Appalachian Spring: Ramp Season!

pickled_ramps

Just got in from a lovely hike along the ridge, down the north face broadside and into the bottomland armed with a garden hand spade and my two trusty dogs. Who are not particularly known to be good truffle-sniffers, and wouldn’t know a morel if it bit ‘em on the nose, but who can definitely sniff out some stinky ramps without any trouble at all. Who can’t?

They’re not up in clumps yet, but the leaders are poking up through the dried and matted leaf mulch from last fall. I dug just enough for ramp scrambled eggs for grandson and I, marked the rest with those little day-glo surveyor’s flags on wire for harvesting in a few weeks when everything’s green-green and they’d be hard to find.

Ramps, also known as wild leeks, are wild, forest grown alliums related to onions, leeks and garlic. Their foliage is broad and pretty, red-tinged toward the ground. They grow from South Carolina north to Canada, and are considered quite the spring delicacy here in the mountains where spring Ramp Festivals through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia are very popular. Like with garlic, if everybody’s got ramp-breath it’s not nearly so offensive. And ramp lovers are known to scarf them down by the bunch.

Now, I’ll be chopping, partially drying and then freezing most of my ramps in anticipation of morels when they show up, as sliced morels and ramps sauteed in butter is just beyond believable as Super Taste Treat Sensations go. Use the bulb, stems and about half of the leaves. Some people love them best with eggs, in potato soup or in wish fried potatoes and peppers. They’re good any way you care to cook them, but if you’re the only one in the family eating them you may find the family giving you wide berth for a few days as the odor lingers. I have even heard tell of pickled ramps!

These delicate and incredibly tasty little leek-onion-garlic things are not grown commercially, though there are farms in the high country that have encouraged ramp crops in abundance in the same type of mulchy forest loam that grows good ginseng and other wild medicinals, and morels. They’re only available in the spring, April and early May around these parts.

I don’t harvest for the local festival, as my ramps aren’t abundant enough for that and we love them far too much ourselves. It’s sort of like ginseng or morels… if you’ve got a good woodland patch, you don’t tell people about it or they’ll clean you out when you aren’t looking. There are enough, however, to satisfy our need for spring tonic from the land, and the morels will be in about the same time judging from how fast this early-early spring is turning into hot-hot summer. Everything’s in overdrive. So perhaps we’ll have morels and ramps for the grandkids coming for Easter treats, who knows?

ALERT! Pie Crust Update!

Pie Crust Update!

Ah, pie! Who doesn’t love pie? Custard pie, pumpkin pie, berry pie, meringue pie, ‘mater pie… and any good – or merely beloved – pie chef has his or her favorite crust ‘secrets’ that draw the oohs and ash from their intended pie-audience.

Now, there are different sorts of pie crusts for different sorts of pies. There’s the kind of solidly “bready” pie crusts one wants to use for pot pies and quiches and such. There are “sweet” pie crusts of graham cracker crumbs and butter, with a little brown sugar mixed in, that are scrumptious with pumpkin and other smooth spice-heavy pies. There are much more substantial bready (with additions like oatmeal), sweetened crust-like stuff you dollop on top of those hard-won blackberries and raspberries in mid-summer for cobblers.

Then there are the super-flaky, very light and subtle crusts that can be used for any type of pie, but are best for specialty items like tomato pie and some berry/fruit pies. I admit my luck with butter crusts has not been very good. They often turn out hard and chewy rather than light and flaky. Don’t know if that’s because I work it too much, or something else. But I don’t even bother trying anymore, just go with the crust recipes that work reliably rather than on a hit-or-miss basis.

To that end I have a very good crust recipe from Debrah Madison’s 1997 tome, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone that I use for ‘mater pie and light quiches. It doesn’t sound like it would be the flakiest crust ever, but it invariably turns out that way. It’s difficult to work with, being made with vegetable oil (for lightness I use safflower) instead of butter or margarine. This gives the dough an oily texture that doesn’t lend itself to easy working. But if you roll it out between sheets of waxed paper, it gets nice and thin and is easily peeled out into a pie tin or onto a pie filling. Not something you’d want to use for stuffed anythings, as those do far better with real bread crusts like for pizza.

Pie Crust Made with Oil

• 1.5 cups flour
• 1/4 cup wheat bran
• 1/4 tsp. salt
• 1/2 cup safflower oil
• 2 tbsp. milk, soy milk or water

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Mix oil and milk/water together in a separate bowl, add to the dry ingredients. Mix until the dough sticks together. Shape into a flat disk and roll between sheets of waxed paper to 1/4 inch thickness. Pull off one sheet of waxed paper, and invert over pie tin. carefully pull back the waxed paper to leave the crust in place. Work into the tin carefully, press-patching rips as you go. Trim. This is one 9″ deep pie’s worth of crust, double recipe for a two-crust pie.

Doesn’t take long, and this crust is surprisingly praise-worthy. Given, of course, my notorious failures in All Things Baked notwithstanding. This recipe is one that fails much less often than others I’ve tried, and the family likes it better than any purchased frozen pie crusts other than graham.

But there’s a recent Big Update that I’m anxious to try – Food Hacks reports that using vodka instead of water (or, in the above case milk) makes those extra crispy/flaky pie crusts even better! Which dedicated foodies will nod along with just as I did, while of course figuring the Thanksgiving pie quotient and wondering if Tuaca would work as well, but with more oomph…

According to Food Hackers

Swapping ice cold vodka for water in pie crust recipes ensures a flakier crust. The liquid makes the dough more pliable to work with, and then evaporates while baking, giving you a lighter result than water.

That makes sense. Tuaca has vanilla and citrus and other spices in it, so when its alcohol content evaporates during baking, it should leave a flaky crust with a lot of flavor. Perfect for pumpkin or sweet potato pies!

I’m with the Food Hacker – cooking or baking with alcoholic content is definitely a good recipe for awesome. The family and guests won’t get high off the goodies, but the cook sure might! Given the amount of hard work that goes into a major feast for mass numbers of people, that can only be a good thing…

At any rate, come this holiday season as I’m busy producing as many pies of all varieties as anybody could ever want to eat, I’ll report back on how well the use of vodka and/or some other alcoholic specialty turns out – in order of best to worst. If I can get past my hangover in time, that is… ;o)

An Early July of Biblical Proportions

The first week of July here in the southern Appalachians has been positively diluvian. That means we’ve had so much rain – falling at the rate of 1-2 inches an hour spaced in waves throughout the day and night – that I’ve literally considered that I ought to build an ark. Worst day of all was the 4th of July, which brought more than 6 inches of rain, flooding streets and fields and swelling creeks to dangerous levels. Nearby towns cancelled parades, picnics and fireworks shows. Sun finally came out yesterday, but the creek’s still high.

fruitHowever, with the overdue appearance of old sol in the daytime sky, the fat, well-watered blackberry crop may finally ripen instead of simply mold itself into oblivion. Tomatoes and peppers may kick in at long last as well, you never know. But my issue right now has to do with one of my apple trees that managed to lose its footing in what has become a pure mud-bog. It’s a total loss after only 15 years of production, leaving me with just one producing apple tree. Must get a few new ones or we’ll never have home grown apples again.

One of the kids visiting for the holiday helped me salvage the unripe apples on that tree, hoping I could do something with them despite the fact that they’re three weeks to a month away from ripe. They’re filling three large baskets on the dining table right now, still waiting for me to figure out what I want to do with them.

Now, I could quarter them and cook them down in a big pot, then strain for pectin to use when making jams and compotes later when the peaches, pears, berries and grapes come in, but it seems a waste of my Final Harvest. I could use them for applesauce instead, but they’ll need a lot of sugar. Maybe I’ll make unsweetened sauce and save it in the ‘fridge until the blackberries are ripe, make some combo sauce (will need less sugar). Or I could peel and slice them for drying in my nifty solar dryer – which hasn’t seen service so far this year – then hope against hope that the sun may stay around long enough to do the job. They could be half-dried, then reconstituted in sugar water before drying again for snack bits and/or pie filling. But they’re small, would make very small dried tidbits.

So of course I went looking for crab apple and little green apple recipes, found some intriguing ones. Below are the most promising ones I’ve found. I’ve enough apples to try several methods of preservation, may save the drying for the rest of the crop that’s still growing. Will report on how they turned out, so stay tuned!


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Sweet Wine Poached Apples

1 pound little green apples
1 cup sweet red wine [like Riesling]
1/2 cup white sugar
Pinch of salt
1 orange, sliced crossways
1 bag of mulling spices
or
2 tsp. ground cinnamon or 1 broken cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp. ground cloves or 5 whole cloves
1 tsp. Carolina allspice
1/2 tsp. ginger

Wash apples, quarter with skin on and cut out the seeds. Combine the wine, sugar, spices and salt, Bring to a simmer while stirring constantly. When the sugar is completely dissolved, add the orange slices and apple quarters. Cover and turn heat to low. Simmer for 5 minutes or until the apples are tender, just before the skin starts separating.

Remove apples and pack loosely in half pint jars. Strain leftover wine and add this to the jars to 1/2 inch from top. Cap, cool, then refrigerate or freeze. Should keep at least a week in the ‘fridge, several months in the freezer. Serve as appetizers on bamboo skewers or long toothpicks.
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Green Apple/Tomato Chutney

1/2 pound unripe apples
1/2 pound green tomatoes
1 3/4 cup brown sugar
2 onions
4 tsp. turmeric
2 tsp. pickling spices
2 cups plus 2 tbsp. cider vinegar
2 tsp. chili powder
2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. small diced ginger root

Wash apples and tomatoes. Peel and core, dice apples and tomatoes into small cubes. Bring vinegar, sugar, salt and spices into a heavy saucepan and heat on medium while stirring until it comes to a simmer. Add chopped onions, ginger and green tomatoes. Reduce heat to low, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to prevent sticking. Simmer for about 30 minutes. Add apple cubes, continue to cook ~10 minutes. Mixture will be reduced and thick.

Cool on stove, then ladle into jars, cap tightly. Keeps about 6 months on the shelf, longer in the fridge.
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Blackberry and Green Apple Jelly

1.5 pounds green apples, quartered
1 cup fresh blackberries
4 cups water
3 cups white sugar
1 tsp. pickling spices (optional)

Place apples and blackberries in a heavy saucepan (do not use aluminum), cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and let simmer for 10-15 minutes until pulp is soft. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve, then filter through cheesecloth or coffee filter paper. You want 4 cups of juice, add water if there’s less than that. Compost the pulp and seeds.

Return juice to clean saucepan and bring to a simmer, cook for 10 minutes. Skim off any foam that comes to the top using a wooden spoon. Stir in the sugar until completely dissolved. Continue to cook until the liquid reaches thread stage [220ºF or 110ºC,].

Pour jelly into sterile half pint jars leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Cap and process 10 minutes in water bath or cool and seal with wax.

January’s Ice & Ills

herbsThis has been the coldest January in my neck of the woods for so many decades that not even the record-keepers can recall a colder one. Despite what we considered very clever precautions in the week before last’s super cold snap (negative temps), we ended up with a busted pipe in the basement wall anyway, forgot to drain out the exterior faucet pipe after we’d turned it off and drained the hose, then filled the tub and jugs and bottles, turned off the pump from the cistern and opened all (but that one) faucet to give the water room to expand as it froze in the incoming underground pipe. Ah, well. Needed to re-solder that darned thing anyway, I guess.

Back to single digits tonight as I type this, going to remember to drain that one this time too. Then we’ll use the tub water to flush and the bottled water to drink and cook and wait for the ground to unfreeze again. Which, if it doesn’t warm up significantly, may be quite awhile. Sigh.

Meanwhile, the family has managed to escape various winter bugs, viruses and even flu this year (knock on wood), thanks to the ample happy elderberry harvest this past summer. Unfortunately, one of the grandsons thinks he has developed walking pneumonia – and has the chest rattles to place it well below bronchia – but won’t have the money to get it diagnosed or buy the prescription until next month when his student loan finally gets credited. We can’t afford to cover him up front either, though I did get a $5 “raise” on my Social Security check this month. Big Whoop. Now I can get the ‘better’ cat food… (another grumble, for another time).

