Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Afternoon Tea

I love any excuse to have friends over and to use my flying turkey dishes, and a Saturday afternoon tea seemed to achieve both ends. It was a gorgeous day, with plenty of warm sunlight streaming through my living room windows. Since Halloween was just around the corner, I used my existing Halloween decor to complement a menu inspired by fall flavors.
The table all set for tea. You can see the gorgeous sunlight pouring through the windows, warming the entire room!
I hand-wrote invitations, using stationery from a supply that overflows a drawer of my console. (I'm very guilty of always buying stationery and never actually writing anything by hand.) I rummaged through my hutch and cabinets to find all the serving pieces I would need to make a pretty tabletop display, so no special purchases needed. 

The Menu: 
  • Pound cake with vanilla honey butter and pumpkin butter
  • Ginger-molasses cookies
  • Cinnamon-chip scones with maple glaze
  • Pumpkin mini-cupcakes with cream cheese frosting
  • Pumpkin blondies with caramel filling (find the recipe at Tasty Kitchen)


Of course, a tea party is not a tea party without tea. Aveda's Comfort Tea is a fantastic brew for the tea-averse. It's naturally sweet with a hint of peppermint, and therefore doesn't require sugar or milk. Another pantry staple is Earl Grey; a traditional black tea whose flavors work beautifully with the spicy sweetness of the tea treats. To change things up, I also brewed a batch of my Southern sweet iced tea, using Tazo Wild Sweet Orange tea as the base. 

To make space for teacups, saucers, stemware, and the teas, I pressed my living room console table into service. I covered the potholders used to protect the surface of the console from heat with a square of black velveteen used in my Halloween decor. It's probably a little un-chic to use silver teakettles and not teapots for service, but the silver finish of the kettles did work well with my silver mercury-glass votives, candlesticks, and painted pumpkins!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Baking Inventory


I have no idea what possessed me to spend part of a gorgeous Saturday morning sitting on my kitchen floor with a notebook, but that's exactly what I did last weekend.

I'm notorious for going to the grocery store, armed with a grocery list, and nonetheless ending up wandering down the Baking aisle looking for ingredients. I could happily stare at the spice display for a good 10 minutes if given the opportunity. The grocery list does little to prevent me from picking up extra baking staples, and since I've been on the short end of the wooden spoon so many times in my cooking, I always pick up the odd ingredient that I think might be missing in my cabinet. 

The result of this aimless wandering and guessing is multiples of many of my favorite spices. And of course my favorites are the expensive ones, the ones that make you cringe as they are scanned at the checkout. Since my baking season will be kicking into high gear in the next two weeks, I thought that taking an inventory now would prevent over-buying on the wrong ingredients later. 

So I took my time and went through my spice rack and cabinet shelves to take a full inventory of my baking supplies. How many jars of ginger do I have? How many bags of chocolate chips? Do I have cake flour, bread flour, and all-purpose flour? Everything was noted on notebook pages and taped to the inside of my cabinet door. Lest anything should be buried on a top shelf or behind a taller package, I now know exactly what I have on hand at a glance. Multiples of any items were tallied, and when I go through one I can mark the tally off.

Cabinet organized and ready for the season ahead

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Achieving Creepy While Avoiding the Cheesy


I love Fall, and really love Halloween. The old tales of All Hallows swirl in my head, conjuring up images of ancient feasts, consuming fires, dry leaves blowing free of their branches, and mystery lurking at every nightfall. There is so much inspiration around every corner....the creak of wind against the windowpanes, lengthening shadows, harvest moonlight, and an abundance of harvest produce. 

Unfortunately, so many commercially-made items for Halloween teeter on the abyss of tacky. While day-glo orange plastic jack-o-lanterns are great for trick-or-treating and large black plastic spiders do their job admirably, my tastes are a little more subtle. 

So when I moved into my current apartment, I wanted to find sophisticated and spooky decor that reflected my love of the holiday. Below are some of my favorite finds:

 Ravens. It's amazing how a few well-placed ravens can lend to an eerie atmosphere. I found these specimens at a Michael's store a few years ago for only a few dollars apiece. They perch at the top of my hutch, on top of a lamp, or in the arms of my chandelier.

