going rogue

Remember last fall when I was oozing uncertainty about another season of bee keeping? Well. The tables have turned. I’m not sure exactly what transpired, but I’ve done a one-eighty. Spring can’t come fast enough (and, just for the record, it isn’t).

spring honeybee hive

I’ve got big changes up my sleeve. I’m switching from deep hive boxes to mediums. Which basically translates to “easier” lifting. Wait. Did you hear that? It was my back, already sighing with relief. I’m also converting to foundationless frames. This means my bees will draw out 100 percent of their honey comb instead of getting a pre-made starter sheet of wax foundation to guide them.

There are so many reasons why foundationless feels like the right way to go. The most obvious is that bees have drawn out their own comb for hundreds of centuries. Why we felt the need to introduce starter comb to show them the ropes, isn’t entirely clear. Also at the top of the list is a naturally healthier hive. Left to their own devices, bees tend to make smaller cell spaces. This decreases the amount of time larvae spend in the capped cells before hatching out. The shorter development time interrupts the lifecycle of the deadly varroa mite. And, foundation (which is made mostly out of wax from commercial hives) is laced with trace chemicals. Yuck. The bees have it hard enough. Why bring more garbage into their hives?

foundationless frames

I also want to raise more cut comb honey. Which means I’m going to do some radical moves this summer, like “double shook swarming” (a technique that’s just plain fun to say, if nothing else). I’ll spare you the details, but it involves strategically separating hives, placing the components back to back during the prime nectar flow and reorienting/reuniting the boxes again in the fall.

I love cut comb honey. There is, in my book, nothing finer. But for whatever reason, there’s less of a demand for it. People are shy about how to eat it. Which always steers me towards producing more extracted honey. This year though, markets be dammed. I’m ready to spread the gospel.    

These changes are invigorating. Interestingly, my decisions happened through no real process. And that’s what feels so great about it. I’m type A. I plan. I figure. I troubleshoot before the trouble. And there is always a process. This time though, answers just sort of landed in my lap without my brain inserting itself. I’m not only bucking some conventional beekeeping methods, I’m shaking up my general life strategy to boot. I’m going rogue. And I didn’t even plan it!

I’ve mentioned before how my bees bring out the best in me. They slow me down. They make me take notice. And they repeatedly remind me that there is never a concrete answer. Ever. But now they’ve taken it up a notch. They’ve outdone themselves. I let go, threw it all out there, and this is their answer. You know that Zen proverb, about the teacher appearing when the student is ready? Evidently I’m ready. Thanks girls.

cut comb revival

This isn’t a recipe, so much as a mini-manifesto. Paring knife required.

What’s all the fuss about cut comb honey? Plenty. 

At the very least, you can start your day by dropping a spoonful of honeycomb in the bottom of your cereal bowl. Smother it with hot oatmeal, add a pat of butter, a splash of milk, and swirl it all together for a breakfast that will give any cold, grey morning a run for its money. Wash it down with a shot of espresso and you’ll wonder why every morning can’t be cold and grey.

But summer will come, eventually. And when it does, you can drag your chair out to the patio, set out a slab of comb honey, some good French feta, a baguette, and if you’re lucky, a nice chunky beefsteak tomato. Pour a glass of strong sun tea and stay awhile. Hell, knock out a crossword. You’ve got all morning.

Sooner or later, though, you should get motivated. It is, after all, summer–ice cream season. Pairings are endless, but if you need a starting point, try your hand at a batch of fresh fig ice cream and top your cone with a thin sliver of honey comb. It’ll make you rethink the merits of those cold, grey mornings.

Still, when the weather turns and cool nights start rolling in, it means you can throw together big plates of crisp pears, spiced nuts, blue cheese, comb honey, and a nice pumpernickel. Set out some cold salted butter and call it dinner. But do save room for desert. There’s cupcakes glazed with bittersweet chocolate and honeycomb.

honey cupcakes with honeycomb

zing pow

Well hello! It’s been a while, no? I’m struck with a pang that this little piggy may have been written off as just another blog, dying a slow, bloggy death. But I hope that’s not the case. I’ve thought a lot about this space and what I want it to be. I’ve wrestled with trying to make it a “real” blog, but I’m not sure I have the drive for that. And maybe that’s okay, because honestly what resonates most about this place is simply that. It’s just a place. A place to write a casual note to a friend. And if the friend is lucky, maybe a recipe at the end. So if you’re good with such a note, however random or regular it may be, climb aboard. I’ll do my best to keep in touch.

