Posted by: Erin | February 19, 2011

Orchid Surprise!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted (shocking, I know), but I do have some stuff to share with you all, as soon as I get the chance to type up some posts. But I wanted to share this now, because I’m excited.🙂

On a whim, I participated in #GardenChat on Twitter the other night, because I saw that they would be talking about orchids. I love dendrobium orchids, and I’ve had three, I think. None of them have ever re-flowered or lasted more than a few months. I don’t know what I’ve been doing wrong, so I thought I’d learn something from the Twitterverse.

#GardenChat was fun, though crazy busy – really hard to keep up! (I might have done better using a Twitter client instead of just the web-based timeline, but that’s another thing entirely.) After the chat, @BG_garden, who runs the chat, informed me that Costa Farms (who I believe is a regular #GardenChat participant) had selected me and a few others to win a prize. I had no idea they were giving things away, so I was pleasantly surprised. Little did I know what would happen.

I got home from work yesterday, and this was waiting for me:


It’s HUGE! The thing came up to my waist. Color me surprised. When I found out I won something, I thought maybe a small orchid, as that was the topic of discussion. Either they used a box that was far too big, or they’d sent me the Biggest. Orchid. EVER.

When I opened the box, I found these:


Yes, FOUR orchids. Four big orchids, I might mention. (Phalaenopsises. Phalaenopsi? Phalaenopsis orchids.) They’re 8-inch pots, I think. Once I freed them, you can see them much better:


The one on the far left has a white flower with blotches of magenta all over it. The only reason I know this is because a flower that broke off was lying in the pot. (There’s a picture, and some other close-ups on my Flickr page.) They’re all gorgeous! The yellow-and-purple one might be my favorite, because it reminds me of the last (failed) dendrobium I had. The purple one is a great vibrant color, and the one on the far right is white with tips of a lavender that creates a watercolor-like effect on the petals.

I still can’t believe they sent me FOUR orchids! I’m so excited. Aside from having new plant babies (which always makes me happy), it’s the dead of winter in Boston right now, and except for my Christmas cacti, my houseplants do not flower. So it’s nice to see some pretty blooms in the house. Fingers crossed I can keep them alive to see them bloom at least one more time (if not longer)! Any and all orchid care tips would be greatly appreciated!

Posted by: Erin | December 8, 2010

Office Cookie Bake-Off 2010: Part 2

Yesterday’s entry in the Office Cookie Bake-Off was a squash five-grain chocolate chip cookie.

I’m not going to lie – I was skeptical of squash in a cookie. Well, I’m suspicious of squash to begin with, but it’s definitely not something I think of as a cookie ingredient. Surprisingly, it wasn’t noticeable. It tastes mostly like an oatmeal cookie (which is more or less what it is, just with squash in it).

I’m not sure if the squash has anything to do with this, but the cookie mix sets up the cinnamon and nutmeg flavors well, and I think I was even able to taste a little of the cloves as well (a scent I am now more familiar with, due to the Black Apple Tea I made for my work birthday buddy a few weeks ago).

*Note: I can’t link to the recipe, because it’s a Weight Watchers recipe, and you need to be a member to access their recipe archives online.

Posted by: Erin | December 7, 2010

Office Cookie Bake-Off 2010: Part 1

Our first entry in this year’s Office Cookie Bake-Off appeared in the office yesterday: two varieties of madelines. The first was a Madeline with Rose Water, and the second, a Madeline with Orange Blossom Water.

I don’t believe I’ve ever had a madeline before, but they are quite yummy. They’re just slightly squishy, similar to a more cake-like texture than crumbly cookie. I could also definitely taste vanilla in both varieties (which I find to be a good trait in a baked good, so yay).

