Thursday, August 20, 2015

Lemonade with Nellie

Some experiments in homemade deliciousness!

I am a huge fan of lemonade. I'm actually drinking some right now! Even though I indulge with it year round, everything about it just says summer, and it's always a refreshing treat to have when it's way too hot outside.

But I have to admit, homemade lemonade isn't really something I've tried before, even though it's pretty simple to do once you know the trick, and I've been looking for an opportunity, inspiration or reason to go ahead and give it a try for myself. I found that in a slightly surprising place, and brought Nellie on a trip with me to go check it out.

Where did we go?

Beautiful Block Island! Fun fact: as a small child, I had no concept of its geography and assumed people were going to the Caribbean for the weekend, because I guess that's where I figured all the beachy islands were that weren't Hawaii or Tahiti.

But it is not in fact in the Caribbean. It's actually off the coast of Rhode Island, and is a popular destination for people from Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York as an alternative to Cape Cod or Martha's Vineyard. According to some of the islanders we ran into, more people from Massachusetts have been coming down for summer trips as well. Much like the fictional Amity Island, Block Island is a very summer driven community, and has a lot of protected land to keep it from being overdeveloped.

I've never visited before, but I did spend several weekends on Cape Cod with my dad's parents when I was much younger. We stopped going after my grandfather died, and a few years after our last trip, someone suggested trying Block Island as an alternative. My dad's side of the family is much bigger and farther stretched than my mom's, so we see them less often and it's harder to get everyone in one spot, so reintroducing something like our old trips to the Cape seemed like a good idea!

I missed out on our first trip back a few years ago, but I managed to get away for a weekend back in July and had a really nice time seeing everyone. It was a lot of fun to be back in that beachy sort of community, too!

Even the hydrangeas looked like the ones I used to enjoy!

One of the first things I found out about the island is that they've got a small, but very well maintained historical society, and so of course, that's where I made a beeline for. I'm actually not much of a beach person...

It's housed near the center of town in a beautiful 1871 home, and was founded in 1942. Unfortunately the museum didn't allow photos inside, but their collection was both very impressive and reminded me a lot of the museums I used to work at back home. Everything was very homey, and the building looked a little cluttered, but in the best possible way. They've got displays about the Native history of the island, along with the hotel industry, the colonial period, the history of ships and seafaring, and pretty much anything else you can think of to do with the island's history.

Block Island has a fairly interesting history, that mostly emphasizes its place as a vacation destination, but it's also been home to various people for almost as long as humans have lived in North America. The Niantic used the island seasonally as a place to gather game and fish, as well as farm, and some eventually settled there permanently as early as 500 A.D.! Unsurprisingly, it has a long history for people working in various fishing and maritime industries, and is the home of several historical lighthouses.

It's also been involved in several major wars in American history. The Niantic living there were viciously attacked by the English during the Pequot War, and by the 1700's, the Native population had dwindled to basically nothing. It was briefly occupied during the War of 1812, and it was only seven miles away from one of the last submarine battles of before the surrender of Germany during World War II!

But perhaps the most significant part of its history has to do with its popularity as a vacation destination.

The island is full of beautiful Victorian homes and hotels, built to accommodate an American upper and middle class who suddenly had enough means and transportation to do something like take a trip to the seaside, instead of staying close to home or visiting somewhere closer for a short vacation. Like many seaside vacation destinations in this period, Block Island was marketed as a healthy environment that could be a cure all for various ailments as a way to get people to come to the shoreline and spend time away from the mess and bustle of the rapidly developing cities.

Samantha's stories touch a little bit on this topic, as her family owns a home in Piney Point, New York. One of Rebecca's mysteries touches on this new trend in American life in the context of sending your kids away to summer camp in a more rural area, and while Block Island might be out of the Rubin's price range for a family get away, kids like Samantha and Nellie (after Nellie's been adopted by the Edwards family, anyway) would definitely have come to Block Island with their families to enjoy the cooler ocean air and wading in their bathing costumes.

That's right. The outfit Nellie's wearing is her bathing suit, and she definitely wouldn't have been going out father than knee deep if she didn't want to drown. Be thankful we live in an era with lyrca!

Again, I couldn't take pictures, but it was pretty funny to see all the turn of the century photos of families on the island with kids who look like they raided Nellie and Sam's closets, floppy bows and all. It was a lot of fun taking her around the island and finding historic spots to take pictures with her. My dad actually grabbed this one for me!

And this next one with some pretty beach roses.

It's really nice to have parents who are so supportive of my quirky hobbies!

We went on a drive around the island with one of my dad's sisters and her family, and visited this memorial to make the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of white settlers to the island. The marker lists several people whose relatives were some of those original settlers who were still living there in 1911. That part is pretty cool, even if knowing that the original inhabitants who lived there basically got kicked off is not.

There's also a statue in town that was put up downtown in 1896 by the Women's Temperance Movement. It's supposed to represent the Biblical figure Rebecca, but it's apparently come up that she might actually be Hebe, the cupbearer to the Olympian gods.

And we did make it to the beach, even though I definitely was not going swimming. Maybe I wouldn't mind being a Victorian era bather after all!

There's lots of other stuff to do on Block Island, though. We went to a farmer's market that had some of the most beautiful flower arrangements I've ever seen, and stopped by one of the historic lighthouses. There's a museum inside, but everyone wanted to go on a hike down to the beach instead. Oh well, maybe next time!

The views down there were totally worth it, though!

As I mentioned already, the island has a lot of protected spaces to keep it from getting overdeveloped, and the locals definitely seem to have embraced the practice of keeping things local. Most of the products sold at the farmer's market came from people's gardens and vegetable patches, from fruits, veggies, baked goods, dried lavender and even balms and tinctures.

My mom might actually have been a bear in another life, so she couldn't pass up getting some native blackberries, and a cake with them baked into it. The result was a very pretty cake that I'd definitely be up for trying to recreate sometime!

So, where does lemonade come into all this?

Del's lemonade has become a staple of Block Island for years, and is sold all over the island. Originally made in 1840 in Naples, Italy, the franchise opened in the US back in 1948 and is available in 20 states. Unlike bricklike Italian ice you can buy at the grocery store, Del's has the same texture as snow, with just enough lemon juice and sugar to make it a sweet, refreshing treat to enjoy on a hot day. What also sets it apart for me is the fact that it's got pieces of lemon peel in the ice, giving it just a little bit more lemon flavor and texture when you find one and take a bite! It's a must have if you come to the island, and Narragansett Beer even makes a shandy with the name.

When it came to making my own lemonade, I decided to experiment a little bit, taking some inspiration from Del's lemonade, but also my experience making the orangeade I made last month. The issue most people making homemade lemonade run into is that adding sugar and lemon juice to cold or even room temperature tap water leaves you with all your sugar on the bottom, usually still in its delicious, grainy form. This isn't much fun to drink, and the solution is very, very simple.

So simple that it's actually in the name! Making a simple syrup will keep your lemonade sweet without needing to constantly stir or shake it. There are a couple ways to make it, but I decided to try something that was suggested in a British recipe for a bubbly lemonade. I took a cup and a quarter of sugar, and grated the rinds of six oranges directly into it. I then brought two cups of water to a boil on the stove, and poured it and the juice from the lemons into the bowl. I mixed it all together to make sure the sugar dissolved, and then let it sit for about two hours, just so all the oils from the zest could get drawn out and incorporated into the rest of the liquid.

I strained it, added some more water to reduce the sweetness and chilled it overnight. The next day, I was ready to enjoy some lemonade in the nice weather.

I have to admit, I was pretty satisfied with the results of this. It was sweet and full of lemon flavor, without any of the - to me! - slightly unpleasant acidity of the orangeade which I attributed to soaking the peels in the liquid for so long. While it definitely took more work than just pulling out a carton of Newman's Own from the fridge, it was fun to experiment with a bunch of different recipes and see what I could come up with on my own. It's a skill I would like to spend more time cultivating - maybe to the point where I can even get away with legitimately calling it a skill! - and this was a fun sandbox to test it out in.

But if you're looking for something a little bit different than just your average lemonade, my friend Amanda has a suggestion for you!

Amanda and I have known each other since grade school and recently got together for the first time in years. She was one of the guests at my American Girl birthday party, and still has her own dolls. She invited me over recently to try out a recipe for lavender lemonade she'd found, and let me tell you, it is a winner!

It's very simple to do, too. While you make your simple syrup, just add in a handful or so of dried lavender flowers and let them soak for anywhere from half an hour to overnight. The longer you leave them in, the more lavender flavor you'll get. It's also important to remember that sometimes, too much lavender can make your food taste like soap, so be careful not to dump in too much. Once you've strained the flowers from the syrup, you're ready to make your lemonade the same way you would normally. It'll just have an interesting extra layer of flavor to it.

You can buy dried lavender, or you can make it yourself! Amanda got hers from a garden that doesn't use pesticides or really do much but let the lavender grow freely, so it was safe to just dry it herself, which I thought was pretty cool. Guess I need to find a connection with a lavender patch!

I brought Rebecca over with me to give it a try.

And it was really nice! Definitely different. I'm a big fan of lavender as a scent, and have gotten to try some in food before, but never in lemonade, and I definitely think I would like to make this again.

So, that's my trip to Block Island and explorations with lemonade! I hope you enjoyed hearing about them, because I definitely had fun exploring a new place, reconnecting with an old friend, and making a bit of a mess in the kitchen. I'm not sure I'm always going to be up to making fresh squeezed lemonade, but I definitely would like to make it with lavender again, and maybe even give strawberry or watermelon lemonade a try. There are so many possibilities!

Although I'm definitely still a fan of the classic!


  1. Great post! I am in love with your Nellie. She is gorgeous in all these photos. She's definitely on my someday list of dolls that I want to have!

    1. I try not to play favorites, but she is definitely a cutie! Hope you get to add her to your collection soon. c:

  2. Oooo, I'll have to make this. Me and Lemonade are best friends.

    1. Not to toot my own horn, but it was definitely tasty and not too long and drawn out to do! :9

  3. My current obsession is Ginger Lemonade. If you are in NYC - try it at Peace Food Cafe.

    1. Ooh, interesting! I've been meaning to head down to NYC sometime soon, might have to try to stop by. c:

  4. A favorite way to prepare lemonade for me is fresh lemons, sugar, water and a little vanilla extract. This idea actually came when we didn't have enough lemons for lemonade one day, so we decided to stretch the weak taste of one lemon by adding vanilla extract. Since then, this has been a huge hit w/ anyone I serve it to. Try it some time!

    1. Ooh, that sounds tasty! I love vanilla, and we like to make our own extract with rum and vanilla beans. c: