Friday, April 30, 2010

Hooves and Hearts - ramblings from a sentimental goat lady...

It's been a while since I have done an update on the goats. Muffin and Biscuit have made themselves at home in their new paddock and after an initial settling in period of wailing and screaming every time they saw me walk past, they have settled in nicely. They especially love to sunbake on the huge tree stump that is at the top of their hill, which is so nice to look out and see from the kitchen window.

Biscuit, left and Muffin, right
As they don't have any rocky ground in their new home, their hooves require trimming. It has been about 6 weeks since I last had a good look at them, which I did today and while not hugely overgrown they could still do with a tidy up.

It's really tricky to photograph and trim at the same time, especially when you're the only person around! So the pics are a little mixed up. No apologies here, I did the best I could under the circumstances. The easiest way to trim goat hooves (especially when on your own), is while they're eating. Something really tasty, for example, a mix of goat muesli and pellets.

This is Biscuit's untrimmed hoof. For some strange reason, she doesn't seem to have the flappy skin that usually grows over the end of the hoof (heel?). Muffin does, but I didn't get a pic of her 'before'. The layer of hoof around the outside is long enough to catch bits of mud and small stones, which can be painful if they start digging into her soft sole.

To start with, the mud and stones are removed with the edge of a pair of sharp scissors (kitchen, but not to go back in the kitchen!). Then the outer, overgrown line of hoof is trimmed off, which is easier if the goat has been standing on damp grass for a while to soften it.

This is Muffin's hoof after. She had really flappy folds of skin that grow from her heel and bend over her sole. These were trimmed off and you can see the clean hoof underneath. The layer of hoof is level with the sole. There are no cavities for stones and mud to collect now.

A couple of weeks ago while I was busy doing a bake off, my husband and eldest daughter were tackling some more fencing in their paddock. One side (the one that joins onto our neighbour, of course!), was a thick hedge of banksia rose, with a very rickety fence underneath. They had munched through this in no time, exposing the escape routes, which they were on the verge of using when we received a phone call from our rather concerned neighbour. The obvious solution was to continue the electric fencing line around the entire perimeter of the paddock, leaving a small opening at the gate to allow access.

There are now three lines of hot wire positioned just inside the mesh fence, which is powered by a portable solar panel. The panel receives as much sun as possible on our tree covered property, and so far the unit has not lost charge, although time will tell as bleak winter days without much sun set in.

Since wiring up the hot fence, there have been no escapes. Yesterday I even took their collars off, which they had been wearing since they were very small. It was a little sad... it felt a bit like the end of their 'kidhood'.

I am no longer number one in their eyes either. When they see me across the way, a little bleat is all I get (unless of course it's dinner time). Once I take them their food and receive the initial greeting affections, all they want to know about is the food. And no wailing when I leave, just a little look up while they continue munching!

My girls are growing up.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Wholemeal Wheatgerm & Oat Loaf

This bread was made with the intention of being put to use in my daughters' lunch boxes. They have been known to be quite fussy, and I don't like going to the trouble of making (what I think is delicious) bread for them, for it to just get tossed into the chook bowl at the end of the day. On the other hand, when a loaf appeals to them, it can be consumed in hours! So. Time to keep adding to the little supply I have going in the freezer.

This bread is big, fluffy and has a mild flavour to appeal to growing tastebuds, but still with goodness packed in, in the form of wholemeal flour, wheatgerm and oats. Tempted to use the bread machine, I opted against it, preferring instead to make up three loaves for the freezer, (instead of just the one, which is what I am limited to with the bread machine).

When making bread, it's fun to chop and change the ingredients. I always keep the same basic guide: 500g flour/dry ingredients: 2tsp yeast: 1 tsp salt. The rest is all up for negotiation. Flour type, extra additions, liquids etc.

To make three hefty size loaves, I used:

900g strong plain flour
500g wholemeal flour
75g wheatgerm
25g oats (minute)
6 tsp yeast
3 tsp salt
1 tbs honey
warm water

Combine all dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Add enough warm water, along with the honey to form a moist dough. Knead on a floured surface for 10-15 minutes and then place into an oiled bowl to rise, about 1 hour. When doubled in size, divide the dough into three equal portions. Shape into loaves and place into three oiled and semolina dusted tins. Set aside to rise again, about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to hot 220c. Place a shallow baking pan with water in the bottom of the oven. Once well risen, score top of loaves with a sharp knife and bake for 45 minutes, rotating pans half way through for even baking.

Remove loaves from tins for the last 15 minutes and bake with their bottoms up to brown their 'undersides'.

Cool completely before slicing and freezing.

Wholemeal Wheatgerm & Oat Loaf
to satisfy even the fussiest lunch box going youngster

Wild Mushroom and Leek Fettucine - a forager's delight!

What to do with a basket of fresh, wild mushrooms? Risotto? Mushrooms on toast with gooey, melted cheese? Soup? ....Nope. It had to be pasta. In a creamy sauce. With herbs from the garden....and garlic!

I am still digesting the huge amounts of information that came my way at the recent fungi workshop and took the opportunity yesterday to take my daughters out for a spontaneous forage! Not great mushroom eaters, they still made eager foragers. A good forager must be taught from a young age. They found ones that I missed. Eager little eyes that were honed in for the prize, much better than mine (and conveniently closer to ground level too). The prize being Saffron Milk Caps. Frightfully worrying to look at but perfectly safe to eat.

The result was a modest basket to share with my dad. The number one rule of foraging - never take more than you need. I know he ate them, although I'm not sure what he thought of them.
We ate them too...and we are still here so they must be ok. Their taste is mild, definitely not overpowering. They went well with the creamy pasta sauce that we had for dinner.

Wild Mushroom & Leek Fettucine

Heat a glob of butter and a generous dollop of olive oil in a frying pan until butter has melted and is foaming. Add 1 large (or 2 small) sliced leeks (all the better if homegrown), 1-2 cloves of crushed garlic, and the sliced mushys. Fry gently for 5-10 minutes until golden and the smells are wafting. Add a good glug of pouring cream and simmer to thicken.

Chop a handful of fresh garden herbs (parsley & thyme) and add these to the pan off the heat. Toss cooked and drained fettucine through a little sauce and place on plates. Pour remaining sauce over top of pasta. Eat.

I asked my husband what he thought of our foraged dinner. He didn't comment but merely pointed to his empty plate by way of reply. No words needed. He liked the mushrooms. And so did I. Work still needs to be done on the younger foragers though...

Monday, April 26, 2010

Homemade lip balm

I came across a recipe for lip balm in one of the library books I have out at the moment. My family always suffers from really dry, cracked lips once the cold winter weather sets in, so I thought it would be fun to try and ease some of their discomfort. I already had some beeswax on hand, which was picked up a month or so ago at the local market and it was calling at me to use it in something.

Lip balm base:
1 part beeswax
2 parts almond oil

Melt all ingredients in a double boiler until smooth. Add any extras (flavourings, colour..etc). Pour into small containers and allow to set.

I used 25g beeswax (grated) and 50g oil. As I didn't have any almond oil, I tried this recipe with apricot kernal oil, which I found in the health food section of the supermarket. I put the oil and wax into a large mug and then placed the mug into a frying pan which was filled with hot water. The ingredients were melted over low heat in this water bath. So far so good, it set super fast and really firm (within minutes of pouring into the containers). I'm not sure what the keeping qualities are with the apricot kernal oil, but we go through a lot of lip balm so it should get used up fairly quickly.

My daughter wanted to make hers tinted, so some unused lipstick was added with a toothpick and allowed to melt into the mix. All up the project took about 15 minutes, the main amount of time was waiting for the wax to melt. This quantity made 6 small jars.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Fungi workshop (& foray!)

Several pics for this post as I have spent the day at the fungi workshop: Exploring the Fifth Kingdom - an Introduction to Fungi. The day was amazing.

The workshop was held at the neighboourhood centre where a whole room was set up with beautiful displays along with information, guide books and pictures/photos. The morning was spent in a small seminar room with a large screen that dispayed beautifully photographed close up pictures as the speech progressed. The guide was relaxed, knowledgable and very engaging. We took a small break for lunch and then went on a fungal foray at the top of our local mountain where many different specimens were found and discussed. The day was finished of with a delicious cook up of local mushrooms in a wok over a small campfire just as the rain made appearance!

Native boletes (spongy pored fungi). Edibility unknown.

This table shows how similar (and innocent) field mushrooms can look. Only two specimens pictured here are safe to eat!

Stages in the life cycle of the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria).

Saffron Milk Cap (Lactarius deliciosus), a local edible fungi. Grows under pine trees and is identified by the orange 'milk' it oozes, which turns green with oxidation, the 'giraffe like' spotted pattern on the stem, the chalky interior of the stem and the downward sloping of the gills.

Slippery Jack (Suillus luteus), another edible local mushroom. It has a characteristic slimy coating on top of the cap and a porous underside (almost sponge-like) in place of gills. Found in pine forests.

Shaggy Ink Cap or Lawyers Wig (Coprinus comatus). The two pictured here were actually ones I found in my driveway that I took along and as the guide didn't have these specimens they were placed on the display table. Another local edible variety.

Saffron Milk Cap found on our foray.

Saffron milk caps fried in olive oil and garlic. The perfect end to a fantastic day.

*It goes without saying, but never eat wild mushrooms unless you are with someone who knows what they are doing or you are certain that they are safe.*

Friday, April 23, 2010

Lemongrass and Olive Oil Soap with Sage

Earlier in the week I made this batch of soap. Not to be put off with my previous seizing episode, I wanted to have another go at using my new stick blender (I just love the way it reduces the time involved!). The differences between that batch and this one are:

No 1. No kids around (last time they were a huge distraction!)
No. 2. Distilled water used instead of tap
No. 3. Less fragrance oil used (by 1/3).

The soap still traced quickly with the stick blender and had I not been totally focused I think it may also have seized, which I am putting down to the fragrance oil. These last two batches are the only ones where I have tried fragrance oils and as it turns out, the only ones I have had trouble with super fast tracing..
As I was on my own with no disturbances, I was able to pour the soap into the mold quickly enough only just before it completely solidified.

I was excited to try some avocado oil that I had come across. I used this at no more than 5% of the total oils, as apparently it is a soft oil and my book recommended using only this much. The soap was ran through a soap calculator for a superfatting of 6%. The quantities of ingredients for a 1500g batch I used are as follows:

30% coconut oil - 450g
65% olive oil - 975g
5 % avocado oil - 75g

500ml distilled water
212g lye

1/4 cup loosely packed dried, ground sage leaves (from the garden)
30ml lemongrass 'essential oil' but I have my doubts. It was a fragrance, going by the cheap price.

The lye was added to the melted oils at 100f. Using the stick blender it was mixed, alternating with slow stirring. The sage and fragrance were added at a thin trace and then poured into the mold as the mixture thickened (really quickly!). The lid was fitted and the soap insulated for 48 hours, undisturbed.

Another thing I tried differently this time was not using plastic wrap to line the mold. Big mistake! I had so much trouble getting the soap out of the mold and ended up with quite a pile of scraps that I ended up rolling up into little 'soap balls'.

The soap is now on another cake rack drying. I really need to organise some racks to use specifically for soapmaking, as my kitchen desperately needs the cake ones back!

Lemongrass & Olive Oil soap with Sage

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hanging around, hoping for some strawberries...

With the beautiful warm weather making a reappearance, I was itching to get back into the garden. The hanging baskets that I had picked up for our strawberries have been living near the front door for the last couple of weeks and I was tired of stepping around them every time I was on my way in or out. I became inspired to plant the strawberries in the hanging baskets after admiring the ones over at Urban Homestead South Africa, and the seeing the harvest they grew, which was even enough to make some jam!

First, I lined them with some old plastic (from empty potting mix bags) to slow down evaporation. We experience some really hot winds over summer and I wanted to give the plants the best possible chance. They were then filled with a mixture of mushroom compost, water crystals, azaela and camellia food and worm castings. Three plants were placed in each pot. The brackets were attached to some existing timber in our courtyard and the baskets hung. They were watered with a mixture of worm tea and seaweed brew to settle them in.

The wall the baskets are on faces east in our courtyard and recieves about a half day of morning/noon sunshine. I'm hoping this will work over summer as the strawberries will be protected from the sun in the hottest part of the afternoon and also the hot westerly winds.

In addition to the four hanging baskets, we also have approximately 60 more strawberries potted up that will need to find a home for next season. My main goal is to grow enough berries to make some jam or syrup but if this doesn't happen, I will be happy with the juicy pickings!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Fungi sightings

Our family has been witness to a spectacular Emergence of Fungi this year on our small property. The following are some of the different species that I have photographed during the last couple of weeks.

the speedy

the hidden

the tree stump dweller

the enormous

the elegant

the tempting

and the forbidden

I am looking forward to this weekend as I am booked in to attend a fungi workshop which also includes a field trip to study local specimens and guidance in identifying the poisonous and the safe.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Basic hearth breads and Orange Syrup Cake

Continued on from yesterday's woodfired oven baking effort, I present the bread report. As I mentioned already, the bake-off was a spur of the moment decision and I jumped right into it before I had a chance to change my mind or make excuses (so easy to do). Therefore, the breads were basic, fast and easy to prepare.

I have a very small selection of much loved bread books in my bookshelf but the ones I keep going back to are Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice and Dan Lepard's The Handmade Loaf. Both of these books are worthy of my humble praise both in the layout, pictures and the wealth of information for new bread bakers. Peter's book (US based), has many 'formulas' for amazing breads using commercial yeast, with the majority of the formulas taking 2 days plus to prepare (a little organisation is needed here!). Dan Lepard's book (UK based), has a fantastic section on sourdough leavens, starting them from scratch, feeding them and baking with them. This is the book to read if you are all about 'old school'. If you are passionate about good homemade bread, I would recommend both of these beautiful books to you.

Yesterday, I made up a batch of dough with the inspiration taken from Dan Lepard's "Quick White Loaf", which is basically a white floured loaf with whole milk as the main proportion of liquid.
I changed the liquid ratios and chose instead to use a mixture of flours for my dough. I ended up using the following:

1800g strong white flour
1100g wholemeal flour
100g rye flour
12 tsp instant dry yeast
6 tsp salt
6 tsp bread improver
1 litre full-cream milk (room temp, UHT)
1litre warm water
3 tbs honey

The dry ingredients were combined in my largest bowl which was only just large enough. The liquids and honey were added and then the whole lot was combined at first with a large metal spoon and then later with my hands...wrist and err... elbows. Just kidding. Only about the elbows though. The hands were the only way and it was really hard work to mix this much dough in one go. Next time I might halve the ingredients into two bowls and mix it in smaller batches. I really don't want to dislocate a wrist in the name of eating well.

The dough kneading took a good 30 minutes by hand and even then I feel it could've done with a bit more, but other things needed doing so this was all it was going to get. The dough was split in two and placed in oiled bowls to rise and covered with oiled clingfilm to prevent a skin forming.

As I had placed the doughs into a warm oven to rise, they were puffing out of their bowls an hour later. They were shaped and placed into: 2 x bread pans, 2 x wicker baskets lined with oiled clingfilm (sadly I don't have beautiful, rustic 'bannetons'), and 4 x free-form loaves - 2 with sesame seeds for future garlic breads and 2 rolled in kaipseed mix (sunflower, sesame, poppy and linseed) for sandwiches and toast.

The loaves were well on their way 30 minutes later and needed to be placed in to the fridge to slow down their growth (the woodfired oven wasn't hot enough yet). If using a regular oven the timing wouldn't be so tricky...just bake them when they are ready.

The loaves were baked between 20 and 30 minutes in the hot oven with the coals removed and the heavy door wedged into position. If using an electric (fan-forced) oven, they would be baked for 40-45 minutes at 200-220c, rotating the loaves half way through to create an even crust.

The eight loaves, nearing the end of their baking time. The baking paper makes it easier to slide the dough onto the oven floor and they can be moved if needed, without fear of sticking to the bricks.

Free form loaf with kaipseed mix

An attempt at a 'boule' shaped loaf and this way of scoring. Next time I would like to try a wash to darken and add shine to the crust (salt maybe?)

Once baked and cooled, the loaves were sliced with our small, rickety food slicer and placed into the chest freezer for future consumption. I would be happy if a batch liked this lasted a month (with the occasional store bought or breadmaker loaf in-between). I think I can cope with a bake-off once every four to six weeks. It's just a matter of getting organised and setting aside the time to do it.

Yesterday's bake-off also produced an Orange Syrup cake that was wonderfully moist when eaten warm straight from the oven. It took longer to bake than usual as the temperature was dropping in the oven by the time it went in (150c). I can't remember how long exactly..maybe an hour and 15-20 compared to the 55 minutes it takes in the regular electric oven.

I acquired this recipe years ago when I was working and it is still one of my top favourites. It is big enough to feed a group or one hungry family, and it uses oranges which is great for when you may not have a bundle of lemons or bananas just lying around waiting to be turned into a cake.

Orange Syrup Cake

1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, softened
1 3/4 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp finely grated orange zest

1 cup yoghurt or sour cream
1/2 cup orange juice

3 cups self-raising flour

1/2 cup orange juice
3 tbs sugar

Preheat oven to 180c. Grease and flour a large kugelhopf tin. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition. Add extract and zest.

Combine the yoghurt/sour cream and orange juice together in a bowl and whisk with a fork. Add the yoghurt mixture to the butter mix, alternating with the flour. Start and end with the yoghurt mixture. Fold the flour in gently. Spoon mixture into prepared tin and bake for 50-60 minutes, until well risen and golden brown on top. Allow to cool in tin for 5 minutes and then invert onto a wire rack to continue cooling.

Combine glaze ingredients in a small saucepan and simmer gently for three minutes. Brush hot glaze over warm cake. Let stand 10 minutes or so before slicing.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Re-igniting the love of baking

From electric breadmaker to woodfired oven in one post! I had no idea this would happen. It's been sooo long since our woodfired oven has been in use, I just couldn't stand it any was time to ignite it from within!

I want to put down how my day goes when the oven is going. Ideally, the day would've been planned a few days in advance, at least two, to decide what to make, gather ingredients and start any bread doughs that take more than one day to prepare. Of course, as it was a spontaneous decision, none of that actually took place. This is how it happened:

8:00am - woke, lay in bed dreaming of warm, crusty woodfired oven bread.

8:05am - a thought, "what's stopping me?" The day was beautiful, we had a plentiful supply of dry firewood, a new 5kg bag of bread flour in the pantry plus I had just had a pretty good night's sleep. What better opportunity would I ever possibly have? I lept out of bed, dressed and planned the bake over breakfast. Time was taken to sit still and relax over a cup of tea. Once the oven is on, there isn't much relaxing going on. Don't believe me? Read on...

9:00am - Lit the fire in the oven with newspaper and dry kindling. Gum tree branches are my kindling of choice. I love the crackle of the gum leaves as they ignite. As the fire took off, larger pieces of wood were added. During this time I also fed the ducks and chooks and brought up another wheelbarrow of firewood from our wood heap.

9:30am - Went inside to prepare dough. First a big batch of bread dough was made using 3kg of flour. This was really hard work to knead as my arms don't have all that much muscle (a fact!). I would LOVE a machine to do this for me, but it's not happening any time soon, so arms it has to be.

9:50am - placed ingredients for another batch of dough (this time much smaller, only 500g flour) into the breadmachine and selected 'dough' setting. While this was working away, I kept on kneading the gi-normous ball of dough I had in front of me.

10:20am - Stopped kneading that hugely, unmanageable ball of dough and divided it into two bowls to rise. Time to check the fire and add more wood. A visitor called in here, and what perfect timing really, when I stop and think about it!

11am - Another small batch of dough mixed together (500g flour), and placed in a bowl outside in the sun to rise, this one is for our lunchtime pizzas. More stoking of the fire.

11:30am - Knocked down doughs and shaped. This was way to early in hindsight, as today I was racing against the yeast to get the oven to the correct temperature. Better to slightly underprove and slash deeply, than to have puffy loaves flopping about all over the place. More stoking of the fire.

12:00pm - doughs leaping out of bread pans and the oven is no where near hot enough to even think about baking. Bugger! I did not plan this well. I started pulling things out of the fridge to make space to put the doughs try and slow down the super fast yeasties. Big logs were added to the oven. Pizzas were rolled out and topped. The fire was pushed to the back of the oven and the floor swept free of ash. The pizzas were baked.

Baking 'nude' - that is, no tray

12:30pm - pizzas (x2) served. Sat down with the family outside to gobble them up. Coals spread over oven floor to distribute an even heat.

12:50pm - coals removed from oven and the floor swept. Door put on for 15 minutes or so to regulate temperature.

1:10pm - the flour sprinkle test - sprinkled some flour on the floor of oven to see how long it takes to brown. It took several seconds for it to brown so the bread doughs were placed in. A light misting with a water spray bottle and the oven door was wedged into position. The timer set for 20 minutes then it was inside to clear up dishes and prepare a cake mixture.

1:30 - Some breads ready, others needing to stay in for another 10 minutes or so.

1:45 - the oven is dropping temperature now, the cake goes in (on a cooling rack to lift it off the bricks) and the other breads come out.

By 2:00pm, pretty much everything is done, except the cake which has no chance of burning in the rapidly cooling oven. We have a roast beef planned for dinner, which will go in around 3pm and if needed a small fire lit again to keep the heat up.

More to follow: bread pics and recipes...

Half and half - Margharita and Margharita with sausage, fennel and chilli

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The easiest pizza scrolls you'll ever make, plus lunchbox ethics

There is an old friend in my kitchen that has been helping me lately. It's white, it's big and it makes funny noises. It is my breadmaker that has been residing in the back of the cupboard for quite some time. It was given to me as a birthday present about 10 years ago and is still baking great bread. I don't know why I stopped using it. Actually, maybe I do. After the initial novelty wore off, which did quite well lasting for a couple of years, I became somewhat of a bread snob, believing that for homemade bread to be real or authentic, it had to be made with my own two hands from absolute start to absolute finish otherwise it would be 'cheating'. I scoffed at the breadmaker, and so began it's dormant phase. Of course, this was before I had started a family. These days, I have come to the conclusion that it's a really valuable piece of kitchen equipment. Anything that can knead, incubate, bake and even make jam while I am chasing in escaped goats, playing outside in the dirt or shuttling kids around after school is more than worthy a prime place in my kitchen! Only trouble is, there is no prime place for it. Bench space is limited, so it's constantly being heaved in and out of the (extremely overcrowded) cupboard. Oh well, it's a small inconvenience for a much greater convenience. And anything that gets us eating fresh baked bread instead of the store bought preservative and salt laden varieties has got to be a good thing, right?

The easiest pizza scrolls you'll ever make:

Measure out the dough ingredients and place them in the breadmaker, starting with the wet ingredients and then adding the dry. For a standard size dough, 500g of flour is good. A combination of flours can be used, for example 300g plain + 200g wholemeal, or rye or whatever takes your fancy. I always keep the plain flour as the one with the highest ratio, to assist in the raising of the loaf.

For these scrolls I used:
300g plain flour
200g wholemeal flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp instant dry yeast
1 tsp bread improver
about 320mls water

My dough cycle takes an hour and a half.

Once finished in the machine, the dough was rolled out into a largish rectangle, about 1cm high and topped with a herby tomato sauce, grated tasty cheese, shredded ham and pineapple chunks. The filling can be anything that is available and tasty, herbs, roasted vegetables, pesto..etc.

Then it was rolled up into a log and sliced into 2.5-3cm slices.

The slices were layed into a baking paper lined dish and left to rise.

Then they were baked in a 200c oven until they were nicely golden and their aroma was wafting through the house, around half an hour.

And allowed to cool, before being packaged into the freezer for 'homemade lunch orders'*.

* Our childrens' primary school offers lunch orders once a week where they can order what they like from a list and enclose the money in a brown paper bag and then have the order delivered to the classroom at lunch time. The menu options for them include (all pre-packaged and frozen): sausage rolls, meat pies, lasagne, dim sims, chicken nuggets and mini pizzas. For sweets there are donuts (jam or chocolate), tarts (jam or lemon) and apple cakes. I absolutely loathe Fridays and the appearance of the lunch order list, and cringe when talk of chicken nuggets and party pies fills the air. The whole thing goes against my grain, especially considering the school has a fabulous growing kitchen garden! I started offering my daughters a 'homemade lunchorder' about 18 months ago after hearing of the idea from a friend and it has been a big success. They get to choose what they want to take (in a brown paper bag..ha! - sometimes they even write what's in it and draw pictures!) and they are happy. I keep a little selection of treats in the pantry that they can choose from on Fridays, plus I usually try to have something baked for them like these scrolls or a cakey thing that keeps them satisfied while still allowing me to boycott the whole Friday Lunchorder affair. I'm not a total control freak though, they are still allowed to have lunchorders on the first Friday of each month, which they sometimes refuse in favour of the homemade version. Victory? Hmmm, perhaps!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Introducing...our new girls

Our team of egg-layers (or rather, non egg-layers) has aquired some newcomers. I have held back posting a pic of them because I wanted to be sure they had settled in nicely (and not died of shock, cold or the brutal pecking that can sometimes happen). The two point of lay Isa Browns and the twelve week old Australorp and Araucana arrived on Sunday and have spent the last few days familiarising themselves with their new surroundings and the three geriatrics that came with it.

The birds came from a local breeder who raises predominantly Isa Browns, but also offers a small selection of specialty breed hens as well as ducks and emus. The pecking has been minimal, with only the youngest of our previous three asserting herself. It is quite noisy at dusk as they all find their proper perching position, according to the pecking order, and the little Araucana actually gets herself all comfy and cosy for sleep in a nesting box! The two young ones are still cheeping, while the older chooks have found their clucking function.

All seven birds have spent the past few days in the pen together and today I let out the three old girls into the chook dome tractor. This suited the newcomers as they could scratch for bugs and seed undisturbed.

The Isa Browns, which according to the seller, should start laying in about 3 weeks

and the Australorp (black, behind) that my youngest has named 'Cutie', and the lavender Araucana (front), which will lay blue eggs and has been christened 'Violet'. I admit to being fascinated with her hair-do!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Soapmaking: Seizing the moment, literally

It all began with a spark of an idea, a spicy-citrus aroma, an enticing bar of soap to lather up with over the winter months. I had it all planned, an orange scented soap with added spice in the form of ground cloves, nutmeg and a touch of cinnamon. Who wouldn't love that? I went about making it as I had in the past. Olive oil, rice bran oil, coconut oil. Simple. Easy? One would think.

I used my new weapon. A stainless steel stick blender that was bought with the skeptical thought that it would actually reduce the time for the soap to reach trace. But oh! Does this baby work up to it's reputation!! After waiting what seemed like an eternity for the lye solution to come down to around 115f, to match the temperature of the melted oils, my new gadget started it's work. Trace happened quickly, around 7 minutes!! Compare this to the 1-1 1/2 hour onwards times for my previous batches using the stand mixer, this was absolutely unbelievable! I had to work efficiently, short bursts of the stick blender combined with stirring with it and the soap was thickening quickly (but oh, so lovely!).

The spices were added, the fragrance oil, and ahhh! Noo! What's this, clumps...unattractive clumps it....seizing? Oh, yes, I think it is. Aghh! What next? I mixed it as best I could with the nearest thing - the soapmaking wooden spoon and scooped the lot into the mold. When soap seizes, it does it fast!

48 hours later, it was unmolded.
Oh, boy, it's not pretty. Really not pretty.

This is what seized soap looks like:

I cut it up anyway and placed on a rack to dry.

3 days later, and it's not quite so offensive. There are globs of spices in the bars that have failed to mix, parts where oil hasn't mixed in properly, but overall, the bars are firming and the scent is ....ok. Maybe it was the fragrance oil. Too much? Not good enough quality? The cloves? I have heard they can make soap seize suddenly. Oh, and another error, in my haste I used tap water instead of distilled. Not sure if this would've been a contributing factor?

So, unfortunately, no swapping with these bars, but I will certainly give them a go at home. I have been using the botched soap #1, which is actually really nice on my skin..just not the prettiest to look at. This batch will be it's companion.

Seized orange & spice soap bars

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lunch-box banana and choc-chip muffins

Combine two black bananas on the bench, the kids back at school and a growling craving in my empty stomach, this recipe was the obvious choice. Our middle daughter has also been asking for some choc-chip banana muffins lately, and I thought it was about time to indulge her.

Ingredients: Makes 16
110g butter, softened
180g sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
240g plain flour
1 tsp bi-carb soda (baking soda)
1/3 cup milk
2 large, black-ripe bananas
2/3 cup choc-chips

Preheat the oven to 180c and grease or line 1 x 12 muffin tray and 4 muffin holes on another tray. Beat the butter and sugar together in a small bowl until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, beating well, then add the vanilla.

In a seperate bowl, sift together the flour and bi-carb soda to combine. Using a large spoon, fold the flour into the butter/egg mixture, alternating with the milk. Once combined, add the banana and choc-chips and stir gently, being careful not to over mix. Spoon dollop fulls of mixture into the prepared muffin trays and bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown on top and the tops spring back when pressed.

Cool in trays for 5 minutes before tipping out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Tuck in while the chocolate is still warm. These muffins also freeze well for weekday lunch boxes.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A quandary of the egg-laying kind

To keep a flock of egg-laying birds in the backyard is a wonderful thing. Their eggs are deliciously fresh and the birds themselves are happy, often free-ranging, definitely scratching and finding bugs, they provide nutrient rich manure for the vegetable garden plus they are an endless source of entertainment.

But what happens when your chooks stop laying?

I am facing this dilemma at the moment. We have 2 old girls who have said "That's it, we've had enough!", and thus proceeded to not lay another single egg, and our youngin' who really should be laying but has decided to go into an unexpectedly early moult. How frustrating! Having to lower myself to buying supermarket range of course, but one can never be sure exactly how free range is free range. I have heard stories of the birds being kept in huge barns, with only small access doors to the outside world and it is basically just pure luck for a bird to stumble upon this exit and the resulting lush green pastures that are pictured on the label.

"So what's the big deal? Get some more chickens" I hear you say. Well, I face a little problem. I like to keep my chooks in a 'tractor' during the day, which is rotated around my vegie patch. The tractor was only built for four chooks, maximum. Which is great, when they're all performing to my expectations and producing an egg every (or every other) day. But they're not. I can't recall when my last egg was, but I think it was somewhere around the three week ago mark. And even then it was down to a miserable two eggs per week. Now, if I was a hard core farmer instead of just the mere dabbler that I am, I would be culling those unproductive birds and placing them in a big pot. The flock would be rejuvenated and productivity would kick in once more. But I'm not a hard core farmer and I make no claim to be. Deep down I love the idea of raising our own meat, but I'm not quite there yet, in that mental frame of mind to actually go through with it.

What to do? What to do?

I did have a spontaneous brain wave the other day about keeping a separate flock of birds in among the fruit trees, but that would mean a whole new shelter being built and fencing and get the picture. A great plan, but not a quick one to execute.

What to do? What to do?

Obviously frustrated with the lack of eggs in the house, the husband said over the weekend, "Why don't you just get some more chooks?", to which I then rattled off all of the reasons that were floating around in my head, with the tractor being the number one inconvenience.

But...but, could he be right? Just. Go. And. Get. Some. More? Hmmmm, quite possibly. Their overnight pen is certainly big enough to house some extra feathered friends. And the little pen I rigged up for the goats when they were little is still in tact, so could be put to use as a temporary pen for the new birds. And there is no reason for not putting some chooks in the tractor during the day and having the others stay in the pen, or ideally among the fruit trees, free ranging, to which no permanent shelter need be built because it would just be a 'day paddock'! Yes, perhaps it is that simple! Sometimes it just takes someone outside of the situation to put in their own two cents and suddenly the solutions come flowing.

To be continued.... here.

Our chook's night time pen, it utilises the east facing brick wall on our garage to protect them from strong westerly winds

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A gardener's meditative state...

Sometimes, even though an entire day has been spent working in the garden, I come inside at the end of the day feeling....alive. Sure, I'm tired, usually aching, but I somehow feel refreshed. I have put it down to the quiet, meditative state I get into while working away outside, often getting sidetracked to go onto different jobs and usually working my way around in a huge circle, often ending where I began. Even though my hands are busy, my mind is free to wander, which it does... and I find this kind of work so relaxing.

The peaceful afternoon saw me pulling out all the old tomatoes in the greenhouse and digging the bed over with goat straw and blood & bone. This was then planted with purple cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, silverbeet and lettuce seedlings. The tomatoes were hung up underneath our verandah to finish ripening on the vine. The path of getting sidetracked then took me to the chook garden beds and I found myself filling in all the empty spots with more seedlings of silverbeet, kale, lettuce and brussels sprouts, as well as dividing and planting LOTS of leeks.

Of course having the husband home for the day to play monopoly with the kids helped. They're happy, I'm happy, we're all happy!

And while I was working away, I happened to meet a new friend:...

Southern Brown Tree Frog

Friday, April 9, 2010

Quick garden update

Just a quick garden update today, as I'm a bit zapped for energy (school holidays? No... that has nothing to do with it, honest!). I had a lovely day outside earlier this week with the newspaper pots, and at the same time, also ripped up my strawberry bed, which was situated right near some huge gum trees and consequently wasn't doing so well.
The strawberries were all potted up individually into pots containing mushroom compost and placed in a sunnier spot. I'll figure out the specifics of exactly where to put them a little later on in the year The afternoon's work resulted in 35 potted strawberry plants plus another 10 or so still in the ground waiting to be potted. Today I picked up a handfull of hanging baskets to try growing some in, as our sunny spots are really limited (one of the compromises of living in the bush), and I wanted to make use of every available spot. I'm really excited about trying these out.

So this is what is happening in my garden today...

The mama leeks are all having babies and are ready to be divided. I am thinking about a big pot of potato and leek soup to use up some of the mamas.

Remember the lemon tree I planted about a week ago? Here it is sending out new flowers and tiny fruit! I think it is happy (so far) in it's new home. I hope it copes ok once we have a couple of frosts...

and here we have some...winter tomatoes!! Correct me if I'm wrong, but those little dangly things look suspiciously like fruit to me. This plant, which goes by the name of "Stupice", is on the east facing brick wall in our south-facing courtyard. Hopefully by being up against the brick wall it will be happy over the colder months.

The carrot bed that was sown with my own saved rainbow heirloom seed mix has germinated and is growing well, despite the lack of full sun (again, next to huge gum trees! What can I do?).

...and the broccoli is coming along in bed 5, which is just as well, because I was really sifting through the bugs to gather the remaining florets from bed 2. I know they're extra protein, but caterpillars in the cooking pot just don't stimulate my appetite.

There are also some little raspberries forming on the new canes. Perhaps a light autumn crop?
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