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Downton Abbey’s crumpets have nothing on these English muffins

Here’s the thing. It’s January. It’s Ohio. It’s cold. And snowy. And windy.  All anyone can talk about is the weather. The truth is, we’re all pretty tired of talking about it. And hearing about it. In fact, the phrase “Stay warm” appeared on the meh list of the Jan. 26 New York Times magazine.

Staying warm is only one of my concerns. Staying sane is up there at the top of the list. Some people watch endless television. Some fire up their snow blowers (this is akin to those who mow incessantly in the summer.) I lean toward running but when the temps are below zero, even I have to forgo the roads for the treadmill.

So…what to do? Bake. Always. There is nothing — nothing — that warms the house — and heart — and satisfies hunger quite like homemade bread. And if the person with whom you live has the cold to end all colds, what better reason than to bake his absolute favorite — English muffins. Yep, they’re labor-intensive. Don’t believe the recipes that say they’re “easy.” They’re not. But hey, when the weather outside is frightful, what better time to tackle a challenge?
muffin 1

muffin 2

muffin 3

As usual, I had to adjust the recipe. I used more than half whole wheat flour because we were nearly out of white. I threw in some wheat germ and flax for extra flavor. Hours later — literally — we had rustic English muffins that, when split and toasted, have those perfect nooks and crannies   that cradle melted butter or nut butters and honey.
muffin 4

English Muffins
(I mixed the ingredients in a food processor, but you may use a dough hook on your mixer or by hand with a wooden spoon. These are cooked on a griddle/skillet on top of the stove or an electric skillet.)
1 tbsp. or 1 package active dry yeast

1/4 c. warm water (105-115 degrees F.)
1 c. warm milk (105-115 degrees F. — I used reconstituted powdered milk)
1 tbsp. sugar (I used agave, but you can also use honey)
1 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 egg, at room temperature, beaten
2 3/4 to 3 1/4 c. all-purpose flour (I used about half whole wheat flour)
Cornmeal
Note: I also added a few tablespoons of wheat germ and flax seed)

1. In a large bowl, soften the yeast in the water.
2. Add the milk, sugar (or alternative), salt, oil, egg, and 1 c. of the flour to the yeast mixture. Mix in a food processor with the dough blade, or with a mixer/dough hook, or by hand for 2 minutes.
3. Gradually add more flour, 1/4 c. at a time, until the dough forms a mass and begins to pull away from the bowl. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface.
4. Knead, adding more flour, a little at a time, for 8-10 minutes, or until dough is smooth and elastic, and blisters begin to develop on the surface.
5. Put the dough into an oiled bowl, turning to coat the entire ball of dough. Cover with a towel and let rise for about 1 hour, or until doubled in size.
6. Turn the dough out onto a lightly oiled surface. Using a rolling pin, roll to a thickness of 1/4 inch. Let the dough rest for two minutes so the muffins don’t shrink when cut.
7. With a 3-inch round cutter, cut the dough into rounds and place about one inch apart on baking sheets sprinkled lightly with cornmeal. Gather the dough scraps and knead into a smooth ball. Cover and let rise for 5 minutes to allow gluten to relax before re-rolling. Roll and cut as before.
8. Cover the muffins loosely with a towel and let rise for 45 minutes.
9. Heat a heavy griddle or skillet (or electric skillet) over medium heat until hot. (Saves time to have two skillets going at once.) Brush the cooking surface lightly with oil and reduce the heat to low.
10. Gently place the muffins on the griddle, cornmeal side down. Bake the muffins for 2 minutes on each side, then continue to bake for 10 minutes more, turning them every two minutes for a total of 14 minutes cooking time
11. Watch carefully so they do not burn!
12. Cool the muffins on a rack. If not eating immediately, store in a plastic bag and split with a fork before toasting.

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Gordon Lightfoot and a really Wacky Cake

It was 1969 when Gordon Lightfoot wrote “If you could read my mind, love, what a tale my thoughts would tell….” The song may have been about the breakup of his marriage, but the lyrics were solid gold for even the teenyboppin’ crowd. I know this because I was 13 years old and in the 8th grade.

So yesterday when I read in the New York Times that Lightfoot would turn 75 this week, that was the song that immediately came to mind. All through the day as I graded papers, walked the dog, cooked and baked, the song replayed in my head. Over and over.

Maybe it was good luck. Maybe not. Because my success in the kitchen was two for three. The vegetable soup and bread both turned out perfectly.

image (4)Of course, there is no recipe for either one because I pretty much threw both together with whatever was around.

The wacky cake, however, was another story. Actually, the cake itself was perfect as usual. It’s a can’t-miss recipe. But it’s what you decide to do to glitz it up for someone’s birthday that impacts the outcome. Here’s how it looked first:

imagePretty ho hum…unless you can smell it. So just close your eyes and imagine the amazing smell of warm cocoa.

But…it was the hubs’ birthday and I decided to replicate something the girls and I invented long ago. As soon as it comes out of the oven, you cover it with mini-marshmallows and chocolate chips. They quickly melt and you kind of blend them together with a icing spreader. This works well UNLESS, of course, the marshmallows have outlived their shelf life. Apparently, if they’re old and dried out, they won’t melt.

Nothing worked….not putting it back in the warm oven and not a quick zap in the microwave. I was really beginning to feel frustrated. Lucky for me, I don’t have a picky husband. He took one look and knew what I was thinking because he started humming “If you could read my mind, love…”

Just proves at least some of those lyrics can apply to just about every situation.

photo (11)

Wacky Cake
(Makes one 8X8-in. square cake)

1 c. white sugar
1 1/2 c. flour
3 tbsp. cocoa
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
In the 8X8-in. square pan in which you plan to bake the cake, mix dry ingredients with fork. Make three holes. Pour in 1 tsp. vanilla, 1 tbsp. vinegar, and 6 tbsp. canola oil.
Pour one c. cold water over and mix up with the fork. Bake 25-30 minutes at 350 degrees F.

Note: This can be eaten as is, dusted with powdered sugar, iced with your favorite icing recipe, topped with marshmallows and chocolate chips, or with the following:

1/3 c. butter, melted
2/3 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. nuts
2 tbsp. water
Mix and pour over cake and brown until brown.

Days 3 and 4 of Mary’s Excellent Adventure: Sand, apple orchards and the Mississippi Queen

A beach on the Mississippi in Wisconsin? Who knew? Just when I was getting used to the beauty of the La Crosse bluffs, the kid introduces me to a beach at the edge of the river….a sand beach. With gulls. And shells.

Next up: A tour of apple orchards. Up, up, up through the hills around La Crescent, stopping for an overview at the top….photo (18)

and to buy apples at Southwind Orchards. …typical tourists…photo (16)

photo (17)

photo (20)Thoroughly pooped by 7 p.m., we retreated to the homestead to rest up for the next day…another typical — but absolutely perfect — tourist attraction…a ride up and down the Mississippi aboard the Mississippi Queen.

The smaller of two riverboat options in LaCrosse, it begins near where the three rivers meet — the Mississippi, the Black, and the La Crosse — and took us through a”swing” bridge — one of the few remaining in the United States. Too bad the family train nut wasn’t along…he’d have wanted to join the guy in the bridge control building.

Along the way, we saw a heron, turtles sunning themselves on branches, and bald eagles soaring overhead.

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Day 2 of Mary’s Excellent Adventure: Eagles, bluffs, and a babbling brook

Today started with an early morning run on the Chaseburg Nature Trail, a one-mile paved path that crisscrosses a field of wildflowers and cattails  and at times borders a babbling brook. Really! I never really understood the term “babbling brook” until seeing — and hearing — this one.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAPSmdeZlus

Across the water are a bunch of cows who alternated between loud mooing,  grazing. and staring at the crazy woman running in a circle.

Actually, it’s pretty amazing that a tiny town like Chaseburg (pop. 283) can maintain such a path. Donors funded the path in honor of families displaced by a flood in this lowland area. Benches line the brook and miniature street lights were just added along the path.

