Best Pie Crust Yet!

Yes, that is a 4# tub of lard. But it’s really good lard, which I had shipped from Prairie Pride Farms in Minnesota; they are one of the few sources of lard with no trans-fats. Lard makes the BEST pie crust, but sadly, all lard you buy in the store now is shelf-stable:  the pig fat–which normally would need to be kept cold to preserve it–is instead pumped up with hydrogen to keep it “fresh” and also full of trans-fats.

It’s bad enough to eat saturated fat, but can you imagine eating saturated fat that is also artificially hydrogenated? Yuck.

Plus, that kind of lard comes from industrial pigs. Pigs full of chemicals; and chemicals tend to be stored in animal fat.

Now that it’s finally gotten cool, and the holidays are around the corner, I thought I’d brush up on my pie skills. Above, my pie crusts; the 2 on the right are going to be the top-crusts.

I must say, the crust rolled out like a dream and it was really easy to lift off the counter and deposit in the pie tin: nothing broke.

I chopped up 10 average-sized organic granny smith apples.

I then tossed the apples with flour, cornstarch, sugar, lemon juice and just a pinch of pumpkin pie spice. I’m not a big fan of lots of spice in my apple pie.

Above, the assembled pie; an egg wash was used to brush the top and help squish down the sides. I didn’t pre-cook the pie filling, something my mom and dad were amazed at when they tasted my pie (they loved it). It’s such a gamble, making fresh fruit pie, unless you really know your fruit and how it cooks down.

I was feeling adventurous, though, knowing what a risk it is! But the pay-off, if it turned out….yum.

Below, the finished pies. When I cut into them, the filling was a little bit runny….but not much.

Yum.

If you want great pie crust, you need great lard; and that, gentle readers, cannot be found in the grocery store–even the local Mexican grocery stores here in Tucson–anymore.

Kombucha? Youbetcha!

Kombucha tea is quite hip these days, and for something faddish, it’s quite ancient. It’s basically fermented green tea. And as fermentation often has alcohol as it’s byproduct, there’s been some recent fuss at  Whole Foods and other organic/health foods retailers about the scant alcohol in these bottled-to-go-teas, and they’ve been pulled from the shelves until some new labeling regulations go into effect.

As usual, when it comes to the more esoteric trends in popular culture, I’m ahead of the curve and started brewing my own kombucha at home several weeks ago: I won’t be affected by any retail shortages.

I got my first kombucha “mushroom” from my cousin Therese when I was visiting Washington D.C. earlier this month; she gave me one, and I managed to get it home in my carry-on bag. This is what it looks like:

Yes, I know. It looks like a slab of uncooked pork. Or some other raw meat. Definitely something you wouldn’t want to eat. But, it’s really just a big saucer-shaped SCOBY, which is an acronym for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts.

There are lots of kombucha recipes online. The basic recipe calls for bringing 2 litres of water to a boil, and then adding green tea and/or some flavored green tea (such as pomegranate) and 1 1/2 cups of sugar (organic, preferably). The tea and sugar mixture is put in a large glass bowl or jar, all tea bags or tea leaves removed, and the kombucha culture is placed on top:

Then the bowl is covered w/cheesecloth, and secured with elastic to keep the cheesecloth in place; the bowl then sits undisturbed in a quiet corner of the kitchen for 7–10 days, during which time the culture grows another duplicate SCOBY. That culture can be stored away, given away (as Therese did with her extra culture) or used to make more kombucha.

The amount of sugar in the recipe may seem high, but, it’s enough to prevent the fermentation from going bad. There is quite a bit of alarmist noise online about how kombucha can make you sick or kill you, but as with just about anything, making  kombucha involves common sense, as well as some basic awareness of what a healthy fermented food product looks and tastes like.

I’m brewing my second batch now; my first batch turned out really good! It’s strong, and I add one part kombucha tea to about 3–4 parts water for a yummy, refreshing drink.

