The Last of the Canning — Maybe

It looks like I have finally made it through my not-inconsiderable list of foods that I wanted to put up for the winter. I mean, I still have two pumpkins left to roast, but the puree is just going in the freezer, which doesn’t take nearly as long as hot water bath canning or pressure canning. If I don’t have to lug my canning rigs and bunches of jars out of the basement, it doesn’t count.

The last two things to put up were parsley jelly and hot sauce, both of which contained produce grown in my garden. I brought a big pot of parsley in with the first major cold snap about a month ago, and I kept it alive until I could chop it up for the jelly. The peppers for the hot sauce were brought in as they ripened, and then were frozen. This isn’t the greatest solution if you want your peppers crisp, but if you’re just going to run them through a blender or food processor, it doesn’t really matter. This way I was able to cook up a whole season’s peppers at once, instead of using them up individually as they became ripe.

I was curious to try the parsley jelly (from page 298 of Preserving: The Canning and Freezing Guide for All Seasons by Pat Crocker (2011)), since I’d never heard of it before. Mint jelly, sure, but not parsley. Apparently it’s and English thing? This jelly can also be made with sage, thyme, or basil, in addition to the mint that I’m familiar with. Sadly, as good as it looks, the jelly didn’t set despite following the instructions to the letter. That’s why I added a “maybe” to this post title. I mean, I could just give up and chuck the unset jelly, or I could try to re-cook it. I’ve used this technique in the past and it has worked out well. But I am so incredibly busy with the Christmas season at the moment that I might just give up and try again another time.

My hot sauce, however, turned out wonderfully. Since it’s a puree, it’s not like I have to worry about the set. I base my hot sauce on the Essential Habanero Hot Sauce from Genius Kitchen. I got great reviews on the sauce last year. Although the heat of the sauce varies because every summer I grow slightly different peppers, I’m pretty sure that this year’s is at least as hot as last year’s because even just the vapours from cooking it completely cleared my sinuses. Let’s hope the people I am giving it to for Christmas like it as much!

Pear & Honey Jam Recipe

As I wrote about before, I had a lot of cooking pears that needed to be used up recently. All of this excess meant that I had a chance to experiment with making a jam of my own devising. Pears are a naturally acidic fruit, which makes them perfect for hot-water-bath canning with a bit of sugar. It took me a couple of tries to get this recipe right, since since I didn’t want to use like ten cups of sugar (with would generally produce and easily firm set), since I wanted to taste the fruit and the spices more than the sweetness. In the end, I had something that I am quite proud of. Next year, when pears come into season, I think that I will make this the main pear jam (although I did really like the Spiced Pear Jam with Pineapple found on page 935 of the Joy of Cooking (2006 edition, Rombauer & Becker), or on the app). Maybe next year I’ll have a yield of more than four pears off of my baby pear tree, and I’ll be able to make more things from fruit I’ve grown myself!

Pear & Honey Jam
Yields six 250mL (1 cup) jars

Prepare and sterilize six 250mL (1 cup) jars (or twelve 125mL (1/2 cup) jars) and matching lids as per manufacturer instructions. Keep jars and lids warm until it is time to fill them.
In a Maslin pan or other non-reactive, heavy-bottomed pot, combine:
1.5 Kg (3.3 lbs) ripe/slightly overripe pears, peeled, cored, and roughly chopped
350 mL (1.5 cups) honey*
700 mL (3 cups) sugar
60 mL (1/4 cup) lemon juice
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground allspice
5 mL (1 tsp) ground cinnamon
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground cloves
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground nutmeg
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground ginger
Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Boil for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat. Run the mixture through a blender or food processor until it reaches a smooth consistency, being extremely careful as the ingredients will be very, very hot. Return the mixture to the pot and bring it back to a boil.
Add:
one 85 mL (2.9 oz) package of liquid pectin
Bring mixture back to a boil. Stir constantly as mixture boil hard for an additional minute.
Ladle the jam into the prepared jars, leaving a 5mm head space. Wipe jar rims with a clean, damp cloth or paper towel. Top jars with lids and screw metal rings into place until fingertip tight. Place jars on top of a canning rack inside a boiling water canner, being sure that none of them touch the sides of the pot or each other. Jars should be covered by at least 2.5cm (1″) of water, so add hot water if necessary. Bring to a rolling boil and process for 15 minutes, starting your timer once the water is boiling.
Remove jars from canner and place them on a cooling rack, not touching each other. Let them rest for 24 hours before touching. Label if desired. Jams may take up to 48 hours to set, so do not open them until this time has passed.
This jam may be kept in a cool, dark area for up to one year.

