Sunday, April 24, 2011

Caramel French Toast

I did not have one healthfully redeeming meal on Easter Sunday. I helped to serve the breakfast meal after Sunrise Service this morning at church. We had a family Easter meal after church. And, finally, we celebrated a couple of birthdays with that same branch of the family at suppertime, complete with homemade ice cream and a cake with an entire pound of butter in the frosting. By the end of the day, I didn't even feel treated by the birthday party.

What a fun-packed weekend, though. On Saturday morning I took Ava to the egg hunt put on by the Lion's Club in the wee village in which I grew up. I'm all the more charmed by it because it is exactly as I left it when I last hunted eggs myself nearly 30 years ago.

Ava's age group lined up at the section of the playground which was designated for them. The kids were thick on the end closest to the door from the gym where they had gathered at 9:00 AM. Not being the pushy type, Ava kept moving further down the line until we reached the very end, where there were no other kids. Interestingly, that left her with the entire east side of a playground full of plastic eggs where she might hunt in relative solitude.

...For about 48 seconds...

...Or until the heavily populated west end was picked clean and the swarms descended upon her.

Sunday brought a day of church and family. When we finally got to the family part, I could sit down for a spell and rest my feet. Lawd, those church shoes were not meant for cooking breakfast. Behold, the Easter toes.

While I like to make things from scratch and experiment with recipes, my friend Tammy is expert at feeding crowds. She has done many funeral dinners and Easter breakfasts at our church. We worked together to plan this year's menu. She made biscuits and yummy gravy and an awesome baked egg I'll have to tell you about later. I made French Toast. For weeks beforehand I wondered, should I make traditional French toast (needed: lots of griddle space and time to spend flipping) or baked (needed: lots of oven space that might be in short supply)?

Twenty hours before we were to serve, I decided to do the baked. Here is the recipe:

Caramel French Toast
In a heavy saucepan, combine the following:
1 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. butter
2 T light corn syrup

Cook over medium heat until thick. Pour into a 9 x 13 pan. Cover with 12 slices of bread. French bread is better and more dignified, but the sandwich bread here was donated by the parishioners, so beggars can't be choosey.

Combine the following and pour over the bread:

6 eggs, beaten
1-1/2 c. milk
1 t. vanilla
1/4 t. salt

Cover and chill overnight. Uncover and bake at 350 until set and golden brown. Serve immediately. Serves 6 generously.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

In Which She Cleans Her Pantry

I have one of these numbers in my kitchen cabinets.

Honestly, I've lived here for almost five years and the jury is still out on it. The shelves on the right are deep and I can't see or find the stuff at the back. The shelves on the left are shallow and actually serve as a door that pulls out revealing more shallow shelves. Every time I think it should be filed under Fancy But Not Useful, I'll have an organizational tangent in which I realize that it really holds a ton of crap.

It had been ages since I'd cleaned it out and I had been coming home from the grocery store feeling like I had no place to put the new stuff. (Honestly, why do I need new stuff when there is no space in my pantry?) When I emptied it completely, I could see all of the nonsense cluttering the shelves. All of my baking ingredients are here. Of course I had three containers of ground cinnamon. And taking up valuable real estate on the seasoning shelves were some cork-topped bottles which I had purchased to store spices, allowing me to buy seasoning in bulk and store them prettily. I had several bottles that had been emptied, but not refilled. They still sat, uselessly, in my pantry door. I'm washing them now so that I can relabel and refill them with fresh ingredients.

Also hogging the shelves were "quick meal" options that I forget about using. I realized that I had an extra shelf, which I installed down low and now there is a shelf for those kinds of things so that they can be displayed prominently at the front of the shelf.

I realized I had MOUNTAINS of dried beans and legumes for crock pot cooking. However, I hardly ever use my crock pot. I need to. I MUST! But it's not my habit and it's hard to change habits isn't it? Because my dried bean cup runneth over, I whipped up a batch of these the very next day:

My mother used to make something called butter beans. I don't know what the technical definition of butter beans is, nor do I know how my mom made them. I just asked my dad recently how mom used to make them and he had absolutely no idea. Several years ago I came up with a good simulation for that dish. I threw about 2 cups of dried lima beans into the crock pot, along with about a quart of flavorful chicken broth. I had the cooker on low for 6-8 hours until the beans were soft.

So rich and savory!

Now I only need to make them about 14 more times so that I can have elbow room on my rice and bean shelf.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Last weekend was very fun. On Saturday, I met a woman for lunch who was a friendly acquaintance in college. After college we proceeded to not have any contact for 15 years. Through the wonder of Social Networking, we have become Actual Friends on Facebook. We ate at a great authentic Mexican restaurant, which had a great queso for our chips and we got reacquainted. Or, heck, got to know each other in the first place. For instance, I had no idea back in college that she was an artist, but she freelances as a calligrapher and henna artist these days. She dolled me up after the juevos rancheros.

