pineapple upside-down slab cake

IMG_8209Every month, our Master Gardener group has a potluck dinner that precedes our meeting.  Each member brings a dish to feed about 8-10 people and I always bring cake.  My original plan was to make an apple cake to use a few leftover apples, but when I went to the grocery store, pineapples were on sale.  My plans quickly changed.

If you have spent any time on the internet looking at dessert recipes, you have seen recipe after recipe for slab pies.  Honestly, I have seen too many.  Yes, they are a little easier than a typical pie but I felt it was time for a change.  As I planned my dessert for the dinner, I decided to double it and bake it in a roasting pan; an upside-down sheet cake.  The result, a big slab of cake to feed a crowd.

One very important note to all of you bakers, this recipe is formulated by weights!  Cups are great but can vary from set to set as well as from baker to baker since everybody has their own way of filling them.  By using weights, you get exactly what you need!  Purchasing a scale is easy, they can be found in most stores that sell baking equipment and are relatively cheap, mine cost me $15 and I use it a lot!

IMG_8195To make a really good pineapple upside-down cake, you must use a fresh pineapple.  While canned fruit will work in a pinch, it just does not have the flavor of a fresh pineapple.  If you do not want to mess with cleaning a fresh one, look in the refrigerated section of the produce department in the grocery store.  Most stores will stock fresh pineapple that has been peeled and cored, keep in mind that it will also cost at least double the price.

Another reason to buy a whole fruit, the crown.  Pineapple tops, if removed correctly, can be rooted and grown and in about 2 years, you will actually get a fruit.  Before you cut the fruit, grab the top and twist until it releases and breaks free.  You will get a little pointed knob on the bottom.  Set it aside for now and carefully trim away all of the skin and eyes using a serrated knife.  Cut the fruit in half, from top to bottom, and then cut each piece in half.  You will have a somewhat triangular piece of fruit and the core will be at the pointed end.  Using your knife, cut the core away in one long strip.  Lay the piece down and slice the fruit into 3/8 of an inch thick.  Take all of the little scraps and small pieces and chop them up, you will need 5 ounces, about 2/3 cup, for the cake recipe.  Be sure to use the ugly pieces for this!

IMG_8191Use a roasting pan that is 10 inches by 13 inches or use a rectangular cake pan of a similar size as long as the sides are close to two inches high.  Grease the pan well and pour in the caramel.  Tilt the pan to spread it evenly across the bottom and then layer in the slices in any pattern that suits you.  For my cake, I chose rows simply because they would act as a cutting guide for the person who would be slicing the cake and it worked out beautifully.

IMG_8211When the cake comes out of the oven, it is important that you let it sit for 10 minutes before unmolding it or the fruit will stick to the pan.  The caramel is boiling at that point and it needs to cool a bit to form a bond with the fruit and the cake.  If you wait too long, you will need to return it to the oven to heat it up again, so this step is not one that you want to lose track of.  Set your timer for 10 minutes when you take it from the oven and wait for it!  Place a sheet tray or serving platter over the cake and invert it.  The cake should release immediately and fall right out onto the platter.  Allow it to completely cool off before slicing or the cake will crumble.

IMG_8220The perfect blend of spice cake and caramelized fruit!

IMG_8200While your cake cools, let’s get that crown taken care of!  Gently pull off the leaves of the crown until you reveal what looks like roots.  Believe it or not, they are roots!  When you have a nice layer of them that goes all the way around the pointed end, place it in a glass of water.

IMG_8207Keep it near a bright window and be sure to change the water frequently so that it does not get moldy or fermented.  If all goes well, you will have roots that stretch down into the water and you can plant it in a pot.  Use a light soil, one that will not hold water and make sure it is in a warm, sunny spot.  It will take a long time to grow a fruit, be patient!  For more information, here is a good link on growing pineapples.

This method has worked for me in the past, and it has also failed.  The good news is that pineapples are affordable and you can experiment with allowing it to dry out and plant it directly into soil as well as rooting in water!  Look for the grocery store to have a sale, this one was $1.89, the peeled/cored ones were $5.99!

Pineapple Upside-Down Slab Cake

serves about 36

Please note, this cake can be baked in one roasting pan, 10″ x 13″ or in two 10″ cake pans or cast iron skillets.  The recipe is also easily divided in half since the ingredients are measured by weight!  Cup measurements are included but are approximate amounts and may yield slightly different results.

topping

1 ripe pineapple, peeled and sliced as described above

4 ounces unsalted butter

4 ounces dark brown sugar (1/2 cup)

5-1/2 ounces light honey (1/2 cup)

cake

8 ounces unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

11-1/2 ounces granulated sugar (1-2/3 cup)

8 ounces dark brown sugar (1 cup)

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 large eggs

1 pound and 6 ounces all purpose flour (4-1/2 cups)

4 teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground mace

1 cup buttermilk

5 ounces of chopped pineapple (2/3 cup)

Preheat the oven to 325F.  To make the topping, prepare the pineapple as directed and set it aside.  In a skillet or saute pan, melt the butter over medium-low heat.  Add the brown sugar and honey and stir to dissolve it.  Bring the mixture to a slow boil and allow it to cook until it thickens a bit, 2-3 minutes.  Pour the syrup into the greased pan and tilt it to spread it evenly.  Carefully arrange the pineapple slices and set this aside while you prepare the cake.

To prepare the cake, place the butter, the sugars, ginger, vanilla and salt into a mixing bowl.  With the mixer on low, combine the ingredients, scrape the bowl well and then allow it to cream until fluffy.  Add the eggs, one at a time, and mix well.  Be sure to scrape the bowl well to combine it evenly.  Place the flour, baking powder and spices into a mesh strainer or sifter and sift it over the bowl, all at once.  Fold it by hand a few times, dump the buttermilk in, all at once and fold it completely.  Finally, add the reserved pineapple bits and the juice that has accumulated in the cup and finish folding it until no streaks of flour or juice remain.  Carefully drop dollops of the batter over the pineapple in the pan and gently spread it out evenly over the surface.  Use an offset palette knife along with a gentle hand for the best results, you do not want to disturb the pattern of the fruit!

Bake the cake until a pick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour.  Remove from the oven, allow it to sit for 10 minutes (use a timer for this!) and then invert it onto a serving platter or tray.  It is best to wait until it is completely cooled to cut it, you may have to restrain yourself!

 

 

 

 

winter blues

IMG_8150To say it has been cold here is an understatement.  Yes, I know that plenty of places are much colder and covered in snow, so what!  We moved south to escape snow and frigid temperatures and the last two weeks have been brutal here.  So rather than dwell on the cold or debate who has it worse and all that, let’s just look at photos from the fall taken out at the Demonstration Garden in Ellington Ag Center.  Before the frost.  When it was still warm…  Mexican Sage in bloom.IMG_8151Love the fuzzy blooms, so do the bees.

IMG_8155Vietnamese coriander in bloom.  So delicate and tiny.IMG_8158The swamp monster that tried to eat the garden-Swamp sunflowers in bloom

IMG_8159The swamp sunflowers were about 8 feet tall and they are spreading out.  Don’t they look beautiful with the Burning Bushes?

IMG_8168Want to plant something that bees and hummingbirds love?  Fill your garden with salvias and one of my favorites is Pineapple Sage.  The leaves smell like a pineapple lifesaver candy when you rub them and they are edible meaning you can use them as you would most other edible herbs.  Honey bees love them and if you have a colony nearby, you might just find enough of them in it to make the whole plant buzz and vibrate.  Hummingbirds will visit them too but only if they stay in your area through the fall.  Pineapple sages tends to put this show on late in the season and this was taken around the first week of November.

IMG_8176Just look at those pollen baskets!

IMG_8170We built this out at the Bee Garden and we are hoping that beneficial insects are nesting here.

IMG_8172IMG_8179This garden is just full of color and blooms.

IMG_8180Our climate here allows for tropical plants to grow and thrive during the warmer months but the fruit never has a chance to mature and ripen.

IMG_8185We can only dream about bananas; these did not make it and were killed by frost shortly after I took the photos but while it was blooming, the wasps and bees loved the nectar and pollen.

Late fall in the garden

IMG_8111This update is a little late but if you are wondering how the garden is coming along, here it is!  When we finally had our hard frost a few weeks ago, I went out and spent the day cleaning and harvesting what I could.

IMG_8112In my effort to add visual interest, I have added a bottle tree and the white metal baskets are a project in the works.

IMG_8118Our hens have really helped us improve the soil and control insects.  These are two of our young hens; a Black Australorp and an Americauna, who is also our only green egg layer.

IMG_8121She really is a sweet bird but she is also a bit shy and the other hens tend to bully her a bit.

IMG_8122These are a couple of the old girls.  We brought our Golden Laced Wyandottes with us when we moved here from Virginia.  They aren’t laying much anymore now that they are over 2 years old but they still help out by providing us with manure and by eating insects.

IMG_8120The iridescent feathers on the Australorps are beautiful when the sun hits them.  The hens wander the outside of the garden in their tunnels and they are safe from hawks and our plants are safe from the hens!

IMG_8132This pretty lady, an argiope aurantia or yellow garden spider, was hanging out in the carport until we moved her to the garden.  She quickly settled in and stayed out there until the hard frost.

IMG_8137Because I was curious, I looked up information about her and discovered that this little brown ball is actually an egg sac.  Each one can contain about a thousand live babies who will over winter in the sac.  As I cleaned up the bed of flowers where she was living, I discovered three of these egg sacs!  In the hope of having another spider or two next year, I carefully moved the sacs and placed them in the beds with our fig trees.

IMG_8127Early in the spring, I planted a number of perennial flowers and herbs around the garden.  At that time, I also planted an artichoke.  It has gotten large and if it survives the winter, I am hoping for chokes!

IMG_8125Cabbage heads are looking good.

IMG_8126We harvested most of the broccoli for Thanksgiving dinner and froze what we did not cook.  Because we only cut the top heads off, we left the plants in the ground so that they would produce side shoots of smaller heads.  If all goes according to the plan, we will be picking broccoli through the winter.

IMG_8124When we were in Virginia, I planted Tokyo market turnips for the first time.  They are smaller than the typical turnips found in grocery stores.  At last check, they were nearing maturity and I am looking forward to roasting a few!

IMG_8141Cardoon looks a lot like an artichoke.  The difference, chokes or the flower, are the only edible part of an artichoke while both the flower and the stalk are edible on a cardoon.  Actually, the stalk is more commonly consumed and it requires a long simmer to soften the extremely tough fibers.

IMG_8143The stalks look like celery on steroids and they are just as tough as you would imagine.  And then there are the spines; they are every bit as sharp as they look!

IMG_8147Handle the stalks with care and be sure to cut them off before you try to cut and cook the stalks.

IMG_8117All around the garden are little pops of color in the form of violas, one of my favorite plants.

IMG_8131Love this color combination.

IMG_8129Part of the clean up meant gathering tomatoes, both ripe and green.  If you are considering planting tomatoes, give these little yellow gems a try.  They are called Barry’s Crazy Cherry and they can be found in the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog.

IMG_8149Late in spring, we put a watermelon plant into the garden.  Hoping for a few melons to share with the hens, we were disappointed by how slowly the plants grew.  This was the largest of three melons.  The first one that we cut into was white inside, it became some really nice pickles.  The other two are still waiting to be cut and we are hoping for better luck!

 

blue ribbon ah-fair

IMG_8072Entering a competition at the State Fair is as American as an apple pie, much like the one in the photo above.  And while I realize that the 2017 Tennessee Fair is old news, I really wanted to share these photos.  Actually, I have been missing in action (blame it on the job) and thought I should get my act together and start posting some of the photos that I have taken.

IMG_8036Dusk is the best time to visit the fair.  It is not as busy and the lighting is perfect, even when you are taking photos of lights.

IMG_8039As members of the Master Gardeners, we always find ourselves at the fair and working in the MG booth but we make time to walk around and see as much as we can.  This year, we did not work the booth but we spent some time there with friends who were visiting from Germany.

IMG_8040As adventurous as I am, and I am-I love a good roller coaster, this ride terrifies me.  The thought of dropping like a rock, straight down to the ground…If you need me, I will be out here with a camera, watching you drop like a rock.

IMG_8049IMG_8050IMG_8053This type of ride doesn’t thrill me either-too intense and too much round and round and round…

IMG_8059Ferris wheels can be fun, guarantees a great view of the fair.

IMG_8064This one made me dizzy just watching it.

IMG_8089And then there is the real reason I was at the fair.  On a whim, I decided to enter several competitions.  This was the first time I entered a canning competition and I entered a jar of my homegrown pickle relish.  When I learned the results, I was stunned!

