Fight inflation in the kitchen

The total came to nearly $90 – four painfully small canvas totes of groceries that did not include meat, cheese or eggs. Had I been shopping at an ultra-fancy Amazon-owned health-halo organic market, this might have seemed reasonable, or even a bargain. Instead, I was at the (sadly) best option in our poor, rural county: a grim, dark and untidy corporate chain store with exploitative policies, limited fresh produce and extensive displays of cheap soda, chips and cookies. Shopping here is not pleasurable, by any stretch of the imagination; both the atmosphere and the prices leave much to be desired.

Unless you’re named Musk or Bezos, you’ve likely noticed that inflation has started to bite, and to bite hard. In the twelve-month period ending this past March, the U.S. inflation rate was 8.5% – the highest it’s been since late 1981. In the simplest economic terms, inflation means that our money doesn’t go as far as it used to. The huge conflagration of various challenges we’re facing right now – a global pandemic, the pointless war in Ukraine, climate change, housing instability, supply-chain disruptions, insatiable greed – means that we’re all experiencing inflation to varying degrees. The good news is that in almost all cases, you can control how much inflation affects your individual household by adjusting your own behavior. No surprise, then, that one of the easiest places to accomplish this is in the kitchen.

Before we really start whining about grocery prices, however, I want to make it perfectly clear that the average American spends far less on food as a percentage of their household income than do most other developed nations. The best available statistics indicate that we spend about 7% of our budget on food, whereas in the U.K. it’s closer to 9.5%, and around 15% in France, Spain and Italy. On a relative basis, our food is devastatingly cheap here; this is because we have absurd federal farm subsidies and because we’re a net exporter of food, which means we produce a lot. (Our cheap food is obviously both terrible for the environment and our own health, but the system holds!) Unfortunately, we’re very spoiled and therefore accustomed to cheap food, which means that we’re far more sensitive to price increases than other countries. (See also: $90 for four tiny bags of groceries, above.)

If you, too, are starting to feel the sharp stick of inflation in your own food budget, we hereby present some easy ways to keep your food costs down, eat healthier, and reduce environmental impact. It’s a win-win-win!

There is simply nothing nice to say about CAFO meat in tubes.

Eat less meat and dairy

We’ve discussed this numerous times here at Finding Quiet Farm, and it’s so obvious that it’s almost awkward to present it as a revolutionary idea, but reducing or eliminating your meat and dairy consumption is absolutely the easiest way to improve your diet and spend less on food. Meat prices overall are up an average of 20% in the past year; the recent avian flu outbreak means that chicken and egg prices have also skyrocketed. Raising animals for meat in CAFOs is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and environmental degradation; consumption of animal products is conclusively linked to a nearly endless list of health problems and premature death. In short, eat less (or no) meat and dairy, and buy what meat you do eat from a local regenerative farm. Also, get eggs from backyard chickens – either your own or someone else’s!

Strawberries a bit soft? Perfect for baking or smoothies!

Minimize food waste & ignore expiration dates

Another subject that we’ve beaten to death over the years here – Americans waste about 40% of all food. If we want to trim our grocery spending, it starts with being realistic about what we’re actually going to eat instead of aspirational shopping that results in huge amounts of waste. I’m not at all a fan of the warehouse stores like Costco, with their massive plastic clamshells of spinach or grapes or asparagus; unless you’re feeding the Brady Bunch, it’s pretty likely that produce will spoil before you finish it. Those stores entice shoppers with their “bulk discounts,” but that’s not a discount if most of it ends up in the trash; also, their excessive and unnecessary packaging is infuriating. Unsurprisingly, most food waste is perishables like greens and fruit, so be ruthlessly honest with yourself about what your household will actually consume.

On the same topic, please please please do not ever pay attention to expiration or ‘best-by’ dates on packages. They’re not regulated and they’re designed expressly to keep you throwing things away and buying more. Use your eyes, your nose and your common sense – if something smells strongly of alcohol (fermentation) or is actively moving, probably compost it. Otherwise, trim off the mucky bits and eat it – transformed in a soup or a smoothie, if need be. Expiration dates are a large-scale corporate racket designed to keep us spending. Ignore them entirely.

What do you have on hand that you can use up?

Pantry challenge / use what you have

We’re quickly moving towards the season of abundance here, and that – coupled with inflated prices – means I’m challenging myself to use up everything we have right now, both in the pantry and the freezer. The typical American household has a lot of food on hand, but like our overstuffed closets, much of it gets ignored in favor of “new.” For a week, or a month, or whatever timeframe you can manage, challenge yourself to eat what you have. Use up that little bag of red lentils, the frozen container of chili, the rest of that pasta, last summer’s canned tomatoes. Make a frittata or a stir-fry or a soup out of the odds and ends of vegetables and herbs in the crisper. Create flavorful meals by working with what you have, rather than buying more. Also! Eat your leftovers. Plan your weekly meals thoughtfully so that leftovers (or ‘favorites,’ in our house) can be either frozen, incorporated into packed lunches or used for future meals.

