Thursday, October 27, 2011

owl cookies

 I can assure you these are just as cute in person. They came into existence when my husband marched out holding a magazine and pointed to an owl cookie cutter saying- "You've got to make these!" A quick amazon search later and the cookie cutter was on it's way.

Rather than make a sugar cookie, I used Ina Garten's indefatigable shortbread cookie recipe. I have used it to make all manner of cookies and when the dough is chilled it keeps a clean edge (the better to showcase cookie design- nothing sadder than painstakingly cutting out cookies only to have them bake and spread into unidentifiable blobs.) To echo the almond feathers, I added almond extract in place of the traditional vanilla.

The icing is my old standby of powdered sugar, a smidgen of milk and assorted food colorings. I repeated the almond flavoring with a drop (and I literally mean a drop) of almond extract. The eyes are small dots of melted chocolate, the nose a trimmed up piece of candy corn.

I don't know what else to say except that in addition to be ridiculously adorable, these cookies are quite tasty. I consider this a triumph as so often overly decorated things look lovely, but end up tasting awful. (Even as a child I felt this way about decorating Christmas cookies- I knew that rows of red hots gave a gingerbread candy cane it's trademark stripes, but I also knew I would never want to eat a row after row of red hots.)

shortbread cookies

3/4 pound unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (here is where I substituted almond)
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

1) Preheat the oven to 350. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together the butter and 1 cup sugar until they are just combined. Add the vanilla.

2) In a medium bowl, sift together the flour and salt, then add them to the butter-sugar mixture. Mix on low speed until the dough starts to come together. Dump onto a surface dusted with flour and shape into a flat disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for 30 minutes.

3) Roll the dough 1/2 inch thick and cut with a 3 inch cutter. Place the cookies on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes (I think the owls took a little less time, keep an eye on them) until the edges begin to brown.

4) Allow to cool to room temperature.

5) Lay a light glaze of icing on the owl cookie base.
6) On the lower portion of the owl, "feather" with sliced almonds.
7) Add the candy corn nose and chocolate eyes.
8) Before moving cookies, allow the icing to dry completely. Admire adoringly.

Monday, October 24, 2011

book love- diversion vs. discovery

This past weekend I finished the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge. The writing is clean and patient, nothing feels rushed. The last page was so heartrending (and so true!) that it almost did me in.

A few months back, I read a very interesting piece by Michael Feeley Callan in Vanity Fair about the massive undertaking involved in the making of the film "All The Presidents Men." The films director, Alan Pakula, was said that at the time the film was made, "American theater per se was similar. We had a disproportionate interest in diversion therapy and too little interest in discovery." (Read the full piece here.)

This stuck with me and echoed around these past few months: diversion versus discovery. It made me think about the way that I consume entertainment and spend my time. In Olive Kitteridge, Strout writes, " was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered." It caused me to ask myself to begin to recognize whether I am using my time to divert myself or to discover- to create, to grow.

Please do not get me wrong- I completely value diversion. It is needed to stop me from obsessing or worrying over too much nonsense. When I wake up at 2am and cannot sleep because I am replaying some exchange from earlier in the day, I need to divert my mind just long enough to remember how exhausted I am. This is usually best accomplished with an episode of Friends. (I have this on a post it note next to my computer: "Worrying is the same thing as banging your head against the wall. It only feels good when you stop."- John Powers.)

However, what Pakula's quote taught me was to be cautious in my life when the balance of daily activities tips toward diversion- when I spend more minutes and hours trying to ignore the life around me than I do in engaging it, discovering it. If I too often feel the need to "escape" (through mindless entertainment, obsessive FB checking, Pinterist-ing the entire Remodelista site- you get the idea, define diversion for yourself), then it is a signal that I need to pause and start asking myself some questions.

The truth is, though, that true discovery genius in writing sneaks up. It appears to be diverting but ends up smacking us upside the head with a truth so powerful it takes our breath away. I have had a few reading experiences like that in my life and every time it happens I am shaken and yet so grateful. Reading Olive Kitteridge was like that for me. Bless the skills and insight of it's writer, Elizabeth Strout.

