Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas from The Homestead Laboratory!

Wishing you an awesome holiday season with lots of fun, craziness, and extra eggnog!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Yuletide Strata

We're nearing the new year, which must mean it's time to close out the 2014 strata campaign with a tasty dessert strata tot help use up leftovers from holiday baking.  Coincidentally, this strata is also dressed like Santa (or Bucky Badger).  Let's get to it!

In the usual strata fashion, we made layers, but without the normal meat or vegetable components.  Here are the layers this time around: bread (as usual), whole cranberries, white chocolate chips, and a mixture of yogurt and cream cheese.  We used about three cups of cranberries and 1.5 cups white chocolate chips per layer.  The yogurt/cream cheese mixture was about 1.5 blocks cream cheese (12 oz) and 2 cups plain yogurt, to which we added about a teaspoon of vanilla extract.  (So, 0.75 blocks cream cheese and 1 cup yogurt per layer.)

There are two layers each of bread-cranberries-chocolate chips-yogurt/cream cheese.  These layers are inundated with an egg mixture, which in this case was sort of like eggnog: six eggs, three cups milk, 1/3 cup sugar, 0.25 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1 teaspoon cardamom.

The whole shebang went in the fridge for several hours to steep.

Then it got baked at 350 °F for 50-60 min until it looked like this. (i.e., sort of a Bucky Badger/toasted marshmallow hybrid, or maybe Santa after coming down the chimney of a lit fireplace.)

We cut the pan into eight servings, one of which looked like this.  Like our berry strata, this one isn't quite as filling as most.  But it makes one heck of a dessert.  Good stuff, Maynard!

The recipe:
6 cups whole fresh cranberries
4 cups white chocolate chips
12 oz cream cheese (1.5 blocks)
2 cups yogurt

6 eggs
3 cups milk
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cardamom
0.25 teaspoon cinnamon

Mix the yogurt and cream cheese together well.  Layer the bread, cranberries, chocolate chips, and cream cheese/yogurt (chogurt) mixture in a 9" x 13" pan, starting with bread and ending with chogurt, aiming for two layers each. Beat together eggs, milk, sugar, cardamom, and cinnamon. Pour over layers and set in fridge for several hours or overnight. Bake at 350 °F for 50-60 min, until top is golden brown and kitchen smells like toasted marshmallows. No condiments needed, but make sure to get your protein and veggies somewhere else, or your mom will be really mad.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Flours in Your Hair

Earlier this year, we were having some trouble with our bread loaves, namely, that our bread slices would fall apart.  We're pretty messy eaters, so no one really noticed anyway, but it was still inconvenient for us.  We tried everything we could think of, assuming the problem was altitude-related.  More flour, less flour, adding eggs, longer kneading time, lower fraction of whole wheat, shorter proofing time...nothing worked well.

In a classic case of not doing our homework, we had been using Hungarian High Altitude flour as our bread flour, since we're living 5600 feet above sea level. (That's high altitude, right?)  But apparently, the 'high-altitude' refers to where the wheat was grown, not necessarily that the flour is tuned for baking at high altitudes.  Eventually, we got some specifically high-gluten flour from an Amish grocery store the last time we were home to Wisconsin, and poof! Good bread again.

When we finally checked the specs on our 'high-altitude flour,'  we found it had a measly 3 g protein in a 30 g serving, or ~10% protein.  Most flours that are 'good for bread' are in the 13-16% protein range, so that could have easily been our problem. (Although gluten isn't exactly the same as protein, it is does contribute to the protein content, and the two are usually correlated, at least for wheat flour; more discussion here.)

Back to the Amish our experience, these stores have a huge selection of flours.  Which one is best for bread?  Which ones aren't bleached or bromated? The bags just have the brand name and variety, so we can't tell  what's what when we're actually in the store.  What we really need is a database of all the flours and their attributes, collected in a table in a readily-accessible place like a blog. Minions! To the spreadsheet!  Other minions! To the internet!

A few hours of searching later, and we know all kinds of things about the Amish store flours.  Note: if your local purveyor of flour has other varieties you're interested in, sources 1 and 6 have brands/varieties that aren't included here.  Sources: [1] Dutch Valley Foods. [2] MichiganSPARC. [3] [4] Mohamed et al. [5] Wheat Montana. [6] King Arther Flour. [7] Package nutrition info. [8] King Arthur Flour Community. (If you have trouble finding links to the specific product specs, we have more specific links in some cases.)

