Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Merry Christmas and I wish you all the best for 2016!

Just a quick note to wish you all the best for the holiday season, good health and happiness to you and yours in the years to come, and now more than ever, peace on earth and goodwill to one another.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Multitasking: making sauerkraut, canning yesterday's bone broth and starting another batch

Well, after nearly 24 hours of slow simmering in the oven, just look at this lovely broth!

I removed as many large pieces of the turkey carcass as I could using tongs to lift them out of the broth and place them to drain in a colander placed over another large pot.

When there were only small bones and the vegetables left, I picked up the broth pot and tipped the whole thing over into the colander to let the broth collect in the other pot.

Leaving the bones and veg to drain and cool for a while, I started the set up for my first attempt at pressure canning!  I've had my pressure canner, a 16-quart Presto, for a while now, but have not had a chance to use it until now.  I must admit I was feeling a little nervous about it, but realized that most of it was just fear of the unknown more than an actual fear of pressure canning.  I have read the manual that came with my canner several times cover-to-cover and I have also read numerous blog posts about pressure canning, many of which mention the initial newbie nervousness and how that (just like water-bath canning) if you follow the correct procedures there's no cause for concern. And, having put my faith in the good folks at Presto and successfully pressure canned my first batch, I can assure you it's true! It just takes a bit of practice and getting used to, but it's actually quite easy and nothing to fear.

The Presto manual very wisely suggests doing a trial run with only water and no jars in the canner so you can see and hear how the canner works before actually committing yourself to a canning project. So, while the broth drained and cooled, I did exactly that and took my canner for a trial spin.

After washing the canner and its lid with warm, soapy water to remove any manufacturing lubrication, the manual suggests putting 4 cups of water in the bottom of the canner.  There are measuring marks on the inside of the canner (they're not visible in the above photo) and the bottom mark is 3 quarts, which is the standard amount of water to use when actually canning jars of food. However, for this test run, 4 cups is all that is needed since we won't be running the canner for very long.

This is the underside of the lid held over the canner to show the ridges and valleys around the edge that interlock with one another when the lid is properly attached.  Note, too, the metal tab sticking inwards from the edge of the canner near the bottom of the above photo.  There is a pressure lock built into the lid (actually it's directly opposite the black circular rubber plug you see in the lid above and not shown in the photo -- must work on my "mindful photography" skills!) that engages with this metal tab when there is pressure inside the canner.  Essentially, what happens is the pressure lifts the pressure lock, pressing it against the metal tab and preventing the lid from flying off accidentally. The pressure lock also lifts above the top of the lid, so it's another visual indicator that the canner is pressurized.

When the arrow on the lid is aligned with the arrow on the canner handle, the ridges on the edge of the lid align with the valleys on the edge of the canner and vice versa.  The lid can be pressed gently down into place.

The lid is rotated clockwise to align the lid handle with the canner handle, meshing the ridges and valleys and locking the lid onto the canner.  The manual suggests using a fairly high heat, but to be careful of using the correct sized hob on a natural gas cooktop so as not to use one that is too hot which can potentially warp the bottom of the canner.  So, I'm using the second-largest hob on my cooktop just to be safe.

Once the canner has heated and the water inside is boiling, steam will collect and raise the pressure, which raises the pressure lock.  In the photo above, you can see the pressure lock lifted.  It has also engaged with the metal tab on the inside edge of the canner as shown a few photos back, which acts as an additional safety latch.  Note that there is not enough pressure to register on the dial gauge. This is because air is still being vented via the steam vent to the right of the gauge. Once there is a steady flow of steam coming out of the vent, the canner is left to vent for 10 minutes before the regulator is put on.

The regulator is weighted cap that sits loosely over the vent allowing pressure to build inside the canner.  Once the pressure has reached a high enough level, the regulator will start to rock back and forth, letting out pressurized steam in small bursts. This keeps the pressure inside the canner at a constant level.  You can also help regulate the pressure by adjusting the level of heat under the canner and the Presto manual suggests starting at a relatively high level of heat and then lowering it slightly as the needle on the gauge approaches the desired pressure level.

