Lemonpalooza

DSC01932I have a lot of lemons.  Beautiful Meyer lemons.  My tree is extraordinarily fecund (that always sounds a bit off color…) this year.  Truly an embarrassment of riches.  I have heard you can keep ripe citrus on the tree for 10 weeks, and the quality will not be affected (my tree is in a sheltered spot, so frost is not an issue).  That said, I do feel quite a lot of pressure to put all my fruit to use.  In the December issue of Food & Wine magazine, there is a recipe for a lemon Bundt cake.  I made it today. It was quite a project–zesting all those lemons takes a fair amount of time!  But it was well worth it, as the cake is delicious. DSC01936Actually, I didn’t have to zest all 10 lemons–I mean, look at the size of these!  The lemon on the right is the usual size of a Meyer lemon, and I have just a few that size.  Most of the ones on my tree, however, are the size of the one on the left!  Why this is is anybody’s guess.  Radiation from Japan?  Are they Three Mile Island lemons?  No, I don’t think so.  Just a happy confluence of growing conditions that led to this crop.  I was worried that the size would mean a thick skin, more like a Eureka lemon, but no.  Thin skinned and juicy as always. There would have been an even bigger crop, but we had some crazy wind in early fall that knocked a lot of the baby lemons off (which, upon further reflection, may have led to the bigger lemons).  Perhaps just as well! DSC01939Above are some of the ingredients for the Bundt cake–see how much zest there is?  DSC01940The batter is thick and creamy–can you see the little flecks of peel in there? DSC01944

See the finished product?  It’s pretty!  I pasted the recipe in here from the Food & Wine  website, just so you know.  Read to the end of the recipe–I made a few small changes.

Lemon Bundt Cake

Food & Wine Magazine, December 2012

cake

  1. Nonstick cooking spray
  2. 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  3. 1 1/2 cups cake flour
  4. 1 tablespoon baking powder
  5. 1 teaspoon salt
  6. 2 3/4 cups sugar
  7. 1/3 cup lightly packed finely grated lemon zest (from 10 lemons)
  8. 1/2 cup canola oil
  9. 2 sticks unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  10. 3 large eggs
  11. 3 large egg yolks
  12. 3 tablespoons dark rum
  13. 2 tablespoons pure lemon extract
  14. 3/4 cup heavy cream

lemon syrup

  1. 1/4 cup sugar
  2. 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  3. 1 tablespoon dark rum

glaze and topping

  1. 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
  2. 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  3. 1 teaspoon almond extract
  4. 1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted (optional)
  1. MAKE THE CAKE Preheat the oven to 350°. Generously coat a 10-inch Bundt pan with nonstick cooking spray and dust the pan with all-purpose flour. Sift the 1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour and cake flour into a medium bowl, along with the baking powder and salt.
  2. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle, use your fingers to rub the sugar with the lemon zest until the sugar resembles pale yellow wet sand. Add the canola oil and cooled butter and beat at medium speed until blended, about 1 minute. Beat in the whole eggs, egg yolks, rum and lemon extract until just incorporated, about 1 minute. Reduce the speed to low and beat in the heavy cream and the dry ingredients in 3 alternating batches, starting and ending with the dry ingredients; be sure not to overbeat. Scrape down the side of the bowl and fold the batter until it is blended.
  3. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and use a spatula to smooth the surface. Bake in the middle of the oven for about 1 hour, rotating the pan halfway through, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Let the cake cool on a rack for 30 minutes.
  4. MEANWHILE, MAKE THE LEMON SYRUP In a small saucepan, combine the sugar with the lemon juice and rum and bring to a boil. Simmer over moderate heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves, about 3 minutes. Let the lemon syrup cool slightly.
  5. Invert the cake onto a wire rack set over a baking sheet. Using a wooden skewer, poke holes evenly all over the cake and brush with the lemon syrup. Let the cake cool completely.
  6. MAKE THE GLAZE AND TOPPING In a medium bowl, whisk the confectioners’ sugar with the lemon juice and almond extract until smooth. Pour the glaze over the top of the cake, letting it drip down the sides. Sprinkle the almonds on top and let the glaze set, about 20 minutes. Cut the cake into wedges and serve.
I put 3 Tbl. of lemon extract in the cake, instead of 2 Tbl.  The Meyer lemons are so sweet, you can lose a bit of the lemony sharpness.  In the syrup I added a 1/2 tsp. of lemon extract, again for the same reason.  As far as the glaze goes, you can see it was a bit too thin.  Next time I’d add a bit more powdered sugar, so so much didn’t end up puddling underneath. And finally, it said to bake for 1 hour, which I did.  Next time, however, I’d check it at 50 minutes, and I bet that 55 minutes would be perfect. Now, go make some tea.  This cake begs to be eaten with a cup of tea!

Fig Fest!

This is not really Cleopatra. This is Vivian Leigh. If you’ve seen busts and coins that show what Cleopatra really looked like…well, she must’ve had a really good personality.

Cleopatra says, “Oh, excellent!  I love long life better than I love figs!” in Antony and Cleopatra (do you see me here, quoting Shakespeare??).  Her enthusiasm (I mean, who doesn’t love long life?) for figs speaks to their appeal.  Although, in this day and non-Mediterranean age and locale, there seem to be either fig lovers or fig…well,

Figs in about March

haters seems a bit strong, so fig dislikers. Most people enjoy a Newton, but the fig relationship is snuffed out with the emptying of the package.  We’ve always been big Fig Newton fans (big fans, not big Newtons, although big Newtons would be fine, too),

Figs in June

and we are blessed with a prolific fig tree in our yard, which was, back some many moons, a volunteer.  A stray, if you will.  The figs we grow are entirely organic (not exactly due to our commitment to the earth’s well-being, rather that the tree thrives on neglect), and quite large.  Some of them verge on being the size of a pear!

Every year the tree is very generous, giving enough not only for us, but also for the birds, the deer, and the rabbits, too.  I like to use as many as possible fresh, but then I am

The harvest

still left with a lot of unused figs.  I bought a dehydrator, which is like a triple-decker cooling rack, except that it is enclosed and has a fan that blows warm air on the fruit.  I have tried this many times and, sadly, have been left with tough little carcasses of figs, rather than the sticky lusciousness you get with a store-bought dried fig.  So why keep trying it? Hope springs eternal, I guess (and yes, I do know the definition of stupidity).  But this year I looked into it online, and on eHow I found a way to oven-dry the figs.  It worked very well.

The first thing you do is to make sure all your figs are ripe, clean, and free of bird, uh, detritus. Then preheat the oven to 250 degrees.  Cut off the stems, then slice all the figs lengthwise.  Place the

Ready for the oven

figs, cut side down, in a shallow dish with sides.  I used Pyrex 9x13s, and they worked well, but use a dish to fit the amount of figs you have, as the figs need to fit snugly in the dish.  You need a pan with sides because the figs give off a lot of juice, and you want to contain it.    Place the dish with the figs in the oven, and set the timer for one hour.  After an hour, turn the figs over, cut side up.  The juice should be starting to flow now, so kind of mop it up with the figs as you turn them over. Set the timer for another hour and repeat, this time turning the figs cut side down, mopping up the juice again. Set timer for an hour again, and turn figs

After an hour

cut side up.  If you have a lot of juice, tilt the pan and use a spoon to drizzle that juice over the figs. At the end of three hours, the figs will be dark, wrinkly, sticky, and fragrant. Reduce the heat to 200 degrees, and return the figs, still cut side up, to the oven for about 30 to 45 more minutes. That will allow the excess liquid to evaporate, the figs to dry somewhat, and the texture to become more like that of “real” dried figs.  The whole process will have taken about three-and-a-half hours. Turn the oven off and allow the figs to cool down in the oven (I left them in the oven overnight and it was fine).

Finished product

These figs stay quite moist, so I would store them in the fridge for short-term use, or freeze them for longer storage.

This isn’t exactly a cost saving recipe–the oven is on for a very long time.  But what you do get is some tasty, nutritious dried fruit that is prepared with absolutely no chemicals or preservatives.  I made fig bread, which was delicious toasted with either brie or blue cheese on it, and will be making fig bars soon.

Apparently figs were one of the first foods cultivated for agriculture, 11,000 years ago in the Middle East, according to Wikipedia.  I don’t understand why they are not used today to help solve hunger problems.  While they do need some winter rain, they don’t need any water for about 9 months out of the year, and they seem to self-sow.  In addition, they produce two crops every year, one in June and the other in about August–there are huge amounts of fruit! I would think some poverty-stricken areas in the world could use a few fig trees to help alleviate some of their problems.  Figs are very high in sugar, which would surely be a boon to starvation-prone areas.  They even have a little protein in them!

Well, I’m off to dry another batch, and then I will wait for the second crop to ripen.  And so it goes.

Almost ripe fig with second crop on deck

Family, Feasting, and a Merry Christmas!

We have our Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve.  Usually prime rib, but due to austerity measures this year, we are having bangers and mash (which we all love but rarely eat, for obvious reasons). On Christmas Day, we graze. There are mince tarts, jam tarts, and maid of honour tarts (yes, these get spelled the English way).  Christmas cookies, Christmas toffee, Christmas cake  (I feel like Elf and his four main food groups: “Candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup”).  Sausage rolls, lox and cream cheese with bagels, bourbon balls, peppermint bark, mini quiches, and a box of chocolates.  Later, we add rolls, cold sliced turkey and sliced roast beef, and condiments and crudites into the mix.  It is a food extravaganza that goes on all day Christmas Day.  And because we do have this embarrassment of riches, I don’t have to cook on the 26th, either.  Which is quite a treat, really, since I have been cooking like a fiend for the week (and longer, for the things that can be frozen) leading up to the 25th.

Springerle cookies (at right) are a new addition this year–we’ll see how they turn out.  The sausage rolls (at far left in the picture above) are a perennial favorite. The tarts are on the tiered plate above, and Christmas sugar cookies (below right)  are made in a double batch, frozen, and then slowly doled out and quickly iced, otherwise we would scarf them down in a day or two.

Bourbon balls (below) are probably my favorite Christmas goodie.  Even when I was a little child I loved them.  They are very bourbony, so I’m not sure this says anything good about me.  The Christmas cake is a fruitcake draped with almond paste, then iced with royal icing (hey! this is what Kate and William’s wedding cake was–just one more way in which my life parallels that of the royal family…).

The mini quiches, peppermint bark, box of See’s, and Cadbury fingers are all gifts or purchased (once a year treats, and I can’t do everything), and they nestle up nicely to the homemade English toffee (at left).

Now, I’ve not given you recipes, but these are all easy to find, run-of-the-mill Christmas treats.  I know Christmas isn’t just about food, like I know that Christmas isn’t just about presents.  But certainly you can’t deny the huge role both play in the celebration.  Christmas is, of course, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, but it is also a time to celebrate family and tradition, which I think is just as significant to most people as the religious reasons for the holiday.  So have a very Merry Christmas, and enjoy your families and your feast.

Cider, Music, and Movies

Truly a delight, on a rainy November evening….

Some previous day, hopefully you went to Trader Joe’s and bought a bottle of their spiced apple cider.  And at some other point in your travels, hopefully you happened to pick up some Calvados (apple brandy from France).  Now all you have to do is heat the spiced cider in a mug (the microwave is fine–let’s not make more work here), and when it’s done, pour in a shot of Calvados.  I feel quite sure you will be pleased.

And while you are knocking back a spiked cider (or two?) maybe a little something on the stereo?  Maybe Christopher O’Riley‘s Out of My Hands (all piano music–get it?).  Or Tony Bennett Sings the Ultimate American Songbook, Volume 1.  His version of “The Way You Look Tonight” is so lovely, so wistful.  It’s one of my favorite songs, and so different from Frank Sinatra’s more upbeat version (even though I love that one, too).

What about something to read?  I just finished Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, which I very much enjoyed.  Very F. Scott Fitzgerald-ish, what with an introspective, somewhat cash-strapped, heroine who is caught up in the world of wealthy socialites.  Kind of reminded me of the Nick Carraway character in The Great Gatsby.

Or how about a movie?  It’s still a bit too early for Christmas movies (well, at least for most people, myself not exactly included…), so how about something like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir?  Gene Tierney is so beautiful, and Rex Harrison so dashing (albeit crabby…), it’s excellent rainy-day/night fodder.  Or for something completely different, what about Keeping Mum?  Rowan Atkinson is an absent-minded vicar, Kristin Scott Thomas is his randy wife, and Maggie Smith is their charming, though rather homicidal, housekeeper.

So there you go.  You have all the information you need to have a relaxing, entertaining evening tomorrow night.  Enjoy!

Gainful Employment

It’s finally happened.  The Vacaville Housewife has begun climbing the corporate ladder.  Well, the corporate step stool at any rate. And it is, may I say, absolutely no fun whatsoever.

The raw material

I get home after everyone else is home, and I’m beyond tired, and I still have to make dinner.  I know, I should have spouse or offspring do it, but  I’m not willing to do that.  I still feel adamant that dinner (and food in general) is my responsibility and I will persevere!  I didn’t want to go back to work yet, but needs must, and so here I am.  When I was growing up my mother worked, but she was home by about 4:00, and we had housecleaning help.  If that scenario was on deck, I’d feel much better.  But sadly, it’s not, so I content myself with planning my exit strategy, fantasizing about flinging down my papers and shouting, “I quit!”

Until that dramatic day, however,  I am left juggling grocery shopping, cooking, and laundry.  On the weekend, I make three lists of dinners:  make-ahead (to, uh, make, you know, ahead) quick and easy (to make on work nights), and regular (to make on weekends).  And as far as baking goes, well, there just isn’t a lot of time for that.  Which makes me sad.  A quick and easy cookie that my mother used to make has always been one of my favorites, and it is also one of my children’s favorites.  They are called Valley Cookies (though I’m not sure why, since they look more like little hills.  I also make what my children call Cave Cookies, so we have all the landforms covered.  But more on those another time.), and you don’t even have to bake them.   You make them on top of the stove, leave them in the fridge to harden, and they take literally five minutes to make.  Do it before bed, and you’ll have cookies for lunches tomorrow.

Valley Cookies  makes about 3 dozen

2 cups sugar

1/2 cup milk (I use whole milk)

1 stick butter (4 oz.)

1/2 cup chunky peanut butter

4 Tbl. Hershey’s unsweetened cocoa

1 tsp. vanilla

3 1/4 cups oats (quick cooking or old-fashioned–I use old-fashioned)

Miss Congeniality cookies

Place butter in a saucepan and melt over low heat.  Add sugar and milk.  Increase heat and bring to a boil.  Boil for one minute.  Remove from heat. Quickly add the peanut butter, cocoa, and vanilla, and mix well.  Now add the oats (no dilly-dallying–you don’t want the mixture to set up before you get the oats all mixed in).  Cool mixture slightly, for just a few minutes.  Drop mixture by tablespoons onto a greased or Silpat-covered baking sheet. You can also cover the baking sheet with plastic wrap, and drop the cookies onto the plastic.  Put the uncovered baking sheet in the fridge and let cookies harden.  When hard, remove from sheet and store tightly covered in the fridge.  They won’t win any beauty contests for cookies,  but they sure are tasty.  And they get tastier when you think  how it took you about five minutes to make them.

It’s Coming… (along with some pumpkin muffins)

Fall, that is.  You know, autumn.  Even though it is still, to put it delicately, stinking hot during the day, when I go outside first thing in the morning it is quite cool.  Verging on crisp even.  Even the leaves that face east are starting to turn, as you can see.  I don’t know why this is, but I am sure there is some folkloric explanation for it of which I am unaware.  Here it is, September 1, and I feel so much better!  It is my reverse seasonal affective disorder–I get crabby and depressed when it’s hot for too long, while most people get crabby and depressed when it’s cold and gray for too long.  Not me!

Vacaville in autumn is lovely.  Look for more pictures in the weeks to come.   In recent years, cities (and even CalTrans–have you seen the trees at the Midway Rd. on-ramp to Highway 80 east in October, November–amazing!) have been more aware of their choices with regard to tree planting and fall color, thus making for gorgeous leafy shows.  Downtown Vacaville in November could rival an Eastern city, with regard to the trees’ display.

So as I get ready for fall to officially arrive in a few weeks, I will make these pumpkin muffins, which are quick and easy.  Nothing says fall (or fall pending) like pumpkiny spices.  The muffins started out as a Katie Lee Joel recipe and morphed from there. May I say I wanted to hate her cookbook, The Comfort Table?  (Did she and Billy Joel really think they had a love connection?  And not that she was a young hottie looking to get a career boost, and that he was marrying her for reasons other than her scintillating conversation? I mean, please.  Although I must confess I did not actually hang out with them at any time, so perhaps I am mean and cynical and they were a match made in heaven.)  But ANYWAY, I really like Katie Lee’s (as she is now known) cookbook, The Comfort Table!  It’s good weeknight food.  Give it a whirl.  But here are the Vacaville Housewife Lee Joel (I don’t want you to feel used, Billy–I’m keeping the Joel.  I’m here for you, Billy.) pumpkin muffins.

Pumpkin Muffins  makes 12

These muffins keep really well, staying fresh for a few days after you make them.  Also, the batter does seem to be mounded up very high in the muffin cups, but don’t worry.  It is very dense and it keeps its shape, not overflowing everywhere.  But you could put the muffin tin on a cookie sheet if it makes you feel better.

2 cups all purpose flour

2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp. ground ginger

1/4 tsp. ground cloves

1/2 tsp. salt

2 cups sugar

1/2 cup canola oil

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

1 can (15 oz.) pure pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line twelve muffin cups with paper liners.  In a small bowl, combine the dry ingredients.  In a bigger bowl, combine the sugar, oil, eggs, and vanilla.  Add the pumpkin puree and mix well.  Add the dry ingredients and stir until just combined.  Scoop the batter into the lined muffin tins.  Bake for about 20 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.  Let muffins cool in tin for about 10 minutes, then remove to a rack.  Serve warm or at room temperature.  An easy breakfast, and so good with coffee!

Use What You Have Cooking

My well-stocked but somewhat untidy pantry (with art)

Well first of all, you have to keep your pantry and freezer pretty well stocked.  When the cash flow is, uh, flowing  and I see skirt steak on sale, I buy a couple extra ones to freeze.  Favorite wine on a really good sale?  Several bottles now live in my fridge.  See a good price on the 28 oz. cans of pureed or whole peeled tomatoes?  Toss them in the shopping cart.  Prewashed spinach in the giant plastic box for less than $3?  I’m on it.   When I was feeling flush and bought lots of boneless/skinless chicken?  It’s what’s for dinner.  There is pesto I made when basil was cheap, and zucchini bread I made for the same reason.  I’ve got enchilada sauce frozen, as well as refried beans I made.  You see, the austerity measures at our house have reached sort of epic proportions, so I am trying to buy as little food as possible.  After all, I’ve gone to the trouble to stock my pantry and freezer.  Isn’t this exactly when I should be trotting out all that food?

Of course I’m still going to buy milk and fresh fruits and vegetables.  But I’m buying cheese, milk, and half-and-half at Costco (where it’s so cheap that I prefer not to think about the aspects of factory farming that are no doubt in practice), and I’m looking at peaches for 88 cents a pound, not grapes for $2.50 a pound (and prebagged so you can’t just buy a pound; rather, you have to buy the three pound bag so your grapes are now $7.50.  $7.50!!).  But besides the dairy and the plants, it’s whatever is in the freezer and pantry.

This week, my shopping list is pretty small.  Milk, cream, fresh fruit, fresh veggies, beef broth, orange juice, ground beef, ground pork, mushrooms, basil, pine nuts (well, depending on how much they are–otherwise I’ll just toast and chop some slivered almonds), and red onions is about it.  And baby aspirin for the dog (his hips are bad and he loves St. Joseph’s orange chewables).  By taking a little time to go through my cookbooks (which, I must confess, I love doing, so it doesn’t feel like work) and to check on the contents of the freezer and pantry, I have come up with thirteen dinners.  And there is always flour and sugar on hand to make cookies, etc.  So we’re good to go, and I don’t feel too terribly deprived.  Worried, yes, but not deprived.

So what’s on the menu?  Well.  –Now wait.  I thought of giving you all the recipes I use, but first of all that would take forever, and secondly, you can just as easily find a recipe online that works with your supplies.  Okay, back to the menu.  Spinach and mushroom quiche.  Macaroni and cheese (not Kraft or Velveeta–the real kind you make with a roux!). Beef tacos with guacamole, with refries on the side.  Chicken and mushroom crepes (my favorite dinner as a child of the ’80s).  Gyros.   Mandarin beef with bok choy.   Chicken with balsamic vinegar.  Stir-fried pork with garlic.  Lemon chicken.  Meatballs in tomato-herb sauce. Smoked salmon quesadillas (smoked salmon is an unopened package left over from a party–not usually on the menu).  Breakfast burritos (with egg, sausage, cheese, and potatoes they make a great dinner).  And barbecued burgers.  So they don’t suck, foodwise, these austerity measures.  But it only works if you take the time when the money isn’t quite so tight to stock up, and to do some cooking ahead of time.  I could add enchiladas to the week.  Or pasta with pesto.

I heard on the news out of Sacramento the other night that people were talking about how they can’t help it that they eat so much fast food, because it’s so cheap.  That made me mad!  It’s not because it’s cheap (because it isn’t–you only get one meal), it’s because people are lazy!  And while I’m ranting, I’m so mad that they are healthying up McDonald’s Happy Meals.  Fast food should be a treat, once a month or less, not a way of life.  Happy Meals should still have french fries in them and not have to contain carrots or apples or whatever, because french fries are a treat, not something you should be downing a couple times a week!  So by putting in “fresh” fruits and vegetables (and who are we kidding–how long have those apples or carrots been floating around?) we are encouraging eating fast food, as though it is a healthy choice!  No!  It’s a treat.  Do you go get an ice cream sundae with two scoops and sauce and cream and…and…every few days?  No, because it’s a treat.  Be responsible about your family’s well-being!  Oh!  Excuse me.  Got a little carried away.  I digress.

So back to the matter at hand.  If your family struggles with money, it’s important that when you do have cash, you need to stock up on the food (and not stock up on cute shoes) so that you don’t get caught in the fast food trap.  Of course it’s good for you physically, but it’s just so good for you psychically, too.  There are a lot of things you can’t control, but you can control what you eat. It’s a good feeling to know that you are doing right by your family.  And now, sadly, I have to get back to looking for a job.

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