January Featured Recipes
Backyard Maple Tapping Workshop!
Sunday February 13th at 1pm

Topics covered include: Tree ID, Making Homemade Spiles from Sumac Branches, How to Tap, Collecting and Boiling Syrup, Uses for Sap and Syrup, and Preservation. Workshop should be about 90min.
Location at the end of Hazlett Street in North View Heights (really close to 279). Search: "Hazlett Street 15214" and follow Hazlett briefly until the street ends. We will be tapping on a privately owned vacant lot (with enthusiastic permission). We plan to have a fire but dress appropriately- we will be trudging around in mud or snow and uneven footing.

Please do Pre-register! The reason for this is that maple sap can be weather dependent and if we have to change the date we want confirmed attendees to be informed. Obviously anyone can come, registered or not.
Also: Bring your own carving knife to whittle a tap if you'd like.

Sugar, Saccharification, & How to Make Reindeer Lichen Syrup

A food writer I can't remember once wrote something to the effect of: the cold-weather dwelling people's obsession with sugar could be due to the lack of sun in their lives. Perhaps it's quite a bit more complicated than that but if you take a moment it's not impossible to recognize a sort of sunny sensation sweets can inspire.

Question: how is potato vodka made? Like, how is a potato turned into alcohol? You need sugar right? Shred a potato into water, ferment it and what happens? Yuck. So where does all the sugar come from?

Alcohol made from grains uses malt. Malt is a grain that is sprouted for just a few days, then is dried and possibly roasted. A grain kernel contains mostly starches, which is that prized stuff we eat every day in various forms of flours. When the seed begins to make new life, those starches are converted into sugars (denaturing its bread-worthy-ness) through enzymes to assist in the growing of that new plant. What an amazing human moment this must have been to nibble on a just sprouted seed and taste a sweet kernel! (Here is a malt-making tutorial).

Similarly another likely result of curious human nibbling was in the case of moldy rice in Asia. The white fuzz later became known as koji and also converted the plentiful starches on grains into fermentable sugars.

While it’s probable you’d get some additional sugars from molding a potato in koji, I wouldn’t necessarily go about sprouting it. There is a better way.

In both cases with the malted grains and with the koji-cultured grains a similar thing is occurring- the process of saccharification. By way of enzymatic activity present starches are being converted into sugars. But not only can they do it for their hosts but they actually hold the capacity of converting additional starches as well. This is known as its diastatic power. Any additional starches that get added, the brewing universe refers to as adjuncts. Therefore malt and koji can be used as the sugar-making “starter” which we add something else- possibly cheap, plentiful, and packed with starches- like the potato!

Or... lichen!

Why lichen? Reindeer lichen specifically, aside from being good landscaping for your model train set, has been found to be also packed with starches- packed as in 94% carbohydrates compared to the potato at 14%. A little inverted compared to the mushroom world, most lichens are edible, with the minority being problematic. The only drawback is that, in the case of reindeer moss, it also contains acids accumulated over time which erode stone and when in your stomach, while it won't kill you, doesn’t feel great. Therefore in order to make sugar from it we first we need to leach out the acid, which is easily done with the help of an alkaline water bath using lye, cal, or baking soda.

It’s done like this:

  1. Cover the lichen with water in a pot and add 1 teaspoon of lye, stir to dissolve, bring to a boil, turn off heat, and let soak for 24 hours.
  2. Drain and rinse.
  3. Take a small piece and dry it. Taste a nibble for any bitterness. If there is any, repeat steps until its gone. It should take 2-3 changes of water to do. When the coast is clear, proceed to drying the whole thing.

Supposedly history tells us that lichen’s hayday came during World War 2 when the supplies for sugar beets and potatoes were low, yet demand for alcohol was unwavering and spirits were made from lichen. However it never really took off as the processing of it was never cost effective. Prepared lichen could be crushed and used in bread, added to thicken soups and sauces, or we can go on to convert it into sugar, thusly:

  1. Combine crushed malt and prepared and crushed lichen in a 1:1 ratio. (Note: this ratio was randomly picked to ensure the desired results.)
  2. Heat water to 155 degrees, add to the grain and lichen mixture to cover liberally and hold at 150 degrees for 1-2 hours. Why you ask? Because the enzymes need to be broken down in order to accessed and 150 degrees gelatinizes many things including grains. Note also that at 165 degrees all enzymes are destroyed. How shall I heat it might you ask? Perhaps a pot in the oven if your oven goes low enough, a pot in a dehydrator that goes high enough, maybe this handy incubator design, or a thick pot with a keen eye on stove and frequent stirring.
  3. (Optional). You can let the mixture cool overnight to allow more time for the enzymes to further breakdown the starches.
  4. Strain and squeeze excess liquid from the solids.

You can now either boil your sweet liquid into a molasses-like malt syrup or go ahead and brew it, distill it, or what have you.

Reindeer lichen, often referred to as Reindeer Moss, is fairly abundant in our region, especially in our nearby forests. One thing you should know is that reindeer lichen is extremely slow growing, about 3mm per a year. While expansive patches exist in Western Pennsylvania, it's always worth considering such details to decide whether its worth it to harvest. My little harvest was to explore the rumor I've heard about lichen as a sugar and I hope you found it worth it.

Happy Fermenting!

"Bread Book" Cookbook Review 


Remember those cookbooks that made things so complicated that we were afraid to try them? Then came along the ones that felt simple, with logical no-frills techniques that drew us back to what it felt like these foods were originally meant to be. Sandor Katz did this for fermentation, David Asher for cheese, and Chad Robertson certainly did this for sourdough bread. In his first Tartine breadbook he made everyone into a first-class bread baker.

It's been a really fun book to explore. Due to winter and the holidays we had almost every recipe in the book baked in a week or two. The sweet potato buns were puffy clouds that melted in beef juices, the utility Slab bread reminded me to keep that versatile pizza/ sandwich/ focaccia loaf in the rotation, and the tortillas were gorgeous. The fermented pasta using discarded starter got the pasta juices reflowing too. I can honestly say that I love the addition of some scalded flour into every loaf I make now (he seems to in the book too), as the moisture and texture is wonderful, especially when using our nixtamalized corn flour or einkorn.

What I found exciting about his new bread baking cookbook, Chad reupholsters the sourdough technique with a slew of neat tricks while overall covering a decent amount of the bread-baking landscape. Things like scaling (which is a really neat technique of cooking low-gluten grains until they break down and have a gelatinous character), to using commercial packaged yeast and sourdough starter in tandem or trio with a poolish (which is akin to a commercial yeast starter. 

The formulas are meticulously accurate as to be expected which helps with improvisation. The flow however is vastly different from my normal bread routine. When making the "slab" bread for instance, the night before making the dough I prepare my starter as usual (it's a cold house), but now also the poolish, I cook my scald so it could rest and cool, then mix the bulk of the water and flour to autolyse (which is a funny word for mixing your water and flour together to soak for a bit). Finally in the morning it all gets mixed together, and includes another sprinkling of commercial yeast. A lot of prep work!

There is a lot to learn from this book as these Chef characters continue to chase mountain tops in pursuit of new flavors. I look forward to ultimately returning to keeping things simple again, autolysed with this new information.

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