Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holiday Goodies

Gift-giving has been an important part of the winter holiday season since the holiday being celebrated was Saturnalia. It's one of my favorite rituals, but one thing that annoys me is the assumption that it has to cost a lot of money. During these tough economic times, I hear people say things like "maybe we shouldn't do gifts this year" and "I don't want to end up in debt for months."

I think this is kind of missing the point. For me, the joy and fun of giving and receiving gifts doesn't correlate well with the price tag those gifts had on them at all. I mean, sure it's nice to get something expensive, especially if it's something you could really use that you would have trouble affording, and it's given to you by someone who can afford it, but I don't think the choice here is between expensive gifts that leave everyone with "five months of bills" as the song goes, or forgoing the tradition completely.

One good option is homemade gifts. This is an especially good option for those of us who are unemployed or underemployed and are therefore short on money, but probably have extra time. You can knit a scarf, bake a batch of cookies, or can a batch of salsa. Often these things are much better than anything you can buy in a store anyway.

Just about every year I make a batch of pecan pralines. I've had this recipe for years and don't remember where I got it, so I hope it's ok to reprint it here for you. It's really very simple, and a great first step into homemade candy making.

Pecan Pralines

  • 1 1/2 cups pecans
  • 1 1/2 cups white sugar
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 6 tablespoons butter (that's 3/4 of a stick)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
You'll also need a large saucepan, a candy thermometer (you can do the dropping-it-into-cold-water thing, which I did on my first few batches, but that's a pain and really, the candy thermometer is totally worth it), a baking pan or cookie sheet that has sides, some cooking spray, and some wax paper or parchment paper.

Put all the ingredients into the saucepan and bring up to a boil on medium heat. Position your thermometer. Ok, I'm actually using my probe thermometer and not a real candy thermometer (which is supposed to clip onto the side of the pan), but it works. The important thing is to not let the thermometer touch the bottom of the pan, or it will read hotter than what the candy is. I balance my probe on the side of the pan, and the boiling syrup keeps it lifted up off the bottom. I set the alarm for 240 degrees F, which is the "soft ball stage" in candy-making terms. If your thermometer doesn't have an alarm, just keep an eye on it and watch for it to get between 235 and 240 degrees.

It will get really bubbly and foamy. Be careful because boiling syrup is also known as "culinary napalm" for a good reason. When it gets close to pour time, it will stop being as foamy and have fewer, bigger bubbles blooping around. This is the point where if you didn't have a thermometer, you would start dropping syrup into cold water to see if it makes a soft ball, but like I said, that's too much trouble and you really should use the thermometer.
Have a pan ready that's greased and lined with parchment or wax paper to make de-panning easy. My original recipe says to drop it by spoonfuls, but I prefer to just dump the whole thing in and spread it out evenly. Let it cool completely.
When it's completely cool it should lift up off the pan easily in one big piece. You can then bust it up into individual serving size pieces and put it in a pretty tin. Yes, the tin is another monetary investment you have to make for this gift in addition to the ingredients, but hopefully your grateful relatives will give you back the empty tin once they're done with it for refills next year, like they do your canning jars. (Hopefully!) Then stick the tin in the freezer or something so you won't eat them all up before you have a chance to give them away for Christmas.

Pralines are kind of similar to peanut brittle but easier to make, since pralines are supposed to have a crystalline texture, while peanut brittle is supposed to be glassy and transparent, which requires a little more skill to achieve. They're also super-sweet like a pecan pie, but they're full of nutritious nuts, so that makes up for it right?

Of course, Yule is just not right without cookies. I made a batch of this recipe for Jam Filled Shortbread Cookies with homemade peach jam, and they turned out great.

One thing I did, after reading warnings in the reviews of the cookies spreading too much, was to chill them after they were formed, but before baking. I put them on parchment and then slid them into the freezer for a while until they were firm and cold, and then took them out, filled them, and preheated the oven. They only took about 1/4 teaspoon of jam each. I was tempted to put in more, but didn't want them to run over, and it turns out that was a smart move.

