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.

Installation is the reverse of removal.

If you are the type of person who likes to tinker and solve complex puzzles and problems, we highly recommend that you buy a small farm then stock it with all sorts of vintage machinery and things. You will never be bored! The detail shot above is from a salvaged Honda pump. N is breaking it down, cleaning it and putting it back together in an attempt to add it to our quirky and bespoke irrigation system. We have our first water run scheduled for this week, and we are constantly working on improving our irrigation efficiency, especially since our “exceptional drought” is no longer the exception and is likely here to stay.

Such a cheerful splash of color in our arid desert landscape.

Most of our farm’s perennials, including lilacs and sweet peas, failed to bloom this year thanks to the lack of water. Prickly pear cacti (Opuntia), however, are a desert native and therefore totally unfazed by the climactic extremes we’re experiencing. Prickly pears are found all over Colorado and the southwestern deserts; they’ve long been a favored food of the area’s indigenous peoples. The fleshy pads are known as nopales; the flower and the fruit are both edible, too. Fun fact: it is totally illegal to harvest cacti on federal or private land unless you’ve been granted a BLM-issued permit or the owner’s permission! Sadly, many people ignore this and the desert is quickly being stripped of its cacti by collectors. Some of these specimens can be five hundred years old, so “they’ll regrow next year” doesn’t hold up. Collectively, humans are not very good at practicing the Leave No Trace principles, and our environment suffers greatly as a result.

Trash into treasure!

This past weekend our wonderful local arts center held its second annual ReFind Festival, which essentially involves turning trash into art. It’s a brilliant concept, and we’re always happy to participate in this fundraiser. This year, N transformed two old wooden windows into the perfect frames for his classic car photography; I turned vintage Levis into an apron and even convinced my sister to join the fun – she created this beautiful wooden jewelry box. (Great job, S!) We are proud to have this vibrant arts center in our small town and look forward to future upcycling festivals. (Here’s what we made last year!)

The only rhubarb scones we’ll have this season, sadly.

Earlier this spring, I was thrilled to discover that my ten or so rhubarb plants had survived the winter; they started putting on strong growth and I envisioned a freezer full of rhubarb for summer and fall baking. The rhubarb plants are outside of the game fence because the leaves contain high concentrations of oxalic acid, which is toxic to humans and animals – so rhubarb should, in theory, be deer-resistant. Sadly, the drought (which is clearly impacting every single aspect of our existence here in western Colorado) meant that the deer didn’t have enough forage and were desperately eating anything they could find; this included the rhubarb. I didn’t cage the plants soon enough, so every time they’d put on a bit of growth, the hungry deer would mow them to the ground again. Suffice it to say, I managed to harvest just enough rhubarb for one batch of scones, and I added strawberries because they’re such a natural pairing. The scones were fabulous, and next year I’ll know to protect the plants better. (I used this recipe as my starting point, even though the recipe title is supremely annoying; for those at altitude, I reduced the baking powder by half.)

With that, we’re going to grind on with the world’s lengthiest cabinet refinishing project. More on that to come! Stay cool and hydrated this week, friends.

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.

Usually when people discuss freezing their eggs it’s an entirely different story.

Because laying hens produce more eggs when the days get longer, spring means we have lots of eggs. We eat fried eggs on toast every day for breakfast, and plenty go into muffins and frittatas and egg salad, and some are given to friends and neighbors, but on occasion we still find ourselves with a surplus. The simple solution? Freeze the eggs. I crack an individual egg into soft, flexible (and reusable!) silicone baking cups tucked into a standard muffin tray. Once the eggs are frozen solid, I pop them out and store them in a zip-top bag. If properly sealed in an airtight container, frozen eggs can last six months or more. While I wouldn’t use these eggs as a star ingredient, once thawed they’re perfect for quiches or baked sweets – and when the hens’ productivity slows again, I can save their fresh eggs for our breakfast.

Vinegar-making: just one of our many fun old-timey activities!

