpaca farm.

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For entertainment, we finished the six seasons of Republic of Doyle. I can’t tell you how much we enjoyed this tightly written, sometimes hysterically funny nail-biter. The Doyles are father-son private investigators who get themselves and their entire family into all sorts of hair-rising trouble. The series was shot on location in Newfoundland, with fabulous ensemble acting headlined by Allan Hawco and Sean McGinley. All six seasons are available on Netflix although you can catch the first four on Acorn. Another winning Acorn series is Rake, starring Richard Roxburghan Australian series about a brilliant criminal defense attorney who is, to say the least, his own worst enemy. You will laugh copiously at this one. Both shows, by the way, have great soundtracks, and—like many other out-of-country programming—are better by leaps and bounds than 90% of typical US TV offerings.

In the kitchen, I’ve been determined to get out of my comfort zone. My next-door-neighbor Jamie joined me to try this zucchini galette, a King Arthur Flour recipe you’ll find here. It was a huge hit and went together in a flash.

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And that’s what I did this summer.

Just a note… I have always provided links to books via Amazon because it’s convenient and worldwide. After this post, however, I will be concentrating more on direct links to author pages and independent booksellers. Amazon has gotten way too big for my taste.  I’d rather support the writers themselves, or the “little shop around the corner”.  

 

 

 

Farewell, sweet friend

Cover photo: Miss Pup with her beau Rocko, who crossed the bridge earlier this year. 

Many hearts were broken just after midnight on August 23, when Miss Puppy’s sweet little heart—which was at least as big as Texas—just gave up.

Everyone lucky enough to have a loving dog understands intellectually that by human standards, their time with you is short. Pup was fourteen—she’d been with us for eleven of those years. We knew that she was slowing down, but she was still full of life. Then, in barely more than a week, she was gone. Although  grateful that she was saved the pain of a lengthy illness, we were shellshocked. Losing a pet we love, it turns out, isn’t much different from losing a person we love, as science has substantiated. Nor is it much easier.

Our kids, our extended family, our friends and neighbors, and all of the others Miss Pup encountered in her travels have felt the loss, too. Suddenly, the whole rhythm of our daily lives changed. Suddenly, we were out walking by ourselves…. no sweet Pup to nudge me out of bed at 6:30, then curl up on my pillow for another half hour’s sleep, or to take Hubby’s pillow till he came to bed…. no happy, smiling Pup in Hubby’s lap, being toweled off after her bath…. no crazy barking  when the doorbell rang…. no need to say, “Be a good girl, Pup. Eat your crunchies!”

Miss Puppy could hear me peeling a carrot  from anywhere in the house. Broccoli and green beans, cantaloupe and apples, peaches and pears—she loved her veggies and fruits and the crumbs of toast I shared with her in our morning ritual.

She was naturally, marvelously, curious, which is why she was Miss Puppy Clouseau. Her vocabulary was hug. Her Aunt Sue and Aunt Sue, when  providing her periodic “vacation spa getaways,” introduced her to shopkeepers around town and taught her to “look both ways” at corners and pick out her own treat at the Agway. When one of the Sues was interviewed by a local TV station, Miss Pup joined her in the shot, turning her head to the camera and then back at Sue right on cue. She loved rides in the country to see her “friends”—alpacas, goats, sheep, cows, horses—anything on four legs got her attention.

She made us smile, every hour of every day.

IMG_3775Miss Pup at her most regal… she owned every chair in the house.

IMG_0833She loved her shopping trips, probably because she got so much attention.

IMG_0054Checking out her favorite goats.

IMG_1479She owned the bed, too.

IMG_2924Woofer time!

Halloween fun and games with Aunt Sue.

IMG_1555Sunning herself on the green on an early spring day.

IMG_2913Where’s that toast?

IMG_1019Her seat on the patio, properly cushioned for her comfort.

IMG_2857.JPGOne of our very first photos of her… she was about three.

Note to my readers: Thank you for indulging me. I have tried to write this post for days, thinking that it would help us through the grieving process. I continue to be dissatisfied with every iteration—with every word, in fact—but I do feel a bit better now. On to the next task of honing down hundreds of pictures to make “a book of Pup.”