Sunday, March 23, 2014

Spring! It's Spring in the garden!

Took some pictures of the garden the other day...

 The onions Michael Ford planted look great.  The collards are starting to bloom.  I think I'll let them so the bees will have something to forage.  Did I tell y'all I have a bee hive in a hollow tree about three hundred yards to the east?  Yup.  Just like in the Hundred Acre Wood.

The Walking Onions are bunching.  These are cool little onions.  They make little bulbs at the top of a flower stalk, almost in place of a bloom.  When the stalk dies, it falls over next to the plant and the onions grow again, then flower, then replant themselves even farther over.  Too cool. 

 More onions.  These are McCoy's Special CTexas Bunching Onions.  This patch started from four little four-inch pots a couple years ago.  I just kept dividing them and setting them about six inches apart.  Now this, despite me giving lots away.

 The potatoes are popping their little heads up, too.

Mmmmmmm ... dinner!  
What's Nellie doing back there?  Hunting wabbits?

 "Nothing!  I'm doing nothing!"
That's what Old Dogs do best.

 A sign of spring.  Can you see them?  What a wonderful sound they make.

Monday, March 17, 2014

March Birthday Cakes - or, What Can Be Better Than BEER CAKE!

This month, a coworker was turning 21.  That's a milestone birthday, so I thought something special was in order.  That week was incredibly hectic, so didn't really have time for anything fancy.  I had a recipe for Rich Guinness Cake in my "To Try" book, so decided to make that to mark the occasion, bring it in on his actual birthday on the 16th (Bonus: Guinness cake doing double-duty for St. Patrick's Day!), and call it good.

The bottle of Guinness is real.  (I WISH I was that good.)
But I'd had a thought that building a cake in the shape of a pint would be so cool.  I've wanted to try sculpting a "3D" cake for a while now.  It would be fun, funNY, and fabulous!  ... But ...  With so much going on this week, I didn't think I'd be able to pull it off.  So I relegated it to "next year" or "someday".

I always do that.  I always think of learning how to do something that sounds interesting, or building some cool thingamabob I dream up, or trying something new that piques my fancy, but I have a bad habit of saying "someday", "maybe next time", "one of these days...", instead of actually doing it.

A year or two ago, I made a resolution to stop doing that, to push myself instead of procrastinating and relegating things to the SomeDay Pile.  I've done pretty good at breaking that habit.

That's why I teach preschool now, give classes and talks at libraries and garden clubs, and have an orchard out back of a huge vegetable garden with raised beds and an asparagus patch in it.  It's also the impetus for the Monthly Birthday Cakes for everyone at work - I'd been wanting to learn to bake tasty, pretty cakes for years, so jumped right in, thinking that if I screw up it wouldn't matter.  I mean, who complains about free cake, right?

So the thought of building that pint cake kept bugging me.  I really wanted to do it.  But I didn't have the time.  I really didn't - one of my other resolutions a while back was to quit stretching myself too thin with too many things to do and to make time for myself, time to do things that feed my soul.  I try to only do things now if I really enjoy them.

Regular wheat-flour cake on the left, gluten-free on the right.
The resolution to scale back is at odds with the one to chip away at the Someday Pile of course.  So what's evolved from these conflicting resolutions is this: When I am faced with Doing Something Cool And Fun Just Because I Can, I put it in the Maybe Pile.  Every so often, I take a look at that pile and see what's floated to the top.

For days, Pint Cake was on top, jumping up and down, yelling, "Make me!"  I kept thinking about how I'd do it, turning ideas over and over in my head - use wire to support it ... no, didn't have any food-safe wire ... bamboo skewers, yes! ... glass, what to use for glass ... homemade gummy! ... but it would leave a seam ... hmmm ... maybe dark chocolate would be shiny enough ... mmmmmm, dark chocolate ...   And on and on it went.  So I decided I'd give it a try, but NOT make a plan to definitely do it.  I would just play, and maybe learn something even if I didn't end up with a Pint Cake.

When I baked the Guinness cakes for that month, I poured a little extra batter into a shallow pan to fool around with.  I cut out some circles, small ones and bigger ones.  I stacked them, put toothpicks in them, thought of how much that would hurt if someone bit into them just right, removed the toothpicks, restacked them, thought maybe glue would be better, put dowels in them, and otherwise cogitated and ruminated on just how to do this. 

Ultimately, I succeeded!!  And it was so cool.  My first sculpted "3D" cake.  And I'm insanely proud of it. 


How I made it (recipes below):

While baking the other cakes, I poured a thin layer of extra batter into a 4" x 18" cake pan.  It baked up to about an inch and a half tall, or thereabouts.  Using round cookie cutters in two sizes (2 1/2" and 3"), I cut four pieces from the cooled cake, two of each size.  

Out of a cardboard cake board, I cut two round pieces the same size as the smaller cake pieces and stacked them to form a base, then stuck three wooden skewers through the two layers of cake board, spacing them out in a triangle pattern a bit apart from each other.  

I love how he looks drunk almost more than I love the pinky.
I slid the cake pieces onto the skewers, top down, small pieces first (for the base of the glass).  Once I got them skewered and snugged at the bottom of the skewers, I noticed the cardboard bases were a bit bigger than the cake, so I trimmed them with an exacto knife.  

Once I was happy with how it was sitting, I covered the sides including the cake board rounds with extra-strong chocolate ganache.  I refrigerated it 'til it was hardened (I left it in overnight, but an hour in the fridge or half an hour in the freezer should do), then took it out and added another thicker layer, then back in the fridge.  Once it was hardened again (overnight again, but as before, less time would do), I took it out of the fridge and let it sit about half an hour while I made the icing for the other cakes.  Then I smoothed the sides with my warm hands.  It was still quite hard, but the warmth from my hands was enough to melt the chocolate just so that it was a bit pliable, enough that I was able to sculpt it into a more realistic shape than it had been in, with slowly sloping sides and crisp top edge.  

Took them just three short hours to finish them all off.
Lastly, I rubbed on some coconut oil to give it a bit of sheen like glass, using a piece of plastic wrap to rub with so I didn't leave more fingerprints (be sure to rub long enough that all the chunks of unmelted coconut oil are melted and smoothed out).  Then into the freezer for an hour while I iced the other cakes.

Next, I trimmed the wooden skewers to just above the top of the cake, leaving enough to stick up a bit and help hold the icing that would be the foam.  For the foam, I used some of the cream cheese icing I'd made to ice the other two cakes - removed some from the mixing bowl before adding the green color, and slightly tinted it with cocoa.  Then back into the fridge with it.

I glued it to the cake plate with some of the ganache, then put it back in the fridge.  It was stuck on so well that when I took it out of the fridge the next morning, I could turn the plate upside-down and it stayed on!  But, when I tried that trick an hour or so later at work, it fell off.  ACK!  Luckily, I caught it and only put a couple fingerprints on it.  Whew!  So much for showing off! 

Rich Guinness Cake
I filled it with the rest of the ganache. A seam of chocolate in there was nice.

2/3 cup stout beer, such as Guinness
10 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
2/3 cup sour cream

♣ Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter one 8-inch round cake pan. Line with parchment or wax paper. Butter paper.  
♣ Bring stout and butter to a simmer in heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add cocoa; whisk until smooth. Cool slightly.  
♣ Whisk flour, sugar, baking soda and salt in large bowl to blend; set aside. Beat egg, yolk and sour cream with electric mixer in another large bowl to blend. 
♣ Add stout-chocolate mixture to egg mixture, and beat just to combine. Add flour mixture and beat 30 seconds on slowest speed. Fold batter using rubber spatula until completely combined.  
♣ Pour into prepared pan. Bake about 50 to 55 minutes, or until tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean. Transfer to rack; cool.

Extra-Strong Chocolate Ganache
I saw this in a thread on Cake Central.  A poster was raving about how firm it was and what a wonderful base for further decorating.  It's a LOT like the recipe for White Chocolate Ganache on 

3 parts extra-dark chocolate (can substitute others from the baking aisle - add sugar as needed if using baking, bittersweet, or unsweetened)
1 part heavy whipping cream

Warm the cream in a double boiler over medium heat.  Add the chocolate, broken up into small bits.  Continue to heat, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted, fully incorporated with the cream, and smooth.

Cream Cheese Icing

1 8 oz. package cream cheese, softened
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
3 to 5 cups powdered sugar, sifted

Mix the cream cheese and butter with an electric mixer on low until fully mixed and smooth.  Add the sugar, one cup at a time, allowing each cup to mix in thoroughly before adding the next.  Continue adding sugar until you get the desired consistency.
Optional: You can add a teaspoon or two vanilla or other flavoring of your choice, as well as color if desired.

This is fast becoming my go-to frosting since you can use it for a main covering as well as piping, it's so versatile (any kind of flavoring or color goes with it), and everyone LOVES it (and it IS good - better than regular buttercream).  I've gotten so many compliments on it.  It's one of the main things people ask about.


I think he liked it.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Impulsive Tomato Planting Party - or, I Have Great Friends

Every time I plant large-fruited tomatoes after March 15th, I don't get anything from them.  It's usually just too late by then for the plants to have time to mature and start setting fruit before the heat sets in and shuts them down. 

This year, I was busier than normal. ... No, that's not right - I was as busy as I usually am despite trying to cut back. *sigh*  I'm sure y'all can relate.  So when the second week of March rolled around and the tomato beds were still empty, I got a little nervous.

I shouldn't have.  Michael Ford and I had planned to get the plants in the ground after work on the 14th.  That evening he called and said, "Planting party tonight, hosted at your house! Heather and I are on our way!" 

My first thought, bolstered by my social anxiety (yes, I have it - you can laugh at Loudmouthed Me now): "Oh, crap!"  My second thought, coming quickly on the heels of the first: "Well, you've wanted to get to know Heather better. Here's your chance." 

