Category Archives: Projections

Projects that I’ve enjoyed.

Sheep Skin Rug

I think there are certain people who exude serendipity. I find myself going to see these people and ending up in a chain of positive connections and events that soon grow into completely new aspect of my life that I can then call my own. In this instance, I’m thinking of Paul Smith and Mary Lake.

Through them, I started working wilderness therapy, which essentially formed the path that I’m on right now. More specifically, Paul started me on wood carving, beer brewing, and hiking as much as possible. Mary has taught me more about sheep and wool than anyone else in the world. Plus, Crokinole.

The latest improvement by association came by way of their moving out party. Every guest at the party was required to take something form the free room, which was full of stuff that they knew they weren’t going to move with. I got a mug, a carboy, and a jar of peanut butter during the party. I was also fortunate enough to be there the day before to get one item in particular…

A lovely brown sheepskin. Well, let me clarify. A potentially lovely brown sheepskin. As gross as the picture looks, it was much worse in the beginning. I essentially got a trash bag with a fresh hide in it. Like, still warm (Mary is also a butcher). I had always wanted to go about prepping one of these things, so I jumped on the chance to take it back with me.

Now, I had done a deer hide before down in Kentucky, but I was just going to use that hide to make a drum, so it didn’t matter if the hair was on it or not. Thus, I just soaked the whole thing in lye and took the hair off, then let it dry in the sun.  (Like so)

For this one, though, I wanted it to be both flexible and furry (like me! (gross)) so I knew I would have to revise my methods. After searching the internet for awhile, I learned one key thing about tanning hides: You’re going to have to pick your own method and stick with it. From the 20+ resources I looked over, I was able to find 20+ methods of tanning a sheepskin, each one unique in its process. Eggs, oil, acids, and brains were the most common methods. I chose brains because, well… because I know a butcher.

But let me start at the beginning. First, I needed to get all the moisture out of the hide. This was mostly to preserve the hide until I could get around to it, since it would eventually rot if I just left in in a pile in my garage. To do this, I placed the hide fur side down on a collapsible drying rack and covered the bare side in salt. The rack was to keep the fur from hanging onto moisture and the salt was to forcibly draw out any moisture and blood that was still in the skin. Looking back, I would have done a few things differently. First, the skin could have used a better scraping before I salted it. Even the most talented butcher usually leaves a few pieces of whatnot stuck to the hide, and these are best removed when the it’s fresh. I ended up having to scrape and tug and pull and rip what could have easily been taken off early on. Second, The laundry rack, while keeping the fur off the ground, didn’t let the hide dry in a uniform shape, which made for some unevenness later on.

After it was completely dried out (it was stiff as a board and technically rawhide at that point) I picked a warm day to start the tanning process. The whole point of this step is to loosen up the fibers in the flesh to make the end product soft and pliable. The tannins in any one of the formulas mentioned above work well at doing this. The other alternative is to
“break” the hide using your own power, which is like crumpling a piece of paper over and over again to make it soft. The problem with that method is that it takes hours and it will kill your hands. Just imagine giving the most intimidating of business handshakes about two thousand times in a row.

I opted for brains because I could get them and I was curious about what it would be like to work with them.  The first step was blending the brains, which was pretty intense. It’s one thing to work with a piece of meat. Maybe it’s repetition or just that it’s clearly food, but I never really have a mercy reaction to carving a chicken. When I saw the brain in the blender, though, I started getting headaches as I imagined what it would be like to have that done to my brain. Maybe it was the sheep messing with me, but I kept telling myself that it’s better to use the whole animal.

After liberally applying the milkshake to the bare side, I folded it in half (flesh to flesh) and let the tannins do their work for the night. Now, when I got out to it the next morning, I could tell that changes were happening. The color of the skin was beginning to lighten and even turn transparent in some spots. One thing that wasn’t ready, though, was the overall condition of the hide. One, it was still pretty dirty. Two, it smelled like a sheep. Not like, “Oh, yea! It kinda does smell like a sheep if you get real close up to it!” More like, “Dude, are you lambing in here?” The brains certainly weren’t helping. At this point I just set the whole thing in the sun on a proper hide rack (they’re easy to make!) to try to get some of the smell off. There was another step of smoking the hide that might have done the trick, but I figured that I had the laid the brains on too thick and that I sort of needed to start over.

