Archive | January, 2012

Playing with cello

27 Jan

Of course I am not referring to the instrument but riffing off of the concept of limoncello, the lovely Italian digestif liquor. Sweet and citrusy, I have long enjoyed both drinking and making limoncello. But I read a blog before Christmas that referred to Pomelocello–a liquor in the style of limoncello but made with grapefruits. This of course engendered a flurry of comments wherein we all collectively realized you could make cello with any citrus fruit. INSPIRATION!  I immediately vowed to make a series of cellos to give as Christmas gifts.

If you’ve never made cello, don’t be afraid. It’s terribly easy and the results will knock your socks off and trick lucky recipients into thinking you are more talented than you really are. Well, maybe you ARE that talented (Alix, Mahogany) but I rely on such trickery to impress!

So, I set out to make a flight of cellos. I purchased a modest selection of citrus, clementines, lemons, grapefruit, and limes. You could make kumquat, buddahs hand, blood orange, and all manner of cellos if you really wanted to get crazy, but I wanted to see how it translated to other fruits before I spent a small fortune on exotics.

You will also need a clear, strong alcohol. Vodka or everclear (grain) were the two recommendations.  I’m not sure you can even buy grain alcohol in PA any more, and frankly, the flashbacks to high school are enough to dissuade me from ever even standing near an open bottle of grain again.

You don’t need a good vodka for this, and in fact your money would probably be wasted if you purchased a really high end brand, but Pinnacle is pretty good and it was on sale for the same price as Nicolai.

Once you get all your supplies you need to peel your citrus. The ease of this varies tremendously. Grapefruit was pretty easy. Clementines? Not so much. See, the trick is, you want JUST the rind–no pith. The pith is the white stuff between the rind and the fruit and it is bitter.  I’d love to give you a fool proof standard for removing rind from citrus but it varies. The grapefruit is thick enough you can use a peeler. You get some pith, but it is easily removed with a very sharp knife.

But that didn’t work for the clementines. I tried it and the force of the peeler was enough to rupture the skin and cause it all to come off, pith and all. So I ended up peeling the clementine and then removing the pith with a very sharp knife. A long and annoying process, even with the help of a captive 12 year old.

So basically, you have to figure out what works best for you and remove the peel from the pith and the fruit. How much? Well the more you have the faster/better/stronger your cello will be. I aim to have my bottle about 1/3 to 1/2 full of rinds. (You’ll also need some extra containers/bottles. The rind displaces the booze so you can’t just shove it into a full bottle and be done…you get the idea).

So you fill your bottles with 1/3-1/2 rind and vodka and put them away somewhere cool and dark. Ok, mine sat on the counter. Not exactly cool and only sometimes dark, but everyone seems to agree cool and dark is the ticket, so do as I say, not as I do.

Nascent clemencello and pomelocello infusing

Estimates of how long to let them sit range from 60 days to 10 days. The Pomelocello and Clemoncello sat for close to 60 days, the lemon and lime much closer to 10. There really wasn’t a huge qualitative difference, though you definitely should aim for at least a few weeks.

Once you’ve let them sit as long as you are going to let them sit you make simple syrup to finish them off. Simple. Except… This step also allows for some degree of personalization. The first time I made limoncello the recipe called for mixing the steeped vodka and simple syrup on a 1:1 ration. It was too sweet and I didn’t even add all the syrup! At the same time, if you add a lot less in order to cut the sweetness you will get a product that is very, very high in ABV, making it difficult (not to mention dangerous in its deceptive sweetness) to drink strait.  If you want it less sweet I suggest using more water and less sugar in your simple syrup so you still cut the alcohol down enough to have a sipping liquor. If you want it more sweet, use more sugar in your syrup so you don’t water it down so much it dilutes the flavor right along with the alcohol content.

I wish I could tell you exactly the ratios I used, but you know by know I’m much more fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants than that! I made a syrup and added it to the infused vodka, tasting it until I got it right–and was more than a little buzzed! Small tastes if you are making a lot!

Here are more precise bloggers talking about pomelocello and limoncello if it makes you feel more comfy.

So the BIG question…how did it taste?

I was so excited about the pomelocello that I have to say I was crushed (CRUSHED) that it wasn’t as spectacular as I imagined. The Lime and the clemencello however were sublime. So delicious! So flavorful! The lime totally surprised me because I wasn’t at all thinking about it. It was sort of an “extra” to round out the flight. I have friends who LOVE limoncello and know plenty of purists so I had to make that, but the lime–eh, whatever. Boy was I wrong! It is just phenomenal. The sharp lime flavor really stands out on its own, whereas, surprisingly, the grapefruit sort of recedes.

So not only was that my assessment, but I did a round of tastings for my father and Robby on Christmas Eve and they agreed.  Bummer…or not.  One night recently I decided to have a glass of the pomelocello before bed. It has to get drunk eventually…

And it was really good!  Delicious even! I ended up having 2 glasses that night and thinking, with a hiccup, that it was a shame it wasn’t a weekend night! Apparently when set in relief against the incredible clemencello and limecello the subtle but delicious qualities of pomelocello were easy to over look.

The lesson: its hard to go wrong with cello!  I would like to try some other exotic flavors but even the humble  lime is rendered spectacular when mixed with vodka and sweetened. But I guess that isn’t really all that surprising, is it?

–on a side note, I ordered lovely bottles to gift my cellos in from here: Shore Container. Even though shipping added to the cost, they were still way more affordable than anything you’ll find around here. They have a lot of cool containers actually.


Vegetable Leather…Really.

27 Jan

I don’t remember how inspiration struck (apologies to any blogger I’m slighting here) but this summer as I investigated the world of dehydration I discovered vegetable leather.  Ok, I know it probably sounds gross at first, but bear with me, you will be THRILLED with the end result!

So inspired, I started searching and found recipes for several varieties of vegetable leather, gazpacho, tomato, mixed veg, and pumpkin, and resolved to give it a whirl–especially since at the time I was just beginning a diet the idea of tasty “free” foods was exciting. (Here’s one online resource for recipes and techniques)

So here’s the problem with this. I made my tomato leather in September and I cannot remember exactly how I did it. With the aid of the pictures and the recipes I can mostly piece it together, but there are a few steps I’m unsure of. The method I’m sharing here is not necessarily exact so if you want to try this don’t take my instructions as absolute law (just this once, ok?)….

It was the end of the season and I had a rag tag bunch of tomatoes both in my garden and from the local farmers market. Something that did not depend on pretty tomatoes seemed like the perfect use for these long in the tooth and random assortment of leftover fruits.

You can make this without any special equipment, but having a food mill makes the process super simple; mo need to peel or seed, just chop them up and throw them in a sauce pan. If you don’t have a food mill though, you may want to seed and peel them first.  If you do, throw them in the pot and cook them until they are soft, then run them through your food mill.  (This is one of the steps I’m unsure of. I *think* I cooked them before I put them through the food mill, but I”m not 100% sure)

This will give you a light tomato sauce.  I cooked mine down some but dehydrating is taking out the liquid anyway so theoretically you could probably put watery sauce on the tray and just dry it longer. I felt like it would make for thin leather or it would slosh around and be messy and that’s why I cooked it down, but you don’t have to do it for hours, just enough to thicken it a bit.

Next, season it. I actually made several batches and varied the season from one to another. Salt–for me–is a must. But you could add Italian spices, Indian spices, fall spices like cinnamon and cloves, Worcestershire sauce, or whatever you fancy. 

Once you have it where you want it, pour it on your trays. This can be done in an oven using rimmed cookie sheets. I just happen to have a dehydrator and fruit leather mats. Are you surprised?

Then turn on the dehydrator and leave it. I think mine took about 12 hours. You have wiggle room so don’t worry about going to bed or work and ruining it. It should be fine.

Once it is dry it is ready. You can eat it all standing at the counter, what? Or you can store it so you have it to snack on.

Remove it from the tray

Put it on wax paper and roll it up (like a fruit roll up!)

Ok, so how does it taste? Like a tomato punched you in the mouth–in a good way.  I LOVE this stuff. It is the pure essence of all that is good and holy in a tomato, concentrated.

When I’m feeling like I want to eat, or more accurately TASTE, but I am not hungry or don’t need the calories, or am dieting, or whatever, a strip of this stuff makes me damn near as happy as a handful of potato chips. But Bonus! It’s actually GOOD for you!

Along with snacking on it, you can also add it to recipes. I recently cut it into thin ribbons and served it on top of a risotto cake. Delicious!

I haven’t tried any of the other leathers, but I’m considering it, especially for that summer moment when I just have TOO MUCH produce and I’ve preserved it every which way I can think of, this is a neat way to preserve and its frankly easier than many of the more standard methods–though of course the end product is a little less versatile than say, canned tomatoes.

Little house in the Green Field

4 Jan

As I mentioned in my first 2012 post a week of intense nothing has reinvigorated my spirit and revved up my desire to play around with projects worthy of Laura Ingalls in the kitchen. Little house in the Green Field; it has a ring to it!

Jennifer Reese’s new book Make the Bread Buy the Butter looks to play no small part in my winter projects.  On the bonus day off that was January 2 I started my adventures by making yogurt.

“It’s SO EASY” purred Reese.

“Piece of CAKE!” I chortled.


It totally failed.

It sounds easy enough.  You start with a half gallon of milk– I of course bought expensive organic milk so we would have lovely organic hormone free yogurt. A dollar more expensive, the yogurt would still be cheaper than dannon–and 1/4 cup of yogurt with live cultures. Remember back in the day when yogurt touted it’s live cultures front and center on the label? Not anymore, the current fad is GREEK.  The live cultures are in there still, but you have to read the tiny print label with your glasses all down on your nose like an old person to make sure.

So you take your fancy scmancy milk, or whatever you get, and heat it to just before boiling, which is 212 degrees for water.  I wasn’t sure if boiling it was a big problem so I was a little paranoid. I put my candy thermometer in the milk and watched it like a hawk.  At about 175 degrees it started making that noise water (or milk) makes before it boils so I took it off the heat.

Pour it into a bowl and let it cool to between 110 and 115 degrees. As with the step before (more on that later) temperature is critical.  It must be warm enough to activate the cultures but not so hot it kills them. Reese suggests, if you do not have a candy thermometer, sticking a clean finger in the milk. When you can hold it in for 10 seconds and it feels warm but not hot, it should be good. I actually tried this at 120 and at 113ish and the difference in temperature is indeed palpable, however  I suggest  spending $3 and buying a candy thermometer.

Once it is at the right temperature, add 1/4 cup of yogurt with live cultures. General consensus seems to be that you add store bought the first time you make it and then after that just keep adding the last bit of what you made previously.  That of course assumes you eat yogurt on a pretty continual basis. We’ll see.

Stir it, then cover it with a damp kitchen towel and leave in a warm spot overnight (or all afternoon/evening in my case).

Look how sexy that is:

The only problem is…it failed. It completely and utterly failed to turn into yogurt. Ugh. So I posted my dismay on facebook and wouldn’t you know it the lovely and talented @twinmamateb came to the rescue!  (Her husband is the man behind 2 amazing Pittsburgh restaurants Toast and Brix btw, so they know something about making good food in that family!)

She makes her yogurt in the crock pot according to these directions, adding 2 TBS of powdered milk and filtering it through a coffee filter to get it thicker.

I also did my own research and found this really helpful guide to homemade yogurt.

Between the two I figured out the critical information to understand why my yogurt failed and how to fix it.

TEMPERATURE is critical.

First: the milk must reach 180 degrees, that is where the proteins begin to break down.

Second: we know that you add the yogurt at 110-115 degrees

Third: you need to keep it warm while it sits.

Not unlike the time I decided to can during a heat wave with broken air conditioner, yesterday I decided to make yogurt on the coldest day of the winter so far…

So last night I proceeded- despite the cold- to try again armed with a lot more understanding of what I was doing.

This time, no expensive milk, if it’s going to fail I’m not wasting that extra dollar.

I added dry milk powder (which I happened to have.)

…See my keys on the counter? I literally threw this into the crockpot before I took off my coat after work.

The crock pot instructions are to heat for 2 1/2 hours, unplug and let sit for 3 hours, add yogurt, let sit some more.  Really, you just need to get it up to the magic 180+ degrees and back down to 110-115 degrees.  Some comments on the crock pot post said they started it on the stove. That would be faster and I might try it in the future but last night I was busy making dinner and helping the kid with her homework so letting it sit for 2 hours was perfect.

Once it came up to temperature I removed the crock from the pot and moved it to a drafty spot to cool to 113 degrees then added my starter…

The non crock pot method sits the bowl on top of a heating pad. The crock pot method swaddles the unplugged pot in towels.  My heating pad is new (after the dog ate the old one!) so I didn’t want to risk spilling milk on it.

I swaddled my crock pot, turned it back on to low for about 5 minutes, and put my empty dehydrator next to it on 165 degrees. Why? It’s freaking freezing out and my kitchen has no direct heat. I wanted to make sure the yogurt had enough heat to properly culture. You don’t need to do this. In fact, I think the trick is to make sure it is warm, in whatever way works for you, your kitchen and the season.

So I let that sit overnight and awoke with Christmas morning-like anticipation. I leaped out of bed and ran downstairs (really it was more of a groan and a reluctant amble) to find…


It totally worked!

Tonight after work I’ll drain it to get it more along the consistency of Greek yogurt (I’ll save the whey for baking) and flavor half of it for Riley to eat (vanilla) and leave half plain for cooking.

I’m so very excited I don’t have to pay $4 for a pint of Greek yogurt and another $3ish for a pint of vanilla yogurt every week anymore!

And it’s homemade! FTMFW.

Goats? Yogurt? Goatsmilk yogurt? Full speed ahead into 2012!

3 Jan

I’m not gonna lie, 2011 was a bitch of a year. Not the worst I’ve ever had. But in the past, bad years were personally bad. 2011 was trying for, well, everyone. Starting in February of last year it was intensely chaotic, full of upheaval and what felt like internecine war around the globe. From fights in our own communities to Arab Spring, 2011 was a series of unending gut punches followed by hardscrabble brawls.

By December I was pretty exhausted. Put on top of that holiday duties, both personal and professional and by the time guests left on Christmas night I was kind of on the verge of a breakdown.

So for the next 8 days I did as much of nothing as I could stand. I read three books. I slept in every day. We ate leftovers and ordered out. We went to three movies and rented another 10.  One day we didn’t get out of bed until after noon (though I don’t think I slept past 10 once.)  I got sick–everyone got sick–and nursed my symptoms.  I ignored phone calls and emails from friends and work associates alike. Basically I engaged in mental bed rest.  It was good.

I feel ready for 2012. As one of my twitter folks wrote, 2011 is dead, let’s not speak of it again.

By yesterday, January 2nd, the legal holiday for New Years Day I was bored and my engines were revving. I finally felt myself again. So I engaged in some projects.  My family did an amazing–AMAZING–job with Christmas presents for me this year, so I can’t say that my favorite presents were anything but what they got me. However, in terms of project starts, two gifts I got myself stand out. First, this book:

I highly recommend you get this book by Jennifer Reese if you are at all interested in cooking. (She also has a blog called the Tipsy Baker (love the name))  Love. LOVE. LOOOOOOVE this book. She spent a year making a bunch of staples and analyzing the value and ease of making vs. buying. Her introduction describes a grocery store paralysis which I am all too familiar with. That moment where you weigh the cost value, nutrition value, environmental value, taste value, etc etc of various foods, leading to indecision and occasionally complete surrender and running out of the store empty handed. She tries to answer the question make it or buy it, rating various projects by difficulty (one of my favorites “you’ll want to bludgeon yourself with your rolling pin half way through”) and the economy. She is a fine writer, approaches the topics with great humor, and covers everything from bread to prosciutto to back yard chickens.  So you can see why I love it. I sat up until 2 am one night reading this cover to cover. Many of my projects this year will come from this book. I may finally get chickens. Or bees. But not goats.

I kicked off the year by trying her bread recipe (delicious and NO KNEADING!) and yogurt (totally failed. I’m trying again tonight).

The second project centric gift you’ll be hearing more about is a pressure cooker. I made chili one night that cooked at temp for 8 minutes. EIGHT MINUTES.  It was delicious. I love my pressure cooker.

I’m excited to embark on another year of living life intentionally, savoring every day.  Thanks for those of you who read along, especially those still with me after the awful, awful waning months of 2011. Hopefully I’ll have more time to play in the kitchen and post about various and sundry adventures in 2012.

I’ll post about my yogurt and bread experiments as well as my cello/khalua making venture (I think it made lovely Holiday gifts) later. For now, I’ll tell you that I kicked off 2012 by trying these dehydrated oranges from Well Preserved. I have no idea what I’m going to do with them (pressure cooker perhaps) but they were so pretty and we had a lot of clementines sitting around so I couldn’t resist.  If anyone has any ideas for these, I’d love to hear them.