Friday, December 31, 2010

What are you doing New Year's Eve?

Normally, we are stay at home fuddy-duddies. While it always seems the rest of the world is ushering the old year out with a party, dancing, a champagne toast and a kiss at midnight, we are usually home with kids, maybe eating some fondue, playing cards, banging some pots and pans and going to bed at 12:01 (that would be 10:01 for Mr. D).

THIS year, still working on my fiftieth year, I really didn't want a replay of the last twenty years. Let's splurge and do something different!

So Mr. D. and I are heading out to a little party at an historic, antique-filled hotel to eat really nice food, play some trivia games with the other guests and do that champagne toast at midnight. (I'll need to spike Mr. D's dinner beverage with some Red Bull so he'll make it to 12:01). I'll be treated to a nice breakfast in the morning that I won't have to make myself or clean up afterward. Should be a grand way to start a new year!

But it's been hell to pay trying to get out of Dodge. There is a good reason we don't pack a bag on a whim and take off on short notice. That simply is not in the realm of possibility. It has taken two days of arrangements to ensure that the world will keep turning while we are gone for 18 hours. Now we have earned our little excursion.

What are you doing to ring out the old year and ring in the new?

I would like to say a hearty Happy New Year to all of you, my friends and family who occasionally or regularly visit me here in this little bit of cyberspace .  May your new year be blessed with contentment, prosperity and good health.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Fresh Clean Outlook

When was the last time there were any outdoor photographs on this blog?

Don't count those snow pictures I took last fall because they were shot from the warmth of the house looking out of the doorway.

So outdoors...a long, long time ago.

Because it was long, long ago that I spent any time outside the walls of my house.
It's been weeks, months, years? since I've seen the blue sky and felt the warmth of the sun.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is setting in and putting me in a funk.
I should not be in a funk since I have so much for which to be thankful.
I've resolved to quit whining because there are much worse things in the world then imperfect cakes.

A walk in the fresh snow and clean air today was just what the doctor ordered.

We've been having a beautiful winter season so far. Just enough snow to make the landscape especially lovely but not too much to strand people in treacherous conditions.

The air is cold and clean without being frigid enough to freeze the pipes.

The landscape can be beautiful and interesting even without flowering shrubs and growing gardens.

And I am looking forward to two or three months of a more quiet, restful season when the work load is lightened and the ToDo list is shortened.

Self Flagellation

Pardon me while I vent for a moment.

No one is happier than I that Christmas is finished. (Though that is disputable since really, today is the fourth day of Christmas and there are eight more days to go until Epiphany). But my obligations to Christmas are finished anyway. One week of my precious school vacation was consumed with Christmas preparations and seventy five dozen cookies (give or take a few). With one week of break left I should be able to use it to rest, relax and rejuvenate before getting back into the school grind for another semester. I say "should" but that would be in my dreams.

On the Second Day of Christmas I had to clean up the aftermath of the First Day of Christmas. And that would only be the dishes and chairs and boxes and leftovers. I'm not talking about decorations or Christmas trees. I also had to bake hazelnut cake for a client order. I started that project out by not toasting but burning the hazelnuts at $10 a pound.

On the Third Day of Christmas I worked for four and a half hours without a break to ice and decorate the cake, delivered it in the pouring rain and finished it off by a night spent tossing and turning over my dissatisfaction with it.

On the Fourth Day of Christmas I baked, iced and decorated a carrot cake to take to a meeting with a bride and groom from out of state who were visiting for the holidays and wanted to taste cake and plan for their wedding. An half an hour before the meeting, while checking my notes about their wedding details, I discovered that on the date of their wedding in July, I have a large commitment that will prevent me from making a wedding cake for them. Regardless, I had to proceed to the meeting and give them the cake with my apologies and good wishes that they can find another baker for their date.

From the meeting I went directly to the sports club in desperate need of some stress relieving exercise. The only exercise I actually enjoy is swimming. I have found swimming laps to be exceedingly relaxing and meditative. It is almost perfectly quiet under the water. I can clear my mind and get into a zone and swim until all my anxieties are gone. The trick is to get to the club when no one else is in the pool (most people like to sweat on cardio machines or flail around on tennis courts anyway) and then the swimming is truly divine. But since it is Christmas vacation, of course, the pool was full of people. In the lap lane there was a girl with Down Syndrome just hanging out. I asked her if I could have the lane and she was only willing to share it with me. I could tell it was completely useless to try to coax her out of the lane (her own sister could not) so I decided to swim around her, trying not to kick her as I went by. This kind of situation makes it difficult to meditate and get into a zone though the girl was very supportive telling me "good job!" at the end of each lap. She didn't tire of coaching until I had swam nearly thirty laps. By that time I had to keep my eye on my own kids that they were staying out of the way of other lap swimmers that had arrived and were anxious for me to finish up so they could take over the lane.