In case you were wondering...bleaching and bromating are chemical processing steps that make flour whiter and better for some applications (including bread).  But bleaching makes flour white by removing 'carotenoid pigments,' usually by reacting them with benzoyl peroxide. Bromating improves dough characteristics by oxidizing some compounds needed to form gluten, usually through reactions with potassium bromate.  While both of these compounds are oxidants, and are (in theory) fully consumed in the flour treating and baking processes (i.e., converted to nontoxic substances), bleaching is unnecessary and removes nutrients, which have to be added back in.  Residual bromates are toxic and suspected carcinogens.  Outside of the U.S., many countries ban bleaching and bromating agents for those (and other, less chemistry-related) reasons (see also here, here, and here).  Usually the ingredients section will list "bleached flour" and/or "postassium bromate" if those processing steps have been included.

So, why do we care if the flours are bleached and bromated? 

[stepping on to soapbox]

Bleaching is primarily an aesthetic step.  While it helps gluten formation somewhat and removes some oils that can go rancid (thereby increasing the flour's shelf life), we think that those benefits are more than offset by the nutrient removal that also happens in the process.  Furthermore, the aesthetic benefits happen anyway if the flour is allowed to stand exposed to air (or more specifically, to oxygen).  It doesn't appeal to our line of thinking that food production should be more complicated and less nutritious for primarily aesthetic reasons. 

Bromating, in addition to being unnecessary, might pose some legitimate health concerns, especially in home baking operations where the processes aren't perfectly controlled.  If the bread isn't cooked long enough or to a high enough temperature, the bromates don't break down, and we would end up eating them.  While they are generally present in very low amounts, the possibility of consuming bromates in any quantity seems like an unnecessary risk.

It's just flour production--keep it simple!

[falling off of soapbox, hoarse and exhausted]

So, there you go.  Next time we're home, we'll probably be looking for some Wheat Montana or Sir Lancelot flour to make our sandwich bread.

What's your go-to sandwich bread recipe, and what kind of flour(s) do you use? Let us know in the comments section below!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Strata Verde Con Cerdo

Uh oh.  We got busy and missed the deadline for our November strata-of-the-month recipe.  Fortunately, we had a chance to make one this weekend, which means December will have two!  What a lucky month.

We had some salsa in the fridge from our green tomatoes that we've been trying to use up, but we had a lot of green tomatoes.  'Lot' is a technical term meaning 'enough to make more green salsa than you can use.'  Or at least, we thought it was more than we could use until we realized we had a world-class Ohman pork roast in the freezer, a big block of Monterrey jack cheese in the fridge, and were sitting in the heart of a region known for chili verde (often con cerdo).  And that we were overdue for making another strata.

We cooked the pork roast in the crock pot overnight, then shredded it like we were going to make pulled pork sandwiches.  We put half of it in a 9 x 13" pan on a layer of bread, then topped it with about 3 cups green salsa and 6 ounces shredded Monterrey jack cheese.

Then we added a second set of bread-pork-salsa-cheese and poured an egg mixture over the top.  The egg stuff had 6 eggs, 3 cups milk, a teaspoon each of salt, pepper, and onion powder, a quarter teaspoon of cayenne powder, and a tablespoon each of garlic powder and dried rosemary.  (You may have heard the old adage 'where there's smoke, there's fire;' in our house we say, 'where there's pork, there's rosemary.')

Set the whole shebang in the fridge overnight (or at least a few hours) until all the flavors become friends...

...then bake at 350 °F for 50-60 min until the top layer of cheese is brown.

When it cools down, you can eat it!  This is one of our favorite stratas so far.  It made us feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but that may have also been from the cayenne.

What's your favorite way to eat green salsa and pork?  Let us know in the comments section below!

