Saturday, March 23, 2013

Snowy-Spring-Equinox-Hope: In Crafty Form.

The storm of March 23rd and the Metaphorical Red Birdhouse.
"Spring is when you feel like whistling, even with a shoe full of slush."
Doug Larson

*  *  *

I can't take much more of this.  When I said I loved Denver's seasons I had no idea they would involve snow post-spring-equinox.  Eff that.  I'm over the snow.  I did more than my time with four years in the frozen tundra.  I'm done with the ski season (even if Matt intends to try to drag me out there again today and on Easter against my will).

In truth, despite having enjoyed our first Colorado winter thoroughly, I've been complaining about the cold ever since we had one utterly glorious 70-degree day a week ago.  Roman played outside (without complaining once!) for 5 hours.  We had margaritas on the porch.  We got the outdoor speaker-system working and, as if a sign from the Gods above, the first song to play was Abba's Waterloo.  I bought Roman a straw fedora.  Spring was nigh, dammit!  And I, for one, believe that once the flip-flops have been brought out, one simply cannot go back to the Joan of Arctics.  The absurdity of having to bring my newly-planted rosemary bushes inside, covered in snow and frozen, is not lost on me.

I've been so busy springing forward that I actually briefly believed I could will the snow away.  But, no, as I sit here typing, hot coffee in hand, it is a full-on blizzard outside my window.  At least I can cling to a few little projects I've been working on as a source of Vernal hope.  Time to share.

*  *  *

In Crafty Form

1. Krista! Spoiler Alert: Evangeline's Little Outfit.

The Pinafore
My friend Krista just had a little girl (three months ago!) and her name means "bearer of good news."  Fitting for this post.  
I've been toiling away on this homemade project for her
Evie's Ruffle-y Bloomers.
based on this "cross-over pinafore" tutorial and this bloomer tutorial, (the package should be with them any day now along with some other surprises).
I found the awesome vintage fabric at an estate sale months ago and loved it immediately.  It screams spring.  I chose this outfit because the pinafore serves as a dress for a baby but can be used later as a shirt for a toddler.

It came out really nicely despite being more involved than I originally thought it would be - I swear to never attempt to make ruffles out of linen again - and I hope little Evie gets some use out of it once she's a little bit older. :)

2. Kitchen-Door-Melted-Crayon-Stained-Glass.

Roman's Melted-Crayon Creations and the Snow
We have an almost-all-glass door in our kitchen - our back door, technically - that I use as our seasonal decoration door.  We've had hand-cut snowflakes on it for months, and a few days ago I decided it was time for a little rejuvenating spring-time beauty.  I found several tutorials on how to make melted-crayon stained glass and thought Roman would enjoy it.  I didn't have a warming tray (though I'm seriously considering getting one, now), so I went with the old wax paper and hot iron trick.

Working on the Easter Egg
 We grated and chopped up some crappy crayons Roman got in a birthday goody bag recently, and this was the result: one crazy Easter egg, and two beautiful stars.  I would say that chopping the crayons roughly works significantly better than grating them.  I used colored crepe paper to make the borders.  Roman also did a free-style piece which ended up looking like a tree.  He hung it on his bedroom window so he can "look at it when [he] wake[s] up." :)

3. The Formicarium.
 Roman got an ant farm for Christmas.  I wouldn't be lying if I said it was partly a gift to myself because I've always wanted an ant farm.  I find ants fascinating.  They are intelligent, tidy, empathetic and organized. Some of them are even farmers.  Pretty much a lot of what I aspire to in a nutshell. :)  So when we finally got our ant shipment from Uncle Milton a couple of weeks back, I was thrilled.  It also helped to slightly ease the pain of Frankie's untimely death.

Three tunnels complete; the height of the dynasty.
The Formicarium - God, I love that word - sits in our kitchen.  The ants have managed to make three connecting tunnels and have kept me occupied for many an hour.  Sadly, of late, the whole thing has gone downhill and the undertaker has had more than enough work for his liking.  I don't know if it's too cold, too wet, too much food, but the ants are dying slowly but surely.  Still, they have been a lovely reminder that warmer weather is on the way, what with their industrious and tenacious ways.

