Thursday, December 30, 2010

Super Hero Capes

Last year, I made two superhero masks for my kids for Christmas. Handmade Holidays Part III -Superhero Masks

A full year later, both of the masks I made were still around the house, and often near the top of the toy box (meaning they are used frequently) so I decided to make the kids capes to go along with their masks.

I used the same felt material (60 inch wide EcoFelt from Joanne's, regularly it is $4.99 per yard, but goes on sale for 50% off all the time. Add in the coupon that Joann's puts in my mailbox nearly weekly and it was a very cheap project)

I used black felt and free-handed a cape shape. I cut out the cape and then hand sewed a contrasting felt letter onto the cape.

A tiny piece of self adhesive Velcro at the neckline and it was a wearable cape.

Honestly, I was a bit shocked at just how quickly and easily this project came together so I decided to make another... and another... and another, by December 19th I had made 12 cape - and - mask combos for all of the kids in our lives.

I never got a photo of all of the capes together since they were gifted as quickly as I could finish them.

Here is what the gift looked like, one simple mask and a monogrammed cape--pink for the girls, black for the boys and everyone got a black mask.

This project was a lot of fun, and very easy to churn these puppies out assembly line style. From start to finish a cape took less than 1 hour each to complete. By far, the hand stitching was the slowest part (the letter M was a particular pain), but it was also very easy to do while watching TV.

Most of the capes were for local friends from our church, but one cape was hand carried all the way up to Connecticut for my second cousin (is that what you call the child of a cousin? oh well)

1) I free handed the first few letters then decided to just print out a set of 6 inch high letters from the computer-- much easier to use a template to get the letter just right.
2) I used embroidery floss in a contrasting color to applique each of the letters to the capes. At first I was kind of disappointed with my uneven stitching, but then decided it looked folksy (sure, why not)
3) The rough outline for the cape came from here: but I did not go through all of the effort of lining the cape, mine were super easy, no sewing machine needed.
4) With careful placement, I could get three toddler-sized capes from one 20 inch cut of the fabric. Fabric is 60" wide and the capes are each ~20 inches wide and 20 inches tall.

Homemade Yogurt

This year (okay so next year, 2011... in like 2 days) we have decided we want to learn how to make more dairy products. Apart from making homemade butter (which is as simple as putting heavy cream in a lidded jar and shaking), yogurt was the next easiest dairy product to make at home.

I started my online search looking for a 'yogurt machine' for hubby for Christmas, but quickly saw that actually buying a machine was overkill for just how simple the process seemed. Basically it is as simple as this: heat milk, add a cup of starter yogurt, keep warm for a few hours, and... yogurt.

Back when I was a kid, my paternal grandparents used to make yogurt on the back of their stove top at night (I guess the pilot light kept it warm enough). I don't remember eating it, but everything I ate at their house was delicious.

We heated 1/2 gallon of whole milk on the stove (the milk was from Sprouts, not sure all the details, rTBH free?).

We cooked it until it was at 180F. (I think this is to kill any bacteria in the milk)

We then cooled it quickly to 120F by putting the pot into a sinkful of cold water. (this brings the milk back to a hospitable temperature for the good bacteria we are about to add)

We then stirred in 1/2 cup of the starter yogurt into the 120F milk. In this case, I used Stoneyfield plain cream top (this stuff is SOOO good).

Meanwhile, I also sterilized a random collection of canning jars to put the finished yogurt into. (not sure if this step is necessary. I figured we were intentionally creating the perfect environment for bacteria to grow, I wanted to make sure it was the 'right' kind of bacteria and not some random bad bacteria from my jar storage box)

We ladled half of the new yogurt into jars as is (just hot milk and yogurt).

We put the filled, lidded jars into a cooler filled with about 3 inches of hot water (target temp 120F).

This water and cooler will help to keep the new yogurt at a warm constant temperature for several hours to allow the bacteria to grow.

(I don't have a lot of kitchen gadgets, but I really love my digital thermometer.)

As an experiment, we added honey and vanilla to the second half of the batch.

These were lidded too and placed into the cooler to begin the yogurt incubation period. The recipes I found online all called for warm incubation periods of between 3 hours and overnight. Since we finished the cooking and mixing portion of this experiment at 9pm... and we are big babies who go to bed at about 9pm... we opted to allow it to incubate overnight. I read that the longer the incubation period, the tangier the yogurt would taste.

The next morning...

Viola! Yogurt!

Side Note: In all honesty, I only tipped the jar like this because I saw a picture of someone else doing this online to show how lovely and thick their yogurt was. I did it and was so thrilled that ours was that thick too. I snapped a quick picture then in the two seconds it took me to turn back around to put the camera down, the thick creamy top on the yogurt had given way and the sort-of-thick yogurt had poured out and pooled all over my counter. Oops.

Once stirred, the consistency was like a thin smoothie, not terribly thick, but no where near as runny as milk.

We ended up with about a half gallon of homemade yogurt and it was yummy. It was a tiny bit tart, and we all preferred the sweetened version to the straight plain yogurt we made.

By far, the best way we have found to eat this is to mix in a giant glob of my runny homemade peach preserves. Mmmm.

I was a little bit worried that the kids would not care for the tanginess of it, but they really loved it. Since it was so runny, I served it to them in cups with a straw and they slurped it right up. It is basically the consistency of the smoothies we make.

Considering the fact that the Stoneyfield yogurt we all like so much costs between $3.99 (on sale) and $5.00 (ouch) per quart this is a huge cost savings. In Dallas right now, a grocery store price war with the new Aldi store has milk going for around $0.99 per gallon! Even at the usual price of $1.99 per gallon (and with four quarts to a gallon) making our own saves a lot of money.

Basic Recipe:
1 gallon of milk
1/2 cup of live culture yogurt

1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup sweetener (honey or sugar)

1) heat milk to 180F
2) cool milk to 120F
3) stir in starter yogurt
4) sweeten if desired
5) ladle into sterilized jars
6) place in warm spot for 3-8 hours to incubate
7) refrigerate after incubation period is complete

Monday, December 13, 2010

Harvest Celebration Confusion

Three bales of straw
Last Saturday night (Dec 4th) hubby took the kids and I driving to look at Christmas lights and we passed a pile of Halloween decorations--pumpkins, squash, 3 big bales of straw-- on a neighbors curb, waiting for trash pickup. Of course, I could not let this treasure go to the dump so poor hubby--all dressed up from the Christmas party we just left, hoisted the goodies into the back of my van.

I will use the straw bales as mulch for my summer garden in 2011. The golden color of the straw will help to reflect heat away from the soil, keeping the plants roots cooler (a definite concern in a Texas summer), the straw will help to keep moisture in the soil from evaporating, and it will also shade the soil and prevent the weed seeds from germinating--saving me time at my weeding. Free and pretty mulch, and all packaged in three tidy bundles. Until it is needed in the garden, the bales will act as a backyard climbing and jumping platform for my kids.

squash with straw mulch

I did not pick up the pumpkins from the curbside pile, but I thought about it. We already have about a dozen pumpkins in our backyard now from our own decorations as well as the free 'after holiday cast offs' from a friend's fundraising event selling pumpkins at her church.

Kids helping me to sort pumpkin seeds for roasting

The smaller pumpkins can be peeled, cubed, and cooked for pies, or the cubes can be roasted in the oven with salt and olive oil, the seeds can be salted and roasted for a crunchy snack. I still have 1 bag of pumpkin puree in the freezer from last years pumpkins. Pumpkin muffins were a real hit with my kids (and high in beta carotene). Even if you don't want to eat pumpkins, they are great food for the chickens. At the very least they are compost pile fodder. Nope, instead they were tossed to the curb to head to the local dump.

pumpkin squash muffins, ready to bake

How funny that the image we have of the bounty of "Harvest Time" and richness of fall with piles of rich golden pumpkins and squash, shocks of dried corn, and bales of golden straw--which used to mean a winters worth of food for the family and livestock-- are now seen as a disposable decorators item. Thanksgiving used to mean the end of the growing and harvest season, a time when families would gather to share in the rewards from a years worth of hard work in the fields.

