Wednesday, December 26, 2012

'Blizzard' of 2012

 It was supposed to be a blizzard ... high winds, heavy snow. It wasn't. At 1 pm I showed 4.5" of snow and the highest wind recorded just five miles away was 23 mph. Hardy a blizzard by any definition. And yet it snowed and for that I'm grateful.

 I had to mail a package early this morning and returning home this is the view I had of S. Clayton Road. There were few cars about and the roads had been little traveled so there were only a few narrow ruts for the tires to fit into.

Arriving home, that's Pinehaven on the left. At this time there was about 2" of snow on the ground.

 Later in the day, the rain/snow gauge seemed half buried. Considering we had no snow last winter - and none so far this year - it was novel seeing the ground white at all.

 The south side of Pinehaven had been blasted by snow. It's a wet, heavy snow and not one that would make good sledding. It doesn't even make for good shoveling ... it sticks to the blade like glue.

 Our woodpile took on a rustic, backwoods appearance by no more than the addition of a meager coat of white.

 By 1 pm, there was 4.5" of snow on the level spots. A blizzard would surely be capable of dropping more than that!

 I went out and got the mail (it was delivered) and found the metal mailbox swung sideways by the plow-thrown snow. I'll have to make a repair when the weather improves. Even with so little snow - and so slight a wind - the snow has begun to drift a little in the driveway. How, though? It's almost too heavy to move with a shovel.

 My weather webcam shows a winter scene, at last!

 Finally, this male downy woodpecker improved upon his time to stock up on fat for the cold nights ahead. It seems brutal to have to peck through ice and snow for a taste of suet and he was complaining mightily ... though it may have been at me watching him.
 So, little snow. Little wind. Little cold. But at least the ground is white and that's novel in itself.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Baking Bread

 As I grow older, I suppose I grow lazier. We have enjoyed the use of a bread maker for many years but it's only recently that we've allowed the bread maker to do all the work, start to finish. That's because I like a traditional horizontal loaf, not the vertical loaf our machine turns out.
 But then, I thought, it's the taste of the final product that counts most. And being able to pour the ingredients into the pan, walk away and come back four hours later to a wonderful loaf of steaming "homemade" bread seems reason enough.

 Does this look other than perfect?
 We modified a basic white loaf and included about 1/4 cup of sunflower seeds to the mix. They add a nice salty crunch to the final product. As I added the regular baker's yeast, I found that I didn't have quite enough. I also had a pack of wine yeast (Montrachet) open in the refrigerator and just topped it off with that. How could it hurt? I suppose all yeast has its own taste but, going on the assumption that "yeast is yeast" I just poured it in and crossed my finger. Perfect!

 Mom also experimented with the baking time. We unplugged the machine five minutes early and cut the +45 minute process by a bit. Mom thinks the crust becomes a little too tough, a little too brown if left in the machine until completion. I don't ... but then I also don't care if it's a little less brown. I don't see that the change made much difference.
 I lifted the hot baking pan out of the machine, dropping a pot holder into the bread maker which immediately began to smolder. Bad idea! I grabbed the nearest knife I could get my hands on and flipped the potholder up and out of the baking area. A few seconds more and it would have burst into flame.
 If there's one thing I don't like about an automatic bread maker it's the mixing tool that extends up into the bottom of the loaf. Separating the loaf from the pan takes some hard raps to get it to come loose. And where the tiny paddle pulls out, there's a hole in the bread.

 The top of the loaf is to the left. Mom uses a paper towel and spreads softened butter across the entire loaf to make the crust more pliable. This certainly adds a nice, rich taste, too.
 The trouble with homemade bread is that it's addictive and lasts such a short time. For the four hours devoted to the project, this is all you get. So as soon as we have one loaf out of the machine, we're thinking about the next. Store-bought bread isn't even a close second to this.
 Mom's already talking about a cherry-infused bread with brown sugar. "Do you think I could use cherry yogurt?" she asked. I don't see why not. So the experiments - with a little help from technology - continue.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


 I am not one for extravagance but I love to eat and I have an annual craving for Springerle's, an anise-flavored German cookie. Though they are available now and then at Christmas-time at one area bakery, it's a rare treat when we have them.

