Autumn 2016 Teas I’ve Been Loving

Good morning. As my blog name implies, I am an avowed tea-drinker. And I haven’t done a tea review in a while now. Lately, as the weather cools down, I find myself reaching for more rich black teas, sometimes with milk and a touch of sugar, or else a more-oxidized oolong tea. So I thought I’d share a few of the things I’ve been drinking that I rather enjoy in the chilly weather.

Beautiful Taiwan Tea Company Asian Beauty Oolong: This was my autumn transition tea. It is a large-leafed, moderately-oxidized oolong that gives a robust, amber-colored cup of tea. It does tend towards bitterness if brewed too hot or for too long, and I find this is one of the few oolongs I actually prefer brewed Western-style than in a gaiwan. And, of course, given my love of Asian beauty products, I couldn’t resist the name.

Harney and Sons Black Tea Sampler: As I’ve mentioned before, when the weather gets cold, I turn to rich black teas. The thing is, I tend to drink a lot of breakfast tea with milk and occasionally sugar, and then a lot of Earl Grey. Not a lot of variety. So I decided to get myself a four-tin sampler set of black teas from H&S this autumn. It includes teas from China, India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya, which is a nice assortment and goes beyond the standard Assam and Darjeeling teas I know and love. I believe my favorite is the Kenilworth Sri Lankan tea, but all of them are distinctive and have their appeal. If you’re looking to expand your black tea horizons, these samples are varied and generous for the price.

Harney and Sons Earl Grey: Of course, I couldn’t go all autumn and winter without a nice Earl Grey. So I bought a four-ounce tin of H&S Earl Grey. It’s a rather large amount of tea, which is perfect for everyday tea drinking. If I’m not in the mood for something specific, I generally turn to the Earl. This is a nice blend, not too bergamot-y, and not too bitter. It handles oversteeping when I occasionally forget about my tea on a busy morning. And it doesn’t send me bouncing off the walls with caffeine, but it’s a proper morning pick-me-up. A solid Earl Grey offering.

Disclaimer: I purchased all products described and was provided no incentive for review. I have not used any affiliate links.

Autumnal Frolicking: Apple Picking and Apple Baking

This past weekend, a few of my coworkers and I decided to drive out to a farm a little ways out of town for an autumnal treat: apple picking. Sadly, it’s the very end of the season, so pickings were slim (or rather, split and attacked by birds), but it was still a lovely outing. We were treated to stunning views of the countryside in an area where the mountains start to roll a bit and the weather was sunny and yet crisp.

We arrived at the farm in the late morning to a bustling scene of fall fun. A few children and a few more dogs joined in as we gathered our peck bags and headed up the hill. The best apples were at the very top of the hill, so we were able to kill two birds with one stone and take in the views as well. After a little time scouring the trees for apples that were ripe but not overripe, we adjourned to the bins of harvested apples at the ends of the rows of trees to fill out our bags. As I knew most of my apples would be used for baking, I erred on the side of taking a few of the greener apples from the trees. And Fiancé had joined us as well, making it easier to get some of the higher-up apples.

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In addition to gathering apples, we also bonded socially, which is something I’ve lacked with my new coworkers, even after being almost a year into my new job. We carried our apples back down the hill and paid for them, along with some cider. After that, we took ourselves to a nearby town for a sandwich lunch and dessert at an adorable bakery. And then home again to consider our spoils.

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Back home, I found myself tired and busy, so I had limited time to bake this weekend. But I found myself awake on Sunday morning with a desire for something baked and no desire to go out. So I had Fiancé grate some apples and set to work baking a batch of Apple Pecan Muffins.

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Now, I always grate the apples in my apple muffins because I don’t like biting into big chunks of cooked apple and I find it gives them a nice apple flavor and a moist texture. You can feel free to dice them if you like, though you may need to add a bit more liquid to make up for the juices that won’t release.

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I added pecans to my muffins, as well as more spices than just cinnamon. I have a love-hate relationship with cinnamon. Fiancé likes to quote The Hangover and call me a tiger whenever the subject of cinnamon comes up, which is cute, sort of. But I find that the oft-neglected other fall spices add an almost savory-spice to the mixture. It’s a rather old-fashioned flavor and brings to mind spiced mixtures from the Middle Ages, at least to me.

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Finally, if you can find the If You Care muffin liners, try them. They are the only muffin liners I’ve found that the muffins truly release from, no spraying needed. They’re probably easier to find at a hippie natural foods store, which happens to be where I do most of my shopping, but they’re so worth it if you hate having a quarter of your muffin stick to the paper.

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Apple Pecan Muffins
(makes 12 muffins)

Ingredients:

The Dry:

2 cups white whole wheat flour
1/2 cup quick-cooking steel-cut oats
1/2 cup or so of pecans, chopped
1/3 cup of dark brown sugar
1 Tbsp. of baking powder
2 tsp. of ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. of ground ginger
1/2 tsp. of ground allspice
A pinch of salt

The Wet:

1/2 stick of salted butter, melted
2 eggs
1 cup of fresh sweet apple cider
1-2 apples, grated (I used one large and one small)

The Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C) and line a 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners. Spray the liners if you are not confident they will not stick. Or use my favorite liners.
  2. Whisk together the dry ingredients, making sure to break up any clumps of brown sugar.
  3. In a large measuring cup or a small bowl, whisk together the melted butter, 1/2 a cup of the cider, and the eggs. Really whisk it together to form an emulsion between the cider and butter.
  4. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, along with the grated apple, and mix gently. If the batter is a little dry, add the rest of the cider until it’s a good consistency. Make sure you moisten all the little pockets of flour.
  5. Spoon into the muffin papers. Your cups will be rather full. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until quite brown and springy. Cool as long as you can bear it in the pan and then eat, slathered in butter, preferably alongside a cup of tea or a mug of hot cider.

A Cocoon for Autumn

With the weather turning chillier and the nights getting colder, I’m finding myself gleefully returning to my beloved warm clothing, blankets, and shawls. I love being snuggled up under a blanket or shawl, or wearing a cozy sweater. In honor of the cooling weather, I thought I’d share one of my favorite ways to keep warm:

I call this my “house cocoon.” It came from Uniqlo and is ridiculously oversized, but so cozy, especially paired with fleece leggings and thick socks. When I come home on the weekend, I change into this and pretty much keep it as my uniform all weekend while I’m housebound. It’s long enough to come down to my knees, and the sleeves are a mid-length that’s perfect for lounging because I don’t have to worry about pushing them up before doing anything at the sink. I can make a snack, make some tea, or wash my hands without worrying about soggy cuffs. It’s not so heavy a material that I sweat, so I can even wear it to sleep. I may upgrade to something slightly heavier for the very depths of winter.

Of course with cool evenings come cool mornings, and my office is not the warmest space to begin with, I’m happy I was also able to find an “office cocoon:”

This sweater dress offers a nice balance of professionalism and coziness. I can wear it on my chilly autumn walks to work, and then sit in my office without resorting to wrapping up in a shawl. And with a pair of opaque tights and knee-high boots, it looks quite smart indeed. Fiance suggested wearing a belt to give more waist definition, but I like the clean minimalist line of it without the belt, and it avoids anything binding up around my waist on days when I’m feeling a little bloated. And somehow, the whole effect is stunningly simple and stylish, according to the compliments I got at the office.

So there is my homage to my favorite autumn fashion piece: the wearable cocoon. Go forth and be cozy!

On Black Tea and the Beginnings of Autumn

After quite a hot August and a September that refused to cool down for long, it seems we’ve finally seen the beginnings of autumnal weather. I was still glad for a weekend retreat to Fiancé’s parents’ house up north, but upon returning home, I found I now need a jacket in the morning and don’t arrive at home again drenched in sweat.

