Autumn Nesting

Last night the temperature finally dropped to freezing. No frost this morning, but it is COLD out – damp and chill in that patently Pacific Northwest manner.

But I’m ready! This weekend was a flurry of nesting: a new, snuggly knitting project and lots of time in the kitchen.

The cooling weather and dark purple-grey skies have chased out the Puffs. Instead, I wanted something warm, bulky, and soft to knit. Enter Encompass, the perfect solution for a fast, fun autumn project. I’m using Plymouth Yarn’s Baby Alpaca Grande.

It’s shedding just a little, which I’m hoping will stop once it’s knitted and the fibers are trapped in the stitches.

I’ve been dehydrating several things, stocking them away in the pantry. I love to open my cupboards and see a row of colorful jars smiling back at me.

Autumn and spice always go together for me. Black tea blends are getting thrown over for Chai.

Murchie’s Traditional Chai (they used to call this blend “Autumn Chai”). Mmm. I love it. Cinnamon, cardamom, and just a tiny bit of sweetness – it is a perfect Chai, in my opinion. I’ve also been adding a little cinnamon to my coffee (in with the grounds as it brews).

Spices are all over my baking and cooking, too: Molasses spice cake, whole-wheat spoon bread, and perfect chocolate chip cookies (oh my goodness, are they EVER) have been rolling out of the oven one after another. Just a few weeks ago, dinner was grilled chicken and green salad. Now that seems too “cold” for these chilly days. Instead we’ve been warming ourselves with hearty, full-flavored dishes that have been on hiatus all summer: toasted-spice chili, tangy orange chicken stir fry, skillet lasagna (all of these recipes are from Cook’s Illustrated/America’s Test Kitchen). Even our meals out have been rich and spicy: italian flat breads and warm spinach salad, Indian curries, toasty sandwiches.

I’d love to hear about YOU – As the weather continues its journey towards winter, where are you seeing evidence of “nesting” in your own home and habits?

More Butter

I am still floating on the afterglow of last weekend’s Knot Hysteria Gourmet Retreat.

You may know by now that I am a firm believer that a little preparation and quality ingredients go a long, long way toward producing great results. I find this to be true in many areas of life, and particularly in food and fiber – and my beliefs were strengthened exponentially during the retreat.


I deeply appreciated Chef Dan’s emphasis on and coaching of “mise en place” – the pre-work of cooking. He spent a good part of our first session teaching about what mise en place means and the importance of it when you are cooking – particularly for large quantities, but even for when we returned home and were cooking for a dinner party or just ourselves.

Mise en place is the process of preparing all of your ingredients properly and appropriately ahead of time. This enables a streamlined approach for the chef during the actual cooking process.

And Chef Dan was very right – I was watching different stations during the day, and I could easily see the difference between those who had properly executed mise en place and those who hadn’t. It wasn’t Zen vs. Bedlam, but it wasn’t too different from that either.

Quality Ingredients

I’m guessing you can celebrate with me when I share that our team’s meal included Theo’s chocolate, Parmigiano Reggiano, Copper River salmon, true cave-aged Roquefort from France, Holmquist farms hazelnuts, and freshly-picked salad greens and English peas from a local farm.

(This salmon waits for Chef Dan to show us his filleting technique.)

(The evening’s salmon portions, waiting to be seared and then taken into the kitchen for further prep and cooking.)

It also included butter.

Lots and lots of butter.

There were over two pounds of butter in the decadence we made. But what really freaked me out was the Beurre Blanc.

It started like this: I’d worked with two other fabulous ladies, Lisa and Heather, to turn those Holmquist hazelnuts into cayenne candied garnishes for the salad.

(Our mise en place for candied hazelnuts.)

(Another shot of our hazelnut prep.)

That work took almost no time, so quickly we were looking for another task. Chef Dan wandered by and split us between stations, and I was sent to begin the Beurre Blanc.

Mindful of my mise en place, I started to gather sauce pans, whisks, spatulas, and shallots. I carried all of these items to the station and set them up. Then my new team-mates, Karen and Rebecca, reviewed our list and scattered to find the final items. My job? Get the butter.

I went to the supply shelves and spied the two and a half blocks of butter sitting there.

(The butter’s hiding in the back, between the asparagus and container of vegetable stock.)

At that point, I was forced to turn to one of our leads, Chef Dave, and utter words I could hardly believe: “We’re going to need more butter. Lots more butter.” Chef Dave: “How much more?” Me: “Two pounds.”

That’s right. Beurre Blanc for 23 portions: Four pounds of butter. Whoa.

Karen and I minced shallots and started the reduction. Rebecca pulled yeoman’s duty and cut up those huge bricks of butter into tablepoon-ish sized pieces.

(Perspective is everything – In the top picture, that’s a one cup measure and a 2-gallon plastic container filled with shallots. The cutting board was at least 24″ long. Trust me… that was a HUGE pile of butter.)