Aunt Mary’s Biscuit Recipe (from Newfoundland

When I came home from Boston last April, my insufferably long and cramped flight (and I had an aisle seat!) was made infinitely more bearable because I had half a dozen of my Aunt Mary’s super-fresh biscuits in a Ziploc bag.

Recently I tried making these biscuits. Now, I’m a competent cook, but a good biscuit is not easy to make and I think I’ll need some more practice after this.

The recipe is: 2 cups white flour, 2 cups whole-wheat flour, 2 Tbsp (yes) baking powder, 2 sticks butter, and about 1 3/4 cups milk (exactly how much milk will depend on the type and grind of flour) and 3 Tbsp sugar. Mary said the recipe calls for some salt, but she never adds it. There’s probably enough sodium in the leavening.

Here’s how you start: flour, sugar and leavening a bowl with the butter cut in:

I used my pastry cutter and my fingers to get the butter/flour mixture to have the consistency of coarse crumbs, then made a small “well” in the middle, where the milk went:

The secret to biscuits, scones or pie pastry is simple: hardly mix the dry ingredients with the wet ones, just barely toss dry and wet together to combine, and handle the dough as little as possible. In this case, I poured the milk in the well, and just “folded” the ingredients together (this is my aunt’s word); I then turned the (sticky) dough out on the lightly floured counter top and kneaded just 8 times (this exact number is per my aunt); after that, I rolled out the dough; you can see the pale bits of butter in the dough, evidence of the dough being handled minimally:

I rolled it too thin, though; I guess I was instinctively thinking I was making pie crust. Anyway, I cut biscuit-shapes with a mason jar lid, and slid them onto a greased cookie sheet, not realizing the biscuits were too thin until they were done:

The biscuits bake for 12 minutes in an oven pre-heated to 425; though my 1978 model electric oven runs hot and I set my oven to 375 and baked for 12 minutes. Every oven is different, so…..Know thine oven!

My biscuits tasted good, but since I rolled out the dough too thin, I wound up with a shape more reminiscent of Eucharist than biscuit; flat, but tastier than any religious wafer (thankfully!).  Next time I’ll make my biscuits twice as thick and resist the urge to roll out the dough much. One day I’ll have this recipe down!

Rainy Day Minutiae

Rainy days are rare here in Tucson. Last year was a drought. So far this year, there’s been lots of rain due to an El Nino weather pattern; it’s been unusually wet.

I started my rainy day by making some yummy chocolate chip/dried cherry/walnut scones:

Then I swam laps in the rain, something I don’t get to do too often; and as it was cold, no one was in the pool.

Then I learned a new fiddle tune. I wrote it down, not because I’m note-dependent, but because I’m making myself a tune-book of super tunes I’ve gotten from friends, it’s a tribute I suppose: I’m very lucky in that some great players have shared tunes with me over the years. Plus, some of these tunes I really don’t get to play with anyone around here. So, this helps me remember them. Maybe one day I’ll live in a place where I can play these tunes with someone, or play them at a session. How cool would that be?

Today’s tune is the Leitrim Lilter by Charlie Lennon. This blog is in the public domain, and while it’s unlikely Charlie would ever see it, I just want to apologize to him anyway for my transcription. There’s a tune-book of his that goes with his CD Musical Memories, in which he’s transcribed his tunes, and it’s a given he’d do a much much better job than me in writing down his own compositions! Now that I think about it, I’d like to get Charlie’s CD and book. I’d like to know the story behind the tune.

Then…the day just disappeared. Why does time go so fast? Suddenly it was dinner time. I cooked up some polenta; one part water to one part organic polenta. I brought the water to a boil, slowly poured in the polenta, and stirred at a boil for 3 minutes. Then, off the burner:

I added chopped scallions, garlic, salt and pepper, and 1 Tbsp olive oil and turned it into that pyrex dish above, which I’d brushed w/olive oil:

That baked for 30 minutes at 350. I then washed yesterday’s kale and beet greens from the River Gardens farm stand:

The greens in the colander got dumped into a pot of boiling water, and they cooked on medium-high for 5 minutes. I saved the water the greens were cooked in; I’ll use it for soup or just drink it–it’s not that disgusting sounding, it actually tastes pretty good with a dash of salt and it’s good for you, too! I’ve always done this, but then I heard Michael Pollan talking on CSPAN (yes, I am a dork) about his new food book and apparently this is one of his recommendations, too; so maybe more people are now doing what I’ve always done.

