Cooperative Extension Fresno County
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The best of the best salted caramel butter bars

A view from the top. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
What does it take to win the best-of-show award for baked goods at a county fair?

Well, if you're Angelina Gonzalez, an alumnus of the Sherwood Forest 4-H Club, Vallejo, and now the Solano County's 4-H SET (Science, Engineering and Technology) Program representative, sometimes practice makes perfect, and sometimes perfect doesn't need practice.

Gonzalez's salted caramel butter bars swept all five awards in the adult baked goods section of the 2014 Solano County Fair. Judges first awarded the bars a blue ribbon, and then best-of-division, followed by the sweepstakes award and the coveted best-of-show.

"I've been entering cookies in the adult baked foods department for the past few years and have done well in the past," Gonzalez said. "I love baking and cookies are my specialty. This year, I attempted a recipe that I had never made before. It was a bit of a risk, but I wanted to try something new rather than another cookie recipe. I'm glad I did."

Its origin? Gonzalez selected the recipe on the Internet. (Shelly, the person who posted it several years ago, describes herself as "an addict of the buttercream sort.")

Judges pronounced these delicious! (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Gonzalez acknowledged it is not "the healthiest recipe out there (with a pound of butter and 50 caramel candies)," but the judges pronounced it absolutely delicious, the kind of bar cookie that folks would go back for seconds or thirds. 

"Although I never took a 4-H food project, I am thankful to 4-H for everything that I have learned through it," Gonzalez said. "I started 4-H when I was nine years old and quickly learned that I loved it. The following years, I became an active member our Sherwood Forest 4-H Club as historian, treasurer, vice president, and president."

She enrolled in many different projects, including arts and crafts, ceramics, rabbits, dogs, dairy goats, horses, and leadership, receiving multiple awards at fairs. Among them: first place in novice and senior showmanship and various best-of-show awards and outstanding 4-H exhibitor awards.

"I would definitely say that 4-H gave me confidence and life skills for the future," said Gonzalez, who holds a master's degree in sociology from Sacramento State University. "After aging out of the program and a year off, I came back to 4-H (Sherwood Forest 4-H Club) as an arts and crafts project leader."

She just completed her seventh year as a project leader. Her work is much appreciated; she recently received the Solano County 4-H Alumni Award.  "I love 4-H and look forward to where it takes me next," she said.

4-H'ers celebrate National 4-H Week every October.  Youths and adult volunteers who want to sign up for the youth development program should contact their county 4-H program or the statewide office for more information.

Here's the prize-winning recipe, not only perfect for the holidays but for any occasion.

Salted Caramel Butter Bars

Ingredients

For the Crust:

  • 1 lb. salted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1-1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla (or use Princess Cake Emulsion)
  • 4 cups all purpose flour
For the Filling:
  • 1 bag (14 oz.) caramel candies (about 50 individual caramels), unwrapped
  • 1/3 cup milk or cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1  tablespoon coarse sea salt (optional) (*see No. 7 below)

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 325°
  2. In a large bowl, combine the butter and sugars. Using mixer on medium speed, beat together until creamy. Add the vanilla and beat until combined. Sift the flour into the butter mixture and beat on low speed until a smooth soft dough forms.
  3. Spray a 9x13 inch baking pan lightly with non-stick cooking spray. Press one-third of the dough evenly into the pan to form a bottom crust. Wrap remaining dough in plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator.
  4. Bake crust until firm and the edges are a pale golden brown approximately 20 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack and let cool about 15 minutes.
  5. While the bottom crust is baking and the remaining dough is chilling, make the caramel filling. Place the unwrapped caramels in a microwave-safe bowl. Add the cream. Microwave on high for 1 minute. Remove from the microwave and stir until smooth. If caramels are not completely melted, microwave on high for 30-second intervals, stirring after each interval, until smooth.
  6. Once the caramel is melted, add in your 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and stir until combined.
  7. Pour the caramel filling over the crust. If you are going to salt the caramel, sprinkle it on caramel layer now.
  8. Remove the remaining chilled dough from the refrigerator and crumble it evenly over the caramel.
  9. Return the pan to the oven and bake until the filling is bubbly and the crumbled shortbread topping is firm and lightly golden, about 25 to 30 minutes.
  10. Let cool before cutting into squares.

 Next step? Enjoy! P.S.: There will be no leftovers.

