Bread Experiments

Today we found Candy Cane trying to fit in with the Christmas nesting dolls:

Last week I picked up a “new” (thrifted) bread machine for $7.99 at Value Village. It was exactly the same as my old Black & Decker All-In-One Horizontal Breadmaker, which I had loved so much that I wore it out. I’ve had a couple of second-hand replacements since then, some of which I’ve also worn out and some that I simply haven’t liked. However, none of them had the preheat function, which I didn’t realize I’d miss so much.

You see, the preheat function warms up your ingredients before it begins kneading the dough, which means the bread ends up being lighter and fluffier. The reason for this is that yeast is much more active at warmer temperatures (but not actual hot temperatures, which actually kills it off). Since “yeast farts” (the carbon dioxide emitted when the yeast eats sugar) are what causes bread to rise, warmer temperatures mean fluffier bread. I find that this is especially important when baking in the winter.

I tested out my new-to-me machine with a loaf of pumpernickel bread (page 21, Better Homes and Gardens: The Complete Guide to Bread Machine Baking, 1999). I’d forgotten that this particular recipe usually requires a little extra water (I really should read my own notes), so at first I thought that the motor was struggling. Nope, the dough was just too thick! About an extra 1/3 of a cup of water, added in a drizzle at a time, and it was right as rain.

Another recipe I’ve been trying to perfect is a hard apple cider bread. There are a lot of great ciders around here, and although I’m not a fan of them to drink, I thought they would make for an interesting flavour in a bread. (That’s more or less how I feel about beer, too.) My first attempt in my old bread machine didn’t rise much at all, but tasted quite nice. I put the lack of rising down to the ingredients being too cold, since the yeast is obviously still alive since it’s from the same package as the pumpernickel bread. The second time, I pre-warmed the liquids and used the “new” bread machine with the preheat option, which did help a lot. As you can see from the pulling apart of the crust in the above photo, it definitely did rise. But it’s still not as light and fluffy as I would like, especially in comparison to my beer bread recipe. Perhaps I just need more yeast? I generally only use 2tsp in a loaf this size, but it’s possible that the higher alcohol content of the cider is killing some of my yeast off.

It kneaded together well, though, which makes me think the wet-to-dry ingredient ratio is correct. Also, the crust is a little too brown in spots, which makes me think that there is too much sugar. Cider by its very nature has natural sugars in it, so I may not need any added sugar at all. So this recipe definitely isn’t ready to post yet, but I will do so as soon as I have a satisfactory, repeatable result. Stay tuned!

A Few Things

Thing the First:

This morning we found Candy Cane in the kitchen, sitting on the clock that usually sits under a glass dome above the cabinets.

Thing the Second:

With twenty days to go, I finally finished knitting the Vero Shawl (Rose Bower colourway) for my aunt who is always cold — and who I am pretty sure doesn’t read this blog. It will go in the mail tomorrow and will hopefully arrive on her doorstep before Christmas.

Thing the Third:

I have started on the family’s Christmas stockings. The first one, for Thing 2, is closer to the end than to the start, although there seems to be an awful lot of yarn left to go. I’m knitting this one in hand-dyed Fleece Artist Blue-Faced Leicester Aran (100% wool) in what I believe is the Red Fox colourway. I bought this yarn years ago as part of the Elmira flap hat and fingerless glove set; I knit the hat (which I still love — Ravelry pattern entry here), but I never got around to the gloves. Since this is Thing 2’s favourite colour palette, I figured the yarn would make a lovely Christmas stocking instead.

Thing the Fourth:

I made pancakes and apples for dinner yesterday. I’ve been trying to use up ingredients we already have in the pantry, and there was some pancake mix in there left over from the summer (not sure if it was from camping or the cottage). Paired with some chopped apples and with a drizzle of maple syrup on top, it made a lovely meal!

Food Mills and Apple Butter

I spent most of a day over the weekend processing the apples we’d picked. It took me that long not because it is a difficult process, but because I had almost forty pounds of fruit to go through. Apples can be kept over the winter in a cool, dry place, so a couple of months in my basement meant that they were still perfectly fine. However, I wanted to turn them into preserves, both for my own pantry and as Christmas gifts.

Back in May I picked up an immaculate second-hand food mill for $7.99, and this was my first chance to try it out. Well, it worked like a charm! No more spending hours and hours peeling and coring my apples before cooking. I just had to cut them in quarters, and then run the lot through the food mill once it was all cooked soft. It saved me so much time. I really wish I’d found a food mill years ago!

Then I cooked the resulting applesauce down with some cinnamon and honey in a slow cooker for about 24 hours, until it had halved in volume. This was just under half of the applesauce that I made; the rest will go in another batch. As you can see, it starts really light-coloured before the cinnamon is stirred in and it starts to oxidize.

This was the end result: just over two litres of apple butter. I’d estimate that about 17lbs of apples was rendered down into these nine tasty little jars. I still have another batch to go, with one medium-sized container of applesauce in the freezer to be used in baked goods over the winter. There are some lovely recipes for applesauce quick breads, yeast breads, and cakes out there that I’d like to try (or re-try)!

Apple Jack-O

I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about a wonderful alcoholic beverage that I have recently discovered. The way that I write this blog might have given you the impression that I am a teetotaler; this is patently untrue, although I’m not a heavy drinker by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t like beer or wine, but I am quite fond of coolers and mixed drinks. So when I saw the pumpkin-shaped bottle of Captain Morgan Jack-O’Blast Pumpkin Spice Flavoured Liquor at the local LCBO, I figured I had to try it out. (For non-natives, the LCBO is short for “Liquor Control Board of Ontario”, which are the liquor stores run by the provincial government.)

The liquor smells wonderful and one of the serving suggestions is to drink it as a chilled shot. I’m more of a sipper, myself, so I went with the Apple Jack-O recipe on the package, which tastes just like apple pie. I can’t recommend it enough.

Apple Jack-O
Yields one serving

Stir together:
1.5oz Captain Morgan Jack-O’Blast Pumpkin Spice Flavoured Liquor
4oz apple cider
Add ice cubes as desired. Serve.

As I said, I’m not a beer drinker, but the recipe card on the bottle also suggests a mixed drink using lager. Honestly, I’m not sure if it’s just that I don’t like beer, but it sounds kind of gross. So please, if anyone else tries it, let me know what you think!

Jack-O-Lager
Yields one serving

Pour into a glass:
1.25oz Captain Morgan Jack-O’Blast Pumpkin Spice Flavoured Liquor
4oz lager
Serve.

Apple Picking

One of the things that we do as a family is go to a local orchard in the late summer or fall to go apple picking. We used to go every year, but since we moved into our current abode we’ve only gone every second year because our own apple tree in the back yard fruits in alternate years. That trend may not continue because our poor tree is quite sick, much to my chagrin, and may have to be cut down next year. It has been losing leaves progressively through the tree all summer, leaving it almost half barren at the moment. If it comes back even a little next spring, we’ll see what we can do to save it. At any rate, it wouldn’t have been an at-home apple harvest this year anyway, so we went to the orchard.

The orchard that we visit specializes in McIntosh apples, which is the most traditional Canadian apple, and Lobos, which are a McIntosh offspring. These apples are good both for eating raw and for cooking. This means that the kids will be packing the smaller ones in their lunches for weeks, while I’ll be turning the larger ones into butter, pies, crumble, and possibly even caramel apple egg rolls.

The day dawned clear and cool, which is perfect for apple picking. The kids did their best work under the low-hanging branches, some of which were so laden that they permanently touch the ground in spots, or are propped up on stakes.

Thing 1 and Thing 2 had special help from Dad to reach some of the taller branches, although most of the trees were too tall to reach the very top.

Between the four of us we ended up with almost forty pounds of apples in about fifteen minutes! You can’t beat apple picking for speed, in comparison to, say, berry picking, which seems to take forever even with plants that are chock-full of fruit. The rest of the kids’ time was spent climbing over defunct tractors, running through the barn, and playing in the park.

This is my favourite picture of the day: Thing 2 running back to us after an employee told her she could pick an apple to eat straight off the tree, no charge. If only we could all still have so much joy in a single apple!

A Piece of Pie

Recently, my husband and I were playing Borderlands 2 online with another couple who are good friends of ours. At one point I had to take a brief AFK break to take a pie out of the oven, causing our friends to jokingly lament that they didn’t have pie too. At that time, their birthdays were swiftly approaching, so I promised them that I’d make them pies for their birthday. Well, their joint birthday celebration (their birthdays are only a couple of days apart) was this past Friday, so on Thursday night I had to make their pies.

I decided to make two totally different kinds of pies, and I started with a lemon meringue. I used the crust recipe from page 73 of The All-New Purity Cook Book (Elizabeth Driver, 2001), the filling from page 687 of the Joy of Cooking (Rombauer & Becker, 2006 edition), and Soft Meringue Topping #1 on page 798 of the Joy of Cooking. I’ll confess right now that I had never made lemon meringue pie before, even though I quite like it. I’d only tried a meringue once before and that failed spectacularly. I don’t know what I did, but no matter how hard I whipped it, the meringue never formed peaks at all, it just stayed runny. I was really worried that it wouldn’t turn out right.


Photo by Karen Turnbull.

In the end, I’m quite proud of my first lemon meringue pie, even though I singed the topping a bit. I have got to remember that my oven heats unevenly and that I need to check on my baked goods more often. I mean, I set a timer for the minimum time recommended and then checked it with five minutes to go, and it was still a rather dark brown (I was aiming for a toasted gold). If I’d left it in five minutes longer, it would have been burnt. Luckily, the colour was only on the surface, and my friends said it tasted just fine. They served it up to their gaming group when playing D&D on Sunday night, and everyone liked it, even one person who generally doesn’t like lemon meringue. I’m wondering if that’s because I used fresh lemons and lemon zest when I made the filling from scratch, instead of using canned filling.

For the second pie I went with a fruit-filled pie, which something I’ve done successfully a million times before, just in case. I mean, given the disaster with the bitter pumpkin pie at Christmas, experience doesn’t always mean mistake-free. But I’m fairly confident that it will taste fine (especially since you can honestly completely omit sugar in most fruit pies and it’ll still be palatable). For kicks, I rolled the top crust using a laser-engraved rolling pin that I received as a gift a while back. It features the hazard symbols for poison, ionizing radiation, high voltage, and biological hazards. Something tickles me about using this on food.

What with a fruit pie crust never baking flat, it’s hard to see the design, but it is there. I also vented the crust using a 8-Piece Pie Divider for the first time, which was a gift from another friend. It is honestly the weirdest-looking gadget in my kitchen, but it works quite well. The recipe for apple-strawberry pie that I used can actually be found on the back of its packaging box — although I did use the same Purity Pastry crust for both pies, since it’s just easier to whip up one big batch instead of multiple small ones. I used leftovers of that crust, along with some extra fruit from the fridge, to make the fruit tarts that night as well.

Honestly, I’m kind of hoping that this baking-as-a-birthday-gift idea becomes a regular thing. As my friends and I get older, I find it harder to shop for presents, since I know the things that they really want is way out of my budget, and we all have more clutter than we really need. But food is a necessity of life. And just maybe on our birthdays we deserve to be able to elevate a basic need to something a little more special.