Saturday, October 31, 2009

Chocolate Cake Success

I made a chocolate cake that is definitely a keeper.  It's extremely moist and flavorful, and the recipe lends itself to cupcakes, a layer cake, or even a bundt or loaf shape.  Jason made it again with a bit of coffee and it enhanced the chocolate flavor to nice effect.  The icing recipe that was suggested was also quite good.  Now, we've found the chocolate cake, so I can focus more fully on the yellow cake.

The recipe is from The Pastry Queen by Rebecca Rather.

1 C unsalted butter
1/2 C dutch process cocoa powder (Yes, the dutch process part matters.)
3/4 C cool coffee
2 C sugar
2 eggs
1 C buttermilk
2 T (yes, tablespoons) Vanilla extract
2 C flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 tsp salt

  • Melt the butter in a saucepan, gently
  • Whisk in the cocoa, stir until smooth.
  • Whisk in the coffee til smooth
  • Off the heat, mix in the sugar, eggs, and buttermilk and whisk smooth.
  • Whisk in the flour, baking soda, and salt until incorporated, a few lumps are okay.
  • Pour into pans and bake.

1/2 C butter (unsalted)
1/4 C WHOLE milk
1/2 C cocoa powder
2 C sifted confectioners sugar
1 T vanilla
1/4 tsp Salt

  • Over low heat, melt the butter, then whisk in the milk, cocoa, and powdered sugar.
  • Off heat, whisk in the vanilla and salt.
  • Pour over cooled cake, allow to set

More planning

I have had a whole week away, and it's been nice to come home with fresh eyes and look around.  Because of the weather, it's easy to identify microclimates like this one-

This is the area just beside the front door, and it's one of the least appealing views around the house.  I'm not ready to do all the work the house will need to make it look nice from this side, but we can plant things to make it look a bit better.

Interestingly, even though this area gets just a few hours of sun and has some northern exposure, it's one of the only spots that still has green grass.  Almost everywhere else the grass has already been thoroughly frosted.  The asparagus and black raspberries in the bed against the wall of the garage still look quite good.

So, my idea here is to give that one bed completely over to the raspberries and asparagus.  With weeding, asparagus are supposed to be quite happy, and the black raspberries should be willing to grow just about anywhere on this property.  I just want to keep the black ones separate because supposedly if they are interplanted with red, you will get only red raspberries.

The area on the other side of the walk will be some highly tended bed.  I'm so early in my learning curve, I have not quite decided what that will mean.  One common suggestion is to put herb beds close to houses in just this sort of spot, but I do not need huge areas of herbs, and the west facing side seems a better choice for that.  Because I want it to be pretty as well as functional, I might make this a flower and salad bed.  We could add nasturtiums and violets to the calendula and bachelor buttons for edible flowers that look pretty for most of the growing season and then work in our various salad greens, like arugula, spinach, butter lettuce, etc.

By putting these things close to the house, we can have salad easily without going all the way to the garden, and we can be sure it stays weeded.

The work that needs to be done for that to happen, as far as I know is this:
  • I will go ahead and till up the area I want for a bed while trying to plan so that I never till it again.  
  • I will cut the oleander back so it does not dwarf the smaller plantings I want in this spot. 
  • I will try to shape the bed so that feet more easily miss what I've planted.  
  • I will have an eye toward where I want the steps to be eventually, as well.  
  • I will need to figure out what to do to keep the lilacs where I want them instead of them creeping farther and farther into my planned garden area.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Starting to dream

I've read a bit about permaculture.(Wiki article on permaculture)  I done a bit of gardening and a tiny bit of planning gardens.  I've helped others with their gardens and discussed permaculture here and there.  Now, it's my turn to delve into our garden and our own permaculture plans.

One goal is to grow 50% to 80% of our food; the wide range is because I do not know what I am doing.   Another goal is to have a food system that I can maintain mostly by myself; Jason works many, many daylight hours and the children are not a reliable source of steady labor. One more goal is to find ways to have perennial and no-till arrangements whenever possible.  There are certainly other goals, but they are a bit more amorphous and difficult for this neophyte to articulate. I believe I will definitely discover new ones as I go along.

Let me introduce my property and the fantasy places and plantings I am imagining and beginning to plan for.

Here, just as we go out our back (preferred) door, we have this:

This side faces mostly south, a little east, and gets a full dose of sun year round. In the long run, it would be a good place to add a greenhouse, so our plans should not include things that would preclude a greenhouse.  Also, these are bedroom windows we want to enlarge and we must be cognizant of moving water away from the house.  My current thoughts are to build some cold frames and to put our herb bed here by this door.  The herb bed would be pretty and convenient; the cold frames could compromise moving water.  That's an area for research.

Here is the woodshed, which is on the other side of the back door.
We could put a trellis on this end of it to grow vines of cucumbers or morning glories or something.  Again, it gets full sun almost all day, though in summer it might not hit here until late morning.  The wood would be stacked from late spring until it was used in the winter.  The vines would somewhat protect this end of the stacked wood from rain, while the other open side would still allow the wood to dry.

Here is the garden shed, which is a good place to put starts once some of the frost danger is past.  Also, it has that south facing wall that might be good for cold frames or vines.  Some low bush might also be a good choice.  Maybe we could put gooseberries here.

This side of the house is a center of activity.  We prefer this view, and we like the picnic table out here.  There are some problems, like no out door water, but these can be addressed.  When we can address them, we'll have to decide to do with this field.

There are more spots to consider, but I've been warned to keep these short.  :)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Phaedra does not willingly share.  It's always been true.  When she started wanting things around 8 or 9 months old, Ezra gave them to her.  He would look a bit befuddled and hand them over.  As Sylvie has gotten older, she has gone out of her way to give Phaedra whatever Phaedra asks for.  If I step in, Ezra and Sylvie get more upset than Phaedra when I insist she share.  Phaedra DOES get upset, but the wisdom of Solomon will not work; she would rather throw the doll in the fire than have to share or return it to the rightful owner.  So what am I to do?

On good days, I quietly acknowledge when there's a problem and leave it to them to work it out.  On bad days, I wade right in and make the situation much worse.  And I rarely miss an opportunity to try to show Phaedra how sharing helps all of us.

So, the other day, I had a new hat, and Sylvie asked to wear it.  I said sure, I would share.  Phaedra then asked, "Why doesn't anyone EVER share hats with me?"  After a few moments to reflect on the absurdity of this statement, I replied, "Phaedra, it's hard to share with you, because once someone agrees to share, you get to decide when and how the shared item will be used.  And, any time the other person wants to use the shared item, it's suddenly your turn."

She didn't like this.  She explained how I made her sad, and I of course said greediness makes everyone sad.  I felt like I had finally made some headway.

Then, many hours later, she came to me and said, "Mama, I know I don't share things, but I share what I do.  I always show people how to do things or help them."

So, her humbled mother offers these photos as proof that my 7-year-old is not greedy with her self, and that is perhaps the greatest thing she has to share.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cake 2 results

The cake is moist with a finer, less crumbly, texture.  I like it, but Jason says it is not chocolate-y enough.  The thing is, we put a fudge icing on it, so it seems like the cake does not need to be so very chocolate- y.  I am debating this one.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Visiting Inlaws and cake number 2

Jason's mother arrives tomorrow.  We're all excited.  The house is extra- clean, and the children have prepared poetry to recite.  Jason is taking a couple of days off work.  We're ready.

And yet, there's this undercurrent that I would not call excitement.  I feel a touch of anxiety, a sense that we need to measure up.

The truth is Jason's mother does not judge us, as far as I can tell.  She is delighted by Jason's every endeavor.  We have had some difficult times with her, but her love for Jason has not wavered, and this constancy has come also to the children.  When she visits, she wants to see what we do; she asks interested questions without offering criticism.  Even when she isn't so sure of our ideas, she manages to communicate this without any sting.

Still- she is my mother-in-law, and I want her to like me.  I want her to be glad Jason married me.  And maybe, she is.  But my need to prove that I was the best choice is unflagging.  Maybe our weirdness with our in-laws is our own baggage, at least some of the time.
Tonight's cake was also a Martha Stewart (Thank you, Jeudevine Library!).  It's devil's food cake.  The batter did not seem all that chocolate- y, but we'll taste it tomorrow.  I did not overbake it this time, and it did not exceed the limits of the recommended pan size.

Monday, October 12, 2009

What am I? Your slave?

The other day as we pulled into the drive, I explained that I wanted help getting all the items from the car into the house.  There were two coolers in the wayback full of 62 pounds of frozen chicken that I needed to take to the basement where the freezers are; there was a plastic grocery bag with the CSA vegetables in it; there was a gallon of milk from our friends' cow; there were jackets and hats and a couple of books deposited in the car by the children.  It was time for me to cook dinner and Jason would not be home to help with the bedtime routine.  I think I can say I not only wanted help, I NEEDED it.
Phaedra announced, "I am tired of you treating us like your slaves!"

I asked her if I am her slave when I prepare the food she eats and wash every single dish and article of fabric she touches.  With a hefty sigh, she helped carry stuff into the house.  And I wondered what other parents do.  I especially wondered what parents who believe children should not be forced to do things would do in this situation.

I liked my response.  I did not get mad, and the situation did not devolve into me actually threatening some lame punishment.  I reinforced my very strong belief in our interdependence.  The other two children were part of the situation, so also heard the message.  We all have to pull together if this mother is going to keep it together.  I actually cannot do it all alone, and my children are old enough to participate in the work of this house.

I also believe they benefit from helping out, from knowing their work is valuable and appreciated.  On the carrying occasion, no one was all that happy, but once we were in the house, they all were ready to help with dinner, chatting and laughing.  This leads me to believe they were not harmed by my manipulation and insistence.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Group Dynamics

First- the cake did not turn out so good.  I let it bake too long, so we have to wait.  The frosting was definitely a dud.  And still, everyone ate the cake.

I keep pondering what it means to live with so many people.  As I drive in Vermont, I am still startled by the way other drivers look out for one another.  So many people swerve back and forth across the yellow line, the one that usually separates you from oncoming traffic, and other people just seem to expect it and stay out of each other's way.  Another example is this- when waiting to turn left from a side street or parking lot or at a busy intersection, someone WILL stop and flash their lights to let you turn in front of them.  I am not kidding- every single time.  My Texan self could not believe this the first time it happened and my sister laughed her head off when it happened with her in the car.

I wonder at this consideration.  I would submit that the fewer people you have to deal with, the easier it is to be nice, to make room for the frailty of others.  It's not that people in more crowded areas are less kind or considerate, it is perhaps that it's just more difficult.  If you stopped on Hulen to let someone turn left in front of you, there will suddenly be 15 cars pulling out in front of you and a line of traffic pissed off behind you.  On Route 14, the two cars behind you (or no cars behind you) can see what's happening; everyone knows it will only take a second; and it works.

I then reflect on my experience as a classroom teacher versus our home "classroom".  One year, I had 12 students, and I have to say, I think that was just about ideal.  There were enough children to get a group momentum, but few enough that everyone was heard on almost any topic.  The other two years, there were over twenty, and I just never felt that I was really meeting more than about a third of their needs at time.  Also, there were "difficult" behaviors that just were not a big deal in a group of 12, but were impossible in a class larger than 20.  I know because I had some of the "difficult" ones all three years with the easy year in the middle.

With homeschooling, I still am rarely meeting everyone's need in the same moment, but no one has to wait long.  Also, I have the mental and emotional space to really address the polite way to wait your turn.  I still have some "difficult" situations and behaviors, but there are so few of us, that we just work around it.  At the same time, there are so few, that I can continually turn my attention to teaching new behaviors.  And yet, there is no group momentum; if Phaedra decides she is NOT going to do something, there is no group to carry her along.  There are no handy playmates, either.  We have to work to have enough people.

There is some balance.  I feel healthiest when we have people in our lives, but I know I cannot be a good friend to very many.  I know I am happier when the people I hold dear have the time to talk and write and recreate with me, but I cannot give them the time they deserve when their are too many others' needs to consider.

Monday, October 5, 2009

My Other New Project

Maybe it's obvious, but I like to experiment without much of an audience.  These evenings when Jason is not here and the kids are nestled all snug in their beds and the wind and wet are battering the windows, I feel an overwhelming urge to bake something.

Tomorrow is Sylvie's half- birthday.  We, in our own weird way, celebrate our half- birthdays in a very low key fashion.  Sylvie asked for a cake, and the weather has inspired me to comply.  My usual cake is lemon pound cake- definitely a family favorite.  However, what Sylvie and I both have in mind is a frosted confection.  My dilemma is that I am mostly dissatisfied with cakes outside of the aforementioned pound cake. 

If all cakes were vaguely dry under stiff, jaw- clenchingly sweet frosting, I would be blithely unaware of the regular failures of cakes.  Sadly, this is not the case.  Once in a blue moon, I am awed my moist cakes, of varying densities, flavorfully coiffed with just the right frosting.  The bakers of these treats keep their secrets closely, so it is time for the aforementioned experiement.

I've decided that throughout the cooler months (read: now through April) I will bake 2 to 3 cakes a month, keeping careful notes of successes and failures.  I figure I will enjoy the trials, and everyone else will happily be testers.  My hope is to find recipes for chocolate and yellow cakes that are quite moist, made with ingredients I keep in the kitchen (no corn syrup, no cake flour) that can then become birthday standards.  I will put in a secret plea to the kitchen gods that I find a recipe for cream cheese frosting that even Phaedra will eat once in awhile.

Tonight's recipe is from a Martha Stewart cookbook I checked out from the library.  It already has one obvious problem; it claims to be for two 8" cake pans, but it has escaped the confines of the pans.  I marked Bittman off the list before the current project as experience has shown his cake recipes to be dry as toast.  We should have results by this time tomorrow.  Wish me luck!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Coming Fall

It's chilly now.  We have had rain for many, many days.  The beautiful leaves are knocked from the trees, and the robins are congregating in the field.  These robins look like scruffy versions of their spring selves, rusty brown chests, mottled neck feathers, no luster.  

Each morning I watch the clouds draped around the hilltop from the dining room window.  Some days, they never leave.  On the days they blow away, or a weak morning light pushes them off, autumn dazzles.  The colors push against each other in their glittering perfection; there is nothing soft about them.  Even at this distance, I can feel the hardening edges of the dying leaves, but they die in glory.

The pine trees did something this fall that I had not noticed before; they lost about half their needles in a huge in one fell swoop.  The trees are still green, as the other needles remained, but I had never seen them lose needles en masse. Today, I gathered these to mulch around the blueberry bushes.  By next fall, I'll know something new, like whether pine trees do this every year and whether blueberries like pine needle mulch.

We made more applesauce and everyone has enjoyed the four different soups I made this week.  I am excited by beets and hard skinned squashes. It must be fall.