Category Archives: sweet things

On timing (not) being everything

Sabine is doing well:  the splint (not shown; she wears it at night) has helped straighten her right front leg…this pic was taken last Tuesday.  She and her mom are integrated with the herd now during the day.

I often have believed the world would run more smoothly if it ran on MY schedule.  And on MY schedule, things need to be done sooner than later.

I am not quite sure what happened (motherhood?  the onset of middle age?  moving to the country?) but my usual foot-stomping impatience has waned!  What is it, have my expectations diminished?  Have I just run headlong into that closed door called reality?  Whatever the cause, I have accepted a lot more leeway in my schedule.  “Take a deep breath and get over it” seems to be the new m.0.

The apiary.  First hive has been split; we added two more this spring; and the first hive yielded just shy of 27 pounds of honey from the first harvest

Most of the pressure that I have put on myself revolves around getting food for my CSA people.  It’s been almost two years now since I have transitioned from bartering my extras to running a year-long, once-a-week box scheme for my friends (6 full shares, one partial share).  There have been weeks where I panicked that there wouldn’t be “enough” but I have set up the shares in such a way that flexibility is a key to it all.  Yes, bread-salad-greens-milk product-eggs is standard per week, but weeks like this one (honey, chive-blossom vinegar, fresh sauerkraut, and no eggs) work for both me and for them.

I spent my Mother’s Day morning assembling the greenhouse frame.  Ah, the life of the weekend warrior-farmer.

And that’s a good thing.  I do have a life, after all, and can’t spend all my days puttering around the garden or whipping up bread and cheese in the kitchen….much as I would like to.  Sometimes, work interferes with my farm life (actually, that happens quite often); sometimes, a child must be chauffered to and fro; sometimes, I just want to get away or just sit with my book.  Having some flexibility built into the schedule is key to it all.

And with that flexibility?  I don’t do nearly as much foot-stomping.  I leave that to my crabby goats.

Willow and Sabine.  Willow is a fairly patient mother, all things considered.

From sap to syrup part two

There is this general assumption that if you don’t have the right tools, you cannot possibly do x, y or z.  This is complete nonsense.

All my years of cobbled-together DIY projects have taught me two important things.   The first is that I probably already have the tool at hand to do the job.  And two, if I seriously want to increase production, that tool at hand might not suffice.  The lesson I have thus learned is “try it once, and if it mostly works and you like the result, then prepare to shell out some cash for next time.”

Home cheesemaking is the most readily available example of this lesson.   To make, press, age and store the cheese, I get by with items I already have in the house.  This remains the case today with one important exception:  I bought a cheese press.  What a difference.  I also let the goats buy me a cheese press, as in, I made enough money off the sale of their cheese to enable (justify?) the purchase of said press.

So, onward, maple-syrup making.  If you drive around country roads now in my corner of the world, you will see all manner of tree-tapping techniques and implements.  You’ll see the bases of maples cluttered with traditional sap pails, simple plastic gallon-sized buckets, our own sap-collecting bags, or a web of food-grade tubing piped from spiles to an awaiting 5-gallon bucket on the ground.  I’ve even seen half-gallon Mason jars wired to the trees.  The only unusual tool in this whole operation are the spiles themselves:  at $1.50-$4.00 each, they’re a fairly small investment.

If you want to give it a go at your own house, you need only buy the spiles.  You probably already have a stock pot and a roasting pan…and you can even skip the roasting pan if you watch the pot closely.

Bag slowly filling:  it takes about a day or two to get half full

Pouring the sap into the big stockpot:  yes, it’s just sweet-ish water at this point

Who says a watched pot never boils?  Okay, sure, it does take a while to boil all this off.

We finish the sap in roasting pans.  Once the surface sheets over as the temperature gets to be about 215-220*, it’s at the proper sugar ratio

We use my stainless steel milk strainer and high-temperature filter to strain the syrup.  A few layers of cheesecloth or a thin cotton towel, draped in and rubber-banded to the jar’s neck would also have worked.  Just pour very slowly!

So the next time you want to try something new at your own house, ask yourself this important question.  Is the thing you wish to attempt an OLD thing?  As in, what would your great-grandparents have done if they also wished to make it?  Cheesemaking, breadmaking, gardening, charcuterie, maple sugaring:  These things all predate fancy presses, bread machines, gas-powered tillers and aerated compost tea,  pink salt and even our sap bags.  Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

So have a go!

From sap to syrup part one

Boiling sap indoors means a nice sweet-smelling steambath for the kitchen.  We don’t recommend doing this indoors; we were frankly just anxious to try it…

Longtime readers will notice that all our labors here involve moving things, categorically, from”Get It Elsewhere” to “Make It Here.”  Sure, there have been a few “why did we bother” projects, but most are rewarding.  Most!  This is encouraging, isn’t it?

And when we scraped down our first batch of maple sugar from the bottom of the roasting pan on Thursday night, the three of us, sticky spoons in mouths, mumbled something to the extent of “why didn’t we do this before?”

Okay, okay; sure, the ratio, in gallons, of sap to syrup in most commercial boilings is 43:1.  So who cares that it took us five gallons to get our measly first half pint?  It was seriously the best syrup we’d ever had.  Maple sap is only about 2% sugar, you see; the rest is mostly water.  The bags are filling quickly and normal recommendations are that you empty them every 2 days, especially if the daytime temperatures hit 40 or more.

Propane-fired tabletop burner (attached to tank) with kettle stand in foreground

This is our setup:  In Tom’s garage, we use the metal stand that came with our smoker (to adapt it to being a turkey fryer, so of course it was never used until now) to boil off the sap in a large (3.5 gallon) kettle.  Once it reduces by about 3/4, we pour it into a roasting pan and finish it on this rusty two-burner stove.  OF COURSE I don’t have pictures of the actual operation.  I figured Tom’d never get through those 20 gallons in one day.  (He did.)  Grand total:  about a quart and a half.

I promise to get more pictures.  This is just the tip of the iceberg, sap-wise.

This bag has been hanging for about 6 hours

On sap, and mycelia

Perhaps it’s laziness, but this household’s married couple tends to use Christmas for getting we’d-buy-it-otherwise presents for each other.  This past holiday was no different in that regard, but it had an odd exception:  the favorite household tool (the cordless hammer drill set with a 7/16″ bit) would be put to good use in aiding both of our presents.

2012 has two brand-new projects on the edible agenda,  you see.  We’ll be maple sugaring and cultivating mushrooms.  The drill’s duty?  It gets to tap the the trees for their sap and riddle holes in hardwood logs and pine stumps for the spore-drenched plug spawn.  (The mushrooms will be addressed closer to Fungi Season.)

Tom got a big box of goodies from Sugar Bush, a Michigan syruping supply house.  I am keen to support Michigan companies and these folks were very helpful.

The sugaring has been an interesting prospect in this odd weather year.  We actually did a few cautious taps to our trees in early February, but the ups and downs in temperature have started and stopped the flow accordingly.  Ours are not sugar maples; we have silver and red and both will work for sugaring but aren’t as “easy” (read:  you have to collect and boil more sap) as sugar and black maples.  We use sap collection bags, not the traditional pail, because they clean up and store more readily than do metal pails…and they’re cheaper.  Once we collect enough sap, I’ll show you the boiling-off process.  There is fire involved, heh.

Soule hook

And our daughter reminded us once again of the maple-sugaring passage of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods:  Laura, her sister and cousins got to drizzle their soft-boiled syrup into the snow to make sugar taffy.  Maybe we too will get a sugar snow and can try that ourselves.

Side view of bag hung on hook

On this particular time of year

The threesome: l-r, Cricket, Ivy and T-bell

Black Friday did not include shopping for us.  Instead, my daughter and I got two rags, hopped in the car, drove two miles north and then wiped down a neighbor’s very stinky Kiko buck.  Yes!  It was Buck Friday, the time of year when all good goat girls start thinking about making babies.  With no buck on the back forty, I needed to get a couple of buck rags to bring them into a strong heat.

My latest goat tip is a bit more easy than last year’s “show the doe the rag” trick that I had to do to Cricket 2-3 times a day.  This year, the point is to actually tie the rags on the goats’ collars.  Of course they want to consume the rags (the tin-can thing is a bit of a lie: goats do in actuality like to manipulate things with their mouths… it’s not eating per se…it’s akin to a baby’s sticking everything in his mouth to “know” it) so I needed to sew the rags onto their collars.  Unfortunately, the smell of male goat funk doesn’t do it for me, so I wore gloves.

All the fashionable does wear rags on their collars dontchaknow

But it does do it for Cricket and Ivy.  There is something quite nice about farming in that you can take the long view; there’s no need to make hasty decisions.  So as I thought about whom to impregnate this fall, I considered how much milk I was getting, and how valuable it was to me:  I get just shy of a gallon a day but only 2-3 cups of that gallon come from our new mother, Cricket.  At a year and a half, with only one baby (Ivy) and with me milking once a day, she’s not putting out that much, and needs another birth to fully develop that udder.  Which leaves me with T-bell, still milking a strong 3 quarts/day in her 23rd month of milking.  Dang.  She rocks.  So Ivy is of a size I could get her knocked up too:  what the heck, why not milk three goats a day?  (Oh yeah.  The day doesn’t contain more than its usual 24 hours, despite my thinking it does.)

