Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Multitasking; or How to Suck the Life Blood Out of Every Minute

With lace motif 1 of 2 finished as of Saturday,

a little over 1 1/2 weeks of total home time between now and the wedding, and the discovery that the bride is a bit of a bridezilla who is panicking over the fact that I’m not yet finished, I found myself exploring new ways to get the job done.

Like this six hour round trip to shoot an assignment during which I managed to get slightly more than the halfway point on motif #2.

For those of you who weren’t at knit group at Saturday, this was pretty much my fashion statement that day as I pulled pins out of motif #1.

Folks, this is bobbin lace, and I owe you a post on the entire process. But that’s going to have to wait a few more weeks.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Kitchen Adventures: Bierocks/Bieracks/Beerocks/Beroaks

Another successful recipe courtesy of Das Essen Unsrer Leute! This time around I delved into the world of bierocks, which are a small rolls stuffed with a cabbage and ground meat mixture. Recipes vary greatly, but that’s it in a nutshell.

Most of the communities had at least one bierock recipe in their chapter, but all except one didn’t bother specifying how to make the roll. So for that I went to the towns of Munjor and Antonino, and Mrs. Wasinger’s recipe for “beerocks” dough.

I can’t say how truly traditional this variation is because it calls for bran cereal. But it uses bran cereal in exactly the way I do for my “always in the house” bran muffins. That is, 1 cup of whole bran cereal softened in 1 cup of boiling water. The result is a hearty and heart-healthy bread.

The recipe wasn’t without its issues. The list of ingredients didn’t include salt, yet the written directions said to add it. How much was a mystery. I took a stab at 1 teaspoon. And the written directions didn’t say when to add the yeast, nor was their any mention of softening the yeast in warm water. So I added the yeast directly to the bran cereal soak - after it had cooled to lukewarm. That seemed to work.

Mrs. Wasinger’s filling variation called for sauerkraut, but I’m fresh of homemade kraut, so for the filling I journeyed over to Pfeifer for Mrs. Roth’s Bieracks recipe. Hers was a chopped cabbage recipe, cooked the ground beef, onions and cabbage in bacon drippings, and included a grated sharp cheddar cheese. Yummy!

I am usually a lot of particular about the brand of cheese I buy, but I mistakenly cheaped out this time around and got the Best Choice Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese, which was extraordinarily mild to the point of tasting like Velveeta.

The end product turned out to be excellent (even though I got distracted by a show on the Halogen channel and left the bierocks in the oven a tad too long), but could be improved by using a true sharp cheese, and perhaps swapping out ground beef for sausage.

It’s a amazing to realize you could feed a large farm family on only 1/2 lb of ground beef! For smaller families, they freeze well and reheat well. I take mine straight out of the freezer and put then in a foil-covered pan in a 200° oven for about 45 minutes to thaw, then pumped it up to 325° for another 15 minutes.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Wool Gathering

There are times, such as the times I live in now, that I’m utterly grateful for knitting. Knitting passes the minutes/hours spent in waiting rooms. It gives me something to think about (other than the obvious), while freeing me up to engage in conversation with my friends and/or relatives who shares my same fate. And in the end I have a garment—something woolly to keep me warm when the winter winds howl.

The bad and the good about knitting is it also encourages strangers to strike up a conversation, sharing their own memories about their knitting present, or knitting in the distant past. (And no, there is no way I’m old enough to remember “Bundles for Britain” that you learned to knit for when you were 9. Thank you.)

I think for these strangers that our knitting, my mother’s and mine, is a way to momentarily forget about why they are there, and their own fears about the precipice that they are standing on. The gift of that forgetting is a wonderful thing.

Traveling with an iPod and ear buds can be a wonderful thing, too.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Kitchen Adventures: Squash Bread

This recipe has been haunting me. I nearly talked myself out of making it because it lacked a lot of critical details, and was completely foreign to me. And yet, I found myself flipping back to that page trying to suss out the author’s meaning.

The recipe comes from Das Essen Unsrer Leute (The Food of our People, I think), a cookbook of folk recipes collected from the Volga-German communities Ellis County, Kansas. (For anyone traveling through Kansas on I-70, you probably saw the majestic spires of The Cathedral of the Plains in Victoria.) Since the towns were founded in 1876 until well into the 20th century, this society remained close-knit and largely intact, and did little to integrate with the American culture. So the recipes in this book are very traditional, and can be traced back to each family’s pre-Russian settlements in Germany. My squash recipe was contributed from the small town of Liebenthal in nearby Rush County, population less than 100.

