Archive | January 2013

Coconut Macaroons: Cookie Armageddon

Holy buckets, is it ever cold!  The sun is shining and the sky is blue, but what a fake out! We went down to Apple Capital to do some shopping and it’s just frigid. This kind of nonsense is one of the reasons Fixer Guy and I bugged out of the Midwest.  Tooooo cold.  Maybe I’m weak, but why freeze if it’s not required. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Mama is in Washington, so here we are.

Anyway, we returned from Apple Capital only to discover that the fire is out.  Last year we replaced the missing wood stove (apparently stripped out of the house when it was foreclosed on) so that we could use it to supplement our electric heating. A little off grid insurance. We’ve replaced the previous sad little single thickness blinds with cellular blinds to keep more heat inside the house. We had previously used them in our old house and the temperature difference was stunning. Plus they weren’t ick green.  Long story short(er), this year we also lucked into an abundance of apple firewood trimmed from a local orchard. Fixer Guy figured out how to run our fancy new Buck Stove efficiently and we are now using our furnace fan only to circulate the heat from the stove to warm the house.  It’s working great, unless Fixer goes out of town and I forget to feed the stove.  Electric bill on our 2500 square feet reduced by something like 50%.

Wow, that was really off track. This was supposed to be a post about coconut macaroon cookies, but it was just so stinking cold in here!

So anyway, I’ve been trying to do a little stock rotation in my pantry.  (I’m going to try to make my first loaf of bread this weekend sometime) I’ve got a bag of coconut shreds in the pantry that wants using.  I won’t tell you how long its been in there cause it’s kind of alarming, so ‘m just going to use it. And then I’ll plot a use for that Israeli couscous…

This is the recipe that I’m using. http://www.npr.org/2011/03/29/134954716/coconut-macaroons I found it via Pinterest on the NPR website.  Can I just tell you, I love NPR! Naturally, once I was committed to the recipe and had already cracked my eggs, I realized that I only had about 2 1/2 cups of coconut.  So I improvised.  I’m thinking that with an ingredient list as short as this, it should be pretty easy to reduce the size of the recipe. Right? Riiiight.

And since I’m pretty new to blogging, I almost forgot to take pictures of my progress.

Macaroon step 1

Here’s what the batter looked like after cooking it for several minutes.  The whites are turning opaque. I used a double boiler to heat the batter, which seemed like a better tool than a bowl in water, which is just an improvised double boiler.  After I left the batter to sit for a few minutes, I checked on it and it looked like the batter was seperating.

So I put it back on the heat for a little longer. This is what it looked like when it was finished correctly.

Macaroons step 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two weeks ago, I bought myself a little after Christmas gift.  My old cookie sheets were just too small, I bought two of these from Sur La Table.  Finally, my Silpats fit on my cookie sheets!  What a relief.  They worked great for sugar cookies with Bean last weekend. I’m expecting big things tonight.

New cookie sheet and silpat

I think I may have scooped the cookies a little larger than two tablespoons, but I don’t think a great deal larger and only ended up with 11 cookies, rather than 22. I wasn’t expecting the full batch, but would have thought closer to 17-18 cookies.  It’s probably just as well, since I don’t need to be personally consuming that much coconut.

 

I also have a convection oven, so I didn’t bother rotating the pans thru the baking cycle, but I did bake them for the full 15 minutes at 325.

Finished Macaroons

Here they are. They are really tasty and probably won’t last thru the weekend.  They turned a nice toasty brown, had a lovely meringue crispy/chewy thing going on and the inside was sooo nice. They were also a little bit shiny from the cooked egg white, so that’s how I judged that they were done.

Macaroons platedI served them to Fixer and Bean with sliced pineapple, which I thought made a nice addition. The acid kept the sweetness from the macaroons from becoming too overpowering.  Bean didn’t like them, which is great. More for us!

These were super easy to make, didn’t take long and will be added to my repertoire of fast, go-to desserts.  They will not however surpass the Cranberry-Pear Chutney over vanilla ice cream.  This summer I think I’ll try that with homemade ice cream. It’s too cold to mess with right now.

Update: The macaroons not only didn’t make it thru the weekend. They didn’t make it thru the day.

Cider at bottlingWe also finally bottled up the hard cider.  Here’s what it looked like going into the bottles. We bottled into repurposed ceramic grolsch bottles,  so I can’t show you what it looks like actually in the bottles. I had a little toot coming out of the fermenting carboy.  Pretty dry stuff. I’m not much of a drinker, so I’m afraid I can’t give this a ringing endorsement.  Fixer Guy also admitted that he was “winging it” with the recipe.  Not super amused by that, given the agony that we went thru to make it, but he had a good time, so I guess it’s OK.

Advertisements

Apple Cider: Or What To Do With Fifty Pounds of Apples

To say there are lots of fruit trees around here is kind of an understatement. I haven’t bothered to check on the statistics for exact numbers, but this part of Washington is a major fruit producing region.  And Fixer Guy loooooves apples.  He also likes fermenting things. And drying things.  And fiddling.

Here’s the story.  This summer while I was on maternity leave from my day job, I decided that I was going to master my fear of home canning. More on that later.  I’m on the phone one afternoon with my Granny, who’s kind of a compulsive experimenter herself.  I mention my plan to can apple pie filling.  More on that later, too.  She says that she’s got a bumper crop of apples on the trees on her property and we should make cider. Sounds good, right?

Granny lives four hours away, her trees are upwards of 60 years old and are pretty much untended outside of cleaning up after wind storms. That means lots of little apples.  Granny is in her eighties and in pretty good shape, but she lives alone and doesn’t need to be climbing ladders to collect these apples, so she’s fighting the deer for the apples that drop on their own.

So I say, OK. Let’s make cider.

I’ve never done it. She’s never done it. We don’t have a cider press. It’ll be an adventure.  Right? Riiiiight….

Me: Gramma, do you know anyone with a cider press?

Gramma: I don’t know. I’ll ask at the senior center.

Me: OK. Let me know. I’ll see if I can find plans on the internet and maybe Fixer Guy will build one. I’ll call you in a couple of days.

A few days go by.  Me: Any luck on the cider press? They’re kind of spendy to buy or build for a one time project.

Gramma: I’ve asked a fella at the senior center if we can borrow his. He says we need to come get. I’ll ask your aunt to pick it up.

Me: Sounds good. See you in a couple of weeks.

Meantime, Granny is collecting apples…lots…of…apples. My aunt calls, reports that the potential cider press will require a trailer hitch to borrow and is 3 feet tall and 5 feet long.  Am I sure I want it?  Hmmm, sounds like a really big press. Will she go assess the volume of apples we’re talking about?  From there we slide into non-numerical assessments of volume. “A few boxes”, “Not that many”, etc. By this time my mom is in on the game with similarly inconclusive estimate.  Finally, I just give up and tell my aunt to forget it.

While all of this wrangling over how many apples is going on, I’ve been reading up on the internet how to make cider.

I wish I had pictures. By the time the whole project is over, Granny, Fixer Guy and I have sliced (by hand, with the dullest knives on the whole planet), cored, shoved thru the grinder attachment on a 40-year-old KitchenAid stand mixer, and squeezed (by hand thru a jelly bag) 50 pounds of apples.  Do you know that if you squeeze cider by hand thru a jelly bag, your palms look like they’ve been spray tanned? Yeah, me either.

It made 6 quarts.

It took 8 hours.

Then I had to can it.  On a propane burner. In the rain. In the dark.

And it was good. And it was worth it.

It turned out to be a really great way to spend the day with my Granny. I can’t think when I’ve had that much time to just visit quietly with her without all the chaos of family gatherings.  So I think I’ve discovered one of the real joys of trying to do things the old fashioned way, although I’m fairly certain that the old timers would have done a better job of using the right tool for the right job.

I can’t say for sure if we’re going to do it again next fall, but I’m pretty sure that if we do, there will be a proper cider mill involved.

Fixer guy wants to make hard cider out of the fruits of our labor.  Sounds like a good idea to me.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Did I mention we took a further 50 pounds of apples home with us? I’ll tell you more about what we did with those, too.

Where’s my cheese? or The Cleaned Closet Blues

It turns out that having someone else clean out your closets is more challenging than I expected.  Helping Big Red go thru my stuff was kinda painful. It’s a little like watching an episode of Hoarders, but closer. Let me be clear, I didn’t have dead cats in my living room under piles of newspaper or anything, but I did get slapped in the mouth by several unfinished projects.

I couldn’t really bring myself to get rid of quite the volume I’d hoped for, but at least everything is all sorted and stacked neatly and waiting for the label maker.  All I can say is Hooray! for right angles.

