Mincing Along

As with most of my cooking adventures, I started with a relatively simple thought. I was going to visit my parents over Thanksgiving, and I was determined to make a mince pie for my dad, and, moreover, I was determined to make the mincemeat that went into it. My father jokingly complains that he doesn’t get mince pie since my maternal grandmother died in the early 90s. My mother doesn’t like raisins, which is, of course, one of the major ingredients in mincemeat–she goes so far as to pick the raisins out of cinnamon raisin bread, which amuses me to no end. In other words, making a pie for my dad was an excuse to try to make something I’d never made before.

I rummaged around for a recipe (finding a surprising paucity of from-scratch recipes) and settled on one from David Lebovitz. I emailed the farm from which I have gotten some very good (and organically and sustainably raised) meat–what a friend calls “hippie meat”–and asked if they had any beef suet. Yes! and they would bring it to the farmers’ market near me the following weekend, the last outdoor market of the season. So, for a whole $3, I had not quite two pounds of suet. If you look at that recipe, you’ll note that you need a whole lot less than two pounds of suet–you need about four ounces for one batch of mincemeat.

Yes, well: mincemeat for the masses!

I made a large-ish double batch, using pretty much what Lebovitz recommends, and adding some cranberries, I think, and I think I used an extra apple or two because I had some around. I cleaned the suet a bit, removing membranes and such, and just chopped it very finely rather than trying to grate it. I put the resulting mincemeat in some clean quart jars and stashed it in the fridge. I still had half of the suet, though, so I bought enough raisins and currants and such to make another double batch. I hauled one of the containers (plastic rather than glass) to the east coast and made the pie, which was successful. Seriously, it’s basically a raisin pie with some apples in it, plus a bunch of tasty spices, so it’s hard to go wrong if you like the ingredients.

It’s not terribly boozy at all–I used some brandy remnants that Friend brought over, and some ginger liquer from a local distillery, and some bourbon from the same distillery. I added the bourbon because, after I had added the ginger liquer, I realized it had a lower ABV and thought that might affect the preservation qualities of the alcohol. I can’t really taste the alcohol, though, and I tend to be sensitive to it. I often left it out of recipes in pastry school because I thought it tended to overwhelm the other flavors, but there’s so much going on in the mincemeat I simply couldn’t taste it.

Okay, that’s all well and good–but now I have five more jars of mincemeat sitting around in the fridge, and I am going to do what, exactly, with all of that mincemeat?

For New Year’s Day, however, I finally found a use for some of it: I used some as a filling for whole wheat cinnamon rolls. I doubled the recipe from Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads and got 32 rolls out of it–obviously a substantially larger yield than the original recipe, which said 8 to 10 (or 16 to 20 for a doubled recipe). The result is interesting–it definitely has a bit of a “meaty” undertone to it–but they’re quite good. I threw most of them in the freezer (without frosting) so they’ll be nice to grab and take to work for a quick breakfast. I think even plain cream cheese would be a nice accompaniment if you don’t have extra frosting around.

While I had the oven on, I also diced and roasted the three butternut squash that were sitting around, but I didn’t do anything with the result. The menu on New Year’s day included homemade sauerkraut; pulled pork, to satisfy the spirit of my grandmother; and garlic smashed potatoes, as well as some venison ring baloney and some caramelized onions. But I’m thinking squash, and mincemeat, and maybe some shredded wild turkey dark meat, and maybe some spinach or kale; I have some spinach around, so that’s more likely. I’ll let you know what happens.

Squash into Cake

Well, it’s no longer stupid cold outside, but there’s a huge blizzard blowing in off the lake at the moment. I had thought perhaps I’d take a walk up to the fancy chocolate store and load up on post-Valentine’s sale chocolate, but the snow is blowing nearly horizontal at the moment and I have no desire to do so much as to take out the garbage. If it eases up later, or even if the wind calms down, I might change my mind.

Meanwhile, tragedy has struck in my kitchen: my stand mixer is injured. I don’t think it’s fatal, though getting it fixed will be an adventure, given that I don’t have a vehicle and the authorized repair places are in the suburbs. If I knew just a little bit more I’d poke around inside it myself, but that sounds like a bad idea. It will affect the bread baking, somewhat (though I have a few loaves in the freezer), but what it will affect more is anything that requires creaming butter and sugar together. I fiddled with the settings enough to make the latest in my efforts to assemble an awesome carrot cake, not least because I have a crazy amount of carrots from the farm share and also because Friend is a fan of carrot cake, but I don’t want to push my luck and completely destroy the mixer.

I’ve played with this recipe before. I prefer butter in carrot cakes, rather than oil, and I definitely prefer a lot less fat than most recipes require (a cup and a half of oil? really?). I’ve been using pumpkin to keep it moist, which also adds some fiber and vegetables, and lately I’ve used whole wheat flour rather than all-purpose. This weekend’s version might have been the best ever. I’ll give it to you after I make it again, because I’m not entirely sure of all of the measurements, but I can tell you that for 24 good-sized muffins I used only six tablespoons of butter and three eggs, and I could probably cut it down to four tablespoons of butter, especially if I add a little flax. Another thing I’ve been doing is shredding the carrots in the food processor and then cooking them a bit; this time I roasted the shredded carrots for awhile in the oven. It was still moist, but it wasn’t as wet as freshly shredded carrots, and I think it improves the overall flavor of the whole enterprise.

Of course, it all goes to hell in a handbasket once frosting goes on top (cream cheese, butter, a little boiled apple cider, some dried orange rind I had sitting around, confectioner’s sugar), but these are sufficiently good that you could eat them without the frosting and still be pretty happy. Okay, maybe most people regard all carrot cake as a vehicle for the frosting, but, at least theoretically, one could eat these without frosting.

The farm share has provided me with two three-pound bags of frozen, roasted butternut squash, which is what I used in the carrot cake. No, not all three pounds of it. I also used some in risotto: it was sufficiently watery that I just added a couple of cups to the three cups of chicken stock and cooked the risotto the way I normally would. It was quite nice–and I still have about half of the bag of squash left. I think I’m going to refreeze the rest of it for now, but my intention is to use it, again with some chicken stock and cheese, to make a mac and cheese sauce that isn’t quite so dependent on milk and butter.

Spent Grain Musings, Again

The second spent-grain experiment is going to take two weekends to accomplish. Many people apparently dry the spent grain and then grind it into flour, so I’m giving that a try. The drying process takes most of a day–you spread the wet grain out on trays and put it into a very low oven (in my case, 170 degrees F is as low as it will go), stirring it around once or twice so it all dries and doesn’t scorch. I froze batches of the wet grain last week, for adding directly into bread recipes, but I still had a big pile left, so I dried two pans yesterday and I’ll do the rest today when I get back from Pilates. Then you’re supposed to grind it in a flour mill, but I do not (yet) have a flour mill, so I’ll try the food processor and/or the coffee grinder and see what they do. For the small amounts I’m grinding, that should be fine.

I can tell that there won’t be much flour out of the whole enterprise, but it’s also true that I wouldn’t want to attempt a bread (or many other things) using only spent grain, at least not if the grain is barley or rye. Barley is most the common grain in standard beer brewing, but it doesn’t have much gluten in it (neither does rye), so you couldn’t do a loaf of bread using only that flour, or you’d have a brick. Oats have no gluten at all, so you also can’t do a 100% oat bread and have it be anything other than a brick, at least not without a lot of eggs or some other leavener. I remember talking to a brewer about wheat beer, and the opposite is true for beer. It turns out that the thing that makes for great bread–the gluten in the wheat–also makes it impossible to do a 100% wheat beer; the gluten clogs up the brewing equipment.

I think I’ll try some spent grain in the Amazing Crackers recipe and maybe in a chocolate recipe of some kind; as we know from malted milk balls (not to mention milk stout), chocolate and malted barley flavors go together nicely. And possibly in some kind of pretzel thing. This means I will continue on my quest to get a steady supply of spent grain–a quest that was inadvertently aided on Friday night in an unexpected way. We stopped in at Temperance, in part to taste the newly released IBA and in part so I could share loaves of the spent grain bread I’d made for them. As I was sitting at the bar, a woman came up to me and asked if I was me–turns out that she had lived in my dorm my first year of college, and we shared a circle of friends. Of course I remembered her, though we haven’t seen each other in at least 30-plus years, and her husband is a brewer as well and offered his spent grain to me.

All of these experiments remind me why I wanted to open a bakery. The work of a bakery is brutally difficult: long hours on your feet, lots of lifting and carrying of heavy things (50-lb sacks of flour; full sheet pans of laminated dough; 125-pound containers of bread dough), and, unless you’re the owner (and possibly even then), low pay. If you’re working with yeast, and I obviously am, that also means you have to obey the demands of the yeast. You can tweak it a bit by tweaking the temperature at which fermentation is taking place, but that requires expensive equipment, and space, to do it well. Because the product you sell is so small, you have to sell a lot–of cupcakes, donuts, loaves of bread, pastries, cookies–and you have to manage the production schedule so you have enough of everything but not so much that things go stale. The production itself requires that you work when others are sleeping; an overnight shift is almost necessary. So, yes, there are a million reasons not to do it.

But I love the experimentation. With the spent grain, I love the idea of taking what is essentially a waste product and finding a way to make it not just useful but a feature of a new product. (Most brewers find a farmer who will take the grain to feed it to cows or, presumably, pigs; a brewery in Alaska uses their spent grain to power the brewery, because shipping the grain is too expensive.) Even last week’s lime and coconut cookie experiment was born of having some ingredients on hand that I hadn’t used before and trying to figure out how to make them work.

In order to make this work in a bakery setting, though, you also have to be able to produce the same product every time. If you develop a line of spent grain baked goods, then you will need to have those goods taste the same every time the customer walks in the door, within a fairly narrow range. You would have to figure out a time when you can use your ovens to dry the grain, except that there’s no time when the ovens aren’t being used–the number and size of the ovens are two of the major rate-limiting factors in a bakery. You’d have to be able to adjust for the different roasts–a dark-roasted grain from a stout is going to give you a different flavor profile than a lighter roast from a pale ale. You have to store the ingredients.  And so on.

All of these are problems that can be solved, of course, but they have to be solved while you also run the business, which is a problem to be solved on an ongoing basis. There’s a part of me that still fantasizes about it, mind you; the complexity of the factors is one of the things that appeals to me, actually. But short of winning the lottery, I don’t see how it happens, and if I win the lottery, I don’t know that starting a business with very low profit margins is the way to go.

On the other hand, running a small bakery next to a brewery, thereby supplying the baked goods for the brewpub and using the spent grain from the brewery, would be an interesting business model . . . if I win the lottery.

Cleaning Solution

The powers that be closed our workplace today, which is just as well. As promised, the temperature is -9 to -15, and the wind chill is apparently -45. The schools are closed, as are many other workplaces. It’s deceptive, because the sun is shining brightly, and, given all of the new snow all over the place, it’s nearly blinding, so it looks practically cheery. Nevertheless, it is, in fact, stupid cold, and I’m debating whether I’m going to even step outside. (The cat is strongly recommending that I do no such thing.) Then I think about how long it would take to put on all the clothes I’d need to be safe, even for a walk around the block, and my ambition wanes. It’s still going to be stupid cold tomorrow morning, too, so I’ll get the “experience” on my way to work.

I took the opportunity of an unexpected day off to do some cleaning–yeah, I know, surprised me, too. In particular, I tackled the kitchen cabinets, which reminded me of office chairs.

There have been times when I’ve been sitting in an office chair and I’ve thought that the designer of the chair never had to actually sit in the chair, which would explain the discomfort of doing said sitting. More broadly, there are some things that are so disfunctional in some way that you realize the designer never had to use the thing. In my case, it’s the kitchen in my unit. Let’s start with the aforementioned cabinets. They have this . . . set of ridges? edges? I’m sure there’s a design name for it but I have no clue, and the ease with which crud can embed itself in these ridges is truly impressive.

The crud accumulation process is assisted by the fact that the cabinets aren’t very high-quality. They’re plain painted wood, so kind of rough-surfaced, and the drawer pulls have this scrollworky thing going on, which also–you guessed it–accumulates crud. In addition, someone thought that bead board would make a fine backsplash for the whole kitchen, including behind the counter. They could not have been more wrong. Even a toothbrush doesn’t get at all of it, not least because there’s a line of caulk at the bottom between the bead board and the quarter-round edging, presumably placed there by the previous owner after he installed the wonderful butcher-block counter that extends nearly the whole length of the kitchen on one side and that I adore.

Clearly, the person or people who designed these various bits either didn’t cook in the kitchen or didn’t have to clean it, or both. Certainly the designer didn’t bake in the kitchen, i.e., throw around large amounts of flour, the remnants of which love to embed themselves in the nooks, crannies, corners, and swirls of the design elements.

I cannot wait to redo the kitchen.

What I’m realizing, though, is that even if I suddenly had a bunch of money to do the kitchen renovations, I don’t know everything that I want yet. More to the point, I don’t know what I want the design of the backsplash to be. I want something colorful, and glass tile and/or fused glass decorative bits, but other than that, I have no clue. I have ideas about the rest of it–cabinets, and the window, and recreating the transom, and the sink, and leaving space for new appliances but not actually buying them until the old ones fail–but the main decorative bit is the one piece I still haven’t sorted, and it doesn’t make sense to me to embark on any of the work without having that part. Ah well; no need to worry about it today–and at least the cabinets are clean.

Today’s cooking is a matter of rummaging in the freezer and pulling out things that are getting a little old and that would work okay together (roasted acorn squash; black beans; spicy tomato sauce) and that will use some of the onions, carrots, and celery that are sitting around. I should throw in some turnips, too, because I have them (of course I have them). The purpose isn’t just dinner, though it is that, it’s also creating some lunches–the basic principle is lunch-sized containers of something that can be eaten with cheese melted on top and a hunk of bread on the side. The type of cheese varies a bit, but it’s basically a good formula.

The wrist is mostly a bit better today, despite the cleaning and scrubbing, though it occasionally twinges, and chopping veggies likely won’t help. I’m joined in my injury, however, by my father, who apparently stepped out of the house yesterday and promptly slid down the driveway, eventually landing on and breaking his wrist. My mother said they were also going to x-ray his hip while they’re at it, so here’s hoping it’s just the wrist.


The thing about making bread is that, at least in the size batches I make, the mixer and the yeast do most of the work. There’s some kneading by hand–which was an adventure today, because I sprained my right wrist badly two weeks ago, so the kneading had to be done left-handed rather than both-handed–and some shaping and such, but otherwise, it’s not me. Reinhart’s method involves soakers and preferments, which means any given formula is a matter of weighing and mixing the soaker and starter (and mash, in the case of one of the breads) on one day, and mixing those together with a few more things on the second day; even the work that is involved is spread out–a few minutes here, a few there. That said, given that I was making three separate batches, it took me most of the morning. (Of course, if I had a second oven, I would not have had to stagger the rising and baking . . . )

It’s not for people who want instant gratification, though.

Typically, I also interleave a few other chores (peel the beets that I roasted two weeks ago, then froze because I didn’t have time to peel and cut them before we left for the holidays; do two loads of laundry, so all my fleece shirts and warm socks are clean; bake a batch of cookies, to which I’ll return in a minute; move the chicken stock from the kitchen freezer to the chest freezer so it doesn’t all die from freezer burn). It’s theoretically possible to sit down for stretches of time as the yeast does its thing, but I actually prefer the  bread-then-chores-then-bread-then-chores progression. Today is a perfect day for baking, too, as the weather is becoming seriously brutal. It’s been snowing steadily, the wind is blowing hard, and you can almost see the temperature dropping; the latest report shows an expected wind chill tomorrow of -45, which is just stupid cold. I was glad to have a reason to have the oven on for 6 or 7 hours.

What about the cookies? Well, another of my interleaved chores was grating the peel and squeezing the juice from seven limes. (Quick quiz: name a use for pith other than for helmets.) I rummaged around but couldn’t find a recipe that included the main things I wanted to include, namely, honey, lime, coconut (including coconut flour), and ginger. My final formula was:

  • a stick of butter
  • 120 g. honey (about a half a cup)
  • 50 g. sugar (about a quarter cup), plus more for rolling
  • 1 big tblsp. lime peel
  • 2-3 tsp. grated fresh ginger (dried or candied would work, and possibly work better)
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 78 g. coconut flour (about 6 tblsp.)
  • 100 g. whole wheat flour
  • 100 g. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 25 g. dried coconut chips (not flaked coconut)
  • 1 egg
  • about 3 tblsp. lime juice

I creamed the butter, sugar, and honey, then added the flavorings, then the egg (at which point it looked kind of curdled), then the dries, which I added slowly, adding lime juice if it looked like it was getting too dry. I added the coconut flakes at the end. I wrapped it up and let it sit in the fridge for a bit, and would even be willing to let it sit for a day in the fridge. I rolled it into small balls, which I then rolled in more sugar and pressed flat-ish on the sheet pan, and baked for about 14-15 minutes.

I got five dozen cookies out of it, and the taste is nice. The texture is . . . pretty okay. A bit crumbly, probably from the coconut flour; another egg might have been the right thing to add. The honey does not come through, but both the lime and coconut do. If I do another iteration (and, with all that lime peel, there’s a good chance), I’ll add the egg, maybe reduce the lime juice, and replace the rest of the sugar with honey. And probably use some of the candied ginger in the fridge. All in all, not a bad experimental result.

Spent Grain Experiment Number 1.0

There’s a new brewery in Evanston. This is notable for a number of reasons, one of which is that, in part because Evanston was the center of the temperance movement in this country, this is the first craft brewery in Evanston. They named their brewery “Temperance,” too, which is amusing in its own way. On New Year’s Eve afternoon, two friends dragged me and Friend out to drink beer with them at Temperance and we sampled the six beers they currently have on tap. They were ALL good, which is not always my reaction, especially when fruit is involved. (One is a wheat ale with blueberries and another is an ESB with Balaton cherries.)

Anyway, not surprisingly, we started chatting with the bartender, who also turned out to be one of the owners, and I asked him what I always ask brewers: what do you do with your spent grains? Turns out that they still haven’t found a way to get rid of them, which means I had no trouble talking them into saving some for me the next time they planned on brewing. The brewer came out and talked to us, too, and she was more than happy to save some grain. Thus, despite the huge piles of snow that remained on the streets yesterday, I shlepped to the brewery (about 3 miles round trip to/from the nearest el station) to pick up the promised booty–a gallon bag crammed full of spent grain from a batch of pale ale, maybe. I’m going to take them some of the finished product; they’re releasing a new beer on Friday, which will be a perfect excuse.

I currently have three breads in various stages of construction, and at least two of them will utilize some spent grains. One is the straight-up spent grain recipe from Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads. I’ve made that one before, though most recently with dark-roasted grains that were used in a porter, maybe?, so it makes sense to just use the new ones in the same way, i.e., with a formula that I know works, and see what happens.

I recently started experimenting with breads that start with a mash (in this case, raisins, flaxseeds, and water, which soak for a day and then go in with the other ingredients in the soaker), so I did the same thing except added some spent grains to the mash. No idea what will happen, but how bad can it be? Because I’m going to have a whole lot of starter (biga), I’m also going to do what Reinhart calls his “broom” bread (because it acts like a broom to your insides), and I may add some spent grain to that, too. Eventually I’m also going to dry some of the spent grain and turn it into flour.

In short, tomorrow is going to include three batches of bread, and, as long as the oven is going to be on anyway, I’m going to use up some of the limes that have been languishing in the fridge and make some cookies. That’s going to be even more of an experiment: what I have in mind is coconut lime cookies, but the recipes I’ve been able to find don’t do it for me. I also have some coconut flour, which I’ve never used before, but I don’t want to use only coconut flour. Apparently it’s used in some gluten-free baking, so a lot of the recipes using coconut flour don’t have any wheat flour in them. My current vague plan is to use a basic sugar cookie recipe, or the ginger-lemon cookies recipe that’s on the back of my most recent Baking Sheet from KAF, and adapt it: replace some of the regular flour with coconut flour, use grated lime peel instead of lemon, and add the extra liquid the coconut flour apparently requires in the form of some lime juice, or maybe some reduced lime juice. I’ll also add shredded coconut in there somewhere, preferably in a manner that allows it to get nice and toasted; toasted coconut is one of life’s awesome pleasures. And I might keep the ginger in the recipe, because I like ginger with lime and coconut. I’ll let you know whether they’re edible . . .

Marxist Strawberries

I’ve been thinking idly about Marx of late, and I’ve also been fantasizing about being the next Food Network star. I do realize that talk of Marxist strawberries pretty much guarantees that I will never get close to being on the Food (or any other) Network, but, hey, that was already true.

So one of the basic tenets of Marx is that of alienation (this Wikipedia piece is a pretty good overview, and Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 also lays it out pretty well, if I remember correctly): we are alienated from the products of our labor, because we have no say in how a product is produced; we are alienated from the act of producing, because we receive wages or a salary rather than the profits of our labor; and we are alienated from ourselves (and from each other) because we lack the control of our lives necessary to become fully realized/actualized human beings. (We can discuss this more if anyone actually cares.)

One of the shorthand ways of thinking of this, in my opinion, is that we come to think of ourselves not as whole human beings, with mutually interdependent connections with each other, but as cogs, as pieces of an economic/industrial machine. We have jobs, not so much because we want a job qua job, but because we must have money–we have to sell our labor in order to buy food and shelter (and health care/insurance). Sometimes we can find jobs we like, many of us aren’t “workers” in the manufacturing sense (not least because those jobs are overseas now), but all of us need money to live, and few of us make anything that we sell–or, better, barter–directly.

Another part of alienation, though, is being disconnected from our food. Processed, industrial, food-like substances are the most extreme version of this, but a more insidious version is the notion that we can get whatever foods we want no matter the season and whatever the cost. (Obviously this does not apply for people who aren’t exactly sure where their next meals, or their kids’ next meals, will be obtained, but that’s a connection for another day.) What we get when we buy foods that are out of season in the area where we live is often an approximation of the food. The two foods that most exemplify this for me are tomatoes and strawberries. Tomatoes kind of don’t count, though–tomatoes can be preserved in ways that make them available year-round, so long as you don’t try to eat a fresh tomato out of season. Out-of-season fresh tomatoes are an abomination: pink and mealy and flavorless.

I wandered through a farmers’ market last Sunday, and one of the vendors had strawberries; I bought four pints, and I ate them every day this week, and I was in heaven. (I also got a pint in last night’s farm share, and I expect they’ll be just as heavenly.) They were red all the way through, and the strawberry aroma was intoxicating. My lunch each day was a big pile (as in nearly a pound) of strawberries with a touch of balsamic vinegar, a touch of honey, and a bit of feta cheese, all mixed together. The markets and the farm share will have strawberries for maybe another couple of weeks–by early July they’ll be gone–and that’s the end of strawberry season for the year. Of course I could (and sometimes do) buy them from the grocery store, and sometimes those are even half-decent, but they really don’t come close to the bliss of fresh, ripe, local strawberries. Some years, when I’m feeling particularly ambitious, I buy a flat of strawberries and freeze them; that’s not going to happen this year, most likely.

I try to keep the memory of the season’s strawberries in mind when I’m shopping the rest of the year–I know, from experience, that the berries on the rack won’t taste anywhere near as good as what I’m eating now. They will be . . . strawberry-esque. They’ll be missing that heady perfume, and that perfect texture, and, no matter how red they look on the outside, they’ll be white on the inside, and maybe a little hard and mealy, because they’ve been grown to ship well, not to taste good.

That said, the farm share the past month has been mostly greens of one kind or another: lettuce, chard, Asian greens. This week there’s also mizuna (a bitter green) and parsley, and some spinach. And strawberries–did I mention the strawberries? I’ve been trying to find enough things to put on the lettuce to make actual meals out of it, so there’s broccoli and broccoli rabe in the fridge at the moment, to be steamed and added to the mix, and I got some onions and garlic to make a dressing, and some avocados, because they’re awesome, but those things aren’t available locally yet, so to claim I’m eating “locally” would be a misnomer.

And, for that matter, avocados are never “local” here in the midwest. So does that mean if I eat avocados I’m alienated from my food? If it does, then I’m going to stick with alienation. Seriously, though, you can see how complicated this gets. It’s relatively easy to see the extremes–industrial food-like substances in shiny packaging, versus whatever you can grow yourself–but there’s a whole lot of room in the middle, and figuring how to negotiate that space in a way that makes sense for you and your family is hard work, especially when the same people who make the industrial food-like substances find ways to package and advertise their product to disguise its industrial nature.

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