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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different, with pie

We had music playing for much of the weekend, but right now as I write this the various rhythms and patters of the rain fill the house. It sounds different on the tin roof of the shed than on our shingled roof, and different still where it touches the trees and pours down the gutters. I realize that it’s Wednesday and the weekend is a distant dream, but I spent yesterday at home painting and baking and walking where wind and ravens move through tall Douglas-firs. I make no apologies for my love of the rain; I don’t even own an umbrella. I walked through this softest of statics into the city this morning. The droplets sizzled as they met the ocean and hundreds of tiny songbirds were hidden in hedges and shrubberies, trying to drown out the rain with their chattering.

For two weekends in a row now there have been pies. I feel like we’ve reached another level of settling in, here, and have relaxed into spending our days pleasurably. The first two pies we ate all to ourselves, but the next batch made it over to join a glorious feast with friends one night and a low-key dessert party the next.

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Apple Vanilla Custard Pie
My own creation, inspired by Terroirs de France: Un million de menus. I found it best eaten cold, but it’s still perfectly tasty when warm.

3 apples
2 eggs
3/4 cup table cream (10 % cream)
1/3 cup vanilla sugar
1/2 tsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cardamom
1/4 tsp vanilla bean powder
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Pastry to line shallow 8 or 9″ pie dish

  1. Roll out pastry into a disc, place in pie dish and trim edges. Decorate if desired. Place in fridge for about 20 minutes (prepare filling during this time).
  2. Preheat oven to 425°. Wash apples, but don’t peel them. Quarter the apples, remove cores, and slice into medium-thin slices.
  3. Prepare custard. Whisk eggs, then add all other ingredients and whisk until incorporated.
  4. Arrange apples in pie shell with the skin sides facing up. Pour custard on top.
  5. Bake at 425° for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350° and bake for about 30-40 minutes, or until custard is set. It should not slosh or appear liquidy when given a gentle shake, and a skewer inserted in the custard should come out clean.

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Pumpkin Pie
adapted from my mother’s recipe, adapted from a can of pumpkin puree

1 sugar pie pumpkin (Split in half, seeds scooped out, and roasted cut-side down in a shallow baking dish with just enough water to cover the bottom of the dish. When pumpkin is soft, remove from the oven, let cool, then scoop out flesh and puree it. The pumpkins we grew yield about 567g/ 20oz puree. )

1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt 2 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp ginger
pinch cloves
1/4 tsp garam masala
1/4 tsp allspice
3 eggs
3/4 cup 10% cream

1 deep 8 or 9″ pie dish lined with pastry (Do this first, and let pastry-lined pie dish chill in the fridge for 20 minutes or so until you are ready for it.)

Preheat oven to 425°. Stir together pumpkin, sugar, salt and spices. Whisk eggs and cream, then add to pumpkin and whisk gently until mixture is homogeneous. Pour into pie shell and bake. After 10 minutes, lower heat to 350° or 375° and bake for 40 or so minutes until filling is set.

Pastry
adapted from Alana Chernila’s excellent The Homemade Pantry. Makes enough for 3 open-face pies.

1 1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup all-purpose white flour
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 cup very cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
2 tsp apple cider vinegar
2/3 cup ice cold water* (I find I usually need more water than recipes call for- you may only need 1/3 cup)

Stir together dry ingredients with a sturdy fork. Cut in butter. Add the apple cider vinegar to 1/3 cup of the ice water, then pour it into flour and gently stir/toss with fork. Add more water as needed until you can form the dough into a ball with your hands. Let rest for at least 20 minutes in the fridge before rolling out.

shifting skies

You might think, from the title, that this post is about Canadian politics and the recent election. I am, along with most of the country, immensely relieved by the election results. However, I am better off writing about the weather.

All I really want to eat for supper at this time of year is roasted vegetables topped with poached eggs. If you offered me lasagna or quiche, say, I would never turn it down, but a colourful heap of oven-velvety fall vegetables is pretty undeniably glorious. I started to write that my husband would disagree, but he has been roasting broccoli, tofu and potatoes lately so I will eat my words.

To further my roasted vegetable quest, and revel in it for days at a time, I concocted a sort of “October bowl”, so named for its warm bright colours: roasted winter squash, roasted beets, and roasted garlic topped generously with grated Balderson cheddar, soft-poached eggs, sea salt and a fair amount of pepper. I may also have tipped some Little Creek Dressing into my bowl- I’m on a bit of a kick with it lately. If you’ve never tried it, it combines oil, lemon juice, tamari, raspberries, vinegar, nutritional yeast, garlic, herbs and salt in magical proportions for a very delicious dressing. Also on the subject of vegetables, however vaguely, we gave the rabbits a big old zucchini yesterday evening and there is not much left of it. They’ve been gnawing it with great vigor and following its diminishing form around the room. It’s impressive what these soft-eyed creatures can do to a gourd, and highly entertaining, for us and them.

It’s necessary to talk briefly of the weather; I was near convinced it would start snowing this morning. There was a fog over the city and it was unusually cold. It felt like a late October day in the mountains, where it just might start snowing. And then I reminded myself I’m in Victoria. It rarely snows in December here. Last year, I left Nelson just before the snow started to fall. I do miss the beauty and wonder of those first snows of the season. Island life, Island life, Island life. We have had some spectacular skies lately, liquidamber* light and painted clouds reflected on the ocean, even a sundog rainbow one afternoon.

(* thank you Elise, xo)

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magnificent creature

My cat Heidi (Pudding) passed away on Friday. She was sixteen, and had decided her time had come. We’d been watching her get thinner and more arthritic all year, and this past week she lost her appetite completely. There was more to it than that, of course, but she made it clear she wasn’t interested in hanging on any longer.

She was a delightful cat. She spent her kittenhood running up trees after squirrels, then turning around, tail cocked, and running down them, with her ears pinned back and her wildest expression on. She grew to love food, and would put on a concert of yowls until someone would open a can for her in the morning. She was gentle and cuddly, and very quirky. Her warm solid weight was the cause of many accidental couch naps. In her old age she licked the gravy from the wet food and sought sunbeams and warm laps.

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almost

I wish I could do this every day. I’m sitting in a sunlit, clean house with a mug of tea and a jar of water and a square of dark chocolate. The birch tree out front has almost completely turned yellow. I’ve already wandered the garden several times (two raspberries!), tidied up and made a nest for our elderly cat, and tossed yet more onions and tomatoes in the oven. I feel – almost – at peace.

We’ve been enjoying a long weekend (yay!). Yesterday I spent all afternoon painting white rabbits and yellow aspen on scraps of wood while listening to a charming audiobook, fed on a pleasant diet of tea and fresh caraway raisin bread that Jeremy started the day before.

I went to a lovely friend’s lovely wedding reception recently, with the best bunch of friends. The weather was stormy, but delightfully so. The whole day was one long happy moment.

It’s funny how moments like these can coexist, or at least be contrasted by those reigned by the less fun feelings. I have been so exhausted lately that the lovely moments seem few and far between. Sunday I spent curled on the couch, again with tea, and read. I feel very lost and frustrated when I think of how I spend most of my time at a job I really don’t enjoy. It is a perfectly decent job, I’m sure, but somehow manages to be both the most boring and most stressful job I’ve experienced. At the reception it was so nice hearing about how my friends are following their passions and have found or are creating meaningful work. Over here at whine central (but without the wine), I have yet to figure that out for myself.

Still, there is plenty of good to celebrate. I made this pear tarte Tatin several weeks ago, and have been meaning to post about it ever since. I’m a little late for Canadian Thanksgiving, but it’s a tasty way to end most any meal.

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Pear Cardamom Tarte Tatin
Recipe: Choosing and Using Spices. Pastry: Terroirs de France, un million de menus

1/4 cup (50 g) butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
seeds from 10 cardamoms
1 tsp + ground cardamom
225 g (8 oz) puff pastry or use pastry recipe below
+/- 4 ripe pears (the number of pears will depend on the size of the pears and the size of your pan)

1. Preheat oven to 425°. Spread the butter over the base of an ~8″ cast iron skillet (or ovenproof pan or stoveproof cake tin). Spread the sugar evenly over the butter, then sprinkle the cardamom and cardamom seeds over the sugar. On a floured surface, roll out pastry to a circle slightly larger than the pan. Prick pastry lightly and set it on a baking sheet and chill.

2. Peel the pears, cut them in half lengthwise and core them. Arrange the pears, rounded side down, on the butter and sugar. Set pan over medium heat until the sugar melts and begins to bubble with the butter and the juice from the pears. If any areas are browning more than others (you can carefully lift a pear to check), move the pan, but do not stir.

3. As soon as the sugar has caramelized, remove the pan from the heat. Place the pastry on top, carefully tucking the edges down the side of the pan. Transfer to the oven and bake for 25 minutes until the pastry is well risen (for puff) and golden.

4. Leave in the pan for 2-3 minutes until the juices have stopped bubbling. Invert the pan over a plate and shake to release the tart. (Put a large plate face-side down over the pan. Keep one hand flat on the center of the plate to hold it in place while the other hand lifts and flips the pan in one smooth motion. The hand on the plate needs to keep pressure on it and move with the pan.) It may be necessary to slide a spatula under the pears to loosen them. Serve warm.

Pastry (pâte brisée) – the high butter content of this recipe makes it a tasty substitute for puff dough
200 g flour
100 g chilled butter
50 + g ice cold water
pinch salt
Stir together flour and salt. Cut butter into small cubes, then cut into flour with a pastry cutter. Add enough water that you can form dough into a ball, then let it repose in the fridge for 30 minutes. This recipe makes slightly more than is needed for the tarte Tatin, so save the extra in the fridge for spontaneous weeknight baking, or something.