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Feb 082016
 

traditional-scottish-shortbread

Every Christmas when I was a girl, Grandma Alice would show up with a cheque for me in one hand and a foil-wrapped brick for my father in the other. This package was never wrapped in Christmas paper, and was always set aside from the rest of the ‘real’ presents, but you can be sure that dad’s favourite gift was his mom’s shortbread cookies.

A few years ago my grandmother passed away, and if it weren’t for my aunt she would have taken her shortbread recipe with her. One Christmas I decided to make dad some of his mom’s cookies that he missed so much, and now it’s my job to show up each year with a foil-wrapped brick.

These cookies are old school. They are made of only three ingredients – sugar, flour, and butter – and because of that the freshness of the ingredients will show. It’s worthwhile to buy a small new bag of flour for these cookies, especially if you don’t go through flour that quickly, because if it picks up any scents from the cupboard you’ll taste them in the cookies.

Even though this recipe is simple it can take time to master. You need to have some patience as you work the powdery mixture into dough (especially if you are working in a cold kitchen, which makes the dough harder to knead).  When you bake these cookies, don’t expect them to rise or melt – they go in the oven looking like little white bricks and they come out looking pretty much the same. You want to be sure not to overcook them – they shouldn’t turn brown – you should aim to take them out of the oven as soon as they are cooked through.

This recipe calls for ‘berry sugar’, which is also known as ‘superfine sugar’. It’s essentially granulated sugar that has smaller particles than standard table sugar. Using pastry flour and berry sugar creates a slightly nicer texture for the cookie, but don’t fret if you can find either of these ingredients  – you can substitute all-purpose flour and regular table sugar and they’ll turn out just fine.

You don’t have to slice the cookies into bricks and wrap them in foil, like my practical grandmother did, but I think you’ll find they taste better that way.

Alice Mary’s Traditional Scottish Shortbread

Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:

Yield: 4 dozen cookies

Ingredients

  • 5-6 cups pastry flour (can substitute regular flour)
  • 1 cup berry sugar (can substitute granulated sugar)
  • 1 pound unsalted butter

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 325 F.
  2. In a large bowl, mix 5 cups of pastry flour and the berry sugar.
  3. Cut the butter into the flour/sugar mixture with a pastry blender or mixer.
  4. At this stage the mixture looks like a powder. Working with about 1/3 of the mixture at one time, use very clean hands to knead it until it forms a dough. If you are working in a cold kitchen or find that the mixture is too hard to work with you can soften it by warming it up in the microwave for a few seconds  at a time. Be very careful not to melt the mixture.
  5. Once the dough has been formed, roll it out on a lightly floured surface to be 1/2 inch thick.
  6. Cut the dough into one-inch by two-inch rectangles and prick three times with a fork. (Alternatively, use cookie cutters to cut other shapes.)
  7. It’s a good idea to bake a test batch before you bake the rest of the cookies, since different brands of flour give different results. If the cookies lose their shape or ‘melt’, work the remaining 1 cup of flour into the dough and try again.
  8. Bake cookies for about 20 minutes until the cookies are cooked through and are a golden colour on the bottom. The cookies should hold their shape and remain white on the top. Be careful not to overcook.

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 February 8, 2016  Posted by at 6:08 am Uncategorized No Responses »
Mar 082014
 

Zucca melon seeds

So it turns out that zucca melon seed is not that easy to germinate. They require soil that is 70-85 degrees F, and they can take from 7 to 48 days to sprout.

Yes, 7 to 48 days. I had to read that a few times to really get it to sink in. It could take a month and a half just for these seeds to sprout.  A month-and-a-half just to get the seeds to sprout!

It’s March 7th today, and in my area the last frost is around April 19th, so I figure I had better get started! I want to get these guys in the ground as soon as I can, because the Pacific Northwest climate I am in is very rainy, and it can be hard to grow things that require a lot of sun. Things like zucca melons.

To speed up the sprouting process, I am soaking the seeds in water overnight.  Wish me luck, I will update as things progress!

Previous post: The zucca melon project


 March 8, 2014  Posted by at 6:13 am Uncategorized Tagged with:  No Responses »
Mar 042014
 

zucca melon circa 1940's

Last year, I decided to experiment with candied fruit. I made candied orange peel, candied pineapple, candied cherries, and a few other things. My mom saw my efforts and said to me “Oh, you should grow a zucca melon so you can candy it. That’s what they use in fruitcakes you know.”

So, figuring that my mom knew what she was talking about, I set off to find zucca melon seeds. Of course, I didn’t actually know what a zucca melon was, but I knew I wanted to grow one if it is a good source of candied fruit for fruitcakes.

Well it turns out that zucca melons are not as common as my mother thinks. She grew up in the Okanagan in the 1950’s, and at that time zucca melons were cultivated extensively and very popular. They were used as a filler for jams and a substitute for citrus peel, which wasn’t imported to Canada during the war. Since then, they stopped being cultivated in the area, and nearly became extinct.  Thanks to the heroic efforts of Sharon Rempel who went on epic hunt for zucca melon seeds, and  Mr. Glenn Swenson of Sandwich, Illinois, who grew them in his backyard for 30 years, some seeds were rediscovered and the species was saved.  You can read this fascinating story here.

Now I really had to grow a zucca melon.


Of course, it’s really hard to find zucca melon seeds for sale. In fact, the only place I could find them was from Rob’s Rare and Giant Seeds (which is a website that you really need to visit for a tour of the weird and wonderful world of giant plants).

Yes, I got them from Rob’s rare and GIANT seeds. Zucca melons are gigantic, weighing up to 127 1/2 pounds, according to the Osoyoos and District Museum. Zucca melon vines can grow to be 25 feet long.  Do you remember the show I Love Lucy? Well, Ricky’s drum was made from a zucca melon.  Apparently the zucca melon skins get so thick that you need a saw to cut through them.

Zucca melons are members of the gourd family, and their flowers open at night. Originally from Africa, these plants attract African pollinators that come out at night, and we don’t have those here in the Pacific Northwest. This means that I’ll need to pollinate them by hand. At night.

I placed my order at Rob’s, and shortly thereafter got my zucca melon seeds. All nine of them. At first I thought that wasn’t very many seeds, until I realized that I really don’t have room for 9 zucca melons in my yard.

Hopefully I’ll be able to grow these seeds out, and save some for next year. I’ll update this blog over summer 2014 and let you know my progress. Stay tuned.

Next article > Planting the zucca melon seeds


 March 4, 2014  Posted by at 5:52 am Gardening Tagged with:  No Responses »
Jun 282013
 

Lately I’ve been a bit of a radish nerd. I’ve been collecting radish seeds from small seed companies that specialize in heirloom, endangered, and open-pollinated seeds. I’ve been growing them in pots on the balcony, which is working out quite well.  The soil in the pots is very loose, which gives the radishes plenty of room to grow, so they are actually doing better in pots than in the ground.

Radishes - Amethyst, a purple "easter egg", and altaglobe.

These three beauties come from West Coast Seeds, based out of Delta, BC, in Canada. The bright purple radish on the left is an Amethyst, and wow, is it ever bright! It’s also incredibly spicy and our favourite so far. The middle radish comes from their Easter Egg Blend, so I’m not sure exactly what kind of radish it is. And the radish on the right is an open-pollinated Altaglobe.

Soon I’ll be planting a few more varieties, including White Icicle, Watermelon, Black Spanish Round, Yellow Carrot Rooted, and French Breakfast. Most of the varieties I order are open-pollinated, which means that it’s possible to grow them for seed in the right conditions, so I might give that a try! (Unfortunately the Amethyst are hybrids.)

If I can grow more radishes than my husband can eat, then I am going to take a stab at making pickled radishes — stay tuned!

 

 June 28, 2013  Posted by at 3:24 am Food, Gardening No Responses »
Feb 082013
 

An ice spike I found in the hummingbird feeder today.This morning the hummingbird feeder had quite a surprise – a  large ice spike.

This happened to my ice cubes a few years ago, and I  learned that this is because the water freezes unevenly. The liquid in the middle of the ice cube starts to seep out of a small, unfrozen hole. If conditions are just right, the water freezes as it leaves the hole and gives you an ice spike.

This article from cal-tech describes exactly how this process works.  And this article describes how to make your own.

With a bit of imagination, I think that the ice spike looks a bit like a hummingbird. Maybe it’s time to think about refilling the feeder? I think it’s getting warm enough that the sugar-water won’t freeze.

Another view of the ice spike in my hummingbird feeder.

Another view of the ice spike in my hummingbird feeder.

Ice spike in an hummingbird feeder.

Another view of the ice spike in my hummingbird feeder.




An ice spike in an ice cube.

An ice spike that I found in an ice cube in 2005.

 February 8, 2013  Posted by at 10:29 pm Eco-friendy, Ramblings No Responses »
Feb 072013
 
How to prevent sugar crystallization.

Examples of crystallized sugar. Top: crystallized syrup. Middle: crystallized orange rind candy. Bottom: Rolled fondant, which has been crystallized on purpose.

What is sugar crystallization?

You may have heard about sugar crystallization or experienced it for yourself. Have you ever had a jar of golden, syrupy honey turn into a solid, grainy mess? Have you ever made some simple syrup for your cake and discovered a few days later that it looked more like toothpaste than syrup? That’s crystallization.

You might be wondering what went wrong or if you need to adjust your recipe. Crystallization is a chain reaction where the melted sugar starts to re-form into its crystalline (grainy) state. It’s easy to start this chain reaction, even if you are using a great recipe and are being careful with your techniques. You might make a recipe dozens of times and find that sometimes crystallization occurs and sometimes it doesn’t.

Sugar crystallization has been plaguing candy makers for years. Sometimes crystallization will ruin your final product, but other times it’s not a problem, or it may even be part of the recipe. Fortunately, we do know what causes crystallization and how to prevent it, but it can be hard to adhere perfectly to these techniques. Still, there is a lot that can be done.

What does sugar crystallization look like?

Crystallized sugar looks grainy, solid, and opaque.

The sugar mixture in the top photo was originally a thick, orange-flavoured syrup that was left over from making candied orange peel. I left it in my refrigerator for a couple of days and it went solid and grainy – I won’t be pouring it on my pancakes!

The middle photo shows some candied orange peel. It still tastes fine and can be used in recipes, but it doesn’t look quite as pretty as smooth-edged, shiny orange peel candy. If I’m going to chop it up for fruitcake, I won’t even notice the crystallization. If I want to dip it in chocolate and serve it as candy, well … I’d eat it anyway, who am I kidding, but it wouldn’t look as good.

Sometimes crystallization is the key to a recipe. Rolled fondant (the type you see on the outside of cakes) is a sugar syrup that is poured on to a slab and stirred with a spatula until the sugar crystallizes and forms a soft, opaque and stretchy white candy. The bottom photo shows a tiered cake with a layer of fondant, a confection that has been crystallized on purpose.

How can I prevent crystallization?

There are two approaches to preventing crystallization. The first approach is to avoid doing anything that causes crystallization. The other approach is to add something to your recipe that gets in the way of the crystallization reaction. These additives are called interfering agents.

Stray grains of undissolved sugar can start the crystallization reaction, since they are already in the crystalline state and put a lot of peer pressure on the rest of the sugar, since crystallizing is the cool thing to do. You can also trigger crystallization by shocking the mixture – too much stirring or even a cold utensil can trigger the crystallization reaction.

To prevent crystallization, use the following techniques:

  • Wash down the sides of your pan with a wet pastry brush. Once the sugar has dissolved, take a wet pastry brush and brush down the sides of your pan with water. Make sure that there are no undissolved grains of sugar that stick to the side of the pan, since their presence can trigger crystallization. (Some people keep the lid on the boiling mixture so that the steam trickles down the side and does the same thing.)
  • Avoid stirring the mixture. You’ll need to stir the mixture while the sugar dissolves, but try to avoid stirring after that. If you need to mix your ingredients around, try swirling the pan instead.
  • Warm spoons and candy thermometers before inserting them in to the mixture.  Cold utensils can shock the mixture into crystallization, so warm them up before you insert them. You might want to consider using a laser candy thermometer, which does not need to be inserted into the liquid at all.



To combat crystallization, use an interfering agent:

  • Corn syrup  contains sugars that discourage crystallization. (Note that the corn syrup you buy in the grocery store is not the same thing as the controversial high-fructose corn syrup food additive).
  • Cream of tartar and lemon juice are acids that help block the crystallization reaction.
  • Other ingredients in the recipe may also interfere with crystallization, for example milk and cream.

How can I fix sugar that has crystallized?

You can fix crystallized sugar by remelting the sugar crystals and trying again. You may want to add an interfering agent, and of course you want to be careful not to trigger the crystallization reaction. This is easy for crystallized liquids – simply reheat the crystallized syrup and try again.  Other confections may or may not be easy to fix, depending on the recipe. You might just have to live with it! (But don’t worry, crystallization doesn’t ruin taste, it just messes up the texture.)

Comments, questions? Please join the discussion and leave a comment below.

Crystallized syrup from making candied orange peel.

 February 7, 2013  Posted by at 11:53 pm Food No Responses »
Feb 052013
 

How to make simple syrup for cakes. Keep your cakes moist!

One of the best ways to keep your cake moist is to brush the top of each layer with simple syrup. Simple syrup adds moistness and flavour to any cake – it’s that magic ingredient that gets people talking about how good your cake tastes.

Making simple syrup is easy, and only takes a few minutes. If you’ve never tried making a cake with simple syrup before, now is your chance to see the difference it makes to your favourite cake recipe. You can also use this simple syrup in your favourite cocktails.



This recipe makes just over one cup of simple syrup, which is more than enough to use on a couple of large, multi-layered cakes. In fact, you may want to cut this recipe in half if you are making a smaller cake.

Simple Syrup
Ingredients

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup water

Directions

  • In a small saucepan on medium-high heat, combine 1 cup granulated sugar and 1 cup water.
  • Heat, stirring gently until the sugar is dissolved.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil.
  • Once the mixture has reached a full boil, let it continue to boil for 1 minute.
  • Remove the mixture from the heat, and let cool to room temperature.

Be careful not to boil the syrup for much longer than a minute, otherwise it can become too thick when it cools. (If this happens, just add some water to it and boil it again). If you are using a candy thermometer, take the syrup off the heat before the mixture reaches 230° F (110° C).

Simple syrup can be kept in the refrigerator, covered, for a few weeks. If the syrup crystallizes (goes solid and grainy), simply reheat it. You can help prevent crystallization by adding some corn syrup to the mix, but it’s not really necessary if you don’t plan to store it.

To use simple syrup, lightly brush each layer of your cake with a thin coat of simple syrup. Don’t soak the cake – a little dab will do. Try it on top of cupcakes too! Don’t forget to add simple syrup to the top of your cake before you add the frosting.

Simple syrup soaks into the cake better when it’s dabbed on the cut side of the cake (as opposed to the smooth, sticky top crust of the cake), so if any of your layers still have the crust attached, flip them upside-down and put the simple syrup on the cut side.

Variations

  • You can add Amaretto, Grand Marnier,  or your favourite sweet,  clear, liqueur in place of simple syrup (for adults only, of course).
  • To give your cakes an added hint of flavour, use the leftover syrup from making candied orange peels or any other candied fruit.  (Note that you may need to dilute it a bit, depending on how syrupy it is.)

Questions? Comments?  Please leave a comment and let us know what you think!

How to keep your cakes moist by using simple syrup.

 February 5, 2013  Posted by at 10:19 pm Food 1 Response »