This makes me wonder- have you read a book lately that started off as a diversion but ended up helping you discover something new? I'd love to hear about it.

fall colors

I live in Southern California and fall shows up pretty late here. As I write this, the temperatures are in the high 70's and a balmy wind is ruffling the eucalyptus tree leaves outside my window. In October, tree leaves are likely to fall as much from being burnt crisp by the sun as from changing with the season.

I still love fall in So Cal and look for it's early signs.
The orangey-reds are prominent, but in different forms:
the last of the home grown tomatoes (to be oven roasted and layered on toasted bread brushed with mascarpone)
the first bag of mandarin oranges stacked on my red cake plate (to be tossed into work bags for breakfast)
and finally, pumpkins (to be roasted for bread, cookies, and pie).
What does fall look like for you?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

double chocolate cupcakes

Last year a friend gave me a Food Network desk calendar for Christmas. It's fun: each day I get a new recipe or food trick, etc. Occasionally, it declares a certain day "National Pie Day" or "National Coffee Day" (I tend to think everyday is National Coffee day.) Well, apparently this past Tuesday, 10/18, was National Chocolate Cupcake Day.

To celebrate, I share a very very chocolatey cupcake recipe: north douglas chocolate cupcake with chocolate buttercream frosting topped with chocolate ganache.
Yes, frosting on top of frosting.
Yes, chocolate on top of chocolate on top of chocolate.
This cupcake is nothing if not over the top but sometimes, that is all that will do.

double chocolate cupcakes

for the cupcakes:
follow the cake recipe here, except divide the batter into cupcake pans and bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes.
1st frosting: follow the recipe for north douglas chocolate buttercream.

for the ganache:
follow the ganache recipe from here.
2nd frosting: once the ganache is cool, then glaze over the buttercream frosted cupcakes.

Monday, October 17, 2011

sisters and soup

It is hard for me to write these things and not cry. I do not live near my sisters and sometimes I miss them so much it takes my breath away.

When I speak with friends with young daughters who routinely fight, steal each others clothes, and generally behave terribly towards one another, I tell them to take heart. These were all things my sisters and I did to one another and yet now I consider them my dearest friends. (I carry with me a great memory of an epic battle that ended when my mom walked in to find my older sister ripping buttons off my favorite shirt while I was smashing and scratching my sisters CDs. Yeah, we didn't mess around.)

We grew up eating homemade soup regularly- lentil, bean, split pea, oyster stew, halibut chowder, Chinese chicken noodle- these were some of our favorites. As little girls we loved soup so much, we used to talk endlessly about growing up and starting a restaurant called "Three Sisters Soup Kitchen."

Present day, my oldest sister always has a pot of Ina's lentil soup waiting for me when I get off the plane. I usually take an evening flight and after trekking around an airport and jostling with strangers, there is nothing more comforting than to sit down at her kitchen table to a bowl of this. I am amazed that in spite of the craziness of her week (my sister is a gifted critical care nurse) she always finds time to make me soup. We talk late into the night and continue the conversations of life- how to find meaning in work, our new favorite food ideas, learning to be kind to ourselves, and what item at J.Crew this season we cannot live without.

This soup is cozy and substantial and packs wonderful flavor with the addition of thyme and cumin.
I hope you share it with someone you love.
The recipe is from The Barefoot Contessa.

lentil vegetable soup

1 pound French green lentils*
4 cups chopped yellow onions (3 large onions)
4 cups chopped leeks, white part only (2 leeks)
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)
1/4 cup good olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3 cups medium diced celery (8 stalks)
3 cups medium diced carrots (4 to 6 carrots)
3 quarts chicken stock
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 tablespoons red wine or red wine vinegar
freshly grated parmesan cheese

1) In a large bowl, cover the lentils with boiling water and allow to sit for 15 minutes. Drain.

2) In a large stockpot on medium heat, saute the onions, leeks, and garlic with the olive oil, salt, pepper, thyme, and cumin for 20 minutes, until the vegetables are translucent and very tender.

3) Add the celery and carrots and saute for 10 more minutes. Add the chicken stock, tomato paste, and lentils. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for one hour, until the lentils are cooked through.

4) Check the seasonings. Add the red wine and serve hot, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with grated parmesan.

*When I make this, I use regular lentils. My sister loves me and therefore takes the time to find the fancy French lentils.
*My sister also adds 1 lb. sliced kielbasa. The smoky flavor is perfect with lentils.
*I have been known to substitute small cubes of butternut squash for the carrots. I think the sweetness of the squash is very good here.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


I just finished reading Marisa del los Santos' novel, Falling Together. She is my favorite current writer and I highly anticipated her latest work. It was just lovely. Even now, days later, I find myself musing over passages.

One of my favorite sentences: "Isn't it as though that rice field satisfies some little piece of your soul that's been waiting for that specific shade of green all your life, without your knowing it?" I love that idea of stumbling into amazement with something, of being startled by color in nature.

The description of green reminded me of some images I captured from a visit this past summer to Yosemite.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

snickerdoodle cupcakes

These are beyond yummy. The texture of the cupcake is sublime. I am thinking of taking the base recipe and tweaking it a bit for other flavors- I love it that much. It has a dense pound cake like heft to it but is also etherealy light. I know, a complete contradiction and for curiosities sake alone you should make them to experience it. 

Fall seems like the perfect time for these. Their cinnamony goodness would be lovely with a sharp cup of coffee over a brunch and I cannot imagine any child not being thrilled to find one tucked into a lunch bag.

The recipe is from Martha Stewart. I did not follow her frosting recommendation. Instead I applied a simple powdered sugar glaze (powdered sugar whisked with a smidgen of milk until the right consistency) and sprinkled a bit more cinnamon sugar on top. I trend towards the less-is-more frosting school of thought (see strawberry love cupcakes) but I realize that not everyone feels the same. If so, the link to the original frosting set up is here.

snickerdoodle cupcakes

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups cake flour (not self-rising), sifted
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon, plus 1/2 teaspoon for dusting
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 3/4 cups sugar, plus 2 tablespoons for dusting
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups milk

1) Makes 28 cupcakes. Preheat oven to 350. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners. Sift together both flours, baking powder, salt, and 1 tablespoon cinnamon.

2) With an electric mixer on medium-high speed, cream butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until each is incorporated, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Beat in vanilla.

3) Reduce speed to low. Add flour mixture in three batches, alternating with two additions of milk, and beating until combined after each.

4) Divide batter evenly among lined cups, filling each three-quarters full. Bake, rotating tins halfway through, until a cake tester inserted in centers comes out clean, about 20 minutes.

5) Transfer tins to wire racks to cool completely before removing cupcakes. Once cupcakes are cooled, spread with a simple powdered sugar glaze and dust with cinnamon sugar (this is the reserved 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon plus 2 tablespoons sugar.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

inspiration- Alaskan boat harbor

When we were kids, my Dad used to take my sisters and I on walks down to the boat harbor. My father was a crab fisherman (still is) and we loved to accompany him to "check on the boat". I am not sure what we were actually checking but my little girl imagination liked to think of it as tucking the boat in for the night. We would walk up and down the rows of boats, asking my Dad which boat belonged to whom and picking out our favorites. My Dad would tell us stories about some of the boats, how they got their names or who used to own them. The fishing boats seemed like such characters.

During a recent visit home, my Dad and I took an evening walk and strolled down to the boat harbor. I particularly noticed the colors, lines, patterns and textures. Some of the rope and net details remind me of crochet patterns. It was a quiet, peaceful summer evening and the smooth-as-glass water mirrored back the boat reflections beautifully. I thought I would share a few of my favorite images.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

tomato tart

 When I think of summer, I think of tomatoes and my grandfathers greenhouse.

