Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Goats and Gifts at the Institute of Domestic Technology

Pear jam awaiting packaging, Nov. 2011.
I would like to say that I spent my Saturday at the Institute for Domestic Technology crafting food-related presents for the holiday gift-giving season.  The truth is that I spent my Saturday learning to make candied orange peel, pear preserves, limoncella, and host of other treats that I have every intention of keeping for myself.  I may end up using the recipes and techniques I learned to craft food gifts for the holidays, but the dainty little morsels I actually produced on Saturday are all mine.

I originally signed up for the workshop because I wanted to see the Zane Grey Mansion in Altadena and because I was intrigued by the idea of The Institute for Domestic Technology.  The Institute is staffed by a team of instructors who possess a  blend of serious cooking skills and an ironic sense of the Institute as a serious enterprise.  The Zane Grey Mansion was a great reflection of the Institute's general tone-- it provided a historical backdrop (it's on the National Registry of Historic Places) mixed with an urban farm aesthetic.  (Watch out for the goat droppings in the back yard.)

Shuldiner regales students at The Institute.
The head of the Institute is Joseph Shuldiner, a talented graphic designer and author of the upcoming book Pure Vegan from Chronicle Books, Spring 2011. Shuldiner himself is not actually a Vegan, which I found charming, but he seems to embrace many eating styles-- a quality I share and enjoy discovering in others.  During the workshop we prepared his (Vegan) recipe for Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Chai Tea and enjoyed cups of the spice mixture combined with warm goat's milk that came from goats raised on the property.  I'd never had decent goat's milk before, much less goat's milk chai tea, and it was one of many treats of the day.

Shuldiner began our day at the Institute by serving us coffee and scones and giving the group of assembled students a brief pitch for the class.  He told us that the Institute is based on the idea that we can all express ourselves through the things we make and that the holidays are a great time to put this idea into action.  I was hooked.

When Kevin West stepped forward and told us about his background as a Master Food Preserver, I was ready to sign up for the program myself.  (Hopefully, there will be more on this subject in future posts.)  I'd never heard of the Master Food Preserver Program and in spite of it's somewhat odd sounding name, it turns out to be an incredibly exciting program run by the University of California Cooperative Extension program.  According to West, students take a 13 week course, which is rooted in the notion of creating food independence.  It originally started during World War II as part of our country's national Victory Garden campaign and ran continuously in LA County from WWII up until 15 years ago when it closed because of a lack of interest.  Last year, the program was reinstated and is incredibly competitive to get into.  Graduates must complete 30 hours of community service and 15 hours of continued education each year.  This program isn't for the casual canner, but for folks committed to sharing information about food preservation with others.
West stirs pear jam at "Stage Three", Nov. 2011.

West himself clearly falls into this category.  He is the author of the upcoming book Saving the Season: A Handbook to Home Canning, Pickling and Preserving and a blog of the same name.  His enthusiasm for preserving is infectious and his recipe for Pear Jam was proof of his skill.  Several students, myself included, loved it so much that we secretly licked the sides of the almost empty copper pots we'd used to boil the jam.  (We'd already ladled out most of the jam into jars to begin the canning process by this point so it's not as unsanitary as it sounds.)

As delicious as the pear jam was, the most exciting part of the day for me was making candied orange peel.  Regular readers of this blog know that I've been working on a recipe for Chocolate-Covered Candied Orange Peel for some time now and that I haven't been satisfied with the results so far.  After this workshop, I can safely say that my recipe is still a work in progress, but thanks to West, I now have a clear sense of where I went wrong last time and what I need to do differently in future.

Perhaps the best testimonial I can give to the Institute for Domestic Technology is to say that I not only learned a few new recipes and techniques, I was also inspired to continue on my quest to increase my cooking and preserving skills and to share those newfound skills with others.  I also had a very fun day.
The backyard of the Zane Grey Mansion, current host to the Institute of Domestic Technology, Nov. 2011.