Now we're talking...

Mini Chocolate Cupcakes

Someone once read me a quote that describes time as a whirlwind, swirling faster as you move away from the center out towards the edges.  Time moves slowest at the center of the whirlwind and this is full of people trying desperately to slow down or hold onto time, mostly young lovers and the parents of young children.  As Little Man turns four both Dave and I find ourselves manically flip-flopping between being excited for what this new year will bring (aka let’s please get out of the threes… please…) and sappy nostalgia for the baby that Little Man used to be.  Sob!

Right now the excitement for four is winning out, and I can’t wait to see what this new year will bring.  To start his fourth year out right we wanted Little Man to be able to bring a special dessert to his day care, but still have it be something we can feel good about him eating.  I haven’t written about it yet, but much of last year has been a struggle to figure out if Little Man is dairy/lactose intolerant or not.  Many of the recipes that I have been working on recently are dairy-free versions of family favorites.  In many cases I’ve been able to simply swap out cow’s milk for almond or coconut milk.  In a few examples, the transition hasn’t been that easy.  The main thing for this birthday treat, however, was that we wanted it to be something that Little Man would be hugely excited for and that he and his “classmates” would have no idea that the treat they were eating was good for them (or at least not as bad as the refined flour and white sugar versions can be).

These mini muffin/cup cakes are delicious treats on their own.

These mini muffin/cup cakes are delicious treats on their own.

Last year Little Man and I brought mini-muffin sized versions of my Banana Chocolate Muffins, which were also one of my first posted recipes for this site (more nostalgia…).  This year I wanted to bring it up a notch and make it more cupcakey.  The first step was to revamp my previous recipe making it nearly dairy-free.  I say “nearly dairy free” since it does have semisweet chocolate chips and those contain milk.  If you want truly dairy free you can simply omit the chocolate chips, or use a dairy-free/vegan alternative.  I haven’t found one that I’m happy with yet, so standard semi-sweet chocolate chips won out.  These muffins, mini or otherwise, are delicious on their own and are treats that I feel good about Little Man eating.

But what really sets these mini muffin/cupcakes apart is the frosting.  Oh, the frosting…  This frosting is the first thing that I’ve every come across that deserves the phrase “stupid good!”  It’s amazing.  Four ingredients.  30 second to whip it up.  The hardest thing is not devouring the entire bowl before frosting your cupcakes or cake.  Seriously… This stuff is ridiculous, and I cannot take a single iota of credit for it.  The frosting recipe comes from an amazing blog called Chocolate Covered Katie.  I’ve included a link to the Vegan Chocolate Frosting Shots here, as well as in the main recipe below.  For Dave and I, we were happy leaving it just barely sweetened with a little powdered sugar, but for the kiddos I added probably about 1/2 cup total of powdered sugar to take the edge off of the bittersweet chocolate goodness that this creates.  This “frosting” could be served as a chocolate mousse in a fancy coupe and no one would be the wiser.  Seriously, it’s that good.  I doubled the recipe to make enough frosting to cover these cupcakes.

My sous chef had a great time playing "baker," though it took a bit of persuasion to convince him that wearing an apron was a good idea.

My sous chef had a great time playing “baker,” though it took a bit of persuasion to convince him that wearing an apron was a good idea.

OK, back to the awesome cupcakes…  Since these cupcakes were for Little Man’s day care buddies, it only seemed fitting that he help me make them.  You’ll notice that in the pictures from this recipe are, shall we say… a bit more messy than usual.  They often have ingredients all over the counter, with Little Man’s grubby mits sticking out of the bowl at any given time.  We had a blast.  While I “controlled” the situation enough to make sure that the end product was delicious, I wanted this to be super fun for Little Man.  He got to taste the ingredients and saw that flour did not taste good good, while brown sugar was quite tasty.  I measured, he dumped, and a good time was had by all.  By the time we were spooning batter into the muffin cups, he was pretty done with the whole procedure, but that was fine since the motor skills of filling little muffin cups cleanly is still a bit beyond him.

In terms of planning, I made the cup cakes two days in advance, the frosting the night before, and then frosted and decorated the cakes in the morning before day care.  You can certainly frost them the night before, but you would need to either leave them uncovered in the refrigerator or keep them in a container that does not touch their tops.  The frosting stays soft to the touch, so plastic wrap won’t be an option.  Your hardest hurdle to clear will be not gobbling them up before sending them off to school.

Little Man got to help sprinkle the baby planets over the frosted cup cakes.

Little Man got to help sprinkle the baby planets over the frosted cup cakes.

Mini Chocolate Cupcakes (Dairy Free)
Ingredients
:
4 very ripe bananas
¼ cup canola oil
¼ cup silken tofu
2 eggs
½ cup brown sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat flour
3 Tbsp. cocoa powder
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
¾ cup semisweet chocolate chips (optional)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400ºF and line a mini muffin pan with paper liners. A regular muffin pan can be used, but the cupcakes will spread out a bit rather than growing tall.

    I don't own a mini muffin pan, so we simply used a regular sized pan with mini muffin cup papers.  Little Man had a blast dropping single cups into each hole in the pan.  Of course this task was made more fun with a generous mug of Auntie Erin's Hot Cocoa, hence the straw in the photo.

    I don’t own a mini muffin pan, so we simply used a regular sized pan with mini muffin cup papers. Little Man had a blast dropping single cups into each hole in the pan. Of course this task was made more fun with a generous mug of Auntie Erin’s Hot Cocoa, hence the straw in the photo.

  2. In a large bowl add the bananas, oil, tofu, eggs and brown sugar. Beat them on medium high with electric beaters (or a stand mixer) until well combined. There may still be tiny flecks of tofu sprinkled throughout, but that’s fine. It will melt right in.
    Wet "more or less" ingredients.

    Wet “more or less” ingredients.

    Not the most photogenic image, but no matter how fast I whisked I couldn't get the tofu to incorporate like I wanted it to.  So I switched to the electric beaters, and they did the job.

    Not the most photogenic image, but no matter how fast I whisked I couldn’t get the tofu to incorporate like I wanted it to. So I switched to the electric beaters, and they did the job.

  3. In a medium bowl add the flours, cocoa powder, baking powder and baking soda. Whisk the ingredients together to combine.

    Dry ingredients, mostly in the bowl.

    Dry ingredients, mostly in the bowl.

  4. Gently add the dry ingredients to the wet, being careful to not over mix the batter. Fold in the chocolate chips if using.

    The rich, chocolate batter.  Make it truly dairy free by omitting the chocolate chips or using a vegan substitute.

    The rich, chocolate batter. Make it truly dairy free by omitting the chocolate chips or using a vegan substitute.

  5. Spoon a couple of teaspoons of batter into the prepared muffin pans.

    This was Little Man's pan that he filled.  If I had a small cookie scoop for this, it might have been easier for him.  As it was, the two teaspoons were a fun, artistic adventure.

    This was Little Man’s pan that he filled. If I had a small cookie scoop for this, it might have been easier for him. As it was, the two teaspoons were a fun, artistic adventure.

  6. Bake for 15-20 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack.

    Once on they were on the rack, it became difficult to to convince Little Man that they weren't there as immediate snack treats.

    Once on they were on the rack, it became difficult to to convince Little Man that they weren’t there as immediate snack treats.

  7. Decorations: Frost the cupcakes with Vegan Chocolate Frosting, then decorate as whimsy dictates. Sprinkles are always fun, or you could use sugared flowers for an upscale look. Little Man’s birthday party this year is space-themed, so he chose tiny sphere sprinkles since they look like “baby planets.”

Click here for a printable version of the Mini Chocolate Cupcakes (Dairy Free) recipe.

Now we're talking...

Now we’re talking…

 

A perfect dish for sliced flatbread, fresh veges, or even as a "sauce" for sandwiches.

Hummus Update

We are still recovering from what was likely the worst hummus misfortune since recorded time, and for an archaeologist that is saying something.  Ugh!  Between the two of us and a typo in my online hummus recipe, we created a monstrosity that could not be fixed no matter how hard we tried, no matter what spices we threw at it, no matter how much encouragement Little Man gave us.  Hopeless, yet memorable.  Oh, how memorable…

So I’ve updated the online Marie’s Hummus recipe, and all should be good now.  If you tried it before and it didn’t taste right (sorry!), I’ve fixed the recipe.  As for our household, we’ll be giving the hummus another shot tomorrow after I replenish my lemon juice supply.  Also, as a note to anyone interested, if you run out of lemon juice do NOT try to replace it with cider vinegar.  Like I said, it was memorable…  ;)

Pooh Bear under arm, ready to return home for lunch.

Hunting Dinosaurs on a Perfect Winter Morning

You are hiking in a cedar forest, the sun steaming the sodden ground where ever it breaks through the trees, periodically pausing to listen for a whistled tune.  The whistle leads you to your prey, because you are hunting dinosaurs.  One dinosaur in fact, a piccolodactyl.  Not familiar with that species?  Then you haven’t been watching Little Einsteins where in one episode the kids imagine dinosaur musical instruments, and a baby piccolodactyl gets separated from its mommy.  Thus began our dinosaur hunt through our neighbors forest.

Carving a path through the wilderness in the Enchanted Forest.

Carving a path through the wilderness in the Enchanted Forest.

This was one of those perfect Spring mornings (though it’s no where near Springtime yet, and I’m ever in wait for the snow dump that we’ll get before true Spring hits) when the sun was out and everything was steaming.  The road.  The trees.  The masses of sodden leaves and conifer needles covering the forest floor.  Our breath.  Little Man and I couldn’t stand the thought of staying inside one moment longer than absolutely necessary, so once we were ready for our public we dashed outside with his balance bike.  Then we coasted down to the original farm house on our street where the owners (they are relative newbies like ourselves, having lived here only 6 months longer than we have) have put in tremendous labor to create an accessible wilderness in their forest land.  Their grandson is Little Man’s age, and they miss the sound of little kids running around and have granted us access to their forest (aka Enchanted Forest) whenever we like.  They don’t know it yet, but there are some gooey cinnamon rolls coming their way soon as a partial “thank you.”

The dog leading Little Man on the dinosaur hunt.

The dog leading Little Man on the dinosaur hunt.

It was to their house and forest that we set out for on our steaming morning.  The dog trailed us contentedly, and Little Man constantly called to her to run with us down the paths of the steaming forest. We take turns whistling like a piccolodactyl and hiding behind mammoth cedars while the other searched for the missing dinosaur.  I should say that I was whistling while Little Man did more of a hooting call.  In the end likely more dinosaur-like than my whistling.

A pond that Little Man wills to be a river.

A pond that Little Man wills to be a river.

After much running, hiding and whistling/hooting, it was eventually time to coast back to our house for lunch.  Before lunch could happen, we needed to visit Little Man’s Ladies to gather eggs, and it was on the way to the chicken coop when Little Man and I noticed that once again the farm was living up to the name I gave this blog (see original post).  The sheep were out.  Although this time it was not “sheep” plural, but singular and tiny.  One of the smallest lambs had crawled out under the gate and could not get back under to get to his momma.  Little Man held the egg basket while I cornered and caught the little lamb, then he got to pet the soft black and white head, cooing “sweet little budgie.”

Pooh Bear under arm, ready to return home for lunch.

Pooh Bear under arm, ready to return home for lunch.

On the whole this has been a lovely farm and wilderness morning.  Hiking through the Enchanted Forest hunting for dinosaurs, snacking by the pond on a Lorax stump, rescuing and cuddling a lamb, gathering eggs and tossing food to “the ladies,” tossing a few winter garden scraps to the pigs, and finally lunching on the bounty of our labors (a couple of the eggs made their way into some fried rice for lunch).  All in all, a lovely winter/spring day.

Sandwich ready bread.  In fact, this loaf is destined for a tuna and smashed avocado sandwich dinner.

Fluffy Wheat Bread and That Darn Cat

While I absolutely love my Whole Wheat Oatmeal Bread, there are times when I want something that is a little lighter, a little fluffier.  That’s where this delicious, fluffy, whole wheat bread comes in.  This recipe is adapted from one that was taught to me by a friend.  It makes three loaves or rounds of bread, and I like to bake one off immediately while freezing two dough portions to thaw and bake later.  Ever since I started making the Whole Wheat Oatmeal Bread and this Fluffy Whole Wheat Bread, I end up making a batch of dough every few weeks and haven’t bought bread from the store in about a year.  Yes, that means that every few weeks I go through the labor of making my own bread dough, but it’s something that I love to do and since Santa brought me a stand mixer last year, the active labor part is quite short.  It always has the feeling of play as I shape the loaves, and it makes the house smell great to boot.

I do have one word of warning… be careful where you put your shaped loaves to rise.  Just this New Years Eve I set a beautiful round of Fluffy Whole Wheat Bread dough in front of our wood burning stove to rise.  Dave was making an amazing surf and turf dinner that included mussels in a butter and white wine sauce, so I was making bread to soak up all of that delicious mussel broth.  When I went back downstairs an hour later to get the risen dough, I was greeted with the sight of a very comfortable and pleased-with-herself cat grinning at me as she lounged on top of my beautiful bread.  Doh!  She was not pleased when she was unceremoniously removed from her bready pillow, but at least the plastic wrap and towel covering kept the dough more or less safe.  It was a bit squished with a cat imprint on one side, however.  Dave found this amusing.  Lesson learned.

Fluffy Wheat Bread
A soft, fluffy, whole wheat loaf that is perfect for sandwiches, toast, or just fresh with butter. This recipe makes three loaves, so I like to bake one off immediately and freeze the other two portions to use later.
Yield: 3 loaves

Proofing Yeast Ingredients:
¾ cup water
1 tsp. honey
2 packages of yeast (or 4 ½ tsp.)
Bread Dough Ingredients:
8 cups whole wheat bread flour
1 tbsp. salt
2 cups water
1 egg
2 tbsp. honey
¼ cup canola oil

Directions:

  1. Combine the water and honey from the proofing yeast ingredients in a microwave safe bowl and heat in the microwave for 30 seconds. Stir in the yeast and set the mixture aside to proof for 10 minutes. The yeast should get nice and foamy. If it does not get foamy then you likely have a bad batch of yeast and need to start over.

    Happy, bubbly yeast.

  2. Combine the whole wheat bread flour and the salt in a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment and stir the salt into the flour briefly. Salt can inhibit yeast growth, but it also gives bread great flavor. So we want to distribute the salt so that it doesn’t hit the yeast in one big clump.
  3. Add the rest of the bread dough ingredients to the flour and salt mixture, and then add the proofed yeast. Stir to combine.  If using a stand mixer, once the ingredients are nearly combined (you may need to turn off the mixer and scrape down the bowl once or twice) switch to mixing speed 2 and “knead” the dough for 6 minutes. Be sure to follow manufacturer’s guidelines for processing dough in your mixer. If making the bread by hand, scrape the thoroughly mixed of the bowl out onto a lightly floured board and knead by hand for 15 minutes. Dough will likely be slightly sticky, but avoid adding extra flour as much as possible.
    Almost all of the ingredients...

    Almost all of the ingredients…

    Everything into the pool.

    Everything into the pool.

    Switching to Speed 2 to actually knead the dough.

    Switching to Speed 2 to actually knead the dough.

    While I like to knead dough by hand, when I'm making the dough regularly I really like the speed of my stand mixer.

    While I like to knead dough by hand, when I’m making the dough regularly I really like the speed of my stand mixer.

  4. Once the dough has been thoroughly kneaded, place it in a large, warm bowl that has been lightly coated with oil. Flip the dough ball over and cover the bowl lightly with plastic wrap. Then cover this with a clean towel and place it somewhere warm to proof. This should take 45 minutes to an hour, or as long as it takes for the dough to double in size.
    Lightly oil the bowl.  In cold weather I like to heat the bowl in warm water before oiling it and proofing the dough.

    In cold weather I like to heat the bowl in warm water before oiling it and proofing the dough.

    Place the dough in the oiled bowl and then flip it to keep the top moist during proofing.

    Place the dough in the oiled bowl and then flip it to keep the top moist during proofing.

    Tuck the dough in nicely with a loose layer of plastic wrap and then a clean kitchen towel.

    Tuck the dough in nicely with a loose layer of plastic wrap and then a clean kitchen towel.

    Happy, risen dough.

    Happy, risen dough.

  5. Once the dough has doubled, gently press down on it to release the built up gasses. There’s no need to punch it, just press it down and let it rest for 8 minutes before continuing.

    There's absolutely no reason to get violent with your dough.  Just give it a good bit of pressure to release some of the built up gasses, then let it rest again.

    There’s absolutely no reason to get violent with your dough. Just give it a good bit of pressure to release some of the built up gasses, then let it rest again.

  6. After the dough has rested divide it into three roughly equal pieces. On a lightly floured board shape one piece into a roughly 8×6 inch rectangle. Tightly roll the rectangle into a long cylinder, tucking the ends in as you go. Seal the cylinder along its base so that no seams are visible. Set the cylinder aside and repeat this step with the remaining two pieces of dough.
    No need to get fussy with exact measurements here.  Just divy it up and keep moving forward.

    No need to get fussy with exact measurements here. Just divy it up and keep moving forward.

    Shaping the dough.  Start with a rectangle, then roll it up into a cylinder.

    Shaping the dough. Start with a rectangle, then roll it up into a cylinder.

    Creating the loaves.

    Creating the loaves.

  7. To freeze for future use: Wrap each piece of dough in plastic wrap and then place them into large, resealable plastic bags. Seal the bag and place it on a flat surface in the freezer. The dough can be frozen for 2-3 months. Remove the dough from the freezer and thaw in a well-buttered loaf pan for a few hours or overnight and then proceed to baking instructions.
    Wrap the cylinders up loosely in plastic wrap.  They'll continue to expand as they freeze, so if you wrap them too tightly they will burst.

    Wrap the cylinders up loosely in plastic wrap. They’ll continue to expand as they freeze, so if you wrap them too tightly they will burst.

    Getting the dough ready to freeze.  When you are ready to bake them off, just let them defrost overnight to do their second rise.  Be patient and give them time.  The dough's cold, so needs some time get nice and fluffy.

    Getting the dough ready to freeze. When you are ready to bake them off, just let them defrost overnight to do their second rise. Be patient and give them time. The dough’s cold, so needs some time get nice and fluffy.

  8. To bake immediately: Place each piece of dough into its own oiled loaf pan. Cover the pan(s) loosely with plastic wrap and a clean kitchen towel. Set the pan(s) aside to let the dough rise for about 45 minutes to an hour. Proceed to baking instructions.
    IMG_3070

    Nicely risen dough, without any squished marks from being sat on by a cat.  Like I said, lesson learned.

    Nicely risen dough, without any squished marks from being sat on by a cat. Like I said, lesson learned.

    IMG_3076

  9. Baking Instructions: Preheat your oven to 350ºF and bake the bread for 20 minutes. The bread is done when it is brown on top and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. You can also check its internal temperature to ensure that it has reached 190ºF. Cool on wire racks and enjoy!
    This bread is just calling for butter and jam.

    This bread is just calling for butter and jam.

    This loaf was destined for a dinner of tuna and smashed avocado sandwiches.  They were perfect.

    This loaf was destined for a dinner of tuna and smashed avocado sandwiches. They were perfect.

Click here for a printable version of the Fluffy Wheat Bread recipe.

A delicious mug of masala chai.  All that's missing is the scone...

Warming Up

Hello again!  Please forgive my LONG absence.  The semester is done.  I had a fantastic time back in the classroom, but it’s also nice to have mental space for creative writing… and eating.

Now that I get the chance to write here again, I feel the need to warm up a bit, to flex that part of my brain that writes creatively rather than academically.  That is part of why I named this post “Warming Up.”  The other part is that it is COLD here!  We’re back from our short winter wanderings (which were awesome, by the way…), but it doesn’t take long in our home warmed only by a wood burning stove to reach near arctic conditions if the stove isn’t in use.  Just a couple of days without a fire burning or people cooking and it takes a solid day of big fires in that stove to make it possible (forget about pleasant) to walk on our wood floors without serious slippers.  The floors will suck your life force right out of your soles.

So that first day back as we unpacked, kept the fire burning, and tried to find the rhythm of our schedule again, all I wanted was a nice pot of this spiced Masala Chai simmering away on the stove.  Well… that and a nice scone to go with the chai… but one step at a time.  A shopping trip is necessary before the scones can be a reality, but the chai is ready to go.

Masala Chai is a hot, spiced tea inspired by Indian culture.  “Masala” more or less means “mixed” or in this case “mixed spice,” and “chai” means “tea.”  So the next time you order a “chai tea” at your favorite coffee shop, know that you are ordering a “tea tea.”  ;)  Making your own chai gives you a double bonus, not only do you actually know what spices (and no additives or preservatives) are in your tea, but it makes your house smell awesome as well.

Here are just a couple of thoughts about making yourself a lovely pot of chai.  First, it might sound odd to add whole black peppercorns to your tea.  Don’t worry.  This won’t make your tea taste like pepper, but the peppercorns (like the cinnamon) add a nice, warm spice to the tea.  It’s the warmth that you feel in the back of your throat that feels like it’s warming you from the inside out.  Second, the spiced tea is finished with milk and brown sugar at the very end, so you can add more or choose to add less based on individual choice.  I generally make mine with skim milk, but whole milk would make a wonderfully decadent version, or non-dairy milks could be substituted in as well.  Coconut milk would be great, as would rice or almond milk.  Just be aware that if you use sweetened rice milk, you might want to hold back on some of the brown sugar so the chai isn’t too sweet.  Also almond milk can add a bit of bitterness to the chai, so you might want to add a bit more brown sugar to balance things out.  Enjoy!

Masala Chai
Ingredients
:
12 green cardamom pods
1 tablespoon fennel seed
12 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1 ½ inch piece of ginger root
10 black peppercorns
7 cups water
6 bags of black tea (regular or decaffeinated)
3+ tablespoons brown sugar
1 cup milk (any kind will do: skim, whole, coconut, rice, etc.  Just know that almond milk can add a bit of bitterness)

Directions

  1. Gather all of your ingredients so you’re ready to go, but don’t combine anything yet since two of your ingredients need to be prepped. Crush the cardamom pods with the back of a large spoon to release more flavor during boiling. There is no need to peel the ginger (you can if you prefer), but slice it thinly into matchsticks.

    The spice ingredients for the chai.

    The spice ingredients for the chai.

  2. Combine the cardamom, fennel seeds, cloves, cinnamon stick, ginger root, peppercorns and water in a saucepan large enough to hold 8+ cups of liquid.

    Make sure your saucepan is large enough to easily hold the boiling liquid, as well as the sugar and milk added at the end.

    Make sure your saucepan is large enough to easily hold the boiling liquid, as well as the sugar and milk added at the end.

  3. Bring the spice mixture to a boil and let it bubble away vigorously for 5 minutes.

    The boiling spices will start to make your kitchen smell fantastic.

    The boiling spices will start to make your kitchen smell fantastic.

  4. Remove the pan from the heat and let it steep for 10 minutes.

    Not much is happening yet, but you can start to see the change to your tea base as the spices steep.

    Not much is happening yet, but you can start to see the change to your tea base as the spices steep.

  5. Add the tea bags to the pan, place it back on the heat and bring to a boil. Once bubbling reduce the heat and simmer the tea gently for 5 minutes.
    The color changes immediately after adding the tea bags.

    The color changes immediately after adding the tea bags.

    After the steeping the tea starts to have the gorgeous majogany color.

    After the steeping the tea starts to have the gorgeous mahogany color.

  6. Strain the mixture into a heat-resistant bowl, discard the spices and then return the tea to the saucepan.
    The spices have done their part, imbuing the tea base with amazing heat and flavor.

    The spices have done their part, imbuing the tea base with amazing heat and flavor.

    The strained masala chai tea base.  All that's left now is to tweak the flavor to taste.

    The strained masala chai tea base. All that’s left now is to tweak the flavor to taste.

  7. Stir in the brown sugar and milk. Taste the masala chai and add more sugar if you prefer it sweeter. Serve immediately.
    Oh yeah...

    Oh yeah…

    A delicious mug of masala chai.  All that's missing is the scone...

    A delicious mug of masala chai. All that’s missing is the scone…

  8. Left over chai can be stored for a few days in the refrigerator and reheated on the stove or in a microwave. This chai is great with a lightly sweet scone, like my Blueberry Cinnamon Scones.

Click here for a printable version of the Masala Chai recipe.

20140801_014042

10 Things I Learned About Pickling

I am not an expert… yet… on pickling, but here are a few nuggets that I’ve learned over my pickling this season.

Rows of Pickles1.  Be aware of where you get your cucumbers from.  We practice organic gardening, so there are no pesticides or fertilizers in our soil to be concerned about.  If you buy your cucumbers from the store that is not the case.  It’s best that if you can’t grow your own (and don’t have any desperate friends, neighbors or coworkers who have grown too many cucumbers), then try to buy your pickling cucumbers from the farmers’ market or local farm stand. Be sure to ask about how the cukes are grown (specifically for pesticides, etc.), since anything that is one the skin of your cucumbers will end up on your pickles.  Even aside from the pesticide issue, most supermarket cucumbers are either slick with waxes or so expensive that it makes pickling seem like a waste of money.

2. If you want crisp pickles, whole or sliced, include a small, fresh grape leaf in the bottom of each jar.  I first read about this from Alice Waters, but have come across it multiple times.  Apparently grape leaves contain alum, which will help your pickles stay crisp when processed.

Grape leaves for keeping pickles crisp.

Grape leaves for keeping pickles crisp.

3.  Always trim off about 1/8 of an inch at each end of the cucumbers (whether for whole or sliced pickles).  The blossom end of the cucumbers contain an enzyme that keeps your pickles from staying crisp, so you definitely want to remove that.
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4.  Pickles are fun to make, and feel a bit more like potion brewing than preserving.  You can be creative with your blend of spices, since pickles can be pretty forgiving.  And if you’re not free to experiment, where’s the fun in pickling.

5. If you are experimenting with different spices in your pickles, use a light hand.  The first batch I made were so heavy in spice that it gave the pickles a slightly weird taste, and in effect wasted a ton of spice.  A little goes a long way.
20140801_014056

6.  Always wear latex gloves when packing the hot jars with vegetables for pickling.  They protect your hands a bit from the heat.

7.  When pickling (or doing other types of preserving) don’t answer the phone, the door, or a plaintive dog wanting to go in or out.  Choose a time when your kids won’t be needing your attention, or you can otherwise stay focused.  You’re dealing with hot substances and you want to be focused and uninterrupted.
20140730_112539

8. You can be creative with the spices you use in your pickles, but don’t vary from the water, sugar or vinegar levels in the recipe.  Those are tested to preserve your foods the best.

9.  Never ever tell someone that you are interested in trying pickling things (especially if they have a garden), unless you want to be inundated with enough fresh produce to feed a small army.

A big pile of cucumbers waiting to be pickles.

A big pile of cucumbers waiting to be pickles.

10.  Your own homemade pickles taste better than anything you’ve ever had in the stores.  But that may just be because of the energy you put into making them.  :)

20140730_112648

Rows of Pickles

The Tyranny of Cucumbers

“Did you ever think in your life that you would have made so many pickles?”

Dave recently asked me this at 1am in the morning as we were wrapping up a marathon pickling session.  I gave one of those chuckles that comes from pure exhaustion and set the timer for the processing of the last four jars of cured pickles.  The answer to Dave’s question was a resounding “no” not in a million years would I have ever thought that I’d have made any pickles, forget about the 40 some odd liters… yes liters… of pickles I’d made over the last few weeks.

When the lady farmer landlord asked if I’d be interested in making pickles, I’d jumped at the chance.  Almost literally.  Then I realized how many cucumbers one healthy plant can produce, forget about the fact that the cucumber bed at the farm has 7-8 hills of cucumbers, each hill housing 2-3 vines.  Oh my…

If you’ve ever seen cucumbers grow, you would know that they are ninja vegetables.  Their camouflage is so perfect they put invisibility cloaks to shame.  The lady farmer landlord and myself and Dave and Little Man would comb over a vine, plucking any cucumbers we would find.  Little Man’s contribution is a bit quesitonable here.  It mainly consists of him dropping an action figure into the plant accompanied by much “argh, I’m faaaaaalllllliiiing…” and then demands that his figure be saved.  We would pick it all, from the tiny pinky finge- sized cukes to the fat field cucumbers that are too big to be whole pickes, but would make good relish or pickle slices.  I state that all 3-4 of us were combing through each fine, picking everything, and 15 minutes later we’d see the vine from a different angle and find 3 more cukes hiding there.  Then the next morning when I’d be watering the garden I’d see more smirking at me from under the leaves.

