The "Jersey" Girls From Deerfield Farms

The "Jersey" Girls From Deerfield Farms
Snookie is in the background!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Maple Season Is Officially Here...

This is such an exciting time of year for me. I always feel that we've turned the corner on Winter, and then full speed ahead towards Spring, when the maple sap is flowing. This is the time during the winter when I fell like I have something to do out side and am being a little productive. I know making maple syrup is not one of life's priorities, like being sure I take care of stuff around the house or doing laundry, but for me it's important for creating a more fulfilling life overall. I find that projects like this, be it big or small are, believe or not, empowering. With accomplishing these sorts of projects so comes the confidence that I can do much bigger and better things as well. As far as be empowering, building some aptitude towards self sufficiency and experiencing a glimpse of freedom from status quot living that most people live, is how being skilled in creating everyday things makes that happen. I also don't want to be ignorant in certain basic life skills which, if analyzed, teach me lessons such as how to be patient or when to cut my losses. To develop such things as cognitive and concrete skills, to problem solve and producing for my family and do any other things I find satisfying in life, all this adds up to overall fulfillment and personal growth.
I had posted previously about maple syrup making and pretty much all the basics you need to know about making your own. I tapped my trees about four days ago and the weather has been perfect for the sap to flow. I was a little aggressive, though, when it came to putting two taps on each tree because trees should be over 24 inches in diameter to have two taps, but I think they'll survive just fine. Call me selfish but I just had to get more sap this year! The sap flowed pretty good over the last couple of days, and still is now, but I just had to get some cooking this today no matter what. I think it will take a couple of more hours to finish and I'll post a picture of the finished product when I have it. The pictures I have uploaded are my set up today. You can see the Sapsacs hung on the trees and then you can see my two pots simmering away outside. I have wood from a few years ago that I need to use up before it rots so I started with that. I also pulled out the propane burner to help things along a little faster. Boy, I can't wait to try some of this syrup!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Coffee: To Roast... or Pop?

There's nothing like a good cup of coffee. Judging from today's culture I'm not the only one who feels this way. Honestly, I'd say that just about one out of five people out and about are either drinking coffee, on their way to get a cup or are just thinking about the next one. I certainly fall into one of those categories. A coffee culture has taken hold of the country and for me I think I know how it's taken hold.

I can think back to when I was very young and my great-grandmother lived the next floor down from us. Among being spoiled with all the sweets and loving gifts a grandmother will always try to sneak past your mother, mine also snuck a little coffee past her as well. I was always interested in grandmas enthusiasm for opening a new can of coffee. As soon as the lid would come off she would tell me to take a sniff and then she would explain what was good about it. How it smelled so good and that was just the way coffee should be before you brewed it. Then I was fascinated by the percolator. I remember how she would put the grounds in the top cup, fill the bottom with water and then set it on the stove. As soon as it boiled, I would watch the coffee bubble up through the glass handle on the lid, and when it no longer appeared it was done. My grandmother liked her coffee light and sweet. When I say light, I mean she put heavy cream in her coffee! Then she would make it sweet, but not too sweet like today's D&D six-count-sugar coffees, but just enough for the perfect bitter, sweet and creamy balance. When I first tried that coffee I was hooked! It was so much better than the Swiss Miss cocoa I was used to drinking. Grandma wouldn't let me have a full cup of coffee right from the start, she would just give me sips until I was old enough, maybe around 10 or 11 years old. (Back in the early 80's that was old enough I guess.) That was enough for me for coffee to set it's teeth in good and deep. As I got older, coffee with grandma became something very cherished and something I reflected on as good moments with her. Yeah coffee, just like other somewhat more meaningful relics in life, can have great meaning if attached to love and family. As the years went on and grandma got older, her techniques for making coffee changed from percolator to instant and dairy went from heavy cream to half and half. No matter how she made her coffee towards the end it was always perfect to me.

I tell this story to bring into light the associations that I have with coffee and how they are what really make it so much more enjoyable. I think most people are like that as well. Whether their associations are just being social or as important as setting the pace for their day. Their kinship with coffee is always much more than a mere drink. It's more like a relationship that is one-sided and not only reliable but dependable. Yes coffee drinkers are fanatics, to some extent to the coffee but also, I think, to the associations and feeling that it conjures up. Over and over it's an enjoyable experience.

