Tuesday, December 14, 2010

It’s All Happening: November Birthday Cake of the Month/Chrysanthemum Cake

One of my all-time favorite movies is Almost Famous and there’s a line from the movie that struck a chord with me the very first time I heard it: “It’s all happening.” It basically refers to one of those moments in life when everything seems to come together at once. I’ve doodled this quote in journals and in the margins of notebooks many, many times since I first heard it ten years ago (has it really been that long since the movie was released?). Over the past two years, however, the meaning of the quote changed somewhat for me. A lot was happening, but it wasn’t the type of stuff that causes you to squeal with joy and throw your hands into the air with jubilation. Until recently. 

Murphy has a very exciting announcement to make and he couldn’t think of a better way to do it than with a cake:

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gratitude: Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

Recently, while reorganizing some stuff in the house, I came across a journal my mom gave me in 1998. It is one of those notebooks I was afraid to start using because it was so beautiful. The cover has a deep green background and a beautiful fairy with a flute who sings to the woodland creatures. 

Looking at the picture always makes me happy, partly because it reminds me of my mom and partly because it portrays a scene of love and festivity. I finally put words into it on January 14, 1998. The first entry was a quote my mom had written in my 21st birthday card:

    “Optimism, like the happiness habit, can be learned. Start today with a little experiment. Smile at everyone you meet. Today, expect something good to happen to you no matter what occurred yesterday. Realize the past no longer holds you captive. It can only continue to hurt you if you hold onto it. Let the past go. A simply abundant world awaits.”  -- Sarah Ban Breathnach from the book Simple Abundance

I began to fill the book with lists of things that I was grateful for. Looking through the list that is now 12 years old, I realized two things: 1.) that none of the things I had written were material possessions, they were all irreplaceable people, places or moments and 2.) that 12 years later, not many of them had changed. I’m still grateful for each and every one of them.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Spicing It Up: Curry Puffs & Stuffed Peppers

My husband is a Green Bay Packer fan. Wait, let me rephrase that. My husband bleeds green and gold. We have a neighbor that is in the middle of repainting their house from yellow to green. They’ve run into some setbacks and the project is temporarily on hold, so now the house is half green/half gold. Ryan stares longingly across the yard and asks if he can do that to our house. At first I laughed, and then I had the sickening feeling that he wasn’t kidding. Every time he needs to make a “quick run to the hardware store” I check to make sure no cans of Packer-colored exterior house paint found their way into his cart. So far, so good.

His brother is just as big of a fan as my husband, but instead of painting the outside of his house the team colors, he dedicated an entire room inside to the players instead. The “Man Room,” as they call it, is quite an impressive display, even if you don’t care for the sport. The walls are painted in the official Packer green, official Packer carpet covers the floor, and historic team and player photos cover the walls. Every Sunday, I lose Ryan to the Man Room where he follows the moves of his favorite team (and all the players throughout the league who he recruited for his fantasy team). He sits on plush leather chairs, drinking beer ceremoniously from his leather mug (which he swears brings the team luck), and rarely moves his eyes from the 60” flat screen TV for hours on end.

I choose not to partake in these events. Well, let’s be serious, girls aren’t really “allowed” in the Man Room anyway so I don’t need much of an excuse to spend the day doing other activities. But a couple of weeks ago, Ryan made a request for some appetizers from The Found Recipe Box that he could bring over for the festivities. I gave him the list of recipes and he picked out curry puffs and stuffed peppers. I was excited to explore a new category in the box and to try two recipes I’ve never made before.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Found Recipe Box Turns One!: Fluffy Yellow Cake & Chocolate Butter Icing (For Elinor)

Yesterday was the one year anniversary of my first post to the blog. It’s amazing to look back and see how far I’ve come in this journey. A lot has happened this year and I never imagined that a recipe box would be such an integral part of that experience. I’ve learned a lot, not only in the kitchen, but about myself as well. And I’ve tried so many things I may not have taken a chance on had I not challenged myself with this project.

In one of the first few posts, I listed all the categories and how many recipes are contained on the cards in the box. Of the 479 recipes, I’ve posted 102 (including today’s post). On one hand, I can’t believe how many new recipes I’ve made in the past year. On the other, I realize I have a long way to go! But as I stated in the beginning, this project wasn’t something that I wanted to complete in a certain time frame. Also, due to budget restraints and amount of people willing to eat the large number of cakes and desserts, I need to spread out the recipes and allow a few calories to be burned before I fill friends’ and family’s plates with more food. So I hope you’re all willing to hang in there for a while, because there is a lot left to accomplish in the kitchen!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Finding Inspiration in Cookies: Springerle

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been in a creative rut for quite some time. I stare at my art supplies and all I can do is organize them and put them away. I open a journal and words can’t find their way to the page. I know that the cause of this stress stems from unemployment, but breaking through it is hard to do.