Oddly, the regulator that ships with the canner is a one-piece solid 15-pound weight.  Many pressure canning recipes call for a 10-pound weight with 11 pounds on the gauge.  This produces an internal temperature of 240ºF, which is enough to kill off the Clostridium botulinum bacteria, whose spores are responsible for botulism, among many other nasty bugs.  Canning at 15 pounds of pressure would work (and is necessary for some recipes), but for a recipe that calls for 10 pounds, it's overkill and a waste of energy.  Fortunately, Presto also sells an adjustable regulator that can be set for 5, 10 or 15 pounds.  This is available for purchase separately and is well worth the $25 or so.  However, why Presto doesn't just include this adjustable regulator with all its canners and forget about the solid 15-pound one is beyond me.

Here you can see the gauge is just past 10 pounds.  I have the regulator set at 10 pounds and it is starting to dance, however it doesn't really show in the photo above.  The needle of the gauge topped out at 12 pounds and I was successful in dropping it back to 11 pounds and holding it there by turning down the heat slightly.

Satisfied that I now knew the sights and sounds of my pressure canner, I switched off the heat and left it to cool and de-pressurize naturally on its own.  It took about 10 minutes for the pressure lock button to drop and another 10 minutes for the gauge to return to zero.  I took off the regulator at this point and I left the canner another 10 minutes after that before carefully opening the lid (pointing it away from myself to avoid any lingering steam).

Full disclosure: I am a complete wuss and while the canner was heating and especially after it started venting steam, I stayed at the other end of the kitchen, sometimes even hiding out in the living room having all sorts of "Omygoditsgonnablow!!" thoughts.  It didn't, of course, not even close, and now that I know that it's just the canner's normal behaviour, I am fine with it.

So, now that I was comfortable with the pressure canner, I prepared to can my batch of bone broth. When water-bath canning, it's easy and convenient to just sterilize the jars in the canner while it is heating.  With a pressure canner, you don't have that luxury, so you have to resort to other means.  I could have got the water-bath canner out, filled it with water and boiled the jars anyway (big waste of gas if I wasn't actually going to can something in it!), or I could have run the jars through the dishwasher (I had just emptied it, didn't have enough jars to make a full load and it would take too long, so I nixed that idea, too).  I decided the quickest, easiest and cheapest way was to sterilize the jars in my oven.  250ºF for 10 minutes and done!

The broth recipe states that it yields 4 quarts, so I put in an additional pint jar just in case I had some left over. The five jars and their rings fit perfectly in my small roasting pan! I put the jars into a cold oven so they could heat gradually and then counted 10 minutes once the oven reached 250º.

While the jars were heating, I removed the colander of turkey bones, meat and vegetables and I brought the broth back up to a boil. Then I started in on making sauerkraut. This is the second step of my GAPS diet preparation. The fermented liquid is a great source of natural probiotics and stage one of the intro diet requires me to start with one tablespoon every day. I will also be purchasing organic probiotic yogourt and kefir which will serve as additional sources. Eventually, I will try making my own yogourt and kefir, but for now I'm starting one thing at a time.

The basic sauerkraut recipe in Amanda Feifer's great book, Ferment Your Vegetables is SO easy.  One 2-pound cabbage and 4 teaspoons of kosher salt.  That's it!

You start by halving the cabbage and cutting out the core. Amanda suggests slicing the core and pickling it separately, but I will save that for a future fermenting adventure, so into the compost bin the core went!

I cut each cored half in half and then, with a flat surface against the cutting board I sliced crossways into thin (about ¼-inch) ribbons.

Then, work the salt into the cabbage using your clean hands for a few minutes until the cabbage has a sheen of moisture on it. Amanda suggests letting it sit now for about 20 minutes to allow more moisture to be drawn out, softening the cabbage and making it easier to massage later.

