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June 27, 2010

He's My Cherry Pie

I am not a big dessert eater. I don't care for most kinds of pie, the exceptions being apple, coconut cream or lemon meringue. But even those three have to have been made by my own hand or they fall far short of my expectations. Pies are usually too sweet, too soggy or too canned for me to eat. Cakes have their own problems; they are too dry or the frosting is made of some inferior ingredient and loaded on; seemingly to mask the tastelessness of the cake. Ice cream is too milky, puddings too soft, jello too weird (especially with canned fruit cocktail - then it's disgusting.) Cookies are ok but not really a dessert item, more like a cruising-thru-the-kitchen-snack. Top all that off with the fact that I can't, under any circumstances, have chocolate and the few desserts I might have indulged in go out the window. (Chocolate is a known migraine trigger and even a small amount will bring on a doozy of a headache for me.)

Needless to say, Paul is often deprived of his most favorite part of any meal - the dessert part. On occasion he will ask me to make him something sweet and baked, and I will comply, but it's rare. I know he sees this as the ultimate expression of love, this baking of sweets and treats, but I just don't make the effort. I love him, of course - witness the clean home, delicious dinners, great vacations - but not enough I guess to bake him a chocolate cake. Today, though, I made the huge effort to make him a pie. From scratch.

I bought a bunch of cherries at the market the other day and thought it was time I learned how to make a cherry pie and like it, too. After scanning through numerous recipes I couldn't find one that used fresh cherries and had ingredients that I found appealing. I decided that I'd have to forge a new path for my first cherry pie.

Having no cherry pitter, I again consulted the internet. Suggestions ranged from biting them in half and spitting out the pit (ewww) to using a hairpin (uh..also ewww) to digging the pits out with a fingernail (after working in the yard this morning, no. Just...no.) I could see that I was in completely foreign territory and would have to make things up as I went. I rifled through the gadget drawer and found a wine bottle stopper with a conical shape. I also lined up a grapefruit peeler and a chopstick in case I had to perform more delicate surgery. Poking a small hole near the stem and then driving the stopper thru the other end worked pretty well in popping out the pit but the poor cherry suffered, it's juice exactly like blood on my fingers. I took the stopper and gently but firmly ground it into the stem-end of the cherry, thereby loosening up the pit. It more often than not popped out with little loss of juice or flesh. Yes!

Also at the grocer I picked up a jar of mixed berry preserves. While pondering how I was going to sweeten and thicken the cherries I spied the preserves on the counter. Hmmm, a fresh approach? I heated the preserves until it thinned, strained out the seeds and poured the fruit jam over the cherries. I then added liquid to the bowl of discarded seeds, strained it again into the pan and thickened it all with a little cornstarch. Mixing that into the cherries seemed to give me the exact flavor and thickness I wanted for my pie.

I never make my own pie crust; I am too inconsistent and Pillsbury makes this fine substitute - two crusts already rolled out into circles and ready for me to fill. I even made a lattice out of the top crust. Fifty minutes later I had the most beautiful pie! The filling was dark and bubbling, but I could see it had thickened up considerably in the oven. I hoped it wouldn't be too thick or taste too much like cornstarch. We had guests coming, so I put the pie up to cool.

At the end of our meal I presented the pie to Paul and he graciously offered to share it with us. One bite told me the berry preserves was an inspired move - the filling was delicious; tart and sweet without one spoonful of added sugar. I think Paul is feeling the love!

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August 1, 2010

Cake Disaster

Have you ever heard of Cakewrecks? It's a hilarious website that posts pictures of cakes that were supposedly created by professionals but are...well....wrecks. I browse the site from time to time for a point and laugh, because these cakes are truly awful, but secretly I am guarding a great, big secret.

You see, I cannot bake a good cake and I sure as hell can't decorate a cake. There, I said it. Now you know. I don't really know why my cakes come out terrible but I think it might have something to do with how I follow the recipe. Which is to say, I rarely follow a recipe. I know baking is more of a science and cooking is more of a creative process but when I am in the kitchen with the ingredients and big mixing bowl, something evil happens and I start playing with my food.

My last baking attempt were banana bread muffins. They were full of banana and not enough muffin so they took like 80 minutes to bake, never really cooked through and the dogs wouldn't even eat them. My biscuits have to come out of a can because if I try to make them from scratch they come out of the oven looking like flat, weird cookies. Forget layer cakes, they look like miniature versions of the leaning tower of Pisa. If I make a cake at all, I pour it into a big pan and smear frosting all over it. And my frosting is never any good, either.

So why am I telling you all this? Because I actually attempted to bake a cake yesterday. I had some overripe bananas that needed to become something soon or get tossed out, and I hate to waste food. I searched the internet for some good cake recipes using mashed banana, and found one that sounded promising - banana rum cake. Simple ingredients and easy preparation plus the base was a boxed yellow cake mix. What could go wrong? Well, let me tell 'ya.

The initial preparation went fine, really. I mixed everything up per instructions but, when it came to pouring the batter into two pans I got scared. Knowing my history of layer cake disasters (they lean, they slide, they have canyon sized gaps in between) I wanted to use the bundt pan. Except, it wasn't in the pantry. My only option was this oddly shaped pan that simulates a layer cake with the top 'layer' smaller than the bottom. That looked like it would work, so I poured the batter into the pan and popped it into the oven.

Meanwhile, I prepared dinner. Baby back ribs, rubbed down with brown sugar, cayenne, garlic powder, salt and a few other spices and then wrapped all nice and tight in foil. Those went into the oven too. I shucked the corn and opened some wine. The cake was starting to smell delicious!

More than an hour later, the cake was done but it had risen like a mountain right in the center, coming to a point. It was at least an inch higher than the edge of the pan. I had visions of this thing spinning like a top on the cake plate. I sawed off the offending mound and at least got it level. It now looked very....flat. The bottom layer was half the size of the top layer. After dinner (perfectly cooked ribs, run under the broiler for the last 3 minutes with a spicy BBQ sauce) I brought the cut pieces in to Paul, and I have to say they were very tasty. I had high hopes for this one!

The next day I searched out a recipe for almond buttercream frosting. Since I used almonds in the cake instead of traditional walnuts or pecans (Paul is allergic to both) I thought an almond frosting would be the perfect accompaniment. Several of the recipes I found also included rum, vanilla and milk. Hmmmm, I had almond milk in the fridge too. I was starting to put together a plan.

First, cream the butter. Since it was fresh out of the fridge it didn't cream at all, the butter lumps just flew around the oversized bowl until there were tiny, hard balls of butter stuck to the sides. Knowing that the butter probably was too hard I thought I could soften them quickly if I added the almond and vanilla extract, which I did. And then, I made the first of several mistakes. I also added a good dollop of the rum. Those of you who are bakers probably know what happened here. The rum immediately broke the butter down to a grainy consistency that never got creamy. No matter how much more butter I added. I probably went through a cup of butter, and it was still grainy and spotty looking. I added some confectioners sugar hoping that would smooth it out. And, it did, somewhat. More sugar brought the frosting up to the right consistency and it was starting to look almost white. I tasted it, and grimaced. It was still grainy but now it was cloyingly sweet as well. I added more vanilla and some almond milk. Now it was too soft. I poured in the last of the sugar from the brand new two pound bag and mixed it all up for a good long time. Time to frost the cake!

I can't even accurately describe the mess I was making. The frosting was still a little too thin and wouldn't stay on the cake. The bottom layer was too flat to hold much frosting and I couldn't get a good edge to either layer. My cake plate was a poor choice too. It was a regular dinner plate and sort of sloped up. I thought that would help keep the cake from tilting too badly, which it did, but the cake was almost as large as the plate. I couldn't frost the bottom layer without frosting the entire plate too.

In the end, I did what any self respecting cook would do to camoflage a kitchen disaster; I covered it with garnishment. A bag of sliced almonds, fresh raspberries and some mint leaves made the whole mess look exactly like a big pile of beige marshmallow fluff on a plate.

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I turned my attention to dinner and about an hour later looked at the cake. It had started to droop in several places, and the raspberry garnishment was leaking red juice onto the plate. Mmmmm, looks yummy!

