Sunday, December 22, 2013

Stock your bar with homemade bitters

In case you're not familiar, bitters are a common cocktail ingredient with an intriguing history and an even more compelling present. Originally developed as medicinal tonics, bitters are now sought after for the flavors- both subtle and bold- that they bring to all manner of delicious drinks.  Some baked goods even call for bitters as a flavoring agent.  The basic formula consists of a variety of herbs, spices, fruits, and more that are steeped in a base liquor. And there is really no limit to what you can mix up: I made four different types of bitters in less than an hour, and I'm pretty confident that I'll find a use for each one. It might take some experimentation, but hey, that's half the fun.

In terms of the process, you can use Everclear as a base, and vodka is fine, too. Just find something that is both strong (high proof) and neutral, and pour it into a mason jar. At this point, you can get creative or you can stick to a recipe. I like to improvise, so I basically just combine things that sound like they'd go well together. If needed, I can always make adjustments later.
Some ingredients may need to be ground or cut up- remember, the finer they are, the more flavor they can release. Once the ingredients have been added, just put on the lid, and shake the jars daily to help mix things up. After a week, you can strain off the solids and bottle the bitters.  You can dilute the bitters with straight alcohol at this point if you'd like, or leave them as is.  If you have a bottle with a dropper, that adds a lot of convenience, since bitters are used sparingly most of the time.

Here are the four varieties that I made up this time around. The quantities of ingredients that I added were determined pretty indiscriminately, so I'm not presenting them as recipes; they're more to provide inspiration:

Rosemary and sage
Dried blueberry
Thai chili and mango
Coconut, crystallized ginger, and cumin

At first the vodka was totally clear, but it changed within a day.

In terms of actual recipes, here's one from

2 cups grain alcohol
8 oz dried orange peel, minced
1 tsp cardamom
1 tsp coriander
1/2 tsp caraway or anise water
3/4 cup granulated sugar

The process is that same as the one I outlined above.

Whether you decide to wing it or dig around online for more precise recipes, you'll have fun making homemade bitters. And they make a fantastic gift- in less than an hour, you can have the equivalent of 12 bottles to give away or keep. You'll also save money- I spent less than $20 on a quantity of ingredients that made over $90 worth of bitters if I paid retail.of bitters began as medicinal tonics, although this application has pretty much fallen by the wayside. Nowadays, it is all about the flavor.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Throwing in the Towel- the Hand Towel, that is

This may be the world's shortest blog post, but why use a thousand words when six or seven will do the trick? Anyway, I was surfing around Etsy (again) and I came across some of the greatest hand-towels ever. I'm going to go ahead and fess up to having a real thing for cute, quirky hand towels, despite the fact that I don't actually own all that many. This year, I think I'll treat myself to a couple. I've been a good boy, Santa, right? Right? Uh, Santa? Are you there, Santa, its me, Christopher? Anyway, if you like hand-printed stuff, check this out. They're SO...STINKING...CUTE. Just click on the image for more info.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Keeping it Local for the Holidays

Here's the reality check: I've got a five-year old daughter, so unless somebody around here starts crafting plastic My Little Ponies, complete with the little heart stamps on the ass, I'm definitely gonna have to buy a certain amount of plastic crap from China in the next couple of weeks.  And I accept that.  I accept it in the way that I accept that my car runs on gasoline and not good vibes and pixie dust.  However, having been self-employed for the better part of 20 years now, I know first-hand what a huge impact it makes when people make a conscious decision to redirect even a portion of their spending toward the talented folks in their own community.  I'm grateful to those who have supported me and my work over the years, and that prompts me to get all circle of life-y and do what I can to support and promote some of the people in our town who make awesome stuff.  In the end, that is the real function of this blog: to celebrate the handmade & homegrown, and because I want to live in a place with those kind of values, writing is one of the ways that I live those values.

To create a nice, orderly list, I used Etsy.  I used to have mixed feelings about Etsy, but its growing on me, especially the feature that allows you to search by area.  Convenient?  Yeah.  Wherever you live, you can buy local without getting out of your pj's.  As it is currently 7 degrees out in Salt Lake, this works for me.

Anyway, here's a quick run-down of some of the artists & artisans that I've got my eye on around here.  Just click on the image for more info.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Holiday Craftiness

There is so much homemade and homegrown stuff to celebrate around the holidays that I just can't find enough time to take it all in.  If only there were two of me...  sigh.  Anyway, since I'm limited for time, I guess I'll just pick one of the things that I look forward to most: decorating our house.  We don't go in for lots of outdoor lights, but indoors we go hog-wild with paper, scissors,tape, and paint.  Since I have a 5 year-old daughter, and she is always game for just about any kind of project (that's my girl!), we now have a ton of homemade decorations of all kinds.  For example, I'd guess that 90% of the ornaments on our tree each year are ones that we've made, starting since she was old enough to hold a paintbrush.  And, they're all really, really modest, but that's part of the charm.  You can always buy "fancy" if you spend enough, but of course its way more fun to go for colorful and creative and spend nothing at all!

Abigail helps make so many ornaments every year that we could
easily outgrow one tree.  But there's worse problems, right?
Grandma Skopec gets in on the action.
Every year we make a gingerbread house.  The trick is to keep the dog from eating it afterward.

What kind of stuff do you make for the holidays?  Gifts?  Food?  Decor?  I'd love to hear about it!  Feel free to leave comments, or hit me up on Facebook with your input.  How about holiday craft fairs?  Ever buy anything nifty at one?  Ever sell anything nifty at one?  My next post will be all about Craft Sabbath, the regular Craft fairs at Salt Lake's Downtown Library, so stay tuned.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Cider-Making Part II

Pressing Your Own

If you’d like to step things up a notch and make cider in larger quantities using your own apples, you’ll need two things: a way to chop up the apples into smaller pieces, and a press to put the apples into to squeeze out every last bit of juice.  Because the equipment can be costly to purchase, many people just rent them as needed.  Local homebrew supply shops are a great place to check.  At around $30-$50 per day, the cost quickly becomes manageable if you’re making a lot of cider and/or getting a few people to chip in.  In the latter case, you’ve got the makings for a cider party!  My friend Tara Shupe photographed some cider-making festivities at our friend Lyle Nay’s house, and she graciously allowed me to use the pictures here.

1) The apples are loaded into a grinder which reduces them in size so that they can be fed into the press.  

2) The chopped-up fruit is loaded into pressing bags. Originally made from cheesecloth, the bags are now commonly made from a more durable polyester blend.
3) Cranking the ratcheting handle exerts downward pressure and  squeezes out the cider.
4) Liquid gold!

5) Each carboys holds 5 gallons.  The yellow one is cider, and the darker one is a wild berry/apple mix.

Building a Down-and-Dirty Cider Press 

While I have no problem with renting a cider press, and I'm glad they're available at reasonable rates around here, I couldn't resists a little bit of tinkering to see if I could quickly throw together a functional press with a minimum of effort or expense.  The result was the $18 Cider Press.  I used one 2x4, and a bottling bucket.  At $16, the bucket accounted for most of the cost, but I already had it laying around anyway.  I also used the jack from my car.  The resulting press wasn't fancy, but it took less than half an hour to build, and just about anyone could do it.  The only power tools required are a drill and a jigsaw.

           1) I cut the 2x4's and screwed them together with 4" screws.  The frame measured 25"x19". 

                           2) I attached the frame to a pair of runners which will serve as the base.

                     3) I added two more 2x4's to create a platform large enough to hold the bucket.

4) Because the drain is located a couple of inches up the wall of the bucket, I needed to build up the floor  
                                            accordingly.  I began with a pair of 2x4 spacers. 

      5) To make a new bottom for the bucket, I cut a 10 1/4" diameter disc from some scrap plywood.

                          6) The edge of the disc needed to be notched to accommodate the drain.

7) I used a juicer to turn the apples into pulp.  You could also use a food mill, food processor, or blender.  I didn't have a pressing bag on hand, so I placed the pulp into a cheescloth-like fabric that I had on hand.

8) After gathering the ends of the cloth into a "bag" of sorts, I placed the dripping cloth into the press.  I 
                                                then set a second plywood disc on top of it. 

9) I used an 8" length of 4x4 lumber as a spacer: I just needed a way to wedge the jack in between the 
                                      top rail of the frame and the disc, and this worked fine.

10) Ah ha!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Cider-Making Part I

Hard Cider- One of History’s Great DIY Projects

By Chris Gleason

       Seen through the eyes of this completely biased reporter, hard apple cider is having a moment.  Even Eric Asimov, wine critic for the New York Times, recently devoted a column to its recent rise in popularity.  He noted that a number of large corporations- Anheuser Busch, among others- are moving to acquire, establish, or grow cider brands, and this is an interesting turn of events.  While I’m not a knee-jerk fan of corporate food production, Big Cider (a term I invoke with a giggle) there might be some good news here: by turning a more people on to the deliciousness of hard cider, it is inevitable that a lot of folks will get inspired to make cider on their own.  And this is inherently a great thing: it uses local produce, it’s a fun do-it-yourself project, and it saves money as compared to buying the mass-produced stuff.  It is also satisfying in a history-repeats-itself kind of way: back in the Colonial Era, hard cider was the most common alcoholic beverage.  So, if you’re the kind of person who likes to fan the flames of a great old tradition, you might want to give cider-making a try.

       Like lots of other DIY projects, cider-making exists on a sort of continuum of complexity.  You can easily make cider in minutes from a gallon jug of store-bought juice, or you can gather your own apples and press them into cider on your own.  It just depends on how much time, money, and energy you want to put into the endeavor.  Ultimately, there is a lot of satisfaction from having your fingerprints on each step of the process and doing it “the hard way”, so it is worth trying at least once, but to keep things simple, I’ll begin at the beginning: with a gallon of pre-made apple cider.  My next post will cover the process starting with a few bushels of apples and an old-school press.

       You can use apple juice or apple cider- just make sure the label indicates that there are no preservatives, as this will kill of the yeast that you’ll be adding.  Pasteurized juice or cider are fine- that means that the naturally occurring wild yeasts have been eradicated.  Either way, you’ll need to procure a couple of things from a homebrew store: an airlock and yeast.  An airlock is a nifty little device that allows CO2 (carbon dioxide) to escape from the fermenting brew while keeping oxygen out.  Failing to do so starts you down the road to making vinegar, but that’s a story for another time.  Either way, you’ll use the glass jug that the cider/juice came in, and you can add a cup of brown sugar if you’d like. 

       To add the yeast, you can simply pitch it right into the jug- I do- or you can make a starter to check and see if your yeast are in fact still alive.  You might want to do this if you’ve have bad luck in the past, or if you are using old yeast packets.  If you’ve just purchased yeast for a trustworthy place, however, you can probably feel just fine about skipping this step.  To make a starter, just add a cup of warm water (95-105 degrees) to the yeast, and add a spoonful of sugar.  It should start to bubble up within fifteen minutes or so.  If it does, add it to the yeast to the bottle, and add the airlock.  Pour some water into the airlock as directed, and begin playing the waiting game.

       Within a day or so, you should see some bubbles pop up through the airlock- this means that the cider yeast have started to feast on the sugars in the jug.  This process will last between 5 and 15 days, usually.  After a month, you’ll see a pile of sludge at the bottom this is referred to as “the lees”, and it is made up of spent yeast and other particles that can add an off flavor to your finished cider).  Your goal now will be to remove the cider from the jug without mixing the lees into it.  The best way to do this is with a siphon, which can be as simple as a length of $1 length of food-grade tubing.  Once you’ve moved the cider into another container (this process is called “racking”), you begin round two of the waiting game, which is generally even longer.  Most folks wait about six months before imbibing.  Cider-making, unfortunately, is not for those lacking in patience.

       However... there is hope for the impulsive among us, and I put myself at the top of that list.  I always taste cider after a month, and I often find it perfectly drinkable.  You can go ahead and suggest that I have low standards, and you're sort of right.  More precisely, though, I lack the mindset of a connoisseur. When it comes to things that cross my palate, I essentially distinguish between things that I like and do not like.  That is to say, when I make cider, I don’t chase too hard after specific attributes ("notes of maple syrup in the finish", etc).  To continue the analogy: I make pizza dough once a week.  It usually comes out a little different every time.  I’m fine with that, because its always delicious.  I have no interest in mastering the subtleties a perfect cracker-thin crust, etc.  The way my brain is wired- and I really think it comes down to fundamental personality attributes as much as anything else- usually allows me to be really happy with “good enough” month-old cider, especially when I know that I’ve got a bunch more that I won’t get to until it actually sees its six-month-a-versary. 

The moral of the story is that I recommend taking a swig after a month- if it tastes yeasty or off or you just plain hate it, let it sit.  If the flavors speak to you, on the other hand, you just won the Cider Jackpot.

A Middle-of-the-Road Option

If you want to try something a little more involved but don’t quite want to step up to a full-on cider press experience, you can use a juicer to grind up the apples.  My juicer doesn’t produce a truly liquidy cider- maybe a high-end, expensive model would?- but I was able to strain the pulp and make things work.  I also enlisted a blender.  This method works, but there are two drawbacks that I noticed.  First of all, it was slow- it took me about an hour and a half to get a gallon of cider- and secondly, I felt like the resulting mash/pulp still contained a lot of liquid that I couldn’t extract.  This lack of efficiency- perceived waste, really- bugged me until I realized it could be turned into applesauce.  And since we’re hosting a Thanksgiving dinner next week, that felt pretty serendipitous.

Tip: the yeast of your worries

Champagne yeasts will produce a drier cider, whereas ale yeasts yield slightly sweeter ciders.  If you’re not sure which you prefer, go with your gut and see how it goes.  Test both types of yeast by doing two batches.  The cost of yeast won’t break the bank- its priced around $1 for a packet that’ll ferment up to 5 gallons of cider.