Archives for category: home cooking

Spring crops are in! Fresh Batavia lettuce rosettes at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. Last Saturday I stood in line for a three-pack of strawberries and a couple of large artichokes, food that hardly needs preparing: I sliced the strawberries over homemade waffles made with spelt flour and sour half and half and steamed the artichokes to eat with lemon butter. This easy cooking joins the long-cooked stews on the cooler days and keeps me from heating up the kitchen on the warmer days. We have had some of each in March, eighty-degree afternoons, fifty-one degree sunrises. Sheeting rain yesterday morning kept me from singing at the Berkeley market but allowed me to walk through the Bay Fair market with Johnny instead. I bought more artichokes, some sugar snap peas, cilantro, new potatoes. Johnny bought onions, scallions, red peppers (where did they come from?). The other day a man walked down our street with strawberries from Salinas and I bought half a flat for two dollars a basket. Johnny says they aren’t as good as the farmers’ market strawberries, but it was an impulsive buy to cheer up my sweetie who has been working hard on his first album.

I have been working hard, too. I played a private St. Patrick’s Day party on Saturday March 15, in addition to my usual busking. For that I had to practice up several Turlough O’Carolan tunes on the Celtic harp and refresh my memory of some “Irish” standards of the type that one only sings on St. Patrick’s Day (I was heard to grumble through the house, “I never will play ‘The Wild Rover’ no more”).

Photo of seed packets

Heirloom seed packets.

The day after the gig I whisked myself off to Santa Rosa to visit my friends Suzanne and Scott. Suzanne and I had a date with the Seed Bank in Petaluma, a haven for heirloom seeds. Suzanne staked me to a portion of them as a late birthday present and I quickly doubled the stake to get an English trowel and more seeds. It’s hard to describe the bounty of seed packets at the Seed Bank, over 1200 possibilities. I carefully chose varieties of basil and tarragon, snapped up some black garbanzo beans from Afghanistan, bought Blue Lake green bean seeds and Scarlet Runner beans. I deliberated over kinds of sunflowers and bought a blue and white sweet pea mix. I chose a French variety of lettuce and an Amish paste tomato. I could not get sugar snap peas or Genovese basil — apparently everyone in Northern California is planting those at the moment. But the peppers were nearly my undoing: an entire rack of peppers stood before me and I wanted them all, habaneros and jalapenos, cherry peppers, Thai peppers. I limited myself to poblano seeds and a packet with a beautiful illustration of a red bell pepper.

Much of this bounty is still sitting in packets in the breakfast nook because every time I have had time to plant things outdoors I have needed stakes or there has been rain. I lie awake nights thinking where to put things. I did manage to plant a couple of half rows of black-eyed peas and pinto beans and put together a small A-frame of scavenged pine boughs and bamboo for the scarlet runner beans. I planted some runner beans today, plus Blue Lake green beans, butternut squash and two varieties of basil (Thai and Ararat).

Tomato and tarragon seedlings

First seedlings

Last week I started seeds of two kinds of tomatoes and Russian tarragon in cardboard egg cartons. I started a second set when anything failed to germinate after six days and was jubilant an hour later when the sun came out and the first green bits poked up out my potting soil in tray number one. I have never started seeds indoors before and this small victory feels like magic. This morning I squeezed three new egg cups into my tray, each containing a poblano pepper seed.

The in-ground crops look good. We cut a few leaves of chard one night to go with a dinner of sweet potatoes and sour milk cornbread. The kale and two of the red cabbages are growing large. The Sun Gold tomato is a leggy green monster now with four sets of yellow blossoms already — perhaps we will have home-grown tomatoes by May. I am anxious to have tomatoes, tarragon and pepper plants to add to the garden, to plant lettuce and herbs and flowers, but I have to wait for drier weather. Not that we don’t need the rain in California. We do.  I wait impatiently for the intersection of a free day and a dry day and I hack a three-foot high sheaf of flowering weeds out of the side yard so that they do not invade my vegetable patch.

It excites me to grow some of our food. I prepared the ground of my mind for this by subscribing to a farm box and converting myself to seasonal eating several years ago. Then I managed a small organic garden in an after school recreation program where we successfully grew beans, peas and tomatoes. We planted cleome and borage and lemon verbena, a true geranium, pumpkins: I watched a visiting child snap the one small pumpkin off its vine during a Hallowe’en party and I was let go before everything bloomed.

Hills and trees from Bay Fair platform.

Bay Fair Landscape #1. 5″ x 7″ ink and watercolor. Sharyn Dimmick.

