Sunday, December 30, 2007

Bath Buns

I made Bath Buns from Jane Grigson's Observer Guide to British Cookery--a recipe I have been wanting to make for more than twenty years. Why did it take me so long? I don't have an answer for that. Maybe because it's a yeast dough and I don't usually make yeast doughs, and because the measurements are by weight, and I only recently bought a kitchen scale, and also because crushing the sugar lumps seemed like a lot of work. Whatever the reason, I found it highly satisfying to finally make them, and to remember my trip to Bath.
I explained my tenuous connection to Jane Grigson in an earlier post. This particular recipe leaped out at me because when I lived in England for about five months in 1983, I made a pilgrimage by myself to Bath, mostly because of my love of Jane Austen. I photographed her home, saw the Roman baths, went to the Pump Room and heard a concert, and ate a Bath Bun. This was in the summer before my junior year of college, when I was staying in Glastonbury for about a month with a theater group. We performed an original miracle play written by one of my college professors, and I was the dancing angel.

I'm the one in the white dress at lower left. While we toured our little play around to churches in the area, I stayed with a family who were friends of my professor's, and who were acting in the play. It was a strange time for me. I loved Somerset, and I loved the other actors and the family I stayed with, but I didn't have any friends my own age. I spent a lot of time by myself when we weren't performing, taking day trips to places like Avebury and Bath and wandering in the countryside around Glastonbury. I wasn't used to traveling alone, but I got better at it.
I can't remember what the Bath Bun I ate in 1983 tasted like or whether what I made resembled it at all, but Jane claims this recipe is the one served in the Pump Room. She says "Cobb's the bakers in Bath, founded by James Cobb in 1866, have been making Bath buns from a recipe adapted from an original version of 1679 for over a hundred years." Here's the recipe, adapted a bit and with my parenthetical asides.

Cobb's Bath Buns

1-1/2 oz fresh yeast (I used 3 packages dried yeast)
1-1/2 oz. granulated sugar (I used 3 Tbsp.)
1/2 pt. water
15 oz. eggs (I used 7)
5 oz. strong white bread flour

30 oz. strong white bread flour
12 oz. softened butter (I used 2 sticks salted, 1 stick unsalted)
3 oz. granulated sugar (1/3 cup)
12 oz. broken up sugar lumps (I used 8 oz. and it was plenty sweet enough; see note below about sugar lumps)
pinch mixed spice (nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves are nice)
pinch salt
few drops lemon juice

Bun wash: Mix together
2 oz. sugar
5 Tbsp. water

more crushed sugar lumps

To make the ferment, mix the yeast and sugar in a large warmed mixing bowl and whisk in the water, which should be warmed to blood heat. Leave in a warm place to froth up--about ten minutes.

Beat in the eggs and flour. Tie in a plastic carrier (cover with plastic wrap) and leave in a warm place to rise for about an hour.
Mix in the dough ingredients, kneading well together. (I tried to knead it on my silicone mat and had to add about 1/2 cup of additional flour to prevent it from sticking. Later I found a blog that addressed this problem in a recipe for Bath Buns by Elizabeth David; see the recommended method for kneading it in the bowl.) Put it back in the carrier and leave for another hour at least, or until the dough has doubled. This can take a good deal longer than an hour with a rich dough like this one, especially in a family kitchen which is not likely to be as warm as a bakery. (Mine took 2-1/2 hours.)
Knock back the dough and shape it into pieces the size of a small Cox's orange pippin. (This cracks me up--it's a small British apple variety. I divided the dough into 24 more or less equal pieces.) Place them on greased baking sheets. Cover again with plastic and leave to prove--about 30 minutes.

Preheat the over to gas 7, or 220 degrees C (425 degrees F). Bake the buns for about 20 minutes, swopping the trays round just after half time. Remove and brush the tops with bun wash, and sprinkle them with the crushed sugar lumps.