The jars were ready at this point, so I quickly set the pressure canner up again making sure to add the full 3 quarts of water this time as this was a real canning session, not a trial run. The water I added was hot from the tap so that the hot jars would not be shocked and I added a splash of vinegar to prevent mineral deposits, same as for water-bath canning.

One by one, I filled a hot jar with hot broth, leaving 1" headspace (necessary to allow the proper boiling of the broth inside the jar), wiped the jar rim, centered the lid on the jar and applied the band, firmly tightening it and placing the jar into the canner. Unlike water-bath canning, you should tighten the bands on jars to be pressure-canned past finger-tight to prevent the contents from being siphoned out under pressure.  The pressure inside the canner can be enough to loosen the lids sometimes if they are not properly tightened. Still, there's no need to go overboard -- tightening just until firmly snug will suffice.

Turn the heat under the canner on high and bring to boiling. When there is good steady stream of steam issuing from the vent and the pressure lock is engaged, start counting 10 minutes to vent the canner. After 10 minutes, cover the vent with a 10-pound regulator, and bring the canner up to pressure. When the regulator starts rocking, adjust the heat to hold the gauge at 11 pounds and start counting 25 minutes.

At the end of 25 minutes, turn off the heat and allow the canner to cool and de-pressurize naturally before taking the lid off. Always lift the lid away from you in case there is still some hot steam left in the canner.  

I left the canner for about an hour before I opened it. I noticed the jars were still boiling quite vigorously, so in a brief moment of panic, I put the lid back on the canner and ran to find the manual. It stated that this is completely normal and some jars will continue to bubble for some time after being removed from the canner. The jars are not going to explode, nor are the seals compromised. The same as water-bath canning: if the lid "pings" and is solid, the jar is sealed.

All four of my jars eventually "pinged", although it did take one of them nearly an hour to do so. I must say it was a little disconcerting to see the jars sitting on the counter, bubbling away after so much time out of the canner. The bubbles did slow down and ultimately stop, but it took several hours.

While the jars were being processed in the canner, I picked through the meat and bones left over from the broth and pulled off chunks of meat, ending up with half of a sandwich-sized freezer bag for the freezer.

Next, I returned to the sauerkraut:

It had been sitting for nearly half an hour at this point and certainly was softer and more moist, making the job of massaging more moisture out of the cabbage that much easier. Amanda suggests working the salted cabbage until there is a substantial pool of liquid at the bottom of the bowl and the cabbage starts to clump together in your hand. She states that you should look at the bowl of cabbage and then at the 1-quart mason jar and think that there's no way all that cabbage is going to fit into that jar.  In this case, it turned out to be true!

Using your fist you pack the cabbage in as tightly as possible, squishing it until it is flooded with liquid which you pour out into the bowl so you can pack the cabbage down even further.

Even doing all that, I still ended up with nearly 2 quart jars, which is great!  All the more brine for me to drink! (Yay! Do I sound excited? Or just crazy.)

According to Amanda, the key to a successful ferment is to make sure that all the vegetable material is submerged in the brine. As the fermentation progresses, vegetables tend to float to the top, so it is necessary to weigh them down. A handy trick mentioned in the book is to fill a smaller jar or non-metallic container with water or brine and place it in the top of the fermenting jar. In the photo above, the jar on the left was the first one I started with, thinking it would be the only jar and filled completely (up to 1 inch from the top). I found these little plastic food storage containers that fit perfectly (shown with the red lid in the jar on the left), but for the bonus jar on the right, which isn't quite full, the little plastic containers aren't deep enough to reach the top of the cabbage, so I used a half-pint canning jar instead.  

Amanda also suggests saving one of the outer cabbage leaves to tear into a smaller piece to stuff inside the top of the fermenting jar to act as a sort of shelf for the weight to sit on. The edges can be stuffed down the sides of the jar to help submerge the vegetables. It's hard to see in the photo above, but that's what I did and it seems to work well.