I started some garden sketches for this post but the rain has interrupted my garden sketching as well. Instead I sketch strangers on BART trains and the view of hills and trees from the bench on the platform. The sketching exercises come from the new edition of Natalie Goldberg’s Living Color, a beautiful book with a gallery of paintings as well as lots of fun things to do. I feel happy with my life when the days contain music and sketching and cooking and gardening and writing. Sketching calms me and engages me, a meditation of the moving hand and eye, tethering my restless mind to the paper and the scene in front of me, just as busking tethers my mind to chords and lyrics, my hands to the fingerboard, my feet to the floor, while my voice rides the breath. In kitchen work, the anchor is my chopping knife, my whisk, the spoon in my hand, in gardening it is the trowel or fingers twisting weed stems as I thank them for breaking up the soil.

Birthday greeting

Birthday card.

My fifty-sixth birthday finds me at home, taking a rare day off the day job (busking in the Berkeley BART station and the Berkeley Farmers’ Market), spreading sheets of newspaper around parts of the backyard, weighting it down with rocks and bricks and whatever I can find. My friend Celi at thekitchensgarden recommended this method of composting after we determined that I could neither keep chickens nor build and turn a compost bin. Underneath the newspaper are used coffee filters and eggshells. The other vegetable and fruit scraps get buried in big pits. My birthday present requests have included bales of straw, seeds, plants and child-sized garden tools — I garden on my knees or sitting on the ground: I am slightly obsessed with the garden and the possibility of growing some of our own food.

I ate oatmeal for breakfast, graced with dried cherries and maple syrup: our kind friend Mary Katherine treated us with a gift certificate to Trader Joe’s as a housewarming present and we bought ourselves a hoard of delicious cheeses, salmon steaks, grass-fed beef steaks and lamb tips as well as the breakfast goods. We are not eating our meat and fish bounty yet because I am still on a soup or stew kick: this week we ate curried yellow split pea soup with spiced yogurt, taken from the Green’s cookbook, along with loaves of Mark Miller’s Cumin Orange Bread and some Asian cucumber salad provided by my friend Elaine. We also went out to Angeline’s in Berkeley for Johnny’s birthday, where we ate voodoo shrimp (me), crawfish etouffee (him) and banana bread pudding with caramel sauce and whipped cream (we split it). Also, on Valentine’s Day we ate a very spiffy dinner at Zatar, featuring lamb and crab salad and a fish tagine, cardamom ice cream and red wine-poached pears. I know, I know: we are a celebrating couple of people in February — it’s a good month to be us. But when I am not dining finely, out or at home, I am grubbing in the dirt,  or putting containers out in the yard to catch water. I have planted my first Sun Gold tomato plant, plus three red cabbages, three chard plants, one kale and one parsley. The parsley did not survive, soaked by the copious rain of the last few days, but the other things are doing fine: my mint plant is glorious and green, thanks to the local abundance of sun, followed by the welcome rain in my drought-stricken state. It was supposed to pour all day, they said. We did have showers in the morning, but I haven’t seen any real rain today yet.

detail from watercolor garden painting.

Detail from “Garden 101″ painting.

My covetousness knows no bounds: I want to put in a Meyer lemon tree and a Bearss lime, a Gravenstein apple, maybe a green fig and a persimmon. Apricots and walnuts are supposed to grow well here, too: the neighbor’s have an old walnut — maybe one will grow itself! Fortunately, my thrift is intact: I cart home bags of leaves from parking lots and gutters to enrich our soil and I bought a mixed bean soup mix to plant in the backyard: legumes are good for the soil, breaking up hard dirt with their roots and fixing nitrogen to nuture future plants. If we get some shelling beans, so much the better. I plan to broadcast black-eyed peas as well, which are delicious fresh from the pod, particularly when prepared an Indian way.

It’s getting onto lunch time: I will probably have some more homemade bread and some cheese, a pear and a pot of tea. Johnny is taking me out for dinner, to Ajanta, my favorite Indian spot, where we will taste the new tasting menu. A garden, a blog, a painting, a nice meal with my true love. What else could I want? (Don’t get me started…)

painting depicts backyard garden.

Garden 101. Sharyn Dimmick 12″ x 12″ Gouache and watercolor pencil

Dear Readers,

The cozy bedroom.

The cozy bedroom.

I did it! On January 5th I moved from my mother’s house in Kensington, California to Johnny’s rental house in San Leandro. I have been here the better part of a month. I have moved the bedroom furniture about fourteen times (hope I’m done now), mostly seeking places for shoes and a filing cabinet. My stereo isn’t hooked up yet (Johnny’s is) and my backup hard drive has gone missing. Fiona the cat has run away and returned twice: now I only let her out in the afternoon before she has been fed.

