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    Maple Syrup

    Before I start … dear friend, dear, dear friend, I can see you from here, pixie with the flame red hair, hanging your head and groaning. This certainly falls under the ‘Ernie Wonders Why!?’ category. Read on …

    Maine winters are tough. And long. And cold. Long and grey. Long and dreary. Did I mention long?

    This winter has been particularly harsh. Though, truth be told, the harshness started at the end of FEBRUARY! You know, that point in the winter season when snow should be melting, wistfully waiting for the first crocus to peer it’s little head out of the ground. This winter NOT SO MUCH.

    We have had nor’easter after nor’easter dumping FEET of snow at a time.

    This is the point in time when we look outside, seeing nothing but snow, we try to find some project to occupy ourselves. I’ve knit enough. I am cooked out (HA!), crafted out. The Dear One has made enough noise and dust in the shop and is at a stopping point in construction.

    We thought our salvation had come while running errands in Vermont a few weeks ago, we saw a maple syrup making kit. Light bulbs went off, eyebrows raised, glances shared, this may just be the thing to beat the winter blues. Did we buy it? NO! It was expensive. They didn’t have taps, just tubing, and we left that big box of hope on the shelf. Disappointment all around. The thought of tapping our own trees kept rolling in our minds on that quick 8 hour drive home.

    Maple Syrup. Maple Syrup. What did (maple syrup) you say, dear? Maple Syrup. What do we need (maple syrup) from the store. Would you like chicken (maple syrup) for dinner tonight? See?

    We finally had a (short) reprieve from the bitter cold … actually crawled up to 40! Hmmm … sap runs on warm days. Honey, says the Dear One, let’s give maple syrup a whirl! YAY!

    Off to the store I went and we purchased 1 drill bit, 4 pails for gathering the sap, 4 spiles (taps with hooks), 1 lid, 3 disposable lasagna pans, 1 very large steam pan, 1 5 gallon bucket.

    The Dear One built a fire pit outside for the fire, gathered some wood for the fire – we used various conifer trees that we had cut dow, surely we’re not using the wood for the wood stove for this! Just outside the front door there is a cinderblock base, with a piece of grating on top, a pan on top of that, an old chair from the elementary school, various coolers filled with varying amounts of sap. It looks like Appalachia out there … or a war zone …

    Ready, set, go!

    Or so we thought.

    We picked the 4 maple trees for their closeness to each other, the fire and the house. In hindsight, trees easier to get to in case you get walloped with 2 feet of snow is probably a good thing. 2 of these trees involved a short walk up the driveway, across a gully with a steep edge and slogging.

    The Dear One drilled the holes and we hung the pails. Sap started dripping into the buckets almost immediately. The lid in the above photo is not ideal, though it will happily be sold to you for ridiculous amount of money. The wind blows it open. Falling snow and ice shifts the lid. The disposable lasagna pans I bought can be moulded to the pail and stay in place much better – and they cost $1.99 for 3 of them.

    So, as the sap drips we kept an eye on the pails. We emptied the pails into the bucket – as you can see, Bob helped too!  As an aside, just as we were about to begin to boil – WHAM – snow. We poured the sap into 3 small coolers and one large cooler, put them in the shade in a snow bank and hunkered down – again!

    Next step – build a fire. You need dry wood. Lots and lots of dry wood. Lots and lots of dry wood. Our first attempt at fire didn’t work so well. So bad in fact, that sap was going to be dumped and things were being kicked around the yard. We decided to give up and be prepared for this next year. But just as I was about to start cleaning out ALL the coolers, buckets, pans, etc., The Dear One had a Wylie Coyote moment and found a cache of dry spruce and built a roaring fire. Well, perhaps we were off to the races after all!

    You pour the sap into the pan. It’s a little disheartening. It’s clear. It’s water. It tastes like nothing. I was hoping for a hint of something. A soupçon. Nope. Nothing. Sigh. You know you’re going to be feeding this fire for a long, long time, you just hope the end result looks and tastes more like maple syrup than this beginning.

    And you wait for a boil (and drink beer).

    And feed the fire.

    And wait for a boil (maybe Allen’s Coffee Brandy is better).

    And feed the fire.

    And wait for the boil (where’s the bourbon).

    Suddenly, in between your 3rd or 4th time of feeding the fire (and drinks) the sap boils! You start to do a dance around the fire reminiscent of Max and the Monsters in The Wild Things. It boils down, you add more sap, comes to a boil (dance some more), it boils down (feed the fire), you add more (sip of drink) sap, comes back to a (dance, dance, dance) boil, feed the fire (almost forgot that for a moment and the fire NEARLY went out), AND REPEAT many, many times (wait, check the pails some more)!

    You’re waiting – well, in our case, to use up the sap we had on hand – for a color and a certain viscosity and, truth be told, we have NO clue whatsoever what we’re waiting for – perhaps Godot).

    We punted. It was cold. It had been HOURS. All our sap was in the pan boiling. There were no more snacks or beer. The sun was setting. We made the executive decision that this was good enough. It most likely should have boiled longer.

    Now you pour the molten hot sap/syrup through a strainer that is really just a gigantic coffee filter and into a big pot. Did I mention hot? Hot fire. Hot pan. Hot liquid.

    Into the house now for the 2nd boil. You’re trying to get to a soft ball stage – or as one of Mr. Google’s friends said – 7 degrees above boiling water for your elevation. Really? Just give me a number, a temperature. I’m exhausted. At this point, I hate this project. I hate maple trees. I smell like Smokey the Bear. I’m nearly blind from the smoke and soot in my eyes. AND THERE’S STILL MORE TO DO!

    This sap/syrup needs to be boiled down more. You want that amber color. You want it to coat the back of a spoon. You want to watch it like a hawk – as the friends of Google instructed – because one second too long and your 8 hours of agony could be ruined. As with the outside boil, this probably should have gone on a bit longer as well.

    Not being able to stop myself, I made my toil linger. I decided once I reached the right temperature and thickness, I was going to then ‘can’ the syrup so it would last. I’m not sure I needed to do this and there are opposing views on whether this step was necessary, but I thought why tempt fate!? And besides, at this point I am delirious and I could have moved Cadillac Mountain to Canada as long as I could shower!

    In the end 20 gallons of sap made 3 pints of maple syrup. Sigh! Stop laughing, Ernestine.

    What we’ve learned:

    • Have lots of dry wood.
    • Make sure the Dear One has had plenty of sleep.
    • Make sure there’s a lot of beer and snacks.
    • Start early.
    • Get two chairs to sit by the fire – not that you can figure out where to put the chairs so smoke doesn’t go in your eyes.
    • More beer (a suggestion by the Dear One)
    • Build a sugar shack!
    • Let it boil outside longer
    • Let it boil inside longer
    • GO TO THE STORE AND BUY MAPLE SYRUP!!

    Yes, Ernie, I know. They sell real maple syrup in the store. Even my Dad said, have you heard of Log Cabin?

    Truthfully, nothing beats this taste! The flavor is totally worth the agony.

    We’re waiting for it to warm up a bit. We’re going to do this one more time. What can I tell you? It must be like child birth. You forget the pain and agony. If you didn’t why would people do these things more than once!

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    Cranberry Sauce

    Done

    I have never quite understood the appeal of canned cranberry sauce. I know people who swear by it … whose families would call for a mutiny if there was not a jelled, can shaped blob on the table when turkey is served. Okay, you don’t want to go through the trouble of making your own, at least mush the canned stuff up a bit so it isn’t can shaped, rings and all!

    My dad’s family has always been very fond of a cranberry relish, which is raw and really a bit tart for my delicate palate … hush up, all you naysayers, I am SO delicate!

    My bestie Ernie gave me this recipe, and she gives it to me EVERY year, as I always misplace the scrap of paper I wrote it on, AND I ask her the same question every year after she sends it to me and I have promised to keep the recipe in a safe place!

    This is so simple and so tasty and it freezes really well too! It’s best made days in advance so the flavors have a chance to meld. And besides, before you get down to the hysteria of cooking a Thanksgiving meal, this can be done and tucked into the fridge and you have a (false) sense of security that you’ve begun your cooking!

    • 2 bags (24 ozs) cranberries
    • 1 orange, zest and juice
    • 3/4 C water
    • 2 C sugar

    Ingredients

    Preheat oven to 350

    Ready for oven

    Stir all ingredients together. Pour into an 8×8 Pyrex dish. Cover with foil. Bake for 1 hour.

    NOTE: I have stirred this in the Pyrex dish itself and in a bowl. If you’re a bit of a messy cook, like me, the bowl is easier!

    Cooked

    Let cool completely. Refrigerate.

    NOTE: This will look very loose when it comes out, and you’ll want to call Ernie, as I do EVERY year, and say IT’S TOO LOOSE. But, once it cools it will thicken, I promise. You can also easily halve this recipe if necessary.

    Ketchup

    Yes, Ernie. Yes, I know Ernie. Yes, I understand there are companies that have been making ketchup and putting it glass containers and placing those glass containers on supermarket shelves for over 100 years. And, yes, dear, I am well aware that there is an aisle filled with almost nothing other than ketchup at my local supermarket. But aren’t either of you even just the tiniest bit curious to experiment and learn how to do it, or what it would taste like out of your own kitchen?

    Can you all hear Ernie SHRIEKING …. NO, NO, NO!

    I can’t either. It helps that I stick my fingers in my ears whilst singing “la,la,la,la, I can’t hear you”

    I had to do this. Just had to. Quite frankly, it has been sitting on my to-do list for quite some time.  I would look, and sigh, and turn the page. But things have been pretty quiet in my end of the world and something was needed to occupy my time to not miss people so much.

    KETCHUP to the rescue!

    • 1  28-oz. can tomato puree
    • 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and quartered
    • 1 clove garlic, crushed and peeled
    • 1/2 fresh jalapeño, stemmed and seeded
    • 2 T dark brown sugar
    • 1/2 C cider vinegar
    • 1 C water
    • Pinch cayenne
    • Pinch celery salt
    • Pinch dry mustard
    • Pinch ground allspice
    • Pinch ground cloves
    • Pinch ground ginger
    • Pinch ground cinnamon
    • Kosher salt
    • Freshly ground black pepper

    NOTE: It’s all those spices that make the difference. It seems a little spicy as it’s bubbling away, but once it cools and sets up and then chills, it’s very mild.

    Yields about 4 cups of ketchup (that’s about 3 1/2 pint jars)

    Put tomato purée, onion, garlic, jalapeño, and brown sugar into a blender or food processor and pulse until just blended. Add in the vinegar and water and purée until smooth.

    Transfer the mixture to a medium saucepan; add cayenne, celery salt, mustard, allspice, cloves, ginger, and cinnamon. Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes to an hour, testing the consistency after an hour. ** 

    Season to taste with salt and pepper.

    Store in refrigerator, covered, for up to 1 month.

    ** To test the consistency of  how thick the ketchup will be when it’s cold, place a small plate in the freezer for about 15 minutes. When you think the ketchup is done, put about a teaspoon of the ketchup on the cold plate. Stick the plate back in the freezer until the ketchup is cold, about 5 minutes. Then taste it, see if you’re happy with the taste and the consistency. The consistency of the ketchup on your plate will be about how thick the ketchup will be once it’s chilled.

    If you like the flavor and consistency, take the pot off the heat, let chill and jar. If you want it a bit thicker, simmer for another 5-10 minutes, and do the cold plate test again.

    Avocado Cream

    And so the last component of this fantastic birthday, Mexican fiesta was a recipe I was inspired by by at a fellow foodie’s blog. They had used this for enchiladas, but I thought this would be perfect on top of the Burgers al Pastor I was making – and it was!

    Creamy, bright, fresh, rich – perfect on burgers, enchiladas, tacos, or to just scoop up greedily with tortilla chips when everyone else has gone to bed!

    • 1 1/2 avocados
    • juice of 1 lime
    • 1 T cilantro
    • salt to taste
    • 3 heaping t sour cream (add a little more if you want his a little looser

    NOTE: The lime, salt and sour cream can be adjusted to your own taste.

    Everything into the food processor, blender or even a bowl and mash by hand. Done!

    I halved this recipe and it made enough for the burgers and for a cook’s secret treat later! Although, it is really hard to eat crunchy tortilla chips quietly!