Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Doing the Can-Can

August is my birthday month. For the past six or seven years, I have celebrated my birthday month by spending most of it canning. This year, thankfully, August has been pretty warm, and it's been even warmer in our kitchen since I've been canning or baking almost every day. Between the 50# of apricots, the figs, the crab apples, the birthdays (not just mine), the weddings, and I can't even remember what else, it's been a busy month.

It might seem like a lot of work to spend all that time canning, especially when it's your birthday. But really, it's the best birthday gift I could ever give myself. Aside from letting this awesome cutie "help" out in the kitchen of course (she loves the jar lifter tool!).

It's the satisfaction of knowing that sometime, in the dead of winter, I can pull out a jar of something and savor a little bit of sunshine. It's also satisfying thinking about putting a smile on people's faces when I bring them a little jar of said sunshine as a treat, maybe just when they are getting sick of potatoes and squash.

My favorite part of canning is the snap of a jar sealing. It signifies all of that satisfaction like nothing else in the world. 

Some of the things I've been canning are recipes easily found, and some are recipes I've altered. I have to say that of the ones I've done so far this season, the one I am most excited about is probably the fennel bulb with orange. It's only a refrigerator pickle, so there wasn't any processing necessary. That's why it's the perfect recipe to share with people who might be afraid to pickle...

But you know, you really shouldn't be. It's very simple once you get the basics of canning and pickling down. You have to have sterile jars and vinegar with 5% acidity. You want unblemished produce and hot brine. Those things are all pretty easy to come by, and so are easy recipes. This is one of them, and you won't be disappointed. It doesn't produce the satisfying snap of a jar sealing, but if you've been thinking about trying out pickling and looking for a good place to start (and love fennel as much as I do) then this might just be the gateway pickle you've been looking for.

Hang on a second. 

Sorry, I just had to go eat some straight from the jar and do a little happy pickle dance.

Fennel Pickled with Orange
adapted from The Joy of Pickling by Linda Ziedrich (thanks Rose!)

makes 2 pints

1 1/2 lb fennel bulbs, sliced in chunks about 1/4" thick
2 tsp pickling salt
zest of one orange
3/4 cup white wine vinegar
Juice of the orange, plus water to make 3/4 cup
2 Tbsp sugar
8 whole peppercorns, cracked with a knifeblade

Slice up your fennel. This is part of where I altered the original recipe, which called for slicing them very thin. I thought it would be nice to have a chunkier piece, but you could do it either way really. Next, toss the fennel with the salt in a large, nonreactive bowl and leave to sit at room temp for 1 hour.

While the fennel is sitting, sterilize 2 clean pint jars in a 250ºF oven for 20 minutes, or you can do this in a boiling water bath. The jars don't need to stay warm once they are sterile, but do leave them undisturbed while they are waiting to be packed. Even though this pickle won't be getting processed (essentially pasteurized) you don't want anything gross in there so that they can keep for longer in the fridge. (Theoretically--they probably won't stick around that long anyway.)

Drain the fennel, discarding the brine. Do not rinse. Toss with the orange zest and pack it all into the jars, adding four crushed peppercorns to each jar.  

Heat the liquids, along with the sugar, in a small pan to boiling, making sure that all the sugar has dissolved. Using a funnel, pour the liquid over the fennel. Put the clean cap on the jar (doesn't need to be two piece or even an unused lid, since you're not processing.) Cool to room temp before refrigerating. Let it sit for at least 48 hours before eating. 

If you can stand it.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Day That Should Have Been

Today was supposed to be the happiest day for two people. One person: A beautiful, witty and truly unique lady. The other: A fantastic, generous, wacky, brilliant guy. 

Spike, today was going to be your day. You finally found your dreamboat, Grace. Who seemed to come from nowhere into your life and we, your friends, welcomed her as your soul mate.

Grace, today was going to be your day. You found the match made just for you, Spike. Who adored you so much. It was beautiful to see, and with ease and open arms we made you a part of our "family."

But today was not to be what you intended. It went off not according to plans, and while the love is still there and will forever be, it has been rendered intangible--just a memory. Some of the best memories that people who knew Spike could ever hope to have.

But, in all this, Spike would not have wanted too much sadness. He was all about life, living, giving, loving, building and creating. He would not have wanted us to feel like anything was amiss, he would want us only to build something new from the pieces we were left holding. Spike built things for all of us. Thing we can hold in our hands, and things we can hold in our hearts. The things in our hearts are the more important of the two, but sometimes it helps to see the bits and pieces you left behind you. The little handmade treasures that we took for granted while you were still here.

I can't speak for the huge community of people that Spike's life touched. I can only speak for myself. I am going to build something for you Spike, and I know just what it will be.

I was going to build it for today, for you both, but now I will build it for tomorrow. For the lives you would have touched. For the lives who will go on remembering you. It will be a little different than we planned, but it will be special nonetheless, and it will be sweeter than ever before. Because, it will have a little something extra--a little Spike, if you will, in the batter. It will be the best cake you ever had, Spike Perry, and even though you won't get to eat any, we will all think of you when we sit down to enjoy it. 

But even more than that, we will enjoy the company we savor it with, because that's how you would have wanted it.

Lemon Poppyseed Cake with Vanilla Buttercream
Serves 8-10, Adapted from Baking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America

For the cake:

2 1/2 C. all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 C unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 C granulated sugar
1 Tbsp lemon zest
4 large eggs
1 1/4 C buttermilk
1/4 C fresh lemon juice
3 Tbsp poppy seeds, optional

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Lightly grease and flour two 8" cake pans. Sift flour, baking soda and salt together and set aside.

In a stand mixer, or with a hand mixer, cream together butter, sugar and lemon zest. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed, creaming until very smooth and light in texture. Add eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl after each addition.

Alternating the flour mixture with the buttermilk, incorporate the remaining ingredients in 3 batches, mixing on low and scraping down the sides as needed. Once everything is in the bowl, add the lemon juice and mix for another minute or so, until it's light and smooth. 

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans, and bake until the center springs back when gently pressed, about 30 minutes.  Cool in the pans on a wire rack. Let cool all the way before frosting.

For the buttercream:

2 C unsalted butter, room temp, cut into 1" cubes
5 egg whites
1/4 cup water, plus extra for washing
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp good vanilla extract

Place the egg whites in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer.

In a heavy saucepan, boil the sugar and water together. When it comes to a boil, use a pastry brush to "wash" the sides of the pan to remove any stray sugar crystals. Insert a candy thermometer. 

When the mixture reaches 130ºF, begin whipping the egg whites on high, until they reach a stiff peak. Once the sugar reaches 140ºF, and with the mixer still going on high, slowly (and carefully!) pour a thin stream of sugar syrup into the bowl, using all of the syrup. Allow the meringue to whip until cool, about 5-7 minutes. 

Turn the mixer down to medium, and slowly add the butter. Once it's all incorporated, turn it off, scrape down the sides, and then continue to mix on high until the frosting is smooth. Blend in the vanilla extract. 

You can use the buttercream right away, or refrigerate for up to several weeks in the coldest part of the fridge. Let it come to room temp and then mix it with a paddle until smooth before using, if you choose to store it. It also freezes very well, so if you have extra, don't throw it away! Save it for when you need to share a little treat with a loved one.

Monday, August 15, 2011

It has begun

We had a busy busy weekend here. We attended a wedding; we hosted an out of town guest, took her to pick raspberries, and shared a scrumptious picnic with her; I baked some delicious cakes; and oh yeah, I competed in my first triathlon. No biggie.

So because it was such a busy weekend, I was surprised how many raspberries survived through it. They don't last long once they are picked, and having picked them Friday, I expected a much bigger mess by the time I got around to them on Sunday afternoon. Instead, I was pleased to find that I was able to freeze one whole tray of them, leaving me with just enough berries for only a 2/3 batch of jam. (Not that this is a problem, as I have lots of plans for other jams and jellies this year...)

We didn't pick that many to begin with. The farm we visited had a small number of rows, and since it is just about the end of the season here for berries anyway, I didn't expect to hit gold or anything. We were able to just about fill one good sized box before Lilli got too hungry and we had to call it quits. 

We also were able to stuff ourselves silly, which is really the point of U-pick berries anyhow, as any good berry picker knows. 

Since I already went berry picking twice before the raspberries last week, (the blueberries, and also some blackberries growing down the block from me, for the delicious cakes I mentioned earlier) I was kind of picked out anyway. I had fun and got to visit with a friend I haven't seen in years. Tamara is living in Baltimore, and has done at least a hundred exciting things between this visit and when we shared a tiny room in Cannoneer Court on Pratt Institute's campus in Brooklyn (where I attended one depressing semester before putting my tail between my legs and heading home. Tamara was not, however, responsible for any of that depression.)

It's a wonder I even managed to get to the berries on Sunday as it was, since that was the day of the race. I competed in the Danskin triathlon here in Seattle, finishing in just under 2 hours. I was quite surprised at how well I did, considering I really didn't feel that ready. I took a nice long nap afterwards and felt revived enough to deal with the berries before making some dinner (back on LEAP this week, but that's another story altogether, which I hope to share soon but has been so hard to write about...I don't know where to start).

I slowly picked through what there was in the box. I fed a few to Lilli to keep her from climbing all over me while I sorted them. I slowly filled the tray and put it in the freezer. I put the rest in a pot, 4 heaping cups, and poured some sugar over. Then, I forgot all about the berries and the pot sat there for a couple of hours. 

Later, I brought it all to a boil. At this point I realized I once again could not remember exactly how many minutes to boil the jam for, so I had to call my mom since my family recipe cookbook is MIA. 

I forgot to stir it during the second boil, but I did remember the 

I think it's fair to say that by now I had come to terms with the fact that I was actually pretty exhausted and I could feel the soreness creeping in. Triathlons will do that, I guess.

I also forgot to ask Joe to buy lemons when he went shopping (which, by the way, writing the list for was the hardest thing I had done in a while. I think that's when I figured out how out of it I was.) so I had to use lemon juice from a bottle. I was worried it wouldn't have as much thickening power, but really it was fine. 

And today, I put it in jars. And I started to deal with the 50 lbs of apricots I impulse bought. And I got ready for the rest of the summer, which will involve canning lots of things, if the past 4 or 5 summers have been any indicator of my canning habits. It usually begins with the jams and ends with pickles or pumpkin butter and apple sauce. This year, who knows?

Berry Jam

You can use raspberries or blackberries with this jam, and probably other ones too but I've never tried because I love raspberries and blackberries so much--I sometimes put rhubarb in the raspberry jam, though. It's pretty much out of this world delicious. 

6 heaping cups fruit
3 cups sugar, halved. Sometimes more for blackberries, if they're very tart
juice of one lemon

You may need to rinse your berries before you start. Raspberries are generally clean enough, but pick them over to make sure there aren't any bugs or sticks or cores left. Blackberries, I find, are often full of thorns and bits of plant. The best way to rinse them is to fill a bowl with water, dump the pre-measured berries in, and slowly skim off the stuff that floats to the top, occasionally giving a gentle stir to make sure you release all the unwanted stuff. Scoop the berries into a colander and go from there.

Bring the berries and the first cup and half of sugar to a boil. Boil for two minutes, stirring constantly. Add the second cup and a half of sugar bring back to a boil and boil for three minutes, again stirring constantly. Turn off the heat and add the lemon juice. Poor into a clean, non reactive bowl and let set up overnight. 

Poor into clean, sterilized jars. Wipe the rims with a clean damp cloth. In our family, we seal the jars with wax. I think this is because my grandmother dislikes canning, and so this is an easy way to seal them without having to process them. I have always been too lazy myself to figure out how to do it any other way with this particular jam, but I'm sure you could process them for real. Otherwise, just pour about 1/4 inch of melted parowax over the top of the jam, let cool and then put your lids on. If you're new to canning and the thought of processing scares you a bit, this is a great way to start while you get up the courage to try the whole kit and caboodle. Happy canning!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Spoils

I am happy to report that not a single earwig made it home with me from blueberry picking today.

In the trunk, having a pre-picking snack.

I did however, make it home with a couple of spiders, and some potatoes. Not to mention the blueberries. Almost 6 pounds of them, which I somehow managed to pick while gossiping with a friend and watching our 2 babes crawl/wander around in the damp grass of the blueberry field. 

Then we had a picnic, which was absolutely nothing special other than for the fact that we got to eat it outside.


There was no one else there today, with the exception of Pat, the owner and farmer. He was a very sweet old guy. It was so nice to have the place all to ourselves--the kids could wander around and eat as many blueberries as they could find, without bothering other pickers or us worrying that they were getting into other people's stuff. 

Plus, it was a rather cool day, temperature wise. No sticky sweat to make you wish you could go home, and not too many bugs either. I wish all berry picking experiences could be so pleasant. 

Now I have 4 pounds of blueberries in my freezer, almost 2 lbs more left untouched (I'll save them for tomorrow, I'm blueberried out for today) and plans to return to the small farm I discovered in a couple of weeks for more blueberries, sweet corn and green beans, plus cucumbers and dill for pickles.

But what to do with all those blueberries that I now have sitting pretty in a bowl on the table? Perhaps muffins, perhaps pancakes, perhaps just let Lilli stuff herself silly for the next couple of days. Maybe all three. I'm also thinking some blueberry crumb bars might be just the thing, because I am supposed to be bringing cookies to several different events this weekend. And since I have some red currants sitting around, I think I'll add those in as well. I'll probably use this recipe, as I do adore pretty much any recipe from Smitten Kitchen.

I encourage you to find a berry field, and for an hour or two, or the whole day if you think you're tough enough, hang out and pick berries. Eat your fill, laugh with a friend, and bring enough home to put some in the freezer. When you pull them out in the middle of winter, you will thank yourself for the joy of that summer day, and the memories that each berry has attached to it.

Monday, August 8, 2011


When I was younger, I had a large box of postcards from all over. Some were sent to me, and others were postcards that I picked up along the road. I have slowly used them to mail love letters and notes of endearment, or just to say hi to friends not seen in too long. 

I guess you could say it was a collection. I don't collect a lot of things. Not counting things I need for my pastry work, like cookie cutters and other kitchen tools, I really only have a couple. I have an amount of scarves that some might say was excessive. I don't have a lot of shoes or jewelry or art. I do however love to collect unique glasses. I only ever buy one of each, even when there is a whole set. Joe has tried unsuccessfully to help me get rid of them, but I finally convinced him that "wouldn't it be so much better if someday we could have a large gathering and assign everyone in attendance a special glass to call their own for the evening?" So I have collected more. This week I found not one, not two, but three! new-to-me glasses that were all special in their own way. Yay!

I can also admit to collecting recipes and things that I can check off of some imagined list as having done to feed myself, both literally speaking and in a more philosophical sense. 

This is our car, full of boxes. The boxes are full of beef.

Like last week, when we brought home a whole beef to split 4 ways with friends; and how I made mayonnaise from scratch; or when I played Iron Chef with our diets for the week, cooking with only about 20 ingredients as part of a strict elimination diet to help my stepsons rid themselves of food allergies. 

It was a good week for collecting food memories. And so was Sunday, when we celebrated making it through a whole week of said elimination diet. To be fair, we celebrated after those very same stepsons went to their mom's house for the week. I made burgers from some of the ground beef that came as part of our share of the beef. 

They had all the proper summer burger fixings. Spicy pickles, bright green lettuce and the aforementioned mayo. Crisp red onions, juicy red tomatoes, and even a healthy slather of BBQ sauce. 

The best part of all of this, as if it could even get any better, is that everything was homemade or homegrown, not counting the beef itself or the buns. The buns were my only downfall. I baked so much this week that I could not bring myself to make them from scratch, though I think it would have been amazing if I had somehow found the energy to do so. 

And I got to collect a little kernel of knowledge from last night's dinner: it's true what they say. It really does taste so much better when you grow it and make it yourself. I collected a memory of the three of us, Joe and Lilli and me, sitting on the deck, eating the best burgers we've ever eaten, as a family. In the sun, with the laundry drying behind us and the soft cackle of our crazy flock of chickens below us. 

Last week was rough for me, and trying to make the best of it wasn't always a success. But last night, I felt better than I felt in a while. I didn't even care that the camera battery was dead forcing me to take most of the pictures of dinner with my phone while the battery charged up for dessert. 

It was just nice to remember that collecting the little things is what counts the most.