Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Farmer's Daughter Hears a Thunderstorm

Heirloom pumpkin blossom after the rainstorm, Aug. 30, 2012.
I never think of myself as a farmer's daughter, although of course I am.  Both of my parents grew up on farms and their outlook on life is unmistakably rural.  I always thought I'd grown up to have a vastly different-- and decidedly urban-- outlook on life.  But I now realize that my parents' values have seeped into my consciousness far more than I realized, especially where the weather is concerned.

Last week we had a sudden and unexpected summer thunderstorm,  which is a highly unusual event in Los Angeles.  When I heard the unmistakable sound of rain pounding on concrete, I flung open the front door and watched the storm roll in.

After a few minutes, I tore myself away from the front porch long enough to grab a phone and call my husband, who was working 15 miles west of our house.  I knew I was interrupting his work day, but I was dying to know if the storm had hit his office first.  He seemed confused, but when he realized my call was the result of pure excitement, not desperation caused by imminent danger, he was amused.  I told him the rain was coming down so hard it was flowing over the sidewalks.  I knew it was time to hang up when he asked if I was loading animals onto the ark yet.  I was embarrassed.  And at that moment, I realized that my excitement about the summer storm was a bit unusual.

I forget that my family's obsession with the weather is a stereotypically "country" phenomenon.  It's been my experience that people raised in cities (especially Los Angeles) have little interest in the weather.  The weather is much more important to a farmer than it is to somebody who works in an office.  Of course, the weather impacts the lives of everyone on the planet to varying degrees, but when you watch your crops die as a result of drought or see your corn field flattened by a freak summer storm, the weather plays a primary role in your day to day life.  And once you have an understanding of the importance of the weather, that need to know about the weather never really goes away.

I used to laugh at my father for asking me about the weather each and every time he called me.  For the first ten years I lived in Southern California, I'd always tell him the same thing-- "It's eighty degrees and sunny, dad.  Just like it is every day."  Even if it wasn't.  But after a decade of living in Los Angeles, I learned to appreciate the subtle (and not so subtle) changes in our weather.

On the morning of the storm, I sat glued to my television to hear the latest on the path of Tropical Storm Isaac, which had already driven many people from their homes and caused one flood-related death.  We have family in New Orleans, including an aunt who lost her home to Hurricane Katrina.  We all know it is a mistake to ignore the weather.  Of course, there is only so much we can do to protect ourselves from it. Weather will do what it will do.  For the most part, all we can do is sit and watch.  And hope for the best.

Half an hour after the storm ended, the sidewalks were dry, but I discovered two inches of water in the tiny wagon my daughter uses to collect weeds in our garden.  On the morning of the storm, this wagon was dry.  A few minutes later, it contained over two inches of water.  This might not seem like much, but it was a reminder of the surprising and powerful force that is our weather... and why we need to pay attention.

Friday, August 31, 2012

All Canning Jars Are Not Created Equal

My latest article for Zester Daily discusses the many differences between canning jars and how to match the food you want to preserve to the jar you should use.  Check out the article to see if you can spot the impostor canning jar in the photo lineup of various canning jars.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

My Watermelon Obsession

My latest article for Zester Daily is all about my family's generations-long obsession with watermelon.  I hope you're not missing out on one of summer's finest crops.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What's Wrong With This Picture?

Peach jam and tomato preserves sitting on my kitchen table, July 31, 2012.
This morning I sat in the living room drinking my first cup of coffee and thinking about everything I needed to accomplish today.  Before I could finish my mental list, my husband came into the living room and reached for my hand.  Then he gently pulled me up from my chair and walked me to the kitchen without saying a word.  I was a little worried when he guided me to the kitchen table where the jam I'd made yesterday was still waiting to be put away.  After standing there silently for what seemed like an eternity, he said in a soft voice, "What's wrong with this picture?"  I replied, "Uh... I don't know."  Now I was really starting to get concerned.

My husband said, "Nothing's labeled.  I ate your delicious peach jam this morning, but I was hoping it was tomato preserves.  Could you please label the jars today?"

I wasn't sure if I should try to rein in my sense of relief or laugh out loud.  I'm pretty sure I laughed.  I know I couldn't stop smiling and it was my husband's turn to be concerned.  He gave me a funny look and said, "why are you smiling like that?"  I mumbled something about being happy he liked the jam and that I'd pick out a jar of tomato preserves for him to eat tomorrow.

It's hard to describe in words how satisfying it is to make food that has a strong effect someone I love.   I imagined my husband looking forward to eating tomato preserves-- and then his disappointment when the jar didn't contain the sweet and sour taste he was anticipating.  It's not that I enjoyed thinking about his disappointment, but it did show me how much he really did like the preserves I'd made him on a whim.  Somehow it made the moment even sweeter.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Southern Day in Southern California

Mortgage Lifters and other heirlooms ripen in the humid summer sun, 2012.
Today is one of those days that feels like home to me.  I'm from Virginia and in Virginia, summer means humidity.  It's pretty rare that we get a hot, humid day here in Southern California.  But this morning when the girls and I left the house, the three of us cut through the still, wet air and looked up to the sky-- each noticing the dramatic change in weather since we last stepped foot outside.  I smiled and told them that this was what summer in Virginia feels like.  We all took a moment to breathe in the liquid air and smell summer.

During my twenty years in Southern California, I've gotten used to our mediterranean climate.  I no longer flinch (much) when I feel my flesh burning within ten seconds of hitting the hot summer sun.  I wear sunglasses year-round and keep myself pretty covered up most of the time.  I'm not complaining.  Living in Southern California certainly has its advantages, like buying fresh fruits and vegetables year round and picking lemons off a backyard tree.  But somehow today, as I watered our garden and picked beans, basil, and tomatoes for dinner, I felt happy to be here.  And happy that I was able to give my girls a glimpse of-- no, a full-body immersion-- into a humid Southern summer.  (In a strange turn of events, Virginians have recently experienced the scorching hot temperatures that are our summer norm.)

One thing both places have in common is a good climate for growing tomatoes.  This morning picked all of our ripe tomatoes (mostly Mortgage Lifters) for a fresh tomato-corn soup we'll be having for dinner.  This soup says summer-- and home-- to me more than almost any food I can imagine.  But it is not my home in Virginia that I think of when I make this soup, it's the home I've created with my husband, daughters, and stepson here in California.

I made a version of this soup as part of the first meal I ever cooked for the man who would eventually become my husband.   There's no pressure like cooking for a date for the first time, but I planned that meal as I do many meals-- by wandering around the farmer's market.  It was early summer and I was excited to discover the first ripe tomatoes of the season.  I made this soup as an expression of my love of fresh food and new beginnings.  Unfortunately, I didn't know that my "date" hated soup.  It amuses me now to think of him lifting his spoon for the first bite of his most detested food-- except for ice cream, which I served for dessert.  But that's another story.  My husband swears I've converted him to a love of soup, at least this soup.  We eat it several times each summer and remember our first home-cooked meal together.  This soup now tastes like home to me.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Truth About Turtles... And Baking Birthday Cakes

My first turtle cake, June 2012.
I recently admitted that I hate to bake.  But that didn't stop me from making a homemade turtle cake for my daughter's birthday.  Does it look professional?  Absolutely not.  Was it delicious?  Yes-- thanks to my mom who came up with the amazing icing recipes.  And my daughter loved it.  The best part was that I made it without much thought or worry (a work style that is completely uncharacteristic for me.)

My family doubted that I could do it-- with good reason-- so it was supremely satisfying to undertake the project casually at the last minute and boldly decide that I was going to make my daughter a turtle cake in a few hours, in spite of how crazy it seemed.  I took the photographs of the finished cake just as casually, which explains why they both look the way they do.  But in my mind they're both perfect.

About a week before my daughter's birthday, I asked her what kind of cake she'd like.  I didn't see much risk in this because she's always wanted some variation of a pink princess cake and I can make those in my sleep these days.  This year was different.  My daughter said she wanted a turtle cake.  I was stunned-- a turtle cake?  This came out of left field.  I asked her why.  She told me that it was because we were going to the aquarium for her birthday.  Duh.  We were indeed taking a family trip to the aquarium for my daughter's birthday.  It never occurred to me that the desire for theme parties started so young.  Or that turtles would ever trump princesses.  This was a coup.  A turtle cake she would get.

About the same time I asked my daughter about the cake, my extended family converged on our house for an amazing reunion/celebration of three family birthdays (in three different generations.)  Unfortunately, I was slightly overwhelmed with the process of entertaining and feeding ten people for ten days that I forgot to think about the turtle cake until a few days before my daughter's birthday.  Or perhaps I was just blocking the thought of it for fear that I'd actually have to do it eventually.  Three days before the birthday, my mother volunteered to bake the cake if I could tell her what shapes I needed for "project turtle cake".  I was suddenly faced with a crisis situation and everyone in my family knew I was in over my head.

My brother-in-law Mark immediately texted his mother-- the queen of kids' birthday cakes-- for advice.  The delightful and exceedingly talented Shirley Doogue sent photos of her own turtle cakes within the hour.  I started to sweat when I saw how great they were.  Listening to Mark's stories of how his mother started making birthday cakes weeks in advance of the birthday, storing pieces of the cake in the freezer as she worked.    My process would have to be different.

The bottom line was that I didn't have the time or energy to fret over this cake.  It just had to get done.  I studied the photos and websites that Shirley had sent and came up with a plan.  I asked my mom to bake two round 9-inch cakes, a 6-inch cake and a batch of cupcakes.  With this much cake, I figured I'd be able to come up with something that resembled a turtle.  The next day, my mom whipped up several batches of frosting.  I decided that my daughter's turtle cake would be iced in chocolate-- partly because this is her favorite icing and partly because the idea of using so much green food coloring to make a green turtle freaked me out a little.

I had about two hours to create a turtle cake from a table full of cake shapes and bowls of icing.  No pressure.  I took a deep breath and started.  Assembling the turtle body went pretty well.  I had an audience of four children as I started to work and I asked for their advice as I went along.  Early in the process it became clear that my oldest nephew Sean and I were on the same wavelength.  Should the turtle have a curved tail?  Yes.  Should the turtle have a long neck?  Yes.  Sean drew me a picture of what he thought a turtle head and neck should look like.  The other three kids (including the birthday girl) lost interest pretty quickly, but Sean watched for most of the process and I soon gained confidence in my work thanks to my partner in crime.  Sean seemed to think I could do it and he agreed with the choices I was making.  It's surprising how much confidence a supportive 12 year old boy can inspire simply by being interested.  We were off and running.

My mother hasn't understood many of my life choices over the years, but she does whatever she can to help me do whatever it is I think I want to do.  On this day, I wanted frosting-- lots of frosting.  My mother silently produced endless batches of frosting-- both chocolate and vanilla-- and I used it all.

After adding several layers of chocolate icing and some black icing for details like eyes and toenails, it became clear that my turtle cake wasn't quite girly enough, so I added green frosting highlights on the shell.  I started with vanilla frosting that my mom made from an old Brethern recipe.  It took a while to transform the vanilla frosting into a bright shade of green (and a surprising amount of green gel food coloring), but it eventually worked.

Near the end of production, when it was clear that this project was going to be a success, some of the men decided to brave the kitchen and check out the cake.  My father even suggested adding a tongue and asked if I had any licorice.  Nope.  But I had gummy fruit.  A red strawberry gummy makes a pretty decent turtle tongue if pressed flat.

By the time the party started, the cake was ready to go.  I'd never make it on a cake-baking competition show, but that wasn't the point.  Or was it?  My sister said my cake might not look as realistic or professional as Shirley's cakes, but that it was great that we'd all been able to share the experience.  My family had all pitched in to help me make my daughter's birthday fun-- each contributing some special skill of our own to the process.  We all had a good time making the cake and we showed the kids that if you work together, surprisingly good things can happen.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Say It With Cake: Happy Fourth of July!

Ruth's version of Ina Garten's Flag Cake, July 4, 2012.
My friend Ruth has inspired me to start a new column... "Say It With Cake".  Ruth made this cake using Ina Garten's recipe for Flag Cake, which is beautiful and delicious.  Thanks, Ruth for the inspiration and the good eats!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Brownie S'mores Recipe

After writing my latest Zester article in which I admitted that I hate to bake, a number of people have asked me for my Brownie S'mores recipe.  The irony of this amuses me to no end, but my family DOES enjoy the brownies.  And I enjoy making them much more than baking cupcakes.

Brownie S'mores
by Susan Lutz
Makes 24 cupcake-sized brownies

Special Equipment:

  • 2 cupcake pans that make 12 cupcakes each (if you only have one cupcake pan, just bake in two batches.) 
  • 24 cupcake liners
  • "small" (2 tablespoon) cookie scooper--I have this one
  • sifter or fine mesh sieve 
  • 1 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 sticks butter- melted and slightly cooled
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon finely ground salt (or 1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt)
  • 1 cup mini-chocolate chips (3/4 cup for batter and 1/4 cup for topping)
  • 1 graham cracker- crushed between your fingers to create crumb topping
  • 3/4 cup mini-marshmallows ( you need 72 marshmallows if you want 3 marshmallows per brownie)
Here's how I sift dry ingredients over bowl, 2012.
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  • Line cupcake pans with cupcake liners.
  • In a large bowl, combine sugar, butter, water, and vanilla extract.  Stir until well-mixed.  
  • Add two slightly beaten eggs and stir to combine.
  • Sift dry ingredients and add to wet ingredients.  (I don't like to do dishes, so I put a sieve over my bowl of wet ingredients and sift them directly into my bowl.  This way I don't have to clean a second bowl.)  
  • Mix to combine wet and dry ingredients, then add 3/4 cup of mini-chocolate chips.
  • Place one scoop (approximately 2 tablespoons) of batter into each cupcake liner.
  • Bake for 7 to 8 minutes, until a crust forms around the edges of the brownies, but the center is still slightly wet.  
  • Evenly divide reserved toppings (1/4 cup mini-chocolate chips, marshmallows, and graham cracker crumbs) between 24 brownies.   Return cupcake pans to oven and bake no longer than 2 to 3 additional minutes.  (If you add the marshmallows too soon, they will deflate.)  
  • Be careful not to over-bake the brownies.   They are done when a crust should form on top of each one.  If you put a toothpick into the center of a brownie, brownie dough will still cling to it slightly when you pull it out.
  • As you may have guessed, I'm a pretty lazy baker, but I do believe it's important to sift the dry ingredients.  This will help distribute them throughout the batter with less mixing and help you eliminate any hard clumps of cocoa that always seem to form in the cocoa container.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Do You Hate To Bake?

It isn't the nicest thing to admit, but I really do not like to bake.  I have my reasons, as well as some suggestions for making the experience more pleasurable.  Read all about it at Zester Daily.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Pickle Project v2.0

Cucumbers ready for slicing, 2012.
It's cucumber season again and around my house that means it's time to make sweet pickles.  I first made them with my mother's help in 2010 and they were delicious.  This year, I started the process by myself, knowing that my mother would arrive shortly to help me with the heavy lifting.  I bought the cucumbers at the Atwater farmer's market.  I always look for my favorite variety of cucumber for making pickles--Japanese Shorts, but since they weren't available at any of the markets this year, I decided to go with the smallest, firmest pickling cucumbers I could find.
10 lbs= 2 gallons of cucumbers, 2012.

I should issue the disclaimer that my training as a Master Food Preserver has taught me that this process is not recommended by the USDA.  I am speaking purely as a private citizen when I say that although I am obviously following this recipe, you may wish to follow a USDA tested recipe instead.  A similar version may be found on page 127 of the book So Easy To Preserve by The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension or in this excellent pdf file on canning pickles from Iowa State University Cooperative Extension.  They're both pretty similar to my mom's recipe and they have very good directions for first-time pickle-makers.

The trickiest thing about this recipe is the timing.  You need to make sure you're around long enough to deal with each part of the process at the crucial moment.  I bought cucumbers at the farmer's market on Sunday and started the process.  Oddly enough, my mother's recipe insists that the day you start is NOT Day 1.  So although I started on Sunday, Monday was officially Day 1 of the process.

I thought for version 2.0 I would report on the process in stages, but you can find the original recipe in its entirety here.

Days 1 through 7 are pretty easy.

  • Buy, wash, and cut approximately 10 pounds of pickling cucumbers into 3/4 inch slices.  You should end up with about about 2 gallons, which is what the recipe requires. 
  • Make a simple brine of water and non-iodized salt (proportions are crucial) and pour heated brine over pickles.  
  • Cover top of cucumbers with a plate to keep them submerged in salted water (brine).
  • Let stand for one week-- stirring each day to prevent scum from forming.  If scum does form in spite of your best efforts (or neglectful ways), skim the scum off the top.
I'm on Day 3 now and so far so good.  More excitement to come on Sunday.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Oops!... I Did It Again

Sauerkraut gone bad, June 2012.
Nothing says, "Welcome Home!" like a batch of sauerkraut gone bad.  This pungent smell awaited my husband yesterday when he returned from a four-day trip and the first thing he did was check my youngest daughter's diaper.  When he realized that she was fresh as a daisy, he asked, "Whatcha doing in here?"  I knew that the sauerkraut I started two weeks ago was not doing well, but I didn't know it smelled THAT bad.  I guess you can get used to almost anything.

I looked at the "bad" sauerkraut this morning and finally admitted the truth to myself.  The kraut is a funny color and the liquid level has dropped significantly-- the salty brine no longer covers the cabbage as it did when I started.  It's time to throw it out, but I can't help wondering what I did wrong and wishing that the stinking, rotten cabbage could tell me how I killed it's beautiful fermentation process.  I guess that's why I kept the stuff even though I knew it wasn't edible.  I thought that if I stared at it long enough, I might figure out what happened.

This is not the first batch of kraut I've killed recently.  The first time around, I made the mistake of keeping the container on the window sill.  I knew that sauerkraut ferments best in a dark, cool space, but I'd plopped it up there the night I made it and simply forgot to move it the next morning.  I don't have that excuse for the second batch.

I discussed the problem with my friend Daniel, who makes gallons of sauerkraut on his front porch and always seems to have a steady supply of kraut at his house.  In fact, he recently loaned me one of his crocks to make sweet pickles.  I should have known that if the crock was free of sauerkraut there must be a reason for it.  He told me that his mother said you could only make sauerkraut with winter cabbage, but he didn't know why.  I can understand why you need to make sauerkraut in cool weather, but since I was keeping my crock indoors, I didn't think this would matter.  Maybe there is something magical about winter cabbage.

To be honest, I'm running out of dark corners in my house.  I have vinegar mothers, a ten-gallon crock of pickles, and a load of already canned goods crowding my shelves and pantry.  My sauerkraut container is tall and I thought, "what the hell... I'll put it on top of the microwave until I find a better spot."  I never did.  I'll admit that I secretly wondered if the microwaves from my microwave oven might kill the fermentation process.  All evidence supports this theory, although I know it's not supposed to work that way.

I'm off to toss out the rotten cabbage and sanitize the container.  And I guess I'll wait until Fall to try another batch.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Buffalo Bourbon Vanilla Extract

Buffalo Bourbon Extract at the beginning of the extraction process, November 2011.
Today's post about making homemade vanilla extract has been a long-time coming.  More than anything else, it is good a good reminder regarding the most important rule of food experimentation:


I did not keep good notes when I made my first batch of vanilla extract back in November and today I paid the price for my laziness.  I've spent my day chasing down credit card receipts and making phone calls to bottle distributors and mail-order vanilla importers.   I'm here to report that this is not the way you want to spend your day.

Now that the legwork of backtracking through my process is done, I can finally get to the fun part-- telling you about the process of making homemade vanilla extract.

I first learned about the basic process at The Institute of Domestic Technology.  Since that time I've done additional reading and experimenting to come up with my own recipe (which you will find at the end of this post.)

When I took the class at the Institute, the director Joseph Shuldiner had mentioned that it was possible to make vanilla using alcohols other than vodka, which is the standard.  He also warned us that we might not be satisfied with the results of using anything but the cheapest vodka because any flavors that came from the alcohol would potentially compete with the flavor extracted from the vanilla bean.

I listened to Joseph's cautionary tale, but I'm from Virginia-- bourbon country-- and I knew I had to try making vanilla extract from bourbon at least once.   Joseph's recipe was based on an extremely small batch model (one cup).  When I decided to make bourbon vanilla extract, I figured there was no use in doing it on a small scale.  I decided to think big-- especially since I was starting in late November and I figured that homemade vanilla extract would make an excellent holiday present.

I was right.  And wrong.  Now that I've made it through most of the process (except the final extraction comparison), I have a number of important tips to share-- and they are based on my own hard-won experience.  I hope you'll learn from my mistakes and plan accordingly.

1.  PLAN AHEAD.  It takes a minimum of 3 to 5 months for the alcohol to coax the vanilla flavor out from the vanilla beans.  If you want to give fully-aged vanilla extract as holiday presents (assuming the holiday season begins by mid-December), you need to start this process by mid-September AT THE LATEST. It is perhaps best to think of it as a summer project to allow time for mail-order shipping schedules and procrastination.   Thinking six months ahead is ideal since that's the time most people agree that the extraction process will be complete.  I didn't do this and ended up giving people vanilla extract with instructions "to enjoy after Valentine's Day".  It was fine in the end, but confusing to a few of the recipients.

2.  BOURBON VANILLA EXTRACT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE WE KNOW AS "BOURBON", SO NAME YOUR EXTRACT CAREFULLY.  Vanilla extract comes from the seed pod (bean) of the vanilla orchid and there are two basic types-- Vanilla Planifolia and Vanilla Tahitensis.   Vanilla Planifolia is grown in both Mexico and on a series of islands off the east coast of Africa-- including Madagascar and a tiny island once called the Île Bourbon.  This island, now known as Reunion Island, was colonized by the French in the mid-1600's and named for The House of Bourbon, which ruled France at the time.  The vanilla extract from this region also is processed in a special way-- using a technique called the "Bourbon method."

I'll go into this processing difference in greater detail in a future post for all the vanilla obsessed readers out there.  Most people will be unaware of these distinctions, but they will most certainly realize that YOUR "Bourbon vanilla extract" tastes different than the store-bought stuff-- and that there's a good reason for this.  Unlike most "Bourbon vanilla extract", your extract will have bourbon in it.

3.  BE SURE THAT YOU ACTUALLY WANT TO TASTE BOURBON IN YOUR BOURBON VANILLA EXTRACT.  After trying my vanilla extract made with 50% bourbon and 50% vodka by volume, I must report that the bourbon flavor is fairly strong.  This could either be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you want to use your vanilla.  I've used my "bourbon vanilla extract" in cookies and various other baked goods and nobody has complained (or even noticed) the difference.  It is, however, something to consider.

4.  DON'T SKIMP ON THE VANILLA BEANS.  I was surprised when I did the math and determined that the cost of the vanilla beans amounted to about 15% of my total cost for this project.  If I had used 1 pound of Planifolia vanilla beans (instead of the 1/4 pound I started with) I would only have increased my total cost by an additional 15%.   In the end, I ended up making vanilla that cost about $4 for each 4 ounce bottle (including gift wrap) and I ended up with 25 4 ounce bottles and an extra 6 to 8 ounces just for me.  If I'd used four times the amount of vanilla, the cost would still have been less than $5 a bottle.

I mention this because many of the vanilla extract recipes that I've seen call for far less vanilla beans than the FDA requires for commercially-produced vanilla extract.  This means that homemade vanilla extract is often results in a weak product, compared to commercially-produced vanilla extract.

Commercial producers also have the advantage of using professional grade extraction techniques, which gives them an advantage over the home cook.  I'm currently in the process to trying extractions of different strengths.  I'm currently testing vanilla extract made with 1, 2, 3, and 4 vanilla beans per 4 ounces of alcohol.  The experiment should be complete by December of this year and I'll be sure to report back with my findings.

My experiments are based on the notion that by FDA standards, vanilla extract must be made with ethyl alcohol that is no less than 35% alcohol in volume.  It must also made with 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans (using only one of the two approved variety of beans) per gallon of alcohol.  The beans must also have a specific moisture content, but that's another story.  I have no way to measure moisture content, but I can do the calculations to determine that I would need to use approximately six vanilla beans per 8 ounces of liquid to come close to meeting this standard.
My husband asks to sample our extract in the making, Nov. 2011.

Buffalo Bourbon Vanilla Extract
by Susan Lutz

NOTE:  I have no ties to the makers of Buffalo Trace Bourbon.  I picked it because it wasn't too expensive and had a cool name that I thought would add to the appeal of the gift.  (I printed out cute labels for "Buffalo Bourbon Vanilla" so people would understand that there's actual BOURBON in my vanilla extract.  I liked this idea of adding bourbon flavor to my vanilla extract, but if you don't like the taste of bourbon, don't use it.  The bourbon was double the price of the vodka so you can reduce the overall cost of this project by using 3 liters of inexpensive vodka instead of the bourbon/vodka combo.
Bottles awaiting filling, Nov. 2011.

  • 24 4-ounce bottles (either brown or blue glass)
  • 1 large food-safe container (at least 3 liters in total volume)
  • A funnel with a tip small enough to fit into the tops of your 4 ounce bottles
  • A non-reactive ladle, spoon, or scooper of some description
  • 1.75 liters of Buffalo Trace bourbon or the bourbon of your choice
  • 1.75 liters of vodka (I used Svedka)
  • 1/2 pound to 1 pound of Planifolia vanilla beans (depending on strength of extract you prefer)
I have no affiliation with either of these companies, but I found them both to be friendly and helpful. 
  • Wash all bottles, lids, and other equipment in hot soapy water and let dry.  (If your bottles are dishwasher-safe and you have a dishwasher, it wouldn't hurt to run them through a cycle.)
  • Split vanilla beans lengthwise and cut them into pieces that will fit into your bottle.
  • Place a total of 2 to 3 vanilla beans into each 4 ounce bottle.   (Using 3 vanilla beans per 4 ounces of alcohol will get you close to meeting the minimum government standard for vanilla extract.)
  • If you are using a mixture of bourbon and vodka, pour the contents of each 1.75 liter bottle of alcohol into a large food-safe container and stir to mix.
  • Ladle out approximately 4 ounces of bourbon-vodka mixture into each 4 ounce bottle, making sure that the alcohol covers the vanilla beans completely.
  • Put lid on bottle and place in a cool, dark place for 3 to 6 months.  Check bottles occasionally to make sure the vanilla beans are still covered with alcohol and give them a quick shake.
  • After six months, you may wish to strain out the vanilla bean.
  • According to Joseph Shuldiner, you may keep a single bottle of vanilla extract for up to seven years.  Once you use about half of the contents of a bottle, you can add more vodka and let sit for 3 to 5 months before using.  I've been doing this by rotating two bottles and it's been working beautifully.  Of course, I use a lot of vanilla at my house.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Last of the Loquats: Loquat Butter Take Two

Our last harvest of loquats for 2012 (and a single "Mystery Fruit").
It was with sadness and a sense of relief that I realized that our loquat season was coming to an end for the year.  We've had a great time harvesting our loquats to make loquat butter and loquat leather, in addition to eating pounds of them straight off the tree.

With all this loquat-eating, we've learned a few things about the two loquat trees in our yard.  We discovered that the fruit from these trees is quite different.  Everyone, including our local flock of wild parrots, prefers the fruit from The South Tree and it was picked clean almost a month ago.  But up until recently, we still had a lot of ripe loquats on The North Tree.

It was a challenge to figure out what to do with the last of the loquat harvest, but after much consideration I decided to borrow the dehydrator from the Master Food Preserver program and make one last batch of loquat leather.  My youngest daughter is the only person (besides me) who'll eat the stuff, but she REALLY loves it.  And I REALLY wanted to perfect my recipe for loquat leather before the season ended.

Unfortunately, I made a fatal mistake-- a mistake I often make and don't realize until it's too late-- I decided to use a new method for turning whole loquats into loquat pulp.

The first time I made loquat leather I used the food processor to pulverize the loquat flesh.  I removed the seeds, but not the skin or the tough membrane that coats the seeds.  It worked well, but the pulp had a bit more "texture" than I would have liked.  The second time around I decided to use a fancy new piece of equipment I'd just mail-ordered-- my variety pack of Kitchen Aid accessories, including the fruit & vegetable strainer attachment.  I'd been told it was great for making tomato sauce and for preparing fruits for jams and jellies.  It seemed perfect for making loquat leather.


This attachment, which I'm sure has many valuable uses, is no good for making loquat leather.  Oddly enough, the very quality that makes it great for jelly-making makes it useless for making leather because it takes out too much of the fibrous pulp-- exactly the stuff I'd been trying to get rid of.  So this lovely attachment did what I wanted it to do.  It's just that was I wanted to do was a really bad idea.  And after I started, I realized that I'd "wasted" too carefully seeded loquats to make a large batch of loquat leather.  I could have made a small batch instead, but I felt guilty about throwing away this delicious sweet nectar, even if it was no good for loquat leather.

I made another batch of loquat butter instead.  And then I used the dehydrator to make strawberry and apple leathers.  (But that's another story.)
My final batch of loquat butter (from The South Tree) for 2012.
I'll post the final recipes for the two versions of loquat leathers and the loquat butter once I can sort out all my notes from the different batches and put them together in a cohesive form.

For now, I will say that the last batch of loquat butter was pretty good, but not as good as the first.  I believe this is due entirely to the fact that the fruit from The North Tree is simply inferior to the fruit of The South Tree.  I'd made a blend of the loquats from both trees for the first batch and that produced a richer loquat butter.  It was more acidic, but also stronger in flavor, which made the loquat butter from The South Tree fruit both tangier and also sweeter.  We're not tossing out any of the loquat butter I made.  It's all pretty good.  But I may hide a few jars of the loquat butter from The South Tree for special occasions. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

I Graduated!: New Group of Master Food Preservers on the Loose...

Angela Choi's delicious graduation cake, June 2012.
I'm very pleased to report that I and 17 others graduated from the Master Food Preserver Program on Tuesday night.  It was a great celebration and I felt grateful to be a part of such an amazing group.  It will be interesting to see how we all use our newfound knowledge.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Master Food Preserver Program Update

Various batches of jelly, jam, and eight versions of mandarin oranges preserved in different kinds of syrup, 2012.
For those of you who have been following my progress in the Master Food Preserver Program, here's the latest news as I reported on Zester Daily.  Thanks for all the support.  And many thanks to those of you who have tireless tasted various batches of loquat butter, fresh goat cheese, and fruit leather.  Especially the fruit leather...

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Don't Smother Your Mother!

Vinegar "Mother" on table at Master Food Preserver Class, May 2012.
"Don't smother your mother!"

This is a phrase I never expected to utter except when trying to keep my children from burying me at the bottom of their dog pile.

It turns out to be crucial advice for making homemade vinegar as well.

I'd never thought much about vinegar before learning about it in my Master Food Preserver class.  In my mind, vinegar came in three categories-- white, red, and apple cider (with the later being my favorite.)  I knew that within these three categories individual vinegar quality ranged from disgusting to sublime.  I knew that vinegar is used to make salad dressing, pickles, and to clean dirty windows.

What I didn't know was the fact that vinegar is alive (or at least it came from a living source) and that it's the result of one of two processes-- either distillation or the magical process known as fermentation.

There are far more varieties of vinegar than I'd ever considered before-- including fruit vinegars, malt and beer vinegars, balsamic vinegars, sherry vinegars, and Asian vinegars (tamari and soy.)

Vinegar is composed of acetic acid, water, and a number of vitamins and other compounds that come from the source of the sugar from which it's made.  

Making vinegar via fermentation is a multi-step process.  Fruit-based vinegars require wild yeasts to convert the sugar in the fruit into alcohol.  In a starch-based vinegar, the starch is first converted to sugar and then the sugar is converted into alcohol.  The bacteria acetobacter aceti then converts the alcohol into acetic acid in the presence of oxygen.  The resulting product is vinegar.

Making vinegar at home requires three basic ingredients:
1.  Alcohol
2.  Oxygen
3.  Bacteria (acetobacter aceti)

Although it is possible (even preferable) to make delicious vinegar at home, you cannot be sure of it's acidity.  Homemade vinegar is great for salad dressing and marinades, but should not be used for canning or pickling, which requires using vinegar with a confirmed acid content of at least 5%.

That said, making vinegar at home is surprisingly easy.  As long as you have a "mother".

The mother is any vinegar that contains live bacteria.  If you feed it, the mother will continue to grow (as long as you don't smother it by adding too much alcohol to the mother at one time.)  Eventually, a thin film will form on top of the mother (this is cellulose).  It will thicken and eventually sink to the bottom of the container in which you keep it.  A mother that sinks is affectionately referred to as a "dead mother".

Of course the "dead mother" is not actually dead.  It is, in fact, very much alive and can be used as the starter for a new batch of vinegar.

What WILL kill your mother is pasteurization.  Most commercially produced vinegars are pasteurized to stop the growth of bacteria.  But you can buy live vinegars-- like Bragg apple cider vinegar-- and it can be used as a starter for making more vinegar.

I was given the gift of a small "mother" from the MFP graduate/instructor Karen Hobart during our class on vinegar-making.  I was told not to disturb the mother-- unless she was ready to eat.  My mother was a red wine mother, but Karen told me that I could feed my mother with white wine and eventually my mother would change color.

I found this idea intriguing so I decided to try it.  I've fed my red-wine mother with white wine once since I got it several weeks ago.  Sadly, I failed to follow Karen's instructions and mark the date of the feeding on the side of the jar.  I'm supposed to feed it every 1 1/2 to 2 weeks and I'm pretty sure it's due to be fed again soon.  At least it looks like it's ready.

I'm still in the midst of discovering the best way to make homemade vinegar so I'm not yet ready to put my process down in writing.  Until that day comes, check out this link to a great presentation about making vinegar from Mississippi State University.  It's a great place to start researching the process of vinegar-making.

