Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween!!!!

Our jack o'lanterns (including Jenny's who spent the howliday evening at our house):

that last one is a representation of Jenny's pug, Suzy!

Here are Suzy and Lucy in their costumes...devil and angel, not at all type-cast!!

In fact, while the humans were hanging out on the porch, giving out 9 bags (!) of candy to trick-or-treaters, I believe that Lucy and Vasco were co-conspirators in getting throat lozenges out of Jenny's handbag and strewing them about the house. Including Lucy's bed and near Vasco's scratching post (which is why I think it was those two, in addition to knowing that this is exactly the kind of behavior those two would indulge in). Only one was found to be eaten, sans wrapper. Apparently they thought that part of Halloween was for them too. In addition to the greenies and catnip they'd already gotten (which made Moose vomit...he's just preparing us for future children when they eat too much Halloween candy, I guess!). We were pretty much out of candy by 8.45pm and it seems quiet out there.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

haaaallllooooweeeen, part 1

Fanatical Menagerie readers may remember that one of my jack o'lanterns got smashed last year on Oct. 30. I'm not taking that risk again this year! So the photos of them will have to wait until tomorrow!

Meanwhile, I have set up a mini-graveyard in our side yard, along with some hanging spiders and a lone bat....

Monday, October 29, 2007

Pumpkin Pie

As was mentioned in a previous post, we picked some pumpkins at an apple orchard / farm down in Afton, MN, a week or so ago. We picked some for jack-o-lantern purposes (more on that from Daniela soon) and some for pie.

It turns out that this was the best pumpkin pie I've ever made. Even Jenny, who claims that she doesn't usually like pumpkin pie, loved it. I'm just sayin'....

Here's the deal:

I took 1 medium sized pie pumpkin and quartered it. I scraped out the seeds and other gook. Cut each piece into smaller pieces. Place rind-side down in an oiled roasting pan and roast for 1 1/2 hours or so, till pumpkin is nice and soft. Scrape out flesh and puree. The puree can be frozen or (as I did) refrigerated for a few days, till you have time to make the pie.

My recipe this time comes from the new edition of The Joy of Cooking (it's amazing!). Make your crust-- you can make a half recipe, since you don't need a top crust. As you'll see in the pictures, I use some of what would be the top crust to make little cut out designs, but I'm just goofy that way... Bake the crust by itself at 425 for 15 minutes-- make sure to weight the crust down with something. I used another pie plate. Pre-baking the crust will ensure that it doesn't get soggy.

Meanwhile, whisk 2 large eggs in a large bowl. Add 2 cups of cooked pumpkin puree and whisk thoroughly. Then whisk in 1 1/2 cups heavy cream, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/3 cup brown sugar, 1 tsp cinammon, 1 tsp ground ginger, 1/2 tsp nutmeg, 1/4 tsp ground clove, and 1/2 tsp salt.

Take the crust out of the oven, let it cool just a bit, then add the filling. Turn the oven down to 375 and bake for 35-45 minutes, until firm. If you're goofy like me, add your little cut-out pastry designs about half way through.

Let it cool.

Then-- the coup de grace. Daniela whipped up some more of the heavy cream, and I made Hot Brandy Sauce. Yep. The Joy of Cooking assured me that "Thanksgiving will never be the same once you try this on pumpkin pie." They were right.

Hot Brandy Sauce:

Melt a stick of unsalted butter in a saucepan. (Really, how can any recipe that starts this way be bad?)

Stir in 1 cup sugar, 1/4 cup brandy, 2 tblsp water (I used more brandy instead), 1/4 tsp nutmeg, and 1/8 tsp salt. Cook until sugar is dissolved, stirring frequently. Remove from heat.

In a bowl, whisk 1 large egg till frothy. Slowly whisk sauce into egg, then return mixture to the saucepan, set over medium heat, and bring to a simmer. Cook until thickened, about 1 minute. Serve immediately.

Here is one of the pie pumpkins I'll be using for pumpkin pie #2, alongside some puree for pie #1.

Here is the finished pie, complete with little goofy cutout pastry designs.

And here is part of my slice (I couldn't take a picture before I had tried it!), with brandy sauce and whipped cream. Yum!


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Fall Harvest

We took a trip this weekend to Afton Apple Orchard, a place around 30 minutes away from us which has even more good stuff than its name implies-- in the summer we picked strawberries there, and this time we picked apples, raspberries, and pumpkins!

I will do my best to blog about the pies which will result from the apples and the pumpkins (we picked some jack-o-lantern pumpkins too, which Daniela will be carving using her power tools-- I'm sure she'll blog about it too). But since I just put the raspberry pie in the oven, and I've blogged about that pie before (only difference this time was I used corn starch as a thickener instead of flour), I thought I'd briefly discuss my homemade pie crust.

I learned how to make pie crust from my mother, and it's just not as hard as people think. The difference between a homemade crust and a store-bought one is night and day-- more important, really, than the filling, which is often nearly as good even if it's not fresh (my cherry pie is made from canned filling, and I've often made raspberry pie from frozen berries, with good results).

It takes some practice to get the technique down-- Daniela can attest that pie-making used to involve copious amounts of swearing, foot-stomping, and other hysterics-- but once you get the hang of it it's quite easy and fast. Probably takes 15 minutes start to finish.

I think it's important to have the right equipment. You need a pastry blender (like this one), a good rolling pin (mine has a covering made of pastry cloth material so the dough won't stick), and something to roll out the crust on-- for many years I used a nice pastry cloth, though now I use our granite countertop with no cloth.

Here's how I do it (I plan to experiment with some other crusts, but this is my mother's basic shortening crust, and it's very good):

In a large bowl, mix 2 cups of flour and 1/2 tsp. of salt.

Add 1/3 cup of shortening (I use Crisco currently, though I'm exploring more organic solutions) and blend using a pastry blender (a fork would do if you don't have a pastry blender). Then add another 1/3 cup and blend again till it's all well mixed.

Now for the part which takes some practice. You want to add cold water (the colder the better) little by little, stirring the mixture with a fork as you go. You'll end up adding somewhere in the 1/2 cup to 1 cup range, but you really have to judge based on what the dough looks and feels like. You want to end up with a nice dough-- start to slow down when the dough begins to clump together, and stop when there is no more dry mixture and you can form the dough into a nice ball.

If your dough is too dry, it will crumble when you try to roll it-- go back and add some water. If you add too much water, your dough will be sticky and hard to work with-- add a bit of flour.

So, once you've got it about right, form the dough into a large ball. Then break it in two and form each piece into a ball. At this point, I usually refrigerate the dough while I make the filling-- cold dough is easier to roll out. This trick is especially useful in the summer.

Sprinkle some flour on your dough-rolling surface. Flatten the dough into a roughly circular shape. Turn it over. Re-flour the surface. Do this a couple of times so the dough gets enough flour on the surface that it won't stick to the surface or the rolling pin.

Then roll it out. Try to keep it circular and roll the dough evenly. Roll it out a bit bigger than the pie plate you're using (mine is 9", I believe). Once you've got it the right size, pick the dough up using your rolling pin (by rolling the dough part way onto the pin) and transfer it to the pie plate. Push it to make sure it's flat against the bottom of the plate.

Now put in your filling and roll out the top crust. Put the top crust on and pinch the edges together to seal the crust (otherwise the filling will leak out)-- I do this while at the same time trimming the edge with my fingers. Hard to explain but you'll figure it out.

Probably the best way to learn how to do this is the way I did-- by watching an expert a few times, trying it under their tutelage, then practicing on my own. But maybe you're a better learner than I was..... Happy pie-making!

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Italian grafitti

We saw a lot of grafitti while we were in Italy (perhaps appropriately- according to wikipedia our word grafitti comes from graffiato, meaning scratched). Naples in particular was covered in grafitti to the point that it was depressing. I'm used to seeing quite a bit and can usually either see past it (if it's your basic scrawling of words) or can even admire it as an artistic art form/interesting mode of communication.

But sometimes it was just annoying, like in this photo from the Amalfi Coast...

Or here in this alley in Martina Franca (Puglia)...

Other times, I thought there was an interesting message.
As in this grafitto, in Matera.

The tagger is thanking Mel Gibson, because the Passion of Christ was filmed in Matera. Which presumably brought money and fame to Matera - which deserves both and not because of the movie!!! - but I guess not enough money to remove grafitti. Much as I personally dislike Mel Gibson and that movie (without, I admit having seen it), which is to say, A LOT, I guess he managed to bring something good to Matera. Rant about the movie and how it is ironic that it was filmed in Matera is another post...

The single BEST piece of grafitto we saw was in Naples, at a church,

This says that the church was destroyed due to war and was re-built (as an altar of peace in the heart of ancient Naples). The tagger crossed out that the war destroyed it, and instead wrote in due to the Americans. Classic. And right on.*

*(Yes, I am an America-hater. I guess I just hate our freedoms. Note to NSA spies who have nothing better to do than read this blog: that's SARCASM.)

Friday, October 12, 2007

Menagerie Update

What with all the traveling, we haven't posted much lately on the Menagerie itself... So. Vasco continues to grow up, though he still very much acts like a kitten. But it was quite astounding when we picked him up after our Italy trip-- he had gotten so much bigger!

Here's Vasco curled up with a good book (he must get this trait from Daniela)....

We also recently dogsat briefly for Suzy, the adorable new pug dog who has adopted our friend Jenny. Suzy (on the left) is very much a lap dog-- more so than Lucy, though once Suzy had planted herself on Daniela's lap, Lucy (right) decided that she had to get in on the action as well.

Suzy had a good time playing with Vasco as well-- unlike our dogs, who either ignore (Moose) or try to get away from (Lucy) the cat, Suzy would chase him and try to play with him at every opportunity. Vasco wasn't quite sure what to make of her. I have a video of the two of them that I'll put up soon, but for now, a picture will have to do.

And Moose has contrived to get himself a new dog bed. When we left for Italy, feeling a bit guilty about leaving the animals for so long, we decided to bring Lucy and Moose's beds to the kennel. Lucy was apparently fine with this, but Moose took the opportunity to announce his preference for a new bed-- by promptly shredding his old one.

For a few days, Moose was without a downstairs bed (having only the one in the bedroom). He compensated by curling up a few times in Lucy's bed. Regular readers of this space will know that Moose enjoys curling himself up in a tiny little ball on a small bed. But this was something else altogether. Here's Lucy in her bed-- notice that it is well designed for a small pugdog.

And here's Moose, squeezing his hound dog frame into it...

It doesn't look too comfortable, but he did try it out a couple of different times.... Coming soon, a picture of Moose in his brand new bed, which he likes very much.