Birthday Shortbread

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When I lived in England, one of my favorite desserts was Millionaire’s Shortbread, a bakery treat made of sweet sedimentary layers of cookie, caramel, and chocolate. These cookie bars are, in a word, dreamy — the kind of dessert that requires you close your eyes for a moment after you take a bite.

They start with a tender shortbread base that is everything a cookie by that name should be: buttery, crumbly, and deceptively simple. Shortbread is one of the culinary miracles that first drew me to baking, and it still thrills me to see flour, sugar, butter, and a pinch of salt transformed into something so special. With the help of a food processor, this version comes together in less than five minutes, and that takes into account some dawdling while you measure.

While the cookie base bakes, you have the pleasure of meeting the British cousin of dulce de leche, a thick, milky caramel the color of pale butterscotch. It is just as simple to put together as the shortbread, and never have ten minutes’ stirring been so well-rewarded. Of course, a recipe called Millionaire’s Shortbread has to be over the top, and a layer of silky chocolate ganache takes it there in style. Despite its rich name and taste, Millionaire’s Shortbread has only six ingredients total. Of course, after the first bite, it’s also obvious that there’s butter in every layer. ;)

In deference to its British provenance, I am providing the recipe measurements in both volume and metric weight. I do actually pull out my little electric kitchen scale to make this one, if only because fiddling with buttons and using the word “tare” pleases me. It will turn out deliciously either way, so use whichever version you prefer. And one last note: in my house, this is now known as Birthday Shortbread because the son of a dear friend asked if he could have this recipe as his sixteenth birthday present. What better recommendation could you ask for, really? A dessert fit for millionaires and distinguishing teenagers alike.

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Birthday Shortbread
makes twenty-seven 1″x3″ bars

For cookie:
1 3/4 c. (225 grams) all-purpose flour (I use King Arthur)
1/4 c. (50 grams) granulated sugar
3/4 c. (170 grams or 1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2″ pieces
pinch of salt

For caramel:
14 oz. can (400 grams) sweetened condensed milk
1/2 c. (115 grams or 1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 c. (100 grams) granulated sugar
pinch of salt

For chocolate:
6 oz. (170 grams) semisweet chocolate chips or finely chopped chocolate bar
1/4 c. (55 grams or 1/2 stick) unsalted butter
pinch salt

Oven 350F. Start by making the shortbread base: in a food processor, combine flour and sugar and pulse a few times to mix. Add butter pieces and process until uniformly mixed into buttery sand. Pour crumbs in 9″x13″ pan or glass baking dish, spread evenly, and press down until crumbs stick together to form dough. (Quick tip: to be sure it’s tightly packed and you have a nice, flat base, cover the surface of the dough with a piece of plastic wrap and press down firmly with the bottom of a measuring cup.) Bake shortbread for 20-25 minutes, until pale golden brown at edges.

While shortbread cools, prepare caramel filling. In medium saucepan, combine milk, sugar, butter, and salt over medium heat. Stir occasionally to blend ingredients until mixture comes to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring constantly. Cook 10 minutes, until caramel has thickened into a pale golden custard, then pour over cooked shortbread base. Spread with silicone spatula so filling evenly covers cookie and allow to cool to room temperature, at least two hours.

When base and filling are cool, make chocolate topping. In microwave-safe bowl, cook chocolate, butter, and salt until melted and glossy, stirring every 30 seconds to prevent scorching. Spread evenly over cookie bars and allow to cool at least 30 minutes, longer as desired. Cut with a sharp paring knife into nine rows and three columns, for a total of twenty-seven 1″x3″ bars. (Quick tip: to keep your bars neater, dip blade of knife into piping hot water and dry it off between each cut.)

Store leftovers tightly wrapped at room temperature. This recipe is simplicity itself, and my 12-year-old can make it without assistance. This may or may not count as a good thing in your book, depending on your self-control level; regardless, it’s good to have up your sleeve when you want to bake something fantastic without venturing to the grocery store or thinking very hard. :)

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Sculpey Wonderland

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After battling a bad case of bronchitis and tonsillitis the last two weeks, the time I normally spend in the studio and blogging was replaced by hours on the couch nursing cups of hot tea and consuming unreasonable numbers of cough drops.

Fortunately, with my crafty daughter Kenzie around, there is never a vacuum of artsiness in the house. Despite its entirely delicious, real-size appearance, the yummy sundae above is actually a tiny clay charm, made by our 12-year-old sculptor-in-residence.

