Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Welcome to Our Parlor, Part III

I was thinking the other day that I hadn't posted any updates on the house lately. Well, there are a few good reasons for that. First, Byron began teaching at a new school, and when he comes home ripping up parquet flooring isn't the first thing on his to-do list. Second, I began homeschooling and have been trying to get into a rhythm with that. Third, I've been attacked by persimmons. And finally, we really can't do a whole lot until Other House sells.

However, Byron did build a new hearthpad back in August for our Woodstock Fireview woodstove. One of the best stoves out there, it's made of double-walled soapstone, which is an amazing material that emits the heat slowly, and it has a catalytic combuster that actually burns the smoke! We love wood heat and we love not paying high monthly bills for winter energy use. And though we're not by any means into deforestation, trees are a renewable resource, and sometimes they have to come down despite our best efforts. A few years ago Byron became pretty adept at scoring free wood and has stockpiled quite a bit.

By the way, did you know there's a federal tax credit until the end of the year if you buy a new woodstove?

On to the hearthpad. Black slate over Wonderboard (cement board), this hearthpad was very easy to install. Byron was ecstatic that he didn't have to grout; the tiles were a true 12x12 and he butted them against each other as he placed them onto the thinset (plaster-like material that binds the tiles to the surface underneath). Here are some step-by-step photos. Keep in mind that a hearth pad really needs to be built to suit the stove you choose, as different stoves have different hearth pad size and clearance requirements.

First, Byron chiseled out the old hearthpad and cut the Wonderboard to fit over that. Wonderboard has an R rating (no, that does not mean you have to be over 17 to buy it). It's fire rated. Note that Duroc, which we thought at first was the way to go, is now made with cellulose fiber, which is flammable. Not a good idea for a hearth pad. Anyway, as you can tell from the ash pan, this fireplace was fun to clean out, too.

Per Woodstock's requirements, he placed a piece of steel over the plywood and then placed the next piece of Wonderboard over the steel, to complete the base of the hearthpad.

Byron remembered his grandfather telling his dad to start tiling a room from the middle. In the same spirit, Byron marked the center of the hearthpad and centered the first piece of slate there. He used thinset and a ridged trowel to create a rough surface on which to place the slate.

Making progress.

Our finished hearthpad! We'll eventually put simple, white trim back around the fireplace, and are planning on using a couple of the old joists we salvaged from this room as a mantle. Those old timbers are loaded with character: the wood is aged and we specifically chose pieces that have one rough, uneven edge. We'll also re-install the heart pine flooring and refinish it. By the way, we're looking for more heart pine, preferably salvaged from an old structure. We're having second thoughts about ripping out the flooring in the loft of the barn. And we'd like to get out of the Ghetto Stage of our renovations by some time next year. So if you have any leads, let me know!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Restoring Pasture

This weekend Byron got on a restoration kick...outside, that is. A few weeks ago when he helped the farmer who cuts the field next to us, he volunteered to cut hay for him next spring. We're going to give him some hay in exchange for using his equipment, and we're planning on cutting our own side field. Since hay can last for about three years if kept dry, it will give us a chance to stockpile for when we're able to get a cow or two. Speaking of, said farmer blessed us with over 20 bales this fall, so hay is now residing in the loft of the barn...for the first time in decades!

In order to prep our pasture for spring, we had to break up the ground in several bare areas. We're not sure why it was patchy, but we planted orchard grass and a sprinkling of red clover. They're good companion plants, and we'll use the rest of the red clover for a winter cover crop in the garden area in order to put some nitrogen into the soil.

Breaking up the soil:

Red clover seed...not what we expected!

The kids helped gather leftover hay from the field next to us...

...and we placed it over the seeded areas. The next morning brought a nice, steady rain, so we're hoping our little experiment yields more than our garden did this year.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Got Animals?

Finally! Green Acres has its first animal (that we know of) in years! However, it's not a cow. It's not a horse. And it's not even a chicken. In fact, we won't be eating this one:

Byron got home from the store last night to find this little creature on our front porch. We think someone may have dropped her off on the side of the road. Byron and I swore never to get a cat...unless one adopted us. It hasn't been twenty-four hours yet, but I'm pretty sure she has. The kids fell in love instantly; Charlie even woke up at 4:00 a.m. and asked if the kitty was still on the porch (I made him go potty, told him the cat was fine, and stumbled back to bed). Akea was up at 7:00 to check on her. As of last night, her name was Rachael, and this morning it morphed into "Frisky." Not sure of the connection, but whatever. So we're planning on making her an outdoor cat, despite the kids' protests, and are hoping she's good at catching mice.

