Thursday, March 29, 2012

Wrangling Cats

Nice word picture, isn't it? Wrangling cats.  Truth be told, I spend a lot of time thinking I do exactly that.  As a mother, it is my job to train my children.  I need to see that they are making wise use of their time, completing their jobs adequately and generally making progress in all areas of their lives.  I make sure they are out of bed on time, don't dawdle while eating breakfast and quickly finish their morning chores.  I am in charge of seeing that they are kind to one another, always tell the truth and put other people before themselves.

It's harder than it sounds.  Really.  Just try to get numerous children of all ages moving seamlessly from one task to the next.  There is only one of me and four of them (I cannot include Maid Elizabeth in their wayward number) - I am truly outnumbered!  When I get one going in the correct direction, another darts out of the herd.  While trying to get that one back, and attempting to keep the first one on the straight and narrow, another gets off-track.  Just when I think I have everything under control, one of them will throw me a curve ball.  It is enough, from time to time, to make me want to throw my hands up in despair.

But, I don't really have quit in me and so I persevere.  Besides, there is nothing quite so rewarding as seeing my children learn and grow and mature.  It is something to behold on those days when they work like a well-oiled machine - and I know that the only way I will ever be rewarded with those days is by training them, every day, without fail.  I know that diligence and persistence will produce the fruit of well-adjusted children that are able to direct themselves and conduct their lives well.

But does sometimes feel like I am trying to wrangle cats!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Cheese in a Fortnight

We spent the weekend with some friends who were kind enough to send us home with 2 gallons of fresh, raw milk.  Knowing that to drink it right up would quickly end our enjoyment, we chose instead to make cheese.

Over the years, we have made many different varieties of cheese including Farmhouse (cheddar), Gouda (an all-time favorite), Caerphilly and Parmesan (we aged it for 9 months - it was out of this world!).  Being somewhat greedy for a brick of homemade cheese, this time we opted for Caerphilly, which only takes two weeks to properly age (although in England and Wales (were it originated) they age it for up to two months).

My recipe came with my cheese press, which was imported from England.  About 14 years ago, Sir Knight bought the Wheeler Cheese Press (I don't believe the Wheeler is imported any longer, however, New England Cheese Company seems to now make the same press) for me for Mothers Day.  Since then, wheel upon wheel of cheese has been pressed, aged and enjoyed by this family.  We have learned the importance of sterilizing everything that touches the cheese.  We have learned that cheese must be tended, even after it is out of the press.  We have learned that the quality of milk that goes into the cheese has everything to do with the quality of cheese that comes out of the press.  We have learned which cheeses we like and which are a waste of milk.  We have learned that experience is the best teacher.

What you need to make this cheese:

  • A dairy thermometer
  • A set of stainless steel measuring spoons
  • A long knife or palette knife for cutting curds
  • A bucket or vessel to contain the milk.  (Stainless steel is best; plastic of good quality will do if it can be sterilized; never use galvanized steel or iron)
  • Cheese cloth
  • A good supply of hot water is necessary for bringing up the temperature of the milk by standing the container in a sink or wash boiler
  • A cheese press
  • Starter (Thermophilic)
  • Rennet (not junket)
All equipment must be very clean and be sterilized by scalding with boiling water.

Caerphilly Cheese
Use 2 gallons of milk, 1/2 morning and 1/2 evening milk.  For this cheese, up to one third of the total quantity can be skim milk.

Heat to 90°F (goat's milk 85°F) (I heat the milk by putting my pot in a sink full of hot water), add 4 oz. starter (either direct set or cultured), stir well, cover and leave for 30 minutes.
Heating water in the sink
At the right temperature
The starter (which I keep in the refrigerator)
Add 1/2 tsp. of liquid rennet (if your rennet is in tablet form, dilute with 2 tsp. cold water) stir well right down to the bottom of the bucket for at least one minutes, cover and leave for 45 minutes.

With a long knife, or palette knife, cut the curd at 1/2" intervals, then at right angles again, cutting it across and across.  Using the ladle, cut spirally downward, starting in the middle at the top.  Now turn the curds right over, cutting any large ones, and continue this stirring for 40 minutes while heating rapidly to 92°F.

