Sunday, May 25, 2014

Family Retreat on Vancouver Island

We spent the Victoria Day long weekend away at a family retreat with a huge group of families from Walter's Out of School Care group (in Canada Victoria Day falls on the last Monday before May 25th - this year that was May 19th).  There must have been over 300 parents and kids relaxing, challenging themselves and each other, and eating.  Occasionally, they let us sleep!

Be warned, this is photo-heavy ... but oh so beautiful ...

Camp Qwanoes, near Crofton, on Vancouver Island.

There were various accommodations to choose from.

Cabins ...

Treehouses (unfortunately, not open at this time of year) ... 

and dorm rooms ...

The advantage of the dorm rooms was that they were heated, had indoor plumbing (including showers), and relatively comfortable sleeping ... they were made up of multiple bunk beds, but heah, this is a camp that tends to see a huge number of teenagers each year and bunk beds hold a lot of people.  We chose a dorm room.

For me, it was about the beauty of the surrounding area.  Despite my height-induced vertigo these stairs led to a beautiful expanse of ocean.

The view beyond the stairs ...

With the tide out it was a great place for wandering and gazing off ...

From Manuel's perspective it was all about the climbing challenges.  He managed three quite different, but way-up-in-the-sky ones.

First up, the Elevator challenge, so called because of that rectangle floating way up in the sky (an old elevator shaft metal frame).

Manuel climbed up it so fast ...

I barely had time ...

to frame my pictures.   And then?  He had reached the top!  Apparently, he broke their record :)

After coming off of that he decided to try a simpler wall climb.

After climbing the easy and medium walls on this, the difficult wall defeated him because the stones were so far apart that he wasn't tall enough to do it.  I think, with practice, he would learn how to overcome that kind of obstacle.

He took the rest of the day off (!), but was back at it again the following day with the Sky Scrapper challenge.  Because of my height issues another parent partnered up with Manuel (you had to be in pairs to ensure you clamped on and off properly).

Not sure which of these pictures shows just how high up they went.  There were three levels.  Originally, they were going to start on level three and work their way down, but Manuel's partner realized how daunting it was once they got to the second level, so they worked their way around that one.

Crazy!  Manuel said it was really hard work and doing just that one level was good enough.

We were exhausted, and coming home to a softer bed was heaven.

Walter wants to go again next year ... I guess we have a year to re-energize.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Dehydrating Apples

A friend of the family has an apple farm in the Okanagan.  We always purchase a few boxes from them, and they generously let us pick several more boxes for free.  Last fall we ended up with 12 boxes of apples.  I don't know if you can appreciate how many apples that is.  We are just now on our last box.  We've given a lot away, eaten an apple a day every day all winter long, made pies, applesauce, apple crisps, lately we've thrown out way too many bad apples (so sad), and recently I pulled out my dehydrator to see what I could do to save some of those apples.

You can, of course, make fruit leather with a dehydrator.  I didn't.  I was too lazy, which is likely why it's taken me this long to get the dehydrator out.  I could make excuses - there was lawn furniture in the way all winter long.  But really?  It just seemed such a bother.  In any case, I finally got out my handy-dandy Nesco dehydrator.

I bought it a few years back when I had big plans to dehydrate everything we were getting from the family farm (which was so much produce a lot was going bad before we could use it).  Dehydrating is a great concept.  Simply slice your fruit or vegetables into similar sizes/thicknesses.  Place in your dehydrator and let the machine slowly dry the food.  The problem is, of course, how long it takes.  You have to realize - I'm used to waiting a bit when making bread.  It's not like I don't have some patience.  But dehydrating?  Man, it takes forever.  I did have a great piece of equipment for peeling, coring, and slicing my apples (10 seconds per apple!).  Another Lee Valley item, the apple peeler (catchy name, eh?).

The nine apples that I could fit in the dehydrator were ready in a couple of minutes.  Laying the apple slices out on the six trays of the dehydrator was another few minutes.  Plugging it in.  No problem.  Then, waiting.  A whole day later (from 6 PM Saturday night to 6 PM Sunday night).  24 hours is what it took.

They look pretty, in a dehydrated kind of way.

But ... that's a lot of time listening to the hum of a dehydrator for two jars of dried apples that likely could be eaten in a single afternoon of snacking.

Would I dehydrate apples again?  Yes, but likely not a boxful since that would take a full week of running the dehydrator to get it done.  Perhaps 2-3 days tops is all I could likely stand.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Popcorn Without a Microwave

If you are of a certain age you will likely remember making popcorn on the stove top.  Some oil in the pot, add the kernels, put the lid on, and start shaking vigorously so those kernels wouldn't burn.  If you were smart, you would start the butter melting before beginning this process so that it would be ready to pour over your popped kernels.

Nowadays, most people just grab a box of microwave popcorn while doing their grocery shopping.  Those microwave popcorn bags are so easy - a couple of minutes in the microwave and you have a piping hot bag of popcorn, all self-contained.  Eat and toss the bag.  Nothing to wash up except, perhaps, your fingers.  And, as long as you don't eat too many bags a day, likely fairly safe.  Not great for the environment, but oh so tempting.

Except, we don't have a microwave.  Yes, you read right.  We don't have a microwave.  When we bought our house it didn't come with one.  Although we had one in the townhouse, it wasn't used too much ... except for making popcorn.  Once we read about popcorn lung, we really didn't want to use it for that either.  So, new house, no microwave.  No problem.  After reading how little difference there was between heating water on a stove or in a microwave (we're talking 0.087 kWh for a microwave compared to 0.095 kWh on a stove top), it wasn't about money savings.  Time is certainly a savings from the microwave perspective, but if you plan things right there really isn't much difference there either.

Does this mean we no longer eat popcorn?  Of course we do!  In fact, a couple of Christmas seasons back Santa gave the family the best present ever - he got us the Lee Valley Whirley-Pop popcorn popper.  With this popper we can have popcorn in approximately 3 1/2 minutes.

1 tablespoon oil, and 1/4 cup popcorn kernels into the Whirley-Pop.  On the stovetop, medium-high, turning that little handle ever so slowly.  The sizzle of steam, and a few seconds later the kernels begin to pop.  At that point, we just turn the stove off and we're done.  It's that simple.  I'd show you how much we get, but it gets eaten so quickly it's hard to even capture some of the finished product (those orange bits are grated cheese!).

We make popcorn at least once a week.  Friday night is popcorn dinner night :) ... by Friday I just don't have it in me to be creative in the kitchen.  I want a break, but I don't want to order in.  Popcorn is a fairly nutritious food source, if made right.  High fiber, high protein.  The grated cheese adds more protein and dairy.  We often have this with a fruit smoothie to balance everything out.  The perfect lazy end to the week.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Learning the Art of Bread Making

I have been making bread for many years now.  Sometimes with success, sometimes ... well, the results haven't always made me happy.  With the recent purchase of my Bosch Universal Plus Mixer (four months and counting!) I have not had a failure.  Is it the machine or have I been slowly learning the art - and science - of bread making?

Bread, at it's essence, is the simple marriage of wet (water, milk) with the dry (flour, salt, sugar).  The leavening agent (yeast) along with some lubricant (oil, butter) brings the happy union together.  The heat of the oven finishes things off.  The result?  Heaven.  Yet, making bread scares most of us.  I know it did me for many years.  Bread can be temperamental.  It needs to be worked to bring out the glutens in such a manner that the yeast will properly marry to it.  Only then will you get the proper rise required for a delicious loaf of bread.  Kneading, so required for that success, is something learned over time.

I have to give credit to my pizza making recipe for teaching me how to knead.  The recipe created a small enough amount of dough that I was able to learn how to knead.  I learned the right look and feel of the dough.  The soft touch that meant the dough was ready to be rested.

Having learned how to knead, the Bosch has given me the ability to vastly increase the amount of dough I can make at one time.  A recipe that makes 2-3 loaves of bread can easily be doubled.  The machine takes care of the arduous task of kneading.  I simply look on.  I do clean up, but am always drawn back to the Bosch.  I stare at the mixing dough, seeing it pull away from the sides of the bowl, being kneaded by the dough hook.  I occasionally stop the machine and touch the dough.  Too sticky?  I gently add a bit more flour and let the kneading continue.  After 10 or so minutes I stop my Bosch and do a final touch of the dough.  Soft, pliable, but not sticky?  Perfect.  I pull it out, giving it just a bit more kneading by hand.  Then into an oiled bowl, turning the dough over to make sure it's coated.  Covered with a tea towel, I place it in the oven for 40-70 minutes of proofing.

The proofing is when the dough rests and grows.  it should double.  There is nothing more magical then seeing your dough doubled.  Success.  You kneaded the dough perfectly.  Once doubled, you take it out ... and pound the dough, shrinking it back to somewhere halfway between it's doubled size and it's original size.  At this point there are so many things you can do with it.  Pizza shells, buns, breads, cinnamon rolls, twists.

With a doubled recipe I usually do three loaves of bread and use the remaining dough for treats.  I've made cinnamon rolls, hot dog buns, rolls, and pizza.  Bread sticks are always fun for a change.

I want to share with you one of the recipes I have been using recently.  It's the culmination of 3-4 recipes from various sources, tweaked until the resulting dough works for me.  You might want to tweak it a bit yourself, so that it becomes yours.

One special note - please use yeast from a jar.  Those individual packages?  I've NEVER made great bread with those.


Water, warm - 1 cup
Active Dry Yeast - 4 1/2 teaspoons
Sugar - 2 teaspoons

Water, warm - 4 cups
Salt - 3 to 4 teaspoons
Sugar - 1/2 to 2/3 cup
Oil - 1/4 cup
Flour, whole wheat or rye - 2 cups
Vital Wheat Gluten - 1 tablespoon
Flour, unbleached all-purpose - 12 cups

This recipe is for a double batch.  If you and your mixer can't handle this amount feel free to cut everything in half.  No worries.  Note also, my instructions will be for the Bosch.

First, place the first 1 cup of warm water and 2 teaspoons of sugar into the mixer bowl.  Swirl with your fingers to blend together.  Add the yeast and swirl again, so that the yeast is wet.  Cover and let rest for approximately five minutes.  While this is happening, measure out the remainder of your ingredients.

Once the yeast mixture has become frothy, you can continue.  In a separate bowl mix the remaining 4 cups of warm water, salt, sugar, and oil.  Mix and add to the mixer bowl.  Pulse to combine.  Next add the whole wheat or rye flour and the vital wheat gluten.  If you are using only white flour you probably won't need the vital wheat gluten.  It's useful when using flours that need more protein, providing an improvement in the texture and elasticity of the dough. Pulse to combine.  Add approximately 4 cups of the regular flour and start the mixer on 1.  Watch as the dough hook stirs the ingredients.  Slowly add more flour.  The mixture will start to thicken and the kneading begins.  Continue adding flour, slowly, until the dough leaves the sides of the mixer bowl clean.  Now let the mixer knead for another 5-10 minutes.  Check the dough occasionally to see if it's too sticky.  If it is, add just a little more flour (perhaps 1/4 cup at a time).  You don't want to add too much flour - then you'll have a dry, unmanageable lump of dough.  A little sticky is better than too dry.

Determining when enough kneading has occurred takes some practice.  The dough shouldn't be sticky.  It should feel as soft as a babies bum.  Take the bowl off the machine.  Pull out the shaft from underneath and remove the dough hook.  Pull the dough out of the bowl and place on a lightly floured surface. 

Knead just a few times to make sure the dough is at the right consistency.  If it isn't, you'll have to do a bit more kneading by hand.  Place the dough into an oiled bowl that will provide enough room for doubling of the dough.  Make sure the dough is rolled around in the oil so that all the surfaces are oiled.  An un-oiled dough will dry and crack and this cracked surface is impossible to remove or re-incorporate into the dough. 

Cover the bowl with a tea towel and place in a draft-free place.  (Dough doesn't like to get cold ... cold slows the doubling time.)  I like to place my dough in my oven.  This keeps it warm, and safe.  Set the timer for 40 minutes.  At the 40 minute mark check the dough.  If it's doubled, great.  If not estimate how much longer.  Sometimes it can take a total of 60-70 minutes.  For dough with more whole wheat/rye it can take longer. In the winter dough takes longer to rise then during the summer months.  Wet weather, dry weather ... all types of weather will effect your dough.

Once the dough has doubled take it out of the bowl.  Place it on your counter and pound it down.  you aren't beating the life out of the dough, more like pressing the excess air out of it.  It shouldn't shrink down to it's original size, but somewhere between.  Now, you can cut it into pieces for various baking items.  This amount of dough will make 4-6 loaves of bread.  I only have two loaf pans so I always make two loafs of bread, I use a square cake pan for a square loaf, and perhaps the rest of the dough becomes rolls or breadsticks placed on a cookie sheet ... or I might roll it out for a couple of large-sized pizzas.  For the bread pans and cookie sheets a light oil will prevent the bread from sticking.  I place these filled pans on top of my stove and cover everything with tea towels.  While the dough rests and rises again I heat the oven to 350F.  Usually 25-30 of rising is all that is necessary.  For the pizza dough, no rising is necessary - once you've rolled it out you can put your sauce, toppings, and cheese and bake at 425F for approximately 20 minutes.  For the rest of the breads, 25-40 minutes of baking at the aforementioned 350F will do.

I hope you try your hand at bread making.  Once learned, a whole new world of baking is possible.  You'll be released from ever needing to buy store-bought, plastic-wrapped bread from the grocery store.  You'll know what your bread contains.  You'll actually be able to pronounce every ingredient.  You'll be able to create something wonderful that you can share with friends and family.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Taking a Break from Baking

It's been one of those weekends where the weather tends to keep you shut up inside.  Useful for getting laundry and housework done.  Certainly gives you time for baking ... but even the lovely smell of baking bread wasn't enough to keep us inside for ever.  Halfway through the afternoon the rain let up and we all decided we needed some fresh air, if only for a short time.  So, we headed over to a nearby beach for a very windy walk along the shoreline.

Sometimes, even a short break is worth it.