Holiday peppermint marshmallows

Every year we make marshmallows, and every year we scramble to find that one issue of the Martha Stewart magazine that has the marshmallow recipe in it.

By the way, one of these years I’d like to try making gelatin-free marshmallows, but I’ve read that vegetarian gelatin substitutes can be tricky. I’d welcome any advice about vegetarian marshmallow-makery.

Peppermint Marshmallows
adapted from: Martha Stewart Living Dec 2004

Vegetable-oil cooking spray or butter
4 (1/4-ounce) packages unflavored gelatin
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
2 large egg whites
3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
Confectioners’ sugar, sifted, for coating

1. Coat a 9×13″ pan and the blade of a large spatula with cooking spray. (Or butter them or oil them or whatever.) Put sugar, corn syrup, and 3/4 cup of water into a medium saucepan and cook over medium, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. (The saucepan will seem ridiculously large. This is on purpose.) Stop stirring and let the mixture come to a boil. Raise heat to medium high and cook until it’s come to 260F on a candy thermometer. Marvel, as usual, about the heating curve of the sugar.

2. Meanwhile, sprinkle gelatin into 3/4 cup of water in a heatproof measuring cup; let stand 5 minutes to soften. Set the measuring cup in a small saucepan full of gently simmering water and whisk constantly until the gelatin is dissolved. Take it off the heat and stir in the extract, then set it aside.

3. Beat the egg whites in a stand mixer until stiff but not dry peaks form. That means that the surface of the whites should still be glossy, but the peaks stay completely upright without their tips flopping over. In reality, we look at each other and say, “Does this look right to you?” “I dunno. Does it look right to you?” One year they got a little overbeaten; the marshmallows were a little less lofty but I don’t think anybody cared. Ideally the egg whites are not sitting around deflating while you heat up the sugar syrup; starting them when the syrup is coming up on about 250F works well.

4. Whisk gelatin mixture into the sugar mixture. The mixture will foam up significantly, making you glad you used such a big saucepan. With the mixer running on low, gradually add the hot sugar-gelatin mixture, in a thin stream, to the egg whites. Then crank the mixer’s speed to maximum. (Whoosh! Steam! Very dramatic!) Keep it running on high speed until it’s a very thick mixture, which takes about 12-15 minutes. Put the saucepan in the sink to soak.

5. Pour the mixture into a lined pan. Let it set up until firm, at least 3 hours. Cut the marshmallow mass into generous cubes and roll them in confectioner’s sugar. Cutting the marshmallows can be awkward – scissors have worked best for us.

Lip balm experiment

I thought I might try making lip balm from our soapmaking leftovers. It turns out to be easy as long as your standards aren’t all that high. Really, it’s no harder than melt-and-pour soap.

My first trial batch was this:

16g olive oil
10g coconut oil
8g beeswax
6g palm oil

Melt it. Put it in a container. Let it firm up. Tah-dah. If you really want a lip balm stick, I’m pretty sure you can get the appropriate containers from Zenith Supplies, but it’s not like there aren’t plenty of perfectly great lip balms that come in little pots.

I wanted to fuss with it a bit, so I remelted it and infused it with cocoa nibs for about twenty-five minutes, adding a touch more beeswax. Then I added a few drops of clementine oil. I can’t say that the nibs added the kind of chocolateyness I was hoping for, but they did add a subtle scent and an interesting color.

I’m reasonably pleased with this as a lip balm, but it’s a tad on the oily side for my tastes. I’d like to try cocoa and shea butters in this, and knock down the liquid oil component a bit. What this batch seems great for, though, is heavy-duty skin moisturization. It’d be a good cuticle cream or a base for a homemade Badger Balm.

Cast iron waffles

For my birthday, Cam got me (among other things) a cast iron waffle maker. It has long been a source of grar here at House of Cranks that seemingly every consumer-level electric waffle maker on the market has terrible flaws which could lead to inadvertent branding or just doesn’t work very well. Either that, or it’s a Belgian waffle maker, which is not what I want. (Next month’s issue of Cook’s Illustrated has a review of one electric waffle maker for which I couldn’t find any reviews which said something like “the cheap spring clips fell off and the heated plates fell off, killing my cat”. I therefore expect that model to be discontinued before the issue hits newsstands.) Anyway, Cam found this cast iron stovetop waffle maker which makes decent sized, regular-grid waffles. I tried it for the first time tonight.