Chef Dan returned to oversee our efforts, and the next words out of his mouth were “It’s my job today to show you how to add as much butter to this Beurre Blanc as is humanly possible.”

Right there, I knew I’d found my happy place.

(The Beurre Blanc reduction bubbling away.)

And with Chef Dan’s guidance, we were a blazing success. Into just a tablespoon or two of reduction we melted and whisked piece after piece of butter, pound after pound. By the time we’d finished (gauged by Chef Dan’s speedy taste and crisp proclamation “You’re DONE”), we’d managed to cram about three and a half pounds of butter into those two pans of sauce.

We poured the whole thing into a chinoise and pressed every last bit of butter through the mesh. We had an incredible, delicate, piquant butter sauce.

Ah, beautiful success.

Gourmet Indeed

Well I’ve just returned from a weekend away at Knot Hysteria’s first Gourmet Retreat and all I can say is “Wow!”

Previous Knot Hysteria retreats were typically a three-day extravaganza of knitting, dyeing, and spinning. But Tina and Stephanie had received some feedback that ‘not everyone spins’ and so they thought of a combination that non-spinners might like: One day of knitting with and learning about luxury fiber; one day of dyeing luxury fiber;  and one day – wait for it – in the kitchen with renowned head chef of the Inn at Port Ludlow, Dan Ratigan. With him, we spent a day learning tips and tricks of the trade while actually helping to make a gourmet supper for 50 new friends.

Like I said: Wow!

Here’s a brief photo tour through my weekend…

Day 1: Learning about and knitting with luxury fiber, with Stephanie Pearl-McPhee

(The first rounds of a cowl knit with luxury fibers: Cashmere, silk, bison, qiviut and more)

Day 2: The vagaries and mercurial nature of luxury fibers, and how to dye them, with Tina Newton (DepraveDyer of Blue Moon Fiber Arts)

(The classroom before we messed it up)

(Dying a truly beautiful skein of bison in navy and royal blue)

(Dyeing a complementary pair of skeins of MCN (merino, cashmere, nylon) sock yarn)

Day 3: Gourmet, a holistic approach, with Chef Dan

(You have this many saute pans in your kitchen, right? There is a shot of Chef Dan in action)

(Yes, that is an entire quarter round of Parmigiano Reggiano, shipped directly to the Inn a Port Ludlow from Italy. I am still freaking over it.)

(A Decadence is born: Theo’s bittersweet chocolate and a whole lot of butter.)

Now, being an actual spinner, I found it a little funny that this was the first KH retreat that I was irresistibly drawn to. I’d seen the others, but had never felt that I *must* go. This one was different – I knew from the first read that I had to go, and I’m so glad I did.

As many of you know, these things start off being all about the classes, but end being all about the people you meet. The difference in community from Day 1 to the end of Day 3 is profound. Throughout the weekend, over and again, I heard the same phrase voiced aloud: “OMG! I’ve found my PEOPLE!” And it was true; the attendees were a rare and narrow stripe of the knitterly spectrum, all sharing a deep love of fiber and craft and craftsmanship and truly fine art, art that takes many final forms across fiber and food.

So I have a new tribe. I have found my people. They are giants of talent and grace; gloriously gifted Amazonian fiberists (oh hi Paul – you can be a Manly Fiberist of the Amazon!). I am thankful to be among them– to learn and to grow, and to share in the joy of wonderful new friendships.

Seed cake, if you have any

This weekend I was re-reading The Hobbit. I was laughing right from the start. Especially when all the dwarfs show up at Bilbo’s door just in time for Tea, in a frustrating progression one after another. Each comes right on in to his home and makes himself comfortable.

At the third ring of his bell, Bilbo is becoming a bit agitated and worried, as well he might:

…[Bilbo] liked visitors, but he liked to know them before they arrived, and he preferred to ask them himself. He had a horrible thought that the cakes might run short, and then he – as the host: he knew his duty and stuck to it however painful – he might have to go without.

“Come along in, and have some tea!” he managed to say after taking a deep breath.

“A little beer would suit me better, if it is all the same to you, my good sir,” said Balin with the white beard. “But I don’t mind some cake – seed cake, if you have any.”

“Lots!” Bilbo found himself answering, to his own surprise; and he found himself scuttling off, too, to the cellar to fill a pint beer-mug, and then to a pantry to fetch two beautiful round seed-cakes which he had baked that afternoon for his after-supper morsel.

Can you imagine having to offer up *your* lovely seed cakes to a bunch of scoundrelly-looking dwarfs? I can not!

That got me thinking about all the times I’ve read of seed cake – Tolkien, Burnett, Austen, Alcott, and many others. Always with tea, or snuck up into garrets for middle-of the night tea parties. What was it, exactly? I had a clear picture in my mind of a dense, sweet tea cake studded with lovely seeds and things, delicate but not too crumbly, and perfect for toasting (with butter).

