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The 12 Treats of Christmas – #2 Mexican Wedding Cakes

December 7th, 2012 by Pat Fischbeck

Think about Christmas foods and the first thing that pops into your mind is a Christmas cookie.  Sweet, buttery, nutty, chocolate bites that transport us to our childhood days and fill a kitchen with the smells, sights and sounds of holiday preparation.  The great personal reward for a busy day of shopping, wrapping, or making last minute gifts is a cup of tea and a couple of cookies.  The perfect thank you gift for a holiday hostess is a tray of cookies.

Cookies come from the heart and the hearth.  Some are treasured family recipes, reminders of holidays at Grandma’s house.  Others are from ratty looking clippings from a newspaper or magazine that sits in the recipe file until December every year.  Or they may be a healthy bite filled with the trendiest ingredients to keep you fueled through the holidays.  Whatever your idea is of a perfect cookie and IF you need an excuse to tie on an apron, Christmas time just has to be the time to preheat the oven and create some cookie magic.

Here is my recipe for Mexican Wedding Cakes.  They also go by many other names.  You will recognize them when you see them.  These small powered sugar covered, tender discs are so worth the minimal effort required to produce them.  The recipe calls for toasted pecans but I’m going to experiment with making them with the black walnuts that we collected from our land this year…I’ll let you know how it goes.

Russian Tea Cakes

melt-in-your-mouth Mexican Wedding Cakes

Mexican Wedding Cakes

1/2 cup pecan halves

1 cup powered sugar

pinch of salt

1 cup unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups powered sugar for topping

Place the pecans on a cookie sheet and bake, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until lightly browned.  Cool completely.

In a food processor with a metal blade, process the sugar with the pecans and salt until the pecans are powder fine.  Cut the butter into a few pieces and add it to the work bowl.  Process until smooth and creamy.  Scrape the sides of the work bowl.  Add the vanilla and pulse in.  add the flour and pulse in until the dough starts to clump together.

Scrape the dough into a clean bowl, cover tightly, and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours.

Measure the dough into 1 -inch balls and roll between the palms of your hands.  Flour your hands lightly of necessary.  Place the balls 1 1/2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets.  Bake for 15 to 20 minutes at 350 degrees or until the cookies barely begin to brown.  Rotate the cookie sheets if necessary to assure even browning.

 

Cool the cookies on the sheets for 2-3 minutes.  Using a small metal spatula, lift the cookies from the baking sheet and roll them in powered sugar while they are still hot.  Roll them several times to achieve an even powdery coating.  Place the cookies on a wire rack to cool completely.  dust again with powdered sugar and store in a airtight container at room temperature.  They will keep for about a month (but they probably won’t last that long!)

The recipe makes about 4 1/2 dozen cookies.

The 12 Treats of Christmas – #1 Caramel Peanut Butter Popcorn Balls

December 6th, 2012 by Pat Fischbeck

Back in the days when middle school “Family Living” class was a little more like my high school home-ec class, my daughter came home with a recipe that has become a family favorite during the Holiday Season.  I’ve made these special popcorn balls for family Christmas stocking-stuffers, for holiday fund-raising auctions, and for the treat bowl at The Speckled Hen Inn.  I hope that you enjoy them as much as we do.

Popcorn Ball

Our Favorite Popcorn Balls

Caramel Peanut Butter Popcorn Balls

10 cups of popped plain popcorn

12 caramel candies unwrapped

24 regular marshmallows

1/4 cup peanut butter

1/4 cup butter

Pop the popcorn and keep warm on a non-stick rimmed cookie sheet in a 250 degree oven.

In a large saucepan melt butter, peanut butter and caramels together over low heat stirring constantly.  When the caramels are almost completely melted add the marshmallows and stir until melted.

Pour the caramel mixture over the popcorn and mix together.  Oil your hands and shape the mixture into 8 round balls.  Be very careful.  The caramel mixture is very hot and will stick to your hands.  I’ve found that wearing food-service gloves sprayed with Pam works very well for this task.  When the popcorn balls are cool, wrap individual balls in plastic wrap tied with holiday ribbon.

Enjoy and check back with us for 11 more Christmas Treats.

 

 

Madison’s Top 10 Things to do in Fall and Winter

October 26th, 2012 by Pat Fischbeck

Yahara Channel in Winter

The Yahara River in Winter

Madison Wisconsin is a lovely place for a spring or summer getaway but don’t forget just how charming this city can be in the cooler, even frigidly cold, months of the year.  Here is a list of the top or first 10 things that the innkeepers at The Speckled Hen Inn recommend to their visiting guests.

1.   The Dane County Farmers Market  The largest producer-only farmers market in the nation is a year-round affair.  In mid-November the market moves indoors to the Monona Terrace Convention Center and then after Christmas you can visit the market at the Mifflin Street Senior Center.  You will be amazed at the bounty of the market while the gardens sleep.  The markets just before Christmas are a wonderful source of supplies for decorating, gift-giving and holiday feasts.

2.   Madison’s Restaurant Scene  Creative chefs, farm-fresh ingredients, and the quirky spirit of Madison combine to present a dazzling variety and abundance of really fine eateries.  Visit one of the tiny ethnic cafes on State Street or one of the big boys with stars after their name and you will be very well fed.  This is why we always ask guests what they want to eat before we start recommending restaurants.  Guests could starve to death before we get to the end of the list of Madison’s great places to eat.  A favorite dining scene for us is a window seat at a restaurant on the capitol square on a snowy evening.  It’s pure magic.

3.   University of Wisconsin Campus  UW keeps things lively in the winter seasons with their sports and cultural offerings.  Take in a basketball or hockey game, men’s and women’s for both.  The Hall of Fame in the Kohl’s center is worth a visit even if the team is on the road.  Recitals, concerts, and theater really get going in the winter months and Sunday afternoon at the Chazen Museum is a seasonal delight.  Stroll through the galleries while listening to the live music performed in the atrium.  That famous ice-cream is available all year round at Babcock Hall or the Memorial Union.

4. State Street  Madison’s well-known pedestrian mall that connects the capitol square with the UW campus is always a lively place to enjoy a cup of coffee, ethnic dining, or browsing the bookstores, boutiques and galleries.  During the holiday season it twinkles with thousands of white lights.  State Street Posters is one of our favorites and is the source of much of the art work in the Madison Lakes room at the Inn.

5.  University of Wisconsin Arboretum  1,200 acres of nature right in the center of the city provide residents and guests with ample space to walk off some of that fine dining.  The prairie and woodland areas and Lake Wingra attract abundant wildlife.  Occasional night-walks conducted by the naturalists on staff introduce participants to the wonders of nature that we seldom experience during our daylight encounters with the world.  Can you identify an owl by its hoot?

6.  Madison’s City and County Parks  Golf, picnics, and tennis give way to sledding, skating and skiing in the coldest months.  Most parks remain open in the winter and are a great spot for walking and admiring the city without the crowds of summer.  The lakeside parks are occasionally decorated with nature-made ice sculptures and the ice-fishing huts on the lakes themselves are, at the very least, a photo-op that proves how crazy those folks in Madison really can be.

7.   The Lakes  There are 5 of them here.  Two of the largest are right in the center of the city and we managed to just squeeze the downtown area between them and then spread the rest of the city around the perimeter of them.  What is more relaxing than watching the sunset across the water?  Hearty fishermen bobbing about in their boats under the sometimes stormy fall skies amaze us.  Ice boats flying across the frozen lakes are awesome.  Locals judge the ‘coldness’ of the day by the width of the open water under the Yahara River bridge on the Beltline Highway.  The waterfowl there are beautiful.

8.  A Wright Place  Frank Lloyd Wright spent much of his youth in Madison and designed a Convention Center that was the inspiration for the one that the city actually constructed years after his death.  Wright also designed the Unitarian Society Meeting House, which is open for tours, and several area homes.  A concert at the Unitarian Society Meeting House is a treat for the senses.

9.   Wisconsin State Capitol  It’s simply a must see.  The architecture, the art, the history, or even the grandeur would be reason enough to go.  Tours are free and leave on the hour from the visitor info desk in the rotunda.  The tour guides have the keys to take you into the Supreme Court, The Legislative Chambers, and the Governor’s Conference Room but most importantly, they know all those fun little stories that bring the building to life.  Before the holidays local choral groups perform around the holiday tree in the rotunda.  The tree is lovely as it rises up three or more stories high and the acoustics of the performing musicians will give you goose bumps.

Overture Center in Madison WI

10.   Madison Civic Center  This is the Cesar Pelli designed home of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and the Overture Center for the Performing Arts.  It seems like there is always something going on.  The museum has rotating and visiting nationally acclaimed exhibits (and a very nice gift shop).  The Overture Center hosts everything from Broadway Shows, The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and opera to brown bag lunch performances.

The End of Another Season

October 26th, 2012 by Pat Fischbeck

Dane County Farmer's Market supplies The Speckled Hen Inn

Dane County Farmer’s Market

There are only three more Saturday Farmer’s Markets before the market moves indoors for the cooler months.  Now is a great time to stock up on all the great winter squash and pantry staples to see us through the winter months.  My fall shopping list always includes honey and baby rice popcorn even though I know I can buy those in the later months.  This just seems like the right time to stock up and fill the shelves.  It is also the time of year when I feel the need to put together a hearty soup and let it simmer in the slow cooker while I tend to clearing off gardens and composting leaves.  But the project du jour is going to be a potato and leek tortilla.  Leeks should be harvested well after a frost to allow their natural sugars to develop.  The best way to test this is to make something delicious.  So, I guess our guests now know what will appear at the breakfast table at The Speckled Hen Inn tomorrow morning.

 

The Gazebo – A place to enjoy a little music, a little wine, a pretty view.

August 17th, 2012 by Pat Fischbeck

The Gazebo at The Speckled Hen Inn Bed & Breakfast in Madison WI

The Gazebo – a space for guest to enjoy.

Earlier this summer I visited Olbrich Botanical Gardens, our award-winning city garden in Madison, Wisconsin.  I discovered that they had created several small sitting areas throughout the garden where visitors could stop and rest and enjoy the views of the garden or perhaps become a part of the garden.  I decided that guests might enjoy doing the same thing at The Speckled Hen Inn.

I often feel that some guests, with their desire for privacy, fail to take advantage of all the extra little places around our property where they can share a quiet conversation, relax and enjoy the natural surroundings, and disconnect from whatever it is that they need to get away from.  Our rooms in the Inn are great places but we have more to offer.

So, Bob and I set out to create those spaces on the property for our guests to enjoy.  One space that already existed is our garden gazebo.  The Gazebo was constructed in 2002, just in time for a wedding on the property.  It is made of Canadian red cedar and still carries that sweet smell when you step in the double doors.  There is comfortable seating in the gazebo and the screen covered windows provide a panoramic view of the garden pond, pasture, gardens and the Inn.

To make the gazebo more guest friendly we added a larger top on the dining table so sharing a meal there is a bit less cramped or the scrabble board now fits nicely on the table.  We installed a new CD player and stocked the collection of CD’s there with more relaxing titles.  We also installed a wine refrigerator that has dual temperature sections for red and white wines.  Of course, it is fully stocked with wines from our wine list and glasses, cork screw, and menus from a couple of local restaurants that will deliver right to the gazebo (or the Inn) are on hand.

Since the gazebo is right in the middle of the garden we also decided that it would be a good spot for our collection of books that will help guests identify butterflies, wildflowers, and birds.  Of course the gazebo is a great destination for guests looking for a comfortable spot to settle in with a good book or their laptop.  The gazebo gets a good strong wifi signal too.

 

A Rainy Day at The Speckled Hen Inn

August 8th, 2012 by Pat Fischbeck

Hummingbird at the feader at the Speckled Hen Inn in Madison Wisconsin

Hummingbird has lunch in the rain

It has been a long hot summer in Madison, Wisconsin.  There was hardly any rain at all during the months of June and July.  All the ferns in the beds around the Speckled Hen Inn turned brown and crispy.  It was a struggle just to keep up with the watering of the vegetable gardens, flower pots and new trees and shrubs that had been planted this spring. But now, it’s August and a few rain showers have turned the pastures green again.  The lawn is recovering from dormancy and we are no longer stressing about how we will feed our sheep and llamas this winter.  The gardens are providing lots of fresh veggies for the breakfast table and a few peaches even managed to ripen and find their way onto the menu.

