Let the Baking Begin Again!

Long before my flour mill died I had picked out a new one. It could do everything from cracked corn all the way down to cake flour. It had a hand crank with the option to add a motor. Made in the USA, cast iron beauty! My current mill was older than me and worked well. There was only one setting-flour but it made nice bread. There was no need to get a new one with the current one still working. It finally had it’s last day (story found here) and I no longer had a mill, nor the money to spend on a new one. My baking dropped off pretty quickly after that. Not that I couldn’t buy flour, I did buy some even when I had the mill, but there is something about taking the whole grains, grinding them and then turning them into something delightful.

This year for Christmas my husband decided I needed a new mill, not only a new mill but the one I picked out! I swear he works just as hard as I do to make my dreams come true! What a great guy! He ordered the mill and it arrived just in time for Christmas. The next surprise was he already had a motor for it; one of better quality than what could have been purchased as a mill package. He has a much better understanding of pulleys and belts than I do and was able to figure out what he needed to do to get the mill running at the correct RPMs. If the mill were to run too fast the flour would easily heat up and taste burnt or cause problems with the mill itself. Also flour dust is highly flammable to the point of possible explosion! Personally I prefer to avoid kitchen explosions whenever possible.

Flour Mill
Flour Mill

It wasn’t too long after and right there on my kitchen island was a flour mill ready for grain!

The plan was to put it in the basement until we remodel the kitchen (ten years from now). We are currently in the middle of a smaller remodel project that has left us with a couple file cabinets temporarily in the kitchen. I moved the mill to one of the file cabinets and decided that was to be its permanent home. My uncle suggested we could use a set of upper cabinets on legs as a base, topped with a countertop. That’s the new plan. One cupboard (maybe two) will be a grain bin and the other can hold specialty grains and flours.

I’ve been grinding flour like crazy and began baking on the weekends again. Grinding my own flour, even when I am buying the grains, is so much cheaper than buying it ground already; assuming you don’t figure in the cost of the mill. There is just nothing like baking with fresh ground flour. There is also nothing like the Little Boy wanting to make pancakes in the morning and seeing him stand in front of the mill waiting for his flour. If nothing else I will have taught my little man to feed himself and others. He’s getting to be quite the little baker!

I really like to use semolina for making pasta and am now searching that out as well as some other whole grains to grind and bake. The other day I thought for sure there were oats in the barn. I grabbed a bucket and headed out there planning to make a mill version of steel cut oats. I prefer the steel cut over the old fashioned. They take longer to cook but have more texture when done. A wonderful winter breakfast comfort food. I was wrong though, we were out of oats so there was no experimenting with that as of yet. Yes, for those wondering, I had planned to take a bucket of oats from the animal feed bin and turn them into my breakfast. They’ve been cleaned just the same as the wheat I you would grind.

Flour Mill
Flour Mill
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Making a Resurrection Garden

Spring can mean many different things depending on who you ask. From our farm view it is the start of the New Year. It brings baby animals, buds on the trees, blooms on the flowering crab trees, tulips (that I forgot to plant last fall! Ugh!) There’s spring cleaning of the house, yard, barn, flowerbeds, and gardens. It can get really crazy as things come out of winter hibernation. Spring is also a time to slow down and be thankful. That’s right being thankful isn’t limited to one day in November, you know the day before people go to town and fight over the latest gadget.

Giving thanks really should be done daily. In fact many studies have shown that the more one takes note of what they have to be thankful for the happier and more content they are. This is everything from a simple act of kindness, good health, an unexpected phone call from a friend or the orange soda you had for lunch. Every season brings something more to be thankful for and in the spring it’s the resurrection and what that means for us.

The weeks leading up to Easter are observed with fasting, self-reflecting, and most commonly the giving up something; such as the ever popular “sweets” or coffee. It seems like kind of a cop-out really. Give up the same thing every year because it requires no real soul searching or thought; “My pants are tight from Christmas, I suppose giving up sweets would be a good idea.” I’m not saying going without coffee or chocolate cake is an easy task, especially when you are still coming down from the cookie high of the holidays. But really, does it do you any spiritual good? Probably not. I knew a gal that for lent she said she was going to go to church every day for a year. Ho-ly Bananas! God bless her! She did it. I for one, am quite positive that a Lenten task such as that I would be setting myself up for complete failure. I mean done by day two failure.

