Autumnal Frolicking: Apple Picking and Apple Baking

This past weekend, a few of my coworkers and I decided to drive out to a farm a little ways out of town for an autumnal treat: apple picking. Sadly, it’s the very end of the season, so pickings were slim (or rather, split and attacked by birds), but it was still a lovely outing. We were treated to stunning views of the countryside in an area where the mountains start to roll a bit and the weather was sunny and yet crisp.

We arrived at the farm in the late morning to a bustling scene of fall fun. A few children and a few more dogs joined in as we gathered our peck bags and headed up the hill. The best apples were at the very top of the hill, so we were able to kill two birds with one stone and take in the views as well. After a little time scouring the trees for apples that were ripe but not overripe, we adjourned to the bins of harvested apples at the ends of the rows of trees to fill out our bags. As I knew most of my apples would be used for baking, I erred on the side of taking a few of the greener apples from the trees. And Fiancé had joined us as well, making it easier to get some of the higher-up apples.

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In addition to gathering apples, we also bonded socially, which is something I’ve lacked with my new coworkers, even after being almost a year into my new job. We carried our apples back down the hill and paid for them, along with some cider. After that, we took ourselves to a nearby town for a sandwich lunch and dessert at an adorable bakery. And then home again to consider our spoils.

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Back home, I found myself tired and busy, so I had limited time to bake this weekend. But I found myself awake on Sunday morning with a desire for something baked and no desire to go out. So I had Fiancé grate some apples and set to work baking a batch of Apple Pecan Muffins.

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Now, I always grate the apples in my apple muffins because I don’t like biting into big chunks of cooked apple and I find it gives them a nice apple flavor and a moist texture. You can feel free to dice them if you like, though you may need to add a bit more liquid to make up for the juices that won’t release.

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I added pecans to my muffins, as well as more spices than just cinnamon. I have a love-hate relationship with cinnamon. Fiancé likes to quote The Hangover and call me a tiger whenever the subject of cinnamon comes up, which is cute, sort of. But I find that the oft-neglected other fall spices add an almost savory-spice to the mixture. It’s a rather old-fashioned flavor and brings to mind spiced mixtures from the Middle Ages, at least to me.

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Finally, if you can find the If You Care muffin liners, try them. They are the only muffin liners I’ve found that the muffins truly release from, no spraying needed. They’re probably easier to find at a hippie natural foods store, which happens to be where I do most of my shopping, but they’re so worth it if you hate having a quarter of your muffin stick to the paper.

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Apple Pecan Muffins
(makes 12 muffins)

Ingredients:

The Dry:

2 cups white whole wheat flour
1/2 cup quick-cooking steel-cut oats
1/2 cup or so of pecans, chopped
1/3 cup of dark brown sugar
1 Tbsp. of baking powder
2 tsp. of ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. of ground ginger
1/2 tsp. of ground allspice
A pinch of salt

The Wet:

1/2 stick of salted butter, melted
2 eggs
1 cup of fresh sweet apple cider
1-2 apples, grated (I used one large and one small)

The Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C) and line a 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners. Spray the liners if you are not confident they will not stick. Or use my favorite liners.
  2. Whisk together the dry ingredients, making sure to break up any clumps of brown sugar.
  3. In a large measuring cup or a small bowl, whisk together the melted butter, 1/2 a cup of the cider, and the eggs. Really whisk it together to form an emulsion between the cider and butter.
  4. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, along with the grated apple, and mix gently. If the batter is a little dry, add the rest of the cider until it’s a good consistency. Make sure you moisten all the little pockets of flour.
  5. Spoon into the muffin papers. Your cups will be rather full. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until quite brown and springy. Cool as long as you can bear it in the pan and then eat, slathered in butter, preferably alongside a cup of tea or a mug of hot cider.

A Cocoon for Autumn

With the weather turning chillier and the nights getting colder, I’m finding myself gleefully returning to my beloved warm clothing, blankets, and shawls. I love being snuggled up under a blanket or shawl, or wearing a cozy sweater. In honor of the cooling weather, I thought I’d share one of my favorite ways to keep warm:

I call this my “house cocoon.” It came from Uniqlo and is ridiculously oversized, but so cozy, especially paired with fleece leggings and thick socks. When I come home on the weekend, I change into this and pretty much keep it as my uniform all weekend while I’m housebound. It’s long enough to come down to my knees, and the sleeves are a mid-length that’s perfect for lounging because I don’t have to worry about pushing them up before doing anything at the sink. I can make a snack, make some tea, or wash my hands without worrying about soggy cuffs. It’s not so heavy a material that I sweat, so I can even wear it to sleep. I may upgrade to something slightly heavier for the very depths of winter.