So much for my recreative relaxation.

Tonight one of my offspring brought me one of my Christmas presents that he had sat on and broken.

What will the Fifth Day of Christmas bring? Do I dare get out of bed to find out?

Enough whining.

Either the cabin enclosure and lack of sun is getting to me or I just plain don't know how to rest, relax, or rejuvenate. How do you?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Anniversary Cake

Today I delivered a fiftieth anniversary cake. I got to try a new technique with this cake. The client did not want white icing or flowers for decoration. So the hazelnut cake got a mocha icing and chocolate ganache embellishments. I always find it really challenging to make a cake pretty without using flowers. Piping decorations is very old school and we've gotten away from elaborate icing decorations like royal icing swags and piped roses. Most people now prefer a more simple and spare style.

I had decided for this golden anniversary cake to try some gold dust on chocolate. I was struggling with making a cake that was sufficiently decorated but didn't look too gilded or old fashioned either.  I first piped some motifs onto parchment paper and chilled them to make them firm.

Then I dusted them with edible gold luster powder. It worked great and looked very golden.
I then carefully applied the elements to the frosted cake. I had to work quickly because the chocolate would get soft with my handling.

I think the cake would have looked much better with some fresh burgundy colored rose in a few key places. What do you think?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Blessed Christmas Wish to All

Merry Christmas everyone!

This is a 15th century German Christmas carol that is in our Lutheran hymnal (78).

Making music the old fashioned way!

Christmas 2010 from Kris Regentin on Vimeo.

Hail the day so rich in cheer 
For each earth born creature!
God's own Son from heav'n draws near
Takes our human nature;
Of a virgin born is He;
Mary, by the Lord's decree,
Is become a mother.
See the miracle of love:
God Himself, from heaven above,
Came to be our Brother!

Child of wonder, virgin born
King of all creation,
On this happy Christmas morn
Come for our salvation!
Were this Child for us not born,

We should all be lost, forlorn,
No true hope possessing.
Dear Lord Jesus, thanks to Thee
Now and through eternity
For this grace and blessing!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Smoked Salmon Spread for your Christmas Eve buffet

One of our special Christmas treats since moving to the Northwest and one which has become a solid Christmas tradition is smoked salmon spread.

There are numerous places to buy smoked salmon fillets in the Columbia Gorge. It is also easy to buy fresh salmon from the local Native Americans who fish for it daily and smoke it yourself if you happen to have a smoker. I know of other friends who travel to Alaska often and bring their own fresh salmon back to Oregon and smoke it. (Oregon is Alaska's back door didn't you know?)

I have found a place near the Columbia River that sells smoked salmon at a very reasonable price and we buy a lot at Christmastime. In addition to delicious smoked salmon spread, I will use it for smoked salmon manicotti on Christmas Eve and smoked salmon chowder on New Year's Eve.

Here is our very easy recipe for smoked salmon spread:

One pound cream cheese (two 8 ounce packages)
the juice of one small lemon
1/4 cup finely chopped onion or scallions
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cracked pepper
6 to 8 ounces of smoked salmon fillet, skin removed

Beat all ingredients in a mixer until well blended and until the salmon is broken into bits and incorporated. You can use more or less of any of these ingredients to your own personal taste and budget.

This spread tastes best made a day ahead of serving so the flavors have time to meld together.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

So Easy, Even a Child Can Do It

All that stuff I said the other day about, La dee da! relaxed Christmas seasonal preparations?  Tralalalala!

Never mind...

Where's my list??

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cookie Dough Tips and Tricks

After making hundreds of thousands of cookies in the last week, I thought I'd share a few things that I figured out with you.

In particular these tips are for rolled cookie doughs that are pre-chilled before shaping.

One of the cookies I made this week was a chocolate mint "snow cap" which is a chocolate cookie dough that is rolled into balls and then rolled in sugar before baking. The first large batch that I made took a lot of time because even though the dough was cold it would quickly become sticky in my hands as I rolled the balls. I had to wash my hands after every five balls or so and it was terribly time-consuming and messy. I get annoyed with time-consuming and ornery with messy.

With the batch I made today I did things differently. When I mixed up the cookie dough, instead of dividing the whole batch into two or four pieces and chilling in plastic wrap, I spooned out the freshly made and still very soft dough into the measured amounts (one spoonful) onto a cookie sheet and then I chilled it. The pan at the top of the picture shows these blobs of soft cookie dough. After chilling, the dough became firmer and easier to handle. I was able to take each piece and quickly roll a ball that did not end up melting in my hand. I then rolled them in sugar for baking. This worked very well and went very quickly. This method will work for other cookies that need to be rolled, like snickerdoodles.

