Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Fresh Christmas Tree


 This year, we decided to buy a real tree for Christmas.  We went to the lot this afternoon and picked out a beautiful 8 foot Fraisier Fir.  We had an artificial tree that lasted eight years, but it was in terrible shape by last Christmas with branches so lose we feared it would collapse in a heap at any moment. 

The younger children had never had a real tree for Christmas, and even our older ones probably couldn't remember having one, it was so long ago for them.  We used the opportunity to talk about the symbolism of the Christmas tree and its history.  How it became one of the symbols of eternal life, and how that would appear to the Germans who first started bringing them into their homes to celebrate the birth of Christ -  evergreens surrounded by white snow where no other plant would appear to live was a good way to point to the birth of Jesus who would bring us eternal life.


The family who ran the lot was very friendly and chatty.  They told us all about the trees, most of them came from North Carolina and Michigan. Their tents had a good variety, all were nice and fresh.  The smell of those trees was so wonderful, it was worth going there just to smell the aroma.  You could close your eyes and imagine yourself in a pine forest.  We finally settled on a beautiful Fraisier Fir.


They trimmed it, wrapped it, loaded it on the rack, and off we went...

Is that a star growing out of his head?

Our tree-decorating crew did a marvelous job, the Christmas Season is off to a good start!

I had almost forgotten how much I loved having a fresh tree in the house. 

I am participating in Spiritual Sunday.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

I spy... me!
 The table is almost set... and this year, I decided to do something a little differently.  I set up a "kid's table" so the big table would be a little less crowded.  In years past, we've had trouble trying to get young ones to willingly sit at the other table.  Soooo, I decided to decorate it better!


And I spy...  a fan!
 Ta-da!  Emily decided where she was sitting as soon as she came down this morning... the kids table, I win!

In fact, I may even sit there myself!

Still missing napkins...  but almost there.
Can you believe it's going to be in the 80s down here today??? We have the A/C on... and the turkey is actually cooking outside, because we are having our first smoked Thanksgiving turkey today. I'm happy to not have a hot oven in the kitchen all day long in this weather.

 Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fall Leaves

We have a few maples which drop their leaves in the fall and some years even give us a pretty display of fall color.  We haven't had any cold nights this fall, so we may be missing the display. 


Emily spent part of the afternoon on Sunday creating a pile of leaves...
.

This morning, she quietly came over and said she was ready to go out and jump on it.  She stood at a good distance so as to pick up speed and altitude, with braids flying and the wind in her face, she took flight and  landed...

What fun are the simple joys of childhood.

I am linking with Shutter Love Themes today for their Fall photo meme.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Soapmaking


Don helped me make a large batch of handmade soap this weekend.  He did a great job covering the big wooden mold we use for making soap before Christmas-time.  I often give our soap away as a hostess gift whenever we are invited for dinner, and we now have a group of friends who say they love how we spoil them with it.  So, here it is... more yummy soap for Christmas.  This year's flavor - Honey-Vanilla Oatmeal.
Coconut and palm oils, plus Shea butter melting in the pot
 After making sure our mold was well covered with freezer paper, I mixed the lye with water under the vent and melted the oils.  We then waited for both solutions to cool down to about 100 degrees F. before mixing them.


 
These are some of the ingredients that went into the basic soap mixture, after the "trace" had been reached.

Melted oils and olive oil mix
I normally use our kitchen mixer to make a regular batch of about 14 soap bars, but since we were making a large amount, we did the mixing in a 5-gallon food-grade bucket. 


We used a paint mixing bit attached to our drill to mix it. 


It took about 50 minutes to achieve "trace." Trace happens when enough saponification takes place and the mixture thickens enough that if you drip some of  it onto the surface, it leaves a trace which remains there for a couple of minutes.  This is when other ingredients such as essential oils, herbs, oatmeal, honey are added.

Curing takes three weeks...
The darker bar has the vanilla essential oil scent.  I get the most requests for that one.  The cream colored bars are unscented.  I used a couple of molds to make fun shapes with them. 

Basic Handmade Soap - large batch

3 qts. filtered water
2.1 lbs. (950 grams) Sodium Hydroxide (lye powder)
7 lbs. 6 oz. (3 Kg. 345.2 gr.) Olive Oil
4 lbs. (1 Kg. 814.4 gr.) Coconut Oil
3 lbs. (1 Kg. 360.8 gr.) Palm Oil
12 oz. (340.2 gr.) Shea Butter

Add after trace:
60 gr. Grapeseed extract -- natural preservative, optional if soap will be used within a couple of months.
1 1/2 cups oats, toasted and pulverized --optional
8 Tablespoons honey -- optional
90 gr. Essential oil(s) -- optional

Friday, November 19, 2010

Fertilizer Friday - Seeds & Butterflies


It is  time for Fertilizer Friday, time to flaunt our flowers and what is growing in our garden... or maybe what we are planning to grow in it? 


 I received my Seeds of Change catalog in the mail this week and decided to go through the seeds we had in the refrigerator, plant a final round of winter vegetables and flowers, then take an inventory of what was left.  Many of the seeds in our stash are several years old, so their viability may not be so good.  Those will either be planted or culled today, then comes the fun part... gathering seed catalogs and deciding which seeds to order again and which new varieties to try next year. 


I ended up soaking all the sweet peas we had.  They went in the ground yesterday, along with more carrot and cabbage seeds.


After planting, I went and looked at how my experimental calabaza squash is doing. It continues to bloom, but all the flowers are males. It was planted last February, as an afterthought, in an area that used to be used for our chicken compost pile.  It has lived there, totally neglected, all these months.  This is one of the things I love about this plant, it's a survivor.  I will give it some cover come freeze warning time, since it's a tropical plant... 


The girls were also outside this morning and found a Monarch fresh out of the cocoon, drying its wings in the sun.  Emily loves to observe animals of all types and isn't squeamish at all.  She got a close look at it, as it didn't seem to mind resting on her fingers.


Up, and away she goes!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Day our Bees Died

Today was a sad day for us.  Early this afternoon, Don went out to check on the hives only to discover that they were empty, except for a few foragers stealing honey.  Colony collapse disorder has been a problem worldwide the last few years.  I don't think it's a coincidence that hundreds of acres of strawberries were just planted a couple of weeks ago within less than a mile of our property, and now our bees are gone.  I posted recently about the farmers - if we can even call them that - spraying their pesticides at all hours of the day and night.  That particular day, I took a picture of a tractor spraying pesticides at around 12:30 pm, the time when I usually drive by on my way to piano lessons. 

I've been reading up on one of the pesticides strawberry farmers use, tons of it every year: methyl bromide.  Here is what one manufacturer has to say about it:
Methyl bromide is one of the top five most widely used pesticides in the world today. Eighty seven percent of methyl bromide is used by farmers prior to planting to eradicate all fungus, nematodes, microorganisms, and weeds from the soil to avoid destruction of the crop. In the U.S., methyl bromide is used mainly for tomato, strawberry, and bell pepper crops. California is the largest user, followed by Florida.

Lovely.  So, I read some more and found out why farmers use the stuff.  Apparently, it creates a "sterile" environment.  I can attest to that.  The fields near our home are never weeded, there is no need.  

I found an interesting letter about a teacher in California who got in trouble for teaching her students that the strawberry fields near their school were toxic!

Well, I began writing this post this afternoon, and I was upset and depressed about our bees.  I still am, but I want to close this post on a positive note.  The only thing that keeps coming back to me over and over since discovering our loss is that this is a reminder to us of how important it is to watch what we eat.  The pesticides farmers are using are deadly poisons.  They are killing us, little by little, while they ruin our health in the process.  So, I went to foodnews.org and downloaded their shoppers guide again.  I am resolved to stick to it and completely avoid those items in the Dirty Dozen list.

Watch a video of Dr. Wile talking about pesticides in food.


I, for one, am convinced that CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) is due to pesticides killing bees and/or destroying their immune system so that they succumb to the pests that they would normally be able to live with.  Our bees died after almost a year of living in a healthy hive, producing honey, pollinating our vegetables, and maintaining their colony as they've done for thousands of years. 

11/17/2010 - I was reading through some of my bee posts just now and found this one from 2008, posted in October, saying that the bees were gone from our pumpkin patch.   Again, a decline in bees during strawberry planting season!

Gluten-Free Bread Loaves

A couple of weeks ago, on our last rainy day, I posted about baking gluten-free bread and a book I had borrowed from the library. Well, I've been trying to bake the bread, but my first attempts were unsuccessful. For one thing, I think the recipe is mistaken in the amount of water. I had to add more than one cup over what was suggested, otherwise there was no rise at all.


This afternoon, I baked my best loaf yet.  I think another trick was to put more tap water and ice in the broiler pan, rather than the one cup of hot tap water.  The Gluten-Free Girl and The Chef blog was very helpful in its GF bread baking suggestions.  It really is a very different process from what I've done in the past baking regular wheat bread.  I will be trying their sandwich bread recipe later this week.  I am hoping it turns out, so I can use it in our first gluten-free  Thanksgiving stuffing.


This latest loaf has a little more crumb and air in it, so it's not as dense as the ones I baked last week.  I had to let it rise longer than the recipe suggested, plus I think more water (and ice) in the broiler pan also gave it more lift in the oven.  This has been an exercise of trial-and-error.

Gluten-Free Crusty Loaves
Adapted from Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day

2 cups brown rice flour
1 1/2 cups sorghum flour
3 cups tapioca flour
2 T yeast
1 T coarse sea salt
2 T xanthan gum
3 1/4 cups lukewarm water
4 large eggs
1/3 oil
2 T honey
Sesame seeds, sunflower seeds (optional)

Mix dry ingredients in a 5-quart bowl.  Combine liquid ingredients and gradually mix into dry ingredients.  Watch as you are adding liquid for dough's consistency.  Gluten-free dough should be malleable and not dry.  See note below.
Cover to rise at room temperature for about 2 hours.  The dough can be used immediately after initial rise.  Otherwise, refrigerate in covered container for up to 7 days. 
Use wet hands to take out a 1-pound (grapefruit-size) piece of dough.  Gently shape into a ball, being careful not to press air bubbles inside or knead.  Allow dough to rest, loosely covered with plastic wrap on parchment for 90 minutes (40 minutes if you are using fresh, unrefrigerated dough). 
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F, with a baking stone placed on middle rack.  Place empty broiler tray on the other rack.
Just before baking, slash loaf with 1/4-inch-deep parallel cuts, using a serrated knife.  If you would like to have sesame seeds or some other kind of seed on the crust, brush with warm water before slashing loaf and spread nuts/seeds over top.
Slide loaf directly onto hot stone with parchment paper.  Pour 2 cups of water on hot broiler pan plus an ice-cube trays worth of ice.  Bake for 20 minutes, remove parchment paper, then bake for 15-20 minutes longer, until lightly browned and firm. 

This recipe makes enough for four 1-pound loaves.

**Note - Depending on the brand of flour you use or whether you grind your own, you will need to adjust the amount of liquid.  I grind my own tapioca and rice flour (and many others), because of the savings involved.  This may explain the need for additional liquid.

Visit Hearth and Soul Hop and Slightly Indulgent Tuesdays to see many more recipes and cooking inspiration.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Harvest Monday - Greens


My winter vegetable garden at this point consists of everything green - bok choi, collards, kale, lettuce of various sorts, and  herbs. 

I know, I should have thinned them some more...


I do have a couple of pittiful looking tomatoes in the back.  For some reason, I don't grow tomatoes very well during our Fall/Winter growing season.  I suspect the August and September heat and bugs just take too much out of them when they are just getting started, and I would have to spend much more time with them at that point to get a decent crop. 

