out and about in Portsmouth, VA

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On a recent and showery Saturday, we ventured down the peninsula to Portsmouth.  Our primary purpose was to visit the monthly Antiques to Flea Market, a free event held each month in the Middle Street parking garage.  We also planned on walking around the Olde Towne area and to find a place for lunch.  Like many of the cities in the area, there are many historical sites, some predating the Revolutionary war while others are related to the Civil war.  To learn more about these sites, stop by the Visitor’s Center and pick up a map for the self guided walking tour.

A good place to start is on the water front by taking a stroll along the sea wall.  The view of the Norfolk Shipyard and downtown Norfolk are just a part of what you will see there.  In warmer months, the Lightship Portsmouth museum is open for tours.  However, there are several other museums in the area and the ferry that travels across the Elizabeth River to the downtown Norfolk area to keep you busy.   If you are looking to grab lunch, venture over to High Street.  Both sides of the street in this shopping district are lined with just about every type of restaurant imaginable.  We took the recommendations of a nice family walking past us and ventured into the Bier Garden for some authentic Bavarian food in the hopes of taking the chill off.
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If the weather had been a little warmer and drier, we would have spent more time exploring the waterfront.  We thought about taking a ride on the ferry but it requires exact change ($1.75/$3.50 per person/round trip) which we did not have with us and because it was drizzly and cold, it did not seem like the best idea.
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At first glance, this ship does not look that big until you notice the tug boat out front.  It quickly provides a scale to judge the size and also makes the river seem so much larger as well.  Portsmouth is an old port and the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway begins with mile marker “0” in the water between Portsmouth and Norfolk.  
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A chance to ride the paddle boat ferry will be just one of the reasons we go back to Portsmouth.  The schedule is available in the Visitor’s Center, just remember to bring plenty of change and small bills to get on.


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Also available is a map of the historic homes in the area.  We took a short walk around looked at the houses.  If only it was a little warmer…


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This house was rather unique in the fact that the fenced in yard was huge.  We were in the process of having a picket fence installed in our backyard and this one held our attention, perhaps a little too long…
IMG_2410Blame it on this guy!  He followed us as we walked the length of the property and more than once, he jumped up and barked at us.  We stopped and petted him a few times, his tag told us his name is Crosby and he was very friendly.  Don’t you just love the bow tie?  See you next time Crosby!

brown butter and vanilla bean weekend cake; a tuesdays with dorie post

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Another dreary, rainy weekend, but it still put a smile on my face.  For a change, I would have perfectly diffused light to take photos.  As I rummaged through drawers searching for the exact linens needed, I came across an envelope.  Tucked inside was a pretty little square of Swedish bobbin lace that my mother-in-law brought home from one of her trips to Europe.  For years, that envelope has made appearances as I shuffled things from drawer to drawer and today, with a flash of inspiration I can only blame on the rain, I thought it would be the perfect stencil for my cake.

The recipe for the cake calls for baking it in a 9″x5″ loaf pan but I wanted to make just half the batter-which is still too much for the two of us.  After picking through boxes and pans, I settled on a small granite-ware skillet which would make a nice, round cake; a perfectly boring round cake…Luckily, with that flash of brilliance and a tub of powdered sugar, the cake would be anything but ordinary in appearance. 
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While I have no idea how bobbin lace is made, I am envious of those who are skilled in the craft.  The photos I have seen show slender, intricately carved bobbins made from wood or bone and weighted with spangles of glass beads as well as pins, lots of pins.  The work is intricate and obviously time-consuming but the results are lovely and delicate; a true work of art.


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A lucky break-the square fit perfectly over the cake and left very little space uncovered.  The hearts are my favorite part of the design.  The way the threads between them make a star or a flower depends on how you look at it.


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Sifting powdered sugar using a large wire mesh is the best method.  If tapped gently, you can cover a large area with a fine layer of sugar.


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Now for the tricky part, removing the lace without ruining the pattern.  This is a one and done method.  If it doesn’t work the first time, it is unfortunate because once there is some sugar on the surface, you can not move the lace and try again.  With fingers crossed, I gently lifted the lace making an effort not to smear the design or dump any of the excess sugar off the lace and onto the surface of the cake.


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It truly was my lucky day!  Not only did the design transfer well, I was able to lift the lace without incident!!!


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The flower pattern between the hearts transferred nicely and so did the delicate scalloped edge.  But that square in the center…I just love the little beads of sugar and that barely there dusting in the center.  This may not be what the lace was intended for but I can say that I will use it again.


IMG_2959It almost seemed sacrilegious to cut it but I have no will power where cake is concerned!  So how did it taste?  Well, the recipe calls for browning the butter and I did that, but I think I should have gone a little further with it.  Since my supply of vanilla beans is really sparse and I am not sure of a reasonably priced local source, I decided to go with vanilla extract and because we did not have any rum, I used the next best thing, bourbon.  In my opinion, it could use more flavor and I do not think it is worth sacrificing a vanilla bean to get that extra punch.  Personally, I think a little more butter, maybe an extra tablespoon, browned to a color no less than my tabletop in the photo would help add flavor and a little more moisture.  Also, the added fat can help prevent the gluten from developing as the flour is mixed in; my cake had tunnels in it that I am sure were caused by over mixing when I whisked in the flour as directed by the recipe.  The amount of vanilla extract initially seemed excessive but now, maybe not, however, it was strong enough that the bourbon was not noticeable.  In the future, I might cut the vanilla by 25% and increase the bourbon by 50%.  This is a recipe that I can see myself using again when I need a simple cake and because it is basically a blank slate, I can also see it being the base of a shortcake or part of a trifle.  And lastly, serving it plain with a simple dusting of sugar is good but I have a feeling it could also stand up to being slathered with buttercream frosting.

If you enjoy reading my Tuesdays with Dorie posts, be sure to visit the website and look for the “LYL” post to see how the other bakers made out with the recipe, and if you are feeling left out, JOIN US!!!  Pick up a copy of Baking Chez Moi or Baking with Julia and bake along with us as we work towards our goal of baking every recipe in the two books.

making the most of your morning cuppa; starbucks grounds for gardens program

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Our passion for gardening is no secret.  We joined the Master Gardener program in 2008 and became certified members in Nashville.  We quickly began transforming our yard into a small farm by adding fruit trees, herb plants, multiple vegetable beds and a beehive and all along, we were composting everything we could to help enrich the soil as well as improve the heavy clay structure.  It was a labor of love and at times, coffee.  Okay, I know that did not make sense, a labor of coffee???  Yes, coffee.  We discovered that a Starbucks store near our home in Nashville would segregate the coffee grinds and place them in a dedicated bin for composting.  Anyone who wanted to go around to the back of the store could take as many bags as they needed and then use them in the garden to help improve the soil.  It was a true win-win because as your garden flourished, Starbucks reduced the amount of trash from the store being land filled.  Then almost as suddenly as we discovered the source of grounds, the program was eliminated.  There was never a real explanation, we can only suspect that the property management did not care for the number of people rummaging through the trash in search of black gold.

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Needless to say, we were disappointed and moved on to other sources of compostable items to support our growing need in the yard at home.  Over the years, we would see the occasional poster advertising that grounds were available while we were out and about in the Nashville area.  However, when we would question the employees about the actual availability, we were often met with blank stares, a clueless response or simply the declaration, “oh we don’t really do that here.”  On a rare occasion, an employee would inform us that if we wanted to, we could bring them a bucket, they would happily save them but we would have to come and get them that day or they would be thrown away along with the bucket.  Again, we moved on, it just did not seem like we could make it work without having to make multiple trips and phone calls and so on.

Then in September 2014, we relocated to Williamsburg, VA.  It was a bit traumatic to leave our garden behind.  All the work, the plants, the compost…Reality hit hard when we realized we would have to start all over again.  Even worse was the realization that our new yard, while smaller, square in shape and flatter (a big plus in our book) was built on solid clay.  The soil is so compacted that a small amount of rain turns the yard into a squishy mess that leaves you feeling as if you are walking on wet sponges.  There was no way we could build beds in this soil without massive amounts of soil amendments.  That was not only going to be a back-breaking amount of work, it was going to be expensive.  We quickly realized we would have to do what we could with what we already had; truckloads of leaves from the trees in the yard.  To prepare the beds, we first mulched the leaves by running them over with the lawn mower.  Bag by bag, we formed piles of leaves all over the front yard so that they could begin the process of composting.  Our front yard quickly began looking like it was covered in graves.  We actually considered making a few fake headstones for Halloween and I told more than one person that this was what we did to the neighbors we didn’t like…

However, leaves alone are not enough and despite the fact that we had more than 20 large piles of leaves, once fully composted, they would not provide enough material to work with.  To supplement the leaves, I began composting our kitchen scraps but in all honesty, two people do not generate that much to work with.  While out shopping one morning, we stopped at Starbucks for a cup of coffee and lo and behold, a bucket with bags of coffee grounds greeted us as we stood in line waiting to place our order.  Could it be that the program was not dead after all????  Apparently, it is not and we have been going back to this particular store on a regular basis for grounds.  Sometimes, they are in the mylar bag that the beans are shipped in but mostly, they are in 13 gallon trash bags.  The employees are quite used to gardeners coming in to retrieve the grounds and they have a small trash pail dedicated for the collection of used grounds.   Now that we have a source, we make 3 or 4 trips to the store each week to pick up bags and at this point, I estimate we have used about 300 pounds of them in our beds and compost pile.

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And because I am not stupid, I expect some people to criticize me for using non-organic materials in my gardens.  Go ahead.  There is always someone waiting to rain on your parade and I am sure I will hear a few negative comments about this.  If not because of the conventional growing methods used in the coffee then it will be because I am giving a massive company free publicity.  So let me just say this, I am not getting paid to say this, no where in this article to I mention a love of their coffee, just the availability of free used coffee grinds.  As someone who is currently unemployed, I cannot afford to buy the amendments needed for the soil in our yard and I have to use what I can get for free.  We are not the only ones in town collecting the grounds.  On more than one occasion, another gardener has beat us to the store and we have walked away empty-handed which ultimately means that hundreds and hundreds of pounds of coffee grounds are going to be composted rather than land filled; that in itself is a big plus for the environment.  
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The plus of coffee grounds added to compost is simple, they add nitrogen and nothing helps heat up a compost pile faster than nitrogen.  It doesn’t stop there, they also add much-needed minerals that can help your garden grow.  Sunset magazine did some research on using Starbucks coffee grounds in a garden and they actually had them tested.  It seems that adding them to the garden really is a good thing as long as they do not make up more than 35% of the soil content.  If you would like to read the article, here is a link.  
IMG_2409Since our garden is being built in our front yard, we are putting down sheets of cardboard to kill the lawn first.  The coffee is being spread over the cardboard and then it is topped off with a thick layer of leaves.  This first year, we will be using straw bales to garden in because the leaves are not yet composted.  To do this, we will simply place the bales on top of the leaves.  As the seasons progress, the leaves will continue to break down and by the time winter returns, the straw bales will also begin to degrade.  At that time, we will simply cut the cords off the bales, spread the rotting straw over the leaves and continue the process of layering on top of the clay soil. Eventually, we will have some beautiful compost that we can turn into the clay to lighten the structure and allow for better drainage.

Right now, we are planning for the arrival of our hens.  We ordered our pullets this week and will be purchasing the coop and the run next week.  Once the girls have matured enough to live outside, they will not only provide us with eggs, they will be supplying the garden with fresh manure.  But because the best compost has a variety of materials in it, coffee grounds from Starbucks will still be collected and added.  So, do your garden some good, ask your local coffeehouse  (whichever one you choose) to give you grounds for your garden and get out there and grow something!

If you are the least bit interested, read about Starbucks plan for sustainability and global responsibility here.  If nothing else, it is food for thought and perhaps the start of some meaningful conversations.

scratching one off my baking bucket list; kouign amann

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While I cannot recall exactly when I first heard of Kouign Amann, I knew that when I came across them again this week that I had to finally make them.  The photos not only left me drooling as only a pastry chef could, they intrigued me as well.  So many flaky layers of dough and sugar…As with most other baked items that call for a laminated dough, kouign amann got pushed to the back burner where it languished on my bucket list of things I wanted to learn how to make.  Then, while passing time and flipping through my twitter feed, I saw a link to an easy version and immediately clicked on it.  The link took me to the wonderful website of Irvin Lin, Eat the Love and his beautiful photo tutorial on kouign amann.  After reading through the post and taking a quick inventory of pantry, I knew this would be my entertainment for the day.

Read through the tutorial and you will learn how Irvin came to this recipe; after taking a class on laminated doughs, he developed this recipe in order to simplify the process.  He also did something I frequently do, he turned to a book written by Nick Malgieri.  In Nick’s The Modern Baker, there is a kouign amann recipe that consists of a simpler method for laminating dough.  However, Irvin simplified it even further by using what is commonly referred to as a blitz method.  While not exactly a new method, it is also not the most common shortcut for making a laminated dough but for the novice, it is a game changer.   Even so, with a little investigating, you will find this method being used by professionals too.  Two such examples I have come across are in a danish dough recipe from Baking with Julia  contributed to the book by Beatrice Ojakangas and in a puff pastry recipe from Dessert Circus by Jacques Torres.  Both books were released in the late 1990’s, so as you can see, this quick mixing method has been around for years.  To take advantage of this shortcut, you will make a loose dough with large pieces of cold fat throughout.  The dough is then given a series of folds and turns and if done properly, it does a great job of simulating the traditional method of folding in a block of butter to make an extremely forgiving and nearly foolproof dough.

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What I really loved about the tutorial was the information Irvin gives.  He tells you to brush away as much of the flour as possible and you really must take his advice.  Invest in a natural bristle brush and keep it in your workspace for just this purpose.  If you leave the flour behind, it will form a barrier between the layers of dough and rather than have a thick series of flaky layers you will have three thin and rather distinct layers which are more crispy than flaky.


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This is the blitz method at its finest!  By eliminating the traditional method of rolling the dough out, folding it up like a book and repeating 3-6 times, you fold the dough in thirds and roll it up.  Although a bit crude looking, that is actually a lot of layers of fat chunks and dough which will become many flaky layers in the oven.  This step alone is enough to make me want to hug Irvin and I am a professional pastry chef!!!

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The prepared dough is given a rest in the fridge and then covered in sugar, rolled, folded and rolled again in more sugar before being cut and placed into pans to rise until it is time to be baked.


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The worst part about moving is figuring out which box your stuff is in.  I still cannot find my small muffin pans and the one I chose has only 9 cups in it-some day I need to figure out why that pan only has 9 cups.  To bake off the rest of the pastries, I chose little brioche pans.  Can I just say that unless you want to have a hard time getting them out of the little pans, do not do this.  They gave them the perfect shape but they were so hard to get out of the pan!


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Can you see the layers?  And the sugar?


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And here they are, hot out of the oven.  It was so hard to wait.  Heed the warning, get them out of the cups before they cool off or they will stick.  If this happens, put them back into the hot oven for 2-3 minutes to warm the sugar and they will lift out of the cups.


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Just look at all the caramelized flaky goodness
IMG_2591A beautiful way to spend an afternoon and not only cross something off the bucket list but also get to eat!

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They are every bit of richness that the photo suggests, try them with a cup of hot, dark coffee or strong tea and if you like, do as my husband did, dunk, dunk and dunk some more…
IMG_2604That crust on the top-pure sugary goodness!  Thanks to Irvin Lin for teaching this old girl something new.  For the complete recipe and tutorial, be sure to visit his website by following this link.

out and about in Smithfield, VA

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One of the exciting things that come with moving to a new city is what you discover in your own backyard.  When we chose our new home, we focused on location because it was important to us that Darry not have a long commute to work.  His schedule is erratic at times and 14 hour days are not unusual, a long commute was not an option.  We were lucky and found this home quickly and now he has a 3.9 mile commute to work each day.

