Christmas Baking

When I was a kid, my mother would start her Christmas baking just after Thanksgiving. She’d bake dozens of kinds of cookies and freeze them. For weeks before the big day, there would be a big platter of cookies—a few of each of the types she’d made—out for eating. It was a child’s dream. I don’t remember her making anything but cookies for holiday desserts. We certainly didn’t need anything else, with all those cookies available.

Before moving to New Zealand, my holiday baking was similar (though with only one child eating cookies, I didn’t make quite so many as my mother did—she had three young cookie eaters). But it’s changed a lot since then.

Cookies are made with ingredients that store well—flour, butter, sugar, nuts—that’s great for winter baking, when fresh ingredients are hard to come by. But Christmas falls at the height of the summer fruit season here—it’s no wonder the traditional Christmas dessert here is pavlova—a meringue ring filled with fresh fruit (Unfortunately, I’m really not fond of meringue).

At the moment on our property, we are harvesting black currants, red currants, gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, and blueberries. With as much as 10 kilograms of fruit coming in every two days, much of that harvest goes into jam, sauces, chutney, or simply gets frozen for later use. But it would be a shame not to bake with that fruit, in favour of cookies, which I can make any time of the year.

So we’ve been enjoying strawberry shortcake, currant pie, and gooseberry crisp. For breakfast, we’ve been eating waffles smothered in fruit, and muffins studded with fruit. For snacks, and with every meal, we’ve been eating fresh fruit—whatever hasn’t gone into baking or the freezer.

Oh, there are cookies, too (why not?). But it’s the fruit I snitch while walking through the kitchen, and it’s the pie I crave for dessert.

Some day I’ll dispense with the cookies entirely … Maybe I’ll even learn to like pavlova.

Salt-preserved Green Beans

I always struggle with what to do with too many green beans. I can (bottle) some, but none of us really like the taste of canned beans, and their mushy texture leaves a lot to be desired. I don’t freeze any, because freezer space is at a premium, and I prefer to fill it with sweet corn and peas instead.

So this past summer, I preserved some green beans in salt. The recipe I used claimed that the flavour and texture of salt-preserved beans is far superior to canned or frozen.

I pulled out the crock of salted beans the other day to test them out.

At first glance, they didn’t win any beauty contests, especially the yellow wax beans, which came out of the salt a sort of dead-flesh colour.

I rinsed them and soaked them for two hours, as directed, and then tossed them into a green bean and potato charcharis.

Cooked into a flavourful Indian dish, the beans most definitely had better flavour and texture than canned beans. Almost as good as fresh, even.

Unfortunately, they were so excessively salty, they made the dish almost inedible. Even my salty-olive-loving family couldn’t choke them down. Most of the dish ended up on the compost pile, and I expect an epidemic of high blood pressure in the local sparrow and mouse population who dine at chez-compost.

There are still some beans left. I’ll try using them again—small quantities in otherwise unsalted stews or soups might work well (sort of like a salty ham hock in bean soup). Maybe.

But I’m thinking I’ll just give away the extra green beans next year.

Happy New (Garden) Year!

I love the month of July; it’s the beginning of the garden year in my mind, because it’s the month I plan the garden and order my seeds. It’s been a few years since I blogged about my garden year, so I figured it was time to do it again. I unearthed this little graphic my husband helped me create a few years back, showing my annual planting and harvesting schedule. It has changed a little since then, and I notice some crops, like garlic, are missing from it, but it’s still a fairly good indication of my year in the garden.

I struggled the first few years here. Coming from the Northern Hemisphere, I had no idea when I should plant things. And the idea of growing vegetables over winter was foreign to me, too.; gardening in Minnesota and Pennsylvania is sharply seasonal. It’s seasonal here, too, but much less dramatically so.

Instead of growing a ton of spinach over the summer and freezing it for winter, I learned to simply plant small quantities regularly throughout the year, for a perpetual supply of fresh greens. Same with lettuce, chard, broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower.

Today my garden year ebbs and flows, but there is never a down time in the garden. There is always something to plant, weed or pick. The end of last year overlaps with the beginning of this year, so while I plan my seed order, I’m harvesting the lettuces, broccoli, leeks and other late crops planted in the autumn, and I’m weeding the garlic and broad beans that will be harvested in the coming spring and summer.

Sometimes I miss the complete downtime of gardening in Minnesota—the winter lull when there’s no need to go out and weed in the cold. But only sometimes. The never-ending garden year here has its perks in garden-fresh vegetables year-round.

Self-control … yeah, right.

Now that we’re on the upside of the winter solstice, I’ve planted my garlic—108 cloves, which should yield about 100 heads, assuming my usual success rate.

That’s absolutely too much garlic.

It’s a bad omen. I drew up my garden plan this morning—a garden roughly three-quarters the size of the one I’ve planted for the last decade. Hopefully it won’t yield 200 pumpkins and 80 kilos of pickling cucumbers next year when my teenage son won’t be around to eat them all.

But, plan or not, if I plant other crops with the exuberance with which I planted garlic today, I’ll end up with a garden every bit as big as past gardens. Some time in the next two weeks, before this year’s seed catalogue arrives, I need to get control of my gardening urge.

Wish me luck.

Can’t Stand the Heat?

Chilli peppers are one of the prettiest plants in the garden. It’s no wonder there are so many varieties grown largely for their ornamental value.

But I appreciate my chillies for their kick as well as their glossy leaves and cheerful fruit. Unfortunately, chillies are tropical plants, and many varieties need a longer, hotter growing season than I can provide here, even under cover.

Two varieties, however, regularly produce well.

Jalapeño Early—I can’t grow normal Jalapeños, but this variety is a week or two quicker to produce, and that’s enough. One of my favourite chillies because its low heat level (2,500-8,000 Scoville Heat Units) means you can load a dish with them and enjoy the other flavours they impart along with the heat.

Thai Super Chilli—At 40,000 to 50,000 Scoville Units, these peppers are significantly hotter than Jalapeños. Just one of these little gems gives a nice kick to a dish. I particularly like these chillies because they dry well in beautiful strings hanging in the kitchen. They’re easy to grow and preserve, and they lend beauty to the garden and the kitchen all year.

A couple plants of each of these peppers is plenty to grow a year’s supply of spicy goodness, but you know I can’t stop there. I usually plant at least one other mildly spicy pepper. this year, it was Cherry Large Hot. Similar to Jalapeños for heat, these chillies really serve no purpose for me except as a beautiful red contrast to the green Jalapeños in salsas and pickled peppers. Good enough reason for me to plant them!

Double Cherry Pie

I picked eight cups of cherries from our tiny sour cherry tree the other day. I was thrilled I’d gotten enough for two pies from a tree not much taller than me! I decided to make them all up into pie filling—I’d make one pie right away, and freeze half for later.

But when it came to filling the pie dough, I poured all eight cups in! Yikes! There was no way to take it back out, and I knew it was going to boil over and be a disaster in the oven.

I shrugged—nothing to do but see what happened—and slipped the pie into the oven (with a tray beneath it to catch drips.

An hour later, I pulled the most glorious pie out of the oven…

It had dripped a little, but no more than every other cherry pie I’d ever made.

And it looked plump and delicious. Each slice was thick and wonderfully overloaded with fruit. Truely decadent!

I’m not sure I’d recommend making a pie with eight cups of cherries—it really could end up a disaster in the oven—but it certainly was a delicious mistake.

Advent List

It’s the silly season, with end-of-the-school-year stuff piling up with Christmas, summer vacation, and garden stuff.

Once again, lists take centre stage for me. The general to-do list gave way to a ‘before Christmas’ to-do list. That list has now been refined into a day-by-day list, a sort of sadistic Advent calendar counting the days to Christmas.

I’m afraid ‘write blog’ didn’t make it onto today’s list. It was bumped off when I failed to complete ‘pick and process peas’ on yesterday’s list, due to the unexpectedly large harvest.

So, I’m off to blanch and freeze peas. Hope you’ve all had a lovely day and completed everything on you to-do list. Just two more weeks, and we’ll get a day off!