Cheesecloth. Instead of using the spider webbing found at almost any discount store, I shred cheesecloth to make my own old-fashioned webs. I like the finished product better, and I drape it everywhere: the tops of bookcases, mirrors, picture frames, lampshades, etc.
 
Pumpkins. It doesn't matter their color, shape, or size; natural or faux; I place pumpkins all over my apartment. I have gorgeous cream-colored wax pumpkins from Pottery Barn on my kitchen shelves. I found silver pumpkins at Michael's and placed them on my ever-present silver candlesticks (below). In past years I've glittered pie pumpkins in purple and black. And of course I always pick one perfect specimen for carving (like last year's jack-o-lantern, above).
 
Bones. I found some cheap plastic skeletons at Oriental Trading Company a few years ago for our annual Halloween party. Inspired by a project in Martha Stewart Living, I glittered a few of the bones and presented them on a big silver platter. Add a few mercury glass votives, and voila! Instant display.


Lanterns. Flickering candlelight creates perfect ambiance every time. I have a few black metal lanterns and I place black pillar candles inside them. There's something about the complete darkness of the lantern and candle illuminated only by a flame that looks so wonderfully spooky.

 



Feather wreaths. While not a find per se, they are one of my favorite Halloween decorations. I had to make these wreaths myself because the inspiration for them was way too expensive. I wrapped wire wreath forms with inexpensive feather boas (easy to find in the costume section at discount stores!) and topped it all off with orange ribbon. They look great hanging in my living room windows, and even look a little creepy when the radiators are blowing the feathers about.





Sunday, August 28, 2011

Memories: Grandma's House

Fall is coming and it inevitably brings with it memories of my grandparents' house. The house was emptied and sold several years ago, but we all have fond, intense feelings for the old rambler tucked into the treeline. Here are some of my most vivid memories, finally put to paper. 
On the south end of my home town, in the hazy borderland between the end of town and the beginning of the farmland, was my grandmother’s house. It was nestled deep from the road, protected by giant maples. Curious remnants of the past dotted grandma and grandpa’s lawn, lending it a somehow exciting and mysterious quality. A large cement frog, ridden by generations of children, squatted near the head of the driveway. A formerly white-painted curlicue metal headboard parked itself on the border between lawn and wood. The remains of an outdoor cooktop, built of limestone, crumbled behind the screen porch like a Roman ruin. 

It was among these buildings and monuments that we played for hours and hours. We would sit on the bank of the culvert next to the highway and wave to departing weekenders. We would play tag on the lawn. Sometimes we’d just lie on the thick grass, slowly pulling individual blades out without breaking them and tying knots in dandelions. My cousin and I would tell cruel stories to our younger siblings about Indians (politically incorrect, I know) that lived in the woods behind the house and loved stealing children. We’d go as far as making “Indian noises,” singing out a note and quickly tapping our hands on and off our mouths, sending them scampering into the house. We might have acted tough about the very real possibility of children-stealers living in the woods behind grandma’s, but all of us still closed the shutters of the bathroom window that faced the woods. It was too much of a risk to leave those shutters open, in the event we look out and see a face peering back. 

Inside was a warm, pulsing, cocoon. It always smelled like dinner was in the oven, mixed with faint scents of spicy cinnamon and clove. Most rooms had gleaming knotty pine walls and low, curiously wallpapered, ceilings. The kitchen and utility room also had pine cabinetry, with little black iron latches that never seemed to stay closed. Grandma layered heavy braided rugs and rag rugs on top of the floors and carpets, inevitably slowing any toy on wheels. Down a narrow little hallway, complete with novel little nook for a telephone, were the bathroom and grandma and grandpa’s bedrooms. Grandpa’s room seemed off limits, cowboy paintings and portraits of Boston bulldogs warily watching you when you entered.  Grandma’s room was utterly feminine, with its floral wool rug, her large collection of celluloid scattered about her bureau, and dozens of family photographs covering every flat surface. Her nubby matelassé bedspread always stretched tautly across her ancient bed, and her translucent eyelet café curtains perfectly accented the windows.