We’ve now put a kaybash on picking cucumbers for pickling.  Anything else can be done with them, eat them raw with a little vinegar, make a delicious cold soup or dip (for a cold cucumber yogurt soup, check out my Turkish Cucumber and Yogurt Soup (aka Cacik) recipe), slice them with fresh tomatoes and drizzle them with a little olive oil and balsalmic vinegar for a sliced salad, and the list goes on.  You can make jewelry with them for all I care, just don’t ask me to make more pickles…  please…  :)

Grape leaves for keeping pickles crisp.

Grape leaves for keeping pickles crisp.

Kosher-Style Dill Pickles

One of the biggest hurdles to deal with in making pickles is how to keep something submerged in water crisp.  One way is to use a fresh grape leaf in each jar.  Grape leaves contain alum, which helps to keep the pickles crisp.  Also, the blossom end of the cucumbers contains and enzyme that softens pickles.  So trim off a little of both ends of the cucumbers to make sure that those enzymes are removed.  Now get pickling!

Ingredients
8 lbs. small pickling cucumbers (such as Kirby)
1 cup pickling or kosher salt
3 tbsp. pickling spice
9 cups water
7 ¾ cups white vinegar
7 small, fresh grape leaves
7 bay leaves
7 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
7 dill sprigs and heads, halved

Directions

  1. Wash and scrub the cucumbers under running water. Trim 1/8th of an inch off of both ends of every cucumber, and then poke them all over with a fork.
    A big pile of cucumbers waiting to be pickles.

    A big pile of cucumbers waiting to be pickles.

    Poking holes to aid in curing the cucumbers.

    Poking holes to aid in curing the cucumbers.

  2. In a large, non-reactive bowl create four layers of cucumbers each one topped with ¼ cup of the kosher salt. Once the layers are completed, fill the bowl with cold water to submerge the cucumbers by ¼ inch. Use a plate to weigh down the cucumbers, and let them sit for 12 to 24 hours.
    A first layer of cucumbers.

    A first layer of cucumbers.

    A layer of kosher salt.

    A layer of kosher salt.

    The final of four layers of cucumbers and salt.

    The final of four layers of cucumbers and salt.

    The cured cucumbers after soaking in the salted water for 24 hours.

    The cured cucumbers after soaking in the salted water for 24 hours.

  3. Prepare your canner (or large stock pot), jars and lids.
  4. Drain, rinse and drain the cucumbers again.
  5. Wrap the pickling spice in a double thickness of cheese cloth and tie it securely. In a large pot combine the packet of pickling spice, water and vinegar. Bring the mixture to a boil and continue at a hard boil for one minute. Discard the packet of pickling spice, and keep the brine hot.
  6. Working with one jar at a time place one grape leaf, one bay leaf, one half of a garlic clove, and one half of a dill head at the bottom of the jar. Pack the jar tightly with cucumbers. Place one half of a garlic clove and one half of a dill head on top of the cucumbers. Pour in the hot pickling liquid leaving ½ inch head space. Remove air bubbles and add more pickling liquid if necessary. Wipe the rim and place a hot lid disk on the jar. Skrew down the band to fingertip-tight.
  7. Place jars in the canner and return to a boil. Process for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the canner lid and let the jars sit in the hot water for another 5 minutes. Carefully remove the jars from the hot water and place them without tipping on a towel-lined counter top. Let the jars stand for 24 hours, then check the lids to be sure they are all sealed. Any jar that is not sealed can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. Jars with good seals can be cleaned and stored. If any pickles protrude above the brine in their jars, simply turn the jars over weekly in storage to keep the different ends from drying out. Enjoy!
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Click here for a printable version of the Kosher Style Dill Pickles recipe.