Embracing Fall with Cherished Family Recipes

We are living in an abnormal year!  The year of 2020 has brought many challenges to our lives in ways we could not have predicted as we celebrated 2019 and welcomed 2020—how we do our jobs, our children’s schooling, connecting with family, socializing with friends, celebrating special events, shopping, and just about everything else. 

Sometimes in the midst of turmoil, we need to be reminded of the constants in our lives.  The cycle of changing seasons being one; it’s something we can always depend on.  In a normal year, there was something special about the return of routine in the fall.  The end of summer might have meant a new calendar charting everyone’s school and extra-curricular activities, practice times, meeting new teachers and launching into a new academic year.  For others, fall might have been a time of looking forward to reconnecting with coworkers and friends after being away or in-and-out over the summer.  Fall also meant the return of football games, tailgates, visits to the pumpkin patch, carnivals, and that long-planned fall trip. Whatever fall meant in the past, COVID-19 might have changed those ‘looked forward to’ expectations.

Coming home, wherever that may be, at the end of day is another constant. It’s where we rest, relax, and recharge to be ready for whatever the next day holds. For some reason, coming home in the fall conjures up memories and smells of the past–pot roast in the oven or chili on the stove. 

My AnswerLine co-workers and I are each sharing a cherished recipe handed down from our mothers or grandmothers that bring happy fall memories to mind.   We hope that they will help you recall a favorite fall memory or smell to make your fall routine seem ‘normal’ and remind you that having constants in our lives gives us the fortitude for whatever unknowns the season my hold.  May your fall be a time to carry on traditions as much as possible while embracing new adventures.

Memories from Marcia Steed
The comfort food that I fondly recall from my mom’s kitchen in the fall was chili. We were a busy household but always had supper together as a family. Chili was a ‘go to’ as it could be prepared ahead and would be ready for us whenever we gathered for supper. My mom would have used the
Chili Con Carne recipe from the traditional red-checkered
Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.

Chili Con Carne
1 pound ground beef
1 cup chopped onion
3/4 cup chopped green pepper
1 1-pound can (2 cups tomatoes, broken up
1 1-pound can (2 cups) dark red kidney beans, drained
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1 to 2 teaspoons chili powder
1 bay leaf

In heavy skillet, cook meat, onion, and green pepper till meat is lightly browned and vegetables are tender. Stir in remaining ingredients. Cover and simmer for 1 hour. Remove bay leaf. Makes 4 servings.

Memories from Marlene Geiger
A memory that always comes back to me in the fall is the smell of Mom’s apple butter wafting in the air as I neared by childhood home after school.  Apple Butter was made almost annually from the apples in the family orchard and served on toast for breakfast. The recipe is taken from the tattered pages of my mother’s handwritten cookbook in a 1940s spiral notebook.  Likely the recipe is my grandmother’s. The apple butter was made in a large enamel roasting pan, the same pan used to roast a turkey.  The recipe is non-specific, typical of an old recipe.  Today, I make apple butter in my electric programmable pressure cooker using a tested recipe.

Apple Butter
Pare, core, and dice 15 cups apples to fill roasting pan.  Add 12 cups sugar, and one teaspoon cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Bake until apples are tender and thick. Mash apples if needed. 

Memories from Beth Marrs
A family favorite is the chocolate chip cookie recipe that my mom made for my sister and I.  It is the perfect cookie that is soft and delicious.  These cookies were favorites of all of my kids’ teammates, too, as I would make multiple batches of cookies to take along to all their fall activities.    I am thrilled to now be making them with my grandsons who are 2 and 4!

Chocolate Chip Pudding Cookies
1 cup butter or margarine
¾ cup brown sugar
¼ cup sugar
1 (3.4 oz.) package instant vanilla pudding mix
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 ¼ cup flour
1 package chocolate chips

Cream butter and sugars.  Add pudding mix, vanilla and eggs and mix until creamy.  Slowly add the baking soda and flour and mix until combined.  Stir in chocolate chips.  I use a medium cookie scoop to make them all the same size and shape and place them on a cookie sheet.  Bake 375 degrees for 8-10 minutes.  They will be light brown. Do not overbake.

Memories from Carol Van Waardhuizen
I remember fall as a time when I converted my FCS high school students into “homemade soup lovers.”  To accomplish our knife skills objectives, we used potato peelers, chef’s knives and paring knives to prep our freshly harvested vegetables.  Lastly, they learned of the versatility of a basic potato soup by adding cooked ham cubes, bacon bits, or grated cheeses.  They couldn’t believe the goodness of a thick soup that they had created themselves.  

Potato Soup
4 potatoes, washed, peeled and diced 
2 carrots, washed, peeled and sliced 
2 ½ cups of water
1 T. and 1 t. chicken soup base (or vegetarian)
3 T. butter or margarine
½ large onion, chopped 
2 T. flour 
2 cups milk
Ground pepper to taste 
½ t. salt 
2 t. dried parsley
1/8 t. dried thyme or other seasonings to taste

In a stockpot or Dutch oven, heat water while preparing vegetables.  Add potatoes, carrots and chicken soup base to the boiling water.  Return to a boil and cook until the potatoes are tender (about 10 minutes if the cubes are about 1” or smaller).  Some of the water will boil down, but don’t let it dry up. 
While potatoes and carrots are cooking, melt butter in a skillet and add onions. Sauté onions until they are translucent.  Over medium heat, add the flour to the cooked onions to make a (roux) paste and then cook 1 minute, to cook the flour starch.  Gradually add the milk.  Stir well with a wooden spoon. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until the white sauce has thickened.  
Add the onion and white sauce mixture to the cooked potatoes and carrot mixture and stir well.  Stir in the seasonings and heat thoroughly.  You can garnish with grated cheese, bacon bits, ham cubes or other items to your preference.  

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Moving Plants Indoors

With nighttime and daytime temperatures dropping and hard frosts in the near future, it is time for me to turn my attention to bringing in and acclimating my vacationing tender houseplants, tropicals, and geraniums.  Most experts recommend transitioning plants from their present light conditions to lower light conditions over a period of several days when temperatures drop below 50-60 degrees.  Like most years, I am already too late to give them the proper transitioning period so I will expect some yellowing and leaf dropping as they adapt to indoor light conditions.  I am fortunate to have several south-facing windows for wintering which helps give them as much light as possible.

As mentioned, I am already late in getting this project done and I do tend to put it off as long as possible.  I so hate to give up the lovely potted plants and arrangements on my patio as it means a time for downsizing, sharing, and pitching.   It is totally impractical for me to bring everything inside.  It begins step by step.

The houseplants and tropical will be the first to move indoors as they are the most easily hurt by cold temperature.  Before bringing inside, they must be inspected and treated for pests.  Aphids, mealybugs, white flies and other pests aren’t normally a problem when potted indoor plants are outside. But they can quickly turn into a major infestation during the winter if they are brought inside on the plants. Some experts recommend bathing or soaking plants before bringing them inside in a tub of water with a mild dishwashing soap.  Since most of my plants are too big for a tub, I first spray them with water which also removes outdoor dust from the leaves.  Next, I wash the top and undersides of the leaves as much as possible with water and dishwashing soap and then rinse with water. It is important that the soapy water also get into the soil as it will help to kill any pests residing there, too. Once inside, I check them with each watering for any sign of infestation and if spotted, treat religiously with an insecticidal soap until the problem is resolved.  I also wash the outside of the pots to remove dirt and to remove any unwanted pests that might be present.

The second step for my houseplants is to determine if they need pruning, separating, or repotting.  Some plants may have outgrown their pot and need something larger.  Others may be too large for the indoor space and need to be pruned, separated, or even propagated to start a new plant. 

The geraniums get a complete make over before coming indoors. As the plants are removed from their outdoor containers, I spray their roots with water to remove the soil and then soak them in a tub of water and dishwashing detergent to remove any potential pests, followed by a rinse.  After their bath, one of three things happens to them. 1) Plants are pruned (both foliage and roots) and put into small pots using fresh potting soil. 2) Cuttings are taken for new starts. 3) Whole plants are tagged as to color or variety and placed bare root upside down in paper bags.  More information on how to do prepare geraniums for wintering can be found in this article by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach horticulturalists.

Once the plants are inside a new kind of care begins–watching for pests, watering appropriately, cleaning up dropped leaves and petals, and fertilizing as needed. To prevent overwatering, that means letting the soil dry to the touch before watering. Depending upon the conditions of the home, some plants may need nearly as much water in the winter as they do in the summer.  My geraniums and tropicals winter in a cool part of the house so I find that watering them every other week is sufficient. I usually don’t fertilize them until late winter/early spring.

The geraniums do need additional tending.  The roots of the bare root plants are misted at the same time as watering the potted pants.  About every six weeks, I take time to remove spent blossoms and dried leaves, prune any plants that have become leggy, and remove any plants that did not survive their transplant or move indoors.  Successful cuttings are also transplanted to larger pots.

Bringing my houseplants, tropicals, and geraniums indoors for fall and winter has been a great way for me to preserve my plants and save money by not repeatedly buying new plants each spring.  It does take considerable time in the fall, but in doing so, I have been able to enjoy the same plants and collections for many years and use the money saved to purchase new or interesting plants.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Celebrating the ‘Unique’ Angel Food Cake

Unbeknown to me, October 10 is National Angel Food Cake Day, a day to celebrate the light and fluffy textured foam cake made primarily of egg whites.  October seems like an unlikely month to celebrate angel food; I think of it as a springtime dessert served with fresh berries or fruit.

Since I enjoy history, I set out to learn the origins of the cake but found very little.  It is thought to be an American dessert perhaps originating with the Pennsylvania Dutch. The first recipe for the cake appeared in The Home Book of Tested Recipes in 1878.  In 1880 the New York Times published a recipe for angel food cake and the 1884 Boston Cooking School Cook Book also included an angel food cake recipe.  In a Martha Stewart article, the author writes “some food historians trace the widespread popularity of angel food cake to the advent of the rotary eggbeater in the mid- to late 19th century. What was once an arduous task became much more homemaker-friendly, and recipes began to appear in earnest.”

Regardless of how it originated, angel food cake is a unique cake in several ways–ingredients, pan, and cooling. It is made entirely of stiffly beaten egg whites, flour, sugar, and usually cream of tartar; unlike other cakes, no leavening or fat.  Steam and air incorporated into the eggs whites by beating are the main sources of leavening.  Flour adds structure and sugar brings sweetness.  Cream of tartar, an acid, helps to stabilize the egg whites.  (Lemon juice was once used to keep the beaten egg whites stiff, but today cream of tartar is the stabilizer of choice.) A special ungreased pan, known as a tube pan, is used for baking as the central tube and high sides of the pan support the delicate foam as it expands during baking; the hollow tube also allows for even heat distribution. Angel food cakes are cooled upside down. The elevation provides sufficient air flow to insure proper cooling which is needed to maintain the stability of its lofty structure.

Traditionally an angel food cake is made from stiffly beaten egg whites followed by carefully folding the dry ingredients into the delicate foamy egg whites.  Many recipes require a dozen egg whites or more. (The Pioneer Woman site offers a typical angel food recipe with tips and pictures.) Other options in today’s world include 1-step and 2-step box mixes.  A 1-step mix combines dehydrated egg whites, sugar, flour, flavorings, surfactants, stabilizers, and leavening agents in one package; water is added to the mix and beaten for a given amount of time.  Most major brands no longer offer the 2-step mix but some store-brand labels still offer this option.  The 2-step option is similar to traditional in that there are two packages in the mix—dehydrated egg whites and dry ingredients (sugar, flour, flavorings, stabilizers, and leavening agents).  First the dehydrated whites are whipped with water until stiff and then the dry ingredients are carefully folded into the egg white batter.  Purchasing a ready-made cake from the bakery is also an option.

Angel food cake is a low-guilt dessert with no cholesterol or fat.  One slice of cake typically contains 129 calories from 15 grams of sugar and 3.1 grams of protein.  Different recipes, box mixes or commercially prepared cakes may differ on calorie count and nutrition.

Angel food cake is not limited to just the traditional white. Angel food can be many flavors and colors. Since it is fall, it might be fun to celebrate National Angel Food Cake day by also celebrating a flavor of the season with a Pumpkin Angel Food Cake!  Taste of Home offers an easy recipe and the pumpkin will add additional vitamins and fiber!  Here’s to National Angel Food Day!

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Butternut Squash – Versatile, Nutritious, Long Keeping, and Convenient Size Make It A Favorite

Fall has arrived and winter squash is available.  Butternut squash is one of my favorite winter squash varieties. I like it for a variety of reasons—versatility, nutrition, long keeping quality, and convenient size.

Versatility. It is delicious cooked, steamed, baked, roasted, sautéed and pureed and as such can be used in countless ways. The smooth texture of the butternut squash is a great addition to many sweet and savory dishes and can be used as a substitute for pumpkin in nearly any recipe.  During the fall and winter months, I keep butternut squash on hand continuously for pancakes, soups and stews, breads (yeast and quick), desserts, dips and spreads, shakes, and even pizza.  It can be eaten raw, but cooking the squash softens the flesh, making it easier to consume and digest.  Because squash takes on many different flavors, it is tastier when cooked but it is also a nice addition when grated raw and added to salads.

Nutrition. Butternut squash is very nutritious. The flesh is an excellent source of Vitamins A and C as well as a good source of thiamin, niacin, Vitamin B6, folate, pantothenic acid, calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and manganese. The seeds are packed with protein and heart-healthy fats making them a nutrient dense, filling snack. Even though it is a high-carbohydrate food, it has a low glycemic index, making it a smart addition to most healthy meal plans. It is also a great choice for people on low-fat diets as it contains almost no fat. Lastly, it’s a good source of dietary fiber; a 1-cup serving provides a fourth of our daily needs.

Keeping qualities.  If stored properly, butternut squash is a long-keeping squash lasting up to 6 months. For best results, squash should be stored in a cool, dry spot (50-55 degrees F) with relative humidity of 60-70 percent. Uncooked butternut squash should not be refrigerated.  If picked from the garden, it needs to be cured with warm temperatures and good air circulation for 10-14 days before storing. 

Peeled or cooked butternut squash should be refrigerated; it is good for 5-7 days.  Cooked or raw butternut can be frozen.  To freeze raw squash, simply cube or slice the squash and place in air-tight freezer bags for up to a year.  Cooked squash can be frozen in any appropriate freezer container. 

Convenient size. Mature butternut squash range from 1 to 5 lbs. The average butternut squash will be around 2 to 3 lbs. Since the skin is thin and the seed cavity small, there isn’t much loss. A 3-pound squash yields about 4½ cups uncooked 1-inch cubes. 1 cup cubed raw butternut squash weighs about ⅔ pound. A cup of raw butternut squash cubes yielded ½ cup of soft cooked cubes. Therefore, if a recipe calls for a can of pumpkin which is just shy of 2 cups, it takes about 4 cups raw cubed squash.

As a member of the Cucurbita moschata family, butternut has two cousins–cushaw and cheese pumpkin–that work equally as well, but their bigger size becomes a consideration.

For more about butternut squash, check out How to Select, Peel, and Use Butternut Squash.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Boosting the Immune System

Health officials advise us each fall to get our flu shots.  The flu vaccine helps reduce the severity of flu symptoms and helps prevent against the virus. This year the flu shot’s importance has been heighten because of the coronavirus pandemic.

After getting the shot, the next step should be regular visits to your local grocery store to pick up foods that will continually boost your immunity.  It is important to note that NO diet or supplement will cure or prevent disease; rather a healthy immune system is a powerful weapon against colds, flu, and other infections.

There are several different vitamins and minerals that fall in the immune booster category. These booster foods can increase the number of white blood cells and enhance their function while helping to flush non-functioning cells from the body. Listed below are some key nutrients and the foods where they can be found.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C sits at the top of the immune boosters. It increases the production of white blood cells and antibodies which are key to fighting infections.  It also increases the antibody, interferon, which coats cell surfaces and prevents the entry of viruses. Besides helping with colds and flu, Vitamin C is a key element in fighting cardiovascular disease by raising HDL (good cholesterol) and decreasing blood pressure. Good sources of Vitamin C include: bell peppers (especially red peppers), citrus fruits (grapefruit, oranges, clementines, tangerines, limes, lemons), dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, broccoli, sprouts), kiwi, papaya, and herbs (parsley, thyme).

Vitamin E

Vitamin E sometimes takes a back seat to Vitamin C but this powerful antioxidant is key to stimulating the natural killer cells that seek out and destroy germs, bacteria and even cancer cells. It’s a fat-soluble vitamin, which means it requires the presence of fat to be absorbed properly. Nuts (almonds, peanuts, walnuts) are packed with the vitamin and also have healthy fats. Other foods containing Vitamin E include: sunflower seeds, dark leafy greens (see Vitamin C), avocados, and sweet potatoes.

Beta-Carotene

Beta carotene is an antioxidant that converts to vitamin A and plays a very important role in immune health by increasing the infection fighting cells while decreasing the number of free radicals in the body. Beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant and helps fight cardiovascular disease by interfering with the way fats oxidize in the blood stream to form plaque. It is also known to aid in the battle against cancer and promote eye and skin health. Common foods containing beta-carotene include: naturally orange foods (carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, squash) dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, red leaf lettuce, turnip greens), cantaloupe, red and yellow peppers, and apricots.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3’s boost immune function by increasing phagocyte, the white blood cells that destroy bacteria. They also protect the body against damage from inflammation due to infection. Omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin E complement each other, working together to give a major boost to the immune system.  Omega-3’s are important to heart health by maintaining heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and improving blood vessel function. Foods high in Omega-3 include: fish and fish oil, canola oils, nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds, flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables.

Zinc

Zinc doesn’t get as much attention, but our bodies need it so that our immune cells can function as intended. However, too much zinc can actually inhibit immune system function so the RDA (11 mg men, 8 mg women) is sufficient. Shellfish (oysters, crab, mussels) is the best source of zinc.  Other sources include: red meat and poultry, beans, nuts, and whole grains. 

Variety is key. Eating just one of these foods won’t be enough to help fight off cold, flu or other infections. Pay attention to serving sizes and recommended daily intake to keep things in balance. Beyond immune boosting foods, staying healthy also involves regular exercise, staying hydrated throughout the day, and practicing good hygiene to protect oneself from colds, flues, and other illnesses.

In light of the 2019 coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, it’s especially important to note that no specific food, supplement, diet, or other lifestyle modification has been shown to protect one from COVID-19.  As with other infections, immune boosting foods will help with the fight.  Physical or social distancing, masking, and proper hygiene practices are the agents known to protect one from COVID-19. 

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Tell Your Story

Recently my granddaughter who lives in North Carolina started first grade virtually.  She was telling me how her online school works.  She seems to like it well enough, but she’d rather go to school.  As we were talking, she asked, “Did you go to school, Grandma?” 

“Yes, Grandma went to school but school for Grandma was very different!” which brought the conversation around to Grandma’s school days.  Since she reads well and is quite computer literate, she recently got an email address.  We agreed that I would write a short story daily telling her all about my school days.  The daily story telling has begun.  Each day I develop a story around a theme such as getting to school, recess, lunchtime, celebrating holidays, a typical school day, my classmates, etc. When I can, I try to add old photos that help tell the story. Since I attended grade school in a rural Nebraska one-room school, I am sure she must think I grew up with the dinosaurs!

While writing these little stories have been a trip down memory lane for me, psychologist suggest that sharing our stories with our grandchildren is an irreplaceable gift.  Researcher, Marshall P. Duke from Emory University has discovered that this shared information nurtures children emotionally and psychologically. Duke writes, “research shows that children who know a lot about their family tend to be more resilient with higher levels of self-esteem, more self-control, better family functioning, lower levels of anxiety, fewer behavioral problems, and better chances for good outcomes when faced with challenges.” As we know these qualities are important for success in life.

So grandparents, tell your story.  Tell them about what life was like when you were growing up.  Tell them about the silly things you did.  Tell them about their parents growing up.  The stories can be written or shared verbally or told in drawings or pictures–anyway that you can express yourself.  All you need is love for your grandchildren and family and desire to open yourself up and invite them to enter your world.  If you don’t live nearby, get creative with Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, email, journals, or even old-fashioned letters.  Sharing stories will melt the distance into nothingness.

For more information on the value of sharing stories see HOW FAMILY STORIES CAN STRENGTHEN AND UNITE.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Fun with Fondant

I’m not a cake decorator, but for as long as my children enjoyed a special cake for their birthday, I did my best to create a cake of their wishes.  I even took a cake decorating class way back when and mastered a few things with buttercream frosting.  Now I have grandchildren and after many years of not decorating cakes, I am back at it, having fun and learning new things!

Sometimes the grands just give me a theme for their cake and look forward to what my imagination creates.  Other times, they are a bit more specific. This year my 8-year old grandson sent me a picture. He thinks BIG and presently has his sights set on expensive race cars, specifically Lamborghinis’!  One look at the picture told me this wasn’t a buttercream frosting cake—I was going to have to learn how to cover the cake with fondant! 

I chose to make my own marshmallow fondant rather than make or buy traditional fondant.  Marshmallow fondant requires just three ingredients—marshmallows, icing or powdered sugar, and water.  It is inexpensive, fast, fool proof and tastes good!  Basically it involves melting down fresh marshmallows with a small amount of water and adding the powdered sugar to get the right consistency.  (Some recipes also include vegetable shortening.)  The recipe that I used can be found at the end.  Traditional fondant differs in that a marshmallow base is first made from unflavored gelatin, glycerin, butter, water, and corn syrup and kneaded with powdered sugar.

I had so much fun with the fondant!  Marshmallow fondant is almost like playdough—roll it, sculpt it, cut it, mold it.  I found some great tips and videos for handling fondant and covering a cake on the Wilton website. My adjustable thickness rolling pin came in handy for rolling the fondant to an even thickness for covering the cake.   I also found my silicon baking mat useful; I rubbed a small amount of vegetable shortening on it before rolling the fondant.  When it came time to pick up the fondant, it peeled up smoothly and easily. Fortunately for me, everything worked so very well; the cake came together beautifully and was the delight of a special little boy!

Because I had a little fondant left over, I researched how to properly store it.  While fondant is best used fresh, it can be stored and used at a later date. To keep the fondant from drying out, rub it with a small amount of vegetable shortening, wrap in plastic wrap, and store in an airtight, zip bag removing as much air as possible. Add a date and store in the refrigerator.  With proper care, it should be good for a couple of months; the greatest risk is getting dry.  I don’t know that I will be using it anytime soon for cake decorating, but it just might come in handy as an ‘edible’ clay for entertaining grands.

Freezing is not recommended as condensation in thawing could change the consistency and texture of the fondant.  Water begins to dissolve the sugar in the fondant and makes it sticky.  For the same reason, fondant covered cakes should not be frozen after decorating.  Further, condensation between the cake and fondant may cause bubbling.

Marshmallow Fondant
10 ounces marshmallows
3 tablespoons water
Approximately 6 cups icing/powdered sugar, sifted

Pour the marshmallows into a microwave-safe bowl, add the water, stir, and microwave in 30-second increments until the marshmallows are creamy and melted (2-3 minutes). Add the sugar and mix with a big spoon or hands.  After the fondant begins to come together, turn it out onto a well-oiled surface (I greased my countertop and hands with vegetable shortening) and knead, adding more icing sugar if needed, until it’s nice and smooth. To color, add paste or gel food coloring and knead to incorporate. Flavoring can also be added using a drop or two of food-grade essential oil.  This amount makes more than enough fondant to cover a layer cake or ¼ sheet cake.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Aronia Berries – Old Fruit with a New Name

Aronia berry picking at Berry Hill Farms near Fertile, IA. Photo courtesy of Jaci Thorson.

Its aronia berry picking time in Iowa!  And if you are lucky enough to live near a pick-your-own aronia berry orchard, you are in for a day of fun and stained hands!  Fresh berries, juice and other aronia products may also be available now in some local grocery stores.

Aronia berries are not new to Iowa; they are actually indigenous to the state and were used by the Potawatomi Native Americans to cure colds. Formerly known as black chokeberries, rebranding of the less appetizing name of “chokeberry” has helped the native berry catch on and develop into what is now a big industry.  The berry’s new name comes from its genus, Aronia melancorpa. While grown throughout North America, the first US commercial cultivation of the berry bushes can be traced to the Sawmill Hollow Family Farm in the Loess Hills of western Iowa, where Andrew Pittz and his family planted about 200 bushes in 1997.   Since then, aronia production has grown and bushes have been planted in all of Iowa’s 99 counties.  Presently there are 300-400 growers in Iowa with small to large operations.  80 of these operations have been organic certified by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Arona berries at Berry Hill Farms near Fertile, IA. Photo courtesy Jaci Thorson.

These purple, pea-sized berries boast one of the highest antioxidant values ever recorded for fruits, superseding blueberries, elderberries, acai berries and goji berries, according to research published last year in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry.  Also rich in vitamins and minerals, they have high levels of polyphenols, anthocyanins, and flavanols–antioxidants needed to fight free radicals–making them good at fighting inflammation, diabetes, heart disease and urinary tract infections.

While aronia berries are more astringent than blueberries, they can be eaten fresh or frozen.  Not many people eat them fresh. The fruit has a lot of tannins in the skin that creates a dry or chalky sensation in the mouth when eaten. They are a little less astringent after freezing but usually best processed into jam, juice or baked products where the aronia takes on a whole new taste of its own. To eat them raw, they are best used in smoothies, yogurt, ice cream or oatmeal. Berries, either fresh or frozen, can be used in any recipe as a substitute for cranberries, blueberries, or chokecherries.  They are also good added to pancakes or mixed with other fruits in a crisp or pie.  Other ideas include salsa, salads, beverages, cereal, pizza, chili, and soups.  The National Center for Home Food Preservation provides information on making jam from all berries.

So if you haven’t had an opportunity to try aronia berries fresh, frozen, or in another product, perhaps it is time to venture out and give these tart little berries a try!  They might make you pucker, but this superfruit will definitely add some health benefits to your diet.  And, chances are, this Iowa crop will grow on you!

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Clear Jel® vs Sure Jell

We get a lot of questions at AnswerLine about Clear Jel and Sure Jell.  Because their names are so similar there is confusion for two very different products.  Clear Jel and Sure Jell are trade names of two thickening agents used in canning and gelling, respectively.  In addition to having different uses, Clear Jel is not shelf-accessible to most while Sure-Jell is easily found among the canning supplies.  Let’s explore what these two products are and how they should be used.

Clear Jel®

Clear Jel is a waxy maize or corn starch that has been modified to resist break down under high temperatures and different pH levels.  Therefore, it is an ideal thickening agent and is widely used commercially.  Clear Jel is recommended for home canning of pie fillings as it will not break down as the pie filling is cooked in preparation for canning, heated during the canning process, and heated a third time as the pie is baked.  Products, including pie fillings, thickened with Clear Jel also freeze well.

Cornstarch, tapioca, or flour should not be used in canned pie filling.  These thickeners are not suitable because they tend to clump during canning and cloud on the shelf rendering the pie filling unappetizing and unable to thicken when baked.  Pie fillings made with Clear Jel also increase the safety of the products.  Because Clear Jel remains clear and does not clump, heat is better able to penetrate the contents of the jar evenly to kill bacteria and other contaminants during the boiling water canning process.  Jars of pie filling will keep the same consistency after processing, remain shelf stable for at least 12 months, and bake into a perfect pie by simply pouring the filling into a crust and topping as desired.  There will be no starch or flour taste in the filling.

There are two types of Clear Jel, Regular and Instant.  Regular must be used for canning.  Instant Clear Jel will thicken foods without heat; it thickens when liquid is added.  This makes Instant Clear Jel useful for thickening a room temperature sauce or dressing.  Regular, on the other hand, requires heat.  Regular can also be used for thickening fresh pies and everyday foods.  If preparing a gravy or sauce, mix Clear Jel with a small amount of water and gradually add to the hot mixture, stirring constantly.  Or, everything can be mixed together cold and then heated (stirring constantly) to thicken.  Regular Clear Jel can be used to replace cornstarch or flour as thickening agent in cooking or baking, but cornstarch or flour should not replace Clear Jel for canning.

While there is plenty of praise for Clear Jel, it is not readily available.  For those who live near an Amish grocery, it is likely available there.  The best source is to shop online to find a supplier.  Therefore, one needs to think ahead and allow time for purchase and/or shipping if Clear Jel is to be used.  Clear Jel is recommended, but not required for canning.  The thickening can be skipped with the filling canned without; when used, a regular thickener can be added as if preparing a fresh pie.

There is differing information on the shelf life of Clear Jel; most agree that in a tightly closed container, it should be good for 1 year in the pantry but some list up to 2 years. 

Sure Jell

Sure Jell is pectin.  Pectin is a type of starch, called a hetero-polysaccharide, that occurs naturally in the cell walls of fruits and vegetables giving them structure.  Most commercial pectins, made from apple pomace or citrus rinds, are sold as a dry powder or in liquid form.  When combined with sugar and acid, pectin makes jams and jellies develop a semisolid, gelled texture when they cool. 

Pectin is available in various forms for regular, low-sugar, and freezer jams and jellies depending upon the type of methoxyl used.  High methoxyl is the most common type and used for high sugar jams and jellies; it needs to be cooked to a temperature of 220 F in combination with acid and sugar to form a gel.  Low methoxyl is generally the type used for low- or no-sugar preserves as it relies on calcium (provided in the pectin package) rather than sugar to set or gel. (Liquid pectin is only offered in a regular version and is similar to the regular dry pectin.) Because pectins behave differently, it’s best to use the product listed in the recipe being used or follow the pectin insert directions carefully to assure success. 

Sure Jell and other pectin products are readily available where canning supplies are sold.  Sure Jell or other pectin products are not suitable for pie fillings. 

Powdered pectin can be kept in the pantry and is best used within a year; after that time, it may not perform as well.  Unopened liquid pectin is good for a year in the pantry; if opened, it should be refrigerated and used within one month (Still Tasty.com).

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Safe Canning Amid Canning Supply Shortages

Gardens are at the height of production in the Midwest and food preservation is in high gear.  However, many home canners are finding the shelves stripped of canning lids, jars, pectin, vinegar, and the various spices needed for pickling and canning.  Even canners, pressure and water bath, are in short supply.  Like all other shortages experienced in this year of COVID 19, it is a matter of supply for an unanticipated demand along with a slow-down in manufacturing due to either worker safety or shortages of raw materials.

Jars.  While jars are in demand, canners may be able to find jars in storage among friends and relatives or in second hand stores.  If older canning jars are used, an inspection for nicks, chips and cracks before buying or using them is a must. A damaged or disfigured jar should never be used for canning food because they are not safe or they could break during processing, wasting time and food. While true canning jars are USDA recommended and preferred, the National Center for Home Food Preservation says that commercial glass pint- and quart-size mayonnaise or salad dressing jars may be used with new two-piece lids for canning acid foods (food that might be processed in a boiling water bath). However, one should expect more seal failures and jar breakage. These jars have a narrower sealing surface and are tempered less than Mason jars, and may be weakened by repeated contact with metal spoons or knives used in dispensing mayonnaise or salad dressing. Seemingly insignificant scratches in glass may cause cracking and breakage while processing jars in a canner. Mayonnaise-type jars are not recommended for use with foods to be processed in a pressure canner because of excessive jar breakage. Other commercial jars with mouths that cannot be sealed with two-piece canning lids are not recommended for use in canning any food at home.

Canning lids. Canning lids are designed for one-time use and should not be reused for canning.  The sealing compound becomes indented by the first use preventing another airtight seal. Screw bands may be reused unless they are badly rusted or the top edge is pried up which would prevent a proper seal.  Previously used canning lids can be used to top jars of freezer jam, homemade mixes, dried goods, and other non-canned foods. As long as the lids aren’t rusty, they’re fine to use again and again for any purpose that doesn’t involve canning.  The Jarden (Newell) Company, manufacturer of Ball products, says that their lids, unused, have a storage life of five years beyond purchase; therefore, if stored lids are in that range, they can be used.  Reusable canning lids like those made by Tattler or Harvest Guard may be a desperate alternative; they have mixed reviews by canners and are not yet recommended by the USDA. (A study on Tattler reusable lids began in 2013 at The National Center for Home Food Preservation.  Even with grants received in 2014 and 2015 for the study, it appears that the study is still ongoing as there have been no reported results.) If new lids are not to be found, give consideration to freezing or dehydrating rather than canning. 

Canners.  Canners are of three types, boiling water bath, pressure, and steam.  A boiling water bath canner is a large, deep pot or vessel with a lid and a rack used for high acid food preservation; if a new one can’t be purchased, a second-hand one is fine as long as it isn’t rusty or chipped.  A pressure canner is used for low acid foods and is either a weighted gauge or dial gauge type.  An older pressure canner may or may not be safe.  An older pressure canner should only be purchased or used if it is in excellent condition—no imperfections or warping with a lid that fits perfectly and locks easily. Pressure canners build pressure when they are used, and in extreme cases, could explode if the canner is defective or damaged. More importantly would be their ability to process food safely.  At a minimum, the sealing ring should be replaced and the gauge on a dial gauge type be checked by a trained professional.  Dial gauges on pressure canners need to be tested each year against a calibrated ‘master’ gauge. Weighted gauges do not need to be tested as they do not go out of calibration.  An atmospheric steam canner is newer to the scene and can take the place of a water-bath canner.  According to University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers steam canners may be used safely to can naturally acid foods such as peaches, pears, and apples, or acidified-foods such as salsa or pickles as long as specified criteria is met; a steam canner is not recommended for low-acid vegetables and meat.

Pectin.  Some jams and jellies can be made without pectin.  The National Center for Home Food Preservation has information and recipes for making jelly and jams without commercially prepared pectin.

Vinegar. If the recipe does not specify a particular type of vinegar, white or cider vinegar may be used safely as long as it is labeled as 5% acidity or labeled as 50 grain. Apple cider vinegar will impart a different flavor and color when substituted for white vinegar. Specialty vinegars such as red or white wine vinegar, malt vinegar, balsamic, and other flavored vinegars should only be used when specified in a research-tested recipe.

Assorted Pickling Spices.  It may not be necessary to get fresh seeds and spices if there is some on your shelf.  Commercially prepared and packaged spices, stored properly, such as mustard seed, celery seed, dill seed, allspice, and cinnamon sticks, generally have a shelf life of 3-4 years.  Pickling spice is good for up to 3 years.  Spices do loose potency over time.  To test whether a spice is still potent enough to be effective, rub or crush a small amount in your hand, then taste and smell it.  If the aroma is weak and the flavor is not obvious, the spice should not be used as it will not flavor as intended.  Spices may be available from online sites when no longer available in local stores.

The right equipment (and vinegar) is a must to safely preserve food by canning.  Look to friends and family, online and non-conventional sources for help with acquiring supplies and equipment. Whatever is found, do carefully follow the suggestions contained herein to preserve safely.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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