Holiday Simmer Pots

Simmer pots or simmering potpourri are one of my favorite ways to make our home smell cozy and warm throughout the year, but especially so during the holidays.  They truly bring out the best of the season with very simple natural ingredients such as spices, rinds, sliced fruit or fruit skins and water.  Simmer pots are affordable, sustainable, and an easy way to make your home smell like something good is cooking!

I prefer simmer pots over the many scented candles available on almost every store shelf because most of them are petroleum-based paraffin with dubious artificial scents.  Since it is my preference to steer clear of petroleum-based products in my house as much as possible, I turn to what my grandmother did: simmer a pot of spices. 

Grandma used her stove; I use a small crockette originally designed for warm dips as there is little chance of me getting distracted and ‘boiling the pot dry.’ Because the crockette does not boil, I start the processes by bring the mixture to a boil on the stove and then pour it into the crockette to simmer as long as desired.  To simmer on the stovetop, bring the ingredients and water to a boil, then turn the heat down to simmer. Water should be added about every 30 minutes to prevent ‘boiling the pot dry.’ A slow cooker can also be used to create a simmer pot.  To do so, fill the crock with water to at least half full, add the ingredients, put on the lid, and heat on high. When steam rolls off the lid, take the lid off and set the slow cooker to a low or simmer setting. Add water as needed to keep it at least halfway full.

Simmer pots are also a great way to recycle rather than compost or throw away orange rinds, lemon and lime peels, and apple and pear skins.  They can be used fresh or dried. (And, it is also possible to refrigerate the ingredients for a few days and reuse for simmering a 2nd time.)

Simmer pot combinations are more of an art than a science.  There are lots of potpourri combinations but really it boils down to personal preference or what you have on hand to work with.  Experimenting with combinations is fun. Some of my favorite holiday combinations include apple skins, orange rinds, cinnamon sticks, and whole cloves along with bay leaves, whole nutmeg, fresh or dried rosemary, and fresh or dried ginger.  Sometimes I use a drop or two of pure vanilla or an essential oil and even a little apple cider if there is some on hand. 

A simmer pot recipe can also be great when someone is sick as long as the smell does not upset their stomach. The combinations of citrus, rosemary, clove, cinnamon and eucalyptus are germ-fighting as well as comforting, soothing, and healing to the body as the vapors are breathed in.

Simmer pot ingredients make wonderful hostesses gifts, gifts for a teacher, friend, or neighbor, and lovely party favors for guests, too.  They are cost effective and everyone can use it.  To gift, start with dried ingredients.  Simply add the chosen ingredients to a clear treat bag or Mason jar, tie with a bow, add a gift tag and you’re ready to give a little a bit of the holidays to that special someone. 

There’s nothing like the smells of the holiday to create a warm and welcoming home.  With a simmer pot ingredient gift, you can give beautiful gifts that will help friends and family deck their halls, 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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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 – 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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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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Royal Icing Made Safe

Cookie decorating is a popular and fun holiday activity for many families. Royal Icing is often the chosen frosting for decorating as it dries quickly and hard and it is easy for nearly anyone to achieve decorating success! Traditionally made from egg whites and powdered (confectioners’) sugar, it is an easy icing to prepare but should NOT be made with raw egg whites.

It is a well-known fact that eggs may contain a bacteria, Salmonella Enteritidis (SE), that can cause foodborne illness. Researchers say that if present, the SE is usually found in the yolk, but they can’t rule out the possibility of SE in egg whites. To eliminate risk and ensure food safety, one should replace the raw egg white with lightly cooked egg whites, use pasteurized egg whites, or meringue powder when making Royal Icing.

Lightly Cooked Egg Whites. Use the following method provided by South Dakota State University which can be used for Royal Icing and other frosting recipes calling for raw egg whites: In a heavy saucepan, the top of a double boiler or a metal bowl placed over water in a saucepan, stir together the egg whites and sugar from the recipe (at least 2 tablespoons sugar per white), water (1 teaspoon per white) and cream of tartar (1/8 teaspoon per each 2 whites). Cook over low heat or simmering water, beating constantly with a portable mixer at low speed, until the whites reach 160° F. Pour into a large bowl. Beat on high speed until the whites stand in soft peaks. Proceed with the recipe. Note that you must use sugar to keep the whites from coagulating too rapidly. Test with a thermometer as there is no visual clue to doneness. If you use an unlined aluminum saucepan, eliminate the cream of tartar or the two will react and create an unattractive gray meringue.

Meringue Powder. Meringue powder is available in specialty stores wherever cake decorating equipment is sold. Meringue powder is composed of cornstarch, dried egg whites, sugar, citric acid and some stabilizers. It’s perfect for making royal icing. Follow the instructions on the package to rehydrate and use.

Pasteurized Egg Whites. Pasteurized egg whites are of two types—pasteurized in-shell eggs or liquid pasteurized egg whites. Pasteurized in-shell eggs are available at some grocery stores. Shells of such eggs are stamped with a red or blue “P” in a circle. Whites of pasteurized shell eggs may appear slightly cloudy compared to fresh eggs. Liquid pasteurized egg whites are found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store in a milk-like carton usually near the regular eggs. According to the FDA, both of these products are safe to consume raw. Use these two products like raw whites is the recipe.

Keep unused icing covered at all times with a damp cloth or tightly wrapped to prevent drying and caking. For longer keeping time, store in the refrigerator for up to three days or freezer for up to three months. In addition to preventing food borne illnesses, refrigeration seems to help with separating. (If separation occurs–yellowish liquid on the bottom—just remix.).

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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“Joy of Cooking” Rolls Out a New Edition

A new edition of America’s favorite, classic cookbook, Joy of Cooking, rolled off the press on November 12. This edition was nine years in the making under the guide of John Becker and wife, Megan Scott. John Becker is the great grandson of Irma Rombauer, the original author of Joy of Cooking. I look forward to getting a copy of the new edition.

I was first introduced to Joy of Cooking in my junior food science class at the University of Nebraska where I was a consumer science (then home economics) major. My instructor called it the ‘kitchen bible’ telling us that anyone could learn to cook using Joy as their guide. It had all the recipes one would ever need in addition to being a culinary reference with its “About” sections. So in addition to purchasing our course textbook, we were required to also purchase a copy of Joy of Cooking. While I don’t remember, it was likely the 5th edition published in 1964 by Irma’s named successor and daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker. In the many years since, my paperback copy of that edition has been lost.

The cookbook began eighty-eight years ago when Irma Rombauer, a German immigrant and recent widow, needed a means to support her family during the Great Depression. To do so, she compiled her favorite recipes, wrote a cookbook, and self-published it in November 1931. She enlisted the help of a St Louis, MO company that printed labels for shoe companies and Listerine mouthwash to print her book, a first for the company. She paid $3000 to print 3000 copies of the Joy of Cooking: A compilation of Reliable Recipes for a Casual Culinary Chat. The book was illustrated by Rombauer’s daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker.

As the 3000 copies began to dwindle, a commercial printer was sought and with it came, a second edition in 1936. This edition expanded to 640 pages and set a new style for writing recipes—a conversational style, later known as the “action method.” Instead of listing ingredients and following with instructions, ingredients were interspersed with directions appearing as they were needed. This edition became popular quickly prompting six printings and selling 52, 151 copies by 1942.

A third edition was rolled out in 1943 and included a collection of recipes that could be prepared in less than 30 minutes using canned and frozen foods. This edition also included information intended to help readers deal with wartime rationing. Once again sales were phenomenal with nearly 620,000 copies sold by 1946. As the WWII came to an end, an update was made to the 1943 edition in 1946 with the elimination of the rationing information and the addition of more quick recipes.

The newly released edition is the 9th edition of the cookbook and marks the first update in 13 years. Joy has remained a family project passing from Irma to her daughter Marion, to Marion’s son, Ethan Becker, and now to Ethan’s son, John and his wife, Megan Scott. Through the various editions, Joy has remained a mainstay of American home cooking by adapting and evolving to the popular tastes and trends of Americans yet remaining basic. Marketing of the 2019 edition touts ingredients from the wider world and chapters on sous vide, fermentation, and cooking with both traditional and electric pressure cookers. John and Megan developed more than 600 new recipes for this edition with a focus on international, vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free recipes and tweaked many of the classics of former cookbooks. Lastly, this edition includes information about food history and science.

Indications are that this new book will be more than a collection of recipes; it should also be a fascinating read. For anyone who loves reading cookbooks as I do, I think this just might be the one for me to have and perhaps share as a holiday gift, 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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‘Home-Canned’ Cakes and Breads for Gift Giving – A Big NO

The holidays are just around the corner and homemade food gifts are often part of the giving and receiving. One can look in magazines or online to find countless ideas for foods to give and ways to dress them up for giving. While many of these suggestions are safe and cute at the same time, some are not and one needs to be wary of them. One that I find particularly disturbing is the advocating of ‘home canned’ cakes and breads in jars.

Instructions for these “special” gifts involve preparing a favorite cake or quick bread recipe and baking it in a pint canning jar. Once the cake or bread is done, the steaming jars are taken out of the oven and a canning lid is immediately popped on. As the cake or bread cools, the lid seals creating a vacuum. Many recipes claim that these products can be stored safely on the shelf from a year to indefinitely. While the pictures look attractive and the gift might be unique, these products are NOT SHELF SAFE as the recipes and instructions indicate. There is NO canning involved and this technique IS NOT RECOMMENDED. If someone gives you a home canned cake or bread in a jar, assume it is unsafe to eat and discard it in a manner that not even animals will consume it. Here’s why . . .

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.

One other consideration outside of food safety, is the jar itself. Regardless of the brand of the jar, jars can break or explode due to temperature fluctuations when the oven doors is opened or the jars removed from the oven. The glass used for Ball and Kerr canning jars is not tempered for oven use and is not meant to be used as bakeware.

Commercially prepared breads and cakes made in jars are safe. Companies use additives, preservatives, and processing methods to ensure the safety of the finished product that are not available for home recipes. Avoid purchasing canned breads or cakes in glass jars at bake sales or farmer’s markets unless they meet all labeling requirements for commercial foods. Currently there are no reliable or safe recipes for home baking and sealing breads or cakes in canning jars and storing them at room temperature for any length of time.

To date, there are no documented cases of botulism resulting from cake or bread in a jar. However, experts warn that it is an accident waiting to happen. Imagine how you would feel if you were the one who gave a gift that made someone incapacitated for life or worse.

If special breads or cakes are to be part of holiday giving, consider alternatives of baking and freezing, giving the recipient the opportunity to choose when they wish to use it. Most cakes and breads freeze well. Or create a “mix” by assembling the dry ingredients into a jar and attaching directions for preparing and baking. Attach a “use by date” on the label as some ingredients will loose their effectiveness, harden, or cake. Generally one month is appropriate. Also include a list of ingredients for those who have food allergies or dietary issues.

For additional information on gift foods to be weary of, check out Is Your Homemade Food Gift Safe to Eat? by the University of Minnesota. Be sure your homemade holiday food gift is memorable, not haunting.

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 Friendsgiving

We have been blessed to live close to family for a number of years. Especially when it comes to holiday time. When my husband and I first got married we would try and make it to both “coasts” of Iowa so that we could see all of our family. After we started having kids that quickly changed!

One year the Thanksgiving celebration was going to be at our house. Unfortunately, the weather was not going to be good and I had everything purchased for the meal. We found out that our neighbors were having the same issues. We decided that it would be a lot of fun to celebrate together! Our neighbors grew up in the south and they brought all of the typical southern Thanksgiving foods, and we have the traditional Midwest foods. Needless to say we had a feast, and we enjoyed an afternoon of telling family traditions and stories.

Our middle son played college hockey in Oklahoma. Since Thanksgiving was in the middle of their hockey season he was not able to come home. For four years he and his teammates and friends would be assigned a food to bring and they would have a huge “Friendsgiving” celebration together. They would send us pictures of amazing food, impressively including homemade pumpkin pie, and all of the kids gathered around a very large table. It always made me feel good knowing that the holiday was spent with friends and with lots of good food. Plus I loved getting the call at AnswerLine to make sure they were cooking the turkey safely! The coach would not have been happy if the whole team had food poisoning!

Whether you are celebrating with family or with friends we wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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Beth Marrs

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Adult Home Economics Education. I love to cook and entertain and spend time with my family.

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