This time I finally decided to look it up. There’s an entire library full of information out there on the internet, including much discussion of seed cake vs. seed bread, and the whole history, etymology, and evolution of the thing.

After about 30 minutes of poking about on the web, I realized I already knew far more than I wanted to or cared about, since the ‘real’ seed cake was not much like what I’d pictured in my head… and what I wanted to eat! What I wanted was something like this:

So I set about creating my own, and if I do say so, it is quite lovely.

I’ve made this twice now with excellent results, but as you’ll see the recipe is terribly inexact regarding baking time, and you’ll just have to experiment with your own oven and pan types.

The mix of seeds is truly up to you; select what you like and don’t be mean about it. I do encourage you, though, to include caraway – even if just a pinch. It really is wonderful, especially with the citrus undertones, and it gives a little depth to the sweetness of the rich cake.

Don’t forget to toast it. And a touch of butter too.

Shawn’s New-fangled Seed Cake

Yield: 3 tealoaves; 1/2 recipe makes one mammoth bread loaf

Dry Ingredients:

3c all purpose flour
1c granulated sugar
1c dark brown sugar
1½t baking powder
1t fine salt (non-iodized, if you have it)

1T poppy seeds
2t sesame seeds
1½t caraway seeds
1t ground cardamom
1t dried orange peel (or better yet, zest from 1 orange or lemon)
pinch ground anise seed
½c chopped pecans

Wet Ingredients:

1½c milk
1¼c canola oil (or other light-flavored oil, not olive)
5 eggs
2t vanilla extract
2t lemon extract


Heat oven to 350º (see note if using glass).

Prepare baking pans with spray or grease/flour.

  1. Measure dry ingredients into large bowl with plenty of extra room. Stir well to combine and to coat nuts.
  2. Measure wet ingredients into second bowl. Whisk together, mixing well enough to thoroughly beat eggs and incorporate oil.
  3. Add wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, folding together with a spatula only until well incorporated. (A few small lumps are ok.) Be careful of overmixing.
  4. Pour batter into prepared pans.

Bake – small tea loaves: 35-45 mins; large loaf pans 50-60 mins. (The half- recipe I made using a thick Pyrex glass loaf pan took 80 full minutes to bake going back and forth between 325º and 350º, so use your best judgement if you put a lot of batter into a huge loaf pan.)


Note: If using glass pans you may want to start with your oven at 325 since the glass retains heat much differently than thin metal baking pans.

Can’t get enough? Looking for more? Check out these fun sites:

The Power of Flour – And a Reverse Haiku

You know, I’m just realizing that it has been a long, LONG time since I’ve written a reverse haiku. And never before here at Contemporary Insanity. So, I give you, Reverse Haiku (not Thursday):

hello chill grey wet winter
bring it if you can
my war song is prepared

I tried to make it flour related, especially because the Rhyming Dictionary pushed ‘meteor shower’ as a 5-syllable match. [Also: devour, staying power, happy hour(!)] Dudes! How can you NOT use that?? But anyway, I couldn’t cogitate fast enough to make it work, and here we are. Add yours to the comments, you know you want to!

So… let’s talk flour and protein content, my newest learning about BREAD!

As I’m reading up (particularly in Ciril Hitz’s book Baking Artisan Bread), I am beginning to understand why I may have had less than great success.
Even before I’d wet any ingredients I’d already bungled the whole thing. I had no idea. I’m sure at least some of my problems were due to using:
  • The wrong flour, very likely old & out of date (thankfully not rancid, but that was just luck with the whole wheat)
  • Dry yeast, while not bad, not the best to use either. And I most certainly used water that was too hot.

Now I am starting to learn better.

Turns out, there’s a reason why there are all-purpose flour, cake flour, and bread flour. (Yeah, I know. Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake.) For bread like the type I want to make, you need gluten. And the best way to develop gluten is to use a high-protein flour.

This was something I had no idea about. Different types of wheat have different levels of protein, and, in fact, are grown and processed particularly to take advantage of that fact. Huh. Cool.

Hitz includes a great intro to flour in his book. Winter wheat (meaning it is planted during the winter, in milder climates than Spring wheat) has a typical protein content between 11 and 14 percent. Hitz claims “the most ideal protein content for artisan bread baking being 11.5 to 11.7 percent.”

Here are some related stats:

Gold Medal unbleached all purpose: 10.5% protein

King Arthur Flour all purpose: 11.7% protein

KAF European Flour: 11.7% protein

KAF Bread Flour: 12.7% protein

Bob’s Red Mill Whole Wheat: 13.5% min. protein

KAF Sir Lancelot Flour: 14.2% protein

Not rocket science, eh? Can you tell why I’m excited about using the specialty flours provided by King Arthur Flour, as well as using their Bread Flour as a baseline?

OK, that’s enough flour science for today. First up, Pane Francese from Baking Artisan Bread (check out this site for some excellent pictures). I’ll be making the Biga in the next 24hrs and baking this weekend. WOOT!

If you’re looking for more, check out the wonderfully-related recent posts on KAF’s Baking Banter blog: No-Knead Harvest Bread and Honey-Out Pain de Mie. Mmmm.

Cold Days and Warm Bread

I wrote yesterday about Anticipation – specifically two lovely boxes that were delivered to our home yesterday!

They sat patiently on the table through the night so I could photograph them in the morning light (cloudy and chilly, so different from yesterday – but that might actually be good – read on!) as I opened each and reveled in their contents.

The first box – Some interesting things from the Preservation catalog from Cabela’s:

Yes! This means that jerky, and hand-made(!) sausage(!) are coming in future months. The books I had already; I’ve been reading them over the past year as I’ve been increasingly interested in preserving meat. From Cabela’s, I ordered two different jerky seasonings and sausage casings (that’s the small blue packet). Next I need to get Instacure #1 and #2 and I’ll be ready to roll.

But the real treat, the real anticipation, was for the second box. The box from King Arthur Flour. (I’m getting excited again just typing up this blog post.)

Because this box means something special.

And not just these pretties that came inside…

It means a brand new adventure and challenge for myself – and for all of you out there who want to take this adventure with me. What was inside the box? These!

This box means BREADBAKING!

I’m going to teach myself how to make bread this winter. I’m calling it the ‘Cold Days, Warm Bread’ challenge.

It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while now: learn how to bake wonderful, yeasty, crusty, fabulous artisan breads.

I have tried yeast breads a few times – even going as far as attempting to create my own sourdough starter (a particularly spectacular failure and quite a mess to boot). However, I have never been very successful – even with the one loaf of bread that ‘worked,’ (thank you, Linda!) I can’t say that I’ve ever made any that tasted good. Certainly I haven’t come anywhere near a real understanding of the art and science of baking good bread.

With this challenge, I’m committing to baking at least one loaf of bread each week – good or bad, success or failure. Please join along as I stumble my way through the magic of yeasts and fermentation, of proper oven preparation and baking-environment management!

If you, like me, have never tried or have not yet felt successful in your bread baking, maybe you want to bake along? Or if you are an old pro, come along and help out those of us who are learning!

I am partnering on this challenge with the wonderful people at King Arthur Flour! During this challenge, I will have pro tips from their Baking Experts, as well as give-aways (!!!) of their incredible flours and other bread-baking wares. They are starting me off with some wonderful KAF products to begin:

Aren’t they incredible?! It’s no mystery why they are the industry’s leader and favorite for home (and professional) bakers. Seriously – take a look at how much they value education and helping home and professional bakers. It’s amazing.

For this challenge, I will be baking once a week as I learn new skills and work to better understand the magic that is artisan bread baking. Along the way, I’ll be talking about tools, education opportunities, and anything else I can think of that could be fun and interesting.

As I begin, I am reading these books to get going. I’ll also be talking with the lovely folks at the KAF Baker’s Hotline before I mix my first batch of poolish.

Are you ready? Let’s bake BREAD!

See my new “Cold Days, Warm Bread” page. I’ll be using that as an ongoing archive of all posts related to the challenge. Happy Baking!


It’s been several days since my last post; it feels like a time both brief and lengthy. The weather has been wonderful here – warm and sunny, and unseasonably so. I feel like every minute of this sunshine is a particularly precious gift and I have been savoring the light, colors, and warmth as much as possible – stocking up for the long, grey, chill winter to come.

For days I’ve been out in the yard working and messing about. There has been a big bonfire, just like this one.

There has been much chopping of wood.

There has been much pulling and cutting of undergrowth.  (I’m so awful at remembering to take ‘before’ pictures. Here’s a ‘midway’ picture.) Before we started cutting down the salal and stickerbushes, this hill was even more overgrown and dense than the other side of the stairs.

Today I was completely enchanted with the play of golden afternoon sunlight on foliage around the yard. I couldn’t get enough of it.

On the woodpile, too. One little ray lit up one little piece. Lovely.

Nights have been chilly and we spend them eating lovely autumn-y meals, snuggling on the couch with a pack of puppies, and (well, for me at least) knitting away.

(As I look at this picture, it doesn’t seem that I’m much further along since this debaucle. But trust me – those foot rows on both socks – AND extended heel flaps – major victory!)


As I’ve been enjoying all this, I’ve been excitedly anticipating the arrival of something here at our home. Today it arrived while I was out, and I was so very, very excited to see this when I arrived home.

Tomorrow I have many fun things to share with you – and to invite you to join me in!

Here’s a little preview:

More to come tomorrow!