Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Corn muffins

Corn muffins

Going on vacation left me with a craving for lots of things I ate while there. The thing I wanted the most, of course, was good clam chowder — even in Massachusetts, it was surprisingly hard to find. But another thing I found myself craving was corn muffins — the innkeeper at the B&B where we stayed made them on our last couple of mornings there, and I realized, once I got home, that I don't actually eat them that often and hadn't quite gotten enough. But hey, the one good thing about knowing how to bake is that if you want something like that, you can just make some.

I didn't have a corn muffin recipe, though I do know that if you're feeling lazy, the cornbread mix from Trader Joe's is pretty good in muffin form. But I was looking for something a bit sweeter, more of a breakfast food, and I think I found it with this recipe. The muffins were tasty enough that I scarfed down two of them warm from the oven, and they freeze well, too: Just wrap one in a damp paper towel and microwave until warm.

Corn Muffins
From a Food Network recipe

1 c cornmeal
1 c flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 c sugar
1 tsp salt
1 c milk
2 eggs
1/2 stick butter, melted
1/4 c honey

1. Whisk together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, sugar and salt.
2. In another bowl, beat together the milk, eggs, butter and honey.
3. Mix the wet and dry ingredients together, stirring just until combined.
4. Evenly divide the batter between 12 greased muffin cups, then bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, until golden.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Grape jelly

Jelly for my sandwich

A few years ago, I found out that a farm not too terribly far from here grows Concord grapes. I hadn’t really even thought of that as a possibility, that you could grow non-wine grapes around here, but apparently, the Concord grape actually comes from Concord, Mass., so it’s a hardy Northeastern grape. It’s also the type of grape used to make juice and pretty much everything that’s grape-flavored — the flavor of them is so strong that it’s almost unreal, almost fake-tasting.

Of course, when presented with the possibility of making something with these things, fresh off the vine, I couldn’t resist. My calendar, however, could resist, and so it’s taken me until now, two years later, to actually go get some grapes and try making some homemade grape jelly. Here’s how it went:

Step 1: Drive about an hour each way to the farm, then get grapes. We drove out into the field and parked near the vines, then walked the rows, clippers in hand. But where were the grapes? Oh, there’s a bunch, on the other side... but on the other side, we couldn’t reach it from there.

After some consternation, we figured out these tricky vines: They were hiding their bounty, forming a canopy so that you had to actually climb inside the plants to find the bunches of grapes. We clipped and bagged, clipped and bagged and YIPE, ANTS! Yep, the ants like grapes as much as we do. I swear, I probably dropped as many grapes on the ground as I did into my bag, startled by going in for a handful of fruit and coming back with a handful of creepy-crawly bugs.

An hour later, we finally had enough grapes: I knew I needed at least five pounds, and there was no way we were gonna drive back and do this again, so we made sure to get plenty. We ended up with closer to 10 pounds, which is great, ‘cause that means I can make two batches of jelly.

Step 2: Rinse and de-stem all of the grapes. ALL of the grapes. SO MANY GRAPES. Oh, and did I mention that I decided to do this on the day before we went away on a big trip? Yeah, dumb idea, but I wasn’t sure how long grape season would be, so I was antsy to get some before I missed the season yet again. So I stood there over the sink for practically forever, picking out all of the bad-looking grapes and piling the rest in my largest bowl, filling it just about full.

Step 3: Dump a bunch of the grapes into a big saucepan/skillet with a little bit of water and cook them a bit, mashing them up with a potato masher until they’re all soft and mushed up.

Step 4: Strain the grapes... somehow. The standard methodology said to dump the mixture into a double-layer of damp cheesecloth; I placed the cheesecloth inside a sieve. I also thought I’d pull out my new food mill and place that on top — surely, anything that helps get more of the pulp/skins/seeds out is a good thing, right?

In the end, I wasn’t so sure about that. I may have gotten more juice out of the grapes I put through the food mill, but the resulting mix really, really didn’t want to go through the cheesecloth. I moved it around with a spoon, I transfered the goop to a new piece of cheesecloth (a messy proposition for sure), I picked up the cheesecloth by the corners and squeezed it (even messier)... it was incredibly frustrating. I gave up on the food mill, and eventually, I managed to get all, or at least most, of the juice to pass through the cheesecloth. At this point, it was really late, and I was really tired, and there was still half a bowl of grapes on the counter mocking me. And then, I realized that there’s no reason why you can’t freeze grapes, if you’re just going to juice them later. I should have thought of that hours before. The grapes went into a freezer bag; the juice went into a couple of canning jars with plastic wrap on top and into the fridge, where they sat while I went away on vacation.

Step 5: Return to your grape juice and panic, ‘cause there’s something sludgy in the bottom of the jars. Oh no, more pulp, seriously? I consulted Google, and the answer was an interesting surprise: That wasn’t pulp, it was tartrate, an acidic compound found naturally in grapes that crystallizes when you let the juice sit for a while. It’s also the stuff they make cream of tartar from, apparently. And you actually want to let your juice sit so the crystals form and then strain them out (oh no, more straining??), or else you’ll have cloudy, acidic jelly.

Thankfully, this wasn’t as difficult as the last round of straining. I tried running it through a coffee filter at first, which didn’t work at all (the crystals just clogged up the filter), but I discovered that the sieve by itself was enough to catch the crystals, if I just stopped to rinse it off now and then. Mission accomplished.

Step 6: This is actually the easy part, by comparison. Pour 5 cups of juice into a big saucepan/skillet, whisk in a box of pectin and bring the juice to a boil. Dump in 6 cups of sugar, mix thoroughly and continue to stir as you bring it back to a hard boil, the kind you can’t stir down. Boil hard for 1 minute, skim off the foam, then fill your canning jars (leave a quarter-inch of headspace) and process them.

The result? Delicious homemade jelly — and this stuff is a little softer than the store-bought stuff, just soft enough that you can actually spread it easily onto your peanut butter-covered bread.

Cooking the jelly Finished jars of jelly

Grape Jelly
From the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving

5 c grape juice
1 package powdered fruit pectin
6 c sugar

1. In a large saucepan, pour in the juice and whisk in the pectin until dissolved. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently.
2. Add the sugar all at once, stir it in and bring the mix to a full, rolling boil, the kind you can't stir down. Boil hard for 1 minute.
3. Pull the pan from the heat and skim off the foam on top.
4. Fill your canning jars, leaving a quarter-inch of headspace. Process for 10 minutes, then remove the canner lid and let the jars sit for 5 minutes before removing them to a stable, undisturbed place to cool.