20th Century Cake

19 06 2009

From a box no less. What the heck is the world coming to?

Inspired by my pantry “shelf of shame” where items that should have been rotated out long ago reside, Jonathan Bloom’s Wasted Food blog, and Sharon Astyk’s Independence Days Challenge Item #4 (Reduce Waste) and #7 (Eat the Food), and Keith’s insistence that we could just drown it in ice cream and booze, I assembled this:

That, dear readers, is an authentic box of cake mix that has somehow resided in the nether reaches of my baking pantry since 1995! I do not know how it got there, who bought it, or why I’ve moved it, but there it is. Well, it was. It’s residency permit in my house has expired!

I’ve never made a box cake mix before. I’ve certainly baked plenty of cakes, but haven’t ever been compelled to buy a box of sugar, flour, powdered oil, leavener, salt and a plethora of chemicals to do so. Whoever first came up with the idea of boxing the cheapest ingredients of a cake, printing an incredibly convoluted rebus of a recipe and slapping on a professional food stylists’ image of cake on the front and charging whatever it costs for maybe 50 cents worth of stuff must be a rich man by now.

Hey, propylene glycol is in shampoo too!

The instructions alone are enough to scare anyone off baking. It’s not that it’s hard, it’s just hard to read and follow. Hard for me anyway. I think they’re intentionally written so that this simple task of mixing things together is made complex so as to infer that baking a real cake must be really difficult. The ingredients are a real turn off for me too. Of course, this thing is so old that it doesn’t have any of the ubiquitous corn syrup solids. Small win.

So after I checked the Duncan Hines website to make sure that I wouldn’t be poisoning myself due to the advanced age of the product, I checked inside for evidence of bugs or rodents. Even though the leavener might be aged over the years, nothing else had wanted to eat it either. Drat!

Forging ahead, I gathered up my mise. Cleverly, Croesus Duncan Hines, has the poor housewife furnish all the expensive bits such as 3 eggs. I didn’t have any vegetable oil except olive so I melted a mixture of butter, coconut oil and some Spectrum shortening. During my research, I’d read some recipes that had suggested a dollop of sour cream. Didn’t have any of that either, but yogurt could stand in. What else? Oh yes, water. These mixes are so handy, just add water … and eggs and oil and …

While I was meddling, I decided to add in strawberry jam hoping to cover up the chemical tinge. I read that one on the interwebs too. I also added in a shy teaspoon of baking soda and baking powder to ensure a rise. The batter was a bit lumpy, caking agents age as well, I suppose, but behaved. Since I didn’t have nor want frosting, I decided on the Bundt format.

Because of the extra moisture in the jam, it took longer than 32 – 37 minutes to bake. I think I hit the snooze button on the timer 4 or 5 times before my tester came out clean.

The verdict? A bit sweet since mixes make up in sugar what they lack in flavor and I added the jam. The crumb is a bit holey, but that was my fault for overbeating. I got a little overzealous since I hadn’t used my hand mixer in ages.

I think a little rum and ice cream should make it go down just fine. Maybe there’s even some vintage pudding mix around for a cheater’s trifle. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Proof of concept

14 04 2009

It may seem like I’ve converted to Pastafarianism, but I’m just taking advantage of the nettles before they get full of flea beetles. This time I made fettucine.

I decided to test my idea of freezing the nettles in the form of pasta so I generously floured them and froze two batches in freezer containers. If they freeze well without breaking or otherwise getting destroyed, I’ll make more but pack them with the vacuum sealer. They would get frosty in these containers with longer storage.

Since it was just me tonight, I made a quick sauce of sun-dried tomatoes, peppers and peas for all the scraps.

Freezer and Pantry Rotation

22 03 2009

Maybe you heard the buzz about last week’s Eating Down the Fridge challenge that sprung up from Steven Shaw’s Klatsch topic on eGullet at the end of February? “Fat Guy” Steven declared a moratorium on grocery shopping for one week. One week led to nearly a month and many people around the nation and the world ate down their pantries and began to wonder why they stockpile so much food.