*It’s really not worth it to use unpasteurized honey here, since all the additional benefits are lost when the honey is cooked.

Not-So-Silent Night

Last night was one of those nights where it seemed like all I did was run from pillar to post and back again. It started as soon as the kids got home from school. There was snacks, then showers, then finding all of the parts of their Guiding uniforms (or, in Thing 1’s case, a matching set of PJ’s for her unit’s holiday pajama party), then the kids making their lunches while I whipped up dinner…

Dinner was what I think might very charitably be called deconstructed shepherd’s pie. I had taken the meat out earlier in the day to thaw, but by the time dinner prep time came around I knew I’d never have time to bake it as a casserole. So I prepped the meat as I would for my usual shepherd’s pie (with a few extra mushrooms thrown in because that’s what I had in the fridge), boiled up some baby potatoes, and microwaved some corn. Instead of layering it into a casserole, I just served it as is. The kids ate all of theirs without complaint, and I found it almost as tasty (if not as creamy) as the real thing, so it worked out okay.

Then I had to wrap Christmas thank-you gifts for my girls’ Guiders. Guide leaders are volunteers, and I think it’s important that they know how much my children and I appreciate all of their hard work. Without Guiders, there would be no Girl Guides. I couldn’t do what they do (despite having two children that I adore, my patience levels with children is not great), which is why I try to support them in other ways.

Although the bags look slightly different, that’s mostly because I ran out of white tissue paper near the end. They’re all identical inside, containing Amaretto Cherries and Cinnamon-Scented Parsnip Pear Jam. I am very quick at gift wrapping, having worked the wrapping station in a number of retail jobs over the years, which comes in handy when I have ten gift bags that I’ve forgotten to put together until the last minute. I could have sworn Thing 1 and Thing 2 had one more meeting before the holiday break, but obviously I was mistaken.

Then I had to rush out the door to drive the kids through a snowstorm to their respective Guiding activities for the evening — Thing 1 to her pajama party and Thing 2 to sing Christmas carols at a retirement home. Of course, I got stuck spinning my tires on a patch of ice as I left my driveway, and luckily my husband arrived home just in time to help push the car. Then it was a very slow, cautious drive to the girls’ activities, then another slow and cautious drive to my parents’ place to help them put up their Christmas tree, then back to pick up the girls and get them home and in bed for the night, despite the huge amounts of sugar they had consumed.

When all that was over, I had to relax a bit. I poured myself a lovely glass of rum and eggnog (okay, Earth’s Own Almond SoFresh Almond Nogg, which isn’t a half-bad substitute for the lactose intolerant). I had a real tree twinkling with lights in the living room. And, at least for a few hours, I tried to ignore the fact that I had less than two weeks to go to get everything done before Christmas.

Pumpkin Butter

I wrote last week about finally canning my Halloween pumpkins. So far I have done two of the four. For one of them I simply froze all of the pumpkin puree that I created by roasting the gourd and then running the flesh through a food processor. The other pumpkin I turned into pumpkin butter.

Way back when I started making preserves, I burned an entire batch of fruit butter by trying to cook it too quickly on the stove. Ever since then, I make my fruit butters in a slow cooker, for the most part. I don’t have a recipe as such, more of a technique. For the purpose of posterity, this time I measured everything out. I used a six-litre slow cooker, but I didn’t fill it to the brim because fruit butters tend to have big bubbles, so there needs to be some space under the lid. For this batch, I used:

20 cups (4.75L) pumpkin puree
3 cups (710mL) honey
4 Tbsp cinnamon
3 Tbsp ginger
2 Tbsp nutmeg
1 Tbsp cloves

Then I cook it with the lid a bit ajar so the steam can escape (some newfangled crock pots have a vent, but mine is probably older than me so it does not) for about 24 hours, or until the butter thickens. If it doesn’t reach the desired thickness in this amount of time, sometimes I will cook it a bit on the stove, since I find that leaving it longer than that in the crock pot can make it taste burnt. When it is ready, it will have changed from orange to a deep, nutty brown.

