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.

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!

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.

The zucchini chronicles

Zucchinis 01 sml

This is only one day’s harvest!

(…or the courgette chronicles, for our English audience.) By now we’re likely all familiar with the time-honored adage about how rural residents only lock their cars in July and August, because that’s when a fiendish neighbor is most likely to deposit a bag of overgrown and unwanted zucchini on the passenger seat. It’s an apt joke, however; anyone who has grown summer squash knows that it absolutely has a mind of its own. One day, there are tiny flowers on the plant; not even twenty-four hours later, it seems, zucchini the size of baseball bats have taken over the garden. If not carefully monitored, these plants can become unmanageable very quickly.

Squash 01 sml

Please, someone, tell me what’s wrong with this zucchini plant?

I always think of zucchini (like my beloved kale) as a self-esteem boost for the gardener. It grows well in just about any conditions, needs little care and produces voluminously and reliably. Interestingly, this is the first season I’ve struggled with zucchini – of seven plants, four look like the photo above: small and stunted with initially green leaves that turn crisp and brown without growing larger. The plant keeps putting on new leaves, which promptly die; no blossoms or fruit appear. All of the seven plants are from the same seed and in the same bed and none are planted where squash grew last year; I’ve never seen anything like this. Are they diseased? Attacked by a mysterious pest? Why are three plants growing perfectly? If any experienced gardeners want to weigh in on this unexpected quandary, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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The sourdough bandwagon

Here’s what N and I have learned in the five-odd weeks since this madness really kicked off: the things we’ve been doing for years – growing food, baking bread, keeping chickens, buying only secondhand, cutting our own hair – are exactly what all of America seems to want to do right now. Listen up, everyone: we’re cool and we’re on-trend and we are probably influencers too. We’re going to call ourselves influencers, anyway. We’d like to influence you to bake sourdough, mostly because no one can find any yeast yet people still really, really like fresh bread.

Sourdough 05 sml

Really, what’s better than fresh bread and good butter?

I’m not at all surprised by the gardening and the bread baking, truly. People have extra time on their hands and want to do something both purposeful and satisfying, plus spring has arrived in most places and it’s a pleasure to be outside. But the sourdough thing? That did take me by surprise, as sourdough has a reputation for being so tricky and difficult and obsessive and a little weird because people name their sourdough starters and refer to them as pets. But then of course all of the country’s commercial yeast disappeared somewhere so it’s only natural that everyone would turn to sourdough, and people also need new pets in this time of isolation, kind of like Wilson in Castaway, so it all sort of makes sense.

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The second week

Citrus 01 sml

Hi there. How are you holding up? Like most of you, we’re entering our second week of self-quarantine. Some of you are under a mandatory shelter-in-place order. It is no exaggeration to say that our world has turned completely upside down over the past week, and that we’re all doing our best to make sense of a fraught situation that has no logic, no precedent, no guidebook.

I am working diligently on acknowledging what I can control and letting go of the rest. To that end, I believe that our single most important job right now is to stay healthy. For those of us who are low-risk and currently healthy, the most valuable contribution we can make to our community is to remain isolated and entirely out of the medical system, so they can put their attention and skills and dwindling supplies towards those who need it. Obviously everyone’s situation is unique, but here’s what we’re prioritizing at Quiet Farm:

Limited sugar / unlimited fruits and vegetables. When this pandemic imploded in the U.S. two weeks ago, my first instinct was to grab all of my chocolate and butter and flour and cover every available surface in my kitchen with an elaborate array of cookies and brownies and comfort cakes, like some sort of mad bakery vision devised by Lewis Carroll. Baking is regimented and precise and calming, and something we can control when everything else has gone by the wayside. Instead of filling our house with sweets, though, we’re eating as much fresh (and frozen!) fruit and vegetables as we can manage. (When everyone else was stocking up on toilet paper, we were buying citrus. There was plenty.) It’s easy to justify scarfing a lot of junk food and “emergency snacks” when we’re anxious, but sugar is highly inflammatory and I think our bodies are under enough stress as it is. We’re consuming lots of salads and green smoothies and stir-fries, and when I do bake, I bake muffins loaded with fruit purees and nuts and seeds.

(P.S. If you’re buying salad ingredients for longer-than-usual storage now, avoid anything pre-cut and think hardy brassicas like kale, Brussels sprouts and cabbages. These are all super-nutritious and delicious shredded into a salad, and they’ll keep much longer than pre-washed bagged greens.)

Hydration. We live at 6,300 feet in a high-plains desert, so we’re naturally a bit dehydrated most of the time anyway. Dehydration contributes to headaches, irritability, muscle aches, mental fuzziness, exhaustion and a host of other ailments, none of which we need right now. We might be less active these days and so think that we need to drink less, but a cool glass of water could be exactly what we need to right our ship in this moment. We’re drinking lots of water, plus plenty of mint tea and a hot honey-lemon-ginger tonic that soothes throats and nerves. When it seems like everything is about to go entirely off the rails and I can’t take this for one more minute, I stop, breathe and drink a glass of water. It doesn’t change what’s happening in the world, but it does allow me to accept it without panicking.

Movement and fresh air. I’d much rather be outdoors than in even in the best of times, but a heavy, wet spring snowstorm this week has turned our farm into one giant muddy puddle. Despite the poor weather, I compel myself to get outside every day for at least thirty minutes, even if it’s just to empty the compost bin or watch the chickens or check on seedlings. And I never seem to actually want to go for a walk or a run, but once I’m out and moving, I never regret the decision. If you’re able to do so safely (and with appropriate six-foot-plus social distancing), please get outside, even if it’s just to feel the sun on your face. Do ten jumping jacks. Stretch like a contented cat. Skip rope. Run around in circles. Dance like a person possessed. Spring is here, and there is new growth to see everywhere, even if it doesn’t feel much like a time of hope and renewal right now.

Sleep. It is oddly comforting to me, somehow, to know that every single human on the planet right now is under some degree of stress from this new enemy; collectively, we are suffering together. But we’re concentrating on keeping our immune systems strong, and stress, anxiety and poor sleep are in direct opposition to this. So we sleep, as much as we’re able. There is no shame in going to bed at nine o’clock (without our phones!); no shame in sleeping past our usual waking time. Sleep is our bodies’ time to heal and to repair, and we all need that right now. If you can, get some extra sleep. It definitely can’t hurt.

I’m well aware that these are small and meaningless tasks, and they’re nothing compared to what the people on the front lines of this crisis are facing. But these are things I can control, and that’s all any of us have right now. And we need to stay healthy, first and foremost.

How is your household navigating our new world? We’d love to hear what you’re prioritizing. Stay healthy and well.

A winter cake

It seems winter in Colorado has been canceled this year, considering that it was nearly seventy degrees (21C for our international audience) when we took these photos. In December. And on one hand, this is delightful, because driving in the snow is truly one of my least favorite activities, despite being a born-and-bred Colorado native. And on the other hand, these disconcerting weather patterns freak me out in a serious fashion. But I’m working on my anxiety, and my ability to “accept the things I cannot change.” So let’s make a cake.

Pom Ginger Cran Cake 01 sml

This lovely cake has all the flavors of winter: tangy, bright cranberries and citrus, plus sharp, spiky ginger. And pomegranates. Oh, pomegranates. Is there any fruit I adore more? I think not. When these babies are in season, as they are now, I often eat one a day. Somehow their tart sparkle seems to apologize for the misery of endless winter – or whatever season it is we’re currently having. The cake isn’t excessively sweet, either, which pleases me; if you had a strong, dark honey on hand, I imagine that might be compelling here.

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Any time you’re making a light, delicate cake, friends, please be careful not to overmix the batter – it’s a sure way to achieve dense, tough gumminess. This is even more key when baking at altitude, as we are here. Assemble all of your ingredients in advance, then place your liquids in one bowl, your dry ingredients and the fruit in another, and whip the egg whites at the very last minute, when everything else is ready. Never pre-whip your egg whites then go back to put together the other components – their ethereal fluffiness is exactly what you need. (Tossing dried, fresh or frozen fruit with flour helps keep it from sinking to the bottom of the cake, and from bleeding its juices, though that effect can actually be quite pretty. If you’re using frozen fruit, never let it thaw first but just throw it in frozen. And move quickly.)

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As before, make sure your pan is prepped and your oven is preheated. Once the batter is together, it needs to go straight into a hot oven. This is not the time to dilly-dally.

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This recipe as written makes for quite a moist cake, which is lovely here in Colorado as it stays fresher for longer in our dry climate. I reduced the leavening by 1/4 tsp. and added 1/4 cup extra flour, as is often done when adjusting baking recipes for altitude. If you’re at sea level, you may need to use a total of 3/4 tsp. baking powder. You can probably reduce the whole wheat pastry flour by 1/4 cup at sea level, too. Make sure to check carefully for doneness with this cake; I found that I needed a bit more baking time than the recipe indicates. Ovens vary; adjust accordingly.

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Pomegranate, Cranberry and Ginger Cake (written for 5,300 ft. elevation)

For The Cake

  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup mild olive oil
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature, separated
  • 2 tbsp. freshly grated orange zest
  • 1/3 cup fresh orange juice
  • 5 tbsp. crystallized ginger, chopped
  • 1 1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup fresh or dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup pomegranate seeds, plus more for garnish
  • 2 tsp. confectioner’s sugar for dusting
  

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8-inch round cake pan; line with parchment paper and butter and flour the parchment.

In a small bowl, stir together honey, olive oil, egg yolks, zest, juice and 3 tbsp. crystallized ginger. In a large bowl, sift together both flours, baking powder and salt. Gently fold cranberries and pomegranate seeds into dry ingredients. In another bowl, beat egg whites and a pinch of salt with an electric mixer until soft peaks form, about 1-2 minutes. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold honey mixture into flour mixture, then fold in egg whites until combined. Do not overmix.

Pour and scrape batter into prepared pan and bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Allow cake to cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes; run a knife around sides of pan to loosen cake and turn it our onto rack. Remove paper and allow to cool completely.

To serve, sift confectioner’s sugar over cake and garnish with remaining crystallized ginger and additional pomegranate seeds.

On bread (and gluten)

It is not hyperbole to state that wheat is the reason human civilization exists today. As always, Michael Pollan says it best:

“Compared with earlier and simpler methods humans have devised for turning plants and animals into foods – the roasted chunk of meat, say, or pot of stew, either of which an individual or small group can pull off – a loaf of bread implies a whole civilization. It emerges only at the end of a long, complicated process assuming settlement and involving an intricate division of human, plant and even microbial labor. In addition to an agriculture and a culture of milling and baking, the loaf of bread depends on a nonhuman culture as well: it won’t rise without the active contribution of some highly specialized living creatures besides the baker, the miller and the farmer. Few things are as ordinary as a loaf of bread, yet the process by which it is made is extraordinary – and still something of a mystery even to those who study it or practice it every day.”

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Nom nom nom.

That last sentence says it all: it’s ordinary, it’s extraordinary, and it’s a mystery, even when you do it every day. Is it any wonder people refer to baking bread as a religion?

It’s impossible to put into words how much I love good bread. I’d much rather eat bread than just about any dessert. With olive oil, with cheese, perhaps homemade jam or backyard honey, a thick smear of salted butter or just on its own, well-made bread is one of life’s great edible pleasures. Like Mr. Pollan, I particularly adore rustic breads with rugged, crunchy crusts that are thisclose to burned and conceal a “soft, custardy interior.” Many people don’t like this type of bread; they think the outside is cooked too much while the inside isn’t cooked enough. But as we know, one of the many magical pleasures of cooking at home is that you get to make things exactly the way you like them.

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My namesake grandmother’s bread bowl and one of my most treasured possessions.

Before we left on our round-the-world trip, when I was stressed and overwhelmed with all the things that needed to be done, I wrote a short post about baking bread. I honestly think it’s one of life’s most cathartic activities, and when you’re done with your cheap therapy you’re rewarded with a loaf of homemade bread. What I’m trying to understand nowadays is why we’ve so wholeheartedly rejected a truly time-honored and pleasurable task. It seems unreasonable to mourn bread when there are so many other things to mourn in the world right now, yet over the past decade, very few foods have been as maligned as the humble loaf of bread. More accurately, it’s rare that we collectively have found something to vilify on the scale that we’ve vilified wheat.

