Brenda’s Bruvarian Brew

My most genius Christmas request ever was the time I asked Adam for sourdough starter for Christmas. He got the starter, read all the materials for getting it started, and stealthily started it in the fridge. He presented it to me on Christmas morning, as it was nearing time for use. I expressed my excitement and gratitude! But it needed to get used, and I showed no sign of getting up to make bread… so Adam made some sourdough bread. He kept feeding the sourdough and making delicious baked goods, periodically reminding me that hey! This was ready whenever I was! I kept nodding and saying I was thinking of doing something with it tomorrow. Or maybe the day after.

Basically, I got months of delicious sourdough baking with zero effort, before he figured me out. It was brilliant.

Beer kits – high hopes!

This year for Christmas, I asked for a beer brewing kit. The yeast arts are amazing ones to me. The similarities between bread and beer are striking. They’re the staffs upon which civilization was founded. And hey! Adam has a degree is biochemistry, so this is gonna work out great, right?

Over Christmas, I brewed the first kit. It was a teeny one gallon kit, perfect for a trial run. I read through the book. I watched a Youtube how to video. I cleaned the kitchen and read through all the various steps multiple times, lining up my tools like a surgeon.

The finished product

Over and over again, all the materials stress the dire need for excellent dishes doing. Everything has to be super clean. Very sterile. Completely squeaky clean. I assiduously did the dishes and contemplated how fun a hobby must be in order to be worth doing this many dishes for. I wrestled with the auto-siphon and stared at my destroyed kitchen and thought “This beer better taste good.” Six bottles were all that labor produced. I doled them out to my friends.

“Not bad! I hardly any of that banana taste homebrew usually has. This is actually drinkable!”

Hours of labor. Massive dishes. Incredible expense. All to create something I could buy a better version of for a fraction of the cost. Worst yet, Adam was on to me and wasn’t using his clean room technique to do all the work for me. Curses! Foiled again!

Dishes, testosterone style

Still, I had gotten a second kit – a five gallon one. A neighbor gave me their gear (missing one or two bobs and bits). It included this neato cooling kit that you hook up to your faucet, except we didn’t have that connector. Adam spent about 2 hours going to many hardware stores, coming home with about 7 connectors. None of them worked. D’oh!

Adam was sad his plumbing connectors did not connect correctly

As I brewed the gigantic pot of mash, I thought of my alewife ancestors. If brewing required this much cleanliness, how did they pull it off with pottery instead of stainless steel, creek water and dirty hands? Was ancient beer just really bad? Were there tricks I don’t know about? Did they have extra potent yeast? The mind boggled.

Ewww, gross

I managed to get the beer into the carboy without any major sanitation fails. It pretty much exploded in my closet. (I guess that yeast was really active?!) Then it was “add sugar and move to bottle” time. This apparently includes moving the beer from the carboy to a bucket with a hole in the bottom (at which step you add the sugar that creates carbonation) followed by putting it into the bottles from there.

Recreational kitchen trashing

I had elaborate schemes for moving everything, while keeping everything perfectly sanitary. But then the auto-siphon wasn’t long enough to reach all the way into the carboy and disasters occurred with the sterile environment. Worse yet, at one point the bung came out of the bottom of the bucket and the entire floor was awash in uncarbonated beer. There were many bad words spoken.

Finally, we got the beer into the bottles. It’s about a case an a half. If you take into account what my time is worth, each bottle has to cost about $20. I have no idea if it will even be drinkable.

Finished product

I do not think this is my new favorite hobby.

We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing

This has been a hard week for me, and for people I love. For example, I have a dearly loved family member who is transgender and gets life-saving medication with their coverage through the ACA. For them, the current president-elect is an existential threat to their life. And other than my support, I don’t know how to help.

I find that one of my usual consolations – my friends on social media – is full of pain. And I need solace, and to remember the good things in the world.

I'm proud of my church for working to do good in the world!
I’m proud of my church for working to do good in the world!

One of those good things is coming tomorrow! The seventeenth (I think) annual Mocksgiving is tomorrow! I took today off work to bake (and tend to my schooless Thane – Grey is at a church field trip to the Heifer Farm.)

Anyway, I always miss “you guys” on Mocksgiving prep day. I talk to you a lot in my head – but this day especially. As a complete distraction from weightier concerns, I’m going to live-blog my prep for the 31 adults and 20 children who will come to my house in fellowship to be served tomorrow.

Stuffed Squash (with opportunities for garlic, butter, bacon & cheese)
This is a new recipe to Mocksgiving. Part of being a CSA member is defensive recipe gathering. I found this one last year, and blessed my lucky stars!

Recipe & project plan
Recipe & project plan

My cooking got an early start this morning because I had to drop Grey off for church. I’m not a morning person. Usually I’d start my day off at like 9 or 10. I started this one at the appalling hour of 7. (Shudders). I have a complex schedule today, mostly because this is the only time in a one month period I can actually get my hair cut, so I need to get a bunch done before the haircut, but nothing that needs tending between noon and two. So I usually start with bread, but not today.

Instead, I began with the squash. My plan is to adjust the recipe to twice-bake the squash instead. I baked it with butter and garlic. I’ll wait for it to cool completely then prepare the filling. (Mmmmmm bacon…. although I’ll probably make one vegetarian instead.) Then I’ll stick it back in the oven to warm tomorrow while the turkey is resting. It should be noted that pretty much all my cooking prep during Mocksgiving relies on an enclosed porch and cold overnight temperatures to double as a poor person’s ‘fridge.

Pies
Squash cooking, I turned my hand towards pies. Now I am caught on the horns of a pie dilemma. I have three different pie crust recipes at my disposal:

Butter & Vodka
This has been popular lately. It has the advantage of reducing the water content of the pastry (the vodka burns off). It tasted pretty good. It’s reasonably flaky. It’s a pain in the butt to make the starter for. And it’s moderately finicky to work with. Basically – I use this recipe when I have to but it’s my last choice.

Lard
This stuff is like a dream. It’s super easy to work with. It’s delicious. It’s flaky. It is the ideal, ultimate pie shortening. It’s also, um, not vegetarian. Not even a little. Nor is it friendly for anyone with religious based dietary restraints. (See also: bacon). So if I’m making pies for my own consumption, I’ll use this 100% of the time. But by my count I have five vegetarians coming tomorrow, and stealthmeats in dessert is a cruel thing to do. So lard is right out.

Crisco
For many years, this was the only way I made piecrusts, using the recipe my great-grandmother had made before me. It’s a very “short” recipe (high shortening to flour ratio) making it extremely flakey and light. Then Crisco took transfats out of its recipe. I spent a few Piemases and Mocksgivings in tears, trying to understand why the pie crust I’d used for literally a hundred pies couldn’t be worked. It took me a while to figure out the correlation.

But when I went home this summer, my mom said Crisco had changed their recipe again and it was working for her. This is the idea compromise between vegetarian and pain-in-the-rearness. So I’m going to try Crisco again and see how it goes.

First up, pecan pie
First up, pecan pie

2 pm Update
Well, I got my hairs cut. They are now shorter. Mission accomplished.

My pie plate collection. Many of my standard pies have standard pie plates they get made in every year.
My pie plate collection. Many of my standard pies have standard pie plates they get made in every year.

I’ve been cooking pretty much all day. This is the depressing part. Here’s where we are…

Completed:
1 Pecan Pie (I sometimes make two)

In progress:
Twice baked squash (need to mash up the insides and add bacon and cheese)
Lemon meringue pie (fun fact – I always misspell meringue as merangue) – crust made
Bread – dough kneaded and set to first rise

Not yet started and needs to be finished today:
Blueberry pie
Monkey bread if I decide to do it. (Votes? Do y’all want me to try it, or should I use that time for “cleaning” or “sleeping”?

Lemon meringue crust - came out ok. I had to roll it twice and it was really brittle
Lemon meringue crust – came out ok. I had to roll it twice and it was really brittle

Premium pecan placer
Premium pecan placer

A mere hour or so later, I’m in a much better spot. The bread is on the second rise. The blueberry pie is about 5 minutes from done. Before cleaning up the pie stuff, I decided to make another pie. For most pies, the crust is the hardest part. My blueberry pies, for example, are made during the year when Farmer Dave brings me blueberries and kept in the freezer until pie time comes. I tried increasing the water in the starter and it’s handling much better now. I think there’s so much shortening in it, that it looks wet enough when it’s not. So that’s good!

So my bonus pie is a raspberry apple pie. I had raspberries in the freezer from this summer’s haul (not enough to make a batch of jam from alas). And this is the time of year where apples are inescapable. So we’ll see if it’s any good. No huge loss if it’s not.

The lemon meringue is left to be done. It’s the exception to the above “the filling is the easy part” rule. I have the crust ready to be filled and it didn’t shlump too much. Lemon meringue is my favorite.

I remember when I was a kid I used to be appalled at my mom’s lack of creativity in creating pie vents. Here was this amazing decoration opportunity and she just cut slits! Such lack of imagination.

Of course, now I find myself staring down a blank pie crust and wondering if slits are just traditional. I usually inscribe a pi symbol that looks like a smiley face if you see it upside down!

Time to clean up!
Time to clean up!

Well, the kitchen’s a disaster and my back hurts, but everything has been done but the lemon meringue filling. (Guess what the most pain in the rear thing is?) I’ll pull the bread in about 10 minutes. I got the squashes stuffed. I have three completed pies.

It seems patently unfair that this is the time where I need to ask that age old question… what am I going to serve my family for dinner?

Butternut or acorn, bacon or vegetarian, asiago or gruyere
Butternut or acorn, bacon or vegetarian, asiago or gruyere

You’ll be happy to hear the meringue has been meringued. It didn’t set right. I suspect some of the flour on the beaters from the bread fell in and messed up the set. I couldn’t bring myself to remake it. It will still be delicious!

I always feel sneaky when making lemon meringue pie. The yellow doesn’t come from the lemons – it comes from the egg yolks.

The yellow things in lemon meringue pie
The yellow things in lemon meringue pie

In other news, Civilization 6 has civ called Congo, and Congo has Mbuji-Mayi in it. This is a city that is famous in my family history – it’s where the language school my parents attended to learn Tshiluba is – but I’ve never seen a reference to it in any material. Ever. But it’s in this video game.

Mbuji-Mayi
Mbuji-Mayi

Pantry Challenge: Week 1 Report

So we’re just about at the 1 week mark of the Pantry Challenge. So far, I’ve run out of bananas and am perilously short on ice cream.

I expected the first week to being something of a non-event, since I buy groceries weekly. But I learned something after all. (That’s the point of an experiment like this, right?) We eat out or get takeout more often than I realized. It was hard going a full week with (almost) all the food we ate being food I made. Usually there’s pizza (or fast food) on Mondays for Library Pizza night. And then maybe sometime mid week we’d go out to eat. There’s walking to get ice cream at the Dairy Dome, a cappuccino at Kushala Sip… many small purchases over the course of the week. But not this week.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I ended up getting a coffee at Kushala Sip, but I paid for it out of my own allowance. And Adam asked for and got some Five Guys fries which I again paid for out of my allowance. But he’s recovering from a minor surgery and it seemed like it was only the right thing to do to get the poor guy some fries.

It will be interesting to see what genre of food I run out of first. I thought a lot about all the different kinds of dinners I can make, but I suspect that lunch-making materials will actually run out first. I have these thoughts of baking snacks instead, but the kids have a poor track record of eating the moderately healthy things I could bake. Breakfasts might also run out first, but Adam’s bread toasted makes an amazing breakfast, and we have enough ingredients to make that for the full run of the month, even if we eat a lot more than usual.

So here’s what we ate for dinner this week. Just as a reminder, you can follow all the fun during at The Pantry Challenge site! I am not sure I’ll post regular updates here (because I suspect they’re boring).

Monday –
Last Peapod order arrived! Last restaurant trip made on the way back from camping. I meant to take a picture of all the crazy bags scattered across the kitchen floor, but we were in the middle of a board game, so I didn’t.

Tuesday –

Taco day!
Taco day!

Mostly compliant with tacos to use a box stuffed in the back of the cupboard plus perishable veggies. After everyone pointed out it wasn’t June yet, we got one last round of ice creams. Mine is always a twist cone dipped in chocolate.

Dairy Dome twist cone
Dairy Dome twist cone

Adam also baked a batch of scones for his coworkers, several of which didn’t quite make it to work. That led to our first (and so far only) from-budget purchase. He got a pint of heavy cream, sultana (golden) raisins, lemonade, a cumcumber and a lime.

From the Empress Hotel recipe
From the Empress Hotel recipe

Wednesday –
On Wednesdays we often host a number of our friends for gaming. I have thought a lot about how I can feed 10 people a nice meal on this restrictive budget. I think if I plan ahead, I can do it. But it definitely takes forethought. This Wednesday’s meal was sponsored by the color beige. Chicken pot pie is a fan favorite and was spectacular as usual. Adam’s home made bread will be a staple of our penury – he makes it every week and it never gets undelicious. (We have enough peanut butter and home made jam to last far more than a month!) Then we had the scones from Tuesday for dessert. So much delicious beige…

Pot pie and bread
Pot pie and bread

Thursday –
Fried rice is a farm share staple for me, and plays an important role in my standard cooking repertoire. See, you buy a rotisserie chicken (which can often be as inexpensive as $5 if you catch it on a sale night). You strip it and use the meat in fried rice (often along with the “what the heck do I do with this” vegetables from your farm share). Then you take the remnants of the carcass and pressure cook them (along with more random vegetables) to make chicken stock. A tremendous number of my recipes rely on a constant, large supply of homemade chicken broth, so I do this pretty often.

Dietary staple
Dietary staple

Friday –
Pizza night. Honestly, it wasn’t as good as the violet pizza I made last time we had homemade pizza! But it was still pretty darn good.

Pizza - store bought dough. We can make our own though.
Pizza – store bought dough. We can make our own though.

Saturday –
I used this amazing technique called “get invited over to a friend’s house and eat their delicious food”. Like most of the techniques I’m using to not spend money on food, this is probably harder if you live in an impoverished community. But man, it was tasty.

This whole plate was delicious
This whole plate was delicious

Sunday –
I make chili (and cornbread) very often on Sundays. Maybe even as often as every other Sunday. The rest of the family eats leftovers for lunches. (My company provides lunches for us, which is an amazing perk.) Chili makes premium leftovers for lunches, and we all love it. I’m thinking that I’ll run out of ground turkey (which we use instead of ground beef) first of my dinner ingredients. It’s used in a ton of my recipes.

The color filter is off in this picture - too yellow
The color filter is off in this picture – too yellow
Company lunch. No complaints.
Company lunch. No complaints.

Chicory and jewelweed

So, my life is pretty much pandemonium right now. Word just came that our pastor died on Friday. I just got back from a 9 day tour of California that started with my grandmother’s funeral and ended with a work conference. Piemas is happening this coming weekend. I have international travel planned the week after Piemas. My husband is traveling for a week in there. Holy Week hits then, with the church services and trumpeting. I have a great candidate (Anthony Wilson) running for Stoneham Town Selectman whom I’d really like to support. And to top it all off, Grey has a three month research project due on Beethoven – which is brilliant teaching but requires real work to be done at home. I need to finish the final report on the Mission Study Taskforce (maybe Grey and I can work on our reports together?) And I promised the Historical Commission I’d kick off a project to get some signs for Nobility Hill “at the beginning of the new year” (a time quickly passing).

I swamped!

So what does a Brenda do when she’s swamped?

Time for some good old-fashioned escapist daydreams.

Chicory - helping solve the "no coffee if you're lost in the woods" problem
Chicory – helping solve the “no coffee if you’re lost in the woods” problem

I’d love to hear what your favorite daydreams are and were. But a preferred genre of mine is the frontierswoman/forager fantasy. I read “My Side of the Mountain” at a tender age, shortly after having read the extremely influential “Nya Nuki: Shoshone Girl Who Ran“. Both of these books include children whose ingenuity in living off the land and foraging offered a kind of independence – not just from grownups, but from civilization itself. I desperately wanted to be the sort of girl who could safely skin a porcupine, or tan my own leather clothing in an oak stump. I even (oh bliss!) lived in the middle of the woods. Real woods. The kind of woods where if you got lost you were in deep trouble. Woods that had deer and bear and cougars. (I actually saw a cougar in person once only a few miles from my home. Memorable.)

Surely with a hatchet, all the information I’d gleaned from many re-readings of both books (plus Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe and several of the other classics – this was actually before “Hatchet”) I’d be all set to live off the land. I was pretty happy and had no desire to run away from home, but I planned out how I could make it work with my extensive skills if needed.

My favorite northwest trail snack
My favorite northwest trail snack

Only one problem – I had no skills. Sure, I knew the uses of a handful of plants. Wood sorrel is extremely tasty and I still often grab a few when I’m wandering in the woods (happily I didn’t eat enough to discover that overconsumption can lead to kidney stones). There’s an abundant plant in the Cascades called Vanilla Leaf that smells great. I was unaware of its insect repelling properties, but had sachets of it tied in my closet for years. (I’ll probably gather another one this year!) I knew to rub the immature heads of fiddles on my nettle stings (somehow I managed to encounter either nettles or blackberries almost every time I went into the woods). The blackberries of the west are so prolific and numerous that it’s hard to imagine anyone going hungry in August from their sheer abundance. I enjoyed a huckleberry from an old stump as much as the next girl.

But that was about it. I never fished. I never hunted. And I didn’t have any other plants in my repertoire. I would’ve gotten hungry right fast. And I could never find a book that taught me what I wanted to know…

Mountain bog gentian. Mom and I had been looking for this for years!
Mountain bog gentian. Mom and I had been looking for this for years!

I tried various things during my life to remedy this. I looked for books on plants at the library. They were all arcane and above my head and didn’t have nearly enough pictures. I tried to take a class on Ethnobotany in college. They denied me. Something about “300 level botany class” and “your only science course was Chemistry for English Majors”. Mom and I had a precious book of flowers we took with us backpacking and managed to bag almost all of them, except the Mountain Bog Gentian (above) which took me nearly 20 years.

But I was no nearer my goal of wilderness sustenance. I’d read “survivalist” books while camping, but so many of them are long on concept and short on the sort of detail you want before you put a wild plant in your mouth.

Then, the other day I was in Barnes and Noble with a $20 gift certificate ALL FOR ME. I wandered through the shelves of this actual physical book store. And I came across Northeast Foraging, by Leda Meredith.

Northeast Foraging

Folks, this is the book I’ve been waiting for my whole life. It has great, clear pictures. It has instructions on when to find this stuff, and where. It tells you how to use the parts that are useful. It helpfully informs you about risks or dangers or poisonous lookalikes. It even tells you if the plant is endangered or not. (My favorite lines come from some of the more invasive plants. She says about sustainably harvesting japanese knotweed “You’re joking right? … I guarantee that despite your most ambitious collecting, it will survive. Harvest at will.”

