Sunday, September 24, 2017

What it All Boils Down To

Shana tovah u'metukah! Wishing everyone a good and sweet new year.

The Jewish new year is traditionally celebrated with sweet foods, especially apples and honey. Combine that with my overwhelming urge to celebrate fall by apple-slash-pumpkin-spicing everything in a three mile radius, and you get my annual habit of making a bit batch of something apple-y to share. This year: apple cider caramels!

Somewhere along the line I stumbled across this recipe from King Arthur Flour. Making candy can sound intimidating, but this really is easy. Basically, you dump most of the ingredients into a pot, heat them up to a specific temperature, toss in a couple of spices, and then pour the whole mixture into a pan to set up overnight. The next day, cut it into individual pieces and wrap them in wax paper.



But this recipe also has - wait for it - a secret ingredient! And that ingredient is boiled cider. 

The recipe just lists boiled cider along with the other ingredients, like this is something everyone has a) heard of, and b) has on hand in their pantry. I had no idea what it was, although it sounded charmingly old-timey. Of course, King Arthur sells a little bottle for some astronomical sum of money. But I'm impatient and cheap, so waiting two weeks for a bottle of liquid gold wasn't gonna happen. I wondered if there was a way to make a substitute on my own.

So I did a little digging, and lo and behold, boiled cider is ... apple cider that's been boiled. Go figure. Basically, it's a gallon of cider that's been boiled down to a pint. It takes several hours on the stovetop over medium heat, but it doesn't take much attention and it makes your house smell amazing. The result is a dark, viscous liquid, almost reminiscent of molasses, that tastes of pure concentrated apple. It's intense and delicious, and I'm already completely obsessed.

Get a gallon of apple cider. Pour two cups into a large stockpot. 

Dip in a wooden chopstick, and mark the level of  the top of the liquid. Then pour in the rest of the gallon and start boiling.
When the level of liquid is back down to the mark on your chopstick, you're done.
Boiled cider!
Used as the main flavoring in the caramels, boiled cider makes them taste like a slice of apple pie. You can put it in baked goods like cider donuts or apple cake to amp up the apple flavor, or just straight up as a topping on ice cream or pancakes. It keeps for ages in the fridge. I'm pretty convinced it's fall's perfect food.

We used a good-quality store-bought cider for this batch. But this weekend we did some apple pressing, and I'm looking forward to trying it again with some really fresh juice.

Hermione guards the apples.
When transporting your cider home in the car, remember to buckle up for safety!
What a delicious way to start the new year! 

Hermie says: Happy 5778!

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Dry Humor

Bonjour! This week we are feeling très français, because the house is perfumed with huge bunches freshly-harvested lavender hanging up to dry.

As the last of the warm, dry weather slips away, we need to wrap up our summer outdoor tasks. One of the most pleasant has been pruning and harvesting the lavender border. This was a truly surprising joy for me!

Commerically-grown lavender is usually harvested in early summer, just before the flowers bloom, when the color and scent of the cut flowers will be strongest. However, we planted ours primarily to attract pollinators to the vegetable garden. So we didn't really intend to "harvest" the flowers - just to let them grow and bloom in the garden, enjoying them right alongside the bees.

Since I've mostly grown vegetables, and moved pretty frequently to boot, I'm not that familiar with how to care for perennials. That's changed a little bit this year as I've learned to tend our strawberries and fennel. (And I'm hoping soon, some raspberries!) But I still had to do some research on how to prepare our lavender plants for fall.

What I learned is that the flowers should be cut off, allowing the plants to invest their energy into developing the healthy roots and leaves that will see it through the rest of the year. And if you do that before the rainy season, you can still preserve the flowers! Basically, if you didn't harvest in summer, pruning for the health of the plant is also a fall harvest.

Actually doing this "chore" makes me feel like some kind of seed-catalog cover model. First of all, it's easy. You just bundle up flowers in your hand and snip the stems off above the leaves. Harvesting the entire plant only takes a few cuts, and every touch releases a wave of gorgeous lavender scent. Up close, I can watch fat, fuzzy bees flitting between the flowers. I left a few of the smaller, late-blooming stems in place for them. (Pro tip: This particular aspect is only idyllic if you watch really, really carefully to make sure you don't harvest a bee. I may have had a few near misses in this area.)

Our plants are still young and fairly small, so I hadn't realized just how many flowers there would be.

This isn't even half! Waiting to be sorted, bunched, and hung.

French lavender, sorted on a marble counter, with the sunshine pouring in ... are you sure I'm not in Provence? 

Sorting and bunching actually took quite a bit of time and effort. And then I had to figure out where and how to hang it to dry for a couple of weeks. Inner MacGyver, activate!

Most sources recommend drying lavender in a dark place to preserve the purple color. Since this was late harvest, however, the color is already somewhat faded and mold and rot are bigger concerns. I decided to hang the bunches in a sunny spot to remove as much moisture as possible. What sunny indoor spot can I take over completely for a few weeks? Ah-ha - the laundry room window. (Wear those socks sparingly, hubby...)

One laundry rack, one basket, one roll of paper towel, and a lot of rubber bands and binder clips later...

Now I have a little time to think about what I want to do with all that dried lavender! I know for sure that I want to make some sachets for clothing drawers. Other than that... lavender bath salts? Selling a few bunches? Suggestions welcome!

A pensive Hermione, probably considering what to make with dried lavender. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Paint the Town White

Now that the bathroom is done, we're working on the rest of the upstairs. We're making a lot fewer changes, so this should be (comparatively) simple.

First up - paint! We're painting before laying the floor so that we don't have to worry about accidental spills or drips. It feels a little odd to be painting an unfinished room, but it is convenient. At least, it's convenient when I'm not stepping over piles of lumber or squeezing around a table saw.

We're not making any more significant changes to the walls, but they did need some minor patching before we got going. The spackling and sanding were fairly painless... with one big exception.

You may remember that we removed a wainscot-height wallpaper border a few months back. Underneath where that wallpaper had been, you can see an older coat of paint in a different color. That's the darker blue strip in the photo below.


I've been dyyyyyyiiiiiiing to paint this over. It makes the space feel really unfinished, and I knew a coat of paint would completely transform the feeling of the room. But when I got up close to the wall for the repairs, I realized it wasn't going to be quite that straightforward.

The appliqué had been applied, and then the entire wall was painted over. So where you see that strip, there was actually a small raised bead of paint along the top and bottom edges. It was just large enough that it would cause a visible line even after a new coat of paint.

I was worried about damaging the drywall, so I started gently with a drywall sanding block. When that wasn't effective, I moved to 150 grit sandpaper... then 80... and half an hour later I was shoving my entire body weight behind the orbital sander. I even had to do it a second time, when the first pass still showed a line through a test area of new paint.

Naturally, it was 80+ degrees outside, which is exactly when you want to be stuck in a face mask, goggles, and hair covering. I am officially sick of the orbital sander.


But the result is so worth it! Our walls and ceiling are painted. We still have to do the closet ceiling and the stairwell, but the real transformation has already happened - suddenly we can feel what this room will be like when it's done.

And now, for no reason other than pure happiness, enjoy this video of Hermione rolling around in the sand.


Friday, September 1, 2017

In Praise of Blackberries

Since I love homegrown food, you might think I would also do a fair amount of wild foraging. Unfortunately, my plant identification game is just not that on point. I'm fairly convinced that given even the slightest opportunity, I would pull a Chris McCandless and promptly poison myself on some ersatz potatoes. But there is one plant I forage with absolute confidence and wild impunity. I'm referring, of course, to the blackberry.





If you've spent more than about ten minutes in the Pacific Northwest, you've seen blackberries growing wild in every forgotten corner. They're unmistakable. Most of the year, they're a terrible pest. The invasive, thorny vines grow like you neglected to invite a wicked fairy to your christening, forming a tangled mass that wends its way under and over and around and straight through anything that holds still.



But then late summer arrives. The berries bloom. And for a few brief weeks, you lay down your flamethrower and your enmity, and just enjoy the incredible bounty of shining ripe purple-black jewels.



Every summer, I say I'm going to pick enough blackberries to keep us in jam, pies, and smoothies all year. And every summer, the time gets away from me. So this week when I get home, I'm pulling out the kitchen colander, walking out to the corner, and filling it up with berries to freeze for later. My legs are scratched, my hands are full of thorny splinters, and my fingers and teeth are going to be stained purple for days. And I couldn't be happier.



I'm sure there's a life lesson somewhere in all of this. I'm just too busy eating wild, juicy berries to think about it.

One of my favorite berry-picking buddies.