Come to the Dark Side … we have cookies

With our switch back to standard time last weekend, we’ve most definitely entered the darker half of the year. My husband and I took our first evening walk in full dark yesterday, and we can expect months more of the same.

fig and date cookies

Part of me mourns the loss of hot sun and long days. I certainly feel the dwindling abundance of the summer garden as plants die off. But I also enjoy the darkness.

Summer is bright, noisy and frenetic. Everything is in motion. I’m in motion. Long days mean more tasks on the to-do list—an expectation to ‘make hay while the sun shines’. Summer gardening can start as early as 6 am and continue past 9 pm. It feels wrong to lay about in bed when the sun pops up at 5 am, and who wants to go to bed at 10pm, before it’s even dark?

The bonus of all that work is abundant fruits and vegetables, weed-free gardens, clean gutters, tidy lawns …

But it gets exhausting after a while.

About the time we go off Daylight Savings Time, my body has had enough. That extra hour we gain isn’t enough to make up for the post-summer exhaustion, and I find myself going to bed by 9 pm, happy that it’s dark long before then.

In addition to the extra sleep, I appreciate the calm of night. A walk in the dark is an entirely different experience than a walk during daylight hours. The chatter of sparrows and starlings is absent. Magpies are silent. Neighbourhood dogs are indoors instead of barking at passersby. Quieter sounds come to the fore—the zit-zit of katydids, or the trill of a frog. A lone sheep maa-ing in a distant paddock. The gurgle of the local water race. There is peace in the darkness that is difficult to find during the day.

In the morning, I feed the chickens in the dark. They are groggy and slow—instead of racing toward me as soon as I enter the paddock, they wander my way, muttering their greetings. 

Although there are too many streetlights near our new house that obscure the fainter stars, I still take time every morning to greet the night sky—moon, planets and constellations.

I am comfortable in the dark—it is a soft velvet cloak wrapped around my shoulders.

And when I choose to come inside in the dark of longer nights, there is the warmth of the light. The smell of cooking. The rows of pumpkins stashed on top of the cupboards. Summer’s bounty stored up for winter.

During the dark half of the year, I have extra time to spend on baking—I can make fiddly cookies, cakes with cooked frostings, fancy decorated cupcakes. I have more time for sewing, spinning, and other crafts. I can sit and read a book without feeling guilty about wasting daylight.

So while there is some sadness to the end of summer, there is also joy in the darkness. And there’s the knowledge that summer will return and I will miss the books and baking of the dark side.

Youthful Adventure / Parental Angst

I find myself pacing the living room floor, gazing out the window at the swirling snow.

par

Stop. She’ll be fine.

My daughter is snowed into a cabin in the mountains. Porter’s Pass is closed and I cannot reach her by any means. I cannot supply her with the food I know she does not have for the 24-48 hours it will be until she can escape.

She is with friends. I know the cabin they’ve holed up in—it is warm and dry. There is water and even electricity.

She’s probably having a blast. No doubt they’ve pooled their food and are concocting some strange dinner tonight from instant soup packets and half a package of pasta of unknown provenance and indeterminate age left in the cabin by a previous inhabitant. It won’t be enough, but they’ll make do.

I know this because I remember my own adventures as a young adult. A day of hiking fuelled only by a pair of bananas purchased from a family in a small mountain village. A trek across the isthmus of Panama that involved an ill fated bus, hitching a ride in the back of a pickup, sleeping on the concrete floor of the police station in an unknown village, hiring a villager and his canoe, and begging meals and accomodation in another unknown village. Cowering in a tent as tornadoes ripped through the forest nearby. Carrying a chicken to a friend, on foot, three hours distant. … The list is long.

Every one of those adventures involved hardship—hunger, exhaustion, fear, danger. My mother would have freaked out had she known what I was doing.

Just as part of me wants to freak out right now.

But I know what those adventures did for me as a young adult. I can’t imagine having not had them. They’ve woven their way into the fabric that is me today. They are who I am.

My husband and I have taught our children how to prepare for adventure, how to be safe, how to face the inevitable difficulties, how to enjoy the hardships. The most important thing we can do now is trust that we’ve taught them well, and keep our own worries to ourselves so they don’t dim our children’s sense of adventure.

So I will pace the room, but never tell her I did so. I can’t wait to hear all about her adventure when she returns.

Same Name, Different Drink

saucepan of chai simmering on the stove

If I find myself at a cafe in the afternoon (usually for a meeting), I try to avoid coffee, since the caffeine interferes with my sleep. Instead, I’ll often order a chai latte. At a cafe, that usually means an instant beverage—spice powder or syrup mixed into steamed milk.

I enjoy the occasional chai latte. But it bears little resemblance to the real thing.

I was introduced to chai by a friend who grew up in India. He taught me how to make chai by steeping black tea and whole spies i simmering milk. The process is definitely not instant, and it requires a close eye to prevent the milk from burning.

That ‘slow’ chai, made on a winter evening in a kitchen full of friends was always more than a drink. It was a gift—of time, knowledge, memories, and love. No instant chai will ever be able to deliver the same.