This is not the first year I have collected hay bales from peoples trash, and it won't be the last (if you want to see a funny sight, picture tiny me, dressed in a skirt and heels for work, attempting to hoist a wet 60 pound bale of straw into the back of my minivan without getting dirty). For some reason this year it made me sad to see the wastefulness and the backward way of looking at things in our society.

So what are we really thankful for today (a bit late, buy HAY)? Thankful for good jobs that allow us to earn plenty of money to maintain a lifestyle? Thankful for stores full of goods, even those that are only used to be visually pleasing for a time? Thankful for a beautiful home to decorate for the various holidays? Thankful that we don't have to hack open a pumpkin each time we want to enjoy a pie?

I don't mean this to condemn anyone, I really am thankful that we live in such a rich and blessed society that allows us the choice to spend our money how we choose... and I'm even more thankful that the life my hubby and I share allow us the ability to see a treasure like this on the curbside. I'm thankful for the knowledge I have on how to use this bounty. I'm thankful that no other 'dumpster divers' got to this gem before me!

Fall Garden--December 2010

My fall garden is growing nicely this year.

The weather has mostly been mild and damp and the plants are growing slowly and steadily... all except the turnips which sprouted up and have gotten huge.

The beets look bright and pretty

This is my first set of broccoli from seed and it is coming up very nicely.

I grew broccoli for the first time this spring and was very pleased with how well it did. The floret (head?) was not as big as what is sold in the stores, but the flavor was so good. Kind of like the difference between a 'store bought' tomato and a garden tomato... the same is true for broccoli.

My artichoke plant is still going strong, actually, these are the babies of the original plant. This plant is in a far from ideal condition in terms of garden layout and planning, but it has done so well I do not have the heart to move it.

On the wire fence are snow peas, then a row of turnips, which mostly overshadow my poor spinach, then broccoli, beets, then a crazy misplaced artichoke, then cabbage, brussel sprouts, carrots, and more peas... I think.

My volunteer mullein is doing so well in the rich garden soil. This is a native medicinal plant, I just need to remember what it is used for. It is welcome in the garden for now.

I was very excited to see the first three fresh pea pods of the winter garden and promptly ate them before taking any photos--December 12, 2010. Lots of blooms cover the peas so unless we get some very cold temperatures, I should have peas for quite a while longer.

The poor spinach I planted too close to the turnips and it keeps getting shaded. So far, the spinach seeds are the only ones that I have seen a clear breakdown in viability of the seed my MIL purchased in 2007, none of the old seed came up, only the newer seeds. So for future reference, don't expect to be able to 'save' spinach seed for more than a year or two without clear impact on your germination rate--or any germination at all.

Carrots, they really need to be thinned, but I always tend to start at the turnip end of the garden and end up having to chase a toddler before I work my way over to the carrots.

I'm also growing garlic for the first time this fall. To do really well, garlic needs to be planted in the fall in Texas to be able to harvest the following summer. I have never done this successfully before. This garlic is actually the grandchild plants of some grocery store garlic that sprouted in my pantry and I planted out last summer. The heads grew some nice greenery, but never bulbed out. I divided the clumps and replanted them in a sunnier location this fall.

This is my 'dumpster dive' sprinkler. It makes me so happy to watch it spinning crazily and know that I got it for free. Wha-HA-HA.

This is the Hedgehog Aloe Vera plant I bought on a whim last January just before our big debt free party. It had pretty orange-red-hot-poker style blooms when I bought it and I assumed that would be the only time I saw it bloom, but apparently it likes the neglect in my yard and I see buds again.