Thursday, January 29, 2009

OMG PB&J Sandwich-gasm!

Peanut Butter & Apricot Jam on freshly made white bread

It was so good that I almost forgot to take a photo for you all. That was probably the best PB&J sandwich I have ever tasted.

I like this bread baking stuff. Gonna keep doing it.

© Copyright 2009 Mountain Harvest Basket

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

White Bread Again

Farmhouse White Bread #2

Well, I decided to try baking another loaf of Farmhouse White bread that I wrote about in my previous post.

This time I used the same basic recipe as last time with just a few tweaks. I added 1/4 teaspoon more instant yeast and I cut way back on the salt, using only about 1/4 teaspoon this time, since I found the first loaf a little salty for my taste buds. I also didn't have any bread flour available, so I used all purpose flour with some extra wheat gluten added in (1 teaspoon gluten per cup of flour to make bread flour substitute). Again, I used my favorite brand of flour, King Arthur.

Just for experiment purposes and also because I was too busy today to tend to mixing and kneading bread dough all by hand, I put the ingredients into my bread machine and let the machine do the work for me. After first rise the dough was ready for me to remove and shape into a loaf. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I was distracted by other things and let the risen dough sit in the machine for about 30 minutes longer than I was supposed to.

Well, I took it out and flattened it out a bit into a large rectangle, then rolled it up like a jelly roll into a log shape and plunked into the same loaf pan that used for the first loaf I baked a few days ago. Making sure to crimp the edges together so it would stay together as a nice loaf shape. I covered it with a damp tea towel and set it on a TV tray in front of the fire in my woodstove to maintain a temperature of about 74 degrees F while the dough rose in the pan.

Well, either the warmer room, the little more yeast, the smaller amount of salt or the gluten enhanced flour made this loaf rise a lot more than the first one did. After about 60 minutes it had doubled in size and was pushing the tea towel up and up. So into the oven it went to bake for 35 minutes at 375 degrees F.

It came out fluffy and beautiful. Much more the shape that I desire in a homemade sandwich loaf of bread.

Better shaped sandwich bread

It tasted a better to me than my first try because it isn't as salty, and I like that better. I have already eaten 3 warm pieces of bread with butter, and I usually don't use butter even when I bake. I only use it on fresh warm bread, so this bread baking hobby of mine may not be so good for my saturated fat intake. Perhaps I should try my fresh bread dipped in extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Yes, that might be good.

I will have to see how this second loaf performs as toast and in sandwiches. Will it fall apart or will it be elastic enough to hold substantial sandwich contents? How long will it stay fresh? So much experimenting to do!

I do plan to make bread completely from scratch, doing the mixing and kneading completely by hand again, but I had to try it out at least once using the bread machine. Now I know what results I will get on those days when I don't have time to do it all by hand. I may also have learned something about the kneading process from the bread machine. I may have kneaded the dough a little too roughly by hand, perhaps making more gluten than I needed to, in my endeavor to be thorough my first time out. I am after all, a massage therapist by profession, one whose specialty is deep tissue work which involves a lot of heavy kneading of my client's muscles. I may have taken the kneading job a bit too seriously when making bread the first time. So the next time I make fresh bread completely by hand, I will lighten up a bit, perhaps giving my bread dough a lighter "spa massage" instead of the full up "sports massage". Ha!

Happy baking everyone. Good thing to do on a cold winter's day.

© Copyright 2009 Mountain Harvest Basket

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bread 101

Freshly Baked Loaf of White Bread

Well, since we have had Muffin Monday and Soup Saturday here at Mountain Harvest Basket recently, I thought it was time for "Bread Baking Sunday". Well, so much for continuing with the fun alliteration...oh well, maybe "Sandwich Loaf Sunday"...

I have baked bread before "from scratch", but always with the aid of a bread machine to do the mixing and kneading etc. I would usually take the dough out of the machine before the baking cycle, and shape and bake it in my oven since I don't like the way my bread machine baked bread turns out. Funny shapes and hard crusts come out of that bread machine, but it does make mixing the dough an easy task. However, easy does not always give a good homemade product. So this time I decided to try my hand at mixing, kneading etc all by hand. I really want to be able to make great tasting, healthy and less expensive fresh breads for myself and my family.

So I started with this recipe I got from Farmgirl Susan from her great blogs Farmgirl Fare and A Year in Bread. She calls this bread Farmhouse White. I have tried several of her other recipes over the past year and have always been pleased with the results.

Since Farmgirl Susan's recipe for Farmhouse White bread makes 3 loaves of sandwich style bread, I decided that for this first bread making experiment I would only make one loaf just in case I really screwed up and it didn't turn out. I didn't want to waste 3 times the ingredients my first time up at bat.

I followed her instructions carefully and I was very pleased with the results of my first time making and baking a loaf of bread completely from scratch. Of course, her loaves of bread look so much better than mine do. Mine wasn't as tall and fluffy looking as hers were. She gives some hints on which loaf pans to use to get that tallness, and my pan was not exactly the right size. This does give me a good data point from which to progress with future baking projects.

I was very pleased with the taste and texture of this bread. It was moist yet not soggy. It was elastic enough to make a good sandwich without falling apart as my previous breads had. It tasted great, perhaps a bit salty for me (since I don't use salt in much of anything), and the crust turned out a beautiful light golden brown.

I will make this bread again. I will find better loaf pans. I will experiment with different kneading techniques and play with the ingredients.

Someday I want to make whole grain breads and crusty artisan loaves as well as this basic white sandwich style bread. I had a fun time baking on a cold and rainy Sunday. I just might enjoy this as a new hobby. I'll see how it goes.

Any suggestions from you all on which bread baking book I should buy that will tell me the basic methods and also have other recipes for me to try?

© Copyright 2009 Mountain Harvest Basket

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Chicken Soup for the Cold

It is cold and rainy here today. I've had about 4 inches of rain in the past 48 hours here. So says my nifty new digital rain gauge that I received from Bob for Christmas. It actually says 3.99 inches, but I call that "about 4".

Anyway, the skies have dumped a whole bunch of rain on me and my little plot of earth. Everything is wet, cold and muddy outside. I just built a nice warm fire in my woodstove, so it's getting nice and warm in here. I love that lasting, penetrating heat that the woodstove provides. Both of my indoor kitties, Jessie and Frieda, are curled up by the fire as I type this. I love that.

I woke today feeling like maybe a cold was coming on. A little sinus congestion. A few more body aches than usual. I wrote it off to the cold, wet weather and tried to ignore it. Then this afternoon I got a craving for homemade chicken noodle soup. So I made some in my big pot on the stove. Good thing too, because as of about two hours ago, I can feel my ears starting to stuff up, with a pronounced ache in the right one, and a sinus headache starting. I really don't want to get sick. I hate that.

So here's a few shots of my homemade chicken soup:

Sauteeing the veggies: carrots, onion, celery, a little bok choy, a lot of garlic, some fresh from the garden parsley...

I like to have lots of veggies in my homemade chicken soup, and I usually have a nice selection of fresh ones available due to our local organic farmer. I added some chunks of cooked organic chicken breast to my soup and simmered it with the veggies and some homemade turkey stock.

While the soup simmered, I turned my attention to the noodle part of the soup.

I have always wanted to make homemade pasta and noodles, and I even have one of those cool hand crank pasta machines around here somewhere that I bought a few years ago and never used. So I decided that I would search for it another day and just roll out my simple egg noodle dough by hand with a rolling pin:

Noodle dough rolled out as flat as possible, drying before cutting into noodles

Now that I have done the rolling by hand this one time, I plan to find that pasta machine in whatever deep cabinet I've hidden it in. It was not that easy to get that noodle dough to stretch out thin enough for the soup noodles I wanted to make. It kept trying to shrink back up into a thick slab! I coaxed it to lay out pretty flat and thin, but I wasn't that happy with the results.

After letting the dough dry flat for a few minutes, I then rolled it gently and sliced it into noodle ribbons, which I then cut in half because I was making soup not pasta:

Raw noodles dusted with flour drying a bit more before being cooked

Then when the rest of my soup was ready, nicely simmered with the veggies tender, I added the freshly made noodles to the pot and made sure the heat was high enough to boil them gently for about 15-20 minutes.

Here's what the finished noodles and soup looked like in a bowl. Actually this was my second bowl of soup. I ate the first one so fast I forgot to take a picture of it for you.

Chicken Soup for my cold ~ some heart shaped noodles floating on top

So even with big fat noodles that took over the whole pot of soup because they swelled up when cooked, the homemade chicken soup was very tasty, warm and comforting. Two bowls filled me up for a late afternoon dinner on this cold and wet rainy day. I sure hope it makes my cold go away.

Now to go sit by my warm fire and relax.

© Copyright 2009 Mountain Harvest Basket

Monday, January 19, 2009

More Muffins

Freshly baked banana nut muffins!

Well, true to my word, I baked another batch of my banana nut muffins the other night. You know, just to keep the house warm with the heat from the oven.

This batch of muffins was even more delicous than the last. I've been using more King Arthur brand flour in my baking lately, and I've been loving the great results. The texture of these muffins are really nice. Moist with great crumb, but not soggy. I used half King Arthur all purpose flour (white) and half King Arthur "white whole wheat" flour in these. I am very pleased with that combination. I try to add as much whole grain healthiness into my cooking and baking as I can.

Ready for the oven

I was also pleased to note on the King Arthur flour bag that their flour is milled from all US grown wheat. I like that. They just seem like a really good solid company. I will be using more of their flour in my baking and cooking from now on.

I was watching a Good Eats episode on TV the other night that had Alton Brown telling us all about making muffins. I recall he said we would get more volume out of our muffins if we cooled them upside down on a tea towel. So I tried it.

Muffins cooling

Not sure if I got more volume in my muffins, but it did work well for allowing them to cool nicely. I had them upside down for awhile on a clean tea towel placed over my cooling rack. The tea towel prevents the cooling rack from leaving marks on the muffin tops. It worked.

You will notice that I used paper baking cups to line my grandma's old muffin pan that I use. Keeps them from sticking, reduces clean up and gives them a nice wrapper when sharing with friends. I usually use the standard pastel paper cups that I find for sale in my grocery store. You know the ones, they come in pastel pink, yellow and blue. Well, about a week ago, I was in the baking supply aisle of our Whole Foods market, looking for something else, when I spied some new, more environmentally friendly baking cups.

Natural muffin cups

They are natural brown, made from unbleached paper and compostable. The cardboard box they are packaged in is made from 100% recycled paper. They cost a little more than the regular cups, but not much more.

What I liked best about their performance is that the muffin paper peels off so easily from the muffin, no sticking at all. And they look really nice on the muffins. A toasty brown color instead of the pastel colors. I think it enhances the rustic muffin look. Also I don't have to worry about who gets the pink one or the yellow one etc, because they are all brown... Ha! Yes, I need a life...

Anyway, more environmentally friendly muffin cup info can be found at the If You Care website. Apparently, they make coffee filters and other paper products too. Not a great website, but it does give more info.

Happy winter baking to you all!

© Copyright 2009 Mountain Harvest Basket

Friday, January 16, 2009

Spring in January?

Spring bulbs emerging early

I know that many parts of the US are having very cold weather right now. Lots of snow, ice and rain going on out there according to the weather news. Here in the Sierra foothills we have been having unseasonably mild weather all week. It's been very sunny and warm during the day with mild breezes. Feels like Spring is happening in the middle of January.

A couple of days ago, I donned a short sleeved tee shirt and a pair of summer shorts and sat in my lounge chair (you know, the lounge chair that was covered in 6 inches of snow not very long ago) to soak up some sun and get my natural vitamin D while reading my newest herb book. I must have stayed out there about an hour just enjoying the quiet day and relaxing. Something I don't do very often. I even heard a few frogs/toads waking up and talking to each other. Sure seemed like Spring was starting in the middle of January.

The photo above shows Spring bulbs, they are either crocus or grape hyacinth, that are planted in my terra cotta bowl on my porch, emerging from the soil as the weather warms up this week. They are even bigger today than when I took this photo earlier in the week.

I know we will get more cold, rainy and even snowy weather before Spring really arrives in March, but for now we are having a nice Spring preview. It is confusing the plants though. They will all pop out and then get snowed on in a few days or weeks. Always an adventure with nature.

For those of you who have colder weather where you are right now, take heart that Spring is not very far away. It will be here soon.

The nights are still cold here. Each day in the late afternoon the temperature drops and my house does get quite cool. I haven't been building many fires in my woodstove yet this winter, but I have been baking things in my kitchen. You know, just to help warm up the house...

Last week I baked a batch of banana muffins to use up the overripe bananas, and to warm up the house, of course.

I need to make another batch, as these are long gone by now, and I have more overripe bananas sitting around. And I need to keep my house warm on these cold nights....yeah...that's it...keep the house warm.

What's the weather like where you are today?

© Copyright 2009 Mountain Harvest Basket

Sunday, January 11, 2009

My Christmas Tree Connection

Sweet Christmas Tree,

Thank you for your beauty and your tallness
Thank you for your greenness, for your health, for your freshness & longevity
Thank you for your patience and understanding and your stately manner

Thank you for being part of my family, if only for awhile
Thank you for the lovely scent that filled my home with wishes & dreams
Thank you for each twinkle, sparkle and especially thank you for your great magic

You filled my heart with love
You helped my little girl to dream and to feel the memories of the warm safe love of my Mom and my childhood home

That more than anything is what I dream of each Christmas and hope to recreate in my own warm and safe home

So now, with gentle hands, flowing but deliberate movements, and many tears in my eyes, I remove your beautiful baubles, your seasonal jewels each one having special meaning to me and a history all its own

I untangle the warm glowing, twinkling lights from your still supple branches
I keep them lit as long as possible to light our way

Lastly I reach up to your highest branch and take down my special sparkly star that you wore so proudly

Thank you for being my friend and for your sweet service this year to make my heart brighter and my home more loving and warm

You will live outside now, on my porch, in the crisp cold air, as did your many sisters that came before you

You will be free and unadorned accept for the winter sunshine, rain, snow and the occasional wild bird that visits us

When you tell me that it is your time to go, weeks or even months from now, I will gently lay you down out by the woodshed to rest and perhaps dream

Dream of the forest from which you came.

Thank you my precious Christmas tree. You brought me happiness and magic. It saddens me to have you leave my home.

I will always love you.

Ok, so now the whole world knows that I am an overly sentimental and soft hearted little girl who loves the magic of Christmas and misses her Mom dearly every day and feels a connection to her through my Christmas tree.

Oh well.

© Copyright 2009 Mountain Harvest Basket

Friday, January 9, 2009

Menopause for Chickens? I think not!

Surprise Egg!

Just when I was saying it was kind of boring and ho-hum around here this past week, I go out to close up my hen house tonight in the cold and quiet, nothing unusual except that I notice how beautiful everything seems when illuminated by the almost full moon shining overhead.

I peek inside the hen house to check on my two old girls, Red & Lucy, they look fine. They have food and water and stare up at me from the straw covered floor contentedly, and then just as I was starting to close the door, I spied it! Sitting pretty as can be in the top nest box, was this beautiful, if a little enlongated, light brown egg! I haven't had an egg from my hens for over a year now. I've even stopped looking for them in the nests. That's why I almost missed this one.

I carefully lifted it out of the nest knowing that sometimes a first-laid egg can be soft or malformed. It was perfect. Hard shell. Looked normal. Slightly elongated as they usually are when a hen starts laying again after a long vacation. I guess the egg ducts need some time to adjust to the size of the eggs traveling through them, and the first egg gets a little squished on its way out.

I carried it carefully inside, cleaned it up and took its picture to share with you here in my blog. It weighs exactly 2 ounces for those of you who care about such things. I weighed it just for you.

I think it is beautiful.

And all I can really say is....Wow! One of my hens is almost 9 years old and the other almost 8, as of this coming Spring. I am not sure which hen laid this egg, but either way, it's a pretty big deal for hens that I thought were menopausal. I guess they are not. You go, girls!

They must have heard (from a passing deer?) that things were financially tight around here lately so they decided that they needed to start contributing to the household food supply. We will see if they keep it up or not. They may be just teasing me a bit.

A middle of winter egg from an 8 year old hen! Wow!

Not so ho-hum around Mountain Harvest Basket anymore.

© Copyright 2009 Mountain Harvest Basket

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Ho Hum Week

There just hasn't been anything interesting enough going on around here to inspire me to write a new blog post. I guess I am tired and occupied with recovering from all the activity and stress of the holidays. Lots of people, lots of entertaining, lots of big meals, lots of sweets, not enough rest or exercise or peace & quiet. Sounds like I am getting old...

Anyway, my Christmas tree is still up in my living room:

I love how beautiful it looks (this picture does not do it justice) all sparkly & colorful with all of the many special ornaments collected over the years. Each has a story that is meaningful to me.

While I did take down and pack away the rest of the Christmas decorations on New Year's day, I left my beautiful tree up for awhile longer. It's always the last thing I take down each Christmas season. Partly because it is a lot of work to gather and pack each ornament away, but mostly because it is so beautiful and makes me think of being a little girl again, so happy that it is Christmas. It is magical to me.

So my tree is still up in my living room, but will only be there for another few days, as I must take it down and vacuum all of the pine needles up to ready my home for the new year ahead. Sort of sad though. I really love my special tree.

This week has been a little boring. Mostly full of chores. I have done a lot of laundry:

I did many, many loads of laundry. So much accumulated over the holidays with the extra cloth napkins, tablecloths, towels and sheets. Not to mention more changes of outfits for different occasions and weather. I still have several loads of massage therapy sheets to launder for my business to get back into full swing as the new year starts. Oh joy, more laundry to do...

I spent some time bringing up loads of firewood, pine and oak, from my woodshed to my front porch:

Kindling too. I strained my back, stupidly (I know better than that) , by bending over at the waist to pick up a heavy stack of wood, instead of bending at my knees. My low back and right hip are still sore from doing that a couple of days ago. The massage I received today helped quite a bit, but mostly it will just have to heal on it's own. I know better than to do something so dumb like that, but I just wasn't paying attention. *sigh*

One bright note that happened this week was my receiving these pretty flowers from Hardware Bob:

They really brightened my day and my home. It's been so dreary and grey around here with the cold, wet weather. The colorful flowers are very pleasing. They have a lovely scent that I appreciate every time I walk by. We also went out to a fancy dinner at a nice restaurant last Friday night. Had the whole place to ourselves! Very quiet and relaxing, if a bit too expensive. I like being pampered now and then. Makes me feel good.

Well, back to work for me. Must get the place ready for my massage clients tomorrow. Clean this, organize never ends.

See, I told you there wasn't much to write about this week.

© Copyright 2009 Mountain Harvest Basket