Monday, December 21, 2009

1:2:3 improvised christmas cookies

I wanted to make some Christmas cookies today, but I didn't want to go to the grocery store. I had butter, sugar, and flour:  what could I make?

I got out a book I got last summer: Ratio, by Michael Ruhlman.  The premise of this book is that you--yes, you!--can invent recipes. In fact you don't need recipes. You just need ratios. 

Most of the ratios in the book are on the order of x parts butter, x parts flour, x parts egg, x parts liquid.  With these ratios, you have a basic recipe for bread, pasta, pie dough, biscuits, all kinds of cakes and quick breads...and cookies.  The cookie recipe is one of the easiest to remember:  1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, and 3 parts flour.

Note that these "parts" are parts by weight, not by volume.  I have a little digital scale that I got at Walmart.  So for each batch of cookies, I weighed out 30 grams of sugar, 60 grams of butter, and 90 grams of flour.  This made a little batch of about 10 small cookies.

Cookies made with this ratio are shortbreads:  they are not terribly sweet, and there is no egg in them.  A plain cookie of just butter, sugar and flour is.. very plain, but good.  I could actually taste the butter, and I realized that getting good butter might make these cookies a lot better.  (I was just using Land o' Lakes unsalted butter.)  I am going to try that soon.

After trying the recipe first  plain,  I ground the sugar for the next batch with some candied orange peel in the blender, before creaming it with butter and mixing it with flour.  I put an almond in the middle of each of these cookies.  Nice!

I realized I had a little bit of a chocolate bar left, so for the third batch I melted that in the microwave and mixed it with the butter and sugar. You use 1.5 parts chocolate to every part of sugar. (Actually I should have mixed the melted chocolate with the flour first to keep it from melting the softened butter.)  To decorate those, I put a walnut in the middle of each one. How cute!

For the last batch, I really went wild.  I put left-over vanilla seeds in the blender with the sugar, along with some cloves and 30 grams of walnuts.  (You can substitute ground nuts for a third of the flour.)  Also a bit of dried ginger. Ground that up, and creamed it with the butter.  Added a little lemon extract, and some salt.  (A pinch of salt was added to all the batches.)  Then the flour.  This made a crumbly cookie, which I decorated with a bit of blueberry jam when they came out of the oven.

Ruhlman suggests chilling the dough before shaping it into cookies, but I thought it was easier just to do it without chilling.

Wow.  I used up a lot of left-overs in the kitchen and I sort of invented two cookies!  (The other two were suggestions in Ruhlman's book.)


I've been obsessed with panettone this winter.  It started last winter, when I saw a recipe in Gourmet for panettone, or maybe even before that, when a Peruvian friend in Houston gave me one for Christmas.  Peruvians love panettone; it's everywhere at Christmas.  People give each other panettones in gold boxes, and it's better than fruitcake; people actually eat it.

Panettone is originally from Italy.  It's a sweet bread with a lot of egg and butter in it, and it has dried fruit too.  It's a kind of fruity brioche I suppose.

The first recipe I tried this year was from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.  It's easy and pretty good.  You don't have to knead in softened butter; you simply melt the butter and add it to the liquid ingredients before you add the flour. You can use any dried fruit you want. I used sour cherries, blueberries and raisins.  The sour cherries were very good in this bread I thought.  The recipe made enough for three loaves, and you can store in the refrigerator for up to five days and bake a new panettone every day.  I found that the final rise for me was longer than the recipe says; maybe this is because my house is somewhat cold.

I liked the Artisan Bread in Five panettone, but it didn't have the lovely shreddy character of the "real" panettone that you get in a store.  However, later I found a recipe at Wild Yeast that resulted in such a perfect texture and crumb that I almost devoured a whole loaf by myself.  This recipe takes longer:  you make a stiff starter out of your regular sourdough starter, and that takes a whole day; then the first dough takes another 12 hours to ferment.  Finally, the last rise takes four hours, but again, mine didn't rise really enough in that time, and I think I should have left it to rise longer, even though it was sitting on an electric heating pad.  Still it was very, very good, if a little on the sweet side.

To make this recipe, I also made some candied citron and candied orange peel. This was easy.  You just simmer the peels in water for fifteen minutes; then you simmer them in a 1:1 sugar syrup for 45 minutes. Scoop out of the syrup and let dry on a rack.  Sprinkle with more sugar to keep them from sticking to each other.

I still have some of the paper panettone molds, so for my next trick:  chocolate panettone!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sweet Potatoes in the Snow

My tiny garden in Houston did a pretty good job this fall of growing nutritious food. Two of the most vitamin-packed crops one can grow are sweet potatoes and collards, and my two little raised beds grew both, well.

The sweet potatoes are Garnets.  I planted a whole potato in one of the beds last spring, and it sprouted little plants, which I moved to 12" spacings.  They grew there all summer, completely unattended by me, through a long drought and very hot temperatures.  I dug them right before an unusual frost, in early December. Some winters, the temperature in Houston never goes below freezing, but this time, it not only got cold; it also snowed!  You can see the snow on the collard greens here.

I planted the collard greens in October; they don't do well in hot weather, so I waited until it cooled off some.  At first they had a few problems with bugs, but as the weather cooled, the bugs went away.  They love frost; it  makes them sweeter.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Amy's garden of tropical fruits

The great thing about gardening in Houston is growing tropical fruit.  I was amazed, when I moved here for part of the year ten years ago, how easy it is to grow lemons, tangerines, grapefruit, papayas and even bananas in the yard!

My friend Amy is a really good gardener, and she has a lot of fruit growing in her garden right now.  Citrus is in season. She has Meyer lemons, a really delicious variety of lemons:

Also there are grapefruit, the Ruby kind with red sections inside:


I ate one of these and it was delicious.

Papayas sprout everywhere in Amy's garden, probably because she composted a papaya last year and some of its seeds have sprouted.  The papaya tree is well over six feet tall and has a thick trunk maybe four inches in diameter. It's loaded with papayas:


Amazingly, Amy even grows bananas!  Banana plants are common in Houston, but it's less common to see the actual fruits on the plant.


Banana plants have a really interesting flower, on a long stalk that hangs down.


Amy has a knack for garden design, and not just with food plants. I loved her use of an old potty as a planter.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Is Vegan Food Good?

The question that nobody dares to ask.  IMHO, the answer is a qualified yes.  I am cautiously optimistic.

Last month was VeganMoFo for food bloggers.  I made a lot of vegan recipes and blogged about some of them.  Some of them were horrible. I won't name any names, but one prominent vegan food expert has a quiche recipe that I wouldn't feed to the raccoons and possums that eat out of my compost pile.

Gourmet magazine was never big on vegan food, but in its last issue there was a vegan cheesecake recipe. Maybe, if Gourmet had lived, there would have been more vegan recipes, another reason to be sad about Gourmet's demise.  Especially because this vegan chocolate cheesecake was actually very good.  Gourmet's recipes were always well-tested, it seems. I never made anything from that magazine that was actually bad and inedible. The same cannot be said of other recipe sources.  Once I made a recipe from Recipes for a Small Planet, back in the 70s, that smelled just like dog food.  I didn't taste it because the smell made it impossible to taste it. I can't remember if any dogs ate it.

Of course, Gourmet had some inadvertently vegan recipes, mostly recipes for, well, vegetables, the word from which the word vegan derives (I think.  Who came up with that ugly word, "vegan," anyway?)  But to be a really impressive vegan recipe, a recipe has to try to emulate something you can only make with meat or dairy products or eggs.

Cheesecake would be an example.  Back in the seventies, there were tofu cheesecakes.  (That awful word "vegan" had not yet been invented.)  These tofu cheesecakes were famous for causing flatulence, due to the confluence of soy protein and sugar.  Some people called this early vegan dessert "rocket fuel" for this reason.  I am happy to report that the Gourmet vegan chocolate cheesecake is not noticeably rocket fuel.  You make it with tofu cream cheese (I used the Tofutti brand) and silken tofu, along with some homemade fudge sauce.  The tofu cream cheese was very good on its own and would be good on bread or crackers.  Silken tofu is just really soft tofu that hasn't been pressed. You blend it with cocoa powder in the blender.

The only hard part of this recipe was making the fudge sauce. You have to make caramel first with sugar, a process that I always dread. It seems that I always get at least one utensil (this time it was a fork) encased in a carapace of concrete-like hardened sugar, and nothing gets that hard sugar off.  The weird thing was, first you made a caramel sauce, then you poured water on it to dilute it!  The water hardens, and then theoretically gradually softens the caramel, until you have a sort of syrup, to which you add the chocolate pieces.  Then you melt them together. I was thinking it might be easier to skip the caramel step and just use honey instead. Maybe I'll try that next time.

I didn't make the graham cracker crust from scratch because it was actually cheaper to buy one already made in a little tin pan than to buy a whole box of graham crackers.  But next time I will probably make the crust myself, because the store-bought crust was sort of stale.  Also, I halved the recipe, just so I wouldn't eat the whole thing.

  Chocolate is a breakfast food for me.  It was nice to have a piece for breakfast. I took the rest of it to work. I didn't tell anybody it was vegan, and they ate it!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Scarlet soup

The last issue of Gourmet came a few weeks ago. So sad.  However, there is nothing to do but cook from it.  I wanted to try some of the recipes before Thanksgiving, because we are having a Thanksgiving potluck and I want to decide what to make.

First I made the scarlet carrot soup.  Gourmet calls it a Thanksgiving starter.  And it has beets and carrots in it, two very affordable vegetables.

I thought it was really good, even though I didn't make it exactly right. I substituted curry powder for the coriander seeds, and I didn't put the deep-fried carrot strips on top:  just a bit of ricotta cheese instead.  Also, I halved the recipe.

For whatever reason, I couldn't find the recipe on the epicurious site, where all the other Gourmet recipes are archived. I guess the person who uploaded the recipes lost her job too.

So here's my version of it.

Scarlet Carrot Soup

1 tsp curry powder
2T oil
1/2 cup sliced shallots
1 sprig thyme
1 bay leaf
pinch of hot pepper flakes
4 cups sliced carrots
2 cups chopped beets
4 cups water
1 T red wine vinegar

Cook shallots in oil with thyme, bay leaf and pepper. When shallots are soft, add curry and cook one minute.  Add carrots, beets, 1 tsp salt, pepper, and water.  Simmer 20 minutes.
Discard bay leaf and thyme sprig.  Puree soup in the blender and return soup to pot.  Add vinegar, salt and pepper to taste.
Garnish with sour cream or yogurt or ricotta cheese.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Adobe Abode, Part II

I uploaded some photos to my flickr site of the adobe alliance workshop near Presidio, TX.  These are black and white photos that I shot on film, in a medium format camera and a view camera.  You can see them here.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


We have a mature pecan tree in our yard in Houston.  There are pecans all over the grass and in the garden bed under the tree.  We picked up a bunch of them today so we could mow the grass. It was almost impossible to find them all; some of them had worked their way down into the grass.

I am drying them out on the porch now, and looking forward to cracking and eating them soon.  The shucks just fell off of most of the nuts; this makes shelling easier than with black walnuts, for example, which I have a lot of in Tennessee. Black walnuts are encased in big brown hulls that don't come off easily.  Most people dump the nuts in their driveways and run over them with cars to get the hulls off!  (The up side is that the brown hulls make a great dye for both cotton and wool.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ojinaga, the painted city

We went to Ojinaga several times during the Adobe Alliance workshop. I loved it because it was so colorful:  almost every building is painted a really imaginative color, and no two are the same.  Houston is so gray and boring by comparison.

Also, most of the commercial buildings had signs painted on them by hand.  The signs were often pictures of what was for sale in the store, along with words about the business.  I realized suddenly that in the states, most ads are photographs nowadays, rather than paintings.  It's kind of a loss.  These hand-painted ads are beautiful and wonderful and varied and weird sometimes.  There must be lots of sign painters in Ojinaga.  It would be a fun job.

This foxy lady was painted on the outside of a store that sold fancy dresses for weddings and quinceaneras:

A bar called the "Lolita" had a slightly racier girl on it:

Is this Humbert Humbert's Lolita?  I wondered because I am reading Reading Lolita in Tehran.  Do they read it in Ojinaga?

