Mexico

The house is clean, the bags are packed, and 5:00 is going to come early tomorrow. We’re headed to Cancun, Mexico for a week’s relaxation and adventure with my family. I’ll be back after the new year. So enjoy your down time between Christmas and New Years, and have a wonderful week.

Homemade yogurt

I love yogurt, but it can be expensive. Especially if you buy it in those cute little individiual serving cups with the foil lids. Store bought yogurt often has preservitives, stabilizers, thickening agents and loads of sugar. And talk about excess packaging. Thankfully yogurt is very easy to make at home, and no, you don’t need any fancy equipment. Just a quart sized jar, a few tablespoons of prepared yogurt (either store bought or from a previous homemade batch) and a place to keep it warm.

If you’re using store bought milk, you’ll want to pasturize it first, to make sure there are no organisms present to compete with the yogurt cultures. Put 1 qt of milk into a small sauce pan and heat to 180*, stirring frequently. If you don’t have a thermometer, this is not rocket science. Just heat it to just before it boils, and then turn off the heat. Let it cool down to about 110*. If you’re using raw milk, just heat gently to 110* so as not to distroy the benificial enzymes in the milk. Once the milk is at about 110*, stir in about 1/4 cup of prepared yogurt. For your first time, it’s fine to use store bought yogurt. Just make sure you get one with live active cultures. Dannon is a good brand that’s easy to find. I like to use Brown Cow, found in Whole Foods or the healh food section of a regular grocery store. It’s easiest if you stir a little milk into the yogurt first, and then stir the thinned yogurt into the rest of the milk. Then pour it into your quart sized jar, and rubberband a towel or coffee filter over the mouth of the jar.


Now all that’s left is to find a way to keep it at about 110* for the next 8-18 hours. There are several methods for doing this. I have a gas oven with a pilot light, so I just pop it in there and leave it. Similarly, if you have an electric oven you can put it in with the oven light on. Beware with using your oven, if you need your oven to cook dinner, remove your yogurt before preheating your oven or you’ll kill your culture. In my last apartment my oven didn’t have a pilot light or an oven light, so I had to get a little more creative. I bought a heating pad (like for a bad back) for about $9 at a drug store. I would put my yogurt on the heating pad on low, and cover the whole thing with a dishtowel for insulation, and this worked fine. Some other methods are to use your crockpot on the warm setting with water surrounding your jar, or using a small insulated cooler with warm water, of find a yogurt maker at a thrift store and let it do the incubating. I haven’t tried any of these, but have heard good results from people who have.

The yogurt needs to stay warm from 8-18 hours. The longer you incubate it, the thicker and more tart it will be. I usually aim for about 10 hours, but the process is flexable. When it’s done, just pop a lid on your jar and toss it into the fridge. I like to flavor my yogurt as I’m eating it, so that I always have plain yogurt in the fridge for starting my next batch. I like to stir in maple syrup (as in the first photo) or honey. You can also use jam for fruit yogurt, and it wouldn’t be bad with a little chocolate syrup if you’re feeling particularly naughty.

Menu Planning 12/21/2008

Menu planning is one of the areas of homemaking that I really struggle to keep up with, but it makes such a difference when I take the time to do it. Menu planning serves so many purposes. It saves a lot of money by utilizing what you already have on hand and reducing the amount of waste. It saves time spent trying to decide what to have for dinner and being prepared with things that need done ahead of time. It saves frustration of not having advanced steps ready (ever forget to soak the beans or pull the chicken out of the freezer to defrost?) and it makes scratch cooking so much easier.

I always plan my weeks meals around what I already have in the pantry. First I check the upstairs freezer for any leftovers that need used up. Right now I have pork roast, chicken breast, turkey, and pinto beans in the freezer already cooked and just needing thawed and thrown into a recipe. If there is nothing suitable in the kitchen freezer, I check the downstairs freezer. It has whole chickens, one turkey, a few potroast cuts of beef, a little ground beef, and several packages of boneless skinless chicken breasts. I also plan for leftovers to be rolled into other meals. If I roast a chicken at the begining of the week, I plan at least two other meals that week that use cooked chicken such as soup or cassarole. AllRecipes and RecipeZaar are great websites for finding recipes to use what you already have in the house. Durring my weekly grocery shop, I shop to stock the pantry and freezer, not for specific meals. If there are a few ingredients or spices that I need for something specific I’ll go ahead and pick those up, but I don’t buy a whole meals worth of ingredients in the week that I make that meal. This saves a lot of money because I try to plan meals that use spices I typically have on hand, or just buy small amounts of spices/ingredients if it’s something i don’t use often. Also, say I was planning a chicken meal that needs boneless, skinless chicken breasts. These are usually $4.50/lb making them a fairly expensive (to our family anyway) cut of meat. But several weeks ago they were on sale for $1.88/lb, and I got 6 packages. So now I already have chicken in the freezer and don’t need to pay full price. So I plan all of my shopping trips around what’s on sale, and I plan my menus around what’s in the freezer.

