Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Summer Pesto

Basil is my favorite summer time herb.

I love to put it in my tomato salads, my scrambled eggs, my sandwiches.

And when it is finally growing lush and tall I harvest it to make pesto.

Pesto is so simple, versatile and just simply divine. I carried a jar of pesto home from Italy years ago and rationed it to make it last as long as possible. But really, it wasn't any better then the simple sauce I make myself from my own homegrown Oregon basil.

I simply take off all the leaves from the stems and wash them in cold water.
Then I spin them dry in the salad spinner.

Pesto is made from just a few simple ingredients.
Garlic, nuts, Parmesan cheese and extra virgin olive oil. The price of pine nuts this season is simply outrageous so I am using walnuts instead. No one will notice the difference.

A food processor is necessary for making this sauce. I pack as many leaves into a two cup measure as I can and put those into the food processor.

Then I add a heaping 1/3 cup nuts, a heaping 1/2 cup parmesan cheese and several cloves of garlic.

Pulse this until all is finely chopped.
Add salt and pepper to taste...

...and then while the food processor is running, drizzle in 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil.

Finished! That easy.

The two cups of fresh basil made one eight ounce jar of pesto sauce.

I also freeze pesto in ziplock bags, flattening the bag so that when I want to use a bit I can easily break a piece off. The pesto can also be frozen in ice cube trays that have been sprayed with a little oil.

Now, what to do with the pesto?

Immediately spread onto a toasted (or not) slice of baguette and eat!

Or better yet...

Make it a little caprese sandwich by adding a slice of fresh mozzarella and tomato. Yum!

Pesto can also be used to make a quick, easy and delicious (a winning trio when preparing a meal) pasta. Simply toss a glob of pesto in freshly cooked pasta (fettuccine is great but any shape will do), sprinkle with more Parmesan cheese and serve!

We like to spread a layer of pesto on our dough when making homemade pizza. Pesto can also be mixed into butter (1:1) for a spread to use in sandwiches or on garlic bread.

Does anyone else have any other delicious uses for pesto?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Hotel Wedding

The boys went with me last week to pick up a couple of wedding cake plates at the Columbia Gorge Hotel.

The hotel sits on a cliff over the Columbia River and they wanted to see the 208 foot waterfall.

I participated in a bridal show at the hotel early last spring. This summer I have done a number of weddings there, including two last weekend.

Delivering cakes to the weddings held at this grand old hotel has helped me to improve my skills and raised the bar on my execution. I have learned a lot this summer.

One of last weekend's weddings was filmed for the television show Say Yes to the Dress. I don't watch that program but I will if I hear that they show the cake cutting for this wedding!

That's my cake in the back corner. Next to it is a baker assembling the Chinook helicopter groom's cake that I declined to make. That baker did an impressive job.

I'll stick to making cakes that are simple and elegant and leave the sugar sculptures to more talented people than me.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Peruvian Celebration

My son Kris is back in Peru for a short time. He was sent by the NGO that he worked for last year to attend the dedication of the housing project and to give a dedication speech in Spanish.The event was attended by the vice president of Peru, the president of the state of Arequipa, the mayor of the city, the Swiss consulate and the Peruvian media. You can see some of his photos of the event and the housing project on Kris' blog Ten Million Pixels.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

My Day

5:00 a.m. Why am I not asleep?

Today's Schedule:

7am: Get the boys out the door with clean clothes on. They are flying with their uncle to an airshow for the day.

8am: Deliver apple turnovers to orchard fruit stand.

8:30: Run to town because I screwed up and don't have the right cake board for a wedding today. Hopefully the bakery will have what I need!!

9am: Begin working on two wedding cakes. Keep them both straight. Don't mix them up. Two brides named Jennifer. Both cakes are vanilla. One has strawberry cream filling, the other strawberry rhubarb filling.

4pm: First wedding cake delivery in Washington. Mr. Dirtywrench on assignment.

5pm: Second wedding cake delivery. (Don't forget the bride's expensive cake topper!) This wedding is at the premier hotel of the city and I just found out that the bride got her dress and was on the TLC show Say Yes to the Dress. The film crew will be there getting film footage of her wedding for the show.

No pressure!!

No. None at all.

6 pm: Attend the funeral gathering of our lovely friend and neighbor who passed away the other night.

Then I'm going to need a drink.

(I just woke up from a dream that I was in a play on stage and I had never been to a rehearsal and did not know any of the lines in the script. The other actors were speaking to me and I just nodded my head because I didn't know any lines! Looking for the stage director....feed me some lines please! Oh- and the play was set in Victorian times and my hair was clipped up exactly like it is when I am icing cake. Dream interpretation anyone?)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Vine Covered

This is my little pottery studio. The photo was taken back in 2007 when I had my first open studio event.
The studio had just gotten a new paint job. That little leafless shrub between the window and door was a young trumpet vine. It was supposed to have bright yellow blooms and I thought it would look charming if I painted the door the same yellow to match what I envisioned as a beautiful flowering vine that would cling to the walls of the studio and add quaint character to my building.

A couple years later the sun had destroyed the paint on the studio and it needed to be repainted. This time I toned down the John Deere Green and matched the color to the more sagey green of our house. The yellow door became plum red. Changing the yellow didn't matter since my trumpet vine had refused to ever bloom and I no longer clung to the idealistic picture of my vine covered studio with yellow blooms matching my yellow door.
I kept wrestling with the vine, trying to train it to grow against the siding of the building by tying and tacking it but it wanted to grow out, wild and untamed and not the least bit picturesque or charming. I had to continually hack at it with blades to control it and I thought that was probably why it never bloomed, I was cutting back the blooming branches.

It seems like that vine has been on my studio for many years but according to the dates on my photos it is probably only four or five years old. But in one season of my resignation and neglect, the vine has covered my studio.
And I've learned a few things. (I like when that happens.) This trumpet vine is simply not satisfied with three quarters of a day of sun. It wants a constant, full day of sun. The studio is facing east and by late afternoon the vine is in the shadow of the building so it has always been reaching-- reaching for the sun. Reaching over the roof top and reaching out wild and untamed. Since I have been in my kitchen baking and not in my studio potting this year, the vine has grown unpruned and unfettered and unhindered.

And lo....
...it bloomed.

The vines that reach out of the shadow into the all-day sun have flowers on the end.

But if I'm ever going to be able to get into the studio again to make pottery, I'll have to hack my way in with pruning shears.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Homeschool Prep

I'm a homeschooler. I've been a homeschooler for over twenty years. Consequently, I'm not quite as gung-ho as I used to be but have become much more laid back about it all. Making school plans and ordering books is just part of the routine in August at the same time that we are snapping beans, making pickles, picking tomatoes and this year...making wedding cakes. I'm in no hurry to begin classes when there is still so much end of summer farm work to do.

We don't start school until after Labor Day. I don't care how the government school system runs its schedule. Some people follow that calender. I do not. We start the day after Labor Day and take a Christmas Break (not winter break) and an Easter Break (not spring break). We end school by Memorial Day whether we are done or not. Well, okay, usually we're done. Our school year works out to the required 180 days because we don't have teacher workshop days and no days off for bad weather.

This year we have a third grader, a fourth grader and a senior in high school. The two boys will share many classes together and only have their grades distinguished in Language, Writing, and Math.

It's taken me twenty years but I have finally figured out that history textbooks are mostly useless in elementary grades. They can be mind-crushingly boring. They tend to touch on topics and events only superficially. I also have found it difficult to find a curriculum that doesn't teach from the biased viewpoint of the publisher.

So last year I tried something different for history. We spent the year studying the explorers by simply reading books about them.

We read about the many European expeditions across the unknown seas in search of a passage to Asia. We learned of the difficulties of finding a route past the pesky chunk of land the explorers kept bumping into which we now know is the continent of South America. We read about the treacherous attempts to round the Horn of Africa and the tip of South America through cold stormy seas. The boys were disturbed to learn how many men lost their lives in sinking ships or in encounters with native peoples and in altercations with their own crews. We read a novel about a boy who joined the crew of such an expedition. The story was set on the ships of the great explorer Magellan and reading it gave us a unique description of the life of a young sailor during those perilous times of discovery.

Now that we have read about how America came to be discovered by the Europeans, this year we are going to read books about the colonization of the New World. Rather then using the dry boring history text that I plowed through with my other children when they were in elementary grades, we are going to simply read stories about colonial times, watch some movies and use an interesting reference book about the daily life of colonial peoples that may lead us to some hands-on projects.