Cutting the curds
Stirring in a spiral motion

Quickly heating (and stirring) to 92°
Now allow the curds to settle in the bottom of the pail then pour off all the whey.

Cut the curds into slices like a cake, turn them over and pile them up for more whey to drain away.  Do this 2 or 3 times more at 5 minute intervals.

The whey has been drained and the curds cut in "cake-like" chunks
Now break the curd into walnut sized pieces and add salt at the rate of 1 oz to 4 lbs. of curd.
Ready to weigh the walnut-sized pieces of curd
Adding the salt (2 Tablespoons)
Have the press ready:  line the mold with scalded cheese cloth, fill it with the curds, fold one layer of cloth neatly over the top,  put in your follower, pile the rest of the cloth on top and put on the second spacer.  Now put under 20 lbs. pressure for 10 minutes.  Turn the mold upside down, replace follower and spacer and increase pressure to 30 lbs.  Do this twice more at 10 minute intervals, increasing the pressure by 10 lbs each time and finally leave the cheese under the maximum pressure (50 lbs.) for 14-16 hours.

Sterilizing the cheese press (everything that touches the cheese)
Awaiting the next step
Spooning the salted curds into the press
Getting ready to put the cheese under pressure
Whey draining from the cheese
Under maximum pressure
Remove from the mold and uncover the cheesecloth.  The traditional treatment of this cheese is to dry it by sprinkling all over with rice and flour and putting to ripen at 50°F for two weeks, turning it daily (this allows the whey to sufficiently drain).  You can also air-dry it and wax it, but it needs an extra week to ripen.

Taking the cheese from the press
Removing the cheesecloth
Dusted with flour
Ready to age
Generally, I turn my cheeses twice a day - morning and evening.  This keeps the cheese dry, thus stemming any propensity to mold.  If I plan on keeping the cheese and not opening it right away, I will wax the cheese and continue to turn it about once a week.

There is nothing quite like homemade cheese.  Not only is it wonderful to eat, but there is such a sense of accomplishment when you take a knife to that wheel.

We enjoy Caerphilly on crackers but have also grated it for use in cooking.   The longer it ages the sharper it becomes, so if you age it for 3 to 6 months, it makes incredible macaroni and cheese.

Cheese is easy and fun, and, when you are culturing your starters, and incredible survival skill set.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Canning Dairy - Soft Cheeses, Hard Cheeses & Butter

NOTE:  Canning dairy products are NOT recommended by your local extension office or the FDA.  The following information is not intended to direct you in your canning activities, only to share with you what I have learned in my home kitchen.  Please check with you local extension office before proceeding.

I have been experimenting in my home for the last number of years canning rather non-conventional products.  My general philosophy is "If you can purchase it canned, why shouldn't you be able to can it at home?".  I understand that there are many that would argue with this rational, however, that is not the point of this post.

I began canning dairy products with the canning of butter.  I was thrilled as I watched the jars of butter fill my kitchen shelves and I anticipated having butter available long after the grid went down.  It was a honeymoon - for about 6 months.  Once opened, the butter had a slightly different texture (grainy, like melted and re-solidified butter) but the flavor was sweet and perfect.  I used the canned butter for spreading on toast and frying potatoes.  It went into pie crusts and muffins.  Gradually, I began to notice that the flavor of the butter changed.  It became stronger and stronger and after being on the shelf for about 8 months, was most definitely rancid.

After conducting my failed canning experiment, I started thinking of other ways to preserve butter, at least semi-long term.  As I was mulling the problem around in my head, I thought of Almanzo's mom (In the Laura Ingalls Wilder book, "Farmer Boy") who kept sweet cream butter in her cellar for long periods of time to sell to the city folk.  Her butter was highly sought after because of its sweetness and in fact brought in more money than Almanzo's father's potato crop.  The secret to her success was achieved by completely pressing the buttermilk out of her butter (the buttermilk causes the butter to "turn") and packing it tightly in tubs and storing them in her cool cellar.  It only made sense, with our modernly produced butter, that we should be able to keep butter for long periods of time as long as they were stored at a relatively cool temperature and away from sunlight.  And so, my parents humored me.  They have a wonderful root cellar (we affectionately call it "The Bat Cave") and they agreed to stash some butter in it to be retrieved and tested for freshness at a later date.

