This is one Mean Old Lady!

This is one Mean Old Lady!
Self-portrait: 'Quilter on Fire'

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Easter Egg Tree

Family traditions are one of the joys of child-rearing.  I was inspired by one of the books I recalled from childhood--The Golden Egg Book-- to begin an annual project with our youngsters.  

It began in 1984, when our older child, daughter Laura, was three years old.  Needless to say, early work was...pretty rudimentary!  Nathaniel, younger by 2 years and 8 months, began participating when he was nearly three.  Our tradition of decorating eggshells continued for ten years--until 1994, when the youngsters were older and busier.  

Every year I began in January or February, 'blowing out' each egg I used.  (I'm sure you know how it's done:  tap an opening at each end of the egg, blow forcefully but carefully in one end to expel the yolk and the white into a bowl.  Rinse and drain; allow to dry.)  Because there were inevitable casualties and other participants (the kids' friends began to look forward to decorating eggs as well, taking them home afterward) I usually accumulated roughly three dozen eggshells.  We used colored markers, crayons, water-colors, tempera paints, acrylic paints, pencils.  Eventually I developed a method of threading a thin wire through the egg and then using buttons, beads, sequins, etc., to hold the egg in place on the wire; one end of the wire was looped to allow me to hang the eggs.  I set a branching sapling into plaster and decorated the base with seashells we brought home from trips to faraway beaches.  Eventually we had saved about 100 eggs.  

Even after we were no longer creating new eggs, it was an annual rite to bring out the Egg Tree and hang the eggs.  

The eggs reflect the growing skills, imagination, and sense of humor that were expressed in each child.  Here are some of the eggs 'up close and personal.'

 Laura's 1984 egg--purple marker

Dribbling water colors always works!  1985


Nathaniel's faithful Teddy bear, Winnie, was his first topical egg.  1987

Laura's tree and flowers.

Below, the birds who visited our feeders and garden.

Not every egg was a masterpiece, but I saved them anyway. 
Nathaniel often just wanted to pile on the colors.  

And then he would come up with a quirky mustachio'd face, add a button beret, and Voila!  A Frenchman

Natty's spotted egg spells out a message.  (He himself arrived 2 weeks past his due date....Hmmm)

Below:  Nathaniel's watermelon!

I usually painted one egg each year; this one featured cavorting rabbits and carrots.

Below, a broken egg rescue operation!

And Laura followed suit by creating a scene from her 'community aquarium,' featuring her swordtail fish and plants.  

In a triumph of sentiment over reason, I packed and transported the eggs when we moved to Arkansas in 2001.  Now, with both children in their Thirties and living far away, I know that the Easter Egg Tree is not going to be brought out in our house each year.  The best way to preserve precious mementos, sometimes, is to give them away:  the Egg Tree is in its new home at the Children's Area of the Faulkner County Library here in Conway. 
 Many happy memories will always be mine.  

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tales from The South

Saturday evening, April 5th, NPR's 'Tales from The South' taped a show at our local library in Conway, Arkansas.  I was thrilled.

The Faulkner County Library has been one of my regular stops for the past twelve years (more frequently when I was still teaching; in past years, at least once a month when a group of quilt-makers meets for advancement with our projects, fellowship, lunch, and general good times.)

I found an announcement in the 'Friends of the Library' flyer and ordered our tickets for the fish fry, concert, and radio program taping on the spot.  We had a great evening.  
Looks like they're planning to come back next year!
You can access programs via NPR, or via KUAR's website.  'Tales from The South' is usually taped at The Starving Artist Cafe--a great eatery in North Little Rock--but we've been deterred from attending because of the long drive home in the dark.  (We are No Longer Young.)  Our evening at the library, which also featured singer/songwriter Jeff Clanton, also from Conway, was delightful.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Daylight Saving Time? Already?

I don't want to say that George W. Bush is responsible for ALL the societal ills currently plaguing us (after all, there was Ronald Reagan in the mix, too) but increasing the Daylight Savings Time period has to rate pretty high when it comes to creating more misery than necessary.  

Just as we are waking up, *thrilled* to see that it's light outside instead of pitch black, we are being plunged back into The Dark Ages.  

This winter has been hard enough!   Here are illustrations of the four ice storms....

To the left is my fig tree, which I pray is not frozen back to its roots (thanks to its protected location.)   

 This picture was taken early in the storm...before most of the limbs were so weighted with ice that they gave way.  

The fourth ice storm was, frankly, superfluous.  All the trees that were going to break were already down.  The schools had already changed the calendar and extended well into June to make up the lost academic instructional days.  

I think the message here is:  we are all tired of Winter and ready for Spring!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Comfort Food!

Sometimes the best way to get warm is to stay in the kitchen and cook!

Recent misadventures (an attempt to recreate 'traditional Southern' dumplings) led me to read something in the neighborhood of three dozen recipes online.  None of them seemed to fit the bill.  However, I received a catalog from King Arthur Flour, and as always a few recipes were featured.  One such was a pot of 'chicken and dumplings.'

Now, these dumplings looked nothing like what I recalled (and failed to replicate), but they *did* look good.  I had a grilled chicken breast in the fridge and homemade chicken broth in the freezer.  What the heck!  Another cold, gray, windy day called for something hot and yummy.

The King Arthur recipe called for self-rising flour or King Arthur Flour Baking Mix.  Don't fall for this!  If the day ever dawns that I can't measure out a few ingredients and stir them into my flour, just shoot me.

Per cup of flour, add:  1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder (be sure you check the expiration date; it does lose its powers) and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.  There; you now have self-rising flour.

The KAF recipe also called for 'Herbs de Provence' (a mixture I don't happen to keep in my well-stocked spice rack and auxiliary shelves) so I went out in the yard, snipped some fresh rosemary, rinsed and pulled the leaves off, and minced them very fine.  I threw the extras into the broth later.  

The recipe was going to yield a large quantity, so I cut it down to match the size of my lidded casserole and single chicken breast.  It also called for frozen mixed vegetables, something I have loathed all my life and never use; (see previous note about shooting me if I can't manage  to do without pre-fab groceries.)  I chunked up two celery stalks and two handfuls of fresh snap peas.  I expect my veggie mixture might be different every time I make this dish; depends on what's left in the larder.  I sweated these veggies and the chopped chicken breast while I whipped up the thickened broth (1/4 cup flour, 2 Tablespoons of butter, 2 cups of broth whisked into the roux.)  In the end I think I only used about 1 1/2 cups of the broth because the casserole isn't that large; also, it wouldn't be like me to leave pepper out of anything.  

The dumpling mixture was 1 cup + 2 Tbsp flour,  a generous 1 1/2 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp baking soda.  I added the minced rosemary and then cut in 2 Tbsp of butter; on the side I beat one egg into 6 Tbsp of buttermilk (yogurt whey or yogurt mixed with some water will serve in a pinch; or just add a bit of lemon juice to milk.  Personally, I keep buttermilk on hand all the time.)  Final mixing only at the last minute.

When the broth and chicken-veggies were hot, I set the oven to 350, poured the stew into the casserole, and then quickly mixed the liquids into the dry ingredients with my sacred wooden spoon.  I scooped up lumps about the size of a golf ball and with a few pats to shape them, gently placed them atop the stew.  On with the lid and into the oven!  I did end up increasing the oven temp to 375 for about 10 minutes to raise the temp of the stew more quickly; then it was back to 350 for the rest of the 30 minutes.
The dumplings were light as a feather in the flavorful broth.
I am afraid we quite made pigs of ourselves
There were three lone dumplings left over; pan-toasted the next morning and topped with poached eggs....

Monday, January 20, 2014

Health Bread

I've made this recipe for...about 40 years.  (Ouch)
It's from the 1964 Joy of Cooking--and you won't find it in any of the newer editions.  My dear offspring gave me the latest Joy, and it has some great recipes, but the chapter on breads has quite wasted away.  It's a shame.  The process is satisfying, the result is delicious, and your house will smell wonderful.  And if the Polar Vortex is chilling you to the bone, making bread will warm you up and justify turning on the oven.  

People don't always have the ingredients on hand for bread baking, so assembling some of the items might mean extra shopping (or just a delay until your next visit to the grocery store.)  If you are not acquainted with the Baking aisle, now's the time.  Our Kroger carries King Arthur flour, and WalMart actually has some of the Hodgson flours, but I had to visit my local health food store in order to find rye flour. It's also my source for Bob's Red Mill Old-fashioned Rolled Oats when Kroger's meager 'gourmet section' has sold out.  I buy yeast by the jar, but the packets are economical if you only plan to bake occasionally.  (I confess that most of my yeast usage is for pizza dough, which is simpler and faster than bread baking; but I digress.)

Make your shopping list from the recipe, and while you're at it, get over any fears you may harbor about yeast.  It's not *that* fragile and difficult to handle.  

Oh, okay.  Here's what you'll need.
          2 cups of milk (your choice; I usually use 2% but skim is fine, or reconstitute dried)
          Wheat germ  (Kretschmer's comes in a sizable jar but it lasts well)
          Flour-- soy, whole-grain rye or whole wheat, and unbleached all-purpose (yes, all three)
          Small amounts of brown sugar, cooking oil, salt; one or two eggs, and some solid                                 shortening
          Two bread pans; these need not be rectangular.  I've baked using the round top pan of my double-boiler, in ceramic casserole dishes, and in foil pans from the grocery store.  
Put 2 cups of rolled oats into a large bowl.  It can be your mixer bowl; whether or not to actually use the mixer and dough hook is up to you.  It spares my wrists somewhat, but it's not without its own drawbacks.  Add 1/2 cup brown sugar and 2 tsps salt.  Scald 2 cups of milk and pour it over the oats and leave it to cool.  It takes a good while; do it before having breakfast and dressing, and it will be ready for the next step by the time you are.  Don't be tempted to skip this step; the oats need to be softened up.  Measure out the other ingredients (amounts given below) and have them ready before you begin mixing.  

When you can stick a finger into the liquid without wanting to jerk it back out, it's about right.  Too much heat kills yeasts (and people); you want 'warm but not hot.'  Now add:
1/4 cup cooking oil (light oil such as canola) to the milk/oat mixture.

Yeast these days is freeze-dried and reliable; I've only had one packet of yeast fail in all these years.  Most older cookbooks instruct you to 'proof' the yeast, which means you mix it with some warm water and wait to be sure it will begin multiplying.  Nowadays many recipes call for you to mix the yeast in with the first couple of cups of flour (of whatever sort)  and skip that step. It works well, but you still have to be sure your liquid ingredients are not too hot.  If you want to see the yeast in action, measure 1/4 cup of warm-but-not-hot water into a small bowl and add either a packet of yeast or a scant tablespoon of yeast from your jar.  Be sure your measuring spoon is dry!  In about 10 minutes you will see that the yeast is foamy; add it to the milk mixture.

Stir in your slightly beaten egg(s) and 1/2 cup wheat germ, plus 1 cup of soy flour and 1 cup of rye (or whole wheat) flour.
Mixing tools

Stir well.  I use a wooden spoon that is sacred to the task of bread-making; it's never used for any other cooking, and I wash and dry it as soon as the mixing stage is complete.  
Now you are going to start adding 3-4 cups of unbleached flour, beginning with 1 cup and then continuing about 1/2 cup at a time.  (You need not be precise about this, but you don't want to go much over the 3-4 cup total or your bread will be too dry.)  At some point it is going to get difficult to stir, so when you are there, you want to sift some of your flour onto your kneading board (well, I used the smooth counter top, myself) and scrape the sticky dough out of the bowl onto the layer of flour.  Sift some more flour on top (to cover) and then upend a bowl over the whole shooting match.  Set the timer for 10 minutes.  You are going to allow some of the gluten in the mixture to develop; it will make your kneading easier and contribute to the texture of the final product.  

Meanwhile, wash the bowl (and your wooden spoon or bread-mixing tool) and then get out your loaf pans.  I use vintage FireKing glass loaf pans, but that's just me.  Inexpensive metal pans work just fine.  Use a blob of Crisco (or whatever solid shortening you prefer, but don't bother using butter) to grease the mixing bowl and your loaf pans.  Grease the bowl more lightly, but don't be too sparing with the pans, and be sure you don't miss the corners.   I do them all at the same time even though I won't be using the loaf pans for a good while; why get greasy twice?  

When the timer goes off, uncover the dough and begin kneading.  Basically you are continuing to mix in the rest of the flour you have pre-measured.  I'm sure you can find a YouTube video, but in brief, kneading involves lifting the front of the dough ball and pressing it into the center; give it a quarter turn and repeat, and keep going that way.  You will be using the heels of your hands, and your fingers will curve together as scoops as you fold the dough on itself.  You'll want to keep flouring your hands and the dough ball as you work; in the beginning, you'll need to use generous amounts of flour.  I keep a metal pancake turner on hand because whole-grain dough is sticky; I can scrape it off the kneading surface and add flour beneath.  The dough will gradually get less sticky as you go along, but it will never lose all of the tackiness the way white bread dough does.  This stage will take about 10+ minutes of steady work, but it's rhythmic and soothing, and the dough will gradually begin to feel substantial and springily  'alive.'  

Now it's time to let the dough rise.  Put the ball into the greased bowl, and then lift it and roll it over so that all surfaces of the dough have a light coating of oiliness.  Then wring out a thin dishtowel in warm water and drape it over the top of the bowl (but not touching the dough.)  I turn on the oven light and put the dough to rise in this warm, draft-free spot.  It will rise in a chilly room, but it will take longer.  Don't be tempted to turn on the oven to make the dough rise more quickly; the oven bulb gives off enough warmth.  Yeast is a living thing, and if you kill it off before it has done its work, you will get a flat, unsatisfying loaf.  You can't really rush this step, which could take up to an hour--more usually 45 minutes.  The goal is to allow the dough to double in bulk.  (It won't hurt anything if it rises and touches the towel.)  If you poke the dough and the indentation of your two fingers doesn't spring back, the rising is at its peak.  

Very lightly flour the (cleaned) surface where you did the kneading and dump out the dough. With floured hands, punch the dough down and knead somewhat into a log.  Cut the dough in half and form each into a loaf to suit your pans.  You are aiming for a smooth top, so you might be folding the ends and sides under as you prepare the loaves.  
Now drape the pans with the damp towel again and allow to rise about 30-45 minutes; this time the bread will not quite double in bulk.  When it's getting close, preheat the oven to 350F.  
Put the bread pans in the hot oven with space between and bake 30-45 minutes.  The original recipe said an hour, but I've never had them take that long.  

Turn out onto a rack and then right the loaves, elevating the rack so that the bread doesn't sweat; allow the loaves to cool completely before putting into plastic bags to keep, refrigerated. 
To slice, use a sawing motion; don't try to just press the knife down as if you were cutting butter or an apple.  A wavy-edged bread knife is a useful tool (works well on fresh tomatoes, cake, etc.) and will give you many years of service.  I've had mine...oh, 40 years or so.  

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Return of the Blogger!

Busy times and some changes have kept me from sitting down at the computer; the more things that happened, the harder it became to even consider catching up!  But I'm here at last.  

2013 ended with a flurry of activity.  In late October the DHubby and I trekked to Vicksburg to attend a concert (Laura on viola)  and celebrate our darling daughter's 33rd birthday (just a tad early.)  There seemed to be so much to do to  before Thanksgiving, and we pared back our menu and our expectations.   

The DHubby's mother had a minor fall the week before the holiday.  A trip to the ER was mandatory, but the assisted living facility did not inform us of the incident in a timely way.  The ER nurse called us to see if we were coming to take her back to her residence!  Given the timing, we agreed they could send her home in a cab.  Though she was only bruised, Esther was in enough discomfort that she wanted to stay in bed and take pain medications, and I'm sorry to say that 'irascible' is the kindest descriptor for her mood and conduct.  Everyone agreed that coming out for the Thanksgiving meal was not a good idea.  

In the event, our daughter came up a day early because of the ugly weather prediction (and was that ever the right call!)  We stayed cozily ensconced throughout the holiday.  The Thanksgiving menu:  cranberry relish, cranberry sauce, turkey and cornbread dressing, delicata squash, Italian green beans, and (oh, the shame!) boughten yeast rolls.  We enjoyed a chat with our son, far away in California (or, at least I think we talked...things are running together in my head.)

The day after Thanksgiving, we put up the (artificial, pre-lit) Christmas tree; happily, this was with a minimum of fuss.  The DHubby made his traditional vow that this would be our last year to deal with this tree. Both he and our daughter declined to decorate, instead preferring to watch college football games together.  (It was more peaceful because there was no need to phone one another every two minutes.)  And Saturday our darling headed home again, arriving safely in early afternoon.  We were busy with the usual post-visit activities (laundry, washing up, putting away the silver) and then enjoyed a dinner of leftovers.  Just as we arose from the table, the telephone rang.  

Esther was being transported to the ER, in great pain and "talking out of her head."  We immediately drove to the medical center (five minutes from home) and arrived to find it jammed. Later we learned that it's always the busiest weekend of the year, because people are away from home, all the PCP's are on holiday, and flu season is under way.  We were told only one of us could go back and join Esther, who was in the hall until a space was available.  Don went back while I huddled in the waiting room trying to avoid germs.  