Anyway. The cooked greens I rinsed w/cool water, squeezed a bit, and then tossed them in the wok with a bit of bacon schmalz. Just a tablespoon. But even that was too rich; I think I’ll stick with plant-based fats next time. Here is my rainy day meal: polenta, beet greens and salmon:

Canning Rhubarb: Like I Don’t Have Enough to Do

Well, there it is: all the frozen rhubarb from the Grasslands freezer (see my last post) with nowhere to go once the Grasslands shut down. I took  it home with me Thursday; I couldn’t really stop myself, because I love rhubarb and in Arizona, rhubarb is rare. I know it’s a weed for so many of you out there, but not here.

Luckily, since my freezer at home is small, there were some left-over canning jars at the Grasslands as well:

So I took the rhubarb  home….to can and save for later.  Even though a day of canning cuts into my fiddling and art quilting. And even though it’s been a long time since I did any canning. In fact, I’ve never canned on my own, it was always something I did with my mom supervising me.

I also took 2 big steel pots from the Grasslands. When I got home Thursday night, I put the rhubarb in a big bowl and mixed it with several cups of (organic) sugar and let it sit over night to draw out the juice; Friday morning, I quickly cooked it down, juice and all  (in batches) in a small steel pot. Then I put all the cooked rhubarb in a big steel pot, and set that in an even bigger steel pot with hot water to make a double-boiler, and I let the rhubarb cook down for about 3 hours.

I adjusted the sugar a few times until I liked the taste. Hint: rhubarb needs a lot of sugar, though I don’t like things really sweet so I probably use less sugar than the average person.  I think I had about 50 cups chopped rhubarb and I probably used 10 cups of sugar. I was aiming for the consistency of a rhubarb sauce, which I will use in cakes or even in my morning oatmeal. This is what the end product looked like, after 3 hours:

Then I rinsed the canning jars in hot water (with a little bleach) and then rinsed again in plain hot water, and then let dry in the dish rack:

I packed the hot rhubarb sauce into the clean jars, here’s the first jar:

Then I wiped the tops of the jars off with a damp clean dish cloth, and placed the rubber-coated lids on top–I keep the lids in a pan of water while I work so that they’re wet when I put them on the jar, that helps increase the rate of seal. I learned that trick from my mom. Then I screwed on the ring.  Here’s the hot water bath:

I didn’t have a wire rack for the pot. The jars rested on the bottom of the pot, and were covered in water almost up to the rim of each jar, as you can see above. I brought the water to a boil slowly, never going higher than medium-high to get the temperature up.  I used a Calphalon heat diffuser plate which my mom gave me years ago; it’s very handy for keeping a protective surface between your heating element and your pot bottom: here it is on the front left burner:

When I remodeled my kitchen last year (thanks to an art quilt that I sold; and, yes, it sold for enough to remodel my kitchen) I deliberately avoided getting a smooth-top ceramic stove.  There’s a lot of cookware you can’t use on that surface (such as cast iron) and it’s hard to can on it as well. Although electric isn’t as good as gas, old-fashioned electric is better than ceramic-top electric.

But I digress.

I let the jars gently simmer for 30 minutes, then took one pot (9 jars)  off the burner and put the second pot (6 jars) on. I let the jars cool in their respective pots for several hours, and I listened with a great deal of satisfaction as I heard the gentle, solitary “thunk” as each jar sealed. If you’ve never done any home canning you don’t know what I’m talking about. Trust me when I say it’s satisfying to hear the thunk. Because if you don’t hear it, something went wrong and you have to start the hot-water bath all over again because you have a failed seal.

Here are my 15 pints of rhubarb sauce. YUM!

