Welcome Autumn 2015!

While I am nervously watching the trees in our town, praying the leaves don’t change and fall before my parents arrive in three weeks, I know my family and friends in So Cal are still knee deep in the 90s.

Autumn—such as it is in So Cal—is coming, I promise. And I’m not being snarky. I’m bitter. We’re paying good money for a pool membership that extends to September 30—never mind that we haven’t been able to swim since the last day of August.

So revel in your September swim parties and beach days. Come March I’ll be pricing flights south and cursing my boots, and you’ll already be in flip-flops.

In the meantime, enjoy this recipe for Kitchen Witch’s Pumpkin Bread (originally posted in 2013)

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Well, it’s official.  Autumn is finally here!  And no, I don’t mean just the arrival of the Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks (although that is quickly becoming one of my favorite things of autumn!).

I’ve always loved autumn, and when I moved to Austria, I fell in love with it even more.  The changing of the seasons is visible everywhere there. The local restaurants begin to change their menus to represent the seasonal fare.  My favorite restaurant in our town had something called Wild Woche or Wild Week in which they slow-roasted venison, wild boar, wild hare, all of which had been caught in our forest, and served them up in wonderful, hearty sauces, with earthy root vegetables, all meant to fatten the townspeople up, steeling us against the harsh winter that was sure to come.

But more than the beautiful colors, the comfort food, the inviting scents, there’s just something different in the air once autumn comes.  I’ve always felt it, that magic electricity.  It’s like in Mary Poppins when Burt sings “Winds in the East, mist comin’ in, like somethin’ is brewin’, about to begin!”

This past Sunday was the Autumnal Equinox, a time of equal light and equal darkness.  The balance has tipped and we descend into darkness.  This happens not only literally as the nights are now longer than the days, but for many people, it happens in a spiritual sense as well.

The bright warm days of summer, which beckon us outdoors to the beach, the mountains, or even just the backyard, are over.  As the temperatures cool, we turn our focus inside, many of us decorating for fall and burning pumpkin-scented candles.  Our tendency, when things get dark, it to turn on more light, to fill our already busy schedules with even more things.

But I invite you this autumn to take some time in the darkness, to sit quietly with your soul and take stock of what you have done this year.  How have you grown?  What seeds did you sow in the spring and tend in the summer that are now coming to harvest?  How can you prepare yourself for the craziness that the holiday season can bring on?

Pull out your favorite snuggly sweater or blanket.  Get some pumpkins to put on your front porch.  Put some gourds on your mantle.  Make some of your favorite comfort foods.  And if you want a new favorite fall recipe, I’m sharing my very best one with you, A Kitchen Witch’s Pumpkin Spice Bread.  And have a glorious autumn, everyone!

A Kitchen Witch’s Pumpkin Spice Bread

Ingredients:

2 cups pureed pumpkin (fresh roasted or canned)

3 cups sugar

1 cup water

1 cup vegetable oil

4 eggs

3 1/3 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon nutmeg

¾ teaspoon ground cloves

Instructions:

Heat oven to 350 degrees F.  In a large mixing bowl, combine pumpkin, sugar, water, vegetable oil, and eggs.  Beat until well mixed.  Measure flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, baking powder, nutmeg, and ground cloves into a separate bowl, and stir until combined.  Slowly add the dry ingredients to the pumpkin mixture, beating until smooth.

Grease two 9×5 inch loaf pans and dust with flour.  Evenly divide the batter between the two pans.  Bake for 60-70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Cool 10-15 minutes then remove from pans by inverting them onto a rack and tapping the bottoms.  Slice and serve plain, buttered, or with cream cheese.

Gabriel’s S’More Truffles

This is my sweet boy, Gabriel. He just turned 9.

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I call him Pie, short for Pumpkin Pie Guy which is what I called him when he was a wee bit. But the nickname proved prophetic.

This child of mine likes to cook.

He has his own sharp knife, given to him by Sue. He learned to make her sauce before I did.

He can light our grill and cook some steak. He likes to season the meat, but after a foray into “secret ingredients”–cinnamon in the hamburgers–he has to clear his recipes with me.

But this one, something he cooked up on the stove over Easter break, is a winner.

