live large

Last week I did exactly what they warn you about. I went back. I took a perfectly good childhood memory and jimmied open the door. I went to Disney World.

My brother surprised his two daughters at Christmas with a spring trip to the Magic Kingdom and invited me to tag along. I was hesitant to say the least. It’s not that I’m anti-Disney, quite the contrary. I have such fond memories of my own childhood trips that it seemed foolish to tamper with them. I’ve also heard one too many adult horror stories of barely surviving endless lines, non-stop piped in music, whiny kids, bad food, and overall crowded chaos. Five things I make a point to avoid.

Still, it was snowy and below zero outside when the offer came. My nieces’ tears of joy around the Christmas tree pushed me over the edge. I was in.

cinderella's castle

As our trip approached I started getting texts from my nieces. What color magic band did I want? (yellow) Should we do a character dinner? (of course) Did I want a homemade autograph book? (hell yes!) Oh, and by the way, we’re staying at the Contemporary Resort. (you know, where the monorail passes right through the hotel) Clearly my brother was embracing our father’s approach to vacation. Which can be summed up in three words. Do it right. Generally speaking our dad lived a modest lifestyle, well within his means, but when it came to vacations, he did not scrimp. Vacation was a time to check out of ordinary life and live large.

My excitement was brewing. Trepidation crept back in though when nearly every respectable adult who asked where I was going responded with a sardonic “why?” upon hearing my answer. I even got a few “heaven help you” sort of responses. Did they know something I didn’t? Maybe it wasn’t quite as magical as I remembered. I forged on, and even boned up on all the Disney movies I’ve missed over the past decade (for the record, Stitch is my new favorite character.) And I knew I was going in from a position of strength—I was riding on my nieces’ pure, undiluted enthusiasm. That’s powerful stuff. 

Here’s my report. Disney has changed. When I was a kid, Mickey and the gang roamed the streets at large. Now you have to pay to dine or endure long waits to get a giant mouse hug. In my day, there were lines for sure, but they were shorter. Fast passes didn’t exist. Nor did meal plans, or magic bands, or park hoper passes, or magic hours. It just seemed simpler, and a little less structured.

But the upshot, for me anyway, is that it’s still a magical place. People (albeit a lot of them) are generally happy to be there. The staff (who even go so far as to call themselves cast membrs) are happy to be there. There is a good mood vibe that’s easy to tap into. I surprised myself at how fast I embraced the fantasy of it all. I ignored my phone, emails, and even my Instagram feed. Can I tell you how refreshing that felt? It made the piped in music seem not so bad.

hidden mickey

I discovered that my brother does an uncanny impersonation of Mickey Mouse. He turned more than one head with his act. Forty three years I’ve known this man. Not once have I heard him pull out a Mickey Mouse voice. Untapped talent, I tell you. I also learned the fine art of looking for hidden Mickeys. A definite high point, and something I wasn’t privy too as a kid. The jokes on the Jungle Cruise are as corny as ever, Space Mountain is still a spectacular thrill, and the People Mover (yes, the People Mover) remains on my top 5 list. I could live in Tomorrow Land.

I have to admit that going in I was probably most worried about the coffee situation. I don’t drink a lot of of coffee, but I’m extremely particular about getting at least one rock solid cup. So much so that I dutifully packed my aero press and a bag of Big Water, Bayfield roasted Sea Smoke. I fumbled and crept around the hotel room the first morning, only to discover a great double Americano down in the lobby. I also stumbled on a perfectly steeped four-minute Kona french press at the Polynesian Village. Definitely worth a morning monorail trip. My aero press sat untouched the rest of the trip.

On the food front, there is plenty of fried, unhealthy, and poorly cooked mishaps to be sure. But it didn’t take much work to find some real gems. Everything I ate at Epcot was delicious. I’m still thinking about some of it. Potato and goat cheese ravioli with fennel leek cream from Norway, stuffed grape leaves and baba ghanoush from Morocco, the dank tequila cave in Mexico. They were all home runs. But even in the more kid-centric Magic Kingdom I did alright. My two best vegetarian friendly scores (besides a great black bean bowl at the Tortuga Tavern) were a beautifully cooked, salt crusted baked potato from the Liberty Square Market and a cup of good old fashioned, nicely buttered green beans from Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe. Brilliant.  

Cosmic Rays

So, would I go back? Maybe. My nieces’ zeal certainly raised the bar. I’m not sure how it’d be without that unbridled energy. But I will say this. One late afternoon during our standard retreat to the hotel to regroup and cool off, my brother and I sat pool side in the delicious Florida sun, drinking an ice cold beer, watching his kids swim, talking about nothing in particular, and I was slapped with one of those rare, flawless moments of perfection. Had the fairy godmother herself appeared (and I knew she was close by because I spied her at the head of a long line earlier in the day) I’d have been hard pressed to make three wishes. My wishes were full. Complete. Not bad for a dubious princess. Not bad at all.

autograph book

sugar snack

Remember my friend Kris? The one who brought a plate of sprouts as a hostess gift? Which subsequently turned me into a sprouting fool? Well she’s also the woman who nudged me into beekeeping. It’s a hobby I’d flirted with, but until what I’m pretty sure amounted to Kris rigging a holiday gift swap so that a copy of Sue Hubbell’s A Book of Bees: and How to Keep Them ended up in my hands, I wasn’t really ready to jump in. As romantic as it sounded, I think there was something about boxes of stinging insects that gave me the heebie-jeebies.

