Sunday, September 30, 2012

Shelling Beans and Cabinet Work

The garden harvest continues, although the tomatoes are almost done.  This is the second of three HUGE bowls of speckled butter beans Fred's been shelling for two hours now.  He gets this job because he's good at it; I end up totally destroying the pods trying to get the beans out.  I might have to resort to kitchen shears and cutting the pods open in the future.  :)

My big task for today is to finish imprinting on the top of the kitchen cabinet.  It seems like it'd be easy, but by pressing down on a tiny stick, it's amazing how fast you lose the feeling in your fingertip.  Once that's done, I'm going to go over it again to deepen the imprints (if necessary), and then stain the imprinted text.  Once that's done, I'll be able to stain the entire piece a natural oak stain to match my friend's decor.  There's a lot of work before the whole piece can be stained, but I'm starting to think ahead at this point.  I want to have certain things "done" before I start my new contract in nine days, and this is one of them.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

When the Heavens Line Up Just Right

Once in a great while, Father God and Lord Jesus just really bless my socks off, and this was a week of such blessings!

My store items are starting to sell, which is great!  It's always humbling and satisfying when you take the time to make great jams and jellies, and someone buys them.  My Facebook page with other items Etsy won't allow (not homemade enough) got a new fan, which is good news, too!

I got a new bowl with a handle on it for my Kitchen Aid, and the description states it should not fit my particular model, but it fits as perfect as the factory bowl does.  It was also on sale at $10.00 off the normal price, so I lucked out.  It's exactly what I wanted for an early Christmas present!  Now when I start kneading bread in the bowl, I can actually get the bowl off the stand without having to call for Fred to help me remove it.  LOL...

The downside was that someone bought the bowl, replaced it with their non-handled bowl, and obviously returned it to the store.  When I say "obvious", I mean the used bowl had scratches and was dirty!  So someone ripped the store off by returning their old bowl and kept the new bowl.  That's just wrong on so many levels, but I'll leave it for you to ponder.

I landed the contract job I'd been praying for, and it's doing exactly what I love and what I'm best at inside the insurance field.  I can't tell you just how happy I am to be working again after having been off 8 full months.  Granted, it seems when I'm "unemployed", I'm working my hardest!

This year from March through July, I helped my friend:
  1. redo his backyard deck (added a few feet to it), tore out the old plastic lattice around the base and installed nice pressure treated wood lattice that's been stained and weather protected a second time with Australian timber oil, set up a new canopy system that covers the entire deck, and bought him a double barbeque (one side's gas, the other's charcoal).  
  2. We also reclaimed a furnace room and built him a tool room with a workbench and pegboard for his tools.  
  3. Then we build a huge bookcase that acts as a divider and storage (around a metal support pipe) and created a workspace and office for me.  It has a handmade built in desk with two support cubicles, and tons of space behind it on the floor to store stuff rarely used.  In the future, there will be ceramic tile put down.  The same tile that stars in the main office/lab will go throughout the basement (except for the workbench area), and has already been purchased along with tons of mortar and grout. 
  4. We've laid down ceramic tile in what's going to be his office, and we framed over concrete block walls and hung sheetrock on it to create a space where he can now hang shelves on the walls.  
  5. We stripped the staircase down of its old sheetrock and hung a fresh ceiling and new wall, installed new mini spotlight cans so the stairs are well lit, ripped off the old nasty carpeting and stripped the stairs down to bare wood, stained the stairs, and installed really great 1"X1" mixed colored "bling" tiles on the vertical surfaces of the staircase.  
After all this work, we decided to take a break, and only recently have I been doing some finishing work again on the sheet rock.  If all that wasn't enough, Fred and I have been refinishing and redesigning the kitchen cabinet that was given to us, and I KNOW it's going to look phenomenal when it's complete.  We also have a huge walk in pantry (9'x18') that's going to be incredible!  There's going to be a huge food dehydrator and a wine rack (maybe a climate controlled wine cooler), lots of shelves and great food storage in baskets, bins, and under the staircase will also be reclaimed space.  The floor will also have ceramic tile.

God also gave me some great ideas to dress up and finish the kitchen cabinet restore.  He also showed me how to deconstruct it so I could build another for myself, or maybe sell a few.  It's really satisfying when you can see how something's put together and understand enough how to build it from scratch.  When that's completed, it's going back to my friend for her Christmas present, and I'm sure she'll be shocked.  "IS THAT THE CABINET I WAS GOING TO TOSS IN THE TRASH IF YOU DIDN'T WANT IT!?!?"  Yup.  :)   She's going to LOVE the cabinet with its new modifications.

And if all my good fortune wasn't enough....I got a brand new creme brulee kit at a yard sale today.  It was listed at $29.95 on the box, marked down to $10.00, and the woman sold it to me for $3.00!!  Now that's a STEAL of a deal!  I still had one more bonus coming my way, though.  My friend gave me a bunch of stuff when she moved, and just two days ago I was going through a box when I saw a can of butane.  I had NO IDEA what on earth I was going to do with a full can of butane as I had no devices that took it.  Well, now I do!  So for $3.00 I got the torch, a cookbook, a 8"x8"x2" pan, 4 ramekins, and a rack - everything brand new!

God has been VERY GOOD to me this week!

I guess maybe the meringue cookies won't be on the list "to cook" next after all...the possibilities with this torch are almost endless! 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Farm Humor and Thoughts

As time goes by, and since I'm about to go back to work, I'm thinking more about setting up separate bank accounts so I can save for specific things.  Someday I want the farm, the animals, and the "off the grid" utilities...but I want to pay cash so I won't be in debt.  The best way to do that is to start listing what my wants and needs will be.  I'm a bad saver (not a wild spender), so I'd want to set the percentages ahead of time so they're automatically deposited into accounts without me having to think about it. 
Tithe - 10% (never forget to bless God with a portion of what He's blessed you with!)
Weekly food budget - $125.00 (this is Costco spending, and we have food stores, so it could be less)
Car fund - 10% (I don't need a new car, but a dependable used one would be good)
House down payment fund - 10%  (I know, it should be 20%)
Animal purchase fund - 5%  (cows, sheep, goats, chickens, the guard dog and mousers)
Wind turbine/geothermal heating and cooling system/solar panel/well drilling fund - 10%
Emergency cash fund - 10%  (It's a good idea to have $1,000 put aside)
Emergency food & supplies fund - 5%  (prepare for storm so you're not fighting the crowds)
My business fund - 5%  (equipment, supplies, show fees)
Farm equipment - 5%  (tractor, plow, harvester, hay baler, watering system)

I may have to adjust the percentages, but I'll have a better idea once I receive my first paycheck.   Once I meet some of the goals, I'll adjust the percentages.

In the meantime, I was doing a little searching on the price of cows.  Yeah, like that's in everybody's list of "things to do today", right?  Well, I can expect with inflation to get a mediocre cow for probably around $2,000 a head.  While talking it out with Fred, this old "Far Side" cartoon came to mind, and I had to hunt it up and post it so everyone could get a great laugh!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cranberry Pomegranate Breakfast Muffins

When I pick a recipe out to cook, it's not because it's hard or that I'm necessarily intimidated to cook it.  Sometimes I see a recipe and my mouth begins to water, I save it, and then forget to ever cook it.  I was sitting around tonight and falling asleep on the couch, but at 7p to be yawning that much, if I had given in to slumber, I'd be up at 2a and tossing and turning for the rest of the night.  Instead of giving into sleep, I decided to whip up a recipe I had just spotted for cranberry struesel muffins.

I don't have any fresh cranberries around the house at the moment, but I do have several jars of cranberry and pomegranate sauce that didn't quite set up into a jelled cranberry sauce.  I didn't want to throw this batch out, so I canned it and put it on the shelf, waiting for an excuse to use it.  The jar came off the shelf and I cooked the sauce down to thicken it.

I found this recipe online and decided to use it as the base.  The batter felt a bit loose to me, however, the proof will be when it comes out of the oven.

I folded the cooked down jar into this recipe I found online.  The batter felt a bit loose to me, however, the proof will be when the muffins come out of the oven and I can taste test the results.

The cranberry pomegranate cooked down mix is folded into the batter.


The struesel mix is quick and simple to make, but my feeling is that it's a bit heavy on the butter.  I'd be tempted to cut this down to a single stick (the recipe calls for 1.25 sticks) or 3/4 of a stick.  I'd also be tempted to increase the oats to 1 cup, but this is more of an impression versus post taste test.

The mix with my 16 ounce jar of cranberries that were cooked down came out to 24 average size muffins, or probably 18 fuller cup muffins.  I went a little conservative because they're going to rise to some degree, and I didn't want the struesel to fall all over the top of the pan instead of staying on the muffin.

And here's the final product!  I handed Fred a hot one right out of the oven with a pot holder underneath so he wouldn't burn himself.  It's rather comical watching him trying to pick at something steaming hot!   :)   Fred has described my version as kind of sweet on the top, sour on the bottom, and said the cranberries were "attention getting".  Good!  That's the way a cranberry muffin should be, and considering this was a mix, it's not bad at all.  

My impression of the muffin:

  1. It needs to cook closer to the 25 minute mark.  In my case, mine were still a little too moist out of the oven.  Granted, I didn't measure the cranberry and pomegranate mixture, so I might've gone over the 2 cup mark, but I tend to think not since a pint is 16 ounces.  I could also argue that 2 cups of dry and 2 cups of wet (even though it got reduced about 50%) are measured differently.  I'm not going to split hairs on a breakfast muffin I was simply goofing around with.
  2. Assuming you can wait, they're much better when they're cooled off a bit.  My first bite, still steaming hot, was very moist, bordering on wet.  The last bite was much drier and had a better muffin consistency.  They rarely get to cool off around here as Fred often attacks the batter bowl, and I had to stop him from attacking the struesel mixture.  LOL
  3. It definitely needs more oats on top as it wasn't crunchy.  In order to get the crunch, you'd be better off with either nuts in the topping, or a straight nut only topping.
  4. I'd also use dark brown sugar for the struesel, but the recipe doesn't specify light or dark.  I used light brown sugar, and the top although tasty, just lacks depth. 
  5. I would take the struesel butter mix down to about 3/4 of the recommended amount.

The Beautiful Visitor

Right now I'm in the middle of refinishing a kitchen cabinet that was given to me by a friend.  It's 35 years old, was covered in layers of enamel paint, and had a grease stain on the inside.  It was a total and utter mess, and was living in her garage for the longest time (hence, the stain).  She moved about a month ago to another state, but before she left, she asked if I wanted this pine cabinet.  If I said no, it would've gone into the trash.  I had the funny feeling I needed to take it, but didn't know why.

I took it, not knowing exactly what I'd do with it.  First it was going to be a part of Fred's office once it got refinished, but it's not the right size, and would require a lot of modifications in order for it to work.  We both worked on stripping and sanding it down to its original naked pine life.  I did have "before" pictures on my Facebook account, but when I decided to tear it down in favor of this format, I didn't save any of those pictures.  All I have is the current view, which shows we're almost done with the sanding.  Next comes some modifications, then I can go ahead and give the piece some character and polyurethane, which I want to have done very soon so I can shut it up the garage and let the piece dry without all kinds of garbage in the finish.

As I was running a palm sander, a beautiful visitor flew over and spent the longest period of time sitting next to me.

The poor can see is left wing near the top and bottom have both seen better days.  As far as I know, he's still out there on the blanket, resting away on this beautiful fall day.  He stayed put easily 5+ minutes while I ran the sander.  I almost can't believe he wasn't scared away with the noise.

In my prayers, I've often thanked Father God and my Lord, Jesus Christ, for allowing me time on earth to witness some of His most beautiful creations, including the beauty and delicate nature of a butterfly, who scientists still continue to trap an study because a creature so small, so "simple" still manages to outsmart them on his way of life.

Just before I posted this, I looked out in the garage, and saw he was still there - 15 minutes and counting!   :)

He crawled into a pile of toxic shavings, so I fished him out.  He stayed with me over a half hour and allowed me a good photo shoot.  When I was done, I let Fred take him across the street so two small girls could fall spell to his beauty.  The girls were excited, and their mom took pictures of them with "Ralph" before they opened up the patio door and he flew away onto the fence.  

Monday, September 24, 2012

My Can Runneth Over!

This space is temporarily doing multiple duty, but when it's finished, it will become a 10'x18' dedicated walk in pantry with lots of shelf space and under the stairs storage.  I'm envisioning a floor to ceiling dehydrating cabinet and wine rack.  I have yet to see in my mind's eye the new setup for the mason jars, but it's outgrown the bountiful load of pickles, peach and apple pie fillings, peach and nectarine halves, salsas, tomato and barbeque sauces, and jams and jellies galore!

It looks like it's in total disarray, but don't be fooled.  The jars on the floor are only there while I finish taking inventory, and considering the jars are on average four deep, that's NO small task.  The floor "stash" will be properly boxed up tomorrow as that's the last of the work.

What do I do with all this food???  I sell some through my Etsy store (I pack it and Fred ships it for me when I'm away), some I give away to friends and neighbors through goodie boxes, then Fred gives some to his family, friends, and people who he deals with (doctors, hair dresser), some become Christmas presents, and we eat some.  It really feels good to know when I'm out on the road or back in TX, he can eat well from all the seasonal canning I've done at his house.

This year I've added new flavors to the jam and jelly mix, and these are some that I can think of off the the top of my head:
Peach bourbon jelly
Rose petal jam
Rose petal and white wine jelly
Apple mint jelly
Apple lavender jelly
Peach Jalapeno jam
Strawberry and white wine jelly
Peach and vanilla bean jam
Peach and vanilla bean jelly
Peach and nectarine jelly
Strawberry and balsamic vinegar jam

I think I've hung up "Big Bessie", the 21 quart canner, for the season.  There are still jam, jelly, and marmalade flavors I want to try making, but it won't happen this season.

Happy Eats!

Peter Piper Picked A Peck of Peppers and Left Me to Process and Pack Them

I've got peppers coming out of my ears this week!  There's got to be around 20 in the strainer waiting to be cut up and frozen, and I have a ton still out on the plants I want to let grow a bit more before harvesting.  These tend to go very good in my fall stews and soups, but even though there's a definite chill in the air, it's not yet time to "crock pot".  Peppers NEVER go to waste around here, and considering last year they were tiny and useless, this has been a good season. 

I just finished cutting these babies up, and they weighed out at 5 pounds.  Not a bad haul.  :)

Happy Eats!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Going Forward by Evolving Backwards

Curiosity comes from many places, many sources, and sometimes it comes out of the blue when you're staring off into the wall.  I find some of my best ideas come when I shut my mind off and just stare off into space.

I can see my dream home, which for some would be a nightmare.  I can see a couple of acres of land, a small home with a gourmet food business open to the public on the bottom floor where I could sell fresh bakery items (breads, cakes, cookies, crackers), fresh dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese, cream, eggs), fresh jams and jellies, honey, and homemade wine (with a liquor license of course - I'm not into bootlegging).

Off in the distance a little bit is the barn that houses the cow, some goats, sheep, and chickens.  Next to the barn is a good size patch of ground where I raise food that I'll can for the winter.  The abundance from the garden and livestock will find its way onto the table(s) of those in need of help.  There's a small dirt road that runs between the house and the barn - everything is to the right, and off to the left is the small vineyard where I grow grapes for my wine.  Between the barn and the windmill would be the beehives that would pollinate the garden and vineyard.  And the no-so-vast territory would be patrolled by "Cupcake", a female German shepherd, who's about as vicious as a teddy bear.  She would be kept company by "Toffee" and "Jack", a pair of world-class champion mousers.

Behind the barn is a windmill that operates for powering the pump to draw water for the house and the land.  The house and barn both have solar panels on the roof and are heated and cooled with a geothermal system.  Any extra electricity is sold back to the power company.  I call that my "internet connection fund".  They say man cannot live on bread alone...s/he must have DSL!

In the winter, I'd take the washed fleeces from the sheep that were sheared and learn how to spin wool and weave it into colorful blankets.  Maybe I'd learn to knit or crochet, and if I didn't I could still sell the fleeces.

I'd make bread, pizzas, pots of baked beans, and all manner  in a wood fired adobe oven that's safely attached to the house (I don't want to burn the place down).  When done, I'd turn on the blower to recycle the heat to help keep the house warm.

That's my idea of a little slice of heaven.  Honest work, simple living, and fresh eating.  

 I believe a person only needs so much, and the rest is showing off.  I don't begrudge anyone who has more than me or has different dreams; it takes all kinds to make the world go 'round, and it doesn't turn for me if I'm preoccupied with what others have.  It does turn when I'm planting crops, harvesting, tying up the grapevines, or milking the cow and goats.  Since I don't have any of those things, I'll make my world turn with tangible steps I can take that will help me achieve those goals.

Apple Surprise!

Whenever I pull the apples out of the oven early, they always seem to revert back to a soggy state.  Today was a pleasant exception to the rule!

I went into the other room to get the racks of apples in the early stages of drying, and to my utter shock, they had finished drying to a nice crisp.  I quickly threw everything in jars and vacuum sealed them shut so humidity wouldn't have a chance to turn them soggy.  So far this season, which just opened three weeks ago, I've put up 7 quarts of dry apples.  These make for GREAT snacks!

Time to hit the orchard for some more goodies.    :)

Happy Eats!

UPDATE:  I've found several hours in the oven (overnight is good) at 170 degrees with the door closed, then removing the racks and placing the apples in front of a small fan seems to finish off the job.  I tried it again today since it was a low humidity day, and sure as the sun shines, the apples crisped right up and became crunchy chips that snapped, not bent.  I've finished up the bushel with 9 quart jars, and that doesn't include some that were lost along the way to eating, a few that went bad, and some that were cooked.

Fred and I are still pondering the way to design a large capacity dehydrating cabinet so we can make the best of the fruit seasons when they come along.  It also would allow us to peel and slice a bushel at a time (hopefully!) which would seriously speed things up.  Right now, a bushel takes three rounds of drying in the oven, which is slow going.  I'd rather toss everything into a cabinet at once and check the cabinet in a day or two. 

Lessons in Baking Bread

I've tried for three years (usually in the fall) to bake a great loaf of bread.  This is my third "season" and as time goes by, I've learned lots of valuable lessons from countless mistakes.

First, let me give you the basic recipe that I've been following, as you'll need it to understand something I'll be writing later on:
5 cups of flour
2 Tbs. yeast
2 Tbs. honey
2 Tbs. salt
2 Tbs. olive oil
2 cups of water

The first season, I made a ton of mistakes and had bread pancakes that were as airy as bricks.
  1. I tried baking with instant yeast, which meant the gasses it produced were exhausted by the end of the first rise.  
  2. I'd never heard of a second rise.
  3. I let the bread rise too long.
  4. I was in the habit of letting the bread rise in a spot often too warm, creating a crust so it couldn't rise properly in the oven.
  5. I fell for the "no knead" lines, only later to realize kneading was an essential part of the bread process to help work the gluten strands.
  6. I often added too much flour, making the bread even tougher.
  7. I added in too many extra ingredients (sun dried tomatoes, onions, black olives) well before I'd mastered the art of rising dough.  It only served to weigh my down down.
The second season, I still made a ton of mistakes, and had some rise, but instead of admitting to them, I said I was making "flat breads" for pizza.
  1. I used the yeast that took time to proof, but I still left the dough in spots a little too warm.
  2. I let the first rise go too long, but not as long as I did in my first season.
  3. I didn't knead the bread for 10 minutes as I fell for the line, "Oh, you can knead it for as little as five".  The gluten strands didn't have time to develop like they needed to with a full 10 minute treatment.
  4. I didn't allow the second rise to go long enough, so the breads were still flat, and some had minor rise.
  5. The baking stone in the oven wasn't sufficiently heated up to radiate good heat.  I was heating it up to the bread temperature, when I should've heated the oven to 550 degrees and let the stone properly warm up.
  6. I added in less ingredients, but the weight still weighed down the dough, preventing a good rise.
This is my third season, and I've finally learned from the last two seasons that produced awful results.
My first loaf of the third season with a bit of a dense crumb.
  1. A friend turned me onto an OLD book called "Bread Book: A Baker's Almanac" by Ellen Foscue Johnson, put out by Garden Way Publishing.  The book is probably from the early 1970's, and it uses old fashioned methods.  The first loaf I turned out had risen the best to date and I was encouraged that the old methods were actually pretty dang good.  I also encourage you to investigate Breadtopia and The Fresh Loaf, both great sites with lots of advice.
  2. The first rise was simply tossed in the oven without any heat, avoiding the previous problem of crusting.
  3. I learned that in order to get better flavor and a lighter crumb, you must slow down the first rise time, which can be done by placing your bowl in the fridge as cooler environments slow down the yeast and release of gas.  This allows for better flavor development and a lighter crumb (bigger air pockets which are desirable).
  4. You can also achieve #3 by using a sourdough starter, a bigga, or a poolish.  I used to think they were all one in the same, but they're not.  Sourdough is as what it implies - it imparts a sour tanginess to the bread.  A poolish will create more of a nutty flavor in your dough.  I still need to research what kind of flavoring a bigga creates, but my quick impression is it's strictly used to make panettone bread.  Some sites say you must use the poolish within 6 hours of creating it, but I've read posts where folks have claimed that they've successfully revived jars left in the fridge for a couple of weeks by tossing in a cup of flour and leaving it out on the counter to warm up.  From what I gather, the flour becomes "food" for the yeast, and the yellowish fluid on top is "hooch", and it does contain some portion of alcohol.  I've heard "hooch" in general tastes a little like lemonade, but I think I'll pass on taste testing that!
  5. I knead my bread at least 10 minutes as I've learned my lesson!
  6. Use a digital thermometer to make sure your water is around 100 degrees; if it's too hot, it will kill the yeast, and if it's too cold, the yeast will activate, but it takes a LONG TIME!
  7. Place a pan of hot water on the bottom of your oven, and spray your dough with water to help it continue rising in the oven.  Once the bread forms a crust, it can't rise beyond that point.  
  8. You can achieve a crispy crust by pulling your bread out of the pans and simply placing it on the oven racks or on a baking stone in order to allow the heat to get at it.
  9. The deeper your score the top of the bread, the more room it has to expand.  Aim for around a 1/2" cut for maximum spread and additional rise.
  10. Don't try and use a well sharpened pairing knife to score the top of the bread as it simply doesn't work as the knife sticks to the dough.  Cave in and buy a lame (a tool that looks like a double edge razor blade on a coffee stirrer stick).  A better one can be purchased here.  I still need to determine if it's better to score in before the second rise or afterwards. 
  11. Score your dough before the second rising.  I've been scoring mine afterwards, which was deflating the loaf by as much as 20%.
  12. When you first start assembling the ingredients, let the flour sit in the bowl with water for at least 20 minutes as that helps with the gluten formation.  I start this process first before I take dry yeast and toss it in 100 degree water with honey.
  13.  Altitude and humidity DOES matter!  I'm currently at sea level, so relative humidity is higher.  This means you'll probably have to add more flour to your mix, but don't add it to the mixing bowl!  I make dough in my Kitchen Aid mixer with the dough hook attachment; you want to add just enough flour to make the dough pull away from the sides of the bowl.  When you turn it out onto your board, it's going to be sticky (depending on altitude and humidity).  While you're kneading your bread, this is where you add flour a little bit at a time.  Some recipes have very wet doughs, and you'll be instructed to "fold" the dough with one hand and assist with a bench scraper in the other.  Generally speaking, dough should be soft, give a little in your hands but also show signs of springiness (when you push the dough down, it should fill the spot back up).  It should also look a little dry (maybe that's not the best way to describe it) - almost like a matte paint finish.  
  14. Oiling the bowl you're going to toss it in is critical, and don't skip plastic wrap for the top!  I used to use a towel, and it always stuck to the towel, deflating it when I peeled it off.  The oil helps to prevent the dough from getting crusty, and if it crusts now, it won't rise properly on the second rise.
  15. The more "add-in" ingredients you add to the dough, the harder it will be to rise because of the additional weight, so I add very little.
  16. Don't be in a rush to cut into your fresh bread once it comes out of the oven.  If you do, then you're apt to get a little bit of a doughy consistency from all the trapped moisture.  Bread's at its best after it's rested and cooled down for a few hours.  I know, I have trouble getting past 45 minutes!   :)
Some folks reading this might say, "Well, duuuh!!", but until you've wrestled with countless failures, no amount of reading or youtube videos will help you make a better bread.  This is something that comes with experience and time, and as frustrating as it might seem to get bad result after bad result, don't give up!  It sounds like a cliche' when people write you'll get to "know" the feeling of dough, but it's true.   

The latest loaf of bread, which has more airy pockets and is softer.
This is today's latest batch of bread - a sweet cinnamon, raisin, walnut bread (left), and a savory garlic, cheese, and Italian spices bread (right).  The crumb is getting lighter with each batch, and the taste on this is wonderful, but not yet where I'd call it stellar.  I don't have a lame, so each score I make with a knife deflates the bread instead of helping it.  When I get back to work in a few weeks, that's on my "to buy" list.  I also suspect when you roll dough in this matter, it might not be a good idea at all to score the bread at all; I'll try that next time and post a picture of the results.

The next batch I'll make with the wild yeast, which is basically turning slowly into a sourdough as it sits and ferments to some degree in the fridge.  I haven't tried making a sourdough from commercial grade yeast yet, which is just a matter of making something close to the basic dough recipe at the beginning of the post, but not adding in a full amount of flour, and letting it sit out on the counter for a day or three.  That's on my "to bake" list as well, and 'll post pictures and reviews of those two methods so you can see the results, too.  I had a poolish made, but Fred opened the kitchen window box on a recent cold morning, and what was rising...well, went flat, so I had to toss it (second attempt) and I haven't started over yet. 

Happy Eats!

Day #2 and the Apple Rings

I know part of what keeps the apples moist - the lowest temperature in the oven is 170 degrees, and dehydrating is best done around 130-145 degrees, so it's more "cooking" than "drying" at the higher temperature, but there's nothing I can do about it in my present situation.

I did try leaving the apples out to dry after a day in the oven on a previous batch, but it didn't work worth a darn (they actually softened up because of the humidity), and I really need to get a quality dehydrator or to build a dehydrating cabinet.

I have a dehumidifier I bought to dry out the basement after Hurricane Irene which could be used to speed up the process, but you still need a safe heat source; Fred and I keep coming back to a free floating light bulb dangling from the top of the structure.  We have yet to test what the temperature might be in an enclosed space.  Then again, the dehumidifier does throw off a certain amount of heat, so that could possibly do double duty.  If that works, I could see buying a bunch of large metal cooling racks, and tacking 1"x3" strips to the sides of the cabinet to rest the racks on.  It would definitely be cheaper than a quality dehydrator and allow me to dry more food at a time. 

Another option we're starting to mull is this construction of a dehydrator cabinet, assuming we can find this kind of a heating coil, and possibly a thermostat.

So here's the apples after a full day of dehydrating in the oven.

OK, so why aren't they in the oven?  Well, Fred and I just did a quick whirlwind clean of the kitchen, and the oven is in the self cleaning mode.  I figured it made sense to do it now since it's nice out and we can open all the doors and windows in the house to avoid the stench of the high heat burning everything off.  So, I sacrificed the apple rings in favor of a clean oven. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Capturing Wild Yeast, Part 2

Yesterday I posted I was in the hunt for wild yeast, and I placed a covered bowl of water and flour outside to see if my mixture could capitalize on the theory wild yeast is everywhere.

I'm glad to say the method actually works!  Two days in nice weather outside, and I've got a wonderfully bubbly mixture.  If you treat your starter dough and feed it from time to time, it can last for years.  Yes, you saw that right - YEARS!  So my next challenge is to keep it alive, and learn how to "sweeten the pot", and from a blog I read, there are youtube videos out there that will show you how.  Here's another good source on feeding your wild yeast worth reading.

So next time someone says, "...ya just pull that out of thin air?!?"  You and give them a smirk and respond, "matter of fact....YES".

Happy Eats!  

Meringues are on hold until the apples are done

The one problem I have in the kitchen is I love to have too many things going on at once.  To some degree, I'm always looking ahead to five meals/chores into the future, while I'm still working on the previous three, so I can easily get distracted and make mistakes.  Learning to "slow down" and handle only a few things at a time would be much better for me, but it just seems like I need 30 hours in a day and four more hands to get all my ducks in a row.

I'm thinking about this email a friend send me not that long ago that is so very appropriate at this moment, and it's worth reposting for a giggle.

Age Activated Attention Deficit Disorder.
This is how it manifests:

I decide to water my garden.

As I turn on the hose in the driveway,  I look over at my car and decide it needs washing.

As I start toward the garage, I notice mail on the porch table that I brought up from the mail box earlier.

I decide to go through the mail before I wash the car.

I lay my car keys on the table,
put the junk mail in the garbage can under the table, and notice that the can is full.

So, I decide to put the bills back on the table and take out the garbage first...

But then I think, since I'm going to be near the mailbox when I take out the garbage anyway, I may as well pay the bills first. 

I take my check book off the table, and see that there is only one check left.

My extra checks are in my desk in the study, so I go inside the house to my desk where I find the can of Pepsi I'd been drinking.

I'm going to look for my checks, but first I need to push the Pepsi aside so that I don't accidentally knock it over.

The Pepsi is getting warm,
and I decide to put it in the refrigerator to keep it cold.

As I head toward the kitchen with the Pepsi,
a vase of flowers on the counter catches my eye--they need water.

I put the Pepsi on the counter and discover my reading glasses
that I've been searching for all morning. I decide I better put them back on my desk, but first I'm going to water the flowers.

I set the glasses back down on the counter,
fill a container with water and suddenly spot the TV remote. Someone left it on the kitchen table.

I realize that tonight when we go to watch TV, I'll be looking for the remote, but I won't remember that it's on the kitchen table, so I decide to put it back in the den where it belongs, but first I'll water the flowers.

I pour some water in the flowers, but quite a bit of it spills on the floor.

So, I set the remote back on the table, get some towels and wipe up the spill.

Then, I head down the hall trying to remember what I was planning to do.

At the end of the day:
the car isn't washed
the bills aren't paid
there is a warm can of
Pepsi sitting on the counter
the flowers don't have enough water,
there is still only 1 check in my check book,
I can't find the remote,
I can't find my glasses,
and I don't remember what I did with the car keys
Then, when I try to figure out why nothing got done today,
I'm really baffled because I know I was busy all day, and I'm really tired.

I realize this is a serious problem, and I'll try to get some help for it, but first I'll check my e-mail....

Now you can see where I'm coming from as this is my day, but in spite of it all, I still manage to get stuff completed.  Fred calls me a whirlwind that blows through.  There are times I really get a lot much he can't keep up with me.

So where do the apples fit in?  Fred and I got a bushel not that long ago, and I've been making jams, jellies, pectin, and dried apple rings from these.  It went much faster last year as I had a cheap dehydrator and the oven to back me up, but the dehydrator mysteriously died over the winter.  So now the oven is doing all the work to dehydrate the apple rings, while the burner renders down the apple peelings and cores to make pectin for next year.

This means no meringue cookies until they're all done, and a batch takes about 2-3 days at 170 degrees.  I HATE wasting that kind of energy, and when I get back to work soon, I'm going to invest in a good quality dehydrator that can really handle those kind of loads with less time.

Friday, September 21, 2012

"You might be a redneck if you've made yogurt in your Igloo cooler!"

And then again, you might be smarter than the average bear because you're not paying between $75.00-$200.00 for a frou-frou yogurt maker that makes less than a cooler can.

For a long time I wanted a yogurt maker, but the ones I saw online were expensive, some aren't as effective,  some had plastic containers that melted (plus the chemical leaching became an issue), others broke the tiny glass containers during the heating cycle and were expensive to replace, and the rest either extolled the virtues of timers on the units or complained it was an unnecessary feature.  Totally confused, I kept researching yogurt makers until I was blue in the face, and still was no more educated...only resigned I'd have to forever buy it in the store week after week.

Not that long ago, I got started on the "how to make homemade yogurt" kick again.  My friend, Diane, was terrified I was going to poison myself, but after a few months of making my own, it thankfully hasn't happened.  First thing in the morning, I start the day with yogurt I know is fresh and healthy - and each quart jar doesn't last more than a few days, so no "nuclear blast twinkie" issue here!

It's not difficult, a little bit time consuming, but it's easy peasy and worth a try!

First you start with 7.5 cups of water, and 3 1/3 cups of non fat powdered milk.  Mix well and then place the glass bowl in the microwave for approximately 13 minutes at full power.

The time will depend on how powerful your microwave is, but your goal is to heat the milk to at least 180 degrees (a little over is OK, but don't get it boiling!).  Some people just pour straight milk in a container and heat it; it's all up to you what you want (fat free, 2% fat, whole milk).  The purpose of heating the milk to that temperature is because it's the point at which food is sterilized, resulting in the dying off of any microorganisms that might be in there.  

While you're waiting for the milk to cool off, you should be boiling water to sterilize the containers your yogurt will be made in.  I am a card carrying member of the "Royal Order of the Mason Jar" (I buy somewhere between 200-300 a year), so I always have plenty on hand.  The recipe I gave you should use two quart jars, and one half pint (you can use a pint jar if you want to let the bacteria have more room to grow, which is what I usually do).  Let them sterilize approximately 10 minutes (or longer if you live at a higher altitude) then pull them out and set them on a kitchen towel as a cold surface may cause the jar to crack or break from a cold shock.  

The next step is to let the milk cool down to at least 115 degrees, and this step is very important!  You will be adding a starter to your yogurt to encourage the growth of friendly bacteria that helps to make the yogurt, and is good for your digestive system.  If you add the starter before it drops below 115 degrees, you'll accidentally kill the bacteria, and when you check your yogurt the next day, you'll have only milk. 

You can get yogurt starter from two sources: your last batch of yogurt, or from the grocery store.  A yogurt starter must be good quality, so I suggest one of the plain Greek style yogurts like Fage (pronounced "Fay-eh"), or Chobani.  The single serve cups will give you probably two starters as all you need is 2 tablespoons.  If you have leftover starter, pour it in an ice cube tray as each well is approximately a tablespoon.  

If you decide to save your starter, it's OK if it goes in the freezer and it won't hurt the good bacteria at all.  If you use your starter from a previous batch, conventional wisdom says not to let it go more than a week before using or the bacteria isn't as good/strong/capable of reproducing.  After four batches, I typically eat the smallest container (I'll explain in a minute) and pull two cubes out of the ice cube tray.  Don't worry - the cubes will melt at 115 degrees (whisk gently and don't worry about the bubbles).

Some say that you can indefinitely use your starter yogurt, but I've found after four times, the cultures seem to "break down".  By that, I mean they don't gel as well as the fresh ones do.  I eat from the two quart jars and use the smallest one for a starter for the next batch.  When I run out of that starter or I sense a change in the consistency of the yogurt, I then eat the smallest jar and resort to a fresh yogurt ice cube to "recharge" my yogurt's ability to make a good gel.  Sometimes I can get more than four batches out of the last batch, but it all depends and as you make more yogurt, you'll learn to spot the consistency changes, too.  

I've also used fresh starter and mixed it together with my smaller jar, then spooned the whole mess into the ice cube trays if I know I'm not going to make as much yogurt as I ordinarily do.  Why not?  Maybe I'm burnt out on yogurt and want a week or two's break, going on get the picture.

Pour the milk into the jars....and now the fun's about to start!

Meet Ivan, the Igloo cooler, and Harry the heating pad - both work together to make fresh yogurt for me twice a week.  The general temperature rule when it comes to yogurt making is it needs to be at least a constant 100 degrees.  My oven isn't new enough to go that low, so after testing the cooler (an insulated environment for heat and cold food stuffs), I decided this was a pretty good place to make yogurt as it doesn't lose the heat.  

I start "Harry" on high when the milk goes in the microwave, but before I go to bed, I turn it down to medium.  If you're uncomfortable with leaving the pad on at night or you don't have one, you can always take a couple of quart sized mason jars and fill them with boiling water and place them inside the cooler as an alternative heat source, but keep in mind it's not constant, although it will last some period of time since it's in an insulated container.  

I've seen lots of creative methods - place your jars in a crockpot, fill with water, and turn to the low setting.  Others have their computer routers laid down on their sides and sit the jar on top of it, wrapped in a kitchen towel.  Sorry, but I can't live without my internet should something go wrong, and to explain why there's milk in the router might get your name put in for the "Bonehead of the Year" award.  The more sane who have newer ovens with preheat/proof settings as low as 100 degrees are blessed as they can toss their jars in the oven.  The really good dehydrators that have removable square trays also have heat settings that can incubate yogurt at the right temperatures, too.

Anyway, back to the post!  You need to incubate the yogurt for as little as 12 hours to get a really soft gel, 14 hours will get you a firmer gel.  The difference in time depends on the final step. 

The shorter the incubation period, the softer the mass, and the quicker the whey drains out.  Here's what you need to know about whey to help you determine what you're going to do next:
  • 12 hour incubation means you'll have to use a paper coffee filter to line a small strainer (6"-9") with another bowl slightly bigger and taller so your strainer doesn't come close to the bottom.  You will let this sit in your fridge for 24 hours.  During that period, you'll flip it over once (use a new coffee filter for the bottom).
  • 14 hour incubation you'll do the same thing, except you'll flip the yogurt mass twice - once a day, for two days.  

You're not sure what whey is or what it looks like?  That's easy!

  • 12 hour incubation will yield a white glob of yogurt in either a sea of yellow fluid (whey), or floating strictly at the top of the jar.  
  • 14 hour incubation you probably won't see any whey fluid as it's inside the yogurt (solid mass of white).

If you know you're allergic to whey, the longer it drains out, the less likely you are to have a reaction.  Personally, I can tolerate commercially prepared whey powders and milk, but I break out in hives with the fresh whey fluid (that was a lousy 2.5 weeks in my life).  I don't have that problem as long as the whey is drained well.  You will know by the taste if there's a substantial amount still in the yogurt because it tastes quite tart and generally is unpleasant.

Whether or not you have a problem with whey, don't throw out the fluid because it has other uses.  You can search on the internet for a good list, but here's a few:
  • If you raise tomato plants, pour it on as a fertilizer because it's high in calcium.  You can keep buying bone meal if you wish, but why dip into your pocket when you've got a yogurt byproduct readily handy for free?
  •  Use the whey in bread and biscuit making (this is how I found out I was allergic to fresh whey fluid) by replacing some of the fluid in the recipe.  It makes really flavorful and soft bread!
  • Some health nuts drink it mixed with lemonade (it's called an "Arnold Palmer") and since it's rich in nutrients, I can sort of understand why - assuming you can get past the nasty taste!
Once drained, I add a scant 1.5 tablespoons of sugar per quart, but you might have to taste test it if you use an artificial sweetener, and then milk to rehydrate it a bit.  Since I love the Greek style, I leave it on the thick side.  If I plan to top it with fresh fruit, the sugar level is perfect; if I opt to use one of my homemade jams, I can get away with much less sugar upfront.

(Forgive my my messy kitchen - I was about to start cleaning it when I got hungry, and before I ate the yogurt, I wanted to show you what kind of consistency you can expect from it.  Doesn't it look and act like sour cream?  Keep in mind this is FAT FREE yogurt, and if your store bought stuff can't do this, think about what you're missing!)

I've found that if you toss the yogurt "cake" in a bowl, you're better off to break it up with a whisk first, add a little bit of sugar, and a tiny amount of milk.  If you add too much milk upfront, the yogurt clumps push the milk around and it's really easy to splash the milk onto you instead of keeping it in the bowl.  Once it's broken up and smooth (it should be really thick at this point), add milk to get the consistency you want.  It's also a good time to add any flavorings, but go on the light side as a little bit goes a long way with concentrated extracts.

I've also left my yogurt in longer than two days with something to act as a weight on top of it to drain out additional fluid, then wrapped it up tight in a square.  You can save it that way if you have an overabundance of yogurt and rehydrate it later, or you can leave it wrapped for a day so it takes that shape, and use it as yogurt cheese.  It's all a matter of taste if you wish to add sugar, salt, garlic, or any sort of spices to it before you wrap it up, but I prefer mine plain.

My guilty little pleasure is to take out one of my homemade jams or jellies and pour it on top.  Mind you, not every flavor works on top of a cream cheese style block, but pepper and wine jellies work very well.  I don't add sugar to the block because the jams or jellies have plenty of sugar in them, so you don't miss it.  I serve it with a plate of crackers, and you scoop just enough for your cracker.

If you want to ask me the shelf life of yogurt, I honestly couldn't say because Fred and I eat it too fast!

The one thing I can tell you is it used to cost between $12-$15 a week at the store, and now I buy a bag of nonfat dry milk for $14 and it lasts me through almost 9 batches.  So, quick math check here: $14 (store generic label, or $17 for Carnation at Costco) once a month versus store bought at $48-$60.  That's real savings between $31-$34 on the low side, and $43-$46 on the high side each month!  Still laughing at my cooler now?

Happy Eats!

Recipe Challenge #2: Meringue Cookies

When I started to seriously dabble with cooking back in 2008, one of the first desserts I tried to make was meringue cookies.  I was still fairly thin and routinely exercising, but I wanted something sweet.  I've never had a meringue cookie before, so I thought I'd try my hand at them because I'd read on the internet how easy they were to make.

My first batch didn't go well as I made a stupid mistake.  You can't beat egg whites in a plastic bowl to save your life.  After trying over and over again, I gave up and poured the mix down the drain and pondered what I'd done wrong.  No sooner did it hit me what I'd done, and I promptly started smacking my head on the kitchen counter.

My second batch...the meringue puffed up nicely and I'd done all the right things.  I put them in the oven, and then they fell flatter than a pancake.  Some recipes tell you to cook on super low heat, others tell you to put the cookie sheets in a preheated oven and then shut it off as the residual heat is enough to cook/dry them out.  It was also raining that day, and any amount of humidity does not bode well for meringues because they won't dry out. 

I was as deflated as my second batch, and I never tried again.  Until now.  I'm bound and determined to make a successful batch or two this time around.  Right now, I have two egg whites in the fridge from the custard experiment, so it's a good time to use them up!

Recipe #1: Custard

I've been stalling today because I was nervous to try this recipe, but I've said that before.  I did everything I could before I decided it was time to belly up to the bar and actually MAKE the recipe.

So here it goes!

The recipe calls for 2 cups of whole milk and 2 cups of heavy whipping cream; since I didn't have whole milk, I substituted in 2%.  I thought about trying sweetened condensed milk and instead omit the sugar, but I figured it'd still be too sweet, and probably overwhelmingly rich.  I made two more modifications in my case: I used a tablespoon of corn starch, and 1 whole egg.  The starch and egg white both act as thickeners, and since I didn't have whole milk, I decided to use it as my "insurance policy" to help the recipe along.  To the mix, I added 4 tablespoons of sugar, one whole vanilla bean with its seeds scraped out and pod tossed in, as well as a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste, which I love.  Every time I use the paste, people rave about the flavor!

While the milk was heating up, I began whisking together the 7 egg yolks and 1 whole egg along with 2 tablespoons of sugar.  Since 5 my yolks had been frozen and defrosted, they didn't want to mix well, so next time someone says, "oh yeah, you can free egg yolks!", I'll just remember this experience and keep my mouth shut when I want to say, "Really??  Is that so!"  Besides, we're all learning and we all make mistakes with cooking.  The three eggs I added to the mix, plus a lot of whisking, I managed to make the best of a less than ideal situation I was in.  I also added in at this point the tablespoon of corn starch as I knew I'd be tempering the egg mixture with hot milk, and that's going to result in some amount of curdling of the yolks no matter how good you are.

Tempering is when you take a little bit of something hot and add it while vigorously whisking it into the cooler ingredient.  The next best example I can think of is melting chocolate to the right temperature to create its signature glossiness; granted this isn't a perfect example as it doesn't curdle if done wrong, but if you get the smallest amount of water splashed into chocolate, it'll seize right up and you'll have to throw it away.  I've tried rescuing it with cocoa butter or shortening, but frankly it doesn't work (or hasn't for me!).

Once you get the cool eggs warmed up, you pour the egg mixture and the hot milk in together, and whisk gently over medium heat until it thickens.  How long to cook?  Maybe 10-15 minutes was my experience, but it depends on whether your milk is pretty hot to begin with, how thick you like your custard, and if you're cooking with gas or electric.  Everyone knows a cook prefers gas because you can control it better, and in my experience, the cooking surface is more evenly heated.  Whenever I've cooked on a electric stove and burnt something to the bottom, the resulting scouring action you're sentenced to guessed it - in the shape of the damned element!

Once you get your custard to the consistency you like (you can go pretty thin and pour it over whatever you're pairing it with), remove it from the heat and pour it into a strainer propped over a Pyrex bowl or large measuring cup.

You strain the mix because no matter how good you are at pouring and whisking during the tempering phase, you're undoubtedly going to wind up with some egg yolk chunks in your custard.  In my case, I knew I was going to have a lot because the five yolks that didn't quite have the right consistency when they were thawed out.  I could see during the whisking process that I was going to have bits that weren't going to incorporate, so the amount in the strainer was no surprise.

Put the finished bowl in the fridge and let the contents cool down a bit, making sure to cover the top with plastic wrap to avoid a skin forming on top of the custard.

When the custard has cooled to a manageable temperature but not cold, pour it into serving cups and garnish with fresh fruit and sprigs of mint.  Place back in the fridge and let it continue to cool and set up a bit more before serving.

Now that I've made this recipe, I can't understand why I was afraid to try cooking it, and based on a warm taste I stole from the leftovers in the Pyrex bowl after plating takes me back to the pies Mom used to buy for Thanksgiving.

Happy Eats!    :)