Six months went by (the date my canned butter had started to turn) and they tried a stick of butter.  Perfect!  Just as when they had put it into the Bat Cave.  Another three months went by and they tried another cube of butter.  Again, just as sweet as the day it had been stored.

The Bat Cave is not a freezer.  The average temperatures hover around 40°F in the winter and 50°F in the summer.  It is dry and cool and apparently perfect for storing butter.

Verdict:  Don't can butter, put it in your "Bat Cave".

O.K., so I just had to try it!  I came into possession of a 40# box of cream cheese and I have no freezer.  What's a girl to do?  So I canned it.  It canned up beautifully - fluffy and white, and once opened, it was ready to use.  No waiting for the cream cheese to soften or dealing with the weird texture of frozen cream cheese, just smooth, perfect cream cheese. I was elated.  I used the cheese for black-bottomed muffins, Devonshire cream and myriad other goodies.  But, just as the butter slowly went bad, the cream cheese followed suit.  After about 4 months on the shelf, the cream cheese was too strong to use.  After 6 months, it was rancid.

Verdict:  Don't can soft cheeses.

We love cheese - and we love to make cheese, however, we do not currently have a cow.  In light of that fact, I wanted to come up with a way to store cheese that was convenient and non-electric.  Now, being a bit of a cheesemaker myself, I know that it is quite possible to re-wax commercially produced cheese.  That being said, I also know that the best location to store waxed cheese is in a cheese cellar (a much cooler location than my kitchen shelves) and not having one of those handy, I thought I better look for an alternative solution.  Once again, I turned to my canner.

The cheese canned up quite nicely and once I ran a knife around the inside of the jar, slid out of the canning jar with no problems.  Surprisingly, it cut really well.  I was expecting it to crumble, like it does when it has been frozen, but the slices were perfect.

So, here's the skinny on canning hard cheeses.  It becomes sharper the longer it is in the jar (ages).  If you are planning on canning your cheese, buy mild.  Also, I much prefer to buy the loaves of cheese and grate it myself.  The additives they use to keep the cheese from clumping back together changes the consistency of the hardened cheese.

After having canned hard cheese (both cheddar and Mozarella) on the shelves for over a year, I can tentatively say that canning hard cheese is a success.  We have used our cheese for everything from eating with crackers and cold cuts, to topping pizza and using in macaroni and cheese.  Other than a slight change in consistency when melted, the cheese is fabulous.  As I said, it does age slowly as it sits on the shelf, but other than that, it is just great cheese.

Verdict:  Can hard cheese.

And there you have it - all of my dairy canning experience in a nut shell.  It has been a live and learn experience, but I know now what is worthwhile to can and what is a waste of time and money.

NOTE:  When you see a word that is a different color in the middle of a paragraph, that is a hyper-link.  Just click on the word and it will take you directly to the recipe or article.

Monday, March 19, 2012

An Overabundance of Eggs

When the hens are laying well, which they certainly are this time of year, we have a blessed overabundance of eggs.  We are careful to water glass (for directions, click here) some of them, allowing us fresh eggs even when the ladies are not producing, but most of them are quickly used in a number of delectable wonders.

One of the first things that calls my name when the egg basket is full is Lemon Curd (for recipe and canning instructions, click here).  I use a recipe that is egg rich and wonderful.  I make a large batch and then can it in 1/2 pint and 1 pint jars, ensuring that I always have something on hand to dress up fresh scones or present as a hostess gift.  Lemon curd is a great base for a tart (or even by itself) and is divine on warm scones with a bit of Devonshire Cream.  (For recipe, click here).

Freshly canned lemon curd
Now this is afternoon tea!
I can hardly talk about lemon curd without tucking my favorite scone in there somewhere, so here it is - Yum!

Favorite Scones
3 C flour
1/2 C sugar
5 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, chilled
1 large egg
3/4 C heavy cream (or milk)

Preheat oven to 350°F.

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.

Cut the cold butter into small pieces.  Cut the butter into the flour with a pastry cutter until the mixture resembles crumbs.

Add the egg and cream to the flour mixture and stir together until just combined.  You may need a splash more milk (or cream) if the dough it too dry.

Turn onto a floured surface and knead gently a few times.  Divide dough into two balls and pat each ball into a round about 3/4 inch thick.  Which a sharp knife cut the round into 6 wedges.  Transfer wedges to a baking sheet.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until they're just barely starting to brown.  Serve with butter and jam or Devonshire Cream and Lemon Curd.

Scone, just out of the oven
Spread with Devonshire Cream
and topped with Lemon Curd

After the curd has been canned, I turn my sights to something much more savory than sweet.  It is a favorite with my children, who actually prefer it cold, for breakfast, rather than warm out of the oven.  This protein rich snack is called Scotch Eggs.  It is a common man's breakfast from the heart of the Scottish homeland.  It is perfect for breakfast on the go, whether you are taking a road trip or patrolling your perimeters.  And it is really rather simple to make.

Scotch Eggs
1 quart oil for frying
8 eggs (the original recipe called for 4 eggs - but we just stretched the sausage)
2 pounds pork sausage (bulk)
4 C dried bread crumbs (seasoned)
1 C flour
4 eggs, beaten

Preheat oven to 350°F.  If deep frying heat oil in deep fryer to 375° ( I always pan fry rather than deep fry).

Place eggs in saucepan and cover with water.  Bring to boil.  Cover, remove from heat and let eggs sit in hot water for 10 to 12 minutes.  Remove from hot water, cool and peel.

Boiling eggs
Flatten the sausage and make a patty to surround each egg.  Very lightly flour the sausage and coat with beaten egg.  Roll in bread crumbs to cover evenly.

Sausage patty
Covering the egg
Ready to fry
Deep fry until golden brown, or pan fry while making sure each side is well cooked.  Bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes.

Cut in half and serve over a bed of lettuce and sliced tomatoes for garnish.  If mustard is desired it looks beautiful over this.  Generally, however, we chill these and eat them for breakfast when we are in a hurry, or warm with a knife and fork.

Scotch eggs.  This isn't my photo - I forgot to take one after they were made!


So, there you have it ~ our go-to recipes when our egg basket overfloweth.  How wonderful to have an overabundance of eggs!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Radio Free Redoubt - Our Last, Best Hope for Freedom

I'm so excited!  Sir Knight, Maid Elizabeth and I recently had the opportunity to meet John Jacob Schmidt of Radio Free Redoubt fame and record an interview.  We recorded the interview, along with a few "Prepper Tips" and "Tactical Tips" in an undisclosed, underground location.  We had a blast!  John Jacob Schmidt really is the "patriot, God-fearing, prepper" part in all of us.

Anyway, I am thrilled to let all of you know that this very night, our interview will be aired on Radio Free Redoubt.  The original show will be aired at 7:00p.m. (Pacific Time) followed by another airing directly after the original show.  After this evening, the show will be available by podcast, which you can listen to at your convenience.

Taping a radio segment was fun and more than a little intimidating.  Thankfully, JJS made it very easy and guided Sir Knight and I through the process with ease.  Of course, we heard every little mistake we made and wish we would have been more prepared, but that just gives us something to strive for next time.

We are humbled and grateful for the opportunity to speak to you.  Thank you for inviting us into your homes.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Good Life

We definitely do - live the good life, that is.  Although at first glance, the good life may appear diametrically opposed to the life of a prepper, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The assumption is that preppers spend their time thinking only of the worst case scenario, planning for that allusive thing known as TEOTWAWKI, but the reality is that in our pursuit of preparedness, simplicity and self-reliance, we are actually living life to the fullest.  We learn, we create, we experiment - we think.  In our attempts to master the world around us, we truly become modern day "renaissance men".

As the Mistress of my home, I take great pride in serving my family.  I love nothing more than creating a home that calls to the very soul of the people that I love.  We thrive on good fun, good conversation and good food.  We daily live the good life.

And so, as we live the good life, we have learned a few things.  One essential thing we have learned is the secret to PERFECT wood cookstove pizza!  When I began cooking and baking on my wood cookstove, it was a comedy of errors.  If the bread was baked to perfection on top, the bottom was raw.  If the bottom was done, the top was doughy.  The heat was too high or the heat was too low.  The cookies would look perfect, but because the temperature was too low to bake properly, they were roughly the consistency of rocks.  Oh, the learning curve!

Trial and error (and much perseverance) paid off, and my baking became acceptable and then even wonderful.  Bread, biscuits and cakes came out looking impeccable - now I could really bake.  And then I tried pizza.

You have to understand - pizza is an institution in our home.  EVERY Friday evening is "pizza and a movie" night.  We have EVERYTHING we need for pizza stored in our long term storage.  Wheat for the crust, olive oil, garlic and pizza sauce are all on our shelves.  I have canned mozzarella cheese, Italian sausage, pepperoni and mushrooms.  Dried onions and green pepper are at the ready.  So you see, I HAVE to be able to bake these beauties to perfection.

Dutifully, I slid a freshly prepared pizza into our wood cookstove oven.  I put it on the bottom rack so that the bottom would bake properly while the cheese melted into the top.  The oven was hot (about 450°) and the pizza browned right up.  After about 25 minutes, the pizza looked perfect.  It was nicely browned on top with melted cheese just beginning to brown.  Knowing that because I baked the pizza on the floor of the oven the bottom would be done, I slid the pizza onto a cutting board and slid the pizza cutter through the hot crust.  After everyone had dished up, we bit into our first bite of honest-to-goodness wood cookstove pizza, and almost had to spit it out.  It was raw.  I mean, absolutely raw.  I couldn't believe it.  I had baked it for plenty of time, in an oven that was certainly hot enough, and my pizza was raw in the middle.  Frustrated, I put the pizza back onto the pizza stone and put it into the gas range to finish baking.

Baking the pizza on the TOP of the stove
In the oven
A browned bottom crust!!!
What to do!  I thought and thought and thought and then it hit me.  Cast iron (every wood cookstove cook's best friend) on the surface of the cookstove FIRST, followed with baking in the oven to brown the crust and melt the cheese.  I brought out or large cast iron skillet (16") and rolled pizza dough into it.  After the dough was ready, I poured some extra virgin olive oil on, spread with garlic and added pizza sauce.  Next came the mozzarella, pepperoni and bacon bits.  Full of hope and expectation, I put the skillet on the stove-top (near the firebox but not directly over it) and let the pizza bake.  I allowed the pizza to bake for about 15 minutes, moving the skillet slightly farther from the firebox as the pizza began to bake.  After baking on the stovetop, I slid the skillet into the oven (on the lowest rack) and let the pizza bake for an additional 15 minutes.  Perfection!  Really, it was wonderful!

Looking at the nicely browned bottom of the crust, I knew that Friday night "pizza and a movie" would not have to end in the case of TEOTWAWKI, but only become more precious.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Bottling Elderberry Wine

After sitting on our counter for roughly six months, our Elderberry Wine was finally done fermenting and was ready to bottle.  This is the first time that we have made wine, so we really didn't know what to expect.  We did a lot of internet research so that we would know how to tell that fermentation was complete and then again when we were ready to bottle.
Taking the airlock valve off the carboy
Pouring the wine through it's final filter (double layers of sterilized cheesecloth)
Filling bottles

And so, on Sunday a lively group of us opened the air-lock valve on our much anticipated first attempt at wine making.  We filtered a little into some glasses, broke bread together and put the ruby-red wine to our lips.  Oh, it was wonderful!  I was so surprised.  Having used an old Scottish Highlands recipe requiring no modern chemicals or interventions, I wasn't really sure what to expect.  It was incredibly smooth and sweet (even a little too sweet, perhaps) and left no nasty aftertaste.  At this point we would definitely call it a desert wine, however, it will be interesting to see how it ages.  Most likely we will reduce the amount of sugar we use next time, but other than that, we are thrilled.

Dipping wine from the bucket
Passing the cork
Most assuredly a family affair
Corking the bottle
We waxed the top (although this is not necessary)
A finished bottle of wine
Packaged up and ready to give as gifts - or whatever!
Next on the list is Raspberry wine.  My friend, Lady Day has a freezer full of berries from her berry patch, so we are going to use the same recipe and give Raspberry wine a try.  It too should take about 6 months to ferment (although if the weather warms up that time will probably be reduced), so we should have a new wine to try in the fall.

As our wine ages, we will keep you posted on it's progress.  This should be fun!