But guess what? I finished Hubbell’s book and I knew, almost certainly, that I wanted bees. Or at least I wanted a hive that I could sit and have a sandwich with. My heebie-jeebies were gone. Well, mostly gone. Gone enough for me to register for a two-day crash course in beekeeping at the University of Minnesota. Forty-eight hours with Dr. Marla Spivak (a renowned bee researcher) and her sidekick Gary Rueter put me over the edge.

winter beekeeping

I came home, fumbled my way through building hive boxes and wrangling delicate wax sheets into wooden frames. Not really a hard job, but one with a bit of a learning curve for sure. Later that spring, I got a somewhat terse call from my local post office. It was 7:00 a.m. and they wanted me to know that three pounds of bees were waiting for me. Outside. In the back alley.

I love that you can still order bees and chickens through the mail. It feels very pony express-like. Which, in a way, it sort of is. Most bees packages come via truck from apiaries in California. It seems like an arduous journey. The queen gets a luxury sweet, tucked into her own private little mesh cage with a few worker attendants to accompany her. The rest of the bees are stuffed into shoebox size, wood and wire box surrounding the queen. There are always a handful of unlucky bees who don’t get sealed inside. Amazingly, most of them manage to make the 2000+ mile journey clinging precariously to the outside.

It is, of course, best if you can install the weary travelers into their new home as soon as possible. From the few times I’ve ordered bee packages though, I’ve learned that the arrival of bees almost always triggers a major weather event—typically a blizzard. So if need be, they can spend another few days tucked inside somewhere. A few spritzes of sugar water through their wire mesh is all they need.

Getting the bees situated is a pretty painless job. At this point in the game, they’ve got nothing to protect and are simply looking for a place to set up shop, which means they’re mild mannered. All that’s required is to pry open their wooden top, remove the mini-queen cage (tucking her safely in a warm pocket is a good idea) and give the box of bees a good upsidedown whack into an empty hive box. The bees (about 12,000 of them) literally just pour out. I remember Gary from bee class instructing to use the hive tool (a mini crowbar-type tool) to spread them around, “just like pizza sauce.” Which is of course what I now visualize every time I spread pizza sauce. Thanks Gary.

Frames of foundation—containing the same delicate wax sheets you toiled over weeks ago—are added to the hive, and the queen gets nestled in last. Then it’s best to shut up the hive and let them acclimate to their new surroundings. If the weather cooperates, they’ll be out flying and getting down to business within a day.

bee-treats

I’ve been lucky. I’m going into my tenth year of beekeeping and I’ve only had to buy a handful of packages. My overwintering success has been good, allowing me to split and divide them to make new hives as they grow. But I almost always have to nurse my bees along a bit in the spring.

After a few months of well deserved rest, the queen—miraculously perceiving a change in season—resumes laying eggs in February. This means by March there is a growing number of baby bee mouths to feed. And where I live, the first dandelion doesn’t typically bloom until well into April. Sometimes even May. So if the hive is low on stored honey, they can starve to death, right when things are beginning to look hopeful.

I bring any hive that seems like they need it a homemade sugar snack to get them over the hump until the nectar is flowing naturally. Their treat is a simple boiled sugar mixture that, in candy making speak, has reached the soft-ball stage. What results is a nice, moist, pliable sheet of bee candy. I also slip my hives a “pollen patty”—a substance that mimics the protein structure of real pollen–which the bees use to rear their young.

So even though spring officially arrives on scene today, I was in the kitchen making sugary, glossy bee treats. And since I was already there with an apron on, I also whipped up a small batch of honey shortbread cookies. After all, I’m going to need something to accompany that first sandwich of the season out at the hives, right? Happy spring friends!

honey pecan shortbread

Honey Lavender Pecan Cookies

The lavender is optional, but I was feeling particularly springy, and it seemed like it would be a nice floral addition. It was. Like most shortbread, these are not overly sweet and are great for dunking.

1 1/2 ounces (or roughly 1/3 cup pecans) 3/4 teaspoon culinary lavender flowers (optional) 4 ounces (1/2 cup) unsalted butter 6 ounces (or roughly half of 1/3 cup of honey) 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1 cup flour 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt 1 tablespoon honey for glaze

Toast the pecans on a cookie sheet in a 325º Foven for 8-10 minutes. Let cool and pulse them in a food processor with the lavender flowers until they are ground up, but still a little coarse.

In a mixing bowl, beat the butter, honey and vanilla until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add in ground nuts, flour and salt, and mix until just combines and the dough starts to come together in a ball. Turn out onto a piece of parchment, wrap, and chill for an hour or two. (You could easily pack a picnic lunch while your dough chills, just saying.)

Let dough come to room temperature for a few minute before forming into roughly 1-inch balls. Flatten with a flat bottom glass dipped in flour.

Bake about 18-20 minutes in a 325ºF oven until lightly browned. Remove from oven and while cookies are still warm, brush their tops with honey. Makes about 15 cookies. Recipe doubles easily.

for what it’s worth

Well, here we are. A solid week into daylight-saving time. A nice indicator of spring for sure, but other than that, it’s a practice I’m not fond of. The only foreseeable gain is that it keeps my 18 year old cat Hoops hoodwinked for a good week or two. Which means I get a reprieve from him standing on my head in the morning. For an old guy he keeps pretty good time He knows exactly when breakfast is.

I’m one of those people who needs all the help they can get in the morning. Just when I’ve thought I’ve made it through the worst of it, right when rolling out of bed starts getting bearable again, they go and take away the light. Moving this extra light to the end of the day only gets me into trouble. “I don’t need to start cooking yet,” I think “look how high the sun is in the sky!” Which inevitably leads to sitting down to a late dinner, missing my bedtime, and making the next dark morning all the more difficult. It’s a vicious cycle. Why can’t we just leave the light where it belongs?

There. That’s my rant.

sunshine

It seems like we’re on the fast track to spring though, which means we should talk about rutabagas. Because before we know it social norms will dictate putting away the wool and pressing our whites, shuffling the bourbon bottle to the back of the cabinet to make room for the gin, and rutabagas being forced to take a back seat. I know. Try to hold yourself together.

Here’s the thing to remember about rutabagas. They’re humble. They remind you exactly where you are. And food that is humble is food that lets you surrender—the meals that evoke a sigh and tell you it’s okay to give in. You know how certain foods keep you thankful and hopeful, all at the same time? A rutabaga can do this.

I know this because my winter Hermit Creek Farm share is keeping me well endowed with rutabagas—a vegetable that I might otherwise be accused of overlooking. But to my credit, I’m not alone in this. Turns out there is a lack of rutabaga recipes. I scoured the classics (The Joy has an excellent Winter Root Vegetable Braise) and rifled my collection of old church basement cookbooks (rutabaga puree with cream is the most popular), but overall, the pickings were pretty slim.

rutabagas

Recognizing there are only so many roads to go down with an unflappable root vegetable, I’ve been hell bent on being creative with my stash. And here’s what I’ve learned in my rutabaga trials. Dijon mustard, maple syrup, and cream are a rutabaga’s three best friends. You can pretty much do anything to a rutabaga, and as long as you add one (or more) of these players, things will go just fine.

The church ladies were indeed onto something. It’s hard to beat a plate of mashed rutabagas with a little cream and maple syrup folded in. Cube up a rutabaga, braise in a skillet with a bit of water, and when the cubes are tender and the water is evaporated, mash them up with a fork or hand blender, adding cream, maple, salt and pepper to taste. This will make any long day will feel better, I promise.

My most recent, and fanciest undertaking was rutabaga pancakes. Which is really just a riff on potato pancakes. Only I traded onions for apples and added a handful of Gruyère cheese. Heading my rule, I also made a simple maple mustard cream sauce.

If you need some prodding to actually seek out a rutabaga, this is it. There’s still time. We’re pushing it, but bringing roots into the kitchen is still proper etiquette. Either way it’s worth it. Worth it to watch this underdog of a vegetable knock it out of the park. Worth it to put such a simple food on the table. And worth it to be reminded of our very good luck, as tenuous as it can sometimes feel. 

rutabaga cakes

Rutabaga Pancakes

1 pound rutabagas, peeled and grated
1 small apple (or half of a large one), grated
1 teaspoon salt
few grinds of pepper
3 scallions, chopped
handful of grated cheese, Gruyère or other (about 2 ounces)
2 small eggs (or one jumbo), beaten
3 tablespoons potato starch
rounded 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
vegetable oil, for frying
scallions, for garnish

hot smoked paprika, for garnish

Maple Mustard Cream Sauce

3/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon maple syrup

Mix the grated rutabaga and apple together in a medium bowl. Add the salt and pepper, working it in with your fingers a bit to help release some juices. Stir in the scallions, cheese, potato starch, and baking powder. Fold in the eggs and mix well.

Pour a healthy slick of oil in a skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, use a large spoon or 1/4 cup measurer to drop batter in. Lightly press out the cakes with a spatula, and cook about 4-5 minutes on each side until golden and crisp. Transfer to a paper towel lined plate. Wipe out skillet between batched and repeat, placing a fresh paper towel on the stack of cakes.

For the sauce, bring the cream to a light boil in a heavy sauce pan, letting it cook down about 5 or so minutes until it is slightly thickened. Remove from heat and stir in Dijon and maple syrup.

Serve cakes warm, drizzled with sauce, scallions, and a pinch of hot paprika. Makes about 12 cakes.

*These also reheat well in a warm oven. And, they’re even good cold. Like when you’re running out the door in the morning, late, and haven’t had time for a proper breakfast.

cry uncle

I’m one of those people who genuinely struggles with winter. I like winter, and somehow I’ve managed to tackle 43 of them, but not without effort. I have all the prerequisite gear: sorels, skis, mukluks, snowshoes, down parka, yaktrax, thick woolly socks, a pom-pom hat, you name it.

But I also have Raynaud’s. Which means my blood vessels are prone to spasming. Spasming that cuts off circulation to my fingers, toes, nose, ears, and yes, even my butt cheeks. More often than not, these extremities are in some crazy shade of blue or white and are pretty much numb. It can be a real buzz kill.

Still, I try. This year more than ever, I’ve made it a point to embrace the cold. When we got our first blizzard in early November, I took it as an opportunity to expand our snowshoe trails. When the thermometer got stuck below zero in December, I just quit looking and went outside anyway. And when we were dealt a long string of grey days in January, I donned my pom-pom hat and remained cheerful.

lemons

But this week? This week it’s all over. Winter has officially pinned me down and made me cry uncle.

