Dough Master (Almost)

Each week as I am rolling out pastry dough or boiling mason jars, I cannot help but think about the situation I am in. I am so very lucky to be hands-on learning about numerous kitchen tasks. Working with Amanda has been a lot of welcome repetition. She unnecessarily apologized one Thursday for not having different recipes for me to work on each week. I like the routine we have set up. Because I have been practicing the same recipes, I get to witness my slow-but-steady self improvement.

My previous rolling pin skills consisted of the minuscule plastic roller that came in my Play-Doh set as a child. I would attempt to help my mother in the kitchen when rolling actual dough, but I would always find a way to tear it. When Amanda first handed me the wooden pin of doom, I was open to it, but afraid. But I am proud to say that I no longer grimace when using the rolling pin.

Amanda offered some tips to aid me when using this specific kitchen tool:
• Try not to roll too close to the edges because it will flatten them out. She told me to apply the least amount of pressure in those areas
• Using different amounts of flour for different dough consistencies is very important. For example, when I am rolling out the dough for the pocketfuls and the knishes, I can use as much flour as I need, it will not negatively affect the dough. But when I am rolling out the dough for the crackers, I can only use a little bit of flour. This dough is pretty tough and does not need much. If I do use too much, it will crack and make rolling extremely difficult and frustrating

In all of the dough recipes I have made for Amanda, they call for warm water. I questioned why it is warm, and not cool or cold. Amanda explained that flour absorbs warm water much better when it is poured into a dry mixture. But the water does not always have to be warm, it depends solely on the other ingredients of the dry mixture.

I wrote this specific blog to document my self-improvement. I find before and after shots of basically anything so satisfying. The first two photos shows the ham-and-cheese and butternut squash pocketfuls I made February 19, which was the first time I made them. As you can see I struggled with creating the perfect dough rectangle. It barely covers the ham and cheese. And those ends; do I not know what a straight edge looks like?

Now, we have two photos of these delectable ham-and-cheese and spinach-and-feta pockets I created April 9. First of all, let us take a moment to bask in the glory that is a golden brown crust. I have almost mastered the concept of a rectangle. Each week I look down at what I am making and feel confident that I am performing better than last time. It is a good feeling, and I am proud of myself!

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Canning Corn Relish or A Surgical Procedure?

I would like to start this post by thanking John Gerber, Amanda Wasserman, Peg Thibbets, and Chuck Goonan. My first post would not have been complete without the help of you all. And to everyone who read it, shared it, and enjoyed it, I am high-fiving you through this screen. Thank you all so much.

While helping my big sister Sarah make dinner in her kitchen in Boulder, Colorado this past fall, she asked me to go down to the basement and pick out some food I’d like to eat with our dinner. Slightly confused, I went down the stairs and took a left at the bottom like she had said. I was amazed to find at least thirty multiple-sized mason jars filled with everything I could ever imagine. There was tomato sauce for pizza and pasta, different flavored pickled cucumbers, numerous types of dressings and sauces. I chose some salsa, dilly beans, and pickled carrots. I walked back up the stairs with my jaw slightly ajar. I was amazed to find out that Sarah canned and jarred all of these things herself with local ingredients from her neighboring farmers’ market. She had done all of this so she, her husband, and their daughter could eat local and healthy throughout the whole year. A light bulb went off in my head. Why doesn’t everyone do this? Sarah is actually saving money in the end because she buys the day-old, cheaper tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables to use for preserves. Also this makes her dinner preparation quick and easy, which is necessary with her adorable two-year old daughter rampaging the kitchen trying to touch everything. Again, why don’t more people do this? The list of benefits is quite extensive, ranging from health to economical. This experience piqued my interest in canning and preserving. And now I will be expanding on this interest, which I feel so fortunate to do.

Each Friday at 3:30pm I will be working with Peg Thibbets, the producer member behind the Harvest Market. Peg and her current volunteer Jess, have been prepping for the Northampton farmers’ market every other Friday, and I feel very lucky to join them. On the other Fridays, when they are not preparing for the market, Peg is going to teach Jess and I about canning and preserving.

This experience could not have worked out more perfectly. I have been presented with the opportunity this summer to work with Bramhall’s Country Store in my hometown of Plymouth, MA. The preliminary plan consists of helping with their massive front yard garden and working in the kitchen of the store canning and making preserves. Because I have loved food and recipes since the dawn of my time, I could not pass up this opportunity. With my lack of canning and preserving knowledge, I knew I had some work to do and some lessons to learn. But now I get work hands-on with Peg and Jess in the All Things Local kitchen to prepare for my new summer job. Thank you, universe.

