Two Failures Lead to Bavarian Success

This is the story of how two failures - hickory brittle and homemade ladyfingers - led to a very successful Bavarian cream. I have never made any of these things before, and so I wasn't too scared of failure, in fact I was certain to fail at some of it... the challenge was how I would deal with the failures.

First, the brittle.

For Christmas this year I decided to make some Wisconsin hickory nut brittle. This fall I fell in love with the local hickory nuts from Juneau Wisconsin. A very cute older couple sells them at the farmer's market here in Madison. They're not cheap, but man are they good..... a wonderful treat. Ray and his wife stopped coming to market after Thanksgiving, so I mail ordered two pounds of hickories. I decided to make the brittle in two batches - the first to send to family out of town, and the second batch I would make later to give to in-town family on Christmas proper.

This is the first batch. I wanted to make it as local as possible and I wasn't keen on the idea of using corn syrup, so I looked for a recipe that called for maple syrup as part of the sweetening. Here's the recipe I used (kind of). Instead of peanuts I used the hickory nuts, and instead of bourbon I used Yahara Bay Distillery Apple Brandy (made with 100% Wisconsin grown honeycrisp apples!) I liked the tree theme - apple, hickory, and maple would all be represented.

Before starting the recipe I roasted the hickory nuts with a little local sunflower oil and salt. The roasted salted nuts were a delicious treat all by themselves!

Here's the brandy. Like the nuts it's not cheap, but well worth it for an occasional treat. It's got a wonderful apple flavor. I'm not one to drink a lot of hard alcohol, but I couldn't help pouring myself just a nip as I started work on the brittle.

Sugar, maple syrup, and brandy in a saucepan. Heat it without stirring over medium heat to the "hard-crack" stage (290 degrees.)

At a little under 100 degrees the alcohol started evaporating. It made really little bubbles and lots of steam. It was incredible to inhale the fumes at this stage, I think you could have gotten drunk just from the vapor!

It slowly climbed to 290, stopping along the way to evaporate all the water out. It was really interesting to see and smell the different stages as it heated. It was like chemistry class!

When it was finally the right temperature I took it off the head and added the nuts, vanilla, baking soda, and salt as quickly as I could. The baking soda made it foam up in a violent manner.

The hot mixture then supposedly gets smoothed out onto a warm pan. Here's where things got a little messy.

Instead of smoothing out nicely like it's supposed to, the sugar mixture started to crystallize as I was spooning it out. Oh no! This was not brittle! I think it was too cool by the time it got to the pan. When it cooled I ended up with about half of the "brittle" in a good clump that I could break up and the rest was more like brittle dust. On the up side, it was frickin' delicious. If it tastes good, it can't be a complete failure, right? I changed it's name to Three Tree Crunch, and sent the best of it away to the out of town relatives and kept the "dust" for later use.

OK- fail number two - homemade ladyfingers.

Dave graduated with his master's in engineering this weekend, so we threw him a little party at our mom's house. For dessert he requested Bavarian Cream, which at the time I had never even heard of. Upon further research I discovered that it's a concoction of eggs, milk, cream, sugar, and a little gelatin. I have plenty of fresh eggs from the chickens, so it seemed a feasible dish to prepare. Plus, Julia Child has a whole chapter on Bavarian Cream in her cookbook From Julia Child's Kitchen. If Julia was going to help me, I couldn't go wrong!

After some research I decided to make a drunken Bavarian cream in a mold. To do this, you mold the Bavarian cream in a cake mold and layer it with ladyfingers that have been soaked in alcohol. I decided to try my hand at making my own ladyfingers and since I still had some of the apple brandy from the brittle episode, I decided that would be the perfect liquor to use.

The ladyfingers started with these three pretty eggs from the chickens.

Two yolks and one whole egg.

Whip them up....

Whip up the two whites separately. This is where I went wrong I think. I discovered that my electric mixer wasn't working, so I had to do it by hand. I got a little lazy and didn't whip them till they were totally stiff.

The whites got folded in with the yolks, along with a little sifted flour and powdered sugar.

I knew something was wrong when I put the batter in a pastry bag, and tried to pipe it out. This is what I ended up with - a runny mess.

They didn't rise at all, and looked pretty sad when they were done. I was planning to soak them in brandy anyhow, so I didn't stress too much. I went ahead and started on the Bavarian cream.

Step one was to soak two packets of gelatin in milk to soften. It reminded me of the mold on top of my sauerkraut, or maybe brains....

Eight more fresh chicken eggs. I love keeping chickens!

The yolks got separated.

Here is the yolks whipped up with sugar. Mmmm... This got mixed gradually with hot milk and heated slowly to form a custard. Julia warns of the possibility of heating the yolks too fast and scrambling them. I managed to do it perfectly without a hint of scramble. After it attained custard-hood I mixed in vanilla and the softened gelatin.

I was determined to get these whites right. I whipped them for what seemed like forever with a tiny bit of cream of tartar and salt. My wrist was aching by the time I was done, but I was certain that I had attained the "stiff shinning peaks" that Julia calls for.

The next few steps happened too quickly to get pictures. I folded the yolks and whites together, whipped some heavy cream (more wrist pain) and folded that in.

Next I turned to my ladyfingers to soak them briefly in brandy before assembling everything. To my horror, I discovered that they were completely stuck to the wax paper. It was impossible to peel them off. Time was of the essence, so I tried to think like Julia - WWJD? She would make the best of the situation and persevere with a delicious dish. With a paring knife I scraped what I could off the wax paper, added the brittle dust that I had sitting nearby, doused it all in brandy, and assembled the dessert.

Half of the cream mixture in a wet cake mold, then the brandy mixture, and then the rest of the egg mixture.

Here is it after chilling overnight. The gelatin had congealed and it was a solid mass.

I dunked the mold in hot water briefly and then turned it upside down, hoping for the best. It worked! The brandy got a little messy, and the ladyfinger/brittle had sunk to the bottom a little, but I was planning to garnish it anyway so looks didn't matter at this point.

For garnish I used hickory nuts (leftover from the brittle) and some canned Door County cherries that had been sitting around since my trip there this spring.

Beautiful! It was powerfully alcoholic, but that didn't phase anyone (at least anyone over 21). The cream was really light and airy, and was perfectly complemented by the cherries, nuts, and brandy. Success!

I'm including the recipe for the "brittle" below. If anyone wants the bavarian cream recipe and doesn't have the book In Julia Child's Kitchen, let me know, I'll send it to you. Bon Appetite!

Three Tree Crunch (don't call it brittle and no one will ever know!)
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup apple brandy
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup roasted salted hickory nuts

Heat a pan covered with wax paper in a 250 degree oven. Combind the sugar, maple syrup, and brandy. Stir to combine. Heat over medium heat without stirring until the mixture reaches 290 degrees F. This might take a while. When the mixture is heated, turn flame to low and mix in the vanilla, baking soda, salt, and nuts. Quickly spoon the mixture onto the warm pan and smooth it out with a oiled wooden spoon. Make it as thin as possible. Do it quick! I think part of my problem was that things got too cool before I got it on the pan. Cool. When it's hard, break it into chunks.
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Losing my Appetite in the Great Blizzard of '09.

Last Tuesday night two things happened. The first is that about 16 inches of heavy wet snow dumped on Madison and the rest of Southern Wisconsin. Overnight we went from almost no snow on the ground to more snow than we ever have in some winters. The other thing is that I dreamed about being sick and then got up at 3am throwing up with diarrhea. My GI tract emptied itself quite quickly and I developed a fever of 100 degrees.

7am Wednesday morning: the snow was still coming down. All the schools were closed, the city buses stopped running, the roads were terrible, and most people couldn't even get their cars out of their driveways. A citywide snow day! While I lay miserably on the couch nauseous and feverish, Dave went out to shovel and take some pictures. Above you can see the backyard garden. Good thing I harvested the last of the arugula and the beets the week before! The snow on the gate is especially cool to look at - it was balanced perfectly on the clothesline too.

The chicken coop has a nice insulated roof now!

The chickens, it turns out, are not fans of snow. They haven't left their coop for over a week. The morning after the snow, they poked their heads out the door, took stock of their run, and decided that inside was much better. I can't blame them. After the storm it got quite cold, with night temperatures below zero, so I didn't even open the door to their run. They don't seem to mind too much. They're still laying well and they seem happy.

Like the chickens, I've been pretty cooped up. I ran a fever for a full day. The next day the fever was gone, but I had absolutely no energy and though I didn't throw up, I was nauseous and didn't really eat anything. I went back to work the next day, but still had waves of nausea throughout the day, and it dragged on for the next few days. Today I'm finally back to normal.

Losing my appetite was not an easy thing for me to deal with. I love food, and it was scary to find myself with little or no interest in it. It reminds me of when I was a singer with laryngitis..... not fun. On the bright side, the things that did taste good tasted really good - warm milk with bread, satsuma mandarins, peppermint tea, turkey broth..... these simple foods are just perfect when you're sick.
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A Hard Meal to Swallow

This was perhaps the most difficult chicken dinner of my life. Yes, this is Puff, the chicken I hatched and raised for four months until it became clear that he was a rooster. If you haven't been following the saga you can get some history here and here and here and here and here.

I like meat, and even for me this was a hard meal to cook and eat. I've never eaten an animal that I was so close to..... but it seemed like the only thing to do given the circumstances. I couldn't keep him since he was crowing and roosters are illegal in the city; I couldn't give him away since he was not exactly the most virile rooster; and I couldn't just kill him and throw away the carcass. I put a lot of time and money into this little bird, and it seemed only fair that I get a little nourishment out of the deal.

Here it is. I don't know what we did wrong, but for some reason the legs wouldn't fold up against the body like a "regular" chicken. It looked a little sad and a little comical at the same time. Poor Puff.

I understand now why white chickens are most commonly used for meat. Even after we plucked it as well as we could, the black feathers stood out against the white skin. From here I took some tweezers and picked out as many pinfeathers as I could get a hold of.

I also rinsed the bird well. cut the neck off, and stuffed the neck into the cavity along with some chopped onions and parsley (I have quite a bit of parsley and basil from the garden frozen in ziploc bags. It's really easy to use this way.)

I rubbed more parsley and some butter on the skin and put it in the oven at a high heat. At about 5 minutes I turned it on one side and in another 5 minutes turned it to the other side to brown the skin.

When the skin had browned a little I turned down the heat and chopped some potatoes and the giblets (gizzard, heart, and liver), and added them to the roasting pan. The giblets are beautiful I think, especially the iridescent gizzard. It holds the pebbles that the chicken eats to grind its food. Notice the nice yellow fat - this bird may have been small, but it was well fed!

Here's the potatoes and giblets added to the pan. I roasted it covered at 325 until it was done.
It wasn't easy to fit the lid on the roasting pan with the legs sticking up like that, but I managed.

Beet greens from the garden! I harvested the last of the arugula and beets from the backyard garden last week. It was just in the nick of time since a few days later it was down to 12 degrees at night.

I sauteed them in local sunflower oil and a little apple cider vinegar...

.... and then added some garden arugula.

We still had some time before the chicken was done, and I wanted to watch the president's speech about Afghanistan, so I turned off the heat on the greens and put a lid on it to let the arugula steam.

After the speech I re-heated the greens and they were ready to go.

So was the chicken. It was very small and cooked really fast. In a little over an hour it was up to 175 degrees.

There wasn't a whole lot of meat on the chicken - just enough for a sensible portion for 3 people. Dave, Stanley, and I made short work of it. It did taste good, but it was a somber meal none the less.

I don't even want to think about how much I ended up paying per pound for this meat! The incubator, the feeder and waterer, the heat lamp, all the food, the dog kennel, the bedding.... it was a learning experience, that's for sure!

I made some really nice stock out of the carcass. It ended up really gelatinous and thick. This was not a bird that I wanted to waste any part of. It wouldn't be fair to me or to the bird.
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Bacon Wrapped Venison Steaks, Thanksgiving, and the Demise of Puff

These steaks were one of the best things that's happened to me for a while, but before I get to them I need to break some news.

Remember Puff, that young hen that I was so concerned about integrating into the flock just a few weeks ago? Well, "she" started crowing last week proving that she was actually a he. Unlike his brother 3 Spot, Puff was not a paragon of roosterhood. He had a crooked toe (a trait that can be passed on in a chicken's genes), a gimpy leg, and was extremely slow to develop compared to 3 Spot. They were hatched on the same day and it took Puff a good 2 months longer to start crowing than 3 Spot. The upshot of all this is that it didn't feel right to give Puff to a farm where he would have his own flock - he was just not breeding stock. Since roosters are illegal in the city my other options were to give him to someone else to butcher, or butcher him myself. I chose the second option.

We did it this afternoon. Dave and Stanley did the killing, Mom, Meg (Dave's girlfriend) and I did the plucking and eviscerating. It was quick, easy, and a bit intense. I didn't take pictures. It's nice to not have to worry about integrating the little bird anymore, or what I'm going to do with him when it gets cold. It's in the fridge now, and we'll probably make a meal of it this week. I will definitely take pictures of that.

It seems that a personal connection to the animals I eat is becoming a theme this November. It's really brought home to me the solemn responsibility I have to honor the animals I eat with the respect they deserve.

Stanley went on a hunting trip with his dad and brother last weekend, and his brother got two deer. The smaller of the two ( in the picture above) went to Stanley. His dad and brother did the butchering and it's now in my freezer.

We have a ton of venison to eat in the coming year. Our first meal was last week: venison steaks wrapped in bacon.

Here are the steaks. Small and dark red. Venison is a lean meat, high in protein, iron, and B12 vitamins.

We salted and peppered the meat liberally....

.... and then wrapped each steak in a piece of bacon (local of course!).

The steaks went in the cast iron skillet over medium heat to crisp the bacon a bit.

A local yellow onion completed the dish.

When the bacon had started to render, we transferred it all to a pan in a hot oven to finish cooking.

Every meal must have something green. We've still got this beautiful local broccoli, so I steamed some.

Don't forget the mashed potatoes.

The secret to cooking venison is to either cook it for a very short time like we did with these steaks, or to slow cook it in a crock pot or in a low oven. It's very lean, so drying it out is a real concern. The bacon added some nice fattiness, and to our delight the steaks themselves were mild, not too gamy, and quite tender.

With the broccoli and mashed potatoes this made one of the most delicious meals I'd had in a long while. I can't wait to experiment with all the rest of the venison we have in the freezer - look for many more posts to come!

Thank you deer!

Lastly, I should tell you a bit about my Thanksgiving. It was my first time home for this holiday in about 6 years. It was so nice to sit around that Thanksgiving table with my family again! We had all the traditional things - I procured the turkey and Dave cooked it and made gravy. I also made venison sausage stuffing (see my recipe at the end of this post). Mom made a carrot dish, Brussels sprouts, and her grandmother's creamed onions. My aunt Kate hosted and made a vegetarian stuffing. Erica and Ben brought mashed potatoes, dinner rolls, and a delicious squash dish. Cousin Aaron's girlfriend and Erica's parents Barry and Diane made a plethora of pies. Diane also made a delicious fresh cranberry sauce, and of course we had the traditional cranberry sauce with the ridges from the can still showing.

The turkey was a Narragansett (an heirloom breed) that I was lucky to find in a Craigslist add. Dave did an excellent job of describing all that went into the preparation on his blog, so I'm not going to go it here. It's worth checking out - it was frickin' delicious!

I will however, tell you a little about the venison sausage stuffing I made...

Since there is so much venison in my freezer, I decided it was high time that I buy a meat grinder. This was my first time trying sausage. I cut up a bunch of "scraps" from the deer, added some fatty beef, spices, and....

... put it through the meat grinder. This was so cool! I'm excited to see what fun ground meats we'll come up with this winter!

I browned the sausage with some onions and garlic, added celery, some fresh herbs, chestnuts, and cubed bread crumbs. All this went into a baking dish with some milk and melted butter and baked for a few hours. I didn't get pictures (it was a busy day!), but I can tell you, it was good. I've included a recipe below if anyone cares to know exactly how I did it.

Whew! I covered a lot of ground there! Here's a few recipes:

Bacon Wrapped Venison Steaks

Fresh venison steaks, about 6-8 oz each.
Bacon, one strip per steak
Yellow onions

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Rub salt and pepper onto the steaks. Wrap each one with a strip of bacon. Cook in a frying pan over medium heat for about 5 minutes, turning once. Toward the end add chopped onions to the pan. Transfer steaks and onions to an oven safe pan. Cook for an additional 5 minutes or so in the oven. Do not overcook!

Venison Sausage Stuffing with Chestnuts

Venison sausage
Yellow Onions
Fresh sage, rosemary, thyme, and oregano
Stale bread, cubed

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. With a sharp knife, score each chestnut with an x on it's flat side. Boil chestnuts in water just deep enough to cover them for about 20 minutes, until they are tender. Peel them (the x should peel back easily) and chop.

Brown sausage in a skillet. When it is totally cooked add onions and then celery. Continue cooking. Add herbs and chestnuts. Add bread. Melt a few tablespoons of more butter and toss it into the mixture. Lastly, add just enough milk to moisten everything. Bake in oven for at least 1 hour.
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