Despite being a regular follower of eGullet, I didn’t participate in the discussion, but I did begin my annual pantry and freezer rotation. Some members are still aghast that, now after this exercise, anyone would keep a robust food supply at home, but others have learned what it means to maintain a proper pantry. Despite living in a small NYC apartment, Steven realized that it made more fiscal sense to buy flour in larger quantities than small 5 pound sacks and fewer boxes of unused mac ‘n cheese.

Since I’m maintaining a pantry larger than what would be kept in your average NYC apartment but smaller than your typical Mormon’s year’s supply, I have to pay attention to expiration but not so much to accumulation of things like 14 different shapes of pasta. (I didn’t actually count, but I can think of 10 shapes on hand without even looking.)

The most perishable items lurk in the freezers. This fall we will be getting another quarter beef from our favorite Hemlock Highlands and this summer will have us packing away garden bounty and foraged goodies. Right now my goal is to use up all the various meats and dig out the old odds and ends that have gotten lost. Once I’ve gotten it down to manageable proportions, the freezers will be defrosted and the inventory list updated. Since we’ve been eating out of the freezer all winter, we’re progressing along nicely.

The remainder of the pantry is in pretty good shape, but the shelves will get a wipe down and stragglers brought to the front. This is most important with home-canned jams, fruits and pickles since they’re shorter lived than their commercial counterparts. This year we also have the root cellar to think about, but there’s only about a dozen potatoes left in there, some of which will be tonight’s dinner. The root cellar attritions itself quite effectively if you’re not careful. So far so good for us.

As an aside, I noticed that I was a bit surprised at the myriad expensive lettuce salads that were consumed and deemed necessary on the eGullet topic thread. I felt a bit wistful for a big bowl of green, but I know that our local spring greens are just around the corner. Then I can enjoy them to their fullest and, right before we suffer palate exhaustion, we’ll be on to the next seasonal produce and little bit of most everything will be tucked away to brighten up winter.

Keeping a pantry is prudent in this crazy economic climate. Work for me has been erratic so I’ve been happy to not have to worry about where dinner is coming from. Buying in bulk and in season allows me to get the most for my food dollar and pass more of it on to our local farmers. I think we can all get behind that idea.

For those of you without a pantry yet, apples are a good deal right now since they’re reaching the end of their winter storage life. Make sure you take advantage of the peak season for cod, clams, oysters, mussels and the last of the crab. While you’re waiting for the asparagus, freeze and/or dry the spring nettles. It’s a good time to get started keeping a pantry!

First nettles of spring

First nettles of spring

Root Cellar Update

10 01 2009

I thought it was time to give you a root cellar update. Besides I wanted some slaw.

Whoa! What the heck is that?

Whoa! What the heck is that?

Back at the end of November, I’d shown you my pumphouse where I was experimenting with root cellar-type storage of some food. I have potatoes, cover crop seeds, and some … cabbages.

I’d wrapped the cabbages in damp cloth and placed them in a cooler in the pumphouse/root cellar. I left the lid of the cooler cracked for ventilation. What I didn’t mention (since it wasn’t pertinent then) was that I’d actually stored those 4 cabbages back on October 10th. It is now January 10th (full disclosure: I took that one out 1/8, but close enough).

Honey, were really not that poor, we can buy new food ...

Honey, we're really not that poor, we can buy new food ...

Amazing what can go on in 3 months in a dark, moist area. ๐Ÿ™‚

A little peeling (one layer, honest!), a quick rinse and …

Okay, thats not too bad

Okay, that's not too bad.

Still, it pays to be safe so I checked the insides before committing myself to slaw with dinner.

Ooh pretty!

Ooh pretty!

I tasted it and it was crisp and peppery and there was slaw for dinner. Yay!

The other nice part about it was that I had grown those purple cabbages myself (with starts donated by Rebecca – thank you!) and purple cabbages aren’t even meant for storage. We also had some temperature fluctuations in the root cellar (power outages, frozen pipes, cranky heaters) so conditions weren’t 100% perfect.

At the end of November, I had also put in a 50# box of potatoes. So far they’re doing great too. No fuzziness.

I’m happy with the success of this experiment and look forward to storing a larger variety in the root cellar over next winter. It’s a great feeling of luxury to be able to go pick potatoes out of the root cellar and an onion out of the office closet ๐Ÿ™‚ and start making dinner.

Cheese, please

6 12 2008

Since I recently confessed to spending altogether too much money on cheese, I thought I’d share a cheese storage tip with all of you. Now cheese is not usually a long term storage item, but it does require a little bit of special treatment anyway. I mean, if you’re going to spend several dollars per pound on something delicious, you might as well spend a minute making sure that it stays at its best.

Now I know that you’ve seen advice to wrap cut cheese back up in plastic wrap or possibly in something like waxed or cheese paper. The latter might avoid the pitfalls of the former, but it’s a sure fire recipe for dried out crustiness in our dehydrating refrigerators. Unless you really like making cheese origami.

What’s wrong with plastic wrap? Well, cheese is fat and plastic is oil. Remember the recent business about phthalates? Plasticizers aren’t to be messed with.

Consumer Reports tested 14 national and local brands of wrapped cheese for levels of plasticizers. The reason they chose cheese is that plasticizers are more likely to leach into fatty foods like cheese and hamburger. They found high levels of DEHP in the cheeses wrapped in deli cling wrap. People who eat several ounces of this cheese every day could get very high doses of DEHP that could possibly cause health problems. There were moderate levels of DEHP in some of the shrink-wrapped cheeses and in the waxed cheeses with plastic overwrap. There was little or no DEHP on individually wrapped slices of American cheese or blocks of cheddar in laminated foil wrap.

Besides, plastic makes cheese sweat. Who wants sweaty cheese?

I’ve found the best compromise between stocking cheese paper and delicately wrapping it, is to unwrap the cheese from the store packaging, wrap it in a paper towel (dampened slightly for soft cheeses), and place the wrapped cheese in a zipper storage bag.

When you need cheese, it’s easily available and I find it keeps much better this way. Since I switched to this method from plastic wrap, I haven’t had any issues with mold or other spoilage.

By the way, every once in a while I seeย  some Wensleydale at the co-op. ๐Ÿ˜€

Pantry Labels

4 12 2008

I’ve seen many different methods for keeping track of stored foods such as stickers (color-coded, printed out, or masking tape) and complex spreadsheets. While I applaud these ambitious ideas, I’m more realistic about my patience to endlessly catalog the contents of my cupboards and freezers.

My solution? A couple of lists and a Sharpie. Decidedly low tech, but it works.

Canned goods are easiest. When I buy a can of something, I grab the Sharpie that I have hanging in my cupboard and scrawl on the date and year. That’s it. The pen stays in the cupboard all the time so it’s handy and I can see quickly which can of what came in first (and should therefore be used first).

This works with boxes of crackers, cereal and what have you too. The Sharpie will write on nearly any surface. No stickers to buy and track or labels to print out. I also use this on freezer items since, unlike stickers, labels and tape, it won’t fall off when the glue freezes.

Since no one wants to dig around in a deep chest freezer searching for that last packet of sausages that you actually ate last week or find expensive salmon steaks that have been stored too long and are now dog food, the freezer requires a bit more organization.

First, I keep the list that comes with my beef order. When I use a steak or a roast, I mark it off the list. Done.

Second, I’ve made a master list of categories (Beef, Pork, Sausage, Vegetables, Fruit, etc.) where I note everything as it goes in the freezer (roughly: Item, Size, Quantity, Date In, Date Out) and indicate by when I think it needs to be used (date out). Naturally things get missed on their way in or out occasionally, but I don’t worry too much. Once a year when I defrost and reorganize, I update the list. When I do this (in the spring when the freezer is at its emptiest), I place the things that I need to use up first on top.

The third list is for home-canned goods. I made this one up on graph paper and simply write in the Item, Size and Date. Then I place an “X” in each square for each jar. If I use a jar, I mark it out. If I add a jar, I can add another “X” to an empty square. I also added some root cellar notes at the bottom of this one. Since I only tend to stock canned tomatoes, beans and tuna, I don’t bother listing them. I just keep them on one shelf and make sure I mark them and put the newest cans behind the older ones.

