Thursday, April 22, 2010

Fuel for the Road: Best-Ever Refrigerator Bran Muffins

Today I start a 3-day journey to see my grandmother. I’ll be driving six hours to IL where I’ll get in the car with my mom and dad and then we’ll make the 16-hour trek down to Florida. My bags are packed, my selection of books are tucked into the car and as soon as I post this, I’m giving Murphy one more cuddle and then I’m hitting the road.

Road trips can be bad for your health — sitting in one position for multiple hours, poor selection of food along the highway, sleeping with your head against a window and when you wake up you have a twinge in your neck for a week. So it’s important to plan ahead. We have a tradition in our family of eating egg salad sandwiches on car trips. My mom started it when we were kids and drove to Florida for a couple of weeks in the summer. She didn’t want to leave the eggs in the fridge so she’d hard boil them and we’d have a container of egg salad in the cooler and a loaf of bread to make sandwiches for lunch. In our family, a road trip just isn’t complete without them.

The Found Recipe Box also had a recipe to offer for a long car ride: Best-Ever Refrigerator Bran Muffins. They’re easy to make, healthier than eating at McDonalds and travel well. The recipe calls for bran cereal and I wasn’t sure if it meant flakes or buds. I chose the All-Bran BranBuds cereal, but I was concerned that the buds would be chunky in the muffins so I put them into the food processor, which worked out really well. These muffins are actually kind of sweet, which I wasn’t expecting, and they’re really good with just a little bit of butter and some honey, especially when they’re fresh out of the oven. And the recipe makes a ton, so if you have a long car ride ahead of you, you’ll be all set. 

Well, it’s time to hit the road. I can’t wait to see my grandmother and share stories from my adventures in the kitchen. And I can’t wait to dig through her recipe boxes to see what treasures she has hidden inside. She is an avid recipe collector. I have dividers in my box to separate the categories, but she has entire boxes dedicated to a category. She has been such a huge inspiration for this project and I can’t wait to thank her in person.

I’ll be back in a week, but be sure to check The Found Recipe Box Facebook page for updates! Until then, happy cooking!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

When You Need Chocolate…Fast: Chocolate Outrage Snack Cake

An opportunity arose this week for me to travel to Florida to visit my grandmother. I couldn’t pass it up. But a last minute change in plans also meant that I needed to scramble to get other tasks wrapped up before my trip. My biggest challenge: to complete my submissions for the Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series.

One of the things I love about living in the Twin Cities is being so close to the Loft. I have access to writing classes year-round, I can be a part of an inspiring and supportive writing community, and I can attend readings from some of the most influential authors and poets. For a writer, walking into the Loft is like opening the doors to Utopia. Among the opportunities the Loft provides to the Minnesota writing community is their annual Mentor Series in Poetry & Creative Prose. There are three categories to which you can apply: poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. Four writers are chosen from each category to work with two mentors (who are nationally acclaimed writers in that category) for one year. This is my third year applying, however, this year, I decided to up the ante and apply in two categories: poetry and creative nonfiction. The deadline is April 30th, but I’ll be in Florida that day collecting pecans out of my grandmother’s backyard to make a pecan pie, so I needed to pull a few late nights and get my submissions completed early. And, I am happy to announce that as of noon today, I officially handed over my packets containing 17 pages of poetry and 18 pages of creative nonfiction to the Loft office. Now I guess I need to think about packing since I leave tomorrow.

Last minute schedule changes are something that everyone can relate to. And quite often, they affect our meal plans. But I was happy to find a recipe in the box that accommodated a hectic lifestyle: Chocolate Outrage Snack Cake. This is actually a microwave recipe from a Nestle Tollhouse Chocolate Chip package. I’m not sure of the exact date this recipe was published, but it was quite a different baking experience than the 1930’s recipes I have been making. From start to finish, this dessert can be made in about 15 minutes. I’ve never used the microwave as a baking tool and I have to admit that I was skeptical of how this would turn out. But I was pleasantly surprised when I took a bite. This dessert is basically a gooey chocolate chip oatmeal cookie bar. I’d recommend eating it when it’s still warm because it literally melts into your mouth and chocolate flows into every nook and cranny from the tip of your tongue all the way down your throat. Yum! It definitely makes you stop and take a moment to enjoy the chocolate indulgence before you run off again in ten different directions. 

