Al

last week at next gen house

SOME FUN INTRO. I got nothin!

Oh wait. Here’s a photo of my friend’s cute grandson’s class alligator, Al, enjoying the Pittsburgh Riverhounds soccer game on Saturday. Because it’s so cute.

I asked him how Al liked the game and he said Al missed the first half because his face was turned up and he was bird watching. No worries, Al, the second half was more interesting anyway.

Al

Last Week in Running

This was my lowest mileage week in training because I missed two runs. Finally hit my wall this week with exhaustion (you know, the weepy kind) and once I recovered from that, I decided to just go forward doing what I can until the ship can fully right itself. And you know what? I PR’d in the 5K this weekend. I am learning this training cycle that you don’t have to hit every single run and make everything perfect to meet your goals. Rest is so important and when my body screams that it needs to rest and I listen? Both times that has happened, I PR’d the following weekend. I’ll write more about that in a race recap this week, but it’s a lesson that I am always repeating.

Circumstances aligned this weekend to also put me at a place called Thick Bikes on the South Side on Saturday. And I came home with this.

bike

That’s a big girl bike. My first bike since I was a teenager. And one that actually fits me, at 4’11”. Mark has been riding a bike for awhile, doing his first triathlon last year. I was vaguely interested in biking last year, but not enough to actually go buy a good bicycle, especially with marathon training. But this year when I set my running goals, I decided to train more intensely for the Pittsburgh Half and then run more casually in a maintenance style for the summer and fall. Still running races, but not gunning for PRs or going for another full. I wanted to spend 2015 enjoying running again and get to do a ton of other active stuff this summer that I love, like camping, hiking, kayaking….and bicycling? So when circumstances aligned, I decided to make the leap. The good people at Thick Bikes spent a good deal of time with us trying to help me find the bike that felt right, especially when I was pretty wobbly at first. (And apparently my whole life in an effort to ride a bicycle with short legs, I was always putting the seat too low. On a bike that’s made for someone with a small frame, you don’t have to do that to compensate, so I felt like I was high and flying on this thing.)

Sunday the weather was so gorgeous that Mark and I got to ride together on the Panhandle Trail by our house – just under 5 miles for my first real ride on a bike in more than 15 years, but it was so much fun. So. Much. Fun. I can’t wait to spend time out riding this year.

Last Week in Eating

We had some really good meals this week, with a repeat of the Knockoff Chipotle Sofritas, but this time with black beans from Weatherbury Farm that we got through our CSA. I don’t know why I have always been afraid of cooking dry beans, but it was virtually no harder than cooking rice, except for a slightly longer cooking time and the fact that they soaked in water while I was at work. Seriously, so easy. And so cheap.

Mark made venison fajitas with a marinade that has lime and tequila in it, so no surprise those were great. I also made a broccoli and rice casserole that’s one of those delicious, cheesy comfort foods that you could eat non-stop and then realize you ate the whole 13×9 pan.

Sunday, I made a chocolate chip cookie recipe that turned out interesting – almost like shortbread balls with a ton of chocolate chips in them. Different, but good.

 

cookie balls

 

I am looking forward to a moderate amount of reasonable carbs this week. I say moderate and reasonable in the same sentence so that I remind myself that carbing up is not about eating 52 pounds of pasta.

Last Week in Homesteading

The big win of the weekend was finishing Mark’s t-shirt blanket. It was supposed full length, but apparently I measured for a full length Joanna and not a full length Mark, because it is a little too small for him. But it works as a couch blanket, at least. There’s always next time for correct measurements!

I think the next thing I’m going to sew is an apron for my niece. Just have to think about what kind of fabric to use. And which pattern to use. And hopefully I measure that project for my niece’s size and not mine…

Last Week in Reading

Still listening to Dead Wake on audiobook. It’s long, audio-wise, and several commutes last week left me without my headphones since I got smashed into place on the bus where I couldn’t reach my phone. (And one of those commutes home I got to listen to a man practice his choir piece! While he was wearing headphones! Lucky me!) I’ll get there, but it’s an interesting listen so far. I especially like the stories about individual passengers on the ship, like a famous lady architect. And the stories about espionage and code breaking.

I finished Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which was a fun and silly read. I can see why people get into it, that’s for sure.

Started reading Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: 16 Writers on Their Decision Not to Have Kids this week and I’m flying through it. A lot of the viewpoints don’t represent me or my decision to remain childfree (at least so far), but I am encouraged by a book that seeks to make these voices heard above the stereotypes. Which I feel like I encounter in at least one form every single day of my life. And I have been called selfish, shallow and self-absorbed as it relates to my decision, so that part hits home. If you’re a parent and you just don’t get why someone would choose not to be one, this might be a good book to open your mind.

 

last week at next gen house

So what happens when you write a blog that’s narrowly focused around a sub-set of what your actual life looks like, making you run out of things to write about when you don’t have a ton of time in your schedule for new urban homesteading projects and outside it’s a frozen wasteland of gray?

Here’s the thing. I could write post after post about why I don’t eat fast food, the importance of eating whole, real foods or why chia seeds are the most foul of the one-item health trends, but a lot of that is repeat. But while posts like that have their place since they fall right smack into one of my passions, there’s more to my life than sustainable, healthy food and canning tomatoes.

Not sure how this will exactly play out with content, because I am still staying within the theme of 2015 for me – margin. But for now, it’s Monday. Here’s some…stuff.

The Week in Running

I just completed week 3 of my Pittsburgh Half Marathon training. 5 runs for a total of 19.4 miles. I’m amping up my training plan this year in an effort to shave some minutes off my best time, not just seconds. And I’m putting my running shoes where my mouth is and hitting those workouts, even when it’s uncomfortable.

I’m still feeling really excited about training, but I know logically that not all weeks will feel like that. But for now, I’m riding that wave. I’ve also been doing daily yoga with the help of Yoga With Adriene. Those yoga videos? The only ones I’ve ever done without wanting to throw a block at the computer. It’s really helping with my stretching and keeping my legs in good shape with this added running.

The Week in Eating

To celebrate me turning 32 this weekend, we ate at Dish Osteria on Saturday night. It’s been my favorite Pittsburgh restaurant since we ate there last year. It’s a tight space, so it’s not super quiet, but the food and drink are just outstanding. I feel like a lot of restaurants have really great food, but Dish goes beyond good food – every bite and every flavor seems like it has a purpose. Mark and I both tried quail – allowing us to cross another item off our Mark & Joanna Life List (eat something that we’ve both never tried). And I even ate a big slice of golden beet. I know, right?

The Week in Homesteading

My last two attempts to grow a new kombucha SCOBY failed. The first of those attempts got moldy from being too close to other potential molds in the kitchen as well as Mark’s sourdough starter. (We think the kombucha was also responsible for the sourdough starter molding too.) The second attempt didn’t mold, but also didn’t go anywhere because the temp wasn’t right. So I started up again this weekend, trying to grow a new SCOBY by moving the jars to the warmest room in the house and keeping an eye on the temp. We’ll see how it goes!

The Week in Reading

I’m tooling along just fine on my reading goal for the year. Currently listening to the third book in the Dresden Files series on audio in my car and currently reading the sixth book in the Star Trek Typhon Pact series. Do you have a serious TBR (to be read) list and want to commiserate about that with me on GoodReads? Find me here.

Know something else? I’m happy that at 32, I can say that I’ve made it to the stage in my reading life where I realize there’s no such thing as guilty pleasure reading. I will proudly wave my Star Trek novels all over the place, leaving them out on my desk for people to see or whipping out a graphic novel in a waiting room. If it’s worth my limited reading time to consume, it’s worth letting people know that. I love what I love. I’m not in the least ashamed that I have a master’s degree in literature and consume Star Trek novels. I’m sorry for anyone who carries around book related guilt. Life is too short.

The Week in Randomness

Got a Kindle with Christmas money, thereby silencing the last vestige of book-related guilt. E-books are never going to be my big thing, but they are here and I’m not missing out anymore. Anyhow, after I get Mark’s t-shirt blanket done, I think I might make myself one of these.

Mark and I are watching our way through the old Battlestar Galactica. Which was made in 1978 but somehow has worse special effects than the original Star Trek did in the 60s. It’s so bad I think it warrants a post of its own.

I woke up on my birthday thinking that what I’d really like for breakfast was brownie edges. (Yes, I am the person that the ridiculous edges only pan was made for, though I haven’t gone ahead to buy it since I need another baking pan in my house like a hole in the head.) So I whipped these up and ate them with some vanilla ice cream from Antey’s, the world’s greatest homemade ice cream place in the West End. (We stock up on pints at the end of the season to last us through the winter. As you do.)

How was your week?

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the annual holiday cookie box – 2014

Well, I’m back from the Never Where – the place where you don’t sit at your computer for more than a week due to work and craziness – and oh, that thing you do each year where you bake non-stop for three days and then host a dinner party.

Ever since our first Christmas together in 2009, Mark and I have made boxes of holiday cookies for loved ones (with the exception of 2012, when we paid for surgery for our cat, Maggie, which ate up the budget for the boxes). We usually go all-out on both variety and quantity. And this year was no different.

Definite Santa’s Workshop Explosion at Next Gen House.

So here’s a look at what we made this year. Starting with what our dining room table looked like when I brought the ingredients home from the store. (And that’s not even everything.)

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Aunt Barbara’s Favorite Macaroons

When we lost Mark’s Aunt Barbara in November, we knew we needed to include vanilla macaroons with the boxes this year in her honor. It was her favorite of our cookies, and she would never say no to me bringing her a batch when we visited. They’re a really easy cookie, made in the food processor.

macaroon collage

Oatmeal Cookies with White Chocolate and Cranberries

These are one of those classic cookies that gets a holiday touch with its special add-ins. Mark makes a mean oatmeal cookie, and I had a hard time not stealing all of these when they came warm out of the oven. Plus the little bags I found with the circle bottoms to hold a stack of cookies were just too festive.

oatmeal collage

 

Grandma Stiffler’s Molasses Cookies

My grandma Stiffler (paternal grandmother’s mother) apparently made some mean cookies, which is where my own grandma learned it. I have several of my grandma’s cookie recipes, and I put a tribute to her in the box every year, since she was the best cookie baker I’ve ever known. These cookies are nearly like gingerbread, but they are soft and melt in your mouth. They are also fantastic frozen and then dipped in coffee. I think the powdered sugar stencils jazz up their appearance a little, but stencil or no stencil, these remain one of my favorites.

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Lemon Sables

We decided when looking at our list of potential cookies, that we were missing something citrus, so we went with a light, lemon shortbread cookie. These are refrigerator cookies, so you make the dough, shape it into a log and refrigerate it for awhile. Then roll it in egg yolk and coarse sugar and slice off pieces.

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Kahlua Fudge

This fudge turned out really deep and rich. Delicious, but you need it in small bites or you will have an instantaneous sugar coma.

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Muddy Buddy/Puppy Chow Knockoffs

These were a no-bake rip off of the muddy buddy/puppy chow paradigm – Butter crackers with peanut butter and vanilla dipped in chocolate and coated in powdered sugar. Easily the easiest thing we made, but super delicious. Plus, having a few no-bake items really helps make our list manageable.

muddy buddy knockoffs

Mark’s Famous Fruitcake

This fruitcake requires a 10 gallon food-grade Lowe’s bucket. It’s a crazy old recipe that barely makes sense, but each year Mark hobbles through it and literally gets up to his elbow in mixing batter. You can get a contact high from the rum in it, but that’s what makes it fruitcake that you want to eat, and not one you want to use as a door stopper.

fruitcake collage

Bacon Almond Vanilla Brittle

Our first batch actually didn’t turn out that well, since we were following the recipe too closely, and not relying on our guts when it comes to the sugar. We’ve made candy before, so we should have waited for it to get to the right temp instead of going by the time in the recipe, which is always so variable. So the first batch ended up as misfit ice cream topping chewy stuff. But the other batches? Holy cow, so delicious. And our house smelled like bacon for days, which is nothing but positive.

bacon almond brittle

Peanut Butter Truffles

Another good no-bake recipe, these are those decadent cereal bites that are filled with peanut butter and sugar and crunch and then dipped in those weird colored fake chocolate wafers. Which aren’t real food, but whatev. It’s Christmas.

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Chocolate Peppermint Biscotti with White Chocolate and Candy Canes

I made life easier this year and bought peppermint candy cane sprinkles instead of going through the nightmare of unwrapping candy canes (which is so hard! why?!) and then putting them in the food processor which is the most awful noise in the world.  This biscotti is a favorite because it lasts forever (purposely stale baked goods for the win!). And it’s festive.

biscotti

Sugar Cookies with Royal Icing

Of any of the cookies we made this year, I think I’m most proud of these. We try to only do one cut-out-and-decorate cookie each year because they are ridiculously time consuming. So we left gingerbread for next year and did classic sugar cookies. I always make each box a name tag cookie, with their names piped on, for a personal touch. I’m always so happy once we finish them all that we did them. Especially because this recipe? ROCKS.

And because I’m so proud of them, commence gratuitous photos.

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The angel cookie cutter above (she’s flying toward the left, holding her hands out, wing on the back) and the Santa head above are old family cookie cutters that I inherited and I’m always so happy to make use of them each year.

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Posting will be a bit sparse here through the holiday season, since I’m spending most of my available free time working on a rather epic homemade gift for a special almost three year old niece. That and I’m busy stuffing my face with the extra cookies we put in the freezer and getting that contact high I mentioned from the fruit cake.

Are you baking anything for the holidays? I’m always looking for more ideas for next year’s boxes!

(P.S. – If you want the recipes for any of these, I am happy to share. Just leave a comment!)

 

make it yourself: morning glory muffins

I’ve been interested in getting back into baking more regularly. I used to bake constantly, but as I’ve tried to stay away from excess sugar, it’s become harder to justify making cake after cupcake after cookie. So I’ve turned to our King Arthur Whole Grain Baking book for some healthier alternatives. 

This weekend I tried morning glory muffins – made from whole wheat flour and a melange of other healthy ingredients. More than I’ve ever tried to pack in a muffin before, certainly!


The dry ingredients are just whole wheat flour and some brown sugar, plus the usual leaveners and salt, and ginger and cinnamon for spice.


The most time consuming part of this – even more than the baking itself – was grating 2 cups worth of carrots and a cup of apple (I used braeburns from our CSA). The chickens were pretty happy with the carrot shavings and apple peels!


Added to the carrots and apples (plus some raisins which were soaking in hot water, but were gross looking from the murky water and thus not really picture-worthy), were walnuts, coconut and sunflower seeds.


Wet ingredients were canola oil, orange juice, vanilla and eggs. No butter, which helps keep the calories and fat down, too.

The batter was quite thick and chunky. It definitely wasn’t an airy muffin, since it was hand mixed and less air was worked into the batter.


The cookbook said this made 12 muffins, but I’m thinking they meant the large muffins, because it made 24 standard size, coming in around 176 calories each, with a lot of fiber, protein and fruits and veggies. 


These are great breakfast muffins, because they are hearty enough to keep you full for longer than a typical sugar packed muffin would. And probably would make good snack muffins as well, since they aren’t going to give you a sugar rush in the afternoon.


If you’re interested in baking with flours other than regular refined all-purpose flour, definitely check out this book. Every recipe I’ve made in this cookbook has tasted good, and it helps you remember that whole wheat doesn’t have to taste like cardboard! I plan on trying out some whole wheat honey biscuits next – they are calling me!


I wasn’t paid or perked by King Arthur Flour to say good things about their cookbook. They have no idea who I am. And the link for the cookbook was for your convenience, not an Amazon affiliate link. Full disclosure.

spreading holiday cheer with cookie boxes

The first Christmas Mark and I were together, we combined our baking super powers to make assorted holiday cookie/treat boxes for friends and family. The tradition grew over the next few years, each year upping the ante and making the box bigger and badder. Last year, because of Maggie’s surgery and its associated expense, we had to forego the cookie boxes. This year, we prepared to resurrect the tradition and got our plans together, including the necessary three days off of work it requires. And then Maggie passed away the morning we were supposed to start.

We decided there would be no better way to work through our sadness than to spread some cheer and joy, so we forged ahead. Two and a half days later, we had 16 cookie packages ready to be sent across the country and hand delivered to family and friends. And our dining room looked like Santa’s workshop exploded.



Mark has a family recipe for fruitcake that actually tastes good. It’s such an intense job to make that it has to be mixed in a food grade bucket, but it’s worth it.


My grandma Taylor was known for her cookies, and the molasses cookies she always made came from her mother’s recipe. They are amazing chilled in the freezer, dipped in hot coffee.


I am slowly becoming a biscotti fan, and after I made chocolate peppermint biscotti with candy canes and white chocolate for our 2011 boxes, I had to repeat it this year.

I also experimented a few years ago with homemade marshmallows, and they made an appearance as well. This recipe is even good as they dry out, and they go great over a mug of cocoa.


Mark made batches of a classic favorite – white chocolate cranberry oatmeal.

Shortbread is one of my favorites, so I tried a new recipe for vanilla sables, which was delicious (and also didn’t crumble like a lot of shortbread does).


Mark made eggnog fudge, which was a hit even with people (like me) who don’t like traditional eggnog. 


I can’t bake anything without considering at least one item that includes peanut butter, so I tried a classic Good Housekeeping recipe for toffee peanut butter rounds. Not the prettiest cookies in the world, but definitely the kind where you can eat 4 without even thinking.


Two boxes got a special addition, due to these particular family members having an affinity for them – vanilla coconut macaroons.


And last but not least are my favorites each year – sci fi gingerbread. Being geeks to the core, we love our Star Wars and Star Trek cookie cutters. (The Star Wars once are from Williams Sonoma and the Star Trek ones were custom-made for me by an Etsy seller, though Think Geek sells some now.)

In the interest of time, we used white royal icing and colored sugar instead of coloring all of the icing and filling in the cookie details. But they still turned out awesome and close to the right colors (Chewy got close with orange).

I particularly love the red symbol of the Klingon empire. The warrior’s cookie of choice.

Star Trek: Delta shield, Vulcan salute, Klingon empire

Star Wars (light side): R2D2, Yoda, C3PO and Chewbacca

Star Wars (dark side): Darth Vader, Storm Trooper, Boba Fett, Death Star


We even had enough grape jelly that we could share a half pint in each box!

make it yourself: indoor smores and chocolate chipper champs


My grandma was the cookie queen. While everything she made was delicious, her cookies were a specialty. She’d make up care packages for me in college and even when she included date cookies, I scarfed them up. (And I don’t even really like dates!)
So when my best friend asked for one of my grandma’s desserts for her birthday, I knew I had to choose cookies. I picked two kinds: indoor smores and chocolate chipper champs. Mark made homemade vanilla ice cream and we had cookies and milkshakes to celebrate!
First up, indoor smores. This is a great no-bake recipe that you can make in about 10 minutes. I think all of us have at one point scrambled to find something easy to make and bring to a picnic in the summer or a potluck at church. This recipe is great for those situations!
I bake with organic chocolate chips if I can’t get fair trade. (For an explanation of why, see this post on chocolate.) I also used Three Sisters graham cereal, since it’s made with no artificial ingredients (and my friend is allergic to yellow #5). Whole Foods has their own brand of marshmallows in the bakery section, which are also artificial ingredient free. Add some corn syrup, vanilla and butter, and we’re off.
Melt the butter, corn syrup and chocolate in a saucepan and bring to a boil, constantly stirring. 