Today this little hummingbird seemed to express our gratitude for the rain as she danced and darted about in the raindrops and was determined to have her lunch.  Perhaps she was celebrating the return of the rain too as it will mean a more bountiful buffet of nectar bearing flowers for her to enjoy.

Addition to the Garden at The Speckled Hen Inn Bed and Breakfast

April 12th, 2012 by Pat Fischbeck

New Garden Shed at The Speckled Hen Inn

Squaring up the building site.

Today it really begins.  The carpenters arrived at The Speckled Hen Inn around 9:00AM, just as the lumber delivery truck was departing.  Their mission is to build the garden shed of my dreams, Pat’s Playhouse, another Fischbeck Folly.

The plan has been developing all winter long.  We spent hours pouring through folders of saved magazine clippings.  We consulted our library of garden design books.  We clicked our way from one end of the internet’s photos files to the other and finally came up with a design simply sketched on a pad of graph paper.  There is an air of finality about a design finally drawn using a straight edge.

Then there were endless debates about where to put the little building.  It should be near the garden, of course.  But, it can’t block the view of the pasture from the cottage or, more importantly, the Inn.  And it shouldn’t be where it would shade the garden.  Heaven knows we already have enough shade on the property.  It had to be somewhere that a 16 x 12 building wouldn’t look lost on the 50-acre property.  After exploring several possibilities, we decided on a spot.  Jerome, our builder, drove a few stakes in the ground and we all decided that the spot that we had selected had problems with elevation and proximity to our parking area.  So, we moved it.  Decisions are much easier to make when your builder is standing there snapping his measuring tape out and back.  The new garden shed will be just outside the gate of the cutting garden and will snuggle against the pasture fence.  A couple of guys came and dug the holes for the posts that will support the building and it has been a mad scramble to pick out windows, a door, and flooring.  But, I think that most of the major design decisions are behind us and we are thrilled to see the construction begin so early in the season.

I have great plans for my little building.  It is inspired by the shed/smokehouse that was in my grandparent’s back yard.  That was a rather rustic building with a tidy row of well cared for tools on one wall and a long workbench under a dusky window opposite it.  There was always a galvanized steel bucket filled with sand saturated with used motor oil for cleaning and protecting the blades of shovels and hoes.  Two smooth wooden stakes with heavy cotton twine leaned in the corner when they were not being used to mark out straight garden rows.  There were rolls of wire pea fence amd an old nail keg full of stakes for tomato vines.  A bale of spagnum moss usually rested in the wheelbarrow and it was the winter home for a family of plastic ducks that spent their summers in the rock garden.

I envision my garden shed as having all those features plus being a place where I can hang a few herbs to dry.  It should be a place where I can hang my gardening hat and change from my Innkeeper shoes to my garden clogs. Imagine, if you will, a portal from my role as Innkeeper to my role as gardner.  I can arrange the flowers I will gather from my garden or pot up a little slip of a plant for a friend.  Veggies from the kitchen garden can shed their excess soil and compostable parts there.  And when I’m tired for weeding there will be a spot to sit and smell the roses or a shady place for Happy to watch what is happening in the garden.  The garden shed will also be the backdrop for a nice stand of Hollyhocks.  I’ve started them from seed, again.

Another dream moves toward reality.  I’m smiling as I write and feeling guilty because I should be outside helping paint the siding for my little gem.

 

The boys at The Speckled Hen Inn have a new toy.

March 9th, 2012 by Pat Fischbeck

Happy and Bob doing chores at the bed and breakfast

Can I drive next time?

The boys at The Speckled Hen Inn Bed and Breakfast in Madison, Wisconsin have a new toy to help out with the chores around the Inn.  The new UTV is great for getting the garbage cans to and from the curb.  The many trips to the stable to feed the sheep and chickens, collect the eggs, find the needed tool or pick a fresh tomato will be a little bit easier now and of course, Happy can go along for the ride.

The chore list at the Inn for the warm season ahead seems to get a bit longer every day.  One project always seems to spawn another.  We will be constructing a new greenhouse on the end of the stable by the garden and using those great passive solar water tubes that we picked up at the Habitat Re-Store.  If we have a greenhouse we can propagate pachasandra cuttings to use a ground cover when we re-design a part of the Japanese garden.  Another construction project is a garden ‘shed’ just outside the cutting garden to provide a focal point for the garden and to give a home to all the garden tools that seem to scatter about the property.  The design of this building is still in flux as we keep thinking of possible uses of just a little bit more storage space.  It seems that we never have enough storage space.  Of course, the garden surrounding the new shed will need to be expanded a bit for more flowers to use in the Inn and new raspberry beds and a grape arbor are on the planning list too.  The final (at least at this moment) building project for this summer is a garden house very similar to our gazebo.  We plan to locate this over by the pool and intend to use it as an outdoor sitting room.  It will be a great place to relax with a glass of wine at the end of the day or maybe even a spot to sneak away with a good book and a friendly dog.
  The ongoing project is the woodland restorations.  The UTV will really come in handy for getting into the woods without doing too much damage to the woodland floor.  The UTV is much lighter than our pick-up truck so we will not have to worry quite so much about compacting tree roots and trampeling wildflowers.  The bed in the back will be great for hauling out brush and cut firewood as well as for hauling in the tools that we will need to use.

Things To Do In Madison

March 1st, 2012 by Pat Fischbeck

Capitol Square in Madison Wisconsin

Wisconsin State Capitol Building

Folks who live in Madison, WI or who visited before know what a great city it is.  It seems like there is always something to do.  But visitors coming for the first time may not know what to do first so here is the list compiled by our staff at The Speckled Hen Inn.  There are the Top Ten Madison Experiences inside the city.  We will get to that long list of things to do, using Madison as a hub when you explore South Central Wisconsin, later.

  1. Take a tour of the Capitol.  Madison is the capital of Wisconsin and the building is truly a treasure.  Do take the tour because the wonderful guides know all those fun stories that bring life to the building and they also have the keys to all the locked doors that you will want to see behind.  Tours leave from the info desk in the rotunda every hour on the hour.  You will miss the school kiddies if you go late in the day.  Take the elevator to the 6th floor balcony for a bird’s eye view of Madison.  It is free, of course.
  2. Wander down State Street.  This is the pedestrian mall that connects the Capitol Square to the campus of the University of Wisconsin.  It’s a fantastic place for people watching and doing a bit of shopping.  Our favorite shops are the gift shop at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Little Luxuries, Tellus Mater, the Art Poster Shop and University Bookstore.  The little ethnic restaurants are wonderful too.
  3. Stroll through Olbrich gardens.  Our public gardens are nothing short of amazing for a city our size or for a city of any size.  There is a rose garden, a rock garden, herb garden and butterflies in the summer.  In the winter the structure of the gardens shine and provide a serene spot for a bit of exercise.  The indoor tropical dome will warm you to the core in the winter months.  Don’t miss the beautiful Thai Pavillion.  Everything but admission to the dome is free.
  4. You must have cheese.  Wisconsin is The dairy state so it would be unthinkable to not try our finest cheeses.  They are easy to find.  Fromagination on the Capitol Square is a great artisan cheese shop featuring many different Wisconsin cheeses.  Carr Valley cheese store in Middleton is goat, sheep, and cow’s milk cheese heaven.  Why, even most of our local grocery stores have a cheese counter devoted to just the WIsconsin cheeses.  Try, buy, and take some home with you.  You will be back for more.
  5. Visit the Memorial Union on the campus of the University of Wisconsin and have an ice cream cone for lunch.  The ice cream from the dairy at Babcock hall has a really high butter fat content that results in ice cream that is the smoothest and creamiest you will ever taste.  I think it is a meal all by itself.  Enjoy it on the Terrace overlooking the lake while listening to the musicians there and you have a memorable experience.
  6. Shop the Dane County Farmer’s Market.  It’s reported to be the largest true farmer’s market in the nation.  What is sold there has to be produced in Wisconsin and sold by the person who produced it  (let’s not quibble about tropical plants).  Every Saturday morning, rain or shine, year-round (check for location in the cold months) and again on Wednesday’s during the summer.  If fact, during the summer months there is a farmer’s market somewhere near Madison every single day of the week.  So, don’t despair if you can’t make it here on Saturday.
  7. Explore the Villas Zoo.  It is free, too.  Isn’t that amazing?  It is a great little zoo with much more than you would expect to find here.  Nice exhibits in great surroundings.  You can spend an hour or two here or the whole day.
  8. OK, this one will take a bit of advance planning.  Come go to a Concerts on the Square.  The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra plays on the steps of the Capitol building on Wednesday evenings for 6 weeks beginning the last week in June.  The music begins at 7:00 but guests start spreading their blankets on the capitol lawn around 3:00 for the largest picnic of summer.  This is the essence of summer in Madison.  Bring your own picnic or purchase a box supper from one of the vendors.
  9. UW-Madison Arboretum 11-03-2011 207Experience the UW Arboretum.  An Arboretum is a collection of plants rather than a garden and you will find a wide range of plant materials at the Arboretum.  The lilac collection in the Spring is amazing, a really fragrant experience.  The nature walks on a moonlit night in the winter are inspiring.  The natural diversity of grassy meadows, swamp, pine plantations, and the plant collections that the University has established combine to provide a great venue for biking , hiking, and exploration.
  10. Pedal your way around the city.  Madison is a very bike-friendly city.  A bike trail network connects all parts of the city.  Several local vendors provide bicycle rentals and not just some old clunkers either.  You can try out some of Trek’s latest developments at some rental places.  Just ask us for information.  City busses and Green Cabs have bike racks to help you out when the old legs are too tired to go another mile.  Many of the Wisconsin State Bicycle trails come very close to Madison too.

A Foodie Visits Madison

February 21st, 2012 by Pat Fischbeck

A foodie visits Madison, WI and wants to know our Top Ten Foodie places.  Fine Cheese in Madison WI  It’s hard to pare the list down to just 10 places and I’ll not even attempt to include places where you could eat.  Here are my picks for the top 10 places for foodies to shop for things to eat, drink, and bless their home kitchens.

  1. Dane County Farmer’s Market.  Yes, it is a year-round love affair with all that is fresh and local.  The market is held every Saturday morning.  In the summer months a Wednesday market is added.  In fact, in the summer months there is a farmers market somewhere near Madison every single day of the week.
  2. Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier.  Madison’s finest dark chocolate truffles can be found here.  We love to feature them in the Romance Packages available at The Speckled Hen Inn.
  3. Fromagination. A cheese shop where you can taste before you buy.  Lot’s of local cheeses and a cheese merchant who really knows the stuff.  It’s right on the Capitol Square too.Spirits From Yahara Bay Distillers in Madison WI
  4. Penzeys.  Two shops in the Madison area will overload your senses with spices and herbs and inspiration.  Their Hot Chocolate mix is a favorite at the Inn.  If you leave the store with just one item, let it be the double strength vanilla.
  5. Ale Asylum.  Proof that beer is crazy good food.  The distribution of their beers is getting to be pretty good and you will find it in several local restaurants and markets.  But, it is a lot more fun to go to the source and maybe even meet the guys who make it.
  6. Orange Tree Imports.  Cookware and all manner of gadgets for the foodie’s kitchen.  There are also plenty of beautiful serving pieces.  It is great place to shop for a wedding gift for foodies too.
  7. RP’s Pasta.  Beautiful, delicious handmade pasta to pair with your cheese and veggies.  They make great gluten-free pasta too.
  8. La Brioche.  Fine Bakery items that you will never be able to create at home.  The morning buns have long been a Madison favorite and they produce wedding cakes that taste every bit as good as they look.
  9. Yahara Bay Distillers.  Go and be amazed.  They make some of the finest Lemoncello I’ve ever tasted.  It is almost worth taking Friday off from work so that you can be in Madison on Thursday night for their tastings.
  10. The Kitchen Gallery.  The love of their buyer for fine kitchenware is so obvious.  I can go in their shop and find things that I would swear they ordered just for me.