Summer Pleasures: Making Simple Syrup with My Son

Simple-SyrupRoses are in bloom here in the East. My own New Dawn climbing rose, trained on an east-facing wall of my house, is spectacular. Beneath it, on the brick path, is a bed of pale pink fallen petals.

Now is the time to make simple syrup, a rose-petal colored syrup that I like to use in many different ways:

Drizzled over vanilla ice cream, a lovely sweetness to delicate ice teas, a refreshing addition to an icy cold glass of water . . . you can think of other ways to use it, I’m sure.

Making the syrup couldn’t be easier. I make it with my son (it’s a simple, fun project for adult-kid collaboration. All the collecting is fun, too) and we have a great time thinking up new syrups to make: lavender syrup, for example.

The syrup itself is easy to make:

All you need is a sauce pan, 1 cup of water and 1 cup of sugar. Increase the 1 to 1 ratio to make bigger batches.

To make rose syrup, collect a cup of rose petals right off the plant. The fresher the better. We just pull them from the flowers still on the stems.

Add the water and petals to a saucepan, boil until the water is the color of the petals, but softer. Scoop the petals from the water with a slotted spoon. Next, add the cup of water and bring to a boil. Boil until all of the sugar is dissolved.

Rose-PetalsWe like to pore the syrup into pretty class bottles. Cool, then put tops on. Refrigerate.  To save syrup, you will want to sterilize jars in hot water bath or dish washer (from which you remove them when they are still very hot), pour in syrup, and then put on sterile lids. Make sure they seal. Give as gifts or store as you would jams and jellies. We like to use our syrup right away, however, so we just refrigerate.

If you use it right away in a tall glass of icy water, you might even put in a rose petal or two – so beautiful. I’ve served this to dinner guests and it has always been a dinner favorite.

Simple-Syrup-in-Cold-BottlesTo make Lavender syrup, you collect the fresh purple blossoms, taking them carefully off of their stems. A tablespoon or two will do the trick. Boil as you would rose petals and follow the same procedure as above.

My grandmother used to do the same with violets. To this day, I can’t see violets without thinking of her. I have let them take over one side of the house and we call it violet valley. In Spring, it is magical.

Both Lavender and violet syrup have a pale purple color but Lavender syrup takes on the distinct flavor of lavender. It is very exotic and fantastic over ice cream.

Beguiling Golden Finches, Part 1

I have a series of bird feeders that I can see from my kitchen window. This year, I am concentrating on luring Goldfinches to these feeders. I have, according to the FAQ I recently read about attracting them, done everything right: I have a feeder specifically for Goldfinches that has a bright yellow top and is full of nyjer, a feeder of black sunflower seeds, a feeder of “Finch Supreme” mix, a water source that I keep free of ice . . . but no Goldfinches.

likely-Goldfinch-AmericanThere was one the other morning and I was so excited, creeping toward the kitchen window to get a better look, no sudden moves to catch its attention and scare it away. It ignored the Nyjer (is the seed too old?). It lept from the fence to the big hook that holds the feeder. It tested the Finch Supreme mix but seemed unimpressed. It lept back to the fence and hopped down to the hardy Jasmine vine, worked its way along the vine toward the big ceramic pot that holds my mosquito fish and is heated to the point that it steams like a dragon’s nostril on cold mornings. There is even a water lily sending up leaves to the surface. Earlier in the season it held two frogs that would cool their backs in the frigid air. I hope they left for their soil cocoons when we turned off the heater during cool days that stayed above freezing.

The Goldfinch lept to the lip of the pot and looked down at the water as if to say, “How am I going to manage to drink from this?!” but it quickly figured things out and It worked its way around the lip of the pot to the place where the black cord goes into the pot and down into the water to the pond heater. It hopped to the cord and inched its way down to the surface of the water, took a drink. A second drink. Then off it flew with a thrum of its wings.

I whisper, “Bring your friends . . .”

But the feeders are lonely of Goldfinches. Throngs of sparrows fight over the Finch mix, Cardinals and Jays like the sunflower seeds. My Nyjer must be past its day. How do they know without tasting? “At least taste,” I think to myself. Maybe they do when I’m not looking.

My friend Beth say she has “mobs” of Goldfinches. Never has the word mob sounded so lovely to me. I want mobs of Goldfinches, too.

