Hen House Drama, a Timely Pardon, and Cornmeal Pancakes

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In the spirit of full disclosure, our adventures in backyard poultry rearing have not been without, um, shall we say,  challenges.  We started back in April with three Rhode Island Reds – Fred, Tweety and Sally.  Things seemed great at first – we were getting three eggs a day, the chickens seemed happy (we let them free range during the day, and put them back in the coop at night), and it wasn’t a tremendous amount of work.  We made sure they had food, water, and fresh air, and they provided us with a dozen eggs every four days. It seemed almost too good to be true.

And that’s because it was.  We lost Fred in August to what we believe was a black widow spider bite, and we lost Tweety in October to a predator of some sort or another.  We didn’t want Sally to be lonely, so we found her four new friends – Spot and Dot, two lovely black and white Barred Rock hens, and Fred, Jr. and Tweety, Jr., a couple of Ameraucanas.  We promised to keep them safe, well fed and watered, in exchange for eggs.  We were looking forward to four or five eggs a day, perhaps enough to share with our friends and neighbors.  This was in November.

At first, Sally wasn’t terribly keen on her new coop-mates.  In particular, she decided that Tweety, Jr. was her nemesis.  Every time that poor hen would get close to Sally, she would peck at her and pull her tail feathers out.  Tweety, Jr. became scared to leave the corner by the nesting boxes – she would huddle there, trembling, trying to make herself as small as possible.  Sally was like the schoolyard bully, exerting her dominance over the new kid on the block.  I’m not sure what it was about poor Tweety, Jr. (maybe it was her name), but after a while Sally left her completely devoid of tail feathers.

In addition to this little pecking-order drama, the egg production was not what we’d hoped it would be.  For a while, it was only Sally laying.  Then occasionally one of the Rocks would lay – either Spot or Dot.  We know it wasn’t an Ameraucana because all of the eggs were of the brownish variety – Ameraucana eggs are greenish blue (part of the reason we chose the breed).  From late October to late January, there was nary a green egg to be had.  We’d been told that the hens were 8 months old when we got them, so they should have been of prime laying age.  Had we been swindled?  Were these gals completely infertile?  Was the trauma being inflicted upon them by that bully Sally too much to handle?  We weren’t sure.  What we did know was that they were eating an awful lot of feed and not producing anything in return.

Over time, the drama subsided, and Tweety Jr.’s tail feathers began to fill in again.  Both Rocks began laying regularly, and things seemed to be on a more even keel in the hen house.  When the weather began to get cold (for those two days back in January) we decided we need to put a heat lamp in the coop to keep the water from freezing overnight.  The light seemed to make things even better – the egg production from Sally, Spot and Dot increased.  Tweety, Jr. and Fred, Jr., though?  Not so much.

My mother and my husband have “joked” on more than one occasion about sending the Ameraucana’s to the stew pot.  I chose to ignore them.

The other day I went out to the coop, as I do in the afternoon, and I lifted the door to the nesting boxes.  There, nestled in the straw, were four eggs.  Three brown and one green (!).

And there was much rejoicing.

The (theoretical) trip to the stew pot has been stayed.

This morning I used that beautiful green egg in some cornmeal pancakes I’ve been wanting to tell you about.  I made them for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about them ever since.  I make whole-grain pancakes all the time – usually a mixture of rolled oats and freshly ground wheat – but this is the first time I’ve really delved into the cornmeal variety.  I think it’s because I’ve been getting all of this lovely freshly ground meal from Rockin’ S Farms – I really want to showcase it.  The sweetness of the corn lends itself really nicely to a pancake application.  Together with some local raw honey, cultured buttermilk, and those coveted eggs from our backyard flock, they make for a delightful breakfast. 

Honey, Buttermilk and Cornmeal Pancakes
prep time: 5 minutes
cook time: 20 minutes
yields: 16 4-inch pancakes

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 2/3 cups buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup honey (I’ve also used molasses here, for a deeper flavor)
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 Tablespoons melted butter
  1. In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients
  2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, honey, eggs and melted butter
  3. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir to combine.  Do not overmix.
  4. Ladle by quarter-cupfuls onto a hot griddle.  Allow to brown on the first side before flipping to the second side.
  5. Serve warm with warm maple syrup, honey or fruit compote (I used some warm blueberry jam).
  6. Enjoy!
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When All Else Fails, Make Granola

A week or so ago, I posted something to this blog’s Facebook page about trying a recipe, and hoping it wasn’t a total disaster.  My cousin commented almost immediately, saying that she doubted anything I ever made was a total disaster.  While flattered, I laughed out loud when I read the comment – if she only knew how many miserable failures I’ve had in the kitchen (and elsewhere).  Some of them to the point that they’re completely inedible.  I just don’t write about the failures.  Maybe I should.

I think if you love to cook, you can’t be afraid to fail.  There’s always going to be that one batch of cookies that you burn, or that jelly that didn’t set or the bread dough that just didn’t rise for whatever reason.  The important thing is that you try to learn from those mistakes and move on.  Sure, sometimes it can be painful to your ego (and to your wallet, in some cases), but it’s not the end of the world.  I’ve curdled a dozen egg yolks making custard, and had an equal number of egg whites that never whipped to stiff peaks.  I’ve turned multiple batches of failed sourdough bread into sourdough breadcrumbs.  I’ve tossed out a stockpot that had sugar burned so badly on the bottom that it was irreparably damaged.  Believe me – I’ve had plenty of disasters in the kitchen.  Sometimes they push me to try harder, and sometimes they make me take a step back and reevaluate whether I really have the time and the inclination to babysit a sourdough starter.

The answer to the second question, by the way, is no.  At least not right now.

Speaking of stockpots....

Yesterday was one of those days.  You know the ones – where nothing seems to go quite the way you’d planned?  I woke up thinking that I’d do some grocery shopping, wash some clothes and maybe make some granola bars to send to school as snacks for the boys.  A productive day – that’s all I’d really hoped for.  And it’s not that it wasn’t productive, it was just not the kind of productive I’d planned on.

New chickens on the block
New chickens on the block

You see, rather than running my grocery errands and washing the umpteen piles of laundry that are currently carpeting my laundry room floor, I spent half the day yesterday driving 100 miles round-trip to procure these lovely Barred Rock and Ameraucana hens.  We started our backyard flock back in April.  Three Rhode Island Red hens, which my oldest son promptly named Sally, Tweety and Fred.  Since then, the trio has dwindled to a lonesome single Sally – Fred was felled by a Black widow spider, and Tweety we lost to an unknown predator just a couple of days ago.  While we know that these are just some of the perils that come with raising livestock, it’s still a sad affair when you’re faced with the loss of an animal.  Poor Sally seemed a little lost without her flockmates, and we’d been thinking of expanding our numbers anyway, so I felt justified in postponing my chores for a bit so that we could do just that.

Once we got back home, got the chickens’ wings clipped and transferred them safely to the coop to get acclimated, I decided to move on to making granola bars.  I had placed some apple chunks in the dehydrator before we left for our chicken wrangling adventure, and they were nice and leathery upon our return.

Semi-succesful granola bars

I had attempted granola bars earlier in the week, based on this recipe from Smitten Kitchen.  They were good, but they didn’t really ever set up the way I expected them too.  First, they burned and stuck on the edges; and, second, they were too soft at room temperature to maintain their bar shape.  I’m not sure if its my error (probably) or a flaw in the recipe (probably not – Deb’s pretty much a genius, plus she tests her recipes carefully), but I wanted to start over from scratch to try and get something that was more bar-like and less really thick oatmeal-like.

I used a combination of rolled oats, wheat germ, dried apples, raisins, unsweetened flake coconut, sucanat, agave nectar and coconut oil.  I sprayed my pan liberally with oil.  I only baked them for about 15 minutes.

And they were a disaster.  A complete and utter failure.  At least as far as granola bars go.

As granola, though?  A total success (well, except for the part that was so baked on the pan I couldn’t get it off without soaking it in hot water for an hour or so).  With a little almond milk, it makes a delicious breakfast cereal.

So despite the fact, that nothing that I initially intended to get done yesterday actually got accomplished, I wound up with some beautiful new chickens, and some delicious granola.  I won’t bother sharing the ratios I used, since I really was trying for something completely different from what I ended up with.  However, once I do figure out the perfect granola bar recipe, I’ll be sure to pass it along to all of you.  In the meantime, don’t be afraid to try and fail in the kitchen- it’s better than never trying to cook at all (or something like that).

Oh, and those new chickens?  My oldest son ran right out to the coop when he got off the bus and promptly named them: Spot, Dot, Tweety, Jr. and Fred, Jr.  He’s nothing if not original.

In case you’re just really jonesing for some homemade granola bars, here are a few recipes that seem promising:

Alton Brown’s Granola Bars

King Arthur Four’s Chewy Granola Bars

Ina Garten’s Homemade Granola Bars

Apartment Therapy’s Crunchy Granola Bars