He calls them S’more Truffles.

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Ingredients:

12 oz chocolate chips

½ cup half and half

Mini marshmallows

Graham crackers

Directions:

In a double boiler over medium heat, melt the chocolate chips and half and half.

Spread parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Using a spoon, drop the melted chocolate into circles about two inches wide. Top with marshmallows and crushed graham crackers. Freeze for at least three hours.

Gabriel wants me to say that if you have one of those fancy blowtorches, you could brown the marshmallows before serving. But he’s not allowed to use one yet, so he’s only guessing that would be good.

I love these because they are a light and delicious mouthful. Not too heavy, not too much. Just perfect for summer twilight dessert time!

Easy Homemade Pasta Sauce from an Expert

This is Sue:

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Sue has been in my life since high school. Her son Ryan and my brother Joe were best friends and teammates. She and my mom and dad got close sitting together at football games. Then, since most of Sue’s family lives in Nor Cal, she started coming to holiday meals. Then Family night. Then twenty years ago on Christmas we officially adopted her into the family. Now she is Annie’s godmother.

Sue is Italian on her mom’s side and let me tell you, this woman can cook. And she cooks the old school stuff, off of handwritten recipes from her mom and grandmother. These recipes come two ways: no measurements or measurements enough to feed 40. The cookie recipes she makes at Christmas have things like “2 lbs of butter” and “4 lbs of flour”.

Then there’s this sauce recipe. When I asked her how she made her veggie sauce, this is what she sent me:

zucchini and/or yellow

squash

fresh carrots

yellow onions, shallots and/ or green onions

all fresh tomatoes and/ or canned

artichoke hearts

eggplant

couple of celery ribs

garlic

Itailian black olives

olive oil

oregano, bay leaf, parsley (fresh is best)

salt and pepper or pepper flakes if you like it spicy,

sometimes I put jalapenos in too

toss it all together, roast at 375 until everything is soft and yummy, remove bay leaves/leaf

Transfer to a large sauce pan in which you have already sautéed a few more onions and some anchovies (you will never taste them in the finished sauce) in olive oil, stir in canned tomato sauce (I use San Marzano ) let it combine, then get the boat motor out and puree until you have the consistency you like.

If you let the whole “an Italian lady who is renowned for her cooking and baking sent me this recipe” go to your head, you’d never try it, right? Because Good Lord, how can we ever compete with someone who knows cooking so well that there are no measurements?

But let me give you another way to see it. This is the most powerful lesson I have learned cooking at Sue’s side: Alton Brown be darned, you don’t have to be constrained by measurements. It’s ok to experiment. It’s ok to make it taste the way you like. And recipes like this are very forgiving.

I don’t use everything on her list. I use what I have. I wait until the bag of little red, yellow and orange peppers are on sale, then I make sure I have some roma tomatoes and onions. This time I didn’t have carrots or celery, but I had asparagus and artichoke hearts, onions and garlic and nice juicy tomatoes.

So to review: make sure you have at least peppers, tomatoes, onion and garlic. Any other veggie is also welcome. Chop them up, sprinkle some olive oil, salt and pepper and roast it all at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes, depending on how much you have.

In a large sauce pot, combine a bit of olive oil, some more onions, garlic and—if you must—anchovies, then add the tomato sauce. Add the seasoning, then the roasted veggies and let it cook for a while to incorporate. Then you can blend it—a food processor works just fine, but Sue got me a $20 Hamilton Beach hand mixer that goes right into the pot. Then I always let it simmer a bit longer. Salt and pepper to taste.

That’s it.  Fresh food and a nice heavy pot.

Beef Goulash ~ Dana

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It’s still winter. And even though here in So Cal we’re sweating, we know that lots of our folk are freezing their tails off this weekend.  This goulash is just what the doctor (or weatherman) ordered.  So whether you’re in need of warmth down to your toes, or would just like a bowlful of comfort, it’s sure to hit the spot!

