Book Review: Preserving by the Pint

Preserving by the Pint

When I got my review copy of Marisa McClellan's latest book a few weeks back, time seemed to stand still for the moment and I almost immediately read the entire thing cover to cover.  I had been looking forward to cracking open this one since I had the pleasure of testing a few of the recipes for it last year, and it truly is a lovely addition to the growing canning book section of my kitchen library.

I couldn't help but think as I turned page after page that Marisa is going to be writing new books for years.  She has the magic trifecta in her cookery books: timeless recipes, succinct instructions, and simple inspirations.  She is passionate about her craft, and eager to share with everyone - which I think is the underlying theme of Preserving by the Pint.  Organized by season, this book encourages everyone to make small batches using local and seasonal foods.  It tempts us to branch out and try something maybe we haven't considered before, even to source special ingredients that might not be cost efficient if making a more traditionally sized amount.

small batch preserving.

Personally I like to can for my storage shelves, but with my ongoing quest for sugar reduction, having a jar or two of a really stellar preserves is an excellent idea - especially since I can tend towards the hoarding jams and jellies even when I've made 8 or 9 jars of them.  After finishing the book, I immediate found some Meyer lemons at my co-op to make Candied Meyer Lemon Slices.  Only needing a pound for the recipe made it feel doable for me when I didn't have the foresight to get on the Lemon Ladies list for bulk fruit like Marisa did.  (And, she had made a beautiful Meyer Lemon Syrup on her blog not long before, and I was feeling especially bad for missing the lemon season...) 

candied meyer lemon

I really loved these candied lemons, they had a nice marmalade texture and trademark Meyer lemon astrengency.  I was glad I had a little bit of the syrup leftover which set into a little lemon jelly to enjoy right away on morning toast.  I intend to make a pound cake for my birthday in September and crown it with a jar of them, and I should be able to save a jar that long since the 2 jar yield leaves me one to enjoy before then.

Spring in my neck of the woods also signals maple syruping time and for a while my family had planned to make it to an Amish neighbor's sugaring operation to reacquaint ourselves with the small miracle that is maple syrup.  Last weekend, a small group of family members went to see Daniel Hochstetler's rustic sugar shack.  We arrived just as he was getting the fire going underneath a stainless vat of sap.  Already, he had harvested over 100 gallons of finished syrup and he was hoping for another good week of syruping weather.  (Last year was a perfect year for syrup; they harvested more than 300 gallons and still had some leftover before starting this year.  If boiled to the proper temperature, maple syrup never really spoils.  The two past seasons make up for the strangely warm spring two years ago when there was no syrup to be found.)  My Mom and Dad generously sent me home with 2 gallons, which usually can last us the whole year if we watch our pancake breakfasts...

sugar shack (#2)
I respect the Amish desire not to have their faces photographed, but was able to capture a photo of Daniel and his sugar shack from a distance...

As I stood there breathing in the sauna of maple scented sap, I was dreaming of a recipe Marisa included in the book for Blueberry Maple Jam - thankful for my hoarding of a gallon bagful of blueberries in my freezer from last year, and thankful for a new harvest of syrup to replenish my waning stores. When I got back home, I started the jam right away but got busy.  Fortunately, letting the fruit macerate overnight with the syrup and brown sugar is an acceptable practice.  My yield was a little less than the 2 half-pints, but I suspect it is because I used frozen fruit.  I haven't had blueberry jam in ages - in part because of the amount of berries it requires - and this one was so good.  I was actually glad I was a little shy of a second half pint so I had some to enjoy right away.

blueberry jam maceration

I made this jam with frozen berries and using the metric weights.  As I mentioned above, I think I lost a little volume due to the frozen fruit - but this is so good I probably wouldn't have needed to can it!  If canning, be sure to use the bottled lemon juice.  As Marisa explains, maple syrup is lower in acidity than sugar and the bottled lemon juice ensures a safe acid level.

Blueberry Maple Jam (Marisa McClellan, Preserving by the Pint)
Yields 2 half-pints
  • 1 dry quart fresh blueberries, rinsed, pickedd over, and mashed (about 1 1/2 lbs. / 680 g.)
  • 3/4 c. / 175 g. packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 c. / 120 ml pure maple syrup
  • 2 T. bottled lemon juice
Prepare a boiling water bath and 2 half-pint jars.  Place 2 lids in a small sauce pan of water and bring to a gentle simmer.

Combine the blueberries, sugar, maple syrup, and lemon juice in a large skillet.  (I used this 3-quart one, which was a perfect size.) Stir to help the sugar dissolve and to integrate the maple syrup.  Once the mixture has begun to look syrupy, place the skillet over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.

Stirring regularly, bring the fruit to a boil and cook until it bubbles and looks quite thick, 10-12 minutes.  It's done when you pull a spatula through the jam and it doesn't immediately rush in to fill the space you've cleared.

When the jam is finished cooking, remove the pot from the heat and pour into the prepared jars.  Wipe the rims, apply the lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

blueberry maple jam

I can't say I've ever used my 3 quart saucepan to make jam before, and that is a great tip for small batches in particular.  The surface area helps evaporate the liquid faster; I really couldn't believe the small batch was finished cooking in just 10 minutes. 

Another great thing about this book is that if you make just a few jars of something, you wouldn't necessarily have to can it if you didn't want to.  Save yourself a jar, and share another with a neighbor or two and save yourself a hot water bath and the canning time.  But I am looking forward to a little patchwork of fully preserved jars on the shelf by the first frost of fall, new preserves from this beautiful book to take me through the winter and help me wait out the time until Marisa's next book.

You can catch more glimpses of Preserving by the Pint at The Preserved Life, Well Preserved, Hip Girls Guide to Homemaking (still a couple of days left to enter their giveaway), and of course at Food in Jars where you can also find Marisa's upcoming appearances.

blueberry jam pot

DISCLOSURE: I received a copy of this book for review, but as always all of my thoughts and opinions are my own.

Crackers & Dips: Ivy Manning's Latest Book (And Giveaway!)

Ivy's Skinny Mints

When I think about Ivy Manning's new book, I can't believe that I've been looking forward to seeing the final result since October of 2011.  Time seems both to linger and fly in waves, and looking back over the amount of time that has passed since I first became acquainted with Ivy and was welcomed into cookbook testing with vigor seems oddly surreal.  

Ivy and I have never met; we were introduced online by another online friend who I have actually met in person, Deena Prichep.  Last Thanksgiving, I looked forward to an evening dinner with Ivy as she visited her homeland of Wisconsin, but an unfortunate flu plagued her (and I was iffy about eating, being newly pregnant) and the opportunity slipped by, drowned under the weight of even more passing time.  The good thing about this passing time is that I know Ivy and I will one day finally sit down to supper together, and when dark days hit, I think about this with great anticipation.

I read a lot of cookbooks.  Some year, I should actually keep track and write them all down.  I've talked about this before, how my library was my greatest resource when I was somewhat economically challeged this past year. Kind souls have somehow graced me with copies of books found in thrift shops or book sales, even the occasional author sent me a review copy of a new work I really wanted, when even those $13 meager dollars sent to Amazon were going to be a stretch.  Good things have a way of making themselves available to those who really appreciate it I think...
Amaranth Crackers with Cheddar and Pepitas served with Roasted Tomatillo and Avocado Dip
 (Photo courtesy of Chronicle books.)
While things on the personal finance front are finally looking up, my bookshelves could quickly grow heavy with new titles that are worth owning, and Ivy's newest book is definitely among them.  Crackers & Dips:  More than 50 Handmade Snacks is a DIY foodist's dream: and I should know, because I got to make and taste firsthand quite a lot of the contents.  The books that usually find permanent residence in my house are the ones that I grab not only for inspiration, but because I know that the recipe will work on the first go - if I'm making it for the 20th time, or just last minute for company.  The other necessary criteria for cookbook ownership is beautiful design, and this book is also beautifully photographed and illustrated, a unique combination of photography (by Jenifer Altman) and chalk drawings (by Kristina Urquhart).  There might not be a better book suited for both gift-giving and practical use!  Every recipe in this book is going to work for you, for snacking, appeasing the kiddos, gift giving, or party-going.

A School of Fish Crackers (Gluten-Free!)
(Photo courtesy of Chronicle Books)

I decided that to celebrate the release of this book, I'd make one of the crackers that I didn't get a chance to test: the Skinny Mint Chocolate Grahams.  Billed as a dessert cracker, these would remind you of a much tastier version of the classic Girl Scout classic.  And after reading this article on the suspect ingredients in them, I feel all that much better to have a really good DIY version!

I love baking by weight, since it is much faster than measuring all the ingredients traditionally, and is more consistent.  This book has metric weights for all of the ingredients listed. I know that when doing my portion of the testing, I double checked the volume to metric ratio, so even if you bake by volume, you can be assured of a good result.
Skinny Mint Chocolate Grahams (Ivy Manning, Crackers & Dips: More Than 50 Handmade Snacks)
  • 14 T. (200 g.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 c. (100 g.) sugar
  • 2 T. honey
  • 1 1/2 t. peppermint extract
  • 1 1/2 c. (185 g.) all purpose flour
  • 1 c. (130 g.) whole wheat flour
  • 1/3 c. (30 g.) unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 t. baking soda
  • 1/2 t. fine sea salt
  • 1 c. (170 g.) bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 1 t. canola oil
Preheat oven to 350 f. (180 c.).

Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.  In the bowl of an electric mixer or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer, beat the butter, sugar, honey, and peppermint extract together until fluffy, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Sift both flours, the cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt into a medium bowl.  Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix on low speed until the mixture forms moist crumbs; do not overmix.  Gather up the dough with your hands (it will come together when squeezed), and divide the dough into two equal-size pieces.  Form each piece of dough into a rectangle measuring 4x6 inches, cover in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 days.

Place a piece of parchment paper on a work surface and lightly dust it with all-purpose flour.  Place a portion of dough on the paper, dust it with flour and place a piece of plastic wrap over the dough.  Roll the dough out until it is 1/8" thick, picking up the plastic once or twice to make sure there are no creases in the dough.

Cut the dough into the desired shapes using cookie cutters, and use a lightly floured spatula or bench scraper to transfer the crackers to one of the prepared baking sheets; reserve and chill the scraps.  Prick each cracker a few times with a fork or comb and bake until they are crisp and smell chocolaty, 10-12 minutes, rotating the sheet once from front to back while baking.  Transfer the crackers to a cooling rack.

While the first batch of crackers is baking, repeat the rolling and cutting process with another ball of dough; the chilled scraps can be re-rolled once.

In a small microwave-safe bowl or a double boiler, melt the chocolate chips until smooth.  Remove from the heat and whisk in the canola oil.  Using an offset spatula, spread about 1/2 t. of the melted chocolate mixture over each cracker and place them on a baking sheet.  Refrigerate the graham crackers until the glaze is set, about 30 minutes.  Once the glaze has set, store the crackers in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Ivy's Skinny Mints
Ivy's Skinny Mints

In my whole foods kitchen, I successfully substituted sucanat for the sugar, and olive oil for the canola.  I also like to roll out the crackers directly on a silicone mat with a piece of plastic wrap over the top.  I found that I didn't need to use any additional flour that way.  I also cut the crackers into squares in part because I was a bit lazy, but also because there is less waste that way.  And besides, that way I get to nibble every ragged edge of chocolate mint graham cracker myself.

Ivy's Skinny Mints

So now for the fun part:  I was given a copy of this book to giveaway!  This is the first giveaway that I've had that didn't contain something that I made myself (Pomegranate Jelly or Candied Jalapenos), or something that I bought to giveaway (WMSE Rockabilly Chili Cookbook).  Historically, I am a small blog with a dedicated readership, so your chances to win this beautiful book are very good.  I wouldn't mind if you share the post and the word about Crackers & Dips with your friends however, because I know they would appreciate a homemade batch of crackers too.  To enter, just leave a comment below before midnight next Friday, May 17th.  I'll choose a winner using a Random Number Generator on Saturday the 18th, and post it here and on the CakeWalk facebook page.

I'll leave you with the image of my favorite recipe from the book:  another dessert cracker made with rich olive oil, orange blossom water and aniseed.

Spanish Olive Oil Tortas
(Photo courtesy of Chronicle Books)

This recipe is alone is worth the cover price, especially when you consider that a gourmet, wax papered bag of pretty Ines Rosales crisps costs quite a bit in specialty food markets... and isn't it so much better to make it yourself anyway?

Congratulations to Ivy Manning on a gorgeous accomplishment!

Disclaimer:  I did receive a copy of this book for review, and another to giveaway.  My opinions of this book are my own, well deserved, and are not embellished!

How Food in Jars Changed my Life.

Maybe some of the chatter about the new Food in Jars cookbook has died down, but I will gladly start it back up again. You might notice the lilacs on the table in the photo below, a visual clue to how long I've been mentally adding up my thoughts on Marisa McClellan's new canning tome. I'm really not even sure how to start, since Marisa was that little whisper in my ear that transformed me from the girl whose family canned, to the girl who confidently cans herself.

Food in Jars, the book.

My Mother and Grandmother will forever echo in my mind as steadfast preservers, their shelves steadily growing each Summer and then beginning to dwindle by Spring of the following year. Canning was a way of life for our family, our Northern Wisconsin gardens always struggling to produce nearly all we needed in the short growing season. The glass jars deeply lined the shelves my Dad built my Mom in our basement, simple but well constructed out of pine. I never realized what a luxury it was to be asked to go downstairs and pick out a jar of vegetables for dinner - my choice. I now know that those short journeys to the basement were life changing and a blessing of wholesome choice.

My Gram's house was a scant half mile from ours, her little red log cabin had enormous rocks as a foundation which kept her basement cool, dark and scary. I would be afraid to venture down the rock stairs (or at least they seemed like rocks; that basement seemed like a castle dungeon to me) to the tiny room just at the bottom. When the door was opened and the light flipped on, a magical and colorful land woke up: floor to ceiling shelves holding all kinds of things in jars. It was the pantry that all pantries want to be when they grow up, and the one I will judge all pantries to.

At the feet of those women, I unknowingly was instilled in good food and preservation. As most of us often do growing up, I didn't hold dear those things I was raised to love. I'd dabbled in a few canning projects - those adventures were always peppered heavily with phone calls to my Mom. She talked me through many first time experiences, consulting her aged Ball preserving book for ratios or telling me how they always did things - little tips to make things easier on the next try. My canning life never stuck for good, I seemed to rest on the laurels of my family and treated preservation as something I would do if I had a bigger garden or a bigger family.

dilly beans.
dilly beans from last year.

I never really owned the feeling of being a full-fledged preservationist until after I began this blog, and after I happened upon the Food in Jars recipe for Dilly Beans which I printed off and also shared with my Mom. That first Summer my true roots began to show as I worked my way through Marisa's jams and jellies. All of a sudden, I treated my local farmer's markets as an extension of my own backyard garden. Marisa taught me that I didn't have to grow it myself to preserve it, and that I could can just a few jars of something unusual and not can dozens of jars of pantry staples. Food in Jars became a regular stop on my Internet rounds, and Marisa became a real person that answered the questions I occasionally emailed her, a prophet of the DIY food scene that was nearly an in-the-flesh friend to me. Her blog became the source I compared against for canning inspiration and knowledge.


I couldn't have been more excited when I first heard about her book, and my excitement remained until May when the book was released. When my copy arrived in the mail, it came on a day when my son was still in school and I was pretty much caught up on my housework. In my own celebratory way, I marched down to my basement and plucked a jar of dilly beans off the shelf and opened them to eat with my lunch. I ate them thinking of Marisa and how happy I was for her. Then, I took my new book outside and read half of it from the beginning in the cool Spring sunshine.

I've done a bit of jam-making at the beginning of this year, but my preservation season is off to a slow start. This book is marked up with lots of post-it page markers - reminding me that I need to find apricots for the Apricot Jam and to pick up cantaloupe later this Summer for the Cantaloupe Jam with Vanilla (which Deena at Mostly Foodstuffs has already declared lives up to the claims of tasting exactly like a Creamsicle). It will be a good resource for this Summer, and beyond - giving recipes for year-round pantry staples like can-able Grainy White Wine Mustard and a number of non-canning, frequently stored in jars items like granolas.

ginger-walnut granola
Ginger-Walnut Granola, sweetened with Steen's cane syrup I happened to have stashed in the freezer...

buckwheat granola
(Gluten-Free) Crunchy Buckwheat Granola

The granolas were actually some the things I was most looking forward to reading about and sampling. I had made this recipe Marisa wrote years ago on SlashFood, a number of times - and a version appears in the cookbook. Of all the things I usually never use a recipe for, I actually followed two of the granola recipes exactly to give them a test run. Both were delicious, especially the one made with buckwheat. Marisa calls for kasha, which are buckwheat groats that have been toasted. Kasha is available for purchase, but I had buckwheat on hand and sprouted/dehydrated some myself to use. This recipe alone (in my opinion) could be worth the cover price! It's much crunchier than traditional granola, and if you have gluten-free oats, it's GF as well. I tried not to overindulge in granola eating, but both jars didn't last long. And, I learned that to get naturally forming clumps in homemade granola a couple of egg whites can often help, as can letting the granola cool when gently heaped up into a mound in the center of the baking sheet.

buckwheat granola, jar

With Spring asparagus in the supermarkets, I took advantage of the seasonality and decided to put up a small batch of Pickled Asparagus. I picked up two large bunches which only amounted to about 2 1/2 lbs. (The recipe called for 4 lbs.) I got two jars with spears, and then decided to re-blanch the tougher stems and pickle up a third jar containing them since I had extra brine. I actually haven't transferred them to the dark basement yet, because I've enjoyed looking at them so much. I haven't cracked them open to taste them yet either - but I'm certain they won't disappoint. One thing I've come to know about Marisa's recipes is that they are always spot-on.

pickled asparagus

I have a few canning books on my personal shelf now that have easily slipped into the classic category. Now right next to Linda Ziedrich and Pam Corbin sits cookbook author Marisa McClellan's first book, and that name printed on the front of a beautiful, hardcover book makes me as proud as if it were my own name. I can't really be sure why this is. It could be because the world of preservers is bonded by not only economy, thrift and seasonality, but also by unspoken vows of commonality. We are happiest when those we know give unending gifts to the canning world, the recipes in this book will do just that - and will continue to do it for many years to come.

DISCLOSURE: I received a copy of this book for review, but all of my thoughts and opinions are my own. I am extremely happy to have this book in my collection, and look forward to using it heavily!

Pan de Muerto.

pan <span class=

As you may already know, I've started writing a second blog for the community pages at Milwaukee Magazine. Yesterday, I wrote about cajeta - the Mexican caramel that is made from boiling down milk until it is rendered silky smooth and heartbreakingly brown. These first two days of November mark the celebrations of Dia de los Muertos, the days of the dead, and as I recounted yesterday, my family has not traditionally celebrated it.

My Mexican heritage is something somewhat buried inside me. Watered down by the generations of American citizenry, brought first to Texas then Chicago through my (maternal) Great Grandmother Carmen, a prize of my Mendez side is our love of sweets. My Mom has told me that my Great Grandmother used to love sweet sips of Pepsi, and all sweets really. "It's where we get it." she said, referring to our predisposition to sugar.

Personally I ebb and flow on the tide of desserts, all of them invade my thoughts and pulse through my culinary veins like the addiction I know it really is. In the past year, I have successfully cut back on sugary sweets, but I've given up trying to deny myself completely. Dessert is one of the great joys of my life, and if I lose a year or a tooth in the arms of this paramour, it will be worth it.

pan <span class=

Having never celebrated Dia de los Muertos traditionally, I am a foreigner to the specialty sweets it brings with it. For my birthday, I had treated myself to a copy of Fany Gerson's My Sweet Mexico. Since, I've read it cover to cover, treasuring the photography as much as the descriptions of the recipes. She paints this holiday vividly, complete with with this enriched Pan de Muerto, flecked with orange peel and scented with orange water. I began it yesterday, unsure if it would succeed. The dough was unruly and sticky, but I stuck to Fany's insistence not to add additional flour unless absolutely necessary (after 15 minutes of stand mixer beating) and then no more than a small amount. My perseverance was worth it - and this is one of the loveliest, softest, gently sweet breads I've ever made.

inside pan <span class=

When reading through the recipe, I felt like I had tried something similar before. A quick consultation with my aged recipe box (the kind that holds the 3x5 cards that no one uses anymore) confirmed my familiarity: I had tried to make something called Portuguese Sweet Bread years ago without luck. I had gotten the recipe from my ex-boyfriend's bread-genius mother, and I remember her lemony little breads raising all over her kitchen one year around Christmastime. The amount of butter and egg involved create doubt in the most seasoned baker I think, but if you pay it no mind and continue as if you know exactly what you're doing, pillow soft egg bread is your reward.

pan <span class=

There is a reason this is a special occasion bread. It's a bread meant to evoke memory and bring with it a specialness of an occasion. There are variations on flavors included in My Sweet Mexico, but I had to try the orangy flavor that was recommended. I secretly wondered if combining the yeast with orange flower water would kill it off, but it did not. It is simply decadent with a stick of butter (and more for the top) and 2 eggs, but worth every little nibble. I halved Fany's recipe to yield a single loaf. This is going to make some stellar toast tomorrow morning.

Remember to begin the day before baking.

Pan de Muerto (Fany Gerson)
yield 1 loaf

  • 1 1/8 t. (a heaping teaspoon) active dry yeast
  • 1 T. orange flower water
  • 1/3 c. milk (whole or 2%)
  • 2 c. bread flour
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 1/2 t. grated orange zest (I keep some in the freezer)
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, room temperature
  • 2 T. butter, melted
  • 1/4 c. sugar (more or less)
Dissolve the yeast in the orange flower water. Add half of the 1/3 c. of milk (leave the other half out on the counter at room temperature), and 1/4 c. of the bread flour. Mix well with a whisk (dough should be sticky and smooth), and leave at warm room temperature for 20-30 minutes until the mixture begins to bubble and look puffy.

Put the remaining flour (1 3/4 c.) in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the hook attachment and add sugar, salt, and orange zest. Mix for about 30 seconds. Add the eggs, the remaining milk and the yeast dough mixture. Mix on low speed until the dough comes together, then add the butter a little at a time in small pieces with the mixer running, increasing the speed to medium. (Here is where Fany begins to suggest that you should resist the urge to add more flour!) The dough will be sticky!

Continue beating for 10-15 minutes. (I let mine go 20 actually.) The dough should start to pull away from the sides of the bowl a little bit, but if it doesn't (like mine), add a small amount of flour, but no more than half of a 1/3 c. (I added a little handful.)

Lightly oil a large bowl, and place the dough inside. Cover well with plastic wrap, and let raise at warm room temperature until doubled in size 1-1 1/2 hours (mine took considerably longer, 3 hours, but my house is on the cool side). Lightly punch down the dough, gathering the sides up and flipping it over so that the seams are on the bottom. (I tried to do this like I did for making Deena's focaccia bread, leaving some air and being gentle.) Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

When ready to continue, bring the dough out of the fridge and leave at room temp to warm up for an hour. Cut off a lime sized piece of dough to use for the "bones", and on a lightly floured surface, quickly shape the (still sticky) dough into a ball. Transfer to a parchment or silicone mat lined sheet and press down gently. Form bones out of the excess dough, 2 (that would intersect in the center as they make an "X" over the top) or 4 (small bone "snakes", like I did), and a little gumball-sized drop for the top. Let rest, covered with a clean towel, until doubled in size about 1 1/2 hours, maybe longer.

Towards the end of the rise, preheat oven to 350. Bake for 20 minutes, check browning (mine never got too brown, but if appearing to be browning too quickly, tent with aluminum foil). Continue baking for 10-20 more minutes until the bottom is browned (and temperature taken from the bottom is 190 degrees).

Remove from the pan to a wire rack and cool for a few minutes. Brush with melted butter, and immediately sprinkle with sugar evenly all over the top.

pan <span class=

I know I shouldn't have been shocked that this bread was so soft, but I was. I was actually shocked that something so sticky could result in something so perfectly beautiful as well. After it cooled and I finally cut off the end to try, I was surprised that it reminded me of my my other (maternal) Great Grandmother Laura. She was from Poland, and made plenty of amazing sweets that I am lucky enough to remember eating as a child. Cheese crepes, blintzes really, and something I remember as a round doughnutty thing, Pączki. She likely treated the tops the same way, with melted butter and granulated sugar. In fact, the texture of this bread was nearly identical to what I remember as her soft bread-like buns with sugary crusts. This bread really did cause me to stir up all kinds of memories of loved ones, maybe the intent all along.

Reading farther in My Sweet Mexico I see that this same bread base is used for Three King's bread, Rosca de Reyes, which is studded with candied fruits and figurines on the 6 of January to celebrate the day that Jesus became known to the world. This in turn reminded me of the Stollen I made at Christmas for the first time last year, and the more I thought about it, I realized that the flavors were very similar.

This Pan de Muerto, however, is far more tender and delicate than it's German counterpart, one worth daydreaming over for a day or two until you can't take it any longer, and you have to celebrate something for the first time. Dia de los Muertos, these days of remembering, have been very special for me. Now, I'll have taste memories to go along with it and fondly revisit. ¡Necesito recordar mi herencia mexicana! Through a few of the celebratory foodstuffs, I can do just that.

This post has been Yeastspotted.

A New Direction and Ivy's Swedish Rye Crackers

I think it's curious that you can make almost anything from scratch, but nothing impresses people more than to tell them you made the crackers. It may be a preconceived notion that cracker origins are inexplicable: mystical, crisp things that elves or independent hippies in Vermont are lovingly packing into cardboard boxes. Maybe people consider that such things are not able to be made by human hands, but making preservative free, healthy snacks can become a rhythm backbone of the kitchen. Nothing is better than to open the pantry door and see a few jars of homemade crackers, fully deserving of your homemade dips, spreads, jams or jellies - things you can just pop out onto a plate when unexpected company arrives.

I really do enjoy making crackers, in fact I forgot how many different types I have tried and even posted about here until I searched 'crackers' in my blog search box on the right side of the page. I have some serious favorites, like the Gluten Free Multigrain Crackers or Alton Brown's Seedy Crisps - both of which are in regular rotation. Just as the school year began and I felt a lonely hole in my first few days of new solitary independence, my friend Deena emailed me and asked if I'd be interested in testing recipes, and if so if she might give my name to a friend of hers who was writing a cookbook all about crackers. I excitedly told her yes! Shortly after, I was acquainted with Ivy Manning, a cookbook author, recipe developer, and former Wisconsinite living now in Portland, Oregon.

Our first exchanges made me even more excited to be able to help. Ivy seemed oddly like me, living with a husband who is a "picky eater", fully passionate about food, and very busy. She began emailing me her recipes a few at a time, which I double checked for weights and volumes as I baked, and I tried to give her honest feedback about them. One of the first recipes I tested was for these slightly time consuming Swedish Rye Crackers - some that at the time I thought were good, but now they have grown on me so much I think I'll likely keep a batch around for emergencies on most occasions. They are very crisp, hard in fact, and they store like a dream. I've had the same batch in a half gallon canning jar for about a month and they only seem to improve. This week I ate them with a little of this incredible Walnut Lentil Pate, which I know I have mentioned before. As I ate them, I realized this cracker was the perfect pre-dinner munch, and they cemented my already warm feelings of rye flour.

Ivy decided not to use this version of Swedish Rye Crackers in her book, and granted me permission to post about them here, since I feel they deserve to have a special place in a cracker-maker's repertoire.

