Archive for the ‘DIY’ Category

Kitchen essentials for baking, first go

January 9, 2010

I’ve just spent the fall and the first half of the winter exploring baking. For those of you who don’t know, I do most of my cooking (and virtually all of my baking) on a wood-fired cookstove. So I don’t do anything that’s too fussy about temperature. If I hit it within 50 degrees, it’s good enough most of the time. But that has nothing to do with the contents of this message. It’s just a little contextual note.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are certain things that no baker should be without. I’ll enumerate at least a few of them here. Others may occur to me later, so I reserve the right to add to the list.

1) A pair of clean hands. There is nothing so useful in baking as the ability to handle and manipulate your dough with your hands. No bread machine, dough hooks, or any other mechanical contrivance are half as useful.

2) Dough cloths. These are plain white fine-woven cotton towels at least 30 inches square. In my childhood they were called “flour-sack” towels. The weave is fine enough to hold flour, but the flour sinks into it. This lets you work your dough on a floured surface without getting an excess of flour. Good ones are hard to find, but Lehman’s Non-electric Catalog has a 10-pack for about $20. Nobody really needs 10 of these, so split a pack with a baker friend of yours. But they are essential for working good bread, pie crust, or pastry. Forget the Tupperware or other plastic stuff. Trust me. You need these. You don’t even have to wash them every time you use them. Just shake them out well.

3) Waxed paper. This is what you wrap dough in that has to sit. Don’t use plastic wrap. The waxed paper breathes a little but doesn’t let things dry out. It’s kind of the Debbie’s Little Green Bags of baking.

4) A flat grater. The first time I found a recipe that called for me to grate the cold butter into the flour before working it with item number 1 on this list, it was like the heavens opening up and a big beam of light falling on my head. Why, I wondered, has no one ever thought of this before? A bazillion recipes call for cutting the butter into little chunks, flattening them with your fingers, then cutting them into the flour with a pastry cutter or a pair of knives. Grating through the large holes of a flat grater achieves the right effect with about 1/10 the effort. Kudoes to whoever thought this one up.

5) A large assortment of mixing bowls, glass or stainless steel, in as many different sizes as you can imagine.

6) A large assortment of measuring utensils–cups in stainless (for dry measurement) amd glass (for wet measurement), measuring spoons from a minimum of 1/4 tsp. to 1 Tbspn. I have several sets of dry-measure cups, and glass cups from 2 oz. to one quart.

7) A good conversion chart. It’s tough to remember when you’re adjusting on the fly whether it’s three tspns or four to the Tbspn . Same with Tbspns to the quarter cup. Hit: One is three and one is four, and if you forget, look at your butter wrapper and all will become clear.

8) Lot of baking pans and dishes. Again, use only glass, cast iron, or stainless steel. I confess I use a very good grade of non-stick cookie sheet for a variety of things. But no Teflon. If you want non-stick, look for anodyzed metal like Calphalon. When using glass, most recipes recommend that you adjust the temperature downward by 25 degrees, but since I’m working within a very flexible range to start with, I usually ignore that. I work with a cool, medium, or very hot oven. I don’t do souffles. . .

9) Good knives, and lots of them. Ben introduced me years ago to the Chicago Cutlery classic walnut series. They are simple and elegant in appearance. They are a fairly stainless high-carbon steel that can be brought to a razor’s edge with a good steel or stone. I’m lucky enough to have a husband who appreciates my cooking enough to keep them very sharp for me. I do know how to do this myself, but I try to hide that fact,

This feels like a good place to quit for the time. If you have any issues, ask me a question and I’ll at least make an attempt to justify my position.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have owned a bread machine, a food processor, and a blender. I never found anything that I could do with them (with the exception of frozen margaritas) that I couldn’t do with my hands and manual equipment. And the manual equipment is a heck of a lot easier to clean, When I realized I really liked margaritas on the rocks better than frozen margaritas, that was the end of my mechanized kitchen.

Holy crap! In praise of White Lily flour

October 6, 2007

A couple of decades ago (plus a few years), I invited a total stranger to Thanksgiving dinner. This was set up by a mutual friend who said, “I wonder if you would do this for me. If you don’t Adele will be alone on Thanksgiving, and that shouldn’t happen.” So I invited Adele to share our crazy family feast.

For some reason, that year I was doing the whol Martha Stewart thing. I had new china (still have it, and it’s still glorious) and some heirloom crystal butter dishes that were round. Round butter dishes? But I had seen somewhere (despite my previous comments, this is long before anyone had ever heard of Martha Stewart) instructions for molding butter into little shapes under cold water. So I made two absolutely fabulous butter roses to go in my round butter dishes. I’ve never done it again. . .

But here’s what I remember most about that day: I walked into the dining room to see Adele, drink in hand, talking to my 7-year-old daughter. “Listen, Inger,” she said. “I am 52 years old and I’ve never been anywhere before that they shaped the butter like roses. That means that no matter how old you get, there are always new experiences to be had, and you should welcome them.”

I’m thinking about this today because I bought some new flour this week. Actually, I bought it about 10 days ago, but what with shipping and stuff, it only arrived three days ago.

Flour? Flour is flour, you say, and a few days ago I would have agreed. But those of you who have been reading this blog for awhile know that I REALLY like to cook. And this particular flour, White Lily, kept surfacing in odd places–a recipe from “The Splendid Table,” a story in the Atlantic Monthly about scones.

Now, when something repeats itself, the universe is trying to tell you something. So I shopped, and looked, and searched, and I couldn’t find White Lily flour anywhere. That only made me more determined. So I looked on the Web.

It’s a southern product, and it has mostly been distributed regionally. The company was recently bought by Smuckers, so this is probably going to change. I hope the distribution is all that changes. This is an amazing flour.

My browser hated their shop online site, I suspect because it was redirecting to Smuckers. So I sent and e-mail and said, “Help! I want to buy your flour. What can I do?” Within minutes I got and 800 number to call. I ordered three different kinds (interestingly enough, not including the one I was most interested in, probably because I was so flustered trying to do it by phone instead of by Web site).

The flour arrived three days ago. The first day, I made white cornbread, something I’d never made before. The second day I used the bread flour to make my artisanal French bread. Today I made a pie using the all-purpose flour. I think it might be the most beautiful pie I ever made. We’re about to cut into it, so we’ll see if it lives up to expectations, but I have very high hopes.

This is amazing stuff. You can feel the difference when  you touch it. It talks to fats better than any flpur I’ve ever used. It requires less water for pastry dough, so I’m confident the pastry will be tender. The bread flour is very high-gluten. You can feel the difference when you knead it.

I’m in love. I’m about to place another order, and next time I’m in town I’m going to see if I can’t get our local organic store to stock it.

For years I’ve been buying what I perceived was the best flour I could get at the market. To discover that there is something out there so far superior to anything I’ve ever touched is an eye-opener.

There’s a new experience to be had every day. Savor them.

Curses, itinerary, garden update, and other miscellany

July 14, 2007

Remember the old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times”?

(If you are Chinese and this is not an old Chinese curse, please don’t write to tell me so. I’ve had enough interesting times this week.)

Tuesday was one of those days when the universe says, “Go with the flow, but don’t get caught in a rapid.” I got up in the morning with my whole day planned, did nothing I had planned, but had an interesting day anyway.

When my writing appointment got cancelled by the other person’s ill health, I finally made 6 quarts of sauerkraut. Then I drove into town to have dinner with Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney (and 4-5 others) and to hear Debra talk about writing the memoir. Great evening, but I had forgotten to take my ibuprofen, and by the time I got home, my pleurisy was acting up big time and I barely made it to bed.

