• sourdough crackers

    At our family Christmas gathering, my cousin served homemade crackers to go with the assortment of cheeses—blue, goat, gouda, etc—that the rest of us brought. The crackers were made from sourdough starter. She had written about them on her blog, and, while I had thought about them off and on since reading about them, I’d never taken the time to make them. There are so many good store-bought crackers—when I’m struggling to get well-rounded dinners on the table, I’m inclined to let go of the little extras.

    But these crackers! More than just good, they were outstanding. My cousin had said they tasted cheesy without having any cheese in them and she was absolutely right. Their secret cheesiness made them kind of incredible, not to mention very, very addictive.

    I prefer the thick ones.

    So of course I came home and made them. And then yesterday I made them again, a double batch this time. The kids kept stealing them—heck, I kept stealing them—from the cooling rack, so I had to jar them up so I’d have some left for the evening’s Milkmaid gathering. (To go with the crackers, I cobbled together a simple cheese ball with some leftover walnut cheddar from our Christmas Eve feast. My kids saw the cheese ball and commenced a-wailing, “What! They get cheese ball and we don’t? No fairrrrr!!”)

    The great thing about these crackers is that they use up the little bit of leftover starter I have every morning when I’m having a bread-baking week. It’s the easiest thing in the world to just get out another bowl, toss in the bit of leftover starter and then stir in a bit of flour, salt, and butter. After mixing up my second batch of cracker dough, I ran out of time, so I just stuck the dough in the fridge. Then yesterday I rolled the dough out and baked the crackers. The extra wait time in the fridge didn’t hurt them one bit. Translation: refrigerator cracker dough always at the ready!

    Sourdough Crackers 
    Adapted from Zoe’s blog Whole Eats Whole Treats.

    I like my crackers on the thick side, so a single recipe only yields about a quart. Yesterday’s double recipe made a half-gallon worth. There’s only a few left in the jar. (Update: the jar’s empty.)

    I went out and bought granulated garlic for these crackers. I only had garlic powder, and my cousin says it’s easier to work with the granulated stuff. She’s right. It sprinkles more evenly and it has a nicer texture. Also, I like my crackers salty, so I sprinkle the dough with a couple pinches of coarse salt prebaking.

    Locals: I have starter to share. Just ask! (The feeding schedule is in the right hand column of this post. And here’s a post on the origins of the starter.)

    1 cup sourdough starter
    1 cup whole wheat flour, slightly heaped
    ½ slightly rounded teaspoon salt
    4 tablespoons butter, softened
    coarse salt and granulated garlic for topping, optional 

    Stir together the starter, flour, salt, and butter. The dough will be soft and sticky—chilling it in the fridge for an hour (or several days) will make it more manageable.

    Grease a couple cookie sheets and roll out the dough directly onto the sheets. In the oven, the dough will puff up about double, so plan for their thickness accordingly. Sprinkle the crackers with salt and granulated garlic, if desired. Pass a rolling pin over the crackers one more time, to help the toppings stick. Cut the crackers with a pizza cutter.

    Bake the crackers at 350 degrees for 15-30 minutes (or longer—it all depends on their thickness) or until the crackers are golden brown and crispy. The crackers around the edges will brown first—I just pull the pan from the oven every few minutes and remove the ones that are done. I let the last of the crackers, when I finally pull them from the oven, sit on the tray to crisp up even more.

    Store in an airtight container.

    This same time, years previous: one year and one day, between two worlds, the quotidian (1.9.12), hog butchering!, moving big sticks of wood, and baked hash brown potatoes.  

  • what it means

    This fall my parents moved three miles down the road into a house that they (and my husband and a few other hammery folk) built. We were in virgin territory, living in such close proximity to my parents. I did not know what it would be like. What would it mean—really mean—to live this close?

    Here’s what it means:

    *We are neighbors! We are far enough apart that we don’t cross paths if we don’t choose to, but close enough that we can walk over for a visit or to borrow a tool.

