In the Knitting Weeds

This morning we discovered that Candy Cane must have gotten into my knitting cupboard, since she was all tangled up in my sock yarn leftovers:

I have to admit that I’m feeling a bit like how Candy Cane looks at the moment. I’m in the knitting weeds, as it were. There are 12 days left until Christmas and I’m only halfway through the second stocking. Granted, most of my holiday shopping and other making is already complete, which is what has been eating into my time, but I was hoping to finish all four stockings in time for Christmas Eve. And much as I love knitting, I’m no speedster like the Yarn Harlot, although I don’t think I have her level of experience either.

And yet I remain sure that I can get it all done, despite not yet having picked out my own yarn. Mine will be the last one knit in any case. I think I can, I think I can…

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 Family Sunday

On Saturday morning, we found Candy Cane hiding under the chair in Thing 1’s room, riding a LEGO scooter, playing with the a Vaporeon and a Playmobil pegasus:

And Sunday morning we found her hanging around in the kitchen with Chimpy:

I spent most of that day with my little family decorating the house for Christmas. As of now we’re still not done, but that’s to be expected as we do Christmas almost as big as we do Halloween around here.

Of course, we had to take a break for dinner, which was roll-your-own sushi again at the kids’ request. Since this is a pretty healthy meal, I don’t mind indulging them.

Their rolling skills are getting better, but their knife skills could use a bit of work. Part of their difficulty was the knives we used, though, which could definitely use a sharpening.

One thing we did manage to finish was decorating the tree, which is a real one in our house so it doesn’t stay up all that long. We find three weeks (two weeks before Christmas and one week after) is about as long as the needles will stay on. I know that the kids would be more than happy to have it up in November otherwise, although I’m pretty sure my husband would object.

The addition of the tree and its decorations are, I think, the inspiration for the stuffed Christmas bear to tie Candy Cane to the tracks this morning. Although I do remember learning somewhere that there is actually no damsel-in-distress-tied-to-the-tracks scene in any old movie other than parodies; maybe I saw that on QI? At any rate, the elf is safe enough considering that the train has no batteries. Her predicament didn’t seem to bother the children at all.

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)!

Family Sushi Night

One thing we share as a family is that every single one of us loves sushi. However, we do differ as to which one is our favourite — the best bribe ever to use on Thing 1 is salmon nigiri, while Thing 2 is a big fan of a California roll or any maki with shrimp tempura in it, my husband prefers hand rolls (temaki), while I actually like sashimi (just the fish/seafood), possibly with a bowl of rice on the side to fill me up.

That being said, I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before now to make sushi at home. I used to do it all the time in high school and as a young adult; I actually hosted a few dinner parties where we all rolled our own sushi. However, it is very time consuming for one person to make a family’s worth, and I guess I just set it aside until I thought the kids were old enough to help me out. But the kids are both old enough now to assemble their own soft tacos or burritos, and sushi uses many of roughly the same techniques, so I thought it was time to give it a go.

Last night I made up a big pot of sushi rice and cut up all kinds of toppings: smoked salmon, cooked shrimp, scrambled egg with a bit of mirin mixed in, cucumber, carrots, and avocado. Then I dug out one rolling mat per person and let everyone assemble their own sushi.

The nice thing about making sushi this way is that everyone can have it just how they like it, although probably not as pretty as they’d like it, that comes with a heck of a lot of practice. I find it surprising that a lot of people around here still assume that sushi automatically equals raw fish, when it’s really all about the vinegared rice. You can top it or roll it with just about anything you’d like. You can even avoid fish or even all animal products altogether, although the purists may take objection to that. But let’s be honest, purists aren’t going to be rolling sushi at home with their six-year-old, they’re going to be paying a very skilled professional chef to create the perfect mouthfuls.

I really liked the combination of the saltiness of the smoked salmon with the sweet egg and the crunch of cucumber.

The egg-and-shrimp roll I made could have used a little more punch; perhaps I should pick up some spicy Japanese mayo for next time?

My husband’s rolls generally turned out nicer-looking than mine, except, of course, when I went to take a picture. His egg, cucumber, and shrimp roll tasted pretty good, though.

After a couple of messy (if tasty) attempts at maki sushi rolls, the girls tried their hands at hand rolls, which are the closest in assembly to a taco, which is where there experience lies.

We had a really good time making and eating this dinner, and I’m starting to think I should have introduced homemade sushi long before now. I loved watching the kids’ faces light up when I told them that we could actually make sushi at home. Not only that, but it’s a pretty healthy meal that’s infinitely customizable. We are definitely going to do this again, and soon. It needs to become a regular thing in my house again.

Spicy Green Tomato Chutney

I spent most of yesterday evening and well into the night putting up the last of the green tomatoes — not only my own, but a whole bunch of them from a friend’s garden as well. Sadly, I waited a bit too long and some of them had spoiled, but I did have a satisfactory result nonetheless.

That’s twenty 250mL jars of spicy Green Tomato Chutney, the recipe for which can be found on page 208 of The Canadian Living Complete Preserving Book (2012). I’ve made a few versions of this chutney over the years (I believe I have at least four versions in different cookbooks on my shelf, let alone the ones that can be found online), but this is by far my favourite. I was really happy with how it turned out this year! I made it a little hotter than usual by including the jalapeno seeds, but otherwise I kept the recipe the same. I labeled mine as “spicy” this year, and it does have some heat, but given that chutney originates in India, it’s not the spiciest one out there by far. To me, it’s just spicy enough to pack a nice punch.

Chutney is supposed to be savoury and sweet and spicy all at the same time. Preserving says this version is especially good with eggs in the morning, but I would say that it is great on a sandwich or grilled cheese or burger, with cold cheese, with most meats, with roast potatoes or other veggies, as a dip or a glaze… Basically, if you want to take the flavour of anything savoury up a notch, chutney is perfect. And now I have five liters of it, some of which will stay in my pantry, and some of which will become Christmas gifts.

Comfort Food for a Sick Family

The cold/flu that flattened our family for a good three weeks seemed to have gone away, but over the last few days it reared its nasty head again, albeit in a more subdued form. Thing 1 ended up home with a fever, while at the same time Thing 2 has a nasty, chesty cough. I am not immune, and still have sinus congestion and pressure issues. This means that, on our least-energetic days, we all want comfort food, and I haven’t felt up to cooking anything complicated.

This is where chicken noodle soup came in the other day. I didn’t even have to go out to get the ingredients! I had homemade broth in the freezer (I try to always keep it stocked), along with some chicken thighs that I baked. Then I boiled up some ditali noodles, threw them in a pot with half of the broth and half of the chicken, and there was chicken noodle soup for the family. Earlier in the day I also managed to throw on a loaf of herb-free Bread Machine Fluffy Herb Bread (it’s become my go-to loaf for a nice, light white bread), so we had fresh bread to go with the soup.

Now, you may have noticed that I only used half of the broth and chicken, and that was so that I would have leftovers. Chicken noodle soup doesn’t generally refrigerate well because the noodles swell up and absorb most/all of the liquid over time. Instead, I refrigerated the ingredients separately, and last night I threw them all in a pot with a half of a cup of rice and simmered it all together until the rice was cooked (about 20 minutes).

It’s nothing fancy, but culturally our first go-to around here is chicken noodle soup when we’re not feeling well. If chicken noodle soup isn’t available, something bland, nutritious, and warm is the next option on the list. It seems to have worked this time, because the girls are already getting their energy back. I hope this means we’ve managed to kick this thing for good — knock on wood!