The other added perk to our location, exactly that; the location.  We are within the Historic Triangle which means we are a stones throw from the Historic Jamestown settlement, Colonial Williamsburg and Yorktown.  However, there is so much more here besides the very first Colonial Settlement and Revolutionary War battlefields.  We are located near the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay but also between the York River and the James River.  And where there are rivers, bays and oceans, there are a multitude of cities, large and small and the Middle Peninsula of Virginia is no exception.

As we settle in here, we venture further out and recently spent an afternoon in Smithfield.  If that name sounds familiar, it should because just about everyone who eats ham has heard of Smithfield hams.  However, when we headed that way to spend the day in the quaint downtown area, we didn’t have ham on our minds.  For us, it was an excuse to take the Jamestown-Scotland ferry.   

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We were pleasantly surprised to find out that the ferry is only 2 miles from our house, you can drive your car right onto it and it is free.  Yes, I said free.  You would think that it would be hard to get on the ferry because of the affordable price but we did not have to wait long.  The schedule has the two ferries criss-crossing back and forth several times per hour and since it is a short trip, about 15-20 minutes, you will not wait long.  The view from the ferry is typical, shoreline, houses, trees and water birds but the one thing that sets it apart, a sweeping view of the first settlement, the true birthplace of our nation, Jamestown.  If you are new to the area, you will also be surprised by the width of the James river, it is about a mile wide here.

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Since it was such a sunny day, we got out of the car and took in the view from the side of the ferry.  Darry and Devon had fun as I took photos.  Hard to believe it was winter and we were wearing thin jackets.  After a quick voyage across the river, we landed in Scotland and drove on towards Smithfield which was another 15 miles or so.

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Smithfield has a thriving art community and sights like this are all over the downtown area.  Look for the pig statues that have each been painted by local artists.

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Since it was near Christmas, many of the businesses were completely decked out and it added to the festive feel.  The downtown streets are lined with Victorian homes, many of which have been completely restored.  We enjoyed walking and looking-it was like being back in San Francisco or Cape May, two of my favorite places to look at Victorian houses.

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Parking the car was easy; on the street or in a lot, it was free for a couple of hours and that was plenty of time to stroll around, visit shops and have lunch in the Smithfield Gourmet Bakery Cafe.  Do not let the bakery part of the name fool you, it was a cafe and we had some great sandwiches and salads.  The cafe prepares everything from scratch and that includes the breads.  We went home with a loaf of their Honey Almond bread, a large fluffy sandwich bread that made wonderful toast.

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And then it was time to head home.  We caught the ferry just as the sun began to set.  Again we chose to stand out on the deck and we were lucky enough to spot a pair of Bald Eagles resting on a platform in the river.

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The sun set quickly as we traveled across the river towards home.  There are many points of interest between the ferry landing and the city of Smithfield and we will go to each one after the winter closures end and the weather improves.

european rye bread; a tuesdays with dorie post

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Rye bread is one of those things people either love or hate.  In my opinion, I think it is more likely related to whether or not you like caraway seeds.  Most of it would probably be better off labeled caraway bread since the distinct flavor of the seeds is all you can taste in commercially prepared rye bread.  However, as a lover of toast, rye bread, loaded with caraway and slathered in salted butter, is one of my favorite breakfasts.

This week, the Tuesdays with Dorie bakers are sharing their experiences with European Rye Bread from Baking with Julia.  If you recall, we made a similar recipe from the book, Pumpernickel loaves, a while back.  Both recipes were contributed by Lauren Groveman and they each call for the unusual step of hanging the loaf in a sling for the final rise of the shaped loaf.

IMG_2874The bread is fairly easy to mix and since it is a rye bread, the ingredient list is simple.  The only confusing part about it, finding the proper rye flour.  Allow me to wish you well with this endeavor.  Every rye bread recipe I read calls for a specific type of rye flour and not all millers produce them equally.  Essentially, the amount of whole grain used in the flour is the difference and if you would like a better understanding of what each type of rye flour is, this chart from the Whole Grains Council may help you understand it all.   While the chart does explain things, they also make it a point to mention, repeatedly, that not all millers produce equal products; the chart is more of a suggestion than a standard.  As for my bread, I have only been able to find Hodgson Mill 100% stone ground rye flour which according to the chart makes it a dark rye flour.