Last year, I casually mentioned to a winemaker friend that I’d like to try making my own vinegar. Lo and behold, he generously gave us two old barrels of spent wine that he had no use for. Some months later, what do we have but tart, tangy, delicious homemade red wine vinegar! Like baking bread and making yogurt, fermenting homemade vinegar didn’t used to be a special or unique activity; instead, it was simply what everyone did with the dregs of their homemade wine. But not many people have access to quality wine grapes, and even fewer make wine at home when it’s readily available in stores, so homemade vinegar has become something of a lost art, too. I used raw apple cider vinegar to kickstart the fermentation (like kombucha, it contains a “mother”) and simply left the vinegar to ferment in the pantry, loosely covered with a cloth. I tasted it frequently (always with a clean metal utensil!) to observe the changes and am really happy with the end result. It’s light and bright and spectacular with good olive oil and the fresh salad greens we’re harvesting by the bowlful these days. And it took close to zero effort on my part!

A colorful, cheerful mess.

There have been lots of small sewing projects these days. As much as I love making quilts, it’s also satisfying to sew little items that can be completed in a few hours, rather than months! Some things I’ve made recently: little drawstring gift bags, reusable sandwich wraps, scrunchies (they’re very on-trend again!), reusable snack bags, an upcycled apron and a cute thread basket made from vintage Levis, and of course bread bags. Lots of bread bags. I love making useful things that eliminate single-use plastic waste, and I love reusing sturdy fabric like denim – most jeans that are thrown out only have one or two holes, and the rest is in great shape. I’m learning how to patch jeans and darn socks, too! Here’s a fun tip: take all your clothes that need mending and stack them away in a corner of your sewing attic. Many months later, tackle that pile and return the newly-repaired clothes to your closet. Magic! It’s like a whole new wardrobe for free! (P.S. The fashion industry is devastating to the environment. Each American throws away about seventy pounds of textiles each year; most of that is fully recyclable. Instead of buying cheap new clothing, consider mending what you own, swapping with friends, buying secondhand or shopping your own closet.)

I just want to eat one homegrown strawberry this year. Just one. Please.

And finally, I’m hopeful that the strawberry plants we put in last spring will bear fruit this year. There are certain fruits and vegetables where the difference between homegrown and storebought is as vast as the Grand Canyon: tomatoes are obviously one example, and strawberries are definitely another. The standard Driscoll’s berries in the plastic box are fine, of course, but a just-picked, sun-warmed strawberry has a sparkling intensity of flavor that can never be matched by mass-produced California berries. Unfortunately, those amazing berries are also coveted by birds, squirrels and rabbits, so as usual, we built in layers of protection. You might think that Quiet Farm is entirely constructed from chicken wire and hardware cloth – which is mostly true! – but we would actually like to enjoy the fruits of our labors.

And with that, we’re off to continue our tiling project. Wishing you a calm and peaceful week ahead, dear friends.

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.

Prior to the introduction of standardized commercial yeast, breads were always made with wild yeasts – that is, random colonies of microorganisms floating around peacefully in the air. This is the basis of “sourdough starter,” a mixture of flour (typically wheat) and water left to ferment on its own timetable. Sourdough is a bit of an American misnomer since not all wild yeasted breads need necessarily be sour; “naturally leavened” is a better term, and one that clearly states that no commercial yeasts were incorporated. Because yeast strains are so hyperlocal, naturally leavened bread will always possess unique characteristics depending on where it’s made. San Francisco might be famous for its sourdough due to its humid maritime climate, but a starter transported from the Bay Area to Colorado will eventually shift entirely to local strains of available yeast, thus changing the bread’s flavor. Many professional bakers prefer the challenge and variability of working with starters and wild yeasts, but commercial packaged yeast yields much more consistent results for home bakers.

The commercial yeast we know today has only existed since the nineteenth century; it was originally a byproduct of the brewing industry. Commercial yeast is a standardized product, now always a carefully-cultured strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae made (at least in the U.S.) with molasses wort. Although supermarket yeast is readily available (except during a global pandemic) and produces remarkably consistent results, the names and packaging can be confusing. Hopefully we can clear that up, and help you produce amazing homemade breads and other baked goods!

Proofing active dry yeast in warm liquid is essential before mixing your dough.

Active dry yeast is probably the most common yeast available to home bakers. Sold in individual packets, small jars or bulk packages, active dry yeast must be “activated” before use by proofing it in a warm liquid (often water or milk, depending on the recipe). Because active dry yeast is dormant when it’s sold, the proofing step “awakens” the yeast, and since a small amount of honey or sugar is typically used, the now-awake yeast cells also have something to feed on after their long nap. Active dry yeast is great for home bakers because the proofing step guarantees that the yeast is still fresh and suitable for use, but it’s always essential to note that the proofing liquid needs to be just lukewarm – about 100 to 110 degrees F. Yeast won’t activate in temperatures that are too cold, and liquids that are too hot (over 135 F) will kill the yeast immediately.

So many names! So much unnecessary confusion!

Next to active dry yeast on the shelf, you’ll likely also see instant yeast. Instant yeast might also be labeled as “quick-rise” or “rapid-rise” or even “pizza yeast,” all of which confuses the situation even further. Instant yeast has been milled to a much finer consistency, meaning that the granules dissolve quicker and can be added directly with other dry ingredients in a recipe, rather than proofed as mentioned above. The downside to this, of course, is that if your yeast is dead, you won’t know about it until whatever you’re baking comes out of the oven without any rise whatsoever. Instant yeast also often includes enzymes and other secret ingredients that help doughs rise faster, cutting down or even eliminating much of the advance work of baking. Instant yeast can also take higher temperatures than active dry can. Many guides indicate that active dry and instant yeast can be used interchangeably, but I think it’s important to understand the science behind both and figure out which is the best choice for the recipe you’re making.

Starter, as mentioned above, is simply an unpredictable mixture of wild yeasts captured in a roughly equal mixture of flour and water. Starters need to be kept active by discarding and then feeding, and thus are a bit more complicated than simply opening a packet of yeast. Naturally leavened breads need much more rising time than those made with strong commercial yeast; I use my starter for overnight loaves with a long, cool fermentation. If you’re maintaining a starter, take care never to introduce packaged yeast into your original container; the commercial S. cerevisiae is so strong that it will quickly multiply and take over your entire starter, pushing out your carefully collected wild yeasts. One wonderful aspect of keeping a starter alive is that you always have some to share if others are looking to experiment with naturally leavened breads.

Fresh yeast, also called cake yeast or compressed yeast, is virtually never seen in America. It is highly perishable, always kept refrigerated, and typically only used in professional bakeries, and only rarely even then. I attended culinary school in France and did learn to bake with it there, but I never use it here. Many of my vintage baking books reference fresh or cake yeast; if you want to try an old recipe that calls for fresh yeast, look up a conversion chart so you can use standard dry yeast. Should you find unexpectedly yourself with a block of fresh yeast, use it as quickly as possible.

Delicious! Nutritious! Great for vegans! Not great for bread baking!

And just to keep you on your toes, there’s also nutritional yeast! If you adhere to a vegan diet you’re likely already familiar with these bright yellow flakes. Nutritional yeast offers a savory, cheesy flavor not often found in plants, as well as a rare non-animal source of vitamin B12, and as such is indispensable in most vegan diets. While nutritional yeast is actually the same S. cerevisiae strain used for baker’s yeast, it is entirely deactivated and so cannot – I repeat, cannot – ever be used in bread baking, as it simply won’t work at all. Nutritional yeast is useful for a variety of reasons, and thankfully is far more widely available now, but please do not attempt to substitute nutritional yeast for any other format of baker’s yeast.

A few other tips for working with yeast: remember to get a good thermometer and keep it handy if you’re not confident about what “lukewarm” actually means; temperature really matters when it comes to yeast. If you only have instant yeast but want to make a recipe calling for active dry – or vice versa – use this handy conversion table. If you bake frequently, skip the individual packets, which are surprisingly expensive, and buy yeast in bulk at a restaurant supply store. These bulk packages usually only cost about $5 and have over a hundred times as much yeast for about twice the money – a spectacular value! You can store your yeast in the refrigerator, but in our dry desert climate I never have trouble keeping it at room temperature. If you have yeast of questionable freshness, test it by combining the packet (always about 2 ¼ teaspoons in U.S. measurements) with ½ cup of lukewarm water and one teaspoon of sugar. Stir gently; after about ten minutes, the mixture should be bubbly and creamy, and can be used as directed. If nothing happens, the yeast is dead – don’t waste the rest of your ingredients. And buy some new yeast.

Two very helpful baking books, especially if you’re at altitude.

If you’re baking at altitude, as I am, know that it’s usually a good idea to reduce the amount of yeast called for in bread doughs. The lower air pressure at higher elevations causes the yeast cells to become overly enthusiastic and the dough may well rise far too fast, which will compromise flavor development and oven spring. Overproofing is a big risk at altitude, and will negatively affect the final product.

In addition to the liquid temperature influencing yeast activity, the ambient temperature has a huge impact on yeast-risen doughs, too. My baking technique shifts quite a bit between winter and summer, as I have to adjust to temperatures that might be too cold (place the dough bowl on top of the gas fireplace!) or too hot (slow the rising by refrigerating the dough!).

One of the best tips I’ve ever seen in reference to baking is to “watch the dough, not the recipe.” It all seems unnecessarily complicated, but like anything else, baking takes practice. With experience, the ingredients and the techniques become simpler and easier to understand, and you start adjusting your doughs based on your senses, rather than what the recipe says. When you bake regularly, you start to learn how the dough will behave and how to create the ideal environment to yield a perfect finished product. Yeast-risen doughs are truly a living thing, and often adjustments need to be made.

Hopefully this post has clarified rather than muddied the topic of the different yeasts you might find in your local grocery store. As always, we’re here to help with any baking questions, so please contact us if we can offer any guidance. Wishing you lots of fresh homemade bread this week and always, dear friends.

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.

A sweet treat

We’ve been honest about the fact that we don’t eat many sweets here at Quiet Farm – our tastes definitely lean more towards the salty and savory. That said, when we do have a sugar craving, we’re seeking something spectacular, rather than something merely mediocre. Dry, tasteless storebought cookies? No thanks. Artificially sweetened plastic-wrapped gas station pastries? Absolutely not. Homemade millionaire’s shortbread with a hot cup of coffee? Yes, please.

What’s that, you say? You are an American raised on Twix bars and you have never in your lifetime heard of this mysterious thing called millionaire’s shortbread? Well, please allow your intrepid guides to introduce you to this magical sweet. The name millionaire’s shortbread apparently originates in Scotland (totally unverifiable), and refers to the unbelievably rich layered combination of shortbread crust, sticky-sweet butterscotch caramel, and chocolate. The confection, also known as caramel slice, caramel shortbread or caramel shortcake, is well known in Britain and Australia but not so much here in the U.S. (Unless of course it’s packaged and called a Twix bar.)

This version, lightly adapted from this Bon Appétit recipe, is jokingly referred to as billionaire’s shortbread because it incorporates both whole sesame seeds and tahini, exotic (and somewhat pricey) ingredients. Tahini is simply sesame seed paste, and it’s commonly found in savory Middle Eastern cooking – notably hummus. Of late, however, many pastry chefs have started incorporating it into desserts, and I am all for this trend. There is no denying that millionaire’s shortbread is almost teeth-achingly sweet, with the decadent combination of shortbread, caramel and chocolate, and the tahini (as well as the toasted sesame seeds in both the shortbread and sprinkled on top) cut that richness. I like the crunch, the textural contrast, and the slight bitterness the sesame seeds bring to the party.

Pre-made tahini is surprisingly costly to purchase, but it does keep forever if refrigerated and it is a terrific addition to salad dressings, bean dips and certain baked goods. If you are the sort of person who already makes your own nut butters, preparing your own tahini will be an easy step  – simply puree raw sesame seeds in your high-powered blender much as you might almonds or peanuts. As with all nut and seed butters, tahini is likely to separate after a time, so always give it a good stir to re-incorporate the oil that might have settled on top.

Tip the crumbly dough into the pan, then press into an even layer and pierce with a fork.

Ready to tackle this? Let’s go. As always when baking and cooking – especially when you’re trying a new and/or complicated recipe – it’s super-helpful to put together your mise-en-place, which is a simply a fancy French culinary term meaning “to put in place.” I like to use the glass bowl set shown in these photos to assemble all of my ingredients; setting things up in this fashion also helps if you get distracted midway through, because you can see at a glance if you’ve added all of the required ingredients. “Did I add the salt yet, or not?” is not generally conducive to successful baking.

If it’s your first time making shortbread, here are a few tips: 1. Make sure your butter chunks are good and cold; I chop the butter then pop it into the freezer until I’m ready to use it. 2. Don’t overmix the ingredients; they won’t be homogenized (see bits of golden yolk above) and that’s just fine. 3. When you press the dough into the pan, use some effort so it stays together when you cut it later. (Also, please note that the binder clips in the photo above are simply used to keep the parchment paper in place while preparing the dough. They do not go into the oven!)

Once your shortbread crust is baked and cooled, you’ll pour the caramel layer on top. This recipe calls for a simple caramel that doesn’t require a candy thermometer, but caramel still takes a bit of experience. Whenever you’re making any caramel, use a larger, deeper pan than you think is necessary, because the mixture always wants to boil over. Remember that if you’re baking at altitude you actually want to cook the caramel a bit less, since the lower air pressure means that water boils at a lower temperature here (and water evaporation is key to making successful caramel). Also, caramel (and candy-making in general) really isn’t a kitchen activity for kids; the risk of severe sugar burns is pretty high if you’re not careful.

No no no! Don’t do it like this!

Here’s a pro tip: make absolutely sure that the caramel layer is thoroughly chilled before you pour the melted chocolate on top. In the photos above, you can see that the chocolate is actually sinking into the caramel, rather than spreading out smoothly. Do not skimp on chilling the caramel and shortbread; you can even tuck it in the freezer for a few minutes, just make sure to keep the pan level so all the warm caramel doesn’t slouch to one side. And when you’re melting chocolate, avoid using chocolate chips. These are specially formulated not to melt, since their whole point is to stay whole in cookies and the like. Buy a stash of good-quality chocolate bars and when you need melted chocolate for a recipe, chop into chunks and melt gently in a glass bowl set over a pan of simmering water. (I am not a fan of melting chocolate in the microwave; I think it runs the very real risk of burning the chocolate.)

This happens surprisingly quickly! Don’t walk away.

Any time you use nuts or seeds in any format, be it in baked goods, sprinkled on a salad, or in trail mix, know that they’ll be much more flavorful if toasted first. Many recipes call for using the oven to toast a sheet pan of nuts or seeds; from long experience, I can tell you that this is a great way to burn twenty dollars’ worth of pecans. I always, always dry-toast my nuts and seeds in a shallow frying pan on the stovetop, where I can babysit them carefully. Depending on the variety, nuts and seeds can go from pale and raw to charred and ruined in a matter of seconds, and the oven doesn’t allow me enough control. Also, once the nuts and seeds are toasted to the level you’d like – taste them! – make sure you transfer them from the hot pan to a plate and let them cool completely. There will be enough residual heat in the pan to keep on cooking, and you might find they’re burnt anyway.

Almost ready to enjoy…but needs some salt on top.

Once you’ve poured and smoothed the melted chocolate, the pan goes back into the fridge for a final set. Feel free to sprinkle with flaky sea salt in addition to the toasted sesame seeds, if your fancies swing that way. When you’re ready to cut the millionaire’s shortbread, gently lift the entire mess out of the pan using the parchment paper as handles, and set on a cutting board. Use a serrated knife and saw into small squares; a chef’s knife, no matter how sharp, will press down on the bars and cause the caramel to squish out.

These are unbelievably rich and sugary, and you really only want a tiny piece. We keep ours in a covered container in the fridge for better texture and longer shelf life; I actually cut the entire tray into tiny squares and freeze most of them, so we can have a small treat as and when circumstances call for it. Millionaire’s shortbread isn’t an everyday pleasure, but it’s lovely to have a little bite of something sweet every so often.

So rich! So delicious! Enjoy with strong, hot coffee.

Have a good week, friends, and perhaps bake yourself a treat, too.

P.S. If you’re not feeling the tahini in this variation, you can find a more traditional millionaire’s shortbread here, here or here. Please note that we have tested none of these!

An ode to citrus

I mentioned this in last week’s post, but citrus plays a key role in our winter diet. We eat a lot of fresh fruit on the regular, mostly our gorgeous local peaches and cherries and apples, but in winter our counters are piled high with grapefruit and clementines and oranges of every variety. Is it local? Absolutely not, although with the warming trends we’re seeing here it may be soon. Is it necessary? Absolutely yes, because “I feel like I’m swallowing the sun, and it’s so dark outside.” There are a thousand good reasons to incorporate more citrus in your diet, but for the moment, let’s just focus on how it provides a thin slice of joy during an increasingly bleak season. (Also it’s far cheaper than buying totally unregulated “vitamin C capsules” in little plastic bottles.)

More sunshine, please.

Lots of people remember receiving oranges in Christmas stockings, back when food was truly seasonal and therefore quite precious and rare. Citrus fruit is of course available year-round nowadays, but it really is best in the northern hemisphere’s winter. American citrus production is concentrated in California and Florida; California grows most of the citrus used for fresh eating, whereas Florida’s production is focused on juice. Texas and Arizona both grow some commercial citrus too, but their numbers pale in comparison to the Left Coast and Right Coast groves, even though Florida is suffering from a variety of citrus diseases. Brazil, Spain and Mexico dominate the world citrus market.

Did you know that most mammals can synthesize their own vitamin C – but that humans and other primates cannot? (Capybaras and guinea pigs can’t either. Don’t feel bad.) During the eighteenth century, disease killed far more British soldiers than military action; scurvy was the leading cause of death, particularly for sailors without access to fresh fruits and vegetables for months at a time. Though anecdotal evidence suggested that lemon and lime juice (and sauerkraut) prevented scurvy, and the few hardy sailors who consumed shipboard rats did not contract it (rats can synthesize their own vitamin C!), it wasn’t until very late in the century that citrus fruit was issued in sailors’ rations. Once one of the world’s most devastating diseases, scurvy is now rarely seen in the developed world, except in cases of severe malnutrition.

Continue reading

Farm update: November 9

There’s no question that it’s been one hell of a week. Scratch that: it’s been one hell of a year. Over here at Quiet Farm, though, we carry on planting, tidying, baking, canning, caring for our animals and preparing for winter. Here are a few things we’ve been up to recently, if you’d like to see.

Ready for a long winter’s nap.

We planted our 2021 garlic crop this week; it’s tucked under a warm, cozy blanket of compost, alpaca manure and straw. Garlic is a unique annual crop in that it stays in the ground for about nine months, but during that time it requires almost no maintenance beyond occasional watering. As usual, we’d separated this year’s garlic harvest and saved the largest cloves for planting; thanks to garden magic, each individual clove grows into a full head. We planted about one hundred and fifty cloves in two new beds, then a friend texted with an offer of extra garlic that she had over-ordered (thanks, Judy!), so another seventy cloves went into an additional row. Every year I run out of garlic before the July harvest, and every year I vow to plant more. Will over two hundred heads be enough for next year? Stay tuned, and vampires beware.

Simple. Elegant. Gorgeous. (Also filthy.)

My winter will hopefully involve lots of sewing and reading, and N will focus his time and energy on this rescued beauty. For all you gearheads out there, this is a classic example of American motor muscle: a Ford 289 small-block V8 manufactured in the summer of 1964; it likely came out of a Mustang or a Galaxie. At the moment, it needs a lot of cleaning and possibly a replacement part or two, but who knows what it could accomplish once restored to its former glory? While electric cars might be all the rage, there is much to be said for the elegant simplicity of a powerful internal combustion engine. (We obviously love beautiful 1960s Americana here; see also the recently-acquired Singer Touch ‘N’ Sew.)

So thrilled with our dry bean harvest!

I may well be more proud of the beans we grew than just about any other crop. While I love growing vegetables, with each passing year (especially when there’s a pandemic and associated food scarcity!) I am more and more committed to growing long-term food storage crops like grains and beans. We planted just one small row of these ‘Peregion’ beans this season, and though I doubt I have more than a few pounds of homegrown beans for the winter, I know that I’ll be expanding on the varieties we grow next season. Dry beans are easy to grow and to store, require very little post-harvest processing and punch well above their weight in terms of nutritional value. Plus, they’re delicious! We hope to grow a lot more beans here at Quiet Farm.

Flying the coop.

Domestic chickens are the closest living relatives of the T.Rex (that’s true) and have similarly tiny brains. Here, one of our genius hens decided to make her way to the top of the chicken house, but was understandably somewhat perplexed as to how she might get down – although she did finally make the leap. Little does she know that the roof offers zero protection from raptors, of which we have many, and actually makes a perfect runway for a hungry hawk searching for a tasty chicken meal. If she continues her high-flying adventures, she’ll learn that lesson the hard way.

This is how we roll.

True confession time, friends: all November and December issues of food and entertaining magazines (Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Martha Stewart, etc.) received at Quiet Farm usually go straight into the library donation bin without even being opened once. Such is the extent of my loathing for the end-of-year holidays and all the attendant expectations, “must-have foods,” waste and excess! This year, however, a customer requested soft, fluffy dinner rolls, and I wanted to experiment with a few different iterations. Plus, I was completely sold on this caption: “If food could give you a hug, these rolls definitely would.” As we face the end of one of the most difficult years any of us have ever experienced, is there anything we all need more than a giant, warm, comforting hug? I think not. (P.S. The rolls are a bit labor-intensive but excellent, and they work at altitude. Worth your time.)

Wishing everyone a calm, restful and healthy week.