October is Over

Sometime around Halloween, I usually start to despair. My life is such that I’m always busy. But between September and November I’m not just busy, I’m epically busy – and it’s been even truer than usual this year. Contributing factors include four birthdays in six weeks, apple picking and preserving, Halloween and the last good weather of the year (see also: raking time!).

This year I added to that normal busy mix a cat who requires tube feeding, soccer-which-requires-practices, a new role at work that has me travelling fortnightly and the World Series (I didn’t miss a game this year, at the cost of sleep, relationships and using my spare time for anything that wasn’t baseball). Somehow I felt just a touch busy, even with the strong effort by my husband (and mother-in-law for the past week).

So this is a catch-up post, where I get back on the horse and update on you a few activities.

Grey striking, surrounded by two of his good friends.

Stoneham has a great town Soccer club. We haven’t done it in the past because it’s on Sunday mornings. But this year, it really seemed like something we needed to do. (It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that all their friends are in the league.) We showed up to church in cleats a lot, and only missed a handful of Sundays. It was pretty great. Grey was on team Greece, who pretty much rocked it. They lost two games (I think) and won several quite decisively. By the end they were doing things like “passing” and “having a strategy” and “knowing what they were supposed to be doing”. There were a few actually thrilling moments of soccer! It did involve practices, but Grey’s coach understands that I’m coming from work, and so it was relaxing instead of stressful. Greece will hit the fields again in Spring, and I’m excited for it. Thane did soccer too, but his version seemed to involve a lot of falling down.

My best preserve, I think, is the autumn pear.

This year I made: 2 strawberry jam, 3 pesto (frozen), 4 plum jam (shiro, red, Santa Rosa & mixed spiced), 1 plum compote, 2 autumn pear, 1 ginger lime pear (remind me never to accept a bushel of pears again), 1 crabapple jelly (from wild crabapples on the soccer field), & 1 apple butter. I think that’s it. I missed making a second batch of apple butter (I usually make two) and pepperonata (the red peppers didn’t do as well this year). Next year I hope to have damson plums from my tree.

Thane listens to Grey read a very sick Tiberius a story about cats. You can see Grey petting Tiberius.

One of our new cats (what was I THINKING getting new cats at the beginning of heavy season?) developed fatty liver disease, and required a feeding tube. It was put in three weeks ago (I think?). For the first week, he was being fed four times a day and throwing up five. He was within two days of me deciding that this was no kind of life, and ceasing his pain. The second week we started getting some traction. It’s been up and down since then (it was a great day when I got down to three feedings a day, eliminating the middle of the night feeding). Today, for the first time, he started eating food. You’ve never seen someone as excited as I was about a cat eating cat food. He’s going to make it!

Best friends in line for a roller coaster

Grey’s birthday
Grey turned eight, and I took he and two of his best friends to Canobie Lake Park. I had a blast as we rode very mild roller coasters, hung out in the arcade and made fart jokes. Well, some of us did. Then we had sushi, followed by a Minecraft cake. It felt… older. It was the first time I’ve taken Grey and his friends out to do kid stuff and be kids. I loved it – they were old enough to have so much fun with, but young enough that all of them would hold my hand. Pictures here

Scary birthday goers!

Thane’s birthday
I will confess that I just threw an invite out there at the last minute for Thane’s fifth birthday, figuring I’d figure it out as I went along. Two days before the event, I panicked as I realized that it was EXACTLY THE SAME TIME as the Main Street trick-or-treating! I was going to miss it, and all these five year olds were going to miss it too. So I sent out a last minute change asking that the kids come in costume. We spent the first hour trick or treating together. We had a blast, and I felt brilliant. Let the record show that it took 5 years for a kid with a 28th birthday to have a Halloween/Birthday party. I held out that long.

(Does it say anything that I’m going through my pictures trying to remember what the heck I’ve been doing that’s made me so busy?)

Well, that’s about it. I think you’re caught up. Don’t get too comfortable with it though, because Mocksgiving is in (EEEEK!) a week and a half, so yeah…

Anyway, pictures of my super-busy October can be found here!

I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want. As soon as I figure it out.

I was sad when the schedule came out so that Adam and I could not spend Camp Gramp week in wild hedonism together, doing things like “sleeping in” and “playing board games”. BOTH weeks this year where my parents would take the kids, there were gaming conventions. I could hardly ask Adam not to go to Gencon, so that was just the way of it.

Is this what relaxing looks like for me?

The brilliant upside was this: I would be alone. All alone. No one else in the house. No cat, no dog, no kids, no husband. I even decided to take a day or two off from work, to do whatever it was I wanted to do. Just me and my desires to attend to. I wondered, in the cold days of spring, what amazing thing I would do with my free time. I imagined driving up the Atlantic coast, stopping to stare out at the wild waves of Maine. Or maybe I’d manage to find a friend and go backpacking! (That is actually what I really wanted to do. The problem is with the find a friend part. I’m reckless, but not that reckless.) Maybe I’d finally hike Mt. Chocorua. Maybe I’d slip my passport and a change of clothes into a bag and just go wherever the road took me. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

I had a tumultuous lead time up to my great liberty. It went something like this:

Friday – work full day, pick up farmshare, drive 6+ hours to New York
Saturday – fail to find Appalachian trail
Sunday – hike Appalachian trail and drive back to Boston
Monday – work full day then fly out to Los Angeles on the redeye
Tuesday – have meetings in LA, watch Elysium with the sales team, fly back on redeye to Boston
Wednesday – all day company outing at Crane Beach. Buy plums.

Thursday I had originally planned for a day off, but I was so behind on stuff that I ended up working. Thursday evening arrived, and I relaxed by cleaning the kitchen, buying a new weedwhacker, getting my nails done and making 2 batches of plum jam.

Pie, red plum jam and golden plum jam – two night’s of labor laid deliciously out.

Friday was supposed to be the prime day of my great relaxing. But. Well. I started with an earlyish morning appointment at the chiropractor. (See also: twelve hours of long haul driving and two six hour redeyes in a five day period). And then I came home to a house that was a DISASTER. The kitchen was a mess. The living room was a mess. The dining room was a mess. The kids’ bedrooms made the rest of the house look downright clean. My bedroom was appalling. The carpets needed cleaning. And so that’s what I did.

I mowed the lawn. (I still need to edge it. Sigh.) I cleaned out Thane’s room. I cleaned his carpet. I cleaned out the upstairs hall. I cleaned the carpet. I cleaned my room. I cleaned the stairs carpet. I organized the living room and removed stuff we didn’t need any more. I cleared off surfaces in the dining room. I did the dishes. I cleaned the kitchen. I picked up the farm share. I cleaned the ‘fridge. I prepped all the farmshare food. I made blueberry pie. I invited friends over for a glass of wine and blueberry pie. Then I was GOING to SIT AND WATCH THE BASEBALL GAME, but it was a bad game and I practiced my trumpet and guitar instead, while flipping between the Sox and the Patriots. By 11 at night, the house was cleaner, but hardly done, and I was completely exhausted.

Saturday morning, I cleaned Grey’s room properly. (That was the hardest of them.) I dropped off dry cleaning. I went to the bank. I did the bills. Finally, I left to New York to go pick up the boys.

So what did I do with my precious, precious time of liberty? I caught up on chores. In fact, I pushed myself HARD to attempt to get as many chores done as possible.

“What” says the extremely ardent reader who has made it so far through my litany of “ohmygosh am I busy!” – “What makes you think we’re interested?” It’s this, oh Ardent Reader. It was something of a revelation of my sense of self. I think it will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that being busy and engaged in satisfying labors is part of who I am. It’s not a small part either, and I think it’s growing. That’s no bad thing, because I am satisfied with being satisfied by labor.

But I think it also sounds the warning gong of a person too busy. I may fully utilize my time to be productive, but in exchange for what? Would I have been better off reading a book on the (overgrown) back lawn? Would my life be richer if I had gone North and left my farmshare to fend for itself? Or would I be less happy, heading into my busiest time of year in a chaotic and unrestful environment? How many days would I have to have off in order to feel like I was done with what needed doing? Or is that a goal that can even be accomplished? How do I draw the line between true work that needs to be done, work that I think needs to be done, things that I do that are like work but are also hobbyish (like canning), and true leisure and rest?

I’m curious how you, oh Ardent Reader, navigate these decisions. How do you draw the lines?

Makes preserves, and redeems us

I’m sitting in the kitchen, waiting for my apple butter to cook. It’s mid-October, so unless I get 70 apples on Monday (it’s happened before…) I’m probably done with my seasonal canning for the year. I have a farm share – a double fruit share and a theoretically small but is actually vast vegetable share. I try, as much as possible, to do my preserving from this local, fresh, organic produce. So with my source of prepaid goodies ending soon, I’ll hang up my magnetic lid grabber, at least for now.

I feel like this was an off year for jam. I blame it entirely on plums. Previous years, I’ve gotten loads of plums — significant amounts of 3 or 4 varietals. There were Shiro Plums and black plums and Italian prune plums and “I don’t know, they’re just plums” plums. (There have never been Damson plums, to my tremendous disappointment. This might be the lamest bucket list item ever, but I really want to make damson plum jam.) This year, we got Italian prune plums once! Not nearly enough to turn into jam, either! So I made at least three fewer batches of plum jam than in previous years. I even repeatedly went to farmer’s markets looking for plums and found NADDA. Apparently plums aren’t hip. But man, they make delicious jam. I may yet break down and buy (shudder) supermarket plums and turn them into jam. We’ll see how big the rebellion in the troops is before we take such a drastic step.

Also on my weirdo bucket list: crabapple jelly. I can’t find a source of crabapples, and of course nobody but nobody sells crabapples. So if you have a crabapple tree (or know of an unloved one) and live in the greater Boston area, let me know. I pay in jam.

Also also: one of these days I’m going to make rosehip jelly. Slightly easier to find than crabapples, but require the chutzpah to go to some random shrub and start harvesting.

What did I make this year? I made:
2x Strawberry jam (a perennial favorite)
1x Strawberry rhubarb (which tastes identical to the strawberry)
1x Concord Grape jelly (check that one off my bucket list!)
1x Blueberry jelly (no on in my family likes it, but the farmshare gives me blueberries by the bucket and it makes a nice gift)
1x Peach butter (a labor of love!)
1x Apple butter (makes a huge amount)

I’d been thinking about making hot pepper jelly, but my neighbor made some and I figured that was enough hot pepper jelly for one street for this year.

I was thinking about making some of the more unusual recipes from my beloved “Ball Book of Home Preserving”. There’s a curried apple chutney that would help if I only get 45 apples next week, which sounds fascinating and exotic. Oh, and I think I’ll preserve some Pomegranate molasses, because I need it for my favorite cranberry sauce, and it’s a pain to make during Mocksgiving, and I only need a bit of it… so it would be a good candidate for canning.

Then again, if I never peel and core another apple it might be too soon.

Oh, also, for those following the drama… I did get to remove my brace yesterday. Yay!

So tell me… which one of my jams sounds best? Why are there no plums to be had this year? What should I find a way to make happen

Apple Butter

Last Thursday night I made Apple Butter. I find that my hobbies — the things I do for myself — have to fit into smaller and smaller spaces. Moreover, like so many workers in corporate America, they need to be more productive. The boost I have to get out of doing something for myself has to be considerable to be worth the price in sleep loss, opportunity cost, or making my husband work harder. This summer, I found that canning fits the bill. It doesn’t take a wild amount of time — one evening plus thinking ahead. It’s very different than what I do all day (computer hobbies, for example, have the downside of being just like work). And it’s intensely satisfying, both right after you’ve completed it and throughout the year as you watch happy people nom down on your cooking. So in an indirect response to my life time-crunch, I did a lot more canning this year.

The cook in the kitchen
The cook in the kitchen

Which brings us back to apple butter. It was an obvious choice. One of our yearly traditions is apple picking. Abuela gives us apples from her tree every year. And the farmshare has also provided us with a hearty harvest. Added all together, and we had a ton of apples. Worst yet, although I make a mean apple pie, none of the men in my house like it. So although I’ve never eaten apple butter in my life, I figured it was worth the effort.

For my birthday, my mommy bought me the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving and some canning toys. I used the Cider Apple Butter recipe.

The recipe
The recipe

Without a doubt, canning apple butter is best done with a chatty best friend working with you. (Now taking applications for next year!) It took me nearly an hour and a half to peel and core the SIX POUNDS of apples the recipe called for. I’m not a novice peel-and-corer, either. It was rather tedious. It was interesting to see how different all the apples were. Since my apples came from a wide variety of sources and types, it’s a mutt of an apple-butter — never to be reproduced. I liked seeing how different all the apples were. Here are the results of my peeling-and-coring extravaganza:

That's enough for four or five pies, by my reckoning
That's enough for four or five pies, by my reckoning

I dumped them all into my biggest pot (note to Santa: I need a bigger pot if I’m actually going to do more boiling-canning. None of mine were large enough to fit the canning rack I got.). I added the two cups of cider. This seemed woefully inadequate for such a large “cider soup”.

My biggest pot
My biggest pot

I also got the jars going. I’ve aided in making jam since I was 8 or 9 years old — mostly in the squashing raspberries and stirring departments as a young child. But only once have I been around canning where you boiled the cans afterwards, so I paid careful attention to the instructions. Please note an important idea: you preheat the jars filled with water, but you better have enough room/not so much water so that when the jars are filled, the pot does not overflow. Happily, I caught that one before I found out the hard way. I thought the jars were pretty in the pot.

Did I mention I need a bigger pot?
Did I mention I need a bigger pot?

Cider soup stage
Cider soup stage

Then I pureed the apples, attempted to food-process my whole cloves to ground cloves, failed miserably, and ground them in a mortar and pestle instead. Despite carefully measuring the POUNDS of apples, I didn’t have the volume the recipe called for. I added apple cider to make it up. I’m pretty sure that was a mistake — since I wasn’t adding pectin, it wasn’t as necessary to be precise. I bet that added significantly to the cook time. However, strike 1 for the recipe. It offered no guidance. I added the pureed apples/cider and spices back to the pot for the Long Cook.

The stovetop during the Long Cook
The stovetop during the Long Cook

Included in my birthday present was this clever device (upper right). Just one problem: it uses about 10x as much water as boiling the lids flat and using the neat magnetic lid-grabber-thingy I also got. So…. very cool but I’m not sure it’s worth it.

The apples cooked and cooked and I stirred and stirred. Since I’ve never EATEN apple butter, I wasn’t quite sure what it was supposed to look/taste like, or what the consistency was supposed to be. Here’s what the cookbook said:

Testing Fruit Butters: Butters are cooked until they thicken and begin to hold their shape on a spoon. To assess doneness, spoon a small quantity of cooked mixture onto a chilled plate. When liquid does not separate, creating a rim around the edge, and the mixture holds a buttery, spreadable shape, the butter is ready to ladle into jars and process.

I think I read that about 18 times. I never decided if the clause “creating a rim around the edge” was something that it was or was not supposed to do when it was ready. I thought of my sister, the tech-writing cooking-savant and how she would blanch at this obfuscatory help. Clearly, assessing apple-butter-doneness is the sort of thing you have to learn at the apron of someone who knows it. Here was my attempt at being a good little recipe-follower:

Chilled plate and buttery texture?
Chilled plate and buttery texture?

I’m pretty sure it didn’t cook long enough, but I was running out of time. When the butter started “spitting” and burning me, I decided that I’d better start jarring it. Here’s a picture of what happens to your hand when you wash it as often as I did making this butter. I expect sympathy, people.

Cracked knuckle skin = not fun!
Cracked knuckle skin = not fun!

It was time to start the canning bit. I’ve done this a gazillion times with jam. I advise you to move the jar right next to the pot. A funnel is one of the few truly critical pieces of jamming equipment (you CAN do it without a funnel but it’s HARD). If you are doing jam, use your jars in a bell curve: smallest known jars first (they are hardest to get to seal), then middle, then big, saving a few small jars for the remnants in the pot that won’t fit in a big jar.

In the middle of jarring
In the middle of jarring

At that point, the recipe gets a HUGE strike 2. They had helpfully told me how many jars I would need. I prepared equivalents (I like to use three jar sizes: sampler, medium and big) and added a few extra for safety margin. They were WRONG. I needed three medium jars more than they called for. That’s huge. I actually ran out of prepped jars and had to use an unprepped jar, which I marked with an “X” because I didn’t want to trust the seal on it. ALWAYS HAVE WAY MORE JARS THAN YOU WILL NEED (and enough lids for all the jars you have).

Because of the additional jars, I had to boil them in two sets, making me even later for bed.

Post-boiling process
Post-boiling process

It took me roughly 3 hours, start to finish, to make the apple butter. The good news? It’s delicious, especially on cornbread! The bad news? It’s really sugary, spicy applesauce. We definitely didn’t achieve buttery consistency!

The fruits of my labor
The fruits of my labor