For the past years, I have skipped the usual giving something up in the coffee sense of it. Instead I donate a minimum of one laundry basket of stuff a week. Yes, I would say the first few years were an easy route. I had a lot of clothes that I didn’t wear, old decorations I didn’t put up and so on. As the years have gone by this has begun to get tougher. I don’t collect nearly as much stuff as I used to and with our small house I have been getting rid of things year round. So each passing year is causing me to dig deeper into some of the things that I hold on to a little more dearly. The family heirlooms aren’t going anywhere but my ever growing book collection, cookbooks especially, I hate to part with for example. Going through the shelves is a sacrifice for me. But there is still not much in the spiritual department so to speak.

In addition to my usual (not quite) daily readings I have added a few other quiet tasks to my Lenten list. I needed something more, something that would teach. Something not just for me but for the family as a whole. With tiny ones (1 and 2 years old) teaching the concept to Easter is a tough one. The little boy knows the story of Christmas. He can tell you who’s who in the books and nativity scenes, (some of which are out all year in our home, a gentle reminder). He will tell you Joseph had to sleep in the barn and Mary had baby Jesus. There were animals, angels and shepherds and so on. Easter, on the other hand, seems harder to teach this age. He can learn the story but the story is a violent journey ending in joy that is not quite comprehensible for such a little mind.

We do put a small gift or two in the stockings and one gift from Santa but try to emphasize the true meaning of Christmas. It’s easier with Christmas. It’s a happy story for the entire journey. Easter, comes with bunnies, jelly beans and Easter egg hunts and a man being killed on a cross and then rising from the dead. Such violence is hard to explain to someone who has never experienced something more violent than a flick on the mouth for talking back or a time out. The crucifix in our living room is looked at with a puzzled look when he is told “that’s Jesus”. He hasn’t thought about why Jesus is up there or how he got there or the pain and suffering that put him there.

The rebirth, and new beginnings can symbolized in some of what has become another over-commercialized holiday but it can be found. Empty plastic eggs compared to an empty tomb, bunnies and baby chicks to new life or candy as a celebration for fasting. Ok that last one is a stretch but you get the picture.

Our dining room table always has a center piece and for the Lenten season it is an empty patch of dirt, with a cross of nails and a small cave. Jesus is sad for these weeks, there is no green grass or pretty flowers. When we talk back or push our sister it makes Jesus sad and the empty dirt is a reminder to be nice. We water the empty dirt on Friday and tell Jesus we are sorry for the things we shouldn’t have done, what we are thankful for and good deeds we did. These are simple things- talked back, threw a toy not meant for throwing, thankful for a warm house and family, we helped put the books back on the shelf and set the table.

A week and a half or so before Easter the dirt is heavily seeded with grass seed. As we continue to water during reflection time grass begins to sprout. On Easter morning, the grass is full and green and there might be a butterfly or flowers. Jesus is happy and we are too.

It’s the least violent way I could think of to teach about this season to a toddler. The repent for our sins is made into as simple terms as possible. We are learning to take ownership of our actions and acknowledge all that we have been giving.

Don’t get me wrong, come Easter morning their baskets will be “hidden” with a treat, a dyed egg and new toothbrush. The Easter bunny will have come and left a couple dishes of special candies and with any luck there may be an egg hunt later in the day. We can have the “bunny fun” as a side note of Easter and not the center of attention.

(We always got a new toothbrush from Santa and the Easter Bunny. Give one for Halloween and you know everyone is getting a fresh brush a few times a year anyway.)

Resurrection Garden
Resurrection Garden
Resurrection Garden
Resurrection Garden
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Learn to Like it

It’s not that you don’t like it; it’s that you don’t it the way it was prepared.

I worked with a chef that said this quite often, mostly to the wait staff. I’m not saying that the kitchen staff was well versed in some of the dishes that were concocted there, but those of us that weren’t, knew enough to give the dish an honest taste before making any judgment. I will admit I was not fond of fish before working there. Yes, I grew up in northern Minnesota and still preferred my walleye fried crispy with a 2:1 ratio of tartar sauce to fish for every bite. Tuna hotdish was an exception, I made that almost every Friday during lent. As a whole, fish was never on my menu…ever. Turns out, I just never found a variety and preparation method that I liked.

