Recipes | Pumpkin Chip Muffins

Fall is officially here. There is that unmistakeable something in the air, especially in the cool of the evening, that spicy sweetness unlike at any other time of the year. The shadows get longer as the days get shorter and shorter, which actually gets me excited for long, cozy fall and winter evenings, working on projects, reading, doing those sorts of things that are just about done away with during the long days of summer.

Baking isn’t what I generally gravitate towards in the kitchen, but with fall in air and fresh pumpkins being harvested out of the garden, what better thing to bake than these delicious pumpkin chip muffins! I don’t go for pumpkin spice, but this just tastes like fall to me.

Ingredients

2 c. pumpkin, mashed or pureed (or a 15 oz. can of solid pack pumpkin)

4 eggs

2 c. sugar

1 stick salted butter, softened

1 c. coconut oil, melted

3 c. flour

1 t. baking powder

2 t. soda

2 T. cinnamon

1/2 t. salt

2 c. semisweet chocolate chips

2 T. vanilla

1 c. finely chopped walnuts (optional)

Instructions

Beat together the first five ingredients, until smooth. Combine dry ingredients in a separate bowl and gradually add to the pumpkin mixture – Mix well. Add vanilla. Fold in chocolate chips and walnuts.

Scoop roughly a quarter cup of batter to each cup in your muffin tin, either greased or lined with muffin papers.

Bake at 400 degrees F. for 15-18 minutes.

Cool for 10 minutes and then place individually on cooling racks. Recipe yields roughly 2 dozen muffins.

Notes

This recipe can be made with or without muffin papers, obviously. I much prefer using the papers, since these are pretty crumbly and moist when they’re warm, so it is a lot easier to handle them in a muffin paper. You can use just about as many chocolate chips as you want…I’ve done anywhere from 2 to 3 cups. It just depends on how chocolately you want them! I have also put a few tablespoons of cocoa powder in the batter, if I’m feeling the need for something extra chocolately. They no longer look like pumpkin if you do that, but they’re delicious all the same. If you want an extra kick of pumpkiny goodness, add a little more pureed pumpkin. Play with the amount of cinnamon and vanilla. I think my original recipe called for something silly like 2 teaspoons of cinnamon. I like to actually taste the cinnamon, thank you very much! You can also use white whole wheat flour for this, and I’m sure you could use regular whole wheat, although I imagine the texture and density would change.

These keep pretty well in the fridge and are delicious warmed up in the microwave for 10 seconds, with a little dab of butter.

Enjoy this taste of fall!

Recipes | Easy Trail Mix

Okay, so this barely qualifies as a recipe. It really doesn’t. But there isn’t another comparable word for a “handful of this, handful of that, shake it up” sort of concoction. But it has become one of our favorite quick snacks! Not to mention, this old coffee cannister is pretty nostalgic for me – It recalls years of memories of my grandparents and their delicious chocolate chip cookies, since this served as their cookie jar as far back as I can remember.

Anyway, Brad and I eat a lot of nut mixes and trail mixes. We come in from chores or cow work and just need a quick snack mid-morning, and a handful of something, oftentimes peanuts or cashews, generally does the trick. We had found a couple of really good trail mixes at Sam’s Club, but we ate enough of them that I finally decided I wanted to start just mixing our own trail mix. As silly or simple as this might sound, we enjoy the homemade version better than the store bought versions.

Pick from a variety of nuts, M&Ms or chocolate pieces, and dried fruit, add desired quantities and shake it all up! You can go sweet or savory, with seasoned or unseasoned nuts, roasted or raw, salted or not, and the list goes on. If you want to get a little fancier, you could toss your mix with a little olive oil and a seasoning of your choice, and bake briefly in the oven. The possibilities are endless.

This one is peanuts, almonds, M&Ms, and raisins. There were supposed to be cashews, but I think I accidentally ate them all before I got around to mixing this up. I made a second jar for myself without raisins. Brad pointed out that there were twice as many M&Ms in my jar as in his jar, but I pointed out that he got all the raisins. Fair’s fair.

Tough Love

This is Amelia.

She really does have as much personality as it looks like in this picture. As a chick, even just a week old, she was feisty and would frequently attack my hand when I reached into the brooder. A chick can’t really do any damage, but fast forward a couple of months and I had started wondering if Amelia was actually a rooster. Once she flew at me and to my surprise made it about to eye level, which was a little startling.

Well, Amelia has since started laying eggs – the most beautiful blue eggs, as a matter of fact – so clearly she isn’t a rooster, but prior to that she was really just a pain. Literally a pain. She’d run up and peck at my hands and fingers or anywhere else she could find to peck, and I got sick of it pretty quick. And by “peck,” I really mean that she’d run over and grab me by the finger and just hang on. It was annoying. Finally one day she ran up and bit me pretty hard, so I grabbed her by the legs and held her upside down and spoke sternly to the little wretch. She didn’t like that. But she tried the same stunt again and received another round of being held upside down by the legs.

It took one or two more of these little confrontations and she eventually got the picture. She settled down. One might think she’d behave herself sullenly and sort of keep to herself and away from the mean lady who grabs her and hangs her upside down, but that would be incorrect. Amelia is now the first one to greet me whenever I come into the chicken coop, and basically begs for attention. She loves to be scratched on the head. And hugged. Yes, hugged.

A little tough love goes a long way.

Today’s Trouble, Today’s Joy

Since getting married and leaving my fulltime job as a paramedic and becoming a fulltime wife, I have found my days to be fuller than they ever used to be, busier, richer, and amazingly productive. It is a largely unplanned sort of busyness. Oftentimes it is a busyness brought about by what to other people might be considered inconveniences. It isn’t the kind of productive that puts dollars in the bank, but rather the kind of productive that leads to a happy marriage, healthy relationships, a clean and welcoming and beautified home, a vibrant church and community life, a productive little homestead, and plenty to share with family and friends. It is the kind of productive that leads to life, truly living and experiencing and feeling and tasting and cultivating and nurturing and creating and being.

One of the most beautiful passages of the New Testament is from Matthew 6:25-34, in which Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount spells out the cure for worry. He admonishes His listeners against the futility of worrying. What does worry accomplish for you? You work yourself to death trying to secure your future, but can you really change tomorrow? Do you trust God to provide? Can you make your life longer by worrying? Can you even add an hour to your existence? He reminds His hearers of God’s provision. God clothes the lilies and God feeds the birds. They don’t toil, and yet He provides. It really is a beautiful passage. Jesus concludes this admonition with this well-known statement: “Sufficient for the day is its own troubles.”

How true that is! But I would also say that sufficient for the day are its own joys. In fact, I would actually say that those troubles are often its joy. Trouble and joy are twins.

I think people miss out on a lot of joy because they are trying to stave off trouble (think inconvenience, nuisance, discomfort, changes in plans, something unwanted happening, etc.), or they are trying to manipulate their way into joy without any associated “trouble”. It strikes me that those “troubles” which to a self-occupied or career-centric person would be a nuisance or would be impossible demands to meet (such as one’s day getting turned topsy-turvy by someone else’s needs), those “troubles,” to a person whose life is shaped by spouse, family, and community, are also that person’s joys.

We wake up in the morning and make a plan, and give our attention to what is required of us today. Not tomorrow, not next week, but today. Obviously we have things on our schedule, weeks in advance, but the real question isn’t how best to use my time tomorrow, but how best to use my time today. Who or what needs my attention today? What joy there is in being able to live with an emphasis on those daily tasks that give life shape and meaning, allowing for the flexibility to meet spontaneous demands on my time, building those ties with my spouse, my family, and my community. Maybe it is going with my husband to find those cows that crawled into a neighbor’s pasture. Maybe it is helping with errands or being available to help with babysitting. It might be a spur of the moment picking fruit with my father-in-law, or canning tomatoes. Or jumping into our little fire rig and going to a grassfire across the highway with my husband. Or helping a neighbor work cows. Or a walk with my mom. Or helping shuttle my husband from the stack yards out in the hayfield up to the house after a load of hay was delivered. Or spontaneous coffee with my mother-in-law when taking her a couple dozen eggs on my way into town. Or doctoring an injured or sick animal, a process that always takes longer than anticipated.

We run into trouble when we spend so much time focusing on tomorrow’s troubles and trying to manipulate tomorrow’s joys that we don’t or can’t even experience what is right in front of us.

So I thank God for today’s troubles, and all of its joys.

Ranch Wife Musings: Evening

As I tidy up the kitchen as my last home task of the evening, I get a good view of my little flock of chickens down by their coop, chasing a few last bugs. Clearly they aren’t ready to be tucked in just yet. The horses are visible just on the other side of the barn, having been given their freedom for the night, and sometimes Charlie the Calf comes wandering into the barn yard for a drink of water or maybe thinking I’ll give her one more little scoop of calf creep.

The sky turns orange then pink then lavender as the shadow of our little ridge is cast further and further east, until the last little bit of sunlit prairie has been covered in the comfort of evening shadow.

What a peaceful sight.

I love my little jaunt down to the chicken coop to do the very last of my chores for the day. Pearl comes with me, since she takes her chicken chores very seriously, and usually one or more of the cats run down to the coop with me as well. With an actual pounding of little feet, Yellow Cat (who probably slept all day until five minutes ago) races by, then Grey Cat (who probably worked all day), tearing around, then stopping suddenly and staring at absolutely nothing in the uncanny way cats do.

The chickens chatter contentedly amongst themselves and maybe greet me quietly when I come in to make sure everyone is accounted for. Yep, there’s Amelia, and Alice, and Audrey, and Goldie, and Little Red, Little Red, Little Red, and Little Red. And seven black chickens, including Henrietta, the only one who gets a name because she looks like a vulture. I close the coop windows or open them a crack, depending on the evening temps, and scratch one or two of the friendly birds on their backs before collecting my egg basket and closing the girls in for the night.

Pearl reluctantly joins me on the little walk back up to the house. The cats run and pounce on each other, occasionally scrapping and working out a few feminine feline differences. Rocket the Horse says something sarcastic to Jargon the Horse, or maybe that was Chip putting Rocket in his place.

And everything is still. I love an evening on the rim of the prairie. A distant coyote yelps. A nighthawk calls out high up and out of sight. Maybe there’s the soft roar of the nighthawk’s wings as he swoops and dives. The warmth of the last days of summer melts away and cool night breezes shift around gently, resiny, fresh, and sweet.

This is home.

11 Tips for Successful Canning

I absolutely love to can. Love it. I enjoy the simplicity and heritage nature of the task, I love the fragrances that fill the house, and the satisfaction of rows upon rows of glistening, beautiful jars of jams, jellies, butters, salsas, and sauces. And I love tasting the fruit of that work months (and sometimes years) later.

But canning can be a daunting task. Here are some tips and tricks that I’ve picked up over the years for helping my work day to go smoothly and enjoyably. Like with most things, I’m guessing everyone who has canned for any length of time has developed their own methods and tricks, so I am not claiming any expertise, only sharing what works for me!

1. First and foremost, have a plan! This may seem like an obvious one, or perhaps not, but unlike a lot of kitchen-related projects, until you’ve been canning for awhile there are a lot of things you might not readily have on hand, or things that don’t get replaced often and maybe expired since the last time they were used. Make sure you have what you need. The last thing you want is to get neck deep into a canning recipe and realize your lemon juice is a year out of date or not have your jam set up because the pectin was three years old! Canning is laborious enough without those added inconveniences.

2. Have the right equipment. Although you don’t technically need a specific water bath canner and jar rack, and although you can use a regular old stockpot and either a trivet or towel in the bottom for the jars to sit on (options I resort to if I have a multi-batch of something, especially since two water batch canners would hardly fit on my stove…), it really does help if you have some very basic equipment. Aside from the canner and canner rack and the jar picker-upper, my can’t-do-without tools of the trade are a headspace tool and a jar funnel. These are most definitely optional, but it is amazingly difficult to estimate 1/4 inch headspace correctly and having a funnel sure makes it easier to keep the jar rims and threads clean!

3. Be redundant. Although there are many situations where more is NOT better, I find that in canning, it is always best to have extra. Of just about everything. If you’re just getting started in canning and you don’t have a large stash of jars, splurge the extra $12 for an extra package of jars, just in case (they’ll get used!), and get an extra package of lids as well. You never know when your plan you so carefully laid above goes a little off kilter. A batch of whatever you thought would make six half pints turns into ten, but you only planned for six jars! Keep extra of important ingredients like pectin, sugar, and lemon juice. You bought that 1lb bag of sugar instead of the 5lb bag, but you made a huge batch of cookies for church potluck and now you are short, or you spilled your coffee all over your pectin and spoiled it. It creates unnecessary hassle to run out of ingredients midway through (goes along with having a plan). Have a few extra large bowls on hand, an extra stockpot ideally, spatulas, ladles, etc. I always surprise myself how many different spatulas or bowls or measuring cups I end up using (usually because I end up tasting something and throwing the utensil in the sink).

4. Do as much prep as possible ahead of time. It’s annoying to be on a roll getting things going, only to come to a stand still because I forgot to round up my jar rings. Or for the project to take two hours extra because I didn’t realize how difficult the fruit would be to prep. Wash your jars the night before so you don’t have to do that while you’re trying to get going on your food prep. Prep the fruit and veggies the night before as well. Not having to spend 3 hours pitting plums or grating zucchini sure speeds everything up.

5. Get an early start! For one, you beat the heat. There’s nothing like standing over a steaming canner or stirring a jar of hot sauce when the temps in the house are creeping up. I love to work with the windows open when it is cool outside. For second, I am really, really good at estimating my time multiple hours short of what it actually ends up taking. I’d rather start early and think I’ll be done at noon but really be done at 2:00, rather than starting at noon…you get the picture.

6. Before you do anything else, start heating water in your canner! This is a huge time saver. While it can be tempting to try to be efficient in the stove usage and wait to start heating the water until you think it’ll boil right when you need it, don’t do this to yourself. Go ahead, let it boil or at least get close, and then just keep it at a simmer until you’re ready for it. It is annoying to be ready to process filled jars and the waterbath canner isn’t hot yet. And a watched canner NEVER boils. It might have been ten minutes away from ready but if you need it now, it will take an extra hour to heat up, just for you.

7. Let your jars heat with the water. This relates to hot prepared foods. And no, this isn’t to sterilize them. Sterilizing is no longer recommended for food products that will be processed for at least 20 minutes, but this more an immediate safety issue, and saves you from ruining a batch of something by having a jar break. Keeping the jars hot gets them ready to fill with the hot jam or sauce or whatever it is, and then they’re also less likely to break when you return them to the waterbath.

8. Put a splash of white vinegar in the water bath. This is one of my favorite little things to do because it really does pay off in the end! We are on a well and have delicious water, but with that comes a high level of minerals that leaves an unattractive white filmy sediment on all my beautiful jars. A splash of vinegar makes for clean jars. Save yourself the headache of having to wipe everything down later!

9. Clean those rims! Really! Don’t shortcut this task. It is very frustrating to be three minutes away from being done with a project that has taken half or all of the day, only to not have jars seal because I failed to clean the rims well! Save yourself the headache.

10. Keep a tidy workspace. I dislike working in chaos, so keeping things tidy helps me work more efficiently. I like to have all my clean jars in one spot, my jar lids and rings ready to go nearby, and towels covering all my counter space to make cleanup easier. I keep track of my dirty dishes and bowls and utensils and try to keep them from scattering, and get things soaking as soon as they’re emptied. Cooked sauces and jams or butters can really cook on to whatever they were in, so don’t wait until the very end to start thinking about cleanup on them. There can be quite a bit of downtime while canning, so putter away at those dishes so you can wrap up when that last jar pings!

11. Last but not least, taste and enjoy. There’s nothing like slathering a slice of toast with my own fresh jam or dipping a tortilla chip in fresh salsa. You won’t be regret having some good bread or a bag of tortilla chips on hand, for just such an occasion, and your family will thank you as well.

I hope this little list can help streamline your projects, and maybe make canning feel a little less daunting!

What other tips and tricks would you share with other canners? Leave a comment below!