New Hampshire Maple syrup making – the 2012 experiment

March 19, 2012 in From the Kitchen

Taps and Buckets on Maple Trees

Every since a childhood trip to a local sugar shack, I have wanted to make my own maple syrup.   A couple years ago I picked up some spiles (the taps that go in the tree).  This spring I decided I would finally make my own maple syrup.   I tapped four maples trees, purchased some plastic food grade buckets, and hung them up to collect maple sap.  I did a fair amount research in the form of reading the many how to publications, talking with some commercial producers at local sugar shacks, and watching a few educational programs on TV about maple syrup.  I had no idea how much sap my maple trees would yield nor how much work went into boiling the maple sap down into maple  syrup.  When you hear that it takes 40-50 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup you think, gee that’s a lot.  When you actually do it yourself you realize how colossal an amount of sap is required and that the energy and work required to produce 1 gallon of syrup makes it quite precious indeed.  This is not so much a how to post as a documentary post with notes for my next year.Maple Syrup sugaring on a wood stoveAs this was my first go at this, I used what resources I had available for my boiling down the maple sap into maple syrup.   I had a small wood cook stove that I thought would work well.   It took some figuring out how to burn the wood to keep the stove hot enough to keep the large 14″ diameter pot boiling.  I also borrowed a propane fired cook pot from my friends.   I ran both of these side by side.  I boiled off water at a rate of 2-3 Gal/hr with both running.  The propane was much easier to manage as I did not have to add wood every 30-45 minutes.  I made a heat shield later (post photos) that greatly increased the boiling efficiency of the propane unit.   Next year I think I will make a stainless steel evaporator pan that fits perfectly over the wood stove top.  This will give more surface area for evaporation and should decrease the time to boil down my sap into syrup

Finishing the maple syrup boiling process on the kitchen stove

After the bulk of the boiling was done outside I did the finishing and canning of my New Hampshire Maple Syrup in the kitchen.   I need to get a hydrometer and a better thermometer for next year.  I learned from my first batch of boiling that it is easy to over boil.   Over boiling results in sugar crystallizing and precipitating  from the syrup as “sugar sand” as your syrup cools.

I need an assistant for the canning process next year.   I will have to enlist the aid of a friend and bribe them with a jar or two of precious syrup.  It was quite hard to juggle everything during the canning process solo.   I used coffee filters in a little filter jig over each jar for filling.    Coffee filters have a very fine a pore size and blocked up rather quickly.  Coffee filters are cheap thankfully as I had to use a new filter for each jar I filled as the pores blocked up.  The smell of the boiling syrup fills the house with a wonderful warm aroma that lingers for the entire day.  I quite enjoyed the scent of maple syrup filling the house.

   

The first go around of boiling produced 25 oz of syrup from ~18 gallons of maple sap.   There were losses in the forms of minor spillage, sampling during process, filtering, etc.  I over boiled my first round and a large amount of sugar sand precipitated from it as it cooled.  My first round was capped with aluminum foil and put in the fridge for current use.  The second round of boiling I canned in small 4 and 8 oz jars for storage.  Before any friends and family ask, no there is none left for the asking this year.

first breakfast with home made New Hampshire Maple Syrup

This is my first meal I enjoyed with Zac’s New Hampshire Maple Syrup.  It was delicious.  The first run of syrup was very light and super sweet.  It was not strongly maple flavored but very enjoyable.  I have since enjoyed a breakfast that uses maple syrup on most mornings.   Food you grow or acquire yourself always tastes better and I can now say this holds doubly true for Maple Syrup you make yourself.

I’m certain I will do this again next year and suspect I will be a fair bit more serious about it.  I might build a small reverse osmosis unit using commonly available household cartridges to concentrate the sugars before boiling.  I will get some 55 gallon food grade barrels for sap storage as the 5 gallon pails are too small and you need too many of them.  I must come up with a better wood fired evaporator solution, either by building an arch from scratch or modifying my current wood cook-stove.

Making Apple Chips

February 22, 2012 in From the Kitchen

ingredients used to make apple chips

I decided to try my hand at making some apple chips for this weekends up coming adventuring with friends.  I was originally inspired by my buddy’s wife’s facebook post on making fruit and veggie chips.  A few days later I saw another friends post on making apple chips on both facebook and then again later one on pinterest.  I decided I simply  had to give it a go and make some to try.   This post shares how I made them, what I learned, and what I would do differently next time.

I scoured the internet for “recipes” and procedures.  It seems everyone more or less follows the same basic process. Some use a quick lemon juice dip to prevent oxidation (browning).  Some use symple syrup dip, and others a solid sugar/spice mix.   It seems the sugar dip is somehow antimicrobial from what I read though I’m somewhat dubious of that fact.   I decided to use what I had on hand and went with a solid sugar/spice mix.   I figured some apples might make better chips then others. As I could find no clear consensus as to which apples worked best I went with my favorite Fuji apples.   I decided to use a blend of sugars and spices for my sugar coating.

apple chip recipe

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla sugar
  • 1 largish pinch ground nutmeg
  • 1 tiny pinch cloves

Mix all of the above in a bowl.  Some suggest using a large ziplock bag for tossing your apple slices around in the sugar.  That can work as well but I had no large bags on hand.  Preheat your oven to 200 F when you start all of the prep work.

mandolin slicer for cutting apple chips   dry apple chips on parchment paper to prevent sticking

The other two kitchen items you need is parchment paper (so the apple chips don’t stick to the pan)  and a Mandolin type slicer.  You could make them with a knife if you are really good at cutting thin slices but the mandolin is fast and you get uniform slices.  I learned that having uniform slices is important.  I cut a few up by hand to try thicker slices and they do not dry out and get crispy.  Thicker slices are more like chewy apple bits, so if you prefer that cut thicker slices with a knife.

how to make apple chips   using a kitchen slicer to make thin apple chips

My mandolin is a combo grater and pretty small.  Much too small to slice a whole apple making the really cool round apple chips.  I suspect if I make Apple Chips regularly for hiking snacks I will by a single purpose larger mandolin with holder.  It’s pretty easy to slice the end of a finger off with a mandolin as the blade is razor sharp.  To accommodate my small mandolin I halved and cored my apples.  I sliced 3-6 slices at a time into my sugar/spice bowl.  Tossed each slice about with the spoon and transferred the coated apple slices to parchment lined baking pans.

     baking apple chips in the oven

After I filled the baking pan with coated apple slices, I put them in the oven at 200F to dry.  Various recipes indicated different times for baking in the oven.  I checked the slices at 15 minute intervals after the 1st hour.  I pulled them out at 2 hrs 15 minutes. I suspect that the apple type (how much moisture it has) and relative humidity on the day of making these will both influence the drying time greatly.  I do not have a food dehydrator at this time, but those work wonderfully well according to my friends wife.  Three medium sized apples filled the two making trays in the photo above.

  apple chips made at home

These are amazingly tasty.  Once fully cooled they popped off the parchment paper easily.  Trying to remove them early is a lesson in sticky mess.   The thicker slices I cut with a knife vs using the mandolin are almost like a chewy apple candy.  When I do this again, I think I will try to use a sifter to powder the apples vs dipping.  There was a bit more sugar stuck to them then I would like due to super juicy Fuji apples that  I used.  A less juicy apple might be a better choice for making apple chips.  I will experiment next time with 3 different varieties of apples to learn the differences.   I have stored these in a plastic container.  This weekend when I’m out adventuring with friends I’ll share with them and get some feedback from other people.   These were an easy to make snack that are light weight and super yummy.  Give it a try, you will not be disappointed.