What is “Walking Pneumonia,” you may ask, and what does it mean? First, pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs, and its pathology no matter what qualifier you put on it is just that simple. The complications come from the various causes, the multiplex of symptoms, and variety of treatments. Millions of Americans get pneumonia every year, and not all of them have the flu. Cough, fever, chills, difficulty breathing, general weakness, light-headedness with activity, skin rashes… the symptoms are myriad.

Cider, Salsa and Peach Pie

Cider_SalsaThe photo on the left is of my 3-year old volunteer peach tree, taken just this afternoon. You can see that it’s growing right next to my recently-moved compost bin, from which it volunteered. I have no idea exactly what kind of peach it is, but it was one we ate three years ago and composted that pit. It’s really taken off, when the limbs are upright it’s nearly 20 feet tall. It tried to grow fruit last year, but they all fell off before ripening. As you can see, this year it’s making up for lost time.

The limb in the foreground isn’t broken, it’s just weighted down by its load of quickly ripening fruit. Thanks to the soggy monsoon season this year, there’s a literal ton of it. None of the limbs have actually broken off yet – like one each from my apple trees did – so I’m letting it lay in the pumpkin patch for awhile to finish ripening – the peaches are still a bit crisp and hard, not very sweet. I’m hoping it’ll do okay where it is, give me some time to finish up with the apples – which are now fully ripe and coming in by the bushel.

I gave up drying the lot of ‘em, since my solar dryer is only as big as the window I made it out of, and there’s far too many poms. So grandson and I decided to make cider instead, and then to see if we can get it to harden! Or, in lieu of good ol’ hard cider, maybe it’ll do what my grape juice usually does – turn to vinegar.

Of course, getting either hard cider or vinegar out of the bounty is going to presuppose that we’re not drinking the cider as fast as we’re making it, and so far that hasn’t proven to be the case. Do have a half-gallon un-drunk so far in a growler bottle, half another growler, and enough bottles for two more full gallons. So we might end up ahead of ourselves.

What I’ve discovered is that if you don’t have a cider press (and I don’t), making cider takes quite a bit of muscle-power. Still, we’re averaging 3 pints per gallon of apples, so that’s not a bad return. Here’s how you do it the hard way…

1. Gather and wash the apples. Quarter them, tossing out any serious bruises or bugs. Put them into gallon size freezer zip-lock bags, and toss them into the freezer for a couple of days or so.

2. Remove from freezer and thaw. This gives you some pretty darned squishy apple chunks. Once thawed, empty the bag (I do this with half a bag at a time given the size of my cookware pot) into a heavy stock pot and crush the apple chunks good with a potato masher.

3. Once the softened apple chunks are good and squished, load them into a mesh food bag. Squeeze and smash the bag of chunks as much as possible with your hands. I then put the bag into a footed colander sitting in the pot. Squish juice out of the bag with fists, then I use a small pot to squish it further. The more juice you can squish out, the more cider you’ve got.

4. Pour accumulated cider into a pitcher, and from there through a strainer into your jug or jar. Compost the leavings and start the next batch.

To reliably get hard cider most sources recommend adding some sugar or honey and some brewer’s yeast. We haven’t gotten that far yet, but we’re hoping to before the refrigerator gets too full of cider. Or, it can go hard on its own, so look out for exploding bottles – don’t seal tightly until it’s done out-gassing. Will let you know how it works out for us, if we don’t drink it all first.

In between cider batches, I’m dealing with the tomato crop. Which is also coming in great guns due to the wet season, and my dryer isn’t keeping up. Have two full quarts so far of sun dried in olive oil, another quart of dry-dry that I’ll use to make tomato powder. But we’re also going to need salsa now that the salsa peppers are coming in by the dozen too, so it’s salsa time!

For this I go ahead and blanche/skin the ‘maters, de-seed and drain them. Sprinkling them with salt after they’ve been chopped and are sitting in the colander helps to make them a bit less juicy. For canning purposes you’ll want 8 cups of chopped and drained tomatoes.

My jalapenos aren’t producing yet, so I’m using the long “salsa peppers” we bought as seedlings from our local greenhouse, and some of the bells coming in. The salsa peppers are smaller than anaheims and a lot hotter, not as hot as jalapenos. They don’t have to be roasted and peeled first, just seeded and chopped finely, 2-3 cups. 4-5 cups of finely chopped onions (I’m using sweet Vidalias), two cups of vinegar or 1.5 cups of lemon juice. Salt, maybe some chili powder or hot red pepper flakes.

