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Sunday, October 11, 2020

Foraging In The Forests of Slovenia

Foraging is a big part of Slovene culture. 


Most travel shows that focus on Slovenia at least mention it in one way or another (most recently the Netflix show Restaurants on the Edge in Season 2)  because it is so quintessential, but also because it is an art form that other parts of the world are slowly leaving behind. As Slovenia's gastronomy is getting more notice (best female chef in the world), much of the "where" concerning their food is in the spotlight. Chefs here love to use local and seasonal ingredients. But they're not the only ones. It is a pastime that most people engage in on one level or another. Some pensioners use foraging as a way to supplement their income by selling whatever is in season at their local markets.



Slovenes forage for all kinds of things, such as herbs, berries, elderflower, chestnuts, and most importantly mushrooms.



When we were living in Ljubljana, the capital city, we didn't really do any of these things, however NOW, since we live in a small town in a different part of the country - we have been able to be a part of many more authentic Slovene experiences. This weekend our friends invited us to visit their parents and go chestnut and mushroom hunting with them. We were delighted at the invitation, and had an incredible time.



When foraging - especially for mushrooms - it is very important that one knows what they are doing, and can identify the types of mushrooms in the woods.



People who take mushroom foraging seriously know what they're doing, but many also have a mushroom encyclopedia to make sure the food they're bringing home to their family won't do them harm. Our friends' dad guided us through which mushrooms to pick, and then had his wife consult their encyclopedia when we got home. We were all good! We found chanterelle mushrooms as well as porcini. 



The Slovene Forest Service mandates that those who forage for mushrooms are required to use baskets so that the spores can fall to the ground as you are walking along in the forest. 



To add to the sweetness of the day, our friends' dad actually made the baskets we used. They were beautiful, and he made them out of reeds that he - you guessed it - foraged.




I like mushrooms fine (and those chanterelle were the best I've ever had), but I was there mostly for the chestnuts. Chestnuts are so quintessential fall! In Hungary, where I grew up they also cook/bake with chestnuts, but I never knew much about them. There was a tree in front of my house that dropped horse chestnuts (the non-edible kind), from which we made chestnut people using toothpicks - but I don't recall ever seeing actual chestnuts in the wild. I know we have them, because my Hungarian grandma and neighbor ladies all made chestnut puree, and we had roasted chestnuts at the Christmas market, but that was the some total of my knowledge.




The area where we were searching for chestnuts was actually right along the Hungarian border. The way one can know if the chestnut they are holding is edible or not, is this: if it is pointy at the end and has a little "tail", it is edible. 


Because chestnuts are wild, there is no way to know how much of a "harvest" there will be. Additionally, there are quite a few people visiting these forests every year with the same goal in mind - to find as many chestnuts as possible. We weren't sure how much we would find. As it turned out, we had nothing to fear, and had an abundance of chestnuts to choose from. 





To make sure that no one can hog all the chestnuts, the Slovene Forest Service only allows 2 kg of chestnuts per person. Luckily for us, kids count as full people too, and we were able to take home quite a lot. 




After our lovely time of hiking, discovery, foraging, chatting and taking in all the natural beauty we headed home to our friends' parents house, where their mom treated us to a delicious and traditional Slovene meal. Once we had finished with that, they showed our kids around on their property where they have an orchard, fields, gardens, and an old tractor that each of our kids had a chance to drive. Needless to say, childhood memories were made.




When we returned home, we saw our elderly neighbors out an about in their front yard, and we decided to take them over a bag of chestnuts. Their family visits every weekend, and they had grandkids smiling and running around all over the yard. The wife told me that she hadn't seen me much this week and had been worried that I was sick. I replied that I had actually just started back at work with more hours, but really appreciated her concern. 
She explained that she and her husband usually went foraging for chestnuts in the fall as well, but that due to COVID-19 they weren't going anywhere at all. They grow all their own produce, and their children bring them anything else they might need.


There is such beauty in connecting with nature and taking in all of the splendor of God's creation - the trees, the sunlight, the sounds of the birds, even the bugs that are all part of the eco system. 

But yesterday also reminded me that it is even more important to connect with our community, those living around us and inhabiting the same spaces that we are. There are so many studies that show that cultures who live intertwined with their community lead happier and more fulfilled lives than those who live more individualistically.



Living in the digital age, we are becoming more and more isolated which is then being compounded right now by this pandemic. 

Yesterday was a great reminder to find joy in the simpler, everyday things and to then turn around and spread those feelings with the people around us.



Thanks, Slovenia. You really are one in a million.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Llama Cake Recipe and Instructions

I am very much still a cake-baking novice.
I've only frosted a couple other cakes before this one, and don't have a wealth of knowledge to give you, but what I do know I will share with you. I will break down for you all the steps you need to bake this cake - or any cake with a similar look.


We are going to take things one step at a time.

The Cookies

Tools:
Llama and cactus cookie cutters (If you're in Europe, you can also find these on amazon.co.uk)
Rolling pin
Baking paper
Cookie tin or large Tupperware-type container
Offset spatula
Stand mixer
Paddle attachment 

Ingredients:
3/4 cup (170 grams) unsalted butter (softened at room temperature - approx 2 hours)
3/4 (150 gr) cup sugar
1 egg
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups (256 grams) all-purpose flour

Directions:

1. Cream together butter and sugar on medium setting for about 20-30 seconds.

2. While mixer is going add egg and vanilla extract.

3. On a low speed add in baking powder and salt.

4. Still on the low speed, add the flour 1/2 cup at a time.

5. Mix until flour just combined.

6. Pour onto a slightly floured surface. Kneed into a ball for about 10 seconds, then flatten into a disc shape.

7. Using your (lightly floured) rolling pin with thickness gauges, roll dough to 1/4 inch thickness.

8. Get out your cookie tin or Tupperware out, as well as sheets of baking paper that fit inside.

9. Dip your cookie cutter in flour, then cut the desired shape out of the dough. Use an offset spatula to lift them into your cookie tin or Tupperware. Make sure the cookies do not touch each other. When you have filled one layer of cookies, add a new sheet of baking paper and continue until you have used up all of your dough.



10. Feel your tin and place in refrigerator for 20-30 minutes.

11. Preheat your oven to 350 F/180 C.

12. Once your oven has reached the appropriate heat, remove your chilled cookies from the refrigerator, line a baking sheet with baking paper, transfer them onto it and bake them for 5-7 minutes, depending on size. You want the edges to just barely brown.

13. When you remove them from the oven, make sure you allow them to cool for 5-7 minutes before trying to remove them from your baking sheet.




14. Allow to fully cool before attempting to do anything else with them. If you are going to decorate them at a later date, use the same method as when they went in the fridge - line a cookie tin or container with baking paper, and move cookies into it using sheets of baking paper between each layer. Place in freezer, to be decorated at another time. The cookies will keep like this fora couple months.


Decorating with Royal Icing

Tools:
Zip-top bags
Toothpicks
Small bowls
Spoons
Stand mixer
Paddle attachment
Food-safe black marker

Ingredients:
1 lb (453 grams) powdered sugar
6 tbsp warm water

(I decorated my cookies 2 days before the party. Any earlier, and I think they would be too dry.)

Directions:

1. Watch as many YouTube tutorials as you'd like.

2. Combine powdered sugar, meringue powder and water on medium speed for 5 minutes (until stiff peaks form). (Cover with a damp kitchen towel to keep from drying out while you're working.)

3. Spoon out about a cup of white icing into a bowl. One tsp at a time, add water until it reaches the desired consistency. (Mine fell somewhere between piping and flood consistency.)

4. Fill your zip-top bag with your icing, then cut a very very small bit off the tip of one of the bottom corners of your bag.

5. Follow the outline of your llama, leaving their tail portion empty.

6. Once the outline is complete, fill in the space, using a toothpick to even things out and pop any air bubbles.

7. Allow to set up for a bit. (This is a great time to mix up a green and start on your cactuses, if you're making them, too.)

8. Spoon out about 1/4 cup of white icing, using a toothpick add just a bit of ivory gel color. Add water 1/2 tsp at a time to reach desired consistency. Fill piping bag, snip tip, and make tail and snout.

9. Repeat that step for every color you choose to decorate the rest of you llama with - their saddle, any other decorations you might want to add. The same applies for making the cacti. Allow your icing to dry a bit each time before adding the next element.

10. Once they're all done, place on large baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and allow to dry for full 24 hours. 




11. Once they are dry, using your food safe marker draw on their faces.



The Cake

I'm not trying to take any credit for this recipe, it's from Chel Sweets, and so is the frosting recipe. I'm writing it out here as a reference, and do easily visit again if I need. 

Ingredients:
3 cups (390 grams) all purpose flour 
3 cups (600 grams) sugar
2 1/2 tsp (10 grams) baking powder
1 tsp (6 grams) salt
1 cup (227 grams) room temperature unsalted butter
1 cup (235 grams) egg whites (approx. from 7 eggs)
1 1/2 cup (345 grams) buttermilk at room temperature
1 tbsp (28 grams) vegetable oil
2 tsp (8 grams) vanilla extract

* makes 3 x 8 inch layers

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F / 175°C. Line a 8 inch / 20 cm pan with a parchment round, and grease with non-stick baking spray.
  2. Mix together 3 cups all purpose flour, 3 cups sugar, 2 1/2 tsp baking powder and 1 tsp salt in a stand mixer with a paddle attachment or hand mixer until fully combined.
  3. Mix in 1 cup of unsalted butter slowly into the dry ingredients on a low speed. Continue to mix until no large chunks of butter remain and the mixture looks crumbly.
  4. Pour in 1 cup of egg whites and mix on low until just incorporated. Mix in 1 1/2 cups buttermilk in two installments, on a low speed.
  5. Add in 2 Tbsp of vegetable oil and 2 tsp of vanilla extract and mix at a low speed until fully incorporated.
  6. If you plan to color your cake layers, add in the gel food coloring with the vanilla and oil.
  7. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, then beat on a low speed for about 30 seconds to make sure everything is properly mixed together.
  8. I only have one 8 inch pan, so I had to do my best to eyeball how much batter looked like about a third of it. Ladle the batter into your prepared pan.
  9. Bake for 33-35 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs. Allow the pan to cool for 10 minutes, then run a small offset spatula around perimeter of the pan to separate the cake from the pan. Apply a new baking paper round, spray with non-stick baking spray, and repeat for 3 other layers.
  10. Allow to fully cool before attempting to handle.
  11. Use a serrated knife to level the tops of the layers right before you plan to assemble your cake, or you can wrap and freeze them in you're making them in advance. I wrapped and froze them just as this link suggested. 

+ If you make these cake layers in advance and freeze them, let them thaw for about 20 minutes before making your cake. The cake layers should still be slightly cold to the touch, which will make it easier to assemble your cake. I found them easier to level and assemble this way.

I decided to assemble the layers the day before the party.
For this, I needed frosting.

I once again turned to Chel Sweets. She says she makes 1 1/2 portion when decorating a cake. I actually didn't catch that until after, and made it 1 portion. I had just enough frosting. So, if I was wanting thicker frosting, or something like that, I would do what she suggests, and do a 1 1/2 portion.

Ingredients:

2 cups (453 grams) room temperature unsalted butter
1 tbsp (12 grams) vanilla extract
1/2 tsp (3 grams) salt
7 cups (907 grams) powdered sugar
3 tbsp (45 grams) heavy cream
gel food coloring

  1. Beat 2 cups of unsalted butter on a medium speed for 30 seconds until smooth with a paddle attachment / stand mixer or a hand mixer.
  2. Mix in 1 tbsp vanilla extract and 1/2 tsp salt on a low speed.
  3. Slowly add in 7 cups of powdered sugar, 1 cup at a time. Alternate with 3 tbsp of heavy cream, and mix on a low speed.
  4. Mix on low until the ingredients are fully incorporated and the desired consistency is reached. 
  5. If the frosting is too thick, add in additional cream (1 tbsp at a time). If the frosting is too thin, add in more powdered sugar (quarter of a cup at a time).
  6. If you plan to color the buttercream, add in the gel food coloring once the frosting is fully made, and beat on low until it reach the desired colored. I used pink and a little yellow.
  7. Watch lots of youtube videos on how to frost and assemble a cake.

Assembly:

Tools:
turntable
8 inch cake disk
frosting bag
offset spatula

1. Remove frozen cake layers from freezer. Unwrap and allow to thaw a little. 

2. Using a serrated knife, cut off "dome" of cake, making it level.

3. Place an 8 inch metal cake disk on a turntable. (A turntable is very helpful, but you could probably do without. The metal disk is great for keeping the cake neat and steady, and moving it from the workspace to the cake stand.)

4. Put a dollop of frosting on the disk to help the cake not shift. 

5. Place your first cake layer on top of that dollop. Scoop out about a cup of frosting on top, and using an offset spatula evenly spread it out.

6. Place your second layer on top, being careful to line up your layers. Scoop out another cup of frosting, spread it out evenly.

7. Place your third cake layer on top. Add approx. 1 cup of frosting to top and spread out evenly.

8. Using a piping bag, squeeze out frosting along the side of the cake. Using an offset spatula try to get the frosting as even as possible.

9. Work on the top and sides until it is smooth.



10. Place in the fridge overnight.

The Final Touches

What you'll need:
cake
cookies
1. A couple hours before the party, remove the cake from the fridge. 

2. Using your hand gently press sprinkles into the side of the cake. (If you aren't sure, again, I encourage you to watch a couple youtube videos). Add some to the top as well.

3. GENTLY press your cookies into the top. If they don't want to stay, stick a toothpick behind them. Strategically place the candles where you want them, as well. (I used two candles, because it was my daughter's 2nd birthday.)

4. Place on cake stand. Your cake will be fine sitting out for a couple hours inside.







And there you have it!
It was certainly a labor of love, but I am beyond thrilled with how it turned out!

Now, to start thinking about a certain 6 year old who keeps telling me he wants a pirate themed 7th birthday party... argh!

Friday, October 2, 2020

Pumpkin-Shaped Artisan Style Sourdough Bread

I have, along with much of the world delved into the world of sourdough baking. It has taken over my Instagram feed and posts, so if you're into that, I'd love it if you'd go give me a follow! :)



For the first day of fall, I made a pumpkin-shaped loaf, which quite frankly turned out adorable! I had a few people ask about it, so I decided to share my go-to sourdough recipe with you (I use The Prairie Homestead recipe with a couple alterations, and timed to my schedule), and finish off with my instructions on how to make it pumpkin-shaped. (I have a video tutorial in my highlights on Instagram as well.)



Ingredients:

3 cups (scooped and leveled) / (for me this came to) 480 grams all purpose flour (the internet says 3 cups should be more like 390 grams, I say, play around with it until you get a consistency you like/can work with)
1 1/4 cups / 300 grams lukewarm water
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cup / 100 grams active sourdough starter

Tools:

Dutch oven
baking paper
sharp blade or knife
string (white or off white)
scissors
polenta/corn meal

Directions:

 

(I'm going to write the timing of this for what I do. It's basically a 24 hour process.)


1. I feed my starter first thing in the morning, 50 grams of water and 50 grams of flour. After about 5 hours, it’s reached its peak.

 

2. In a large bowl combine 3 cups of all purpose flour, 1 ¼ cup water, 1 ½ tsp salt. Using your hands combine it until it forms a shaggy dough. Cover your bowl with a dish cloth and allow it to rest for about 20 minutes. This is the autolyse portion. 


3. After the 20 minutes add ½ cup of your active starter. Combine it with your hands again, cover it with a dish towel, and leave it somewhere warm to rise. I use my laundry room. 

 

4. After ½ hour, perform a stretch and fold motion on your dough. Cover. Wait another ½ hour and repeat. Do this 2-4 times. After that, allow the dough to rise for 6-7 hours, or until it has doubled in size.

  

5. Lightly flour your surface, scrape out the bowl, and carefully (you don’t want to lose your precious bubbles), form your dough into either a ball or an oblong shape, depending on your proving basket. (For the pumpkin, I used a round one.)

 

6. Allow your dough to rest on the counter for about 30 minutes. 

 

7. Next, flour a dish towel, place it in your proving basket, place your dough inside, cover it with a dish towel, and place it in your fridge overnight.

 

8. In the morning, turn your oven to 430-435 F / 225 C. While it is warming up, pour some polenta or corn meal in the bottom of your dutch oven. The polenta helps the bottom of your bread not burn, and the reason you bake your bread in a dutch oven, is you create steam to better help your bread rise in the oven.

 

9. Place a sheet of baking paper on your counter. Cut 4 long pieces of string, lay them criss-cross, and tie them at the middle.

 



10. Remove your dough from the proving basket, place in the middle of the strings. Tie the stings in the middle - not too loosely, or you won't get those nice segments. Space out the string to make sure the segments are pretty equal. Cut the excess string off the top.




11. This is the fun part. We are going to score the bread. Use a straight blade or sharp knife. You can go as simple or as elaborate as you want! I've done just a simple slit in each section, but I've also done a couple different designs. (If you want, you could push a cinnamon stick into the top for a stem if you don't have a pumpkin stem.)

 



12. Once that is done, place the whole thing - bread and baking paper - in the a dutch oven. Place the lid on your dutch oven, and put it in the oven. Bake it for 20 minutes. At this point take off the lid, and bake it for another 25-30 minutes, depending on how brown you want your loaf to be.



 

13. Once you take your loaf out of the oven, unfortunately it is best to wait until it comes to room temperature before you try cutting into it. Cutting into it too early ruins your crumb, and doesn’t allow the middle to cook as well as it should.





14. Cut the strings, remove them from the bread, pop a pumpkin stem on top, and voila!







*For a non-pumpkin sourdough loaf, just skip the strings, and go ahead with scoring, and follow the rest of the recipe as written. 


Happy baking!

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Fun And Chic Backyard Llama Party - On A Budget

I love parties. I love to think on them, plan them and then have it all come together. Color schemes get me excited, and although baking challenges scare me, I enjoy pushing myself to make something new.


This year especially, with everything going on (2020, amirite???), we decided to make our daughter's 2nd birthday party as budget-friendly as possible. This meant getting creative, and doing a lot of prep work ahead of time, but we managed to pull off a great party that was as fun and colorful as our little girl.

I thought others may find themselves in a similar situation - wanting to give your kid an unforgettable party, but also trying to be budget-conscious - so I decided to give you a few ideas on how to do just that.


1. Plan ahead - way ahead

Okay, I know not everyone gets as excited about kids' birthday parties as I do, but I generally have my kids' themes in mind months before their birthday. This allows me to buy things when they are on sale. For example, I knew I wanted these specific llama plates and napkins, and I knew which store carried them, so I kept an eye on them, and bought them when they were having a 25% off party items sale. This also can work with things like candles (pink and red ones are on sale after Valentine's Day), candy (after Halloween), fiesta decor (after Cinco de Mayo), etc. 


2. Dried flowers (use what you have)

I have a stash of dried flowers and branches and stuff. I have everything from cotton, to poppy pods, billy balls (craspedia), etc. I have collected them over the years, and use them interchangeably. I tend to stay within similar color schemes in my home and for parties, so having them already on hand helps. Dried flowers ended up being a great choice anyway, because it was so blasted hot, any fresh flowers would've withered in minutes.

In addition, I used vases I've had for years, and instead of buying bottled water, we kept refilling a couple glass bottles with water. (Except for a couple large bottles of Radenska, because Slovenian pride, woot-woot!)




3. YouTube How-To Videos/Pinterest

I watched so many how-to videos on YouTube in the past couple months! You can literally find everything on there! I'll reference back to this in my next points, but it deserves its own mention. Also, Pinterest is of course great for inspiration, but you can also find a lot of tutorials, which is fantastic for us visual learners.

4. Home-made decorations

I know not everyone feels crafty, but the decorations I made for my daughter's party were beyond easy, and very affordable.

I really wanted a garland, but they are ridiculously expensive, and I had a large wall I needed them to fit, which meant I was looking at at least 2 of them. Tassels go with the llama theme, but they are also just "in" right now, and oh so easy to make. 

So, I bought some yarn (in the colors of the party) which you can find for really great prices (in Slovenia you can find them at Svet Metraž or at Tedi, and in the States any craft store, or Walmart). I measured the length of my wall, then I measured out how spaced out I wanted them, and started making tassels in the evenings while watching TV, lol.



If you've never made a tassel before, it is beyond simple. There are numerous youtube tutorials out there, such as this one.

After I made the tassels, I sewed them (you could hot glue) to a piece of jute/twine that was the length of my wall.

Once I had that finished, I realized I had a bunch more yard, so I made a second garland to go around the table.



I still had yarn, so instead of buying a number balloon this year, I cut out a number 2 shape from cardboard, and then wrapped it in yarn (using hot glue to adhere it at the back).





I STILL had more yarn left, so I used it as ribbon on my daughter's birthday present. That yarn was the best thing I could've bought!


5. Cook/make/bake whatever you can for food

I've been baking bread (#thanksquarantine), so we decided to have sandwiches, for which I baked the bread the day before.


We also made a veggie tray instead of buying it (not that you could find one here, anyway) - it took one cucumber, 2 carrots, 1 1/2 bell peppers, a small container of cherry tomatoes, and then my husband made a sour cream dip. These were all things we normally already have on hand, so score one for the home team!



One of my favorite parts of the fiesta was this cactus watermelon.


I found an image of something like this on Pinterest, then watched a couple tutorials I found on YouTube, and got to work! It was actually easier than I thought it would be, although you do have to be careful, because as soon as you cut into a watermelon it wants to crack all over. But we did it, yay! (Luckily for us it's still watermelon season, so it was easy to find.) 


6. Bake the cake/cookies/dessert yourself

I've only been really baking for about 3 years, so trust me, I've been there. For our son's birthdays in the past we totally ordered a cake. BUT, I really had this specific cake in mind, and thought that if I tried really hard, I could do it.

I got my inspiration from Peggy Porschen Cakes. I used Chelsweets vanilla cake and buttercream frosting recipe. I added a little more cream than the recipe says (although she suggests doing exactly that to achieve the desired consistency). I made her recipe exactly, and it was just enough frosting. If I were to do something more elaborate with the frosting, I would've made a 1.5 batch, but it was perfect for my needs.

I baked the cake layers 3 days in advance and froze them (according to her instructions). This made them easier to torte and frost.

I frosted the cake the day before the party, and stored it in my fridge. (Again, I watched a LOT of tutorials on how to frost a cake as smoothly as possible. Mine isn't perfect, but considering it's only the second or third cake I've every frosted, I'm happy with the results.)



Now the cookies. Ah, the cookies. So, I'm not going to lie, these were hard, and took a couple days' work, but were totally worth it in the end. 

About a week before the party, I baked the cookies (I have my favorite recipe here), then I put them in the freezer. 



A couple days before the party, I made my icing according to Ann Clark's royal icing recipe (their website is also where I found the cookie cutters). 

I watched a bunch of "llama sugar cookie decorating" videos (mainly to see the order in which they iced certain parts). Then, I spent a whole day (thank goodness for school) icing the cookies.






Then, on the day of the party, I assembled it all, and was thrilled with the final result!



7. "Entertainment"

Since we were having the party in our backyard, we once again just worked with what we had. The kids spent the majority of the time on the trampoline, we took the kids' play tent outside, along with some Mega Bloks and our a doll house. We also had a little "coloring station", which I'm not gonna lie, not a single kid cared about, lol!



OH! And we had a piñata! Which was a complete hit! (Get it?)




And there you go! A very budget-friendly and super cute backyard llama party! At the end of the day, what the kids remember the most is that so many people who love them were there, and that they got to eat a couple too many cookies. And that, we had in spades!