Ancient Carbs, Part 2: The Year of the Dog

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The Yellow River Breaches Its Course ~ Ma Yuan

 

“The last time we were together we talked about first civilizations and Mesopotamia. Do you guys remember how people settled near the rivers there and started cultivating plants for food?”

“The Tigris and the Euphrates! They grew wheat there!”

“Right! Now we are moving east, to China, where people also settled near rivers. Anyone know which rivers those are?”

“The Yellow River!”

While they had a hard time identifying the Yangtze, they did remember that the people of the ancient civilization in the Yellow River Valley grew rice in the fertile soil near the perpetually flooding river.

Growing rice requires a lot of water, but millet, a naturally prolific crop in China, does not. The fast-growing, small-seeded grass thrives in warm, dry conditions, and is therefore especially well-suited for the more arid climate of northern China. In fact, scientific studies suggest that people there cultivated millet even before rice.

Some of the kids knew what millet was.

“It’s bird seed!”

I told them all about the exciting 2005 archaeological find at Lajia, an excavation of a Bronze Age site on the banks of the Yellow River in central China.

“So, the noodles they found in an upturned bowl were about 4,000 years old!”

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From BBC News (Image: Nature/KBK Teo/E Minoux et al)

 

“Ewww. I don’t think I want to eat noodles anymore.”

My son is sensitive when it comes to food imagery.

I explained how the airless conditions in the bowl had prevented the noodles from decaying. Scientific analysis proved that they were the same age as the excavation site and were made from both foxtail and broomcorn millet.

“So, this provided some evidence in settling a long running argument about the origin of noodles. The earliest record of noodles in China was written sometime between AD25 and 220. Up until the find at Lajia, the question of whether noodles were first invented by the Italians, the Arabs, or the Chinese, had still been up for debate.”

There seems to be an endless variety of Chinese noodles: cut, extruded, flicked, pulled or kneaded, and even shaved. Yet the most basic are made from a simple combination of starch flour, water, and sometimes salt.

We checked out a video of a cook making shaved noodles, and then another fascinating video about the art of making 9-foot long noodles by hand.

“The Lajia noodles were thought to be similar to a pulled type called la mian — la means to stretch, and mian means noodle.”

I showed them yet another impressive video of a la mian noodle master.

La mian noodles are made with flour derived from wheat; the gluten in wheat provides the plasticity and elasticity required for the repeated twisting and folding of the dough. I like to compare the process of kneading dough to straightening out a messy pile of yarn — the goal is to align the gluten strands just like one would line up the separate pieces of yarn.

“Ok, so we’re not making those. Nor are we doing a noodle dance.”

I told them they could go home and do the noodle dance in their own kitchens.

Instead, we would be making an easy pulled noodle based on this recipe.

I had mixed and kneaded the dough in advance because the gluten has to rest and sufficiently relax before it can be pulled.

I filled two pots with water, and while those came to a boil, I cut the noodle dough into strips.

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I showed the kids how to take a strip of dough, one end in each hand, and simultaneously stretch and pull it, bouncing it a little as it lengthened. Then, I took hold of one end and stretched it even more, pulling the noodle through my hands as if I were measuring out a length of ribbon.

“Long noodles are supposed to signify a long life. It’s ok if you break your noodle, but you’re never supposed to cut them.”

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The kids were a bit cautious at first, but they soon got into a groove.

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And then they started cranking out noodles like experts.

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I had them stand away from the stove while they pulled the noodles, moving in only to take turns gently lowering their long strips of dough into the pots of water.

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While we stretched and cooked, we talked about the importance of noodles in Chinese culture and the upcoming Chinese New Year.

“Hey, how can it be the New Year when it’s already February?”

Ah, but they already knew all about it, and informed me that the date of Chinese New Year is dictated by the lunar calendar. (I knew this)

Specifically, the first day of the new year falls on the new moon between January 21 and February 20.

“So it can be a different day every year?”

“Yep! Anyone know which animal is represented this year?”

“The dog!”

We continued chatting, noodling, and cooking.

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I fished the noodles out of the water as they finished cooking and placed them in a nearby colander set over a bowl. They stayed fairly warm until all of the rest were done, but a short dousing of hot water refreshed and reheated them enough to toss with some ginger-scallion sauce and quickly sautéed veggies.

The moment before we ate was a flurry of activity — the kids were absolutely dyyyying to eat the noodles they had so proudly stretched. I felt a little like Kung Fu Panda slinging noodle bowls onto the table in front of eager diners.

The kids further dressed their noodles with hoisin, tofu, and other assorted items.

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The noodles got a hearty thumbs up from all involved. My son requested that we make them again immediately. I guess the ancient noodles hadn’t put him off his lunch after all.

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Hand-Pulled Noodles

Maggie Zhu over at Omnivore’s Cookbook gives excellent and detailed instructions on making this type of pulled noodle. I followed her recipe, mixing the dough in my stand mixer for 15 minutes.

(I highly recommend making the dough the day before you plan on pulling the noodles. I did a practice run, cooking the dough the same day I mixed it, but the noodles made from the overnight dough turned out much nicer and thinner.)

Mix the dough, cover it and let it rest for two hours, then divide it into eight pieces. Lightly coat each piece with oil, cover tightly, and refrigerate overnight. Let the pieces come to room temperature, then pat each piece into a rectangle and place on a lightly oiled sheet pan. Keep pieces covered until ready to pull.

When you are ready to cook the noodles, cut each rectangle into strips on a lightly floured board — remember that they will get thinner as you pull them! Cook them in boiling water for 1-2 minutes. They are pretty much ready when they float. Drain and keep warm.

Maggie advises bringing the water to a “roaring boil” for the most authentic chewy texture. I didn’t do this for the kids’ batch because we had so many arms and hands about, but the noodles turned out just fine. They were a bit softer than my test batch, but nobody seemed to care!

I made a double recipe of Ginger Scallion Sauce that we tossed the finished noodles in. I also quickly sautéed some shredded cabbage and carrots with some chopped garlic and added those to the bowl. We placed extra sauce, some sliced red pepper, hoisin, tofu, soy sauce, and Sriracha on the table and let each kid dress their own noodles.

This was a hit with the kids, and super fun for all involved. Give it a go and make sure you share pictures with me if you do!

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Stovetop Alchemy

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“Do you say care-a-mel or car-mel?”

We were divided on the pronunciation of the word, but we were united in our appreciation of it.

“We are making a caramel sauce.”

Somebody sighed.

Now, I am not above eating caramel sauce with a spoon, straight out of the pot, but I felt that in order to maintain some sense of propriety we should also make something to eat the caramel on.

“And apple crêpes.”

Now, a cheer.

Since crêpe batter should sit for 30 minutes or so before using, we decided to make that first.

The easiest way to make the batter is in a blender or, in our case, with an immersion blender.

They measured the milk into a pitcher.

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And added the eggs.

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The butter we had put on the stove to brown was ready and it smelled amazing.

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After mixing the browned butter into the other ingredients, we set the resulting batter aside and the kids gathered near the stove to start caramelizing the sugar for our sauce.

Except nobody could see into the pot. So, some chairs were brought in and children were rearranged.

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“What does sugar smell like?”

“It’s sweet!”

“And caramel? Does it smell the same, or different?”

They considered the question.

“How can caramelized sugar smell so different from regular old white sugar?”

I explained that granulated sugar, or sucrose, is made up of fructose and glucose, and that when heated, it breaks down into these two component sugars. Eventually, these molecules break down into other molecules that react with one another to form new compounds that make up the delicious aromas and flavors of caramelized sugar.

There are two classic methods to making caramel: wet and dry. The wet method involves moistening the sugar with water and cooking the mixture. As the water boils away, the sugar breaks down and caramelizes.

The dry method is simply sugar cooked in a dry pan. Because sugar is partially water, heat easily liquifies it.

Of the two methods, I personally prefer the dry caramel. I am an impatient person and because of the added water, the wet method takes longer. A wet caramel is also more prone to crystallization. Again, as an impatient person, I just don’t have time for that.

I reminded the kids that melting sugar is very, very hot. They agreed to be mindful of each other at the stove.

We sprinkled an even layer of sugar into the pot and began cooking it over moderate heat.

After just a few minutes, we could see some sugar liquifying at the edges and a little browning under the surface, near the center.

“Wow, that happens fast!”

As the browning and melting continued, we used the spoon to pull the sugar from the outside of the pot towards the middle.

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The kids took turns using the tip of the spoon to mash and distribute chunks of sugar, allowing them to melt into the darker liquid.

While we didn’t want any one spot to get too dark, (you can’t salvage burnt sugar), I cautioned against stirring too much to avoid excessive lumping and crystallization.

We did end up with some chunky bits, but we lowered the heat and those soon softened into the rest of the caramel.

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The color of caramel at its tastiest point is something like that of an old copper penny. Smell is actually the best indicator of when the sugar is ready. We kept smelling the pot, and as the familiar scent of rich caramel wafted up, we watched the darkening sugar like hawks. Once we could see the caramel start to smoke, we turned off the burner. The caramel would continue to cook from the residual heat of the pot.

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We had butter at the ready and carefully dropped it into the molten sugar.

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Cream went in next.

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The cold cream caused the caramel to seize up a bit, but as we did earlier, we just turned the heat to low and stirred everything together.

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“That smells so good!”

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Now that the sauce was finished, we could turn our attention to cooking the crêpes.

We strained the batter and poured it into a jar tall enough to accommodate a 2-ounce ladle.

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I demonstrated how to deposit the mixture onto the hot pan, tilting and swirling it to cover the surface with a thin layer of batter.

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I used a small offset spatula to loosen the edges of the crêpe and quickly flipped the thin pancake over.

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A few seconds on the other side, and the crêpe was cooked enough to turn out onto a cooling rack.

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I handled the ladling for the first round, while the kids focused on tilting the pan.

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They were more confident the second time around, and did most of the ladling themselves, though they still needed a little help with the flipping of the crêpe.

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We had a bit of fretting over the lack of coverage, but I assured them that we could add a little batter and smooth it with the spatula, and if that failed to produce a perfect crêpe, they wouldn’t notice the difference once the crêpes were filled and folded.

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I quickly sautéed some apples and reheated the crêpes briefly on the pan.

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With the addition of a scoop of the cooked apples and a little of the still warm caramel sauce, everyone was happy.

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It was definitely a clean plate kind of day.

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Salted Caramel Sauce

1 cup granulated sugar

6 T butter, cut into pieces

1/2 cup heavy cream, warmed just slightly

1 t sea salt

Have all ingredients ready and near the stove. Place the sugar in a heavy-bottomed pot and shake it to make a fairly even layer. Cook the sugar over moderate heat, using a wooden spoon to help push and pull the solid sugar into the liquid sugar. You don’t want any one spot to get too dark or burnt. If the sugar gets really clumpy, just turn the heat to low and continue cooking it and it will eventually smooth out. Keep a close eye on the color, it should be the color of an old copper penny when it’s ready. It should smell strongly of caramel and the pot will start to smoke. Immediately turn off the heat and carefully add the butter, followed by the cream and salt. Return the sauce to low heat to incorporate all the ingredients. Cooled sauce can be rewarmed over low heat.

Crêpe Batter

Makes about 15 crêpes

7 T unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 3/4 c whole milk

4 large eggs

1/2 t sea salt

1 t vanilla

1 1/2 c unbleached all purpose flour

Brown butter over low heat until quite dark (see here), immediately pour into a small dish to stop the cooking and cool slightly. Measure milk, eggs, salt, and vanilla into a blender and combine. Add the flour and blend until smooth. Add the butter and blend again. Set aside for 30 minutes or up to 24 hrs in the refrigerator. Strain batter before using.

To cook the crêpes:

I use an 8″ crêpe pan, but you could use a similar size skillet. Heat the pan over moderate heat and lightly butter it, (I only do this for the first crêpe). When the pan is hot but not smoking, (a few drops of water should skitter across the surface), pour or ladle 1/4 cup of batter on it near the center while simultaneously tilting and swirling the pan. It takes a little practice, and it usually takes me a crêpe or two to get into a rhythm. You should hear it sizzle. Any excess batter can be poured back into your container and the resulting “tail” can be cut off. Once the top of the crêpe is set, you can use a small spatula to loosen the sides. I use my fingers to flip the crêpe over, but you could also use a larger spatula to do so. Let it cook for a few seconds and then turn the crêpe out onto a cooling rack. The first crêpe is always a throwaway for me, well, we eat it, but it’s generally an ugly one. You can begin stacking the finished crêpes as they cool. Any unused crêpes can be wrapped and frozen.

 

 

Back to homeschool pizza baking party, and the 411 on wheat

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Summer break has officially ended and we are back in “school mode”.  Right. This would require a celebration.

For my kids, this meant pizza with their friends. And lemonade.

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Looks like we may need to brush up on spelling.

But first things first…pizza!

The kids took up their regular “baking class” spots around the table, and we talked about how pizza dough was a simple mixture of water, flour, salt and oil, leavened with yeast.

“Anyone remember what yeast is?”

A little nudge from me: “Is it a living thing?”

“Yes!”, “It’s a fungi.”

Me again, shaking the little packet of yeast: “Anyone want to guess what we need to do first when we make any yeasted dough?”

“Wake it up!”,  “Put it in water!”

“And what does it do when we put it in our dough?”

“It eats and burps gas bubbles!”

Exactly.

We checked the temperature of our water.  I explained that yeast, like humans, need warmth, but not too much.  The temperature of the water should be about 100 degrees or so, definitely no more than 140.  They should be able to hold their fingers in the water without wanting to pull them out.

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“Ow!”  They thought it was too hot.

I added a little cool water  and checked the temperature with an instant read thermometer so they could get a clearer idea of what it should feel like.  They all agreed that, at 107 degrees, it was “much, much better.”

We stirred the yeast and some of the water together in a bowl and let it sit for a few minutes .

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Then we added the rest of our water, some olive oil, and salt.

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Next, we started adding flour, about a cup at a time.  I shared my thoughts on measuring and adding flour to pizza and lean bread doughs, as in, I don’t measure exactly, but prefer to go by the feel of the dough.  Sure, it is good to have an idea of how much flour you need to have on hand, but depending on your flour, you may use less or more in the end product, and it is a good idea to learn to gauge its quality by touch.

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We continued to add flour until the mixture became too stiff to stir with a spoon.

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I encouraged the kids to put their hands in the bowl to feel the sticky, elastic dough.

“Does anyone remember what makes the dough so stretchy?”

I reminded them of the composite protein, called gluten, that forms when water and glutenin and gliadin, the two proteins present in dry wheat flour, mix.  The action of kneading actually realigns the gluten molecules so that they run roughly in the same direction.  I like to think of a messy pile of yarn, and the kneading is the motion of straightening all the strands into a nice, neat bundle.  The resulting network of protein gives bread its structure by creating an expandable barrier that will trap the carbon dioxide gas given off by the feeding yeast, much like a balloon filling with air.

I think they get the balloon part.

Next, we scraped the resulting shaggy mass of dough out onto the generously floured table.

