Tap into your inner Pagan on the first day of autumn.

Happy Autumn! According to the National Weather Service, this year’s autumnal equinox will occur at 4:18 PM CST.
vintage autumn leaves
Ignore the oddball Victorian Christmas wish on this lovely fall postcard!

While we tend to think of the equinox as a day-long event, it is actually a moment in time when the sun is directly over the equator (sort of), creating an equal amount of day and night (more or less). Wikipedia offers an excellent, if somewhat complex, explanation of the equinoxes. If you're into astronomy, charts, very cool celestial diagrams, and words like "equinoctial" and "heliocentric," this Wikipedia page is for you.

This equinox is “the first day of fall” for most of us -- bringing the promise of leaf peeping, football games, pumpkin pies, and Halloween. But to my pre-Christian Celtic ancestors, and to those who follow their ancient traditions by way of Paganism, Wicca and other nature-based spiritual paths, the autumnal equinox -- also known as "Mabon" and "Harvest Home" -- focuses on the second harvest (the first occurring in early August) and signals the coming of winter. It is a time to gather indoors around home and hearth, and a time to turn inward spiritually to reflect on the passing year. The equinox brings us closer to Samhaim, or Halloween, which is the traditional end of the pre-Christian seasonal cycle -- the Pagan new year!

Autumn is a natural opportunity to enjoy crisp cold air and the foods that are harvested at this time of year (in our neck of the woods, anyway):  apples, corn, and squashes -- and that means pumpkin.  I LOVE just about anything with pumpkin in it!  My best friend recently discovered the recipe site Everything Pumpkin -- all pumpkin recipes, all the time.  Dreamily autumnal, in my book. Besides cooking (which I'll be doing even more of as the weather turns chily), there are many ways to celebrate the equinox like the pagans do.
Kinnin's pumpkin pie
Pumpkin pie! My teenage son made this beauty.

Akasha Ap Emrys offers a nice description of some symbols, colors, foods and stones that embody the autumnal equinox, and suggests Mabon activities such as "Making wine, gathering dried herbs, plants, seeds and seed pods, walking in the woods, scattering offerings in harvested fields, offering libations to trees, adorning burial sites with leaves, acorns, and pine cones to honor those who have passed over" to help you celebrate this season. Earth Witchery suggests making grapevine wreaths, scented pinecones, and apple dolls to usher in fall. Even if you just light some pretty autumn colored candles, take a walk and collect some fallen dried leaves, or tie some dried harvest corn onto your door knocker, you'll help your inner pagan feel the spirit of the equinox. Or, if it's easier, rustle up a slice of apple or pumpkin pie (and maybe a scoop of ice cream to go with!).
Piper in leaves
Piper knows what to do when fall arrives.

Karen Charboneau-Harrison of Isisbooks.com reminds us that Mabon falls during the astrological sign of Libra (mine! one of many reasons I love autunn), whose emphasis on balance parallels the equinox’s “time of equilibrium, when light and dark, day and night are equal.” So step (or look, or just think about going) outside at 4:18 p.m. (or the equivalent time in your neighborhood) to enjoy this time of equal day and night, say goodbye to summer, and rejoice in the arrival of beautiful, colorful, crisp, cool, delicious autumn.

A sort of Ambrosia.

After David Lebovitz inspired me to make salted butter caramel ice cream -- which, if I say so myself, is like manna from heaven AND the nectar of the gods -- I discovered a more decadent (almost) treat on his site: Chocolate-Covered Salted Peanut Caramel Cups (as always, he includes the recipe). There was no way I wasn’t going to make these! I already had a full container of lovely fleur-de-sel, and a supply of Trader Joe's dark chocolate ... might as well put them both to good use.
peanut caramel filling
The peanut caramel comes together pretty easily, although mine didn’t set quite thick enough so I cooked it a second time for a wee bit -- that caramelized it just enough to let me make manageable blobs for plopping onto chocolate filled paper cups, which I found in the cooking aisle at Tom Thumb.

David’s method of putting melted chocolate into the cup and then “painting” it up the sides was a bit too painstaking for me. After a few attempts, I decided instead to pour a thin-ish layer of chocolate into the bottom of each cup, cool the cups for about ten minutes, put a blob of cooled peanut-caramel on top of the hardened chocolate, then pour more chocolate around the sides and enough to cover the top. This felt more efficient for this short-cut-loving girl. It’s not that I’m
entirely impatient or unwilling to put time and effort into producing good food, but when something starts to feel tedious I absolutely must figure out an alternative. This one worked beautifully.
chocolates on turquoise plate
A few sprinkles of fleur-de-sel, a chill in the fridge, and these pretty candies were ready for the real taste test (all the tasting I did during the manufacturing process didn’t really count). Oh my, they were delicious! The tang of salt combined with luscious dark chocolate and creamy peanut caramel -- it's a compelling combination! (Read: dangerously difficult to stop eating.)
peanut caramel chocolate closeup
Oh goodness yes, I will be making these again!

Falling for mushroom ragu.

Autumn is pressing itself upon us. The entire summer has been fantastically (in my humble opinion) mild, and right when school has started starting (schools have been starting around here just about every week for the past month) suddenly it feels downright chilly outside! A few trees have dropped dry golden leaves for several weeks now, and just this morning we saw a scattering of gorgeous red maple leaves on the sidewalk. My favorite season is arriving!
fall leaves medium
The temperature has to drop but a mere sprinkling of degrees and I’m ready to pull out my stew recipes and stock the pantry with cans of pumpkin. Last weekend was cool enough to warrant the first round of cold weather comfort food, and we were inspired by a Julie-and-Julia-inspired article at the
Sasquatch Books Blog which included a recipe for Mushroom Ragu. The recipe, contributed by Alice Waters, is one of 125 included in Cooking with Les Dames d'Escoffier. We can't get enough of earthy, woodsy mushrooms on pizza and in risotto, so we had to try this ragu.
mushrooms and veggies
We visited nearby
Treasure Island (lookee -- they have an endorsement from Julia herself!) for the assortment of shiitake, oyster and cremini mushrooms we used in our ragu, as well as a half pound of silky soft, deep plum-colored fresh figs -- which we sliced and paired with sliced fresh mozzarella to snack on while we chopped and sauteed. The earthy (and very sensual) figs were a fitting prelude to those earthy mushrooms.
fresh figs and fresh mozzarella
Naturally, we took at least one shortcut (I am
almost notorious for taking liberties with recipes). Most notably, we did not sautee the three types of mushrooms individually (Alice, forgive us! we were eager to get on to the eating part), and we used a small amount of dried italian herbs instead of fresh thyme -- we rarely use fresh herbs quickly enough so usually they end up a swampy little mess in a corner of the vegetable drawer, or hopelessly moldy. We also had prepared chicken broth for the recipe, but ended up using the heavenly broth brought forth while the mushrooms cooked. Oh, the appetizing aromas in our kitchen that evening ... and there wasn’t even any garlic on the menu!
homely delicious ragu
After you get past all the chopping of onions, carrots, celery and mushrooms, there’s just some sauteeing and about 15 minutes of gentle simmering (in
real cream) before you can ladle this scrumptious and homely mixure onto a bowl of hot noodles (we used Mrs. Grass egg noodles -- this is a dish for noodles not hoity pasta). Yes, homely -- as absolutely delicious as the ragu is, it’s not the prettiest, nor is it very photogenic. I Googled images of “mushroom ragu” and it seems no one can take a really appetizing photo of it. But don’t let that stop you -- chop, sautee, simmer and enjoy this comforting food as these final days of summer change to russet and gold.

Oh, and dessert? Homemade nectarine sorbet from David Lebovitz's
Perfect Scoop: Ice Creams, Sorbets, Granitas, and Sweet Accompaniments. Nectarines are my favorite summer fruit, and this sorbet is a delicious and easy way to make that taste of summer last. Yum!
nectarine sorbet