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This inspiring girl of mine excels at transforming little bits of polymer clay into diminutive feasts for the eyes. She has certainly inherited her mamma’s affinity for both the gourmet and the miniature. But really, who wouldn’t love an inch-wide plate of waffles, complete with itty-bitty butter and a sliced fruit garnish?

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I really appreciate her attention to detail, from little individually formed sprinkles, to twisted wafer cookies as big around as a toothpick. She meticulously pipes clay “frosting” out of real cake decorating tips, and brushes her Sculpey cookies with golden brown chalk dust to give them that freshly baked glow. And you haven’t seen cute until you’ve seen a dozen little glazed chocolate crullers on a charm bracelet.

As it turns out, I am what you might call culinarily impressionable. The only problem I have found with her creations so far is that I inevitably find myself in the kitchen making the real-size, edible version soon after. So stay tuned: I may be the first person on record to commission a bowl of minuscule clay broccoli… ;)

Caramel Apple Butter

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Making apple butter has become a fun Mother’s Day tradition for me, a yummy homemade gift to share not only with Mom, but also with several close friends who consistently bless me in my own beautiful, complicated parenting journey. This year I decided to spice things up a little bit by making a variation of one of my all-time favorite flavors, caramel apple.

The inspiration for this recipe came from one in Paul Virant’s fantastic cookbook, The Preservation Kitchen. His Caramel Apple Jam is a savory shredded apple preserve, flavored with thyme and black pepper, but it begins the same way: by making a deep amber, intensely apple caramel. There we parted ways, as I added chopped apples, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg, then reduced and blended the mixture into tangy, sweet fruit butter.

Caramel Apple Butter contains the same amount of sugar and apple juice as traditional apple butter, but the caramelization process brings out the warmth of both. The results are thick and velvety, equally at home slathered on a ginger scone or a grilled turkey and cheese sandwich. I love apple butter on pancakes or cheddar biscuits, and it makes a beautiful sauce for roasted pork loin when added to the pan juices with a bit of grainy mustard.

A note: this cooking process is not one that lends itself to multi-tasking; although not complex, it requires some time and attention. Because making caramel involves hot sugar, this also isn’t a good time to invite little ones into the kitchen. Canning preserves is an ideal late Sunday afternoon activity, just right for when the house is quiet, everyone is absorbed in their own tasks, and the kitchen is otherwise empty. I love this hour of productive peace, with nothing more urgent to do than stir caramel and enjoy the fragrance of warm apples. Because I am a kitchen romantic, I also like to think that a little of my calm and focus seeps into what I am cooking, and what mom couldn’t use more of those?

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Caramel Apple Butter
makes 8 calm and focused half-pint jars

12 sweet-tart apples, preferably Pink Lady, peeled, cored, and chopped into 1/2″ chunks (can substitute Cripp’s Pink, Honeycrisp, Ambrosia, or Fuji apples)
2 1/2 c. granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. water
4 c. whole-pressed, unsweetened apple juice or cider (I like Simply Apple or Mott’s Natural)
1 tsp. kosher or coarse sea salt or 1/2 tsp. fine salt
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg

8 half-pint jars with metal bands and rubber-sealed lids (like these)
canning supplies as specified in recipe, including pan, tongs, and funnel

Use a large, deep, wide-bottomed pan, preferably with rounded sides. Stir together sugar and water until sugar resembles wet sand, then cook over medium-high heat until sugar begins to melt, about 6-8 minutes. Do not stir or swirl pan during this stage, just watch. (Movement will cause the sugar to crystallize further and make big lumps. Trust me on this one: don’t leave the kitchen because it’s important you start stirring as soon as it begins to melt, but be your best, most patient self until then and don’t touch! :)

The sugar will turn crispy and crackly, then finally begin to ooze into a pale brown syrup at the edges. Once this happens, begin stirring with a wooden spoon, and continue to stir as the sugar melts completely. Once all the granules are dissolved, allow sugar to caramelize another 5-7 minutes, until it’s deep, dark amber in color and smells rich and nutty. Do not taste or touch it, as hot sugar burns are very painful.

Once the sugar is caramelized, remove it from the heat and stand back a bit as you pour in the apple juice. Once your caramel geyser quits bubbling and frothing enough to safely approach, return it to the heat and stir. The caramel will have crystallized into a solid lump in the bottom of the pan, but patient stirring will help it dissolve again. Continue stirring constantly as the apple juice caramel simmers and reduces by half, about fifteen minutes. Add the salt and ground spices and stir another minute or two to thoroughly combine.

Once the spiced apple caramel has thickened, it’s time to add the fruit. (Quick tip: For practicality’s sake, I often peel, core, and chop the apples the night before, toss them with the juice of a lemon, and then refrigerate until ready to use.) Stir in the apples and cover until it comes to a boil, then simmer uncovered for 30-40 minutes, until apples are very tender and liquid has further reduced.

While apples are cooking, use a water-bath canning pan to immerse eight half-pint jars in water and heat for ten minutes. (I use a 21 1/2-quart pan and rack, available for less than $20. I also use a set of silicone-lined jar tongs and a wide-mouth funnel, available individually or as part of a set.) This heats the jars enough that the hot apple butter won’t crack the glass.

When the apples are finished cooking/reducing, turn off the heat, and use an immersion blender on its highest setting to process the preserves until completely smooth. (As I explain in these recipe notes, I love my inexpensive immersion blender. If you don’t have one, you can process your apple butter in batches in a traditional blender.)

Once blended smooth, use a funnel to fill heated, dried jars, leaving 1/2″ of space at the top of each jar. Screw on the bands and lids, then process your jars by immersing in boiling water bath for ten minutes. Remove the sealed, processed jars to allow them to cool. When the lids make a popping sound, you know they’re sealed tight. Unopened jars of apple butter can be stored at room temperature for up to six months, but they should be refrigerated after opening. If a jar doesn’t seal after processing and cooling, the apple butter is fine, but it should only be kept in the refrigerator.

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P.S. — If you want a little more apple butter inspiration, check out my recipe for Apple Butter Cupcakes with Caramel Frosting. Yum! :)

Bond. James Bond.

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My book reviews usually trend toward papercrafting and multimedia collage, with a healthy dose of whimsy thrown in for fun. Depending on your point of view, Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction 2: Build A Secret Agent Arsenal could be said to combine all three. Regardless of its genre, it has kept my 15-year-old son and I occupied and inspired for many afternoons.

Imagine Macgyver and James Bond trapped in an office supply store, and you have a good idea of the projects featured in Mini Weapons 2. The projects require a selection of cannibalized office supply parts (ballpoint pen housings, disassembled binder clips, empty glue stick tubes, and mechanical pencil innards, to name a few), held together with liberal amounts of hot glue and duct tape.

As if that wasn’t cool enough, author John Austin also calls for a variety of candies and their packaging, ranging from Mentos gum containers (ammo clips) to Altoids tins (catapult housings). All the book’s directions are detailed and easy to follow, and every step features a full-scale diagram to be sure you understand steps like “disassemble a plastic ballpoint pen by removing the tip and ink cartridge.”

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The mom in me appreciates that we have such an entertaining way to re-use all the flotsam of everyday life, from orphaned pen caps to empty tape dispensers. The dried-out highlighter that used to go in the trash now gets harvested for parts: its housing is the Golden Gun barrel, and its cap becomes the sight on a Shark with Laser Beam. How can you resist a book that reminds you to save the cap of your used glue stick for a Q-tip blowgun?

Our most recent creation is a candy-calliber PPK that fires balloon-propelled Tic-Tac ammo at distances of up to eight feet. (Not exactly deadly force, but enough to fuel energetic gun fights that send candy flying and our toy poodle scurrying for cover.) The picture below, taken mid-assembly, gives you a good idea of the sort of items used. Right now, we are saving up pieces for the Rubber Band Derringer and a mini-Bowler Hat Launcher that would make Oddjob proud. If we don’t have all the supplies needed, a quick trip to the dollar store always suffices, but we try to use what we have on hand as much as possible.

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Life carries some weighty responsibilities, and there always seems to be another load of dishes to wash and another errand to run. But I say, if you’re too busy to build a watch that fires paper darts, then it’s time for some re-prioritizing. :)

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(Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction 2: Build A Secret Agent Arsenal; Chicago Review Press: 2011; ISBN 978-1569767160)

Ginger Scones and Two-Step Raspberry Jam

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April offered up its last rebellious plunge into winter temperatures last week, the ideal time for a hot pot of tea and a batch of scones fresh from the oven. The routine of stirring and shaping, rolling and cutting is a comfort to me when the sky is gray and staying inside seems like a very good idea indeed. Like all good scones, these are plump and dimpled, with toasty brown tops and feather-light interiors. They get an extra bit of sweet heat from spicy crystallized ginger, just enough zing to keep them lively. I finish them with a bit of scone nirvana: a generous dollop of lightly whipped cream and a spoonful of jewel-tone raspberry jam.

I never lack the desire to make jam, but I often lack the patience. With a tray of scones baking and a pint of fragrant organic raspberries sitting on the counter, now is not the time for mason jars and pressure canners. This calls for a quick mash and stir, puddles of scarlet fruit and syrup: instant jam gratification. I am sure there are purists in both baking and preserving camps alike who would cry foul at the notion of a scone so messy that it requires a fork. I say, try it in all its melting, buttery, tangy-sweet glory, and then tell me you don’t want another. :)

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Ginger Scones and Two-Step Raspberry Jam
makes about 18 scones and a cup of jam

For scones:
3 3 /4 c. all-purpose flour (I use King Arthur)
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 c. granulated sugar
3 Tbsp. baking powder
1/2 c. cold unsalted butter (1 stick), cut into small pieces
1/4 c. chopped crystallized ginger or ginger baking bits
1 1/4 c. milk
2 Tbsp. heavy cream or milk to brush on tops of scones and
1 Tbsp. demerara sugar for sprinkling

For jam:
1 pint fresh raspberries, preferably organic
1/3 c. granulated sugar or vanilla sugar (see these recipe notes for vanilla sugar how-to; taste your berries for sweetness and feel free to adjust the amount of sugar)

Oven 375F. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, granulated sugar, and baking powder until well-combined. Using your hands, press and rub the cold butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture is uniform and transformed into sandy, crumbly bits of dough. Mix in the ginger, then add the milk and stir with a wooden spoon just until combined.

Turn the dough on to a lightly floured surface and knead 10-12 times to finish bringing it together. Press and shape into a disc about an inch thick and cut out scones with a 2-1/2″-diameter round cookie cutter or glass. Gently press the scraps together and cut again until all the dough is used. (A light hand is key here, or over-working the gluten in the flour will make the final scones tougher.) Place the scones on a lightly greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet. Brush the tops with cream and sprinkle with demerara sugar, then bake 15-20 minutes. Tops should be light golden brown, but still tender.

While the scones cook, make your jam. Two steps, as promised: mash the raspberries and sugar together in a small saucepan, then simmer over medium-low heat for 10-15 minutes. Your jam should still have bits of whole berry, and the liquid should be thick and syrupy. This is the sort of jam you apply with a spoon, not a knife.

In addition to jam, I like lightly whipped cream with mine, but you could also use a drizzle of creme fraiche or even a spoonful of double-thick clotted cream, if you’re lucky enough to have it. (I miss you, Devonshire!)

This scone recipe is adapted from one in Gale Gand’s cookbook Brunch!, as mentioned in the Pear and Marzipan Pastries post.

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Build

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I got the very best birthday present this year: a passel of rusty old metal, courtesy of some dear friends and their 140-year old farm. There are nails and screws, washers and springs, hinges and handles, locks and keys: all lovingly hand-picked, colored by history in shades of deep orange and warm red. Who wants a pristine, shiny package when you can have a gift pulled from the clutches of spiders in the back of the barn? To some, all that rust may just seem like tetanus waiting to happen, but to me it is the sweetest kind of treasure.

Maybe I appreciate it all the more because I’m feeling a little bit vintage myself these days. I’m certainly showing some wear (I like to call it “patina”), but I still work hard and have some pretty good stories to tell. If there is beauty in being authentic, then all my creases and chipped edges make me positively radiant. :)

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It was that theme — the value in building a life with layers of wear and age — that inspired my most recent collage. I used my favorite hinge from my collection of vintage bits (yes, I have a favorite hinge) because its dusky blue reminded me of the sky in an old oil painting. I also picked out a few gears and some rusted nails to bundle in twine, then set to work assembling a multimedia landscape.

The background is a 5″x7″ watercolor illustration board painted to look like a piece of worn metal. This was the perfect opportunity to use Sophisticated Finishes, a liquid copper finish that can be custom-antiqued with a selection of blue and green patina solutions. It is little more than chemistry in action, but it gives me a thrill every time I watch a metallic surface fade and oxidize before my eyes.

