Tag Archives: baking

Not Least…Yeast!

pretty little ball of dough

Dear Reader:

Some time ago, I wrote a post about yeast and making homemade bread. See Outside the Breadbox, 2009. Today, I was amused (and more than a little intrigued) to find the following recipe on the Agrarian Nation blog.

1852-
Good Yeast
Boil a handful of hops in 3 pints of water; add 3 mashed boiled potatoes; strain, and mix with a cupful of flour; set aside to cool, and then add a tea-spoonful of sugar, and bottle up for use. A more permanent ferment is made by boiling a quantity of wheat-bran and hops in water; the decoction is not long in fermenting, and when this has taken place, throw in a sufficient portion of bran to form the whole into a thick paste, which work into balls, and afterward dry by a slow heat. When wanted for use, they are broken, and boiling water is poured upon them; having stood a proper time, the fluid is decanted, and in a fit state for leavening bread.
[Maine Farmer’s Almanac]

As you can see, Herrick Kimbal, Agrarian Nations’s writer/founder, discovered this recipe in a Maine Farmer’s Almanac. I wonder if it really works? Dare I try it? I think I can get hops at a beer-making supply store. Maybe a good project for a rainy day along with some homemade soup.

Christmas Crazy

Oh Christmastree

Dear Reader:

Merry Christmas! Yes, I am blogging on Christmas morning. Does Shelley have a life, you wonder? I do. Really. But all through the house, not a creature is stirring . . . and it seems like a good time to wish all my constant and dear readers a Happy Holiday. Last night, my family stayed up late to watch A CHRISTMAS STORY which is running 24 hours straight on one of the cable tv stations. We then switched over to WHITE CHRISTMAS with good ol’ Bing Crosby that was running 24 hours straight on another cable tv station. These are probably the only two shows I’ve watched on a cable tv station in the last couple of months. I hate cable television. Happily, my husband is giving me the best Christmas present ever . . . he’s canceling the cable in March.

I’m sorry, but 600 channels of nothing is a big, fat waste.

Like I need more distractions, anyway. Let me tell you about my Christmas experience this week. On Monday I was at the library doing my usual volunteering, when one of the librarians sighed and said, “I just can’t wait until all this Christmas is over,” in the way people do when they’ve burned out on the holiday stuff. The other librarian gave a short laugh and said, “Me too.” I chimed in with an honest, “Not me! For some reason this year I’ve really enjoyed the whole Christmas thing.” They looked at me sideways, incredulous. “Well, what’s your secret?” I shrugged. “No idea. Except I’m just not stressing about getting stuff done, not trying so hard to make it magical, just letting it happen.”

Ha! Three days later and I’m suddenly realizing we’ve eaten all the cookies I baked, I still have date balls to throw together, quiche to bake, presents to wrap, and my allergies have hit for some ungodly reason so I’m stuffy, wheezing, and bubble-headed from the antihistamines. What do I do to compensate? I tell myself that everything is going to be fine, turn on my “Crooners” Christmas cd, and make a list.

Wednesday morning, and things started out okay with no indication of the craziness to come: My husband is on vacation, so we went out to breakfast. Nice, but probably not smart since it wasn’t on “the list.” Still, we enjoyed great food and service at The Peppermill, as usual, and we were charmed to see a bright red fishing shack already pulled out onto the smooth, new ice on Sokokis Lake. I ran into the village market to pick up a few (cartful) of last-minute groceries and baking supplies, and chatted with the guy who was stocking the Squire Mountain tub cheese. Click on the link to read about the company. Squire Mountain was started in 1996 in Fryeburg, Maine, and I asked the guy if it was still made locally. He grinned behind his wire-rim glasses and said, “My wife and I make it.” I said, “I served this at my last ladies’ craft night. The cheddar kind.” He said, “You have to try the new one, Garlic & Herb.” So I grabbed a small container and a package of crackers. It is delicious . . . and local.

So I went home and commenced to baking. Well, melting and stirring and burning and cursing is more like it. I tried to make date balls. I’ve made them before with no problem, but a few things were working against me: an old pan I picked up at a yard sale this summer, my bubble-headed state, and too many things running through the bubble-headed brain. While waiting for the egg/sugar/date mixture to boil, I decided I should water the Christmas tree before it dried out and burned the house down. From beneath the fragrant branches of the balsam fir, I smelled . . . scorching. Ack! Sure enough, the mixture had some to a boil and burned completely black on the bottom. Apparently the old pot had been burned-on before, making it much more likely to scorch again.

I took the goop off the stove, dumped it into another pan, and hoped nobody would notice the slight smoky flavor in the date balls later on. In went the rice puff cereal. I buttered my hands, reached in to form a ball and . . . nothing. It wouldn’t stick. About this time I realized I had forgotten to add the melted butter and vanilla. I quickly added those ingredients and stirred them in, but that greasy butter didn’t help. Frantic, I did what all good cooks do when they get into trouble with a recipe. I called Mom.

