Musing on Muses: Rodentine Inspiration

A couple of days ago, hiking out the remnant of farm road that now serves as my driveway, I noticed a grey squirrel up the hill to my left.  I noticed it because it noticed me.  It stood upright, hips facing uphill, torso and neck twisted downhill facing me, and watched me carry a trash bag out to the bin, then slowly swiveled its top half watching me return.  You might think it regarded me as a food delivery system, but once I started back, it went on about its business, showing no further interest in me or the stuffed bag I had just deposited.

Naturally, this got me to thinking about the difference between city squirrels and country squirrels.  Squirrels are one of many species that thrive around human populations, foraging at bird feeders and rummaging through discarded containers and bags.  Crows do this, too, but they are a topic for another day because while they absolutely fascinate me in every way, I have never collaborated with a crow on an art project, so in this one instance only, they are not relevant.

Several weeks ago, I warily bought a sumptuous orange pumpkin and placed it outside with a basket of flowers and a small scarecrow to herald the harvest season.

Country pumpkin
Country pumpkin

I was wary about buying this pumpkin, because in the densely populated New Jersey suburb where we were living last year, my pumpkin didn’t last 24 hours before a squirrel ate it.  She probably had help, because the year before, as I drove away from the house to work one day, I saw several squirrels eating one I had placed on our retaining wall.  They were very orderly about it, standing on their hind legs, wrapping their arms around as much of the surface as their reach permitted, and boring in with their tiny diamond shard teeth.  By the time I got home from work, all that remained were the stems and the bottoms of the blossoms.  I bought more pumpkins, which brought more squirrels, and therefore exponentially more tiny pumpkin-carving teeth.  They were completely unabashed about it, too.  One time, I rolled down the window and scolded them to stop, but they didn’t care.  Then I realized they were probably hungry after a cold night and this was some good eating.

So last year, I created a small display on the front porch instead of the edge of the yard, naively thinking they might leave the pumpkins alone.  I didn’t realize how dimwitted this sounds until just now.  Like some of my like minded neighbors, I had begun putting out peanuts for the squirrels, because ever since Superstorm Sandy, we’d noticed a dearth of acorns from the mighty oak trees towering around our houses.  This drew the squirrels up to our windowpanes and doors, and we began recognizing faces.  Not each other’s faces, the faces of different squirrels, and I had taken a liking to a particular female whose right eye was a little cloudy.

I was working inside the house, periodically taking breaks at my front door to survey my still life with satisfaction, when lo, there was my favorite squirrel, really laying into my ghost pumpkin!  Some friends and family may recall these photos, but I am still amused by them so am sharing again.

Squirrel carver
I spy, with my cloudy eye…

Evidently, ghost pumpkins are something of a delicacy in squirreldom, because it was the ghost pumpkin that was consumed first the year before, too.  Mindful that this was a good repast for a cloudy-eyed squirrel, I was still dismayed that I hadn’t even gotten a day out of my homage to autumn.

Just look at this
Just look at this

Standing on my front steps surveying the damage to my exhibit, my consternation turned to inspiration.  I went back inside and returned with a knife, squatted over the pumpkin, and made my return contribution to what I now viewed as an opportunity for interspecies artistic collaboration:

My contribution

Any artist will tell you that no piece is ever finished, and within minutes, the stem – or as I thought of it, the nose – had been excised and cast aside in creative dispute.  I used a toothpick to reattach it, but this squirrel was tenacious with her vision.  When I went back to the window, I saw she had ripped it back off and tossed it down the brick stairs.  Another thing any artist will tell you is that you have to know when to stop; I think she overdid it and lost the creative expression I was going for.  I was too depressed to memorialize it with a photo.

This year, seeing my plump, smooth pumpkin yet untouched by country squirrels (six weeks!), I purchased three more, secretly hoping that someone might make the first cut, but still no takers.  I’m not sure how I feel about this.  Where is the utility?  The give and take?  Do I just chuck them into the woods on December 1?  Since it’s not likely there are many kids smashing pumpkins out here, I am considering smashing them myself and scattering them along the edge of the woods.  I will think of it as performance art, and thank the country squirrels for their unique collaboration.

Life is what you make it.  Don’t overthink it.

Cheers!

I Am Seriously About to Ruin Your Brownie Recipe

Probably the last thing anyone is scanning the internet for is another food blog, and the last thing I expected to find myself doing was generating an entry, much less kicking off a random topics blog with a low carb/sugar dessert recipe.  My new philosophy, based upon years of experience, is, “Don’t overthink it.”  Baking is a deliberate endeavor, and overdoing any element destroys it.  It’s chemistry, math, and precision, and I excel at none of these.  But life is serendipitous, and mine is better when I allow a little slack in the reins, so I say let’s play it fast and loose with the ingredients!

This morning, when my husband mentioned my killer brownies, I thought for about 30 seconds how I might make them less deadly.  I am a health-conscious vegetarian, but that’s not to say I don’t wage dietary battles.  Just last week, in an act of blasphemous desperation, I threw away nearly half a bag of ridiculously fresh dark chocolate peanut M&Ms!  (I had eaten the other half+ within the space of about an hour, and had to save myself.)  Toward better health, I shop the perimeter of grocery stores unless they cannily put the health food section in the middle, which is exactly where I happened to be last week when I noticed an expensive bag of almond flour flirting with me from a shelf.  I thought of my friend Nancy, the only individual I personally know who actually owns a bag of almond flour.  I adore Nancy, so I picked up the bag like a hopeful bundle of joy and tucked it into my cart.

Fast forward to this morning when my husband’s interest in brownies, my inability to NOT toy with perfection, and my memory of Nancy’s efforts to reduce grain intake collided, resulting in the perfect weather system right in the middle of my kitchen.  This recipe turned out nearly indistinguishable from my original recipe, the only difference being that the Stevia leaves a slightly sweeter aftertaste than when I have used only sugar.  Because it was inspired by my friend’s goals to improve her health, I named them for her.  That said, these are not totally virtuous, but neither am I, and who among us is?

These brownies are particularly rich and chewy, and they almost melt completely away in your mouth when they are fresh from the oven.  They become chewier on sitting.  My photograph does not do them justice.

Disclaimer: Imagine that every grain in this snapshot is a globule of decadent fat.
Disclaimer: Imagine that every grain in this snapshot is a globule of decadent fat.

I am sure I will further corrupt my original recipe by pushing the envelope again, but today’s experiment was a success so I want to share it before I move on to the next thing.  I can’t tell you how long they keep, because they don’t last long enough for me to mark off days.  I use all organic ingredients where I can find them (coconut oil, butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla), and I like to think this makes a difference in our health, the health of the animals who provide the eggs and dairy, and the environment.

Just one plug:  I would like to thank Miles, a kindred writer previously hemmed in by a corporate job, who gave me the final push I needed to spill some words onto the page.  Check out his travel blog at www.workingstifftraveler.com.

Without further ado, I present to you…


Nancy’s Low-Carb Brownies

6 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Scharffen Berger)

2 Tablespoons coconut oil

1/4 cup butter

1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup Stevia powder (be sure it’s the natural version that substitutes measure for measure like sugar)

1 egg

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup almond meal/flour

1 teaspoon vanilla

Optional:  1/2 cup chopped walnuts, confectioner’s sugar for dusting

  • Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.  Butter an 8-inch square pan (you can use a round cake pan).  Line the bottom of the pan with wax/parchment paper, then butter the paper and dust it with almond flour.
  • In a saucepan over low heat, combine cocoa powder, coconut oil, and butter, stirring it to blend as it melts and smooths out.
  • Remove saucepan from heat and stir in the dry ingredients (and nuts if using), egg, and vanilla until the mixture is smooth again.  It will become quite thick and will look a little grainy (this is the case even if you use wheat-based flour).
  • Spread into prepared pan and use a spatula to gently pat it around so that it evenly covers the bottom of the pan.  Bake for about 30 minutes.
  • Cool in the pan on a rack for about 5 minutes, then gently turn out onto rack.  The brownies will break apart if you are not careful, so I like to lay the rack upside down on top of the pan, and then flip them over together.  Peel away the wax paper.
  • After they cool, using the same method as described above, flip the brownies onto a platter.  If you used a square pan, cut the brownies into squares; if you used a round pan, slice them into wedges for a nice presentation.  Dust with confectioner’s sugar if desired.

Fresh raspberries make a pleasing garnish as well.


Life is what you make it.  Don’t overthink it, just live it.

Cheers!