Monday, November 28, 2011

First Frost

Last night was our first frost. The official low for San Marcos was 28, but my home thermometer only got down to 32 (I have one of those clocks with an indoor and outdoor thermometer in my bedroom, which is how I keep track of these things). I brought in my peppers, pineapple sage, and ginger plants, but the plants that were left outside had hardly any damage, and the bird baths didn't even freeze over.

The only frost damage was to parts of one or two of my Ms. Burns Lemon Basil plants. Which is good because I'm still trying to get a crop of seeds off them. There's no more frost predicted for the next week, so that'll give them some more time to mature some more seeds.

We've also finally been getting some decent rain. Right before Thanksgiving we got over an inch of rain, and we have more forecast for this weekend. We need a whole lot more to undo the drought, but every little bit helps.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Pie Results

The results are in. The pies were a hit! Here's what I had left to take home.

The pumpkin held together better than I had hoped, but was still a little on the soft side. I hope reducing the amount of pumpkin puree next time will fix that problem. Tasted great with the gingersnap crust.

The pecan may have been the best pecan pie I've ever had. The golden cane syrup used instead of the usual corn syrup made it just the right amount of sweetness, instead of tooth-achingly sweet, with a nice caramel flavor. Using plain pecans instead of spiced pecans didn't seem to diminish it at all. The bourbon and ground pecan crust was also wonderful, and would probably work in other pies besides pecan.

The rest of the meal was great too, with both turkey AND ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, green beans, creamed corn, salad... the works! I have heard some people saying they get sick of the traditional Thanksgiving meal and opt for something non-traditional instead, but I don't know if I could ever get sick of turkey and cranberry sauce. It's only once a year, after all, and it's such a great celebration of America's bounty. You'll notice that all the main characters in the Thanksgiving meal are foods native to the New World. I'm sure that's not a coincidence.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Turkey and Pie Day!

Last year I spent Thanksgiving scrambling to harvest all my cushaw squash before our first freeze. This year we haven't had our first freeze yet, and since we had such a harsh summer, I have no squash to harvest. However, Squash 2010 was so bountiful, that I still have plenty of pureed squash in my freezer to see us through another pumpkin pie eating season!

I show you two pies, alike in dignity...

I was assigned with dessert for my family's Thanksgiving feast this year. Since there will be 10 people attending, I felt that warranted two pies. I know I could have scraped by with one pie, but one should always have plenty of pie for Thanksgiving, right? Thanksgiving is a time when eating multiple desserts is entirely appropriate, especially if the desserts in question are pies.

Of the Three Canonical Thanksgiving Pies, pumpkin is favored above all others by me, because I still have all this pumpkin puree in my freezer to use up. Pecan comes next, because I'm a Texan, so pecans get the "Locavore" advantage. Sorry apple.

Pie 1 is my version of Alton Brown's Bourbon Pecan Pie, from his excellent Good Eats Thanksgiving special from this year (I'm really going to miss that show). The only changes I made is that I made it in a regular pie pan and not a tart pan, since I don't have a tart pan, and I used plain toasted pecans rather than bothering with making the candied spiced pecans (though they sound delicious and I might make a batch later for Yule). It still smelled awesome baking and I'm sure it's going to taste delicious. I nibbled a bit of the pie crust made with ground pecans and bourbon, and that was really good. Alcohol makes pie crust more tender. If I remember correctly, it keeps the gluten from forming, or something like that. Anyway, it seems to have worked.

Pie 2 is Pumpkin Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crust. I'm a little more worried about that one, since it's a recipe that's more of my own invention, heavily modified from Paula Deen's Pumpkin Pie recipe, which I attempted last year for Yule, but had some problems. I chose the recipe because I was looking for a pumpkin cheesecake recipe that didn't require one of those big springform pans, which I don't have. This one looked like it would work, but as I was mixing the filling, I realized that the recipe, as written, would not fit into my prepared standard 9-inch pie pan (despite saying in the recipe that it would), and thankfully I figured that out before I added the 1 cup of cream, so I left that part out. After the pie was made, it had a wonderful flavor, but a grainy texture, which I blamed on using previously frozen cream cheese. Apparently cream cheese doesn't like to be frozen.

This year I used cream cheese that hadn't been frozen, and mixed it up using the creaming method just like a regular cheesecake. I still ended up with extra filling, and it ran over a little as it baked. Maybe next year I will try using 1 1/2 cups of pumpkin instead of 2 cups and see if that helps.

As you can see, I also got a little paranoid about it not being done enough when the 50 minute baking time was over, so I put it in for another 10 minutes, and it cracked as it cooled. Which probably means it would have been ok at 50 minutes. I appreciate how Alton Brown gives the temperature his pie should be at when done, since custardy pies like pumpkin and pecan look like they're not done enough when you take them out, making it tempting to overcook them.

The gingersnap crust is made using 6 oz. of gingersnaps pulverized in the food processor, and then mixed with 2 tbsp. melted butter and pressed into the pie pan.

I will report back on how the pies go over at Thanksgiving Dinner. My main worry is that the pumpkin one will fall apart when we try to slice it, like the last one did. The last one turned out to be delicious pumpkin pudding, but to be a pie it needs to be firm enough to slice.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Topaz Moon

I tried to get a nice picture of the full moon shining through the clouds and the ash tree in the front, but I don't think my camera knows what to do with that kind of lighting, so it didn't turn out quite the same as it looked to my eyes.

The Phoenix Moon Grove's name for this month's full moon is the Topaz Moon, named after the state gemstone of Texas and November's birth stone. The traditional English name for this moon is the Hunter's Moon, and while the deer are getting their antlers now, I don't think hunting season in Texas comes until later in the winter. The TV weatherman called this moon the Beaver Moon, which is a name I hadn't heard before.

November is the month we usually get our first frost. So far this year we've come close a couple of times, with nights dipping down to 34 or so, but not quite freezing yet.

The weather has been cool, but it's also been dry. We've gotten a little rain, but not much, just drizzles that don't even fill the rain barrels. I'm still having to water regularly. In this picture you can see the peppers wilting again. If I keep them watered, I've been getting a crop of bell peppers and, to my surprise, jalapenos. One of the plants turned out to be a jalapeno that got mixed in there, and not a California Wonder. Because of that, I went ahead and tossed the seeds I had saved since they're likely to be crossed with the jalapeno. Oh well, I can get bell pepper seeds somewhere else.

The peppers and basil are the only plants I nursed through the summer that I got any kind of crop from. It really turned out to be a waste of water trying to keep everything else alive. Something to remember for next summer.
I planted two kinds of peas this winter, Lincoln Shell and Tall Telephone. I got the Lincoln Shell peas in a trade (unasked for), so I went ahead and planted them alongside my Tall Telephones, but I doubt they'll beat TT in a side to side comparison. The description for LS says they're a dwarf variety, and one of my favorite things about Tall Telephone is how big they are.

I planted the peas on the tomato cages Daniel made for me for the last batch of tomatoes, and then alongside the rows of peas I planted root crops: carrots, radishes, turnips, rutabagas, beets, and parsnips. They're all growing well so far except for the parsnips, which doesn't really surprise me. I only had a few parsnip seeds from a trade, and they were a little on the old side. Parsnip seeds don't have a long shelf life, but I went ahead and planted them and so far two have come up.
The brassicas I started in August are looking really good. I planted multiplier onions in the slots where some of them didn't make it, but the rest of them have taken off. The mixture of the different leaf types in the bed looks very pretty, the blue-green smooth collard leaves, the yellow-green curly mustard leaves, and the bright green long thin leaves of the onions.
The Broadleaf Czech garlic is sprouting, which I guess means they have been getting enough water with their weekly sprinklings, but the other kinds haven't shown up yet. I know softnecks tend to sprout before hardnecks, so I'm not worried yet. The other ones should be coming along soon.
I planted some extra Tall Telephone peas along the back fence, even though that puts them in danger of getting eaten by deer. For something different, I tried mulching them with shredded office paper instead of straw. Daniel usually throws away his shredded documents, but I asked him to save them for me instead to use as mulch. It looks kind of weird because it's so bright white out there, but so far it seems to be working.
I planted a second batch of brassicas in another flat, because I still have room in the garden for more. I don't think I can have too many greens! The first batch is almost big enough for me to start harvesting.
I also planted a lot of lettuce, which is almost ready to start planting out in the garden. I got about ten different kids of lettuces in a seed trade, and since lettuce seed doesn't last long, and lettuce doesn't cross-pollinate much, I went ahead and planted all of them to see which kinds I like the best for seed saving. I've got quite a variety of colors and leaf types. I'm going to have to learn to like salads better, I guess!

Finally, I leave you with a picture of a new bird I haven't seen at my house before, a Lesser Goldfinch. They're a very pretty bird, with jet-black on the back and a neon yellow belly. As usual with these bird pictures, the picture does not do him justice. He was trying to drink out of the birdbath, and having a little trouble because he's such a small bird, he had trouble reaching the water level. I've seen him again a couple more times, always at the birdbath. I haven't seen him eating the suet or the sunflower seeds, so I wonder if he doesn't like those. Female goldfinches are a lot duller in color, so I haven't seen any, but that doesn't mean they aren't there.

I've also seen some White-crowned Sparrows eating sunflower seeds underneath the feeder, but I couldn't get a good picture of them at all. Winter is kind of an exciting time for birding here, because there are a lot of birds that spend the winter here, so this is the only time I get to see them.