Friday, December 10, 2010

Apple Dumplings for Dinner

I finished my last day of work yesterday until after Christmas. It was a good day-lunch with Marta and Lily, a quick visit with Natalie and then home, sweet home to Scott. Just us. Alone. It's been a LONG time since we've had an evening alone, what with Honor and Lily living with us for the last few months. Honor started school in San Marcos Monday (I delivered her there myself) and Lily went to a Christmas party with her dad last night. To celebrate our kidless evening, we decided to have a decadent dinner of warm apple dumplings with caramel sauce. When my girls were little, on cold winter days, I would sometimes welcome them home from school with warm apple dumplings. It's comfort food for us.
I thought I would post a short tutorial on making apple dumplings here.  They are SO easy and really, really tasty. On my website, The Teaching Kitchen there is a tutorial on making pie dough. It's a great recipe and I make it in the food processor.  I use coconut oil and butter instead of Crisco and it adds a wonderful flavor. So start with some pie crust. I usually make 3 apple dumplings out of one crust recipe. Double the recipe and you can make 6! The dumplings freeze well if all you want to bake off is 2 or 3. To process the apples I use a apple corer/peeler. You can buy them at department stores and online. I got mine at Dooley's in Fredericksburg years ago. I have 2 of them and they are great for making apple pies, but especially for apple dumplings! Easy and quick! If you don't have a corer/peeler, just peel and core the apples by hand.
Pretty straightforward kitchen gadget...simply pull back the bar with the 3 prongs on the end, push the apple onto the prongs and turn the handle to simultaneously core and peel the apple!
It cuts the apple in a spiral that holds together.  For pies, I simply cut the apple in thirds and it falls into beautiful slices. For dumplings, I leave them intact.
Using a piece of pie dough a bit larger than a golf ball, roll it out and place an apple in the middle.
Fill the center with a cinnamon-brown sugar mixture-you can use white sugar and cinnamon, but I like the caramel flavor from brown sugar.
Dot the cinnamon sugar with a bit of butter and then fold up the dough around the apple to seal.
I like to add a leaf and stem to the top-just for fun.
Place the dumplings in a greased baking pan and bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 50 minutes or until pastry is golden brown and the pan has a bit of juice in the bottom.
I've come to love Goat's Milk Caramel Spread, also called Cajeta. Our local grocery, HEB, has their own brand and the stuff is dangerous. The ingredients are: Goat Milk, Sugar and Glucose. It is great warmed and poured over pie or as a caramel sauce on these dumplings.
You can freeze the unbaked dumplings-indeed, I made 4 and froze 2 of them-and then bake them straight out of the freezer.  Bake for about 1 hour and 10 minutes, but start to check at an hour.  There are so many possibilities here...think about the fillings...chestnut paste, almond paste (I've rolled out almond paste and wrapped the apples in it first and THEN the pastry-amazing!), currants and ground walnuts mixed with cinnamon sugar...I could go on and on.

There is a new restaurant open downtown on Houston Street. John Besh, of Lüke New Orleans fame has opened a Lüke in San Antonio. Marta lives a half block down the street from the restaurant and has eaten there a number of times. She says it is amazing. The other night she went to a party there and met John Besh. She will kill me for posting this, but I like the picture so much. It makes me smile.
Other news on the homefront:
She is leaving the states December 27th to fly to Australia to be an au pair for a year.  She is seriously stoked about this new adventure and I am really excited for her. She will have 2 sweet girls to take care of,  Ella and Amber, ages 2 and 4. Scott has many friends in Australia so we are sending her with a long contact list so she can travel a bit and have some fun on her time off.

We finally got our bee hive. I kept putting it off because so much was going on around here, but last weekend we loaded it in our neighbors truck and got it to our house. Today, I placed our Meyer lemon tree near it. The tree has been in the house (it's in a pot) for about 2 weeks to keep it from freezing. During that time it has begun blooming like mad and the whole house was filled with its perfume! I thought the bees would like it and within a minute of setting it a few feet from the hive it was buzzing with activity!
And of course, no news from the ranch is complete without an update on our pig, Kevin.
After a weeks worth of compost from our Thanksgiving extravaganza (sometimes TWO 5 gallon buckets a night!!) he almost doubled in size.  He still thinks he's a pet and wants to play, but he can almost knock me down and I watch my feet when I am in his pen lest he step on one. Today, while I was in his pen, I threw a stick out of the way and he chased after it and brought it back to me in his mouth. I couldn't belive it.  He carried it around for a few minutes until he lost interest.
He is almost as tall as Sophie and weighs considerably more.
That's all for now. Hope your Holiday plans are going well.  I am seriously unprepared, but hope to pull it all together in the next week. We are taking a short trip to Albuquerque with a stop at our friend Richie's hot springs hotel in Truth or Consequences, FireWater Lodge. Ahhh, to sit in the huge thermal tub in our room and melt for a few days! It will fix all our aches and pains!  G'night!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

So Much To Be Thankful For...

Well, tomorrow begins my annual Thanksgiving Cooking Week and I am really excited. It has been a busy November, with our pig Kevin (actually his name is Kevin Bacon) growing like...well, like a pig! I decided this week that we had to stop treating him like a pet. Whenever we went into his pen to feed him, we would let him out for a bit...sometimes to go for a walk with kidding, he'd trot behind me about 1/4 mile before he tuckered out. The other day I went to change his water and he wanted out. I didn't want him out. When I locked the gate behind me, he squealed and squealed like I was beating him. Spoiled baby he is. Sophie and Kevin are great friends. Sophie thinks Kevin is a dog.
This week will be intense. One hundred hours is not unusual as we leave the house before the sun rises and get home well after dark. But it is like a festival, a family reunion and a church revival all rolled into one! This year, I've published a cookbook to give as a gift for all the folks attending.  It contains many of the recipes I've made over the seven years of cooking at the Ranch. Its title is "Celebrating Cypress Springs" and I am quite intrigued with the process of creating a cookbook. I see more in my future...I have plans for 2011 already!  Here's to cooking and writing and being thankful for a good life!  Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Cologne and Heidelberg and HOME!

Cologne is a big city; but from Bergisch Gladbach, where Lothar and Renate live, it looks like it is growing out of a thick forest. Lots of green space.
Lothar took us on a "tour" of Bergisch old paper mill (a town with lots of trees and water is perfect for the paper industry) where we saw paper actually being made-and brought some home, a castle built to resemble Versailles-but on a smaller scale (and it is now a SPA!), and a hotel which was once a private home that LOOKS like a small castle.
An original paper machine from the early 1900's.
The mini Versailles
Schlosshotel Lerbach
The town is like a movie set-so much green and some very cool architecture. Houses are tall and narrow, small footprints with lots of square footage, much like in Rotterdam. Here in the States it seems we like SPRAWL, especially here in Texas, but then we have lots of space (or the illusion of). Lothar and Renate's house was so comfortable. They incorporated many interesting touches when they had it built. They have two sons; Lukas,12 and Sebastian, 14 who kept us laughing! 
The door to Lukas' bedroom. "Danger! Teenager in Puberty!"
One afternoon Renate and I were sitting outside on the patio having coffee. Sebastian came out and was visiting with us when Renate realized she had to pick up Lukas. She told Sebastian, "Learn some English from Diane..." When she left Sebastian looked at me and said, "I'll teach you German!" and for the next 30 minutes we walked around the yard and he taught me the German words for things and I taught him English. It was a blast and we were both surprised how many words were similar.
Renate and Lothar Esser
We had such a great visit with Renate and Lothar. Renate walked me to her parents' home, just a few doors down and I got to "tour" their house. The backyard was like an arboretum, with so many different varieties of flowers, shrubs and trees in addition to a pond and a sweet, tiny "garden house" where they sometimes spent evenings visiting with friends. It was very interesting to note that Lothar and Renate both grew up in this town-in Renate's case just a few doors away-and how common this is. They still, on a regular basis, see friends with whom they went to elementary school.  You just don't find that much in the States.
The train ride from Cologne to Heidelberg was sweet. We traveled for a great distance along the Rhine river and it was fascinating to see how many castles were built on the hills overlooking the river. There were many fields of cropland going straight up hills and I was surprised to see some of the plantings were vertical, not horizontal! Excuse this pic as it was taken from the train window.
It also surprised me how close these houses were to the Rhine!
We got to the Heidelberg train station and had to catch a bus to our hotel. I was in Heidelberg to work, so the hotel was not of my choosing.  We were booked at the Heidelberg Holiday Inn and it was a way out of town. After checking in, we asked about a place to eat and the guy at the front desk told us, "There is one place-a Croatian reaturant about 3 blocks away." and he pointed out the door across the street to the woods. Oh, really? We took off, strolling down a sidewalk that wound through the trees and sure enough, there it was, Restaurant Makedonia. Not Croatian, but Macedonian food and it was incredible!  We ate dinner there three nights in a row and every night marveled at how everything was perfectly cooked and how large the portions were. By the third evening, when we walked in the door, the waiters laughed. I was working with Army doctors and the first day was brutal...we met at 6:30 for breakfast, and after a short drive to the base we were working by 7:15. It was after 6 when we finished and I was exhausted when I got back to our room. Scott had been at the track all day with Lothar, who had driven down with Lukas from Cologne. We ate dinner at Makedonia and turned in early, as I expected the next day to be a copy of the first. Thankfully, we finished up around 1 in the afternoon, so when I returned to the hotel Scott and I took off to see "Old Heidelberg". What an afternoon. Strangely, Old Heidelberg felt so familiar. I kept thinking (and feeling) I had been there before. It was a dreary, drizzly day and we walked the cobblestone streets arm in arm, sometimes with our hoods pulled up, enjoying our time alone immensely. Our trip was coming to an end and we were trying to draw our time out. 
The University Library
a cobblestone alleyway
We went to a mini Renaissance Faire and kept thinking of our daughter Molly who, along with her husband Keith, is a Rennie devotee. We ate a snack of spit roasted pork on a bed of saurkraut (we were in Germany after all), but the cool thing was it was served in an edible bowl which tasted like an ice cream cone.
Then we got coffee and cake from another booth. I thought this set-up was ingenious! A shelf with Melitta type coffee pour-throughs sitting over holes in the shelf and coffee cups placed beneath. You've got to see it to understand:
 The hand made pottery cups sat in recesses on the bottom shelf. It was an entertaining faire and great for people watching. An intriguing wood fired oven:
Obviously VERY portable with those heavy duty casters!
We walked the 300+ steps up to the castle and I was struck once again by an eerie familiarity.
The castle from below.
Taken from the steps up to the castle...a bit more than halfway there!
A cool house on the way to the castle
The castle was huge.  This is only a small part of it.

I thought it was cool how, because this part of the tower broke off, you could glimpse inside.
The view from the castle looking down on Heidelberg and the bridge over the Neckers River.
 It was lovely-even though partially in ruin-and the rainy weather seemed somehow appropriate.
We went back to the hotel and packed our bags to head to Paris to spend one night before flying home.
Our night in Paris was uneventful. A bland hotel near the airport and an average dinner. We got to the airport and while checking in our bags were told that the tickets we were holding were invalid and we did not, in fact, have a flight! Excuse me? After more than an hour in line, and already too late to catch our original flight, we were booked on a direct flight home. We could spend our time leisurely, going through security and drinking coffee. Our rebooked flight was only partially full, so they gave us a seat in an emergency aisle (these seats usually cost 70 Euros more!) so Scott could stretch out. It was a pretty comfortable flight and we were glad it worked out as it did, even if we did have a moment of initial panic!
Now, home three weeks, it has been non-stop.  Not only playing catch-up, but with all sorts of new developments.
Cal and Leslie, our "vagabond" friends, who stopped by for a visit a few days after we returned from vacation.
We have had guests at the house 2 1/2 weeks out of the last three and now have a full house for what looks like the next 4-6 weeks. We have a sweet 23 year old, Honor Holly, living with us until she starts school in November. Honor was born in this house and moved away when she was about 2 years old. It has been fun having her around and she keeps us laughing with her sunny outlook on life. Lily has also moved back home after two weeks in Dallas.  Lily and Honor are crazy funny together and it is working out well to have them here at the same time. They occupy the entire second floor of the house-each with their own bedrooms-and I try not to even venture up there. They help us out around the ranch-they have been baking cookies most all day today for the Harvest Classic and will be washing dishes there all day tomorrow!
We got a baby pig this morning.  We have named him Bacon and he will eventually feed us. At this point he is as cute as can be! Love the curly tail! He's pretty friendly and snorts if you scratch his nose.
Next week, we will set up a bee hive.Yeah, life moves on here at the ranch and at this point it sure doesn't feel like a "Half Fast Life" feels like full speed ahead! But man, is it fun. Can't imagine it any other way!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Bassano del Grappa, Italy

The train trip from Latina to Rome, Rome to Padua and Padua to Bassano was uneventful except for Scott being sick as a dog. He was not much of a conversationalist-he slept most of the day. So I wrote and read and watched the scenery pass by.