But, actually, in the end, it wasn't too bad. The cake was delicious and I couldn't taste the banana at all (I don't like banana flavor.) The frosting absorbed the rum, finally, and melded the flavors together quite nicely. Although it looked bad, it wasn't awful to eat. Paul loved it, and didn't even comment on the lopsidedness or the streaky red stuff running down the sides.

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September 23, 2010

Spain Part 4

Cook and Taste Cooking School

After arriving in Spain we had a few hours before our first activity. Joan made advance reservations for us at Cook and Taste Cooking School (www.cookandtaste.net) for an afternoon session including a shopping trip to the Boqueria market on Las Ramblas. We were to meet at the school, shop for our supplies at the market and return to learn how to make authentic Spanish dishes. I was very tired from the flights and opted to take a nap. Kristy also wanted to stay in the room and rest. The rest of the girls set out to explore the city.

The school is located in the heart of the Gothic Center, a maze of narrow streets, high walls and long passageways. After considerable searching Kristy and I were unable to find the school! Remembering that I had a global phone (courtesy of Verizon) I called and gave the instructor, Teresa, our cross streets. She told us to stay put and she'd come get us. All together again we set out for the market. (Karen was not interested in the cooking instruction and took herself for a tour of the old streets and shops.)

I love going to markets in foreign countries. The festive atmosphere and lively colors combined with the unusual presentations of foods is a feast for the eyes, ears and nose long before the tastebuds get involved. Teresa was a charming and informative guide through the maze of fruits and fish and ham. She knew many people and stopped often to procure for us samples to taste. She also helped us select our small purchases to bring home such as olive oils, vinegars and tinned fish. She guided us back to the school where there were another 8 people waiting to join us.

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Our menu consisted of gazpacho, Spanish tortilla, paella and crema catalan. Teresa asked for volunteers and two by two we donned aprons and carefully followed her patient instruction. Kim and I were in charge of the creme brule, a dish I had never made before and Kim had only attempted once. Our first task was to separate 14 eggs. As Teresa got the ingredients ready for the rest of the meal Kim and I set about cracking eggs and cracking jokes. In very short order we had lost count of our eggs and couldn't remember how many were in the bowl! One of the other guests tried to save us by counting the egg shells and someone else attempted to count the yolks. Eventually we had to confess to Teresa our failure. She didn't wave it off either, like I would have done. Apparently the egg count is very important in creme brule. Who knew? Anyway, we figured it out and continued with the meal prep.

One of the guests was in charge of pouring the wine and he did a great job of keeping everyone's glass full. Kristy chopped onions, tears streaming down her face, and declared that she was 'so sad' which cracked everyone up. Joanie was given the task of scissoring off the legs of the shrimp and placing them in the paella pan. Nancy helped with the tortilla and learned how to flip it over in the pan. While Kim prepared the creme brule I peeled and sliced figs for the ramekins. Presently all but a few of the guests were on the cooking side of the long counter, mixing, chopping and slicing. Olives and sliced peaches were passed around as appetizers while we cooked and talked.

First up was the gazpacho. Blended tomatoes were topped with aoli, hazelnut pesto and cheese. The tortilla was next, served on thick bread that had been rubbed with fresh garlic and ripe tomato. Seafood paella was dished up for everyone with a large shrimp adorning each plate and for dessert, the fig crema catalan. We ate everything from the soup all the way to the last spoonful of dessert. Teresa was a master at keeping us all focused on our tasks and making sure everything was cooked to perfection.

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It was a truly memorable meal and a great way to spend our first day in Barcelona.

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May 10, 2011

I Hate Leftovers

Yes, you read that right. I hate leftovers. I hate opening my refrigerator and seeing a plastic container with unidentifiable ingredients lurking in the far regions, behind the juice. I hate knowing that there was perfectly good food that somehow got overlooked time and again until it was no longer edible. That's what I hate. On the other hand, I love gazing into my pantry, one loan pork chop in hand, while I try to piece together an actual meal with whatever I have in the house. It has become my specialty, sort of. So when I find what was once a perfectly good ingredient that went to waste in the darkness of the icebox, I get a little agrieved with myself. Usually, though, I am pretty good at making sure everything gets eaten, even if it ends up in the doggie stew on Saturdays - a ritual that the dogs will not let me skip out on. I have been known to cook up fresh food, mix it with rice and serve it to our three mutts if I find that we have nothing left over at the end of the week. The dogs love it even if Paul thinks I'm nuts. Whatever, the food gets eaten.

