Thursday, August 22, 2019

chocolate cake

The other day I sent a piece of my latest confectionary treat — a chocolate cake with vanilla bean buttercream, both recipes Yolanda’s — over to my parents’ house for them to try, and then yesterday when I popped in for a visit, my mom handed back my now-empty plate.

“Thanks for the cake,” she said. “But Jennifer, why do you need another chocolate cake? Our regular one is soooo good!”

So I tried to explain. Our standby cake is good — dare I say fantastic — but this one has something else. A dark richness. A chocolate density. A solidness that helps it hold up against trimming and layering. (Because I’m all about cake sculptures now, apparently.) Mostly, it’s just a very good, very chocolatey cake.

Seriously? I needed to explain myself? This was chocolate cake. Enough said.

leftover half of an egg, filled and iced for a potluck picnic

I’ve made this cake a bunch of times — mostly in the shape of eggs — but now I’m trying basic layered cakes, too.

The cakes bake up with a nice, rounded dome. When I trim it off — insider’s secret: the top’s the best part, tender and intensely chocolate — we fight over the scraps.

Yolanda always drenches her cooled cakes with simple syrup, though she doesn’t say why. I figure it’s just to keep them more moist. To me, dumping water on a cake is counterintuitive, so I’ve yet to drench them as thoroughly as she does.

However, I’ve noticed that the bottom and edges of the cake do seem a little dry, so maybe I ought to hit them extra hard? Next time, maybe.

Chocolate Cake 
Adapted from Yolanda of How To Cake It.

I’ve always iced this cake (I can’t resist an opportunity to make buttercream!), but it’s not necessary. The cake is sturdy and rich — and chocolatey — enough to hold its own.

Next time I won't split the layers: the ratio of icing to cake was too high for our tastes.

2 sticks butter, room temperature
2 ½ cups sugar
4 eggs
2¾ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup cocoa powder, Dutch processed
2 cups boiling water
1-2 cups simple syrup, optional
favorite icing, optional

Cream together the butter and sugar. Beat very well. Add the eggs, two at a time, and beat well, scraping down the sides after each addition. Once it’s well-mixed, beat for another 3-5 minutes to get it nice and fluffy.

Put the cocoa in a separate bowl, add the boiling water and whisk well. Set aside to cool for a bit (about 20 minutes), or slip into the freezer for a bit, stirring every couple minutes. You just want to take a bit of the heat off.

Measure the remaining dry ingredients into a third bowl. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture alternating with the warm chocolate, starting and ending with the dry.

Divide the batter between two greased, wax paper-lined cake pans. Bake at 375 degrees for 30-45 minutes. Cool for ten minutes before running a knife around the sides of the pan and inverting the cakes onto a cooling rack.

Before icing the cakes, drench thoroughly, tops and bottoms, with simple syrup. Yolanda uses Sir Squeeze A Lot. I use a disposable water bottle into the lid of which my younger son poked lots of holes. It’s not fancy but it works.

This same time, years previous: the quotidian (8.21.17), a new room, sun-dried tomato and basil pesto torte, stewed greens with tomato and chili, grape jelly, two-minute peanut butter chocolate cake.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

peach fruit leather

Back when we were in the thick of nectarines, eating them fresh and slicing giant bowlfuls for drying, it occured to me that I should try fruit leather. Because my dehydrator sheets are mesh and the soupy liquid would just drip through, I’d never experimented with leather before. But my new oven, I realized, had a dehydrator setting. Why not give it a go?

And thus started a whole chain of fruit leather-making experiments...

Pureed fruit: cooked and fresh, nectarines and peaches.
Acid: bottled lemon juice and fresh.
Sweetener: sugar, honey, and/or an over-ripe banana
Dehydration: in the oven — two parchment-lined pans in the oven, or a whole stack of pans (here’s where I wish I had four or five oven racks) — or in the dehydrator (hello, parchment paper!) 

Everything worked, but there were subtle differences and our preferences to go with.

The leather made from pre-cooked fruit took on a glossy, smooth shine, almost like plastic, and had a more muted flavor.

From nectarines, pre-cooked.

The fresh peach puree (with lemon, a bit of honey, and one banana per processor blending) resulted in leather flecked with bits of peel, and it had strong peachy flavor.

