Monday, March 18, 2013

Broccoli - first seedlings of 2013

What a difference a year makes! At this time last year, we'd already planted some seeds outdoors (radishes and spinach), and were a bit worried we were falling behind on our indoor seed starting. This year... well, it snowed this morning, and we've had to keep the chicken coop enclosed because it's getting down to the teens for overnight lows.

But that will all soon change, which is why we've begun our first indoor seeds of the year. You may recall we built up a big seed-starting shelf, which to this point has only held our mostly unsuccessful indoor lettuce project. That's changed in the last few weeks, as you can see here.

The very early season is prime time for cold-hardy crops, of which our favorite has to be broccoli. Last year we enjoyed some unusual (for us) success with broccoli, and we plan to fill an entire garden bed with it this year. Broccoli can be started 6-8 weeks before the last frost, which in central Iowa is usually mid-May. So, now is a pretty good time to get going. We started some last week, and now they've just begun to sprout.

Of course, we really wanted an early batch of broccoli, so we also started some the week before. They look like this:

And, just because we have a cold frame and a low tunnel, we figured we could take some risk, so we even started some the week before that. They've gotten quite big, and you can see some of the "true" leaves forming.

Our goal here is to stagger our planting so that ideally we can also stagger our harvest. These three-week old plants should form full-size broccoli heads first, then we can successively cut the others so we have fresh broccoli over multiple weeks. When you're growing 32 broccoli heads, that makes things a lot more manageable!

Depending on your zone, it's probably not too late to start some broccoli seeds of your own. Otherwise, the next few indoor plants we'll be looking at are peppers (hot and sweet, probably within the next week), and tomatoes, which we'll plant a few weeks thereafter. It's a great feeling when it's still too cold and slushy outside to see these little reminders that spring isn't too far away after all!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Homemade Polish Kolaczki

Happy Pulaski Day, everyone! If you're from the Chicago area, odds are you know exactly what we're talking about. If not, well, you might be a bit lost. Not to worry, we can explain.

Pulaski Day is celebrated in honor of Casimir Pulaski, a Polish soldier and hero of the American Revolution. You can read all about Pulaski here, but the short version is that he's the father of the American cavalry, and once saved George Washington's life. He's kind of a big deal in the Polish-American community, so much so that Chicago's city offices are closed on the holiday.

Des Moines, though it is a rather diverse city, doesn't have near the Polish-American population that Chicago does. Greg is of mostly Polish descent, so when we decided to celebrate the day, we needed to do so from scratch. We spent yesterday morning making kolaczki (kohl-ach-key, sometimes spelled kolacky), a deceptively simple yet amazingly delicious jam-filled Polish pastry.

See that? That's the dough, deconstructed. Just butter, cream cheese and flour. You start by beating together  three sticks of butter and an 8 oz package of cream cheese until fluffy. Once that's done, you gradually mix in 3 cups of flour, about a cup at a time. This recipe makes about 5 dozen kolaczki. If that's too much for you, it's easy to do proportions and make a smaller batch.

Once the dough is well mixed, it's best to throw it in the fridge for about an hour so it's not so soft. Next, dust your working surface with an even mixture of granulated and powdered sugar, so the dough doesn't stick. Roll out the dough into a thin sheet about 1/4 inch thick.

When the dough is rolled smooth, you next cut it to size for the individual kolaczki. You can use a round cookie cutter if you prefer a more freeform look, or you can use a pizza cutter to slice it into the checkerboard-looking shape we have here. Each square is two inches on a side.

Now for the fun part. Kolaczki are usually filled with jam, but you can use any kind you like. Apricot and raspberry are some of the more traditional options, but there's nothing saying you can't use whatever fruit you like. We opted for the classic apricot and also strawberry. We also used preserves rather than jam, which is a little thicker and might help keep the filling from running out of the kolaczki in the oven.

Place a small (smaller than you think you need) dollop of preserves on the center of each dough square, then fold two diagonal corners up and place one over the other so that you end up with the shape shown here. If your dough doesn't want to stick together, Greg's sister Karin reports that using a little water will really glue the corners together.

These baked at 350 degrees for about 12 minutes, so a batch of kolaczki is done almost before you know it. A good sign that they're done is when the tips of the squares begin to turn golden brown. When they're finished, they should look like this!

If your corners didn't stick perfectly (say you didn't know about the water trick until afterward, like us), you may have some kolaczki that have unfolded. You have a couple of options here. If you're not too picky, leave them as they are. They'll taste just as good! Otherwise, when they're fresh out of the oven, the dough is still a little pliable, so you can try to curl the corners back down. Don't worry if you have a few imperfect ones though - those are the ones you snack on as you go!

The final step is to dust your kolaczki with a sprinkle of powdered sugar, then serve and eat. You just can't beat a homemade kolaczki: the soft, layered crust and the sweet, fruity filling make for a delicious combination. You don't have to be Polish to love this dessert!

If you prefer recipes in traditional format, we mostly followed this one.