Monday, December 31, 2012

shepherd's pie

Have you ever had a favorite dish that you absolutely love but are afraid of cooking because you're sure it won't taste as good as all those times you have ordered it in a restaurant or someone else made it for you? Maybe it's a dish you have always assumed to take hours to cook (and maybe it actually does take hours to make). Maybe it's a dish that has many parts to it, complicated all. Or maybe the dish has an ingredient you have never cooked with before.

There are surprisingly many of those dishes I am somewhat terrified of trying to make. Shepherd's pie used to be one of them. But then I really wanted to eat shepherd's pie. After learning the basics of it, I made a version that was easy and simple enough for me. Now, it is one of my favorites to cook and to eat.

Shepherd's Pie

Shepherd's pie has long been a favorite of my father. As long as I can remember, whenever we have been travelling in a bigger city somewhere abroad, my father has always wanted to eat at an Irish pub if there was a chance. Can you guess the reason? Yes, shepherd's pie. It's always when we are already too hungry, when we rather argue and whine than actually try to look for a restaurant. Dad checks if there is an Irish pub near-by. If there is, we'll be there. Eating shepherd's pie or fish and chips. Maybe broccoli and cheddar soup with Irish brown bread. There would be no more arguing or whining.

There's something to those two layers; one of meat, the other of potatoes. The tomatoes give a fragrant undertone to the meat mixture, and the meat is seasoned with thyme and a little basil to bring out the best of both the meat and tomatoes. The mashed potato layer is creamy and slightly buttery, and it is the perfect accompaniment to the meat. Making the meat mixture first and letting it simmer while the potatoes are cooking, allows the meat to take on the flavors. Honestly, if any dish ever was comforting, it's this.

Shepherd's Pie

While making shepherd's pie does take some time, I find it more than worth all the time spent on making it. It is also relatively easy to make, and the finished result is oh, so cozy and tasty and comforting. There's not much better, really. And if you happen to have a relative who likes his meat and potatoes, well, all the more better. My father had to walk out of the kitchen after three helpings because the temptation to eat more was almost too much.

Shepherd's Pie
serves 8

* For an easy, everyday meal I use ground beef. This version was, though, made with 1/2 pound each of beef, pork, and moose. I love it either way. Lamb could also be used (it is shepherd's pie, after all.)

2 tbsp olive or vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion
3 to 4 garlic cloves
4 to 5 medium carrots
700g (1 1/2 lbs) ground meat (beef) *

2/3 cup beef or vegetable stock
1 (400g / 14 oz.) can peeled tomatoes
150g (5 oz.) frozen peas
1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp dried basil
salt to taste

1.4 kg (3 lbs) all-purpose potatoes like Yukon Gold
4 tbsp butter
1/3 to 1/2 cup milk (not fat-free)
salt to taste

Preheat oven to 175C.

Peel the potatoes and set them in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Set aside. Peel and dice the onion and carrots. Peel and mince the garlic cloves. In a large skillet, sauté the onion, garlic, and carrots in oil on medium-high for a few minutes. Add the meat and sauté on high heat until the meat is browned and cooked through. Season with spices, then add the stock, tomatoes, and peas. Cover and let simmer until the mashed potatoes are ready. Season to taste with salt.

Fill a large saucepan with water and bring to a boil. In the meanwhile, cut the potatoes into quarters or sixths to reduce the cooking time. When the water boils, add the potatoes and cook until tender and done, about 15 minutes. Drain the water from potatoes. Heat up the milk and add all of the butter and about a half of the milk and mash the potatoes with potato masher, adding milk a tablespoon or two at a time until desired consistency. Season to taste with salt.

Pour the meat mixture into a large baking dish (about 13 x 9 inch). Spoon the mashed potatoes on top, spreading until the mashed potatoes cover all of the meat mixture. Place on the middle rack of the oven and bake for about 20 minutes or until bubbly and nicely browned on top. Let the casserole sit for about 15 minutes before serving.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

wednesday writings: thoughts on newtown, connecticut

The terrible news of Newtown, Connecticut, it breaks my heart. New England, as I experienced it when I lived in Boston, was always sensible and systematic, more peaceful and judicious than other regions of the States. Picturesque and charming, inviting though still reserved. Which is exactly why none of this makes sense. Why all those children? My heart is breaking, the unspeakable pain is taking over. The tragedy of the shooting; the precious lives of those children. How did the world ever get like this?

A day off from work today has given me time to think over these things. To pray over all the emotions inside of me, to ask all the questions I have.

With silent cries, my prayers go out to the families who lost a precious child. To all the people who lost a loved one, to the town that will never be the same. As people are looking for someone to blame; as they are asking where God was in all this, because there is always someone to ask that -- I pray that they would truly come to know Him. To know the One who heals our hurting, who offers comfort and peace, who is Love. In this world we live in, we feel we must earn everything; yet when a tragedy strikes, we find we never earned it. We try to make sense of it all and when we can't, we give up and create a world suiting our own views. A place where all that matters is ourselves; a place where we must come first and be served the way we like.

Yet there is a hope, in a world that is so hopeless. It still doesn't make sense, to be able to have everything without having to earn it. To have hope and love, comfort and peace. It doesn't make sense that there would be One who loves us with immeasurable, unconditional love that doesn't have to be earned. So I pray that in the midst of the tragedy that does not make sense, people would find the One who eventually makes sense of all of it. There will be years of unspeakable pain and hurting; of missing  the lost ones; of gripping grief and heartache. So I pray He would be found in the midst of all of this.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
His mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is Your faithfulness.
"The Lord is my portion," says my soul,
"therefore I will hope in Him."
-- Lamentations 3:22-24

Because His heart is breaking so much more.

Monday, December 10, 2012

whipped cranberry vanilla porridge

Whipped Cranberry Vanilla Porridge

Even though winter comes faithfully every year, it always catches me by a surprise. We have had snow for over a week but I keep being amazed at the winter wonderland I seem to be living in right now. Snow is very welcome in the wintertime, as everything is so much brighter when there is snow. Freshly fallen snow, untouched, also paints such a beautiful picture of peace and purity.

Winter is not my favourite season - somehow, fingers and toes frozen numb, only a few hours of daylight in December, and the coldness that is hard to shake off, do not make it a favourite of mine. Still, many of my favourite memories from my childhood set in the wintertime.

The best days have always been the ones with snow but the temperature only a few degrees below 0C (32F).  Those days you get the best out of the winter activities without completely freezing. Whether sledding or ice skating, we would put on about 17 layers of clothing to protect us from the cold, and Mom would prepare for us a thermos bottle containing hot beverage of sorts, like glögg or hot chocolate. When finally done, our fingers would be numb, noses red, and the thermos empty. Mom would meet us at the door, trying to keep the snow outside and control the chaos caused by the clothes; yet we would all end up with wet socks from the melted snow.

Whipped Cranberry Vanilla Porridge

Something about the winter makes me go back to the traditional Finnish dishes. Whipped porridge is something so very traditional Finnish and I find it fits the winter. Maybe it's the tartness of the berries, or the fact that it is eaten cold. Maybe it is the bright pink colour that is rather welcome in the dark season.

Whipped porridge is made of berries - usually lingonberries - and semolina, cooked into this pink porridge that is cooled down and then whipped until light in colour and fluffy in consistency. Once whipped, the porridge is eaten with cold milk, and a sprinkling of sugar if the tartness is too much. This porridge makes a great breakfast or a snack, although we Finns are also known for eating this for dessert.

Cranberries make the porridge fit for the season, though other berries such as lingonberries, red currants, or even raspberries could be used. I definitely recommend the addition of vanilla, though it could be left out for an even more traditional version of whipped porridge. I find the vanilla cuts nicely through the tartness, bringing out the sweetness just enough to enhance the flavour of the berries.

Whipped Cranberry Vanilla Porridge

Whipped Cranberry Vanilla Porridge
serves 4 to 6

500 ml frozen cranberries
1 litre water

3/4 tsp salt
100g sugar (adjust to taste)
150g semolina
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Combine the cranberries and water in a saucepan, and bring to a boil. Simmer for 20 minutes, then strain the juice into a mixing bowl or a 4-cup measuring cup. Add enough water to make 1 litre and pour the cranberry juice back into a saucepan. Add sugar and salt; bring to a boil. Whisk in the semolina and simmer, stirring often, for 10 minutes.

Once the porridge is done, put the saucepan into a sink and fill the sink with cold water until it reaches halfway up the saucepan. Stirring occasionally, cool the porridge to room temperature. Pour it into a mixing bowl and add the vanilla. Beat with an electric mixer on high for 3 to 5 minutes, until lighter in colour and fluffy in consistency. Serve room temperature or cold with cold milk and sugar, if desired. Store in the refrigerator.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

spiced sour cream bundt cake

Spiced Sour Cream Bundt Cake

December has arrived and along with it came snow. In just a few days time, everything has changed from dark and depressing to this magical, white wonderland. Now, piles and piles of pillowy snow decorate the nature, inviting to go out and play in the snow. (Although it's freezing right now, so you might want to think about that.) When there is snow, everything seems so much more enjoyable and it's easier to give in to the mood of the joyful season.

In our household, the Christmas season is restricted to December. While the rule applies to everything related to Christmas, Christmas songs are the biggest no-no. For years, this rule did not make any sense to me but I am starting to see the reasoning behind it. Waiting for the first of December makes the Christmas songs and decorations seem just so much more precious, and my heart is fully embracing the season through the days of December leading up to Christmas.

When December finally comes, Christmas baking takes over in the kitchen. Spices are prominent in the baking, and the comforting fragrance drifting from the kitchen makes everything better. There is always an overload of sweets; yet it fits so nicely the season that can be described as sweet as well. All those hours spent in the kitchen, surrounded by snow and darkness in the evenings, make me feel like I am capturing a moment of time, a stillness in the midst of the rush and the stress of the holidays.

Spiced Sour Cream Bundt Cake 2

This spiced cake is a traditional one in the Christmas time here in Finland. The spices come together wonderfully in this sweet, light cake. The cake tastes like gingerbread cookies (the Finnish ones, at least); so if you're feeling like eating some gingerbread cookies but don't feel like making a batch, this easy cake is a good option. I have yet to try but I think a simple powdered sugar glaze would work really well on this.

Spiced Sour Cream Bundt Cake
makes one cake

* Bitter orange peel is a traditional ingredient in Christmas foods in Finland and Sweden. It is used in, for example, gingerbread cookies and Glögg (mulled wine). I imagine bitter orange is difficult to find anywhere outside the Nordic countries so feel free to leave it out.

150g salted butter

200g plain flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground bitter orange peel (optional) *
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground cardamom
a good pinch of nutmeg

2 large eggs
225g sugar
200g sour cream or Crème fraîche

Preheat oven to 175C. Grease and flour a 6-cup Bundt Cake pan. In a small saucepan or microwave, melt the butter and set aside to cool.

In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, and spices. In another bowl, beat together the eggs and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Stir in the melted butter and sour cream. Fold in the flour mixture in a few batches, taking care not to overmix. Spoon the batter evenly into the prepared pan. (The batter is rather thick, that's why it's better to spoon it.) Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Let the cake cool to room temperature before inverting. The cake tastes better the next day.

Monday, November 19, 2012

spiced banana cookies

On Thursday afternoon, I was watching out of a window with a cup of tea in my hands. The sky was clear and the sun was shining, a ray of sunlight flicking through the blinds and the trees just outside the window made it look like the light was dancing around the room. That moment right there, it was beautiful and peaceful.

Yet, I was sitting there out of tiredness. I was watching out of the window, hoping that the moment of stillness would help me to fight the weariness trying to take over me. I was truly tired, with that kind of tiredness that hadn't gone away with a good night's sleep and a 20-minute nap in the morning (and I  nap very rarely, so that was something).

The thing is, I felt bad about being tired. I honestly felt bad, even a little ashamed, that I would be so tired though I had slept well the night before. As I lifted the cup to my lips and sipped the hot tea, I watched out of the window. I watched, and saw beauty. The rays of sunshine pouring in through the windows. The branch of a tree waving with the wind, the sunshine behind it. The golden hue of the afternoon sun, lighting up the room.

And then, I realized.

It was okay to be tired.
It was okay to feel weary, even at the brink of exhaustion.
It was okay to not be at my best. It was okay.

Because there will always be days when you feel tired and weary. There will be days when you are feeling down, maybe even depressed. There will always be those days and that's nothing to be ashamed of. We all experience them and what matters is whether you get through them. How you get through them. For me, I find rest and comfort in the Lord. This may not be the case for you. But I do pray it would be.
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Now, I suggest you go and make these cookies. Maybe you are feeling weary or down. Maybe you are feeling rested and happy. Maybe you have a sweet tooth that's acting up. Or maybe your day just needs some sugaring up. However you are feeling right now, if you happen to have a few browning bananas on your kitchen counter, I suggest you go and make these.

These cookies are fun, seriously. They are really cakey and soft, so much so that it's more like you are eating banana bread than cookies. (So if you have problems with portion control, here you go.) They are sweet but not overly so, and the spices come through beautifully. I absolutely love these with a cup of black tea, and have been enjoying these on many afternoons now.

Spiced Banana Cookies
adapted from Simply Recipes

115g butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup mashed bananas (about 2 to 3 medium)
1 tsp baking soda
2 cups plain flour
3/4 tsp groung cinnamon
1/2 tsp groung nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
a good pinch of ground ginger
a pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 175C. With an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugars together until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla, and beat until light and fluffy. In a small bowl, stir together the mashed bananas and baking soda; set aside for 2 minutes. Stir the banana mixture into the wet ingredients.

In a bowl, combine the flour and spices. Stir into the wet ingredients, mixing until just combined. Drop tablespoonfuls of batter on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Bake the cookies for 11 to 13 minutes, or until golden brown.

Friday, November 9, 2012

mexican-style ground beef soup

Somewhere along the years, we stopped eating dinner together as a family. Busy, irregular schedules did that. There would rarely be more than two to eat dinner at the same time, and usually at least one of those would be going to the gym or for a run, hence not eating dinner but later. And if it was me and my sister that were at home, dinner would often be eaten watching TV (together at least).

For a longer time now, Saturdays have been the only times we gather together as a family to eat dinner each week. And those times, I'm sure, we all cherish. The time spent together, sharing everything that is pressing in our lives. That Saturday dinner is always a time of laughter as my sister keeps us entertained with her jokes and funny stories of her life. As we leave the table - after an hour or an hour and a half, usually - the sense of a family has been restored.

So nowadays, if it happens that all of us - or at least most of us - happen to be at home for dinner during the week, it is always somehow special. The same kind of special as when you were a child and Dad would come home early one afternoon and you got to spend extra time with him. The same kind of special as when you visited Grandpa and he snuck you an ice cream. The same kind of special as when you got to help Mom in the kitchen.

Now, please don't get confused with the name. The only reason this is called Mexican-style soup is that it has corn and kidney beans in it. And it's tomato-based. Somehow, those ingredients make this soup Mexican to me. I don't even know. Please, someone tell me you also do this.

Nevertheless, this is a very easy and tasty soup. It is very hearty but also packs in a bunch of vegetables, which I love. I made this soup with a can of diced tomatoes with spicy red pepper and I loved the kick it brought. This is definitely a keeper for those chilly evenings that are already around the corner.

Mexican-style Ground Beef Soup
serves 6

Note: I used a can of diced tomatoes with spicy red pepper and loved the heat. However, if you are serving this to (small) children, I would recommend using plain diced tomatoes and adding a pinch of red pepper flakes or cayenne pepper for heat. We ate this soup with a good dollop of sour cream, which is not only delicious in the soup but also takes the edge off the heat.

1 (400g) can diced tomatoes *(see note)
4 cups beef or vegetable stock
5 to 6 medium potatoes
2 to 3 medium carrots
1/2 tsp dried basil
1/4 tsp dried thyme

1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion
2 garlic cloves
400g ground beef
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground coriander
150g frozen corn
100g frozen, chopped green beans

1 cup red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
salt and ground black pepper, to taste

+ sour cream to serve

In a large pot, bring the diced tomatoes and stock with the basil and thyme to a boil. Meanwhile, peel the carrots and slice them. Put the carrots to the pot and simmer for 10 minutes. Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1-inch pieces. Put them to the pot with the carrots after the 10 minutes have passed.

Peel the onion and garlic cloves. Dice the onion and mince the garlic. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a skillet and sauté the onion and garlic for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the ground beef and brown on high heat until evenly cooked. Season with the cumin and coriander, then add the frozen corn and green beans. Lower the heat to medium-low and sauté until the vegetables have heated through. Add the ground beef mixture to the pot and simmer until the potatoes and carrots have softened, about 10 to 20 minutes.

Once all the vegetables are cooked through, turn off the heat and add the kidney beans to the soup to warm through. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Serve with a good dollop of sour cream, if desired.

Monday, November 5, 2012

chocolate chip espresso muffins

It feels as if I am baking purely for brain fuel nowadays. Because when you spend most of your free time writing, there comes times when all the words seem to be used, all the thoughts already written down, all the emotions poured out.

When it feels like I am stuck between thoughts, muffins are a good option. Muffins are easy to make and there are plenty of options as for the kinds of muffins you can bake. The act of baking always manages to relax me. I love baking just for that. There isn't much flexibility in baking; rather, the fixed ratios are very important if you want something edible as a result. Still, there is always something small that can be done to make the baked good more to your taste. Whether it is adding spices or chocolate, using different flours or sugars, making muffins instead of a cake. That's why I like baking so much. It takes time and trials to know what you like, and what you don't like. It takes time to know what goes well with what.

And while there is the excitement of trying something new when baking, you can also find comfort in baking those goods you have been baking for years now. In using those old recipes that are perfect just as they are. For those days when you are feeling adventurous, the internet is full of new recipes and ideas for you to try. And when comfort is needed, there is no judgement to be found in baking those brownies you have been making for the last 10 years without changing anything. If it's good, no explanations are needed. All will be received with a glad heart.

If there ever is a time when words fail me, chocolate and coffee usually help. When those two are combined in a muffin form with a delicious oat streusel topping, it seems as if words start to flow again. Thoughts start clearing up and taking a form.

As for these muffins, they pack flavour as the espresso and dark chocolate come together, but these aren't too sweet. Rather, they are hearty, full-bodied muffins with a sweet streusel topping, and I love them as they are. However, if you are looking for sweet muffins specifically, I'd recommend adding maybe 1/4 cup white sugar and a little more yoghurt if the mixture seems too dry. Another option is using milk chocolate, which would add some sweetness to the mix as well.

Chocolate Chip Espresso Muffins
adapted from Sprouted Kitchen
makes 12

115g butter
2 eggs
1/3 cup + 1 tbsp plain whole milk yoghurt
1 tsp vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract)

11/3 cups plain flour
3/4 cup spelt flour
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 tbsp espresso (or finely ground coffee)
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

100g dark chocolate, chopped

Streusel Topping:
30g cold, salted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1/4 cup turbinado sugar

Preheat oven to 175C and grease a muffin pan or line with paper lines.

Place the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, and let it melt. Watch the butter as foam starts to form and when the butter starts to bubble, stir it with a spatula. When the foam starts to subside, watch for small brown flecks in the bottom of the saucepan. When you see the brown flecks, take the butter off the heat and set aside to cool. The butter should be light brown in colour.

In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, yoghurt and vanilla. When the butter has cooled, whisk it in as well.

In a bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients, making sure there are no brown sugar lumps. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Stir in the chopped dark chocolate and mix until just combined. Be careful not to overmix. Divide the batter evenly into the prepared 12 muffin tins.

In a small bowl, rub the streusel topping ingredients with your fingers until the butter is evenly mixed into the oats and sugar. Sprinkle the streusel topping evenly on top of the muffins.

Bake the muffins on the middle rack for 18 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

favourites: october 2012

The first snow came last week and with it, comes the muddy season. The autumn colours have been embraced and now comes the season of mud; brown colour and bare trees. As the darkness settles in, it is the time to start embracing whatever comfort we have - candles burning in the dark, family nights, movies watched and books read under a blanket, smiles and hugs shared with our loved ones.

  • Cold days call for comfort dishes like this Beef Ragu. Because what could be more comforting than a mouthwatering bowl of pasta with meat sauce.
  • As it is also the season of cranberries, this cranberry snacking cake is a great way to use up some cranberries, besides the standard cranberry sauce.
  • I am absolutely obsessed with Downton Abbey, and I really, really want to travel to the Downton Abbey / Highclere Castle. On that note, and because of the post, I'd also love to travel to London once again.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

quick weeknight pasta sauce with mushrooms

As a kid, I didn't like pasta nor tomato-based sauces. I'm still not exactly sure why. I guess pasta was boring and tomato-based sauces - or sauces in general - just weren't my cup of tea. So, instead of eating pasta with sauce like all the other children would do, I usually ate pasta with plain ground beef. (Seriously. Pasta and seasoned, browned ground beef. Not even ketchup on top. So weird.) The best part is, my sister used to be the same. So we never ate pasta with any kind of sauce.

Then, some years ago, we had one of those relaxed dinners at a friend's house. The dad made spaghetti bolognese but added cream to the sauce and let it simmer for an hour or so. And I? I started eating pasta with sauce, any sort.

This recipe is for those weeknights when dinner needs to be on the table, like, now. Easy to make, quick to cook and from toddlers to grannies, it is a crowd-pleaser. This pasta sauce relies heavily on the pantry but does not taste like it. It is hearty, comforting, and seriously good for a sauce (and dinner) that comes together in about 30 minutes.

Quick Weeknight Pasta Sauce with Mushrooms
serves 4 to 6

* I always try to use the best quality canned tomatoes I can find but even so, there is sometimes that acidic taste that comes from using canned tomatoes. If that is the case, add a scant tablespoon of honey to the sauce. This won't sweeten the sauce but helps to mellow out the acidity.

200g white button mushrooms

1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion
2 garlic cloves
400g ground beef

1 (400g) can diced tomatoes with the juice
1/2 can water
2 to 3 tbsp tomato paste (optional)
1 beef bouillon cube
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp dried basil
1/2 tsp dried thyme
* honey (optional)

Wash well and slice the mushrooms. Place them into a skillet over medium heat and sauté until they are done sweating, about 3 or 4 minutes. Set aside on a plate or in a bowl.

While the mushrooms are sweating, peel the onion and garlic cloves. Dice the onion and mince the garlic. Add the oil to the now empty skillet and sauté the onion until softened and translucent. Add the minced garlic and sauté for a minute or so. Add the ground beef and brown until cooked through.

Add the diced tomatoes, then fill the empty can halfway through with water and pour it into the skillet. Add the mushrooms, tomato paste, bouillon and spices; heat until bubbling. Lower the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring a few times. (Ideally, this is the point where you want to boil the pasta and when the pasta is ready, so is the sauce.) Season to taste with salt and ground black pepper.

Monday, October 22, 2012

chai concentrate

Yellow trees. Brown trees. Bare trees. Rainy days and rain boots. Wet, muddy ground. Crunching leaves from the neighbour's maple tree. Cups and cups of tea; herbal when you start feeling jittery. Knit tops and boots, scarves and woollen socks. Blankets and books. Fire burning in the fireplace. A few red apples still in the tree; many fallen on the ground. Apples, in pies and crisps and crumbles. Bared emotions. Hot chocolate and walks in the woods. Silence.

The crisp, cold mornings call for wrapping the biggest scarf you can find around yourself. Shoving your hands deep into the pockets when you realize you forgot your mittens. Woollen socks are becoming a necessity. A pot of soup is cooking on the stove at least once a week. Reading books while wrapped in a blanket is starting to sound like the perfect evening pastime. Stillness is starting to settle into the hearts; the stillness of the winter closing in.

This is what October looks like right now.

While late autumn and winter are not my favourite (I much prefer summer and early autumn), I still love to make the most of every season. Which, to me, means pulling on my orange rain boots and going for a walk in the muddy woods. It means making a big pot of soup to warm up the evenings. It means putting on a pair of woollen socks and wearing layers when going outside. It means curling up in a chair and reading a book.

And it means indulging in chai lattes to endure those rainy days. Lattes, in general, are a favourite of mine. With the warming spices and creaminess, chai lattes are made for crisp or rainy autumn days. On those days when something extra is needed, add a shot of espresso to make a dirty chai latte. Dirty chai latte is the perfect combination, in my opinion, of spices, tea and coffee, mixed together into creamy goodness.

Chai Concentrate
adapted from a wooden nest
makes about 4 cups

4 1/2 cups water
1 cinnamon stick
1 (1.5-inch) piece ginger
1/2 tsp cardamom seeds
2 star anise pods
10 whole cloves
1 tsp orange zest
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
11 bags of black tea

scant 1/2 cup brown sugar *
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp pure vanilla extract

Measure and prepare the spices and tea bags. Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan; add the spices and tea. Turn off the heat and let steep for 15 minutes. Strain the mixture into a 4-cup measuring bowl or cup. Whisk in the brown sugar, honey, and vanilla extract; stir until the sugar has dissolved. Pour into a bottle or a jar, and store in the refrigerator.

To make chai lattes, use 1 part concentrate and 1 part milk. Heat up or pour over ice to make an iced chai latte.

* While this makes a sweet chai latte, I don't like my chai lattes overly sweet and found this was the perfect amount of sugar for me. If you like yours sweet, add more brown sugar.

Dirty Chai Latte
makes 1 serving

1/2 cup chai spice concentrate
1/2 cup milk
a shot of espresso (or 1/4 cup strong coffee)

Combine the chai concentrate and milk; heat until warm. Make the espresso (or coffee) and pour it into the chai latte. Enjoy.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

wednesday writings: on prayer

Prayer has been on my mind a lot lately. I know I am not alone; God seems to be stirring up prayer and the desire to pray in our church. And, I hope, in all the other churches around the world as well.

Prayer is not always the first thing in our lives. It is not our first choice. It might not even be the second choice. More often than not, I don't feel like praying. Sometimes I don't even think prayer is really that necessary. God knows everything in my heart so He knows those prayers already, right?
"Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." - Psalm 139:23-24
It is in neglecting to pray that temptation and sin enter. That anxiety comes. When we choose to not pray, we choose to not spend time with God. Understandably, prayerlessness makes us much weaker when tempted, as Christ is the one who gives us strength to resist the temptations. When we neglect to pray, we are, in essence, rejecting spending time in the presence of God.
"Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." - Mark 14:38
So I have been reminded that prayer is important. Prayer is crucial. It is prayer that makes this all a relationship with God. Prayer is where I get to pour out my heart, to talk to God. It is also where God gets to pour out His heart, where He talks to me. As the saying goes, you become like the 5 people you spend the most time with. When you spend time with God, in His presence, you will become like Him. Your heart will be changed. Your thoughts will be changed, to being more God-centered. You will be changed; transformed into the image of Jesus Christ.
"But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord." - 2 Corinthians 3:18
That, right there. That is a beautiful image.

Monday, October 8, 2012

pear & coconut spice muffins

In addition to a sweet 3-year-old, I take care of a temperamental toddler with quick feet. From the moment she wakes up until the end of my work day, she keeps me busy running after her and trying to keep her safe.

She is a bundle of energy, if anything. She likes to test and try everything possible. She is tall enough to reach and climb things, and that's exactly what she does. She will throw a fit if she doesn't get what she wants. When she is hungry and/or tired, she gets cranky and with her, cranky means trying to do everything she has been told not to. In other words, she keeps me on my toes all day long.

She is also absolutely and totally adorable, and always makes my day. She loves music, and we sing and dance together every day. At the age of 1 year 9 months, she is fast learning to talk and amazes me every day with her expanding vocabulary and the 2-word sentences she's already managing very well. She loves to read books together, and if I'm out of her sight for more than 10 minutes, she will come running and asks to be held. She often makes herself laugh, and it is the funniest thing ever.

All this is to say, oftentimes a moment of silence and stillness is highly appreciated around here. A moment to sit down, to collect my thoughts. To breathe in and calm down. Which leads me to my new favourite: getting home early in the afternoon to take the moment and delight in the silence, to brew myself a cup of coffee and enjoy it with something sweet. That is what these muffins were baked for. Having a few early mornings this week thankfully also means getting home earlier and enjoying a moment or two of silence.

In these muffins, warming spices combine with pears to make a delicious, seasonal treat. The addition of coconut, which happens to be one of my favourites, makes them a touch more indulgent, as does the browned butter. Even so, these are a healthy enough treat to have with a cup of coffee or tea without any need to feel guilty. I mean, they are packed with fruit and fruit is healthy, right? Moreover, these are perfectly spiced in the comforting way to make the best of that quiet moment or two you might find.

I had some firm but sweet pears that I shredded, and I loved the moist, somewhat crumbly muffin that resulted from the shredded pears. In case the only pears you can get your hands on are those juicy, soft pears, finely dice them as shredding them would not work. I didn't have any ground ginger this time but next time I am going to add a pinch of ground ginger to the mix as well.

Pear & Coconut Spice Muffins
adapted from The Flourishing Foodie
makes 12 muffins

60g (4 tbsp) butter

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
heaping 1/2 tsp cinnamon
a good pinch of nutmeg

1/2 cup full-fat coconut milk
1 large egg
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups peeled and shredded or finely diced pears (about 3 or 4 medium pears)
1/2 cup dried shredded coconut

4 tbsp dried shredded coconut
4 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp all-purpose flour
15g (1 tbsp) cold salted butter, cubed
a pinch of cinnamon

Preheat oven to 190C. Line a muffin tin with 12 baking cups.

Place the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, and let it melt. Watch the butter as foam starts to form and when the butter starts to bubble, stir it with a spatula. When the foam starts to subside, watch for small brown flecks in the bottom of the saucepan. When you see the brown flecks, take the butter off the heat and set aside to cool. The butter should be light brown in colour.

In a bowl, combine the flours, sugar, baking powder, salt, and spices. Make sure that there are no lumps of brown sugar anywhere. In another bowl, lightly whisk together coconut milk, egg, and vanilla. Stir the pears into the mixture.

Add the dry ingredients, shredded coconut, and browned butter to the wet ingredients. Mix until just combined. Spoon the mixture evenly to the prepared muffin tin.

In a small bowl, rub together the topping ingredients with your fingers. Sprinkle on top of the muffins. Place the muffins into the oven and bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the muffins cool for at least an hour before eating.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

brussels sprouts sauté

Brussels sprouts and I, we didn't start off exactly on the right foot. The first time I tasted Brussels sprouts, I was five and in the hospital. Brussels sprouts were served for lunch. They were boiled, and that was it. Boiled, with no spices whatsoever. For a 5-year-old, those Brussels sprouts were the embodiment of everything bad and stinky.

Those Brussels sprouts are one of the very few memories I have from the time spent in the hospital, and I think that in itself speaks of how horrendous the Brussels sprouts must have been. I am sure, though, that I am not the only one with bad memories or horror stories of Brussels sprouts from the childhood.

I have grown up since then, though, and growing up sometimes means giving things and people a second chance. And honestly, I am glad I did that with Brussels sprouts. When prepared the right way - which clearly is not boiled with no spices - Brussels sprouts are actually quite tasty and make a great side dish.

I found that with the trusty combination of butter and fresh thyme, those Brussels sprouts turned into a tasty side dish great for the autumn time. Quickly sautéing the Brussels sprouts leaves them still slightly crunchy, which is what I prefer. Turning up the heat for the last minute and getting a touch of colour to those Brussels sprouts also deepens the flavours, and I recommend doing just that.

Brussels Sprouts Sauté
serves 4 as a side

2 tbsp butter
1 small onion
1 tbsp chopped, fresh thyme
600g Brussels sprouts
salt to taste

Wash the Brussels sprouts well. Trim the stem ends and remove any loose or discoloured outer leaves. Stand the Brussels sprouts on their trimmed ends and thinly slice them into 3 or 4 slices.

Peel and slice the onion. In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat and add the onion, Brussels sprouts, and thyme. Sauté until the Brussels sprouts turn bright green and start to soften, about 5 minutes. Turn the heat to medium-high and sauté the Brussels sprouts for a minute or so, until some browning starts to occur. Take off the heat and salt to taste.

Friday, September 21, 2012

five minute friday: wide

Never have I known other arms that are open so wide. Never have I known other arms that would be wide open, always and in all situations. Never have I known other arms that are so wide open, ready to cradle me with love.

It is the beauty of the Lord. To love so fully, to forgive so readily. I can be where I am, and I know He is waiting for me, arms wide open. I know that whenever I seek Him, whenever I look to Him, His arms are wide open for me.

It has been a broken week. I have wanted to cry more than in a long, long time. And yet I can find peace in His arms. His arms have been wide open for me, all the time. Whether I have been crying, in pain, laughing, rejoicing - He is there for me. He is the One who saves, the One who loves. The beginning and the end. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and He is always there for me.

It is the safest place I know, in His arms. His love is so wide, ready to look past my sins and failures. His love is so wide, ready to accept me as I am and to help me to become more like Him. His love is wide, and His arms are open wide. I am invited.

Five Minute Friday

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

peanut butter & honey granola + raspberry compote

Before the year in the States, I don't think I ever actually had tasted peanut butter. When I moved to the States, I didn't quite understand the hype about peanut butter; why people would eat it straight from the jar by the spoonfuls. And I certainly didn't understand peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. To me, they seemed more like dessert than lunch.

Then, well, I lived in the States for a year. I, too, started to eat peanut butter by the spoonfuls (Peanut Butter & Co. is my favourite brand). The peanut butters sold here in Finland aren't quite as good, though, and so I have given up on eating it by the spoonfuls. This is not to say that they would actually taste bad. It's just different enough for me to not want to eat it as it is. Instead, I use peanut butter in cooking and baking when the craving for it comes.

All this is to say that peanut butter makes great sandwiches. Not only are they delicious but they also keep in the room temperature for a while. The Scandinavian sandwiches - which consist of deli ham and cheese, and sometimes gravlax and/or eggs - do not. I'm not really a fan of PB&J, though. I prefer my peanut butter sandwich with a sliced banana and sometimes honey if I want it sweeter.

Now, on to the granola. Fragrant honey and flavourful peanut butter combine wonderfully in this granola, making it a grown-up and somewhat more sophisticated version of the loved sandwich. It is fitting for breakfast or as a snack, even lunch. Some chocolate chips could turn this either into a very indulgent breakfast or a healthy dessert.

My favourite way to eat this is to top some plain Greek yoghurt with this granola and squeeze a little honey on top to enhance the flavour. However, as I started to think about peanut butter & jelly sandwiches while making this granola, I found myself craving the said sandwich. I, then, made a quick and easy raspberry compote from frozen raspberries to turn the sandwich into a yoghurt concoction of sorts. In case you are craving for a peanut butter & jelly sandwich as well, the recipe for the raspberry compote is also provided and highly recommended.

Peanut Butter & Honey Granola
makes 3 cups without any add-ins

1/4 cup canola oil
1/3 cup peanut butter
1/3 cup honey *
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt **

3 cups rolled oats
2 to 3 tbsp ground flaxseeds (optional)

Possible add-ins: 1/2 cup dry-roasted (or honey-roasted) peanuts; 1/2 cup dried fruit like raisins or banana chips; 1/2 cup dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 130C (275F). In a small saucepan, combine the oil, peanut butter, honey, cinnamon, and salt. Heat the mixture over medium heat until liquid and runny. Pour the peanut butter mixture over the rolled oats and flaxseeds, if using. Stir until everything is coated with peanut butter, then pour the mixture on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Bake for about 40 minutes, flipping once or twice while baking, until the granola is golden and crunchy.

Let the granola cool to room temperature. Add any of the add-ins, if desired. Store in an airtight container.

* This amount of honey results in a slightly sweetened granola, which is what I prefer. If you like your granola sweeter, I recommend adding up to 1/4 cup brown sugar. However, I like to just squeeze more honey on top of the granola if I happen to want it sweeter.

** The peanut butter I used was slightly salted and I found the 1/2 tsp of salt was the perfect amount for my granola. The amount of salt might need adjustment depending on whether or not your peanut butter is salted and how you like your granola.

Raspberry Compote
makes 1 cup

2 cups frozen raspberries
2  to 4 tbsp sugar, to taste
1 tsp pure vanilla extract or 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste
1 tsp potato starch

Slowly thaw the frozen raspberries in a saucepan over medium heat. When the raspberries are starting to get thawed, after about 3 to 5 minutes, add in the sugar and vanilla. When the raspberries are starting to get mushy, add in the potato starch and mix well. Bring the mixture to a boil, then take off the heat. Let it cool to room temperature before refrigerating. The compote will get thicker after cooling down and refrigerating.

This recipe makes a thick compote. For a runnier compote, I recommend adding only 1/2 tsp potato starch.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

curried carrot coconut soup

Potatoes, carrots, turnips, beets, onions. They are all rather delightful, these root vegetables. They are rustic, homey and above all, comforting. Available through the year and making it even in the harsh conditions, root vegetables are a winner in my book. They are often also taken for granted; overlooked. Now, more than ever, I think it is time to start paying attention to these beautiful gems of the nature. Maybe it is because I come from a country of long and harsh winters. Root vegetables are what has kept this nation alive for centuries. (Just kidding. Kind of. Some credit also goes to rye bread.)

Soups, stews, curries. Mashed or whole. Grated, sliced, diced. Raw, roasted, boiled, even pickled. Appetizer, side, or a main. Even dessert in some cases. Are you as amazed as I am?

When the weather take a turn for the chillier temperatures, I start making soups and curries out of root vegetables. In the wintertime, there is always a bag of carrots lying around in case a quick and warming dinner is in order. I love how easy carrots are in that regard. Combined with some pantry staples such as lentils, coconut milk, and spices, they quickly will turn into a healthy, comforting dinner.

I love the combination of creamy coconut milk and the warming spices; the way they balance each other out and result in a delicious soup. This is the soup for those evenings when all you want is to curl up in a blanket with some soup and a cup of tea, and read a book or watch a movie you've meant to watch for a few weeks nows.

And, hopefully, you will stop and smile when you sip down the soup. Smile and start, though maybe slowly, being more aware and appreciate more those beautiful (in this case, orange) root vegetables that are waiting to be used.

Curried Carrot Coconut Soup
serves 6

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion
2 garlic cloves
1 kg carrots

2 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground coriander
a pinch of ground chili pepper or red pepper flakes

100g red lentils, picked over and rinsed
1 litre vegetable stock
1 can coconut milk, divided

Peel and dice the onion and carrots. Peel and mince the garlic cloves. In a saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrots, and garlic; sauté for a few minutes. Add the spices, and sauté for 30 seconds. Add the lentils and vegetable stock. Bring to a boil and simmer, over medium-low heat, until the carrots are tender and the lentils are falling apart, about 25 minutes.

Purée the soup using an immersion blender (or a blender) and thin the soup to the consistency of your liking with the coconut milk. (I used about a cup.) Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon what is left of the coconut milk on top of the individual servings.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

brown soda bread

Saturday mornings are quiet in this household. I am the first one to wake up, and usually at least an hour goes by before anyone else - including the dog - rouses. That hour is spent writing - my journal, blog, e-mails - and reading. It is the time to ponder whatever might be heavy on my heart, or being thankful if nothing is. It's the quietness and stillness that draws my heart to be at peace those mornings.

But it is not just that time of quietness that makes Saturday mornings so precious. No, what happens next is also important.

After an hour or so, my Dad wakes up. I brew a pot of coffee and prepare breakfast while he's out walking the dog. Then, we share the morning's newspaper and discuss the things we read. If there is something major going on in our lives, we discuss that as well. It's just the two of us, because nobody else is awake. And I think it's safe to say that we both treasure those moments where it's just a father and a daughter. He teaches me what he thinks is important for me to know; explains things that I'm too impatient to learn about myself (politics and economics, to name a few); discusses matters he would like me to have an opinion about (and he's okay if I am of different opinion).

This brown soda bread is perfect for those silent Saturday mornings. It is simple yet delectable, especially with a smear of butter and raspberry jam on top. It pairs well with a cup of coffee (or tea), and it's hearty enough to make a good breakfast. This soda bread is only slightly sweet, yet sweet enough to pair well with jam and salty butter. And as I have noticed, this bread is perfect any other time of the day as well.

I have made this bread a few times. The first time I used just whole wheat and all-purpose flour. The second time I ended up subbing some spelt flour for all-purpose because we ran out of all-purpose flour.  Either way, it's delicious.

Brown Soda Bread
adapted from Sweet Amandine
makes one loaf

1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups all-purpose
1/4 cup spelt flour
3 tbsp instant oats
2 tbsp packed brown sugar
1 tbsp ground flaxseeds
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt

30g butter, cut into small cubes
2 cups buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 210C. Grease a 9x5-inch loaf pan. Combine all the dry ingredients in a bowl, making sure that the brown sugar is evenly distributed. Rub the cubed butter in with your fingers until it resembles a fine meal. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients, pour the buttermilk in, and stir until just combined. Be careful not to stir too much, or you'll end up with a tough dough.

Transfer the dough into the prepared loaf pan. Bake until the bread is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean, about 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool down slightly before slicing.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

wednesday writings: Proverbs 16:3

It is so very easy to go about our day and forget there are others, as well. I mean, it's my life, right? So why should I be thinking about anyone or anything else than me?

Going through the Proverbs with She Reads Truth has made me think and ponder; about myself and about God. How I am nothing and He is everything. How He is the perfect example of all good and righteous; and how I am not. Yet these thoughts do not come out of condemnation and conviction. I am learning to let go of myself in order to become more like Him. In essence, I am learning to love Him more every day.

"It is the sinner basking in the full light of God's holy, redeeming love, in the experience of that indwelling divine compassion of Christ, who cannot be but humble. Not to be occupied with your sin but to be fully occupied with God brings deliverance from self."
Andrew Murray in Humility: The Journey Toward Holiness

Had everything gone in my life as I wanted it to, my life would be, without doubt, a mess. Instead, God has been guiding me through the highs and lows with His perfect plan for my life in mind. It is so much better to give everything to Him, and let Him guide me onwards. The Lord has such good things in store for all of us who wish to follow Him, and He pours outs His blessings on those who walk in His ways. He is always there, arms wide open, willing to guide us and love us through everything.

This verse from Proverbs 16 has been in my mind the past few days. If only I would remember to give Him everything, as He will surely be there with me. So far, I can say with an honest heart that God has given me all the good things in my life. He has lead me to those places and situations. So from now on, I'll do my best to commit everything to the Lord.

Monday, September 3, 2012

quick and easy applesauce

The cool mornings are speaking of summer slowly turning to autumn. This is definitely my favourite time of the year. No matter where you look, the nature will amaze you with its astonishing beauty. The changing temperatures bring the changing colours with them. Forests will go from green to shades of yellow and red. Bright flowers will give way for the earthly hues of autumn.

"Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower."
 - Albert Camus

While the mornings have been cool here in Finland, the days have so far still been pleasantly warm. It is a little confusing, actually, the need to pull on a jacket in the morning only having to take it off later on. It's as if, this year, we are given plenty of time to adapt to the change of the seasons and all the necessary preparations. For me, applesauce belongs to the category of "autumn preparations".

As soon as apples are in season, I start making applesauce. I love to top my bowl of oatmeal with a big spoonful of chunky applesauce - preferably one infused with cinnamon. Applesauce makes such a great topping for yogurt, oatmeal, and ice cream, and it's great on its own as a snack as well. I like mine slightly sweetened, but this recipe can easily be adjusted according to your preferences.

Quick and Easy Applesauce
makes about 1 cup, depending on the size of the apples

4 to 5 medium apples, peeled* and thinly sliced**
1/4 cup water
2 to 4 tbsp sugar or maple syrup (or to taste)

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon (optional)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (optional)

Combine the apples, water and sugar in a saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil. Let simmer until the apples are tender, about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring a few times to make sure the apples get evenly cooked. Towards the end of the cooking, add cinnamon or vanilla to taste, if desired.

* You can just as well leave the peels on the apples; in that case, I recommend using organic apples. I love to leave the peels on with red apples, as that will result in nice, pink apple sauce. Of course, leaving the peels on means chunkier, more textured apple sauce.

** If you like your apple sauce truly chunky, try cutting one of the apples a little thicker. Thinly slicing the apples means that the apple sauce won't be completely smooth but it isn't exactly chunky either.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

favourites: august 2012

August and September are at the top of my favourite months, mostly because I absolutely love summer and early fall, and that's what August and September are. I love summer and its fresh produce, sunshine, colourful beauty and ice cream. And I love early autumn; the cool but not cold days, woollen socks, hot cups of tea and coffee enjoyed outside at the porch (under a blanket), apples (baked into crisps and crumbles), sweaters and boots. I'm excited.

  • Speaking of tea and coffee (both of which I love), autumn is the time to start making dirty chai lattés. For that, it's good to have good spiced chai concentrate.
  • This striped cotton sweater. Beautiful, cozy, pretty. Pair with black jeans and you're done. So, so pretty.
  • Broccoli Mac and Cheese. Um, because really. To be honest, I'm not that big on mac & cheese. I think you need to grow up in the States to love that. Still, this dish seems absolutely delicious.
  • I'm definitely making these raspberry oat bars. These are everything that I love - raspberries, coconut, oats. Simple, yet they look scrumptious. I think these will become a new favourite.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

cinnamon rolls

On Monday, I baked cinnamon rolls. On Tuesday, I started my new job as a full-time nanny for the next 9 months. So far, they have both been great.

Now, my Dad went back to work on Monday. Knowing that he had had a pretty restless night, I called him around noon, telling him I'd bake anything he wanted if he made it through the day. He did, and he wanted cinnamon rolls. Which was good, because the only bad thing about cinnamon rolls is that it takes quite a bit of time to make them and I needed that distraction to forget to stress about my new job.

Fragrant and sweet, cinnamon rolls are perfect any time of the day, although I highly recommend to have one with your afternoon cup of coffee or tea. While it does take time to make a batch, cinnamon rolls freeze well when using thick enough plastic bags and making sure to squeeze out all the air before freezing them.

Cinnamon rolls are also comfort in the form of a baked good. No matter how heavy the weight on your shoulders is, it is worth it to stop and enjoy a cinnamon roll. Don't just eat it - enjoy it. On Monday, I had tons of questions in my mind. Everything had happened so quickly. I had seen the ad for the job only a week before and here I was, already with a work contract. Fear was starting to cripple me. It was all too fast for my liking.

Then, I sat down with a warm cinnamon roll and a cup of tea. Comfort. For that moment, I was happy and all was good in the world. So no matter how heavy the weight or how light the life is, cinnamon rolls are always the way to go.

Cinnamon rolls are very traditionally Finnish (although the origin is said to be Sweden). Cinnamon rolls are actually one of the most popular baked goods here in Finland, and they are baked and enjoyed throughout the year. The way that I have shaped these rolls, on their side, is the Swedish (and lazier) way to do it. Here in Finland, we don't frost our cinnamon rolls and while there is nothing wrong with frosting, this way the cinnamon rolls are more of an everyday treat, in my mind.

It will take a few hours to make a batch of cinnamon rolls, but they are very well worth it. As a batch results in quite a few cinnamon rolls, these are perfect to be shared with family and friends. Your neighbours might also be stopping by if you leave a window open while baking the cinnamon rolls...

Cinnamon Rolls
makes about 30

500 ml milk
20g dry active yeast
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp ground cardamom
200 ml white sugar
1 large egg

900g - 1000g all-purpose flour
150g butter, room temperature

Filling: *
50g - 100g butter, room temperature
4 - 6 tbsp sugar
a tablespoon or two of cinnamon

+ an egg for brushing

Heat the milk to 42C; add yeast and stir until dissolved. Add salt, cardamon, sugar, and stir until dissolve. Lightly beat the egg into the milk.

Add in the wheat flour bit by bit, starting first with a wooden fork and then moving on to kneading with hands. Towards the end of adding the flour, add in the soft butter and work it evenly into the dough. Add flour until the dough feels soft but doesn't stick to your hands.

Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and place the bowl in a warm place. (I like to place to bowl in a sink and run warm/hot water into the sink.) Once the whole has doubled in size, gently punch the dough down to release any air trapped inside. On a floured surface, gently knead the dough until it doesn't stick to your hands and divide the dough into two.

Roll the dough into a 1/2-inch thick square. Spread half of the butter evenly on the dough, then sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar to taste. Tightly roll the dough into a log-like shape. Cut into even-sized pieces. (I made mine about 2 cm thick.) Repeat with the other half of the dough. Lay the pieces on their sides on baking trays lined with parchment paper, leaving plenty of room for the rolls to rise. Cover with a clean tea towel, and let rise for another 30 minutes in a warm place.

Preheat the oven to 225C. Lightly beat the egg and lightly brush the pieces with the egg. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until nicely browned. Enjoy warm with a tall glass of cold milk or a cup of coffee.

* The proportions of the filling can be adjusted to your taste. The basic is to spread butter evenly on the dough and then sprinkle some cinnamon and sugar on top of the butter. I love mine with lots of filling (so, the latter measurements are what I used), but suit yourself.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

favourites: july 2012

Black currants

  • Blueberries are getting ripe for picking here in southern Finland, and I'm planning on picking as much as I can. Which means that blueberry muffins are in order.
  • I also see a coconut crumble in my future. There seriously is no end to my love for coconut. I think those black currants pictured above would make a great filling for the crumble.
  • DIY window art with Philippians 2:15. If only I had a window I could do this on. Easy and beautiful window art that can also easily be wiped away.
  • This photo. That's what summer looks like here in Finland. I love it.
  • A post on wearing forgiveness. So often, I tend to wear my shame instead of the forgiveness I have in Christ. This was a good reminder to mindfully wear forgiveness like a crown.
  • 10 ways to be more hospitable. A post on how hospitality doesn't require a spotless house and extraordinary dishes. It's funny how I never really care whether or not the house is spotless when I visit somebody, but always feel like really tidying up when anyone comes over.
  • Sesame Street: Share It Maybe. Cookie Monster spoofs the song 'Call Me Maybe'. The best ever. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

tomato basil soup

The first bite into the vine-ripened, freshly picked tomato. The sweet freshness, the sticky juice running down your chin. That's the best thing.

Tomatoes are grown plenty here in Finland, often served in salads and sandwiches (Caprese sandwich is one of the most common ones you can find here). The tomatoes that you can buy here, they are always fresh. It is rare that they are really sweet, though, except cherry tomatoes. Given the cooler temperatures and short summer, it is understandable. As much as tomato soup is a staple in the American diet, it is rarely eaten as a main dish here. I think it is because we don't really do the grilled cheese. Tomato soup does often make a wonderful appetizer, however.

A bowl of tomato soup is usually accompanied by a slice of hearty Finnish rye bread. I have yet to decide whether I like rye bread or peasant bread better with tomato soup. Which is why I like to make big enough pot of soup, to eat it with both rye and peasant bread. A slice slathered with butter and a fried egg on top, is my absolute favourite for a heartier meal.

Tomato soup makes good use of ripened tomatoes. And if tomatoes are a touch too ripe? Perfect for soup. In my opinion, plenty of basil should always at least be served with the soup, if not in it. As tomato soup is about making the best of the summer, I find that the tomatoes should be simmered with fresh herbs. Because really, tomato soup made from fresh tomatoes and herbs is like summer, in a bowl.

Although we don't have the tomato soup and grilled cheese culture here in Finland, I think I have found the comfort with this rustic version of tomato soup. While comfort and rustic may not be exactly the key words for summer, here in Finland it has been rainy and cooler than usual, meaning that this rustic yet fresh soup has been just perfect, for lunch and for dinner.

Tomato Basil Soup
serves 6

3 tbsp butter
2 medium yellow onions, peeled
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
6 tbsp red lentils, picked over and rinsed

1 kg ripe tomatoes (about 10)

2 (400g) cans quality diced tomatoes
1 bouillon cube
1 tsp dried basil
1/4 tsp dried oregano
3 to 4 sprigs of fresh thyme

salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup chopped, fresh basil + more for serving

In a medium saucepan, bring plenty of water to boil. Score a cross on the bottom of eat tomato. When the water boil, dunk the tomatoes into the water until the skin near the cross starts to curl. Take the tomatoes out of the water and set aside. When the tomatoes have cooled, peel the tomatoes.

Chop the peeled onions. In a saucepan, heat the butter over medium heat and add the onions. Cook until the onions start to soften; add garlic and lentils. Chop the peeled tomatoes, discarding the hard parts; add to the pot. Add the diced tomatoes with juices to the pan, along with the bouillon cube and spices. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, until the lentils have softened, 20 to 25 minutes.

Purée the soup using an immersion blender until desired consistency. (I like mine rather chunky so I pulsed only a few times. However, the canned tomatoes I used were more like purée than dice. So really, until desired consistency.) Season to taste and add the chopped fresh basil. Serve with more fresh basil if desired.