Kate's Queen City Notes

Blundering through Cincinnati, laughing all the way


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Black Raspberries: My Wounds Are Not From Branding Cats

Asynchronous communication and instant gratification makes nature’s ridged timing feel foreign. Strawberries gleam on the grocery store shelves at all times of the year. So, when black raspberries come in season the scramble to pick them in those precious few days is jarring. Maybe it’s that I grew up picking fruits and tending my grandmother’s garden, that I find this limitation reassuring. No matter what technology throws at us, black raspberries are only in season for moments.

Dale Stokes Berry Farm was just as lovely as I remembered it. The raspberry bushes were just as cruel as I remembered them. They give up their fruit but only after their thorns draw blood.

Two of us picked 13 pounds of berries in 2 hours. This was sufficient to make 2 batches of jelly, 3 quarts of pie filling, one pie with about 4 cups of berries left over to freeze.

One batch of jelly was made according to the instructions on the Sure-jell packaging. I went off the map with the second batch. Last year we tried out a sugar-free black raspberry chipotle lime jam. I wanted to repeat this, but I found that the link to the recipe is now broken (see last year’s blog here).

I purchased some sugar-free Sure-jell pectin. And while I followed the instructions in terms of how much prepared juice I used and cooking instructions, I made everything else up as I went. I used the juice and zest from about 2-3 limes, 6 dashes of cheyenne pepper, and one cup of orange blossom honey. Bear in mind that I was mostly tossing things in and adjusting by taste.

My concerns about the jelly setting up enough were valid. That quantity of honey is significantly less than what the Sure-jell package recommends. Like the dependencies between Elvis and The Colonel, pectin working with sugar is not to be underestimated in terms of jams and jellies setting. While the jelly is a bit runny, it won’t make your PBJ a total mess. Imma call this good enough. The coolest thing about drawing down the sugar in the recipe is the herbal notes in this jam shine through.

I prepped the pie filling in the same way discussed in last year’s blog. Only, I was completely prepared for the Clear-jel to behave very poorly. It didn’t disappoint. I settled on a process of moving the pot on and off the burner while violently stirring. This was after my efforts to find the right burner temperature were thwarted numerous times.

Later in the day we enjoyed the pie, while watching the World Cup at an English Pub. Somehow this seemed appropriate. It was wonderful. But I wouldn’t have expected to turn out any other way. Because black raspberries. 20150704-20150704-DSC_4889 20150704-20150704-DSC_4890 20150704-20150704-DSC_4882 20150704-20150704-DSC_4892 20150704-20150704-DSC_4893 20150704-20150704-DSC_4895


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Pumpkin Misadventures

Why do I do this to myself? That was my thought while I was putting the last batch of pumpkin in the pressure canner at 3am. The first two batches leeched out so much liquid that most of the jars were suited to the trash. I had little hope for this last batch.

See that liquid level? Not ok. Any food that isn't submerged in liquid has a good chance of rotting. A can that looks like this shouldn't be put up.

See that liquid level? Not ok. Any food that isn’t submerged in liquid has a good chance of rotting. A can that looks like this shouldn’t be put up.

Pumpkin doesn’t have the acidity of tomatoes, nor the sugar of jams, nor the salt of pickles; that makes it an attractive home to botulism, or any bacteria for that matter. Technically, this was my third time working with the pressure canner. My current pumpkin crisis wasn’t a huge surprise. Fluid has leeched out of everything that we’ve pressure canned in the past. It’s just that the prior two sessions resulted in minor amounts of liquid lost to leeching.

When I finally crawled into bed at 5am, I put off dealing with the worthless jars of pumpkin. Because I am morphing into an 80 year-old, sunlight was piercing my skull at 9am and additional sleep was not happening. After some coffee I biked up to Findlay Market for Pho Lang (mega-yummy Vietnamese place) and whined about my less than pleasant experience to my canning partner.

She was just coming off misadventures with pumpkin gnocchi. And this brings me to a point that people don’t often acknowledge. Anyone who spends time in a kitchen will tell you that failure is frequent. I screwed up caramelizing sugar the first four times that I tried. I screwed up strawberry jam, twice, two years in a row. Let’s not talk about the vast number of things that I’ve burned. I can’t manage to make a calzone that doesn’t explode while baking.

