Eastern Carolina Style Sauce DIY

 

Just as I promised last week, here’s an easy and inexpensive gift to share with the foodie on your Christmas list!  Eastern North Carolina style sauce isn’t readily available in most chain grocery stores; in fact, unless you have roots in Tidewater/Greater Appalachia or frequent soul food restaurants, I’d  bet that you’ve never enjoyed this simple bbq sauce before! It’s a great way to share a taste of a different culture with someone who truly appreciates traditional, regional cooking.  And the fact it’s finished in under 10 minutes, that’s a real gift too!

If you travel America (or just really enjoy eating!), you’ll find each region has it’s unique sauce for topping smoked or grilled meats.   Just as our culture evolved based on immigration, climate and the availability of resources, so did our food. South Carolina has it’s mustard-based sauce, Alabama it’s mayo-based white bbq sauce, Kansas bbq is thick and tangy, Texas bbq sauce is more akin to a thin glaze.  Many of them are cloyingly sweet, tomato-based and laden with carbs, but eastern Carolina-style is completely different than anything you’ll find in any steak house.

Brought to the southern East Coast by way of the Caribbean, it’s the original bbq sauce!  This vinegar-based sauce has very little sugar and is slightly spicy with an acidic kick that cuts through the smokiness of a pile of pulled pork.  It’s extremely thin, great for mopping as it doesn’t burn under heat and doesn’t mask the flavor of bbq under a thick, sugary sauce.  But don’t stop with bbq…Carolina-style sauce tastes amazing on beans, potatoes, eggs, soups, stews and a hundred other dishes.  My sweet Petunia douses her collard greens with it and I have to admit it’s pretty doggone tasty that way too!  In fact, I don’t think I’ve eaten any dish that Carolina sauce didn’t improve!  Admittedly, it’s not for sissies.  It’s spicy, pungent, tart and salty all at the same time,  but what it can do to a simple meat or veggie is just amazing!

So are you intrigued enough to try it?  All you need is a few, very basic ingredients!

Eastern Carolina-style BBQ Sauce

2 cups of apple cider vinegar

2 teaspoons hot sauce (we use Texas Pete’s)

2 tablespoons sugar (white or light brown sugar or even honey)

1 tablespoon salt

2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

2 teaspoons finely ground black pepper

Combine all the ingredients in a sauce pan, bring to a quick boil to dissolve the sugar and remove from heat.  Allow the sauce to cool then transfer to a covered container and refrigerate for several days before using.   As a total bonus, this sauce can be poured into Mason jars, sealed with a 2-piece lid and water-bathed for 10 minutes to be shelf stable and easier to gift…but I wouldn’t leave it on the shelf too long.  I store mine in a pba-free condiment bottle in the fridge as the acid in this sauce will eat straight through a metal lid!

Come back next week as I’ve got a great South Carolina mustard-based sauce that will make a great gift as well!  Til then!

Posted to Homestead Blog Hop!

Homemade Holidays!

Okay friends, we’ve turned that corner and we’re officially in the holiday season now and I have to confess that as much as I love Thanksgiving and Christmas,  I get so dreadfully anxious over them.  Or at least I used to.  There’s so much pressure for everything to be “just so”….I blame the Hallmark Channel and Martha Stewart.   A few years ago, it occurred to me how silly it is to trade gift cards with people we don’t talk to or see.  How silly it is to stress over buying the “it” toy of the season that’s going to be set aside 3 days after Christmas and never picked up again.  And my personal non-favorite, running myself ragged trying to accommodate every extended family member in the tri-state area.  Silly.

Now listen to my heart, friends; I’m not against gift buying or decorating or baking or visiting if that brings you joy;  I love all those things!  I’m against the pointless consumerism, stress, debt, anxiety and waste that accompanies the holidays.  That’s not what Thanksgiving and Christmas were meant to be.  We’ve taken 2 beautiful holidays, meant to be times of praise, joy, thankfulness and celebration and turned them into burdens.  Isn’t that just like America?!  My sweet friends, how about we unburden ourselves this year?  Over the next few weeks, let’s deconstruct these frantic times we live in and re-learn to celebrate the holidays like our grandparents did.  Simply.  Thankfully.  Frugally.  How about we share some favorite recipes, homemade gift ideas, start creating realistic traditions and learn to reconnect with our people?

Sound like fun?

Let’s get started by talking about some thoughtful, homemade gifts that we can share with the adults on our lists.  Understand that I’m not under the delusion that our husbands would be thrilled over a pair of hand-knit socks…(Pa Ingalls would but my Mr Lynch, probably not, though he would rave over them for my feeling’s sake!)  But what if we use our talents as a means to stretch our gift budget?  Instead of grabbing a gift card or marked-down appliance or gadget for our parents, neighbors, friends and teachers, what if we made something meaningful?  Something that required our effort instead of our credit cards?  I’m going to throw out some suggestions, just little things I’ve given over the past few years that were well received.

 

  • Tea baskets.  All you need is a simple inexpensive basket, lined with a tea towel and tins of your favorite loose leaf teas.  Bonus:  make your own blends with herbs from the grocery or your own garden.
  • Breakfast Baskets.  Again, a simple, inexpensive basket, lined with a tea towel and filled with goodies for a traditional breakfast.  Tea or quality coffee, a homemade muffin or pancake mix in a Mason jar, an assortment of homemade jams, jellies or butters and a bottle of local maple syrup or honey.
  • Felted Wool items.  Years ago, I made a pair of felted wool mittens and a beanie for a niece and she wore them for years.  Decorated with buttons, bells and ribbons, they can be made into really stylish accessories.
  • Family History book.  Some 10 years ago, I put together a book with family photos, documents, birth certificates and stories for my in-laws and they loved it.  The grandchildren also loved seeing pictures of their grandparents as children.  When the grandparents passed, it quickly became a family heirloom.
  • Cook’s Basket For the person who enjoys time in the kitchen, put together a basket of homegrown herbs, handmade extracts and perhaps copies of treasured recipes.  Salt-preserved herbs and baking extracts are incredibly easy and inexpensive and you are only limited by your imagination!
  • Spa Baskets In years past, I’ve given spa baskets to teachers and bus drivers at my children’s school.  I used cute Wooden Berry Baskets filled with raffia and added a homemade soap, homegrown luffa sponge and a hand knit spa cloth.  Now I’ll be sure to include a lotion bar too!
  • Sweets sampler.  These are always well-loved, especially when they’re stuffed with samples of baklava, potato candy, peanut butter fudge and Guinness Stout cake.
  • Cheese Plates.  On a cute, reusable Cheese Board, I packed summer sausage, homemade pickles, homegrown pickled peppers,  quality hard cheese and homemade candy.  This was my father-in-law’s favorite gift each year, hands down!
  • Flavored Vinegars and Homemade Hot Sauces.  Before I learned to make my own vinegar, I learned to flavor store-bought with the simplest of ingredients such as herbs and berries.  And if you’re looking for something unique for a foodie friend, I’ll be sharing my Carolina-style bbq sauce next week!

When giving a homemade gift, pay extra attention to presentation; that seems to make all the difference, in my humble opinion.  Invest in quality, reusable bins, baskets or containers instead of buying gift boxes that will be thrown away.   And take the time to dress up your package.  Recycle brown paper bags or Sunday comics as wrapping and tie them up with simple cotton string.  These are a few of my favorite things…..

But seriously, look to your talents and your resources to both bless people and stretch your budget.  The object isn’t to spend the most or buy the biggest or impress but to bless others by using the gifts we’ve been gifted with.  I can honestly say I’d rather receive a homemade-ugly gift that someone put their heart into than an As Seen On TV gizmo that will be donated to the Goodwill in January.   Are you willing to say the same?

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be posting numerous homemade-simple DIYs that you can give for gifts.  I’ll be posting recipes for homemade spa products, my favorite Carolina-style bbq sauce, hot-process lye soap, flavored sugar, a few very simple canning recipes, an old family-recipe toffee, and anything else I can dream up.  My goal is to present you with an idea for everyone on your list…don’t know if that will happen, but we’ll give it a try!  Til next time!

 

Posted to Homestead Blog Hop!

Homemade Scents DIY

 

I found these recipes circulating on the internet and just had to share them with you!  Now that cooler temperatures are upon us and we’re firing up the woodstoves, a steamer pot full of rich, natural potpourri is a wonderful treat for the senses.  Scent is such a powerful connector, linking us to people, places and events and is a simple way to create a warm, inviting atmosphere in your home.  Now, if you don’t heat with wood, don’t fret!  You can always use a kettle on low heat on the back of the stove or an Aromatherapy Electric Simmering Pot.   I love these electric simmer pots because you can move them around from room to room without worrying about children and pets around an open flame—or forgetting that you had potpourri on the stove until it cooked dry, ignited and stunk for days.  Ahem.

What I really like about these recipes, aside from the fact they’re not putting toxic chemicals into the air in our home, is that you can make many of these out of kitchen scraps like citrus peel, frost-bitten herbs or fruits that have begun to go south.  AND if you’re really clever, which I know you are, you can make these shelf stable and use them as handmade gifts.  Simply dehydrate the apple and citrus slices, cranberries and herbs, toss them in a bag with the remainder of the ingredients and sprinkle with any extracts, spices or essential oils.  Seal them tightly in a pretty bag and give them as a gift with an electric simmering crock.  Can you think of a nicer gift for a teacher, bus driver, mail deliverer or secretary?

Here are some simple, non-toxic, handmade scented recipes for you!

CINNAMON APPLE:  1 sliced apple +  1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon + 1 tsp. maple or vanilla extract + 2 cups of water

MINTY CITRUS PINE:   1 sliced lime + 1 tsp. vanilla + 1 small branch of fresh pine needles + 1/4 cup fresh mint + 2 cinnamon sticks + 2 cups of water

WINTER CITRUS   2 sprigs rosemary + 1/2 of sliced lemon +  1/2 sliced grapefruit + 1 tsp. vanilla  + 2 cinnamon sticks + 2 cups of water

CRAN-ORANGE   1/2 cup fresh cranberries + 1 sliced orange + 1 tsp. whole cloves  +  2 cinnamon sticks + 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg + 2 cups of water

MULLED ROSEMARY  3-5 cinnamon sticks + 1 sliced orange + 1-2 sprigs of rosemary +  1 cup fresh cranberries + 1 tbsp. cloves + 2 tbsp. nutmeg + 2 cups of water

SPICED VANILLA  4-6 cinnamon sticks +  1 tsp. vanilla extract +  rind of 1 orange + 2 tbsp. cloves + 3-5 bay leaves + 2 cups of water

But don’t stop with these recipes!  Create custom scents for your house using ingredients from your kitchen!  How about Viennese cinnamon using inexpensive coffee grounds, a few cinnamon sticks, and a dash of vanilla or maple extract to 2 cups of water?  Or chocolate mint using a few tablespoons of Dutch cocoa and a dash of peppermint extract?   Or candied citrus, with orange slices, vanilla extract and Dutch cocoa powder?  Personally, I love more savory combinations such as cranberry, rosemary and bay leaves.  But anything works so long as it’s pleasing to your senses!

