Baker Man… is Baking Bread

Bread has been the next skill to tackle on my list for about a month. I was originally scheduled to meet up with a couple friends so the three of us could all learn to make bread together. Unfortunately, that fell through. But I’d waited too long, and I was determined to get going on this. I always feel like, with doing anything, the first time is always the hardest.

So I got to work. I first watched a video from the Back 2 Basics Living Summit about bread-making. Then I looked it up in my Better Homes & Gardens cookbook. Just to have a couple approaches in mind.

I had to Google to find out how much “a packet” of yeast is, since it seems like half the recipes on the internet assume you’re going to have one of those individual packets of yeast. Even though the same company sells jars of the stuff. The equivalency is about 2 ¼ teaspoons of yeast per packet, but don’t go looking on the side of the jar for that information, because it’s not there.

I wasn’t long into the kneading process before I realized I was not going to have enough flour. So, picture this sticky ball of dough sitting there by itself as I bolted out the door to the market for more. We live pretty close to the grocery store, but I was still gone a good 20 – 30 minutes. However while I was there, I grabbed a box of ground flax, thinking it’d be good to add to the mix.

I immediately put the ground flax into a recycled glass jar. When you’re a homesteader… it’s what you do.

When I got back, the bread had definitely risen, but I just crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t ruin the final product too much by kneading it again at this point, and got to work. I added in about ¼ cup of ground flax, and more flour. Then I let it rise in peace for a while.

After it had had time to grow again, I split the dough into 2 loaves, plopped them into their pans, and threw them in the oven.

They came out very nicely! I figure probably the unexpected interruption in the process led to a denser bread, but it was still lovely, and looked on par with many artisan breads I’ve purchased before. And it tasted delicious. Also, made the kitchen smell great.

I’m not entirely sure how long a freshly-baked loaf of bread is supposed to last, but mine was still doing fine about a week later. Now that the initial stepping through the process is done, I’m looking forward to round 2.

Garden Dreaming

At the time I’m writing this, it’s one of the coldest days of the year, kicking off at -8. I like winter more than summer, but at this point, even I am growing weary of shoveling snow and being cold. My truck’s battery died on New Years Eve; even the cars are tired of it.

This is the time of year when the seed catalogs start arriving. Expert marketing by seed companies, I have to say. Everything’s buried in snow and freezing cold, and these colorful catalogs show up promising life and spring and fruitfulness. Never mind that I know I’m not a great gardener, to the point that I’ve decided to officially support the local farms instead of trying to grow my own tomatoes.

I could be growing things in the window… but maybe not, because it’s SO cold out right now, I don’t even like to stand near the windows. You can feel the cold just washing in. So maybe I leave that for February.

I’m learning that winter in general is hard when you’re obsessed with homesteading. It’s chilly in the house, so the SCOBY’s being sluggish, and the second ferment kombuchas aren’t carbonating the way they were in the summer. I don’t feel like pickling anything because all the green beans at the grocery store look like ass. Really the only thing I HAVE managed to do is turn 7 pounds of meat into beef jerky. At least I still have that.

It’s worse this year because we’re looking to move by summer, and I have no idea what that’s going to look like. It’s not like I can plan out a garden, which is probably what I’d be doing right now most years. I can’t bring myself to throw the catalogs away, but for now I’m sort of just ignoring them.

On top of it all, the real estate market also grinds to a halt in the wintertime, so there isn’t even anything to look at. I had this fantasy in my head last fall that in December, when everyone else had stopped looking, the perfect property would pop up on the market and we’d swoop in to score it because WE… we were ready! Yeah, no. Nobody around here wound up in trouble with the mafia and needing to sell immediately so they could skip town.

All these factors have sort of taken the wind out of my sails, hence the reduced blogging frequency. I don’t know what other modern homesteaders do during the off season, but I guess for me right now, looking forward has to be the plan. If we pull off this house acquisition, things will start to get real busy. So probably by then I’ll look back fondly at this lull.

Although, I did make my own bread for the first time… and used my own jams to make thumbprint cookies for a holiday party. Also we had chili for dinner last night that I’d put up weeks ago from a double batch. Everybody loved it, and it was really nice to benefit twice from that work. It prompted me to order a new Freezer Recipes book off Amazon. So yeah, there have been successes when I stop and think about it.

I’ve also been enjoying my latest playtime with 7 Days to Die. For the first time in 5 years playing, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m making bullets (normally I just stick with the bow as my weapon of choice). Watch out, zombies, I’m building a motorbike next!

Punctuated Equilibrium

Back in school, I learned about the concept of punctuated equilibrium in evolution. Evolution doesn’t happen in a smooth, metered progression. There’s a status quo for a long time, and then when things change, it’s a sudden and pronounced change.

This Thanksgiving weekend I’ve been feeling unexpectedly frustrated. The idea of spending money with black Friday abandon makes me feel nauseous. I just sent in the semi-annual property tax bill for our home, and because of that I won’t able to put away more money toward our homestead property search this month. But what does it matter? There’s suddenly nothing on the market to consider anyway.