This past weekend we had numerous guest to our house. By Monday, after the last couch surfer had departed with his broken 1969 Firebird on a trailer, I had a variety of teensy containers full of a spoonful of this and a handful of that. This evening, when I opened the fridge and pulled out two grilled sausages, a few strands of sauteed peppers and a goodly amount of grilled squash, I saw dinner!

I separated the red, green and yellow bell peppers from the unappetizing looking red onions (they turned a rather purplish black) and diced them up. I also sliced the two sausages and cubed the yellow and green squash. With a fresh yellow onion and some smashed garlic sauteed in olive oil I had a great start to a whole new meal. A squirt of concentrated tomato paste enhanced with some white wine and a can of diced tomatoes made for a really good looking fresh sauce. I had some tarragon in the fridge, threw in some black and red pepper flakes and served the whole mess up over top of spaghetti. It was delicious.

The dogs were hopeful, but we ate every bit of it.

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May 15, 2011

Cupcake

I'm not much of a baker, everybody who has ever eaten any of my baked goods can attest to that. So when I bought what I thought was a womens magazine and it turned out to be a cupcake recipe booklet, I took it as a sign that perhaps it was time for me to concentrate on developing my (pathetic) skills as a dessert-maker. When Paul's sister ElLoise invited us to her home for a small send-off party for her and a mutual friend Scott, both of whom were leaving for an extended trip to Italy, I thought I'd take the opportunity to make something from the little cake magazine. Never mind that twice ElLoise has suffered through my lack of baking expertise; once when I badly burned a Christmas Cheesecake that was to be the sole dessert to her holiday dinner and another time when I invited all our friends to my house for coffee and pastries before leaving on a road trip and served up a coffee cake that lacked the required amount of butter (I ran out, so I left it out.) I was going to make some cutie-pie cupcakes for her little party.

I was all set to decorate the little cakes with pretty toppings, ganache or fondant but during my weekly grocery trip I found these adorable cupcake liners in the shape of flower petals. Seeing the advantages of paying twice the price for half the amount of liners that would eliminate a significant portion of the decorations needed, I grabbed them. On the morning of the party, I took inventory of all my ingredients. I was missing marachino cherry juice, almond extract and buttermilk. Knowing that my downfall in baking has always been a propensity to substitute or eliminate ingredients if I didn't already have them on hand, I thought about running up to the grocery to get the missing items. Then, I remembered I had grenadine which seemed to be an acceptable substitute for marachino cherry juice (what IS that juice, anyway?) I also had some amaretto that would work better then almond extract in my opinion (alcohol ALWAYS improves a recipe I think.) The buttermilk would be a stumper though. I normally use almond milk in place of cow milk which works perfectly in most applications but somehow I didn't think adding lemon juice to almond milk would magically turn it into buttermilk. Using reconstituted dry milk in place of fresh, I added a tablespoon to the mixture and let it sit for a few minutes. I also added the grenadine to the mixture as directed and stirred that all up to a pretty pink frothiness.

I started out with the batter, adding the ingredients in the order stated in the recipe. All went well until I had to add the buttermilk. Pouring it slowly into the bowl, the milk had none of the creaminess of buttermilk and all of the curdled chunkiness of milk gone bad. Worse still was the color; foamy pink on the top, chunky curds in the middle and thin, watery rose at the bottom. Averting my eyes as though I somehow didn't notice what I was pouring into my food (food that I was also going to serve to a roomful of people), I dumped the whole cupful into the bowl and turned the mixer on high to cover it up quickly.

The pretty little liners stuck up rather high over the muffin tins and I knew if I tried to spoon batter into the cups I'd get it all over the sides, ruining the flower effect. Instead, I filled my frosting press (yes, I do actually have one - I got it at Target) with batter and inserted the cake filling directly into the center of the tins. Worked like a charm, if a bit messy trying to spoon the batter into the tube. Here's what it looked like before I baked them:
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And then, after I baked them. they looked wonderful!
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So now, time to frost. Following the recipe almost exactly (using the grenadine and amaretto as substitutes again, might as well go whole hog on the thing) I gave the frosting it's final spin with the beaters. That's when I had a total equipment failure. The beaters began rocking back and forth, fighting each other in the bowl until one ceased turning entirely. Smoke began curling up from the motor as it tried in vain to move the beaters. The frosting was not quite mixed well enough and it was a little too thick. But it would have to do since I had no alternative.