About the sugar lumps: I put sugar cubes in a plastic zip lock bag and crushed them with a rolling pin. It was hard to get them an even size. Much of the sugar crumbled into grains, and some lumps stayed as large as peas. My goal was to get them all about the size of small lentils. Maybe other lump sugar would be easier to work with. The idea is to get lumps of sugar into the dough so you occasionally crunch a lump of sugar. I ended up with so few workable lumps I saved them for the topping.
What my family thought:
"Bath buns? What does that mean? Do you eat them in the bath tub?" (My husband) "Mmmmm. Yum." (My sons) "I think you should re-brand them, since no one here knows what 'Bath' is. How about sugar crunch buns?" (My husband.) "Mmmmmm. Yum." (My sons.)
What I thought:
The sugar-lump-crushing difficulties were enough to discourage me from making them again, unless I could find sugar lumps already that size. Also you can see in the photo of Cobb's Bath Buns they have currants but Jane's recipe did not call for them. Cobb's buns are more charming than mine. But my Bath Buns were rich, buttery, and delicious for breakfast warmed, split, and spread with butter.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


My sons have taken over decorating the tree, discussing each ornament and its history as they pull it out from the box.
Sometimes I am so busy getting ready for Christmas and getting everyone else presents I forget to check in to make sure my kids are thinking about giving, too. If they are not giving presents, then they're missing out on the best part of Christmas. I know it's a cliche, but I genuinely feel it's more fun to give presents than to get them. When they stopped believing in Santa Claus, I started talking about the spirit of Santa--the spirit of giving--and how that's what I believe in. My husband sniggered a bit, and my kids rolled their eyes, but I think they got it.

My older son gave me a madeleine pan and a great card.

My younger son gave me a Juncus inflexus 'Afro', also known as a Blue Medusa Rush (you can see why it's called this).
They had a lot of fun making silly cards for each other. I think what's meaningful to them about Christmas is being together with our family as we always are at Stinson Beach for a few days, and then having our own Christmas, just the four of us, at home.
This Christmas we braved the traffic and drove back out to Stinson Beach for Christmas dinner. My husband, his brother, and I cooked dinner. The menu was Oysters with Mignonette, Roast Leg of Lamb with Pomegranate Molasses Glaze, Roasted Potatoes and Onions, Mixed Green Salad with Citrus Dressing, and homemade Apple Galette. We drank Roederer Blanc De Noirs sparking wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Ridge Zinfandel.
My cousin and her husband earned the Cleverest Christmas Card Award this year with their stamp. Guess which one is my cousin holding their daughter.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Birdwatching at Bolinas Lagoon

This weekend we were up at Stinson Beach with family, and I stole away quite a few times to peer at birds on Bolinas Lagoon with my binoculars. In the winter, Bolinas Lagoon is a major winter stopping place for hundreds of shorebirds and ducks, and it hosts lots of other bird species year-round. Over the many years that we've been staying at Stinson Beach during Christmas--I believe it's at least thirty years, although I'm not sure we know the exact year we starting coming--I've gradually become more and more interested in the birds we see. When I was a child, I remember the adults discussing dowitchers and avocets but I was too busy playing on the beach to take a look at them. If I remember any birds from that time, it is the sanderlings--the little plump gray ones that run away from the waves, then turn around and follow them as the waves retreat, back and forth all day until a dog or a person startles them and they rise up all at once in a silvery flock that turns white when they bank and then gray again when swerve the other way.
Suddenly the birds became more interesting to me when my own kids got interested in birds. Their fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Rich, taught them about birds and took them birdwatching. When they began pointing out birds all around us, I began reading bird books so could keep up. Now they're no longer so captivated by birds--although they can effortlessly identify more birds than I could at their age--but I'm hooked.
In the back of our bird book--"Birds of Northern California" by David Fix and Andy Bezener, the one Mr. Rich told us to buy--there's a list of species with little boxes by each one so you can check off the ones you've seen. Avid birders keep a life list of all the bird species they've seen, and are thrilled when they can add one to the list. I'm not so much of a birding fanatic to keep a life list, although I know which ones in the bird book I've never seen. Or, I should say never identified, because there are many common birds that I've never recognized or noticed, but I'm pretty sure they have crossed my vision before.

Ducks are a good example. In the course of my life I've seen many ponds and lakes and estuaries filled with ducks, but it was only a few years ago that I really began to identify them, beyond the Mallard. One winter I saw the American Widgeon on Bolinas Lagoon. Now I see it at Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park, and dozens of them--and a few Eurasian Widgeons, too--every year at Bolinas Lagoon. This weekend I saw the Northern Pintail Duck, another duck I had probably seen before, but this weekend, I really saw it. It swam into my binoculars, looking as if it had been painted, with a chocolate head and a white line edged with black starting on the back of the head and curving around to merge with its long white neck. I also saw Scaups (whether they were Greater or Lesser I have no idea), swimming with their heads underwater along the edge of the muddy shore of the estuary. Two more species to add to my...
Okay, I don't have a life list. But I did make a Winter Solstice Weekend at Stinson Beach and Bolinas Lagoon Bird List of all the species I saw. Here it is:
American Avocet
Canada Goose
American Widgeon
Eurasian Widgeon
Northern Pintail
Common Goldeneye
Great Eagret
Great Blue Heron
Western Grebe
Marbled Godwit
Long-Billed Curlew
Surf Scoter
Belted Kingfisher
Plover--maybe Black-Bellied?

Do I look like one of those Audubon birdwatching geeks?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Cult of the Meyer Lemon

Today I made Meyer lemon ice cream to bring out to the beach house to serve to my mother-in-law, who loves lemon. The recipe is from "Chez Panisse Desserts" by Lindsey Shere, who is largely responsible for bringing the Meyer lemon into California cuisine. Once Meyer lemons only grew in backyards, like my granny's up the street from us in Berkeley. I remember that my mom didn't really like them when we got a bag from my granny because they weren't tart enough. If I scratch them with my fingernail, they have a perfumey smell that reminds me of lemon blossoms. Their juice is sweeter than regular (Eureka) lemons; they may be a hybrid of lemons and mandarins although the origin is unknown. Now Meyer lemons are prized for their special flavor and perfume and rarity, since they are still barely grown commercially. They thrive in the Bay Area, even in San Francisco, even in our very own yard!

The history of this particular dwarf Meyer lemon tree is a testament to my husband's green thumb and the hardiness of plants. At the time we left our house to live abroad seven years ago, it was in a pot, not exactly thriving but surviving. We had lost two earlier trees to ants, despite smearing gobs of Tanglefoot around the trunk. The ants farm the aphids for the sweet juice they excrete and the sweet juice in turn develops a sooty mold, which kills the tree. When we returned to our home five years ago, the tree was a dead stick. I said, "Throw it out." My husband said, "Wait and see." The following winter it sprouted a healthy-looking branch and leaves. We planted it in two different places in the backyard, where it continued to revive itself and gather strength. Year before last it actually produced two lemons that ripened. We still were not satisfied with its location, however. We conferred and agreed that it really should go in the warm south-facing corner in the front of our house, where we recently removed a gnarly old lavender bush. We moved it again, and suddenly it burst forth with blossoms, then set tiny green fruit, all of which ripened and grew fat. Our tree was dripping with lemons. This year it also has a large crop, although not quite as big as last year. I picked the three largest lemons for this recipe.

Meyer Lemon Ice Cream (from "Chez Panisse Desserts" by Lindsey Remolif Shere)
Makes 1-2/3 quarts.
3 Meyer lemons, about 3/4 pound
1 cup sugar
1 cup half and half
6 egg yolks
3 cups whipping cream
Vanilla extract to taste
Peel one lemon very thin with a vegetable peeler, taking care not to cut into the pith. Put the peel in a non-corroding saucepan with the sugar and the half and half. Heat the mixture to just under boiling, remove from heat, and let steep for ten minutes.

Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl until just mixed, and pour in some of the hot half and half mixture, stirring constantly. Pour it back into the pan and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Pour through a strainer into the bowl.

Add the finely grated peel of two lemons.

Let stand in the mixture for ten minutes and then add the cream. Juice the lemons, strain the juice, and add 9 tablespoons to the cream mixture. Taste and add more juice if you want more tartness, and a few drops of vanilla. Chill thoroughly. Freeze according to instructions with your ice cream maker.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Cinnamon Stars

Early in our marriage, or maybe in the period when we lived together before we married, I really wowed my husband by making him cinnamon stars. His mom had always bought these German Christmas cookies (Zimtsterne) from a certain bakery and his family savored them each Christmas. When I found the recipe in Joy of Cooking, labored with the sticky dough, and produced sweet woggily stars, he was in heaven. Judging from the happy sounds he made as he ate them, it was almost as good as Proust's madeleine.

Each time I made them, they got a bit easier. I hadn't made them for a few years, but I made them again this week. To tell the truth, they seemed pretty easy this time--at least, no more difficult than any other cookie you have to roll out, cut, and frost. I guess I've just finally gotten the knack. I remember reading somewhere that you have to make a recipe ten times before you really know how to make it.

Don't mess with any other cinnamon star recipes with butter or other ingredients in them. These are the one! The cookie part is tender and nutty; the meringue topping has a slight crunch and then melts on your tongue.

Cinnamon Stars (from Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker)

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
2 cups of confectioners' sugar.
Whip until stiff but not dry:
5 egg whites
1/8 tsp. salt
Add the sugar gradually. Whip these ingredients well. Add:
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. grated lemon rind
Whip constantly. Reserve 1/3 of the mixture. Fold into the remainder:
1 lb. ground unblanched almonds
Dust a board lightly with confectioners' sugar. Pat the dough to the thickness of 1/3 inch. It is too delicate to roll. If it tends to stick, dust your palms lightly with confectioners' sugar. Cut the cookies with a star cookie cutter. Glaze the tops with the reserved mixture. Bake on a greased sheet for about 20 minutes. You can see from the photo that I like to let them get a tiny bit colored to make sure the glaze is crunchy when cooled.

My note on storage: Like other meringues, these can become sticky if the weather is humid. I layer them between sheets of waxed paper in an airtight tin box. Sometimes they will get sticky anyway. If they get sticky, don't try to peel the waxed paper off them. Just wait another day and they will dry out.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

December Garden

My garden is waiting. I am waiting. We are all waiting for the winter solstice and the days to start getting longer again, imperceptibly. Actually the lack of perception is on my side; my garden knows exactly when the days start growing longer, and how much lighter it becomes each day. The plants in my garden perceive the quality of light, measure time and temperature, take a moisture reading, note the wind's strength, and constantly test the soil. They are much more patient than I am. They must be. They wait until it is the right time for them to "blossom pollen scatter seed swell dwindle and perish/come back next year crimson, purple/...(Philip Whalen).
Every day when I look at my garden it seems like nothing's happening, until I look closer. Then I see exotic pink blossoms on our grevillea bush--the new one that is healthy.
I see the buds on the cymbidium and the climbing aloe.

I see our Persian Lily growing thick green spears, preparing to send up a shower of blue stars.

Our Cape Honeysuckle is in mid-bloom.

No wonder the hummingbirds continue to defend it fiercely. Doesn't it seduce you, too? The hummingbirds also enjoy our blooming Mexican Sage in the front yard. The other day one stopped two feet from my windshield as I pulled into our driveway. I had either surprised it, or it was reminding me that it had already claimed that sage bush.
Our raised bed sits waiting, full of rich nursery soil. I am so impatient to fill it with winter greens, but I have to wait a bit longer. If I put them in now, they'll just rot.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Stern Grove Haiku

In a forest pool--
Floating leaves look like goldfish--
Trees grow upside down.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Beach Walk Haiku

I record their trace--
A dog, a runner, bare feet--
Wave erases all.

Note: Originally I posted the final word in this haiku as "it." But "it" just sounded like a bad note to me, clunking at the end. So a few days later I changed "it" to "all." Better...but I'm still a little unsatisfied. Anyone else have a suggestion?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


Driftwood sculpture waves
at the traffic signal. It
blinks back

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Haiku for Sea Foam

Lined up like tall ships,
They sailed in on a high wave--
Clouds stalled on the sand.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Haiku for Willets and Marbled Godwits

We keep our feet wet
We stand where waves lick our toes
Where sand mirrors sky

It's a relief for me that NaBloPoMo is over. By the end I felt emptied out of all I wanted to say. But there were some days, and stretches of days, when I was looking forward to my next post, thinking of a string of posts on a theme, having fun planning out which photo to use. I thought about posting a lot more when I posted every day. Some of my posts were dull, but I did write more of them!

I'm thinking now about whether I want to narrow my focus. I'm kind of all over the place. There's a lot of different labels accumulating: pumpkins? worms? shopping? But then again, I like to cast my mind over many different topics. Probably I will just keep going as I have been, with three main themes: parenting, garden/nature, food. I'd like to post three or four times a week and see where that takes me.