It wasn’t until I vented about all of these things in a conversation with my husband that I realized why I’m feeling the way I am right now. It’s because my forward progress has been halted. No gardening or foraging either, of course, since we’re well into frosty nights. What all does a homesteader DO in the winter?

Today, I did the one homesteading thing I could still do; I cooked. Oh, boy did I cook. It started out as plans to make a huge batch of meatballs and freeze them. Then I figured, why not make mashed potatoes too? Those freeze well and the meatballs would be in the oven, so why not use the stove top, too? And then I started browsing around a bit on the internet for big batch freezer meals. That led me to an Alton Brown recipe for Christmas soup which was basically the sausage kale soup I used to make all the time. That, and a Guinness beef stew recipe completed my shopping list.

Meatballs on deck waiting for their turn in the oven as potatoes get skinned.

I think that was around 10am. I cooked non-stop clear to 5pm. I’m beat. My feet hurt, but at the same time, I feel GREAT. Doing something broke me out of the funk I was in. Not only that, all those meals in the freezer make me feel more at ease, more prepared. The end results were:

  • 4 meatball dinners
  • 4 family servings of mashed potatoes
  • 2 Guinness beef stew
  • 2 Sausage kale soup

So for less than $100, 8 dinners plus mashed potatoes that could be a side for the chicken I already have in the freezer, or used to make a shepherd’s pie. Not bad. I didn’t even go out of my way to save money, or go to Costco, and that was a LOT of meat.

Chuck roast and Guinness ready to become an amazing stew. So what if Guinness DOES come in 4-packs. What are you insinuating?

At the end of the day (literally), all this reminded me of that idea of punctuated equilibrium, and how forward progress isn’t necessarily a constant thing. Sometimes there will be no progress. Sometimes there may even be setbacks on the path to the homesteading dream. And that’s OK.

That’s my JAM!

Making Jam for the First Time

The next area of homesteading that had my attention was canning. I watched several canning videos several times, and figured hot water bath canning was within the realm of possibility for a budding homesteadsman like myself.

So I ordered jars, canning equipment, and the Ball book of canning. Cue husband’s sidelong glances of trepidation. But I told him these were all one-time purchases, and that seemed to satisfy him. Just don’t tell him how much pressure canners cost, because that’s probably in our future. 😉

Anyway, I spent a few nights flipping through the various recipes in the Ball book. I chose my first time out the canning gate to be a low-sugar raspberry lemonade jam. Pro tip: if you ever are canning jam for the first time, don’t choose a low-sugar recipe. As appalling as 5 cups of sugar in a single recipe sounds, sugar is your FRIEND when it comes to jam. But hey, as one of my favorite college professors always used to say, “hindsight is 20/20.”

I used frozen raspberries, for the record, but I don’t think that mattered. At least as far as consistency. It mattered for my wallet, though. We’re talking about $25 in raspberries (3 1/2 pounds). And for sure a few bucks in honey.

That first attempt went the way most first attempts do in the kitchen. It took longer than it probably will down the road. It made a mess, splattering molten raspberry magma all over the stove. And sadly, though I was using the frozen plate test, the jam was too runny when I checked a jar the next day. I managed to spread it on some toast, but it was also very tart. Six gorgeous little jars of failure.

I considered throwing them out. Luckily, before that happened, I read somewhere that if jam is too runny, just call it sauce. I felt like that was a cop-out, BUT… when I drizzled it over vanilla ice cream along with some chocolate sauce, it was amazing. So there you have it; raspberry lemonade sauce, the perfect companion for ice cream, yogurt, and oatmeal.

Still, that wasn’t a satisfying result, really.

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

It just so happened, though, we’d been apple picking a few days before. I love supporting our local farm, as my own gardening skills leave much to be desired. (So that’s the rationalization: “yeah, I’m skipping the garden in favor of supporting local farmers. That’s the ticket!”) Besides, fall in New England is well worth paying for.

We are all good apple eaters, but we had a BIG bag of them, which is what you get when you go apple picking. And there was this Apple Pie Jam recipe in the book. This one had plenty of sugar, and given apples are naturally high in pectin…

I found myself jamming again the very next day. When it came time to add the pectin to the recipe, well… you might say I was on the rebound, you know? I added at least a teaspoon more than the recipe called for, for good measure. It’s kind of an ironic term, “for good measure”. It means doing a little more than is called for. Is that REALLY good measure?

I had a lot of trouble getting this one up to the requisite 220 degree temperature, and had to cook it for quite a while. But it was definitely not runny. So that was a good thing. I spooned it into the jam jars, and though I was pretty wiped out, I felt like I was learning the process, and that this batch would be much better.

The next day, I popped open a jar to try it out. It was JELLED. I mean, I’ve bought jelly from the store that was as solid, but that doesn’t make it a good thing. It wasn’t easy to spread on toast at ALL. I managed to squash it down without tearing the toast to bits, and while it tasted great, once again, it just wasn’t right.

I feel like Goldilocks here. The first one was too soft. The second one was too hard. Will the third try be “just right”? Also, while you can call a runny jam “sauce” and get away with it, what can you do with a jam that’s too set?