Now. Lets get on to the business at hand. Bears. Friendly ones.

It’s hard to say where my loyalties laid as a kid. The happy-go-lucky, bumbling Pooh, or the exceptionally polite Paddington? They both have their merits. But lets talk about Paddington. Paddington has a suitcase with a secret compartment. This trumps an empty honey pot in my book. Well mannered, yes. But still not above pulling out his Very Hard Stare for those he disapproves of. I’m here to tell you—a well applied Very Hard Stare can take you places. And then there’s the marmalade sandwiches. How can you go argue with a bear who keeps a marmalade sandwich tucked under his hat? You can’t.

maramalade toast

After becoming fully acquainted with the bear in the blue duffel coat, I desperately wanted to love marmalade. But my 10-year-old pallet just wouldn’t go there. All those peels! And the bitterness! I knew Paddington must be onto something, but I couldn’t exactly figure out what. Though not for lack of trying, my distaste of marmalade lasted through most of my adult life. Until just a few years ago when I half-heartedly tapped into a jar of Lucia’s grapefruit marmalade. There I was one cold January morning when every last bit of wintery sunshine came hurtling though my kitchen window and landed smack dab on my piece of crusty, buttery toast. Zing pow. I get it Paddington. Finally!

Lucia’s is a long-standing favorite restaurant in uptown Minneapolis. It’s one of those comfortable places that you can’t bare to leave without buying some sort of treat to take home. My inner Paddington must have prompted me to pull a jar of marmalade off the shelf one visit. And that was it. My love affair with marmalade, or at least Lucia’s grapefruit marmalade, was set. It became a staple in my Christmas stocking. One bitter-sweet jar to be enjoyed in the bitter-sweet cold. It just had this way of evening everything out.

You may have noticed that I’m talking about Lucia’s grapefruit marmalade in the past tense. This year’s Christmas stocking was filled with many delectable items, but Lucia’s grapefruit marmalade was not one of them. “They don’t make it anymore,” is what my mom claimed when grilled about its absence. (I knew she had stopped there because Earl was the lucky recipient of a sack of Lucia’s peanut butter dog biscuits.) I was stunned. January will be okay, I thought. I’ll make it through without a jar of marmalade.

I made it precisely twenty-two days into January without a jar a of Lucia’s grapefruit marmalade. On the twenty-third day of January, the cold and endless grey skies left me no choice but to google “grapefruit marmalade recipe” and subsequently procure a few pounds of ruby red Texan grapefruit.

Having relied on Lucia for the entirety of my marmalade obsession, I was a little uncertain of my marmalade making prowess. And I’m not sure what I did actually constitutes genuine marmalade, as there was no overnight macerating as many of the recipes call for. But the recipe I finally settled on, via the New York Times, claimed marmalade, so I went with it. It also promised little “bursts of Meyer lemon” which is what ultimately swayed me.

Despite the lack of maceration, it was still a rather time consuming process, albeit a cheery one. Watching pink and yellow and sweet all meld into one was a nice cure for the winter blues. Though my level of skepticism remained high the entire time the fruit was simmering. I was seriously doubting that the water would cook off in time, but by some miracle, it did. Marmalade magic.

grapefruit marmalade in the making

I jarred up my marmalade, dubious (again) about seals forming without a proper hot-water bath. But every jar sealed. Everyone except the one I didn’t even bother putting a lid on. I think I might have eaten half the jar before even attempting to make a piece of toast. This magical concoction would also be a great compliment on a cheese plate, with brie and blue, maybe a pear and a few pecans. And, it’d be quite nice, I imagine, with roast pork or chicken. And on a turkey sandwich. Or just by the spoonful.

Having never attempted marmalade, I stuck to the recipe below pretty closely. Though I did halve it, and I also cut back on the amount of grapefruit peel. I was worried that the addition of bits of Meyers lemon with their peels might result in a peel overload. I also upped the quantity of grapefruit just a bit. My advice is to prep the peel called for and then play it by ear. Once it’s all in the pot, you can get a better sense of how peel intensive it will be. In retrospect, I still would have cut back, but maybe not quite as much as I did.

And yes, making marmalade is a process that is worth its time. Ask Paddington.

