Holiday Wishbook 2017 – A List Of Useful Items For The Homestead!

For my younger readers who never experienced it, I can’t fully describe what it was like when the Sears-Roebuck Wishbook arrived each autumn.  Let me just say it was a big, big deal.  It was like Amazon Prime Day, Black Friday and December 26th clearance shopping all rolled into one thick, beautiful catalog.  When it finally arrived at the end of October, you’d anxiously rip off that clear plastic covering and spend your Saturday morning pouring over the pages, hunting for the best new toy and avidly reading the colorful descriptions.  Sigh.

I’m sorry you missed that experience, but as we’re quickly approaching the holiday season,  I’d like to give you a Wishbook of sorts!  Every heirloom skill and working homestead requires certain essential tools and I want to share a few of my favorites with you. Though I am an Amazon affiliate, I have no connection to any of these companies beyond the fact that I have used these particular products for many years and have found them useful, convenient and reliable….so when I say I love them it’s because I love them!  I may do a Dirty Dozen list later on…of products I shipped back or threw in the dumpster, but not today!  These are the keepers!  Here we go!

L’Equip Food Dehydrator

I’ve been using this dehydrator for 7 or 8 years and it’s still running like a champ.  It comes with fine screens for small foods like herbs, adjustable heat settings, sized to fit in a standard cabinet, has a 10 year warranty and runs silently.  You can also buy additional trays, screens and fruit leather inserts to expand the amount you can dry at once.  It’s a real workhorse! L’EQUIP 528 6 Tray Food Dehydrator, 500-watt

      

Ball Enamel Water Bath Canner and Utensils

– When you begin preserving your own food, water bath canning is typically the first step.  What I love about the enamel canner is that after 10 years, the finish is as beautiful as when it was new.  No stains, marks or scratches unlike some of the models on the market.  The wire rack and lifter tool prevents shattered jars and burned fingers and are absolute necessities. Ball Enamel Water Bath Canner, Including Chrome-Plated Rack and 4-Piece Utensil Set

Ball Blue Book

-There are a million canning books out there, but this has been the standard bearer for several generations.  This book includes full-color pictures, step-by-step how-tos and hundreds of recipes that have been tested for safety and flavor.  In my opinion, this should be required reading for all new home-canners Blue Book Guide to Preserving (by Jarden Home Brands).

Instant Pot

-Though this is a fairly new (5 years) product on the market, I’ve used mine enough to excitedly recommend it to dozens of my close friends and family members!  The Instant Pot cooks quick, nutritious food with little mess and replaces a dozen other small appliances like yogurt makers, rice cookers, egg cooker, crock pots, steamers.  I love the set-it-and-forget-it programs and the automatic keep-warm setting.  I’m serious when I say this product has revolutionized how I prepare food for my family Instant Pot DUO60 6 Qt 7-in-1 Multi-Use Programmable Pressure Cooker, Slow Cooker, Rice Cooker, Steamer, Sauté, Yogurt Maker and Warmer 

White Wizard Stain Remover

This may seem like a strange Wishbook recommendation, but let me tell you, homesteading is dirty, dirty work.  Throw in a couple active kids and rambunctious dogs and you end up with stains that are total nightmares.  White Wizard successfully removed chocolate syrup + ketchup + iced tea from Petunia’s white cotton Sunday dress, so I’m confident it will remove pretty much any stain from any fabric.  And it smells nice too White Wizard WW010 All Purpose Stain Remover – 10 fl. oz.

Lodge Cast Iron

-Another homestead standard, my Lodge cast iron has given me many years of service with minimal work.  Scrub with oil and salt to clean, dry and wipe with oil and you’ll have a reliable pan for decades to come.  And the silicon handle is a lifesaver! Lodge Cast Iron Skillet with Red Silicone Hot Handle Holder, 12-inch

Ecofan

-We love heating with firewood, but hated the noise from the built-in fan in the woodstove, so this was a real find for us!  It’s completely non-electric and requires no installation!  You simply set the fan on the rear of the stove and as the base heats, it creates its own power and runs silently.  It’s quite small but does it ever move air!  We love it! Ecofan 810CAKBX UltrAir Mid-Size Heat Powered Wood Stove Fan, Made in Canada, Nickel 

Victorio Food Mill

-Plainly put, no other food mill, strainer, blender, juicer or processor compares to a Victorio food mill.  If you’re going to preserve your own sauces, salsas, butters and purees, you’re either going to HAVE a Victorio food mill or NEED a Victorio food mill.  It’s a real workhorse, easily grinding through tomatoes, onions, grapes, apples and discharging the seeds, cores and peels.  I cannot recommend this tool enough! Deluxe Food Strainer and Sauce Maker by VICTORIO VKP250

Garden Claw

-This is perfect for breaking ground in small areas like raised beds and for loosening and aerating soil between close plantings.    They also work well in tough, clay, packed soil…they’re so useful, we have 2! Garden Weasel 91316 Garden Claw

Push/Pull Hoe

-This tool was a game-changer for us.  Using this hoe, I can weed our entire garden (3000+ sf) in under an hour.  And the real plus to this tool is the push/pull “mopping” motion is far more gentle on the arms and shoulders than the “hacking” movement of a traditional hoe. Push Pull Hoe

Perfect Pickler

-I found this gadget at Lehman’s in Amish country many years ago and have thoroughly enjoyed using it.  I like to incorporate lacto-fermented food into our diet as often as possible because of the health benefits but a) who has time to wait months for kraut and b) who wants a 5 gallon crock of kraut anyway?!  The Perfect Pickler ferments small batches of veggies in under 10 days using only a Mason jar and salt. Perfect Pickler Fermentation Value PackageSo there’s the 2017 Legacy Wishbook!  I have a few more products to recommend, but that will have to wait til next year, my friends!  So what am I missing?  What other useful products would you add to my Wishbook?

