Monday, November 28, 2011


Lavender/Tangerine Soap

When I was little we lived in the French Alps, in a small peasant chalet, like every one of our neighbors.  My father, though a respected and successful architect and musician, became a farmer like all our neighbors.  My mother learned to make do with nothing much at all since this was the height of World War II and she had to somehow manage to feed and clothe six children.  Like my father, she learned to do what her neighbors did to get by. 
One of the skills she learned was the mysterious art of making soap.  I remember these bars of soap as very rough, like sandpaper, and grey.  Suds?  As long as the clothes could be rubbed long enough on the wash board, suds weren’t important.  It was all a little like washing clothes in a cold running stream and beating the clothes on the rocks until they could at least be imagined to be clean.  I have no idea how she made these unappealing bars, but I do remember that she worked very hard at keeping us clean.  Being an American, she had certain standards of cleanliness that her farming neighbors thought were a little excessive—maybe even a little compulsive.
As I have been exploring ways to stretch our budget dollar and get more bang for every buck, I have still shied away from the mysterious art of soap-making.  As I roved the internet in my efforts to learn more, I was intimidated by the dire warnings associated with using lye in making soap.  And what if it came out like the soap my mother made?
For my birthday, my lovely daughter Kim gave me two beautiful little bars of soap, wrapped in wax paper and smelling of lavender. 
I saved the packaging because it was so pretty
I admit I hesitated before I used one of these lovely bars.  I kept thinking of my mother’s grey sandpaper bars.  When I eventually took my first shower with the soap Kim made I was astonished at the soft silkiness and the abundant lather—not to mention the exquisite fragrance of the lavender. 
Kim is as passionate as I am about finding ways to not only save money, but come up with something better.  Since she’s an artist, everything she makes is also very beautiful.  We learn from our mothers, I know.  But I have learned as much from my daughter as I hope she has learned from me.  And now, I was ready to learn to make soap.
“It’s really easy, Mom,” she offered.  “Why don’t you come over and I’ll teach you.  We’ll make soap together.”
For her, everything is much easier than it is for me, I think.  When I watch her in any task, I see that her hands are like a beautiful instrument doing her quiet bidding.  Could I make soap?  It seemed mysterious and a little scary, even complicated from what I had been reading.  It has to be so exacting.  That’s a hard concept for me.
I went to her house with my olive oil and the essential oils I had on hand.  She had the rest of what I would need and if I liked doing this, she said, I could stock up on the other ingredients for future batches. 
Lavender/Grapefruit with Lavender Seeds--My first effort alone

I learned to make soap from my daughter.  And I learned how to make laundry soap from my neighbor Stephenie.  Both these young women are decades younger than me.  I thought it was supposed to be the other way around.  I thought I was supposed to be teaching from my own experience.  But it’s really fun to pass on what I have learned from my mother, my daughter, my neighbor.  As long as these skills get passed on we’ll be okay, won’t we?
I made another batch for myself, and then I taught my sister Betty so that she could pass this on to her daughter when she visits over Christmas.  And Stephenie came over yesterday so we could finally chronicle the whole experience so that others can see that making soap may be a wonderful mystery of chemistry, but it is also an ancient and elemental skill.
Making Soap
8 oz. water
3 oz. lye
6 oz. olive oil
6 oz. coconut oil
9.4 oz. Crisco
A few dropperfuls of essential oils (I used 4 dropperfuls of grapefruit essential oil and about 10 drops of lavender essential oil—whatever your nose tells you)
Assembled equipment and ingredients

You will need:
 1 candy thermometer (I have two which helps a lot)
1 kitchen scale for measuring (I found a good one at Fred Meyer with a nice big dial I can read and adjust for tare—bringing it to zero for exact weighing)
A large bowl, preferably with a pour spout
1 glass jar (like a salsa or relish jar)
Small container for measuring the lye into
Metal spoon for stirring
Stick blender
Kitchen gloves
2 Molds (I used empty pint cardboard containers—like cream or EggBeaters)
8 oz. water (place empty jar on scale and bring to zero before pouring in water)

Measure 8 oz. water into glass jar. 
Again, put empty container on scale and bring back to zero before adding 3 oz. lye
Measure 3 oz. lye into small container. 
Carefully pour lye into water

Put on kitchen gloves and take jar of water, container of lye, metal spoon, and candy thermometer outside.  Pour lye into water slowly, stirring with metal spoon.  Lye is caustic so stand back as you pour.  Place candy thermometer in jar and watch the temperature immediately rise to approximately 175˚. 
Steam from lye/water fogs up thermometer

 Leave water/lye outside to begin to cool.
Measuring the coconut oil

Measure 6 oz. of olive oil and pour into large bowl.  Measure 6 oz. coconut oil in container used for olive oil (it will be easier to empty) and empty into bowl with olive oil.  Measure 9.4 oz. Crisco in same container and put in olive oil/coconut oil mixture. 
9.4 oz. Crisco 

Cover bowl with a sheet of paper toweling and put in microwave for 2 ½ minutes until all oils have melted.  If you have another candy thermometer, put it in the bowl with the oils.
Ready to put ion microwave

When the lye mixture has cooled to between 100 and 110˚ and the oils have also cooled to the same temperature, the two are ready to combine.  I find it easiest to put the oil bowl in the sink at this point to prevent splashing. 
With blender whirring, slowly add water/lye mixture

Begin whirring the oils with the stick blender as you slowly pour in the water/lye.
Ready to add essential oils

When the mixture reaches the consistency of thick honey or thin mayonnaise (trace), you are ready to put in the essential oils.  At this point, I’ve also added lavender seeds.
A rubber band can keep the molds straight, but may cause uneven cooling

Pour the thick mixture into the two molds.
Let stand 24 hours, then remove the containers (just tear them off).

With a cheese knife, or other sharp knife. Cut each mold into four bars of soap. 
Let soap cure two to four weeks.    
Finished soap, edges smoothed with vegetable peeler

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Almond Meal/Flour

Almond Meal/Flour
I love to cook, but I’ve never been much of a baker, maybe because I don’t have much of a sweet tooth; so desserts seem to be an afterthought and of no consequence.  That said, I admit to practically swooning when I walk into a French patisserie.  I become a believer in dessert when I see the tarts that are displayed in the cases, with glistening fruit nestled within a smooth custard that sits in a crust that is both crisp and impossibly rich.  But unlike most pastries, these are never cloyingly sweet, not even barely sweet—only impossibly buttery rich.
Because I’ve never paid much attention to desserts, I never really explored this mysterious science.  Beyond that, because I don’t like to measure anything I put together, nor do I like to taste as I go, I’m much safer throwing together the main events of a meal.  And when I’m told I really need to measure when I bake, that is out of my comfort zone.  Pies, cookies, no problem.  Fancy cakes?  Forget it.
Betty spent the weekend with us and we had another of our sister adventures, explorations.  We started out with the idea of making soap together, so we checked out Zenith Supplies, the place my daughter Kim introduced me to a couple of weeks ago.  And of course, since Whole Foods was almost across the street, we certainly needed to see if there was anything we couldn’t live without.  Of course, “live without” is a relative term, at best.  With our limited budgets, we could still get what we needed, as long as it was on our list and comparable in price to any other place.  I needed Crisco for the soap-making so we headed down the baking aisle.  And Betty mentioned a flour her English friend uses so we looked for the almond flour.  It was pretty expensive but we decided to split it since whatever we did with it, we wouldn’t be using much.
Betty decided to stay an extra day when it turned out that my son Sean would be coming for dinner with his new girlfriend.  Much excitement for all of us since we haven’t seen him in a long while (maybe because of the new girlfriend?).   Betty and I decided to prepare steak au poivre, one of our favorite steak preparations.  And we would test out the new almond flour in a French plum tart.  I would substitute peaches I froze this summer for the plums.  And I had discovered Sichuan peppercorns for the steaks which would lift them to a new level.  I always like a reason to have a feast…
The first difference I noted when I prepared the pastry for the tart was how easily it came together.  I’ve made a lot of pies over the years, sometimes reluctantly for the mess I invariably make with flour all over the counter.  Even when I use the processor to make the pie dough, it still seems to get everywhere and crumble too much.  I put the flour in the processor bowl, added the almond flour, a tiny bit of sugar and a lot of butter and watched it whir to perfection.  As I added the ice water, the dough easily came together to be turned out onto the ax paper.  Even rolling it out was easy and after it had chilled, turning it out into the tart pan was a breeze.  Amazing!
We had one of the more perfect dinners Betty and I have ever collaborated on.  This was our menu:
Steak au Poivre with Grilled Asparagus and Baby potatoes, Tarte au Pèche
To prepare the steaks, begin with a very hot pan.  Sprinkle it with whole Sichuan peppercorns and coarsely ground sea salt (this acts as small ball bearings to quickly sear the meat without steaming it).  Before cooking the steaks, begin the potatoes in another pan, tossing them in herb infused olive oil.  When the potatoes are nearly done, begin the asparagus in a third pan with chopped garlic and olive oil.  Sear the steaks on high heat, with sliced mushrooms, turning once.  Remove from heat and set aside on a platter.   Top with pats of butter.  Quickly deglaze the pan with wine and pour reduction over steaks.  Arrange grilled asparagus and potatoes on platter and serve immediately.  Serve with a simple salad tossed with light balsamic vinaigrette and fruit of your choice.  We used pomegranate seeds and Satsuma orange slices and sliced avocado.
This is a quick and delicious preparation that Betty and I both remember from our childhood when our father would work his magic in the kitchen.  The whole meal comes together in less than a half hour so there is plenty of time for easy conversation throughout the process.
Tarte au Pèche
1 cup flour
¼ cup almond flour
1 teaspoon superfine sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter in small pieces
4 to 8 tablespoons ice water
Put flours, sugar, salt and butter in bowl of processor and whir until dough comes together in pea-sized pieces.  Slowly add water with motor going until dough begins to break away from sides and come together.  Don’t over process or dough will be tough.
Turn dough out onto a large piece of wax paper.  Fold wax paper over it and flatten with your hand, then roll into a circle that will fit a tart pan.  Chill dough at least 30 minutes.
Lift off top of wax paper and turn dough into tart pan, carefully removing bottom layer of wax paper, smoothing dough to edges of pan.  Cut away excess from top of pan.  Prick bottom of tart with a fork.  Lay a piece of foil over bottom and fill with baking beans.
Bake at 400˚ for 15 minutes.  Remove from oven, remove baking beans and foil and let cool.
Meanwhile, prepare peaches (or plums, or pears).  Toss with 2 tablespoons Kirsch or Calvados brandy and let sit for 30 minutes.
Brush bottom of pastry shell with raspberry jam and set aside.
Custard Filling
2 eggs
¼ cup superfine sugar
¾ cup heavy cream
Grated rind of ½ lemon
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
Beat eggs and sugar until well combined, then beat in cream, lemon rind and vanilla, and any juice from the fruit.
Arrange fruit over bottom of tart in a pleasing shape.  Pour the custard over the fruit and bake at 350˚ for about 30 minutes, or until custard has set.  Remove from oven and let cool.  Cut into wedges and serve.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Very Simple Lunch

Joe was going to go out and have coffee with his friend, who would be having lunch.  They do this often, as Joe brings his travel mug of coffee while his friend has breakfast or lunch.  As nice as it would be for Joe to eat with his friend, it’s not in our budget—but mostly not good for his waistline.  With a combination of regular exercise (with the dog in the park), and more attention to his diet, he’s lost over fifty pounds this past year.  Neither one of us want to see him regain any of that dead weight.
So we would have lunch first, but it would have to be quick since William was on his way over.  What could I prepare quickly?  A scan of the fridge (the contents of which were certainly no mystery) left me with an obvious choice.  The tub of leftover shrimp/garbanzo bean salad would be just enough for a new kind of salad, ready to go in five minutes.

Shrimp/Garbanzo Bean Salad with Satsuma Tangerines
1 can garbanzo beans, drained
1 can (4 oz.) wild caught tiny Oregon shrimp (I get them at Costco)
½ cup Greek yogurt
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
½ small sweet onion, chopped
2 tablespoons lime juice
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 clove garlic, crushed
Sea salt to taste
Mix all together to combine.  Refrigerate to blend flavors.  Makes four servings.
Divide two servings over ½ head Romaine, sliced crosswise and split between two plates.  Arrange 1 Satsuma tangerine atop each salad and drizzle each with ½ tablespoon light balsamic vinaigrette.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Cleaning out the Cheese Drawer

Yesterday was one of those perfect fall days that make me appreciate the steady pace of each season as one passes and another takes its place.  Here in the northwest, we do have a predictable flow from spring to summer to fall and finally winter.  And each season seems to have its own characteristic high points.  As I looked out my office window, the giant chestnut tree, backlit by the lowering sun, was like melting gold while its branches have become a network of black veins.  The air is cool and crisp, not yet cold enough for a jacket, though we have brought in the Meyer lemon tree and the Christmas cactus.  Tonight may get into the 30’s and I don’t want to lose the fat and ripening fruit on the tree, nor lose the emerging blossoms on the Christmas cactus (which always blooms around Thanksgiving!)
Meyer lemon tree with its glorious fruit
Christmas cactus and first buds

The garden has pretty much been put to bed—or ignored now that almost everything has been harvested.  There are still some beets and the carrots (though they’ve been attacked by some underground pest), and the Russian kale is still going strong.  Maybe we can do something interesting with it for Thanksgiving, as a side dish of some sort. 
Last tomatoes

The last of the tomatoes are ripening on the counter, and I have a drawerful of them in the fridge.  I decided it was time to clean out the cheese drawer which has been sadly ignored for awhile.  Not a good thing to do with cheese!
In a past life, I managed the fine crystal and silver department at a Neiman Marcus store.  Included in my department was a small charcuterie of fine cheeses and sausages.  Why it was part of fine china and linens is a mystery, but there it was.  I had someone in charge that had been trained to care for it all.  Every day, her first task was to take each of the cheeses out of the case and carefully slice off any encroaching mildew that might be beginning.  There was nothing wrong with the underlying cheese; it just needed cleaning up.  Since those long ago days, I have continued this practice of maintenance on the cheeses I get.  Sometimes, my nose has alerted me that is was time to do some clean-up.
One of my favorite cheeses is something called Cambozola, similar to Gorgonzola but creamier.  Today, the small piece I had left got smaller as I cut away the somewhat gooey outside.  It was time to use this up.  I was also left with a tiny piece of white cheddar.  We often have quesadillas for lunch, just a little grated cheese on a tortilla with cut up tomato, onion and jalapeño.  Simple and satisfying and quick to prepare.
I had tortillas and three very unripe pears.  I also had a bunch of green onions.  This, combined with the Cambozola might be pretty tasty.  And I could drizzle some honey over this since the pears were so green.  Cheese and fruit go together so well I think.  Joe enjoyed this so much he literally licked his plate!

Fruit and Cheese Quesadilla
2 flour tortillas
2 ozs. Cambazola (or Gorgonzola)
2 tablespoons grated white cheddar (or other sharp cheese)
2 green onions, chopped including most of the green
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
½ pear, cut in fine slices
Spread Cambozola on half of each tortilla.  Sprinkle with green onions, thinly sliced pear pieces, grated cheddar and a drizzle of honey.  
Heat olive oil in large flat pan (or griddle).
Fold tortilla in half and place in heated pan.  Cook until golden on one side, and then carefully turn to cook other side.  Serve immediately.