It’s my own fault. I made a tactical error of spending a long weekend in California. California, where it was bright, and sunny, and warm. It only bothered me a teeny tiny bit that they are struggling through their worst drought ever and I was visiting in what should be the rainy season. Plus one for climate change. I came home with a stiff neck for how much time my face spent involuntarily craned towards the sun.

But I can’t pin my winter resignation solely on the sunny weather. The company had a hand in it too. Allow me do the math. Five lifelong friends renting a beach house + 4 bright, sunny, warm days in an otherwise cold grey stretch = nothing can compare, so don’t even bother trying, and good luck getting on with the rest of winter. Sigh.

I spent my teenage summers with these four women, but we weren’t doing typical girly stuff. Instead, we were backpacking through the mountains via Camp Widjiwagan. Together we traversed the Bighorns in Wyoming, the Beartoooths in Montana, then northward to the Canadian Rockies, and finally, a six week trip (complete with 2 air food drops) to Kluane National Park in the Yukon.

Let me tell you, when you spend 43 nights together in a tent, you get to know each other pretty much inside and out. And when you do things like break camp in the early pre-dawn to forge a stream that’s too raging to cross during the day because of glacial melt, certain sort of trust emerges.

kluane-circa1989

I guess there is an inexplicable bond that forms when you make the choice to drop off the map together, into the wild with only yourselves to rely on. That’s the only way I can account for the five of us, living all across the country, leading very different lives, still being able to come together and instantly join at the hip.

What a relief it is to have people like this. You can check your back story at the door, because they already know it by heart. These are the friends who you’ll stay up late with, spilling wine on your jammies. The ones you’ll stumble down to the beach with, hot coffee in hand, for some morning yoga. The ones who’s job it is to restore you. The ones who will make you feel 18 and invincible.

Can you see how winter got the upper hand?

I arrived back in the land of cold and perpetual grey with a few bright reminders tucked in my carry on. Citrus from my friend Cari’s lemon and lime trees. I set my gems on the counter and fixated on them all week long. I grew overly attached. In the end, I more or less had to force myself to use them. I just couldn’t bear to relinquish thier bright, sunny energy. Finally, reason kicked in and I understood that watching them gradually rot would be worse.

little-lemony-loaf

Which is how I wound up with three lovely little lemon loafs sitting on the counter instead. Not a bad trade off. Because now, instead of putting on an extra layer to go out, I can just stay in and have another slice of encouragement. Uncle.

Lemon Cake
(adapted from Rose Carrarini’s Breakfast Lunch Tea)

This is a subtle, unobtrusive lemon cake, laced with almond flour. And like the book it originates from, it is absolutely perfect for breakfast, lunch, and tea.

1 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
juice and zest of 2 average size lemons
1 rounded teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon almond flour
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

For the glaze:
juice of 1 lemon or lime
1 1/4 cups powdered sugar

Beat butter and sugar until light and creamy. Add eggs in, one at a time, beating well after each. Add vanilla, lemon juice, and zest. In a separate bowl, mix dry ingredients together with a whisk and gently fold into the batter.

Pour batter into a well buttered pan (1 loaf, 3 smaller loafs, an 8-inch – whatever strikes you) and bake about 35 minutes. Your choice in pans might affect baking time, so watch closely towards the end and don’t over bake, leaving you with dry cake! Top should be golden and a toothpick should come out clean.

Let cool, remove from pan, and drench with the glaze (which is simply well combine lemon (or lime) juice and powdered sugar).

disected lemons

walking italy

My slide into the new year has been a good one. After successfully completing two family visits, I arrived home just past midnight on Christmas, threw the car keys into a drawer, and left them there until January 5th. An introvert’s dream come true.

I got straight to work on a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Mary Poppins floating gracefully above the London skyline. And I ate. A lot. I followed up our traditional Christmas fondue and Swiss raclette with my favorite bean stew. I made smashed avocado and eggs topped with my favorite Rio Fuego hot sauce, and my friend Kris introduced me to a new Italian sweet – potica, a simple walnut bread that blew my tastebuds several mornings in a row.

breakfast

I broiled grapefruit with cardamom sugar and ate as much fresh pineapple as my unacclimated, northern mouth could possibly handle. There were black bean-poblano-mushroom enchiladas, plump artichokes dipped in lemon butter, and copious amounts of spicy caramelized peanuts. To fully celebrate citrus season, I made mini key lime tarts and polished off a case of clementines.  A neighbor dropped by a loaf of homemade raisin-nut bread that made a week’s worth of remarkable toast. And I tested out my brand new “kladdkaka” pan with a Swedish chocolate sticky cake.

To compensate for this gluttony, I snowshoed. A lot. An excessive amount, really.

trail

I should explain. Back in July, I received a seemingly benign Fitbit for my birthday. Which is really nothing more than a trumped up pedometer. And I admit, when I first heard of the Fitbit, I scoffed. Have we really become that sedentary that we need to track our steps?! What is wrong with us?! The well intentioned folks at Fitbit suggest that walking 10,000 steps a day is a reasonable, healthy fitness goal. Again, I scoffed. No problem. I’m active. Bring it on, Fitbit.

Oh how naive I was. It was a blow to discover that taking Earl for a quick morning spin, parking my car a decent distance from my office door, going up and down a flight of stairs a handful of times to use the restroom, walking across campus for lunch and maybe once or twice more for a meeting, then taking Earl for a quick evening spin yielded roughly 4,000 steps. Not even half of the recommended goal. That’s when I got serious. I am now a full-blown, self-acknowledged, Fitbit fool. 

Midway though my eleven day puzzle, eat, snowshoe stint, I received a note from Fitbit congratulating me on earning my Italy badge. Which means that since owning my Fitbit,  I have walked 736 miles – the entire length of Italy. Our snow came early this year, wreaking havoc on my walking route. I was in despair for a full week until my clever husband pulled our snowshoes out of the shed. I figure almost a third of my journey has has been via snowshoe. Which is a heck of a way to see Italy!

Happy 2015 friends. Here’s to many great steps…

kladdkaka

Swedish Chocolate Sticky Cake

Until my mother – lover of all things cookware – gave me a kladdkaka pan, I’d never heard of one. But the pan came with a recipe for chocolate sticky cake tucked inside, which I think has become my new go-to brownie recipe. The edges are chewy and the interior is perfectly, well, sticky. You could easily make this in an 8-inch too – though you’d be missing out on the handsome fluted edges. (plus, “kladdkaka” is just fun to say.) It’s an intense, sweet cake that goes lovely with a shot of espresso at about two in the afternoon.

1/2 cup butter at room temperature
1 1/3 cups white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 pinch salt
2 eggs
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
handful of cocoa nibs (optional)

Beat butter, sugar, vanilla, cocoa, and salt together. Mix in eggs and blend well. Stir in flour and optional cocoa nibs until just combined.

Pour batter into greased kladdkaka or 8-inch pan. Bake on the lower rack of a 350º F oven for 25-30 minutes*, until center is just set.

Let cool for 15-20 minutes. Run a knife or spatual around edges to loosen. Hold a plate in place over the pan and invert to release cake.

*This will yeild a slightly oozy cake that can be served as is, or with whipped cream or vanilla bean ice cream. For a slightly firmer, more brownie-like texture, bake the cake a bit longer until the center is mostly set.

2:00 snacky

button therapy

My late mother-in-law (Muriel Anne on paper, Mutsy in my heart) kept a white cardboard box in her office that she simply called her “happy box.”  Muriel had thirteen years after her husband died and she made good use of them by traveling the world over. Her happy box was filled with 8×10 glossies of her adventures. Wildly colorful hot air balloons, arctic polar bears, Indian temples, grazing giraffes. Her happy box could take you places.

When the family undertook the heartbreaking job of sorting through the home that sustained forty-four years of marriage and five kids, I walked away with two treasures. Musty’s recipe for lazy lady donuts and her button bag. Both have served me well.

The donut recipe, well, that hardly needs explanation, does it? But the buttons. The buttons have evolved. When I got home I poured her buttons into my grandma’s little wooden sewing box that was sitting empty on a shelf. I was surprised at how long I could sit, just running my fingers through Mutsy’s plastic jewels. Every once and a while I’d stop and line up a few favorites to admire. Then I’d mix them up and do it all over again. Button therapy.

button box

I put the box back on my bookshelf. But I kept coming back to it. Every time I slid the lid off, I’d discover a new favorite beauty. Sorting through the buttons brought me a strange peace. I’m not sure how many visits it took for me to realize that I now had my very own “happy box.” A box full of bits of flashy color. A box full of history. A box full of potential. Everything about my button box makes me happy.

So last December, when I set out to create a word of the day advent calendar, I knew wanted to showcase some of Mutsy’s buttons. Now I get an extra jolt of button bliss when I hang the daily word. I reflect on the buttons almost as much as I do the words. Both make me slow down and pause, which is a nice tap on the shoulder reminder – especially this time of year.

advent calendar

I’ve been stuck on one of last week’s word. Alacrity. Which, admittedly, I had to look up the first time I came across it. But the definition stayed with me.

Alacrity (n): a brisk and cheerful readiness to do something.

A real nugget of advice when you stop and think about it. I mean, it’s sort of silly to approach life any other way. I like to think of it as channeling my inner Mary Poppins. Which is not to say you’ll routinely find me singing and waltzing through the halls with my umbrella. But it does encourage me to stay present and keep an eye out for little unexpected joys. Because they’re everywhere, aren’t they? Sometimes it just takes the right outlook to find them.

buttonsEnjoy the season!

undiluted joy

Holy winter did we get snow last week. The fifteen or so inches that fell isn’t a particularly unusual accumulation for the Lake Superior snow belt, but it was a wee bit early. I think we can all agree on that. The storm caught almost all of us off guard. Climate change is so unsettling, isn’t it?

cold-guy

Needless to say, it took almost twenty four hours for me to remember my bees. My bees! The electric fencer is still plugged in and is now shorting out! The bottom air vents on the hives are buried in snow! My bees need me! Clearly I was going to be late for work.

That’s the thing about winter that I always forget. Everything takes LONGER. Getting dressed takes longer – stripy tight season, long underwear, and multiple layers. Getting out the door takes longer – which coat, what scarf, and where’s my hat? Warming up (please start) and scrapping the car takes longer. And the commute. The commute is a lesson in patience that takes F-O-R-E-V-E-R. Eventually this all becomes second nature. But the first week is brutal.

