Sweet fall treats

It’s October, which means the pumpkin spice mania is in full swing. You can find it in Oreos, M&Ms, Kahlua, and a few other things you might not have thought of, such as this, this, this and, um, these (for real?).

pumpkin-spice-everywhere

I’m happy to get on that bandwagon in my own kitchen, so here’s my contribution. I would love to give credit for this recipe to the creator of it, but I’ve had it in my files for years and don’t recall where I found it. I like it because it actually contains both pumpkin and spice. The texture of the bars is moist and dense like a brownie, but since these contain no chocolate, it doesn’t seem right to call them pumpkin brownies.

Pumpkin Spice Bars with Salted Caramel Sauce

pumpkin-bar-with-caramel-sauce

Ingredients

1/2 c (1 stick) butter, room temperature
1 c sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp salt
1 egg
1/2 c pumpkin puree
3/4 c all-purpose flour
Chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)
 .
Preparation
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease an 8″ x 8″ baking dish.
  2. In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in spices, salt, egg and pumpkin.
  3. Sift the flour into the bowl and stir mixture until just combined. Add nuts if using and stir to distribute evenly.
  4. Pour batter into baking dish and spread into an even layer.
  5. Bake for 20-25 minutes until the edges are lightly browned and the center is set. Cool in pan before slicing.

For the sauce, I used this recipe from the Cooking Channel. It’s very simple.

Ingredients

1 c sugar
1/4 c water
3/4 c heavy cream
3-1/2 Tbs unsalted butter
1 tsp gray sea salt, crushed or kosher salt

Preparation
  1. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar and water over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and bring to a boil, without stirring. If necessary, use a wet pastry brush to wash down any crystals on the side of the pan. Boil until the syrup is a deep amber color, about 5 to 6 minutes.
  2. Remove the sugar from the heat and carefully whisk in the heavy cream. The mixture will bubble. Stir in the unsalted butter, and salt. Transfer the caramel to a dish and cool.

My first batch of caramel seized as I was stirring in the cream, and most of it hardened around the edges of the pan and into a candy ball inside the whisk that took quite a bit of work to untangle. I think this was because I added cold cream gradually to the hot sugar mixture. On my second round, which was successful, I heated the cream slightly in the microwave first, and poured it into the sugar mixture all at once (it foams up like soda when you do this, so be careful and stand back).

If you are a little bit nervous about cooking sugar to super-high temperatures, as I was, watch this short video to see how to do it just right. She recommends swirling the pan occasionally to even things out. I found that if you mix the sugar and water together thoroughly before pouring it into the pan, you won’t have to stir it or swirl it to make an even layer.

The pumpkin spice season will soon be over, so enjoy it while it lasts!

pumpkin

 

Julia Child’s Sole Bonne Femme

I was cruising around on YouTube the other day not looking for anything in particular when I ran across this “French Chef” episode in which Julia Child holds up a big flat fish by its tail and flaps it at the camera as she warbles, “see how to turn this denizen of the deep into Sole Bonne Femme, today on The French Chef!” How could I refuse an invitation like that?

I watched the clip a couple of times, taking notes the second time. I decided it sounded “awfully good,” as Julia would say, so I decided to make it. A quick Googling for Sole Bonne Femme recipes didn’t find one that sounded at all like hers, so I started from scratch and wrote the recipe myself. I hope I have done a faithful job of recording exactly how she did it.

Watch the video first to find out why it’s called “Bonne Femme,” enjoy Julia’s inimitable cheery delivery as well as her signature live-TV foibles such as snuffing out a flaming potholder, shake your head at her cheerful disregard for potential raw seafood cross-contamination in the kitchen, then come back and print off the recipe so you can make it, too.

Julia Child’s Sole Bonne Femme (Fillets of Sole with Mushrooms)