It’s not perfect, but it takes a minor amount of time and organization. I can scan the freezer list for foods that need to be used up easily. I can quickly see how many jars of strawberry jam I have without taking apart my stacks to count them. I’ve found this little bit of organization is all it usually takes to ensure there is no waste.

For help in determining how long frozen foods last, see this handy Refrigerator & Freezer Storage Chart. Toward the bottom there are also listed some common pantry items.

Root Cellar and Pantry Spaces

29 11 2008

It’s interesting how something low tech and simple can make such a huge difference in the day to day operations of a household. The refrigerator is indispensable, but a root cellar really adds another dimension to food storage. Anything that requires a cool humid environment will do quite well in a root cellar.

Pumphouse root cellar

The pumphouse converted to a root cellar

First you need the appropriate space, of course. Most of us here in the PNW don’t have a root cellar dug in the back yard. One of the reasons for this, at least here Upriver, is lots of rain. Those of you with sump pumps in your basements will know what I’m talking about. Have a look around the house and outbuildings and see what types of spaces you have available.

Ideal root cellar temps are 32F - 40F with 95% humidity. This photo was taken in August - not ready yet!

I put a thermometer with a humidity sensor into our well pumphouse for a while and found that it had pretty good storage conditions. It’s usually about 5 degrees below ambient and in winter holds at about 35F – 40F since we keep a small heater in there to keep the pipes from freezing. We have a pressure tank so humidity is about 88% on average. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good for storing most things for a while. I’m not trying to keep my fall harvested carrots until spring, but I can store potatoes and cabbages for a few months and free up some space in my refrigerator.

Wrap cabbages in a moist cloth since they need extra humidity.

Wrap cabbages in a moist cloth since they need extra humidity.

A good article on root cellaring can be found at Mother Earth News. It’s written by Mike and Nancy Bubel who wrote Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables. Another idea might be a cold box which could be workable even in an apartment. The useless window above the sink perhaps?

The wrapped cabbages are kept in a cooler with the lid cracked open - ventilation is important!

The wrapped cabbages are kept in a cooler with the lid cracked open - ventilation is important!

Another useful space is, in my case, a closet under the stairs. This is the coolest place in the house and stays somewhere in the neighborhood of 50F – 60F most of the year. It is also dry. Here I can store large sacks of oatmeal, flour, sugar and onions. I picked up a box of sweet potatoes and it seems to be the perfect conditions for them too.

The coat closet, also under the stairs, was converted into a baking pantry with shelves shortly after we moved in. There I keep totes with my baking flours, spices, pasta, rice and legumes. It’s a great stash for nuts, dried fruit and chocolate. An article about stocking a pantry at MEN can be found here and indepth information from Sharon Astyk’s blog. You’ll notice a new category in my blogroll for pantry blogs as well. Feel free to suggest your favorites!

Keep in mind that it’s really best to store only what you use. It’s easiest to start by stocking up on the non-perishables staples and go from there. I don’t keep MRE’s or other freeze-dried meals since we don’t eat that type of thing. I do keep some wheat berries because I have a flour mill and I bake all our bread. I also keep a 50 lb. sack of bread flour. None of it is stored only for emergencies, it is part of our daily fare and is used and replenished as needed. No money is saved if food gets tossed because it didn’t get used!

Where do you start? I don’t know, the big pack of toilet paper from Costco? An extra couple of cans of tomatoes, tuna or soup during the next shopping trip. If you have a root cellar, get a box of potatoes. Call around to the potato farms or stop in at Norm Nelson.

50 lbs. of slightly bunged up organic potatoes discounted to $25!

If you’re Upriver, get in on the buying club that Cindy Palacios set up. This is one of the first steps while waiting for the establishment of the Upriver Co-op. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept buying clubs, here is a recent article. Orders need to be in by 2:00pm on the 1st Tuesday of every other month to start. Pickup will be on the following Friday. Pickup will be at Marblemount Community Center’s Pavilion or another agreed on location. Contact me for Cindy’s contact information if you do not have it.

I’ve crammed a lot of information into one post already so I’ll save my suggestions on where to buy what for the next post. Meanwhile look around and see what types of storage spaces you have and also check your existing stores for what you need to round out your supplies.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends.