Saturday, May 14, 2011

Mother Nature — a chicken and egg story

My friend and country neighbor, Rosario, and I got to talking about chickens the other day. Rosario is a small town, entreprenurial small business owner. He owns a carwash on a highway that's heavily travelled, especially in summer when people flock to our beautiful Mediterranean coast. He's adding on a gas station and café this year but his heart and home are in the country, 3 miles up the hill. Rosario rises when dawn breaks to plow his fields, plant wheat, cure his vineyard, tie up the tomato plants. Then goes to work. Like many around here, he was raised in the country. Most have a “real” job but tend a small plot of land and a few barnyard animals. It’s those small plots of land, new plants, effects of the changing weather, that elicit passionate conversations. The question when people meet isn’t “how are you?”, it’s “what have you planted this year?” Rosario glows when he talks about whatever farm task he’s done that morning. The day we spoke about chickens, he said he likes the pigs and goats but he really likes poultry. He dreams of adding geese and ducks to his henhouse.

As country neighbors often do, Rosario helps us out with different things. His birthday was coming up, and I wanted to give him a special gift but what? Then it came to me: eggs for some kind of fancy chicken. A Google search turned up a breeder of Araucana chickens not far from here. An e-mail exchange, a couple phone calls, and a short road trip, and I was in possession of seven small blue eggs and two large brown cross-bred eggs.

Personally, I’d like to have chickens for the fresh eggs, but my visit to the breeder left me enthusiastic. These birds are beautiful. Their black and amber feathers shine as if they’d been oiled, and unlike the few gawky white chickens I’ve seen, the Araucana are graceful. They were brought to Europe from South America in the 1800’s. Their colored feathers and regal bearing brought to mind old photos of indigenous tribal leaders with feathered headpieces.

I placed the eggs in a nice box closed with a ribbon and took it to Rosario at the carwash. It was almost a week before his birthday but the eggs needed to be put under a brood hen or in an incubator within 15 days after being laid. I was excited about my gift, thinking I’d had a perfect idea. Rosario opened the box, smiled, and thanked me as good manners demand, but I detected perplexity. Around here, rarely does anyone reproduce their own chickens; they buy chicks, not eggs. The farm boy asked me what he was supposed to do.

I’d seen a couple DIY incubators on the web. The easiest seemed to be a light bulb and thermometer in a Styrofoam box, so I mentioned that. I suggested asking around for someone who has a hen that’s brooding that he could borrow. Each day that followed Rosario called me with another question, I won’t go so far as to say he was agitated like a headless chicken…but almost.

Days passed and it was looking more and more like those pretty blue eggs were going to end up in a frying pan. I felt bad that my gift had created a problem.

Rosario called again and said his mother had a hen that looked like she was going to brood. Don’t ask me how you tell. The next day, which was Rosario’s birthday, I ran into his mom, “oohh, the hen sat on the eggs,” she told me, with a big smile. When I saw Rosario later, he was his relaxed, happy with farm life self again. With a glint in his merry eyes, he told me it was the smallest hen who’d sat on the eggs. He hadn’t thought she’d be able to cover them all but somehow expanded once she’d settled in, and there she sits. She just knew what to do. In 21 days those little chicks will have a mother hen to teach them how to peck stones and drink water.

Maternal instincts, Rosario and I agreed, both of us nodding in a silent pause of reflection at the wonder and beauty of Mother nature. Rosario broke the reflective silence: “If it goes well, I want to get more eggs. What else does that breeder have?” 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Long live the queen

I spent yesterday and today in my friend Rita’s apiary or bee yard. Rita has been a beekeeper for over ten years and recently became a certified apistic technician, hand-picked among beekeepers to help other, less-experienced beekeepers. Lucky for me, she’s a generous teacher and allowed me to help her with spring beekeeping tasks this week.
I admire how she treats the bees, as if each one of the 3.5 million bees in the apiary were her child. She moves methodically from hive to hive and can tell from the buzz that greets her upon opening it if the family has been orphaned, that is, queenless. She carefully inspects both sides of each frame, using quick wafts of smoke to coax the bees aside so as not to crush even one with the lever used to lift the frame. She determines the condition of the hive by the contents of the wax cells on the frames. Fresh honey, dry pollen and young brood on several frames indicates a family that’s ready for spring. Too much honey leftover from the winter may mean a varroa infestation. Shiny pollen means, again, an orphaned family. Queen cells and an overpopulated hive are signs of an upcoming swarm. During the inspections, adjustments are made, old honey stores removed and empty frames added to give the queen room to deposit eggs. We moved one small family from a 10-frame hive to a smaller 5-frame swarm hive. Another family that was overly populated was divided into two hives. At the end of each inspection, Rita delicately and patiently replaces the lid, again, coaxing the bees into the hive with smoke and lowering the lid without squashing one bee.
Yesterday, we captured two swarms. One was on a fence post and in that low position, was easy to scoop into the swarm box. The other was on a tree branch. We were able to trim away a few branches in front of it then I pulled the branch down with the swarm attached and cut the branch off so we could put the swarm into the box – easier said than done! By dusk, both swarms had fully entered their swarm box and Rita was able to move them to a more permanent position.
The highlight of my day today was finding the queen on a very crowded frame. Rita usually spots the queen quickly but I only saw her when pointed out. Today, I actually found her on my own. What satisfaction! Long and lean, once you’ve seen her, she’s easy to distinguish from the workers and drones but she’s a shy queen, often moving from one side of the frame to the other or hiding under her ladies-in-waiting. In each hive, if the queen was found, she got a blue dot painted on her head. This is to show that she’s from 2010. This year’s new queens will get a white dot on their heads whereas 2009 queens have a green dot. Beekeepers can quickly see how old a queen is by the dot color and it also makes her a lot easier to spot during inspections.
Tomorrow, one more afternoon of following Rita – I don’t know how much help I really am but it’s a privilege to learn from her. This weekend I’m off to check my one remaining hive, full of inspiration to capture swarms or divide the family and build up my apiary.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

You have now made a Bavarian cream

I haven’t stopped making pastries but I am discovering how undisciplined and/or distracted I am when it comes to writing the blog. I have it all in my head (along with several others) and tell myself “as soon as I…make dinner, empty my e-mail inbox, take out the trash, finish this week’s lesson plan…” and then it’s bedtime. Would it be cheating if I write several in one session and then post them one day at a time?

The penultimate pastry was the Tarte Bavaroise au Chocolat, aka Chocolate Bavarian Tart. I’d skipped over this to make the nut tarts for two reasons. One, the photo in the book wasn’t very appealing; the rather pale chocolate cream is completely covered with crème Chantilly (sweetened whipped cream) which I imagined would be cloying.

Two, the chocolate Bavarian cream called for gelatin sheets. Only once have I tried making something with gelatin — panna cotta — with a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated that had a long explanation about weighing gelatin and how the gelling power from one brand to the next was different, and my panna cotta remained panna liquida.  I’ve never seen gelatin sheets in Italy so I was also intimidated by the conversion process, however simply it was explained in the book.  But I couldn’t just skip the Chocolate Bavarian Tart.  Call me crazy but I decided to make it for a chocolate-loving friend’s birthday party, use powdered gelatin, and decorate the top with less crème Chantilly.

Perhaps the authors know that gelatin is intimidating or have often witnessed it's high failure rate because  the paragraph which explains the process ends with “you have now made a Bavarian cream.” And I had.

I’ve found in cooking, often the first time I make something, it comes out perfect but I’m then overly confident and perhaps a bit less precise the second time. It comes out but not as well as the first time. Knowing this about myself, I’ve been guarding against unmerited confidence, following the recipes with attention and so far, so good. While the pastry crust was baking, and I’d successfully made the chocolate Bavarian cream, I moved on to the crème Chantilly. I put the whipping cream in the stand mixer and, as instructed, whipped it to frothy then added the confectioners’ sugar, leaving it to whip itself into stiff peaks while I washed up some dishes. I glanced over after a few minutes but it was grainy so I upped the speed and let it whip some more, watching this time as it seemed to be taking too long. Some liquid started forming in the bottom of the mixing bowl and the cream began to yellow and instead of stiffening into peaks, I watched as it stiffened into…butter. YIKES! I had little time left to finish before the birthday party lunch. Luckily, the café down the street sells whipping cream, and they’re open Sunday morning. I rushed out, glowered at the cashier as she tranquilly chatted with the customer in front of me, rushed home and made sweetened whip cream my way: adding the sugar when the peaks have already formed. I plopped it into a pastry bag , decorated the top and here it is.

Oh, and to avoid cloying sweetness, I followed the authors’ suggestion of sealing the crust by brushing melted chocolate over it then pouring the Bavarian cream in. The bittersweet chocolate contrasted perfectly with the sweet Bavarian and Chantilly creams. I need to practice decorating but the birthday boy was happy.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Thoughts on peace

I remember a scene in the Sandra Bullock movie where she’s a detective who goes undercover at a beauty pageant (saw it on a plane, don’t remember the title) and during the interview part of the pageant, she says, almost crying “I really do want world peace.”

Earlier this year, a man named  Stephen Danger Shoemaker aka DJ Marmalade (don’t know if it’s his real name) created an event on Facebook inviting people to a worldwide day of peace. Even though, as one of the comments he received said, September 21st is the official Global Peace Day, I liked his initiative and there’s certainly room for more than one peace day a year. His proposition and rules (or guidelines as my friend Lisa called them) seem a good place to start. He wrote:

My proposition is simple:
One day, March 4th, we all stick to three simple rules that will make the world a little bit more bearable. Feel free to partake in this before and long after then … I want word to spread and allow this to have as big of an impact as possible.
This event is to take place everywhere we go in the world, preferably all the time.
Rule #1.
Say not a single unkind thing about anyone or anything. If at all possible, try not to even think a nasty thought. If we do, reflect on why it was that we thought to say it in the first place.
Rule #2.
Show everyone we cross paths with some genuine human compassion. Be it with a smile or kind words, just spread some love.
Rule #3.
Make not one person the exception to the rule. Not everyone deserves to have roses thrown at their feet and have a holiday in their honor, but nobody deserves to feel alone. Reach out. Talk to someone new. Care about them, and we will be cared for in return.

Mr. Shoemaker closed his invitation with the following, and there’s no sense in paraphrasing his words as he said it well and succinctly:
I know many of us will simply accept the invite with no intention to give this any genuine effort, but "Attend" anyway, not to look like a good person, but to look like we aren't a bad one. And for those of us who do that, please just remove yourself from the event.
This can be big. If we all band together, well, maybe we can all start living a little bit nicer lives. Maybe this won't work for more than one day; maybe it will. I honestly don't know what will happen, but what I do know is this: if we can get at least one day of happiness and peace out of this, well, I'd more than consider that a success.
This is not intended to be a "Let's be nice for one day and go back to our old ways the day after" kind of thing. It is meant to give us all a little more incentive to be better people.
This is not a hippie or a religious movement. This is just an attempt at brighting the world up a bit.

The thing that hit me most were the stats on the event: 11,728,347 were invited. Talk about the Wella Balsam effect (you tell two friends and they tell two friends and so on and so on).

1,792,952 Attending – as far as marketing goes, a 16% response is good

8,087,265 Awaiting Replay – I imagine these are the people who have FB accounts and sign on every three months or who don’t notice that little Event Invitations icon in the upper right corner. Just think if they had signed up to attend…

447,947 Maybe attending and 1,400,183 Not attending – hmm, on the one hand, I appreciate their honesty – the maybe attending had to think about whether or not they agreed or could follow the rules while the not attending, they weren’t into it or up to it. Maybe they were just busy that day.

On the other hand it saddens me, could they not even try? Are their hearts so hardened that the idea of trying to not say unkind things for one day didn’t appeal to them? Does compassion not resonate? Were they unwilling to just be nice to anyone who crossed their path? Maybe they just thought it was a stupid idea.

Am I naïve in thinking that when asked the simple question “do you want peace?” the simple answer is “yes”? That even the most bigoted, prejudiced, racist terrorist you could find, if asked whether her or she wants peace, would answer yes. Unfortunately, they may want those they hate to peacefully disappear or they go to war to create peace. Maybe we’re just not ready for world peace.

I truly want world peace, and at least 1,792,952 other people do to. Maybe we'll have it in our lifetime.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

The last piece...

March 1 was my step-daughter’s 29th birthday, and one of the few family traditions we have is that I bake a chocolate birthday cake for her. Every year, I go through my cookbooks and a few Websites trying to remember which cakes I’ve made in previous years, which were good, which weren’t. Luckily, I do remember the ones that weren’t up to my standards: dry, not chocolate-y enough, too sweet. You’d think I would have used a recipe from my new pastry book but I haven’t gotten to the cake chapter and looking ahead, the recipes are not only complicated but require cake rings — don’t have those yet.

Instead, I turned to one of my favorite baking sites, Diana’s Desserts ( The best, and worst, thing about Diana’s Desserts is choosing a recipe. There are so many great-looking recipes and those I’ve tried have been delicious. After bouncing back and forth between the four or five I’d narrowed it down to, I chose the Chocolate Layer Cake with Chocolate Frosting ( and had planned to use a frosting from a different recipe that incorporated chocolate liqueur until I noticed, just in time, the bottle of chocolate liqueur I have is “piccante,” made with chili pepper, and while it’s probably a delicious digestive, it didn’t appeal to me for frosting a cake. The frosting is from my well-worn copy of The Fannie Farmer Baking Book. In the cake, I substituted homemade yogurt for sour cream and used about a third less granulated sugar.  And, at Ugo’s request, I used apricot jam between the layers rather than frosting, along the lines of a Sacher Torte. I was skeptical but liked it.

I wanted to make it festive so I decided to grate chocolate on top. If you ever plan to grate chocolate, I recommend refrigerating it before grating and using a spoon to sprinkle it over the top. I used my hands to sprinkle and it started melting, just the other side of immediately. I managed to get it on the cake in grated pieces but my hands looked like I’d been making mud pies. I considered scraping it off with the spatula but both palms were glistening with melted chocolate, making the spatula solution illogical, and what would I have done with it anyway? I already had a caffeine buzz from eating the rounded tops I’d sliced off to make a level cake so I couldn’t lick more than two fingers. How sad to watch the chocolate slide down the drain.

Wasted chocolate aside, the cake was a winner. Moist, chocolate-y, not too sweet. And there’s one piece left…

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Bee news...

Last week, two of my four families flew the hive. During the prior two weeks, two of them had been blown over by the wind, seems a freak hurricane or tornado blew down from the mountain and knocked them right off their stand. Antonio, our farm hand, donned the bee suit and put them back. I got to the farm last weekend and as soon as the sun came out, Ugo and I went to check on them. Two of the hives were empty! One completely sacked (when bees from other hives come and steal the honey), not a drop of honey, let alone a bee. The other was heavy with honey but I found just one bee —dead—with her tail poking out of a cell.
The feeling of failure was just short of overwhelming. I called my expert beekeeper friend and explained the situation. She said even if the hive falls over, the bees tend to stay inside, huddled in the middle until the sun comes out so the falling over probably wasn’t the reason they left. The reason is probably…varroa*. She suggested I bring a frame to the veterinary institute for analysis, which I did and the veterinarian called me this evening.
“You have a serious varroa infestation,” he told me in a sad tone. The vets at the Institute are like social workers for bees, doing everything for their welfare, and I’m the abusive parent. If I’d been him, I’d have yelled at me along the lines of “what’s wrong with you, you haven’t done any varroa treatments since 2009??!!! Do you have your head in the sand??? You don’t deserve to have bees.” But he was gentle and matter-of-fact with his advice, not once condescending or critical.
He noted that I follow organic practices and asked if I’m certified. No, I’m not. He suggested a double dose of Apistan, something that’s not permitted in organic practices because, although it doesn’t leave residuals in the honey and isn’t dangerous to man or the bees, it remains in the wax and is a threat to fish and water systems. Ugh… The problem now is while I’m not certified organic, I’ve always followed organic practices, both in my farming and beekeeping with the idea that one day when I produce enough to actual bring something to market, I’ll go through the certification process. If I manage to get the varroa under control and reach my goal of at least 10 hives by summer 2012, then I’d go through the organic certification but my wax would have Apistan residue. It will take me about three years to replace the treated wax, changing out three or four frames each year (each hive has 10 frames). If I don’t do the Apistan treatments, I might have zero hives.
The alternative to Apistan is oxalic acid, an organic acid that’s been successfully used against varroa for years but a recent law has temporarily outlawed it (this is Italy). Until the end of last year, beekeepers could request it from veterinarians and participate in a testing trial. Having so few hives, I didn’t bother requesting to participate (bad parent). I do have oxalic acid in my garage and the bee police have never come knocking at my door so, in theory, I could use it instead of Apistan.
I have a week to decide since I won’t be at the farm until March 12, in the meantime, my remaining bees are on their own.

*The Cliff Notes version of Varroa:
Varroa is the terrible and feared mite that enters into the cell with the larva and reproduces; when the bee is born, often she’s deformed. It also hops on the back of the bee, right wear the nape of the neck would be if bees had necks and pesters the bees. It also weakens the bees and is often accompanied by a viral infection, usually Nosema. This little bugger came to Europe from Indonesia in the 80’s and has been wreaking havoc ever since. In Indonesia, the native bees have genetically developed a defense and they pick the mites off each other much like monkeys delouse one another. In Europe, the bees have yet to develop this genetic defense.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Caramel-Nut Tart, the next day

those two little holes at 1 o'clock, that's where the caramel bubble through
the slice is more attractive than the tart as a whole, especially on my friend's pretty plate
As promised, here are the photos of the Caramel-Nut Tart. It's not as pretty as some of the others I've made this month but it was a success at dinner last night. It's a sweet caramel - I'm glad I omitted the tablespoon of corn

syrup (an ingredient that's difficult to find in Italy). The taste conjured memories of pecan pie, however the texture was smoother. Chunky walnuts, just roughly broken rather than chopped, were suspended in the creamy caramel, which was neither runny nor hard. In the other tarts I've made, the almond cream has been under the fruit whereas here, being on top, baking created a thin, crispy layer over the soft almond cream.

I would make it again, maybe with that missing French meringue so it would be more presentable! We had a good laugh around the table about that.

For this evening's dessert, a Nut Tart that does incorporate French meringue.