Friday, December 27, 2013

What to Bring to Holiday Gatherings? Pull-Apart Pumpkin Bread!

Several weeks back we were standing in our kitchen, enjoying a glass of eggnog, and discussing the upcoming holiday travel season.  "What should we make for all these family gatherings?" we asked ourselves, since 'gathering' and 'potluck' are nearly synonymous in the Midwestern dialect.  Katie showed off her googling skills and came up with a recipe for Pull-Apart Cinnamon Sugar Pumpkin Bread with Buttered Rum Glaze.  The recipe is amazing, but the name is quite a mouthful, so we've started calling it just 'that pull-apart pumpkin bread.'

Another feature of our family gatherings is that the food is always fresh, which means that the kitchens of all of our relatives are always occupied in the days leading up to the event...which puts anyone traveling across the country to be there at a certain disadvantage for making a fresh dish themselves.  Katie hypothesized that it would be easier to find oven time than whole-kitchen time, so she devised a plan to make up the dough ahead of time, freeze it for the cross-country trip, then let it thaw in the fridge overnight upon reaching our destination, and bake it early in the morning right before everyone woke up. (...woke up to the smell of fresh pumpkin bread, that is!)  We've had mixed success with that approach since our yeast doughs that have been frozen or refrigerated for extended periods often don't rise quite right, or at least do so quite slowly, which makes the time needed difficult to predict.  But, we're happy to report that this recipe appears to be amenable to the extended freezing/refrigerating regimen we put it through!  Here's what we did:

First, we browned the 2 Tablespoons butter, added milk, and let it cool to ~115 °F.  Then we added the yeast and 0.25 cups sugar, and let it proof until it looked bubbly on top like this.
While it was proofing, we measured out the pumpkin, salt, and 1 cup flour.  Hey, look!  We've got two different kinds of pumpkin in there!  One must be from a can and the other from a real pumpkin.  We've found this recipe is a good way to use up pumpkin left over from making pumpkin-flavored eggnog or pumpkin/squash butter.
We mixed in the pumpkin, salt and first cup of flour, then added the rest of the flour bit by bit while kneading in the mixer, then let it knead for another six minutes.  The texture is like a really soft bread dough.
Then we let it rise for an hour or so...
...formed it into loaves, and put it in the freezer for a few days.
When we got home for the holidays, we thawed the dough in the fridge, then tore off and golf ball-sized chunks and smooshed them flat before coating them in the butter-cinnamon-sugar-nutmeg mixture.  Then they got stuffed into a greased bread pan like the photo shows.  Any sugar mixture left over after patting as much as possible into the rolled-out dough got sprinkled on top.
We let it rise in the oven until the top of the loaf was just at the top of the pan, then started baking it.  The first time, we learned the hard way that it's better to put a pan underneath to catch any drippings, otherwise the baking stage doubles as a smoke alarm test.
When it was done baking, we added the last mix of butter and sugar, this one accompanied with milk and rum.  We have yet to see one of these loaves survive for more than six hours out of the oven.  In fact, our families are more often like pumpkin bread piranhas--when provoked, they can skeletonize a loaf pan in under two minutes!

For the detailed recipe amounts and other instructions, check out the original posting on SunnySideUp.

What do you bring to your holiday gatherings/potlucks?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Year-End Accounting

When the end of the year rolls around, many folks look to balancing their accounts, making sure pennies and receipts are all accounted for.  We do something similar, but with our marshmallows and chocolate.  If we didn't use them up eating S'mores in the summer, we make a big batch of Christmas fudge with the leftovers.  (Ok, sometimes we get marshmallows and chocolate just for making fudge, but we use up the leftover ones first.)

It took a little digging to find a recipe that didn't call for marshmallow fluff or corn syrup, but we found what we were looking for in Lori's Best Ever Fudge.  (Thank you, Lori, whoever you are!)  We've made several variations over the years, with many different kinds and combinations of chocolate and sugars.  It's a pretty robust recipe, as long as we respect two factors: first, don't cut down on the sugar or it won't set up right, and second, the flavor is much better if a variety of chocolate types are used (i.e., don't use just milk chocolate).  We've made a couple variations to the process, too, so we decided to document our first batch this year.

All it needs is six simple ingredients.  Butter, sugar, marshmallows, milk, vanilla, and chocolate.  Hard to go wrong with that combination!
Add the butter, milk, and sugar to a big pot and start it heating.  The sugar can be brown, white, or anything in between.  (We wait to add the vanilla until later.)  In the meantime, grease a cookie sheet (11" x 16" or thereabouts) and count out 25 marshmallows.
If you greased the cookie sheet first, tearing the marshmallows into quarters will be less sticky.  If not, you can challenge Katie to a thumb war afterwards.
When the milk, sugar, and butter have heated up and been boiling for 2 minutes, add the quartered marshmallows.  We don't remove the pot from the heat at this point since it cools down too quickly and we want all the marshmallows to melt.
Almost there!
When the marshmallows are all melted away into the mixture, turn off the stove and add a heaping 4 cups of whatever chocolate you've got on hand--chocolate chips, old M&Ms, discount chocolate chunks from the Amish grocery store--just make sure you've got about half that is semisweet or unsweetened.
Stir until the chocolate meets the same fate as the marshmallows.  There might be a few bubbles, but that's ok.  Add the vanilla extract now.
Pour the whole shebang into the greased cookie sheet.  Make sure to scrape the pot out with a spatula.
Put it in the fridge overnight or until it sets up nice and hard.  The background isn't overexposed in this photo; that's just what heaven looks like.

The recipe:
1 stick butter
1 cup milk
2 cups sugar
25 marshmallows, quartered
4 cups chocolate, about half semisweet or dark, and half milk chocolate
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Heat butter, sugar, and milk together until boiling, boil for 2 minutes or so, then add marshmallows.  Stir until marshmallows are melted, then turn off stove and add chocolate.  Stir until chocolate is melted, then add vanilla extract, mix well, and pour into greased 11" x 16" cookie sheet.  Chill several hours, or until fudge is firm.  Cut into 1" squares if other people are around, into 3" squares if not.

What is your favorite fudge recipe?  What ratio of chocolate types do you like?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


A while back (way back, like before the Homestead Laboratory), we got half a pig from a local farmer.  The pig was processed at a local meat market, and we got a variety of cuts--chops, roasts, loins, even some bacon.  But, we wanted to try curing our own bacon as well, since the art (and science) of curing meat is something we've been wanting to learn.  Bacon is most commonly made from the pork belly, but other cuts, such as jowl, will work, too.  The meat market made their bacon for us from the pork belly, and our jowl probably ended up in the ground pork pile, so we ended up with one lonely package of uncured side pork to use as the basis of our experiment.  We're happy to report, after concluding our experiment this weekend, that our homemade bacon is what Minnesotans would call 'pretty good.'  Here's how it went down:

Our saga starts with a package of sliced, uncured side pork.  Why they decided to slice it up we have no idea.  It's about twice as thick (in most places) as the thickest thick-cut bacon we've ever had, but not thick enough to qualify for any other type of cut.  Maybe this was the part between the ribs, but it sure looks like it was sliced on a slicing machine.  Most recipes call for a large chunk of meat, so now we'll have a chance to see if pre-sliced works, too!
We based out recipe mainly off Meathead's maple bacon recipe here (it's just a little brown sugar, salt, pepper, and maple syrup), except we ignored the part about pink salt and the water (although our sea salt is slightly pink-colored).  Why did we ignore the part about the pink salt?  Oh boy, here we go...