This weeks menu:
I have pork roast, cooked diced chicken breast, and pinto beans in the freezer that I pulled into the fridge to defrost.

Sunday: Pork roast with gravy, sweet potatoes, peas
Monday: Crockpot pork and beans, popcorn cauliflower, applesauce
Tuesday: Chicken noodle soup, bread, kale
Wednesday: Christmas Eve dinner with family
Thursday: Christmas Day dinner with family
Friday: BBQ chicke pizza
Saturday: we leave on vacation. Cancun here we come!!

Call to Action!



The CPSC & CPSIA have passed a new law to go into full effect February 10th 2009 requiring extensive testing for hazardous chemicals on all items manufactured that are intended for use by children. This sounds like a good idea on the surface. I mean, with all of the lead paint recalls and scary stuff coming out of China, who’s not for stricter regulation and more rigorous testing? When it comes to children, you can’t be too safe. Or can you?

The problem with this law is that the testing is required to be done by the manufacturer, and no exemption or allowance is included for size of business. The tests we’re talking about can cost up to $5,000 with the average being around $500. And they need to be performed on every component of every item produced. Even large businesses are struggling to meet these new testing requirements, but small businesses and work at home moms don’t stand a chance. Moms that sew boutique children’s clothing in their homes, dads that make wooden toys, and small manufacturers would be required to test every button, every spool of thread, every bolt of cloth, every can of paint that is used in the production of any product intended for children. At $500 a pop, this puts most of us out of business.

Not only does this include small businesses and work at home parents, but the re-sale of children’s items are subject to the same testing requirements. In addition to mandatory testing, the law states that any children’s items produced before Feb. 10, 2009 that have not been tested will not be able to be sold. To sell the like new Christmas jumper that your daughter only wore once without complying with the mandatory testing would be considered a felony punishable by thousands of dollars in fines and jail time. Toy stores like Larson’s and Sprout Soup will have thousands of dollars of unsellable inventory just sitting in their stock rooms.

The law extends even to foreign countries who wish to export items to the United States. If they don’t comply with the testing, the US won’t let the items in. In light of this, many terrific companies of wonderful, quality children’s toys and clothing are going to stop shipping to the US. They just can’t afford to. And don’t think that a law like this could never be passed in the US. It already has. The best we can hope for now is to get an amendment to either provide exemption based on business size, or to put the burden of testing on the raw materials manufacturers. Require the cloth manufacturer to test, and then the sewing mamas can buy already tested/approved materials to work with.

Feb. 10, 2009 is being referred to as “National Bankruptcy Day” by many businesses and manufacturers. Please help us by making your voice heard!

Sign the petition:

Change.org

The Handmade Toy Alliance has provided a sample letter and listed contact info for your Congress Person and Senators:

National Bankruptcy Day Site:

Write to man who sponsored this bill and send him an item of yours that will be illegal to sell after Feb 9th, 2009 in protest.

Bobby L. Rush (D)
Washington Office
2416 Rayburn HOB
Washington, DC 20515
phone: 202-225-4372
fax: 202-226-0333

We are the music makers…

Ode

We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamer of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

With wonderful deathless ditties,
We build up the world’s great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample an empire down.

We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.

A breath of our inspiration,
Is the life of each generation.
A wondrous thing of our dreaming,
Unearthly, impossible seeming-
The soldier, the king, and the peasant
Are working together in one,
Till our dream shall become their present,
And their work in the world be done.

They had no vision amazing
Of the goodly house they are raising.
They had no divine foreshowing
Of the land to which they are going:
But on one man’s soul it hath broke,
A light that doth not depart
And his look, or a word he hath spoken,
Wrought flame in another man’s heart.