After three and a half weeks, the bedroom is close to organized. The kitchen and breakfast nook are further behind and there are still things in boxes and plenty of things in the garage and garden shed. The hold-up in the kitchen is storage space: I need a tall shallow shelf for my spices and I need a china cabinet or hutch of some sort: some of my china is sitting on a former bookshelf and another bookshelf has been pressed into service for cookbooks and dry goods, but my best china remains in boxes in Kensington along with a mixer, a blender and other things I have not been able to incorporate into my new kitchen.

Cookbooks, etc.

Cookbooks, etc.

Nevertheless I hit the ground cooking. I think the first meal I cooked for us here was a dish of broccoli-feta pasta. We have also had Thai green curry, chicken sausages and baked potatoes, plus Johnny’s special scrambled eggs with vegetables, which he once delivered to me in bed! At the end of the first week I made Johnny his favorite red beans and rice from his friend Mike Goodwin’s cookbook, Totally Hot. And so began a tradition of making a legume-based soup or stew every week: we can eat it for a few days and I can freeze any that we don’t eat. I also make other soups, including the butternut squash version of this soup.

Susan of Susan Eats London kindly sent me a box of ingredients, featuring lentils de Puy, the small green organically grown French lentils. First I tried them mixed with red lentils in a Green’s recipe for a curried soup which calls for yellow split peas — I had had this soup twice at a Chanukah party: it was memorable and I had been meaning to make it. The verdict: it was better made with yellow split peas and I need to replenish some of my Indian spices, including cardamom.

Then I solicited recipes on Facebook, confessing that, to me, lentils taste like dirt. I received a lot of the usual suggestions: cook them with potatoes, carrots and celery, etc. Some people mentioned lemon. Then I went to Smitten Kitchen, one of my favorite food blogs, and found a lentil and sausage and chard combination. Hmm.

I followed the recipe loosely, using two cups of lentils instead of one and incorporating a quart jar of stewed Sun Gold tomatoes from my  Berkeley Farmers’ Market pal, Tom Gattonelli. I used some Aidell’s sun-dried tomato chicken sausages and ladled each serving over leaves of wild arugula. I did enjoy the soup: the special ingredients ameliorated the dirt flavor and the soup got better and better as it sat. I did not, however, make Deb’s garlic oil garnish.

Baking supplies.

Baking supplies.

The star of the kitchen is a butcher block cart: I traded yet another bookcase to my friend Elaine for it and I use it everyday. Johnny likes to sit at it and eat, but I like to use it to chop and mince and slice. I have made two shelves below the cutting board into a baking pantry, containing my rolled oats, unbleached flour, cornmeal, sugars, baking soda, baking powder, nuts, rice, chocolate and dried fruit. The rolling pin and measuring spoons hang on small hooks and the biscuit cutters, pastry cutter and dry measuring cups fill the small drawer.

Earlier this week I visited Thrift Town, a short walk from the house and scored copper-plated storage canisters and a glass casserole dish without a lid. By fitting a pie plate over the top I had what I needed to cook baked beans, the legume recipe of the week, pinto beans layered with chopped onions and minced bacon, mustard sauce and molasses. Johnny loved them and I said, “They are really simple. Even Johnny could make them.” I told him he had done the hard work of chopping the onions and preparing the bacon, that the oven did most of the rest. Just like a New England housewife of old I used the slow oven to make an accompanying Indian pudding.

Cozy breakfast nook with canisters.

Cozy breakfast nook with canisters.

Next up? I have potato water sitting in the fridge crying for me to make a loaf of bread — did you know that the cooking water from potatoes is a terrific bread ingredient? –  and I have ripe Meyer lemons asking to be turned into a lemon sponge pie. Plus, the sour half and half has accumulated again. From this we make waffles, biscuits, cornbread and muffins: because I got a box of organic pumpkin puree from Grocery Outlet this week we’ll probably have pumpkin-walnut bread or muffins.

Meanwhile, I commute to Berkeley up to six days a week to sing at the BART stations and farmers’ market, do odd jobs for my friend Elaine, try to keep the cat happy and settle into my new cozy life with Johnny (which includes band rehearsals on weekends). San Leandro is sunnier than my Kensington yards so once I have pickaxed the hard pan in the backyard I will get some vegetables going — legumes, of course, so that their roots break up the clumped soil: I’m hoping for sugar snap peas and bush beans, perhaps red or white clover for the bees, too. And Elaine, who giveth all good things, has provided some iris and muscari bulbs so I’ll have to see if I can get them in the ground somewhere before I write the next post.

One of my favorite soups is a roasted duck noodle soup from Thai Lucky House in Berkeley: order it and you get a big bowl of clear broth with rice noodles, baby bok choy, fresh herbs and slices of roasted duck. Lucky House has a caddy of chilies — dried, fresh, pickled, in sauce — that you can add to your bowl at will: it makes a warming winter meal and is great to chase cold and flu bugs away.

This year we cooked a duck for Christmas dinner in addition to our free-range turkey. A few days ago, I cut the remaining breast meat from the carcass in strips and put the rest in a pot of cold water with lots of star anise. I brought the pot to a simmer, turned it off, and brought it to a simmer again several times over the next three hours, yielding a rich, clear, reduced broth, which I skimmed for fat.

I then brought the broth to a rolling boil and tossed in some rice noodles and chopped broccolini (or gai lan). I seasoned with tamari, chili paste, fresh lime juice and hoisin sauce. I turned the broth off again and covered the pot for the rice noodles to soften. When they seemed done, I reheated the soup one last time and tossed in the slices of reserved duck breast, a few leaves of basil and some cilantro sprigs.

This yielded a delicious soup on the first day, but the rice noodles continued to soften as the leftover soup sat, teaching me a lesson: next time I will prepare the seasoned duck broth, but I will put some in a smaller pot and only cook the noodles and vegetables that I plan to eat that day. When I want more soup I will cook more noodles and vegetables in another bowl of broth, eliminating mushiness.

Since my traditional December cookie spree, including pfefferneusse and cocoa shortbread, I have cooked very little because I am spending everyday packing. The movers arrive Sunday morning January 5th to take my way too many things to Johnny’s house: after eighteen years in my mother’s house I am moving to share Johnny’s home in San Leandro. Stay tuned for continuing adventures as I set up in a new kitchen and breakfast nook and start a garden in the sunny backyard. I promise to take some photos once I get settled and, after that, I may even get back to painting. We’ll see.

Thanks for reading The Kale Chronicles. Wishing everyone a happy and healthy New Year with some transformations of your own.

Dear Semi-Abandoned Readers,

On August 28, 2013 I fell while taking out the compost, injuring my right wrist. It has taken me seven weeks to get a proper diagnosis and a cast: two hairline fractures, a sprain (stretched ligaments) and tendinitis. I can only type with my left hand, which needs to perform all other hand functions (dressing, bathing, eating, holding the phone, etc.). This is why you have not heard from me lately.

My “cooking” consists of pouring bowls of cold cereal and milk and spreading peanut butter on toast. I mooch cooked food off friends who cook, eat whatever my mother prepares for the family dinner, microwave attractive leftovers and carry on as best I can.

The blog will return when I have recovered full use of my dominant hand. Meanwhile, there is plenty to read in the blogosphere, judging from my inbox.

Be well.

Sharyn

Not so much has changed since I wrote my March blog: I am still busking in the Berkeley BART stations twice a day five days a week, plus singing at the Farmers’ Market some Saturdays. I get up and eat breakfast, often flavored oatmeal cooked in milk, but sometimes leftover pie or scrambled eggs with cheese or vegetables, fresh cinnamon rolls, Shredded Wheat with sliced strawberries now that spring has come.

I am almost always home for lunch, which I generally eat with a pot a black tea, served with milk, English-style. Today I had tacos from some leftover poached chicken, simmered in green salsa, with sour cream, shredded cheese, romaine lettuce and cilantro. Yesterday I ate leftover rolls and Cotswold cheese, a blood orange and a sliver of leftover coconut custard pie (It was a pie-for-breakfast day).

Painting of ingredients for improvised gumbo -- Davis pepper spray incident in background.

Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo. 12″ x 12″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick

Ever since my younger brother moved home my mother has taken over most of the cooking — she seems to think that Bryan will starve without her intervention. I sometimes cook for Johnny: Friday I cooked him an impromptu gumbo, featuring andouille sausage, leftover shrimp, chicken and fennel, not unlike the Mumbo-Jumbo Gumbo I’ve written about before. Tonight I helped prepare a simple supper of spaghetti, grated cheese, Italian sausage-flavored Prego from the jar. I ate my pasta mixed with leftover sauteed bok choy. Mom fixed a bowl of fresh blackberries with sugar and, voila, c’est tout.