Of course with cool evenings come cool mornings, and my office is not the warmest space to begin with, I’m happy I was also able to find an “office cocoon:”

This sweater dress offers a nice balance of professionalism and coziness. I can wear it on my chilly autumn walks to work, and then sit in my office without resorting to wrapping up in a shawl. And with a pair of opaque tights and knee-high boots, it looks quite smart indeed. Fiance suggested wearing a belt to give more waist definition, but I like the clean minimalist line of it without the belt, and it avoids anything binding up around my waist on days when I’m feeling a little bloated. And somehow, the whole effect is stunningly simple and stylish, according to the compliments I got at the office.

So there is my homage to my favorite autumn fashion piece: the wearable cocoon. Go forth and be cozy!

On Black Tea and the Beginnings of Autumn

After quite a hot August and a September that refused to cool down for long, it seems we’ve finally seen the beginnings of autumnal weather. I was still glad for a weekend retreat to Fiancé’s parents’ house up north, but upon returning home, I found I now need a jacket in the morning and don’t arrive at home again drenched in sweat.

Now changing seasons means changes of all kinds. People change their wardrobe, perhaps even wearing different colors. I know I find myself less inclined to wear pastels, and more inclined to wear heathered knits. Some change their skin care, adding in more moisture and removing products that helped them deal with the sliminess that summer’s heat can bring.

But perhaps my favorite seasonal change is my change of tea. You see, in cooler weather, I prefer richer teas. While I drink all teas year-round, in the summer, I find myself drawn to light, refreshing green teas and lightly-oxidized oolongs. As the weather cools, I reach more for fuller-bodied teas, like more-oxidized oolongs, as well as black teas. While I have had my share of black tea cuppas over the summer, I tend to save them for days when I’m lying about the house, not doing much of anything, and enjoying the artificial coolness of air conditioning. On days when I’m out and about in the heat? No way.

In honor of the changing seasons, I decided to treat myself to a new tea-for-one set and a new sampler of black tea leaves. So far I’ve tried two of the teas and they’re lovely. Rich and malty and just a little astringent. Warming and comforting, like a cozy blanket in tea form. Perfect for autumn.

Five Things I’ve Been Enjoying Recently

I still have a backlog of photo-editing and post-writing to deal with since I’ve been busy and stressed, so here’s another quick, unplanned post. Spring has definitely sprung in the city! Trees are fluffy and pink and white and yellow and purple. There are hyacinths and daffodils out on my walk from the train station to my office. And it’s even getting a bit warmer. So I thought I’d share some of the things that I’ve been particularly enjoying the last couple of weeks as we move into spring.

  1. Magnolia Oolong tea from Simple Loose Leaf: I’ve talked about this before, but this really is a lovely tea. It’s the same Jade Oolong I reviewed a while ago, but with a very light magnolia floral scent and flavor added. I love it as a daily cup when the weather is warm, but not hot, and the sights and scents of spring are everywhere. It’s very seasonally-appropriate and helps remind me that the rich, warming black teas of winter are no longer needed.
  2. Hada Labo UV Perfect Gel: Sunscreen, guys! Since it is now fully light for both my morning and evening walks to and from work, it’s the perfect time to mention my new favorite sunscreen. It’s Japanese and unfragranced and sinks in beautifully. It does leave a bit of shine initially, but I give it 20-30 minutes before applying makeup and it settles right down. It’s a lovely gel texture and I think the hydrating ingredients offset the alcohol that gives it its lovely texture and ability to absorb weightlessly into skin.
  3. Pink and coral lip products: I love a red lip. But lately, I’ve been reach for spring-y lip colors, which means pinks and corals. Coral has been tricky for me, as I’m not generally a fan of orange, but I’ve found some products to help ease me into the look. I’ve also been loving sheerer lip colors for the spring, as it’s a much fresher look. Plus, my lip color matches the azalea bush that’s already started sprouting buds: Coral Bells.
  4. Pink clothing: I own a lot of black and dark-colored clothing. It’s rather a go-to color for me. But the warm weather has me feeling light and youthful, and to me, this means pink and pastels. I wore a pink chiffon dress from Mod Cloth the other day to work and got so many compliments, I wore it again a couple weeks later!
  5. Veggie noodles: One of our most unexpected holiday gifts was a Veggetti from Boyfriend’s parents. I’d looked at spiralizers before, but never decided to actually buy one. So when we got this, it seemed like a neat way to try spiralized veggies without shelling out for an expensive machine. But who wants to eat a lot of raw veggies in the dead of winter? Plus, a lot of the good veggies for spiralizing aren’t available until spring. Well, the zucchini and cucumbers are here and I’ve started spiralizing. We had a spiralized cucumber salad with sushi on Saturday and spiralized zucchini and carrots as a base for grilled chicken yesterday after a heavy Easter lunch called for a light dinner. It’s a lovely way to eat raw veggies, especially now that the warmer weather has me craving fresher food.

