Under the Apricot Tree

Savoring the Abundance of Simple Living

Category: Nourishment

Easy as Apple Pie

Is there anything more welcoming and enticing than the scent of fresh baked pie in your kitchen? I think not.

I do love me some apple pie. But baking a pie from scratch seems a bit daunting, doesn’t it? The domain of domestic goddesses extraordinaire, in whose league I do not belong, as much as I enjoy dabbling in the culinary arts. In an earlier time, my grandparents’ generation, many women baked pies every week. In fact, my dad tells the story of his mom setting her hot-from-the-oven Saturday pie on the open window sill to cool, and a sticky-fingered thief walked right off with it. Scandalized the entire neighborhood. Well, I’ve discovered a little trick that makes apple pie so simple, it is downright scandalous. 🙂

You simply prepare the apple filling in advance and freeze it in Ziploc bags. Then when it’s pie time, pull a bag from your freezer, place it in your pie crust and bake. So easy! By preparing several batches of filling simultaneously, the workload per pie is a fraction of what it would be using a traditional pie recipe. And it’s laughably easy to go from frozen filling to warm, delectable dessert on your table. (If you want another shortcut, use the store-bought pie crust dough. I won’t tell if you don’t. 😉 ) And the flavor, texture and aroma are everything you’d hope for. Using this method, I was able to serve homemade pie on Thanksgiving, just a few weeks after William was born, when I was still in the newborn-phase-fog and could hardly make toast.

You could whip up a 3-pie recipe for the freezer in about an hour. But if you find a good deal on apples and want to really stockpile, give yourself all afternoon and invite a friend to join you. Big jobs in the kitchen are so much more fun if you make a party of it!

Last week my friend Lisa and I had an apple party. I had ordered 40 pounds of organic juicing apples from our food co-op, Azure Standard, for just 50 cents/pound. So we rolled up our sleeves, turned up the music, and stocked up on pie filling and apple sauce. Since we both have babies (her Luke was born 3 weeks before my William), it was a bit of a juggling act. But the boys were good and spent most of the time sleeping and entertaining one another nearby.

Here are a few photos from our time, and I’ve included the recipe for frozen (or canned) apple pie filling from the Ball’s Blue Book of Canning at the bottom of this post.

Not necessary, but these peeler-corers sure save a lot of time by peeling, coring and slicing your apples at once. And they're kind of fun to use. (Cost $25 new)

Starting to smell sooo good!

one frozen pie filling

Voila! One hot-from-oven pie to-go.

And it really is that easy. When friends invited us for Saturday supper last weekend, I volunteered to bring dessert, knowing it would be a piece of cake to whip up, err…excuse me, easy as pie.

APPLE PIE FILLING RECIPE

from the Ball Blue Book of Preserving

Yield: about 6 pints (3 pies)

6 pounds apples               1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

2 cups sugar                      1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 cup flour                          2 tablespoons lemon juice

Wash, peel, core and slice apples. Treat to prevent darkening [I skip this step]. Combine sugar, flour and spices. Rinse and drain apples [I skip this, to]; stir into sugar mixture. Let stand until juices begin to flow, about 30 minutes. Stir in lemon juice. Cook over medium heat until mixture begins to thicken. Ladle pie filling into can-or-freeze jars or plastic freezer boxes, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. [I allow to cool and then ladle into large Ziploc freezer bags] Cool at room temperature, not to exceed 2 hours. Seal, label and freeze.

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Poultry Pen News

Hi from the farm! Lots of fun developments in the poultry realm these days.

We moved my hens from their little gypsy cart coop in the round orchard to the big old chicken coop out back. At first, I wasn’t happy at this prospect, but the landlord, who is truly a dear, served their eviction notice so that he could spray the fruit trees. I do like seeing my girls strutting around right outside the house and having them near enough I can literally step out the side door and toss them kitchen scraps from the porch. Plus the fact that the old coop is an ancient pieced-together thing that had us joking about haunted buildings when we first moved in…not very appealing. 

spoooooky!

But the old coop was given quite the makeover, with a new tin roof, running water, fenced yard, electricity for a winter heat lamp, and my dear husband spent most of last Saturday installing a roosting bar, ramp for the doorway, nesting boxes and generally cleaning up the place. So it has been effectively rid of its ghosts. 🙂 Plus, I think I’ll buy one of these cute, retro tin signs to further cheer it up.

Source: retroplanet.com via Jenni on Pinterest

 

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I can’t decide between the two, so let me know in the Comments which sign you like better!

Well, the girls must be happy in their new digs because yesterday I checked the nesting boxes and found an egg! They hadn’t been laying all winter, ever since the days got cold and short. I’ve been buying local free-range eggs from my favorite market / bakery / cafe in town, Great Earth; but availability is spotty and it seems silly (and spendy!) to pay for eggs AND organic chicken feed. I just came in from the coop and found a second egg today, this one a nice olive green color. I suspect it’s the younger white pullets who’ve started laying because the size is slightly smaller and the color is different from the pale pistachio eggs I collected last fall. The little free-loaders are starting to earn their keep again. Good for them–I was starting to wonder if they’d be more helpful in a stew pot! Just kidding, I could never do that…or could I? More on that later.

So the haunted coop is rid of its ghosts, but unfortunately I have a new reason to fear going out there. The tom turkey has decided that I am a threat to his flock’s safety and has been acting aggressively toward me. We used to have a great relationship–I would tell him he’s a pretty bird and he’d puff up his chest, fan his tail feathers and be a show off. But now he comes at me like he’s going to attack and I have to keep a stick between us to defend myself from thirty pounds of butterball fury. Why the sudden change? I think I know why. These boots:

my predatorial Kate Spades

My mom & sis picked up these fun Kate Spade wellingtons on sale for me, thinking they’d be great for traipsing around the farm. But when I wore them into the poultry pen, ol’ Tom saw the animal print and his internal predator alert went wild. After a couple times in the boots, now he’s convinced that I’m the enemy even when I’m not wearing them. Not sure what we’re going to do about this issue. I think someone needs to find a new home. And it will probably be the boots.

he used to bring me roses

And the last item in our poultry news update is that, with the bigger coop, Seth and I are considering taking our poultry husbandry to the next level. But I’ll save the ins & outs of that for a later post. Meanwhile, I am looking forward to having our own farm fresh eggs again. I think I’ll make a tasty cheese omelette for our Saturday morning breakfast tomorrow.

FARM GIRL TIPS

URBAN FARM GIRL (OR BOY, FOR MY GUY READERS): Want farm-fresh eggs but don’t live on a farm? Most city ordinances allow you to keep 2-3 chickens on your property. Certain rules apply (no roosters, must be a certain distance from neighbors’ property line, etc.). Urban poultry keeping has become quite popular as people discover how fun and easy it is to keep chickens, and there’s a lot of good info out there on how to get started. Chickens do require daily attention, but it can be just minutes a day. Farm fresh eggs from hens on a free-range  or varied diet including fresh greens cannot be matched. Try them once and you’ll never want to go back to those  pale, insipid things from the grocery store.

OUTSOURCING FARM GIRL OR BOY: Not into keeping your own flock? Finding a good source for farm fresh eggs isn’t too hard. Check with your local natural foods store. Or, call the number on one of those hand-written roadside signs that advertises eggs for sale. Or, check out Craigslist by clicking “Farm+Garden” and type “eggs” in your search. Be sure to ask about the hens’ diet and pen, if organic is important to you. (By the way, just so we can laugh at ourselves, have you seen this hilarous Portlandia “Is it local?” skit? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2LBICPEK6w) But seriously, don’t be fooled into thinking that the eggs marketed as “free range” at your grocery store are what they seem; the space requirements for that certification are only a little better than the horrendous conditions that most commercial laying hens are kept in. So supporting a small-scale egg producer is a good way to direct part of your grocery money, and your tastebuds will thank you.

Have a great weekend!

~Jenni

A Gathering Time

“To everything there is a season,

a time for every purpose under heaven.

I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied.

He has made everything beautiful in its time.

And He has set eternity in their hearts.”

Ecclesiastes 3:1, 10, 11

Ahh, fall, the season of change. The other morning, while still dark outside, Seth and I awoke to the lively, heavy scent of wet sage and juniper curling through our open window, as a surprise rain caused the plants to release the fresh coolness they’d held onto all these dry hot weeks of summer. These first days of autumn feel like a celebration of the season. A frosty morning is novel and frisky. We’re enjoying those “firsts” of the season:  pumpkin spice latte, fire in the woodstove, Pumpkin Pie Blizzard from DQ. Our food cravings shift toward heartier fare: chili & cornbread, toasted cheese sandwiches, baked sweetbreads, anything pumpkin or apple, roasts and dinners hot from the oven.

