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!

Low-Prep Suppers

I kind of have my kitchen back again… Okay, not the whole thing, but the counters and table are clear again, so I can cook properly. I made shepherd’s pie for dinner (but without the cheese topping, to reduce the amount of dairy and make it better for my gut). However, the meal was running late and we dug into it much too fast for me to take pictures. Instead, I have photos of the bread that was cooking while we were eating dinner:

That’s Beer Bacon Bread found on page 44 of Betty Crocker’s Best Bread Machine Cookbook (Betty Crocker, 1999). I used a flat Guinness beer, a package of crumbled circular bacon, and chives from my window garden instead of green onion because that’s what I had on hand. It’s only the second time that I tried out any recipes for this book, and so far so good! There’s a Cottage Dill Loaf on page 152 and Brandied Pumpkin Bread on page 104 that I can’t wait to try.

Earlier in the week I had to make a few easy and quick meals that required little in the way of prep space, so I whipped up a loaf of Sally Lunn bread (page 25, also from Betty Crocker’s Best Bread Machine Cookbook), which I think called for an unreasonable amount of butter in the dough (6 Tbsp!), but I have to admit tasted quite nice. I used it to make grilled cheese sandwiches for the girls, with sides of sliced apples.

Of course I have issues with dairy (and at any rate I’d run out of cheddar), so I fried up a couple of eggs each for my hubby and I, and served it with the Sally Lunn, sliced apples, and mandarin oranges.

Earlier this week I went with a less bread-based meal and baked up some trout with in teriyaki sauce, which I served over rice with a side of asparagus.

I’m really looking forward to having this mini-reno complete so that I can try some new recipes! This hasn’t been nearly as time-consuming an affair as a full gutting of the kitchen (much as I’d love to be able to afford a 100% fresh new kitchen), but it’s still rather disruptive. At least it’s cheap!

Frozen/Star Wars Mash-Up Photos

The paint is currently drying in my kitchen, which means cooking is being kept to a minimum for the moment. Instead, I’ve finally found the time to edit the rest of the photos from Ottawa Comiccon: Holiday Edition! All of the photos were taken by Ian Walton, I just played with them a bit.

We started by taking photos indoors by the big windows at the front of the convention center for the best lighting — and look who we found!


Left to right: Darth Sven, Jedi Anna, Darth Vader, Stormtrooper, Jedi Elsa, and Darth Kristoff.

Christmas Darth Vader and the Stormtrooper in their holiday AT-AT were probably the most awesome (and seasonally-appropriate) costumes we saw all day.

I discovered that I need to learn how to pose better in this costume. Also, I need to trim (or re-position) the white streak in my hair, which was a clip-in (the rest is my real hair dyed with Féria C74 Power Copper), so that it’s a matching length.

Elsa’s Force snowflake pops against the indoor backdrop, although it was hard to see outside. I was really happy with how Elsa’s costume turned out, because she made it herself and it was her first time sewing anything so complicated. She put so much hard work into it and she ended up with a great final product!

I absolutely love Sven’s antlers! And yes, the reindeer does have reindeer mittens.

Kristoff’s fantastic makeup was done by the fabulously talented Jessica Harkonnen.

This is probably my favourite photo of the entire day.

Then we moved outside to freeze for our art:

The cold may not bother Elsa, but it definitely bothers Anna.

I hope to use this costume again for the regular ComicCon in May, and this mini-con was a great chance to try it out and figure out what needs to be changed, what can be done better. I definitely want to add some more detail to it with embroidery or maybe paint. I want to alter the obi so that it’s stiffer and has more structure. And I need a better lightsaber, preferably one that lights up on its own. I may have convinced my kids to join in on the group as well, so that’s more costumes to make — but that won’t start until much closer to the date, since there may be some growth spurts in the meantime and I don’t want to have to make the costumes twice.

Canning Pears

A while back, a friend of mine brought me a box of cooking pears from his neighbour’s tree, which was producing an overabundance. Not too long after that, he brought me a second box full. I’m told that these boxes of fruit kept appearing in front of his house under not-so-mysterious circumstances; apparently that neighbour was getting really tired of being beaned in the head by falling fruit. This week I finally had the chance to tackle this mass of pears. I’ve been cooking with them for over a month, but my rate of attrition was much too slow, and some of the fruit was starting to turn.

First I made a double batch of Cinnamon-Scented Parsnip Pear Jam, from page 407 of Preserving: The Canning and Freezing Guide for All Seasons by Pat Crocker (2011). As interesting as this combination appeared at first glance, I found the final result much too sweet; it uses twice as much sugar as fruit by volume, which is a very high ratio even by jam standards. It would still be nice on Dad’s Biscuits, fresh bread, or toast, but I guess I was hoping for more of a flavour punch given my success with this book’s carrot jam. However, I do agree with the book’s assessment that this jam, when mixed with a bit of orange juice, would probably make a lovely glaze in which roasted root veggies could be tossed.

I well and truly overestimated how much fruit & veg to prepare to make this recipe, even doubled; I honestly thought I’d be able to get at least a quadruple batch in, but with all of that sugar, my pots just weren’t big enough. So I had a whole bunch of peeled, cut up pears (left) and parsnips (right) after this attempt.