Another chilled dough was for the gingerbread snowflakes. I originally followed the recipe directions by wrapping the dough in plastic wrap and chilling for several hours. The problem I had with that method  was that after chilling, the dough was so firm that it was difficult to roll with the rolling pin. After it softened up enough to roll, then the dough was too soft for cutting and transferring the shapes to a sheet pan. This made it very difficult to keep the shapes from tearing or distorting.
I solved this problem by treating the cookie dough the same way I treat dough for pie crust. I rolled it between two sheets of parchment paper.

For today's batch of gingerbread I rolled out these sheets of dough when the dough was freshly made and still soft. Then I refrigerated the rolled out sheets.

After about twenty minutes of chilling, the dough was firm. The paper easily came away from the dough and I could cut my shapes.

I still had to work quickly to cut and transfer the cookie shapes to the sheet pan. My kitchen was so warm from the oven working hard all day that it didn't take long for the dough to start softening up. This method was so much easier and problem free compared to the method suggested in the recipe. This can be used for other rolled projects like sugar cookies or gingerbread houses.

It was another busy day in the Fleur Cakes kitchen making cookie gift boxes. Here are a couple shots of what my counter looked like as I multi-tasked.

Sugar in the pan boiling towards becoming caramel, toasted chopped pecans ready to be added, cookies waiting to be baked and more cooling...

My cookie baking is now finished! Whew!Next I'll be working on the last of the shopping with my daughter in the big city.

Are you finished with your Christmas preparations?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Cookie Tsunami

This is what I've been doing:

Making dozens of dozens of cookies.
All for me.


My oven was churning these babies out until midnight.
I'll start all over again today for another round.

Here's a tip: taking the time to get royal icing exactly the right consistency makes all the difference in how many new gray hairs I have the next morning.

I figured I should quit being so lazy and make some decorated cookies already.

How about some turtle brownies with homemade caramel and toasted pecans?

Gingerbread snowflakes, lemon cream cheese wreaths, turtle brownies, cranberry pecan noels, chocolate mint snowcaps, and coconut butterscotch chip cookies.

Spreading the Christmas cheer all over town.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Decking the Halls

Here it is the middle of December. Ten days until Christmas. My house is decorated and at least 80% of my Christmas shopping is finished. That is like some kind of a Christmas miracle.

I don't think this has ever, ever happened before.

What is really getting my attention is how I feel. Usually December is the most stressful month of the year. During other Decembers I felt weighed down by my long To Do list and churlish just thinking about decorating or shopping or baking or planning dinner for eighteen people or rehearsing the church Christmas Eve program or planning the music or cleaning the shower. Didn't I just do most of that for Thanksgiving? You mean we're cleaning and cooking again as well as baking and shopping and decorating??

But this year I am oddly....mellow. Relaxed. Even....joyful?  I can't remember ever feeling so laid back on December 15th. I mean not ever.

I haven't even begun to write a Christmas newletter (that my offspring are insisting I write because I didn't write one last year. Hello? I have a blog. It's a near daily letter to my peeps) or address Christmas cards. And...I don't care. If I get it done, fine. If I don't, fine. I'm not stressing.

What is up with that?

I made this quilted wall hanging about eighteen years ago when I had four little kids and I was a pregnant homeschooler. I started another quilt as soon as I finished this one. I am astounded that I had time for projects like this. This would never get done now when I only have three kids at home!  Ahhh...the energy of youth.

I am attributing my new-found mellowness to better health. I have no idea if this is true or not. I'm hoping that a year or two of avoiding sugar and wheat (I say "avoiding" and not "eliminating") has improved the function of my adrenal glands -that system that works to handle stress- so that I am actually handing stress in a more healthy way. Mr. Dirtywrench thinks my relaxed attitude is because I've been swimming regularly for exercise. This is all speculation and all I can say feels good to feel relaxed in December!

What? Eight more people to squeeze into the house on Christmas Eve? Bring it on. I can handle it.

Seventy five dozen cookies to bake in one week for clients? No problem!

Just don't wait by the mailbox for my Christmas card. I'm busy sipping a mocha and listening to Nat King Cole.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Wrapping Up

There is one Christmas chore that I thoroughly enjoy...

....wrapping gifts.

Ever since the light bulb over my noggin blinked on (one day many years ago, probably when I was watching Martha) that I didn't have to use stick-bows and disposable ribbon for gift wrapping, I have enjoyed the process of turning a package into a beautiful gift. I had always admired people who could make lovely bows and attractive embellishments on a gift and thought they must be exceptionally visionary and creative people, but then I realized that it really isn't that hard to do. Presenting a beautiful gift can be as simple as using fabric ribbon instead of stick-on bows.

I buy all my wrapping supplies after Christmas when they are discounted at least 50%. I buy the large rolls of fabric ribbon for only a few dollars so in the end the cost of embellishing one package is very little while the return is worth it.

But I know that some people don't enjoy gift wrapping as much as I do. I know there are some male members of my own tribe who have a bit of trouble creasing paper and getting the tape in the right place. So I understand if some would rather slap a bow on and call it done, or pay those people at the mall to wrap the gifts. I won't judge. about it? Do you love or hate wrapping gifts?

Twenty years ago when our oldest kids were young, we lived in Michigan. We always looked forward to the box of gifts that would arrive from Grandma and Grandpa (my parents) in Oregon. Then seventeen years ago we joined the extended family by moving to the Great Northwest. Now here it is, twenty years later and I am sending a box of gifts back to Michigan to our own daughter and her family because we are apart at Christmas.

Who'da thunk it?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Couple of Monkeys and Their Snack

The problem with allowing a kid to accompany me to the grocery store.... inevitably I come home with something that wasn't on the shopping list...

Not necessarily because the kid was hungry, mind you. You know the axiom about not shopping for food when you are hungry...

....but just because the kid is curious and has a need to follow his impulses.

I asked my boys if they had ever seen Gilligan open a coconut.

They had never heard of Gilligan.

I'd rather not examine what that means about me, or my kids.

After one taste of the coconut and its water...

...and a little discussion about how it is a seed and what the outer "nut" looks like and how it will sprout when it sits on a beach for a bit....

...their coconut curiosity was satiated.

Anybody have any good recipes or uses for the broken coconut bits in my refrigerator?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Homeschooling- Colonial History

This year in our homeschool history with my boys we are learning about the early American colonies. I picked up a few books that I thought would work well with what we needed to cover and I just want to report that I am extremely pleased with them.

This book is a comprehensive and well-written account of the history of the Separatists and Adventurers that colonized Massachusetts. I am reading this aloud to the boys, a little every day, and it is a no-holds-barred rendering of the people, preparations, ocean voyage and colonization of the New World. It also gives the history of the native peoples as it is known including their interactions with the early explorers who preceded the colonists. I am learning so much more than I did in my own elementary and high school history classes or in the history accounts that I taught to my older children years ago from text books. This book was published in 2008.

I had this reading book in our library for the boys to use for their own daily reading. I am very pleasantly surprised to find out how closely it correlates with The Mayflower. If it hadn't been published in 1987 I would have thought that it used The Mayflower as a source book for information. Of course both books were probably written from the main history document of the colonies, William Bradford's Plymouth Plantation. All of the names in Pilgrim Boy are the actual names of the real historical people, including the children. This makes lining the two books up quite easy. I guess I expected this elementary reader to have the same water-downed, traditional account of the Mayflower passage for little people that I have encountered over the years. I was delighted to find out that it doesn't but rather contains details of the hardships and the unfortunate deaths that the travelers faced. This is no sugar-coated story of the Pilgrims and Indians though it does convey the difficult details of the history in a gentle way.

For instance, one sad part of the Mayflower's history is that William Bradford's wife, despondent over leaving her son behind in England, died by drowning while the travelers were still quartered on the ship off of Cape Cod and while her husband was out exploring the land for a colony site. Both of the books flatly stated that it is unknown whether Dorothy Bradford fell from the ship or jumped to her death. As a woman and mother, I can let my imagination go with this story- Dorothy Bradford had been on a cold, wet, stinky ship for two months and had left her young son behind her across the ocean and maybe would never seen him again. People were dying from disease; it was the cusp of winter, prospects were bleak, she was malnourished and....who knows what her relationship with her husband was like. On that cold, wet, December day...did she fall or jump?

Though this reading book doesn't go into any details of wars with the natives, it does give attention to the unfortunate parts of history such as the deaths of large groups of natives from disease brought on those early English exploring ships and of the kidnapping of Squanto and his comrades by a ship captain. This whole account as well as other parts of history involving the clash between the old world and the new is given in much more detailed writing in The Mayflower which is fleshing out the story when we read both together. Pilgrim Boy told the story of the colonists "finding" some corn and taking it while The Mayflower showed how they actually stole the corn from a tribe. A few chapters later it tells how this crime was rectified and how payment was made to the victim and that the pilgrims were glad to be able to make restitution for their early mistakes. Pilgrim Boy ends with the peace treaty and the first Thanksgiving while The Mayflower continues the story with the subsequent changes in relations among the people.

I want to supplement our history class with some documentary films to give the boys some visuals of events. I already found a PBS film on Netflix that they enjoyed. After the Christmas holidays we will break out the book that has projects connected to colonial life.