On the other hand, all my greens are growing very well.  We have a profusion of them.


After harvesting, I try to give everything a good spray with the hose before bringing it inside.  No need to wash good compost down into the septic system.


Our Barbados cherry continues to give fruit, we get just a few every day - a small snack of sweet goodness as we go about doing our chores.


Our busy bees continue to pollinate and work on the basil flowers we left for them.  I went on a trip to the Gainesville Dadant shop last week and picked up four more supers (hive boxes) .  Don will be adding those to our hives next season to increase our honey output. 

Visit Daphne's blog and see what other gardeners are harvesting these days at Harvest Monday.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Cranberry & White Chocolate Scones (GF)


The weather has been perfect these last couple of weeks.  Perfect weather for outdoor cooking, picnics, and afternoon tea. 
Cranberries and white chocolate scone mix...

You've probably noticed by now, that growing and preparing food takes up a big part of our day; but come the holidays... planning, shopping, and preparing food moves up on the priority list even more.  I guess we all love this.  I mean, I usually even enjoy going to the grocery store...  and so does Don.  My one grown child often calls me on the phone to see if she can stop by the grocery store for me.

Since yesterday was Veteran's Day, we started the day with a big, hot breakfast.  In the afternoon, I made scones for a tea on the front porch. I tried Three Pixie's Devonshire Cream recipe, and it was a crowd pleaser. 


We've been making these scones for years, so I don't know the source of the recipe any more.  Yesterday, I used my gluten free flour mix instead of the wheat flour it calls for, following the same old recipe, and no one noticed the difference!

Cranberry and White Chocolate Scones

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 Tablespoons chilled butter, cut in pieces
6 Tablespoons half & half cream
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 cup cranberries, fresh, frozen, or dried
1/2 cup white chocolate chips

Begin heating your oven (400 F, 205 C). Blend flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and butter.  Add milk, egg, cranberries, and white chocolate chips.  Stir until dough begins to hold together.  Turn onto floured board.  Knead for 2 minutes.  Pat into a 1/2" round cut into 8 wedges.  Transfer to greased baking sheet.  Bake at 400 degrees F (205 degrees C) for 14 minutes until golden brown. 

Gluten Free Flour

1 1/2 cups northern bean flour
2 cups white rice flour
1 cup tapioca flour
1/2 cup oat flour

Add Xantham Gum - 1/4 teaspoon for cakes, cookies, biscuits, pancakes...scones! Or 1/2 teaspoon for breads.

Since we own a mill, I buy my grains and grind them myself.  This cuts down on the cost considerably. 

I am linking with Wholesome Whole Foods, and Foodie Friday today!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Life Cycles & Fairies

Milkweed isn't the most attractive bush in our flower planting area; but this time of year, it is Monarch caterpillar and butterfly central.  I can see them fluttering over the front porch planting area all day long.  They are busy laying eggs on the leaves and feeding on the nectar of its flowers. 


I think the reason I like Milkweed is that it is so full of life.  From its fast growing habit, its flowers, pods, and seed clusters, to the ongoing Monarch life cycle we can see unfolding every day. 


Like the chickens in our backyard, it is just fun to sit and watch it go through its life cycles.


The girls and I wonder what fun the fairies must have on these fluffy seeds at night...


...while keeping an eye on Mr. Caterpillar.

Oh well, the party must come to an end this afternoon, when I go out there and cut off the dozens of seed pods that are ready to burst.  We can't have thousands of milkweed bushes growing all over the place!


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wordless Wednesday - Jesse's Watchful Eye


Jesse keeps an eye on things

A gentle giant he is...

... feeling a bit suspicious of my camera this morning?


His hens are well cared for.

Linking with  Outdoor Wednesday, and Wordless Wednesdays at Baba's Farm Life, Life of Rylie, and Frugality is Free.

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