Grit Blogs >

Country Moon

Resolving To Keep The Resolution

Country MoonEvery year at this time, we all make resolutions. Just about the end of January, we break them. The cycle is the same over and over. It’s not that we don’t have good intentions, but rather that we are human and change is hard.

This year, like so many others, I resolve to make the New Year better. I am going to lose weight, exercise every day, live my life at a slower pace, and try to keep the joy of Christmas all through the year. Yeah, yeah, yeah, they are all nice thoughts, but I know that next year at this time I will probably be writing the same things.

However, there is one resolution that I do plan to keep, if for no other reason than my own sanity:

I am going to try to make friends with technology. Ugh. We all live in this modern world where technology changes, not year to year or even month to month, but day to day. A new phone is almost obsolete even before it hits the market. The younger generation has the advantage here because they have grown up with iPads, iPods, tablets, MP3 players, and all of the other new technology that we think we cannot live without. Why is it so hard for my generation to understand this new concept?

Take my printer, for example. My old one and I got along just fine — after all, it was just a printer. I pushed the print button on the computer, and it printed. If I wanted to scan something, it scanned. When it broke, as with most tech gadgets, it was cheaper to replace it than to fix it. Of course, replacing it with the exact same model was impossible because they have upgraded that model and made it “better.”

Now when I push the print button, it wants to know which tray I want to print from and what size I would like it to print. I just want it to print what is on my screen the same way it printed the last piece! Is that too much to ask? Apparently so, because it keeps telling me that I am out of paper even though there is plenty of paper in the paper tray. It spits out the first sheet because it doesn’t like it. To me, that sheet looks like the other 259 sheets in there. I also have to go to the setup menu every single time, because it wants to know if I have chosen the correct size, layout, number of pages, and print options. Why doesn’t a printer know it is just supposed to print?

Even my cell phone makes me live life the hard way. When I bought it new, I had Wyatt set it up for me so that I would not have any ridiculous problems. All I wanted to do was to make calls and text. Instead I had to choose from at least 20 different ring tones, just as many different kinds of fonts, and set up voice mail. On top of that, Wyatt informed me that I could get on the Internet, listen to music, read whole books, use it as a secretary to keep track of my appointments, edit photos, and on and on. I know a tear slipped out of my eye when I pleaded, “All I want to do is to make a phone call. Why can’t a phone just make a call?”

Plus, my GPS and I have problems. A couple years ago, before we went to Maine, we got our first one. I was careful to download all the new maps so that we would have all the current information. Any other GPS device that I had used was pretty simple, even for me: You put in your current location and the destination that you wanted, and it took you there. Our new one took us to Maine and then, when we were in the middle of nowhere, gave us directions to the Cayman Islands. Needless to say, when we returned home we parted company with that GPS.

I am not the smartest person in the world, but neither am I mentally challenged. Why is it so hard for me to understand how these technical gadgets work? I figured that the more I worked with the technology, the more familiar I would become with it. Even my PC and I are on a limited, friendly basis. My friend, Steph, still does all the updates and housekeeping to keep it running smoothly. Even so, there are a few things that I have to do along the way. So, guess what, I have a cheat sheet that guides me step by step.

I have tried to rationalize and wonder if it is this whole right brain/left brain theory. I would like to think so, because at least that gives me an excuse as to why this whole concept is so hard for me to grasp.

This year for Christmas, I had a particularly hard decision. I had heard that the Bose Radio was one of the best, if not the best. I wanted to order one, but could just imagine how hard the installation would be. However, the salesman reassured me repeatedly that the model I was looking at only needed to be plugged into an outlet. Come on, even I was not that gullible! In this day and age, there is not one piece of electronic equipment that does not need to be set up or synced to some other piece to make it work.

“I promise you, all you need to do is connect it to an outlet.” The salesman sounded like a broken record as he tried to convince me.

“I do not need to sync it with the radio stations in the area?”

“No.”

“It does not need to be located in a certain area in the home?”

“No.”

“I won’t have wires strung all over the house?”

“No.”