Keemun Mao Feng from Harney & Sons. #tea #blacktea

A post shared by Elizabeth Tweed (@tealeavesandtweed) on

Now changing seasons means changes of all kinds. People change their wardrobe, perhaps even wearing different colors. I know I find myself less inclined to wear pastels, and more inclined to wear heathered knits. Some change their skin care, adding in more moisture and removing products that helped them deal with the sliminess that summer’s heat can bring.

But perhaps my favorite seasonal change is my change of tea. You see, in cooler weather, I prefer richer teas. While I drink all teas year-round, in the summer, I find myself drawn to light, refreshing green teas and lightly-oxidized oolongs. As the weather cools, I reach more for fuller-bodied teas, like more-oxidized oolongs, as well as black teas. While I have had my share of black tea cuppas over the summer, I tend to save them for days when I’m lying about the house, not doing much of anything, and enjoying the artificial coolness of air conditioning. On days when I’m out and about in the heat? No way.

In honor of the changing seasons, I decided to treat myself to a new tea-for-one set and a new sampler of black tea leaves. So far I’ve tried two of the teas and they’re lovely. Rich and malty and just a little astringent. Warming and comforting, like a cozy blanket in tea form. Perfect for autumn.

Quiet Transitions

For those of us familiar with pagan holidays, we are nearing what is considered the pagan new year for many. Samhain (Halloween for most) is considered the end of the old year and the beginning of a new year. By an odd twist of fate, it is also when I am going to leave my current job for a new endeavor.

Transitions always come with a fair serving of self-reflection and attempts at self-improvement and perhaps re-invention for me. This time, however, I am perhaps a bit more comfortable with where I am. I don’t so much feel the need to re-invent myself, but instead to hone myself. Temper what I like with some shedding of the excess to emerge a stronger version of me.

Lately, I’ve realized I’ve amassed a lot of stuff over the last year. When I went through my divorce, I found Zen meditation and minimalism and threw myself into it. It helped that I moved around a lot and dislike moving all that stuff with me. It helped to downsize, but eventually I found myself missing certain things and realizing that I was unprepared for some of life’s events.

So I eased up, stopped policing my consumption unless it grew to obviously excessive levels. Little breaks, like my buying break earlier this year, became enough to rein me in. Or so I thought.

As I look at the boxes from the things I’ve bought recently, I’ve realized that needs to stop. I am not a minimalist, at least not in the sense of bloggers who count their possessions and live as stuff-free as possible.

But I am not happy surrounded by things.

So I’ve started to hone my wardrobe, realizing that I wear a tiny fraction of what I own on any given day. Also, I will have to rise earlier and be ready to go earlier with my new job, so I’ve started gravitating towards the idea of a personal uniform, at least for work. While I’m not quite there, I’ve put away a large portion of my wardrobe, just to see what I truly miss, and what I would only keep out of a desire to have backup clothing when I’m too lazy to do laundry.

I’ve simplified my exercise routine, as I no longer have morning daylight in which to run during the week. I still go to my aerials classes, and other than that, must satisfy my active urge with walking and whatever yoga and strength routine I can eke out of my pre-dawn self.

And fall has brought a return to simple eating. There is just not so much choice at winter markets for fresh veggies, and so I find myself gravitating towards hearty meals based around just a few ingredients.

It is a quiet way of improving myself, but I believe it may be better for me.

A Simple and Delicious Autumnal Dinner

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Fall has officially fallen and the weather is starting to reflect it. While we’ve had our fair share of beautiful sunny days this week, the mornings have a chill to them and it cools off more quickly in the evenings. So it’s time for autumn dinners to come out. I perused the bounty of winter squash at the market recently and decided to choose two variegated, acorn-shaped darlings.

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Now, acorn squash, with its deep ridges, is a right pain to peel and dice like one might a butternut squash or a pumpkin. So I don’t generally bother. When I have an acorn-shaped squash in my life, I stuff it. Some chopped aromatics, something to bulk it up, maybe a bit of green veg and some mushrooms, and then a topping of lots of cheese. It’s totally versatile, using grains or no grains, meat or no meat. The cheese on top could be substituted with any nicely-melting vegan cheeze. If you use a grain to bulk it, you can use a bit of cooked quinoa to keep it gluten-free. Or eliminate the grain altogether and add some ground meat or chopped sausage, as I did here. You don’t need much. I found a lonely Andouille sausage in the fridge that needed to be used up, so I included it in my topping instead of using oats or quinoa.

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Anyway, I hope you enjoy this recipe and consider adding it to your autumn cooking rotation!

Sausage, Kale, and Mushroom Stuffed Winter Squash

Ingredients:

1 large or two small acorn squash or acorn-shaped squash

1/2 a medium onion, diced

1 Andouille sausage (about 3 oz.) diced

8-10 crimini mushrooms, chopped

2-3 leaves of kale, chopped

salt, pepper, and garlic powder, to taste

oil, butter, or bacon grease, for cooking

about 1/2 cup of shredded cheddar or jack cheese

Directions:

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment. Prepare your squash by either chopping in half along the equator and trimming the bottom of each half to sit flat, or by chopping the top 1/2-1″ off two smaller squashes and trimming their bottoms to sit flat. Scoop out the seeds. Turn them cavity-side-down and roast for about a half an hour, or until tender when poked with a fork.

Chop the squash scraps and saute them with the onion over medium heat in a bit of oil or fat until they are tender and the onions start to go translucent. Add the diced sausage and allow to brown. Add the mushrooms and cook everything together until the mushrooms are cooked. Then, add the kale and turn off the heat, allowing the kale to wilt in the hot pan. Stir everything together.

Remove the squash from the oven and turn cavity-side-up. Fill each squash cavity with the sausage mixture, patting it into the cavity and mounding it up a bit. Top with shredded cheese. Return to the oven for 10-15 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbling and slightly browned. You can turn on the broiler for a few minutes to brown them, if you like. Makes two servings.

Weekend Crafting and Historical Exploration

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I had a lovely, relaxing weekend, this weekend. I started off on Friday evening by having some friends over to play board games and share a nice fall meal. I made my standby butternut squash pasta casserole, along with mini cheesecakes to celebrate a friend who had a birthday last week. It was simple, but delicious and certainly fortified us for an evening of fun games. It also served to soak up some of the cocktails we poured.

And then on Saturday, I went to my aerials class, and then just relaxed. I puttered around in the kitchen with some crafts. I recently ordered all the butters and oils and beeswax I need to make lip balms and lotion bars for holiday gifts, but I receive a small sample of cocoa butter in the order. I also recently bought some babassu oil for soaping, but discovered it could be a lovely balm ingredient as well. So I mixed up a couple of experimental batches. The cocoa butter was just enough to make one tube of lip balm. I mixed it with beeswax and some hazelnut oil to make a chocolate-hazelnut lip balm, although it smells only lightly of cocoa butter.

Then, I mixed up a slightly larger batch of babassu oil, mango butter, and beeswax to try out as both a lip balm and a lotion bar. I poured most out into an empty deodorant container (clean, of course) to use as a body butter, and then also was able to fill five lip balm tubes. The babassu oil melts at just below body temperature so it rolls on smoothly, but soaks in rapidly, so the skin is not left feeling greasy. I used some of it after shaving last evening, and found it left my skin feeling velvety, not oily. Boyfriend especially appreciated it, as when I use a soft balm in a jar, I tend to apply too much and my lovely smooth legs get a little greasy.

From there, I decided to make another batch of soap. This one used tallow, coconut oil, and olive oil to make a lovely, simple bar. I increased my super fat just a tad, as I’ve found my recently-tested first batch to be a touch drying. And I added oatmeal and calendula to the soap batter for an extra skin-soothing touch. They rested in my craft room for a couple days and I unmolded them this morning. My crafting room shelves are certainly filling up with soaps and balms!

I also used Saturday to just rest and relax and make a big batch of butternut squash and sweet potato soup for my lunches this week. The soup comes together quickly, simmers for a while, and blitzes up in the blender with very little effort. And soup and a cheese sandwich will be a nice early-fall lunch.

After such a relaxing Saturday, I went out on Sunday. I went downtown and spent the day at the National Museum of American History, where I browsed their new Innovation wing. There, I learned about all the inventions we take for granted that really changed the world. I was fascinated that they chose to include things like alarm clocks and deodorant along side exhibits about televisions and computers. And they had an entire exhibit about how ready-to-wear clothing changed the way people dressed and how the poor could move upwards in society. A truly neat look at how the early 20th century changed our social structure.

But the day spent on my feet meant I was particularly glad to come home to Boyfriend’s vegetarian chili and a nice hot bath for my Sunday evening beauty ritual!

And On Into Fall

Yesterday was the first day of autumn. It passed without much note for me. I got up, went to work, and went to my aerials class, the same as any Wednesday. I think we shall celebrate in earnest tomorrow with friends and games and a nice autumnal dinner. This morning, I’ve brought out my plaid flannel shirt for a slightly chilly morning, and had an autumnal breakfast of porridge with dried fruit.

I am happiest when it is chilly in the mornings. Even if it’s going to be a hot day eventually, a cool, maybe even slightly grey morning feels right to me. I’ve noticed that the sun stays down longer and I often spend the first hour of wakefulness in twilight illumination. I’ve been rising early to make a pot of herbal infusion and let it steep under a tea cozy while I shower and dress. Then, I can curl up with a shawl or blanket and enjoy the stillness of a cool morning before beginning my day.

It just so happens that this week is the final week of the four-week cure I’ve given my first batch of soap, so I tested a homemade soap bar this morning in my shower. It bubbled up beautifully and had no lard smell to it. It was fun to use something that was made by me, though I wonder if it might be a bit drying to my skin. It’s no mind, though, because it just means that I’ll have to play around with more recipes.

I actually finished off my first pound of lye this weekend when I made a batch of sheep’s tallow soap. So I ordered a new jar of it, along with some fun goodies. Because I love the smell of roses, I’ve decided to try a fragrance oil called “Fresh Cut Roses” and some pink clay to color the bar a light rose color. I’ve started getting fancy, and may even try some soaps with goat’s milk or oatmeal for more skin-softening loveliness.

The best part of autumn is that it now feels like crochet weather. Through the winter and early spring, I worked on my merino wool shawl using Smooshy sock yarn in a colorway called “Cloud Jungle,” which is a complex blend of greys and neutrals that looks like the clouds over a forest in early winter. I’ve half-finished the main body of the shawl, and then I plan to edge it with a green tweedy yarn and make an earth-toned shawl for sitting with a cup of tea in the afternoons in winter. With the weather cooling down, perhaps my work on that will pick up!

A Whirlwind of Late Summer

As summer draws to a close, I’ve been busy. I’ve been on a lovely trip with Boyfriend and made some new soaps. I’ve discovered some wonderful new teas and enjoyed old favorites. As autumn draws near, I’ve done some closet-shifting and ordered some new pieces, vintage and otherwise.

I love autumn. While I love the quiet stillness and deep cold of winter best, the shift of summer to autumn is one of my favorite times of year. The weather gets colder. Early mornings seem more ethereal as it stays dark later. The transition seems more distinct, as you suddenly have mornings that you wake up chilly.

Transitional times leave me feeling meditative and reflective. The summer has been a time of moderate upheaval, at least by my measures. It’s neither been the most uneventful time, but nor has it brought my sharpest of life changes. The cooling and darkening of autumn always makes me feel like the world is getting quieter, less busy, and more restful.

This past week, I had a bad cold and had to take most of the week off. It was a welcome rest, though I was climbing the walls with boredom by the end. I have weekend plans that I feel well enough to enjoy, but I think next week I’ll have a bit more of a balanced restful week as autumn begins in earnest. I’ll take my time to contemplate the transitions of life and maybe look forward to digging out my sweaters and boots!