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What A Difference A Year Makes

For anyone keeping score, I started a Year of Inconvenience on April 18, 2010 and finished that experiment in 2011, almost one year ago. And while I continue to get asked whether I’m still doing that “cook it all yourself thing,” I’m absolutely amazed that one year has gone by since I completed that challenge.  Believe it or not, on a pretty regular basis either my partner or I are proclaiming at some stressful point in the week, “Thank God we don’t have to cook this all from scratch.” Yeah, what a difference a year makes.

Last time I checked in – well the time before the Amish bread episode – I was proudly recalling my mid-year success of sticking to at least some of the routines I had learned. Well, that was September 2011. Truth is, the only 2 things I consistently make and have not purchased at all from a store since 2010 are granola and granola bars. I guess I proved at least to myself, that some habits are quite easy to break.

But, out of all the things I can either feel proud of or embarrassed by, the one thing I know that has changed in my life since I started that experiment is my constant need to now know just where my food comes from. You see, I’ve built up quite a big distrust for large agribusiness (and corporate greed) and the almighty dollar that constantly feeds that relentless machine of cheap food most Americans demand. I’m not talking about cheap processed food or fast food, but basic food items like fruit, vegetables, meat, yogurt, bread, or cheese, – items that most people want to purchase at the lowest possible price point. The most valuable lesson learned in my year of from-scratch cooking was identifying and valuing the time and effort good people spend getting really good food to market.

When I was in high school I remember reading with horror, Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle and becoming totally skeeved out by the practices of the meat packing industry. And then I stopped eating chicken when I was 16 or 17 because I couldn’t handle seeing the pin feathers left in the wings of the chicken my parents purchased from a farmer friend of theirs. To me it was too similar to what grossed me out in Sinclair’s book. Of course they were two totally different things – one being the greed ridden industry I previously described – the second demonstrating my point,  the value in knowing where your food comes from.

And now some XX years later (I’m really not going to reveal my age here) I’ve come full circle, abhorred not just by things like pink slime and too many salmonella outbreaks, but abhorred that people continue to demand the cheapest possible food. Do you know what it takes for food to be cheap? Well, from my experience either the farmer/worker is paid less than market value, or the product is made with less than quality ingredients (ie: ingredients that will either extend the products shelf life or products that are purchased from secondary markets where cheap additives help stretch the dollar for the producer). I now know the difference between factory produced crackers, and crackers that were hand made, hand and not machine rolled and baked 70 miles from where I live. And if that means I’m paying more per ounce for them, I understand the value in that price. I know the time and experience it takes to make good crackers. And there are people who want to make a living carrying on that craft.

I will pay more, in fact I will gladly pay more and cut back elsewhere when a local baker makes my bread, or an artisan at the farmer’s market has hand crafted my cheese selection. I’ve learned what it takes to make quality products on my own, and I have formed a deep appreciation of those people who try to make a living doing the same and I think them by purchasing their products whenever I’m not making them myself. And as I just described, that happens much more frequently nowadays.

Recipe Request – Chocolate Graham Crackers

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It’s cold and rainy and just plain dreary outside today here in Milwaukee. So much for getting outside and spending some quality time in our gardens. To make the best of the day I think I need to get the house smelling of chocolate and comfort. These chocolate graham crackers were one of the best recipes I (well actually Lisa) discovered over the past year. The most difficult part of the recipe is waiting for them to cool down to a nice soft crunch before devouring the entire plate!

Chocolate Graham Crackers

½ cup all purpose flour

¾ cup whole wheat flour

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup dutch-process cocoa

1 ¼ cups powdered sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons cold milk

Preheat the oven to 325°and line two baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpats.

Whisk together the flours, salt, cocoa, sugar, and baking powder in a mixing bowl. Using a pastry blender or your fingertips, cut the butter into the flour mixture until evenly crumbly. In a separate bowl, combine the honey and milk, stirring until the honey dissolves. Add the liquid to the dry ingredients and toss lightly with a fork until the dough comes together. Add a little more milk, ½ teaspoon at a time if necessary, to make the dough pliable but not sticky.

Turn the dough onto a well-floured surface and fold it over gently until smooth. Divide the dough in half, keeping the other half covered with plastic.

Put your half of dough onto the parchment paper or Silpat, and roll it into a rectangle about 10 x 14 inches. The dough will be about 1/16 of an inch thick (pretty darn thin). Trim the edges and prick the dough evenly with a fork. Repeat with the remaining half of dough on the other piece of parchment. Place the parchment/dough on a baking sheet, and bake for 15 minutes or until they begin to brown. Immediately cut them into rectangles with a pizza wheel or knife. Transfer on a rack to cool. They should crisp up as they cool down.