With a sigh, I ordered it and prayed I had not made the wrong decision. When the box came, we opened it, took the packing off, and connected the plug to an outlet. There was music. We waited. There was still music.

One piece of electronics has been made simple enough that even I can use it! My confidence is restored. Perhaps the industry is reconsidering engineering with my generation in mind. Life is good, and there is hope. Now if I could only get my voice messages off my phone!

Technology 1
Photo by Fotolia/neirfy

Experiencing Fry Night

Country MoonEvery once in a while, a person gets to experience something totally different and out of the realm that they are used to. Such was the case with me a couple weeks ago when I experienced "fry night" with a group of farmers.

Farmers work hard, they do not have 9 to 5 schedules, and each of them has their own agenda. Yet, with all of this, a group of about 20 farmers around here gets together every Friday night. They have been doing this for the past 20 years or so in one of the farmer’s barns. Sound really crude? Not to worry, this barn is equipped with a fridge, microwave, and pool table, just to name a few of the amenities.

They all have nicknames (to protect either the innocent or the guilty, I’m not sure which!), and the one known as "Cliffy" does most of the cooking. On any given Friday night, the fare could be goulash, pork loin, fish, or any number of other choices. It is definitely not just hotdog night.

So, these farmers spend the evenings eating, drinking a few beers to wash it down, playing cards, and catching up with each other and the latest area news. That’s the agenda for normal Fridays, which are every week during the year including through spring planting and fall harvest. Some show up all the time, some hit and miss, but what amazes me is that a group of farmers have gotten together for this many years and gotten along for so long. Oh, sometimes there is a disagreement, but all in all it irons itself out.

If this isn’t amazing in itself, fry night surpasses all the other Friday nights. This occurs once a year, always in December, and it is so named because everything (and I mean everything) is fried. By the way, did I mention that this is the one night that the wives and girlfriends are allowed to come? Otherwise, clubhouse night is off limits to the women.

Now, why are women allowed this one night? It all has to do with one fact: women bring food, more food that complements the fried foods. They bring appetizers, snacks, and desserts. This was my first fry night, and I was amazed at all the deep fryers. They were frying fish, tenderloin, mushrooms, turkey, and even dill pickles. It was no holds barred on anything that they would put in a deep fryer.

The one that they call "Flash" was doing the pickles, and I nonchalantly tried to walk right on by, but he caught me and asked if I was sure I didn’t want to try one. I decided to buck up, even though the thought of it did nothing for my taste buds. But, lo and behold, the pickles were actually pretty good!

These guys know how to cook. One member even brought a chocolate cake made from scratch with homemade icing. There were shrimp appetizers, cheesy potatoes, and all kinds of salads. Many women brought “kinder to the stomach” food. You know, some mellow dishes that were not fried, like cooked corn, green salads, and the like. These insured that "bellyache Saturday" did not follow fry night.

Because there are so many more people attending with the women involved, fry night was moved from Goober’s barn to his brother Barney’s shop. This isn’t the ordinary shop because — outside of a few tractors parked in the back — this looked more like a hall. Attached to it was the office, which consisted of a full kitchen, bath, and lounge area. These farmers are serious when it comes to their parties.

Having a chance to talk to some of the wives, I was curious how they felt about losing their husbands every Friday night for the last 20 years. I was thinking they would feel cheated out of time with their hubbies, but quite the contrary. Most of them couldn’t wait each week for Friday nights to come. They were all pretty unanimous in their enthusiasm, explaining that for one night each week they did not have to cook or clean and they could basically do anything that they wanted to do. Yep, I guess this isn’t such a bad arrangement after all.

I did thoroughly enjoy fry night. There is nothing better than farmers and farm wives getting together for merriment. But there was something more. Farmers are no different than any other group. There are varied opinions on how to do things and when to do them; what is the best brand of seed, the best make of tractor, and a whole host of other issues to disagree on. Yet they come together, sometimes disagreeing and sometimes not, and remain friends through all this time.

If you know a farmer, you know there is always something to do. If they are not in the fields, then there are repairs to make, chores around the house on the honey-do list, and other general upkeep items to attend to. Yet they take a few hours off most weeks to relax, socialize, and get away from it all for a little while.

Maybe they have something here. Whether you are a farmer or not, what group of friends couldn’t use a night just to kick back and enjoy each other? After all, isn’t that what work is all about — working hard so you can enjoy the special things in life? Maybe more clubhouses ought to spring up over the country. Everyone could use a "fry night" once in a while!

fry night1a

Little Things You Never Knew About Christmas

Country MoonChristmas traditions

Probably no holiday season other than this one sustains so many different traditions without question. Sometimes we follow these traditions without knowing why or when they started, just because it has always been that way. This year, I wanted to know the history behind some of the lesser-known traditions that have become ingrained in our holiday celebrations.

Plants

How many people decorate without including holly, ivy, or mistletoe? The prickly leaves of the holly come from Christianity and represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified, and the berries are the drops of blood that Jesus shed because of it. Ivy is a vine that has to cling to something to support itself as it grows; it symbolizes the need to cling to God for support in life.

Unlike here in the States, in Germany it is traditional that ivy only be used outside, and a piece tied to the outside of a church is supposed to protect it from lightning. The old theory was that holly was a male plant and ivy a female. An English tradition goes that whichever was brought into the house first over winter dictated whether the man or the woman ruled that year. However, it was considered unlucky to bring either in before Christmas.

Mistletoe, long associated with Christmas, usually grows on willow, apple, or oak trees. The tradition of hanging it in the house goes back to the Druids, who believed it supposedly possessed mystical powers that would bring good luck to the household.

The Norse mythology version is the one that is more closely tied to mistletoe’s modern tradition: It was a sign of love and friendship, hence the custom of kissing under it was born. Today, any time two people stand under the mistletoe, the custom is that they are supposed to kiss. In ancient times, a berry had to be picked before a couple could kiss and, when all the berries had gone, kissing had to cease.

Ironically, the name mistletoe is derived from the Anglo Saxon word “mistel,” meaning dung, and the word “tan,” meaning twig. Thus, translated, mistletoe means “poo on a stick.” How romantic!

Bells

Whether in Christmas carols or on gaily lighted town streets, bells are always associated with Christmas. In older days, important news was announced by ringing church bells. In Catholic and Anglican churches, the church day starts at sunset, thus any service after that is the first service of the day. Therefore, a Christmas Eve service is the first service of Christmas. Easter and Christmas are the only two times during the year that Midnight Mass is allowed, reflecting the theory that Jesus was born at midnight.

On a similar note, I have fond memories of visiting Mercersburg, Pennsylvania at Christmas time. The pipe organ of the Mercersburg Academy would chime at midnight on Christmas Eve. What a glorious sound!

Cards

Sending Christmas cards is a way of keeping connected to loved ones afar and keeping in contact with those we seldom see. Although Christmas cards were introduced to the United States in the 1840s, they were very expensive. It wasn’t until 1875 that Louis Prang — a printer from Germany who had worked in the United Kingdom where Christmas cards were popular — began mass producing them at affordable prices in this country. In 1915, John C. Hall started a small company called Hallmark, and the rest is history.

Pickles

The story of the Christmas pickle is one of the strangest modern Christmas customs. In the 1880s, Woolworth stores started selling glass ornaments imported from Germany. Some were in the shape of various fruits and vegetables, pickles being among the selections. Ironically, not many people in Germany have ever heard of this tradition, however, the “German” tradition prevailed in America. Some families still have a tradition of hanging a pickle in the tree. The first child to find it gets an extra present.

Candy Canes

Whose tree doesn’t have peppermint candy canes hanging from the branches? This tradition we also owe to our German cousins. The candy cane originated in Germany around 250 years ago, although we wouldn’t have recognized them; they were straight, white, sugar sticks.

The modern version was “born” in 1670, when a choirmaster was worried that the children would not sit quietly through the long Christmas nativity service. He wanted to remind the children of Christmas and to keep them quiet, so he fashioned the sweet sugar stick in the form of a shepherd’s hook to remind them of the shepherds that visited baby Jesus that first Christmas. Sometime around 1900, red stripes were added and they were flavored with peppermint or spearmint. For Christians, the white of the candy cane represents the purity of Jesus, while the red stripe signifies the blood He shed when he died on the cross. Even the peppermint flavor can represent the hyssop plant that was used for purification in the Bible.

Caroling

Many of our holiday traditions revolve around food and drink. One of the oldest is the tradition of "wassailing," which is the practice of going house to house singing and offering a drink from the wassail bowl in exchange for a gift. The wassail is a drink usually made from mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and sugar. My cousin, Vicky, makes her version every Christmas Eve; it has become its own tradition in our family. Wassailing in its original form has pretty much gone by the wayside, with caroling taking its place.

Pudding

Christmas or Plum pudding was originally the traditional end to the British Christmas dinner. It originated in the 14th century and was a porridge called frumenty. It was made of beef and mutton with raisins, prunes, currants, wine, and spices. In 1595, frumenty slowly changed to plum pudding, having been thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit, and beer and spirits to add even more flavor.

The decorative sprig of holly on the top of the pudding is a reminder of Jesus’s crown of thorns. Putting a silver coin in the pudding is an age-old custom to bring good luck to the person who finds it.

Mince Pie

Mince pies, like Christmas pudding, were originally filled with meat such as lamb rather than a dried fruit mix like today. They were also fashioned in an oval shape to represent the manger where Jesus slept as a baby, with the top representing his swaddling clothes. Today’s version are made in the pie round shape and eaten hot or cold.

A custom from the Middle Ages goes that if you eat a mince pie on every day from Christmas to the twelfth night (evening of January 5), then you will have happiness for the next 12 months. On Christmas Eve, children in the United Kingdom often leave out mince pies with brandy for Father Christmas and a carrot for the reindeer.

Christmas traditions add to the merriment of the season and help us to preserve our heritage. Sometimes having and doing the familiar is what makes the season special and keeps us connected to past generations.

Thoughts On The Season

Country MoonChristmas1

Christmas2

There is no way to escape the stresses of the season. Every year about the time that fall rolls around, I take an oath to myself that I will find a way to celebrate the season without getting caught up in all the hoopla. Nice thought, but easier said than done.

I have always liked to make things, maybe because I always think it is so special to receive something homemade. It really doesn’t matter what it is; just the idea that somebody put their time and effort into something for me is enough.

So, this year, I started making things for the kids on my list. There were a couple of wood projects, a couple of photo projects and a couple of painting projects. I am interested in all these areas, and the project ideas were good, but I didn’t start soon enough. Now it is less than a week before Christmas, and all of them are started and none are done. I am stressing, but I do it to myself.

On a good note, I have most of my shopping done. I actually knew what I wanted to get each person on my list for whom I wasn’t going to be making a gift. Between getting out there and shopping early and my new best friend, the Internet, I am free from being part of the mad rush the last week before the holiday. This part is good.

As far as food goes, I was going to make all the old standbys to share with family and friends. However, my friend the Internet shows me new recipes each day that are promised to be quick, easy, and ones that everyone will rave over. So, I head to the store to buy ingredients that I have never heard of to make recipes that I have never made. So, I have more stress trying to get my platters done. Why don’t I just stick to the dishes that I love to make and people love to receive? I do this to myself.

Then there are Christmas cards ... Ugh. Don’t get me wrong, I love to receive them, I love to write them, and I think it is great that people still send cards instead of just putting greetings on Facebook. It is just that it is so time consuming. Some folks do the Christmas letter. You know, they write a letter detailing what has happened in their lives for the whole previous year and send it with the card. Everyone is split on this issue — either you like it or you don’t.

Some say that this is a lazy way out and that everyone gets the same thing. It makes the cards a lot less personal. I used to think this way too, until I realized that I would write basically the same thing in each card, with only slightly different versions. I will never be able to just sign my name and send the card because there is no point in buying the cards and stamps just to sign my name.