I seldom make chai at home, but a few weeks ago on a cold dreary afternoon, I felt the need for more than a cup of tea. I made myself a chai instead, and enjoyed a drink that not only satisfied my desire for a cuppa, but also wrapped me in friendship and warm memories.

No cafe chai could come close.

Sun’s Return

It’s only a few weeks past the solstice. Nights are below freezing, and the worst of winter is still to come. In shady spots the frost lingers all day.

Spinach seedlings in the greenhouse
Spinach seedlings in the greenhouse

But plants are already responding to the increase in sunlight. There is a haze of new green growth in the chickens’ winter-bare paddock, daffodils are poking their shoots out of the flower beds, and the grass will soon need to be mown.

In the greenhouse, the lettuce and spinach seedlings that have been sitting there unchanging for weeks have finally begun growing again. The broccoli in the winter garden has begun thinking about heading up (at least until yesterday when the chickens got in there and stripped the leaves).

I too have responded to the sun. I’ve drawn my garden map for the upcoming season. I’ve assessed my seed needs in preparation for the arrival of the new year’s seed catalogue. I’ve nearly completed incorporating manure into the entire vegetable garden.

The weeks will go quickly. Before I know it, it will be time to start seeds, mark out garden beds and spread compost. Now is the time I should be buckling down to complete winter tasks—sewing, organising, cleaning … But like the plants stretching out their tentative leaves, I can’t help but respond to the sun, reaching for spring and looking forward to the new season to come.

Winter Baking

Pumpkin cakeWinter is a great time to try out new things in the kitchen. Weeks of cold, rainy weather always make me want to bake.

Last weekend I tried out two new things.

The first was a recipe for baked donuts. I was keen to try them, because I love donuts, but hardly ever make them because of the hassle of frying them. The idea of making up dough the night before, and then baking up fresh donuts for Sunday breakfast was tempting.

Unfortunately, the recipe didn’t work particularly well for me. I followed it to the letter, since it was new to me, but I did worry about the fact it had you mix the yeast into the flour, rather than proofing it first. The yeast never got off to the start it should have, and the dough didn’t rise as much as I would have liked. The resulting donuts were somewhat leaden. I also think the baking temperature of the donuts was too low—the recipe yielded a fully baked but anaemic-looking donut, barely browned at all. A hotter oven would produce an attractively brown crust with a moist interior. 

With a few tweaks to the recipe, I think there’s potential for a delicious (and dangerously easy) donut recipe there. I have no choice but to try again. 

The second new recipe I made over the weekend was a cream cheese frosting so simple, I had to give it a go. A block of cream cheese and three tablespoons of maple syrup, beaten until fluffy and spreadable.

The result is barely sweet, and beautifully flavoured. It’s denser than a standard cream cheese frosting full of confectioner’s sugar, but the density doesn’t bother me in the least—the texture is smooth and silky—delightful in the mouth. I used it to frost a pumpkin spice cake, and the flavours were perfect complements to one another. It’s definitely a recipe I’ll make again.

Saturday’s weather forecast is for snow. I’m already considering what I’ll experiment with in the kitchen.

A Warm Winter Solstice

The winter solstice passed this week, cold and rainy. It was also the anniversary of moving into our new house. It was truly a delight not to endure the run-up to the solstice in an unheated, uninsulated shed. To have a warm, dry place to eat and sleep; to have electricity and plumbing—what a luxury!

8 am with the sun barely rising …

Indeed, I still sort of feel I’m living in someone else’s house. Until a year ago, my husband and I had never owned a house less than a hundred years old. Then suddenly we had square corners and level floors. We had double glazing and insulation. We had doors that opened and closed properly, walls without fifty coats of paint, and not a speck of rot anywhere.

It was a bit of a shock.

And now I wonder if I’m going soft. I don’t wake up to a freezing house and have to light the fire. I don’t worry that the roof will leak every time it rains. I don’t have to venture to the attic to empty and re-set the rat traps. I don’t wake wondering if today is the day the water heater, septic system, or well pump is going to die.

Sometimes I miss the character of an old house—a house that is old enough to have a life of its own, a house that tells stories. Sometimes I feel guilty—a new house is such an unnecessary luxury.

But truth is, modern life is pretty good, especially in the cold, rainy days around the winter solstice. So for the moment, I’ll simply be thankful for all those luxuries that make the dark days brighter.

Welcome Spring!

It’s the first day of spring.

So, naturally, it’s snowing.

But the daffodils are flowering, the willows are greening up, and pine pollen billows from the neighbour’s trees. Regardless of what the sky is dropping on us, spring is here.

And not a moment too soon. Like most people around the world, we feel like the past six or seven months have dragged on for decades. Can I even remember the TBC (Time Before Covid)?

For us, lockdown began during a glorious Indian summer. Warm sunny days begged for last-chance trips to the beach. Trips we couldn’t take, trapped in our bubbles and stuck on foot.

By the time we were released from lockdown, summer had given way to chill autumn rain and frosty days.

Living in our shed through lockdown, then beyond and well into winter, we felt the season’s bite early and hard. We lived in the cold shed forever, and we would live there always … at least that’s how it felt. Every icy day was a year long.

Finally, we moved into our new house. It was (and still is) glorious—a warm dry refuge from the weather.

But winter was still grinding away outside. With landscaping only partly finished, the yard was a mire of wet clay and puddles. We were still trapped indoors. Even the novelty of a warm dry house wasn’t enough to speed the days along. Time dragged its feet. Winter moved at a toddler’s pace. I couldn’t go yet—it had to get its coat and shoes. Then it lost a glove and spent a month looking for it among a drift of discarded outdoor gear.

So it was a spectacular feeling to boot winter out the door—gloveless still—when I planted the season’s first vegetable seeds last weekend. It was an act of defiance to turn garden beds, and ready the greenhouse for newly-sprouted seedlings.

I look forward to the growing season ahead. Welcome spring!

Caroll Hut, Arthur’s Pass National Park

Impressive old southern rātā along the track.

Just beyond Otira, the main highway snakes along, with the Otira River on one side and impossibly steep slopes on the other. A track takes off from Kelly Creek and shoots straight up. My husband said he’d often looked up at those slopes thinking, “Glad I’m not going up there.”

But that’s exactly where we went Friday. Eight hundred twenty-five vertical metres over a mere 2700 metres horizontal distance, if the topo map is to be believed. That’s an average slope of 17 degrees, which doesn’t seem like much, except that parts of the track are flat or go down, so many sections are practically ladders, and require hands and feet.

In spite of the steep grade, it’s not a difficult climb—tree roots and rocks provide plenty of hand and foot holds. And the slow climb upward affords plenty of time to gaze back up the valley towards Otira, watch a train rumble down the tracks below, enjoy a waterfall, examine the flora, and listen to the bellbirds. The forest is full of gems like southern rātā and mountain neinei (a tree that could only have come from Dr. Seuss’ imagination).

View towards the west coast from above Caroll Hut

You emerge above tree line to a gentle climb to Caroll Hut. A little further uphill, cresting Kelly’s Saddle, the view opens to the west coast, and you can see all the way to the Tasman Sea. 

It’s not a hike you’d want to do in bad weather, but Friday’s calm clear air was perfect. A lovely day out.

Enjoying the New Kitchen

Rain pounded on the roof and hissed against the windows. Wind whipped around the porch, tossing deck chairs everywhere. I lay warm in bed, only vaguely registering the weather, grateful once again to be in the new house and not in the shed.

We’re still settling into the house, but we’ve already given the kitchen a workout. Some days, when I step into that room, I wonder what we were thinking—it’s so huge! Then I cook something and appreciate every inch of space.

It’s been hard to get a photo of the foods we’ve baked–they’re eaten so quickly.

We’ve been craving all the baked goods we haven’t been able to make in the past three months. In the first twenty-four hours after moving in, we baked eight loaves of bread, three dozen cookies, and a batch of lemon scones. Over the next four days, we added pizza, Not yo’ mama’s mac and cheese, quiche, apricot tart, chocolate cupcakes, and homemade granola to that list. Moving into our second week in the house, we’ve made Mum’s fluffy buns, bean burgers, oven baked French fries, Irish soda bread, spaghetti with tofu meatballs, and roast vegetables.

Visiting some of our favourite foods after too many months without them has been a delight. It may be time to head to the library for some inspiration now—think what new things we could make in the fabulous new kitchen!

Winter Baking—Anise-scented Fig and Date Swirls

After a week of frosty mornings and gloriously warm sunny days, the weekend has brought us cold, drenching rain. 

So, the only thing for it was to bake!

I stocked up on my homemade granola and made a batch of Mommy’s Magical Crackers, but the fun baking for the day was a batch of fig and date pinwheels. I’ve only made them once before, but loved them. Flavoured with anise and rich in figs, they have a unique taste and texture that improves with age.

These are straight from my favourite cookie cookbook (the book itself is a work of art), The Gourmet Cookie Book. They take more time to make than many cookies, but the results are as attractive as they are delicious—well worth the effort.

1 cup dried figs
1 cup pitted dates
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbs sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbs ground anise seeds
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
125 g (1/2 cup) softened butter
125 g (4 oz) cream cheese
1 tsp vanilla
1 large egg yolk
1/4 cup raw sugar (optional)

In a food processor or blender, puree figs, dates, water and 2 Tbs sugar. Set aside.

In a bowl, whisk together flour, anise, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In another bowl beat together butter, cream cheese, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla, egg yolk and flour mixture and beat until a dough forms. Form dough into a disk and wrap in wax paper. Chill about a hour, until firm enough to handle (I found in my winter-cool house I didn’t need to chill the dough at all).

On a floured surface, roll out dough into a 33 x 25 cm (13 x 10-inch) rectangle about 8 mm (1/3-inch) thick. Gently spread fig and date mixture evenly over the top, leaving a narrow border around the edges. Starting at one long edge, roll the dough into a jelly-roll-like log. Optional: roll log in raw sugar to coat. Wrap in waxed paper and chill 4 hours until firm.

Slice into 8 mm (1/3-inch) rounds and place on a greased baking sheet. Bake about 13 minutes at 180ºC (350ºF) until golden.