Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmas aftermath, in which I fall in love with a Kindle



Another year, another holiday season almost over. I really enjoy Christmas and New Year's and best of all, the time off from work. I'm very fortunate to have a long vacation and I'm very thankful for that.

Yesterday was sunny but still cold and quite uncomfortable to be outdoors. I went out briefly and put up my new birdfeeders (you see the largest one above). This one has a panel divider inside so that you can put one type of seed on one side and a different kind on the other side. We have a large number of cardinals this year and they are so beautiful, especially in the snow. I don't believe there is a prettier thing than a redbird in the snow.

Another great gift this year was the Kindle. I thought I wanted one last year and had it on my Christmas list but decided that it would not be for me. I am a book lover, as many of you already know, and the thought of reading a book on an electronic device wasn't that appealing to me. Well, here I am eating my words. I love my Kindle!

I love the weight of it and the screen really does look like a printed page. It makes it easy to read in bed at night although I do wish it had some type of backlight illumination. I also got a nifty little book light though which takes care of that problem. It is also easy to change the font sizes to suit your failing eyesight requirements.

I love the free books that are available on Amazon for the Kindle. They include a lot of classics which I should have read a long time ago but didn't (and I was an English major, mind you). The first book I downloaded was "The Secret Garden". Michael told me that it would be the appropriate one to choose (I collect editions of the book). I've also downloaded "Dracula" and a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories. Right now, I'm reading an older book by my favorite writer, Ruth Rendell. Amazingly, I'm finding that I'm reading faster on the Kindle! I'm really loving it!

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Saturday, December 25, 2010

White Christmas



Well, who would have thunk it? Those silly weather people, who usually get us all in a tizz over nothing, were actually right this time. We woke up to a beautiful white Christmas. They say that 1989 was the last time it happened.

I have not ventured out yet. I took these photos from the windows. Outside the breakfast room window (a tiny room that was once a back porch) is where I have most of the bird feeders during the winter. Michael got me some new ones for Christmas this year so I will have to get them out next week. And speaking of feeding the birds, what is up with the huge price hikes on bird seed???





From the bedroom window -



Merry Christmas!


Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Chocolate Banana Bread



More chocolate (can you tell I love it?) This one comes from AllRecipes.com. This is a good way to wreck your diet!

Chocolate Banana Bread

Ingredients

  • 1 cup butter or margarine, softened
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 6 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Lightly grease two 9x5 inch loaf pans.
  2. In a large bowl, cream together butter, sugar and eggs. Stir in bananas and vanilla. Sift in flour, baking soda and cocoa; mix well. Blend in sour cream and chocolate chips. Pour batter into prepared pans.
  3. Bake in preheated oven for 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into center of a loaf comes out clean.


Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Triple Chocolate Buche de Noel (Yule Log)


Until a few years ago, we were heavily into Christmas - trees and decorations in every room, lights all over the place, and a grand party every year for our friends, family and co-workers. Well, it was fun while it lasted but then it got to where it was a chore and not so much fun. So we stopped - completely. We sold most of our Christmas decorations and now only have one main tree, which has not been put up for the past two years. I do miss the decorations but not the work that went into it. And I miss our big party - even though I'm not a party person and it always made me a nervous wreck. 

My favorite thing was preparing the food for the party and one dessert I always made was a yule log. I still make it every year. It is beautiful and fun to do and not as hard as you'd think. Most of all, it is quite delicious - the combination of chocolate and Kahlua is divine. I found this recipe somewhere on the Internet and thank goodness I printed it out because a recent search failed to bring it up again.


Ingredients:


Cake:
2/3 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
5 eggs
3/4 c. sugar
2 (1 ounce) squares unsweetened chocolate
2 TBS. brewed coffee
2 TBS. Kahlua
2 TBS. sugar
1/4 tsp. baking soda


Filling:
4 oz. cream cheese (softened)
2 c. powdered sugar
2 TBS. butter
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 (1 ounce) square semi-sweet chocolate
1/2 - 1 c. chopped pecans (optional)


Frosting:
1 c. powdered sugar
4 oz. cream cheese (softened)
2/3 c. chocolate chips
1 TBS. Kahlua


Preheat oven to 350. Lightly spray a 10x15 jelly roll plan. Line with parchment. Sift flour with baking powder and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs on high for 5 minutes. Gradually add in the sugar and beat for another 2 minutes. Gently but thoroughly fold in the flour mixture.

Melt the unsweetened chocolate squares in a double boiler. In a small bowl, combine the coffee, Kahlua, 2 TBS. sugar and the baking soda. Gradually stir into the melted chocolate blending until smooth. Fold chocolate mixture into the batter.

Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for 12-15 minutes.

While the cake is baking, lightly sift an even layer of powdered sugar onto a clean flat-weave cloth (not terry cloth).

When the cake is done, flip it onto the cloth as soon as it comes out of the oven. Carefully peel away the parchment paper. Dust the top of the cake lightly with powdered sugar, then trim away the edges with a sharp knife.


Starting with the short side of the cake, immediately roll the cake up in the cloth and cool it completely on a baking rack.


Make the filling: Melt the semi-sweet chocolate in a double boiler. Set aside. In a medium bowl, combine the cream cheese, powdered sugar, butter and vanilla. Beat until fluffy. Beat in the melted chocolate.

Unroll the cake after it has cooled and spread the filling evenly. If you are using pecans, sprinkle them over the filling. Roll the cake back up (not in the towel!) and cool.

Make the frosting: Melt chocolate chips in a double boiler. Set aside. Beat cream cheese with powdered sugar until smooth, then blend in the Kahlua and the melted chocolate.

Frost the cake leaving the ends unfrosted.

The log can then be decorated with chocolate bark, cherries, etc.

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Monday, December 13, 2010

Camellia "Pink Icicle"





This cold hardy camellia (to -20!) has compact, upright growth and lovely shell-pink, peony type flowers that begin in late November for us (the above photo was taken the day before Thanksgiving) and continue through late winter and early spring. It was developed by Bill Ackerman in 1987 from a cross between C. xwillimsii 'November Pink' x C. oleifera 'Lu Shan Snow'.

Long thought of as deep south shrubs, hardier camellias are now a reality thanks to breeding efforts by Bill Ackerman at the National Arboretum during the 80s. When devastating hard freezes hit the area in the late 70s, the Arboretum's huge camellia collection (around 900) was almost wiped out. They noticed that a c. oleifera species (later given the name i"Lu Shan Snow"), introduced in 1948 from northern China, stood up admirably to the cold temperatures. Seeking other varieties in the species, they found another one they called "Plain Jane" and set out to develop new varieties using these as parents. First new hybrids were developed from c. sasanqua and c. heimilis cultivars. Later, spring flowering parents from c. japonica and c. williamsi were crossed to produce more hybrids. 


Similar experiments were conducted in the 1960s by Clifford Parks at his nursery in Chapel Hill, N.C. and resulted in the "April" series of camellias that are available today.


Thanks to these experiments which are still going on, a wide selection of cold hardy camellias are available so that gardeners in upper south regions and even New England gardeners can appreciate these beautiful plants.


Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Friday, December 10, 2010

Chocolate Mint Cookies


The garden is cold, the kitchen beckons. If you like chocolate and mint, I think you'll like these cookies. I've made them many times and they are especially nice this time of year. They are soft and chewy and the mint/chocolate combination is just right. I've found that Andes mints are the best candies to use for this recipe. They are the right size. I've tried larger mints and they didn't melt easily on the cookies. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

3/4 c. butter
1 1/2 c. brown sugar
2 TBS. water
2 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 eggs
2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
18-20 chocolate mint candies (cut in half)


Directions:

Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt and set aside.

Unwrap the candy pieces and cut them in half.

In a heavy saucepan over low heat, warm the butter, sugar and water until the butter is melted. Add the chocolate chips and mix until the chocolate is partially melted. Remove from heat and mix until the chocolate is completely melted and combined. Pour into a large mixer bowl and let cool slightly.

Beat in the eggs on high speed, one at a time. Lower the speed and add the sifted dry ingredients, beating until blended.

Chill the dough for at least one hour (it can be left in the bowl).

Form dough into balls (a cookie scoop works well for this) and place them 2 inches apart on an ungreased baking pan or cookie sheet.  The cookies can be made large or small depending on your preference.

Bake 8-10 minutes. Transfer to a baking rack and place a half-piece mint candie on top of each cookie. As the chocolate candy begins to melt, use a spoon to spread or swirl the chocolate.

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Chocolate Almond Toffee



I've never made toffee before and I was surprised that it is very easy to make. I made these for a goodie bag that we do for the student workers at the library. If I make it again, I think I'll use a bigger pan so the bars will be thinner - it was too sugary for me and that is saying a lot. I might increase the chocolate as well to make that layer a tad thicker.

Ingredients:

2 cups butter
2 cups white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup finely chopped almonds


Directions:
In a large heavy bottomed saucepan, combine the butter, sugar and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring until the butter is melted. Allow to come to a boil, and cook until the mixture becomes a dark amber color, and the temperature has reached 285 degrees F (137 degrees C). Stir occasionally.

While the toffee is cooking, cover a large baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper. Use enough to form sides so that it doesn't stick to the pan.

As soon as the toffee reaches the proper temperature, pour it out onto the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle the chocolate over the top, and let it set for a minute or two to soften. Spread the chocolate into a thin even layer once it is melted. Sprinkle the nuts over the chocolate, and press in slightly.

Place the toffee in the refrigerator to chill until set. Break into pieces, and store in an airtight container.


Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Oakleaf Hydrangeas

The oakleaf hydrangea has something to offer in every season (flowers, leaves, bark) and they are stunning in fall with their blazing foliage. These photos were taken the day before Thanksgiving, before we started getting rain and cold temperatures.





















Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy