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When the Rubber Meets the Road — or putting my acorns where my mouth is

OakTreeRobertsRoad

Majestic oak where my rubber bike tires frequently meet the road.

[Before I launch into my corner of this blog, I want to assure you that you don’t need a bag of acorn flour in your pantry to continue; I will provide non-acorn bailout suggestions along the way.]

While Ann has moved on to crunchy salads, I am still up barking up the oak tree (is it coincidental we named our dog Oakley?). I recently made the case for giving acorns their just deserts relative to other edible nuts even though I had never cooked with an acorn. That has all changed.

It started with our Christmas gift exchanges which I mentioned in my last post. You can imagine the scene around the tree as one by one family members feigned excitement upon unwrapping presents from Ann of bags of pecans, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, and almonds! But the crescendo of the excitement reached its peak when Ann opened my gift to her – a pound of acorn flour (purchased online from Royce Native Orchards).

AcornFlour

Eating acorn flour might do all this – PLUS “keep you bright-eyed, bushy tailed, and improve your tree climbing agility!”

What does this have to do with a blog on crunchy salads? As it turns out, lots! Although Andy’s Corner generally is bereft of practical contributions to the Big Little Meals’ mission of testing and turning out fun recipes, this time around I decided it is time to get my hands dirty in the kitchen. In short, the rubber will meet the road and I will put my acorns where my mouth is (hence, the clever title for this blog entry).  Actually, I am putting Ann’s acorn flour (which she gladly allowed me to use) where my mouth is.  I will introduce you to acorn-based desserts that can be an effective counterbalance to our salads. To do this I will share with you two very cool recipes, one for not-so-crunchy acorn brownies and the other for ever-so-crunchy acorn lace cookies.

But first, a cautionary note. This blog could go viral and threaten our wild acorn resources. Much like near depletion of the Louisiana redfish population following the publication of Paul Proudhomme’s blackened redfish recipe in the 1980’s, I can see these acorn brownie recipes creating a demand for acorns that endangers our oak woodlands.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at the Scientific American article we posted in Food for Thought which suggests that widespread harvesting of acorns could have an adverse effect of the sustainability of our oak forests.

Prudhomme Redfish Mag

Prudhomme’s famous blackened redfish nearly depleted the redfish population in the 1980s

With that in mind, here is my first foray into the acorn baking arena. The recipes I am recommending are by Wendy Petty which I found on the ZesterDaily blog.  I pretty much followed her recipes with just a few small tweaks. I have to admit that both turned out to be awesome and won rave reviews from those lucky enough to try them. By the way, Petty’s own blog, Hunger and Thirst, has some great recipes (as does the Royce Native Orchards facebook page) .

When I first saw the photo of Wendy Petty’s acorn lace cookies I assumed that as a novice baker I would never be able create cookies as gorgeous as that, at least on my first try.  Much to my surprise the cookies came out perfect and tasted even better than they looked.  Ann was just as astounded as I was that I could pull it off.

We liked the cookies so much we hated to see anyone without access to acorn flour miss out on such a treat.  So I experimented with a gluten/acorn-free version by substituting 2 1/2 T fine almond flour for the acorn and wheat flours.  The cookies came out just as crunchy and delicious, although without the picturesque laciness.

 

Acorn Cookies

My results using Wendy Petty’s recipe for “Acorn Lace Cookies”

Almond_orange cookies

My alternative almond flour version of the acorn cookies.

If these sweets don’t make you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, nothing will.  Enjoy!

Acorn Lace Cookies

  • Servings: makes approximately 16 cookies
  • Print
Note: if you do not have acorn flour on hand you can substitute 2 1/2 T almond flour in lieu of the acorn and wheat flours. Alternately, for acorn glucose-free cookies you can leave out the wheat flour and add an additional 1/2 T acorn flour.   Adapted from a recipe by Wendy Petty.

Ingredients

  • 2 T butter
  • 1 T heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • zest from half an orange
  • 1 1/2 tsp flour
  • 2 T acorn flour
  • pinch of salt

Directions

Preheat the oven to 375 F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a small pan, melt the butter over medium heat.

Add the cream, sugar, and orange zest.  Stir to combine the ingredients, then increase the heat to medium-high, and let it bubble for 2 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the flours and salt.

Let the mixture stand until it is solid but not completely cool.

Make the dough into teaspoon-sized balls (more like lumps to me) and place them onto a small sheet of parchment paper (you should get about 16 lumps of dough give or take one or two).

Place 6 of the balls onto the parchment covered sheet pan, allowing plenty of room for them to spread as they bake.  Do not try to cook more than 6 at one time.  Bake the cookies for 8 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through cooking.  Watch them very carefully over the last two minutes so they don’t burn.  When fully cooked, the cookies will be a deep caramel color (if using acorn flour) and shiny.

Remove the cookies from the oven and let then sit on the sheet pan for at least 2 minutes before handling.  Once you can slide a spatula under them without deforming their shape, they can be transferred to a cooling rack.

Recipe brought to you by Big Little Meals.com and Andy and Ann.

The “100% Acorn Brownies” are a chocolate lover’s dream.  But if you just have to have brownies and do not have any acorn flour on hand,  you can substitute almond flour for the acorn flour, or, you can’t go wrong with the Katherine Hepburn’s Brownies we blogged about last April.

Acorn Brownies Batch

Wendy Petty’s “100% Acorn Brownies”

100% Acorn Brownies

  • Servings: makes 16 pieces
  • Print
Adapted from a recipe by Wendy Petty.

Ingredients

For the Brownies:

  • 10 T butter, melted
  • 1 1/4 c sugar
  • 3/4 c plus 2 T unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup acorn flour (almond flour may be substituted)

For the swirl:

  • 3 ounces goat chevre, room temperature
  • 2 T sour cream
  • 2 T sugar
  • 1 T flour
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla

Directions

Preheat the oven to 325 F and make a parchment paper sling for an 8″x8″ pan, so that the bottom and two sides are covered.  This makes it easer to remove the acorn brownies once they’ve finished baking.

In a large bowl, stir together the still-hot melted butter, sugar, cocoa and salt.

Beat in the vanilla and eggs until the batter looks shiny.  Then stir in the acorn flour.

Pour the acorn brownie batter into the prepared pan.

To make the swirl, in a bowl, beat the goat cheese, sour cream, and sugar with an electric mixer until they are smooth.  Add flour, egg, and vanilla and continue to beat until they are fully incorporated.

Drop a spoonful of the cheese mixture at nine points atop the brownie batter.  Drag a table knife through the brownies in swirl patterns to partially mix the cheese and brownie batter, making a pleasing marbled design.

Bake for 30 to 45 minutes.  Traditional brownies would bake for less time.  Acorn brownies need a bit longer so they don’t come out to the oven with the appearance of raw batter.  [note: it took my brownies a full 45 minutes to bake].  When cooked, a toothpick inserted 2/3 of the way to the center will come out clean.

Once cooled, you can lift the brownies out of the pan using their parchment sling (which I found to be a very effective trick), then cut them into 16 pieces.

Recipe brought to you by Big Little Meals.com and Andy and Ann.

 

Bike Lessons from Vietnam

I don’t recall exactly why Travis and I got it in our heads that we should do a bike tour of Vietnam but I do know that ever since being deployed there in 1969/70 I had wanted to return under more pleasant circumstances.

viet tour group 2

Our Vietnam tour group.  Sorry for the poor photo quality.  I used cardboard disposable Kodak cameras (no smartphones in those days).

That wish became a reality in 2000 when Ann came across an article about VeloAsia, one of the first tour companies to organize bicycle tours in Vietnam after the war.  She thought it would be an opportunity for Travis and me to do a father/son bonding trip.  Coincidentally, VeloAsia was headquartered just around the corner from where our daughter lived at that time in San Francisco. So on one of our visits to her I dropped into the VeloAsia office and came away convinced that Travis and I were meant for such an adventure.

Viet bike tour map

Our cycling tour route.

Arrangements made, we packed up our bikes and flew to Hanoi to meet our tour guide team and the 10 other tour participants.  We spent the first day off our bikes sightseeing in a rather austere Hanoi and then we flew down to Hue to begin the real cycling part of the tour (see above map).  You might say that this is where the rubber met the road because none of us were quite prepared for what was coming.  However, we ultimately learned some valuable lessons about cycling in Vietnam and about Vietnam itself.  

The first time we actually got on our bikes was outside our Hue hotel. Our guide told us that we would begin by riding through the intersection across from the hotel, which to all of us looked like a bicycling nightmare. Literally hundreds of pedestrians, bicycles, and motor scooters were all funneling through the intersection with no visible stop signs, traffic lights, or other mechanisms of social order.  If chaos had a name, this intersection must be it.  Hence, lesson #1.

intersection from heck

I didn’t take a photo of the intersection from hell, but this one from the web captures the feeling of the moment.

Lesson #1 – Stay calm and be predictable

Our guide told us that getting across the intersection actually would be quite simple. The key was to remain calm, deliberate, and predictable.  Ride at a steady pace without veering or braking.  So, I pedaled headfirst into the morass with some serious deep breathing. To my surprise, like the parting of the Red Sea, an opening seemed to continually materialize to the front of my wheel and immediately close behind me. Clearly, there were mutually understood informal rules of pedestrian/bike engagement.  The seeming chaos turned into a fluid commute.   We all did high fives when we emerged unscathed on the other side. After that, getting through busy intersections was almost fun.

Lesson #2 – Horn blowing is a sign or courtesy, not a venting of anger.

Once we got to the outskirts of Hue and headed on our weeklong ride down the coast highway toward Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) the scene was totally different – and much more frightening.  Because this was the only major paved (I’m using the term “paved” loosely) highway down the country, we encountered a constant stream of trucks, busses, and other assorted motor and human-powered vehicles.  A large proportion of the motorized traffic consisted of what appeared to be relics of the 60’s, belching black plumes of exhaust.  Plus the drivers leaned unrelentingly on their horns as they careened down the highway. Because much of the road was two lanes, these lumbering trucks and busses were sharing very tight quarters with the many bicycles and other vehicles on the road.

big pickup

U.S. horn honker.

At first, the cacophony of blowing horns coming up behind us was unsettling.  In my U.S. cycling experience the hand on a blaring horn from behind likely belongs to an angry young male in a pickup with wheels taller than a bike who, with his non-honking hand, is deploying  the universal digital sign of anger (okay, I know I’m profiling here, but this has happened to me more than once).  We quickly learned that this was not the case in Vietnam. 

viet bus

Vietnam horn honker.

The incessant horn blowing was a way of communicating a helpful, albeit gratingly loud, warning to cyclists and pedestrians that a large and potentially lethal vehicle was about to pass within inches – out of necessity rather than anger.  After a few miles I got used to the honking and even began looking forward to seeing what kind of vehicle would be brushing by my left arm.  The numerous vintage busses, which were the most colorful vehicles on the road, often were packed to overflowing with passengers and luggage piled high on the roof.  Plus, they often had what appeared to be at least one designated driver’s assistant hanging off the right-hand side, alerting the driver to hazards ahead (such as American tourists on bikes!). 

Lesson #3 – Bringing your road bike and lycra from home may not always be cool.

Both Travis and I brought our road bikes.  The VeloAsia folks told us that most riders on the tour probably would have some sort of mountain or cross bike, but road bikes would be fine if we preferred.  It turns out that we were the only two with such bikes in our group (and for all we could tell, in the whole of Vietnam).  So, here we were with our 23 mm (read “skinny”) tires and fender-less bikes.  When the highway was in good condition and dry (which was rare) we were the kings of the road.

au dai on bike

However, much of the time it was raining, which forced us to negotiate water-filled potholes that often came up to our axles. I am sure that the local Vietnamese cyclists got a great kick out of seeing us struggling along on our fancy bikes, spattered with mud from head to toe.   A lingering and vivid image from one of those mud splattery days is of the sweet smile (or was it bemusement?) from a young Vietnamese woman in an impeccably clean áo dài riding her “clunky” bike (with its fenders and upright handlebars) .

Lesson #4 –  Kids are the hope of the future, hopefully.

One of the most gratifying parts of the tour was the outpouring of warmth and enthusiastic welcome from the local population, especially in the rural areas.  This turned out to be major benefit of traveling by bike rather than being encapsulated in a bus or car.  Every time we rode through a village crowds of young kids would materialize, cheering and wanting to show off their command of English (did they do that for German or French cyclists also?).  Even though I have never been a rock star, the excitement we created along the way is about as close as I probably will ever get (until BigLittleMeals goes viral, of course).  

vietnam2000

Vietnam population – median age = 24.2

The former sociology professor in me can’t help but point out that it was no fluke that we were cheered on by so many kids on our tour.  Just a glance at the age structure of Vietnam is revealing (see the population pyramid above).  The median age was about 24 years old which means that more than half of the population when we visited in 2000 was born after the U.S. left Vietnam in 1975.  These enthusiastic young folks were the Vietnamese millennials that Elisabeth Rosen writes about in a 2015 article for The Atlantic.  She suggests that with no direct experience of the “American War,”  this generation is more interested in their own future than on dwelling on the past.  I doubt if we would have fully appreciated this point if we had been touring in motor driven vehicles instead being on our bikes.  Lesson learned.

Since our Vietnam cycling tour Travis and I have ridden together a number of times.  We have tooled around Amsterdam on big heavy rented bikes, done an overnighter up the Hudson River, biked through Brooklyn and Harlem, and ridden along the Russian River and Sonoma coast.  More recently our “bonding” has been in the form fly fishing excursions (which I wrote about in an earlier Andy’s Corner).  However, out of all of our great adventures, cycling together in Vietnam remains my favorite.

 

 

 

 

Bourbon Makes Everything Better

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How accurate are our memories?  That’s a question Andy and I discuss frequently.  The answer has such an impact on everything, and it’s pretty clear that there is no 100% correct response.

But I’m 98% sure I’m remembering correctly that every evening my parents would sit down and have a bourbon and water – to toast the end of another day.  The bourbon was always Ancient Age.

Another childhood memory is of my mother giving me a mixture of honey, bourbon, lemon juice, and hot water when I had a cold or cough.  I don’t remember whether or not I ever faked a cough and cold in order to get that elixir.  But I really did like it.

My fondness for bourbon remains to this day.  And I’ve managed to successfully blend bourbon-based dishes into my holiday repertoire, making the whole family’s spirits a little jollier.

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Bulleit is our preferred brand of bourbon these days

Here is my “adults-only” remedy for a cough or cold or sore throat:

Bourbon Cold and Cough Remedy 

  • 1 oz bourbon
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • 1 T honey
  • 1 oz hot water

And here are two of our bourbon-infused standbys – which we’ve already blogged about: Honolulu Walnut Date Christmas Pudding and Pumpkin Pie O’Brien.

To add to that we’ve got three other delicious bourbon recipes to offer up.  And Andy is offering up a MOST unusual and “spirited” greeting card in Andy’s Corner.

Maida Heatter, who passed away this year at the age of 102,  was known for her excellent dessert cookbooks, with cakes being her specialty.  Her 86-Proof Chocolate Cake is superb and keeps well for days.  Just beware of over-snacking!

The Classic Manhattan cocktail is…well…a classic.  Perfect for holiday entertaining.

And the Steamed Persimmon Pudding with Bourbon Sauce has been a part of our family holiday tradition for years. Continue reading

Maida Heatter’s 86-Proof Chocolate Cake

We blog about this recipe here.

Maida Heatter’s 86-Proof Chocolate Cake

Adapted from the NYTimes version of Maida Heatter’s recipe.

  • 5 oz unsweetened chocolate
  • 2 c sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 c instant espresso powder
  •  Boiling water
  •  Cold water
  • 1/2 c bourbon
  •  2 sticks butter (8 oz)
  • 1 tsp vanilla 
  • 2 c sugar
  • 3 eggs
  •  Additional bourbon (optional)
  •  Confectioner’s sugar (optional)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and dust a 9-inch bundt pan – or any other tube pan with a 10-cup capacity – with flour.  Be astute on covering every nook and cranny of the pan with the butter and flour or the cake might stick.

Place the chocolate in the top of a small double boiler over hot water on low heat. Cover and cook only until melted; then remove the top of the double boiler and let it cool slightly. (You can also melt the chocolate in the microwave; just keep a close eye on it.)

Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt.

In a two-cup measuring cup dissolve the coffee in a little boiling water. Add cold water to the 1 1/2 cup line. Add the bourbon. Set aside.

Cream the butter in the large bowl of an electric mixer. Add the vanilla and sugar and beat to mix well. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until smooth after each addition. Add the chocolate and beat until smooth.

Then, on low speed, alternately add the sifted dry ingredients in three additions with the liquids in two additions, adding the liquids very gradually to avoid splashing and scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula after each addition. Be sure to beat until smooth after each addition, especially after the last. It will be a thin mixture.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Rotate the pan a bit briskly, first in one direction, then in the other, to level the top.

Bake for one hour and 10 to 15 minutes. Test by inserting a cake tester in the middle of the cake and bake only until the tester comes out clean and dry.

Cool in the pan for about 15 minutes. Then cover with a rack and invert. Remove the pan, sprinkle the cake with a little optional bourbon, and leave the cake upside down on a rack to cool. Before serving, if you wish, sprinkle the top with confectioners’ sugar through a fine strainer.

Recipe brought to you by BigLittleMeals.com and Andy and Ann.

God She Works in Mysterious Ways

 

Screen Shot 2019-11-05 at 12.37.21 PM

Rhea – FKA Ancho Antwerp Walden Hill

Her name was to be Ancho Antwerp Walden Hill (long story) and we were to pick her up at SFO on Friday, October 25 at 1:30 p.m.  Now she lives in Maine and is instead “Rhea.”  Her given name when she was born near Fairplay, Colorado, was Baby Ruth.

Being totally bonkers about our 9-year-old Aussie, Oakley, (check out Andy’s funny/clever video on today’s Andy’s Corner!) we were (I was?) bound and determined to have another dog with her bloodline.  There had been some serious discussions amongst friends and family about whether an 8-week-old puppy was something we really needed.  House too small for 2 dogs?  Check.  Puppy too active for two older people?  Likely check.  Oakley pretty bent out of shape?  Check.  Two Siamese cats unwelcoming?  Two checks.

Fortuna intervened.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Fortuna is often represented bearing a cornucopia as the giver of abundance and a rudder as controller of destinies, or standing on a ball to indicate the uncertainty of fortune.  Andy wrote a nice bit about Fortuna on Andy’s Corner a while back.

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Fortuna – as depicted in this Vienna statue

On Wednesday, October 23, PG&E declared they were shutting off power in our area due to extreme fire risk (another long – and not happy – story).  Our neighbors were vacationing in Hawaii, and we were caring for their place, so Andy and I decided we needed to check on their generator (we really should invest in stock in generator manufacturers given the number that have been sold in our area in the last 2 years).

Did you know that every few years oaks produce an overabundance of acorns?  This appears to be one of those years for Northern California.  Joan Morris, a local wildlife columnist, explains, “Scientists still aren’t certain why oak trees produce massive amounts of acorns on a semi-regular basis. They know that the weather makes a difference, but it’s not recent weather, rather weather from a year or two earlier.”  She continues, “Scientists also believe that oaks might reserve their energy, building up to a massive release of acorns as a way of self-preservation. By putting out fewer acorns some years, the trees may actually be keeping in check certain populations of animals that eat the acorns. Then, when the oaks do mass produce, the acorns stand a better chance of becoming trees because there are fewer animals to eat them. As it is, only about one in 10,000 ever become trees. The others are eaten before they can establish roots.”

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Did Fortuna, as the giver of abundance, provide us with these acorns?

Long story short – winds had blown tons of acorns off their oak in the week since our friends had left their home for their Hawaiian holiday.  Andy and I dodged the acorns successfully for a bit, but then I came rushing down their backyard hill, stepped on a spot particularly loaded with those little slippery things, slid, fell, landed with my ankle twisted underneath me – and badly broke it.  Sh*t.  Actually, I may have said something worse.

I should have read this bit from Scott Aker, head of Washington DC’s National Arboretum, before heading out that day: “Clearing your garden of tenacious acorns can be a chore…acorns are sort of like ball bearings or marbles.  If they get on walkways, we try to be very conscientious about clearing them. We don’t want anybody to break a leg. I would caution your readers to pay attention to that. Try to get them off walkways as early as they can. It may be a daily chore.

Our agonizing decision had been made by the time I had surgery on my ankle, Friday, October 25.  Ancho, instead of arriving at SFO that day, was now on a flight to Maine, not San Francisco.  And Andy and I came home – along with my walking boot and crutches and the prospect of 8 “non-weight-bearing” weeks – to a one-dog household.

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Is Oakley sad that Ancho didn’t join our little Glen Ellen familia?  Maybe yes; likely no.  Is Andy sad that Ancho didn’t join us?  Maybe yes; likely no.  Note: photo taken just before October 25.

Was it just bad luck when I fell on the acorns?  Was it Fortuna intervening in my life and the life of little Ancho Antwerp Walden Hill?  Should I be comforted by this statement regarding Fortune?

Luck – good or bad – never lasts.

And now on to recipes.  At first I was going to post a recipe using Ancho chiles – but then decided that a more fitting recipe would put acorns at the forefront.  TENACIOUS ACORNS!  Andy found this recipe when he did this blog.  These cookies are delicious.  BUT – it’s almost impossible to find acorn flour.  And I don’t think you’re going to want to make the flour yourself (see these instructions from Mother Earth News).  So if you don’t have it, simply substitute almond flour and the cookies will be gluten-free and delicious (though golden, not chocolate brown).

Acorn Cookies

Continue reading

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