Category Archives: Homekeeping

All things for establishing and maintaining your home oasis

Coffee Reheating Hack

Coffee has a profoundly special place in my life.  If I saw irrefutable proof that coffee shortened your life by many years, I’d be like “see you soon, Jesus!”  Yep, I’m one of those crazies who buys fancy beans, grinds ’em herself in a fancy burr grinder, and brews it all up in fancy ways that use precise combos of time and temperature to get the best cuppa I can.  I even have a way-too-big (not really) collection of seasonally appropriate coffee mugs, because TRUTH coffee tastes better in a cute cup!

These are a few of my Easter mugs – that cotton tail kills me!

Sadly, I am also an easily distracted piddler who always abandons said perfect cuppa long before it’s finished.  For many reasons I hate thermal mugs, so it’s off to the microwave.  But, haven’t you noticed that a cup of coffee reheated in the micro tastes, um, well, gross?  To me it just gets burnt and flat tasting, which is hella disappointing considering the drama I go thru to make that cup!

I was pondering why that happens and it hit me.  Coffee is pretty sensitive.  It has to be brewed at very precise temperatures – too low and you’re losing out on flavor compounds and body, too high and you may as well drink charcoal water.  What if, when I’m reheating my cuppa in the micro, I’m overheating it and torching the flavor? BINGO!

I tried reheating my coffee at 40% power for the shortest amount of time necessary to get it drinkably hot.  Et voila!  That gently reheated coffee tastes exactly like it did when I first poured it, not like nasty ol’ burnt leftover coffee.  Here’s what I do:

  • heat the coffee at 40% for 30 seconds – STIR!  The microwave doesn’t heat your items evenly so stirring prevents flavor ruining scorched areas.
  • Repeat for 20-30 second intervals till your coffee is the temp you like.  Try it – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
  • Bonus tip:  if you’re not brewing your coffee into a thermal carafe, the minute your coffee finishes brewing TURN THE MACHINE OFF!  No good comes from leaving coffee on a scorching hotplate for any length of time.  You’re better than that!

Happy coffee drinking, friends!

FreshWorks – Miracle Boxes for Your Produce

freshworksY’all need to get yourself a set of these babies, STAT! (as ever, my product reviews are my own, unsolicited opinions – I don’t get anything for sharing about products I love).

Some people impulse buy in the candy aisle or the shoe department.  Not me.  I impulse buy in the produce aisle.  Those jumbo boxes of baby greens at the warehouse club are my crack.  Trays of Persian cukes, bags of organic sweet peppers, sleeves of sugar peas and haricots vert.  Can’t get enough.  And a Farmer’s Market?  Forget it – I will come home with my own weight in everything available.  Since it’s just the man and me, that means a lot of delicious, mostly organic, expensive veggies find their way into our compost bin.  Those baby greens are the worst.  You know what I mean – you open the bin, take out a few cups, go in there the very next day and blammo – slime city.  So frustrating.

Enter the FreshWorks bins.  I saw an ad for them and ordered a set from Costco. I figured if they didn’t work I would take advantage of Costco’s very generous return policy and get my $ back.  The set was $30 (currently on sale for $24!) and included 2 large bins and one medium bin.  The large bins hold 1 lb of baby greens (those big tubs they sell at the warehouse clubs) or 2 heads of butter lettuce or a large head of Romaine.  The medium bin holds a pound of green beans, sugar peas or a quart of berries.  I have a counter depth fridge (which I hate), and the two large bins fit on one shelf, front to back, with space left over, so not tooooo much of a space bully.  As I eat stuff down I combine different types of produce in one bin.

These things are MAGIC!  You actually get to eat all the baby greens!  The remains of 3 huge heads of butter lettuce and romaine I got at the CSA 2 weeks ago are still crisp and green.  The last few sugar snap peas I bought 2 ½ weeks ago were sweet and crunchy in our salad tonite.  My sister told me she got one and it kept raspberries fresh for 2 weeks.  I don’t know what kind of voodoo the magic membrane in the lid conjures, but it keeps produce fresh for days and days.  My guess is it keeps carbon dioxide in and oxygen out, but who cares?  It keeps your produce fresh and tasty and out of the compost bin!