IMG_2451The whole grain flour gives the dough a lot of texture and it also makes it a bit denser than I like.  Working with a half batch of dough, I made just one loaf and I stuck to the recipe pretty closely.  Bread baking is not really my strong point and I really wanted to make a loaf as described by the head note of the recipe, with a brittle crust that snaps into small flakes and a soft, slightly moist and a little springy inside.

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Just as the recipe instructed, I hung the shaped loaf in a towel sling and heated the oven.  As the bread hung in kitchen, it continued to rise and I could see it splitting and I knew it would not get any better in the oven.  Rather than get mad, I decided to take this as a lesson and make another half batch.  This time though, I would make a few changes.

First thing I did was to cut back on the amount of rye flour.  Since I was using whole grain, I knew it would be denser and I figured a little less would have to do.  Second change I made, a lot more kneading but not all at once.  After adding the majority of the flour to the yeast and water, I mixed the dough until it came together and formed a ball which took about 2-3 minutes and then I simply turned off the machine and let it sit there for about 10 minutes.  Once the dough was allowed to sit and rest, I resumed kneading on medium-low speed for about 12-14 minutes.  To be sure I had kneaded it enough, I attempted a window pane test and while it wasn’t perfect, I could see a huge improvement from the first loaf.

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After hanging this loaf in the sling, here it is on the peel just before I put it in the oven.  This time, I gave it a wash of straight egg whites-no water and plenty of caraway seeds.  Just before I slid it into the oven, I gave it a few slashes and crossed my fingers; it couldn’t hurt…

IMG_2466As you can see from the photo, the top loaf is little more than a train wreck.  It split all over and really wasn’t very pretty.  The second loaf is on the bottom and while it is not perfect, it is easy to see that it worked out much better.  This is destined to be one of those recipes I return to multiple times in the hope of getting it right.

IMG_2463The last thing about the recipe that I found difficult to follow from reading it, the shaping method.  Rolling, stand it on the side, pinch, poke, and so on.  Hospital corners-we are talking about bread, right?  For my second loaf, on the left, I just ignored all the fussy instructions and tried to use a little common sense instead.  Looks like it worked out okay, it seems to have held the shape better.  To see the inside of the loaf, refer to the very first photo above, the second loaf is on the left and I think I like the color of that bread better than the first loaf which is on the right.

To see what the other bakers came up with, be sure to visit the Tuesdays with Dorie website and look for the LYL (leave your links) page.

why I garden

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Why do I garden?  There are so many reasons to have a garden but in truth, mine are selfish.  Mostly, I do it because I want to control my food.  To eat only vegetables and fruits that are grown naturally and freshly picked is my goal and growing them myself accomplishes this.  Having the desired varieties of produce at an affordable price is also part of the equation.


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Ego, mainly my own, is also a factor.  There is nothing more satisfying than taking a stroll out to the garden in my yard and filling a basket with vegetables I have grown.  It takes setting goals to a new level.  It can change your entire outlook on life.  As a gardener you must be an optimist; you must believe that simply putting a seed into soil and watering it will result in a plant you can pick and eat.


IMG_2181You must also be able to see the beauty in what is merely a plant.  To surround myself with beauty and to indulge in it and the sense of calm and serenity it bestows upon me.  It is the act of feeding the soul along with the body and the ego that keeps me in the garden.  Plants do not love or hate, they simply thrive or not.  As gardeners, we do the loving; we provide the plant what it needs and then we eat it and the plant in turn gives us what we need to thrive.

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Gardening has given me hope for my future; if I plant it, it may one day give me fruit.  Personally, I am dreaming of peaches and figs.


IMG_0195To reach down into the soil and pull up fully formed vegetables that I can roast or pickle is just part of why I garden.  To have enough to share with friends and neighbors is another reason and I always plant more than I need.

IMG_0298With the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “to forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves,”  I continue gardening so that I do not forget that “to plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow,” Audrey Hepburn.  And those are just some of the reasons why I garden.