Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Flower power countdown: Week 1

My hubby gave me the coolest, most unexpected gift for Christmas this year. I am now the proud owner of an AeroGarden!

To be honest, I'd never heard of these contraptions before. My husband discovered a sale on AeroGardens through an online deals forum (he does all his shopping online). He knows that I've been looking wistfully out the window at my snow-covered backyard, counting down the days until I can finally dig my hands in our little garden again. Here's hoping that the AeroGarden will scratch my gardening itch until the spring thaw.

A quick browse through the AeroGarden Web site got my heart a-fluttering over the indoor gardening possibilities. I can grow herbs, flowers and even vegetables (!) in these little soil-free wonders. My mini AeroGarden came with a pack of flower seeds.

All I had to do was drop the seed pods into the holes, fill the aerated tank with water and turn on the grow light, which runs on a self-timer. Ridiculously easy! The plastic covers act as mini-greenhouses to promote seed growth.

Even more amazing, the AeroGarden lights up when it needs to be refilled with water or a fertilizer tablet.

I've placed the AeroGarden at my front entry table, so every morning and night I can check the seeds' progress. So far, not much is happening. But I'll keep everyone updated on my Flower Power Countdown throughout the winter.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Catching cold on Christmas

I've been struggling with a head cold this past week, my first cold in more than two years. It's been quite a doozy. I'm still feeling a little under the weather. I spent Christmas Eve at home, mostly on the couch.

The doorbell rang in the morning, and I was suprised to see a boy scout delivering the popcorn I ordered a few months ago. I was even more surprised to see I had ordered Iowa-grown popcorn.

I absolutely love this label on the package. Such a wonderful description of what makes Iowa great.

When my husband got home from work, I dragged myself off the couch for my first-ever attempt at making Norwegian rosettes. I bought these rosette irons at an antique store in La Crosse, Wis., last summer.

I dipped the irons in batter, then dipped them in hot oil. The result: a crispy funnel-cake like treat.

These rosettes didn't quite turn out the way I remember. They should be thinner and crispier. I need to practice my technique a little bit more.
Later that night, my husband made beef stew for Christmas Eve dinner, since our freezer is filled with a quarter of beef we recently purchased from a local cattle farmer.
I decided to try a recipe from "Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. I was in the mood for a crusty, chewy bread to dip in the stew. The bread turned out amazing! So glad I invested in a pizza stone.

Hoping I wake up tomorrow feeling much better. It's a bummer to finally get some time off work, only to be too tired to do anything. Hope you all had a wonderful holiday break!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas decorations: Iowa style

My sister and I were driving up to Mom's house in northwest Iowa for an early Christmas celebration. I stopped my truck when I saw these Christmas light displays while driving through the tiny town of Lorimor on Highway 4.

Corn stalks make up the branches of this Christmas "tree".

Why make a snowman when you can make a giant hay-bale man, complete with pipe, hat and "carrot" nose?
Wishing you and your family a very merry Christmas full of unexpected surprises!

Sunday, December 20, 2009


I came home from work last week and found a box by our front door marked "Perishable." My husband, apparently, hadn't noticed the label and just left it unopened. I looked a little closer and noticed it was sent by the Maine Lobster Co. Turns out, my brother-in-law couldn't think of what to give us for Christmas this year. He knows we like to cook, so he sent us lobsters. Live lobsters!
We're both corn-fed Iowa farm kids. We rarely eat seafood, and we've never eaten lobster. Let me tell you, we were stressed out about cooking these guys. Thankfully, the lobsters were packaged in a metal bucket, so all we had to do was add 2 cups of water and then steam them in the bucket. We didn't have to touch the buggers, thankfully.
They were really quick to cook, just 20 minutes in the steamer. The lobsters looked scary coming out of the pot.

The lobster kit came with two bibs and utensils to crack open the shell.

My husband makes a terrible model; he's always making faces when I take his picture. He looks a little like Dr. Evil in this pic. He's actually more like a big teddy bear.

We ended up loving the lobsters. They were so much fun to eat. We quickly discovered why the bibs were necessary. The shells went flying everywhere. I don't think we've laughed that hard in a long time. And the claw meat was so good -- rich yet mild, with a nice salty taste.