Preserving Cranberries 3 Ways

So let’s continue in our “3 Ways” series and try our hand at preserving cranberries!  Unlike most berries that ripen in late spring or early summer, cranberries don’t come into season til late fall, generally between Thanksgiving and Christmas; that’s why the ubiquitous cranberry jelly is a must have on most everyone’s holiday table.  Like other fruits, cranberries are a high-acid food which makes preserving them a breeze and allows for a good bit of variation.  As always, when preserving cranberries or any other fruit, stick to tried recipes, safe canning techniques, even if your granny did it differently.  Today, we’re going to can fresh cranberries in a heavy syrup, can cranberry sauce and make cranberry fruit leathers.  Start your clocks, friends, because this is going to be finished and on the pantry shelves in no time!

Okay, first up, preserving cranberries in a heavy syrup.

Wash and stem your berries, then boil them in a heavy syrup for 3 minutes.  Pack the hot cranberries into pint or quart jars and cover them with the boiling heavy syrup, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace.  Cap the jars with 2-piece lids and then process in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes or as indicated in the instructions here.  That’s it.  Isn’t that crazy easy?!  Now to mix things up, you can add some delicious flavors such as cinnamon, vanilla, orange zest or use brown sugar in lieu of white sugar in the syrup.  Just be sure to use the same ratios and don’t add low-acid ingredients such as nuts or onions to the recipe.  I don’t know why you’d add onions to cranberries, but I just want to put that out there.

There's nothing as simple or delicious as preserving cranberries!

 

Alright, canned cranberries are done, so let’s move on to cranberry sauce.  I don’t know about your house, but cranberry sauce HAS to be on the table for the holidays.  Even if no one eats it, it has to be there.  Because.  So to make the thick, jelled cranberry sauce, you simmer 4 cups of cranberries in 1 cup of water til they soften and begin to burst.  Carefully put the hot berries through a sieve or food mill to achieve the desired texture.  Return the berries to the pan and add 2 cups of sugar, boil for 3 minutes, then ladle into hot jars, cap and process in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes.  If you’d rather have whole berry sauce, simply omit the sieve step and carry on with the sugar and boiling.  Complete instructions can be found here!  Again, in this instance, it’s perfectly acceptable to add a small amount of spice such as ginger or orange zest to your cranberry sauce.

2 products down, 1 to go!  You’ll not find cranberry fruit leathers at the grocery store, but they are so delicious!  Sweet, tart, chewy and they make a great dessert after a heavy meal.  To make fruit leathers, use a portion of the cranberry sauce you just made and pour onto a baking pan or dehydrator drying sheet lined with plastic wrap or parchment paper.  You need to spread the sauce out til it’s approximately 1/8 of an inch thick and even throughout the pan to prevent under/overdehydrating.  Dehydrate at 140 degrees til the sauce is pliable but not squishy anywhere; this could take anywhere from 6-12 hours, so keep checking.  When it’s finished, cut into strips and store in the fridge or freezer in plastic containers.  You can find this recipe and others at the Home Preserving Bible.

If you love preserving cranberries as much as I do, don’t stop there!  Cranberries can be dehydrated, frozen, candied, pickled, made into salsa, chutney, jam, mustard, and about a hundred other possibilities.  So when you see cranberries on sale for $.50/bag in the next few weeks, grab 10 of them and get them preserved and in your pantry!  Til next time!

http://simplelifemom.com/2017/10/17/homestead-blog-hop-157/

 

My Favorite Biscuits Ever!

My Favorite Biscuits Ever” is perhaps a bit misleading as I live a low-carb lifestyle and typically don’t indulge; they are, however, my kid’s favorite so we’re going to run with it!  Now that back-to-school is here, warm, nutritious breakfasts are always in the foremost of my mind.  I’m not a fan of boxed cereal and cereal bars and I make no apologies for that fact.  As I stated in my post on school lunches :

 My personal conviction (perhaps it’s the French in me?) is that food should do more than just supply nutrients to your body, but should feed the eyes and comfort the spirit as well.

On a cool, crisp morning, nothing is as delicious as a pan of warm flaky biscuits straight from the oven to wake sleepy bodies and chase away the chill.  Depending on the time available and appetite, the kids will slather theirs with strawberry jam or apple butter, make breakfast sandwiches with an egg and a piece of bacon or eat them as a side with some buttery fried apples or stewed berries.  They even like them tucked into a lunchbox as a side with a Thermos of soup.  And the fantastic thing about this recipe is it’s easy to double and freeze for those rushed mornings.  Just set them out the night before or thaw them in the microwave for a quick, warm breakfast.  So let’s skip the chatter and talk ingredients and technique.

Ingredients For The Best Biscuits Ever!

These biscuits require 3 ingredients: 2 cups of self-rising flour, 5 tablespoons of butter and 1 cup (give or take) of whole milk.  If you don’t like to use white flour, you can make your own self-rising wheat/whole grain flour by adding 3 teaspoons of baking powder and 1 teaspoon of salt to the 2 cups of flour.  Stir it really well to ensure the ingredients are thoroughly combined.  The butter should be straight-from-the-fridge cold as should the milk.  The temperature of the products really do make a difference when you’re making quick breads, so be diligent!

Technique

There are a couple of tricks you need to know to ensure flaky, tender biscuits every time.

