Saturday, March 12, 2011


Please pardon the late post today, but I have a good excuse: We were exposing Cubby to culture.

An Indian restaurant counts as culture, right?

See, today is dark and rainy and the whole property is a mudbath, which means neither A. nor I were very inspired to do anything particularly industrious.

Plus, A. got his truck stuck in the mud in the lane leading to the pasture, so that pretty much put him out of commission as far as chores go.

That's why we decided to have a family excursion to the Not-So-Small City, in which there are many, many different kinds of restaurants AND a large, totally awesome library. Both of which make us very happy.

So we loaded Cubby into the car and drove to the Not-So-Small City, where I directed A. to an Indian restaurant we had seen many times but never eaten in before. I was quite firm that I wanted to eat Indian food. A. didn't mind--he's a fan. Cubby, however, had never had Indian food. I figured at the very least, he would eat the naan bread, though, so it's not as if he would starve.

I should've known better. That kid ate half of the food on my plate. On both of my plates, actually, because it was a buffet, so I re-filled. He ate tandoori chicken and chicken in yogurt curry sauce, rice with peas, naan bread, okra, potato, and finished off with a kind of rice pudding.

I'm going to say that Cubby's first experience with Indian food was a positive one. To understate the case. He may never eat plain oatmeal again. I'll have to start spiking it with curry.

Friday, March 11, 2011


Remember when I said that I was going to reduce the maple syrup to its final syrupy consistency on the stove? Well, I have. And in the process, I had to figure out what the hell "aproning" looks like.

Aproning is the old-fashioned way of figuring out if the syrup is thick enough. Before thermometers and hydrometers and all that fancy stuff, people just looked at the syrup dripping off the end of a spoon and knew by looking at it when it was done. Explanations of what the appropriate degree of aproning is are pretty damn vague, let me tell you. The common explanation is that when the syrup no longer comes off the edge of a spatula in individual drips, but instead kind of hangs together in a sheet, that's aproning.

All well and good, but what the hell does that actually mean? It means you'd better reduce the syrup a few times and learn by experience. First, is it supposed to be a metal spatula, like a pancake flipper? Or a rubber spatula, like you use to scrape the sides of the bowl when baking? Or something wooden? I figured wood was safest, because metal retains heat and therefore keeps the syrup hotter even when it's dripping off, thereby making it thinner. Also, this is an old-fashioned way of testing, and old-fashioned kitchen utensils were almost invariably wood, so I used a flat wooden spoon to test.

I also was terrified of over-boiling and getting the syrup at all grainy--which apparently can happen pretty quick at the end--so at first I stopped when I saw ANY sign of the drops starting to pull together on the edge of the spoon. But then, after it was cooled, the syrup was still kind of thin. So I did it again.

That's the nice thing with boiling syrup: You can do it over and over. Nice of it to be so forgiving.

I've finally figured out what the aproning looks like when the syrup reaches the right consistency, but I'll be damned if I can explain it. And that's the thing: NO ONE can explain it. And it's not like there are a lot of videos out there showing maple syrup aproning. Or any videos, based on a very cursory online search. You just have to . . . know. You have to have a visual in your mind. And you either get that visual by trial and error, or by watching someone who knows what to do. And who is that person, really? No one I know. Not even the MiL, who is a font of wisdom when it comes to old-fashioned kitchen knowledge, knew what the hell syrup aproning looked like. Or when sauerkraut is done, um, sauering. Or any of the other countless small bits of knowledge that have kind of disappeared.

Except now I know what aproning looks like, so anyone who needs a first-hand tutorial, just let me know. Knowledge is power. And the key to perfect maple syrup.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What's New

I talked to my sister yesterday. In response to the usual, "So, what's new with you?" question, I once again proved my complete immersion in the rural life style. What's new with us? We made maple syrup last weekend and the sheep shearer is coming on Sunday.

Welcome to Countryville, U.S.A.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Future Contender

Heavyweight division, of course.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

I Have Some Wisdom To Impart Today

Does it count as wisdom if it involves yogurt? Is that too inconsequential a topic to bandy about the word "wisdom"? Not if you eat as much yogurt as we do. And that's a lot. It's going to be even more now that we have all that syrup, because yogurt and maple syrup is an addicting combination that A., for one, will not quit. So I'll be making a lot of yogurt in the future. More than I already am, I mean, and I'm already making it about once a week.

This is the problem with starting to make your own ANYTHING. It's invariably better than what you might buy and once you get used to the better product, you can't NOT make it.


In case you were thinking of trying the method I linked to before, I feel I should tell you what I have learned about improving that method.

If you follow that method exactly, the yogurt is kind of bland. I like yogurt to be pretty tangy. The longer the milk sits at a warm temperature with the culture, the tangier the yogurt. Which is why I now let the milk cool to about 115 degrees instead of 120 before mixing in the starter and then I leave it in the cooler for at least four hours, usually closer to five.

Another thing I've learned is that you can turn your stove burner to high when the milk is beginning to heat, to get it up to temperature faster, but as it gets hotter, you have to turn the heat down to medium high and stir with a flat-edged spoon quite frequently, scraping the bottom of the pot with some vigor. Otherwise you'll have one hell of a mess on the bottom of your pot that MAY irritate whoever ends up having to wash that pot. In our house, that is sometimes the MiL, so I try to avoid that particular irritation.

Also, the most irritating part of the temperature gauging is actually getting the warm water for the water bath to the right temperature. I heat a big pot about three quarters full and then add cold water until I get to the right temperature. It's annoying and there's a lot of cussing and slopping of water about, but it must be done.

In conclusion, I should note that I always need at least five quart jars instead of four. Makes sense, since a gallon is four quarts and then I'm adding a full cup more of the starter. It took me awhile to remember this, though. And I don't actually measure the starter anymore--I just kind of dump in what looks like a cup--so sometimes I end up with almost five full quart jars. Which is no problem, because we'll eat that without any trouble.

There! Yogurt wisdom for you! Aren't you glad you stopped by today?

Monday, March 7, 2011

And Now Back To Our Regularly Scheduled Country Programming

Forget all this talk of bars and nightlife; we have a topic of real import to discuss here. Namely, sugarin'.

Oh yes. Our first ever sugarin' (sugar-fest? sugar-off?) took place yesterday. And what fine weather we had for it, too. When I woke up at 5 a.m., it was to the cozy sound of the wind lashing freezing rain on the windows. This changed later to sleet, and by about 9 a.m., it had become a steady, heavy snow that was to last all day. And when I say all day, I mean ALL DAY. We do not have a sugarin' shack. There is no shelter over the evaporator set up the milk barn. But A. had grimly decreed that the sugarin' was happening on Sunday come hell, high water, or a blizzard.

We got the blizzard.

So here's how it went down.

The evaporator is this enormous metal drum thing with a firebox on the bottom and shallow metal pans above in which the sap boils.

Looks like the portal to hell, produces the portal to maple heaven.

A.'s friend J.--the one who fishes ALL THE DAMN TIME and it's going to be annoying to call him J. throughout this whole post so let's dispense with the mystery and just call him Jason, okay?--had been bringing over truckloads of discarded wood pallets from the farm store he works at for the past couple of weeks. Those pallets, busted up with a maul, were the fuel for the enormous evaporator. Or, as A. affectionately called it, Big Boy.

A. started the fire in Big Boy's belly around 9 a.m. and had it good and hot by the time he poured the first of the sap into the pans on top around 9:30 a.m. There are actually two pans--a larger one for the initial boiling down, and then a smaller one into which the sap is transferred once it's more concentrated. The smaller pan, due to its smaller surface area, evaporates the sap a bit slower and is therefore a little more controllable at the end of the process.

The big pan holds about 30 gallons of sap. We had about 60 gallons, so as the sap concentrated and reduced in volume, more was added until it was all in the pans. The sap was initially strained before it was poured into the pans, just to get rid of bugs, sticks, and other assorted gross woodsy things you don't want in your syrup. Most people use cheesecloth. We didn't have any cheesecloth. So we used some of Cubby's (CLEAN, thankyouverymuch) old gauze diapers. Oh yes, we did. Worked great, too.

Cubby was happy to contribute. Not so happy outside.

Anyway, this all took awhile. I think the last of the straight sap was added around 1 p.m. All this time A., Jason, and Jodi (of the wood milling adventure) were busting up pallets, feeding the fire, adding sap to the pans as needed, and skimming scum from the top of the boiling sap with my mesh kitchen strainer. All of this, by the way, was taking place in driving snow and they were standing around in about four inches of water. The evaporator was up on bricks, so it was okay, and the men put up a kind of boardwalk of pallets around the evaporator so they could get up out of the water there, but it was pretty miserable.