I got excited about the prospect of fun in the garden - doing something you love with a friend who loves it as much, and getting to know a new friend better who apparently loves doing this same thing or she wouldn't be daft enough to agree to drive an hour to stay up late planting tomatoes in the dark. 

Oh, crap!  It was getting dark!  I already had some Christmas lights out there and a full moon was expected that night, but I knew we needed MOAR LIGHT.  I ran around looking for the extra Christmas lights (My third thought: "Now where did I put those extra Christmas lights?!"), found them, grabbed them, and headed to the garden in the dying daylight where I strung them up along the beds we were going to plant. 

They arrived shortly after with a six pack, a bottle of wine, and a fifth flat of tomatoes.  I LOVE friends like that! 

We grabbed the beer, the wine, the bottle of bourbon, the five flats of tomatoes, and headed to the garden.  Michael had already put compost on the beds a couple weeks before.  I had the row-cover frames in some beds already set up, and rebar and pipe for the others was at hand.  All that was left was the fun part.

Michael laid out the plants while Heather and I started planting.  I wanted the cherries at the northeast end, the large-fruited ones next, and the Romas furthest south.  This way, in July when I cut the large-fruited ones back but leave the still-producing cherries standing, the cherries won't shade out the cut ones while they're resprouting.  Determinate canning tomatoes like Romas usually are done for when they finish that main flush of fruit.  With them grouped together, I can pull them out and have a large area to replant instead of holes here and there in the whole patch - plus, they're at the southern end so whatever I replant that area with won't be shaded out by the still-standing tomatoes that are left.  Grouping them this way also makes for easier picking later - I can easily get all the canners in one basket, the slicers in a second, and the cherries in still another, with no sorting needed later.

I had only planned on a couple-or-three beds for tomatoes.  You know how that goes...  we filled those up quickly and realized there were many cultivars left that didn't get represented.  I looked up at the other beds, picked one out, and we filled that one, too.  It was then I realized just how many tomatoes five flats are.

I looked at the flat Michael was holding, looked at the beds that were left, thought about what else I wanted to grow that year, and tried to do the math to figure out if I would have enough room for it all.  Math + Bourbon = injuries from the mental gymnastics.  However, Bourbon + Tomato Planting = GO FOR BROKE!

Seventy five plants later, we were done. 

It was such a nice feeling sitting with my friends, sharing the dinner I'd hastily thrown into the oven earlier, enjoying the satisfaction of what we'd just accomplished, knowing the tomatoes were warm all tucked in under the row covers, us all warm inside, too.  I don't know what made me feel the most warm: the electric fireplace or the bourbon.  Ah - it was the friendship.  Yep, that was it. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

It's coming...

*Cue theme music from Jaws*

 dum dum

Dum dum

Dum Dum




My new orchard!!

It's so big I couldn't fit it all in one picture.

I'm SO excited!  Can you tell?!!!!  Did all the exclamation points give it away?!!!

I've been dreaming about doing this for years, and this year was the year.  I had a blank spot that needed an orchard and a video game console I didn't really need.  Michael Ford, a coworker and friend and landscaper, had a need for a video game console and the know-how to plant an orchard.  Weren't we a pair.

Michael did a great job, too.  I wasn't sure where to put each one, so with his advice I made up my mind.  I kinda' helped a bit with the placement, but he did the final spacing and shifted things so it looks nicer (See those diagonal lines?  That was his idea and I really like it.  A lot.).  After I hemmed and hawed and finally made up my mind, Michael went to work.  He mowed the dead weeds down and started digging.  I'd put a half yard of cow manure compost in my little Toy truck, so he backed that right out there to amend the soil in each hole.  He also put a couple inches on top of the ground around each tree to sweeten the soil outwards and encourage roots to grow out to get it.  I like that, too.  But most importantly, he planted them at the correct level, all with their root flares showing, just like they're supposed to be. 

So there are thirteen trees out there - two plums, two peaches, three apples, two pears, and four figs.  Here's the map:

I have two Gala Apples because I didn't realize I already had one at home in a pot, and I have two Florida Crest Peaches because someone put one in the TexKing Peach bin when I bought them (and I didn't double-check the tags before buying them. *slaps forehead* Live and learn...).  Oh, well ... let's say those will be my best producers!  Yeah!  That's it!

I have lots of room off to the right of the map for expansion to the east.  Just need to remove a fence over there and cut down some scrub hackberries.  I hope I'll have that done by next year.  I want more peaches, some more apples, maybe a couple more pears, some persimmons, a few more figs, a couple-or-four pomegranates.  I'll put in some apricots, too, even though they don't reliably produce - I love them, and I've got the room to spare.  And some citrus, too!  I'm thinking satsumas, Meyer's lemons, and whatever else is hardy.

It's so nice to dream.  But it's even nicer when those dreams become reality.

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