Alyssa is a senior this year and her classes are a bit more challenging. Homeschoolers frequently are questioned about how we teach our high-schoolers. My answer is that we use many resources. We are blessed here with the availability of group homeschool classes for high school in our area. Alyssa has taken Biology and Chemistry in just such group classes, doing lab work with her homeschooled friends and meeting for class once a week as well as for testing. This year she will be taking Physics with the same group. Another group class this year will be English Poetry. I know she is excited about that one! I am anyway because I remember enjoying the study of poetry in high school and I think she will discover some delights. Last year Alyssa took a Geometry course online and it was an excellent class. This year she will be taking Algebra II from the same online teacher. The online school we use for math is Scholars Online Academy. Alyssa will also be taking a writing course, either online or with the local group in town. We are still working on plans for a history course and one option is a group class in town. Her classes with me at home will only be Vocabulary and Bible this year. Alyssa is also part of the cast of the local public high school's production of Les Miserables. This musical will be a good chance for her to apply what she has learned in her voice lessons this year.

As you can see, our preparation does not include shopping for school clothes. Sometimes school clothes around here include slippers and a robe and we're all set there.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Wedding Cake Soundtrack

On any given Saturday in summer, if you came to my kitchen and found me icing stacks of cake you would hear my mood music playing. The wedding cake soundtrack keeps me in mind of the celebration of the day- the anticipation, the preparations by armies of people like me behind the scenes, and the joyous love of the people that will be eating my confection at the end of it all.

I used to listen to the CD that was the playlist for my daughter's wedding reception. I listened to that over and over and over while making cakes in my early days.

But now I have Pandora! This wonderful internet radio station customizes my soundtrack for the days I am preparing wedding cake.

So while I am running the mixer to make another batch of light cream icing, or twirling the cake on the decorating wheel, or arranging flowers and butterflies in just the right places on the reception masterpiece, (ahem), I am being inspired and motivated by love songs sung by Harry Connick, Michael Buble, Mel Torme, the ever-entertaining Dean Martin, Norah Jones and the inimitable voice of Nat King Cole.

Doesn't listening to that make you want to get dressed up, make a toast to the bride and groom with a glass of champagne and eat wedding cake?

Or at least watch "Father of the Bride?"

Friday, August 20, 2010

I Am The Vine

This cake was for a wedding whose theme was
"I am the Vine, ye are the branches."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Making me old before my time.

This is why I'm getting grey hair and a twitchy eye.

Because I have five boys. Big ones. Little ones. Little ones that became big ones.
This photo was taken at high bicycle speed by Kris while he held his $$$$$ expensive camera pointed behind him at his brother.
Hey, Seth! Where's your helmet???

The other night they rode home from a mountain lake on a long, windy mountain road....in the dark.

Heaven help me. I still have two more male humans to raise.

Cake Making Machine

What I need to bake before the end of the month:

34 vanilla cakes
3 banana cakes
2 (14 inch) lemon poppy seed cakes
8 fudge cakes
2 gluten free chocolate cakes
6 orange cakes

As well as at least 25 dozen cookies a week for Expertec's little perpetually empty cookie jar.

Yesterday I got nine of those cakes done. Will do at least seven more today.

More of this week's To-Do list:

Pick cucumbers and beets and make pickles.
Pick strawberries and blueberries and make jam and sauce.
Harvest the garlic.
Plant lettuce and cilantro.
Harvest basil and make pesto.
Repair/replace two zippers before the boy who wears the pants leaves for Peru in two days.
Write three wedding cake contracts.
Pick up flowers at the florist.
Decorate and deliver three large wedding cakes.

With five of the seven kids home, I think I'll make them earn their keep...

Time to delegate!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Fresh Strawberry Jam

Strawberries are by far my favorite summer fruit. I guess that is why I have worked so very hard over the last ten years to keep a productive strawberry patch in my yard. I need me my summer strawberry shortcake.

Also, there is nothing better for starting my day then a bowl of fresh-picked berries on a summer morning.

I've been making strawberry jam pretty much all my life. I started canning fruits and making jams as a young wife of nineteen. In the olden days I made jam with the only pectin available- Sure Jell- which required pounds and pounds of sugar to be added to the fruit for it to set into jam. The only way to avoid using so much sugar and consequently muting the fresh taste of the fruit was to make freezer jam.

