Thursday, August 7, 2014

Soap Addiction!



If you are just beginning to make handmade soap (as is a friend of mine), keep your eyes open at garage sales and junk stores for a storage cabinet big enough to hold most of your soap equipment.  A soap maker tends to accumulate essential oils, clays, colorants, jars, tins, bottles, crock pots, distilled water, misc. funnels, cutters, freezer paper, etc.  You will grow into it faster than you think!


Soap Equipment Storage Cabinet 
                               
A small or used refrigerator to store your infused oils, hydrosols, large batches of salve or Shea and Mango butters is very handy as well. Mine is always stuffed!  

College dorm size refrigerator
                                  

A rolling wire rack or utility cart is useful for keeping this and that close to the soap making area. Oh, and you'll need to improvise some drying shelves or racks for the curing soap!

Often used misc.


Our pesky kitten

I was just getting my equipment out to make soap, and was reminded to tell you, if you have a feline mascot, put him in another room with a closed door while you are making soap!    He just  can't help being curious.



                                               

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Day In The Life Of An Herbie

If you are interested in herbs but don't know where to start learning or where to begin, don't let that discourage you. People who love herbs are usually delighted to share learning sources, recipes, plant starts and camaraderie.  Reach out to individuals and organizations involved with herbs.  They will welcome you!

Start with one or two herbs that you just plain like.  Plant them, water them and read about them. Visit them daily, prune them as needed, and harvest them. I chose Calendula and Lavender as my first herbs because I could use them in the handmade soap I like to make.


Fresh Peppermint
                                   
I had no idea 15 years ago that I would eventually grow and learn about many herbs.  The learning part never stops, there is always something new you didn't know before.  

This just cut Peppermint smells just wonderful!  I plan to dry some of it for tea and infuse some in Olive Oil for use in Salves and Balms.

Several bunches have been drying for a week, and they are nice and crispy.  I'm going to rub the dried leaf and flowers off their stems (the term for that is garbling) to make room for the fresh cut herbs to dry.



Garbling dried Peppermint
                                     

Whoa!  This dried Peppermint not only cleared my sinuses, it scented the entire lower floor of our home.  I'm willing to bet there is not one herbalist anywhere that would purchase a Glade, chemically scented room freshener!


Echinacea purpurea
                                  
I found many more herbs ready to harvest out in my herb garden.  Althea, Calendula (a daily task), Echinacea purpurea, Garden Sage, Lemon Balm, Catnip and White Horehound. The mints and their close relations all come into flower at roughly the same time.  It is Feast or Famine, and you'd better be ready for the feast when they are!



Drying flower petals for Tea
                                 
Echinacea petals and leaves, and Althaea flowers, laid out in a basket tray.  They will be dried and ready for long term storage in a mason jar in less than a week.


Althaea (Marshmallow) flowers
                                       
Althaea has properties that soften skin, ease an upset stomach and soothe a sore throat.  I'm drying the flowers and leaves for use in tea blends.

Calendula Flowers

The Calendula flowers dry nicely when flattened onto a drying rack.  I pick at least this many flowers every morning off just two plants.  I began the season with 4 Calendula plants this year.  They self seed, so I select 3-4 of the largest, most vital starts every spring, and weed out the others.  Two of them were scorched during our long, triple digit heat spell and several days of smoke from the fires in our area.  I pruned them back, but they are still lagging behind the other two.

If you have even a little patch of ground or a deck with room for a few good sized pots, spend the coming winter reading about herbs, and choosing one or two to grow in the spring. Herbs are very accommodating and generally not real fussy or difficult to grow.  But be aware, if Herbs choose you, you will be assimilated!  




Sunday, July 6, 2014

Garbling Oregano




Garbling herbs is hard on your hands, especially when the stems are rough and bumpy.  Nowadays I wear a clean pair of Atlas gloves while I clean off the stems.  


It makes it easier to roll the stems between your hands and makes the whole process more enjoyable.  Which is the point, right?  �� 


I was able to clean 2 bundles of dried Greek Oregano in under 10 minutes, without roughing up my hands.  Just sayin'...