The first couple waffles (and I use that word loosely) were a disaster. After the first one, I had to run the plates under hot water and scrub them with a nylon-bristle brush to get all the stuck-on bits off. By the third waffle, though, things had come together, mainly because I read this cast iron waffle making advice written by folks who, like me, like to use an infrared thermometer in the kitchen. Possibly the problem was just that the first few waffles out of a newly-seasoned iron are going to stick, but more likely was the fact that I was heating it about 75 degrees too low.

When cooked at the right temperature, waffles out of this cast iron waffle maker are better than any I’ve ever made at home before. Crispy on the outside, cooked just right on the inside–heaven. The batter recipe I adapted from the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book:

In a medium bowl, combine 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, 1 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp baking soda, and 8 tbsp buttermilk powder. In another medium bowl, whisk two egg yolks, then add 2 cups of water and 1/2 cup of cooking oil. Beat the whites from the two eggs until stiff peaks form. Add the liquid to the dry bowl, and mix until the batter’s a bit lumpy. It’ll be pretty liquid still, but don’t worry. Fold in the beaten egg whites, and don’t over-mix.

While you’ve been making the batter, the iron should have been heating over a medium flame. Flip it every now and again to get both sides warmed up. When it’s around 400-425 degrees, you’re ready to go. Brush some cooking oil over both sides of the iron and pour in around 3/4 cup of batter. You want to fill the whole iron, but not cause batter to flow out the sides. Close the iron and flip it over, so the side that’s been over the flame most recently is now facing up. Cook for 3 minutes on each side, then carefully open the iron and peel the waffle out, using a fork to unstick bits of it if necessary.

Either eat immediately or put on a wire rack in a 250F oven to keep warm until you’re ready to eat. Om nom. Makes around 7 waffles in this particular iron. I have a couple left over that I’m going to try freezing. Or maybe just eat now.

roasted potatoes in tomato-cheese sauce

I can hardly believe got all the way to my late thirties before I found out how to make roasted potatoes the Right Way. I used to just chop ’em up and roast them. Oh, was I wrong.

What you do is this: bring a pot of salted water to a boil. While it’s heating up, peel your potatoes (or don’t) and cut them into chunks. Parboil the potatoes for about five minutes, then drain them. Put the potatoes back into the pot, put the lid on, and shake them. Then roast them with olive oil at 425 or 450 for about an hour.

When you shake your parboiled potatoes, you rough up the surface significantly. So when you then roast them, the potatoes develop a lovely crunchy crust. It’s a tiny bit more trouble, but the payoff is remarkable. This is an old British trick, apparently; say what you like about British food, but they do seem to know their potatoes.

Last night I roasted up some potatoes and had them with a sauce based on the Colombian dish papas chorreadas. Normally, papas chorreadas is made with boiled potatoes, but it’s delicious with these roasted taters. (I am sure there’s a British Columbia joke to be had here somewhere.) No doubt it’d be even better with shallots and scallions and perhaps some hot pepper; I had my heat on the side in the form of a hot andouille sausage from Olsen Farms, which was just about perfect. You might also want to try frying the cumin, adding it near the end of the onion saute. But Josh and I were pretty well satisfied as it was.

Papas Chorreadas

~3 pounds of potatoes in some form
1 small onion, minced fine
2 c of canned tomatoes, minced fine
1 tbsp dry cilantro (much better to have a big handful of fresh, of course, but this is what I had on hand)
1/4 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 tsp flour
~1/4 cup milk or cream
2 oz queso fresco, grated, (or any other salty white cheese that’ll melt at least a little)

Cook the minced onion in olive oil or butter at medium heat until it’s begun to brown, then add the tomato and spices and cook until the tomato bits have softened and it smells delicious. Stir in a little flour. Add a dollop of milk — not a lot, just enough so that it no longer looks like salsa — and the grated cheese. Heat, stirring, until the cheese has melted. Pour the sauce over the potatoes at the last moment.

This sauce held surprisingly well — always a consideration here, when I’m rarely sure exactly when Josh will be getting home.

Pressure-cooker split pea soup

Getting a jump on my resolution to use the pressure cooker more often, I tried split pea soup in it today. It was a success. Josh had three and a half bowls and wound up hunched over the nearly-empty pot in the kitchen, scraping out the last little bit with a spatula. I bet he’s sorry he can’t get his whole head into the pot.

I went through our cookbooks and found that we had recipes for all kinds of fancy-pants pea soups, but no plain old vegetarian split pea soup. This is plain old vegetarian split pea soup. You don’t really need the bacon salt, but it adds a subtle smokiness. Just don’t get crazy with it or you’ll easily oversalt the soup. Then you’d have to add a potato. Which is pretty tasty, actually.

