Picture the Holidays – Holding on to Gratitude

 

This December I’ve decided to try my hand at putting together a ‘Picture the Holidays’ photo prompt book put together by Tracey Clark of Shutter Sisters via Paper Coterie.

Every day I am emailed a photo prompt to inspire me to take a photo, which I then upload into a photobook on the Paper Coterie site, which I can then have printed if I wish. I know I’m crap at following through on these sorts of projects, but a month of photos seems just about manageable.

 

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Yesterday’s prompt was entitled ‘Holding On To Gratitude’, encouraging us to think about what we’re grateful for. Funnily enough the night before I had gone to sleep thinking particularly grateful thoughts as I’d been reading a thread on Ravelry where people had been asking for good wishes and prayers because they were going through some particularly horrible things in their lives. I know I am insanely lucky in so many ways.

Unfortunately, the things I am most truly grateful for – my health; my bright, beautiful, healthy daughter; my lovely husband and his lovely job; my wonderful friends; even my fabulous blog friends, were either too abstract, or too absent at school or work to be photographed yesterday. 

Instead I hit up on something rather random. When you’re doing the Dukan diet you do become incredibly grateful for that morning cup of joe, which is permitted – oh joy! – if made with non-fat milk.  This photo for me sums up the warmth and comfort of home; reminds me how lucky I am to be able to afford a fancy coffee machine to make fancy coffee in a fancy mug; makes me think of my husband, and of Seattle, where I’m so lucky to be able to live. And in a literal interpretation of ‘hold on’ I like that this pictures is full of handles.  Oh well, it made sense to me.

What would you photograph given that prompt?

In a spectacular photography fail yesterday, I took my camera out last night to see the Christmas Ships without its SD card. So you’ll just have to image the fabulous pictures I would have taken of my daughter’s shining face as she gazed at the lit-up boats, next to blazing bonfires, against the sparkling backdrop of downtown and the Space Needle.  They might have been a little more appropriate for the above challenge too. Grrrrrr.

Oh and Dine & Dish is doing this too, go to her blog for a different perspective on things.

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Advent Calendars

 

It’s the first of December so we’re allowed to start talking Christmas (or ‘the holidays’ if you prefer).

     

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The Minx’s advent tree, which is yearly supplied with small treats by one of the Minx’s godmothers, will go up tonight and I thought it might be fun to round up some other advent type things I’ve come across in the last few days.

One of the Minx’s other godmothers (yep, we did a good job picking those) has sent her a link to this gorgeous-looking online advent calendar by Jacquie Lawson featuring Christmassy London scenes. I don’t seem to be able to share the demo, but do click on it, it’s really charming.  I don’t care about the Minx, I’m excited enough to start open the first link when she comes home from school tonight.

Also tonight, we’re off to see the Christmas Ships as they set off on their nightly December odyssey round Seattle’s waterways. Rain has always conspired to stop us seeing them before, but it looks like it will be OK tonight.  Hopefully pictures tomorrow.

The Daily Suze found two beautiful, more grown-up, advent calendars.

     

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This from the White Company (how I miss that shop).  I love this idea of having a tasteful tree decoration for every day and transferring them one by one from the calendar to the tree. Maybe when we get back to having tasteful trees again we’ll do this.

This calendar is also minimalist and lovely, and even I wouldn’t have trouble making it.  It could be made to fit into any décor too, if you changed the colour of the boxes.  I still don’t quite see the Minx appreciating it yet though.

 

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If you want an advent calendar for yourself go along to Paper Coterie where they are doing a project called ‘Picture the Holidays’. Every day you will be emailed a prompt to take a photograph and at the end you will get the chance to put all your gorgeous images together into a photo book.  Facebook friends who have done one Paper Coteries’s Prompt Me projects before have said that it’s very fun, so I’ve decided to sign up.  Let’s see how it goes.  I’ll put more details up in dedicated posts as the month progresses.

Finally, if you’re into shopping rather than photography, Abigail*Ryan, purveyors of beautiful homewares, are doing a 12 Days of Christmas Sale. Search for the snowflakes on one of their gorgeous handprinted teatowels or cushions and get it on sale for one day only. And if anyone wants to buy me one of their teatowel gift boxes, please feel free.

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Can You Tell What It Is Yet?

 

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After last year’s tiny little needles and tiny little stitches for Carmen Banana, I am treating myself to chunky size 15 needles and chunky weight yarn to make the Minx’s knitted Christmas present.

I’ll post regular updates before the big day and the first person to guess what it is wins my undying admiration.

