A fig. A failure. A long wait.


Fig season is officially over in my corner of California which is why, at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday, I bought the very last box of tender, tiny-seeded Black Mission jewels from my favorite farmer.

It was now, or wait until next year, to create the perfect loaf of fresh Fig Sourdough.

A few weeks back I’d seen an entirely new type of fig bread at a Parisian bakery. It sat on a pedestal, just out of reach, behind the front counter glass scrawled with purple marker: Fig Sourdough. The loaf, sliced open, was the mesmerizing deep brownish-purple of sweet fig jam. I’ve eaten fig bread many times, but it’s always been a golden-brown loaf, flecked with bits of dried fruit and usually walnuts. I didn’t buy the bakery loaf.  I’m a baker and wanted the challenge of creating this new, beautifully colored bread on my own.

Undaunted by the lack of recipes for such a thing – every single baking website recipe calls for dried figs, and every photo looks like the fig-flecked golden-brown loaf I knew so well – I plunged into invention mode.

I added half a jar of fig jam to the initial flour, starter, and water mixture, assuming this would create my desired deep purple hue. It didn’t. I added the rest of the jam jar and waited for yeasty bubbles to rise, signaling the dough was healthy despite this new ingredient. Bread baking is an art, yes, but more than other types of baking, it’s a science. I tempted flour, yeast and water chemistry by interrupting it with jam.

The starter mix rose, although it didn’t develop the color I was hoping for.


I chopped Farmer Sean’s last box of figs and added these to the fully floured dough and proceeded to knead. This too did nothing to imbue the loaf with rich purple. I convinced myself that some sort of kitchen alchemy would happen during the rising process.

Something did indeed happen eight hours later when I tried to transfer the dough from its rising bowl to the baking stone.

Bad dough

The rise and fall of my dream was so complete I couldn’t help but laugh and send photos to the bakers in my bread circle, the same ones I’d casually texted that morning about creating a recipe for a new kind of bread, the friends who were all awaiting my baking secrets. What happened? Oh no! Should you add more yeast? More flour? What went wrong?

Sometimes I confuse bread making with trying to leaven world peace through community, or metaphor. I had already set out plates on my table, one for each of my walking distance neighbors who I planned to surprise with hot, fresh slices of this new kind of bread that I’d invented after imagining such a loaf might exist. The butter would be pooled to perfection in the time it would take to step from my house to theirs with this triumph.

You can’t always trust the old recipes, I’d say. You have to be willing to make mistakes, I’d laugh. You have to go out into the world to see and try new things.

Perhaps it was those three empty plates on the table, or my dogged belief that I could still make something resembling the bread I’d seen, or maybe I just wanted to keep #procrastibaking rather than write, but I was undaunted by the sticky flatness before me. Buoyed by the purple beginning to tinge the dough, I convinced myself I was a thirty-minute, 450-degree bake away from a Fig Sourdough that actually bore the color of its namesake.

I kneaded in another cup of flour and slid the dough into a flat dish with sides. For good measure I smeared more fig jam on top, sprinkled it with grated parmesan cheese, added chopped walnuts and drizzled it all with a blend of ground fresh chili paste and honey. What my loaf lacked in height and typical bread perfection, and it would make up for in flavor and creativity.

While waiting, I revisited the photo of my bread inspiration.

Fig Sourdough

Surely, you immediately see what I did not. Yes, I guess there is also such a thing as Chocolate Sourdough. I’m guessing it’s a deep rich color. And that golden brown loaf on the right? Mmmm, you tell me.

I think it’s a fantasy Fig Sourdough I’m after when I write. This unicorn of breads beckons in the form of books I admire and the possibility that the writers I surround myself with will help unlock its recipe. I imagine a world where we all share bread and ideas respectfully with one another, and I write this world into existence. If I imagine it, others can too.

I’m writing these next eight weeks with a small group of students and I’ll confess we might all be trying to create fantasy bread. We want to make something amazing that we’ve always dreamed existed, maybe even thought we once saw or read, but it feels just out of reach at the moment.

We’re persisting. We’re failing. We’re succeeding, kneading, needing to keep on. I have every faith that fig season will return with us still here, awaiting new fruit with open palms, and older, wiser eyes.

With floured palms,

I’ll be sharing some of my favorite bread makers over on my new website, CatherineKeefe.com Come for a visit. Stay for the crumbs.

Citrus and Sizzle

Today’s August Break 2015 prompt is “citrus” and the photo comes courtesy of Susan Greene, the other original Backyard Sisters. _MG_0380One stifling afternoon, Susan’s daughter wondered what would happen if you added jalapeño to lemonade. Her kitchen curiousity inspired this refreshing and slightly spicy, hot yet cold, beverage. It’s a wonderful anomaly, so delicious it earned a spot in the Backyard Sisters family cookbook. 

For the complete recipe, check out Susan’s post: The Weekend Dish, Jalapeño Lemonade.  For more “citrus” images from The August Break project, search #augustbreak2015 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.


The Weekend Dish – Basil Tomatoes

_MG_9857 basil tomatoesHere we are in the midst of tomato season and perhaps, if you’re lucky, your counter has been overrun with a red sea of tomatoes inviting all sorts of possibilities. This Basil Tomatoes recipe enhances the tomato’s natural flavor with basil, garlic and roasting. The result is an elegant tomato which can be served along with bread or added to pasta or as an accompaniment to fish or meat however you choose you can’t go wrong.

_MG_9866 basil tomatoesThe tomatoes are peeled and cored and placed whole on a bed of basil leaves then garlic and olive oil are added. It’s that simple.

_MG_9868 basil tomoatoesPlace the dish in the oven and bake for an hour to an hour and a half. Your home will be filled with the most comforting and inviting aroma as an extra bonus. This recipe came to my attention via the rave reviews of a backyard son after having enjoyed it with Nana and Granddad one late summer night many years ago, and it has been a hit in this backyard house ever since.

_MG_9873 basil tomatoes

Buon Appetito!

~ Susan

 Basil Tomatoes

  • 8 tomatoes, peeled and cored. To peel the tomatoes, add to boiling water for 2 minutes and remove with a slotted spoon then plunge into ice water for a minute or so and the skin will slide off easily.
  • 1-2 bunches of basil leaves
  • olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic

Place the basil leaves in a bed at the bottom of a pan big enough to hold the 8 tomatoes. Place the tomatoes, core side down, on top of the basil. Add olive oil to come half way up the sides of the tomatoes. Add the garlic to the pan, you can chop it or add more and leave the cloves whole. Bake at 350° for 1 – 1 1/2 hours until the tomatoes caramelize and become infused with the basil perfumed olive oil.Serve with bread, pasta or with fish or meat.

The Weekend Dish-Irish Soda Bread

The song begins the moment first guests arrive, a ditty all four Keefes learned by heart one summer when an Irish singalong CD was our soundtrack while driving backroads from Dublin to Shannon.
(Go ahead, click play and listen while you read.)

At our house on March 17, “there’s a welcome there for you” regardless of where you hail from. We invite the intrepid and seasoned St. Patrick Day’s revelers in for a taste of tradition dating beyond our family trip to the homeland, beyond the Backyard Sisters’ mom making corned beef, back, back to the maternal and paternal grandmothers who couldn’t let a March 17 pass without corned beef and a haunting round of “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That’s an Irish Lullaby) sung a capella in the kitchen.

At the O’Keefe’s Hooley on St. Patrick’s Day, “whoever you are you’re one us,” ’tis true. But there are three hard and fast rules for being a good guest.

Sing along.
Wear green.

St Pattys Day Maizie Maizie the Wonderlab.  Photo Credit: James Keefe

And kick off your shoes to kitchen jig.

kitchen danceWe take care of the rest by creating a feast based on updated versions of the Irish classics of corned beef, cabbage, potatoes; some sort of green vegetable, an ancient green jello salad recipe, and Irish soda bread.

Table Setting

The corned beef is boiled in the conventional manner, then treated with a catsup, horseradish, mustard, brown sugar, and melted butter glaze which is brushed over the beef, then oven roasted for 30 minutes at 350 to create a savory, almost caramelized coating. Cabbage is oven roasted in olive oil so it browns and remains more crisp than its boiled cousin. Potatoes are mashed, country style with roasted garlic and laced with parsley. Usually by the time I’m finished making all of this, enthusiasm and time left to make soda bread have waned.

And honestly, up until last year, for me Irish Soda Bread wasn’t anything worth troubling over. Some years I whipped up Bisquick biscuits; other times I called Pop ‘N Fresh biscuits Irish, or better yet, I passed out bread duty to guests. As the luck of the Irish would have it, last year my friend Maureen brought the bread that changed my mind about it being a second class citizen at the feast. And wouldn’t you know, this recipe is straight from Ireland by way of her mother.

Soda Bread

Eileen Shea’s Irish Soda Bread. Photo Credit: James Keefe

Here’s the story behind the bread, in Maureen’s words.

The Irish soda bread is a very fond memory from my mom, Eileen Shea. Her parents came over from Ireland and met in buffalo NY , settled in an Irish neighborhood there. My mom had been making the bread for many years, always on St. Paddy’s day, along with corned beef and cabbage if course!  I began making the bread when I had our daughters and wanted to keep the Irish tradition alive for them…. I make it every St. Paddy’s…I hope the girls will carry on the recipe when they have their own families….

It’s funny because I am out here in the desert with my Buffalo cousins , who have kept up the same tradition and actually brought us a wonderful loaf of soda bread on the plane …we have been eating it as we speak, the same recipe that our moms have shared ….

So cheers to you and cheers to Eileen and Maureen and the Buffalo cousins.  “Whoever you are, you’re one of us.”
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
~ Catherine

Eileen Shea’s Irish Soda Bread
Preheat oven to 350

  • 4 Cups flour (scant)
  • 1 T baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2/3 Cup sugar
  • 3/4 Cup butter (chilled)
  • 1 Cup raisins
  • 2 tsp. caraway seeds
  • 1 1/3 Cups buttermilk

Mix dry ingredients in large bowl. Cut in butter. Add raisins, caraway seeds, and milk. Turn out on a floured board. Knead about one minute. (Maureen divides dough in half and makes two small round loaves.)

Bake on cookie sheet for 50-60 minutes until brown and crackled.

bread blessing

The Weekend Dish-Herb Vinegar

Writers and cooks know one true thing and that is, as Stanley Kunitz said,

Just as a tapestry cannot be woven out of a single set of threads…you need another set of threads as counterweave…

So go ahead and make your Christmas cookies and fudges, cakes, pies and candies. But when you need something to cut the sweet, consider creating a batch of herb-infused vinegars.


There are endless possible combinations, but I created this one to put forth a ruby jewel color and to make use of the bounty of my herb garden. You can buy clear bottles, or put the empty Pinot Grigio bottles out of their recycle bin misery and let them be the life of the party again.

For PDF labels, complete with poetry quotes courtesy of the Academy of American Poets, click here.

    Backyard Sisters Herb Vinegar
– 1 sprig rosemary
– Several twigs of thyme
Wash herbs and air dry. Slip them carefully into the bottle.

In a separate container, preferably several large pitchers or bowls, mix equal parts:
– Apple Juice
– Apple Cider Vinegar
– Red Wine Vinegar
– White Vinegar
– Rice Vinegar
– Cooking Sherry
Stir. Fill bottles.  Using a funnel helps immensely, but I’m pretty sure you already know that.

It’s so easy to make, even a writer can do it.

~ Catherine

The Great December Cookie Bake

Come December, the Backyard Sisters take to the kitchen. We buy pounds of flour, sugar and butter and rummage through the pantry for chocolate chips, food coloring, sprinkles and other various ingredients. The main objective – cookies, and lots of them. There’s nothing like the sweet buttery scent of sugar cookies in the oven to put one in the mood for elfish activities. This month, we are sharing some of our favorite cookie recipes, photos and stories from our great cookie bakes. Closer to Christmas, all the sisters and cousins who are in town get together for the annual great Christmas cookie bake. Energized by  Christmas carols and each others’ company, we sift, mix, dance, roll out dough, laugh and decorate the day away. Just about every year there is one batch that doesn’t come out as planned – like the year the snowball cookies came out resembling hockey pucks more than snow balls. . .

cookie problems

still not sure what happened there. Or, the time the fudge turned out powdery; prompting careful monitoring of the second attempt.

making fudge Usually, though, things go smoothly.

making fudgeAnd after a day filled with rotating cookies sheets in and out of the oven and ending with a delicious artistic expression. . .

sugar cookieswe produce a platter over-flowing with the sweet, crispy, tasty, fruits of our labors. ( Note the usual snowball cookies front left.)

holiday cookie platterAt this backyard sister’s house, the first batch to kick off the season is sugar cookies.

Holiday Sugar CookiesThese are crisp and delicate with a hint of vanilla.
Holiday Sugar Cookies
For many years, the youngest backyard daughter and her friend have made a batch to sell in front of the house, along with cocoa, to the many people streaming through our neighborhood to enjoy the light displays, but, most importantly, the “Big Guy” likes them too.
Cookies for SantaFrom our house to yours:

Extraordinary Sugar Cookies

1 cup butter                                          4 1/2 cups flour
1 cup granulated sugar                         1 tsp cream of tartar
1 cup powdered sugar                          1 tsp baking soda
1 cup oil                                                1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs                                                  1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp almond extract (optional)

Cream the butter and sugars in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in oil and eggs. Beat well. Add flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, salt and extracts. Mix until well blended. Chill the dough. Roll about heaping teaspoon size amount of dough into a ball and roll in sugar (can mix colored sugar in with granulated sugar) then flatten with bottom of glass dipped in granulated sugar. Bake at 350° for 12 minutes or until lightly browned. Makes about 6 dozen cookies.


~ Sue