Grandma’s furnishings were a carefully curated collection any antique aficionado would appreciate.  Heavy wood furniture, placed in toe-stubbing increments, swallowed her living areas whole. Every seat had an accompanying end table, commode, console, coffee table, or plant stand. Layered on top of or next to these tables were lamps, many of them converted gas lamps. Stacked next to or under these lamps was grandma's extensive collection of Country Living and House Beautiful magazines. As the sun sank lower, the house was plunged into dimness and grandma would perfunctorily go about the house, turning on every lamp and chandelier. She would then disappear into the kitchen while no one was paying attention and get to work on dinner. 

Dinner on Sunday night was an unstoppable occurrence, like a train whose only duty was to arrive by 6 PM. The kitchen always smelled wonderful, one hotdish or another baking in the oven. Iceberg salad was compiled into the navy-checkered melamine bowl, crudités and sliced ham were plattered, bakery buns sliced and dropped into a basket lined with paper towel.  A procession of salad dressings, cans of soda, cartons of milk, tubs of butter, and the famous Tupperware container of dill pickle chips made its way to the large dining table. As grandma worked at a frenetic pace in the kitchen, floursack towel draped over her shoulder, we grabbed stacks of her Blue Willow and set the table. My cousin and I would often offer to set the table, if only to eat dill pickles out of the olive-green plastic container by the handful while doing so.

She always said that “it wasn’t much,” but it was always so much more than enough. Every food group was dutifully present, and the table was not complete without salt, pepper, butter, slices of Italian bread, and her little margarine-tub of plastic ice cube balls for our drinks. When it was a smaller group we all crowded around the dining table, elbow to elbow on caned chairs. When it was a larger group we spilled over to the living room, grandma getting out painted tv trays for the occasion. After the kitchen was meticulously scrubbed, dishes washed and put away, and every extra bite of leftovers accounted for and stowed in the refrigerator, dessert surfaced. With a large family like ours it was almost always someone’s birthday, which meant grandma’s angel food cake covered in her deliciously sticky boiled frosting. She recycled the birthday candles year to year, carefully rinsing them and putting them back in their box when finished.  Boxes of ice cream, cans of Hershey’s syrup, and a fresh pot of coffee always rounded out the end of dinnertime. 

Curling up on the big scratchy sofa, "60 Minutes" or "The Wonderful World of Disney" playing softly on the television,  we would drift on and off into sleep. Sometimes I would lie on grandma's red velvet settee, flipping her heavily-embroidered cushions so I could press my face into the cool silky backside. Everyone was mellow and quieter, the big grandfather clock ticking closer to bedtime. Mom and dad would miraculously get our coats on our limp bodies and herd us into the cool evening for the short drive home. And so ended another night at grandma's, just one of hundreds we were lucky enough to say we had together over the years.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Panca-holics, No Longer Anonymous

This morning I made the most delicious basic pancakes that have ever graced my griddle. I woke up with a serious craving for pancakes, and when that craving strikes it is best to succumb to it. I never regret giving in to pancakes. 

I'm admittedly a pancake junkie...anytime, anywhere, I will be there with syrup. It's not just "plain" pancakes....it's blueberry and pumpkin and gingerbread and a host of other flavors. And then there are the toppings. Oh, heaven help me, the toppings are the icing on the cake. Maple syrup. Butter. Hot caramel sauce. Whipped cream. Berries. Apple butter. Chocolate chips. I could go on forever. Below is my new-found love, courtesy of allrecipes.com:

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons white vinegar
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted

Directions

  1. Combine milk with vinegar in a medium bowl and set aside for 5 minutes to "sour".(Manna Cakes' note: the milk is going to look really lumpy and gross. That's exactly how it is supposed to look, I promise!)
  2. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Whisk egg and butter into "soured" milk. Pour the flour mixture into the wet ingredients and whisk until lumps are gone.
  3. Pour 1/4 cupfuls of batter onto a preheated skillet or griddle, and cook until bubbles appear on the surface. Flip with a spatula, and cook until browned on the other side.
Just about ready to flip: a pancake should have dry edges and bubbles forming on the surface before flipping

So delicious. It's a wonder I didn't pull them off the griddle with my fingers and start eating them plain!



 Here are a few other of my all-time favorite pancake recipes:

Pumpkin Pancakes (Better Homes & Gardens)  (slather these babies in pumpkin butter or macerated cranberries that have been simmered with a little sugar and water)
Pannekaken (allrecipes.com) (It's a French thing to slather Nutella on a crepe, but I promise you that a Norwegian pancake will accept Nutella just as readily!)
Lemon Blueberry Pancakes (The Pioneer Woman) (I adore PW, and her postings are like food porn. Please make these sometime, they will change your life. I didn't even care for blueberries until I tried them this way.)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Too Hot to Cook

The last several weeks I've been traveling across the country for work, leaving me little free time at home and in the kitchen. It figures that about the time I get home we start to experience the quintessential Minnesota summer:  heat, humidity, and the onslaught of blood-drinking mosquitoes. 

Since it really is too hot to cook, and I'd much rather keep cool on the couch with an icy drink in my hand, here are a few more of my summertime photographs. Maybe photography (in the loosest sense of the word) is inadvertently becoming a new hobby for me!

Sophie, whose full name is Sophia Lauren. My amazingly beautiful (but amazingly stupid) Siamese.

Sam, aka Tank. She had thrown herself to the floor, rolling on her back, protesting the fact I hadn't picked her up

An afternoon at Minnehaha Park, one of the prettiest places in Minneapolis. This is the famous falls

It was such a hot day, but the mist was refreshing!

Traipsing along the paths in the park, we came across this bowed tree

It just goes to show....

...That even nature's most humble subjects can be absolutely beautiful

Minnehaha creek

It is not a Midwestern summer without severe thunderstorms. This came at us like a shot, moving nearly 60 miles per hour

It's hard to tell, but there were two parallel layers of clouds, both rotating in opposite directions

The farm field behind our house became the breeding ground for dirt devils, or small cyclones that aren't fully formed

A panorama of the incoming storm, looking north. This same storm wreaked havoc on my brother's cabin and caused much damage in the area

My niece, known as Brown Bear in the summer. She loves hamming it up for the camera!

Brown Bear and my sister, after a long day of swimming and boating

Saturday, June 11, 2011

My Summer Kickoff

After an inordinately long winter and a negligible spring, the arrival of Memorial weekend and the promise of summer was anxiously awaited. On these long summer weekends I leave any cares back in town and head to my Dad's house. It is often described as our "little house on the prairie," because it really is just that. It sits in the quiet farm country of western Wisconsin and is small, comfortable, and boasts a cedar porch that spans the entire front of the house. My sister and I love bringing friends home to this house, where we spend the time barefoot, eating plenty of food, and playing games on the rolling lawn. There is no agenda, and nothing is too serious, too planned. Days are meandering and lazy, and a "night out" includes a trip to the brewpub on main street and a campfire once the sun finally goes down.

The purpose of my blog is to talk about my cooking adventures and things I like to do around my apartment, but Memorial Day weekend was meant to be the opposite of that; it was about not really cooking and not really doing anything of any importance. So, I'll just show you what I did (or didn't) do with my Memorial weekend. 

This is what I see when I sit in my favorite rocking chair on Dad's porch

Look left and there's the rest of the porch. The clouds rolling in herald the coming storm

My favorite "room"....feet up with something to read. It's my little piece of heaven on earth

Admiring the petunias going to town in the hanging baskets

The color is so vibrant!

I captured through the front screen door my sister's roommate's cat Lily, another weekend guest, sprawled out on the kitchen floor

Geraniums in the big urns at the end of the porch, sheltered from the spring downpour

English ivy, complete with raindrops. So pretty

Unattended phones and cameras often end up with surprise pictures. My youngest sister and her friend taking advantage of the opportunity

My sister lives in flip flops nearly year-round....that is, when she's not barefoot...

The sun sets, and we get the fire started. I dragged my adirondack chair from the front yard and staked my spot

Dad brings more kindling from the woodshed, and Shep gallops toward me in excitement

I think he's content to just sit by the campfire and absorb the heat too

What good is a campfire without s'mores fixin's? We took a walk on the wild side and tried strawberry marshmallows

The profile of Shep in the faint glow of the fire

The fire slowly burns down...

We're sticky, warm, content, and smell of pine-y campfire smoke. And now it is time for bed.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Unsung Heroes of the Pantry

While reading on The Pioneer Woman website today, (if you don't know about PW yet, you are missing out. Go read about her life on the prairie as soon as possible....after you finish reading this humble entry, of course.) I discovered that she and I share a love of Nielsen Massey Madagascan vanilla paste. This sparked an idea...what other ingredients do I have in my kitchen that take my cooking to a whole new level? Here are some of my Manna Cakes approved, tried-and-true kitchen staples.
                                          

1) Saigon cinnamon. I add cinnamon to a host of dishes and baked goods, and recently discovered the magic of Saigon cinnamon. Up until the holidays last year, I always thought the basic cinnamon in the grocery was good enough. In fact, I would often buy the bulk "value" cinnamon at the store, re-filling my spice jar as I went. I bought the bottle above in November, and as you can see, it has served me quite well. There are many good brands that use Saigon cinnamon, but please please try some. The scent alone tells you this cinnamon is different from run-of-the-mill varieties, and the taste is seriously like cinnamon in hi-def when all you've known your whole life is an antenna. And for dishes where cinnamon is the star, like cinnamon rolls, scones, and cookies, spending the extra dollar per jar of cinnamon is well worth it. 
2) King Arthur bread flour. It's long been the gold standard of professional bakers and grannies alike, and for good reason. If you want perfect crispy homemade pizza crusts and bread that is chewy on the outside and tender on the inside, look no further than King Arthur. It's a little more expensive than the bread flours produced by other popular brands, but if you want great bread every time, go with King Arthur. And don't forget to sift!
3) Fleur de Sel. Translated as "flower of salt," this is one of the most clean, pure tasting salts available. I've rhapsodized about fleur de sel before, and I'll gladly do it again. A jar is pricey (about $15 for the jar I bought), but a year's worth of fairly regular use has only made a small dent in the jar. Don't use it to salt water for pasta or in your baking; instead, sprinkle on steamed veggies, chocolate truffles, seared steaks, or anything that could use a savory crunch. Because of its large grains and the pure taste, you definitely don't need as much fleur de sel to brighten up your dish as standard table salt. 
4) California Olive Ranch extra virgin olive oil. Working for a Fortune 50 grocery retailer has its advantages, one of which is getting samples from vendors. Several months ago a few bottles of California Olive Ranch EVOO ended up on my desk, and I've been in love ever since. It smells and tastes so fresh, with none of the off-putting peppery aftertaste or even rancidity of other brands. I use it for searing meats, sauteing asparagus, and I even found an olive oil cake that showcases the nice flavor of this oil.
5) Nielsen Massey vanilla bean paste....the real black gold. I found this gem on Amazon last fall after reading about Nielsen Massey vanillas on a website. I've never been quite talented at slicing vanilla beans lengthwise and scraping out all of those tiny seeds, and this product takes all that hassle away. It measures teaspoon for teaspoon with vanilla extract, is supremely smooth and aromatic, and you get the added benefit of all those pretty little flecks of vanilla seeds. Like the cinnamon I mentioned above, I use this paste for baked goods where vanilla is the star. Just this week I added a tablespoon to my cream cheese frosting for cinnamon rolls, and I use it for sugar cookies, vanilla wafers, and vanilla cake. 

6) Cane sugar. There is plenty of debate over cane sugar versus beet sugar for baking, and I have to side with cane sugar. Don't be fooled--unless the package clearly states "cane sugar," it likely came from beets. The same also goes for brown sugar; cheaper brands will use a white beet sugar and basically coat it with a molasses additive. Yuck.  I don't necessarily notice a major difference between beet and cane white granulated sugar in my cookies and cakes (I guess my palate isn't refined enough!), but I do notice that beet sugar caramelizes differently during candy making. Therefore, when I embark on my labor-of-love caramel-making mission, I don't take any chances. Cane sugar it is. 
7) Black pepper grinder. Nothing fancy here, but the inside of my spice cabinet has not seen a tin of ground black pepper in years. Not only does this nifty little grinder let me select the size of my grind (large and crunchy, thank you very much!), but it guarantees every dish will have a fresh, well, peppery, flavor. With a grinder you'll never be disappointed by heat and time reducing the potency of the pepper, and therefore you'll end up using less.