Wednesday I got up feeling a little better, picked 3 quarts of blueberries and did assorted miscellany, figuring I’d drive to town in the morning to get the size canning jars I wanted for the blueberries (the same size I gave away dozens of earlier thinking I’d never use them again). But I tried to cook dinner on the barbecue, and somewhere in the process I stepped on (I think) a big rock that had wandered onto the patio from the driveway, and it sent me flying.

Spatula in one hand, grilled bun in the other, flailing, I flew across the yard (I think I actually collided with my truck in the driveway, causing most of the damage) and landed hard, resulting in a bunged-up knee and several cracked ribs.

So I’ve been pretty much out of service the last couple of days.

Today, I can actually put some weight on my knee even while I’m flexing it, so I have high hopes that I’m recovering there. My ribs still feel like someone is sticking knives in me every time I move wrong, but I’m sure they’ll get better also if I just give them a year or so. What some people will do to get out of hoeing in the garden. . .

So for the last couple of days I’ve spent most of the time reading the new library books I had the good sense to check out when I was in town on Tuesday. I got a book about the thirty-mile fire in Washington, Susan Sontag’s last book of essays and speeches, and a wonderful book of poetry by one of the members of one of my writing groups.

The garden is coming on hard and fast, so I can’t afford to be laid up. I picked another quart or two of blueberries today, Brenda got me the jars I wanted in town, and I’ve been canning. Of course fresh blueberries are far better than canned, but we will have these long after the fresh ones are gone.

The lettuce is almost done, but the summer squash is almost ready. The first baby green beans are there (that’s a canning marathon I’m not looking forward to, but I love my canned green beans), the first tomato will be ready within a day or two, also the first cucumber, the dahlias have buds, the roses and snapdragons have exploded, and once again I’m really sick of berries. It’s definitely summer.

Now, Ralph and Brenda are here for burritos, and I must fly.

Gardening and the right to life

May 18, 2007

Lord, I am tired. Spring here is that time of year when everything has to be done at once for the rest of the year to happen as it should. This is complicated by the fact that for the last 7 years or so I’ve worked in town and was here an average of about 40 hours a week, including sleeping time. For the last 4 years, I was also going to school and burning up my vacation time with residencies and my weekend time with studies and papers, so frankly, everything was a mess. So I’m playing catchup.

I’m in triage mode. My daily activities are to some extent determined by what will cause the most damage if it’s put off another day.

The garden is very high priority at the moment. We have a short growing season, and if I want to grow hot weather things like tomatoes, I have to monitor every available opportunity to do soil prep and so forth and plan it in such a way that I’m not having an impact on the ability to do some things like tilling with power equipment at a later date. It’s been nuts.

But I am determined to grow a ripe watermelon at least once in my life.

I know things will settle down in a couple of weeks when most things are planted and it becomes mostly an issue of keeping water on. In this regard I have created a monster for myself this year, resurrecting four separate flower beds and a full garden, not to mention the hanging baskets and herb benches and all of that stuff. Plus I have about 24 baby trees in pots to nurture.

I’m a lousy gardener. I don’t have the strength to cull out the weak or extra plants. I want them all to grow, so tomorrow instead of thinning things like the spinach starts I’ll be carefully transplanting them and applying extra water to help ensure that they all survive. It’s stupid, but to just yank out surplus plants seems so wasteful.

If you haven’t already figured this out, I love growing things. I love the changing of the seasons, the way things struggle to make their way on the earth, and I really enjoy helping them out a bit.

Today Brenda and I visited a couple of neighbors up the valley who grow plant starts, and tomorrow is going to be one of those days that makes my body hurt. I was much saner than usual about my purchases, because in the forefront of my thoughts was this refrain: “If you buy it, you have to get it in the ground.”

But I’ve still got about 30 pickling cucumber plants to go in and God-knows-how-many Bodacious corn starts, and green and purple basil, Sugar Baby watermelons, and three kinds of onions. I have my home grown starts–four kinds of squash and long seedless cucumbers. I also have a bunch of herb seeds (special nightmare those-if the weather holds they’ll have to be watered at least three times a day). The herbs are critical for making the squash a gourmet treat and the little cucumbers into crispy pickles and the tomatoes and jalapenos into wonderful fresh salsa.

The cauliflower, broccoli, and an exorbitant amount of cabbage are growing leaps and bounds. The beans are up and thriving, the raspberries in full bloom with their early crop, the blueberries setting fruit, the little plum tree and Royal Anne cherry loaded with fruit.

Plus we have to get the new blueberry harem netting up, which means finishing the weeding in the last third of the bed and laying down the rest of the wood chip mulch. I was tired when I started this. Now I’m exhausted.

Birds of the Big Elk; DIY adventures

May 11, 2007

I am taking an enforced break from my assorted projects today because all of the batteries I need at the moment are dead. So I’ve started the generator and will give them at least a partial charge. I’ll tell you about the project, then about some rather amazing birds from the last few days.

I’m trying to hang some closet-pole-type hangers from the back porch supports for my hanging baskets. I’ve got the holes drilled, but the only suitable screws I could find are square drive. I have a square driver, even one of the right size, but it has to go into a screwdriver body. I don’t have a square driver that has its own handle.

I have a very good Ryobi drill/driver and I stole a battery from one of the Ryobi flashlights. But the body is too fat to fit in where it needs to go. So I got out my little Makita with the tilt head. It fits just fine, but I haven’t used it in over a year, so of course the battery is deader than a doornail (what does that mean, anyhow?). So, when the Makita battery is ready, I’ll go finish the job that’s 80% complete. Technology has stopped me once again.

We’ve got a ton of birds this year, and I’m really enjoying most of them, the exception being the wild pigeons that are trying to steal our small cherries and plums. We’ve discovered that pigeons apparently have an attention span of 28 minutes. That’s how long after you scare them away that it takes them to return. And they are very smart, but that’s really long story I’ll have to save for another time.

Yesterday in the garden I saw a young bald eagle. He was so new his feathers hadn’t changed color yet. He was trying to fly with the turkey vultures, but they flew so much more gracefully and effortlessly than he did that I think he became embarassed. At any rate, he soon flew away.

Ben and I saw a pair of golden eagles up above the ridge. I think they were getting ready to mate, but they flew off up the valley so we didn’t get to watch. I’m not a voyeur, but I’ve wanted to see that ever since discovering Walt Whitman’s fabulous poem “The Dalliance of Eagles.”

The hummers are at war around the feeder. There are two ruby-throated females. They are the most territorial and aggressive of the lot, and I think they spend more energy duking it out than they get from the feeder. They’ve been beak to beak several times just today.

There are also two of the little green ones. They are much smarter. They fly into the nearby trees and just wait quietly until the two red ones get so mad at each other they fly away with one chasing the other. Then the little green one hops on the feeder and eats her fill.

Today Ben and I were sitting on the deck watching the hummer wars when a male Western tanager flew up and lit on a branch about 6 feet from our heads. He just sat and watched us for awhile. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one, but they have bright yellow bellies and neon red heads. They are very lovely. He also did us the favor of calling, so now we know for sure what at least one of their calls is like. Finally he ambled off.

Of course there are also robins and juncos everywhere. There’s also a bird that I haven’t identified yet, but I will. I need a better bird book. The Audobon guide has too many with too little detail and variation in the pictures, and my Pacific NW Audobon field guide doesn’t have enough.

I’ll bet you’re tired of my complaining, so I’m going to go check the barbeque. The bird stuff got interrupted by Ben, who came up to the house to see why I was running the generator during the day. When I gave him my long song and dance story, he said, “Oh for Pete’s sake! Where do you want them?” “Where the holes are drilled, I’ll show you.” In five minutes he had them both up and I had my baskets hung. I was actually sort of hoping for that. He’s a foot taller than I am and had a much easier time of it.

I’ll take a picture in the next couple of days, but right now I’ve got so many half-finished projects going on in the back that it looks like Ma Kettle lived here, and I’d be embarassed to show you that.