Stick Figures

Caramels is now my Christmas thing. The old lady that makes all the cookies or pralines or fruitcake for everybody for Christmas? That’s me, I make caramels for Christmas. It’s a bit of a cheat out for me, making it so I don’t have to try to find the perfect gift for everyone every year. You know what’s perfect? A great big box of caramels! Totally perfect.

Let’s back up a bit. This is my base recipe for caramels. I’ve made a few changes, I don’t know which of the changes really made the difference but these caramels this year were my best ever. I am actually going to brag about this. This was my best year ever for caramels.

I made most of the changes together without doing ‘control’ batches. I just said, hey! this might help!

I dropped the finishing temp from 248 to 245, and I am using a digital thermometer instead of a regular thermometer. I made sure to use regular pasteurized heavy cream instead of the ultra-pasteurized, this does actually make a difference. I do have access to raw, unprocessed cream but that doesn’t make a difference since I bring the temp higher than the 162 degrees used for pasteurizing. I started using only 100% cane sugar. I know there is debate about this and mostly I don’t care. I don’t know for sure if the cane sugar made the difference or if bumping the temp down changed it. I don’t know but I do know that this year I was strict about these factors and it worked beautifully.

This year I made butter pecan, gingerbread, chocolate orange and dark coffee chocolate caramels. The coffee chocolate caramels where the best of the bunch. I used a much richer and darker cocoa powder. It had a much deeper and darker flavor than the cocoa powder in the grocery store. I had a bag of really terrible coffee, so dark it seemed burned. It was perfect in the caramels, so much dark coffee but choco-sweet. The orange chocolate caramels were not quite as I had hoped. I didn’t quite know what proportions I needed for orange and for chocolate. They were orangey good but there wasn’t much chocolate flavor. I cut the caramels and tossed them in the unsweetened cocoa powder. On first bite your mouth fills up with unsweetened dark chocolate, it’s almost too much. But then you chew and the sugar sweet rolls in and on the tail of that is the orange. Not my best but I think they worked out okay. The butter pecan caramels were solid and good, exactly as expected. Butter, vanilla and roasted pecans. Took some notes about how make them better for the next time.

Gingerbread caramels were my favorite. Okay, the coffee chocolate caramels were my favorite favorite in terms of flavor and chew, but the gingerbread caramels were my pride this year. I worked a perfect balance of ginger, molasses and spice. Not too strong one way or another, good flavor, good chew. I ended up making a double batch of them because I dumped 2 bottles of corn syrup into the pot instead of 2 cups. I still have some leftover gingerbread caramels in the kitchen. I can’t eat anymore!

I’ve started to feel a bit possessive about my caramel recipes. I like them, I am proud of what I make. I want to leave a little mystery in there. Maybe I’ll pass on my caramel knowledge to one of the noogles and they can expand on the recipes and pass them on.

The hard part of all of this is experimenting. Making caramels isn’t cheap and it certainly isn’t calorie free. I can’t just whip up a batch to see if an idea works. If it doesn’t work out at all then the money is lost. If it sort of works out and I make something that can be easily tweaked into better form it’s a good deal but also it is a jelly roll pan of sugar and cream that needs to be eaten. I wish I could email caramels to people, so much cheaper than postage. You wouldn’t download a caramel, would you?

I’m still trying to get a good chocolate orange caramel for my grandfather. Rumor has it he likes a good chocolate orange treat. Also might work on an orange creamsicle flavor and revamp my apple pie caramels. Coffee chocolate will always be on the list, people love them and gingerbread feels like a solid holiday flavor.

Caramels

Pillow talk

I have a hand crank pasta roller that I thoroughly loved but I cannot use it anymore. Two surgeries on my wrist have caused their damage and cranking that machine would leave my hand numb for 2 days. I love my roller but it did not love me so much. A friend had the attachment roller and the 2 cutters for the Kitchen Aid and she was getting rid of them. I promptly bought them! Much excitement!

I used it a few times and then it was time to practice my ravioli skills.