I was full by the time I got to the tail meat. My hubby ended up finishing this lobster off and the other one lobster that came in the bucket. It was such a great gift! We enjoyed our date night at home, just me, my hubby and the two lobsters.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas baking: Pecan tassies

It seems like I have selective memory when it comes to Christmas baking. Every year, I spend hours baking these tiny pecan tassies. And every year, I tell myself I'm never going to make them again. It takes forever to press the cream-cheese crust into the mini muffin tins.

But the tassies look so adorable when they pop out of the oven. And yes, they taste as good as they look.

I'm planning to share these goodies with my dad and husband. They both couldn't stop eating them last year.
I clipped this recipe many years ago from Cooking Light magazine. Feel free to try it for yourself. But be sure to block out a few hours to make them, especially if you double (or triple) the recipe like I do. These babies go fast!
Find the recipe Pecan Tassies in Cream Cheese Pastry at AllRecipes.com.

Monday, December 14, 2009

MSC: Gingerbread cupcakes

I hate to admit this, but I haven't been in the mood for holiday baking this year. It's been such a crazy couple weeks, with all the meetings and working on weekends and snow days, that I haven't had much time to bake up my favorite cookies and treats. I managed to make these gingerbread cupcakes, a Martha Stewart Cupcake Club pick for December, in between my Christmas baking. But I mixed them together in a hurry, and I think it affected the quality.

The cupcakes turned out tough and dense, perhaps due to overbaking. The mix of spices was a delicious surprise, but I couldn't get over how brick-hard these cupcakes turned out. I absolutely adored the white fluffy frosting, which was super easy to make with just three ingredients -- powdered sugar, butter and vanilla. I couldn't stop myself from "taste-testing" way too much frosting.

I don't own gingerbread shaped cookie cutters, so I decided to skip baking the cookies to accompany the cupcakes. Instead, I topped each cupcake with crystallized ginger. Probably not the best choice, however. I couldn't taste the ginger with all the heavy white frosting.
So far, I've made three recipes from the Martha Stewart cupcakes book. None of them have turned out as good as I had hoped. For some reason, my cupcakes seem more like breakfast muffins with (unnecessary) frosting on the top. I'm curious what others think about these cupcakes and how the other recipes are turning out. Maybe I'm doing something wrong. Or maybe I'm just tired. I probably shouldn't blog right before my bedtime :)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Snowed in

When I heard that there was a snow storm in the forecast, I asked a good friend if I could spend the night at her home in Des Moines, instead of commuting 35 miles in the snow. I thought if I were closer to work, I'd be able to drive to the office the next morning. Boy, was I wrong!

The heavy snow started on my after-work drive to my friend's house and didn't let up until noon the next day. Then the winds came through. It wasn't so bad in the city, but the newscasters were reporting wind gusts as high as 50 miles per hour in the country, with reports of 7 foot snow drifts. Unbelieveable!

I'm thankful I have a work truck with 4-wheel drive. But even 4-wheel drive vehicles were getting stuck in the snow outside my friend's house. The street was covered with at least 6 inches of snow.

Here's what we were greeted with when we opened the door the next morning.

Every vehicle that drove past the house got stuck in the snowy street.

Many cars couldn't make it up the steep hill outside my friend's house.

I really needed to get to crank out a couple articles before my end-of-the week deadline. But my husband, who thankfully was safe inside our home, warned me that if I got stuck in the street, there wouldn't be anybody to pull me out. The weather was so bad, snow plows were pulled off the roads, and towing services were prohibited.
So these cars, and my friend and I, were stranded for two days. That's right. Two days.
The blizzard started on Tuesday morning. We couldn't get out of the driveway until Thursday afternoon. These cars were blocking our only way out.

The irony is that I decided to stay overnight in Des Moines so I wouldn't have to miss work. Turns out, the roads back home were clear, but the Des Moines city crews had a tough time moving 10 inches of snow from the 400 miles of city streets.
Finally, at almost exactly 1 p.m. on Thursday, a snow plow came to "save" us.

I was so excited, I went outside to wave at the plow, like it was a fire truck in a fourth of July parade. I yelled "Thank You!" The driver waved back.

But he had a tough time manuevering around the stalled cars.

The sight of a plowed street almost brought tears to my eyes. Isn't it one of the most beautiful things you have ever seen?

After the snow plow moved through, I saw that there were even more cars stuck in the road than I had noticed before. Those poor drivers!

I was thrilled to finally have a clear road so I could drive home and see my husband after two days stuck in a house with nothing to do. I wasted no time in shoveling the ice chunks from the driveway.

The snow was a lot deeper than I expected, however, and I took a wrong step in a drift and sank to the bottom. I had to roll myself up. My friend encouraged me to make a snow angel while I was lying there.

After a slow drive on snowy roads, I'm happy to report I'm in my kitchen now, baking blueberry quick bread. I missed my oven so much! Oh, and my husband, too :)
Hope all of my Iowa friends stayed safe and warm during the blizzard of 2009. It goes down in the records books as the snowiest Iowa blizzard in 38 years, with a statewide average of more than 10 inches.
Never thought that in this modern day, in the middle of a city, I'd get snowed in for two days. I saw a list in the Des Moines Register of Iowa's other record-making blizzards, some that dated back to the late 1800s. Could you imagine what it would be like being trapped in your home, without snow plows or de-icer or furnaces and running water? We take so much for granted.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Martha Monday: Iced applesauce oatmeal cookies

Oh my! These iced applesauce cookies, a Martha Mondays pick from MaryAnn at StirrinItUp, turned out so good. I was tempted to eat all the cookie dough before I got a chance to bake them. And these cookies are healthy - no oil or butter, just chunky applesauce and one egg. I also added a mix of golden raisins and dried cherries we had up in our cupboard.

Funny story: I left these on the counter to cool, then left the kitchen to do some house cleaning. Every time I passed through the kitchen, I noticed there were fewer cookies on the counter. Two went missing. Then four. Then nearly half a dozen. Turns out, my husband was sneaking cookies while he watched his football game. I told him I still needed to ice them, and he said, "They don't need any icing." Then he grabbed a couple more.

Thanks, MaryAnn, for the great Martha Mondays pick!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Lefse time!

You know that old Christmas song, "Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother's house, we go." Well, when I was a little girl, my family would pack up on a white, blustery Christmas morning to travel to my grandmother's house about a half-hour away from our farm.

My grandmother would serve pretty much the same meal for every large family gathering. While I loved to heap my plate with her mashed potatoes and gravy, what my sister and I really craved was grandmother's lefse. My grandparents were card-carrying members of the Sons and Daughters of Norway. Every Christmas, there would be a stack of potato lefse in the center of the holiday table, with a plate of lutefisk next to it.

Lutefisk is difficult to describe if you've never encountered it before, but it's considered a Norwegian "delicacy." It is a cod fish that has been soaked in barrels of lye, I think to ferment it. You can find it in many Iowa grocery stores this time of year. It smells terrible, and it doesn't taste much better.

Lefse is another Norwegian treat that is a bit of an acquired taste. At least that's what my husband tells me. But I think it's delicious. I can't imagine a Christmas without lefse.

A few years back, I asked my dad if he would share my grandmother's lefse recipe with me. I remember my dad making lefse in our kitchen. It took him forever to rice all those potatoes, which is crucial to making thin lefse. (Norwegian women pride themselves on how thin they can roll out their lefse, my dad told me.)

Imagine my surprise when my dad admitted to me that my grandmother's "secret" lefse recipe didn't require a potato ricer. Instead, she used Hungry Jack instant potatoes. That's right -- dehydrated potatoes. But that wasn't the biggest shocker. The recipe also calls for 7Up! Not exactly an authentic Norwegian recipe!

In my obsession to learn how to make everything from scratch, I experimented with several authentic lefse recipes I found on the Internet. But they just didn't taste right to me. So I gave in and made my grandmother's recipe. It was a revelation! The lefse tasted exactly the way I remembered it from my childhood. Sometimes, it's best not to mess with a good thing, even if it means buying a "convenience" food.

My husband likes to joke that he wants to put salsa on my lefse. Yes, it does look like a tortilla. But it has a different texture because of the potato. And it's sweet, because of the sugar (and 7UP).