4-H enthusiast Angelina Gonzalez with her best-of-show salted caramel bars, Solano County Fair. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
4-H enthusiast Angelina Gonzalez with her best-of-show salted caramel bars, Solano County Fair. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

4-H enthusiast Angelina Gonzalez with her best-of-show salted caramel bars, Solano County Fair. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Monday, September 22, 2014 at 4:37 PM

A disheartening new pest invades California vegetable gardens

Bagrada bugs feeding on a tomato. (Photo: Jennifer Evangelista, San Luis Obispo)
California gardeners harvesting their summer produce may encounter a new pest – the bagrada bug. The native of Africa made its first California appearance in Los Angeles County six years ago and has been moving eastward and northward ever since.

“Citizen scientists have been instrumental in reporting the occurrence of bagrada in various counties and are helping map its current distribution,” said Surendra Dara, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. “This is a very serious pest. It is wiping out gardens, and is of great concern for small-scale and organic growers.”

Bagrada bugs are major pests of cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and broccoli, but they don't appear to be picky eaters. They have been known to feed on a wide variety of garden vegetables in California, including green beans, cantaloupe, corn, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and sunflower. Even landscape plants are not immune. Bagrada bugs have been found feeding on ornamental plants in the mustard family, like sweet alyssum, stock and candytuft.

Bagrada bugs congregating on sunflowers. (Photo: Larry Adcock, Arroyo Grande)
The adult bagrada bugs are about the size of watermelon seeds and have shield-shaped black backs with white and orange markings. Young bagrada bugs – with their red, black and white markings – are sometimes mistaken for ladybugs. But bagrada bugs have piercing and sucking mouthparts which cause dead spots on plant leaves and stems when they feed, and result in stunted growth, plant deformities and plant death.

Dara said scientists had hoped cold winter temperatures in northern counties of California would limit the bagrada's northward march, but that hasn't been the case so far.

“Bagrada bugs can survive the winter or cold nights by entering the top layer of the soil around crops,” he said. "They start appearing again in early spring and move from weeds to young vegetables."

For more information on bagrada bugs, see the Pest Note produced by the UC Integrated Pest Management Program. In addition, Dara regularly posts bagrada bug updates on his blog, Strawberries and Vegetables.

Distribution of bagrada bug in California, September 2014.
Distribution of bagrada bug in California, September 2014.

Posted on Friday, September 19, 2014 at 8:53 AM
Tags: Bagrada bug (1), Surendra Dara (1)

Farmers market prices compare well with the supermarket produce aisle

Farmers market prices are competitive with supermarkets.
Many shoppers believe they can buy cheaper produce at supermarkets than at local farmers markets. A new UC Cooperative Extension study dispels that common misperception.

In Placer and Nevada counties, UCCE received a CDFA Specialty Block Grant to encourage consumers to eat more fruits and vegetables and support the local agricultural industry by buying the produce from them. The project led to the creation of the “Eat Local Placer Nevada” campaign.

“Buying locally grown products supports local farmers and ranchers and it keeps land in agriculture,” said Cindy Fake, UCCE farm advisor in Placer and Nevada counties. “Simply put, it's the right thing to do.”

To give consumers extra incentive to eat local, the group launched a seven-month study to compare prices at farmers markets and grocery stores. Volunteers and staff collected price data at four farmers markets and six grocery stores from January to July 2014. Specials and sale items were not part of the study. The data suggests that organic produce at farmers markets is priced about the same as organic produce at grocery stores.

In terms of conventional produce, grocery stores had cheaper prices on 6 out of 11 items; however, consumers would still save money picking up red apples, beets and chard at the farmers markets. The cost of conventional butternut squash and sweet potatoes was virtually equal at the two venues.

“Contrary to many consumers' perception, farmers market prices are competitive with regular supermarket prices,” Fake said. “Some prices are slightly higher, some slightly lower, but they are in the same range. “

However, there are other factors shoppers should keep in mind when deciding to buy supermarket produce or fruit and vegetables grown by their neighboring farmers.

“Produce at the farmers market is sold the same day or the day after it is harvested,” Fake said. “Because of that, its shelf life is two to three times longer than what is found in the supermarket. And because it is so fresh, you have a higher nutrient content and it will taste better.”

Fake said experts believe buying local also supports the local economy. She is collaborating on a project led by Shermain Hardesty, UCCE specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis, to document the economic impact of local food systems in Placer, El Dorado, Sacramento and Yolo counties. The researchers will gather data about farmers' purchases of inputs and local sales of produce.

“This project will provide science-based evidence to guide public policy and program design aimed at supporting local farmers and local food systems into the future,” Fake said.

The study – titled Measuring the Impact of Local Food Marketing on the Local Economy – is supported with a $226,048 grant from the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Posted on Wednesday, September 17, 2014 at 8:21 AM

About that lemoncello

One of the hazards of contributing to a shared blog, is that one forgets to post. So in this case, while I said in my last post that we would re-visit the lemoncello in mid-May, here it is September.  Time flies.