The parsnips became part of our dinner last night, roasted in the oven with a sprinkle of salt, pepper, rosemary, and olive oil. I served them with baked pork chops coated in dried onion soup mix, which is a dish from my childhood that I’ve been making a lot lately once I was reminded of it. It’s just so easy! I probably have enough parsnips left for another three dinners like this one, but I think that would get old fast. I’ll need to research another recipe.

For my next recipe, I took a chance and tried peeling my ginger with a spoon, which is a kitchen hack I’ve seen floating around the Web for a while. I was quite satisfied with how this worked, actually. Not all cooking hacks are worth your time, but I found that this was honestly easier than a veggie peeler or a knife, and it wasted much less of the root.

The next step was to break out the candy/deep fry thermometer and bring the next jam up to the jelling point. (As an aside, am I the only one who feels like they need a shield as their jam/jelly gets thicker and it starts spitting huge globs of boiling-hot sugar and juice out of the pot?) This time I made Spiced Pear Jam with Pineapple found on page 935 of the Joy of Cooking (2006 edition, Rombauer & Becker), or on the app.

I was much happier with this jam than the previous one. I could definitely taste the fruit, and it wasn’t too sweet (it has a much lower sugar-to-fruit ratio). I have to admit that I couldn’t really taste the pineapple; the citrus note is definitely the strongest part of this jam, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although it does end up tasting more like a marmalade.

I probably still have enough chopped pears to make one more batch of jam. What kind should I make? I still haven’t decided. I have a lovely old recipe for pears poached in red wine and then canned, but that’s really intended for whole pears. These cooking pears needed to be chopped up to remove imperfections, so they’re sadly not really suitable to such a dish.

Steak Ramen

Last night I was searching for something to make for dinner, something that wouldn’t require a special trip to the grocery store. I did finally go get groceries on Monday, so now both the freezer and the fridge are full and I figure that I shouldn’t have to go out again every day for ingredients. At my husband’s request, since he’s fighting off a cold, I decided to make soup.

In the freezer I had some beef broth made with garlic and wild mushrooms, which I thawed as the base for the soup. I boiled up some ramen noodles and topped them with steamed spinach, carrot matchsticks, and soft-boiled eggs. The crowning glory of this particular dish was the steak. It didn’t brown up as nicely as I’d like, to my dismay, but it was very tender. To enhance the flavour, I used a marinade from page 65 of Simply Ramen by Amy Kimoto-Kahn (2016). Now, technically the recipe was for Kobe Beef Tsukemen, but I’ll be 100% honest and tell you that there’s no way I can afford Kobe beef. Instead, I thought I’d just use the marinade on a (much) cheaper steak. The marinade contains lemon juice, soy sauce, sake, and mirin (sweet rice wine), which combined is somewhat salty-sweet with an acidic punch to start breaking down the meat. Also, as per the recipe, I fried up the steak in melted beef suet instead of oil, which I think helped to enhance the flavour. Once I removed the meat from the pan, I added the juices to the soup broth to add extra punch. I was very satisfied with how it all turned out, especially since it made a lower-quality cut of beef quite palatable. Even if I never get the chance to cook Kobe beef, I think that I will definitely revisit this recipe in the future when I have all of the other ingredients on hand to try the dish in full.

Circular Bacon?

I’m trying my darndest to get the costume photos from this weekend edited, but it’s taking much longer than I had hoped, although I do acknowledge that this is mostly because I’m really picky. It would have been much too easy to just crop the photos to size. So it may be another day or two before I have it all done.

In the meantime, I did have to cook dinner last night, which had to be quick because I had to get the kids to extracurricular activities. Thing 2 requested bacon and eggs, which I thought was a perfectly acceptable solution. Earlier in the day I’d put some Milk Loaf (page 65, Bread Machine: How to Prepare and Bake the Perfect Loaf (Jennie Shapter (2002)) on to cook in my bread machine. I just microwaved some bacon (my preferred low-mess way to cook it), scooped out some honeydew melon, fried up some eggs, and buttered some fresh bread for a quick dinner.

You might note that the bacon in the above photo are shaped unusually. It’s not an illusion, the slices are actually more or less circular! They’re actually Presiden’t Choice Naturally Smoked Bacon Rounds, which are described as follows:

A real game changer when it comes to whipping up burgers, breakfast sandwiches and BLTs, bacon rounds make things so much easier. Cut from the pork belly, they’re everything you love about traditional bacon – only rolled prior to smoking and slicing. Not only are they the perfect fit for buns and English muffins, the edges curl up a little while cooking, creating a “cup” for toppings.

Well, my slices didn’t curl up on the edges, but maybe they do so when fried. I have to admit, I’ve never had any problem whatsoever fitting traditionally-sliced bacon into a sandwich or burger, so I think that these bacon rounds have been created to fix a problem that doesn’t really exist. I mean, if your bacon is too big for your bread, it can be broken if crispy or cut if soft. The rounds are more expensive than the same brand’s regularly-sliced bacon, too ($1.60/100g vs. $1.20/100g). I have a feeling that other shoppers agree, since I found my supply in the clearance section at the local grocery store and I haven’t seen them there since. I paid only $0.99 per package (so $0.26/100g if I did my math right), and at that price it was definitely worth it since the rounds taste exactly the same as regular bacon. Without another comparable sale, I can’t see myself buying these again though.