Speaking of which, I need to pack! I’ll be in the car for almost three days each way so I need to collect a stack of books to read (I’m one of the few lucky people who can read in the car). Now which ones do I choose…?

I have one more recipe to post before I go, but then I won’t be able to post again until the first week in May. I will be updating The Found Recipe Box page on Facebook though! (If you haven’t become a fan yet, be sure to check it out.) Maybe I’ll even come across a recipe box in Florida that needs a home. I’d love to have recipes for all of that amazing southern cooking!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Seeing the Flowers Beneath the Brush: Creamy Vinaigrette Salad Dressing

The first spring rains fell this week and the world instantly became much greener. I have been surveying the gardens for signs of growth and was excited to see new shoots popping up out of the ground. Sadly, the dandelions already appear to be the most abundant of all the new plants. Murphy, who thinks he’s part horse and started grazing after he watched one doing it in a field, has been marching around the yard with his head down munching on anything green. He, however, is not too picky and thinks my daylilies look a lot like grass which has caused me to go running into the yard screaming, “Murphy NO!” several times this week.

I love my gardens. Like cooking, I really didn’t know much about gardening before I started, but happily accepted the challenge to learn. My husband and I have worked very hard over the four years we’ve own our house to fix up the yard and make it look colorful and inviting. Murphy isn’t the only obstacle we’ve faced in our attempts. When we bought our house, the previous owners left us a present: a brush pile in the back corner that had been sitting there for so long it killed all the grass beneath and around it. It took several weekends of breaking down sticks and bagging debris before the area was completely cleared. We tried seeding it several times, but the grass refused to grow.

This area had really become a thorn in my side. I was so sick of looking at dirt and frustrated by our failing efforts to grow grass. I wondered if this area would ever look nice. When we got Murphy, it was instantly apparent that this would be a huge problem because puppies LOVE dirt. And when it rained, creating a mud pile rivaling the mess at Woodstock, Murphy was even more ecstatic. Something had to be done. We considered sod, but then I had an idea to landscape the area instead. But what we found when we started digging completely changed our plans. 

As soon as Ryan plunged his shovel into the dirt, he struck something solid. He did this a few more times around the area and got the same result. We removed a thin layer of dirt, only a few inches deep, and discovered cement. We continued until all the cement was exposed, revealing a 10’ x 10’ cement pad. Our first thought was, “How are we supposed to get rid of this?” After much consideration we decided to keep it, landscape around it and use the area as a patio. It took some reconfiguring of landscaping plans, swapping of plants and addition of fences to keep the dog out, but it finally looks nice. It’s no longer a thorn in my side; it’s something that I can look at and be proud of. 

 Spring 2007 - we strike cement

Once the dirt is cleared, we have a new patio!

Add a few plants and it's already starting to shape up

The plants are in. Next step: protect them from Murphy

Who, me?

Summer 2008 - A Murphy-proof fence

Summer 2009 - in full bloom

Last summer I tried growing vegetables. As a kid, my mom used to make us pattypan squash. They’re one of my favorites, but since I moved to Minnesota I haven’t been able to find them at the grocery store. I decided to grow my own. With no room left in the yard for new gardens, I used a large aluminum tub instead, which would have worked perfectly had I not over-planted. Soon after the seeds began to grow, I was transplanting squash plants into my other gardens. It was an interesting mix of vegetables and flowers, but it worked and I was able to share one of my favorite summer vegetables with Ryan who had never had pattypan squash before.

