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.

Grilled Duck Breasts & Strawberry Shortcake

Yesterday I decided to cook something I’d never cooked before: duck. I’d eaten it before, generally in Asian fusion food, but I’d never cooked it. It’s different than most of the poultry I’m used to working with (i.e. chicken and turkey) in that it’s a red meat. It’s honestly more like ostrich. Somehow I’d managed to cook up ostrich long before I’d ever worked with duck, which is a little odd seeing as duck is domestic and ostrich is most definitely not. But I digress.

I found the duck breasts in the frozen section of T&T Supermarket a while back, and I bought them because they looked interesting and they were on special (my favourite combination). I’m not sure if this is usually the case, as I have no baseline, but that day they were significantly cheaper than beef. The breasts weren’t whole; they were already cut up into what I think of as tiny little steaks.

I used the marinade from a Grilled Wild Duck Breast Recipe that I’d Googled, knowing full well that since I liked all of the ingredients separately I’d probably like them together. I only did a quick marinade of about half an hour, since I wanted to taste the meat and not just the sauce. Then I threw the steaks on a preheated gas grill. The real challenge here was not to overcook them. I didn’t want them to be rare in the center, but they were so small that I really worried that I’d accidentally turn them into shoe leather. I settled on about five minutes per side, and that ended up being perfect. There was just a bit of char on the outside, but the middle was tender and soft.

I served the duck breasts on a bed of basmati rice, alongside some green zucchini that I’d sliced and grilled at the same time as the duck breast. Timing is always an issue with this kind of meal, so I cooked the rice first, then put the duck on, and then the zucchini, since it was sliced fairly thinly. It all came to the table piping hot and delicious.

For dessert we piled into the car and drove over to my parents’ house for strawberry shortcake. This time my mother made it, but she basically followed my Nan’s recipe. It was an assemble-it-yourself kind of affair (which the kids love), so if mine ended up being sloppy and leaning, that’s nobody’s fault but my own. Part of the problem with structural integrity is that I had to use a non-dairy whipped topping, which never beats as stiff as true whipping cream. Also, we upped the sweets game by drizzling dark maple syrup over the top, further compromising the tower’s support but definitely enhancing the taste.

Dessert finished and hands (and tables, and place mats) cleaned of sticky syrup residue, we headed back home to put the children to bed and to spend some quiet time digesting.

Maple Walnut Pouding Chômeur

Last night I had an urge to make pouding chômeur (“poor man’s pudding”), which is a kind of upside-down maple syrup cake that is baked with its own sauce. I wanted to use some of the lovely dark maple syrup that I picked up from McCannell Craftwork at Russell Flea over the weekend. Sadly, a copy of Anita Stewart’s Canada (2008) wasn’t immediately available at the library, and I haven’t yet bought a copy (although it’s down to $15.00 online so I really should), so I didn’t have access to the first recipe that I used and liked so much. Instead, I grabbed a few cookbooks with their own versions of a pouding chômeur recipe from the library, and then I went home to pick my favourite.

I thought that I had all of the ingredients at home, but it turns out that some of them had spoiled, so I had to improvise a little bit. I ended up combining the recipes from two different books. The final cake ended up being a little bit drier and with a sauce that wasn’t quite as runny as I’d been hoping. It was pretty darned good anyway.

Unfortunately, I found that the walnuts really overpowered the maple flavour, much to my dismay. Although it was a tasty dish all in all, I was really looking forward to that creamy maple syrup sauce dominating. I think I’ll stick to a more simple pouding chômeur recipe next time, whether it be from Anita Stewart’s Canada or another source.

First Barbecue of the Year

Around the start of March, the weather begins to get warmer, but it’s still below freezing most nights and we’ll likely get a few more good snowfalls in. The weather has been quite mild recently, and is predicted to remain so for a while. We’ve managed to avoid Winter Storm Riley, which is hitting south and east of here. Canadian winters being what they are, we’d be prepared for the kind of snow that Europe is getting right now, but that weather system is much too far away. Instead, what we’re getting right now is the first hint of spring.

The photo above is a really old one of Thing 1 at the start of March, playing in the back yard while we cooked dinner on the barbecue. I love it because it shows the weird accommodations we have to make for the weather this time of year. (I also love it because I think Thing 1 is adorable, but I am somewhat biased.) It takes quite a while of above-zero temperatures for all of the snow to melt, and after that for the ground to thaw enough so that the water doesn’t just sit on the surface in a coating of mud and puddles. But it’s warm enough out that anything with good sun — or that sticks out of the snow covering — gets well dried out, and for the most part we get away with lighter clothing because it seems so much warmer than the frigid winter was. If you have kids in school, you send them in all bundled up for the morning temperatures (which are often below freezing), and they come home in the afternoon with 99% of their outerwear in hand or in their backpacks because it’s just much too warm. I’m pretty sure that this time of year is when the most stuff gets turned in to the school lost-and-found, to be honest.

One of the perks of this time of year is that our barbecues can be started up again, since they stick out of the ground a fair way and aren’t in areas prone to drifts. Technically, they can be used year-round, but we would have to dig them out after every snowfall, and missing just a bit of ice means that the covers end up frozen to the ground until the next big thaw. Actually, the gas barbecue’s cover is still quite encased in ice, but the cover for the Black Olive (an insulated wood pellet grill) is shorter and hence could be freed sooner. This device was handed down to us at the end of last fall, so we never really got the chance to test it out. Yesterday, my husband fired it up for the first time this year and we had our first hamburgers of the season — a sure sign that spring will soon be here. I had my burger with lactose-free cheese, mayonnaise, mustard, avocado, and lettuce. And dill pickles, of course.

Cat-Proof Tree

A friend of mine, who owns three very mischievous cats, posted a link to a Facebook post about Genius People Who Found A Way To Protect Their Christmas Trees From Asshole Cats And Dogs back in November, and it gave me some ideas. Specifically, the picture of the little tree in the gigantic lantern.

You see, I’d salvaged this 3.5-foot-or-so decorative lantern a while back and, although I’d filled it with orange lights as a Halloween decoration, I didn’t have any real idea what I wanted to do with it once the holiday was over. I’d thought I might spray paint silhouettes on the inside and turn it into a permanent addition to my Halloween decoration collection, but I didn’t have any concrete plans. However, I thought that my friends might like a tree that their cats couldn’t destroy, so I started working on the lantern.

The lantern had been discarded for a reason; it needed repair. It required a good cleaning, some glue in spots and a couple of coats of paint, not to mention some new hardware. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find matching replacement hardware, so the rusty stuff was just going to have to do. I also had to find a short enough tree and some small embellishments (which I kept to a neutral white and silver motif to hopefully go with the decor on any floor of their house, and any decorations they would want to add).

I was quite happy with the final product, which looked nice in a lit room…

…but really was at its best in low to no light.


Photo by Karen Turnbull.

My friends seem to be quite happy with their Christmas gift. Although the cats were quite interested at first, the fact that they couldn’t reach the branches, lights, or ornaments meant that they lost interest pretty quickly — which was perfect. The tree in the lantern is pretty heavy, so the cats can’t knock it over. And as a bonus, the tree doesn’t even have to be taken down after the Christmas season is over unless my friends want to use the lantern for something else. A plastic garbage bag over the top would keep the whole thing dust-free in storage until they want to use it next year.

I really liked how my Christmas tree in a lantern turned out. A bit of Googling has made me realize that lanterns are great for protecting all kinds of decorations from pets and young children. I’ve seen them filled with glass balls, tiny dioramas, seasonal knickknacks, paper or painted silhouettes (usually with frosted glass), greenery arrangements, and live plants. I have so many ideas now that I think I’ll be keeping my eye out for more lanterns to salvage and decorate.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like…

I finally started to get into the Christmas spirit a little bit this weekend, probably because on Friday afternoon my yard looked like this:

And by Sunday it looked like this:

Many of my friends and family bemoaned the precipitation and freezing temperatures, but I always like a bit of snow before Christmas. A green Christmas just isn’t very Christmas-y to me. That being said, it’s supposed to go up to 9°C (48.2°F) on Tuesday, so it’s not like this is going to last.

It really put me in the mood for Christmas shopping, though. Unlike in the States, where the holiday buying season appears to officially start as soon as the clocks strike midnight the day after American Thanksgiving, we don’t really have a traditional time to begin. Some people shop all year ’round. Some companies put out their Christmas merchandise at the same time as they’re building their Halloween displays (which is a little early to me, but oh well). For me, all of the Halloween debris has to be cleared away and there has to be some snow on the ground for me to feel like shopping for gifts — although I have been known to pick things up six months in advance if the opportunity arises at a great price.

I went with my mother, Thing 1, and Thing 2 to a number of craft fairs on Saturday, but one of my perennial favourites was the one held at Cairine Wilson High School. It’s a huge fair; it packs full the big gym, the little gym, the hallways, and the cafeteria. Given the number of booths, I’m bound to find something that I know someone will like.

But even if I don’t find the perfect gift for someone, it’s a lot of fun to check out the wares of local craftspeople. This is one of the few times of year that a lot of these people make their work available to the public; many craftspeople work all year by themselves to make enough stock for one or two holiday shows.

After hitting a few craft fairs, we rushed home so that the kids could get changed into their uniforms and we could drive out to Epiphany Anglican Church where the Girl Guides’ Holiday Tea is held every year. Since I’d gone to all of the effort of baking brownies for the tea, I pretty much had to attend. It’s always a lovely time, with such cheerful little servers and so many delicious treats on which to nosh.

I may have kind of taken a picture of some of the sweets for our table after I’d already nabbed the chocolate ones. Just maybe. I think that the next to go was that shortbread on the bottom right, since I’m a sucker for those too.