Reverse Applique: A Weekend Sampler

I think one big secret to any successful art quilt design is making samples. A sample is a helpful way to “audition” a technique on a micro-level before taking the plunge into the art quilt itself. So, this past Saturday I made a small sample using sheer fabrics and reverse applique. I learned both techniques from Libby Lehman, who is a very gifted artist and teacher, and I encourage anyone who reads this to look into her work.

Before starting my project I first had to make some scones, though: a weekend morning is all about carbs and coffee. There are lots of scone recipes online; this one is pretty good, though I substituted plain yogurt for vanilla yogurt and added a bit more sugar, and I used half spelt flour, and I baked the scones on parchment. But this recipe gives you the proportions. Here are the scones,  just egg-washed:

While I was winding my bobbins I let them over-bake, but they turned out really good:

Thus armed, I started my sample.

In my current project, I have a “design motif” of a flower-shape based on desert verbena. I want to repeat this design motif multiple times in my piece; this is generally a good design principle, at least for me. Using sheer fabric to add a thin, nearly transparent applique is one way; using reverse applique is another way: both of these techniques add very little heft to the quilt top itself.

In both reverse applique and sewing sheer fabrics onto a quilt top, you need a background fabric, which in this case is yellow hand-dyed cotton sateen and is about the size of a fat-eighth; on top of the yellow fabric is a layer of pink polyester tulle, which I’d painted to get that color, if you look at the bottom left corner you can see the 2 fabrics:

Flipped over, you can see I’ve attached some stabilizer scraps with spray-adhesive. The stabilizer is a cotton-pulp fiber that I got on a giant roll from a company in Minnesota; it works well with my machine– you have to experiment with your machine to figure out which stabilizer works best.

So, to get started, I now have the following fabric sandwich: background fabric, tulle on the top and stabilizer on the back:

Below on the left is a pattern for a large verbena flower; I drew the design on the stabilizer part of the fabric sandwich:

Then I sewed over the drawn line with straight-stitch (use a small stitch) along the drawn line. I then reinforced with another line of stitch to make sure it was nice and strong, this is what it looks like on the back….

…and the front…

I then pulled off all the stabilizer from the back, then gently snipped away all the unnecessary tulle on the front, and all that was left was this nice flower held in place with 2 rows of straight-stitch:

So. Now I want to actually start the reverse-applique; I have one layer, now on to the second layer. I draw an outline of the same shape, just smaller:

I then pick the fabric for this flower, a fuschia I dyed, and I used spray adhesive to attach the stabilizer to the wrong side of the fabric; the fuschia fabric is then placed under the yellow fabric, so that the new small flower shape is directly over the fuschia fabric underneath:

Because I use an older machine, I have to unscrew the presser foot in order to fit my embroidery hoop under the needle; then I reattached the presser foot.

The new fabric sandwich–yellow fabric on top, fushia fabric with stabilizer underneath– is then slid into the embroidery hoop, and again straight stitch is used (small stitch) to stitch over the drawn flower shape.

Once sewn, the new, smaller verbena looks like this:

I carefully used snips and cut away the top yellow fabric to reveal the fuschia underneath; at this point I realized I needed to use reverse applique again to make the small pink center for the flower, so I did that in a pinch, using the same techiques described above: now, I have 3 layers: tulle flower, reverse applique flower and reverse applique flower center. Cool!

The whole piece then goes back in the embroidery hoop and I used satin stitch over the raw edges of the flower. It looks OK; my foot pedal had a small short in it which just got worse as I sewed, to a point where I could only get the machine to sew if I used the ball of my foot: an ergonomic nightmare.  So it’s not the best satin stitch;  I didn’t bother trying to finish the center.

So, the general idea is to use the above technique on my big project; here’s an idea of where some of the shapes might be placed:

But my sewing machine is in the shop now, as of this morning: oh well. Looks like I’ll be working on fiddle tunes the next few days…

Pat’s Lemon Cake

Pat is the manager of the NICU where I work; and she is a fantastic manager, a very gifted leader. Plus she’s very funny. Pat is from West Virginia and thoughtfully offered to translate for me by phone if I had any trouble the first time I went to Asheville, NC a few years ago.