Still not sure if I'll order another vial of ants when these are gone.  The fact that it's illegal to ship queen ants means that the formicarium is, essentially, a tomb from day one.  Maybe sea monkeys are next? 

4. Tree-Climbing & Soccer

Nothing says spring more to me than playing outside.  We're lucky that in Colorado, even when there's snow on the ground, if the sun is shining it's warm enough to play outside.  Roman and I have been taking advantage of this and I've even started trying to teach him how to climb trees (something that I rarely see kids do these days).  He hasn't had much success doing it on his own yet, but I am hopeful because the trees in our neighborhood are still young and suited to his height.  Here's a picture of him on one of his first attempts.

We also signed Roman up for the spring session of Lil Kickers Soccer, an indoor soccer program at a local gym which provides me with many child-obsessed-photo-ops and Roman, the long-sleeve-hater, with a weekly chance to wear shorts and a t-shirt in the winter.  Oh and Matt gets to indulge his inner-coach.  Win-win-win.

5. Sneak-Peak: The Upcoming Birthday Party

Boom: The Big 4.
As everyone close to me knows, Roman's May-Day birthday always provides me with 3-4 months worth of craftiness.  It always keeps me occupied during the generally-dreary winter months, a distraction that is particularly welcome this year.  I have, admittedly, gotten a particularly early start this year.

If you know us well, you know that I have good reason for looking for projects to keep me distracted so please don't judge me when I tell you that I've already chosen and embellished Roman's birthday outfit and started on the rather-involved project of making Buzz Lightyear wings out of cardboard boxes and duct tape for each child who will attend his party.  No, I have not even sent out invitations.  No, I am not insane.  Just really, really restless.  Oh, and highly efficient. :)  Here's a sneak-peak of what's to come:

And here's to Spring showing up.  For reeeeeals, y'all.

Follow Me on Pinterest

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

'Tis The Gift To Be Simple: Shaker (Meyer) Lemon Pie

Two glorious discoveries to share:

1. Shaker Lemon Pie is now in the running for my favorite pie of all-time.  Sorry, cherry.

2. I finally found my forever-pie-crust recipe.  The one I've been waiting for all these years. The flakiest, butteriest, best-est pie crust I've ever made.  It didn't come out perfectly this time because I used the wrong pie dish and sprayed butter on the top of my pie (do not do this!), but I know when done right it will be just what I want.  Thank you Smitten Kitchen and your pea-sized-butter-pieces-comment.  You have changed the way I make (and enjoy) crust forever. :)

And a belated Happy St. Patrick's Day to everyone! 

St. Patrick's Day sneaks up on me every single year.  Matt is part-Irish so he always likes to celebrate.  We used to go to our favorite Irish Pub when we lived in New York.  These days, I tend to go home-made and buy the boil-it-yourself Corned Beef packet and make some cabbage, potatoes and carrots to go with.  This year, our Sunday night plans changed at the last minute and so we had to put-off St. Patrick's day until last night, Monday.  As an unplanned addition to my belated Irish meal, I remembered I had a bag of Meyer Lemons sitting in the fruit drawer that I'd been waiting to find the right recipe for.  Four lovely, yellow lemons, waiting to be made into something delicious.  What could be less Irish than four lovely Meyer lemons, right?

Well, that is when the English-Irish meal came together in a much-belated attempt to reconcile the two with no politics involved: Corned Beef & Cabagge and Shaker Lemon Pie for dessert.  Bold.  Very bold.

*  *  *

Simple Gifts.
'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right. 

Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, Summer 2012
The Shakers are a widely-forgotten, American Protestant sect whose leaders were originally descended from the English.  They are known for their simply, Puritan-esque way of life - and their lovely, austere furniture and wood-working.  As fortune would have it, when we were about to leave Maine, my watercolor teacher Charles insisted we go to the Shaker village in Kentucky on the epic drive over to Colorado.  He said it was pretty.  He said it was interesting.  But, most of all, he said the Shaker Lemon Pie would change my life.
So we went to Pleasant Hill.  And pleasant it was.

Shame about the pie.

 After one beautiful - nearly ethereal - evening and night in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, among the buildings and farms of the Shakers, I've fallen in love with many aspects of the Kentucky Shaker way.  The awe-inspiring, spiral staircases.  The unique and unexpectedly beautiful combination of Shaker design and architecture with the rolling hills and high-white-fences of the Kentucky countryside.  The mindset that less is more - that simple gifts are life's real treasure.  It was such a beautiful surprise, that one little day with the Shakers.  I'd go back again, just to watch Roman walk down the dirt road towards the sunset.  But...I wouldn't go back for the food.

Sad to say, but since the essential disappearance of real Shakers in Pleasant Hill, the food and quality thereof has gone somewhat downhill.  I don't doubt that when Charles had the Shaker Lemon Pie it was every bit as delectable as he described it.  But when I had it, it was so painfully forgettable I was almost ashamed to admit to Charles I'd gone and had it, because I didn't want to tell him that it was no longer the pie of his yester-year dreams.

It was then that I made a mental note to try making some Shaker Lemon Pie myself by finding an authentic Shaker recipe and using the best ingredients I could find.  Enter the Meyer Lemons.

I learned the hard way a couple of years ago that too much citrus does-not-a-good-dessert-make.  I tried Nigella's Clementine Cake to get rid of the million cuties I had in my house and it was SO gross (and I almost never use that word to describe food) that I had to throw the whole thing out (a first for me, actually).

I was, therefore, wary of using the entire Meyer Lemon in the Shaker Lemon Pie.  But I did it anyway.  And, happily, the result was one of the most complex, delicious pies I've ever had.  Ever, ever, ever.  And despite all the warnings from cooks that the flavor might be slightly bitter and too "sophisticated" for a child to like, Roman ate his up greedily.

Did I mention I love my son? :)

Shaker Stairway; Shaker Lemons

So here's the winning recipe.  The texture finds itself halfway between Lemon curd and lemon custard.  The pieces of candied rind add slightly bitter-but-fruit-filled notes to each bite.  Try this at home when the Meyers come back out next year.

Verily, I say, 'tis one of life's simple gifts.

*  *  *

Shaker (Meyer) Lemon Pie
Serves 6-8
if you're not greedy :)

The Shaker-like Non-Negotiables of This Here Pie:

1.  You MUST use Meyer Lemons.  Regular lemons will not do.  Too tart.  Too much pith.  The list goes on.

2. You MUST use a mandoline to slice the aforementioned Meyer Lemons.  Unless, of course, you are an accomplished sushi chef who can slice lemons paper-thin on a consistent basis.  And, let's face it, you're not.

3. You MUST let the lemons macerate for a WHOLE DAY.  Do not short-cut on this step.  I'm convinced this is what drew the bitterness out.  I cannot emphasize this enough.

4. You MUST respect this pie enough to make the amazing all-butter crust I mentioned above.  Follow the Smitten Kitchen recipe and process and pay particular attention to the fact that she leaves gigantic pieces of butter in-tact in her crust dough. DO NOT OVER CUT!

2 Meyer Lemons, thinly sliced with mandoline
(as thin as it will go); use the whole lemon!

2 cups sugar
1/2 tsp salt
4 Eggs
3 Tbsp flour (optional)
2 all-butter pie crusts (1 top, 1 bottom); chilled for at least 1-2 hours

Melted butter or egg-white to brush on top crust
Sugar for sprinkling on top

1. Mix lemon slices (remove seeds) with the sugar and salt and set aside, covered, at room temperature for 24 hours.

2. Pre-heat oven to 425F

3. Roll-out your chilled crusts.  Drape the first over the pie dish with 1/2 inch overhang.

4. Mix the lemon mixture with the eggs and flour.  Pour into lined pie dish.

5. Drape top cover over.  Press crusts edges together to seal and crimp decoratively.

6. Slice top of pie for steam-venting purposes.

7. Glaze with butter or egg-white and sprinkle with sugar, if desired.

8. Bake for 25 minutes at 425F.  Reduce to 350F and bake for an additional 20-25 minutes.

Cool completely before serving.  Cheers!

Follow Me on Pinterest

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Time to Cheese.

Alluring cheeses at Borough Market, London 2010

In life there are times to cook, and then there are times to cheese.

Some days you just can't bring yourself to whip even the simplest of dinners up, and, lucky for me, I live with two men who will happily sit down to a table of bread and cheese as a complete meal.  Confession: I can't say I'm entirely with them.  I need something to go with the bread and cheese (prosciutto? olives? avocado? homemade jam? Membrillo!), but maybe that's the Mexican in me coming out.  My ancestral tendency to leave the cheese to the Europeans can't be entirely escaped.  (Translation: I'd still rather have some huevos rancheros.)  But despite all that, I do have to agree with my 3 year-old, there are most definitely days when you just have to cheese.

I remember well the feeling I had as the cheese cart was wheeled over to us at Daniel in NYC back in 2006.  (Brenda's inner-monologue: "A cheese course?! Amazing. OMG - what the hell do I choose?!")  It was the same feeling I used to get when I'd timidly walk to the cheese counter in Agata & Valentina and then run off pretending I didn't want cheese anyway.  Or how I felt going into the infamous Murray's Cheese with my chef brother-in-law for the first time.


Slightly scared to ask questions.  Worried I'd pick the wrong one and end up not eating it, or, worse yet, not pick anything at all.  Then worrying the monger / waiter would judge me based on what I did pick.  Dreading that with one wrong turn I might end up with a shoe-box apartment that was not only stiflingly small, but also smelled like stinky feet.

A good meal.
Image credit: Marcus Ciardiello

  It has taken a couple of years (about seven, actually) for me to feel somewhat comfortable going to a cheese monger.  I didn't grow up eating a lot of cheese - outside of Oaxaca and Queso Fresco, of course.  As a remedy, it helped to live in London for almost four years.  There, cheese - good cheese - is available at even the worst supermarkets (well, not at the rather unfortunate Iceland, but you get the idea).  I dove head first into deliciously crumbly, aged Cheddars.  Dabbled in the world of wonderfully fruity Wensleydales.  And occasionally even tried a Stilton or two - ever-eyeing the Potted Stiltons at Fortnum & Mason - though I've, admittedly and somewhat shamefully, never been a huge fan of blue cheeses.

At some point in there, I also made a brief foray into the world of luxury food marketing and had the opportunity to visit Casa dei Giovani - and their cheese farm (a side business to their charity-fueled olive oil) where I took home a small wheel of handmade Pecorino plucked from the aging barn where the sheep themselves were tended to.  I carried it home to England, gently tucked in between my clothes on my carry-on.  I never looked at cheese the same way again.

These days, I am decidedly more adventurous in my cheesing.  I don't buy imitation Parmiggiano - Matt and Roman are far-too addicted to the real-thing to ever go back.  And I am lucky to, even in Denver, have grocers near me that carry wonderful, wonderful cheeses from both local (US) and international makers. 

After tasting many, many cheeses I feel it's truly an art and something that takes time to appreciate.  Each is different, unique and worth getting to know.  I still have some I like better (goat) than others (sheep), but at least now I can eat cheese for cheese's sake - without having to drown it in Membrillo or cold cuts.

Here are some of my favorites lately - maybe next time you don't feel like cooking, grab a few, sit down, and enjoy one of life's acquired-yet-simple pleasures.  Go on, cheese it.

*  *  *

Brenda's Top Five Favorite Cheeses
Lately, anyway, and in no particular order

Camembert, fruit, saucisson & olives: an old standby.
Image Credit: Marcus Ciardiello


1. Cypress Grove's Humboldt Fog, American, Goat's Milk
This is a cheese I discovered in Maine, though it's made in California.  I love the tangy goatness of it.  So delicious and creamy - kind of a crowd-pleaser, actually.  And yet somewhat more sophisticated than the average goat cheese because of the distinctive layer of vegetable ash running like a vein through the center.  I love that America is producing such great cheeses now - no longer have to only buy French, Swiss or Italian.

2. Gorgonzola Dolce, Italian, Cow's Milk
My local King Soopers Supermarket is a hidden gem of delicious and reasonably priced cheeses.  They have a bargain bin where all the pieces are under $5 - a deal for good cheese.  In one of those a couple of weeks back I found a great looking piece of Gorgonzola Dolce.  Being a professed blue-hater, I had no clue that this would be the cheese for me.  Developed specifically to be milder than regular gorgonzola, it packs a gentler, kinder punch.

3. Parmiggian Reggiano, Italian, Raw Cow's Milk
Does Parma make any bad food?!  This is a classic but it bears repeating: everything tastes better with a little Parmiggiano on it.  I've always cooked with it, but it's only been in the past few years that I've started eating it alone, serving it as part of my cheese plates, and letting Roman snack on it.  It's a strong flavor, but one that is complex and infinitely satisfying with its crumbly, yet substantial feel.  While I almost always buy the Italian original, it's worth noting that there are now some nice American counterparts (counterfeits? :)) from, of course, Wisconsin.

Personal goal: to one day have a whole wheel in my house for the holidays, and finish it. :)

4. Taleggio, Italian, Cow's Milk
What a stinker this cheese is!  But it's creamy and receives the honor of being classified as "truly delish" by yours truly.  I have to admit that I especially like when it's really aged and becomes runny.  I don't like keeping it in the fridge for long because it really does make it awkward when you have visitors who don't like / know much about stinky cheese and its surprisingly large stink-span.  I also think it's cool that this type of cheese (washed-rind, smear-ripened) has been around since the Roman times.  Cicero cheese, anyone?

5. Saint-André
This cheese is almost too muchTriple-cream?  Seriously?  
Predictably, it's one of Matt's favorites - a self-professed cream-freak and lover of cow's milk cheeses.  And after having it several times, I've also come around to loving it.  I especially love the white, fluffly, billowy little mold skin that covers the outside of the cheese.  If left to properly come to temp, this cheese is the closest thing you'll find to eating really, really sophisticated cheese-flavored-butter.  Ok, something about that almost grosses me out.  I can't eat much when we do have it (not that Matt minds), but I do love having an indulgent slice or two.

Follow Me on Pinterest

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Eulogy for Frankie the Betta Fish.

Rest in Peace, Frankie the Betta Fish. 

He was feisty and not too interested in affection, but he was a good, loyal pet to his family in these, their first six months in Denver.  His red fins were comparable to none in their splendor.  His "flare" more fierce and flame-like than the rest.  He weathered many a water change with stoicism and bravery.  He ruled his fake-stone castle with swift but fair judgment and never neglected his Wal-mart house plants.  He put-on a good face, even after unsanctioned petting by the Master, and allowed himself to be referred to by many undignified names: At Halloween Frankie-nstein, at other times "Frankster," "Frankie-fiend," and the less than flattering "Franken-fish," when in trouble "Frank Ciardiello." 

Yes, he was good.  And because of his rather grisly death by Freezer Euthenasia, to avoid a rather grislier one by Dropsy, he shall not be replaced anytime soon.  A funeral was not held due to shocking amounts of snow and frozen-ground which would have surely broken the beach shovel.

Frankie, Fair ruler of his castle-home
He is survived by his occasionally-and-mostly-emotionally-though-not-technically-adopted stepbrother from another mother and father, Fred the Westie, King of False Alarms, his rightful and not-exactly-despondent owner, Romanorum Master Forum, and the two dashingly-good-looking servants who also reside in the household, Matt & Brenda.

Follow Me on Pinterest