    *For the first time since I left home when I was 17, I can visit my folks without baggage, husband, or kids. I just hop in the car and zip over. Or I walk over. Or run. Besides my own house, there is no other home in the world where I’m perfectly at home, except for my parents’ place. It’s like my living space has doubled. I’ve got two places to crash now.

    *For Thanksgiving, we ate the main meal at my brother’s house (a half mile down the road) and then had dessert at my parents’ house. A bunch of us walked over in the dusk, enjoying the chilly air, exercise, and conversation.

    *We pick things up in town for each other—groceries, plants, etc. If we spy a deal, we call the other to see if they want to take advantage.

    *My parents do lots and lots (and lots and lots and lots) of child care. One of their goals for moving here was to soak up the grands. I keep thinking they’re going to reach the saturation point any day now…

    *So much flexibility! The other night we had supper at their house and when it came time to leave, my youngest didn’t want to come home with us. So he stayed. My younger daughter had already fallen asleep in the downstairs bedroom, so she stayed, too.

    *The kids can go over there randomly, just to hang out. Last week my older daughter called up my mom to see if she might spend the night. My mom said sure, so we dropped my girl off that evening. She didn’t come home until the next evening. Mostly, my mom said, she just read all day. (I think she wants to go over there just so she can get out of work and read herself cross-eyed.)

    *When my dad gets the urge, he rides over on his bike and gives the kids science lessons.

    *My parents sometimes take the kids to their choir rehearsals or whatever, just to see what it is they are up to.

    *My children invite their friends over, not only to our house, but to their grandparents’ house. The other week, my younger daughter and her friend went over there and made a ginormous batch of tapioca pudding with my mom. Next up, my younger son and his friend are scheduled for a sleep over. 

    *Last minute dinner invitations.

    *Woods! My parents’ 13 acres is all forested. So now my kids have a new place to crash through, explore, and make forts in. In the summer there are blackberries to eat. In the winter my father makes firewood deliveries.

    All in all, it’s a pretty sweet deal, this living-close-to-parents thing. We’re loving it.

    This same time, years previous: the quotidian (1.6.14), date nut bread, headless chickens, so worth it, candied peanuts, salted dulce de leche ice cream with candied peanuts, winter chickens, turkey noodle soup, and what I did.    

  • breaking the fruitcake barrier

    I am intrigued by fruitcake. Why are so many are so bad? Why do people continue to make them? Why the fake red and green chemical chunks? It’s all so mysterious.

    I suppose that fruitcakes had a very logical reason for being, at least back in the beginning they did. Back then, a cake built from dried fruits made sense. Everyone had dried fruit (and dried fish, dried venison, dried herbs, etc.), so they used what they had. Plus, the natural sugars from the dried fruit decreased the need for expensive, store-bought sugar. Preserving the cake with liquor made sense, too. They sure didn’t have any freezers for long-term storage.

    Actually, I just made all that stuff up. I don’t know anything about the origins of fruitcake. But it sounded good, right?

    As I see it, there is absolutely no justification for the current existence of florescent-colored, sticky-sweet, fruitcake atrocities. You’d think, what with modernization and evolution and all that, fruitcakes would either be a relic of the past or a knock-dead delicious dessert. In a world of chocolate and butter, I see no need for anything less.

    Unless!


    Unless fruitcakes are, in their true, unadulterated form, truly delicious. This, my friends, is my hunch. And this, my friends, is why on December of 2014 I set about on a quest to break the fruitcake barrier.

    Spoiler alert: I failed.

    ***

    Some foodie friends told me about their family fruitcake that everyone, including children, loved. I took down their recipe. I asked detailed questions. I ran a fruitcake background check, a sort of cross-examination of people who had actually tasted the cake. I sourced the last bottle of concord grape wine in town and then made my husband go get it. And then I made the cake.

    It took three weeks. The fruits soaked in rum and wine for two of those weeks, and after the cake was baked, it sat wrapped in wax paper for another full week. The cake looked promising.

    Deception.

    On Christmas Eve, we finally cut into it. And it was awful: bitter, gummy in the middle, and so overpoweringly alcoholic that it made my eyes water. Or perhaps my eyes watered from the disappointment? I don’t know. But it was bad. Really, truly, irrevocably bad.

    Part of the problem was me, I’m pretty sure. See, the recipe called for lots of minced orange and lemon rind. So I bought real lemons and oranges, carefully cut off the rinds to minimize pith, and then minced them up. But after adding them to the fruit cocktail, I learned, through further questioning, that the recipe meant candied peels. Oops. So that probably explained the bitter.

    As for the gumminess—my fault, again. Fifteen more minutes in the oven would’ve fixed that problem.

    But the alcohol, now. That was not my mistake. I followed the recipe to a tee. I had thought that because the copious amounts of alcohol were added pre-baking, much of the kick would be knocked out in the two-hour baking time. I was wrong. Very, very wrong.

    ***

    At our family reunion, I brought up the mystifying topic of fruitcakes. Opinions varied. Someone suggested that we each come to the next gathering with a fruitcake and then have a taste test competition. I suggested that we make it more interesting by also bringing a catapult to launch the losing cakes… perhaps at the losing cooks. I was feeling vindictive.

    ***

    Through the grapevine I heard that one of my friends was experimenting with fruitcake, so once we returned from Pennsylvania, I emailed him to suggest a fruitcake tasting party. He came bearing not only his fruitcake, but his father-in-law’s, too.

    Both cakes were completely different. The non-alcoholic one was like a fruit bar with large chunks of chewy fruit layered together. The other was like a dark, fruity bread that, even though it had been bathed in rum post-baking, only tasted mildly of alcohol. Both were delicious but neither was exactly what I had in mind: something outstandingly fruity while still maintaining an element of cakeyness.

    When it came time to sample my cake, my friend took a tentative taste and then shook his head. It was unanimous: the cake was inedible. Let me tell you, it felt awfully good to finally toss that cake to the chickens. Also? My kids were so scarred by my failure that they refused to taste the cakes my friend brought. In their minds, fruitcake equaled poison. This fruitcake obsession of mine was not off to a good start.

    ***

    Still, I’m not giving up. Deep in my soul, I believe—oh, I believe!—there is a fruitcake out there for me, somewhere. And full disclosure: I have another recipe in the works. It just might be my crowning fruitcake glory. Then again, it might not. I don’t exactly have a great track record.

    In the meantime, tell me: what is your relationship with fruitcake? Have you ever eaten a good one? If so, share! Because I am going to break this fruitcake barrier, so help me everyone.

    This same time, years previous: buckwheat apple pancakes, sweet and spicy popcorn, and my jackpot.

  • 5-grain porridge with apples

    The January issue of Bon Appetit arrived a week or so before Christmas. It was chock full of healthy, light recipes, and in the midst of the sugar and butter glut, each page was like a breath of fresh air. Most of the recipes, however, were decadent in their over-the-top expensive ingredients and complicated procedures. Green smoothie with almond butter and flaxseed oil and agave syrup and matcha and—? It was again too much, just in the other direction.

    Still, I’m pretty good at hacking away at the fru-fru fluff and getting down to the heart of the matter. Or the heart of the recipe, as it were. So when my eyes lighted on a 5-Grain Porridge with Bee Pollen, Apples, and Coconut, I skipped right over the bee pollen part (because yeah right) and headed for the freezers to take stock of my Weird Grain Collection. I didn’t have all the grains, but the headnote was generous about my inadequacies. “Use what you’ve got—just bump up the quantity,” they said. So I did, and the porridge was lovely.

    The topping, the apples and coconut, while obviously rather irrelevant, did sound interesting. Plus, I had some softening apples on the windowsill and some large-flake, toasted and sweetened snacking coconut in the pantry. It was worth a shot.

    And it was worth a shot. The sauteed apples, cinnamon, and coconut were so delicious that they pretty much defeated the purpose of the porridge. I mean, isn’t porridge all about eating healthy, sparingly, lightly? Because here I was fighting off urges to pig, gorge, stuff myself. The situation seemed rather counterproductive. And positively delightful.

    PS. My husband abhors oatmeal, steel cut oats, polenta, etc. Yesterday morning I coaxed him into eating a bowlful of this porridge. While eating, he accidentally made mm-mmm noises. We were both startled.

    PPS. And just as I finished typing that last paragraph, my husband went to the kitchen to fix his morning bowl of granola and said, “I’m surprised you didn’t make me that porridge this morning. It was pretty good. It filled me up till 2 o’clock. Not that you give a rat’s heinie.” (Because I am typing this and ignoring him.) “For a bowl of oatmeal, it was all right. It has the John Murch seal of approval.”

    5-Grain Porridge with Apples
    Adapted from the January 2015 issue of Bon Appetit.

    For my first round, I didn’t have quinoa, amaranth, or wheat bran, so I added oat bran and steel cut oats. I like the idea of a wide variety of grains, though, so I may actually go out and buy some amaranth and quinoa before I make my next pot of porridge.

    This recipe makes a large amount of porridge and only enough apple-coconut topping for about two servings. Either increase the amount of topping, or just make more when you need it (I’ve been doing the latter).

    Update: leftover porridge is marvelous when used in place of the cooked cracked wheat in these pancakes.

    for the porridge: 
    ½ cup each brown rice and quinoa
    ¼ cup each amaranth, millet, and wheat bran
    ¾ teaspoon salt
    6 cups water

    Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer, partially covered, for 30-50 minutes, stirring frequently. (They say it takes 40-50 minutes, but mine was done at the 30-minute mark.)

    for the apples: 
    small dollop of coconut oil
    1 tart-sweet apple, peeled, cored, and cut into chunks
    ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
    ¼ cup coconut flakes
    brown sugar
    milk

    Melt the coconut oil in a skillet and add the apple chunks and cinnamon. Stir once and then let the apples cook, undisturbed. You want them to get caramelized, not mushy. Once they are brown on one side, give them a stir and let them cook on the other side.

    to serve:
    Spoon some porridge into a bowl. Add half of the apples and coconut, and a spoonful of brown sugar. Top with cold milk.

    This same time, years previous: constant motionthe quotidian (1.2.12)not a true confession, lentil sausage soup, baguettes, loose ends, of an evening (and a morning), cranberry sauce, and when cars dance.

  • Christmas, quite frankly

    I was grumpy about Christmas this year. I’m not exactly sure why. It just felt too much, I guess.

    Too much work.
    Too much energy.
    Too much time.
    Too much money.
    Too much sugar.
    Too much,
    Too much,
    Too much.

    I resent being coerced into feeling and doing, and this Christmas Thing is a big bossy beast. All the hoopla feels contrived. There’s the tree and the colored sugar, the stockings, the special meats and cheeses, the candles and lights, the gifts, the ceremonies, blah, blah, blah, BLAH. Everything is expected. We are expected to prepare. We are expected to wait. We are expected to gather. We are expected to be joyful.

    Quite frankly, expectation isn’t much fun. Expectation is just a bunch of intense hopefulness for a whole lot of days, one euphoric moment (if we’re lucky), and then, inevitably, a lot of disappointment, otherwise known as “coming back down to earth.” And then there’s the recuperation. Actually, the recuperation—a book, a sofa, and a fire for hours on end—is pretty sweet. The crashing, irritable children, not so much.

    Yet what other option do we have but to prepare, hope, and expect? No one wants to be a scrooge. And if we want things to be special, we surely have to work for it. This year, though, it felt more like the demand to make Christmas special came from the outside and not from in me. And quite frankly (again), at this point, if it weren’t for the childers, I’d be ditching a whole lot of traditions in favor of Taking It Easy.

    Back to the “preparing for the special” part. Compare Sundays to Christmas for a sec. Both require preparation, expectation, and then a few hours of smooth sailing (hopefully). But while Sundays are ordinary and consistent enough to recharge my batteries (and to make it through to the next week if one goes awry), Christmas in all its once-a-year glory feels pressurized and daunting. Sure, there are moments of sweet fun scattered about, but in comparison to all the preparation, expectation, waiting, and sugar sugar sugar, the few moments of ho-ho-ho thrills do not measure up.

    At least not this year. This year all the work felt like a drudge. And the special moments were too sticky sweet. They made me feel sickish.

    ***

    Sometimes I am all puffy-chested proud that we have succeeded in minimizing the holidays as much as we have. No gifts, no big day-of gatherings, no parties to host, etc. Just a tree, a muted Christmas eve service, a supper of cheese and crackers, stockings in the morning, a new game to play together, a ham.

    But other times—this year, for example—these few traditions feel totally over-the-top. Twenty-nine freaking dollars for a tree. All that money and time spent on finding junk, literal junk, for the stockings. The smallest ham I can find for only—ONLY—twenty-five dollars. The crick in my neck from icing pieces of baked dough. The money spent shopping for fancy chocolates and then melting them down and turning them into other candy when it’d actually be a whole heck of a lot simpler (and quite possibly even tastier) if I’d just buy the candy already made. You know what? Our annual donut party that feeds dozens is easier and cheaper than our down-home, “simple” Christmas.

    One thing I didn’t do this year: hand out tins of candy to our neighbors. I bought the tins and I made the candy, but then I didn’t hand anything out. After three batches of chocolate peanut butter fudge, I couldn’t stand another bite of the stuff or inflict it on anyone else. The empty tins are on the fridge, and the buckets of candy are sitting up there, too. But now that I’ve decided to scratch that gift-giving event (and most likely chuck the candy), I’m awash in glorious relief. One less thing to do, yessss.

    ***

    Since we’d be having ham at the extended family gathering on the 26th, we forewent our traditional ham (I returned the twenty-five dollar hunk of pig) in favor of pizza.

    Except then my husband and older daughter got sick so we didn’t have pizza either. We mostly just ate candy and cookies and pistachios and popcorn. It was kinda gross.

    We did have lots of green smoothies, thanks to my Brilliant Mama Move: stocking up on fresh spinach and bananas.

    cheers!
    ***

    The best part of Christmas was the family gathering in Pennsylvania. We didn’t know if we’d all make it, what with being sick and all. But we did (except we skipped the visit to the great grandparents—we didn’t want to risk passing our delightful germ to them) and it was loads of fun.

    It wasn’t fun because it was Christmas, mind you, but because we got to hang out together. It’s just as much fun when we gather in the summer.

    ***

    This year we gave our kids their first Christmas gifts ever. (Well, our older son got gifts his first two Christmases, but those don’t count.) Each kid got one present. They didn’t know about this ahead of time and were pleasantly surprised. One kid was thrilled. The gifts were nice but not necessary. Next year it will probably feel necessary. Expectations, you know.

    But guess what: Christmas is what I make it.

    I am NOT some hapless victim, beaten and bullied by our capitalist, consummeristic culture.


    I am in charge. ROAR.

    Probably, my disgruntlement is simply a healthy indicator that it’s time to reevaluate our Christmas traditions. In other words, I will henceforth cherish my grumpy streak. It is, perhaps, my best attribute, my very own personal Voice Of Reason.

    Ho, ho, ho.

    ***

    P.S. My sincere apologies for extending my Christmas funk into the new year. I didn’t really have an option, though, since my husband backed it up, reinstalled everything, and nearly murdered the poor thing. My brother, bless his heart, rescued us and now I can write again. Happy New Year.

    This same time, years previous: cranberry crumble bars.