I have always had a bit of a “cart before the horse” method as my brother has put it. I do just enough research to get started, bring home whatever “parts” I may need and then start assembling; a lot of times learning as I go. I did this with the bakery I opened years ago. I had an idea, rented a space, and maxed out a credit card buying ovens, mixers, ingredients and so on. Then I picked my favorite cookbooks and started to bake. I learned along the way what not to do; buying on a credit card was one and not knowing the business partner’s credit history was another big one. That turned out ok, she didn’t make it very long. On the farm I ordered the chickens before the coop was built and had a cow coming before the fence was in, just to name a couple more.

So why wouldn’t the same thing be true for food? Learn the name, take a bite and then decide whether or not to take another. I learned to be rather cautious about trying food blindly and it was my own doing. The reply I had when asked “is this still good?” or “what is this?” was “let me try it.”

Seriously.

“This smells a little funky…” “Well, let me try it.”

It was 50/50 if whatever it was I just ate was still ok to eat and yet when it came to safely prepared fresh food I wasn’t sure I wanted to even give it a chance. Makes no sense, I know.

It wasn’t until I heard the chef say that it was a matter of preparation and not food in question that I started to dive into new tastes just as I did with everything else in life. In looking back, I can’t think of a single thing that I have tasted and really not liked. Shellfish being the exception here. I have given up trying shellfish, I have had so many different varieties prepared a wide variety of ways and I just don’t care for it. Which brings me to “You’ll learn to like it”.

This is something I really do believe. It can take trying something 15 different times for your tastes to change and for you to learn to like something. Apparently I have not tried shrimp scampi 15 times, close enough together to acquire a taste. As we are raising little ones, this thought needs to be remember; no matter how tough it may be. The little boy asked for pancakes every day this week, last week he cleaned his plate, this week “no, I don’t like them.”

There are a few replies I have for this: “Yes, you do.”, “You’ll learn to like it then.” and out of complete frustration “That’s too bad.” I’m not sure why people don’t take learning to try and like new foods as seriously as they do potty training their child (our newest phase). It’s so important for children to eat healthy foods and yet so many are given junk at the first refusal of vegetables. We aren’t to the “clean your plate” rule yet, right now we are at the “so many bites” rule. The only reason I cook a separate meal for the kids is if I make something extra spicy, otherwise, they are expected to eat the same thing we do. Don’t like it? Go hungry. I have made a healthy home cooked meal, you can’t be healthy eating goldfish and m&m’s (which I am quite positive our little one would give it an honest try though). It doesn’t take long for them to realize what’s be made is what’s to eat for this meal.

Learning to like a variety of different dishes keeps meals exciting. Yes, you can eat mashed potatoes, gravy and a roast everyday. It’s good but can get quite boring. There’s a million ways to prepare potatoes, why limit yourself to one taste and texture?! It really is a learning curve. Most people aren’t going to wake one day and say “I’ve been eating mozzarella all my life, it’s time for limburger!” That is one stinky cheese, and can be quite delicious but takes some working up to. I’ve found the same to be true with wine, (start with a really sweet one and work from there) and so many more foods.

If you are willing to try (repeatedly) with an open mind, you will be amazed to see all you were missing out on.

*Note- The only taste that I don’t think anyone could learn to like it toothpaste and orange juice. Pretty sure that’s not possible.

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The Humble Pot

A cheap cut of meat and some aromatic vegetables. This used to be thought of as a poor folks dish. An inexpensive way to feed a lot of mouths for little cost. Slow food revolution, back to basics cooking, whatever you want to call it, this pot of humble beginnings is what it’s all about. I haven’t seen it make the comeback that it rightfully should, but in time I’m sure it will.

A rich aroma that passes through the house gets anyone within reach feeling hungry. The warmth of the oven makes the kitchen a cozy place to wander in and stay. Second only to bread, a dish made in a single pot can warm a house and gather everyone to the kitchen before they are called for the meal.

I am not talking about hotdish (for you non-Minnesotans, casserole) although, those can be good and an easy way to use up leftovers, a humble pot dish is so much more. In the way of comfort food there is really nothing better. The meat- super tender and juicy, some of the vegetables- cooked down until they reach a rich, flavorful sauce, the rest have soaked up all sorts of great seasoning. Everything mingles together in one pot. No single ingredient more important than another (except salt, that rules all).

Recently, I have been making these more and more. Mostly because I work full time in town and still want a decent homemade meal for my family. A humble pot dish can be started the night before or morning of and placed in the oven with a timer and left to cook for the better part of the day. Some people use crockpots for such dishes. I do sometimes, but more often than not, I find it is not roomy enough to get the full potential from the ingredients inside. The vegetables need space to cook down and work with the added liquid of choice. I prefer to use cuts of meat that have the bone in tact, not only does it add richness to the dish but it also adds more nutrients too. Even a small roast or bird take up a considerable amount of space when coupled with vegetables and broth.

For all of these dishes I use a heavy enameled cast iron pot. The whole thing can go into the oven, lid and all. The lid is important; a foil covered dish just doesn’t make the same results. I think it has something to do with how the lid retains more of the steam and helps the insides to keep a more even temperature… or I am just full of it. It’s just a guess. In addition to the collection of cast iron skillets in my kitchen, I also have a variety of these pots as well. In a perfect world I would set up a pot for each weekday on Sunday, place them in the fridge and have them ready for the week. Maybe someday, if we end up with an extra refrigerator, right now there is no room in the one we have.

I must admit, not every humble pot I make looks very pretty, in fact most don’t. The taste more than makes up for the lack of visual appeal. Honestly, over time the look doesn’t change but the dishes start to look better and better just because of the anticipation of the deliciousness to come. I know it’s possible to make such a meal vegetarian style, I have yet to make one as such. Considering we just made the last chicken in the freezer, this may be something to look a little closer at. I can and have “offed” a chicken on a meal by meal basis, but it’s not something I would like to make a habit of. I would like to stretch the beef supply as long as possible. I really don’t want to have to start getting meat at the store. I could. I don’t want to.

The method is simple:
Start with a combination of aromatic vegetables, most common around here is onions, carrots and celery in a 2:1:1 ratio.
Sauté the vegetables.
Add any herbs, spices or seasonings.
Add meat. ( a cut with the bone in tact will produce more flavor and nutrition)
Add dry rice, par cooked beans, or raw potatoes or squash.
Add liquid. (water, broth, wine, beer etc.)
Cover and cook slowly until done.

With this simple “recipe” there is an endless amount of meals that can be made.

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The Cast Iron in My Kitchen

I use cast iron for almost everything I cook and bake; from skillets and Dutch ovens, to bread pans and muffin “tins”. I would love to find a pie plate but haven’t stumbled upon one yet. For some reason there has been a fair amount of buzz lately about using cast iron, how to take care of it and so on. For that reason I have mixed thoughts about this post- there are plenty of articles out there about the subject already so why add to the long list, on the other hand, why not? I could share something that works great for me and might for you too.

Raisin Bran Muffins from "Apron Strings and Rolling Pins" cookbook.
Raisin Bran Muffins from “Apron Strings and Rolling Pins” cookbook.

I remember years ago grandma using a skillet for something she was making and remember how the pan was so smooth and seasoned. Every piece that I have that was new was textured and I tried for years to use the pans all the time in hopes the texture would wear away. It didn’t no matter how much I used them or how abusive I was to them it was still there. They were also pre-seasoned which I will get into in a minute. I wanted the pans smooth for a couple reasons:
1. Grandma’s pans were smooth so that must be the correct pan form.
2. The one pan I had the was smooth worked just like a non-stick pan. It worked much better than the textured ones as far as that goes.

How did I get the smooth cast iron pans that I was hoping for? A couple ways actually:
1. I buy old pans second hand. The only time I worry about rust on a second hand pan is if there is deep pitting. I these those for the next gal.
2. Enamel coated cast iron pots. The large soup pots and such are enamel coated. They work great but the enamel does chip so they do take a little more care than the uncoated pans.
3. I sand the crap out of the textured new pans. Using a wire bristle attachment and one of Mikes drills I smoothed out the favorite skillets and Dutch oven.