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The paper pieces are from a 1952 travel magazine highlighting the charms of the midwestern United States, a great fit considering most of the vintage pieces I used hail from Kansas. I snipped and sanded a little balsa wood house, wallpapered with a page from an old hymnal, and set it against a fence made of sculpture wire. The final addition was a grove of stamped, embossed trees.

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There is such an obsession in our culture today with looking younger than we really are, smoothing out our wrinkles and blemishes until our faces have all the interest of a buffed wax floor. I am not sure how having the forehead of a 16-year-old became so important, but I think a society that values appearance above character has just hammered the perfect, shiny nails into its own coffin.

I value wisdom and experience, and that stuff usually comes with the price of aging. I would rather show and feel those years and know I really learned from them, than stay the unwrinkled, unknowing me I was a decade ago. I suppose that line of thinking also makes me sound increasingly vintage, but I don’t mind, because I’ve figured out how much promise that holds.

Spring Green Fritatta with Heirloom Tomato Salad

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Thursday nights seem caught in perpetual dinnertime limbo. There are too many leftovers to make another elaborate meal, and the end of the work week is tantalizingly close. Thursdays require something simple and quick that makes use of the extras in the refrigerator, but still satisfying enough to fuel that last push toward the weekend. A little culinary immediate gratification is a welcome sight.

All of which makes Thursday nights the ideal time for a fritatta, a sort of hybrid omelette/crustless quiche. Golden, rich, and hearty, it is a dish that comes together quickly and allows for plenty of creative adaptation based on what’s available in the fridge and pantry. This one incorporates three of my seasonal favorites: the first fresh zucchini, bright green peas, and a few sprightly spring onions. Although I used parmesan, any cheese will do here, from mild, milky mozzarella to the nutty smokiness of Gruyere. I have to say, there is simple kitchen magic in topping a hot fritatta with a freshly grated flurry of parmesan snow, white and light, melting almost as soon as it touches the eggy surface.

This recipe is vegetarian, and for me, that healthy dose of nutritious green also feels like a good fit before the weekend begins. However, you could easily add a handful of cooked bacon or ham, if your carnivorous instincts demand satisfaction. The topping is a zingy, sweet-tart salad made of yellow heirloom tomatoes seasoned simply and generously with olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, and garlic. It brings a much-needed acid punch to the party, balancing out the richness of so much egg, cream, and cheese.

Feel free to substitute your own vegetable choices: mushrooms or potatoes in place of the zucchini; chard or spinach rather than green peas; diced red onion and bell pepper instead of scallions. You can also adjust the herbs; rosemary, tarragon, and dill all play beautifully with eggs and cheese. That is the beauty of a fritatta, so friendly and accommodating, spontaneous and undemanding: the perfect Thursday night dinner guest.

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Spring Green Fritatta with Heirloom Tomato Salad
makes eight generous wedges

For fritatta:
5 scallions or one large green onion, white bulb finely chopped and green tops thinly sliced
3 zucchini, preferably organic, chopped into bite-size chunks
1 c. cooked green peas (fresh or frozen, whatever you have on hand)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 tsp. coarse sea or kosher salt
3/4 tsp. ground black pepper
1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
2 tsp. dried or 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil
1/2 tsp. dried or 1 tsp. fresh thyme
juice of half a lemon
2 Tbsp. olive oil
10 large eggs
1/2 c. creme fraiche, all-natural sour cream, or heavy cream
1/2 c. freshly grated parmesan (or other cheese of your choice) plus more for topping/serving

For tomato salad:
1 very large or two medium heirloom tomatoes, cut into bite-size chunks
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2-1 tsp. coarse sea or kosher salt (adjust amount to taste)
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
sliced top of one green scallion
1/4 c. olive oil, preferably extra virgin
3 Tbsp. seasoned rice vinegar (if using unseasoned rice vinegar, add 1/2 tsp. granulated sugar to salad to balance tartness of vinegar and highlight natural sweetness of tomatoes)

Oven 450F. In large, nonstick sauté pan with curved sides, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add zucchini, onion, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper, and cook until zucchini is tender but still crunchy in the center, about 7 minutes. Remove from heat and drain off extra liquid released from zucchini. Stir in lemon juice, nutmeg, herbs, and cooked peas.

