Not-Orange Fall & Halloween Decorations

I was at Target the other day browsing the Halloween aisles while waiting for a prescription to be filled. I was just lamenting the fact that our house is so un-festive when I spotted the cutest wicker pumpkins in three different sizes. The shopping basket I was holding was no match for the primo Halloween/fall decorations, so I sped-walk to the front of the store and grabbed a cart as fast as I could.

I painstakingly picked out the best of each size, pleased with the find that would go so well with our wicker basket-filled living room. They're just the not-orange infusion of fall that we needed.
We have guests spending Halloween night with us, so we couldn't let the house go undecorated. This little fall addition, plus a big bowl of candy will make the day. Maybe this year we'll actually have some trick-or-treaters too.
What have you pulled out of storage or bought new this year for fall decor?

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Pretzel Rolls

I had a fierce craving for bread last week and it was as if google reader was reading my mind. Google can serve up behavior based ads that are eerily targeted, but how would it know that a blog post about pretzel rolls would make me drool until I finally caved and made them for dinner? The blogesphere knew I needed a pretzel roll. Eerie.

These are incredibly easy to make. They took no more than ten minutes of actual hands-on time and a couple of unattended hours for rising. If you have a bread machine then you could throw the dough ingredients in on the "dough" setting and pick up at the shaping step.

These rolls go very well with all those soups we've been posting lately. Not to sound like a broken record, but these are a perfect cool weather treat.

Pretzel Rolls
makes 18

1 1/2 c. warm water (110 degrees F)
1 T. active dry yeast (not rapid rise)
2 t. sugar
4 1/2 c. flour
2 t. kosher salt
4 T. butter, melted
1/4 c. baking soda
1 egg, lightly beaten
pretzel salt or kosher salt

1. Combine yeast, sugar and warm water in the bowl of a stand mixer and let rest for approximately five minutes until foamy.
2. Add flour, salt, and melted butter, mix with the dough hook until well combined and elastic.
3. Remove bowl, cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, approximately one hour. I turned the oven on to warm it up, turned it off and put the bowl in the oven. If you do this make sure the oven isn't too hot, you may want to crack it a bit until it's just a bit warmer than room temperature.
4. Punch down the dough and turn it onto a floured surface
5. Line two cookie sheets with a silpat or parchment paper
6. Cut the dough into 18 pieces of approximately 2oz. each. I weighed each with our handy OXO digital scale. You could, in theory make any size roll you'd like. These are dinner rolls, but as long as the shape and size you make will fit in your boiling pot, you should be fine.
7. To shape, make a nice smooth ball and pull the sides to the center and pinch to seal. You're essentially creating a smooth skin around the dough and adding just a touch of air to the center.
8. Place each ball pinched side down on the prepared pans with an inch or two between each roll.
9. Cover the rounds with a towel and let rise again until doubled, approximately 30 minutes.
10. Preheat oven to 425 degrees, with racks in the middle and lower positions.
11. Bring 2 quarts of water to boil in a large saucepan. Carefully add the baking soda very slowly to avoid making a mess, and lower heat to a simmer.
12. Working with a few rolls at at time, carefully boil for 30 seconds on each of the pinched and smooth sides. Remove with a slotted spoon and return, seam side down, to the prepared pans.
13. Glaze each roll completely with the egg using a pastry brush, or your fingers. Sprinkle each roll with either pretzel salt or kosher salt.
14. With a sharp knife cut a slash or an "X" in the top of each roll.
15. Bake at 425 degrees for 15-20 minutes until golden brown.

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Concealing Drainage from the Downspouts

Before we covered our lawn with inches of leaf compost, S decided to cross another dig-up-the-yard project off the to-do list. He buried our downspout drains, which were big black tubes snaking across our yard and away from the house. It was a really easy project and makes a big difference both in looks and with potential pooling water in the yard, which in some homes could lead to issues with too much water near the foundation. The only reason we delayed the project until now is that the rolls of black drain pipe didn't fit into our cars, an issue we solved when we bought a new SUV.

We started by measuring the distance from the two downspouts at the back of our house to the slope in our yard that leads to the curb. We bought enough flexible drain piping to divert water from each downspout to a "Y" in the piping and then out to the curb in a single pipe. S laid the piping on the lawn and then dug down about a foot.
We secured the drain pipe to the downspout that had already been mangled by a previous owner. Home Depot sells a connection piece so you don't have to bend the downspout. But since ours was already bent to bits, we just worked with what we have.

S back-filled the trench over the drain pipe until the point where the two pipes formed a "Y" and then attached all the pipe with a special coupler.
We filled in the trench down to the side of the hill, making sure to leave enough pipe exposed so it doesn't get overgrown with grass.
Back at the downspouts, we took some rocks we dug out of the yard when leveling for the shed and piled them around the downspout-drain pipe junction, just to conceal the area a little bit. It was a good excuse to use some of the rock pile just hanging out by the air conditioner unit.
All-in-all it was a very fast and easy project and we're very glad we decided to cross it off our to-do list before redoing our entire lawn.

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Fresh Mushroom Soup

There's something about cool weather that makes soup feel like the only logical dinner option. Maybe it's the cool weather, maybe it's that the days are getting shorter so an after-work run means getting home when it's dark when it feels much too late to start cooking. Lucky for us we have a big freezer that we stock full of our favorite soups, cooked in giant batches.

This week I tried a fresh mushroom soup that I had flagged in a miniature book of soup recipes earlier this year. It has just the right amount of mushroom flavor, a little hint of saltiness, which is what I crave in my mushroom soup. It's a broth based soup so it's much lighter than some cream based mushroom soup recipes.

Fresh Mushroom Soup
serves 4

2 T. butter
1.5 lbs fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 onion, finely chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
1/4 c. flour
3 T. white cooking wine
6 c. chicken or vegetable broth
2/3 c. milk
2 T. fresh parsley (or 2t. dried)
lemon juice
salt & pepper

1. Melt half of the butter in a stock pot. Add mushrooms and cook until they are golden brown, stirring frequently. About 8 minutes.

2. Remove mushrooms and melt remaining butter in the stock pot. Add onions and shallots and cook until just soft. Add flour and cook, stirring frequently, for 2 minutes. Add wine and broth and stir well.

3. Set aside a quarter of the mushrooms and add the remainder to the pot. Reduce heat, cover, and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

4. Cool the soup slightly and transfer in batches to a blender to puree. It may help to strain off the onions and mushrooms with just enough broth to blend separately.

5. Return all soup to the stock pot, add reserved mushrooms, parsley and milk and cook until warm through. Taste and season with salt, pepper, and a few drops of lemon juice, if desired.

Serve warm with a dollop or sour cream, if desired.

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Swapping out Grasses for Arborvitae

The day we blogged about the grasses that we planted at the top of our driveway S and I happened to park next to a parking lot forest of arborvitae at the Home Depot. We weren't completely sure that we wanted to transplant the grasses so soon after planting them, but the arborvitae were so green and lush and tall and just calling out to us. Plus, they weren't nearly as expensive as we thought they would be...so we took three home.

I know, I know, it's kind of a waste of time to have planted those tall grasses only to immediately transplant them again. It's like that time when S dug and leveled a spot for the shed, and then leveled another area when I changed my mind. At least this change of plans didn't involve nearly as much digging.
Plus, we had planned on transplanting more tall grasses for other areas of the yard, so we did put the grasses to good use. The new arborvitae give us a little more privacy in our new yard and blocking the view to the street means that once all our new grass grows in, Feeney won't be able to see other dogs walking by and feel compelled to run up to them in greeting (or growling).
I'm pleased with the way they look and once the new grass comes in the whole yard should look much better. From what we've read online arborvitae do require a lot of water during their first year, which is fine right now since the new grass is getting a daily watering. We'll just have to figure out a soaker hose arrangement next summer, if we have the kind of heat we had this year. They're supposed to be fairly fast growing; we're hoping that means they grow to touch soon, at least before we have to move again. Fingers crossed that we have a nice lawn and nice trees after all this fall's work.

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Whole Wheat Doughnut Muffins

I was an overachiever when it came to middle school home-ec. In the sixth grade my teacher let me order stuffed toy kits with the eighth graders to sew at home. When the kits arrived I feigned sick so I could stay home to sew. When our in-class cooking assignment was "muffins" I turned my nose at the room full of blueberry muffin bakers and chose a "doughnut" muffin instead. They were delicious. My group got an A.

When I saw a similar doughnut muffin recipe floating around the blogesphere last week I flagged it as something I needed to a. make a little healthier and b. bake for S to bring to work for breakfast. While I'm sure the white flour, butter soaked, calorie bombs of my home-ec years are still delicious, these are equally so, with a tad less guilt.

Whole Wheat Doughnut Muffins
makes 12

for the muffin
3/4 c. sugar
1 egg
1/3 c. canola oil
3/4 c. milk
1 3/4 c. whole wheat flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. nutmeg
1/2 g. cinnamon

for the topping
1/3 c. sugar
1 T. cinnamon

1. Whisk together dry ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
2. Combine sugar, egg, oil and milk in second mixing bowl, mix well.
3. Add the dry ingredients to the liquid mixture mixing until just combined. Do NOT over mix or you'll have tough little bombs with no pretty cracks on top.
4. Lightly spray the cups of a standard 12 muffin tin with non-stick spray.
5. Divide batter equally among the 12 cups of the prepared tin.
6. Bake at 350 degrees for 15-18 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center a muffin comes out fairly clean with just a few crumbs.
7. While the muffins are baking whisk together topping sugar and cinnamon in a large bowl.
8. When the muffins are still hot from the oven, turn them out into the sugar mixture and gently toss, pressing the sugar and cinnamon mixture into each muffin.

Cool on a wire rack, or serve warm.

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Our Dinner/Door Bell

When we were in Maine earlier this year to pack up all our wedding gifts to ship to the beehive, we came across a business card for a handmade gifts shop in Portland, Maine. The gift shop happens to be across from our favorite bar, the bar where we met and is also our dog's namesake. So when we stopped by Bull Feeney's for lunch one afternoon, we decided to pop in the gift shop for a quick look around.

Nestled in the back of the store was the most amazing heart shaped, forged dinner bell. I immediately thought "door bell" when I saw the hanging display. How fortuitous that we had somehow broken our doorbell earlier during one of the big electrical re-wiring episodes. We purchased the bell and then somehow forgot about it, wrapped in its white tissue paper, as it got mixed up in the massive migration of stuff part two.

I discovered its neatly wrapped packaging when searching the basement shelves for an insulated coffee mug last week. It was such an exciting little surprise to find this when I unwrapped the tissue paper:
S happened to be working on another project on the front porch when I ran upstairs to show him what I found, proclaiming that we must hang it immediately. Thankfully, S likes an easy project with immediate satisfactory results, so he held the dinner/door bell in countless locations while I stood back and waited for it to hit the perfect spot.

We decided to hang it to the left of the front door to balance out the black metal mailbox to the right. Eventually I want to buy a house number plaque for above the mail box, which will mean even more going on to the right.
We haven't exactly had anyone ring our new dinner/door bell yet, but we love the way it looks, which really is all that matters after all.

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Honey Lemon Cake with Honey Icing

While I was home my mom and I did a little shopping for new entry rugs/mats for our little beehive. After much research I'm convinced that L.L.Bean's Waterhog mats are going to be the answer for not tracking mud and dirt into our mudroom-less hive. We hit the Bean's outlet in search of a discounted mat or two. Our quest came up empty, but I did find a beehive cake pan, which of course was an immediate must-buy.

The back of the pan's wrapping listed detailed instructions for a honey citrus cake with honey icing and little royal icing bees. The whole thing is absolutely adorable, but most importantly, the cake was delicious. I will definitely be making this again, beehive shaped or not.
Honey Lemon Cake with Honey Icing

for the cake
1 c. unsalted butter
1 1/4 c. sugar
1/3 c. honey
4 large eggs
1/2 t. vanilla
2 T. lemon juice
zest of one lemon
2 3/4 c. flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
3/4 c. milk

1. Sift together dry ingredients and set aside.
2. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy and mixture pulls from the sides, scraping often. Add honey and beat well.
3. Add eggs, one at a time beating well after each addition. Add vanilla.
4. Gradually add flour mixture, alternating with milk, mixing until blended. Add lemon juice and zest, stirring well to incorporate.
5. Pour into a bundt pan, bake at 300 degrees for 50-60 minutes, until a toothpick comes out mostly clean with a few crumbs.
6. Allow to cool in the pan for 15 minutes before turning onto a wire rack. Cool completely before icing.

for the icing
1 1/2 c. confectioner's sugar
2 T. honey
up to 3 T. milk

1. Combine sugar and honey in a mixing bowl, blending well and adding milk until the mixture is the consistency of thick molasses. You want a consistency that will run down the sides of the cake very slowly.
2. Frost cake by drizzling the icing evenly across the top, allowing the icing to drip down the sides of the cake.

serve with tea with honey

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Trying for a New Lawn with Lots and Lots of Compost

S aerated the entire yard before 9am, which was great since at 10 the county delivered five cubic yards of leaf mulch to the end of our driveway.
I don't think either of us truly knew how much five yards really was, all we knew is that five yards was only ten dollars more than two and a half yards. Twice as much for only ten dollars more? Sold.

We planned to rake up as much of the weedy yard as possible, over-seed the aerated holes, cover the entire yard with a layer of mulch thick enough to choke out light to the weeds, and seed again. Basically it's a process laid out by Paul Tukey of Safelawns.org with a few dozen extra pounds of seed thrown in.

Have you spread five yards of mulch before? With a shovel, a wheel barrow and a rake? It's no joke; our backs were killing us by 7pm when we finally started to put our tools away. We followed our plan to a T, except for a few more 20 pound bags of seed than we were needed according to the tall fescue mix bag.
We had so much mulch that we were able to mulch around all our plantings too, which we encased in black edging last week, so we knew where to stop spreading seed. We got a little nervous that the seed we spread wouldn't actually germinate through the thick layer of mulch so we spread a bunch more as I was raking to mix it into the mulch. And then we spread more on top at the end of the day, just as we were cleaning up, juuuuust in case. In all we used about 60 pounds of seed. Way more than our little yard needed.

Our entire yard smelled like a manure pile, something we weren't expecting from leaf mulch for some reason even though it makes sense, and something we were a tad embarrassed to subject our neighborhood to. But we don't plan to make turning our yard into a black stink pot a frequent occurrence, so we're plugging our noses and dealing with it.
Our knuckles are turning white from crossing our fingers so hard as we hope that this project actually results in a nice green lawn and not the best-fed weeds in the neighborhood.
Have you ever tried overseeding and spreading compost to improve a lawn? We are really hoping this works!

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Roasted Squash Soup & Grown-Up Grilled Cheese

I went home to Maine for work last week and while I was there my mom hosted her monthly book club group for dinner. She chose to host the gaggle of ladies while I was home so I could help cook. She knows I love to host a dinner party.

The hosting lady usually tries to cook a meal that relates to the book in some way, however tenuous the relation may be. This month's book group read "Father of the Rain," which was in part written from the view point of a child. So when my mom flipped to the "Grilled Cheese with Quattro Formaggi" in her Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, she knew that the child-like grilled cheese with a grown-up twist was just the thing to serve the the ladies. Plus, it would pair well with the roasted squash soup she planned to cook with a variety of squashes she grew in her garden this summer. Paired with a salad of mixed greens with toasted pecans, craisins and gorgonzola, this was a fabulous book club dinner.

Anyone can throw together a salad with the ingredients I listed above (it pairs nicely with a sweeter dressing) so I'll share the soup and sandwich recipes here. The soup is very low in calories so it balances out the four cheese sandwich, which is decadent to say the very least. The two together are the perfect cool weather meal, and make an especially easy menu when you're serving a gaggle of good friends.

Note that the squash soup recipe calls for four squashes of about two pounds each, but it's totally unnecessary to weigh them at the store since the whole recipe is adjusted to taste at the end.

Roasted Squash Soup
serves 10-12

2 acorn squash (about 2lbs each)
2 butternut squash (about 2lbs each)
8 t. brown sugar, packed
3 carrots, peeled and halved
1 large onion, sliced thinly
10 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 t. mace
1 t. ground ginger
1/2 t. cayenne pepper
Salt to taste

1. Cut the squashes in half lengthwise and scoop out and discard the seeds.
2. Arrange squashes in a roasting pan, cut side up. Place 1 teaspoon of brown sugar in the center cavity of each squash. Place onions and carrots in the pan around the squash. Pour 2 cups of the chicken broth in the pan and then cover tightly with foil (you want the stock to steam the squash).
3. Bake at 350 degrees for two hours, until squash are soft. Remove from oven and cool.
4. Scoop out the squash into a stock pot. Transfer onions, carrots and any remaining stock from the pot.
5. Add remaining chicken stock and spices. Bring to a boiling, stirring well. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered for ten minutes.
6. Puree the soup with an immersion blender, or in batches in a regular blender, returning to the pot after blending.
7. Adjust seasoning to taste. I prefer a spicier soup so I often add at least double the spices, however, remember you can always add more spice, but you can't take it away, so add spice a little at a time, tasting as you go. Thin out the soup with more stock, if necessary

Serve hot in a bowl with a dollop of light sour cream and a snip of chives in the center.
adapted from "The New Basics Cookbook," Rosso & Lukins

The sandwich recipe makes one sandwich, which I suggest serves two when served with the soup above. Adjust ingredients accordingly for your crowd.

Grilled Cheese with Four Cheeses
makes one

1 T. butter
2 thick slices of firm white bread (try your local bakery for a rustic white)
1/2 t. garlic powder
1 oz. fontina slice
1 oz. provolone slice
1 oz. mozzarella slice
1/2 oz. crumbled Gorgonzola

1. Melt the butter, mixing in garlic powder.
2. Arrange cheeses on bread and using a pasty brush spread each side of sandwich with garlic butter.
3. Grill over medium-low heat in a grill pan until golden on each side, making sure not to cook for too long since doing so will cause the cheese to melt too much and too much cheese to ooze out of the sandwich.

Serve warm
adapted from "The Sliver Palate Good Times Cookbook," Rosso & Lukins

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New Ride and New Lawn. At Least One is a Sure Bet.

We returned home from a week-long conference to find our newly planted lawn fully germinated and apparently thriving where our extra long driveway once stood. The little green spikes of lawn grow in stark contrast with the several thousand square feet of weeds covering the rest of our yard. And those green spikes were, consequently, just the the push we needed to dive head-first into improving, or re-doing, our entire lawn.

S purchased a lawn care book while I was at my conference and while he was supposed to be studying for a plane upgrade, somehow managed to read the entire lawn book. Studying usually means a marathon session of Angry Birds, so at least this was a productive distraction. Apparently the book told us to aerate our lawn. And apparently S's dad read the book too.

S's dad was going to aerate for us one day while S was at work, but discovered that the aerator was too large for his car. Enter our new 'whip (I don't know where I get that from, some gangsta reference from back in the day I'm sure.) I suppose now is as good a time as any to reveal that we're proud owners of a new Toyota 4Runner. We looked at lots of vehicles and this one made the most sense for us. We needed something that I could pack up and go on a long trip to Maine with Feeney, something reliable for around town, and something that could handle a Home Depot run any day, any project, any time. My poor Saab was just costing too much and sadly, city mechanics didn't make it economical to keep anymore. It was a painful decision for me to sell her since she was in our family for 13 years. I would have kept the car if we still lived in Maine and had Saab Steve, the most amazing Saab mechanic ever, to care for it. But city prices for an old car just don't add up (think $2 per mile for repairs on average this year).
Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" plays in my head when I look at this photo. It's a lovely new ride and will hopefully remain so for the next 10-15 years. I get attached. Very attached.

So with our (my) new vehicle in our fleet, S was able to rent the aerator and bring it home without issue. The only issue was that S parents were away on vacation so instead of S's dad aerating our lawn for us, S aerated theirs for them. Details. S rented the machine at 7:30, took it first to his parents' house and was at our house by 8:30.
It's a very cool machine. Those spikes on the back take plugs out of the lawn and leave what look like goose poos all over the place. All those little holes loosen the soil and when the goose poo plugs incorporate back into the ground the soil is looser and therefore aerated. That's my take on how it works, feel free to correct me.
S aerated an area where in a fit of frustration, we dug up the lawn consisting of 100% weeds. We quickly realized that we had no where to dispose of the weed/dirt mixture and gave up digging and moved on to aerating.
The whole machine is weighted down by a water-filled drum on the front, which also squished down some of the goose poos it created on each of the previous passes. You're supposed to "overseed" after aerating since the seed will have raw soil to cling to, which a quick check of the book and a few google searches confirmed. So we loaded a big bag of tall fescue seed into our two spreaders and spread a generous amount of seed.
And then after calling my mom to confirm we weren't going to cause any harm, we went back over the yard and spread another generous layer of seed (throwing caution or likely cash to the wind and tossing by the fistful instead of by Scott's pre-measured settings) for good measure.

Just as we finished up with the rental equipment we saw a lawn care company stop next door and pull out an equally large aerator. We were happy to see that we weren't the only ones aerating and overseeding this fall. Of course our neighbors have a lawn to envy, which only means that we've got drastic steps to come. What steps do you suggest we take to turn our 95% weed lawn into a lush green, yet hardy, chemical-free, paradise?

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Fall Breakfast: Baked Pancake

Last night when I couldn't fall asleep and it was much too late to turn the light on to read a book, I was browsing the New York Times Dining & Wine section on my phone. Two things struck me: one, that I must add this book to my Christmas list and two, that we must have baked pancakes for breakfast today. Ironically, S suggested last night that we have pancakes today, I just don't think he was expecting this kind of fancy this morning.

This recipe is based off of the New York Times David Eyres Pancake, I took the liberty to change a few things and lighten it up a bit. Despite the fact that this involves turning on the oven, it really is a simple breakfast and far less time consuming than traditional pancakes. This serves two generously or four if you serve it up with an accoutrement like fruit salad or a giant pitcher of mimosas.

Baked Breakfast Pancake
two generous servings

2 eggs
1/2 c. milk
1/2 c. flour
pinch of nutmeg
pinch of cinnamon
2 T. butter
2 T. confectioner's sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees

2. Beat eggs and milk. Add flour and spices until incorporated, but not perfectly smooth; there will be lumps
*see mix-in ideas below
3. Melt butter in a 12 inch skillet with an oven-proof handle until the butter is very hot, but not yet browned
4. Pour batter into skillet and bake in the hot oven until lightly browned, approximately 15 minutes
5. Quickly sprinkle with confectioner's sugar and return to the oven for 2 minutes

Serve immediately with jam or pure maple syrup.

We added a chopped apple to our baked pancake; you could try other hard-fruit mix-ins, pieces of chocolate, etc. The original recipe suggests squeezing the juice of one lemon on top of the pancake before removing from the pan and serving with marmalade or pear butter.

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Chocolate Chip & Walnut Blondies

I've never made or eaten a blondie before. I just always thought that if it was square and dessert then it had to be a chocolate brownie. Heck, I thought that if it were dessert then no matter what shape or form it had to be chocolate. But on a whim last week I made blondies. And now I'm addicted. These are chewy and soft and the centers are juuuuust baked so even a day later they still taste like they're straight from the oven. And dare I say that I think they might be the perfect base for a brownie blondie sundae?
Chocolate Chip & Walnut Blondies
yields 36 blondies

3/4 c. butter (1 1/2 sticks)
1 3/4 c. light brown sugar
3 eggs
1 t. vanilla
1/2 t. salt
2 1/2 t. baking powder
2 1/4 c. flour
2 c. chocolate chips
1 c. chopped walnuts (optional)

1. In a stand mixer (or by hand) cream butter and sugar until the mixture is smooth and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
2. Beat in eggs, one at a time until mixture is fluffy, scraping bowl often. Add vanilla.
3. Incorporate dry ingredients until just mixed. Add chocolate and walnuts until incorporated.
4. Grease a 15x10 jelly roll pan and spread the dough evenly
5. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 - 25 minutes until just golden, don't over bake.

cool completely and cut into small squares

You could use any kind of mix-in for this recipe: M&M's, chopped leftover Halloween candy, the possibilities are endless.

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Finishing up the Old Driveway

After we jackhammered out the top of our driveway the area went from looking like this, with the driveway under half of the new shed:

To this, with a lawn in front of the shed (a lawn that surprisingly grew in one week while I was away for work):
We both agree that the lawn is a huge improvement, but we still wanted more separation at the end of the driveway, both for a visual "end" to the driveway and to show Feeney his yard boundaries. So while I was working all week at a conference, S went over to his parents' weekend house and separated some of their dozens of tall grasses. We brought home about a dozen plants, so after planting a bunch at the top of the driveway (below), we decided to use them to soften some of the edges in the yard. Above, you can see the one clump that we planted at the edge of the shed, which ends up somewhat blocking the view of our grill.

The same grasses looking down the driveway (I really hope this is more to look at when the grass comes in and the tall grasses fill in):
 And finally, a grouping of three grasses where our faux retaining wall ends in the side yard:
We would have preferred to grow hedges along the top of the driveway, but settled on the (free) grasses since we really want something a little bit taller immediately, and want to make sure we know exactly what we want before spending any money. We might end up with a faster-growing hedge in the Spring, but we're going to see how the grasses grow on us first. We will definitely plant something along the base of the shed to hide its footings. Perhaps a fragrant boxwood, or an azalea since we're not too concerned with having a fast-growing hedge there, only something to cover the few inches of open space.

So there you have it, more yard work. Wait 'til you see what we did the next day....

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Black Bean, Cilantro & Lime Mexican Salad

We have a love for the flavors of Mexican food at the Beehive. Not taquitos and frozen burritos, but cilantro, black beans, lime juice, and cumin. So the other day when we only had one leftover grilled chicken breast, a bunch of cilantro, and a couple of peppers in the fridge, I knew dinner would be a Mexican-inspired salad.

This is the kitchen sink of salads so I'm sure substitutions with what you have in your pantry would work.

Black Bean, Cilantro, Lime Salad
4 servings

For the salad:
1 can black beans, drained & rinsed
1 can garbanzo beans, drained & rinsed
1 can corn, drained & rinse
1 tomato, chopped
1 red pepper, diced
1 green pepper, diced
1/2 large sweet onion, diced (I used a vidalia onion)
1 cooked chicken breast, diced
1 bunch cilantro, washed & chopped

For the dressing:
1/4 c. lime juice
1T olive oil
1/2 t. green tabasco
1 t. chili powder
1 t. cumin
1 t. onion powder
zest of 2 limes

1. Combine the salad ingredients in a large bowl.

2. Whisk together dressing ingredients in a small bowl.

3. Toss salad ingredients with dressing ingredients until coated. Cover and refrigerate for 20 - 60 minutes.

4. Serve on a bed of shredded romaine lettuce. Newman's Own Light Lime Vinaigrette is a nice addition to the salad, if you need more dressing.

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Removing a Railing from our Front Walk

We've been tackling our yard projects with a vengeance this fall. S hasn't had many flights so we've had plenty of time at home to attack the to-do list. Last weekend while we were weeding I asked S to remove one of our two front railings. I'd love to remove both, but our walk gets icy in the winter so we need at least one until we have a replacement plan in place.

S protested a little bit, but I assured him it really couldn't be that hard. And a few well placed, "they're SO ugly!" exclamations had him convinced in no time. We started by digging through the new shed to find a shovel. Seriously, it's not organized yet. Talk about irksome.

We decided to keep the railing on the right, since we're both right handed along with the majority of the US population. To remove the left hand railing, S started by digging around the concrete footings.
Then with just a few good shoves we had the whole railing loose and ready to be pulled out of the ground. Less than 10 minute improvement!
We moved it to the side yard for now since we're pretty sure the trash guys won't take it (it's really heavy). I think I'll list it on Craig's List just to see if we can find someone to take it off our hands. I think it might look ok with the scroll work cut off and maybe a coat of black paint. Which, by the way, is the latest addition to the to-do list for the remaining railing.

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Pistachio Cupcakes with Chocolate Frosting (from Scratch)

Little Lucie was born on September 30, 2010, but before her arrival my girlfriend, Carrie, and I threw Lucie's mom, Suzanne, a baby shower at my parents' house in Maine. Suzanne requested a pistachio cake with chocolate frosting, however, after much sleuthing I couldn't find a single crave-worthy, from-scratch pistachio cake recipe. I emailed Annie at Annie's Eats and she did a test-run of a Martha Stewart recipe. But, when she described the cake as "dense" I knew it wasn't going to fly for my fluffy cake loving mom-to-be. So I set out to create my own all-natural (as in "from scratch") pistachio cake recipe to satisfy a pregnant woman's cravings.
The base for the cake is my favorite vanilla, which I developed for our wedding, and redeveloped after the cupcake baking fiasco. To it I added ground pistachios, bit by bit until the batter tasted heavenly. And then I added chopped pistachios for that little extra je ne sais quois. The frosting is a back-of-the-box chocolate frosting using Baker's unsweetened squares. The results are divine.
All-Natural Pistachio Cupcakes with Chocolate Frosting
makes 24 cupcakes

1 c. unsalted butter at room temperature (2 sticks)
2 c. sugar
4 eggs
2 cups unsalted, shelled pistachios, measured then ground into a fine powder
2 1/2 c. flour
1 T. baking powder
1 t. salt
1 t. vanilla
1 c. milk
1/2 c. unsalted shelled pistachios, chopped

1. In an electric stand mixer with the paddle attachment beat the butter and sugar for several minutes until the mixture comes together and pulls away from the sides.

2. Add eggs once at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla. Add ground pistachio powder.
3. Sift together dry ingredients and add in two batches, alternating with milk. Mix well after each addition until smooth. Stir in chopped pistachios. I suppose that at this point you could add a drop or two of green food coloring if a pistachio cake just isn't pistachio without the bright green color of jell-o pudding.

4. Line 24 muffin tins with paper liners and divide batter evenly among the 24 cups.

5. Bake at 350 for 18 - 22 minutes, just until the center of the cupcake bounces back when lightly touched. Cool in pan for a few minutes then remove from the pan and cool on a wire rack completely before frosting.

Chocolate Frosting
I usually double this recipe for a generous heaping of frosting on each cupcake

1/2 c. unsalted butter (1 stick)
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate (4 squares), melted and cooled
16 oz. confectioner's sugar

2 t. vanilla
up to 1/3 c. milk

In an electric stand mixer with the paddle attachment beat the butter until it's soft and fluffy. Add chocolate, sugar and half of the milk and mix until combined. Continue adding milk, slowly, until desired consistency. Beat very well until fluffy. If the frosting is too thick, add 1t. of milk at a time, beating well after each addition.

I like to divide the frosting evenly among the 24 cupcakes before spreading so I can make sure to frost each evenly.
Cupcakes can be baked ahead of time and frozen. To do so, freeze the frosted cupcakes on a cookie sheet until hard, then transfer to a freezer bag. Do not leave them open in the freezer for too long before transferring to an air-tight bag. Defrost the day of your party on a plate, uncovered.

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Spiffing up the Side Entry

While S spread topsoil I tackled another long-time to-do list entry: painting the green metal awning hanging over our kitchen door.  The people who originally owned our house loved green, as you may recall from when we installed our kitchen lights and discovered the green ceiling. Their love for green wasn’t limited to the inside of the house, it was outside too, prominently on the side entry awning and kitchen vent cover.

Hunter green happens to be one of my two least favorite colors, right up there with maroon/burgundy. Give me a kelly green scarf any day, but my eyes say no to hunter green in anything but in a woodsy cabin.
As our to-do list on the sidebar states, I have visions of a black awning and black shutters on the beehive. So during a recent Depot excursion I asked one of the paint ladies which brand she recommended for painting both metal (awning) and plastic (shutters). She handed me a can of rustoleum  with a black semi-gloss finish.

I decided to tackle the awning first, since I think we'll just buy new shutters. I prepped the surface by first scraping any loose paint and then by scrubbing with Simple Green cleaner and a stiff bristled OXO scrub brush.  I rinsed with the garden hose, making sure to remove all the cleaner. Then after a few hours of drying in the sun, I lay down my drop cloth and climbed up on the ladder with my can of black paint and my trusty 2” angle brush (the second I’ve owned since living here because I wore out the first with the first few dozen paint jobs at the hive).

In no time I went from this:
To this:
While I was on the ladder I painted the vent for the kitchen fan. And since I had the black paint out, I gave a fresh coat to the nailed-shut milk delivery door and the ugly railing. The paint is holding up quite nicely and covered the few rusty and bubbly spot well. The whole area looks much better now despite the fact that we still have dozens of wires running to nowhere all over the side of the house. Perhaps I should add cutting those away to the to-do list too. Projects completed = 1, project added = 1.

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Spiced Pecan Pumpkin Bread

I love Fall. I especially love Fall this year after the torturous Summer we had here at the Beehive. *shudder* I cringe thinking of this past summer. And to make the summer worse, there wasn't a single can of pumpkin puree at our grocery store all summer. Not a single can. Even if I had felt like sweating it out in the kitchen, I couldn't have made a single loaf of pumpkin bread or batch of pumpkin penne. So when I saw two huge end racks full of cans of pumpkin at my grocery store this week, I grabbed can after can loading them into my cart until I felt the eyes of shoppers around me starting to stare. We have enough pumpkin to last at least two weeks years. Although I may go back for more tomorrow, just in case.

This delicious bread is full of pumpkin flavor and is so moist that you almost don't need your morning cup of coffee to wash it down. Which is a good thing, since S devours this bread on his way to work, sans coffee cup.
As with most of our eats, this recipe has been modified to be a lower-fat version of the original. If you're feeling like the full-fat version is up your alley then reduce the pumpkin to 16oz. increase the oil to 1 cup and use all-purpose flour instead of whole wheat.

Spiced Pecan Pumpkin Bread
makes 2 loaves

2 c. sugar
3 eggs
24 oz. (one and a half cans) of canned pure pumpkin (not pie mix)
1/4 c. oil
2 c. whole wheat flour
1 c. all purpose flour
1 t. cloves
1 t. cinnamon
1 t. nutmeg
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1 1/2 c. pecans, chopped and divided (toast and cool 1 cup of the pecans before adding to the batter for an even nuttier flavor)
2 T. brown sugar

1. In an electric stand mixer or with an electric hand mixer, beat the sugar and eggs for several minutes until pale and creamy.

2. Add pumpkin and oil and beat until well combined.

3. Add flours, spices, soda, powder and salt and mix until just combined. Gently stir in 1 cup of pecans just until incorporated. Do Not Over Mix!

4. Divide evenly between two greased loaf pans. Sprinkle each loaf with 1 tablespoon of brown sugar and half of the reserved pecans.

Bake at 350 degrees for 60 - 70 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf is no longer wet. A few crumbs on the toothpick are ok; my oven needs 70 minutes to get a few crumbs and a moist loaf. Cool on wire racks (trying not to pick the pecans and brown sugar crust from the top of the entire loaf). Store in an airtight container or slice and freeze for a quick grab-and-go weekday breakfast.

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