Ingredients
1 to 1.5 lb sole fillets (9-12, depending on size)
1/4 to 1/2 lb mushrooms, finely chopped (about 2 c)
1/2 c shallots, minced
1/2 c fresh parsley, minced
1/2 c dry white wine or slightly diluted dry vermouth
8 oz bottled clam juice or fish stock (1 c)
2.5 Tbs butter
2.5 Tbs flour
2 Tbs crème fraîche or heavy cream
Kosher salt and white pepper
.
Preparation
Fish
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Combine chopped mushrooms, about 2 Tbs minced shallots and 2 Tbs minced parsley. Season with salt and white pepper. Pour into a heavily buttered shallow baking dish that is both rangetop- and oven-proof.
  3. Lay fillets glossy side down on cutting board. Lightly score the fillets with shallow diagonal cuts, then cut each in half down the center line. Season with salt and white pepper and fold fillets over in half the long way.
  4. Layer the folded fillets in a crisscross chevron pattern over the mushroom mixture in the baking pan. Lightly season tops with salt and white pepper and a small handful of minced shallots.
  5. Pour wine/vermouth and clam juice or stock over the fillets until they are nearly but not quite covered. Bring the pan to a simmer on the stove top (2-3 minutes).
  6. Remove pan from heat and cover it with a heavily buttered sheet of waxed or parchment paper to keep the fish moist. Place pan on the lower rack of the oven and bake for 8-9 minutes or until fish is milky looking and springy (if it’s flaky, it’s overdone).
  7. Remove pan from oven, cover with a metal lid, and drain as much juice as possible into a large sauce pan. Set the baking pan aside, cover and keep warm.
Sauce
  1. Set the sauce pan with the baking juices over high heat and boil until mixture is reduced to about 1 cup (6-7 minutes).
  2. While the juices boil, make a roux with butter and flour. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, for about 2 minutes; do not allow it to color. Take roux off heat and allow it to cool for about a minute.
  3. Add the reduced baking juices to the roux, place pan over medium heat, and whisk until the mixture thickens, about 30 seconds. Thin the sauce with crème fraîche or heavy cream. Pour off any more collected baking juices into the sauce. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add dairy as needed to achieve desired consistency (sauce should be thick but pourable).
  4. Pour sauce over fish and sprinkle with the rest of the minced parsley. [Option: Top with a thin layer of shredded cheese such as Swiss or Gruyère and place under broiler until cheese lightly browns.] Serve with rice or potatoes. Serves 4.

Sole Dugléré (Fillets of Sole with Tomatoes) variation: Substitute an equal amount of tomato concassé for the minced mushrooms. All other ingredients and steps are the same.

I don’t usually do cooking photo essays because food photography is not my strong suit, but here is how I made this.

mise-en-place

All my ingredients lined up and ready to go. The sole fillets were frozen; I recommend using fresh. I needed to use only one of the shallots and only three of those big mushrooms.

seasoning

The finished mushroom-shallot-parsley seasoning. Just a word of caution: white pepper comes out of the shaker really fast, and it is so easy to use too much. This is a powerful seasoning, so use a very light hand with the shaker if you don’t have a grinder (which I don’t, yet, but I soon will).

seasoning-in-pan

The seasoning mixture in my heavily buttered saute pan, which I chose because it is shallow and can be heated on both the burner and in the oven. I briefly considered ordering a special au gratin dish just to make this meal, but this pan worked fine.

buttered-paper

I made the waxed paper cover just the way Julia said to, and slathered it with butter.

covered-fish

Along with the white wine, one bottle of clam juice was just the right amount of liquid to almost-but-not-quite cover the fillets.

ready-to-cook

After bringing the pan to a simmer on the stovetop, I covered it and it’s ready to go in the oven.

boiling-juices

The pan juices from the cooked fish boiled up nicely before reducing. The fish is keeping warm there in the back, and the roux is standing by in the center.

final-product

The final sauced dish, ready for the plate. I might have added a spoonful too much heavy cream, so my sauce was a tad thin, but it sure tasted “awfully good.” In fact, I’d say the whole dish is worth making just for this “lovely French sauce.”

dishes

Oh yeah, the stack of dishes to do. But it was worth it.

My only quibble with this dish was with the fish, actually. Perhaps it was that my fillets were frozen, or maybe not perfectly fresh, or I cooked them a minute too long, but they seemed rather tougher than I think sole ought to be. Probably slightly overcooked. But that sauce, wow! I’ve cooked only a few Julia Child recipes and I always think “this is too simple to really be any good,” but they always end up knocking me backward because they are so good, and this one was no exception. Sometimes the simplest ingredients make the best food.

A hand to hold on to

In the summer of 1980, shortly after Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington State and I turned 14, I spent six weeks at a camp for overweight girls in Olympia, Washington—kind of a single-gender “Biggest Loser” experience but far kinder. We worked out a lot and took classes in exercise physiology and proper nutrition, among other things, and my time there set the foundation of whatever healthy habits I still practice today.

The director of the camp, whose name is Diane, was an especially kind woman who was firm, fair and fun in equal measure. She and her handpicked staff of counselors were good to us campers, and insofar as insecure teens and adult mentors can be friends, I became friends with her and a few others. I kept in touch with them for a few years, but after college, all my correspondences fell away. I never forgot her, but I didn’t know how to find her and just figured that I was one of her many, many former campers and students whom she had long since forgotten.

So imagine my surprise when I received a message from her on Facebook this past June, asking if I had attended that camp so long ago. We refriended one another on FB and I learned she had moved to a small town within two hours’ drive of my parents’ house. Since I am visiting them this week, I decided to take the afternoon and go see her today.

It’s funny how with certain people, the years apart don’t just fall away when you see each other again, but rather they seem never to have passed at all. So it was for us, or at least for me, to sit and talk with her again just as if we’d seen each other last week. Our memories of 1980 and after are blurred now, of course, but some parts still stand clear, and we talked about those. I told her that I’ve spent more than 30 years thinking that I would never see her again, yet there she was. And there I was.

One story I did not remind her about was a long phone call we had a couple of years after camp, when I was in high school and having a hard time. I was not standing on a high bridge over a fast-moving river, by any means, but I was emotionally on the brink just the same and I needed someone to talk me down, so I called her. I don’t remember anything else she said to me that night during the hour-plus that we talked, but I will always remember that she told me this: “You are brighter than the average bear, and you can work this out.”

It is almost a banal observation, but the fact that she saw me as intelligent and capable of solving my problems made me believe it for the first time in my life. In that moment, her hand reached out to me through the long-distance line, steadied me on my own two feet, and pulled me gently back from that abyss over which I swayed. And I’ve been holding on to that hand, that single sentence, ever since. Brighter than the average bear. It has gotten me through more struggles than you might expect. The help we need sometimes comes from the most unlikely places.

I spent about five hours visiting with Diane and her husband before I had to get back this evening. I wonder when or if we will see each other again. Until we do, I want her to know how much she’s meant to me all these years, and how dearly I hold not only the words she said to me on a very dark night, but also the faith she had in me and the bright circle of light within which she held—and still holds—me as a worthy human being with great potential. It made such a difference to me then. It still does.

Don't let her stature fool you. She's a giant of a woman at heart.

Don’t let her stature fool you. She’s a giant of a woman at heart.

Thanks, Di, for everything.

 

This one’s for my niece

Fifteen years ago today, our family was blessed with the addition of The Lovely and Amazing Annabel. She is my sister’s first child, my parents’ first grandchild and my first (and so far, only) niece, and she and I have been buddies from the day we met, just a few weeks after she was born. Sadly, I can’t find the picture we took that day, in which she was bundled in a lovingly homemade tiny leopard outfit for her first Halloween and looking very wide-eyed.

I confess, I am not good with kids and never have been, even when I was still a kid myself and babysat for the neighbors. But this kid has always been different. She was never fussy with me, and was always game for any adventure with her Auntie. She was a happy, smart, funny, cooperative sidekick from the go, and really hasn’t changed much at all in that respect over the years.

baby-annabel

Helping mommy in the kitchen, summer of 2000. Baby girl was bald as a sweet little peach for most of her first two years, then her hair came in perfectly strawberry blond.

One  of my most precious memories is when she and her mom came to visit me when she was less than a year old, not even talking yet. They came to the back door of my house, and I went down to unlock it. Her mom was standing there on the porch holding her and when Annabel and I saw each other through the glass, we both broke into such huge grins of happy recognition that my sister said she felt like a complete third wheel for a moment because all we could see was each other.

yellowduck-annabel

All decked out in yellow fleece, Christmas 2001.

I wish I could find more of her baby pictures to share with you; she was exceedingly cute as well as exceptionally charming.

3dbirthday-annabel

We’ve been lucky to share several of her birthdays with her, including her third, in which she gets some help from her daddy to cut the cake.

photographer-annabel

I took a lot of pictures of her when she was little, and she sometimes took the camera and returned the favor. Her mom and I wanted to make sure she didn’t just get our knees in the frame in this one, so we got down to her level (she was only about 3 at the time).

grampa-annabel

Everyone loved “dat baby,” including her grandpa, who told her to point at the camera.

erikbday-annabel

The button-busting proud big sister, here with her mom and grandma, smiles big while holding her hours-old baby brother, August 2003.

dressup-annabel

Playing dress-up with her grandma at the tea shop, circa 2005.

christmas08-family

Modeling her new pajamas with her mom and brother, Christmas 2008.

irisgarden-annabel

My favorite picture of this beautiful girl, summer of 2009. She has my freckles.

christmas11-annabel

By Christmas of 2011, she was starting to look like a young lady instead of a kid–tall and slim and graceful.

summer12-annabel

By the summer of 2012, this kid I used to pick up and swing around was eye to eye with me when she stood in front of me; I expect she’s going to be tucking my head under her chin when she hugs me pretty soon.

eyes-annabel

She likes to draw anime characters, which I know just enough about to know that she rather resembles one!

cello-annabel

Among her many talents, Annabel plays the cello beautifully. I think she has a very bright future ahead of her with that instrument.