It’s still been surprisingly warm here, warm enough that usual put-things-to-bed-for-winter tasks have dragged on and on…and on.  I finally harvested the last of my potatoes, again in a t-shirt, over the holiday weekend, which was strange but not unpleasant, as it’s a banner year for spuds.  And the bees have still been active.

Bees?  Bee update, and background:   I surprised the hell out of my husband last year by purchasing a beekeeping kit for him for Christmas.  I also bought him a trip to Bee School for his birthday in February.  Our bees arrived, and have been lovingly tended by my husband and my daughter all year, doing their busy bee thing, filling three boxes full of brood- and honey-filled frames.

My mouth was watering when I took this:  that frame is absolutely dripping with honey.  Sorry the pic is fuzzy, it was raining, getting dark and I didn’t have a bee suit on.

A lot of work.  It must be time to harvest all that honey, right?  Wrong.  We have decided to allow the bees to keep their honey all winter long.  We’ll harvest it in the spring after the first flowers come out.  There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that taking the bees’ food source means you need to replace it to keep the hive alive…in other words, you gotta feed them.  The standard food is sugar water!  Sigh.  That doesn’t sound “right” to us.

Stapling on pipe insulation, to soon be covered by 30# building paper

Tom’s insulating the hive too for the winter.

We hope they do well over the next few cold months.  Despite not even having harvested anything, we’re keen to invest in more hives for next year, both Langstroth and top-bar.  Why not?   Plus:  I like the idea of having an apiary, or bee yard.  A bunch of boxes filled with bees:  how, well, buzzy-busy.  The rule of thumb is one hive per acre on organic farms.  Our fruit trees did wonderfully last year, and I would like to credit the bees for their success.

Dairy?  check.  Honey?  check.  Now, if I could only grow coffee…or even tea…

On small-batch jams

Gooseberry in the back, mixed berry in the front, hanging out with the rest of the weekend’s canning (ketchup and tomato juice)

For the last few years I have toyed with an idea that’s relatively radical (at least for me):  the notion that I don’t need to make jam out of vast quantities of fruit.  A small quantity suffices, and I needn’t reach for the pectin packet, either. Sugar and fruit will do.

It seems that at this time of year I am stuck with a lot of “widows and orphans,” fruit-wise.  Our weekly trip to the fruit market seems to occur before last week’s fruit has been consumed, so there is usually a handful of something, a few more of something else, and bags of last year’s smoothie-ready fruit is still downstairs, right when this year’s harvest is ready to be frozen.  So here’s the recipe:

Prepare (peel/stem/chop) and weigh a certain amount of fruit

Measure out an equal weight of sugar

Put a few tablespoons of water into your largest non-cast iron skillet, add and stir the fruit and the sugar: put a lid on it and place the heat on medium.  On boiling, remove the lid and let it reduce down, waaay down, over the lowest heat, stirring on occasion so it’s neither sticking nor burning.  Once it’s thick, place the lid on it and let it sit overnight (if that doesn’t appeal, place the whole pan in the fridge).  Reheat it in the morning.  You can scrape the contents out into hot, sterile half-pint jars, place lids on them, tighten, and process (either boiling-water bath, covered by min. 1″ of boiling water, for 20 minutes or in pressure canner for 10 minutes at 10 pounds).

I find this works great for mixed fruits.  Peach/nectarine/cranberry/ginger, say; or cherry/peach/blueberry, or strawberry/blackberry.  Whatever you have.  The stuff is thick! and reliably set…and a lot less hassle than jamming, oh, I don’t know, those 20 pints of strawberry jam I made in June.  Jam on, people!  This method works really well if you don’t eat much of the stuff to see you through the year.

On the expanding farmstead

Every spring, the number of creatures goes up on most farms.  Ours is no exception…except, well, our numbers exploded this year, thanks to:

the bees.

We took delivery of them on Tuesday night.  I chatted with them in their box on the sideboard as we ate dinner, telling them all about the farmstead and neighborhood.  After dining, we went outside and watched Tom place them in their new home.

We’ve also got a few baby turkeys.  Not the 17 of last year’s first hatching, we’re content with four, maybe five.  Queen Ruby has successfully raised five in the past; it seems about all the girl can take.

And as usual, it’s baby chick season.  The spring has been so cold that all four of our sitting hens lost their eggs so I supplemented their mothering need by giving them meat and egg chicks from the feed store.  They don’t care.  Babies is babies.

There are also bunnies.  Ugh, bunnies.

And we’re expecting one, or maybe two, kids to be born toward the end of the month.  I’m getting a half gallon daily from Bell, but it would be great to squeak out another half gallon from Cricket…is that being greedy, counting-unhatched-chickens-wise?  Time will tell.