The Comfort of Friendship in Old Age

Most chickens live in mind-boggling massive flocks that number in the tens of thousands. The animals are genetically almost identical and in that sea of feathers and dust there is no individuality. Although the hens know who each other are – they recognize each other by their combs which are as distinctive as human fingerprints – there’s little interaction among the birds in the stressed commercial flocks. Besides, it takes time to form relationships, and meat chickens live to be only eight weeks, and laying hens less than two years.

But, in my backyard the hens have the time to get to know each other. They have the space to decide who to spend time with and who to avoid (everyone avoids Lulu.) Chickens are not long-lived and some hens seemingly up and die by the age of three. But others live on. Blackie and Eleanor have been on death’s door for a year. Eleanor survived a bout of illness and a swollen abdomen (the cause undiagnosed.) Blackie is stiff and slow, probably filled with tumors, and is losing her feathers and sleeps most of the day. Her comb is grey. Neither has laid an egg for more than a year. They’ve become lawn ornaments. When they were young and active, Blackie and Eleanor ignored each other. The Barred Rock was aggressive and did not share food, the Australorp was shy and stayed at the perimeter of the flock. But, these days they are arthritic and calm. Both enjoy a sunbath. Together.

A Girl and Her Blow Torch

I had a houseguest on Wednesday night, so I made Chocolate Kahlua Volcanoes, which are basically whipped egg whites and chocolate and cream. (The recipe is in my Farmstead Egg Cookbook.) That left me with 4 egg yolks and half a carton of heavy cream, which I certainly didn’t want to go to waste. So I made a classic custard. It’s very easy. It’s egg season. You can do it, too.

Preheat the oven to 300º F. I like to make this in a ceramic serving dish or individual ramekins. They’ll be baked in a water bath, so find a metal pan that the baking dish can fit in. Pour in a half-inch of water and put the metal pan in the oven to preheat while you make the custard.

Measure 3 cups of milk, or a combination of milk and cream, or lowfat milk, or lowfat milk and cream – whatever you have. Heat it in a small saucepan until just about to boil. Turn off the heat and stir in 1/2 teaspoon of good, natural vanilla (expensive and worth every penny.)

Meanwhile, in a heat-proof bowl, whisk 4 egg yolks, two eggs and 1 cup of sugar. Don’t whisk so vigorously that you get masses of air bubbles, but do whisk until smooth and the sugar dissolves. Whisk in the hot milk, starting with a tiny bit so that the eggs don’t curdle. Add slowly and whisk until all is smooth. Pour through a sieve and into the ceramic baking dish. The sieve is essential for a smooth texture!

Carefully set the baking dish in the hot water bath. The water bath will insure that the custard bakes slowly, evenly and stays moist. Bake for about 50 minutes or until set. It’s delicious just like that, and it’s hard to resist warm, out of the oven, but even better if you have patience and a blow torch.

Let the custard cool, and then chill in the refrigerator. Just before serving, dust the surface with a fine, even layer of white sugar (not brown or natural, as those are too high in moisture.) Turn on your blow torch and sweep the flame across the sugar until it bubbles and forms a crusty layer of sweetness.

Enjoy! And then thank the hens for those amazing orange egg yolks.

Writer’s Procrastination

I’m working on a big book. Now, a lot of people say they’re writers and never actually put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard.) I have to admit that this book is mostly in my head. But, having actually written books that have been printed, I know how to buckle down and force myself to write. Which I’ll do soon. But not today.

Today it is GLORIOUS out. It is a day to procrastinate. But, being as how I think of myself as a writer, and thus feel guilty if I’m not writing, I procrastinate very, very productively. That way, I feel as if I’ve accomplished a lot, even if I haven’t gotten to the one, very hard thing, which is the writing.

Today I noticed that my curtains were looking winter-dusty. Down they came, were run through the wash, and then set outside to whiten in the sun.

With the curtains down, I noticed that the windows needed washing. These are big windows, which require me to climb on a ladder – something I don’t enjoy and so felt very productive. What a difference clean windows make! It’s now so cheery and sunny inside!

The goat’s paddock needed raking, as did the chicken run. And the raspberries needed to have the old canes cut down and tossed into the woods. I also needed to straighten the electric fence in the goat’s meadow.

All that procrastination and it’s only two o’clock! The goats say that it would be a good use of my time to give them scratches. They’re very itchy, shedding out their coats in this warm weather. But, first I have to pick my son up from school and take him to his music lesson.

Lily never procrastinates. She’s already killed one garden vole today. Even when she’s resting, she’s on duty.

Just like me. I got some writing done in my head today. I’m sure I’ll get it onto paper tomorrow. Unless this weather continues. If so, I’ve got a packet of peas to procrastinate with.

Whose Eggs?

Hens that lay eggs in factory farms have little genetic diversity. One of the breeding criteria is for the hens to lay identical eggs. In fact, if an egg is a slightly odd shape or color, it will be diverted for use in “egg product” and not put into a carton and sold as “shell eggs.”  One of the nice things about having a variety of chickens in one’s backyard is that the eggs come in different sizes and colors. Shell color doesn’t have anything to do with flavor or nutritional quality, but they sure are pretty. Depending on the breeds of your hens, you’ll have a range of shell colors from white to dark brown, and from green to blue. There will be small eggs laid by bantams and large eggs laid by big hens.

Even if you have a flock of only one breed, you’ll notice variation that you’ll never see in supermarket eggs. Chickens lay eggs unique to themselves. I once had a hen that consistently laid an egg that was pointy on both ends. My two Golden Comets come from the same breeder and are exactly the same age and size. And yet, one lays a light brown, very large egg and the other lays a more oblong, dark brown egg.

Of my thirteen chickens, most are old, and some are breeds not known for their egg-laying prowess. I appreciate each and every egg left in the nesting boxes. On any given day in the spring (which is the height of the laying season) sometimes I collect only three eggs, and sometimes as many as six. This is what I found today:

The dark brown egg in the back row was laid by Twinkydink! She is six years old and has been laying about every third day. The egg next to that is Lulu’s. She produces a medium, light buff egg every other day. This is a shocking bounty from her because she usually goes broody in the spring. Of course, this year, with chicks coming, she shows no maternal signs. But, I’m happy to get eggs from her. The two eggs in the front left row are from the Golden Comets. See how different they are? The medium white egg is from a Polish hen – I have no idea whether only one is laying or they take turns. I get one a day, or sometimes every other day. The last egg is so tiny that it would fall through the hole if it wasn’t sideways. That’s from Betsy, the four-year old Bantam White Leghorn. Coco, although younger, hasn’t laid an egg yet this spring. Nor has she gone broody. But last week she graciously let 60 preschoolers pet her at a story time. She’s worth her weight in gold.

Speaking of eggs, for those of you filling Easter baskets, I hope you’ll consider tucking in a copy of Tillie Lays an Egg. Until one of my hens does lay a golden egg, it’s the book sales that keeps the HenCam going.

Signs of Spring

Yesterday the last pile of snow in the backyard melted away.

There was sun and warmth. I checked the temperature of the pond’s water. It was over 40ºF which means that the fish can come out of their winter slowness and eat! For now they’re on a special, easy to digest feed, until it gets really hot.

The Beast was especially hungry.

As you can see, the trees are still bare and the yard is more brown than green, but in the woods there are deep emeralds of ferns and moss.

There’s beauty everywhere.

Last night, the surest sign of spring was LOUD and clear. Singing peepers, with a deep background chorus for bullfrogs.

I heard them.