Almost from birth, Annabel has been a mimic, a ham, and a performer. She has her mother’s gift for memorizing movie quotes and memes and working them into everyday conversation, and can always make me laugh. She’s a kind, good-hearted kid who always thinks of others first and who can be counted on to do the right thing. I wish I had been even half so emotionally capable when I was her age! Sometimes when I talk to her on the phone, I hear my sister’s tones and inflections in her speech, and watching Annabel is like watching my sister grow up all over again. I can’t even tell you how that warms my heart because for all that I love my niece, I love my sister twice as much. I’m happy to have known them both all their lives.

Annabel has gone from fuzzy-headed baby to animated toddler to adventurous school kid to gangly preteen and now stands tall and graceful at the last outpost of childhood. She starts high school this week with a full slate of college-prep classes, and is already thinking about getting her driver’s permit. Pretty soon she’ll be graduating, going off to college, getting married, having babies of her own. It’s all going to go by in a flash, just the way her whole life has to date … at least for those of us looking on from far away who see her two or three times a year if we’re lucky and can hardly believe the changes we see from visit to visit.

But some things remain the same from year to year and I hope they always will, especially that unbridled delight Annabel and I take in seeing each other again after months apart. She’s my only sister’s only daughter, the only tiny bit of me going forth into the future beyond my lifespan. She carries with her all my hopes and dreams for love and happiness in her life, and gratitude for all the love and happiness she brings to mine.

Happy birthday to a Lovely and Amazing young lady. I love you forever and I am so very proud of you.


Remember, Theresa: Everything she is, you are. Everything we love in this child, we loved in you first. All your life.

Related: This one’s for my sister

 

Flash and burn

I’ve been working hard this past couple of weeks to master flash photography for fun and profit. I’ve invested in light stands, a shoot-through umbrella, and what is unflatteringly referred to in the business as a slave unit (a flash on a stand that is remotely triggered by the camera). Putting all these pieces into play effectively to do what I want them to do has proved to be a challenge with a nearly vertical learning curve.

I admit that I don’t have much of a mind for mathematics and physics, which would come in really handy to figure out how to use one’s available strobes to effectively fill a given space with even, diffused light that both illuminates and flatters the subject without creating any harsh shadows. I also admit that I’ve become quite soft from using a digital camera that calculates all that stuff for me and is supposed to return beautifully lit shots every time without my having to do anything more to it than aim it at my subject and press the shutter-release button.

Ha.

My Nikon D3100 is considered an entry-level DSLR, but I tell you what, it is essentially an entire photo processing lab all by itself, and there are hundreds of setting combinations one might use to achieve nearly any effect desired before the shot is even taken. It’s quite remarkable and incredibly sophisticated compared to, say, the first SLR I ever used. I have spent hundreds of hours studying and experimenting with this camera, and still don’t know all that it can do. And oftentimes I struggle to make it take the photo I want it to take because even the finest, most sophisticated equipment can only do as much as the person operating it knows to tell it to do.

One small example is adjusting white balance in the camera to suit the available light in the scene. Different light sources have different color temperatures—fluorescent light is on the cooler end of the spectrum and more on the blue side, whereas incandescent light is warmer and more yellow/orange. These hues will tend to be most noticeable in the lighter or white areas of your photographs. And it’s not always obvious which white balance setting you should use, nor which will give the best result, and you can’t rely on the camera to choose the right setting.

Case in point: I wanted to photograph my freshly groomed dogs sitting on a white blanket on the couch in my living room. The room was lit by a 150-watt incandescent light, and in the auto mode, the camera also determined that flash was needed. Here is the first shot of my very, very reluctant models.

flash

The camera managed to capture both light sources to rather poor effect, as you can see the cooler/bluish flash light just behind and to the right of the dogs clashing with the warmer/yellowish incandescent lamp light coming from the left.

So, since I’m shooting under incandescent light, I should select the incandescent (or “indoor”) white balance setting, right?

incandescent-wb

Oops, no. Talk about overcompensating! The dogs no longer care about me or my stupid white balance issues, thanks ever so, and collapsed in resignation the moment I pulled the camera away from my eye.

Well then, perhaps the flash setting for white balance is what I need. I goosed my nearly boneless dogs up one last time and tried to get them to smile, to no avail. Rudy is wearing his “all freaked out” face (you can tell by the way his ears are levered out in the R for Rudy semaphore signal).

flash-wb2

Ta-dah! Flash it is! At least I have now determined what setting to use in my living room at night, as this is exactly how the scene appeared to my eye through the viewfinder.

