eagle brand, schmeagle brand: sweet jars of DIY heaven

Sweetened condensed milk

What do fudge, iced coffee, caramel, ice cream, cream liqueurs & pies have in common?  Sweetened condensed milk, that’s what.

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I don’t have a great answer to explain my snootiness about store-bought sweetened condensed milk. It just seems super commercial and over-processed which is not my cup of tea.  And, it’s never been a sacrifice. I had no use for it, so it was easy to ignore.

But, once I started down the caramel candy, ice cream and cream pies rabbit hole,  avoiding sweetened condensed milk began over-complicating my life. The thought my results could be better if I weren’t so stubborn started  creeping into my brain.  Finally, the Huffington Post pokes me with  proof that Sweetened Condensed Milk is the best stuff on earth.

UNCLE. I give. How did I not know what an international phenomenon sweetened condensed milk is?  And so, this time, I have to admit I may be a little bit wrong.

I say a little bit because in my wish to support local farmers, buying Eagle Brand isn’t really part of the solution. But in fairness, the list of ingredients on a can of Eagle Brand is exactly the same as home-made: milk and sugar. And that’s how the idea for this compromise was born.

Be warned:  homemade sweetened condensed milk is amazing in every way and well worth the time spent. Which, I won’t lie, is considerable so pick a weekend you’re going to be close to home. The recipe is simple – hardly a recipe really.  My favorite kind.

And, this basic recipe is a springboard for many, many ideas. Honey, maple syrup or maybe apple cider molasses to sweeten? A little cardamom or nutmeg? Chocolate? Hmmm.

Maintaining the temperature is truly the single, non-negotiable aspect. Let it get too hot and the milk will form curds. Once that happens, game over, you’re done. Throw it to the pigs and start over because you’ll never get the smooth, creamy, liquid fudge-y texture that makes this stuff so addictive.

Sweetened condensed milk- bordon'sSweetened condensed milk overcooked

On the left: shiny, super smooth & dense. On the right: So, so close but I blew it. only about $20 dollars of local honey & milk, no big deal…  stick with the cheap ingredients the first time.

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Use a stainless stock pot on the stove set at the lowest temperature or a crock pot with a “keep warm” setting. I prefer the crock pot – by alternating between the Keep Warm and Low settings you can maintain the temperature without fear of scorching and easily put the process on hold when you need a break.

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Equipment:

  • Crock Pot with Keep Warm setting and lid or stainless stock pot with lid
  • Thermometer

Ingredients:

  • Gallon Milk
  • 5 cups sugar or 3 ¾ cups honey

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To speed things up, I began by heating  my milk and sweetener in a covered stock pot on the stove over medium-low heat just until steam rises – pay attention, you don’t want the milk to boil!
Transfer your mixture to a crock pot set on Low. Do not cover.  A  thermometer helps you monitor the temperature: it should remain between 150 – 160 degrees.

The milk will reduce to nearly ¼  its original volume.  You can use a metal ruler to gauge the reduction by measuring the depth of your liquid at the start, divide by four to guesstimate the final depth then measure throughout the process.

Since I’m not that familiar with sweetened condensed milk, I actually used a can of Borden’s as a guide.  When my texture was nearly the same stiffness (remember your liquid will thicken a little more as it cools), I stopped and poured my milk into sterilized jars.

sweetened condensed milk thermometerSterilizing jars

Using a Crock Pot & Thermometer  allows you to easily put the process on hold when you have to run out to feed the pigs. To sterilize jars, simply wash in hot, soapy water, rinse thoroughly, nest in a small baking pan lined with a towel and allow to dry completely in a 250 degree oven. pour warm liquid into warm jar & seal.

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If you need to put the process on hold while you feed the pigs, grab a bite or get some sleep, simply switch the setting to “keep warm” and cover to stop the reduction process. When you’re back, return the setting to low and remove the lid.   It was a little busy around here, so I stretched it over a full 24 hours, taking care to not allow the temperature to go below 150.

The result is recipe-ready sweetened condensed milk comparable to store-bought in texture.  From a gallon of milk, I ended up with about 40 ounces or a quart and a cup and a half.  Since most recipes call for a 14 ounce can, I figure this batch will make five recipes plus some extra for my morning coffee.