At the beginning of my unemployment, the situation gave me a reason to write. There was so much going on in my head, I had to get it all down to make sense of it. But this coming February will mark my 2-year anniversary of losing my job. I never thought it would last this long. The constant frustration of never hearing back from employers or interviewing and getting excited about the position only to find out I didn’t get an offer has taken its toll. Add to that the negative stigma surrounding the phrase “long-term unemployed” and harsh comments I’ve received about falling into that category have left me feeling scared, discouraged, ashamed and alone. I can’t even find respite in sleep.  Instead of crashing into the pillow and retreating into the crazy dream world behind my eyelids, I lie awake pondering what possessions I can sell to pay the bills, wonder when things will turn around, and try to remember a time when I wasn’t so stressed out.

Writing down my thoughts used to help, but I’ve gotten sick of writing the same worries over and over. I’ve tried filling pages with nothing but words of encouragement, but then a setback will occur and doubt will lodge its destructive-self deep into my head, destroying all the hard work of those positive words. So I pulled out all of my art books for inspiration and turned to the work of my favorite artists to get my mind focused on creativity and hopefulness instead of stress and worry.

In my very first blog post, I mentioned the work of Dan Eldon, who is one of my greatest inspirations. I also spoke of him in my presentation to the Visual Journaling Collective in June. So I began to sift through his journal pages. Then I turned to the work of Keri Smith, another of my favorite artists. She has a book called “How to be an Explorer of the World” that I absolutely love. It is filled with ways to discover the world around you, interact with your surroundings, and truly pay attention to everything you see. She uses a lot of found objects in her work and since acquiring her book a few years ago, I am constantly looking for things, especially when I take walks with Murphy. I have quite a collection of random objects that I’ve discovered throughout our journeys. I also highly recommend her books “Wreck This Journal,” “This is Not a Book,” and “Mess.” Each is a journal with prompts on how to let your creativity go wild. For example, one page instructed me to fill it with dirt. I took one look at my dog who had just dug a hole in my yard and thought, “Perfect!” I ran over, grabbed his foot, wiped it all over the page and presto – art was made! For someone like me who is constantly struggling to “let go of perfect,” this was a big breakthrough. 

The "artist" with his work

Friday, October 29, 2010

A Tricky Treat: October Birthday Cake – Chocolate Cake De Luxe (For Roz)

Yesterday was National Chocolate Day, one of the greatest holidays ever invented (in my opinion) and the perfect day to unveil the October birthday cake of the month: Chocolate Cake De Luxe. I consider myself a pretty extreme chocoholic; it takes a lot for me to deem something “too chocolaty.” But I have to admit that this dessert truly lives up to its name and is one of the most decadent chocolate cakes I have ever tasted.

There are three different kinds of chocolate: the cake itself, the middle layer of frosting and the outside frosting. I completed the first two components with relative ease, but the outside frosting required a bit of patience and finesse. Of all the things I’ve attempted this year, surprisingly, frostings have given me the most trouble.

The cake and middle layer of frosting

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

All-In-One Thanksgiving Dinner: Chicken & Stuffing Casserole

As the days get shorter and colder, more and more signs that the holiday season is quickly approaching begin to pop up everywhere. Stores are already decorating for Christmas. Reminders to order your Thanksgiving turkey are in grocery stores and farmers markets. And when we were visiting friends last weekend, their 5-year old was already watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special on DVD (I had to applaud her for that one, it’s one of my favorites and always makes me happy, no matter what time of year I see it). 

But the cooler temperatures and leafless trees trigger more than the desire to bundle up, they also stir up cravings for comfort food. One of my favorite types of comfort food is casseroles (or hot dishes as they are typically called in Minnesota). So after I closed all the windows and flipped the switch for heat in the house, I dove into the casserole section of The Found Recipe Box to see what I could find. And I found just the recipe to get us all in the mood for the upcoming November holiday: Chicken & Stuffing Casserole.

This is yet another very simple recipe to prepare: throw some chicken breasts in a baking dish, cover them with Swiss cheese, stir the stuffing mixture, pour it over the top of the chicken, and then throw it in the oven. The hardest part is waiting the two hours for it to bake. But it was well worth the wait. Upon first bite, my husband and I both agreed that it tasted just like Thanksgiving dinner. The only thing missing was a side of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie (or perhaps pumpkin chiffon pie – either version 1 or version 2 from The Found Recipe Box). The only change we’d make is to skip the Swiss cheese layer the next time. 

