Posts Tagged 'Spring'

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.

slow tilt

Yesterday was the vernal equinox. And, like every year, I had such high hopes. I went to bed Saturday night, filled with promise. But I knew right away Sunday morning that something had gone awry. I laid in bed, listening to the tell-tale sound of a shovel at work. Once I established I was truly awake and no longer dreaming I went to the window for a final confirmation. Sure enough, I looked down to see my husband Mark clearing off the deck, the dog futilely trying to catch each shovelful of snow. I tapped on the window and gave a meek wave.

This wasn’t at all what I had in mind for the first day of spring. But I could rally. It’s still the day when the earth miraculously straightens itself out and faces the sun dead on. And this excites me. We’re on the home stretch. The sun is finally starting its slow tilt towards the sun. An effort that can only lead to good things. I poured myself a hot cup of coffee, put on my boots, and went out to assess the damage.

The world was white, cold, wet, and drippy. Searching for optimism, I wedged open the purple garden gate and stepped inside my sanctuary. My favorite flowered chair (hand painted by my sister-in-law) was still sufficiently snowed into the corner of the garden. I took a seat anyways and gave things the once over. I spied the tip of a green onion that had more or less survived under a blanket of snow. It wasn’t completely full of life, but it was mildly reassuring to see something in that shade of green. The hand-cut dogwood sticks I use to mark the garlic rows were just poking above the surface of the snow. That was encouraging. I got up and went to investigate the parsnip bed. It was still covered with heavy blankets of snow and straw, but I knew the value of the jewels stowed beneath. I set off looking for other glimmers of hope, but the false crust of snow quickly gave way to my weight and my boots filled with what felt like especially cold snow.

Enough of that. I retreated back inside. I found Hoops (our very wise cat) next to the wood stove, nestled deep into a box of bee supplies I had recently ordered. The two of us seemed to be on the same page. This day was clearly meant meant for cozying up. And baking. I wavered between some sort of elaborate tropical meringue with pineapple or mango or coconut – and something more fiery. I opted for the later. Partially because my pantry was lacking in the tropical fruit department, and also because I had just discovered we were out of eggs until this week’s local egg drop from Spirit Creek Farm.

I found a spicy hot ginger cookie recipe that fit my mood perfectly. And bonus – no eggs required. The recipe is from Breakfast · Lunch · Tea, a cookbook from the Rose Bakery in Paris. It’s a lovely book, filled with inspiring photography and scrumptious recipes, all perfect for – you guessed it – breakfast, lunch and tea. I have overly ambitious plans of making a complete Rose Bakery brunch later this spring. We’ll see if I can pull it off.
These cookies (or biscuits, to be more Brittish about it) are zingy and not overly sweet – my favorite combination. They are packed with the warmth of ginger and the cayenne adds a perfect heat that sort of hits you after you’ve swallowed. I’m glad to have a cookie jar full of these zesty treats, because from the looks of the forecast, the sun is just not tilting fast enough.
A few recipe notes: I substituted a mild honey for the corn syrup the recipe originally calls for. The recipe also calls for 1 1/2 tablespoons of baking soda, which seems excessive to me. I scaled it back to 1 1/2 teaspoons. I didn’t have self-risng flour, so I substituted cake flour (which has a lower gluten content similar to self-rising) and added 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt per cup of flour. So about 3 teaspoons powder and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Lastly, I topped the cookies with a generous pinch of large grained raw sugar – which gives them an occasional extra sweet crunch.

Hot Gingernut Biscuits (adapted from Rose Carrarini’s Breakfast · Lunch · Tea)

200 grams (scant 1 cup) unsalted butter, cubed, room temperature
440 grams (scant 3 cups) self-rising flour
150 grams (3/4 cup) sugar
3 tablespoons ground ginger
healthy pinch of cayenne pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
240 grams (8 ounces) mild honey
40 grams (2 ounces) molasses
Raw sugar for sprinkling on top

Blend the dry ingredients in a mixer for a few minutes to combine well. Add the cubed butter and mix until it is incorporated into the flour. Gently warm the honey and molasses in a small sauce pan and add it to the flour mixture. Mix to form a stiff dough. Break off pieces of dough and roll them into 1 inch circles. Place on a parchment lined baking sheet and bake at 325º F for about 10 minutes. When the cookies are fresh, hot from the oven, give each cooke a pinch of raw sugar.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies