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.