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 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.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

MS Cupcakes Club: Candied Sweet Potato Cupcakes

This month's Martha Stewart Cupcakes Club selection, Candied Sweet Potato Cupcakes chosen by Karen at Karen's Cookies, Cakes & More, offered many firsts for me. It was my first time baking sweet potatoes (we usually buy them in a can), my first time baking a dessert with sweet potatoes as an ingredient and my first time broiling marshmallows to get them toasty brown.

I loved every step involved in the recipe. I took a nibble of the sweet potato as it came out of the oven, and I was amazed at how naturally sweet it was, without the marshmallows or brown sugar. I definitely need to get in the habit of baking sweet potatoes more often when they are in season.

This cupcakes turned out fantastic, almost more like a muffin than a cupcake. The combination of spices -- including freshly ground nutmeg (yum!) and cinnamon -- were divine. In fact, the cupcakes tasted so good, I almost didn't want to add the marshmallows. Almost.

But gleefully I did. It was tricky to stack the tiny, round marshmallows without them falling over when they hit the oven. And it was even trickier trying to transfer the half-melted marshmallows to the cupcakes, but by some miracle, I managed.

I didn't manage, however, to make the candied pecans for the topping. I gave it a good try, but the sugar syrup crystallized instead of caramelized, and the combination of "rock candy" and pecans wasn't that great to look at or to eat. So I left the pecans off.

But the cupcakes still looked so cute...

And I discovered that you have to eat the cupcakes while the marshmallows are still warm and gooey. I loved these cupcakes, and I'd love to bake them again sometime.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Martha Mondays: Pasta with brussels sprouts

My husband thought I was goofy for trying a brussel sprouts recipe for Martha Mondays. We've never much cared for brussel sprouts. However, that may be because I've only tried to cook with frozen brussel sprouts. But recently, I read an article explaining that fresh brussel sprouts taste better than frozen, so I was willing to give these veggies another go.

I prepared all my incredients ahead of time, including bacon, garlic, shallots, sage, chicken broth and olive oil. The recipe was a little time consuming for me, with all the chopping and measuring. But the brussel sprouts smelled great as they were cooking in the bacon fat. I also loved the smell of the sage.

I have to admit, this recipe may have changed my mind about brussel sprouts. The pasta turned out beautiful. It would definitely impress at a dinner party. And I couldn't stop eating it. There was something addicting about the combo of sage, bacon and pasta.

Don't the Parmesan cheese and bacon look delicious?

As much as I liked it, however, my husband still couldn't warm up to the brussel sprouts. So I guess I probably won't be making them again. But I sure enjoyed the recipe. Thanks to Pru at My Life: Pru Singer for picking this week's project. Please visit Martha and Me to see how the recipe turned out for the others.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Preparing for spring

I spent my weekend raking up leaves from our trees in the front yard and carrying them to the backyard to use as winter cover for my garden beds. I had plenty of leaves to mulch with.

The neighbor's cat couldn't resist checking out my progress.

A few weeks back, after the first frost, I planted about 60 new tulip bulbs in my garden. I tried to space them between the tulips I left in the ground last year. I'm not exactly sure if last year's tulips are hardy enough to last another winter, so it will be a bit of a backyard experiment for me. But the tulips turned out so beautiful last spring, I couldn't bring myself to dig them up.

Once again, I bought the tulip bulbs from a local Earl May garden center. They are an Iowa-based family business that buys their tulips directly from Holland. I love buying my garden seeds and tulips at Earl May, because I know they will carry varieties that grow well in our Midwest climate.
Here's my list of tulip varieties I planted for spring 2010:

  • Donald Duck - Early spring tulip, bright red with yellow edges

  • American Dream - Mid-spring tulip, orange/yellow

  • Apricot Parrot - Late-spring tulip, apricot with yellow and green

  • Happy Generation - Mid-spring tulip, white with red

  • Bing Crosby - Mid-spring tulip, bright red

  • White Dream - Mid-spring tulip, white

I'm feeling bright and sunny just thinking about these beauties and how great they will look in my garden next spring.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Playing with a new toy

A few weeks back, I gave my husband a food dehydrator for his birthday. Admittedly, this was a selfish gift. I've been eyeing these dehydrators for months now on my Amazon wish list. I couldn't come up with a better idea for a gift, and I knew he was interested in making homemade jerky, so I ended up buying the dehydrator. He was pretty excited when he opened his gift up.

I've been making frequent trips to a local apple orchard for honeycrisp apples (both my husband and I can't get enough of these candy-like apples), so I bought an extra bag of Jonathon apples to experiment with apple chips in the dehydrator.

We used a fun little apple corer I received from my sis last Christmas to make the apple rings.
Then Josh stacked up the apples in the trays.

He left the peels on, and I'm glad he did. It really adds to the beauty of the apple chips, don't you think?

The apple chips turned out wonderful, and I love that they don't have the preservative taste of the dried fruit I usually buy at the store. My husband also made a batch coated with cinnamon and a touch of brown sugar. I taste-tested those cinnamon apple chips last night, and they were divine! Can't wait to see what else he tries in his new toy.
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