I did make a detour to the bee yard on my way to work, but I was frazzled by the time I got there. I donned my snow pants (more layers, yea!), grabbed my green shovel, and tromped through the snow to unplug the electric fence. I scraped out around the hives and snuggled up close to have a listen inside. The moment I heard their low, sweet buzz, I sank down in the snow and sighed. It gets me every time.

Suddenly I wasn’t late for work. I wasn’t ticked offed by winter’s early onset. And I didn’t care that my entire left sock was half way down my heel. I was just with my bees. It was that simple. Eventually I pulled myself away and landed back in the reality of Wednesday. But for a good minute or two I was in a state of undiluted joy. Which may not sound like much, but I’ll take it. Those two minutes carried me through the rest of a very long week, thank you.

hive-cap

As luck would have it, I also have a stack of honey comb in the pantry to help carry me though the brunt of winter. There’s plenty of extracted liquid honey too, which is nice for cooking and baking, but for almost any other use, I reach for comb honey. It’s like regular honey, only supercharged with texture and flavor. And it’s laced with enzymes and pollen to boot.

Comb honey used to be the honey of choice among consumers because it was guaranteed 100 percent honey with no additives. But once bottled honey became a regulated commodity in the early 1900’s, comb honey gradually fell out of fashion. It’s slowly becoming trendy, but even so, a lot of people just aren’t sure what to do with it. And I don’t blame them. Because really, you’re asking them to eat wax. Nowhere in the food pyramid does wax appear.

comb honey

I initiate people by suggesting they dip a knife into the comb honey and spread a thin layer onto warm buttered toast. This comes with the caveat that doing so could lead to an excessive desire for toast and honey. Which really, in the scheme of things, isn’t so bad. Is it?

Comb honey is also melts deliciously into oatmeal and hot cereals. I like it in my tea too – most of the comb dissolves, but there are usually a few mini honey rafts floating about that I quite enjoy. It’s terrific sliced thin and served with cheese and fruit (blue cheese and crisp pears are a favorite). Very dark, bitter chocolate and a dab of comb honey is a duo to write home about. And it’s an unbeatable, natural sweet pick me up when eaten straight by the spoonful – chewy and soothing.

I use comb honey liberally in the kitchen. I like to experiment and see what it does to flavors. My only rules are to slice it thin and use it sparingly. I want it to complement, not overshadow.  When I needed a fast appetizer a few months ago, I stuck some feta cheese under the broiler for a few minutes, opened a box of rice crackers and assembled little baked feta honey bites. It was so easy and good that I’ve repeated it a half dozen times since. It’s got that sweet, salty, savory mix that I love.

Winter may have come earlier than expected, but its chilly winds bring a welcomed kick in the pants to get back in the kitchen and play. Eat well and keep cozy!

honey bites

P.S. The bees had a marvelous summer and I do have extra comb honey and bottled honey for sale. Comb honey is tricky to ship, but if you live in the Chequamegon Bay Area, I deliver! More info here.

Roasted Feta Honey Bites

These are dynamite served while the feta is still warm, but they are mighty fine at room temperature too.

feta cheese
olive oil
comb honey
crackers

Slice the feta into pieces about 3/8” thick. Place on a lightly oiled baking sheet or cast iron skillet. Drizzle very lightly with olive oil.

Broil the cheese until it is just beginning to turn golden brown on top, about 5 minutes, depending on your broiler. Watch it closely! It will get a little bit melty, but once it cools it holds it’s shape nicely.

Remove from oven and let cool a few minutes. When it is firm enough to handle, use a spatula or knife to transfer cheese pieces to individual crackers.

Top each with a thin slice of comb honey.

baked fets

chill meter

Sha-wing! Did you hear that? That was August. My dear, sweet August, flying by. I could live in August forever. A bottomless supply of tomato sandwiches, cat naps in the the corn patch, icy fruit popsicles, sweet peas gracing my windowsill, and a stack of beach reads. What else is there, really?

sweet-pea

If I play my cards right (I did), August also means a highly anticipated trip to the Minnesota State Fair. I grew up with the fair and I’m sort of a nut about it. Which is amusing. Because crowds, fried food on a stick, and highly stimulating situations generally make me run. But you’d never guess it, to see the way my faces lights up crossing over the Como Avenue skywalk into the fairgrounds. All bets are off, I tell you.

And without fail, August also brings a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters. My number one rule about the Boundary Waters is this: always go. No matter how busy, stressed, or complicated life may be, always go. I actually wrote this rule down in a notebook seven years ago and it seems to have stuck. Some trips aren’t as long as I’d like, but still, it’s time in the wild. This year, though, we landed a full 7 days. Heaven.

This didn’t, however, keep me from racing around like a fool before the trip. Business to take care of, food to prep, camping gear to mend, and house sitter details to work out. My desk was littered with “to-do” notes. At the height of the pre-trip hubbub I mentioned in an e-mail to my friend Gail that I needed to “figure out the chaos of my life” and that with any luck I’d “have an epiphany” on the trip. She sent me back a one line response: “or not, spontaneous epiphanies are good…laborious epiphanies not so much and they might interfere with your chill.”

My chill? Epiphanies be dammed. Nothing was going to stand in the way of my chill. Nothing. I should mention that Gail is, quite possibly, my wisest and most inspirational friend. Her advice is typically worth heeding.

boundary waters chill

It was a top-ten, five star trip. We hit the peak of wild blueberry season, ran into remarkably few people, and had a turtle count in the double digits. Cool nights let me burry deep into my down sleeping bag and afternoons warmed up enough to play multiple rounds of “lizard basking on hot granite” (one of my very favorite pastimes).

I discovered author Ruth Rendell and had Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford to keep me company on the trail. Nothing like a good old-fashioned English whodunit to nod off to sleep with. Rendell gave my vocabulary a run for its money. Words like bedizened (dressed up or decorated gaudily) and anathema (something or someone that one vehemently dislikes) left me begging for a pocket dictionary. And I came away with a new favorite expression: “needs must when the devil drives.”

I worked hard, slept even harder, and ate well. I delighted in the fact that, as always while camping, my life was brimming with mindfulness. Every step on the portage trail was a step to be considered and noticed. I always knew right where my pocket knife and lip balm were. Meals were efficient, simple, and satiating. My greatest anticipation was our daily “after-chores” swim. There was no clutter, no wasted energy, no laborious thought. My chill meter was pegged, baby.

There is nothing in my world that beats a week in the woods. I come back glowing and super-charged every time. Still, it’s good to come back. Back to the shores of Lake Superior. Back to the corn patch. Back to my chaotic life. Back to September, where there is still plenty of time to enjoy an icy fruit pop. And maybe, just maybe, back to a spontaneous epiphany. Happy summer.

icy pop

Tart Cherry Icy Lime Pops

1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen tart cherries (to make a healthy 1 cup of puree)
1/2 cup greek honey yogurt (or 1/2 cup plain greek yogurt with 1-2 tablespoons honey stirred in)
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
1/3 cup sugar + 1/3 cup water for a simple syrup

Simmer the sugar and water together, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Chill this mixture in the freezer while you prep the rest of the pops.

Blitz the cherries in a food processor to make a generous cup of puree. Add more fruit if necessary. I like mine pureed pretty finely, but you can leave the mixture chunkier if you prefer a bit of texture. Combine puree with the rest of the ingredients, ideally in a large pourable measuring cup. Stir in the chilled simple syrup and whisk to blend.  Pour the mixture into popsicle molds, or, in a pinch, dixie cups. Insert sticks and freeze at least 8 hours or overnight. Makes about 5-6 popsicles, depending on the size of the mold.

* You can, of course, substitute different fruits. Just vary the amount of sweetness to suit your tastes. Some fruits may pair better with lemon too. The simple syrup gives texture to the pops and keeps them from turning too icy.

cherry-puree

bee flop

I’m a list person. I write lists to help empty out my head. The idea of course, is to get my jumbled thoughts on paper, thereby freeing up precious mental space for something else. I keep an ongoing work related notebook, and at the back of each of these books are pages and pages of neat, tiny lists. And, yes, I even break my lists into sublists. Things I need to do for work, people I need to talk to, items I’m on the look out for, errands I need to run, perfect dinner party menus. You name it, I can subcategorize it. I can’t help it. It’s genetic.

But mostly I write lists to help maintain an illusion of control. That said, I’ve learned to be careful when making bee yard lists. Yes, there are always routine jobs that need doing, but I’ve come to understand that most of the big bee jobs are unpredictable. You might know certain tasks are impending, but generally there are so many variables, it’s hard to say exactly when they’ll need doing. Making them difficult to plan for. This is hard for me. Which is why I couldn’t stop myself from writing “split hives” on a list a few weeks ago.

pink-bees

The problem is that as a beehive grows in population, it can start to feel a little cramped inside. At a certain point, the bees will take matters into their own hands and split themselves into two populations. They do this by swarming. Which means that half of the hive leaves (with half the honey stores) to find a new home. The really rad part of all this is that bees have the ability and wherewithal to raise a new queen for the hive when they need one. All fertilized eggs that the queen lays develop into female worker bees, UNTIL the workers decide to provide the growing larvae different nutrition. Just that slight change in diet changes larvae from a developing worker bee into a developing queen.

Prior to swarming the bees will start raising a handful of queens, just to be sure at least one survives. The bees know (miraculously) that it takes 21 days for a queen to fully develop. Shortly before the new queens begin to hatch, roughly half of the bees will fill up on honey, surround themselves around the old queen, exit the hive, and take off to a new home. Like clockwork, the queen cells in the hive begin to hatch. The first queen out wins, as she will promptly begin to destroy any unhatched queen cells. Her second task is to exit the hive – her one and only foray into the world – to be mated so she can return and resume the role of egg layer for the good of the hive. Problem solved.

As a beekeeper though, an even better solution is to keep the exiting swarm of bees in your possession. There are two ways to accomplish this. Catch the swarm before it sets off for new real estate and install them into an empty hive, or manually split the hive into two BEFORE they get the notion to do it themselves. Method one requires vigilance and a healthy bit of luck that the swarm actually lands where it’s retrievable. But method two, method two, you can plan for.

incoming

I knew that Hallie Frances’ hive was strong coming out of winter. And she didn’t miss a beat with resuming laying eggs this spring. So I also knew it was only a matter of time before they would start to think about swarming. Hence my preemptive list item. I was going to beat them to the punch.