This week, as I observed my yard and protected my daylilies from Murphy, I imagined new places to dig up to expand my vegetable garden. I thought of all the fresh fruits and vegetables that I could use for the recipes in the box. All this planning made me hungry for some fresh veggies and I was happy to find a salad dressing recipe in the box to accompany my cravings – Creamy Vinaigrette Salad Dressing. Don’t be fooled by the word “creamy” appearing in the name, this isn’t a thick, heavy dressing that will weigh down your leafy greens. It’s actually quite light, both in texture and in flavor, and has a taste that makes you feel as if you’re dining outside on a summer evening as the sun begins to finger paint in the sky. Well, at least that’s how I felt. If you try it, let me know what image it draws in your head!

Looking out onto my budding gardens made me hopeful for this current period of my life. Although the outlook appears bleak, like a muddy patch caused by a huge brush pile, and I sometimes wonder when it will ever get better, all I have to do is watch the daylilies pop up and explode into brilliant yellow cups and see the stalks of purple salvia sway in the breeze to know this lull is only temporary. All I have to do is clear away the debris, reconfigure my plans and soon I’ll have something beautiful to gaze upon that will bring me happiness and satisfaction. And when that day comes, I’m sure I’ll find an appropriate recipe in the box to toast the occasion.

Monday, April 12, 2010

April Birthday Cake: Easter Egg Cakes

The birds are back. The patch we put over their hole only temporarily thwarted their attempts at building a nest in the side of our house. They have begun to peck around the patch in search for a spot just as easy to penetrate as the original location. Take your pick birds, the siding is in serious need of replacement.

At first, I was pretty miffed. There’s a product called Bitter Apple they make for dogs that you can spray onto things the dog is chewing, such as furniture, to deter them from using the item as a toy. I wondered if they made anything like that for birds that you could buy by the gallon, attach to your hose and spray all over your house. However, every dog we’ve ever had has merely licked off the Bitter Apple and continued to gnaw on whatever it was we sprayed (for one dog, this was the kitchen table, cabinet corners, baseboards on the wall…). With my luck, I’d have the same result with the birds. But, after staring at the chips in the siding for a while, I had to admit that I admired their tenacity. If I was able to look past the frustration caused by damage being done to my house, perhaps I could learn something from these persistent creatures. If this were a fable, the moral would be: never let anything stand in the way of accomplishing your goal.

I have learned so many things from this recipe box: how to separate eggs, how to make a boiled icing, that a doll can be used to decorate a cake, and that, with enough cream cheese and sugar, cranberries can actually be really sweet. But perhaps the greatest lessons I’ve learned haven’t come from the recipes themselves, but from the posts I’ve written about them. Before this project, I’d cook dinner or bake cookies and never consider the process or how it relates to other aspects of my life. Now, every time I step out of my kitchen, I take the experiences from that room along with me on every journey on which I embark.

Life is like reading a recipe card; you have to pay attention to what you’re doing or you might miss something very important. Kate DiCamillo, author of Because of Winn-Dixie and The Magician’s Elephant (if you haven’t read this one, I highly recommend it – it’s a beautiful story that will reignite your ability to believe in the impossible) has a beautiful essay on her website that illustrates this point perfectly. She describes an experience of walking out of a grocery store and how the events that followed were her inspiration for writing Because of Winn-Dixie. However, it was the words of a writing teacher that caused her to recognize the importance of paying attention to moments like those. Because when we do, we bear witness to simple acts that can change us in profound ways. There are magical moments surrounding us all the time, but if we ignore them, we deny them the chance to change our lives.

As I chose my next recipe, I was given an opportunity to not only apply what I learned from reading Kate DiCamillo’s essay, but also the lessons gathered from watching the birds dismantle my siding one peck at a time. I pulled out the Birthday Cake for Every Month recipe card and saw the cake for April was an Easter Bunny Cake. I could have kicked myself for not checking sooner because I missed being able to post it for the Easter holiday. But when I checked the booklet to find the recipe, it wasn’t there. Instead, there was a variation on the Four Egg White Cake called Easter Egg Cakes. Eggs actually sounded a lot easier to make than a bunny and, after a marathon week of baking the previous week, I was happy to accept the lesser of the two challenges.

