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

worth every dirtied dish: walnut waffles

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Beautiful waffles, my favorite slow morning treat. Warm, sweet, their crisp-yet-tender pockets puddled with farm-fresh (whipped!) butter and (real!) maple syrup.

Mmmm…

Or maybe not swimming at all; the right kind of waffle is pretty darn good dry, eaten out of hand and on the fly too. And trust me, these are definitely the right kind of waffle.

As much as I love eating waffles, my brief dabbling in making them led me to the conclusion that many things are more delicious when homemade, but waffles aren’t one of them. I never could master that delicate crisp exterior that makes a waffle worthwhile.

Were the waffles holding out because they knew I didn’t enjoy making them? Who knows, but they just never gave me their all.  I decided it wasn’t worth the mess, effort or the calories when they were so easy to get at the diner down the street.  I made my no-waffle decision years ago, and I’ve never once so much as looked at a recipe for waffles since.

If you’ve been following along, you know  I’ve been working my way through Liana Krissoff’s Whole Grains for a New Generation with From Scratch Club’s cook-along book club.  And, from my very first riffle through Liana’s book, I was smitten with her recipe for walnut waffles. —————————————————————————————————————–

Wafflemaker,  food processor,  small saucepan, two bowls, hand mixer, cooling rack, dry measuring cups, liquid measuring cup, measuring spoons… dirty, dirty, dirty.

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Now, I will not lie.  This recipe exceeds the number of procedures and dirty dishes I’m willing to take on most days. This may not bother you, but ask me to dirty more than one appliance and I consider that a deal-breaker.

So, while I love waffles, and this promised some dreamy results, this recipe sat earmarked, admired, but untried. Until today that is. And guess what?

Not only am I very glad I made these waffles, I will be making them again soon. They are rustic in the very best way, perfectly crispy and delicious. The flavors are deep and rich and plenty (but not too) sweet and the walnuts are subtle.

My local diner can’t even come close to making waffles like this…

The trick of beating the egg whites together with the sugar strengthens the batter so it holds up as you cook one waffle at a time, AND makes the waffles nice & crisp.  Oh yes… the secret is revealed.

The whole grains have not a whiff of bitterness and there wasn’t a single sacrifice – I’m eating these waffles because I love them, not because they’re a cardboard stand-in for the waffle I really love…

What’s the other reason I kept coming back to drool over this recipe? It fits perfectly with my quest to fill my freezer with time-saving, extra-ordinary, home-made convenience food.  Here’s a link to the printable recipe.

If you’re going to dirty up all those dishes and appliances, do yourself a favor.  Do it up big and double the recipe.  The waffles freeze very well and you can simply pop them straight from the freezer into the toaster or a baking sheet and heat in a 350° F oven for 15 minutes.

Note: if you’re like me and enjoy your waffles a little on the dark side, take them from the iron before they are as dark as you like when making them for the freezer. Your waffles will continue to brown as you reheat them and the outside may burn before they are warmed through.

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What’s your recipe deal-breaker?  Is there a special treat that entices you to go for it anyway?

More delicious things I learned from Liana Krissoff:

In which we share a fruity secret
build your real foods pantry: rice
building your real foods pantry: preparing for cookie emergencies

DIY valentine: sweet kisses straight from the garden

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What could be sweeter than a paper sack of wrapped handmade caramels?

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I know that strawberry and chocolate and all things red, white, pink and chocolate are kind of the official flag of Valentine’s Day. But, I can’t grow those things on my farm, particularly not in January.

And if you’ve been hanging around here for any time at all, you know I’m all about cooking from home.

Recently, I took part in a cook-along book club hosted by the awesome From Scratch Club where we read and cooked our way through Alana Chernila’s perfect book, The Homemade Pantry. If you think a cook-along book club sounds like a great idea (you know you do), check out FSC’s newest selection – I’m pretty excited about it – and join in.

Okay, I know, I’m starting to wander off. We’re talking Valentines. Homemade. From local produce, preferably your backyard. The reason for mentioning Alana’s book is that one of her recipes was for homemade caramels.

I don’t think I’ve ever in my life purchased a caramel, craved one or even given a moment’s thought to one. Who knows why, because whenever I’ve been given one, I always think they’re delicious.

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But somehow that recipe caught my fancy. Then, as weirdly happens so amazingly often, I stumbled across this recipe from Deb at Smitten Kitchen.  You know I just happen to have freshly made quarts of Apple Gack looking for work, so this was pure fate. I was even able to fast forward straight to the  middle of the recipe, since the first part is essentially making Apple Gack from cider.  Apple Cider Caramels were meant to happen. 