I am still buying bags of “cosmetically-challenged” Moro blood oranges from the Farmers’ Market and eating them out of hand as snacks. I still buy Farmers’ Market carrots, which are sweeter than supermarket ones. I still buy fresh walnuts in the shell — not much has changed, although last week I bought a few fresh sugar snap peas to snack on.

Original ink and watercolor painting shows people around breakfast table.

Second Breakfast at Vicki’s. 12″ x 12″ ink and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

Tomorrow I am taking a morning off my busking day job to attend a pre-dawn Morris Dance event in Tilden Park. I will assist my friend Vicki at the grand May Day breakfast after the sun has been danced into the sky (You last heard of Vicki when I mentioned attending the Hobbits’ Second Breakfast at her house). Perhaps I will bring back some food stories or recipes for May. You never know. Anything can happen.

What I completely forgot to mention in my March post because I was running around going to Natalie Goldberg‘s readings for her new book, The True Secret of Writing, is that I am featured in the book: the chapter on Practice contains a story about me, a snippet of my writing and the words to my song “The Wallflower Waltz.” Those of you who are interested in writing or meditation practice (which is the true secret of writing) will want to read this book. Natalie, of course, is best-known for her book Writing Down the Bones.

In March 2013 I was sick for a week (just a run-of-the-mill virus) and on the road for the better part of a week in the back seat of a car to and from the Bay Area to Seattle. By March 11 I was back at my “day job,” busking in Berkeley BART stations two shifts a day: I leave at 7:15 in the morning and often return from my second shift around 5:00 PM, although I have been known to get home as early as 3:30. I sing about three hours a day, all I can manage without wearing my voice out.

I come home for lunch between shifts. Lunch is leftovers from last night’s dinner or toasted cheese sandwiches or peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat. Yesterday I had leftover (canned) turkey chili, leftover cornbread and a leftover roasted yam with a few raw vegetables on the side. We generally have a pot of black tea with lunch, shielding the milk pitcher from Ozzy the border collie who is quite fond of his “tea” (milk served in a saucer).

Last week I bought a bunch of carrots, a sack of blood oranges and two pounds of walnuts at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. I no longer buy these things to whip up exotic meals: I buy them to supplement my diet that is less rich in fresh fruits and vegetables than it was a mere six months ago. Mostly, I eat the oranges out of hand: I’ve eaten three of the five with my lunch this week and one at the bus stop as a snack. Carrots can be breakfast ingredients (I’m still making Sawsan’s carrot cake oatmeal around once a week ) as can walnuts: the nut rule is almonds if I am in a hurry and walnuts if I have the spare time to crack them and dislodge them from their shells. Yesterday I fixed my boiled-in-milk oatmeal with dried cranberries, homemade candied citrus peel from last winter and fresh walnuts.

In fact, much of my culinary creativity goes into modifying my morning oatmeal. This morning I ended up throwing a couple of tablespoons of Nutella into it and reminiscing with Johnny about the chocolate cereals of my childhood, formerly known as “Cocoa Puffs” and “Cocoa Krispies” (“Count Chocula,” a late comer, doesn’t count). I added almonds for crunch and tossed in some slivered candied citrus peel, mostly orange. I enjoyed Nutella oatmeal as a change, but I probably wouldn’t eat it more than once a month, not being a chocolate-for-breakfast fiend.

In case anyone has missed my previous post on oatmeal and/or polenta for breakfast I normally cook half a cup of rolled oats in a cup of milk with a pinch of kosher salt. To this I add fruit, nuts, syrups, in various combinations: I have drafted granola to add texture. I have made a syrup of fresh ginger, dried apricots, lemon peel, sugar and water and added two teaspoons of the fruit and syrup to my oats. I sometimes combine chopped dried apricots, chopped almonds and flaked coconut. I have used many dried fruits: sour cherries, cranberries, raisins, apples, pears. I have used walnuts, almonds, pistachios, pecans and hazelnuts. I have included candied ginger. I have added maple syrup, palm syrup, turbinado sugar, homemade cherry syrup.

Food Notes: If you have them, fresh hazelnuts would be delicious in Nutella oatmeal in place of the almonds, or in addition to them. Please experiment with whatever fruits and nuts are grown in your area.

I have been thinking for several days about a blog update for February 2013. Somehow I thought I would have time to paint a painting and to post a variation on the sweet potato flapjacks from Rufus’ Guide. I made the pancakes as suggested and Johnny and I enjoyed them for breakfast. I only made one substitution, which was to swap in a cup of whole wheat pastry flour. The thing is — and it may have been the whole wheat flour — I had to keep adding liquid because the pancakes were thicker than I like them. By the second day I had run out of buttermilk and the batter was still too thick, so I beat an extra egg into it and thinned it again with regular 1% milk: this produced thin, light pancakes with beautiful markings on them from the butter I fried them in, the interiors a pale orange hue. I would have loved to paint them. Maybe I will paint them someday, but not tonight with the clock approaching bedtime. Go and look at Greg’s version. Mine are thinner and lighter is all. If you like thick flapjacks, follow his recipe. If you like pancakes to be more like Swedish pancakes, use my adaptation.

Why couldn’t I paint? Well, February is full of holidays, both official and personal: Johnny and I both have birthdays this month, there was Valentine’s Day. We have been together six months and so had our half-year anniversary this week as well. Then, I decided to busk twice a day five days a week because I am just not earning enough, so now I go out every morning for two hours and every afternoon for another hour. Add in travel time, rest time, meals, a writing student, cat care for a friend, writing practice. I am rarely in my room long enough to start a painting and if I am I am talking on the phone, renewing my Craigslist ad or answering business calls or email.

Still, I probably could have eked out a painting except that Johnny had a family emergency that left us in limbo for days and culminated in the death of someone very dear to him.

So eat your pancakes, friends, or your Lenten fish. Rejoice that you have loved ones around you, if you do. Remember that this is the only life you get as far as we know. Do your best to enjoy it, the blue sky of California or the snow crystals in Illinois. Celebrate what you can and mourn what you must. I’ll return to you when I can. As always, I appreciate everyone who takes the time to read the chronicles, especially those of you who have stuck around during the declining frequency and the dearth of pretty pictures and recipes.

Sweet Potato Pancakes (adapted from a recipe posted on Rufus’ Guide)

Roast three small orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (sometimes known as “yams”) or use leftover cooked ones. Cool and mash them — just break them up.

Whisk together:

1 cup unbleached flour

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour

2 Tbsp cinnamon sugar

1/2 tsp baking soda

2 tsp baking powder

a pinch of salt

1/2 tsp ground cloves

1/2 tsp mace

Combine:

1 and 1/2 cups buttermilk (add more buttermilk or sweet milk as needed)

2 beaten eggs

mashed sweet potatoes

Stir wet ingredients into dry until just blended (you want to eliminate any soda lumps)

Heat a skillet or griddle over medium heat. When hot, add butter for frying.

Scoop out 1/4 cup portions of batter and fry in butter until bubbles appear and pop. Flip and fry on second side.

Keep pancakes warm in oven while you fry enough for everyone. Serve on warmed plates with warmed maple syrup and additional butter as desired.

Dear Kale Chronicles’ Readers and Friends,

It has been a long time since I sent you an update, much less a painting or a recipe. As Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day I was standing in the kitchen at my mother’s house, baking a last batch of Russian teacakes, a traditional holiday cookie for us, consisting of butter, finely chopped walnuts, powdered sugar and enough flour to hold it all together. I had bought fresh walnuts in the shell from the Berkeley Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning and shelled them earlier on Monday evening while listening to Christmas carols on public television. Unfortunately, I had not consulted the recipe for amounts and had shelled just 1/2 cup when I needed 3/4 cup: as soon as I looked at the cookbook I went back to shelling nuts and wielding my chef’s knife.

It was an all-cookie Christmas this year, supplemented only with batches of Betsy’s delicious Italian Glazed Almonds. I did not have funds available for purchasing gifts in 2012, so I made them, Cocoa Shortbread and Pfefferneusse, Smitten Kitchen’s maple butter cookies, thin Moravian ginger cookies. For several days I busked in the Berkeley BART station in the morning and baked in the afternoon and evening, preparing a silver tray of cookies for my friend Elaine’s Chanukah party, packing a waxed cardboard box with almonds for another. When I wasn’t baking I was borrowing a guitar from Fat Dog at Subway Guitars who kindly lent me a Johnson to play while my beloved Harmony went to the guitar doctor, who treated her for a couple of serious cracks, rehearsing with Johnny for a gig at Arlington Cafe in my home town or giving my annual Christmas music party for which I prepared butternut squash soup, Mexican corn soup, Swedish rye bread and Finnish cardamom bread.

