Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Smokin'

Gorgeous day today - 75 and sunny, with a decent breeze. March was snowless here in the Twin Cities, which is rare. And March came in, and is going out, like a lamb.

Tonight's 5 mile run was nice. It is fun to break out the summer running gear again. One new bird arrival to report - the eastern phoebe. She was busy characteristically flipping her little tail while sitting in a small tree. We had a big south wind yesterday, so I am expecting that should push more birds up here!

A funny thing happened as I was heading home. I always pass this assisted living apartment complex. Today being nice outside, there were several folks out and about. Two elderly ladies were sitting out at the picnic table on the lawn, and they were chain smoking.

As I passed on by, one of the ladies expelled a huge plume of smoke. In a voice resembling that of Selma Bouvier from "The Simpson's," she shouted:

"Run for me too, will ya?"

Fair Juliet took another huge drag off of her Pall Mall as I chuckled and just kept on running. That is right - I was heckled by a senior citizen! She was just being funny, of course, but it would be fun to have her e-mail so I could send her the following video... ;-)



Until next time,

Jean

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ice out

The ice is completely gone from my local lake. Friday, there was a thin film of slush still floating on the surface, but today's 73 degrees and a strong south wind pretty much decimated what was left. Unreal - an ice out before April! Fantastic to see the water again.

Open water is a wonderful sight to see



I am feeling good a couple days after the Human Race. There is a little bit of stiffness in my thighs and calves after the extra effort on Sunday, but I am no worse for wear. I took in an easy 5 miler around the neighborhood today, happy to be running in shorts and a short sleeved T-shirt.

New spring bird arrivals: yesterday I spotted my first great blue heron of the season (flew right by my office window), and today, four wood ducks in a pond along the trail. The wood ducks' timing could not have been better. I was specifically looking for them at this pond, as they love to hang out here, and I figured they should be back soon. At that moment, I actually heard them before I saw them. Almost on cue, their familiar whistle echoed across the water as they flew over my head and coasted into the pond. It was uncanny. They are such gorgeous birds! Great to have them back

A belated recap of my Saturday night prerace meal - Spicy lamb and Italian sausage ragu! I made this in the style of a Bolognese sauce with all sorts of aromatics - carrots, celery, fennel, onion, garlic, fresh rosemary and thyme, lots of crushed red pepper, and a small amount of dried cumin and coriander (a little trick I learned in the "Urban Italian" cookbook) - along with tomatoes, red wine, tomato paste, and beef stock. The Italian sausage was the last of my homemade stuff (need to make more). I served it over fusilli. A very good effort, and the leftovers have been making for some fantastic lunches this week. Perhaps this is the reason for my new 8k PR? :)

Powered by pasta!



Until next time,

Jean

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Records falling at the Human Race

Sunday marked my 6th consecutive St. Patrick's Day Human Race (which, curiously, was held a full week and a half after St. Patrick's Day?!?). It is the first organized race I even ran, so this one is kind of special and will always be on my schedule. And, at least here in MN, it sort of represents winter being behind us and marking the start of the racing season for all of us. I look forward to this event every year.

Still feeling a wee bit Irish, even if it is almost April - the 2010 shirt design



Yours truly on the St. Thomas University Campus



A completely random note about races to those of you who race frequently - is the little change compartment in the console of your car filled with safety pins that were once used to attach your bib numbers to your race clothes? Yeah, mine too.

I arrived early just to mill around and take in the day, which was pretty darn nice. Low 50's and not a cloud in the sky, but a fairly stiff breeze coming out of the north. But really, couldn't ask for much more. Most years I have needed a stocking cap, gloves, and full length running pants.

They have a shoe drive at this event, and runners are encouraged to bring in their used running shoes. They get donated to a local free clothing store. I brought in a sack full of my old sneakers, and they were positively delighted to see me, as I wear size 13's (a.k.a., "water skis"). Apparently, they don't get nearly as many contributions in the larger sizes, so I was happy my big feet allowed me to do my part!

The pre-race crowd



Start of the 5k race



The 8k race is an out and back down Summit Ave, same as always. A lot of the heavy hitters from the local running scene show up for this. It is a well attended race, and it is the start of a season team long points race, so there are many local running teams in the lineup as well. Lots of talented runners here.

The race started, and I settled into my pace. A funny thing happened around mile 1. A runner pulled up to me on the right and said "Jean?" It was Wildknits, a local running blogger. We have been reading each others blogs for quite some time, but had never met until now. How funny that we met in the middle of a race! We chatted briefly and would catch up at the finish.

I was feeling surprisingly good. Admittedly, I wasn't expecting much since I ran 14 miles on Saturday. But at mile 2, I was at a shade over 14 minutes. Not bad.