While veggies are cooking, beat together eggs, creme fraiche (or dairy product of your choice), remaining teaspoon of salt, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon pepper in large mixing bowl. Whisk until mixture is creamy yellow and evenly combined. Stir in cheese.

Return pan of cooked veggies to medium-high heat and pour over egg mixture. Stir briefly, just enough to distribute veggies evenly in egg. Allow to cook on stovetop until edges are just set, a quick minute or two, then immediately transfer to oven. (Quick tip: if your pan has plastic handles, wrap them with a double layer of aluminum foil before baking.) Cook for 20-25 minutes, until center is set but not firm, and top is golden brown. Remove from oven and grate on more cheese as desired. Allow to cool 2-3 minutes, then gently slide fritatta out on to serving platter. (You may have to loosen the edges slightly before removing from pan — just arm yourself with a spatula and proceed confidently.)

While fritatta is baking, mix all tomato salad ingredients in a medium mixing bowl and toss well. Cover and allow to sit at room temperature until fritatta is ready. (Never purchase chilled tomatoes or store them in the refrigerator; refrigeration causes an immediate, permanent breakdown of the chemicals that give tomatoes flavor.) Taste once more for seasoning before serving.

To plate, slice warm fritatta into eighths and top each wedge with a generous spoonful of tomato salad. Serve with a chunk of crusty bread, preferably warmed and buttered, and enter Friday with a happy, full belly. :)

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Waxing poetic

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Okay, that’s the very last wax pun, I promise. :) I tried encaustics — the art of painting and collage with wax — for the first time a couple of months ago, and I was instantly hooked. I love the depth and texture added to paper and fabric by the waxy, slightly opaque layers of encaustic medium. As a collage enthusiast who owns at least two dozen types of adhesives ranging from hot glue to glaze, tacky tape to epoxy, I am also fascinated by the endless potential for embedding objects in and on beeswax.

March was a fruitful season of learning and growth for my family and I, but it wasn’t one that allowed for much time in the studio. I decided to celebrate my return with a second encaustic piece. As with my first, this one is on a 4″-square piece of watercolor paper mounted on masonite. I made the abstract pastoral background by applying wrinkled plastic wrap to still-wet watercolor washes to add texture and grain. I sketched and cut out a few small paper trees to give the scene a little more depth and detail, then added a bit of yellow patterned cardstock to the center of the sun.

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The final touch was tiny text that reads “keep growing,” snipped from the pages of a 1938 farming magazine. I painted on several coats of encaustic medium, warming the surface with a heat gun between each application to help fuse the layers. After applying the last, I floated a smattering of miniature resin daisies in the hot wax. I love how the liquid wax drifted up and around them, almost enveloping their delicate white petals.

I am already at work on a slightly larger scale encaustic piece, and this time I want to experiment more with achieving patterns in the wax. My studio smells musty and sweet, perfumed by watercolor and heated wax that seems faintly scented of honey. It is how I imagine the inside of a beehive must smell (don’t tell me otherwise — I like the romance), and it makes me feel inspired and busy. More to come!

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Plum Crumble

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It has been a whirlwind of activity around here, as multiple birthdays coincided with an extended visit from dear friends. Absorbing a family of six into your household can make for a wee bit of chaos, but it also makes for a whole lot of fun. A few minutes after they left, I found myself at a loss: standing in a suddenly empty kitchen, unsettled by the vacuum of quiet and stillness where so many people were talking and moving just minutes before.

The kitchen was the right place to be at that moment, really. It is where I feel most centered and fluent, the place where I seem to instinctively know what to do. In the wake of all that activity, I was in the mood to bake something tasty and simple. A bowl full of ripe red plums beckoned, and rolled oats and almond paste from the pantry supplied substance and richness.

I love the textures of this dessert: warm, syrupy plums and melted heaps of smooth, nutty almond paste, topped by the toasted crunch of oat crumble. A scoop of vanilla ice cream is virtually required for a fruit crumble fresh from the oven, although you could substitute lightly sweetened whipped cream or a drizzle of creme fraiche. Apricots or peaches would also work in place of the plums, or even a mix of stone fruit and berries. Just think sweet and tangy, ripe and seasonal. No matter the filling, this dish is warm and comforting, just right for a still April afternoon.

