Cakes and Gum Paste Flowers

It’s unfortunately been longer than I would have liked in between posts! I have been preparing for the past week for my first cake competition! It will be next Wednesday. I’m excited but extremely nervous. I decided to go with a Mother’s Day theme (the category is single-tier celebration cakes) because I needed an excuse to play with gum paste.

Here’s a preview of what I’ve been doing:

flowers

leaves

Leaves & petals

They’re supposed to be sweet peas but they remind me of a rainbow rendition of the delicate pink frilly flowers that used to light up the trees in NJ in the spring. Since I let these dry overnight, today I came back and taped together leaf pairs as well as made some accent leaves.

I’ll post an update after I paint details my flowers. Maybe that will help them look more like sweet peas…If anyone has any other suggestions, including how to form gum paste tendrils that can be wired to stick into a spray, I would love to hear it!!

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Easy & Delicious Artichokes

To stay patient while tearing off each leaf one at a time, layer by layer, with just a little bit of flesh stolen from the heart to dip in butter and scrape off with my front teeth to remind me that this process will pay off in the end. To finally remove those flimsy, pale inner petals that only serve to prick my fingers and slow me down as I get closer to the reason for disassembling this odd edible in the first place. The anticipation building as I finally – eventually – get to the core of the thing. Then, buttery flavors dance across my tongue while pleasantly coating my mouth (or perhaps that’s the melted butter…) as I take my first bite into the firm yet tender heart of the artichoke. An artichoke experience.

Happily, it’s artichoke season.

ArtichokeArtichokes as we know them are actually the flower buds of a type of thistle. According to Wikipedia, artichokes probably hail from North Africa. They are low in calories and fat and provide decent amounts of fiber and protein for possessing relatively little edible portions overall.

I’ve eaten artichoke hearts grilled. Marinated. Breaded and fried in the Italian Jewish style. And boiled in the classical this-is-how-my-mama-made-them style. So, not surprisingly, boiled is the way I most often prepare them, because it’s quick, easy, and doesn’t require any special equipment outside of a sharp knife and a pot.

Artichokes can be prepared for cooking in several ways. They can be boiled or steamed whole, or cut in half. Some of the outer leaves and inner fuzz can be removed prior to cooking or left to deal with afterward. The stem can be removed, peeled, or left whole. The choice is yours. Here’s how I make mine:

Boiled Artichoke Halves with Lemon Butter Dipping Sauce
Ingredients:
1 lemon, whole and cut in half, preferably organic
4-5 whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1/2 – 1 full-size Globe artichokes per person
Salted butter
Lemons for juicing

Directions:
1. In a pot big enough to accommodate the artichokes you will cook, fill most of the way with cold water. Squeeze the juice from the lemon halves into the water, then add the lemons, peppercorns, and bay leaf. Set aside.

2. Chop the top 1/4 to 1/3 of the artichoke leaves off and discard.

3. Remove a layer of the outermost leaves along the base of the stem. Then, trim the stem of the artichoke if you are planning on eating it: Using a paring knife, cut off the end of the stem. Then cut the outer skin from the stem towards the heart. After rotating through to reach all of the skin, cut a shallow circle around the base of the heart to disconnect the skin from the stem. If you do not plan on eating the stem, just cut it off at the base of the heart. The skin of the stem is extremely fibrous and tough, and if left unpeeled will not make for pleasant eating.

peelingremoving skintrimmed stem4. Cut the artichoke in half lengthwise. Using a table-teaspoon or a grapefruit spoon, scoop out the fuzzy area in between the soft pale inner leaves and the flat heart. Discard these bits. (You could also just cook it whole and deal with the fuzzy area when you expose the heart after eating the leaves, but I found it annoying to have to stop eating and carve out the center in the middle of dinner.)

halvedRemoving insidecored5. Add artichokes to the prepared pan of lemon-water. You can choose to cover the pot or leave it uncovered (I’m usually too impatient to keep the cover off, although boiling with the lid on can trap unpleasant flavors released by green vegetables when heat is applied). Bring water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. The artichokes are done when you can easily slip a sharp knife through the heart and they dull in color; this takes about 15-25 minutes in my experience, depending on the size of the artichokes.

cookingcooking 26. Eat plain or serve with a dipping sauce. I usually serve with a mix of equal parts melted butter and fresh lemon juice.

finisNote: The exposed heart will brown extremely quickly when exposed to air. To avoid this, add them to the reserved prepared pot of lemon water as soon as you finish trimming each piece. The acid from the lemon will keep them from browning. If you are preparing these ahead and will cook them very soon, put them in a bowl of lemon water and refrigerate before use; just don’t keep them soaking too long or the artichokes may take on extra water and their texture will be off when cooked. If you are going to make them a day ahead, hit them with a spritz of lemon juice to thoroughly coat, then cover and refrigerate (and cross your fingers…).

Enjoy!

Greens & Herbs

Spanish lavenderThe last two days were all mine to play in the dirt. I’m not sure why, but there’s just something about breaking up moist chunky soil with my fingers, yanking out dandelions and clovers by the roots, and booting grubs to the curb that I find therapeutic. (Hmmm, picking up on an outward-expression-of-aggression theme…) In the midst of all this psychological release, I finally got my raised bed ready for a new crop of veggies! This year I amended the soil with a blend of organic compost and manure to amend the soil, which was decimated last year by needy tomatoes and bell peppers. I managed to get my leafy greens planted, which will hopefully be ready to go in about 6 weeks: Swiss chard, arugula, mixed Asian stir fry greens, and 3 types of beets, 2 of which are heirloom. I also got some bush lima beans and sugar snap peas, okra, and stock flower seeds into the ground. Hopefully the 4 straight days of rain anticipated in Dallas will help water them in.

raised bedI managed to save some lettuce, Swiss chard, bok choi, and fennel from last year’s planting, and used the bricks to raise the drip irrigation lines while adding the new compost.

My started-indoors seedlings are also coming along, although I’m concerned with how leggy my broccoli is becoming. Nothing to do about it, though, it’s not ready for planting just yet, not enough leaves.

I should also mention that I’m slowing turning my front yard into a nicely landscaped edible garden. It’s so hot in Dallas that I can get away with lots of perennials, but I’m choosing ones that I can also cook with. Plus their flowers attract bees and butterflies, which helps pollinate the vegetables. Right now I’ve slipped Spanish lavender, oregano, bee balm, Mexican mint marigold, and several types of thyme in with the more traditional landscape plants.

Mexican mint marigold

Last year's Mexican mint marigold

Spanish lavender

Spanish lavender

The thyme and oregano spread to form a mat of tasty ground cover.

Thyme

Spreading thyme

Greek oregano

Greek oregano

I need to find suitable spots for artichokes, hyssop, and lemon grass, also perennials.

I also put up tepees for some gorgeous ornamental purple hyacinth beans that bloom large flowers that then sport large purple pods.

Pole setup

Last year's ornamental bean

Last year's ornamental bean

Last year's hyacinth beans

Bright Paint on the Ceiling?!?!

No, this is not a byproduct of your kid pretending to be Jackson Pollock again.

Last night I had the privilege of attending a Benjamin Moore class at West Elm, sponsored by (who else but) Benjamin Moore Paint. I admit, I was skeptical – how much would I learn? Or would I be brainwashed into thinking the BM product line is the greatest thing since sliced bread (and that’s pretty darn great)? Or, worse, would I come out of there with a brand new long list of DIY projects?

I did learn about one neat thing, and now am trying to figure out how to work this into my home: Painting the ceiling.

According to the presenters, painting the ceiling a fun color will not make the room feel like it’s falling in on you or shrinking. As long as you create a border between the walls and the ceiling. If you don’t already have crown molding, they suggested simply painting a trim stripe at the top of the wall to create the separation. Cost? 1 extra container of paint instead of yards of crown molding and a run-in with the staple gun.

Other DIY-ers are getting on board with this trend:
Younghouselove painted their nursery a beautiful pear green with an aqua ceiling, with a white trim divider (view it here). This blogger even shows a pea-green gingham painted ceiling! (That may be too much for me…I’m sticking with solids). But what a neat way to update a room and add an unexpected splash of a vibrant color without much expense!

And of course it doesn’t hurt that the BM paints are low and zero VOC even after adding pigment.

So now the question is, where can I do this in my home? We have an open floor plan on the ground floor, with only one ceiling divider. Both front rooms, the entry way, the staircase, and the bulk of the upstairs (blasted open floor plan!) have some funky faux finish from the previous homeowners that covers literally everything from the ceiling to the walls to the molding to the switch plate covers to the plantation shutters…you get the idea. So I guess that counts as already having a painted ceiling, but to me it’s almost the same as having everything in a room the same shade of white. The faux needs to go away eventually, but the coverage area is just too much right now to tackle. Maybe I’ll start in the laundry room…or in an upstairs room…

I’ve now also decided to paint the living room some shade of celery and to strip the fireplace mantle and repaint…

A Twist on a Classic Potato Leek Soup

leek soupThe leeks popping up in grocery cases recently suggest the shift from winter to spring. Premature if you ask me. They also sparked memories of my family huddling around the kitchen table with steaming bowls of potato leek soup. However, I just wasn’t in the mood for a comfort recipe. Besides, as seems to be the side theme in my life right now, I was on a quest to use up more leftovers. And this time the leftovers consisted of a glut of fennel (yes, I suppose there are worse things in life). My mom’s recipe always called for ground anise seed, which has a flavor profile similar to fennel, so I figured, why not?

Fennel Leak Soup with Scallions and Ricotta
(Adapted from Deborah Madison’s Leek & Scallion Soup with Potato Gnocchi)
Serves 4-6

Ingredients
For the soup:

1 tablespoon olive oil
4-5 cups leeks, halved and chopped (white & green parts; about 3 large leeks)
1 celery stalk, small dice
1 medium russet potato, small dice
1/2 cup fennel stalks, sliced (from 1 fennel – these are the stalks from above the bulb, but not the fronds)
4 cups water
sea salt
fresh ground pepper

fennel stalks

Fennel stalks

For the garnish:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup scallions, finely chopped (white and green parts; about 1 bunch)
1/2 cup fennel fronds, chopped
6 tablespoons ricotta cheese (whole or reduced-fat, your choice)

Directions
1. Sauté leeks, potato, celery, and fennel stalks in olive oil in a medium saucepan until the leeks are soft.

saute veg2. Add water and bring the soup to a boil. Lower heat. Cover and simmer about 20 minutes, until vegetables are cooked through and tender (especially potatoes).
3. Purée about 1 cup soup (or run a submersible blender through about 1/4 the soup). Check the consistency – if it is not smooth and creamy enough for your liking, purée more.

Pureed soup4. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
5. In a small sauté pan, sauté scallions and fennel fronds lightly in butter. The green of the scallions will intensify and they will wilt but don’t let them go too long or they will brown and turn bitter.

sauteeing6. Pour soup into bowls. Top each with a tablespoon of ricotta and 1/6 of the scallion mixture. Enjoy!
platedRecipe notes:
*I leave the skin on the potato, as this is where the nutrients are. I also enjoy chunky soups. If you prefer a smoother texture, peel the potato before dicing it and purée more of it.
*Season the soup after you have puréed it to be sure you do not add too much salt. Remember that the ricotta cheese will also add some saltiness to the soup.