Sunday, October 19, 2014

Autumn Leaves

I'm not sure how it happened, but I never got around to taking all my vacation this year, so I have to great fortune of realizing I can take long weekends almost until the end of 2014.  I think it was because I changed jobs midyear and we didn't really have any big summer vacations planned with trying to get Jane off to college and all of Eddie's ankle surgeries.  So, now I can practice what retirement can feel like!    I had the day off on Friday so I decided to take on a cookie decorating project.

I signed up to make 4 dozen cookies for my church music program's fall concert.  I was inspired by the beautiful fall colors we have this year.
Off Dan Hoey Road in Dexter

St. Joseph Cemetery, Dexter

Greenook Lake in Loch Alpine, my subdivision
My favorite sugar cookie recipe is this one for cream cheese cutouts - it makes a very tender rich cookie that can hold up to the royal icing. but I wanted to upscale it to use an entire brick of cream cheese.    When I did, I ended up with about 10 dozen 2 inch cookies, which was more than I intended!   

Cream Cheese Cutouts 
(makes about 10 dozen)

Cream Cheese Cutouts

2  3/4 cup butter, softened
8 oz cream cheese, softened
2  3/4 cup sugar
3/4  teaspoon salt
3 egg
1 T vanilla extract
6 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream butter, cream cheese, sugar and salt until light and fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla, using the paddle attachment.  Gradually beat in flour. Refrigerate, covered, 1-2 hours or until firm enough to roll. Preheat oven to 375°. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough to 1/8-in. thickness. Cut with floured cookie cutters. Place 1 in. apart on ungreased baking sheets on parchment. Bake 7-8 minutes or until edges are lightly browned. Cool on pans 1 minute. Remove to wire racks to cool completely

Royal Icing Recipe


3/4 cup warm water
5 T meringue powder
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
2.25 lbs powdered sugar


In mixer bowl, pour in the warm water and the meringue powder. Mix it with a whisk by hand until it is frothy and thickened…about 30 seconds. Add the cream of tartar and mix for 30 seconds more. Pour in all the icing sugar at once and place the bowl on the mixer.  Using the paddle attachment on the LOWEST speed, mix slowly for a full 10 minutes. Icing will get thick and creamy. Add just drops of water at a time to make the icing runnier.  If you add too much water at a time it’s more difficult to thicken it with icing sugar than it is to add water to it.  To make sure the icing is the right consistency for flooding, try the “10 second rule”.  Drag a butter knife through the surface of the icing and count to 10.  If the icing surface becomes smooth in anywhere between 5-10 seconds, then the icing is ready to use.  If it takes longer than approximately 10 seconds, the icing is too thick.  Slowly add more water.  If the icing surface smooths over in less than 5-10 seconds, it is too runny.  Mix the icing longer or slowly add more sifted icing sugar to thicken it.

Cover the bowl with a dampened tea-towel to prevent crusting and drying.    The best website I've found about how to do the decorating is this one....after some practice, I got the hang of it.    I used a Wilton #3 tip this time and gel paste colors.  

autumn leaves

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Jam and Jelly Contest

This year, I am entering the Downtown Home and Gardens annual Jam and Jelly Contest.   I haven't entered it in a few years because I usually don't make all that much variety...usually just some strawberry jam, but this year I've been obsessed with foraging wild fruits and started making jelly for the first time ever.

I don't know why I hadn't tried jelly making before - I had a jelly bag for years but I thought it would be a hassle to have to hang it and wait for the juice to strain, but it is actually easier in a lot of ways than making jam that needs added pectin or apple butter, that require putting the fruit through a food mill.   I use my KitchenAid fruit & vegetable strainer, which makes it easier, but it still is a lot of cleanup.     I have one that can stand on my large measuring bowl:

and it's easy to boil down the fruit and hang the bag overnight to make the jelly the next morning.   If the fruit needs extra pectin, I've thrown in an apple (or a hand full of crab apples) seeds, peels and all into the boiling fruit - no food mill necessary.

This year, it's been my goal to forage wild fruits for jam.  I was inspired by my visit to the Jam Pot in the Upper Peninsula this summer.   We took our son for his campus visit at our alma mater, Michigan Tech, and while we were up there, we stopped for some of stellar baked goods at the monastery.   I was reminded about when the brothers started their work, they used to forage for thimbleberries and rose hips at the house I lived in during graduate school, and after surveying their wild berry jams, I knew I wanted to try my own this year.  