IMG_8096Another competition I entered was the chess pie contest, this one, a honey chess pie, came in at a respectable third place.  If you were paying attention, the very first photo of this post was of a pie, specifically, an apple pie that I entered into the big money competition.

IMG_8091Here are the judges tasting my apple pie.  Long story short, I didn’t win, place or show.  At the end of the day, I have a pretty good idea of what is expected and I will be better prepared for next year.

IMG_8107

dreaming of summer; the last photos of our trip to Sanibel Island

IMG_7839By now, I am sure you are ready for me to move on from my summer vacation photos but considering the hurricanes that have blown through that part of the world, I had to post this last group of photos.  While we were on Sanibel Island, we found a walking trail by accident.  We had left our hotel room, on foot, and walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner.  As we approached the front of the building, we realized that it was not open.  Since we were set on having dinner, we turned around and began walking back to go somewhere else and that is when we saw a small sign for the Pond Apple Trail.  And yes, we also saw signs for alligators-this little guy did not pose much of a threat but everybody knows that small alligators are the result of big alligators…

IMG_7852We didn’t walk the trail that evening but we did go back one afternoon while we were out riding bicycles.  A portion of the trail winds around several square ponds that are part of a stormwater remediation program for the island.  This handsome fellow was watching over the water for possible snacks.

IMG_7849If you are curious about the remediation method used here, small rafts of plants are assembled and allowed to float in the ponds.  The root systems of the plants help clean the water of pollutants that are washed into the ponds during storm runoff.

IMG_7844The trail gets its name from the native pond apple trees which are relatives of custard apples and soursops.

IMG_7854Although they were perfectly edible, we decided not to eat them.  We enjoyed the trail and look forward to a trip back to the island so we can explore it again.

IMG_7862On the day we were leaving, I scheduled the flight home late in the afternoon so that we could spend the day exploring some of Fort Meyers.  Mother nature had other ideas and we were stuck walking in drizzly conditions.  We found a great place to explore despite the rain!  Six Mile Cypress Slough is one of the most unique trails I have ever walked and I highly recommend visiting if you are in the area.  The entire trail is a raised wooden boardwalk that wides its way through a cypress swamp.  Currently, the trail is closed and I am assuming it is because of storm damage.

IMG_7863The stumps in the water are called knees and cypress trees develop these roots as they grow in the water.  The water was so clear, golden in color but clear with amazing visibility!

IMG_7865The ferns grow everywhere!  These were colonizing the base of a tree trunk.

IMG_7867Have you seen those air plants for sale everywhere?  They grow wild all over Sanibel Island and here in the slough as well. The lichens were pretty amazing as well, I have never seen them in this color before.

IMG_7875More air plants, they can get pretty large.

IMG_7869Ferns, love ferns… The way the little fronds unfurl…

IMG_7871Of course, it would not be a proper southern swamp without some hanging moss.

IMG_7872The boardwalk, it was only a mile from start to finish but we took our time and probably spent an hour wandering the walkway.

IMG_7873At every turn, there was something to see.  Plants above water, plants below water.

IMG_7877IMG_7881And it wouldn’t be a proper hike without a reflection shot.

IMG_7888Moss and ferns, two of my favorite things.

IMG_7901IMG_7904This guy was just hanging out, he let me take his photo.  Hopefully, the damage to the trail was not too extensive and it will reopen soon.

guess again…a tomato spice cake

IMG_7914When I signed up to attend the hypertufa workshop, read about that here, I knew that I had to bring a cake with me.   As I walked in with my traveling cake safe, I heard a few gasps, and exclamations; “oh, you brought a cake!”  This came as no surprise to some, especially Doris, who looked at me and smiled and said “You brought cake? Of course you did!!!”  She obviously knows me, and the truth is, occasions like this are really just an excuse to take a mold down from the wall and use it!

IMG_7916Late summer is tomato season and if you find yourself with a few too many, consider making a cake with them.  Actually, this recipe is versatile enough that you can make it with canned tomatoes, either crushed or puree, or even with tomato juice which means you can have it anytime.  If you use a purchased puree or juice, check the ingredient list to make sure that ingredients such as onions or garlic are not included.

IMG_7917A few things to consider here.  Raisins are one of those ingredients that you either love or hate.  Personally, I am not a big fan but in this recipe, the golden raisins really work.  Just be sure not to skip the step to plump them or they will actually draw moisture from the cake and can make it seem dry.  If you use fresh tomatoes, blanch them to remove the skin and then cut each one in half and squeeze out as many of the seeds as you can before pureeing them.  The nice thing about using fresh tomatoes, you can mix it up by changing the variety of tomato.  Of course, you can just use a can of puree and make it anytime you want a fresh baked spice cake.

IMG_7971As the summer fades, spice cakes shift to center stage.  Slightly denser, jammed full of warm spices, and in this case, loaded with dried fruit and nuts, spice cakes are the perfect pick-me-up as the temperatures finally start to cool off.  For this cake, I combined cinnamon, allspice, cloves and freshly grated nutmeg which give the cake a warm, spicy flavor.

IMG_7979Guess Again Tomato Cake

with raisins and pecans

makes an 8-inch bundt cake, serves about 8-12

1/2 cup golden raisins

1/2 cup pecan pieces

2 cups cake flour

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

5 ounces (1 stick + 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened

1-1/4 cups packed dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 egg

1 cup tomato juice, puree or crushed tomatoes

vanilla glaze, recipe follows

Preheat the oven to 350.  Grease and flour a 6 to 8 cup tube or bundt pan.  Place the golden raisins in a small saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil.  Remove from the heat and let the raisins plump until cooled.  Drain well before using.

Toast the pecan pieces on a baking sheet for 5 to 7 minutes, until lightly colored and fragrant.  Transfer to a dish and allow to cool.

In a mixing bowl, combine the cake flour, baking soda, cinnamon, allspice, cloves and nutmeg.  Set the dry ingredients aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter on medium-low speed for 1 minute.  Add the brown sugar and vanilla and beat until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes.  Add the egg and mix completely, scraping the bowl at least once.  Sift one-third of the dry ingredients over the butter mixture, fold by hand a few times and add half of the tomato.  Fold a few times; sift half of the remaining spiced flour over the batter, add the remaining juice, and fold a few times.  Add the last of the flour mixture, and fold the batter gently until no streaks remain.  Add the raisins and pecans and fold enough to incorporate them evenly.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, spread it out evenly and bake until a pick inserted comes out clean, about 45 minutes.  Allow to cool in the pan for at least 10 minutes, then unmold and cool on a wire rack.  Using a large spoon, ladle the glaze over the top of the cake, completely covering the top and letting the excess drip down the sides randomly.

Vanilla Glaze

makes about 3/4 cup

2 cups confectioners sugar

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1/3 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Sift the confectioners sugar into a bowl.  Add the melted butter, milk and vanilla.  Whisk until smooth and creamy, use at once.

IMG_7976

This cake is from my second book, Desserts from the Famous Loveless Cafe.

hypertufa pots and a garden tour

IMG_7925One of the best decisions I have ever made was to become a Master Gardener.  Not only have I learned a lot about the hows and whys of all things gardening, I have had a chance to make wonderful friends!  Earlier in the summer, I was talking with a fellow MG member and I mentioned that I really wanted to learn how to make hypertufa pots and that I was more than willing to plan a get together at my home with some of our gardening friends.  It was if the walls, or maybe the hostas were listening in on my plans because as quickly as I mentioned this, we learned that one of our fellow MG members was offering a tufa pot workshop in her backyard.  Needless to say, I quickly signed up for the class!

Georgeann may be known for her love of hostas and her beautiful garden (watch this episode of Volunteer Gardener for more information) but in our circle, she is well known for her knowledge and craftwork with hypertufa.  If you are not familiar with hypertufa, it is a mixture made from peat moss, portland cement and vermiculite and when it is completely cured, it is just as strong and durable as cement but not nearly as heavy.

IMG_7926IMG_7927IMG_7928IMG_7929Making the mixture is fairly easy, it takes a little elbow grease but it is not at all difficult to make.  In a large container with a wide opening, combine 3 parts peat moss, 3 parts vermiculite and 2 parts portland cement.  For extra strength and durability, you can throw a handful or two of fiberglass reinforcing fibers.  Add water to the container and mix it until it is moistened but holds its shape-refer to the photos above.  Do not do this with bare hands!!! (nevermind Georgeann’s bare hands, she warned us about the consequences)  Portland cement can be a bit caustic and it will dry your skin to the point of irritation.

