How Not To Bake Chicken

A lot of people have spent considerable energy, time and bandwidth telling us how to cook chicken. And that is useful advice, if you’re going to follow it. Today, I’m going to tell you how NOT to cook chicken. This is also very useful advice, if you follow it.

Yesterday, we were going to a ballet matinee in Akron and I remembered that there were some split chicken breasts that had been defrosting in the fridge for a few days. I knew that they needed cooked before they spoiled, and figured if I cooked them before we left, DH could have some for his dinner since he was not going with us. So, an hour before we were supposed to leave, I put them in the oven. I’m sure you can see where this is going.

After 45 minutes, they weren’t quite done, so I left the oven on a bit longer while I got my things together. And then there was a rush of stuff all at once: DH wanted me to pick something* up in Akron near the ballet, so we had phone calls to the seller and hasty arrangements to meet him at a McDonald’s near Akron U’s campus. And then there was girls’ hair to brush, and shoes to find, and GPS units to be programmed. There was a melee of coat-donning and purse-grabbing.

There was not a moment of oven-turning-off-ing, unfortunately.

This was at 1pm, by the way.

At 7PM, when I returned home, the house smelled like a burnt porkchop. I know that smell intimately, because that is how my mom’s house smelled whenever she made porkchops. She cooked them until they were stiff and dry, because to her generation, pork was a dirty meat that had to be cooked ruthlessly until it harbored neither pathogen nor vitamin nor molecule of moisture.

So I’m here to tell you, from very personal experience, that if you leave your chicken in a 350F oven for SEVEN HOURS, it will be inedible and smell very much like a burnt porkchop. And you shouldn’t cook your chicken this way. Ever.

Seven hour chicken

You’re welcome.

*a Nerf blaster, if you must know

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Peach

Peaches are in, and I’ve been wanting to try some of the new (to me) peach recipes in my Home Preserving book.  I made a few last year, with a reasonable amount of success.  My family was not particularly fond of the spiced peaches (sad, because I thought they were quite tasty).  I also discovered that peaches need at least a medium syrup.  Light syrup – which I used – will make them discolor and lose texture much sooner, whether they are frozen or canned.  And frozen ones should be used up within 4-6 months, or they will be stringy and icky.  Also, honey is not particularly good with peach when you’re talking jam, as it also discolors.

Ginger, on the other hand, is particularly fabulous with peach when you’re talking jam.

Last year, friend L and I made “Gingered Peach Preserves” from one of her canning cookbooks.  It was so good, I wrote myself a note in my notebook:

Recipe for jam

This jam is seriously good.  It’s like sugary sex on a spoon.  Good sex on a spoon.  You don’t even need to put it on bread- you can just eat it out of the jar (hence the spoon).  I still have jam from last year, but none of it is Gingered Peach Preserves.  Those were gone practically by Christmas.

So yesterday I went to the market and bought a box of peaches, and dug out the candied ginger that I bought last year expressly for making this recipe.

Box of peaches

Secret jam ingredient

And then I dutifully followed the recipe’s instructions and measured out five pounds of peaches (which, in case you’re wondering, is about 14-15 peaches).

5 # peaches for jam

Next, I did that nifty trick of dipping the fruits in boiling water for one minute

Blanch for 1 minute

before plunging them into cold water (why is it that we “dip” in boiling water, but “plunge” into ice water?)

Ready to skin

Now, this is where I can tell you about the really neat canning jars I picked up at the discount store a few weeks ago. They were a bit expensive, but still half as much as the fancy “Platinum” series that Ball sells. The thing I like best is the odd shape.

Discount store find

I bet they will be even more interesting when they’re full of jam.

Cool new jars

So I got all the peaches chopped,

Peaches

and the candied ginger minced,

Minced candied ginger

and everything into the pot with the sugar,

Peaches macerating

and I filled up the canner, and got the jars and lids and rings ready. And then I looked at the next step in the recipe: one very important step that I, in my haste to fill those uber-cool jars with sex-on-a-spoon, had either forgotten about or subconsciously ignored. That would be this step:

Important detail

Argh.  Talk about your anticlimax.

No matter. There were still many peaches left. I prepped a second batch and put it in the refrigerator as well. And since “overnight” is a relative term, and it was only 11AM, I figured there was plenty of time to let them macerate and still end the night with lovely jars of hot, bubbly, gingery peach jam.

Ah, the best laid plans.

I still had 2/3 of a box of peaches to work with, so I flipped through the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving and found Peach Butter. This recipe did not call for macerating overnight, or really doing anything overnight, so I figured it would be safe. I measured out the peaches, prepped them, stuck them in the pot, and started cooking.

In retrospect, I really should have thought this one through a little better as well. Fruit butters are basically the sweet equivalent of tomato paste. They have to cook a long while to become thick and buttery. This is a nebulous amount of time but you can be sure it’s longer than you feel like standing in front of a hot stove on an August day.

This is the puree when it first comes to a boil. It’s the consistency of a light tomato sauce, or maybe a creamy tomato soup.

Peach butter

This is the puree an hour and a half later. It’s the consistency (and color) of caramel topping.

Peach butter after 1 hour

Happily, I ended up with five half-pint (jelly) jars and two 4-oz jars of peach butter. Sadly, after nearly two hours of stirring and stirring and stirring some more, I really didn’t want to stand in front of the stove any longer. But those groovy new jars, which I’d set aside for Gingered Peach Preserves, kept beckoning. “Fill us!” they cried from their corner of the counter. “Sex on a spoon!” came the muffled cries of the macerating peaches from under the pot lid.   So I dragged the first batch of preserves out of the fridge and started cooking it.

Also sadly, I had skimmed over yet another step in the jam recipe, the one where it said to cook the jam for about an hour until it reached the jelly stage. (It is “jelly stage”, and not “gel stage”, and that is an important distinction which will separate you from your less-informed friends. You’re welcome.)

Waiting for the jelly stage

It’s not essential, but is definitely helpful, to use a candy thermometer when you’re making jam, especially ones that do not use added pectin for the set. Mine is about seventy years old but still works great.

Vintage thermometer

Okay, maybe it’s not 70 years old but it’s older than me, for whatever that’s worth.

So now there are no more pictures of peaches simmering, jam jelling, or anything beautiful and wonderful happening. This is because I got slightly bored, and somewhat tired of standing in front of the stove the whole long day*, and started wandering around the house. I washed some dishes, fed the new kitten, straightened the living room. The amount of time that defined intervals between “frequent stirring” grew longer and longer.

Soon it was time to can the jam. We hit the magical 220 degree mark, and the mixture passed two of the jelly stage tests. I pulled one of the nifty new jars out of the hot canner water and filled it with peachy goodness. I grabbed another with the lifters and rested the funnel in place, about to fill it as well.

And then, friends, my heart plummeted about twenty stories and smashed to bits on the figurative pavement below. Because instead of luscious, goldeny, sexy, gingery jam, I began ladling nasty brown chunks of burnt sugared peach. Somehow, between 210 and 220 degrees F, the jam had burned. All that hard work! All that waiting! All that skimming and stirring and sweating!

Somehow, through angry tears, I managed to get three four-ounce jars out without dredging up too much of the burnt stuff. I processed those four jars and filled another up with the bulk of what was left, which went into the fridge. But it was devastating.

Burnt jam

Look, you can see the burnt bits floating in the jar.  Eww.

Burnt bits

I decided it would be tempting fate to attempt batch two that night. I went to bed instead and had fitful dreams about burnt sugar.

But today, with fresh coffee and a refreshed brain, I started again with batch two.  I stirred constantly instead of just frequently.  I kept a careful eye on the thermometer and hardly even looked away from the pot, let alone wander into another room.  And this time, I ended up with three fancy and four plain jars of the awesomest, sweetest, bestest Gingered Peach Preserves.

Gingered Peach take two

I wish there was a better way to convey just how good this jam is.

Toast with jam

Guess you’ll have to use your imagination.

*except for a fairly crucial five or six minutes

Fortuitous Distaster

Until last night, I had never, ever, ever in my entire life lived through an actual parable. Not anymore!

Actually, I’m not so sure it’s technically a parable, since those have sort of religious or moral bents to them. Plus, this is long, and I’m fairly sure parables are supposed to be short. But I’m sticking with parable. It’s a great word, and not often used.

So it’s evening, and I’m washing up a pile of dishes and trying my darndest to get the kitchen shipshape before heading downstairs to teevee and knitting. This is my goal for the year: to try to get my chores done in a sensible manner (as opposed to willy-nilly at the last minute because someone is coming over). Right. So. Shipshape. The crock pot, which is clean but has been sitting on the counter since the holidays, is the last thing to get put away, and (of course) it goes on the top shelf of a way high up cupboard. I don’t know what I was thinking – obviously, thinking was not heavily involved here – by trying to hold a heavy crockpot with its glass lid whilst trying to get the cupboard open and the items on the top shelf shoved aside moved out of the way to accomodate the shelf’s new resident and all while standing on my tippy-toes. Of course, as you probably guessed, the glass lid toppled off and crashed to the floor.

The crash was big. I have never, short of a car accident, seen so much glass everywhere. There were pieces of glass at least 15 feet in either direction. The glass broke into so many little pieces that I bet even the dudes at CSI couldn’t have pieced it back together. Of course, I was quite annoyed with this additional task to handle before I got to open my knitting bag. And, while I had (possibly ironically, possibly ominously) been thinking about a new little chip in the crock bowl itself and wondering if it was still safe to use, I like my crock pot. I didn’t want to have to buy another. Not yet.

Still, my dilemma over whether to continue using my pot had essentially been solved. Crock pots don’t really work without their lids. And crock pots are so inexpensive these days that it is usually cheaper to buy a new one than to replace a bowl or lid once it breaks.

Resigning myself to the task at hand, I first banished the girls to their room so they wouldn’t step on any of the glass. I also had them put shoes on, just in case. Then I swept the glass into two large piles. With the dustpan, I transferred the piles from the floor to the kitchen trash can. All the while, I imagined the letter I would send to the crockpot manufacturer: To Whom It May Concern, your crockpots are frightening and unsafe. I will never purchase another of your crockpots again. I am scarred for life, as are my children. Too emotional. I erased my imaginary letter and tried a more scientific approach, describing the way in which the lid had broken. I imagined diagrams of my house with measurements and illustrations of how and where the glass had shattered. I imagined statistical charts that showed the distribution of debris from the drop point. I imagined getting a phone call from the manufacturer, thanking me for my letter and asking me to provide further detail for the folks at Research and Development. I imagined making PowerPoint presentations to crock pot scientists all over the world. It is amazing what you can dream up while sweeping glass.

As I swept up the glass, I have to admit to cursing my dumb luck. The glass was scattered so far from the crash site that I would have to sweep both the kitchen and dining room floors, and then – since some of the pieces were so fine that they might get missed by the broom – I’d have to mop. I had to take out the trash. I had to do all these extra jobs, just because I had done work. If I had done my usual quickie-clean, which involved shoving “active dishes” (those from the current meal) into the dishwasher and putting the food away, the crock pot would still be sitting on the counter. It would still have its lid. I would already be engrossed in Planet Earth with knitting needles clicking away. But no, I had an extra forty-five minutes worth of kitchen work to do, and all because I had decided to go the extra mile in spiffing up the place.

Once the sweeping was done, I took the bag out to the trash immediately, to avoid additional glass disasters in the kitchen, and proceeded to vacuum up the finer stuff that the broom couldn’t get. But there were still pieces of glass – tiny, almost like dust; and yes, they blended in with the regular dirt on the floor. So it seemed like a good idea to mop. I pulled the mop down and filled a bucket with soapy water. I mopped the kitchen, and the dining room. I even did a hallway, just to be safe.

The last thing that needed done was clean off the throw-rug next to my kitchen counter. It is too small to vacuum, as the sweeper would just think it a large dryer sheet and try to eat it. I could see tiny shards of deadly glass glinting evilly at me as I examined it. I’d have to take it outside and shake it out. Glancing at the clock, which now read 8:55pm (an hour wasted on this ridiculous cleanup!), I sighed and opened the back door.

I stepped out onto the back porch, so the few bits of glass wouldn’t end up back in the house, and shook out the rug. It was a surprisingly warm night for January in Ohio. Not balmy, but not bitter, either. I guess it was about 35 degrees. The air was moist with humidity and I could hear the rain falling as I shook out the rug.

Wait a minute. If I was standing outside, how come I could hear the rain but not feel it?

I walked a little further out onto the porch. Off to the right, somewhere in the dark, I definitely heard water. It was a strange noise, though. It wasn’t a dripping sound, or a running sound. It didn’t sound like rain. It was more like a whooshing sound of water being forced out of something. It sounded a lot like a hose.

A hose! We hadn’t winterized the outside hose!! Visions of our house floating off its foundation and down the street filled my overactive imagination. As fast as I could in the dark, I clambered down the back steps, following the sound. It was definitely the hose. I banged on the back door until my husband came out. He got me a flashlight, and I crawled under the porch. Just as I thought, the hose extension we had put in that summer had burst.

I crawled all the way under the porch’s soggy belly to the main run, and turned it off. The whooshing of water stopped immediately. But now I was wet. My untainted house shoes were muddy. What a crappy turn of events. I was seriously beginning to doubt the wisdom of all this tidy-house foolishness.

Back inside, I took off my house shoes and wiped them down with a towel. There was a piece of glass stuck in the rubber heel of one. I dug it out and muttered some choice obscenities at the crock pot. But then I realized that, if I had not opened the back door that evening to shake out the rug, we probably would not have found out about the hose for a day or two. That would have been a lot more problematic than sweeping up some glass.

Just then, the girls came running in, shouting excitedly. In the process of putting on shoes (clean ones, from their closet, which they don’t normally wear), they found a piece from their favorite game. The piece had been missing for weeks and we hadn’t been able to play.

When I went to empty the vacuum cleaner canister to get rid of the last of the glass, I discovered that I had managed to suck up an ink pen, probably the day before when I swept DH’s office. The pen was lodged near the accessory hose and, had it gone any further, it would probably have ripped the hose or torn the HEPA filter – the single most expensive replacement part on the whole machine. If I had not just filled up the cannister with glass, it wouldn’t normally have been emptied for several days.

When I took the kitchen trash bag full of glass out to the garbage can outside, I saw that the letter I had put under the mailbox lid for the postman to pick up in the morning had fallen back into the box, meaning it wouldn’t have been mailed the next day. It was a time-sensitive bill.

Best of all, the whole incident inspired me to update my sorry neglected little blog. And now I can say I lived a parable (even if that’s not entirely accurate).

Another Hard-Learned Lesson

If you’re making a cream cheese frosting, and the recipe calls for one and one-half cups of powdered sugar, you should really make sure that your powdered sugar container contains powdered sugar and not BAKING SODA. They may look a lot alike but, trust me. They don’t taste ANYTHING alike.

Good fortune has smiled on us, however, in that my habit of tasting substances whilst they are still in the mixing bowl (and, in this case, NOT already on the cake) revealed the horrible, awful truth: that I had included a full cup and one-half of BAKING SODA, instead of powdered sugar, in my frosting. And, no it was not good.

Come on, universe- give me a collective EEEEEWWWWWWWWWWWWW. Because that’s what a cup and a half of baking soda beaten with butter and cream cheese tastes like. And, to make matters worse, there is no way short of a shot of vodka that you can clear that taste out of your mouth. (I know. I’ve tried.)

(Including the vodka part.)
The sad news is that there’s also no way of fixing this blunder, and I have now wasted two packages of cream cheese and two sticks of butter (not to mention one and one-half cups of baking soda), with no more cream cheese on hand to make a new batch, and thusly no frosting for my yummy banana cake. I shall have to improvise with some custardy filling kind of thing, and possibly a buttercream frosting. It’s not the same, but it’s a lot better than Baking Soda Frosting, that’s for sure.

Meanwhile, I’m off to make a new label for that cannister straightaway, although I’m fairly certain I won’t be making this mistake again in the very near future.