My sister stopped over to help roll out the lefse. I mixed up the dough ahead of time. Then she used a special rolling pin with ridges to get the lefse as thin as possible. My dad bought me a lefse griddle a couple years back, along with the rolling pin.
FYI...the lefse griddle comes from Bethany Housewares, a Cresco, Iowa, company.

I made a triple batch of lefse, so we had to work fast to get it all rolled out before the end of the day. I barely had time to take pictures. My sister wouldn't even stop to let me get a picture of the rolling pin.

We snacked on the lefse while it was still warm. Every family has their own way of eating lefse. In our family, we spread butter on the lefse, sprinkle it with sugar, then roll it up. The combination of the crunchy sugar, smooth butter and soft lefse is so divine!

Here's my grandmother's lefse recipe, if you're curious or would like to try it for yourself:
  • 5 c. Hungry Jack Potato Flakes (must be the flakes, not potato buds)
  • 10 oz. 7Up
  • 1 C. evaporated milk
  • 2-1/2 C. cold water
  • 1/2 C. oil
  • 1/2 C. sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2 to 2-1/2 C. of flour (consistency of pie crust)
Mix all liquids with sugar & salt. Add potatoes; let stand 15 to 20 minutes. Add flour. Shape 1/4 c. dough into a ball. Roll out on a floured cloth. Griddle on high heat (about 450 degrees). Put lefse between flour sack clothes after removing from griddle.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

In a pear tree

I wasn't ready to put my canning supplies away for the winter. I've had my eye on a recipe for pear butter, so I thought I'd give it a try while pears were still in season. I found this recipe in a cookbook called "175 Best Jams, Jellies, Marmalades and Other Soft Spreads."

The recipe calls for a combination of pears and Granny Smith apples. I made it just like apple butter, simmering it over a stove until the fruit got mushy. Then I pushed the mixture through a fine sieve, put it back on the stove, added some nutmeg and simmered it until the spread was almost silky in texture.

I was so happy with the end result. The pear butter looks beautiful in the jars, and the taste is wonderful, almost like honey. It's a nice change from the apple butter, and you can really taste the brightness of the pears, since the flavor isn't masked by cinnamon.

I hope to find time to make a few more jars of this before Christmas. It would make a great gift or stocking stuffer. Plus, I have a feeling I'll be keeping these jars for myself :)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving from scratch

My husband and I stayed home for Thanksgiving this year, so I took charge of cooking our holiday meal. I started two days in advance with the pie crusts. Then last night, I made the cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and two pies.

I'm pretty proud of myself for making everything from scratch, especially when I saw all the convenience foods in the grocery store while I was doing my Thanksgiving shopping. It's amazing that nowadays you don't even have to peel a potato.

Since I knew I had a lot of peeling to do, I recently broke down and replaced the terrible vegetable peeler I received as a wedding gift and invested in an Oxo peeler from Amazon.com. So glad I made the purchase. I bet it took an hour off my cooking time.

I stuck to a traditional Thanksgiving menu this year.

On my plate:
  • Turkey, of course.
  • Mushroom stuffing
  • Cranberry-apple sauce
  • Pioneer Woman's Creamy Mashed Potatoes
  • Fancy green bean casserole, recipe from Taste of Home magazine
  • Maple sweet potatoes with marshmallows, recipe from Better Homes and Gardens

I also made my favorite dinner rolls. (Yes, from scratch. I've got the flour-dusted clothes to prove it.)

My husband snapped a few pictures of me at work last night, looking up recipes on my netbook. Our kitchen is still ceiling-less. But at least the leak is fixed. Got to love the 1960s-style custom-made cabinets. Classy, eh?

If you're wondering, that green-and-gold pattern under the kitchen counter is carpet. That's right. Floor-to-countertop carpet. We still have the 1960s carpet in the kitchen, because we're afraid of seeing what the 1900s tile looks like underneath.
I also made two pies for Thanksgiving: pecan and pumpkin. My husband loves pecan, and I crave pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. I was so excited when I pulled the pecan pie out of the oven. It looked wonderful!

But I was horrified when we cut into the pie. It didn't set!!! That didn't stop us from eating it, however.

I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving with your friends and family. I'm thankful to live in a country where I have a fridge full of food, a house of my own, a great job and a family that supports all my goofy endeavors -- including staying up past midnight to peel potatoes.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Martha Mondays: Birdfeeders

Maybe it's because as I get older, I start to appreciate the simpler things in life. Or maybe it's because I'm proud of having my own backyard, or because my husband is an avid outdoorsman. But over the last couple years, I've developed a fascination with bird-watching.

We have several towering pine trees in our backyard, planted by an elderly couple who lived in the home for 40 years before selling it to us. The family had a summer home in the Ozarks, and every year, the husband planted a pine tree that he brought back from Missouri in his Iowa backyard. The pine trees look a little odd in our neighborhood of decidious oaks and maples. But they attract all kinds of birds, including the cardinal that appears in my profile pick. He and a female cardinal return to our backyard every spring and attempt to nest in our trellis. They always get scared off, however, either by our comings-and-goings or by the squirrels.

So I was thrilled to see this week's Martha Mondays assignment, picked by Brette over at Martha and Me. It's a homemade bird feeder, made from suet (beef fat) and birdseeds, pressed into a mold of some sort.

When I told my husband I needed to find a local meat locker to buy the suet, he asked, "Can't you just use lard?" After a quick Google search, sure enough, we discovered that lard is a suitable replacement for the beef suet in birdseed mixes, although I think the birds may still prefer the suet.

This was probably the easiest Martha Mondays project yet. I just heated the lard up in the microwave for 20 seconds, then mixed in the wild birdseed, unsalted peanuts and dried cranberries. (It was almost like making granola!) I pressed the gloppy mix into plastic cups that have been hiding in the back of our cupboards since our wedding reception (six years ago!). Then, as instructed, I stuck twine into the center and put the molds in the freezer over night.

I had to cut the plastic cup to release the frozen birdseed "feeder" inside. The end product looks "semi-professional," I think.

Unfortunately, it only took a few minutes at room temperature for the seeds to start falling off the feeder. Then I gave the twine a little tug, and the feeder collasped into pieces. I'm thinking these feeders need to be outdoors in the frozen temperatures to work. I plan to keep them in the freezer until it dips back to Artic temps here in central Iowa, then place them out on my clothes lines to see if the birds take a nibble.

On a funny side note, my birdfeeder project inspired my husband to make his own "green" bird feeder. It's made from an old peanut jar and a peanut butter lid. He got the idea from a recent issue of Workshop magazine.

Thanks for another fun project. I'm sure the birds will appreciate it, too!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cookie swap

I was invited to my first-ever cookie swap last weekend, and I was thrilled to have another excuse to bake. Unfortunately, I haven't had as much kitchen time as I would like lately. Every holiday season, I get the itch to try dozens of new and different cookie recipes. But due to a lack of time, I stuck to my old familiar, the recipe that always turns out and always is requested: Ginger Creme Cookies.

Back before we were married, my husband begged his mom to share her recipe for ginger cookies. She sent the recipe by e-mail, and my husband baked up a batch for me to try. That was back before I taught myself how to bake. I insisted that I didn't like ginger cookies, thinking of the dry gingerbread cakes I remembered from my school cafeteria days. But these cookies changed my mind.

These ginger cremes have become my go-to cookie. They always bake up perfectly, and I've gotten a ton of compliments on them. I used to think they were pretty special, too, because they were an old family recipe. But it turns out, I found the exact same recipe on the back of the molasses bottle. Many people know these as molasses cookies.

My husband will eat a dozen of these cookies in a sitting. So I always make a double batch, so he can get his fill and there is still enough to share. I can bake up more than 60 cookies from a double batch.

I didn't have time to refrigerate these overnight, but I recommend it. The cookies end up nice and poofy, with a soft center. (I think that's why they are called ginger creme.) This batch turned out a little flat.

A close-up of this beauty...

I took five dozen ginger creme cookies to the party. I came back home with one of my favorites: sugar cookies with frosting. I don't think these will last until Christmas. I won't be able to stop myself from eating them!

Here is the "family" recipe:

Ginger Creme Cookies

  • 3/4 c. Crisco
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1/4 c. molasses
  • 1 egg
  • 2 c. flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. ginger
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. cloves

Beat the first four ingredients. Mix together the flour, baking soda and spices, then add to dry ingredients. Roll into balls and dip in sugar. Don't press down. Bake 10 minutes at 350 degrees.

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