IMG_7922Select a mold with a wide opening and grease the inside with spray or a thin coat of shortening.  Line it with a couple of plastic bags or a sheet of plastic drop cloth.  Do not worry about the crinkles and wrinkles, they will add texture to the pot.

IMG_7923Press handfuls of the mixture into the bottom so that it is at least an inch and a half thick.  Using your fingers, make a hole for drainage.  Keep building up the sides so that they are at least an inch thick but when it comes to the top edge, make it a little thicker and rounded so that it is stronger.  Let it cure, out of direct sun-in full shade, gently lift the plastic sheet to remove the pot from the mold after a day or two.  At this point, you can carefully shape the edges or carve designs into the surface of the pot.  Use a metal brush or a file to sand the edges and small chisels for the carving.  Replace it into the mold to finish curing.  You want to do this to ensure that you can get it out of the mold at all-a lesson I learned the hard way!

Allow the pot to dry in the mold for at least a week and then pull it out and peel off the plastic liner.  Keep the pot in the shade to finish the curing and it is best to keep it slightly moist and wrapped in plastic.  The longer and slower the curing process is, the stronger the pot will be.

IMG_7937If you walk around Georgeann’s garden, you will find tufa pots.  This one is home to just one of many hosta plants.

IMG_7938The pots are very durable and can even spend the winter outdoors.  Even though the cement mixture is on the alkaline side, plants can thrive in them and so can moss.

IMG_7939The moss is a plus in my opinion, I just love the character it adds to the pots.

IMG_7934As a beekeeper, I love seeing Vitex (Chaste Tree) in gardens.

IMG_7936All through the garden, I found little surprises like this mosaic of a Blue Jay.

IMG_7940And this Earth ball.

IMG_7941The waterfall is actually a water feature that recirculates but it is no less beautiful than a real stream!

IMG_7942Of course, there are plenty of Hostas to admire, too!

IMG_7946As much as I love Hostas, I really love Hydrangeas!

IMG_7949Arbors are everywhere in the garden.

IMG_7950Another of Georgeann’s tufa pots, this time it is a trough.  Remember what I said about the crinkles and wrinkles in the plastic liner?  They really do add a lovely texture to the finished pot.  IMG_7953Everywhere you look, there is something to see, and in my case, covet!

IMG_7954Don’t you just love this little cottage?

IMG_7956IMG_7957IMG_7959This swing is hidden from view in most of the yard but I was still hesitant to sit on it for fear of acting like a child…

IMG_7961If this were my garden, I have a feeling that I would be spending a lot of time sitting out in front of the cottage at this table.

IMG_7962Caladiums are quickly becoming one of my favorite plants to add color to a shade garden.

IMG_7964This stone sits at the start of the path that leads up to the cottage and if you ask me, it is an accurate description of Georgeann’s garden.

IMG_7970So the moral of this story; if a Master Gardener opens their home to you, go!  You really have no idea what you will discover or learn until you walk through someone’s garden and I am genuinely grateful that I had the chance to spend a morning exploring this beautiful garden.  And in case you were wondering, there was definitely cake; I brought my Guess Again Tomato Cake and the recipe will be posted soon!

waiting for the green flash on Sanibel Island

Visit enough beaches on the Gulf Coast of Florida and you are going to hear about the green flash at sunset.  It sounds like a legend, a hard to believe it’s true type of story but the truth is, that green flash is a real thing.  We spent plenty of sunsets on the beach during our recent visit to Sanibel Island but were never lucky enough to experience it ourselves.

IMG_7793Another fact, taking a live sea creature as a souvenir carries a $500 fine per creature.  That could be an expensive lesson to learn!  We found this guy on the beach in the tide line.  He, or she for that matter, was just laying there and I saw the shell first.  Thinking it would be one to add to my collection, I picked it up and when I turned it over to check, there he was-a live Florida Fighting Conch!

IMG_7795This little guy was as curious of us as we were of him.  As Darry held him up so that I could take some photos, he slowly crept further and further out of his shell.

IMG_7798Look at the love in his eyes…We returned him to the water and wandered on in search of that elusive green flash.

IMG_7800This just goes to show you that barnacles will attach to anything, including cheap sunglasses.

