Monday, December 5, 2011

Autumn Comfort Food

It's December 5th and the weather is swinging from high 20's in the morning to low 60's in the afternoon. Not quite winter, but very comfortable for late autumn. Tis the season for planned and impromptu parties and get togethers...and I like to have veggies, fruit and baking stuff on hand for making appys and desserts.

It's been a busy few days~~I hosted a party Thursday night, then went to two great parties and declined two others this weekend. I don't want to burn out in the first week of December!

I was in a soup mood this afternoon. I snipped the last of the sage from the garden, and after a quick look around I decided to make curried butternut squash and granny smith apple soup. The house smelled wonderful and I've got some yummy soup for a few meals, and some for the freezer.

Steam rising from cooking down the shallot and granny smith apples.

Add cubed butternut squash.

Add chicken broth, BTB RTS (bring to boil, return to simmer) until squash is fork tender.

Use an immersion blender (less mess than transferring to a blender.)

Blend til smooth, then if desired (and I do), add a little half & half, or heavy whipping cream.

Stir in some curry, to taste.

S&P to taste, and a little sage garnish. Ready for the fridge and the freezer.

What's this? A little detour to carb-town?! I made individual chocolate bread puddings in a mini muffin pan for a party last night and I might have put a few aside. It's a wonderful tiny bite~~warmed up in the microwave for 30 seconds and dusted with confectioner's sugar. I walked almost 10 miles this weekend, so I'm managing the pitfalls of the season...

Life is good. Level & Plumb!

Biltmore Inspirations

I hosted a 'home party' for Biltmore Inspirations last week. They are run in a similar way as Pampered Chef and Southern Home parties and various trunk shows for clothing and gifts. I'm not signing on in a formal way to be part of a team, or to be a consultant, I just wanted to gather some friends together for a fun night of nibbles, wine, and to shop for nice stuff--to give or to keep! It was all that, for about 20 of us, and it was a great way to kick off the holidays.

I initially saw Biltmore Inspirations and met consultant Lisa Edwards at the Southern Women's Show (a trade show) and the products caught my eye. When my sister and I were at Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC this past September, there really wasn't anything as nice (as what I saw at the trade show) in the gift shop there. Turns out, the product line launched in July 2011 and is exclusively for home-based I hosted one!

The CEO of the Biltmore Company is a great grandson of the estate's orginal owners, George and Edith Vanderbilt. The patterns are taken from various textiles at the estate, and products include candles, trays, wine stoppers, decanters, cakestands, hurricanes, platters, coasters, baking dishes, soup tureens, accent bowls, aprons, napkins and towels, jams, toppings, sauces, syrups and easy to make quick breads. Check out the catalog via Lisa's page at

 My "Biltmore Inspirations consultant" Lisa provided me with a hostess kit that included quick breads, blue cheese dip and a pizza recipe using an onion topping. I had to buy just a few things on a short shopping list, and provide bevvies. Using their recipes, I made some ginger/lemon curd thumbprint cookies and cranberry cheesecake bites using 2 flavors of Biltmore quick breads. I also made pizza using grocery store naan bread, goat cheese and Biltmore onion spread. The 3 tiered tray is mine, and it's from Pottery Barn...

It's easy to make soft cookies and cheesecake bites using quickbreads--who knew?!
We quaffed mulled cider and some Biltmore Wine, which is bottled at the Estate's vineyard. It's really good.

Lisa displayed this ceramic piece wth candles in it, but it's also food safe. I made some meatballs to round out the sweet nibbles...and we actually had too much food.

Here's Mindy and Elaine "volunteering" to describe the Vineyard Ceramics bowl. Lisa gave out raffle tickets and we won doorprizes for answering trivia questions about Biltmore Estate.

Poring over the catalogs...and sampling the food.

Some food, some wine, and some laughs. Good clean fun.

As a hostess, I was given a set of two tea towels (they match my kitchen!), and based on the sales for the evening, I will get $100 in free merchandise + 50% off of 3 items ordered. That was unexpected! I didn't host the party with any "math" or outccome in mind, but am happy to be on the receiving end of these specials! Two guests are interested in hosting parties of their own..and so, the word spreads and Lisa's business is growing!

Looking forward to seeing the Spring 2012 catalog. Maybe I'll host another party...

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Black Friday

No shopping for me on the day after Thanksgiving! I pick up prezzies throughout the year, and I wrap early in December so I can enjoy going to parties and the run-up to Christmas. I can't imagine cutting a holiday short to line up in the cold to be part of a stampede into a store. That just doesn't add up for me.

Today was spectacular---65 degrees and sunny with "Carolina Blue" skies. I walked a few miles with my neighbor Bonnie this morning, then had some wonderful leftovers for lunch. I took care of some little to-do's like replacing light bulbs, changing the batteries for the alarm, and raking the last of the leaves. My blog has been very light on DIY postings of late, since my house is only 8 years old and there hasn't been much for me to really do to the place. The DIY list was never ending at my circa 1876 rowhouse in NY.

I had a few hours before meeting friends for beers and football, so I took down the autumn wreaths and decor, then faced the last Fall project.

The fencing here in the neighborhood is white vinyl. Would I have chosen it? No. Do I love it? No, but it looks neat and there'll be no rotting wood to replace down the line. The vinyl gets mossy in the shady spots, and it had an overall dul,l grey look. I would bet my fence hasn't been cleaned in years (if ever.) I tested a spot with diluted "outdoor bleach" and it cleaned up very well. There's no way to spot clean---so once I started I had to keep going.
Dull grey spots.

The glam gloves were a housewarming present! Note the bling finger.

Eww, very moldy.



With a little elbow grease, and those fancy gloves, I scrubbed and hosed down about 100' of fencing in under two hours.

I was a "good tired" after my productive day, and was glad to get the job done before the weather turns cold.  I had fun watching football and those beers tasted especially yummy. No shopping mall mayhem for me on December weekends.

Life is good. Level & Plumb.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Baking With "The Sweetie Pie"

Last month I took two classes with Ashley Eller, who owns "The Sweetie Pie" bakery. The classes (canning and baking) were held at Poplar Ridge Farm in Waxhaw, NC, about 10 miles south of my place.

I've blogged about some farm dinners that I've enjoyed at Poplar Ridge, and about owner Marianne Battistone's thoughtfulness. She had a mason jar filled with fresh flowers delivered on my birthday, and that gesture leveled me! Cool lady with a great farm, and a true interest in the community.

Ashley Eller

Ashley follows a dairy free diet, and she showed us some alternatives to using the ubiquitous/processed baking products...

I'm not sensitive to gluten, nor am I a vegan or that "tuned in" to all-organic products. I've been low-carb for 8 months and am down 45 pounds. I'm shopping the fringe of the grocery store for fresh veggies, fruit and lean protein. I'm just trying to make some better choices, and not to get discouraged or confused by all the information and advice out there. It's falling into place for me, and I want to continue to enjoy baking and nibbling on sweets without going overboard. I don't feel deprived at all, and am happy to learn about healthier ingredient choices, that still taste great.

Some easy switches:
 1. Use Earth Balance vegan buttery sticks in place of butter (Earth Balance is a partner with Smart Balance.)
2. Use coconut oil in place of Crisco.
3. Use spelt flour in place of white flour.
4. Use organic cane sugar--it's easier on the system and has the same calories as regular granulated sugar.

Ashley demo'd Roasted Butternut Spice Cake and Apple Pear Crisp and we enjoyed samples of both.
Pix are below. You can read Ashley's blog at

Local NC apples--so crisp and flavorful! What great color.

Apple Pear Crisp with toasted pine nuts.

Marianne gave us all a $15 credit for the farm's market stand, and that was an unexpected surprise.
After class I picked up some peppers, greens, carrots and wild flowers. I loaded up the Vespa and scooted home. What a fun way to zip around and do local errands!

Visit Poplar Ridge Farm at  to learn about their produce, Farm Dinners and CSA.

Keep it local. Keep it Level & Plumb!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Pi-kahn or Pee-kan?

Never really had a need to say the word til I got to North Carolina. I rented a place for awhile near Pecan Avenue, so that forced me to say it out loud. I switched it up depending upon my mood. Pee-kan Avenue, or Pi-kahn Avenue. It seemed as if Pee-kan was proper pronounciation for the road, and Pi-kahn was reserved for the nut. Not really sure why; it just came out that way.

The only instance of pecans in my life was hearing this exchange in the movie, "When Harry Met Sally" with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan.

Harry Burns: Repeat after me. Pepper.

Sally Albright: Pepper.

Harry Burns: Pepper.

Sally Albright: Pepper.

Harry Burns: Waiter, there is too much pepper on my paprikash.

Sally Albright: Waiter, there is too much pepper on my paprikash.

Harry Burns: But I would be proud to partake of your pecan pie.

I like nuts. Except for walnuts. They make my cheeks and the back of my throat itch. I found that out one Christmas Day, when I was about 10 yrs old. I was all dressed up, waiting to say "the company's here!!!!" when I spied a bowl of walnuts and a shiny silver nutcracker. Making a neat crack was so satisfying, because the meat inside the shell was perfectly shaped. I picked out the halves and within a few minutes I was uncomfortable, but the symptoms were invisible. No blown up face. Definitely not enough medically wrong spring a trip to the ER on my parents. And besides, company was coming.

Pecans look very similar to walnuts, so I've avoided them for 40 years. The idea of a nut pie was foreign to me, until LAST WEEK. It's never too late to learn! I'm here to say that at age 50, I've had my first slice of pecan pie (albeit chocolate pecan pie) and I LOVED IT!!!  Pecans must be a distant enough relative to the walnut, because I had no hint of discomfort.

Here's Heidi Billotto's recipe for Chocolate Pecan Pie Tart. She demo'd the recipe last week in her "Sweet and Savory Pie" class at Reid's Fine Foods in Charlotte. It was paired with Gerard Bertrand Cremant de Limoux. Heidi noted that "popping a sparkling wine cork should sound like a woman sighing." Well, now. On to the recipe!

This recipe makes 2 pies. Preheat oven to 350 F.

3 cups granulated sugar
Pinch salt
7 Tbs unsweetened cocoa
4 local eggs (deeper colored yolks, fresher taste!)
1 Tbs vanilla
1  1/4 cups milk
1 stick butter, melted
2-3 cups shelled pecan halves (be generous)

Dough for 2 pies fitted into 2 10" French tart pans with removable bottoms. For this recipe, Heidi used premade pie crusts. Why make the holidays any more stressful...the premade crusts are just fine! Note: If you have leftover pecans, store them in the freezer. This keeps the nut oil from going rancid.

Carefully fit the dough into each of the French tart pans, trimming edges to fit.
Place each tart pan on a baking sheet.
Mix sugar, salt and cocoa together.
Whisk together the eggs, vanilla and milk; stir into the dry ingredients.
Add melted butter and and stir until well blended.
Fill each pie shell 2/3 full with pecan halves and pour the filling over the pecans.
Heidi sprinkled chopped up bittersweet chocolate over the pies at this point.

Bake in a preheated oven for 40-45 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. If you are taking the pies to-go, transport them in the tart pans and remove the pan onsite to keep the crust intact. Top with fresh whipped cream, or ice cream. The photo above shows the tart with a drizzle of goat cheese caramel sauce that was left over from another recipe ;-)

Creamy Goat Cheese Caramel Sauce (can be drizzled over fresh fruit, pecan pie, other fruit tarts...)
1/2 Cup sugar
2 Tbs water
1/2 Cup warm heavy cream
6 oz plain or honey goat cheese
1 Tbs butter

Combine sugar and water in a heavy medium sized saucepan. Swirl over low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat, boil without stirring until mixture is deep amber color (about 3 minutes.) You've made caramel!  Add warm cream and stir over medium high heat until sauce is smooth and reduced to 1 cup, about 5 minutes. Add goat cheese, cook 1 minute longer. Remove from heat and add butter, stirring til butter is melted.

Cover and chill. Re-warm over medium low heat before serving.

Can be prepared one day ahead.

Rosemary Olive Oil Cake (Say Whut??)

One of the wonderful cooking classes that I took from my friend Chef Faye Hess included an olive oil tasting. The tasting grew out of a question someone asked regarding when to use which oil....canola, vegetable, sunflower, safflower, extra virgin olive oil, imported or off-the-shelf olive oil. Well, the answers to those questions can and do fill entire BOOKS. Chef Faye stopped what she was braising, hugged a green can of La Macchia olive oil like a baby and lined up some shot glasses. I closed my eyes and pulled the olive oil through my teeth (do not try this if you already use Sensodyne toothpaste...the chilly air might send you reeling...)

Here's Faye!

Back to La Macchia. I could taste grass. It's the taste of fresh Tuscan air and olives from ancient a liter can. I've walked among those very trees.

It takes one tree's olives to make 1 liter, once a year. Pretty incredible when you compare that with the label on commercial "olive oil" that is sourced from multiple countries, and most likely colored for uniformity. I'm just sayin.'

It was that night in a Queens, NY kitchen that I became an olive oil snob. I'll use Bertolli or Trader Joe's extra virgin olive oil for big jobs like frying or making batches of pesto...but for special creations, I use my liquid gold.

I've blogged about La Macchia olive oil before...and I've shared photos of my 2009 trip to Montevarchi in Italy's Chianti region with Faye and our class. Psssst...I can hook you up. La Macchia is now available in the U.S. It's about $38 per liter. Yep, it's spendy. I don't drink coffee or do this is my indulgence. Contact Faye at or and tell her Dale sent you.

He's one thing you can do with good olive oil. Make a cake.

Rosemary Olive Oil Cake.

This recipe via and is adapted from "Good to the Grain" by Kim Boyce
Prep time: 15 min - Cook time: 45 min

Serves 8-12

Olive oil for the pan

Dry ingredients:

3/4 cup / 3 oz / 80g spelt flour ( I used all purpose flour and got a great result...)

1 1/2 cups / 7.5 oz / 210 g all-purpose flour

3/4 cup / 4 oz / 115g sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Wet ingredients:

3 eggs

1 cup / 240 ml olive oil

3/4 cup / 180 ml whole milk

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped (from your garden, if you have one!)

5 ounces / 140 g bittersweet chocolate (70% cacao), chopped into 1/2-inch pieces

2 tablespoons sugar for top crunch

Preheat the oven to 350F / 175C. Rub a 9 1/2-inch (24 cm) fluted tart pan with olive oil. Alternately, you can use a long (4 1/2 x 13 inch) loaf pan, and line it with parchment paper.

Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl, pouring any bits of grain or other ingredients left in the sifter back into the bowl. Set aside.

In another large bowl, whisk the eggs thoroughly. Add the olive oil, milk and rosemary and whisk again. Using a spatula, fold the wet ingredients into the dry, gently mixing just until combined. Stir in 2/3 of the chocolate. Pour the batter into the pan, spreading it evenly and smoothing the top. Sprinkle with the remaining chocolate and run a fork along the length of the chocolate so that the batter envelops it just a bit. Sprinkle with the second sugar.

Bake for about 40 minutes, or until the top is domed, golden brown, and a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. In the alternate loaf pan, it will take closer to 50 minutes. For a  bit more color on top, you can finish it under the broiler for a minute - which caramelizes the sugar on top as well and gives it a bit of crunch. Don't walk away from the cake while it is under the broiler.

The cake can be eaten warm or cool from the pan, or cooled, wrapped tightly in plastic, and kept for 2 days.

Confessions of a sweet tooth. The word "cake" makes my brain want "sweet" rather than savory. This cake is savory, with a hint of sweetness conveyed through the bittersweet chocolate and sugared top. For a wowie-kazowie experience, you might want to follow my lead. I topped a slice of warm cake with NUTELLA. I then left the planet for a few minutes.

Life is good. Level & Yum. Oooops~~Level & Plumb!

Busy As A...

This morning was the foggiest that I've seen since moving to North Carolina. I took my camera along for my daily walk because it just felt different from any other day. The route takes me around neighborhood streets and onto the greenway.

Foggy sunrise!

A neighbor and her dog emerging from the fog.

The greenway.

The cicadas of summer have died off, and the leaves rustling in branches have all but fallen. I didn't see any deer or snakes this morning but there were plenty of red cardinals, ducks, mourning doves and lots of scampering squirrels and bunnies.

The colors are muted now...Autumn's mossy greens and wet browns. The water was misty and still. I looked into the stand of saplings and saw a few red leaves hanging tough, and a little spray of yellow honeysuckle. Nothing out of the ordinary~~just the season's gentle change.

Then, a bright white shape at the base of a tree caught my eye.

I zoomed in to see what it was.

I'd never seen anything like it before, but it looked cartoonish, as if a beaver had taken some big bites outta that tree.

I looked around (in too deep for a landscaper....) and saw signs of recent snacking.

Up close you can see the teeth marks! Nature's chainsaw.
I Googled "Beavers in NC" back at home and found that there are loads of beavers (the largest rodents in the U.S.) in NC. They range from 30-75 lbs, and are 45' long. That's a big rodent. They are nocturnal and stop most of their work at dawn and dusk (obviously when it's lighter out...) They stand up to cut the trees, and use their tail for balance. I'd like to see that, actually. They can cut a sapling in one 176 lbs per square inch, more than double a human's pressure.
Isn't this fascinating? Ok, maybe not! If you're still reading....

Beavers instinctively block flowing water to form a pond and though beaver colonies can be a nuisance in some areas, the upside is that the ponds provide a habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. That's certainly true here~~the greenway is a mini zoo.

Not sure if we have a "problem" population, but I'll be curious to see if they come back to finish the job on that larger tree. Beavers know to place the trees upstream, to block the flow. I still need my GPS to get around. The pond is kind of swampy, and there's not much in the way of moving water. Maybe our beavers are just keeping busy...

Update on Sunday December 4th: I walked past on Thanksgiving Day and the tree was this is an active project for the resident beavers. It took me til today to go back with my camera, and quite a bit more has been gnawed away!

The felled tree is at least 20' long...
...and the beavers have cut it into sections!

The bark is being stripped off and they're chomping away at the tree. At least 6' have been gnawed off the end since Thanksgiving day.
The greenway is very quiet during the day, but it seems there's a lot going on at night!