If you're already an experienced vinegar-maker, I'd love to hear from you and swap stories about smothered mothers.  I haven't done this.  Yet.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Loquat Fruit Leather Revisited

Homemade loquat fruit leather, April 26, 2012.
Several weeks ago I wrote a post about Loquat Fruit Leather and expressed my after-the-fact reservations about making fruit leather out of loquats.  My greatest concern was that the loquat leather would never dry properly since it seemed so sticky when I took it out of the dehydrator.  Luckily, several weeks after completing the dehydration process and putting the loquat leather into a "conditioning" bag, I've realized that my loquat leather is just fine.  In fact, there was never anything wrong with it.

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm in the middle of taking a class to become a Master Food Preserver and that I've been doing a lot of experimentation as my "homework".  When I made loquat leather, I'd just heard a lecture about making fruit leather, but we only made it from super-sweet fruits like apples and strawberries.  Looking back on the experience, I think that my biggest problem with making loquat leather was that my tastebuds were expecting something similar to the leathers I'd tried in class.  Naturally, the fruit leathers from class were made using tested recipes and were selected because they used fruits that make ideal fruit leathers-- high in sugar and pectin and relatively low in fiber (as fruits go.)

I'm here to report that loquats are not one of these fruits.

I made three different batches of loquat fruit leather-- one made from nothing but loquats, one with added sugar, and one with a mixture of honey and sugar.  In the end, they all tasted pretty much the same, which was not super-sweet and a little mealy.

Lucikly, I had a great resource to turn to for advice.  One of the benefits of taking a Master Food Preserver class is having knowledgeable authorities available to answer my food preservation questions.  A few days after making my loquat leather,  I asked my teacher Chef Ernest Miller a lot of questions about fruit leather-- in fact, I fear I made a bit of a pest out of myself because I was so excited to get to the bottom of my fruit leather dilemma.

Within several minutes, Chef Miller solved my problem.  Here are his answers.

1.  Add applesauce to the loquat puree.  Loquats are too fibrous and don't have enough pectin to produce a proper fruit leather.

2.   Don't bother with "conditioning", which is the process of putting your dehydrated food into an airtight container for a period of time until the water reactivity of each individual piece of dried food reaches what's known as "equilibrium".

3.  Be sure to spread the puree thinner in the center of the tray because it will dry from the edges.  (I knew this, but apparently I didn't create a dramatic enough difference in thickness to overcome the drying problem.)

I'm hoping to be able to borrow the dehydrator again before the loquat season ends to test out this advice.  With any luck, I'll be able to publish a delicious apple-loquat leather recipe in the near future.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Planting our Summer Garden 2012

Strawberries ripening in the sun during their second season, April 2012.
Our Summer planting has been a long time coming this year.  We started planting over a month ago and just filled up most of our available garden space as of this past weekend.  The biggest challenge we faced this year was an inability to find decent plants of the varieties we wanted to grow.  It took trips to three different nurseries and a farmer's market to yield the crop list below.

We are still in search of Sweet 100 or Sweet 1,000 tomato plants because although we've tried other varieties of cherry tomatoes, these are always the best producers and biggest hits with the kids.  And there are some things worth waiting for.  I'm not sure that cherry tomatoes should be one of them, but that's how it's worked out.

Green beans and corn seem to love our new eco-friendly mulch, April 2012.
Summer Crops 2012:
  • Corn- "Sweet White"- 6 plants.  A token amount but enough for the girls to see how corn grows
  • Green Beans- "Blue Lake" and "Fancy French Thin"- 6 each
  • Tomatoes- "Mortgage Lifter", "Amish Paste", Arkansas Traveler, and San Marzanos (planted from seed and yet to sprout-- this could be trouble)- 6 plants plus unknown number of possible seedlings
  • Basil- 2 generic, but good looking plants from Trader Joe's and a fancier Italian version planted from seed.  At least 6 seedlings have sprouted, but still remain in their infancy.  Seed package now recycled and exact variety unknown.
  • Pimiento peppers- 3 plants.  These plants were especially hard to find.  I had almost given up when I discovered some beautiful specimens at the Montrose Farmer's Market.  Have I mentioned my fondness for pimiento cheese?
In other crop news...
  • The radishes we planted in late Winter are now petering out.
  • We lost one green bean plant (I think it was a "Fancy French Thin") to some varmint who ate it down to the stem.
  • The garden has benefitted from a recent mulching, courtesy of Wiseacre Farms, who donated eco-friendly recycled rubber mulch to our garden.
  • The mole is back from time to time, but hasn't yet caused any drastic crop damage. 
  • The strawberries are going strong in their second year and we're enjoying eating them off the plant-- one by one and warm from the heat of the sun.  They have yet to make it into the house.
Return of the mole hole, April 2012.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Living With Loquats

Harvesting loquats from The South Tree, April 2012.
Anyone who's ever had a loquat tree knows that loquats can be both a blessing and a burden.  The trees are beautiful and bear an abundance of fruit with very little attention.

This is both the good news and the bad news.  When loquat trees bear fruit, they bear a lot of it.  And it will fall to the ground, courtesy of gravity.

Unless you have a staff of gardeners to rake your yard daily, you may find that the glorious abundance a large loquat tree produces soon becomes annoying.  And if you're anything like me, you feel guilty that you're not putting the fruit to good use each time you feel the soft flesh of a loquat squish into the soles of your shoes.

This year, I intended to harness that guilt – while harnessing the incredible energy of our two loquat trees.

In the past, my husband and I tried loquat jam and loquat cobbler, but it was hard work to peel a large quantity of loquats so I no longer consider any loquat recipe that requires peeling the loquats.

During this loquat season, I've made both loquat butter and loquat leather with mixed results.

If you don't live in loquat territory, you may never have heard of loquats.  I certainly hadn't until I moved to Southern California – where you can find them everywhere.  So in the midst of picking, seeding and pureeing my favorite fruit of the moment, I thought I needed to do some research on the mysterious origins of the loquat.

According to Purdue University's Center for New Crops & Plant Products, the loquat is indigenous to China and possibly to southern Japan, where it has been cultivated for over 1,000 years.   Loquat trees grow in temperate climates around the globe -- and in some intemperate climates as well.  In the 1700s, the colonial powers apparently discovered the deliciousness of loquats, because the fruit suddenly appeared in the greenhouses of the Royal Botanical Gardens in England and National Gardens of Paris – and then soon appeared in other outposts of the European empires. Exactly how they got to Southern California, it’s never made clear, but obviously the loquats like it here, since they grow in such abundance.

The university says that loquats are part of the rose family, Rosacae, surprisingly enough, and claims that trees can grow up to 30 feet tall.  I can attest that this is true – and perhaps is an understatement.  Our two loquat trees are each at least 30 feet tall, with no sign of stopping.

The loquat fruit grows in clusters and each loquat is supposed to contain one to ten large seeds in the center of the fruit.  (I've counted up to six seeds in the fruit from my loquat trees.)  The University web page does NOT point out one of the problems of the loquat’s large seeds. The fruit-to-seed ratio makes them a real challenge to clean.  It takes a lot of work to remove the large seeds for a relatively small volume of usable loquat flesh.