IMG_7811Sunset was approaching and so was a thunderstorm.  The view from one end of the beach to the other was very different.  In this direction, sunny.

IMG_7814Turn 180 degrees and not so sunny.

IMG_7817This little guy didn’t let the clouds stop him so we decided to follow his lead and keep walking on-even if there was thunder in the distance.

IMG_7818The sun was sinking fast and that meant we might just see that flash.

IMG_7820Thankfully, the storm seemed to be moving past us and no rain fell near us as we walked on the beach.

IMG_7821Those clouds, the colors; the camera did not catch it all and I hate adding color to the photos; it seems like cheating.

IMG_7826We had to wait a while, there was still at least half the sun above the horizon.

IMG_7829The clouds just kept getting better and better, so did the colors in the sky.

IMG_7830You would not have to do much to convince me to chuck it all out the window and move to the beach.  Seriously, I could very easily learn to adapt to summer weather all year long and sunset walks on the beach.

IMG_7833With about a quarter of the sun left, we waited patiently.

IMG_7835To see that green flash, you need to be there just as the sun sinks below the horizon.  We began walking back as the moment of truth approached and this was the last photo I took.  If there was a green flash when the sun finally disappeared below the horizon, we did not see it.  Thinking this means we need to go back to the beach!

how I spent my summer vacation…off season on Sanibel Island

IMG_7774If you ask me, the perfect summer evening includes a long, leisurely stroll on a beach.  Slowed pace, feet covered in sand and tickled by the surf, eyes scanning the tide line in search of seashells, breathing in the salty breeze-absolute heaven.  We may not be world travelers, or even frequent vacationers, but one thing is certain, we will more than likely visit a beach if we plan a trip.  Over the years, we have been to beaches on the East, West and Gulf coasts but this was the first time we visited Sanibel Island on the Gulf coast of Florida.

As is typical in the Gulf, the surf is a bit gentler and the waves are smaller (most of the time) and during our recent visit, we had no reason to worry about riptides.  We chose to visit in July for two reasons; it was the best time for Darry to take time off and it was off-peak season for the island.  To be honest, July really is a great time to visit the area.  The lack of a crowd meant easy access to public parking, although you can easily bicycle to just about anywhere on the island.  It also meant that we did not have to wait for much.  Restaurants always had a table available, bicycles were easy to come by, tourist attractions were sparsely populated and traffic was just about nonexistent on the island.

IMG_7776

If you have ever heard of Sanibel Island, you know it as a shell collectors paradise.  That was just one of the reasons I wanted to visit.  Read up on the island and you will see all types of activities and festivals connected to sea shells.  On our first evening, we walked the beach and found ourselves stunned by the amount of shells just laying on the sand.   IMG_7777The stripes formed along the tidal path are just littered with shells, mostly small but still beautiful and worthy of collecting.

IMG_7778As I took photos, I noticed Darry doing his best “Sanibel Stoop” while he scanned the surface of the sand for treasures.

IMG_7780He quickly retrieved a few shells to show me, from left to right:  a Scotch bonnet and two Florida fighting conchs.

IMG_7786It was somewhat addicting.  Finding intact shells was also pretty easy and we had a bag full in no time.

IMG_7788So many shells…

IMG_7790Horse conchs can get very large, the world record shell is just over 2 feet long, but we didn’t have much luck finding anything over an inch or so!

We did more than just stroll the beach!  The folks living on the island have a strong sense of preservation and quite a bit of the land has been designated as preserves.  We visited JN “Ding” Darling Wildlife Preserve on one afternoon while bicycling and the next morning returned to take a guided kayak excursion in Tarpon Bay. If you visit the island, I highly recommend visiting the preserve on bicycle because you can see so much more and it is easier to stop along the way.  As for the kayak trail, do it but if you are paddling with your spouse and neither of you knows what you are doing, consider going in a boat by yourself!  Two novices do not make an expert, synchronized team… For all of the information on the preserve and Tarpon Bay Explorers, visit the website.