This actually worked out well, because there was still some more cleaning to be done. There were still bits of sticks and dirt and barnyard dandruff stuck in the fir, so I decided that I was going to wash the whole thing out and try to add more oil into the skin later on.

To clean up the flesh side first, though, I came across an interesting method that suggested using cornmeal and a stone to help clean the bits off that would just get stuck in a brush (think of brushing bread dough). After spending a bit of time with this method, it went from the above, to this:

The linty bits are parts that came up during the scraping and the yellow bits are pieces of cornmeal that will never be eaten by me. This didn’t really solve the smell, but it did save me a lot of hassle once water came into the picture.

Which was accompanied by a lot of dish soap. I used Seventh Generation because I didn’t want to have to worry about what was going to run off into my yard, plus a rug that smelled like Dawn would make me gag. All together, I washed and rinsed the fur three times, making sure to work the soap and water all the way down to the hide to get rid of anything that might be smelling. After rinsing, I scrubbed the flesh side with soap to get any bits of brains off that might have stayed behind. After all these washings, fur looked a lot nicer and smelled a lot cleaner, but the skin had taken on a bunch of water.

At this point, I started breaking rules and dedicated my sheepskin to being an experiment. Even though I had bunches of different resources for what to do next, I decided to just make things up. I knew that the blood had been drawn out and that all there was in the skin was clean water. If I got all of that out, then the hide would still be preserved, but it would become stiff again. To get around this issue, I partially dried the sheepskin by putting the whole thing in the dryer on the air dry setting (heat would have cooked it) and kept checking it every couple of minutes. After a good bit of the moisture was out, I laid it fur side down on another rack and rubbed some leather conditioner into it. My logic was that the conditioner would keep the hide flexible while the water dried out of it, which seems to have worked.


So, in reflection, the hide probably would have turned out a little softer and involved less work if I’d have followed just one process, but the experience did reassure me that as long as one understands the basics of what’s needed, it’s possible to end up with a usable rug. From now on, though, I’m going to make sure that everything I tan can be used as a blanket because that’s just awesome.

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Lawn Games and Grilling

So, summer is going by pretty quick.

While I could say that it’s been all work and school and obligations and no fun, that would be a bummer to everyone and it wouldn’t be true. Those are two bad things that I can avoid easily.

EMPOWERMENT!

One thing that I always look forward to in the summer is playing lawn games. Now, I’m all about the Food Not Lawns movement, but you just can’t play bocce ball in a pumpkin patch. I’m assuming.  I haven’t tried.

What I have tried, recently, is making lawn darts. This was doubly necessary because lawn darts aren’t really a thing that’s made anymore and I probably wouldn’t pay money for them if they were. Plus, I was bored and wanted to make something. Tripply necessary. Tripoli necessary.

I can’t really explain what’s so great about lawn darts. You throw spike and they stick in the ground and that feels awesome! Once, as a kid, i practiced throwing a screw driver into the dirt for two hours. I’m either super easily entertained or a psychopath.

Or it’s completely normal and that’s why lawn darts are popular. But… illegal?

Anyway, make some!

Now, store bought lawn darts are plastic and that’s fine. I didn’t have a bunch of plastic fletching around, so I went for cloth. The design is copied from a toy I remember my aunt making for me as a kid that was essentially a small bean-bag with a long tail of cloth attached to it. You’d throw it and the cloth would trail behind it like a comet. Ten kids with twenty of those things makes for awesome times.

One cool thing about using cloth is that you can have as many teams as you want, since there are MILLIONS of types of cloth out there. I just heard about this! Spread the word!

In addition to the cloth, I got six barn spikes from the local hardware store. They’re just big nails with a really cool name.

After working at it for a bit, I found that I needed a washer to keep the head of the nail from ripping through the cloth when the dart was being swung around. After all, that could kill someone. Some foam from a cut up mouse pad worked great.

Then it was just a matter of piercing two long strips of cloth with the nail and putting a small duct tape stopper right where the cloth met the nail. They’re fun now, but I bet they’ll get even better when the fall comes and these mosquitoes move out of my yard.

But, food! What about that!?

Well, I recently had grilled pizza and home made pop tarts. IN THE SAME NIGHT! Let’s do that together again sometime!

Our great buddy Lylee brought over a heart shaped cookie cutter and an overflowing excitement to help us make these things.
The Deets:
Make some pie crust. Specifically, Ken Haedrich’s “basic flaky crust” from his GIANT book called PIE. It’s a great recipe. I used to be scared of doing this. Totally unfounded. I will say that getting a pastry cutter helps out a lot, but it’s not completely necessary if you only want to try it out. First, gather these things:

  • 3 Cups Flour
  • 1 Tbsp. Sugar
  • 1 Tsp. Salt
  • 1 Stick of Cold Butter
  • 1/2 Cup Shortening
  • 3/4 Cup ice water

HOLD UP!

A quick note on the fats; put the shortening in the freezer and the butter in the fridge and leave them there until you are ready to use them. Mix the salt, sugar, and flour together. Then get your cold shortening and butter out and put them in with the dry stuff. The reason you want these cold is so that they don’t start to melt and work into your flour. If they melt, you’ll be left with a super tough cracker. Keeping them separated ensures the layering that makes for a wonderfully flaky crust. So, work quickly!

Cut up the butter and shorting in the bowl by running two butter knives in a scissor motion through the larger blocks of fat. Once it’s broken down enough, you break it down further with either the pastry cutter or your fingers. The advantage of using the cutter is that it keeps your hot little hands from melting all the butter. Like I said, though, just work quick and there shouldn’t be a problem.

Once you get it to a crumbly consistency, you start adding the water. Again, cold is good. I’ve actually thought that this whole process will be a whole lot easier in the winter when our house becomes the inside of a fridge. Except, instead of being filled with food, it’s filled with blanket people with red noses.

Anyway! Add the water 1/4 Cup at a time. This will make sure that you don’t overdo it. Too much water will mean a tough crust, so take it easy. Once it sticks together like playdough, you’re good. Wrap it up in plastic and put it in the fridge for a few hours.

Now, if you want to make the pop tarts, it’s pretty easy. roll out the pie crust into a sheet about 1/16 of an inch thick and start cutting rectangles. Spread a thin layer of nutella on one rectangle and top it with a thin layer of jam. You can either go the functional route of putting a complete rectangle of crust on top of this one, or you can get fancy and cut out a heart shaped space for a strawberry half. Sprinkle the top with sugar and bake at 350 for about 12 minutes (until golden brown.) Serve! Celebrate! Also, shout out to the original recipe.

Wait! You can’t eat just dessert. That would be bad for your body. Make some pizza!
Now, we’ve made a few pizzas before, but grilling them is a whole new thing. I plan on having a legit pizza oven one day, but this is pretty darn close for now.

Ah! It’s crust time again! You see? I lure you in with pop tarts and pizza, then I help you conquer your culinary fears! It’s just like Maury! Except, I’m not just chasing you around the stage with balloons and pickles.

When I need something bready, I tend to turn to Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery. He’s got a great book for people wanting to make good bread without spending too much time or money in the process. Well, I need to clarify that the breads to rise for 12-18 hours on average. But that’s the beauty of the thing, you can stat it the day before and let it rise during the night. Then, you just jump back in at lunch time the next day and you’ve got bread.

The pizza dough is simpler in that it’s a faster rise. You’ll want to start this whole process about three hours before your pizza is going to be eaten. It’ll make two 13″ by 18″ pies.

Get this stuff together

  • 3 and 3/4 Cups of flour
  • 2 and 1/2 Tsp. yeast
  • 3/4 Tsp. salt
  • 3/4 Tsp Sugar
  • 1 and 1/3 Cup room temperature water

Mix all that together for about 30 seconds, kneading it in on itself gently. Cover and let this dough ball rise for about two hours. After that’s done, turn the dough out onto a floured surface and form it into a ball, divide the ball in half and cover both halves with a moist towel for about 30 minutes.

Here’s where things get a little different. Instead of stretching it onto a pan, I decided to try tossing it by hand. It was a ton of fun, but I don’t think I accomplished much. Drop ceilings are not things that are in pizzerias, I guess.

After getting it spread out a bit (and getting the grill hot) I par-baked the crust on the grill just to make the transfer easier. One thing that I noticed through all this was that the center of the pizza was getting cooked way faster than the edges. I think this partially because the crust was thinner in the middle and partially because the grill was also hottest in the middle. The first one I’ll be able to correct by forming the crusts differently in the future. The second is tougher, but I’m thinking about trying out a large stone on the grill to help spread the heat out.

The next bits are simple. Just put on the toppings. Olive oil, white sauce, red sauce, gravy, chocolate, fish paste… the base layer can be whatever. Toppings can also be whatever you want.

We ended up going with tomato sauce, sausage, cheese, peppers, tempeh, and avocado. We had some leftovers that needed to be ate up.

 Summer is a good time.

I’m hoping that everyone I haven’t gotten to see yet is having a great time and that we’ll get to enjoy all of these things together very soon.

Bon été!

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Sunday Slam: Bunnies and Berries

So far, the move to make Sundays the best day in the week has taken off swell.

By cramming everything awesome into one day, I not only always have something to look forward to but I also feel fine with spending the rest of my time working on arguably more necessary projects. You know, the one’s that pay the bills.

So what happened this Sunday? Oh man.

Well, first there was the brunch at our local cafe, which was a combination celebration of a day off and a birthday to come. On the way out, there was on 89 year old grandpa on the front steps that was bleeding really heavily from his head. While everyone else was frantically stumbling and mumbling about (“What happened? Is he alright? Oh my word!”) Allison got some napkins to apply pressure to the cut while I got one of the bus boys to call 911 and get some water. He had fallen and opened up an old scar on his forehead and was bleeding pretty quickly, but he was in good spirits about it. It was pretty remarkable for two reasons. One, it’s crazy to see how people lock up in emergency situations. Even the most basic first aid of applying pressure to a wound seems to escape people when their caught off guard. I don’t think it’s that people don’t care or are cruel, but that it’s just easier to freeze. Out of the three basic instincts, that’s the one that’s easiest to lock into when witnessing an injury. There’s not usually anything to fight, and there’s almost never a reason to “fly,” so one ends up just standing about giving off empathy.

Second, this guy was really cool. Out of everyone there, he was probably the most calm. The whole time, he was cracking jokes and making light of the situation. More than anything, he didn’t want anyone worried. As he wife came to see what happened, he told her “Oh, I missed a step and hit my head. Do you think we can get our breakfast to go?” It was pretty awesome to see someone able to put everyone at ease like that. As Allison wipe off the blood that had run down his face, she joked along. “Let me just get these bits off so you can look presentable when your daughter gets here.” Lesson, I guess, is that staying cool under pressure is awesome and it’s too bad that so many people don’t.

And that was just the start!

Next, there were the strawberries. Allison had just picked eight pounds of them at Lull Farm in Milford and we needed to make some jam. Needed to.

We decided to jam half of them, freeze one quarter, and eat another quarter over the next week. Here’s the most basic strawberry jam recipe we could find.

  • Four Pounds of Strawberries, hulled
  • Eight Cups of Sugar
  • 1/2 Cup of Lemon Juice

Wait, what?

I mean, I knew that preserves took a lot of sugar, especially low-pectin fruits like strawberries, but Eight Cups?

Just for perspective, here’s what that looks like.

That was a little shocking. At the time, we thought we’d just go along with it so that we learn the traditional way to make it before we try some other form later. In retrospect, the stuff is a little sweet for my liking. Next time, I think we’ll try using some pectin to get it to thicken up and set without giving it so much sweetness.

Here’s what we did.

First, we mashed them.

Some recipes called for them to be blended, but we both prefer some big fruit chunks in the preserves, so we went with the dance-party masher. Um, ask me about it later.

After dissolving the sugar in at a low boil (which actually didn’t take very long at all,) we cranked up the heat and let it boil on high for about thirty minutes or so. The color significantly darkened and the bubbles were more sluggish, which were signs that we were getting closer. The best signal, though, was the temperature. When it got to 220, that meant it was supposed to be done. Since water boils at 212, the higher temperature shows that the consistency is getting thicker. I guess the old-timers figures that 220 was pretty universal.

Even more old-timey, though, was the final test of spooning some out onto a cold plate and seeing how is acted. We felt like a couple of five year olds, poking these jellied strawberries with wooden spoons to see if they’d move. In hindsight, it probably should have boiled longer as the preserves ended up a bit saucy. But, hey, live and learn.

Next, they needed to be canned.

Now, I’m way into canning.

Maybe I’m just stubborn, but I can’t stand relying on a freezer to keep my food unspoiled. That said, I have also been drilled with fear speeches about botulism, so I’ve been testing the waters slowly. So far, my Dad ate some dilly beans that didn’t kill him and we’ve made jam. So far, so good.

The basic process, for those interested, involves three steps:

  1. Prepping the Jars
  2. Filling them with Good Stuff
  3. The “Water Bath”

Mason jars are actually three pieces, the jar, the lid, and the ring, and the first two need to be sterilized as they’ll actually form the sterile environment for the goods to go into. The nifty rack above helps with the water bath a bunch, but not at all for this size of jar. They all fell through to the bottom and I had to fish them out with giant, insulated chemist gloves. I’m so glad I have those things and you should get a pair.

After filling the sterilized jars (it’s handy to have a large-mouth funnel for that) you cap them. The lids get boiled for two reasons, first is for the whole “sterile environment=longer life” thing, the second is actually to soften the little rubber ring, which helps to make a tighter seal with the jar. The locking ring helps to establish this seal, but is actually not needed to keep the seal in place after the canning is complete.

Finally, there’s the bath.

This is where the magic happens. During this hot water bath, the contents of the jars, as well as the jars themselves, get heated up enough to kill off any remaining bacteria. Also, the heat forces all the air out of the jars as it’s replaced with steam. When the jars cool down, this makes for a vacuum inside the jar that makes for a strong seal as well as an almost oxygen-free environment. Good things for keeping out unwanted organisms.

This particular preserve with this particular size jar had to be boiled for ten minutes. Heavier things in larger jars take way longer, which is why people who can a lot tend to use pressure cookers. The higher temperature helps to cut the time in half.

An hour later, they were cool and so were we.

Like I said, we’re going to aim for a less-sweet version later on, but I’m pretty happy with how they turned out.

Oh, and there’s more.

Yea, we got some rabbits. Actually, though we’d been talking about it for a while, Allison went ahead and bought a trio of New Zealand Whites to celebrate my birthday. I’ll have to talk more about these later, so for now just look at how perfect they are.

So. There’s that.

Then we saw a cool frog.

And we topped it off with a fire side dinner of quiche and home fries with some home brewed maple porter.

Life, eh?

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Sunday Slam

Hey Everybody!

How’ve You Been?

Um… I couldn’t quite hear that, but I hope that things are good.

I’ve been super bust so far this summer. It turns out that all the cool things happen in the summer, which means way less time to talk about cool things.

QUICK SYNOPSIS!

We’re living in an awesome house and gardening and I’m still learning new skills that make me feel like a grandpa.

The most recent life change, though, has been about how I spend my Sundays. I never seem to get any work done, even if I try. Sundays, no matter what I have planned, always involve a big breakfast and what seems like a lot of time on my hands. Unintentionally honoring the Sabbath, I guess.

Anyway, I figured that I’ll dedicate this time to things that I really like doing but always wish I had more time for. Baking, playing music, sharpening my kitchen knives, gardening, woodcarving, sewing, and (just recently) shining my shoes.

This is one I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Not only is it meditative and crafty, It’ll help my shoes last for years. On top of all that, I’ve lately been trying to present myself in a manner that’s a little more, well, presentable. Keeping casual shoes shiny is a good step, especially since the trend for mid-twenty year old guys is to where sneakers with everything. I can’t help but smile when I’m in Boston making cotton candy in my nice boots and a young MIT guy walks by wearing a suit and a pair of Asics. That said, that MIT guy has a couple of zeros on me in the savings department, so I really need to make sure that my boots last. I only have two pairs of leather shoes, one pair of Clarks that have been beaten up pretty bad and a pair of Johnston and Murphys that are pretty new. I think they’ll both look real nice.

I spent about two years getting the bits and pieces of my kit together, which meant that the Clarks got some weird maintenance as I was pretty much experimenting with them every time I learned a new step.  Here’s what I’ve got:

  • A couple of rags (torn up shirts)
  • Some Glycerine (or saddle) soap
  • Leather Conditioner
  • Two horse hair brushes, one small and one large
  • Brown Shoe Polish (I only have brown leather shoes)
  • Spongy shoe polish applicator thingy.

I have to tell you, though, that the way with old timey crafts is that there is never just one way to do it. I tend to research as many different sources as I can find, then synthesize what I’ve heard. This is how I did things this time.

First, I had to clean everything. I used the little brush to get off any dirt or dust that was sitting on the surface, taking extra care to get everything out the the small crevices (Next to the tongue and right above the sole especially).

Next was the saddle soap. This is sold by leather workers, whether boots or saddles are their specialty, because it’s essential in caring for leather. Other soaps, such as dish, laundry, and bath soaps, would be too harsh and remove almost all of the oil in the leather, which is exactly the opposite of the goal of leather maintenance.  The oils are responsible for keeping the leather supple, which not only keeps it comfortable but also prevents huge cracks from forming (RIP work boots). This fellow, A saddle doctor in Australia, makes the point that we’ve taken the leather off the cow but left the oiling system behind with the carcass.

So, that leaves it up to me to keep every drop of oil in there. It’s going to come out over time by getting rained on or scuffed, but maintaining things is just another way of being awesome.

That’s not to say that the saddle soap is the only step, though. Sure, it keeps all the oil from coming out, but the shoes still need some conditioning after getting scrubbed.

There’s a bunch of different types of conditioners, from old fashioned mink oil to new synthetic solutions to home remedies like coconut oil. I don’t have enough experience to have an opinion, so I just used some “Lexol” conditioner that I got for a bike seat a while back. It seems to work fine. I just used my hands to slap on thick coats of the stuff so that it would really soak the leather. By the time I finished with the fourth shoe, the first seemed about ready, so I wiped off the excess and got ready to polish.

Everything I’ve done up to this point was pretty familiar, as I’d been cleaning and conditioning my shoes for awhile without really knowing about the shining process. This meant that I got really excited to use the polish and probably didn’t wait as long as I should have to let the conditioner soak in, but it looks like it didn’t do any harm. In the future, though, If a pair looks like those clarks did after cleaning, I’m probably going to let them condition overnight just for good measure.

Using the sponge applicator thing, I took up a little bit of polish at a time and worked it in to the shoe with quick, circular motions. I actually ended up having to put two coats on after it became obvious that the first coat was too thin (the sponge soaked almost all of it up).  On the Johnston and Murphy boots, I decided I’d try the “spit shine” method to get a really fine shine. this involved buffing the first coat with the big brush, then applying another coat of polish with tiny additions of water (like, one little drip on the toe, one little drip on the heal). It… seems to have worked? I don’t know.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. One thing that all the sources agreed on was that the polish needed to sit for a good half an hour before getting buffed, so I made myself obey this step.

Hey, you wanna see the garden while they sit?

Peas!

Beans!

Cabbage!

Peppers!

Tomatoes!

Kale!

Oh, hey! They’re ready.

Since I’d never used a horse hair brush before, I was still unclear on how to best use it. It seemed like people used it for everything from dusting to applying polish to buffing. I decided I didn’t want to gum mine up, so I reserved it for dusting and buffing and it seems to do a good job of both. I whistled a little bit and brushed over the entire boot to give it a good shine. The real magic, though, came from the rag. Using a dry rag, I buffed the toe and heal as much as I could while still wearing the shoes.

End Result? Swag.

Seriously, I’ll never say that again.

Now the Clarks turned out a little different and here’s why I think so.

First, they were probably still soaking up the conditioner when I applied polish. Second, I tried the spit shine right away and ended up with some clumping of the polish. Third, the leather was much rougher to begin with, which made it harder to apply an even coat of polish.

From far away, they look alright.

But up close, there’s a lot of streaking going on.

My plan is to let them sit for a bit and continue to hit them with the brush and shine cloth to get them down to a uniform level.

Overall, I’m really happy with how they turned out. Looks like I’ve got another thing to do on Sundays.

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Lard all Mighty

Yes, I know. Lard is a pretty gross thing. It’s held onto its reputation of being the greaziest of the greases for a long time. Ussually, just mentioning that there was lard in something you cooked knocked a couple of style points off your recipe. Well, I’ll humbly confess that I’m now a convert. Say what you will about its style, the stuff is reliable.

After years of making butter crusts for pies and quiche, I finally got to thinking about using lard. Part of the motivation was reading through the Nourishing Traditions and Pie cookbooks that I borrowed from the library. Both are firm fat advocates in every way. Well, I mean that to say that they are firm in their conviction and that they advocate firm fats, but the authors themselves are of a healthy body mass index.

Anyway, after hearing about how this legendary lipid could change my cooking for the better for a few months, I was primed for a catalyst of change, which came in the form of taco night. I had decided to make my own tortillas from the planning stages since I can’t stand store bought tortillas. First, It’s hard to justify paying almost a dollar per wrap. Second, the ingredients section of those things always fills a 4″ square with size ten font. It’s pretty gross.   When it came time to find a recipe, though, I had to make a choice. Sure, there are recipes that use vegetable oil, but they were so few that I got the impression that they were really just an imitation of the tradition. There were also a fair number of recipes that called for veggie shortening, but using that would still mean a trip to the store to get something new.

It’s times like these that being friends with a butcher comes in handy.

My super buddies, Paul and Mary of the Mad River Valley, had just recently rendered a heaping helping of lard that they’d brought home from work. Since most people think lard is a gross thing, apparently no one really asks for it when their pigs are processed. This means that they can get a ton of really good quality free fat. What I also learned, though, is that you really aren’t in a hurry to cook with lard after you’ve spent all day rendering it. All this just means that I got to get a jar from them.

Score.

It was way more stable to work with than butter. I didn’t have to feel rushed to incorporate it into the dough, which allowed me to mix it way better. The recipe I used was pretty simple:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/4 cup cold lard
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup warm water

I was a little surprised at the inclusion of baking powder, but it apparently yields a slightly thicker tortilla. If I was shy about girth, I wouldn’t be using lard.

I kneaded them for about ten minutes just to be sure that they’d be nice and springy instead of crumbly when I went to roll them out. At this point, there’s usually something in the recipe about dividing the dough up into 6-10 dough balls and letting them sit for a few minutes. I’ve tried it both ways and here’s what I’ve come up with; if you don’t let them sit, the gluten that was formed during the kneading doesn’t have time to relax and it’ll fight you during the rolling. However, letting them sit in their spherical form only allows it to relax a little. What I ended up doing was rolling them out a bit, then letting them sit for about ten minutes before rolling them again. This gave me pretty big tortillas by the end of process. Admittedly, this is a lot of steps. If you’d not bother, letting them sit as little dough balls is just fine.

When it came time to cook them, I found that a dry pan worked best. There’s really enough oil in the tortillas themselves that they don’t really need anything. The only problem with using a dry pan is that the tortilla wants to stay put as soon as you put it in there, which means that any accidental folds become instant really quickly. I found out, though, that you’ve got about four seconds to do some final positioning when it hits the pan. After carefully placing it down, I would use my fingertips to help spread it out, which actually ended up giving the final diameter an extra inch or so. As a plus, you can actually feel thousands of tiny bubbles forming under your fingertips.

So, there it is. Lard should be given another chance and tortillas are easy enough to make that buying the lackluster grocery versions is not worth the six dollars.

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No Plan-Cakes

I was once accused of being an anarchist for not liking to use recipes.

I don’t know what it is about them, I just have a hard time following a recipe from beginning to end. I see the proportions and think, “Man, I’m gonna want twice as much pepper as that. If this is a savory dish, why isn’t there more garlic? Maybe some red wine will help deepen things a bit. I know! CUMIN!”

I think I just know my taste. Maybe hard of tasting, but I really prefer things heavily spiced and herbed. Ninety percent of the time, I find that a recipe will taste a bit bland to me if I follow it all the way through. It’s also been easy enough to change things around to my taste when just cooking generally, since I can taste on the go as things are melding and add things on the fly. Baking has always been an exception, though. It’s always been a bit intimidating, since the answer isn’t really revealed until the end. This means it’s always been off limits as far as my jazz cooking goes.

