The World is Hurting and I Can’t Not Write About It

As I write this, my two amazing children are engaged in a Kids Baking Show-style challenge. Their assignment? Bake 6 cake donuts with a glaze and a topping. This is the second challenge in a series. Last week they made ultimate brownies. In 20 minutes, my timer will chime and it will be time to announce their twist–you must include a fruit into your donut. We just spun homemade coffee cookies n’ cream ice cream and placed it in the freezer for another day. Over the weekend, I was physically sore and exhausted from clearing the forest, and yet still made homemade french bread because it sounded so comforting.

We seem to be stress baking, a very real emotional and mental self-care strategy.

I am sitting on the sofa, carefully listening to them chatter and read-out their recipes. Liam is learning to make a puree to go into his glaze while Chloe is chastising him on what a mess he’s making. On the table in front of me is a mason jar filled with my beautiful Sarah Bernhardt peonies, which are plump and pink and gorgeous; and make the whole room smell like Spring. My cats are sleeping beside me, occasionally yawning or stretching or purring in that content way only cats can muster. If I look up and out my sliding glass door, I can see the forest, and into it for the first time in years after we spent all weekend clearing it in a very adventurous and humorous way that I will describe in a detailed post here tomorrow.

But not yet.

I’m not there emotionally at the moment. I’m having a hard time right now. We’ve been mindful to talk with our children about privilege–we live in a very well-to-do area in Central Indiana (though we have never been especially “well-to-do” ourselves). We’ve been mindful to talk about race and the way their race provides them privilege. We’ve told them about power and authority, and how theirs will seldom be questioned, though Chloe is more likely to be questioned than Liam based on gender. And so we talked about George Floyd and the events going on in the world around us, so close we can hear the helicopters periodically flying over, but still so far removed from our idyllic small town life. As I sit here looking at our beautiful Homestead and listen to my children, the juxtaposition I feel is acute and disorienting when so many people I love and know, and people I don’t know but still love, are out rightfully protesting and needing to be heard. I ache for them. I also ache for the other innocent lives being lost in the upheaval. I ache for it all.

So, I’m in a bit of a stupor this week. I think most of us probably are. We are, as Thomas Merton described, a body of broken bones. Only love can reset the bones and the body.

“As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish. There are two things which men can do about the pain of disunion with other men. They can love or they can hate“(Thomas Merton (2007). β€œNew Seeds of Contemplation,” p.72, New Directions Publishing, emphasis mine).

This does not mean there will not be pain. This means that love, in its very nature, is painful. It requires a bending, disturbing, and at times a breaking if we are to set against another enough to work the body. Love is patient and kind, as the famous Bible verse starts, but it’s also sweaty and hard and inconvenient and self-sacrificing. It means listening without forming a response in our heads and hearts. It means perspective-taking. It means acknowledging our own culpability, failings, and short-sightedness. It means encountering another’s emotions with empathy and compassion–with a desire to understand. It means we do not need to “allow for” or even “account for” difference; it means difference is the constant natural state of our world. We need to learn to dwell within it with one another.

This is the heart and soul of who I am and what I do. It’s the backbone of the scholarly research and writing I engage in. It’s the great quest of my life–every path I’ve taken has been in search of wisdom and understanding, a way to reconcile these broken bones. The rhetoric of our nation’s President right now is more disturbing than normal. It’s the opposite of dwelling within and with. It’s the opposite of love and resetting. It’s turning my stomach.

I know you likely don’t come here to read about politics, and I try to keep this place positive and focused on topics related to our family, gardening, cooking, and our adventures. I will go back to our regularly scheduled programming after this. Thank you for reading and understanding that I needed to write these words in order to write the words that will come next.

Today is a day for contemplation and mourning. So I bake. The kids bake. We talk. And together we garden. A garden is a wondrously healing place. Tomorrow I will share the weekly meal plan and tell you the story of the clearing of the honeysuckle. We laughed. We cried. We cussed. And then we drank margaritas and stared in wonder at our work. I have several recipes cued-up and ready to post, as well. So tomorrow, my friends. Until then, be well and be with one another.

Weekly Meal Plan and a Weekly Recipe: Santa Fe Salad

Do any of you remember the Barbara Streisand movie “The Mirror Has Two Faces?” In it, as Jeff Bridges watches with affection, she methodically tackles the disparate elements on her plate, uniting them in the right proportions until she has The Perfect Bite. This is how I cook–each element on the plate can be mixed together in perfect synchrony, or if you’re one of those people who’s food absolutely cannot touch, you can keep them apart and it’ll still be nice. I’m a Perfect Bite person. And that, my friends, is why I love salad. Each bite has the potential to be the Perfect Bite.

Potential? Yes, because salad can also be pretty lame. A good salad should have a mixtures of textures and flavors, and, I always prefer to cut it up and toss it around a bunch. I mean, I get food not touching, but salad is basically a casserole–everything is supposed to be eaten together (Side Note: I love my job and this makes me think of some of the more heated debates that take place in a university writing center, one of my favorites being what constitutes a sandwich). πŸ™‚

I remember being out with a friend for lunch once, and she, being halfway done with her meal while I was still fastidiously cutting my salad, commented how she’d never thought to do that, but she supposed this made the salad more evenly distributed. Yes, yes it does. It makes, without fail, each bite the Perfect Bite.

Salad is amazing. It’s one of my favorite things in the world to eat. Seriously, is there anything better than a salad that has a glorious, tactile mixture of textures and flavors, where every single bite you eat is perfect on a warm evening? If rice and beans is my favorite food, salad is my favorite summer food. We eat it pretty much every day during the season. This salad is one of our favorites–an old standby from when Brian and I were still dating. In fact, it contributed to us getting married–I knew he was the one when he shared my passion for vegetables, especially lettuce. The picture shows it all pre-cut and toss, because let’s be honest, it’s hard to find a photo of a cut-up tossed salad pretty. But rest assured that this salad did indeed get turned into a series of Perfect Bites as soon as this photo was taken. πŸ™‚

Santa Fe Salad
Yield: 4 servings

1 head romaine lettuce, chopped
2 chicken breasts, chopped (see below)
1/2 C sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1 C baked tortilla strips (recipe below)
chipotle-ranch dressing to taste (recipe below)

2 chicken breasts
1 t ground cumin
1/2 t ground chipotle powder
1/4 C lime juice
sea salt and pepper to taste
1 T olive oil

Tortilla Strips-
2 burrito-sized flour tortillas, cut into strips
1/2 C olive oil
1/3 C lime juice
1/2 t ground cumin
1/2 t smoked paprika
1/4 t ground oregano
sea salt to taste

Chipotle-Ranch Dressing-
1/4 C your favorite ranch dressing*
2 T your favorite salsa*
1-2 chipotle chiles, chopped (to taste)
1/2 t adobo sauce from can of chipotle chiles (to taste)
1 t strawberry or raspberry jam (to taste)*

*I will be sharing recipes for my homemade ranch, salsa, and jam eventually, but am not including them here at present because it makes the recipe seem super complicated. πŸ™‚ For now, please know that I will happily use store-bought stuff if I don’t have homemade stuff made– it’s still delicious.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Prepare an iron skillet (or other heavy-bottomed skillet) with a tablespoon of olive oil and set it on your stovetop.

Prep the chicken–Cut the chicken across lengthwise, as you would to butterfly, and cut all the way across, giving you two whole-looking chicken breasts. Then, slice down vertically across each breast to cut it into 1 inch thick strips, then cut across horizontally to cut each strip into 1 inch cubes. Combine the spices together and toss over the cut chicken, tossing and coating the chicken all over. Let it rest while you make the dressing and tortilla strips.

Make the dressing–combine everything with a whisk in a small container with a lid and set in the fridge until ready to use. The jam adds a hint of sweetness to counteract the smoky heat of the chipotle (there’s that Perfect Bite balance of tastes and textures thing).

Make the tortilla strips–cut a burrito-sized tortilla in half, and then in quarters, and then take small strips off each quarter. In a medium bowl, combine everything but the tortilla strips and sea salt with a whisk. Add the tortilla strips and toss around to coat evenly. Lay-out the strips evenly on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake them in the preheated oven for 6-9 minutes, until browned and crisp to touch but not burnt (this can happen quickly, so keep an eye on it). Remove them from the oven and sprinkle well with sea salt. You may have to do two trays, depending on the size of your baking sheet and how thinly you cut your strips. Set the cooled strips aside until ready to use.

Cook the chicken–heat your iron skillet with olive oil over medium-high heat until rippling hot. Add the seasoned chicken pieces and cook, without disturbing, for 2-3 minutes. This is building a wall of flavor on your chicken and giving them a nice sear. If your pan isn’t big enough, consider doing this in two batches so that you don’t crowd the chicken in the pan (this will impact your sear and cause your chicken to steam. It’ll still taste alright, but the flavor will not be as intense and the texture will be off). Add the lime juice and scrape the chicken into it, scraping the bottom of the pan and turning the pieces over as you go–this is called “deglazing” and is making sure all the good bits from the bottom of the pan remain on the chicken. Cook another 2 minutes or so, until done, and remove until ready to toss the salad. Repeat if you needed to do two batches.

Prep the lettuce and cheese–cut one whole head of romaine into bite-sized pieces and wash it well. Let it dry, or spin it dry in a salad spinner. Shred the cheese with a block grater and set aside. Yes, freshly shredded cheese is worth it on so many levels. I invested in a block grater a decade ago and have been loving it ever since. I buy cheese in bulk blocks for so much less money than bags of pre-shredded, and there’s no need for any preservative coating since it’s being used immediately.

Assemble the salad–in the bottom of a mixing bowl, add the dressing, then the lettuce, chicken, cheese, and tortilla strips. .Use tongs to toss and mix until thoroughly combined. Serve immediately, as the lettuce will wilt in the dressing and the heat of the chicken.

Note: If you hope to make this salad ahead of time, you can layer it: dressing first, chicken and cheese enough to cover the dressing and protect the lettuce, then put lettuce in and top with the tortilla strips. Toss just before serving, whether to a crowd or for your lunch.

Goodness, that sounds like a lot of steps, but trust me, it’s actually very easy, I just broke it down into its components for ease of understanding. Now, quickly because this post is getting super long, let me give you the weekly meal plan. I’m late on it due to the long-weekend, but I want to make sure you all have it so you know what’s coming.

Weekly Meal Plan:
Monday (Memorial Day)–we had a cookout with my parents, naturally
Tuesday–Asian lettuce wraps and spicy noodles
Wednesday–tandoori chicken and naan bread
Thursday–risotto primavera
Friday–homemade pizza night
Saturday–salad bar
Sunday–another cookout (’tis Summer!)

Garden Updates: Last Weekend in May

Summer is still officially about a month away, but the classic Central Indiana humid heat has set-in his week. It’s not unusual for us to run 100% humidity, which, with all the rain we get in May, combined with temperatures in the mid to upper 80’s (Fahrenheit) makes for sticky, heavy, thick heat. My hair is curling and frizzing more than ever and the plants are growing at lightning speed, happily soaking-in the damp and the heat.

Our pace has also ramped-up, which is saying a lot, I think, given that we’ve been working pretty much every weekend since April Fool’s Day. This isn’t always the case for a gardener, of course, but this is what happens when we opt to re-do most of our infrastructure in one season–the weather and the plants will not wait. Blink and we’ll miss it, so we have to keep going. While we do get tired, the work is invigorating and rewarding in a deeply meaningful way. Each morning we walk-out with our coffee and tour the gardens, walking the path we are creating, the conversation between sections of our yard and the beauty of viewing them all together. If you, like me, are a fan of Regency and Victorian British Fiction, then you’ll understand the motivation–they’re forever going on long walks in their gardens. I want to do that, too, even if my yard is barely half an acre (the forest trail is much longer, which does help expanding our walkability).

To that end, we’ve been working on the main garden arbor and fence. Months ago I asked Brian if he’d be willing to make an arbor while he re-did the fence, which is something he’d already put on his to-do list, and so he agreed. I went ahead and purchased a climbing rose and clematis and have been keeping them alive (but not super happy in their small pots) in the greenhouse ever since. Our old main garden fence was a messy, unattractive (but functional) chicken wire and wood post set-up we’d put in place our first year and promptly ignored for every year since. It worked, and aesthetics were less important to us in those days than learning to grow healthy and delicious food. We know how to grow the food now, and aesthetics–the joy of the garden–are top priority this year. With Brian’s background in art, and my love of it, a marriage of form and function, beauty with purpose, is the goal.

I already detailed how we decided to move the main garden entrance to line-up with the raised bed garden path and the back fence gate that leads to the forest, creating a visually striking straight line that could unite these three spaces of the yard.

The arbor, then, becomes not just a marker of the main garden entrance, but a focal point that draws you down the path towards the main garden and through it. It creates a separate and distinct main garden space that can look and feel very different from the raised bed garden, and then keeps you wandering through it towards and into the forest (where we hope to put another focal point to keep you moving).

The main garden fence will mimic the look and feel of the arbor, which is decidedly different from the European Country Cottage vibe we’ve curated everywhere else–it’s Woodland Fairy-esque. The main garden is at the edge of the forest, and so speaks to the forest, while the climbing rose (a heritage pale pink tea variety) and clematis will help it speak to the cottage-style perennial/butterfly/herb garden on the border of the raised bed garden. The lay-out of the main garden, as well, is formal, with straight paths that wind you through and around it, and neatly aligned signs guiding you through it, making it a transitional space between raised bed/patio and forest wonderland.

I love walking the garden paths now, especially now that most of it has been planted. This weekend the kids helped me plant our 3 Sisters Bed–a mixture of corn, squash, and beans. We have sweet white corn, zucchini, yellow crookneck squash, and Cherokee black beans and Southern crowder beans. The only item missing from the main garden now is Fall squash, which I’ve got three varieties started in the greenhouse. As the season progresses I’ll be doing photo-walking tours of the garden in full glory.

Brian hopes to complete the fence today, and then we need to finish clearing honeysuckle and mulching it up in the new compost area, which we’re carving-out still and will soon start forming. It’s next to the path to the small meadow between our thicket and the main forest. The thicket is still a rather impenetrable wall, but with more clearing and chipping, will soon be passable and usable again.

I need to turn my attention to the infrastructure of the greenhouse for growing-on plants I’d like to keep in there, and Brian wants to focus on replacing the plastic we had to duct tape after so many wind storms and adding proper doors and ventilation, as well as continuing to attend to its stability and structure. It’s our goal to pick away at this over the summer so we can be ready to keep using it in winter. We already have a heater, so as long as the heat can stay safely inside and we don’t lose too much moisture in doing so, it should work.

After that it’s the pond and the potting shed on the list. And I’m also doing a mini-makeover of the front of the house. We’ve had big plans for that for years, and so have let it just be, except it looks really bad and if any of you decide to come to the Homestead to pick-up products, I want you to know we care. Plus, I’m sure our neighbors would appreciate it–our home sits rather on display, being on the other side of the one “T” of our little neighborhood, so pretty much everyone looks at it or passes it. So, it definitely could use some love, even if it’s not the Big Long-Term Plan we’ve had in our heads. I’ll be revealing that soon, too. So, you know, the work never ends, which really, that’s part of the joy of the garden. It gives you food and beauty and also purpose and physical activity in the outdoors. It’s a win-win. πŸ™‚

Mother’s Day Tea: Dark Chocolate Chip Scones

It has been a very busy week for me, as I had a writing deadline for work that seems to have sucked one week of my life away (yes that’s a play on a Princess Bride reference). It was good writing, though, and feels satisfying and exciting now that it’s off into the world, which means I have time to write here about what’s going on at the Homestead.

Mother’s Day was two weekends ago, and, as you might recall, my family has become obsessed rather fond of taking tea together. We’ve gone to a few fussy-but-still-cozy tearooms for full tea service before, and honestly, it’s one of my favorite things in the world to do. There’s something so very soothing about eating a bunch of tiny sandwiches, lots of sugar-laden things, and sipping warm, delicious liquid. So, for Mother’s Day, I decided to plan my dream Mother’s Day tea and, for the first time in months, invite my parents over to celebrate with us. We’d set it up outside, naturally, on our comfortable back patio and ample outdoor dining table overlooking all of our hard work in the raised bed garden and listening to the sounds of the birds and the wind in the trees.

Except, the past two weeks here in Central Indiana have been so rainy, and even downright chilly at times. Not exactly good outdoor tea party weather. But, it does make for the kind of weather of which one wants to be indoors sipping hot liquid and playing a myriad of board games–so that’s what we did!

My Dream Mother’s Day Tea:

  • chicken salad sandwiches–my favorite local restaurant serves a goat cheese-pistachio chicken salad that is savory and delicious; my favorite not-homemade chicken salad and a perfect foil for all the sweet things going on at a tea. I served it on my homemade basic wheat bread, crusts cut off and sliced at a diagonal.
  • cucumber sandwiches–sliced seedless cucumbers smeared with a cream cheese I whipped-up with some garlic, dill, chives, tarragon, and a little sea salt and pepper. I also served this on my homemade basic wheat bread, crusts cut off and sliced at a diagonal.
  • PB&J sandwiches–for my kiddos. Good quality creamy peanut butter, homemade strawberry vanilla jam, and my homemade basic wheat bread, crusts cut off and sliced at a diagonal.
  • cheese sandwiches–these didn’t actually make it onto the plate because we realized we had plenty of food, but they could have as I had planned to serve them: sharp white (English or Farmhouse) cheddar cheese, homemade apple butter, homemade basic wheat bread, crusts cut off and sliced at a diagonal.
  • dark chocolate chip scones–recipe below. I served it with a local tearoom’s vanilla chai jelly and my own homemade strawberry vanilla jam. I also managed to get clotted cream off the internet (one less thing for me to worry about making, though you can make your own if you’re having a hard time finding any).
  • lemon shortbread–from a local restaurant, the same one where I got my birthday cupcakes and the chicken salad. It’s one of my absolute favorites: The Lemon Bar.
  • bakewell tarts–from the same local tearoom we often visit, and who supplied the vanilla chai jam: Tina’s Tea Room. I was able to order these off Market Wagon, which is good because the tearoom is a 20 minute drive from the Homestead.
  • victoria sandwich cake–anyone who watches The Great British Baking Show knows what this is. I’ve made it a handful of times before as a tasty tea-treat. It’s a pretty quick and basic cake that sounds, looks, and tastes a heck of a lot more complicated than it actually is. I found a recipe on BBC (surely they’re qualified to be experts on a notorious British recipe), and tweaked it slightly.
  • assorted teas–I already owned a few individual tea pots, but I did buy myself two more in pretty colors. Individual pots make sure we could have a variety o teas brewing, which adds to the luxury/leisure/decadent vibe I love about a good afternoon high tea. I made sure we each had our favorite teas, and also bought raw and brown sugar cubes with fussy little sugar cube tongs off of Amazon. I already own a creamer server.
  • I already owned the three-tier tea server, as well, after throwing Chloe and Liam the “Choose your Own Adventure” Birthday party several years ago, where one of the adventures was a Princess tea-party in an Alice in Wonderland-esque set-up (it was near the Indiana Jones obstacle course, so eventually the princesses abandoned their fussy tea party and got in a tug-of-rope fight with the boys). πŸ™‚
  • And, we already owned 4 of our basic but favorite white tea cups from World Market. I simply bought a few more to round-out our service, and found the clotted cream there (well, online there), as well. I like white dishes, though I do miss my old tea cup collection I once had. They all broke, one by one, when the kids were very little. Fragile antique tea cups do not mix well with toddlers–who knew? πŸ˜‰

Overview complete, let’s get on with the scones! I love a good scone, but they are rather hard to come by at times. Perhaps that’s because scones are decidedly less good a day after baking than they are on their original day. I like a moist scone that is sturdy enough to hold it’s shape and some cream and jam, but not so dry that the cream and jam has to be slathered on. The end result is not at all healthy (oh no, definitely not), but they are tasty–a yummy treat that I’m certain is no worse for you than a donut. Which isn’t saying a lot, but I mean, we all do tend to eat a lot of donuts (donuts are delicious, just like these scones). πŸ™‚

You can adjust the mix-ins to accommodate different flavors, or forego them all together. I will often put these together and then freeze whatever I know we won’t eat immediately by placing them on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a single layer in the freezer until firm, then in a freezer plastic bag. You can remove one or however many at a time and go straight to the oven, just adjust the baking time to allow thawing.

Dark Chocolate Chip Scones
Yield: About 16

2 C AP flour
4 t baking powder
3/4 t sea salt
1/4 C sugar
1/4 C butter, cut into small pieces and kept cold
3 T coconut oil (in solid state and cold)
2 C heavy cream
1 C dark chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, sea salt, and sugar with a whisk until well-combined. Add the butter and coconut oil and use a pastry cutter to push and cut the fats into the flour until all the flour has been touched by the fats and there’s small pieces mixed with sandy looking stuff. Add the heavy cream and use a rubber spatula to begin to bring everything together, stirring in the chocolate chips just before it does.

Flour a surface and scrape the dough out. It should be a little sticky but workable. If it’s too sticky, Knead it a few times into a little more flour. Flour a rolling pin and roll-out the dough until it’s 1/2 inch thickness, then fold it back over onto itself. I have made biscuits and scones this way for years, though I recognize this is not a normal thing to do. I think it originated in high school–I would open all those cans of biscuits that split so nicely in the middle that I intuited doing this would help my biscuits split nicely in the middle. It always works for me, so there we go.

I have an old 1/2 cup measuring cup that lost its handle years and years ago that I use as my biscuit cutter. Fancy. Cut out the scones and place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet, near to one another but not touching like you would tray-up biscuits. I can usually fit the whole lot on one sheet. Continue until all the dough has been used, bringing it back together and re-rolling as needed (recognizing the more you work the dough, the tougher the scones will get, so try to roll-out a good size. It usually takes me three to get them all).

Brush the tops of the scones with a little heavy cream and then sprinkle with raw sugar. Bake for 20 or so minutes, or until they have browned slightly on top and bottom and the center of a scone springs back if you press it lightly with your index finger. Cool slightly and serve with clotted cream and your favorite jam. For best taste and texture, eat on the same day as baking.

Garden Progress and the Weekly Meal Plan: Third Week of May

I’m sitting here in my workout clothes because I am supposed to work-out this morning. Alas, I have not worked out yet and it’s nearly 10:30am. I got caught-up doing something pretty exciting–Hull Family Homestead can now take orders via our Facebook Page! Everything will be local pick-up only, I’m afraid. I once allowed shipping of jams, but the cost is prohibitive and I worry about the lids popping if I don’t pay for some kind of cooling methods for the package. But, if you live in Central Indiana, then shop away!

Presently we’re offering eggs, apple butter, and bread baked to order. My sourdough starter is ready for baking and so that will go up tomorrow. I’ve also gone ahead and added two strawberry jams, but we’re out of stock at present until the season starts up here in a few weeks. We’ll be adding more things as the season progresses. We may yet have some vegetable starts we can sell this season, but I need to go to the greenhouse and take stock. That is definitely something we hope to be able to do more of next year now that we have the grow light and the greenhouse.

It was supposed to have been a rainy weekend, so we hadn’t really planned on doing much. We felt we’d earned a rest, so for Saturday I planned a delicious homemade ravioli for dinner and then for Sunday bought a tri-tip roast from a local farm and planned a day of board games. As it happens, neither meal has been made yet, though the roast is sitting nicely in a rub of shallots, pepper, salt, rosemary, and garlic waiting patiently to be cooked today.

Instead of rain, it was beautiful almost the entire weekend, which means we managed to get a good portion of the main garden planted. We planted two of the three center beds: tomatoes, garlic, and onions in one bed, and then bell peppers, chili peppers, cabbage, carrots, and onion in another bed. Yet to plant is cucumbers and green beans in the final central bed (we already sowed parsnips here), and then all the corn and squashes.

I was concerned about our San Marzano tomato seedlings, as though they have nice growth on them, they’re still quite young. After it stormed the first night they were out, I went out in the morning with my coffee to inspect, and all was well–in fact, they had visibly grown. We had started them in plugs rather than small pots, and so they had been out of room and nutrients. They welcomed the wide-open space and happy compost-rich soil of the garden. My task for the day was organizing the greenhouse and getting a plan together that included more permanent fixtures–a growing area for vegetables year-round and tables for seed trays–so, confident in them, I did not circle back to check on the seedlings until late afternoon.

And that’s when I noticed that two of them were missing and the leaves were stripped off a third. I crouched down to investigate and saw a hole, crawling with tiny little ants, open where the first seedling should have been, as if, like in some cartoon, something had just come along and swallowed it up through the whole, leaving no trace. I looked at the second hole and found the same scene–Antmaggedon. I had never seen so many ants or witnessed ants eating tomato starts before, so color me confused. But it was definitely these tiny ants.

I’ve since removed and potted-on all the San Marzano’s in the garden and will keep them in the greenhouse until they’re older and can hopefully withstand pests with greater resilience. But, this is also why I want to experiment this year with growing tomatoes in the greenhouse. It’s safer. It’s also hotter, which will make for sweeter fruit. And of all the crops we grow, arguably tomatoes are the most important. They are so versatile and become so many wonderful jars of homemade canned food. So I like having an insurance policy against pests, diseases, and weather. I should have 12 San Marzano’s in the garden, and I’m hoping to have at least half that in the greenhouse. I have the seedlings for more than that, but lack the pots or growing space at present to do any more, and I still have to keep my Principe Borghese tomatoes in there, as well (these are for sundried tomatoes and require as much heat as you can give them). This dilemma is largely why I wanted to devote some time to sorting the organization and infrastructure inside the greenhouse.

Everything else we planted-out is quite happy, especially the cabbages. They were pretty pot-bound and we knew we’d needed to plant them out for weeks now, so I’m glad they’re in the ground.

This coming weekend we need to turn our attention to the forest. We’ll rent a wood chipper and have somewhere around 14 honeysuckle trees to cut down. The tops will get chipped and added to compost. The bottoms will be processed into fencing for the garden and what won’t work for that will get chipped and made into mulch. We have our mushroom spores ready to be drilled into a log for mushroom growing. I ordered the kids a hammock fort as a surprise early birthday present. And a portion of the newly cleared area will become our much-needed expanded composting area. 3 compost bays, 1 leaf mould bay, and a gigantic mulch pile. I can’t wait. Who knew compost would be this exciting?

Making the menu this week was really simple: I started with the meals that didn’t get made last week. πŸ™‚

Weekly Meal Plan
Monday: tri-tip roast beef with herb roasted new potatoes and carrots
Tuesday: seasonal greens and homemade ricotta stuffed ravioli in lemon butter sauce
Wednesday: tandoori chicken
Thursday: salad bar with the makings for black & blue salads (rollover meal from the roast)
Friday: mushroom stroganoff
Saturday: tacos!
Sunday: burgers and brats on the grill, baked beans, potato salad, coleslaw

Weekly Recipes: Mojo Pork with Caribbean Rice and Beans

I think I’ve mentioned previously my devoted love for rice and beans, so it should be no surprise that for my birthday last week I opted to make myself one of my favorite versions of rice and beans, a recipe I found rather fortuitously one evening several years ago. You see, my husband and I, in a post Game of Thrones and Sherlock slump, were looking for a show to watch and happened upon a British comedy-drama called Death in Paradise: awkward, be-suited British man descends upon beautiful tropical island where a surprising amount of murders keep happening amidst the gorgeous scenery. Ignoring the problematic colonial undertones, count me in (really, why do we always need a white, male British detective to help solve the murders of the islanders when there’s a perfectly smart, local, female detective literally sitting right there?). I like staring at rainforests, waterfalls, volcanoes and beaches while main characters dine and drink at cozy seaside restaurants.

So, one evening after a long day, Brian and I entered into our Caribbean fantasy trance and then got hungry and wished we had something that would mimic the feeling and flavors of the show we were watching. A quick google search landed me on this recipe from Immaculate Bites. I followed it as exactly as possible given what ingredients I had on hand, and fell in love. Mmmmmm rice and beans. I could eat bowl-fulls of it for three meals a day (and in fact, adding a fried egg on top, it does make a dandy breakfast; or folding it in to a tortilla makes it lunch). I’ve tweaked it slightly since then, but mainly still just happily follow the original recipe.

On another day a few years ago, Brian and I were also watching a movie most of you are probably familiar with. Those of us in love with John Favreau’s beautiful Mandolorian mind (and Elf, I mean, honestly, we owe the man so much), would have watched it simply because he was in it: the movie Chef. The story of how an over-worked restaurant chef finds his passion again cooking the food of his childhood and culture and re-invigorates the relationships in his life. Yes. Sign me up. (You can find John Favreau on Netflix cooking a few gems from this movie in the series The Chef Show).

In the movie, his signature dish is a Cuban sandwich made with this delightful looking pork. I googled around and found this recipe from Recipe Tin Eats, again trying to do it justice while also adding my own ingredient and time constraints. The result was delicious on a Cuban sandwich, just like in the movie, but then, I also wondered, what would make this even better? You know the answer: rice and beans. The answer is always rice and beans.

Combining the two now equals one of our family’s most favorite meals. Enjoy!

Caribbean Rice and Beans
Yield: 6-8 servings

1/4 C olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 sweet onion, diced
1 T Creole spice (recipe below)
2 C basmati rice
1 t dried thyme
1 13 ounce can coconut milk
1 15 ounce can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed*
2 bay leaves
sea salt and fresh pepper (to taste, but don’t be stingy)
2 C water
1-2 whole chili peppers (use 1 if using a hotter and more flavorful chili, use 2 if using a medium spice)**

Creole Spice:
1 1/2 T onion powder
1 1/2 T garlic powder
2 1/2 t black pepper
2 1/2 t white pepper
3 T paprika
1/2 – 1 t cayenne pepper
2 1/2 t oregano
1 1/2 t dried parsley
2 1/2 t dried thyme
2 1/2 t dried basil

*I’ve occasionally added 2 cans of red kidney beans, especially if I’m serving this as a main dish.
**The Immaculate Bites original recipe calls for a Scotch Bonnet pepper, which I have a hard time finding. I often have Hungarian hot wax or jalapeno on hand, in which case I use 2.

In a wide skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and whole pepper(s) and saute until onions have softened, about 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic, bay leaves, thyme, salt, and pepper, stirring, sauteing until fragrant–about 30 seconds. Add the rice and creole spice and cook 1-2 minutes more, stirring and coating the rice in all that goodness. Then add the beans, a little more salt and pepper, and stir in the can of coconut milk. Add the water and stir, making sure the coconut milk has dispersed. Then cover, let the rice come to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 20-23 minutes, until rice is done and all liquid has evaporated. As long as I have the heat low enough, I don’t experience issues with the coconut milk making the rice stick, but if your burners run hot, you might want to stir halfway through. Remove the bay leaves before serving. I like to leave the whole peppers in for storing leftovers, but don’t serve them. Unless, of course, you have *that person* in your family who wants to eat whole chili peppers. I won’t stand in their way of chili pepper happiness.

Mojo Pork
Yield: 8-10 servings

1 C cilantro
1 T citrus zest (orange, lemon, lime, or a mixture–in the movie it’s orange)
3/4 C orange, passion fruit, mango, or guava juice (in the movie it’s orange)
1/2 C lime juice
1/4 C mint leaves
8 cloves garlic
2 t ground oregano
2 t ground cumin
2 T honey
1 t sea salt
1 t black pepper
4-5 pounds pork shoulder or butt

Are you ready for how easy this is? In pre-COVID-19 days, I could put this together before I left for work and come home to deliciousness.

In a blender or food processor, add all the ingredients but the pork butt. Blend or process until thoroughly combined. Cut the pork butt into halves, or whatever shape will fit or crock pot or instant pot (or even dutch oven). I’ve even cut the pork into halves and frozen the other half of the butt in half the sauce for subsequent cookings. Put the pork butt into your preferred slow cooker, pour the sauce over the top, and cook 8 hours.

After slow cooking, I like to turn the saute function on and reduce the sauce down. Alternatively, you can also do this on the stovetop. It concentrates all that flavor even more. Reduce it until there’s just a little left, which is good for storing leftovers and reheating to keep its moisture. This goes on top of the yummy rice and beans. It can also go on a Cuban sandwich, or be folded into any kind of Latin-inspired dish featuring a tortilla you can imagine, which makes using-up leftovers a dream. Two or even three meals out of one cooking? Yes, please!

If you’re in more of a hurry, and have an instant pot, you can use manual pressure, but it works best if the meat is totally submerged. If you have more meat than sauce, divide the pressure times in half and flip it over after the first one. Takes a little longer this way, but still faster than the slow-cooked method (I speak from trial and error after wondering why in the world my meat would not get as tender as I wanted after two cycles in the IP. I finally realized I should flip it over and voila). Cook on manual pressure for 40-50 minutes, or until tender enough that it will shred it with a fork.

Weekly Recipes: Lemon Pea Shoot Pasta and Vegetable Fried Rice

My apologies for the delay in recipe posts this week! It’s a hectic time at the Homestead. I’ve been photographing a lot of our meals, and hope to catch-up with writing recipe posts this weekend (which should make it easier to publish during the week). πŸ™‚ Now–let’s get on with it!

This pasta is one of Chloe’s favorite meals. It rings true to the flavors of an alfredo without being quite so heavy (though it’s still not super good for you). It’s also a flexible base for a lot of different vegetables, making it versatile and seasonal. This week I used pea shoots that I ordered from Market Wagon, but you’ll see plenty of other ideas listed below since that isn’t a necessarily common ingredient.

Lemon Pea Shoot Pasta
Yield: 6 servings

1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
1/4 C red onion, finely diced
1 large clove garlic, minced
the zest and juice of 1 large Meyer lemon, about 2 T zest and 3 T juice
1 T honey
dash red pepper flakes
1/2 t sea salt (or more to taste)
1/4 t freshly ground black pepper (or more to taste)
1 to 1 1/2 C heavy cream
4 ounces fresh pea shoots
3/4 C freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
1 pound spaghetti, linguini, or fettucini noodles

No pea shoots? Try-
stirring in some frozen petite peas just until thawed
topping the finished pasta with roasted asparagus or broccoli
topping with sauteed zucchini and summer squash
sauteeing a medley of veggies with the lemon zest, removing, and topping
stirring in some spinach in the same step indicated for pea shoots
eating plain

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta. Meanwhile, in a large skillet heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the red onion and saute for 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid browning, until soft. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, and lemon zest. Stir for 30 seconds until fragrant, then add the honey and stir for another 15 or so seconds. Add the heavy cream, sea salt, and black pepper. While the heavy cream comes up to a simmer, check the water that it is boiling. If it’s rapidly boiling, add the spaghetti noodles and cook for 6 minutes (usually 1 to 2 minutes less than the package directions state because we’re also going to add them to the skillet later and they’ll keep cooking in the cream). Stir the heavy cream mixture and let it simmer to thicken while the pasta is cooking.

Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 – 1 C of the cooking water. Squeeze half of the lemon over the drained pasta, tossing it around to coat. Your heavy cream should have reduced by about a third at this point. Add the drained lemon pasta, the pea shoots, the juice of the other half of the lemon, a little more sea salt and black pepper (you want to be able to see pepper flakes), and the parmigiano-reggiano cheese. Toss everything together with tongs and cook 1-2 minutes. Add a little of the cooking liquid to keep the mixture thin enough to be a sauce as needed (to your preference; the sauce will thicken even more as it stands, so it’s best to err on the side of a smidge too runny for your liking at first, unless you’re serving immediately).

Vegetable Fried Rice
Yield: 6 servings

2-3 T olive oil
1/2 C sweet onion, diced
2 large carrots, peeled and diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 head of green cabbage, shredded
1 C petite frozen peas or fresh snow peas
4 eggs, scrambled
1 T sesame oil
1/2 t ground ginger
1/2 t red pepper flakes
1/2 C soy sauce (recommend Tamari low sodium)
1 1/2 C cooked basmati rice

Optional Additions-
Green onions
Bok Choy
Anything else you think sounds yummy!

Cook the rice in boiling salted water for 20-23 minutes, until done. Remove the rice to a parchment or silpat lined baking sheet and cool in the fridge. This is best done a day ahead, but, in a pinch, you can do this step first, then stick the rice in the freezer until ready to use in the recipe. This helps keep the rice from breaking down or forming globules as you fry it.

In a small nonstick skillet over medium heat, add 4 beaten eggs and a pinch of sea salt. Cook them, not disturbing as much as possible, as if you would to make an omelette (this is best accomplish by gently pushing the middle of the eggs away from the center and letting new eggs replace it). Once the eggs are cooked all the way through, you can use a knife or spatula to cut them into pieces. Set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a wok or wide skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and carrots, cooking and stirring until softened, about 2-3 minutes. Add the cabbage and, if using, fresh snow peas and stir 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic, ground ginger, red pepper flakes, and sesame oil and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the already cooked and “old” rice, toss around for a minute, then add the soy sauce and toss and stir to distribute it evenly. Add in the egg and, if using, the frozen peas. Put a lid on the pot to thaw the peas for 2 minutes. Serve.

Garden Progress and The Weekly Meal Plan for the Second Week of May

Last week was a very busy week! If you recall, we did May the 4th (be with you) with a Disney at Home day visiting Hollywood Studios. Then, we celebrated Cinco de Mayo, then my birthday, and then Mother’s Day (post coming about that). It’s also been a chilly few days in Central Indiana. We had a freeze warning Friday evening, which is a touch later than our normal last frost date, but has happened at least once before that I can recall in the 10 years we’ve been at the Homestead.

All of which is to say, that we’re not quite as far along as we’d hope to be right now, but are still plugging away very happily on the garden. The raised bed garden is pretty much done. I still need to lay brick edging around the beds and plant bulbs, but we got another truckload of compost Thursday evening and set to mulching everything with a nice thick layer, so all of the important bits are in place. Which means we are moving on from that project. It’s almost planting time for summer crops, so we spread most of the compost in the main garden, which we’d already tilled thoroughly so just had to lightly work it in. We then set-about laying out the garden and raking it up for planting.

You may recall we use a garden planner available online each year to lay-out the garden, and I’d shared the design in a previous garden update. However, now that the raised bed garden is complete, we’ve been looking for ways to unite the spaces and make it all look intentional and continuous. The easiest way to do this is to connect the raised bed garden to the main garden with a path, so we’d begun laying a path in the raised bed garden with this purpose in mind. Well, the path actually points straight down the side of the strawberry beds in the main garden all the way to the gate to the forest.

We can unite three areas of the garden if we simply move our main garden entrance over to the side and add an exit out the back. So, this has necessitated in re-doing the garden plan. Below I’ve pictured the first design plan for this year followed by what we’ve actually laid-out and raked-up now for planting.

It’s almost to scale, give or take a little. The main path from the entrance back to the forest beyond the blueberries lines up better in real life than it does here. I’m pleased with the formal structure the addition of permanent raised beds and blueberry and raspberry bushes give to the space. And we already have a climbing rose and clematis that will grow over an arbor to help unite the two gardens even more. Next year I’ve even thought about adding a shallow border at the front, since I’ll likely take cuttings from the plants in the perennial bed in the raised garden and will want a place to put the new young plants. That would help to really visually unite the spaces even more.

You’ll notice we’re able to get two more kinds of beans into the garden and also added eggplant. I’m not super keen on eggplant, but Brian absolutely loves it and I’ll tolerate it in ratatouille. We also added more strawberries, which is a bonus in my book. With the amount of jam I make (and if I ever intend to sell jam again, which I just might), we’ll need as many as I can fit. I’ve also added new varieties, which is exciting. It’s good with fruit to always have at least two varieties in the garden, and now we’ll have three–two ever-bearers and one June-bearing variety. The June-bearers are little babies I got for not a lot of money, so I’ll likely pinch-off the flowers this year and not let them fruit so that they put their energy into growing nice healthy roots. But, next year, that means I’ll get a larger influx of berries all at once, which will help me make a lot of jam all at once. The other varieties will continue to produce throughout the summer, which will help with eating. πŸ™‚

It was too cold to plant this weekend, but throughout the week I’ll be plugging things in. Because of all the work on the raised bed garden, we’re actually late getting some things in the ground, such as carrots, parsnips, beets, and onions. That’s alright, though, because next Spring we’ll be ready and putting in the very early Spring crops we have normally missed will be so much easier in the raised beds. I already ordered a wide variety of broccoli, lettuces, and greens in delicious anticipation for next year. Succession and year-round planting has always been a weakness in our garden with its old infrastructure, and I’m so excited that between the greenhouse and the raised beds, we’ve vastly improved. I’ll likely still wait a bit on tomatoes, peppers, and chilis, as they do really want a warm soil. It all depends on what happens with temperatures into this weekend.

And lastly in the garden, we started some of the necessary forest management. We do this periodically, but haven’t seriously done it now for too many years–probably around 4. We have a tremendous amount of invasive honeysuckle on our property and in the forest that can choke-out trees and destroy the forest undergrowth as it leeches nutrients from the soil and light from the sun. It’s massive and, for a few years before we started doing the forest management, made the trails back in it impassable. Even though we don’t own the forest (oh how we wish we did! It’s basically our dream property), we’ve taken on the task of keeping the trail clear and pay special attention to the area directly behind our fence. We plan to clear-out all the honeysuckle, restore some forest undergrowth found in the rest of the forest–such as wild garlic, woodland flowers, and ferns–and also plan to grow our own crop of mushrooms back here (look for a post about this in a few weeks).

It’s not an ideal time of year to be doing heavy pruning of large shrubs and trees, as birds are still sitting on unhatched eggs, so we are being careful. But, it’s got to be done for the health of the forest. We can re-use a lot of the honeysuckle wood to build our new garden fence and arbor, and plan to rent a chipper to chip the rest of it for mulch and compost, so nothing will go to waste. The honeysuckle will grow back, as it did over the past 4 years, but we plan to keep on it better. The past 4 years in the Hull Family were pretty hectic, so it’s no surprise this task got away from us.

Now, after all the anticipatory prep work in the garden and all of the holiday and special event food of last week, we’re aching for some vegetables on our plates. So, this week’s meal plan certainly reflects that. I also have been ordering local farm products off of Market Wagon, and have been so happy to have access to local foods and the delightful and seasonal local produce. Last week I treated us to ramps, which we used to have in our forest but I haven’t found recently (I’m trying to propagate it for re-planting, but we’ll see how that goes. I’m dubious it’ll take). Here’s the rundown:

Weekly Meal Plan

Monday: cheese quesadillas and leftover Caribbean rice and beans
Tuesday: refried bean enchiladas
Wednesday: cabbage and mushroom gratin
Thursday: Tuscan white bean and baby kale skillet
Friday: tandoori chicken with basmati rice
Saturday: white lasagna with seasonal greens
Sunday: grilling out a meat of some kind with a variety of side dishes (weather permitting)

That’s it! I’ll have some recipe posts coming-up this week. I actually have quite the backlog going. I’ll also have a post about our Mother’s Day tea. Until then!

COVID-19 Morale Boost:May the 4th Disney at Home Day

After the success of our first Disney at Home Day, which I had planned very much on the fly, the kids kept asking to do it again. On our first day, we had park hopper tickets and visited all of our favorite highlights from each park. For subsequent Disney at Home days, then, I thought it best to divide them into specific park days. What would a perfect day look like at Animal Kingdom, Epcot, Magic Kingdom, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios?

The first thing I did was hop on Shop Disney to look for merchandise the kids could “shop” for. They had asked for Animal Kingdom first, because that’s our favorite park. And then I knew I wanted to send them to Hollywood Studios because we all love the Mandolorian and they’ve been asking for Baby Yoda/The Child merch. We have a Disney Visa card from Chase, which means I’ve accrued quite a few rewards dollars. I usually save them for the 2-3 years in between Disney vacations to spend in the parks, becoming our shopping budget while on vacation. But, since we were “going” to the parks, I opted to use rewards dollars to purchase the special tokens they would take away after each park visit. I always let the kids pick an item at each location because it provides something concrete for them to help hold on to the memories we made there. It’s less about what it is and more about the activity of picking it out while they’re in this moment and place and carrying it with them.

I was still thinking Animal Kingdom would be up first, and zeroed in on some merch for that park that aligned with some of our new family traditions. Then I pre-ordered a Baby Yoda plushy that I knew wouldn’t be released in time, but that would make a fun surprise later (who knows, maybe we’ll “visit” Disney Springs and go shop some more?). And lastly I found these customizable Baby Yoda t-shirts that I knew they’d love, especially after I added one of our favorite tag lines to the bottom. Score. I ordered everything, acknowledged the Shop Disney polite warning about COVID-19 and shipping times, and then thought we likely wouldn’t be able to enact any of these visits until the end of May.

I set about planning the details of the Animal Kingdom day, got that situated, and then plotted the Hollywood Studios day. Much to my delighted surprise, a week and a half after ordering these customized t-shirts, they showed-up on my doorstep looking all adorable and perfect whereas the Animal Kingdom merch was yet to arrive. It was two weeks before May the 4th (be with you), and so how perfect would it be to go to Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios on that day?

The kids still would have e-learning, but I knew I could build-in some “hotel relaxation” time for them to handle it, and we could also turn some things in a day late, if necessary. The kids’ morale and motivation had been suffering, and I’d perked them up with a “field trip” to the Starbucks Drive-Thru (oh how our standards of what constitutes an outing have shifted). I finalized my plans, made sure Brian was on board with a few details I needed him to help with, and then let them know that in a week they were getting a surprise so they had the joy of anticipation.

On the morning of their surprise trip, I woke them up with a shocked expression and said, “You guys! Our house has magically transported to Disney World! Wake up!” then let them stumble out of bed to discern exactly where in Disney World we were. They immediately caught-on and happily joined the pretend game, and discerned that our living room/dining room/kitchen were in the parks, and the bedrooms were our house back at the hotel, which after looking out the window we decided was our favorite hotel, Coronado Springs. We then had great fun laughing at the fact that Disney apparently employs cats to walk around their parks and greet guests now, as Charles and Kali (our two kitties) greeted the kids.

Here’s the basic schedule for the Disney at Home Hollywood Studios visit
-Early Magic Hours: Breakfast at Woody’s Lunch Box in Toy Story Land
-Score a boarding pass for Rise of the Resistance during
-Ride all Toy Story Land rides before Early Magic Hours end and lines are shorter
-Leave to go back to hotel (e-learning), but shop on Hollywood Blvd on our way out
-Reservations at Sci-Fi Dine In Theater with a special viewing of The Mandolorian
-Fastpasses immediately after for Smuggler’s Run in Galaxy’s Edge
-Shopping in the Batuu Marketplace in Galaxy’s Edge
-Boarding Time for Rise of the Resistance
-Dinner at Mama Melrose’s Ristorante Italiano
-Ride Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway
-Watch Galactic Spectacular fireworks

Early Magic Hours at Woody’s Lunch Box
Woody’s lunch box features delicious homemade pop tarts, one of them being a Nutella-filled delight. While I didn’t have quite enough Nutella to fill all the pop tarts, I made sure to do 2 Nutella-filled, and then mixed more traditional pop tart flavors in for the other 4: brown sugar and cinnamon and strawberry jam. I had the Toy Story Land music playing thanks to YouTube and had already plated their homemade pop tarts, so that as soon as they walked into the main living area they would be able to guess where we were and join the game.

Homemade Pop Tarts
Yield: about 6

2 C AP flour
1 T sugar
1 t salt
1 C butter, cut into chunks but left very cold
2 large eggs (or 1 extra large)
4 T milk

Strawberry Jam
1/4 C brown sugar mixed with 2 t AP flour and 1/2 t cinnamon

1/2 C powdered sugar
2-3 T water or milk (to desired consistency)
scant drops of colors of your choice
sprinkles of choice

1 beaten egg for brushing the pastries

For the dough- Whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt. Cut the cold butter into thirds longways and then sliced across the thirds in 1/4 inch slices, leaving you pats–not too small to make your dough not flaky but not too big that it’s difficult to cut-in. Cut in the very cold butter just until you have large pecan-sized pieces. A pastry cutter will make this job so simple, but if you don’t have one use your hands, but work fast to avoid melting the butter with the heat of your hands. Blend the eggs with the milk until well-combined, and then mix that into the dough with a rubber scraper. The original recipe called for less egg and less milk, but I had to add more to get the dough to come together, and so I’ve reflected those changes here.

Divide the dough into two roughly-shaped 3 inch by 5 inch rectangles, cover, and let it rest in the fridge for 30 minutes. This will help the butter firm back up so you can roll the dough without flattening your nice big butter chunks (these chunks are what will make your pop tart crust flaky and delicious).

The filling- While the dough is resting, organize and/or prep your fillings. It’s easiest to do one filling, and really, I would have if I’d had the amount of Nutella I needed. If you’re making the brown sugar cinnamon filling, just incorporate the brown sugar, flour, and cinnamon together in a small bowl with your fingertips and set aside. You will need around 2 T of filling per pop tart.

Assembly- Generously flour a board. Roll-out one rough rectangle of dough until it’s about an 1/8 of an inch thick. Trim the uneven edges off to make a rectangle and set those aside. This is the bottom half of your pop tart. If you’re doing one filling, you can spread the filling evenly over the whole rectangle. If you’re doing multiples you can either spread your filling in thirds (for three fillings) over the rectangle now, or, if its easier for you to visualize, you can go ahead and divide your dough into sections and then spread the filling. I went ahead and divided my dough so that I could be sure the fillings would not mix once I topped and cut.

Roll-out the second rough rectangle the same as the first. Place it on top of the filled rectangle or rectangles, depending on your technique above. Use a fork to crimp the edges down to seal the edges. Be a little firm with it so you know you’ve got a good deal and no filling will leak out (this is most important for jam. The other fillings tend to behave a little better). Take the fork and lightly prick the top of the pop tarts with some holes to help steam escape. Beat an egg and use a pastry brush to wipe egg onto the pop tarts (this will help them turn golden brown in the oven). Place the pop tarts onto a parchment lined baking sheet and put into the fridge again for 30 minutes. I did all of this^ the night before so I could wake-up and bake.

Baking- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake pop tarts for 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool for 10-15 minutes and top with icing and sprinkles of choice.

Icing- While pop tarts are in the oven, combine the powdered sugar with a teeny bit of water and whisk. You want a drizzle consistency, so you can add more water or more powdered sugar to get it right. Life the whisk and watch the drizzles running off of it to see if it’s as thick as you’d like. I divided mine to color it into three different colors (for three fillings), but you could leave it plain or just use one color. Go light as there’s not a lot of powdered sugar and the dye will be pretty vibrant. Once the pop tarts have cooled, use the whisk or a spoon to drizzle the icing over (or you can spread it if you made it thicker), then top with sprinkles and let harden. Serve.

These can be frozen–score!
adapted from this recipe from King Arthur Flour

Ride all Toy Story Land rides before Early Magic Hours ends and lines are shorter
Thanks to many YouTubers for their most excellent ride POVs. We have a few favorite Vloggers (most notably Tim and Jenn Tracker), but a quick YouTube search for “Slinkly Dog Dash Ride POV,” for example, will net you plenty of results. We like ones that show us parts of the cue at entrance and exit, as well, because it adds to the illusion. For Toy Story Mania, we used video game controllers to pretend we were able to steer and shoot, and it added to the fun.

Leave to go back to hotel (e-learning), but shop on Hollywood Blvd on our way out
Here’s the link to the t-shirts again. There were lots of wonderful choices for tees at Shop Disney. The kids were so excited, Liam ripped-off his pajama shirt and threw it on the ground so he could put his new Baby Yoda shirt on (I’d already washed them). Thankfully, we had a Disney Store reusable bag I could put their purchases in. We played Hollywood Studios Hollywood Blvd background music while I walked very slowly to the bag and made loud commentary about finding them the perfect item. The important part is to stay in character–if you’re having fun and acting like you believe we’re actually there, then they’ll follow.

Reservations at Sci-Fi Drive-In Theater with a special viewing of The Mandolorian
What’s more fun than eating burgers in a retro car while watching movies? I had thought we’d start watching Rise of Skywalker (we saw it in the theaters), but with e-learning, our schedule got compacted and so I opted for re-watching some favorite episodes of The Mandolorian. I asked Brian to help by making a cardboard car for them to sit in, and he didn’t disappoint. If we’d really been over-achievers, we could have painted some of the details on, but honestly, the kids loved it just the way it was. The important part was a windshield.

For lunch, I pulled chairs over to make it mimic the scale of the Sci-Fi Drive-In, but immediately after lunch, you’ll notice the windshield plays an important role in ride experience for Smugglers Run. We had grilled-out cheeseburgers a few days before this (deliberately planned), so I just had to reheat those and add more frozen french fries.

The big ta-da here, though, were the Baby Yoda Crazy Shakes.

You may recall I had bought an ice cream maker for myself. Well, I’m definitely making good use of it.

Baby Yoda Crazy Shakes:
Yield: 2 pint-sized shakes

For the shake-
3 scoops homemade or store-bought vanilla ice cream
2-3 T Hershey’s chocolate syrup (optional)
1/2 C milk (to desired consistency)

For the glass-
1/4 C white chocolate, melted
1/4 C sprinkles of choice

For the cookie-
Your favorite cookie, store-bought or homemade. I bought mine off Market Wagon. I have my limits and I was not up to making cookies.

For the Baby Yoda element-
I had Brian 3D print this from Thingiverse
What, no personal access to a 3D printer? Shocking. πŸ˜‰ There’s some cute ones on Etsy.

For the glasses- Melt 1/4 C white chocolate in a bowl set over a pot filled with a few inches of barely simmering water. Use a rubber spatula to stir and stir. You want the chocolate to melt with residual heat more than anything, as if you get it too hot it’s likely to seize or separate. If you were extra fancy, you’d use a thermometer to make sure it’s within 87 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit (called tempering), but we’re not that fancy. If it’s melted and not lumpy or gross-looking, it’s okay. Remove the bowl from the pot and set on a tea towel. Prepare a small flat plate with the sprinkles of your choice. Working quickly, take two pint mason jars and dip just the tops where the band of the lid would normally go. You may need to use the rubber spatula to help it coat all the way around. Lift out of the chocolate and into the sprinkles, coating all the way around. You may need to hold the jar horizontal for a few seconds, above the sprinkles, to keep the chocolate from running. Once this is done, set the jars upright on a baking sheet and transfer to the fridge to cool and harden.

For the milk shake- Scoop ice cream into a blender. Add any desired mix-ins or sauces. Add milk. Blend that yummy goodness.

Assembly- Pour the milkshake into the prepared and cooled mason jar. Top with half or a whole cookie of your choice. Put that adorable Baby Yoda onto your straw, and serve.

Fastpasses immediately after for Smuggler’s Run in Galaxy’s Edge
Smugglers Run features a team-play element, wherein a pilot, an engineer, and one or two gunners (is there a mechanic? I’m not sure. We’ve never ridden the actual ride) work together to get the Millenium Falcon safely on its mission, avoiding the bad guys as much as possible. Remember that windshield on our cardboard cars, well, it’s about to become the viewscreen of a space ship. Chairs removed, everyone sat on the floor in position (pilot in front, gunner on one side, engineer on another) and we aligned the windshield with our television. After loading a Smugglers Run POV on the screen, we each pretended to play our roles–steering with a video game controller, pushing make-believe buttons to shoot at bad guys, and pushing more make-believe buttons to fix the ship–while following the POV on screen. If you’re wondering whether this tricks your brain into thinking this just might be more real than it is, it does. It was super fun.

Shopping in the Batuu Marketplace in Galaxy’s Edge-
Because it was May the 4th, and lots of other things are taking place on the internet, I gave each kid $25 (just like I would set a budget if I planned to turn them loose in the actual Batuu Marketplace) and turned them loose on the internet, with the caveat that their purchase must be Star Wars and/or Disney related. Liam selected a Kylo Ren Fortnite Skin and Chloe got some special May the 4th merch in Roblox. This gave me some time to clean-up and finish-up some work I had to do.

Boarding Time for Rise of the Resistance
Because of our Early Magic Hours, we were able to score boarding passes for Rise of the Resistance (which is not using the Fast Pass option just yet). We reconvened at our designated boarding time, and found a good POV on YouTube. It’s a long ride, especially with cue entrances and exits.

Dinner at Mama Melrose’s Ristorante Italiano
I made a classic Italian-American feast: appetizer, soup/salad, pasta, breadsticks. The appetizer was frozen mozzarella sticks, minestrone soup, breadsticks made just like my pizza crust with garlic butter, but in stick form, and lemon pea shoot pasta (recipe coming on another post). The lemon pea shoot pasta was not classic, in my opinion, and a good meat sauce marinara would have been more authentic, but the lemon pasta is also quick and easy and I was tired. πŸ™‚ I found some Italian background music on YouTube to complete it.

Ride Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway
Such a cute ride. Like every other ride, we looked for a ride POV on YouTube.

Watch Galactic Spectacular fireworks
Of course we would. This also was searched for on YouTube.

What a wonderful day filled with good memories and happy thoughts and feelings. I think the kids felt loved, special, and excited; ready to tackle e-learning and sheltering-in-place with renewed vigor. It was exhausting for me, not the least because I was also trying to finish-up some important work in the pockets of time in the schedule. I’m glad we did it, though, and I’m excited for our next Disney at Home day–Animal Kingdom. Stay tuned!

Snacks: Crunchy Chunky Granola and Healthier Chewy Oatmeal Cookies

One afternoon late last week, I started making granola and wound-up with cookies.

It was a rainy day near the end of the spring semester at my university, and even while I had so much to do to wrap-up one semester, I was also preparing for the summer term. My email inbox was hopping, messages flying in and out and back again almost as quickly as I sent them. My head was pounding, and I hadn’t even started on the main item on my work to-do list for the day; and that item had a serious deadline. I needed reinforcements.

Or, refreshments, rather. Now that the entire family is obsessed with British gardening television, we watch it of an evening as a family, commenting on it the way others might a fashion show: “would you look at the size of that tomato plant; it’s beautiful!” “yes! shhh I think he’s going to tell us what variety it is.” “do you think he pruned early or late?” πŸ™‚ While we enjoy our program, it has become a new family tradition to take tea, just as we watch our British gardening heroes enjoying their cuppas. So, naturally, when I needed a refreshment, I reached for tea.

But I also wanted something delicious to accompany it. Rainy, hard days are good for tea parties, but I was so tired and my head was pounding and the thought of even attempting something as simple as a scone seemed ridiculous. What’s something I just have to stir? I began to make our old standard granola recipe. I used to keep a cookie jar of it full on the counter for easy, relatively healthy snacks that could satisfy a sweet and/or crunchy craving. Liam, as a toddler, would always ask for “granilla,” as a special treat, and I was happy to oblige, knowing that it was healthier than other items on the “sweet treat” list.

Since the shelter-in-place order I have been making it again, much to the delight of my family. Except, something happened that afternoon. I did all the same steps, and then suddenly, I just didn’t even think. I acted on pure, refreshment-deprived instinct. I added a single egg and a cup of flour before I stirred in the oats and other mix-ins. Realizing what I had done, I then went for broke and added a touch of baking powder and some chocolate chips and baked them in cookie shape rather than pressed into the pan, as I would for granola.

Did I just decide to make granola chocolate cookies? Yes, yes I did. And they were delicious. So delicious I ate three with a cup of peppermint tea and that, my dears, is when the sun came out. Was it the cookies? We’ll never know. πŸ˜‰

Healthier Chewy Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies
Yield: 1 dozen

1/3 C raw honey or pure maple syrup
1/3 C brown sugar
1 T vanilla extract
1/2 t almond extract
2 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t sea salt
1/2 C coconut oil, melted
1 egg
1 C AP flour
1/2 t baking powder
2 C old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 C sliced almonds
1/2 C shredded unsweetened coconut
3/4 C chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Melt the coconut oil over medium heat. Meanwhile add the honey/maple syrup and brown sugar into a bowl and stir to combine. Add the extracts, cinnamon, sea salt. Add the melted coconut oil and whisk. Then add the egg and whisk. Stir in everything else. Use a cookie scoop or spoon to portion out into a cookie shape on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 8-10 minutes, cool, and then devour. Serve.

Hull Family Granola
Yield: 1 half baking-sheet pan

1/3 C raw honey or pure maple syrup
1/3 C brown sugar
1 T vanilla extract
1/2 t almond extract
2 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t sea salt
1/2 C coconut oil, melted
3 C old-fashioned rolled oats
1 C sliced almonds
3/4 C shredded unsweetened coconut
1-2 C optional dried fruit mix-ins (at the end after baking)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Melt the coconut oil over medium heat. Meanwhile add the honey/maple syrup and brown sugar into a bowl and stir to combine. Add the extracts, cinnamon, sea salt. Add the melted coconut oil and whisk. Add all the dry ingredients (oats, almonds, and coconut) and mix well. Lightly grease with coconut oil a baking sheet or half baking sheet. Press the granola mixture into the pan just as you would as if you were making rice krispy treats. Evenly spread it and push it into the corners (not the full pan if you’re using a full sheet. Just build a straight-edge at about the halfway point of the pan). Bake for 25 – 30 minutes. If you want a cereal-style granola, immediately upon removing the pan from the oven, break the granola up with a wooden spoon and mix in your dried fruit. If you want big chunks of granola “krispy” treats, wait until the granola cools before breaking it apart. Most of the time we forego fruit mix-ins and go for the krispy-treat style chunks that make for a satisfying, cookie-jar snack.