There’s an old abandoned house on the bike path not far from where I live, with half its windows boarded up and the rest broken out. The roof is beginning to cave in, and every time I pass by I feel a twinge of sadness as I wonder about the people who built the house and planted the fruit trees lining the property. But for a while this summer, the sadness was trumped by joy and anticipation as the fragrant blossoms of spring swelled into thousands of prune plums, weighing down the ancient trees along the bike path.
Last year, I lamented the fact that there were no plums at the farmer’s market due to a late frost (and had to console myself with this mushroom tart). This year was the exact opposite.
The plums started turning ripe in mid-August, and they were everywhere I looked. I returned to the trees several weekends in a row, plastic bags bulging and cutting into my fingers as I trotted back down the bike path. My sister and I picked until we couldn’t carry any more, and we still didn’t even come close to making a dent in the crop. Runners and bike commuters stopped to gorge themselves on plums, and some of the old locals pulled their cars onto the property and loaded up boxes from the opposite side of the fence. All in all, we ended up processing just over 100 pounds, and there were still plums dropping off the tree when we finally cried uncle.
First on the to-make list was plum butter. I made it once a couple years ago, and it’s one of the best preserves I’ve ever tried. Tart and sweet, with complex notes of vanilla bean just below the surface. I love to spread it on toast, swirl it into plain yogurt, and put it in ebelskivers.
Plum butter doesn’t use pectin; it’s cooked down until very thick and then canned. I made several batches of varying thickness, and can tell you firsthand that they are all delicious — some are more like thin preserves, and others are so thick that I have a hard time spreading them. It’s tricky to get a very thick plum butter as you’ll need to stir it constantly at the end to keep it from scorching, but it’s well worth the effort. Even if you end up with syrup, I promise it will be delicious.
During the coldest days of the year, I make frequent trips out to the chicken coop. The hens are fine of course, they’re rated to about -20F (-30 if you speak Celsius), and a few of them will happily wade around in snow up to their egg-holes as long as the sun is shining — but the eggs freeze solid and explode if left in the nests for too long.
I’m nowhere near as cold-hardy as the chickens, but once I’m outside I marvel at the stark beauty of the icy yard and almost manage to forget about the cold.
In the end I’m always glad to be forced out into the elements, because it makes the house seem that much warmer when I come in.
Especially when I have a batch of these toasted anise cake slices fresh out of the oven. They make the house smell heavenly, and the crunchy texture (similar to biscotti) is perfect alongside a steaming hot cup of coffee or tea. Or a bowl of sorbet, when the days get warmer again.
These toasty cake slices are similar to biscotti, and are delicious with a hot cup of coffee or a bowl of lemon sorbet.
1 3/4 cups flour
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
5 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 teaspoons anise seeds, finely crushed
mortar & pestle
8 1/2 by 4 1/2" loaf pan
Put rack in the middle of oven and preheat to 350F. Lightly butter and flour loaf pan.
Crush anise seeds using mortar and pestle.
Sift together flour, baking powder, anise, and salt in a small bowl.
Beat eggs and sugar in a mixer bowl at high speed until tripled in volume, and thick enough to form a ribbon that takes 2 seconds to fall apart when beater is lifted (about 12-18 minutes)
Sift flour mixture over egg mixture in 3 batches, folding in each batch.
Gently stir in butter, and immediately pour batter into loaf pan and smooth top.
Bake until loaf is golden brown and a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35-45 minutes. Cool in pan for 5 minutes, and then turn out onto a cutting board (right side up) and cool for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400F.
Trim ends and cut loaf into 1/2-inch-thick slides. Arrange slices on a baking sheet and bake until undersides are golden brown, about 7 minutes. Flip and bake until the other side browns, about 5 minutes more. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Every culture has its own version of empanadas, and for good reason — what could be better than a portable, sturdy crust stuffed with any number of sweet and/or savory fillings?
Unfortunately, most of the empanadas I’ve had here in the US are deep-fried, oozing affairs that require the use of a knife and fork. My sister, on the other hand, spent a considerable amount of time bicycling in South America and as a result is something of an empanada connoisseur/fanatic. And so I was a little intimidated when she challenged me to make her favorite, “empanadas de pino.”