Frozen summer sweet corn: the secret ingredient in delicious soups.

Use your freezer

Never forget about your amazing freezer, the greatest food-saving appliance ever invented. Brown, too-soft, overly ripe bananas and other past-its-prime fruit: frozen on sheet trays and used for smoothies and muffins. Vegetable scraps: stored in zip-top bags for stock and soup. Sliced bread: saved for toast and bread crumbs, rather than going stale and hard on the counter. Incredible sale price on organic blueberries: frozen for baking when fresh fruit is too expensive. Fresh summer sweet corn: sliced from the cob and turned into spicy corn chowder in winter. The list goes on and on – your freezer can help you save money and eat better. Use it.

Hummus is so expensive to buy but so quick and easy to make at home.

Cook from scratch

Big Food has made billions convincing us that not only do we not have time to make things, but that we probably can’t. This is completely false! Yogurt, granola, salad dressing, hummus, bread…all of these (and many more) are far cheaper and healthier to make at home, plus you can control the ingredients and you avoid wasteful packaging and shipping. Five minutes of effort yields a jar of delicious salad dressing that will last for weeks; yogurt takes a few hours but that time is mostly devoted to the slow culturing and requires no real supervision; granola can be baked in huge batches and with far less sugar than packaged varieties; homemade bread, of course, produces results that can never be replicated with storebought. Keep in mind, too, that even cooking dried beans rather than using canned means substantial savings. Avoid, if at all possible, food products where someone has done most of the work for you.

A small portion of the food we harvest each year.

Grow your own

The best way you can fight inflation, of course, is to turn your back on Big Ag entirely and grow your own food. A $3 packet of tomato or lettuce seeds and a bit of water will yield hundreds of dollars of organic food. Plastic clamshells of ‘fresh herbs’ that turn into brown sludge after two days can be instead harvested fresh from window boxes as needed with about $20 of supplies. Even the smallest backyard or sundeck can produce a staggering amount of homegrown food if managed correctly, and the satisfaction of producing your own food is unmatched. Find out what grows locally where you live, and buy seconds for freezing or canning. Join a community garden, or partner with neighbors to grow collaboratively. Plant a vacant lot. Ask who might offer gleaning in your area. There are myriad ways to obtain fresh, nutritious food that don’t involve the supermarket; it takes a bit more work, but the payoff is worth it.

Are you making changes to the way you cook and eat because of higher prices? We’d love to hear what your household is doing to adjust!

Farm update: November 22

Hello and what’s new in your world? Here at Quiet Farm we very much wish that winter would appear already. We haven’t had even a dusting of snow since that frost back in October, and it’s barely cold enough to freeze the animals’ water or kill off all the aphids on the kale. Far too warm for late November – but don’t you worry, our trusty politicians are taking care of that pesky climate collapse issue even as we speak.

Our fall harvest has all been successfully preserved; the last of the ripe tomatoes went into the sauce pot yesterday. Chiles are drying in the sunroom, ready to be pulverized into chile powder; pumpkins and squash are neatly stacked on shelves; apples and onions remain in cold storage in our insulated woodworking shed. We are stocked and ready, and we invite Serious Winter to show up immediately if not sooner.

Here are a few more things we’ve been up to recently, if you’d like to see:

Bright, tart pomegranate seeds make these amazing waffles even better.

Obviously we’ve discussed the waffles previously, but yet here we are again. I made a fresh batch last weekend and since holiday brunches and family gatherings and all sorts of festivities are lurking just around the corner, I must evangelize the waffles once more. Please, dear friends, if you do not make one other thing from scratch this holiday season, please make these waffles. I know this level of devotion to a seemingly innocuous breakfast food seems a bit over the top, but trust me – these are the best waffles ever, and you can stop Googling ‘best waffle recipe.’ Plus they’re very easy to make, and they freeze beautifully – you can just have fabulous homemade toaster waffles any time you like, and you can also stop buying expensive processed frozen waffles with mysterious ingredients! The recipe hails from Fannie Farmer by way of Marion Cunningham’s brilliant The Breakfast Book, which I highly recommend. (But seriously, go make these waffles. Do it now.)

Hot sauce doesn’t have to be just painfully ‘hot.’

