Monday, June 29, 2009

Jelly Jars and Strawberries

I made my very first attempt at home canning and preserving over the weekend.

This winter, when the ground was covered in deep piles of snow, I started dreaming about growing cucumbers in my backyard so I could make pickles. I figured I could start out with pickles, and then work my way up to jams, salsa, etc.

I'm not the only one interested home canning these days. The growing need to save money and the rise of the local foods movement have more people turning to home canning, according to a recent article in the New York Times.

Last week, I was shopping in the local grocery store and came across a 5-pound box of strawberries for $5.45/lb. I couldn't resist the impulse to buy the box and turn the berries into jam. Nevermind the fact that I don't own any canning equipment.

When I got home from the store with the box of strawberries, I rushed to my laptop to order the canning kit I've been eyeing on Amazon. I ordered the kit with one-day shipping. (I'm an Amazon Prime members, so one-day shipping only costs $3.)

I started making strawberry jam as soon as the box arrived. I used a recipe from the book "175 Best Jams, Jellies, Marmalades & Other Softspreads." I also used advice from Iowa State University Extension.

Now I'm wondering why I never tried to make jam before. It was so easy, and the jam tastes even better than the store-bought kind. Just see the results for yourself:

Don't you just love how the light shines through the jelly jars. It's like a work of art...

It did, however, take a lot of time. I spent three hours in the kitchen, but that's probably because it was my first attempt at canning and I needed to keep looking at the recipe.

I had so much fun with my kitchen "experiment," I can't wait to try again. I'm thinking maybe apricot jam, since it's my husband's favorite.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

It started with cinnamon rolls

I've always had a fascination with cinnamon rolls. I have fond memories of meeting my grandparents at the local diner on Saturday mornings. They would gossip with friends over a cup of coffee. And they would order cinnamon rolls for my sister and I. The rolls would be so warm that the butter would melt right into the bread. And the huge rolls would be dripping in powdered-sugar frosting.

The local diner is gone now, and I haven't been able to find another cinnamon roll that compares. Certainly not the Pilsbury cinnamon rolls in a tube, with their heavy cream cheese frosting. Probably the only rolls that compare are the giant cinnamon buns at the Machine Shed Restaurant in Urbandale.

So when I first started baking, one of my goals was to learn how to make cinnamon rolls from scratch. I experimented with many recipes, and I was utterly unsuccessful. Each time, I would encounter a new problem: the rolls wouldn't rise, they would over-rise of they would fall flat in the oven. Once, I forgot to take the plastic wrap off the top of the pan, and the plastic would melt into the rolls.

But I didn't give up. I signed up for a bread-baking class at Living History Farms in Urbandale. I learned that "kneading" the bread isn't the same as "massaging" it.

After three years of practice, I've finally figured out how to make bread from scratch. But now "no-knead" bread seems to be all the rage. The New York Times came out with a story about a restaurant owner who perfected the no-knead process. The story went viral on the Internet, and now there are at least two best-selling books on the topic, including the popular "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day."

The King Arthur Flour blog recently posted an adapted no-knead sticky bun recipe from the "Artisan Bread" book. ( I experimented with it at home and was happy with the results. Not only does it eliminate the kitchen-counter mess of kneading, but I can keep in the dough in the refrigerator for up to three days before I bake.

Enjoy my pictures of the rolls. And yes, they were as yummy as they look:

I had to eat the rolls straight out of the oven, when the caramel was gooey.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A little about my blog

I never imagined that someday I would start a blog, declaring myself a "homemaker." In high school, I avoided home ec classes. I wasn't interested in learning how to sew a button or how to bake a chocolate cake.

But that all changed when I met my husband. He told me stories of how his mom would bake bread from scratch every day, about the treats she would bake, about how she would sew most of his clothes when he was little.

He also encouraged me to find a hobby -- besides watching TV every night. He believes that hobbies are what keep us happy; they are what we look forward to at the end of a long, stressful work day.

So for my first hobbies, I started clipping recipes from food magazines. I'm drawn to baking recipes, in particular. Baking seems to suit my "inner scientist." I prefer to follow a recipe exactly as written, believing that will always give me the best result. With cooking, I've found that experimentation is necessary to suit our tastes. My husband is perfectly comfortable throwing whatever ingredients together to see what works and what doesn't. I don't have those adventurous instincts.

As I grew more confident in the kitchen, I started thinking about other hobbies I could do with my hands, as a break from the computer that's always facing me at work. I bought a used sewing machine and have tried to sew clothes (so far unsuccessfuly) and a quilt (which has turned into a three-year project).

When we bought our first house, I bought seed packets to start a flower garden. My success in growing tomatoes encouraged me to try to grow peppers, then lettuce. Now I have a mini vegetable garden in the backyard.

Through my job as a farm writer, I also met urban beekeepers and folks who keep chickens in their backyards for fresh eggs. It made me think about starting my own backyard "homestead."

I'm not sure how far I will actually go with my "urban farming" hobby. But I am interested in learning how to make pickles, bake a pie and actually finish sewing a quilt.

I invite you to join me in my adventures in "reverse" homemaking. I'm going to get back to basics, learn how to make things from scratch and get in touch with my "pioneer" roots. I'm looking forward to the journey.
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