Pat’s birthday is just around the corner. I will admit that I wanted to spend this evening working on my fiddle tunes; rumor is that a very superb Irish fiddler from Milwaukee is coming to Tucson this Sunday. But instead I made Pat a lemon cake; it was the right thing to do. Tomorrow when I actually taste it, it will REALLY be the right thing.

First I made zest, and being a bit lazy, I chopped up the peel in my very old food processor; the blade is a bit dull so I wound up with chunky-zest. I remembered into my second lemon to peel towards myself, not away, in order to avoid peel-with-pith. Pith is bitter. Yuck.

The zest is a bit….er…chunky. Maybe I should think of it as just chopped rind for marmalade.

Then, the Champion Juicer came out. This cake can only be the best. I could’ve just used bottled lemon juice. Cleaning the juicer once you’re done is such a pain in the you-know-what.

I followed this lemon curd recipe, which is fool-proof; I doubled it, and I added 1 less egg and half a cup less sugar. Just about every recipe I read is too sweet for me. Here’s the curd prior to cooking it for about 15 minutes on the stove top; the bowl on the upper left is frothy lemon juice from the juicer:

The lemon cake recipe I followed seemed simple; but I used less sugar, and I decided to use a Bundt pan instead, and I put lemon curd in the middle. Just to be creative. Here I’ve almost covered the lemon curd layer w/the last of the batter.

And here’s the finished cake, just out of my 1978 GE wall oven:

And here it is, cooled w/a layer of glaze and some lemon icing; I’ll take a photo of it once it’s sliced tomorrow. I hope it turned out OK and isn’t too dry inside.

To Cook or to Quilt? That is the question.

If I could eat like your average American, I’d probably get more art and music done because I could eat fast food and frozen meals. I’d be more efficient. I’d probably compromise my health in the long run and end up w/type II diabetes by age 50….but, in the short-term, I’d be efficient. Efficiency is appealing to me, even though I recognize it as an unhealthy preoccupation and in fact largely an illusion: most of the stuff that is supposed to make is more efficient is a huge time-suck . One of my favorite quirky movies actually has efficiency as a theme and stars Anthony Hopkins.

So. I spent practically the whole day cooking so I’ll have healthy meals for the work-week ahead.  Or preparing, as is the case for a big batch of shredded carrot, coconut, pineapple salad I made; you can see it here, along with the leeks and potato that were soon to be chopped up into a gratin:

I really don’t feel well unless I eat well, and eating well to me is lots of fruits and veggies and much less refined sugar and flour and processed stuff. Though I do occasionally bust out and go crazy with a good baguette from my parent’s bakery. If it weren’t occasional, I’d be a blimp.

The Potato-Leek Gratin looks like this once assembled: it’s sliced potatoes tossed w/fresh thyme and garlic and olive oil, layered w/steamed leeks, topped with breadcrumbs–spelt breadcrumbs in this case:

And this is what it looks like out of the oven:

I also chopped and washed a big bunch of kale; so now I have some readily available yummy food.

But my cooking wasn’t done yet because Bearbear was out of dog biscuits. I haven’t perfected my dog biscuit recipe yet; the dough is a bit sticky, still, but here’s what the process looks like. You can see that the finished product is a bit….irregular. He loves them, though.

The dough is made from whole grain flour, dry milk powder, fresh parsley, wheat germ, chicken broth and some other stuff.

After kneading it a bit, I rolled it out. I’m a bit of a wimp and my rolling pin has a muslin sleeve, which keeps the dough from sticking:

I think I told my mom once I had a muslin cover for my rolling pin and she laughed at me.

These shapes look nice, but the dough really was too sticky and by the time I got a spatula to scrape my biscuits up and onto the cookie sheet, things were looking a bit less regular:

That’s OK. Bearbear liked them just fine.