So tell me, what are your tricks for making your home smell amazing during the long, closed-window seasons of fall and winter?

 

Posted to SimpleLifeMom Homestead Blog Hop

Felted Wool Dryer Ball DIY!

Okay, I’m going to say something that you may find sort of shocking.

Our grandmothers didn’t use fabric softener—–and we shouldn’t either.

While I love the results of fabric softener and fabric sheets—the beautiful scent, the static free clothing–I have to say that I worry from time to time about using them.  They smell wonderful and they do a fabulous job—BUT—I wonder if the cons outweigh the pros in this circumstance.   Softeners are expensive, they coat our dryer vents creating a potential for fire and they often contain potent chemicals like acetone (the active ingredient in nail polish remover).  Our children are wearing clothes that are potentially laced with paint thinner…that’s crazy!  But thankfully, there are other options.  Vinegar added to the rinse helps reduce odors and stiffness in the fabric, and homemade wool dryer balls will absolutely help eliminate static in the drying cycle!

Benefits of Wool Dryer Balls

Why should you make and use dryer balls instead of fabric softener??

  1. They save time.  The wool balls bouncing around in the dryer help to keep clothes separated and shorten the drying time.
  2. They save money.  Dryer balls can be used hundreds of times before they’ll need replaced.  Isn’t that better than running out to buy softener every week or two?
  3. They soften naturally.  Dryer balls rub against the fiber of the wet clothes softening the clothes naturally.
  4. Don’t affect absorbency.  Dryer balls soften without affecting the absorbency of of towels and lofty fabrics.
  5. Don’t affect air circulation.  The same waxes and chemicals that reduce absorbency in your towels also hinder air circulating through the fabric, which can mean you sweat more!

Here’s what you need to make your own!

To make homemade dryer balls you only need 2-3 items:  an old knee high or panty hose, wool and essential oils (optional).  For the wool, you need 100% all natural wool; no synthetic blends, thanks!  You can use 2-3 skeins of wool yarn such as Lion Brand Yarn 620-152 Wool-Ease Yarn or you can upcycle an old wool sweater by cutting it into strips of “yarn”.  Either way works and either will yield 5-10 dryer balls.

Here’s how you do it!

If you’re recycling an old sweater, cut off the arms and using sharp scissors, cut a 1/2 inch strip of “yarn”, beginning at the cuff and spiraling around all the way to the top.  Do the same thing with the body of the sweater til you have a lovely pile of wool yarn.
Using either your yarn or your upcycled sweater strips, you need to begin rolling the fiber into a ball.  Start by winding it around 2 fingers 10-15 times til you have the beginning of a ball.  Remove the fibers from your finger then begin alternately winding the yarn in opposite directions until that lumpy egg-looking wad of yarn begins to resemble a ball.  Keep winding until you have a ball about the size of a baseball.

Now using a crochet hook, paint can tool or any other item with a hook, pull the end of the string under several layers of yarn.  Pull up and repeat several times to “lock” the yarn into place.

Tuck the ball into the toe of your hose and tie a tight knot.  Repeat for the length of the hose.  Now throw the ball of yarn into the washer and dryer on hot settings with a load of laundry.

Do this several times and you’ll end up with a dense, felted wool ball.  If you’d like to scent the wool balls, simply drop a few drops of your favorite essential oils and replenish as needed.

To use!

Simply toss them in your dryer with wet clothes and dry as usual.  6-8 wool balls seem to be the optimal number, but experiment and see what results in the shortest drying time and least amount of static.  You may need more or you may need less, so experiment and see what works for you.

Now isn’t that just the easiest DIY project ever?  Not only does it remove potentially hazardous chemicals from our home, it also shortens drying time which saves us money.  Nothing wrong with that!  I hope you give felted wool dryer balls and try and let me know what you think about this time, money and chemical saving project!  Til next time!

 

Posted to the Simple Life Mom Homestead Blog Hop!

Transitioning Into Winter & A Simple DIY Project

Well my friends, now that we’re nearing November and the growing season is over, it’s time to transition out of the garden and into the home.   Everything has its season, and as the days get short, dark and cold, it’s time to move inside and enjoy the warmth of home and family.  Typically, late fall and early winter is when I begin fiber work, making homemade soaps, sewing, crafting, quilting and DIY so in that spirit, it’s time to transition this blog to winter as well.   We’re going to continue with the “Waste Not! ” series (as I believe reducing kitchen waste is worth our time, attention and effort) and there will be a scattering of a few of our favorite recipes here and there, but I think it’s time to settle down and begin working on some simple, wintertime projects.

Over the coming dark months, I plan on tackling DIYs that I think you’ll love.  We’ll use this time to rediscover simple heirloom skills that will nurture your home and family, starting today with homemade lotion bars.

 

I discovered these fun little lotion bars a few weeks ago purely on accident.  I wanted to use the beeswax we cleaned out of our hives to make some non-toxic scented melts for our home.  I melted coconut oil, beeswax and essential oils into muffin tins and ended up with pretty wonderful-smelling wax…but it wasn’t til my mama was fussing about her chapped cheeks that I had an epiphany.  Not only did our wax melts smell amazing, they would be very soothing on her skin as well.   She tried it and called early the next morning to let me know that her skin had healed overnight and was smooth as a baby’s butt!  Can’t get a better endorsement than your mama’s, right?

Now here’s the thing:  I’ve only begun dabbling in EOs quite recently and I can’t answer whether or not they’ll be a life changer for you.  I don’t know if there’s actual measureable science behind the various claims or whether it’s all snake oil.  What I CAN tell you is that any opportunity we have to use all natural products and purge toxic ones from our homes, well, there’s no reason not to pursue that!  These are the same products that have been used for hundreds or thousands of years to naturally light our homes, soften and protect our skin, preserve food and treat illnesses, so why not use them in our homes too? Let’s get started now!

Here’s what you need for lotion bars!

  1. Natural beeswax such as  Beesworks® BEESWAX PELLETS, YELLOW, 1lb-Pesticide Free-Chemical Free-Cosmetic Grade-Must Have For Many Different Projects.  You need something that isn’t laden with pesticides or bleached and the pellets will make the measuring and melting process much easier for you!  The beeswax will give your lotion bar “body” and help it to set up firm.
  2. Coconut oil such as Garden of Life Organic Extra Virgin Coconut Oil – Unrefined Cold Pressed Coconut Oil for Hair, Skin and Cooking, 14 Ounce.  Coconut oil will provide a bit of natural fragrance and will melt almost immediately on your skin.
  3. Essential oils.  You have a whole range of options here, both brand and scent, so I’ll just say that I’m loving Plant Therapy EOs.  They’re reasonably priced, pure and smell amazing!  This one sounds like autumn in a bottle to me: Plant Therapy Holiday Season Synergy Essential Oil Blend. 100% Pure, Undiluted, Therapeutic Grade. Blend of: Sweet Orange, Cinnamon Bark, Ginger and Nutmeg. 10 mL (1/3 Ounce).
  4. Something to mold the wax in like Freshware SL-118RD 8-Cavity Silicone Mold – Oval, ice cube trays or mini-muffin liners such as Fox Run 4997 White Bake Cups, Petit Four, 100 Cups.
  5. A double boiler or clean tin cans

Here’s how you do it!

To make a batch of these bars, add 1 ounce of beeswax and a scant half cup of coconut oil to your double boiler or clean tin cans and set over a simmering pot of water.  (Be careful and don’t give yourself a steam burn here!)  The coconut oil will melt immediately, but the beeswax will take a bit of time.

Stir frequently with a disposable spoon til the wax is melted; remove from heat.  Carefully add up to 40 drops of essential oil to the melted wax/oil; this may vary according to the strength of the oils that you’re using.  Judge accordingly.  Stir to incorporate the oils and wax.  Using a pot holder, slowly pour the mixture into the mold of your choice and allow to cool.

When the wax is completely cooled, remove from the mold and store in a cool, dry place in an airtight package.  When you’re ready to use, simply hold it in your hands for a moment or two til the wax begins to soften and melt.  Gently rub the oils into your skin and enjoy the amazing fragrance!

BONUS!

Like I stated earlier, these bars are also fantastic in a wax warmer!  The beeswax and coconut oil provide a naturally “sweet” aroma and are perfect carriers for the EO of your choosing.  As they’re completely non-toxic, you don’t have to worry about odd chemicals polluting your home air quality.  And what I really love is that you can tailor the fragrance to your mood; lavender to relax at bedtime, peppermint to pick you up in the morning, delicious seasonal scents like cinnamon and nutmeg to help you enjoy the autumn, rosemary and citrus for savory winter fragrances.  Love that!  Personally, I prefer the plug-in wax warmers like this Candle Warmers Etc. Pluggable Fragrance Warmer, Mason Jar because I can plug it into a high outlet that the children and pets are less likely to reach.  And it’s a Mason jar, so…..!

I hope you enjoyed this little DIY!  It may be the GenX in me, but I love projects like these bars that are ready to go in 20 minutes!  There’s a time and place for long, elaborate projects, but there’s great satisfaction in holding a finished product in your hand in a short period of time.  I’m already mulling over the next quick DIY….can’t wait to share it with you!  Til next time!

 

Posted to Simple Life Mom Homestead Blog Hop!

Guinness Stout Cake -or- Not Your Granny’s Fruitcake

Guinness Stout cake is the perfect finish to a holiday meal.

Okay, this may end up being a divisive post, so my apologies in advance.  I find that in the great fruitcake debate, there’s no gray area; you either love it or loathe it and rarely are there any in-betweens.  I loathe the stuff personally.  It typically weighs 12lbs, full of oddly-colored quasi-fruit that I can’t quite identify and has the same density as a cinderblock.   Historically, fruitcake was a grand indulgence reserved for special occasions such as weddings and Christmas celebrations, as it was full of expensive nuts, liquor and imported candied fruits.  So when your Granny sends you a homemade fruitcake, son, that’s because she really, really loves you and doesn’t realize that it’s handed out at white elephant parties as a gag gift and passed out free at corner gas stations with any fuel fill-up.  Gag.

