When All Else Fails, Make Granola

A week or so ago, I posted something to this blog’s Facebook page about trying a recipe, and hoping it wasn’t a total disaster.  My cousin commented almost immediately, saying that she doubted anything I ever made was a total disaster.  While flattered, I laughed out loud when I read the comment – if she only knew how many miserable failures I’ve had in the kitchen (and elsewhere).  Some of them to the point that they’re completely inedible.  I just don’t write about the failures.  Maybe I should.

I think if you love to cook, you can’t be afraid to fail.  There’s always going to be that one batch of cookies that you burn, or that jelly that didn’t set or the bread dough that just didn’t rise for whatever reason.  The important thing is that you try to learn from those mistakes and move on.  Sure, sometimes it can be painful to your ego (and to your wallet, in some cases), but it’s not the end of the world.  I’ve curdled a dozen egg yolks making custard, and had an equal number of egg whites that never whipped to stiff peaks.  I’ve turned multiple batches of failed sourdough bread into sourdough breadcrumbs.  I’ve tossed out a stockpot that had sugar burned so badly on the bottom that it was irreparably damaged.  Believe me – I’ve had plenty of disasters in the kitchen.  Sometimes they push me to try harder, and sometimes they make me take a step back and reevaluate whether I really have the time and the inclination to babysit a sourdough starter.

The answer to the second question, by the way, is no.  At least not right now.

Speaking of stockpots....

Yesterday was one of those days.  You know the ones – where nothing seems to go quite the way you’d planned?  I woke up thinking that I’d do some grocery shopping, wash some clothes and maybe make some granola bars to send to school as snacks for the boys.  A productive day – that’s all I’d really hoped for.  And it’s not that it wasn’t productive, it was just not the kind of productive I’d planned on.

New chickens on the block
New chickens on the block

You see, rather than running my grocery errands and washing the umpteen piles of laundry that are currently carpeting my laundry room floor, I spent half the day yesterday driving 100 miles round-trip to procure these lovely Barred Rock and Ameraucana hens.  We started our backyard flock back in April.  Three Rhode Island Red hens, which my oldest son promptly named Sally, Tweety and Fred.  Since then, the trio has dwindled to a lonesome single Sally – Fred was felled by a Black widow spider, and Tweety we lost to an unknown predator just a couple of days ago.  While we know that these are just some of the perils that come with raising livestock, it’s still a sad affair when you’re faced with the loss of an animal.  Poor Sally seemed a little lost without her flockmates, and we’d been thinking of expanding our numbers anyway, so I felt justified in postponing my chores for a bit so that we could do just that.

Once we got back home, got the chickens’ wings clipped and transferred them safely to the coop to get acclimated, I decided to move on to making granola bars.  I had placed some apple chunks in the dehydrator before we left for our chicken wrangling adventure, and they were nice and leathery upon our return.

Semi-succesful granola bars

I had attempted granola bars earlier in the week, based on this recipe from Smitten Kitchen.  They were good, but they didn’t really ever set up the way I expected them too.  First, they burned and stuck on the edges; and, second, they were too soft at room temperature to maintain their bar shape.  I’m not sure if its my error (probably) or a flaw in the recipe (probably not – Deb’s pretty much a genius, plus she tests her recipes carefully), but I wanted to start over from scratch to try and get something that was more bar-like and less really thick oatmeal-like.

I used a combination of rolled oats, wheat germ, dried apples, raisins, unsweetened flake coconut, sucanat, agave nectar and coconut oil.  I sprayed my pan liberally with oil.  I only baked them for about 15 minutes.

And they were a disaster.  A complete and utter failure.  At least as far as granola bars go.

As granola, though?  A total success (well, except for the part that was so baked on the pan I couldn’t get it off without soaking it in hot water for an hour or so).  With a little almond milk, it makes a delicious breakfast cereal.

So despite the fact, that nothing that I initially intended to get done yesterday actually got accomplished, I wound up with some beautiful new chickens, and some delicious granola.  I won’t bother sharing the ratios I used, since I really was trying for something completely different from what I ended up with.  However, once I do figure out the perfect granola bar recipe, I’ll be sure to pass it along to all of you.  In the meantime, don’t be afraid to try and fail in the kitchen- it’s better than never trying to cook at all (or something like that).

Oh, and those new chickens?  My oldest son ran right out to the coop when he got off the bus and promptly named them: Spot, Dot, Tweety, Jr. and Fred, Jr.  He’s nothing if not original.

In case you’re just really jonesing for some homemade granola bars, here are a few recipes that seem promising:

Alton Brown’s Granola Bars

King Arthur Four’s Chewy Granola Bars

Ina Garten’s Homemade Granola Bars

Apartment Therapy’s Crunchy Granola Bars

Dealing with the Unexpected (or, How to Know When Your Jelly is Set)

Over the years, I have come to realize that nothing ever goes exactly as planned.  You can imagine to your heart’s content the perfect scenario, and yet something nearly always creeps in and causes havoc.For instance, while we were in Hawaii a few weeks ago, I had expectations about the relaxing vacation we would have – spending time on the beach, lounging by the pool, perhaps taking in a luau or a boat ride up the calm Wailua river.  Of course, I knew that traveling with small children would come with its challenges, so I did my best to prepare for the odd situation that might crop up.