Bird Feeding Tips – Keeping “Undesirables” Out of the Feeders

We have an amazing assortment of birds who come to our backyard and porch feeders.  I keep a list going in my bird guide and to date we have seen over 30 species in our yard!  Unfortunately we also have a few four-legged, furry varmints who try to horn in on the goodies.  We’ve had good results with three different types of “squirrel proof” seed feeders.  As ever, my opinions are my own – I receive no compensation or perks for any of my product reviews.

  1. Woodlink Absolute II Squirrel Proof Feeder:  This big boy holds over a gallon of seed and is pretty much squirrel proof.  The perch bars are spring-loaded so anything heavier than a bird pressing on them lowers doors over the seed trays.  The occasional smartyboots realizes he can lay flat on top and streeeeetch down and around to get his paws on a few seeds.  But for the most part the tree rats are thwarted.  Deer however, are another problem.  They just stroll up and lick the seed out of the tray.  Deer don’t like walking through tall bushes or grasses (I guess they are afraid a predator could be hiding in there) so we situate the feeder in the midst of perennials they don’t like, and that cuts down considerably on deer feeding.
    We keep this big boy tucked in the perennial garden to keep birds fed and deer at bay

    We keep this big boy tucked in the perennial garden to keep birds fed and deer at bay – even on snowy winter days.

     

  2. Brome Squirrel Buster Classic:  This large hanging feeder is awesome!  It holds about 1.5 quarts of seed so we don’t need to refill it every day, it vents the seed tubes to keep the seed safe to eat, and the design keeps the vermin away.  The outer metal cage is spring-loaded so if anything heavier than a bird lands on it or hangs on one of the perches, the cage slides down and closes over the seed cups.  I’ve watched squirrels jump on it and boo hoo, no seed for you!
    With four staggered perches there's plenty of room for hungry babies to hang out and wait for Dad to rustle up some grub

    With four staggered perches there’s plenty of room for hungry babies to hang out and wait for Dad to rustle up some grub

    Let's not think too hard about what's actually going on here! #kindagross

    Let’s not think too hard about what’s actually going on here! #kindagross

  3. Brome Squirrel Buster Mini:  This is the first Brome feeder we bought and it also works great.  It too is spring-loaded so anything heavier than a bird drags down the outer cage and closes the seed cups.  The only drawback is its size – it only holds 3 cups of seed, so we were filling it daily, sometimes twice daily.
    Male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

    Male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

    House and Goldfinches share the feeder

    House and Goldfinches share the feeder

We also like to offer suet to the birds year ’round.  At first the squirrels and the resident ‘coon ate us out of house and home, but then we discovered suet made with Cayenne Pepper.  This kind costs a few cents more so shop around for the best price (our local Ace Hardware consistently has the best price, and sometimes I even catch a sale).  Mammals hate its spicy taste, but birds do not have any pain receptors for capsaicin (the chemical that makes peppers hot) so they couldn’t care less about it.

We soon discovered, however, another type of “undesirable” at the suet feeders:  birds that are not true suet eaters!  Finches, cowbirds, thrashers and others sat at the suet cakes and tore them apart to get at the seeds inside, scattering most of the suet on the ground.  We were going through 3 or 4 of these pricey suet cakes a week, so it was very annoying to see so much waste.

While we were at our local Ace stocking up on black sunflower seeds and suet cakes we spied a funky looking suet feeder, the Songbird Essentials Recycled Upside Down Suet Feeder.  As you can see this feeder is a little recycled plastic house with access to the suet only on the bottom.  We could not imagine how a bird was going to flip upside down mid flight to get at the suet, so we read some reviews and other users swore the birds quickly figure it out.  Indeed they do.  Only true suet eaters are capable of or “like” feeding upside down, so this feeder perfectly suits the birds you want at the suet feeder – woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, wrens, bluebirds and the like.  As a bonus, the squirrels can’t get at it either, so we can forgo the extra expense of the hot pepper suet!  We are now going through about a third of the suet cakes we used to, so this baby paid for itself in about 3 weeks.  Win, win, win!  Here’s a few of the beauties who now have exclusive use of the suet feeder:

Female Downy Woodpecker

Female Downy Woodpecker

 

Male Downy Woodpecker

Male Downy Woodpecker

 

Baby Boy Downy Woodpecker - even the babies figured it out!

Baby Boy Downy Woodpecker – even the babies figured it out!

 

White-Breasted Nuthatch

White-Breasted Nuthatch

 

Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

 

Black-Capped Chickadee

Black-Capped Chickadee

 

Carolina Wrens are my heroes. They are small but mighty, curious, industrious and they do things their own way. This guy was not injured - he was just having fun!

Carolina Wrens are my heroes. They are small but mighty, curious, industrious and they do things their own way. This guy was not injured – he was just having fun!  Like he was working on his Triangle Pose while grabbing a snack.  Don’t you just want to rub that fuzzy buff tummy?

 

Container Gardening & the Perfect Grape Tomato

Juliet Grape Tomatoes

Juliet Grape Tomatoes – plump, firm and perfectly tomato-y!

I am not much of a gardener, but I simply couldn’t do without my little container garden that I cram into the only corner of our back porch that gets any sun.  I love being able to nip out while I’m cooking and grab a handful of fresh basil, oregano, mint, lemon thyme, rosemary or parsley.  This year I added dill, cilantro and Mexican tarragon to the gang.  I have no idea what Mexican tarragon is, but it looked irresistible with its tiny golden flowers.  I also upgraded to new containers this year – some faux half barrels that I found at Lowes.  They are cute, sturdy, and the price was right!

The real tip I want to pass on here is a recommendation for a fabulous grape tomato that is perfect for container gardening – Juliet.  I have grown Juliet the past two summers and couldn’t love her more.  She produces gobs of tomatoes in grape-like clusters.  The fruit is firm and easy to slice, with a minimum amount of um, I believe “jelly” is the polite term (aka tomato snot), and the flavor is excellent.  The fruits are thumb sized and resemble wee little San Marzanos (see above).  The Park seed catalog classifies Juliet as a “saladette” tomato – somewhere between a grape and a Roma.  Never heard that term before!

Because they are so sturdy and don’t have gobs of jelly, they are perfect not only for salads, but also for roasting, sautéing for a quick pasta sauce, topping a pizza, or just dunking them, still warm from the vine, in blue cheese dip and popping in your mouth.  Heaven!  The sturdy, fleshy fruits last for about 2 weeks in a bowl on the counter – which is good because one Juliet will produce a good pint of tomatoes per week for about 4 months.   My porch doesn’t get a ton of sunlight, so just imagine how she would produce in full sun!

Juliet is not a common variety around here, but I have found plants at both Lowes and Walmart, and you can buy seeds from Parks.  I use organic garden soil which contains fertilizer that is supposed to last 3 months, so mid Summer I start feeding all my plants with Alaska Fish Emulsion (very smelly, do not get that stuff on your hands!), and the tomato gets the occasional dose of Epsom salts and finely crushed eggshells (use a spice grinder).  This year I am going to try Alaska Vegetable and Tomato Dry fertilizer, which has all the fishy goodness of fish emulsion with lots of the calcium tomatoes really need around here.

Juliette produces thumb size tomatoes in grape clusters

Juliette produces thumb size tomatoes in grape clusters

 

Even in partial sun Juliette is a vigorous producer

Even in partial sun Juliette is a vigorous producer.  As the stems grow upwards I tie them to a tomato cage and then train them to cascade back down again, making sure to evenly space the vines for good air and light penetration.

One more tomato growing tip I’ll pass along is something I discovered last summer.  Our hot, humid Southern summers can do a number on garden plants, and my Juliet developed quite a few brown, droopy leaves.  Since this plant is on my back porch I wanted to tidy up the look, so I carefully removed every browned leaf cluster on the plant.  To my surprise, everywhere I removed a leaf stem the plant regenerated a whole new one!  This regeneration kept the plant lush, full and bountifully producing all through summer right up till frost.

If you take a few minutes to remove any browned leaf clusters, the plant will regenerate itself.

If you take a few minutes to remove any browned leaf clusters, the plant will regenerate itself.

Safely Thawing Frozen Fish

You learn something new every day – at least I try to!  Despite living fairly close to the Atlantic Ocean, one has to work hard to find decent fresh fish around here, so I tend to buy fish individually quick frozen (IQF).  And YES, I always check my Seafood Watch app to make sure I am buying a wise, sustainably harvested, healthful choice!  I highly recommend that app if you are health or eco conscious about your food choices.

Anyhoo, IQF fish is always vacuum sealed in a pouch that says “remove before thawing”.  Not being one to blindly follow directions, I have in the past ignored that statement and thawed the fish in the pouch.  I mean, I thought it helped keep the fish moist or something, and what could go wrong in a vacuum-sealed pouch?  Well, I looked that up today, and plenty is the correct answer.  Ewww!

Yeah, that warning is there for a reason

 Yeah, that warning is there for a reason

IQF fish is susceptible to a kind of bacteria that can make you very sick, namely clostridium botulinum.  This critter only grows in an anaerobic (airless) environment, so if you thaw the fish in the pouch it can multiply and possibly cause food sickness (botulism).  Thawing the fish outside the pouch eliminates the danger from this nasty beastie, so lesson learned!

Safely thawing Tilapia loins. I also learned today that Tilapias have "loins". Who knew???

Safely thawed Tilapia loins. I also learned today that Tilapias have “loins”. Who knew???

What to do With All Those Tomatoes!

One of the blessings of summer is having a garden that gifts you with ripe, luscious tomatoes. But at some point those tomatoes are piling up on the counter, and even your friends don’t want any more.  What to do?  We grow a mix of heirloom and hybrid “slicing” tomatoes, and they are too watery for canning or making sauces.  Some people freeze them whole, but (a) I don’t want to devote that much freezer space, and (b) what are you going to do with a mushy thawed tomato?  You can’t use them like fresh, and they are too watery for sauces.  This year I came up with an idea that I think is genius – slice, roast and then freeze them!  This process eliminates all that excess water,  concentrates the flavors and makes the ‘maters much smaller to package.  Win, win, win!  The process works equally well for slicing tomatoes and grape/cherry tomatoes.  Here’s how (and I apologize for failing to photograph most of the process!):

  • Preheat oven to 350 and place rack in lower third of the oven.
  • Line a baking sheet with parchment – tomatoes will stain your bakeware!!!
  • Wash and core your tomatoes.  No need to peel them.  See below for a pic of my favorite tool for coring tomatoes and hulling strawberries.  Got it at Crate and Barrel

    this little gem is great for coring tomatoes and hulling strawberries

    this little gem is great for coring tomatoes and hulling strawberries, as well as digging out rotten spots on any produce

  • Slice regular tomatoes into ½” rounds, and slice each round in half.  Slice grape/cherry tomatoes in half.
  • Place tomatoes, cut side up, on the sheet, leaving a bit of space around each piece.
  • Bake 30-45 minutes.  You are looking to reduce their volume by half, not incinerate them.  The cherry tomatoes will develop a bit of caramelization – bonus!  Do not disturb tomatoes while they roast or they will completely fall apart.
  • Remove from the oven an allow to cool, undisturbed, till room temp.
  • Pack tomatoes into an ice cube tray and freeze.

    Tomato pops!

    Tomato pops!

  • store your tomato pops in a freezer-safe tupper.  Now you have summer flavor at the ready!

    Ready to be stored away for bringing summer deliciousness to a grey winter day...

    Ready to be stored away for bringing summer deliciousness to a grey winter day…

As soon as I can get them up I’ll share 2 recipes starring these glorious, roasted, homegrown flavor bombs.  One is an appetizer, and the other, wellllll…here’s a teaser…

Italian Mac & Cheese

Italian Mac & Cheese – starring 3 Italian cheeses, fresh basil & oregano and your roasted tomatoes

My “Other Bible”

 

 Broken spine, frayed dividers, pages falling out and stained with ingredients - that's one well-loved cookbook!


Broken spine, frayed dividers, pages falling out and stained with ingredients – that’s one well-loved cookbook!

Ah, the 1950 Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book.  This book is precious to me.  As an avid cook and foodie, I have dozens of cookbooks, which I have read cover to cover (I know, weird!).  However, this is my only cookbook I would save in a fire, so great is its sentimental value to me.  If you had asked me “why?” last week, I would have answered, “because I spent countless contented hours poring over its pages when I was a child”.  But today I would also have to add, “because this book had a profound impact on my life!”

Earlier this week I decided to make some room on my shelves for newly purchased cookbooks  – I just can’t stop myself , nor do I want to!  As I was pulling a few unused and unloved volumes from my collection, my hand landed on this beloved tome.  So absorbed in all things Ina Garten, Lidia Bastianich, Martha Stewart and Cooks Illustrated, I hadn’t cracked its cover in ages.  I spent the next few evenings rereading my beloved 1950 Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, and I was rewarded with both a flood of happy memories and a few new revelations!

My mother received her Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book as a new bride in 1950, and some 25 years later as a young child I read and reread it, and learned to cook using these simple recipes.  This was more than just a cookbook – it was a “lifestyle” book.  On its pages are depicted idyllic scenes of family and community life, all enriched by healthful, well-prepared food, elegantly but simply presented.  This was a fantasy world into which I retreated as a child, and thus began a lifelong love of homemaking and hostessing, and a desire to be the very best I could be at it – not for the sake of that achievement, but for the sake of blessing the people I love.

It had been such a long time since I perused this book that I was surprised to realize how much its philosophy of purposefully gracious homemaking and hostessing had influenced me.  Probably also explains my obsession with aprons.  Love them, and wear them almost every day!  : )  And rereading this work brought back so many happy memories of countless cakes, cookies and lemon merengue pies made and shared with family and friends.  The torn pages covered with food splatters are testament to how often this precious resource was put to use!  It was also fascinating to see where American cookery and the food industry was in 1950.

I'm making these brownies for friends tonite, and it's pretty obvious from the condition of these pages that this recipe has been made a few times before!

I’m making these brownies for friends tonite, and it’s pretty obvious from the condition of these pages that this recipe has been made a few times before!

I have resolved in the next few months to cook my way through this book to see if I can rediscover some old recipes that should still be in my rotation, and to challenge my modern butter-soaked, overstimulated palate to appreciate simple food economically prepared.  Toward that end, today I ordered a modern reprint of this 1950 edition.  My original copy is too fragile, and I want to be able to write my usual “tasting notes” in the margins.   I’ll be posting my discoveries and sharing the recipes I think you may want to try.  Blessings….

Timberrrrrrr!

Genesis 2:15 – “God took the man and set him down in the Garden of Eden to work the ground and keep it in order”

It’s no secret there are a LOT of trees in Raleigh, and at times you have to get out there and “keep God’s garden in order”.  One of the Sycamores in our front yard contracted Sycamore Anthracnose and it gave me an excuse to have a tree service come out and cull several “nuisance” trees on our property, such as:

The previous owners had planted an unsightly (is there any other kind!?) row of Leyland Cyprus on the property line, which was ever so helpfully blocking our view of a beautiful stand of old apple trees and maples.  They needed to go.

The previous owners planted an unsightly (is there any other kind!?) row of Leyland Cyprus on the property line, which was ever so helpfully blocking our view of a beautiful stand of old apple trees and maples.

Ugh, there is no end to my dislike of Leyland Cyprus.  Got. To. Go.

Ugh, there is no end to my dislike of Leyland Cyprus. Got. To. Go.

And then there are these beasts…

The woods at the edge of our property are mostly lovely hardwoods, but there are a few honker Carolina Pines in there that I just loathe (so ugly!!!) and I've always wanted them out.  Finally getting my wish.  The light this morning was pretty harsh - sorry about the washed out photo.

The woods at the edge of our property are mostly lovely hardwoods, but there are a few honker Carolina Pines in there that I just loathe (so ugly!!!) and I’ve always wanted them out. Finally getting my wish. The light this morning was pretty harsh – sorry about the washed out photo.

While we were at it, I had them also nip the one little eye sore pine by the garden.

While we were at it, I had them also nip the one little eye sore pine by the garden.

And this poor guy…

The homes in our "neighborhood" are built on an old farmstead, and the remains of a fruit orchard lies between us and our neighbors to the west.  Those old trees have slowly been aging out, and it was time to take down a big ol' cherry.  Mind you, all these trees produce fruit that is fit only for the deer and squirrels, so the neighbors and we cut them down when they are no longer attractive.

The homes in our “neighborhood” are built on an old farmstead, and the remains of a fruit orchard lies between us and our neighbors to the west. Those old trees have slowly been aging out, and it was time to take down a big ol’ cherry. Mind you, all these trees produce fruit that is fit only for the deer and squirrels, so the neighbors and we cut them down when they are no longer attractive.

And oh, I noticed this needed a little attention when I was walking around with the tree guy…

The old-school Bradford Pear that had grown over the house.

The old-school Bradford Pear that had grown over the house.

And what started the whole ball rolling…

And what started all this off was the scrawny Sycamore in the middle that had developed Sycamore Anthracnose.  It would have cost more to treat than the tree is worth esthetically, so we opted to take it out.

The scrawny Sycamore in the middle that had developed Sycamore Anthracnose. It would have cost more to treat than the tree is worth esthetically, so we opted to take it out.

I researched a few companies and hired Gonzalez Tree Care to do the job.  They charged a fair price, were quick and did a great job – couldn’t have been happier with them and would recommend them to anyone.

Here’s the work…

After the Sycamore was removed

After the Sycamore was removed

Half the Leylands gone...

Half the Leylands gone…

The new view without the Leylands

The new view without the Leylands

After the cherry tree removal

After the cherry tree removal

Buh bye offending limb - I hope the plants on that side of the deck don't freak from all that new sunlight...

Buh bye offending limb – I hope the plants on that side of the deck don’t freak from all that new sunlight…

After limbing up the old Bradford pear

After limbing up the Bradford pear.  I know we’re just buying a few years before this guy has to come down, but I just love these old, slim pears.

I dunno...is this a fun job or a crazy job?

I dunno…is this a fun job or a crazy job?

Every branch on the pines was "zip lined" down to protect the young hardwoods below.   The guys really did a great job.

Every branch on the pines was “zip lined” down to protect the young hardwoods below. The guys really did a great job.

Getting ready to take the tippy top off the biggest pine.  That young man had ZERO fear up in those trees!

Getting ready to take the tippy top off the biggest pine. That young man had ZERO fear up in those trees!

After removing all the limbs and the tops, these 100 ft pine trunks were dropped in sections.

After removing all the limbs and the tops, these 100 ft pine trunks were dropped in sections.

The little pine came down so fast I didn't even get a picture!

The little pine came down so fast I didn’t even get a picture!

Yeah, I know, there are still some big pines, but now the young hardwoods are more visible and getting more light.  Go hardwoods go!

Yeah, I know, there are still some big pines, but now the young hardwoods are more visible and getting more light. Go hardwoods go!

Ahhh...now I can sit at my kitchen table (where I write) and not see a single pine!

Ahhh…now I can sit at my kitchen table (where I write) and not see a single pine!  Ditto for the view from the dining table in the screened porch.  Woo and hoo!

Genesis 2:15 – “God took the man and set him down in the Garden of Eden to work the ground and keep it in order.”  Amen!

Back in Black! The World’s Most Amazing Black Rat Snake

Most days I truly enjoy where I live.  I feel blessed to have such a beautiful view out my kitchen window, and I love spending time on either the screened porch, the covered deck or the paver patio out back.  A tremendous sense of peace fills my soul as I watch the birds flitter about and take in the wonderful sights and aromas of living things.  Sometimes I close my eyes to simply listen to the trees rustling in the breeze, and I am reminded of Isaiah 55:12: “For you will go out with joy and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”  It is positively worshipful out there.

Wednesday was just such a day, and then it got all dramatic on me.  I was sitting at the kitchen table, trying to focus on getting something accomplished, when this beauty came trotting into the yard:

A beautiful Grey Fox.  Is it too 80's of me to say "what a fox!"?  yeah, probably...

A beautiful Grey Fox. Is it too 80’s of me to say “what a fox!”? yeah, probably…

So soft and cuddly looking, I just wanted to scoop her up and snuggle her senseless!  She made a beeline for the shed under which the woodchucks have once again set up their nursery.  With our resident mama and papa woodchuck (Woodrow and Woodrina), we already have two woodchucks too many, so I hope Foxy Loxy there will do her God-given job and, well, you know…

Not 2 hours later I was making lunch when I heard a “whump” on the deck.  That usually means my mortal enemies, the squirrels, need my attention.  So I went over to the window to shoo them away when I caught sight of another long-time resident, Blackie the Black Rat Snake cruising along the deck railing.

Blackie is finally awake and up on the deck to let us know it!

Blackie is finally awake and up on the deck to let us know it!

Blackie has been with us many years, and every spring he pops up on the deck to let us know he is out of hibernation and back on the job of controlling the moles, voles and mice we have way too many of.  We assume we are seeing the same snake every year, because every year he gets a little bit bigger and he always hangs near the house.  And he’s pretty good about observing our agreement that he only comes in or on the house that one time a year, because let’s face it, he’s a bit creepy!  Normally he just lounges on the deck to get warm, but it soon became obvious that today he was on a more serious mission…

He slithered over to the screen porch door...

He slithered over to the screen porch door…

...and started climbing up to get to...

…and started climbing up to get to…

Snacks!

Snacks!

Okay, I’m all for letting nature take its course, and I’m no huge fan of house finches (we have a million of those, too) but this was going to be a wee bit too “real” for right outside my kitchen window.  I had taken that picture of the finches 2 days earlier, and unbeknownst to me all but one of them had already left the nest – by what means, I do not know nor do I want to.  So I decided I had to discourage Blackie from his current course of action.  I got the brilliant idea to go to the other side of the screen door, poke it with a looooong stick and knock him down.  I figured it’d spook him and he’d go on his way.  So NOT what happened!

He fell inside the door and now the freak out is on for reals!

He fell inside the door and now the freak out was on for reals!

At this point I am panic dialing my husband, who frankly is going to be of no help because he is more freaked out by reptiles than I am.  Fortunately Blackie was fixated on getting to his lunch so he just kept climbing and exited the screen porch…

I had no idea snakes were capable of this kind of gravity-defying acrobatics!

I had no idea snakes were capable of this kind of gravity-defying acrobatics!

Okay, now I have what I feel to be no choice but to go out there and take down the fern that is about a foot away from Blackie and rescue those baby birds.  There’s no time to get a proper ladder or step stool, so I grab the only thing handy, a slanty, wobbly Adirondack chair.  I am praying that I don’t fall, that those darn birds don’t fly at my face and that Blackie doesn’t decide to attack what now looks like a competitor for his chow.

Of course that one remaining ungrateful bird flew at my head, which startled me and I nearly went over the railing, just catching myself (and the fern) at the last second by wrapping my legs around a potted plant mounted on the railing.  My thighs are bruised and I pulled a muscle in my arm all for nothing, because that stupid bird was capable of escaping on his own!  No good deed, right?

With lunch gone, Blackie started backtracking…

He anchored himself in the iron hanger.  I became distraught to the point of tears because I thought he was going to get stuck.

He anchored himself in the iron hanger. I became distraught to the point of tears because I thought he was going to get stuck.

But snakes are smart and stretchy!  I guess there's a reason why the Bible tells us to be gentle as doves but wise as snakes!

But snakes are smart and stretchy! I guess there’s a reason why the Bible tells us to be gentle as doves but wise as snakes!

Seriously, I can't imagine, pound for pound, how strong snake abs must be!

Seriously, I can’t imagine, pound for pound, how strong snake abs must be!

Blackie slithered through the door latch to anchor himself

Blackie slithered through the door latch to anchor himself…bloody clever!

going...going...

going…going…

...gone.   Aww, Blackie, you wouldn't have caught that bird anyway, and there are plenty of mice under the deck to get to!

…gone. Aww, Blackie, you wouldn’t have caught that bird anyway, and there are plenty of mice under the deck to get to!

I learned a few things that day.  One, snakes are amazing creatures who can scale walls; and they are pretty darned clever, too!  And two, I think I can officially call myself “a blogger” because despite the fact that I was freaking out like nobody’s business, I never stopped taking pictures to document this exciting little encounter!  That point didn’t hit me until all my friends said something to the effect of “I can’t believe you got all these pictures – I would have run for my life!”  Well, yeah, I was scared and all, but I also thought it was cool, and I wanted to share it with people.  I guess that’s what blogging is all about…

New Kitchen Toys and Donut Joys!

The last three weeks have been pretty glum around here.  We’ve endured non-stop cold, cloudy days with occasional apocalyptic downpours.  The most un-Springlike Spring I’ve ever spent in North Carolina.  But a great big box on my doorstep from the King Arthur Flour Co. put the sunshine back into my life!  KA had one of their 20% off everything sales last week so I stocked up on everything I’ve been waiting for a sale to buy:

Precut sheets of parchment for 8" and 9" cake pans and half sheet pans.  No more wrasslin' with a big ol' roll of parchment that never tears straight or fussing around cutting a circle of parchment for a cake.  How did I ever survive without it?

Precut sheets of parchment for 8″ and 9″ cake pans and half sheet pans. No more wrasslin’ with a big ol’ roll of parchment that never tears straight or fussing around cutting a circle of parchment for a cake. How did I ever survive without it?

Espresso powder for making ice creams, milkshakes and for adding oomph to chocolate dishes.  Speaking of chocolate, I also got a bag of something called "Black Cocoa" which I promptly put in a canning jar.  I'm definitely looking forward to making some brownies or cake with that stuff!  It smells amazing!

Espresso powder for making ice creams, milkshakes and for adding oomph to chocolate dishes. Speaking of chocolate, I also got a bag of something called “Black Cocoa” which I promptly put in a canning jar. I’m definitely looking forward to making some brownies or cake with that stuff! It smells amazing!

A jar of high falootin' candied peels for making my beloved panettones and holiday breads.

A jar of high falootin’ candied peels for making my beloved panettones and holiday breads.

Several bags of the world's best flour for making crispy, chewy pizza crust.  I make a LOT of pizza, and it pains me to say it, but this fancy, expensive flour is totally worth the fuss to acquire.

Several bags of the world’s best flour for making crispy, chewy pizza crust. I make a LOT of pizza, and it pains me to say it, but this fancy, expensive flour is totally worth the fuss to acquire.

I got several Loran extracts for sprucing up smoothies, cocktails and baked goods.  I also got these brilliant dropper tops to go with them.  No more sloshing out too much flavoring or having it drip down the sides of the bottle!

I got several Lorann extracts for sprucing up smoothies, cocktails and baked goods. I also got these brilliant dropper tops to go with them. No more sloshing out too much flavoring or having it drip down the sides of the bottle!

A little splurge for my sweetie.  Popcorn is a favorite nitetime snack, and he is all about cheesy popcorn!

A little splurge for my sweetie. Popcorn is a favorite nitetime snack, and he is all about cheesy popcorn!

I'm really not a "mix" girl, but I will try them if they don't have any ingredients I wouldn't use if I was making it from scratch.  These mixes complied with my "rule"  so I thought I'd try a few.  They were pricey - I hope they're worth it!

I’m really not a “mix” girl, but I will try them if they don’t have any ingredients I wouldn’t use if I was making it from scratch. These mixes complied with my “rule” so I thought I’d try a few. Even on sale they were pricey – I hope they’re worth it!

Which brings us to the two gizmos that actually prompted this whole spending spree in the first place:

Regular and mini donut pans!  These are so cute.  Even tho we are not really that into donuts, I HAD to have them!!!

1.  Regular and mini donut pans! These are so cute. Even tho we are not really that into donuts, I HAD to have them!!!

Bonus points if you even know what this is!

And 2.  Bonus points if you even know what this is!

That, my friends, is a dough whisk, and if you ever make muffins, quick breads, pancakes, brownies, etc. you NEED one.  It looks like it’s not going to do anything, but the design is dead brilliant.  The point of this baby is to thoroughly mix a batter without developing a bunch of gluten which will make your final product doughy or chewy.  The outer part perfectly scrapes the bowl clean, while the inner loops actually do a great job of mixing the lumps out of a batter.  It’s weird to use at first, but wow – I am very impressed with this thing.  Hopefully gluten-y pancakes, muffins, etc. are a thing of my past!

So with all my new toys I took a little break from spring cleaning this afternoon to whip up my first batch of donuts.  I tried the King Arthur chocolate donut mix (which I jazzed up with a 1/2 tsp. of espresso powder) and my fancy new whisk.  I transfered the batter into the pans by glopping it first into a plastic bag, snipping off a tiny hole in the corner and then carefully piping the batter into the rings.  Very quick and neat!  I can’t imagine trying to do that with a spoon or something.  They popped right out of their pans and they looked and smelled incredibly chocolate-y!

Fresh from the oven - soft, hot and insanely chocolate-y.

Fresh from the oven – soft, hot and insanely chocolate-y.

Since my hubby loves chocolate cake with vanilla frosting I gave them a vanilla glaze.  After I glazed “his” donuts, I added a few drops of my new Lorann Coconut extract to the glaze which gave it a great flavor, and then dipped the glazed donuts into sticky, chewy coconut flakes.  That last part serves two purposes – one, I love coconut and two, John hates it, so it effectively assures I’ll actually get to eat them!  Y’all, those donuts are delicious!  A big A+ to the King Arthur baking mix, the dough whisk, the espresso powder and coconut extract, and the adorable pans.

I can't wait for my sweetie to come home to these treats!  Happy Friday!

I can’t wait for my sweetie to come home to these treats! Happy Friday!

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