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Pretzel Project

A Sunday in February with nothing on the calendar (a rare event in our household)…and it’s Valentine’s Day!!  Instead of just relaxing, I decided we needed a plan.

My daughter recently made homemade soft pretzels in her high school baking class and has asked to make them at home.  Jesse’s family also has a tradition of making soft pretzels and we haven’t done so in a long time.  We decided to tackle the pretzel project, but with a twist.  We wanted to compare the recipe from school with the one used by Jesse’s family.

The recipe used in school is by Alton Brown from the Food Network (Homemade Soft Pretzel Recipe) and uses homemade bread dough.

Jesse’s family recipe uses 4 loaves of frozen bread dough and continues below:

  • Thaw bread dough and cut each loaf into 20 pieces.  With hands, roll each piece on a very lightly floured surface until it is 12-14 inches long.
  • To shape pretzel: Cross hands at wrists, one hand over the other.  Pick up the opposite ends of rolled out piece of dough.  Uncross hands.  Re-cross hands with other hands ending up on top.
  • Let pretzels rest for about 5 minutes.
  • Prepare lye bath:  One gallon water and two tablespoons of Lewis Lye.
  • Heat lye bath to boiling.
  • Drop pretzels, one by one, into boiling lye bath.
  • When pretzel floats, remove it from bath with slotted spoon.
  • Place pretzel on plate and sprinkle with coarse salt.
  • Place pretzels on greased baking sheet.
  • Bake at 400 degrees until brown, about 10 minutes.

We started out with both the frozen bread dough (thawed out) and a batch of the home-made bread dough we prepared from Alton Brown’s recipe. 

The next step was to decide what type of water bath we would use for the pretzels.  Jesse’s family recipe calls for a lye bath.  Really?  Where do you even buy lye?  And is it really safe to eat something that has been submersed in lye?  I guess Jesse is living proof that you can survive eating soft pretzels cooked in a lye bath, but we nonetheless opted to go with the baking soda water bath used in Alton Brown’s recipe.  We also egg-washed the pretzels after removing them from the soda water bath and before sprinkling them with salt.

The other main variation in the recipes was simply in the size of the pretzel.  Jesse’s family recipe called for dividing each loaf into 20 pieces to roll out the pretzel, which made much smaller pretzels than the Alton Brown recipe.

Mastering the technique of shaping the pretzels was challenging and some of the creations quite humorous.   I’m sorry to say that my attempts at food photography were pathetic and I only ended up with one picture even close to being worthy of sharing.

The hot pretzels right out of the oven, smothered with cream cheese, were a big hit with the kids. 

And the results of the recipe comparison?  The home-made soft pretzels had a slight edge over the frozen bread dough technique.

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A Lesson in Thai Cooking

We have known our friends Paul and Rashimah for a long time.  Paul has worked with my father in the real estate business for years and their daughter is a good friend to our daughter of the same age.  He is also an experienced beekeeper and was generous with his time and wisdom in mentoring us through our first summer with bees last year.  Rashimah is a native of Thailand and they met while Paul was working overseas.  They are kind, generous, worldly, open-minded, interesting….you get the idea.  We love being around these people.

In addition to these many great qualities, Rashimah is also an amazing cook.  Food prepared by her is always the main attraction at any potluck.  The personal favorite of myself and many others, are Rashimah’s fresh and fried spring rolls.  After searching out and occasionally attempting recipes for spring rolls, I was always left disappointed.  They were never as tasty or neatly rolled as Rashimah’s.

My sister and I finally mentioned to Rashimah that if she was willing, we would love to learn her secrets and techniques for the perfect spring rolls.  She generously offered to teach us and our schedules finally allowed us to have our lesson in Thai cooking last Sunday.  Paul and Rashimah invited us into their home, where Rashimah walked us through making fresh and fried spring rolls, Pad Thai and her version of fried rice.  I took photos along the way and my sister took notes so that we could try to produce results similar to her cooking on our own.  Rashimah sells her delicious food at various music festivals during the summer, so of course I can’t give away all of her “secrets” to the perfect spring rolls.

We enjoyed a lovely traditional Thai appetizer to start out our cooking lesson.   The platter included dried shrimp, toasted coconut, cashews, diced onions, ginger, and limes.


Rashimah demonstrates how to eat the snack by folding up the lettuce and placing a little of each ingredient inside, topped off with a drizzle of maple syrup.  She explained that in Thailand they would use some other sweetener rather than maple syrup, but since her and Paul produce maple syrup on their farm, that is what she prefers to use.  The combination of flavors and textures made a light and fresh tasting snack!

Our first lesson in Thai cooking was to learn how to make fried spring rolls.  Rashimah prepared the mixture of shredded chicken and cabbage for the filling.

She then demonstrated how to roll the spring roll tightly so that it fries up nice.  She makes it look so easy.

Next, we fried the spring rolls in hot oil until they were golden brown.

Moving on to my absolute favorite….the fresh spring rolls.  We started out by preparing a beautiful platter of fresh ingredients.  There are no hard and fast rules on what to put into the fresh spring rolls, but she had cut up chicken, fried tofu, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, cilantro, mint and basil.  We also had thinly sliced eggs and some rice noodles to add.

In the photo below, I am carefully laying the ingredients on to the rice paper before I attempt to roll it all up.  In the past, my problem has always been that I end up tearing the rice paper as I’m rolling in the ingredients.  After watching Rashimah, I realized that I have most likely soaked the rice paper too long, thereby making it weak and more prone to tearing.  Following her example, I had no issues rolling up the spring rolls.  I still couldn’t get mine as tightly rolled as Rashimah, but she assured me that this would come with practice.

The finished product.  Beautiful.  Fresh.  Healthy.  Delicious.


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Building a smokehouse…

As a farm kid, I grew up with a smokehouse right outside the house in the front yard.  It was a small brick structure without any door.  My parents called it a smokehouse, but it was never used to smoke anything.  The sole purpose of the “smokehouse” was to burn things…garbage, boxes, etc.  Eventually they removed the smokehouse from the front yard to construct a fence.

Jesse started talking about building a smokehouse soon after we bought the farm.  He finally turned his vision into a reality last summer.  After a lot of research and sketches, he came up with a design.

Smokehouse Design Sketch

Jesse already had a barrel smoker for hot-smoking or cook-smoking, but what he really wanted was a cold-smoker to be able to smoke pork sausage in the tradition that his grandfather used to do on the farm. There are also several other cold smoke products that are absolutely delicious: salmon, hams, cheese, nuts, and various sausages.

Cold-Smoking

The art of cold-smoking is to keep the meat or fish below 70 degrees F to inhibit bacteria growth and to not cook the meat product. For instance, if you would like smoked venison sausage, but don’t want to eat the complete deer all at once (who would….?), then cold-smoking will impart the desired smoke flavor and will also retain the fat inside the sausage so that it doesn’t become dry and hard. Toss cold-smoked venison sausage into the freezer until you are ready to cook it for another tasty meal.

Another example that we have become very fond of is cold-smoking 5 to 10 racks of baby back pork ribs, wrapping them in freezer paper and tossing them into the freezer. Take them out of the freezer later and bake them in the oven for a couple of hours and you have some of the best ribs ever!

Construction

The concrete slab was poured in the spring.  Our boys learned about mixing, pouring, and finishing cement. The 5 gallon bucket in the middle of the slab is where the smoke will enter the smokehouse. The slab is what is called a “floating” slab. There is no frost footings below the slab, it is simply framed to have a 10 x 10 inch “curb” around the outside of the slab and the rest of the slab is 4 inches thick. There is also reinforcing rebar in the curb and criss-crossed across the slab. I don’t think it is going anywhere, and after one winter of freezing and thawing, there are no signs of cracking or shifting.

Jesse’s uncle, a mason by profession, came over to help in building the smokehouse.  His skills amazed us as he tossed just the right amount of the mud in just the right place.

Jesse did a great job supervising….

Jesse designed the smokehouse to have glass block windows to allow in natural light.  Laying the glass block was the most time-consuming part of the block laying process and the expertise of Jesse’s uncle was definitely necessary to get the glass blocks set just right.  Our son worked on smoothing the joints between the blocks.

After the blocks were cured, Jesse and our son went to work building roof trusses, sheeting the roof, and laying shingles. Jesse decided to build the trusses so that the rafters could be used for hanging meat, so they are about 6 ft. high.

There are vents covered with window screen in the peak at each end of the smokehouse for draft. Jesse had built elaborate hinged doors for adjusting the draft level if needed. However, the correct draft position turned out to be full open.

Firebox

The firebox for a cold smokehouse is located away from the smokehouse to allow the smoke to cool before entering the smokehouse. The smoke from our firebox increases the temperature in the smokehouse a mere 5 to 10 deg F. This allows Jesse to safely cold smoke on days as warm as 60 degrees, but he prefers to have the outside temperature around 30 – 40 degrees.

The tricky part for the firebox is that in order to have adequate draft for the smoke to enter the smokehouse, the firebox should be located about 10 – 12 inches below the smokehouse floor and 8 – 10 feet from the center hole in the smokehouse. So the only logical way to build this operation is to locate the smokehouse on a hill or slope with enough fall to allow access to the firebox.

The firebox can be made from concrete and firebrick with a sliding steel door, but Jesse chose to use an actual home fireplace insert that someone had discarded into a road ditch. With the air intake vent controls on the fireplace he figured that he could control the fire for smoking to just the right levels (and it works perfect). He dug a hole into the side of the hill for the fireplace, and left enough room for about 2 – 3 inches of sewer rock around the fireplace to assist in water drainage around the fireplace. With the heavy gauge steel, the fireplace insert should last longer than our lifetime before it rusts out (it weighed about 5oo lbs. and had to be moved into place by a tractor).

Jesse used 8 inch chimney pipe to connect the firebox to the 5 gallon bucket in the floor of the smokehouse. Obviously you want to install the pipe before you pour the concrete floor. The reason he chose the 8 inch metal chimney pipe was that the firebox had an 8 inch exit, and he needed something that would withstand the heat near the firebox. He says that he would NOT recommend using PVC or other plastic pipe as it may melt or out-gas if heated.

And here is our lovely little smokehouse in action…..

Maybe a bit over-sized for your casual home smoking, but it works GREAT!

Lynell

More on Building a Smokehouse

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