Like the two mosquito bites that my youngest got on his face the Friday after we arrived – one on his forehead above his left eye and one just in the corner of his right eye.  I knew right away that this was bad news – he is extremely sensitive to mosquito bite, and I predicted that by the next morning both of his eyes would likely be swollen shut.And lo and behold, they were.  So we spent most of Saturday afternoon in the ER in Lihue.  They gave him some prescription steroids and sent him on his merry way.  By Monday he was back to normal. Needless to say, not the way I expected to spend my only Saturday in paradise.Or maybe the drive we took up to the top of Waimea Canyon to enjoy the views. After driving all the way to the end of the road and looking out over the wild Napali coast, we turned around and began our descent. Our oldest was playing Angry Birds on the iPod and the youngest was doodling on his Doodle-Pro.  As we navigated the winding, turny, twisty road, P said quietly from the back seat, “Mommy, my tummy hurts,” and about that time he vomited all over the back of our brand new (for real – we were the first people to drive it.  I think it had like 20 miles on it when we got in it the first time) rental car.  And then his brother proceeded to do the same.

So, we pulled over on a very narrow shoulder, stripped them down to their underwear and diaper, stripped the covers off the carseats and then got everyone situated again so we could catch up with my husband’s brother and his wife and kids (they had been just ahead of us when all of this started).  P was so mortified, he didn’t want his cousins to see him like that, so I ran into an expensive gift shop at the bottom of the canyon road and purchased an overpriced t-shirt and a pair of shorts for him to wear.  Again – couldn’t have planned that scenario if I’d tried.Or perhaps that luau we’d been looking forward to.  The kids loved seeing the unveiling of the whole-roasted pig, and running around the beautiful grounds with the peacocks and other assorted exotic birds.  When it came to the show itself, the older kids were mesmerized, but my youngest got a little freaked out.  So, my poor husband had to spend the entire hour of the show outside, consoling a crying baby and missing the performances altogether.  Best laid plans.

None of it spoiled the trip, but it does just go to show you that even in paradise reality has a way of sneaking in and reminding you just how human you really are.No place does this prove more often true than in my kitchen.  No sooner do I grow confident, or dare I say “cocky”, than I am cut right back down to size by something. And such it was with this plum jelly – a dead simple recipe that, had I been patient and methodical on the front end, should have yielded a perfectly set and perfectly delicious end product.

Notice I said “should”.Everything started out fine – I made plum juice by cutting the plums in half and boiling them in water for 20 minutes (1 lb. of plums to 1/2 cup of water).  I then poured the plums and water into a damp pillowcase and hung it over a pot in the utility sink in my laundry room and let it drain for about 6 hours.  This yielded somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 cups of juice.

The first time around, I combined the juice and the sugar (3/4 cup of sugar per cup of juice is the accepted ratio) in a stock pot and brought it to a boil.  I inserted a candy thermometer and waited for it to reach 220 degrees.  And I waited, and waited, and waited.  And the thermometer seemed to be stuck at 215 degrees.  So I used a second candy thermometer.  This one read 219 degrees, so I figured the first one must be wrong.  when the second one reached 220, I removed the pot from the heat and proceeded to can the jelly as directed – filling hot sterilized jars and leaving 1/4 inch of headspace.  I then processed them in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.  And then I went to bed.

The next morning, I was looking forward to having some fresh plum jelly on my fresh baked biscuits, so I eagerly opened the jar closest to me and was confronted with what appeared to be more of a plum syrup than a jelly.  Frustrating.  I had stood over that pot for almost an hour, watching it boil, checking the temperature, taking care to keep the sugar from scorching.  And I was sure – sure – that I had gotten it right.

But I was wrong.

So, I took a deep breath, unsealed all of the jars, dumped the contents into a stock pot, washed the jars in hot soapy water, found new lids in my storage cabinet and re-sterilized everything.  I put the stock pot back on the heat with both candy thermometers and a fancy digital probe thermometer and I brought it to a boil. At one point, one candy thermometer read 225, the second read 222, and the probe thermometer was still reading 217.  The only problem with this was that I could move the probe around the pan, and in one spot it would read 217, in another it would read 215, and in a third it would read 219.  Additionally, this went on for at least an hour.  Why can’t things just work the way they’re supposed to?  How is a girl to know when her jelly is set?My mother says that her grandmother used to say you’d know it was done when it sounded like grits cooking.  There’s also the tried and true method of seeing if it sheets when dropped from a spoon.  So, when it started to boil furiously and sounded kind of like rice krispies in milk (snap, crackle, pop), I stuck a stainless steel spoon in the mix and then lifted it out.  The above photo demonstrates “sheeting.”  And the probe thermometer read 220 (at least in one spot in the pan). I proceeded to can it again, filling the hot sterilized jars to within 1/4 inch of the top and capping them.  I processed them (again) in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.  And now I can safely say that I have successfully made plum jelly (perfectly set and perfectly delicious).  And that I will never again trust my candy thermometer.

Plum Jelly
11 cups plum juice
8.5 cups sugar

  1. Combine plum juice and sugar in a heavy-bottomed stock pot and stir to thoroughly combine.
  2. Bring to a boil and allow to cook until it reaches 220F on a (reliable, well calibrated) candy thermometer, or until it sheets when dropped from a spoon.
  3. Prepare your jars by sterilizing them in simmering water.
  4. Ladle jelly into hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch of head space.
  5. Clean the rims with a damp cloth and cap with lids and rings.
  6. Process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.
  7. Allow to cool on the counter.
  8. Enjoy!

Capturing the Sun in a Jar

Our little family just returned from eight sun-filled, relaxing days on the garden island of Kauai.  Our transition back to reality has been slow and somewhat painful.  I could chalk it up to jet lag and be done with it, but I don’t think that would do it justice.The truth is, there are a handful of places in this world that, the minute I set foot within their borders, I feel like I’ve slipped on a favorite pair of comfy pajamas.  Kauai is one of them.  Nearly eight years ago, my husband and I chose this quiet little island as our honeymoon destination, and ever since we’ve dreamed of going back.

A couple of years ago, my parents-in-law purchased a time share on Kauai, and they invited all of us (our family, my husband’s two brothers and their wives and children) to join them there for a week this summer.  While it was a completely different experience from the one we had when we were newlyweds, it was just as remarkable in its own way.
We aren’t really big “doers” when we go on vacation.  There are a lot of really cool outdoor adventures to be had on Kauai, and one day I imagine we’ll participate in some of them.  We’ve just never felt a lot of pressure to do a million things while we’re there – probably because we know in our hearts that we’ll be back again one day.

On this last trip, we took in some sites, and marveled at the gorgeous scenery.  We visited a number of little towns, and enjoyed some delicious food from some well-known local joints along the way.  The pizza in Kilauea topped with garden fresh veggies was the perfect quick lunch on the way home from the lighthouse;  the shrimp in Waimea was tender, spicy, crispy and delicious; the Puka dogs in Poipu were just as weird and wonderful as I imagined they’d be after seeing them featured on No Reservations last year; and the burger at Bubba’s, made with Kauai grass fed beef, was juicy and flavorful.  The people are friendly, the food is good, and the scenery is magical.  Is it any wonder that I feel right at home there? The minute I set foot on the island eight years ago, I knew I belonged there.  And this most recent trip has just re-confirmed my suspicions.

So, returning to real life has been a little bit of a challenge.  In addition to adjusting to the time change, it almost feels like we left a little piece of ourselves on the garden isle.  I guess we’ll just have to head back one day soon to retrieve it.

In the meantime, I’m keeping myself busy in the garden, trying to keep up with the growing number of sun-ripened tomatoes that seem to be spilling forth from their tangled vines.  I returned home to find the table on the deck weighted down with a ridiculous number of giant pink brandywines, little black princes and tiny jellybean grape tomatoes.  Ever since I’ve been doing my best to eat them or process them before they turn to moldy mush.

We’ve eaten our weight in this delicious pasta salad – a pound of tri-colored rotini tossed with an equal measure of quartered grape tomatoes and/or diced brandywine tomatoes, four ounces of chevre, and a few sprigs of fresh thyme.

I’ve made salsa using these lovely little golden grape tomatoes, some of the black princes, and minced jalapenos.  I canned seven pints of a mixture of brandywines, romas and black princes the other day (and there are more on their way this week).

But my favorite application has to be these little nuggets of pure tomatoey goodness – dehydrated multi-colored jellybean grape tomatoes.

I found myself the other day with a giant mound of these little yellow, red and green wonders (they’re prolific suckers – I had six full trays of them in my dehydrator, all from a couple of days of picking).  I halved them and tossed them with about 1/2 a teaspoon of pickling salt.  Then I laid them out on the trays of my dehydrator (although you could sun-dry them, too) and let them dry at 125F for about 12 hours (the instructions said to leave them for 5-9 hours, but mine were still awfully wet at the 9-hour mark, so I let them go a few hours longer – now they’re nice and raisin-like).

I’ve eaten a few of them straight from the jar, and their flavor is reminiscent of what I imagine a ray of sunshine would taste like if you could gather it in a cup and drink it – infused with warmth and comfort, umami at its very core.  I can’t wait to use them in this pesto recipe from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

So, while we don’t have the sun and sand at our back door anymore, we can at least capture a little bit of sunshine and keep it close.  When it comes time for the leaves to fall from the trees, and the gray winter days seem neverending, we can open that little jar of flavor and infuse our meals with a little summer warmth.  And close our eyes and dream of Kauai.