Sharing my passions

As any good Grandma, I eagerly awaited the weekend when my daughter and her husband were coming to stay with their two young children – my grandkids. My favorite part of those weekends is sharing my favorite interests with those toddlers.

The preparations started long before, when I IMG_2944pulled out my sewing machine and brushed up my embroidery skills to make personalized aprons for the kids.  They both love to bake, as I do, and I couldn’t wait to surprise them with the matching aprons.  And of course I had several baking projects lined up.  They are eager helpers, and willingly donned their new aprons.  But there is no question that licking the bowl was the best part.  Who can argue with that?IMG_0017

No day in Duluth is complete without a visit to the Lake.  I run or cycle by it daily and savor its many moods.  Even on a dreary day, Ben was eager to throw rocks in the lake.  This time he took a liking to the large boulders as well, scaling their heights fearlessly.

I did reserve some mother-daughter time to goIMG_0486 for a run with my daughter, Karen.  That’s a passion I passed on to her, and between my aging body and her busy working mommy life our paces still manage to stay close enough to run and talk.  That’s our special time together.  The grandkids aren’t quite ready to join us yet, but don’t tell Mya.  She thinks she is.

IMG_2922Even Rich was not immune to the inquisitive young minds.  Each morning his favorite birdwatching perch on the window seat was invaded by the little ones.  He willingly pointed out the various species out in his beloved bird feeders, sharing on his own personal interest.  I don’t know which held their attention more, the birds or the antics of the squirrels.  But they were precious moments together.

I’m already anticipating their next visit.  Hopefully by then we’ll have snow on the ground.  That opens up a whole new world of passions to share.

Happy Trails

Happy trails to you, at Honeywell you’re through,
Happy trails to you, bid Honeywell adieu.
Who cares about the work if you’re retired?
No more will you get calls that keep you wired!
Happy trails to you, Honeywell adieu!

Picture about a dozen folks gatheredDSCN8155 trimmed in D’Amico and Sons, our favorite restaurant, singing lustily to the old Roy Rogers tune. My husband, Rich, is the one riding off into the sunset. It was the evening of his last day of work, heading into retirement after over 28 years with the company. Surrounded by family and a few close friends, he had a broad grin on his face.

DSCN8171 trimmedIt was a fitting celebration, with old memories, silly gifts, roasts and toasts. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to write a “little poem,” my favorite way to deliver a tribute. Okay, so it was 132 lines long. But there was a lot to cover in 28 years. Rich trotted out some memorabilia of his own, including his performance appraisals from 12 years ago. The kids got a kick out of reading the sections on “where you can improve.”

DSCN8184 trimmedOur daughter, Karen, came through with her cake-decorating prowess. This time it was literally a “trail” cake, with a winding path around the outside of the cake, and a toy bike for Rich to ride away. Not only was it pretty, but it tasted delicious – spice cake with raspberry filling. Mmmm. After much admiration, it was rapidly consumed. I was so glad I had delegated that job to her!

With the festivities over, we are now entering a new era – retirement together. For now that will include plenty of time on the trails. With two long distance bike trips totaling 2,500 total miles, we have plenty to keep us occupied. One is our Upper Mississippi River Tour, coming up in just over two weeks. The other is the what Rich is calling his “long belated college graduation trip” in the Maritime provinces of Canada. That’s the biggie, at about 2,000 miles over two months later in the summer. Happy Trails indeed!IMG_9884 trimmed

Christmas Cookie Experiments

It seemed like a good idea.  Rich’s dad mentioned Tinker’s Dark Cookies last year, so I tucked the idea away and thought I’d add them to the package of his favorite Christmas cookies that I send him each December.  I managed to procure the recipe through pure luck.  My sister-in-law happened to be down visiting Dad in Florida, and she copied the recipe out of his wife’s hand written cookbook.  I was in business!

Until I read the recipe…  Hmmm, a list of ingredients, two conflicting sets of times and temperatures for the oven, and a note that warned not to grease the cookie sheets.  That’s it.  I figured I could deal with that, but on looking more closely I realized the real problem.  It called for 1/2 box raisins, 1/2 box currants and 1/2 package fruitcake mix.  Just how big were boxes and packages way back when she made them?  It was probably in the 60’s or so, as Rich remembers the cookies.  And there’s no asking his mom or Tinker any more.

Technology to the rescue.  Surely this recipe must lurk out on the internet somewhere.  After numerous google searches, haunting recipe sites and trying all combinations of descriptions and ingredients, I gave up.  It’s not there.  So next I tried the history approach. What does Sunmaid have to say about their packages back in the 60’s?  Nada.  They’re not telling. Not unless you’re interested in those little snack boxes.

I was on my own.  I was going to have to guess at the quantities.  In my mind, it boiled down to this:  Have packages increased in size along with the super-sizing of American palates?  Or have they shrunk with the marketing ploy that avoids raising prices by reducing the quantities we are buying?  Or have they done both?  In the end, I decided on the middle road, and just used existing package sizes.

Mixing up the batter, it seemed more cake-like than cookie dough.  It was rich and dark with molasses, spices and lots of fruit.  And no eggs.  I Cookie dough after adding more fruitcrossed my fingers and baked a cookie sheet full.  Rich was my official taster and quality critic, and I waited as he delivered his verdict.  He remembered more fruit and less nuts.  And the cookies spread more than his mom’s. Okay, version 2. Dumping in more of each fruit and making the cookies smaller resulted in a pretty nice little cookie.  Yes, that’s closer he declared!

Good enough, I figured, and finished baking the rest of the dough.  And Tinker's Dark Cookiesfrom the other room, Rich commented that they smelled good – just as he remembered.  The positive feedback was appreciated, as I waded through the uncertainty of this process.  I had to taste a few along the way for my own reassurance, and had to admit they were pretty tasty.  Moist and sweet, they’d be great with a cup of coffee.

The cookies have all been boxed up with care, and the package is in the mail.  I’ll know if it was a good idea or not when Dad samples the contents.  If they meet with satisfaction, I’m golden.  I have carefully recorded my own precise measurements and methods for these  cookies.  I hope I’m done experimenting on this recipe.

Morning Muffins

I was tired of looking at the two boxes of Raisin Bran that were languishing on the shelf.  I bought them for my son, but he does not appear to be as fond of the cereal as he claimed.  So I dug out an old recipe for refrigerator muffins.  I got it from a co-worker in my very first real job, and that was more than a few years ago.  But I remembered it as being a good one.  The beauty is that it uses a whole box of Raisin Bran cereal and a full quart of buttermilk.  So no leftovers of odd ingredients.  And the batter lasts six weeks in the refrigerator.

I whipped up the recipe, baked a few muffins and stashed the remainder of the batter in the fridge.  Those first muffins were not what I remembered – the bran flakes had not had time to fully soak into the batter and I could discern individual flakes in a white batter.  The next set I baked a few days later, however, were perfect.  Dark brown inside with a hearty flavor.  Good lesson – they improve with time.  The best part was being able to pop a few into the oven early in the morning and Voila! fresh warm muffins.  It worked especially well when we had overnight company.  I could spoil her with home made muffins right out of the oven without the distraction of mixing them up while she was there.  And for several weeks afterwards, I had muffins at will.  I even got that same son to bake up a batch for himself to take to work in his lunches.  Turns out he likes the cereal better in muffins.

If one refrigerator muffin recipe is good, there must be more, right?  Sure enough, a search on the internet turned up numerous variations.  The one that caught my eye was for pumpkin muffins, of course.  It is still a bran muffin, which in my opinion is a good thing – they’re my favorite.  But the addition of pumpkin and fall spices like cinnamon, cloves and allspice make for a tasty muffin.  This one makes a smaller batch, and only lasts two weeks in the refrigerator.  And now I have leftover canned pumpkin and buttermilk.  Maybe that calls for a second batch.  This recipe is from Pillsbury.

Here are versions of the recipes you can print or save:

Raisin Bran Muffins and Refrigerator Pumpkin Bran Muffins

Happy muffin mornings!

All things pumpkin

I love fall.  And this year’s foliage as been particularly spectacular, especially Up North.  The yellows, oranges and reds all burst on the scene at once, rather than being interspersed with the more reluctant trees still holding on to their green.  I don’t know when I have enjoyed the colors more.

But there is something I anticipate even more.  Pumpkin bagels.  I wait all year for Brueggers to bring them back for the fall season.  I haunt their doors and hope they have enough for me to bring home a dozen.  And of course, they are the best when fresh and spread with pumpkin cream cheese.  Mmmmm.

Earlier this fall, while still waiting for pumpkin bagel season to start, I found something new – pumpkin English muffins!  Yup, none other than Thomas’ English muffins makes them.  They toast up crispy and spicy, and slathered with peanut butter they complement my coffee nicely in the morning.

Even though canned pumpkin allows us to bake pumpkin muffins all year long, somehow they taste best in the fall.  Pumpkin chocolate chip is a particularly decadent version, and a favorite of my daughter’s.  I prefer Bran Pumpkin muffins with raisins or dates.  I needn’t even mention pumpkin pie.  It’s a required staple on our Thanksgiving table.

Pumpkins themselves are particularly appealing.  The outdoor fall decor at the New Scenic Cafe caught my eye as I passed by on my bike recently – so festive and seasonal.  There is nothing like a pumpkin patch, and searching out just the right pumpkins for carving.   It’s been a few years since we’ve carved a pumpkin, but what is better than inviting a mess by scooping out seeds and carving the face?  And I love to see the candle flickering inside, illuminating the pumpkin’s personality.

