February 29

I love that today is a leap day- it seems like a special pocket of time.

Outside, the cheery trills of robins are balancing the soft dreariness of grey sky on the verge of rain. This afternoon, the sun shone and lit the pink cherry blossom and warmed the rug. In the morning, as on all mornings here, sea gulls dotted the field like sheep.

This past week there were some glorious spring storms, erratic wind/rain/sun and all colours in the sky. I dug out my paints. I finally bought an umbrella. Days were segmented by cappucinos, africanos, earl grey and herbal teas. Our rabbits are molting winter down. The daffodils are nodding bright heads.

I hurt my back by lifting a bin incorrectly and have spent the past few days feeling like a century has been tacked on to my years. It’s easing up now and I am so glad. (That icy-hot stuff is so weird!) How easy it is to take health for granted.

I’m including the recipe for what I wish I was making right now. I like to make and freeze a batch of these cookies to have on hand – a gift to our future selves.

Chocolate Apricot Pecan Cookies
Adapted from Leslie Mackie’s Macrina Cookbook. The original recipe does not call for pecans, so feel free to leave them out. 

In a medium large bowl, stir together with a whisk then set aside:
1 1/4 c whole wheat pastry flour
1 c all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp finely ground espresso beans

In a medium small bowl or in a KitchenAid mixer, cream until light and fluffy:
1 c butter, softened
1 c good raw/brown sugar such as panela-rapadura

Add eggs to creamed butter and sugar one at a time, mixing well, adding vanilla with second egg:
2 eggs, room temperature
2 tsp vanilla

Add dry ingredients and stir to mix until flour is just incorporated. Then stir in:
3/4 cup dried unsulphured apricots, chopped
3/4 cup pecans, toasted and cooled, roughly crushed by hand
8-9 oz dark chocolate, coarsely chopped

Let dough rest in the fridge for at least an hour before scooping and baking cookies. Or scoop then freeze dough to later thaw and bake whenever you need a few cookies! Makes about 16 cookies. Bake at 350° for 10-12 minutes. 

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muck and splendor

I’ve gotten lazy about blogging lately. I think if I could write in the mornings it would be easier, because I always have words in my head on my walks to work. I sometimes manage to jot a few things down on my lunch breaks but that time is mainly consumed by the very necessary eating of my lunch, and I am a slow eater.

It is almost garden season here on the coast. Some people might be out puttering already, or wisely starting seedlings indoors. I’m content to revel in the spring flowers and cherry blossoms everywhere and let the soil dry out a little. The garden is very wet and mucky, and the muck is cold and wet. Yes, I can wait. But we have had the 2016 West Coast Seeds catalogue propped on our kitchen island for weeks, open to onions, juicy carrots, beans, bright perennials, bee and butterfly wildflower blends, asparagus and artichokes, and all sorts of salad greens.

So, the cherry blossoms! Since my mention of them around this time last year, their splendor faded in my mind as the months and seasons gave way to other things. There is perhaps no other season quite so spectacular in Victoria as when all the cherry tree-lined streets (much of downtown and seemingly entire neighborhoods as well) are decked out – nay, billowing, with small pink flowers. It’s cheering, like a wholesome month-long valentines for the soul. Or something. In any case, they are undeniably delightful.

the season so far

The season so far has been like every other coastal February- the brightest, best days since summer, bookended by days of soft, sleepy grey rain. I love it.

Most notable is the light lingering towards evening, and that I’ve left my sweater at home every morning this week and haven’t missed it.

While dinners lately have tended towards dull, parsnips have been the shining stars of several meals, as have broccoli, cabbage and sambal olek. We found last year’s  rhubarb in the freezer and had it sauced with pancakes. Then there was chocolate cheesecake for my dad’s birthday…

Chocolate Marble Cheesecake
Makes one 9″ cake. My mother’s recipe- I’m not sure where she got it from.

Crust
1/4 c butter, softened
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 c flour

Preheat oven to 400º F. In large mixing bowl, beat butter till soft. Gradually add sugar, beat until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and stir in flour. With floured fingertips, press dough evenly in bottom of ungreased 9″ springform pan. Bake until golden, 10-12 minutes. Cool completely on wire rack.

Cheesecake
1 recipe cheesecake crust
3/4 c sugar
2 tbsp flour
1/8 tsp salt
3 packages (8 oz each) cream cheese, at room temperature
2 eggs, at room temp.
1 c heavy whipping cream (unwhipped)
3 oz bittersweet baking chocolate, melted

Make crust. Preheat oven to 375º F. In large mixing bowl, combine sugar, flour and salt; mix well. Add cream cheese. With mixer at medium speed, beat until smooth and well blended. Add eggs one at a time and vanilla;  beat just until well blended (scrape down bowl to incorporate and prevent any lumps). Set aside 2 c filling. Pour remaining filling on top of crust. Stir chocolate into reserved filling until well combined. Drop chocolate mixture by tablespoonfuls into cream cheese filling, forming 6 “puddles”. Swirl filling with a knife 2 or 3 times for a marbled effect. Bake 55 minutes (centre will be slightly soft). Immediately run spatula around edge of cake to loosen from pan (this helps prevent cracking). Cool on wire rack 1 hr, then cover and chill at least 4-5 hrs before cutting.

 

boring but true

It’s easy enough to look back on the past few months as such a busy, hectic time filled with socializing and indulgence. In reality though, while we have been having some delightful visits and while I did eat most of our share of orange-zest Florentine-roca in the very recent past, we’ve mostly been lounging our way through winter, drinking tea on the couch with the rabbits and listening to the Spilled Milk podcast (which I’m currently addicted to, along with the orange Florentines).

I meant to write on the morning after my last post that winter’s edge had softened overnight and I noticed the green shoots of spring bulbs on my walk to the bakery. I even lingered on the porch in short sleeves and left the front door open for the length of a sunbeam to let the mild air freshen the house. I have since seen snowdrops (!) in veritable drifts and the first yellow crocuses are almost open. I’ve also sighted one of each of the following in flower: Oregon grape, currant, and cherry. Most of the rain lately has had a springlike feel to it -warmer, milder, more spontaneous and moody.

I’m going to resist the urge to itemize all the glories of the past month, but for memory’s sake must mention a magical weekend in Vancouver, some good little invigorating runs in light drizzle along the water, a magnificent bike ride and a homey, crafty day complete with garden food and a very good friend.

 

wintering

I suppose I should get this out of the way: I hate January. Yes, yes, the light is returning, creeping back into the days a few minutes at a time and eventually it will be spring, but it’s not happening soon enough for me. There are no snowflakes here to gloss over this whole winter thing with beauty and magic. Just endless, dreary grey. I have been lamenting that my thickest, wooliest socks won’t fit in my wet-weather boots.

However, this winter has also been lovely, comforting, unexpected, just right. Here are some of the best and most beautiful moments:

 

  • Acres of red blueberry stalks stretching out to blue mountains under bright blue sky.
  • Hundreds of bald eagles overhead, filling all the bare trees with black and white.
  • Hoarfrost encrusting everything in lavish crystals- quartz and selenite grown overnight- rough spikes in the morning sun. The pond frozen, goldfish circulating slowly under thick ice.
  • Nights when the stars came out and the moon glowed cold and bright, all icy pricks of light above dark trees.
  • Many rosy sunrises- more breathtaking mornings than I could keep count of- puffs and pillars of pink lighted clouds on the eastern horizon.
  • That long slow golden light of the afternoon on a clear day, honey frozen in the air.
  • When we happened to drop by an old friend’s just for a moment, and ended up staying for the evening. We arrived as she was pulling a dish of ultimate comfort food from the oven, and just happened to have two pies in the car, left over from an earlier occasion.
  • Snow on Hurricane Ridge, driving through mist, salal-filled roadsides.
  • The usual warm and chaotic times of family Christmas, a turkey that refused to cook and late nights chatting in the kitchen.
  • How the streets of Seattle felt like home would if home were more exciting, and how thrilling it is to feel at home someplace exciting.
  • Reading a new cookbook on the couch in the evening with a mug of hot tea and sweet Seven the bunny snuggled in next to me on the wool blanket. Also, how we’ve spent several many evenings since in the same way.
  • A quiet ringing in of the new year, with good friends and glasses of frothy homemade eggnog. Also, a surprising and excellent snack of raw sliced fennel with cheese and crackers.
  • A new IKEA kitchen island, where I drink kombucha out of a brandy snifter and read food magazines, and feel grown-up. Jeremy likes it too, and has anointed the oak top with beeswax and mineral oil.
  • The flooded field behind our farmer’s market grocery store, frost ringed and filled with trumpeter swans.

Hearty Hazelnut Shortbread with Apricot Jam
This is not melt-in-the-mouth shortbread; rather it is dense, rich, nutty and sustaining. Good to tuck into a mittened hand when heading out the door for a winter walk. The shortbread recipe that this is based on (my mother’s) sustained me through several long overnight bus trips from the coast to the mountains in my early twenties.

1 c butter
1/8 c coconut sugar
3/8 c cane sugar (1/4 + 1/8)
1 c AP flour (all purpose)
1 c WWP flour (whole wheat pastry)
1/4 c hazelnut flour
apricot jam for thumbprint

Preheat oven to 300°F. In a medium-large bowl, roughly cream butter and sugars with a sturdy wooden spoon. Add flour one cup at a time, or in smaller increments if that feels easier. Gather dough into a ball, and roll out on a floured surface to about 1/4″-1/3″ thick. Cut into fun shapes and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. The cookies won’t spread so can be placed close together. Bake 20-25 minutes. About halfway through the bake, remove cookies to oven and make a depression in the center of each one, either with a spoon or with your fingers. Spoon enough jam to fill depressions and return cookies to the oven. The cookies are done when they are lightly browned underneath. Let cool on a rack, and store in tins for a week or more.

 

gougère

Saturday mornings can be a time when the week catches up with me but I haven’t yet caught up with the week. I spent this one at the kitchen table with coffee and a pile of cookbooks.

The wind is still roaring in from the sea with force, still slamming against the house and rushing through the trees. Our front lawn is littered with branches and the only birds I’ve seen out are seabirds and waterbirds. Today I was introduced to a Victoria tradition: the breakwater on a windy day. On one side the huge waves rolled in and on the other, wind devils danced across the water. Spray crashed over the boardwalk and the high whine of the wind funneling in towards shore filled our ears. There was a log-jam at the appearing-and-disappearing beach and gulls and cormorants climbed against the wind to stay motionless above the roiling water. We walked and staggered our way out along the breakwater, laughing and shrieking as the wave-spray crashed over us. I had my arm up when the spray from one wave arced above, and was immediately wet to the elbow as the wind and water found their way down my sleeve. Our rubber boots were filled to their tops and I was wet from head to toe, through three layers of raincoat and wool. We shared a salty kiss in the lee of the lighthouse at the end of the breakwater. On the way back to shore the wind was in our faces and the drops of spray pelted hard as hailstones. We exchanged wild grins with a few folk as delightedly crazed as ourselves, and arrived, shivering and sloshing at the café on shore, where we tipped bootfuls of ocean at the door. I poured out my boots again on our front porch, and wrung out my socks and am now quite warm and dry and ready to do it all over again.

Here is something warm and delicious:

Gougères
Savory choux-pastry cheese puffs, adapted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking

a medium-sized heavy-bottomed saucepan
baking sheets, lined with parchment

1 c water
3 oz (6 T) butter
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
pinch nutmeg
pinch thyme (crumbled if dry, minced if fresh)
3/4 c AP flour (all-purpose)
4 eggs
2/3 c grated Gruyère cheese

Preheat oven to 425°F. Bring water to a boil with the butter and seasonings and boil slowly until the butter has melted. Meanwhile, measure the flour and make sure the cheese is grated.

Remove from heat and immediately pour in all the flour at once. Beat vigorously with a wooden spoon for several seconds to blend thoroughly. Then beat over moderately high heat for 1 to 2 minutes until mixture leaves the sides of the pan, forms a mass, and begins to film the bottom of the pan.

Remove saucepan from heat and make a well in the centre of paste. Break one egg into the well and beat into the paste for several seconds until it has absorbed. Continue with the rest of the eggs, beating them in one by one. Beat for a moment more to be sure all is well blended and smooth. Then beat in cheese.

Drop the paste onto the parchment-lined baking sheets with a spoon (a full tablespoon, perhaps, blobs approx. 2″ across) Leave blob-sizd spaces between the blobs as they will grow! Alternatively, for neater puffs use a piping bag. You can make smaller puffs: reduce baking time to 20 minutes for puffs 1″ across. Option: for shiny puffs, brush with beaten egg before baking. You can also sprinkle more grated cheese on top if desired.

Bake, depending on size, for about 25-28 minutes (less for smaller puffs). The puffs are done when they have doubled in size, are golden brown, and firm and crusty to touch. Remove them from the oven and pierce the side of each puff with a sharp knife. Then set in the turned-off oven and leave the door ajar for 10 minutes (this stops them from collapsing). Eat. Or cool on a wire rack, and then eat.

weather

Time seems to spin by more quickly in these shortened days of winter. I always feel like I need a lot more sleep to balance the increased darkness. More time in the light, too, though that is hard to come by just now.

The weather has changed. We had what felt like (and may well have been) weeks of cold clear days, when frost lay heavy until almost noon and goldenrose light painted the sides of buildings and even the sidewalks. Mornings were cold and clear and crystalline in that winter way, all streaks and puffs of pink clouds and golden light spilling over everything from far away. Now the weather has softened into rain, clouded pthalo and lilac sky lit up by the city at night. These dark winter evenings are perhaps best spent close to the stove, stirring, chopping, filling the baseboard cool of the house with warm fragrance. Last night the wind roared and threw itself at our small house. From the darkness of our bed in the morning hours I could still hear it howling in from the ocean and I knew then that it had blown all night, tossing and turning through my dreams.

November

Ah, yes. It feels like it’s been ages. I’ve been lying on the floor drawing in the evenings lately, drinking tea and listening to Discworld audiobooks and fending off the rabbits (who enjoy pencils and watercolour paper for different reasons than mine), instead of lying on the floor typing and drinking tea and fending off the rabbits from the keyboard. It’s pretty relaxing. What I’ve created is a series of black and white pictures that are waiting to be painted or coloured in. My intention is to get prints made and give them away or sell them to give people something relaxing to do on these dark chilly evenings. I’d love to hear what you think about this!

On a sidenote, I am sitting in a puddle of long November light. Jeremy is making french toast with panetonne in the kitchen, a gift from my wonderful mother. She also brought us homemade apple butter, and exquisite handmade jewellery for me – thanks Mum!

I’m enjoying this time of year much more than I thought a November could be enjoyed. I love arriving indoors all pink-cheeked and invigorated from the cold. I love snuggling in my wool blanket and my thickest socks. I love thinking about everything I would like to bake. I love the nuthatches and chickadees, downy woodpeckers, flickers, purple finches and others that come to our kitchen window. I love watching squirrels stuffing themselves and the earth with prized nuts, and I love seeing the syrupy light sprawl sideways across the water and through the trees.

these things

The wind, a roar that chased us up the hill through the trees. Crows spilled upwards like smoke from trees of umber fire.

November, new moon, cold days and silver light. The ocean has been like pounded steel most days, greased nickel when the wind pummels it at the land. I don’t really at all like walking home in the dark, and I don’t like the dark mornings much either. What I do like is bearing witness to lazy golden sunrises and pink-flushed sunsets, with no special effort on my part to seek them out.

Yesterday, a long-overdue visit with a best friend. Steaming chai fragrant with honey and superfoods. Bowls of nourishing vegetables, cooked and fermented and coddled just so. Bright magenta beet grapefruit juice. Wanders along familiar but slowly changing streets. The park, which is always there, peacocks, ducks. Bare feet on the beach, cold rock carved out by the last ice age. Books and beautiful tea. Conversation and company.

One day last week I watched Jer pull into the driveway as I came down the path. Once inside the door, he gently steered me back outside and around the bend in the road, where we watched a cat-like barred owl hopping around in the dry leaves and softly flying to perch atop the fence. The next morning before it was quite light, and in the evening (5 pm counts as evening now, right?) as soon as the dusk had settled, the barred owl’s who-cooks-for-you call rang across the still backyards.

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