Humans have been eating wheat for about ten thousand years. Wheat represents one-fifth of all the food consumed worldwide, and it’s also the world’s most important source of non-animal protein. Its production surpasses every other grain, including rice and maize, and it can be grown almost everywhere on the planet. Human civilization as we know it would not exist without wheat and all the agricultural settlement that goes along with its production, processing, storage and conversion into digestible foodstuffs.

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Wheat fields in India.

Gluten is a protein that occurs naturally in wheat as well as other grasses such as rye, triticale and barley. Gluten is one of the primary factors responsible for that amazing chew we get in pizza crusts and breads; softer baked goods, like flaky pie crusts and tender cakes, don’t perform well with high-gluten flours. The type of wheat, i.e. soft spring or hard red winter, determines the amount of gluten in the final flour.

Despite its importance, about 20% of the U.S. avoids gluten; numbers are increasing in the UK, Australia and other Western countries as well. Chefs and other food and nutrition professionals have questioned (both covertly and openly) why everyone has suddenly gone gluten-free. A very small percentage of the population – less than 1%, depending on which sources you choose to believe – has celiac disease, which makes digesting gluten difficult. But it is scientifically impossible for one-fifth of the Western world to suddenly, collectively develop the same allergy or intolerance. It simply can’t happen.

What can happen is for everyone to decide that a gluten-free diet is somehow healthier and – by extension – will help one lose weight with very little effort. People who go gluten-free say they feel better, and that may well be true. If you legitimately feel better eating a gluten-free diet, then by all means, please carry on. But I’d unscientifically attribute “feeling better” to avoiding processed foods, eating more fruits and vegetables and generally being more conscious of your diet, although a gluten-free doughnut is, ultimately, still a doughnut. “Gluten-free” also means profit; sales of gluten-free foods have increased nearly 70% over the past four years, which translates to billions of dollars. The vast majority of gluten-free devotees are middle- to upper-class white women, and savvy food manufacturers know well that there is an enormous amount of money to be made from this market.

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Chocolate stout cake. Yes, please.

Why have we all decided that gluten is making us sick? Some sources believe that GMOs are responsible, although there is no commercially available GMO wheat. (There are, however, escaped volunteer plants in Washington.) Many say it’s because we’ve hybridized our wheat, though we hybridize a lot of plants. And still others claim that it’s because we grind all of the nutrition out of the wheat to produce white flour, which travels better, stays fresher longer and produces the light, fluffy taste and texture that most people prefer. Once the bran and germ are removed and the flour is enriched, they say, we struggle to digest it.

If I had to choose, I’d fall firmly into the third camp, but I simply refuse to acknowledge that good bread is somehow singlehandedly responsible for the Western world’s catastrophic increase in diabetes, heart disease and other lifestyle-related diseases. Bread isn’t the problem; our entire industrialized, inhumane, chemically-drenched food system is the problem. As usual, though, we’ve chosen one villain to attack because to address the actual issue would be tantamount to admitting that our shockingly profitable agricultural fiefdom – based on cheap corn, soy, and animal protein – isn’t working. We somehow selected gluten, an ingredient most people can’t actually define, and decided that it was to blame for all of our health issues. Plain and simple: I disagree.

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Every single culture in the world has some form of bread.

Ever wondered about what is actually in Wonder Bread? I’ve conveniently assembled the ingredient list here for your consideration: unbleached enriched flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, high fructose corn syrup, yeast, contains 2% or less of each of the following: calcium carbonate, soybean oil, wheat gluten, salt, dough conditioners (contains one or more of the following: sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium stearoyl lactylate, monoglycerides, mono- and diglycerides, azodicarbonamide, enzymes, ascorbic acid), vinegar, monocalcium phosphate, yeast extract, modified corn starch, sucrose, sugar, soy lecithin, cholecalciferol (vitamin d3), soy flour, ammonium sulfate, calcium sulfate, calcium propionate (to retard spoilage).

Do you even know what most of these words mean? Can you buy those ingredients (separately) in your local grocery store to assemble your own homemade version of Wonder Bread? The simplest bread made at home contains four ingredients: flour, salt, yeast and water. No commercial yeast, even, if you’re using a wild starter. Review that ingredient list above once more. I don’t deny that we’re pretty sick, but we cannot logically blame gluten.