Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Cool Weather Cooking

Brrr! It has been so cold, wet and wintry around here that it has me wanting to pull on a sweater and some long socks and put a big pot of soup on the stove. The Dallas area has gotten into a seemingly endless rain cycle, and it's made for a much cooler-than-usual October.

So with the coming of fall and cooler weather, we've been craving cool-weather comfort food.

In the past few weeks, I've made clam chowder, beef chili, split-pea soup and cream of broccoli soup, all homemade and all delicious. Soup from a can just isn't the same, and homemade soup is too easy not to try. On a cold fall day, nothing beats simmering some soup on the stove all afternoon and serving it with some fresh, hot bread.

Last night I made some yummy corn chowder from Posie Gets Cozy. I love this recipe. It's sweet, simple and delicious. Alicia's blog always has gorgeous photos on it and lots of good recipes.

To go with the corn chowder I made one of my other favorite recipes -- Albers Cornbread.

Albers is a West Coast brand of cornmeal that I can't find out here in Texas, but you can use any brand of cornmeal you like. This recipe is from the side of the box.

Now everyone knows there are many different types of cornbreads, with both family and regional differences. Most people prefer either really sweet cornbread or not-very-sweet-at-all cornbread. I like mine in between, and I really like this recipe because the cornbread is just right: thick and moist, with just the right touch of sweetness. We've made this quick and easy recipe in my family for years.


Albers Cornbread

1 C yellow cornmeal
1 C flour
1/4 C sugar
1 T baking powder
1 t. salt
1/3 C oil
1 egg
1 C milk

Combine dry ingredients. Then add wet ingredients. Pour in greased 8" square pan. Bake 25 mins. at 400 degrees. If doubling recipe, put in 13" x 9" x 2" pan. Test with toothpick in center. It should be slightly brown on top.


When we went to Indiana this summer, we visited the Stockdale Mill in tiny, rural Roann. The old, water-powered grain mill was built in 1857 and ground flour for Union troops in the Civil War. It operated for many decades before finally falling into disrepair in recent years. Recently it was refurbished, and now it is open for tours.

We took our kids on the tour and found it really interesting. One of their favorite parts of the tour was getting to operate an old corn grinder that takes dried kernels and grinds them into a coarse cornmeal.

I bought a bag of this cornmeal ground at the mill and have been using it in my cornbread recipe for the past two months.

The stoneground cornmeal is a little coarser and flakier than factory-processed cornmeal, so the result is slightly different. But you know what? Our cornbread is even better than before!

The stoneground cornmeal is not only healthier for you because it has the nutritious germ still in it, but it also makes for a fluffier bread. I store this cornmeal in my freezer to keep it fresh. You might be able to find a brand of stoneground cornmeal at your grocery store. It's worth a try!

Why don't you bake some bread today?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Adventures in Cake Decorating

As the mother of three growing kids, I've made a lot of "mom" cakes. You know, the ones with sprinkles covering the spots where the kids poked their fingers in the frosting, the ones with mismatched birthday candles and the ones with plastic dinosaurs drowning in red frosting lava (oh, you never made one like that?).

One of the pleasurable duties of a mom is the chance to make a new cake each year to mark the fact that your child (and you) have again made it to the next birthday. (Sometimes you wonder how you did it!)

As each new year rolls around, I find it gets boring making the same old cakes. So I've started branching out and trying new ideas in keeping with our birthday party themes. I find store-bought cakes are often expensive and taste awful, so I prefer to make my own. While saving money, I get to express some creativity and make a yummier cake too.

One year my son had a creepy-crawly party and got a big Bundt-pan snake cake.

Another year I tried making the Mach 5 racecar from the old "Speed Racer" cartoons, using a real plastic windshield. (I know it's not perfect, but my son loved it.)

I made some memorable cakes, but I never knew how to decorate like a pro.

For years I've wanted to learn how to make the elaborate designs of sugar art on those fancy, professional cakes. I love watching "Ace of Cakes" and those cake-decorating contests on the Food Network. So this summer I started taking some cake-decorating courses at my local Hobby Lobby store. The classes are fun, and our instructor is encouraging even when our cakes end up looking more like mistakes than masterpieces. The point is to enjoy yourself and not worry too much about how they turn out. After all, she says, you can always eat your mistakes! And anyone who critiques too loudly doesn't get a piece of cake.

So after two courses, I've learned how to make icing stars, rainbows, roses, daffodils, leaves, daisies, violets, pansies and chrysanthemums. My best cake so far is this one with all the icing flowers and a bluebird on the side. It has a basketweave design around the outside, and you know what? It was made from scratch and quite tasty.

So I'm learning more each time, and I'm already looking forward to my next class.

I'll let you know how it goes!

Birds, Bugs and Blooms

At the end of August, my husband and I went birding at the new Trinity River Audubon Center in Dallas. We had heard of this new center and its environmentally sound building techniques and thought it would be a neat place to see some new birds.

The center, which celebrated its first anniversary Oct. 10, features an innovative nature center, a delightful gift shop and several trails that wind through towering wildflowers and small ponds. The building itself is LEED-certified and is the first such "green" building to be constructed by the Dallas Parks and Recreation Department. The site was formerly an illegal dump and has been reclaimed by the city of Dallas to become a showpiece of environment-friendly design. It is only eight minutes south of downtown Dallas and is open six days a week.

Adjoining the property is the Trinity River, bordered with tall, native trees. All in all, it sounded like a good place to see some wildlife.

Unfortunately, we didn't see that many new birds. The highlight of our trip was seeing a large flock of wood storks flying away over the parking lot as we drove up. We got there early and hoped to get in some good bird watching before the day got warm and the birds went into hiding. Unluckily for us, the center's employees flushed the storks right before we got there. We had never seen these rare birds before, but I guess seeing them on the fly is better than not seeing them at all.

We did see some other interesting wildlife, however. The beautiful pink wildflower, above, stopped me in my tracks. Commonly called Indian Blanket or Firewheel, Gaillardia pulchella is brilliant in Texas starting in April and is also the official state wildflower of neighboring Oklahoma.

We did see a small flock of egrets right before they got spooked and flew into some trees.

I also saw some magnificent yellow garden spiders (Argiope aurantia). These large, colorful spiders may seem frightful, but they are actually harmless and weave huge webs with amazing zigzag streaks down the middle. These spiders are sometimes seen in the countryside of north Texas but are rarely seen closer to town.

We saw a lot of yellow wildflowers along the paths.

And we saw a cute little blue Anisoptera dragonfly alighting on the boardwalk.

One of my children has been fascinated with bugs and other creepy-crawlies since he was a toddler, and he now is quite an expert on insects and spiders (so much so that his teachers call on him to identify and remove bugs from the classroom when needed). Thanks to him, I have become much less squeamish and ignorant about insects. In fact, now I help him spot interesting new insects on our walks, and then later we research what types they were. My favorite bug web site is BugGuide.net. You can upload your insect photos for identification, and experts will tell you what you saw.

Before we left the Audubon Center, we spied evidence of raccoons in the mud along the edge of a pond. Their little handprints are so cute.

If you'd like to visit the Audubon Center, bird sightings there vary according to time of day and time of year. You can see which birds have been spotted at the center by looking at the center's eBird link. I highly recommend logging onto eBird to log the birds you see whenever and wherever you go bird watching. The eBird web site is a great way to help scientists study bird populations throughout the United States. Even if you are an amateur birder, your information is welcomed and appreciated!