Sunday, November 29, 2015

Glazed Lemon Cranberry Cake

Are you familiar with Annies Eats?  This amazing website has recipes that are easy to make, taste great and are always a little different than you'd expect.

I wasn't even looking for this kind of recipe, but I follow her on instagram and when she posted a picture that looked like this:

I knew I was going to have to try it.  I have that crazy amount of cranberries, remember, so making this for Thanksgiving was a no brainer.

Everything went as expected, even my bundt pan.  Usually, cakes gets stuck in it and I make a huge mess.  Because the fruit was on the bottom of the pan, I think that helped the whole thing come out.

When it's finished, you make a lemon glaze with confectioner's sugar and lemon juice and drizzled it over.

This gorgeous china is a family heirloom and cannot be duplicated, so don't even ask where it came from.

The cake is very tasty and pretty dense.  My only complaint is that I don't think I used enough lemon, so next time, I would use more.

Otherwise, it came out exactly as I thought it should.  I never refrigerated it and it held up really well.  The cranberries didn't leak down into the cake to make it soggy and the cake remained not stale after several days of leftovers.

Another amazing hit from Annies Eats that will surely become a holiday go-to again and again!

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Friday, November 27, 2015

A Christmas Craftastrophe

If you've spent any time on my blog, you know that I make things and they usually turn out pretty well.  Most recently, I've made these and these and even this and I'm pretty sure they all came out nicely.

As expected, even.

So, when I saw this post about the cutest bath fizzies and how easy they are to make, I was sure that I would make them and they would be the best thing since peppermint bark.  I was going to make a million of them and give them as last minute gifts to everyone I knew:  the mailman, the bank tellers, the newspaper boy, random strangers passing by, the dog walkers, kids waiting for the bus.

So, I assembled the ingredients: 

cornstarch- in my cabinet
baking soda- in my cabinet
epsom salts- in my bathroom thanks to this
essential lavender oil- in my shower
food coloring- got it
water- no problem
citric acid- I'll just run out and get some

When I got to 'citric acid' I should have hung it up right there.  I forgot that when I first started canning applesauce, I had tried to find citric acid because I thought it was a vital component and would keep things from spoiling.  Turns out, it just keeps the apples from turning brown.  Who cares if your applesauce is light brown or dark brown?  So, I gave up and forgot about it.

I heard rumors that Whole Foods has citric acid but nowhere else really does.  We don't have Whole Foods around here, so I figured good old Stop and Shop would have it.

I might have been asking for plutonium.  They had no idea what I was saying.

I had to take matters into my own hands and went to Shaws, another local grocery store.  I finally found citric acid in the canning aisle, produced by Ball, the company that makes all things canning.  It had citric acid, dextrose and silicone dioxide.  What harm can those other things do, right?  It has citric acid and it's what I need.

Well, in what can only be the purest definition of irony, my cute little green Christmas trees turned BROWN.  Remember how citric acid is used to keep apples from turning brown?  Well, my bath fizzies which were white and dyed green, nary a brown spec in sight, turned brown.

And they were a GIANT mess and full of holes.

They are supposed to be moist enough to pack into the little molds, but not soupy.  Well, the trees were a little soupy because I was in a hurry and added too much water.  Just as practically functional had done with her first attempt, I added too much water and had a growing mass of sludge.  Hers dried out eventually, so not to be deterred, I put mine on our radiators and let them dry.  And they still looked like that after 4 days. 

And the worst part?  They wouldn't fizz.  They just sank in the water and broke apart.  Like crumbling cookies. 

So, I tried it again.  I was going to make these cute little gingerbread men.  I was going to make a million, give them to everyone I did and didn't know.- see above.

It was going to be legendary.

So, I started again and took much more time.  I sprayed on the water, just like she said.  Over and over I sprayed.  I had what was a slightly packable consistency.  I packed it into the mold.  And I had some left over, so I made little balls.

This was going much better.  No rising bread dough-like behavior.  Very little expansion.

And then the holes started. 

And after several days of drying, I ended up with another batch of unfizzable crap that looked like this.

So, into the trash everything went.  I'm done with the fizzies.  It's back to peppermint bark for me this year. 

I had such high hopes.

I'm pretty sure the silicon dioxide and dextrose in the citric acid blend was the problem.  I'm sure someone can chime in and tell us the scientific reason this didn't work.

