Sugaring Sunday & Pie

 Imogen’s heavily glittered Christmas decorations still spin and dangle from the curtain rail above me. They catch the sunlight while the birds chirp outside. We understand their chirps mean spring is coming even if it got down to 11 degrees Ferinheight last night. The day promises warm sun and we are in the mist of sugaring season; when the maple trees (which are many here in Maine) are tapped for their sap which is boiled down to maple syrup. 

And last Sunday, sunny but bitterly cold with a single digits wind chill, was Maine Maple Sunday. So we drove over to Chase Farm in Wells, bundled up and hurried from the car into their warm farm shop to taste this year’s syrup. 

They harvest the sap and then put it into a huge steel machine with a tank on top and a woodburner below. The wood fire heats the sap and clouds of steam billow up the chimney and off the top of the tank. The sap gradually thickens and the sugars in it burn to a caramel color. 

Tiny paper cups of warm syrup were then passed around on a tray and we sipped, as if tasting a fine wine. The syrup was nutty, sweet but not tooth achingly so, and much loved by my two kids! 

I love the idea of a community ritual to celebrate spring. Long New England winters are beautiful and cozy, but the end of winter is surely a thing to be celebrated. We do eat maple syrup occasionally, but I have found myself eating it less and less because it seems too sweet to be healthy. But, that said, a small sip of warm syrup in the room where it was made surrounded by the trees it came from is well worth doing once a year to celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of spring. 

Pie is something that is well worth eating more than once a year. Ever since I found the best and easiest pie crust recipe I have been a big fan of pie. And here in Maine our favorite type is apple and blueberry.   

We all adore pie but I don’t make it that often. So we have started a new birthday tradition: instead of cake we have pie. This was my birthday pie at the end of last month.         

Apple Blue Berry Pie

For the crust
250g whole wheat pastry flour
225g salted butter (two sticks comes to just under this amount and works fine)
110g water

For the filling
4-5 Macintosh apples
1 cup blueberries fresh or frozen 
2 Tbs whole wheat pastry flour
1 tsp cinnamon
80g honey 

The instructions for the crust are found here. I’ve added more water because the whole wheat flour needs it. 

For the filling peal and slice the apples. Put them in a large bowl and add the blueberries. Then add the flour and cinnamon. Stir to coat the fruit. Add the honey and stir to coat. Let this mixture sit while you roll out the crust. Seal the edges, prick the top, and bake at 350F for about an hour. Until the pie bubbles and the apples are soft. 


Alaskan Pancakes



A couple of weekends ago I had left the pancake batter to ferment for 24 hours. I knew it was likely to make more sour tasting pancakes, as after 12 hours or so the bacteria out pace the yeast and create more sourness, but when I tasted the first pancake off the griddle it was way too sour. My one year old agreed – he’d taken a bite and then dropped the rest on the floor. 

Looking at the rest of the batter I suddenly remembered something I’d read in one of Sandor Katz’s books. In Alaska during the gold rush sourdough was a vital food-stuff. It didn’t freeze (as long as you kept it on your person over night) and it kept people healthy. I had never heard about this and was fascinated but the practical fact was this: in order to take the sour taste out of their pancakes Alaskans added baking soda. And so with a bowl-full of sour batter I added 1/2 a teaspoon of baking soda. The batter instantly foamed and the pancakes puffed on the griddle like I’d used buttermilk (of course buttermilk pancakes call for baking soda too!). They were light and fluffy and not one bit sour. Success. 

So here is the Alaskan version of the pancakes. I’ve also suggested adding all the water for the overnight soak as this makes a very smooth batter with no risk of lumps when you add the extra water in. 

Alaskan Pancakes



24 hours in advance or overnight soak:

  • 50g starter
  • 170g water
  • 150g whole wheat flour

When you are ready to make the pancakes add:

  • 75g melted butter
  • 19g honey
  • 2 eggs
  • Pinch salt

Mix well, then add:

  • 1/2 tsp baking soda

Cook on the griddle as you would any pancake. 