From fresh fruit, uncooked.

The addition of banana (our all-time favorite dried fruit) was a smash-hit, providing subtle banana flavor and a nice chew.

Leather made in the dehydrator tended to get a little crispy around the edges, even when I took pains to spread it on nice and thick, and then, when I had to dehydrate it extra long (because it was so thick) it got so dark it appeared scorched, even though it wasn’t.

The crispy bits that wouldn't roll; we call them "fishfood."

Leather made in the oven was much chewier (our preference) and it got done faster.

I realize fruit leather seems kind of crazy considering the slow cook time and the lightening fast speed with which it disappears. But keep in mind that it takes minimal prep — no need to peel — and since it’s all getting blended up, bruised, squishy-soft fruit is fine. Plus, there's no nitpicky slicing and laying out of the fruit, and then, at the end, prying the dried fruit from the sheets. Just, blitz, pour, and roll. Easy!

I keep the fruit leather, rolled and cut into inch-wide(ish) sections, in the freezer for packed lunches and snacks.

The rule is that no one is allowed to just snack on it willy-nilly — it’s to be saved for packed lunches and necessary snacks, and eaten in moderation please — but I don’t think anyone much listens.

Peach Fruit Leather 

I’m eager to experiment with other fruits. Maybe this winter I’ll simmer a pot of rhubarb and then add a bunch of strawberries before blending. Or I might buy a giant Costco bag of frozen mixed berries and give that a whirl. And if I ever get my hands on a case of almost rotten bananas, watch out!

So my oven isn't tied up all day, I usually make the fruit leather at bedtime and then let it dehydrate overnight.

Very ripe peaches, washed, pitted, rough chopped
1 mushy banana
1-2 tablespoons lemon juice, either fresh or bottled
2 tablespoons honey or sugar, optional

Put all ingredients in a food processor and blend until soupy. It will taste only mildly sweet and fruity, but no worries — the flavor will intensify as it dehydrates. Pour the sauce into a big bowl and blend up more fruit, adding each batch to the bowl as you go, until you have enough sauce to fill your dehydrator trays.

Ladle the pureed fruit onto parchment-lined dehydrator sheets or large, sided, parchment-lined baking pans. Dehydrate (in the oven, at 150 degrees) until no longer sticky to the touch. (If the edges are done, but the middle is not, use a pizza cutter to remove the parts that are done and then return the unfinished portion to the oven.)

Roll the leather while it is still warm and then, using a scissors, cut it into desired pieces. Bag and freeze.

This same time, years previous: a little house tour, the quotidian (8.20.18), the Peru post, miracle cat, the quotidian (8.19.13), the quotidian (8.20.12), this is what crazy looks like, whole wheat buttermilk waffles, Valerie's salsa.

Monday, August 19, 2019

the quotidian (8.19.19)

Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
everyday; ordinary; commonplace

At this point, being grateful is more of a decision and less an actual feeling.

I figured what with all the tomatoes, homemade pasta was in order.

Cold sweats: that's what they're giving me.

Vanilla bean buttercream: nailed it.

He said he needed something to read so I gave him one of my favorites.

The pooper scooper men came and took all our crap away, yay.

Post-run, cool-down: tracks.

Making me think. (Have you read it?)

Good fences make good neighbors (though in this case, the horse is on the wrong side).

Rain, finally.

Oh, lucky me  a double rainbow and two asses!

This same time, years previous: passion fruit juice, bourbon and brown sugar peach pie, the quotidian (8.17.15), proceed with abandon, starfruit smoothie, how to get your refrigerator clean in two hours, peach tart.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

a bloody tale

Tuesday morning, I was in the shower when my older son knocked on the door. "Can I come in?"

"Sure," I said, pulling the curtain all the way closed.

He stuck his head in the door. “One of the cows got its tail torn mostly off so we need to amputate. You might want to take pictures.”


the medical team

The kids threw wide the gate, cornered the injured steer between it and the fence, and then tied it to the fence, creating a surgical chute, of sorts.

The other cows were evacuated to the lower field, the sheep milled about pleasantly, and the goats roamed free, disregarding Coco’s frenetic efforts to herd them back into the pasture.

At one point, my sister-in-law dropped off her kids to be babysat — that they got to observe a medical procedure was an unintended bonus — and my father came over to weigh in, as per my children’s request. (My husband was at a doctor’s appointment so he missed all the excitement).

My older son was in his element. An avid James Herriot fan, he milked the moment, announcing with great glee, “I’ll need a bucket of hot water, some soap, and a towel, please.” He hosed down the steer's back end and scraped the hair and dead skin above where he’d be making the cut.

And then there was the problem of what to cut with. My father suggested tree clippers, so my daughter ran to fetch a set and sterilize them.

And right around then was when the onlookers, imagining the worst, fled, their fingers in their ears to block the expected bellows (that never came).

My son sprayed the incision site with iodine and then my father held the lower end of the tail while my son positioned the clippers. “Get all the way around before you cut,” my father coached.

Then— slice.

The steer didn’t even flinch.

They dunked the stump in a container of iodine and then my son applied pressure, gave up (because the bleeding didn't stop), and did a bunch more cleaning of the wound with scalpel and scissors. 

All the while, the steer just stood there, placidly munching his grain.

I went back to the house then — it was starting to rain — leaving the kids to bandage the stump.

photo credit: my older daughter

And all this before I even had my coffee.

P.S. Two days later, the steer's had antibiotics and appears to be doing great. Fingers crossed!

This same time, years previous: the beginning of the end, knowing my questions, from market to table, garlicky spaghetti sauce, Friday snark, drilling for sauce, tomato and red wine sauce.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

breaking horses

Recently, my older daughter got a side gig breaking horses. Several times a week she spends a couple hours working with the horses. (There are about eighteen, and the owner wants her to “ground break” a bunch of them so they can be sold.) Upon her return, she’s caked with dust and full of stories about flying hooves and huffy horses.

Naturally, I was curious, so Saturday morning I followed her over for a look-see. I planned to stay for twenty minutes or so — just long enough to get a feel for what she does and snap a few photos — but the process was so fascinating that I ended up staying the whole time.

That day, she was working with two, three-year-old stallions.

This was the third time working with each of them. She told me that when she’d started a few days before, the grey one had never had a halter on before, and the white one had almost no experience being led and was quite aggressive, bucking, kicking, and straight-up charging her. ("He's just trying to protect himself," she explains.)

The barn was divided into two pens: she worked a horse in one section while the other horse (and I) waited in the other. Every now and then the waiting horse would sidle over to and I’d get scared.

“Um, hon?” I’d squeak, “Help!!” and then she’d have to stop her training to come chase him away.

But then when he closed in on me, butt-first, the actual probability of getting hoof-hammered increased exponentially. Visions of shattered hip bones and busted kidneys flitting through my mind, I quickly, as per my daughter’s recommendation, relocated to the top of the fence.

“Am I safe now?” I asked, teetering on the edge.

My daughter peered through the wooden slates, judging the distance between horse and mother. “Probably,” she said (rather unconvincingly).

It was fun seeing how much the horses improved in just an hour. My daughter’s approach is straightforward: chase them around until they get tired and then put a halter on them and chase them around some more.

Once they’re tired, she:

*Strokes them all over...

*Familiarizes them with the lead rope by rubbing it all over their body...

*Runs her hands down their legs and tugs at their “ankles” until they lift their hooves...

*Tap-tap-taps them (first the shoulder, then the rump, then the other side) with the whip to get them to shift their weight over...

*Leads them on both the left and right side, making sure they maintain a suitable distance from her...

  Not a suitable distance.


*Teaches them voice commands — walk, ho (stop), trot — and to not turn their butts to her (“That’s so rude!” she scolds)...

*Trains them to turn with the rope, not against it...

That last step, she did over and over, first wrapping the rope around their backside and tugging, and then, once they got that, just draping it across their backs and then their necks, waiting until they turned away from her, following the rope to unwind themselves.

Waiting, waiting, waiting.

Almost, almost, almost.

By the end of each session, the horses were remarkably compliant. She tried to reward them with bits of carrot but apparently untrained horses don’t know the glories of orange root vegetables.

That, it turns out, has to be taught, too.

This same time, years previous: riding paso fino, the quotidian (8.13.18), the quotidian (8.14.17), a new room, spaghetti with vodka cream tomato sauce, the quotidian (8.12.13), a piece of heaven, getting my halo on.