I tried to take one more shot just for good measure, but the dogs had lost all interest in the photo shoot and, apparently, in life as well by this time. There was no moving them to pose for me any further.

flash-wb

Now, I know what you’re thinking: the second and fourth photos above are actually the same image, but one was just tweaked in Photoshop to illustrate my point. No, they are actually two separate, unmanipulated images straight out of the camera.

This sort of flash performance (and initial disappointment, and tinkering, and losing the shot I really wanted because I had to adjust the camera three times) is why I am kind of starting to dislike it. Great flash-lit pictures are possible, of course, but my heavens, I don’t know if I have the patience to learn how to take them because it seems to me that as soon as I master the tricks for one type of situation, the next one in which I need to use flash requires some other solution entirely. It’s time-consuming and frustrating.

Rudy knows what I mean.

so-done

“oh god, please, no more pictures, even if I am perfectly coiffed”

 

Tiny visitors

Generally speaking, I am not a jealous woman. Nonetheless, my green eyes got all the greener this summer when I found out my neighbor Sue was hosting a hummingbird nest in her backyard. She was so excited about it, she practically did a jig whenever the topic came up. She’s the only person I’ve ever even heard of who has a hummingbird nest in her yard!

For several weeks, the mama bird (possibly a Calliope) came and went from her miniature abode, which was the size and shape of an espresso cup, delicately clinging to a slender branch of silver maple tree. Whenever I went over, she was there and gone in a flash if she showed up at all. I didn’t want to wait around all day for a chance to take her picture.

A couple of weeks ago, Sue said that two tiny babies now occupied the nest. When they were first hatched, their pointy little beaks were soft and droopy, but quickly straightened out and firmed up. I finally got over there last weekend to check them out, and found two nearly full-sized chicks pressed closely together in what looked to me like really cramped quarters. Where does the mama bird sleep at night?

hummingbabies

Putting the camera on a tripod didn’t allow me to get close enough for the shot I wanted, and shooting handheld with a long zoom resulted in less sharp images than I hoped for, but what can you do?

hummingbabies2

The birds didn’t seem bothered by my presence, although they kept a close eye on me as I moved around below them.

hummingbabies3

They were very placid and quietly watchful as they waited for their mother to return. “She told them to stay put!” Sue says, and they did. That is, they did right up until the minute they were ready to fly away on their own.

We had a windstorm a couple of nights ago, and when I went over to see how the chicks were the next day, Sue said they were gone. The little teacup-shaped nest remains, now flattened out to more of a saucer shape by its steadily growing occupants.

Perhaps one of these tiny visitors will return to it again next year.

 

Silly Facebook games

Two status updates recently seen on Facebook:

traffic-ticket-status

underwear-status

After I commented on one of these posts that perhaps their page had been hacked by their kids, I received this message:

awareness-game

I won’t feel bad if anyone calls me a spoil sport, because I’m ruining the game for everyone who reads this, and because I’m not going to play (or should I say, be a victim?). I have two reasons for this.

First, while there is a legit “Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign” page on FB, this particular game apparently is not put out by them. And when you think about it, saying one used one’s “boobs” to get out of a traffic ticket is really not respectful messaging for this particular cause. Even if it were, how is this “girls-only” subterfuge in social media effective in raising awareness? Is there anyone still out there who hasn’t heard of breast cancer by now?

Second, even if one wished to play the game regardless of its creator or purpose, I know how I felt after reading these oversharing statements ostensibly authored by people I know and like, and I would still feel that way if I hadn’t commented and they hadn’t let me in on it. I would not want any of my FB friends to feel that same way about me, especially all those lurkers who read everything and comment on nothing (you know who you are!). I also would not want anyone to take any such statement from me seriously, and surely someone would (but they wouldn’t comment and get the clue so who knows what conclusions they would draw). People poo-poo the idea that anyone takes FB seriously, but they do. I do. So I am not inclined to post a lie and hope everyone just thinks it’s a joke.

Breast cancer is not a joke. Breast cancer awareness games on Facebook are neither helpful nor funny, particularly to people who are living with that terrible disease. I don’t blame anyone for participating but I wish they would stop for a moment and ask themselves, “what good will this actually do?” before they play along.

Here are some facts about breast cancer, so I can at least say that I have done my part to honor the spirit of the game.

Infographic by Lauryn Vermass

Infographic by Lauryn Vermaas

Visit the National Breast Cancer FoundationBreastCancer.org, the American Cancer Society or Susan G. Komen to learn about ways you can help fight breast cancer, keep yourself healthy, and support those who have it.

cancer3