Four miles passed quickly because I was busy watching for Sand hill cranes, unusual birds like indigo buntings, cows, and wild animals. image (17)

Then it was back to academia — work for my daughter, exploring a new campus for me. Here are some of the sights…instead of the Beaver mascot that surrounds my job, there were signs of the Eagle mascot.photo (14)

Later in the afternoon, we drove up Grandad Bluff — about 600 feet up from the land around it. From there, you can see a panoramic view of La Crosse and the three rivers — Mississippi, Black, and La Crosse.photo (13)

From there we went to the local farmer’s market, lined with vendors selling the usual produce, but also organic cheeses and meats like buffalo and alpaca. Supper was at Kate’s Pizza — pear and Gorgonzola   on one and spinach, yellow squash and garbanzos on the other.

Farm to table: Cucumber yogurt salad on ours

Farm to table” is one of those buzzwords that is a bit irritating in that those who live in farming communities or small towns where large gardens are the norm, have been eating “farm to table” or garden to table for generations past. But in the sense that it has suggests a growing movement that promotes sustainability even in urban areas, it’s a good thing.

My brothers and I grew up in the same small town where I live today. Our parents had a huge garden which helped to feed the seven of us year round. Our basement (dusty cellar is a better description) had shelves lined with canned vegetables and fruit, jellies, ketchup (the real stuff), and later, a large chest freezer filled with more vegetables and fruits.

When we weren’t swimming or playing, we were snapping beans, shelling peas, husking corn, and peeling apples. This was not always done with a smile, but some resignation. Looking back, those chores taught us to be hard workers. Today all five — even the two in Tucson — have some sort of garden.

Because of time constraints, my edible garden consists mostly of lettuce, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes and herbs. Instead, I lean heavily on the local farmer’s market, as well as several farm stands, to eat “farm to table.”  Yesterday’s stop at the farmer’s market produced this take:

IMG_0136[1]Sweet corn, yellow and green sweet peppers, seedless cucumbers, zucchini and yellow squash of several varieties, white carrots, tiny red potatoes, green beans and brown eggs.

This will hold us for at least a few days until my own cukes and tomatoes are ready or I have to hit up the farm stand.

Yesterday, while figuring out what I wanted for lunch, the cucumbers produced a memory of a favorite salad. In the 70s, my mom began making her own yogurt, which became the basis of a dressing for cucumber salad. IMG_0146[1]

It’s still a favorite, and the fresh dill in my herb garden adds the perfect touch. I vary this, depending on what kind of vinegar is handy. Yesterday it was rice vinegar. Slice the cukes very thin — best done with a Bluffton (Ohio) Slaw Cutter, but a knife or food processor also works. This is a small recipe — perfect for one or two, but you can double or triple as necessary.

Cucumber Salad
1 long seedless cucumber, sliced thin
1/3 c. plain yogurt
1 tbsp. (or more) rice vinegar
1/3 tsp. lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped fresh dill to taste

Whisk together the yogurt, vinegar, and dill and pour over the sliced cucumbers. Mix, then add salt and pepper to taste. If you can wait, refrigerate for an hour. It’s also really good a day later — if there is any left over.

Variations: Add chopped sweet peppers (any color) or onions.

Pottery, ceramics, and the snap of a tongue serve as reminders of a beloved man

When you asked Darvin Luginbuhl the age-old question, “What is art?”, he’d turn it right around and respond with a pointed “What do YOU think art is?”

It’s a difficult question and one for which Darvin probably never answered point-blank. Because, artist that he was, Darv never put “art” into a box. He could find art in everything and wanted everyone else to share that experience of discovery.

For example, my husband once asked Darv if he would help him design a children’s Christmas coloring contest for the newspaper he edited. Darv very subtly suggested that the traditional Christmas picture of Santa or Christmas scene — meant to be colored by each child — lacked inventiveness and would produce nothing more than a colored picture. Instead, he suggested including a blank page with instructions that each child draw or color a picture of Christmas. It was his way of encouraging youngsters to discover art from their hearts. It worked.