The cake itself is fairly simple and is baked in a loaf pan. While it was in the oven, I moved onto the next step – frosting and decoration. The frosting in the booklet is another boiled icing. As I’ve stated before, I finally figured out how to make them successfully, but don’t like the taste so I’ve been attempting to learn how to make other frostings to use as an alternative to the boiled icing. This week I made a Butter Cream Frosting (I found a recipe online, click here to view it). The decoration stage added a new skill to my culinary repertoire: dyeing coconut with food coloring. This may not seem very exotic, but for some reason, I was excited to tint the coconut shavings with bright spring colors. It’s simple really. Drop a few drops of food coloring into a bowl. Add in just enough water to dilute the drops to the desired color and to produce enough liquid to cover the coconut. Then add the coconut shavings and stir. It’s that easy! 

Once the cake is cooled, cut it into pieces and frost each piece separately on its side so that it resembles an Easter egg (I had to make two batches of frosting to cover all the pieces of cake). Then cover each “egg” with the desired color of coconut. Soon you’ll have a table full of fuzzy little cakes in an array of beautiful colors.

Looking at the cakes covering my kitchen table, I thought of the birds and their quest to find a place to lay their own eggs. Part of me felt bad about taking away the location of their dream home. But when I took a break from cleaning the dyed-coconut kitchen counters and walked into the backyard with Murphy, I was treated to a beautiful sight. The birds had found a new home! I have three birdhouses in my yard, none of which have had the privilege of hosting a family for the spring and summer…until this year. Two of the three homes are happily occupied (hopefully the family that tried to set up camp in my siding has taken residence in one of these houses).



Still seeking tenants 

Watching the birds flit around my yard carrying twigs and bunches of dog hair to build their nests, I realized that it isn’t persistence alone that leads to success, but you also need to be flexible and resilient as well. I considered all the resumés I’ve sent out in the past year that have been rejected, ignored, or lost among the endless piles. Maybe this block I’ve come up against is no different than the patch we put on our house to cover the birds’ hole. Maybe life is telling me that if I keep my eyes open and pay attention to what’s around me, I’ll find a beautiful, spacious birdhouse of my own. And it’s a reminder to dream big. Because what the birds thought was perfect – a hole pecked into the side of a house – was actually meager in comparison to the luxurious home in which they now reside.

Murphy and I decided to present a housewarming gift to the birds: more dog hair. I got the brush and with each stroke, I gave my dog some much needed grooming and produced even more snuggly bedding for the birds and their babies. Once the bristles were overflowing with golden strands, I emptied the brush into the tangle of leafless bushes where the birds could easily find our gift. Everyone’s dream needs a helping hand and I was happy to lend one to the birds. It was the least I could do to repay them for all they had done for me. Sure, they pecked a hole in my house, but that hole led me on a journey to discover that I need to keep my eyes open because I just might find that I’m closer to realizing my dreams than I thought. For Kate DiCamillo, opening her eyes made her realize that walking out of a grocery store can lead to more than an afternoon of unloading groceries. For me, opening my eyes taught me that cooking is more than mixing ingredients or learning to dye coconut, it’s about the stories attached to the cards. As I pull each batter-stained recipe out of the box, I imagine the stories dripping like melted butter off the tattered paper and onto my kitchen counter. With a quick swipe of the sponge, I’ll wipe them all up and wring them out onto a page where, hopefully, they’ll spread their magic and inspire others to pay attention to the world around them. You never know when you might encounter the simple moment that may change your life in unimaginable ways. Will your eyes be open to receive it?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Filling in the Holes: Jelly Roll

Spring is in the air which, at my house, means that birds are building nests and the dog is digging holes. Neither bodes well for the resale value of my house. Now that the weather is nice, Murphy insists on spending the entire day outside. It’s fine when he’s lounging on the deck in the sun or running under the phone lines as the squirrels run back and forth above his head, chuckling to themselves about the stupid dog below. But he gets bored. He wants me to sit outside with him all day, which I could easily do if I had a stack of books by my side, but there are things to do inside the house. In attempt to cure his boredom, he digs holes. Deep holes. All over the yard.

