Saturday, May 22, 2010

Snowballs in Spring

These two photos were taken a few weeks ago during a small stretch of dry weather. They are some of the flowers from my Chinese snowball bush (otherwise known as Viburnum macrocephalum 'sterile') which I adore. I got the plant several years ago and it has grown into a nice little tree/bush that produces dozens of these large, white flower clusters every year in early spring. They start out lime green and gradually change to white and are beautiful to look at but do not produce any noticeable fragrance.

Speaking of spring, it has - technically - arrived. Practically speaking, however, it might just as well be winter. We have had rain nearly every day for the last two weeks or so. And not just sprinkling rain but downpours that produce sheets of rain and turn what used to be our gutter into a lovely water feature. We have always wanted a waterfall in our garden, although this is not exactly what I had in mind. Just about the only creatures on the Unfarm who don't mind the rain is the ducks. They are frequently seen sitting in their pools in the middle of a rainstorm when all the other animals: dogs, cats, chickens, rabbits and humans, take shelter. The rabbits, I should mention, don't actually take shelter so much as simply do not go out in this weather. They hang out inside unless the weather is over 70 degrees, at which point I permit them to go out on the deck or in their secured run.

The chickens, the only animals that do not regularly come inside, frequently sit under the redwood when it rains as it is one of the only dry places in the entire yard. So there they sit, looking out at the rain with miserable expressions on their little faces, plotting a way to hitchhike south to drier climates.

Ordinarily, rain of this volume would result in multiple accidents in the dining room due to Buddy's refusal to go out in any kind of wet weather, but I am happy to report that he seems to have - finally! - realized that going to the bathroom outside is not, in fact, an optional thing, to be done only when the weather is nice enough. He is, it would seem, finally learning the rules. (Knock on wood.)

I can only hope that there is an end to this rain so that the ground will dry out enough for me to be able to weed the garden before my dad gets too restless and decides to take a weed wacker to the entire front yard. In fact, I had a nightmare last week that my dad had gone out into the garden and pruned all the roses until they were mere stumps in the ground. This dream was made especially scary by the fact that he has done this before. We have a lovely climbing rose - an older variety that we rescued from my great grandmother's garden that actually climbs, as opposed to the (rather pitiful) climbing roses you seem to find nowadays - and my father chopped it back to the ground because it was getting "too leggy." Fortunately it made a comeback and is now climbing all over a large portion of the dog run fence, providing plenty of habitat for the various wild birds that visit our garden and producing a multitude of gorgeous white flowers in summer. Should summer ever deem to make an appearance.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Graduation Cake

So here's my latest attempt at baking a cake. I made it for my sister's graduation from college and it is my first time ever working with fondant. It is, admittedly, not perfect, but it's not a complete disaster either. The stars are courtesy of my brother's help and they look pretty good, I think. I got the recipes online and here they are:

Classic White Cake
6 cups cake flour, sifted
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
3 cups sugar
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
12 egg whites

Preheat oven to 325°F. Spray the sides and bottom of two 9-inch cake pans with PAM or similar non-stick spray.

Sift the flour and baking powder together and set it aside. Then cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy and set aside. Beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry and set this aside as well. Then, with the mixer on slow speed, add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, alternately with the milk. Beat well after each addition to thoroughly incorporate it. Next, beat in the vanilla and then gently fold the egg whites into the batter. Pour half of the batter in each pan and bake it until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

NOTE: This recipe comes from the Wilton website ( which has lots of good information on making cakes and makes a lot of different cake decorating supplies. I can't remember exactly how long the cakes were in the oven and the recipe doesn't specify but I think it might have been around 20 minutes. Once the cakes are out of the oven, let them cool for just a couple of minutes and then take them out of the pans and wrap them in plastic wrap or a sealed plastic bag. (I got that tip from some other website about making cakes, and it's supposed to keep the moisture in the cakes and prevent them from becoming dry. I've used this idea a couple of times now and it has turned out well so far.)

Buttercream Icing

1 pound bag of powdered sugar

1/8 - 1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 sticks of butter cut into 1/2 inch slices

1/2 cup shortening

Whisk the sugar, salt, vanilla, and milk at a low speed until smooth. Add the butter, one slice at a time until incorporated, and then add the shortening and whip at the highest speed for 10-12 minutes, until the volume increases by at least 50%.

NOTE: I found this recipe on this website: which has a lot of great recipes of buttercream and fillings, and the recipe turned out really well. This recipe was approximately enough to frost a three layer 9-inch cake, depending on how much frosting you like to use.

A note on fondant: I must say that it looks good, but I wasn't overly fond of the taste. Perhaps it is because I was working in my sisters kitchen, with her rolling pin, and it is a less than ideal situation for a baker as she does more cooking than baking, and could not seem to get the fondant to roll out as thin as I would have liked, thus resulting in a thicker than ideal layer of fondant. Or perhaps I just don't like the taste of fondant. Or maybe it was both the thickness and the taste, but I have decided that I will concentrate for the time being on buttercream rather than fondant as the finish for my cakes.

Both of these recipes were really good - the cake didn't turn out dry like some of the previous recipes I've tried and the buttercream didn't give me any problems, so I'd use both of these recipes again, and probably will at some point but I'm a bit junk fooded out at the moment, having just finished a road trip to Idaho during which I ate a shameful amount of cake, restaurant food, and Oreo cookies. Additionally, my mom has ordered a moratorium on all baking activity for the time being, and as I have a bridesmaid dress to fit into in August, I am forced to comply. I have a distressingly weak willpower when it comes to avoiding sugar and carbs so just how successful my diet will be remains to be seen.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Newcomers on the Unfarm

We have, recently, welcomed three newcomers to the Unfarm: a starling, a crow, and a squirrel. Admittedly, these are not exotic creatures, but they are wildlife and welcome all the same.

I know that most people do not like starlings, claiming them to be invasive pests, but I do not think it fair to blame the birds for something they have no control over. While there may be a secret headquarters somewhere, where all the starlings gather once or twice a year to sit around some huge table and talk about their plans for world domination, I am skeptical. I simply enjoy the starlings for what they are: birds with yellow beaks and beautiful feathers. The ladies (Penny, Daisy and Sakari) also enjoy the starling's visits because his food of choice is the suet, and he tends to be a messy eater, dropping bits of the suet down to the girls who wait underneath the feeder.

The crow is not new to the neighborhood, just to the Unfarm. We have had crows living somewhere in the vicinity for as long as I can remember, but they tended to stick to the upper branches of the taller trees, or to the sky when mobbing one of the resident red-tailed hawks. To have a crow actually land on the hook in the yard that holds the feeders is something new. He came by a few days ago for a short visit, and then again today when he stayed much longer. He was trying to find a way to get to the squirrel food and made several aborted attempts while moving from branch to hook and back to branch again. The squirrel feeder is easy enough for the squirrels and jays to reach, but I think the crow felt a bit too large to land on the ledge of the feeder. I put some food out on top of the dog run fence and he was eventually able to land close enough to eat it.

And the squirrel. I know that this is a new squirrel because he is tiny. All of our regulars are rather large (or "enormous" if you ask my brother) so this little guy stood out. He didn't brave the feeder in the back where most of the larger squirrels congregate, choosing instead to scavenge for little bits of seed that the birds drop from the feeder in the front yard. He wasn't having much luck, since the juncos tend to pick up anything the chickadees or nuthatches drop, so I put out a small pile just for him and he seemed to enjoy that. Although, with the amount of food we leave out for all the various animals I would not be surprised if he doesn't remain small for long.

Meanwhile, the garden is sprouting a healthy crop of weeds. I would love to get out there and start weeding - it is, honestly, one of my favorite things to do - but I can't. April showers may bring May flowers elsewhere but in the pacific northwest the only thing April showers brings is more showers. This wouldn't be much of a problem if our soil wasn't pure clay. I think it is only a matter of time before potters come knocking at our door with a shovel in hand, ready to scoop up supplies for their next project. Perhaps I exaggerate - it is probably not pure clay. It's probably something like 98% clay, 1% silt and 1% sand.