But Guinness stout cake, now I like it pretty well.  Quite well, in fact.  The flavors are sophisticated, but less complicated than your granny’s traditional fruitcake, the texture is more delicate and the fruit is recognizable.  Oh and it weighs far less so you won’t be using this one as a doorstop come January.  Just like traditional fruitcake, you have to start this one well in advance, allowing at least a month or more for the flavors to mingle and mellow.  I typically start mine around Veteran’s Day if I plan on serving it for Christmas.

Alright friends, let’s make a Guinness Stout cake!

The ingredients you’ll need for this cake are

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) of unsalted butter, softened
  • 12oz pitted, chopped prunes
  • 8oz golden raisins
  • 8oz currants
  • 1 1/4 cup of Guinness Stout, plus more for dousing
  • 2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2t baking powder
  • 1/4t freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4t ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/4c light brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 2 eggs

Directions

1. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Brush a 9-by-4 1/2-inch loaf pan with butter. Line pan with parchment paper; brush with butter. Set aside.

2. Combine the chopped prunes, raisins, and currants in a medium bowl. Add 1/2 cup stout, and let stand for the dried fruit to plump a bit.

3. Sift flour, baking powder, nutmeg, and cinnamon together. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each, scraping down sides twice. Add dry ingredients in two additions; mix just to combine. Fold in fruit mixture.

4. Pour batter into your prepared pan. Bake until dark brown and set and a cake tester inserted into the middle of cake comes out clean, about 3 1/2 hours. (Cracks will appear on top of cake.) Remove from oven; sprinkle with 1/2 cup stout. Let stand on wire rack 30 minutes. Remove from pan; discard parchment and let the cake cool completely.

5. Wrap in a cheesecloth, a thin tea towel or muslin and douse fruitcake with remaining 1/4 cup stout. Store in a cool, dark, dry place (such as a large Tupperware), dousing with 1/4 cup stout once a week for at least 1 month before serving.  Personally, I like to do my last “dousing” about a week prior to serving it, to allow the stout to absorb and the flavors to mellow.

(Recipe courtesy of Martha Stewart.)

So it’s a pretty cut-and-dry recipe as you can see, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious!  It’s not sickeningly sweet and slathered in greasy frosting like many holiday cakes are, so this one goes down pretty easily, even after a heavy meal.  With a hot cup of tea or coffee, Guinness Stout cake is the perfect finish to a holiday meal.  So where do you fall in the great fruitcake debate?  Yea or nay?

 

Easy Homemade Baking Extracts

 

Homemade baking extracts are a simple, 2-step process!

It’s early October and you know what that means?  It’s time to start considering Christmas gifts in earnest!  I love making baking extracts for gifts; poured into a cute container with a pretty label, it’s a gift my foodie friends are sure to enjoy.  Honestly, there is no simpler or more inexpensive gift you can make that will be so eagerly anticipated and enjoyed each year than homemade baking extracts.  And with the varieties of herbs and fruits available, the possibilities are limited solely to your imagination.

Let’s get started with vanilla, lemon and cinnamon baking extracts.

As with most extracts, with vanilla you need only 2 ingredients:  quality vanilla beans and a potent alcohol.  I’ll be honest with you, I was shocked the first time I shopped for vanilla beans.  I thought OH LARDY as I researched brand names, country of origin and price.  Especially price.  But as with most things, you can have quantity or you can have quality.  Go for quality.  You’ll taste the difference in the finished project for certain.  Here’s a link to a good quality, fairly priced vanilla bean:  Vanilla Products USA 10 Grade A Prime Gourmet PNG Bourbon Type Vanilla Beans ~5″ (12.5 cm)  Now moving on to the alcohol, for most extracts, a plain, inexpensive vodka is all you need; with vanilla extract, brandy, rum or bourbon are quite nice too.  It just adds another layer of flavor to an already delicious product.  To make your homemade vanilla extract, add 2 vanilla beans for every 4 ounces of alcohol, so for a standard fifth of liquor, you’ll need 10 vanilla beans.  Split the beans from top to bottom exposing the seeds, place the beans in a large bottle or quart Mason jar, add the vodka or bourbon and add a lid.  Set in a cool, dark place, such as inside a kitchen cabinet for at least 6-8 weeks (though longer is better!), giving it a good shake every few days.  When Christmastime rolls around, pour your vanilla baking extract into a cute 4 ounce jar with a single vanilla bean (for presentation) and add a pretty label.  There’s one baking extract done!  Let’s move on to the next!

Lemon baking extract is as easy as the vanilla, but far less expensive.  For this baking extract, you’ll need 2-3 organic lemons and a fifth of inexpensive vodka.  Wash your citrus well then carefully peel the fruit with a paring knife or veggie peeler, taking extra care to avoid the white pith.  (It’ll turn your extract bitter.)  Stuff the citrus peel into a quart jar, cover with vodka and let sit 6-8 weeks, giving it a shake at least once a week.  If you’re gifting this extract, pour the finished product into a pretty jar, label it and it’s ready to go.  Now if you’re exceedingly clever, you can mix the lemon extract with a simple syrup for a very passable limoncello.  But I’ll leave that project up to you.

Last up, cinnamon baking extract!  For this extract, you need 3 inch cinnamon sticks and again, inexpensive vodka, though bourbon would probably be delicious here too.  For a full fifth of vodka, you’ll place approximately 18 cinnamon sticks in a Mason jar and pour the alcohol over it.  Allow it to sit and steep for 6-8 weeks, shaking it up once a week.  If/when you pour the cinnamon baking extract into cute, gift-sized bottles, place a fresh cinnamon stick in the bottle…it just makes a very pretty presentation.  This cinnamon baking extract is fantastic for adding to cakes or cookies, flavoring whipped cream or just added to a favorite coffee for a fantastic kick of flavor.