“Can this be canned?”  I know you’re about to ask. Well.  You didn’t hear it from me, and you definitely won’t hear if from the USDA, but on old homesteading boards I hear tell of pressure canning at 12 – 15  psi for 13 minutes. Another mention of water bath canning for two hours that supposedly does not affect the flavor of the milk as much. Freezing would be another option to consider.

I don’t really know for sure, but I tend to be bold and will probably try pressure canning for myself. What I do know is that it keeps at least two weeks refrigerated.

Good luck with that. 

Daisy

Daisy knows I’m a horrible multi-tasker sure to blow a few more batches. She’s banking on it. Don’t rain on her parade by telling her about the crock pot thing…

in which we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day

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Hmmmmmm. Is it really St. Patrick’s Day already?

What should we talk about?  Irish Soda Bread?  NOBODY will be writing about THAT.  Irish Stew? Ditto. Irish ham? Colcannon? Guinness? Whiskey? The Corned Beef that actual Irish people don’t eat?  Yawn.

I have been working on some whole grain/wheat projects and spent a couple of weeks learning about and baking some authentic Irish soda breads. So far, one big thing I have learned is that aside from brief curiosity, my taste-testing friends prefer their Americanized fiction of Irish traditions much more than the real, farmstead and/or poverty-born deal.

Which fact has annoyed some enough to create an entire Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread with a very entertaining website and Facebook page.

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Call me odd, but I love the rustic character of irish soda bread. With very few ingredients, the freshness of the wheat flour is critical.  A perfect trifecta of  substantial whole wheat, rich, homemade butter & summer fresh peach jam. Who needs raisins?

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The real beauty of Irish farmstead food is that yes, it is simple, but because the home-raised and/or foraged ingredients can be so pure, fresh, wholesome and full of flavor, everyday food carefully prepared can be sublime.

Of course we know that Ireland has had her struggles with shortage and famine.  Simple things we Americans take for granted, like raisins and sugar for your soda bread  would have been special luxuries for too many Irish.

The last couple years I wrote about some pretty serious Irish topics, but really, who are we kidding? St. Patrick’s Day in America is just an excuse to misbehave, have celebrations, skip school, get rowdy and drink beer. Green beer. Lots of it, right?

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You first; No you!  It’s A Pig-Jam!  everyone’s afraid to jump off the trailer after a move. No point in rushing them, pigs operate on their own time. One day later, they’re jumping on and off with gusto. 

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Around here, those best able to devote themselves to the proper celebration of St. Patrick’s Day are the pigs. I know, I’ve been delinquent about filling you in on all the recent porky details, it’s true.  Raucus? Bawdy? Chaotic? Enthusiastic? Lawless, Loutish, Wild, uproarious, Unruly, Disorderly, Calamitous, Boisterous, Unrestrained and Pure-Gleeful-Mayhem?

I could go on, but I’m pretty sure you know how to use a thesaurus without my help. Let’s just say there’s face stuffing, racing in circles until they fall down, snuffling, brawling, barking, chasing, stealing, biting, snuggling, and some general rooting, mayhem & destruction.  Then, revelry over, the pile of snoring pigs catches up on their beauty sleep.

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Do not disturb:  A snoring pile O’ pigs

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Next comes the big, greasy morning-after breakfast (remember those?) to be followed by another power nap. The best nap ever they tell me. The restorative power of that grand nap gives them the energy they need to get up and do it all over again.  Every. Single. Day. It’s rough being a pig around here, I don’t know how they do it.

‘Tis shameless they are.

a steamy cuppa valentine love

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Grand gestures are showy, but quiet, small ones are sweeter.

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Today is that favorite day of retailers, florists and restauranteurs everywhere, Valentine’s Day. And while I’m weary of the commercialized aspect of the day, you’d have to be pretty hard-hearted to not love one big collective day of appreciation for the special people in our lives.

We Pennsylvanians will tell you that this winter has been an old-fashioned, mettle-testing trudge. We’ve been very fortunate here in Western PA  – unlike our neighbors in Eastern PA who are suffering some real damage and hardship, we’re just inconvenienced and fatigued.  The kind of weariness that can be soothed with a steamy, creamy cup of home-made cocoa.

I nixed commercial hot chocolate powders a long time ago in favor of the old-fashioned, off the package Hershey’s cocoa recipe that my mom used to make. Real milk, cocoa, salt, sugar and a bit of vanilla – all things found in an average kitchen. Is it really too difficult to heat a pan of milk?

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But then , one day Molly at Remedial Eating wrote about something that stopped me in my tracks. Something I had to try ASAP. And I’m so glad I did. This is one of the nicest, sweetest DIY gift ideas around – a jar of chocolate ganache ready to spoon into heated milk for a perfectly delicious, creamy, real cup of steaming cocoa.

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Who am I kidding?? Try 3 or even 4…

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Of course, once that idea was planted, variants were inevitable. What about the hand crafted stoneground chocolate I bought from Rancho Gordo?  Maybe not for everyone, but definitely for me. A little grittier and cinnamon-ey, this is dangerous.

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How do I love thee Rancho Gordo? Let me count the ways…

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So, if you’re still struggling for not-too-big, not-too-small gift ideas, here you go. A nice jar of homemade chocolate ganache. A steamy cup of ready-made love for your beloved.

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 heating up the milk too difficult?  there’s always spoon truffles. Spoon truffles? You know exactly what I’m talking about – no double dipping!

Previous Valentine’s Day ideas:

Glazed Strawberry Poptarts

A Sweet Sack of Homemade Caramels

Real Food Pantry Tricks: a freezer full of ratatouille

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A satisfying winter diet filled with veggies can be a challenge….

Sometimes, I need something warm, filling and rich that’s not soup. Something comforting and velvety in texture that can help me resist my cravings for calorie laden dishes like macaroni & cheese and mashed potatoes.

Yesterday we talked about what a flexible ingredient ratatouille is.  Today I want to show you my favorite lighter recipe and how doubling up each time I make it is one of the ways I preserve summer veggies for winter.

I found my ratatouille salvation in Martha Rose Schulman’s great cookbook for beginners, Light Basics Cookbook. Sadly, this book is out of print – it’s packed with gems, tips and tricks – particularly to those new to the kitchen. But, used copies are still available and Martha keeps a helpful online archive of her recipes, so all is not lost.

Here’s Martha Rose’s recipe for her less caloric version of ratatouille.

Except for one thing. Martha’s online recipe leaves out one slightly fussy step that makes the book version of this recipe such a treasure. Sure, you can skip it and your ratatouille will still be good, but why stop at good when you can have fantastic?

It’s only slightly fussy and the difference is well worth the effort.

The trick is reduction.  Making use of the power of reduction is one of the little-mentioned secrets of Kitchen Greats. Simmering a sauce until the water evaporates concentrates the flavor and thickens the sauce without adding flour or thickeners. It takes just a little more time and attention, but can boost a recipe from good enough to amazing.

A  reduction intensifies the flavors of my rustic fruit pies. Pan seared meat served with sauce made from reducing the pan juices and an added liquid is rich and elegant. I don’t love floury gravy for my beef stew, brisket or short ribs either. Instead, why not remove the meat & veggies to the serving dish and reduce the sauce?

Of course, you could finish by adding a knob of good butter which only makes the whole thing more plate-lickingly good…

So, how does ratatouille benefit from a reduction? Simple. After cooking, place a colander over a  large bowl. and dump the ratatouille into the colander.  The juices will drain into the bowl.

Transfer the juices to a saucepan and return the ratatouille to the casserole.

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Heat the juices to a simmer. Try to keep your boil as gentle as possible – the harder the boil, the faster the reduction, but also the more the flavor is altered by temperature. A slower simmer preserves the flavor.  And, any seasonings will intensify after being reduced so adjust to taste after the reduction, particularly the salt.

Reduce by half over medium-high heat, add your knob of butter if you wish (I wish you will), then stir the reduced juices back into the ratatouille.

This is a dish that is even better made the day before.  For best results, cook and refrigerate overnight.  Next day, serve at either room temperature or warm.

On seasoning ratatouille:  I admit that one reason I didn’t love ratatouille at first is because it tends to be heavily herbed/seasoned. Call me crazy, but I really don’t care for that.  Late tomatoes, peppers, garlic and onion have more than enough flavor without and some fresh basil added just before serving is just right for me. So, if you feel the same way or just don’t have the thyme and/or oregano, don’t let that stop you. The flavor without is every bit as delicious.

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If you’re going to make one ratatouille, why not make two and save some for later?

When you’re done, take your leftovers, measure out the size you would be most likely to use at one time (if you aren’t sure, go smaller). Two cups per bag is my preferred amount.

I prepare quart freezer bags by labeling them,  rolling the tops down and standing them up on the table.

You may be wondering, so here it is: there is no way to know in advance exactly how many bags you will need, so label cautiously. You could label after filling, but it’s really hard to write on jiggly filled bags and messy & difficult for marker to adhere to frozen ones.

Carefully measure your rat into the bags, squeeze any air from the bag, seal and lay flat on its side on a baking sheet or flat plate.  Carefully stack your bags so each lays perfectly flat.  Place the stack of filled bags into the freezer, keeping as straight and level as possible.

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Freezing the bags flat on their sides on a plate or baking sheet is an important detail.  Skip it and the weight of the liquid will cause the contents to sink around the freezer racks.  The bags will become entwined around the racks, then freeze that way making it impossible for you to remove them from the freezer or stack them neatly.

Don’t ask me how I know this…

Next day, when your bags are frozen solid, you can stack them upright to save space. Plastic organizers and large freezer containers help keep everything tidy, visible and help you squeeze more in.

The more tightly packed your freezer, the more efficiently it runs. 

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Do this all summer and you’ll have a virtual library of preserved “books”.

What kinds of garden goodness is in my library? Pumpkin puree, fresh tomato sauce, squash, ratatouille, roasted beets, beet greens, cantaloupe puree, shredded zucchini, rendered lard and plum pie filling.

What’s in your freezer library? Any delectable secrets? Do share…

10 reasons you need a freezer full of ratatouille

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Last call all ye wannabe preservers.

Soon enough, we’ll be forced to choose one of our off-season options for our veggies. If you’ve been a busy preserver Ant, your winter veggies are already tucked away in jars, freezers or root cellars.

If not, you Grasshoppers can still get something put by if you hit it now. As in today.

And, if you think you would never eat vegetable stew on a regular basis, you need to work on your biggest kitchen tool of all; your brain. Not because you’re not smart, but because we’re usually too rushed to the take time to consider familiar things more deeply.  When we do, we often find there’s usually a lot more “there” there. At least it is with this vegetable stew.

The key to becoming a Jedi leftover-ninja is stocking your pantry with flexible basics.  Ratatouille is a chameleon of a staple that freezes up nicely and does lots of useful tricks:

  • Use ratatouille in omelets or frittatas
  • Pizza topping: puree to your favorite degree of chunk, add a pungent accent like capers, olives, anchovy, or hot sauce, top with grated cheese and yum.
  • Blend and use as a sauce for pasta, fish or meats – add cured black olives, nice!
  • Switch up your salad: serve room temperature ratatouille drizzled with vinaigrette over a bed of greens
  • Dip/sandwich spread – pulse in a food processor and add one or more pungent flavors like mustard, vinegar, capers or hot sauce.
  • Soup base: puree until completely smooth, then thin with your favorite stock. After that, throw in whatever else or absolutely nothing. Need I mention cream?
  • Quiche – mixed with egg, Gruyère, Parmesan and milk and baked into a crust. Mmmm, old school fast food…
  • Quesadilla – schmear Rat topped with shredded cheese between two tortillas & toast until crispy. What kid questions the Quesadilla?
  • Hand Pies/Empanadas – mix some with beans and cheese and tuck into a circle of dough. Bake or fry, or even better, tuck some uncooked into the freezer for a quickie later.
  • Quick, comforting, simple main dish: warm Rat served over cooked pasta, grain, polenta, gnocchi or noodles tossed with a little butter or oil. Top with a grated pungent cheese.

Don’t believe me? Even Thomas Keller says so.  Check out his post on the LA Times sharing some of the ways he uses ratatouille. He says:

“With a little imagination, a pot of ratatouille can be a door opening onto a whole world of dishes.”

See?  Tomorrow we’ll get busy with my favorite (lighter) ratatouille recipe and a system to make sure your freezer is filled with ooey, gooey, summer-vegetable goodness all winter.

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Today?  I just want you to think about how seriously this can make your winter better and figure out how you’re going to get your paws on the ingredients.

This is a call to action… I hope you’ll accept the challenge.

Already on board the Ratatouille train? I’m dying to know how you do Ratatouille – let us in on your ratty secrets by commenting below…

M is for cream pie

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This post is brought to you by the letter M

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Don’t be mad letter C, I know I wouldn’t have cream, coconut or cantaloupe without you. But mMother’s birthday, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day all start with the letter M. And, they all happen in the second half of the Month of May.

Something special my mother really likes is coconut cream pie. So I make coconut cream pie for her birthday. See?

Anyway, I’m really appreciating the Food 52 site lately. And this recipe from em-i-lis for coconut cream pie was, though I didn’t know until I found it, something I’ve sorely needed.

Not too sweet, rich and creamy with a dense, real custard filling – no gelatin, tapioca or other textural trickery. Pure, true and perfectly coconut. Thanks em-i-lis & Food 52 for making my day.

Even better? There’s a two-fer in this recipe. A homemade version of sweetened coconut flakes that’s so much more delicious and healthy than store-bought sweetened coconut. If you never ever make the pie, do yourself a favor and make the toasted, sweetened coconut.

I had no idea how many things were in need of a sprinkle of toasted coconut…

Bob's Red Mill coconut flakes

This is not a paid ad, I swear…

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Thanks too, Bob’s Red Mill for these amazing unsweetened coconut flakes. I like a rustic, chunkier texture which I realize not everyone will prefer, but these larger flakes toasted are unique and special.  If you favor a more delicate, finer grind, Bob’s has that too.

I know. Coconut is not local to western Pennsylvania.

While I’ve dramatically cut down on my dependence on non-local products, I still live in a world where lemons, oranges, almonds, avocados, olives, bananas and coconut are everyday items and they are sometimes impossible for me to resist too. Nor, as long as they are produced in a fair and clean way, do I see any reason I should.

Moderation, man. Moderation.

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Cantaloupe from last summer’s garden, pureed and frozen

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So, inspired by my coconut cream pie success, and cleaning out the freezer to make space for this summer’s booty, how could an idea be any more perfect than this: cantaloupe cream pie?

Em-i-lis’ recipe can easily be adapted for any pureed fruit, as long as the thickness of the fruit puree is right.

Aiming to match the texture of the coconut milk called for in the recipe, I took four cups of cantaloupe puree from the freezer and reduced it to about 1 1/2 cups, which worked out perfectly.  It doesn’t have to be exact, just pudding-thick.

Then, I followed the recipe exactly, except for these changes:

  • I replaced the coconut milk in the custard recipe with my thickened fruit puree
  • I did not add fruit puree to the whipped cream. I did use the sugar
  • I did not add flaked coconut to the cantaloupe custard
  • I kept the toasted coconut garnish since I thought it went well with the cantaloupe, but may not suit all your fruit flavors. It does add a nice texture
  • I used my favorite butter crust recipe, though em-i-lis’ crust method is pretty intriguing. If you try it, do come back and let us know how you like it

Success! Now I have a flexible, mix & match cream pie method for the juicy fruit bonanza  coming soon.

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 no weepy, runny fillings or soggy crusts need apply

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Peaches, plums, berries, cherries, pumpkin, squash… hurry up and get here already!  How about you? What’s your favorite cream pie?

hello, hello, hel-lo

Have you missed us?  I’ve been rushing around like a crazy woman and have a million things to tell you about.  I suppose it doesn’t really count as blogging if everything is all in my head where you can’t read it  – does it?

Anyway,  I’ve got lots of news to share, but this is the most exciting.

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As always there are so many things to be grateful for. Eight of them to be specific; three bulls and five heifers.

These Ladies are such champs. Each calf was delivered without any help from me; babies were born, cleaned & dried, fed and tucked in for naps by their sweet mothers.

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Even first timers Saralee, Regina and Hannabelle knew exactly what to do.  How do they know??

Another mystery, but thank goodness for that.

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So now, evenings are filled with little ones zooming left and right, up and down hillsides and chasing each other around the bushes. Tails flagging, tongues lolling, eyes wild, these kids are happily discovering all the amazing things the world has to offer.

So far, so good.

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What gifts of spring are you appreciating most?