  1. Do not overwork the dough.  You stir the dough just enough to combine the solids with the liquids.  The dough is going to look lumpy, shaggy and irregular and that’s just fine.  You knead the dough very gently and just long enough to produce a dough you can handle.  This is not like kneading bread that requires some serious muscle; biscuits and other quick breads require a delicate hand.
  2. Do not add all the flour the recipe calls for.  Anytime I’m making a pastry that is going to require kneading or rolling, I omit up to 25% of the flour and use that flour to do the kneading.  If you use all the flour called-for and then additional flour to knead, you’ll end up with a product resembling a clay target.  Better for skeet shooting than eating!  For these biscuits, I use 1&1/2 cups of flour for mixing and use the remaining 1/2 cup to knead and roll the biscuits.  This is the same technique I use on pasta, pie crusts and sugar cookie cut outs—and it works well every single time.
  3. As tedious as it is, you HAVE to cut the butter uniformly into the flour.  You need those pebble-sized chunks of butter spread evenly through out the dough for flavor, proper layers as well as to aid the leavening process.  So take your time with the step of cutting in the butter.  It really does make a difference.  The best way to do this is to use either a pastry blender (pictured) or a food processor.  I use the pastry cutter because I’m lazy and hate taking the food processor apart to wash it.


Winco 5 Blade Pastry Blender, Stainless Steel

So let’s do this!  Measure out 1 1/2 cups of flour into a large bowl and add 5 tablespoons of cold butter.  Using a pastry cutter or food processor, blend the butter into the flour until the resulting product looks crumbly with small, pebble-sized bits of butter throughout the flour.  See the bumpy bits in my hand, there?  Perfect.

 

Now, we’re going to add cold milk, approximately 3/4-1 cup.  Depending on the flour you’re using and the humidity on the day you’re baking, it may take more or less.  Just start with the 3/4 and adjust as necessary.  What you want is a sloppy dough, with a consistency thicker than pancake batter but thinner than cookie dough.  Something along the lines of a dropped dough/mashed potato consistency.  Make sense?  Anyway, mix just til the flour and milk are combined.

Take the remaining 1/2 cup of flour and dump it onto a large, clean surface for kneading.  I use an old dough board, my mom dumps it straight onto her kitchen counters.  Whatever works for you is fine by me!  Carefully spoon the dough into the center of the flour and using both hands, flip the dough over so both sides are floured. 

Sprinkle a bit of the flour onto the top of the dough and carefully fold the dough in half and turn one-quarter turn. Pat it down gently, sprinkle with some more flour, fold it in half and turn one-quarter turn again.  You’re going to repeat this process 5-6 times til the dough is manageable and the majority of flour has been worked in.  (If there’s some left on your surface, don’t stress.)  It’s the repeated flouring, folding, patting and turning that creates those fluffy layers, so don’t neglect this step!

At this point, your dough is still going to look and feel rough and bumpy and you’ll notice blobs of butter sort of protruding out of the dough—that’s perfect!  Using a rolling pin, gently roll the dough to approximately 1 inch thick and perhaps 4inches wide by 10inches tall.

Cut the dough into servings using a sharp knife or a biscuit cutter.  (I typically end up with 8 biscuits from this recipe.) 

I like to round mine off a little; you can just shape them as you place them in the dish, but that’s up to you.

Place the cut biscuits into a heavy baking dish with the sides slightly touching to prevent overbaking.  You can use a cookie sheet, but personally I think the baking dish yields better results.   Now you’ll bake your pastries in a 425 degree oven for 15 minutes, til the tops and bottoms are slightly golden and the centers are set.

 

See the beautiful layers?!  These are absolutely best served steaming hot, so don’t dawdle!  Top them with honey, butter, jam, sorghum or your favorite topping and enjoy!  Can’t wait to hear how much you love them!

 

http://simplelifemom.com/2017/10/17/homestead-blog-hop-157/

 

Waste Not – Bread Pudding

If there’s one quality that is common to our Greatest Generation and the amazing generations that preceded it, that quality would have to be resourcefulness.  In their homes, gardens and kitchens, our grandmothers were able to work what was nothing short of miracles, especially during wartime, rationing and depression.  Their collective resolve that nothing would go to waste meant that their families were able to survive and thrive when others didn’t fare so well.  They side-to-middling-ed their sheets, wallpapered their homes with newspapers and sewed underpants from flour sacks.  And in the culinary realm, they used everything, from snout to tail, as they say, in an effort to waste not.  Leftover bits of meat were added to limp veggies to create filling soups, stews and casseroles.  Leftover potatoes were turned into tatty cakes.  Veggie peels, bones and cheese rinds were simmered into luscious broths.  Food was a finite resource and as a result, every effort was made to be sure that resource wasn’t wasted.  So following in that vein, today is the first in a series I’m calling “Waste Not!”….all about reducing the amount of good food that goes directly into the garbage.  Today, let’s talk about bread….and specifically, bread pudding!

A history of bread pudding-

The long and short of it is that bread pudding was created to make use of stale bread.  Cooks from numerous cultures throughout history have put together stale bread, eggs, milk and savory or sweet spices to avoid throwing out food (and money!) that they simply could not afford to waste.  What we know as bread pudding today is far more elaborate than what our grannies made, using artisan breads, expensive cheeses, nuts or spices, but the concept remains the same:  to nourish family with comforting food and avoid waste at every turn.  As food waste is still an issue in many homes, recipes like bread pudding are a simple way to use our resources wisely, reduce waste and provide a nutritious dish that will be loved by all.  Save those stale rolls and dry bread in a ziplock bag in the freezer and when you’ve amassed enough, bake up a dish of authentic southern bread pudding!

  Classic New Orleans Bread Pudding with a Bourbon Sauce:

 Ingredients:

  • 1 teaspoon unsalted butter
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup Bourbon
  • 2 cups half-and-half
  • 8 slices day-old French bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 4 cups)

  • Ingredients for Kentucky Bourbon Sauce

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 3 tablespoons bourbon

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350ºF and grease a 6-cup (9 1/4 by 5 1/4 by 2 3/4-inch) loaf pan with the butter.

BREAD PUDDING: Whisk the eggs, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and bourbon together in a large mixing bowl until very smooth. Add the half-and-half and mix well. Add the bread  and let the mixture sit for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Pour mixture into the prepared pan. Bake until the pudding is set in the center, about 55 minutes. Let cool for at least 5 minutes before serving.

