Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Weekend Homesteader Ideas, July-September

This is a continuation of my review of my weekend homesteading ideas and goals inspired by The Weekend Homesteader by Anna Hess and her and her husband's blog, "The Walden Effect."  I haven't looked at this list in five years. Let's see if I've accidentally achieved any of these goals. My original notes are in italics.

Fall planting - Look into! Ever on my list is a fall planting of spinach or other things that we could harvest into winter. Still haven't done it. Laziness and busyness. Maybe just laziness.

Freezing food - Improve. Vastly. I don't remember what kind of food-freezing we were or weren't doing five years ago, so it's hard to know if we have improved in that area. I currently don't feel that we need to improve, so either our habits have changed or my perspective has. probably our habits, because here's what we regularly freeze:

We often are able to cheaply acquire large quantities of bell peppers and white mushrooms, more than we can (want to?) eat fresh before they would go bad, so we slice and freeze them and use them later for pizza and stir fry. We cook the mushrooms first, but the peppers go into the freezer raw. We've also frozen whole hot peppers, which need to thaw only a little bit before you can cut them up for cooking. When our raspberry bushes produce abundantly, we freeze quart-size bags of those. Excess strawberries, too. My preferred method for all of these is to spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze them for a couple of hours (or longer when I forget!) until they are solid, and then tumble them into a plastic freezer bag. Then the berries or veggie slices do not freeze in one big clump, and I can easily remove as many or as few as I want from the freezer bag later.

When bananas ripen faster than we're ready to eat them, we peel and freeze them whole. Frozen bananas make smoothies like milk shakes. We freeze mason jars of cooked pumpkin flesh and fresh-pressed apple cider. The trick with freezing in mason jars is to allow plenty of head room for the water in the food to expand as it freezes. If the contents begin to expand beyond the jar's "shoulder," where it starts to curve inward like a bottle neck, the pressure will break the jar. And of course, we freeze LOTS of peeled, cored, sliced apples, typically treated with some lemon juice and that's it.

We also keep a couple of ice cube trays on hand for freezing certain foods. Chopped basil in olive oil, for example—it tastes like summertime! Or wine for cooking—but alcohol doesn't freeze completely, so the wine ice cubes tend to become a wine slushie in the freezer bag. Ooh, and speaking of slushies, we still have some cubed watermelon in our freezer, which, thanks to its light texture and high water content, blends into a perfect watermelon slushie (or frozen margarita) with just a little lime or lemon juice.

Hanging your clothes out to dry - check! but consistency! Oh, am I excited to report on this item! Last summer we purchased a five-line retractable clothesline and didn't use our dryer all summer long. My mom used to tell stories of hanging clothes out to dry even in the winter, when they would freeze solid on the line. You knew the sun had dried them when they started flapping in the wind, ice-free. Unfortunately, our backyard gets almost no direct light from the winter sun; whatever's frozen back there stays frozen. So, we're back to the gas dryer until warmer and brighter days, when we can resume line drying 100%. The real question will be, how did our clothesline weather the winter weather?

Budget - Look into. We don't strictly budget month to month, but we do live modestly and therefore within our means, and we are able to put away some savings (some mentally earmarked for vacation perhaps) and retirement contributions. We are interested in saving money, but most of the saving-money-advice out there is stuff like, "Bring your lunch to work one day a week; switch cable companies." Um, we already pack our lunches every day and get free TV via antenna, so...

Could we be making our money work harder for us by meticulously delegating every penny to investments and whatever? (See, I don't even know.) Probably. But this harks back to the June topic of "your real hourly wage." Money is not a hobby on which I wish to spend my time. Once in a while we delve into it—for example, how much have we been spending on groceries?—to explore if our spending habits have changed or need to change. But in general: Can we afford our bills? Can we buy people gifts? Can we contribute to charity? Are we saving for retirement? Do we have a cushion for emergencies? Can we treat ourselves to an occasional fun expense (hobbies, dining out)? All set.

Seed saving - some, check. More? Er, still just saving my own cilantro seeds, because they're so easy, and depending on the type of onion, seeds or bulbs. If I really want to be self-sufficient, I should improve this area. Come zombie apocalypse perhaps.

Drying food - some. More? We dehydrate a few batches of tomatoes and apples at harvest time and sometimes sweet potato slices for dog treats. I have a dream of dehydrating tons of stuff, making my own dry soup mix or something, but freezing food is quicker and easier, so...

Building a chicken coop or tractor - no can do. Still no can do. City regs.

Rain barrel - look into, want to. Len's aunt had an extra, so we got one for free! We hooked a soaker hose to it and buried the hose in the front bed among the herbs, asparagus, onions and strawberries for slow watering on dry days.

Eating seasonally - check, when it's growing season... This is something we could be doing more purposefully, as opposed to coincidentally.

Canning - only a little. Our apple canning is fairly voluminous, and we've dabbled in other fruit preserves depending on supply, as well as some pickles. I am interested in canning more, but it's a hobby we seem to be able to expand only little by little. I suppose that's enough.

Bringing your chickens home - n/a. Still not applicable.

Voluntary simplicity - hm. Having researched this idea a little more, I believe that we are in many ways (but not in every way) living in voluntary simplicity. An important distinction is that some people can voluntarily live simply (modestly) in order to more greatly enjoy life as they see fit, but other people must live quite modestly because they cannot afford to live any other way. This is not to say that the poverty-stricken do not or cannot enjoy anything, but rather to acknowledge the difference. We live a simple life with the goal of squirreling away some vacation funds while another person's goal may be to keep from losing their house. We are fortunate to be able to choose simplicity for our own purposes.

Weekend Homesteader Ideas, January-March
Weekend Homestead Ideas, April-June

Friday, February 16, 2018

Adventures in Cake Decorating #5 - TV and Movie Cakes, Part 2

Continuing the collection of TV- and movie-themed cakes I've created in recent history... (Part 1 here; look ahead to Part 3 here.)

Cars Cakes
I enjoyed designing this birthday cake with my sister. The race track is crushed Oreos, and the road signs and cones are foam stickers on toothpicks. We created the ramp/bridge by cutting two cupcakes into wedges and laying a small piece of cardboard across. I tried to give the grass tufts more dimension by striping a little brown icing in the piping bag with the green.

I repeated the idea soon after for a dinner at church kicking off REV Wednesdays. "REV" at the time stood for "Raising Every Voice," but because it also had a "rev your engines" energy, there had been a race car theme.

This time I did a round two-tier cake, with an Oreo track spiraling up the tiers and paper decorations on toothpicks.

Frozen Cake
It's too bad this wasn't an ice cream cake, because that would have completed the "Frozen" theme, but this was another one baked and assembled pretty quickly in the short hours before the party.

On the bottom tier, there are swirls in three shades of blue, growing lighter from bottom to top, the color and technique both skills I was still improving upon as I went. Then the middle tier a periwinkle purple with white snowflakes piped on, while strategically dripping white icing forms a sort of snow cliff on top.

Olaf's head as the topper is made of two cupcakes cut and sculpted a bit and stacked together top-to-top (the top one is upside down) to get his sort of bulbous, tapered head shape. If we had done more planning ahead, I'm sure we could have found some candy to use as his stick arms, but in a pinch, we made them out of twisted paper.

Cookie Monster Cupcakes
I can't take any credit for this cupcake idea, copied right off the internet. I can tell you it was the easiest decorating job ever, and turned out very cute—as you can see. The little chocolate chip cookies are Famous Amos bite-size; we broke them in half before sticking them into the frosting. You can find the candy eyeballs in the baking aisle of a grocery or craft store.

The ABC and 123 cookies we made in similar fashion as the WordWorld character cookies, just placing them with edges touching on the cookie sheet so each set baked together as one cookie. But, do you want to know a secret? I don't have number cookie cutters.

So, the number 1 is the letter I, the 2 is a Z that I mushed into shape, and the 3 is a backwards E, also mushed a little. Ta-da!

Trolls Cake
My sister and I seriously considered making spun-sugar troll hair for this cake, which would have elevated the cake to a new level of awesome... maybe another time.

Instead we went the easier route and stuck with buttercream. Simple round cake and rainbow colors, topped with three cupcakes mounded with icing to represent a few troll heads. If you can't tell, the pink one with the blue bow is Princess Poppy.

And that sums up our adventures in TV and movie themes. So far.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Adventures in Cake Decorating #5 - TV and Movie Cakes, Part 1

Has it really been a year and a half since I last posted a cake adventure? So many nibling birthdays since then!

Forget chronological order; this one will be a collage of the TV- and movie-themed cakes my niece and nephews have requested thus far.

Batman-Spiderman Cake
Actually, the first was probably not even for a nibling's birthday, but for a friend's son. We threw this together only a couple of hours before the actual birthday party, and boy, did that red icing look pink! But I used all—all!—of my red food coloring. And, the black icing looked purply-gray. Oh, we were worried.

Icing color does darken over time, but with only two hours... These colors weren't promising. However, in the light of day, without any true reds nearby to compare it to, and with people's brains sort of auto-correcting for them as they know inherently that Spiderman is red and black, not dark pink and grease-gray, it turned out just fine!

Lessons: I will never again use red as the main color—it's much easier to get a nice red in small batches. For black icing, start with a chocolate base.

WorldWorld Cake
The cookies were my favorite part of this next one, but the cake was fun, too. (Notice the sparing use of red here.) The icing got a little melty in the warm kitchen,\ and had to be repaired and re-chilled, or else the letters of "CAKE" might have had more definition, but whatever. It's cute.

"WordWorld" is a kids' show about phonetics, if you didn't know. The characters are animals whose bodies are shaped out of actual words.

We cut out alphabet sugar cookies to spell the words "SHEEP," "DUCK," "DOG," and "FROG" and lay the letters with edges touching on the cookie sheet, curving or stretching the word a bit to shape into an animal. Pieces of dough scraps formed the animals' extremities, like feet, ears, eyeballs and wings.

Bake, cool, paint with icing. Fun!

I should have skipped the ants marching up the side of the cake. I wrote "ant" as their bodies and added legs and antennae, but they just turned out sloppy, and now it just looks like the red letters were bleeding (look at the R on the far right side of the cake).

Ninja Turtle Cake

This was a layered round cake with upside-down cupcakes to form the turtles' heads. I mean, just look at a Ninja Turtle's head. It's shaped like an upside-down cupcake!

Trim the dome off the top of each cupcake so it has a flat surface when it's upside-down. After they're iced and topped off with a manhole cover, the muffin-tin shape is no longer obvious. The sewer lid was a cardboard circle, covered in foil and iced. Sorry, not 100 percent edible.

Mickey Mouse Cake
Remember how I vowed never again to use red as the main icing color?

When I watch cake-decorating videos, the people seem to be using twice as much icing as I normally do, which I think gives them more flexibility to smooth it all out. (And yet, their recipes don't seem to result in such large amounts...? It's a conspiracy. "Here's the amount of icing you'll need to cover the cake, unless you want it to look professional, and then you should secretly double it.")

In my effort to mimic their techniques and smooth the icing more easily, of course I overcompensated and made twice as much red icing as I needed to. Sure, I plopped plenty on the cake and wielded my spatula with great ease, but what I consider to be a large volume was leftover and wasted.

Maybe if I'd used the same amount of food coloring (i.e., all of it) with half the amount of sugar and butter, we would have seen better results. But then I bet you I'd have run out of icing and been spreading it thin. Also, even though my food coloring was the "no-taste" red, in large quantities, you can taste it.

Nevertheless, it did look red (red enough?) to the party guests, even with a red tablecloth right underneath it. I would call it a light red, but it wasn't pink as I'd originally feared when I left the colors to deepen overnight.

If I did it again, I would swap the tiers and use the white with little stars and Mickey heads for the large cake, and the red with white trouser buttons as the little smash cake on top.

And, I think four cakes are enough for one post. Parts 2 and 3 of my character-driven baking are here and here, respectively.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

What Does Zero Really Mean?

Today I noticed this statement on a Lipton teabag, just beneath the little pictographs showing me how long and at what temperature to steep my tea, as if it were part of the brewing instructions: "This product is packed in a zero-landfill facility."

Which, of course, led me to ask, what exactly is a zero-landfill facility?

It's first important to distinguish the claim of "zero waste" from the claim of "zero waste to landfill." Both sound good, right? But, you could accumulate heaps of trash in your yard and just burn it all, and none of it will have gone to a landfill. And so maybe some of it was wasted--items that could have been reused or recycled or composted. Not to mention the toxic fumes.

OK, so when a company touts its "zero-landfill facility," how good should I feel about it? Are they truly making environmentally friendly improvements in their waste management, or are they just burning their trash on site? Sending interns on illicit river dumps in the middle of the night?

And so I Googled.

It appears Lipton's Suffolk, Virginia, manufacturing plant achieved their "zero-landfill" badge in 2009, with 70% of their waste (cardboard and paper in particular) being traditionally recycled or reused, thanks to 100 employees designated Recycling Champions who sift through and sort it all, and 22% of it (tea dust, tea bag strings) being composted and used as mulch or fertilizer on their own grounds. The remaining 8%, in partnership with public service, "is converted into usable energy that is put back into the local power grid."

The article I was reading didn't get into details about that conversion, but it has to be combustion, right?

Still, that's some green tea.

I wonder what other companies' waste breakdowns look like? More Googling, I guess.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Winter Bike to Work Shirk

Busyness and laziness commingle in this clammy stretch of winter. New Year's resolutions never even fully formed in my mind dissipate into the freezing fog, leaving an indeterminate yen. The dark and cold outside sap my energy; I need more than a concerted effort to haul myself off of the couch. And yet, somehow, most evenings and weekends I find myself away from home, fulfilling some obligation. I am too busy and too lazy to do anything.

Today was Winter Bike to Work Day. Chicago's Active Transportation Alliance hosted a rally from 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. Hooray for those cyclists who don't let cold or snow stop them! There were sponsors and freebies!

I didn't go.

I could have gone. And I have decided my excuse is pure laziness.

It's true I didn't know about the event until this morning, and Len has a cold, and this has been a busy week, and we're tired. But if I really wanted to, I could have made it happen. We have balaclavas and winter layers. It's not even super cold today. The ice from two mornings ago is (mostly) gone. The high will be in the 40s! Pink sunlight is on the eastern horizon when we leave the house and lingering in the west when I leave work—and besides, we have bike lights.

We even received reflective ankle cuffs for Christmas this year.

Does the busyness make me lazy? I'm sure of it. I'm also sure that's a me problem, and a solvable one.

The silver lining: Today appears to be just the ATA's annual Winter Bike to Work Day. An International Bike to Work Day is on the horizon (like the slowly expanding daylight hours).


It's Friday, February 9, 2018.

I just clicked "Commit to Ride."


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Weekend Homesteader Ideas, April-June

This is a continuation of my review of my weekend homesteading ideas and goals inspired by The Weekend Homesteader by Anna Hess, as well as her and her husband's blog, "The Walden Effect."  I haven't looked at this list in five years. Let's see if I've accidentally achieved any of these goals. My original notes are in italics.
Our back patio, planting day.
From "Containing the Garden," June 2016.

Find room to homestead - check. We had the community garden for a few years but eventually conceded to nature in the Battle Against Weeds. For the past few years, we have been working toward maximizing our front and back porch gardens.
The sweet corn in strawberry pots worked!
But the ears only grew to six inches or shorter.

Survey your site - um, check? Front porch, back porch. There it is.

Plan your summer garden - improve. Still a problem for me: reconciling the ambition of what I want to plant versus the reality of what I will be able to grow and grow well.

Kill mulch - huh? Look into this. Having not ever looked into this, I did just now. Oh! It's not a command to kill the mulch, it's a kind of mulch that kills. A component of no-till "lasagna" gardening in which you add a layer to help prevent baby weeds from popping up. We have not done this. But, I learned about some no-till gardening on a recent visit to Heritage Prairie Farm, and I'm interested.

Plant your summer garden - check. We always do.

Watermelons and winter squash in hanging containers grew
vines and baby fruit, but ultimately nothing harvestable.
Nutrition - hm. "Discover what types of food make your body happy and healthy," the book says. Um, all foods.

Mulch - hm. We add compost to our garden (oops, I see that's under June), but that's not what this is. It's hay or other mulching materials to help keep weeds at bay and protect the moisture of the soil around the garden plants. I have thus far been too lazy to bother. But I think it would help the garden.

Teamwork - check. Yep.

Compost - check. Last summer, Len completely emptied our compost bin and filled five five-gallon buckets plus a wheelbarrow-full with "finished," soil-like, ready-to-use compost. It was awesome, and we smothered (not literally) our vegetable garden with it. I think it may have been two full years since we'd used any compost, so that could explain the abundance. But, we do compost more than the average two people—there's our huge load of apples each summer, with plenty of peels and cores going into the compost, and we find extra veg scraps where we can. Like, when we see jack-o'-lanterns wilting on our neighbor's porch, we (Len) will ask the neighbor if we can have them for our compost bin.

Worm bin - well... We have the outdoor compost, and worms thrive in it. Why do I need a worm bin indoors?

Seasonings - herbs? Improve. I would like a more comprehensive herb garden. It's slowly growing (not at this very moment; it's January) as I experiment and try not to be lazy about nurturing the plants.

Your real hourly wage - hm. This is about the true value of your time. Is your job is really worth the time you put into it? How much are you actually being paid per hour? I understand the concept and think it's worthwhile to a degree, especially if your job makes you unhappy and the take-home pay barely covers the expenses that are caused directly by having the job. A good example is the parent whose entire salary is eaten up by childcare expenses—worth it if the parent loves the job and/or the job furthers the development of a desired career (or if the job is the only viable source of health insurance), but not worth it for a dead-end job that provides no security, joy or sense of purpose.

On the other hand, I think you shouldn't necessarily look at it that way, because you can run the numbers in a variety of ways, and when you have bills to pay, even modest ones, it's difficult to put a fair monetary value on your time and happiness. It reminds me of how my mom often responded to my creative hobbies, "You should start your own business!" But I would have to sell whatever craft I made for way too much in order to net more than $2 an hour. And, I'd have to spend way more than 40 hours a week crafting, which would destroy the joy in it and still not cover the mortgage.

I have to quote from the book here, because it gets a little extreme—at least, for me.
Start with those 40 hours in your cubicle, of course, but then add in the hour you spend grooming, your daily commute, the mandatory downtime you use vegetating in front of the tube to wind down after work. Do you have to study or take classes to stay up-to-date in your field? Do you end up spending a week in bed because you're so run-down...? ...
Next, sum up your work-related expenses. These include the gas and upkeep on your car, those fancy duds you wear to the office, every meal or $5 cup of coffee you consume away from home because you're too busy to pack a lunch, the six-pack of beer your drink while winding down after work, the massages you pay for to wipe out the work stress, and the money you give other people to do your household chores (day-care, house cleaning, lawn upkeep, etc.), since you don't have time to do it yourself. Don't forget to include your taxes. (The Weekend Homesteader by Anna Hess)

While those time and money expenditures may describe some people and their jobs perfectly, there are several things that I cannot in good conscience include in my tally.

The "hour" I spend grooming is not even close to an hour, and even if I wasn't going to work, I would still practice daily hygiene. Most of the time.

My fancy duds often come from Goodwill.

I make the time to pack a lunch (usually leftovers from dinner the night before), and we do all our household chores ourselves, which means they just don't get done if we don't have (i.e. make) time.

I unwind not with a six-pack but by flopping on the couch in front of the TV, which "costs" time, yes, but not money. Unless you start counting electricity usage, and if you do that, we have to go back to the time spent getting ready in the morning and factor in electricity for that—I'd be less inclined to get up and out of bed while it's still dark out if I didn't have to be at the office.

See? There are so many ways to complicate this if you really wanted to. Is that worth your time?

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Weekend Homesteader Ideas, January-March


As usual, January's relative un-busyness (oh, it's still busy! But relative to the rest of the year...) has led me to daydreaming about the garden—always too ambitiously—and perusing old blog notes. And, what's this? An old list?

Five years ago, inspired by a book called The Weekend Homesteader by Anna Hess and her and her husband's blog, "The Walden Effect," I made a list of weekend homesteading ideas and goals. Let's see if I've accidentally achieved any of these since. My original notes are in italics.

Soil test - need to? Still haven't.

Baking bread - oh please. check. Hm, we have not been baking a ton of our own bread lately, but that reminds me of a different post I'd like to write... but first some side research.

Media consciousness - hm. I couldn't remember what this meant, so I flipped back through book. Essentially, it's being aware of how your media consumption affects you; i.e. you should voluntarily consume less of it. Er, nope. We do watch (and yell at) the news every morning and often listen to talk radio in the car. And we subscribe to newspaper delivery a few days a week.

Turning trash into treasures - you betcha! Improve? Oh definitely. We continue to salvage and repurpose. Len has just recently built several pieces of furniture and home decor out of discarded wooden pallets and even sold a couple of items, plus given others as gifts.

Our raspberries sprawl more
heartily every summer.

Planting berries - well... I failed twice at planting blueberry bushes. I'm certain the aforementioned soil test (and then appropriate soil amendments) would remedy that, but I am only mildly scientific with my garden. Our strawberries are hanging on year to year, but could use some TLC to boost output. Our two varieties of raspberries thrive, though. We have ordinary red raspberry plants purchased from Home Depot and an heirloom black raspberry plant that is progeny of bushes from my aunt's yard, which came from bushes in my great-grandma's yard.

Stocking up on dried goods - look into. I don't remember why I wrote "look into." We do buy some dry essentials in bulk—flour, sugar, sometimes beans—and we are always in a position to cobble together a meal out of our pantry and/or freezer. I feel this has been the case for a long time, but maybe it wasn't so five years ago. Or else I believe I shouldn't have written "- check!"

Backup lighting - other than flashlights and candles? We have flashlights and candles, what else is there? Solar lighting, I guess. We don't have that unless you count a few little solar-powered yard lamps.

Setting homesteading goals - yes, let's! I suppose that's what this list was, but it didn't get farther than that.

Originally a Bed Bath & Beyond item,
our mini greenhouse is second-hand.
Spring planting - get on this, improve! Len built a cold-frame out of a papasan chair skeleton, and we picked up a tiny greenhouse at a Savers thrift store. We do use these to get seedlings going before spring truly begins, but we still could improve quite a bit. (It's back to that only mildly scientific thing—my seed-starting and spring planting could use more science, really.) 

Growing edible mushrooms - maybe later. Yeah, maybe later. I've seen mushroom log kits you can buy. They don't particularly seem worth the cost and effort versus just buying mushrooms at the grocery store.

Bees - attract more! Ok, I saw bee houses (meant to attract and house wild bees) at Menard's, and I want one. The problem is, where to put it? Not in the apple trees—we'd just tick them off when we tried to pick apples. On the side of the porch, where we can show them off to guests? Possibly not. Just across the sidewalk in the park that is technically not our property? Maybe.

Learn to enjoy what you've got - when it's better, I will. Geez, that seemed cynical. I think I do enjoy what we have, though I admit there is always a nagging desire to grow even more of our own food in what little space we have.