Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Review: Preserving by the Pint

Preserving by the Pint

When I got my review copy of Marisa McClellan's latest book a few weeks back, time seemed to stand still for the moment and I almost immediately read the entire thing cover to cover.  I had been looking forward to cracking open this one since I had the pleasure of testing a few of the recipes for it last year, and it truly is a lovely addition to the growing canning book section of my kitchen library.

I couldn't help but think as I turned page after page that Marisa is going to be writing new books for years.  She has the magic trifecta in her cookery books: timeless recipes, succinct instructions, and simple inspirations.  She is passionate about her craft, and eager to share with everyone - which I think is the underlying theme of Preserving by the Pint.  Organized by season, this book encourages everyone to make small batches using local and seasonal foods.  It tempts us to branch out and try something maybe we haven't considered before, even to source special ingredients that might not be cost efficient if making a more traditionally sized amount.

small batch preserving.

Personally I like to can for my storage shelves, but with my ongoing quest for sugar reduction, having a jar or two of a really stellar preserves is an excellent idea - especially since I can tend towards the hoarding jams and jellies even when I've made 8 or 9 jars of them.  After finishing the book, I immediate found some Meyer lemons at my co-op to make Candied Meyer Lemon Slices.  Only needing a pound for the recipe made it feel doable for me when I didn't have the foresight to get on the Lemon Ladies list for bulk fruit like Marisa did.  (And, she had made a beautiful Meyer Lemon Syrup on her blog not long before, and I was feeling especially bad for missing the lemon season...) 

candied meyer lemon

I really loved these candied lemons, they had a nice marmalade texture and trademark Meyer lemon astrengency.  I was glad I had a little bit of the syrup leftover which set into a little lemon jelly to enjoy right away on morning toast.  I intend to make a pound cake for my birthday in September and crown it with a jar of them, and I should be able to save a jar that long since the 2 jar yield leaves me one to enjoy before then.

Spring in my neck of the woods also signals maple syruping time and for a while my family had planned to make it to an Amish neighbor's sugaring operation to reacquaint ourselves with the small miracle that is maple syrup.  Last weekend, a small group of family members went to see Daniel Hochstetler's rustic sugar shack.  We arrived just as he was getting the fire going underneath a stainless vat of sap.  Already, he had harvested over 100 gallons of finished syrup and he was hoping for another good week of syruping weather.  (Last year was a perfect year for syrup; they harvested more than 300 gallons and still had some leftover before starting this year.  If boiled to the proper temperature, maple syrup never really spoils.  The two past seasons make up for the strangely warm spring two years ago when there was no syrup to be found.)  My Mom and Dad generously sent me home with 2 gallons, which usually can last us the whole year if we watch our pancake breakfasts...

sugar shack (#2)
I respect the Amish desire not to have their faces photographed, but was able to capture a photo of Daniel and his sugar shack from a distance...

As I stood there breathing in the sauna of maple scented sap, I was dreaming of a recipe Marisa included in the book for Blueberry Maple Jam - thankful for my hoarding of a gallon bagful of blueberries in my freezer from last year, and thankful for a new harvest of syrup to replenish my waning stores. When I got back home, I started the jam right away but got busy.  Fortunately, letting the fruit macerate overnight with the syrup and brown sugar is an acceptable practice.  My yield was a little less than the 2 half-pints, but I suspect it is because I used frozen fruit.  I haven't had blueberry jam in ages - in part because of the amount of berries it requires - and this one was so good.  I was actually glad I was a little shy of a second half pint so I had some to enjoy right away.

blueberry jam maceration

I made this jam with frozen berries and using the metric weights.  As I mentioned above, I think I lost a little volume due to the frozen fruit - but this is so good I probably wouldn't have needed to can it!  If canning, be sure to use the bottled lemon juice.  As Marisa explains, maple syrup is lower in acidity than sugar and the bottled lemon juice ensures a safe acid level.

Blueberry Maple Jam (Marisa McClellan, Preserving by the Pint)
Yields 2 half-pints
  • 1 dry quart fresh blueberries, rinsed, pickedd over, and mashed (about 1 1/2 lbs. / 680 g.)
  • 3/4 c. / 175 g. packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 c. / 120 ml pure maple syrup
  • 2 T. bottled lemon juice
Prepare a boiling water bath and 2 half-pint jars.  Place 2 lids in a small sauce pan of water and bring to a gentle simmer.

Combine the blueberries, sugar, maple syrup, and lemon juice in a large skillet.  (I used this 3-quart one, which was a perfect size.) Stir to help the sugar dissolve and to integrate the maple syrup.  Once the mixture has begun to look syrupy, place the skillet over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.

Stirring regularly, bring the fruit to a boil and cook until it bubbles and looks quite thick, 10-12 minutes.  It's done when you pull a spatula through the jam and it doesn't immediately rush in to fill the space you've cleared.

When the jam is finished cooking, remove the pot from the heat and pour into the prepared jars.  Wipe the rims, apply the lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

blueberry maple jam

I can't say I've ever used my 3 quart saucepan to make jam before, and that is a great tip for small batches in particular.  The surface area helps evaporate the liquid faster; I really couldn't believe the small batch was finished cooking in just 10 minutes. 

Another great thing about this book is that if you make just a few jars of something, you wouldn't necessarily have to can it if you didn't want to.  Save yourself a jar, and share another with a neighbor or two and save yourself a hot water bath and the canning time.  But I am looking forward to a little patchwork of fully preserved jars on the shelf by the first frost of fall, new preserves from this beautiful book to take me through the winter and help me wait out the time until Marisa's next book.

You can catch more glimpses of Preserving by the Pint at The Preserved Life, Well Preserved, Hip Girls Guide to Homemaking (still a couple of days left to enter their giveaway), and of course at Food in Jars where you can also find Marisa's upcoming appearances.

blueberry jam pot

DISCLOSURE: I received a copy of this book for review, but as always all of my thoughts and opinions are my own.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Experiments in Milk Kefir.

A few years ago, I became overzealous with cultured foods.  I tried culturing everything from leftovers to condiments, and had buttermilk, yogurt, kombucha, and several types of experimental vinegars (not to mention the sourdough) all vying for attention around the kitchen.  Slowly, a few of the cultures lost their "oomph", victims I'm guessing of cross-contamination.  I began to streamline my cultured life, focusing on the things that I loved most and were most practical for me to continue with, and by default reducing the amount of stress of caring for all of the little “children” with varying needs and schedules.

First to go was buttermilk.  I loved making homemade buttermilk, but with yogurt also being made, I couldn’t justify keeping both – especially when the best quality milk I can find runs me $4.50 per half gallon.  I never drank plain buttermilk either, so I was keeping it solely for baking purposes.  Yogurt filled in this gap nicely, especially when I found a no-heat, Scandinavian culture at Cultures for Health called viili.  I loved it completely, and used it exclusively for about a year and a half until it died out on me.  I tried to restart it from some extra dehydrated, and didn’t have any luck.  I took to buying some local yogurt that was made from non-organic but also non-homogenized milk, and it was so good that for the last year I just called it good enough.  I was nice to have the break from weekly worry, even though it only took seconds to perpetuate the culture.  With a new baby on the way it just seemed refreshing not to do every little thing myself and to take it “easy” while I still could.

soaked soda bread
Kefir soaked soda bread: click the photo for recipe... 

Maybe because this winter got so long, I started feeling lonely for additional culture in my life.  I tried again to reactivate some powdered viili yogurt culture without luck.  Is there too much sourdough in my atmosphere around here?  After the arrival of Tartine #3 and the many recipes in it using milk kefir, I decided this was my new solution to a probiotic, milk-like baking and drinking medium.  Holly L. sent me a loving start from Minneapolis back in February, and every 24 hours since I’ve been harvesting a cupful of milk kefir.

The milk kefir grains are healthy and multiplying, and from what I’ve read the symbiotic relationship between the bacteria and yeasts (similar to kombucha) create more priobiotic punch in the finished product than a standard yogurt or buttermilk containing bacteria strains alone.  Mostly I culture whole milk, but culturing heavy cream is superior, and it’s good in absolutely everything – particularly as an ingredient in baked goods and stirred last minute into soups.  It seems to bake up heavier than yogurt or buttermilk however; there is a learning curve for me as I go about converting.

whole wheat kefir banana bread.
Whole Wheat Kefir Banana Bread - another recipe link if you click the photo!

Last week, I decided it’s been too long since I’d made ice cream and I was itching to try one made with milk kefir as a main part of the base.  On internet perusal, most people either heated the kefir or omitted the eggs – but I wanted no heat to come to my kefir and I wanted an egg yolk base to my frozen concoction.  I compromised my technique, heating 4 egg yolks with a small amount of whole milk to the 170 degree mark, then combining it with cold heavy cream and whole milk kefir.  The result was a mildly tangy, probiotic rich ice cream that I loved.  It was creamier and more like soft serve after about 2 hours in the freezer, and then slowly morphed into a more icy, crystalline structure that was still soft enough to scoop.  A week later, it’s still delicious!

milk kefir ice cream

This milk kefir ice cream seems to have a naturally lemony taste, which could be enhanced by including some zest if you like that sort of thing… I actually added a tiny bit of almond extract which lends a pleasant bitter note in the aftertaste.  I would omit that if playing up the citrus zest.

Milk Kefir Ice Cream (inspired by recipes from David Lebovitz and the Bojon Gourmet)
yields about 1 quart
  • 1 1/4 c. whole milk kefir
  • 1 c. heavy cream
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 3/4 c. whole milk
  • 1/2 c. granulated sugar
  • 2 T. brown sugar (light or dark)
  • 1 t. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 t. almond extract (optional)
Combine kefir and heavy cream in a large bowl or quart jar.  Beat the egg yolks briefly in a small bowl and set aside. To a small sauce pan, combine whole milk and the granulated and brown sugars and heat over medium heat stirring with a spatula until the sugars melt. Temper the egg yolks with the warm milk, then add them to the saucepan.  Increase the heat a bit, and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture just thickens (or until the temperature reaches 170 degrees).  Pour into the large bowl or jar with the kefir and heavy cream, add the vanilla and optional almond extract and stir well.  Chill thoroughly, preferably for 24-48 hours, before churning in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer instructions.

milk kefir scones
That's a good amount of the new local flour I just discovered from Lonesome Stone Milling.  I can't be more excited to begin baking with Wisconsin grown and milled organic flour...

Last Friday, I used milk kefir cream in the Tartine #3 recipe for whole grain scones, the recipe I'd had my eye on since first cracking that book open, and probably the one that made me anxious to start my own milk kefir culturing in the first place. I made my version with Cara Cara orange zest and some of the blackberries I had hoarded in my freezer since last summer.  Without a doubt, they were the messiest endeavor I'd ever encountered, but the result was thankfully more than worth it.

milk kefir scones

I cut 16 scones instead of 12 (which would have been massive in my opinion), and froze them all.  The point of scones to me is baking them from the freezer, and these passed this test.  They might not have been quite as flaky as baked fresh after forming, but they were perfect.  Not too sweet, flaky and crisp on the outside - I was so pleased that I had kept the blackberries for such a worthy pastry.  (When baking scones from frozen, I give them about 40 minutes at room temperature before they go into the hot oven.  I look for just being able to indent them with my fingertip - signaling that they aren't frozen completely solid.  With high butter content, this time frame usually is about right.)

milk kefir scones

I'm far from finished working out new projects with milk kefir.  On my short list: pancakes (subbing for buttermilk in my basic recipe made for flapjacks a little on the dense side), non-banana quick breads, and another ice cream built entirely on kefir cream.  All in all, the new culture on my block seems easily at home after just a few short weeks - and it seems to inspire me to get back to a few other long lost ferments. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sourdough without a recipe.

The sourdough has become so much a part of my life that now it's hard to remember a time without it.  But if I do think back, I remember the sinking feeling that I would never master it, that I would continually have too much waste (or rather discard), and never really have something that I would be proud to share.  Working with things continually is the best education, and my daily walk with sourdough has taught me so many things.  Deep things like patience, scientific things like the power of leaven, and superficial things like the cosmetics of slashing.  There are probably one hundred other things - it's been a very well-rounded education to be sure.

Just when I think that I should delve into new technique or hydration, branch out into other grains or even tackle something gluten-free just for the sake of learning, sourdough has other more basic things to teach me.  My confidence in my own intuition is sometimes lacking, and these past few weeks that leaven has showed me that I know more than I think I do.  It has given me baking confidence.

sourdough cracker

In efforts to entice my husband to healthier snacking, I've taken to more scheduled cracker making.  I've made them pretty much the same way for a very long time, more or less using this recipe.  I don't know when I stopped looking at the actual recipe, and just starting winging it, casually spooning in room temperature coconut oil and usually forgetting the salt by accident, adding whatever flour is handy.

Sometime after my Tartine #3 book came, I oogled Chad's gorgeous windowpane-thin "crackerbreads", but wasn't so enthusiastic with the way his recipes were written.  And meanwhile, I had made crackers with the 80% hydration starter that I base my bread on.  It seems less water in the cracker dough to begin with helps in the rolling out, and I was finally able to run the dough through my pasta machine without wondering why I bothered with the big mess.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I stumbled onto my new preferred method, a foolproof way of easier crackers, without any waste or as much mess.  To whatever measure of 80% starter I have to use, I mix in a few spoonfuls of room temperature coconut oil and mash it with the back of a spoon as best I can.  Then, I mix in flour until a nice dough forms, and try to remember to put in a heavy pinch of salt too.  I knead this by hand on a bare countertop for several minutes, rolling the dough strongly with my palms to melt any little bits of coconut oil that is still solid.  I might notice it needs more flour, but I try not to add too much - figuring that like pasta and tortillas, a cracker is most tender and delicate with less flour instead of more.  Then I let it rest for 8-24 hours before running through the pasta machine.

Instead of cutting the crackers into little diamonds, I started baking them in whole sheets and instead of brushing them with olive oil and sprinkling with salt, I sprinkle them first with (kosher) salt and then spritz them water to help the salt to stick.  I bake them at 350 until golden or dark golden brown depending on what other things are going on around me.  After cooling thoroughly, I break them into rough shards and store them in glass jars.

(To make my 80% hydration starter, I follow Ken Forkish's ratio in Flour Water Salt Yeast.  For 2 loaves of bread I've scaled it down to this:  50 g. 100% starter, 50 g. whole wheat flour, 200 g. ap flour, and 200 g. 95 degree water.  I mix it about 6-8 hours before building bread or cracker dough.)

sourdough "cracker"
They bake into brittle thin sheets, and depending on how long I've let the dough rest they can have a nice sour tang to them.

Yesterday, I mixed up enough 80% starter for 3 loaves although I was only going to make two.  When I set to working the bread, I also mixed up some cracker dough.  By this morning, the dough had risen out of the container signaling both the well-fed nature of the culture and the how-can-it-finally-be-spring feeling of warmer outdoor temperatures.  I knocked it down a couple of times, and it kept growing back - and then I had the idea of making it into flatbreads for lunchtime.

I mixed up some mid-eastern inspired spice mix based on the msemmen from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day, and pinched off a few ping pong ball sized pieces of cracker dough.  I rolled them the same way I did the msemmen, and baked them several minutes per side in a cast iron skillet.

sourdough flatbread

They were crunchy in some places and soft in others and perfectly spicy.  I realized that I'd forgotten the salt in the cracker dough, so I sprinkled more on top and pressed it in.  I don't know why it's so hard for me to remember that lately; I have stopped the practice of nibbling a small bit of raw dough, and I think I need to take that back up.

I'm not sure how well these would keep - but given how simple they are to make on demand you wouldn't have to worry about that I suppose.  Instead of letting the dough rise at room temperature after mixing it, it might be a good idea to refrigerate it right away.  I'm assuming that instant flatbreads could be yours for the next 48 hours before the yeast tires.  If you were to bake the breads more thoroughly, say on a pizza stone, and let them crisp up fully, their keeping power would increase.  But I say make and eat liberally on demand.  There aren't nearly enough breads eaten directly from pans, moments after baking transforms the raw dough...

sourdough flatbread
Perfect eaten with feta, chile olives, and some delicious homemade yogurt my friend Mary gave me: I added a little of the msemmen spice mixture to it.

The sourdough is a teacher, always providing me lessons in life and good eating.  When I work with it, I often think back to a conversation more than 20 years old that I can't quite remember.  My Gram was the first to tell me about capturing wild yeasts, though I'm not sure she ever used it to bake wild yeast bread.  That day she told me about trying to find a favorable culture by leaving a piece of bread out in the woods is like a dream at this point, I remember where I was in her house when she told me, and I remember conjuring exactly where in the woods she was placing that slice of bread, just past the edges of her sprawling garden.  Like a dream, I can't quite put a finger on any more detail than that and I wonder about it all the time.  Is it in my blood to be so curious about natural cultures?  Did the wild yeast also have lessons for my Gram long before I ever would have suspected it had lessons for me?  Either way, it has turned from a unknowing teacher to a carefully chosen mentor, one I respect deeply, and one I hope to continue learning from for the rest of my life.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Salad Dressing Cake.

I guess it all started when I wanted a tuna sandwich for lunch one day last week.  I love tuna sandwiches, but I hate hate hate the conundrum of purchasing mayonnaise.  I like lacto-fermenting my own, but haven't done that so much since I made the commitment to higher quality olive oils.  I don't have any "neutral flavored oils" in my kitchen arsenal at all anymore; if it can't be made with butter, olive oil, coconut oil or bacon grease, I probably will opt out.  But that tuna sandwich was nagging me, and I recalled this recipe for super quick mayonnaise made with a whole egg and an immersion blender.  Armed with a new bottle of olive oil, I figured I'd give it a go.  I didn't have any purchased mayo on hand, so it was my only option if that tuna sandwich was going to become a reality for me...

salad dressing cake

To the basic mayo recipe, I added a spoonful of dijon mustard and extra lemon juice; the recipe did work (although the texture wasn't quite as lovely as the yolks-only, lovingly hand whisked versions).  My only complaint was that the quality extra virgin olive oil I used made the mayo seem a bit too rich and mineral-y.  It was edible, but I didn't want to go through the trouble of lacto-fermenting it, and I didn't have a good excuse to go all out on a mayo binge to use up the cup or so I had leftover.  I also didn't think I could pass it off on the rest of the family - I have one kid who can't even eat condiments yet, another who won't eat them out of choice, and finally a husband who is a harder sell than I am.

Fortunately I remembered about salad dressing cake.  Salad dressing cake could very well be the first cake I ever made myself, mixing the simple, pantry-staple ingredients with a whole cup of mayonnaise, Miracle Whip actually, which was what we called mayo at my house growing up.  It was proof that miracles do indeed exist.  How on earth could you make a chocolate cake with a cup of sickly sweet and thick Miracle Whip that left no trace on the tongue of mayo?  How could you make a cake that was so perfectly full of moisture, a good keeper at room temperature or in the fridge, and barely messed up the kitchen?  It's magic.  And I'm glad I remembered it now. 

salad dressing cake

You can frost this cake however you see fit, but I can't properly enjoy an everyday chocolate cake at my house without a simple butter infused, powdered sugar based buttercream spiked with almond extract.  I don't ever measure, I just try not to make too much, and if I do, I store the leftover in a glass jar until I need to make another cake - which will then usually happen sooner than later because I have extra frosting.  It's a vicious cycle.

I also encourage you to make immersion blender mayo with 100% olive oil for this recipe.  You get a nuance of olive in the background for those that are interested in tasting it, yet it's subtle enough that the rest of your family won't go noticing it.  They'll just think you made the best chocolate cake ever.

Salad Dressing Cake
makes 1 8x8 inch cake
  • 2 c. ap flour
  • 1 c. granulated sugar
  • 1/2 c. cocoa powder
  • 1/4 t. kosher salt
  • 2 t. baking soda
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Butter a glass 8x8 inch baking dish.

In a 4 cup measure (or medium sized bowl), combine the mayo, cold water, vanilla, and espresso powder if using and stir well to combine.  (I still had a dirty immersion blender from making the mayo, so I used it to blend the wet ingredients.)

In a large mixing bowl, sift or mix well the dry ingredients.  Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and stir until just mixed thoroughly and no dry spots remain.  Use a spatula to ease it into the prepared baking dish, and smooth the top out towards the corners to counteract some of the doming action in the center as the cake bakes.  Bake in the preheated oven for 35-45 minutes, until a tester comes out clean.  Cool completely before frosting.

salad dressing cake

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Sourdough Surprises: Monkey Bread

Monkey bread.  A pretty straightforward breakfast sweet, whose charm lies in the communal, pull-apart nature of the finished loaf.  I've never made monkey bread, but I have made many pans of cinnamon rolls, and thanks to Sourdough Surprises I had also made babka.  I married the two for this challenge, basing the monkey bread on Nancy Silverton's brioche recipe and hastily mixing up some sugared cinnamon to roll the portions in before letting them rise in a bundt pan.

sourdough monkey bread

I forgot how much I loved Silverton's brioche recipe.  I halved the recipe and ended up with about 2 lbs. of dough, suspiciously perfect for one 12-cup bundt pan.  I planned it out 3 days before Valentine's day, so I could bake it for a somewhat special morning.  This bread is not unlike a soufflĂ© in that it tastes best moments after leaving the comfort of the oven.  When pulled apart barely cooled, the little puffs of dough taste feather light, a quality that leaves soon after the heat is gone.  I wouldn't say it's any less delicious when cooled, just different.  But that said, I'd probably recommend planning ahead to appropriately devote the morning to enjoying it.

sourdough monkey bread
monkey bread

Since I recounted the recipe for brioche on the babka post, I'll not post it here.  I used half measurements, by conventional weight, and my yield on the dough was almost an even 2 lbs.  I portioned the dough into 1 oz. bits, then rolled each into a taut ball.  Meanwhile, I had melted about 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter in a pot on the stove.  I also had mixed a dish of approximately 1/2 c. brown sugar, 1/4 c. granulated sugar, a few generous shakes of the cinnamon jar, a pinch of cloves and a pinch of salt.  When all the balls were ready, I rolled them first in butter and then in the cinnamon sugar and then positioned them concentrically in a well buttered 12-cup bundt pan working from the center out.  I sprinkled any leftover sugar mixture evenly over the top, taking care to let some fall down into the crevices. When the dough appeared about half risen, I preheated the oven to 350.

unbaked monkey bread
monkey bread

I baked the bread for about 35 minutes if I remember correctly.  I checked the internal temperature when the top looked nicely browned, and it was around 200 degrees, so I figured (correctly) that it was done.  I let the bread cool in the pan for 5 minutes before inverting it onto a plate - during which time I could see the bread settle down into the pan and shrink back a little bit.  After inversion I was surprised at how beautifully glossy the top became; this was short lived, since I didn't go overboard with the sugar and it absorbed into the tops of the puffs as they cooled more completely.

I was also surprised how much the dough rose. I know I shouldn't have been, but I guess 3 days of preparation and waiting, and then the beating the little portions into submission... I thought I had worked all the life from the bread.  Sourdough continually surprises, it has a deep life that is hard to beat back.

This bread is really not all that sweet.  I mean, it is sweet, but it's not tooth-achingly sweet.  It's a polite sweet that tricks you into eating far too much.  I had 32 light little puffs of portioned dough and they didn't last long...  I didn't eat them all myself if that's what you're thinking, but I certainly could have.

sourdough monkey bread

I'm excited to look around at the other ideas this month.  I know I could have taken monkey bread to a savory place, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it.  I'm curious how many were brave enough to tackle that!