If you’re looking for a way to get into the spirit if the holidays without stepping foot into a store that is all lit up and that bombards you with the smell of cinnamon pine cones, pop this dish into the oven. Soon your home will be enveloped in the aroma of Thanksgiving and even the first bite will warm you up enough to ward off the winter cool down for just a little longer. It’s a great way to enjoy all the senses of the season without all the stress that comes along with preparing a full Thanksgiving meal. And if that doesn’t put you in the holiday mood, pop in the Charlie Brown Christmas DVD – it always fills my heart with that warm, loving light of the season. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

First Taste of the Season: Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

I am happy to announce that canned pumpkin is back on the shelves at the grocery store! Halloween decorations are popping up all over the neighborhood and to celebrate autumn, and the return of canned pumpkin, I decided to make the first pumpkin pie of the season.

When we bought our house, I was excited to be able to decorate the outside for all the holidays. Since fall is my favorite season, I took particular interest in jazzing up the house’s curb appeal with pumpkins, gourds and corn stalks. However, my excitement was short lived when I discovered what a ruckus the décor would cause among the local squirrel community. They began by scaling the corn stalks in search of leftover ears, which they then threw to the ground and began to fight over. But that was only the beginning of the commotion. Next, they set their sights on my pumpkins. They chewed a hole into the side of each pumpkin, large enough for their rotund little bodies to fit through, then sat inside the bulbous food pit and ate it from the inside out. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Sucking the Last Juices From Summer: Individual Peach Dumplings

Technically, it may be fall, but in the Twin Cities the past week or so has felt like summer. Last week we even had temperatures in the 80s for a few days. If it wasn’t for all the bare trees and leaves piling up in the yard, you’d think we were still making our way through the summer months.

All of these warm, sunny afternoons have left me craving those delectable summer treats and when I dove into the box to find a recipe to satisfy my taste buds, I came out carrying a pamphlet for Colorado peaches. The pages contain several different peach recipes, but as soon as I made my way to the store and discovered how hard the fuzzy summer fruit would be to find, I decided to settle for just making one…if I could ever find fresh peaches.

One afternoon, Murphy and I began to make the rounds of all the local grocery stores in search of the main ingredient. Finally, at our last stop, we discovered a heaping pile of beautiful autumn-colored peaches. And they just happened to be from Colorado – how fitting! The smell floating up from the mound of ripe fruit was intoxicating and was the perfect match to the blue skies and rising mercury outside. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Chocolate Do-Over: Chocolate Cake

I apologize again for the delay in posting. My mom came to visit and we were busy running all over the Twin Cities in search of antique treasures (more on that to come). Then I got knocked out with a cold that kept me prisoner on the couch for several days and left my head in a near constant haze. But I am slowly on the mend and eager to get back into the kitchen!

The thing about being sick is that it leaves you with that feeling at the end of the day of being behind. I know I was sick and needed to rest, but I still felt like there were so many things that needed to be done and I didn’t accomplish any of them. Most importantly, I left another huge gap in posts on the blog. We’ve all had those days – the ones where you wish you could rewind and start over from the beginning and maybe, just maybe, things would go differently.

There are experiences in the kitchen that leave us with the same longing for a do-over. A few weeks ago when Ryan and I went down to visit friends and their new baby, I had planned on making a chocolate cake from the box. Only, when I began to pull ingredients from the cabinet, I realized that I was lacking one main ingredient – cocoa – and didn’t have time to run back to the store to pick more up so I had to switch to the Southern Fudge Cake (which proved to be a very delicious substitution). This taught me a valuable lesson: even when you think you have everything you need, double check before starting a recipe...just in case.

During a recent trip to the grocery store, I restocked my cocoa supply and decided it was time for a recipe do-over. This chocolate cake, when you have all the ingredients, is very simple to make. I chose to do cupcakes instead of a cake and I have to admit, I didn’t make the frosting on the card. I cheated and bought a can of pink frosting with funfetti (I love that stuff! It makes whatever you sprinkle it onto look “happy.”) Everyone who tasted these cupcakes agreed: this is possibly the most rich and moist cake anyone has tasted. And I suggest having a fork close by, even if you make the cupcakes. They can be quite crumbly, but in a very delicious way! 

It would be nice if every day had the opportunity for such a rich and tasty do-over. But at least now I have a recipe to pull out for those days when nothing seems to be going right. I guess the moral of the story is: when it all appears to be crumbling away, pull out your fork and enjoy all those delectable morsels. Because things are always a little better when chocolate is by your side.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Take the Long Way Home: September Birthday Cake/Brown-Eyed Susan Cake

This weekend we traveled to Illinois to celebrate my dad’s birthday. This is such a beautiful time of year – the leaves are just beginning to change and the landscape seemed to glow all the way through Wisconsin. As Ryan steered us through the illuminated scenes, I stared out the window seeking inspiration from the autumn palette. Listening to the hum of the tires on the road and counting rows of pine trees in structured groves along the side of the highway, I realized that every ounce of the experience reminded me of my dad.

Some of my earliest memories are of cruising around in cars with my dad. He has always had an affinity for “cool” cars, especially the classics, and I can’t remember a time in my life when there wasn’t a car sitting in our driveway that made men salivate and my mom threaten to put a “for sale” sign on it. Much to my mom’s dismay, I inherited the car gene and was always intrigued by these vehicles. When I was little, I’m not sure if it was the car that was so fascinating or the fact that it meant uninterrupted time with my dad that was the appeal. But I’ll never forget the feeling of driving around town in my dad’s dark green Trans-Am with the windows down, letting the summer air swat my hair into tangled knots, listening to songs that will forever be embedded into my heart, and looking over and smiling at my dad. Ironically, the songs that are the most dear to me from that time are on Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” album – how fitting that food is mentioned in the title.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Welcoming Autumn: Sugar Cookies

Last night at 10:09pm the seasons officially changed from summer to fall, although, around here it has actually felt like fall for the past few weeks. The temperatures have been dipping into the 40s at night – which would be great sleeping weather if my dog would stop stealing the extra blanket I threw on the bed! And the colors of the leaves are fading fast, creating a layer of camouflage across the back yard the color of a Golden Retriever, perfect for Murphy to hide in while sneaking up on his squirrel enemies and completing his mission of destroying every pinecone that falls in the yard. There are piles of pinecone carnage everywhere.  

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Delivering Bundles of Joy: Southern Fudge Cake & Strawberry Chiffon Pie

The other day, while wandering through the aisles of the grocery store with a grumbling stomach and rising level of agitation at not being able to find anything (they’re currently renovating so everything has been moved to a temporary location that the search into a game of “Where’s Waldo”), I started to pay more attention to the people around me rather than the food. Sure, there were those who were just as frustrated as I was that a ten minute “quick” run to the store had turned into a quest more daunting than Frodo’s trip to Mordor (my husband is a HUGE Lord of the Rings fan, I haven’t yet read the books, but the story still keeps finding its way into my life regardless). But then I noticed something else: the bleary-eyed, glazed-over look that seemed to have taken possession of so many of the faces around me. Many grabbed aimlessly for meals in a box or frozen bag that required little to no preparation. Others seemed totally disconnected from the experience all together and as their arms reached out to grab items and toss them into the cart, I wondered if they would even remember doing it when they got home and unloaded their bags.

After locating the few items I needed, I made my way back to the growing lines at the checkout. Instead of scanning tabloid headlines like I usually do to waste time in line, I began to contemplate how much thought we actually put into the food we make. So many of us are too worn out at the end of the day to care enough to put our few remaining scraps of energy into a well-planned, home cooked meal. To be honest, until I started this project, I didn’t pay as much attention to my weekly menu as I do now. Before, my husband and I planned meals that would provide enough leftovers for the rest of the week or, if we hadn’t had time to run to the store, we’d piece together the remnants of the freezer, fridge and pantry until it resembled something edible.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Saying Goodbye to Summer: August Birthday Cake/Banana Cake

The end of August is a bittersweet time in Minnesota. On one hand, the sudden appearance of school buses practicing their routes through neighborhood streets is a reminder that school, and the end of summer, are right around the corner. But on the other hand, we have the Minnesota State Fair to look forward to. A few years ago, my family came up to attend the State Fair for their very first time. They instantly fell in love and it has been a tradition ever since. And this year was no exception.

At the first hint of summer, my mom began asking when they’d release the list of new food items for the fair this year. It’s always exciting to see the unique ways people invent to prepare and serve food (did you ever think you could eat an entire Thanksgiving dinner in one glorious lump served on a stick? Well you can!) We had to wait for what seemed a lifetime, but soon enough the papers and news programs began to discuss the latest foods to be deep fried and skewered. The hot item this year was camel on a stick and it was instantly placed at the top of our “to-try” list. After weeks of collecting articles, mapping out where our favorites were being served and crossing the days off the calendar, my parents finally arrived and it was time to hit the fair. Here are the photos of everything we tried along with our reviews: