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Friday, February 28, 2014

blender cream cleanser

Blender Cream Cleanser
Imitation Burt's Bees

This face cream is a gentle cleanser. Use a little on the fingers, rub over the face to remove makeup, dirt and sweat, and cleanse with a steaming hot washcloth.

Two options. Soap-free, or with soap.
The process is very similar to making mayonnaise in the blender.

In a double boiler (pyrex jug in a pot of water on the stove works for me), melt together:
1/4 c light oil -- almond, apricot, grapeseed
2 Tb coconut oil
2 Tb beeswax
1 tsp lanolin

Warm to dissolve together:
1/4 c aloe vera juice
2 Tbs strong herbal tea -- chamomile, calendula, lavender, lemon, lemonbalm, etc.
1 Tb veg glycerine
1/4 tsp borax

Let oils cool into a mostly set, slightly warm salve.

You need a blender with a small opening at the top, for pouring in while the blades are running.
Dump the salve into the blender.
Start blending.
Pour in the water base, slowly.
Add 1/2 tsp vitamin E oil, and up to 40 drops of essential oils. If you want a Burt's Bees Orange Facial Cleanser imitation, use 30 drops orange e.o. and 8 drops rosemary e.o.

Once the liquids are fully emulsified together, you will have a thick cleansing cream for your face.

But this cream really is thick! Some may not want such a thick cream.
You have two options.

You can look at the ready made cream, the thick stuff, and simply add 1/8 to 1/4 cup natural liquid soap. I like Dr Bronner's castile soap. The 1/4 cup brings it to more of a milky wash, but still incredibly smooth and moisturizing on the skin.

You can also make the first cream without coconut oil or beeswax, using 1/4 c of the  lightest oil you prefer plus plus 2 Tbs castor oil. Castor is not a light oil but is one that breaks down other oils for a deep clean in the skin without as much residue.
Or, you can make the first cream with oils as normal but replace 1 or 2 Tbs of aloe juice with liquid castile soap.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

lemon drop tea

Lemon Drop Tea

I hope the Bulk Herb Store will forgive me for pinching theirs... Credit where credit is due, I looked online at their lemon drop tea and it sounded great. However, I already had a bag of organic lemongrass, had rosehips, and I dehydrate my own lemon and orange peels from organic fruit whenever I can get my hands on them. So... Why pay for a 1/2 lb bag of their blend when I could make up my own?

We have been enjoying this tea for several years now. I'll give you my recipe first, and then I'll tell you what makes it good for your body as well as your tastebuds! 

orange peel bits/granules - 1 oz
lemon peel bits/granules - 2 oz 
lemongrass - 2 o
rosehips - 1 oz
optional cut stevia herb for sweetness - 1/8 to 1/4 oz

Measurements are by weight, not by volume. Perhaps at a later date I will work out the recipe for you in simpler's method and provide an update, but when I put this together at the time this is how it worked. This quantity yields a little less than a quart jar of mix.

You need to decoct this tea. Make a decoction by bringing water to a boil, adding herbs and covering with a lid, and then simmering on low for about 20 minutes. The peels and rosehips are hard herbs - literally hard - and so require more force to break down. Lemongrass is kinda on the shelf but is dense enough to handle some extra heat just fine.  

Use about 2 level teaspoons of herbs per 8 oz water. Drink hot or cold. 

For a variation that feels oh, so good on a sore throat, add 1 tsp peppermint leaf for every 2 tsp lemon drop tea blend. It will taste like a lemon-mint flavored Ricola cough sweet. 

Overall, lemon drop tea is good for reducing muscle spasms, aiding the fight against the common cold, reducing fever, increasing blood circulation in the body, is high in vitamin C, promotes sleep and lowers stress.

Pretty good for a tea, right?! Here's why.

Lemongrass: the essential oils found in lemongrass have something called myrcene in them. Myrcene is an analgesic, so the effect in the body is of a mild sedative.

The essential oils in lemongrass are analgesic (the myrcene), anti-depressant, antimicrobial, antipyretic, antiseptic, astringent, bactericidal, carminative, diuretic, febrifuge, fungicidal, galactagogue, insecticidal, nervine, and a nervous system sedative and tonic.

So, additionally to being a nervine sedative, note that lemongrass strengthens (tones) the nervous system for healthy response.

(Please note that lemongrass is not considered safe during pregnancy at all, whether in herb or essential oil form. Pregnant mamas can make an adapted form of lemon drop tea by simmering the orange, lemon and rosehips together, and adding lemon balm or peppermint herb to the decoction to infuse before drinking. Don't decoct lemon balm, however, as it doesn't like too great a heat.)

Orange: high in antioxidants, especially vitamin C, which is an antioxidant with proven medical benefits during times of stress, such as illness or the common cold.

The essential oils found in orange peel are antiseptic, anti-depressant, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, carminative, diuretic, cholagogue, sedative and tonic.

Lemon: also high in antioxidants, especially vitamin C.

The essential oils in lemon peel are antimicrobial, antiseptic, bactericidal, carminative, cicatrisant, depurative, diaphoretic, diuretic, febrifuge, haemostatic, hypotensive, insecticidal, tonic and vermifuge. In particular, that property of being hypotensive means that lemon decreases blood pressure by increasing the body's ability to circulate blood efficiently.

Rosehips: contain more vitamin C than almost any other herb gram for gram, according to herbalist Rosemary Gladstar.

Convinced? This tea is good for you!

Oh, right. You want to know how I managed the citrus peels at home, yes?

Easy peasy.

Use a veg speed peeler to take off the colored rind, not the white pith, from the outside of unwaxed organic citrus fruit. Spread those peels on a dehydrator rack. Dry at 95 F until just crispy. Pulse in a blender or bash up in a mortar and pestle, or in a plastic bag with a hammer, until you get the size of chips or grains you prefer. Store in a glass jar for up to a year, preferably less.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

pumpkin pound cake

Pumpkin pound cake is amazing stuff. Give it a try. Seriously wow. Buttery, rich, satisfying, solid, I love it better than regular pound cake.

Preheat oven to 325 F. Baking will take 80 to 90 minutes.
Yields 2 loaves, or one bundt pan.
Cream together in a very large bowl:
1 cup butter,
or cold pressed coconut oil for a dairy-free alternative
3 cups sugar -- I almost always reduce this to 2 cups and it tastes fab

Add and beat in:
3 eggs
2 Tbs rum

Whisk separately:
3 cups whole grain, whole wheat flour -- yes, this works with whole grains!
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp each of baking soda and Celtic sea salt
1/4 tsp nutmeg

To the creamed ingredients, add dry alternated with pumpkin puree.

You will need 1 1/2 cups pumpkin puree total.

Beat in, but still alternating wet and dry until it is all added, and keep folding until smooth. You can do this by machine mixer but I prefer to fold by hand, folding thoroughly until I reach a smooth batter. Folding rather than beating helps with lightness.

Grease and flour your baking tins. You will need either a bundt pan, of any type -- for Christmas a year ago I made pumpkin pound cake in a castle tin, and it was awesome! -- or two loaf tins.

Bake 325 F for 80 to 90 mins, until a small knife or toothpick comes out cleanly. Tip out onto racks and let cool. Drizzle with a lemon juice and powdered sugar glaze if you must, but I really prefer this all by itself. It is buttery and delicious, warm or cool. Eat within a week (easily done) or freeze. It defrosts well.

Homemade pumpkin puree is a much healthier alternative to cans from the grocery store, as well as being far cheaper. I picked up several pumpkins last autumn and "processed" them. It's really not that tough.

I didn't bother canning puree because it requires a pressure cooker -- water bathing doesn't get hot enough to ensure shelf stability. So, I freeze mine.

Cut your (clean) pumpkin in half. Remove the seeds and stem. It doesn't need to be perfect but all the seeds should be gone.

Place hunks of pumpkin onto baking sheets. No need to cut further than you need in order to fit it into the oven. Bake at 350 F for about 40 minutes. The pumpkin flesh should be soft enough to stab easily through the rind with a dull fork.

Let cool. The thick rind should now peel off easily. Chop up cooked and cooled pumpkin flesh and either blend to puree right away, using an immersion wand blender and a deep bowl, or pop chunks into containers for freezing. Date and freeze.

When you are ready to bake pound cake, muffins, bread, pie, pudding, or anything else requiring pumpkin puree, set out the frozen pumpkin to thaw overnight on the kitchen counter. It will be mushier than before you froze it -- just what happens to all frozen produce, cooked or not -- and will be very easy to puree with any type of blender. Don't toss juice that has separated from being thawed. That's good stuff. Just blend it in. No need for your cake to be dry.

One half of a large pumpkin, basket ball size, generally yields about 6 cups of puree for me. I made three batches of pound cake this morning. Yum.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

better than blimpie manwich subs plus table rolls

Parmesan sub loaf, 6 inches, filled with cold leftover roasted chicken, slices of sharp cheddar cheese, sliced tomato, lettuce, spinach, 1/2 a mashed avocado, a little raw honey and dijon mustard, caper mayonnaise (1/2 c mayo, pinch garlic powder, pinch onion powder, 2 Tbs brined capers, pinch dried oregano, tiny pinch Celtic sea salt, all together and pulsed smooth in the blender)

Manwich. Not sure why we call them that. Men have larger appetites than women, I suppose? Nothing quite beats a good manwich, though. Subway and Blimpie sandwich shops have it down. It's easy enough to find the fillings, but the trouble is the bread.

Okay, I'm not going to get into knocking the brand name companies. Would you like to be dubbed most awesomest of wives, moms, girlfriends, sisters, aunties? How about just enjoying a good old manwich, filled with a variety healthy and delicious things, all to yourself? Well, maybe not the whole thing. I dunno about you but the most I can manage on a hungry day is a 6 incher. Still, worth making...

The trick is the bread.

This recipe is a basic table rolls recipe that belongs originally to my husband's maternal grandma. I don't know where Grandma got it. I have (surprise, surprise) tweaked it a little, and I don't like bleached flour, or even unbleached flour if I can use whole grain or at least whole wheat. Well, this should produce a decent bread roll with whatever flour you choose. My directions here are for making this with a KitchenAid mixer and bread dough hook, because that is the easiest way to get kids involved with the process without a ton of mess all over the place. If you prefer by hand, go for it.

Mix lightly together in a mixer bowl:
1 tsp Celtic sea salt
5 c bagged whole wheat, or whole grain wheat, flour

4 Tb butter or olive oil

Mix together in a bowl or measuring jug and let sit 3 mins to froth:
2 c warm water 
1 Tb yeast 

With the mixer on low, slowly add the frothed wet to the dry. Mix with dough hook until the flour has fully absorbed the moisture and is sticky. Then, with the motor still running, add and additional 1 to 1 1/2 c flour until the dough leaves the sides of the bowl and is forming a smooth ball around the hook. Knead a further 5 minutes on low.

Rise 1 hour, covered with a damp cloth.

For table rolls, I divide the dough into half and half and half until I have 32 small balls of dough. Form smooth balls and place them evenly on 2 baking sheets, non stick or lined or greased and floured as per your preference. Let them rise 20 mins. These bake for 15 mins at 400 F.

Manwich loaves are a little different. Not very, but a little. Divide dough into 6 lumps. Turn edges under to form a smooth ball with each, and then roll between hands and a flat surface into long tubes. You can make these 12" subs if you like. Place 3 to a tray, non stick as above, and flatten them down. Bake 15-20 mins at 350 F.

Parmesan subs
: mist or brush loaves with olive oil and sprinkle grated parmesan cheese on the top.

Honey wheat subs:
add 1/3 cup honey to the dough when you add the yeasted water, and use 100% whole wheat flour.

Sesame nut subs: roll dough through a spread of sesame seeds and finely crushed walnuts when you shape the loaf.

Rye subs: use 1 c rye flour, the rest whole wheat but substitute 1/4 c wheat flour with carob powder. Add 3 Tbs honey. The dough should be a dark color with a nutty but not bitter flavor.

After baking, fill manwich subs with a variety of fillings. Get creative. Store bread in an airtight container for 3 days, or freeze in plastic bags and pull out as needed.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

cal-mag tea

Let's chat briefly about making a cal-mag supplement today. This has come up several times recently, in very different circles. I like to source out whole foods and use herbs as nutritional supplements where possible (let thy food be thy medicine, et cetera), so I first made myself a calcium magnesium blend of herbs for tea several years ago. I've tweaked it several times since then, and done a lot more reading.