Given my total lack of expertise with a spatula I once again turned to the frosting press. The tip I used was the largest one, but it didn't have enough star shape to make a pretty pattern, and it let too much of the frosting out. I barely had enough to cover 18 cupcakes when it really should have been plenty. And it didn't look much like the picture in the magazine, either. But it did look cute in an earnest sort of way, so I arranged them on a little white serving tray and presented them proudly at the party.

ElLoise, bless her little heart, said not one word about my previous baking failures until I brought it up and even then, refused to comment. In the interest of informed consent I confessed straight away what I substituted during my baking test kitchen but I left out the chunky buttermilk part - nobody really needed to know that. Everyone tasted the baby cakes and declared them - Delicious!


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June 10, 2011

The Man Who Killed The Roast

Based on previous posts you can safely assume certain truths about me. One is that I like to cook. The other is I don't like to waste food and will go to great lengths to make leftovers into meals. The third, less obvious (I think) truth about me is I can sometimes get a little testy about being the only cook in the house. The fourth truth, which I am hoping only Paul knows, is I can totally behave like a calculating, petulant biatch if I feel overwhelmed by my household responsibilities.

As it so happens, this past week was one of those times when I was feeling used, unappreciated and even a bit jealous over the apparent lack of equal distribution of duties. The icing on the cake, so to speak, was when Paul's brother came up with a great idea for the men-folk of the family to go sailing around the Virgin Islands. This little excursion will take place less than a week after MY parents take the entire fam damily on a cruise to Catalina and Ensenada, Mexico of which Paul will be a guest. Do the math. Paul will be on vacation from July 2nd till sometime three weeks later. Personally, I think I'm entitled to a little hissy fit.

So, I had one. The morning after Paul told me he'd be off work for almost the entire month of July was also day four of a week where he didn't need to go into his office. He was home all week, sleeping in (till at least 8 am) and playing construction worker on our home remodel. As is my way, Instead of just telling him how I was feeling, I took a roast out of the freezer, threw it on the counter and announced that he was "in charge of dinner" before I left for work. Knowing, of course, that we had no vegetables in the house, no beef stock, no garlic. He was just going to have to figure it out. That'll teach him. Teach him what, I wasn't sure, but it was me who got the lesson.

On my way home from work and a hair appointment, I called Paul to see if he did, in fact, cook the roast. Yes, he said, we had beef for dinner but no side dishes. I offered to stop for potatoes and vegetables since he didn't go to the store for either. When I arrived home, the cooked roast was resting in the broiler pan (?) on top of the stove with a long meat thermometer jammed into it's center. I glanced at the temp - it was stone cold. While some fingerling potatoes and broccolitini were pan roasting on the stove I transferred the roast to a carving plate. That was unnecessary, really, because 'carving' was hardly what I would call the process. "Hacking" would be more like it. I sawed away at one end of the meat, revealing a uniform brownish gray color throughout the slice. I moved the knife three inches in and tried again. Same color, same texture. I bit into a slice and had to clench my fist around one end to pull it from my teeth. It was awful.

Now, here's the part where a girl can get all crazy over stuff. Men just don't seem to do this, but girls can completely fabricate premeditation, execution and result. I just KNEW he overcooked that roast to get out of my ever asking him to cook a meal again. I envisioned him giving the evil eye to nobody in particular as he deliberately cranked the oven up to 'burn' and left the meat to shrivel up and die. "Make ME in charge of dinner, will 'ya? Well, let's just SEE about THAT," was how my mind played out the lone conversation he had with himself over my temerity in asking him to make us some food for once. By the time I had finished preparing the vegetables and poking dejectedly at the roast, I had worked myself up for a fight. Just as I sat down to eat, Paul walked in from the back room.

Dirty and sweaty, bandanna wrapped around his head, he took one look at the roast and asked me if he had overcooked it. It was only the blatant look of disappointment that stopped me from shouting "Of Course, it's overcooked! As if YOU didn't know!" Well, he DIDN'T know. He'd spent all day laying tile in our renovated back room, focused on getting the squares just right. Dinner wasn't on his radar, although he tried to do what I asked of him. Having the thought process to deliberately calculate a passive aggressive revenge scenario on a prime piece of beef is completely outside his skill set. Unlike me, apparently. He didn't even eat any of it, just made a plate of vegetables for his dinner. Then he went back to working on our house. I went back to my regularly scheduled programming of cleaning the kitchen.

Later, Paul asked me if there was anything I could do to save the beef, and I felt bad, like maybe it was my fault too that the roast was ruined. The next day, I put the hunk of beef in the crock-pot, added a can of diced tomatoes, a cup of red wine and a little bit of water. I left it there all day, hoping to revive it somewhat. What happened was nothing short of a miracle.

I pulled the beef out of the slow cooker and began to shred it. The meat pulled apart easily and made a good pile of perfectly moist, shredded beef! I then sauteed some diced onion and garlic, deglazed the pan with more wine and added a spoonful of tomato paste. The tomato-wine mixture from the crockpot looked too good to discard, so into the onion/garlic pan it went. Adding about a cup and a half of the shredded beef, I now had a beautifully cooked ragu, which we ate over some rigatoni pasta. It was delicious! Paul was redeemed and I was extra nice to him that night.

(At least, that's what I recall. I might have made that last part up.)

November 9, 2011

Can I can?

Well, my canning story continues. It appears that canning supplies are difficult, if not impossible, to find in Phoenix if I want to do something more ambitious than jam. I can get the jars all right, but the modified food starch that's USDA approved is not available except by mail order. I went to www.canabys.com and for $15 I got the 'canning starter kit' consisting of a 16 oz container of Ultra Gel and a canning cook book. When it arrived, I carved out a few hours to begin my test run.

Of course, as it always happens in my kitchen, I was missing a couple of ingredients for the apple pie filling. I didn't have enough white sugar to make up 3 cups so I used 2 cups white and 1 cup dark brown. I also didn't have enough bottled lemon juice so I squeezed a few lemons to make up the difference. The former substitution was an improvement, in my opinion. The latter, however, I didn't realize until later may have caused the USDA a bit of heartburn had they known. Seems that fresh lemon juice is a no-no in the canning process. Why, I don't know. But I read about it after I had already used it, so all my test jars were going to have to be kept at home for personal use.

Using my big-ass pot I set the water on to boil for sterilizing the jars. As the water heated, I peeled and sliced apples, 6 for each quart. So far, so good. I decided the apples should be blanched first, so I had another pot on for boiling the apples and a bowl of ice water for plunging.
Lining up all the rest of my ingredients, I was ready to make my mark on the home cooking world.

I submerged the quart jars in the boiling water to be germ free when time to fill. I also threw in the lids. My instructions said to cook the apple pie syrup for a few minutes until shiny and thick. I added all the ingredients to a medium sized pot - sugars, spices, liquid. Then the three cups of Ultra Gel on top, which comes in a powdery form not unlike the silica gel that comes in new boxes of shoes. I looked over at the stove, there was no room for the pot of syrup. No worries, I thought, I'd blanch the apples and then make the syrup.

I didn't want my apples to turn brown before getting in the jars so I periodically squirted what was left of the lemon juice onto them. When I was ready to blanch, there were too many apples for the pot of water! Quickly, I scooped the first batch out with a slotted spoon and immersed them in the cold water. I did this several times until the cold water bowl was overflowing. I read the directions again. It said keep the blanched apples warm until mixed with the syrup. CRAP! I dumped the ice out and continued blanching the rest of the raw fruit.

I fished the boiling hot jars out of the water with the special tongs. Each jar was filled to the brim with a quart of boiling water. Pouring the water back into the pot was a challenge and I splashed and/or dropped the jars back into the pot a few times before gaining a healthy respect for how far a drop of hot water can fly. That done I divided the blanched fruit evenly among the jars.

