Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Best Banana Bread Ever

"What's that smell?" my husband sniffed while sitting in the back seat on our ride home from Stinson Beach. He was sitting in the back seat because my 16-year-old son was driving, and I was sitting in the front because I get carsick on the curvy road. Highway One between Stinson and Tam Junction is not exactly a beginning driver's ideal road; in fact, it is unforgiving, with cars and a rock wall on one side and a cliff on the other. Our son did well, however, driving at 25 mph or under the whole way, pulling over only 3 or 4 times to let other drivers pass.
The smell was the three ripe bananas I made sure to bring home with us from our vacation. I had brought them with us and since no one had eaten them, I had plans for them: this banana bread.
I read about it more than a month ago at Muffin Top. Somehow all our bananas kept getting eaten before I could make it. Finally yesterday I made it, and it turned out looking exactly how it looks in Muffin Top's photos. Apparently it is modeled after Bakesale Betty's banana bread. All I can say is, it is every bit as good as Muffin Top says it is, maybe even more so. It is very moist and banana-y and has a wonderful crumbly sugar-cinnamon topping. We inhaled it. There was none left by midday the next day. Go out and buy some extra bananas so you can make it. You can find the recipe over at Muffin Top.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Many Birds Sighted

We were out at Stinson Beach for a few days with family and I did a lot of bird-watching. My mom is my fellow bird-watcher (she calls herself "obsessed"). She has a serious harness-contraption for her binoculars, which puts less strain on your neck. I have a little bit of binocular envy since hers are a lot better than mine.
The oddest birds we saw were vultures sitting on the ground and in trees, lots of them, sometimes up to ten at a time. The smallest bird we saw was a Bewick's Wren, in a bush. In the water we saw many wigeons, mallards, scaups, buffleheads, goldeneyes, and surf scoters. I saw a northern shoveler, and she saw a northern pintail and a green-winged teal. On the beach we saw marbled godwits, willets, curlews, and whimbrels. She saw avocets and I saw a killdeer and a semipalmated plover.
I think my sister thinks we're weird. She took a lot of beautiful photos of the winter beach scene (all the beach photos on this page are by her). I like how she captured that silvery look of the beach in December.

There was also swimming (in the swimming pool), driving-practice, tennis, poker-playing, reading, talking, and a lot of cooking and eating.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Christmas Cookies

The other day I was at my friend Beth's house and she was showing off some beautiful Christmas cookies she had made at a class on how to make the best Christmas cookies. That inspired me to make my first batch of Christmas cookies this year. Beth was telling me some tips the pastry chef had passed on, like having the ingredients at room temperature when you mix the dough, refrigerating the dough to stiffen it before rolling it out, and rolling out the dough between two sheets of parchment paper, instead of sprinkling extra flour, to avoid sticking. I already do the first two, so I decided to try the last tip, except with waxed paper, since I had lots of it.
Even though the dough was still quite cold from the fridge when I rolled it out, it warmed up quickly and became very sticky and fragile. I couldn't remove the cookies from the waxed paper without them tearing, so I put the whole sheet in the freezer to firm them up. For the next portion of dough I did sprinkle a tiny bit of flour on the waxed paper--like 1/4 tsp.--and then shook off the excess, just to help the sticking. By the time these were cut out, they too were sticking so I put them in the freezer and pulled out the first sheet. By then these were nice and hard, and peeled off the waxed paper easily. So I made all the cookies this way: putting the sheet with the cookies stamped but not removed from the surrounding dough in the freezer while I rolled out the next batch. It took longer and kind of gave me a head ache.
But...the results were dramatic. The cookie edges were nice and sharp (from being in the freezer) and the cookies did not expand much or get puffy. They turned out crisper and more delicate in texture than usual. They seemed to take slightly less time to bake, but had that lovely golden brown edge and bottom. I think all those trips to the freezer may be what makes such a big difference--as well as not using flour to roll them out.
I went all out and iced and sugared them (normally I just toss some colored sugar on them before I put them in the oven). Then I ate two. This is just a regular old sugar cookie recipe from the Fannie Farmer Baking Book by Marion Cunningham. I'm sure the recipe on the back of the Gold Medal flour would be fine, too, since it's with butter. It's all about the butter.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cool Bird Sighting of the Week!

I found a site where I can download photos of birds: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Digital Library. This photo of a hermit thrush is by Dave Menke and it's in the public domain.

I saw a hermit thrush eating ivy berries on our back wall today. I got the binoculars out so I really got a great look at his black spotted breast, white eye ring and rusty tail and rump. He was looking frantically around as he gobbled the still-green berries, poor thing. Just in the last few days we have noticed the robins gathering, I suppose standing watch over the berries as they ripen since I haven't actually seen the robins eat any. A crowd of blackbirds gathered on the telephone wire, too, and there was a tense stand-off but no air fights.

Here is the best I've been able to do so far with the yellow-rumped warbler and his mate eating the white berries outside my kitchen window (which is all steamed up in this photos). This is his mate, who seems to be a bit less guarded (or hungrier?).

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Big Day at the Founders' Cup

I admit I was resentful about it: a soccer tournament, in Morgan Hill, Saturday AND Sunday, two weeks before Christmas, after their season was already over? But we went along with it. We had to leave the house at 7:30 am this morning, and weather was predicted to be in the 30s. We got there an hour early and stood around sleepily until it was time for them to play. The Scorpions (my younger son's soccer team) played their game, and they played really really well, even missing three key players. And they won! Yes, it was very very cold, but I wore my down jacket. We had a 3-1/2 hour break until the second game, so my husband and I and our son had a delicious, peaceful and restorative lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant, then we hit the premium outlets in Gilroy and bought pants, shoes, belts, and some secret items. We saw quite a few people we recognized from the soccer complex at the outlets. Back to the fields for the second game, which the Scorps also played really really well. They worked really hard, had some brilliant plays, took chances, got knocked down, and knocked some other players down. They won again! It was very exciting. Even though they still have one more game to play on Sunday, this means they go on to the quarter finals, next weekend. Oh.

Youth soccer is insane, my husband and I decided long ago. Mostly because of the parents. And yet there are some endearing things about it, like the kids, and even, sometimes, the parents. At a tournament like this (not a select or elite level, but strictly recreational, class 4) the families are not just from one ethnicity or one socio-economic group. There are teams from all over Northern California. We played Hayward and Napa, and tomorrow is Manteca. A parent from Modesto gave us some tips on what our players should and shouldn't have for lunch. At the end of our second game, one of the Napa parents came over to ask who were the parents of player #17. I hesitated a moment (was she going to complain his flying elbows?), but it turned out she was grateful that he paused on the field to check on her son, who was down. She appreciated his concern. Player #17's parents weren't there, but we made sure the compliment got passed on.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cool Bird Sighting of the Week!

I saw this bird sitting on a telephone wire today as I walked over to the fitness center to work out (well, not this actual bird, but one just like it). At first I thought it was some warbler with a ball of red fluff in its beak. Its head is the most brilliant red. It's ridiculously red. The strange bird hopped down from the wire and sat on a stone wall in front of a house. I was able to approach it pretty closely and observe its markings, and then it flew up to a roof, as if it were unsettled.
When I came home I searched through my North American bird book, all the while pretty sure that it was an escaped pet. Finally I found it online: A red-crested cardinal (Paroaria coronata), native to South America and introduced to Hawaii. It's a popular, although somewhat rare, pet bird. I went out again a little while later and looked around for it (with my camera this time) but there was no sign of it. I hope it gets back to where it belongs.
This photo is from a website for the University of Hawai'i campus at Manoa (near Honolulu), where the red-crested cardinal is apparently a common bird on campus.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Tale of Two Frozen Desserts

I recently made these two different frozen desserts. The one on the right is maple bourbon frozen yogurt; the one on the left is maple ice cream with buttered pecans. Just by looking at the photo, you can tell the one of the left is creamier and more delicious. In fact, it is incredibly good and chock full of pecans (not stingy like some butter pecan ice cream). I made the frozen yogurt to go with the pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, but although it has a nice tangy flavor with a hint of bourbon, it's too icy. My sister said thoughtfully, licking her spoon after eating her portion, "You could make maple ice cream..." So I did, "for my book group." (Although the idea that I need an excuse to make ice cream with two teenage boys at home is a little ridiculous.) I could have made the frozen yogurt creamier by straining some liquid out of the yogurt, but it would still be just frozen yogurt. The maple ice cream with buttered pecans might be a bit over the top with pumpkin pie; I like it with Anna's Ginger Thins (hey--that would make some adorable little ice cream sandwiches).

The recipe for the maple ice cream, and the buttered pecans, is from David Lebovitz's decadent ice cream book, The Perfect Scoop. I will not reproduce the recipe here because if you are at all tempted to make this and have an ice cream maker you should go out right now and buy the book from your local independent bookstore.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Cool Bird Sighting of the Week!

I know there's no bird in this photo. But there was one, just a second ago! This is the view out my kitchen window at the palm-tree-like thing that has grown up between my house and my neighbor's. Some birds really like to eat the little white berries, including a yellow-rumped warbler (or maybe two). They are really skittish and dart away the moment we appear at the window. There was no way I was going to get a photo, despite standing at the window with my camera focused on their landing spot. Until my arms hurt. So I found another photo of a female, below. Mine has a more vivid yellow patch at the throat, and darker, bluer back and wings, so it's probably a male. I don't think I'm patient enough to be a nature photographer.
This photo is by Will Elder of the National Park Service. There are lots of great photos by park service employees of local wildlife and fauna at the Presidio website.