Growing up, our back door was a quick, 30-second jog from the Luginbuhl’s back door. I say back doors because there was no need to use the front door. Darv and my dad, who were on the faculty together at Bluffton University for about 30 years, were often found in the middle of one of their respective gardens or in Darv or Dad’s shop. Their wives — Evelyn and my mom — still share a friendship as close as sisters.

Our house was always filled with various pottery and ceramic items created by Darv. Because his son, Bill, and I were childhood buddies, my Christmas and birthday presents were often a ceramic pot filled with candy. When my husband and I married, my mom asked Darv to make a tea set for us. The gray and blue-glazed teapot and mugs are still in use after nearly 33 years.Tea-Set

So when Darvin died yesterday at age 91, it felt as if a huge piece of this small, Swiss community had gone with him. No more would we hear his cheery, “Vie gehts?” Even in the past few years as he struggled with health issues that interfered with his mobility, that cheerfulness remained intact and conversations were always entertaining.

Little bits and pieces flit through my mind as I thought about Darv’s contributions to life in a small town, as well as to the wider art community. For as much as we knew him as a small-town Swiss boy who produced beautiful pottery and ceramics, the art world knew him as a creator of fine art and a man of great knowledge.

But there are other, more intimate memories — like Darv and Dad calling us  home from wherever we were playing. Darv could snap his tongue against the roof of his mouth so loud that we could hear him at the old college track field nearly a quarter mile from home. At the same time, Dad blew through a conch shell, producing a quirky “conch honk” that could be heard just as far away. Who needed cell phones? If we missed one, we’d hear the other.

When we wanted to earn quick spending money, one of them would hire us to dig dandelions. We always went to Darv first because he paid a penny for a dozen and Dad made us fill a whole bushel basket. Or something like that…

Ah Darv, we’re going to miss you. We’ve got pieces of pottery to remind us of your creativity, but more importantly you left us with a passel of memories.  Thank you.

Hopscotch — alive and well in 2013

Remember hopscotch? Guess what? It’s still alive and well….at least in our neighborhood. Yesterday we had one of those glorious early spring days that just begs for playing outside in shorts.

Anyway, with temps in the mid-60s, my two favorite next-door neighbor kidlets were busily designing their own hopscotch board on the front sidewalk. I bet them that they couldn’t extend it beyond their property line all the way to our driveway.

The almost-6-year old (he made sure I knew exactly the date on which he turns 6) was drawing the squares and numbering them under his 8-year-old sister’s giggling directions. 2013-03-10 14.23.41

When I asked if I could test it, they looked at me in that dubious way that only children can. After all, in their minds, I’m OLD. My children are MUCH OLDER than them….so old they barely remember them. But being the cheerful kids that they are, they allowed me to take a test hop. 2013-03-10 14.23.532013-03-10 14.23.38

When I reached the final squares, I heard Xavier breathe a sigh of relief. He grinned. “I thought you were going to fall.” Ali giggled. Ahhh, the forthrightness of youth.
He then proceeded to show me the rock they intended to use for their game. Apparently, their version involved throwing the rock on a distant square. If it fell in a square, they could take a turn. Okay, so this is not the version I remember. So what? Are games not designed to be played with whatever rules one chooses to assign?

This is the joy of being a child and having plain old fun on a beautiful sunny afternoon in Ohio. And what better way to do this than by dressing for fun?2013-03-10 14.24.59

Nothing like a day in the (faux) tropics to warm you up

Fall is great when the sun is shining and the air is crisp, but the sun warms you from the outside in. Cider, apples, leaves changing color from green to varying shades of gold and red, and everything else that goes with the season.

But some days are not so great. They’re gray and rainy and chill you to the bones. Those are the days to plan a trip to an aquarium, where the air is warm and humid and you can spend hours imagining yourself thousands of miles away.

One of our recent trips took us to the Newport Aquarium, located just two miles from downtown Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River in Newport, Ky. Plan to make a day of it, because you’ll certainly want to check out the other stores and restaurants in the area of Newport on the Levee.