So, first we have the cheese. If you recall I did try to make ricotta from the whey of the mozzarella I made. My intention was to use the ricotta for the raviolis and that would have been some sort of hardcore food ownership magic something something. But it didn’t work. So, what was I to do? I definitely wanted that specific ricotta texture, it was the mostly correct filling. So, I noodled on it and had an experiment idea.

I make paneer pretty regularly, it’s cheap and easy and pretty foolproof. Half gallon of whole milk heated to a soft boil (make sure it is a soft boil, not just simmering or scalding and certainly not a hard boil) add 1/3 cup lemon juice. Stir gently, watch the curds come together. Strain it through butter muslin, rinse, suspend and drain. But…but what if I added flavors to the cheese between adding the lemon juice and draining the cheese?

I don’t know, let’s find out.

For the ravioli I wanted to make an orange and parsley flavored cheese filling. I zested and squeezed a fat orange, finely chopped some fresh parsley and added salt.

Orange zest, orange juice, parsley, salt

Heated the milk, added the lemon juice, waited about 30 seconds and gently stirred the mixture into the cheese.

Paneer with orange zest, orange juice, parsley and salt

It worked! It actually turned out better than expected. It was pretty dry but we can deal with that. Off it went into the fridge for the night and I went to bed visualizing rolling pasta sheets.

The Science of the Best Fresh Pasta. I sat down with this and read it through a couple times. I’ve made pasta a lot with varying degrees of success and I figured it was time to come up with a solid plan based on knowing things instead of always sort of winging it. I had to futz a bit with the recipe because I suddenly found I did not have the number of eggs I thought I did and also it is just David and me and I didn’t want some huge amount of leftover pasta (and, yes, I know dry it or freeze it or whatever…). I cut the recipe in half and there was not nearly enough moisture in there at all (sometimes egg sizes are not consistent here). It was just crumbles so I added another egg. That helped but it was pretty stiff dough. I could make it into a ball but it was never springy or elastic, just stiff. And though I had the pasta roller to save my hand from the cranking pain I did not have enough pasta dough volume to be mixed together in the stand mixer. I had to knead by hand and that was not awesome, my hand ached. A friend pointed me to mixing the dough in my food processor and I will definitely do that next time.

Still life with flour

I let the dough rest and then I rolled and rolled and rolled and I paid attention and I took notes in my brain. I was serious about getting this into the smart part of my brain, not the inattentive and winging it part of my brain. The first few sheets were okay but as I went through they got better with more consistency and cleaner edges. I rolled 8 sheets from the dough. I didn’t have a good idea at all what size wrapper to cut from the sheet to make a balanced dough to cheese ratio for my raviolis. I ended up cutting them way too big. Lesson learned and noted in the smart part of my brain. I rolled the pasta down to level 6 on the rollers and I think next time I will only go to 5 and see if I like that better.

Sheet o'pasta

You will notice that there are no pictures of the actual ravioli. They were ugly, insanely ugly.

For the filling I threw the orange and parsley paneer into the food processor with the egg whites leftover from making the dough. That worked out well, no extra egg whites shoved to the back of the fridge never to be found until we need that one mustard that we never use and we find it and see the egg whites and feel sort of bad about them. So, cheese, egg whites, more salt and some black pepper. Zoom the food processor and then what came out was really exactly what I wanted. The texture was actually even better than what I had imagines, and the fat in the cheese drew some of the orange flavor from the zest and it had an excellent orange flavor. Needed more parsley and salt though.

I was not going to sauce these in spaghetti sauce. Instead…

I chopped up half a green cabbage, a big apple and a sweet potato
Cabbage, sweet potato and apple

Then I toasted up a bag of walnuts in obscene amounts of brown butter. I cook up brown butter a pound at a time and keep it in the fridge along with the fatback, bacon grease and leaf lard, I do a lot of fat type experiments.

Walnuts toasting in unhealthy amounts of brown butter.

Then I added sage, rosemary, cinnamon, allspice, ground coriander, garlic…um and some other stuff I don’t remember right into the hot butter and let that cook a bit with the walnuts. I emptied that into the big bowl of veggies, mixed it up and threw in onto a jelly roll pan and roasted it in the oven until it got suitably crispy. Boiled up the ravioli and served them with the roasted cabbage mix.