And therefore today is thrilling,
With a past day’s late fulfilling.
And the multitudes are enlisted
In the faith that their fathers resisted,
And, scorning the dream of tomorrow,
Are bringing to pass, as they may,
In the world, for it’s joy or it’s sorrow,
The dream that was scorned yesterday.

But we, with our dreaming and singing,
Ceaseless and sorrowless we!
The glory about us clinging
Of the glorious futures we see,
Our souls with high music ringing;
O men! It must ever be
That we dwell, in our dreaming and singing,
A little apart from ye.

For we are afar with the dawning
And the suns that are not yet high,
And out of the infinite morning
Intrepid you hear us cry-
How, spite of your human scorning,
Once more God’s future draws nigh,
And already goes forth the warning
That ye of the past must die.

Great hail! we cry to the corners
From the dazzling unknown shore;
Bring us hither your sun and your summers,
And renew our world as of yore;
You shall teach us your song’s new numbers,
And things that we dreamt not before;
Yea, in spite of a dreamer who slumbers,
And a singer who sings no more.

Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy

(1844 – 1881)

Simplifying Christmas

Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year. I love being warm and cozy inside under an afghan with a cup of tea while the snow is falling outside. And I love any holiday that brings family together to eat. But Christmas time brings with it it’s own set of frustrations and stress, especially in light of my journey into simplicity. There’s the stress of finding a gift for everyone on your list. There’s the stress of dividing your time between families. There’s the financial stress of everything that goes into Christmas: the gifts, the decorations, the tree, charity, etc. There’s some stress in juggling the traditions you grew up with as a child with the ones your spouse did, and the new ones you want to institute in your young family. All of this works together to make a joyful holiday somewhat complex, and that’s the opposite of what I’m striving for.

We are not a religious family, and as such we do not celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. This in itself both simplifies some things and complicates others. Most of my family celebrates Christmas as the Christian holiday and birth of Jesus, and when we celebrate with our family we join in their traditions. Although my children are still young, this does open up the door for some deep conversations on why we believe what we believe, and why it’s different than what Grandma and Grandpa believe. The flip side of that coin is the secular, industry driven consumption fest that masquerades as a holiday for much of America. This is something I strive to avoid at all costs as it goes against everything I believe in and am trying to accomplish in my family.

So how does one keep Christmas meaningful without religion or buying into the consumer driven holiday? Brad and I have talked a lot about how we want to handle Christmas in our family, what it means to us, and what we want it to mean to our children. We’re working hard to instill some traditions that are in line with our beliefs both spiritually and environmentally. We stress Christmas as a time to celebrate family, be thankful for what the previous year has been, give back where you can and to cherish the people you love. We’re having fun creating our own family traditions. Brad is learning Christmas carols on his guitar to sing as a family. Every year we’ve gone as a family to pick out a live tree and wreath for our door, and decorate it as a family. This year Owen had a blast “helping” me make a gingerbread house. (If you’ve seen that post, I admit I didn’t let him help very much. Maybe next year.) And as the kids get older we would like to start volunteering over the Christmas holiday. My first thought goes to a soup kitchen, but it would be fun to let the kids choose a charity to give their time to also.

We’ve gone the fairly simple route with decorations this year. We do always get a live tree and wreath. I love the energy of having live plants indoors. I love the scent of pine every time we walk in or out of the house, or come down the stairs. We do minimal holiday lights. We do have lights on the tree, but even when we own a house I don’t think we’ll do a whole lot of landscape lights. They require electricity to run, many of them contain led, and they’re expensive to maintain as they often need to be at least partially replaced each year. Also we don’t buy themed ornaments for the tree. Our tree is very eclectic, with ornaments from my childhood, our first married Christmas, and gifts from friends and family over the years. I like that you can tell the story of past Christmas’s at our home by the ornaments on our tree. Every one is special, and I know where each one came from. I remember as a child how much fun it was to unwrap the ornaments at Christmas and we would talk about when we got them as we put them on the tree. That’s something I want for my children. This year I had my heart set on a rosemary tree for the kitchen table. I was going to decorate it with popcorn and cranberry strands and tiny salt dough snowflakes. But I’ve had the hardest time finding one, all the nurseries I’ve checked (well OK the one nursery I checked) and both Whole Foods here in town are sold out. I’ve decided it’s not something to stress about. I’ll start earlier next year and get one before they’re gone. Then provided I don’t manage to kill it, we’ll have fresh rosemary all year, and a little tree to decorate the following Christmas too.