Empanadas are basically a sturdy pie crust made with plenty of lard*, and a savory filling. They can be baked or fried, but I see no need to involve a deep fryer in this recipe (or in most recipes, if I’m being honest). Empanadas de pino are the standard Chilean version, filled with a mixture of beef, olives, raisins, and hard-boiled egg — and they are more delicious than any description could possibly convey.
*I used lard that I rendered myself from a piece of whey-fed pork fat I got from Windsor Dairy; you can find sources for responsibly raised lard here.
I also made a version with chicken, since we had leftovers from one of our boys that I roasted earlier in the week. I went all savory with the chicken-and-egg empanadas, leaving out the raisins and adding some chopped jalapeño-and-garlic stuffed green olives. These were also extremely tasty, and I can’t think of a better use for those last shreds of meat I pull off a chicken before it goes in the stock pot.
Virtually every food is more delicious empanada, but anything saucy/cheesy/greasy tends to soak through the dough and make a mess. So it’s best to stick with fillings that are on the dry side.
And the best thing about empanadas? Apparently, you can make a whole bunch of them, and then put some in the freezer instead of the oven. I had every intention of trying that with this batch, but they all disappeared. Maybe next time.
This is the most traditional empanada filling used in Chile, and it is delicious. It's best when allowed to rest in the fridge overnight before being made into empanadas.
1 pound lean ground beef (grass-fed works best)
3 large onions, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon chile powder
1 tablespoon paprika
1/4 cup beef glace or good-quality stock
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped black olives
3 eggs, hard-boiled (if using fresh eggs, make sure they're at least a week old)
Empanada dough (recipe follows, this amount of filling uses roughly 1/2 batch.)
Hard-boil the eggs:
Put eggs in a medium saucepan and cover with 2 inches cold water. Partially cover pot and set over moderate heat, occasionally rolling the eggs with a wooden spoon to keep the yolk centered. When the pot boils, cover and set a timer for 30 seconds. Then, remove the pot from heat and let stand covered for 15 minutes. Remove eggs and immediately put under cold running water for 5 minutes (this keeps the yolk from turning green). Dry and refrigerate for 30 minutes before peeling.
Make the beef filling:
Brown beef with onions in a large heavy skillet. Add flour and cook another 5-10 minutes longer.
Let cool, and refrigerate overnight if possible (or up to 2 days).
For each golf-ball-sized bit of dough, use about 3 tablespoons beef filling and top with a few raisins, sliced olives, and a slice of hard-boiled egg.
This all-purpose dough is perfect for wrapping around your favorite savory (and sweet) fillings.
4 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into pieces
12 tablespoons good quality lard, chilled (I used whey-fed pork fat from a local dairy, which I rendered myself)
3/4 - 1 cup cold water
2 egg yolks
For egg wash:
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons milk
Sift flour, salt, and sugar together into a bowl.
Using a pastry cutter or two knives, blend the butter and lard into the flour mixture until well-combined and the largest lumps are pea-sized.
Whisk the egg yolks with 3/4 cups water. Gradually stir in the water/egg mixture with a fork, adding a bit at a time, and add more water if necessary to make the dough come together. It should look a bit shaggy until it's thoroughly chilled. Wrap tightly and refrigerate at least an hour, or up to a couple days.
Roll dough into balls about the size of golf balls, and roll out with a rolling pin into a 6-7" round. Place about 3 tablespoons of filling in the center and wet 1/2 of the edge with a finger dipped in water, then carefully fold the dry edge up and over the filling, pressing it against the other edge to seal the empanada. Use your fingers to roll and crimp any excess dough to reinforce the seam. Use a fork to gently poke a few holes across the top.
The empanadas can be frozen at this point and baked later, if you wish.
Beat egg yolk in 2 tablespoons milk, and lightly brush on finished empanadas before baking. Bake at 350F for about 35-45 minutes, until the bottoms are golden brown. NOTE: Lard is wonderful, in part, because your pastry will get nice and brown and crisp but will take forever to burn. However, the egg wash on these can make them appear browner than they actually are. Don't be too quick to pull your empanadas out of the oven, and be sure to take a peek at the underside when you check them.
I’ve always been a fan of soft, chocolate-covered mints — Junior Mints, Peppermint Patties, I love them all equally but don’t much venture into the candy aisle these days. However, they’ve been lurking in the back of my brain’s “to make” file for years now. I finally caved when, during a night of Christmas baking, I realized that I had TWO bottles of good quality peppermint extract taking up space in my cupboard.
I turned to two of my favoritecookbooks for inspiration. Both were in agreement on the basic proportions, except for the most important flavor — one recipe calls for 1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract to 2 1/2 cups of powdered sugar, and the other a full tablespoon per 2 cups of sugar (for the record, the latter also says you can use peppermint oil but I haven’t tried it). I settled for 1/2 tablespoon of extract and found it to be perfectly minty.
Just ignore that corn syrup lurking behind the more wholesome ingredients.
I generally avoid corn syrup, but this is one of a few cases where I use it in a recipe because there wasn’t a reliable substitute available (and hey, it’s only a tablespoon). I considered trying a batch with honey instead, since it’s hygroscopic like corn syrup, but thought it might change the color and flavor too much (if you try it, I’d love to hear how it turns out!). However, I did have excellent luck replacing the shortening in the original recipes with extra-virgin coconut oil. That counts for something, right?
For my trial run, I tried to make patties with a little heart-shaped cookie cutter but their shape didn’t hold up well during a brief trip through melted chocolate (a 1″ round might work better). I soon realized I couldn’t eat the entire batch in the name of quality control, and moved on to Plan B — rolling each heart into a little ball. They were much easier to coat in chocolate, if not as cute.
The finished candy can be stored in the fridge or freezer, layered between pieces of parchment paper in an airtight container. I recommend storing them near the back, where they won’t be as visible.
Cool, creamy and refreshing. These homemade treats are like Junior Mints or Peppermint Patties, but way better than anything you'll find in the candy aisle.
2 cups powdered confectioner's sugar
1 tbsp extra-virgin coconut oil, softened
1 tbsp light corn syrup
1 1/2 tsp pure peppermint extract
1/4 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp water
1 1/2 cups good quality dark chocolate chips or pieces
In a large bowl combine sugar, salt, corn syrup, oil, peppermint extract, and water. Form a workable dough using a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment, or kneading by hand, adding a bit of extra water if necessary.
If making balls, a metal measuring spoon works well to divvy up the dough (I used 1/4 tsp). Roll pieces of dough into balls by hand and put them on a cookie sheet in the freezer for at least 2 hours. If making patties, place the dough between two sheets of wax paper or plastic wrap and roll out to about 1/4 or 1/2 inch thickness, then freeze for 30-60 minutes before cutting out the patties. Place cutouts on a cookie sheet to freeze for at least 2 hours.
Heat chocolate in a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely-simmering water until it melts, let it cool to about 80F, and then heat it once again -- this tempers the chocolate and gives you a nice shiny coating on your candy.
Let the chocolate cool for a few minutes, then take the mint centers out of the freezer a few at a time. Use a fork to quickly roll them in the chocolate, then tap off the excess and place on a lightly oiled cookie sheet. Freeze until hard, then give the cookie sheet a shake to release the mints. Some may stick and lose pieces of their chocolate shell, you can just reheat the leftover chocolate and patch them (or better yet, eat them immediately).
Store mints between layers of parchment paper in an airtight container, in the fridge or freezer. Bring to room temperature before serving, or enjoy them frozen.
Adapted from Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It (by Karen Solomon) and Gourmet.
Last weekend, I got a text from my neighbor: “The chokecherries are ripe. Get them before the birds do!” And so my plans for the evening changed. I grabbed my buckets and headed across the street, where clusters of tiny cherries glistened on the bushes lining our dirt road.
Chokecherries are a wild cherry that is native across most of the United States, and I’ve been harvesting them ever since I was little. At family picnics I’d tuck clusters of the bright, astringent jewels into my pockets for later, only to be forgotten until laundry day when my mom would open the washer to find a pile of purple-stained dress shirts. There wasn’t much she could say; she got in trouble for the same thing as a kid.
Eaten right off the tree, chokecherries are extremely tart, and they’re mostly pit. But mixed with a whole lot of sugar, their delicious flavor comes out — imagine a much better version of the fake “wild cherry” stuff.
Chokecherries are easy to identify if you know what you’re looking for (namely, serrated leaves and small cherries hanging in clusters). But do a little reading first to ensure you’ve got chokecherries and not buckthorn, which would make for a truly memorable jelly (but not in a good way).
Whenever I harvest chokecherries, I tend to go a little overboard. I look at all those perfect little cherries, hours away from being stripped by the birds and the hornets, and I’m compelled to collect as many of them as humanly possible.
And then two or three hours later, sweaty and mosquito-bitten, I stand staring at 20 pounds of chokecherries that need to be picked through, and I wonder why I always get myself into these situations.
So if you’re going to be de-stemming 20 pounds of chokecherries, or even 5, there are a few things you’re going to need:
Ideally a helper, but only someone with good attention to detail and fine motor skills. They’ll only be creating more work for you if they miss a bunch of stems and/or blemished fruit.
That TV series you’ve been meaning to marathon-watch, books on tape, anything to keep your mind occupied for hours on end.
Cocktails and caffeine, but not too much of either. (Refer back to #1).
This time, I set aside the ripest cherries for a batch of chokecherry wine, and the less-ripe cherries for jelly (since they add pectin and help it set).
I rinse the cherries in small batches (about 1-2 cups) as I pick through them, then once they’re all clean I boil and strain them to make juice for jelly. Or syrup, as the case may be.
The first time I attempted a batch of jelly on my own, my Mom passed down a bit of chokecherry wisdom she got from my grandmother: “If you try to make jelly, you’ll get syrup, and vice versa. So if you want jelly, try for syrup.”
Fortunately, I like chokecherry syrup even better than I like jelly, so I was secretly glad when my first batch didn’t set. For the second batch, I used my neighbor’s tried-and-true recipe and ended up with a delicious, perfectly set batch of chokecherry jelly. So hopefully it’ll work like a charm for you too, but if you get syrup, that’s just part of the challenge.
And a few words about my canning setup: I do most of my canning outdoors now, and I highly recommend doing it this way. While it’s entirely possible to do all of this on an electric stove in a tiny kitchen (and I have, many times) it’s so much better to do all the boiling outside while the cool evening air drifts through the house. It works so well for me that I eventually got a second propane burner and hot water canner so I can have multiple batches going at once, and they’re already getting plenty of use this summer.
The only downside is the mosquitoes, and the fact that it can be a little hard to see the jars at night (but a headlamp fixes that problem).
Few things are as satisfying as lifting jars out of a hot water bath and listening to the *PING!* as each one seals. But picking wild cherries on the side of a road, and then turning them into something utterly delicious? Right up there.
Wild chokecherries grow across most of the United States, and they make a delicious sweet-tart jelly.
About 4 pounds chokecherries, de-stemmed (to make 3 1/2 cups chokecherry juice)**
4 1/2 cups sugar
1 (1.75 oz) box powdered pectin
**About 1/3 of your chokecherries should be underripe, as the additional pectin will help your jelly set. If not, you may end up with syrup, which is also delicious.
Clean 4 or 8 oz. canning jars with new lids
A 21.5-quart hot water canner
Canning funnel and utensils (tongs, jar lifter, etc.)
To make juice:
Place your washed, de-stemmed cherries in a large pot and cover with filtered water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30-40 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
Crush the fruit using a muddler or potato masher and hang it in a jelly bag to strain overnight, or if (like me) you don't have a jelly bag run the cherries through a sieve or foley mill. Allow the juice to settle for a few hours and carefully pour the top layer into another jar, leaving the sediment behind.
Sterilize the jars:
Put jars (a few more than you think you'll need) into a hot water canner and cover with at least 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil and boil for at least 10 minutes, then turn off the heat.
Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil and remove from heat. Put jar lids in the hot water and cover until you're ready to use them.
To make the jelly:
Put a few small plates in the freezer to chill (you'll use these to test the jelly). Measure out the sugar and set aside.
Bring your juice to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently.
Add the pectin and stir until smooth, then bring to a full rolling boil and add the sugar all at once. Boil for exactly one minute and remove from heat. Skim any foam from the top.
Dribble a small amount onto your chilled plate and put it back into the freezer for a minute. Then, pull it out and hold it sideways. If the jelly stays put, it's ready to process.
Process the jelly:
Remove your jars from the hot water bath and drain upside down on a clean towel.
Using a canning funnel, carefully ladle the jelly into your jars, leaving 1/4" of air space at the top. Wipe rims with a clean damp cloth and top with sterilized lids and screw tops. If you have a partial jar do not process it, just use it ASAP.
Carefully place jars in canner, adding boiling water to bring level 2" above jar tops. Bring canner to a boil and then process for 5 minutes, plus additional time for altitude (at 6.000 feet, I process mine for 15 minutes). Find your processing time here.
Remove jars from water bath and allow to cool. Check jars to make sure they have sealed, any jars that don't seal should be stored in the fridge and used first.
Last weekend, I helped my favorite neighbor put nets up over her grapes. With four of us chattering as we worked our way down the rows, the morning flew by and soon we were celebrating our victory over the birds and raccoons with a glass of Haymaker’s Punch in the shade. As she put it, “many hands make light work.”
In the process, we clipped about 3 pounds of unripe grapes that were blocking the nets or too close to the ground. I immediately thought of ver jus, a sour grape juice that I learned about from a winemaker friend in Sonoma.
Ver jus (also vert jus, or “green juice”) has been around since the Middle Ages, and can also be made from unripe apples and berries, or from sorrel (which is taking over my herb garden, so I’ll definitely be trying that soon). It’s used in place of citrus or vinegar, and it’s “wine-friendly,” meaning it won’t overpower the palate as vinegar will if you’re drinking something fancy.
The last place I lived had a big fence full of concord grapes, and I once made a wildly unsuccessful batch of ver jus there. I’d just used up the last of the bottle I bought in Sonoma, and I had several clusters of grapes that were refusing to ripen, so I just ground them up, put the juice through a sieve, and bottled it — sediment and all.
It went moldy within a few weeks.
I’ve been pining for a second chance ever since, so I was overjoyed when the entire basket of sour grapes appeared on my porch last weekend. This time, I did my research first.
To make verjus, you’ll need at least a few pounds of unripe grapes, plus some citric acid to help prevent oxidation. You’ll also need a food mill — I used a Foley mill last time, which works great but requires some elbow grease. This time, I had the food mill attachment for my Kitchen Aid mixer and it made quick work of the grapes. I just put them in the hopper, and watched as it churned out a big carafe of juice and a pile of dried skins and seeds. If you have a juicer, it’ll probably work great too.
I highly recommend having a machine do the juicing if you can, especially because the faster you work the prettier your verjus will be (it turns brown as it oxidizes). For 3 pounds of unripe grapes, put about 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid in the collection vessel and swirl it periodically as the juice collects — this will also help to preserve the delicate green color of your ver jus.
And even if you’re not milling them by hand, don’t underestimate the time you’ll need to remove all the grapes from their stems before you juice them — it’s time-consuming to be sure. So pour a glass of wine, put on a movie, call a friend, whatever you need to do to make it fun instead of tedious.
Once you’ve pressed all the juice from your grapes, put it through a fine-mesh sieve and pour it into a sealed jar without much airspace.
There’s still some stuff that needs to be filtered out, but it’s too fine to get trapped in a sieve — so just let it settle completely, then carefully pour your juice off the top. The smaller the neck of your jar in relation to the sides, the easier this will be (i.e. don’t use a wide-mouth jar).
When made this way, ver jus can be kept in the refrigerator for about 3 months. Some people also add grain alcohol, sugar, and sometimes sulfites to preserve it for long-term storage, but I’ve never had a big enough crop to warrant that. From 3 lbs I got about 30 ounces of ver jus, and my neighbor and I have both made a sizeable dent in our bottles already.
Use it on garden salads, fish, desserts, quick pickles, any dish where you want to add bright acidity without overpowering the flavor.
I avoid processed junk food as a general rule, preferring to make my own from scratch. This doesn’t mean there aren’t processed foods I find delicious; it just means I avoid buying them, because I know it’s hard to overcome the hard-wired human instinct to consume as much fat, salt, and sugar as possible. Or in my case, an entire box of Cheez-Its.
So I never buy Cheez-Its anymore (but I am still guilty of the occasional box of Cheddar Bunnies.) To compensate, I developed an obsession with making my own from scratch. After several test batches over the years, I’ve finally tweaked the recipe enough to capture my favorite things about Cheez-Its. And then make them even better.
Of course, that means they’re just as fatty and salt-laden as the store-bought kind (probably even more so.) But at least you know what’s in them.