When I sheepishly walked in about eleven minutes late on Friday, February 27, I was surprised to see so many people working in the kitchen. Amanda had two volunteers, Peg with Jess, and then myself. Later during my shift, Peg astonished me saying how during one of her workshops, there was about twenty people squeezed in the kitchen happily prepping for corn relish. I could not picture that many people comfortably chopping away.
Before this shift if I thought about what canning was, I pictured putting a jam or sauce into a mason jar and then putting that jar in some hot water, and then you would have a jar of jam! But nope, this process, as Peg explained with a laugh, is quite similar to that of a surgical operation. Once Jess and I finished cutting our vegetables, we brought the seasoned pot of chopped onions, celery and peppers over to the stove with the corn, so it could come to a boil. During this time of waiting, Peg brought the canning/surgical instruments over to the counter. These were three pieces of equipment that I was particularly unfamiliar and curious about.

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The first tool I was instructed to use was the jar lifter, which I thought were just a fancy pair of tongs. Earlier we had placed the jars, metal tops, and metal screw bands into a pot of boiling water. I had asked Peg why this was a necessary step, and she explained saying this is important for a couple of reasons: the boiling water changes the temperatures of the jars and their tops so when the boiling relish is poured in, they will not crack and break; the jars and tops are also put in the boiling water to sterilize them, so they are clean and ready for the relish. When it is time to remove the jars and tops from the boiling pot, this is when you use the jar lifter. Jess had done this before, so Peg taught me how to properly use the tongs to pick up the jar by the neck and place it on the counter. The metal tops and the screw bands were a little trickier, but I eventually got into a decent rhythm. Peg warned both Jess and I that when we start canning and preserving on our own, to be prepared to get burned…a lot.

Another tool was a funnel of some sort, with a very wide mouth. Using my expert contextual information, I realized it was most likely to put the ingredients into the jar. As I made that discovery, I realized that I had not thought about the difficulty of putting a relish, or a jam into the jar without the proper funnel. I would have found out a very hard and messy way if I had tried to do this myself. The next surgical-looking instrument looked like an oversized plastic popsicle stick with a tapered end. This was the tool we would jokingly ask for quite urgently as a scalpel, just as the doctors of your favorite medical shows would. Clearly this was no scalpel; it was a bubble remover. I did not know there were bubbles that needed removing, nor there that there was an exact tool for this job. After I funneled the steaming corn relish into a jar, I would slide it to Jess who would cautiously use the plastic popsicle stick to remove any air pockets while pushing it all down, leaving room for more relish. Peg taught us that it is important to remove any air bubbles because it makes the relish look a little strange from the outside of the jar. This is especially important if you are selling your jars. According to foodinjars.com, it is important to have a plastic or wooden bubble remover so no scratches are made to the inside of the jar. Also, according to Marisa, author of “Canning 101: Why You Should Bubble Your Jars”, “you need to have enough air in the jar so that after processing, the escaping heat can pull the oxygen out of the jar and create the vacuum seal.” Basically, if there is an air bubble towards the bottom of the jar, it throws off the air space proportions and can cause discoloration and a difference in flavors during storage. You do not want to open up your valuable jar months later and find out an air bubble was hiding and caused mass relish destruction.

Once the jars were filled and our fingertips were feeling toasty, Peg instructed us to use a warm and damp paper towel to wipe clean the lip and the finish (another word for the sides of the mouth) of the jar. This was to ensure that no relish residue would hinder the sealing compound on the underside of the metal lid from fitting flush with the jar; same goes for the metal screw band that fits around the finish. Jess and I made sure all of the jars had an air-tight seal and we placed them in the jar rack. This contraption holds the sealed jars at an upright position while in the pot of boiling water to avoid leakage and spillage. This is the most important part of the process, and Peg warned that “if you don’t have the time, don’t do it”. The jars must stay in the boiling water for fifteen minutes exactly. But, you only start timing when the water is fully boiling. This part is called “processing”. Once the fifteen minutes were over, we removed the jars from the water and placed them on the counter. Peg smiled and let us know that what was about to happen is the most satisfying part of the whole procedure. As we watched the cooling jars on the table we heard a satisfying “pop!” I gasped from excitement because that sound meant that the jar has been fully sealed! The heat that escapes during the cooling process (that Marisa explains in the article I mentioned above) is what causes that rewarding suction sound.

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All of us surrounded the jars like three proud mothers watching our baby jars grow up. Peg was right, it really was the most satisfying sound. I learned immediately that I loved the sound, and the knowing that I can create that sound many more times on my own is beyond gratifying.

I Have Been Cracking Eggs Wrong My Whole Life

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Welcome back to the farm blog!

I am still studying Sustainable Food and Farming at UMass Amherst, but this blog is currently turning a new page. I have become Emily the Intern!

I am interning in the kitchen at All Things Local Co-Op in downtown Amherst. I am very excited to share all the details, so I will get started!

How the co-op works:

  • This market opened November 2013, and held its grand opening in March 2014. It is a nonprofit, which means almost all of the revenue generated goes directly back to the producers; 80% of the profits to be exact. The rest goes back into maintaining the store. All workers and employees of the co-op work as volunteers.
  • These producers bring in the following products for retail sale: fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy products, syrups, honey, cider, many different alcoholic beverages, spices and sauces. Not all products are edible, including lotions and beauty products, jewelry, knits and so much more.
  • A membership can be purchased and offers many benefits such as the opportunity to run for the Board of Directors, attend member-only events, and purchase all products at a discounted price, as well as many others. Customers’ membership dues are a crucial piece of maintaining the co-op.
  • What gives the co-op its “local” title? All products sold at ATL have been created, sewn, grown, fermented, knitted, and planted within 100 miles of Amherst, MA.

On Thursday February 19, I had my first shift in the kitchen working with Amanda, who is “Kitchen Liaison” on the ATL Board of Directors. During the entirety of my 12-5 shift, I could not wipe the smile off of my face. I could not think of a better place to spend my time after class than in a kitchen creating sustainable and delicious snacks and desserts, while earning credits, and learning new cooking techniques. Amanda had a list of recipes to tackle and I was already excited because we were about to deal with my two favorite things: lists and recipes.

As Amanda rewrote a pastry dough recipe, I slipped my head through an apron, tied a red polka-dotted bandanna around my hair, slipped on my glasses and got ready to tackle this dough recipe. It was a simple flour and salt pastry recipe that was going to create sandwich pockets. Once the dough was mixed, kneaded, and wrapped separately in plastic wrap, I was ready for my next task.

Amanda handed me a butternut squash and apologized, saying how her other interns cringe when they know they are about to peel one of these. I was excited! I had never worked with a butternut squash before, just eaten them. She cut both ends, and showed me her peeling strategies. Once it was my turn to complete the job, I realized almost right away how one may wince at this task. Butternut squash is round and has an awkward shape to peel. However, once I got going, using trial-and-error with two different types of vegetable peelers, I found my groove. After the squash was sliced, oiled, salted and peppered on its baking sheet, it went in the oven to roast. During this time, Amanda brought out three of the plastic-wrapped dough lumps that I made earlier and explained how she wanted them cut and rolled out to make ham and cheese pockets. I struggled heavily at the beginning trying to copy the exact thickness and shape of the perfectly-rolled rectangle that Amanda had made. She really put emphasis that it was okay if they were not all the same. Customers like uniqueness! And boy were some of these “rectangles” unique.

On each of the twelve dough-tangles, I placed a single slice of delicious smelling Havarti cheese with a slice of ham on top. After these rectangles became folded pockets, had an egg-wash bath, and were sprinkled with dried rosemary, they were put into the oven to bake once the butternut squash was taken out.

While these pockets were baking, it was time to make vegetarian sandwich pockets. By this time, my rectangles had significantly improved, and I was very proud of the dough shapes that lay in front of me. After Amanda’s instruction, I crumbled goat cheese onto the center of each rectangle and layered the butternut squash right on top. I sprinkled dried thyme onto the folded and egg-washed pockets and put those in the oven to bake while the ham-and-cheese pockets cooled on top of the stove.

Lucky for me, (and I quote Amanda) “the ugly ones make the best taste-testers”. This was regarding an unfortunate gluten-free peanut butter cookie I had made later on during my shift, but it applied to the current situation of one sad looking ham-and-cheese pocket. But it was very, very tasty.

The gluten-free peanut butter cookie recipe called for a few eggs. Amanda cracked one by hitting it off the flat counter and breaking it into the mixing bowl. When it was my turn, I hesitated to crack it against the bowl like I always had, in fear of small shell pieces becoming the next ingredient in the recipe. But I also knew I could not yet handle such a skill of cracking the egg on the flat surface, so I went for what I knew, and I cracked the egg right against the mixing bowl. Amanda corrected me right away and explained how breaking the egg on the edge of the bowl causes the little broken shell pieces to go into the egg opening, and then go into your recipe. But cracking the egg on the flat surface causes the egg to break flat, not allowing any pieces to fall into your gluten-free peanut butter cookie dough. Well now I know.

I did not realize five hours could speed by the way it did. I guess when you love what you are doing, you are enveloped in the present and focusing less on the future. This is an aspect of my life I have been trying very hard to work on and improve. It was invigorating to experience it in the kitchen, where I feel I belong.