IMG_5416 Here’s a sample of how it turned out.

Then a couple of days went by and Red and I had the following text message exchange

Me: Thanks so much for cleaning out my closets. I really appreciate it. Now, what the f?!k have you done with all my socks?

Red: Socks? I didn’t do anything with your socks. That was Mom.

Me: What about my little blue bowls?

Red: ….

 

So anyway, now I can move around in my closets, I can see stuff and odds of making some candles have improved considerably since I can now see where my supplies are stored.

And FYI, I never did find those little blue salad bowls.  They’re probably with my missing jeans.

Garden Dreaming: Will we bite off more than we can chew?

Last year was the first full summer in our new home.  With a three year old running around, a new baby due mid summer and the mad scramble at work before taking leave, it wasn’t exactly the best time to plan a garden of any size.  Too fat to weed, if you know what I’m talking about.  Fact: I would have made a lousy pioneer.  Nevertheless, we planted a few tomatoes that we cared for indifferently and a few pepper plants, which we’ve never had much luck with.

Last spring and summer were mostly about weed control and figuring out what we were working with, since there were a number of plants and trees of indeterminate name when we purchased the property. We had pruned pretty indiscriminately the previous fall and winter just so we could move around the property.

The tomatoes and peppers, I don’t mind telling you were an epic fail. I assumed because of the location of derelict tomato cages and the existence of drip lines and stone raised beds, that the previous owner had been successful growing tomatoes there. Um, no.  What we got was a bumper crop of weeds and about 4 tomatoes.  Blessedly, I was not the only person in the area to have less than bountiful tomatoes last summer. But the neighbors could have just been being kind.  I have great neighbors.

The fruit trees did well, although we didn’t utilize the plums well since they came ripe the same week the Liliputian was born. A good pruning last winter and some experimenting with thinning gave us some nice peaches, not as many as last year but much bigger and very tasty.  Ditto for the grapes.

Our raspberries didn’t do much since they’d been in a state of sad neglect that required us to pretty much chop them down to the ground so we could regain some control. I believe that they mostly bear on second year growth, so this year should be much better.

Strawberries both purposefully planted and volunteer are all over the place. Small berries, but very sweet.  Once we showed Bean that they were OK to eat, she was all over them.  The dog figured out that they were edible and then was caught sneaking berries.  We also watched her eat a large quantity of the low grapes.  The dog, not the toddler. It seems likely that the high grapes are destined for the birds, the low for the dog and the middle for the people.  You have to share the bounty, right?

IMG_3908Since we had more grapes than we could eat, I borrowed a steam juicer from our sitter’s mother and made grape juice. I couldn’t believe the glorious color.

Herbs were quite another matter.  Tarragon, lavender and sage did well. We dug up the mint, since it will get out of control when grown unfettered. I had a large galvanized tub that we used for champagne at our wedding stored in the shed, so I planted the mint in there and Fixer Guy hauled it up on the deck and ran a drip line to it.  It did wonderfully.  The catnip wasn’t as fortunate.  The cat found it and left me with two mangled, sad little plants. The cat left with a very satisfied look. Chives have volunteered all over the property, so I’ll have to dig a few of those up and share starts with anyone who wants them.

Now that the seed catalogs are fairly pouring into my mailbox, it’s hard not to lose my composure and just by every little packet of seeds that catches my fancy.  I flipped thru several last night and noted numerous possibilities.  I’m really drawn to unusually colored varieties of almost everything, which if left unchecked was going to draw me into a garden mostly filled with purple vegetables.  For sure we’re going to try to grow a fancy broccoli variety that’s a charming chartreuse color with crazy pointed florets that make me think of chiton shells. (Google them).  Bean loves broccoli (parenting win!!) so hopefully she’ll find this broccoli as appealing as I do. I also spied purple cauliflower.  Can you see me hopping up and down?   There are also all kinds of crazy things like beans that are eighteen inches long. Wow!

For sure we’re going to plant all the tomatoes we can deal with, since I use them like mad all year for spaghetti sauce, salsa, chili and what have you.  I’ve also been referred to a great peach salsa recipe so we should make good use of three trees worth of peaches. I’m not much for pies, but I imagine we’ll be forced into a few peach pies just to get rid of them.

Since my company grows peas commercially, I don’t care if we never grow any of those. We’re also going to try out some pink popping corn from an heirloom variety.  Ditto for multicolored carrots. The theory behind all these crazy colored varieties is to entice Bean into eating all kinds of veggies.  I think I will skip growing lettuce since I inevitably plant some, usually in a pot on the deck, which does well until I forget about it and it bolts before I get a chance to eat any.

Ultimately, I’d like to see just how much of our own food we can produce right at home. I’ve seen several books that suggest a family of 4 can produce up to 85% of their food on a quarter acre.  That’s a little ambitious for me, but we’ll see.  Here’s hoping canning jars are the limiting factor!

The Shame of Underutilized Closet Space

God help me, I have family coming to stay.  Anybody who knows me will tell you that I’m an indifferent housekeeper on a good day and not exactly a superstar organizer. Okay, not at all a superstar organizer. It wasn’t such a problem in a smaller house, but since we’ve moved house and had another baby, things have sort of…spread out.

 

IMG_5390This is my sister, Big Red. This is also the most ridiculous photo of Red that I could find…almost. My sister lives in an apartment in Seattle and is offended on a pretty fundamental level about my poor use of storage space.  She says it’s an affront to those who are living in tiny apartments. The embarrassing fact is that I’m a little confused by all the extra space after living in a small house with no closets. She has no pity.

IMG_3840This is a mocking picture she took of my hoard of blue jeans (that don’t fit anymore  but I couldn’t part with) when she spent a few minutes working on my closet this summer. She came to stay when the baby arrived.  A girl can’t just sit around, I always say.

I did eventually knuckle under the pressure and the stack of jeans has largely been relegated to the consignment store. And also, for the record, my bedroom is no longer that cathouse color scheme you see in the background.  More of Fixer Guy’s handiwork. Just wanted you to know.  (And if you ask me nicely, I’ll post some pictures of the hardwood floor he put in the dining room, after he stripped all the black molding and painted over the pumpkin orange walls.

So here are some before photos of my clothes closet and of my soaping closet.

IMG_5409 IMG_5411

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_5413 IMG_5412Also here are some pictures of my latest soaping projects, so you wan’t judge that wreck in the soaping closet too harshly. After all, a girl needs supplies. Right? I’ve found a basic recipe I really like and have been working on some more advanced techniques: embeds and swirling.  Pretty fun stuff. The swirl  is a nice refreshing soap for your morning shower. Lots of spearmint fragrance with a little grapefruit and lime note. The embed is a nice relaxing lavender fragrance. After they cure, I’ll trim them up, wrap them and they’ll be available on our Etsy store.

Growing Blueberries: The Right Way, The Wrong Way and The Bucklepenny Way.

IMG_5423

These are my blueberry bushes.  They are two years old and if there is a list somewhere of all the things that you can do wrong to a blueberry bush and not kill them, we have probably checked off most items.

Two summers ago, I went to the hardware store after some tomato cages and spied blueberry bushes on an end of season markdown.  In my experience, end of season plant markdowns  are only a deal if a) the plant is a perennial and b) it’s not so late in the year that the plants can’t establish themselves.  And since I  am seldom watching that closely, my success rate is about 50/50. I figured there’s a guy down the road growing them commercially, so we’re probably good to go.  Pretty scientific, no?

Yup. You’ve got me pegged. Either meticulously planning or totally flying by the seat of my pants.  And alarmingly similar outcomes. Better to be lucky than good, I always say.  So I brought home my five blueberry bushes.  And they sat. For two months.  In the pots in front of the garage.  I know. It’s shameful.

Two of them got some type of blighted looking appearance on the foliage. Sort of a rusty mottling against the green.  So I talked it over with Fixer Guy and we decided to go ahead and plant them.  Blueberries like acidic soil, so we thought we would plant them in the vegetable garden along the windbreak, since the organic material falling from the arbor vitae would make the soil a little more acidic. We also planted the ailing bushes on the end so they would be easier to pull out and replace if they didn’t make it. Aren’t we smart? Fixer guy ran drip lines to them for the remainder of the fall and we waited.

This spring all five bushes had pretty good foliage and the sick plants looked pretty good.  Blueberries will bear more fruit if you remove the blossoms the first year.  Naturally, I didn’t do that, so our crop was tiny, but the berries were large and tasty.  And that was just fine for our three-year-old.  Nothing makes a toddler happier than eating out of the garden, except maybe chasing a cat with a stick.  To be honest, she wouldn’t care if it was dirt or berries she was eating (I know this because she’s done both) but Mommy prefers berries.

