Saturday, November 30, 2013

Okay, we’re back in business, now what?

So much water has gone over the dam since July, I hardly know where to begin. Do I talk about the harvest season in August and the 148 liters of tomato sauce we made with our usual crew? Or how about the fact that we actually got a decent harvest from our apple tree this year – without using chemical sprays. There was some smoking, too, that went on as well, although none of it was cold. We made some marvelous al fresco meals, too. There was baking being done and some fantastic desserts, and now that winter has finally gotten us in its grasp, our basement is finally the perfect temperature and humidity for us to start curing and dry aging some of our favorite salumeri.

Maybe I should talk about it all over the next few posts. Good idea, Blechta. Make a note of that.

Let’s start by updating something a bit more topical: our Christmas Fruit Cake. I shared this recipe in a post last year. It’s a worthy cake, but something we have tweaked over the years in an attempt to make it perfect (at least to our tastes). By now, we probably tweaking the tweaks. This year’s version was no exception.

Normally, we use a loaf pan such as the original recipe on the back of a Bushmills postcard called for. Problem was, as we added more fruit, it was difficult to get the cake to cook evenly because it was so dense. Vicki had a solution which we tried this year. It involved adding a half teaspoon of baking powder for a bit of lift, but also cooking the cake in a 9-inch round springform pan. The results were much improved. The cake cooked more thoroughly in the center (because it wasn’t as thick in the round pan) and the powder helped it rise just a bit, making it less dense.

But already we’ve spotted next year’s tweak: insulating strips for the outside of the pan to keep its sides cooler so the outside edge of the cake (nearer this heat) doesn’t cook markedly quicker than the center where it’s farthest away from a heat source. Bake-Even Strips (made by Wilton) are insulated pieces of fabric that wrap around baking pans to keep the sides. I bought them at a kitchen supply store a number of years ago and the results from using them have been uniformly excellent. Simply soak them in water for about a half hour, then wrap them around your baking pan(s) and pin them tight. By the time the cake is done in the center, the outer edge are nearly as high and the cake is much more evenly cooked. If you bake cakes, I highly recommend them. We bought two sets (for 4 strips), so we’re ready for any eventuality depending on pan sizes.

Why I didn’t think of using them with our Fruit Cake this year is a question for another day.

So our 2013 Fruit Cake is lovely except for the outer edge being slightly dry. This has been mitigated nicely as the Jack Daniels we poured over it after baking has soaked into all corners of the cake, but I know using the strips next year will solve this year’s problem. And help the cake rise a bit more.

Next post: our winter curing season begins. Right now we’ve got a half dozen hog jowls hanging in our basement. In three weeks, our guanciale will be ready! And guess what? We’ve tweaked that recipe, too.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Hey Blechta! Where have you been?

Pheasant, mushroom & leek pie for a very special dinner.
That’s a question I’ve been forced to face in several email inquiries over the past four months. The last time I did an entry here, it was the middle of summer. The weather was hot and fine and my wife and I were celebrating a milestone wedding anniversary. (Has it really been that long?) Now we’ve had our first snow (a dusting) and it’s darned cold outside. Time has a habit of marching on if you don’t pay attention.

Unfortunately, postings to this blog have to be done when I have time – and a willing spirit – and the former has been in very short supply since I last wrote here. I fully intended to start posting regularly again, but well, my three other jobs kept getting in the way. During that time, I completed two novels and began sketching on another, completed a fair bit of design work, and started a band. There was also about fourteen days-worth of vacation in there as well.

I have been doing a lot of cooking during the interim and collecting press clippings (can one call them that when all the clippings are electronic?) on various topics upon which I’d like to prognosticate and invite comments.

We cured and smoked a twenty-pound ham for (Canadian) Thanksgiving. We hot-smoked bacon once or twice. I cold-smoked some cheese when it was a bit to hot to do that. (The odd shapes this produced garnered some “interesting” remarks when we served it to guests.) We smoked ribs a few times, as well. (I am still not satisfied with the results we’re getting which will be a topic for a future post.) And of course the smoker was often busy, filled with almonds for my son Karel’s gourmet nut business.

In the kitchen, we’ve been developing a few recipes that I will enlarge on over the coming months. Since most are totally appropriate for the colder weather we’re now enjoying, I hopeful they’ll be welcome.

Speaking of which, with our basement finally cool enough to hang some meat for dry aging, I’ve started in on my usual curing endeavors. Right now we have eleven pounds of hog jowls curing in the bottom of our fridge. I decided that this year I’m going to do our guanciale all at once rather than in groups of two or three. I’m hoping to get a commercial grade, light-duty vacuum sealer as my big Christmas present next month and that will be right on time to seal up our guanciale for freezing and use later in the year. We’re also going to make some pancetta for the first time and of course there will be lonzino, a particular family favorite.

Karel and Jan have been clamoring for some more bacon, so once the guanciale is done curing, I’ll cure a few pork bellies and we’ll double smoke a whack of our birch beer-flavored bacon for everyone.

With Christmas on the way, we’ve also made our usual fruit cake, and while it’s a bit late to share this – since this sort of thing should have been started by November first at the latest – we made two small changes to our tried and true recipe and based on a first tasting the other night, they are definitely for the better. This year’s cake is our best ever.

So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I should have fewer problems standing in the way of posting more regularly moving forward, so watch out for updates. There is some good food and stimulating food topics coming down the pike for everyone.

One last major thing: there will be talk of homemade baby food on the horizon since we’re going to be dusting off our recipes, now over thirty years old, since our other son Jan and his lady Rena produced our first grandchild six days ago. Welcome Jackson Reno Blechta. Expect some good food in your future!