 

How to make Vanilla Extract and Vanilla Sugar

February 2, 2012 in From the Kitchen

When it comes to baking tasty treats, nothing is more important then the ingredients. In my opinion, cooking is all about the ingredients.  One common ingredient in baked goods is vanilla extract.  Nothing is better then natural vanilla extract, and in fact it is quite easy to make yourself.  I have been making my own vanilla extract for many years now.  It started when I noticed the contents list on a bottle of store bought vanilla extract and saw things I was not happy to see there.  Originally I only made natural vanilla extract, but a couple of years back I started using the inner vanilla beans to make vanilla sugar along with the liquid vanilla extract.   Vanilla sugar is excellent for baking, or it can be used directly in coffee and tea to impart a wonderful flavor to your favorite hot beverage.  If you are at a loss for a Christmas gift, make a batch of this vanilla sugar and package it up in small jars.  It makes a good gift for a coffee lover.

     

As promised in my early post about 3d Cakes and some 3D cake baking tips, this post will detail  how to make your own vanilla extract from natural vanilla beans.  First you must acquire some vanilla beans at a local spice shop.  I buy a lot of my spices from a local shop called Granite State Natural Foods in Concord, NH.  They have a fair selection of spices, flavors, and such available in addition to organic and natural foods.   Granite State Natural Foods is the best place I’ve found north of Christinas in Cambridge for hard to find ingredients.    Madagascar Vanilla Beans are sold individually at Granite State Natural Foods.  Generally I buy 2-3 beans when I make up a new batch of vanilla extract and vanilla sugar.

Madagascar vanilla beans used to make Natural Vanilla Extract

Selecting vanilla beans does not seem to be an exact science.  I try to select fatter more plump beans.  As you will see in a bit, I use the inner small black seed-like part of the bean to make vanilla sugar.  A fatter more plump vanilla bean seems to have more of these inner vanilla beans.  They are also easier to cut up and handle.

ingredients needed to make vanilla extract and vanilla sugar

After you have bought some vanilla beans, gather the rest of your ingredients (vodka and sugar) along with some small glass containers.  Do not use plastic for storing extracts, spices, or ingredients.  Plastic lets the flavor molecules pass through via diffusion over time.  This results in less flavorful ingredients, which in turn results in less tasty snacks.   I use the small glass bottles you see above for my vanilla extract.  For my vanilla infused sugar I use an old spaghetti jar.  I like to save and reuse as much as I can in life, and old glass jars/bottles are perfect for many things in the kitchen.

how to make Vanilla infused sugar

For vanilla extract, I use 1 cut and cleaned bean into ~1.75 oz of vodka.  My ratio for infusing Vanilla Sugar is 1 vanilla bean insides  to 200g of refined pure cane sugar.  I like to weigh out half the sugar to start, then add the remainder at the end. I find it’s easier to mix the small inner beans into the sugar this way.

prepairing vanilla extract from madagascar vanilla beans

It is a little hard to see, but I first cut the two ends of the vanilla bean off.  I then half the bean lengthwise to make it easier to split the bean.   Slicing with a sharp knife, cut the bean lengthwise.  This exposes the black inner beans.  I use a small spoon to scrape this inner bean into the vanilla sugar.   If they stick to your spoon just dip it into the sugar and the beans will stay with the sugar. When done cutting and scraping the inner beans out of your vanilla beans, add the other half of the sugar, cap your jar, and shake like mad.  Sometimes larger clumps of inner bean needs to be mashed into the sugar with a spoon against the side of the glass jar to help it mix.  I find that the vanilla sugar needs at least a month to sit in order to let the flavors mingle and infuse into the sugar.

vanilla beans ready for extract  

After quartering and scraping the inner vanilla bean into the sugar, I put the vanilla bean husks(for lack of a better name) into my small liquid extract bottles.  Then fill with vodka, cap, and let sit on a shelf for at least a week before using. The longer the vanilla extract sits with the vanilla bean inside the better the flavor.  I do not filter out the bean solids from my extract, but you are welcome to do so if you feel the need.  Careful decanting from my bottles allows me to separate the liquid from solid when cooking.

homemade natural vanilla extract and vanilla sugar

The finished natural vanilla sugar and vanilla extract are delicious. Well, they will be with a little bit of time in the spice cabinet.  You can already see the vodka darken as it starts to pull the natural vanilla flavor from the beans in the above photo where the first bottle I filled is the left most bottle.  By making your own vanilla extract you can be sure it contains nothing “extra” such as glycerin, glycols, or corn syrup  found in some commercial vanilla extracts.   With valentines day approaching I will be doing some treat making for my favorite little ones.  Perhaps, I’ll share that in a future post.  Hope you find this post useful and give making your own vanilla extract a try.  As always, ask in the comments below if you have any questions.

 

3D Cake Baking Tips

December 20, 2011 in From the Kitchen

 

3d cake baking trips and how to

There are few things I do better then eating and making snacks.  I often am asked for recipes for the many things I bake and share.  In the past, I would make 10-20 birthday cakes a year for birthdays in my research group at UNH. Over the years I have developed some pretty good cake baking practices and favorite recipes.   Since it is the season of holiday baking, I thought I’d share some of my 3D cake baking experience while make you drool over the yummy cake photos.

3D Christmas Tree Cake Baking Pan

The photos in this post are all from a practice cake, made in preparation for one I will make on the 24th that I will bring as my contribution to the big family gathering on xmas day.  Last year I received this glorious 3D Christmas tree cake pan from my good friends Amanda and Ben.  A super awesome gift for me, Thanks guys!   When using one of these 3d cake pans, it’s best to make a practice cake  to get the volume of batter needed and baking times just right.  Speaking of cake batter, lets talk about what makes for a good 3d Cake recipe.  Here’s my recipe that I’ve used in about 6 different pans.  It’s an alteration from some original recipe that came with one of the pans I believe.

 Zac’s 3D Cake Recipe:

  • 3 cups cake flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 sticks UNSALTED butter
  • 2 cups Granulated sugar
  • 4 large white eggs
  • 1.33 cups milk
  • 3 tsp vanilla extract

Many people think baking is about the recipe, but it is not really.  Making tasty snacks is more about the ingredients and some rules on how you combine them then the recipe propper.   Cake flour is key for baking cakes.  Flour comes in different grades, each with a different content of gluten.  In terms of softest (least gluten) to hardest (most gluten)  it goes:  cake flour, pastry flour, general purpose, bread flour.  For cakes, use cake flour.  I prefer King Arthurs unbleached cake flour personally but in a pinch I’ll use Pillsbury’s Softasilk cake flour.  Different flours taste differently. Experiment and fun one you think tastes best.   Be sure to use unsalted butter and not salted in a cake, it makes a difference.   Another secret to making exceptional baked goods, is to make your own Vanilla extract.  I’ll do a post on making your own Vanilla in the future as I am almost out of my last batch. The short version is buy real vanilla beans and soak them in Vodka.

Directions for Zac’s 3D Cake recipe:

Soften the butter by letting it out in your mixing bowl.  Don’t cheat by microwaving the butter,  it unevenly melts the butter and it won’t cream well.   Let all your ingredients sit out to reach room temperature while the butter softens.   Cream the sugar by adding the sugar to the butter and mixing on medium speed until smooth and a bit fluffy.   Crack and lightly beat with a fork your eggs until they are just barely mixed.  Do not over beat them! You only want to mix them to uniformity.  Add the mixed eggs a little bit at a time to the mixing creamed sugar.  Stop a couple times to scrape down the sides of the bowl so it all mixes nicely.   The flour, salt, baking powder should all be dry mixed in a separate bowl.  Sift if you feel the need,  I do not.  I have done side by side recipe comparison and find sifting of modern dry ingredients purposeless based on the results.  Likewise add and stir in the vanilla to the milk in a separate container.   Add in alternating fashion, flour, milk, flour, milk, four, milk, flour.  Now you want to be careful to not over mix your cake batter. I stop as soon as it’s uniformly mixed.  Your cake batter is done and ready to go in the pan.

Filling and Baking in your 3D cake pan:

Preheat your oven at 325F  and move a rack towards the middle most level.   Prep the 3D cake pan by spraying with cooking release spray, and flouring lightly.  Alternatively you can melt shortening or use corn/conola oil brushed onto the pan and then flour lightly.   Cooking spray does a better job of evenly coating the pan and results in better release and details.   With some 3D cake pans, my practice cake pan included, you have to pour in a small amount of batter and brush it around the small detail areas.  If you just pour in the batter en mass you end up trapping air bubbles causing the cake pan details to be lost to voids.   Practice cakes are important for fine tuning the filling process.  The recipe above makes enough cake to fill even the largest of my 3D cake pans.  I adjust the volume needed for each pan by removing cup cakes from the mixing bowl based on my practice cake experience.  For the Christmas Tree Cake I learned that I need to remove 3 full sized cupcakes prior to filling the pans in the future.  What happens during the practice cake is that you end up with an uneven cake, as seen in the photos below.  Fear not, you simply cut off the “muffin top” portion of the cake should this happen.  This overfilling leads to the thinner outer regions of the cake being over cooked.

  

Carefully monitor the cake, using 35-45 minutes as a starting point.  Every 3d cake pan cooks differently, some longer and some shorter making it important to monitor the time on the practice cake so you can get it just right when you make the real cake.   With the cupcakes removed from the full batch of batter, remember that the “real” cake will be done a few minutes early and set your timer 5 minutes before your practice cake was done.   Start careful monitoring when your timer goes off so you can remove your cake as soon as it is ready. Nothing worse then an overcooked dry cake.    I use long thin skewers to test the center or thickest portion of the cake.  When the skewer comes out dry I pull the cake from the oven.

  

Cool your cake in the pan for 15-20 minutes on a rack before you do anything to it.  Then trim off the top with a long flat serrated bread knife.   Be careful not to nick you precious pan.  The nonstick coating is fragile.  You can see one side trimmed down in the upper left photo.  The bonus is that you get to taste your practice cake at this point.  It is hard to beat cake warm from the oven for yummy in the tummy happiness.  After you trim down your cake, give it a few taps on the counter to release it a bit.  Hold a wire cooling rack over the top and quickly flip your cake.   There’s a trick to flipping and releasing the cake from the pan that comes with doing it a few time.  Don’t be sad if you fail the first time or two and damage the cake.  Just use some frosting to hold it together should this occur.

Let the cake cool completely on the pan.  This is important,  rushing to put it together results in the cake falling apart. Trust me on this one and don’t rush it.   I keep a roll of kraft paper on hand to cover the cake so it doesn’t dry out too much.  I then leave it for 3hrs or more to cool.

     

Frost one half of your cake on the flat side with your favorite frosting.   Also frost the base and very gently stick it on a cake wheel vertically.   I lightly frost the second half as well, but if your cake is really flat you only need to do one side.  Put the second half together and squish a little bit so the frosting oozes out the crack.   Then take a small butter knife and trim/putty in the frosting to smooth out the crack.

Now it’s time to decorate your cake.  I chose a chocolate glaze to go with the practice cake but I’ll likely do a white frosting or glaze with green sugar for the real deal.   I wasn’t fast enough with the green sugar on the chocolate and it did not stick as the glaze had cooled too much.   Worry not, the practice cake did not go to waste.  It was eaten by my niece and nephew.  I of course had my fair share of it too.  The taste was pretty good, minus the overcooked thin sections that were, well, overcooked and dry.    That’s the basics of making a 3D cake.  There is no substitute for experience, so make a practice cake or two for yourself before making one to bring to a party or event.