Turning back to the apple syrup I felt my heart skip a beat. The Ultra Gel thickened itself with what little moisture I had put into the pot and formed a grayish white ooze across the top of the saucepan! Crap, crap, crap! I got the potato masher and tried to smush it all together and break up what I thought would be powdery filled little pods. Nothing doing. I got the hand mixer out and stuck that in the pot turned on high. The gel broke apart, but just small enough to slide through the beaters like mucus. Meanwhile, the apples and the jars were cooling off. I put the whole mess on the stove and heated it to boil in the desperate hope the gel would react to the heat and smooth itself out. That particular science experiment was a failure. Not only did the gel remain a gel, the heat under the syrup caused a small eruption similar to a volcano. My stove was never going to be the same after this. I gave the pot a few more stabs with the potato masher but I knew it was futile. Moving ahead, I spooned the hot syrup into the fruit filled jars. Each lump of Ultra Gel slimed it's way into the jars like nasty amoeba. I pretended not to notice.

Having no funnel I used a lipped spoon to add the syrup, but wasn't too successful in keeping the goo from sliding down the sides of the jars. Once I filled them, leaving what I estimated to be the one inch headroom at the top of each I noticed that the syrup didn't go all the way down to the bottom, leaving air pockets and bare fruit. Back to the instructions, which said run a knife through each jar to release any air bubbles. Grabbing a butter knife I gently stirred the fruit and syrup together in the jars. After doing this with each jar I read the instructions for the next step. Somehow I missed the part where it said to use a plastic knife, not metal. Oh for craps sake! I could only imagine what kind of ailment we were going to get because I used stainless steel.

The lids were still perking in the pot and were much more difficult to remove from the bottom. (Tall pot + short arm + short tongs = fingers that were dangerously close to the water.) I finally fished them out and set them on the tops of the jars, after wiping all the syrup off, of course. Giving the rings a light turn, the jars went back into the pot. Now, recall that when I took the jars out of the water I carefully dumped the water BACK into the pot. Any physics major will tell you what is about to happen, but I majored in Art and barely passed algebra. As I put the fruit filled jars into the hot, boiling water, the water level rose. Higher and higher until even I could see there was going to be a problem. Using a measuring cup I started to bail the water out before I added the rest of the jars. The water was pretty much up to the rim of the pot, but I couldn't take out any more without compromising the two inches of water needed to cover the jars. Slamming the lid on and setting the timer, I hid in the living room while the pot hissed, sizzled and steamed for 25 minutes.

When the buzzer went off, I surveyed my kitchen. Water had flooded my stove and turned a sickly brown around the burner. Apple peels, cores and seeds were stuck to all the counters. Sugar syrup was stuck to everything else and had even glued a kitchen towel to the sink. I made room on the counter and carefully pulled the jars out of the water. They looked pretty good, actually. I surveyed them to see if I could identify what was an apple and what was the lump of gel and determined that you couldn't tell the difference. I hoped the 25 minutes in the water bath dissolved the gel lumps but had no real expectations on that. The jars had to sit undisturbed for 24 hours. During that time I heard all seven quarts make a funny pop and knew that the canning process was successful.

The next day, all the jars were covered with a weird white film. I scraped it a bit with my fingernail, it seemed pretty permanent. I had no idea what it was or how it got on there but obviously it was some sort of reaction from the pot. I wondered what kind of metal the pot was made out of and had flashbacks to warnings not to heat things up in tin pots or you'd get Alzheimer's when you were 80. I took a risk and ran one of the jars under water. The film rinsed right off.

Nowhere in all the recipes for preserved apple pie filling did I find how many quarts or pints it would take to make one pie. It seemed as if one full quart would do it, but when I used one jar in an 8 inch pie shell it wasn't enough. One and one half filled the pie nicely, but left me with a problem. Since these jars would be sold at a farmer's market I couldn't tell my customers that the jar they just bought wouldn't actually make a full pie. I'd have to make a dozen quarts and at least that many pints. I checked the pie filling for the dreaded slimy gel but miraculously, there was none. We baked and ate that pie and at least two others plus used a quart as the base for an apple crisp. All were delicious, none had any funky lumps in them.

So the answer to my question Can I can, is YES I CAN! This Sunday I will be having a marathon canning session with one or two girlfriends to help out. And I'm already getting 'orders' from colleagues who plan on attending the market in order to buy the apples!

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