Until today, that is. I decided to rage against recipes by making a floury thing that didn’t need a recipe. My main goal was to make something that packed a lot of nutrition into a little package. What I had was six grain flour, trail mix, oats, butter, whey, yogurt, honey, maple syrup, chocolate, and spices. Everyone was called to serve.

I give to you the Anarchist Pancake.

Here’s what I did, as far as I can remember:

  • I put about two cups of six grain flour, 1/2 cup of rye flour, and 3/4 cup all purpose flour in a bowl.
  • I decided I wanted it fluffy and added 2 teaspoons of baking powder.
  • I usually add melted butter for any kind of pancake, but I decided to fold in a half stick like you do with biscuits. Why not?
  • I then blended 1.5 Cups of greek yogurt, half a banana, a Tablespoon of Honey, and a teaspoon of vanilla and added that as the liquid. Luckily, it was the consistency that I was looking for.
  • I then remembered that eggs would be a good addition. I put two in.
  • I knew that I wanted chunks of stuff in there, so I added I bag of dried fruit that I got as a free sample and the last of a bag of chocolate chips.
  • I figured I wanted a little more spice, so I added cocoa powder, ground cloves, cardamom, and ground chicory root.
  • I thought I was going to be having oats for breakfast, so I had set a cup of them out to soak for the night. It became clear that I was going to eat this thing, so I threw the cooked oats in.
  • I remembered that I would need some salt, so I dissolved about 1/2 teaspoon of salt in some water to make it easier to mix it in.
  • I could tell that it needed to be sweeter, so I added a Tablespoon of Grade B syrup.

After all that, I decided that it was going to be pancakes. I have to say that they turned out pretty well.

The one thing I did notice was the sheer amount of batter that I had at the end. That’s one thing recipes have on me. I’m so into big servings and having leftovers that I always make about a gallon of whatever I’m making. This can be a problem if we’re trying to ration ingredients. You know what, though? These ingredients were all waiting around, sad that they weren’t getting used. I gave them a new home.

It’s in my belly.

Pretty good neighborhood, too.

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Lightening Up

The Brown Ale was a success!

We’ve been drinking it for a few weeks now and I’ve learned two bits;

1.) It’s kinda hard to make un-drinkable beer.

2.) The longer it sits, the better it gets.

This also means that we’re literally going through the beer exponentially. Time for a new batch!

This time we went for an APA or American Pale Ale. I don’t think anyone abbreviates it like that, but I’m getting really excited about making a sweater vest label for it.

The process was SO MUCH SMOOTHER THIS TIME!

First, we now have an outdoor burner. This means we can brew right in our front yard and not worry about how to get the beer back home after brewing. The biggest difference, though, was our confidence. Our first batch was like the first time riding a bike; we were so worried about falling or messing up that we we couldn’t think straight and ended up messing a lot of stuff up. This time, we we’re less stressed about the process and could just see it through without second guessing ourselves. I was actually able to make a batch of kombucha at the same time.

We did try a few new techniques with this one. We decided to do a secondary fermentation, which is when you start the beer fermenting in one container for a week, then transfer it into a new container for two weeks after that, before letting it condition in the bottles for three more weeks. Easy as 1,2,3. This is supposed to help with beer clarity by letting a lot of the solids that could make a beer cloudy to fall out of solution. When you siphon the beer out of a container, you just leave the gunky stuff on the bottom, so the more containers you use, the more junk gets left behind.

Also, this is our first time dry hopping. This means that we added hops in to the secondary carboy as we added the beer. There are several ways to use hops, each giving a different flavor to the beer. Boiling hops for about an hour destroys almost all the aromatic oils, but extracts the compounds responsible for giving a good bitterness to counteract the sweetness of the barley. Boiling them for about thirty minutes gives the beer a more dynamic hoppy taste and some subtle bitterness. Adding hops right when the boil has stopped gives a good hoppy aroma and even more dynamic flavor without imparting much bitterness. By adding the hops one the beer has cooled completely, gives the beer a very strong aroma without changing the taste too dramatically. Pale Ales, known for their hop wallop, use all of these techniques for one batch. A porter, which is sweeter and smoother, uses just a bittering, 60-minute hop addition. I’m excited to see how this turns out, even though I’ve never been a huge fan of super hoppy beers.

I mean everything goes well with pizza.

And I would never turn away something that I put five months into.

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