She sympathized, but didn’t really have any suggestions other than, “Well, can’t you just eat it like it is?” I thought, “With what? Spoons?” But I just wailed and said, “I’ve gotta go. I’m getting nothing done and it’s already 1 o’clock!”

Keep in mind that I’d already missed a)my dentist appointment on Monday (woke up at 3 am on Tuesday and said “oh s%$%!” and b)missed my friend’s daughter’s violin recital on Tuesday (woke up at 3:13 am on Wednesday and said “oh s%$%!”). My brain was definitely on vacation. My hands attempted to take up the slack, but, alas, the results weren’t good.

So, I dumped the date ball mixture AND the pan into the trashcan and started chopping cranberries for cranberry bread. I’d already made some small breads to take to the neighbors, so I figured this would go smoothly. It did, for the most part, except when the bread was in the oven baking, I relaxed with a cup of coffee and jumped onto the computer to catch up on my email. Which wouldn’t have been a problem except I forgot it was a school day . . . and forgot to pick up my daughter at the bus stop!

Those of you who know me are probably gaping at the computer screen right now. I’ve given up job opportunities fearing I’d miss her bus. It’s a sign of how discombobulated I was that my irresponsible parenting didn’t even faze me. By the time I headed out in the truck, she’d done the right thing and hitched a ride from a neighbor. When I got back into the house, I looked at husband and child and said, “You go shopping without me. I need a nap.” I think the two days of 3 am waking had taken it’s toll (plus don’t forget the allergies and antihistamines.) I think my husband was slightly afraid to leave me home alone with a stove, but he manned up and took the daughter to Cabela’s and Pizza Hut while I napped. By the time they came home, I’d roused myself enough to wrap presents. I guess we’ll find out this morning if I managed to get the right tags on the right gifts.

Finally, I’d accomplished something. Oh, yes, the cranberry bread came out okay except I tried to wrap it too early and it broke in half. No problem. I sliced it up and stuck the slices on a plate.

Did I mention I was still working on a handknit, felted bag for my mother? I finished that up and stuck it in the washing machine on the hot/cold setting. When I took it out, it had felted up beautifully. I lovingly placed it out in the mudroom in front of the electric heater, hoping it would dry enough by the next afternoon so I could wrap it before my parents arrived. It did.

My Christmas Karma was back to normal.

Thursday, Christmas Eve: My mother brought date balls and gingerbread cookies, so I could concentrate on the Christmas Eve dinner: fish chowder, spiral ham, sweet potato casserole, sour pickles, and cranberry bread. There was tub cheese and crackers for appetizer along with some dates stuffed with fresh goat cheese from Downhome Farm that Laura gave me when I went to pick up my milk. The table sparkled with my good crystal and the fancy dishes I bought back before my wedding (at Mardens, where my mother also found my wedding gown, something nobody can believe.) With jazz on the cd player and cheerful hearts, we sat down to enjoy our meal. It couldn’t have been nicer.

So that’s my Christmas horror story with a happy ending. I also wanted to share this year’s most unique gift idea. Laura also suggested this one, and it worked out just fine. I purchased her first emu egg of the year, blew it out, made a bacon/cheese quiche, and presented the quiche and beautiful, dark green egg to my artist friend, Sandy. I thought she might like to paint the egg. Here is a picture of the egg.

I leave you on with wishes for a Merry Christmas, dear Reader. And remember, it’s not about the gifts or the food or the tree, not really. It’s about family and friends and the darkest days of the year passing and the light coming back to the world.

Cooking The Old-Fashioned Way

Bread Pudding

Bread Pudding

Dear Reader:

I wanted to use some version of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” for my title because while I’d really like to be down at the canoe landing and staring out across the sparkly lake, I decided I had better make like an ant and work before I play. The grasshoppers have been buzzing in the grasses these late summer afternoons, and the sun has finally ripened a couple of my cherry tomatoes. One of the big beefsteaks was starting to turn color, but something took a big ol’ bite out of it. I suspected a creepy-crawly tomato worm but could find no trace of the sucker last evening. I threw out the two or three fruits he/she had sampled (why not eat the whole darn thing before moving on to the next, I’d like to know?) and decided that pests are simply a part of the big picture.

It’s easy to be philosophical when one’s parents have stopped in with a bag of free produce from their larger and much more productive garden.

I digress.

Summer weekends are a fabulous time to shop . . . in your neighbor’s yard. No, I’m not advocating late-night raids of the blueberry bushes and corn rows. I’m tallking about yard sales. Some readers may remember an earlier entry regarding old cookbooks and my quest for pre-World War II tomes. I scored one beauty at an antique store in nearby Cornish village a couple of months back. It is a musty, solid little book entitled LEFTOVERS MADE PALATABLE: HOW TO COOK ODDS AND ENDS OF FOOD INTO APPETIZING DISHES by Isabel Gordon Curtis.

LEFTOVERS MADE PALATABLE circa 1901

LEFTOVERS MADE PALATABLE circa 1901

This little jem was published in 1901 by the Orange Judd Company. The first chapter begins, “Do not throw away scraps of fat” and procedes to explain how to save all the bits of cooking fat and drippings and suet, to clarify them, and to use them for frying ala the ubiquitous vegetable shortening of today. “If only a teacup of fat is added to this supply once a week, it will save the buying of fat for frying purposes, even in a large family.” (pg.1)

The book goes on to give multiple recipes for using leftovers of every type: stale bread, cold coffee, cereals, sour milk, cold potatoes, vegetables, sauces, beef, veal, pork and ham, poultry, stale cake, cheese, and fruit. You know the recipes are old because each one lists only a few simple ingredients and absolutely no canned soup. Take Plain Cabbage Salad for instance: “2 cups shredded cabbage, 4 tbs. oil, 1 tsp. salt, 2 tbls. vinegar. Shred cabbage very fine and leave in ice water for an hour. Drain it and marinate with the dressing. This is a favorite supplement to fried oysters.” (pg. 75)

While the simplicity and lack of processed food products pleased me, I was dismayed by the frequent mention of refrigeration. Isabel Curtis must have been referring to old-fashioned ice-boxes, right? It got me wondering when the first refrigerator was invented. Off I went to cyberspace to find out.

I turned first to Wikipedia. (See here) According to the section on the history of the refrigerator, the first refrigerator coil which condensed aromatic vapours as a coolant was invented in the 11th century. The 11th century! Okay, I just about fell off my chair. Wasn’t that medieval times? The Dark Ages? And yet, in America at the turn of the 20th century, half the population used ice-boxes for cooling food while the other half just used the even more natural method of root-cellaring.

Home refrigerators did not become commonplace until 1927 with the General Electric Motor-top model, long after my 1901 cookbook was printed. Take a look at the frontispiece photograph of young ladies in floor-length dresses and long aprons and little white caps ranged ’round a table at the New England Cooking School of the Good Housekeeping Institute.

Lady cooks from 1901

Lady cooks from 1901

Thinking about refrigeration, or lack of it, one can certainly appreciate the important place of the family milk cow in 1901. At this stage in history, fresh milk meant that morning’s milk, not the stuff in the jug with this week’s date stamped on the side. However, clabbered milk and butter and cheese and sour cream had their place in the home cook’s repertoire. LEFTOVERS MADE PALATABLE includes thirty recipes for using up sour milk, including cottage cheese. (Those of you who read last week’s entry will appreciate this discovery.) “4 Quarts sour milk, 1 tsp. salt, dash white pepper, 4 tbls. cream. Put the sour milk in a large pan and into it pour four quarts of boiling water. Allow it to stand for five minutes, then turn it into a pointed muslin bag like a jelly bag. Hang this up at night over a pan and let it drain. In the morning it will be dry and ready to mix with the cream and seasonings.” (pg. 47)

One of these weeks I’ll order an extra gallon of milk from Downhome Farm and try to make cottage cheese. Maybe when the weather isn’t quite so warm. The old warnings about diptheria and whatnot are hard to purge from the deep, dark recesses of the brain, no matter how much I’ve read on the subject of the nutritive value of raw milk. Is nutritive a word?

Yes. A quick look at the old Webster’s Dictionary confirms it on the page with guide words nuciature – nux vomica. Nux vomica? Sounds just like what I was worried about, n’est ce pas? Or some spell from a Harry Potter book, one of Severus Snape’s conconctions, perhaps. In fact, it is only the latin word for a poisonous seed. See, you never know what you’ll find out here Outside the Box.

Anyway, on the same shelf as LEFTOVERS, I spied another book with the enticing title NEW ENGLAND FLAVOR. Unfortunately, this tome by Haydn S. Pearson turned out to be a charming memoir of a New Hampshire childhood and not the cookbook I was hoping it to be. Fortunately, I also like charming memoirs of New England persons, and so this well-preserved volume with pretty little pen and ink illustrations by Leonard Bosburgh came home with me, as well. It should make for some cozy reading this fall when I sit outside wrapped in the shawl my sister sent home from Venezia this summer and sip Earl Gray from my favorite Monroe Saltworks mug.

So what does this have to do with the formentioned yard sale? I’m getting there, trust me. This weekend on the way home from Parsonsfield to pick up my milk, I noticed a table loaded with cooking pans and decided to check out the yard sale as two of my Reverware lids have recently lost knobs, forcing me to gingerly pick lids off boiling pots with dishtowels in hand to prevent scalding myself at the stove. (Can you imagine trying to diagram that last sentence? Actually, it might be fun. Who needs Sudoku? We ought to turn our kids on to sentence diagrams.)

The Rumford book

The Rumford book

Not only did I find a nice set of stainless steel pots for $5, I also scored a pretty, tatted-edged table runner and a treasure-trove of cookbooks. There’s the RUMFORD COMPLETE COOKBOOK, copyright 1908 in its 43rd printing in 1948. In this book, consomme is made with a quart of defatted meat stock . . . not a bouillon cube. Excellent. The baking powder is, of course, Rumford, which makes me wonder about those Anne of Green Gables books. Was it Rumford baking powder that Ann wrote about? A quick search on the web tells me no. It was Rollins Reliable baking powder. However, I came across this interesting site which gives in great detail how to visit Prince Edward Island and find all kinds of places referenced in the Anne books. Take a look if you are interested in visiting the island.

I may have to revisit Green Gables from the comfort of my couch corner this winter. Funny how this entry on cookbooks into turning into an entry on books-I-want-to-read-this-winter. Must be the Ant in me.

Continuing onward in history, I also picked up Marjorie Standish’s cookbook, KEEP COOKING-THE MAINE WAY. Printed in 1973 by the Maine Sunday Telegram, this book also delivers lovely pen and ink drawings of a girl, eleven or twelve year’s old, I’d guess, stirring a pot, fishing from a pier, canning perserves, and eating cake under the watchful and envious eyes of a large cat. Mrs. Standish was well-known for her weekly recipe column in the SUNDAY TELEGRAM according to the note “About the Author” at the front of the book. At the time of the book’s printing, I was four years old. Here I discover the expected “cans of soup” ingredients . . . expecially cream of mushroom. Flipping through the pages, one encounters “packages of cream cheese” and “packaged stuffing” and even frozen packages of peas. Still, some of the recipes use authentic, whole ingredients, most noteably in the Fish and Shellfish section. The Fillet of Sole with Oysters looks particularly appealing with its quart of fresh mushrooms, sole, oysters, chicken broth, butter and lemon juice. (page 35).

Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook

Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook

Two other books I picked up but haven’t had much time to peruse were the PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH PEOPLE’S COOKBOOK with the charming bird graphic on the front. This one was published in 1978. Also, the WISCONSIN COUNTRY COOKBOOK AND JOURNAL by Edward Harris Heth with some beautiful woodcuts by Arlene Renken. What is it I like so much about these black and white illustrations and recipes mixed together?
Wisconsin  cookbook

Wisconsin cookbook

I guess they go together like, well, cabbage salad and oysters. This book was written in 1956, but I suspect the recipes may be older than the hills, passed down from one country cook to another before Edward Heth captured them for the printed page and posterity. I will review and share, maybe later this winter after I have tried out some of the Potato Pancakes, Dill Bean Roll Ups, Beef Goulash with Red Cabbage, and whatever Lupscush is. Am I becoming a foodie?

Maybe it has something to do with all this talk of impending peak oil doom, but I’m obsessed with food these days. Not so much the eating as the growing, storing, and cooking of it. I’m thrilled to see the yellow summer squash growing on the vines. Picking the prickly pickling cukes from my boxes is a thrill. I’m going out this afternoon and plant the old green bean squares with a late crop of lettuce. We ate the last of the green beans sauteed in a little olive oil and dried garlic with a splash of soy sauce. Delicious hot and even better cold the next day on top of a salad with some lettuce, onions, cherry tomatoes, and a bit more olive oil.

As for leftovers, a few weeks ago I found myself in possession of a half-loaf of homemade bread going stale,a few eggs from Sarah, and milk that needed to be used up. Remembering bread pudding from my childhood (in the 1970’s, but my mother knew a thing or two or three about real cooking), I hauled out the book of recipe cards she gave me at my wedding shower, and proceded to make a good, old-fashioned dessert. I will share it with you, my constant readers. Bon Appetit!

OLD-FASHIONED BREAD PUDDING
3 cups soft bread crumbs (okay, I took the bread, sliced it, and then cut it into cubes)
2 cups milk, scalded with 1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, slightly beaten
14 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon or nutmeg
(raisins, 1/2 cup if you have them)

350 degree oven. Place bread crumbs in 1 1/2 quart baking dish. Blend in remaining ingredients. Place baking dish in pan of hot water 1 inch deep. Bake 40-45 minutes or until silver knife inserted 1 inch from edge comes out clean. Serve warm, with cream. (That you skimmed from the raw milk from the local farm, of course. SB)

Still much to do this summer–pickles and blueberry jam, cotton wrap skirts, and finishing my research on “the weed.” What have you been up to in August? What tasks lie ahead. Remember the story of the Ant and the Grasshopper, take the time to do the work necessary for a comfortable winter, but don’t forgo the grasshopper stuff altogether. Find an hour or two to sing and play in the summer sun. Make some bread pudding, or get an ice-cream maker and churn some homemade blueberry ice-cream. Check out the yard sales around town. Drop me a line anytime . . . Outside the Box.

A Raw Deal

Raw Milk After Skimming Cream

Raw Milk After Skimming Cream

Dear Reader:

The sun is out after what seems like days of rain (we had a sunny break on Saturday, but much rain the previous week), my rosa rugosas are beginning to bloom, the chives blossoms weigh down the stalks, and my husband and I chipped enough brush on Saturday to provide me with plenty of mulch for the flower beds, around the garden boxes, and prepping ground for some additional bulb and apple tree planting at the end of the season.

This morning, I threw together a batch of 5-Minute A Day bread dough, and it is sticky and stretchy and springy–hopefully perfect for the round boule of crusty, moist artisan bread I’ll bake on a stone this afternoon. A dish of freshly-made, naturally-yellow butter sits in my ‘fridge beside a carton of eggs from Sarah’s chickens. I feel as if I’m getting into a rhythm here with these few, basic local foods–bread, butter, eggs, milk. Soon there will be strawberries from the farm up the road, lettuce from my garden, maybe some early peas at a farm stand. Isn’t summer wonderful?

Speaking of milk, I thought this would be a good time to talk about why I’ve chosen to buy my milk from a local farm. This milk is raw . . . refrigerated and clean but unpasteurized. If you’d asked me two years ago if I’d ever consider serving unpasturized milk to my child, I would have given you the “are you CRAZY?” eye. What I’d always heard–and you, too, probably–is that Louis Pasteur singlehandedly saved humanity when he discovered that by heating foods we can kill the bacteria in those foods rendering them much safer and healthier to eat. The USDA strongly recommends pasteurization. I would be remiss if I didn’t state that here. Before you make any decisions, please do your own research. There were once (and maybe still are in some instances) good reasons for heating milk to boiling and killing off a good deal of the bacteria found in it.

According to a Cornell University website: The process of heating or boiling milk for health benefits has been recognized since the early 1800s and was used to reduce milkborne illness and mortality in infants in the late 1800s. As society industrialized around the turn of the 20th century, increased milk production and distribution led to outbreaks of milkborne diseases. Common milkborne illnesses during that time were typhoid fever, scarlet fever, septic sore throat, diptheria, and diarrheal diseases. These illnesses were virtually eliminated with the commercial implementation of pasteurization, in combination with improved management practices on dairy farms. In 1938, milk products were the source of 25% of all food and waterborne illnesses that were traced to sources, but now they account for far less than 1% of all food and waterborne illnesses.

Note the sentence I’ve highlighted with bold print? According to Cornell University, at least, milkborn illnesses were not a big problem throughout history but only after we embraced industrialization which led to increased milk production and distribution in the late 1800’s–before adequate refridgeration, in other words. When people began to move into crowded city conditions, the relationship between humans and their food sources changed. Where once each family had a milk cow or two, now milk was being brought into the cities from outlying farms. Rather than a cow-to-table time of a few minutes, you had a cow-to-table time of hours . . . much more time for nasty pathogens to be fruitful and multiply. Good for the bacteria, but bad for the poor humans who ended up with diptheria.

The National Academy of Sciences Press published this little gem, backing up what raw-milk activists have been saying about the “secret history of milk.” I encourage you to click on the link and read it for yourself. It is brief, only a paragraph, but one sentence in particular stands out. The author states that prior to the late 1800’s, food items, with the exception of flour, were locally produced and purchased. One can presume, then, that it was only when we ceased to buy local milk did we begin to have severe outbreaks of diseases which led to government intervention in our milk supply and production which led to pasteurization.

So, what’s wrong with pasteruized milk, anyway? There is much to debate on this issue, but the fact is that when you heat milk, you destroy the “good” bacteria” which aids in digestion along with the “bad” bacteria which can lead to disease. The Weston A. Price Foundation campaign for Real Milk provides the following information/opinion with references:

Pasteurization destroys enzymes, diminishes vitamin content, denatures fragile milk proteins, destroys vitamins C, B12 and B6, kills beneficial bacteria, promotes pathogens and is associated with allergies, increased tooth decay, colic in infants, growth problems in children, osteoporosis, arthritis, heart disease and cancer. Calves fed pasteurized milk do poorly and many die before maturity. Raw milk sours naturally but pasteurized milk turns putrid; processors must remove slime and pus from pasteurized milk by a process of centrifugal clarification. Inspection of dairy herds for disease is not required for pasteurized milk. Pasteurization was instituted in the 1920s to combat TB, infant diarrhea, undulant fever and other diseases caused by poor animal nutrition and dirty production methods. But times have changed and modern stainless steel tanks, milking machines, refrigerated trucks and inspection methods make pasteurization absolutely unnecessary for public protection. And pasteurization does not always kill the bacteria for Johne’s disease suspected of causing Crohn’s disease in humans with which most confinement cows are infected. Much commercial milk is now ultra-pasteurized to get rid of heat-resistant bacteria and give it a longer shelf life. Ultra-pasteurization is a violent process that takes milk from a chilled temperature to above the boiling point in less than two seconds. Clean raw milk from certified healthy cows is available commercially in several states and may be bought directly from the farm in many more. (Sources are listed on http://www.realmilk.com.) Click here to peruse the website yourself.

What led me to raw milk? Asthma and allergies. I visited a chiropractor in hopes of relieving some of my asthma symptoms, and the good doctor recommended I take a look at the Weston A. Price website. Learning that highly-processed milk can sometimes lead to allergies, especially in children, I decided to give raw milk a try. It wasn’t as if I’d never had raw milk before. My great-uncle ran a dairy farm for years, and my sister and I would often accompany my grandmother to “Unkies” farm to get a jar of milk from the big, square, steel cooler. Didn’t I love those little calves in their special room off to one side of the barn! And I distincly remember the big bull standing in his own pen with an actual metal ring through his nose. Amazing how peaceful and loving cows’ eyes are and how little and mean a bull’s!

For a little while my parents also bought milk from a farm. I remember hating the taste of that milk (having grown used to the blander stuff from the supermarket), so it was with trepidation that I sipped the raw milk from a nearby farm last summer. To my great amazement, the milk tasted wonderful! Rich, creamy . . . clean! My daughter loved it. Her friends who came to visit us loved it. I noticed a difference in my daughter’s digestive health almost immediately. I wasn’t so lucky with the asthma, but I still enjoyed the taste.

This milk was being produced and bottled by an organically certified farm in a town a thirty-minute drive from my home. The hours I could pick up my order were not convenient, and I wondered if the wastefulness of the gasoline could be justified. So, when I heard about a more local homesteader who was willing to sell her extra milk, I jumped at the chance. Laura and Nate run Down Home Farm in Parsonsfield, Maine. Check out their website here (I’ve also put it on the weblist over in the right-hand column for future reference).

Isabelle the Belmont Cow

Isabelle the Belmont Cow

Laura’s cows are small and brown and pretty. Even the bull is kinda’ cute. And the milk they produce is nothing short of a miracle. I skimmed the cream from this week’s jug and found I’d taken almost a fourth of the contents of my gallon! The resulting butter is naturally yellow. The cows are pastured so they can eat the grass that nature intended them to eat rather than grain silage that so often produces the rank smell of store-bought milk in winter.

The price of the milk is a little higher than the grocery store, but not by much, and I know I am paying not only for quality, but also for the support of a local farmer whose price is far above rubies. Where can you find local milk? Check this listing. Another good bet would be to go to a local, independent natural food store and ask. The proprietors of these establishments are a great resource for all things natural, organic, and local. If we seek out and support local farmers like Laura, we strengthen our local economy and preserve our local food supply. I envision a day when once again all our food except for extras like olive oil, coffee, spices, and other luxury items comes from our local farms. Talk about homeland security!

Fresh From The Oven

Fresh From The Oven

Well, the bread is out of the oven, the outdoors is calling me, and class is dismissed. Tune in next week to talk about strawberry jam . . . Outside the Box.

Homemade Bread Update

Dear Reader:

When my friend Lynn read my article on making homemade bread, she shared a great recipe with me. She promised this artisan bread was a cinch to make–no kneading and can be stored in the ‘fridge up to two weeks making it possible to simply break off a one-pound size glob of the prepared dough, shape it into a boule, let it rise for about thirty minutes, and bake it on a stone for a crusty, fresh loaf of homemade bread. Imagine my glee when I found this article online at the Mother Earth News Magazine website! Here you can find detailed instructions for the bread, plus variations–everything from an authentic, thin pizza crust to pecan rolls. Yummy!

If you like these recipes, the authors have crafted an entire book based on their excellent, easy-artisanal basic bread entitled ARTISAN BREAD IN FIVE MINUTES A DAY. Take a look at the article in Mother Earth News (a wonderful magazine for anyone interested in growing food, farming, homesteading, alternative home-building, etc.), and then, if you are hooked, click on the book title to link to the authors’ website.

The authors of the article (and the book) claim that a loaf of this bread costs you about 50 cents to make. Now that’s something we localists can get behind, right? Spending less on bread every week leaves more money to buy locally-made goods or put in our locally-owned bank savings account.

Try it and let me know how it turns out for you by posting a comment. And thanks, Lynn, for introducing me to this cool bread!!

Outside the Bread Box

Homemade Bread

Homemade Bread

Dear Reader:

Spring has arrived here in Maine, and colors are popping after a season of white snow and black, bare branches. A male goldfinch–bright yellow flower in flight–perched on my window feeder for a moment or two before flying off into the beech trees. Pink blossoms adorn the crabapple tree I planted last fall, and the chives look about ready to show their lavender flowers. I think we may have seen the last of the frost. It’s the season of planting, and I have much to do this year in my brand-new “square foot gardening” boxes.

But I’m not writing about gardening today. In between manic sessions of digging manure into my flower beds, sticking a few showy annuals among the still-green perennials, and mulching the whole lot, I found time to bake a loaf of bread.

Last summer, after seven months on a macrobiotic diet that nixed processed grains in favor of whole ones like brown rice, millet, couscous, and barley, I took up the practice of baking my daily bread rather than spend $5 a loaf for the organic bread from the supermarket. To my surprise, I enjoyed mixing the dough, kneading it until the surface was baby-skin soft, and punching the risen ball back down into the greased bowl. The smell of baking bread perfuming my house for an hour or two was heavenly, but seeing those golden-topped loaves on my counter brought a deep, primal satisfaction impossible to replicate by throwing plastic-wrapped, corn-syrup laden slices of supermarket bread into a grocery cart.

When fall rolled around, I immersed myself in finishing the rewrite of a romance novel and my regular volunteer committments and let my bread-baking slide. Oh, I baked a few loaves here and there throughout the winter, but mostly I got out of the habit. However, with my renewed enthusiasm for all things local and handmade, along with a resolve to eat whole (if not completely macrobiotic) foods again, I’ve decided to resume baking my own bread.

Since I am a stay-home mom, I have more time than most women to practice the age-old art of breadmaking, but even working women can create their own bread with the use of a bread machine. Imagine coming home at the end of the day to the smell of fresh-baked bread and the taste of a chewy, delicious slice of whole-wheat or white with your evening meal. My friend Sharon at the library uses her bread machine almost daily and has experimented with whole grains until she now has her loaves perfected.

Even making bread the old-fashioned way doesn’t take much time, if you only count the minutes actually spend working the dough. I’ve been known to stash the dough in the refrigerator before the last rising in order to run errands. This “retards” the dough, and I think it actually improves the flavor of the finished product while earning me a little more flexibility in my schedule.

kneading the dough

kneading the dough

There are many good recipes for basic bread out there, so I won’t go into a blow-by-blow account of the process. This time, I used a basic white bread recipe from the Betty Crocker Cookbook. As I mixed and kneaded and punched and rolled, I found myself wondering if I could bake even a simple loaf of bread without the vast food network of big wheat operations in the mid-west, overland trucking, and supermarket chains. Where would I get flour? What could I use for leavening? At it’s most basic, bread is a combination of milled grain, yeast, and water. The addition of some sort of sugar helps feed the yeast, and most recipes call for a small amount of oil. In this white bread, for example, I put in a tablespoon of olive oil and a tablespoon of local honey. While the honey was locally produced, everything else came from the grocery store.

A self-sustainable community, the kind of community I envision, should provide dietary staples such as ingredients for bread. Who grows wheat or oats anymore, I wondered? Where does baker’s yeast come from? Could it be produced in Maine if necessary? Are there other options for leavening?

So, off I went into the wide world of the internet, in search of information about yeast. Yeast production on a mass scale is complicated and precise. The Dakota Yeast company provides an excellent webpage on the subject–beginning with the strain of yeast to which is added molasses as the sugar on which the yeast will feed and reproduce. Into various tanks this mixture goes until finally a “yeast cream” is achieved. This can be stored as is or dried into “yeast cake” and crumbled. Manufacturers then sell fifty-pound bags of the stuff to customers. I’m assuming these are customers such as Fleishmann’s who then package and sell their product to grocery stores where we, the consumers, purchase the yeast in those handy little, yellow packets or the brown-colored glass jars.

I think, perhaps, this process could be replicated on a smaller, more local scale if necessary as long as the requisite sugar substance–molasses or beet sugars–could be obtained. We can grow beets here in Maine, but I’m not sure if they are the right type for beet sugar. More research for me, I guess. I am constantly amazed by the pathways down which I am led in my quest for sustainability options.

There are other, more ancient, ways of leavening our daily bread, however. I have a jar of such stuff in the back of my ‘fridge right now, a sourdough starter given to me by the wonderful Sharon. The sourdough starter is simply a mixture of yeasts, water, and flour. The process of using the starter is more complicated than the baker’s yeast. For one thing, unless you are baking every day, you have to store the paste in the refrigerator, reactivating it for about three days prior to baking by feeding it with more flour and water until it is good and “healthy” again.

I’ve made some good old-fashioned sourdough bread from this starter, but I cringe at the waste of all that flour in the process. As you add cupfuls at a time, you end up with way more starter than you need, and so down the drain it goes unless you have a friend who wants to cultivate their own. Perhaps if food were scarce, we’d be glad of a fresh loaf of bread every day. In that case, you would simply reserve a cup or two from that day’s breadmaking, add some flour and water the next day, and use half to leaven tomorrow’s dough.

But where would we get all this flour?

I went on a search of the Maine Department of Agriculture website as well as the Maine Growers and Farmers Association (MOFGA), and found, to my amazement, that there are some hardy souls growing grains other than corn right here in the state. One of these is Hatchet Cove Farm in Warren. Click on the name to check out their website. There are others you can find at the MOFGA page here. We even have some grain MILLS in operation, though none in my particular area of southern Maine. Still, the technology is here and the processes haven’t been forgotten. Woo-hoo!

Here’s what I’d love to see in my community . . . and every community. Farmland surrounding the town center. And on some of that farmland I’d love to see fields of hardy winter wheat, oats, corn, and buckwheat sending up bright green shoots in the springtime. I’d love to see a grainmill in every town, perhaps beside a fast-running stream or river so as to be powered by a non-oil resource, and in every town a baker’s shop where those who didn’t have time or desire to bake their own bread could purchase a daily loaf or two.

pretty little ball of dough

pretty little ball of dough

Apparently, Governor Baldacci has similar concerns. In 2004 he commissioned a study by a Local Agriculture Department Task Force co-chaired by his wife, First Lady Karen Baldacci and Charles Spies, to come up with recommendations for policies to support and sustain Maine’s local agriculture. The study found that Maine food producers generate 1.4 billion dollars in sales per year and that Maine households spend 3 billion dollars on food. However, Mainers spend only 4% of this 3 billion on locally produced agriculture products! The study concluded that if Mainers would spend just 10% of their food dollars on Maine products, farm income in our state would increase by 40%.

Can you imagine farmers actually making a living wage? Wouldn’t that encourage others to take up farming, perhaps right in our own communities?

The study also identified eight issues that effect the growth and viability of local agriculture. They are as follows:

1. Lack of appreciation for agriculture’s value to community and local economy. If those who make decisions for our communities could be educated about the high value of local agriculture, and if we members of the community supported local agricultural efforts with our food dollars, then perhaps we could encourage the retention and creation of local farms.

2. Infrastructure–Fragmentation of farms and farm landscapes results in breakdown of local agricultural industries. This is a landuse issue, a zoning issue. We don’t need more housing development, people. We need to preserve and expand our farmland. High density housing surrounded by farmland is preferable to suburban living if we are talking about a sustainable future.

3. Lack of consumer knowledge about nutritional and flavor advantages of locally grown food. Local food tastes better and is better for you than the stuff trucked from California, Mexico, or Washington State.

4. Small growers and operators are at a disadvantage to large-scale agricultural industries. It’s the old “economy of scale” issue. The bigger you are, the more you can buy in bulk, the better the deal you can get. What if, though, local farmers could share some equipment costs in a cooperative arrangement? Or pooled their resources to order seeds in larger quantities for a better price? As the costs of oil and oil products rises, I believe the gap will close.

5. Preserve the farms currently in operation. No further explanation necessary.

6. Inadequate financing options. It isn’t easy to get financing if you are a small, independent farmer. We should encourage our state government and local banks to create financing packages for would-be agricultural producers. This is also something our overly-large federal government could do. Rather than giving subsidies to large-scale agribusinesses, why not subsidize (for a limited time) small-scale farms?

7. Help manage costs of production. Can you imagine trying to run a farm, feed and clothe your family, and still pay the exhorbitant amount needed for health insurance? Not to mention fuel for the tractors and heating costs for the home and barns? You don’t get health benefits and dental insurance when you are an independent farmer. Used to be there was a local doctor who would take farm produce in exchange for healthcare, but a doctor’s visit now costs over one-hundred dollars, not counting the extra charges for lab work and medications. If you were just starting out, would you chose a career that didn’t include health benefits? If we want more farmers, we have to figure out a way to make it a viable career option.

8. Labor costs. Running a farm takes many hands. Hands cost money. What happens when you have to provide health care for your employees? How do you pay a salary at planting time when the profits won’t roll in until harvest?

See the complete report here. You can click on the PDF link from this page.

It’s all about what we value, folks. I’m going to be searching out Maine-grown and processed flours. Proving the adage “seek and ye shall find”, when I clicked on the MOFGA homepage for the third time today, an announcement popped up regarding the annual Kneading Conference in Skowhegan this summer! There will be demonstrations in bread making, how-to’s on building your own backyard bread oven, and Maine grain growers. See here for details. And try baking a loaf of bread. It’s food for the soul.

ps: Do you have good bread-baking tips? A favorite recipe? A lead on where to purchase local milled grain in your neck of the woods? Post a comment and share the knowledge! I’d love to hear from you.