I think of those stacks of knitted yellow sunflowers I’ve got from the days of working on the book of knitted flowers, Noni Flowers.

I get to thinking. Would a Goldfinch be beguiled by a knitted sunflower? And in the middle of Winter?

Let’s see. . .

I’ve got my plan. Join me here next week for a plan update.

Best Apple Pie Ever, if I do say so myself . . .

Best-Pie-Donei don’t know what the weather is like where you live. . . but where I live it’s COOOOOLD! And when the weather gets cold, I make apple pie. The pie above is a picture of the Christmas apple pie I made with my Dad in Maine. It was . . . delicious!

You see, old fashioned apple pie has a rather legendary status in my family. And I have been perfecting my version for a long time now. In the last few years I’ve hit upon a pie everyone who tastes it loves, every-single-time.

If you want a step by step with precise measurements, I’m sorry I can’t do that, because, simply, that’s not how I make pie. What I can say is that I started with recipes (I have a whole shelf of books on pie) and then started to play around. My apple pie is never exactly the same and that’s what makes it an adventure. Here’s what I do:

 

Prepare the Pie Dough

I confess that I got my secret ingredient from a recipe in Cooks Illustrated. I won’t include their recipe here as I’m a great lover and ardent respecter of copyright law.  But their basic recipe is pretty much the same as every basic crust recipe I’ve ever made.

So, follow your favorite pie crust recipe to the letter and make it a double so you can make both the bottom crust and either a lattice or full top. I personally prefer an all butter crust, so I don’t mess around with lard or oil: only 100% sweet cream butter for me. Once you’ve got the butter cut until the flower and butter mixture resembles course corn meal, you can add the cold cold water like you always do and then, here’s the secret, add the same amount of vodka. It does not activate the gluten in the flour so you get the most amazing flake, almost like puff pastry. The extra liquid makes the dough more workable without over-activating the mechanism that holds the crust together. Too much water and crust is too tough, too little and the crust will shatter.

I put half the dough in one piece of plastic wrap and the other half in a second piece of plastic wrap. I shape the dough quickly into a rough ball and then flatten to a thick disc almost a personal pan pizza dough shape. Wrap tightly in the plastic wrap and put in the freezer to store for a while, or, at the very least, put in the fridge for a couple of hours before rolling out.

 

Prepare the Oven

Preheat the Oven to 425 degrees.

Put a metal cookie sheet in the oven with a big piece of parchment paper on it. I put the cookie sheet in at the start of the pre-heating process so the sheet will be really hot when the pie pan goes on it. The function here is to get the crust cooking from the bottom up so that the crust is beautifully crisp even on the bottom.

 

Prepare the Filling

While the oven is heating up, start preparing the filling.

What Kind of Apples?

I like sweet crispy apples. My favorites:  Honey Crisp. Pink Ladies are in close second.

How Many Apples?

I get out my pie pan. Fill the pie pan with Honey Crisp or Pink Ladies apples in a single layer for big apples and add just one extra apple if you want a really big pie. This plan works no matter how big or small the pie pan is.

Apples-in-pie-pansPeel and core. I use a peeler that also cores and slices the apple. I cut each slice into thirds. If you don’t have such a gadget, peel by hand, cut the entire apple into thirds or quarters (and core at the same time) and then cut each section into pieces that are about a quarter of an inch thick or slightly thinner. Next, I put a little citric acid over my cut apples to keep them looking pretty and fresh. A little lemon juice or Fruit Fresh does the trick.

And now the fun starts. Here’s my basic philosophy: If it tastes good in the bowl, it will taste good in the pie. Go for fabulous but a little less sweet than you want the finished product to be. Never fails.

What to Add to the Apples?

Sugar. I use a cup measure and start with about a cup and a half rough. Then I sweeten to taste (but not yet).

Mix-in-the-sugar-etcSpices. A shake or two of Cinnamon, a pinch of dried Ginger, Clove. A scrape of Nutmeg. I use a fresh Nutmeg with a tiny little scrapper. A generous splash of good, real Vanilla.

Fresh-Nutmeg-2Spirits. And now, drum roll please, add a shot or two of excellent Bourbon. I have been known to use delicious brandy or even just good ole Maker’s Mark Whiskey (welll, like the very last time I made pie).

MakersmarkMix until the sugar starts to pull the juice from the apples. Now taste and taste often! Not sweet enough? Add a bit more sugar a bit at a time until it is almost, but not quite, sweet enough . . . That means it’s perfect. Dust with a bit of flour or corn starch to thicken the juice during cooking. Maybe 3 or so tablespoons, roughly. Taste again. If you are smiling, and love it, it’s going to be amazing. Stir thoroughly and set aside with the big spoon just sitting there loving where it is because you’ll mix it one more time before pouring into the pie shell (don’t forget).

 

Prepare the Crust

If frozen, the dough will need to rest on the counter for a while until it is workable.
If in the fridge, it might still need a few minutes on the counter. I have hit upon the method of starting the rolling out process by rolling around the edge first–this works well to keep the edges from splitting too much.

If a full top crust, cut some slits to let the steam escape. I prefer a lattice top most of the time, so I score with the top side of a regular kitchen knife and then put together while it is on top of the pie. I then sprinkle the top with water and then drizzle granulated sugar all over the top – don’t go wild, of course. Just enough to make it glisten and add a bit more sweetness to the top crust.

Then the crimp. I have to say, this is possibly my favorite part. If you have not already done so, study crimps, pick one, and then make it your own. Here are some ideas from simple to fancy:

piecrusts

I am teaching my son to make pie (he is 7 right now) and he has not yet developed his own crimp, but definitely his own “look.” The little pie here is one he made all by himself! And it was delicious!

Crimp

More crimp ideas:

101144029.jpg.rendition.p rope-pie-crust-s3-medium_new BraidWhat you want is everyone who sees your pie to say is, “O, this must be one of your pies! I can tell from the crimp!”

Best-Pie-Before-PictureStart in the oven at 425 degrees for 20 minutes or more depending on the size of the pie and the amount of apples:  bigger pie full of apples, better make it 30 minutes.

Baking-in-a-325-ovenAfter that, turn the temperature down to 325 and bake the rest of the way. If the crust starts getting too brown, just put a piece of aluminum foil on top or just where it is getting too dark (sometimes on the outer crust/crimp) – this will protect the crust while it finishes cooking. The pie is done when a nice golden brown and the juices are thick, a bit darker, and at a slow bubble. This means the juice has boiled and activated that thickener you put in.

Almost-DoneRemove and let it cool on a rack.

Then, have at it!

Best-Pie-DoneHmmm. Delicious!

Knitting on Vacation: Unexpected Solutions for Common Problems

Sometimes when you are on vacation you forget some of your tools at home. . . sometimes this is a great opportunity to shop at the local yarn shop. Sometimes there is no local yarn shop!

Here are my most recent funny problems and my solutions:

Problem: No stitch markers, only fresh cherries . . .

Where there is a will there’s a way. Cherry stems twisted like pretzels make great stitch markers when your needles are a US size 8 or smaller. Who knew? Of course you can always used waste yarn but it isn’t as much fun, or as delicious.

 

Problem: Special Order single ply yarn seems to be overspun. . . swatch is slanting . . .

I swatched about 5 times, changed the needle size, made a large swatch, a small swatch. . .  The swatch was twisting. I wanted to make a coat from the 2,000 yards I had special ordered in a beautiful slate color. But if the yarn is overspun and causing even a small swatch to torque, then  coat could be a disaster.  What to do?

I am convinced there are at least 3 solutions to every problem:

Possible Solution NO. 1: Forget about the coat. Make something where the torque would not only not matter but might make the design more fabulous.  An infinity cowl or wrap. One of these swallowtail garments/wraps.

Possible Solution NO. 2: Forget about the coat. Make a wrap that has sleeves, even sleeves with big bells, asymmetrical, wraps around the body. . . say yes to the torque.

Possible Solution NO 3: Don’t forget about the coat! I was taking the end from the inside of the ball. . . I teased the end through the middle of the ball to the other side of the ball. Taking the end out of the other side of the ball actually changes the twist that is put on the yarn as a result simply of taking it out of the middle of the ball. [Don’t think that taking the end from the outside of the ball will change anything. If the ball is sitting on the floor and you are knitting from it, the strand will either be more twisted or less twisted depending on whether the ball is put down on one flat end or the other. . . This can make a BIG difference in the twist of the yarn.

When I teased the end through the ball to the other side, it was no longer over-twisted. I swatched again and the swatch was lovely. Perfectly straight! Whew. New coat on the needles soon!