We are getting a Whole Foods here this summer, so maybe I'll give it another whirl for next Christmas, when I can just buy citric acid without all of the extras.

Oh, my favorite part?  When k-ster kept asking "wait, are these food?" and I'd say they are bath fizzies and because he didn't know what a bath fizzy is, he ignored me and asked later on "are these food?"   

I'm not afraid to share this disaster of a craftastrophe here:
and here and   here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Making It So Easy To Eat Your Veggies

We didn't eat Brussels sprouts growing up and I've always heard only negative things about them.  Most people moan and groan about how awful they are and how when they were kids, they couldn't leave the table until they ate them all and it was pure torture.

I'm pretty sure those poor kids had to eat boiled Brussels sprouts which probably do taste dreadful.

I'm here to tell you why you need to roast Brussels sprouts and wow the masses.  My sister once mentioned that I should try roasting them in a little bit of olive oil and see what I think.  I was hooked immediately and I make them a lot.

I simply take frozen (because fresh are not really easy to find here and when I do find them, they are always sad and wilted looking) Brussels sprouts, put them on my favorite Pampered Chef stoneware, drizzle a touch of oil on top and cook them at around 415 degrees for about 20-30 minutes.  It's vague because I go in and stir them a few times and when everything starts to brown but not burn, they are done.

Even k-ster loves them.  We easily eat one bag of frozen Brussels sprouts between us and look for more every time!  There really isn't all that much in one of those frozen bags.

Recently, I noticed that Olives N Okra makes a version with pancetta and some garlic.  It sounded really good though I never buy pancetta.

One of the biggest tortures for me is when I get to the barn after school and I don't have a plan for supper.  If I don't figure it out before I ride, I spend a good portion of my ride wondering what I will make.  If I just planned my meals for the week, this would never be an issue but I don't seem to be able to plan my meals like that.

Just as I was getting my stuff together, I remembered that we had macaroni and cheese leftover.  Then I thought about the Brussels sprouts recipe with pancetta and the wheels started turning.  I wouldn't venture into the pancetta world because I've never used it, but I could get a thick piece of ham and do the same thing.  And I had some broccoli from my garden that needed to be eaten, so I figured I could combine it with the Brussels sprouts and make a lovely dish to go with the macaroni and cheese.

And this did not disappoint!  I put a bag of Brussels sprouts, a handful of broccoli, about half a pound of ham, some garlic and a little oil together on my stoneware.  I shook it around and coated everything and put it in the oven at 415 degrees for about a half hour.

The broccoli was a little delicate because it wasn't a firm head of broccoli, so it was very crispy when the rest of it was ready, but it made a really good companion to the macaroni and cheese!  I will definitely do this again!

If I made this for a fancy meal, I would eliminate the broccoli unless it was nice and firm.  Some people wouldn't want to eat the crispy florets that my garden is so good at growing.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

What's In A Name?

I have a thing about names.  I like them to be pronounced correctly, whether someone is saying my name or I'm saying someone else's.  I really believe your name has a lot to do with who you are and when people ignore your personal pronunciation of your name or call you by the wrong name, I think that does a lot to the psyche.

Names always conjure up images.  If you've ever heard a name before, you always have a person in mind with that name and it can make you really happy or destroy you.  I don't know how teachers or coaches can name their kids because there are few names out there we don't associate with someone!

My name is JoAnna but I HATE to be called Joanne or Johanna.  Both bring up images of people with those names who I would not want to be associated with and I get very annoyed.  When I was little, I would just suck it up, but now if someone says the wrong names, I so automatically say "JoAnna", I don't even realize I've done it.  And people are nice about saying "Oh, sorry, JoAnna..... But anyway, Joanne..."  It really never goes away.

When I was younger, I thought exotic, cleverly spelled names were the way to go.  If I had kids, I was going to give them the craziest spellings of their names so they would always be unique.  I might even make up names, I used to think.

Then I started teaching.  In my time, I've had thousands of names come through my gradebooks. 
I used to think I should get a phD in nameology and if that didn't exist, I was going to make it exist.  During the course of my study, I would do a lot of research on criminals, outcasts and social weirdos and their names.  I think strange names lead a child to feel strange and then do strange things, often committing crimes.

I have no scientific research to back me up, but very often in my 20 years of teaching, I have found that students with most unusual names are the students who are most often in trouble, sad or seemingly outcast.

However, there have been plenty of average Joes and Janes who fall into the same category, so basically I'm talking right out of my butt.

Over the years, I have taught every imaginable version of Katelyn and Katherine.

I've taught students with names of flowers, seasons and months.

I've taught students whose names are cities, countries and states.

I've had "normal" names with "abnormal" pronunciations like Tara or Cara who insisted on being called Tahra or Cahra, like tar or car as the first syllable.  Where we live, you say the a like you do in cat.  You know, the way most normal people pronounce Cara, Tara, Sara, etc.

I'm kidding on the normal thing.

I've taught Jesus, Mohammed and Moses.

I've taught girls whose first names are their parents' names blended together.

I've looked at my class lists and thought maybe a 3 year old gave out names that year.

I've looked at class lists and thought the scrabble bag fell on the floor of the nursery and parents just grabbed the first 7 tiles to name their babies.

I've had foreign names so difficult to pronounce that kids have just said "John is fine".  To which I said "No, I WILL say it correctly because that's your name, just help me!"

Because in my theory about  names, I believe that when a child gives up on adults that young and lets them call them whatever feels closest to their complex name, they have given up relying on adults for guidance in their lives.  I think kids think if we can't say something as seemingly simple as their name, how can we be an expert on anything?

I'm sure I've had that thought when I've corrected someone and they still call me by the wrong name.  How hard can it BE!

Here's what happens with common names spelled uniquely:  they get butchered to every extent of the law.  Those of us who try to remember usually have to make some elaborate mnemonic device in the brain to make sure we spell it correctly or we come up with some approximation that isn't quite right.  And kids get upset.  I don't blame them.

I can't believe I've had enough Savannah/Savannas that now i have to say "with an H or no H?".  Or a class with two Aidans, where one spells it Aidan and one spells it Aiden.  I like that one, actually, because when I write it, we know which is which right away.

And do you know what happens with hyphenated last names?  Gradebook programs don't love this, so when they print attendance lists, if the last names happen to be long, we get 3 letters of the first name.  If the name is Smith-Brown, John it's not such a big deal, but when it's Fitzpatrick-Sullivan, Nathaniel, well, we usually end up with Fitzpatrick-Sullivan, Na and then we don't know where to go from there.  Nathan?  Nathaniel?  Nathalie?  Narwhal?  (Oh, it's only a matter of time before Narwhal walks through my door.)

Ever called roll the first time you've seen a class and held your breath with every other name because you don't want to destroy their names but you also don't even know if you're seeing the whole thing?

Or, even worse, you don't know if it's a boy or girl?  I've taught girl Ryans, Taylors, Corys and new for me this year, a girl Aidan.  I always make sure to put girl next to their name for my sub plans so that the sub will know.  Because that has to be yet another identity crisis in the making.

Don't get me wrong, I have often thought some of the names I've seen are really clever.  I love the blended parent names, for example.

And all of those old names like Hazel and Edith are coming back and surprisingly, the cute kids who wear those names wear it well and don't look like the 90 year old ladies my brain conjures up.

So, after all this rambling about names, where are we going?  I have never ever, not one time, ever seen a name and thought "Well, that's ridiculous".  I've heard plenty of colleagues grumble about names or roll their eyes, but I usually think it's fine.  Whatever.  As long as I can pronounce it and remember if you're a boy or girl, I'm good with it.

And then yesterday, I heard a name that just pushed me past my limit.  A girl told me her younger sister's  name is Pebbles.  And my first thought was "WHAT???  That's just RIDICULOUS" and that thought was immediately followed by "Do you have a brother named BamBam?"  And somehow, I kept my mouth shut.  All I said was "Did you say her name is Pebbles?"  and she said "Yes" like that was not at all an unusual name.

After all, Wilma, Fred, Betty, none of those are weird.  And I know someone named Dino.

And then I thought of all those Barneys out there.  All of whom were born before that purple dinosaur Loved You and Me, all of whom conjured up images of the stone age.  And I wondered if in 20 years these kids will name their kids Barney and the first image their teachers will have will be a large, purple dinosaur and think "Well, that's just ridiculous."

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Embrace Your Immersion Blender

Do you have an immersion blender?  Do you put it in a drawer and forget about it?  Do you bring it out every so often and think "why don't I use this more often?"

I do all of those things.  Even though I know the fabulousness of my immersion blender, I somehow never use it!

I bought my immersion blender originally because I needed to stir up crêpe batter at school when I made crêpes for an event.  This was a yearly event, so I knew it would be really useful for that.  And it was.

And on a rare occasion, I will pull it out and use it for pancake batter.

This summer, when I was making spaghetti sauce, I used it to puree the vegetables and I remembered how awesome this device really is!

The last time I went to France, within an hour of arriving, our host was using her immersion blender to throw together a soup for our starving bodies.  While I was there that time, I noticed a lot of mention of immersion blenders and soups "veloutées" which always makes me think "velvety".

Tonight, I whipped up a potato soup out of the blue and I knew just the thing to make it all work!  I boiled potatoes while I was sauteeing my one leek from the garden and an onion that I didn't know was still in my garden.

Sadly, these potatoes were not homegrown.

When the potatoes were soft, I drained them and threw them back in the pot with the onions and leek, some milk, some butter and some chicken broth.  I stuck that immersion blender in there and within a couple of minutes, I had  my own "veloutée".

I was really happy with the texture and the taste.  I'm not the most wild fan of potatoes, especially mashed, but this was just soooooo good.  And one leek was enough for what I was doing.

My immersion blender, as I'm sure most do, comes right apart and the blending part can go into the dishwasher.  I always resolve to use it more often when I do use it, and now that I realized how easy and delicious this soup was, I might be reaching for it a little more often!  There's really no excuse other than it's not out in the open or in a drawer I reach for all the time, so I don't think about it.

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Sunday, November 8, 2015

Just Follow The Bouncing Cranberry

The Chicken Chick
Living on Cape Cod, a major cranberry growing mecca, I feel like it's my duty to share with you some information about cranberries.  My 4th grade teacher was obsessed with the whole cranberry growing process, so I learned most of my information in 4th grade, but it's mostly still true.

Stick around to the end and I'll share some fun facts that you can use to quiz your family when the conversation falls into a lull!

Cranberries are very tart berries that grow on a short plant that some people like to call a vine.  It's not a bush or tree like some people believe.  It's not a vine in the sense that it winds its way up a fence, or at least not here where they keep them groomed.  More on how they groom them later.

Cranberries do so well in our climate because they don't need a long growing season and they especially love sand.  And if we have anything on the beach, it's sand.

I've always thought that's why they are so bitter.  They have such rotten conditions to grow from!

The reason it's called a cranberry is because the flower looks like a crane, as in the bird, like a whooping crane.  Or a heron, if you don't call them cranes where you live.

The bogs, and we call them cranberry bogs, not fields as some person in a youtube video I just saw called them.  They are bogs, as in peat bogs.  Peat is decayed matter and we have lots of peat here in the marshes.  These bogs are down in the ground, so when you drive by cranberry bogs, you notice that the "field" is actually a foot or more below ground level.  In the winter, when they flood the bogs and the water freezes, it looks like you're stepping down into an ice skating rink.

There are lots of ditches in cranberry bogs so that when it comes time to flood the bogs, the water has somewhere to come in and a way to go out when they drain the bogs.  It makes it really hazardous when they are dry picking the berries because they push machines kind of like big lawn mowers and if they don't pay attention to where they are, they can get the machine or themselves stuck in a ditch.

The water also protects the vines in the winter as the water freezes, so when it's going to get really cold here, most bogs get flooded.  And lots of people think that means they should go ice skating on them!  We were also told it was safer than pond skating because it's not as deep so if they ice isn't really frozen and we fall in, we are less likely to drown.  A myth because hypothermia kills just as easily as drowning!

When the berries are ready, which is usually in September, they have two ways to pick.  First, they dry pick as I just explained.  These machines also groom the "vines".  In the old days, they used to have wooden boxes with tines like a comb that they would use to handpick.  I can't even imagine.

Once they have dry picked, then they will often wet pick the same bog.  With wet picking, they flood the bogs and all of the good cranberries float to the surface.  This is why in those cranberry juice ads with the older guy and younger guy, it looks like they are standing in red water.

The guys wear waders in the water and another guy  drives a different kind of machine.  These are kind of like giant egg beaters that go below the surface and stir up the berries and release any that the dry picking didn't get.  Somehow, these beaters don't destroy the plants.

They corral the berries with big pieces of wood and make a big circle of berries that get vacuumed up into a large trailer.

Dry picked berries are what you get in the produce aisle at this time of year, in the plastic bags.  I imagine dry picked also get dried as craisins eventually too.

Wet picked won't be dried again, so they make the juice and cranberry sauces out of those.

There was a time that only 5 states in the US could support growing cranberries because of their peat/sand soil.  However, with modern science, fake bogs have been created and now they grow cranberries in China which I can't even comment on without probably getting arrested for my outrageous accusations.

So, I bring you this lesson because we usually get cranberries from a grower that k-ster grew up knowing.  At one point, k-ster worked as a harvester of berries and brought home a ridiculous amount one year.  I wasn't the canning maven then that I am now, so I gave away tons and tons of those berries.

For the past few years, we've gotten one of their harvest boxes full which is a lot, but I can cranberry sauce, so it's reasonable.  He charges a very modest price.  I love the fact that they are local and just picked.

This year, I didn't cook the berries on the stove because I found that they got too foamy last year.  I put them in the crockpot and let the magic happen.  This way, I could get them washed and ready to cook and then go away for a while and let them do their thing without constant attention.

I got two crockpots going at once and made the first batch into jellied sauce.  This requires putting the berries through the food mill once they are done, but it also gives a nice jelled sauce that has less seeds and no pulp than whole berry sauce.

The next batch was just whole berry.  Once the berries get soft, they are easy to squish, so as I stirred in sugar and ladeled it into the jars, a lot of berries squish down.  Some remain intact, so they are really pretty in the glass jars when the canning is done.

Cranberry sauce is really easy to make, whether you are canning it or just making it to eat with the Thanksgiving meal.  You put the cranberries into a pan with a little bit of water so the berries don't stick.  Put it on medium heat or lower and let them cook.  THey start to pop when they are heating up and once a lot of them are soft, you add the sugar.
And that's it.

If you want precision, google a recipe for it.  And prepare yourself for the quantity of sugar it requires.  It's A.LOT.OF.SUGAR.  Because cranberries are sooooooo tart!

When I made my sauce this year, I did one batch outside and the following weekend, I had less time and  less sauce, so I did the other  batch inside.  I love to can outside, which I can do if it's fruit because you don't need to pressure can fruit.   I use the big propane burner and my huge put which has this strainer that I love for putting the jars in and pulling them out.

This year, I had two jars break.  Something I've never had happen before.  I am pretty sure it was because I wasn't very precise about headspace.  I filled them too much and they just exploded.

One of the things I'm always afraid of with canning is breaking jars.  I always think they are going to explode like a meth lab and we'll be picking glass shards out of the neighbor's beams for years to come.

Each of the jars that broke were in a different round of cooking and both just broke out the bottom and that was it.  No shattering of glass, no giant explosions.  I was sad to lose two jars but happy that the effects were minor.

So, the fun facts I promised to reveal:

-cranberries and poison ivy grow exceptionally well together and when it's time to pick, it's impossible to avoid the poison ivy.  For someone who is so highly allergic, picking season spells out a trip to the doctor no matter what. Miraculously, the poison ivy oil doesn't carry over to the berries when they are bagged because I've never picked up poison ivy from cranberries and I would be the first to get it!

-cranberries are full of vitamin C and during that first terrible winter that the pilgrims spent trying to live on this seemingly fallow land, they discovered the health benefits of cranberries.  Ships started carrying cranberries for sailors to eat to get their vitamin C to ward off scurvy.  Remember learning about scurvy?  I bet they don't have time to learn that in 4th grade anymore.  Sad, really.

-spiders love cranberry bogs and though I haven't seen how big they get, from the way I've heard them described, they are like daddy longlegs on steroids.  And they crawl all over you while you're picking.

-cranberry sauce isn't the only thing you can make with cranberries.  My sister introduced us to Cranberry Salsa and I bring it to a lot of things as a dip.  In the summer, I use my frozen cranberries to make it and since it's a dip, it doesn't matter that the cranberries get soggy when they thaw.  But don't ever make this mistake.

-when cranberries are good, they bounce.  When we went to the Ocean Spray factory in 4th grade, we saw an example of the bouncing box.  Here, I show my own version.  And that little one at the end doesn't bounce because it is quite rotten.

So, this holiday season, as you enjoy your cranberry sauce and cranberry dishes, you can think of me and this lesson in cranberry growing and wow your friends and family!

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