Removing seasoning. Fresh out of the oven.
Removing seasoning. Fresh out of the oven.

To sand the pans I first prepared them by stripping most of the seasoning off. This was done in the oven.
1. Place the cold pan of choice into a cold oven. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees for a little while- long enough to heat the pan through. Then turn the oven on to the “self clean” setting and let the pan bake for a good hour or so. Some pans have smoked, rather unpleasantly and others were too bad. Just be prepared that you may need to open the windows for a little while.
2. Allow the pan to cool completely in the oven. Then give it a good scrubbing. No need to get it perfect but it helps to get most of the top layer off if you can.
3. Now for the fun part. I do a lot of projects in my kitchen that are not kitchen projects and really should be done elsewhere (outside usually), this is not one of those projects! Even I take the pan outside for this step. Take the pan outside. Using an electric drill fitted with a wire bristle brush attachment begin to sand away the bumps. Spend just enough time on each spot to remove the bumps too much time in one spot can give you a little shallow spot. It won’t be noticeable until you really need something to turn out perfect.
4. Once the pan has been smoothed to your liking it’s time to talk seasoning.

Seasoning cast iron pans is not nearly as complicated as some people like to make it. It does take a little time most of which is not hands on, we are talking 5-10 minutes max of hands on the rest is baking time.

I talked with a guy at a flea market once who was selling all sorts of very nice and very over priced seasoned cast iron. He was giving my the whole soapbox preach about how each piece must be hung when stored, never use water on them, soap is so far out of the question it wasn’t even something to joke about  and so on, all because he was so very concerned with the seasoning of the pans. In which his seasoning process was the basic process, just glorified with all sorts of extra jabber. That guy would tip over if he saw how I use and care for my pan collection.

After the initial sanding the pans are given a really good scrubbing with water, soap and steel wool. They are rinsed well and placed in the oven to dry thoroughly so they don’t rust. Which they will start to do much quicker than you would think.

Once dried the seasoning begins. I like to use grape seed oil for seasoning it has virtually no flavor and a really high smoke point (450 degrees +).
1. Simply place a small amount of oil on a lint free cloth (I use flour sack towel rags or cut up t-shirts). Coat the whole pan inside and out with a thin coat of oil. It should be enough to turn the color of the pan but not enough to leave excess oil.
2. Place the cold pan in a cold oven and turn the oven on to 450 degrees. Allow the pan to preheat with the oven. Bake the pan for about an hour. Turn the oven off and allow everything to cool together as well.
3. Repeat steps 1 and 2, two more times.

There you have it a perfectly smooth and seasoned pan. If you choose to sand your pan it should be something that you need to do only once in the lifetime of the pan. You may find that a pan needs to be reseasoned from time to time. Which isn’t that big of a deal either.

Even if I don’t sand a new pan I do strip the “preseasonedness” off and give it my own. Most of the pans you buy that are preseasoned are done so with soy bean oil. Almost all (not all but almost) soy beans are GMO in the states, which means the oil used to season the pans is most likely contains GMOs. Over paranoid? maybe. But that’s ok, I cut back where I can and know that there are some things that will be GMO and for the time being there is nothing I can do about it.

Now for seasoned cast iron pan care. Seasoning the pan essentially creates a bond between the oil and pan. It is not easily scrubbed off. For that reason I do use water on my pans and in the event that I make something like enchilada’s or something extra baked on and messy I use soap too. I have even been known to let them soak. (Gasp!) Really, I do let them soak. Not over night but for a couple hours to make washing them easier. I haven’t lost any of the precious seasoning by doing this, nor did the pan start to rust. A thick coat of oil after the pan has been dried and it sparkles like a well-seasoned pan should.

I also stack my cast iron in the cupboard. One piece on top of the other. We do not have air conditioning in our house and being next to the lake and in northern Minnesota the humidity in the summer can be awful. I still stack my pans and wouldn’t you know they don’t rust. That being said you don’t need to hang each cast iron piece. It’s ok, really. They will be ok.

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