She talked me down from throwing all the jars in the trash. She pointed out that I already did the hard work of gutting and skinning the pumpkin. And, indeed, that was no fun. We set about processing them a second time. We opened the jars and added more boiled water. The first batch we pulled pumpkin out so that we left a mix of one inch and two inches of head room. I wasn’t convinced that head room was my problem, but we figured it was worth a shot.

nine pumpkins of the pressure canner apocalypse.

nine pumpkins of the pressure canner apocalypse.

So much pumpkin innards. So much. Skinning and gutting these took about an hour.

So much pumpkin innards. So much. Skinning and gutting these took about an hour.

We put the jars back in the canner with extra head room. They came out with little to no leeching. We reprocessed the remaining batches without adding more headroom and just topping off the missing liquid with boiling water. These jars too came out of the canner with little to no leeching.

In the interests of helping others avoid my mistakes, I will tell you what I suspect was happening. I suspect that the jars were a little too hot, ergo too pressurized. On my first round of canning, the contents of the jar boiled on the counter for about 30 minutes after I pulled them out of the canner. On our second session, the contents of the jars only boiled for a few minutes.

All the food is below the liquid level. This can is in good shape.

All the food is below the liquid level. This can is in good shape.

Why do you mock me?

Why do you mock me?

The pumpkin after it was steamed and cubed.

What am I going to do differently next time? I will be more careful about checking in on the pressure release valve. It’s only supposed to rattle a couple times a minute. It’s totally plausible that the longer the canner is on the element the more heat builds up in the canner. Will that fix my problem? Who knows, but I know that I will keep trying.


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Canning Apple Sauce and Holy Moly Tomato Paste

Last year we got yellow delicious apples and made our apple sauce from just that varietal. Once we finished all our apple sauce last year, I met a gentleman at Findlay Market who started grafting apples as a hobby. He had about eight varieties of apples, and after some discussion with him, I thought our apple sauce could have a little more depth if we used several different types of apples.

I found this gentleman at Findlay this year, and arranged to get a mixed bushel of apples from him. I should have written down all the varietals that we had in that bushel, but I failed. I know yellow delicious was one of the varietals we had. I hadn’t heard of most of the others. I think cort and mollies were a couple of the others.

Apples. I think there was at least eight varieties in this box.

Apples. I think there was at least eight varieties in this box.

Apples, before they were cored.

Apples, before they were cored.

This is what a bushel of apples looks like.

This is what a bushel of apples looks like.

I do know that when we tasted the apples, I was shocked by how different they were. They varied from texture to flavor. Some were tart. Some were crisp. Some were sweet.

Making the sauce didn’t bring many surprises. We did learn the hard way that packing the pot too full resulted in burning some of the apples at the bottom of the pot. The smoky flavor that this imparted to the sauce was too intense to salvage as a sweet apple sauce. We canned the unsweeted smoky apple sauce, thinking that this would be delicious in savory dishes. I should think that sauce would make a terrific garnish for seared pork chops or roasted pork loin. It would also work in a savory crepe with a robust cheese like gorgonzola.

We didn’t make the same mistake with the remaining batches. I have noticed that when we can with vanilla, the flavor really deeps with age. So when we compared the new sauce to the batch that we canned last year, the vanilla flavor wasn’t as prominent. I expect that this will change as the sauce ages in the jars. The sauce tastes great as it is, but I would like to revisit the results in a few months when the vanilla matures.

Cooking the apples down for sauce. We used a food mill to take out all the skins. Keeping the skins on made the sauce thicken due to the pectin in the skin.

Cooking the apples down for sauce. We used a food mill to take out all the skins. Keeping the skins on made the sauce thicken due to the pectin in the skin.

We fueled ourselves with a couple of hand pies from O Pie O. They were delicious. If you don't want to master making pie crust, just grab a pie from these guys. That's the best bought pie I have ever had.

We fueled ourselves with a couple of hand pies from O Pie O. They were delicious. If you don’t want to master making pie crust, just grab a pie from these guys. That’s the best bought pie I have ever had.

Look at how cute it is! That was the strawberry raspberry balsamic pie.

Look at how cute it is! That was the strawberry raspberry balsamic pie.

This is the apple hand pie in cross section.

This is the apple hand pie in cross section.

We also snagged a half bushel of tomatoes and made tomato paste. I don’t know what I was expecting. The tomatoes cooked down into 8 little jam jars; I think those jars only hold about a half a cup. Words won’t do justice to how flavor-packed this homemade paste was. We only seasoned the paste with salt and bay leaves. The resulting paste was rich and velvety. It captured all the bright acidity of the tomatoes along with the caramelized sweetness that all that cooking and evaporation causes.

I haven’t used the paste in cooking yet, but it tastes too good to dilute in a marinara sauce. I haven’t decided what I will do with these little jars of gold. I’m sure I will blog about whatever I end up doing with them.

If you are considering trying this at home, be prepared for it to take all day. Between the stovetop cooking, the oven roasting, and the canning, this was a very time-consuming project. but now that I understand how much better this homemade paste is to commercially canned paste, I will be happy to devote the time required. It’s shocking how rich that paste is. Those little jars were well worth the hours and hours of effort.


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That Day When I Cooked All Morning

I bought a couple of cushaws a week ago. I had one last year, and attempted it as a substitute for pumpkin. That yielded mixed results. I liked the flavor of the squash enough to give it another try this year. This year I looked up recipes that called specifically for cushaw. I just realized that I was struggling with whether cushaw should be singular or plural. The cushaws I got were enormous, so all my recipes only called for part of a cushaw, so I will stick with the singular as is often used for another large gourd, butternut squash.

Cushaw. This monster is about a foot and a half tall and about a foot across at it's base.

Cushaw. This monster is about a foot and a half tall and about a foot across at it’s base.

Enormous cushaw!

Enormous cushaw!

I wasn’t sure how all these foods would mix together, but they turned out a delicious fall veggie-friendly, Southern-inspired meal that went perfect with blogging and watching football. I whipped up the following:

Pinto beans flavored with cloves and cinnamon
Buttermilk Cornbread
Beet greens
Roasted spiced cushaw (This wasn’t complicated enough to require a recipe, I will explain what I did below.)
Cushaw pie for dessert

For the most part I followed the recipes listed above. Here’s where I went rogue. I used dried pinto beans as opposed to canned kidney beans. I cooked the pinto beans in my last jar of homemade veggie broth. When they finished cooking, I held the broth aside and then used that instead of the water that the recipe calls for. I also only had about 3 cups of cooked beans, which was slightly less than the 3 and 1/2 cups that would have come from to cans of beans. I cut the cinnamon and clove by half. I cut this back because I wanted the flavor to be subtle. Plus, I knew I could always add more if desired. Cutting back the cinnamon and clove turned out to be an excellent idea. I used some of the heirloom tomatoes that I canned this summer in the recipe as opposed to store-bought canned tomatoes. My tomatoes were packed with garlic cloves, so that probably amped up the garlic flavor of my beans.

The pinto beans in the pot. I think this is the best way I have ever had pinto beans prepared.

The pinto beans in the pot. I think this is the best way I have ever had pinto beans prepared.

For the beet greens, I didn’t use bacon. I used canola oil to caramelize the onions, and then added a bit of Bragg’s Amino Acids. The bacon should add umami and salt, and Bragg’s is a pretty good veggie substitute for both of these flavors. I also didn’t have a full lb of beet greens, so I cut back the rest of the ingredients to compensate.

The beet greens.

The beet greens.

The roasted spiced cushaw wasn’t complicated. I just cubed the cushaw and tossed it with butter brown sugar and Saigon cinnamon. I measured nothing. I will say this, cushaw has a very delicate flavor, so cinnamon can overwhelm it quickly. I really just put a couple of dashes of it on the whole pan of cushaw. I roasted the cushaw at 400 degrees until it was easily mashed with a fork. Otherwise I followed the other recipes.

I was pleasantly surprised with my feast. All of the flavors of the meal worked really well together. The greens were salty and acidic. The beans were rich and savory. The roast cushaw was sweet and creamy. Everything tasted wonderful on it’s own, and each dish complimented the other. I think the sum of the meal was greater than any of the parts on their own.

My feast of beet greens, cornbread, roasted cushaw, and pinto beans.

My feast of beet greens, cornbread, roasted cushaw, and pinto beans.

The cushaw pie was delicious. I really enjoyed that the recipe didn’t have cinnamon. The nutmeg and allspice made the pie taste more decadent than a standard pumpkin pie. It’s also different enough from pumpkin pie, that it would make a nice alternative for a Christmas pie once everyone has had their fill of pumpkin at Thanksgiving.

The cushaw pie right out of the oven.

The cushaw pie right out of the oven.

The cushaw pie set-up pretty well. But I let the pie cool completely before cutting it. I think that's crucial to avoiding a sloppy mess.

The cushaw pie set-up pretty well. But I let the pie cool completely before cutting it. I think that’s crucial to avoiding a sloppy mess.


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Peaches and Tomatoes

We are getting good at this canning stuff. Since nature doesn’t acquiesce to my timelines, I got a bushel and a half of peaches and a bushel of tomatoes in the same weekend. That’s a lot of food to can. It was my preference to do the peaches one weekend and the tomatoes the following. However, the old curmudgeons told me upon picking up my peaches that canning tomatoes could arrive the following day.

Their canning tomatoes are only 10 bucks a half bushel, so I couldn’t really say no without kicking myself in the wallet. There’s no better price out there for fresh tomatoes. I’m a sucker for a good deal.

We had to act quickly. The peaches were ripe, and would devolve into moldy mess in a matter of a few days. The tomatoes, being canning tomatoes, had blemishes on them. Those blemishes can turn into a moldy mess too. We chose to can the peaches first, as just the weight of them in the half bushel baskets could cause bruises and hasten molding.

We canned several varities: bourbon peaches, vanilla peaches, tea infused peaches, spiced peaches, and bourbon spiced peaches. We learned from our mistakes last year. We put the spices directly in the jars last year. This had two effects. First, the flavors were inconsistent. One jar tasted like star anise while the next tasted like cardamom. Plus, the woody spices (the star anise and cinnamon) got an increasingly bitter taste to them the longer the peaches aged in the jar. Notable exception, vanilla only continued to taste better and better as it aged in the jars.

To correct for this problem, we infused the simple syrup with the woody spices, and placed the vanilla in the jars. Time will tell how well this new process will work out. Without question this should solve for the inconsistency in flavor. It’s hard telling how the peaches spiced in this way will age. I will tell you in 2015.

It took a nine hour marathon canning session to work through only two thirds of the peaches. We wearily gave up, partially because we ran out of jars and partially because we were dead on our feet. I got a very early start on Sunday. I was hoping to make our second day canning shorter than the prior. But given that we weren’t halfway through our produce, I wasn’t feeling terribly optimistic.

I started the day finishing the remaining half bushel of peaches. After digging through my jars, I was able to scrounge up enough of them to leave only enough peaches for a pie. By the time Ali arrived with more jars, I was processing the last of the peaches, praise be the gods of sticky simple syrup and having a closet full of mason jars.

Ali arrived around ten, and we started on the tomatoes. Our typical pattern is for Ali to blanch the produce and handle jar packing and processing while I skin and prep the fruit for the jars. Our roles got reversed somehow. There was a plausible reason for this at the time, but I don’t recall it. We packed all the tomatoes in boiling water with about a teaspoon of kosher salt, a tablespoon of lemon juice, and a sprig each of fresh rosemary, thyme, and oregano. We followed a similar process last year, and the resulting tomatoes were lovely in marinara or a tomato soup.

I don’t know how it happened. All I know is we were done processing those tomatoes by 2pm. There were four things that were a bit different about the tomatoes. The tomatoes didn’t require packing in simple syrups. We just had to have steady supply of boiling water, nor did they need to be sliced as the peaches did. All of the tomatoes were put in quart jars, while some of the peaches went it smaller jars. Finally, I was the packer/processor, while Ali was the produce peeler. I don’t know how anyone of those things contributed to us finishing so quickly, but I was grateful for it.

We learned some things. First, we noticed that a half bushel of produce will fill a case of quart jars. So, you can do some math around that and calculate how many smaller sized jars you might need. We also learned that my pot’s maximum jar capacity is 6 quart jars at a time. Finally, we learned that canning two and half bushels of produce in one weekend is too much. Finally, peach pie made with fresh fruit is amazing!!

Next up on the canning schedule? We might make some tomato paste this weekend. Plus, we will be canning pumpkin, apples, and perhaps cushaw this fall.

Half bushel of peaches.

Half bushel of peaches.

Bushel of tomatoes.

Bushel of tomatoes.

So many peaches. These are the peaches that were packed in tea.

So many peaches. These are the peaches that were packed in tea.

IPA and peaches? Always.

IPA and peaches? Always.


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I Want to Swim in a Pool of Black Raspberries Like Scrooge McDuck

Given that we attempted a little too much when we picked and canned blueberries, we restricted the scope a bit when we picked and canned black raspberries. A number of details made our raspberry day a little better than our blueberry day. You know, stuff like not attempting to make more than one pastry.

We set out to make a sugar-free jam, a regular jam, 4 quarts of pie filling, and one pie. Aside from making only one baked good, We’ve made all of the recipes aside from the sugar-free jam before. Plus, with our first clear jel adventure behind us, we were prepared for it’s oddities.

I picked Ali up at 7. We arrived at the farm around 8:20. Picking and sourcing local produce it a bit of an adventure. The process is something like this. You drive out to a isolated location. Then you approach an unfamiliar and often poorly marked building that most likely looks like a stereotypical old farm house. Then you knock and hope that Google maps has directed you to the correct and precise location. The person that greets you, and by greet I mean a spectrum anywhere between a barely intelligible grunt to a very warm long-lost family-member greeting, might give you directions that are easily understandable or nonsense. The point is you don’t know what you’re in for. To our delight Dale Stokes Berry farm has a sign out front. We crossed the first hurdle, which is not encountering a man with a shotgun accusing us of trespassing.

The gravel driveway seemed exceptionally long, but eventually we spied a small white hut. Investigation of the hut revealed a tween girl inside who confirmed that we were in the right place. She gave us pallets and instructed that we continue on the gravel path to porta-lets. You recall the point that I made about bizarre directions earlier? Yes. After turning a corner, porta-lets were in sight. I parked behind the porta-lets to avoid blocking the gravel path. A boy on a tractor confirmed we were in the right spot and instructed that we walk down a row until we see the girl. At this point, you might think that we are being lead to our deaths in sacrifice to the god of The Children of the Corn. But tucked up against a black raspberry bush was a young woman. She then instructed us to go further down another row to the stake with a plastic tie. Once there, we were to pick as we wished.

We arrived at the plastic tie. After walking down their rows of black raspberry bushes, it was clear that they had extremely well-kept fields. The raspberry bushes were excellently trimmed and pruned. The abundance of berries, seems to indicate that they are meticulous with their care. And the berries. The berries tasted incredible.

My grandma had wild black and red raspberry bushes in the back corner of her property. High summer was my favorite time to visit grandma. I would scamper off before dinner, spoiling it completely, by eating as many black and red raspberries that I could stuff in my face before I was called to dinner. I thought I was being sneaky about it, but I must have been covered with berry juice and scratches due to the abundance of thorns on the bushes. It was a mystery to my five-year-old self how the first words out of my mother’s mouth at seeing me were, “You were eating raspberries, huh?”

Standing there in the patch entering a zen place while picking and eating raspberries, it makes me feel close to that five-year-old. It bubbled up from my memory, that the best way to pick black raspberries was to have gentle fingers. This both protects from impaling a digit on a wayward thorn, and feeling the berries dropping away from the plant ensures that you are taking the ripe fruit. It was a clear, sunny day. I was lost in my physical experience of picking berries. It was wonderful.

We were done picking by 1030. This enabled us to have a solid brunch before we went on to can and clear the berries. Eating lunch. That’s one of the improvements we made over our blueberry marathon. Upon returning home, we set about making the Sure Jell recipe for black raspberry jam. We also set about making this recipe for sugar-free jam. The jams went off without a hitch. We canned them in a standard water bath and moved on to pie filling.

We followed the same clear jel process that we documented in our blueberry blog. The only difference in the recipe is that we put in a quarter teaspoon of Siagon cinnamon. Note that Siagon cinnamon is a little more savory tasting than the cinnamon you would typically find in a grocery store. The only difference in the process was that we didn’t blanch the fruit. That resulted in a slightly longer processing time.

Finally, I made the pie. I used the vegan pie crust recipe with my own home made vegan butter. These recipes can also be found in my blueberry blog. There are many things I could say about this pie. I will leave it at this; that pie was my “Mona Lisa” of pies. I pulled out one of our canned quarts, and made a black raspberry pie for my family reunion last week. My dad said that it was just as good as my grandma’s, which is basically the highest praise my father can give regarding pies, given that grandma made thousands of pies over her lifetime. Practice makes perfect. I can verify that this much is true about pies.

What did I learn? First, I will return to that farm to pick every year. Second, I will be canning more black raspberry pie filling next year. Third, black raspberries are the most magical fruit on the face of this earth.

Beautiful fruit from heaven.

Beautiful fruit from heaven.

These fields were gorgeous.

These fields were gorgeous.

The berries were plentiful.

The berries were plentiful.

How would my mom have known that I was picking raspberries?

How would my mom have known that I was picking raspberries?

Yep. That's nearly 10 lbs of berries.

Yep. That’s nearly 10 lbs of berries.

"Mona Lisa" pie!

“Mona Lisa” pie!


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Biting Off More Blueberry than We Can Chew

This was the plan. We would pick pick 10 quarts of blueberries. Then we would make two jams, 7 quarts of blueberry pie filling, one blueberry pie, and one apple-blueberry short cake. We had no idea that this was an overly ambitious plan. Here’s how it went down.

Do you know how long it takes two people to pick ten quarts of blueberries? We didn’t. I had some concept of the effort involved based on my past strawberry and raspberry picking experiences. We tend to forget negative bits of the past and retain the positive bits. This is how women agree to go through childbirth a second time. I figured it would take us a couple of hours. What I failed to figure was how fatiguing bending over and/or kneeling for 2 hours can be.

We picked at Hidden Valley Farm in Lebanon, OH. They opened at ten, which meant a pretty late start to our day. When we can, we tend to start cooking a little earlier than that. Plus, I know from my farm-raised father, that you really want to get your picking in before the heat of the day, which means being in the field at sunrise. Sweating your balls off really drains your energy, obviously not my father’s words.

After an hour in the car charting every back road in Southwestern Ohio and questioning the wisdom of Google Maps, we turned up at the farm at ten. When I told the old farmer that we were there to pick blueberries, he responded with, “Good. They aren’t going to pick themselves.” My dad’s family is thick with these types of characters. I don’t know if farming cultivates character, or if characters are drawn to farming.

A friendly woman approached and asked if we had picked blueberries before. I said no, but to satisfy my own anxiety at being perceived as a noob, I added that I’ve picked other fruits. She directed us to one of two areas with blueberry shrubs, and explained that we should look for berries that separate from the bush at a gentle twist. It’s still unclear if this woman was a helpful patron or an employee of the farm.

The twenty ounces of iced coffee that I expected to fuel my picking also set my back teeth afloat, so I inquired about a bathroom. I was cheerfully lead to an outhouse. Joy. I believe that this was my first outhouse experience. It could have been worse, but lets just say the lack of light in there was probably for the best. It did smell of a shit you might find in your closet days after the stench has alerted you to your cat’s passive aggressive punishment for vacationing.

I am listening to Andrew W. K. while writing these captions. This combo isn't working. Pastoral pictures and frat rock, not a good combo. Anyway, this is what a blueberry bush looks like.

I am listening to Andrew W. K. while writing these captions. This combo isn’t working. Pastoral pictures and frat rock, not a good combo. Anyway, this is what a blueberry bush looks like.

The shrubs appeared to be of varying maturity. It looked like they were correct in stating that they were at the beginning of their season. The shrubs had quite a few berries on them that were not yet ripe. Regardless, we did find plenty to pick.

Like strawberries, efficient blueberry picking is based on your eye catching color peeking out between leaves.

Like strawberries, efficient blueberry picking is based on your eye catching color peeking out between leaves.

I've never seen a blueberry shrub before. They are squat little bushes.

I’ve never seen a blueberry shrub before. They are squat little bushes.

They had two fields of bushes. That sentence made my inner twelve-year-old snicker.

They had two fields of bushes. That sentence made my inner twelve-year-old snicker.

Their second field was further from the entrance. We both reasoned that people probably didn’t venture back there as frequently, so the picking would be better. We decided to move to the second field. Logic and reason didn’t disappoint.

Their high-tech bird repellent.

Their high-tech bird repellent.

We were wondering how they kept the birds off their berries. Birds find a way to get my cherry tomatoes off of my deck in the middle of downtown. This seemed a far easier meal. We were also wondering why we kept hearing something that sounded a little like gun fire. I had actually assumed someone was getting in target practice within earshot. Turns out those ideas aren’t as unrelated as you might think.

As we approached the second field, there was muffled screaming, “Fire in the hole”! Now, reasonable people would have reconsidered approaching, but we aren’t reasonable. We found an air gun set-up at the edge of the field. It was rigged to a container of propane, and was set-up to go off at intervals. In the spirit of Scooby Doo, bird-eating-berries mystery solved.

Their low-tech bird repellent.

Their low-tech bird repellent.

This is what almost eight quarts of blueberries looks like.

This is what almost eight quarts of blueberries looks like.

With the picking adventure in the bag, we started cooking around one in the afternoon. We started on two varieties of blueberry jam. We made one batch of standard jam, and we made one batch of this spiced blueberry jam. Aside from the fact that we needed to gather some last minute ingredients (thanks Jenn and Carly), making the jams went as planned.

Spiced blueberry jam prior to simmering.

Spiced blueberry jam prior to simmering.

Spiced blueberry jam.

Spiced blueberry jam.

Panna Cotta topped with fresh blueberry jam.

Panna Cotta topped with fresh blueberry jam.

My canning partner Ali, who is almost always the we that I am referring to when cooking, brought over panna cotta. Naturally, we put fresh preserves on it. The standard blueberry jam passed this test with flying colors. The panna cotta was delicious, and really would have been wonderful pared with any fruit topping.

Jams just before sealing.

Jams just before sealing.

The spiced jam is interesting. The star anise gives the impression of excessive sweetness, but the cider vinegar counterbalances it. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it when tasting it on its own. I later spooned a bit of it on the panna cotta and enjoyed it. My partner said that she couldn’t tell the difference between the regular and spiced jams, so it’s safe to say the difference is subtle.

Blanched berries. These got combined with the Clear Jel and sugar mixture, that would also double as cement in a pinch.

Blanched berries. These got combined with the Clear Jel and sugar mixture, that would also double as cement in a pinch.

This was our first time canning pie filling. It did not exactly go off without a hitch. According to my not-so-exhausted research, Clear Jel is the only product approved for home canning. This product was a real pain to get hold of. Here’s the recipe we used. I’m not going to delve into the challenge that was Clear Jel. I am just going to say the things that I learned. First, when the instructions say don’t overcook, what they mean is don’t heat it up too fast. If you should, perhaps, misinterpret this direction and heat it up too fast, just know that the terrifying inconsistent gelatinous goo that results can me beat out with a wisk if you remove the pot from heat. Second, the sugar Clear Jel combo will form something like cement if you fail to clean your pot almost immediately after use. Third, the instructions are poorly worded. If you choose to work with this product, I can only say, my the odds be ever in your favor.

Pie filling. Let's not think about how many dollars of blueberries are in that jar.

Pie filling. Let’s not think about how many dollars of blueberries are in that jar.

By the time we finished the jams and navigated the Clear Jel fiasco, we were beat. At six we slumped down at the table, and dolefully looked at each other. The glance that we shared said it all. What were we thinking?

After a few moments of commiserating that our work was not yet done, we started on the pie and the shortcake. I had made the pie crust some days earlier, and it was just a matter of rolling it out and assembling the pie with the filling that we had finished.

I followed this vegan pie crust recipe, and used my own homemade vegan butter. I know what you are thinking, meat eater. You are thinking that this must taste like crap. I am also a meat eater, and frankly I thought the same. The vegan butter was quite good. It was better than any margarine that I’ve had by a long shot. In a blind taste test, I bet I would struggle to identify butter from this vegan butter.

The pie rolled out wonderfully. I was suspicious, as in my experience, the flakiness of a pie crust has an inverse relationship with the ease with which it rolls out. Pie crusts that roll well, are pie crusts that have too much water. But the crust turned out really great. It was the right balance of flaky, crisp, and sturdy. This crust was good enough that I am making it my default recipe.

Pie right out of the oven.

Pie right out of the oven.

That's a fine-looking slice of pie.

That’s a fine-looking slice of pie.

That brings us to the shortcake. Did you look at the recipe? Stupid metric system. Or perhaps, stupid America for not adopting the metric system like the rest of the world. In addition, this thing looked like a ghastly mess when we put it in the oven. The dough was difficult to work with. We were shocked to find that it came out of the oven looking exactly like the pictures. I’m convinced that elves replaced that hot mess we put in the oven with a fully prepared shortcake.

The shortcake turned out pretty well. It was a bit more tart that I would have liked, but the cake part was pleasant. Personally, I would add a bit of vanilla to the cake, as it had more of a pound cake texture than biscuit texture. In America, pound cake means lightly sweetened biscuit; I don’t know how you Brits do it.

What are my lessons in summary? Vegan pie crust is great. Clear Jel is a filthy whore. Brits don’t know what short cake is. Blueberry jam is delicious. The end.