The power of cornbread

skillet cornbread

Yesterday morning I woke up craving cornbread. So I made some. This might not seem very monumental but considering I’ve been sick, tired, not quite myself and that my biggest daily feat has been showering, mixing up and baking cornbread from scratch was a very big thing. I baked the bread in one part of the two-part cast iron skillet I received as a gift and it came out perfect and tasty!

An interesting thing happened when I took the first bite of cornbread, I had a sudden idea for a dish to go with it. It was a dish I’ve never seen made before and never made myself but the ingredients for it popped into my head as the perfect complement for the cornbread. I decided to go out that afternoon and get everything I needed, along with ingredients for cheesecake because I’ve been craving that lately. I’ve never made cheesecake before either so it’s quite amazing what just making that one batch of cornbread motivated me to do.

I made my new main dish this evening and it turned out exactly as I thought it would. The taste was how I imagined it would be and I was impressed that I’d bought all the right ingredients to create it. I didn’t do a lot of measurements, I don’t usually when I’m cooking, but it included tomato paste, cooked winter squash, ground pork, ground turkey, lentils, pinto beans, corn and all the perfect spices to accomplish a savory, delicious, hearty and satisfying dish. Dipping my cornbread in it was divine and I was so proud of myself! I made cheesecake too and while I haven’t tasted it yet, it looks and smells yummy!

I’m happiest when I’m doing something, especially when it’s creative. I consider baking and cooking just as creative as my writing, painting and clay work. Being too tired to express any part of my creativity has been extremely frustrating for me. Now that I’m feeling better and am awake more than asleep, I’m certain I’ll continue my creative work and find new avenues for expressing my imagination. Behold, the power of cornbread!

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The Fridge that Ate My Kitchen!

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Delivery guys in the pouring rain

Delivery guys in the pouring rain

This past spring, my refrigerator broke. The compressor stopped working and when I looked into the cost of replacing it on the over 20 year old fridge, I decided I’d figure something else out. I couldn’t afford another full size fridge at that time so I bought a little hotel-size fridge as a temporary solution. That temporary solution got me through almost 9 months as I waited to be able to afford the fridge of my dreams.

Sure, I could have picked a fridge just like my old one which was a basic freezer on top, fridge on the bottom with no bells or whistles. But after dealing with that tiny fridge for so long, I decided I was going to go big for my home. I went almost as big as they come but didn’t opt for the water and ice dispenser in the door because I have sulfur water. I’d be changing filters every other day with my nasty water so that was a “convenience” feature I didn’t need. The one I picked has an ice maker, they almost all do, but it won’t be getting hooked up because cubes of frozen sulfur aren’t any more appealing than liquid form.

I shopped around in stores and online for a while and ultimately decided to go with the fridge I fell in love with at first sight. It’s a Samsung and I didn’t even know they made appliances! I wanted a black one and it was so large, dark and lovely in the store that I couldn’t help but keep opening and closing all the doors. It was destined to be mine, it was fridge fate.

I ordered my fridge and anxiously awaited delivery day. That day dawned cold and rainy and the appliance store truck drove by my house the first try but they eventually found their way back. There were two men in the truck and the older man took out his measuring tape and began measuring my walkway, steps and front door. There was much frowning  and discussion and they eventually realized they’d have to take the doors off the fridge to get it in my house. I was a little embarrassed by my choice of a monstrous fridge for my tiny house but I didn’t regret my choice. This was one of those very rare times that I splurged on myself and I felt it was overdue.

The door to the freezer drawer

The door to the freezer drawer

The doors to the fridge

The doors to the fridge

It took the two men about an hour to get the fridge disassembled and reassembled in my house but they were quite efficient and courteous. I felt bad that they got all wet out in the rain taking the doors off but they were nice about it all. Once the fridge was set in its place I was ecstatic! It stuck way out into my kitchen and took up more space than I expected but I was still giddy!

Monstrous fridge in my tiny, "lived in" kitchen

Monstrous fridge in my tiny, “lived in” kitchen

Now I could finally go big grocery shopping and buy whole gallons of milk and orange juice instead of half gallons. I could buy fruits, vegetables, eggs and cheese all at the same time and have them all fit! For months getting things arranged in my little fridge had been trying to solve a puzzle that kept items from falling out on my feet. I chose a fridge with the freeze on the bottom so I’d never again have to deal with heavy ice cream landing on my toes.

The girls and I went out shopping to help fill the fridge and even with what we got, the fridge is barely full. No worries though because that just means I have tons of opportunities and space to fill it up with new baking and cooking creations! Every time I put something in the fridge or easily take something out without having to rearrange everything and crouch on the floor, I almost giggle with joy. I’m not a materialistic person but in this huge necessity in my life, I chose luxury for once. Who needs diamonds? The fridge that ate my kitchen is this girl’s best friend!

Blends right in now! Magnets rock ;)

Blends right in now! Magnets rock 😉

The Desire to Share

As I’ve said many times, I love to cook and bake. I used to be a great hostess when I was married and my then husband’s friends and coworkers would come over. I put together food for our annual Halloween party that included delectable treats for kids and adults. I love cooking a lot of food for a house full of people and enjoying it with them. That element of my life evaporated when I got divorced and all of those “friends” chose my ex over me. I haven’t hosted a party in four years, I don’t have enough friends to fill a house anymore.

I still love making lots of food and trying new recipes though. I have great hope that eventually I’ll have a social circle again. I’m pretty sure it will happen when I live in Massachusetts or New Hampshire. I get glimpses of what can be when I visit North Shore Massachusetts. Complete strangers are kind to me, people I’ve never met before treat me like a friend and want to see me again. For a semi-introvert, still inwardly shy girl like me, that means a lot. Someday I won’t be a tourist anymore, someday I’ll be a resident.

cider bread ingredients

The hard cider bread ready to come out of the oven.

The hard cider bread ready to come out of the oven.

I’m looking forward to being that house on the street that emits such amazing sweet and savory smells everyone wonders “What’s Julie mixing up now?” and then comes over to find out. The way I bake and cook, there will be plenty to go around! I’ll enjoy soaking up the feedback on new recipes and revel in any compliments I receive. I’ll have infamous cookouts where people come watch me battle grill flames and come out victorious. I’ll deliver trays of cookies, muffins and breads to nearby businesses just to make them smile. Yes, it will be lovely!

My girls favorite little crescent dogs

My girls favorite little crescent dogs

I miss sharing that part of myself, the part of me that I express by making irresistible food. I put a lot of thought and care into what I bake. I’m always tweaking recipes to make it just a smidge better and trying new flavor combinations. I spend my days of solitude now preparing for that life when I have a social circle again. Four years is a long time for a hostess not to have the opportunity to do what she does best.

Making More With Less

If I could, I’d spend all day baking and cooking in the kitchen. Well, all day in the cold, snowy weather at least. In the nicer weather I prefer working after it gets dark so I don’t feel like I’m missing a beautiful day outside. I do that often enough when I’m writing freelance.

The kitchen of my dreams that I discussed in my previous post might seem a bit extravagant I suppose but believe me, I’d make great use of everything in it! The kitchen in my current house isn’t overly big but it’s set up pretty well for baking. I have a nice peninsula on one side that I can use as a baking prep area when it isn’t covered with school papers and design magazines. The countertop space otherwise isn’t overly plentiful and with my coffee maker, toaster oven, spice rack, baking canisters and dish rack on them, the surface area is greatly diminished. I make do with the space I have though and have learned to consolidate and tuck away.

The secret ingredient in my applesauce.

The secret ingredient in my applesauce.

My range is a nice gas unit with reliable burners and ample oven space for two sheets of cookies. In my previous home there was an electric range and I was worried about using gas because of my occasional mishaps with open flames. I got the hang of using gas pretty quick though and I love how much easier it is to control the temperature on the burners. Thankfully my microwave is a space-saving unit above the oven so it doesn’t use up any premium counter space. Oddly enough the microwave is black but the range, dishwasher and previous refrigerator were white.

My least favorite part about cooking and baking is washing the dishes. You didn’t read wrong, I did just say I had a dishwasher. However, I also have sulfur water and it’s not very effective at removing dishwasher detergent from plates, glasses and silverware. So instead I wash everything by hand because then there isn’t nasty film all over everything I eat off of. My nice big refrigerator died this spring and as I couldn’t afford to replace it with another big unit, I bought a small fridge/freezer combo similar to what you’d find in a hotel. It was supposed to be a temporary fix but I’ve been living with it for six months. Putting groceries away is kind of like a puzzle but I’ve got a system now. Hopefully I’ll be getting a new, grown-up size fridge in the near future. In the meantime, I make do.

My latest batch of fluffy pancakes!

My latest batch of fluffy pancakes!

The size of my kitchen doesn’t prohibit me from making what I love. I’m always mixing up cookies, muffins, soft pretzels, bread and cakes. I love to cook fish, rice, veggies, pasta, tacos, you name it! Would I love more area for my prep work? Or one of those neat fridges with the freezer on the bottom? Or enough counterspace to keep my food processor, blender and mixer out? Or a dishwasher that washed dishes? Of course! I’d be in paradise in a nice big kitchen. I like the ones where the burners are in the middle of the island so people can watch what you’re making. I could pretend I have my own cooking show when I’m entertaining! That would require a social life and friends to entertain as well as the kitchen, but oh well. My dream, my personal cooking show.

The picture below is similar to my kitchen layout (with way nicer appliances) only the island in this one is a peninsula against the wall in mine.

Below is an example of a kitchen that’s a bit over the top even for me. Talk about open flames!

Apples and Peaches and Squash, Oh My!

As I sit at my desk typing this I’m quite full and content after enjoying a bowl of oatmeal with baked peaches mixed in. Today was overcast and cool which made it perfect for baking! I went to a farm market this morning with my mother and picked up one quart each of Gala apples and peaches. I also picked up some black pepper cheddar cheese which is one of my favorite “indulgent” snacks. I choose spicy things for snacks quite often because I can only eat a little at a time before my mouth says “okay, stop!” It’s a system that works for me.

Gala apples, my favorite!

Gala apples, my favorite!

I picked through for the perfect peaches!

I picked through for the perfect peaches!

I realized it’s past time I share some of the recipes I use to make my favorite baked goods and treats. It’s silly to keep such yummy things to myself! Most of the recipes I use came from something written by someone else that I modified to suit my tastes. I can’t just whip something up with flour and sugar knowing the exact proportions. I imagine I might have that ability someday if I keep this kitchen experimentation up. Feel free to modify my recipes as you see fit to suit your own tastes. Even the littlest change makes them uniquely your own and something you can pass down to future generations.

***

This first one is for my baked peaches. I modified it from Plus One Recipes: Peach Cobbler with Oatmeal Crumble. I made the original version of their recipe with half the proportions and found it quite delicious. I recommend trying it if you’re looking for a cobbler recipe. After making their cobbler I discovered I had a lot of delicious peach-flavored cinnamon-sugar-vanilla sauce in my pie plate. I decided to spoon the crumble into a bowl of oatmeal one morning and it was amazingly good! That’s when I had the idea to just bake some peaches in a pie plate to use in my oatmeal. I’ve also poured them over vanilla ice cream as dessert and it’s so scrumptious I want to lick the bowl!

My apples baking and my peaches ready to bake.

My apples simmering and my peaches ready to bake.

JulieAnn’s Baked Peaches

5 peaches
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit. Peel, pit and slice peaches and place in 9 inch ungreased pie plate. Sprinkle brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg over peaches. Mix until peaches are coated. (I actually work it all in with my hands.) Place peaches in preheated oven for 15 minutes then stir. Bake for another 15 minutes or until juices are bubbling. Remove from oven and let cool. Enjoy warm in oatmeal, over ice cream or just as they are! Refrigerate any unused peaches in airtight container.

***

The next recipe isn’t overly involved and I don’t think it’s how people traditionally make applesauce. I suppose it’s more like apple mush. I mostly use applesauce for baking so the consistency doesn’t really matter to me and I don’t add sugar because I think Gala apples are sweet enough on their own. Feel free to adjust this to your tastes.

JulieAnn’s “Applesauce”

6 good-sized Gala apples
1 cup water

Peel apples, remove seeds and slice into small pieces. Place apples in large saucepan with 1 cup water. The amount of water doesn’t have to be exactly 1 cup, add enough to keep the apples from burning during cooking but not so much they’re floating. Cover and simmer over low heat for 15-30 minutes or until apples are soft.  Remove lid if necessary to help the excess water cook off. Remove from heat and allow apples to cool a bit. Pour apples into food processor and blend until desired consistency. If you prefer cinnamon applesauce you can add 1-2 teaspoons cinnamon to the apples during cooking or when you process them. I tend to go through applesauce pretty fast so I just pour mine into mason jars and place it in the fridge.

Apples and peaches both all cooked!

Apples and peaches both all cooked!

***

This last recipe is one I modified from Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook. The original recipe was for Zucchini Bread but as some summer squash is actually yellow zucchini, I thought I’d give it a try. The squash I use isn’t yellow zucchini though, it’s yellow summer squash. Don’t know the difference? Neither did I! Here’s the online article I found to help clear it up: yellow zucchini vs. yellow summer squash explained. I reduced the amount of sugar used, added honey, replaced the oil with applesauce and used almonds instead of walnuts or pecans. The result is a dense, hearty bread that’s sweet, nutty and irresistible!

My yellow summer squash bread right out of the oven!

My yellow summer squash bread right out of the oven!

JulieAnn’s Yellow Summer Squash Bread

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 beaten egg
1/4 cup organic cane sugar (white sugar is fine too)
1/4 honey
1 cup summer squash
3/4 JulieAnn’s “applesauce” or applesauce of your choice
1/2 cup chopped raw almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease the bottom and sides of an 8x4x2-inch loaf pan and set aside.

In a large bowl combine flour, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, baking powder and nutmeg. Set aside.

To make the 1 cup of squash, I cut up a small squash and then blend it into mush in my food processor. The original directions say to use finely shredded, unpeeled zucchini.

In a second large bowl (I actually mix it all up in my food processor) combine egg, sugar, honey, squash, applesauce and almonds. Mix until well combined.

Pour squash mixture into flour mixture and stir until moistened. Spoon batter into prepared pan and bake in preheated oven for 50-55 minutes or until it’s puffed up nicely and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

Wait until it’s cool enough to cut a slice without burning yourself and dive in! The original directions say to cool completely on wire rack, wrap and store overnight before slicing. You can do that if you want but I never have the patience! Store the bread in the refrigerator if it’s going to take you more than a day to eat it all.

Idle Hands? What are those?

Even when I’m not typing away writing freelance articles or the world’s next best-selling fantasy novel, my hands are busy. Holding my daughters’ hands, making their lunches, folding their clothes, tickling them and fussing with their hair are some of my favorite hands-on activities. Then of course there’s playing with Jazz, rubbing her tummy and holding her leash on our walks. My hands really get a workout when I create abstract artwork. Heck, my whole body gets a workout when I do that because I play dance music while painting and I can’t help but dance! That’s a story for another day though. Maybe someday I’ll video myself painting…sharing it with the world may or may not happen.

Another  favorite way to get my hands and mind working together is by cooking and baking. I was blessed with my father’s natural talent in the kitchen and I think he’d be impressed how I’ve improved upon that inherited gift. I’m a pro at baking desserts and I make irresistible, always soft chocolate chip cookies. I love baking all types of bread from pitas to pepperoni cheese bread and I’m constantly searching for and trying new recipes. I usually modify the written recipe in some way or another to improve it taste and nutrition wise.

When it comes to cooking lunches and dinners, I don’t usually use recipes. I go by what looks, smells and tastes right and things turn out pretty darn yummy. When my store-bought marinara sauce kept going weird even in the fridge I decided to make my own so I’d know exactly what was in it. I found a recipe that sounded relatively easy, modified it a touch and voila! I created the most delicious marinara sauce I’ve ever tasted! My stand mixer and food processor are my favorite appliances now and they’re always sitting on top of my baker’s rack ready to work.

My favorite seasonal ingredients lately are summer squash and peaches. I’ve made summer squash bread just by using the squash in a zucchini bread recipe. I’ve made a peach cobbler, crumble and last time I just baked the peaches in a pie dish with some brown sugar and cinnamon. I add the baked peaches to freshly made oatmeal and have an easy scrumptious breakfast. A hundred times better for me than buying “peaches and cream” pre-made instant oatmeal that contains “peach flavored pieces” and a ton of other unpronounceable ingredients. I really do like to know what exactly I’m putting in my body, I’m odd like that. I also put the peaches over a scoop of ice cream for a little dessert and it’s so good I want to lick the bowl!

Everything I do with my hands stimulates and utilizes my mind in some way and I really like that. There’s a purpose to everything I do and it has value and meaning. Really, I don’t know any other way to be.

Everyday Adventures in this Extraordinary Life

Snapshot 1 (5-31-2013 6-18 AM)

I often joke with my best friend that I could write a book about my life and sell it as fiction because no one would believe it all happened to one person. I haven’t climbed to the top of Mount Everest or formulated the cure for the common cold, I’ve just lived my life and done my best to roll with what comes. I think we all have an amazing and unique story to tell when we escape the mundane of daily existence and see life for what it really is: an endless adventure!

My beloved English teacher and friend, Derek Hulse told me when I was 16 that I should write my autobiography. I found the idea silly because I was only 16 and felt I hadn’t experienced anything that justified an autobiography. Apparently he saw great things in my past and future that were worthy of being told and I’ve been telling them for the past few years in my blogs. I am certain that numerous people live far more interesting lives than I do and I don’t profess to be an incredibly amazing, crocodile-wrestling, swashbuckling woman of the world. I’m just a girl who wakes up every day grateful for another dawn.

I never know what my day is going to bring. Even the smallest tasks turn into large undertakings sometimes. My quest to find a more fuel efficient-and yet still standard transmission-car involves renting an automatic car for the weekend when the first auto deal falls apart. I set out to dig up thistles and the handle on my garden spade snaps like a twig. I go to mow my lawn and the neighbors chicken decide to hold a parade through my lilac bushes. A weekend trip to Boston leads to a whole new direction and purpose in my life that continues to motivate me onward. These are the adventures I’ve lived and continue to live.

So I created a photo montage set to music and uploaded my video to Vimeo for your viewing pleasure…or to at least take up three minutes of your day. You can watch it by clicking on the photo above or the link at the end of this entry. In it I’ve featured several photos from my blogs and others I’ve taken just to document the mind-boggling little mishaps that occur in my life. Stars include my darling daughters, adorable dog, samples of my baking, creatures from the Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory, my mower, the Massachusetts locations of Boston, Newburyport and Amesbury, some of my artwork and everything in between. I believe it tells an interesting story about the everyday adventures in this extraordinary life that belongs to a simple woman just making her way in the world.

Everyday Adventures in this Extraordinary Life