So, yes, now I do the Christmas letter, too. However, being the writer that I am, it still seems so generic to stuff the letter in a card and sign my name. So, I still write the letter and print them off, stuff them in the cards, and still write a personal note before signing my name. Instead of the letter making my life easier, it ends up being just one more step I’ve added. I do this to myself.

After spending two days stuffing the cards, writing my personal notes in them, signing them, hunting up addresses, sealing and stamping the envelopes, I am done. This is after 126 cards.

Although this is a chore, something magical always happens when I go through my list. I usually have a steaming cup of coffee and my phone beside me. When I come across a name of a person that I haven’t talked to recently, I pick up the phone and call.

We are all so busy that there are always people in our lives that we seldom see, but this is the season to reach out and reconnect. What a pleasant break from writing, and how nice to hear the voice of a friend or relative that I haven’t kept in such good contact with on the other end of the line.

Each year, too, I am humbled as I go through my list. There are always names that I cross off because they are no longer with us. We all have them, people who have been part of our lives at some point in time, but for one reason or another, have gone by the wayside. Yet, we still feel driven to stay connected, hence the annual Christmas card. Each year I swear to keep better contact, but it is usually the next year when I break out the Christmas card list that I think of them again. It’s the same cycle, but I do it to myself.

Even worse is when I try to make up for this loss of and write in so many cards that we should “get together between the holidays.” I do know that “between the holidays” is only 7 days, or 168 hours, long. This is not enough time to squeeze in all the people that I hope to see. I do this to myself.

I really think that holiday stress is a tradition in itself. We are so driven and run in such a high gear throughout the year that at holiday time we try to experience all the good will, good cheer, and all the other laid-back stuff that we deprive ourselves of all year long. We do this to ourselves.

Why can’t we keep the holiday feeling all year? What price do we pay for success? We push for something better, something more, as if just being where we are at is not good enough. There is nothing wrong with striving for more, but maybe we should step back and see how blessed we are wherever we are. You know those 126 cards that were a huge chore? I step back and think of how blessed I am to have so many in my life that care about me, and whom I want to stay connected to.

This year I did not put up a tree. I have only a few simple decorations up, and I probably won’t get Christmas cookies made. It’s OK though. I didn’t just promise to reconnect, I did it this year. That’s the important stuff. I feel good. I do this to myself.

O, Christmas Tree!

Country Moon

Few Christmas decorations can top the Christmas tree. At this time of year, it is usually the focal point that brings families together. There is just something about the twinkling lights and the warm glow that speaks for the season.

As with everything, manufacturers strive every year to make a better fake tree. Artificial trees are shaped with perfect branches that make the real deal look like Charlie Brown trees; they are pre-lit and are even scented with evergreen. They are flawless. Even so, I have fond memories of cutting down a tree from the woodlot and decorating it with strings of popcorn, pinecones, and homemade ornaments. That is still my favorite kind of tree.

Apparently, many other folks prefer the real deal, too, because Christmas tree farms are thriving. Growing evergreens is an ideal either project for either spare time or full time. One of the biggest attractions of this type of farming is the small amount of work it actually takes.

Ellsworth 083a

Ellsworth 093a

According to the American Christmas Tree Association, the average price for a tree at a U-cut lot was 46 dollars last year. The costs for growing are mostly labor for mowing, weed control, and trimming. This means that small growers can keep most of their profits.

I was lucky enough to talk to one of these small growers. Gordon McPherson of Ellsworth, Michigan has been growing evergreens for 40 years, ever since he and his wife, Phyllis, started the business. “It has been good to us,” he says with a smile.

He has 20 acres of trees, but also sells centerpieces, wreaths, and garland. However, it is the trees that bring him joy. “You have to be diversified, but I like the trees. Families come in and cut their own. It is fun to watch them search for just the right one.”

There are as many arguments as to what is the best variety of tree. “To each their own,” Gordon explains, “but my favorite is the Frazier fir. I just think it makes the best tree.”

The top three most popular are Balsam fir, Douglas fir, and Scotch pine. The Balsam fir has a natural cone shape and likes the colder winters and cooler summers of the eastern United States. The Douglas fir also has a natural cone shape, holds its needles well after cutting, and is mostly grown in the northwest because it is attracted to the milder growing climate. The Scotch pine is a little fussier. It is a fast grower in a wide range of soils and climates and has a deep tap root, making it more drought-tolerant. However, it does require regular shearing.

Gordon knows the Scotch pine very well. “We start in June and trim them all by hand to get the classic Christmas tree shape.”

His other two big jobs are spraying the trees and planting new seedlings. He sprays twice a year, spring and fall. However, three years ago his pest problem was a little larger in size. Deer were dining on his favorite, the Frazier fir, and he had to put fence up to keep them out.

Normally 1000 trees are cut each year on his farm, and he replants a 1000. It’s all about balance; by planting a portion of the acreage with new trees each year, the farm will provide a steady income as the trees mature in roughly eight years to a height of five to seven feet.  As a general rule, most growers plant 1/8 of their acreage — or 200 trees per acre — each year. With each tree given five feet of space on all sides to allow for plenty of sunlight, each acre can sustain 1500 trees. Some acreage is lost because after every 12 to 15 rows space is left for loading and access roads.

Some tree farmers practice stump culture, which is a very old, practical way of growing trees. With this method, trees are cut above several tiers of branches, which keep the stumps alive. The following year, the stump puts out thousands of sprouts; the chosen ones are cut and the rest promote re-forestation. With this method using the established root system, trees grow quickly and are less susceptible to drought. It also saves labor, as there is no need to plant seedlings or to mow between the rows.

Whatever method is used, growing Christmas trees is a win/win venture. They are excellent for erosion control, plus the trees provide a wildlife habitat and improve the environment. “We also get a little Christmas all year round,” Gordon says with a chuckle.

Ron and I-north 040b

There are many legends surrounding the Christmas tree and how it became such a prevalent part of our Christmas celebrations. The story goes that Martin Luther, a 16th-century German preacher, was walking through the woods one evening and saw the stars shining through the tree branches. It was so beautiful that he went home and told his kids that it reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth. So he decided to bring some of that beauty inside his home by bringing a tree inside and decorating it with candles.

That is how it should be, I think. There is nothing wrong with artificial trees; everything has its place, and they do not shed needles inside. But I know the secret that Gordon and all the other Christmas tree farmers know: There is nothing like the real thing. So that little metal tree that sits in the basement most of the year and I will soon part company. I am going for the small, potted tree that will give us joy throughout the holiday season inside, and then for many years to come it will find a home in our yard. Its branches won’t be uniform, and it will not be a perfect tree except to me. Nature teaches us that “perfect” comes in a lot of different forms. That’s close enough for me. I want the real deal.

Ellsworth 089a

Sorting Out Leavening Agents

Country MoonScents of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves fill most kitchens this time of year. Even better than the treats themselves are the childhood memories that they bring back.

Sometimes re-creating those delicious treats can be a bit challenging, as hand-me-down recipes are sometimes vague. This is especially true when it comes to leavening agents because they can be so confusing. So, I decided to get to the bottom of this rising issue.

Baked goods need something to help the dough rise or "leaven." This something can be anything that produces gas in the dough to cause expansion. The simplest way to do this is by manually turning the dough or beating air into it. However, this method usually doesn’t give enough rise to bread, souffles, cakes, and other desserts. A substance that produces gas — namely carbon dioxide gas — is usually needed. Yeast, baking soda, and baking powder are the three main agents that are used in baking to produce this lift. They can be used singly or in combination. The big question is knowing which one to use when.

Yeast are little organisms called fungus which, when activated, consume the sugars in flour and releases carbon dioxide as waste. Whenever yeast is used, the dough usually needs to be kneaded, which means turning the dough out on a floured board and actually working it with your hands. When dough is kneaded, a protein inside produces a stretchy matrix called gluten. This traps the tiny gas bubbles produced by the yeast, causing the expansion. Without this action, bread dough would end up as a dense blob, like building material.

