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A Very Merry Pretzel Christmas

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Soft Pretzels

Apologies for my posting laziness of late – I have been spending the vast majority of my free time working on a knitted shawl for my cousin’s wedding in February. Oh, and shoveling. Because it will NOT. STOP. SNOWING. This had to be the year I decided I was “sick of living in apartments” and wanted something “more like an actual house.” It has snowed so much, in fact, that this was the first Christmas since moving to Iowa that I decided not to make the 4.5 hour drive back to my hometown for the holidays. As Christmas drew closer it seemed more and more likely that everyone else would be stuck here too, and so we had a Very Merry Snowbound Christmas that did not involve ending up in a ditch somewhere along Highway 20.

Soft Pretzels

When I first posted on teh facespaces that I wouldn’t be making the drive to see my family, a friend replied to my post with one word: “pretzels.” This friend was hosting the Christmas party that a slew of snowbound friends would be attending, and had suggested multiple times in the past that I abandon any scientific career aspirations to run a pretzel cart which would follow her around day in and day out, delivering fresh pretzels on demand. Her brother-in-law, an Iowan living in Manhattan, also told me I had real promise as a pretzel cart lady in the big city. (Aren’t people my age supposed to drop everything and move to NYC to pursue their “dreams?” Maybe I missed that boat. Plus, that job sounds really, really cold.) Regardless of your pretzel cart career aspirations, this recipe is definitely a tasty project on a blustery winter day. The pretzels are the perfect party food, and there are many options for baked-on toppings or dips.

Soft Pretzels

The secret to these pretzels is a quick dip in a solution of boiling water and base. I had to go back to the source to figure out exactly why boiling pretzels in a basic solution is necessary for maximum deliciousness. It is actually a pretty interesting process – the heat and the base will quickly denature and break down the proteins on the surface of the pretzel, providing a bunch of shorter-chain peptides that will facilitate browning via the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction happens when sugars and proteins react with one another, producing a variety of compounds that are hard to characterize with SCIENCE! but we generally recognize as “brown” and “tasty.” (A fellow graduate student in my group was working on characterizing these Maillard reaction compounds for her PhD thesis and it was very complicated, to say the least.)

The basic environment helps speed up the Maillard reaction two different ways – first, as I mentioned above, there are more small protein pieces to react with the sugars (only one end of the protein can react, and breaking it up creates more ends) and second, the base creates an environment in which it is easier (see: thermodynamics) for the sugars to react with the end of the protein. Phew. That was a lot of SCIENCE!, but I hope you at least got the gist of it: boiling in base = brown & tasty. I have made you a drawring to summarize:


Truly authentic pretzels are boiled in a bath of lye, or sodium hydroxide as we call it in the chemistry biz. Considering it is expensive and downright dangerous to do this in your own home, we’ll stick with a slightly less exciting base, sodium bicarbonate or baking soda. This means a pretty big sacrifice on the pH scale, with the sodium bicarbonate solution having a pH around 8 or 9, and the lye solution having a pH around 13. What this means in pretzel terms is that the lye solution is going to be able to denature and break up a lot more proteins, thus producing more brown and tasty. The authentic lye-dipped pretzels would have a much harder and crunchier exterior than the pretzels produced by this method or anything you’d buy at the mall. However, this is still a basic solution and you’re going to need a non-reactive pot for the baking soda solution, something made of stainless steel or possessing an enameled coating. Stay away from aluminum and cast iron for this task.

Soft Pretzels

Soft Pretzels

Adapted from Alton Brown

Yield: 16 pretzels

Note: I made a 1.5 times batch and made the pretzels slightly smaller from the original recipe since I was taking these as a party finger food. My adjustments are below.

For the Pretzels

18 oz warm water (110-115 °F/43-45 °C)

1.5 Tablespoons sugar

3 teaspoons kosher salt

1.5 package/3.75 teaspoons instant yeast (bread machine yeast)

33 oz all-purpose flour (about 6.75 cups, I used half AP/half bread flour)

6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

1-2 egg yolk beaten with 1-2 Tablespoons water for egg wash

Coarse pretzel salt or kosher salt

Spray oil for bowl and parchment paper/silpats for pans

For Baking Soda Bath

10 cups water

2/3 cup baking soda

Make the Dough

1. If you are using active dry yeast, mix the sugar and salt into the warm water and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to proof for 5 minutes, or until the mixture begins to foam slightly. This step is not necessary for instant/bread machine yeast, although it doesn’t hurt.

2. If using instant yeast, whisk together flour, sugar, salt, and yeast. Mix in melted butter and pour in the water.  Combine with a wooden spoon or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer until the ingredients are well mixed.

3. Switch to the hook attachment on the stand mixer and knead on medium speed for 4-5 minutes, or 6-8 minutes by hand. Rinse out and oil the mixing bowl, form the pretzel dough into a ball and roll around in the bowl to coat in oil. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

Shape the Pretzels

1. When the dough is almost doubled in size, mix the 10 cups of water and 2/3 cup baking soda in a non-reactive pan, and bring to a rolling boil. Preheat the oven to 450 °F/230 °C and line two half sheet pans with parchment or silpats.

2. Once the dough has doubled in size, remove from the bowl onto a lightly oiled work surface and punch down slightly to remove gas pockets. Divide the dough into 16 equal pieces (I used my kitchen scale here). Roll the dough into 6″ ropes and allow to rest for a few minutes so that the gluten can relax.

3. Once the ropes have relaxed, continue rolling out until the ropes are about 18-20″ in length. Form into a pretzel shape and set aside.

4. Once you have formed 6 pretzels, use a slotted spoon or spider to dip them one by one into the boiling water, for 30 seconds each. Remove the boiled pretzel and place on one of the prepared sheet pans. After boiling the batch of 6 pretzels, brush each pretzel with egg wash and sprinkle with salt.

5. Bake the pretzels for 10-12 minutes, or until dark golden brown. Place on a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Serving options: Velveeta + canned chillis dip, mustard, cinnamon, butter, jam, garlic butter, etc.

This recipe takes about 2 hours from start to finish, and the pretzels are best eaten the day they are made.


The cake preferred by men of a certain age

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

I’m not sure what it is about dudes who grew up in the 70’s, but in the last five months I have had two requests from two separate guys for pineapple upside-down cake on their respective birthdays. Both of them loved it growing up, and both of them said that they hadn’t enjoyed a slice since their mothers passed away. You’ve got to respect a cake that instills that kind of nostalgia.

I made my first ever pineapple upside-down cake the day after my final PhD defense, a day in which I also assembled this monster of a cake. We were having a double party for my defense and for one of the aforementioned birthdays, and I had promised my guests multiple cakes. After baking, assembling, frosting, and ganache-ing the monster layer cake that was my defense celebration cake, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the pineapple upside-down cake is about as simple as it gets.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

You’re going to need one bit of special equipment for this cake – at least it is unusual for me, a girl who was raised cooking with Teflon. That is, you’re going to need a cast iron skillet. I’ve been lucky enough to, uh, have one “on loan” from my boyfriend’s massive cast iron collection for the past few months, since he was the one to request the cake the first time around. The pan I borrowed is a real beauty – it was his grandmother’s, and it has such a lovely patina from decades of use. I’m sure I’ll eventually need to acquire a cast-iron skillet of my own, but luckily you can find a lot of these antique beauties on eBay, or buy a new one for pretty cheap from Lodge. Seasoning of cast iron is pretty interesting and I’ll have to come back to it in a later post, but for now just make sure you follow the seasoning instructions included with a new pan, even if it claims to be pre-seasoned.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

Both of the cake recipients reported that their mothers used plain ol’ yellow cake mix for the cake part, and did not bake the cake in a cast-iron skillet. This recipe makes the cake part from scratch, and comes from Alton Brown’s baking book, I’m Just Here for More Food. Although I am a huge fan of yellow cake from a box + chocolate frosting from a can, this recipe demands something different. In AB’s recipe, cake part is slightly denser and drier and not as sweet as something you’d find from a box. Considering the cup of brown sugar and entire stick of butter that composes the upside-down part, I think it is better that the base is less like birthday cake and more like cornbread (and there is actually another recipe for pineapple upside-down cornmeal cake, also by AB).

Pineapple Upside Down Cake Pineapple Upside Down Cake

Even without using a mix, the cake comes together very quickly. The butter is melted in the skillet, and the brown sugar is incorporated to make something like a slurry. The goal here is not to caramelize the sugar – that magic will happen during the baking process. The pineapple rings and maraschino cherries are arranged in the sugar slurry, and topped with pecans and pineapple juice. The batter is assembled via the muffin method, which requires you to mix all of the dry ingredients and all of the wet (including sugar!) ingredients separately, and then combine the two with just a few quick stirs in order to ensure that very little gluten is formed in the process. (Just say no to chewy cakes!)  The entire skillet is then deposited in the oven – and after baking, once the volcanic caramel has cooled slightly, all that remains is a brave flip onto a serving platter and upside-down cake is served.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

Pineapple Upside-Down Cake

Adapted from I’m Just Here for More Food by Alton Brown

Note: You will need pineapple juice for both the upside-down part and the cake part, and the respective amounts are listed separately for each part. In total you will need 8 Tablespoons, but I couldn’t find any sort of reasonable quantity of pineapple juice at the store, so I ended up buying a 6-pack of tiny pineapple juice cans. So I just need to make 4 more cakes, right?

The Upside-Down Part

8 Tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 cup dark brown sugar

7 pineapple rings, canned in heavy syrup

7 maraschino cherries (buy the stemless cherries, they are cheaper and you obviously don’t need the stems)

1/4 cup chopped pecans

3 tablespoons pineapple juice

The Cake Part

1 cup (4.75 oz) all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 eggs, large

5 Tablespoons pineapple juice

1 cup granulated sugar

Mix The Dry and Wet Ingredients Separately

1. Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and whisk together.

2. Combine eggs, sugar and 5 T of the pineapple juice in a large bowl and whisk together.

3. Set both mixtures aside and proceed to the upside-down part.

Make the Upside-Down Part

1. Place the oven rack in the center and preheat to 350 °F/175 °C

2. Melt the butter in the cast-iron skillet over medium-low to medium heat. Add the dark brown sugar and stir until incorporated, 4-5 minutes. Turn the heat to low once the brown sugar is completely mixed with the butter

3. Place one pineapple ring in the center of the pan, and encircle it with the remaining pineapple rings. Place one maraschino cherry inside each pineapple ring.

4. Sprinkle the pecans over the top of the pineapple rings, and gently pour the 3 T of pineapple juice over the top of the mixture in the skillet.

Mix The Batter

1. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and stir briefly to combine. Be careful not to overmix – make sure the flour is incorporated, but there will be lumps.

2. Gently pour the batter over top of the pineapple rings in the cast-iron skillet, and it should spread to cover the fruit. Don’t worry if a few pecans float to the sides or top.

3. Place the skillet in a preheated 350 °F/175 °C oven and bake for 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes clean, or the cake registers 210 °F/99 °C.

4. Once removed from the oven, allow the skillet to cool slightly. Place a serving platter over the top of the skillet, and using an oven mitt, invert the skillet onto the platter. This can get a little messy, as the cake will leak caramel all over the place if you miss the center of the plate!

The cake will keep at room temperature, wrapped tightly or stored in an air-tight container, for up to 5 days.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Tree

Not your grandmother’s Chex Mix

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Chex Mix!

This recipe is not your grandmother’s Chex Mix, because it is my grandmother’s Chex Mix. It is also one of my favorite things about the holidays. This Chex Mix is spicy and salty, and way more intense than the run-of-the-mill store bought variety or the recipe on the back of the Chex box. This recipe includes crazy stuff like cayenne pepper and Tabasco sauce, and the look and smell of the spices and oil all blended together may make you want turn your back and walk away. Don’t be intimidated – once this goop is spread over a pan full of cereal and dotted with butter, just a short time in a cool oven will transform the mix into toasty, crunchy, salty deliciousness.

Chex Mix!

About that spice mix. You’re going to need a whole heckuvalot of spices that you may or may not use again until your next installment of my grandma’s Chex Mix. Beau Monde? Summer savory? Indeed these jars only cross the threshold of my spice rack but once a year.

Chex Mix!

Beau Monde: This spice blend seems to only be available from Spice Islands brand spices, which are readily available in South Dakota and Iowa supermarkets.  (Although I’ve never tried to find it anywhere else. Let me know how that goes for you.) Although the Spice Islands website claims that Beau Monde is merely a mixture of celery, onion and salt, the various internet recipes that I found also include cloves, cinnamon, all spice and nutmeg. I’m fairly certain there are no cloves in the Spice Islands version of Beau Monde, and indeed it does smell and taste mostly like celery salt. So if you can’t find Spice Islands Beau Monde at your grocery store, proceed with caution!

Summer Savory: I have also always purchased the Spice Islands brand of summer savory – however, since it is an actual herb, I doubt the flavor varies as much from one manufacturer to another. It smells to me like a more earthy thyme. The internet doesn’t really agree on its flavor profile – I’ve read it described as “spicy” and “aromatic” which is about as vague as it gets. Although I don’t really use it in any other recipes, it seems like it would be a nice addition to sausage dishes or hearty stews.

Marjoram: This spice is related to oregano, and supposedly has a milder flavor. However, in this Chex Mix we are using ground marjoram which seems quite pungent to me when compared with the dried or fresh leaf oregano I use in Italian recipes. Along with the savory, it adds a slight touch of sweetness to the mix.

Hickory Smoke Salt: This stuff is crazy powerful, and is definitely one of the overriding flavors in the spice mix. It also gives the spice blend the distinctive black goopy texture and pungent aroma. Be careful when pouring the hickory salt into the measuring spoon – this stuff aerosolizes instantly and will make you sneeze! My grandma’s original recipe calls for two tablespoons of this stuff, although I’ve been cutting back in recent years because it makes the Chex Mix very salty if you use the full amount.

Worcestershire sauce: This is not really a weird ingredient, but I would just like to say that it never occurred to me until Friday that Worcestershire sauce is fermented fish sauce, kind of like that stuff they throw in your Thai food. I had this epiphany while celebrating my friend’s successful PhD defense on Friday night, when she mentioned that the bartender at this drinking establishment would make vegetarian bloody Marys without the Worcestershire sauce upon request. Of course, the Thai fish sauce is primarily fish and salt, while Worcestershire sauce contains a slew of other savory ingredients in addition to the fish. Learn something new every day, yes?

Chex Mix!

At the bottom of the pan you'll get pieces of cereal - especially Wheat Chex pieces - that are saturated with the special sauce. I avoided them as a kid, and my mom always took care of those black squares at the bottom of my bowl. 🙂

The bulk of this recipe – the Chex, pretzels and nuts – is of course like every other Chex Mix recipe out there. But it is the unique blend of spices that makes me think of the Christmas season growing up in South Dakota. I’m going to get a little corny here for a moment, but this stuff tastes like home more than any other recipe, and I look forward to making it every year. Sometimes being a grown-up is ok, because we get to take old traditions and make them our own, and make up new traditions as we go along. This is one tradition that will be around in my family for a long time to come – a tradition that they will have to pry from my salty, buttery hands.

Chex Mix!

Nerd alert: I rearranged the Chex boxes several times in order to get their arms to match going from box to box. Yep.

Chex Mix

Adapted from Jean Kearney

A full batch of this recipe yields about 2.5 gallons of snack mix. (40 cups/9.5 liters) You can try to make a smaller batch, but I think you’re better off just getting some festive holiday containers and giving it your favorite people. It will keep for at least a week at room temperature, sealed in an air-tight container.


DO NOT BURN THIS STUFF. It is not delicious. You will know if it is burning if the Rice & Corn Chex start to get a brown edge on them. The worst part is that the butter burns at this point. Watch your oven temp and stir more frequently if need be.

-You will need one very large, deep roasting pan (or like a large pan that they use for catering) or two smaller pans that will fit the width of your oven. If you don’t have a standard-sized oven, you will probably want to make this in two batches. I was lucky to find some pans at my supermarket after searching a few stores around town –  it seems pretty tough to come by deep aluminum roasting pans these days. (Therefore I wash and reuse mine every year, and they have probably lived in 3 or 4 different apartments with me.) The disposable aluminum roasting pans are particularly nice because they are so bendable and you can easily make them slightly narrower to accommodate your oven, as you can see below:

Chex Mix!

On to the recipe!

The Spice Mix

2 Tablespoons Beau Monde seasoning (Spice Islands is recommended.)

1.5 Tablespoons hickory smoke salt (I used this quantity this year, you can use slightly less if you wish.)

2 teaspoons garlic powder (NOT garlic salt)

2 teaspoons summer savory

2 teaspoons ground or crushed marjoram

1 teaspoon onion powder

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 cup oil, vegetable or canola

2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

dash of Tabasco (or more, to taste)

The Cereal Mix

1 box each of Rice, Corn and Wheat Chex

1 bag of pretzels (I usually use about 1/2 to 3/4 of a bag, depending on the bag size, this is up to you)

2 – 11.5 oz cans of nuts, lightly salted (I usually do 1 mixed nuts + 1 cashews, because I love cashews)

3 sticks of butter (Can be scaled down by 1/2 stick or up to 1 stick, unsalted is best)

Make the Spice Mix

1. At least 2 hours before you plan on making the Chex Mix, mix all spices, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco in with the oil. Whisk the spice/oil mix vigorously to ensure a good emulsion. Cover with a piece of plastic wrap and allow the mixture to sit at room temperature for a few hours or overnight.

Make the Cereal Mix

1. Preheat oven to 250 °F/120 °C

2. Pour the cereals, pretzels and nuts into the roasting pans, being careful to distribute evenly between pans if you are using two pans.

3. Dot the cereal mixture with pats of butter, about 1/2 Tbsp pats distributed evenly over the mixture. There is no need to use softened butter here.

4. Give the spice mixture another good whisk and pour evenly over the cereal mixture. Even after mixing, the spices will quickly settle to the bottom – if you are using two pans be careful to evenly distribute the gloopy black bottom layer of the spice mixture evenly between the two pans.

5. Stir the mixture, and place in a preheated 250 °F/120 °C oven for 45 minutes Remove from the oven and stir every 10-15 minutes while baking. Be observant of the oven temperature and do not let the mixture burn!

6. Remove the Chex Mix from the oven after 45 minutes, and allow the mixture to cool in the pan for about an hour. Stir two or three times as the butter and oil may settle to the bottom of the pan while cooling.

7. Place in resealable plastic bags or tins, and enjoy for breakfast, lunch or dinner until after New Year’s. (Yes, I love to eat party mix for breakfast, why do you ask such a silly question?) The Chex Mix will keep sealed in an airtight container at room temperature for at least a week.

A few of my favorite things

Monday, December 14, 2009
tags: ,

December 8th & 9th Blizzard

Ah, winter. We had a pretty crazy storm here in Ames last Tuesday & Wednesday that dumped approximately a metric crapton of snow all over town. And then the winds decided to blow 40 mph for another 24 hours. That’s my street at noon on Wednesday, can you believe it?

Since we’re getting weather like this, it’s obviously getting pretty close to Your Favorite Solstice Giving Opportunity, and some friends of mine have been asking for gift suggestions for the food nerds in their lives. Today I’ll focus on stuff you can buy, and I’ll probably have a few posts over the next week or two about food gifts I am  making this year (and gifts I have made in the past). Feel free to add your favorites in the comments, I’m always intrigued to find out what people find most useful and awesome in their kitchens!


The Roasted Vegetable - Andrea Chesman The Bread Baker's Apprentice - Peter Reinhart

The Roasted Vegetable by Andrea Chesman: If you’re on a quest to hit that magical five servings of vegetables on a daily basis, here’s a book for you. Coming from a former hater of cooked veggies, I have discovered that almost any vegetable + olive oil + salt & pep + oven = delicious. There’s lots of great recipes in here for year round vegetable enjoyment, and tips on how to roast just about any vegetable. The friend that recommended this book to me brought the roasted green bean & potato salad to a summer picnic and it was amazing.

The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Another friend of mine complained about the quality of American bread after returning from her Peace Corps assignment in Eastern Europe, and she decided she wanted to start making her own bread. I decided to start making bread, too, and I picked up this book at the library (and later bought it) because it was laden with detailed bread theory, technique, and beautiful photographs. While the theory about baker’s percentages and flour types in the beginning of the book may be a bit much for your average beginner (I still don’t understand baker’s percentages!), there are so many different types of recipes in this book that it will continue to inspire and challenge you as you become more skilled in bread making. Just don’t heat shock a pyrex pan in your oven in the process. No really, it sucks.

Gadgets and Kitchen Helpers

Magnetic Measuring Spoons: I had three or four different sets of measuring spoons in my kitchen gadget drawer, none of them complete (garbage disposal!!!), and none of them on their respective rings. I never thought I could fall in love with a set of measuring spoons for crying out loud, but every time I snap them together and drop them into my drawer I am happy, happy, happy. They come in stainless, too, and I see they now make magnetic measuring cups as well.

Oxo Pop Storage Containers: I’ve been upgrading my green Tupperware flour/sugar containers to these Oxo Pop containers gradually over the last year. They are a little pricey, but they now come BPA free, and I love that they are see-through so I instantly know if I need to replenish an ingredient at the grocery store. They are wide at the top so you never have to worry about fitting your cup or scoop in, they are stackable, and I haven’t gotten a single bug in my flour since I started using them. They come in about a zillion sizes for everything from cereal to rice to flour or whatever random grain is on sale in the bulk bins at the co-op. I have the 4-qt size for flour, bread flour & sugar, and the 2 1/2-qt size for powdered sugar, corn meal, and other weird flours.

Bench Scraper: Speaking of bread baking, if you’re going to get into it, you’re going to want a bench scraper for scraping sticky dough off the counters, cutting dough for rolls or multiple loaves, and it even has a handy-dandy ruler on the edge for measuring the thickness of rolls, cookies or whatever. (You’re really going to want one if you’re going to get into free-form loaves rather than sandwich loaves)

Y-Peeler: Have you ever peeled a butternut squash? If you buy The Roasted Vegetable, you’re going to have to learn. And let me tell you, it is not easy. This peeler is mega sharp, grippy, and the Y-shape makes peeling large squashes a snap. Now go make yourself some kale and roasted vegetable soup, yum.

Gifts of Food

Tillen Farms Pickled Veggies: Although I haven’t yet tried these myself, I have been on the lookout for spicy green beans ever since I lived with a certain Philadelphian who was crushed when her favorite bar stopped adding the beans to their bloody Marys. These seem to be just the thing, and I’m also excited about trying the pickled asparagus and carrots. I’ve been meaning to order some ever since Marisa over at Food In Jars recommended them after trying some at the NYC Fancy Food Show.

Honey, maple syrup, vanilla beans, chocolate, spices: These kitchen staples come from places far and wide – I’ve got a quart of Iowa’s Spring Valley honey in my pantry and a pint of Vermont maple syrup in my fridge. My friend brought me half a liter (!!!) of vanilla extract back from Mexico, and I don’t think she was expecting my beyond-ecstatic reaction to her gift. These ingredients can be pricey or hard to find locally, but there are many places to find them in bulk for reasonable prices on the internet. offers fair-trade bulk vanilla beans, and Penzey’s Spices is a reputable mail- and internet-order spice dealer. The Spice House is another reputable spice dealer, and they have the ever-elusive grains of paradise that I’ve always meant to order since Alton Brown praised them on Good Eats! Or perhaps you want to buy your special someone 6.6 lbs of couverture Scharffen Berger chocolate? Obviously there are many different ways to give this gift, but I’m pretty sure that if someone gave me a half pound of vanilla beans I would love them forever. (HINT HINT HINT HINT)

For Someone You Really Like a Whole Lot

Kitchenaid Stand Mixer: Let’s say you’ve been dating someone for a while and you’re thinking about buying one of those cars that comes with the big red bow, a giant TV, or maybe some sort of sparkly rock. That’s crazy. You’re going to reap way, way more enjoyment from giving your special someone a Kitchenaid stand mixer – these things can do everything. Soon you’ll be treated to your favorite cookies and cakes on a regular basis and have fresh bread with dinner every night. Spend a few more bucks and you can eat pasta like the Italians and have a fresh, homemade gelato for dessert. What’s that, you’re worried about getting fat after eating all of this delicious food? No worries, since you didn’t buy that car or that TV, you’ve got no excuse to sit around the house, and you’re going to have to walk to the store to get more ice cream ingredients. And let me tell you, vanilla bean ice cream is quite possibly the finest way to use that half a pound of vanilla beans you’re going to get in your stocking.

A Really Sweet Dutch Oven: I have a moderately sweet Dutch oven, and it definitely does the job. However, I’ve only had it for a few years and the enamel is chipping off the bottom a little bit, and the inside is kind of scratched. In reality, most people can only afford moderately sweet Dutch ovens. However, if you’re dreaming big or wanting to impress someone with 10+ lbs of fancy enameled cast iron, Staub or Le Crueset is the name of the game.


Well, those are my suggestions for giving gifts to your favorite foodie. Again, I’d love to hear what you want for Christmas – people keep asking me, and the answer is “no more dish towels!”

Preserve a Peck of Apples – Part 2

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Canning apple butter

Over the summer I happened to purchase 3 lbs of peaches at the grocery store because it was peach season, and they were on sale. An instant messenger conversation with my friend Ryan regarding said peaches:

Me: What should I make with all these peaches I just bought?
Ryan: You should wash them and eat them.
Me: Yes, but I bought like 3 lbs!
Ryan: You should wash them and then eat them in one long peachy binge.
Me: Maybe I will make a crisp.
Ryan: So, uh, how’d you end up with 3 lbs of peaches with no plans for them?

I guess I just get a little too excited about produce sometimes. Every once in a while stuff will go bad before I get the chance to use it – and buying produce without a plan is especially dangerous in the summer when it is already really ripe and you should really use it NOW. So this summer I taught myself how to can, and learned a little bit about freezing stuff, too. I’d like to think the canning bug is hereditary, as my Grandma Jean (who I never really knew) was one badass canning lady and even wrote a cookbook about pickling and preserving. As it turns out making jams & fruit butters is kind of fun. And they taste really, really good.

My Grandma's Cookbook

So what exactly is apple butter? Basically you start with apple sauce and cook it over low heat for many hours with some sugar and spices. When the sugars start to caramelize, your sauce will darken and becomes very thick and spreadable. Apple butter is sweet, spicy and just a little tangy. To me, the final product tastes like a mug of mulled cider in a spreadable form that is best enjoyed on a toasted, buttered English muffin. In addition to breads and muffins, you might try apple butter alongside a pork roast or with some soft cheese.

Apple butter precursor

I made the apple sauce the night before I was going to make the apple butter, and stashed it in the fridge until morning. The apple sauce was surprisingly easy to make – the apples are cored and roughly chopped, and cooked with apple cider until soft and smooshy. When my apples were ready to go, I used my Grandma Jean’s food mill (for the first time since my mom “bequeathed” it upon me years ago) to remove the skins and make the apples into a smooth sauce.

Apple butter precursor

Apple butter precursor

The food mill was really, really slick, and I processed about 11 cups of applesauce in less than 15 minutes. The clips on the edge of the mill fit exactly around the diameter of my KitchenAid stand mixer bowl. If you don’t have a food mill, you could also use a fine-mesh sieve or chinoise to process the apples. If you don’t have any of these things (and don’t feel like taking a trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond), you could also peel the apples beforehand and use a fork, potato masher, or other kitchen implement to make a smooth sauce (although I wouldn’t recommend a blender or food processor, that may break down the fruit a little too much). The apple sauce was pink since I’d left the skins on, and so pretty I almost felt bad about cooking it again.

Apple butter precursor

Now to make our sauce into butter. There are a few ways to go about this: 1. Stovetop cooking, which requires a stir every 15-20 minutes for 3-4 hours on the stove (see here), 2. Adding vinegar to the mix and cooking for a little less time (see here), or 3. Hauling your slow cooker over to your boyfriend’s house which is only a few block from work so you can let it cook all day but stop by at lunch time and give it a stir. I opted for the slow-cooker method, adding sugar, spices, and lemon juice to the apple sauce in the morning, and leaving it on low throughout the day. When I stopped by to stir at lunch, there was a little bit of scorched butter on the bottom of the slow cooker, but it separated easily from the good stuff and no harm was done. At this point, I also propped the slow cooker lid open about 1/4″ with a chopstick, as things were still looking pretty saucey and not so buttery, and evaporation is key to getting a thick butter.

Canning apple butter

When I got home from work I did a consistency check on the fruit butter – Putting Food By describes the final product as “mounding” on a spoon and possessing a slight sheen. The mounding test is fairly obvious – the finished fruit butter should make a small mound on your spoon like yogurt or whipped cream instead of spreading thin like milk. All that was left to get the apple butter into jars and process it for long-term storage. If this is your first time canning, you’ll need some supplies, although you may be able to improvise with stuff already in your kitchen. (And if you don’t feel like diving into canning at the moment, you could always pour it into plastic jars or bags, and leave a little bit of headspace for expansion.)

Canning apple butter
Having a slave friend help out also helps the process go a little faster 🙂


Apple Butter

Adapted from Putting Food By and Food in Jars

The final yield for this quantity of apples was about 88 ounces of apple sauce, which cooked down to about 80 ounces of apple butter, which we canned in a variety of 8 and 4 ounce jars, and left some unpreserved for immediate eating.

For the sauce

6-7 lbs of tart apples (we used mainly Jonathan, see the apple guide for recommendations.)

1.25 cups of apple cider or water

For the butter

2.5 cups of sugar, or about 0.25 cup per 1 cup of apple sauce (I used 1 cup white sugar, 1 cup brown, and 0.5 cup of honey)

3 teaspoons of cinnamon

1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

0.5 teaspoon ground cloves

Juice of 2 lemons

(The sugar and spices are really “to taste” although most of the sources I checked recommended at least 0.25 cup of sweetener per cup of apple sauce to aid in the preservation, and the juice of at least one lemon. Spices are up to you, and you can always start with a little less and add more as the day goes on.)

Make the apple sauce.

1. Core and remove blemishes from the apples. I used a melon baller to core the apples, as you don’t have to get all of the tough bits out of the apple since they will soften during cooking or filter out when you run it through the food mill. Cut the apples into large chunks, approximately 2-3″ cubes, and add to a large stock pot or dutch oven with the apple cider.

2. Cook the apples and the cider over medium-low heat with the lid on. Keep the heat high enough such that the liquid bubbles slightly, and stir every 10 minutes or so. Cook until the apples are soft and smoosh easily with the side of a spoon, about 45-60 minutes depending on the fullness of your pot.

3. Run the apples through a food mill,  fine-mesh sieve or chinoise to produce a smooth sauce. At this point I had about 11 cups of sauce.

4. Place apple sauce in a container and refrigerate overnight or proceed to making apple butter.

Make the apple butter.

1. Add the apple sauce to the slow cooker. The sauce can also be cooked, uncovered, in a heavy oven-safe pot or dutch oven in a  300 °F/149 °C oven if you don’t have a slow cooker.

2. Whisk in the sugar, lemon juice and spices until thoroughly mixed. If you leave large pockets of sugar, these can scorch easily on the side or bottom of the pot.

3. Set the slow cooker to low, and allow to cook for about 8 hours. Prop the lid open about 1/8-1/4″ to facilitate evaporation, and stir once or twice if you get the chance. (Putting Food By does not list exact times for the oven method, but the internet is telling me 3-4 hours, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin from forming.)

4. Test for consistency by ensuring that it mounds slightly on a spoon, and seems thick and spreadable.

Fill and process the jars.

USDA canning procedures here.

1. Have a mix of 4 and 8 oz jars, rings and lids washed and ready to go. Sterilize the jars by placing them on a cookie sheet in a 200 °F oven for 10 minutes – I just leave the jars in there and remove them 3 or 4 at a time as I’m ready for another batch. (I also set the jars on a Silpat on the cookie sheet to ensure that they don’t slide around and break when moving the pan)

2. Sterilize the tongs/jar lifter, funnel and rings by placing in hot water for 10 minutes, and place the lids in a small saucepan of barely simmering water to activate the sealing compound.

3. Ladle the hot apple butter into jars leaving 1/4″ of headspace for 4 oz jars, and 1/2″ of headspace for 8 oz jars. Wipe the edges of the jars with a clean paper towel, place a lid on the jar, and screw the ring on firmly (but don’t over-tighten).

4. Process the jars in boiling water for 15 minutes. (Make sure you have a steaming basket, jar rack or dishtowel in the bottom of the pot to keep the jars from bumping and cracking) Once the jars have cooled, check the seal and reprocess any unsealed jars or use refrigerate and use those jars immediately. Store jars without rings for up to 6 months.

Apple butter on an English Muffin

Enjoy, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Preserve a Peck of Apples – Part 1

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Despite having lived in a relatively rural region for my entire life, last summer was my first foray into pick-your-own fruit, at The Berry Patch Farm, just 20 minutes east of Ames. It is a pretty economical way to get large quantities of very fresh, ripe and local produce, and it is a good workout to boot. (Especially strawberry picking, holy moly hard work.) I was a little overwhelmed with the fruits of my labor at the time (har har), because I had no experience whatsoever with any preservation techniques. Most of my berries ended up going into one gigantic cake and the rest went into my belly. I did a little more research leading up to this season, and ended up doing PYO for strawberries and blueberries this summer, and apples once the weather turned towards fall.

Central Grove Orchard

A few weeks back, we drove to Central Grove Orchard, south of Ames, to go pick apples with some friends. Said friends also had kids in tow, and spent most of their time going down the giant slide and diving into the corn pool. Yes, a pool of corn.

Central Grove Orchard

So we struck out towards the orchard without them, ready to pick some apples. There are a lot of things to think of before you get to the orchard (or the store) and I’m glad I did a little research ahead of time. Obviously different varieties have different flavors, but the texture also plays a big role in what apples are best for baking, freezing, or just general eating. Cakespy recently posted a apple-choosing guide from Pillsbury, and the orchard also gave us the heads-up on which varieties were extra-awesome in our region and during this particular season.

Another thing to consider is your apple usage once you get them home. It seems pretty insane to pick an entire bushel of apples with no real plan on how to use them before they go bad. (Plus you’re left hauling 48 lbs of apples back from the nether regions of the apple orchard.) I settled on a peck – a quarter of a bushel, or about 12 lbs of apples. I didn’t need a lot – a friend had promised to help me make apple butter and donate some of her apples to the cause, and I had been collecting apples over the last few weeks every time I saw a new variety on sale at the co-op. In addition to the apple butter, I wanted to make apple pie filling and freeze it for later – similar to what I had done with many of my blueberries over the summer. If you’re wondering how much fruit to pick for your own preserving projects, here is an excellent guide.

Turns out it is really easy to pick a peck of apples. Way, way easier than picking even 5 lbs of strawberries, and way easier on your lower back. Most of the time we spent wandering through the orchard and finding the varieties that we wanted – not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon if you ask me.

Central Grove Orchard

We picked a mix of Mutsu (Matsu?), Jonathan and Chieftain (developed right here in Ames!). All of these varieties were deemed good for baking or freezing, and we may or may not have done some quality control in the field.

Central Grove Orchard Central Grove Orchard Central Grove Orchard

Next time I’ll talk about my first experience making apple butter, freezing apples for pie, and what you need to know to get started. Even though apple season is over in this part of the country, there are still deals to be had at the grocery store or co-op, and the apple butter technique can be applied to produce such as pears and pumpkins that are still readily available right now.

Central Grove Orchard

Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Haaaa. Ha Ha.