KENTUCKY BOURBON SAUCE: Heat the cream, half-and-half, vanilla and sugar in a saucepan over high heat, whisking, for 3 minutes. Dissolve the cornstarch in the bourbon. When bubbles form around the edges of the cream, whisk in the bourbon mixture. As the cream boils up, remove the pot from the heat and continue whisking vigorously until thoroughly blended and slightly thickened. Place over low heat and simmer for 1 minute. (This is not a thick cream sauce; it’s meant to be fairly thin.)

Yield: 2 cups

To serve, cut the pudding into 1-inch thick slices. Lay each slice in the center of a serving plate. Spoon some of the Bourbon Sauce over the pudding and top with whipped cream or ice cream.

(Recipe courtesy of Emeril LaGasse)

N.O. Bread Pudding with Kentucky Bourbon Sauce

Isn’t that simple and delicious!?  There is simply nothing as soothing and delicious on a cool fall evening than a big dish of bread pudding….and this recipes allows almost infinite flexibility in terms of adding flavors.  As long as the egg-milk-bread ratio stays the same, feel free to add dried fruit, nuts, use artisan breads and favorite liquors, top with stewed fruit. Use what you have on hand to make something your family will enjoy!  I hope you try it and I hope you LOVE it!  Til next time!

http://simplelifemom.com/2017/10/17/homestead-blog-hop-157/

Homestead Blog Hop 157

Dehydrating Fresh Mint

With only a few more weeks left in the Ohio growing season, I’m scrambling to put up anything that’s left in our garden and right now, the mint patch outside the kitchen door is thriving!  While it can and will grow in almost any soil and conditions, it’s LOVING this cooler, damp weather and has probably doubled in size in the past month.  Now mint isn’t MY favorite herb, but my sweet Petunia loves a hot mug of mint tea just before bedtime, so I’m running the dehydrator overtime trying to dry as much “tea” as possible before the first hard freeze.

If you’ve never grown mint before, you need to know that it’s a bit of a mixed blessing.  As I stated, it can and will grow anywhere—-and it has no respect for boundaries!  Mint roots run horizontally just under the surface of the soil and will take over a bed in no time if you don’t contain it somehow.  When I planted mint this spring, I took an old galvanized bucket with the bottom missing, dug a hole large enough to accommodate the bucket and deep enough that the lip of the bucket protruded aboveground just a few inches.  I planted the mint inside the bucket and based on this year’s results, it’s quite happy there.  The bucket will provide adequate room to grow but will prevent the roots from spreading laterally and taking over the entire bed.  Clever, eh?  But back to tea….

Dehydrating mint is about the easiest thing ever.  You simply cut the stems early in the morning, rinse with cool water and then lay singly on your dehydrating screens.  On low heat, dehydrate the mint for several days until the leaves are quite papery, then carefully strip them from the stems and place them in an air-tight container.  Try to avoid crushing the leaves if you can as that releases those wonderful, volatile oils and aromas—-you want those in your tea cup, not the air!

When it comes time to make your tea, simply crush approximately a teaspoon of the tea leaves into an infuser like this one (FORLIFE Brew-in-Mug Extra-Fine Tea Infuser with Lid), allow to steep for up to 5 minutes, then remove the leaves and sweeten with a bit of honey.  It’s equally delicious served iced with a handful of fresh raspberries, watermelon cubes or lemon slices.  You can also sprinkle a bit of the dehydrated mint into a fresh fruit salad for an extra layer of flavor.  The mint will impart a freshness and ‘brightness’ to any dish you add it to, so be creative and think outside the tea cup!

 

 

 

Guinness Stout Cake -or- Not Your Granny’s Fruitcake

Guinness Stout cake is the perfect finish to a holiday meal.

Okay, this may end up being a divisive post, so my apologies in advance.  I find that in the great fruitcake debate, there’s no gray area; you either love it or loathe it and rarely are there any in-betweens.  I loathe the stuff personally.  It typically weighs 12lbs, full of oddly-colored quasi-fruit that I can’t quite identify and has the same density as a cinderblock.   Historically, fruitcake was a grand indulgence reserved for special occasions such as weddings and Christmas celebrations, as it was full of expensive nuts, liquor and imported candied fruits.  So when your Granny sends you a homemade fruitcake, son, that’s because she really, really loves you and doesn’t realize that it’s handed out at white elephant parties as a gag gift and passed out free at corner gas stations with any fuel fill-up.  Gag.

But Guinness stout cake, now I like it pretty well.  Quite well, in fact.  The flavors are sophisticated, but less complicated than your granny’s traditional fruitcake, the texture is more delicate and the fruit is recognizable.  Oh and it weighs far less so you won’t be using this one as a doorstop come January.  Just like traditional fruitcake, you have to start this one well in advance, allowing at least a month or more for the flavors to mingle and mellow.  I typically start mine around Veteran’s Day if I plan on serving it for Christmas.

Alright friends, let’s make a Guinness Stout cake!

The ingredients you’ll need for this cake are

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) of unsalted butter, softened
  • 12oz pitted, chopped prunes
  • 8oz golden raisins
  • 8oz currants
  • 1 1/4 cup of Guinness Stout, plus more for dousing
  • 2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2t baking powder
  • 1/4t freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4t ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/4c light brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 2 eggs

Directions

1. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Brush a 9-by-4 1/2-inch loaf pan with butter. Line pan with parchment paper; brush with butter. Set aside.

2. Combine the chopped prunes, raisins, and currants in a medium bowl. Add 1/2 cup stout, and let stand for the dried fruit to plump a bit.

3. Sift flour, baking powder, nutmeg, and cinnamon together. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each, scraping down sides twice. Add dry ingredients in two additions; mix just to combine. Fold in fruit mixture.