My grandfather was a phenomenal gardener. All summer long we ate radishes, swiss chard, and carrots. When my sisters and I would run along the rows my grandfather would remind us to take care not to step on the plants. I loved that my small feet were exactly the width of the walkways. They seemed to disappear between the foliage of the plants on either side.

On the far end of the garden was a large trellis where the sweet peas grew. My older sister loved the peas and we would help ourselves to what was on the trellis. She put such high value on this activity that each year I was supremely disappointed to realize that I still did not like peas. 

What I really remember from my grandfather was his greenhouse. It stood on the north east corner of the property and was separated from the house by row after row of his vegetable garden. Alaskan summers are not hot but they are full of light. The greenhouse was always warm, cozy. It smelled like soil, a fuzzy mineral smell. I used to love to go in there to see the first sprouts off the plants, watch the tiny shapes emerge. Mostly, I liked to go there because it was one of the places where I could be alone and I liked to sing to myself (I am pretty sure my older sister snuck in there to sing too.) With two sisters, it was hard to find a place at home to sing where I would not be overheard and feel self-conscious and embarrassed. I would sing songs from church, about God's great love, Jesus' sacrifice. To this day there is a little part of me that wonders if the tomatoes flourished because of all the songs and prayers.

When my grandfather passed away, my sisters and I sang the hymn "He Walks With Me" at the memorial service:

I come to the garden alone
while the dew is still on the roses
and the voice I hear, falling on my ear
the Son of God discloses

And he walks with me, and he talks with me
and he tells me I am his own;
and the joy we share as we tarry there,
no other has ever known

He speaks and the sound of his voice
is so sweet the birds hush their singing
and the melody that he gave to me
within my heart is ringing

And he walks with me, and he talks with me
and he tells me I am his own;
and the joy we share as we tarry there,
no other has ever known

I'd stay in the garden with Him
though the night around me be falling
but he bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling

And he walks with me, and he talks with me
and he tells me I am his own;
and the joy we share as we tarry there,
no other has ever known

This past summer, my husband and I planted our first tomato plants. We live in California now and do not have to build greenhouses. My husband did build two planter boxes and a friend gave us a couple gorgeous tomato plants. Despite my best efforts, the plants survived (sadly, I am known for my ability to kill plants.) The smell and texture of them brought me right back to my grandfathers greenhouse.

As we started to pick our tomatoes, my older sister called me up to ask if I had made tomato tart from Everyday Food magazine. She declared I just had to make it and that I would love it. She was right: the sweetness of the tomatoes with the savory leek filling and buttery crust. It is swoon worthy. 

The recipe calls for adding goat cheese at the end, but as you can see from the pictures, I omitted it. I like the simpleness of making it just about the tomatoes. I do not know if my grandfather would have ever eaten a tomato tart, but I think he would agree that nothing should get in the way of good tomatoes.

tomato tart

all purpose flour, for rolling
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 tablespoon sour cream
1 teaspoon grainy mustard
coarse salt and ground pepper
2 large leeks, white and light-green parts only
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3/4 pound grape or cherry tomatoes, halved if large  
or plum or beefsteak tomatoes, sliced a 1/4 inch thick
or a combination of both
2 ounces goat cheese, crumbled (optional)
2 teaspoons fresh thyme or basil leaves

1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out puff pastry to a 12-inch square; transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet.

2) In a small bowl, stir together sour cream and mustard and season with salt and pepper. Spread sour cream mixture evenly over pastry. Folder over 1/2 inch border on all sides and press edges to seal. Refrigerate 10 minutes.

3) Meanwhile, halve leeks lengthwise; rinse thoroughly, pat dry, and slice 1/4- inch thick. In a large skillet, melt butter over medium-high. Add leeks, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring frequently, until soft, 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, until leeks are very soft, 5 minutes.

4) Arrange leeks evenly over sour cream mixture on pastry. Top with tomatoes and season with salt and pepper.

 5) Bake until pastry is golden brown and crisp, 25 minutes. Let cool slightly. (If using) top with goat cheese and herbs before cutting into squares. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Note: You can substitute caramelized onions for the leeks.