Making sorghum candy

Every year in Union County, Georgia, they hold a Sorghum festival. For most of my early childhood, this was a centerpiece in our autumn activities. For those of you without enough Appalachia in your blood, sorghum is a sugar crop. Kind of like the South's answer to sugar cane. It was cheap, easy to grow, did well in places where sugar cane or beet didn't, and was a staple of Southern cookery for decades until refined sugars became more easily available. The Sorghum Festival is a celebration of this old-fashioned sticky treat, with suitable old-fashioned activities to keep a kid fascinated for a long, cool weekend. I don't know if they're still doing it, but in my youth this included log-sawing and greased-pig-catching competitions. Country fairs are so underrated. Of course, I didn't know any of this when I was a kid, though. I just knew that sorghum syrup kicks ass on a hot biscuit. I don't think I had thought about sorghum syrup or the festival in decades, though, until this past October, as we were quietly enjoying our own New England fall colors in the wake of my grandmother's (and the Critter's namesake's) passing. Sitting around one evening and telling the children stories of some of our adventures together, I remembered that we had once tried, unsuccessfully, to make homemade sorghum candy. We made a real botch of it, and I think ruined at least one pan completely in our attempts. Given how sticky hot boiled sugar can be, we were lucky that one or both of us didn't end up with 3rd degree burns in the process, given that I was 8, and she was well into her 60's. But I do remember having a lot of fun along the way.
The week of my grandmother's death, I ordered two small jugs of sorghum syrup (amazing what you can find on amazon), and told the kids we'd make candy like Nanny and I did when I was a kid. They sat in the pantry through the holidays, and occasionally the Critter would remind me that we were supposed to make candy. Shut up in the house with all the snow and ice outside, I finally broke out a jug this weekend.
The recipe is pretty simple. - 1 part syrup - 1 part water - a pinch or so of salt. Boil. OK, no problem. Even I can follow that kind of recipe. I used a cast iron dutch oven, but I think pretty much any stock pot would do. I figured, however, that if all went awry again, I wouldn't feel too bad about taking the steel wool or a power sander to the cast iron. My Bride would probably feel differently if I used the rather expensive le Crueset
Boil until you reach the "hard ball stage" or 260-270 degrees. Hey honey, where's your candy thermometer? You threw it out? You think you could have told me this before now? What the heck am I supposed to do now? Ah. Drop it in the cold water, and see if it forms a hard ball. Of course. How long is that supposed to take? 'You'll know it when you get there,' huh? Yeah. Thanks. Really f#@%ing helpful, lady.
There was a lot of watching and waiting. Sugar isn't something you want to heat too quickly or walk away from. And I'm pretty sure this is where my grandmother and I went wrong - she was probably tired of hearing me ask "is it ready yet", and pulled it off the heat a bit early, resulting in a gooey, stringy mess. Now that I've seen how long it really takes to get there, I can't say I blame her.
Hey look! Hardball stage! At this point, the whole house was full of the gentle, earthy sweet flavor of sorghum. It's very like molasses, but with a more buttery scent and flavor. There's simply nothing else that approaches that smell and taste. At this point, I poured the hot, bubbly mass into a buttered bowl to cool.
After a half hour or so, it was cool enough to handle. More from the recipe: "Butter your hands, and taking a smallish bit of the sorghum, work and stretch until it changes color and hardens. This works better when two people are pulling. Remember in the mountains, families were usually large" (I'm not kidding. That last part is actually part of the recipe. Any recipe that includes the phrase: "Remember, in the mountains..." is a winner in my book.)
There was plenty in the bowl for two of us (at this point, I became very glad that I made the decision to only use one of the jugs of sorghum to make candy) The Critter was mildly disturbed at the thought of having to rub butter all over her hands, but she really got into the pulling and twisting part. She wanted hers to "look like licorice" (which I think meant twisted and braided).
I looked back at the recipe to see how things were supposed to end. But that was it. "Pull until it changes color and hardens." What? And then what? Is it supposed to turn into sticks? Lollipops? What color is it supposed to turn into? Blue? I racked my memory to try and recall the end state, but of course my grandmother and I ended up throwing out our gooey mess, and never finished it off. Eventually, I decided that it was pretty much supposed to look and feel like caramels. (and no amount of google searching could disprove this theory). So we rolled the stretched candy out, and cut it into rounds to finish cooling.
Twisted into wax paper squares, and tucked in a jar, our little homemade candies bring a real smile to my face. Objectively speaking, I had just spent several hours of effort and turned half the kitchen into a sticky, buttery mess to produce the equivalent of a couple of $0.99 bags of candy. But the whole process of slowly boiling the dark, buttery sorghum for hours with my own 8 year old Eleanor was a kind of cosmic loop-closer, and another little peek for both of us into what growing up in another era, one without 7-11's and mall Ye Olde Candy Supershoppes was like. We all tried one, and decided the effort was worth it.
Read More

A pair of soups for winter weekends.

In an attempt to embrace the winterness that has been January, 2011 (and don't bother me about the fact that it is actually February now. There are several feet of snow carpeting the ground. I can't be expected to pay attention to the little details), I made a couple of different kinds of soup this weekend.

Tom Kha Gai

This Thai soup is one of my favorite combination of flavors. It's essentially a spicy chicken soup with coconut milk (as opposed to Tom Yum Gai, which is basically the same soup without coconut milk) . And it turned out to be ridiculously easy to make.
- 2 boneless chicken breasts - 6 cups chicken broth - 1 tsp or so of crushed red pepper flakes (better yet - 1-2 fresh red thai chili peppers, but go with what you have in a pinch) - 3 cloves garlic, chopped - 1-2 tbsp ginger, grated (properly speaking, you should use galangal, if you can find it) - zest of 1 lime - juice of 1-2 limes - 1/2 lb chopped mushrooms. Whatever kind you have on hand - 4 tbsp fish sauce - 1 cup coconut milk - 2 cups baby spinach - handful of chopped cilantro Freeze the chicken breasts for about 15-20 minutes (handy later) Combine broth, ginger, garlic, pepper, lime zest, lime juice and 3 tbsp fish sauce in a pot. Simmer for 3-5 minutes. Add mushrooms. Simmer another 3-5 minutes. Slice the chicken breasts thinly (this is why freezing it a little while helps so much). Add the chicken and the coconut milk. Simmer another 3-5 minutes until the chicken is just cooked. Stir in the spinach until it begins to wilt (about a minute) - add the cilantro and the last tbsp or so of fish sauce. Serve - enjoy! (some people like this with cellophane noodles - which you can simply prepare with a few cups of boiling water, and ladle the soup over. I prefer mine without. The soup is light and citrusy, with a mild sourness and peppery tang that the kids both love.

Chorizo & Kale soup

As I was finishing up the Tom Kha Gai soup (which is best when fresh, as the spinach stays bright and flavorful), I started prepping another soup for the next day. Most soups enrich over time, when the flavors have more of a chance to blend together, I find. This soup is another easy one, with an even shorter list of ingredients, but is a great lunch time meal almost any time of the year. But there's something especially good about the rich bittery kale that makes it perfect for a winter day.
- 1/2 pound of smoked chorizo, cut into small pieces (note: the smoked Portuguese kind. Not the loose, uncooked Mexican kind, for this recipe). - 1 large onion, chopped - a few potatoes, peeled and diced into small-ish cubes - 8 cups of water - 3/4 pounds of kale - cut out the center ribs and slice the leaves into strips - 2 tbsp smoked paprika - a healthy splash or two of red wine vinegar Toss the onion into a dutch oven (you do have a le Creuset, right? Of course you do) on medium high heat with a glug of olive oil, and cook until they start to turn golden. Toss the potatoes in as well, and stir around for 4 or 5 minutes. Add water and a bit of salt to taste, and let simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Meanwhile, toss the chorizo into a separate skillet and cook over medium heat until brown. Stir a heavy spoon a bit heartily through the potatoes and onions a little, just to smash & break them up a little bit. Stir in the chorizo, the kale, the vinegar and the paprika and let simmer for at least 15 minutes, until the kale is tender. You can (as I did) then turn this off and cover the soup, coming back to it the next day at lunch to re-heat. The melding of the flavors only makes it better. Serve it with crusty toast for dipping and a dark, hoppy beer and laugh at the bitter cold outside.
Read More

Hug your fromagiere

So finally, after a couple of test mozzarella runs, I felt like we were ready to go to the next level of cheese-manufactory. Early last week, I shot a quick note off to my buddies Dan and Brian, and we arranged to meet up this weekend at my house for some group fromagerie. I went to a nearby Whole Foods and bought up as much promising looking milk as I could. Contrary to my former belief, you don't actually need raw milk to make cheese. You just want to buy milk that hasn't been ultra-pasteurized, a process that takes the milk up to super-high temperatures. It extends the shelf-life, but it pretty much destroys all the delicious fatty compounds you're relying on to make your cheese. (more about that here). Fortunately, as I discovered when I set about my first test runs, the whole rise of the middle-aged/affluent grungy-hippie-tree-hugging-back-to-earther works in my favor. I can get low heat pasteurized milk at a pretty good grocery store. Of course, the cashier's reaction to me plopping 12 or so gallons of milk onto the counter was a raised eyebrow. "That's a lot of milk." "I know. When I woke up this morning, I was just really thirsty." Ha! I crack me up. Confident that our first trials at a novice cheese like mozzarella would let us step up to the next level, I made preparations in the basement for the next homesteading event. Good cheese requires good cheese presses. And along with the other ingredients, I had bought the plans for a do-it-yourself cheese press
I had intended to build some additional shelving space for My Bride's canning gear anyway, so I took an afternoon and put up the cheese presses in a tucked away corner. These brackets would form the pivot point for the press arm.
Each of the hard cheeses would be placed in a basket, and pressed to drain the whey. I cut a circular press plate from poplar, and the brackets and rest of the pieces from oak. All clean, dense hardwood without as many pores as your typical pine. With the plans already drawn out, it only took a few minutes to put the whole thing together. On Monday, the guys showed up (with their lovely families) and we were soon intent on replicating the mozzarella, just to as a warm up round. Here's the first tentative steps towards self-made queso confidence.
Once we each poured our milk into the pots, there was a lot of discussion about the proper stirring technique.
Dan and Brian waxed prolific on their favorite technique. I forget which advocated clockwise, and which was counter-clockwise.
Then I explained my approach: child-labor. They both agreed my technique was superior.
Soon enough we were to the curd, stretch and mozzarella stage. The end product from Dan's effort was especially beautiful.
By now we were an hour or so into the day, and feeling pretty good about our dairy skills. It was time to up our game. We were going for cheddar. Unlike the forgiving mozzarella, cheddar is a bit more involved of a process, involving a bacteria culture, twice the amount of milk and a bit more time, both up front and in the maturing stage. But we were now in the zone. We could do this. We gave each other the "let's cook this milk" nod, and dove in. Look at Brian pour that milk with a self-confident flair.
Of course, maybe we should have read ahead in the instructions a bit further. Unlike mozzarella, cheddar involves several steps along the lines of: "add the mesophilic culture to the milk, and let it sit for 45 minutes." Hmm. Ok. Sitting.
Then we add rennet, stir, heat, and - oh, what's this? Ah. Let sit for another 45 minutes. Let's go check in with the families.
Hey, look! It's beautiful outside. Whose dumb-ass idea was it that we be stuck in a kitchen for several hours hovering over mildly warm milk?
Our guest, Christina taught me that "cheese" in Swedish is "ost". Ok. She didn't. But she could have if she wanted to. In her defense, I had asked her to help me translate while she was busy trying to groom her imaginary horse in between serious yard-circling riding. I apologized and we went back inside to check on the curd progression.
Perfect. Dan's pot is thick with curd. A quick slice of the firm, custard like curd into 0.5" cubes, and we were ready to begin heating again.
Occasionally, The Boy would come by to check on our progress. Like a master chef, he would step up to the stove, put his spoon in to test our product at its current stage and pronounce his opinion of our work-effort with a serious and contemplative nod. Apparently, so far, so good.
About this time, Dan spotted a step in the instructions I had somehow overlooked. Once we had further separated the whey from the curds, we needed to hang and let dry our curds for an hour, in final preparation for pressing. Hang? Someplace it can drip? Oh crap. Hold on... be right back.
Whew. I knew all those power tools would come in handy. I put together this simple rack with a quick trip to the barn, and we drained our curds into cheesecloth, tied off, and hung. (Note: the one on the left is a double-sized batch made together by Dan and Brian). And... again, we wait.
Ok, ok. With some forethought (and a couple more pots), we would have started the cheddar, and made the mozzarella during the lull periods (this is the 3rd "wait for a while" for those counting). Yeah, well... who knew? Soon enough, though, we were ready. The curds were relatively dry, and released from their cheesecloth bag, ready to be broken up, salted, and prepared for the form.
Once packed into the form, the proto-cheeses were taken down to the presses. The brilliance of the press was soon apparent - each press was notched at precisely measured intervals (provided by the plans) specifying how much pressure two pounds of weight at the other end would provide. The two pounds were conveniently provided by three and a half cups of water poured back into cleaned milk jugs. Blam. That's science, folks.
One thing I learned from the whole cider making experiment: if you have a desire to recreate anything later on, take copious notes and LABEL EVERYTHING. I have no idea which batch was which from the cider making, and no desire to try and re-live that particular mix up. This time, we're using at least 3 different varieties of milk (not even Whole Foods carries large quantities of a single low-heat pasteurized brand), and I really wanted to know which worked best.
15 minutes at 10 pounds of pressure, and we were ready to release the pressure, and prep for the next step. Before we made the switch, though, our quality tester came by to check up on our progress.
He gave us the green light. Ready for 20 pounds of pressure (a different notch). A quick drop out of the form, flip of the cheese to turn it upside down and we re-insert.
At this pressure, the cheese will rest for 12 full hours, draining the whey into the collection pans.
Note the cheese on the far left is at a slightly higher angle. The form was a bit fuller, with more curds. That cheese came from High Lawn Farm - milked from pure Jersey cows, and they claim their milk is both more nutritious and flavorful, with all the stuff you want in your milk. Our side-by-side comparison shows a definite 5 or so percentage difference in the cheese-making stuff, anyway (note: the other milk used in this batch was from Crescent Ridge Dairy - a perfectly awesome place for milk, and what we normally drink around our house). See? Labeling is cool.
The cheeses will be turned and pressed one more time after 12 hours, and then left to dry on a wooden board at room temperature for about 3-5 days. This will give them a slight rind as they cure, and then I'll coat each of them with a coating of cheese-grade wax, and we'll set them up in our cellar to cure for between 60 days and 6 months, depending on how long we can keep our hands off them. At the end of our afternoon, Dan, Brian and I all lovingly wrapped our mozzarella in cling film, waved goodbye to our cheeses, dripping slightly in their forms, and promised to get together sometime around the holidays to taste test the fruits of our Labor Day. As holiday weekends go: this was definitely a good 'un.
Read More