Monday, October 25, 2010

Why Go Apple Picking?

Someone recently asked me "Why go apple picking? I don't understand the appeal/point." Here's my answer.

To support small farms that depend on income from apple-picking tourists. Because making a living profit from farming and resisting the pressure to sell off farmland to McMansion developers are hard to do these days. The cost of Pick Your Own is still about the same as already-picked apples for sale at farmers markets or stores, around $1/lb, but the farms deserve to make money for their labor of growing the apples. And it's about the experience.

For the pleasure of walking around beautiful orchard paths and fields in good company on a sunny fall afternoon.

For insanely good views of fall foliage

For climbing trees to snare hard-to-reach fruits, especially late in the season.

For snacking on juicy freshly picked apples.

For the exercise that comes with carrying around a twenty pound half bushel bag.

For the vinegary smell of fallen rotting apples that might inspire you to make your own hard cider or try some from the local wineries.

For saying hello to goats that live in barns.

For picking out a pumpkin to carve.

For the sound of children running around. And for rolling down hills like children.

For spying on honeybees and buying local honey from the farm store.

For rewarding yourself afterward with hot cider and freshly made donuts.

For bringing home tons of apples to eat, to freeze, to make crockpot applesauce, apple pie, apple muffins, apple cake, apple pancakes...

My place of choice for apple picking is Ochs Orchard in Warwick, NY, ninety minutes outside NYC, for its stunning views, charming farm store, and proximity to my childhood home. To find a Pick Your Own farm near you, take a look through this comprehensive list of farms in the US, Canada, Britain, and other countries.

photos 1, 3, 4, 5, 8, and 10 by Jamie Santamour. rest by me.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Homebrewed Pumpkin Ale

I got together with friends for a skillshare day a couple weeks ago. Among the various food and drinks we made, the highlight was pumpkin beer, led by our resident expert homebrewer who provided all the necessary equipment. As a craft beer snob, I have always been curious about homebrew, so I was psyched to get an inside look at the brewing process.

Fall is the perfect time to make pumpkin ale. Like Sixpoint Craft Ales did for their Pumpkin Brewster beer, we chose to use real pumpkin rather than canned. I roasted a three pound sugar pumpkin, which yielded approximately 3 cups of puree, or the size of a 30 ounce can of pumpkin. Why use canned when you can easily get fresh, local pumpkins this time of year? Make sure it is a sugar pumpkin, though - the same kind used for baking, and not a regular jack-o-lantern pumpkin for carving.

Roasting a pumpkin is easy: Slice the pumpkin in half, scoop out the guts, and place it on a deep baking tray, flesh side down, in an inch or so of water. Roast at 450 for about 40 minutes, until flesh is tender and easily mashed with a fork.

I also roasted pumpkin seeds to snack on during the skillshare: Separate and rinse the seeds from the goop in the center of the pumpkin, toss in olive oil, salt, and pepper, spread seeds out in an even layer on a baking sheet, and roast for about 10 minutes. Crispy pumpkin seeds are addictive.

You can now find brewing supplies in Brooklyn at places like The Brooklyn Kitchen and the Brooklyn Brew Shop, but this kit was ordered online from Midwest Supplies. It was handy how everything came included in the box, even various spices associated with pumpkin pie like cinnamon and nutmeg. The complete recipe we followed can be found here.

It is important to keep in mind throughout the process that everything needs to be cleaned and sanitized, including the stirrer spoon, fermenter jugs, and transfer tubes. The first step was to bring a giant pot of 3 gallons of water to 155 degrees, which took a long time - probably over half an hour. We then steeped a bag of crushed grains in the hot water for 30 minutes. Then we removed the pot from heat and let it sit for another 5 minutes before discarding the grains.

Next, we stirred in a whole container of malt syrup, which is similar in consistency to molasses, as well as brown sugar, although most beers do not typically require sugar at this stage.

After adding the malt and sugar, we brought the water to a boil, added half the hops, and let it boil for 60 minutes. At 55 minutes, we stirred in the pumpkin puree, and at 58 minutes, we added the remaining hops and spices. Here you can see the pumpkin swirling in the wort as it boiled. Note: during this first day of the brewing process, the beer is called "wort."

Afterward, we had to cool the wort to 80 degrees, which we did by putting the pot in a sink filled with ice and cool water. This also took a long time, another half hour or hour, as we swapped out the water every 10 minutes or so to continue the cooling. The sink nearly overflowed as the ice melted.

Once the temperature dipped below 80 degrees, it was time to transfer the wort from the pot into the primary fermenter, a large glass jug.

Normally, the wort should keep streaming on its own through the tube after a couple pumps. However, the pumpkin sediment prevented a steady stream, so it took some time to manually pump all the beer into the fermenter. Somehow, beer sprayed everywhere when the tube accidentally got off course. I think we had one too many (storebought) beers to drink during the course of the skillshare day.

The final step was to add proofed yeast (similar to baking bread) to the top of the jug. This airlock stopper was put in place to allow air to escape without letting air or bacteria enter as the beer bubbled away occasionally for a few days. After a week, it was transfered to the secondary fermenter, or a second glass jug, to help reduce sediment.

Another week later, it was time for bottling. At this time, the beer is done fermenting, and a little sugar was added just before bottling to activate the carbonation process. We rinsed, sterilized, and rinsed again about 40 beer bottles and caps. You can collect empty beer bottles and recycle them for this second life. Using a special tube, we transfered the beer into the bottles, and capped off each one.

Normally you can get up to 50 bottles from a five gallon batch, but again, the pumpkin sediment caused some problems. Toward the bottom of the batch, sediment blocked the beer from flowing into the bottles, so we had to scrap the last dregs. In total, we ended up with 39 bottles. Lesson learned: beer with pumpkin or other ingredients added are tricky to work with.

We poured a sip to try, and it definitely tasted like a pumpkin ale, with a little sweetness and bitterness, but unfortunately it did not seem very strong. For whatever reason, it didn't bubble or ferment for as many days as normal. Now that the beer is bottled, it will be ready to drink in two weeks, and hopefully the taste will improve with carbonation. I am excited to drink it!