It’s been a while since I made a good old-fashioned homemade jelly. I went through a phase a few years ago when we had a quince tree in our backyard and were also getting a lot of apples in our CSA box. I made a lot of jams and jellies with an apple base so I didn’t have to use pectin.
I have a friend here in London with a crabapple tree on her front lawn and she said I could come pick them when they were ready. Well, they didn’t grow quite as well this year as in years past, and when the kids and I went to pick we didn’t get a very good crop. So we said ‘better luck next year’ and left it at that.
A couple weeks later I was taking my daughter to her swimming lesson and as I went around the car to get her out I saw that we were parked right beside a big crabapple tree that was FULL of bright red crabapples. Cue the lightbulb. When we came out of the community centre I grabbed a bag from our trunk and we started picking. Since it was a community space I figured it would be okay. I noticed a few people in the parking lot who were probably wondering what the heck we were doing, but nobody came over to question it so we filled the bag and set off.
It ended up being the perfect amount for a batch of jelly. It was really fun to go through the jelly making process again, trying to get it into the jars at just the right point. My daughter has been very excited to have this pink jelly on her toast every morning, and she helped me take a jar to our friends as well. I hope we’ll still have better luck next year with our friends’ tree, but if we don’t we know where to find some!
As I’m sure you can guess, my time is pretty occupied these days with our kids. Although I am an avid baker, my day job is not only looking after my own kids, but a couple others who come to my in-home daycare. Needless to say it is a busy household!
Over the last few months I have done some fun baking and food activities with them all and thought I would share some of them here. Some involve baking, and some don’t, but they all involve eating yummy things, so I decided to include them anyway!
To start with, my kids love my flour bin. It’s an excellent sensory experience to feel the flour on their fingers, and I’m in constant awe of just how far that flour can travel!
Now let’s go back a bit and do this in chronological order. I’ll start with Valentine’s day. My daughter helped me make some heart cookies, and my sister-in-law helped me cut a ton of tiny little heart and star shapes out of fondant to use as decorations. With some royal icing in hand the kids did some awesome decorating. The rule was that they had to finish decorating their set amount of cookies before they could pick one to eat. They showed surprising restraint, only needing reminders a couple times, and then thoroughly enjoyed the fruit of their labour!
This winter was particularly snowy and cold, which meant we spent a lot of time inside. One day we set a bowl out in the falling snow, and once we had caught enough clean snow we made some snow cream to eat. So simple: snow, sugar, milk and vanilla. It seemed a lot colder than regular ice cream, and was like a super sweet snow cone. Needless to say they slurped it up in no time!
Also, because we were indoors a lot this winter, we tried several sensory activities. Finger painting is always a favourite, but my 17 month old son still eats everything he can get his hands on. I found a recipe for edible finger paint online which was literally some plain yogurt and food colouring. My son was super excited to be doing something that looked like what the bigger kids were doing. And when he discovered what it actually was he was super excited about eating it…and he ate it ALL!
And lastly, for now, we did some more cookie decorating for St. Patrick’s day. My daughter and son helped me bake the cookies, and then everyone participated in the decorating. What fun to be able to do all this with such an eager group of kids! An awesome reason to make and decorate cookies for any season!
When I made some royal icing for the dominoes cookies last week I used the recipe from a pack of meringue powder. There are several icing recipes included, one of which really caught my attention: Snow-White Buttercream Icing. My first thought was, “That’s impossible, butter isn’t white, so why would buttercream icing be white?” When I read the ingredients it calls for 1 1/4 cups of shortening, and no butter at all. A very bland icing, you say? Well, not when you add the 1/2 teaspoon of butter flavour! As a baker who tries to use as many pure/natural ingredients as possible, I cringed, and thought there should be some kind of regulation. There was really nothing natural in the recipe; even the vanilla that’s called for is a clear vanilla extract, which is artificial. Pure vanilla should be a dark brown colour (but remember, not all dark vanillas are natural).
I learned a few years ago that authors of recipes do not have the same rights and privileges as other authors. The author of a textbook needs to be acknowledged appropriately if you use his/her work in an essay, and if that person and his/her work is not acknowledged it’s considered plagiarism. Not so for recipes. Maybe if you used a recipe from a published cookbook and put it into your own published cookbook; but if you’re preparing a recipe to eat, whether it be for yourself or for others, it is not required to acknowledge the author. This may be why so many families have secret recipes handed down generation to generation!