Another way we’re trying to simplify this year is with gifts. Brad and I got each other one large thing apiece that we’ve been wanting. We’ve gotten a few small things for each of the boys, and one larger gift for them to share. I got many of their gifts used. They’re young and won’t care yet, and buying used keeps things out of the landfills as well as decreases the demand for new production and all of the environmental hazards that go along with it. I’ve also made a lot of my gifts for family, either on my sewing machine or in my kitchen. This year my dad, who is an accomplished carpenter, has undertaken to make gifts for everyone. I have never been more excited for a Christmas gift. I’ve been given a hint as to what the boys are getting, and it’s everything I want for toys for them. Hand made, quality, open ended, imaginative play. Now there are so many people that love my boys, and you can never have too many people who love your children, that it stands to reason they will probably receive some gifts that I would not have purchased for them. We have a small apartment, and really don’t have a lot of room for extra “stuff”. So what to do when well meaning people bestow upon you the gift of clutter? If it’s something for the boys and they truly love it, it stays regardless of whether I would have chosen it or not. For anything else that just doesn’t work for our family, I feel fine donating it to a charity like Good Will. I believe that the people in our lives truly give out of love, and would be sad if I allowed a gift that we couldn’t use to remain in the house causing stress just to make them feel good. I know that if I give a gift that didn’t work for the recipient I would rather they pass it on to someone who could use it than to keep it and wish they hadn’t.

I’d love to hear more ideas. What have you done this year to keep Christmas simple? What are your favorite traditions?

Gingerbread!

When I decided I wanted to make a real gingerbread house this year, this is what I had in mind. Something beautifully elaborate and detailed, down to the little candy candles in the windows and a snowy landscape that Santa himself would be jealous of. Well I looked a pictures and got ideas and recipes. I went to the grocery and got decorators icing, toothpicks, and more different kinds of candy than anyone could actually put on one gingerbread house. You should have seen Owen’s eyes as I loaded up that shopping cart. I don’t think he’s seen that much candy in one place in his three years on this earth. I’m sure he thought mom was off her rocker, but who was he to question his good fortune?

Ever frugal, I cut my templates from empty cereal boxes. I mixed my ginger bread, rolled and cut all of my pieces. They looked surprisingly good. Here is the recipe I used for the gingerbread:

1 C butter, softened
1 3/4 C packed brown sugar
2 Tbsp dark molasses
1 1/4 C granulated sugar
6 eggs
6 C all purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp each ground ginger, ground cinnamon, and ground allspice

1)Cream butter and sugars. Stir in eggs and molasses
2)Sift all dry ingredients together separately
3)Mix dry ingredients into wet until just combined, don’t over mix
4)Knead dough on floured surface until completely combined
5)Wrap in plastic wrap and chill in fridge for at least 1 hour
6)Roll out to 1/4 inch thickness and cut template pieces
7)Bake on greased cookie sheet for 15 min at 325*, cool completely

I cut windows into the gingerbread when it was hot out of the oven. When all the pieces were cool, I put crushed butterscotch into the window pieces and baked them at 350* for about another 5 minutes on a foil lined baking sheet. Here’s the window pieces with the crushed butterscotch candy:

And the windows once they were melted:
When everything was completely cool and ready to assemble I mixed up a batch of royal icing. I wanted most of the house to be edible, so I just used this for the construction, and used a butter cream for the rest of the decorating. Here’s the royal icing recipe, and be warned, this stuff dries like cement, so work quickly and clean up as you go.

1 lb powdered sugar
1/4 tsp cream of tarter
3 egg whites

Beat slowly until stiff peaks form

And the butter cream recipe:

1/2 C white shortening*
3 1/2 C powdered sugar
1 tsp clear vanilla*
1/4 tsp almond extract*
3-4 Tbsp milk or hot water

Beat shortening and flavoring for a minute, then slowly add half of the sugar, mixing well. Add half of the milk or water and mix well. Add the rest of the sugar and just enough water for the desired consistency, either spreading or piping.

*I used butter and regular vanilla, so my butter cream came out off white. I don’t mind, I think it’s pretty, and I hate Crisco, so there you go. I also left out the almond extract as I didn’t have any, and I still think my icing tasted pretty good.

So after assembly and decoration (and barely making a dent in all the candy I bought to make this thing) Here is the final product!


Not quite magazine cover worthy, but not bad for my first try.