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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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