Homemade Vanilla: The Legacy and The Recipe

April 29th, 2015 § 8 comments § permalink

Ah, vanilla.  A baker’s gold.  Have you ever wondered how vanilla extract came to be?  I did.  My curiosity as to what was in the little bottle at the store and what made it so darn EXPENSIVE led me here to share this experiment and history with you. If you love to bake, crafting your own homemade vanilla will be one of the best things you ever did.

Homemade Vanilla:  The Starter

Homemade Vanilla: The Starter

According to the sources used in the Wikipedia article on vanilla, this intoxicating flavoring comes from a pod that grows on the plants of the orchid genus Vanilla.[1]  (See my picture from Phipps Conservatory  below!)  This plant was originally cultivated in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica by the Aztecs and was called tlilxochitl. [2]

Additionally, if you enjoy mythology you will love this.  According to Totonac lore, this orchid was born into the world when Princess Xanat fled to the forest with her lover after her father expressly forbid it so. The two were captured and beheaded. As the story goes, in the location where their blood touched the earth, the lovely vanilla orchid began to grow.[3]

Conquistador Hernando Cortes is credited with its travelling to Europe where the little plant experienced difficulties with pollination due to a lack of the native Melipona Bee.  Uh oh! What is a continent to do? Well, long story short, they figured out how to hand pollinate it.[3]  Imagine people spreading the little pollinators flower to flower with teeny brushes (today Q-Tips are often used).  Now, can you imagine a French patisserie left without the use of vanilla?

The vanilla bean spotted in its native environs. (Phipps Conservatory)

These super cool little bean pods turn black when they are picked and cured, hence the Aztec name tlilxochitl or “black flower.”[3]  You can use them by splitting one down the middle with a paring knife and carefully scraping out the seeds.  These can be added to creme (mmmmmmm) or desserts. Personally, I take the bean pod leftover and throw it in my sugar jar and it infuses my sugar with the most lovely flavor and NO WASTE!  My heart be stilled.

Now, if you buy extract in the store, it has usually been steeped in ethyl alcohol or a combination of water and alcohol (cheap).  Mexican vanilla has a reputation for adding weird compounds such as coal tar to enhance flavor and imitation vanilla gets its lovely taste from paper mill runoff. If you buy in the store, read your label please. Know the words or be happy eating tar.

Since you are going to see a lot of words thrown around on bottles of vanilla, this clarification may help. Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla and Mexican vanilla are made from the strain v.planifolia and Tahitian vanilla and “West Indian” Vanilla from the v.tahitiensis and v.pompona strains respectively.  Each has varying characteristics, though I have only tried McCormick’s two versions, Nielsen-Massey Bourbon-Madagascar (nice) and a watered down Mexican bottle bought at a resort made from the same bean. Hands down, the Nielsen wins as do the straight beans themselves.  But let’s face it, if you bake alot, those beans get mighty pricey and even the bottles add up.  What to do? Enter homemade vanilla.

If you find well-priced beans this makes more vanilla extract than the average family can use in a year AND being it is not watered down, higher strength. This will last indefinitely.

Homemade Vanilla Extract

makes two pints

  • Clean and sterilize two pint mason jars.
  • Slice 8 vanilla beans down the middle, scraping out their seeds.  Place four pods worth of seeds in each jar.  Slice pods in half and place four in each jar.
  • Fill one jar with vodka.
  • Fill one jar with rum (for fun and variation. richer flavor).
  • Cap tightly.
  • Put in dark location for at least two months.  Shake when you remember.
  • Advice: Wait as long as you can. Take this as a spiritual exercise in patience. Mine are three and going. The best flavor is yet to come.
  • Use for all your baking and tasting needs. Think: lattes, cream on strawberries, banana bread, yogurt etc.
  • Share.
  • I have begun an indefinate vanilla pods they get popped in. If I find extra alcohol on my hands, the bottle gets topped off.

Vanilla extract at the 2 month mark.


I purchased some nice vanilla bean pods at a nice price here: Premium Bourbon-Madagascar Vanilla Beans – 7 beans

  1. James D. Ackerman (June 2003). “Vanilla”.  Flora of South America 26 (4): 507. Retrieved 2008-07-22. “Spanish vainilla, little pod or capsule, referring to long, podlike fruits”
  2. The Herb Society of Nashville (2008-05-21). “The Life of Spice”. The Herb Society of Nashville. Retrieved 2008-07-23. “Following Montezuma’s capture, one of Cortés’ officers saw him drinking “chocolatl” (made of powdered cocoa beans and ground corn flavored with ground vanilla pods and honey). The Spanish tried this drink themselves and were so impressed by this new taste sensation that they took samples back to Spain.’ and ‘Actually it was vanilla rather than the chocolate that made a bigger hit and by 1700 the use of vanilla was spread over all of Europe. Mexico became the leading producer of vanilla for three centuries. – Excerpted from ‘Spices of the World Cookbook’ by McCormick and ‘The Book of Spices’ by Frederic Rosengarten, Jr”
  3. Silver Cloud Estates. “History of Vanilla”.  Silver Cloud Estates. Retrieved 2008-07-23. “In 1837 the Belgian botanist Morren succeeded in artificially pollinating the vanilla flower. On Reunion, Morren’s process was attempted, but failed. It was not until 1841 that a 12-year-old slave by the name of Edmond Albius discovered the correct technique of hand-pollinating the flowers.”


Loving Your Weeds: A Healing Plantain Salve

April 19th, 2015 § 4 comments § permalink

step gently my love/underfoot lie my dearest/those who heal my wounds


Bet you didn’t know that right in your own backyard you may have one of the most soothing plants known to man…and it probably gets mowed away with the grass.

Plantain oil and salve in a compatible environment.

Plantain oil and salve in a compatible environment.

Lucky for you, it is not to late to save it. Time to let this magical weed grow and grow until you have enough to add to your medicine chest.  What is this amazing gift, you ask? Why, its the plantain!

Plantain grows close to the ground and is characterized by a ribbed appearance.  The species defines the size of the leaves.  In PA they often look like this or flat and broad.

Plantain grows close to the ground and is characterized by a ribbed appearance. The species defines the size of the leaves.  This is of the buckhorn variety.

Born of the plantago species, there are over 250 varieties in the United States, most commonly the broadleaf and the buckhorn.  The crushed fresh leaves can be applied directly to small cuts, sores, bee and wasp stings, eczema, insect bites and sunburn.  According to the Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, plantain has healing properties because of the high allantoin content. Allantoin is often found in over the counter moisturizers and salves such as this one.

Plantain is as good a treatment for the pain of a bee sting as it is for diaper rash.  I often use it on shaving burn/cuts and it does quite well in this regard.

If you are in an area that does not have plantain or you are timid this first time, it can be bought dried from a reputable source.  I do, however, recommend seeking it fresh.

The first step in making the salve is infusing an oil.  I stuff a mason jar (see above) with the leaf and oil, making sure to cover the leaves completely.  Do this to make sure it does not mold (trust me).  Leave the jar in a dark corner for at least a month or gently warm on a stove for at least four hours.  I often double infuse the oil, changing the leaves at the end of the month.  When finished infusing, strain the oil through cheesecloth or something similar.

Note:  I prefer the cold process but this does take patience.  Now is the time to start!

How will you make this oil into a salve? In short you will:

Step 1: Slowly melt oils with beeswax, swirling pan over heat source.

Step 1: Slowly melt oils with beeswax, swirling pan over heat source.


Step 2:  Let mixture cool until hardened.

Step 2: Let mixture cool until hardened.


Step 3:  Scoop your salve into sterilized containers.

Step 3: Scoop your salve into sterilized containers.

See how easy that was?  I was intimidated for years but it is incredibly easy.

Now that you have a basic recipe, you can add other herbs (like calendula and lavender if this is for a babies’ bottom), carrier oils and essential oils if you wish.  Keep the beeswax on the low end for a soft, spreadable salve and on the high end of 2 TBSP for something just short of chapstick.  I prefer the middle ground of 1 1/2 TBSP.

Enjoy the process!

Plantain Salve



1.  In a small pan, melt oils with beeswax, slowly swirling pan over heat source.  You want to melt the beeswax with as little heat as possible so as not to disturb the volatile structure of the olive oil.

2.  Pour directly into containers, or if easier, let cool and scoop into sterilized containers.

3.  Spread liberally on diaper rash, eczema, bug bites, dry skin, bee stings or small cuts.  Be soothed.

I am currently using salve from last summer but give it a sniff or pitch it if you are worried.  Longevity relates to the freshness of the oil, storage conditions and bacteria introduction.  Use fresh oil, keep it cool and use clean hands!




Elmore, C.L. & McGiffen Jr, M.E. (2007) Pest Notes: Plantains.  University of California, 2007.  Available online. Accessed April 21, 2013.




*Medical disclaimer: I am not a licensed medical professional. What I do is purely for research and/or personal/family use. I cannot be held responsible for improper use. Always seek advice from a medical professional if you have doubts.  These claims have not been approved by the FDA (No kidding?!).

On Mystery, the Hermit Life and the Pomegranate.

March 15th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

L1030802 L1030803 L1030801

I apologize to my readers that it has been so long since I have posted. There is something about blogging that is completely vulnerable and while that is why I love writing and blogging so very much, it is also what can cause the writer to step back and pause “hermit style.”

We live imbrued in a voyaristic society. We thrive (self included) off of getting a glimpse into the minutae of everyones’ lives. It has what spawned the increasing popularity of reality TV from the beginnings (of my recall) of the Real World San Francisco. Yes, WAY back. My voyarism began with Puck wowing us with his unabashed no-holds-barred antics, my heart went out to Pedro as he was the living embodiment of the 80’s/90’s fear of HIV and many of us girls related to the struggles of Rachel, a strictly raised Catholic with a rebellious streak. For myself, this grew into an increasing want to see, “am I alone?”

The beginnings of this initially wonderful (in my opinion) way of seeing that others did in fact share in the struggles we share in was beautiful.  But that is changing now. Our thirst has escalated and it seems that many of us cannot live without a glimpse into the worlds of others wether to validate our very being or to condemn those in an attempt to make ourselves feel better. Man, it getting crazy.

The last month I spent teaching Rome with my students made me wonder over and over, are we that different than the bloodthirsty gladiators? Is our thirst for seeing others in pain and agony that different in its intent than desiring blood and gore. I truly wonder.

So how does this relate to writing? How much to share? How much to keep secret? And where this certainly is a space where food, philosophy and culture are a highlight, without the human connection, what good is this? On some levels I wonder how many of my words do contribute to the common good or do they do more to take away from the beauty of NOT knowing. Where has the mystery gone?

And this makes a writer wonder…where should the line be drawn?  I have no answers, (as usual) but a withdrawal into the secret garden of my heart was much needed the last few months. This hermit withdrawal quite readily coincided with the hibernation of the bears and still greater, seems to be a coincidental coorelation with the withdrawal into the desert of Jesus during what is now Lent for the Roman Catholic. So maybe it is not so odd to want to withdraw at times if even the greatest of men has had this need as well.

Where does the pomegranate come into all of this?

Just take a look. Crimson, smooth and lovely, on the outside it is glorious. But when you take a look inside, WOW.


Hades abducting Persephone. From a tomb in Vergina. Macedonia, Greece. Lesson: Beware the Pomegranate. :)

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve in Stained Glass. Some historians think the legendary apple was really a pomegranate.

About now you might think I would begin to show pictures of the mysterious insides of our prime subject and perhaps a delicious recipe to boot. But of course that would be too predictable.

If you have never seen the brilliant red seeds spilling out like rubies after you have sliced and squeezed the fruit, it is time for you to do just that. If you have, then I encourage you to do so again and relish in the delightful pop each seed makes when crunched on between the teeth.

Lent is the time for simplicity and a natural pomegranate fruit in all of its delicate simplicity is recipe enough. Enjoy both the mystery of cracking open this delicious fruit and the joy of tasting its natural sweet-tart taste dance on your tongue.

See for yourself! That usually seems best. :)



P.S. While hiding away in my hermitage I received a wonderful care package from a fellow blogger and reader living in France. Thank you, Deb. It meant so much to me!

Care package from Debbie in France

On Finding Quiet in the City + Swiss Chard and Potatoes w/ Tomatoes

December 31st, 2014 § 3 comments § permalink

I am too alone in the world, and yet not alone enough to make every moment holy.


Swiss Chard & Potatoes

It is a wonderful blessing to live in the middle of the city, especially as a single gal. Multiple grocery stores, coffee shops, libraries, parks, churches, restaurants and museums are within walking distance and this is all I really need to get by.

Oh yes, and there are people at every turn. Enough people that it is impossible to truly be alone unless I am actually in my apartment. Even then, Simba manages to awaken me to the fact we are not really in solitude with the parade of humans and dogs that stream by outside our window. Furthermore, it is quite impossible to be in complete silence with the sweet sounds of my neighbor and her daughter plucking chords on the guitar or practicing musical verses. You know, living life. :)

Whereas in the past I would have been more acutely aware and even bothered by these sounds, as of late I am becoming more accustomed the perpetual motion. it is possible that in part this is a general physical desensitization but honestly, it runs much deeper than can be explained away by a simple psychological response.

This kind of peace does not so much respond to the symphony but is in itself the symphony.

By no means have I conquered the noise of this world but when you find even a whisper of peace in your heart and begin to attune yourself to the beat of this heart, those screeching sounds which used to destroy the silence do much less to rattle you.

Yes, a closet hermit can do very well in the city. But the peace is not simple external, it is driven by God.

I find it very strange that I am paradoxically alone and yet completely surrounded. Rilke puts this so much better and is so fewer words but he seems to reference this feeling of being comfortable in solitude but not alone enough to let God completely penetrate the soul. It is so comforting that He is there but yet so frightening that He is so far.

Then again, maybe Rilke means that the world has abandoned him but not enough that he has reached the ranks of the saints, left completely in the wake of the world with only God to contemplate.

Regardless, I guess some more soul quieting is in order. I imagine instead of moaning that I have no time to be in a hut on top of an isolated mountain (with room service of course-ha!) there needs to be more time set aside for quiet prayer. Ok.

Chard, Tomatoes, Potatoes Chard, Tomatoes, Potatoes2

I don’t know much but I do know that in keeping with the quest for simplicity of soul I am trying to find healthy food that feeds the body but does not distract the soul. Clean food. Simple food. Nothing too heavy. This family dish came to mind after a long talk over tea with my financial guru friend R. She has a knack for wielding a food budget the way a ninja wields nunchucks.

I have been adding ceci beans for added protein and to stretch the dish further but my family’s original recipe is much simpler. Choose whichsoever makes you happy. Super simple, super delicious, super thrifty!

If you haven’t made it, please do and enjoy.

Swiss Chard and Potatoes w/ Tomato

(Bietole e Patate con Pomodori)


1 (or 2, two wouldn’t ruin it) bunch of swiss chard, washed well with woody stem parts removed

1 pound of potatoes (yukon gold works well), scrubbed

1 onion, chopped

1 can organic ceci beans (garbanzo) -optional

1 large 28 oz can of whole tomatoes in their juices (3 lbs of fresh Roma tomatoes, chopped, if in season)

1 tsp of salt

a few cranks of black pepper

grated pecorino romano to taste

hot pepper seeds to taste

olive oil for cooking


In a large pot, place scrubbed potatoes with the skin still on into a pot of cold water. Make sure water clears the potatoes by about 1 inch. Bring to a boil slowly. Boil potatoes for about 7-10 minutes if they are small to medium, 12-15 if they are on the larger side. Potatoes are ready when a forks can slide in and out with relative ease. Take potatoes out carefully with a slotted spoon and chop into large pieces.

In a dutch oven or large saute pan, saute the onion over medium heat in about a Tbsp of olive oil. Saute until the onion is soft and becoming translucent. Chop chard stems into small, 1/2 inch pieces and tear leaves roughly. Add to pan. Saute for about a minute. Add tomatoes, squeezing them between your fingers as you go. Add potatoes and ceci beans if you have them. Saute until greens and potatoes are soft and tomato juices are covering the vegetables. Season with red pepper seeds, black pepper and ample pecorino romano.

Enjoy in bowls with bread and extra romano.

Bietole e Potate

Oh, and remember, in words better than I can give:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going.
No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.




A Carefully Curated Christmas Companion — Gift Guide –

December 7th, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

Nativity Scene. Location: A church in Recife, Brazil. Delft tile from Dutch colonization.

Another year has come and another holiday gift guide needs to be made.

As usual, I am keenly aware of how easy to get caught up these days in consumer culture and the incessant shopping whirl that has been come to be known as “The Holiday Season.” I am caught in that deep chasm of a paradox that separates my need to engage in the spiritual preparedness of the season and the reality that I love giving and receiving gifts.

This year I waited to put up my decor until the first weekend of Advent and I hold off putting up the tree until Christmas Eve along with the nativity. This also means I get to keep it all up well past our consumer time table…until the Presentation of Jesus (or Candelmas). Yay!

This season I am trying to rekindle hope and engage further in the magic of the season.  In the last few years that lies in the myriad of rituals that anchor the next few months. Lighting the Advent candles, praying at the foot of the nativity, seven fishes at Christmas Eve and marking the doors at Epiphany are just a few of the interesting rituals that lay ahead all through Feb. 2nd. These Catholic rituals bring a rhythm and mystical quality to each day that lies ahead.

With that said, in the spirit of gift giving (a wonderful thing) and the reality of knowing most of us will participate in our own way in this cultural phenomena, I offer you a few options that I own, will gift or have a longing for. When they can they are also in line with my vision of sustainability and locality when possible.

Culinary Gifts

1. Do you love new culinary objects with an old vintage feel? Do you wonder how you might make fresh ground coffee when the zombie apocalypse comes and there might not be electricity? Then you just may fall in love with this Coffee Mill. I use it almost every day for fresh ground coffee in my french press. French presses rule for the coffee lover. Forget all that “pourover” nonesense! ;)


2. If you need coffee with that, I have recently been enjoying Zeke’s.  Their Monte Carmelo is to die for. I like my coffee deep and dark though. If you do too then you will love this. In the past I have gifted Zeke’s Coffee to my espresso loving brothers over at the Pittsburgh Oratory with their coffee delivery service.

I also highly recommend the coffee over at Building New Hope. Their mission is phenomenal and I have had the chance to see this firsthand while in Nicaragua years ago. This is real fair trade if you, like I, care about non-poverty wages for farmers.

3. Having just promoted the devious consumption of coffee, there is no way better to have your coffee than with a French Press and there is no way better to have your coffee than with a French Press and the Bodum Chambord.61DFW0RJVxL._SL1500_

4. Reusable Grocery Bags. Washable. Stuffable.  Lightweight.  Holds insane amounts of groceries and anything else. This has become my indispensable bag of choice.





5.  Homemade Vanilla or Elderberry Tincture make wonderful homemade gifts. I am eternally grateful to the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse for the fabric and ribbon. So lovely and useful!

6. If this PieBox invention isn’t the world’s best thing for bakers, what is? I want.


7.  Reusable Snack Bags.  If you are looking to cut down your plastic Ziploc consumption, these work really well and don’t leak.


7. The Le Creuset Dutch Oven in Cherry Red. It never leaves the top of my stove. It is magic. I gave away most of my other pans since you don’t need more than this.


8. Moms need this. Even as a single gal it has saved my life. The Instapot rocks. Who knew there was something better than just a slow cooker? 6 in 1 action. I use it for all my stocks now, steaming rice as well as a rice cooker as well as soups. This is just a drop in the bucket.


9. Looking for a unique gift for me? Err…or your neighbor? The food subscription service is booming and this one sends out little boxes of artisan food gifts.


9. Only available from November to December, the organic farm Chaffin Orchards has bright & juicy Satsuma Mandarin oranges that ship fast with wonderful customer service.


Intellectual Gifts

1. These wooden alphabet blocks are beautiful and fun, not to mention you can get them in Chinese, French, Italian etc.


2. Having a dedicated e-reader that you can worry less about breaking works for kids and for you. It also saves trees. And backaches from carrying so many books. Oh, and it helps to prevent distraction. It is meant for reading! FS-short-kp._V354836614_

3. There is so much fantastic young adult literature out there. I am always sharing my current faves in my sidebar if you ever need an interesting and age appropriate book for teens. Some of my/my students’ current faves that would be worth buying and keeping?



Other Unique Local Artisan Gifts

1.  The brilliant and crafty Shannon creates gorgeous and unique Swarovski jewelry over at Saya Papaya. Her attention to detail is impeccable and I love that part of her proceeds go to Animal Friends in Pittsburgh.



2.  The talented young lady Moirin makes some of the most wonderful creams and lotions out there and they are all natural to boot. Her research is thorough and she really cares educating her clients and in crafting the small batch products in her line. Check her products out over at Bridget’s Apothecary.








I hope you have a lovely holiday. Thanks for bearing with my absence. I am returning healthier than ever (With two hearing aids to boot! Yay young hearing loss!) and my recipes will continue to reflect that pursuit. :)



On Nourishment +Honeyed Vanilla Orange Blossom Rice Pudding

October 4th, 2014 § 6 comments § permalink


As much as I love comforting food, there are times where the gifts of this world may nourish the body but do little to nourish the soul.

It’s annoying, I know.

You know what I am talking about. The times you wish for anything but to be in your own skin, when your skin crawls and itches and all you want to do it to jump out of your body. These are the days that the last thing you want to do is sit with your own thoughts and be with yourself. So, you seek comfort elsewhere. Anything to not feel the annoyance! We run around buying things that hope to calm our restless souls and seek out foods to fill the lack within. Or maybe we look to friends or husbands to say the right words or offer comforts that just don’t seek to fill that void.

This doesn’t mean I am not going to enjoy this comforting dish and the latte that steams beside me but at the very least today I needed to acknowledge the ache. The ache that can only be filled without, not within.

Acknowledging the world as insatiable is at least a start.

Because the words of others are all the more profound that my own, the words of the French mystic Gaston Courtois come to mind.

If the world is insatiable, where do we turn to with our hunger?

“I hunger for you. I search throughout the world, but particularly in compassionate hearts wherewith to appease my hunger. The problem for Me is how I shall be able to nourish the weakened cells of My Mystical Body. In them I hunger; in them I thirst; in them I suffer.

I hunger with love to nourish the many souls who are fainting by the wayside. Give me acts of faith to permit me to enlighten those who doubt; acts of obedience to make them pliant, to make them docile to my voice; to purify them of their vices; acts of charity, above all, that I may show mercy to them and fill them with My love.”

We are all called to love and that love comes in the form of nourishing another, not just the self and turning to be filled by the eternal God who wishes to nourish us. That is the most whole form of nourishment. The one that stays.

Can we do this? Perhaps together we can all at least try.

Though it may not fill that deep cavernous void in the soul, can some days love come in the form of rice pudding to fill the hunger of the stomach? I should hope so. :)

There are many adornments that rice pudding may wear.  My favorite by far includes the flavors of old Persia.  Cardamom, raisins, saffron and a variety of nuts often grace kheer, the Southwest Asian version of this dish. Liquids like coconut milk and sugars like jaggery often add complexity in the region of Southern India and apricots and figs may be found in this dessert a hop, skip and a jump to the east. Overall, the flavors are unique and diverse but complement each other beautifully quite like the region itself.


The heady scent of orange blossom (also known as neroli in its oil form) was my initial inspiration for my Persian inspired version. Nothing is as intoxicating as the scent of the water of the bitter orange. I love to splash this musky honeyed scent on my wrists and let it linger in my hair. In this dish, it gives the rice pudding a slightly mysterious note that floats among the grounding scents of vanilla and of cardamom.  This dessert gets its complexity from its slow, slow cooking with layers of flavor stirred in along the way.

It is optional if you cannot find it, the pudding is just as delicious. But don’t skimp on that syrup!

Comforting, silky, and sweet, rice pudding is a beautiful way to end a fall day. Add a cup of chamomile tea and settle in.



My recipe here I originally published over at The Dabblist if you wish to hop over there too.

Vanilla Orange Blossom Rice Pudding

Serves 4. Recipe inspired by Mark Bittman


1/2 cup organic white jasmine rice
4 cups whole milk
1/4 cup organic cane sugar
1 1/2 tsp orange zest
3/4 a vanilla bean, split and seeded
1 Tbsp orange blossom water


Heat your oven to 300°. Pour milk, rice, sugar and orange zest in an oven proof pan with a lid such as a dutch oven. Stir and cover, placing in oven. Check and stir every 30 minutes. After the first 30 minutes, add the vanilla seeds and stir. At the hour thirty mark add the orange blossom water. At each stage the rice pudding will begin to thicken slightly.  Take out after about 1 hour 45 min and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes.  Rice pudding should firm up nicely.

Honey Cardamom Syrup


1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup water
9 green cardamom pods, crushed

Bring ingredients to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer for 4 minutes, lifting up saucepan and swirling syrup over the heat source keeping it simmering but keeping it from boiling or burning. Let the flavors infuse while the rice pudding cooks for an hour and thirty minutes. When rice pudding is almost done, strain out the cardamom pods and seeds. Reheat slightly until a bit more fluid. Pour over pudding.





On Emotion & A Proper Cup of Tea

September 15th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Care for a cup of English tea?


Might you prefer an herbal? I can offer you that too.

I wish today I had a recipe for you but it has been that kind of week. A tea week. Strong, black and milky with a touch of honey.

This is the kind of week we have all had where our emotions get the best of us. Where our passions cloud our judgement and obscure the path to peace. The kind of week where you want to play Duffy’s “Warwick Avenue” over and over…and over….et. al.

But I am here to encourage you that after you have done that for more time than you should, cut the cord and sit back with some tea, reaching into the silence of your heart.

Don't end up a slave to your emotions.

Don’t end up a slave to your emotions.

One of the most difficult things for me to grasp when studying the Desert Fathers (which perhaps much to your dismay I have a current fixation with) is that advice where they start talking about controlling the passions. Not feed our anger? Whaaaat? Not stroke our sadness? Yep. Nurture the pain so that you can heal, yes, but let it overtake your mind and body? In regards to our spiritual (and let’s face it, bodily) health, it really is no good.

The doorway to heaven may not be the easiest to open but it is the only one that leads to peace.

The doorway to heaven may not be the easiest to open but it is the only one that leads to peace.

Do not misinterpret this, Catholics are not against emotion or feeling. Come on, we are human after all and to feel is a beautiful thing. Like anything, however, there has to be limits and boundaries. Let emotion humble you, not exhault you. Then, the healing will come much quicker and be much deeper and the lovely moments will simmer and be savored rather than going off like a firework and disappearing.

Emotion does not exist in a vaccuum. Negative emotion, that of which I speak here, stems from one of the “8 great faults,” according to J. Cassian. The ever knowledgable and wordy (to the point of making me want to bonk him on the head) Cassian says this:

“…gluttony, fornication, covetousness, anger, dejection, accidie, have a sort of connection with each other, and are, so to speak, linked together in a chain, so that any excess of the one forms a starting point for the next.”

So how does this happen, Cassian?

“For from superfluity of gluttony fornication is sure to spring, and from fornication covetousness, from covetousness anger, from anger, dejection, and from dejection, accidie.”

So it kind of works like a tree, huh?

“Wherefore in order to overcome accidie, you must first get the better of dejection: in order to get rid of dejection, anger must first be expelled: in order to quell anger,covetousness must be trampled under foot: in order to root out covetousness, fornication must be checked: and in order to destroy fornication, you must chastise the sin of gluttony.” John Cassian, Conference 5, Chapter 10.

These are the six he finds connected and overindulgence in negative emotion can find itself caught in this muddy pool.

The Desert Fathers saw the connectedness in all of the passions of life. Let one go and like a set of dominoes the others are soon to fall. Root out one and it will be much easier to do so to the rest.

That which lies in front of your face may be beautiful but there may be something even more beautiful just beyond.

That which lies in front of your face may be beautiful but there may be something even more beautiful just beyond.

So have a proper cup of tea. Rest. Heal. If need be let your saline tears fall like raindrops into its bittersweet waters. But hope and don’t be overcome by the vices seeking to eat you alive. For hope is the salve of God, the balm we all need.

The legend says if you throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain you will return again!

The legend says if you throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain you will return again!

Oh, and try some of this when you are done torturing yourself with the emo tunes. ;)



P.S. I recommend the inexpensive yet delicious PG Tips or Taylor’s of Harrogate Yorkshire Gold with milk and honey. Help my blog and soothe your soul. Butter cookies are good too.  Just buy some this week. You have my permission.

Fighting Acedia: Using What You Have, Not What You Want

August 14th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Strawberries w:Balsamic Vinegar

“whenever it [acedia] begins in any degree to overcome any one, it either makes him stay in his cell idle and lazy, without making any spiritual progress, or it drives him out from thence and makes him restless and a wanderer, and indolent in the matter of all kinds of work, and it makes him continually go round the cells of the brethren and the monasteries, with an eye to nothing but this; viz., where or with what excuse he can presently procure some refreshment. For the mind of an idler cannot think of anything but food and the belly…” On The Spirit of Acedia, Chapter VI, the Institutes of John Cassian

What is acedia?

Many theologians have tried to define this spiritual plague. Deep discontent arising in the spiritual life is at its bitter core. For a monk it may manifest in just what Cassian details. An aching spiritual hunger that is never satisfied. A monk may try to soothe his discontent with anything but prayer…wandering to and fro..eating this and that.

Sound familiar? A monk’s life is not all that different than ours at the heart.

In the world we may see the symptoms of acedia (akeedeia) in a similar manner:

Wanting to be anywhere that you aren’t. Wanting everything that you do not have. Being miserable in your own skin…restless. Quite a modern day illness if you will?

Buddhists have described this similarly, in that desire is what keeps you miserable and tied to this world. Christians do not shun desire itself, insofar that it is ordered correctly. Cassian reminds me of this. Remembering to desire within what I have been given, within providence. Reminding myself to be happy with what I have been given, even if it is the glorious chance to suffer, for that is to feel.

As much as I adore escaping through literature, travel or even creating beautiful recipes, there is a deep pain that can come from too much of this practice. One does not have to want to run to the ends of the earth to be suffering from acedia. One can be constantly searching within their own heart. That searching can bring illness. Everyone on Facebook seem to have more exciting lives than you? Watch that acedia! Wish your husband would whisk you away on a romantic getaway as they do in the movies? Ok, but bet if he does, as soon as you are back home, acedia.

Acedia might even get you while you are on holiday, for a new location will never bandage the pain of today for long.

What might be a way to remedy this?

Learning to BE. Accepting our lot in life. Well, as a food writer in particular (excluding the other personal aspects of my life), not going outside my budget, which as of now is tighter than it has been. Over here as much as I love new cultural recipes, experimentation has its costs both financial and spiritual. No bookmarking any recipes this week using duck confit. ;)

I fight the restless urge of the mind to buy, seek, move forward, produce! Isn’t that the American way? It may be, but it is not the only way all of the time. There is something to be said for tradition and simplicity.

So no buying new ingredients this week. Look at the produce you have. Peek into the depths of that cavernous pantry that hasn’t seen the light. Can you make something with it? Or better yet, just eat it as it is.

If only we could be happy….just where we are. I’m trying. Care to try with me?

Got tomatoes?

Homemade Pizza Margherita

Creamy Fire Roasted Tomato Soup

Caprese (Heirloom Tomato Salad)

Eat tomatoes cut in half w/salt. No link needed!


Cucumbers or Carrots?

Orzo Salad

Thai Summer Rolls w/Savory Dipping Sauce

Eat cucumbers & carrots cut up & sprinkled w/salt. Perfect.



Fried Zucchini (eat alone or use as a sub in eggplant parmesan)



Amaretto Peach Crumble (or any stone fruit)

Kiwi Fruit Shrub

Eat Fruit. Sink teeth into that plum and enjoy the juices running down your face.


Have a CSA w/ Veggies Coming In?

Current ways I have been simply eating my CSA from One Woman Farm and my herb garden:

Cut up vegetables with Tzatiki (yogurt+lemon juice+fresh dill(and/or mint)+salt)

Close-Up Tzatiki w:Veg Tzatiki w:Veg

Sauteed Kale + Buttered Toast + Scrambled Eggs

Eggs w: Sauteed Kale

Roasted Beets




Seeking some more depth on acedia? I can’t vouch for the rest of the blog (because I haven’t read it yet), but this post over on Darwin Catholic on acedia is quite perceptive. Also, she (they?) has a tag line in the same vein as mine. Sweet.

Roasted Tomatoes: An Exercise in Simplicity

August 8th, 2014 § 3 comments § permalink

Just look at the glint of light on these beauties! Will barter for cherry tomatoes.

Just look at the glint of light on these beauties! Will barter for cherry tomatoes.

Tomatoes have that certain kind of innocent, robust and cheeky exterior that draws you in to to take a closer look.  Who would know by the looks of them they are of the often deadly and toxic “Nightshade” (Solanaceae) family.  Luckily tomatoes are not toxic to most of us.  Related to the likes of the pepper, potato, mandrake, eggplant (among others), this tasty summer delight is a favorite of mine.

Tomatoes are the one vegetable I will look forward to every year. Plucking a fresh tomato from the garden is one of the finest moments of the summer.

In most cases, it is best to keep it simple when enjoying tomatoes such as beefsteak, most heirlooms and cherry tomatoes. Take tomato. Slice. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with a nice sea salt.  If splurging of course, add some fresh mozzarella di bufala and call it a meal. Oh my.

This summer, I have been in a tomato dearth. My CSA through One Woman Farm (hugs Margaret!) has been filled with many wonderful vegetables but not tomatoes yet! I have only been to the community garden once and was not able to grow anything but herbs this year. I try to wait until they come via the farm or garden since they are just so ridiculously expensive ($4-$5 a pint for the most part).

A mix of tomatoes from the Lawrenceville Community Garden and Who Cooks for You Farm.

A mix of tomatoes from the Lawrenceville Community Garden and Who Cooks for You Farm.

Even though my favorite way is to eat them raw, one of my old Chatham “Food, Farm & Field” classmates introduced me to this simple yet insanely amazing way of preparing them.

As a food writer and aspiring ascetic (good luck, huh), it is important to me to balance rich dishes with the most simple. Simple recipes to fall in line with my studies of John Cassian.


Who is John Cassian? A saint and Eastern mystic, he is one of the desert fathers with the most influence over the Western church. As a desert father, he gave up the trappings of the world to live out in the deserts of Egypt, seeking simplicity. His works inspire the modern man to live a life of modern monasticism, that is monasticism of the heart or body. The goal here is self-control. It seems easy enough but here in the U.S., in a culture of plenty, the “what I want, when I want it” mantra is more deeply seeded than we think and not merely something to blame others for engaging in. It isn’t just a problem for the millenials, it is a problem for each of us.

“I shall speak first about control of the stomach, the opposite to gluttony, and about how to fast and what and how much to eat. I shall say nothing on my own account, but only what I have received from the Holy Fathers. They have not given us only a single rule for fasting or a single standard and measure for eating, because not everyone has the same strength; age, illness or delicacy of body create differences. But they have given us all a single goal: to avoid over-eating and the filling of our bellies… A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied.” -J. Cassian

What I like best about tomatoes is you can eat them by just popping them in your mouth or roast them like this. The recipe is quite simple if you will. Spread them on bread for the easiest of lunches. If you wish to take it to dinner, here is my best recipe for pizza  & it is quite good. Onto the tomatoes!

Roasted Tomatoes with Thyme

Slice cherry tomatoes. Red work as well as gold or yellow. Place on a parchmetn paper lined sheet pan. Drizzle tomatoes liberally with extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and add a few fresh thyme sprigs. Toss in some garlic cloves and roast away in a 350 oven unti they have lost some of their juices and their skins are wrinkled as my crows feet. 20-30 minutes is an estimate. :-)

If you wish to continue the joy, .

….spread on some toasted bread

…..broil on some pizza crust .

..toss with pasta.

Care to save some for the winter? Stuff as many as you can in a ziploc bag, squeeze out the air and prepare to transport yourself back to the heady, humid days of summer when the biting cold of winter hits.


Love, Sheila

P.S. If you are actually interested in learning about Eastern christian mysticism & John Cassian, I highly recommend Fr. David’s podcasts from the Pittsburgh Oratory. There is a primer on Cassian here as well as links to all of the podcasts from our meetings. Good stuff.

If you want to know where I get my vegetables from, most of them come from the fab Margaret at One Woman Farm where I get my CSA, occasionally I buy them from Who Cooks For You Farm and other local markets. Unless I am broke, then Aldi & Bottom Dollar. :)

On Conversions & Chocolate Cherry Clafoutis

July 29th, 2014 § 2 comments § permalink

Whole Chocolate Cherry Clafoutis

{The Pillar of the Cloud}

LEAD, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor pray’d that Thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

Bl. John Henry Newman/At Sea/June 16, 1833

I had all intentions on travelling to Paris this summer.

Dreaming for months, flights were analyzed, cooking courses were bookmarked and a safe place well located next to the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur were ready to go. Or so I thought. I was certain that I could stay as a guest in the convent attached to the most brilliant church perched above Montmarte with lovely company and 24 hour access to Eucharistic Adoration (AND me in a giant empty church!). The Catholic girl’s version of From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenwieler was SO within my reach.

But as fate would have it, the nuns (no longer) take guests more than a day.

My heart was so very set on this part of the trip that it no longer seemed worth the effort. Or maybe God just had other plans. Either way, I am home enjoying a quiet summer that is altogether wonderful but all too reminiscent of Newman’s poem.

Oh “Lead Kindly Light. Lead Though Me On!” I know less about where my life is going to head these days than in any other. Moreover, all plans I have to guide my own life are hopelessly void of power. It is exasperating and completely freeing in the same vein.

Catholic mystics have long written of the “dark night” of which this passage by Newman certainly reminds me. A time to grow in faith it is! Yet while one experiences it, the next step in one’s life as indiscernable as the next, it can be a bit of a pain. :) If you shall find yourself here, do trust. Let the one who knows what is best for you lead you. We think we can figure it all out alone. We can’t. Or shouldn’t when there is help! ;)

What to do…what to do? To have some fun I find it enjoyable to imagine, what would I do if I were in France?Walk the urban jungle endlessly exploring. Check. Drink coffee while reading in sidewalk cafes. Check. Voyage out to the countryside and eat of the bountiful produce in the orchards. Check. Come back and have a cafe au lait overlooking a vast field of lavender w/ a slice of sweet cherry clafoutis. Why yes, this sounds right. I can come close.

More Cherries Cherries Two Cherries

In heaven there will be clafoutis and there will also be St. Germain. I have a particular nostalgia for St. Germain, partly because I love elderflowers and anything made with elderflower is just lovely. But there is a deeper chord that echos in my soul when I see the name of this sweet liquor.

The church of St. Germain in the heart of the quarter with its namesake in Paris is one my body instinctively is drawn to like a horse to water. San Germain is where I first found myself drawn back into Catholicism after many years of an emotional hiatus.

Cherries in St Cocktail -- St. Germain w:cherries and tonic

Thus, I suppose that the emotional attachment to anything with the same name will be expected. When you find love, it is hard to let go. Achingly, my heart will always be drawn to Paris and anything associated with it. This summer then has been an echo of that experience. Adoration and San Germain. :)

Cherry ClafoutisThe two recipes I have to share with you are a nice way to use and preserve the bounty of cherries that are around right now. Clafoutis, a simple and delicious French custard-like cake is so easy and delicious. You need to try it and let me know what you think. Cherries preserved in San Germain is a twist off of how my grandfather preserves cherries. Most recently, he was soaking them in an Anisette liquor, being Italian, but has also used bourbon/whiskey.

I am not much of a drinker but alcohol can be a fantastic method of preservation and does make a nice gift. I chose to marry elderflowers with cherries in a sweet preservation method that is nice and smooth and palatable for most people. Both cherry and syrup can be used to eat straight out of the jar in the winter or (if you can’t wait long) served with a spritz of seltzer in a refreshing summer drink.

Clafoutis w:Fork

Chocolate Cherry Clafoutis

This recipe was inspired by Kitchen Culinaire and adapted from a recipe from the foolproof Dorie Greenspan in her book Around My French Table. Serves 6.


  • 1 lb (450 g) sweet cherries, stemmed but not pitted
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup of granulated organic cane sugar
  • Pinch of fine sea salt
  • 1 Tbsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup all purpose unbleached white flour
  • 3/4 cup of whole milk
  • 1/2 cup of heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped dark chocolate
  • Icing sugar/confectioners’ sugar for dusting
  • Salted butter for greasing


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Make sure your rack is centered. Generously grease a 9 inch pie, quiche or round cake pan with salted butter.

Place your cherries, washed and dried, in a single layer in your baking dish.

Whisk 3 eggs until they are light and frothy in a bowl. Whisk in the sugar and beat for a minute or so until the sugar has dissolved. Whisk in vanilla and salt. Mix in your flour and beat vigorously. You will want the mixture smooth with no lumps. Slowly pour in your milk and cream and whisk until incorporated.

Pour your batter into your pan. Drop it a few times on the counter to release the bubbles inside. Drop the chocolate pieces around the pan and spread them out evenly. Drop the pan on the counter a few more times just for fun.

Bake the clafoutis for 35 to 45 minutes until it is puffed up and golden brown and when a sharp knife blade inserted into the centre comes out clean.

Take out of oven and let rest for a few minutes. When cool, dust with confectioners sugar and cut into wedges to serve.

Cherries Preserved in St. Germain


  • 1 bottle of St. Germain or if you prefer, bourbon, anisette or cognac
  • 2 quart mason jars
  • A mix of sour and sweet cherries, stemmed, washed and dried. Pit if you wish.


Sterilize mason jars or wash in very hot water and soap. Dry jars thoroughly. Fill jars with cherries. Pour in liquor until jar is full, leaving about 1/2 inch headspace. Cap and let sit until at least Thanksgiving if you can! Eat cherries and/or use cherries and liquid in fancy holiday cocktails.

Enjoy (if you are of age of course mis estudiantes)!