My plan was to pick a fine day where I had plenty of time to more or less dissect Hallie’s hive. I’d find the queen, isolate the frame that she was on, and then hand pick an assortment of ten other frames – a nice mix of honey, pollen, capped brood, and fresh eggs – to create a second hive. Then I’d put the frame with the queen on it back into the the initial hive and reassemble it with empty frames to replace the ones I’d removed. The new hive would get to work raising themselves a fresh queen, and Hallie’s hive would have their breathing room.

Ha.

It sounds so perfect, doesn’t it? Which is why I looked at my list one fine day and decided the time had come. But here’s the thing. Nothing went according to plan. In three full boxes of bees, I could not find Hallie to save my life. I always find the queen. Always, except for when I’m looking for her. And halfway through the job, my overtired back decided it was done lifting heavy things. Like done, done. As I was looking around at the mess of boxes and frames I’d created, dubious  that I’d find the energy to put it all back, a rogue thunderstorm rolled in on my perfectly fine day. And on top of all that, this very full hive of bees showed absolutely no signs of swarming (they’ll often pre-build telltale queen cells). Everything last little thing was telling me that this hive simply did not want to be split.

bee-mess

Wet, tired, and disappointed, I laid down on my back next to the hive in defeat. A wood tick creeped along the inside of my veil. Eventually, I got up, put everything back together how I found it and headed for home. I keep bee notes in my calendar and when I got in and sat down at my desk I simply wrote “bee flop.”

But after a few days, I realized that it wasn’t actually a bee flop at all. The bees were fine. It was just a list malfunction. As is often the case, it took three boxes of bees to remind me of something big. My lists are futile. They may make me feel more on top of things, but not necessarily the things that count. As much as it makes my precise type-A personality squirm, deep down I know that there’ll be no tally of how many things get crossed off my tiny, neat lists. Life is much bigger than that. Thank god.

“The days aren’t discarded or collected, they are bees that burned with sweetness or maddened the sting: the struggle continues, the journeys go and come between honey and pain. No, the net of years doesn’t unweave: there is no net.” – Pablo Neruda, Still Another Day

just because

A few weeks ago I was talking to my mother, lamenting the quality of plain old cotton dish towels. I’m spoiled, see, because way back (and I do mean way back) when I moved away from home into my first apartment, I was granted a stack of my grandmother’s hand embroidered flour sack dish towels. At first I just thought they were cute. A little salt dish, three kittens frolicking, a cheery teapot. They made dish drying an event.

salty-dogs

But over the years, as Grandma Myrtle’s flour sacks have become stained and thread bare, a few brand spankin’ new towels have made their way into my kitchen drawer. And I just need to ask, at what point in our history did dish towels stop absorbing water? The new towels seem to excel at spreading a thin film of water over the dishes. Whats more, they’re boring. Hence the grumbling to my mother.

I really had no motive. It was just honest complaining. But last Friday, there was an unexpected package in the mailbox. It was soft and had a nice weight to it. Like all unexpected packages, I let it sit on the table a while before opening it. That’s half the fun of an unexpected package, after all. When my anticipation meter was sufficiently pegged, I slit the tape and (surprise!) was greeted with a gently used stack of Myrtle’s handiwork. I didn’t know there were any left after all of these years. My mom has been holding out on me.

monday

But she made up for it by sending me a “days of the week” set of towels. Each one features a perky dog undertaking a daily scheduled activity. There’s the market on Thursday, cleaning on Friday, and baking on Saturday (cupcakes even!). Sunday is church, of course, followed by laundry on Monday, which naturally leads to ironing on Tuesday.  But that’s where the fun stops. There were only six towels in the package. What the hell am I supposed to do on Wednesday?

My mother’s theory, based on the note she enclosed, is that Wednesday must simply be a day off. I do not buy this. Is it gardening? Mending? Canning? Or maybe Wednesday is the day set aside for painstakingly embroidering inanimate objects onto dish towels, using no less than three thread colors per towel. The fact that women of my grandmother’s era routinely did this stuns me. And it actually leaves me feeling a wee bit envious.

How rich to have the skill, the time, and the patience to embellish something that could just as easily be left plain. And why? Just because, I’m guessing. To prove you can transform a cut up flour sack into a bonafide kitchen towel worthy of display. Finding a treasure on Etsy can’t possibly compare in the satisfaction department. I examine Myrtle’s neat, precise little stitches and feel a little gyped.

busy-dog

I am pretty confident that my grandma’s plate was as chock full of things to get done as mine is, probably more so when you really get down to it. So I long to know how she made time for all the little “just because” things. The things you don’t have to do, but that leave you feeling better if you do. The things that put an extra little shine on our day. The things that are easy to forget about when we get busy.

However she pulled it off, it seems worth exploring. Maybe I’ll rustle up one of Myrtle’s old embroidery hoops so I can make a proper towel for Wednesday. My stitching skills are dreadful I’m sure, and life would certainly forge on without it, but isn’t that exactly the point? In our age of modern convenience and instant gratification it’s nice to remember that the process can outshine the outcome.

bake-on


instapig

rearranging the furniture #swarmseason #beekeeping #mayhem #honeybees the disney diaries (long and short of it in profile link) #wdw #magical to infinity and beyond! #wdw #spacemountain #magical