The funniest thing was that I could smell the water types in each cookie, but I didn’t taste much of it. The rose smell did not translate into taste (for me, anyway, unless I was mistaking it for vanilla), but I could definitely smell it as I ate the cookie. I always find that odd – it happens when I make baked goods with lavender sometimes, too. The orange blossom water lent a slight orange taste to that cookie, but it was nowhere near an “orange-flavored” cookie. Both additions are very subtle, and I think add a different level of interest than we are use to in baked goods, as there is this separation between what we smell and what we taste (for me, anyway).

Posted by: Erin | December 4, 2010

Happy National Cookie Day!

I was informed via The Twitter this morning that today is National Cookie Day. Which is clearly the Universe sending me a message that yes, I should in fact, bake cookies today.

I’d been thinking about making the Hazelnut Rosemary Jam cookies I made last Christmas, since i have a bunch of fresh rosemary leftover from Thanksgiving, and I’d hate to see it go to waste. I found this recipe randomly online, if I remember correctly. I can’t remember what I was searching for (or why), but I was intrigued. I usually use rosemary for cooking, not for baking (particularly not cookies), but much like my odd culinary interest in lavender, I found it interesting.

I modified the recipe to use pecans instead of hazelnuts, likely because I had pecans in the cabinet. (I imagine I could have used walnuts as a substitute as well, though I haven’t tried it myself.) The rosemary gives a subtle flavor to the cookie – it doesn’t overpower the cookie, and the raspberry jam is still the central taste, but the rosemary compliments it nicely. It was a pleasant surprise.

In addition to the rosemary, I also have a practically full jar of apricot preserves that I opened to glaze the apple tart I made for Thanksgiving dessert. I want to use some of that up as well, so I think I’m going to try these cookies again today, but with apricot jam instead of raspberry. The raspberry was pretty awesome, so it’ll be an interesting comparison, even if I made the raspberry version a year ago. Will report back later.

I leave you with this clip from the seminal ’80s classic, Troop Beverly Hills, starring the fabulous Shelley Long:

Happy Cookie Day!

Posted by: Erin | November 19, 2010

Grocery Store Treasures!

I went to the grocery store yesterday after work to pick up another bottle of vanilla extract (I noticed over the weekend that it was majorly on sale this week), and I left with many other awesome things.

Vanilla Extract
Okay, so vanilla extract is vanilla extract, but when the bottle is normally $7.99 and it’s on sale for $4.49, I am quite pleased. (I bought three bottles. Stop judging me. I’m good with vanilla extract through 2013 or so now.)

Lemon Extract
This was a spontaneous purchase. Most of the McCormick extracts were on sale (a good sale, too) – some of the sales ended yesterday, some end next week, and some are until January, I think. I only have imitation coconut extract (for reasons I cannot recall) and pure almond extract, along with the vanilla, but it occurred to me that lemon extract might be useful, as zesting citrus is a huge pain. So I thought I’d give extract a shot.

Orange Extract
See lemon extract rationale.

Lingonberry Jam
I’ve been wanting to try this for a while. Ages ago, I was at IHOP, and my mom had crepes with lingonberry sauce, which were quite good. I’ve never seen lingonberry jam outside of Ikea, so IHOP was the first place I ever tried it. This too was a whim – I happened to be in the jam aisle, and noticed that it was also on sale, which I’ve never seen before. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking it might taste good on pork, and maybe with lamb. I’ll report back on that sooner or later.

Pomegranate
I bought a pomegranate once before, at the Haymarket weekend market a million years ago, but I never got around to doing anything with it. They were on sale (though not by much – $0.20, I think), so I decided to try again. I came home, unsure of what I would do with it – if all else failed, I figured I could throw it over vanilla frozen yogurt, maybe with some of the frozen peaches I have left in the freezer. But lo, the Universe intervened. The new issue of Cooking Light was waiting in my mailbox, and there’s a recipe for lamb with pomegranate sauce. Admittedly, said sauce calls for pomegranate juice, not actual pomegranate, but I imagine you could add bits of the fruit to embellish the sauce. Additionally, I thought it might be good on salad. I bought some baby spinach, and I have some goat cheese open from a week-ish ago (how long CAN you keep open goat cheese in Tupperware in the fridge, anyway??). Not sure what else I’d throw in there – pears maybe? Pecans? Anyway, I’ll find something to do with it, and I’ll take my first shot at peeling (or whatever) a pomegranate. We’ll see how it goes.

Posted by: Erin | September 4, 2010

Garden Update – Post-Hurricane Edition

I have been absolutely awful about updating about my garden this season – I never even got my new plants into my little plant database on MyFolia, which I love. But despite my technological neglect, the garden is doing pretty well this year. I bought most of my plants because I was away when I normally would have started seeds. I did a few – zinnias, dahlias, and dwarf sunflowers – which are doing okay, at best. A few of the zinnias are growing, but they look lonely, and the one dahlia seed that sprouted was killed off by the heatwave we had earlier this week. The dwarf sunflowers seemed to be doing okay, except this year, they are truly dwarf – I’m certain they were bigger last year. They also seem to have had some microscopic red things all over them, and I don’t know what they are or why. But they’re blooming (albeit feebly), though the leaves are a bit yellow.

I went out this morning to clean up the garden – Hurricane Earl did basically no damage whatsoever yesterday, but I’d been meaning to clean up at least the marigolds for at least two weeks. The orange marigolds are big, and seem to have crowded out the purple browallia that I planted with them. The red coleus is f-in’ HUGE, but has still managed to co-exist fairly well with the yellow marigolds, though they’re growing a bit sideways in order to get out from under the towering coleus stalks. The Asiatic lily flowered and finished up not too long after I bought it. I cut off the dead flowers and it’s basically just stayed there, with glossy green leaves and no flowers, ever since. I assume it’s just fine, since it’s not dead, but it doesn’t seem to be DOING anything. The yellow dahlia from the farmers’ market is also ridiculously huge – the browallia in with it are faring a bit better than the ones with the orange marigolds). It has developed a bunch of flower buds, but they’ve stayed buds for a while. Maybe it’s just waiting for something. The rudbeckia is super happy, which pleases me, since it’s such a happy plant to look at. It is also a farmers’ market purchase, and it too has gotten very large.

Surprisingly, the baby eucalyptus I bought at the farmers’ market on a whim is also quite happy. It has gotten taller and has a bunch of new growth sprouting sideways off the original shoots. I’m not sure how long it’ll last, but I’m going to try to keep it inside over the winter and see what happens.

The basils have also recovered after an unhappy time when I got back from Rome. They looked fine the day I got back, and then the following day, looked like they were on death’s door. I had to toss a few of the seedlings, but the rest survived and are quite happy – I had to scold the purple basil the other day for trying to flower.

I thought I’d lost the chocolate mint as well, at one point, as it had gone beyond scraggly and looked unsalvageable. But a friend on Twitter told me it would come back, and lo and behold, she was right. I cut it all back, and adopted a “wait and see” approach, and it’s back, full, and happy.

The rosemary grew a little and seems okay – nothing exciting to report. Same with the varigated sage/golden thyme/Munstead lavender planter. The sage never quite filled back in after I cut off all the dying leave a while back, but it still has new growth, so I guess that’s a good sign.

I’m still trying to figure out how to get seeds from my awesome red-and-yellow zinnias. I have a few reference links from friends that I need to read soon. I’ve been letting the dead flowers stay on the plant, assuming that once they dry out, that would allow me to get seeds. I hate doing that, not only because it looks bad, but because I’d think cutting it back would send energy back down into the plant to grow more flowers. I’ll have to read those links soon and sort it out.

Posted by: Erin | August 31, 2010

Adventures in Lavender

I was hanging around on Twitter the other day, and @seriouseats posted a link to their article on lavender (what to do with it, where to find it). I retweeted it and also replied that McCormick has it now in their Gourmet Collection (or they did – it’s not on their website but it did exist at one point – I haven’t had to buy it recently, so I haven’t checked the store shelves recently). One of my newer followers replied back to me that they’d never used lavender. I told him I use it more in baking than cooking, but it inspired me to poke around my usual recipe search sites (CookingLight.com and Delish.com) to look for a recipe for lavender pork chops, which I know I’ve seen, but apparently did not bookmark, and still cannot find. I then started looking through my saved recipes to see what else I had, and I thought I would post the stuff I’ve tried, as well as the others I’m planing to get around to.

Stuff I’ve tried:

Glazed Lavender Tea Cake (CookingLight.com)
I made this a few years ago for a potluck at work – a coworker’s baby shower, I believe. I remember having a hell of a time trying to find lavender. I think I’d tried to grow some from seed, but it didn’t take. At the time, I had never seen it in the store, so I ended up going to the nursery and the guy in charge was very nice, and let me pick some sprigs off of a plant, because the only one they had was in a very large pot. I also remember that I used leaves, not flowers, because I didn’t know that you cook with the leaves. I don’t know if there’s anything particularly wrong with using the leaves – no one got sick or anything, and it tasted just fine, so I guess it was okay. I may make this again, as I’ve had a couple of coworkers tell me they really liked this and it’s among their favorite of my baking experiments.

Blueberry-Lavender Jam (Delish.com)
I made this at Thanksgiving a year or so ago. I never actually got to use it on anything (the downside of having lots of holiday leftovers). I altered it a bit, as I don’t particularly like blueberries – I used frozen blackberries instead. It smelled good while I was making it, I remember that much. I imagine it would have gone well on plain scones, which I’m fairly sure was my original intent.


Lavender Sugar (WholeFoods.com)
This I made as part of a Secret Santa gift for a coworker. She’s a total foodie, so I decided to make her gifts. On the first day, I gave her citrus sea salt and lavender sugar. It basically consisted of mixing sugar and some dried lavender in a food processor. (Whole Foods had a bunch of good holiday gift type recipes on their site, and cute downloadable PDF gift tags for each.)

Lemon Sugar Cookies (Delish.com)
Because I had so much lavender sugar left from making it for my coworker (despite reducing the recipe), I decided to try it in a sugar cookie, just for kicks. (I just replaced the sugar called for in the recipe with the same amount of lavender sugar.) I picked a lemon sugar cookie recipe because I’d seen lavender and lemon paired up in another recipe somewhere (though, for the life of me, I have no idea what I was looking at). It worked out pretty well, I think. The lavender was fairly subtle – there is far more sugar than lavender in the sugar mix – but it added a nice element to the cookies.

Recipes I’d like to try out:

Side note: I got super excited last year at the farmers market when I bought some lavender-infused honey. I bought it, intending to use it mainly in warm milk, and maybe to glaze some sort of bread or biscuit-type baked good. Unfortunately, I didn’t like it nearly as much in practice as I did in theory.

Posted by: Erin | August 21, 2010

Potlucks, Potlucks, Everywhere! (Part 2)

I believe I’ve said this before, but my office LOVES potlucks. We have them for EVERYTHING. We did one a few weeks ago for a coworker who was getting married, and then one last week for our annual retreat (which was a potluck barbecue at said coworker’s house). Potlucks are entertaining for me, because I use my coworkers as culinary guinea pigs. I like to bake, but I never really have a reason to, so whenever we have a potluck, I jump on the desserts list and try to pick one of the million baking recipes I’ve got bookmarked, particularly something I haven’t tried before.

For the barbecue potluck, I decided on cupcakes. I’ve been wanting to make coconut cupcakes for a while, so I used a recipe I found on Delish.com (Coconut Cupcakes with Seven-Minute Frosting and Coconut Flakes). I didn’t want to use the Seven-Minute Frosting because I didn’t have corn syrup, and as I’ve mentioned before, making your own frosting without an electric mixer is kind of a pain. And really, what I wanted, was a coconut and chocolate combination. After much searching, I found a recipe for Chocolate Frosting. In the end, I used canned frosting due to time. I found a dark chocolate Betty Crocker canned frosting, which pleased me to no end – I’ve used milk chocolate frosting before, but never seen dark, and I thought the dark would work even better with the coconut than the usual chocolate frosting.

I used a bit more shredded coconut than the recipe called for, but it’s because I wanted to make sure the flavor was strong (recipes always seem to have a much smaller quantity of added things like coconut or chocolate chips or whatever than seems useful). I think the coconut milk added the extra punch of coconut, rather than just using sweetened shredded coconut. And the dark chocolate frosting was a very good choice on my part, if I do say so myself. I usually like a lot of frosting, but these cupcakes didn’t really need it to balance the tastes together.

The only real problem I encountered was minor: when the cupcakes were supposed to be done baking, I pulled out the muffin tray, and the cupcakes looked too pale to be finished. I expected them to brown on the top a little – I think my brain is so used to making muffins that it didn’t occur to me that cupcakes should not brown on top. I didn’t burn them or anything, and they still tasted just fine, it just meant that there was a very thin, slightly thicker layer of cake between the actual cupcake and the frosting. Nothing major, but I’m sure I’ll remember that next time. I’m definitely putting this into the rotation for quick and easy baked things for various occasions.

My rather ingenious setup for carrying the cupcakes to their final destination.

Posted by: Erin | August 18, 2010

Potlucks, Potlucks, Everywhere! (Part 1)

I believe I’ve said this before, but my office LOVES potlucks. We have them for EVERYTHING. We did one a few weeks ago for a coworker who was getting married, and then one last week for our annual retreat (which was a potluck barbecue at said coworker’s house). Potlucks are entertaining for me, because I use my coworkers as culinary guinea pigs. I like to bake, but I never really have a reason to, so whenever we have a potluck, I jump on the desserts list and try to pick one of the million baking recipes I’ve got bookmarked, particularly something I haven’t tried before.

For the wedding shower potluck, I wanted to try a variation on the Berry Bonanza Cake from Bake Decorate Celebrate. I’d decided I wanted to do a cake, and I was leaning towards a slightly more fancy one, mainly because I felt like it. This seemed as good a reason as any to try one. So I was poking through the BDC site to look for ideas. (I didn’t think I’d actually do anything from there, since decorating-wise, they’re big on fondant, which I’ve never used, and, quite honestly, tastes terrible. I like frosting.) I had some fresh raspberries in the fridge, so I liked the decorations on this one. I thought I could do a layer of raspberry jam in the middle, and make the other two layers out of blackberry jam. I am a fan of berries.

And then the problems started. First, I only have one round cake pan. Second, I do not have one of those nifty cake slicer things you see in the recipe photos that allow you to easily make multiple layers. So I decided to alter my plan. I’d been looking for a lemon cake recipe to use with the BDC decorations, because I like lemon and berries together. (I think the original idea came from another elaborate cake recipe I’d seen on Cooking Light’s website, but I might be making that up. It gets hard to remember sometimes.) I found one called Nathan’s Lemon Cake.

I’m not sure exactly what possessed me to do the next part, but I think it had to do with trying to slice through a round cake layer: I decided to try to make the cake in a loaf pan. The idea was to split the batter and cook two loaf pan’s worth, so I would have an easier shape and width to slice through before adding the jam. A great many of my kitchen ideas turn out to be better in theory than in practice, and this was definitely one of those. I had to alter the baking time, which is not as easy as it sounds. Additionally, things baked in loaf pans do not bake flat on top, and loaf pans are slightly curved, so it’s not an even brick of cake. I figured I could slice off enough to even it out. I did, but I definitely over-baked the loafs (surprise, surprise, right?), so I had to slice off more than I expected, which made the cake smaller than I would have liked.

I ran out of time to decorate properly, so I didn’t do one thing that was probably the key in making this work: I didn’t have time to pipe some frosting around the edges of the top of the bottom layer before putting the blackberry jam in there. That would have kept the blackberry jam from squeezing out, and from getting pulled up into the frosting when frosting the rest of the cake. I didn’t use icing (obviously), but I used a Betty Crocker whipped vanilla frosting. I think I bought it because it was a larger can and because I hadn’t bought frosting in such a long time, I forgot the kind I usually like. (I have learned that making your own frosting when you do not own an electric mixer is rather difficult.) I do not recommend it. It was thinner, so it didn’t frost as well, and it didn’t taste as good, either. And, as I should have expected, I pulled up some of the jam in the frosting. I salvaged it okay, but it took more effort than I wanted.

So in the end, I ended up with a lemon cake in a loaf-shape, with blackberry jam in between the layers, with vanilla whipped frosting. It tasted just fine, but it was less exciting looking than I had hoped. Apparently, I do not have a picture, but that’s probably better. It would call my baking street cred into question, I’m sure.🙂

Posted by: Erin | August 15, 2010

Spellcheck Apparently Dislikes The Word “Streusel”

Last weekend, I discovered that the bananas I’d bought, intended for cereal, were going soft really fast. I decided, on a whim, to make banana walnut muffins. Everyone I know who bakes seems to say that just-past-ripe bananas are best for baking. I’ve never tried it before, so I thought that was as good a time as any.

I put together the dry ingredients from the Cooking Light recipe I was modifying (Banana Nut Muffins with Oatmeal Streusel), and moved onto the wet ingredients. I peeled open one banana, and much to my dismay, it was definitely past “just-past-ripe” stage. I tossed the bananas, and, because I’d only gotten the dry ingredients together, put the lid on my lovely Pyrex bowl (one of my best kitchen purchases ever), and moved the bowl off to the sideboard. I went grocery shopping last week and bought a few bananas, intending to let two of them ripen and then finish the muffins.

Today was the day! The bananas were past the “eating-with-cereal” stage, but looked to be in perfect shape for baking. I mixed up the wet ingredients, added them to the dry ones, and then threw in what was probably close to a cup of chopped walnuts into the batter (rather than 1/4 cup the recipe calls for) and roughly a cup of semisweet chocolate chips. (I also replaced the whole wheat flour with regular flour, as that’s what I had.) I didn’t bother with the streusel topping – I’d never intended to – so once the walnuts and chocolate chips were mixed in, I scooped the batter into the waiting muffin tray and liners. (Super useful tip: use a 1/4 cup measuring cup to scoop up the batter into the muffin tray. Especially when dealing with a batter that has chunks of something in it, this allows you to transfer a reasonable amount of batter but without the annoying dripping and dropping that usually happen when I use a tablespoon or other semi-flat spoon.)

The recipe claims it will make 12 muffins, but I managed to fill the 12 muffin tray liners all the way to the top and I still had some batter left. Assuming this was because I put in more walnuts and chocolate chips than the recipe was expecting, I thought perhaps that’s why there was more batter, so I filled four more cups about 2/3 of the way, and put all 16 into the oven.

25 minutes later, I pulled the muffins out of the oven. They looked nice, but they weren’t browned at all on the top, the way I’m used to muffins looking. They also didn’t rise nearly as much as I expected either – they didn’t even fill out to the sides and top of the liners. I found this odd, but a toothpick came out clean from three different muffins, so I presumed they were done.

After letting them cool for a bit (while my apartment still smelled like flour and bananas), I tried one. On the whole, I am pleased. There’s lots of chocolate, which makes me happy. However, when I went to peel off the paper liner, this happened:

I’m not sure if it’s because of the type of batter, or the length of time in the oven, or if I should just learn to spray the paper liners with a little cooking spray before I put batter in them. The muffins still taste good, so it doesn’t matter all that much, but I do feel like this is a borderline baking fail. If anyone has any thoughts on avoiding this problem in the future, please let me know!

UPDATE: It seems that not all of the muffins are totally fused to the liners. ‘Tis still a mystery.

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