What is everyone else loving for spring?

Scenes from a Blizzard

This past weekend, I was one of the many snowed in during the East Coast blizzard. Boyfriend and I made preparations. We got out to the store a couple days early and bought both refrigerator and pantry staples, as well as a little extra that could be eaten without cooking should the power go out. I set up telework. Friday morning, I made a point of going out for a brisk walk outside and Boyfriend ran in to work briefly before the snow started, and then we both hunkered down.

It really was a glorious snowstorm. Although there was some wind, the promised thunder and lightning did not appear in our little neighborhood. We stayed in and let the snow fall and blow through Friday evening. We watched a lovely movie on Netflix and had some leftovers found in the freezer that would not have survived a power outage.

By Saturday, it was becoming less likely we would lose power. We ventured out to do a little digging, both because we realized we couldn’t open any of the exterior doors on the main level of our house, and also because Boyfriend had invited a friend over. We were able to get out our basement door and trek through the snow to the front. We dug out the front door and a path to the street. Boyfriend’s friend came over and brought shortbread cookies so we had cocoa and cookies while they played computer games and I listened to a podcast.

Sunday, we finished digging out boyfriend’s car, and cleared the extra snow that had accumulated from the front walk. But, for the most part the weekend was spent curled up, drinking tea, and enjoying quiet indoor amusements. I am ready to get out of the house and may try to take a little walk in the snow later today, though work is still closed.

An Old-Fashioned Remedy for What Ails You

And, no, it’s not alcoholic. While I’m no stranger to the shot of whisky that helps cure a cold, this is something far more restorative. As I mentioned before, I’ve just recently recovered from a somewhat grueling illness that started with a bit of a sore throat, looked like it was becoming a cold, and then turned into the worst sore throat I’ve had in years. It went from the early-cold dull ache to the ragged, razor-y feeling every time I even thought about swallowing. Sadly, the doctor could not find evidence of strep throat (which would have meant antibiotics and a relatively quick recovery), so I was left to my own devices.

Now, lemon and honey and vinegar and echinacea have their places in my arsenal of illness fighters, and they all came into play. Cayenne, oddly, became my throat-soother of choice, as a spicy-sweet brew of raw honey, vinegar, and cayenne in water, gargled often, left my throat feeling much better.

But by far my favorite remedy was good old fashioned broth, or rather garlic broth. I found a company that makes traditionally-simmered bone broths and sells them vacuum packed in pouches in the freezer section at my store. I prefer the chicken broth. I defrost and simmer one cup of broth. While that simmers, I peel and finely grate one fat clove of garlic (or two smaller ones) into a mug. When the broth is hot, I pour it over the garlic. It’s not exactly raw garlic, but it still retains some of the heat and bite of raw garlic. I sip this and feel my throat feel almost instantly soothed. It’s also nourishing and restorative, particularly at a time when one finds oneself unable to eat much of anything solid. The broth contains protein and makes a welcome break from sweetened teas. And there is some evidence that chicken broth may actually have some true use against the common cold.

Whatever the science, I know this will become a go-to remedy, and even though I’ve started feeling better, I will probably continue my morning mug of broth throughout the winter.

