Safe Homemade Food Gifts

Homemade food gifts are thoughtful holiday (or anytime) gifts. But how do you know if the food gift you are giving or receiving is safe to eat? Not everything that is made commercially can be made at home safely.  This is especially true when it comes to canned food gifts—jams and jellies, butters, soups, pickles, salsa, pesto, barbecue sauce, flavored vinegars or oils, and more. 

The National Center for Home Food Preservation offers these guidelines to evaluate the safety of home-canned gifts:

LOW RISK.  Fruit jams and jellies, fruit spreads, and whole fruits like peaches and pears are low-risk because their natural acidity and high sugar content provide an extra measure of safety.  Jams or jellies made with artificial sweeteners or with gelatin would be exceptions.  Those made with artificial sweeteners must be made with an appropriate gelling agent and stored per directions; gelatin based products must be refrigerated or frozen.

HIGH RISK.  Low-acid meats, vegetables and mixtures pose a higher risk because these products can support the growth of the botulism bacteria if improperly prepared and/or processed.  These products must be prepared with a tested recipe and processed in a pressure canner.

HIGHEST RISK.  Mixtures of acidic and low-acid foods such as salsas, some pickled products, pesto, soups, sauces, herb and oil mixes, and cream-based soups are of highest risk for potential botulism if they are not prepared with a tested recipe and properly processed in a jar of proper size. There are NO tested recipes for canning vegetable based butters, such as Pumpkin Butter, pesto, fudge/chocolate sauce, cream soups, or herb/vegetable oils. 

For any home canned product to be unquestionably safe, the product must be prepared using a USDA approved and TESTED RECIPE explicitly followed without exception.  Further, gifts canned in decorative, untested, jars or with unconventional lids should also be suspect. A sealed lid doesn’t mean a canned product is safe.

Another NO in the world of canned gifts are the so called ‘canned breads and cakes.  Referring to a previous blog, ‘Home-Canned’ Cakes and Breads for Gift Giving – A Big NO, these products involve no canning per say and are not safe in any way.  “Many cake and quick bread recipes often have little or no acid resulting in a pH range above 4.6, a pH level that will support the growth of pathogenic organisms that cause foodborne illnesses. Of greatest concern is the microorganism Clostridium botulinum (botulism) growing in the jars. Conditions inside the jar are ripe for hazardous bacterium given that cake and bread recipes may include fruits, liquids, or vegetables which increase moisture content AND the practice does not remove all the oxygen from the jar. The two factors create a rich environment for microorganisms to thrive.”

If you are the recipient of a food gift, be gracious and thankful for the gift as it is the thought that counts.  If you are comfortable, it is appropriate to ask a few kind questions if you know the giver well; it may seem ungrateful to ask the same of a lesser known acquaintance.  If there is any doubt, throw it out and don’t bring up the issue again. 

If you are the giver of a homemade food gift, particularly a home canned food, know without a doubt that the gift you are giving is explicitly safe—it has been prepared with a USDA approved and tested recipe and processed appropriately.  Jarred gifts should also include a clean, rust-free ring to avoid accidental loosening of the flat lid.

Handmade gifts are the best kind, particularly when they’re edible. They are very personal and truly an act of love.  Besides canned products, consider frozen or dehydrated foods, dry mixes in a jar or bag, sweet or savory nut mixes, candy, flavored popcorn, fresh breads or rolls, cookies, crackers, granola, gingerbread anything, or chocolate bark combinations just to name a few and, all of which, would be without the potential of harmful microorganisms to cause a foodborne illness or worse.  

Here’s to keeping the holidays ‘jolly’ with safe food gifts!

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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Getting the Oven Ready for Holiday Roasting and Baking

Baking for the holidays is about more than sugar cravings. It’s about passing along family traditions, singing or listening to holiday music as you mix, roasting nuts and special meats, and delivering fresh-baked cheer to family, friends and neighbors.

Whether this is your first time for holiday baking and roasting or you’re a pro with the butter-stained recipe cards to prove it, it is a best practice to have your oven ready for what you have planned for it. Because some of us despise the chore of oven cleaning, ovens often become a culinary crime scene!  So before whipping out the ingredients, get that oven in tip-top shape.

Manufacturers recommend that ovens be cleaned every three to six months depending upon how much they are used and spiffed up in between when spillovers of food or grease occur.  Regular oven cleaning improves the quality of the food prepared in it; the aromas of old grease and spilled food can taint the flavor of what is being baked or roasted.

While few look forward to the chore, with the right knowledge and a little elbow grease, oven cleaning needn’t be an overwhelming chore.  Depending upon how the oven will be cleaned a few tools may be necessary—gloves, eye protection, newspaper, paper towels or old towels, cleaning clothes, synthetic scouring pad, and a large garbage bag. I also like the nylon pan scrapers that fit into the palm of your hand as they are excellent for helping to remove those hard-to-remove aged grease spatters and scraping up burned on residue.

Oven Interior

There are three primary ways to clean the oven interior—self-cleaning, chemical oven cleaners, and DIY with baking soda, vinegar, and water.

Self Cleaning.  If you have a self-cleaning oven, check and follow your owner’s manual for detailed instructions. Make sure to wipe up any spillovers or liquid grease to avoid excessive smoking during the cycle and setting off your smoke alarm. Remove any oven accessories and the racks before starting the cycle. The self-clean cycle takes about two hours (exact time varies by oven type) during which the temperature reaches 800-1000 degrees F. Because the extreme heat has the potential to destroy the shiny chrome finish on the racks, it is recommended that they be cleaned outside of the oven (instructions follow).  The oven gives off a tremendous amount of heat during the cycle as well as some toxic fumes. You should stay at home while the oven is self-cleaning just in case anything goes awry but you and your pets should stay out of the kitchen and vent the room as much as possible. When it’s over, you’ll see a white ash on the oven bottom that you’ll need to wipe out once the oven cools. 

Chemical Oven Cleaners.  This is the easiest, fastest process and will remove serious amounts of grease and grime. The caveat is that oven cleaners can be quite caustic, so if you’re sensitive to harsh chemicals or prefer an all-natural approach this is not for you.  There are low- or no-fume products on the market that do work quite well. Carefully follow the directions on the product and be sure to protect the area around the oven with newspaper, paper towels, or old towels.  Remove the racks for cleaning (instructions follow) as well as any other items in the oven.  Spray the entire interior being careful to not get spray on the heating elements of an electric oven or the gas inlet of a gas oven.  Lift the heating element and spray under it. Gloves and eye protection should be worn when using oven spray cleaners. Also be aware that it is possible that using an oven cleaner could affect the surface of the oven; you may experience white or grey discoloration of the surface. Also, due to the porous nature of the oven surface, some of the product may be left behind after the cleaning process and fumes will be detected the first time the oven is turned on.

DIY.  While this may not be the fastest way to clean the oven, it is by far the safest and is appropriate for any oven type.  Begin by removing everything from your oven and protecting the floor beneath your oven with newspapers, paper towels, or old towels.  Mix 1/2 cup of baking soda with 2 to 3 tablespoons of water to make a spreadable paste.  Spread the paste around the inside of the oven using fingers, spatula, or brush covering the entire interior including crevices. Keep the paste away from the heating element of an electric oven and away from the gas inlet of a gas oven. It is also possible to lightly mist the paste with white vinegar in a spray bottle which will cause the paste to bubble and foam.  Close the oven and allow the paste to sit for 30 minutes to 10 – 12 hours, or overnight depending upon the depth of cleaning needed.

After time has elapsed, glove up and begin to rub the surfaces with a synthetic scrubbing pad dipped in vinegar or a plastic scraper to loosen baked on grime.  Wipe down all surfaces with a damp cleaning cloth. If the paste is dry, spray with vinegar to soften and remove.  After all of the paste and grime has been wiped away, spray the oven with vinegar and wipe dry.

Racks

Racks can be cleaned with either chemical oven sprays, ammonia, or with baking soda and vinegar.  If oven sprays or ammonia are used, the work should be done outdoors with rubber gloves and eye protection.  Once the racks are cleaned, washed, rinsed and dried, replace them in the clean oven.

Chemical Oven Sprays.  Lay the racks on a garbage bag that has been cut open, spray the racks with the cleaner, cover, and tuck the bag tightly around the racks and let them sit overnight.  Spray wash them with a garden hose to remove the chemical residue and then wash them with dish detergent in either the kitchen sink or bathtub scrubbing as necessary. Discard the bag used by placing inside of another bag and putting in the trash.

Ammonia. This is the most dangerous method but one that is frequently used.  Place the racks in a large trash bag. Add 2 cups ammonia to the bag. Tightly tie or seal off the bag so that the ammonia cannot leak out and let them sit overnight lying flat. The racks do not have to be coated in the ammonia because the fumes will circulate and do the job. The next day, open the trash bag being cautious of the ammonia and the fumes.  (Avoid inhaling the fumes.)  Spray the racks with a garden hose and then wash with dish detergent followed by a rinse.  Dispose of the ammonia by mixing with water and pouring down the kitchen sink or toilet.  If you have a septic system, the ammonia should be neutralized with baking soda, cat litter, and sand and disposed in the outside trash.  The bag should be sprayed with the garden hose, bagged, and also put in the outside trash.

Baking Soda, Vinegar, and Hot Water.  Place the racks in the bathtub. Plug the tub and sprinkle baking soda on the racks and then pour vinegar on top creating a foam. When the foaming stops, run hot water until the racks are fully covered.  Allow the racks to sit in the water for 10-12 hrs or overnight. Remove racks from the water and scrub with a cleaning cloth, pumice, or synthetic scrubber until all grease and grime is gone.

Pat yourself on the back when the job is done. You might want to reward yourself with a holiday gift by investing about $10 in an easy-to-clean non-stick oven liner that catches spillovers and crumbs and helps prevent the fore mentioned ‘culinary crime scene’.  Be sure to use the liner correctly in your oven.

Lastly, give yourself a break and don’t stress if the oven doesn’t turn out spotless.  The object is to get it clean enough that the grime doesn’t taint anything that is baked or roasted in the oven and the aromas coming from the kitchen are pleasant.  After all, ‘tis the season for a little fun, too!

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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50 Shades of Gra-vy

At this time of the year, we are usually talking turkey with lots of questions about how to make the perfect turkey gravy.  Gravy is often the star of a turkey dinner, the condiment that ties the meat, potatoes, and veggies together.  While making gravy is nearly the same for all meats, for the purposes of this blog, we’ll zero in on turkey gravy.

In its basic form, gravy is a thickened sauce made from meat drippings with perhaps the addition of stock and seasonings.  It starts as a roux or equal parts of fat and flour cooked in a skillet until it is golden brown and bubbly.  (Cornstarch and potato starch are other options for thickening gravy when flour cannot be used and will be addressed later.)  The best fat is found in the drippings rendered by the meat during roasting found roaming at the bottom of the roasting pan. Drippings are flavor packed and add a depth of flavor to any gravy.

When the turkey reaches temperature, remove it from the oven, tent, and let rest for 20 minutes.  During this time, the turkey will continue to rise in temperature and leak additional drippings.  Remove the turkey from the roasting pan and drain the drippings through a colander or strainer to remove the coagulated bits of this and that.  Discard the bits and save the strained drippings to make the gravy.

Separate the fat from the liquid drippings with a separator or with a spoon.  If there is sufficient fat, use the separated fat to make the roux.  If not, use butter or any other fat preferred (coconut oil, vegetable oil, olive oil, margarine, or bacon fat).  For each cup of gravy desired, use a ratio of two tablespoons of fat, two tablespoons of flour, and a cup of liquid to produce a rich and thick gravy. (This ratio can be doubled or tripled as needed.) In a skillet (or roasting pan), whisk the flour into the fat over medium heat.  Let the mixture bubble and brown slightly.  Slowly add the defatted drippings or a combination of drippings and broth or other liquid, whisking vigorously to dissolve the roux into the liquid and prevent lumping.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer gently until slightly thickened.  Stir in desired seasonings—salt, pepper, herbs (dried or fresh) such as sage and/or thyme.  Go lightly on the salt if salted broth is used or the drippings are already salty.  Taste as you go.  Allow the gravy to simmer and thicken for about 10 minutes longer adding more liquid to thin if needed. 

There are unlimited recipes for making turkey gravy; many family recipes have been passed along for generations and may be made with cream, giblets, cream soups, broth only, variety of seasonings, wine, cognac, and other unique ingredients.  There is nothing wrong with going outside of a basic gravy recipe.  Whether basic or otherwise, sometimes things go wrong and other than scorching, most gravy can be rescued.  Some quick cures:

Bland – add a little more salt or herbs, a drop or two of soy sauce, or sautéed onions or mushrooms

Lumpy – blend in a blender or with an emulsion blender until smooth

Too thick – add more drippings, broth, or even water to thin (I’ve even seen orange juice used.)

Too thin – make a slurry of flour and water and slowly add to gravy bringing it to a boil OR make a small roux (equal butter and flour) and add to the gravy

Too greasy – use a slice of bread to soak up the grease as much as possible; add a little more liquid, whisk briskly and serve quickly

Gravy is perishable. Bacteria grow rapidly at temperatures between 40 °F and 140 °F. Therefore, homemade turkey gravy should be discarded if left for more than 2 hours at room temperature. To maximize the shelf life of homemade turkey gravy, refrigerate in airtight containers.  Properly stored, homemade turkey gravy will keep for 2 days in the refrigerator.  To further extend the shelf life, it can be frozen in airtight containers or heavy-duty freezer bags.  In the freezer, turkey gravy will maintain best quality for about 3 months, but will remain safe beyond that time.  When reheating homemade turkey gravy, always bring the gravy to a slow rolling boil, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, before serving.

When flour cannot be used, cornstarch and potato starch are the best options for gravy.  Avoid arrowroot and tapioca starches because they can get “stringy” and look artificial in gravy.  Cornstarch gravy is more translucent than flour based sauces. Potato starch gravy is more opaque than cornstarch, but less opaque than flour. Gravy made with starches require less simmering than flour based sauces. Avoid boiling as overcooked starch based gravy will lose some of its thickness.  Keeping time in the refrigerator remains the same but know that starch based gravy does not freeze well.

A delicious homemade gravy is easy to make but shouldn’t be hurried even though it might be the last item made to complete the menu.  Some like to make their gravy ahead of time. If made ahead, bear in mind refrigerating, freezing, and reheating precautions.  An electric gravy boat, thermos, or slow cooker (warm) is a great way to keep gravy at serving temperature and consistency after reheating or while waiting for dinner to be served.

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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Pie Baking – Fill ‘Er Up!

Pie has been a proverbial favorite beginning with the ancient Egyptians according to the American Pie Council.  Despite its long history, pie baking has been held in such awe that the process has become intimidating for some.  To help quell the anxiety, I’ve written two previous blogs on pie baking with tips from my mother-in-law who needed no reason to bake a pie and did it as casually as putting on socks. 

In the previous two Pie Baking blogs, tips on ingredients and equipment and making a pastry crust have been shared.  Now it’s time to fill that crust.  With a pastry crust, there are generally two options—single- or double-crust.  A single crust is just that, the pastry lines a pie plate to form the shell for the filling with the top open. (Sometimes, a single crust can also just be a top crust covering the filling underneath it.)  The double crust begins as a single crust with the additional steps of topping it with a second crust, lattice, or shingled cutouts after filling (usually with fruit) and sealing the two crusts together.  Either of them are a blank canvas just waiting to be filled with goodness! 

The Not So Lonely Single Crust

The ways that a single crust can be filled is unlimited.  Depending upon the desired filling, the crust is perfect for baked and unbaked fillings giving one the ultimate choices of cream pies, custard pies, baked fruit pies with or without crumble toppings, jelled no-bake fruit pies, cookie pies, and quiche.  If the single crust is to be filled with a cream filling—coconut, banana, chocolate, lemon, peanut butter, etc—a jelled fruit filling—fresh strawberry or peach, etc—or a precooked fruit filling, the crust must be first blind baked. 

Blind baking is baking without filling to ensure a crisp, thoroughly baked, crust ready to fill with a filling that is not baked.  After the dough is fitted and formed in the pan, the crust should be pricked (also called docking) with a fork.  Secondly, the crust is lined with parchment paper and weighed down.  As the pie dough bakes, the fat melts creating steam.  Steam creates the flaky layers, but without the pricking and weighing down, the pie crust shrinks down the sides of the pie plate and the dough puffs up.  Special purchased pie weights, dry beans or rice, and even granulated sugar can be used for weighing down.  Fill the crust to the brim with whatever weight is used.  Place the crust in a preheated 375֯F oven for about 20 minutes or until the edge is dry to the touch and light brown.  Remove the weight and parchment paper and bake 8 to 10 minutes longer until the bottom of the crust is a light brown and dry to the touch.

Once the crust has cooled thoroughly, it is time to add any favorite cream (instant or cooked), jelled fresh fruit, or pre-cooked fruit filling.  If a cooked cream filling is to have a meringue topping, the meringue is added while the filling is still warm as the warm filling helps seal the two layers together, preventing separation.  The pie is placed in the oven to bake until the meringue is browned on top.  Cream pies should be allowed to cool at room temperature for 1 hour and then placed in the refrigerator to chill for at least 4 hours before slicing and serving.  Instant cream and jelled fresh fruit pies should be refrigerated immediately after preparation and also chilled for 4 hours before slicing and serving.

Recipes differ on quiche or custard fillings such as pumpkin, classic or fruit custard, chess, pecan, and sour-cream raisin as to whether the crust should be blind baked before filling and baking or simply filled and baked.  The blind baking helps to prevent a soggy crust.  Some recipes will also have one brush the bottom of the crust with a beaten egg yolk and bake for 3 minutes to glaze the bottom to seal the crust.

One-crust baked fruit pies are always a family favorite.  They often are topped with a crumb topping made from a variety of ingredients.  The crumb topping is spread or sprinkled over the fruit filling before baking. 

Devine Goodness between the Layers – Double Crust Pies

If there is ever a mental picture of an American pie, it has to be the classic double crust pie with juicy fruit oozing from a slice.  Double crust pies are typically filled with fruit, but can be savory or meat-filled, too.  Typically, the second crust is a lid-like covering over the filling.  However, the top crust need not be boring; a quick peak at a Taste of Home pie feature shows multiple, creative pie toppers.

When using fruit as the main ingredient of a double-crust pie, it is important to note that fruit can be a tricky or fickle ingredient whether it is fresh or frozen fruit.  The most beautifully crafted pie using a tested recipe can result in a pie swimming in juice when sliced for serving.  Apple pie would be an exception as apples have enough pectin to hold together well.  The juiciness is all about the ripeness of the fruit and the amount of juice the fruit contains.  Further, if frozen fruit is used, water is released when it is thawed.  Thickeners such as flour, cornstarch, or tapioca are commonly used to shore up fruit liquid but sometimes the amount suggested in a recipe just isn’t enough.  So how does one get it right?

One of the best ways is to macerate the fruit by gently mixing the fruit with the sugar called for in the recipe letting it stand for 20-30 minutes.  While applying gentle pressure to the fruit, strain the juices away from the fruit.  Bring the juice to a boil and then simmer until the juice is reduced to about 1/3.  Combine a small amount of the juice with the thickening agent (cornstarch, flour, tapioca) and whisk into a slurry.  Return the slurry to the remaining juice and add the fresh fruit.  Cool to room temperature before filling the crust. During the baking, the fruit will thicken.

For frozen fruit, the process is much the same.  Thaw the fruit and strain off the liquid pressing the fruit gently.  Simmer the juice to about 1/3.  Mix the sugar and thickening agent together; add to the juice and whisk into a slurry.  Stir in the fruit and cool to room temperature before adding to the crust.  The thickening agent will do its work while baking to thicken the pie.

To bake the pie, preheat the oven to 425֯F.  Place the pie in the lower third of the oven for 15 minutes.  The high temperature and lower rack position kick start the baking of the pie shell to prevent a soggy bottom.  For phase two, place a cookie sheet or liner under the pie and move it to the middle of the oven reducing the temperature to 350-375֯F baking for the time specified in the recipe.  Since individual ovens vary, it is important to stay with your pie through the baking process peeking at it through a window now and again.  If the oven has hot spots, it may be necessary to rotate it if the oven.  Sometimes the edges brown too quickly and covering with a pie ring or foil strips to prevent overbrowning is necessary.  If the top is browning too quickly and the fruit is not yet done, tent the whole pie with foil.  The pie is done with the crust is a lovely golden brown and the fruit is bubbling with clear juices.

Writing these blogs has been a little bit of a trip down memory lane as my mentor is no longer able to make pie and sadly has no memory of her craft. I hope I have inspired you to gather a few simple ingredients, throw down some flour, pick up a rolling pin, and make pie your new game or up your pie game. It really is that simple!

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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Pie Baking – Crust Perfection

As mentioned in the first of the Pie Baking series, late fall seems to bring out the pie baking instinct in many.  In the first blog of the series, I shared the “basic three” ingredients and equipment needed to form the foundation of the pie, the pie crust.  In this blog, the second of the series, I’ll continue with tips from my mother-in-law on making the crust.   Aprons on, let’s get to mixing, rolling, and forming!

On to Pie Crust Perfection!

Temperature – Keep It Cold.  It is most important that the fat and water be cold.  Butter and shortening can be used right out of the refrigerator.  Other fats should be chilled for at least 15 minutes before using.  Add ice cubes to water to get it as cold as possible but do not mix ice cubes into your dough. (Some like to put the flour, bowl, and rolling pin in the fridge or freezer to get them cold, too.)

Mixing the Dough – Less is More – It’s All in the Feel.  Put the solid fat into the dry ingredients in chunks. Use your fingers (not hands) to press the fat into the dry ingredients so that the small fat pieces are flattened and well incorporated into the flour. Once the fat and dry ingredients are combined, gradually add ice water in small amounts to just moisten the flour with your fingers. Once the dough appears “shaggy” (holds together when squeezed but not sticky or crumbly), form into a disc (a slightly flattened ball) or divide the dough if the recipe is for more than one crust and form discs. A disc may be used right away or wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for 30 minutes. Letting the dough rest allows the gluten to relax and gives the flour time to absorb the water evenly usually making it easier to handle. (If refrigerated for longer than 30 minutes, a brief warm up period may be needed before rolling out the dough.)  When making a double crust pie, chilling one round while rolling out the other is always a good option. (A pastry blend, mixer, or food processor can be used to mix the dough, too.)

Rolling Out the Dough – Work Quickly to Keep Dough from Getting Warm. Always roll out dough on a lightly floured, clean surface.  Wax paper or parchment paper are options but tend to slide around. A chilled surface is ideal for those that have them. Starting with a disc, use steady pressure on the rolling pin, rolling from the center outward.  To maintain a circular shape, rotate the dough a quarter turn and repeat or rotate the rolling direction.  If the dough sticks to the surface, throw a little flour under the dough and keep going until the desired shape, size (1-2 inches larger than the pie plate) and thickness (1/8th-1/16th-inch) are reached.

Moving the Dough to the Pie Plate – Easy Does It.  Getting the rolled dough into the pie plate can be done by any method that works for you. Some options:  1) Carefully fold the dough in half (or fourths), pick up and lay into the pie pan and unfold. 2) If rolled on waxed or parchment paper, place the pie plate upside down centered on the dough circle; place hand carefully under the paper, turn dough and pie pan right side up letting the dough sag into the pie plate as the paper is gently removed. 3) Roll dough around a floured rolling pin and unroll over the pie plate.  Being careful not to stretch the dough, allow the dough to settle into the pie plate by gently pressing into place.  If it cracks or tears, gently pat back together. (A fingertip of water also acts as glue to mending cracks and tears.)

Finishing the Crust – Making It Pretty.  For a single crust pie, trim the overhanging dough to about one inch from the edge all the way.  Turn the cut edge under to form a thick lip resting on the pie plate rim. For a double crust pie, fit the bottom crust into the pie pan leaving the overhanging dough in place.  Add the filling. Lay the top crust over the filling. Trim both top and bottom overhang together to about one inch, then tuck the overhang underneath itself so the folded edge lays on the edge of the pan. Add a decorative edge of choice. For ideas check out the YouTube video, 20 Creative Pie Crimping Techniques in 120 Seconds.

A lattice top is a third option but takes a little more time and patience. Lattice top pies are created by cutting the top crust into strips before moving it to the pie, then weaving the pieces under and over across the top of the pie. Finish the edges like a double crust pie.  Another option is to shingle the top of the pie by cutting shapes (hearts, rounds, diamonds, etc) from the top crust dough with a cookie cutter and placing the shapes on top of the pie filling so they overlap slightly like shingles.

Finally to give any double, lattice, or shingled crust a glossy, golden, sparkling finish, brush the top with an egg-, milk-, or cream-wash and sprinkle with granulated, decorator, or flavored sugar.

Vent – Let the Steam Out.  Double crust pies need vents or small slices through the top crust to allow water vapor to escape. These can be cut before placing the top crust on the pie or after.  A small cookie cutter can be used to create decorative vents before topping the pie. Lattice pies have built in vents.

If visuals are helpful in making a crust, check out Episode 1 of Iowa’s well known pie author and Pie Lady, Beth M Howard. Ms Howard offers a free YouTube series of pie lessons, Stay Calm and Bake Pie.  In the episode, Ms Howard demonstrates how to make a crust for a double crust pie in nearly the same relaxed, casual fashion I remember my mother-in-law making her crusts. 

The Pie Baking series will continue with filling the pie in a third blog.

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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Pie Baking – Simple Ingredients and Equipment

Who doesn’t love a piece of pie?  Pie has been a proverbial favorite beginning with the ancient Egyptians according to the American Pie Council. The history of pie is quite fascinating and while I love to share the history of food, I will reserve pie history for another time—perhaps National Pie Days (December 1 and January 23 not be confused with Pi Day, March 14).  Pie is such an act of love that I think it should be celebrated whenever one is given the chance to enjoy a piece.

 While there is not a designated time to bake a pie, late fall seems to bring out the pie baking instinct in many.  Perhaps it is the combination of bumper crops from our gardens and fruit trees with the anticipated holiday season and cooler weather enticing one to turn on the oven that brings on the urge to tie on those apron strings and get baking.  I’ve felt it myself.

I’m hardly an expert when it comes to pie baking.  There are countless books, articles, and videos written by real experts on how to bake the perfect pie providing endless tips and recipes each offering their own ‘how to’.  While all of the information is helpful, some may still find pie baking intimidating. Sometimes the best teacher is that person in your life who truly loves to bake pie; for me, that would be my mother-in-law who in her younger days needed no occasion or excuse to bake at least one pie ‘just because’ as any day was a pie day. Needless to say, I learned a lot from watching her nonchalant approach to making pie.

Making pie is easy and need not be intimidating. Using tips from my mother-in-law, let’s get into the art of pie baking beginning with the ingredients and equipment needed for the foundation, the pie crust.

3 Basic Ingredients and Simple Equipment

Pie crust starts with three basic ingredients—flour, fat, and water.  Some recipes will add salt, sugar, eggs, milk, vinegar, leavening and other ingredients which can enhance a pie crust, but the ‘basic three’ are the only ones necessary. The recipe is as easy as 3-2-1–3 parts flour, 2 parts fat, 1 part cold water.  Here’s a brief description of how they work together to create pastry.

  • Flour.  All-purpose flour is all that is necessary; it has the perfect amount of gluten (11% protein) to provide structure yet create a tender, flaky crust.  Protein content is directly related to the gluten structure; the higher the protein, the stronger and faster the gluten structure forms as the dough is worked. Cake flour has too little gluten and bread flour has too much.  Unbleached flour is slightly better for pie crust than bleached but either will do. Pastry flour is another option but all-purpose is sufficient and readily available.
  • Fat.  Lard, butter, shortening, vegetable oil, or some combination are fat options.  Everyone has their favorite.  Fat has a dual purpose:  1) it coats the flour particles to prevent excessive gluten formation; 2) during baking, the pea-size fat pieces melt releasing steam which lifts the pockets to create a flaky, tender layers. Solid fats result in a flakier crust than melted or liquid fats.  Chilled fats provide the best results.
  • Water.  Think of water as the glue that holds the flour and fat together. Always start with small amounts and gradually add more as needed to just moisten the flour. Like fat, liquids should be ice cold.  If water is not used, milk (regular, evaporated, or reconstituted dry milk), egg, vinegar, or combinations are other liquid alternatives.

The equipment needed to make a pie crust is also quite basic–bowl, measuring cups, rolling pin, hard surface, pie plate and knife or scissors. However, one can upgrade from the basics as much as desired by adding a pastry blender, mixer, food processor, fancy rolling pins, pastry clothes, dough scrapers, pastry wheels, and metal pie crust shields to name a few. In all humbleness, a suburb pie crust can be made with the basic three ingredients using a bowl and fingers. A rolling pin is necessary to flatten the dough but wine bottles have been used in a pinch. There are many kinds of pie plates and any of them will work. Of all, the simple clear glass pan is probably the best choice. Glass pans produce wonderfully brown, crisp crusts that are usually not soggy on the bottom. (It may be necessary to reduce the baking time or oven temperature with a glass pan.) No matter the material of the pie pan, it is more than possible to bake a great pie in it with a little practice and possible tweaking of time and/or temperature as each material is different. The disposable aluminum pans create the most challenge to even baking, but many have mastered that challenge with admirable results–beautiful golden-brown, fully cooked, no-soggy-bottom pies.

I will continue with pie baking in follow up blogs.  Next up, tips or keys to pie crust perfection!

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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A Look at Electric Casseroles

What are electric casseroles? How should they be used?  

Taco Casserole made in a slow cooker casserole.

Electric casseroles are 9×13-in, rectangular crockery slow cookers. Known as casserole cookers or slow cooker casseroles, they work like a slow cooker but are ideal for preparing favorite casserole dishes, lasagna, desserts and more that one would ordinarily bake in the oven because they do not present well when made in a traditional slow cooker.  Like a slow cooker, they are ideal for make-ahead meals to simplify mealtime for busy families.

There are at least two manufacturers that make casseroles cookers—Crock-Pot® and Chefman.  Hamilton Beach also offered one but it appears to no longer be available.  These appliances have a 3.5 quart, stoneware, oven-safe, crock insert that is removable for easy cleaning or for actually baking in the oven.  All of the models come with a locking lid system for easy transport without spills making them safe and ideal for carry-in or potluck meals.  Like a slow cooker, they reduce heat in the kitchen and free up oven space when the kitchen is on overload.  Crock-Pot® offers both a manual setting (high, low, warm) unit as well as a programmable unit; the Chefman appliance offers only manual features. The stoneware crocks are dishwasher-safe making cleanup a breeze.

Should one need to put the removable insert into the oven for baking, reheating, melting toppings or browning, Crock Pot® asserts that the crockery insert can be used safely in the microwave or the oven up to 400ºF without the lid. The Chefman website says the crock insert can be used over an open flame on the stovetop to simmer sauce, sauté vegetables, or brown meat before slow cooking for greater depth of flavor. It can also be used in an oven to roast, bake, or reheat.

Any recipe that one would make in a traditional slow cooker will work in the casserole cookers.  Also any casserole recipe designed for the oven will work as long as additional time is allowed for cooking.  For the most part, the cooking time required of a traditional slow cooker is the same for the casserole cooker.  However, timing may vary some depending upon manufacturers and different appliances.

Here’s some ideas to get one thinking about how to use a slow cooker casserole:  corn casserole, baked beans, scalloped potatoes and ham, funeral potatoes, spaghetti and meat balls, beef and noodles, enchiladas, tater tot casserole, bbq chicken, apple or fruit crisps, lasagna, French toast casserole, egg bake, vegetable gratins, and green bean casserole.  Cookies can even be baked in the crocks.  There are any number of slow cooker recipe books available—a cookbook for everyone, every cuisine, and every occasion—as well as numerous websites with ideas and recipes.

While the casserole cooker option likely won’t replace the traditional slow cooker, it is a great option for slow cooking recipes that are more casserole-like.  I have one and find it quite useful, especially when the family comes home.

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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Biscotti, Italy’s Dunkin’ Delight

I’ve been making and enjoying Biscotti, those singular long, crisp and crunchy Italian cookies, since they became an American favorite in the 1990s.  It really started with my college kids who were enjoying pricey, individually wrapped biscotti with their late-night cappuccinos.  The habit was becoming expensive so the question, “Mom, can you make some?”

Biscotti are one of the simplest, most versatile cookies one can possibly bake. They are made with simple, on-hand ingredients–butter, sugar, eggs, flour, and baking powder–with the addition of any likeable flavoring, spice or chocolate and/or enhanced with add-ins such as chocolate chips, nuts, dried fruit, and liqueurs for sweet or olives, herbs, and cheese for savory as perfect accompaniments to charcuterie boards.  No special equipment is needed. And as it turned out, perfect for college kids’ snacks.

The word biscotti is derived from the Latin biscoctus, meaning twice baked or cooked which accurately describes the process by which biscotti comes about.  The cookie dough is formed into logs, baked, cooled slightly, and baked again.  Biscotti is thought to have originated in the Tuscany region in the 14th century in the city of Prato as a biscuit with almonds as a main ingredient since there was an abundance of almonds in the region. It was discovered that the second baking drew out moisture rendering it hard and resistant to mold making it an ideal food to store or for sailors to take to sea. However, there are indications that it may go back to the days of the Roman Empire. The British hardtack and German zwieback might be considered spinoffs of the biscotti as they, too, are twice baked. Incidentally, today Italians call biscotti cantucci and use the term biscotti to refer to any type of crunchy cookie.

So if biscotti are so simple, why doesn’t everyone bake them?  There are no shortages of recipes for biscotti—name the flavor and there’s a recipe for that! And despite their long heritage, there is no perfect way to make biscotti as they are a remarkably forgiving cookie.  They do require a little more baking time since it is done twice.

Here are some tips that I’ve learned:

  • Have all ingredients at room temperature.
  • If dough is too sticky, add a bit more flour.  If dough is too dry and crumbly, add another egg.  Bake on a less humid day if possible.
  • Mix dough on low mixer speed to reduce cracking in the top during baking.
  • Refrigerating the dough an hour or so helps with the stickiness when forming the log.  Dough should feel like play-dough when it is handled.
  • Preheat the oven with oven racks in the middle.
  • Line the baking sheet with parchment paper and place only two logs on a baking sheet at a time.
  • Logs are usually shaped 10-12 inches in length, about 2 inches wide, and about ½ inch thick.  That can vary by individual taste.
  • Allow the logs to cool 15-20 minutes after the first baking before slicing.  If they sit for too long, they get too hard to slice.
  • Use a serrated knife in a sawing motion to slice; this will reduce crumbling.  If crumbling is a problem, lightly mist with water before slicing.
  • Leave plenty of space between the slices for the second baking.
  • Recipes differ on whether slices should be laid on their side or stood upright for the second baking. It doesn’t matter.  If laid on their side, they should be flipped mid-way through the baking time.
  • Bake at 350ºF for first baking and 300ºF for second baking.  The longer they are in the oven for the second baking, the harder and crisper they will become.
  • Cool biscotti slices completely before garnishing with frosting or melted chocolate or dipping in melted chocolate.
  • Store biscotti in jars or tins to maintain their crispness.  If stored properly, they will easily keep for a month.  They also freeze well.
  • If biscotti softens, place them in a 300ºF for 10-15 minutes to re-crisp.

So, next time cookies are in the offing, don’t forget biscotti. They’re easier than they look. They make impressive gifts and ship better than cookies! And as for how to eat them, anything goes! Dunking is my favorite.

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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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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