<begin rant/discussion about preservatives in cured meats>
There are plenty of articles out there on the Internets claiming that there's no reason to fear nitrates at all (or that they may even be beneficial in small amounts).  However, the problem is not primarily from nitrites/nitrates themselves (unless you're susceptible to blue baby syndrome, i.e., a baby too young to eat bacon), but from nitrosamines that form when the bacon is cooked. (See also here.)  There was even consideration years ago of eliminating nitrite preservatives altogether...except that nitrites do a great job of preventing botulism.  Then it was found that adding a second preservative, such as ascorbic acid or an ascorbate salt (vitamin C), inhibits nitrosamine formation.  Problem solved, right?  Not quite.  Cooking conditions seem to play a significant role (not only the temperature, but the oxidative environment, as discussed in the study linked above), even if there should be enough vitamin C to prevent nitrosylation.  Although strong conclusions are incredibly difficult to draw from dietary studies, no one seems to doubt that nitrites heated to bacon-frying temperatures with amines commonly found in meat form nitrosamines or that nitrosamines are almost certainly carcinogenic.  Similarly, the scientific literature strongly suggests that inhibitors like vitamin C may or may not completely eliminate the risk.

For the homestead bacon-maker, there's another catch: he's now got to find two additional (industrially-manufactured) ingredients that he probably doesn't have on-hand (internet availability of pink salt and ascorbates notwithstanding).  Fortunately, neither are really needed, and there are plenty of recipes available that don't require them.  The majority of the flavor comes from the seasonings in the cure and the smoke (whatever the carcinogenicity of the smoke is...).  Note that adding celery salt or juice or other forms of non-standard salt preservatives are usually still adding nitrites/nitrates, just not as a pure component.

So, our take on nitrates/nitrites in cured meats is this: why bother?  We're going to cure the bacon in the fridge, cook the bacon at temperatures high enough to destroy any botulism spores or toxin, and store it either in the fridge or freezer.  It's not an industrial product with days in transit or on a semi-refrigerated grocery store shelf, so the risk that adding nitrites would prevent is negligibly small for us from the get-go.  In other words, the notion that our bacon-handling procedures will not expose us to botulism seems like more of a sure thing than the notion that adding nitrites plus ascorbic acid (if we had them on hand) will not result in carcinogens upon cooking the bacon.
<end rant about preservatives in cured meats>

Hey, look!  There's almost-bacon on the kitchen counter!
Anyway, we mixed up the cure ingredients well and added it and the side pork to a plastic bag.
And then mixed the cure and the meat together, and gave it a good massage.  The key to good bacon is to have the meat relaxed and stress-free...and also to have the cure evenly distributed across the meat.  Most recipes we've seen call for letting the bacon cure for 7-10 days, but the cure ingredients don't really go into the meat until it gets heated up.  So, why wait for a week when we can get the same effect in a couple hours at elevated temp?  We were going to let it go overnight so the salt would dissolve and disperse, then smoke the next day.  But then we got distracted, left for a Thanksgiving trip halfway across the country, and didn't get back to the bacon until a couple weeks later.  So we'll try 'instant bacon' on the next round.  In the meantime, if you know of a good reason why we need to wait 7-10 days, leave us a comment below!
Finally, with a little daylight time on the weekend, it's smokin' day!  We started up the grill with some homemade charcoal (more on that soon, hopefully), with a layer of hot charcoal on top and a layer of cold charcoal underneath.
Then added a couple chunks of cherry wood (apple, hickory, and oak are our other favorites, but cherry is what we had on hand)...
...and set up the grill for two-zone cooking shown here...
...then put on the bacon-elect to smoke.  Ahh! The cherry wood caught on fire!  Put the lid on, quick!
Half an hour in and it's lookin' good.  We had to keep checking to make sure there was enough wood and charcoal.
When the internal temp of the bacon reaches 150 °F, we're done.  It took about 2 hours for us, but in reality, we could have used a little less smoke.
It looks like it's already cooked, but it has a little ways to go yet.  On the other hand, it works very well in it's current state to make the kitchen smell like smoky maple syrup.  Ladies, take note: perfume with this scent will make you irresistible to men (especially Canadian men).  Men: a word of caution for the same reason.
We decided to finish 'er off in the oven.  Baked bacon!
This bacon can be highly recommended for use on sandwiches with ranch dressing, cheddar cheese, spinach, and tomatoes, accompanied by Katie's buffalo-flavored cauliflower and some apple cider.  As a side note, this bacon may also cure headaches when taken in conjunction with a two-hour nap.

Hey, this is kind of a lunch meat, the production of which is one of our goals for the year! (Half a check-mark for this one.)

Have you made homemade bacon before?  What's your favorite recipe?  Have you used a meat other than pork?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Missile Nog

It's interesting to us how many of our Christmas traditions center around the simple task of decorating the Christmas tree.  Listening to the Grinch song on repeat until Katie can't stand it and turns on Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Jake hanging the hideous homemade ornaments from his childhood front and center on the Christmas tree (one is a matte gray-painted styrofoam ball with colorful snowflake-shaped sequins sporadically glued to it, affectionately named the 'Death Star'), Katie discreetly moving those same ornaments to the lower back portion of the tree before visitors stop by, and, of course, drinking eggnog.  For an occasion such as this, there must be eggnog!

"What should we do to make this eggnog unique?" Jake asked Katie

"There's no need to--it's December and people are already drinking regular eggnog for Christmas," said Katie

"But, but..." Jake protested

"Just make some regular old eggnog so we can decorate the tree!" Katie interjected.

So here we present, somewhat dejectedly, a standard recipe for making normal eggnog.  But wait!  What if it's served under mistletoe?  Then it could be missile nog!  Ok, that works.  To give full credit, everything but the pasteurization step comes straight from sister-in-law Julia.  Thanks, Julia!

Start with 3 cups a milking and 12 eggs-a-yolking.  Beat the egg yolks until thick and light yellow, then mix in the milk.
Heat to 160 °F to kill any salmonella-a-lurking.
Mix in one cup-a-sugaring and another 3 cups-a-milking.  Cool to one room-a-temperaturing.
Pour into eight cups-a-waiting and garnish with two pinches-a-nutmegging and two pinches-a-cinnamoning.
Make sure Katie has to go under the mistletoe to get hers.  Then surprise her like a heat-seeking missile with a smooch! (And you thought missile nog was a stretch...)
Make sure to enjoy at least one glass each while decorating a Christmas tree.  Or a Hanukkah bush.  Or a Kwanzaa shrub.  Or whatever you're into.

The recipe:
12 egg yolks
6 cups milk, divided into two batches of three cups
1 cup sugar
2 pinches nutmeg per glass
2 pinches cinnamon per glass

Beat egg yolks until thick and yellow, then mix in 3 cups milk.  Heat until 160 °F, mix in sugar and then remaining milk.  Cool to room temp (or colder), pour into glasses, and garnish with nutmeg and cinnamon.

What are your tree-decorating traditions?  How many of them involve eggnog?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Knotty Spruce

When we said back in February that we wanted to learn new knots, the knot we had in mind (although we didn't know it then) was the trucker's hitch.  It's one of the best knots for tying stuff, such as a canoe, pile of lumber, or Christmas tree, onto the top of a car.  Of course, the advent of ratchet straps has made knot tying on cargo a dying art, but we had a chance this weekend to, well, practice a dying art.  Actually, as long as we're at it, why don't we try to see how many knots we can use in this exercise?

The first step is to head out in -9 °F weather to find a tree.  Tying knots with frozen fingers builds character!  Looks like this lovely specimen is an Engelman Spruce, Picea engelmannii, with crowded growing conditions and a buck rub on the trunk.  Yup, this must be our tree!
When we got it back to the car, we laced it up in a tarp to keep the branches from flapping in the wind and/or scratching our car too much.  (Some of these pictures might seem out of order since we forgot to bring the camera on the trip.  Or, yes, the national forest does look a lot like our driveway!)
We took one end of the rope and fed it through the first corner grommet, then tied a bunch of overhand knots in the same place so it wouldn't slip out.
We did the same thing on the last corner grommet, except with a loop of rope since there was a lot of extra.
With the extra we kind of mangled it together, but it's sort of a clove hitch around the loops of rope.  We tossed the excess rope inside the tarp by the tree and put the tree on top of the car.  As a side note, the site linked there is one of the best knot-tying resources we could find.  The animations are super easy to follow (like, way easier than trying to figure out what we did by looking at these pictures).
Now to affix the tarped tree to the car.  On the back side, we started with a simple noose knot, plus a half-hitch for extra security.
We threw the rope over the top of the tree to a loop at the front of the car, and finally we get to practice our trucker's hitch!  Whatever trucker invented that hitch was a pretty bright guy.  Note that making the tag end a loop instead of pulling the thing all the way through will make it easier to untie later on and work better if there is a lot of extra.  The tradeoff is that if we tie another knot with the extra, we risk pulling out this knot.
We threw the extra back over the top of the tree and tied another trucker's hitch to the inside of the car on the opposite side. (Practice makes perfect!)
There!  Secure atop the car. (Actually, this picture was taken before we tied the second trucker's hitch.  So, don't worry!  We didn't leave the rope in the wheel well like that.)
Also, since we brought along the ratchet straps to be safe, we might as well use 'em...
And we made it home with a 100% survival rate!  What a nicely shaped but sparsely packed tree.  Thanks for helping us get it home, knots!

What are your favorite knots?  Do you know of another knot-tying resource with cool animations like netknots?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mount Venstuvius

They say that when life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade.  But what about when life (in the form of your parents) give you a bag full of delicious homegrown onions and multi-color potatoes?  Katie says you should make venison stew in bread bowls!  And she is correct.

She started with four small venison chops, chopped.  Or cut into dice-sized cubes.  Proper chefs probably have different definitions for each of those sizes.  Katie picked her favorite size, and seared them up in a frying pan.
Then she found some top-notch veggies.  (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)
She chopped those up, too, and then found a couple carrots and celery stalks, which received similar treatment.  She added everything to a big ol' crock pot with a pint of chicken stock and added water to cover the rest.  She also seasoned the whole deal with salt, pepper, brown sugar, garlic powder, "a few shakes of hot sauce," and thyme so the house would smell awesome all day.
Then she set about making bread bowls.  The recipe for the dough is below.  One regular loaf makes four good-sized bread bowls.
When they're done cooking, they have a similar color to a seasoned stoneware cookie sheet, but taste a lot better.
Then Katie cut out a plug of bread from the top and scooped out most of the inside with a spoon, so it looks like the top of a dormant volcano.
But it's not dormant!  It's about to explode with venison stew and cheese!  Look out, Pompeii! Ahhhhhh!

The Recipe:
0.5-1 lb package of venison chops, cubed (or diced, or whatever)
5 medium sized potatoes, cut like the venison
1 large onion, cut the same
2 carrots, get the idea
2 stalks celery, whole! (just checking to see if you were paying attention.  Chop the celery like everything else)
1 pint chicken stock
Water to cover
Seasonings to taste: salt, pepper, brown sugar, garlic powder, hot sauce, and thyme
Flour to thicken

Sear the meat in a frying pan.  While it's cooking, chop vegetables and add to crock pot, along with chicken stock.  Set crock pot to 'high,' and add seared meat when it's done, along with water to cover and seasonings.  Cook 5-6 hours on 'high' setting, or until vegetables are tender. Adjust seasonings and add four to thicken.  We ended up using about a tablespoon each of salt, pepper, and brown sugar, and two tablespoons each of garlic powder and thyme, and about three squirts of hot sauce.  About a quarter-cup of flour was enough to thicken it to our preference.  Scoop out bread bowls, fill with stew, and top with shredded cheese.  Eat delicious volcano.

Bread bowls:
2 cups warm water (~105 °F)
0.25 cup sugar
1 t salt
4 tablespoons oil or butter
4 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 cups bread flour
3.5-4 cups whole wheat flour

Add yeast and sugar to water, allow to proof for five minutes or so.  Add oil, flour, and salt (salt last).  Mix well and knead for 10-15 minutes.  Allow to rise in warm place for 45 minutes, then punch down, form into eight bread bowls, and set on greased cookie sheet.  Cover with a towel and let rise for another 45 minutes.  Bake at 350 °F for 18-20 minutes, or until a hard crust has formed.

What do you do when life gives you potatoes and onions?  Do you have a favorite venison stew recipe?  Which of your suppers do you pretend are actually volcanoes?  Let us know in the comments section below!