The aquarium houses thousands of animals from around the world in a million gallons of water. You’ll be stunned by the colorful fish, the sharks and crocodiles, and my favorite, the adorable penguins.

At certain times of day, you can participate in feeding the animals, and there are always several exhibits where you can actually touch some of them, such as sharks. And your child could be chosen to lead the parade of the penguins.

As usual, photos tell the better story, so here you are.These represent just some of what we saw and did. Since the penguins are my favorite, I’m starting with a video of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’ll miss you, hon.

Stepping inside Groves’ Quality Antiques and Collectibles in downtown Bluffton, there was the unmistakable smell of old furniture mixed with the distinct scent of whatever pet bunny or cat was living in the store’s animal shelter. And always — from somewhere in the store — came a cheery, “Hi Hon!” that had long been Robin Wilch’s signature greeting to her regular customers. Who knows? Maybe she called everyone that. No matter. It made each person feel special, and that was Robin’s intent.

I’d known Robin since childhood, mostly as one of the older sisters of my friend, Penny. We were merely tolerated as the “little kids” and were for the most part, ignored as we settled into the magic of Barbie Central. But Robin had different memories of those days and surprised me with her comments. She also liked to tell me funny stories about my husband, who had grown up across the street from the Wilch’s house.

That was her way. She made a point of connecting with each customer. The same age as my brother, Tom, and a year younger than my brother, James, she almost always asked how they were and then told me some story about one of them.

Like any good small town store owner, she often remembered what each customer had purchased on prior visits and/or knew what that person was searching for.  She’d direct me to a location in the store where she knew there was an item that I collected.

We often talked about “recycling projects” that we’d read about and often involved items she had for sale. If she didn’t have the right item, she’d assure me that she’d find one at an auction or garage sale.

When my daughter was moving into a new neighborhood in Cincinnati, she was delighted to find a vintage 1950s diner-style chrome and aluminum table that someone had left at the curb. The one thing it lacked was chairs. On my next stop in to Groves, I found a similar table with two matching chairs.

Discovering that we needed only the chairs, Robin offered to sell me just the chairs at an amazingly reasonable price. She would, she said, certainly find more of them soon enough.

Hers was the kind of store that customers returned to time and again — sometimes with a specific item in mind, sometimes just to look around…hoping to eye the perfect find. But with Robin, you didn’t need a reason. She was just happy to see her customers happy.

And so it was that when Robin died Friday, Oct. 19, after a brief illness, her death shook this small community. Each of her friends and customers has a story to tell.

In a nod to her signature phrase, “We’ll miss you, hon.”

 

15 years later, celebrating the memories

I often wonder why it is that in my dreams, my dad always appears to be perfectly healthy. None of the pain and suffering that he went through during the last few years of his life seem to make their way into my nighttime images.

A few years ago, it occurred to me that every October, I begin to experience a sense of dread and depression. I finally connected this to the fact that it was late September/early October of 1997 when we realized that Dad’s fight with cancer was ending. On October 24 of that year, he died.

So this year, preparing for the usual bout of depression, I decided to refocus my thoughts, to remember the good times with Dad. To outsiders, he was quiet, shy, and — at least to his less serious students — a bit too challenging in the classroom. But those who knew him well appreciated his dry wit, his slow, well worded responses, his love of all genres of music (Pink Floyd was a favorite), his diverse interests — gardening, woodworking, exercise, baking, photography, even macrame.

And to six kids, he was just Grandpa. The guy who could answer all of their toughest questions, tell the best stories, give the best massages, stay underwater in the pool longer than anyone else, and fix whatever was broken.

Dad agreed with the well-known photographer Ansel Adams, that ““You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

When we moved our mom from the house they’d lived in for nearly 50 years and later, from her condo, we sifted through — literally — thousands of photographs and slides taken by Dad, his dad and his uncle. As is usually true of the photographer, their lenses are usually focused on the rest of the world so images of them are rare. But in my own attic are boxes of photos, from which I found some favorites. It’s true that photos can tell a story.