We are definitely in a “gathering” mode on the farm these days, putting up food and firewood for the winter ahead. One thing I’m enjoying about living here is seeing and taking part in the process of things. Harvesting pears from the orchard; letting them ripen on the counter until their perfume announces ripeness; and then peeling, chopping, simmering, seasoning, and mashing them into a delicious pear sauce (smooth for Seth, chunky for me).

Pears (plus a few apples and Asian pears) ready for the sauce pot

It’s a satisfying kind of work to roll up one’s sleeves and get the hands a little dirty. A few times a day, when I need a quick break from my computer-driven day job, I slip on my barn shoes and head outside with the dog to pick those last ripe tomatoes, feed the birds some table scraps, pluck a few pieces of fruit. I bought an old fruit-picker’s basket from the thrift store and keep it by the side door because I’m always coming in with something. The 5 chickens are starting to lay more regularly now. Although, the 3 turkey hens have them beat at egg production (and size)! Anybody want to come over for a turkey egg scramble? Unusual, I know, but you might be surprised how good they are.:) The only thing is that those eggshells are so strong, I have to hammer down hard to get a clean break!

The white girls should start laying any day now...

Meanwhile, turkeys rule the roost

Seth has been a prime “hunter-gatherer”, bringing home a beautiful 7-pound steelhead from the Deschutes River (caught on the spey rod he built), which is now in our freezer for future meals.

Fresh steelhead, anyone? We'll grill this on a cedar plank--smoky & delicious!

And he’s filling the woodshed with fuel to keep us warm through the coming cold.

Chopping wood

Fill 'er up!

Winston's cozy spot by the fire

All that work builds an appetite and I’ve been having fun in the kitchen. I don’t know how much cooking and baking I’ll be up to when the baby arrives, so all the more reason to enjoy it now and stock up on some things. We had oodles of beautiful little plum tomatoes last week–I couldn’t eat them fast enough, so I dehydrated them and packed in olive oil with garlic and herbs. Should make a tasty, simple addition to pasta,  pizza, or sandwiches this winter. 

So that’s what’s new and fun on the farm these days! I hope you are enjoying fall, notching off some “firsts” of the season, and eating well, my friends. 🙂

Starting Our Chicken Flock

One of my authors teased me for saying we’d recently “acquired laying hens.” Apparently, that’s an awfully literary/businessy term for a farm girl. So let me instead announce, “We got some chickens, y’all!” And this literary farm girl is thrilled about it.

For years, I’ve been wanting a backyard brood. Not only do their eggs provide an unbeatable protein source for this vegetarian bod, chickens have distinct personalities and they’re just fun to have around. Our family kept a flock when I was in middle school and I loved the experience. So I researched city code and our HOAs to see if we could keep a couple hens on our postage-stamp lot in Sisters, but it wasn’t an option. As soon as it looked like we’d be moving, near the top of my “Next House Wish List” was a yard big enough to fit a flock of feathered friends. Upon visiting this rental property the first time, I had already mapped out the best place for my hens in the fully fenced round orchard on the side of the house. Just steps from the porch, it’s a convenient spot to care for them and I can keep an eye on them from inside. Plus, what chicken wouldn’t want to loll around under fruit trees all day?

The girls and their Gypsy Cart style coop

Well, it’s a good thing they’re nearby, because the other night after dinner, my friend Erin and I were relaxing in the living room when Seth shouted from upstairs, “What’s happening out there?!” Suddenly, I heard a horrible ruckus from the hen house. My adrenaline spiked and we dashed barefooted into the dark to find a flury of feathers and two of the five hens running around like, pardon the pun, chickens with their heads cut off. A moment later, Seth was there, equipped with a flashlight and gun. But the mysterious invader was no where to be seen. Was it a coyote or dog? A snake or raccoon? Then a moment later, Erin saw a huge winged creature lift off silently from the fence post to our left: a barn owl. Mr. Owl must’ve noticed the new birds on his turf and dive-bombed one of them in the apple tree where they’d been roosting peacefully. Fortunately he missed. All the hens were accounted for–three of them petrified in the tree branches, silently hoping for invisibility. One by one, we gently picked up the birds and placed them in the solid wood safety of their hen house, then shut the door. Looks like we’ll need to lock them up tight each night to ensure this kind of excitement–or worse–doesn’t happen again. I guess that’s life on the farm!

Meanwhile, by daylight, the girls are eating well on their diet of organic layer feed, oyster shell, and plenty of kitchen scraps. So much for my compost pile–they love picking at our leftovers and I get such a kick out of their enthusiastic eating habits! They’re Americaunas, so their eggshell color is a beautiful blue-green color. However, with the trauma of being transported here last week and a few of them not quite yet “of age” for egg laying, our actual egg production has been pretty sparse so far. Brave Matilda layed one perfect pistachio-colored egg the day preceding the owl fiasco. At this rate, it could be another week before we have enough for an omelette! But with an abundance of food and some peace & quiet, I’m hopeful we’ll have dozens of beautiful, organic eggs to share soon enough.

One lonely, lovely egg

Summer’s Last Kiss

“Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”

~William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18

Today is the first day of September and the first official day of work for most school employees (my husband included). Temperatures are cooler this week and, though I hope we’ll enjoy an Indian Summer fall, the essence of summer feels decidedly past-tense.

You know how a certain fragrance or taste can transport you to another moment in time? Well, for me, the official Taste of Summer 2011 will forever be ripe juicy peaches and apricots. Since moving here one month ago, I’ve grown quite addicted to pulling an aromatic, sun-warmed sphere of gold from our trees each day, admiring the rosey blush and intoxicating aroma, and then savoring its juicy sweetness. A store-bought peach that’s picked green, transported hundreds or thousands of miles, and then sprayed with ethylene gas to speed ripening cannot compare. For a fruit poacher like me (http://findthefound.org/2011/03/31/confessions-of-a-fruit-poacher/), picking organic fruit in my own backyard is a near-heavenly privilege that I do not take lightly. Right this very moment, I happen to know that there is one last perfect peach hanging high in the tree. It could have been picked a couple days ago, and perhaps should have been, but I just can’t bring myself to pluck it, for the symbolic finality of that action. The end of peach season feels like the end of summer.

But maybe it doesn’t have to end, completely.

In an effort at teasing the benevolent kiss of summer to follow me into the cooler months–to capture that warm flash of sunshine and garden-fresh burst of flavor–I decided to do what women have done for generations: can it. If I could trap that fresh peachy flavor in a lidded glass jar, then maybe I would be able to taste summer again every time I lift that lid in the winter cold of February.

My canning experience is minimal, and I’ve never done it alone. There were the two “We be jammin'” sessions with my precious Grandma Mig in my college years, laughing and laboring over steaming jars of applesauce with girlfriends a few autumns back, and…well, that’s about it. So with this being my first foray into solo canning, I knew I’d better keep it simple. Freezer jam is quick and simple. Perfect.

To find a recipe, I Googled “Apricot Peach Freezer Jam”, skimmed through a few variations, and chose this recipe using Sure Jell fruit pectin: http://kraft.us/o3YO37. It turned out so tasty and I had couple pounds of peaches left, so I decided to make a second batch, this time Peach Rasberry Freezer Jam, which also turned out wonderfully: http://bit.ly/o67zYy.

Below are a few pics of the process and the finished product. I took my time, feeling like a kid finger-painting with the naturally vibrant jewel-tones, and was finished in about an hour per batch. After admiring my pretty jars all in a row, I labeled their contents: “Peach Apricot”, “Rasberry Peach”, and on the last lid I scrawled, “Summer’s Last Kiss.” I’ve since been conducting some highly scientific experiments to determine which divine flavor I like best (this involves smearing slices of bread with butter and topping generously with one or both of the jams; eat and repeat). The results are still out.

If this sounds fun to you, it’s not too late. The next time you see a roadside fruit stand or farmers market, swing in and buy a box of the best looking fruit you find. Even if you’re a jamming rookie like me, it’s not laborious or difficult to make a batch of freezer jam. And they make the prettiest little homemade gifts for friends.

Well, the weather forecast says warm and sunny today. I think I’ll step outside in a minute and pick that last fuzzy peach.

Tell me about it: What’s your favorite way to preserve summer’s sweetness?