Beef Goulash (from Tyler Florence)

4 slices bacon, chopped

3 pounds boneless beef shank, trimmed and cut into 2-inch cubes

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 Tbsp flour

2 Tbsp olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 roasted red peppers, peeled and sliced

3 Tbsp Hungarian sweet paprika

2 tsp caraway seeds, toasted and ground

2 Tbsp red wine vinegar

1 (15-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, hand crushed

6 cups low-sodium beef broth

4 russet potatoes, peeled and thickly sliced

½ cup sour cream

Place a large heavy pot over medium heat and add the bacon.  Fry for about 5 minutes until crisp and remove to a paper towel and reserve.  Add the beef to the hot bacon fat and brown it evenly on all sides, turning with tongs; season generously with salt and pepper.  While the beef is searing, sprinkle the flour evenly in the pot and continue to stir to dissolve any clumps.  Add a little oil if necessary to keep the meat from sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Toss in the onions, garlic, roasted peppers, paprika, and caraway, cook and stir for 2 minutes until fragrant.  Stir in the vinegar, tomatoes, and broth.  Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook for one hour, covered, stirring occasionally.

Add the potatoes.  Crumble the reserved bacon into the stew and continue to simmer for 30 minutes, partially covered, until the potatoes are tender.  Season with salt and pepper.  Remove from heat and stir the sour cream into the goulash just before serving.

Dryer Balls

Update: Aaron is getting a dog! The Angel for Aaron page raised $12,000 in seven days. Seven. It wasn’t just money that made that happen, so thanks to everyone who donated, prayed and shared. The dog won’t be in the house for another 12-18 months, but we’ll keep you posted.

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Two years ago Shea had enough State Farm points that we could get a new washer and dryer. Because I dream of appliances for years before I purchase, I already knew what I wanted: a Maytag Bravos top loader and dryer. I was going to wash twelve pairs of jeans at once. Watch my dust.

Then, at the last moment, I changed my mind and went with the trendy Whirlpool front loader and steam dryer.

There has not been one day since that I have been happy with this choice. Not. One. As my dad pointed out, there’s a reason they stopped making front loaders in the 70s.

The clothes smell. It’s because the water never fully drains from the drum, which lays on its side. The steam dryer does not help matters, even with the steam off. I have managed to conquer these issues one at a time: I use less detergent than recommended, I use vinegar as my fabric softener, I double spin the clothes and wash smaller loads at a time.

Our electric and gas bills have actually gone up with these newer more fuel efficient machines, because it takes two rounds to wash and dry every load.

So one day I searched “Make the clothes dry faster”, and found DIY Natural, which is a website founded by a husband and wife team looking to make the world a safer, cleaner place. They have an article about the power and magic of homemade dryer balls. You only need three things: 100% wool yarn, a hook and a pair of old or cheap tights.

All you do—and they have a video tutorial in case you need it—is wrap a skein of wool around and around and around until you have a ball somewhere between the size of a tennis ball and a softball. Then you stick it in the pantyhose, wash it in hot, hot, hot water, dry it on the hottest setting and poof! You have a felted dryer ball. Pop four or five of these suckers into your dryer with wet clothes and they dry the clothes faster by bouncing around and creating pockets for the hot air. They also eliminate static. And they aren’t poison, like every single dryer sheet on the market.

Dryer balls ready for felting

Dryer balls ready for felting

True story: Lesley and I were shopping at a craft fair before Christmas. A woman was selling safe cleaning products with a national brand. I was excited to see that she had dryer balls! They were white and the size of tennis balls! They were just like mine!

They were $29.

Cruise Etsy to see similarly priced balls. Yes, the ones with designs felted onto them are adorable and I wish I knew how to do that. But since no one sees my dryer balls and on more than one occasion Lizzie has mistaken a dryer ball for a chew toy, I am ok with my whatever wool was on sale dryer balls.

I gave them for Christmas presents, and people love them. My dad loves them.

So we want to give a set to one of our readers. All you have to do is comment on this post. Each post will get a number and then my kids will pull a number out of a hat.

Another true story, for a laugh before we go: after Christmas, we had a dinner party where I cooked Aunt Debbie’s ham. It made a mess in the pan, and one of our friends was trying to clean it. Finally she said “We need a dryer sheet! You put a dryer sheet in here and heat it up on the stove and this will come right off.”

My other friend leaned over to her and whispered “You aren’t going to find a dryer sheet in this house”.

How well she knows!