Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Preparing for Winter: Firewood


Last winter I think we had maybe 1 or 2 fires in our wood stove.  We were super excited about finally having our own wood stove when we built the house, but we were worried about babies and toddlers touching a hot stove and we were too busy to worry about stocking up on the supplies needed for a fire, like firewood, tinder, and kindling.

This winter will be different!  Yes, we still have a toddler (soon to be 2 toddlers) but they're old enough now that we aren't staying up late to bottle feed the baby anymore.  Now they both go to bed at the same time, so we could simply use the wood stove once they're in bed without having to constantly police curious children.

The idea of snuggling up on the couch with a mug of Irish coffee, a fluffy blanket, a good book, and a crackling fire still sounds like the perfect way to spend a winter evening and this year I'll be ready!

We have some firewood from when we had some trees cleared - the company who did the clearing were willing to cut the trees into firewood and stacked the logs along both sides of our driveway out in the open.

I set up a shelving unit on our porch to give us a place to stack some firewood out of the elements so it'll be handy to grab a few, and also so the logs will be nice and dry (or 'seasoned') so they'll burn well.  Green wood that hasn't dried will be hard to light on fire and if it does catch on fire will be very smoky - not fun!

In addition to firewood, you also need tinder and kindling.

Tinder is material that very easily catches on fire but also burns up very quickly.  This will help start a fire going, but only for a little while.  Tinder can be dried grass, dried leaves, pinecones, newspaper, dryer lint, etc.

Kindling is basically anything bigger than tinder but smaller than firewood.  It's a middle ground that will somewhat easily catch fire from the tinder, but burn longer so that it can catch the actual firewood on fire.

Kindling on the left (sticks) and tinder on the right (weeds)

I don't get a newspaper delivered at the moment, and I'd like to use free materials for the fire.  So I chopped tall weeds with thick canes into small 8" to 10" lengths and left the leaves attached.  Once these dry out, they should catch fire very easily.

I also cut down some small saplings with wood no bigger than about the thickness of my thumb and cut them into short lengths, too.

I want to give both the time to thoroughly dry out before winter gets here.

I have no idea how much firewood, tinder, and kindling I need to prepare since I've never had regular access to a wood stove before.  I'm not going to worry about preparing too much this year since I know I'll probably make the occasional fire at this point.

Now I can relax and look forward to a cozy fire this winter!





Monday, August 29, 2016

Easy & Cheap Homemade Sweetened Condensed Milk

3 jars of homemade sweetened condensed milk!
Whew!  It's been a while since my last post - 2 kids until 2 years old keeps you busy, I guess!

Lately I've been using a LOT more sweetened condensed milk than I used to.  I've been using a can or two every week once I found the magical 2-ingredient no-churn ice cream recipe where you whip cream and stir in a can of sweetened condensed milk to make the seriously best homemade ice cream I've ever had, AND fell down the homemade popsicle hole.

Apparently a generous spoonful of sweetened condensed milk is the key to creamy-not-icy popsicles.  Check out this super easy and addictive recipe for Key Lime Pie popsicles and you too will find yourself with a freezer full of delicious homemade popsicles before you know it.

I've been buying the rBST free (but not organic) sweetened condensed milk from Whole Foods which is $2.79 for a 14 oz can.  If you buy a can once or twice a year, no problem.  But I started to wonder, could I find a cheaper way to do this?

As it turns out sweetened condensed milk is STUPID EASY to make yourself.

All you do is pour milk and sugar into your crock pot and cook it down until it's thick.  That's all!

I found multiple milk-to-sugar ratios and went with the lower sugar range and it tastes the same sweetness as the store bought sample we compared it to.  My homemade version had a more caramel taste, I think because I used natural sugar instead of white granulated sugar.  Mine was a little darker in color for the same reason.

COST

Store bought rBST free can is $2.79 / 14 oz, or 0.19 per oz.

Homemade $1.74 milk (7 cups of a $1.99 half gallon) and 0.44 sugar (2 cups from a $1.99 9-cup bag) = $2.18 for a yield of 3 cups (24 oz), or 0.09 per oz.

In short the homemade version cost HALF the price of the store bought kind, and I just have to grab a jar out of my freezer when I need it!

Homemade Sweetened Condensed Milk

7 cups whole milk
2 cups sugar

Pour 3 cups of water in your crock pot and mark that depth using a straw or chop stick (I used a reusable straw that has one of those rubber rings that keeps it from falling out of your insulated cup).  Combine milk and sugar in your crock pot and set on high.  Whisk once the mixture warms up to make sure the sugar is dissolved.  Crack the lid so that the mixture can evaporate down.

Stir every once in a while, but don't scrap off the cooked milk from the sides since you want a smooth texture.  Once it's evaporated enough so you have just 3 cups of liquid left you're done!

You can keep this in the fridge for 2 weeks or the freezer for 3 months.




Monday, November 2, 2015

The Easiest (And Tastiest) Homemade Biscuits!

Every once in a while what I really crave for breakfast is a fresh, hot-from-the-oven biscuit.  I almost exclusively make biscuits on Sunday morning since they're a little bit of a pain to make.  Pulsing the butter into pea-sized pieces, being careful to not over-mix, rolling and cutting the biscuit rounds...  I mean, it's all worth it for a good biscuit, but still not something I feel up to doing on, say, a weekday morning just because.

THAT HAS ALL CHANGED.

This weekend I ran across a recipe from the Smitten Kitchen blog for Cream Biscuits.  Basically you whisk together your dry ingredients and instead of messing around with butter, you just use heavy cream instead.

The benefits of using what is basically cold liquid butter are awesome - you don't have to pull out your food processor or cut in the butter by hand, you can easily mix up the biscuit dough in one bowl, and you don't have to worry about your butter starting to melt in a warm kitchen.

Next up I used a suggestion from a Cook's Illustrated biscuit recipe and instead of pulling out a juice glass ('cause I'm classy) and cutting the biscuits into rounds and then re-rolling the scraps and cutting a second set of biscuits that are always a little tougher than the first ones, I just patted the biscuit dough into a rough rectangle and cut the biscuits into squares.

No re-rolling the dough!  No wasted dough!

Combining these 2 biscuit techniques meant I mixed up super tender and delicious homemade biscuits in one bowl and in just a few minutes.

In fact.... it was SO easy now I'm a little worried that I'll end up eating way more biscuits than can possibly be good for me.  ;-)

Cream Biscuits
From Smitten Kitchen

3 tablespoons (45 grams) melted butter
2 cups (250 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the surface
1 tablespoon (15 grams) baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon (15 grams) sugar (optional)
1 1/2 cups (355 ml) heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Melt butter in a small pot or microwave dish, and set aside. Whisk together two cups flour, the baking powder, salt and (if using) sugar into a large bowl. Fold in 1 1/4 cups cream. If the dough is not soft or easily handled, fold in the remaining 1/4 cup cream, little by little. (I ended up using all 1 1/2 cups.)

Turn dough onto a floured surface, and pat it into a rectangle that is roughly the thickness of about 1 inch. Cut into 8 - 10 squares. Dip the top of each biscuit in melted butter and arrange on the baking sheet. Bake until golden, 12 to 15 minutes.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Fall Harvest

Hunting season from 2013
Well it's mid-September now and the temperatures are cooling off some, the light is changing, the leaves are just starting to turn, and stores are coming out with pumpkin flavored options for just about everything from beer to oatmeal.

Yup, it's starting to feel like fall!

I'm used to this being the time of year you stock up for the coming winter.  There's hunting season, and plenty of tempting produce to freeze and can.

But I'm due on Thanksgiving day, so that would mean either climbing a deer stand while 9 months pregnant or processing a deer while also trying to care for a newborn.  Er, neither sound like good options so this will be the second year in a row I miss hunting season.

When I had a deer in our freezer I kind of took for granted how free I felt to throw a whole roast in the crockpot.  I do have the chicken from this spring, so we'll mostly be eating that this winter.

I also keep catching myself filling up the freezer with things like homemade butternut squash and pumpkin puree when I REALLY need to be emptying the freezer in preparation for filling it with freezer meals for after the baby is born.  Oops!

This year I'll have to partake in the season by drinking more than my fair share of pumpkin spice lattes instead of hunting and canning like I normally would ;-)

If you haven't made your own pumpin spice latte at home yet, give it a try!  It tastes WAY better and is also MUCH cheaper!

Pumpkin Spice Latte
Based on the recipe from Libby's

1 cup strong coffee
1/4 cup half & half
1 TBS pumpkin puree
1 TBS brown sugar
1/4 tsp pumpkin spice
1 tsp vanilla

You can just stir this all together and top with whipped cream (a delicious option), but if you put it in the blender and run it for a minute then you get the foamy top like you would at a coffee shop.  Both are delicious!  I love the rich body that you get from putting actual pumpkin in this.

I took a can of pumpkin puree and froze it in an ice cube tray, so when I want to make one of these I just microwave the pumpkin ice cube in some hot coffee and mix in the sugar and spices.  So easy, and so delicious!

Friday, July 24, 2015

WE GOT A NEW CAR!

For the last 3 or 4 years Jack and I have shared one car, a Corolla.

Jack drove it to work during the week, and took it to the game store on Saturdays.  That meant I could do anything that required a car only on Sunday, otherwise I had to borrow a car from a neighbor or relative.

For the most part that wasn't a problem.  But once I got pregnant they want you to come into the doctor's office ALL THE TIME.  And then once Miles was born, he also had his own doctor's appointments I had to take him to.  Suddenly, it felt like I was borrowing a car every time I turned around.  (First world problems, I know.)

Well, with a second baby on the way we realized that 2 car seats just won't fit in the backseat of the Corolla (at least not with two adults who are both over 6 feet tall in the front).  So it was time to add another car to the family!

For the most part it wasn't a big deal to not have regular access to a car, it just took some careful planning.  But to suddenly be able to hop in the car whenever I need to feels so LUXURIOUS!

We went car shopping with just 2 criteria: it had to be in our price range (cheap), and it had to have enough room in the backseat for 2 car seats.  That's it.  If we had found something that fit those 2 criteria but was neon pink we still would have bought it.

Saying that I'm pretty relieved and excited that the car we did find that fit our budget and car seats is such a cute hatchback!  A hatchback will come in so handy on the farm and was #1 on my wish list for a car, but they seem hard to find on the used car market so I tried not to get my hopes up.  BUT HERE IT IS!

And it's all mine.  MY PRECIOUS.

Seriously, I have to fight the impulse to go out to the driveway to give the new car a kiss goodnight.  I really do love this car.

Freezer Full of Chicken!

This winter I got the McMurray catalog in the mail and was drooling over the available poultry, but knew that with a new baby and a new house I wouldn't have the time to take care of chickens every day.

My mother-in-law also got the catalog, and suggested we get some chickens and split the work.  At the time it seemed like the perfect solution!  We'd get a good supply of organic chicken at a MUCH better price then we ever could buying it from the grocery store.

Well, the chickens ended up being more work than either of us anticipated.  To make it worth it we got around 75 chickens.  Once they weren't chicks anymore we started buying 4 bags of 50 lb chicken feed at a time, and just lugging the feed around every few weeks was a hassle.

Part of it was that we ordered half Red Rangers and half 'Turkens' (or naked neck chickens), which we felt would be much easier to humanly kill.  Well, the Red Rangers were ready to process at 12 weeks and were nice big birds.  The Turkens weren't ready until 20 weeks and were still scrawny little birds at that point.  Looking back if we had just ordered the Red Rangers we would have saved ourselves a bunch of extra work AND gotten a lot more chicken.  Oopsie!

Well, lesson learned!

We processed the last of the chickens this past Monday and boy, was that a happy day!  We were all relieved to be done caring for the chickens and ready to start EATING chicken!  :-)

After everything was said and done I ended up with 22 chickens which I broke down to wings, breasts, tenders, thighs and drumsticks for most of them.  I froze 3 whole as roasting chickens, but you can't get all the air out of the inside cavity so you have to use them faster than the vacuum-sealed parts.  I also did a few whole bone-in breasts with the skins still on - they vacuum-sealed better than a whole bird and I want to try brining and roasting them.

So after caring for chickens for 4 and a half months we have a freezer FULL of chicken and a pantry full of chicken stock, and both will probably last us over a year.

Totally, absolutely worth it!  :-D

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sign Your Child Up For FREE Books!

When we were expecting our first baby, a friend of the family told us about a program where you can sign your child up to get a FREE BOOK mailed to them every month.  That's all I had to hear!  I had the form filled out and taped by our front door, just waiting until the baby was actually born to pop the letter into the mailbox.

So Miles has been enrolled in Dolly’s Imagination Library since he was born, and he's been getting a free book in the mail at the beginning of every month like clockwork!

As far as I'm concerned, this is magical.

Every month when the new book shows up it's like a mini holiday, and we always read the new book the day it came in the mail.  Children are eligible from when they're born until they're 5 years old, so that means Miles will received a whopping SIXTY books while he's enrolled in the program!!

Not only that, but they're age appropriate books.  When he was a newborn the books had regular paper pages, but lately they've been cardboard books that can withstand him grabbing them and putting them in his mouth.

Your county has to support the program, so go online to check your availability at https://usa.imaginationlibrary.com/register_my_child.php.

If you know of ANYBODY with children under 5 years old, spread the word!