Plum Crumble
serves eight

For filling:
10 ripe red plums, pits removed and fruit cut into 1/8’s
2 tsp. cinnamon sugar
1/4 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. salt
juice of half a lemon
7 oz. almond paste or marzipan

For crumble:
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. rolled oats (not instant)
1/4 c. demerara or turbinado sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 c. unsalted butter (1 stick), melted

Oven 400F. Place plums in a medium-size, buttered glass/ceramic baking dish. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar, nutmeg, and salt, then drizzle with lemon juice. Pinch almond paste into hazelnut-size knobs and scatter across the top of the plums.

In a small mixing bowl, toss flour, oats, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and butter until well-combined and crumbly. Spoon evenly over the top of the fruit and bake for 30 minutes, until topping is golden brown and fruit filling is bubbly and tender. Serve hot, with something cold and creamy.

Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins

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Happy National Bake Week! In the U.S., yesterday kicked off a week devoted to celebrating the art and science of baking, and I can’t imagine a better inspiration (read: excuse) for my own glut of baking blog posts. It’s also ideal timing considering my whole family’s birthdays fall in the next two weeks. If you are going to have four reminders of your ever-increasing age within ten days of each other, it’s best to have a lot of baked goods on hand. :)

We’ll ease into the baking frenzy with simple, friendly Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins. This is a great recipe to have on hand: unintimidating, quick, and tasty, with a classic flavor combination that suits a wide range of ages and palates. The pairing of ripe banana and whole wheat flour make for a substantial muffin that is still moist and tender, and they do double duty as a breakfast treat or a weeknight dessert. If you’re feeling spicy, add a handful of finely chopped crystallized ginger before baking, or stir in a cup of walnuts or pecans for some crunch. These muffins also work with pumpkin puree substituted in place of the mashed bananas.

Like all good banana bread, these are even better the day after they are baked. This makes them ideal for bake sales, or as a make-ahead for a special occasion later in the week. Surprise your neighbor, bake some for your co-workers, or take a dozen to a friend celebrating a birthday. (hint, hint ;)

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Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins
makes 30 muffins

1 c. unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened
1 1/2 c. demerara or turbinado sugar (read these recipe notes for more info)
2 large eggs
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground allspice
1/4 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
4 medium bananas, mashed (about 1 1/2 c.)
2/3 c. milk
2 c. white whole wheat flour (available from King Arthur, see recipe notes below)
2 c. all-purpose flour
3 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt (not coarse)
1 1/2 c. chocolate chips (I used mini’s)
optional: 1/2 c. finely chopped crystallized ginger or
1 c. chopped pecans or walnuts

Oven 350F. In medium mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and smooth. Scrape the sides of the bowl with a silicone spatula, and then beat in the eggs, spices, banana, and milk until uniformly combined. In a separate small mixing bowl, whisk together both types of flour and the baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Gently stir this dry mixture into the wet ingredients, just until combined. (If you over-mix here, your muffins will be tough and dry.) Fold in chocolate chips and any other add-ins you like.

Scoop the batter into a greased/paper-lined muffin tin so that each muffin cup is full (about 2 tablespoons of batter in each). Bake for 20-22 minutes, until tops are lightly golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool ten minutes, then remove muffins from pan and allow to cool completely on baking rack. (If you cool on a plate or other solid surface, the bottoms will steam and get soggy.) These are lovely spread with a little cream cheese.

Recipe Notes + Tips:
I love the extra fiber and vitamins that come from using whole grain flour in baked goods, but not the unappealing, leaden texture that often follows. It is one thing to have a satisfyingly weighty loaf of whole wheat bread; it’s quite another to have a chocolate cupcake that could double as a doorstop.

One of the ways I have found around that conundrum is King Arthur Flour’s white whole wheat flour. Made from hard white spring wheat instead of traditional red wheat, it retains the nutritional content of other whole wheat flours, but with a lighter color, texture, and flavor. While most people can detect the appearance and taste of whole wheat flour, I find the white whole wheat is much less noticeable. I have used it with success in everything from cinnamon applesauce cake to pumpkin bread, and I especially enjoy the chewy texture it lends to these Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins.

I have found KAF white whole wheat flour for sale at multiple grocery stores in my area, but you can also order it on-line. If you don’t have any on hand, you can use traditional whole wheat flour in the recipe above, with the end result a more dense muffin. If you prefer to keep the crumb lighter, decrease the whole wheat flour to one cup and increase the all-purpose to three cups.

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