In our neighborhood, there is a bumper crop of wild grapes.   Usually, I've used their leaves to help keep my pickles crisp, but the fruit is too sour to eat out of hand.   I did a little research and found out it makes excellent jelly, so I tried it out and the flavor is much better than grocery story stuff.   Check out how I did it here.    Last fall, I made some crab apple butter from my neighbor's tree.  Her tree bears fruit every other year, and last year was it.   And then lastly I tried my hand at currant jelly.   A colleague from work is a fantastic gardener, and he has 3 currant bushes and generously gave me some.   I think currant jelly is my new favorite; tangy and beautifully colored.   The best part about canning all of this is that it is almost free!  I just had to buy the sugar and the jar lids.    I'm looking forward to making some more stuff yet this year; my church friend Liz has a pear tree with tons of pears on it she wants to give away, and there is still more grapes and crab apples to be had.   

Today is cold and rainy, so it's a perfect day to stop by Downtown Home and Garden and vote for your favorite jam or jelly....hopefully it will be mine!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Wild Grape Jelly

I've had it in my mind that I want to make wild grape jelly for years.  My woodsy neighborhood has lots of wild grape vines, and I have used the leaves over the years when I make pickles.   I can remember beck when my son was in middle school and I was a cabin counselor for 7th grade camp out at Camp Storer in the Irish Hills, waiting on horseback for my group next to a huge stand of wild grapes right at eye level and thinking "When I get home, I am going to make wild grape jelly!".   And here it is, 5 years later and my son is a high school senior and I still haven't made any.  A few weekends ago, when I was on my weekend jog through the neighborhood, I noticed that the vines were heavy with fruit, so I vowed that I would do it this year.

Supposedly, it can be a challenge for some people to identify wild grapes instead of the poisonous moonseed or Virginia Creeper, but I don't think it is all that difficult.  I don't think I've ever seen moonseed, but we have plenty of Virginia Creeper around here.   For more info, read this blog post here.  I picked about 3 pounds of grapes last weekend, and then I consulted my trusty The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.   Linda Ziedrich said that the wild grapes that she has in her Pacific Northwest backyard didn't make good jelly, but most varieties would.   I wasn't sure what kind we have, but I decided to give it a shot.   I looked around on the internet, and most of the wild grape jelly recipes had boxed pectin in them, but Linda said that it shouldn't be needed, but recommended adding some apple for extra insurance.   Since their was a couple crab apple trees right next to the grape vines, I decided I'd add some of those instead.

Wild grapes, unlike domestic grapes, are high in tartaric acid (from which cream of tartar is produced), will form crystals in the jelly so you need to let it settle out overnight before making your jelly.   After cooking down the grapes, strain out the juice and let it sit in a container in the fridge.   I actually let mine sit for a week because I couldn't get around to making the jelly anytime during this busy week.  I let it pass through the jelly bag yesterday afternoon and it left a ton of sludge in the bag.  Who knew?  If you eat a lot of wild grapes raw, this stuff is what makes your mouth feel dry and cottony.

Wild Grape Jelly
makes 3-4 half pints

3 lb. wild grapes, stems and all
1 c. crab apples, halved, (cut of stems and blossom ends, but leave the seeds in)

Heat grapes and apples in a large pot until boiling, mashing as you go with a potato masher.  Boil for 15 minutes.   Strain and let remaining juice settle overnight.  The next day, strain juice through a damp jelly bag for 2-3 hours.   Add:

3 c. sugar

Heat juice and sugar in a large pot (I like to use an enameled cast iron dutch oven to make jams and jellies) until the jelly reaches the gel temp of 220F.   Since I live below 1000 ft elevation, water boils at 212F and gel temp = boiling point of water+8 F.  If you live at higher elevation, your gel temp will be different.  Speaking of temperature, After trying many different cooking thermometers, I have figured out that the Thermapen instant read thermometer is the best for jam and jelly making and candy.  Yes, it will set you back about $100, but it's the last one you will ever need to buy.   I've spent more than that on a pile of cheaper ones that broke or didn't stay calibrated.   Learn from my sad tale and invest in the best one to start!   

Pour jelly into clean hot jars and leave 1/2 inch headspace.  Process in a boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes.  

I was a little nervous because it didn't appear to be setting up yesterday, and so I was envisioning having some jars of grape syrup instead of jam, but when I checked it this morning, it was set!  Sometimes natural jellies (no boxed pectin) take longer to set up - up to a week!

Since I have read that wild grapes can continue to be harvested until after the frost, I can probably make some more jars every weekend when I have time.  It will make great Christmas gifts!