I’ve invented a game to keep the dog occupied and give him such much needed exercise. Well, it’s not so much a game as it is me standing in the middle of the deck and throwing rocks. A previous owner of the house used landscaping rocks to edge the deck. I hate them. Murphy loves them. He’s even tried to eat them, twice he was successful. As I was leaving the house on my first day of work at my last job, he puked one up. Not a good start to the day. But even more than eating them, he loves to chase them. So, from the middle of the deck, I throw rocks. Some towards the driveway, then some towards the other side, all the while Murphy thunders across the deck, back and forth, chasing rocks. He doesn’t care about catching them, he just loves the chase.

The other day, while we were playing this game, I noticed a Chickadee clinging to the side of my house. I was happy to hear the sweet call of the songbird, but I wasn’t happy to see he’d taken a page out of Murphy’s playbook and was set on destroying my house. Because when he flew away, he revealed a large hole in my siding where the cute little bird once sat. After further investigation, I learned that he had been hard at work pecking away the siding and whatever was behind it to create a little nook inside of which he intended to build a nest. And after everything I’ve done for the birds! I even purchased a special squirrel-proof feeder for the front yard and diligently refill it year round. Perhaps this is why Ryan calls them “freeloaders.”

I set Ryan to work on figuring out a way to patch the hole and I escaped to the kitchen. We spent the Easter holiday with his family and I offered to bring dessert. Ryan made a special request for Cranberry Bars and I also made a Jelly Roll. There was a variation on the back of the Jelly Roll card for a Calla Lily Cake for Easter Dessert, but I took a pass on this challenge. I decided that I wanted to use the Whipped Cream/Cream Cheese frosting instead. Aside from trying to roll the cake without breaking it, it’s really easy to make and doesn’t require much time (the baking time is only 15 minutes). And here’s a tip: you don’t need to worry about cracks that occur during the rolling process if you frost the cake – it covers them all up!
Both desserts were a hit, but I think the Cranberry Bars came out in the lead (if you haven’t tried these yet, I highly recommend them. They keep getting rave reviews! And the author of the card even wrote “very good” in the top corner.). But once the meal had been eaten and desserts devoured, it was time to come home and deal with the avian problem. A small piece of wood wedged under the siding seemed to do the trick – at least until we’re able to get the house re-sided or the Chickadees make friends with a Woodpecker and convince him make an even bigger hole. Now I just need to invest in a tennis ball launcher, customize it to throw the rocks in my backyard and then I’m all set. That would hopefully keep Murphy busy long enough for me fill the holes he dug, cover them with sod and keep them safe until the sod attaches to the existing grass. Hey, I can dream can’t I?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

An All-American Day of Firsts: Old Fashioned Apple Pie

Yesterday was a historic day in Minnesota. The Twins played their first game in their new stadium, Target Field. It seems that all anyone has been able to talk about lately is the new baseball park. However, the it’s not just the stadium that has everyone excited, it’s also the lineup of food.

The menu will, of course, include the typical baseball food such as hotdogs and nachos, but Minnesota is really putting their stamp on this park and some hometown favorites are standing proud on the menu as well. The famous Juicy Lucy burger will join local faves such as Kramarczuk's sausages, Murrary’s steak sandwiches and Caribou Coffee. And, since this is Minnesota, what event would be complete without State Fair-inspired food, such as walleye on a stick, pork chops on a stick and cheese curds? My husband stood in line for 45 minutes yesterday to get walleye, which he was happy to report was “very good.”

In honor of this momentous occasion, I decided to embark on a landmark event of my own: I made my very first apple pie, complete with a homemade pie crust. The weather has been so nice lately that we’ve all had summer on our minds. And what says summer better than baseball and apple pie? I was nervous and excited about this adventure, as I’m sure the Twin’s were when they stepped out onto the beautifully manicured field for the very first time (I think they had a little more at stake than I did though).