Between miles 2 and 3 is the turnaround point where we run a loop around the William Mitchell College of Law. Following the race, I got a message from another blogger buddy, Natalie (she was racing too), saying that she saw me and shouted out to me around this area, but I somehow missed that. So sorry, Natalie! I need to pay closer attention out there! :)

I came through mile 3 just past 21 minute, darn near on my 5k PR pace. Where was this coming from? Mile 3 to 4 is the toughest part of the course, if there is such a thing. This section is an ever so slightly uphill grade that, while not difficult, wears on you. And now is as good a time as any to mention that the north wind felt like it was in our faces during the entire race. Weird. Anyhow, I felt like I was slowing down here, but I passed through mile 4 at just over 28 minutes. Looking good.

From mile 4 on home, we are rewarded with a flat to gradually downhill stretch of road. You can see the finish line tents from quite a ways out. I managed to hold my pace and keep it together to cross the finish line in 35:12 (results here). Not only a new personal best for the Human Race course, but a new 8k PR as well!

Depending upon whether or not the now defunct Easy Does It Race in Plymouth was an 8k or a 5 miler (I have 2 shirts from this race - one called 8k, the other 5 miles), I improved my PR by either 1 second or 30 seconds! Any local running historian know the answer? Steve?

I caught up with Wildknits after the race to chat some more, talk running, discuss upcoming races, and whatnot, which was a lot of fun. It was a pleasure to meet you, Wildknits, and I will see you at Trail Mix!

Post-race photo with Wildknits



So, it was quite a day. An unexpected PR, and a nice way to kick of my 2010 race season. The semi-regular post-race tradition of Chinese takeout for dinner (hot & spicy chicken, and beef with Chinese black mushrooms) really hit the spot. And a celebratory glass of Dark Horse "Double Crooked Tree I.P.A." is tasting mighty good as I type this.

Disclaimer: Through the course of editing, I have moved on to a second beverage of my choosing - a celebratory glass of Dark Horse "Plead the 5th" Imperial Stout. I no longer take responsibility for any grammatical errors... ;-)

Jean's Dark Chocolate and Butterscotch Chip Cookies with Toffee

Saturday afternoon it was time again to bake some cookies. My supply was running dangerously low, so I needed to stock up!

I ended up creating a recipe of my own. Nothing groundbreaking or very original - it is simply based on the principles of a basic chocolate chip drop cookie, but with a few customized tweaks of the ingredients and amounts. I wanted to make a cookie with a variety of chips and toffee bits. And, I read that using molasses not only helps your cookies to stay chewy longer, but it also heightens the brown sugar flavor. The end result was a batch of dark chocolate chip, butterscotch chip, and English toffee cookies.

The cookies turned out really nice. They are soft, chewy, and very tasty, and I love the combination of the dark chocolate chips with the butterscotch. The toffee bits add a nice textural contrast with a crunchy and sweet surprise every once in while. I took care not to overbake them and found that 10 to 11 minutes worked perfectly for my oven. Here is what I did:

Jean's Dark Chocolate and Butterscotch Chip Cookies with Toffee
Makes 28 cookies - at least the way I portioned them it did! ;-)



-2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
-1/2 t. salt
-1/2 t. baking soda
-1 stick unsalted butter (at room temperature)
-1/2 c. granulated white sugar
-1/2 c. light brown sugar, packed
-2 eggs
-1 T. molasses
-1 t. pure vanilla extract
-4 oz. Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Chip*
-4 oz. Nestle Toll House Butterscotch Chips*
-4 oz. Heath Milk Chocolate English Toffee Bits* (or equal amount finely chopped Heath Bars...same thing)


*Note: if you don's have a kitchen scale, go with approximately 1/3 bag of the Ghirardelli (11.5 oz. bag), 1/3 bag of the Nestle butterscotch chips (11 oz. bag), and 1/2 of the 8 oz. bag of the Heath toffee bits - a little more or less won't hurt anything!

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Mix the flour, salt, and baking soda in a bowl. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter, white sugar, and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, molasses, and vanilla extract, and continue beating until it is well mixed. Add the flour mixture, and beat until the flour is just incorporated and you no longer see any white streaks. Add the chocolate and the butterscotch chips, along with the toffee bits. Turn on the stand mixer one more time just to let the paddle gently stir in the chips and toffee until they are nicely distributed.

On parchment lined baking sheets, drop rounded tablespoons of dough (perhaps ping pong ball sized). Bake in the oven for 10-11 minutes, or until slightly brown on top. After removing from the oven, allow the cookies to set on the baking sheet for about 5 minutes. Transfer to cooling racks and allow to cool completely. Can be stored in an airtight container for a few days, or frozen in zip-top freezer bags for longer term storage.

Enjoy!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

14 miles and a turkey

I woke up to 41 degrees with a faint drizzle today - warm enough to wear shorts on the run, anyhow! I put in a shade over 14 miles.

A pretty easy pace for the most part, and it ended up being kind of a pleasant morning for running, even if it was damp and overcast. A fairly strong southeast wind was blowing. But after about the fifth mile, I had the wind helping me on the way home. Not surprising, there were few runners out this morning.

Yesterday on my run, I saw my first common loon of the season out on my lake (the MN State Bird has returned!).

Lots of birds on today's long run, but no new arrivals. Dark-eyed juncos are moving through in great numbers, and the common grackles are plentiful. Lots of cardinals, chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, red-tailed hawks, mallards, Canada geese, and I even heard a few ring-necked pheasants crowing. The red-winged blackbirds are all over the place - just the males, though. They arrive first, stake out some suitable territory, and wait for a girlfriend to show up and express interest in them (they make it look so easy).

After my run, I was preparing to head out to run some errands. Pulling open the shades of my living room window, I saw something that seemed out of place. This guy was running around in the yard below me. I quickly grabbed my camera and sneaked out onto my deck.

Gobble, gobble!



The wild turkey was only here for a few minutes. Had I not opened the shades when I did, I would have completely missed seeing him. He did a lap around the yard and got a little nervous when he saw me on the deck. They are really quite pretty birds, and they are becoming an increasingly common sight here. However, I have never had one in my yard before, so this was a treat!

Another humorous nature note - I have gray squirrels that nest in a hole in a large maple tree outside my window. Clearly, they are not home, because as I type this, I have been watching a female white-breasted nuthatch repeatedly entering the squirrel nest and pilfering seeds! The 'hatch has been emerging with all kinds of goodies in her beak. The squirrels ain't gonna be happy about this! :)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Gorgeous week

Just a quick post - my afternoon runs this week over the last three days:

Monday - 56 degrees
Tuesday - 60 degrees
Wednesday - 55 degrees

This is some pretty spectacular weather for the month of March in Minnesota. Running has been absolutely wonderful this week.

Yours truly, enjoying this afternoon's run immensely



Saw a new bird today as well - the song sparrow. These little guys love nesting around my local lake, and they are usually some of the first spring birds to arrive and are some of the last to leave. I look forward to seeing them on my runs all the way through the fall.

Also, I am fairly certain it was a pair of mourning cloak butterflies that cruised past my office window today. I was not able to confirm it as they disappeared rather quickly. However, this is the time of year they start showing up, and I am not sure what else they would have been.

So glad spring is here!

Jean

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hanging with the Mergansers

Sunday was a day off from running, but I managed to put in several miles of hiking around my neighborhood. I needed to check out the open water on my lake again. I actually walked out there twice, once in the morning, and once in the afternoon. Again, there were numerous birds gathering here, mostly from the merganser family, and it was a beautiful 50 degree and sunny day to watch them.

I got to witness one of the coolest things - the hooded merganser courtship. In all my years of watching birds, I have never seen this in person. The males puff up their crests, throw their heads back, and make this funny, frog-like croaking sound in an attempt to woo the females. Lots of posturing going on, kind of like the bird equivalent of a college bar on a Saturday night. The male mergansers were busy putting on a show and chasing each other around while the females looked on, seemingly unimpressed. Spectacular! What a treat to be able to see this.

New arrivals on Sunday included a solitary bufflehead (he was hanging out with the hooded mergansers), a flock of tundra swans flying overhead (a couple dozen in a perfect "V" formation), and of course, the common grackle (easily overlooked, but cute in their own right).

A few photos from yesterday's bird hike - no pictures of outstanding quality, but you can at least tell what they are.

Hooded mergansers swimming in the open water near the ice shelf



A pair of mallards



"RETREAT!!!" ;-)



The resident eagles frolicking on the osprey nesting platform - they have pretty much claimed this spot as their hangout



Today was gorgeous, 56 degrees and sunny. Running was awesome. I did the normal weekday 5 miler and loved every second of it. This is about the perfect temperature for running. No new birds, and there were way fewer birds on the lake today. Most of the ducks had moved on, so I am thankful for yesterday's opportunity.

Until next time,

Jean

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Duck soup

The first day of spring required winter running gear in the morning! A balmy 26 degrees, and coupled with a brisk wind out if the northwest, that brought the wind chill down to 18.

In spite of the chilly conditions, I had a good long run, just a shade over 16 miles today. Some of my favorite trails are finally free of snow and ice (these don't get plowed in the winter), so I got to run on my preferred routes. Nice to be back on my summer stomping grounds!

No new bird sightings on the run - however, I did walk back out to my lake in the afternoon. There is an approximately 300 yard long swath of open water where all the mergansers were the other day, and that is the only open water on the lake.

This afternoon, there were even more mergansers. Joining the common mergansers were their cousins the red-breasted and the hooded. Two new bird arrivals for the spring list! It was a huge duck party! I counted at least 70 birds, most of them the common, with a dozen hooded (6 males, 6 females), and approximately a dozen red-breasted. So fun to see some new birds returning.

Tonight's dinner - Giada's pork chops with fennel and caper sauce. A delicious dish. I did everything by the book, except I added garlic and crushed red pepper. Why? Because that is how I roll. :)

Giada's recipe rock!



I served it over some orzo pasta, but the sauce is a little runny, so next time I think I might do this over something that will sop it up better. Perhaps this would have been the time to try polenta? In any case, I will make this again!

Until next time,

Jean

Friday, March 19, 2010

Don't put away the stocking cap

Yesterday - official high of 64 degrees. I took a walk around my neighborhood in shorts and a t-shirt.

Today - cut that number in half. When I went running this afternoon, it was 32 with a wind chill of 18 (a rather crisp north wind...brrrr!). This is why I don't put away the winter running gear until May... ;-)

Yours truly, bundled up on today's run - what a difference a day makes



In spite of the cold snap, I had a very nice 5 mile run. I didn't see a soul today and had the trails to myself. I did, however, add a new spring bird arrival to my list. I counted a flock of 32 common mergansers congregating in the open water of my local lake. It is wonderful to see some of the waterbirds returning.

Even more exciting, I found a northern shrike along the trail near my favorite meadow, sitting on top of a small tree. Known as the "Butcherbird," they feast on insects and other small birds, often impaling them on twigs or barbed wire for a later snack. I stopped running was no more than 20 feet away. The shrike did not fly and stayed put for well over a minute. It was my best ever look at this somewhat local and not very often seen bird. This is not actually a spring migrant, however. The northern shrike comes down here for the winter. They breed in the northern areas of Canada. Such a cool bird, and a great find.

Needless to say, there was not a songbird to be seen anywhere near the shrike. The little birds know what the shrike is all about!

Until next time,

Jean

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Blackbirds, chips, and tonight's dinner

It was a day off from running, so three quick non-running related notes...

1. The red-winged blackbirds have returned to my neighborhood. I was driving home from work with the sunroof open, and I swore I heard their familiar piercing yodel as I passed a marsh. A quick hike around some of the marshy areas in my neighborhood confirmed it. They are indeed here, and in great numbers. This is truly an exciting sign of spring! These guys are actually a day behind schedule - last year, they arrived on St. Patrick's Day.

2. As a follow up to an earlier post, the "All Nighter Cheeseburger" flavor of Doritos is decent. They are definitely unique. The predominant taste I notice is that of yellow ballpark mustard, accompanied by secondary notes of ketchup, pickle, American cheese, and something I will simply call "grill flavor." Not so much a flavor of beef - rather, it is a sort of smoky, charred flavor element (good grief, I feel like I am writing a twisted version of a wine tasting note!). Darned if they don't taste like a cheeseburger that you would cook up on your grill during the summer! I would probably buy these again if they were on sale, but the taco flavor is my favorite of this series so far.

3. Here is a quick dinner I threw together tonight. Aside from actually raising the chicken that laid the egg, everything on the plate is from scratch - homemade caraway rye bread, and homemade sausage gravy prepared with my homemade ginger & sage breakfast sausage! Great stuff.

Not exactly your garden variety "S.O.S." :)



Until next time,

Jean

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ice going bye bye

Here is a shot of my local lake this afternoon. The ice is starting to melt big time. This is the area where the creek flows into the lake. Quite a sight to see for mid March!



A good 5 miler this afternoon at a positively balmy 56 degrees. Lovely weather for running. The nice days have brought out every fair weather walker, runner, dog walker, biker, and outdoor enthusiast (I even had a couple on one of those goofy tandem bikes blow by me), so the trails were much more crowded than normal. But you can't blame anyone for wanting to get out on a day like this! I'm loving it.

Until next time,

Jean

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sunny days, lasagna, and chips

Sunny Days

On Sunday, I took a walk around my neighborhood. The sun was shining for the first time in nearly a week, and the temperature rose to 64 degrees. Gorgeous!

Flooding has been a concern in many areas of Minnesota due to the sheer amount of snow we received over the winter, coupled with the rapid melting in recent weeks. The creek that flows into my local lake is well over its banks. Nobody's home is in danger here, which is good, but this is still quite a sight. The ice you see in the picture is the actual creek and depicts its normal width.

Water, water, everywhere



I also encountered a popple tree that is starting to bud. Quite a sight to see in the middle of March! Spring seems to be arriving early this year, which is fine by me. It makes me wonder if I will be seeing some early arriving migratory birds soon.

Buds breaking on the trees



What fun to be able to spend some time outside without having to bundle up. And weather like this makes all of us in the upper Midwest a little goofy, too. I can't tell you how many complete strangers greeted me with an enthusiastic "Hello!" or "What a day, huh?" It is nice to live in that kind of world. However, it is a striking difference from the middle of winter when everyone is hunched over and nobody you encounter outside wants to talk!

Today's run - an easy 5 miles, 59 degrees, sunshine, and a nice breeze. Sweet.

"Lasagna"

Sunday I also made lasagna. OK, so it was not traditional. Diced chicken, homemade guajillo chile sauce, sour cream, Monterrey jack, sharp cheddar, and cojita cheeses, with lasagna noodles - sort of a chicken enchilada dish in the style of lasagna! The green stuff is a rather spicy serrano pepper salsa. It was good. Really good.

Chicken Enchilada Lasagna!



Chips

Some time ago I wrote about a new Doritos chip. It was this new "Late Night" series of chips called "Tacos at Midnight." They were good. Doritos managed to capture the nuances of a fast food taco, right down to the lettuce, all the while conjuring up images of late night college exploits that occasionally ended with taco subs or chili-cheese nachos at a gas station.

At the grocery store this weekend, I noticed they added a new flavor to the lineup - "All Nighter Cheeseburger," which brought back additional memories of trying to get to McDonald's before it closed for a completely necessary evening snack consisting of the #2 cheeseburger value meal. The brain says, "No, no! No, no!", but the stomach says "Yes! Yes! Oh, baby, yes!" Everything about it just seems so unbelievably wrong on a multitude of levels.

Absolutely, I bought a bag.



Until next time,

Jean

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Spring ahead

The skies have been cloudy and overcast since Tuesday, so why should I expect anything less on Saturday? :) I woke up to 38 degrees, cloudy skies, a strong wind out of the north, along with clammy and humid conditions. Not bad for running, but I could have done without the wind.

I put in 16 miles on the trails. Overall, a pretty good run, although I did get a little tired towards the end. To be expected as I am building up my mileage again, I suppose.

With the exception of one of my favorite trails that don't get plowed in the winter, everything else is cleared off. We have lost so much snow over the past week and a half or so with the intense melting. Here are a couple comparison shots to show how far we have come.

One of my local trails - January 19, 2010



Same location - March 13, 2010



In the last week, we have become inundated with ducks and geese. I noticed great numbers of them on my run. I also heard some rooster ring-necked pheasants doing their crowning from nearby fields, another sign of spring. Otherwise, it was my usual suspects; cardinals, chickadees, blue jays, and red-bellied woodpeckers, happily singing away, biding their time until the "tourists" arrive.

Tonight's dinner was old school, and from school - tater tot hot dish! Love this stuff, as it reminds me of elementary school, only my rendition is much better with the use of fresh herbs, ground chuck, crimini mushrooms, and artisan extra-sharp cheddar cheese. Lunchlady Doris would be jealous.

School lunch kicked up a notch, as Emeril would say!



Remember to set those clocks ahead, those who observe daylight savings time. Looking forward to the sun setting after 7 PM!

Jean

Friday, March 12, 2010

This week in the kitchen

A belated note on some recent kitchen creations...

Here is a dish I made last weekend, which made for sensational leftovers for my lunches this week. I whipped up some meatballs and red sauce with whole-wheat spaghetti. The red sauce was made from scratch, and the meatballs were a combination of ground beef and some of my homemade spicy Italian sausage that I had in my freezer.

Spaghetti and Meatballs



This was the best tasting spaghetti and meatballs I have ever made. The meatballs were so tender and flavorful, and the sauce was a nice balance of sweet, spicy and tangy. I like to think I am a somewhat modest person, but this was so darn good that I was half expecting Bobby Flay to knock on my door and issue me a "spaghetti and meatballs throwdown." :)

Also this week, I baked an experimental loaf of bread that turned out to be fairly successful. It is a porter beer and caraway rye bread.

I used the basic proportions and most of the ingredients from my cinnamon swirl bread recipe (leaving out the egg wash, cinnamon sugar, the rolling, optional raisins, etc). For the 2 1/4 c. of total flour, I ended up going with 1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour and 3/4 c. rye flour. Instead of the 1/2 c. of water in the recipe, I used porter beer (this year's edition of Schell's "Snowstorm" winter brew - a Baltic porter). And, I sprinkled in a couple of teaspoons of caraway seeds.

Porter beer & caraway rye bread



As the dough was kneading, I found it required some additional flour, as the dough was really quite wet (perhaps this was because the rye flour was somewhat coarse). So I gradually added small amounts of all-purpose flour until the dough came together better. After the first rise, I was thinking this might be a failure. But after I punched it down and shaped it in the loaf pan, it rose nicely on the second rise.

Really tasty bread - dense, but not heavy, there is a distinct rich and tangy dark beer taste, and it has a good rye flavor with just a hint of caraway. I was pretty happy with how it turned out, but I will continue to tweak the recipe, possibly use higher proportion of all-purpose flour, more caraway, or maybe drink more beer while baking. ;-) In any case, this was good for an experiment, and it will be fun to try this again utilizing some other ideas.

And I say when life gives you rye bread, it is a sign that you must make Reubens...

Reuben sandwich on my homemade bread



TGIF,

Jean

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Rainy days and Mondays

What an amazing transformation over the last week. Temperatures have been in the 40's, and over the last couple of nights, it has been above freezing.

Nearly all of our snow has disappeared. Couple that with the fact that it has been raining for the past two days, and looks to continue raining for the next two, we will have no virtually snow left by Friday, which is fine by me. But it is dreary as hell out right now.

We miss your voice, Karen...



Yesterday and today were the same - a nice 5 miler in the drizzle. Since all of the trails are just about free of ice and snow, I am much faster now that I have traction! Running has been a lot of fun this week, and this has me excited for spring. Even if things are a little wet right now.

Until next time,

Jean

Monday, March 8, 2010

Cinnamon swirl bread

Pizza dough excluded, I haven't baked bread in ages. Saturday I decided it was time to revive an old favorite - cinnamon swirl bread.

The recipe is something I adapted from my Mom's whole-wheat bread recipe, and I have sort of played with it over the years. Sometimes I make this with raisins, but this time I made it without. It is good stuff either way. You basically let the dough rise, punch it down, roll it out, apply the cinnamon sugar, roll it up, let it rise again, and bake. The results are really kind of pretty, and the bread is quite tasty.

Jean's Cinnamon Swirl Bread
-makes 1 loaf

-1/4 c. milk
-1/2 c. water
-3 T. honey
-2 T. molasses
-1 1/2 t. instant yeast
-1 1/2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
-3/4 c. whole-wheat flour
-1 t. salt
-2 T. butter, diced into small cubes
-1/2 cup raisins (optional)
-1 egg, lightly beaten
-3 T. sugar
-1 T. cinnamon
-Extra butter for the loaf pan and for brushing the loaf


Mix the milk, water, honey, and molasses together. Warm in the microwave to about 100 degrees F. Add to the bowl of the stand mixture. Sprinkle in the yeast and allow yeast to get foamy, 5 - 10 minutes.

Add both the flours, salt, and butter (I just add the little cubes of solid butter and let them get worked in during the kneading) to the wet ingredients. With the dough hook attachment, knead for 10 minutes or until the dough comes together with a smooth surface. If using raisins, add them now directly to the dough and knead to incorporate.

Place the dough in a lightly buttered bowl and cover with plastic wrap. In a warm, draft free place, allow to rise for 1 1/2 hours or until doubled in size. (I turn my oven on for only 1 minute, quickly turn it off, and then place the bowl of dough inside the oven to rise, which creates a barely warm, draft free environment - a little trick Mom taught me!)

Prepare the egg wash. Mix the sugar and cinnamon together.

Punch down the dough and place on a lightly floured board. Roll into a long rectangle shape about 1/2 inch thick, keeping it no more than 8 inches wide so it will fit in the pan when you roll it up. Brush the top of the dough with egg wash, which helps the layers from separating. Sprinkle with the sugar and cinnamon mixture (using as little or as much as you like - you may not need all of the cinnamon sugar, but you do need to be a little heavy handed with it to get the distinct lines to appear).

Roll up the dough like a jelly roll and tuck the ends under. Transfer to an 8 1/2 inch buttered loaf pan, placing the dough seam side down. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise again until doubled in size (perhaps an hour or so).

Bake at 375 for 30 minutes. Remove from the loaf pan, brush the top with extra melted butter if desired, and allow to cool completely on a wire rack before slicing.

The cinnamon swirl bread comes out of the oven looking like any other loaf of bread...



...but it looks pretty darn cool once you slice it!



It is great simply toasted with butter. And, believe it or not, this bread makes for a fantastic grilled cheese sandwich, especially with some bacon or ham (or both) and tomato slices (trust me on this, it is true - even if you use raisins in the bread!). But I would be lying if I said I made this for any other reason than to have some cinnamon french toast, along side my homemade ginger and sage breakfast sausage, topped with real Minnesota maple syrup... ;-)

A cinnamon-laced breakfast of champions

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Saturday 15

I woke up to a cool 21 degree morning. The rain originally predicted for today stayed away, and it only starting to enter the metro this evening as I type. So I was treated to a pleasant and sunny morning.

Today's run was little over 15 miles at a relatively easy pace. Some of the trails had icy spots from the overnight freeze, so I had to tiptoe through those areas. They were few and far between, however.

This morning I ran my southern route, a route I had not run since training for Des Moines last fall. I like to run this way for my longer runs so I don't have to do loops around the neighborhood. It takes me down an honest to goodness dirt road that still exists in the suburbs, through a wooded area, back through a park, and eventually around my lake. Depending on how I mix it up, I can do anywhere between 13 and 21 miles without running the same path twice.

Somewhere near mile 11, with minimal frost buildup on the beard... :)



Birds were active this morning. Red-bellied woodpeckers seem to have come out of the woodwork. They are everywhere, which is strange since I don't see them much in the winter. Yet, they are non-migratory and really don't go anywhere. Perhaps they are just more talkative now so I am noticing them? Blue jays were also making all kinds of crazy sounds. And I saw some Canada geese overhead, so they are making their way back.

And, aside from a small block of ice, most of my Gatorade stayed in liquid form for the entire run. This, too, signifies a change of seasons. :)

Tonight's dinner - a hot and spicy Thai-inspired chicken stir-fry. Chicken and veggies with red chile flakes, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, chile-garlic sauce, fish sauce, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, roasted chile paste, white wine, and fresh basil. I had a perhaps a scant two cups of black sweet Thai rice on hand, so I used the last of it (this is the most beautiful rice in the world, by the way - even if it does stain your rice cooker and just about everything it comes into contact with). Yum! A great meal to refuel with after my morning run.

Spicy and colorful!



I also baked some cool bread this afternoon, but I will save that for another post!

Until next time,

Jean

Friday, March 5, 2010

What has two thumbs and likes running outside in shorts?

This guy! :)



First run of the year in shorts (outdoors, that is). I am sure I blinded several passers-by with my pasty white legs, but it was 46 degrees today! What was I supposed to do? ;-)

More weather like this, please...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The big thaw, scheduling conundrums, and roasting chicken

This is more like it! I am totally digging this springlike weather.

No stocking cap needed. Yours truly, enjoying yesterday's 45 degree run!



Running has been really good this week. Temperatures have been in the low to mid 40's, so this has felt like a heatwave. Birds are singing loudly. Yesterday I saw my resident eagles, and I even flushed a large red-tailed hawk from its perch in the woods. Today I saw another mourning dove. Spring is inching closer and closer.

Historically, this is the last section of the trail to clear off, but the snow is melting fast



The melting has been rapid, and the trails are clearing off nicely. We have lost a huge amount of snow in the past three days. There are only a few tricky places where the sun doesn't hit that have not melted yet, but there is a lot of dry pavement to run on. This is a wonderful thing to see after a difficult winter.

I am struggling to find races that fit into my spring calendar. All I have on the schedule is the St. Patrick's Day Human Race 8k, which I love and always do (curiously, this year it is being held a week and a half after St. Patty's Day?!?), and then I have the Lake Wobegon Trail Marathon the second weekend in May. That's it so far.

I have been looking for a race in April, but nothing really works, nothing really excites me, and there isn't all that much choose from this early in the season. The first weekend in April is out, as that is Easter. Next weekend is the Fetzer 20k in Rochester, a nice race I have done before - but I should really be logging more miles than that. There is Trail Mix on the 17th, a 25k trail race - but I want to put in at least 20 on that day, as that should be my big run before my marathon taper (and I ain't ready to do the 50k option!) A 20 miler is taking place in St. Cloud (about an hour from me) the same day - but the packet pickup situation is kind of inconvenient. The Get In Gear race in Minneapolis offers a half marathon on the 24th, which might be a nice distance during my taper - but that race is also something of a logistical pain in the ass in that thousands of people run in this, packet pickup is the day before, and the race registration with online processing fee costs...almost $60 to enter?!? Good grief, my marathon in May was only $45!

So, who knows? I am not going to worry about it too much, since there will be an endless amount of races to choose from in the summer. It is probably best that I simply log miles on training runs during April like I did last year. I am just getting excited to do some races, and there are not a lot of options that are working out this early in the spring.

Sunday I prepared a dish that I had not made in quite some time - a "Moroccan-spiced" roasted chicken. Using a variation on this Tyler Florence recipe, I gave the spice grinder a workout once again, buzzing up a fragrant blend of cinnamon, coriander, cumin, clove, paprika, and cayenne, along with some salt, black peppercorns, and brown sugar.

My local meat market sells these beautiful farm raised chickens (a 4 lb. bird was a mere $6 and change), so I picked one up on Saturday. The chicken gets liberally coated with the spice mixture and extra virgin olive oil. The cavity of the chicken is stuffed with fresh cilantro, garlic, red onion, and lemon wedges. After roasting in the oven, I ended up with this nicely browned and crispy skinned bird. This smells absolutely fantastic coming out of the oven.

Just out of the oven...



I also made some ginger-cilantro couscous as a side dish - couscous cooking in chicken stock with fresh ginger and red pepper flakes, with some roasted red and yellow peppers, carrots, garlic, peas, and fresh cilantro folded in. And I whipped up a pan gravy with the drippings (talk about an exotic tasting gravy!). A great Sunday meal. Some nice comfort food to dine on while watching the Olympic closing ceremonies.

Dinner is served!



Until next time,

Jean

Monday, March 1, 2010

A messy 40, and the Cookie Monster

40 degrees today! Unbelievable. This is the warmest it has been in months. No need for the stocking cap and gloves. It felt great on my run this afternoon.

I did just over 5 miles. The trails have cleared up quite a bit, as the snow is melting rapidly. However, there are still plenty of areas that receive little sunlight where there is a lot of snow and ice yet to melt.

About a mile into my run, I stepped on what I thought was solid ice only to crash through into a three inch deep puddle, effectively filling the toe area of my new shoes with ice cold water. Thankfully, the mesh uppers at least do a nice job of filtering out the ice chunks. :) So that was unpleasant. But those areas were few and far between. Nice to run on dry pavement again.

And I saw my first mourning dove of the season. I am really looking forward to the return of the various migratory birds over the next few months.

In cooking news, I've been on a total cookie baking kick lately. I think I am turning into the Cookie Monster.



On Sunday, I tried a new recipe. It was based one of Martha's, but I put my own spin on it. I am not a coffee drinker, however I love coffee flavors, especially in desserts (coffee-flavored ice cream is the best!). I took the proportions of the recipe and added some espresso powder to the dry ingredients. Also, I had some cappuccino-flavored chips in my pantry. So instead of 12 oz. of chocolate chips, I weighed out 5 oz. of the cappuccino chips, 5 oz. bittersweet chocolate chips, and 2 oz. of some little Heath Bar bits for good measure. Anyhow, here is what I did:

Double Chocolate Coffee Toffee Cookies
Adapted from Martha Stewart's Outrageous Chocolate Cookies



2/3 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
2 t. espresso powder
8 oz. Green & Black's 70% cacao dark chocolate, broken up
4 T. unsalted butter
2 eggs
3/4 c. light-brown sugar, packed
1 t. pure vanilla extract
5 oz. Ghirardelli 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate chips
5 oz. E. Guittard cappuccino flavored chips
2 oz. Heath English Toffee bits


Heat oven to 350 F.

Add the flour, baking powder, salt, and espresso powder to a bowl. Mix together to combine. Set aside.

Add the chocolate and butter to a microwave safe bowl. Heat in 30 second increments, stirring each time, until melted and smooth.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, add the eggs, brown sugar, and vanilla extract. Beat on a high speed until light and fluffy.

Reduce speed to low. Slowly pour the melted chocolate into the egg, brown sugar, and vanilla mixture. Mix until the chocolate is just incorporated.

Add the flour mixture. Stir until just combined and you no longer see white streaks of flour. Fold in the chocolate chips, cappuccino chips, and Heath bar bits.

On parchment lined baking sheets, drop rounded tablespoons of the mixture, approximately 2 inches apart.

Bake for about 12 minute. The cookies should have a cracked and somewhat shiny appearance. Allow to set on the cookie sheet for about 10 minutes, and then transfer to a cookie sheet to cool completely. Enjoy. Share with coworkers. Impress your friends. Or keep 'em for yourself...I ain't gonna tell on you. :)

Really good stuff, with rich chocolate and coffee flavors. When I do this again, I might adjust the chip/Heath bar ratio to include more Heath bar. The little crunchy bits of toffee are a nice surprise and offer a welcome textural contrast to an otherwise soft, moist cookie. I look forward to making these again. Soon.

Until next time,

Jean

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