Years ago I discovered another pectin product at a health food store. I have used it exclusively since then and love to tell everyone about it. It is by far the best pectin for making the most delicious jams and jellies. It is called Pomona's Univeral Pectin and since I first found it, it has become more widely available. Let me count the ways that Pomona's is the best pectin in the universe.

*One box of pectin, though costing slightly more than a box of that "other brand" will make at least four batches of jam, which makes it actually less expensive then one batch boxes of the other stuff.

*Pomona's is a natural citrus pectin and I really like that!

*With Pomona's Universal Pectin, I can use little or no sugar in my jam. An all-fruit jam tastes like....fruit!...fresh from the garden and is healthier for my family. I can also opt to use honey or other sweeteners then cane sugar.

*Pomona's is so easy to use and completely fool proof. I can easily quadruple my batch of jam and play with the recipe all I want and it will always come out right. I've never had a jam not set.

Lately, I've been so busy baking cakes and cookies that I really don't have time to make jam and mess up my kitchen with pots and kettles and measuring cups of sticky strawberry juice. Now that I have Pomona's in my life, I can make one huge batch of jam and get it done in less than an hour. Here's how I did it recently-

I started by using my food processor to puree the strawberries and measure them into a kettle. I used sixteen cups of pureed berries which was a quadruple recipe.

(Here I must extend an apology for the following photographs. My camera was not focusing properly but of course, I did not know that until I looked at them on the computer today. I guess I will have to employ my son to do all the photography for this blog. Right Kris?)
I added four teaspoons of calcium water to the berries in the pot. This is included with the pectin and facilitates the jelling of the jam.

This is the Pomona's Pectin. I bought a 1/2 pound bulk box two years ago and I'm still using it. It lasts forever. I measured the proper amount of pectin in the sugar. For the sixteen cups of berries I used all of two cups of sugar! I could have used more or less and it wouldn't change the outcome of the setting of the jam. As I recall, when I used Sure-Jell back in the day, I was always appalled that I would have to use most of a five pound bag of sugar for this much jam. If I altered the recipe at all, using less sugar, the jam would not set.

I always add a dollop of butter to my jam pot. It keeps the jam from foaming on top. I never skim my jam anymore because there won't be much to skim with the butter and- because I'm lazy.

After the berries come to a boil I add the sugar/pectin mixture.

I bring it back to a boil and then the jam is done!
I ladle the jam into jars that I sterilize in a 200 degree oven for 30 minutes.

I also boil the caps for the jars which not only sterilizes them but softens the rubber on the caps so that they will seal readily.

Processing the jars to seal them only requires five minutes in a boiling water bath. Since I didn't want to haul out the canner and boil all that water for one batch of jam, I have found that I can accomplish the same thing this way. Using hot jars, hot lids and hot jam, I can flip the jars over for five to ten minutes on the countertop. After turning them back upright, the lids will seal just as if they had been in a water bath. This method can only be used for high acid products that require little sealing time like jams, jellies and juices.

Now I can enjoy the fresh taste of my summer strawberries in the dead of a gloomy dark Oregon winter.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Family Affair

The berries are getting outta control.
The many hours spent weeding and mulching maybe made a difference. I can't really tell. There no longer is any space between the plants and the grass crept through anyway. But after a cool, unproductive summer, we are finally seeing some hope with ripening berries making an appearance.

Everyone got engaged in the task of harvesting before the birds got all the berries.

It was a family affair, with even my brother put to work.

Blueberries and strawberries.

We'll have to pick again in just a few days and keep it up until well into September.

The reward.
Bits and scraps of leftover wedding cake (orange) and light cream icing combined with fresh berrries...

For a Sunday church potluck trifle.

This weekend's wedding cake

This weekend's cake was orange rum cake with chocolate ganache filling. It featured Cymbidium orchids ($60 a stem!)...

...and poor photography.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A succulent

Katie was correct (if you read the comments of yesterday's post about the alien "flower").

This "hen" had so many "chicks" she went to seed.

And since I unmercifully hacked off the flower right after I photographed it, I can't show you the odd juxtaposition of that tall appendage sticking out of this pot. Forethought can be a good thing. I need to find me some.

This other little clump of hens and chicks in the flower bed also produced a flower. Again, I was tired of looking at the oddity and whacked it before making photographic evidence. Not much of a blogger am I.