Back to the buttercream… Although I don’t think it’s practical, or really necessary, to actually copyright a recipe for buttercream, I do think that if a recipe title has the word ‘butter’ in it, it should call for butter as an actual ingredient. If you don’t care enough to put natural butter in your icing, why would you care if the word butter is in the title? You can just call it ‘Snow-White Icing’ and save yourself some syllables. Now, I am a bit biased, I haven’t actually tried using butter flavour, but I can’t imagine it’s better than the real thing. And even if the flavour is right, the mouth-feel of the shortening would be much less desirable than the real thing.
I realize there are people – especially a lot of brides – who, for decorative purposes, might want a ‘snow-white’ icing. If you are aware that the only way to get that is artificially, then that’s fine; it’s obviously not my preference, but if the presentation is more important than the taste, so be it. But I think it is unfair to mislead people into thinking they have an authentic buttercream on their pristine white cake when there’s actually no butter in it.
Perhaps I have become a baking snob, but when I make a cake (or anything, for that matter) for someone else, I do my best to make it with ingredients that I am comfortable eating myself. Sometimes that means sacrificing a pristine appearance, but when that cake is all cut up into pieces, no one is focused on the appearance anymore, they’re all focused on the taste. And I want them to taste something unforgettably rich and delicious, naturally!
As my daughter gets older, it’s easier to involve her in the baking process. Her fine motor skills are getting tuned and she can now use cookie cutters to cut out shapes, move the cookies onto a pan, and she is super-good at eating them! I have to say, I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so when she starts to put the cookie cutter down halfway across one that’s already cut, I often leap in to move it. But then I got thinking, these cookies are just for us, and she seems pretty proud of what she’s doing, and they’re going to taste the same no matter how they’re cut, so why should I get all worked up about it? After all, it’s an activity I invited her to help with, and at this stage in her life this should be a fun activity, not something she gets frustrated with because I keep butting in.
We have a great cookie cookbook that has pictures of each cookie with the recipes, which is perfect since she can’t read yet. She looks through the book and finds a picture that she likes, and we do our best to make them. Sometimes I have to improvise ingredients, and I almost always cut the recipe in half (or smaller!) That way we don’t have an over-abundance of cookies, and it takes less time which is great for her toddler attention span!
I think one of the things I like best about involving her in baking and cooking is that she has started to bake and cook in her ‘oven’ (which also happens to be the big box that her car seat came in!) We never got one of those Fisher Price kitchen sets, she just uses what she can find around the house, which I think is great. I keep my nice baking equipment out of reach, but there are still lots of pans and utensils to choose from. She regularly makes feasts of pizza, pasta and salad; and of course desserts: blueberry pie, chocolate cookies, ice cream, pecan pie, apple crisp to name a few. I like to cook and bake from scratch as much as possible, and if I can involve her in the process I end up teaching her how to do that too without really even trying. It’s one thing to tell her something, but it’s so much better when she can learn it hands-on. It can take some creativity to get an impatient toddler to participate, but if you pick recipes that have a limited number of ingredients, and cut the recipe size down so it doesn’t take as long, you can have a lot of success with it. As she gets used to the process, and grows and develops more, it will be easier to tackle more complicated recipes, and as an added bonus, work on math skills – all those fraction measurements!
Here’s a modified recipe we did recently that worked pretty well (you can probably make out the full recipe if you click on the photo above):
1/2 c butter
1/4 c brown sugar
1 egg white
1 c all purpose flour
Preheat oven to 350F. Beat butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in egg white. Stir in flour and mix well.
Spoon mixture into a pastry bag fitted with star tip and pipe 3-inch fingers onto lightly greased baking sheets (you can use parchment paper, but it may slide when you try to lift the piping tip).
Bake for about 8-10 minutes, or until lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack.
My daughter helped soften the butter by pushing the buttons on the microwave, dumped the sugar in the bowl, helped hold the mixer, dumped the flour in the bowl, and helped stir in the flour with a big wooden spoon.I had to do all the piping at this stage, but she was pretty fascinated watching it happen. And she was a very eager taste-tester. She also didn’t seem to mind that we didn’t make the frosting for the middle, she was just happy to have some cookies!