Sunshine and Starting a Starter

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These days the sun is lightening the sky as we get out of bed, not an hour after, and we sit down to dinner and sunset, not dinner in the dark. The birds are singing and swooping. The signs of spring are in the air, even though the ground is covered with a heavy blanket of snow that will last for months yet. But I don’t mind. I love the sunlight on snow, the white and blue world with pin pricks of red cardinal and green pine. Somehow I don’t need the green grass and sprouting bulbs to feel spring. The sun does it all. Knowing that this sun will only get stronger until the snow melts and the heat seeps into every living cell, and we all bask in the warmth for the summer is enough for me.

I have always known that I love winter, but I have only just realized how much I love summer too. This past one, our first back in the States, was so hot. Feeling warm everyday, all the time for days on end, was not something I had felt for 11 years. I missed it. And now I look forward to the hot sun again this summer; to that easy feeling of being outside in shorts, t-shirt and bare feet; to knowing it will be hot again tomorrow and the next day and the next. Winter has made me appreciate summer more than ever, but it will come soon enough. For now, I will ice skate under the blue sky surrounded by white fields and be happy.

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There is a lot of advice about starting a wild yeast starter out there but as I’m likely to be putting up several posts that use it here is my own version of starting a starter.

You can do this with any flour but I recommend using tap water as I’ve killed off a starter with filtered water before. I use rye flour because I love rye, but it is supposed to have a lot of microbes on it which help to start the starter so it might be a good choice to get things going. You can always switch to feeding your starter a different kind of flour later on.

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Day 1
In a glass jar mix 45g rye flour & 50g water. Cover with lid but do not seal tightly.

Day 2
The starter may look bubbly or not. Either way add 45g rye flour and 50g water and mix well.

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Day 3
Same as day 2.

Day 4
If you are getting bubbles remove 150g and then add 45g rye flour and 50g water.

Day 5
Things should be bubbly now. In the morning take out 15 g of starter and put it in a clean glass jar. Then add 25g rye flour and 27g water.

In the evening take out 50g of starter and throw it away. Then add 25g rye flour and 27g water.

Day 6 and thereafter
Cull (or use) & feed the starter twice a day. So if you are going to make pancakes one night put the 50g of starter that you were going to trash into a bowl and follow the recipe instead. Remember to feed the starter too. If you don’t bake with the starter throw the 50g away and feed. The yeasts need fresh food to eat frequently.
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Pollan and Pancakes

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Getting back into a routine is hard. In the last eight days we have had three feet of snow, 3 snow days, 5 days of fevers. And so today when the snow is plowed, school is on, and the fevers are gone we all seem crabby. Out of sorts at having to readjust back to the rhythm of daily life. Or perhaps it is more a feeling of being stretched by coping with the changes to routine. Either way it meant a whinny walk to school, and Imogen heading off to her line still teary-eyed. I hope seeing friends and familiar faces has calmed her.

For my part I wonder at how we manage to keep doing all of the things we do even with Mother Nature telling us to stay inside and rest. The plows come, we shovel out, we carry on.

Over the last month I’ve devoured Michael Pollan’s book Cooked. So much of the book sticks with me but what caused instant changes in my kitchen were the chapters on bread and fermentation. In the bread section he explains that bread made with a sourdough starter is both easier for humans to digest and more nutritious. It turns out that that the wild yeasts and bacteria in the starter digest the wheat in a way that makes it easier on the human gut and that unlocks more of the nutrients in the wheat making it accessible to us in a way that commercial yeast can’t (one study even shows that Celiac Sprue patients have no reaction to wheat that has had a long ferment with a sourdough culture). The idea that the wild yeasts and bacteria in a sourdough culture and wheat have co-evolved with us to help us get the most nourishment from what would otherwise be an indigestible grass seems logical. They help us digest the wheat and we make sure the wheat is milled and mixed with water so they can eat it. Symbiosis.

With that, I was off on a quest to change all of our wheat based recipes to use fermented dough – whole wheat flour and water that had been “eaten” by a sourdough culture.

The quest continues, but some things turned out “spot on” right away. Like pancakes. I can’t get enough of these yeasty, homey, wholesome pancakes. With butter, raw honey and cashews they make a great snack. The kids gobble them up too.

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Pancakes
Makes approx 24 pancakes

The night before mix until combined:
50g sourdough starter (ours is rye flour based but any starter will work)
150g whole wheat flour
110g water

Cover and leave to rise.

In the morning add:
2 eggs
75g melted butter
60g water
19g honey
Pinch of salt

Whisk together until batter is smooth. Make pancakes as you usually would.

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Perspective and breadsticks

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As we walked home from school yesterday with Imogen whining about the cold whilst clinging to my left hand and Rhys nursing in the sling on my right with Imogen’s back pack dangling off that same right arm, all bundled like snowmen, I thought about how I would look back on these days in 20 or 30 years time. Would I remember?

Now, it seems impossible that I could forget the sling digging into my back while Rhys nurses because I can’t let go of Imogen to sort it, or the way I had to assure Imogen with every single step that the turkey necklace she made at school was still on her and blowing in the wind behind her back. Every moment of the day demands my full attention and it is hard to see past that moment into a future where neither Imogen nor Rhys needs my hand.

It is not that I wish to speed ahead to those days but that I sometimes find if I can project imagines of the future for myself then it changes how I feel about today’s reality. It is as if by looking ahead I can already look back at today with a knowing smile and think, “Oh yes this time will pass. It was often hard but it will pass on to other times that are sometimes hard too but in different ways.” And this perspective is comforting before my head comes back down to the present moment.

Sometimes the present moment can be pretty good. Yesterday afternoon Imogen and I “ran the bakery” while Rhys slept. We made these delicious bread sticks, and while they proofed, graham crackers. Both recipes are from Alana of Eating from the Ground Up and can be found in her book Homemade Pantry. I have had this book out of the library for about 5 months now. I guess it is time to get my own copy.

As usual I’ve changed the recipe a bit – omitted the sugar, switched to whole wheat flour and used a wild yeast starter rather than dry yeast (though I have made them with dry yeast before). This version was excellent. Packed with favor – crunchy and chewy at the same time. My kids both loved them.

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Breadsticks
110g water
142g whole wheat flour
40g rye or wholewheat wild yeast starter
3/4 tsp salt
1 Tbs olive oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp basil

The night before, mix the flour and water until combined. Cover and let sit.
In the morning add the rest of the ingredients and kneed well. Cover and let rise in a warm place for at least 6 hours.
Kneed the dough into a ball then cut into 8 wedges. Roll each wedge into a long stick. Place on a baking tray and leave for 30 minutes to proof.
Preheat oven to 350F and bake for approximately 25 minutes. If you want them really crunchy go longer. Ours were crunchy outside and chewy inside.

Spritz Cookies for Christmas

Outside our new house the blue sky expands over my head and the sun shines on bare tree branches. Beyond the pine trees I can just make out the Salmon Falls River. Inside I snuggle my sleeping son in the warmth of our wood stove while my daughter is at pre-K down the road. This afternoon we will stroll down to our local library – a sunny kids’ section in a church that has newly been remodeled into a library – where we spend many hours coloring, playing, reading, talking to new friends. After that we might go to one of the shops on Main Street. (The new fabric store is exciting for Imogen.) Or maybe we will meet friends at the park, even in the cold. We are likely to run into at least one person we know on every outing: one of the unexpected benefits of living in a small town. We will come home to toast and art projects while Rhys naps.
These details of our new life in Maine make me happy.

There are, of course, plenty of struggles over sharing: both toys and attention. And upsets over spills and “ruined” projects. We talk about Winchester and Gretchen the green bus. And I miss the cathedral and the river walk. But my days here and full of kids, friends, trees, geese heading south and the long low whistle of Amtrak trains. I missed Maine. I am glad to be home.

And so for a taste of home I made these spritz cookies. Buttery, sweet and very light, they disappear fast. As it is Christmas I have made these sweeter than I might have otherwise. They have turned out so good I don’t think anyone would notice the lack of refined sugar or the whole wheat flour.

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Spritz Cookies
Adapted from the
Joy of Baking

225g unsalted butter (2 sticks will be close enough this amount)
100g honey
2 eggs yolks
1&1/2 tsp vanilla extract
260g whole wheat flour (Bob’s Red Mill Whole Wheat Pastry Flour works well).
1/4 tsp salt

Leave butter out to soften for several hours. By hand or with beaters cream butter till fluffy. Add honey and beat well. Add egg yolks and vanilla and beat well. Mix in flour and salt with a wooden spoon.

Scoop into a spritz cookie machine and press onto the baking tray according to your machine’s instructions.

Bake at 350F / 180C for 8-10 minutes depending on the shape,* until the edges are golden brown. Remove to racks and cool. They will firm up as the cool.

*Shapes that are very delicate have not held together for me – so skip ones with holes in the middle. Christmas trees or snow flakes are good.

Family Dinners

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Preparations
In the early days of our coupledom it was both of us in the kitchen. Chopping, frying together. He had his specialities and I had mine. When I started working from home, I did the cooking whilst he commuted home. It was my chance to wind down, listen to In Tune on radio 3, and create whatever I felt like for dinner.

Now with a toddler about, dinner preparation is sporadic. I may do a few things during the day – get the beans boiled, scrub the potatoes, chop an onion, have a little helper snap the asparagus with me. And then when Daddy arrives, I try to slip into the kitchen as soon as possible to get dinner ready before it gets too late, before the toddler is too hungry, before the toddler demands me back. Some nights that is how it feels. I slip away to get a few sacred moments to myself worried that my revery will be shattered at any time. Other days I am open to the intermittent hugs, or sips of ‘bobo’, or games of pretend that are required in the middle of my cooking. Lately I have been unworried by the time, knowing that it’ll all get done. You see, the toddler is getting older and although I may be called away a lot, I know I will be able to get back to it.

Occasionally I don’t get back to it and Daddy pitches in. After nearly three years of his having to consult me at every step (I almost never cook from a recipe, so the recipes were all in my head), we now have a chalk board in the kitchen and I have started writing up the menu so that now, when he needs to take over, everything that needs doing is on there. It works beautifully.

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Dinner is Served
Ding ding ding goes the dinner, I shout upstairs as I take the plates to the table. Most days this brings Daddy and daughter to the table, perhaps after a short delay to finish a game. Some days she says she is not ready and I eat the hot meal by myself. Usually they appear before I finish. When the toddler does make it to the table, her first words are ‘read a book.’ So one of us reads whilst the others eat. It is not the family talking time that I have in mind as ideal, but it keeps her at the table and eating for a little while and means that both of us can eat (well, I don’t mind reading with my mouthful but my husband is a bit more polite).

Occasionally now, she even gets down and plays by herself whilst we talk about our days which is rather amazing.

The Gluten Free Girl
This is not a typical post for me, but I’m doing this as part of Shauna’s let’s talk about family dinner Monday. The Gluten Free Girl website has been so immensely useful to me in the last 11 months (yep it is almost a year gluten free!), that I wanted to participate as a way of saying thank you. They are promoting their new book which I know will be as great to read as it is to cook from. I am thinking it might be a good happy one year of gluten free present to myself. Anyway if you know anyone who is gluten free point them in the direction of this cookbook: The Gluten Free Girl Every Day.

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