4. Pour batter into your prepared pan. Bake until dark brown and set and a cake tester inserted into the middle of cake comes out clean, about 3 1/2 hours. (Cracks will appear on top of cake.) Remove from oven; sprinkle with 1/2 cup stout. Let stand on wire rack 30 minutes. Remove from pan; discard parchment and let the cake cool completely.

5. Wrap in a cheesecloth, a thin tea towel or muslin and douse fruitcake with remaining 1/4 cup stout. Store in a cool, dark, dry place (such as a large Tupperware), dousing with 1/4 cup stout once a week for at least 1 month before serving.  Personally, I like to do my last “dousing” about a week prior to serving it, to allow the stout to absorb and the flavors to mellow.

(Recipe courtesy of Martha Stewart.)

So it’s a pretty cut-and-dry recipe as you can see, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious!  It’s not sickeningly sweet and slathered in greasy frosting like many holiday cakes are, so this one goes down pretty easily, even after a heavy meal.  With a hot cup of tea or coffee, Guinness Stout cake is the perfect finish to a holiday meal.  So where do you fall in the great fruitcake debate?  Yea or nay?

 

Easy Homemade Baking Extracts

 

Homemade baking extracts are a simple, 2-step process!

It’s early October and you know what that means?  It’s time to start considering Christmas gifts in earnest!  I love making baking extracts for gifts; poured into a cute container with a pretty label, it’s a gift my foodie friends are sure to enjoy.  Honestly, there is no simpler or more inexpensive gift you can make that will be so eagerly anticipated and enjoyed each year than homemade baking extracts.  And with the varieties of herbs and fruits available, the possibilities are limited solely to your imagination.

Let’s get started with vanilla, lemon and cinnamon baking extracts.

As with most extracts, with vanilla you need only 2 ingredients:  quality vanilla beans and a potent alcohol.  I’ll be honest with you, I was shocked the first time I shopped for vanilla beans.  I thought OH LARDY as I researched brand names, country of origin and price.  Especially price.  But as with most things, you can have quantity or you can have quality.  Go for quality.  You’ll taste the difference in the finished project for certain.  Here’s a link to a good quality, fairly priced vanilla bean:  Vanilla Products USA 10 Grade A Prime Gourmet PNG Bourbon Type Vanilla Beans ~5″ (12.5 cm)  Now moving on to the alcohol, for most extracts, a plain, inexpensive vodka is all you need; with vanilla extract, brandy, rum or bourbon are quite nice too.  It just adds another layer of flavor to an already delicious product.  To make your homemade vanilla extract, add 2 vanilla beans for every 4 ounces of alcohol, so for a standard fifth of liquor, you’ll need 10 vanilla beans.  Split the beans from top to bottom exposing the seeds, place the beans in a large bottle or quart Mason jar, add the vodka or bourbon and add a lid.  Set in a cool, dark place, such as inside a kitchen cabinet for at least 6-8 weeks (though longer is better!), giving it a good shake every few days.  When Christmastime rolls around, pour your vanilla baking extract into a cute 4 ounce jar with a single vanilla bean (for presentation) and add a pretty label.  There’s one baking extract done!  Let’s move on to the next!

Lemon baking extract is as easy as the vanilla, but far less expensive.  For this baking extract, you’ll need 2-3 organic lemons and a fifth of inexpensive vodka.  Wash your citrus well then carefully peel the fruit with a paring knife or veggie peeler, taking extra care to avoid the white pith.  (It’ll turn your extract bitter.)  Stuff the citrus peel into a quart jar, cover with vodka and let sit 6-8 weeks, giving it a shake at least once a week.  If you’re gifting this extract, pour the finished product into a pretty jar, label it and it’s ready to go.  Now if you’re exceedingly clever, you can mix the lemon extract with a simple syrup for a very passable limoncello.  But I’ll leave that project up to you.

Last up, cinnamon baking extract!  For this extract, you need 3 inch cinnamon sticks and again, inexpensive vodka, though bourbon would probably be delicious here too.  For a full fifth of vodka, you’ll place approximately 18 cinnamon sticks in a Mason jar and pour the alcohol over it.  Allow it to sit and steep for 6-8 weeks, shaking it up once a week.  If/when you pour the cinnamon baking extract into cute, gift-sized bottles, place a fresh cinnamon stick in the bottle…it just makes a very pretty presentation.  This cinnamon baking extract is fantastic for adding to cakes or cookies, flavoring whipped cream or just added to a favorite coffee for a fantastic kick of flavor.

Not everyone is going to want quarts of flavored vodka sitting around the house, (that’s a LOT of baking extracts!) so let me break this down into smaller, more manageable portions that you can share or keep for yourself!

Vanilla Baking Extract

2 vanilla beans

4 ounces of vodka, brandy, rum or bourbon

Lemon Baking Extract

peel from 1 lemon

4 ounces of vodka

Cinnamon Baking Extract

3-3inch cinnamon sticks

4 ounces of vodka or bourbon

But don’t stop there!  Use that extra vodka or bourbon to make mint extract (1/2 cup of fresh leaves to 4 oz vodka), coffee extract (2T of crushed whole beans to 4 oz vodka), berry extract (1/2 cup muddled berries to 4 oz vodka), orange or grapefruit extract (peel from 1 fruit to 4 0z vodka), coconut extract (1/3cup shredded, unsweetened coconut to 4oz vodka).

I know some of you don’t like the idea of alcohol in your food and home, and I totally appreciate that, so there’s a non-alcoholic option for you!  Vegetable glycerin (VG) makes a very good, alcohol-free baking extract.  Following the same recipe, use VG in a ratio of 3 parts VG to 1 part water.  For the small bottles we just discussed, you’d use 3 ounces of VG and 1 ounce of water to 1 lemon peel, 3 cinnamon sticks or 2 vanilla beans.  Make sense?  Here’s a link to a quality, Kosher vegetable glycerin: Glycerin Vegetable Kosher USP – 1 Quart (43 oz.)

If you plan on gifting these extracts this Christmas, I encourage you to try some pretty bottles like these
(12 Pack – 4 oz. Amber Glass Bottle with Lid for Vanilla Extract, Perfume, Oils, Light-Sensitive Liquids, Refillable Boston Round Bottle from California Home Goods) as the amber glass and tightly-sealing lid will protect your finished product.

And to top it all off, peruse our dear friend Pinterest for cute, free printable labels.  I think these and  these are perfectly adorable for our homemade vanilla extract and I’m sure there are others out there for various other extracts as well.  Give it a try and tell me what you think, sweet friends!

Home Warming – Or – Hygga For Beginners

 

Home warming has taken on an urgency for me of late.  As I’ve said before, I am no fan of winter.  I don’t like wind and snow.  I don’t like cold body parts.  I don’t like the 14+ hours of darkness and having to wear a dozen layers of clothing just to walk to the mailbox.  I’m a total summertime, heat-loving southern girl and about this time of the year, I can feel the dread building.  I wouldn’t call it depression necessarily, but a “funk” is quite apropos, I think.  I become sluggish, perhaps a little withdrawn and melancholy.  So the last year or two, I’ve put extra effort into creating an environment to lift the funk and enjoy the season; the Scandinavians would call it hygga, our grandmas would call it home warming.   Both people groups would call it creating an atmosphere of welcome and coziness, of little luxuries and creature comforts, of warmth, kinship and familiarity.

In times before central heating, electric lights and 24/7 communication, home warming/hygga was necessary for survival, both physical and mental.  We needed the season of rest, the tactile warmth, the small comforts and the togetherness to survive and thrive during those long winter months.  Unfortunately, our culture has rejected the psychological benefits of slowing down and gathering in…and it shows, my friends.  Up to 20 percent of Americans suffer from some form of SAD (winter blues) marked by decreased energy, lack of concentration, lack of interest in friends, family or activities.  Many turn to light therapy to treat SAD, and I think that’s great, but there’s still the psychological angle that we’re missing.   That coziness of home and family creates a sense of well-being that we still desperately need, maybe now more than ever!

So what are the steps we can take to begin home warming and make the coming cold, dark season one of blessings instead of burdens?

Home warming at its best!

  • Light a fire.  There is simply nothing that creates coziness in a room and draws people together like a crackling fireplace.  A natural wood fire is obviously the best choice, but even a gas or electric fireplace can create a similar effect.  Pull a chair close, add a thick throw and a warm mug of tea and that’s absolute bliss right there.
  • Use candles, flameless candles or lanterns.  Overhead, task lighting has it’s purposes, but there’s nothing like those little pools of warm, flickering light!  Coupled with warm fragrances, candlelight creates a literal “light in a dark place” that we are instinctively drawn to.  Think of Christmastime when there are no lights on in the room except for the lights on the tree.  That’s hygga at it’s best.
  • Add scents.  Nothing fake and perfume-y, thank you very much, but perhaps simmering spices in the steamer pot on the woodstove, boughs of pine or rosemary to toss into the fire, honey-scented beeswax candles.  Fragrance is a powerful connector that shouldn’t be overlooked!
  • Incorporate texture.  This one is huge for me!  Think of those traditional, cozy fibers and fabrics and incorporate them into every aspect of your life.  Warm angora sweaters, comfortable fleece-lined hoodies and leggings, thick wool slippers, downy comforters, flannel sheets, faux fur, thick knit throws, Sherpa coats, felted wool mittens.   Even on a modest budget, with some savvy shopping, you can incorporate plush textures, comfortable fabrics and warm fibers into every room and closet.
  • Bring the outdoors in.  Decorate with pinecones, evergreen boughs, chipwood baskets full of kindling for the fire, dried flowers and leaves in a wreath, a small stack of logs by the fireplace.  All these elements will help you feel connected with the outdoors even when it’s too cold to go outside.
  • Mindful indulgence.  This is a tough one for most Americans.  Our pendulum tends to swing from one extreme to another; from absolute deprivation to complete abandonment.  I think home warming/hygga during the cold and dark of winter calls for measures of indulgence that warm both body and soul, but those measures should be balanced with thoughtfulness and self-control.  Think small portions of excellent quality chocolate (no Hershey bars allowed!). REAL hot cocoa topped with whipped cream and a sprinkling of red pepper.  Buttered tea sweetened with a teaspoon of honey.  Freshly popped kettle popcorn.  Mulled cider or wine.  A slice of warm pie.  A cookie fresh from the oven.  Savor the experience!
  • Enjoy simple, wholesome food.   Close on the heels of mindful indulgence is the need for basic, warm food.  Nothing warms body and soul during wintertime like a pot of bubbling stew, a warm loaf of bread,  a roasted chicken with root veggies or a hearty, cheesy casserole.  Keep it simple, my friends!  We don’t need complicated recipes and elaborate presentations to make a meal that nourishes our family and friends!
  • Relax with favorite activities.  Put down your hand-helds, America, and pull out a board game, a puzzle, a favorite book, cuddle under a blanket, watch a family movie or do a craft.  It’s no waste of time to slow your body, settle your mind and de-stress.  While we can’t hibernate (Oh I wish!), we can set time aside to rest and enjoy ourselves.
  • Spend quality time with family and friends.  I’m not talking about throwing elaborate dinner parties; just gather around the fire, enjoy a meal together, tell stories, play games.  Be with people that make you feel content, loved and connected.
  • Go outside.  Ugh.  I don’t like this one smidgen, but it IS beneficial to bundle up and get some fresh air.  (At least that’s what I tell the kids after we’ve been snowed in together for 5 days and I’m about to come totally unhinged.) Take a walk, play in the snow, ride your bike or just take a car ride to see the scenery.  Nothing will make you appreciate a warm hearth, cozy slippers and a steaming mug of cocoa like freezing your fanny off outside. 