Purdue’s website (based on Julia F. Mortons’ Fruits of Warm Climates) says there are over 800 varieties of loquats.  I have two in my backyard, each a different variety, which I refer to as The North Tree and The South Tree.  After a bit of researching, I believe that The North Tree is a Japanese variety, known for pear-shaped fruit with pale-yellow skin and whitish flesh.   The web page says the fruit is juicy and "non-distinct" in flavor.  We refer to the flavor, more scientifically, as ranging from “blah” to “meh.”

The South Tree has fruit with darker skin, yellowish flesh, and its flavor is distinctly preferred by both wild parrots and 3-year-old girls.  I haven’t specifically been able to identify the variety, but it is quite possibly a “Placentia,” a Japanese variety introduced to Placentia, California in the late 1800s.  Placentia is a tiny town in Orange County, only 35 miles away, so it wouldn’t surprise me that the this variety would have been popular when our L.A. bungalow was being landscaped in the 1930s.
Loquats from The North Tree (top of frame) and The South Tree (bottom of frame), April 2012.

The trees bear fruit from April until May or June – or at least they do in California where I live.  Purdue University claims that freshly-picked loquats will keep for 10 days at room temperature, but at my house they decay quickly and I've found that it's best to harvest them on the same day I want to use them.

Loquats also have the distinction of being a delicious fruit with a poisonous seed.  The chemical inside the seed – hydrogen cyanide -- can break down into cyanide in the human digestive system, so caution should be used when selecting and seeding the fruit.  In addition, the fruit in large quantities is said to have a sedative effect.  Purdue University's Center for New Crops & Plant Products reports that a 5 year-old girl in Florida fell asleep and was difficult to awake after she ate 4 unripe loquats.  She was dazed immediately after waking, but within two hours had recovered and did not suffer any permanent injury.

After reading this bit of information, I'm no longer quite so excited about making loquat jelly, which needs to be made with slightly unripe fruit.  I’m just not that interested in a breakfast jelly that knocks out my children.  However, I am looking forward to making pickled (fully-ripe) loquats in the coming weeks.

As a food history geek, I can find myself lost for hours pursuing the minutiae of the loquat’s illustrious back-story (“Look, it’s also an expectorant!”)  But eventually I realize that I have to get around to that 8 liter bucket full of yellow fruit that could go bad.  And as fascinating as it is to explore the history of Eriobotrya japonica, it’s nothing compared to spreading home-made loquat butter on a piece of crunchy toast on a spring morning in Southern California.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Loquat Fruit Leather... Maybe Not

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm in the midst of taking a class to become a "Master Food Preserver".  This week we discussed food dehydration and I was so excited about the class that I went home with an Excalibur Food Dehydrator.  I was able to borrow the dehydrator for a week, which is good because my first attempt at dehydration was not a resounding success.
Loquats fill my kitchen on Wednesday morning, April 2012.
We have lots of loquats at our house right now and I hate to see them all go to the parrots, much as I love to see the happy parrots nibbling ripe loquats from the treetops.  So I decided to make loquat leather.

The process sounded so simple.  Wash and seed the loquats.  Grind them to a pulp in a food processor, add sweetener if desired, and spread in an even coating on beautiful Silpat mats that keep the mixture from falling through cracks in the drying trays.  Load the drying trays into the racks of the food dehydrator, set the timer, and walk away for four to six hours.
Excalibur fully loaded, April 2012.

When I returned after four hours, it was clear that my experiment was not going well.  I hadn't put enough loquat mash on the mats and my loquat leather had created a pattern that I can only describe as a "crack in the sidewalk" effect.  With no other option, I reset the timer for another two hours and tried not to think about what was happening on the drying racks.

After a total of six hours, I did get loquat fruit leather.  Three different versions, in fact.  I made a version from each of the two varieties of trees that grow in our yard.  I also made a third version sweetened with a mixture of honey and sugar.

When I removed them from the drying racks to begin the "conditioning process", none of the versions looked great.  They were all crunchy on the edges and a little gunky in the center.

Conditioning is the most fascinating and overlooked part of the process.  Simply put, "conditioning" means putting your dried goods into an airtight container for a period of time until the moisture content of each individual piece of dried food reaches what's known as "equilibrium".  The moisture content of each piece of food you dry will be slightly different based on it's relative thickness.  If you put a collection of recently dried foods into an airtight container together, the moisture content will eventually even out.  The pieces that were a bit drier will absorb moisture from the "wetter" pieces-- a process that benefits both the thick and the thin pieces.
Loquat leather before the conditioning process, April 2012.

I'm hoping that the conditioning process will work wonders on my loquat leather.  I gave my youngest daughter a taste of the loquat leather when it came out of the dehydrator and she loved it.  I also tried drying some orange slices while I was at it.  With all the rain we've been having, they aren't drying properly and I'm not sure they ever will.  Time will tell.

Two of my classmates are also trying to make loquat fruit leather this week.  I'm hoping one of them will have more success and I'll be able to post a link to one of their blogs in the near future.  In the meantime, I will try again, but I think I'll wait for the rain to stop before I head to the backyard to harvest more loquats.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Crazy for Preserves: MFP for Me

My first batch of loquat butter, April 16, 2011.
I'm five weeks into a 12 week class to become a Master Food Preserver and in spite of the somewhat odd title, I'm pretty excited about what that means.  For those of you unfamiliar with the MFP program, it's a class run by the University of California Coorperative Extension office.  (Yes-- that old government program does still exist-- and even thrives-- in Los Angeles County.)  The purpose of the MFP program is to train to teach LA County residents the basics of home food preservation so they can eventually teach others how to safely preserve their own food at home.

I'm honored to be a member of the third class of MFP students since the program restarted in 2011.  With any luck, I'll be a successful graduate of the program by June and I'll be able to help disseminate information about canning and other food preservation methods across Los Angeles County.  (Just in time for the LA County Fair.)

Before starting the program, I was unaware the the MFP program is research-based, meaning that all the information we give to the public needs to be rooted in academic and scientific research.  Although I don't always agree with the research-based government standards (mostly because I do things in the comfort of my own home that aren't considered "safe" by the US government), I'm comforted to have scientific information to guide my training.  I certainly don't consider myself a "Master" of preserving, but I do like the idea of using information gathered by real experts in the field to help others learn about food preservation.  After all, I don't want them to take MY word for it.  Thanks to this program, we have a large knowledge base created by people who have devoted their entire careers to this stuff and we should all have access to it.

For those of you interested in food preservation, here are a few links for resources I've learned about in my class so far.  The National Center for Home Food Preservation provides easy to understand information about basic food preservation methods.  They also sell one of the textbooks we use in our class-- So Easy to Preserve.  I've used this book to make marmalade and as a resource for my loquat butter recipe, which was pieced together from a number of different sources.  The section on hot water bath canning is especially good.

Please write to me if you preserve food at home.  I'd love to hear about your favorite recipes and greatest disasters.  I will be reporting on my own experiments from time to time, hopefully with more successes than failures, but you never know.  The best thing my FMP training has taught me so far is not be be afraid of failure.  According to my wonderful teacher Chef Ernest Miller, it's unlikely that my failures will poison anyone.  With this comforting bit of information, I will happily forge ahead.

Happy preserving!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Craziest Garden Tool You'll Never Need, But May Want

Williams-Sonoma has just introduced their new "Agrarian" line and it's incredible.  It says a lot about the popularity of the farm-to-table movement that a high-end kitchen supply company would launch a line of gardening and food preservation tools.  I'm excited that there's enough interest in the movement that it seemed economically advantageous to create a collection of chic garden tools. It might not be my cup of tea, but I think it's great that the market is large enough to support it.  Or at least Williams-Sonoma thinks so.

The line also has a selection of what they call "DIY and Homemade Kits" for people who are new to the make-it-yourself phenomenon.  In my opinion, the most amazing collections of products are to be found in the Beekeeping, Chicken Coop, and Vintage sections.

I'm sure my dearly departed grandparents are having a good chuckle up in the great garden in the sky as they peruse the newest Williams-Sonoma catalogue.  The idea that someone would pay upwards of $900 for a chicken coop on wheels would astound them.  And I'm pretty sure my Grandma Lutz would tell me I was just plain stupid for even considering the purchase of a $100 jam pot.

My favorite of the collection (so far) is the Sophie Conran Hand Sieve.  I'm a home gardener and I come from a long line of farmers, but I had to read the sales pitch to figure out that this tool was made for sowing small seeds.  I'm not sure why anyone would need this, but when I realized that all the tools in the Sophie Conran collection could be monogrammed, I was hooked.  Imagine the possibilities-- a monogrammed garden tool would be an excellent trophy, gift, or prize.  I bet garden clubs around the country will be buying them for past club officers as a thank you for their year of service.  And don't get me started on the also monogrammable copper hand fork, handcrafted by Austrian coppersmiths (retailing for $58.95).  It is a thing of beauty.  And in spite of what my grandparents (and my parents) might say about it, I do secretly want one.

While you're on the site, be sure to check out the Kombucha Growler Bottles and Vintage Beiergarten Table.  And if you get sucked into the vortex, be aware that they have free shipping until May 3, 2012.

Happy Shopping!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

As Promised... Recipe for Okinawan Doughnuts

Those of you who read my latest piece for Zester Daily know that I'm obsessed with Greg Atkinson's recipe for Okinawan Doughnuts.  I've made them five times in the past two weeks and I've encouraged others, including my mother, to start making them as well.  As a result, I have a large collection of doughnut photos and a laundry list of ideas and suggestions for making them.  I'll share Greg Atkinson's original recipe first, followed by my own ideas and suggestions (along with a few additional photos).
Cooling Okinawan Doughnuts are frequently subject to theft at my house, 2012.

Okinawan Doughnuts
Recipe by Greg Atkinson
From "At the Kitchen Table", courtesy Sasquatsh Books

Crispy on the outside, moist and cakelike on the inside, these simple doughnuts from Okinawa are popular in Hawaii, where the fried balls of dough are called andagi, short for sata andagi, which roughly translates as “fried sweet.” When Okinawan Hawaiian chef Rocky Toguchi was at the helm, they were a popular treat among the staff at Canlis. When I left the restaurant, I started making them at home.

  • 3⁄4 cup powdered sugar, for coating the doughnuts (optional) 
  • 3 cups corn or canola oil, for deep-frying 
  • 1 egg 
  • 1⁄2 cup sugar
  • 1⁄2 cup milk 
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla 
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour 
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder 
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt 
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

  • Preheat the oven to 225°F. Line a baking sheet with a large brown paper bag and place in the warm oven. If you want to give the doughnuts a sugar coating after frying, put the powdered sugar in a small paper bag.
  • If you have a small deep-fryer, use it according to the manufacturer’s suggestions. Otherwise, heat at least 3 inches of oil in a deep, heavy stockpot over medium-high heat until a candy thermometer registers 375°F, or until a cube of bread dropped into the oil rises immediately to the surface and becomes golden brown in 1 minute.
  • In a large bowl, beat the eggs with the sugar until the eggs are well blended and the sugar is almost dissolved, about 1 minute. Stir in the milk and vanilla.
  • In a separate large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg until combined.
  • Add the egg mixture all at once to the flour mixture and stir just until the dry ingredients are moistened.
  • Use a tablespoon or a small (1⁄2-ounce) scoop to drop rounds of dough into the hot oil. Fry no more than 5 or 6 doughnuts at a time; crowding the pan prevents the doughnuts from cook- ing properly. Fry until the doughnuts rise to the surface and roll themselves over, about 4 minutes. (If they doughnuts do not flip on their own, coax them with a fork after about 2 minutes.) They should be golden brown on both sides.
  • Lift the doughnuts from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain them on the preheated, paper-lined baking sheet. Keep the doughnuts warm while you prepare succeeding batches. Just before serving, shake the doughnuts in the bag of powdered sugar.
Makes 18 small doughnuts
My mother's second attempt, 2012.

Thoughts from Two Devoted Doughnut Fans (in no particular order):

1.  I've never managed to make 18 doughnuts with the recipe (I usually get 15 or 16), but I'm working on decreasing the doughnut size.  I wouldn't worry about this much except for the fact that I suspect the doughnuts would be better if they were smaller.  They'd have a higher crispy/tender ratio and I'm always in favor of more crispiness.

2.  Be sure to eat these doughnuts quickly.  They are best fresh out of the hot oil, but are reasonably good the second day if you don't coat them with powdered sugar until just before you eat them.  This probably isn't much of a problem because you will want to eat them as fast as you can pull them out of the hot oil.  My parents ate an entire batch for dessert yesterday.  I've had to ration them to my family to test what the doughnuts would be like after one or two days.  

3.  My mother didn't like the powdered sugar coating and used a cinnamon-sugar mix instead.  I can't wait to try it on my next batch.  Her recipe is 1/2 cup sugar to 1 tablespoon cinnamon.  Mix together in a small bowl and dip doughnuts in it while doughnuts are still warm.  Another alternate topping is hot fudge.  My mother has tried that with great success as well.

4.  Use fresh eggs.  My mom made her latest batch using eggs from her friend Tippy's farm.  I suppose it goes without saying that fresh eggs will make food taste better, but frankly I just wanted an excuse to show my mom's photo because the eggs were so pretty.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Okinawan Doughnuts: A Delicious Treat

The more powdered sugar the better... March 2012.
I've just reviewed a great new cookbook/memoir called "At the Kitchen Table" by Greg Atkinson for Zester Daily.  I hope you'll check it out.

If you do, you'll find my glowing report on his recipe for Okinawan doughnuts.  My daughters loved coating the fried dough balls in powdered sugar almost as much as they enjoyed eating the doughnuts.  We've made them several times in the past week and in my humble opinion the doughnuts keep getting better.  My eldest daughter would disagree.  She says, "No way, mom.  They're the same each time and they're always DELICIOUS!"  It's hard to argue such a delightful sentiment.