Maker Monday: Gingerbread Houses!

Sometimes, it’s fun to do something finicky.

When everything in the modern world is focused on convenience, and “hacks,” and recipes that take 30 minutes, there’s something to be said for slowing down every once in awhile. Tedious projects give us the chance to build our concentration, unplug from the frenetic pace around us, and test the depth and variety of our vocabulary of curse words.

And thus, gingerbread houses.

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Cherry Season: At the Orchard

It’s cherry season!

My home state of Michigan produces 70-75% of the tart cherries grown in the US. Tart or sour cherries are the kind used in cherry pie, and they’re just about my favorite thing. The season is short, the flavor is fantastic, and getting them fresh can be a challenge. So when Bob and I went on a family camping trip just a little ways away from one of my favorite Michigan orchards, Spicer Orchards in Hartland,  we resolved to pick cherries on our way home to Chicago.

photo (4)And pick cherries we did. In a marvelous bit of luck, the day was cooler than usual, with lots of nice cloud cover, so the day was comfortable and the orchard wasn’t too crowded. We picked about 13 pounds of tart cherries, and threw in six pounds of blueberries for good measure.

I find it unadvisable to wear cute vintage clothes for serious picking.
I find it unadvisable to wear cute vintage clothes for serious picking.

Arguably, after the obvious benefit of having cherries, the best thing about picking your own is watching the cherry pitting machine. It costs a little extra, but the mechanical wonder took care of my cherries in about a minute. Since I hand pit cherries with a bent paperclip, which would have taken at least an hour, I would have paid more than the twenty-five cents per pound the orchard charged. AND YOU GET TO WATCH THE MACHINE, I cannot overemphasize that. I didn’t take any video at Spicers, but this machine is quite similar.

Oh so pretty.
Oh so pretty.

What will be done with this bounty of fruit? So far, I’ve canned six pints of cherries in syrup, made a little more than a pint of sour cherry syrup for drinks, and made a batch of cherry and a batch of blueberry scones. The rest of the fruit is going in the freezer, where some of it will await a cool day to make jam, and the rest will be used in various baked goods.

Oh so many.
Oh so many.

How do you like to use sour cherries?

Maker Monday: Make Ahead, Make Space

To take a turn on Game of Thrones: Summer is coming.

There are a lot of things I love about summer, like trips to the beach, working in my garden, not shivering while waiting for the bus, etc. However, I have the heat tolerance of a popsicle. Being excessively warm transforms me from a reasonable person into an angry, wilted mess. A hot sunny day often gets my chronic conditions a-flaring, and let’s not even talk about how easily I sunburn.

If it's over 80 degrees, it's pretty much a given that I have the vapors.
If it’s over 80 degrees, it’s pretty much a given that I have the vapors.

These various things being the case, it is not surprising that I am not keen to turn on my oven in the heat of summer. However, I’ve been baking a lot of my own bread lately, and I’d like to continue to do so. Bread baking keeps the oven going at 350-400 degrees for about an hour. The natural conclusion is to buy bread. OR bake it at four in the morning. OR bake it all now.

Enter the freezer, my hero. I’m baking loaves of bread, wrapping them up in foil, and filing them away for summer time.

Food storage has been an issue for humans for a long, long time. It’s why we learned to dry, pickle, bake, boil, and roast. It’s why we figured out canning, and refrigeration, and flash freezing. Having a ready supply of food has meant the difference between survival and death for most of history.

In more recent, vintage-y times, food storage was a way to be thrifty and prepared. Homemakers stored the bounty of their summer gardens for winter, so they didn’t have to rely on store bought products. During World War II, American homemakers were encouraged to grow and can food, so that factory produced stuff could go to the troops and people who couldn’t preserve their own food. This is why victory gardens were such a big thing, and people could get extra sugar rations for canning.

My own reasons for preparing food are a mix of thrift, preference, and a desire to shake my puny fist at our corporate food system. But since I don’t have a summer kitchen, or a root cellar, or basement, or any of the many appealing options for storage that have seen housewives through the ages, I will first have to make space.

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Maker Monday: Magic Healing Soup

So I’ve caught the plague…

Almost certainly due to a herd of little kids coughing in my face, high-fiving me with their germy hands, and general spreading their germs in my direction, I’ve been struck down with illness.

I am never this glam while sick.
I am never this glam while sick.

This has featured:

  • a sore throat
  • a kind of spooky episode of chills
  • body aches
  • so much sleeping
  • an uncomfortable amount of television
  • magic healing soup

Magic Healing Soup is something my mom invented, and I continue to make, with additional tweaks. It may or may not be actually magic, or healing, but it makes me feel like I’m doing something for my health.  Continue reading “Maker Monday: Magic Healing Soup”

Canning Without Death and Destruction

canning strip

Many people don’t can food at home because they think it will kill or sicken them.

This is a kind of extreme position.

Yes, indeed, it is possible to can at home very unsafely. However, following basic precautions and using common sense goes a long way towards keeping your canned food safe to eat.*

I think we can relax a little. I can a lot, and have not yet been poisoned. While this evidence is anecdotal at best, there’s also science on my side. Short story: if you heat things enough, and the acid is high enough, the bacteria will be dead. DEAD. Because of SCIENCE.

Safe canning is not a mystery. We know a lot about bacteria and how to prevent them from hurting us. Loads of research has been done, and basic precautions have been developed because they work. If you follow the accepted safety standards, you’re going to be fine.

The elephant in the room is botulism, of course. Botulism is fairly rare, but what it lacks in frequency it makes up for in deadliness. Unlike some other kinds of bacteria, Clostridium Botulinum, which can trigger botulism, flourishes without oxygen, in low-acid environments, and loves temps from 40-120 degrees. So food that is canned inappropriately is a perfect combination of factors to encourage it to blossom into poison. Your canning must be hot enough and/or acidic enough to knock it out, or you’re in danger. Neurotoxic danger.

Some foods are safely canned in boiling water baths, because they are high in acid. Clostridium Botulinum does not like acid one bit. If your food is low-acid, it must be pressure canned. Even if your grandmother canned green beans in boiling water for years without poisoning a single person, it’s still not safe. Don’t do it.

Botulism is at the high end of risk. You’re way more likely to ruin your canning with some other thing. Other risks include mold, yeast, and other kinds of bacteria. These may not give you deadly neurotoxic food poisoning that inhibits your breathing and disturbs your vision, but they can still make you sick or ruin all your hard work.

Reduce this risk by:

  • Canning things in the appropriate manner. Pressure can anything low in acid.
  • Using good, not rotten or over ripe produce.
  • Using clean jars.
  • Keeping your work area clean.
  • Canning for the recommended length of time.
  • Check to make sure your jars sealed.
  • If anything looks or smells weird when you open it, don’t eat it, silly!

The nice thing about home canning precautions is none of them are hard. It’s not like you need to follow elaborate procedures with a centrifuge only under a full moon to be safe. Just be clean, heat things up, follow directions and pay attention to the acid content. You’ll be fine.

*These are all my opinions, and not a substitute for legitimate safety advice. Check out your University extensions advice for canning safely in your location and altitude.