I don’t know what the Old Farmer’s have predicted for this year, but I’ve already begun the process of home warming for winter.

The heavy blankets are coming out of storage to be aired, yarn is being knitted or crocheted into hats and scarves, firewood is being stacked and the pantry stocked with small indulgences like quality teas, chocolates and coffees.   While I can’t control the arrival of the season, the length of the day or the bracing temperatures, I can control my response.  When the {{{brr shiver shiver}}} arrives, I plan to greet it like an old friend and enjoy it’s company for a short season and I hope you will too.  Til next time–

Preserving Pumpkin 3 Ways

 

Freshly picked pie pumpkins

Okay, I got some pretty positive feedback from Preserving Apples 3 Ways, so let’s continue in that vein with preserving  pumpkins, as they’re just beginning to come into season now .  When preserving pumpkins, you’re a little more limited in how you can preserve them simply because they’re a low-acid food but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take advantage of the cheap, cheap prices and pick up several to enjoy over the winter.   So let’s talk varieties!  When you’re picking out your pumpkins, you want to avoid carving pumpkins.  While they’re fantastic for carving, so they’re not so great for eating.  They tend to have a very dry, stringy, flavorless flesh as opposed to pie pumpkins that are sweet, moist and perfect for eating.  Pick smaller pumpkins that feels very heavy for their size and check to be sure there are no gashes or mars on the pumpkin’s skin.  Last, try to choose pumpkins with nice 2-3 inch stems…that will reduce the chances of finding a spoiled pumpkin when you cut it open.  Now that you’ve picked your pumpkin, let’s make canned pumpkin, pumpkin butter and candied pumpkin.  Here we go!

The hardest part of preserving pumpkin (or squash!) is simply slicing the sucker open without cutting a finger.   You need a large cutting board and a very sharp knife to pierce that hide.  Carefully cut the pumpkin in half or quarters so that you have a manageable size to work with.  Remove the seeds and stringy parts then flip it over and cautiously peel away the skin.  Notice I keep reiterating caution:  pumpkin skin can be incredibly tough, and it’s easy for a knife to slip and end up with a dreadful cut.  Be careful my friends!   Now chop the pumpkin quarters into 1inch by 1inch chunks and we’ll get started on our first preservation method.

Canning pumpkin requires very little prepwork, but it does require a pressure canner.  Simply add the peeled, chopped pumpkin cubes to a pan of water and boil for 2 minutes.  Add the boiled pumpkin to hot jars and cover with boiling water, leaving 1 inch of headspace in the jars.  Cap with a 2 piece lid and process in a pressure canner for 55 mins/pints or 90mins/qts.  When you’re ready to use the pumpkin, just drain it, mash it and use it as you’d use store-bought puree.  It’ll make fabulous breads, soups, pies or cookies, though you must be diligent in draining it well!

Before you ask, no, you cannot can pumpkin puree.  Due to the density of the puree and the lack of acid, there is no home-canning technique that Ball, the NCHFP, Food In Jars, Grow Your Own, USDA or any other reputable food preservation entities will approve of.  I hope I don’t get nasty private messages over this, because so-and-so’s granny canned pureed pumpkin for 50 years and no one died.  Well, praise God for that!  My granny gave babies whiskey for colic and smoked Catalpa beans and no one died, but that doesn’t mean it was safe or smart.  Science changes and as more information is available, techniques change as well.  I know what you’re going to ask next and let me answer it now:  companies like Libby’s CAN safely can pumpkin puree because they have approved means of regulating consistency and equipment that reaches much higher temperatures than our home pressure canners.  So friends, if you insist on canned pumpkin puree, buy it at Walmart because there’s no safe way of preserving pumpkin puree at home.

Okay, so we’ve successfully canned cubed pumpkin for pies and bread.  What else can we do with that pumpkin?  Pumpkin butter!   Take those delicious cubes of raw peeled pumpkin and microwave, steam or pressure cook til the flesh is soft, gloppy and cooked thoroughly.  Puree it with an immersion blender or food mill til it’s smooth.  Carefully measure out the puree and add it to a crock pot along with sugar and spices and allow to cook down til it’s reduced by 50%.  That may take 8-10 hours or even longer, so don’t be impatient!  When your pumpkin butter passes the spoon test, allow it to cool and then ladle into freezer containers or bags and freeze for up to 1 year.  That’s some super easy pumpkin butter!  Here’s exact directions from Grow Your Own.

Candied pumpkin

One more recipe to go!  Candied pumpkin!  This may be a little outside your comfort zone, but it’s a fun little treat if you have a bit of pumpkin left over and you can feel good giving it to children because there’s at least a little nutrition under all that sugar.  To make candied pumpkin you need raw pumpkin sliced into 1-inch cubes, brown sugar (1 cup) and water (2 cups).  Boil the pumpkin cubes in water for 20 minutes til fork tender then drain them, reserving 1.5 cups of the cooking water in a pan.  Add 1 cup of brown sugar to the reserved water, bring to a boil for 5 minutes and then add the pumpkin back in and simmer on low heat for 15 minutes.  Remove from heat and allow the pumpkin to steep in the syrup over night.  The following morning, remove the pumpkin cubes from the  syrup, drain on a rack over the sink and when they’re dry but tacky, roll them in additional sugar.  Cinnamon sugar is really nice!  You’ll want to store these in the fridge or freezer, but they probably won’t last too long!  They’re like little chewy bites of pumpkin pie!

How easy was that?  Delicious preserved pumpkin 3 ways, starting with the same raw cubed pumpkin!  Now if you find yourself blessed with an abundance of winter squash or even sweet potatoes, you can use them interchangeably in these recipes with nearly the same results.  Friends, if you haven’t enjoyed a fresh sweet potato pie, you haven’t lived!  Try it sometime!  Anyway,  I hope you try these techniques and let me know what you think about them!  Til next time!

Maple Syrup Making 101

I’m so excited to share this post in the Building Skills category!  I know September seems terribly early to begin thinking about making maple syrup as the season doesn’t begin til late winter or early spring, but there’s absolutely a method to my madness, sweet friends.  If you’re inclined to try to make maple syrup for fun or profit, I want to give you plenty of time to do your research and gather your supplies.  It’s not a hard skill, but it does take time to find what you need and NOW is the season to mark the trees, while you can easily identify the tree by its leaves.  In February, all those naked trees begin to look alike.  So humor me and let’s talk about making some maple syrup next February or March!

We began making maple syrup as a hobby approximately 10 years ago, with 5 maple trees and an old box stove set up in the backyard.

It had never occurred to me that those 5 trees could provide anything for us but shade until a friend mentioned it off-handedly.  I thought it was a mystical, complex procedure that the average individual couldn’t do….but how wrong I was!  Admittedly, it’s quite time consuming, but it’s a very simple process of gathering the sap and boiling it to a syrupy consistency—and then boiling it a little longer if you want actual maple sugar.  People have been tapping trees to make syrup for untold generations with the most rudimentary of materials and that skill is even easier to practice now with those materials being available for online purchase and free 2-day shipping!  So let’s demystify the process and get you on the road to making your own maple syrup.

 

 

Identify Trees and Watch The Weather

To begin the process, you need to watch your local weather patterns.  You’re looking for a pattern of days that are consistently above freezing and nights that drop into the 20’s.  In our area, that typically happens in late February or early March, but it can happen as early as January and as late as April.  Just watch the weather with that general pattern in mind.  While you’re watching and waiting, pick out the trees that can be tapped.  You need trees that are at least 12 inches in diameter.  Any kind of maple tree can be tapped for sap, but sugar maples have the highest sugar content and make the best syrup.

 

Basic maple syrup tap
10 Maple Syrup Tree Tapping Kit – 10 Taps + 2-Foot Drop Lines + Includes Sap Filter + Instructions

Collect The Equipment

For tapping the trees, you need a drill, a drill bit, a hammer and splines and/or tubing.

For collecting the sap:  Food safe buckets, clean juice or milk jugs or collection bags.

For boiling the sap into syrup: – a roasting pan on an outdoor woodstove, a turkey fryer, a kettle over a campfire, or a larger, purchased evaporator are all acceptable.  For our first several seasons, we used an old woodstove we picked up at a yard sale for $20. Topped with a stainless steel chafing pan, it was an effective, inexpensive evaporator.  Turkey fryers DO work well, but be aware that propane tanks are costly to refill.  A word of warning for you:  DO NOT even consider boiling sap indoors.  You’ll end up with a sticky layer of steam all over your walls and enough moisture in the air to peel the wallpaper right off the walls.  Seriously.

 

 

 

Tap The Trees

Tap the trees in the early spring, as daytime temperatures rise above freezing. Drill a hole the size of your spout, at a slight incline. We find it most effective to tap the S/SE side of the tree.  Tap the spout into the hole firmly, hang the bucket, and put the cover on to keep out debris.   I’ve read that people insert plastic tubing directly into the taphole and run the tubing into a bucket on the ground, though I’ve never tried it.  We’ve always used a maple syrup spline with plastic tubing ran into a food-safe bucket with a lid.

 

Gather The Sap

Sap is perishable so you need to treat it like a perishable food:  either refrigerate it or use it immediately.  Weather-permitting, place your buckets or jugs in a snowbank on the north side of your house and the sap will keep quite well for a long time.  Be sure to filter the sap through a colander or tea towel before boiling it to remove any bugs or debris.

 

 

Boil The Sap

Boil the sap until it reaches seven degrees above the boiling point of water or until it runs off a spoon in a sheet.   I do the spoon-and-taste method…the consistency quickly changes from watery to thick and syrupy so pay close attention.  If/when your syrup begins to foam and threatens to overflow the pan, a few drips of milk in the pan will reduce the foaming.  Boiling is the longest part of the process, so be sure that you have plenty of fuel to keep your fire going.  And never, ever leave your sap unattended.  There was this incident once when I was boiling sap down in the garage over a propane cooker…and it boiled over…and oh Lardy does that stuff burn!  There was smoke just a-rolling out of the garage.  It was both embarrassing and reassuring when neighbors came over because they thought the house was on fire.  I gave them syrup as a thank you gift.

 

 

Filter and Bottle the Syrup

After your syrup has reached the proper consistency, filter it again to remove any ‘niter’, that’s these weird grainy bits of minerals that can cause your syrup to look cloudy.  Ladle the syrup into Mason jars, cap them and water-bath them for 10 minutes to ensure a good seal.  Many places don’t water-bath their syrup, but I think it’s foolish to take chances on a product you’ve worked so long and hard on, right?!  Store in a cool, dark place and refrigerate after opening.

Now, you do have one other option:  if you choose, you can continue to simmer the syrup over low heat and you’ll end up with a product that looks very much like brown sugar.  Maple sugar IS delish, just be careful as it burns very, very easily!  Once it’s finished, you can use maple sugar as a sweetening just as you’d use brown or coconut sugar.

So that’s it, my friends.  It’s a simple project, though it takes a good, long time to finish it.  That said, with real maple syrup running $15/qt or higher in a GOOD season, it can prove to be a real money-making possibility for your homestead.  We’ve given ½ pint jars of maple syrup for Christmas gifts and they’re always received well, so let me encourage you to try your hand at it next February! Til next time!