Cover the jars with paper towel secured with a rubber band and leave on the counter at room temperature for a few weeks, checking and tasting every couple of days until you really like the taste, then refrigerate. I will be consuming just the brine for the first little while on the GAPS diet, but will be able to enjoy the actual sauerkraut soon thereafter.

While I was at Loblaws buying the cabbage as well as some organic probiotic yogourt and kefir, I thought I would ask the butcher if they had any beef soup bones so I could make a batch of beef bone broth. Unfortunately, they were all out, but the butcher suggested using osso buco instead. Unfortunately, they were all out of osso buco as well, so I settled for chopped oxtail.

There was just over a pound of oxtail, so I threw it into my crockpot along with a couple of quartered, unpeeled onions, a handful of baby carrots (leftover from my Christmas party a week ago and frozen), a couple of peeled, chopped garlic cloves, a small handful of peppercorns, a good sprinkle of sea salt and filled it up with water.

A true original!  This baby is nearly 35 years old!
I started it off on High, then turned it down to Low before I went to bed. I think I will continue to make broths in the crockpot as I believe it uses less power than the oven does even on its "slow cooker" setting. Plus, the oven makes a low humming noise which I found annoying, so I really didn't fancy it being on all night.

Anyway, the broth was smelling wonderful this morning when I left for work, so we shall see this evening how it turned out and perhaps give the pressure canner another run!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Turkey Bone Broth

The first step I'm taking in preparing for going on the GAPS diet is to make bone broth.  As described by Hilary Boynton and Mary Brackett, bone broth differs from stock in that it is made with less meat and more bones, cartilage, connective tissue and marrow and it is cooked much slower and for longer -- typically up to 24 hours -- to extract the maximum amount of nutrition.

Bone broth is very soothing and healing to the gut and is drunk by the cup during and between meals instead of coffee or tea. Contrast this with stocks, which include more meat, vegetables and seasoning and are cooked for only a few hours.  Stocks are used in the GAPS diet as the basis for the various soups that make up the bulk of the food allowed in stages 1, 2 and 3 of the introduction diet.

Since bone broth takes a relatively long time to prepare and I happen to have the frozen turkey carcass left over from Thanksgiving, I thought I would get busy and start it now, let it slowly cook overnight and pressure can it tomorrow.

The basic recipe for poultry bone broth from Boynton and Brackett calls for a couple of chicken carcasses (I figure one large turkey carcass will work), a few carrots and celery stalks, an onion and 4 quarts of water.

Put the carcass in the 4 quarts of water, add 2 tablespoons of cider vinegar and let sit for 30 minutes to allow the vinegar to start leaching nutrients from the carcass bones.  The carcass I have is still partially frozen at this point and is slightly too big for the pot, but once it starts cooking down, I will remove it, chop it up and add it back in so I can cover the pot with its lid.

Once the 30 minutes is up, add the chopped vegetables, turn the heat on high and bring the pot to a boil.

Now that the broth is boiling, I remove the carcass to a cutting board and break it apart into several smaller pieces which I then add back into the pot and cover it with its lid. I don't like the idea of leaving the pot on the stovetop with a gas flame running all night, so I will finish the broth off in the oven.

Fortunately, my oven has a "Slow Cooker" setting that allows it to act as a giant crock-pot.  It has a "Hi" or "Lo" temperature setting, just like my actual small, but well loved crock-pot.  I have it on "Hi" at the moment and the broth is lazily bubbling away and smelling wonderful.  I will turn it down to "Lo" before I go to bed tonight and tomorrow afternoon, I will christen my new Presto pressure canner and can this lovely broth ready for the start of the GAPS diet.  Stay tuned!

Friday, December 18, 2015

A plan

I realize the title of yesterday's post was a bit alarmist and the post itself seemed to come out of blue, but believe me, this has been an on-going battle for me for many years -- I simply chose not to dwell on it.