Recently, I thought I was pretty smart having an idea on how I could roast my own coffee at home. Coffee is about 3 times cheaper if bought as whole green coffee beans. I realized that coffee roasters toss coffee around while it roasts like my air-pop popcorn maker does with popcorn. So I thought I'd give it a try. I checked my theory on the Internet and sure enough tons of people do it and, not to mention, everyone is selling popcorn machines on eBay as "Popcorn Popper/Coffee Roaster". So, feeling not as smart as before, I continued with the project. I shopped around at all the retail stores and then realized I often see air-pop popcorn machines at the Goodwill store for about $3-$4. I picked one up that was a Presto Poplite (1440 watts) and brought it home to start roasting. I found a local coffee company that sells green beans in 5 pound bags and picked up a blend. The cheaper, the better for starting projects like this. I followed the instructions of the popcorn machine and filled it with just a half a cup of beans. I plugged it in and watched what happened. The machine was a little sluggish blowing the beans around but a few shakes helped move things along. As it kept going the skins of the beans began to blow off so I put a bowl underneath to catch it.(see picture) The beans start popping and little divots fly off of the beans as they get closer to being done. (see picture on right on the paper towel) I simply shut the machine off when I thought it was dark enough for my taste. That was it! It was very easy. I'm sure there are a whole slew of techniques to roasting coffee that are much more accurate and with better tasting results but for the amount of investment I put into it what could I expect. I got a perfectly good coffee with my technique and I dare any standard coffee drinker to tell me it's not as good as any big company's. I like the fact that I could roast as much coffee as I need for the week. That is the best quality coffee you can get, one that is freshly roasted and ground just before being brewed. Maybe one day I can tinker around and make something a little more high-tech but for now I like the ingenuity of using something meant for one purpose, yet used for another. I would encourage anyone out there who is into being self-sufficient and wants to save a little money to give this a try. It's amazing how much money you could spend on coffee at Starbucks if you buy it every day. So do yourself a favor and get the only two things you need: an air-pop popcorn machine and some green coffee beans and get roasting... or do I mean popping.

Just for some additional information, shop on eBay for green coffee beans. I bought a 3 pound bag of green beans for $6.99 plus shipping. Shipping costs suck but it was still cheaper than buying it from my local coffee company.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mozzarella: So Much Trouble...But So Much Fun!

All throughout my years in the culinary world I've heard so many people talk about making fresh mozzarella cheese "in-house" and how easy it was to accomplish. Yet I had never snagged a opportunity to get involved with this process. When ever I spoke with people about how they went about making it I always received a similar answer like, "Just take the curds and pour hot water over them and then stretch it until it's long and stringy and there you have it, mozzarella." That didn't explain much. I had many more questions like: Where do you get the curds? Don't you have to make them yourself? What kind of curds? How hot is the water? Plus, a whole slew of other queries rolling around in my mind.

Now just about a couple of days ago I thought I'd start my research and put this mozzarella thing to bed, finally. I looked online (where else am I gonna look, the library?) for all the information I could find. My first few hits were, just as all those I questioned in the past said, about just getting the curds and stretching them. This did not sit well with me. I wanted to MAKE the curds as well. It seemed like cheating to not make the curds yourself. It's like buying a flavored syrup and adding club soda and saying you made a soft drink. You didn't MAKE anything. you just put two pre-made thing together. The way I like to work is from the true step one. If I had a cow that would be the REAL step one in this process but I don't. Not yet, anyways. I know I have the brains and can figure out most things food related and this seemed pretty easy, especially going by all the information out there on the Internet. I was a bit concerned about wasting a bunch of milk in the process but I wasn't gonna make mozzarella from some schwag milk from the A&P. I was gonna get the raw milk from my local dairy and that cost about $7.00 per gallon. But, for the sake of learning, I feel it's worth it. When I first looked into it I wanted to do it with what I had in the house already, but that was quickly dispelled because I didn't have rennet lying around. That I had to get at the home brew store and it was pretty cheap. (I think $7.00 for 8 tablets) The only other things I needed was some citric acid, (got that with a lemon right?....Nope! That didn't work...more on that later) salt, and the equipment. Which is a stainless steel pot, thermometer, a colander and a bowl or two. That's it!