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Adventures in Baking – Maple Pecan Pumpkin Pie

 

Apparently it takes a village to make a pumpkin pie.  Not a literal village you understand – who’s got one of those nowadays? – but an online village. 

 

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Having never made a pumpkin pie before; indeed having spent the vast majority of my life thinking that putting pumpkin in a PIE, instead of say, soup or ravioli, was a vaguely barbaric act;  I put out pleas on here, on Facebook and on Twitter for pie-making advice.

 

TOP TIP #1 USE CANNED PUMPKIN

This was not entirely helpful.  As I mentioned, I mostly wanted to make a pumpkin pie because the Minx and I had managed to grow two little pumpkins in our vegetable garden this summer.  However, convinced by the many, many comments I received, I did buy an emergency can of pumpkin just in case.

Which was fortunate, as when we halved, deseeded and roasted the homegrown pumpkins, we found them to be extremely anaemic and tasteless. One up for the online village.

     

 

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TOP TIP #2- USE THE MACRINA COOKBOOK’S MAPLE PECAN PUMPKIN PIE RECIPE

I received a lot of recipe suggestions but one that struck home was to use the one from the Macrina bakery cookbook. This sounded good because a) I actually have the book b) the recipes I’ve cooked from it before have been excellent and c) it included maple syrup in the pumpkin custard and a topping of pecans and maple syrup.  Since I don’t actually much like pumpkin pie, these sounded like good additions to me.  Here’s a link to a pdf of the recipe.

 

TOP TIP #3- BLEND THE PUMPKIN VICIOUSLY

The Macrina recipe uses canned pumpkin and roasted fresh butternut squash (which we always have in the freezer to make risotto) which are both comparatively smooth.  Nevertheless a few minutes attacking them with the immersion blender made them even smoother and creamier. Definitely a good thing to do whatever type of pumpkin or squash you’re using.

 

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TOP TIP #4- USE COCONUT MILK IN THE CUSTARD

Another person to send me her recipe was Seattle pie queen Kate McDermott.  Her recipe is for a more traditional pumpkin pie, though it had one intriguing ingredient – lite coconut milk instead of cream or condensed milk.  I used it instead of the buttermilk in the Macrina recipe and Kate is right, the texture and flavour are exceptional,   I did of course also use Kate’s superlative pie crust recipe.

TOP TIP #5 – USE GINGER SYRUP INSTEAD OF FRESH OR GROUND GINGER

This top tip was invented by me! And I think it’s a good one.  Stem ginger, or preserved ginger in syrup, is a very traditional British preserve, which I managed to get on Amazon. The ginger pieces are preserved in a tangy ginger syrup and instead of freshly, grated ginger I added a little ginger syrup to the pumpkin custard and the maple pecan topping.  I’ve since seen that in the US you can also buy a delicious-looking ginger syrup here (with great packaging) which might also work.

This pie turned out incredibly well, and was wolfed down by pumpkin pie traditionalists AND pumpkin pie disparagers alike.  Thanks to everyone in my lovely online community who contributed the tips that made it possible.

I see that November has been and gone, and I’ve got nowhere close to posting every day. Oh well.  Might try for December, though posting over Christmas could be a little light (and possibly drunken)..

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Smashing Pumpkins

 

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Our baby pumpkins ripening in the sunshine (about two weeks ago)

It’s been absolutely pissing it down in Seattle today, so it was a pleasure to flick through my summer photos and find some that I had been meaning to share back then, but never got round to.

 

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This summer we finally had some fabulous raised beds built next to the sidewalk/pavement in front of our house so we could grow our own vegetables.

 

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In the US homeowners are responsible for the street area in front of their homes (in the UK this is the responsibility of the local council) which has led to a great trend of street-level vegetable gardens, especially in my neighbourhood where the front gardens are often steeply sloping.

Our garden met with mixed success, mostly because it wasn’t built until the end of June, so we sowed our seeds really late, though we did manage great crops of French and borlotti beans, quite a lot of salad and herbs and a few sprigs of broccoli.

The Minx enjoyed helping out and the cats thought we’d built an extra specially huge giganto litter box, so the they were a great hit with the whole family.

 

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Harriet models her ‘cat bib’ (www.catgoods.com) which is meant to stop her catching birds. And it works!

 

The Minx was desperate to grow pumpkins, so we dedicated half of one bed to her ‘pumpkin patch’. Again the late planting and cold summer was not a recipe for success but we ended up with two small pumpkins (another one was stolen out of the garden on Halloween, would you believe?) which we have been desperately trying to ripen in time to make pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving.

 

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Tiny French beans basking in the sunshine
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Harvesting French beans, bolted salad leaves and broccoli

So the pumpkins have finally ripened and I’ve signed up to make pumpkin pie with them for Thanksgiving, which is a bit scary as I’ve never made pumpkin pie before (or even eaten them much). Hit me with your best recipes, secrets and tips for a great pumpkin pie. PLEASE.

     
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Things I Am Loving–Cross Stitch iPhone Cover

 

I’ve only ever done cross-stitch once before, when I decided to make a sampler from a kit for a friend’s baby, because it looked like it would be quicker than knitting a sweater.  Yeah right.  I just hope that the cross stitch fabric wasn’t somehow imbued with all the cursing that occurred in its presence.

And yet, and yet.  These fabulous iPhone covers from fabulous NYC yarn shop Purl Soho are enough to make me want to pick up the cross-stitch needle again. Only the thought of having to buy lots of different expensive packs of embroidery thread is preventing me.

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If you’re braver than I am, full instructions are on the Purl Bee blog here.  The iPhone covers themselves are available to buy in the PurlSoho shop here. The only problem is choosing what colour to get.

 

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Lest We Forget

 

Every year around this time I get sad that I can’t buy poppies in the US.

In the UK it’s a huge big deal, with poppies for sale in every public building and in many shops, worn by every public figure, sold out on the streets and laid in wreaths around the war memorials which are in every city, town and village. Even schools get in on the act and since the donation amount is not fixed, ever since I can remember I was supposed to hand over a little of my pocket money to buy a poppy.

 

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So this year I decided to crochet poppies for the family. I used this pattern with full details on my Ravelry page.  The shape is based on the paper poppies for sale on behalf of ex-servicemen and women in the UK.

 

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It was a good excuse to start talking to the Minx about the horrors of war and the debt we owe our soldiers and she went off to school this morning wearing her poppy with pride.  We even read In Flanders Fields together, though I suspect most of it went way over her head.

 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields

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Scary Things In Bedrooms

 

Remember when I posted this nightmare-inducing room from MyHotel in Brighton earlier this year? 

 

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Well, I was reminded of it yesterday when I caught a glimpse of the nursery Christina Aguilera had decorated for her son Max. (I know this is old, but I didn’t see it when it came out).

 

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That child is going to need years of therapy.  Is this a trend?

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Adventures in Baking – Torta alla Gianduia with Pears

 

Keep reading, I’m hosting a giveaway at the end of this blog post

 

Following on from my astonishing third place triumph in the Queen Anne Farmers’ Market Pie Competition almost exactly a year ago, I thought it was about time I entered another baking competition, this time Edible Seattle’s Cake v Pie Competition. Since I am an equal opportunity baker and like baking and eating both pies and cakes, I decided this time that I would play on Team Cake.

 

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My cake and its competition (Photo by Myra Kohn)

The only catch was the theme – ‘Trouble in Pearadise’ or pies and cakes featuring pears. Making a pear pie or tart is easy peasy lemon squeezy but there aren’t so many pear-y cakes out there.  I started to think about what flavours go with pears – chocolate, of course, and all kinds of nuts, and hit upon the idea of incorporating pears into a torta alla gianduia, the traditional chocolate and hazelnut cake of Piemonte, my mother’s home region in Italy.

Gianduia has a long and illustrious history in Piemonte, where expensive chocolate was stretched with the addition of hazelnut paste, from the hazelnut trees which grown in abundance in the region.  It’s one of the most famous flavours in the world today, as Nutella, from Ferrero, a great Piemontese company, is just a commercial form of gianduia paste.

The climates of Piemonte and the Pacific North West are not dissimilar and I was delighted to discover that hazelnuts grow well in the PNW too, most famously in Oregon. So this cake would be both delightfully seasonal and local.

This cake is a little complicated, but you’ll end up with a dense, fudgey, chocolatey, delight, which perfectly complements the sweetness and delicacy of juicy pears. But don’t just take my word for it. 

 

Step 1 – Poaching the Pears

I found David Liebovitz’s guidelines on poaching pears here to be super useful.

Ingredients

4-5 firm ripe pears (I used some lovely Bartlett pears from my organic box)
1 litre/1 quart water
1 1/3 cups (250g) sugar
1 miniature bottle Frangelico (Italian hazelnut liqueur or another liqueur to taste)

Peel, core and quarter the pears. Heat the water and sugar together until the sugar has dissolved. Add the pears and cover them with a circle of parchment or greaseproof paper with a small hole cut in the middle.  This ensures that the pears don’t float up from the liquid and turn brown. Simmer gently for 10-15 minutes making sure the pears don’t turn mushy. Remove the pears and boil the peary liquid down fiercely until you have a thick syrup. Turn off the heat, pour in the bottle of Frangelico, add back the pears and set aside to cool.

   
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Step 2 – Making the Cake

This recipe is based on this one here by Annamaria Volpi, with a few tweaks.

Ingredients

1½ cups (180 gr) ground hazelnuts (you could substitute other nuts such as almonds or pistachios)
7 oz (200 gr) semi or bittersweet chocolate, finely diced (I used Guittard 72% cacao)
4 + 4 oz (115 + 115 gr) sugar
7 oz (200 gr) butter, at room temperature
8 eggs, separated
¾ cup (110 gr) plain or cake flour

Preheat oven to 350 F (175 C).  Oil a 9 inch (23cm) Springform cake tin and line it with parchment paper.  Sprinkle the paper with cocoa powder. I wanted to make a three-layer cake. You could bake yours in a 10 inch (25cm) pan and just cut it in half for two layers instead.

Melt the chocolate in a bain-marie or glass bowl set on a saucepan of simmering water.

Cream the ground hazelnuts, 4oz (115g) of sugar and the butter together until soft and fluffy. Add the melted chocolate and mix together until smooth. Combine the egg yolks one at a time with the hazelnut-chocolate mixture, reserving the egg whites.  Sift the flour and stir it in thoroughly.

Beat the egg whites. When they are half beaten add the remaining 4 oz (115 gr) of sugar and beat until stiff peaks are formed.

Fold the egg whites carefully into the hazelnut-chocolate mixture. Pour the mixture into the cake tin, level with a spatula and bake it for approximately 30–40 minutes (for a 10 inch cake) or 50 minutes for a 9 inch cake. The cake is ready when a stick of spaghetti poked into the centre comes out clean and dry.

Remove from the oven and let the cake cool at room temperature. Then remove from the cake pan.  When it is fully cooled, slice into two or three layers.

 

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Step 3 – Making the Chocolate Ganache Filling and Topping and Assembling the Cake

Ingredients

1 cup (250 cc) double (heavy) cream
12 oz (340 gr) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, diced
2 oz (60 gr) butter, at room temperature

Pour the cream into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat over a medium heat until just starting to bubble. Add the diced chocolate and beat together until the chocolate has fully melted into the hot cream. Beat in the butter. Leave to cool at room temperature for 2 hours. I hurried mine along in the fridge which is fine, but make sure it doesn’t get too cold and stiff.

Take your cake layers and spoon a few tablespoons of the peary poaching syrup over the cakes. Wait for it to soak in.  Spread the bottom two layers with chocolate ganache and then top with sliced poached pears. Assemble the cake and spread the remaining ganache all over the top and sides.  Put the cake in the fridge so that the ganache sets firmly.

   

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Step 4 – Glazing and Decorating the Cake

You only need to do this step if you’re feeling fancy, though I’m glad I did.  The first ganache layer (step 3) will produce a perfectly delicious cake. This is what you need to do if you want to create a smooth, shiny finish, say for example if you’re entering a cake competition.

Ingredients

¾ cup (180 cc) double (heavy) cream
6 oz (180 gr ) dark, bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate, diced

Pour the cream into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat over a medium heat until just starting to bubble. Add the diced chocolate and beat together until the chocolate has fully melted into the hot cream and the ganache is very light and soft.  Immediately spread the glaze over the refrigerated cake with an offset spatula.

In Italy it is traditional for some reason to write the word ‘Gianduia’ on the cake in script.  So I melted a little white chocolate and piped it on.

Here is my cake basking in the sunshine.

   

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Here’s a glimpse of its fudgey insides.

 

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And here I am after my cake won second prize! Told you it was a good recipe.

 

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Photo courtesy of Myra Kohn

My prize was a year’s subscription to Edible Seattle a monthly magazine focusing on the fabulous food bounty of Seattle and its surrounding area, and the farmers and chefs who bring it to us. The only problem is that I’m already a subscriber. So I have a subscription here to give away.  It would obviously be most relevant to a blog reader from the Seattle area, but it’s so full of great recipes and fascinating articles that I’d encourage anyone interested in food to enter.

If you’d like to enter the giveaway, please leave a comment below telling us what is your favourite autumn ingredient. I’ll draw the winner at random on Friday 11th November. Good luck!

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