The lemoncello is a huge success, we've been enjoying it on the hot summer afternoons that are plentiful in Davis.  And here's how I got from pith to pleasure . . . .

The first steps in the lemoncello process were documented in this early Spring post.  The recipe calls for 6 weeks of steeping the lemon zest in the alcohol in a cool, dark place; preferably, in a place where it won't be disturbed.  I had placed mine in a place so cool, dark, and undisturbed it took me 45 minutes to find it.

But that resolved, I moved to the next step - filtering.

You can see that the zest from all of those lemons has settled to the bottom of the bottle.  Lemoncello aficionados recommend a 2-step filtering process.  The first step is to get most of the zest out using a fine sieve.

Look at all of this zest!

Quite a bit of solid material is left in the liquid after this process.

To remove these last solids, the liquid is filtered through a paper coffee filter. (Lemoncello purists, like coffee purists, would object to the use of a paper filter, saying it imparts a paper flavor.)

The next step is to add the cooled simple syrup.  The basic simple syrup recipe calls for equal parts of sugar and water, but for lemoncello less sugar is used.  For one 750ml bottle of base alcohol, you need 2-1/2 cups of water and 1-3/4 cups sugar.  Add the sugar to the water in a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat.  Bring to a gentle boil, stirring constantly, until the sugar is dissolved.  Let the mixture cool completely to room temperature before adding to the lemoncello base.

Decant the mixture, and put in a cool, dark place for another 45 days.  The addition of the simple syrup increases the volume, so you can't fit your mixture into the original bottle.

This mixture was moved into two tall glass bottles and set aside until early July.

You can put the finished lemoncello in the freezer or in the refrigerator.  Enjoy it alone or in a cocktail on a hot summer afternoon when you need a little something refreshing!

If you want to make your own lemoncello, an excellent resource is the blog LemoncelloQuest.

Posted on Tuesday, September 9, 2014 at 2:57 PM
Tags: alcohol (4), citrus (11), lemons (2)

UC Davis tomatoes provide year-round healthful eating for college students

Chef Bob Walden, right, and Arnulfo Herrera, a cook, show off roasted tomatoes at UC Davis. (photo: Gregory Urquiaga / UC Davis)
Today's dorm food is far superior to the tasteless, over-processed foods of decades past. No more mystery meat or mushy vegetables. Campus dining services across the country are providing a diversity of fresher and healthier foods, much to the delight of food-savvy students who want variety, flavor, and nutritious choices. Well... being students, they don't always make the healthiest choices, but educational programs at campus dorms are turning the tide toward more-healthful eating.

At the same time, chefs and food buyers at universities, particularly the University of California, are selecting for high-quality fruits and vegetables, produced locally and sustainably. Universities with strong food sustainability programs are rightfully proud of what they're doing to educate students about food production, health, and nutrition. UC Davis Dining Services prioritizes the purchase of locally grown food (ideally within a 50-mile radius of campus). Most University of California campuses have similar programs.

At UC Davis, fresh roma tomatoes are picked each August from the 300-acre Russell Ranch, part of the campus's Agricultural Sustainability Institute, then processed within hours by campus Dining Services to provide year-round tomato sauce for pizza, pasta, and ratatouille. All told, 10,000 pounds of tomatoes are processed during a two-week period in August. About 29 percent of the total food served in the campus's residential dining halls is from local, organic or sustainable sources.

(courtesy photo: UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute)
The tomatoes grown at Russell Ranch are part of a long-term academic research project that examines factors such as farming methods, irrigation needs, crop rotations, yield, and nutritional content. At the end of the growing season, some of the many tons of tomatoes are purchased by Dining Services at market value.

Emma Torbert, an academic coordinator at the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute, noted, “Connecting the food system to the research is really interesting. A lot of times there is confusion about where our food is coming from. The more people are educated, the more educated decisions they can make.”

Many UC Davis faculty and staff are so impressed with the food choices at the dorms that they purchase individual meal tickets and enjoy lunches made with the campus-grown tomatoes, herbs, and other vegetables, all of which are part of the daily food array. Public dinners are also offered periodically at the dorms so that community members can sit amongst students to taste and learn about the sustainability programs in the dorms.

Additional Information:

  • Video: Farm to Table, UC Davis Tomatoes; 2010
  • Slide show of this year's UC Davis tomato harvesting and processing system; 2014
  • Sustainable Foodservice Progress Report 2014, UC Davis Dining Services
  • Two videos of UC Davis students who work at the Student Farm to produce food, including one on tomato sauce production
  • “Tomatoes: Safe methods to store, preserve, and enjoy.” UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, free publication
Posted on Wednesday, August 27, 2014 at 11:11 AM

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