I’ve always thought pie crusts would be really difficult to make, I had visions of a boiled icing afternoon in my future. But it wasn’t bad at all. And thankfully, it all worked on the first try. The individual pieces weren’t difficult to make. However, once the pie was filled with cinnamon-sugar apples, the next challenge was fitting the top and bottom crusts together. I think that is definitely an art form that requires practice. I got the pieces together, but it wasn’t artistically sculpted like some of the pies I see in magazines or in bakeries. But in the end, all that mattered was the taste. And in that area, this pie lit up the scoreboard. It’s a simple, classic tasting pie – not overly sweet, not overly tart. It’s one of those flavors that makes the fork linger in your mouth because you slowly pull the pie onto your tongue, savoring each delicious moment it’s on your taste buds. 

Sadly, the Twin’s didn’t have as much success on their first game in the new field as I did with my apple pie. They did come back to win today though. And this is only exhibition; opening day isn’t until April 12th so they have some time to work out the kinks. And hopefully, once they do, their season will be as mouthwatering as an Old Fashioned Apple Pie. 

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Woman Behind the Box: Cheesecake Squares

Since this recipe box has come into my possession, I’ve often wondered about its previous owner. Who was she? What was her favorite recipe? Why was the box sold at an antique show instead of being passed on to a family member?  This month, I am going to answer those questions, even if the answers are only my imagination.

I am a member of the Visual Journaling Collective at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. The organizer of the group, Roz Stendahl, is also the creator of International Fake Journal Month. What that means is that for the month of April, you keep a “fake” journal. Create a character, write stories about that person’s adventures, draw from his/her perspective, and live in someone else’s life for a month. You never know where it can lead. A story that a woman started last year turned into a book and is now in the process of being published!

April is also National Poetry Month and NaPoWriMo. The later was created to honor the former and is a challenge to write one poem everyday for the month of April. April is going to be a busy month, because I’ll be taking on both of these challenges. I did this last year also, but wasn’t able to truly put my heart into it. I had recently lost my job and thought these projects would give me something positive to work toward, but early in April, my grandfather became sick and I traveled with my parents to Florida to help take care of him and my grandmother. We were there for about two weeks then needed to come home to take care of some things, but planned on heading back down. I was only back in Minnesota for about a day when I got the call that my grandfather had passed away. The next morning I was on a plane to go down for the funeral and ended up staying another two weeks to help my grandmother. Needless to say, I just didn’t have much mental energy to spend on creating a character for a journal or writing a poem everyday. Somehow, I did see both projects through to the end of the month, but this year I look forward to enjoying them a little more. And I have big plans for my fake journal. 

Like I said, it’s time to start learning more about the previous owner of the recipe box. So, for the month of April, I will be keeping a journal from her perspective. I’ve already concluded a few things about her: she liked to entertain and when invited to parties, she always offered to bring dessert. As I’ve said before, she was a woman of my own heart and had an insatiable sweet tooth. But I don’t think the similarities end there. I have felt strongly connected to this box and perhaps that is because I am more like the woman who filled it than I ever imagined. Hopefully over the course of the next month, I’ll be able to put some more of the pieces together and eventually even put a name and a face to this mysterious woman.

In her honor, I began the first day of the month with a recipe I believe she would have chosen for a festive event: Cheesecake Squares. And I shared them with people who also consider April a special month: my poetry group. The weather in Minnesota has been incredible – a snowless March, 80 degree temps today – and this cheesecake matched it well. It is light and fluffy with just a hint of fresh lemon, it tastes like summer sunshine. And it got a thumbs up from everyone in the group, in fact, they even made a special request that I make it again. I told them that when raspberries are cheaper than $5 for a tiny container, I’ll make the cheesecake and serve it with fresh fruit. That is the only topping that would complete this dessert; I think anything else would take away from its airy freshness (that’s saying a lot coming from someone who thinks that chocolate goes with everything). 

 Who knows, maybe this year I’ll be the one turning my story into a book that gets published. To give that dream a little extra help, I’m tacking a picture of a book with my name listed as the author onto my vision board. And inside, I’m adding a special dedication page with this message:

To the woman who owned The Found Recipe Box before me: thank you. I never could have done this without you. It has been an incredible journey and I’ve had you in my heart every step of the way.