So here’s a synopsis of the right way to grow blueberries, according to the University of Maine Extension service.  The full document is here

  1. Planting sites should have full sun, wind protection and acidic soil.  You can typically have your soil tested by the local Extension office or you can pick up a kit at the hardware store, garden center or nursery. We bought ours at Lowe’s. If your soil is more alkaline, you can add amendments to adjust the pH.  Both organic and conventional means are available to do this, if that’s your thing.
  2. You’ll want to ensure good drainage and one to two inches of water each week.
  3. The University of Maine recommends that blueberry bushes not be allowed to bear fruit for at least two years after planting  and only limited crop the third year.  This so that the plants will expend their energy getting themselves well established.
  4. Recommended spacing is 5-7 feet apart with rows 8-10 feet apart.  That’s considerably more space than we allowed our bushes, so I guess we’ll see what happens.
  5. Mulch well for weed control and moisture retention.
  6. Prune annually for high yield. Pruning should occur during dormancy. I guess that’s kind of a no brainer.
  7. Harvest berries only when fully ripe and there is no tinge of red on the fruit.  The berries will grow in clusters which will ripen in succession.
  8. You’ll need to net your bushes once the fruit comes on, unless you feel like sharing with the birds. We didn’t net last year, but the birds were far more interested in our grapes.
  9. Tipnut.com suggests occasionally mixing used coffee grounds into the soil to acidify the soil. An alternative is ground lemon or grapefruit peels.  With the way Fixer Guy drinks coffee, I know which one we’ll be doing.

We flouted a number of these guidelines, which suggests that blueberries aren’t a particularly fragile plant.  Still, I think we’ll mulch carefully this spring and I’ll go out and give them a good prune when I go out next month to take care of my grapes. Hopefully I’ll be  posting a group of lovely recipes we tried out with our bumper crop this summer. Wishful thinking? Probably.  Luck loves an optimist.

What do you do with 4 acres of weeds?

IMG_3177It started when I caved under a forty mile commute with a two year old in the backseat. Eighty miles a day! Can you believe it? In retrospect, the sheer stupidity of all that wasted time in the car, to say nothing of our carbon footprint, well, the mind boggles.

After 8 years trying to avoid living in the town where I work, we had a baby. I kept up with the commute pretty well for awhile, telling myself that it was nice to have the quiet time to ramp up and ramp down from the pace of my job. And it was nice, most of the year, to travel along the banks of the Columbia River to and from our house in Wenatchee. Beautiful orchards in bloom in the spring, green grass on the Colockum. Then summer would come on, browning the hills and baking the roads. One summer , the commute was often spent in construction lines, waiting for blasting during a slope stabilization project. Temperatures topped 110. Then autumn would come, with the beautiful crisp afternoons, foliage changing and the apple trucks.

Even with the commute, we liked our life in Apple Capital and our little project house, but we were just sure that the minute we were done with our renovations there, we would out grow the house and it would be time to go. We outgrew the house, just when we  it the way we wanted it. Our little Bean arrived on the scene and a new job for Fixer Guy and bang! It figures.

So we started looking. Rundown farm house after rundown farmhouse after rundown farmhouse. Some beggared the imagination and would have stretched the renovation skills of even my husband, the trusty Fixer Guy. Then my girlfriend found a house outside of town on a small acreage. So we went, looked, asked the price and started laughing. No way. And the search went on.

We finally settled on a house with a nice floor plan, a huge kitchen and a formal dining room. Also with asbestos popcorn ceilings, dog pee carpets, cheap trim and a collapsing barn. I know, sounds like a dream house. But it had built-in bookcases. We wrangled for months before the deal collapsed.

You know how people say that if God doesn’t give you what you want, He has something better in mind? Well, it’s true. I often pray for the right thing at the right time and trust Him that He will deliver. I’m never disappointed. Remember the lovely, but neglected house on the large lot that we could never in a million years afford? Well, it went into foreclosure and then it was ours. Three bedrooms, a little less than five acres, a big shop, 21 different interior paint colors, wrecked bathrooms, gum under the counters and kochia over our heads. Kochia, in case you’re wondering is a tough, fast growing weed that will survive hoes, machetes, chemicals, fire and a nuclear strike. It’s tougher than a Twinkie. Also fruit trees, raspberries, grape vines and a walnut tree. Sounds like possibilities, right? We think so.