Monday, November 24, 2008

Homemade Toffee

HELP!

Last night, one of my bestest friends came over for a girls night (Chris had a bachelor party to go to). I have always wanted to try to make candy- and since my friend likes to bake and likes sweets as much as I do- I thought we could give toffee a try. It seemed simple enough.

So here is what happened:

We tried a Martha Stewart recipe from my magazine. It looked like this.


Beautiful and easy according to the directions. But ours turned out like this . . . and smoke filled the apartment.


It is completely inedible. But we did not give up- we wanted to figure out what went wrong and what to do to prevent it from happening again. We did some online research and found common candy making mistakes. We burned our toffee for two reasons. First, at this altitude, water boils at 202 degrees rather than 212 desgress at sea level. (Subtract 1 degree for every 500 ft above sea level.) So instead of cooking the candy to 300 degrees as per the instructions, we should have only cooked it to 290. Second, some suggested we test the thermometer to make sure it was accurate by boiling water. We did that and found that my candy thermometer said that water boils at 170 degrees. The thermometer is over 30 degrees off! And when you add in the 10 for altitude- we over cooked the toffee by 40 degrees. So yeah, it burned.

We tried again, with Betty Crocker at our side, and came up with this . . .


We made the second common mistake of allowing the butter and sugar to separate. It is a grainy pile of sugar and fat. It sure does taste pretty good- but not much like toffee. So I am returning the candy thermometer today and I hope to find another, more reliable, one soon. (Maybe Christmas?) My friend and I have vowed to get this right- we are going to try and try until we get this candy making science down. If you have any knowledge or advice we would greatly appreciate it! Thanks!

Fleur de Sel Toffee from marthastewart.com

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Strawberry-Watermelon Smoothie


I love watermelon. I try to pick good ones at the store- but apparently when I "thump" them, I like the sound of overripe melons. So this year I got a couple bad watermelons. I didn't want to throw them out, so I cut them up and froze them to use in smoothies! Today was the first time we tried to make one- and it was pretty good.

I looked online for a recipe, but in the end we just kinda winged it. So here is an approxmation of the recipe.

Strawberry-Watermelon Smoothie:
  • 2 C partially defrosted watermelon
  • 1 C partially defrosted strawberries (hulled)
  • 1 C skim milk
  • 1/2 C apple juice
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp ground flaxseed meal (optional)
Mix in blender and enjoy!

(We may have added more liquid than I have posted; we were having trouble getting the blender to blend.)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Cranberry-Pumpkin Cookies

It is fall and the beautiful colors are out in full- unfortunately, not in the trees- but in the foods! And while I just cannot make myself like pumpkin pie- I love pumpkin on other baked goods like cookies. The fluffy cake-like texture is fantastic.


These cookies turned out well, but the cranberries can be a bit much at times, so if you make these, unless you LOVE cranberries, I might scale it back a bit.

Cranberry-Pumpkin Cookies (adapted from Allrecipes.com)
  • 1/2 C butter, softened
  • 1 C sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 egg
  • 1 C pumpkin puree
  • 2 1/4 C flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 1/4 C cranberries
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp lemon zest (the recipe called for orange zest- but I only had lemons
~Preheat oven to 375. Grease cookie sheets.
~Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
~Beat in vanilla, egg and pumpkin.
~Add flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and mix well.
~Gently add cranberries and lemon zest.
~Drop by teaspoons onto cookie sheets and cook for 10-12 minutes.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Homemade Laundry Soap

Making your own laundry soap is super duper easy. I mean really- if you can measure salt and grate cheese- you can make laundry soap. I first heard of making your own laundry detergent here, and after much online searching this is the recipe I have settled on.

Dry Laundry Soap
  • 1/2 C Borax
  • 1/2 C Baking Soda (not washing soda)
  • 1 grated Ivory soap bar (about one cup)
Mix together. Use 1 tbsp for a medium load and 2 tbsp for a large load.


To grate the soap I use a cheese grater. If you make this, I would buy a new grater specifically for grating soap as the soap will leave a residue and may get stuck in the grater. You don't want soapy cheese!


Most sites and recipes suggest using washing soda rather than baking soda but I decided to try baking soda for two reasons. First, I could not find washing soda anywhere. Second, on a site dedicated to washing reusable baby diapers I found that washing soda and baking soda do the same thing, except washing soda is more alkaline, and is thus harsher on clothes and skin. (Don't even ask how I got to a diaper washing site . . . eww.) I have fairly sensitive skin, so I decided to go with baking soda and it has worked great so far.

Most sites also suggest using some sort of laundry soap such as Fels Naptha or Zote. I bought a bar of Fels Naptha at my local grocery store, but have not yet used it. I say, why should I change when what I have is good? Also, Fels Naptha can be irritating to the skin, and with my sensitive skin I am avoiding it until I need to use it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Barley-Squash Pilaf

Let me start by saying that this was the first time I have ever made a meal that flopped. = )

Okay, now that you know that, I must say, with one small alteration, the pilaf turned out edible, even pretty good.

This was my first attempt at cooking pearl barley. I choose to try barley because I had heard that when cooked it has a quasi-chewy texture that sounded interesting. For those who don't know what pearl barley is or how to cook it (as I did not), I will tell you. It is a grain. And you cook it like rice. Sounds simple, right? Or not.


I found several recipes online with barley, and decided on Barley-Squash Pilaf because I had all the ingredients on hand. But when I prepared the meal as they suggest something when horribly wrong. When cooking rice, the rice is supposed to soak up the water it is being cooked in, and barley is supposed to do the same. But my barley was not soaking up the water in the alloted time, so I just let it cook a bit longer. However, in doing so, the squash became over cooked and started to fall apart. I will not be showing you a picture of the end product because it did not look too appetizing. Plus, it didn't even taste good. It was very bland. In an effort to save the dinner (which we were taking to a friends' house to share), I added a can of diced tomatoes. To my delight, this pretty much fixed the dish. So, below is the final recipe that we shared with our friends.

(However, I must warn you, this dish was not popular with the three-year-old crowd, it caused a dramatic reaction. After putting one dino-bite in his mouth, I believe his trembling words were "I can't do it mama, I can't." But I am sure you will enjoy it . . .)


Barley-Squash Pilaf
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 12 oz peeled butternut squash, cut in 1/2-in. pieces (2 cups)
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 small red pepper, chopped
  • 1 cup barley (pearl, not quick-cooking)
  • 1 C chicken broth + 1 C water
  • 1/2 tsp each dried thyme and rosemary
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tsp grated lemon zest
  • 1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes
Directions:
~Heat oil in a medium pan over medium-high heat. Add squash, onion, and pepper and saute for a few minutes.
~Add barley and cook for a few more minutes.
~Add broth and water, thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper (if using). Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20-25 minutes until barley is just tender (or do as I did and wait until the liquid is absorbed).
~Remove from heat and add lemon zest and tomatoes with their juice.

Enjoy!


barley image from cookinglight.com

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Quilt Curtain

In order to help ease the transition from MN to CO, my husband and I choose to live in a apartment complex that looks out on a lake (aka a 4' deep pond). From our kitchen and bedroom windows we have a fantastic view of the water and the wildlife that hangs out there. When the sun sets in the afternoon, the reflection is blinding and beautiful. However, the downside to this apartment is that they are not really well built. They are poorly isolated and the ground they were built on is shifting creating cracks and drafts. Therefore our bedroom can be quite cold in the winter. In order to amend this, I decided to try to hang something over the sliding glass doors to help insulate.


I did not want to buy expensive drapery because we are not going to live here forever, and I didn't want to spend the money on something that might not move to our next residence well. So I decided to try to find a cheap comforter and nail that puppy to the wall. I thought I could find a comforter for under $10, but after several disappointing trips to the local Salvation Army, I found that the cheapest comforters were $18.00. I had found (much cuter) quilts on clearance at TJMaxx for $20, so I went back there and brought one home.

After more thought, merely nailing the comforter to the wall was probably not the best choice, because then we would never get to see the lake. I needed to come up with a plan that would allow us to move the quilt back every day to let the sun in. After looking online, I decided to try to hang the quilt by sewing several 1' long pieces of nylon on the back making tubes. Then I could of string a Pottery Barn ribbon through the tubes and tack them to the wall. But after destroying a perfectly good nylon bag, I changed my mind about how to hang the quilt. I decided to just sew the Pottery Barn ribbon on to the quilt and put twine every 9''. This way, I could hang the quilt with the twine and then just untie the twine to open the window.


I did not use a sewing machine to attach the ribbon to the quilt for two reasons: first, I do not have a sewing machine and tracking one down may be difficult, and second, by sewing it by hand I was able to only sew on side of the quilt, leaving the backside (the one that faces our room) intact.

After all day of cleaning, pondering, sewing and finally pounding 10 nails into our wall at 8:00pm we hung the quilt up and Voila! We have a light and cold blocking curtain!

My husband was a very big help hanging the quilt, and he even came up with a better way to move the quilt back everyday. He suggested that we just fold the quilt in half and hang the twine from the other nails. Like so . . .


The versatility of this system is superb- we can open the quilt 1 nail, 2 nails, 5 nails- as few or as many as we like. Hopefully the nails will be able to withstand the weight of the quilt, and until they decide to fall out we will enjoy a warm house at night and beautiful waterfront views during the day.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Broccoli and Cheese Soup

Due to a phobia of touching meat, I only can make vegetarian dishes when the husband is not around, so today I decided to make Broccoli and Cheese Soup. I have never had homemade Broccoli and Cheese Soup before, so I really had no idea what to expect, but I dove right in. I decided to tweak a Martha recipe.


Here is my recipe-
Ingredients:
  • 4 slices cooked bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 can (14.5 ounces) reduced-sodium chicken broth + 1 can water
  • 1 head broccoli (about 1 pound), cut into bite-size florets, stalks peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 cup milk
  • 8 oz. shredded cheese
Directions:
~ In a medium pot, cook onion in some olive oil until it starts to soften.
~Add flour, stirring instantly, and cook for 30 seconds.
~Add broth and water and bring to a boil. Let it simmer for 10 minutes (I don't think you need to let it simmer but I did to help break up the flour chunks that I can never seem to avoid).
~Add broccoli, nutmeg, thyme, and milk.
~Cook broccoli until just before "crisp-tender," and add cheese and bacon.
~Melt cheese and warm bacon while broccoli finishes cooking.
~Serve with some extra cheese on top. Nummy!


Surprisingly, the soup turned out quite well. I added some goat cheese to my bowl of soup (because I LOVE it) and it added a nice subtle flavor to the soup.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Very Best Banana Bread

Today I made the very best Banana Bread.  The recipe was given to me at my bridal shower a couple of years ago, but I had never tried it.  I am sure glad I did.  It is very simple yet delicious! 

Banana Bread
1 loaf

1 C sugar
1/2 C butter
2 eggs
5-6 TBSP sour milk (just add a little vinegar to the milk to sour it)
2-3 bananas
1 TBSP baking soda
1/2 tsp salt (optional)
2 C flour

Mix well and bake in a greased pan for 1 hour at 350 degrees.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sourdough Bread

Well hello friends, today was surprisingly overcast and hazy day in the desert. A day for baking bread!


A few weeks ago I started a food allergen elimination diet that forced me to take a close look at what I was eating. I had to cut out most store-made bread because ingredients included high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils and such. However, after a week with no bread - I still refused to pay $4.50 for a loaf of bread, so I decided to look into making my own bread sans breadmaker.

As it turns out- making bread is not that difficult to make. (However, perfecting the art of bread-making is a challenge suited for a kitchen guru.)

Sourdough bread is an interesting challenge because you must first create a starter. This is excruciatingly easy and yet overwhelmingly confusing. I found directions on Sourdough Baking.

Over the course of a week I feed my starter every day, checking and smelling it many times a day hoping for "a pleasant sour or beery smell." When I finally got tired of waiting for that pleasantly sour smell I added some yeast to make sure some was in the starter and set off to make sourdough bread.

The recipe is very easy:
Take the starter and add 1 C flour
1 C warm water
Mix together and let the starter get "frothy" (another ambiguous term- I will post a picture next time I make sourdough so you can see what frothy looks like)

Then take 2 C of frothy starter (which is now called a sponge)
Add 2 TBSP Olive Oil
4 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt
Mix together.

Mix/knead 3 C flour into the sponge 1/2 C at a time. When the dough seems doughy set it aside and let it rise until doubled (~1 hour). (However, if you live above sea level, like say about one mile above sea level, there is a more accurate test to see if the bread is done rising. The yeast will rise faster the higher you are above sea level, so instead of waiting the full hour, check it at 30 minutes by poking it with your finger. When the dough does not spring back quickly from the hole created by your finger, the bread is risen.)

Knead the dough back down and shape it into a loaf shape. Place onto a baking sheet with cornmeal or whole rolled oats. Cover and allow to rise again.

Finally place into a cold oven set at 350 degrees. Bake for 30-45 minutes until it reads 200 degrees on a meat thermometer.

This might seem like a lot- but the end product is worth it. My bread was a bit on the sour side, but thats okay, now I have a reason to make it again!
Good luck- and enjoy!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Start of a New Era

I must admit that I have always been a blog hater.  I never saw the point of posting my inner struggles, feelings and triumphs on the internet for all to read, why would I assume anyone wants to read about me?  However, during the past few months my outlook on blogs has changed dramatically.  Not that you all care, of course.  

After finding and reading some of my friends' personal blogs, I discovered that I throughly enjoyed reading about their lives: the good, the bad, and their extraneous tidbits about life. Then after exhausting the personal blog entries, I followed links from their blogs to other blogs my friends read, and I found a whole new world of helpful cooking, cleaning and decorating blogs.  These blogs, especially The Hyper Homemaker and Good Things Catered, hosted by Katie, have changed my outlook on blogging.  

My goal with this blog (besides becoming the next "big thing") is to give back to the blogging community that has given me so much.  I know that everything under the sun has probably already been posted on at some point, but hopefully I will be able to offer new insight and understanding to these topics.  But honestly, I just want to share my passion for food, natural living and my husband with the world.  Look out cyberspace- there is a new pioneer in town.