 This painting of a cowboy on a horse was on the outside of a restaurant. 


This one was on a grocery store.


Because we had been learning about painting on plaster on adobe, I wondered if the tradition of decorative plaster on adobe buildings had caused this efflorescence of painting on regular cement stucco.

Adobe arch

One day some of the participants in the workshop made an adobe arch.  They made a form out of adobe bricks, arranged in a sort of post and lintel way, and they draped some black plastic over the blocks. To make the form more rounded, they packed some clay and straw on top of the  adobe blocks, under the black plastic.

Then they stacked the adobes and mortar in an arch shape over the form.  (It's also possible to use a plywood form.)  It dried for a day or two, and then we tested its strength.  It was surprisingly strong!

We decided that it was a triumphal arch for a dog. A dog could run through it after catching a rabbit, for example.  But the dogs that were there wouldn't try it out.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


On the last day that I was at the adobe workshop, we learned about plaster, a fascinating subject.  Jesusita Jimenez had told us that she considered plaster to be the most important, make-or-break aspect of an adobe house.
We made several batches of plaster to check which one would work the best on the particular wall we were working on.  It was the wall of one of the vaulted outbuildings at the Swan house.  Stevan told us that with any adobe project, it is necessary to do this trial and error testing to get the mix of clay, sand, and straw right for the particular conditions of the site, and the particular qualities of the ingredients you are working with. The objective is to get a plaster that won't crack as it dries.  The clay is the element that causes it to stick like glue to the side of the building; the sand and straw keep it from cracking.

We started out with a mix that was one part sand, one part clay or dirt, and one part chopped straw.  The sand and clay had been sifted through a 1/4" screen, and the straw had been chopped in a leaf eater machine (essentially a weed eater in a plastic funnel).  Plaster can be mixed in a mortar mixer or with your hands.

We plastered this on the wall using hands and trowels, working upwards rather than downwards, and feathering the plaster at the sides as it met the walls.

We also tried three other mixtures, with a bit more sand and straw. Test number two for example had one part clay, one part straw and one and a half parts sand.

When the coarse plaster had dried a little, we put a finer finish later over it.  That was when it really got fun.  The finer finish layer just had finely sifted clay and sand.  You can also add color at this point:  we added some yellow color.

I thought this was really beautiful, and I got excited about the decorative possibilities:  I began inscribing the wet plaster with spirals.  At that point Stevan told me that there are whole workshops devoted to plaster artistry at the Canelo workshops in Arizona.  I looked at their website and got very excited. Maybe I will make an earth structure darkroom at my farm just so I can decorate the walls with earth plaster.  An adobe vault wouldn't work in Tennessee, but earthen walls of cob or adobe or stucco over straw bale with an adequate roof and foundation should work.

Jesusita Jimenez

Ms. Jimenez came to talk to us toward the end of the first week of the workshop. She grew up in an adobe house, and she had a lot of interesting things to say about her experiences building with adobe.

Ms. Jimenez was the project manager for Simone Swan's house in 1998, so she knew about its construction in intimate detail. The original plaster was earth, sand, and straw. But on top of that was a lime and cement covering. It was painted blue, over the lime and cement. The original lime and cement plaster began to crack eventually, and the cracks leaked. So that original plaster had to be removed, at great expense. That plaster was replaced by a natural plaster of clay, sand, straw and prickly pear juice.

The prickly pear (nopal) pieces are chopped with a machete and left to macerate in water for four to five days. Then the "tea" is scooped out and added to the dry ingredients, along with some manure tea.

Ms. Jimenez said repeatedly that sand and soil have changed since she was a child. It is not as easy to make good adobe as it used to be when she was a child. She said that when she was little, she and her siblings made an adobe play house that lasted for years; but now it's harder to get the adobes to stick together and be hard. She thinks it's because the soil is polluted.

When a lime plaster is added over the first layer of clay, sand, and straw plaster, it has to dry slowly, in order to be durable. One way to do this is to lay wet sheets over it while it dries; or one can sprinkle water on it periodically while it dries.

Ms. Jimenez believes that re-plastering should be done once a year. This was traditionally done when she was a child.

Carlos house

Somebody left a comment asking some questions about the house in Ojinaga that I wrote about a few days ago. I can't figure out how to respond directly to comments in Blogger, so I will respond here.

The house does have a lime plaster, but I'm not sure if it's the same as the plaster on the Kern house. I think it has two vaulted rooms in front. Not sure if it has any flat roofs or not.

I have one picture of the interior, showing the squinch that supports the dome.

Simone Swan explained to us how the squinch works and how it is built. The purpose of the squinch is to enable the builders to put a circle on top of a square: it makes the square building into an octagon. When the walls reach a certain height, a form is used to build a little arch in each corner, over the form. Then when the arch is dry, the wall is built up to the top of the arch, creating a new octagonal wall on which the dome rests.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Oregon cob; Jesusita Jimenez

On Friday we had an Oregon cob demonstration. Oregon cob is another form of earth architecture, developed in the Pacific Northwest, but based on ancient building techniques that were used in Devon and Cornwall in England for centuries, and also in the southwest of Ireland. In cob construction, you don't make bricks and then stack them, as in adobe construction; it's a "monolith," in the sense that the wall is like one big adobe brick that has been formed gradually. You start forming a "course" of cob on top of a stone foundation and you work all the way around the foundation; then when that dries, you trim and shape it a bit and start the second course.

The first thing to do is mix the clay and sand, just as in adobe brick making. The clay and sand are shoveled onto a tarp, and then mixed together by rolling the tarp. (Both were sifted first through a 1/4" screen.) The clay makes the mixture stick together, and the sand gives it compressive strength and prevents cracking.

Then you add water and mix with your feet.

Straw is added to give tensile strength to the mix. (Sometimes manure is used also because it too has fibers in it. The fibers in manure have been chopped up a bit more, obviously, by the animal's teeth and digestive system.)

Finally the cob is shaped into a loaf-like shape on top of the foundation. The cobber uses his thumbs to push down into the cob. This causes the cob mass to cohere, and it also creates a surface for the next layer of cob to stick to. It's a bit like a wet mushy lego.

It's interesting that walls can be formed without bricks or even forms .

Cob walls are often very thick, as much as 24" thick. The first course is often wider than subsequent courses; the walls can taper as they go up, but usually they are never less than one foot thick. A rule of thumb is that for every one unit wide the wall is, it can't go over ten units high, but in practice, according to our teacher Stevan, this rule is sometimes violated to no ill effect.

A thin coat of lime and clay is often used as a plaster on the outside and inside of a cob wall.

Cob houses usually have framed roofs, but it's possible to make an arch by corbelling the cob inward gradually. I'm not sure if cob vaults are possible, though.

Simone watched the cob demonstrations in a beautiful North African style robe that she sewed herself from fabric she bought in Ojinaga. (More about that later on my other blog, All Fibers, All the Time.)

Later that day we met with master adobe craftswoman Jesusita Jimenez. Jesusita was the project manager for Simone's house and several other adobe houses in the region. She is retired now from adobe building, but her influence is still felt in current adobe construction. Her craftsmanship, precision, and speed in adobe masonry are legendary. She is shown here with El Maestro, Sevan de la Rosa, our teacher during the adobe workshop. I'll write more about what Jesusita had to say in my next post.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


It's not all hard labor at the Adobe Alliance workshop. The other day we took a day off and went to Chinati Hot Springs near Ruidosa, TX.

Chinati Hot Springs is a remote little low-key resort on the border between Texas and Mexico. Vaux le voyage!

The next day we achieved a milestone: the first keystone at the top of the arch. Efren, a master mason, quickly cut a small adobe with a trowel to make it fit the space perfectly.

We made a field trip to Mexico and looked at another adobe house with vaults and domes. It is smaller, and it is not finished yet: the doors and windows have not been added yet.

This house was not built by the Adobe Alliance.

The owner is from Lebanon, thus the Middle Eastern style of the building.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Third day of vault building

On the third day at the site, we made some significant progress on the vault. Two more workers arrived: a mother/daughter team who had worked as roofers, Judy and Carly.

Our crew is predominantly women, but our teachers are two young men, Stevan and Sandro. Sandro collects vintage Volkswagons:
The blue Volkswagon truck brought the adobes from Ojinaga to the site.

We talked a lot about the fact that this workshop is made up almost entirely of women: a young architect from Boston, Eugenia; a landscape architecture student from Oregon, Lee Ann; a developer from California, Deborah; another builder from Greece, Gina; a homesteader from Georgia, Kay; a would-be adobe home-owner, Leslie; and me, writer, photographer, and farmer. There is also a man here, Brian, who is making a documentary about Hassan Fathy, and a film-maker couple, Claudine and Tom. Carly and Judy were here for two days. Here is Kay's hand in a picture that shows clearly how the adobes are laid on top of the wall at an angle to form the vault. The bottom adobe has been cut in half and trimmed at an angle to fit the bottom of the wall, so that the next adobe will overlap the previous join.

This is the first Adobe Alliance workshop that has been almost all women, and there's no one answer as to why this is so, but perhaps this sign on the back of Sandro's car might offer a clue:

Adobe is earth-friendly, affordable, and hands-on. Women with little construction experience can build houses for themselves with it. It probably helps also that Simone Swan and Jesusita Jimenez have been at the forefront of adobe education now for ten years.

Two years ago when Tom and I visited Simone at her house, she was getting ready for an adobe workshop. I helped Jesusita and a friend build the most scenic privy in the world. The solar pump for the well can't pump fast enough for many flushes a day inside the house. But who cares when there's a view like this from the privy:

Making adobes

On the second day of the workshop, after we had outlined the curve of the vault onto the end walls and put up the guide strings, we went to Ojinaga, Mexico, to meet with Don Santos, who has an adobe brick yard there. Don Santos has been making adobe bricks for over thirty years. He doesn't use any machines; just hand labor. He makes adobes in two sizes: 18"x 12"x 3" adobes, which are used for the walls; and 10" x 7" x 2" adobes, which are used for the vault. We were picking up a load of the smaller bricks to take back to Texas. But first we needed to trim and clean them a bit. We did this with trowels and hoes. The objective was to brush off any dry loose dirt adhering to the adobes, and also to trim them a little, removing any bits of dried adobe that were protruding from the edges.

Don Santos and his crew also showed us how to make the mixture of clay, manure, and straw that is used to make adobes. There were large piles of dry clay and manure in the yard, which are mixed together before water is added to make a slurry. This mixture is "kneaded" with a hoe until it starts to cohere.

Then finally the straw is added. The mixture is wheel-barrowed to another part of the yard, where it is scooped into a mold that makes four adobes at a time.

The adobe maker uses his finger to score each adobe from corner to corner, and then he lifts the mold off carefully. This indentation on the back of each adobe helps it to adhere to the mortar.

The adobes have to dry for a few days. During that time they are turned, so that all sides get dry. There were some dry ones there that we loaded onto a truck to take back to Texas. You can see that any kind of fiber, including corn husks, can be used to create tensile strength in the adobes.

Back in Texas, we started laying up the first course of the vault, following the catenary curve we had traced on the end walls. The catenary curve is good because it transfers the outward forces of the vault down to the ground effectively, as you can see in this drawing that our teacher made.

The first course of adobes leans slightly toward the end wall, at about a seventy degree angle. It follows the outline that we had traced of the catenary curve on the inside, and the strings are about the width of an adobe block away from that curve, to guide the outside of the vault wall.

To make the adobes stick to the end wall and to each other, we used a mortar made of sand and clay and water. This mortar was mixed in a regular cement mixer, and the proportion of sand and clay was approximately equal. We put some water in the mixer first, and then while it was turning, we added ten shovelfuls of clay. When that slurry seemed thoroughly mixed, we dumped it into a wheelbarrow and then added ten shovelfuls of coarse river sand.

This simple mortar is amazingly strong. You slap it onto the top of the wall and onto the end wall, and then slap an adobe into the wet mortar. In a few minutes, it's difficult to pull that adobe off! The hydrophilic properties of the adobe bricks cause them to stick tightly to the mortar.

In the next post I'll show the further progress of the vault as it rose from the top of the adobe walls.