 

Problem: Need Fingering Weight Yarn for Noni Flowers stamens but don’t have any . . .

Solution: Divide a 3-ply strand into a single strand and a 2-ply strand. Use either the 1-ply or 2-ply, depending on which better fits the bill.

 

Problem: Want to teach a child to knit on a Southwest Flight. . . No needles only yarn.

Solution: They have great coffee stirrers on Southwest, little red sticks with little hearts on the ends. The gauge is about a US size 7 and works perfectly with worsted weight yarn. I taught a little boy to knit on a flight to Texas once. He showed just about everyone his little swatch. . .

What innovative solution have you come up with for a knitting-away-from-home situation you didn’t expect?  I’d love to hear from you!

Gone Fishing . . . Official Talking Across the Pond Post Later . . . Happy 4th!

Truly.  We’ve gone fishing.

We left the house at 5:30 am this morning, July 4th, to go Walleye fishing on Lake Huron. Weather has been curious. Yesterday, the tide came in, went out (extremely), then in, then out. In the matter of 20 minutes. It was as if a giant was drinking the water out of Lake Huron with a straw and then pouring water back in. Of course it was a full moon, or nearly so. Solar wind coming at us, electromagnetic adventures. Might even have been Northern Lights in the UP and Canada as a result. Wish I could have stayed up late enough to see for myself if we could see the lights where we were midway down the mitten thumb. . . the neighbor was out by his campfire half the night hoping for a spectacular show.

As you read this, I am hoping to be reeling in some Walleye, or watching my Soma reel them in. He’s been looking forward to this since last year when he caught the first fish of the day and 7 pounder that beat the one other fish we brought in. We’re hoping to best that meagre number today.

More details later in my letters from and to Amanda!

Happy Independence Day, America!  Happy Celebrations, everyone!

At the Lakehouse, where I wrote the book

On Friday night there were spectacular storms that knocked out the power in our neighborhood and, according to some reports I’ve heard, in many neighborhoods all up and down the East Coast.

We had been busy preparing to leave for a Michigan holiday: soaking the gardens, tidying up house and garden . . . We first noticed the storm when the lights started flickering as I vacuumed floors house-wide. And then the roar of the wind that tossed the trees this way and this way. Leaves flying. Lilies whipping around. It rained buckets, though not enough to soak the parched soil.

The next morning revealed great tree limbs in the road, trees down (though none of ours, I am glad to say).

We continued our preparations all morning and left with a generator running our refrigerator and the neighbors with instructions about what to do to keep it going. At this writing, power is still out in our house. . . we’ll see what we come home to!

I am in the lakefront house my parents-in-law own. This is where I wrote most of the flower patterns in Noni Flowers. It is peaceful. Here is a collection of photos I took this morning from the back patio, panning from left to right.

I’m signing off now. It’s my husband’s birthday today and Soma and I need to get to the business of making it a special day for him.

The Fish Pond Summer Saga begins . . .

IT’S TUESDAY! You might have noticed my silence yesterday. . . I was in a quandary. About what to blog?  I wanted to tell you about my fish. . . but felt compelling to write about knitting. Knitting writers block. My friend Beth suggested I write what I want, without worry about Noni or knitting or some notion the readers of this blog only want to hear about knitting, so please forgive me if you have no interest in goldfish. . .but indulge me anyway. I like them. And I like them in big ceramic pots in my garden. They ground me. I go out every morning and afternoon and check on them. I train them to nibble at my fingers. I even dream about them sometimes.

I spent my Sunday in my garden.

I even got a little sunburned on my shoulders, which, if you know me, is positively scandalous. I am quite fair and burn easily. Ever since I read about the benefits of Vitamin D straight from the sun herself, I have stopped wearing sunscreen (the sciency man who wrote the article about such benefits said, might as well drink it! So much ends up in your blood stream doing who knows what to you). But I’m not nutty about a tan, so I just take my chances, go about my business, wear long sleeved linen shirts I’ve stolen from my husband’s closet and rolled up the sleeves. You get the idea. But Sunday, I was in garden bliss. It was hot. I had a tall glass of iced water. A little sundress. . .

I planted things, pulled dead leaves off the iris, used my kitchen scissors to cut all the spent buds off the Dianthus by the path. I watered the front garden, planted geraniums amongst my happy yellow pansies by the front door, pulled out plants that were diseased so they don’t spread their scourge to others. I found some beautiful exotic petunias that Soma and I both loved, so we found a place for them by the back door.

There was work everywhere and that was wonderful. I was no end of busy.

And Soma wanted to get some fish. Goldfish. I had promised this. We have three little water features. . .

One is a lotus pond and home to a full sized Lotus–a birthday gift from my sister. I can’t wait. She says the blossoms are hot pink! This pot does not have fish inhabitants. . .

The next pot we’ve had since Austin, Texas days. In other words, it is nearly 8 years old! It houses mosquito fish–hearty little fellas! and it also houses the few surviving tadpoles that Soma and I collected from a nearby pond. Nature creates multitudes because so few survive. . . But there are about 4 or 5 that look really great, so I hope to see frogs crawling out of the pot sometime later in the summer.

The final pot (the biggest) is a bit further down the path and has a little fountain in it. We did have one goldfish in it who had survived through such trials last summer. We grew her from tiny to healthy fish. She was about 5 inches long. But I oversalted the water (some pond salt is beneficial for keeping baddy micro-organisms to a minimum) but I overdid it and realized my fault too late.  The Ph spiked to around 8 or so. She tried to bear it but must have jumped out. We never found her. . .

So, I promised Soma we would get three 27cent fish. We went to the pet store. We looked at the fish and I was tempted by pretty tails and red and white markings. We came home with 4 fish: 3 that are white and red, and one classic gold fish with a beautiful tail. The longest in the tank. We were super selective!

They say–I know you’ve heard this–that you must acclimate the fish to the temperature of the water. To do this, you are advised to float the bag in the water until they are the same temperature. . . we floated the bag.

I tested the water in my pond. I was shocked (you see, this is how I figured out the cause of death for poor little red & white!): Ph way too high!

I began remedial measures: flooding the pond with new water. Water poured over the side and into the garden. This didn’t bother me as it was a hot day and the garden was suffering anyway, so the water was welcome by the plants all around. Tested the water.  Still too high.

I asked my husband to get something called Ph-Down. I thought later this was probably just distilled vinegar, but at the time I was worried. It was almost dusk and the poor fish had been in the bag for a long time now.

Ph-Down recommends you put a dose in and then wait for 20 minutes. Test the water again. We went through this process several times on our quest for the perfect goldfish Ph of 7.0 . . . but bringing down the Ph has side effects, like lowering the Kh [baking soda fixes the problem readily, so don’t go purchasing some $24 dollar container of Kh stuff (as I did) because you will probably just be purchasing the most expensive baking soda you ever have in your life!]. I added some baking soda and started seeing test results I liked better and better.

And then I wondered. . . and I had never ever wondered this before: WHAT is the water like inside that bag??

I tested the water and I was (again!) shocked! The water was way too acidic, high levels (even unsafe levels–why should this be a surprise with all the poor dying fish inside the tanks of 27cent goldfish in the pet store??) of nitrites and nitrates. . . No wonder the poor things don’t make it. The difference between my closer and closer to test-perfect water was SO DIFFERENT from the water in the bag, how could any fish not be physically challenged if not simply over come by the difference?

The remedy: pour a little bit of our pond water into the bag and wait 20 minutes. Then repeat. This would allow the Ph to rise within the bag and the dangerous levels of nitrites and nitrates to go down slowly. The fish would become more acclimated to the water they would enter. We did this, waited, repeated, waited, repeated. . .

But we literally ran out of time. It was dark, the poor fish had been in the bag for HOURS. we had been adding about a quarter cup of good water to bad every 20 minutes for some time.

Finally, we poured the 4 fish and their little frog friend into the pond (a tadpole/new frog still with gills was in the fish tank at the store. The store girl gave it to us when we asked–we were delighted!) Then we went to bed.

I can report, as the image here only partly attests, that all 4 fish and small, every-day-more-frog-like-frog survived! See the little orange sideways exclamation point in the upper left bit of the pond!?

If you liked this entry and would enjoy hearing more about the garden, it would be great to hear that from you. How many of you have fish? or fish in the past and wondered why the poor things seemed so fragile and died without seeming provocation? Tell me your story in the comments.

More garden stories to come if you’ll tolerate them. . . I’d love to tell you about the rusty foxglove I mistook for a weed, for example . . . and the lesson about faith from a Stephanotis vine and about perseverance from the ruby-throated hummingbirds. . .