Sunday, June 26, 2011

Saving Summertime

The beginning of summer is my favorite time of year.  Naturally I was originally in love with the season because it meant no school.  Now I am no longer in school and while it means I'm working during many of the hours I used to spend swimming, playing outside, and reading, there is still something that makes me so happy about the summer months aside from the longer days- fresh produce.  Yes, you can buy asparagus all year round and strawberries from March through July at the grocery store, but there's nothing quite like something fresh from the field.

Unfortunately the sweet start of summer is beginning to make way for other delightful feasts and the strawberry season is coming to an end, so I'm making a last minute effort to save every morsel of succulent, sun-ripened goodness that I can.

This weekend I took my niece to pick strawberries at Molnar Farms in Poland, Ohio.  She's two and a half and I wasn't quite sure how long we'd end up being in the field, or if she'd even be interested (I hear stories every year about how I fell asleep in the strawberry patch at a local farm when I was in elementary school), but she thought it was wonderful.  Sure, we picked a few smooshy strawberries and a few that are a little less than ripe.  After about two quarts I asked her how many more strawberries she wanted to pick and she said "one."  We snagged another berry before she changed her mind (clearly she can be a lot like me) and said "a lot!"

Showing off our strawberries.

For the past few years I've commandeered my parents' deep freeze to freeze strawberries (and corn, green beans, peaches, etc, all for other posts I'm sure).  And although strawberries lose their firmness once they are frozen, there's nothing like a little taste of sunshine in the middle of a snowstorm.

I clean and quick freeze my strawberries before putting them in Ziplock bags.

Here are a few things to do with frozen strawberries:
Perhaps my favorite (and my niece's), a fresh smoothie is a simple way to get your fruit and kids think it's a super awesome treat (no one tell them how good it is for them!).  Using frozen fruit replaces the need for ice in a smoothie, making it richer and thicker since it won't melt into water.  To make a smoothie I usually put about 1 cup of yogurt in the bottom of my blender and add about a cup of fruit (usually a banana and frozen strawberries, and sometimes frozen peaches or blueberries-I've even frozen grapes).  This half yogurt half fruit blend gives a smoothie thin enough to drink without a straw but not too watery.  I add more yogurt if I am using all frozen fruit and less if the fruit is fresh.

Having some strawberries on hand in the freezer helps to change up frosting recipes.  For a strawberry whipped frosting, I have use a brand called Bettercreme (by Rich's, available at GFS) and some bakeries use a similar whipped frosting and are willing to sell it.  I simply put thawed strawberries in my mixer with the whip attachment and mix them for about a minute on low to medium speed to break up the berries.  Then simply add the mix and whip until it's the consistency you wish to use it.

A similar approach can be used for a shortening-based buttercream- make as usual but in place of the water add some thawed and mashed strawberries (and juice).

If you don't have time to make your jam now, you can freeze the strawberries and make freezer jam (such as this recipe later when you have time.

Some other things to make with frozen strawberries:
Strawberry Daquiris/Margaritas
Punch (acts as ice too!)
Ice Cream or Milkshakes

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Truth About Ovens...

Recently we got a new oven.  I was thrilled.  Sure, the old oven worked fine, but the ever untrustworthy stove was slowly losing functionality in its burners and the handle had a habit of popping off right when you really needed to get whatever delicate pastry you were baking out of the oven.  So alas, our 17 year-old oven finally retired and we got a new one.  It’s a simple oven and we didn’t change between electric and gas or get any cool new features, but I still have a lot I am learning about the oven.  When baking, it is important to be aware of your oven’s consistency (or rather, the places where it can be inconsistent) in order to produce consistent results.  Knowing about your oven’s temperature and hot spots, and leveling the oven are three simple things you can do for less than $5 to improve your baking outcome.

Leveling your oven
If you’re baking cakes a level oven will allow a more even bake and a lot less waste if you trim it (or if you don’t trim it, at least it won’t leave you with a lopsided cake!).  We never thought about leveling our oven until I got serious about cake baking and my dad noticed that my cakes were consistently coming out lopsided.  I blamed myself, thinking I hadn’t spread the batter evenly but alas, it was our trusty (or rather untrustworthy) old oven’s fault.

Leveling an oven is simple.  Okay, it’s a little more complex than leveling a picture frame, but it doesn’t take much time or effort (not to mention saving frustration from having uneven cakes).  It is important not to check the top of your range alone, but rather the racks on the inside of your oven.  Don’t just check from left to right, but also ensure that your oven is level from front to back.  If your oven is not level, simply slide something (such as a square of cardboard) under the legs where your level was reading low.

Placing the level on a cookie sheet keeps it from wobbling on the racks as you  check the level.

Knowing its true temperatures
An oven thermometer will help you understand the temperature tendencies of your oven.  You can get one for around $5-6 from, Bed Bath and Beyond, or local restaurant supply stores.

Ovens run in cycles, kicking off when they reach a temperature higher than what is set and turning back on at some point lower (which varies for each model of oven, and is often up to 25 degrees different).  When reading your thermometer, you’re looking to ensure that the average temperature of your oven is the temperature you have set you oven for.  Some oven thermometers do not react quickly, so if it appears to read a consistent temperature it actually reflects the average temperature in your oven. 