Not everyone is going to want quarts of flavored vodka sitting around the house, (that’s a LOT of baking extracts!) so let me break this down into smaller, more manageable portions that you can share or keep for yourself!

Vanilla Baking Extract

2 vanilla beans

4 ounces of vodka, brandy, rum or bourbon

Lemon Baking Extract

peel from 1 lemon

4 ounces of vodka

Cinnamon Baking Extract

3-3inch cinnamon sticks

4 ounces of vodka or bourbon

But don’t stop there!  Use that extra vodka or bourbon to make mint extract (1/2 cup of fresh leaves to 4 oz vodka), coffee extract (2T of crushed whole beans to 4 oz vodka), berry extract (1/2 cup muddled berries to 4 oz vodka), orange or grapefruit extract (peel from 1 fruit to 4 0z vodka), coconut extract (1/3cup shredded, unsweetened coconut to 4oz vodka).

I know some of you don’t like the idea of alcohol in your food and home, and I totally appreciate that, so there’s a non-alcoholic option for you!  Vegetable glycerin (VG) makes a very good, alcohol-free baking extract.  Following the same recipe, use VG in a ratio of 3 parts VG to 1 part water.  For the small bottles we just discussed, you’d use 3 ounces of VG and 1 ounce of water to 1 lemon peel, 3 cinnamon sticks or 2 vanilla beans.  Make sense?  Here’s a link to a quality, Kosher vegetable glycerin: Glycerin Vegetable Kosher USP – 1 Quart (43 oz.)

If you plan on gifting these extracts this Christmas, I encourage you to try some pretty bottles like these
(12 Pack – 4 oz. Amber Glass Bottle with Lid for Vanilla Extract, Perfume, Oils, Light-Sensitive Liquids, Refillable Boston Round Bottle from California Home Goods) as the amber glass and tightly-sealing lid will protect your finished product.

And to top it all off, peruse our dear friend Pinterest for cute, free printable labels.  I think these and  these are perfectly adorable for our homemade vanilla extract and I’m sure there are others out there for various other extracts as well.  Give it a try and tell me what you think, sweet friends!

Maple Syrup Making 101

I’m so excited to share this post in the Building Skills category!  I know September seems terribly early to begin thinking about making maple syrup as the season doesn’t begin til late winter or early spring, but there’s absolutely a method to my madness, sweet friends.  If you’re inclined to try to make maple syrup for fun or profit, I want to give you plenty of time to do your research and gather your supplies.  It’s not a hard skill, but it does take time to find what you need and NOW is the season to mark the trees, while you can easily identify the tree by its leaves.  In February, all those naked trees begin to look alike.  So humor me and let’s talk about making some maple syrup next February or March!

We began making maple syrup as a hobby approximately 10 years ago, with 5 maple trees and an old box stove set up in the backyard.

It had never occurred to me that those 5 trees could provide anything for us but shade until a friend mentioned it off-handedly.  I thought it was a mystical, complex procedure that the average individual couldn’t do….but how wrong I was!  Admittedly, it’s quite time consuming, but it’s a very simple process of gathering the sap and boiling it to a syrupy consistency—and then boiling it a little longer if you want actual maple sugar.  People have been tapping trees to make syrup for untold generations with the most rudimentary of materials and that skill is even easier to practice now with those materials being available for online purchase and free 2-day shipping!  So let’s demystify the process and get you on the road to making your own maple syrup.

 

 

Identify Trees and Watch The Weather

To begin the process, you need to watch your local weather patterns.  You’re looking for a pattern of days that are consistently above freezing and nights that drop into the 20’s.  In our area, that typically happens in late February or early March, but it can happen as early as January and as late as April.  Just watch the weather with that general pattern in mind.  While you’re watching and waiting, pick out the trees that can be tapped.  You need trees that are at least 12 inches in diameter.  Any kind of maple tree can be tapped for sap, but sugar maples have the highest sugar content and make the best syrup.

 

Basic maple syrup tap
10 Maple Syrup Tree Tapping Kit – 10 Taps + 2-Foot Drop Lines + Includes Sap Filter + Instructions

Collect The Equipment

For tapping the trees, you need a drill, a drill bit, a hammer and splines and/or tubing.

For collecting the sap:  Food safe buckets, clean juice or milk jugs or collection bags.

For boiling the sap into syrup: – a roasting pan on an outdoor woodstove, a turkey fryer, a kettle over a campfire, or a larger, purchased evaporator are all acceptable.  For our first several seasons, we used an old woodstove we picked up at a yard sale for $20. Topped with a stainless steel chafing pan, it was an effective, inexpensive evaporator.  Turkey fryers DO work well, but be aware that propane tanks are costly to refill.  A word of warning for you:  DO NOT even consider boiling sap indoors.  You’ll end up with a sticky layer of steam all over your walls and enough moisture in the air to peel the wallpaper right off the walls.  Seriously.

 

 

 

Tap The Trees

Tap the trees in the early spring, as daytime temperatures rise above freezing. Drill a hole the size of your spout, at a slight incline. We find it most effective to tap the S/SE side of the tree.  Tap the spout into the hole firmly, hang the bucket, and put the cover on to keep out debris.   I’ve read that people insert plastic tubing directly into the taphole and run the tubing into a bucket on the ground, though I’ve never tried it.  We’ve always used a maple syrup spline with plastic tubing ran into a food-safe bucket with a lid.

 

Gather The Sap

Sap is perishable so you need to treat it like a perishable food:  either refrigerate it or use it immediately.  Weather-permitting, place your buckets or jugs in a snowbank on the north side of your house and the sap will keep quite well for a long time.  Be sure to filter the sap through a colander or tea towel before boiling it to remove any bugs or debris.

 

 

Boil The Sap

Boil the sap until it reaches seven degrees above the boiling point of water or until it runs off a spoon in a sheet.   I do the spoon-and-taste method…the consistency quickly changes from watery to thick and syrupy so pay close attention.  If/when your syrup begins to foam and threatens to overflow the pan, a few drips of milk in the pan will reduce the foaming.  Boiling is the longest part of the process, so be sure that you have plenty of fuel to keep your fire going.  And never, ever leave your sap unattended.  There was this incident once when I was boiling sap down in the garage over a propane cooker…and it boiled over…and oh Lardy does that stuff burn!  There was smoke just a-rolling out of the garage.  It was both embarrassing and reassuring when neighbors came over because they thought the house was on fire.  I gave them syrup as a thank you gift.

 

 

Filter and Bottle the Syrup

After your syrup has reached the proper consistency, filter it again to remove any ‘niter’, that’s these weird grainy bits of minerals that can cause your syrup to look cloudy.  Ladle the syrup into Mason jars, cap them and water-bath them for 10 minutes to ensure a good seal.  Many places don’t water-bath their syrup, but I think it’s foolish to take chances on a product you’ve worked so long and hard on, right?!  Store in a cool, dark place and refrigerate after opening.

Now, you do have one other option:  if you choose, you can continue to simmer the syrup over low heat and you’ll end up with a product that looks very much like brown sugar.  Maple sugar IS delish, just be careful as it burns very, very easily!  Once it’s finished, you can use maple sugar as a sweetening just as you’d use brown or coconut sugar.

So that’s it, my friends.  It’s a simple project, though it takes a good, long time to finish it.  That said, with real maple syrup running $15/qt or higher in a GOOD season, it can prove to be a real money-making possibility for your homestead.  We’ve given ½ pint jars of maple syrup for Christmas gifts and they’re always received well, so let me encourage you to try your hand at it next February! Til next time!

8 Ways To Become A Producer

Amish country is one of my favorite family day trips.  I absolutely love seeing their big, beautiful market gardens, their Clydesdales working in the fields and the family-run stores dotting the landscape.   What I admire most about the Amish is their culture of production rather than consumption.   I love that they build their own homes, sew their own clothes, educate their own children, grow their own food.  It’s hard to imagine, but only a few generations ago, America largely resembled the Amish in many respects.  We were a nation of producers.

America’s economy for its first 200-300 years was largely based on tangible, useful items produced in family-owned small businesses.  Yes, there were a few giant corporations out there but in large, skills were specialized,  handed down and produced goods that provided fair livings.  Businesses aside, homes were in the business of production too.  Families utilized skills to produce what they needed and sold and traded within their community to other families producing other goods.  Even the smallest city homes frequently had chicken coops, small gardens, and made income by selling handmade items or providing services such as sewing.  Man alive, how different we live now!   Even if we can’t go back to the days of family businesses and localized trading, we CAN shift the emphasis of our own family’s culture from consumption to production…and we can get started TODAY!  Here are 8 simple things you can do to become a producer!

Gardening is a key skill for producers!

  1. Raise your own food.  This can be as simple as a patio garden or as elaborate as large raised beds, fruit trees, berry bushes and raising livestock.  You don’t have to grow acres and acres of crops in order for raising food to be worth your while.  It’s possible to grow herbs, lettuces and greens in planters 8 months or more a year and their taste is incomparable to anything you’ll find at the grocery store.
  2. Learn to cook from scratch.  I know this is a more difficult idea for many people, but think baby steps.  Can you use fresh veggies instead of canned?  Can you attempt a loaf of bread, a pie or a batch of biscuits instead of buying them from Walmart?  Maybe try your hand at homemade condiments and salad dressings?  Just think simple; it doesn’t have to be fancy!
  3. Make your own cleaning supplies.  Vinegar, essential oils and baking soda are very effective cleaners, both non-toxic and inexpensive.  Give it a try!   
  4. Learn to fish.  You know the old saying…if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day….but I want you to eat for a lifetime!  It doesn’t take much equipment or skill to catch a fish, but it can enable you to provide your family with fresh, non-farmed protein that’s practically free after the initial investment in a fishing pole.
  5. If you’ve learned to garden, try your hand at seed saving.  When you begin to practice seed-to-seed gardening, you effectively close the consumption loop.  It’s entirely possible that you’ll never have to buy seed or plants again and that’s a valuable goal to pursue!
  6. Learn food preservation.  Again, think baby steps.  I know not everyone has the time or inclination to take up canning.  That’s fair.  But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t look into freezing seasonal produce.  I have a freezer full of blackberries to turn into blackberry mead and jam later this winter.  There are bags full of herbs, sliced green tomatoes to fry up, chopped up bell peppers…and most of this produce requires nothing beyond cleaning and chopping.  Bonus!
  7. Line dry your clothes.  Take advantage of a breezy day by hanging out those items that take forever in the dryer (denim, heavy knits, towels).  They’ll smell wonderful, save hours of drying time and cut way down on electric consumption.
  8. Learn the art of foraging.  This one takes time and expert help is a huge bonus…but foraging enables you to find the freshest, in-season, wild produce….and it will cost you nothing but your time.  Depending on your location, you can find produce growing from March through November in the form of wild herbs, nuts, berries, fruits and roots.   Freeze it for later and you have a skill that will continue to provide all year long.

Becoming a producer is nothing more than a change in mindset.  I don’t expect I’ll ever reach the place where I can produce everything I need and I don’t expect you will either…but when you change your thinking about production and consumption, something funny happens:  you’ll find yourself LOOKING for more opportunities to produce.  Initially, you’ll find yourself satisfied with merely growing lettuce, but then you’ll decide it’s a real shame to dump store-bought dressing on your lovely greens so you’ll attempt a simple vinaigrette.  When that’s a success, you’ll begin to investigate other areas in the home and kitchen that you can DIY, grow yourself, repair yourself, produce yourself.  It snowballs, my sweet friends so be prepared!  If you’re a producer, I’d love to know what you produce…and if you’re a consumer, what’s the first item you’d like to learn to produce yourself?  Til next time!

Felting Wool Made Simple

 

 

As much as it pains me to say it….winter is coming.  I am a total fan of hot weather and 16+ hours of daylight…I blame it on the time I lived on the coast and a faulty thyroid….but winter and I just don’t jive.  But nonetheless, cold weather is on the way, so I want to share a fun little skill with you to help you prepare for the {{{brrr shiver shiver}}}.  I learned about felting wool when my children were very small and we couldn’t find accessories that would keep them toasty.  They loved playing in the snow, but even with the best quality gloves we could find, they’d come in with frozen fingers and ears and that just hurts a mama’s heart, you know?  So I did some research and found that felted wool would make mittens and hats FAR superior to anything I could find in a department or discount store.  AND it was a cheap, easy and quick project, which were huge bonuses for me!  Here’s what you do.

 

Felting wool begins with second-hand, quality fibers.

 

First, you need to find 100% wool or wool/angora/cashmere blend sweaters and blankets.  No rayon, acrylic or cotton or other blends;  you need animal fibers that will shrink under heat and agitation.  Believe it or not, you CAN find them very inexpensively, especially wool, at yard sales and second-hand stores, often for as little as a couple dollars.  Buy the biggest sizes you can find because you’ll be shocked at how much they shrink up (think 60% or more.)

 

Next, you are going to throw that beautiful wool sweater or blanket in the washer on the hottest/longest cycle available with a small amount of detergent and no softener.  I know.  Our mamas and home-ec teachers are rolling over in their collective graves right now, but just do it, my friends!  In fact, do it several times if you’d like.  After a long, hot soak and an agitating wash, you should notice a difference in the size and texture of your fabric.  Now throw it in the dryer, on the hottest, longest setting and let it dry.  When you pull it out, it should be *substantially* smaller.  It should also feel thicker and denser, for lack of a better word.  If it isn’t, repeat the process one more time and that should do it!

Now, begin cutting the sweater into the largest, workable pieces of fabric you can.  Cut the sleeves off at the shoulder and at the inner arm seam (**see the tip on mittens before you cut the inner arm seam).  Cut the sides and shoulders of the body of the sweater.  Remove any tags, labels, buttons.  What you should notice is that the wool, while it may be fuzzy, doesn’t fray like a sweater typically frays.  Instead of individual threads, you should have one solid piece of fabric.  That’s one of the beautiful things about felting wool…it doesn’t ravel.  No matter how you tug, cut, poke or pull, it won’t fray like a woolen sweater or blanket made from animal fiber.

To make mittens, simply trace your child’s hand or a mitten onto the fabric (X4), leaving 1/4-1/2 inch seam allowance all the way around.  Cut out carefully, match up the pairs, pin them together, then using either a sewing machine or by hand, stitch the pieces together with a sturdy thread, tie it off and you’re finished.  (**Whenever possible, I used the wrist of the sweater for the wrist of the mittens because they made for a nice finished edge that would tuck right up inside my children’s coats without any bulkiness or gaping.)  To make a hat, trace a hat shape (X2) onto the body of the sweater, using the waistband as the banding of the hat if possible, leaving 1/4-1/2 inch seam allowance.  Cut out both pieces, line them up and pin them, then sew them together using a heavy thread.  If you’re feeling particularly crafty, add a cute pompom, an applique, a button or ribbon or whatever you like to dress it up.  Or wear it plain.  Either way works.

The fantastic thing about felted wool is that it turns moisture and is super warm without feeling itchy or bulky, so when I bundled my kids up in their wool accessories, they’d come in hours later with warm, dry, pink hands and ears instead of soaked mittens and numb fingers.  Using the same procedure, we’ve made slippers, earwarmers, scarves and a dozen other cold weather items.  In fact, I have a thick wool sweater set aside this year—for a “jacket” for our German short-haired pointer, who LOVES to play outside, but can’t stand the cold!  (She must’ve taken that after her Mama.)  Felting wool is also a great way to reuse or upcycle quality fibers that are perhaps out of date or just a little too itchy to wear/use as intended.  Ma Ingalls would absolutely approve of felting wool to keep the children warm!  Give it a try and tell me what you think!  Til next time—