Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Holiday giving: Popover kit!

by June

Who doesn't love eggs fresh from the hens? And all the better if they come with warm holiday wishes and the makings for popovers.

One of our great pleasures is sharing food we love. For the holidays, we often try to pack up a mini-meal in a basket. Time is scant for everyone, and if we can give friends a tasty meal—and also help them shift a few minutes toward relaxing by the tree—well, that's two kinds of nourishment, isn't it?

Christmas breakfast is one of our most anticipated meals of the year. (We'll show you why tomorrow.) It delights us when we can contribute a little something to another family's holiday morning. Last year, when our hens were in the full vigor of laying (as they are not this year), we made popover kits.

We mixed a cup and a quarter of flour into a treat bag with a quarter-teaspoon of salt.

We nestled three eggs next to a sweet loaf of apricot-orange-cranberry bread (for nibbling while the popovers baked).

We added lemon curd (from Amy's yummy recipe) or our cherry-pie jam and tucked it all in a tin with instructions  (see below) for how to mix up the popovers and bake them.

Holiday-morning Popover Instructions

 In addition to the kit you will need…

1 ¼ cup milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into dabs
a muffin tin

 Preheat oven to 400 degrees and set rack in the middle.

Butter or spray the muffin cups with oil.

Pour the dry mix into a blender. Add the three eggs and milk. Blend a minute or two – until the batter is bubbly and about the same consistency as heavy cream. (You can do this the night before, but let it come to room temperature before you use it.)

Stick the EMPTY muffin tin into the oven for two minutes. Then place a small dab in each muffin cup, return to oven until the butter melts and begins to bubble, about ONE MINUTE.

Fill each cup half full with the batter and bake 20 minutes, then reduce temperature to 300 degrees and continue baking 20 minutes. (Watch carefully toward the end.)

Makes 12 popovers. Serve with butter, jam, and spreads like lemon curd.

ENJOY…with love from all of us at Four Green Acres, including our flock of chickens.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The work of their hands

by June
Elves are busy here. Our daughters enter into the merrymaking with verve, and that's a very good thing. They have taken over most of the cookie baking (and the washing up). They untangle the lights and feed them up to me as I circle the tree on the stepladder. They wrap packages, pack them into boxes, and weigh the boxes for shipping. They sew gifts for one another.

I cherish watching them work. Their hands are beautiful in this mother's eyes. Their fingers are graceful and careful. I remember when those fingers first gripped a fat crayon; now they can maneuver through delicate stitches. It is this season that provides important markers of their passage through childhood. Each year they manage more on their own.

Homeschooling is especially dear to me in these crazy-busy weeks, not just because it gives us the flexibility to stop the crazy-busy and go sing-along with "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" at Longfellow's home church. The tree is twinkling as we do math, and I get to hear their first impressions of Truman Capote's exquisite prose as each of them wraps up her first read of A Christmas Memory.

Fern's gift for mama last year
Blossom's gift for mama last year

 This is the season when I feel how far they've come in the last year. We take the official, state-required measure of their progress each spring, but it's when the girls are planning and executing their Christmas surprises that the progress makes itself felt.

Fern's surprise from Blossom, Christmas 2009: Doozie the Hen
They are growing up, our Blossom and Fern. But on Christmas morning they still have the giddy delight of the littlest children. It is delight not only in receiving but especially in giving what they have made with their own hands. I love to watch their hands do the work, but, on Christmas morning, it's their faces I watch. Oh, the joy.

Blossom loves Pickles the Polar Bear, made by Fern
Christmas 2009; hat also by Fern

Saturday, December 4, 2010

'Tis the season for great expectations

by June

December is the month of making—presents, food, memories. My wish is always to make gifts that light up my dears. Last year I set about my work and ended up making myself a gift that I will treasure forever. It was the gift of a lesson learned the bleary-eyed, head-achey way.

About October, I set out to make a Disappearing Nine Patch quilt top for each of my daughters.

I cherish the family quilts I have been given through the years. One was made by my great-grandmother (the original Blossom!). Another was made for my beloved Great-aunt Ella to celebrate her marriage. My mother has given me several. I wanted to share the beauty of quilting with my daughters.

My idea was that the girls and I would spend the winter months quilting together. I set Birch to work on quilting frames, and I gathered fabric from dresses and jammies and blankets I had made for Blossom and Fern when they were babies. I cut pieces out of their crib sheets. I clipped squares from Birch's old shirts and from scraps of my wedding dress.

Night after night, I cut blocks. Then I sewed them together and began cutting them apart and rearranging them into the quilt blocks.

My hours got later and later. I enjoyed the work less. By day, I would shut myself in my cubby. I would hear the rest of the family laughing. And I would want to be with them instead of crouched over my crotchety sewing machine.

 Then the girls needed the machine for their Christmas projects. I worked as their assistant, and we talked as the needle thrummed. I ripped out seams that went wrong and told the girls about my mother ripping out seams for me. "Always have someone nearby to help with mistakes," I advised them. "You don't want to be alone with a mistake. You want to be with someone who loves you." The girls beamed as their projects took shape. They would plant kisses on my temple as I deployed the seam ripper. We giggled about our foibles.

It was about then I realized that these moments were the very ones I had fantasized about when I came up with the quilting-by-the-fire gift idea. We were already having the gift—spending time together, passing along family traditions.

That's when I decided enough was enough. For Christmas, the girls would get the quilt blocks, and then the three of us would sew the blocks together. Someday we'd get to the quilting-by-the-fire part.

I down-sized my great expectations. But since I still wanted Christmas morning to have sparkle, I made the girls quilted stockings, a variation on the ones I made for Birch and me when we were newlyweds.

Those quilted stockings will be a reminder to the girls every Christmas of their lives. Their mother loves them. Those stockings will also be a reminder to me. Slow down. Enjoy what you are doing this moment. This moment is the gift.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Stillness: Red, green and sparkle

by June
One of the reasons we ended up in Maine was winter. The snow fell, and it fell deeply, and a body had no choice but to huddle inside by the fire between bracing forays to haul in firewood or to ski through the fragrant woods.

 For me, winter was time to quiet down and think. It was time to read, time to create.

It's not that it doesn't snow anymore. It does. But for the past few years, winter hasn't tiptoed in around Thanksgiving with a deep, hushed snowfall that transforms the landscape for a whole season. The snows do eventually come—but often with sleet or ice or rain. Then it all melts. Going out for firewood, even in February, we track mud into the house.

As long as the ground remains bare, the gardener in me feels compelled to keep tending our ambitions for our place. But I'm worn out. At Thanksgiving dinner, I heard myself going on and on and on about how all I wanted to do over the long weekend was read. Julia Glass's new novel, The Widower's Tale, was practically glowing on my nightstand, and all I could think about was curling up with it.

But it never happened. 

Instead, I laid out the new orchard and hauled compost to prepare the ground for the new trees. I added more mulch to the blueberry plants. I cleared some brush. It's all good work. Yet I long for the good work that comes of growing still and listening to the thoughts that whisper around the sound of the crackling fire.

That book is still waiting for me. And even as we hurtle into the season of merrymaking (emphasis on making), I am promising myself a gift of stillness—whether the snows come or not.

What are you promising yourself this season?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mother to daughters: The secrets of flaky pie crust

by June
Our daughters love being in the kitchen. Before they could walk, they'd scoot in on their bottoms. (Crawling was too low-down for them: Who can see anything while lying on her tummy?) We kept a cabinet filled with cooking utensils just for them. As Birch and I rattled away at the stove, they would bang pots with wooden spoons. Their first Thanksgiving, we prepared the feast with them riding in backpacks and watching like baby owls over our shoulders. Later, Grandpa Hickory made them a double-size step-up, so they could safely work with us. If we made bread, they helped knead. If we made cakes, they sifted flour and helped with the frosting. And noodles...they've rolled a lot of noodles.

As I got ready to make pie crusts for this Thanksgiving, the girls appeared at my side. "Can I help?" Blossom asked.

I cupped her face in my hands and asked, "Do you know what the secret of great pie crust is?"

"No," she said, "but your hands are cold."

"Exactly!" I cried. "Cold hands are the secret of great pie crust." The idea is to get the butter all the way into the oven still in its solid state. When it finally melts away, it will leave behind air pockets that are the signature of a flaky crust. And a flaky crust is what we're after.

Fern and Blossom have very warm hands (probably from all that goat cuddling). So our pie-crust adventure began with a cold-water rinse. We also added ice cubes to a little bowl of water and set that aside.

Then we put two cups of flour (after leveling with a knife) into the bowl of a food processor and pulsed it two times with one-quarter teaspoon of salt.

Then we chunked up ten-and-two-thirds tablespoons of butter and loaded the chunks into the bowl with the flour. Here, the important thing was to cut the butter into the flour without creating heat from the spinning blade. A series of quick pulses (about fifty) turned the flour and butter into what we call butter crumbs. (We sometimes add a tablespoon of sugar if we're making the crust for a sweet pie, but we only pulse a time or two to mix it into the butter crumbs.)

 Next we separated an egg yolk from the white and beat it into three tablespoons of the ice water. We sloshed this down the chute of the food processor.

We pulsed just until the butter crumbs and egg mixture began to cling together in a clump.

We tumped the dough clump onto a square of wax paper and cut it into two sections. We quickly—with our cold, cold hands—gathered it into two circular-ish patties and wrapped each patty in its own square of wax paper. These went into the fridge for twenty minutes (though we could have held them there a couple of days if we had zipped them it into an air-tight bag).

After the dough chunks were chilled, we patted flour onto both sides of what Fern has dubbed the pie-crust suitcases. (Every pie maker should have at least two of these convenient pouches.) We put a dough patty in each one and began to rock a rolling pin across the stiff dough until it began to flatten out into a larger and larger circle. It was hard going at first, which is as it should be if the dough is thoroughly chilled.

As the dough thinned, it was important to roll from the center, then turn the wheel of dough, then roll from the center again. When it was roughly the size we need (and we eyeball everything at this point), we began to feather any gaping edges together by just rolling with one end of the pin.

Then the two flat discs of dough, still in their suitcases, went onto a round pizza pan and back into the fridge for another twenty minutes (at least).

Finally, the bottom crust got unzipped from its pouch. We peeled off the top layer of plastic then flipped the crust over the pie plate. Because the dough was cold enough, the bottom plastic peel away cleanly, leaving the crust draped over the pie plate. Then we gently nudged the cold dough into the bottom of the pie plate and filled it with our pie filling.

The top crust then covered the bottom, and we tucked its edges down along the bottom crust's edges, and then pinched  so that the bottom crust's top edge was sandwiched in the fold of the top crust. We crimp quickly into a fluted edge. Even with cold hands, we tried to touch the dough as little as possible.

We painted it with milk.

We sprinkled it with sugar.

We pierced it so steam could escape.

Then, since it was an apple pie, it went into the oven at 425 degree Fahrenheit for about thirty minutes. Next, it got turned down to 325 degrees for another thirty. We had to watch carefully to make sure it wasn't getting too brown too fast. When it was done, the pie filling was bubbling out like warm jam, and the crust was golden brown with a crackling glaze of sugar.

There is no trick for waiting until the pie is completely cool before cutting it. So we didn't even try.