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Homemade Butter

Butter, like canning, is another one of those things that I have heard was extremely easy to make, and finally decided to attempt.  Also just like canning, I love it.  I have no desire to every store-buy butter again.  Among the benefits of making your own butter is total control of ingredients, including whether the cream is hormone free, the amount of salt, if any used, and the ability to add honey, cilantro, or any other number of other ingredients.  It also turns out tasting so amazingly fresh–especially if you use high quality cream–and has a whipped-like quality.  It doesn’t seem like it should make that much difference when you hold up the package of butter from the store and read that the ingredients are identical.  However, it is very different and much better.

The only necessary ingredients are heavy cream, a jar and a marble, and a little bit of time.  I made mine while sitting on the couch between my toddlers watching TV, so time may not even be a necessary ingredient.

Pour the cream into a jar, drop in the marble, seal it and shake for about twenty to thirty minutes.  I didn’t go crazy shaking it really hard and wearing myself out.  I picked a pace where I could keep the marble moving and not tire myself out, and then I changed directions or arms frequently.  After about fifteen minutes, I stopped being able to hear the marble.  It looked somewhat solid inside, so I cracked it open.  It was white and fluffy, but not quite the consistency I was looking for.  I threw in a small amount of sea salt and put the lid back on and kept shaking.  The next thing that happened almost threw me for a loop–it was almost as though it separated back out into liquid and I had made a mistake.

But a short time after this, in the midst of the liquid (buttermilk) a big yellow lump formed.  I strained out the buttermilk into a jar for use in cooking and taste-tested the butter.  Heavenly!  I will definitely be making this again and again.  I’m even slathering it on some corn on the cob tonight for dinner.

What are your favorite types of butter?  I’m definitely making some honey-butter next.

Re-purposed Blocks

Between reduce, reuse and recycle, my favorite has always been reuse.  Not just because it is often cost-effective, but also because it is so much fun.  I am an avid thrift store shopper.  I get more compliments on outfits I put together from my rounds at the thrift stores than the outfits I have bought new at regular stores.  I can get brands I couldn’t afford at 1/15th the price of the brands I can afford.  One of my favorite stores even has $1 specials on a tag color every day.  Nothing quite like someone telling you how awesome you look, and knowing that from shirt to shoes to purse your entire outfit cost ten dollars.

But I don’t just apply this philosophy to clothes–I am constantly on the look out for bargains and good ideas for the girls.  One of my personal favorites that I thought was worth sharing was our re-purposing of four sets of Jenga blocks.

I stumbled upon the first set at a thrift store for about two dollars.  I had been thinking about getting some real wooden blocks for some time, but every time I’ve found them they’ve been more expensive than I wanted them to be.  I figured what the heck, and bought them.  Worst case, I thought I might have to put them in storage with other board games that our girls are not yet ready to play.  Either way, it wouldn’t be wasted money.  Turns out, though, that it was a moment of genius.

Jenga blocks are made to pretty precise measurements–they have to be, or the game wouldn’t work.  They are totally level on all six sides, and they stack wonderfully.  It turns out that you can build pretty massive coliseum-like structures pretty easily.  And they make a nice wooden crashing sound when your youngest knocks over your masterpiece.  (This is actually a bonus when your kids are two and three–they like loud noises and finding ones that don’t give you migraines can be challenging).

Since then, we’ve picked up three more sets, including a bamboo special edition set and a colored set.  We keep them in a dollar store mini-laundry basket, which is both colorful and just the right size.  And the girls love to build with them.  The best part though–no set has cost us more than two dollars.

And when the time comes that the girls are no longer interested in creating massive structures with them, it will probably be right about the time they want to sit down and play an actual round of Jenga.  Double bonus points for a re-purposing that works long term!

Birthdays as a mom

Somewhere after my twenty first birthday, birthdays became unimportant to me–at least mine.  But being a mom has brought my own birthday to a new place of special meaning for me.  Somehow all those childhood memories of special birthday gifts and parties and celebrations seem totally eclipsed by the total awesomeness of getting a card handmade by my two and three year-olds.

Out of everything that happened on my birthday–going to see a movie with my husband and some friends (precious adult time), going to lunch with my family, gifts, etc.–getting out of the shower in the morning to discover my daughter’s gifts to me was the absolute best.

What is totally amazing to me is the excitement my children showed towards my birthday–even though we didn’t have a party, or make a fancy cake or do any of the things that make their birthdays so amazing.  They seem to latch on to the idea that it’s a special day meant to celebrate that person, and everything else is icing on the cake.  Their excitement was contagious and my 31st was a very special day for me.  I’m convinced that God gave us children to remind us how to enjoy life with total vigor and to take nothing for granted.  Every moment counts.

One Lovely Blog Award

Thanks to World on a Platter for nominating me for the One Lovely Blog Award. It is a wonderful type of affirmation to receive nominations from fellow bloggers, especially bloggers I respect this much.

As pertains to the rules of this nomination, I will share seven new things about myself:

1) I don’t eat fish in any form.  No allergy, just can’t do it.

2) My youngest daughter was eight weeks premature, but you’d never know it now–praise the Lord!

3) My degrees are in Criminal Justice.

4) I started out as an English major, until my dad convinced me at eighteen that I’d never get work as a writer.

5) I also have a poetry blog at http://chipoetry.wordpress.com/

6) Almost all of my clothing is black, but not because I’m depressed or gothic–it’s because I’m busy and lazy and they always match.

7) My secret dream is to own several acres and homestead, getting as close to self-sufficiency as possible.  Until that happens, if it ever happens, I try to homestead the best I can with what I have.

In return, I would like to nominate the following blogs for the award, in no particular order:

http://onelovedamericangirl.com/

http://noelleodesigns.com/

http://adetailedhouse.com/

http://lezoemusings.wordpress.com/

http://relative3ep.com/

http://makesomethingmondays.wordpress.com/

http://kellisretrokitchenarts.wordpress.com/

http://soulsbyfarm.wordpress.com/

http://francoisbergh.com/

http://madeyedlinblog.com/

Please check out these awesome blogs and enjoy!

Splash park

I’ve come to the conclusion that the “splash park” concept of water play for little kids is one of the most genius innovations to sprout up since my own childhood.  What could be better than letting your toddlers run through massive gushing water, while at the same time resting your brain into a level 5 zone of awareness (potential for danger) as opposed to a level 10 red alert zone of awareness like the ocean or a pool.  We are blessed to live within a five minute drive to a splash park that we discovered last year, much to our everlasting delight.  Well, Florida summer starts early, and it has been open since May 1st, so we have been out twice already with plans to try and be there at some point every weekend.  Everything about the way this park was designed was clearly designed with moms in mind.  Shade covered patches of soft artificial turf (no dirt or scratchy Florida grass), easy open viewing as the kids run around screaming, highly chlorinated water that seems at least slightly less frightening somehow than the neighborhood pool, and a scattering of benches for those parents, like myself, who are unsure of their ability to get back up from a cross-legged seated position once there too long…

Still, I feel slightly like two totally opposite sides of my personality are at battle–the 21st century high-tech mom, and the homesteader at heart.  Part of me resists the total artificial nature of the whole concept, right down to the artificial turf.  After all, isn’t the glorious Fort De Soto beach, with its soft sand and nary a building in site so much more preferable than some man-made abomination.  But, then the high tech mom in me fights back with all the convenience and ease of such an arrangement.  Am I the only one who has momentary second thoughts at this?  Probably.  But I spent most of my childhood in the woods.  And I loved every minute of it.  I worry that my children aren’t exposed to nature enough.  I want them to learn to love the peace and tranquility of God’s creation.

At the end of the day, the nearness and free price tag of the splash park wins out more battles than any other argument.  Even for a local, the beaches are hardly free–whether because of park fees or parking fees.  Plus, packing for a trip to the beach is a monstrous task of its own.  And the pool?  Without my husband, forget it.  One daughter is done after five minutes, and the other wouldn’t be done after five hours.  And neither swims enough to allow me to relax in the slightest.

So despite the concrete, fabricated nature of it, the splash park will remain a fixture in our life for the foreseeable future.

Toddlers and Vegetables

One of the things that I am most proud of in my journey through motherhood is the fact that I have two toddlers who eat their vegetables.  And the easiest way I have found to get them to do so is also one of the easiest ways to throw together a meal for a family in no time at all–entree salads.  I have become the master of entree salads, which we eat probably two to three times a week during the work week.  They are easy to make, I can make a large variety of them, and they are very healthy for a little body.

Some of my favorite ways to make an entree salad, and some of their favorites to eat, include:

1) tex-mex chicken salad

(think corn, black beans, cheddar cheese, black olives, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, green and red pepper, and a salsa-ranch dressing made with half mild salsa and half lite ranch)

2) raspberry/walnut/blue cheese salad

(all of the above plus lettuce and raspberry vinaigrette)

or tonight’s special–a very simple salad with balsamic vinaigrette.

I use chicken from rotisserie chickens I buy at the grocery store, usually on sale.  The chicken is often enough for two dinners, it is often the same price as buying the same chicken raw, and the left-over carcass is perfect for making my own chicken stock.  Tonight’s salad was comprised of organic spring mix, rotisserie chicken breast, tomatoes, cucumbers, sliced almonds and a balsamic vinaigrette.  It was delicious and light and took about five minutes to chop up and throw together.  Both of my toddlers had seconds.

And to top it off for dessert, I gave them organic vanilla yogurt mixed with a small spoonful of my homemade, home-canned strawberry sauce.

The best things about these meals are their overall healthiness, the simplicity to throw together, the small number of dishes that need to be dealt with, and the totally satisfaction of watching your toddlers dive in to a plate full of vegetables.

Enjoying the fruits of canning

I finally popped open a jar of my homemade, home-canned spaghetti sauce and I was thrilled at how fresh and delicious it tasted.  I already knew I was a canning convert for life, but this has definitely solidified that sentiment.  The spaghetti sauce was one of the products I canned out of about a hundred pounds of tomatoes I bought at a u-pick farm several weeks ago.  It was my first try at it, and I only roughly followed a compilation of several recipes I had read, so I was nervous that it might not turn out very edible.  But I think I underestimated not only myself, but also the art of canning.

First, I cooked up some ground beef and then deglazed the pan with some cheap merlot.

Then, I added some fresh basil from my window-side herb garden.

I poured in two quarts of my homemade spaghetti sauce and simmered it down until it had thickened a little bit.

All in all, it was delicious.  It was so much better than store-bought sauce, and the total convenience of being able to can up a large batch for later use was awesome.  This sauce was pretty simple–about thirty pounds of tomatoes, peeled and diced, two green peppers, one onion, a heavy handed amount of sea salt and pepper, and a whole garlic, minced.  After reducing and cooking it on the stove for about an hour and a half, it canned into about seven quarts.

But now that I’ve had a chance to try my sauce, I will say there are a few modifications I will make for my next round of spaghetti sauce canning.  First, I need to start the sauce much earlier in the day before canning it so that I can let it cook down and thicken more.  I didn’t add any water to the tomatoes when I made the sauce, but their own natural juices made the spaghetti sauce pretty thin.  Second, I only added my “typical” amount of spices if I were throwing together spaghetti sauce fresh on the stove, but I think I could have added more.  The merging of flavors that happens in the whole canning process is conducive to being heavy handed, I think.  Or maybe that’s just my taste buds.

Lastly, I’m going to have to can more than seven quarts at a time, clearly.

Sock Bunny

I’ve attempted another sock creature.  This one slightly stranger, but still somewhat sweet in an odd way.  The girls didn’t fight over it quite as much as the socktopus, but maybe they have grown suddenly accustomed to the appearance of whimsical laundry creatures.  I honestly don’t know why this project is appealing to me so much–I’m not even sure I like the creatures I’ve made so far–and yet, it is hooking me in.  This one used two baby socks–the kinds with big ankle cuffs.  The first one I split down the center starting at the toe.  Then, I turned it inside out and sewed it into two ears.  I turned it back right-side out and sewed two button eyes, a nose, and a little mouth into the heel of the sock.

Then, I stuffed him thoroughly, using small bits of stuffing so he wouldn’t get too lumpy.  I cut the other sock about a half an inch below the top of the cuff, which I then slid over the cuff of the blue sock so that it was inside out and covering the face of the bunny.  I sewed all of it together in a straight line, both sealing him shut and sewing the two layers of “skirt” together.  Then, I flipped the white sock cuff back down over the blue cuff, and it created the pretty ruffled skirt look.

I actually like the way this one turned out even better than the Socktopus, so I will probably try it again.  I’m thinking of adding legs next time–they would be pretty easy to insert and sew in when I sew the skirts together–and possibly arms.  Arms would be much trickier, so I have to decide in advance how committed I am to this strange hobby.  At this point it takes very little of my time and thus leaves me free to spend time cooking, canning, doing other sewing, etc.

Plus, I am stuck in a debate over whether I think these are even cute.  Maybe they are like certain breeds of dogs–so ugly they are cute anyways.

Container Garden–Month 2

Two months after putting my container garden together, I am having mixed success.  As I mentioned two months ago, my reasonably green thumb has not previously extended into the world of containers, but I have given it another shot.  This time I am having much better success, for the most part.  Starting it early, in February, seems to be beating the Florida heat and contributing somewhat to my success.  And putting it outside my front door helps keep me from forgetting to water it.  I guess tripping over it on a daily basis was the missing ingredient in that equation.  Still, my first round of tomatoes died a horrible and pest-infested death.  They were started from seeds, which I planted with my oldest daughter, and did well until they had some significant leafage and then were torn to bits by pests.  I had planted them in soil that had been somewhat composted, so it carried with it a whole universe of insects on it’s own.  This time I bought store bought plants and store bought soil in the hopes I could beat the pests.  And, I read a tip in a homesteading book about adding crushed up egg shells around tomato plants to keep out cutting worms.  So far so good, whether it is the store bought soil or the egg shells.  I’m not one to count my blessings.  I’m just happy to see lots of little yellow flowers and even a few baby tomatoes.  Unlike my original round of tomatoes, my lettuce and radishes came up very well in their little containers.  The radishes went straight to seed however, so at this point I have a pretty little pot of greens and flowers but no radishes.  I think they got dried out too many times between me remembering to water it.

I also added a large lavender plant, a peony which is just starting to come up, some planted bulbs I honestly can’t remember the variety of, and a few other flowers.  When I was seventeen I spent some time in the Provence area of France, and ever since lavender has held a special place in my heart.  I also had added a hanging strawberry plant, but I hung it up in the back patio because that was the only place I had a hook.  It died within a week.  Again, if I’m not tripping over it I seem to be incapable of remembering to water it.

All in all, I’m very pleased with the results.  My garden is looking much less ragged than past attempts at this point.  Hopefully I will get to enjoy some nice red tomatoes soon.  There is nothing like a homegrown tomato right off the vine.

Socktopus Creature

I tried my first attempt at a sock creature the other day.  The results were okay, although I am hoping I get better at this.  I’ve picked up a handful of books at the library on making sock creatures, but I didn’t just want to follow their instructions–I wanted to try something myself–so I used them more as guidance on how to work with socks.  Plus, I’m working with much smaller socks than these books–I have a basket full of baby socks that were used for a very short period of time and never even got dirty.  Often I am missing the pair, but in some cases I even have full pairs.  Until they walk, these socks end up in perfect condition and I decided it would be sort of fun and memorable to try and make something out of them.  So my abundance of materials will hopefully translate into an ever improving pile of sock creatures.

First, I cut the top of each sock until I reached just a little bit past the ankle part:

Then, I sewed the socks together into one big circle of socks.

Then, using a single thread, I stitched each sock in half and connected them all with about a quarter inch of threat between them.

Folding the edges in, I used thread to pull all the edges of fabric into the center.  The open hole at the bottom gave me a place to stick my hand so I could pull the needle through.

Then, I stuffed it thoroughly.  Since I’m making it to be played with, rather than as a purely craft item, I overstuffed to accommodate lots of hugging and squeezing.  Honestly, I was being optimistic about this, since I really wasn’t sure it would turn out or that the girls would like it.  Luckily they love it, and are taking turns with it in their beds at night, so the over-stuffing turned out to be a very good idea.

Once stuffed, I closed the hole at the bottom.  This was actually kind of tricky, since I had stuffed it pretty thoroughly.  Then, I took a ninth sock that was a little bigger size, and stuffed the main part of it into a round oval.  I tied a knot for a neck and cut it slightly below my knot to provide a cuff.

I used the cuff to sew it down onto the top of the socktopus body.  I added button eyes, nose, and a thread mouth.

A few things I would have done differently, in hindsight:

1) Leaving the cuff to attach it was a great idea, and I love the little knot neck, but I should have left a bigger cuff.

2) I should have used an even bigger size sock for the head and stuffed a little less of it so it was more of a ball.  The oval head looks a little strange.

3) I think I should have used a non-white sock for the head.  A little more color to the creature would have been nice.

All in all, though, it turned out okay.  Most importantly, my kids love it.  Admittedly, they aren’t the harshest critics, but they are the ones I made it for and their response was wonderful.  I learned a little bit about working with socks and I have a few more ideas, so this won’t be my last creature.  Now I just have to decide what type of creature to try next!