These are hard, crunchy crackers. If you are a fan of Rykrisp crackers or anything super crunchy, you will love them. Even though they have a good amount of rye flour, I feel like they are also distinctly wheaty in flavor. They are great for mopping up soup or mashed potatoes if you've forgotten the bread, and are good with jelly and peanut butter too - though personally I'd probably nix the caraway seeds if you plan on serving with something sweet.

Swedish Rye Crackers (Ivy Manning)
about 3 1/2 dozen crackers
  • 2 1/2 t. active dry yeast
  • 1 1/2 c. warm water
  • 1 1/3 c. bread flour, plus additional for rolling
  • 1 t. fine sea salt
  • 2 1/3 c. rye flour
  • 2 t. caraway seeds (I only put seeds on about half the batch, they are good with or without as you prefer)
  • Kosher salt, for topping crackers
In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water. Add the bread flour, and beat with the paddle attachment on medium speed for 2 minutes, or 50 strokes with a wooden spoon if mixing by hand.

Stir in salt, and gradually add the rye flour. Beat on medium low speed for 4 minutes. If kneading by hand, transfer the dough to a large ziptop bag, squeeze out the air, seal bag, and knead for 6 minutes. Do not add additional flour. Turn the bag inside out to free the dough from the bag, it will be sticky.

Coat a large bowl with oil and add the dough. Cover with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise for 90 minutes in a warm place.

Preheat the oven to 375. Turn the dough out onto a lightly flour dusted surface and divide into three pieces. Gently pat the pieces into rectangles about 1/2 inch thick. Roll one piece of dough out until it's about 1/8 inch thick, picking up the dough and rotating it frequently to make sure it isn't sticking. using a pastry or pizza wheel, trim the irregular edges and cut the dough into 4x2 inch rectangles. Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Repeat with remaining dough to fill a second baking sheet. Prick the crackers all over with a chopstick, then spray them lightly with water, sprinkle with caraway seeds (if using) and press them in lightly so they will adhere. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, and set aside for 30 minutes. (You can re-roll the scraps once.)

Uncover the crackers and bake, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back once during baking. Baking will take 25-35 minutes depending on the thinness of your cracker. (You can always take them out, and then re-bake them if you think they need to go longer.) The crackers should be browned around the edges, smell toasty, and be dry to the touch. Transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely, about 1 hour. Store in an airtight container for 2 weeks or longer...

(I baked a couple of 1/2 inch by 4 inch pieces of re-rolled dough scrap, and they puffed up hollow. Next time I make them, I may try cutting a whole tray full this way...)

So many times I wonder what I should be doing with myself. I really am content to be a homemaker, chronicling my adventures every so often so I can share some of my excitement with others. But sometimes I do get frustrated, I think I should be "gainfully employed", and then wonder what it is that I should be really be doing so that I can continue to enjoy myself as much as I have since I became a mother 5 years ago.

I know I'm not going to be the next Martha Stewart, but maybe I've found a niche in the behind the scenes of cookbook writing. This may be my first foray into this field, but it's one I hope I can figure out how to grow into more. It feels so good to see the the other side of the cookbook writing process, the amazing work that goes into it by an author, and the trials, successes and failures, and evolution of recipes. I have been reveling in cracker testing in part because it is a subject matter that is really appealing to me, but more because I feel good to be a bit unseen, a stealth baker who may just show up at your door with a little overflow of delicious kitchen bounty.

Now that Winter is on his way I feel I'll have so much more time to read, and I'm looking forward to reading more of Ivy's cookbooks: The Farm to Table Cookbook and The Adaptable Feast. Her book on crackers is scheduled for Spring 2013, but meanwhile you can find Ivy at her website. It's going to be a great book, just judging from my sneak peak testing... One recipe in particular I've made 3 times already, just because it was so delicious.

I look forward to the emails with little attachments, and like an archeologist who patiently brushes the sand away from stone bones, I have remember to discipline myself to follow instructions and be methodical. It's all a great lesson and learning experience, and I feel so thankful to have had it drop in my lap.