I remember standing at the bread board chopping resinous walnuts, seeing the chopped nuts in the metal measuring cup, the knife blade against the wood, thinking “This is not so bad a way to spend the evening.” True, it was late and I was behind on Christmas preparations, but I focused on the pleasure that a fresh tin of powder-sugar dusted cookies would bring my mother, Johnny (they are his favorite) and my sister-in-law who threatened to kill Johnny on Christmas Day if he had eaten them all. As the knife flashed through the nut meats, as the butter and sugar whirled in the mixer, as I rolled the cookie dough into small balls in the quiet night kitchen I thought how lucky I am:

1) My mother and brother are healthy and here to celebrate Christmas with this year.

2) I have a pleasant and safe home to live in.

3) I have found someone to love who loves me back.

4) I, too, am healthy.

5) My lone guitar has been safely repaired

6) Johnny and I played a gig together in my hometown to generally favorable responses and both ended the evening in the black financially.

7) Friends came to hear us play.

8) My song about our courtship, “Clueless,” continues to be a runaway hit and fun to play.

Honestly, I can’t remember more of those midnight thoughts now. Suffice it to say that I thought of my patient readers who have put up with my long absence from the blogosphere.

Just in case anyone has not had enough cookies over the past month or has never made Russian teacakes at home, I’ll share the recipe with you, slightly modified from that presented in our Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook.

Russian Teacakes

Soften 1 cup (two sticks) of butter — I use one stick salted butter and one stick unsalted.

Shell and finely chop 3/4 cup fresh walnuts

Combine butter with 1/2 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar and 1 tsp vanilla extract in electric mixer until creamy.

Slowly add 2 and 1/4 cups sifted flour, about 1/2 cup at a time, incorporating flour completely before each addition.

Mix in chopped nuts.

Chill dough as necessary. If you work late at night in a cold kitchen you will not need this step (or want to wait for the dough to chill either). Before baking, preheat oven to 400.  Bake cookies for 10 to 12 minutes until some color shows on the bottom edges. Roll warm cookies carefully in powdered sugar — they are delicate and will develop mangy-looking spots where the butter comes through. Let cool and roll again, or sift or sprinkle more powdered sugar to cover each cookie. Store in airtight tins for up to a week or two. (Mom recommends providing other cookies for the family to eat if you want to keep Russian teacakes on hand very long).

Food notes: the fresher the walnuts, the better the cookie. ‘Nough said. If you live in the South you could try making them with local pecans. If you prefer to bake exclusively with unsalted butter you will want to add 1/4 tsp of salt to your sifted flour. I use unbleached flour in these. Mom likes all-purpose. I have never tried them with a whole-grain flour — part of their attraction is that they are snowy white and ethereal. We only eat them once a year….

Painting notes: The reign of the emperor’s new clothes is long. You’ll know I am painting again the day you see a new painting here. Also, it has been so long since I’ve taken a photo that I cannot find the charger for my camera battery. Oops.

Writing classes: I will be teaching a six-week writing practice group on Tuesday nights in the East Bay starting January 8, 2012. My teacher Natalie Goldberg developed writing practice as a way to help people get their real thoughts on paper. For more information, see my ad on craigslist.

Happy New Year to everybody! See you again in 2013. –Sharyn

Photo shows whole pecan rolls.

Hot homemade pecan rolls. Photo by Sharyn Dimmick, who ate the missing one.

Two of my lovely readers, Smidge and Granny, asked me separately what the theme for November would be on The Kale Chronicles. I said I wouldn’t know until Sunday. Here it is Sunday evening and I have had a little time to think about themes for November. My first theme for November is returning to solvency. To that end I sold some more books. To that end I studied the buskers at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market yesterday, watching to see who was making money and who was not: the guy playing quietly to himself and not looking at passers-by had two or three dollar bills in his hat; the guy who sat in a chair playing the blues with his face to the crowds had a guitar case full of dollar bills. Who do you suppose I plan to emulate when I make my debut next Saturday afternoon? In the spirit of solvency I will be continuing to work with what we’ve got around here: today’s recipe incorporates some of the lovely pecans Lisa Knighton just shipped out here.

My second theme for November is NaNoWriMo, aka National Novel Writing Month. As a NaNoRebel I eschew the novel form altogether and have started another 50,000 word installment of my memoir, covering the history of Johnny and Sharyn, my pitiful finances and my various attempts to make money. I may post an excerpt of it here sometime in November to honor what I am doing (I spent the afternoon at a write-in at the Berkeley Public Library, scarfing leftover Hallowe’en candy and black tea, participating in “word wars” with my fountain pen — trying to write more words than dextrous young-ens typing on laptops — and feeling a little like John Henry meeting the steam drill…). At the end of the day I dropped my pen nib into my bottle of black ink by mistake and was grateful for my garage rag and bottle of water with which I scrubbed it clean, wiped the table and began to remove ink from my hands before going home to knead the roll dough that I had left rising in the fridge.

Which brings me to the third theme for November, always and forever a month of gratitude with Thanksgiving the third week in to remind us Yanks about sharing food with others, helping people and other things that got the Native Americans run out of their territory. My friend Vicki has started a month of gratitude posts on Facebook and it makes me happy to go to her page once a day and think about what I am grateful for: today it was the computer I type on and the apple pie that Mom made last night, specifically the slice of it I had for breakfast this morning with my decaf coffee.

When I was in the kitchen this morning mixing up sweet roll dough I realized that I had not had my hands in soft dough for a long time: roll dough is the lightest of yeast doughs — I can knead a full batch by hand without resorting to the Kitchen Aid with the dough hook. I used to make bread every week. I don’t know what happened to that habit — I just fell out of it somehow, between the demands of sourdough starter and the activities of daily living. I enjoyed having my hands in the fragrant dough, stirring with a wooden spoon, working in six cups of flour, greasing the bowl with a little butter before heating a tea towel and setting the dough to rise.

My pecan roll (and cinnamon roll and orange roll and spice roll) recipe comes from our trusty Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook. I make a full recipe of Sweet Roll Dough, using mostly butter, amending it to include a cup of whole wheat flour for health’s sake, scalding the milk because my Grandmother Carroll always scalded the milk. Before I leave to write at the library I divide the just rising dough in half. I give half to my mother to shape into clover leaf rolls and tell her to transfer my half to the refrigerator for a slow rise when she punches her dough down.

For the pecan filling I look at The Cheese Board Collective Works: they make delicious pecan rolls except for the mornings when some misguided person throws Sultanas or golden raisins in them and I have to pick them out. Repeat after me, “Raisins do not belong in pecan rolls, which are all about pecans, brown sugar and butter.” I take inspiration from their recipe, but not proportions: there is no way I am going to include a stick and a half of butter in twenty rolls. Theirs are good. Mine will not induce a heart attack. Pecans have healthy fat for you; butter not so much. If I use half a cup of butter it will be a lot.

To make your own pecan rolls, procure at least a cup of pecan pieces. Make sure you have milk, sugar, eggs, white and whole wheat flour, butter, yeast and brown sugar and cinnamon in the house. Then proceed with the recipe below.

Pecan Rolls

Proof 4 and 1/2 teaspoons yeast in 1/2 cup of lukewarm water. (If your yeast is sluggish, add a pinch of sugar and a pinch of flour)

Scald 1 cup milk.

Add to milk one stick of soft butter (1/2 cup) and 1/2 cup sugar. If you use salted butter you will not need to add any salt. Otherwise, add a pinch.

Pour milk mixture into a large mixing bowl.

Beat 2 eggs in the cup that you used to measure the milk. Temper the eggs with the warm liquid and add them to the  mixing bowl.

Add 1 cup whole wheat flour, plus 2 and 1/2 cups unbleached flour.

Check temperature with fingers. When mixture is no more than warm add reserved yeast.

Continue to add flour by the cupful until you have a soft but firm consistency. I used six cups total flour today, beginning with the cup of whole wheat and eventually adding five cups of unbleached flour, but sometimes the recipe takes as much as seven cups altogether. You know how bread is.

Cover roll dough with warm damp dish towel and go away for awhile. When dough has doubled in size, punch it down. If you do not have time to wait through the next rise, put the covered dough in the refrigerator and pull it out this evening or tomorrow morning. Let it warm and then roll it out on a floured board into a large rectangle. Roll it thin, but not so thin that it will break, perhaps 1/2 inch or a little thicker.

Let dough rest while you melt 1 stick of butter and stir in 3/4 cup brown sugar, plus 1/4 tsp cinnamon.

Spread one third of this mixture in the bottom of a baking pan (I used a 13″ x 9″ Pyrex pan), leaving a clear border at the edges with no goo.

Spread the rest of the butter and sugar mixture on the dough. Sprinkle on the pecans evenly and roll the dough up like a jelly roll, starting from the short side of the rectangle. Slice one-inch rounds from the log with a sharp, serrated knife and place each roll atop the goo in the pan. Let rise for fifteen minutes while you preheat your oven to 350.

Bake 25 minutes or until sufficiently brown. Then invert carefully onto another plate so that the goo runs down over the rolls. Enjoy, perhaps with a glass of milk.

Painting Note. No painting. I started one but I prefer not to paint after dark. When I finish it I’ll pop it into the post later in the week. Meanwhile I have NaNoWords to type.

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