18 March 2013

baby's first climb (and other spring break highlights)

we took a train from champaign to see chuck in chicago. after a scramble and a near miss, we're saved by a time-zone change! the train was so crowded, they bumped us to business class. we shared the car with 2 amish couples speaking their own version of german and reading racy fiction.

the hotel was beyond our means, and packed with film studies folk. among the trendiest of the academics, they are well dressed and popping open macbooks in any available inch of the hotel.

spending time with chuck is what it's all about.

lego studies were on the agenda, as was the lego store, just two blocks away.

somehow, we got bumped up again (at no extra charge) to a sprawling suite on the eighth floor--

lake view, two bathrooms, a kitchen, full-sized dining room, entry way, dressing room...ridiculous, but fun for a night. i was most impressed with the original, clean lines of the woodwork, the concealed brass hinges on the dressing room door...

original pancake house has the best potato pancakes, and the syrup bottle inspires this little ditty from cosmo:

the contemporary art museum, also a quick walk away,

features family day, kids making art, a telephone game (layered with complex political content), a mind boggling, photographic tapestry plus black and white. we took an unconventional route to millennium park, through the bones of the city, rather than strolling the shopping district. not on purpose, but maybe better, though it took a bit longer, and we were under a time crunch with a train to catch.

we shared mere moments basking in the magnetic pull of the bean before heading back to the hotel and off to the train station.

after a few days at home, we head out to meet friends from canada on a climbing trip in the red river gorge. for most of the kids on the trip, this was their first time climbing outdoors. cosmo had a chance to give it a try. he showed no fear as he scrambled up that cliff face and seemed happy as a clam on the entire hike. it was great to see matt and maceo in action, and to meet up with wendy!

this is the route cosmo climbed. the guides and other climbers called him a natural. though it was hard for me to watch at times, i was thrilled for him. he had a big grin on his face up there!

next we're in berea, visiting family. carl's brother never disappoints when it comes to food. this time, we all had a chance to participate. this is a zarangollo ravioli, with quail egg and salmon roe.

i finally decide to give knitting a try, urged by a friend to not put it off 'til my "autumn years," as i had been planning. it is much more difficult than i expected, it's going to take until my autumn years to gain any mastery over it, and, i think i need some coaching.

a walk to a nearby pub for a st.patty's day celebration with friends caps our spring break.

03 March 2013

sugar shack

it started as a "what the heck-- why not give it a try?" sort of project.  after returning from a lovely afternoon workshop at hinkle farmstead with cosmo, learning how to tap maple trees and boil down
syrup, i began gazing at the giant maple tree in our front yard with renewed interest. 

turns out, she's a sugar maple! and, she is HUGE. so i picked up a food-grade, five-gallon bucket, plus a small (2.5 qt) metal bucket at a hardware store. i was relieved to find i had a drill bit big enough to make a hole in the metal bucket, large enough to fit over the tap i took home from the workshop (also called a spile). then we found a good spot to tap the tree (cosmo helped me select it) and we drilled our hole. cosmo and i hammered the tap into the hole, hung the bucket on the hook and waited for the sap to start dripping.


the ideal temperatures for sap flow are nights in the twenties, days in the forties. we started getting exactly that range, and the sap was flowing. for days, weeks, we emptied our little bucket into our big bucket 'til we had 5 gallons of sap. then we boiled that down to about 1.5 gallons. after we collected 5 more gallons, we boiled that bucket down to about a gallon. we stored the jars of concentrate in the root cellar portion of our basement until we were ready to finish it.

yesterday, we combined the two concentrates and finished the syrup. all day liquid simmered on the stove, steamed up our windows, moistened the walls and sweetened the air. after returning from our evening walk to dinner and back, we started the final stage. we transfered the reduced sap to a smaller pan, filtering it through some clean felted wool, then started boiling non stop, and taking the temperature every 5 minutes.

unless you have a hydrometer, which measures the sugar content of liquids, the only way you know your syrup is finished is the boiling temperature. as the water evaporates, the boiling temperature increases. you will have about a 66% sugar content when the syrup is boiling at 219F (7 degrees above the boiling temperature of water). after nearly days of uneventful boiling, this last phase moves rather quickly, and you have to be vigilant to prevent you syrup from scorching (can you imagine the devastation, after all that effort?!). the guy who taught our workshop suggested gluing your shoes to the floor in front of the stove. that is pretty much what carl and i did. i kept sticking my mitt-covered hand into the pot with the digital thermometer to check the temperature. we have a candy thermometer, but it is not precise enough. "somewhat over 200" is too vague for maple sugaring. when we finally hit 219, we quickly removed the syrup from the stove and poured it through the felt filter again, into clean jars.

we ended up with 1 quart plus 12oz from 10 gallons of raw sap. we only expected to get about a quart, so we were thrilled! the finished syrup is dark, rich and delicious, in fact, after trying some on a stack of pancakes this morning, cosmo declared it the "best syrup in the world." time to go hug a tree.


23 February 2013

baby's first gif

as cosmo was building the x-wing fighter, he asked for photos to be taken along the way. then we made it into an animated .gif in photoshop.

as i type this, the star wars sound track blares from a boom box and my 7 year old pours over a complete visual encyclopedia of lego star wars figures.

14 January 2013

winter jewels

the weekend was devoted yeast breads and pomegranates. saturday i made a crusty dutch-oven loaf and a bunch of mini pizzas for dinner, then sunday i woke up and started seeding pomegranates.

didn't stop until the afternoon. faced with the rare event of pomegranate surplus, i decided to make juice, then pomegranate molasses from the juice. i know of at least one recipe that calls for it-- a lovely roasted red pepper walnut dip i attempted to mimic from monica pope's restaurant in houston. it's one of those pricey, seldom-used ingredients that i knew would be fun to make from scratch.

here are a few things i learned:

1. the best tool for juicing the pomegranate seeds in my kitchen is the food mill, with the finest mesh disc. someone on the internet suggested an old fashioned, press-style citrus juicer, which i have, so i tried it. it didn't work. and i really wanted it to work, because i did not want to separate out all those seeds from all those pomegranates. but that is what i, in fact, ended up doing. i'll be dreaming pomegranate seeds.  then we tried the victorio strainer.

works great for applesauce. not so great on pomegranates. i think i might need a grape spiral insert or something, cuz the seeds ended up jamming the mechanism. then we tried the food mill. bam! worked like a charm. since a little of the pulp does get through, i strained it again through some cheese cloth. of course, if you have a juicer, that might be the best option. i don't.

2. it takes about 6 pomegranates to make 1 quart of juice.

3. once your child lays eyes on a bowl full of those sparkling red jewels, freed from their restrictive membranes, pomegranates will become his absolute favorite fruit, and he will want nothing else in the world but pomegranate seeds. thus, you will most likely need more that 6 pomegranates if you plan on making a quart of juice in the presence of a child. 

4. it takes about 3 hours to cook one quart of juice down to 1 cup of pomegranate molasses. not the measly 70 minutes Alton Brown suggests. but it's worth it. this tangy ruby red reduction is to-die-for. color me very pleased.  color my kitchen bright red and sticky.