The recipe:
2-3 lbs. pork roast
6 cups green salsa
12 oz. shredded cheese (we used Monterrey jack)

6 eggs
3 cups milk
1 tablespoon each of garlic powder and dried rosemary
1 teaspoon each of salt, pepper, and onion powder
0.25 teaspoon cayenne powder

Cook the pork roast in a crock pot until tender, and shred.  Layer the bread, pork, salsa and cheese in a 9" x 13" pan, starting with bread and ending with cheese, aiming for two layers each. Beat together eggs, milk, and remaining seasonings. Pour over layers and set in fridge for several hours or overnight. Bake at 350 °F for 50-60 min, until cheese on top is golden brown and screaming 'eat me!' Sour cream and diced tomatoes are acceptable condiments.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

DIY Breakfast Cereal: Müsli!

...we interrupt our series of crab apple posts to bring you a message about breakfast cereals...

There comes a time in every man's life when he begins to wonder, "what if I didn't eat cooked oatmeal with brown sugar and raisins for breakfast every day?"  As excellent a dish as cooked oatmeal is in terms of nutrition, flavor, inspiring creativity (what if I added cinnamon?), staying power, and economics, it can't compete with cold breakfast cereal in terms of preparation time.  (scoop oats, pour milk, cook for two whole minutes in the microwave?!, stir in sugar and's a good five minutes before we even get to the eating part!)

Fortunately, there is a way to combine the best parts of both oats and cold cereal.  Enter müsli (or muesli or müesli).  Raw oats are surprisingly edible, and mixing them with dried fruits, seeds, and nuts makes them even more so, without requiring the added sugar for cooked oatmeal (or granola, for that matter).  Here's how we make a week's worth of breakfasts in the five minutes it takes to prepare a single bowl of cooked oatmeal.

Into a one-gallon jar, we add 3 cups whole rolled oats, 2 cups each of sunflower meats, raisins, sweetened shredded coconut, and chocolate chips, then another 2 cups oats.  The exact ratios aren't critical, nor is the ingredient list. But make sure to leave room for the scoop!  There's probably a strategic way to pour in the ingredients to optimize the different densities (material and bulk) for rapid and uniform mixing, but we don't know what it is.

Then we shake, rattle, and roll the jar until everything is mixed to our satisfaction, so weekday morning breakfasts are just pour-and-play.  Make sure to take out the scoop while mixing, or it'll get lost in there.

Hey, that looks like a pretty good breakfast!

What do you eat for breakfast?  What's your favorite muesli recipe?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Monday, November 24, 2014

More Fun With Crab Apples 3: The Juice

We continue our crab apple-themed posts (the original, part 1, and part 2 here) with some ideas for what to do with the juice part--the water the crab apples were boiled in, after straining out the apple solids.  Let's get to it!

Idea #1: Liquid pectin.  It's just the aforementioned liquid fraction. Boiling solublizes the pectin, so it's essentially a hot water extraction of the crab apples.  Pretty easy!  Check if it's strong enough by adding one teaspoon liquid pectin to one tablespoon high-proof alcohol (91% rubbing alcohol (isopropanol) or 95% ethanol), and waiting a minute.  If the gelatinous mass can be picked up with a fork (example in fourth photo here), it's strong enough.  If not, boil the liquid pectin down some more and try again.  To use in jam, take one cup liquid pectin per four cups fruit pulp and five cups sugar.  Mix pectin and fruit pulp, bring to a boil, mix in sugar, return to full rolling boil.  Boil one minute, pour into hot, clean jars, and process in a hot water bath or pressure canner, or by whatever method you prefer.

Idea #2: Crab apple-ade.  We take the liquid, dilute it by half with water, and add a teaspoon of sugar per cup to sweeten it.  Sweet-tart and refreshing!

Idea #3: Crab apple wine.  There are a few recipes here and here, but we're usually a little more cavalier about the process.  We'll post more details on our home wine-making adventures in the future, but our general process is this: Measure the specific gravity of the juice (left), add enough sugar so that the yeast will make enough ethanol to kill themselves...

...add the yeast to a half cup of the sweetened juice and let it sit for a few minutes to proof...

...then put everything in a stainless steel pot with a bungee cord-secured towel to keep out fruit flies. (Or 'primary fermentation vessel' if you want to sound legit.)  It stays here for about a week, then gets transferred to a carboy (or jug) with an airlock and left for several months while the yeast finish their magic.  When fermentation stops and the specific gravity shows sufficient alcohol to kill the yeast, we check the flavor and bottle it up! (Again, more details in a future post.)