Yuletide Celebrations

Now that winter and Christmas are officially upon us, I thought I’d muse a little bit about my winter holiday. While I was raise Christian and celebrate Christmas with my family, I’ve always maintained a slightly more pagan point of view, and to my mind Yule is one of my favorite holidays to celebrate. Now, I know the official solstice passed a few days ago, although it was so gloomy I hardly noted the difference between light and dark during the longest night. But I like to wrap my solstice celebration into my Christmas festivities with my family. We don’t attend church, but we indulge in the trappings of the holiday that largely derive from the pagan festivals anyway.

Oh, my interest in the winter solstice predates any official interest in pagan beliefs. As a runner, I celebrated the return of the sun, when in a few weeks it might be light enough in the morning to safely run in the local, un-lit parks. Nowadays, Yule marks the time when I can see the sun on the horizon earlier in the morning. Over the next couple of months I will go from “getting up at night,” as the old poem goes, to finding more and more dawn light coming in my window when I need to rise.

So as I rise on this holiday to celebrate around a tree and consider symbols of the Christmas holiday, my thoughts hearken back to an older practice, the practice of noting this darkest day and longest night not with fear of the dark, but with the hope of the return of the sun. Blessed Yule and happy holiday season to all!

The Time for Warm Things

Winter is now almost upon us and the weather has started to take note. Unlike some parts of the country, we have not yet seen snow, but the weather has cooled and sharpened. This morning, the wind blew at my scarf and coat while I walked from the train station to work. And I found myself reaching for gloves and a hat to protect my extremities from the cold.

It is the time for warm things. For hot cocoa and shawls, the best friend of those curled up on a sofa for a lazy weekend day. The time for soups and stews and all manner of warm, cooked foods. No more salads, but instead bounteous medleys of roasted, steamed and simmered vegetables.

This weekend, a lovely friend of mine brought a thoughtful and unique gift to the opening performance of a play in which I’m performing. Instead of bringing a bouquet of flowers, she brought bouquet of homemade baguettes! So our dinner was a simple meal of roasted chicken, steamed kale, and fresh, warm baguette with butter.

Sadly, it is also the time of year when I am likely to spend my spare time curled up under a blanket rather than taking excursions through the park near our house. It leads to a somewhat more sedentary lifestyle, particularly with the days as short as they are. But I press on, bundle up, and take bracing walks in the cold. I do enjoy the feeling of cold air on my face, as much as I also enjoy being curled up in the warmth and comfort of home. It is time to haul out my tweeds and woolens, trade gauzy scarves for knit ones. No matter how cold it may be, if my neck, ears, and hands are covered, I’m relatively comfortable.

Boyfriend, it seems, has lost all of his warm hats, so when I am back at home from an excursion, I’ve been spending my time making him a new one, along with some warm gifts for friends. In the summer heat, my crochet is never quite as attractive as when I can cuddle up with a stash of wool in the cold.

Wishing all of my readers a joyous holiday season and lovely winter to come.

A Simple and Delicious Autumnal Dinner

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Fall has officially fallen and the weather is starting to reflect it. While we’ve had our fair share of beautiful sunny days this week, the mornings have a chill to them and it cools off more quickly in the evenings. So it’s time for autumn dinners to come out. I perused the bounty of winter squash at the market recently and decided to choose two variegated, acorn-shaped darlings.

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Now, acorn squash, with its deep ridges, is a right pain to peel and dice like one might a butternut squash or a pumpkin. So I don’t generally bother. When I have an acorn-shaped squash in my life, I stuff it. Some chopped aromatics, something to bulk it up, maybe a bit of green veg and some mushrooms, and then a topping of lots of cheese. It’s totally versatile, using grains or no grains, meat or no meat. The cheese on top could be substituted with any nicely-melting vegan cheeze. If you use a grain to bulk it, you can use a bit of cooked quinoa to keep it gluten-free. Or eliminate the grain altogether and add some ground meat or chopped sausage, as I did here. You don’t need much. I found a lonely Andouille sausage in the fridge that needed to be used up, so I included it in my topping instead of using oats or quinoa.

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Anyway, I hope you enjoy this recipe and consider adding it to your autumn cooking rotation!

Sausage, Kale, and Mushroom Stuffed Winter Squash

Ingredients:

1 large or two small acorn squash or acorn-shaped squash

1/2 a medium onion, diced

1 Andouille sausage (about 3 oz.) diced

8-10 crimini mushrooms, chopped

2-3 leaves of kale, chopped

salt, pepper, and garlic powder, to taste

oil, butter, or bacon grease, for cooking

about 1/2 cup of shredded cheddar or jack cheese

Directions:

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment. Prepare your squash by either chopping in half along the equator and trimming the bottom of each half to sit flat, or by chopping the top 1/2-1″ off two smaller squashes and trimming their bottoms to sit flat. Scoop out the seeds. Turn them cavity-side-down and roast for about a half an hour, or until tender when poked with a fork.

Chop the squash scraps and saute them with the onion over medium heat in a bit of oil or fat until they are tender and the onions start to go translucent. Add the diced sausage and allow to brown. Add the mushrooms and cook everything together until the mushrooms are cooked. Then, add the kale and turn off the heat, allowing the kale to wilt in the hot pan. Stir everything together.

Remove the squash from the oven and turn cavity-side-up. Fill each squash cavity with the sausage mixture, patting it into the cavity and mounding it up a bit. Top with shredded cheese. Return to the oven for 10-15 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbling and slightly browned. You can turn on the broiler for a few minutes to brown them, if you like. Makes two servings.

Weekend Crafting and Historical Exploration

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I had a lovely, relaxing weekend, this weekend. I started off on Friday evening by having some friends over to play board games and share a nice fall meal. I made my standby butternut squash pasta casserole, along with mini cheesecakes to celebrate a friend who had a birthday last week. It was simple, but delicious and certainly fortified us for an evening of fun games. It also served to soak up some of the cocktails we poured.

And then on Saturday, I went to my aerials class, and then just relaxed. I puttered around in the kitchen with some crafts. I recently ordered all the butters and oils and beeswax I need to make lip balms and lotion bars for holiday gifts, but I receive a small sample of cocoa butter in the order. I also recently bought some babassu oil for soaping, but discovered it could be a lovely balm ingredient as well. So I mixed up a couple of experimental batches. The cocoa butter was just enough to make one tube of lip balm. I mixed it with beeswax and some hazelnut oil to make a chocolate-hazelnut lip balm, although it smells only lightly of cocoa butter.

Then, I mixed up a slightly larger batch of babassu oil, mango butter, and beeswax to try out as both a lip balm and a lotion bar. I poured most out into an empty deodorant container (clean, of course) to use as a body butter, and then also was able to fill five lip balm tubes. The babassu oil melts at just below body temperature so it rolls on smoothly, but soaks in rapidly, so the skin is not left feeling greasy. I used some of it after shaving last evening, and found it left my skin feeling velvety, not oily. Boyfriend especially appreciated it, as when I use a soft balm in a jar, I tend to apply too much and my lovely smooth legs get a little greasy.

From there, I decided to make another batch of soap. This one used tallow, coconut oil, and olive oil to make a lovely, simple bar. I increased my super fat just a tad, as I’ve found my recently-tested first batch to be a touch drying. And I added oatmeal and calendula to the soap batter for an extra skin-soothing touch. They rested in my craft room for a couple days and I unmolded them this morning. My crafting room shelves are certainly filling up with soaps and balms!

I also used Saturday to just rest and relax and make a big batch of butternut squash and sweet potato soup for my lunches this week. The soup comes together quickly, simmers for a while, and blitzes up in the blender with very little effort. And soup and a cheese sandwich will be a nice early-fall lunch.

After such a relaxing Saturday, I went out on Sunday. I went downtown and spent the day at the National Museum of American History, where I browsed their new Innovation wing. There, I learned about all the inventions we take for granted that really changed the world. I was fascinated that they chose to include things like alarm clocks and deodorant along side exhibits about televisions and computers. And they had an entire exhibit about how ready-to-wear clothing changed the way people dressed and how the poor could move upwards in society. A truly neat look at how the early 20th century changed our social structure.

But the day spent on my feet meant I was particularly glad to come home to Boyfriend’s vegetarian chili and a nice hot bath for my Sunday evening beauty ritual!