 This year I ordered a couple of dozen from The Springerle Bakery in Marshall, North Carolina and they are both a treat to see and to eat.

 This tiny cookie, less than two inches in length, is an example of the type included in their dozen. Each is carefully made - a work of art, even - and traditional in every sense of the word. They even use hartshorn (Baker's ammonia) in their recipe, an ingredient that goes back to the earliest days.

 While similar-tasting cookies are available for the holidays, they are usually much larger and not quite of the same taste. When Woody's Market in West Carrollton, Ohio, was still in operation, they had a German baker by the name of Hans. We looked forward to bags of his cookies every Christmas. They were simply exceptional on all counts.

 The Springerle Bakery says of the cookie: "This rare type of cookie began life somewhere in Southern Germany as betrothal tokens, tellers of tales, social commentary, and to celebrate daily life." They say that Springerle molds, which impress the detailed pictures upon the cookies, are known since the Middle Ages.

 All of the great Springerle's I've had through the years share three attributes: that taste of licorice, a hard, crunchy exterior and a soft interior.

 We tried to make these one year. We even ordered hartshorn, determined to use an original recipe and make them with the time-honored ingredients. It is a difficult cookie to make, requiring several days to do properly. And our finished product was not nearly so delicious as what we could buy.

 An anise-flavored sugar cookie will give you the taste, of course, but none of the texture or romance.

 Springerle's are one of the few things in life which can't be hurried or duplicated with modern methods. They belong to the distant past. Thank goodness we can still find them today.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Post Penumbral

 We missed - narrowly, though - a penumbral eclipse for the moon yesterday morning. It began about 7:30 am and by then the moon was setting. Those who live west of here, across the western reaches of the US, had a chance to see some of the eclipse, at least.

 So, having no chance at all, I thought I'd watch the moon rise around, see if any of its glory was wiped by shadow. And when the moon rose I was standing in corn stubble, coat pulled about my neck, stars beginning to show overhead.

 Here's a wide view as the moon rose above Pinehaven. The tree just to the right of the moon is the maple beside our kitchen. Pinehaven itself stands nestled in the dark just right of center.

 Walking to the south lawn, Dayton glows to our northeast (left) and a cell phone tower, almost due east of the house, blinks red. It is less than a mile away and often blinks with a blinding white light, perhaps some sort of alarm. Centered in the picture and nestled in the treeline, are several of Dayton's TV stations.
 But overhead is the full moon (actually half a day past full). To its left is Jupiter which seems to have been dragged into the sky by our moon.

 Here's a closer view of the moon and Jupiter, so close they're nearly touching. When I went to bed, the moon was still in the eastern sky and a shaft of golden moonbeams sliced across my bed, head to foot. It was almost too bright to sleep, as though a giant searchlight was shining directly upon me.

 Here's a wider view to Pinehaven's east. As I stood there, the air temperature dropped slowly. It was in the upper 30's when I walked outside and had neared freezing by the time I stepped back indoors.
 And yet, cold as it was, a fall night is a lovely time to walk across the fields, harvested and bare, stepping across the corn stubble with the stars shining overhead. That's when it feels as though we're riding a spaceship (which we are) bound for some novel celestial port. I'm pleased that I can peer through this clear window, marveling at the view, as planets and stars and satellites pass steadily across my view.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Thanksgiving - 2012

 Our Thanksgiving this year was especially nice because we had the chance to share it with others. It used to be just Dad, Mom and I. When Dad died last year, it turned into just a two person meal. Even so, Mom went out of her way to make it special, to have food we usually don't have and to have it in impressive quantities for just the two of us.

 This year was different, Doug and Annette Boyer invited us to their house in Miamisburg. Doug is my cousin. Here's a look at our day ...

Mae and Hadley

Sue and Katie

Sue and Hadley





Annette and Doug

A few views of the incredible table.

Doug cuts the pies

Mom and Mae

Mel and Bentley

Katie and Hadley

Mom and I

 Great food, great company, great family ... what could be better for Thanksgiving? This is one we'll remember.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Dad's Duck

 Every family has something of this sort, some object with no value whatsoever but for its sentimentality. And yet it's the type of thing you keep forever, one of the most important objects you own.