Split pea soup

1.5 smallish-medium onions, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 celery ribs, diced
2-3 cloves of garlic, diced
1 1/3 cups split peas, picked over and rinsed
1 1-qt package of “No Chicken” broth
a hefty grind of black pepper
a very small dash of Bacon Salt (no kidding, it’s vegetarian)
2 bay leaves
~1 heaping tsp red pepper flakes (or to taste, but don’t be stingy here)
balsamic vinegar

In the pressure cooker base, sweat the onions in a little neutral oil while you chop the carrots and celery. Add those, and keep it on medium while you chop the garlic. Add that and cook until all the vegetables are soft, translucent and perhaps slightly touched with brown here and there.

Remove the vegetables to a bowl and add the split peas and veggie broth. Bring the peas up to high pressure for about six minutes, then let the pressure decline naturally. Add the vegetables back and simmer on super-low heat with hot pepper flakes, bay leaves, bacon salt, and pepper.

Each eater might want to try a splosh of balsamic vinegar on their soup. (Who taught me to finish pea soup with balsamic vinegar? Whoever you are, thanks – you were right.)

Home improvement fail

About two years ago, I ordered a Rainbow attic stair, so that we could get some usable storage space in our attic. The existing attic access was a tiny hole in the back of a closet, and I could barely fit through it, let alone get in with a box of stuff. So I ordered this drop-down folding ladder. I got this specific one because it was rated for 350 pounds, and all the ones available at the big box stores were only rated for 250. I figured it would be a weekend job to install it. Hah.

First, the handyman whose time Cam got as a Christmas present was sick for several months. And then we went back and forth about where we might be able to install the stair. Eventually, I got up into the attic and crawled around in the insulation, and determined that there’s exactly one place in the whole house where this stair will fit — in the hall outside the bathroom. There was a light installed right where the stair would have to go, so I figured I’d have to move the light. No big deal, right? When I got up there, though, I discovered that it wasn’t just the light I’d have to move; in order to put the stair there, we’d have to cut one of the ceiling joists, and guess which joist the knob-and-tube wiring leading to the bedroom was running along?

If it had been modern wiring, I would have just moved it myself, but knob and tube makes me nervous, so we tried to hire an electrician. There’s a whole other post right there. Suffice it to say that it took over a year to get the wiring moved so we could cut that joist. But eventually that happened, and the handyman was available, and everything was good to go. We got the joist cut, the stairs framed in and bolted into the joists, and expanding foam insulation piped in around the edges so it wasn’t draining hot air out of the house when it was closed, and everything. The only thing remaining to do was to cut the folding ladder to the right length.

This particular ladder is metal, with metal treads welded between the rails. In order to cut the rails to the correct length for our floor (which is very uneven in that hall), I would have had to cut the left rail exactly in the middle of one of the treads, and the right rail just below that same tread. That clearly wasn’t going to work. The installation instructions said that if you had to cut the rails in within an inch of the bottom of a tread, you should cut just above the tread, and then use the adjustment bolts at the top to alter the angle of the whole ladder so that it was long enough again. (There’s no up/down adjustment possible, given the mounting hardware supplied with the ladder. You can adjust how much standoff there is between the ladder and the platform that hinges up and down from the ceiling, but there’s no adjustment in the other dimension. Which is just bad design, if you ask me.)

If I had cut the rails just above the treads, I would have had to angle the ladder so much that the steps would be nowhere near level. And that just seems like an accident waiting to happen. Ladder steps should be level, especially if it’s a ladder you’re going to be going up and down while carrying boxes. There was no adjustment possible with the mounting brackets, but I did notice that the brackets themselves had been moved at least once — there were holes drilled a few inches away from the brackets, with the right spacing to have mounted the brackets there. I figured they must be where you’d install the brackets for one of the other model of stair Rainbow sells, and that I could probably just unscrew the mounting brackets and move them a few inches down, making the cut points on the rails just above that tread without having to adjust the angle of the ladder. So that’s what I did.

I got the mounting brackets moved down three inches, the ladder measured and cut to length, and everything looked good. I’d been a little worried that there didn’t seem to be much “bite” to the bracket mounting screws, but didn’t think much of it. Everything looked good, so I gave it a test. I was three or four steps up when the ladder’s mounting brackets ripped out of the door and the whole ladder slid back into the hall, dumping me on the ground. Luckily, I stayed upright. And when I examined the holes the mounting brackets had ripped out of, I realized why the screws didn’t seem to bite much — the door that they’re mounted to is hollow-core. The only place where it’s solid is at the original mounting points. So when I moved the mounting brackets, I was just screwing them into fiberboard.

What the fuck, Rainbow? How hard would it have been to make that door solid plywood, instead of a solid frame and two crossbars with finished fiberboard facing? Or to provide a mounting bracket that provided adjustment in the other, useful, direction?

This whole thing has been a massive clusterfuck, and now I’m going to have to either fabricate myself a whole new door out of plywood or cut the interior fiberboard facing out and install solid crossbars at the location I need to put the mounting hardware, now that I’ve cut the ladder to length. Or maybe I’ll head up the street to the metal shop and see if they can fabricate me some mounting brackets that don’t suck. Either way, I am heartily sick of this project. Also, my ankle is starting to bruise from where I hit it on something on the way down. Oh, and one of the treads caught on the latch on the way down, and bent both the latch and the tread, so I’m going to have to get a vise and bend the latch back into shape or have the metal shop make me a new one. And while I bent the tread more or less back into shape, I don’t know that it’ll hold as much weight as it used to, so I’m probably going to have to reinforce it with some bar stock.

Longest weekend project ever. *mutter*

(Crossposted from elsewhere.org.)

Pickled carrots

I made about two gallons of pickled carrots with jalapeños and onions this afternoon, mostly using this recipe. I doubled all the ingredients but the carrots, because I wasn’t sure how many carrots the recipe called for. I used about 4.75 pounds total (after slicing). I’m not entirely sure how many jalapeños I used, either. Slightly less by volume than there were carrots, I know. Let’s say around 30.

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The brine and onions are pink because some of the carrots I used were purple carrots, and the color leached out of them during cooking. The batch filled our white stockpot, which I guess is two gallons. I gave half to my folks and kept half for us. It’s sitting in the fridge now, getting tastier. It should be ready to eat tomorrow, but it’ll probably develop the best flavor over the course of the next few weeks. If it lasts that long. I do like hot pickled carrots.

Next up: firecracker carrots using these weird white carrots they had at Whole Foods.

Stupid chickens

I spent a fair amount of time today fixing the chickens’ roost—it was in the wrong location, encouraging them to sleep in the draftiest area of their coop, and I think it contributed to them catching colds during the colder/wetter weather. It was also directly outside their nest box area, which meant that the area of the coop with the most droppings was what they were walking through to on their way to lay. Ick. So I crawled in and remodeled this afternoon, moving the high roost to the interior corner, away from drafts and the nest box. I also completed a second nest box on top of the first, with a way for them to get from the low roost into the high box via a little ramp. (There have been … issues with multiple chickens trying to use the same nest box at the same time.)

I just went out there to see how they like the new arrangement. Apparently, they don’t. Trouble and Miss Thing are crammed in between the roof and the top of the upper nest box, pressed against the chicken wire window. Durf is sleeping on the ramp into the upper box. They’re in exactly the same place, only now they don’t have a roost there. What the heck, chickens? Am I going to have to put bricks or something up there to encourage them to try the new roost?

This would make more sense if I had photos, but I didn’t think to take any earlier. Although, hmm… maybe I’ll go back out and take a photo of how they’re sleeping right now.

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And now that I see the photos, I think they’re going to be crapping in their water all night. That won’t do. New plan: find a longer piece of 2×2 and make them a perpendicular roost that runs all the way across the interior side of the coop. And then put something on top of the nest boxes so they don’t roost there.

First dozen eggs

The chickens have laid their first dozen eggs over the course of about a week, maybe 9 days:

First dozen eggs Three representative eggs

I believe that the lightest in color come from Durf, the medium from Trouble, and the dark from Miss Thing. A few of them are cracked at the tip; I suspect this is because they keep scratching all the material out of the nesting boxes before laying, exposing the bare wood. If I can find a plain coir doormat, I may cut liners for the nest boxes out of that and see if it helps.

First egg!

Apparently the fuss the chickens were making this morning was due to one of them laying her first egg:

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I’m very surprised to see that it’s almost exactly the same size and weight (55g) as a large egg from the store. The last time I had chickens, I remember them starting off with undersized and less sturdy eggs–the shells were softer, and the eggs were about half size. Could we have just missed that phase with these chickens? I don’t remember seeing any evidence of eggs, broken or otherwise, in the coop before today. Maybe we just have these chickens on a better diet than the ones we had when I was a kid.

In any case, hooray! They’re finally starting to earn their keep.