apples, apples, apples, apples

S. and I made a trip out to the orchard last weekend, and as is always the case when I'm presented with a vast expanse of store-able foodstuffs, a primordial urge to hoard overtook me. I wanted every single apple on every single tree to be only for me. Happily S. was along to reassure me that four bushels would be quite enough apples for two people. For the past week, I've been processing apples every spare minute, and wishing I was processing apples every not-spare moment, but I think I have finally succeeded at getting them all "put up" for the winter.  Final count: 11 pints of applesauce, 6 pints of apple butter, lots of dried apple rings, many strips of apple-strawberry fruit roll-ups, a freezer full of apple wedges (for Dutch apple pancakes and apple crisp this winter), and a half-bushel of Ida Reds still in the basement for eating up the normal way.

I've picked at Simmons Farm before, but things were slow this Sunday due to a drizzly rain. We nearly had the place to ourselves and even met the owner and his daughter. She told us that the trees in the "new" orchard were planted when she was only seven-years-old, and he filled us in on the harvest schedule. And when we accidentally picked some not-quite-ripe Ida Reds, even after the farmer's daughter had carefully instructed us on the location of the apple varieties that were ripe, he quite graciously said: oh, some people like them that way. I suppose that's us. Doh.

We headed home in S.'s pickup; the jump seats behind us piled with a winter's worth of apples. When we parked, I hopped out to claim my prizes - ripping open the back door a tad too hastily. After many bends in the road, potholes and bumps that are the stuff of Pittsburgh driving, my precious cargo had shifted. Right up against the door as it turns out. I stood there dumbly as the top bag fell toward me, spilling a multicolored waterfall of apples down my chest, bumping off the floorboards and my knees to the driveway. As the first bag emptied, it changed the balance of the bag below it, which slowly tipped itself, adding to the river of apples cruising down the driveway and into the street. Apples landed in gutters, came to rest behind the rear wheels of street-parked cars and met their demise beneath the tires of passing vehicles. I'd like to say that I was horrified and hastily tried to prevent the disaster, but my little brain didn't work that fast. I just stood there frozen, furiously trying to comprehend what all these red and yellow stimuli moving so quickly could possibly mean. It ended, not by any intervention on my part, but because every single apple on my side of the truck was now in the street.

So I made applesauce, which had been part of plan all along. The bruises were trimmed and fed to the compost, and the rest transformed to a tasty mush.

I won't insult anyone's intelligence by posting an applesauce recipe, but I am fond of  an old-fashioned candy made from applesauce. It's an extra chewy, apple morsel with crunchy pecans and strong notes of caramel. The flavor has a lot of complexity, and I've even come around to how hard you have to work to get at it. These guys are really chewy. I just finished eating three in a row and now, when I pay attention, I can feel a dull ache in my jaw from the effort. No matter. 

 Apple Leather 
The  Best of Shaker Cooking, Miller & Fuller

Note: These candies can slip toward cloying. To remedy, I add a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice and a small pinch of salt along with the vanilla after the candy is removed from the heat. Both are optional. 

1 1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin
2 cups sugar
1 cup walnuts, pecans or butternuts
1 tablespoon vanilla
Confectioners' sugar

Strain applesauce - either force applesauce through a fine-meshed strainer (traditional) or process in a food processor until very smooth.  Whisk gelatin into 1/2 cup applesauce. Allow mixture to sit at least 10 minutes while gelatin softens. Meanwhile, combine remaining 3/4 cup applesauce with sugar and bring to a boil over medium heat. Allow to boil 10 minutes. Whisk gelatin mixture into hot applesauce and simmer 15 additional minutes, whisking constantly. Remove from heat; stir in nuts and vanilla. Pour into a generously buttered 9x9 pan and allow to cool completely (several hours or overnight). Turn candy out of pan and cut into small, 1/2 inch squares. Roll in sifted confectioner's sugar. Wrap individually in wax paper if desired.

Sourcing: Homemade applesauce, Knox unflavored gelatin, Whole Foods 365 organic cane sugar, Penzey's vanilla extract, and Whole Foods 365 organic confectioners' sugar



Thanks to some very clear instructions over at Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, I am the proud owner of 2.5 cups of tomato gold. I skinned, seeded, and pureed 15 pounds of Roma tomatoes from Simmons Farm, and then dehydrated the mix for three days until it had reduced to nearly solid, brick-red, tomato putty. It's tomato paste raised to the tenth power. I feel like I'm in for a year of extraordinary eating with these little beauties tucked away in my pantry. I won't go on and on, because Hank Shaw already wrote about conservas, knows tons more about them, and there's nothing worse than circular blogging. So go see him. I'll be here admiring my pantry.


salt rising bread

It took a couple of tries, but I finally produced a presentable loaf of salt rising bread. I know I'm not supposed to compliment myself, but I have to say, I am feeling particularly competent after this amazing feat. I fear yeast breads in general, and salt rising bread requires even more skill than normal bread baking. I had to harvest my own leavener. All by myself. And I did. And it worked.  And I am proud.

So salt rising bread is an interesting food stuff. Right now, I am saying interesting in the way that grandmothers do when you have presented them with a homemade gift, and they have no idea what it could possibly be. It's sometimes described as emitting a "unique" aroma, which in this case means an olfactory amalgam of unwashed feet, aromatic soft-rind cheeses, and rotten milk. The scent would appeal to those with a palate toward the funky and earthy - those lovers of Epoisses and Iberico ham. Although I aspire toward such a status, when I brought an unknown cheese, Morbier, to a picnic, unwrapped it and unleashed a torrent of spoiled flesh, roadkill, and abandoned salmon carcasses into the air, I nearly cried. (In my defense, I also think it sounds tasty when Peter Kaminsky describes true hams as smelling of "sweet decay ... a heady perfume, just this side of rancidness"(Pig Perfect).)

No worries though, much like Morbier, the aroma of salt rising bread is stronger than its flavor. Remarkably, it really doesn't taste out of the ordinary for a clumsy homemade bread. That is, any bread produced by a professional at the local bakery will be superior to salt rising bread even on a day that you completely nail it, but when you do nail it, it's not so terrible. The texture is a bit more dense than a typical yeast bread, but it isn't dry, and I even think it could possibly be tasty with a bowl of chili. Please restrain yourself from running to the kitchen to try this recipe that I have so whole-heartedly endorsed.

Really I made this bread simply to experience the triumph of leavening flour and water with zero teaspoons of baking soda and zero yellow packets of yeast pellets.

Before the widespread availability of commercial yeast (around 1850 in this country), home bakers had to coax bread leaveners from thin air. Sourdough starter is still relatively well known. It's produced by harvesting lactobacillus and wild yeast spores from the air. The starter for salt rising bread isn't as common; it coaxes the bacterium Clostridium perfringens from its natural habitat in grains. Most grains will contain a little starter colony and one need only provide those little dudes with liquid and a warm place to multiply. They're heat lovers and prefer things a little warmer than one might imagine. 100 degrees Fahrenheit makes them happiest, but they will do their thing 10-15 degrees cooler (albeit much slower), and can tolerate just a bit more heat.

Based on instructions from James Beard and the Shaker sisters, I coaxed my C. perfringens from a starter of stone-ground cornmeal and tepid milk. It's important to spring for organic here. It will be less likely to have the bacteria blasted out of it during processing.  Then it just needs to stay warm. I am the proud owner of a snazzy new oven that has a setting as low as 100. The starter percolated quite nicely inside. My old oven only went down to 170, which is more typical, so other options include a dehydrator or yogurt machine (with thermostat control), or you could rest the container in a warm water bath.

Alternatively, the authentic way to nurture your colony is to heat rock salt in the oven and then nestle the crock with the starter in a bed of salt. Reportedly, the salt retains the heat well and will keep the starter cozy for 8-10 hours. As you might have gathered, it's probably this process that coined the name salt rising bread. It doesn't have anything to do with the salt in the bread, and clearly, has nothing to do with salt acting as a leavening agent.

Now, here's the tricky part. The size and quality of your bacteria colony will vary widely across cornmeal brands, the time it has sat on the shelf, and even seasons of corn. Furthermore, the rate at which it multiples will depend on the temperature regulation. Thus, instructions that say - keep starter in warm place for 6-7 hours - are full of it. There just isn't that type of precision here. I have cultivated an active colony in as little as 6 hours and as long as 48 hours. These bacteria will not be bent to my will. So the instructions should say - keep starter warm until small bubbles form on the surface (whenever that may be). When it's ready, and if I look closely, I can see new bubbles very slowly developing. (It reminds me of that green algae goo in a swamp.) At this point, it will have developed its "distinctive" aroma.

Once the colony is active, a new batch of milk along with salt, sugar and butter is fed to the starter and in (about) 2-4 hours the mixture will show signs of activity again. I don't always see big active bubbles on the surface during this stage so my strategy has been to give the mixture a gentle stir and then put my ear right down by the bowl. If I hear little pops and fizzles, like very light carbonation, I proceed with the bread.

From here, it's pretty standard bread baking. Flour is added to the liquid, kneaded, allowed to rise once, shaped into loaves, allowed to rise a second time in the pan, and then baked. The part that is not standard is that, after kneading, your hands will smell like a barnyard and will resist all efforts toward sterilization. Just a heads up that weddings and wine tastings ought to be be scheduled for a different day.

Salt Rising Bread*
3 cups milk, warm
1/2 cup stone-ground cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons butter, melted
5 cups flour

Mix one cup warm milk with cornmeal. Keep in a warm place until bubbles begin to form on the surface (6-48 hours). When starter is active, add 2 cups warm milk, salt, sugar, and butter. Stir to dissolve salt and sugar. Allow mixture to sit in warm place until small bubbles form (2-4 hours).

Mix in 4 cups of flour and turn out dough on floured surface. Gradually knead remaining 1 cup flour into dough and continue kneading until dough is very elastic, adding flour as necessary. The dough will always be somewhat sticky. Place dough in an oiled bowl and allow to rise for 2 hours. Divide dough into 2 parts, shape into loaves, and allow to rise in loaf pan until doubled in bulk. 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake loaves at 375 for 15 minutes. Lower heat to 350 degrees and bake for 30 minutes longer. Turn out on cooling racks.

Sourcing: Natural by Nature grass-fed milk, Anselma stone-ground cornmeal, Hain sea salt, Whole Foods 365 Brand: organic cane sugar and organic unsalted butter, and King Arthur bread flour

* This is another recipe that is far too old for an attribution. It was common in this country in the 18th and early 19th centuries particularly in Appalachia, which makes sense because that area was settled by people from the British Isles.  Salt rising bread was common in Scotland and Ireland. Although use of cornmeal as the starter obviously had to originate on this continent, harnessing C. perfringens for leavening was widely practiced in Europe. References to this bread making strategy date back to 17th century manuscripts, and of course, the technique was probably transferred via an oral tradition even before that.