Maple syrup is not the only sweet liquid around. In fact, for those of you who are confused by the term “sugaring”, it’s a recently new way to consume maple. Maple sap used to be boiled down past the point of syrup and into sugar – as sugar it didn’t spoil, was easier to store, and was easier to transport. Conversely, molasses, a syrup derivation of cane sugar, was consumed more frequently than granulated, “company” sugar.
Obviously in my kitchen I favor using maple syrup over other sweeteners. However this time of year I start thinking about gingerbread in all its glorious forms which leads me straight to molasses. But rather than obsess about the perfect gingerbread recipe (not my forte) I decided to celebrate and explore molasses and a couple of its counterparts: sorghum syrup and other cane syrups.
Let’s first discuss what these sweeteners actually are. Sorghum syrup or sorghum molasses is made from sweet sorghum*. Molasses, cane syrup, and golden syrup are made from sugarcane. Both sweet sorghum and sugarcane are grasses with sweet stalks. The viscous liquid pressed from the crushed stalks becomes these various sweet syrups.
Sorghum molasses, though difficult to find, is fairly straightforward. However, the sugarcane syrups are a mess to figure out. I’ve read alternately that the first pressing of the crushed stalks leads to cane syrup, fancy molasses, or mild-flavored molasses. If you’ve got cane syrup (and good luck, I could not find it anywhere in stores and didn’t care to order it online), you can then strip it of its glucose to make golden syrup**. The second pressing leads to full-flavored molasses. I think. And then everyone is in agreement (at last!) that the third pressing of the sugarcane stalks makes blackstrap molasses. Now, sugarcane is a plant and does actually have some beneficial minerals. These minerals never make it into the highly processed white sugars, but they reappear in increasing concentrations in the molasses. I compared the nutrition labels of the mild-flavored, full-flavored, and blackstrap molasses and was surprised: both the mild and full-flavored have 3% of the RDV of iron, but the blackstrap has 15%! Blackstrap molasses has all kinds of other purported health benefits (read here for a fascinating list, and ladies, take note of the purported effect on menstrual cramps).
Now, just because I’m not obsessed with finding the perfect recipe for gingerbread doesn’t mean I’m not having fun playing with various recipes and eating gingerbread everyday. Here’s what I’ve got:
- mild-flavored molasses is lovely in cake but it doesn’t quite create a real gingerbread experience. I made a super-yummy chocolate-gingerbread cake (mine came from the cookbook Gingerbread but you can google chocolate-gingerbread cake and find a dozen recipes) with both the mild and the full flavored molasses and they were each delicious in their own way. The two look exactly alike but the qualities and flavor truly are different. I preferred the mild-flavored with this chocolate variation cause I was loving the chocolate. But again, I decided to go full-flavored for my next variations to maintain more of a traditional gingerbread intensity.
- Beer and molasses might belong together. Seriously. I made a gorgeous molasses-ginger-stout cake that was incredibly moist without being at all heavy. I think the carbonation does the trick, so I’d be curious to try it with seltzer or something if I didn’t have any beer. But… why wouldn’t I have beer? Look for the recipe in Dishing Up Oregon.
- Sorghum molasses is fascinating stuff. It has a texture more akin to honey than maple syrup or molasses. I made an Edna Lewis gingerbread cake and it came out lighter in color than a traditional gingerbread with a big, crumblier crumb that reminded me of coffeecake. This recipe called for a cup and a half of the sorghum molasses as opposed to the cup or so usually called for in recipes of the same size. However it did not call for any additional sweeteners whereas every other recipe I looked at used molasses in addition to white and/or brown sugar. The result is a not too sweet, almost light but still satisfying gingerbread. I think I found my go-to breakfast gingerbread. Thank you, Edna!***
On to cookies. Typically, there are three different approaches to cookies with molasses. (1) These are the gingersnaps, very snappy and crisp and heavy on the gingery quality. (2) These are the gingerbread men. Or ninjabread men if you’re lucky enough to have a sister like mine. These are heavier on the molasses but with that almost stiff sugar-cookie quality so you can roll the cookies out. (3) These are the soft molasses cookies with more molasses than ginger and spice. I’ve tried and liked all these recipes but oh man, there is a new kid in town. One Sweet Cookie features a molasses drop cookie that combines the zest of the gingersnap with the deep darkness of molasses. The trick? Toast the spices. Toast them! Yes, it is an extra step but it is so so so worth it. And I didn’t have fresh ginger for the recipe or candied citrus (and I’m not sorry cause I hate fresh ginger in baked goods and I don’t want to keep candied citrus in my pantry) so I substituted minced candied ginger and it rocked. Go make a molasses ginger cookie with toasted spices!
Marshmallows. Oh marshmallows. I’ll be making a real chock full of experimenting marshmallow post one day when I don’t have a four-year old and an 8-month old. For now I (mostly) followed the molasses-maple marshmallow recipe from Gingerbread to make a yummy marshmallow that ended up on our yams at Thanksgiving. It’s a funny thing though. Jet-puffed marshmallows have taken us far far away from real food. Real marshmallows don’t scorch on the top, don’t have a solid-like exterior around a delicious mushy interior, and they sure don’t float in your hot chocolate. They do separate if there is something heavy in them like, oh I don’t know, molasses. You end up with a molasses and gelatin jello-y bottom layer and a maple sponge-y top layer. I have a sneaking suspicion that my tinkering with the recipe and refusing to use corn syrup played a role in this, but again, that kind of research is for another day. Regardless, these were delicious and a blast to make. Take-home message: molasses can be a fun thing to play with in your candy and confection making this holiday season. The book Gingerbread has great confection recipes and is worth buying if you love molasses and all things gingerbread.
A couple of notes regarding all of the above. I bought the molasseses (can that be the correct plural?) as I encountered them at the various stores I frequent, i.e. I am not trying to advertise or push one brand above another. And I never did find cane syrup. And I decided not to use golden syrup much (read below). Those snags in the plan aside, I think my molasses dessert experiments went great! Of course, like maple, molasses isn’t just for dessert. Here are some savory ideas:
- roasted delicata squash rings drizzled with molasses, olive oil, and sea salt
- veggie chile with a rich tomato-molasses base and plenty of diced veggies
- pork loin with apples, leeks, and molasses
Basically, molasses is like the dark, older sister to maple syrup. The Kate to maple Bianca for those of you who are literary. And what better time of year to play with something a little dark than the winter solstice? Seasonality isn’t just for produce – go make some gingerbread before winter passes by!
*Sweet sorghum is a very cool plant! I would like to do some more research on this, and run it by my international food development adviser, aka my Travis. But it can be used as a food, a fuel, and an animal feed. It is apparently very labor intensive to make and is, therefore, not easy to find. I shrieked and woo-hooed when I stumbled onto some at the Thorp Fruit Stand and Antiques Mall off of I-90 in Eastern Washington. I find myself drawn to labor intensive foods in large part because I hear so much about people needing honest, dignified work in all parts of the world. Seems to me that food should be more about hands than tractors. Just sayin’.
**I’m not clear on all of the science of this, but golden syrup is cane syrup where the sucrose is divided into its glucose and fructose components and then stripped of the glucose. Sort of like high fructose corn syrup I think. Ha, high fructose cane syrup? My chemist friend Thom tells me that fructose in this liquid form is worse for us than glucose or sucrose, and Harvard agrees (read here). One interesting feature of fructose is that it is an invert sugar, which has properties beneficial to baking and candy-making. You’ll see many confection recipes calling for corn syrup, golden syrup, or honey to help stabilize a candy and prevent certain forms of crystallization. I think I’ll just use honey – I trust bees more than food chemists (my apologies to any food chemists reading this, I’m sure you are a very nice person but what you do in the laboratory sort of freaks me out).
***I love Edna Lewis and will probably quote her entire book over the course of this blog’s life. Don’t judge me, just enjoy this passage (The Taste of Country Cooking, p. 255):
Warm gingerbread was uppermost in our minds when the sorghum cane began to ripen, because sorghum molasses was such an important ingredient in gingerbread. Sorghum is a plant that looks very much like corn, with the exception of the grain which is formed in a tassel. Most farmers grew a small patch or sorghum. It was harvested in the fall, tassel and leaves removed. The cane was put into a mill driven by two horses moving in a circle, clockwise, pressing out the juice as they walked around. When it was all pressed out it was poured into a large vat and cooked to a heavy, sugary syrup known as sorghum molasses.
The aroma of the crop filled the kitchen. There would be molasses for breakfast and gingerbread galore until the novelty wore off. I remember Mother dipping a teacup into the stone crock of molasses and spooning out the sugary syrup into the pungent ginger batter. Warm gingerbread with fresh, skimmed heavy cream was an exotic treat after a meal of fresh pork or game on a chilly fall evening.
Apples are, hands down, my favorite fruit. So when fall rolls around and they begin appearing at the farmers’ markets, I do a little happy dance*. The sheer poetry of the apple is, in and of itself, something I enjoy. They are iconic, the ultimate fall fruit. Yes, the persimmon is more exotic and decorative. Pears are more delicate and subtle in flavor. But the apple! I’ve mentioned my childhood obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder? An adult obsession I have is collecting book passages about apples. Here are a couple of favorites:
“Ada and Ruby spent much of the autumn working with apples. Apples had come in heavy and had to be picked, peeled, sliced, and juiced; pleasant, clean work, out among the trees handling the fruit. The sky for much of that time was cloudless blue, the air dry. The light, even at midday, brittle and raking, so that by angle alone it told of the year’s waning. In the mornings they went carrying ladders when the dew still stood in the orchard grass. They’d climb among the tree limbs to fill sacks with apples, the ladders swaying as the limbs they were propped against gave under their weight. When all the sacks were full, they would bring the horse and sled to the orchard, haul them in, empty them, and begin again.” – Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain, p 323.
“An apple orchard was a basic part of every homestead…Apples were used in more ways than any other fruit. In early summer, before they were ripe enough to eat, they were best used for making applesauce and, because of their tart flavor, they made the best apple pie. On the hottest days of summer they were peeled, sliced, and dried on the roof of the porch to put away for the winter when we would use them to make apple puffs and pies. They were on the breakfast table every morning during the summer and fall in the form of fried apples…During the winter we consumed bushels of apples. After supper, when all the evening work was finished, we would settle down to study and would bring in a basket of apples to munch on…and we would be up until past midnight studying, singing, reciting poetry, and devouring apples, pickles, and anything else edible.” – Edna Lewis, The Taste of Country Cooking, p.154-155.
No matter how many times I encounter these passages, they offer me something: a connection to the harvest, a remembrance of the season’s cycles and, of course, a plan for my kitchen.
Let’s start with the basics. Apple Cider, Applesauce, and Apple Pie.
Apple Cider is sheer fun. The first time I really hung out with Travis was a cider pressing. I was new to Vermont and a couple of us went out and collected apples from the side of a dirt road and carried them in a ratty plastic laundry basket to the yard then pressed them right into champagne glasses. It was not hard to fall in love with Vermont. Today, we try to host a cider pressing party or at least attend one every year. This year, in Seattle, our friend Tyler’s annual cider party has reached creative and somewhat epic proportions. He and a few others run around the city collecting fallen apples from public parks and then bring them back to the press. He’s rigged up a two-part press: the first part is attached to a bike and when a party attendant jumps on and pedals, the bike chain turns a crank that chunks up the apples; the second part presses the chunks and makes up the cider to fill the line of containers.
Although cider is lovely, there is really only so much that you can drink. Thankfully, cooking with it is equally fun. Use it in a marinade, throw it in a pancake or quick-bread batter, cook down a pot of greens, mix it into a salad dressing, add a small amount to a soup or sauce… pretty much anything for which you would use lemon juice, orange juice, or a sweet liquid will work! And as it starts to ferment consider leaving it out to acidify and make your own cider vinegar!
Applesauce is one of the best things to eat. It just is. And if you disagree with me, you are probably just doing it wrong. For starters, there is more to the world of applesauce than the fine, peel-less puree from a jar that we all consumed as kids. That is fine, and it has its place. But what about an applesauce made with red apples that still contains the peels? Pink applesauce! What about a sauce made from large and small chunks so the small chunks break down finely but you are left with large delicious chunks throughout? What about applesauce made with a small amount of butter or coconut oil so there is a hint of creaminess and a more luxurious mouthfeel? And then there’s the eating of it. You could just choose to eat your applesauce out of a bowl and with a spoon, or you could go a little applesauce crazy. Put some on your pancakes. Mix some in with your yogurt. Use a thick chunky sauce on your pork chops or your roast chicken. Stir that tiny leftover bit into your quick-bread or pancake batter. Pour a little cream in, or pour it on a little ice cream. Not convinced? Martha Stewart agrees with me that applesauce is great – just see her October 2014 issue.
Apple Pie is American. It is the 4th of July, it is Thanksgiving. And I’m not going to risk posting a recipe, mostly because I don’t exactly have one. Here’s what I’ve got: a basic pate brisee with half whole wheat flour, 4 or so apples sliced up and tossed with a bit of sugar (1/8 cup?), a bit of cloves (1/2 tsp?), and a lot of cinnamon (3 tsp?), and an oven. But what I lack in specifics I can make up for in suggestion! Here are some great places to look for more detailed guidance: Smitten Kitchen’s lattice top pie or slab apple pie, Martha’s classic apple pie, or Edna Lewis’ pie (full confession: I haven’t made this yet, but Edna Lewis is brilliant and I can’t imagine that this pie is less than amazing). Play with these and develop your own pie identity. But for heaven’s sake don’t heat the pie up to much when you eat it, and be sure to have at least one slice for breakfast.
We’ve covered the basics. On to some of the less obvious uses! Apple Pancakes, Apple Quiche, and Apple Hash.
Apple Pancakes are my favorite breakfast at my Mom’s house. I get to feel like a kid again, we all get to have slices of pancakes right out of the skillet, and I get my apple fix early in the day. It’s hard to go wrong.
My Mom’s lovely apple pancake is the result of sauteing apple chunks with butter, cinnamon and sugar in a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet. Then she pours a pancake batter over the sauteed apples and slides it in the pre-heated oven (375?) until it’s done. She then inverts the pancake onto a plate and we eat the whole thing in about 15 minutes. Apple pancakes could be as simple as adding chunks of apple directly to batter or adding applesauce to batter. I’ve even seen a great idea for making apple rings and dropping them into a skillet then pouring the batter onto them to make individual apple-ring pancakes. I haven’t tried the apple ring variation yet, I’m too addicted to this fancy-pants version my Mom makes. But if you too it, let me know how it goes!
Apple Quiche is a delicious breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The trick is that you cannot use too many apples – they do contain water which will release during cooking and mess with the texture of the quiche. I’ve tried cooking them down just slightly to release some liquid but then they start to go the way of applesauce and that does not suit this purpose. So just restrain yourself and let apples be part of the quiche filling, not the whole quiche filling. Other additions could be julienned red onions, chard, and cheddar cheese. Or maybe scallions and bleu cheese. Or diced yellow onion and sausage. Or leeks and bacon. You can pretty much use apples as the cohesive element and just clean out your refrigerator produce drawers! For the quiche itself I suggest using a pate brisee or some other crust you like then mixing 4 or so eggs with 1 cup or so milk and/or cream (I do a combination of whole milk and cream; you don’t have to be so decadent but I do recommend some fat; this is not the place for a full cup of skim milk), some seasoning like sea salt and a pinch of nutmeg, maybe some cayenne, and that is that. If you need more ideas, turn of course to Martha.
Apple Hash is a great thing to eat every day. It can be with or without meat, although apple and pig is surely one of the best culinary combinations ever. Onions or leeks are a must. I like some kind of green, usually collard greens or chard. Potatoes are good, although sweet potatoes are even better. If you have frozen corn kernels from the summer they make a nice touch, as do late-season summer squash. Other root vegetables can be good, although I do recommend beets, turnips, or rutabaga over carrots. Top with a fried egg for breakfast, serve with biscuits and ham for lunch or dinner.
There are, of course, so many more fun things you could try! I love apple butter, and if you do too read my friend Aaron’s blog post about making his grandmother’s apple butter. And I remember loving applesauce meatloaf when I was growing up, but I haven’t tried it in years (and I’m planning a meatloaf post otherwise I would discuss it further here).
What makes apples so darn versatile? In my opinion, a few key things. First, they aren’t soft like the stone fruits (peaches, plums, etc.) so they hold up well in savory dishes such as hashes, meatloaf, and quiche. Second, they are the perfect sweetness – not cloying when freshly eaten, but not tart when cooked and thus requiring lots of sugar. How is it that an apple pie requires minimal sweetening, but sweet strawberries need gobs of sugar to make a nice pie? Third, the pectin and relative dryness of the fruit (think of the quantity of liquid produced in a apple pie vs. an bery pie) make it an excellent component of baked foods like pancakes, quick-breads, and cakes.
A last point of excellence regarding apples are their total kid-friendliness. They are the perfect go-to snack. They are refreshing and hydrating but still have substance (see here for a breakdown of popular fruits and vegetables by water content — hydration is important, but so is insoluble fiber!). They can be eaten plain while on the go or dressed up and made silly. James loves to grab a whole apple and just eat all the skin off; I then take the chunk of fruit left around the core and save it in the fridge and once I have a few of these I dice them up and make applesauce. My favorite go-to treat for James is apples sliced up and sauteed in butter or coconut oil until barely soft and then topped with cinnamon and nutmeg.
Up at the farm, there are wild apple trees all over. The apples are great for cider, or sauce. The cows love them. But we’ve also been planting an apple orchard. We’re up to 9 trees by now, and I’m looking forward to more, and to harvests that get me and my apple addiction through the year. Until then, I’ll just be grateful for every locally grown apple I can get.
*Buy local if at all possible! Or at least buy American if you’re in a state that truly does not produce apples (are there any?). Less local apples mostly appear from March to July – those are the months that I stick with anything I’ve managed to can, or I just go without. It’s been harder since having kids, apples are definitely a James staple, so I just need to up my canning game. Impressively, only 6% of the fresh apples consumed in the U.S. are international apples. Not sure what percentage makes up all the juice and applesauce…. when in doubt, try to buy and make your own, or support those that do!
A last point is to buy organic. I generally try not to push this as I know it’s more than a value decision, it’s also a budget decision. But with apples it’s too important. In 2014, they tested #1 for pesticide residue. And for as many apples as my family and I eat, that adds up to a whole lot of residue fast. This is one place where I am adamant about organic. Back in 1989, the issue of chemical residue and apples reared its head as the Alar Scare (see here and here for conflicting descriptions!). Regardless of the details of both sides, one truth remains constant: children are the most vulnerable food consumers of the population. So this is one place where I highly encourage buying organic or not at all.
I confess to being intimidated by sourdough bread. I have never made a loaf that I’ve loved. And the chapters that I encounter in such books as Rose Levy Barnbaum’s excellent Bread Bible don’t make me any more confident. Pages upon pages of discussion and recipes!
Consider instead this account from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Shores of Silver Lake:
“But how do you make sourdough?” Mrs. Boast asked. “You start it,” said Ma, “by putting some flour and warm water in a jar and letting it stand till it sours.” “Then when you use it, always leave a little,” said Laura. “And put in the scraps of biscuit dough, like this, and more warm water,” Laura put in the warm water, “and cover it,” she put the clean cloth and the plate on the jar, “and just set it in a warm place,” she set it on its place on the shelf by the stove. “And it’s always ready to use, whenever you want it.”
I’ve never tried starting my own and it certainly sounds easy. However I suspect that we live in a much more sterilized environment than Laura did and that getting the right yeasts into the starter are a greater matter of luck and persistence than they used to be. There are ways around this, of course: find a friend who bakes with sourdough regularly and use some of their starter, or even buy some online from a fine source such as GEM Cultures in Redmond, WA (they’re great, they also have fun dairy cultures, and a “cultured crepe” starter that I’d like try sometime).
For now, I’ve shelved my sourdough bread ambitions. Where I have actually shone a bit more is in the world of sourdough pancakes and waffles. Yum! The flavor is incomparable. I’ll start by discussing these, and then move on to the easier substitute that I’m using right now. Because sourdough is sort of like a pet, you have to feed it and you can’t leave it when you and your almost 3-year old son and 2-month old fetus go to Seattle for a month. It will die. And then, being pregnant and distracted by work and said 3-year old, you won’t have time or energy to cultivate, borrow, or even order a new one. So you find reasonable substitutes. But I still miss the flavor of the real thing, and I’m planning to bring it back into my kitchen as soon as I think I’m ready for the responsibility again.
Sourdough is a living thing. It requires food (flour, and I think it has to be gluten-ful flour; typically I use whole wheat or rye) water, and warmth. The fridge is a great way to hibernate the starter in between uses, but don’t let it hibernate too long. I think one week in the fridge is the longest I’d go without refreshing. And depending on the time of year and your weather, you will need to keep it out of the fridge longer to re-awaken it. If you plan to use sourdough regularly it is worth keeping notes on weather, the food you give the starter, and the results you get so that you can perfect your pancakes to your liking in your home environment.
Refreshing the Starter
I add one cup of flour (I prefer to use whole wheat flour or rye flour) and 1 cup room temperature filtered/distilled water (or well water, so long as it’s not water with fluoride or any treatment that might interfere with the sourdough) to the starter in a bowl and let it sit covered with a thin, clean cloth overnight in a warm place. In the winter that means near the wood stove, in the summer that’s usually on the kitchen counter. In the morning I take 1/2 to 1 cup’s worth of the refreshed starter and set that in a jar – I usually put it in a half-pint glass jar, and that amount should come up past the midway point but well below the top of the jar. That goes in the fridge, and I leave the rest in the bowl and start adding ingredients…
I have always loved lemon bars. I’ll call that my gateway drug into the world of lemons. And last year I received a jar of preserved lemons as a Christmas gift from a pastry chef friend (he gave friends jars of caramel sauce, grapefruit-ginger marmalade, and preserved lemons – he said I was the only one who was excited about the lemons and knew what they were. Travesty!) I was determined to try out lemon preserving projects but, being me, I was not content to go to the grocery store and purchase lemons. I waited almost a year until lemons were in season again in California. Then I ordered a 10 pound case of organic Meyer lemons. They arrived. And they were lovely and worth the wait!
At first I thought 10 pounds wouldn’t be enough, but it proved to be ample for the following projects:
- 3 1/2 pints of lemon curd
- 5 pints of lemon marmalade
- 3 pints preserved lemons
This was some serious preserving fun. I called this my last wild kitchen fling before Lytle arrived, and here’s the evidence of my fun:
Even though the lemons were organic, James and I washed them all. Marmalade and preserved lemons being rind-dependent it seemed the prudent thing to do. Once in a great while, I can be responsible in the kitchen.
For both the marmalade and the curd, I followed recipes from the book Food in Jars (click here to see the Food in Jars blog and eight excellent things to do with Meyer lemons!). The curd was lovely and simple, if not egg-yolk heavy and therefore expensive. Definitely more of a treat than a kitchen staple. The marmalade was time-consuming and sticky, but also tasty. I’ll definitely make small batches of both again next year.
But oh, the preserved lemons! Minimal ingredients, maximum use of the lemons, simple to prepare, delicious and ridiculously versatile. I might buy 10 pounds again next year just for preserved lemons. And I keep throwing the term around like everyone must know what I mean, but in case you have never experienced them they are quartered lemons stuffed with salt (I used 1 T or so of coarse sea salt) and left to soften in a brine. You leave them in the jar for a few weeks, gently turning the jar around to move the brine. Then take the jars out of the brine, stuff them into a new jar and refrigerate. I have not looked into any canning methods for the lemons. I am guessing if left in a cool, dark place they would be fine, or that they could even be left in the brine for longer than a few weeks until ready to use. But I will save that experimenting for another year. For now, the quart jars each yielded about a pint stuffed with the lemons, which hasn’t taken up too much room in the fridge. Some people rinse the lemons before using, but I like to leave them as they are and let them be both lemon and salt for the dish I am making.
And what exactly do I make with them? Well…
Quinoa salad with carrots, apples, raisins, and preserved lemon. Pizza with ricotta, wilted chard, and preserved lemon. Warm lentils with goat cheese and preserved lemon. Pasta with spinach, sardines, and preserved lemon. Endless! Delicious! And so necessary in the middle of winter.
It all started with an Amish auction we went to in the fall. We saw some friends leaving with a couple of cages, one with two bunnies and one with two chickens. They were planning to fatten them up and eat them for dinner in the next couple of weeks. I guess James absorbed more of this conversation than I realized.
Fast forward a few weeks and we were talking about what we wanted for Christmas. James announced that he would like a bunny. We don’t have pets, and he’s shown little interest in animals, so I was a bit surprised. “Like, as a pet, or to eat?” I asked. “To eat. A bunny and a chicken.” He did not waver in his conviction that that is what he wanted for Christmas.
Fast forward again and I’d gotten my hands on three backyard-raised bunnies, skinned and cleaned by our friends from the auction. I’ve eaten rabbit before but have never cooked it, so I wanted to play with one before I launched into Christmas dinner. Now, to some degree meat is meat — as a chef friend once told me when I asked how to prepare a Thanksgiving turkey: “Season to taste, cook it ’til it’s done” (insert nonchalant, all-knowing shrug on his part, and then a slight glare on my part). I thought I’d try something a little more fun than roasted whole animal but not too daring. I portioned out the meat, which was an adventure in itself; I’ve only ever dealt with taking poultry off the bone or breaking down a large animal like goat or lamb. Without any kind of bone saw at my disposal (do they have mini-saws for smaller animals?) I left the spine and ribs intact for soup and cut large chunks off the loin and then detached the cute little arms and legs. I patted the pieces dry, dredged them in seasoned flour, and threw them in a pot to brown.
As I removed and added pieces, a nice dark fond was developing on the bottom of the pan. Once pieces were all browned I deglazed the pan, added onions, honey, herbs, apple cider vinegar, and vegetable stock, then threw the lid on and braised the rabbit for an hour or so at 350 (you know, I seasoned it to taste and cooked it ’til it was done).
The results? Fantastic. And the creamed rabbit gravy was not too shabby either. Rabbit stock? Also tasty.
Fast forward to Christmas dinner. A bunny and a chicken. I pretty much did the same thing I’d done with the first rabbit but I was able to fit it all into my gorgeous Christmas All-Clad 3-Quart Saute Pan and braise it on the stovetop with apples, herbs, mustard, stock and maple syrup. Also fantastic.
I hope my kiddo continues to be an adventurous eater who appreciates trying new things and sees food as a valid and lovely gift. I learned some great tidbits as well. To sum up:
- The rabbits we ate were only 6 weeks old but were pretty meaty and generous. They fed 4 of us at dinner comfortably. My research (aka Travis) notes that rabbits are actually one of the best return on investments in terms of meat for inputs. Unlike a cow, which takes pounds upon pounds of grass (not grain! Put down the grain-fed beef!) and water to create a certain quantity of meat, rabbits are incredibly efficient meat producers and do not require a lot of time for growth and development.
- Rabbits are one of Heifer International’s gift options. We thought this was a nice addition to Jamie’s Christmas gift – we donated a trio of rabbits to a family in Honduras. We also found some tree seedlings to donate for Travis and a hive of honeybees for me. I thank James for starting us on what I hope will be a family tradition of food for ourselves and others at the holidays!
- Domesticated and raised rabbit has a pleasant mild taste that lends itself well to all kinds of seasonings. It’s the other other other white meat and a great blank slate for food creativity and adventure.
- Rabbit is decent bang for the buck. The rabbits from our friend were $20 each, which is about what I budget for a 4lb organic chicken. The poundage is definitely less than a chicken, and we did not get as much stock from the rabbit as the carcass is also smaller, but at only 6 weeks of growth the necessary inputs for a rabbit are less than a chicken so I feel that we are eating “lower on the meat chain” if you will. Rabbit will definitely become a major part of our meat diet in the short-term, and very likely part of our homesteading plan in the long-term.
For now, many thanks to James for a lovely Christmas dinner! And if you happen to find rabbit at a market or direct from a farmer, buy some. Then season to taste, cook it ’til it’s done, and enjoy.
Oh I love the food at the holidays. This year was no different, complete with a cookie party full of caramel shortbread, peanut butter fudge, and rum balls, a Christmas dinner of rabbit and chicken at James’ request (look for my upcoming post on a bunny and a chicken), and new experiments in the realm of egg nog and fruitcake.
Let’s start with the nog.
We had a Friendsgiving two weekends before Thanksgiving and I made two batches of egg nog – a non-alcoholic one to take to the dinner and a boozy one to age. The weeks passed and Christmas came… I brought some out to my family in Vermont but we only sampled. The New Years Eve party with some of the Friendsgiving crew was where the nog was more appreciated. It was quite boozy and on the thin side, so I added some cream to thicken it and then whipped 4 or so egg whites until they were barely holding their shape, so very very soft peaks. I folded that in and left the nutmeg grinder next to the punch bowl. Lessons learned around this year’s experimenting include:
- Use cane sugar to sweeten – a liquid like maple syrup only thins the nog out even more, and
- Only softly beat the egg whites until they are barely stiff. Travis has hated egg whites in his nog in the past but liked them this time – I think they were too frothy before. This way they add some volume and texture without any over-frothiness (think perfect cappuccino foam done by a real coffee artist versus the over-aerated stuff too many coffeehouses offer up).
For next year I will be tinkering with the Italian meringue idea my friend Aaron wrote about in the previous Nog and Log post, and I think I’ll try a different booze combination, maybe rum and brandy instead of rum and bourbon. Something else that will be fun to play with more next year is a dairy-free version that I tried once this Thanksgiving (inspired by a recipe in Yoga Journal magazine): equal parts coconut milk and almond milk, maple syrup to sweeten, and fresh nutmeg on top. I used canned coconut milk so it was quite thick and rich, and I went minimal on the maple syrup; I also whipped (raw) egg whites and then shook the milks with the syrup and some egg whites in a cocktail shaker and served with nutmeg on top. It was heavenly, and we all enjoyed it, James included:) So many fun ideas for next year, it will be hard to wait 11 more months…
On to the Log
Here’s where things get interesting. I made two batches of fruitcake this year, a golden batch with apricots, golden raisins, almonds, and maple syrup, and a dark batch with prunes, dates, raisins, walnuts, and molasses (recipes and further discussion for fruitcake geeks at end of post)*. I aged them both with rummy cheesecloths. I was shooting for cakes that were dense with nuts and fruit and barely held together with batter. Here’s what I learned:
- Just do the dark fruitcake. Although the golden fruitcake was enjoyed, most everyone who sampled them both thought the dark one was a) better and b) more “fruitcake-y”;
- I could have done even less batter;
- A finer chop on the fruits and nuts is necessary – this will help everything hold together assuming I do use less batter; and
- The cakes were fine without any fat but maybe I’ll experiment a bit with fat next year – trying out coconut oil and butter would be my two top choices but high-quality leaf lard that doesn’t have too much of a bacon-y taste might work as well.
I made them up the day after Thanksgiving, but I could try earlier next year. In her fantastic book The Taste of Country Cooking, Edna Lewis writes about making the annual Christmas fruitcake in September:
Late September was a fine time to make the Christmas fruitcake. There were rainy days in September when outside work was curtailed and the cookstove was on, making the kitchen warm and cozy. The family was around and friends were dropping in – chopping fruit, grinding spices, and sampling homemade wine, trying to decide which one was best for the cake, and sipping a bit of whiskey as well. Preparing the cake became a festive occasion, and almost as exciting as Christmas itself. In selecting ingredients for the fruitcake, it is best to buy a few important items such as citron, seeded raisins, and candied peel in late December for the following Christmas. The freshest ingredients come into the market too late to make an aged cake. The special fruits can be kept perfectly well in a cool, dry place (not a refrigerator) until it’s time to make the cake. The same care should be taken with spices. Cinnamon from Ceylon is much more delicate and sweet than the other bark that is found today at most fancy food places. Fruitcake is so special and lasts so long that only the best ingredients should be used in it – p.192.
Imagine if for every holiday or season we planned ahead a year in advance to make something that would then age for a couple of months! I think this is the basis of my love for fruitcake – anything that requires such aging and planning ahead makes the farmwife in me giddy. I will take note and plan for next year. In the meantime, let’s all savor the thought of celebrating the events in our lives with special foods. Viva la fruitcake!
*Golden Fruitcake – baked at 300 until done
- 2 lbs 3 oz of chopped dried apricots, golden raisins, and chopped almonds, combined with
- 4 beaten eggs,
- 1 c Grade A maple syrup, and
- 1/4 c apple cider; to this add
- 1 c whole wheat flour,
- 1 tsp baking powder, and
- spices – I used cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and sea salt
Dark Fruitcake – baked at 300 until done
- 2 lbs 3 oz of chopped prunes, chopped dates, raisins, and chopped walnuts, combined with
- 4 beaten eggs,
- 1/2 c molasses,
- 1/2 c apple cider, and
- 1/2 c maple sugar; to this add
- 1 c whole wheat flour,
- 1 tsp baking powder, and
- spices – I used cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and sea salt
These recipes were inspired by a bit of research. Some of my favorite discovered tidbits include the Dark Christmas Fruitcake from the Good Housekeeping Cookbook of 1963 featuring 1/2 sq. unsweetened chocolate in the batter; the Never Fail Fruitcake from the Favorite Recipes of Home Economics Teachers Desserts Edition of 1963 featuring 4 cans of coconut, only 3 T of flour, 2 cans of sweetened condensed milk, and 4 pounds of candied fruit and nuts; and the Fruitcake in Grapefruit Shells from the same cookbook featuring cakes baked in grapefruit halves that the home cook candies ahead of time (it should be noted that this cookbook contains 22 fruitcake recipes!). I also learned from the King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook that the fruitcake is a close relative of the plum pudding, which incidentally originally had raisins not plums and was not a pudding as we think of pudding today. So much to ponder for next year’s experimenting! Check back next September:)
Around this time of year I start to get excited and organized (some would say crazy) about holiday food. I take food traditions seriously, as I have mentioned a couple of times. As a kid we had our own food traditions but those have tended to slip away as we kids turned into teenagers and twenty-somethings. In my late twenties, I felt the strangely urgent need to return to having holiday food traditions and rituals. And, as a food experimenter, I have rarely been content to do the same thing twice. I like to have a Christmas cookie party but I try new recipes every year. I like to have a big night of watching A Christmas Story but I vary the snacks and the drinks. I like to make and give food gifts to friends and neighbors but I make something different every time. Despite this varying, somewhere along the way egg nog and fruitcake became necessaries for me.
Let’s start with the nog. This obsession actually began some time ago as I read and re-read Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. During haying season, Almanzo’s mother makes egg nog everyday for the men to have in the field.
“In the middle of the morning, Mother blew the dinner horn. Almanzo knew what that meant. He stuck his pitchfork in the ground, and went running and skipping down across the meadows to the house. Mother met him on the back porch with the milk-pail, brimming full of cool egg-nog. The egg-nog was made of milk and cream, with plenty of eggs and sugar. Its foamy top was freckled with spices, and pieces of ice floated in it. The sides of the pail were misty with cold. Almanzo trudged slowly toward the hayfield with the heavy pail and a dipper. He thought to himself that the pail was too full, he might spill some of the egg–nog…He should do something to save it. So he set down the pail, he dipped the dipper full, and he drank. The cold egg-nog slid smoothly down his throat, and it made him cool inside… Father always maintained that a man would do more work in his twelve hours, if he had a rest and all the egg-nog he could drink morning and afternoon.”
I was blown away by this as a kid. You could make egg nog?! It was not just a Christmas-only and from-the-carton experience? Almanzo’s family made and drank egg nog in the summer? (by the by, this makes a ton of sense – summer is when hens are laying the most eggs; it was only until fairly recently with the advent of artificial light to encourage hens to lay through winter that eggs were plentiful year round). I’ve carried this thrill with me through my life and started making homemade nog a few years ago.
Egg nog is fairly basic. Eggs, separated into yolks for the nog and whites to whip and fold in, cream, whole milk, sweetening, and any kind of seasoning or booze you prefer. Adding booze prolongs the life of the nog significantly. For the first time this year I’m making small batches regularly for us to enjoy as a family as well as making one super-boozy batch to age for a month and give away as Christmas gifts. Here is the basic recipe I use for small batches:
- 3 egg yolks*
- 1/2 c cream
- 1/2 c milk
- 3 egg whites, beaten until softly peaked and garnished on top (Travis does not like this, but James and I do)*
- 1/8 c to 1/4 c maple syrup, depending on how sweet you like it — you can also use 1/4 to 1/2 c of cane sugar instead
- freshly ground nutmeg, or any other seasoning such as a pinch of clove or cinnamon
- booze if you would like: rum and brandy are the traditional choices, but bourbon and whiskey are frequently used as well
*Health Note! This treat does contain raw egg. For Pete’s sake use your common sense and buy the freshest, safest eggs you can find (think farmers’ market if possible). I like to make what I call “Misty Brook Maple Nog” which uses raw milk, raw cream, and fresh eggs from my new favorite Misty Brook Farm Shop about 25 minutes away. Find a farmer you trust!
On to the log. Fruitcake is a new obsession for me, born mostly out of curiosity. There are jokes about ancient fruitcake and untouched slabs at Christmas parties. And at supermarkets the plastic wrapped boxes showcasing glossy candied fruited cakes do no resemble food in any way yet they must get purchased by some mystery consumer. How on earth did this dessert ever become popular? I didn’t get it. So a few years ago I tried it. Of course, I substituted dried fruits for candied fruits, and omitted anything fluorescent in color (e.g. no cherries at all, maraschino or otherwise). As instructed in the recipe, I poured brandy directly over the hot-from-the-oven cake, and whoosh! I got a huge brandy-steam insta-drunk. I don’t recommend doing that. But aside from becoming unintentionally intoxicated, I had a blast unwrapping the plastic wrap and dousing the cheesecloth-encased cake in additional glugs of alcohol the weeks before the big day. And come Christmas, we opened up the cake, and it was delicious! Delicious I tell you! We even brought some to my Mom and her boyfriend’s Christmas party and it was devoured. I’ve developed an intense need to understand how this lovely and decadent seasonal cake morphed into the horror that supermarket fruitcakes are today. I have no answers…. yet….
For now, I’ll be making my fruitcake next weekend, and I’ll still debating ingredients. Fruitcakes tend to break down into two general categories: golden fruitcake, with corn syrup (bleh), apricots, golden raisins, etc., and dark fruitcake, with molasses and brown sugar, raisins, figs, dates, etc. I’ve seen sherry called for in the golden cake, and spiced rum or brandy for the dark. Typically I tend towards the darker style with molasses but it never hurts to vary the routine. The certainties are that I will NOT be using corn syrup, I will be using pecans, I will be boozing it up with something (probably whatever’s leftover from the nog, I’m a thrifty cook rather than a recipe-following cook), and if there is anything candied it will be citrus and/or ginger, nothing else.
So here is my Nog and Log Challenge to you. Go make some nog, go make a fruit log, and share your stories and photos with me! Dare to try something new this season, I think you’ll like it. As for me, I will be reporting back on all results in Nog and Log, Part II sometime shortly after Christmas.