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We had an exciting day yesterday. Among the incidents of note was the mud wasp nest we found in one of the bookshelves in the living room:

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We’ve had a bit of a wasp issue this summer and can’t really figure out the source. We even climbed up on the roof of our building to see if there was a nest above our living room window (we live on the top floor) but there was nothing, and so we haven’t been able to do anything to rectify the problem and have just had to deal with the half dozen wasps that meander into our apartment on a daily basis. Last night we were sitting at the table eating dinner, minding our own business, when Alvaro remarked that he thought there was a wasp stuck behind one of the paintings on the wall next to us. “I’ve been hearing buzzing from around there all evening,” he said, and I agreed. He got up and listened around the paintings, then moved toward the bookshelf and declared it was coming from there. “What do we do??” He stepped away (insect phobia). Just shove the books toward the back of the shelf, I said, it’ll either get smashed or fly out. He wasn’t keen to do it, so I did it myself, and out flew a wasp. It flew straight out the window and I felt quite accomplished, until Alvaro cried “Holy shit, there’s a nest!” A nest, what are you talking about, I said, and moved the horizontal books to one side to see, and yes, there was a nest. It looked like all but two larvae had already hatched so we scraped everything off into a trash bag while screaming and hopping from one foot to the other. That was the end of dinner. Life lesson learned: we need to dust/move our books around more often.

Another exciting thing was that I had a spectacularly messy bread failure yesterday. I haven’t been doing much sourdough lately because it’s been too damn hot to bake anything, and also I’ve been a bit of a lazy baker so when I’ve felt like bread I’ve been doing Irish soda bread (which is a quick bread, no yeast). The day before yesterday I suddenly felt motivated to prep the starter for baking, and then yesterday morning made the dough. I recently saw a video of a guy shaping dough no thicker than pancake batter — really — into perfect loaves, and even though I’m really bad at shaping wet dough I decided f it, I’m going all the way this time. I mixed my wet dough, gave it a few turns throughout the morning, and then let it rise for the rest of the day. The other half of my big bread plans was to cook it in this beauty:

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… one of the random cookery items that had been stocked at my parents’ place since I moved overseas ten years ago. I thought this copper baking dish would work as a stand-in for a lidded cast iron pot, which bread blogs all over the internet swear to be the closest in-home approximation to a proper bread oven. I’ve looked for a cast iron pot but they don’t seem to be a thing here, so when I unearthed the above from the cobwebs in my parents’ basement during a visit last month I decided to bring it back with me and try using it for bread.

Only yesterday I didn’t get that far, because once I’d decided that the dough had fermented enough, I turned it out onto a floured counter and it immediately spread out and just kept going, a bubbling, liquidy mass of something that in no way resembled bread dough. I’m still pretty happy with my emotional response to this: instead of yelling and swearing at it, I stared down at the dough in mild disbelief (mild, because somewhere not so deep down I knew that this would happen) and laughed, and called Alvaro in to see my mess before I scraped the whole thing back into the bowl. I added more flour, kneaded it a bit, and let it rise for a few more hours before putting it in the fridge for the night.

This morning I baked it in the copper pot, but I won’t bother with a photo because it was nothing to write home about. It’s flat, with a dull colored crust, and I just had a piece of it and am not crazy about the high level of sourness. It’s fine, edible, but my copper pot is not magic after all so I won’t be trying that again. But what’s that self-helpy thing they say? Perfect is the enemy of good enough. And I’ve decided that this bread is good enough to bring along for sharing at the outdoor concert we’re going to with some friends tonight. These guys:

I’m anticipating a fair amount of leftover bread, but it’s fine, as I’ve come to accept my role as human garbage disposal of my sketchy kitchen concoctions.

Last fall’s canning projects

I took a hiatus from this blog for much of last year — no big reason, just I wasn’t really in writing mode, more in making mode, so I let things hang out here while I was busy in the garden, the kitchen, and my knitting and sewing den. However, I wanted to share a little project I did in October when I was faced with pounds and pounds of tomatoes on the vine that were still green and, given that we were well into fall, would have had no chance to turn red.

I’ve learned that there are plenty of things you can do with green tomatoes, but at first all I could think of was fried green tomatoes. We ate those for a while, but really a person can only eat so many fried green tomatoes before she starts looking around for something else to do with them. Those something elses turned out to be two canning projects that I’m really happy with, not only because they taste good, but because they were made entirely with garden produce and featured all those green tomatoes that were tired of being battered and fried.

First up was this hot sauce, which I altered slightly (see below) in ways that wouldn’t mess with its acidity (no botulism here). Making garden hot sauce was actually my big goal for the season. I had bought a bunch of habanero and cayenne pepper plants in the spring with plans to make hot sauce for my brother, who is something of a hot sauce expert. I thought that even if everything else in the garden failed that year, if I managed to get one jar of hot sauce for my brother out of it, I would consider the year a success. As it was, last year’s garden was the most productive one yet, and I got not one but five jars of hot sauce out of our hot pepper plants. This hot sauce isn’t overwhelmingly spicy and has a slight sweetness to it from the apple cider vinegar.

After the hot sauce I went searching for a way to use up the rest of the green tomatoes. I was thinking some kind of chutney or relish, and finally settled on one that was very sweet and very sour and went nicely with some bread and a sharp cheese like cheddar or gruyere. I unfortunately can’t locate the recipe (should’ve posted about it when I made it!) but there are dozens available online that are very close to what I made as far as their ingredients.

The last of the fall canning was the spiced apple sauce from Canning for a New Generation. I only got one jar out of it, using apples that had fallen from the trees in the garden, so I had to do some high school level math to figure out quantities. (An aside: I’m finding that high school math has been coming in handy these past few years — algebra for canning, geometry for sewing. I’m still waiting to find out if calculus and trigonometry are useful.) The spiced apple sauce is also a nice recipe. If you’re into canning and don’t have that book, I’d recommend it. Full of good things.

These were by far my favorite canning projects so far, not because they tasted the best (I think that would be strawberry-lemon preserves, also from Canning for a New Generation), but rather because they were nearly “free” in the sense that I paid very little money to make them aside from a couple bottles of vinegar and the canning jars. (And of course the plants and seeds back in the spring, but that’s much cheaper than buying the resultant fruit and veg.)

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Medium term investment planning

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Appreciation

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Return on investment

The spices and salt I already had on had, so this was preserving for necessity, preserving to prevent waste. For other canning I’ve done, I’ve used crates of produce that I picked up at my town’s farmer’s market. I get a good price when I do that because I buy by the crate from my regular vendors, but I’m still shelling out money, so those are fun projects rather than necessities to prevent perfectly good produce from going into the compost bin. In canning this hot sauce, relish, and apple sauce, I was working with a surplus, the first time the garden presented me with such a predicament. I was being thrifty. It was a nice feeling.

The hot sauce recipe:

GREEN TOMATO HOT SAUCE

Ingredients:

8 cups chopped green tomatoes

1 cup combined cayenne and habanero peppers

1 cup chopped onion

4 cups apple cider vinegar, 5% acidity (<– the acidity level of the vinegar is important, so be sure to check)

2 teaspoons salt

a tea ball filled with peppercorns and coriander seeds, in about a 2 to 1 ratio

2 cinnamon sticks & 3 bay leaves

For cooking and water bath canning instructions, see the original recipe here.

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Back to bread and other fermented things

My sourdough starter turned one year old at the beginning of April. I can’t calculate the date exactly of course, so I chose the date of what I thought was more or less its birthday the way I celebrated my shelter cat’s birthday on February 2. (By celebrate I mean just saying “Happy birthday cat” and letting her gorge herself on cat treats — I wasn’t the sort of human companion who baked birthday cakes for my cat.) My sourdough starter didn’t get any special treatment, just its usual morning dose of fresh flour and water, but I did sing happy birthday to it as I gave it a stir. And now I’ve gone and embarrassed myself.

I haven’t kept tabs on the number of loaves of bread I’ve made with this starter in its first year of life, but I can guess at something in the two hundreds, and it’s also been split off and shared with a number of friends. Mas got some, as did the people who came to the Trade School classes I did. I gave some to Patti and Bron as well, twice, since they killed the first ones (like I’ve done, many times). Patti also managed to bring some over to the US, by putting a small amount in a travel sized jar in her toiletries bag. TSA was none the wiser. This was a good thing since the authorities generally don’t like cross-border transportation of microbial life. Stefan Tiron (an artist who comes to visit Plantopic regularly) ran into some issues once when traveling with his nukazuke. The customs agents were suspicious (maybe understandably so) when they unearthed from his belongings a Tupperware of fermenting rice bran and Stefan tried to explain, but it’s nukazuke! They weren’t impressed but eventually he got it through to Geneva, and I wound up getting a bit of it to start my own (which I killed).

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Clay casserole bread #3

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Thanks to stuff that went wrong with clay casserole breads #1 and #2, I’ve learned a thing or two and was feeling pretty good going into #3. It didn’t disappoint. Pat on the back in order. My bread quest will never be complete and I will never stop experimenting (and failing), but I think I’ve got a pretty decent formula and (very flexible) routine down now. This makes me feel happy and capable, and I believe this clay casserole thing was the clincher in the whole game. Bread #3 is basically my standard bread that I’ve been making for a while without the casserole, and with different hardware it comes out way, way better: soft and light on the inside with a thin, very crispy crust. I wish I’d gotten the casserole sooner, but then maybe this discovery wouldn’t be as gratifying.

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One of the best loaves of bread I’ve ever baked

This may look like a bread failure:

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But I am going to tell you why it is anything but a bread failure.

You see, I think I’ve finally left the realm of the nervous beginner who obsesses about following dictates and worries about making mistakes, gets frustrated at the slightest imperfection in a final product, is impatient for the day when mastery will be reached. I don’t generally like making such bold declarations, but in this case I don’t think I’m overstating things. I really do think I’ve stopped worrying about my bread “failing.” (Maybe because it happens so often and so I’m used to it? Ha.) I’ve realized that even when a loaf comes out of the oven looking absolutely nothing like the pretty loaves of bread in all my cookbooks, it is almost always perfectly edible, and often tastes very good despite appearances. Like the loaf of bread pictured above, for example.

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New bread toy

Pretty much any sourdough bread baking guru or cookbook writer I can track down from at least the past five years or so talks about a Dutch oven as an essential piece of equipment for those of us stuck with electric home ovens. Even with the ventilator shut off, an electric oven will send steam out its vents so the humidity inside is way lower than what you’d get in a wood-fired one. And high humidity is part of the reason why loaves baked in a wood-fired oven will always, in my opinion, come out way better than electric oven-baked loaves. (“Better” is subjective of course, but I’m using it anyway here, in reference to the general qualities that bread geeks consider when sizing up a bread success or failure: towering oven spring, crisp crust, chewy interior, lots of air pockets. There are others, but those are the ones that I understand are affected by oven temps and humidity.)

When I first learned about this Dutch oven thing I went immediately on the hunt for one, but it seems that Dutch ovens of the sort I was looking for — cast iron with a frying pan for a lid — are not a thing in France/Switzerland, where I live. All the ones I found had deep bottoms and lids with handles, which I knew would make removing loaves difficult, or else they were Le Creuset and I’m not paying 400 euros for a pot, thanks. So I just sort of gave up on the Dutch oven thing and tried other methods: altering oven temperatures, pouring water in a tray at the bottom of the oven, but my bread was still coming out looking fairly sketchy 50% of the time, at least. I was getting very little oven spring, also because I work almost exclusively with whole grain flour and I’ve been trying to move towards wetter doughs, all of which leads to loaves that spread out during the final rise and wind up looking like pancakes. They taste good but are absolutely useless for making sandwiches.

Then this past Saturday I did my usual farmer’s market run, and there was a couple there selling kitchen wares. Either I was blind to them before or else they’re new (I think it’s the latter), but anyway, they had what they called Roman casseroles (cocotte romaine), which are basically terra cotta Dutch ovens with a base and cover of equal size. Yes! So I bought one, came home and got a sourdough sponge started, later made into dough; all told it was a never-ending wait of 36 hours until I had a dough ready to put in my new toy.

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Time log of a highly productive day

On Wednesday Mas and I met up at the garden to catch up, which is an odd thing for me to say because normally we see each other all the time, but by fault of various circumstances we somehow managed to go an entire month without seeing each other, nor even really having much in the way of contact aside from a couple of brief emails. At long last we were reunited then, and before we knew it we’d been talking for 10 hours straight. It was nearly 2 a.m. and we were both too exhausted to make our ways home, so we slept in the house of the art association that cohabitates in the same land plot as the garden (we have the house keys). The next day was Thursday, which would prove to be a highly productive day.

0827 –  I woke up, showered, dressed and was in the kitchen making a pot of coffee by 0900.

0910 – Mas and I are sitting at the table on the garden terrace, drinking our coffee and enjoying the still of the morning. I’m working on my latest knitting project. The still was interrupted when the birds arrived to feast on the grape arbor hanging over our heads. “I’ve had enough of their gluttony,” I said. “I’m fine with them eating some of the grapes but last year they ate everything. Let’s pick everything that’s ripe and make wine.” Mas said, “Right,” and got her laptop to start looking up how to go about such business, because neither of us had ever done it before. I got a pair of scissors from the kitchen and stood on a rickety wooden chair cutting down bunches of grapes and loading them into a plastic bag hooked on my elbow. I picked a huge pile, something like six or seven kilos I’d say, and then returned to my seat to continue knitting while Mas read aloud to me instructions she was finding online for how to make wine.

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The 400-year-old oven

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Last Friday I went to a bread baking party on a rural hillside outside Bern, which began with a speech by a historic building preservationist about what I had already assumed was a pretty old oven that we would be using. He was speaking in Swiss German dialect, and I was understanding every eighth word plus getting occasional whispered translations from a woman next to me named Katrine, so I was only following about half of what he was saying. Then I thought I heard him say something like “the year 1650.” I turned to Katrine: “Did he just say the oven was built in the 1650s?” Yes, Katrine replied. This is when I understood that I would be baking bread in what was, indeed, a pretty old oven.

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Check your jam

I have a confession: as of last week I hadn’t yet opened any of the jam I’ve made over the past months. I’ve tasted while cooking, but the truth is I’m not much of a jam eater. Making jam was for me just a simple starting point for learning how to can produce, but when it comes to toast I’m a butter and honey woman. I’ve given away plenty of the jam as presents, but not a whole lot of feedback yet — I assume my friends do what I often do when I receive a homemade present, which is to keep it unopened, unless perishable. We so often have such a revere for the homemade, because of the care it entails, that we guard it like a treasure or don’t use it at all for fear of ruining it …

my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.
They were so handsome for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks. (Neruda)

The exception to this was my mother, who immediately opened the jam I gave her when she and the rest of my family were over here for the wedding. She gave it two thumbs up.

So with only one feedback given, a positive one, naturally I assumed my jam was a success all around. Imagine my surprise then last Thursday evening, when Alvaro and I were having dinner and he asked “by the way, did you put alcohol in that apricot jam?”

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Garden pesto, sort of

What to do, what to do.

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So I made pesto, sort of. It’s not real pesto because there’s no cheese in it. In the mix were basil and chives from the garden, a whole load of garlic, toasted almonds, olive oil, lemon juice and salt. I pounded it all by hand in a mortar and pestle.

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I wasn’t trying to be clever, it’s just that we’re lacking in a lot of kitchen appliances that people often have for these sorts of things, such as a blender or an electric food processor. So the food processor was my right bicep and forearm.

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