It is good to check an empty oven but also to monitor your oven as you bake.  The temperature changes with the amount of items in your oven and the location of the racks, so I like to keep the thermometer hanging in my oven to monitor its temperature.  If the temperature fluctuates too much with several things in the oven, especially between locations (top and bottom racks), it might be a good idea to bake fewer things together or adjust baking time to compensate for the temperature difference (most things will bake just fine in a temperature slightly hotter or cooler).  It’s also important to check the temperature on occasion as ovens sometimes change in consistency as they age.

The important thing is not how your oven reads (high, low, or just right), but whether its temperature readings are consistent.  Our new oven runs about 5 degrees under the set temperature.  If your oven lies about its true temperature and the thermometer consistently reads higher or lower, you should adjust your baking temperature accordingly; I add about 5 degrees to the temperature when I set my oven. 

Hot spots
Knowing your oven’s hot spots will help you set up baked goods and rotate pans accordingly.  To check your oven’s hot spots, line a cookie sheet with bread and put it in a preheated oven (I did mine at 350 degrees).  It will take a little while (mine took about 25 minutes), but the bread will begin to toast.  This shows where your oven is a little hotter, and demonstrates the importance of rotating pans for an even bake. (Or, if you’re a little inconsistent with some of your rolling/cutting for cookies, it shows how to set up thicker/bigger cookies to be in the hotter spots while the smaller/thinner cookies are in the cooler spots, allowing a tray to bake more evenly even if your cookies aren’t perfect.)
My oven is hotter in the back, with it's coolest corner being the front right.

As I’ve adjusted to our new oven, I’ve realized one wonderful thing: it has a window.  While seemingly simple, it was actually quite an adjustment to just turn on the light and check my cookies and cakes rather than opening the oven door.  This benefits my baking by allowing my oven to maintain its temperature, giving a more even and a quicker bake time (and in this weather, a much added bonus of keeping the heat in the oven!). [To really understand just how much heat you lose from your oven when you open the door, go ahead and open the door for a few seconds and as you close it, reset your oven temperature to the same temperature.  It will “preheat” again, sometimes taking a few minutes to gain the temperature that has been lost.]

Being familiar with your own oven will allow you to bake more efficiently in a new or unfamiliar oven.  You can’t do much for an unlevel oven unless you plan to level it, but you can make adjustments for temperature.  I like to err on the side of caution when baking in an unfamiliar oven and assume that the oven runs warmer.  I don’t change the setting in the temperature in case it actually runs cooler (in which case it would be much cooler), but I monitor the goodies baking in the oven a little more closely, checking on them sooner.  And even if the oven is the same one you've had for years, hopefully these tips will help you get a little more acquainted with your oven.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

And so it begins...

Greetings blog readers.  So I’m having a bit of trouble coming up with a name for this blog.  I can’t think of anything cool like Cake Wrecks and the things I think of are either taken or feel too narrow.  Or maybe I’m being picky about the whole thing because it’s a way for me to hide in my shell a little longer, hoarding my ideas and guarding my creations from the horrible, harsh world we all live in.  Oh you’re not harsh?  I’ll remember that when you get to taste one of the recipes that doesn’t turn out so good.

I love to create.  Give me fabric and I will cut, pin, and sew and give you a blanket.  Give me eggs and I will make you a cake.  Give me pictures and I will craft you a scrapbook.  Give me yarn and I will crochet you a hat.  I don’t want anything that sounds stupid like Virginia’s Crafts or Ginny’s Kitchen.  Come on, I’m way more creative than that.  But I’ve always had a problem with showing the world what I do, and especially in writing (good thing a picture’s worth a thousand words, eh?).  Don’t ask me why I was a writing major when I hated showing others my work in workshops and wasn’t all that thrilled about presenting my senior project to a room full of people who would be honed in not on my content, but rather the text.  I’m not sure why my love for creation stops just short of words with pictures, food, and fabric.  I have no problem expressing my thoughts and ideas verbally (my poor co-workers, sister-in-law and boyfriend all heard about an awesome quilt pattern I found three days in a row now), but when I write it feels so much more permanent, and that scares me.  I’m hoping that through this blog not only will I share my creations with others, but grow in both ability and confidence as a writer as I tell you about my success and frustrations in crafting.  We’ll laugh, we’ll cry (oh too cliché?) You’ll laugh while I cry?  That’s a possibility for sure.  Let’s hope that doesn’t happen for your sake and mine.  And my poor family’s.

I hope to become comfortable with the fact that writing is like all of the other creating I do.  It is like baking- sometimes it might not turn out just right, but usually no one notices if you messed it up a little.  It is like sewing- taking many pieces and putting them together one at a time (and sometimes requires a little tearing apart).  It is like scrapbooking- combining items from different places and different experiences into a cohesive album through a number of techniques.  I hope that this writing will help to put my writing skills into a perfectly Crafted Context.