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Pictograph Caves, Billings, Montana





Tom and I recently visited Billings, Montana on business, but we visited Pictograph Cave state park to squeeze a little fun into the trip too. Ten minutes away from the city you can enter a time machine that dates back several thousand years!


One of the caves has a paved  (fairly steep) path leading to it, with resting benches strategically placed.  Some of the caves can be accessed only by crude, overgrown dirt trails, also quite steep and frequented by snakes.  There are trails for every level of hiking ability.  


I am fascinated by all things archaeological.  If you are too, I hope you'll enjoy the photos below of artifacts under glass at the wonderful visitors interpretive center.


Pictograph Cave and surrounding caves were once home to prehistoric hunters and gatherers.  Though near the Crow Indian Reservation, many different Plains tribes may have occupied and/or used the caves for ceremonial purposes.  This site was the first major archaeological excavation on the Northern Plains, begun in 1937.  Over 30,000 artifacts were found, and some were judged to be over 9,000 years old!












I got goosebumps while standing inside the easily accessible cave, imagining people seeking spirit thousands of years ago in the very spot I was standing.  


The black charcoal dash marks were placed on the wall above by archeologists to show where the original cave floor stood prior to excavation.  The red pictograph grouping, barely visible on the rock wall above, is a drawing of a cluster of rifles, added about 200 years ago on top of older pictographs.  The guide in the visitors center suggested we think of the cave art as similar to current day graffiti.  Sometimes it was spiritual in origin, and other times merely a statement of ego.  That made a lot of sense. 


The Red Hematite paint is more visible at some times of the year than others, and fades in and out depending on the amount of moisture on the walls.  The photo I took (just  above) is at the same spot on the cave wall as the replicated painting, below, showing what the first people on the dig saw when excavation began.  A crude paint dauber was found during the dig, with the dried, red glop of paint on the end of it revealing its purpose.


Many medicinal plants grow throughout the meadow and along the trails.  It was so easy to visualize the cave occupants gathering their medicine and berries thousands of years ago.  White Sage is everywhere!  


If you find yourself near the Billings area, don't miss a visit to these caves!  They 
are just incredible...and free.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Crazy Weather! Global warming?




I just completed the first harvest from five Chamomile plants a month earlier than most years.


Calendula is generally the first flower to bloom at our place, and though the first flower is forming, it won't open for a few days.   Have any of you noticed your garden schedule is different this year?

Friday, May 9, 2014

Layered Baby Lavender Plant




Remember the blog post I did last September on a Lavender propagation technique called "Layering"?  Here is the result!  A bouncing baby Grosso Lavender plant.  :-)  We just cut the umbilical stem from the Mother plant, and transplanted it to the big boy Lavender bed.  It won't grow a lot this year, but next year it will make up for lost time.  In 2 years, it will look like this! 




Fall is the best time to tuck new baby Lavender plants in for the winter in our area.  If you live in a mild climate, you could try it now.  If you are interested in seeing the original layering post and all the how-to's, it is the blog post for September 15th, 2013.  Sometimes layering occurs spontaneously.  You might find a nice surprise at the base of one of your existing Lavender plants, if you lift up the edges and look.

I was tickled to discover the very first Lavender flower stem of the season stretching to the sun this morning.  It is tiny, but if you look closely you'll see it just above dead center on the photo below.


And here it is again, in bloom, at the end of June!


This method takes tine and patience, but if you are willing to invest a little of both, you will be amply rewarded! 



Saturday, April 19, 2014

TSOUREKI - GREEK EASTER BREAD



My husband Tom is Greek, so we often celebrate holidays by making traditional Greek pastries. This bread is scrumptious and is no more trouble to make than any sweet roll recipe.  I usually don't braid the traditional red eggs into the dough before baking.  
The red eggs symbolize the blood of Christ on the cross.  (They look pretty, but the bread actually slices better without them in it.)  

 In orthodox Greek families, the eggs form a game between siblings at the table.  Each player holds a red egg in their hand.  One taps the end of his/her egg lightly against the end of the other player's egg.  The goal is to crack the end of the opponent's egg. Then everyone says, "Christos Anesti" (Christ is risen).