The more times this process is repeated, the lighter and fluffier the finished product will be. Once this ball of gas-filled-gluten is heated, it turns into the tasty treats we all enjoy, whether it be bread, rolls, or any number of other baked goods.

Yeast’s downside is that it takes time to work. There are faster options. One of those is baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate. It reacts to liquid acidic ingredients such as vinegar or lemon juice to produce carbon dioxide. When you add a little vinegar to baking soda, the fizz that you hear is this reaction. Just like when using yeast, the carbon dioxide bubbles that are formed causes the rise in baked goods.

The good news is that this reaction is fast, you do not have to wait for the dough to rise like when using yeast. The downside is that foods containing baking soda must be baked immediately, because if the batter is allowed to set even 30 minutes then the gas will be lost while it sets and the end product will be dense with gummy centers instead of light and fluffy. Baking soda adds flavor and color by hastening the browning.

The third choice is baking powder, which is really baking soda mixed with a starch and powdered acid. Activating baking powder to produce carbon dioxide requires adding a liquid like water. Most baking powders are double-acting, which means they produce a gas when moisture is added and again when the batter is heated. So, baked goods leavened with baking powder tend to be lighter and fluffier than those leavened with only baking soda.

Some recipes call for both baking soda and baking powder. When you see both of these listed on the ingredient list, you will also see some sort of acid such as yogurt or brown sugar, used to create the gas. Basically, the reason that both are listed is because more leavening is needed than you have acid available in the recipe. The baking soda is not enough to leaven the volume of batter, so baking powder is added for extra lift. Why not just use more soda? Because using too much baking soda leaves a bad flavor in the final product with not much more lift. Another reason to use both is to create the desired browning and flavor. It’s all about balance.

Now, to make this even more confusing: baking powder can be substituted for baking soda, but not vice versa. Homemade baking powder can be made by combining 1 teaspoon baking soda, 2 teaspoons cream of tartar, and 1 teaspoon corn starch. However, it will not be double-acting, so the batter will have to get to the griddle or oven in a hurry.

Using too much baking powder or baking soda will result in an unpleasant flavor. A good rule of thumb is to use 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder or baking soda for each cup of flour.

Even after learning these basics, there is nothing more maddening than preparing a recipe with any of these agents and having the dessert fail because the leavening was too old or had gone bad. It is always best to check the freshness of these products before adding them to the batter. For yeast, add a teaspoon of sugar to the yeast in a little warm water, and if it starts to bubble and “grow,” it is good. To test baking powder, put 1.2 teaspoon baking powder in 3 tablespoons of warm water. Stir it slightly and you should see it fizz. As for baking soda, add 1/2 teaspoon to 3 tablespoons of white vinegar and watch for the fizz.

Baking is one of my favorite pastimes. Knowing which leavening agent works best for which product will help me to not waste time and ingredients. With the Christmas baking season straight ahead, I'm on to better baking!

Yeast
Photo by Fotolia/Brent Hofacker

Red Flint is More Than Chicken Feed

Country MoonFunny how a story unfolds sometimes. I have often said that everyone has a story, and in everything there is a story. Such is the case with Red Flint corn and how Robert Hamilton of Churubusco, Indiana is developing a business around this heritage corn that is both good for him and the consumer.

I met Robert at the Indiana State Corn Husking Competition that I attended a little over a month ago. Throughout the day they made the participants aware of the publications and radio stations that would be covering the event that day, including the fact that I would be writing a blog for GRIT Magazine online about the day’s events.

About halfway through the day, Robert sought me out and told me that he had something for me since I was associated with GRIT. I couldn’t imagine what he had, but he ran back to his truck and brought me a plate of corn muffins. I was puzzled as to why he wanted me to try them. So he explained:

“This all started when I saw an article in the July/August 2013 edition of GRIT Magazine on Red Flint corn. It piqued my interest in the variety,” he starts.

A year later, as events would have it, his daughter and grandkids moved in with him, and they had dairy goats. He remembered the article and did some more research on the Internet, finding that Red Flint had high nutritional value. So he planted somewhere around a quarter of an acre and began grinding the cornmeal for the goats.

“It wasn’t long before I discovered that, not only was it good for animals, but also for human consumption.” He smiles as he remembers grinding the first 400 pounds for chicken feed at approximately $5.00 per bushel. “Not that I don’t like the chickens and the goats,” he says with a laugh, “but it is much more profitable to grind it for human consumption.”

After tasting his corn muffin — a black-walnut, cranberry, corn muffin, to be exact — I agree. It was delicious, and also good for me since the cornmeal is all-natural with no additives. Thus began his business, Mill Stream, LLC, which is run by Robert and his family.

Red flint3

Robert is no stranger to the food industry. He attended culinary art school and cooked professionally for a while, so he has always had an interest in food. Like most people, he just had to find his niche when it came to which food path to follow. “You have to believe in what you are doing or it doesn’t work,” he says.

Even though you may not recognize it, most people are familiar with the flint group of corn varieties because its more common name is Indian corn. The flint corn cultivars that have a large proportion of kernels with hues outside of the yellow range are primarily used ornamentally. These Indian corn varieties have always been part of the Thanksgiving and fall celebrations. Although they are primarily used as decorations, they can also be popped and eaten as popcorn.

Each kernel of flint corn has a hard outer layer to protect the soft endosperm, thus it is likened to being “hard as flint.” Hence the name. It does not have the dents in each kernel like regular field corn — or dent corn — does. Having a lower water content, it is more resistant to freezing. It was the only Vermont crop to survive New England’s infamous "Year Without a Summer" of 1816.

Red Flint2

The Florian Red Flint, or Red Flint, has been called the “perfect staple crop” by MOTHER EARTH NEWS. It is a rare, open-pollinated corn variety from the Italian Alps with unforgettable flavor. The hulls are red, but the meal is a deep yellow with hints of pink. It is physically beautiful with a rich, complex flavor. So, naturally, cornmeal made from it has a rich, distinct taste and texture.

Robert categorizes cornmeal in a culinary world by itself. It is used in a wide range of baked goods including muffins, pancakes, waffles, polenta, grits, scrapple, and hominy. “Cornmeal is such a commodity that's rarely fresh in the stores and consumers don't have a wide selection of different varieties,” he explains.

Another thing that prompted him to mill his own is that it is nearly impossible to buy whole kernels to grind. When people do purchase cornmeal in the markets, more often than not the packages do not list which variety was used in the milling.

“I really believe there is a strong market out there for this product, and that’s why my family and myself started this business. Corn can be grown anywhere in the continental United States and is easy for anyone to harvest, store, and process into cornmeal, yet very few are involved in it.”

It is a good time for him to start this venture, as consumers are becoming more savvy about what they buy and the quality of their food. “They want to know what they’re eating, what is in their food and, like the saying goes, ‘less is more.’ People don’t want all the additives and preservatives in what they eat anymore.”

Robert’s goal is to sell his cornmeal wholesale. A local bakery is going to incorporate some of the cornmeal in its baked goods, and a health food store in Ft. Wayne will soon have it on its shelves.

“I would really like to find a couple of artisan bakers who will use it in their recipes. It could be a win/win relationship, as the cornmeal and the artisan’s baked goods would both be promoted,” Robert explains.

Fedco, a Maine-based seed company, wrote this glowing description of Red Flint corn in its catalog: “Stop the presses! Fabulous flavor is why we stuck Floriana Red Flint corn into the catalog at the last possible moment. It’s medium- to deep-red, pointed kernels are easy to shell. They grind into a fine, pinkish meal that bakes with an appealing spongy texture. Floriana’s richly, sweet, delicious, corny taste beat the competition silly in our pancake and cornbread muffin bake-off.”

Wow! With a testimony like that and the exquisite flavor of the cornmeal muffin that I tried, I would bet that Red Flint corn is soon to be a household name. I can hardly wait to try the meal in my grandmother’s cornbread recipe.

Red Flint1

Robert has his state miller’s certificate and, although he sells his cornmeal wholesale, it can also be purchased retail. Anyone wishing to purchase some ground meal may contact him either by calling or texting 260-443-5369.