Sunday, February 19, 2012

Thanksgiving - "As American as Apple Pie?"

Gala, my favorite for fresh eating.
        Name the most popular fruit pie in North America. Apple? That would be my guess, though I don’t have any figures to back it up. It’s one of the pies I like to prepare for Thanksgiving, but I’ll guarantee that the Pilgrims did not eat apples for their 1621 celebration. Why? The wild varieties that the Pilgrims encountered would have been crabapples. The apples we know and love today are not native to this continent! Yet we consider them typically American. Do Europeans view potatoes and tomatoes imported from the New World in a similar light?
        The Greeks grew apples and passed their knowledge on to the Romans, who spread it throughout Europe through their conquests. Colonists brought apple seeds and plants with them to the New World. As they moved west, taking this fruit with them, they sometimes discovered apple trees, but these had been planted by American Indians who had themselves carried seeds with them as they fled before the encroaching European civilization.
       As children, we learn about Johnny Appleseed, a professional nurseryman who collected apple seeds from cider presses in Pennsylvania beginning about 1800 and embarked on his legendary travels westward, going as far as Ohio, planting trees and reportedly giving away thousands of seeds and saplings. He is portrayed as a ragged, eccentric man welcomed into isolated settlers’ homes as a carrier of news from the outside world. He is also known as a missionary. He was not, however, a poor man, but owned 1200 acres of orchards.
       Considering that apples are as non-native as most of our forefathers, "American as apple pie" is the perfect description of who we are, a people imported from elsewhere to grow and spread across this continent.
       If you have ever noticed that apple blossoms resemble tiny roses, it won’t come as a shock to you that apples are members of the rose family. There are literally thousands of varieties, but we all have our favorites. I love the crisp, juicy taste of a Gala. For pies I like Jonathons or MacIntoch. Check out the "complete" list of varieties at Using the "wrong" variety, as for example in baking a pie, can give you applesauce instead of apple chunks.
       For a modern Thanksgiving, apples could appear in pie, muffins, salads, sauces, drinks and... what else? My husband’s family’s traditional Thanksgiving dinner always included a Waldorf salad of whipped cream, walnuts and apples. Do you traditionally serve apples for this holiday meal? Will apples be a part of your Thanksgiving this year?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Emergency! Prepping for Total Destruction

Over a century and a half old
but it could be ashes in two hours.
     I have spent hours today performing a task that I hope will be a waste of time, but will in any case provide a small measure of peace of mind. I gathered all the important papers I could think of and made copies to be kept off-site in case, heaven forbid, this house should ever be destroyed.
       No, this is not a happy thought, and it's something we all take for granted will not happen to us, but it could. Our house is a 160-year-old tinderbox. We use woodburning stoves for heat and a gas stove for cooking. Cold weather drives mice inside. They love chewing on electrical wires. Once a fire started here the place would be fully involved within minutes and a pile of smoking rubble soon afterwards. Before my husband's family moved here many years ago, a micro burst destroyed the horse barn. It could just as well have been the house. The original barn was torched nearly a century ago, we are told, by a fired hired hand. Someone could set fire to the place just to see it burn. We have occasional tornadoes here, too.
       While I don't expect any of these things to happen, I am taking what action I can to prepare for the worst. If you lost everything in a fire, for instance, how would you start to put your life back together?  Having names of companies to call, their phone numbers and your account numbers available will help you deal with this ordeal at a time when you are least prepared emotionally to do so.
       Here is a partial list of information you might want to have copies of kept elsewhere, as in a safe deposit box or a relative's home safe. For some of these all you may need is a company name and contact number. For others you may want the full document.
       Birth certificates, marriage certificate, last will and testament, inoculation records, health insurance documents, drivers' licenses, social security documents, school records, income tax records, property tax information, automobile titles, mortgage information, auto and homeowner's insurance, banking information, credit card information, and information on pensions, annuities, 401Ks, stocks and bonds, and prepaid services like funeral arrangements.
       If you don't have a home safe, think seriously about getting one. While a portable-sized safe won't stop a thief, it should protect your papers from destruction by fire. Keeping a second or even a third set elsewhere as backup should insure that the papers will be available when you need them.
       When I finished (more or less) copying my pile of documents, I realized that the task was barely begun. If this place burns to the ground (shudder) everything inside will be history. Some things, of course, will be irreplaceable, like photographs and original art work, but the insurance company will demand a list of everything they are supposedly covering. That means taking a thorough written inventory of the contents of your house, with photographs or a video, and what you paid backed up by receipts if possible, or perhaps replacement cost if it has been a long time since the item was purchased. All this should go into storage with the paperwork listed above.
       I loath this sort of prepping as much as I loath the need for it. Now is about as perfect a time for this task as any, while the snow flies and you are more limited in outside activities. I urge you to do more than think about this. Do it now. You may be one of the unlucky ones who have to deal with the heartbreaking loss of nearly everything that you have worked a lifetime to attain.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Thanksgiving - Sourdough

Simple sourdough bread and
converted recipe crescents.
       Did the Pilgrims bring sourdough with them on the Mayflower? Probably not. From what I have read, food was desperately short during that voyage and I expect that any available  flour was used for immediate consumption. You may recall from an earlier post that the ship had only an open metal container for holding a fire and the weather was so poor during the later part of the trip that a fire was too dangerous to risk, so the only bread on the ship was hardtack. Even these hard, dry biscuits were reportedly inedible weeks before landfall. Because their November landfall coincided with the onset of a frigid New England winter, they would have had no opportunity to catch wild yeast and if they somehow had managed this trick, they would, again, have had no flour to fed it. There was, of course, no grocery store nearby, or even an accommodating neighbor to borrow from. The Pilgrims' first-year wheat crop failed so it is unlikely that the Pilgrims had sourdough bread for that first Thanksgiving
       For years I have been intimidated at the thought of using a sourdough starter, but now I wonder why. Settlers carried starters with them across the continent in covered wagons, for Pete's sack, without benefit of refrigeration, subjected to freezing, without coddling of any kind. And it survived. You can find stories about starters that are a hundred years old or more. Even prospectors in Alaska used sourdough starter. They reportedly carried it in a jar under their clothing so the yeast could "work," which it cannot when frozen, though freezing does not kill yeast. (I store opened packages of yeast in the freezer.) Most directions I find say to refrigerate the starter after it is frothing nicely, but others claim that a starter will keep indefinitely as long as it is renewed on a weekly basis.
       You may wonder why anyone would bother with starters when yeast is so readily available. For starters (plays on words are always intended), there's the flavor. If that isn't enough to get you going, consider the health benefits attributed to sourdough bread, particularly whole wheat sourdough bread. It reportedly will help you lose weight, reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, helps with digestive concerns, stroke, type 2 diabetes and digestive cancers, improves elimination and lowers cholesterol. I read somewhere that whole wheat sourdough bread is pound for pound the most nutritious bread you can get. Then again, being able to make leavened bread without yeast could prove useful if the zombie hordes ever make it to your neighborhood.
       Why make your own bread at all? Reading the list of ingredients on a commercial loaf answers this in part, but what that list does not say is that some commercial breads are produced in as little as forty minutes from raw ingredients to finished loaf. The nutrition in breads develops during the time the dough is rising. When in that forty minutes is there time for this? I can make a bath of yeast bread in four hours start to finish. Converting that same recipe to using sourdough starter, the time may extend to twenty-four hours or even more! Don't be put off by this! The task is not labor intensive!
       Unless you also grind all the grain by hand. But we won't go into that here. See yesterday's post about a multigrain sourdough bread recipe. This was an experiment that worked. How can you know if an experiment will work unless you try it? You could simply follow blogs like this one or surf the net for information, but that doesn't put bread on your table. Here are a few recipes that may help you do that. These are not written in stone. My feelings will not be hurt if you want to use a recipe you find elsewhere.
                                                   Dried Yeast Starter
1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons or .25 oz) active dried yeast
2 cups unbleached white flour
1 1/2 cups warm water (105 to 115 degrees, NOT hotter)
1 tablespoon honey

or                                            Whole Wheat Starter
1 package active dried yeast
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup warm water
1 tablespoon sugar

For both recipes: Mix the ingredients in a non-metal container that will contain as much as three times the original bulk of ingredients. Cover loosely and leave it in a warm place to bubble and ferment. If you seal the container as with a jar and screw-on lid, you could wind up with a broken jar. Bubbles should start to form soon afterwards, but it takes time for the process to work through the entire mixture, perhaps twenty-four hours. By this time, the starter should have developed the characteristic sour smell. You can stir it down at this point and refrigerate it, or keep it at room temperature as I'm doing.
       One source noted that when using the starter, it doesn't start working after refrigeration until it has reached room temperature. This one place was the only place this caution was given, but it still seems worth consideration.
       Each time you use some of your starter, you will need to replace approximately what you took out. For instance, if you use a cup of starter, mix a cup of flour and about a cup of water back into the starter. Always leave at least a couple of tablespoons of the original starter to get the new stuff going. If your recipe calls for more starter than you have available, make more by adding equal quantities of flour and water and giving the starter time to develop again. If a week goes by and you haven't used any starter, feed it by adding equal parts of flour and water. If you fear your starter has lost its strength, save a little and start it again with a mix of flour and water. Keep in mind that a temperature of 95 degrees will kill the yeast.
       Don't be afraid of this stuff! Experiment. Have fun.
       There are a multitude of sourdough recipes on line so I'm not going to give you any here, but....
       You may want to convert some of your favorite recipes to sourdough use.
       If your yeast recipe calls for less than six cups of flour, replace the yeast with about 1/4 cup starter. If the recipe uses more than six cups, go with about 1/2 cup starter. Mix the starter with some of the flour and water from your recipe. Remember to recalculate the amount of flour and liquid you will need to add later. The 1/4 cup starter will replace about 1/4 cup flour from the recipe and a little less than 1/4 cup liquid. For a baking powder recipe use up to a cup of starter even for recipes using only two or three cups of flour.
       Let your starter, flour, and liquid mixture work for 4 to 24 hours. How long it works before you use it determines the degree of sourness in your finished bread. When you are ready to bake, follow your recipe. I suggest you try some sourdough recipes before you try this conversion. You'll have a better idea of how best to mix things. For instance, you may want to warm the liquid and mix in your sugar, salt, oil, etc., before adding it all at once to the flour mixture. Be sure to let the liquid cool to room temperature before adding it!
       Baking with sourdough starter requires more time than regular yeast baking. If you plan to serve crescents tomorrow night, you may need to start them the night before. My yeast breads normally have a last minutes burst of rising after I put them in the over, often "springing" a couple of inches. This doesn't happen with sourdough. Allow your dough to rise to very close to the desired level before it goes in the oven. Don't be discouraged if you don't see significant rising for far too long. My crescents looked like a flop, but they did rise in the oven, breaking the rule I gave you two sentences ago. So....
       Experiment. Have fun. Yes, I know, I said that already, but it's worth repeating. Remember too, that I'm still at the experimental stage with sourdough, and much of what I've written here is book learning, not experience. Please share with me your own successes and lessons learned.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Multigrain Sourdough Bread Recipe

     I'm posting this at popular demand, having only this evening taken five loaves out of the oven and tasted my first-ever slice  of homemade multigrain sourdough bread. Sorry, no photo available. This recipe originated on-line but I made some changes, which are noted. Posting this is jumping the gun, as I plan to post another Thanksgiving challenge article about sourdough bread, including recipes for starting your own starter using yeast. I already posted about starting by catching wild yeast.

                                                  Multigrain Sourdough Bread
1 cup oatmeal (regular or quick)
1/2 cup bulgur
1/2 cup corn flour (subbed for cracked wheat)
1/2 cup brown rice flour (subed for soy flour)
1/2 cup flax meal (did not grind well in Victorio grinder. Used Vitamix)
 4 cups molasses

2 1/2 cups (approximate) boiling water (recipe said 2 cups, but I think my subs absorbed more so I added a little extra.)
4 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups sourdough starter

2 cups warm milk
1/2 cups melted butter
2 tsp salt
5 - 7 cups unbleached flour

Measure first six ingredients into a large non-metal bowl. Stir in boiling water until blended. (My mixture seemed too thick so I added some extra water. I am determined not to be intimidated by sourdough so am perhaps being somewhat adventurous. This is fun--when it works.) Cool to warm and add sourdough starter and whole wheat flour. Mix until smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and a clean towel and let stand overnight in a warm place. (I used the oven with only the light on.)

There wasn't much rising overnight, but I proceeded as directed anyway.

Combine warm milk, melted butter, and salt and blend into mixture. (I suggest using a wooden spoon)
Add unbleached flour gradually to make a soft workable dough.. (Even with the extra water I added, I used only a little more than 5 cups of unbleached flour). Knead 8 to 10 minutes. Place in greased bowl, turn to coat all sides, and cover. Let rise until double. (directions said 3 hours. Mine took more like 5. Be patient!)

On the other hand, the recipe said to add 2 pkg yeast with the milk to speed up the process. This seems like cheating to me, and misses the whole point of using sourdough!
Punch the dough down and knead lightly. Let it rest for 10 minutes before shaping into 4 (of five) loaves. Bake in greased loaf pans at 350 degrees for 45 to 60 minutes. Cool on racks. I made five loaves, figuring about 20 ounces of dough per loaf as I do with most recipes since I use smaller pans. Next time I'll probably go with the four as these loaves didn't spring like yeast loaves do. This is typical of sourdough bread, or so I've read. Again, rising took much longer than for yeast bread, about two hours, maybe three. (I wasn't wearing a watch and I was outside splitting wood, so wasn't watching too closely)

I do hope all my notes and asides here aren't confusing. If you try this, I would love hearing how yours turn out!

Thanksgiving - Pumpkin

Hm, pumpkin pie! Or is it?
       Years ago our family hosted a French foreign exchange student. Since she was here to learn about our culture, she would, of course, want to sample many of our favorite dishes. One of the first we served was pumpkin pie. Her reaction upon tasting it was a not-at-all-pleased "What IS this?" In Europe, pumpkin is food for pigs, has been since Columbus took seeds back with him. Oops.
       Most of us here in America eat pumpkin in the form of pie. Some people like the seeds too. For the Pilgrims pumpkins were one of the major foods that saved them from starvation. We are taught that the Indians taught the Pilgrims how to grow pumpkins, and that's about the only mention they get in a normal history book.
       I had supposed that the Pilgrims cut up their pumpkins and cooked them like we would potatoes. Further research tells me I was wrong. There's no clear documentation that any sort of pumpkin pie was served at the 1621 Thanksgiving celebration, but somewhere along the way the Pilgrims learned to make something similar, sort of. They cut off the top, scooped out the seeds, and filled the cavity with cream, honey, eggs, and spices, replaced the top and buried the whole thing in hot cools from their cooking fire. When the soft, blackened thing was dug out again, the cooked flesh and custard were scooped out and served. They also learned to make pumpkin beer.
       The Indians themselves used nearly every part of the pumpkin. Even while growing, it aided them as part of the Three Sisters, the practice of raising squash, corn and beans together. Bean roots set nitrogen in the soil and helped support the corn against winds. The corn provided a trellis for the climbing beans while the pumpkin shaded the corn's shallow roots. Gardeners still practice this today. They reportedly ate pumpkin flesh roasted in strips over their campfires, and baked, parched, boiled and dried. Seeds served as both food and medicine. Even the blossoms went into stews. The flesh was dried, stored until needed, and ground for flour. A dried shell became a bowl or storage container. If there was more than was needed for food, dried strips could be used to weave mats.
       If you are picturing the modern roundish, upright pumpkin, revise your vision. The pumpkins introduced to the Pilgrims would have been the crooked neck type, more like what we think of as a gourd.
       If you plan on making pies from pumpkins you grow, be sure to plant a pie-making variety. Are you aware that the "pumpkin" you purchase in the can is actually a different variety of squash, tastier than a field pumpkin, no doubt, but still not what you would expect in a can clearly labelled "pumpkin"? The easiest way I have found to prepare pumpkin as pie filling is to cut it in half at the equator, use a spoon to clean out the seeds and stringy stuff, then set the halves, open side down, in a shallow pan with a half inch or so of water. Bake this at 350 until a toothpick passes easily through the shell. Cooking time will vary depending on the size of your pumpkin, but will probably be at least half an hour. Cool until you can handle it, then scoop out the soft flesh and either mash it with a potato masher or with an electric mixer. Use immediately or package to accommodate the recipe you use and freeze.
       (The pie in the photo is actually a sweet potato pie but it was made with a pumpkin pie recipe.)
Source for much of this is