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.