You know Japanese knotweed, whether or not you realize it
You know Japanese knotweed, whether or not you realize it

I’ve been reading about a few plants every night, and it’s awesome. In the pages of this book, I’ve met many old friends whose names I never knew. I used to play with plantain on the playground (man, I would have LOVED to have known uses for it back then!) I first met chicory the first summer I actually spent in New England and have long admired it from the car window. There’s a mulberry tree on the walk to Lindenwood which I now intend to raid this fall. I’ve seen the odd-looking stands of mayapples and the spring-loaded seed-pods of jewelweed provided me with many a happy moment of lightly touching them to make them go SPROING! But I never knew their names, or uses. It’s such a pleasure to finally come to know a friend you’ve known by sight for a long time.

There are some that are theoretically common which I’ve never seen. Perhaps I’m too north in the range. (Thinking of you, paw-paws!)

But now, in the midst of this tumultuous period, I go to sleep thinking of the old friends, the past walks, and the future adventures I’ll have trying to find and eat some of these.

What do you like to daydream of? Which daydreams did you have as a kid that you’ve sadly lost in grownuphood? (Or did they evolve?)

Six shall ye labor and on the seventh rest

Which of the 10 commandments do you break most? If heaven and hell are decided by how we adhere to the 10 commandments, I’m going to need a whole lot of grace for my complete failure to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for us, not us to keep the Sabbath… but the truth is I don’t keep it.

But today, well, I pretty much had to.

Mocksgiving was amazing. It was, I think, our biggest Mocksgiving ever. I believe over 30 grownups simultaneously sat to share a meal. The total attendance was something like 48. I had friends who labored intelligently, diligently and cheerfully in the kitchen to help set the meal. I had friends who did the same to make sure I didn’t wake to mounds of dirty dishes the day after. (Some of those were the same people. I really hope they, um, just like doing dishes? Yeah, I think I probably need to have them over for a dinner they don’t have to cook pretty soon!) My brother did an amazing job keeping the kids happy and engaged and quiescent. But I’m happy to report that the turkey was excellent, there was enough stuffing for even Mike, and all were sated with food and friendship. It had that ineffable Mocksgiving quality that makes it what it is. Also, I can sit 30+ people for dinner.

I did feel the shadow of the attacks in Paris. I do not forget that half of the Syrian people have been driven out of their homes – that bombings are frequent enough to blur together in the strife-torn middle east. But I think Paris hits close to home for those of us in the West because so many of us have been there, or it seems so familiar. We react more strongly the more we see danger threaten people who could be us. I wish I could think of a thing I could do other than pray for those who went out Friday night and will never come home again, or those whose homes are a continent behind them, or those who face the choice to join with evil or die. I’m pretty sure that making sterner lines between “them” and “us” will not make any of use safer. But, as so often before, I lack the imagination of spirit to see what I can do to influence that outcome.

My novel progresses. I’m at 17,000 words. I’ve managed to move forward to some plot points. (Although my plotting is rather mirroring my discovery process, in which the protagonist finds something cool on the internet – not sure that’s a page-turning technique there.) I managed to write 250 words yesterday, which is about 10% of what I should be writing a day, but 250 words on Mocksgiving day seems like rather an accomplishment.

One thing I like about Mocksgiving (and I like many – most of them people) is that I no longer feel resentful of the imposition of Christmas that seems to happen earlier and earlier. (I’d love to see the studies that show that people buy more when you hammer them with Christmas carols in 65 degree weather eight weeks before the high holy day…) But hey! I had my Christmas so bring on your tinsel, Madison Avenue!

Do you remember back when my posts used to have a central thesis I’d write about? Yeah, me too. I’m sure that will come back in December, when I’m not doing all the writing on the side. Right? Right.

So I made an offer to my Facebook friends. If you’re DYING to read my novel (you know, my unedited, stream-of-consciousness write-as-many-words-as-possible attempt) drop me a note with your email and I’ll share my document with you.

This feels so much like a letter, I am finding it hard to end without a proper closing.

I remain your faithful friend,

Brenda