Eventually I was called to the private space; Esther was calmer with an IV and medication, but still in pain.  The physician speculated that perhaps a cracked vertebra had been missed the week before, and he ordered a CT scan.  Meanwhile, I took the nurse aside to mention that Etz had an inoperable abdominal aortic aneurysm that had been enlarging in recent months; her pain seemed to me to be focused in her belly and side rather than her back.  An EMT stopped by to see how she was doing, describing how badly she was crashing when his team arrived with the ambulance.  Esther was barely back from the CT when the DHubby and I were called out into the hallway, where the physician, with some distress, told us that the radiologist had just phoned to say that the scan showed the aneurysm was leaking.  "This is 100% terminal.  She may have 5 to 7 days left.  We will be admitting her, and I recommend that you call in hospice." appeared that the EMTs had interrupted her death--or rather, delayed it.  

Esther, at 89 1/2 years, had been physically fairly stable for such a long time, and although we knew that some day she would die, we had come to think that she might go on for many more years.  (There were 9 Koch siblings in all, and several had lived into their 90's.)  We were shocked but not emotional.  We stayed and accompanied Etz to her room, saw her settled and resting, and came home to contemplate what we needed to do; it was nearing midnight.  

Sunday morning when we arrived at the hospital, Etz was sitting up and eating a bit of breakfast.  She dictated a list of things she would need from her assisted living room, and I promised to come back with those items after lunch.  She did not ask any questions about her condition, and she seemed composed, sentient, and comfortable; she did not look like a dying woman.  Because it was a weekend, there was little we could do except telephone relatives and make a list for Monday calls (to hospice, to her pastor, to the funeral home where prearrangements had been in place since the last crisis.)   We did not know then that instead of a few days, Esther would linger three weeks.  

Esther died on December 20th.  The long days between her crisis and her final hour were filled with emotion, activity, and uncertainty.  Her space in assisted living had to be cleared out; many people had to be contacted, informed, reassured.  We spent time with Esther twice or three times a day--even with the inconvenient ice storm that closed down the city.  Nurses and doctors could not understand why she was still living....and until Esther finally dealt with her fear of dying and her unfinished business, she clung to life.  It was a blessing plain to all of us who witnessed it, when she was able to meet her final tasks; after that, she was welcoming  rather than fighting off her death.  

Our Christmas was subdued but joyful.  Daughter Laura joined us; Nathaniel called us; we celebrated the season, and we now welcome the New Year and contemplate our altered lives.  
On Esther's behalf, we made donations to Good Will; the Lion's Club (glasses); Starkey Hearing Foundation (hearing aids); Big Brothers and Big Sisters; the Interfaith Clinic; and the Prayer Shawl Ministry at Grace United Methodist Church where she was a member.  Not a bad legacy!  

That is enough for now, even if there is more to tell.  
I'm wishing a long life and a good legacy to those left behind ...for each of us!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Gair the Painter

We had a planned stop in tiny Howard, Pennsylvania, where we arranged to visit another cousin (from the DHubby's mother's side of the family, this time.)  Donald calculated that it had been about 47 years since he had last seen Cousin Gary.  He described him this way:

          He was always drawing;  you never saw him without a pencil in his hand--unless he was fishing, that is.  He is a master fisherman.  We used to make flies and go fishing together.  And he knows all the trees and flowers.  He is just a supremely happy man.  He married the love of his life, and he's been contented living not far from where he was born.  Except for his Army service, I don't think he's ever left for any length of time.  Gary told me that he wakes up every morning and can hardly wait to get to work.  

The DHubby spotted Gary's shop right on the main highway, so we pulled in..... and there was 'Gair the Painter.'   Inside, the first thing we saw was a huge sign--for a popular local restaurant--painted in brilliant glossy enamel. Also there:  scents of wood, paint and turpentine; other work in progress, carved signs not yet painted; and what I recognized as a deluxe walker (the kind with a seat and locking wheels) on which was superimposed a tray with numerous tools. 
 "I know what that is:  it's a walker!" I exclaimed.
But Gary said, "No, that's a mobile carving station!"  
Gair the Painter

We visited in the little office, which was hung about with paintings, carvings, photos (including one of a gorgeous grand-daughter), and featuring an orderly desk.
Pretty soon Gary's wife Sarah and another cousin, Vickie (with her little dog,) also arrived to enjoy the reminiscing and sharing of pictures.  The DHubby had found one shot of the three Koch sisters each holding a baby boy...more than 70 years in the past.
 More pictures from the shop:

Skeleton of a dragon (carving)

And suddenly two hours had passed and it was time to go.  A final image:

Rose 'Crepuscular'

Asparagus bed--post harvest

Lake Conway Mutti und Kinder