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 made two pint jars of strawberry preserves last summer. We opened the first jar Christmas Day to go with our pancake breakfast and only finished the jar midway through February because I was so careful. I didn’t want to go through it too quickly you see. We’re on to our second jar now, and I’m being equally stingy with this last precious jar. Perhaps you think I’m cruel to talk about summer fruit in March. Except that now is the time to wax poetic about the efforts from the summer, lest we don’t appreciate them enough! So let’s talk about these preserves…
I learned early on in life that “preserves” is another word for jam. In Anne of Avonlea, Anne discovers 6-year old Davy in Marilla’s pantry with a spoon, blissfully consuming her famous yellow plum preserves right out of the jar. After being lectured to and feeling duly guilty, Davy observes to Anne: “Anyhow, there will be plenty of jam in heaven, that’s one comfort.” “Perhaps there will, if we want it,” she said. “But what makes you think so?” “Why, it’s in the catechism,” said Davy. “Oh no, there is nothing like that in the catechism, Davy.” “But I tell you there is,” persisted Davy. “It was in that question Marilla taught me last Sunday. ‘Why should we love God?’ It says, ‘Because he makes preserves, and redeems us.’ Preserves is just the holy word for jam.” (chapter 8).
Indeed it is. Despite the grammatical confusion, Davy was on to something here. Many resources will tell you that preserves contain large chunks or pieces of fruit rather than being of a more uniform and smooth texture like jam, or a jelled texture like jelly. However, most of the actual preserve recipes I’ve seen treat preserves much like a jam and with all due respect to the cooks of the past who have canned more than I have, I have to disagree. Preserves should be the fruit itself preserved, not just some jammed or jelled up version of it. There is some use of the word “conserve” as well, but that just seems to confuse the issue. For me, I think of preserves as chunks of fruit in a small amount of syrup, jam as a more broken-down and uniform-textured fruit spread, and jelly as a… jelly.
Now, jam is lovely, especially when homemade from perfect fruit. But I think preserves are my preference on two fronts. First, as an eater – I enjoy getting the hunks of fruit, and maybe it’s warped but as a mom I sort of think James is getting more “fruit” when I ladle preserved strawberries onto his pancakes rather than spooning out strawberry jelly. Weird mom logic for sure, but there it is.
Second, it takes so much less cooking down! That’s the real bitch of canning fruit, pardon my language. Most of the fruit we want to jam up is ripe and ready at the height of summer, when no on wants to have their stove going for more than ten minutes. I have begged fruit to thicken over a steamy stove-top at 10 o’clock on a July night (and for the record, fruit remains numb to begging, save your dignity and don’t bother trying it). So when I found a recipe for strawberry preserves that required bringing sugared strawberries to a simmer and then letting them sit overnight to thicken, doing that again in the morning and then canning it up, I was signed, sealed, delivered.
Now, if you are a lover of jam, the kind of person who collects different jams at different markets and has 3-4 open jars in the fridge at any one time, I salute you. And I think you should make tea and scones and invite me over. But for those of us who like the chunks of fruit in a thinner jell and who like to can up their own fruit but have no intention of making jam at 5am to prevent heat stroke, preserves are indeed the holy word for jam. So here’s the strawberry preserves recipe that converted me. And I guarantee, when you open the first jar sometime in the fall or early winter, it will smell like heaven.
Strawberry Preserves, from The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, p.19
- 2 lbs fresh strawberries (about 4 cups)
- 1 pound granulated sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
Carefully rinse the berries in a sieve or colander and then let them dry on a clean towel for 15 minutes or so. Stem and quarter them carefully. Place the strawberries in a non-reactive pot (I use an enameled cast-iron pot) and add the sugar and salt, letting them sit for at least 2 hours or overnight until the strawberries release some of their juice. Gently bring the berries to a “lively simmer” over medium heat, shaking rather than stirring the pot. Cook at that lively simmer for 12-15 minutes, just until the fruit is tender. Do not overcook! Do not cover the berries until they are completely cooled, and then let them sit overnight. The next day, bring them back to a full simmer and then ladle into sterilized canning jars, leaving 1/4″ at the top. Store the preserves in a cool, dark place.
*Note #1 – I meant to double the batch but only had enough strawberries to 1.5x the batch, but forgot and carelessly added 2x the sugar, then realized my mistake and added a bit of water so the solution wouldn’t be too sugary… you get the idea. Typical, yes. But not fruitless (hee hee) as I learned something valuable. As long as the fruit is not overcooked, having extra syrup at the end of the process does not detract from the deliciousness of the preserves themselves and leaves you with a bit of strawberry syrup. Yum! I mostly used it to make strawberry milk for James, but I did try some in sparkling water for a “strawberry soda” of sorts and loved it. I’m hoping to make several different syrups this year for homemade sodas, including lemon, strawberry, and cranberry.
*Note #2 – they do not say anything about processing in a water bath and I suspect there is enough sugar that they will be fine if you consume them within 6 months. But if you’re overly cautious (and that is reasonable, botulism is worth concern) then process in a full-boil water bath for at least 5 minutes. I knew I wanted to wait until winter to start enjoying these so I canned up and did the water bath.
*Note #3 – Before writing the above with Scott Peacock, Edna Lewis included a plum preserve recipe in her The Taste of Country Cooking. I intend to try this recipe out this summer if I can get my hands on some lovely plums. Perhaps if I find some yellow plums I could make “heavenly Marilla preserves”….
Damson Preserves, from The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis, p.157
- 3 pounds sound, blemish-free plums
- 2 1/2 pounds sugar
Prepare plums by first washing them off, draining them carefully, and sticking each plum a few times with a stout needle. Place in preserving kettle, sprinkle over with sugar, and leave overnight. In the morning, bring the kettle to a simmer over a medium boil and continue until the plums are tender and the syrup has become thick (note: do not overcook the preserves. Cook only until fruit is tender and syrup is a clear wine plum color. If the syrup turns brown, it is overcooked.) Remove from the burner and leave preserves to rest overnight. Next morning, heat the preserves until just hot and pout them into the sterilized jars, filling the jars to 1/4″ from the top. Then pour on the melted paraffin. When the paraffin becomes set and cold, screw on the tops and place in a cool, dry place. Makes 6 5oz jars.
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.
Well, summer and peach season are way over. In fact, I’ve missed the fall equinox by a couple of weeks. But when we’re talking about something like homemade peach ice cream (handcranked!) I think we can all agree on a “better late than never” philosophy.
Travis’ grandmother’s birthday is in the middle of August and for a long time growing up, they handcranked peach ice cream to serve with cake. This tradition had not happened in the time that I’ve been part of the family and I decided this was not okay. This was clearly a tradition that needed to be resurrected.
It’s not just because I’m a big fan of food traditions that I was so keen on this project. I do think food traditions critical at helping us mark the signposts of the year and giving us things to look forward to, like fresh peaches. But it was also because I’ve, um, never made ice cream before. This is a huge gap in my food experience. I mean, come on, I studied abroad in Rome and gained 8 pounds in 3 months simply from gelato. I worked at an Italian restaurant that made its own ice cream and I became more than a little obsessed with trying each flavor (quality control, right?). And good real ice cream is one of my go-to, family-friendly desserts. And yet…. I cannot bear to buy an ice-cream maker! I HATE unitaskers in my kitchen. Thankfully, gourmet “micro-ice cream” is on the rise, so I’ve made do without making my own. So true to form, I decided that hand cranked ice cream would be the ideal first attempt.
Once upon a time, everyone hand-cranked their ice cream. Cranking wasn’t even the hard part; once upon a time, ice itself was a luxury! And you really appreciate that when you are cranking the ice cream mixture over and over and over, and the ice is melting and there might not be enough left in the freezer and you’re popping ice out of ice cube trays into a container to stay in the freezer and frantically making more ice cubes in the single tray just in case. Imagine needing more and having to run to the ice-house and saw a corner out from some sawdust. Whew.
Ice aside, however, the simplicity of the thing makes it great. It’s just peaches, cream, and sugar. Once past the hurdle of setting the hand-crank up properly, it was hard to go wrong even for an ice-cream-making-newbie like me. The time-honored traditional recipe is from a cookbook written in 1938 by one of Travis’ great-great aunts. Use 8 parts ice and 1 part rock-salt for the machine. One quart of peaches cut up and food milled, 1 pint of cream, 2 T maple sugar, 1/8 tsp almond extract, and then add as much sugar as need to get the mixture just too sweet (we just kept adding maple sugar, and we doubled the recipe). I love love love that measurement, because everyone’s “too sweet” is different and it’s an easy metric that guarantees the person making the ice cream will at least love the final product. My friend Melissa and I actually had a lot of fun adding small quantities of sugar and deciding when it had become just too sweet. It was a great exercise in paying attention and using your preferences as a guide. Okay, so here goes….
The texture never got as firm as we are used to but that was in part because we were too impatient to freeze the ice cream for a few hours once it was well churned. Also, maybe once upon a time when everything was hand cranked, ice cream was simply softer? Regardless, it froze up enough in time for the birthday cake! It was solid enough to scoop and oh, it was good. Just like summer in my mouth.
So here’s my recommendation. Resurrect someone’s hand-crank machine and make up some ice-cream. Peach is mighty fine, but fortunately there are myriad options and recipes to be found even though peaches are long out of season. Hand crank that stuff so that you really understand and appreciate the luxury of what you’re eating. And then, when that batch is gone and you know that a new obsession has been born, go out and treat yourself to an ice cream machine. And then invite me over for the inaugural batch:)
I love oatmeal. I started as most people of my generation did, with Quaker instant oatmeal. My favorite flavors were peaches and cream and maple brown sugar. Even as a 20s-something I consumed a fair bit hiking and camping with my super-outdoorsy boyfriend. Fortunately my huge interest in getting back to the basics of food drew me away from instant oatmeal. For about seven years I ate old-fashioned rolled oats, topped with brown sugar, walnuts, and milk, everyday for breakfast. Then I went to graduate school in Vermont and started using maple syrup in place of brown sugar (enter Travis). After reading more on processing and nutrients and blah blah blah, I transitioned to steel-cut oats, also called Scotch oats or Irish oatmeal. It was the last stage of my oatmeal “growing up”. Both quick and old-fashioned rolled oats are made from oat groats that have been steamed and flattened with huge rollers. Steel-cut oats are the groats simply cut into two to three pieces (presumably with something steel) and are therefore much chewier and “bouncier” in the mouth. More lively, if you will. Probably not for those transitioning directly from instant oatmeal, but they are oh so delicious! And they benefit hugely from an overnight soak before the breakfast cooking (read Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions for a great discussion on why to soak most grains and legumes before consuming).
Oatmeal and I had to break up for a while, though. Travis does not like it, and tends towards the farmer-style breakfast of bacon and eggs. So for a couple of years there we did a lot of fried eggs and bacon, and I’d mix it up with various toasts from the bakery I worked at, or with pancakes or waffles, or homefries (which merit their own blog entry some day).
But now I’m bringing oatmeal back big time for several reasons. First, James likes it, and it’s exactly the kind of thing I want him growing up and eating for breakfast – the Food Lover’s Companion notes that it’s by far the most nutritious of the cereal grasses. Second, it’s cheaper than bacon and eggs and I love to balance my food budget. Third, if we don’t have eggs at breakfast it opens up eggs as lunch and dinner items, which lends itself to all manner of deliciousness and convenience. Fourth, I cook up a huge batch Monday mornings and then I have breakfast quickly ready to go for the rest of the week. Last, I’ve developed some great variations on and alternatives to the bowl of oatmeal that makes it more Travis-friendly. And I’m presenting them here in the hopes that those of you who don’t yet do oatmeal for breakfast will be excited enough to try at least one of these items.
Soak the oatmeal overnight – adding yogurt or whey to the soaking water helps break down the phytic acid in the bran. Strain and rinse the oatmeal in the morning, and then add enough water to cover by about half an inch. Less if you’re in a hurry or you like really bouncy oatmeal, more if you like it cooked more. I like to skim the rather mucilaginous stuff that rises to the top, but that’s not necessary. When down, dish up and dress it up! Here are some wonderful savory or sweet options:
Oatmeal with sauteed zucchini, shredded coconut, and sunflower seeds
Oatmeal with creamed collards and walnuts
Oatmeal with raw butter and raw honey (Jamie-style)
Oatmeal with raisins, walnuts, and maple syrup – the crowd pleaser!
Any of the above, with other grains added for extra fun – here I’ve stirred in leftover red bhutanese rice into the just finished oats
You all know how passionate I am about pan-fried cakes and their usefulness/deliciousness. Oatmeal cakes are no different! Shape a small handful of cooked oats into a patty and fry it up in ghee, bacon fat, or coconut oil, then top with maple syrup and sea salt. Yum! Both Jamie-friendly and Travis-friendly. (Sidenote, these work best with drier oatmeal, so if you’re planning to make up oatmeal for this express purpose be sure to cook it just past the moist, gooey stage).
Also a fried pan-cake, but a great way to use up a small amount of cooked oats that won’t make a bowl or enough cakes. Alternatively, it’s a great way to stretch pancake batter. I usually make pancake batter* once a week and use it over the course of two to three days, and throwing leftover cooked oatmeal in at the end is a great way to get the last cakes out of the batter. And it’s ridiculously good. I’ve been resisting oatmeal pancakes for years because I tried once with uncooked quick oats and it was awful. But cooked steel-cut oats will show off oatmeal pancakes they way they were intended to be. And yes, I am cooking pancakes outside on the grill in this photo. For those not in the know, we just survived a wicked heat wave here on the east coast.
So that’s that. Who knew oatmeal could be so versatile? Now none of us (Travis included!) have an excuse to not enjoy one of the healthiest and most frugal breakfast options out there. Happy breakfasting!
*Riva’s sourdough pancake & waffle “recipe”
- Take 1/2 – 3/4 c of sourdough starter (less starter, less sour) and add 1 1/2 c flour (I use whole wheat, but use whatever you have or make up a fun blend) and 1 1/4 c non-chlorinated water and let it sit overnight.
- Reserve 1/2 – 3/4 c of starter for next time. To the remaining sourdough, add:
- 1 egg (if you’re making waffles, separate the egg, add just the yolk, beat the white until stiff and fold in at the very end of mixing)
- Some maple syrup, I think I add between 1/8 and 1/4 c.
- Some kind of fat, such as melted butter, melted bacon fat, or melted coconut oil. 1/4 c?
- A bit o’ salt. Sea salt.
- Some baking soda. Less than a teaspoon. I think. There should be a bit of activity in the dough after you’ve added the soda – if not, your dough is not sour enough, or you didn’t add enough soda. Use your judgement and figure it out. If the dough is a bit dead, try adding some plain live yogurt.
- Thicken with flour or thin with milk so that the batter is to your liking. You can also mix it up by adding some cornmeal, buckwheat flour, or cooked oats. Yum!