We found several small trails on the island as well and one afternoon, we parked the bikes and explored the Periwinkle Preserve.  This small 17 acre preserve has gone extensive renovations to remove invasive plants.  We walked the short trail that can be accessed from the bike and walking path on Periwinkle Way, the main road on the island.  The slide show is just some of the plants we saw there and elsewhere on the island.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Rather than bore you with a weeks worth of photos, check back here, I will post more on the trip soon!

fresh picked rhubarb buckle

IMG_7712Rhubarb is not commonly found in southern gardens.  The intense heat and humidity just do not suit the plant well.  In the demonstration garden, we have learned that the best way to grow it is to plant it in an area that does not see the intense light and heat of afternoon sun.  In the back of our vegetable garden, we have a shady area and in it are two rhubarb plants that are a green variety which seem to be better suited to our growing conditions.

When it comes to harvesting rhubarb, I really do not know much about when or how much to take.  Since the one plant has more than tripled in size since the spring and has stalks over an inch wide, I figured it couldn’t be a first year plant and decided to harvest about a third of it.  After all, we would be needing cake for our Saturday morning get together in the garden and a rhubarb buckle made with stalks from our own garden sounded perfect to me.

IMG_7721Color is not generally an indication of sweetness in rhubarb but the manner in which it was grown can be.  Hot house rhubarbs that have been forced are generally sweeter than those grown outdoors naturally.  This crop was pretty tart and I decided to let it macerate in sugar before adding it to the cake.

IMG_7728Having chickens in our own garden has been a wonderful experience.  When we moved into the new house, we added a few more and the littles have begun laying!  We have one Americauna hen who has been laying tiny green eggs.  We haven’t had the heart to crack them yet, but at the rate we are going, we will have to or run the risk of being buried in a pile of eggs.

IMG_7730Buckles are one of my favorite summer fruit cakes.  This particular recipe is so versatile that by making simple substitutions, you can have a completely different cake each time!  This time though, I kept it pretty simple and just substituted rhubarb for the usual sour red cherries.

IMG_7731 The name “buckle” comes from the manner in which some of the fruit sinking while some of the batter rises up during the baking and this can give the cake a “buckled” appearance.

IMG_7732With the final addition of a walnut crumb topping, the cake was ready to go into the oven.

IMG_7736The buckling I was hoping for was not as pronounced and I suspect that it may have needed to macerate longer or I may need to increase the amount of rhubarb in the recipe.  Looks like I will have to make another soon to test the theory!  Despite that, it did make a nice sweet-tart layer of filling between the cake and the crumbs, the perfect treat after spending several hours digging and pulling weeds.

IMG_7739Fresh Rhubarb Buckle

with Walnut-Oat Streusel Topping

makes 1 (8″x 2″) square cake serving 12-16

2-1/2 cups sliced fresh rhubarb

1/3 cup (2-1/2 ounces) granulated sugar

2 tablespoons (3/4 ounce) unbleached all purpose flour

4 ounces unsalted butter, softened

1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar

1-1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

1-1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour

1-1/2 teaspoon baking powder

2/3 cup buttermilk

walnut oat streusel topping, recipe follows

In a small bowl, toss the rhubarb with the first listed sugar and allow it to macerate for an hour to produce juice.  Add the flour, toss to coat it evenly and set aside while you prepare the cake.  Make the crumb topping at this time and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350F.  Grease and flour an 8″x 8″ cake pan.  In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter with the second listed sugar, vanilla and salt until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs, one at a time, scrape the bowl after each addition and mix well.  Sift the flour and the baking powder over the batter.  Fold a few times, add the buttermilk and fold completely until no streaks remain.  Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and level it.  Top the batter evenly with the rhubarb and all of the liquid in the bowl.  Sprinkle the streusel over the cake and bake until a pick inserted comes out clean, about an hour and 15 minutes.  Allow the cake to cool in the pan for about 20 minutes and then turn it out onto a tray and invert it onto a rack to finish cooling.

Walnut-Oat Streusel Topping

makes 1-1/2 cups

1/2 cup (2-3/4 ounces) unbleached all purpose flour

1/2 cup (2-1/4 ounces) rolled oats

2 tablespoons (1 ounce) dark brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

4 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

1/4 cup (1-1/4 ounces) chopped walnuts

Place the flour, oats, sugar and cinnamon into a small bowl.  Using your fingers, mix the ingredients.  Add the butter and rub the cubes into the dry ingredients until clumps begin to form.  Sprinkle the walnuts over the mixture and toss together to combine.  Use this immediately or store in the refrigerator for as long as three weeks.

The original version of this recipe, made with sour cherries, can be found in my book, Desserts from the Famous Loveless Cafe