Little House in the Big Woods: Bread, Butter, and Honey

Book:
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, illustrated by Garth Williams
1971, Harper & Row
august
August is the month of first harvests. The 1st of August is Lammas, or Loaf Mass, when people used to bless loaves of bread made from the first crops.  Although this is in some ways the longest, sleepiest month of Summer, we are already looking forward to Autumn, and gathering in the rest of the harvest.grain1If you go out into the fields now you can see what is growing.  Around here it is oats and barley.

oats & barley
Top: oats. Bottom: barley.

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Nowadays we don’t usually see the full process that turns these grains into flour.  In Little House in the Big Woods, however, harvest, like everything else, was very hands on.  In the chapter entitled “Harvest”, it describes how Pa Ingalls harvested the oats.
harvest1

Pa Ingalls and Uncle Henry helped each other with their harvests.  They cut the oats with a tool called a cradle, tied each bundle with a band of oats, stood five bundles together and then covered with two more bundles, spreading the stalks to make a roof and shelter the five underneath.  This is called a shock (as in, “the fodder’s in the shock”.).  All this had to be done before dark when the dew would fall.
grain2
The main drama of this chapter is how the disobedient Cousin Charley gets stung a by a load of yellow jackets.  However, I think the grueling description of the harvesting of the oats is more interesting.  In the next chapter, “The Wonderful Machine,” Pa sends for a newfangled horsepowered separator to help with the wheat harvest.  Pa, who is “all for progress”, is very pleased with this modernisation.

farmhouse cookery
Fodder in the shock! And a harvest picnic including bread & butter. From Farmhouse Cookery: Recipes from the Country Kitchen, The Reader’s Digest Association Limited, 1982

harvest2But while the oat harvest was hard work, I’m sure the result was much appreciated.
One of the best aspects of the Little House books, and one which is perhaps best enjoyed by older readers, is the detailed description of life back then.  It really is fascinating to see the hard work which used to go into every little part of life.  It provides useful perspective on our own lives.

Little House in the Big Woods is a fun and interesting read.  It is a bit long, with some technical/historical language, so it would be difficult for under eights to read on their own.  Reading with an adult would also be helpful to deal with some of the harsher realities of that time period.  For example, Laura’s family  lives with the danger of wild animals actually killing them, there is a quite detailed description of hog butchery, and there is also corporal punishment, when Laura is hit with a strap for slapping her sister.  But I think all of these things are not negatives in and of themselves, they just have to be discussed and put into the context of the time period and situation.

Personally, I am certainly not going to be harvesting my own grain anytime soon.  My family doesn’t usually eat bread, either.  But if you are going to, homemade is best, because you can choose what goes into it.  And more important than the bread, to my mind, is what goes on top.
LHBWspreadbook, bowl, butterOne of the nicest things to go on bread is honey, and that is also something that the Ingalls family harvested for the Winter.  In the chapter “Summertime”, Pa finds a bee tree, and comes running back to grab his ax, the two wash tubs, and all the pails and buckets they have.  He has to scare a bear away first, but he then is able to chop down the tree and split it open, and bring home lots and lots of honeycomb.  It should be remembered that store-bought sugar was a real luxury in those days, so everyone must have been very excited to have all that honey!

Laura is sorry for the bees, but Pa says that he has left lots of honey there, and there was another hollow tree nearby.  The bees would take the old honey, turn it into new, and store it up for the winter.
honeyIf you can it’s best to buy local, raw honey, that still has all of its goodness.  Honeycomb is a bonus!
honeycomb on toasthoneycomb on toast2Honey is really lovely with butter, and that is another thing which the Ingalls family had to make all by themselves.  This time it was Ma Ingalls who did all the work.  The chapter “Winter Days” describes what happened every Thursday, which was the day of the week for churning.  Because it takes place in Winter, the cream wasn’t yellow as it was in Summer (when the cows were eating fresh grass).  Because Ma liked everything to be pretty, she colored the butter with a carrot that she grated on the bottom of a pan that Pa had punched full of nail-holes for her.  She put the grated carrot into hot milk, poured it into a cloth, and squeezed the yellow milk into the crockery churn full of cream which had been put it by the stove to warm.  After that Laura and Mary eat the grated carrot as a treat!  Next, Ma scalded the wooden churn-dash, put it in the churn, and dropped the churn-cover on top.  She would have to churn for a long time, as the cream began to look grainy, and finally there would be a big lump of butter in buttermilk.  Ma then took out the butter with a wooden paddle, and washed it many times in cold water, working it with the paddle until the water ran clear.  Then the butter was salted.  Ma had a butter-mold with a strawberry and its leaves on the bottom.
LHBW

Laura and Mary watched, breathless…while the golden little butter-pats, each with its strawberry on top, dropped on to the plate…Then Ma gave them each a drink of good, fresh buttermilk.

I would love to have a butter-mold!  But even without one you can make butter at home.  And you don’t need a churn either.