 In our case, it's Dad's duck.

 Back when he was born in 1924, I can imagine my grandmother buying this little plastic object. It was wingless but for paint but now, 88 years later, it's still got two legs, held to the body by thin strings. It doesn't sit there on a flat bottom but wobbles on a rounded one. The bill is long gone. A piece of tape covers a crack on its left foot. I wouldn't know it was a duck but for the tiny tail. Was it meant to be used in a bathtub?

 And yet through the years, the plastic duck somehow took on the unlikely tradition of Christmas tree ornament. Each year, the duck would go into the branches of my grandparent's tree and then, when Dad married, it followed him along to his new household.

 When I first saw the duck, it was probably for my first Christmas in 1949. I'm sure I didn't think much of it. For its decorating value, I still don't.

 But every year, when we decorate our Christmas tree, the very first ornament I think of is Dad's duck. It looks sad, all worn out and falling apart as it is, and yet it is the most important ornament we have. We have nothing we hold in higher esteem than this dilapidated piece of plastic.

 In two days, Dad will have been gone for a year and a half. So the ornament now serves as an important link to him. I'd forget decorating for Christmas if it were left up to me. But this morning Mom opened the trunk and began pulling all the decorations out. She can't let it be. She has to decorate for Christmas.

 All I really cared about was Dad's duck. I placed it carefully at the base of the tree (we used to use it at the very peak of our real trees). It wouldn't seem like Christmas without it.

 And without Dad, it still won't.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Night Falls

 I love this time of day, when the sun has set and the world begins to quiet. The traffic slows, the dogs bed down, the world seems to pull the covers higher.

 This was actually the last photo I took last evening. I had finished watching sunset and walked towards the house from the back yard. As I stepped onto the porch, I looked up at the dinner bell, black itself but blackened further by being silhouetted against the dim south sky. The trees stood bare, bony fingers stretched skyward. In the middle, an almost-first quarter moon commanded a spot. I walked inside just as the air began to cool, the traffic began to slow, the barn lot dogs made for their meager houses.

 Yet moments before ...

 The tree besides Sam's lane always catches my gaze at sunset. I've watched it for nearly 26 years now and it is mine in appreciation if not actual title. The sky was smeared with orange ... not so bright, really, but diffuse, pastel, a soft fire burning in the distance.

 Looking closer at that central region, there was a spot, not so easily seen in this photo, where the sunlight had refracted through ice crystal clouds and glowed with a rainbow of colors. All was wiped across the sky by a broad brush, not carefully or precisely, but roughly and abstractly.

 Finally, not yet 5:30 pm (we are just a month from the winter solstice, thus the days are nearly as short as they'll get), the sun has dropped far enough below the horizon to begin losing its influence, withdrawing its light by degrees. Clouds which resemble a thin smoky haze become prominent well above the horizon. Farther overhead, the sky already takes on the darker shades of night.

 It is clouds that make this scene possible. A perfectly clear sky has none of this power.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sunflower Seed Bread

 We love homemade bread. As a kid, I remember Mom making loaves of traditional white bread. I marveled at the dough itself ... soft, warm and pliant to her touch. It seemed - no, it was - a living thing. I loved the yeasty smell, too. As the bread baked, the whole house took on a bakery scent.I drooled just waiting.

 In recent years we've used our automatic breadmaker to process the dough. Then we take the finished dough out, knead it a few times by hand, fold it carefully into a traditional loaf pan and let it rise a final time the old fashioned way. We prefer the normal horizontal loaf to the vertical loaf our breadmaker produces.

 But yesterday, hungry for homemade bread and having neither the time nor the inclination to mess with it, we just gathered the ingredients together, poured them into the breadmaker and stepped away. I forgot how pretty the finished loaf could be.

 The classic white loaf is no more than 3/4cups water, 2 cups flour, 1 tablespoon dry milk, 1-1/2 tablespoons sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon margarine and 1-1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast. To this we added about 1/4 cup of salted sunflower seeds (toasted, not raw).

 The breadmaker isn't fast. In fact the entire process from start to finish takes four hours. And yet, being totally hands-off, we can go about our business and come back when the breadmaker beeps. That was at 7 pm last evening.

 The loaf comes out of the breadmaker in this handled pan. It's hot! Because the loaf pan is non-stick coated, only the stirrer intrudes into the loaf of bread from the bottom. It takes a good rap to release it.

 We've never preferred the vertical shape of the loaf except when we are tired and lazy. I think the usual horizontal loaf is easier to slice, too. To make the task a little easier we always butter the outside of the loaf while it is hot. The crust absorbs the butter and softens; the rich, sweetness of the margarine only adds to the heavenly experience of home-baked bread.
 It was 9 pm before the loaf had cooled enough to bag. I slid it down into a zip-lock bag and left it sitting on our wooden cutting board. When Mom got up at 4 am, she took the first slice, toasted it and slathered it with butter. Now that's a good way to start the day.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Those First Cold Nights

  Nights dip now into the lower 20's. The days barely scratch 50° and then only if the sun is out for each hour. There has been a bit of sleet mixed in with the rain and a few errant snowflakes about but, in general, the weather has been quiet this fall.
 I walk each morning with the crunch of frost on new-fallen leaves beneath my feet.

 This sycamore leaf is fringed in white as the early morning sun first touches it. Within fifteen minutes (at most) it is merely wet. The colors of fall fade as the last leaves drop. The trees are now mostly bare.

Our sycamore is the last to lose its leaves. An oak, near the entrance to our driveway, is a close second. While the sycamore stays mostly green - there are a scattering of browns, too - the oak changes to a universal brown, with a leather-like texture. The oak drops its leaves all at once; the sycamore drops them in small lots, metering them out, not giving without a fight.

 As I walk besides Sam's field, weeds still stand tall, not yet broken by the winter wind. The seed heads collect frost, shine like diamonds as I pass. They have not succumbed to winter, merely been dusted with the idea,

 In the middle of the lane, where the tire tracks do not disturb the soil, weeds sprout throughout the growing season. What the mower missed, the cold nights trim. The tiny leaves curl against the cold in a last ditch effort to survive another few days. When the nights get this cold, they fail.

 I suppose I enjoy my walk more now than any time of year. If the wind is not blowing, I am not cold, no matter how far down the temperature drops. I, in fact, open my coat, let the heat escape, take my fingers from my pocket and dangle them at my side, slip the hood from my head, feel the steam rise.
 It is a quiet time with the fields themselves at rest. The last of the insects have been quieted: there is no clicking, no buzzing, no rhythmic drone. The business of life is secreted away, waiting.

 This swale, cut a month or more ago, betrays the mower's path, now etched with white. The grass seems to remember. The heavy wheels make their impression on the earth and are carried up through the stalks to be advertised even as winter nears.
 Mostly, I'm amazed at how low the sun already rides. She is far south of her summer height, casting long shadows even at midday. I walk with my stretched figure billowing behind me, a shadowy sail I carry wherever I go. It is as steady as I.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Cranberry Sauce

It's almost Thanksgiving and we're experimenting. At some time we cut a recipe out of a magazine for a Cranberry and Dried Cherry Sauce. Sounds good, huh?

 The ingredients are pretty simple:

1-12 ounce bag fresh cranberries
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 navel orange cut into small pieces (leave the skin on)
1/2 cup dried cherries
1/4 teaspoon salt

 Combine all ingredients. Cook medium low, stir frequently, for about 10 minutes. Cool before serving.

 The orange pieces make this sauce. Rather than buy dried cherries, we simply used cherry-flavored dried cranberries (Ocean Spray makes them). They're really perfect for this sauce.
 It takes a while to bring the mixture up to temperature and that's when I began the ten minute cooking time. The citrus and cranberries will produce liquid as they cook. Otherwise none is added.

 The final result is above ... about three cups worth of cranberry sauce. It will seem almost jelled as it cools and it will stiffen, too. It's a great tasting sauce, just in time for the holidays.