Making hot sauce is always part of our farm preservation work each year. Although I’ve experimented with lots of different types of hot sauces, for the moment I’m keeping it simple – one fiery-sweet red version, very loosely based on Sriracha and this Melissa Clark recipe, and one fermented serrano version, a rough knock-off of green Tabasco. The red hot sauce is definitely milder, with a gentle undertone of sweetness from the red bell peppers, while the green is a tangier, sharper vinegar-based sauce, used more sparingly. As a personal rule, I don’t love aggressive, punch-in-the-face hot sauces; I want a bit of heat but would still like to taste whatever I’m eating. Hot sauce is simple and inexpensive to make at home, keeps indefinitely and is a thoughtful consumable gift for anyone on your list who likes things spicy. (P.S. If you buy classic Sriracha, save, wash and reuse the iconic squeeze bottles for your own homemade hot sauce.)

Small part. Big impact.

I don’t in any way fancy myself an influencer, but if I can influence you to NEVER, EVER buy GE appliances, please allow me to do so. We have a full suite of GE appliances in our kitchen – all of which came with the house – and every single one has failed at least once. Most recently we found ourselves without a functioning oven, which is quite challenging for someone who bakes on a more or less daily basis. Some investigation and a few helpful YouTube tutorials later, we ordered a new igniter. (Of course, I foolishly ordered the first igniter from GE and it arrived pre-broken, thanks to their careless packing. The second igniter, from an entirely different company, arrived in perfect condition, but obviously it was now two weeks later. Thanks again, GE. You’re tops.) We successfully installed the new igniter – a five-minute job, though gaining access to the compartment and putting everything back together neatly made it more like an afternoon – and lo and behold, we thankfully once again have a working oven. As always, successfully learning to repair things ourselves goes a long way towards our goal of self-sufficiency.

Crispy, salty, savory and delicious hot or at room temperature – galettes are winners.

And of course with a working oven, we can once again make delicious meals like galettes! Like the waffles above, we’ve extolled the virtues of galettes previously – they can be sweet or savory, hot or cold, made in advance or pulled fresh from the oven – and they lend themselves well to using up whatever odd bits and ends you might have on hand. They’re also beginner-friendly, if you’re intimidated by all the perfect pies you’re seeing right now; galettes are designed to be “artisanal” and “rustic” which – fun fact! – are both Latin for “messy” and “imperfect.” This time of year our galettes are most likely to have fall flavors, like delicata squash, caramelized onion, peppery goat cheese, sage and rosemary – but honestly, you can put pretty much anything you want in one. If you’ve got a couple rounds of pastry dough in the freezer you’re halfway there; galettes are easy to prep for holiday gatherings and perfect as a vegetarian main dish or as a simple, impressive dessert.

Available now as an NFT: “Untitled: Llama and Alpacas at Rest, 2021”

And finally, it’s always nice to observe our camelid herd lounging peacefully in the pasture; if they’re at rest, it means they’re getting plenty to eat. We’re regularly challenged by this rebellious bunch of feral miscreants, but they add a certain flair to Quiet Farm, and we’re glad to have them here.

Wishing you all the best during a tough time of year, dear friends.

Farm update: July 12

How are you? How is your July thus far? It’s high summer here at Quiet Farm and we spend more time outdoors than in – always, always wearing long sleeves, long pants, wide-brimmed hats and plenty of SPF 50 (only reef-safe zinc, though we’re nowhere near a reef!) on any exposed skin. Skin cancer is not to be taken lightly, especially since we’re more than a mile closer to the sun. Here are a few things we’ve been up to, if you’d like to see:

Sunchokes along the eastern edge of our game fence.

Each growing season, I aim to plant at least one new fruit, vegetable, herb or flower. Last year it was fennel (and unintentionally this year, too, since it self-seeded) but this year’s choice was sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosus). Sunchokes (also called Jerusalem artichokes, though they’re native to North America, not Israel) are in the sunflower family (Asteraceae), and the plants produce showy yellow flowers and an edible tuber. They’re not well known in the U.S.; even in France they’re grown primarily for animal feed. But! The crisp, white-fleshed tubers are rich in inulin (a dietary fiber) and are absolutely delicious when roasted and salted like potatoes. I might even try some sunchoke chips in the dehydrator! I’m excited to harvest these later this season, especially because once established, they’ll likely need no water and no maintenance, and will hopefully continue to produce a nutritious winter storage crop all on their own.

Nice buns.

Anyone who has read this blog for more than one minute knows that I am constantly trying to convince the entire world to bake their own bread. Really, you should! So easy! So satisfying! So much healthier and tastier than store-bought! But perhaps you find large burnished sourdough loaves to be somewhat intimidating? No problem. Start simple, like hamburger buns. I know that I’ve just missed the Fourth of July, a classic burger holiday if ever there was one. But if you start practicing now, you’ll have mastered homemade burger buns by Labor Day! (Only joking, because you don’t need any practice at all; buns are really easy.) Use this reliable recipe – I did not make any alterations for altitude – and bake a batch to tuck in your freezer for future grilling opportunities. The recipe yields eight large; I make sixteen if I want to serve sliders. Please, try this and let me know if you have troubles – I’ll help you sort them out!

Broad Tailed Hummingbird 05 sml

Broad-tailed hummingbirds at the feeder.

Our migratory hummingbird population is thriving; if we remain still, we’re able to see them up close on our feeders. We observe two species most commonly here – the broad-tailed (Selasphorus platycercus) and the black-chinned (Archilochus alexandri), and only very rarely a rufous (Selasphorus rufus). The hummingbirds are so much fun to listen to as they dive and swoop like miniature fighter jets. We’ve even discovered a tiny nest precariously perched on the twinkle light strands on our front porch; we’ve left it alone for the moment in the hopes that there might be viable eggs in it. Although we have dozens of incredible bird species here at Quiet Farm, the fast and spirited hummingbirds are definitely one of our favorites.

Fresh, crisp, satisfying and most of all – cold.

Despite the slider rolls above, supper is entirely abandoned more evenings than not here at Quiet Farm. When it’s pushing 100 degrees at 5:30PM and we’ve been out irrigating all day, the very last thing I want to do is turn on the oven or the stove. Enter the cold noodle salad, remarkably simple and infinitely variable. I cook the noodles in well-salted water first thing in the morning, when it’s (relatively) cool. Drain and toss the still-warm noodles in sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and chile sauce if you like things spicy. Shred a whole mess of vegetables, whatever you have on hand – carrots, cabbage, snap peas, broccoli, bell peppers, cauliflower – and toss with a bit more soy and vinegar. Chill everything. When it’s time to eat, make yourself a beautiful, colorful plate and garnish with lots and lots of fresh herbs – I like a mixture of Thai basil, cilantro, scallions and mint. Add more soy or sesame oil as desired. Chopped salted peanuts are great, too! You could serve this on a bed of fresh greens, you could top this with crispy tofu or strips of a simple scallion omelette, or you could just eat it as is. One of my very favorite low-effort/high-flavor summer meals. (P.S. When you’re making something that will later be eaten cold, remember to have a generous hand with the seasoning. Cold dulls flavor, therefore it doesn’t taste as intense. Be lavish with salt and herbs!)

Adelaide apologizes for not tidying up all the hay on her face before this photo was snapped.

And finally, our animals are thrilled with their new haircuts. Although they have access to shade, they still spend their time happily grazing away in the pasture. Even on the hottest days, when we’re melting and seeking out any cool spot we can find, they’re happy to be out in the sun. Last summer was a different story, and we’re so pleased that we were able to get them sheared so they can be more comfortable during this brutal season.

Wishing you a pleasant week ahead, friends.

Farm update: June 14

Hello there, and how are things in your world? Here at Quiet Farm it’s hot, dry and smoky. The Pack Creek Fire, burning southeast of Moab, Utah – started by an unattended campfire! Thanks, thoughtful and responsible campers! – has filled our blue skies with thick smoke and turned our sunsets into a terrible neon orange ball of scorching flame. We’re forecast to spend the week ahead melting under triple-digit temperatures, and we plan to only be outside for the bare minimum of tasks between noon and six o’clock. This week will be all about survival – ensuring that we, and all of our plants and animals, have plenty of shade and fresh, cool water.

A few activities we’ve been up to recently on the farm:

Look at all those vitamins!

Our harvests lately have been greens, greens and more greens – no complaints, since we eat salad every day. The arugula, kale, spinach and mixed lettuces have all been crisp and delicious this season, but this week’s furnace-like temperatures will put an end to that abundance; as a rule, most lettuces and greens do not care for excessive heat and often turn unpalatably bitter. I’ve harvested just about every leaf out there; as usual, I leave a number of plants to intentionally go to seed for future plantings. I regularly replant salad greens underneath the tomatoes; by the time the greens are up, the tomato plant will shield the tender leaves from the scalding summer sun. We’re also harvesting garlic scapes (the squiggly things on the left side of the photo) to encourage the garlic plant to put all its energy into the underground bulb. Scapes are delicious in pesto, salad dressing or stir-fried. And we’re picking strawberries, too, which are spectacular and have never once made it all the way into the house except for this photo, after which they were promptly devoured.

Continue reading

Farm update: May 24

Late spring is a busy time of year for small farms and homesteads. The task list seems endless: plant this, thin these, weed that, water those and by the way, the alpacas and chickens still need food, water and clean bedding. The best we can do is simply to make list after list, and tackle those lists one item at a time. One thing we do adjust as we move into our busiest period: our daily routine. If possible, we try to be outside in the morning and inside in the afternoon, because our blustery, changeable winds make working outside even more challenging after two o’clock. This is a lovely ideal, of course, and things don’t always proceed as planned – but all we can do is our very best.

Here are a few things we’ve been up to, if you’d like to see:

Careful pasture management is helping our land stay green despite the exceptional drought.

Our irrigation season is set to launch next week, though we still haven’t learned our water allotment for this year. In preparation for running water, we purchased a three-row marker to attach to our little tractor. Because we use gated pipe to irrigate our pasture, it’s important to “mark” the fields with channels that direct the water to the correct places. Marking is usually done on a three-year rotation, but our pastures were essentially abandoned for close to seven years, so it’s going to take some time to get the irrigation pinpointed. In addition to marking the fields, we also reconnected all of our gated pipe and replaced damaged gaskets and gates. Most people don’t break down their pipes every year, but we’ve mentioned before that we have a severe rodent problem – and if they build a winter burrow in the pipes, they’ll eat the gates. It’s more work to disassemble and reassemble the pipes, but likely saves us money in the long run.

Continue reading

The FAQ Series: Yeast

This post likely would have been much more helpful about fourteen months ago, when the baking craze started in full force, but better late than never. Hopefully people still bake on occasion? Today we’re going to talk about yeast, a reasonably simple subject that gets complicated surprisingly quickly.

Before we get into the precise details of the baking yeast we use today, it’s important to understand just a bit about the history of bread and leaveners in general. A leavener – basically anything that makes dough rise – can be physical, chemical or biological in nature. Physical leavening agents are air and steam, which might be incorporated either through mixing or through the oven’s heat. Chemical leaveners, most often baking soda and baking powder, create a chemical reaction that causes doughs to rise. And finally, yeast acts as a biological leavener; yeast is a microscopic organism that consumes simple sugars and creates carbon dioxide gas as a byproduct of fermentation, which in turn causes dough to expand. Yeast cells used in baking are found either in commercial packaged form or wild in a starter.

Yeast-risen doughs really are simpler than this picture makes them seem.

Continue reading

Cookbook Club: Flatbreads & Flavors

Not pancakes! Rye-sourdough crumpets with homemade bitter orange marmalade and soft salted butter!

It’s been far too long since we’ve offered a Cookbook Club post here at FQF. And since I’m trying to select a “cookbook of the week” from my (extensive) collection to avoid the ever-present malady of dinner fatigue, now seems like a good time to dust off some classics. May I present Flatbreads & Flavors, by the inimitable team of Duguid & Alford? (They’ve split now – but they did produce some stellar cookbooks together. I’d also highly recommend Seductions of Rice and Hot Sour Salty Sweet.)

Naan dough resting after being rolled out into rounds.

I adore their cookbooks because they’re not simply recipes but travelogues, too. As with many of you, I read cookbooks like novels, and in this extended no-travel period we find ourselves stuck in, these books are a transcendent escape. Duguid & Alford visited some very off-the-beaten-track locales – long before selfie sticks, Instagram, and exploitative overtourism were issues – and they have the stories and adventures and recipes to prove it. Their passion was never high-end restaurants catering to well-heeled tourists, but the tiny, unremarkable street stand tucked away in a nondescript alleyway serving the best Afghan snowshoe naan or Sichuan pepper bread in the world. Their palpable love for both food and the people who make it, day in and day out, as they’ve done for centuries, shines through in all their books.

Continue reading

Farm update: March 1

Hello there, and welcome to March. (March?!? Really? We are completely not prepared for all of our spring tasks yet.) Also, welcome to the nearly one-year anniversary of the pandemic lockdowns. A year of this madness. How is everyone doing out there? The “pandemic wall” is a real thing, make no mistake, and I think a lot of us have hit it. Hard.

The images in this post might convince you that we’re buried in snow over here at Quiet Farm; sadly, that is not at all true. We have gotten a bit of snow both here and up on the mesa, and of course we’re grateful for every last flake, but it’s still looking as though it’s going to be a painfully dry year. As always, the only thing within our control is how we use the water we do have, so we’ll be focusing our efforts on making sure that not a drop goes to waste.

Paris secured in our makeshift crush before the vet’s arrival.

One great accomplishment that we’ve had recently is to successfully geld one of our male alpacas, Paris. His behavior had become increasingly aggressive and since we are not running a breeding program, there is no reason to keep an intact male on the farm. We were able to safely secure him in a “crush,” and our terrific local vet took care of the rest. It takes about sixty days for all the testosterone to leave his system, but his aggressive behavior has definitely lessened since the fateful day. We’re also pleased to announce that we’re on the mobile shearing schedule for the spring, so the alpacas will be getting a tidy cut in late May or early June, which will make them much more comfortable this summer. We are working on halter-training all the animals so that we can handle them in a safe and calm manner – this is much easier said than done, and frequently both humans and alpacas stomp off in frustration and tears. (Okay, maybe not the alpacas. Definitely the humans.)

Our game fence is good for more than just keeping out deer!

I’m also proud to announce that I’ve finished a patchwork quilt I started late last year. I won’t lie: I made approximately ten million mistakes on this quilt and learned so much about what not to do in quilting. I also unknowingly caused a lot of my own problems by designing a somewhat complicated pattern that required an excessive amount of piecework and stop/start stitching. (It’s only my fourth full-size quilt, however, so perhaps I should cut myself a bit of slack. I am very much a novice.) I read an article recently about different crafting hobbies people had taken up during the pandemic; one woman tackled a complicated shawl using fairly advanced knitting techniques. She wrote, “I almost quit a lot of times. But I kept at it, and I was both miserable and joyful at times – it was a good emotional process for me. The challenge was a great distraction from the chaos and stress of the unknown.” That accurately sums up my feelings about making this quilt – and I’m already excited about starting my next one.

Snowshoeing is a surprisingly challenging workout!

We’ve mentioned on more than one occasion how much we adore our local library system; to make us love them even more, they’ve started loaning snowshoeing equipment! We’re about twenty minutes’ away from some of the best snowshoe/cross-country trails in the West, and borrowing equipment and just running up the mountain for a couple of hours has been a terrific break. (Even better: many of the trails ban loud, obnoxious snowmobiles.) We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to go a few more times before the demands of spring on the farm limit our time away.

This is an ideal afternoon snack with a strong cup of PG Tips.

There’s been more comfort baking than usual ’round these parts lately. One favorite is a long-ago classic that I’ve resurrected because for once I have a massive bag of spelt flour and plenty of fresh rosemary on hand: this rosemary-chocolate olive oil cake, originally from Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain. This may not be to everyone’s liking – rosemary isn’t frequently used in desserts – but I love it and don’t find the piney herb flavor overwhelming at all. The cake is tender, delicate and not too sweet, and is a perfect afternoon pick-me-up. I highly recommend a good-quality 70% dark chocolate bar here, cut into rough chunks, plus a generous sprinkling of turbinado sugar on top for extra crunch and texture. (For high-altitude bakers: I reduced the baking powder to 1 tsp. but didn’t make any other changes.) As with most things I bake, more than half of this cake promptly went straight into the freezer as a gift to my future self.

Stay calm and stay sane out there, dear friends. The best thing we can do is just to keep going.

The humble muffin

Let it be hereafter known to all and sundry that I am not cool. I am definitively not trendy. The only time in recent memory I’ve been on-trend is when activities I’ve cheerfully pursued for years – baking bread! sewing! growing food! raising chickens! – happened to intersect neatly with a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. All of a sudden, my previously-mocked Laura Ingalls Wilder skills were wildly in demand. All of a sudden, I was cool.

Sadly, it looks as though my coolness has worn off as we tentatively, gradually, carefully tiptoe back to our “real” lives. Most people have given up on sourdough, everyone is wearing cheap counterfeit N95s, gardening is probably finished and I don’t want to think too hard about what happened to all those pandemic chicks. My point here, if you were wondering, is that I am once again proudly not cool and I am still baking muffins.

Homey. Comforting. Just what we need right now.

Muffins are not cool, either. They are not a cronut or a cake pop or a brookie or a rainbow layer cake. I am doubtful that muffins have a massive following on Instagram. Perhaps there have never been muffins on Instagram? I’m pretty sure no one has made a fortune off of them recently. They’re just…muffins. They’re humble and comforting and kind and homely and they’re basically just a hug from your grandmother in pastry form and therefore they’re perfect for this weird purgatory we all find ourselves in, where things are sort of looking up but the pandemic definitely isn’t over and we haven’t exactly leaped into normal life again. It’s an odd, unsettled time, to be certain.

If I haven’t sold you on muffins yet with that confusing pitch, allow me to continue proselytizing: muffins are far and away one of the simplest things you can bake, even at altitude. They’re infinitely customizable with whatever you might have lurking in the freezer or pantry. You can use up fruits or vegetables that might otherwise get thrown out. It’s easy to make them reasonably healthy, and they freeze like a dream. What more could you ask from a baked good, honestly?

Get your mise-en-place together first!

Gather round, children, and I’ll share my own personal hard-and-fast rules for muffins. You might want to take notes! First and foremost – and I’m going to say this loud for the people in the back – MUFFINS ARE NOT CUPCAKES. Did everyone hear me? I abhor the standard Costco-style blueberry muffin which has forty grams of sugar and may as well be a dessert. That is not an acceptable muffin – my limit is one-half cup of sugar in a twelve-muffin batch. With natural sweetness from whatever fruit I’m using, plus a bit of turbinado sprinkled on top for crunch, that’s plenty sweet. There’s simply no need to eat that much sugar for breakfast or any time of day, really.

Second, I much prefer baking muffins fresh first thing in the morning, and fresh muffins are much easier when all of the ingredients are prepped the night before. How can you manage this neat pro trick? Whisk together the dry ingredients in a large bowl, and leave covered on the counter. Combine wet ingredients in another lidded container and refrigerate overnight. In the morning, gently fold wet and dry together and bake. By the time the coffee is finished brewing, the muffins are practically ready. Simple and effortless and especially useful if you have overnight guests, if that will ever be a thing again.

Wet ingredients (back left) will overnight in the fridge, dry ingredients on the counter.

A few other muffin-making tips: even if you choose to prep your ingredients the night before, never mix wet and dry together until just before you’re ready to bake. The leavening agent – in this case, baking soda – will be activated by the acidic yogurt and will start a chemical reaction. If you combine the batter and let it sit without baking it, you’ll likely get no rise and a bitter, metallic flavor. Wet and dry always stay separate until the last minute.

When combining wet and dry ingredients in a muffin or quick bread batter, it’s imperative not to overmix. You only want to fold things together until it’s mostly homogenized; a few streaks of flour are not an issue. Muffins and quick breads do not benefit from vigorous mixing, as this activates the gluten strands and toughens the crumb. Gentle is the way forward here.

I love using fruit purees in muffins, including but not limited to overripe bananas, home-canned applesauce, and unsweetened jam. Whenever a recipe calls for overripe bananas, they should be well-speckled or even fully brown; as they ripen, the natural sugars intensify so you’ll achieve sweeter flavor without extra sugar. If you’ve got overripe bananas but no plans to bake soon, peel the bananas and freeze on a sheet pan lined with waxed paper, then store in a zip-top bag. You can pull out the amount you need, and they’ll soften quickly – plus less food waste!

I fill the muffin cups to the rim, then sprinkle with turbinado and chopped nuts before baking.

When the muffins are fully baked, get them out of the pan immediately and set them on a cooling rack. Most baked goods (with the exception of a few delicate cakes) should be removed from the baking pan as soon as possible, and allowed to cool with good air circulation so the bottom crust doesn’t become soggy from heat and moisture. If you don’t have a cooling rack, grab one of the wire racks from the oven and use that instead.

Though muffins, like most pastries, are at their best the day they’re baked, they do freeze surprisingly well. I freeze cooled muffins on a sheet pan; once solid, they’re tucked into a zip-top bag to enjoy throughout the week. Since the muffins are small they’ll thaw quickly at room temperature, but thirty seconds in the microwave can speed that process along, if necessary.

Just a few ideas for what you can use in your muffins!

I use a basic muffin recipe that works well at 6,300 feet, and I customize it according to what I have on hand. Dry ingredients: two cups all-purpose flour (you can sub out up to half with spelt, whole wheat, or white whole wheat), 1/2 cup rolled oats, 1/2 tsp. salt, 3/4 tsp. baking powder (leavening agents are typically reduced at altitude), 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 cup chopped nuts, 1/2 cup dried fruit. Wet ingredients: two eggs, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1/3 cup neutral oil (such as grapeseed), 1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce, 1/3 cup yogurt, milk or buttermilk, 1 to 1 1/2 cups mashed banana, pumpkin puree, shredded zucchini and carrot, or other fruit and vegetable combination (adjust liquidity as needed). Bake in a preheated 425-degree oven for five minutes, then lower the temperature to 400 degrees and bake for about another twelve minutes, depending on your oven. (My oven has notorious hot spots, so I rotate the tray at least once. You know your oven best; adjust accordingly.)

Muffins are pretty forgiving; if you bake a lot, as I do, you’ll learn to adjust the liquidity in the batter. Mashed bananas generally won’t require additional liquid, but if you’re just using chopped fresh fruit or vegetables, like apples or carrots, you might need a bit more yogurt or milk. If you find your muffins to be either overly mushy or overly dry, you’ll know to adjust for next time – and that’s how you get better.

Some of my favorite tried-and-true flavor combinations: apple cinnamon walnut :: banana chocolate almond :: blueberry coconut vanilla :: zucchini carrot apple raisin :: pear pecan ginger :: peach coconut macadamia :: raspberry apricot :: pumpkin hazelnut raisin. There are a million more variations possible here, with a little experimentation.

Wishing you plenty of strong, hot coffee and fresh, uncool muffins this week, dear friends.

P.S. If you’re one of my treasured bakery regulars, please immediately forget everything you’ve just read. There’s no way you can possibly make these at home. Muffins are really super difficult and complicated. Just keep ordering from me.

Interlude: How chocolate is made

Can’t speak for your household, friends, but we need a break from the winter doldrums over here. I’d claim that it’s all grey and gloomy outside – typical February weather – but the truth is, it’s bright and sunny and windy and disturbingly warm and snow-free for this time of year. Our “exceptional drought” is no longer exceptional, it’s just the way things are now. (Or to throw down an overused phrase from 2020: it’s the “new normal.”) Our town has pre-announced water restrictions, as have many cities on the Front Range. We’re hoping for some moisture later this week, but this late in the season it’s highly unlikely we’ll make up the deficit.

To that end, we’re going on a tropical vacation. Of course I mean this metaphorically, not literally! We haven’t traveled in well more than a year, and have no plans to do so anytime soon. A couple of years ago, however, we went on a chocolate trip to Belize where we learned about the process of making chocolate from bean to bar. And so, let’s imagine that we are all calm, warm and relaxed in the tropics and that everything is right with the world.

Cacao trees are a tropical plant, typically reaching fifteen to twenty-five feet in height.

All chocolate comes from cacao trees (Theobroma cacao) which only grow in a limited geographical range: about twenty degrees north and south of the equator. This tropical belt is also where you’ll find coffee and lots of delicious fruits, like pineapple, guava, papaya and many more (coffee and chocolate are both botanically fruit). Most of the world’s chocolate comes from Africa, but a small amount is produced in Latin America.

Cacao pods are about eight inches in length, though the size depends on variety and climate.

Cacao pods are ripe when they turn a bright yellow-orange color. Not all the pods ripen at the same time, so the trees are usually harvested continuously throughout the year.

The pulp encasing the beans is often used to make a fermented drink.

Once harvested, the seedpods are opened and the cacao beans removed. The beans are surrounded by a white pulp called baba, which tastes fresh and fruity.

The smell of the fermenting cacao beans is intense and amazing.

The beans are cleaned of most of the baba and left to ferment for about a week. (Exposure to light turns the pale, creamy beans a darker violet color.) In Latin America, the fermentation is most often done through a simple yet elegant series of cascading boxes; in Africa, beans are typically fermented in piles on the ground.

Checking for readiness.

Fermenting cacao beans are sliced open regularly to determine the degree of fermentation. It takes a great deal of skill and knowledge to know when the beans are perfect.

Drying beans need tropical heat but not tropical moisture.

After fermentation is complete, the cacao beans are dried. This is an important step; if the beans are shipped with excess moisture, they’ll spoil in transit. Enormous covered drying barns are used, and the beans are turned regularly to ensure even drying. The tropical weather can make this step challenging.

Ready for transport.

Once the beans are completely dried, they’re sorted, graded and shipped to wholesalers or chocolate manufacturers. Belize produces a very small amount of cacao relative to other countries, but the cacao is of a spectacularly high quality.

Grinding cacao nibs into chocolate paste.

When the cacao beans arrive at the manufacturer, they’re inspected and cleaned again. The whole beans are roasted at low temperatures to bring out flavor (much like coffee beans), then the shell is separated from the nib (the “meat” of the bean) by winnowing. (Cacao shells are frequently used as garden mulch.) Grinding pure cacao nibs yields “cocoa mass”; applying high pressure to this cocoa mass produces cocoa butter and cocoa powder.

Conching chocolate is a complicated process of aeration, blending and kneading.

The chocolate we eat is made from cocoa mass with other ingredients added in, including additional cocoa butter, emulsifiers (most commonly soy lecithin) and sweeteners. True dark chocolate doesn’t contain any milk solids, whereas milk chocolate obviously does. White chocolate is most often cocoa butter, sugar, palm oil and soy, with no cocoa mass, and as such isn’t technically chocolate. That percentage on the label of a chocolate bar tells you the chocolate-to-sugar ratio: a 70% bar, for example, contains 30% sugar. The higher the percentage, the less sugar and therefore the less sweet the chocolate. Unsweetened chocolate is 100% cocoa mass with no sugar whatsoever; terms like semisweet and bittersweet have no defined meaning.

Finishing chocolate bars with toasted coconut.

After the chocolate is thoroughly conched, it’s tempered and molded. Tempering chocolate is a finicky process that involves carefully warming the mixture to the perfect temperature, then holding it there for a prescribed period. Tempering stabilizes the cocoa butter molecules, and gives premium chocolate its snap and sheen. (If you’ve ever opened a chocolate bar to find white spots on it, fear not – it’s simply the cocoa butter rising to the surface. It’s called bloom and is totally harmless.) The tempered chocolate is poured into molds and chilled to produce its final form, then packaged for sale.

As with all our food, chocolate production is a complicated and troubled subject. Most chocolate in the world is grown and manufactured under terrible conditions and is kind neither to the planet nor the workers involved. Spend a little more on your chocolate – look for single-origin and direct trade! – and avoid any with palm oil or soy lecithin, both of which are environmentally devastating. As a rule, chocolate from Latin America is a better choice than that from Africa. Quality chocolate costs more for good reason: read the labels and vote with your dollars.

Wishing everyone an imaginary tropical vacation this week, or at least some good chocolate.