From Extra to Extraordinary

What always seems to happen at this time of year is a mad race from garden to kitchen to jar. Nothing ever slowly or gradually ripens and awaits harvest. Instead, we go from eager anticipation to complete overload in what feels like a few short weeks, and end up with a long counter full of bowls and baskets and crates heaped. They cry out to not be wasted, to not let the toil of seed to start to fruit be for naught. And so, needless to say, it’s canning, jamming, drying and preserving season. I just canned some pears out of this necessity. Our tree dropped all the fruit at once, and we scrambled to get them all off the ground before the animals grabbed them up. They ripen off the tree, so over the course of a few days, despite our best efforts to consume them rapidly, the big bowl of pears were yellowing and softening way too fast. So now that bowl is condensed into two quarts of halved fruit in light syrup. A delicious winter night’s treat to come.

However, I ended up with excess syrup. The ratio was only 1:8, using a half cup of sugar to four cups of water, since the pears were so sweet on their own. I also ended up with one lonely half pear, too big to force into the packed jars. I hate to waste anything (my philosophy at large is to repurpose over throwing out in most situations), so I put the leftover syrup, the half pear and a small stick of cinnamon into a jar and stuck it in the fridge to deal with later.

Later is now! I tried a bit of my elixir today in some sparkling water and it is amazing. I immediately procured some Bourbon to whip up the following cocktail…because it’s a saturday and the baby is asleep! Cheers to leftover projects…

photo

Spiced Bartlett Bourbon Bomb

2 oz. Bourbon (I used Bulleit)

1 oz. Pear Syrup (see description above)

Dash Angostura Bitters

Ice

Put lots of ice into a cocktail shaker. Add Bourbon and pear syrup and shake vigorously. Add ice to a glass, preferably pre-chilled, and pour Bourbon mix into it. Drip a few drops of bitters on top. Garnish with a dried pear slice if available. Enjoy!

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Two Cakes for Any Season

We go to a lot of potlucks. And lucky for us, most of the time there is a pretty diverse selection of food that arrives in the arms of our cohorts, friends, neighbors and the like. Of course there is the occasional dinner of tortilla chips, salsa and apple pie, but no one seems to complain…I, for one, totally vote yes to apple pie for dinner anytime. And usually the next event’s bounty makes up for the imbalance. But there is certainly an art to potluck fare, and perhaps some of us just innately understand that and some don’t. Rule number one is to bring something. Rule number two is to bring something that you have made yourself that has some flavor…salt and seasoning are good things. And rule number three (there can always be more rules, but I’ll limit my potluck regulations here to three) is, in the event of a time shortage that makes it necessary for you to just pick something up at the store on your way, make it something interesting. Don’t just bring a bag of chips. Why not a good cheese that you haven’t tried before with some fancy crackers or seasonal fruit? Or if the drive from the store isn’t too far, what about bringing some ice cream and a package of cones? That would probably make you the most popular person of the day.

Being a baker, my mind wanders to a dessert contribution upon accepting a potluck invitation. But I also tend to desire simplicity and ease of preparation. Most of us don’t have the time, energy or inclination to devote to making multiple stepped recipes for a potluck, and why should we? That’s the beauty of the potluck, to allow for equity of labor so that we can have fun on a random weeknight. It’s about community and sharing a meal, not slaving over something to prove your skills and make yourself stressed out. Save the gateau de crepes for a really special occasion.

I’m so happy to have found not one, but two new cake recipes in the last month that are perfect for potlucks, or really for any impromptu purpose. They both are easily adaptable to any season since they feature fruit and come together with just a few ingredients that you most likely have lying around. The first is an upside down cake, originally using ground almonds and apricots, but I’m envisioning pistachios and figs or even ground coconut and pineapple. I made it for my daughter’s first birthday using hazelnuts and figs and it was pretty great. Us grownups topped it with whiskey spiked whipped cream. The second cake, actually called a Kuchen, is an easy two-egg base that can be topped with pretty much any cut up fruit. I swayed from the original plums and subbed in pears and it was awesome. Cherries, peaches, anything would be great. And what I love best about both cakes is the room for seasonality. I look around at the heaping bowls on the counter and decide from that. “Use it up!” I say!

Upsidedown Hazelnut Fig Cake for Hazel's First Birthday!

Upside-Down Hazelnut Fig Cake for Hazel’s First Birthday!

 

Apricot Almond Upside-Down Cake

(Adapted from Sweet Times at Emandal)

1/2 cup brown sugar

8-10 fresh apricots, figs or plums, halved or quartered depending on size

2/3 cup flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup butter (1 stick), softened

2/3 cup sugar

3/4 cup nuts of your choice, finely ground

3 eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 tsp almond extract

 

Preheat oven to 325F. Grease a 9-inch cake pan. Scatter the brown sugar on the bottom of the pan, patting it into a thin, even layer. Arrange the fruit, cut side up, in concentric circles until the pan is filled.

In a bowl or mixer, cream the butter and sugar. Add the ground nuts until combined, then the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add extracts. In a small bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder and salt, then fold into the egg mixture just until blended.

Pour the batter over the fruit arranged in cake pan. Spread evenly, being careful not to disturb the placement of the fruit. Bake for 45-55 minutes or until the top is golden brown and firm to the touch, beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan. Cool 10 minutes, then invert onto a serving platter. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream if desired.

 

Hungarian Kuchen

(adapted from A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking)

CAKE

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup sugar

2 eggs

1/4 cup sour cream (or Greek yogurt)

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 tsp almond extract

11/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 tsp salt

1 tsp baking powder

 

TOPPING

6 cups pitted, thickly sliced stone fruit or pears

Juice of 1 lemon

3 Tbsp sugar

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1 Tbsp butter, in bits

 

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a 10-inch spring-form pan. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, then the sour cream or yogurt and extracts. In a small bowl, stir together the flour, salt and baking powder, then fold into the egg mixture just until combined.

Spoon the batter into the prepared cake pan. Arrange the sliced fruit in a spiral, starting in the center and moving out, to cover the surface of the cake. Drizzle the lemon juice and sugar, then dust with cinnamon and dot with the butter bits. Bake until the fruit releases its juices and the cake is browned on top, about 35 minutes. Cool well before removing from the pan. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream if desired. Serves 6-8.

 

Get Your Jam On

 

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Before Whole Foods, Martha Stewart and Anthropologie got wind of Anarchy In a Jar, Laena McCarthy’s jam, jelly and preserves company was simply a way to put her passion into practice.  She grew up watching her mom can food, and then in college, made the connection between those early impressions of DIY sustainability with a new curiosity for food politics.

A botched batch of strawberry jam eventually led to launching her own company in 2009, amidst what McCarthy describes in her new cookbook, Jam On, as “a food-production renaissance blossoming in Brooklyn.”  Perhaps it was luck, as she says, or perhaps her key to success is her innovative ingredient combinations, sourcing directly from small farms, or choosing to recreate recipes with less sugar than usual. What began as a revolutionary idea against the norm, to share with the public pure, concentrated, clean flavors, is today flourishing from coast to coast. Although somewhat ironic, from “anarchy” to popularity, the wide approval is a heartening sign that the consumer is primed for knowing more about where their food comes from. And in this case, that food happens to be quite delicious.

The book, Jam On: The Craft of Canning Fruit, is a wonderful example of organization, simplicity and consistency in terms of lay out. Each of the eight chapters (except for number one, which is “Laena’s Story”) begins with an informative introduction, explaining the recipes ahead, then lists the recipes in an index before launching into the step by step instructions for each. At the bottom of each recipe there is a “Tips” section that discusses appropriate pairings and suggestions for serving.

Along these same lines, a whole chapter at the end is dedicated to pairings, offering a variety of savory and sweet dishes to prepare that feature the book’s previous ideas. A little bit of humor and/or regionalism is mixed into many of the titles, a nice flair to accompany the unique flavor combinations, such as “Love Me in the Morning Heart Eggs with Grapefruit and Smoked Salt Marmalade and toast,” “I Eat NYC Hot Pepper Jelly,” “Thai Me Up Jam” or “Big Apple Butter”.

Most importantly, chapter three, “Get Your Jam On: The Step-By-Step Guide,” is a must read before jumping into the book regardless of your skill level or previous capacity in canning. McCarthy breaks down the steps involved into simple and easy to follow numbered sections, debunking many myths (no one ever told me that you didn’t have to use a rack at the bottom of your hot water bath or that you could stack jars on top of each other while boiling!) and offering in-depth explanations to the reasons behind some of the more mystifying elements to jam-making. Perhaps it is her formal academic background in science that lends to such clarity about pectin, sugar content, temperature and experimentation within the boundaries of safety.

That emphasis on experimentation is really what sold me on this cookbook in particular. I have a hard time following a recipe word for word, as I generally tend to cook based on what I have on hand and what inspires me at any given moment.  It seems that McCarthy works this way as well, and as a result, has included at the back of each chapter a section entitled “Make It Your Own.” Every recipe has a list of alternative additions or substitutions along with proportions to re-create one of her original recipes into something that might be more fitting to your palate or your pantry. This makes working with Jam On pretty fun, offering guidelines to ensure positive results but lots of wiggle room to play.

I chose to tackle the Meyer Lemon Marmalade because I have a tree dripping with the fruit right now. Following the lower sugar, less cooking time method that McCarthy adheres to perhaps creates a few more steps, such as boiling apples to make a “juice” (mine came out more like an apple water) and then adding some of the pulp and seeds of the juiced lemons to the cooking jam to contribute their natural pectin. I also ended up having to juice way more lemons than the recipe indicated, but that could be based on the size of mine versus hers. The addition of bay leaf and absinthe is what made this marmalade stand out, but I could have easily subbed in whiskey and cardamom, brandy and sage or sake and lemongrass per her suggestions to suit my taste…all equally as unique and impressive as a gift idea. With all of the lemon peels left over, I chose to make candied citron as a by-product. I’m somewhat surprised that McCarthy didn’t suggest this herself, as a candied citrus peel recipe is actually included in the book and would have been a fitting, practical idea to offer for this particular recipe.

I’m still having fun with Jam On and intend to refer to it throughout my holiday edible gift crafting. I’ve already procured some of my friend’s home-brew beer to use for the Spiced Beer Jelly and I’m already looking forward to making Rhubarb and Hibiscus Jam or the Tart Attack Shrub with rhubarb and lime come spring. If you have never made your own preserves before but really want to get going, this is a great book to try. But even if you feel like a pro and rarely look to guidance while putting up your bounty, this is also a great book to try. The fact that a single book can cater to that kind of range in experience while upholding a high level of innovation is truly impressive. A jar of homemade jam and a copy of Jam On might be just the ticket this holiday season.

 

This review was originally posted on Civil Eats.

Harvest Time

I just harvested a baby. Picked after 40 weeks plus five days of ripening, she weighs in at a whopping 9 pounds, 1 ounce and stretches 21.25 inches long. Her genus is Sonial Stimpson, but commonly referred to as the “Hazel” variety. There really couldn’t be a more perfect example of her species, and we are tempted everyday to just eat her up!

The special “Hazel” variety

Preserving her takes a lot of preparation and work, though. And unfortunately there isn’t really a recipe for success…mostly trial and error to get it just right. We are two weeks into the testing phase, preliminary research and development did not provide comprehensive guidance into the project and we are working overtime to say the least. Lots of sleepless nights, but all worth it. In fact, the brevity of this field note entry is a testament to our time constraints and level of activity poured into putting up Hazel. I’ve learned by now that caffeine doesn’t adequately fuel the energy needed for this type of work, and can have disastrous secondary effects on the specimen. However, highly nutritious fuel is required to keep the project moving forward. The following recipe, with room for adaptation to suit anyone’s preference, has proven to be a great start to each day.

Hazel’s Harvest Time Granola

4 cups rolled oats

2 cups unsweetened, wide flake coconut

2/3 cup chopped dried fruit (currants, apricots, cherries, etc.)

1/2 cup nuts, seeds, or combination

1/2 cup unsalted butter, oil, or combination

1/2 cup sweetener (honey, agave, etc.)

1 egg white

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp vanilla (optional)

Preheat the oven to 300F degrees. In a large bowl, combine the oats, coconut, dried fruit, nuts/seeds and salt.  In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the butter (if using). Stir in the sweetener and remove from heat. If using oil, mix in a small bowl with sweetener. Add the vanilla (if using) and pour into the dry ingredients, stirring well until everything is combined. Whisk the egg white in a small bowl and add, stirring well to coat. Divide the mixture between two rimmed baking sheets and spread into a thin layer on each.

Bake, stirring occasionally and then re-spreading evenly, for about 30-40 minutes or until deep golden brown. Rotating the pans is a good idea to ensure even baking. Remove from the oven and press down with a spatula. Let cool completely before transferring to an airtight container. Makes about 8 cups.

Tartine Bread Project

Three days later...

Getting chickens saved my starter. I know it sounds weird, but because I chose to start the starter in early spring and because our wood heated house never has a constant ambient temperature above 65-degrees unless the fire is blazing, my homemade starter was in a sate of stasis…no bubbles, no smell, no life. Then we got ten baby chicks. They lived in a large cardboard complex in our living room, and a big red heat lamp hovered above them non-stop. Just like the babies, my starter needed warmth to live. I realized that I could station the bowl of starter in close proximity to the lamp and soon started to see signs of life. The chicks and the native wild yeasts thrived together.

First step: Leaven

I received the Tartine Bread cookbook as a christmas present right after it was released. I had pined away for it and a couple of my loving co-workers had noticed. I’m not sure if I should be thanking them or cursing them, because it is not the simplest of undertakings, at least not in the beginner. By now there are hundreds of blog posts about Tartine bread, if not more. I could probably do a whole post just listing all of those posts. And now I’m one of them. Funny.

Mixing

I’m definitely not bread baking expert. What I’m writing here is about my first and only attempt at the Basic Country Loaf recipe so far. I had every intention of doing this project on a regular basis. In fact, it was one of my New Year’s resolutions. Making Tartine bread and my own yogurt regularly. I have prevailed, for the most part, on the former. But for the bread, this is it. I’m not going to get into the details much here, like hydration ratios, bench rest or turning technique. If you want the recipe, buy the book. It’s totally worth it, even if you never make any of the recipes. The photos are gorgeous and the story is inspiring.

Hot out of the oven

Despite some minor hiccups, like running out of regular white flour (instead of 10% whole wheat, mine ended up being 40%), the bread turned out amazing. I was glad that I had a three day weekend, because tracking the progress of each step took some time, patience and diligence. I’m sure as you get more familiar with the process and your own climate changes, the recipe becomes second nature. I will keep at it, but at this point I can’t really see how someone could do this on a day to day basis if they work away from home full time. Regardless, I ate bread for breakfast, lunch and dinner last weekend and loved every second of it.

Crumb

Spring Chickens

Our Cochin named "Salad"

Bellina and Fluffy were my first experience of parental responsibility. I had raised them from eggs in an incubator at school, waiting impatiently for the first cracks to appear on the shells and the little beaks to bust out. My heart was bursting as they blinked up at me for the first time, and my devotion to their safety ran deep as I transferred them home. My parents had agreed to my request for two, one more chick than most of my classmates, and I was proud to be accountable for the extra responsibility. That spring I may have been the luckiest kid on Earth, having two baby chicks and two baby kittens at the same time, hopping around in bliss on a sunny Easter sunday. That single holiday might be the sole reason I continue to like Easter (being Jewish it doesn’t really hold much significance for me besides an excuse to eat candy).

But the joy began to fade as we discovered that Fluffy was a rooster. Instead of snuggling and petting and laying eggs for the family, he tore around the yard, puffing up his wings and charging like a bull at anything that moved. My brother instilled the strategy of going out the door first, distracting Fluffy by running around and waving his arms as I darted to the car, avoiding the violent pecks and gouges that would ensue if my bare little legs were otherwise discovered. My brother’s courage still envokes in me deep gratitude for this valiant and protective daily deed.

"Red" perched for first time.

Things got even worse. Bellina, who consistently displayed a rare mix of patience, sweetness, and prolific egg laying as she grew into a plump hen, was discovered late one night by the neighbor’s dogs. There was no saving her. I still remember a fleeting, teary glimpse of bright red blood on pure white feathers as my dad quickly removed the evidence. Fluffy on the other had, survived with might. Not only did he receive the same treatment from the pack of dogs that delivered Bellina’s demise, but he uncannily displayed little if any residual harm or torment from the literally scarring event. He went on to live an unusually long life, surviving two more attacks, one of which was a coyote bite that left him barely hanging on.

The babies getting used to their new home.

And so it is with a combination of excitement and trepidation that I enter into parenthood once again. Our ten little chicks arrived almost three weeks ago, small, fragile and chirping with need. We have since gone through the scares of pasty butt, the thrills of a first perch, and the pride of aphid eating. All ten are still holding strong, spreading out into their expanded three room cardboard suite. Our living room glows demon red day and night and our electric bill is most likely growing just as rapidly as the chicks are. A deluxe coop, crafted of scavenged wood and repurposed materials from our property, is in the works. And it will be a fortress, double dug and fenced to fend off the array of mountain preditors waiting in the wings. Soon the day will come for the babies to venture out into the wide world, and I am trying my hardest to imagine the task of letting go and accepting what fate will provide for them.

"Red" might be the next Fluffy...we are hoping she's just a really big hen.

Refrigerator Canvas

The original refrigerator that came with the house

 

This project is something I have been wanting to do for a very long time, but the list of higher priority, critical tasks of building a house took precedent over covering my ugly old refrigerator with chalkboard paint. Since we have finally arrived at a “finished enough” status – drywall, mud, paint, windows, doors, tile, floor, plumbing and electricity (the process of which will be documented in retrospect here soon) – the little aesthetic touches like designing a spice rack or hanging mugs on decorative hooks can now occupy some time. And so, on an unplanned wave of motivation, I pulled out the chalkboard paint I had purchased with great intention long ago, unwrapped a nice new paint brush, and got to work.

 

Primer coat

First coat of black chalkboard paint

 

 

I did a little bit of preliminary research, and after talking with the guy at the paint store (who was really helpful, and REALLY enthusiastic about the project), I decided to take the extra time to do a first coat of primer.  This ensures an even, longer lasting finish since the surface of the refrigerator is textured. We pulled the fridge out and maneuvered a drop cloth underneath to protect our tile floor, this probably being the hardest job of the whole day.

 

 

 

 

After the primer dried completely, which didn’t take long at all, I applied the first coat of black chalkboard paint.  You can get a variety of colors, but I was going for classic and a hue that matched some of the details in our kitchen. The paint is pretty liquid-y and went on smooth and easy. I waited until the first coat was dry and decided to apply another coat to really feel good about it.

 

 

 

Painting done

 

I felt so satisfied with myself, and then realized that the work wasn’t done. According to the instructions on the back of the paint can, you must “condition” the paint with chalk before actually using it as a chalkboard.

 

Conditioning the paint with chalk

 

 

To condition the surface, you have to cover the entire surface with chalk and then erase it all.  This process leaves it really smudged and grey, but you then have to wait a few days for it to “cure” before using a damp cloth to wipe it clean. Delayed gratification, but still really worth the effort.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Done!

Vines

Roots

We just started a vineyard.  Or what might become a vineyard, a micro vineyard at best. Closer to reality is that we just dug up eleven dormant Syrah grapevines and transferred them to a small patch of our garden for the next several months, ultimately hoping their roots will develop enough to transplant into a row at the edge of our property. A mountain neighbor and fellow wannabe homesteader contacted me after reading one of my articles on Civil Eats. His garden gets too much shade and he was looking for a good home for these grapevines. Of course, we couldn’t say no to the prospect of home-crushed projects and proceeded to traipse up the road to his place.

 

Contrary to how most of these manual labor undertakings pan out, the grapes took much less time than expected to give up their hold on the earth and uproot. We rolled them up in burlap and hurried home to soak them down and snuggle them back up into soil at their new, yet temporary, plot.

Syrah

After lots of recent rain and wind, they remain perky and secure, giving me hope that one day we will harvest their bounty. Year number one may only result in juice running down our faces from fresh picked clusters…the wine might take a bit longer to deliver.