The idea of a “squash bread” messed with my head a bit, until I remembered that one of my favorite recipes is a pumpkin bread (squash), and that making loaf after loaf of zucchini bread was one way to solve the answer to an over-abundant zucchini harvest in the home garden. But - here’s kicker #1 - this recipe isn’t a quick bread like my pumpkin and zucchini recipes; it’s a leavened bread.

Kicker #2: It calls for 2 cups stewed squash pressed through a potato ricer. So the next question became, how does one stew squash? I couldn’t find any other example of a squash bread recipe (other than pumpkin and zucchini), and the only recipes for stewed squash called for making a stew with squash and onions. I may not know much, but I know that isn’t what is meant for the bread.

I bought a butternut squash at the local farmer’s market, peeled it, and sliced it into 1" chunks. Then I cooked it in a skillet with a little bit of water. My end goal was to make a product similar to canned pumpkin.

After letting it cool, I riced it. As it turned out, a medium-sized squash only riced to about 1 1/2 cups, so I had to integrate in some of the bits that resisted ricing in order to make up the difference in volume. Hmmm...

This was added to scalded milk, a bit of sugar and butter. Once that mixture cooled, I added in the equivalent of 1 cake of yeast, then started adding flour to a quantity only specified as “flour enough to knead.” I lost count on how many cups that turned out to be, but I can tell you I made a major dent in the 10# bag I’d recently bought.

After kneading it for a good 15 minutes, I turned it into my favorite large thrown clay bowl, something I purchased years ago from the Historic General Store in Plevna, Kansas. (That store was an old-fashioned false-front building with wide wood plank floors littered with peanut shells. The store burned down in 1997.) It was a huge amount of dough, and it turned out to be something of a monster in the rise.

After punching it down and dividing, it made three large loaves. Baking instructions were absent, so I relied on my Victory cookbook for those details, and cooked them at 425° until the crust was a golden brown, and the loaves sounded hollow when tapped.

These are—without a doubt—the fluffiest most tender and tasty loaves of bread I have ever baked. Hands down.

That night I served the bread sliced with a bit of butter and local honey, alongside black beans and rice made from my grandmother’s recipe. Heaven!
In Which I Attempt to Conquer my Fear of Pattern

This is the latest product from my sewing room—and what will be the last for a bit while I focus on a wedding deadline (more on that on a much later post) and after that my winter quilt that is already two winters behind schedule.

The pattern is Simplicity 2696, view D. Although this view is supposed to have braid sewn on the facing band at the neckline and bust, I ended up leaving it off. I did go to Hancock to hunt something down, but I didn’t like the types of braids they had in dark colors, and the lighter braids made the whole tunic go from busy to gaudy. Truth be told, it was already at gaudy without the braid.

The fabric is a deeply discounted corduroy from last season.

I adjusted the fit of the pattern, and think I did a fair job of it. The cuffs were a bear, but not bad for my first-ever attempt at making cuffs. For some reason I couldn’t get my buttonhole attachment to work properly on the actual cuff (though it was working quite well on my test fabric), so I ended up winging a lot of the buttonhole using a regular foot, and adjusting the needle placement and zig zag width to make the holes.

Worn without something underneath, it will work in the early part of fall. Worn with a light mock turtleneck, it will go well beyond.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The question is: Who or What is Emily?

Earlier this summer I was weeding in my sunken garden and noticed some holes in the soil that were approximately 1 1/2 - 2" in diameter. We made a few guesses as to what the architect of these holes could be, but I’m pretty sure I uncovered the mystery - literally - this afternoon.

I had placed some bags of mulch on the soil in my sunken garden a few weeks ago, and left them there to help kill the weeds beneath. Since that time the members of the household have both been walking on the bags harvesting hops and such, and this morning I spent a goodly amount of time kneeling on said bags to weed around the based of the hop vines so that I could spread the mulch around them. Then I started emptying those bags and spreading the mulch.

I was nearly through the mulch bags that I’d previously placed in the garden, when I lifted one up and saw this beneath it:

Except that wasn’t exactly what I saw, because coiled up in that burrow was a snake. A snake that was frankly a bit pissed off that I upended its home. I was the only person in the garden at the time as my gardening partner was in the shower. So I did what any proper thinking Kansas woman would do. No, I did not scream. I grabbed my iPhone and tried to take a proper picture.

Not great. I did say it was pissed off, right? But this shows its head.

Here is where it started to do a U-turn, so its head (not visible) is passing its tail. But in this picture you can more clearly see the pattern. The snake was approximately 3' in length, and about 1 1/2" in diameter at its widest point.

You see that it is primarily a black snake, but has wide deep reddish/cream bands down its length.

I’ve ruled out venomous snakes that are indigenous to my region (Kansas), but haven’t yet found what it is. If it’s a juvenile, the markings could be different from that of a mature snake. And I can’t rule out that it is a former pet snake, or specimen from the university, that is loose in my garden. Frankly, it could be from anywhere.

It‘s still in my garden somewhere beneath the mulch that I just spread. And I named it Emily to be as non-threatening a name as possible. It was either that or Gandhi. I ask only that she and I try very hard not to scare the shit out of each other in the future, and I think Emily would want the same.

ETA: We have a tentative identification. Emily is a juvenile Black Rat Snake. She likes to climb trees and eats small animals and birds. If Emily keep our rabbit population down, I’m behind Emily 100%. Here’s a video interview showing an adult Black Rat Snake. She is one our area’s most common - and largest - snakes.
The Kitchen Calleth

A week or so ago I had a national floor cleaning company come in to do the ceramic tile floor in my kitchen/dining rooms. I have said before and I’ll say again that I hate-hate-hate these floors. They are the cheapest ugliest tiles that Home Depot sells. Even when clean, the mottled colors look like the floor is soiled. And when dirt lands on them, it grinds in to the deepest pours of the tile and the grout, and will only free itself with hands-and-knees cleaning involving a multiple scrub brush, sponge and bucket process. It’s been three years since I’ve owned the place. In three more years I’ll have them come in and do the deep clean again. Then those floors will be a memory. But I digress.

To prepare my floors for the cleaning crew, I had to remove all the furniture and rugs. And that meant moving all my cookbooks and dismantling those shelves. Sorting through the books as I put the room back together, I was reminded of ones that I’d always wanted to explore, but somehow got lost in the shuffle of daily life. In the coming week I hope to bring you the results of several experiments. And I’ve added a spiral notebook to my cookbook shelves, so I can record the details my successes and failures. First up: Biscuits & Gravy

You may recall that I had a very short-lived attempt to find/develop a good from-scratch recipe for this health food back in early April. An attempt that turned out to be short-lived due to a major refrigerator failure. This time around I made another attempt at the buttermilk biscuit recipe from Victory Binding of the American Woman's Cook Book: Wartime Edition, this time cutting the shortening in before I added the buttermilk. (Rookie mistake last time.) Since I have twice as many people in the house to do the “hard work” of taste-testing, I didn’t bother halving or quartering the recipe.

My father-in-law had been a huge biscuits and gravy fan, so I used my mother-in-law’s old wooden rolling pin as a nod to him.

I probably should have used less flour in the rolling-out stage, so I used a pastry brush to remove as much of the excess flour from the biscuit tops as possible.

Definitely better-formed than last time - slightly raised and moist.

And for the sausage gravy I used this recipe from Cooks.com. The point about adding the flour a little at a time and waiting until it browns before adding more is an excellent one. Instead of using the Rice-brand sausage as last time, this time I used a bulk pork sausage packaged at my local grocer. The recipe recommended a sausage high in fat content, and this seems to fit the bill.

After I re-read the instructions, I saw that the recipe author had me add the flour while the sausage was still in the pan. I think that would have helped. There certainly would have been more fat content for the flour to bond to.

As it was, I ran out of oils at 4 T, and wasn’t quite enough to thicken the gravy. Plus, it made it harder to integrate in to the milk without clumping. I ended up adding two cups of milk, then putting it in the blender at the liquefy setting. That broke up the clumps. I then returned it to the pan and added the remaining milk.

Then I melted 2 T butter in a separate pan, and added 2 T flour to make another roux, browned it, and added it back into the main gravy along with the sausage. I think next time I’ll try making this in a cast-iron skillet instead of a teflon-type pan, too, so that I can be more vigorous with the scraping and whisking.

Plating stage.

Time for breakfast!

Other than those technique tweaks I’ve mentioned above, this test batch turned out superbly. A nice hearty breakfast eaten outside on the first cool morning since spring, when we’ve got a full day of intensive lawn work ahead.