The filling in the ravioli was perfect, it was even better than ricotta (in my own wienery opinion). It was creamy and not sticky and the orange flavor was evident without being overwhelming.

There was not enough cheese for the amount of pasta that I made, I ended up cutting the leftover pasta into fat noodles and boiled them up with the ravioli. The individual raviolis had more noodle than they should for the amount of cheese in them. So, this means next time I do this I will double the cheese and cut smaller wrappers.

The whole thing could have used more salt in any of the components. I fear over salting things but I pull back too much sometimes. Also, a good dose of red pepper flakes would have been welcomed somewhere in there, but I am out of red pepper flakes (but my Penzeys order just shipped today.)

And here is Maddie in her special underpants!
Maddie in her special 'nunders

Fingerprints

I have all manner of projects that I work on. Caramel making, cheese making, dyeing/spinning/crocheting wool, I’ll get focused on regional cuisine… just stuff that I do. There’s a subset of these projects that is special to me. I call them my ‘beginning-to-end’ projects, these are the projects where I try to have my hand in as many steps as possible. I can crochet something with yarn, or I can crochet something with yarn I dyed or I can crochet something with yarn that I spun and dyed myself. In the future I will crochet something using yarn that came from an animal I raised and I will process the fleece and dye and spin it up and I can even use a pattern of my own making. I have a few crochet projects in the dye/spin/crochet bin and I will probably post those later.

I set a beginning to end cooking goal for myself a couple years ago. I decided that one day I would make a pizza with a homemade crust, homemade sauce, homemade sausage and homemade mozzarella. I did it! I finally made my super pizza!

Will start off with a few criticisms because if there is anything one thing I am good at it’s criticizing my own self. We’d wanted to use a different pizza crust recipe. The one that I normally use is okay but it’s a bit puffy, we wanted something thinner. Tried a different crust recipe this time and it was just no good, dense and hard and overly chewy and difficult to handle in dough form.

Not awesome dough

It just did not want to roll out nicely and was too stiff to manipulate. Next time we will try a new dough recipe. Also, I should have par-baked it longer.

On the other hand, the sauce was tasty. I was not able to use fresh tomatoes as it is entirely impossible to find fresh paste tomatoes. All they have at the store are the red styro-bombs that are useless for cooking. In the future I will make the sauce from tomatoes I processed and canned but for now I started with canned crushed tomatoes.

Pre-sauce

Saucing

Yes, I do stick shredded carrots in my tomato sauces, it helps cut the acid edge and also yay carrots.

My sausage was tasty good. I’ve been making it for a number of years now and I don’t have the recipe written down so it varies from batch to batch but is always pretty good.

Sausage, 8oz Italian

Only good babies get sassages

Dough, sausage, dried tomatoes

Up in the front there are the dried tomatoes. I buy the little grape tomatoes and dry them all the time. They are excellent to have on hand for…everything. Also, very good for just stuffing in your face when you are hungry.

And the cheese! I followed this video, it’s a great step-by-step guide. PLEASE NOTE: he says 1 and a half tablespoons of citric acid but he means 1 and a half TEASPOONS. Instead of rennet tablets I use liquid rennet from New England Cheesemaking Supply, I used a quarter teaspoon of liquid rennet. The cheese was fantastic. It needed more salt and a little more kneading/stretching but, dammit, I made mozzarella and it was tasty as all hell.

Mozzarella

I did try to make ricotta from the leftover whey. This was my second attempt at ricotta and my second failure. I don’t know if I am doing something wrong or if there are factors I don’t know about. Either way, I will try one more time and if it doesn’t work out then I will know that ricotta is just not a thing.

Pizza

Pizza! I should have used more cheese. After we ate our first pieces David went in and fried up some more cheese and laid it on top and it was even more delicious. It’s not pretty at all but it was everything I wanted to do and it is something I am very proud of. I will keep working on ways to be more involved in the different ingredients and steps and I will make more pizza.

Arugula

Pizza with arugula because pizza needs arugula.

For those of you chewing along at home…

Latest food whiz.
Made more stock and pressure canned it. Five quarts of chicken stock and 7 quarts of beef stock. I know the pressure canning is weird, it’s easier to freeze it. But, like I said, my freezer is tiny and I need the pressure canning practice. Also, popping open a quart jar of beef stock is pretty amazing, the great beefy smell that comes out of there. It’s straight up beef stock right off the stove smell, you want to chug it. BEEF CHUG! I imagine it is my own bias, but I swear the resultant textures of the stews and soups made from it are phenomenal, way better than my frozen stocks. Yeah, probably bias and also tweaking the proportions to load it up with more collagen than before. Still, though, I’m going to believe it is because of the pressure canning versus just freezing it.
In making my chicken stock I have had to switch from chicken wings to chicken thighs. I liked the chicken wings, I thought the flavor and the extra connective tissue really made for a better result. I know a lot of people use whole carcasses and leftovers for their stock, but we almost never eat chicken in any form. I have no leftovers to save and use. Chicken wings have gotten stupidly expensive lately and thighs are a good second option. And the dogs love the thighs because it is easier for us to get the meat off the bones for them.
Had another sausage and burger making weekend and the results were… disappointing.
I made a common, yet foolish mistake. Instead of making sausage because the stuff I needed was available all cheap or whatever, I decided that the weekend would be the time of sausage making and I would just go find whatever is available and use it. Dumb. The meat counter across the way had no pork shoulder or butt, just trimmed pork loin. They also didn’t have any shoulder/chuck/blade cuts of beef so I went with round bottom. The regular grocery had pork shoulder at insane prices and the beef wasn’t much better. I basically came home with a bunch of meat trimmed of all fat with no connective tissue or flavor.
I made my standard hot italian sausage. Dry but basically good, it’s hard to screw that up. Wrapped up five 8 ounce packages and one 12 ounce pack.
Last time I made breakfast sausage I also added ground bacon because who wants to have to choose between bacon or sausage! Have both! It was good but any subtlety the bacon might have added was overwhelmed by the sausage seasoning, so mostly the bacon just added salt. This time I did it without bacon and it’s definitely a better result. Bacon is good, but you really need to hold bacon’s hand in order to appreciate it. Six 6 ounce packs of breakfast sausage.
But the bacon wasn’t lost. I made up more bacon burgers. 1 part ground pork, 2 parts ground beef and a goodly toss of ground bacon. This is where the dryness of the meat and its lack of character really show. It’s just meh. Five packs of two 6 ounce patties, we’re eating through them but mostly as an afterthought, something to eat when we don’t feel like anything in particular.
Also made burgers with chopped oven dried grape tomatoes and mashed up slow roasted garlic. These are good, dry but definitely good. The bland meat canvas is definitely improved on by the flavors and textures of the tomatoes and garlic. I imagine they will be even better the next time around when I use better meats. I got 3 packs of two 6 ounce patties out of that.
Then I had a bit of a muddled experiment. Using the pork I wanted to make a dried apple and sage sort of sausage patty. Something to eat like a burger, but with pork and apples and sage. As I was putting it together I had an idea! Hooray for ideas! I quickly heated up a bit oil, tossed in mustard seed, cumin seed and fenugreek and shook it around until it got toasty and a bit poptastic and swished it into the meat mixture. It definitely removes any original idea I had about these patties, they aren’t apple and sage anymore (though they have dried apple and sage in them). It’s an Indian flavor which is good, but not necessary. Apple and sage and some red pepper flakes would have been perfect. I might make more with the cumin/mustard/fenugreek seeds and some other, more focused flavors. For this I got 3 packs with two 6 ounce patties, one pack with one 6 ounce patty. The dried apples are pretty good in there, you should try it.
Lesson learned about scheduling these things. You process and put up food while it is cheap and abundant so that you will have it around when things are scarcer. I just really wanted to make sausage and I didn’t want to wait. Not my best work, but we are chewing through it all and the other day they meat counter had pork should for cheap and now I have one in my freezer ready for next time.

Lady Blerghese and the Milk Floats

There it was, summer of 1987, I was 14 years old and drinking a glass of milk. As I was drinking it I thought, “you know what? This is NOT a tasty beverage. It does not taste good, I do not want to drink it.” and mostly I stopped drinking milk.
I’m not a picky eater at all, I will try most things. I’ve eaten jellyfish, chicken feet, tripe in both chinese and mexican preparations, tongue, fish maw, bubble tea, though I have not been able to bring myself to eat fish eye when it’s been offered (sorry fish eye). Of course there are the things I despise and will not eat, mushrooms, olives, raw onions (and some cooked onions, I have onion problems). It makes me seem like a picky eater because these are things the majority of people like.
GAAAAAAAH! I hate mushrooms. Hate them. The texture, the flavor, all of it. Being forced to eat them, getting the occasional, completely disingenuous, “just try it, if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it,” which almost always devolved into, “there’s nothing wrong with mushrooms… blah blah kids in china. You ate them before!!” Yeah, I ate them before! You forced me to eat them, you ass. Pizza time was fraught with danger. If we were lucky we got just regular style meat covered pizza. If not, we got the supreme pizza with everything on it. I would take a bite and very carefully with my tongue, remove all the offending mushrooms, olives, onions and bell peppers and swallow them whole and then continue with the chewing. A tuna sandwich is completely ruined by chopped onions. The olive bar at the grocery has to be given wide berth because they smell so bad (David had never noticed the stink of the olive bar, but he is 14 inches taller and I think the heavy stench of olive does not waft that high).
Luckily, by the time I reached junior high and high school I was allowed more control over what I ate and I did not have to eat mushrooms or drink milk anymore.
I hate milk but I am cool with most other dairy products, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, chocolate milk. It’s not so much that I hate milk, but that I hate the flavor of milk. I don’t want that flavor in my mouth, it’s nasty. In the last few years, however, people have been suggesting that I try raw milk. They tell me the flavor is different. I am skeptical of such a statement. It is still milk in milk form with no added chocolate flavor or cheese culture. Skeptical.
We move to Vermont and we work on changing our relationship with food. Doing things like getting to know the pigs we might eat later, buying eggs and tomatoes from people’s front yards and supporting local agriculture. There’s a dairy up the road that sells raw milk. We decide to try it out. It’s $7 a gallon which means that we will have to prioritize the budget a bit. $7 milk means not buying Marshmallow Mateys anymore, I’m okay with that. We get our milk and bring it home and it is a delightful wonder to behold. Jersey cows mean higher butterfat content and the cream at the top is amazing. We mix it up and pour a little bit to try. I am still skeptical but open. It tastes like milk. That’s all, milk. The flavor in my mouth is the flavor of milk and it’s still as gross as it was 25 years ago.
But! BUT! All is not lost. I do use milk in my coffee, on my oatmeal and in other things. Even better, I have started making cheese and yogurt with the milk and it they are so painfully delicious. The cheese is a fromage blanc, described as a ‘cream cheese’ which is a bit of a disservice, it is nothing like the gummy Philly cheese. It’s got the texture of a good chevre, a bit crumbly but not too dry, and the flavor is amazing. Because the milk is not homogenized the cream still rises to the top while the cheese is setting up. You get this beautiful, thick layer of full fat cheese. In the quiet celebration of another perfect batch of cheese you stand in the kitchen and spread a bit on a piece of bread and savor it before you mix the layer back in with the rest of the batch.
And the cheese is so satisfying to eat. Mix in some oven dried tomatoes and roasted garlic, a bit of salt and pepper. Or add powdered sugar and vanilla and serve it with crepes and homemade clementine marmalade. It’s amazing on a pizza along with homemade italian sausage and no mushrooms.
The other day I made my first batch of yogurt. It’s a bit bland at first but it just sucks up the deliciousness of maple syrup and you could fall into a pit of sugar and high butterfat bliss.
My favorite, though, is accidentally not shaking the cream back in “well enough” and making hot chocolate. It’s like a heart attack in a mug. A delicious, delicious heart attack that does not taste like milk.