On Sunday, we had a couple of families over for games and grub. It was a wonderful time. Not only do the adults hit it off splendidly, but there are very terrific playmates for every one of the kids. The eleven-year-old girls are even a threesome, and, as everyone knows, girl threesomes are very difficult to manage. Whenever we get together, I always get the sense that no one is being taken advantage of, and no one feels like including someone else is a duty - it seems genuine.

Everyone pitched in with tasty food and one of my contributions was a salad of these ingredients:

Mandarin Cashew Lettuce Salad
1 - 1/2 heads of lettuce
1 lb. diced ham
1 - 1/2 c. red grapes
2 c. mozzarella cheese, grated
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 c. salted cashews

1/3 c. vegetable oil
1/3 c. olive oil
1/3 c. apple cider vinegar
1/2 c. sugar
1 t. garlic salt
1 t. poppy seeds
1 T yellow mustard

Layer and toss the first five ingredients of the salad.

Mix dressing thoroughly.

Add cashews to the salad just before dressing and serving.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Maple Syrup

I think it's finally safe to put away the snow pants. The weather can be so strange in late winter/early spring. Just a couple of weeks ago we had our last big snow. We hadn't managed to make a snowman at that point and the girls and I determined that we wouldn't close out winter without sticking a carrot in some kind of face. Sadly, we found the snow to be too fluffy and couldn't make it pack well enough to form any kind of ball. We tried mounding it up and had more success than rolling. But still we succeeded only in making it look like a mound.

Not to be deterred, we thought maybe it would still be a creature made of snow - maybe a giant snowman with just the top of his head sticking out of the ground. We needed a big hat in order to pull it off, so Ava went inside and got a sombrero from one of the Mexican restaurants in town. We set to work with our "carrot" and "coal" and this was the end result.

We named him "Pepe the Snow Head."

And last week already we were out in our shirt sleeves. Ava is finally up on two wheels. Funny story: My 11-year-old, Sophie, never learned to ride. She tried to learn a few times at a younger age and had enough bad spills that she was willing to hang up her self-respect along with her bike and never try again. One nice day this spring I saw her privately and secretly trying to teach herself. This told me two things: That she really wanted to learn, and that she didn't feel good about herself.

I vowed that she would learn, and that we wouldn't put off Ava's learning any longer either. I worked with Ava for awhile and though she gamely tried, it didn't come together for her until I told her to constantly wiggle her handlebars back and forth from right to left and that would keep her from falling over. Well, that's what did it for her and she took off down the road.

We had the family come out to see and to praise her efforts. And then Sophie burst into tears. "Now I'm the only one who can't!" she wailed.

So next I worked with her. She was reluctant, nay, resistant. She can be quite bullheaded at times and she was determined that NOT being able to ride her bike was equal to winning the argument, which was most important at the moment. I didn't care. I yelled, I threatened, I took away privileges, I told her to wiggle the handlebars back and forth and she RODE that stupid bike down the drive, yelling, crying and trailing snot in the breeze behind her. It was exhausting and soul-crushing for me, not at all a shining moment in parenting history. But did you catch it?! She RODE the bike. There was success! A tiny little giggle broke through her snot-encrusted face and a seed of pride took root in her soul. Thank the Lord above. Motherhood is not for the limp.

Weather that alternates between snow head building and bike riding is tough on the sinuses, in my opinion, but it's great for maple syrup production. I heard a discussion on the making of maple syrup on NPR recently. It was said that the sap flows best through the trees when the weather starts to warm. It's best when the days are a bit above freezing and the nights are just below. But as soon as the tree begins to bud, the sap will no longer be sweet.

I thought to myself that this cold, consistent spring was probably really great for collecting maple sap. Later in the week, I came home to find this bottle sitting on my kitchen counter.

That's my daddy's angular handwriting on that scrap of paper. I called him up and found that he had been helping a buddy with the boiling of his maple syrup during this record-breaking season of production. He got a couple of gallons of the stuff as payment.

It is nothing out of the ordinary in this area to drive through the country and see something like this on either one tree in someone's yard, or a whole orchard of trees in a heavily wooded area.

As it warms and the sap begins to move, it is collected in buckets like these, set under a hole drilled low on the trunk. Skinny trees can only have one tap, but older, fatter trees can have two or even three taps bleeding the sap into the collection buckets.

Once you have enough sap acquired, it's time to boil it down into syrup. It has to boil for a long time in order to remove the water from the sap, which thickens to the consistency we recognize, and to concentrate that wonderful flavor. It can be done at home on the stove top, but you should have a fan and a dehumidifier running. Professionals like to use outdoor ranges to avoid the build-up of moisture in their homes.

As the sap boils, the foam must be skimmed off from time to time, removing impurities from the final product. The temperature should be brought to seven degrees above boiling, and remain at that temperature throughout the process.

Once it's boiled to the consistency you like, you can filter your syrup if you choose. Or you can let it cool and let the crud sink to the bottom. You'd fill your bottles with the clean syrup at the top and avoid the impurities in that way.

As with anything homemade, I think a product always seems more wholesome and delicious when one makes it one's self. But be forewarned: It can take 25-75 gallons of raw sap to make one gallon of prepared syrup!