Now I found a recipe on line using a gallon of milk. That was perfect! So I followed the recipe and got all of my ingredients together, except the citric acid. I juiced a lemon and used that instead. I followed the recipe all the way, keeping the temperatures accurately, and it looked beautiful. Everything happened just like the recipe said it would. When I drained off the curds I noticed a lot of whey coming out. But, I hadn't made this before so I thought it was normal. I followed the procedure with the warm water and tried to stretch the curds. They just kept pushing out more whey and got tighter and tighter. There was just no way they were gonna stretch. It kept breaking up and pushing out more liquid. Also, when I ate them they were "squeaky" when chewed. So I figured this project was over. The very next day I made another batch, with the same $7.00 per gallon milk, and used cider vinegar instead of the lemon juice. The same result happened again. Now I felt like a huge failure. Like I didn't do enough homework and I was paying for it. That turned out o be true. I looked on line some more and searched the significance of the citric acid in the making of the curds. This is one of the most important steps to mozzarella making. I read that the citric acid helps the stretching of the curds. I haven't figured out exactly what it does but I will post it as soon as I find out. So when I tried to replace the pure citric acid with lemon juice or vinegar I didn't lower the pH of the curds enough. So for my third attempt I decided to try and find some citric acid. Believe it or not I tried a local pharmacy and they had it. It's kind of expensive when you're buying it for the first time but a little goes a long way. Now I had absolutely everything I needed for the recipe. I followed the directions and added the 1 1/2 tsp of citric acid this time. After the I got the the part of draining off the curds they looked a little different. They looked whiter softer and felt more supple to the touch. I felt like I was in a much better place than before. I then went on to pour the hot water over the curds and they were got soft and stretchy. I was so happy!! Pulling them was a no-brainer. Just have fun and stretch them out. As I was pulling I noticed the more I pulled the more the liquid would come out of the curds. Note to self... go easy on 'em. Don't pull and pull too much. Just get the curds to all go in the same direction and stop. I then used scissors to snip off the size pieces in wanted and shaped them. Shaping is a difficult thing to describe so I would recommend finding a video on YouTube and checking it out for yourself. My end result was a nice ball of mozzarella that was pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. It turned out a little too firm for my liking. I want the mozzarella to be very tender when I cut it. Mine was a texture between fresh mozzarella and the kind you would grate for your pizza. I'm still gonna use it where ever I can because, damn, I made mozzarella! The other great thing about this project is the learning. You can't imagine all the things you learn and, then ponder, from after you go through it all. Lots of fun.

Here is the recipe I wrote after I made my first successful (as I see it) batch.

1 gallon raw milk
1 1/2 tsp citric acid
1/4 tablet of vegetable rennet
1/4 cup water (non-chlorinated, distilled or just well water at room temperature)
sea salt

6-8 qt stainless steel pot
colander or large strainer
cheese cloth (optional)
2 or 3 mixing bowls


1. Slowly heat milk to 60 to 70F. Sprinkle in the citric acid and distribute it evenly (Keep stirring until you don't feel any more crystals on the bottom of the pan).
2. Mix the rennet with the water, well and set aside.
3. Bring the milk up to 88F and add the rennet. Pull the pot off the stove and allow the curds to set. (Should take around 5 minutes or so.)
4. Bring a pot of about 6 cups of water to a simmer and then hold it at about 170F. Add the sea salt to taste.
5. When the curd is fully set, cut the curds into 1/2" cubes and then again at the diagonal. Let the curds sit for about 10 minutes. This will help release some of the whey from the curds.
6. Lift the curds off with a slotted spoon and place into the colander or strainer (this is where the optional cheese cloth is used to line the colander). Save about 4 cups of whey for storage. Allow the curds to drain until the curds start coming together into one large mass. (You can gently move them around if pockets of whey are still left on top)
7. Gently put the curds in a large steel or glass bowl. Continue to pour off any whey if it appears. Pour enough of the hot, salted water over the curds to cover them by an inch or so.
8. Allow the curds to soften significantly! When the curds are very soft and pliable, remove them and begin the pulling process.
9. (I feel, the less you stretch the curds the softer the mozzarella will be. What I've noticed is that as you're pulling your curds more and more liquid or whey is being pushed out of them. This turns into a drier, firmer cheese.)
10. When your curds are stringy and flow in the same direction you can begin to make the size balls you want. (I used scissors to snip off the sizes I wanted.)
11. Shape your cheese into balls by pulling the outside and tucking underneath and pushing back into the center again. You're looking for a smooth surface with a lice round shape.