Now, I’d been making pumpkin butter for years using this recipe and then hot-water-bath canning it, and I never had any problems. I was using what I thought were USDA-approved recipes — and, indeed, they used to be! But the rules have changed over time, and now it’s no longer recommended to can pumpkin butter (or even pumpkin puree, which is less dense) at home. So once this pumpkin butter is complete, it’s going right in the freezer — which is the approved process. I use wide-mouthed mason jars to avoid cracking as much as possible, I don’t fill them all the way, and I make sure they’re totally cool before I freeze them. I still will lose a few every year to cracked glass. Of course, you can always buy plastic freezer jam containers and avoid cracked jars, but I like to give my preserves as gifts, and I find the glass jars to be much more attractive.

Now I’m a little bit paranoid about the whole thing, and I don’t want to make anyone sick, so I do pressure-can my pumpkin butter first. I process it for an hour (being careful not to let the canner boil dry), and when the cans come out of the cooker I can still feel butter boiling inside the jar. In addition to making the pumpkin butter safer, I find that pressure cooking it for this long also changes the texture. I wonder if this is because it is guaranteed to reach the jelling point (220°F to 222°F)?

(As an aside, the instructions for my pressure canner, which is only about four years old, specifically states that pumpkin puree can be pressure canned safely in this device.)

Pressure Canner

I have to admit that I find pressure canning more than a little terrifying. The steam hisses out at irregular intervals and constantly makes me think I’m going to end up with some disaster like this. In reality, that hissing means that the pressure is venting properly — what’s really a problem is if it stops (if you haven’t turned off the heat underneath first). That means that your steam vent has clogged and the pressure inside is building up disastrously.

In the end, I ended up with fourteen 250mL jars and one 125mL jar of pumpkin butter. Now all they need are labels, and they’ll be ready for the freezer!

Chicken Bones

Over the weekend I hit one of the local bulk food stores, and while I was there my attention was drawn to what I thought were real Chicken Bones. Okay, not real chicken bones, but the candy named after them. Chicken Bones follow in the grand tradition of naming confections after the parts of animals that they superficially resemble, just like Beaver Tails and bear claws. At any rate, I thought I was getting the Ganong original chicken bone candy, but in retrospect I may have been getting an imitation.

Here’s a video by Ganong about how the real thing is made:

Real or fake, Chicken Bones were an essential flavour of my childhood holidays. Unlike the ubiquitous mint of candy canes, Chicken Bones are a strong cinnamon candy with a touch of dark chocolate at the center. Now, I wouldn’t have known to make this comparison as a kid, but as an adult I can definitely say that they remind me of Fireball whisky.

Chicken Bones are a really Maritime thing, although they’ve made their way to the rest of Canada somewhat sparsely over time. That isn’t to say that they’re universally loved out East; I know a fair number of people who can’t stand them, but they are definitely ubiquitous. My Nan, who was from Britain but lived almost sixty years of her life in small-town New Brunswick, used to buy Chicken Bones around the holidays, along with After Eights and liquorice allsorts. Chicken Bones have a flavour and smell that I most strongly associate with her. Now that she has passed away nobody else around here seems to serve them. So when I saw them at the bulk food store, even if they were imitations, I had to pick up a few. I do miss my Nan around Christmas, since I spent so many of these holidays in her company. But sometimes keeping the little traditions alive helps to bring her back just a little bit, which is especially important this time of year, I think.

Pumpkin & Sage Pasta Recipe

I did manage to finish Thing 2’s skirt last night, as well as doing a bit of Christmas shopping. That being said, Candy Cane reminded me today of another task that I really have to complete.

It says something about your ability to procrastinate when your Christmas elf can sit on your Halloween pumpkins. The squash are still in good shape because they haven’t been cut, and they have been set on holders off of the ground so that air flow underneath keeps them from rotting. They’re actually more likely to dry out than decompose at this point. I started by cooking the first of the first of my four pumpkins today. I used the same technique described on Elana’s Pantry, but the pumpkin was so large that each half took about an hour and a half to cook. Then I scooped out the roasted pumpkin flesh and blended it smooth it in the food processor. These pumpkins are going to yield a lot of pumpkin puree, but that’s fine by me! It freezes well, and I still have two cookbooks worth of pumpkin recipes to try.

Having all that pumpkin puree on hand meant that I really wanted to incorporate it into dinner. I went with my tried-and-true Pumpkin and Sage Pasta Sauce, which I have modified many times over the years to accommodate both food preferences and allergies/sensitivities. I’m very happy with the latest iteration, as is my family. The sauce tastes more of sage, garlic, and onion than it does of pumpkin (which itself has a rather mild flavour). Instead, the pumpkin is what creates the creamy texture without using any actual cream. These days I make a non-dairy version, but if you prefer it can be made with milk and topped off with a bit of sour cream. Also, if fresh pumpkin puree isn’t available, canned is perfectly fine.

Pumpkin & Sage Pasta
Serves 4 adults

Into a deep saucepan or heavy-bottomed pot, pour:
2 Tbsp olive oil
Preheat the oil, then add:
1 medium white onion (100g peeled), diced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
On medium heat, sweat the onions and garlic in the olive oil, being careful not to let them brown.
Turn up the heat to medium-high and add:
200g ground pork
200g lean ground beef
Fry the meat until it is browned, breaking it up as it cooks so that there are no large lumps. Drain the excess fat/oil.
Add:
2 cups pumpkin puree
250mL chicken broth
60mL 2% milk, almond milk, or soy milk
1 tsp ground sage or 3 tsp fresh sage, chopped fine
1/4 tsp nutmeg
3 Tbsp fresh parley, minced
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
Stir together and simmer gently to reduce slightly for about 10min. While the sauce is simmering, cook as per package instructions:
400g fettuccine*
Drain the pasta, then return it to its cooking pot. ** Pour the sauce over the noodles and stir to mix. Serve, optionally sprinkled with:
grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, to taste

*I’ve found that an equal amount of penne works as well.
**If you want to add sour cream to the sauce, stir it in at this point. You will need anywhere from 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup, depending on your personal taste. I recommending starting with 1/4 cup and seeing how you like it, then adding more if necessary.

Busy Night

I had a billion and one things to accomplish yesterday evening, most of which I can’t even write about because they had to do with Christmas gifts for people that I know read this blog. One thing I can mention is that I did get the chance to put the last finishing touches on the Frankensteined gaming PC (made with excess parts graciously donated by our friends) that my husband and I are giving Thing 1 for Christmas. She doesn’t have Internet access yet, so here I can sigh with relief here about having at least one major gift out of the way.

Dinner was a quick one, since I can only do so many things at once, and for a change the kitchen was not calling me. I wanted to eat at least somewhat healthily, so I made up some soft tacos with a pre-packaged spice mix. Well, I say “made up”, but mostly I just prepped all of the ingredients and set them out on the table so that everyone could fill their own tacos. I fixed mine up with spiced ground beef, avocado, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, and lactose-free cheddar. Also available on the table were sour cream (which I prefer over mayo, but can’t eat), homemade blender salsa canned earlier this year, and shredded cheddar cheese.

Dinner out of the way, I went on to work on some Christmas crafts. I whipped up my first-ever circle skirt for Thing 1 — which is even easier for a kid than for an adult since there aren’t any seams! A friend of mine recommended the following resources to me, which were invaluable:

Make a circle skirt without a pattern by Costuming Diary
Circle Skirt (and a follow-up instructional video by Made Everyday
The Best Way to Sew Bias Tape by Positively Splendid

I combined the techniques because I wasn’t working with a serger, and because I wanted a finished waistband edge but I also wanted the cute red elastic to show. This skirt will be worn later in the week when the girls go get their pictures taken with Santa. I still have to make a second, smaller one for Thing 2. Hopefully I can make the time tomorrow.

In every spare minute, I’m knitting away on cloths to be given as gifts. I think of this colourway as “Evil Minion“. This is either the last or second-last one, depending on how much yarn I am left with. After that, it’s time to start on knitted owls for my girls’ Guiding leaders.

As we do every year, we have had a guest in our house starting December 1st. Candy Cane will stay until December 25th, at which point she will be whisked back to the North Pole where she will stay until next holiday season. Here she is unpacking all of her copious outfits. I know some people find The Elf on the Shelf kind of creepy, but my kids really love her and look forward to her annual arrival. We’ve never made a big deal of the “reporting back to Santa” aspect of the Elves at our house, so my kids just see her as another piece of Christmas magic.