 This bread is wonderful sliced cold at the table, spread with butter, or made as toast.  

TSOUREKI – GREEK EASTER BREAD

INGREDIENTS:

8 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups milk, warmed
3 envelopes or 3 scant Tbs. yeast
3 sticks unsalted butter
1 2/3 cups sugar
Zest on one lg. orange
1 1/2 tsp. Mahlepi (Mahlab) (spice ground from pits of cherries) Don’t add to flour!
1/2 tsp. Cinnamon - Don’t add to flour!
5 eggs, lightly beaten

(4-5 Hard boiled eggs, typically dyed Red, to insert in dough before baking if desired)

EGG WASH: 1 whole egg beaten w/ a tiny bit of water
1/3 - 1/2 cup slivered almonds sprinkled on top of wash

DIRECTIONS:

Combine flour and salt in large bowl and set aside.

Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk.  Whisk in 1/2 cup of the flour and 1 Tbs. sugar.
Cover, and set aside until foamy (about 15 minutes).

In saucepan, melt butter over very low heat.  Remove from heat.  Stir in the sugar, orange zest, Mahlepi and Cinnamon.  Cool a bit.

Transfer melted butter mixture to the bowl of an electric mixer.  Using paddle attachment, add flour and frothy yeast mixture alternately to mixing bowl on low speed until thoroughly combined.  Change to dough hook.  Knead with dough hook for about 5-7 minutes, adding a little flour, if necessary, (up to 1/2 cup) until dough starts to cling with strings to sides of bowl while mixer is running.  Dough is supposed be soft and wet.  The kneading will also add shine and elasticity.  Don’t add much flour!

Cover the bowl with saran wrap, and allow to rise in a warm place for about TWO hours.  Because the dough is so soft and buttery, it will take quite a while to rise.  No worries.  :-)

Punch down the dough.  To me, this dough was perfect for shaping just as it is.  I don’t use any flour to shape it.  I shape it on a large silicone mat, and it doesn’t stick at all.

Separate into 3 equal rounds on silicone mat.  Cover with saran wrap and allow dough balls to rest for 15 minutes before shaping.

Divide each ball into 3 equal pieces.  Roll each piece into long snakes, about 12 inches long. 

Place Baker’s Parchment on 3 cookie sheets.  Place 3 snakes on each.

If adding dyed eggs, insert them between the braids while forming the loaf.  Red is traditional.  Sometimes I use them and sometimes I like to just make it without them because it slices better!

Secure the 3 snakes together at one end, by pinching and tucking the dough under 1/2 inch or so.  Braid loosely, and pinch the ends together at the end of the braid, and tuck underneath about 1/2 inch to hide join.  Repeat to make 3 separate braids on 3 cookie sheets.

Proof until double.  It takes about 1 1/2 to 2 hours again.  Trust me, this bread is definitely worth the wait.

Brush egg wash on each braid with pastry brush.  Sprinkle with almonds.

Bake in a preheated 280-300 degree oven for about 45 min. to an hour (depending on your oven.  I used convection bake at 300, for about 35 minutes.  Just keep an eye on it, and if browning too fast, lower the heat a little. 

Once you pull it out of the oven, allow it to cool about 10-15 minutes before you transfer it to cooling racks. 

Enjoy!  Marci

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Non-Intimidating Pie Crust Tutorial


Peach Lattice Top Pie

Think of yourself in your Grandma's kitchen - no stress, no worries, you're just here to make a pie because you want some dessert!  Its not a test and there will not be a grade.  If your first pie isn't the prettiest one in the world, the next one just might be!
Our 8 yr. old Grandaughter Erin and her fresh Strawberry Pie!
I've recently heard from several people who have trouble making pie crust.  They buy the pre-made graham cracker crust mixes, the pie crust mixes or the pre-made pie shells themselves, then try to make the pie filling adapt.  Guys, honestly, you can do this!  I'm going to teach you the same way my Grandma taught me.


Apple Pie
My Grandmother taught me to make pie dough when I was about eleven.  The secret to her teaching method was she didn't tell me it was an important skill, or even that some people thought it was difficult!  I thought we were just making dessert.  She was relaxed, and so was I.  I knew if she thought I could do it, I could do it. :-)
















There is a lot of misinformation out there, even in cook books.  Some tell you you must let the dough rest by chilling it for 1 hour in the refrigerator before rolling it.  Or, that you must use flour sparingly when rolling the dough. Neither are true for me.  It is true that you must let the finished dough rest 30-60 minutes before rolling it out, but I do the rest period at room temperature in sandwich sized ziplock bags.  Once that dough gets cold, it is not going to roll out correctly until it has returned to room temperature.

Also, I flour the surface I am rolling on fairly generously.  If the dough is made properly AND you have given it a rest period, it is not going to absorb excess flour when you roll it out.  It is easier to roll the dough if there is sufficient flour beneath the dough.  So I want to dispel those myths right from the start.  It is true that dough that is frozen before it is rolled is even more tender and flaky.  I don't think anybody knows why.  But I rarely do that unless I'm making a lot of dough for holiday pies.

Once in a while a dough just won't turn out.  It happens more often when you are learning.  If that happens to you, do yourself a favor and throw the works out!  Start over.  The 2nd time it will work.

Use a cup or so of flour, fanned out, for rolling!
I really love the Roulpat mat pictured above - it keeps the mess on the mat, and you can shake it off and wash it in the dishwasher.  They are flexible silicone, and come in cookie sheet size or in a larger size like the one above.  (great for both crafts or baking!)

Three True Things about Pie Dough:

Secret #1:
Use the best flour you can afford, i.e., from a small mill if possible.  Most Organic flours are good.  My favorite flours to bake with are King Arthur Unbleached All Purpose Flour or Bob's.  Many grocery stores carry both now, even in small 5# bags.  Don't use pre-sifted flour.  Don't use bread flour.  Pastry flour is very nice, but harder to work with.  Try that later, not now.  Some of the cheaper flours available at the grocery store have quite a bit of cornstarch added for filler.  That will toughen your pie and/or make the dough crumbly or easily torn.  So, buy the best flour you can afford and save it for use only in pies if you have to.  Cookie recipes aren't generally as touchy with respect to flour.

Secret #2:
Measure correctly!  That matters a lot in baking.  When you measure your flour, don't dip the measuring cup into the flour to fill it and then shake off the excess.  Hold your measuring cup above the flour bin.  Using a scoop or a big spoon, drop the flour gently into the measuring cup until it is mounded above the top of the cup.  Using a straight edge knife, drag the blade horizontally across the top of the cup and let any excess fall back into the bin.  If you are used to using a scale (my most preferred method) weigh all the ingredients you will use.  Find out how much each recipe ingredient weighs by pre-measuring them separately and correctly by volume, first.  Write that down on the recipe card.  Then weigh them.  A lot of tough pies occur because there was too much flour added in proportion to the shortening.  Your proportions of flour to shortening must be correct.

Drop flour gently into measuring cup

Use a straight edge to remove excess

Add this correctly measured flour to your bowl

Secret #3:
It is almost more important how you mix the shortening into the flour and salt than the particular type of shortening you use. In other words, use my recipe or use one from a cookbook.  You can make a very decent pie crust using all Crisco, all Lard, all Butter, part Butter and Crisco or Lard, or a mixture of Butter, Lard and Coconut oil, etc.  A Crisco or Lard pie crust can be just as tender and flaky as that made with a blend of shortening, though adding Butter will definitely add a flavor boost.  I don't use all Coconut Oil, ever, for pie crust.  Even part Coconut oil will toughen the pastry slightly, but the trade off is it tastes great and has greater health benefits.  Since I make pies fairly infrequently, I want them to be decadent in every way.  They aren't health food by any stretch, no matter what you do.  Today I am mixing the dough by hand, so you'll begin to recognize the stages of pie dough.   Sometimes I use my Cuisinart Food Processor instead.  It makes great pie dough, too.


1/2 cup diced, cold salted butter

1/4 cup chilled Lard
PIE DOUGH:
This recipe makes one 9" or 10" double crust pie or two single crust pies:

2 cups unbleached King Arthur AP flour
1 tsp. fine sea salt
3/4 cup chilled shortening total
Ice Water ( about 12 TBS. for a 2 crust pie in a dry climate) sometimes more

Measure flour into a deep, rather than wide bowl.  Stir in 1 tsp. sea salt.  Cut in HALF of the total shortening using a pastry blender.  (Do not even try making it with two knives as some older cookbooks suggest)  It is an exercise in frustration that you don't need when you are learning to make pie dough.  I know very few people who succeed at that method, including me :-P

Some of the diced butter added to flour mixture

Cut half the total shortening into the flour until dough particles are the size of peas.
Add the remaining shortening and blend in until some pieces are the size of dried beans.
Don't cut in all the shortening at once.  The smaller particles of dough contribute to a tender pie crust.  The larger particles make the crust flaky.  If you want a really tasty pie crust, you need both sizes of particles present before you add the ice water.  It is harder to control that balance if you cut in all the shortening at once.

Notice there are some small and some larger pieces of dry dough b-4 water is added
                                   
Ice water - I don't measure it!  I go by the feel of the dough

You've probably noticed instructions in cookbooks that told you to add a pre-measured, exact amount of ice water, by sprinkling o..n..e tablespoon at a time over the dough, until the dough hangs together.  I use a small gravy ladle with which I can sprinkle about 3 TBS. of water at a time.  I find it just as reliable, and easier to hang onto while sprinkling drops onto the dough with my left hand and tossing the particles in the bowl with a large fork in my right hand.  This recipe will absorb several TBS. of ice water.  I add more water in our dry, arid climate than I used to add when I lived on the coast, even with the same recipe.  So, set aside some water, with ice in it.  

Sprinkle water over dough a little at a time, tossing dough pieces w/ fork as it is added.
Dough is almost ready.  Notice how "shaggy" it looks?  
NOW the dough is ready.  It is shaggy AND it sort of  holds together.

When dough pieces hold together like they do in the above photo, stop adding water!  The dough should be very moist but not sticky.  Pick some up with your hand.  It should easily drop out of your hand without leaving any residue behind.  If you've added too much water, and the dough is sticky, that is still better than trying to roll it when it is too dry and crumbly.  Just proceed, and know it may have a bit tougher texture than it should.  Next time, check the moisture more often.  

Gather the dough with both hands and compress it into a ball.

Gather dough into a  ball.
Slice into two pieces.  

Lightly press dough into two flat discs.  Put in zip lock bag.  Let rest for 30-60 min. on counter.


Choose your rolling pin!  Hardwood is the best way to go.
With your hand, coat your rolling pin lightly with flour.  
Begin rolling the disc.  ALWAYS roll from the center out, in every direction.  The rolling part is brief, because as you get near to the edge you will sort of push the rolling pin towards the edge and immediately lift it up and off of the dough.  Don't pound the dough or try to roll too hard or too far all at once.  You want to gently stretch the dough with a very light, fluid, swooping motion.  You'll see what I mean when you actually do it.  You will keep moving the rolling pin all the way around the circle, sometimes away from you, sometimes left, sometimes toward you, sometimes right, so that the dough stays circular, rather than elongated.

To redistribute the flour under the dough, use the rolling pin to roll it toward you.
The dough is thinly rolled and about 12 inches across. It is ready to put in the pie pan.
Lay the far edge of the dough against the rolling pin and use the pin to roll it toward you. 
Lift the dough and pin together over the pie dish, and allow to unroll over it.


Use scissors to trim off excess beyond an inch of overhang, all the way around.
For a single crust pie, lift and tuck under the 1 inch overhang.
Crimp the edges of the pie crust.

To duplicate the edge I used above, hold the first and middle finger of the left hand vertically against the outer edge of the pie pan.  Lay the right hand index finger vertically on the inside edge of the dough.  With the index finger of your right hand, press the dough into the space between the two vertical fingers of the left hand.  This makes the outward pointing triangle.  To make the inner triangle next to it, reverse the process, using the index and middle finger of your right hand on the inside of the dough.  With the left index finger, press the dough inward, into the space between the two fingers of your right hand.  This is my favorite pie edge, but there are many techniques you can use.  Enjoy!