Idea #4: Powdered pectin.  Remember the test to see if the liquid pectin solution is strong enough? Commercial powdered pectin is made by a similar process.  We tried to recreate that process on a kitchen scale.  We took one cup of the liquid pectin plus a half cup of 190 proof ethanol.  That precipitates a lot of the pectin as a gel...

...that can be filtered out of the liquid.  Don't throw away that liquid!  That would make for some very expensive pectin!  Instead, mix it with some Celestial Seasonings tea, and you'll have a Colorado Iced Tea.  What's up now, Long Island? (Note: the liquid has a very high alcohol content, so you don't need much to make a very potent drink.)

The filtered pectin gel can be collected...

...dried like fruit leather...

...baked at 150 °F until crispy, frozen, and ground with a mortar and pestle into a powdered pectin product. (In retrospect, it might be possible to skip the food dehydrator and freezing steps.) Our pectin is darker than the store-bought powdered stuff probably because we didn't do any of the washing steps that the commercial producers do before they dry and grind. This was a lot of work for a little pile of powder, but we were able to make it using only things we already had on hand.  It would also store longer and in less space than the liquid stuff, if we didn't have to use this whole batch right away to answer the critical question: does it work for jam?

We took some raspberries out of the freezer and made a mini-batch. (The sure-jell recipe called for one packet of pectin powder (about 0.25 cup) for 5 cups fruit and 7 cups sugar.  We ended up with about two teaspoons of our powder, so we cut the recipe to 1/6 scale.)  We also ran a control (without pectin; jar and toast on left in photo) to see if the jam would set on its own just from the sugar.  While both batches set, the one containing pectin is noticeably firmer (but still spreads easily). So, our powdered pectin made a difference! Yay!

Idea #5 (bonus!): Crab apple molasses.  In our first attempt to make powdered pectin, we tried just drying down the liquid pectin to a solid.  But instead of a light-colored substance to grind, we ended up with this dark-colored, gummy stuff.  So we tasted it.  It's good!  A lot like molasses, but with an apple flavor.  Time to make some crab apple molasses cookies!

We took our favorite molasses cookie recipe (thanks, Grandma!) and swapped regular molasses for crab apple molasses straight up. A couple things we found out: our crab apple molasses is a lot harder than regular molasses, and doesn't mix with the cookie dough very well.  We heated it up, and that helped some, but there were still chunks.  That's why it looks like we made craisin cookies in the photo.  In fact, Katie thought they were craisins at first! The chunks are chewy and sweet-tart, so it really is hard to tell a difference.  So far, 100% of household correspondents have concluded that the cookies are tasty.

What do you do with your crab apples?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

More Fun With Crab Apples 2: The Sauce

A couple weeks ago we wrote about our plans for processing as many of our crab apples as we could before the deep freeze hit, and we've been busy experimenting ever since.  We had twelve ideas for what to do with the crab apples, which we wanted to break up into blog posts for 'fresh,' 'liquid,' and 'sauce.'  (Two other ideas--put the raffinate in the compost and feed it to the chickens--are pretty self-explanatory and don't really need their own post.)  We didn't manage to get them all picked before freeze damage hit, so the 'fresh' category will have to wait until next year.

But in the 'liquid' and 'solid' categories we've had some success (by our standards, at least), and so we wanted to post our results here as a baseline for other researchers to reproduce in their own labs and develop further.  First up: the solid portion! This is the sauce obtained after boiling the apples to soften, straining out the water, and passing them through a crank-style food strainer (we call it a berry grinder).

Idea #1: Applesauce.  Easy as that--eat it straight up.  It's pretty good, but tart.  We kind of settled on a ratio of 1 cup sugar to 6 cups sauce as the optimal balance of sweet and tart.  If we're feeling really sassy, we'll add some cinnamon.

Idea #2: Crab apple butter.  We took four quarts of the sauce, added 2.5 cups sugar, and cooked it down to two quarts in the crock pot.  We also added some cinnamon and allspice (about two teaspoons each), and nutmeg (about 0.5 teaspoon).  It's thick, but easily spreads out onto lots of things. this toast that just became 1000 times tastier!

Idea #3: Crab apple jam.  Kind of like our rhubarb-crab apple jam from a few weeks ago, but using only crab apples this time.  We used the liquid pectin that came from the same crab apples (of course!).  Eight cups crab apple sauce plus two cups liquid pectin equals ten cups total, which needs ten cups sugar (we used eight cups white plus two cups brown).

Looks pretty good, and it set right up! We've got a lot of peanut butter sandwiches to eat before next summer.

Idea #4: Fruit leather (our favorite).  Cookie sheet, silicone baking mat, and a 1/8" thick layer of crab apple sauce (still mixed with sugar in a 6:1 volume ratio).  We set the oven to its lowest temperature (150 °F for us), and it took 9-10 hours to get to the right consistency.

And when it did, it was awesome.  Best fruit leather we've ever made (although that's admittedly a small sample size).  We tore off the left side like two hungry velociraptors fighting over a roast pheasant. (Don't laugh, we've seen it happen.)  We picked a whole 'nother bucket of crab apples just to make more fruit leather.

Hey, look! It's a crab apple fruit roll up!  We're not professionals, but that silicone baking mat is.  We also made a batch in the dehydrator, but it took longer to dry and stuck to the tray.  It was so beat up by the time we got it free that we had to eat it immediately, just to put it out of its misery.

Idea #5 (bonus!): We also happened to find out that a pretty mean crisp can be made with the sauce (plus 6/1 sugar).  It doesn't have large apple pieces, but it does have all the other essentials of an apple crisp: tangy apple flavor in a fruity fruit layer, crispy crisp topping on top, and an irresistible attraction to vanilla ice cream.  For the topping, use a ratio of one cup each whole rolled oats and brown sugar, 0.75 cups flour, and 0.5 cup butter, almost melted.  (That amount will be good for a thin layer on a 9" x 13" pan.)  Sauce goes in the pan first, topping patted down on top, and whole shebang baked at 350 °F until crispy and delicious.  Can't go wrong!

Stay tuned for some experiments with the liquid!  In the meantime, what do you do with your crab apples?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

End of Tomato Season Deliciousness

At the end of the gardening season (in places with seasons, anyway), a gardener always has to make a decision on when to call it quits.  At some point, the summer veggies slow way down and have to be babied to keep them from getting frostbite, providing an annual test of a gardener's patience.  What is the cutoff?  We'd like to say we have some fancy algorithm figured out, where we take the derivative of the day length multiplied by the angle of the sun's trajectory which is divided by the number consecutive nights with frost forecast for the coming week or something, but we don't.  It usually works out that if we've had to cover things at night for more than about a week, the next available weekend day is slated for putting most of the garden to sleep for the winter.

On said weekend day, we usually find ourselves with a large pile of tomatoes in varying stages of ripeness.  From the nearly ripe and softball-sized beefsteaks all the way down to completely green cherry tomatoes that are probably only a few atoms in diameter, we do our best to rescue them all from direct sacrifice to the compost pile. (We also save some whole plants to let ripen on the vine in the garage, but mostly we pick the tomatoes straight away.)  What's our protocol for dealing with the sudden influx of tomato refugees? Read on and we'll reveal the methods to our madness. (Or at least, convince you of our madness.)

First, we sort everything into three categories: "Use now, has spots/cracks/etc," (Slytherin, top), "Use now, perfectly ripe," (Gryffindor, lower right), and "Let ripen on counter," (Hufflepuff, lower left). Peppers also have their names thrown into the sorting hat.

Among the Slytherins, we trim any bad spots off the greenest ones, and start converting them into one of a few end products.  Our current favorite is a green salsa-type sauce.  Other options we've considered are green pasta sauce, and any of these.

For our salsa-sauce, we boil the green tomatoes in a little bit of water until they start to soften, blend 'em up with the stick blender, and season with salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, dried oregano, dried chives, and garlic.  A guess at how much we added to around 3 lbs tomatoes (also a guess) is 1 tablespoon each of salt, pepper, oregano, and chives, 3 tablespoons garlic powder, and 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper.  Katie says that's too much cayenne.  Jake says it's about right for a salsa in the 'hot' category.

The key is to keep adding spices until it tastes right.  Lots of testing and empirical recipe development make for a fun and filling night!

When the sauce finally tastes right, it goes in jars in the fridge, to be used on chips, nachos, eggs, potatoes, pork, and other things.  It might also go into containers in the freezer, if we have any handy at the time.  The red and partly-red tomatoes in the Slytherin basket get a similar treatment, but the sauce might be more of a pasta sauce, depending on our mood when we're dumping in the spices.  Any spotty peppers also end up in one of the two sauces.

For the Gryffindor basket, we're likely to turn the tomatoes into a pasta sauce straight away.  The good peppers go in here, too, along with an onion, and they get boiled up as for the Slytherins.

Blended up, too.

But for a thicker sauce, we like to save some time and energy with the old t-shirt-inside-a-colander-inside-a-bowl trick.  This way we don't have to boil off all that water.

We keep scraping the t-shirt with a wooden spoon to keep the water going through, and before long the sauce is nice and thick.

The filtrate is a nice tomato-ey juice (or a V-3 juice in our case, since we added peppers and onions), and can be drank directly, or mixed with Mary seasonings to provide refreshment during the next death match breakfast.  For what it's worth, if we have an electric stove (at 65% thermal efficiency) and pay $0.10/kWh for electricity, we're saving more than $0.09 per quart of tomato juice recovered.*  Booyah!

The filter cake goes back in the pot with some seasonings (salt, pepper, oregano, and lots of garlic, to taste).

Mix in some browned up hamburger meat, slap it on some spaghetti noodles, top it with a little parmesan, and we've got something tasty to go along with some roasted potatoes!  (Don't forget to top the taters with sour cream and some of that green sauce from up above.  Ketchup is for heathens.)  The Hufflepuffs we can wait patiently for as they ripen on the counter.

*Calculation assumes vaporizing water at its boiling point (2260 kJ/kg), 8.34 lb/gal of water, and standard conversions of 2.204 lb/kg, 3600 kJ/kWh, and 4 quarts/gal.

What do you do with your end-of-season tomato influx?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

French Toast Death Match

Now that our hens are laying eggs at a pretty good clip, one thing we've been eating more (in an effort to keep up with the eggs) is french toast.  We've been making regular french toast, stuffed french toast strata, and now, baked french toast (which is kind of a hybrid between the other two).  This morning, we had two of those recipes square off: it was a death match between the incumbent standard french toast and the newcomer baked french toast.  It was a good fight, but we both ended up preferring the baked version.  For the blow-by-blow recap, keep reading.

In one corner: the incumbent!  With a snazzy stove-top sizzle, lightning-fast cook time, and years spent perfecting the recipe, it's Standard French Toast! [applause and cheering.]

And in the other corner: the challenger!  An upstart that boasts a slow-roasting, house-filling aroma and hands-free preparation with no standing over a hot stove or flipping individual slices, it's Baked French Toast! [smattering of polite applause.]

They'll face of here! The hallowed venue of The Homestead Laboratory's Dining Room Table! They've got the best accoutrements available, with homemade Marys (bloody or virgin), freshly-made, vanilla yogurt-glazed fruit salad, piping hot tea and real maple syrup!  Who will win? It's bound to be an epic battle!

In the end, we both thought that the baked french toast, even with its unoptimized recipe, was the better of the two.  The main thing was that the extra soaking time in the batter made the end product more custardy, which we liked.  Plus, while it was baking, we could make a fruit salad, steep some tea, and set the table without risking a burnt slice.  The process for making the baked version was just to dip the bread in the batter and lay it in a baking pan as shown in the picture above (we added some extra cinnamon, should remember to grease the pan first, and will do it in a bigger pan next time!). Same batter as the regular version.  Bake at 375 °F for 20-25 min covered, then 15-20 min uncovered.  We got the idea from Martha, but decided not to be as fancy.

And, just in case you're wondering, our standard batter recipe is approximately the following, all beaten together:
6 eggs
0.25 c. milk
2 Tablespoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon

It's usually enough to batter 8-10 slices of bread.

What's your favorite french toast recipe?  Let us know in the comments section below!