But wait! Then I found these Salted Pumpkin Caramels from Food 52!  You know Pumpkinpalooza lives on…

And, if you know me at all, you know I can’t just follow a recipe. If I can make apple cider caramels, what about my overcooked strawberry jam failure that I couldn’t bear to throw away?  Up from the basement those jars of stiff, sticky paste came, I thinned it with some boiling water & strained the berries to make strawberry gack. Maybe you have some unloved jam sitting around too.

Follow Smitten Kitchen’s recipe using your jam gack instead of the apple, adjust the spice to suit the fruit (or eliminate it altogether) and Wa-la! Your very own fruit caramels. I guess I could have dyed them pink or something, but I like the natural look.

The strawberry was delicate and hard to place as a flavor, but totally delicious. The apple cinnamon was unmistakable, as was the pumpkin.

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What could be more charming than a paper sack of sweet, handmade waxed paper wrapped caramels? I promise they aren’t difficult and you don’t need a candy thermometer or anything complicated, expensive or special.

So delicious and tender, it’s a staple around here now.

What! It’s fruit

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This post is part of Fresh Foods Wednesday.

“Fresh Foods Wednesday,” you ask?  

That’s right – it’s an ambitious and enlightening collection of posts from bloggers all over about issues near and dear to my heart: real food, fresh food production, consumption, activism, and awareness… not to mention a rant here and there…

You really should check it out:

building your real food pantry: plan for a tomato workhorse you can count on

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Fresh from my garden tomatoes, onion and garlic ready for oven-roasting

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For a girl forever bawking about eating what’s in season, you might think what I’m about to share with you is a little out of whack.  Originally, like everyone else, I thought this would be a good topic for later in summer when tomatoes are front and center.

But recently, while writing this for A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa, it struck me that now actually is the perfect time to talk about putting up tomatoes.

What?

I’m not kidding. Now is the time to start planning what you’re going to grow in your garden and/or how much preserving you need to do to fill your pantry with the basics you’ll need for the following 12 months.

If I wait to talk about it until you’re drowning in tomatoes,  I’ll be too late to be much help.

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A staple in my kitchen – tomato passata. like puree, only better

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Over the years, I’ve pared down my pantry needs to actual needs rather than whimsical wants.

I used to can cooked sauce, whole tomatoes and other more specific items like salsa or ketchup. Each pantry item involved a sweaty day in the kitchen and its own set of ingredients & procedures.

Now don’t get me wrong; I actually love that sweaty day spent in the kitchen. But today, I prefer one  multi-purpose workhorse item like this versatile recipe for tomato passata, rather than several specific items like different sauces & salsa.

What’s a workhorse recipe?

  • Seasoned as little as possible to let the flavor of the ingredient shine and for greatest kitchen versatility later.
  • Useful in a variety of ways and with little meal-time fussery. I still want to be able to cook super-fast from jars and cans – you know, the American way.  I just want my jars and cans to be ones I filled myself with ingredients I feel good about.
  • A flexible preserving process.  I often interrupt in the middle if necessary, break things up into 2 sessions and/or scale it up.  I need a recipe that’s not too persnickety.

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Home-made sauce in a jif, quickie childhood favorite cream of tomato soup with no processed ingredients and my very favorite ketchup

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Tomato passata is a recipe from my tattered and stained favorite River Cottage Handbook #2; Preserves.  The author, Pam Corbin, makes  passata to use as a base for all sorts of soups, stews and curries. Check it out here. 

I admit I had no clue what passata was, but now I wonder how I ever lived without it.  This one simple to make item is all I need to make a few of my often served favorites:

The beauty of making my ketchup from passata is that I can do it later in the season when the kitchen’s not so hot and I don’t have so many other pressing projects competing for my time. Plus, I’ve already done half the work, so it hardly takes any time at all.

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Holy-wow do I like this ketchup…

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Being the heirloom/heritage breed type, I grow my own, so it’s time to order your seeds to be sure to get the varieties you want and be sure to get the seeds started on time. How many plants will I need to make enough passata for the year?

I use about one quart of passata every two weeks, so I’ll need about 26 quarts. Each quart uses approximately 4 ½ pounds of fresh tomatoes, and a good heirloom variety tomato plant in Pennsylvania can yield approximately 9 pounds give or take. There will be some fudgery at first since everyone’s experience will vary, but this is a good place to start.

So, to keep me in passata for a year, here’s my tomato math:

26 (quarts of passata) x 4.5 (pounds of tomatoes needed for 1 quart) = 117 pounds of tomatoes.

117 (pounds of tomatoes) ÷ 9 (estimated pounds yielded per plant in my area) = 13 plants.

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Now, calculate the same way for your canned whole tomato needs then round-up to be sure to have plenty of fresh eating tomatoes and for sharing with your non-gardening friends.

I like to have at least 20 plants minimum for my two person household, though I’ve been known to attempt as many as 40.

Now, maybe the growing part is not for you, and I’m not here to tell you any different, although I admit I wish you’d consider it. Farmer’s markets are full of farmers growing all sorts of heirlooms and organics. If you belong to a CSA you probably get swamped with tomatoes in the summer, or maybe you have a great grocery selling locally grown produce.

No? Well, you can fix that by finding a local grower here.

Okay, you have no excuse for not at least trying this once, even if  just to say you did. I’m pretty confident once you get spoiled with a home-made pantry, you won’t want to go back to store-bought ever again.

What’s your  favorite tomato workhorse? 

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This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday. What’s that you ask? It’s an ambitious and enlightening collection of posts from bloggers all over about issues near and dear to my heart: real food and natural living. Check it out!

DIY gifts – a savory real food alternative to holiday sweets

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CRUSTY, SALTY HOME MADE SOFT PRETZELS, HOT FROM THE OVEN.

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The holidays are overwhelming in the sheer quantity of baked goods that need to be consumed or discarded right away.  So, I try to gift items that can be saved for a time when the pantry isn’t so stuffed and a quick, wholesome snack I don’t have to make myself really IS a helping hand.

And, while I am a cookie fan myself, many people prefer a savory option.  These pretzels frozen and unbaked make a great gift.  I mean, who doesn’t love a crusty, warm, soft pretzel especially with a dip in cheese sauce or mustard?

Plus, I can be sure the ingredients are of the quality and provenance I choose.

Soft pretzels are a perfect real food snack for a non-industrial pantry. For lots of reasons.  They’re baked, not fried.  They’re wholesome & filling. And pretty yummy if I do say so myself.

I love this recipe based on one in The Martha Stewart Living Christmas Cookbook. Love her or hate her, when it comes to real, good, timeless food, Martha delivers. Really, I don’t know why this book is handicapped with the holiday label – it’s a great reference for any special cooking occasion, all year-long.

This recipe has a secret: poaching the pretzels in water & baking soda for that critical chewy exterior just like the commercially baked ones. Click here for the printable recipe.

I’ll let Martha show you how to twist those pretzels: 

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PRETZELS POACHED, SHAPED, BRUSHED WITH EGG WASH & SPRINKLED WITH SALT.

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Stock the freezer with a double batch and you’re ready for anything…

I like to make this recipe all the way to just before baking, freeze the unbaked pretzels overnight in a single layer, then package the frozen pretzels two to a small freezer bag. Write the cooking instructions on the bag with a Sharpie and stash them in a safe spot in your freezer.

How easy is this? You bake them straight from the freezer in just 15 minutes for a warm, salty, crusty treat perfect with mustard or cheese sauce.

The simplest way to package these up is to stack a few bags of frozen pretzels and wrap in freezer paper, just like at the butcher shop.  A simple white package, decorated with a festive ribbon takes just a few minutes.  You can just pop the already-wrapped package into your freezer until it’s gifting time.

Make some extra for your own freezer and you’re ready too for those inevitable unexpected gifting situations and unexpected visitors.

You’d have to be the Grinch-iest Scrooge of all to not appreciate this gift of holiday cheer…   

What’s your favorite way to eat soft pretzels?

a simple, sweet holiday gift idea

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What’s this?  It’s Apple Gack!

Apple Gack?  You know, just another colonial culinary tradition tossed aside and forgotten for no good reason.  Old time New Englanders called it apple molasses, apple cider jelly, or apple cider syrup.

But Apple Gack isn’t just a quaint novelty – it can be an affordable culinary workhorse like honey and maple syrup. It’s a great solution when you want a more natural and affordable sweetener.  And, even sweeter, it’s one you can create easily in your own kitchen without stinging bees and maple sugaring.

Fortunately, the Slow Foods Ark of Taste has the good sense to included Boiled Cider & Cider Jelly on their list of endangered foods worth preserving. To learn more, visit their site for a brief and entertaining history and links to the few commercial producers still selling this bit of culinary history.

Here’s a little of what Slow Foods has to say:

“Boiled cider became an important homestead product in colonial New England (and elsewhere, as European settlers pushed west). During the American Revolution, it was one of the indigenous sweeteners, like maple syrup, which could readily be produced on the farm and that did not need to be imported, like brown sugar and molasses, which came via trade with British plantations in the West Indies and were thus associated with the African slave trade. Like maple sugar, it represented a local, seasonal, and economical option for many inland or “hill” farmers, many of whom did not live close to the main coastal or riverine trade routes.”

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The reason I’m more than a little excited about apple molasses is that in my quest to use ingredients from my own farm, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is sweeteners. They are either from exotic ingredients, unsustainable farming or corporate sources or require unattainable home kitchen procedures.

But guess what I have plenty of here in Western Pennsylvania?  Apples!  All shapes & sizes!

And guess what I’m completely capable of doing all by myself with equipment already in my kitchen? Boiling and spooning into jars.

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This is so simple, I can’t even truly call it a recipe. It’s somewhat adjustable depending on your personal preference and how you will actually end up using your molasses. I want to bake with it, so I wanted mine thick, like molasses.

If you prefer, you can leave it thinner and use it as a syrup, a concentrate for apple-y sparkling sodas and a secret weapon to boost your apple pies into legendary status.

The goal is to reduce your cider to 1/7 to 1/10 its original volume, depending on whether you want a liquid syrup or a more molasses-like consistency like mine.

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While I would have loved to have made this from apples harvested from my own trees, if you recall, this year, there were noneAnd even if there were, my chance to beat my four-legged apple trolls is slim at best.

Bling in the Apples

So, I turned to my neighbors at Apple Castle for some of their yummy cider. I have a fairly large stainless stock pot, so I went for two gallons.  If your pot isn’t so large, I’d recommend sticking with one gallon, at least the first time.  The gack does have a way of foaming up and doubling in size, and boiling over would make a pretty nasty mess.

I took it slow, bringing my cider to a simmer and allowing it to boil for several hours. The more you try to do at once, the longer the process takes.  It doesn’t require much supervision, but you should be around to give it a stir and a skim regularly, and the end requires your full attention.

Your apple molasses will develop a deep caramelized flavor and beautiful, rich amber color. Mine took several hours, and from two gallons of cider yielded a quart of syrup.

I can’t wait to use it to sweeten a big pot of beans this weekend, I’ve enjoyed it as sweetener in my tea, and I’m baking cookies with it later today. Use it as you’d use honey, molasses or maple syrup.

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Package it up into holiday jars or bottles, and wa-la!  A useful, unique handmade holiday gift money can’t easily buy.

What would you make with apple molasses?

mile high pumpkinsnap pie: a showstopping dessert with attitude and altitude

Confident, mature, beautiful and flashy. This pie has definitely got some attitude. And some altitude too.

Earlier I shared a recipe for Rustic Apple-Pumpkin pie which I really, really loved.  That pie is comforting and a little more humble and unassuming.  Not like this one.  This pie is J-Lo all the way.

Rich, dense, not-too-sugared-up custard is a rare treat. Have I told you how much I love home-made puddings and custards? Tuck it into a pie between a crispy, spicy, gingersnap crust and a fluffy crown of meringue and it’s a showstopping dessert.

This recipe is inspired by the Mile-High Pumpkin Pie recipe from Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann’s  lovely Earth to Table cookbook.  Their version is for a no-bake style of pie using gelatin.

Their reason for choosing the no-bake gelatin route is that they don’t like the way baked custard pie fillings tend to cook down or deflate, which is true.  But I don’t care.

My love for that dense rich layer of custard is greater than my love for an admittedly larger layer of gelatin style filling.  And, I have gelatin issues in general so I tend to avoid it.

So, I switched the recipe back to its custard roots and added a gingersnap cookie crust. It’s rich and beautiful in all the best autumn-y ways.

Here’s the printable recipe. 

One other thing – it’s a two-fer!  Since this is a recipe I cobbled together from here, there and everywhere, there is about twice as much custard as you will be able to fit into a 9-inch piecrust.

But, this is good stuff. More rich than sweet, instead of halving the recipe, I appreciate the extra custard.

The remainder can be gently cooked in a double boiler, whisking often until it thickens into a beautiful custard/pudding. Serve drizzled with a bit of chocolate sauce & topped with homemade whipped cream and YUM!

I’ve also frozen the cooked custard for later use, and while it does suffer a bit in texture, it’s still very good.

Okay friends, it’s crunch time. What pumpkin-y dish are you planning for your holiday table this year?