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It’s been a bit more than six months since I embarked on my grand adventure to start my life over from scratch, and while this has been an utterly daunting adventure at times I have found myself blessed with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work and persistence paying off.  However, it’s taken me a healthy six months to realize I never spent any time at home anymore doing the things that defined me for the better part of the past five years.  I admit that finding that balance between old and new has always been a challenge for me – the allure of reinvention is simply intoxicating.

However, slowly but surely I found a groove and along with that came a place to sit, a place to eat and a place to really live.  My home is always a work in progress, but this last move is the hardest I can ever remember and I had difficulty even figuring out where to start.  The irony in all this is that I see so many of the fantastic friends I’ve made over the years coming here to the city for completely different reasons, but bringing us all together again in ways I never imagined.

And so, this past week, I did what I always loved and never had many opportunities to do in Arlington – I threw a dinner party.  Lots of things went wrong, but they always do – I had to stay late at work, there was a line at the market, it was sleeting and I was on day eight of my cold (colds always seem to last ten days for me).  So I turned back to the classics and made what I consider one of life’s ultimate comfort foods: Potato Leek (and Celeriac) Soup.

I make no excuses for my unabashed love for the starchy tuber – it is that food that makes me feel human after the world has done its best to strip that from me, and there is something that radiates love and comfort around nearly any and every preparation.  The soup takes around 45 minutes to prepare from start to finish, and is so remarkably simple for something that drips decadence.  Both guests requested the recipe, and so I thought I’d post it here.  Be warned though, when I cook I allow the ingredients to dictate the levels of spices and seasonings, so make sure to consult with your veggies as to what they may need a little more or less of today.

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Looking back on the last post I am both embarrassed and amused by the length of time that’s passed and the foreshadowing irony in the title, but after a rather wholesome, recharging and craft-filled weekend I am ready to get back into the swing of writing, appreciating and documenting the little things again.

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So until I get my act together and get photos of my newly knitted sweaters (still on track – February is being seamed now, and March is down to the sleeves and neck binding), you are getting a slightly modified cupcake recipe that I recently whipped up for a friend’s birthday.  I found myself in the position of not knowing enough about her baked good preferences to whip up one of my more quirky options (Lavender Meyer Lemon Cupcakes, anyone?), so I searched and substituted until I found a solid vanilla cake recipe that serves as a reminder that sometimes simplicity is best… and then I can make whatever flavored icing I feel like at the moment.  This time in a nod to winter citrus I chose a light and slightly tart lemon cream cheese icing.

I like moist, light and fluffy when it comes to cakes – not dried out, not sopping with oil, but something that is a few shades denser than a sponge cake that will stand up to icing.  Also, the quality of vanilla used is essential – imitation vanilla extract is a big no-no in my kitchen.  I’m willing to pay a premium for something so understated, yet so make or break to many recipes, so I tend to stick with Penzey’s.  In my mind (and mouth), it’s totally worth it.  With these comments in mind, I present you with my recipe for simply perfect vanilla cupcakes with lemon cream cheese icing.

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Creative Goals

The holidays always blow through with such a sense of massive chaos that I’m left winded by January.  This year was perhaps even more intense after lots of traveling and house-guests which lasted for just about a month straight.  It’s always fantastic to see everyone and feel the holiday cheer, but there comes a moment when I just want to hermit up in my craft room and take time for myself to create, think and reflect.

This year, I wanted to really focus myself on specific goals for my hobbies because I collect them like others collect carnival glass or postage stamps, and if I’m not careful they’ll fall by the wayside in a tidal wave of possibilities.  So this year I decided to focus on my knitting and set the goal for a sweater a month in 2010.  No, I am not going to attempt to do a fairisle sweater a month, but something reasonable, in a yarn I love and a pattern I truly want to wear.  This is partially inspired by having the worst time finding sweaters this winter and realizing that four warm sweaters aren’t enough to get me through six months of Arctic Tundra-like weather.  Also, I knit so many scarves and socks over the holidays I’m a bit burned out on them at the moment.

January’s sweater is almost done, and as soon as I can get it photographed, I’ll put it up with information on where to get the pattern, yarn and any interesting bits I ran into along the way.  Hopefully by the end of the year I will be a sweater whiz and ready to move on to the next big thing in my hobby life, and who knows what that might be.

