If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. ~ William Morris

25 December, 2018

The Mystery of Lebkuchen, Black Walnuts and a Merry Christmas

"No one is useless who lightens the burden of another." ~ Charles Dickens

This year was the first year in some time that I tried some new recipes.  Last year I barely had the energy to muster up enough Christmas spirit to muddle through the holiday.  This year I juggled remaining coursework for my classes, but still managed to get some baking in.

In honor of uncovering my very German heritage this past year through the discovery of my previously unknown paternal family history, (mind you I already had a healthy dose of German in my maternal grandmother) I was inspired to try a Lebkuchen round.  It also appealed to my recipe (or receipt depending on how far you go back) research on historical food ways. Yes, I have been known to read cookbooks and household books of antiquity for fun and entertainment. 

As with most heritage recipes, its history is an interesting shade of gray.  Some say it translates literally as "life cake," others "loaf cake." I was also intrigued by their lineage, going back perhaps to the 1200's or longer, making their way like many rarities through the hands of monks and then becoming a holiday staple.  Rich in spices and then later nuts and candied fruits and glazed they became a specialty. 

Virginia Pasley's The Christmas Cookie Book listed no less than three versions. I chose the more common "round" as opposed to the cakes. 

I was most intrigued by the amount of honey.  I was certain it was once considered a digestive and probably a health cookie.  The interesting thing was its longevity, supposedly getting better with age. 

My first impression of the dough was that there was no human way to roll it out, much less cut it into rounds.  It was a goopy, sticky mess.  But after sitting a day in the refrigerator, it went much more smoothly than I imagined.  (I am also struggling with the need to be gluten free, so I can never be sure how regular recipes will transfer.)

I was also blessed to have some real candied angelica on hand to add, along with some slivered almonds.

Because it was my first time making them, I opted not to include a glaze figuring that with a cup of honey per batch as well as brown sugar, the sweetness would be plenty. 

I somehow managed a successful batch and the first bite both intrigued and surprised me.  It was chewy.  Very.  But not dry, although it seemed it should be, and the more you chewed it the more the honey seemed to appear.  It was indeed good, and definitely a cookie for the "older set." Missing the sprinkles, frosting and chocolate and having a high spice content, I can't see many children loving this cookie.  But it is truly the ideal tea or coffee cookie, or breakfast, if the case may be.  In the cookie box, they are unassuming and plain, unless you opt for the glaze.  I was glad that I didn't. 

My other culinary experience this year was with the black walnut.  My first time.  Having a black walnut tree in back of my house and thinking someday I might go through the laborious task of harvesting some, I bought a bag from a reputable national purveyor.  As a matter of fact the store selling them was almost out.  I was excited and filled with the expectation of some kind of mysterious nut-filled experience.  I rushed home, opened the bag and was filled with ...

disappointment, horror and even disgust. 

They smelled like nail polish, and left a horribly bitter after taste.  THIS is a black walnut????!!! I thought.  So I hopped on-line, hoping I had simply gotten a bad bag and indeed they were described as having the scent and odor of everything from bleu cheese to mustiness and being an 'acquired' taste.  I couldn't have been more saddened given my love of English walnuts in brownies and cookies and fudge. 

I can't imagine what the cooks of yore were thinking when they put in cups of the stuff into recipes while most modern black walnut lovers suggested a "sprinkling."  Yuck.  So much for that! 

I also made a favorite fruitcake recipe in the antique gem pan (a real fruit cake, with real organic dried fruit, no neon colored fruit remnants here) chocolate gingerbread, Italian chocolate, cut-outs, hot cha cha's, peanut blossoms, and almond joy cookies. I'm still not exactly sure how I got it all done in about 3 days, but I did.

And it was just in time for a pre-Christmas celebration with my oldest daughter who couldn't make it Christmas eve this year (in which we broke out the Rumptof, which goes surprisingly well with ginger ale) and then a quiet but lovely Christmas eve and day at home with the remaining children and my husband.  We watched a wonderful movie about the writing of A Christmas Carol called 'The Man Who Invented Christmas,' and watched our favorite performance of the book with Patrick Stewart on Christmas Day.  I may myself read through the original this evening, because it is truly literary perfection. 

And with that in mind, may your holiday season bring you joy, and your new year gladness, and may God bless us, every one.

26 November, 2018

Mrs. Hey's Hot Cocoa and Hoosier Headwork

Mrs. Dan Hey ~ From the Farmer's Wife Magazine ~ October 1938

One of my favorite all time articles from my vintage collection is that about Mrs. Dan Hey and her 'hoosier headwork' in planning school day meals. 

It is filled with wonderful tid-bits of the time. She came to St. Paul as a Country Kitchen guest, recommended by the extension folks at Purdue University as a rural homemaker who did a good job of planning meals and solving school lunch problems.  She was also the President of the Indian Home Economics Association. 

She put up 400 quarts of meats, fruits and vegetables the prior year, as well as home cured hams and bacon. The family doctor says the Heys do not give him a chance for living -- they are all so healthy. The Heys had three children, ages 18, 14 and 7.  This particular article was about Mrs. Hey's planning of the school day meals. 

According to Mrs. Hey, any plan for meeting the food needs of school children must take into account the whole day's meals. A glimpse into her own kitchen would show that the day's food preparation proceeds according to a well-planned  pattern.   Breakfast is not a heavy one, but quite satisfying for their needs.  There is fruit, orange juice, or tomato juice, apple sauce, canned pears or stewed dried fruit.  There is sometimes a cereal - a prepared cereal in the warmer weather perhaps with berries or sliced bananas, and hot oatmeal or a wheat cereal in the colder weather.  Instead of cereal there may be eggs or bacon and eggs.  Then there are rolls or toast, and always hot cocoa for the children and coffee for the grown ups. 

Since the children are away at noon the parents eat more of a luncheon than a dinner.  Then comes the extra meal in the late afternoon, for the minute the children are inside the door after school, it's eating time again.  They are always hungry then and again at supper time.  Supper then is the hearty meal of the day.  It is depended up on the supplement a moderately hearty breakfast, a fairly light lunch and a "piece," so it includes meat, two or three vegetables, one a green leafy one and a light dessert.  On Dad's night out -- Kiwanis Club -- the children could have their special favorites, which usually meant macaroni and cheese for one thing and on Friday nights, some of the children's friends might be brought home, and supper often boasted friend chicken.  The meals are easy to plan for their cupboards are always well stocked. 

Let's not forget Mrs. Hey's school lunch ideas:

I keep on hand a quart or so of homemade salad dressing in order to be able to mix up into sandwich filling any materials I may have at hand:

Minced ham and pickle
Hard cooked eggs and mango
Baked beans, even cold navy beans moistened with mustard or catsup
Left over meats or any kind ground with mango, pickles, pimento or onion
Carrots and raisins
Cream cheese and pimento

For vegetables I often send our favorite, tomato, but a whole tomato is rather soft and warm and quite unappetizing after a morning in the lunch box.  I peel one, cut it into pieces and place it in a small glass jar; then salt it and on top place a nasturtium leaf on which is a small dab of mayonnaise. When the child is ready to eat, he puts the dressing directly on the tomato, and the serving is much more attractive. 

The glass jar may also carry puddings, baked beans, custards, the dabs of pie fillings that are sometimes left over, fruit salad, slaw, stewed fruit, cottage cheese or anything that has been served on the family table that is good eaten cold. 

In the thermos bottle I have sent besides the customary cocoa and soups such things as creamed meats, creamed vegetables, spaghetti and tomatoes, fruit juices and jello.  

When baking a cake some of the batter may be dropped into muffin pans or paper cups to make just a few cup cakes to help in packing a school lunch.  

In years gone by I could not have sent school lunches, I sometimes think, had it not been for graham crackers and marshmallows.  I always kept these in the house and they served in emergencies many times. If you have too much cake icing use the surplus on a few graham crackers.  They will help you out after the cake is gone and you've forgotten to replenish the cookie supply.   Place some marshmallows on crackers and place in the oven.  When marshmallows just begin to melt, put another cracker on top and press down.  Toast slightly.  These marshmallow sandwiches stay crisp and help to give children their needed cereals. 

And now, for Mrs. Hey's unusual hot cocoa recipe:

Mrs. Hey's Cocoa

1 c. cocoa
1 c. sugar 
1/4 c. corn starch

Mix and combine with water to make a paste.  Cook in top of double boiler 1 hour or longer.  Cool and store.  Add as needed to scalded milk and beat until frothy. (I have made this.  Do keep it on low and keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn't burn.  She doesn't give a water amount but I would start with 1/4 cup and add as needed.  Store in the refrigerator as ours did once mold on the counter top even though there was no milk or dairy in the mixture.  I'm guessing someone double dipped a spoon, but to be safe store in the fridge.)

04 November, 2018

We Imagine That Time has Passed...

But has it?

The other day my son and I watched The Great Dictator starring Charlie Chaplin.  The year was 1940.  It would be more than a year before the United States would officially join World War II.  The world was reeling from Hitler's rise to power. At home in the United States, it would be another 28 years before Jim Crow laws were legally removed from the books.  We would then go on to enter two more wars, Korea and then Vietnam.  

Some 78 years later we still find ourselves struggling and resisting ideals and beliefs of separateness and hatred, of dissent and violence, and his speech is just as relevant, just as persuasive and just as painful as it was in 1940, when a man in power was calling for the encampment and extermination of a people who were different in religion, in heritage, in culture, and that of people who dissented, opposed or disagreed, and desired a pure, white, fresh faced nation.

It wasn't until 1920 that women received the right to vote and we fought hard for that right.  I hope that we as women will use our voting power to vote for good and righteousness.  After all, it was not so long ago that we were marginalized and unable to make our voices heard.  When we vote to remove rights away from one, we move towards removing rights for all. Let us learn and know our own histories and strive not to repeat them. 

On Tuesday November 6, here in the United States we have the opportunity to vote. 
I will be voting and I hope you will too. 

30 September, 2018

The Poetry of Life

"I'd rather be knitting." ~ Me

"The poetry of life always has a practical side to it, and most practical affairs rightly worked out are full of poetry."
(Lippincott's Home Manuals ~Housewifery by L Ray Balderston, A.M. ~ 1919)

In the midst of wearing more hats than the cap salesman  in Esphyr-Slobodkina's 'Caps for Sale,' (which was one of my older son's most favorite books when he was little) and feeling more like the monkey than the cap salesman, I took a few minutes to take a break and post on more pleasant and comforting mundane things.

In case you haven't noticed, America seems to be in awful state right now, so I'm not complaining for the gift of being rather busy.  Very busy in fact and very glad to be so.

The school year usually means a return to 'the busy,' but this year is particularly so, as I myself am also back to a full class load, partially on-line and in person, including a full-day Saturday Anatomy and Physiology class. So, my days go somewhat like this:

Monday through Saturday, alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m, and I am up by my second alarm at 4:45.  Monday through Friday, I get up and prepare husband's breakfast and oldest son's.  I also prepare their lunches.  I get them off to work and school, and most days both are gone by 6:30.  My husband's schedule varies.  Saturdays I get up and prepare breakfast for everyone to leave out for when they get up, eat, get myself together and leave for class at 7:00 a.m, waking my husband up when I go.

Sundays, I allow myself the luxury of sleeping in until 6 a.m. I prepare everyone's breakfast, try to slow down a little and plan my day.

Monday, my younger son who I home school, is normally at his father's house doing his schoolwork there.  That is my day to run errands, make appointments, get groceries or work on my own home work.  I get my older son off the bus every day around 2:30 or so.  and on Monday's he goes to his father's that night for dinner.   I still have my husband's dinner to prepare. Monday is also my baking and meal prep day if I'm going to make anything ahead.  I've hopefully planned our menu the afternoon before on Sunday.

Tuesday through Friday I normally have both children staying with me.  The youngest gets up around 8, has his breakfast (which I normally make, but he sometimes prefers to grab his own,) and does his morning routine and begins his schoolwork which is in a planner prepared each week by me on Sunday afternoons. He is fairly independent in most cases, and about half the things we go over together. He also takes some classes on-line.

I have the house cleaning and laundry broken out to a few items a day so I'm not overwhelmed. If I stick to this I'm in relatively good shape.  The dogs and birds get daily care.

Assuming there are no pressing mid-week appointments, I start the day with the making of the beds (my younger son makes his own), start any laundry if it's a laundry day, tidy the upstairs and baths, and then check the calendar, take anything from the freezer or prep for dinner if needed, have my own breakfast if I haven't already, and get to work.

I work most of the day on my own course work and household things that need to be done.  Because I'm up so early, I strive for at least a 20 minute nap in the early afternoon.  That doesn't always happen.  I try to shower either just before bed, or first thing in the morning after my husband and older son have left and my little one wakes up.   Then the afternoon is bus duty, more school work of my own and then dinner preparation and clean up.  My husband and sons do help where they can.

Bills, appointments, extra-curricular activities are all in the digital and paper calendars.  I have a third weekly calendar where I note what assignments I have due.

By Friday, my sons are either with me or their father every other weekend.  During the school semester, most of the weekend will be spent on coursework for me. When I have the boys, I try to keep that to early mornings and later evenings and make sure we have some fun time together.  I am of course in class on Saturdays from 8-2 from now through the Spring semester.

On Sundays, my boys are normally with their father and I try to visit a hospice patient if I have one.  I also do my weekly calendar, meal planning and my son's lesson plans for the week (which I've already prepared ahead of time during the summer months.)
Somewhere in there I try to rest.

I don't know that I've quite reached the level of poetry, but I have at least established a mostly reliable routine. My sons and husband do their share, and my youngest is learning to help with the cooking where he can.  (A blessing for his future wife.)

In between I squeeze in a bit of gardening, and was able to put up some elder flower and elderberry and wild black raspberry goodies this year, the Rumptof of course and hope to dry a batch of hops for tea, and I also to keep up with the inevitable little touches that make a house a home.

I have learned the hard way to let nothing wait until tomorrow if I can help it.  I planned for Halloween mid-September.  The decorations (although few in number and mostly vintage style black cats) were out almost a month ago.  Why? Practicality.  We cleaned out the garage at the end of August, and there was no good practical sense in taking things out and putting them back again only to take them out again three weeks later.

If it's dirty and I have a minute, I clean it.  If I find myself idle (say waiting for something to cook,) I put something away, or take a few minutes to read an assignment.  Somewhere in there, I also try to maintain contact with my older daughters, by at least texting or phoning weekly.  Sundays are usually the day my husband and I can enjoy a movie at home together if I don't have too much course work.

I promised myself on the decision of returning to school that I would not let my children's childhood suffer in any way if possible.  Yes there has been some belt tightening on mother's free time, but the baking of homemade goodies, the little reminders of holidays (even though they are much older now at nearly 12 and 15) and my youngest son's flights of fancy on random small projects, I do my best to indulge. Even if it's just for popcorn and a movie on the couch.  After raising two children to adulthood, the fact that the time flies and childhood is over faster than the two shakes of a lamb's tail is not lost on me.The time is so brief, yet its effects are so eternal on the minds of children, so I strive to keep in the forefront of my mind what my sons will think back on when they remember these days.   There is nothing wrong with demonstrating a good work ethic to your children by any means, but it also must be that joy and magic remain to feed the soul.

In all of this, I am looking forward to the winter break, the quiet, and some hand work.  And maybe, just maybe, a little rest.

11 August, 2018

The Late Summer Garden and the First of the Harvest

I did not keep a big vegetable garden this year.  Mostly greens, nasturtiums and some baby pumpkins for my son.  Two tomato plants in pots that have already given what they produced.  But the flowers and herbs were exceptional this year. 

I planted a number of new herbs and I have some sassafras trees coming in the fall, which I'm told are persnickety.  I may try to over winter one or two indoors in case the fall transplants don't make it. I have a black walnut tree a squirrel planted for me which I saved in a pot, he will attempt to over winter as well.  I also have a witch hazel bush that will spend the winter indoors because we missed the transplant deadline.  I've never had much luck with things keeping well inside over the winter, but I'm going to give it a go.  

My Chicago hardy figs I planted last year were not hardy and didn't make it.  Oh well.  A chipmunk got the two figs they produced.  

We managed to keep one sunflower from the chipmunks and rabbits.  They either dig up the seeds or eat the tender shoots.  It never works well for my son and I. 

It's hard to believe but summer is already coming to a close.  

The ever cheerful sunflower.


 Some decorative flowers for pollinators.  A purple salvia and orange daisy.

Hops which will be gathered and dried for tea.

Rosa Rugosa ~ Rose Hips which will be harvested for tea

These have already sat for six weeks and been strained, Elder Flower brandy and Lavender Flower in Vodka.  

Good winter medicine.

13 July, 2018

Making the Rumptopf

It's been quite a long time since I've made it.  About seven or eight years I'd say.  I was unable to place an exact date for the origination of this delicacy but it has been enjoyed in Germany for centuries.  Rumtopf roughly translates as "rum pot" and this method of preserving the harvest of summer fruits is not only practical but delicious.

In my research I've read many conflicting requirements.  One says absolutely no blueberries, others say go ahead, it will simply darken your rumptopf.  One says cherries can be pitted or not.  One says they absolutely must be pitted.  One says don't add blackberries. One says it's fine.  I would say the only requirement is that you use a high proof alcohol, and enough sugar and really, no worries. 

It does not need to be refrigerated and neither do I put a weight on mine, but some people insist that you should.  I have a special crock for sauerkraut that has a lid designed to be filled with water at the brim which keeps out air.  I stir mine every couple of days (gently so as not to break up the fruit but to dissolve the sugar).  I'm sure that someone will say don't do that, and someone else will say of course you should do that.  The recommended sugar is half the weight of the fruit in layers.  So a layer of strawberries, half the weight of sugar, a layer of raspberries, another layer of sugar, etc.

So far it contains a quart of unbelievably fresh strawberries, a quart of sweet and sour cherries, a pint of raspberries and a pint of wild black raspberries.  I'll be heading to the farm market tomorrow to see what I can add next.

I splurged this year and used an artisanal, overproof rum.

By October it is considered "done" and should rest until the first taste at Advent.  And then it will be enjoyed and gifted at holiday time. 

08 June, 2018

Flowers are the Handmaidens of Romance

'The clever woman enhances her charm by wearing fresh flowers and by so doing takes unto herself their fragrance and beauty, for flowers are the handmaidens of romance.'  

The Secrets of Charm ~ Josephine Huddleston ~ 1929

And the garden flowers are now beginning to show their best work.  Although not shown, the peonies are in full bloom, along with the yellow iris and a slowly creeping sea of blue and purple and pink shades.

A last bit of surprise, our first ever blueberries.  Granted our bushes are only in their second year and we will maybe get six, if the chipmunks and birds don't beat us to them but here they are!

30 May, 2018

Changes in the Garden ~ The First Rose of Summer

Finally, after a very long, drawn out winter, spring has truly arrived beyond sprouts and buds.  This is one of three heirloom roses I planted last year, Rosa Rugosa Alba, and the first to bloom.  I also planted Rosa Rugosa and Apothecary Rose.  All three are thriving.

It's amazing how much joy the little things give me.  Seeing these roses alive with Lady Bugs makes me so, so very happy.  I do not use any chemical pesticides in my garden and only natural one's where needed.  Neem oil dilutions in the Spring on the fruit trees, organic fertilizers and compost, etc. Making my yard more and more alive and fertile each year is my goal.  I try to let nature do as much as she wants or needs to do on her own, with as little interference as possible.  To me there are no weeds, just recalcitrant herbs.

And lastly, I've cleared a space in the garden for some specialty plants.  Not to worry however, as most of our favorite garden residents are poisonous if ingested, fox glove, lily of the valley, the holly in the picture and rue will all make you very ill if ingested (so please don't eat anything!).  But these are a little more sensitive and are for historical purposes only.  Henbane, Wolfsbane and Belladonna (a wild version of which (woody nightshade) grows rampant around my garage and property).  So although it's really not all that novel to have poisonous plants (yes a green potato can also make you very, very sick) and we know that we shouldn't eat the flowers unless we know what they are, it is rather whimsical and will make for interesting plant study.  I don't have small children (or small children visitors) and it is fenced off from my pets.

11 May, 2018

Signs of Spring and A Good Bi-annual Cleaning Circa 1919

Can you find him? He almost escaped my view as I was cleaning up the yard and garden.  To get an idea of size, he's on our chain link fence, next to a clematis vine.  He isn't more than an inch long.  He changed colors several times while I was working around him.

Spring is arriving late this year in Western, New York.  The lilacs aren't even fully out yet and today after several days in the 60s, 70s and even 80s, it's a rousing 40 degrees outside. So glad the scarf and wool coat were within reach. 

I've been immersed in Spring Cleaning and Yard Work.  

Spring cleaning is actually a seasonal cleaning.  I generally do the same thing with minor modifications in the Autumn as well.  It requires a stalwart commitment and fortitude and a great deal of stimulant beverages. The potential for procrastination is terrible, until one can no longer stand the ever present bits and remnants of old house dirt, dust, cobwebs and general clutter that no matter how regularly one cleans, in a house with two dogs, two children and one husband, it accumulates.

According to my 1919 copy of Lippincott's Home Manuals Housewifery by L. Ray Balderston, A.M., a regular room cleaning looks as follows:

  • Dust and remove or put under cover small articles and bric-a-brac.
  • Dust or brush furniture; if small, remove from the room. If large, cover with a dust sheet.
  • Shake and brush curtains and hanging; remove the room or pin in dust bags.
  • Roll up small rugs and remove from the room to clean; if large, sweep and fold back the edges toward the center.
  • Dust ceiling and walls.
  • Dust window shades.
  • Clean radiators.
  • dust closet floor.
  • Dust floors.
  • Dust doors, baseboard, and other woodwork to the floor and baseboard.
  • Clean windows.
  • Clean chandelier.
  • Wash globes.
  • Wash mirrors.
  • Wipe pictures.
  • Polish floor.
  • Return rugs, furniture and bric-a-brac.
  • Polish brass and silver unless all are done on a special day.

Living in a 224 year old home means dust is generated by the home's own unique life force.  It could be totally empty and without human or animal inhabitants and dust would happen.  I dust each week. We have no forced air or air conditioning, or duct work.  Dust just is. I don't even have a fireplace left within the home, so I can't blame that.  Whatever wood burning devices were here were taken out or bricked up long ago.  It's just one of the many bars in the song of the old house blues.  Along with plenty of ventilation year round, whether you want it or not.

But I wouldn't trade it for a brand new home, although sometimes I do fantasize about a mudroom, a separate laundry room, and a fully insulated, cook's kitchen with cupboards and drawers that work.  But I can't imagine living in a home without a soul. As much as  I wove a tapestry of obscenity in the air over my home the first two years I lived here as things broke, were never done right to begin with and DIY'd incorrectly to the point that the men on This Old House would openly weep, I have a strange and deep romance with it.  

The .75 acre yard that allows me to garden and plant until I run out of time, money and energy is a big selling point.  Along with the simple solidness of the structure itself.  When the wind blows, this house simply doesn't move.  There are days I vacillate between giving it all up in a few years and moving on, and being inexplicably pulled towards staying a little bit longer and leaving the old girl better than I found her. God knows when I do move, leaving the garden will be the hardest part.  All those years of mature perennials and fruit trees.  I can barely consider it at this particular moment.

04 April, 2018

An Open Shop and Back to Basics

After what seems like an unreasonably long absence, I'm back to giving this little project of mine some well-deserved attention.

First news, the shop is now live, and over the coming weeks I'll be posting digital versions of some of my lovely vintage pattern collection for sale.  Be patient, check back often, it takes time and it's a labor of love.

I do have some very unique and charming patterns to share.

Perhaps it is the impending on-set of spring and the longer daylight hours that have given me the additional energy and brain power I need to consider just one more thing in a day.

I find that despite my best efforts to wear fewer hats rather than more, I still somehow end up wearing several hats at a time. So please bear with me as I balance those unavoidable obligations of daily life with my pet projects and passions, this blog being one of them.  

I haven't forgotten you!


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