The promise of warmth and fresh food after a long and dreary winter is launched by the celebration of Spring.  We may all observe this holiday season in different fashions, but there is always a similar correlation to quality time spent with family.  It was a special treat to see everyone and meet some new friends around the table as well.  This year I tried my hardest to relax and keep any holiday stress at bay by reflecting on the smaller things: new buds on the trees, a little time to myself learning to make cheese, and watching my children having fun with their relatives.  I don't let go of life's responsibilities often enough and just live in the small moments.  
    The food at Easter is always great no matter whose house we are at, and for some reason there is always more leftovers at this holiday then any other (at least in our family).  My refrigerator is stocked with enough meals for dinner this week, and enough brightly colored hard boiled eggs to handle breakfast and lunch.  There are many great dishes to make with boiled eggs, but my favorite by far is egg salad.  Most of the time my egg salad is quite dull and boring; a little bit of mayo with salt and pepper and call it done.  It is a typical lunch dish that normally doesn't get enough attention, but it can be so easily dressed up.  With the addition of some toasted slices of bread you could even use this as an appetizer or brunch dish.  Who says egg salad has to be boring, right?   

Egg Salad with Herbs and Cheese

serves 2-4

4 hard boiled eggs, peeled
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 cup of crumbled farmers cheese (or a firm goats milk cheese)
1/2 small red onion, minced (or one small minced shallot)
3-4 sprigs each of Dill, Chervil, and Tarragon, finely chopped (parsley and chives can substitute)
pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper
pinch of powdered lemon peel (or some fresh lemon zest)
slices of toasted bread

Toast your slices of bread in the oven or toaster oven.  Peel the eggs and mash them with a fork, keeping some texture.  To the mashed eggs add, mayonnaise, farmers cheese, minced red onion, chopped herbs, salt, pepper and powdered lemon peel.  Mix everything together until evenly combined.  Spread on top of toasted bread slices. 

This is my first batch of homemade farmers cheese!  I could just stare at this picture all day.
    My skin is milky white, my cheeks are rosy red, my freckles increase in number daily and my hair curls just thinking about moisture.  I may only be a quarter Irish, but this fraction of my heritage is one I relate to more than others thanks to my appearance (And now thanks to a new last name from my half Irish husband).  Needless to say, in our family we avoid the sun like the plague, eat lots of potatoes, and can say in all honesty "Kiss me I'm Irish" on St. Patrick's Day. 

    One of the things I love about my family tree is that on a few branches I am able to trace my heritage back several generations, sometimes more.  My Great-Grandfather came to America from Ireland in 1925 on the SS Baltic when he was only 19 years old.  He made a new life for himself, found my Great-Grandmother and raised their family in Edgewater, NJ.  He helped to build roads along the cliffs of The Palisades during the depression, and eventually settled into a job as a postman.  Ironically enough, I hear from many family members that he was known for making everyone's favorite soda bread.    

    My recipe for Irish Soda Bread is actually not a descendant of his recipe, because what we currently know as "Irish Soda Bread" is actually not very traditional.  I normally call this bread a St. Patrick's Day Soda Bread because it has been more modernized with the use of eggs, butter and raisins (real traditional Irish Soda Bread is only made with flour, baking soda, salt, and soured milk).  The recipe below has also been modified to be Gluten-Free in keeping with our new lifestyle.  But, if any of my family is reading, fear not, my regular soda bread will most definitely be served alongside our corned beef and cabbage this weekend!  Happy St. Patrick's Day to all my fellow Irish-American's and to all the rest of you that get to be Irish for one day a year.   

St. Patrick's Day Soda Bread (Gluten-Free)

makes 1 small loaf

1 cup of raisins
2 cups Gluten-Free Soda Bread Flour Blend (Recipe below)

2 Tablespoons Sugar
1 teaspoon Xanthan Gum
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon cream of tarter
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided (I use Irish Kerrygold butter)
1 egg
1/2 cup buttermilk

Preheat your oven to 375° F
.  In a small saucepan place 1 cup of raisins and about 2 cups of water (enough to cover the raisins) and simmer for 5 minutes or until soft and plump.  Remove from the heat, drain the water and set aside.  In a large bowl whisk together the GF flour blend, sugar, xanthan gum, salt, baking soda, and cream of tartar.  Using your fingers cut 2 tablespoons of butter into the flour mixture until it forms small crumbs.  Add the egg, buttermilk and slightly cooled raisins to the flour mixture and stir everything together with a fork until you can work it with your hand.  Gather the dough together (working it as minimally as possible, it can be a little crumbly looking).  Place the round of dough on a parchment lined baking sheet.  Score the bread with an "X" (I read once that this was supposedly to release the devil).  Bake the bread for 40-45 minutes or until golden brown and firm.  Remove the bread from the oven and brush on 2 tablespoons of melted butter.  Allow to cool before slicing and spreading on lots of butter!

Gluten-Free Soda Bread Flour Blend

makes 3 cups

1 cup brown rice flour
1/2 cup millet flour
1/2 cup sorghum flour
2/3 cup tapioca flour/starch
1/3 cup potato starch

Whisk all together.  Store extra in an airtight container.

Note:  Different flour blends are used for different types of baked goods when you are baking gluten-free.  This blend has worked great for me, and doesn't have any "beany" aftertaste that is found in some all purpose flour blends.  If you have a hard time finding the products listed above, try using your favorite brand of all purpose flour instead.
    "The Children were nestled all snug in their beds, While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads" Clement C. Moore - A Visit from St. NicholasHave you ever wondered what a "sugar plum" actually was, besides a very slender woman in a tutu dancing to Tchaikovsky.  Probably one of the most iconized and well known traditions of Christmas, but not actually ever found on dessert tables or plates for Santa Clause.  I always thought a sugar plum was one of those red and green gummies coated in sugar, but it was always something I was interested in looking into.  After a Google search and a few different websites later, I found more information then I really wanted to know.  Some websites claimed that a "sugar plum" was a rendition of what you see above, and others disenchanted the whole idea, stating that it was a term used to describe any small hard candy.   In either instance a "sugar plum" is something sweet and it had to be something good enough for children to be dreaming about.  I don't know if they looked anything like what I have made here, but I do know that these would be a treat I would dream about.  My children on the other hand, are probably dreaming about M&Ms and gummy bears, but can you blame them!   

Sugar Plums

14 oz of mixed dried fruit (I used pears, peaches, apples, prunes, dates, cranberries and apricots)
8 oz of raw nuts (I used almonds and walnuts - about a 1/2 cup of each)
1 Tablespoon fresh orange zest
1/4 teaspoon whole cardamom seeds (or 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom)
1/4 cup of buckwheat honey (or Agave for vegans)

pinch of salt

Sugar Powder
2 tablespoons pure cane sugar (unrefined)
2 tablespoons homemade RAW coconut powder

    In a food processor or high speed blender pulse the mixed dried fruit and raw nuts until they are finely chopped (see picture above).   In a spice/coffee grinder place the whole cardamom seeds and process until it is almost a fine powder.  If you can't find whole cardamom seeds or don't have a spice/coffee grinder then just use 1/2 teaspoon of ground cardamom.  Place the fruit and nut mixture in a large bowl and add the ground cardamom, orange zest, buckwheat honey (or agave) and pinch of salt.  Use a rubber spatula to mix everything together until it is evenly combined.  Be prepared to get your hands a little sticky and roll out the mixture into 1/2-inch balls and place them on a tray or plate so they are not touching each other.
     After you roll out all the balls you could either let them sit out to dry overnight, or if you have no patience like me, roll them in the sugar powder now.  In the spice/coffee grinder (or small food processor), pulse the pure cane sugar and raw coconut flour (or finely shredded coconut) until it looks like a fine powder.  Roll each ball into the sugar powder and tap off the excess.  Store the finished sugar plums uncovered for a few nights, and then after that you can keep them in a sealed container.  If you dust them in the sugar powder early like I did, you might need to dust them a second time the next day, in which case you might need to make more sugar powder.  The flavor and texture of the sugar plums actually gets better as they sit for a day or two. 

Perhaps this is why children had to dream of sugar plums, because they had to watch their mother's making them, but couldn't eat them until the next day.
    These fragrant saffron buns are traditionally served on December 13th, in honor of St.Lucia Day.   This tradition is popular in Scandinavian countries including Sweden, which is where some of my ancestors hail from.  As a young woman I would dress in all white with a red sash around my waist, and a wreath of candles on my head.  I would wake up early on December 13th and serve these buns along with some milk or hot chocolate to my brother and sisters.  I looked forward to this small celebration every year, and these buns have become a nostalgic treat for me now that I am raising my own children.
    This year my oldest son became very interested when I started making them, and I figured it would be a fun task that he could help me with.  Making bread, though difficult, is actually great for kids to participate in.  My son helped mix the batter, kneed the dough, roll it out and place the little raisins in each of the swirls.  I can't help but hope that making these St. Lucia Buns with me will one day become a great memory that he will always look back on.
     I consider these a special treat that only comes once a year, so I didn't try to make them gluten-free or vegan.  Instead, I tried to make them a little more healthy by using white whole wheat flour and unrefined sugar.  Great served as a quick breakfast or even as dessert after dinner.  The smell of saffron buns baking in my oven will always be a warm reminder of my childhood, and now the promise of memories yet to be made.   

St. Lucia Saffron Buns

makes 12 saffron buns

1/3 cup of milk
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 water (heated to between 110-115° F)
1 package dry yeast
1/4 cup pure sugar cane (unrefined)
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground saffron (or crushed-up saffron threads)
2 3/4 cups of white whole wheat flour (or regular all purpose flour)
1 teaspoon olive oil (or cooking oil)
egg wash - 1 egg whisked with a little water
48 raisins

    In a small saucepan over low heat, warm the milk and butter.  Once the butter is melted take it off the heat and set aside to cool.  In a large bowl put the warmed water and dry yeast and set the bowl aside for about 5 minutes or until the yeast is activated.  Check the milk and melted butter with a thermometer to make sure it is not above 115° F.  If the temperature is right, add it to the yeast along with the sugar, egg, salt, and saffron.  Whisk everything to combine.  Then, with a wooden spoon stir in 1 and 1/2 cups of the flour until smooth.  Add in the remaining flour a little at a time until you can form the dough into a ball (With the whole wheat flour I only used an additional 1/2 cup).  Place the dough on a floured surface and kneed the dough for about 5-10 minutes or until it is smooth and it springs back when you poke it.  Place the dough in a large bowl and coat it with the olive oil.  Place bowl in a warm place covered with a kitchen towel to rise for about 1 hour or until it has doubled in size.

    Punch down the risen dough and cut it into 12 equal pieces.  Cut each of the 12 pieces in half (now 24 pieces of dough).  Roll out each half into a long rope (6-8 inches) and cross two ropes in the middle.  Coil each of the ends of the rope toward the center in a circular clockwise pattern as seen below.
    Shape the rest of the dough the same way and place them with plenty of space between each other, on parchment lined cookie sheets.  Cover the buns with a kitchen towel and set them aside in a warm place to rise again for about 30-45 minutes or until they double in size again.  Preheat the oven to 350° F.  Whisk together an egg with about 1 tablespoon of water.  Brush the egg wash over each of the buns and place a raisin in each of the four corner swirls, and push them in.  (A great task for a small helper).  Bake the buns for about 15-20 minutes or until they are golden and browned slightly on the bottom.  Move the buns to a plate or wire rack to cool.  Enjoy!