Add the vanilla off heat and then dump the mixture over the cereal in a large bowl. Mix and add marshmallows. (I reserved some on the side for a final topping.)

 
Press into a greased 13 x 9 and add the rest of the reserved marshmallows. Let it sit. 

Later, get out your propane crème brulee torch and go to town, toasting the top marshmallows. (Mark was the torch master in this photo.)

Indoor smores – all the deliciousness of smores without the campfire!

Next up, chocolate chipper champs. (What a great name for a cookie!)

The ingredients for these are the basic brown sugar cookie recipe, but with extra chocolate! I used the same chocolate chips as in the indoor smores, but added Sunspire chocolate candies. Sunspire makes fair trade chocolate and they don’t use artificial ingredients in their candies. Since my friend loves M&M’s, but can’t eat them because of the artificial colors in the shells, these are the next best thing!

Most cookie recipes have you cream the sugar and butter together first before adding eggs and vanilla, but grandma’s recipe says to just dump it all in the bowl, so that’s what I did. 

Forgive the gratuitous batter shots. I just love batter.
Add in the dry ingredients until you have a thick cookie batter, and add hearty amounts of chocolate chips and chocolate candies. (So much that your paddle on your mixer starts to groan.)

Scoop into drops on a cookie sheet. We use Silpat mats on all of our cookie sheets – a fantastic investment that I highly recommend if you do a lot of baking. Easy clean-up and the cookies come off the mat seamlessly.

Grandma’s recipe notes that after dropping the dough on the sheet, you take two candies and push them into the top. No idea why, but if it was good for her, it’s good for me.

About 11 minutes later, you have chocolate filled ooey gooey candy cookies. Or chocolate chipper champs, as grandma called them.

(If you’re interested in the recipes for these, let me know. I’m happy to share – grandma always did!)

make it yourself: a simple bundt cake

It’s not all food politics and railing against big agriculture at the Next Gen House. We spend a lot of our time cooking and baking (at the moment we have cookies cooling in the dining room, venison stew on the stove and refried beans in the crock pot). My family celebrated my sister and dad’s birthdays this weekend, and I made an often requested family favorite – lemon bundt cake with cream cheese glaze. 

I find baking to be very calming and actually quite beautiful. How you can take some simple ingredients and with a little measurement and effort make a dessert that makes people roll their eyes back in their head with joy? Magic.

I am a huge fan of Cooks Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen for recipes that stand the test of time. The bundt cake I made was from the ATK family baking cookbook. 

I love that cakes in particular have a very specific order of operations. Dry ingredients mixed up first.

Wet ingredients separately, in this case buttermilk, lemon juice and vanilla.

Creamed butter and sugar.


Four eggs given from the ladies in the backyard, stolen from under the rump of a broody hen.


Zest of lemons for a citrus flavor.


ATK recommends brushing a flour and butter mixture into your bundt pan to get it to release properly. It worked really well!


 Beautiful, thick cake batter with a buttermilk and lemon scent.


 An hour later, perfection.


Whip up a glaze with cream cheese, confectioners sugar, vanilla and milk. Drizzle liberally. Just glop it.


Take gratuitous shots of the cake and glaze. That way you can remember what it looked like before hungry people devoured it.


The next time you reach for a box of cake mix with a list of chemical ingredients a mile long, think about making your own cake. There’s a great joy to be found in making delicious foods for your family – birthday cakes included!