Grapefruit and Meyer Lemon Marmalade
(from June Taylor of Still-Room, via the New York Times )

5 pounds grapefruit (strong vote for organic here)
5 Meyer lemons (again, organic is best)
½ cup lemon juice (from 2 to 3 additional lemons)
2 ½ pounds sugar

Remove the grapefruit skin with a vegetable peeler. Cut the peel into 1/8-inch slivers; stop when you have 3/4 cup. Discard the rest. Slice off the ends of the grapefruit and the remaining grapefruit peel and pith. Remove grapefruit segments, reserving membrane. Stop when you have 5 cups of segments.

Cut the ends off the Meyer lemons, deep enough so you can see the flesh. Leaving the peel on, remove the segments of lemon and reserve the membrane. Cut the segments crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces. (I found this to be the trickiest part. Use a small paring knife to cut the lemons so you can detach the membrane while still leaving the fruit attached to the peel.)

Put membranes from the grapefruit and Meyer lemons in a jelly bag and tie closed.

In a wide and deep pot, combine the grapefruit segments, grapefruit peel, lemon pieces and jelly bag. Add lemon juice and 2 1/2 cups water. Simmer until the grapefruit peel is tender, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool.

Preheat the oven to 225 F. Working over a bowl in your sink, squeeze the liquid from the jelly bag; keep squeezing and wringing it out until you extract 1/3 to 1/2 cup of pectin. Add pectin and sugar to the pot. Place over high heat and boil, stirring now and then, until marmalade is between 222 and 225 degrees and passes the plate test. (Spoon a little onto a plate and put in the fridge for 3 minutes. If it thickens like jam, it is done.)

Meanwhile, put 6 sterilized 8-ounce canning jars and lids on a baking sheet and place in the oven. When jam is done, remove jars from the oven. Ladle jam into the jars, filling them as high as possible. Wipe the rims. Fasten the lid tightly. Let cool. If you don’t get a vacuum seal, refrigerate the jam. (Makes 6 8-ounce jars)

grapefruit marmalade

no path to power

My eyesight is notoriously bad. I was that bashful 2-year-old with the dorky glasses. Can I just say that kid’s eyewear has come a long way since the 1970’s? Fashion aside, I’ve never opened my eyes in the morning to anything but a very big blur. And it troubles me to report that the lush green blur that’s been gracing my bedroom window is tuning suspiciously yellow.

I do love fall, really. I’m just not ready to say goodbye to summer. In my world, summer is never hot enough nor long enough. But this one felt especially pinched. I knew things weren’t right when even my hobbies started to feel like chores.

Garlic, vegetables, honeybees. Too many living things were vying for my attention this summer. When all my attention really wanted to do with its meager free time was sit in the sun and get lost in a book. But attention knows better and it opted instead to tend to its commitments. Which sometimes left attention feeling resentful and cranky. It’s ridiculous, really—that selfishness should rear it’s head in the face of such great abundance. Still, I’m pretty sure I threatened to take up needlepoint and crop art at least twice.

bee journal notes

This summer’s bee journal is littered with harried notes, question marks, and “should haves.” Which, to be honest, isn’t all that different from other years, but something was lacking this year. My heart.

I found myself dashing out to the bee yard with just enough time to perform the minimal duties to make sure everybody got by. And everybody did. The bees provided a fine honey crop, despite my lack of participation. But even that left me feeling a little defeated. Now I had to find time to extract, bottle, label, and clean up. As with most things I undertake, my economy of scale is exactly wrong. Which sometimes seems like all I’ve managed to do is create extra work for myself. Clearly it’s time to reflect.

I wrapped up my tenth summer of beekeeping not sure if I’m ready to commit to an eleventh. I typically wait until the thick of winter to pull my bee books off the shelf for inspiration, but this unfamiliar feeling I had couldn’t wait that long. I went straight to Richard Taylor, my hero of beekeepers. His writing is practical, witty, and full of wisdom. One of my favorites is his Comb Honey Book. This felt like an especially appropriate choice since my attempts at comb honey this summer were unsuccessful. Managing bees to raise comb honey is an art, for sure—which means that just going through the motions probably isn’t going to cut it. It didn’t.

frame of bees

Partially I revisited Taylor’s book for management strategies. But really I was looking for a bigger answer. Why do I keep bees? What keeps me returning to this hobby that can be expensive, time consuming, and heart breaking? Is it worth consistently making three trips to the apiary because I forgot something I didn’t know I needed at home? Only four pages into the book and Taylor offered this up:

…the way of life available to a serious beekeeper offers a special kind of fulfillment. It is no path to power or riches, but it does offer, or at least make possible, rewards that are vastly more precious. A beekeeper’s work can be not merely a means of production, but an art that has its place within the total scheme of life, which is itself an art. It challenges both body and mind, demanding not only endurance and strength but the cultivation of great skill, and at the same time calls forth from within one the inventor, the artist, the poet, and the worshipper. The beekeeper has constantly before him some of the most exquisite of nature’s creations, often the beauty of nature that no gallery or temple can rival, and through his own ingenuity and skill he is able to offer to others the loveliest product of nature.”

Damn. That’s a hell of an answer. And one that left me thoroughly humbled. Because he’s right. My bees do all of those things. How grateful I am to be a part of their ancient world. I can’t deny that some days I yearn for fewer obligations. But at what cost? I’ll take all the help I can get channeling my inner inventor, artist, poet, and worshipper. I doubt that hours spent hunched over the crop art table glueing amaranth seeds into place would provide such perspective. Maybe, but for now at least, I’m in for another season of bees—no matter how many extra trips it takes. 

wax curl

p.s. That said, I do have honey for sale I’d love to share with you. Drop me a note if you’re interested and we can work out the details.

raising the roof

We’ve arrived. Finally, it’s Minnesota State Fair season. Which basically means I revert to being 12—begging to go, while also getting overly nostalgic for my home state. And, it gets me thinking about my dad.

fairchild

My father was a man of habit. He could have served as a fire safety spokesman for as routinely as he changed our smoke detector batteries. Saturday nights invariably involved t-bones on the grill and caesar salad made with his recipe clipping from St. Paul’s iconic Blue Horse restaurant. On weekday mornings our kitchen radio was tuned to Minnesota Public Radio, but on weekends he went rogue and switched over to am—WCCO. The day after Thanksgiving meant vacuuming behind the refrigerator, an event which was actually scheduled in his date book. Who does that?

At any rate, in my college years I came to predict a phone call each Labor Day. “Wanna go to the races?” he’d ask. “My treat.” It was forever his treat—this invitation to the Minnesota State Fair Speedway. I’m sure I respectfully begged off more times than I said yes, wheels I wish I could turn back of course. (Insert your own poignant quote about not taking things for granted here.)

By and large, my dad was a liberal, suit and tie, let’s meet for a martini at five o’clock sort of guy. Later in life he earned a black belt in Aikido, hopped on the local foods movement, and took up meditation. None of these lifestyle choices, however, curbed his love of stock car racing. I grew up watching the Daytona and Indy 500s, learning about the racers, their cars, and the pit crews. So when the big time ASA racers made their annual, one day trek to Minnesota, he hated to miss it.

And what a great venue. I mean on what other tack does the winner get a post-race glass of milk presented by Princess Kay of the Milky Way? Forget the prize money. This is serious incentive. The late Dick Trickle was a long standing crowd favorite, and we could raise the roof for him with the best of them. We’d get a couple of Kiwanis Club malts (which my father insisted were better than the official malts from the Dairy Building) and find seats as close to the track as possible to watch the next 300 laps unfold.

Dick Trickle and Princess Kay

My dad outlived racing at the fairgrounds, but only by two years. In 2002 the classic half-mile mile track saw it’s final Labor Day race. Fans were uprooted when the the fair board voted later that fall not to put forth the $4.5 million needed to update the track for just one day of racing a year. It was an abrupt end to a 95 year tradition.

I haven’t been to a stock car race since, but that’s probably just as well. My head turns when I hear a broadcast, but it’d be hard to top the two of us taking in the last bit of summer with the mesmerizing drone of engines racing by. My dad was not without some hard edges. I know, because I pretty much have the same ones. And we went head to head plenty of times. But if there was one thing we could pull off, it was knowing how to do the easy, uncomplicated parts right.

Happy summer friends.

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!


instapig

when the beekeeper gets to make her own cake. rosemary vanilla layered with blackberry preserves. #cake #bees #beehappy #bakehappy loads of bee babies this year. just did another richard taylor shook swarm! #swarmseason #bees #beekeeping #beehappy #runningoutofboxes looked in on 3 full hives today and saw just 2 bees with red hot pants. wonder where they've been! #partypants #pollen #bees  #beekeeping