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We would be kneading more flour into the dough at this point, precisely why we didn’t want to add all of our flour in the very beginning.  Dough that is too dry and floury is harder to stretch into pizzas and bakes up bready.  Slightly wetter doughs bake up lighter with bigger bubbles in the crust.

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The kids took turns kneading, adding only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to their hands.

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We could feel the dough becoming more uniform, and stopped after a few minutes when it was smooth and still slightly tacky.  It was placed in a lightly oiled, covered bowl where it would rise for an hour.

While the yeast worked their magic, we turned our attention to wheat, the grain our flour was made from.

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A member of the grass family, wheat produces a dry one-seeded fruit called a kernel.

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The kids enthusiastically examined the wheat, pulling apart the head and harvesting the wheat berries.  As they gathered the kernels, “This takes a long time!”, we talked about the traditional ways the edible part of the wheat was separated from the chaff before winnowing, and the ancient and modern ways of milling it into flour. We looked at a diagram of a wheat kernel and discussed how different wheat flours are made not only from different kinds of wheat, but from different parts of, or, in the case of whole grain, the entire wheat berry.

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They examined and compared various kinds of flour: all purpose, whole wheat, whole wheat pastry, bread, cake, and buckwheat, and drew tables where they could record their observations.

“This one feels soft…

…gritty

…rough”

or “This one smells good…

…sweet

…like grass”

One of the girls pushed some whole wheat flour through a fine mesh strainer and discovered what she had left was the extracted bran.  Another attempted, unsuccessfully,  to grind the sturdy wheat berries into flour with a mortar and pestle, “These are hard! It would have taken forever!”

Next, we added water to each bowl and observed what happened.

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“This one sucks up a lot of water!” (whole grain absorbs more than white)

“This is stretchy.” (Indicating the presence of gluten and its level of strength)

“This turned out kinda runny.” (Lower protein cake flour)

“This one doesn’t stretch at all!” (The only gluten-free one we had, buckwheat, isn’t wheat, but a plant used for it’s edible seeds)

They poked, prodded and tasted the resulting mixtures and shared their various opinions.

“This one tastes like dirt.” Fair enough.

“This one tastes like peanut butter.” Okay…

And, “this one tastes like mouth-blood.” Huh?

It’s a good thing our pizza dough was ready because I was beyond hungry.

We could see that the dough had doubled in size.

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And that the yeast had indeed eaten and burped.

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It was time for stretching!

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They enjoyed deflating the dough.

I divided it into 8, 4 oz. pieces and rounded those into balls.  Ideally we would let the dough rest for a bit to let the gluten relax after the trauma of being man kid-handled and divided, but my empty tummies called.

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I showed them how to press the balls into rounds and then stretch them on the backs of their fists, letting gravity do its work.

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I advised that if the dough wasn’t stretching much, or was fighting back, they should just leave it alone for a minute to let the gluten relax.  Easier said than done.

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They also tried to stretch the dough by holding the discs up by the edges and quickly rotating it to keep the circular shape.

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Some were rounder than others.

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A little sauce…

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toppings…

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then (a late) lunch!

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And they were all very pleased with their creations.

 

Pizza Dough (makes enough for about 8 individual pizzas, or 2 – 3 large rounds, depending on the thickness of crusts)

A note about this recipe:  I use this dough when I’m making it for dinner during the week and I haven’t planned very far ahead.  It happens.  More often than not.  Having said that, when I can think more than a day in advance, I really like this recipe, (with a bit more salt), for its more developed flavor and good chew.  Obviously, explaining to the kiddos that they’ll have to wait 3 days to bake the pizzas might be a tough sell.  This one is definitely kid friendly.

1 1/2 cups warm water

2 t active dry yeast

2 t fine sea salt

2 T olive oil

About 4 cups unbleached all purpose flour, bread flour, or a combination of whole wheat and one of the others

Place 1/2 cup of the water in a large bowl and stir in the yeast.  Set aside for a few minutes to rehydrate. Add the rest of the water, salt and the oil.  Add the flour about a cup at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon after each addition. Stop adding when it becomes too difficult to stir.  Remove the shaggy mass of dough to a floured surface.  With floured hands, knead until fairly smooth and stretchy, using only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking.  Tacky is fine.  Place dough into a lightly oiled bowl and cover.  Set aside for 1 hr.  When the dough has risen to about double, remove to a lightly floured surface. Divide dough and form into balls.  Let sit for 10 minutes.  Stretch dough into rounds, letting dough rest longer if it is hard to stretch or springs back.  Top pizzas and bake in a very hot oven, (I heat mine, including a baking stone, for at least 30 minutes in advance to 500 degrees.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Refrigerator Jam For A Hot Day

 

(This is from a session we did back in May.  Better late than never, right?)

 

I had planned on another baking lesson. Then the hot, dry Santa Anas started blowing. There would be no baking happening in this house.

Now my friend, well she has AC.  And while turning on an oven still sounded enormously unappealing, when she suggested we gather at her place to make jam instead, I gladly accepted the invitation.

She also has a lot of cutting boards.

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We set the kids up with butter knives, strawberries, and instructions on how to cut the just ripe fruit.  In chunks, not too big, not too small, and no greenery or white “shoulders”.

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They made short work of three pounds of berries, scooping them up and dumping them into a heavy, wide pot.

Then we added granulated sugar, (just enough to enhance the natural sweetness of the berries), and the juice of one orange and one lemon.

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We talked about how store bought jam contains a lot more sugar, (as much as 1:1 by weight!), than we would be using for our jam.   Sugar acts as a sweetener, but also as a thickener and a preservative.  Since we weren’t aiming for shelf-stable jam, we didn’t have to worry about losing the preservative effects of more sugar.  This jam would be runnier than a commercial product as well, but truer in flavor.  A reasonable trade-off in my book.

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We started cooking the mixture over medium heat.  The additional liquid from the orange kept the berries from sticking while they gave up their juice.

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The kids took turns occasionally stirring the contents of the pot.  The smell of warming berries made bellies growl.

We talked a bit about how fruit contains pectin, (in the cell walls of land plants to be exact), and how it helps jam gel when it is activated by the cooking process.

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We continued to cook the jam, adjusting the heat so that it bubbled steadily. The goal is to cook it fast enough to preserve the fresh and bright flavor, but not so high a temperature that there is a risk of burning the jam or the cook!

Aside from the delicious smell, we could tell the jam was getting closer to done by looking in the pot.  The berries had a translucent appearance and were completely submerged in syrupy liquid.  The bubbles, once large and thin, were now smaller, tighter, and more viscous.  Less boiling water, more bubbling lava.

We had placed some small plates in the freezer beforehand, and now was the time to retrieve them to start checking the consistency of our jam.

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We placed a spoonful of the hot mixture on the cold plate and drew a finger across it.  When we could make a clear path that didn’t fill in we knew we were done.

The hot jam was ladled into jars and left to cool.  Later, the jars would make it to the refrigerator where the jam would continue to thicken further.

But first a little snack…

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Refrigerator Jam

So this is not really a recipe.  I mean you can use nearly any fruit and, depending on the sweetness of it, as much or as little sugar as your tastebuds dictate.  I like to start with 1/4 cup of sugar per pound of fruit and go from there.

The amount below will yield about a 1/2 pint.  It is better to cook small batches in order to protect the fresh and bright, fruit flavor.

This is not a “putting up” jam, so it will be runnier than store bought and should be kept in the refrigerator where it will keep for at least a week. Unless you fail to hide it from those who don’t comprehend what “a reasonable amount” means.

1 lb of fruit, chopped

1/4 c sugar, more or less to taste

2 T liquid (fruit juice, lemon, whatever)

Place all ingredients in a pot over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally until thick, (see description in post above).  Place in jars.  Cool. Refrigerate. Look forward to toast.