Here they are all baked up nice and pretty. Only a couple broke or ran over, so I had to eat those (darn!), and the rest went into gift tins after they were cooled completely. They are extremely buttery and delicate. I'm sure they would do well with any flavor of jam or preserves.

Now I'm trying to decide if I want to bake any more cookies. I've been drooling at some of the cookie recipes on Tigers and Strawberries. I've also already made a Freerange Fruitcake like I posted about last year, which is curing in rum right now. I think I will take that to a Yule campout I'm going to over New Year's weekend. Maybe baking even more sweets is overkill. My fiance is on a diet, so he can't have any, and I'm running out of people to give cookies to.

On the other hand, I don't have any cookies! Everything I've made so far is designated for other people! Maybe I should make some just for myself! But which kind? Tigers and Strawberries has so many good ones I want to try, like the elegant looking Frostflowers (I've always loved pfeffernuesse, actually, the brand I always got were not tooth-breaking in the least), or the yummy sounding Cherry Chocolate Chip Cookies. Even the so-called "humble" oatmeal cookies from that blog sound festive with their cranberries and cardamom. Such a hard decision. It may just come down to how I have all the ingredients to make the oatmeal cookies right now, but I'd have to go to the store to get stuff for the other recipes. And Daniel doesn't like oatmeal raisin cookies, so it would be less tempting for him to cheat on his diet with them. And even if he does cheat, the oatmeal cookies are probably the most nutritious of the bunch.

Yeah, I might go with that and save the other recipes for next year. Which seems so far away! (The Aphrodite Cakes sound perfect for Valentine's Day or Beltane, though, so I might have to wait THAT long to try another of Barbara's cookie recipes, if I can find some rosewater.) But yeah, now I've convinced myself that I MUST bake more cookies!

Finally, one shouldn't forget the non-humans in one's life. They should have holiday goodies too. I just got one of those big seed-cakes to put outside for the critters. One of these days I need to try out making my own. It's fun to watch Mr. Squirrel doing acrobatics to get it.

The woodpeckers like it too. Here's the female Golden Fronted Woodpecker getting some. I've also seen her husband here, and the female Downy Woodpecker than hangs around (she appears to be single), and some chickadees and titmice. The warblers and wrens seem to still prefer the suet.
Lily just likes "helping" with the gift wrapping, as most cats do. Cats always get into the holiday spirit, don't they? Tearing up the wrapping paper, attacking the bows, climbing the Christmas tree. They're very festive animals.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Io Saturnalia, Glad Yule, and Happy New Year to whoever is reading this!

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Mistletoe Moon

The Mistletoe Moon is a good name for the full moon of December. Of course there's the Christmas tradition of kissing under the mistletoe, and it is a wintery sort of plant. It gets its white berries in the winter, and if it's growing on a deciduous tree, like this elm here, it's a lot more noticeable in the winter when the host tree drops its leaves and the only leaves you now see are bushes of mistletoe.

I've heard that mistletoe is a lot more common in Texas than it is in Europe (it's also a different species), which is an important thing to keep in mind when thinking about its mythical status. In Europe it's a rare oddity to find a green mistletoe bush on a barren tree in the dead of winter, so I can see how it can seem magical. Here it's mostly considered a pest. I've seen some very heavily infested trees. I've never heard of mistletoe actually killing a tree, though, but I guess it is possible. One redeeming quality is that the berries of mistletoe are an important winter food for birds (along with holly, another Christmas plant). The birds return the favor by spreading its seed to other trees.

I heard the full moon was an eclipse this time, but I missed it because of all the clouds. It's been raining a lot lately. We're actually ahead on rain for the months of November and December, though we're still way behind for the year.
I've started some more peppers. The same kinds as the ones I started in fall. If the fall-planted ones become too root-bound as they wait for spring, I have a backup. My tomato and eggplant seeds have also just started to sprout.
The lettuce doesn't seem to mind the freezes we've had, and is doing great with all the rain. I like how a variety of lettuce growing looks, with the different colors and shapes. I'm thinking of planting my extras in the flower bed out front.
The Lincoln Shell peas are starting to put out pods. The Tall Telephone peas haven't, but the plants are growing much taller. I still think I like TT better. I think I'll end up getting much higher yields from the bigger plants.
I just planted the celery in little trenches to hold in water. I've heard that celery is hard to grow, but I thought I'd give it a shot. I read that it likes things really wet. I hope it's cold tolerant, since if it needs wetness, then winter is the time it'll get it.
The mustard greens are the best looking out of the brassicas. The freezes don't seem to have bothered them at all. I've been harvesting some for stir-fries. They've got a nice peppery flavor.
The cauliflower and collards, on the other hand, have gotten a bit damaged. A lot of the outer leaves have turned pale and crispy. I hope the cabbage worms are finally gone, and the plants can recover without getting munched on some more.
I have some turnips that are ready to harvest, but I think I'll leave them in the ground until just before I cook them. Turnips are one of those vegetables I started eating just because they're easy to grow. My favorite application for them so far is to make Scalloped Potatoes and Turnips. Just make a regular recipe for scalloped potatoes, but use half turnips layered in evenly with the potatoes. I sometimes make that at Yule to go with the ham, and it's great. The turnips cut down the potato's starchiness a bit, while the potatoes mellow out the turnips. Being covered in cream sauce probably doesn't hurt either.
The garlic seems to be very happy growing up through the thick straw mulch. It would be swell to have a good garlic harvest in 2012 to make up for my 2011 garlic disaster.
I'm a little surprised that the Swiss chard was damaged by the freeze as badly as it was. Most of the outer leaves turned to mush, though the inner leaves look like they survived. Usually I find chard to be a very tough, foolproof plant. Maybe this variety (Golden Sunrise) is less cold tolerant than what I've grown before. Maybe it just needs time to acclimate.

Once again I find myself wishing I had planted more for the winter garden. Winter is a great time to garden in Texas. As long as you plant things that can take the occasional freeze, you can have stuff growing all winter, and you don't have to water nearly as much as you do in the summer. Summer really is the true off-season around here, not winter.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Real Freeze This Time

Ok, that last one was pretty wimpy. Seems the plants hardly noticed. But not this time. Got down to 26 last night. That's a REAL freeze!

I'm sure the basil in the foreground here is done for. Whatever seeds managed to mature in time is all I'm getting. Once they thaw out I'm cutting them down and taking them in to dry. I hope my other plants, like the cauliflower, collards, lettuce, etc. are ok. I didn't do anything to protect them, besides the mulch they already had. I'll see what happens when they thaw out later this afternoon.

With all the moisture in the air from our rain, there was a lot of frost on everything. Here are my peas all covered in delicate frost crystals. Aren't they pretty? I suppose frost crystals are a common sight up north, but I'm still just fascinated by them.

So it's really winter now!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Rain, Rain, and More Rain!

This is called a "puddle". It's what happens when it rains enough that water actually accumulates on the surface of the soil, rather than soaking into the soil immediately. To the right you see some of the fall plants I haven't been able to plant out in the garden yet because it's too muddy.

San Marcos has this Christmas carnival every year along the river called The Sights and Sounds of Christmas. I've lived here for five years now, but have never gotten around to going. This year I was determined to go... and it got rained out! It got rained out in the year of the worst drought in history!

Surely the weather gods have a sense of irony. Oh well, I'll go next year. Of all the reasons to miss it this year, rain is probably the best. It's been raining almost nonstop since Friday. I've been saying "rain is the new snow." Snow is not unheard of in Central Texas, but it's rare enough that when it does snow, people all freak out. Businesses are closed, the roads are hazardous because people don't know how to drive on ice, and Facebook is littered with "Wow! Look at the snow!" posts (I admit I'm guilty of that myself). Well, now that rain has gone scarce, people are acting almost exactly the same now.

My rain barrels have been overflowing since Friday. When we get our own place, I really want to get some much bigger rain containers. These pickle barrels fill up much too quickly. Think of all the rain I could have been saving in the last few days! Oh well, at least the aquifer and lakes are being refilled. My area has been upgraded from the worst possible category of drought to only the second-worst, and our county burn ban has been lifted. I wonder how long it would have to keep raining like this to completely undo the drought. Months, perhaps? That would be interesting to know.