Sunday, January 22, 2012

Rose of Sharon

The snow shows us shapes and textures we might otherwise overlook.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Apple Crisp


Crisp tart apples and a lightly spiced butter-oatmeal topping.

Apple crisp.

Preheat the oven to 350F, and position a rack in the center of the oven.

In a large mixing bowl, combine 1 cup King-Arthur all-purpose unbleached flour, 1/2 cup (1 stick) cold butter cut into chunks, 3/4 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and 3/4 teaspoon nutmeg:

Using a sharp pastry cutter, cut the flour into the dry ingredients, until the largest pieces of butter are about the size of cranberries:

Stir in 1 cup old-fashioned oats:

You'll need 7-8 crisp, tart apples. I used these Macoun beauties: 

Wash, pare, and core the apples, cut them into thin slices, and put them into a large casserole or baking dish. Squeeze over them the juice of half a fresh lemon:

Spread the topping over the apples. Using a spoon, ease the topping down among the apples, especially around the edges:

Give the dish a shake or two to settle the topping down among the apples.

Without these last two steps, the topping may bake into a hard shell over the soft apples.

Bake the apple crisp 50-60 minutes, until the apples are entirely soft and the topping is golden brown:

D likes it with ice cream, for dessert. K likes it leftover for breakfast. xo

All my recipes may be viewed here:

They are further organized as follows, with some overlap:

Main Dishes
Soups and Stews

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Our Daily Bread

“Nothing in the whole range of domestic life more affects the health and happiness of the family than the quality of its daily bread.”
(Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book, 1884)

Last week K asked me to bake some of our favorite family bread. I did, and here’s how I did it. It doesn’t have a name.


Have 1 package (or 1 tablespoon) active dry yeast and 2 eggs at room temperature. Oil a large ceramic bowl and set it aside.

Combine in large mixing bowl 1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats (not “quick” oats), 2 tablespoons corn oil (or other mild-tasting oil, or melted butter), 1/3 cup molasses, 2 teaspoons salt, and 2 cups boiling water. Let this mixture stand until it has cooled to “yeast temperature” (105-115˚F), about twenty minutes.

In a separate small cup or bowl, dissolve 1 package (or 1 tablespoon) active dry yeast in 2-3 tablespoons warm water (105-115˚F). (I use a little stainless steel measuring cup from which the handle broke years ago – it’s perfect for this purpose, and I’m rather fond of it.)

When the yeast has dissolved, mix it in to the oatmeal mixture:

Using a wire whisk, beat in the 2 eggs:

Switch to a sturdy wooden spoon. Stir in 2 cups King Arthur whole wheat flour one cup at a time, and combine thoroughly.

Add 2 cups King Arthur bread flour one cup at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition, and scraping all the dough from the sides of the bowl.

 Add 1-2 cups King Arthur All-Purpose unbleached flour, a half-cup at a time, mixing thoroughly, until the dough starts to come together and pull away from the sides of the bowl.

The amount may vary depending on the moisture of the flour and the ambient humidity, so add it gradually.

Turn the out dough onto a lightly floured surface.

Working gently from the bottom, gather the dough into a ball, taking care to create and maintain a smooth surface on the ball of dough as you work. Knead for 5 minutes or more, until the dough becomes elastic and springy, always taking care to keep the smooth surface of the dough intact. Add more flour as needed, but just a bit at a time, so as not to get too much flour into the dough, and so as not to end up with wasted flour on the counter.

When you finish, the flour should be almost all gone.

Put the smooth, springy ball of kneaded bread in the oiled bowl, turning the dough once or twice to coat with oil.

Leave the bowl it in a warm place (a slightly warmed oven or a sunny counter) to rise for an hour or so, until nearly doubled. Do not let it over-rise.

Oil two bread pans (8x4 in.). Preheat the oven to 350˚F.

Always keeping its smooth surface intact, gently deflate the dough (no “punching down” needed), gather it up, and turn it out onto a very lightly-floured surface to knead again for a few minutes.

Cut the dough it into two equal parts and knead each piece for a few minutes, again keeping the surfaces smooth.

Shape each piece into an oblong, pressing out any air bubbles. Ease the dough into the pans, seam side down and smooth side up.

Let it rise only a short while, until it is about 1/3 bigger, no more.

After it has risen about a third, gently press the dough down into the corners of the pan, shaking the pan gently to settle the dough into the corners.

Using a sharp knife or clean kitchen scissors, make a straight cut from one end of the loaf to the other, about a half-inch deep. Let the dough rest for about five more minutes.

Bake the loaves in the center of the 350˚F oven for 45-47 minutes. Remove the loaves from the pans immediately and cool them on their sides on a wire rack.  (I turned them right side up for this photo).

Let the bread cool completely before wrapping and storing.

If you can’t resist and must have a slice of warm bread right away, give it five minutes to cool down from hot to warm. Use a large serrated knife and cut very gently, using a light touch to cut through the crust. Butter.


… Rising
• Once the dough is in the rising bowl, you may cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate it to let it rise slowly overnight or through the day. Let it warm up before proceeding.
• Once the dough is in the baking pans, you may cover the pans with plastic wrap and refrigerate them for a few hours for later baking. Let them warm up just a bit before baking.
• Do not let the dough rise to double size in the pans, as most recipes instruct; the crumb gets too big and dry. Let it rise till it’s only about one third bigger than its original size. If you let the loaves rise too much in the pans, just tip the dough out, knead briefly just to deflate, reshape, and let them rise again very briefly. This is very resilient dough.
• Be sure to cut the slash on the top of each loaf before baking. This prevents the crust from baking into a hard shell over the top, which will prevent the loaf from rising evenly.

• Let the loaves cool completely before wrapping and storing. Store in plastic bags; if the crust has pointy exuberances, use double bags or heavy-gauge plastic.
• Keep the bread on the kitchen counter if you expect to eat it all within a day or two. Otherwise, keep in the refrigerator, but expect it to dry out a little as the days go by.
• Tightly wrapped, this bread freezes beautifully and keeps in the freezer for two months.

...Best Uses
• Best for sandwiches and other “fresh” use within 3 days of baking.
• Once it is a few days old and begins to dry out, this bread makes superb bread pudding, French toast, and crumbles easily to make bread crumbs for use in other recipes.

Oatmeal White Bread — Use honey instead of molasses and substitute 2 cups of all-purpose flour for the whole wheat flour.
Cinnamon Raisin Bread — Make Oatmeal White Bread. Include in the oatmeal mixture 2-3 tablespoons cinnamon and 2-3 cups of raisins. This bread stays moist for days and makes the very best breakfast toast.

As Expected, the Birds Arrived Today with the Snow

Last week, I wrote about why we aren’t seeing too many birds at our feeders and around our yards. This was in response to the question that appears in news stories, in birding fora, and other places “Where are all the birds?”

Short version: There is plenty of wild food available, and mild temperatures and little snow has made it easy for birds to find what they need. Read the whole essay here:

This morning we woke up to about an inch and a half of snowfall. Beautiful! We made sure to stock the feeders well this morning, because, as we expected, the birds would show up today. And they did. For the first time this winter, we’ve a small flock of House Finches. The flock of Mourning Doves has increased from three or four to about a dozen. And the Cardinals, White-throated Sparrows and Juncos ― ground feeders that have been coming to the feeders only for a few minutes each morning and evening ― have been at the feeders all morning. Their usual food sources are covered with snow.

There’s a Northern Flicker hanging around, too; perhaps this beautiful but shy woodpecker will come to the suet. Three years ago we had a pair that visited daily.

Rhododendron Redux

It was so cold at our house yesterday (11˚F) that the leaves of the rhododendrons had curled up to protect themselves, a phenomenon called thermotropic leaf movement that was first described by Charles Darwin.

You can see the photo from yesterday, and read a bit about thermotropic leaf movement, here:

Last night we got the first snow we’ve had since Hallowe’en ― just an inch and a half, but enough to touch almost everything, including the rhododendrons, with white.

But it’s a lot warmer this morning ― 34˚F ― and though the rhododendrons are snowy, they’re not curled up. In fact, the snow protects and insulates them:

Monday, January 16, 2012

Busy Day

As I worked and worked and worked today, I noticed that the birds at the feeders were working intensely, too. They had to work hard to stay warm in last night’s bitter cold (11˚F this morning); it’s been cold all day, too, and they’ve been feeding steadily all day. Tonight we are expecting snow and sleet, and of course the birds can sense this, so they’ve been hard at work eating, storing energy for the long dark night.

This little guy was very busy with sunflower seeds:

Black-capped Chickadee

Darwin and the Rhododendrons

When you think of Charles Darwin, you think of rhododendrons, right?

Until today, I never would have, either.

It’s 11˚F at our house this morning ― that’s cold. And as usual in temperatures under 20˚F or so, the leaves on the rhododendron plants are curled and drooping:

I knew that the leaves curl in response to extreme cold (a phenomenon called temperature-sensitive or thermotropic leaf movements), but I’ve always wondered why and how.

I found a good article by ET Nilsen, published by the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, that offered some good information and interesting illustrations (citation below). The author included some interesting science history, including the fact that “Leaf movements in plants were first categorized by Charles Darwin in 1880 in his groundbreaking book The Power of Movement in Plants.” Nilsen writes:

“Darwin pointed out that ‘many plant parts, and particularly leaves, move in response to a number of extrinsic (environmental) and intrinsic (physiological) factors. The most important extrinsic factors are light intensity (phototropic), light direction (heliotropic), water content (hydrotropic), and temperature (thermotropic). The most frequently observed case of thermotropic movements occurs in plants in hot, dry environments where leaves move upward and become vertical to avoid excessive light absorption. The thermotropic leaf movements of Rhododendron are unusual because these movements are in response to cold temperatures and the leaves become pendent rather than vertical.’”Nilsen summarizes the various theories about thermotropic leaf movements in rhododendrons, describes his own research, and concludes that “the thermotropic leaf curling in Rhododendron may serve to prevent damage to cellular membranes during the process of daily rethawing that often occurs during the early morning.”
It’s an interesting, readable article.

Nilsen, Erik Tallak. “Why Do Rhododendron Leaves Curl? A physiological ecologist looks at the significance of temperature-sensitive leaf movements in Rhododendrons.” Arnoldia, 50(1):30-35, Fall 1990.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


From D – still fresh and blooming.

Morning Mist

Pines at the edge of our yard, after rain in the night.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

On the Run: Melismatic Singing in the Choral Ensemble

A while back, someone posted this question to the ChoralNet forum: “Recently myself and choir [sic!] went to a Messiah sing-along. We ran thru a few movements before hand to get an idea how they felt. How can we improve our melismatic technique? It sounds now very note-by-note and heavy.”

Here are my thoughts on melismatic singing, including melismatic singing in a choir:

Friday, January 13, 2012

What Else Could a Mother Do?

As I prepared some material to post here this morning, I was listening to NPR’s Morning Edition. When this story came on, I found myself unable to continue work, and ended up in tears:

Threats and Lies, and “Who I’m Supposed to Be”

Go listen, or read the transcript. (The transcript has important info that is not in the recorded segment; I recommend reading and listening, so you can get all the info and hear him tell the story in his own voice.)

If you are not in tears at the end, then you have a heart of stone. If you do not ache for this man’s struggle to reconcile his acceptance of himself with his mother’s rejection, then you lack something important, something human, inside you.

I cannot understand the utter rejection of a child just for being himself.

What sort of bigotry overrides maternal love? What sort of fear and loathing of one’s child enables a mother to make her son’s life a living hell, and drives him to sever ties with the family he tried so desperately to please?

I am grateful that he kept his sense of self and did not succumb to the doubts and self-loathing that has driven too many teens and young people to suicide.

As I wrote here, when my daughter, my only child, approached adolescence, I wondered to myself, just once, “What if she turned out to be gay? What would I do?” The answer came to my heart in the same instant: “Love her, of course. Love her. What else can I, her mother, do, except love her?”
Think of how different this man’s life would have been if his mother had fulfilled her motherhood with love instead of loathing.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Singing Sacred Music: Reflections from One Beyond the Pale

I am not a religious person, yet I generally prefer singing sacred music to secular music. Why? Because, it seems to me, many composers write their best music when they set sacred texts, and in so doing, create beautiful music to uplift words that hold great meaning, either for them personally, or for their ethnic or faith communities, or for the people for whom I am singing.

This is reason enough for me. Good choral music includes good settings of good texts. Some of those texts are sacred.

But there are other reasons ― mostly musical, equally compelling ― to include sacred music in our performances.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Air Mail

I recently read a fascinating book, The Seven Ages of Paris, by historian Alistair Horne (Vintage, 2004). I’ll post a complete review here eventually, but in the meantime, here’s a fascinating bit about birds.

During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), communications in and out of the besieged city were almost impossible. Hot-air balloons were used to carry messages out of the city, but no return trips proved successful. Horne tells how the blockaded Parisians overcame this difficulty:
“It was the humble carrier-pigeon that was to prove the only means of breaking the blockade in reverse. A microphotography unit was set up in Tours, and there government despatches were reduced to a minute size, printed on feathery collodion membranes, so that one pigeon could carry up to 40,000 despatches, equivalent to the contents of a complete book. On reaching Paris, the despatches were projected by magic lantern, their contents transcribed by a battery of clerks. During the siege, 302 pigeons were sent off, of which 59 actually reached Paris. The remainder were taken by birds of prey, died of cold and hunger, or ended up in Prussian pies. As a counter-measure, the Prussians imported falcons, which prompted one of the many imaginative Parisian 'inventors' to suggest that the pigeons be equipped with whistles to frighten off the predators. When the war finally ended, there was talk of rewarding the noble birds (which some compared to the savior geese of Ancient Rome) by the incorporation of a pigeon in the city’s coat of arms.” (Horne, p. 256)
[Saviour geese of Rome? I’ll have to look that up.]

Microfilm technology, which had recently been developed by French inventor René Dagron (1819-1900) proved invaluable in producing very tiny, lightweight messages that contained large amounts of information. It was Dagron’s idea to use the microfilms to pass messages, rolling them so small that they could be inserted into goose quills, which were then attached to the pigeons' tail feathers.

Because pigeon mortality was high, the French typically sent copies of each despatch by several pigeons, to increase the likelihood that the information would arrive safely.

The pigeons were also used to sent private messages between citizens who could afford the service.

For more information, I recommend this history, which includes many interesting illustrations:

The Pigeon Post into Paris 1870-1871, by J.D. Hayhurst O.B.E.

For more fascinating images of the letters, etc., carried by the pigeons:

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Birds ― and Their Habitat ― Improve Property Values

An interesting study from the journal Urban Ecosystems, as reported in Conservation Magazine, shows that the presence of birds, especially less-common birds, can raise property values in the area:
[Researchers] constructed a model that related bird abundance and species richness to home prices. The model suggests that the presence of less-common birds helps home prices soar. On a lot that already had one less-common species, for instance, the addition of a second such species improved mean home prices by $32,028.
Here’s the article, followed by the abstract from the original study.

Malakoff, David. “A Feathered Nest.” Conservation Magazine, December, 2011.
An innovative study of home sales in Lubbock, Texas, suggests that planners can use relatively simple bird counts to analyze the ecological and economic values of urban landscapes. And it finds that even a single extra species can help pinpoint relatively rich ecosystems.

“A problem urban ecologists and ‘new urbanists’ often face is the difficult task of completing ecological-environmental evaluations in a timely and cost-effective fashion,” write Michael C. Farmer and colleagues at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, in Urban Ecosystems. As a result, officials in a rush to issue permits often deem all green spaces, such as public parks, beneficial—even though ecologists know “that not all green spaces are equally valuable.”

The researchers decided to see whether bird surveys might offer a quick-and-dirty solution. They collected information on approximately 368 home sales in 17 Lubbock neighborhoods from 2008 to 2009. Then they conducted bird counts in the vicinity of each home sale, recording both the total number of birds and the number of “less-ubiquitous” species—which included blue jays and western kingbirds. They also used Google Earth to estimate the percentage of tree cover in the area surrounding each sale. Finally, [researchers] constructed a model that related bird abundance and species richness to home prices.

The model suggests that the presence of less-common birds helps home prices soar. On a lot that already had one less-common species, for instance, the addition of a second such species improved mean home prices by $32,028. Although that number shouldn’t “be taken too literally,” it does suggest that the presence of less-common birds indicates a varied ecosystem—such as one with a variety of trees and shrubs. That’s in line with ecological studies showing that more diverse bird life tends to inhabit ecosystems with more “vertical” diversity (vegetation of various heights).

“This deliberately simple and inexpensive indicator,” they conclude, could help ecologists and economists identify development practices that provide “even stronger gains to housing values, environmental footprint, and urban wildlife that might otherwise go unnoticed in a quick-paced development cycle.”

Farmer, M.C., M.C. Wallace and M. Shiroya. “Bird diversity indicates ecological value in urban home prices.” Urban Ecosystems, published online September 21, 2011. DOI: 10.1007/s11252-011-0209-0
Abstract: It is known that public greenspaces contribute positively to urban home prices; yet urban ecologists also have known that not all greenspaces are equally valuable. Also some ecologically valuable space appears on private residences, not only public spaces. This work examines directly whether using a variable derived from bird species richness and relative abundance adds new information regarding ecological value and if high values of that variable significantly improve urban housing prices. We collected information on approximately 368 home sales in Lubbock, TX from 2008 to 2009 from the Multiple Listing Service: Sale Price, Square Footage, Lot Size and Age in 17 neighborhoods identified by the Lubbock Realtor Association. We conducted bird counts in the vicinity of each home sale and recorded both the total numbers of birds and the number of bird species identified in a particular class—less ubiquitous bird species. Finally, we used GIS to record the percentage of tree cover in the immediate area surrounding each sale. We constructed a predictive model for a bird relative abundance and species richness variable (Bird) from AICc statistics. Home price for each sale then was regressed against the predicted value of ‘Bird’ from the selected model and regressed against home price along with other attributes from the Multiple Listing Service. The predicted value for Bird finds that the addition of another desirable, less ubiquitous bird species improves mean home price by $32,028, likely due to the human created landscapes on private properties immediately surrounding a home sale. Curiously, the presence of a nearby park neither explained variation in the ecological indicator nor contributed to home price elevation. This deliberately simple and inexpensive indicator helped to direct attention to the composition of local landscapes in specific areas to assess joint ecological and economic gains rather than presume a priori that open greenspace jointly satisfies these dual objectives.

Monday, January 9, 2012


As a chorister, I’ve run into occasional challenges singing “in tune,” even though I’m a very experienced semi-professional choral singer, with degrees in voice and music theory. What I experience from within the choral ranks is that even when a singer is singing “in tune” in terms of absolute pitch, the particular color of a singer’s voice can make it difficult to blend, and this alone can give the impression that the person may be singing out of tune.

“A Wonderful Fact to Reflect Upon”

“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. … In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?”
―Charles Dickens (1812-1870), A Tale of Two Cities (1859, opening of Chapter III, “The Night Shadows”)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Weather Report

Since K’s school is only about sixty miles away from us, we generally experience the same weather. The other evening, she texted me about the beauty of the sunset over her campus. I stepped outside to see what our sunset was like, and was delighted to see brilliant pinks and golds developing in the sky beyond the leafless trees at the back of our yard.