Over the last few months, I have been researching the Leaky Gut Syndrome, and trying to decide how much (if any) of the treatment protocols to try. Most of my reading has indicated that the worst cases of the syndrome are a result of what is called "The Standard American Diet". As Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride states in her book, "Gut and Psychology Syndrome" the GAPS diet is meant to be temporary though for the typical person coming off a Standard American Diet, the healing process could take upwards of 2 years to complete.

Fortunately, my own diet, especially over the last 5 years or so, has included more healthy whole foods prepared by me in my own kitchen and less pre-packaged, processed and fast food. In their book, "The Heal Your Gut Cookbook: Nutrient-Dense Recipes for Intestinal Health Using the GAPS Diet", Hilary Boynton and Mary Brackett state that folks coming off a less processed and more healthy diet to begin with may be quicker to heal.  This gives me hope and I find myself becoming enthusiastic about starting the GAPS Intro diet, although when I first read through it, I felt rather dismayed.  At first blush it seemed too much to take on.

The GAPS Intro diet is broken down into 6 stages and as Boynton and Brackett state, how long you stay in each stage is entirely up to you and how you are feeling.  Essentially, the Intro diet is an elimination diet -- you start by eliminating everything that could possibly aggravate the digestion system and you subsist solely on foods that are soothing and nourishing to it, giving it time to rest and heal. Stage by stage, you slowly re-introduce certain foods, starting with a single spoonful and working up from there, all the while monitoring your digestion and yes, your stool.

Stage one of the introduction diet consists of soups made from homemade chicken, beef and/or fish stock. Plus drinking cups of broth with meals and in between them as well as a daily spoonful of the liquid from lacto-fermented vegetables (such as sauerkraut) or the whey drained from home made yogourt.  

I know, ick, right?  The thought of all that was off-putting to me until I realized that I quite often have home made soup for both lunch and dinner and that maybe having it for breakfast too would take some getting used to, but wouldn't be totally awful. Plus, it's only for a few days as I am hoping to move through the stages fairly quickly. I make chicken and vegetable stock fairly regularly (though I did make a lot last time, so I still have some inventory in the freezer), so including beef stock is no big thing and this will be the perfect opportunity to try pressure canning as my freezer only has so much space!

Campbell-McBride states that good probiotics are necessary during the diet to help re-stock the gut with beneficial bacteria and there are a number of blog posts I have read that state that most probiotic supplements available at pharmacies and health food stores may be fine for maintaining the condition of a healthy digestive system but they either contain the wrong strains and/or simply aren't strong enough to heal a damaged gut.  Apparently, so-called soil-based probiotics (or soil-based organisms a.k.a SBO's) are the best source of probiotics strong enough to do the job.  But, they're prohibitively expensive, IMHO, especially considering how many you need to take and for how long.

The idea behind probiotic supplementation appears to be the fact that most food in the typical North American diet is not organic or free-range and therefore is likely devoid of SBO's.  However, organically raised, free-range meat and vegetables likely contain a much higher count since the soil they are raised on and in is likely rich in SBO's.  Further, the lacto-fermentation process, especially using raw, organic food as the source will produce an abundance of highly beneficial natural probiotics. I like the thought of feeding myself a wide variety of natural probiotic materials and letting my body choose and use what it needs, rather than ingest a pre-determined dose of a pre-determined mix of probiotic cultures.

Another benefit of the GAPS diet, apparently, is weight loss, or at least weight control.  According to the authors, you will initially lose weight, then recover whatever is necessary to bring you to your ideal natural weight.  In an earlier post, I mentioned that I would like to lose about 30 pounds and that I was contemplating going on the 4 Hour Body diet in the new year because it had worked for me previously.  So, instead of that, I have decided to start the GAPS Introduction Diet on Sunday, December 27, which will give me 2 weeks at home to monitor it before I return to work.