Bassano del Grappa is a picturesque town on the banks of the Brenta River. It sits at the base of the Dolomites, a majestic mountain range that themselves sit at the base of the Alps. I love this town. We traveled through Bassano on a motorcycle trip last year and vowed to return.
We checked in to Hotel Brennero, probably the most comfortable hotel we’ve had this whole trip with a spacious room and a shower AND bathtub.
 At 75 Euros a night (about $100) it was also one of the most reasonable-in comparison we paid 79 Euros a night in Milan for a cramped-albeit clean-hostel/hotel room in a part of town packed with sex shops and massage parlours! There was a big celebration going on in Bassano the Sunday afternoon we arrived. Actually, it was just winding down, but some folks were determined to party the night away…right under our 3rd floor window. Scott immersed himself in the bathtub while I unpacked a bit and then, amidst singing and hollering, we went to sleep. The next morning Scott was feeling much better and we set out to explore the town. Bassano is set up very logically with most of the concentration of shops and city offices in one area. It is very easy to get around on foot…indeed most of the locals seem to walk or ride bicycles around town.
 The town is known for its grappa-a spirit made from the skin of grapes. You’d think we’d had enough with all the alcohol in Latina, but we had already planned on touring the Poli Grappa Museum. It was fascinating, showing some types of very early distillers (stills) and, after tasting several varieties, we bought a few bottles to bring home. There were great food shops with porcini mushrooms-dried and fresh, several types of honey and burlap sacks full of beans, peas, lentils and rice. There were a few cartography shops-Bassano having one of the earliest printing companies in the area. The papers and cards were beautifully printed with centuries old designs. And the gelatarias were some of the best we’ve encountered. We had a pine nut gelato that rivaled any gelato we’ve ever eaten.
Bassano’s houses a UNESCO site with one of the Italian Military War Memorials atop Mt. Grappa (about 30 km away). We rode up Mt. Grappa last year (a gripping ride up the side of a very steep mountain which, to Scott’s chagrin, pretty much made me swear off motorcycles) and saw the Memorial from afar. The site entombs about 30,000 soldiers, with over 12,000 being unknown soldiers. The town itself has shrines and some will break your heart. Scott and I were walking down a beautiful tree lined boulevard overlooking the river when he pointed out flower pots planted with cyclamins at eye level on every tree. I looked closer and saw they were mini memorials. The flower pots were attached to ceramic plaques that encircled the tree trunks. On each plaque was the name of a fallen soldier. What was striking however, was a noose painted under each soldiers’ name. The men named were hung on this street 60 odd years ago. It was a sad reminder of the cost of war.
We spent 2 days and three nights in Bassano and it was not near enough. We walked all over town and shopped and ate some great meals.  Scott felt better every day and by our last day in Italy we realized it was not a hangover, but he was battling an upper respiratory infection. We stopped in a farmacia in the center of town and I told them my husband had a sore throat.  They brought out some propolis spray and a homeopathic remedy for sore throat/chest congestion. Although I felt we were a few days late for using these, I bought both and he took them on the spot. These shops are actual pharmacies and you can have a prescription filled here, but it's nice their first line of defense is homeopathic. We had to get up real early our last morning in Bassano to catch a 5:30 train to Cologne, Germany.  We were on trains for 12 hours that day. It gave me time to read a bit, relax, catch up on writing.  I know I've said it a hundred times, but I do so love the trains.
An empty train station at 5:30 a.m.
The ride from Bassano to Cologne was magnificent-first through the Dolomite Mountains and then through the Alps.  It was chilly outside and the train was cozy.  We passed thickly forested mountain tops and big lakes. Sweet alpine towns and industrial areas.  We took lots of pictures out the train window.
At 5:30 that evening we entered the Cologne Central Station.
We were here to spend 2 days with Lothar Esser and his family: his wife Renate and his two sons; Sebastian, 14 and Lukas, 12.