Hmmm, I think I will have to pay those grandkids a visit soon.  Perhaps they need help carving their pumpkins.  And I’m sure they’d love a pumpkin bagel.

These cookies are Ambrosia

You never know where you will find a good recipe.  This time it was at the South Bay B&B on Lake Whatcom, near Bellingham, Washington.  We were there with our youngest son, Erik, who was a high school senior at the time.  These chocolate chip cookies kept magically reappearing as Erik cheerfully did his part to empty the cookie jar each time he passed.  I had to agree, they were good.  Fortunately our hostess easily parted with the recipe, which she readily admitted came off the enormous bag Ambrosia chocolate chips.

Now I have plenty of experience in failing to successfully replicate others’ recipes.  But this one truly worked.  My results were every bit as good as those at the B&B, and disappeared equally quickly.  Over time, in different kitchens and any season, these cookies consistently turn out to my liking.  That is no minor feat.  Not only are they my family’s favorite, but my son-in-law and now my grandson both ask for them.  What more evidence do I need?  After all these years of testing cookie recipes, I think I can say with utmost confidence that I have finally found the formula for the ultimate chocolate chip cookie.  It is moist, chewy, substantial and generously pocked with chocolate chips.  Nothing better.

I can also attest to the durability of this recipe.  It stands up to a 2-year-old’s manipulation and fascination with dough.  Baking cookies has become a favorite activity of mine with my grandson.  He has his own idea about how cookies should be formed.  But the result is still always delicious.  And he and his daddy are happy when they get to take a bunch home.

Sadly, the lovely B&B is no longer in operation.  But it will be fondly remembered each time we bite into a chocolate chip cookie, because it is unlikely I will use any other recipe.

In the event that you have the same passion for home made chocolate chip cookies, I can save you a lot of research and trials.  Here is the coveted recipe:

Here is a copy of the recipe you can print or save:  Ambrosia Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe

Now I will have to start on a new recipe quest.  I don’t think my family will mind.

Cookie Help

That search for the ultimate cookie recipe?  I guess I have been at it even longer than I thought.  Just recently, while browsing through a shelf of my lesser-used cookbooks, thinking it was time to prune the collection, I came across a thin volume titled The Complete Chocolate Chip Cookie Book.  Inside was an inscription from my sister and a date – December 30, 1982 – for my wedding shower!  It would appear to have all the advice I need.  Chapter headings include Tools, Ingredients, Worries, People and An Everyday How-To.  Oh, and it even has a definition, complete with illustration: “The perfect chocolate chip cookie is not so crispy as to be dry, nor so gooey as to be wet.”  Hmmm, close enough to my own personal view.  Clearly, this deserves a reread, and perhaps a promotion to my “current” cookbook shelf.  It’s worth a try…  And best of all, my find triggered warm memories, almost as delectable as a chewy chocolate chip cookie!

Cookie Perfection

What’s your definition of a perfect cookie?  Mine would include words like chewy, thick and substantial.  I like a cookie that you can bite into and feel its heft, but not experience a crunch.  It would include lots of chocolate chips, probably oatmeal, and sometimes peanut butter.  So how come it’s so hard to get them to turn out right?  What makes a cookie dribble out into flatness, or turn crisp when you give it just a few more seconds in the oven?  How do you find that fine line between doughy and overdone?  Over the years, I have tried innumerable recipes in search of that perfect cookie.  I even lured over my elderly former-cateress neighbor to give me baking lessons, as her cookies always defined perfection.  But once back on my own, even her recipe failed to achieve.

I do have one secret remedy.  Those overly-crisp cookies?  Just sneak a piece of bread into the cookie jar with them – and voila, soft cookies!  Works every time, and infuriates my son who happily devours my trials and happens to prefer crispy cookies.  But still, I persist.  I’m determined to get it right.  And there are far worse endeavors and by-products!

Life’s Simple Pleasures

It is so easy to rush through life, making lists, checking off our accomplishments, cramming as much in as we possibly can.  But it’s really the little things that are important.  And it means slowing down to savor those experiences.

That’s where grandchildren come in.  I supplied the Easter cut-out cookies, my daughter contributed the brilliant icing colors, and my grandson provided the joy.  Who knew a 22-month-old could spend over an hour dabbing frosting on cookies?  It did me a world of good to shove my perfectionist tendencies aside and embrace his approach to slathering color at will on the fanciful shapes.  Purple duck?  Why not!  Spotted carrots?  Creativity!  Broken cookie?  Samples!  Mixed up frosting?  New colors!

The results were delightful, and I smile every time I open the cookie jar and survey the intense hues before making my selection.  I can’t wait to make Christmas cookies!