To prepare for that, over the next few days, I will:
  1. Gather equipment for lacto-fermenting vegetables.
  2. Make and pressure can chicken and beef stock as well as bone broth.
  3. Make an assortment of Stage 1 soups and freeze them.
  4. Make sauerkraut.
Look for up-coming posts on each of these as well as the launch on December 27 January 1, 2016 of my new blog, A Digestive Diary, charting my progress.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Something is wrong

As I mentioned in my last post, shortly after my Christmas party last Saturday, I "fell ill".  I use quotes because it wasn't so much coming down with a virus or something as it was a flare-up of an ongoing condition that I have been trying to come to terms with.  Essentially, later on Saturday evening and well into Sunday, I became so dizzy and lethargic that I could barely move.  I stayed in bed all day Sunday and slept for most of it.  I did manage to get up and go into work on Monday, although I was pretty "foggy" for most of the day and as the week has progressed, I have continued to improve.  There is still a certain amount of "fogginess" present as it very rarely recedes completely any more.

For many years, I have been struggling with allergies, asthma and various skin problems, starting with eczema as a child, progressing to psoraisis and now lichen planus.

When I was in my early thirties, I was infected with a pathogenic strain of E. coli through "dirty dining" before the introduction of the DineSafe inspection program. Although it wasn't fatal, it was definitely painful and apparently rare enough that there were only two practitioners in Canada at the time who were licensed to prescribe the antibiotic required to treat it. Fortunately one of them was right here in Toronto, so I was able to receive treatment quite quickly.

The upshot of the infection and subsequent treatment was that my digestive system was effectively wiped clean and I was told that I would experience digestive troubles for the remainder of my life. Not liking the sound of that and being used to eating and drinking whatever I liked, I chose to ignore what I was told and continue on as I was.

Over time I started experiencing periods of a sort of dreamy detachment whereby I would suddenly feel like I was in a dream instead of living in reality. I could still function and interact with the world, but none of it felt real. I don't know how to better describe these episodes. I wasn't exactly dizzy, although I would experience a bit of vertigo if I was moving during one of these episodes, however it would dissipate the moment I sat down.

As years went by, these episodes became longer in duration and more frequent and unfortunately, my doctor dismissed them for many years until she finally relented and decided that it was some sort of allergic reaction, and since my eczema had morphed into both psoriasis and lichen planus, she sent me off to both an allergist and a dermatologist. Both specialists were very good at treating the various symptoms I presented. My breathing is now under control and I have some great topical treatments for my skin as well as medication to treat my allergic reactions when they occur.

The problem is I feel that these are all just treating symptoms and not the root cause and my "brain fog" episodes are more extensive than ever! I decided to start researching on my own to see if I could find out more information about "brain fog" and what could possibly be causing it.

To make a long story shorter, everything seems to point to the digestive system, specifically something called the "Leaky Gut Syndrome". Essentially, it is the lining of the intestines becoming damaged through infection, poor diet, stress, etc., allowing food that is not completely digested and broken down into recognizable nutrients to pass through into the bloodstream, causing the immune system to attack the incompletely digested food particles as foreign objects, creating all sorts of bodily reactions (including eczema, psoriasis and brain fog).

Although the Wikipedia entry in the above link doesn't give much credence to Leaky Gut, further reading, specifically "Gut and Psychology Syndrome" by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride and "The Heal Your Gut Cookbook: Nutrient-Dense Recipes for Intestinal Health Using the GAPS Diet" by Hilary Boynton and Mary Brackett have convinced me to try at least some of the prescribed foods.

I am convinced that after my E. coli treatment, I never gave my digestive tract time to fully heal and re-colonize with healthy bacteria and I have been slowly damaging it further ever since. It makes sense to me that the worsening symptoms I have been experiencing over the years are caused, at their root, by my immune system over-reacting and essentially attacking food as it would a disease. And since my immune system has been compromised by a damaged digestive system, why not try to fix the problem at its source and allow my intestines to heal?

To that end, I am taking December 24 through January 10 off work and after Christmas, I plan to start the GAPS Introduction Diet and see what happens. I figure it's best to stay close to home, at least to start with! To track my progress, I am starting another blog, A Digestive Diary, to act solely as a daily log of my weight and how I am feeling through each stage of the diet. If you are interested in the GAPS diet and want to see how one person is faring on it, please feel free to follow along.  I will make the new blog public and set up a link to it from here once I actually start the diet. If it ends up not working for me or I feel too badly on it, I will stop, resume eating a balanced diet and continue my research for answers.

But, I have great hope that it will achieve, if not a cure, then at least a significant improvement.  One of the things the GAPS diet relies on are probiotic foods, especially lacto-fermented ones as well as live-culture yogourt and kefir.  Happily, I have been planning on getting into lacto-fermentation and the making of my own live-culture yogourt and kefir has been intriguing me for some time now.  So, now I have a real reason to get busy with it.

My plan is to document what I am doing here on this blog and use A Digestive Diary strictly to chart my progress.  For the first little while, I am sure I will be posting a lot of GAPS-related items as I go about getting things set up and organized, but I am hoping that once I establish a routine, I will return to posting other things, such as winemaking, gardening and canning.

Thanks for sticking with me and wish me luck on this crazy journey!  In the meantime, life goes on and I have a freezer full of meals to carry me through to after Christmas.  Watch for upcoming posts on making and canning chicken and beef stock as well as making sauerkraut.


Party prep

My apologies for the lapse in posting, but I fell ill right after my Christmas party last Saturday and I'm only just feeling halfway human again today.  More about this in the next post, but for now I had talked previously about a post on finishing the Christmas cake and making a full batch of mince tarts, so here it is!

I had mentioned earlier that the traditional method of finishing a fruitcake is to first cover it with a layer of marzipan or almond paste and then frost it with royal icing, however, I happened to have some white fondant in the freezer that was left over from a previous fruitcake project, so I thought I would use it here.

I purchased my fondant from McCall's, a wonderful baking and cake decorating supply store here in Toronto, but a Google search should provide you with lots of possibilities.  Fondant is really easy to work with and you can make all kinds of decorations with it.  You can colour it with food colouring or it is available for sale in many different colours.

It often needs some softening up when you first open it, so what I usually do is just take the twist tie off the plastic bag and roll it back and forth on the counter with the palm of my hand until it softens a little.

Then, looking at the size of the Christmas cake and knowing that I will need enough fondant to cover only the top with about a ½-inch, I estimate how big a piece of the fondant to twist off and seal the remainder back in the plastic bag.  I put the fondant back in the plastic container, cover it and put it back in the freezer to use later.  If tightly sealed to protect it from drying out, fondant will keep in the freezer indefinitely.

I knead the ball of fondant I am using a few more minutes to soften it further and then roll it out with a rolling pin into a rectangular sheet about a ½-inch thick and big enough to cover the top of the cake. You might find that the fondant sticks a little to the counter and rips when you try to peel it off. You can try pressing small rips back together, but if it is badly damaged, it might be easier just to roll it back up into a ball and start again, this time dusting the counter with a little icing sugar. If you do this, be sure not to flip the sheet of fondant since you want one side to be free of icing sugar. You will be placing this side down onto the cake so that the fondant sheet will be less likely to detach. The icing sugar stops the fondant from sticking to the counter -- it also stops it from sticking to the cake!

I unwrap the cake completely and cover it with the sheet of fondant (un-sugared side down, if you dusted the counter with icing sugar).

Press the fondant firmly onto the cake to adhere it.

Using a sharp knife, trim the excess fondant from the edges of the cake.

Smooth the fondant with your fingertips dipped in cool water.  Place on a platter and allow to dry at room temperature, then cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate until an hour or so before you are ready to slice and serve.

On to the mince tarts! I mentioned earlier that I would post an entry about making pastry from scratch and here is the method I have been using for years -- basically since I was a teenager -- never having had it fail to be light and flaky. Everyone has their own favourite recipe and method and of course there are many different types of specialty pastries like sweet ones, savoury ones, pastries made with butter, puff pastry etc. This particular recipe makes a good, basic all-purpose pie and tart pastry.  I've used it for both sweet fruit pies and for savoury quiches and it works wonderfully with both.

I first discovered the recipe in one of my mother's cookbooks: The Better Homes and Gardens Dessert cookbook, part of a "cooking encyclopedia" from Better Homes and Gardens published back in the 1960's.

A classic and one of my first culinary "bibles"!
I love the photographs and illustrations!  They're so wonderfully retro.

To accommodate the gluten-sensitive among my friends and family, I thought I would try this method using a gluten-free flour mix. Big mistake! Although the dough was wonderfully light and soft, it just would not stay together when rolled out to any suitable thinness and simply shredded apart. I tried again using half gluten-free and half all-purpose flour, but again, no luck. Finally, I relented and went back to using all-purpose flour only. The photo above shows the preparations for my first attempt, so the flour in the bowl is the gluten-free mix.

The recipe for a basic 9" two-crust pie or two dozen small tarts calls for 2 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon of salt, 2/3 cup of shortening and 5-7 tablespoons of cold water. I have found that there are two keys to making foolproof flaky pastry with this recipe: cut the shortening in two parts (i.e. 1/3 cup, then 1/3 cup again) and once the water has been added, handle the dough as lightly as possible. The above photo shows the flour and salt after I worked in the first 1/3 cup of shortening using my fingers. I find I can get a better mixture using my fingers than with a pastry cutter, but some folks swear the pastry cutter is the way to go, so it's really a personal choice.  

After working in the second 1/3 cup of shortening the clumps are noticeably larger.  To add the cold water, put some in a measuring cup, making sure it's good and cold! Using a 1 tablespoon-sized measuring spoon, add 3-4 tablespoons of cold water to the bowl then holding the bowl with both hands, gently toss the the dough around until the clumps start gathering together into ever larger chunks. When you don't see any more water in the bowl, add another tablespoon from the measuring cup and toss again. Once you've added around 6 tablespoons of water, try tossing the dough together with your fingertips, trying to get the clumps to form a single ball. It may take some gentle pressing and/or adding another tablespoon or two of water, but you should be able to form a light, soft, smooth ball. Do not roll or knead the dough, but help it come together on its own. I've made this pastry so many times over the years that now I just pass the bowl under a tap of running cold water for a second or so to get the exact (or near-exact) measure of water needed.

I've found that this dough is fairly forgiving in that if you add a wee bit too much water and the dough ends up sticky, you can add a small sprinkle of flour and gently work it in without compromising the flakiness.

I've also read recipes that suggest wrapping the ball of dough in plastic wrap and refrigerating for 10 minutes or so to let the gluten develop.  If your kitchen is warm, this is probably a good idea, but I've just let it sit on the counter covered with a clean towel for 10 minutes and never had a problem.  As long as it has time to rest for a bit, rolling it out will be much easier.

Grease a 24-cavity mini tart tin (a 12-cavity regular tart tin would work as well, but somehow mincemeat always tastes better in smaller tarts, I think!). Roll out the ball of dough into a sheet about ¼-inch thick and using the appropriate size cutters, cut out tops and bottoms. Place the bottoms in the cavities of the tart tin and gently press into place.

Place a generous tablespoon of mincemeat into each pastry cup.

Moisten your fingers with water and run them around the edge of one of the pastry tart tops. Place top moistened side down on a tart and gently crimp around the edges to seal. Prick each tart with a fork to vent.

Bake in a 450ºF oven for 12 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool a few minutes then carefully lift each tart up and leave tilted until completely cool. Some of the mincemeat filling inevitably boils out on the tart pan and can make it incredibly difficult to remove some of the tarts once it cools, so by lifting the tarts while the spilt filling is still soft, you will be able to easily remove the tarts later when they are cool. Let the empty tart pan soak in hot soapy water and you should be able to easily clean off any spilt filling.

A plate of Christmas treats, ready to party!  Shortbread by my cousin, Lynn. Cheers!