Put all this into a heavy sauce pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer for about 5 minutes. Ladle into canning jars, cap and process in a water bath for 25 to 30 minutes (30 is better). I’ll be doing this out on the gas grill so as not to heat the kitchen more than it already is hot. And now that it’s August, it’s hot.

Now… about those peaches. If the limbs look to be getting so stressed they’re in real danger of breaking, I’ll have to pick them all now. Peaches will continue to ripen for awhile after picking, so hopefully they’ll finish up by the time I get around to them.

Peaches take to freezing quite well, but since our electricity isn’t all that reliable I figure I’d best can them. Quarts should be plenty to make a peach cobbler or pie with, or even just to serve as dessert with a scoop of ice cream during the fall and winter. For this I’m going to want a light syrup, which is a 1:3 ratio of one cup of sugar to three cups of water. Heated just enough to thoroughly dissolve the sugar, then kept on ‘low’ while I prep the fruit.

Given the timing of ripening, these are freestone peaches. Which are much easier to process than non-freestone (‘cling’) peaches because the pits are much easier to remove. They should be blanched like tomatoes for 30 to 45 seconds in boiling water, then cooled in ice water. The skins then slip right off. At that point they should be halved and the pit removed. From there they can be sliced or quartered. Put straight into sterile jars, fill with syrup to a half-inch from the top, then clean the edges with a paper towel and cap. Process in a water bath for 25-30 minutes.

So Happy August to all you homesteaders out there, I hope your fruit crops are coming in as abundantly as mine, but with less damage to the trees!

Useful Links:

Salsa Garden – Canning Salsas
Pick Your Own: Homemade Apple Cider
Clemson Extension: Preserving Peaches

Incoming Fruit!

Pear-Grape Jam & Pear Butter

fruitDespite the April freeze, which managed to hit after a March so warm that all the fruit had already blossomed, a goodly amount of concord and muscadine grapes managed to overcome the stress, and the cinnamon pears are falling at easily twice their usual size. And while harvest is a few weeks early this year due to the extraordinarily warm spring, the fruit is super-luscious from a summer of more than ample rainfall.

After the hail got my corn crop and the super-weeds got my tomatoes, it’s nice that something’s coming in with enough abundance that I’ll be able to trade pear butter and jam for all the crops that failed in the lower terraces. Will need another two or three dozen half-pint jars before it’s over, but August is its usual perfect weather (August and September in these mountains are absolutely the most perfect-weather months of the year, though not the most colorful). It’s cool enough to start the indoor processing, so that’s just what I’m doing.

Processing is a several-part ordeal, but will then give me plenty of pear mash and grape mush to construct the goodies. Today I have enough pears to fill my heavy stock pot half full after chopping, about 18 individual pears. Wash and remove the stems. Quarter and then half the quarters. Even bruised areas are good, just be sure to excise any actually rotten spots. Add enough water to keep the pears from sticking (about half a cup), and bring to a boil covered over medium heat for about 12-15 minutes. Stir it a few times to make sure all the pieces get good and soft, remove the lid and simmer for another 5 minutes to reduce the originally added water. Push the resulting ‘stuff’ through a sieve to get the seeds and skins out, stir in a tablespoon of ascorbic acid (available in the canning section) or two tablespoons of lemon juice, and set the pulp aside.

Then it’s the grapes’ turn. Add a quart of stemmed grapes to a half pint of water and again bring to a boil covered, over medium heat. When it’s been going for about 10 minutes mash with a potato masher to separate the innards from the skins. Continue to boil lightly uncovered until the innards liquify (about 10 minutes). Sieve the results as with the pears to remove seeds and skins. Reserve juice.

Now you’re ready to make Pear-Grape Jam…

Easy, Low-Sugar Pear-Grape Jam

• 3 1/2 cups pear pulp
• 3 1/2 cups grape pulp
• 4-inch sprig fresh rosemary
• 1/2 cup raw local honey

In a heavy stock pot combine the pulps, honey, and rosemary. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, for 30 minutes or until liquid is reduced by about a cup.

Remove from heat and let steep for 5-10 minutes. Remove and discard the rosemary sprig (be careful to not lose any of the needles). Pour or ladle the jam into hot, sterilized half-pint condiment jars, leaving 1/8″ head space. Wipe the rims clean and attach sterilized lids, screw on the caps finger-tight.

Process 10 minutes in water bath canner, cool on a wire rack. Before storing make sure the lids have popped to indicate vacuum. Should fill 6 half-pint jars.
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Ball makes very pretty half-pint jars, which are just the right size for gifts or trade. These can be further “fancied” for the purpose of gifting by cutting out circles of bright fabric to place over the lids but under the screw caps. Great hostess gifts for the upcoming holiday parties, and as part of Christmas edible gifts of fudge, cookies, dried veggie crackers and jam.

If you, like me, have way more pears than grapes, you can always just make pear butter to gift or trade (or delight your own family with at breakfast time)…

Easy Pear Butter

Process pears as above, then sieve to remove seeds and skin. Return to pot and add [per 3 cups of pulp):

• 1 tbsp. ascorbic acid
• 1/4 cup raw local honey
• 1 1/2 tbsp. cinnamon
• 2 tsp. ground ginger
• 1 tsp. ground allspice
• 1/4 cup orange juice

Slowly bring mixture to a simmer, stirring frequently. Continue to simmer for 5 minutes. Ladle into sterile half-pint jars. Wipe lips clean and attach lids, screw caps finger-tight. Process in a water bath canner for 10 minutes, remove and cool.

Dessert Fads in 2011

Even though everyone enjoys a bowl of ice cream or a few cookies, there are still major trends in the dessert industry every year that overshadow the classics. A handful of delicious sweets always gain huge popularity and spark tasty and beautiful dessert creations. These are the top 5 dessert fads of 2011 and a breakdown of when they were most popular online. I’ll also take a stab at predicting what the biggest trend of 2012 will be, so if your sweet tooth is acting up, you might want to grab a brownie before you read another word!

Macaroons
Macaroons

Cupcakes

Many people said the cupcake fad would die in 2010, but these tasty treats are still going strong, and it doesn’t surprise me in the least. Why go back to eating cake when you can have an adorable, mini cake individually frosted and flavored? The variety of decorative possibilities and the controlled portions make cupcakes an amazing choice.

And cupcakes’ popularity remained steady throughout 2011. In fact, their biggest peak was in April of 2011, proving that the doubters were wrong about cupcakes’ tapering popularity. So there you go, cupcakes. Don’t let the naysayers get you down. (And yes, I am directly addressing cupcakes. Don’t judge me.)

Cake pops

Cupcakes aren’t the only miniaturized cake treats getting attention. People are loving cake pops, which are basically little round pieces of cake on a stick, hence the “pop” part of the name. Instead of having traditional wedding cakes, many brides and grooms are choosing to go with cake pops to put a modern twist on an old-fashioned dessert.

Cake pops are at their Internet search peak in October, probably because October is one of the most popular months to have weddings. Not only have married-couples-to-be noticed the cake pop trend—even commercial retailers like Starbucks have spotted the fad and started selling the pops in their coffee establishments. Nice looking out, Starbucks.

Macaroons

Despite looking like the Pretty Patties SpongeBob invented (Google it), macaroons will delight your taste buds. The French type is sweeping the dessert world, and while the coconut variety is popular, the multi-colored ones more frequently appear at weddings because they add both flavor and decoration to the dessert table.

Macaroon hype peaked in April and experienced a second worldwide Internet search peak in September, though that’s just for the search term “macaroon,” which would also include the common coconut variety. The search for the term “French macaroon” peaked in March and October. Looks like people need their treats at their weddings and in the spring!

Whoopie pies are also getting attention on the wedding circuit, and just like every dessert listed before them, theytastelike they belong to the cake family. (Sensing a trend within a trend here?) It’s essentially a cake sandwich with cream or frosting in the middle, which means making these things is always a good decision.

Whoopiepies were searched online the most during the months of February and March, and while they’ve been less popular than the other desserts on this list, they’ve maintained a steady interest throughout the year.

Finally breaking from the cake theme, pies of all types made a real showing in the dessert world this year. From apple to chocolate cream, people have a taste for pie these days, which is sparking more and more shops to open up that are strictly dedicated to baking and selling homemade pies.

In terms of search popularity, “pie” blows everything out of the water, though we have to assume some of these searches were actually for “whoopie pies.” Poor whoopie pies — never getting any of the credit.

2012 trend prediction: Homemade packaged desserts

Baking enthusiasts have been whipping up their own versions of classic packaged treats like Hostess Twinkies and Cupcakes this year, and it looks like it’ll be a trend that’ll really gain some steam next year. Dozens of recipes exist on recipe sites like Recipe Finder and foodie blogs for homemade versions of Pop-Tarts, HoHos, MoonPies, and more, but this trend seems to have started toward the end of 2011. Let’s hope 2012 brings us delicious,non-processed versions of the treats we loved as kids.

Conclusion

Cake’s boring. Or at least that’s what seems to be going on here. Cake is like a super popular, old-school TV show that’s now the cause of four amazing spin-offs. Appreciate pies and cake-like treats for these last few months, because new trends will be arriving in 2012 that will surely grab our attention and satisfy our sweet cravings!

Best Thanksgiving Perk: Cranberries

CranberriesThanksgiving is just over a week away, which means one of my absolute favorite fruits are now being sold fresh in bags – often on half price sale – at grocery stores everywhere. For Thanksgiving I use just one of those 12-ounce bags to make my famous Crackberry Sauce (regular whole cranberry sauce with a bag of frozen blackberries added). But I buy as many as I can afford when they go on sale so I can dry them as “craisins.”

I’ve written quite a bit about how much I like drying food from the garden rather than canning. Which is a hot and expensive way of preserving things. But this time of year my handy-dandy home-made solar dryer is fairly useless, there’s just not enough hours of sun to make it work. So I use the oven, which can also be a relatively expensive proposition. Still, good craisins are expensive from the store in those little brand name bags, so it works out fairly. Even better, if you make your own craisins at home you can do some pretty spectacular things with them flavor-wise.

This year I’m doing the “Double-Dry” method for orange flavored craisins. It’s easy enough – just dry the craisins in single layers on flat baking sheets in a barely warm oven – I use the lowest setting, 150º – and keep the door propped open a couple of inches to allow the moisture to escape in natural convection. Takes awhile, and many of the berries retain their size and shape until they’ve cooled completely and wrinkle up into the ‘usual’ raisin-like form. I put these into a glass bowl and cover them with hot orange juice. Then cover the bowl and let the berries reconstitute. Then dry them again.

You could use any type of fruit juice to flavor your craisins, even wine or brandy if you want. Just be sure to label the containers you put them in so they don’t get mixed up. They are wonderful additions to holiday cakes, breads and cookies, or just as handy snacks. If you want your craisins to be sweeter, just thoroughly dissolve a tablespoon or two of sugar or honey in the reconstituting juice, it will get absorbed.

It’s cranberries this time of year, but drying and double-drying fresh fruit works any time of year, whenever the local harvest has big lots at the farmer’s market. I haven’t yet double-dried apples, as dried apple slices go so fast as snacks around here that it seems the hoards just stand around drooling to get them as fast as they can be produced. But if ever I did happen to have dried enough for, say, a Thanksgiving pie, I’d probably reconstitute them in spiced juice (mulled cider or even wine) just before putting them into the pie crust, using leftover juice as part of the filling. Just add sugar and corn starch to thicken.

Cranberries don’t grow in my locale, but blueberries sure do. I’m planning to dedicate several terraces on the upper yard slope to the ridge to blueberries, once I find a good source of thinned bushes I can get for free. Say, 4 100-foot rows of good producers, which works out to ~25 bushes per row spaced at 4′. Good producers will return ~5 pounds of berries per bush (some will give 10, but I’m being conservative here). Once they’re producing at that level, I’ll be getting an average crop of 500 pounds a year! That’s big enough to supply my family and friends as well as the local munchy market. Besides, blueberries come in high summer, which would let me use the sun instead of expensive electricity to do the drying.