Good times.

And now! A break in the action so we can discuss maple sap. Isn't this FUN?! Yes.

When the sap comes out of the trees, it's pretty much clear and tasteless. It needs to be kept cold, or else it will spoil. But if the weather is fairly cold, it will keep for a couple of weeks at least. So those 60 gallons we're talking about were collected from about 50 taps (actually called spiles) over the course of a few weeks.

It's been kind of weird weather, so the sap hasn't been running continuously all that time. We have had some very cold weather, so the sap has frozen in the buckets. When this happens, A. and Jason (who was collecting sap from different trees) would scoop out the ice in the buckets. This got rid of some of the excess water, thereby sort of pre-concentrating the sap. So the sap that we started out boiling was actually kind of sweet to begin with, like weak soda. That's good, because it reduces the boiling time necessary to reach the desired syrup stage.

End sap discussion. And now back to the action!

At around 3 p.m., A. and Jodi dumped the contents of the big evaporator pan into the smaller one, a tricky operation, considering the metal had been in direct contact with flames. They only spilled a couple of cups, though. At this point, the sap had been boiling for about six hours and was noticeably darker and sweeter. A. and Jason had decided to do the final stage of boiling on a propane burner in a big turkey frying pot, because the flame would be much easier to control. When the sap gets to the end, it has a tendency to boil over, so quick adjustments in heat are necessary.

About 7 p.m., they poured around six gallons of sap--now almost syrup--into the turkey fryer and moved the operation into the relative comfort of the shed. After ten hours of standing out in the wind and the snow, the shed seemed pretty luxurious.

Still not done, though! Will it never end? I certainly didn't think so, as I was doing the dishes at 9 p.m., awaiting the announcement that the syrup was done and ready to be put in the jars I had washed for it. One way to tell if the syrup is done is with a candy thermometer. See, the higher the concentration of sugar in a liquid, the higher the boiling point. So when the syrup reads at seven degrees above the boiling point of water (the boiling point of water is 212 degrees Fahrenheit, assuming sea level, which we are), or 219 degrees, that means it has reached the desired concentration of sugars.

We didn't quite get there. At 9:30 p.m. the syrup was almost done, but A. called a halt because he still had to drive Jason to Jodi's house to pick up his truck so Jason could drive an hour home to be at work in the morning, and the roads were really bad. And it was still snowing. So A. decided they'd better quit.

We ended up with two gallons of syrup. It's certainly sweet enough, though the consistency could be a little thicker. So I'm going to just finish it on the stove. After giving Jason his half and giving a quart to the neighbors whose trees we're actually tapping, we should end up with about a gallon of syrup. And the sap keeps running. Which means we'll be doing this again.

So if you've ever wondered why real maple syrup is so damned expensive, now you know. Because it's damned hard work. The end result is pretty amazing, though. It doesn't seem likely that that clear, tasteless water from the maple trees would wind up actually being syrup, but it does. I can taste a very faint smokiness in the syrup, no doubt the result of continuous exposure to, um, smoke as it boiled.

And now, to end on a non sequitur, the boiling sap smells like cotton candy. Fun.

And tastes like heaven. YUM.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Bar Hopping

Something weird is going on around here: I went to a bar last night again.

I KNOW. How is this possible? Well, it was mostly a coincidence of scheduling. See, this time it was a surprise birthday party for A.'s sister at the bar in the village. It's actually more of a bar and restaurant thing, and the party started at 5 p.m. Which is why we brought Cubby. Well, actually we mostly brought him because his presence was specifically requested by the guest of honor. So, Baby in a Bar: Take Two!

Cubby's first bar experience was the VFW bar, and he slept in his car seat the whole time. This time he was awake and . . . not so thrilled with the scene. Not that I can blame him. I don't really like that bar, either.

He stood for awhile on his own, before it got too crowded, staring at the sea of legs around him and the big people shouting and running about. Then he ate some bits of chicken from the chicken tenders we got for our dinner. And then he was done. He didn't like the noise; he didn't like the people who kept wanting to hold him or give him high fives or shout at him over the chaos. He lasted about an hour, and then I brought him home for a bath and bedtime.

He was fine as soon as we got home to our safe, quiet haven. So I think I can say with some certainty that Cubby is NOT a baby barfly. Thank God.