Home-made Butter

Ingredients
1/2 pint heavy (double) cream
Salt to taste

Method
There are various ways to churn the butter.  You can use a mixer or a blender, but my preferred method is the good old-fashioned jar.  Just pour your cream into a jar which is big enough to leave at least a third of the jar empty.  Screw the lid on tightly and shake!  It’s a bit of a workout, but it actually only takes a few minutes before you will feel that the cream is not sloshing around anymore.  When you check, you’ll find the cream has thickened right up.  Keep going a little longer, and you will see the cream has become granular.
butter1-2.jpgThis is normal: those are actually tiny grains of butter!  Eventually they will coalesce into larger lumps and a milky-looking liquid. 

butter3
You have your beautiful yellow butter!  Now it’s time to wash the butter, pretty much like Ma Ingalls did.  Pour off the buttermilk into another container.  Don’t throw it away!  You can use it in baking or just drink it (Note: this traditional buttermilk, so it is not sour like the cultured buttermilk you can buy in stores)!  Put the butter in a bowl and add cold water.  Swish and mash the butter around in the water with a wooden spoon.  The water will turn cloudy.  That’s OK, it’s the last of the buttermilk coming out.  Pour the water off and add fresh water.  You may have to repeat this a few times until the water stays clear.  butter3-4.jpg
Pour off the last of the water and your butter is done!  You can salt it to your own taste, then all there is left to do is shape the butter.  Since I don’t have a butter press or mold, I packed it into a silicone cupcake case and left it in the fridge to harden up.  In a couple of hours it was ready.LHBWspread1bread&honeyMaking butter may seem superfluous nowadays, however I can promise you that homemade butter tastes a million times better than store bought!  It is also a fun, easy Science or Home Ec project for kids that doesn’t take more than 20 minutes altogether.
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LHBWspread2

Make some bread to have with your butter and honey, and have a harvest feast.  It tastes even better when you have done the work yourself!grain3
beeRemember to thank the bees!  They need our help!

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Brambly Hedge: Honey Creams

Book:
The Four Seasons of Brambly Hedge by  Jill Barklem
1990, Philomel Books

dahliaWe are in the dog days of Summer.  The garden is a jungle, and the freezer is full of popsicles.  In The Four Seasons of Brambly Hedge, the Summer Story begins with a description of how the mice spend their time by the stream to keep cool.

 

BHSaBy the banks of the stream was the dairy mill, powered by the flowing water.  Poppy Eyebright looked after the Dairy Stump.
BHSb
BHSdFurther down the stream was the flour mill, run by Dusty Dogwood.

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The two meet walking by the stream and eventually get engaged.  What follows is the story of the preparations for the wedding, which is on Midsummer’s Day.
BHSe

Brambly Hedge Wedding Menu:
Cold watercress soup
Fresh dandelion salad
Honey creams
Syllabubs
Merengues.
Huge baskets of wild strawberries
Primrose, meadowsweet and and elderflower wine

The first drama of the story is when the groom (“Dusty by name, dusty by nature”) accidentally gets flour all over himself and his best man.  But of course, as in real weddings, once everything gets started those sort of things don’t matter.

BHSf
BHSgThe wedding is held on the stream on a bark raft.  The second drama is that during the reception the enthusiastic dancing causes the raft’s moorings to break and they drift in to the stream.  But this doesn’t cause alarm either, the dancing carries on and eventually they catch on some rushes and forget-me-nots and are able to tie up again.  When evening falls, the party breaks up and heads home  Poppy and Dusty slip away to the primrose woods, to a cottage surrounded by wild roses and honeysuckle, “the perfect place for a honeymoon”.
honeycream8Summer Story is a sweet little story and the perfect representation of an old-fashioned Summer wedding.  Like Spring Story, it is suitable for all ages and has very interesting illustrations.  The flour mill and the dairy mill pages in particular are fun to pore over, trying to see how they work.

Poppy and Dusty’s wedding menu of “cool summer foods” offers a lot to choose from, but I decided to make honey creams, because I had never heard of them.  It turns out most people haven’t!  In the end the only recipe I found was this one, which reveals honey creams to be a sort of ice cream.

honeycreams1Honey Creams

Ingredients:
4 Tbsp thick honey
4 egg yolks
Half a pint whipping cream
1 Tbsp honey liqueur (optional)

The original recipe calls for grated chocolate, but i didn’t use it because I don’t think they have chocolate in Brambly Hedge.

honeycreams2

Method:
Heat the honey in a pan until it is a bit runny.  Let it cool slightly.  Beat the egg yolks and drizzle in the honey, mixing until it is a bit thick and pale yellow. Whip the cream.  You could use pre-whipped cream or thick cream as well, depending on how light you want your creams to be.  I just put it in a jar and shook it until it was thick, which led to very set ice cream.

Whip together the egg yolk mixture and the cream mixture.  At this point you can choose whether to add the liqueur.  The original recipe calls for 4 Tbsp of whiskey, but I omitted that in case people wanted a less boozy dessert.  I divided the mixture in two and made a plain a version and one with 1 Tbsp of honey liqueur.  Divide into ramekins.  I used silicone cupcake moulds for ease of removal.  Freeze for at least 4 hours, until set.

honeycream7Without the booze, this is definitely ice cream.  I have never made a proper ice cream with egg yolks before, and the combination of the rich custard with the honey is delicious.  Be aware that this does contain raw eggs.  Here in the UK most eggs are safe raw, but be careful anyway.

The way I made them (without proper whipped cream) the honey creams are very dense, like those ice cream blocks you can buy for ice cream cakes, but they only take a couple of minutes to thaw enough to eat, and in fact melt pretty quickly, so if you are bringing these somewhere you will need a portable cooler.  They are very sweet and taste strongly of honey, so I might recommend only using 3 Tbsp honey if you don’t have a sweet tooth.  Both the plain and the liqueur version are equally nice.

You could add any topping you want; I added blueberries.  Overall they are an amazing and luxurious Summer treat, perfect for a day on the river.

honeycreams11
Take your ice cream outside and enjoy it in the Sun, preferably by a body of water, or even a paddling pool to rest your feet in.


 

 

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