Update: as I was writing this, Byron walked in with a baby doll dress in hand. Apparently the cat had been wearing it moments earlier. Yup, this should be interesting...and at least the cat is tolerant of children. Hopefully Akea won't try to dress up any of our chickens!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Whole Wheat Baking Basics...Part I

Oh, boy. Forget the word "basics;" this topic is HUGE. Let me try to begin...

If you're like most people who like to bake, you're probably used to white flour recipes, and understandably so. White flour has been a staple of many households since the Industrial Revolution, and it's readily available in just about every grocery store in the country. If you're trying to sneak more whole wheat into your diet, maybe you're trying out some recipes that allow half whole wheat and half white flour. That's where I was about three years ago.

When I made the total switch to whole wheat baking, I ran into MANY bumps. I've handled more "bricks" than a brick mason. This was very humbling for someone who had never had a loaf of bread flop before. And then there are incidentals, like a couple nights ago when I forgot to add the yeast. I was trying to calm a crying child and figure out why my dough's consistency was so funky, when I spotted the bowl of yeast sitting by the sink. So homemade pizza got served a little late.

You can find recipes online for all whole wheat breads, but they oftentimes don't tell you everything you need to know. I'm not sure I can tell you everything you need to know; in fact, I probably can't. Nothing can make up for experience, and with whole wheat baking, experience is key.

Today, I'm just going to address getting started, ingredient by ingredient.

1. FLOUR: Obviously you need the whole wheat flour to start, and freshly milled is best because whole wheat flour from the store is rancid (read more here). Unfortunately, easily procuring freshly milled flour from your local mill is something of a bygone era; click here to read more about home grain mills. If this isn't an option for you, go ahead and try to make some bread with flour from the store. I can't guarantee how it will turn out, but it will give you some practice.

2. LEAVENER: If you're thinking of making sandwich bread or something of the sort, you'll want to make yeast bread and yeast will be your leavener (the stuff that makes it rise). If you want to make a quick bread (e.g., muffins, sweet bread, desserts, etc.), you will use baking powder and/or soda as a leavener. For the most part, I have not had problems converting quick bread recipes from white flour to wheat flour. Your muffins may not turn out as light and fluffy, but they'll have fuller flavor. The reason they may not look like the puffball muffins in the bakery section in the grocery store is because white flour has additives (one book I read mentioned acetone - isn't that finger nail polish remover??) that strengthen the gluten. Gluten is the protein in the flour that makes your bread rise.

For yeast breads, it's really best to use recipes that call for ALL whole wheat flour; I tried converting once and it was a disaster. But back to leaveners. With yeast, temperature is important! Instant yeast can be added directly into the ingredients, but regular yeast, which is cheaper because you can buy it in bulk, needs to be dissolved in some water that is 105-115 degrees. Admittedly, I've always had a knack for judging the right water temperature; I hold my finger under the faucet until the water is just becoming uncomfortable. Water that is either too hot or too cold will either kill or not activate the yeast. When in doubt, use a thermometer.

3. OIL OR BUTTER: I use olive oil and regular butter; both have worked well for me.

4. WATER, SALT, AND SWEETENERS: Water that's not too hard or soft is fine; I usually use tap water. Salt can simply be table salt, and many recipes I use call for honey. Raw honey will work as long as you don't have a long rising time for your dough (like a sponge dough, which is a portion of the dough that's started the night before). Ok, if I just confused you, strike that last sentence. Raw honey should be fine!

5. LOAF PAN: Use a slightly smaller, 8x4 pan for whole wheat baking. The traditional 9x5 pans will produce very "squat" loaves. Happily, these can be found easily. I even got mine at a big box store. Whoa.

6. THERMOMETER: When in doubt, use one. Temperature is important for yeast and also rising times. As you get used to baking, you probably won't need it as much.

Honestly, the best thing to do is to find someone who can hold your hand the first time or two you bake with whole wheat four. Or if that's not an option - and it wasn't for me - spend a few bucks and buy a good book that's dedicated to the art of whole wheat baking. The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book is as aggravating as heck but if you can persevere, worth its weight in gold because it offers so much variety in both types of breads and timing variations. The Bread Becker's Recipe Collection is probably the most user-friendly whole wheat baking book I've come across, and a good place to start although it offers less variety than Laurel's, and the recipes tend to call for more oils and sweeteners. I have my favorites from both books.

Hope this helps...stay tuned for more on the baking process! And if you're an experienced baker, your tips and advice are welcome!

Persimmon-Nut Bread

Adapted from The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book

3 tbsp butter, room temperature*
1/4 cup honey
1 egg
1 cup persimmon pulp
2 cups whole wheat flour (up to 1 1/2 cups can be whole wheat pastry flour)
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp salt
pinch cloves
1/2 cups chopped walnuts or pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8"x4" loaf pan.* Cream butter and honey. Beat in egg and mix in persimmon pulp. Stir dry ingredients together with nuts and add to liquid ingredients. Stir just until mixed. Turn batter into pan and place on a cookie sheet to avoid burning the bottom. Bake 45 to 50 minutes.

Muffin variation: This recipe should make 12 regular muffins or 6 large muffins. Bake for about 15-18 minutes at 375 degrees. (I've only tried the regular muffins; the large ones may need more time. You can use a toothpick to see if they're done.)

*Update: I used 4 tbsp olive oil instead of butter and the bread was not nearly as crumbly.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Plunge

They plunge violently to the forest floor from heights several thousand times their size, landing with a soft "thud" that can be heard from yards away. Some are intact, some suffer injury. One was skewered by a twig. But I ate it anyway, after brushing the ants off.

I know I said I wasn't normally a forager, but times, they are a-changin'. Following is a recap of my metamorphosis. Welcome to persimmon season, baby.

Two weeks ago...
I took my fruit picker over to the persimmon tree I'd found at the edge of the woods. Apparently, it's pretty common to find them growing in the wild. Several of the fruit looked ripe enough to eat, and I was determined to find out if they were ready. After extending the pole as far as it would go, I tried picking one. Success. Then I attempted to pick another, but it was an aggravating two millimeters or so out of my reach. Squinting, I tried again. Failure. Scratching my head, I thought, "Oh, shucks." Or something like that. I watched sadly, for several days, as the little out-of-reach fruit ripened and then disappeared from the lofty branches.

Then last week...
I finally got together with my BFF, Google. When I'd found the persimmon tree, I'd known immediately it was, and that they were edible - that was a no-brainer. Persimmons ripen throughout the fall, and can vary in color from gold to deep orange. What I didn't know was that persimmons do, indeed, grow wild and that several varieties are not ripe until they are soft and fall off the tree. If you've ever eaten an unripe persimmon, this is a very helpful tidbit. An unripe persimmon makes your mouth feel as if it's been turned inside out, and the feeling doesn't go away for a long, long time. A ripe one, however, is nothing short of heavenly.

Examining my tree once more, I determined that most falling persimmons would disappear into to the impossible tangle of branches someone had left underneath. Peering closely into web of brittle limbs, I indeed saw several rotting persimmons in the murky depths. One website suggested putting netting underneath the tree to catch the falling fruit, but since I didn't have netting, I found a plastic dropcloth to place over the pile of brush under the tree.

It's worked wonderfully. The first morning I went out to collect the fruit, eighteen were waiting for me. Eighteen! And I've collected many more since then. I've been storing them in the fridge until I have a chance to wash them and take the seeds out. Persimmons can have six or more large seeds, so they're not difficult to remove, but our persimmons are pretty small so the yield of pulp per piece of fruit is also a bit small. Thankfully, it was not nearly as time-consuming as pitting wild cherries!

So what to do with all these persimmons? You can stick a whole or half in your mouth, spitting the seeds out to propagate the persimmon population. You can also bake with persimmon pulp. The Internet abounds with recipes, but I ended up using a quick bread recipe from The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book. I doubled the recipe and the breads were gone in 2.5 days, so click here for the recipe.

I've also been mixing the persimmon pulp in with plain yogurt, and it's probably one of my favorite yogurt-and-fruit combos of all time. I froze the extra pulp in 2-cup portions for more bread in the future. Maybe I'll try the pudding someday; it's apparently one of those American Thanksgiving traditions for some families. Seriously. There were like 15 recipes online that touted, "I found this recipe in my great-great-great grandmother's trunk and the paper was so old it dissolved into thin air like two seconds after I typed it out but whew! here it is for posterity so you should really try it since I think she made this during the first Thanksgiving, you know - the one with the Indians and stuff." Well, maybe I'm editorializing a bit, but I am on the lookout for tried-and-true recipe. So if you have one, pass it on! It will have the place of honor on the table...maybe even right next to one of these turkeys!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Great Grain Mill Dilemma

A few years ago, after I had committed to buying one, I researched what type of grain mill to get. Manual or electric? Used or new? The options seemed endless, and as with anything, there were upsides and downsides to each mill. I finally ended up with an electric Nutrimill, but that was after I tried my hand at a manual Family Grain Mill I bought used on Ebay. Anyway, let me try to break this down simply:

Manual Grain Mills
Pros: can mill cracked grains/cereals, some come with optional attachments (such as an oatmeal flaker), great if the power is out, you can often buy a motor attachment, parts can be easily replaced, mobile and can be clamped onto a counter
Cons: flour is slightly courser than what an electric mill produces, which makes it more difficult to produce satisfactory pastry flour, even on finest setting; takes more time and muscle to mill
Most popular brands: Country Living Grain Mill (can be attached to an exercise bike!), Family Grain Mill

Electric Grain Mills
Pros: finer flour, mills in very little time
Cons: not so good in a power outage, cannot mill cracked grain even on coarsest setting, takes up more counter space (electric mills are a bit bigger than a food processor), difficult to repair
Most popular brands: Nutrimill, Wondermill

Cost considerations are negligible, because if you consider buying a motor attachment for, say, the Family Grain Mill, you're right up there with an electric mill. And the Country Living Grain Mill is very pricey, though it supposedly can withstand a nuclear blast (well, it it said to last a lifetime, at least). When I had my Family Grain Mill, I enjoyed the simplicity of it but for the quantity of baking I do, it really wasn't practical without a motor attachment or a teenager to enlist to help me mill grains. I also wanted more finely milled flour because I enjoy baking pies and other sweets that require a finer flour. So I sold it and bought the Nutrimill, brand new, since a used one on Ebay cost just as much when I considered shipping.

Ideally, I'd like to buy an inexpensive manual mill to have on hand in a pinch, even if it's not a top-of-the-line brand like the Country Living Mill. When you make a decision on which mill to buy, consider what kind of baking you do. Are you into cracked grain breads and cereals? How often do you bake? What do you bake most frequently? Does your area suffer frequent power outages? Were you paranoid during Y2K?

As an aside, consider that when you mill your own grains, your actual output of flour is 1.5X the amount of grains you put into the hopper (the cup where you place grains before they're ground). E.g., 2 cups of grain will yield 3 cups of flour. Pretty cool, huh?

Pleasant Hill Grains is only one online vendor for grain mills. Do some research to find the best price. However, they have good descriptions of several of the mills I mentioned. Click here to read more.

P.S. I should also mention that if you have a Vitamix or other industrial blender, these can often handle grinding small quantities of wheat berries, and apparently there's a grain mill attachment for Kitchen Aid mixers. I've never tried to make flour in my blender, but check your user's manual to see if it may work for you if you're saving up for a mill.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Shhhh! Don't tell anyone, but I think I found the new superfood!

A couple weeks ago I was walking around our property examining the woodline for anything that looked suspiciously edible. Not normally a forager, this was unusual for me but I was curious to know if there were currents, elderberries, or anything vaguely familiar growing wild and waiting to be discovered. One reason was economic in nature, another had to do with the motherly frustration of having a picky eater (I'm looking at you, Akea) who refuses to make any sort of dent in the copious amount of pears in the fridge.

Don't get me wrong - I was not about to go pick the first attractive berries I saw and try them out on my kids. Far from it. I'm sure I've kicked over mushroom varieties that would make chefs worldwide swoon in sorrow. I detest pokeweed, which is highly toxic to humans, even though some people claim it can be eaten if it's cooked correctly. But I did find a curious bush that sported little red berries that seemed to almost sparkle. After looking up every variety of berry I could think of and coming up empty, I cut a small sample of the bush took a drive over to our Extension Office.

The lady at the front desk was very pregnant and very helpful and told me right away that I had a Russian Olive, which is considered an invasive plant. After giving me an adamant "No!" when I asked if the berries were edible, I thanked her and went home to do research on my own.

After spending some more quality time on Google, I found that I do not have a Russian Olive, but its cousin - an Autumn Olive, or Autumnberry. And they, too, are invasive; like the Russian Olive, they were imported from Asia to attract wildlife, control erosion and can survive in drought-like conditions. However, I also stumbled upon something else. Several of the blogs and websites I visited claimed that the berries were, indeed, edible. I found recipes for fruit leather, someone who had made jam using a berry recipe, and even some websites on making wine from the berries (which are not, technically, berries - I think since they have a pit, which is edible, too). Hmmm. I went to the kitchen to look at some I'd picked. They looked at me. My Spidey Sense was not going off, but I decided to do more research before trying one.

Back to Google. It turns out that the sparkly little gem is high in the anti-oxidant lycopene, which is being studied as a deterrent to heart disease and certain cancers. In addition, it's packed with vitamins A, C, and E, flavanoids, and essential fatty acids. Even the USDA has caught on and is studying the plant as an organic farming possibility.

The taste was described as tangy-sweet, and they get sweeter as the first frost approaches and should be picked when they easily come off of the branch. Now I really wanted to try some. Byron checked out some of the info I'd found. I headed back toward the kitchen and tentatively put one in my mouth. That was useless to my tastebuds, so I went for a handful.

Byron: What does it taste like?
Me: (choking as if poisoned - no, kidding!): Pomegranate!
I ate a few more, then some more. They really were pretty good. Byron went out and picked about a quart's worth, as he found even more bushes. Eventually, we let the kids try some. They are, thankfully, Akea-approved.

The fruit really is very pretty - they're round or oval, pink to red, and look as if they've been lightly spattered with tiny dots of silver paint. The plant itself has oblong leaves that are silvery underneath. A very sparkly combination. I could imagine them being everyday sustenance to the Elves in Tolkein's Lothlorien.

As for now, I'm trying to figure out what I'm going to do with them once more ripen. Freezing is an option, and I already made pancake syrup and muffins with the juice. The muffins were pink and therefore a hit with Akea. I'd like to try the fruit leather but we'll have to see how much time I have to mess around with them. Maybe I could start eating these all day instead of bon bons. And if I develop any superpowers, you'll be the first to know.

Hard Wheat and Soft Wheat and Barley, Oh My!

For anyone delving into the world of bread making, just getting the water temperature right can be intimidating enough. For those of you who want to go a step further and grind your own flour, the methods and options out there can seem as endless as the Yellow Brick Road.

Hopefully this post will clarify a few of the basics for the bakers and bakers-to-be out there. I did a lot of research on wheat before investing in a grain mill, and would like to share the little I know about whole wheat bread baking.

The basic grains most people grind at home are hard red wheat, hard white wheat, and soft white wheat. The hard wheats have the most gluten content and are used in yeast breads and can be used in quick breads (breads that use baking powder or baking soda as a leavener). Hard red wheat has a stronger, nutty sort of flavor and darker color when baked; hard white (on the left in the photo above) is milder and produces a lighter colored bread. I started buying hard white a while back because I tend to serve bread when we have people over, and many people are understandably adverse to whole wheat bread in general. I can assure you that I've never had any complaints; remember that freshly milled whole wheat will not have that cardboardy flavor commercial bread often has. Hard red wheat has a wonderful, complex flavor as well, and it tends to have a slightly higher gluten content than hard white.

Soft white wheat (on the right in the photo) should not be used in large quantities in yeast breads because it does not have enough gluten to give you a high loaf of bread. Backing up, gluten is what is developed when you knead dough and ultimately what gives the dough strength enough to rise. However, soft wheat is wonderful for cookies, cakes, pastries, pie crusts, and is sometimes called for in whole or in part in quick bread recipes (such as muffins and dessert breads). Admittedly, I don't always have soft white wheat on hand, so I've used hard white wheat in all the baked items I just listed and have never had a problem.

Besides wheat, innumerable other grains exist and can be used to give breads interesting texture and flavor. Barley (top in the photo) and millet (bottom) are both used in Ezekiel bread. Spelt is a popular option for people who are sensitive to wheat; though it doesn't have the same gluten content, it can still make a great loaf of bread. Bread Beckers has a list of free recipes on their website, and the Slightly Sweet but Simple Bread is indeed a simple recipe that's very user-friendly for beginners.

As I mentioned before, wheat berries aren't exactly something you can find at Walmart. Whole Foods carries hard red wheat in the bins, and it might not hurt to ask if they can order in bulk. A local health food store may also be able to order for you, and Bread Beckers has co-ops that may deliver locally. Mennonite stores, such as a Yoder's, also tend to carry wheat berries and other bulk grains, and in a pinch, many grains can be ordered online.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Moo Blessings

I went to a local farm today to pick up a couple dozen eggs, since we are still chickenless. Indeed, our lives have been put on hold for the most part until Other House sells. There are little things we can do - such as paint the kitchen cabinets and plant a couple dirt-cheap fruit trees - but our house is more or less stuck in Ghetto Stage and our land will remain ungrazed until that mysterious buyer enters stage right.

Back to the farm...the real one. As I was paying for my eggs and so forth, I was asking the owner about meat prices and telling him that the last time I ate ground beef, I broke out into hives and got a stomach ache. And this was supposedly grass-fed, hormone-free beef! Anyway, he immediately went out to the cooler and returned with a pack of four hamburgers. He told me to take them and try them out. He laughed when I asked how much they were and said he was giving them to me because he's had similar reactions to beef and wants me to come back as a customer. I stammered several thank-you's as I left. So much for the hard-core me, what I just experienced was good business!

And it was a blessing. That's dinner for my family, and though it may not seem like a big deal, for me it's HUGE. An act like that is God reminding me that He is our provider. And since it was totally unexpected and involved someone I'd never met before, I'm even more convicted of Hebrews 11:1 - "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." I wasn't exactly hoping for free food! I honestly can say that I had no ulterior motive in going to the farm today, and how often, in both my speech and actions, do I have motives that are self-serving? All too often, I can assure you.

Don't get me wrong - waiting for Other House to sell has been and continues to be one of the greatest tests of my faith, and I'm more than ready for the curtain call, for the show to be over. For some reason, God isn't, but I was reminded today that He - not our land and not even a closing date on Other House - will sustain us.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sustainable Entertainment

The other day I had to stop what I was doing - and it probably involved making some sort of food - to take some photos of the kids. I love how creative they get out here. Sustainable entertainment!

I can't work on my art when you look over my shoulder, Mom!

Charlie achieved his goal of getting more chalk on his hands than he did on the brick!

Yes, I CAN!

Say it with me: "Canning is fun. Canning is easy. Yes, I CAN!" For those of you who are new to canning or have never canned before, I wanted to share some canning tips I've found by trial and sometimes, error. I'm not going to run through the whole process, because the Pick Your Own website already does that, and I don't want to reinvent the wheel. So here we go...

1. Heat your jars gradually when you sterilize them and keep them hot until you're ready to pack them. This will avoid breakage. You can sterilize jars either by boiling them for 10 minutes or running them through the sterilize cycle in the dishwasher. With the dishwasher, you'll need to time it so you're ready to pack the food while it's on heated dry.

2. Wipe the rims before you place the lids on the jars in order to ensure a proper seal.

3. When packing tomatoes, use a spatula to gently push them down toward the bottom of the jar. You'll be able to pack more in that way.

4. When making jams and jellies, Pomona's Universal Pectin is more economical and requires less sugar than the Surejell, etc. It can be ordered online through Amazon or sometimes found in country stores. No, I don't mean Cracker Barrel. Most of that stuff was probably made in China.

5. I boil the rims, too, when I sterilize the jars, but the lids should not be boiled. I wash them and then place them in the hot water I've boiled the jars in. Leave the lids in the hot water for a few minutes; this will soften the sealant a bit.

6. I have packed fruit with the skins on (though I don't recommend that for peaches because of the texture) and without ascorbic acid. The fruit gets a bit discolored, but this doesn't bother me and I was in a hurry the first time I tried it and got tired of searching for ascorbic acid.

7. You know those packs they sell for around $8 that include a funnel, tongs, magnet, etc? Buy it. It's worth its weight in gold and you'll eventually recoup the cost because you won't be using as many bandaids to covers the burns you get from trying to fish lids out of hot water.

8. Be sure to check the altitude chart before you time how long the packed jars will be in the canner. Processing time increases with altitude.

9. Boiling water canning versus pressure canning: Pressure canning is a newer process that brings the temp of the food up to 220 degrees, I believe. The USDA claims it lessens the problem of botulism. Well, the USDA says a lot of things and is more paranoid than Howard Hughes. Boiling water canning is fine, and ironically, some things - such as jams, jellies, applebutter - cannot be pressure canned because the "food quality would be unacceptable." Huh. Go figure. I pressure can my quart jars because my canner is too small to use that size jar with the boiling water method, as there needs to be 1" of water above the top of the can. Seriously, either way is most likely going to be fine. The chances of getting sick from restaurant food are probably greater than getting sick from home cooked food. And I don't know about you, but I don't have an industrial kitchen. We've never gotten sick from anything I've made.

10. Plan out your canning session, and get some help the first time if possible. Like good theatre, it's all in the timing.

Be encouraged! Here are some photos of canning amidst the chaos...

My friend Jen scored some awesome tomatoes at a farmer's market and hooked me up with some. These are just a few of them because I forgot to take photos before I started canning!

Army of cans. The tomatoes on the front line are homeless at the moment. Behind are pears, pear butter, and pear jam. I'm not a pear fanatic, though I do like them. We just happen to have a couple prolific trees.

More pears and pear sauce. We're going to be peared out this winter.

Pear stuff, strawberry jam, and wild cherry jam. And that little jar front and center on the bottom shelf that looks like it's filled with liquid gold? Maple syrup we made last winter. More on that later.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Whole Wheat FAQs

I'm going to attempt a series of posts on baking bread from scratch, because I've gotten lots of questions lately about said topic. This first post will give some general answers to questions I've received, and I will expand on many of these issues later. Please post any other questions you may have, and I will be sure to address them!

Why did you get into baking bread?
I've always liked to bake bread. My health teacher, Mrs. Walsh, taught my fourth-grade class to bake during health class. Brave lady, to be sure, but I was hooked. Of course, back then I used white flour, but I eventually switched to whole wheat (from the store). Besides, how much is a loaf of "healthy" bread? $3.00, at least, right? Bread is expensive, and my family is on a budget.

What is a grain mill, anyway?
I'll get into specifics later, but it's really just a kitchen appliance that can turn wheat berries (it's not really a berry - it's more like a kernel) into flour you bake with. There are several electric and manual mills on the market. Byron and I researched grain mills several years ago, but I didn't start seriously looking into buying a grain mill until Katherine, a lady in my ceramics class, (more notably a smart, energetic mother of eight who was tragically killed in a car accident almost a year ago) warned me that the whole wheat flour I was buying from the store was rancid. She also brought me a bag of freshly milled flour to try out. Read on...

Why is freshly milled flour better for you?
The whole wheat berry contains almost all the nutrients your body needs. The insoluble fiber found in the bran (outside of the kernel) provides food for the good bacteria in your system, and helps scrub out your colon. Gross, but it makes you wonder if eating this way could prevent things like colon cancer. And speaking of good bacteria, did you know we are probably the only society that does not have a fermented product as a normal part of our diet? Food such as yogurt (PLAIN! - more on that later too) and kefir contain good bacteria, which essentially build up your body's immune system. And that bacteria needs something to keep it thriving and fighting off anything bad that enters your system...which is where freshly milled flour comes into play.

Have you ever read The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder? The Ingalls family was snowed in for the winter, and as their supplies dwindled, they survived by eating "brown" bread from flour they laboriously milled in a coffee grinder. To be sure, they all looked a little lean by spring, but the point is that they were able to survive.

Doesn't 100% whole wheat bread taste like cardboard?
Yes, if it's store-bought. But if you have a loaf of whole wheat bread lying around, go look at the ingredients. Are one of the first few listed "wheat gluten?" That's white flour. They put that in there because it helps the bread get its light-and-puffy feel and probably balances out the cardboardy taste of whole wheat. Whole wheat flour that you buy, and consequently what was used in your loaf of bread, is rancid. When the kernel of a wheat berry is broken down, the bran and the germ (which hold all the nutrients) break down very quickly, and the oils in them spoil as a result. Though I've read some conflicting information as to how long whole wheat flour can keep, I've heard that the nutritional value of whole wheat flour can diminish by almost half twenty-four hours after being ground. So not only is freshly milled flour much, much better for you, it also has a wonderful complexity to its flavor.

But I LIKE white flour!
So did I. Nutritionally, it's seriously defunct. It's been stripped of the bran and germ, which contain the nutrients, leaving the endosperm, which is the starch. No wonder diets such as the Atkins Diet were so popular a while back; eating bread like that really is putting a bunch of empty calories into your body. The prevalence of white flour in our society is really a result of the food industry's attempt to create products that will have a long shelf life, as well as the misguided belief from long ago that white flour was a food product for the elite. For a long time it certainly was, until the Industrial Revolution unfortunately made it more available to the masses.

Doesn't it take a lot of time to bake from scratch?
It's really a lifestyle choice. At this point, I'm used to working it into my schedule. I'd rather be baking than fighting my way through a crowded bread aisle at the store. And it takes more attention than time, really. You have to be careful not to let bread over-rise, especially when it's in the pans, right before you put it in the oven.

Where do you get the wheat berries?
Not at Walmart. This can be the tricky part for many people, but the good news is that if you find a place that sells wheat berries (more on the different types later), you can stock up because they keep for a long time if stored in a cool, dry place. More on storage later, too. Anyway, Bread Beckers has a co-op that delivers to many areas; you can research delivery locations on their website. Besides that, you can probably order larger quantities of wheat berries from a local health food store, and it will cost less per pound than what you pay straight from one of those little bulk food bins...though those can be nice in a pinch. There are also MANY Internet sources for wheat berries if worse comes to worse, though you may end up paying more. Another option is to try to find a bulk food store near you, such as a Yoder's or other Mennonite-run sort of place. We have one an hour away, and I think it's totally worth making a trip out there two or three times a year to stock up on wheat berries and other bulk foods. This is the least expensive source I've found, and I end up paying about 50 cents per pound for hard white wheat.

Isn't it more expensive?
There is an initial investment, and when I was trying to find a good price on a grain mill, even the used ones on EBay would go for almost as much as a new one...especially when you factored in shipping. So I sold my saddle in order to buy one, since I haven't ridden since high school. At first, I kneaded by hand (gasp!), but I actually recommend starting out that way so you can get a feel for what the bread should feel like when the gluten (the stuff that makes it rise) has developed. With a machine, you can over-kneed and your bread will fall in the oven. I then graduated to a bread machine, and used just the knead cycle. A few months ago, I received a Kitchen Aid Pro as a gift, and it's been great. If you have a big family, however, this machine probably won't be able to handle larger amounts of whole wheat flour. Springing for an Electrolux, Bosch mixer, or teaching one of your kids to be a champion kneader are other options.

Update: My Kitchenaid Pro handled 12 cups of whole wheat flour this week...that's four loaves of bread!  Click here and scroll down a bit to see the photo!

At this point, our bread making equipment has more than paid for itself. I believe I calculated the cost of the grain mill a couple years ago, and figured it would pay for itself in less than a year.
But I work full-time and don't have time to bake my own bread!
I've been there, and unfortunately, it was not when I was into baking bread consistently. So I can't relate, exactly. I can relate, however, to being very busy. I think for people who work outside the home, a bread machine can be invaluable. Yes, it uses electricity and so forth, but so do my mixer and stove. And thinking about it more globally, it uses a heck of a lot less resources than an eighteen-wheeler full of bread, trucking all the way across the country to your local grocery store. Another option is to bake ahead of time on the weekends and freeze it. Heck, sometimes I do stuff like that!

Are you crazy?
You tell me!