The Home Dairy

Yogurt

The kitchen has finally cooled off enough that I want to be in there again, or rather, the temperatures in New England have dropped so fast that I find myself wanting to use my oven and stove top for added heat.  I know that I have a lot of “odd” hobbies, but probably the one I am questioned about the most frequently and with the most enthusiasm is the concept of the home dairy.

While I wish I had cows or sheep or goats, I don’t and I can’t where we currently live, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have oodles of local dairies to choose from for raw materials that are treated with more care and respect for the product than the supermarket or big-box store brands.  Anyone can make cheese and yogurt at home, and it’s really not that difficult with the right tools and a little practice.  Perhaps the easiest I’ve found is making yogurt at home – it’s simple and it’s inexpensive when you look at the quantity and quality of product you get, and the supplies needed are minimal.

First, you will need an incubator of some sort – I use the Yogotherm available from several online retailers.  I used to use the plug-in multi-jar models when I first started, but the Yogotherm is one giant tub and uses no electricity, which means easier maintenance and clean-up all around.  Then you need a starter – I’m partial to Bulgarian starters which you can re-culture for a month or two using your first batch of yogurt.  Also, active/live bacteria cultures are a good thing.  Next comes the milk.  I prefer whole Jersey milk due to the higher fat content and richer flavor and texture, preferably from a local dairy.  The only milk that absolutely will not work is ultra-pasteurized because basically the milk has been blasted with so much heat that it no longer chemically resembles milk and the proteins have been utterly mangled.  Honestly, I stay away from that stuff with a ten foot pole at all times if possible – I’d like to keep my milk nutritionally intact, thanks!  If you want to use low or no fat milk, be aware that your yields will be much lower, and you’ll likely have to fortify the mixture with non-fat dry milk solids (not to mention that it will taste nothing like Fage Total, which is my ultimate goal).  A stainless steel pan, dairy thermometer (reads lower temperatures) and stainless steel spoon will round out the equipment arsenal.

The procedure is fairly basic, and you certainly don’t need to be handy in the kitchen to do it.  First, heat a half-gallon of milk to 180 degrees Fahrenheit  over medium heat.  Next, pour the milk into the Yogotherm “bucket” and let cool to between 110 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit.  Add in one packet of starter culture and stir or whisk to combine.  Put the top on the Yogotherm bucket, place the bucket in the insulator, and put the insulator in a non-drafty warmish (room temperature or a bit more) area for 6-8 hours.  The longer you let the yogurt sit in the incubator, the tangier it becomes.  Remove the bucket from the insulator sleeve, and put in the fridge.  Congratulations!  You have yogurt!  If you want to make fancy Greek-style yogurt, simply get a super-fine cheesecloth (not the kind you find in the supermarket, but an actual cloth used to make cheese – more like muslin) and scoop the regular yogurt into it and let hang to drain for 1-3 hours.  The whey will drip out, and you’ll have super thick and creamy yogurt remaining.

Yogurt isn’t a hard concoction to make by any means, and when you add some honey or homemade jam to sweeten far surpasses anything you can buy in the supermarket and it’s local, sustainable and healthy to boot.

Here in New England, our harvests are coming in particularly late due to the cold and wet start to a rather short summer season, but starting in early to mid-September the bounty really hit the pavement in full force.  The farmers markets ceased to look picked over at openings, and instead crates and barrels of extra veggies line the center thoroughfares making things even more congested than normal.  I couldn’t be happier, although I’m wishing I had an even bigger refrigerator and actually finished reading that root cellaring book already.

This weekend was full of rain and dreariness which is just a part of October and November here.  The grey skies are almost comforting, and the rain isn’t yet frigid (it was actually warmer outside than inside).  However, the cooler temps do signify one major change in my domestic habits – the oven becomes the pride and joy of this home.  Not only do more delicious things come out of it more frequently, but true to the New England style I try my damnedest not to turn on the heat until November 1st (yes, even if it is in the forties at night) and it becomes the primary heating element of the house.  Chilly?  Bake some cookies!  Freezing?  Roast a brisket!

It wasn’t that cold outside this weekend, but the cold nights chill down the house more than I’d like so in went a bone-in, skin-on chicken breast roasted over fall root vegetables (parsnips, rainbow carrots and purple potatoes to be precise).  I was taught the secrets to roasting chickens by my dear friend Emily T., and I’ve been at it with a passion ever since.  It’s a signature winter dinner guest dish even.  Needless to say, I was thrilled when a new meat vendor showed up at the farmer’s market (Chestnut Farms) toting an extremely reasonably priced, humanely raised, open pastured chicken breasts for roasting (it’s the favorite cut in my house).  It’s a simple dish, all in one pot with very little cleanup making for a wonderfully satisfying cold weather meal.

This was, of course followed by a blackberry pear crisp (just to keep the oven going a bit longer) for dessert.  The beautiful thing about all of this is everything (save the oats, sugar and spices) for the entire meal came from within a 100 mile radius from my house (or sourced while on vacation – the blackberries were from Pat and Bill’s delicious thornless!! patch).  I try to eat local when I can and source sustainable ingredients whenever possible,  and I’ve found that over time it has gotten easier and easier.  You learn to preserve, not focus all of your efforts on one stop shopping once monthly mega-mart trips and utilize your freezer for more than just popsicles and ice cubes.  And I’ve got to say… it tastes so much better that way too.  I don’t think I could ever go back to “normal” American style food shopping again.  I’ve spoiled my taste buds beyond the point of no return.  Just to keep from being accused of being a “food tease” (yes, this really happens), I am including the two loosely based recipes for dinner and desert below.  Enjoy them with gusto, and if possible try to support your local farmers – keeping them up and running and around for years to come is for the good of us all really.  Just think – there would be no pastoral landscapes if all the meat in the world came from the mile long steel sheds and millions-of-gallons manure lagoons of the industrial meat industry…

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Living History

I currently live just outside of the city, in a town that’s not quite a suburb but not quite urban either.  We still have public transit, and we have just enough space to eek out a couple of small gardens, but you can still see into the neighbor’s house through the window and there isn’t a whole lot of true peace and quiet to be had.  Some days I feel embraced by the city and enjoy the hustle and bustle.  I enjoy the convenience about not needing a car to go to the market, the drugstore or a few nice restaurants.  I love that a great number of our friends have moved within close proximity, so now I run into friends (and can visit them more easily) on a more regular basis.

But deep down, I miss having space of my own.  I miss nature being just out the back door, or in the driveway or eating every last beautiful flower out of the garden (okay, maybe just the novelty of seeing a deer eating the flowers is all I miss). I miss not being able to hear my neighbors conversations just because we both have our windows open.  Oh, the privacy!  One day, I have the pipe dream of moving to a grand old house in the country.  I suppose I’m just not a new construction kind of girl.  I want to feel the history seeping through every floorboard and finish.  To know as I make a pie crust by hand, I’m likely the tenth generation to do so under that roof.  To come home everyday to a house that was built by hand decades ago with all of the intricacy and detail that is completely absent from modern construction.

History is absolutely a tangible thing in a structure.  The old Victorian homes of New England creak and groan uniquely from one another, each telling the story of those who have inhabited them before; the polish on a wooden banister made by years of hands, or the divots in the center of stairs from years of footsteps. There is a kinship and warmth that comes from these houses, regardless if it has been passed down from generation to generation or bought and sold repeatedly.  There is a sense of peace as well – you are not the beginning nor the end, but instead a moment in time – which makes life seem that much more bearable and less stressful.  The machinations of a household repeating over and over, year after year bring a sense of stability that no economic bail-out or stock portfolio can do right now.

But what do people do to support themselves while living in a grand old home in the country?  I feel tied to the city because of our career choices, all the while wanting to escape it for something simpler; purer.  Do I drop everything I’ve learned in the city to do things more appropriate for the country?  Spin wool instead of picking textiles?  Thinking about these two vastly different lives accentuate in my mind the disparity in this country; the lack of understanding about how things are actually sourced, made and created.  The concept that even average people can and have made extraordinary things.  I already skirt the line of the bizarre for living so close to the city – I knit, sew, can, preserve and grow my own vegetables.  I love having people come to help me dig potatoes – the look of excitement is undeniable as they see the piles of tubers emerge from the mostly dead, yellowed plant above.  It’s a basic pleasure that so few get to actually experience, and I’m more than happy to share however I can.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get my grand old homestead, but I’ll do everything I can to cultivate those same joys in my home now and in the future.  Even in a modern kitchen, nothing beats the smell of soup cooking in the winter or pies in the oven over the holidays.  Life really is about the little things in the end, I think, even if it is often the big picture that takes our breath away… but in the meantime, I suppose it can’t hurt to dream.