As you can see, I am pushing a book at you. The below pics are of a book I own, Nutritional Herbology: A Reference Guide to Herbs, by Mark Pedersen. Very helpful book. It doesn't cover everything I like to keep in my little home apothecary, but it does cover a lot. When I want to put together my own herbal supplements, whether powdered for adding to smoothies or nut butter medicine bites, or chopped or rubbed dried herbs for infusing, decocting, or setting up in a tincture, I like to have some idea what I'm getting out of it. I don't want to overload my system with one set of vitamins and minerals while inadvertently missing out something else. While my methods are not an exact science and I couldn't tell you exactly what I'm getting of each vitamin or mineral, I do at least have a reasonable foundation for knowing what balance of nutrients I am putting in my body.

Hopefully, this gets you started.

Magnesium ranges = 500 mg + is very high
Book "Nutritional Herbology" by Mark Pedersen, Whitman Publications 2010
Why use a cal-mag supplement?
  1. "Calcium helps control blood clotting and is required for the absorption of B-12." I am prone to passing clots during my monthly period, which is more painful than an even flow. I am also prone to depression, and have been for most of my life. B-12 is a supplement I take as needed in liquid form, and several family members as well as I have found that the use of B-12 helps to control mood imbalances. 
  2. "Calcium is the main constituent of bones and teeth and helps to regulate blood pressure, the excitability of nerves and the contractability of the muscles and heart." 
  3. A number of enzymes cannot function without calcium. We cannot digest and absorb nutrients efficiently without enzymes. 
  4. Osteoporosis, the weakening and decalifying of bones, is an accumulative condition, built over a lifetime of habits and behaviors that diminish general health and/or vitamin D, which is a necessary synergist for calcium. "Vitamin D is the precursor to a hormone which triggers the absorption of calcium chelates (calcium bound to protein, amino acids, etc.) in the intestinal wall." 
  5. "Many sources of calcium contain significant quantities of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury." I want to obtain calcium for strong bones without such strings attached. 
  6. "Magnesium is prevalent in bones and is the second most abundant cation in cells, especially the smooth, muscle artery cells. Optimum magnesium levels are vital in the synthesis of RNA, DNA and proteins." 
  7. The RDA is 350-450 mg daily, and we get roughly 120 mg per 1000 calories of food, which means that women, generally having a lower need for calories than men, might be more lacking in optimum levels of magnesium. 
  8. "Without the tempering influence of magnesium, the arteries, especially in the heart and brain, tense up. This constricts blood flow which can lead ot high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and migraine headaches." 
  9. "Magnesium deficiencies can also lead to Kwashiorkor, thrombosis, calcium oxalate kidney stone formation, uncontrollable muscle tics and premenstrual syndrome symptoms such as nervousness and a craving for sweets." 
  10. "Even living in a hot climate is a risk factor since humans do not acclimatize to magnesium loss through perspiration as we do for potassium and sodium excretion."
  11. "Calcium stimulates muscle fibers to tense and contract, while magnesium acts as a control mechanism that regulates the amount of calcium that enters the cells."
That's a fair list of reasons. In particular, women who are pregnant or nursing, or both, might likely find themselves feeling better, complaining less of nightly leg cramping or restless legs, suffering from fewer headaches, and providing for the nutritional needs of their children without depleting their own bodies by taking a cal-mag herbal supplement. 

Easy recipe, in the simpler's method -- parts measured by volume of your choosing. Most recommendations I have found suggest consuming calcium to magnesium in a 2:1 ratio, so that was my goal in this blend. If you have any suggestions, I'd love to read them in the comments at the bottom of the page!

Cal-mag Tea

3 nettles

3 oatstraw
3 shavegrass
2 peppermint
2 red raspberry leaf

2 dandelion tops 
optional 1 alfalfa 

(Alfalfa is high in vitamin K which aids blood clotting. I personally prefer to avoid all alfalfa in the week pre-menstruating as cramping is then significantly reduced.) 

optional stevia to sweeten

This is lovely as a tea, infused with boiling water in a covered pot for 15 mins.

As an alcoholic tincture, set up 1 oz weight of the mixed herbs into a pint jar, cover with a good quality brandy, cap and store for 4 weeks from full moon to full moon. The phases of the moon help to draw out properties of the herbs into the menstruum (the brandy) in the same way as the pulling of the moon affects the tide each month, so while not vital this can be a helpful way to make a potent tincture. I simply like to look at the moon so my memory is more easily triggered by a full moon than the calendar on the wall when I need to draw a finished tincture. Once strained of the herbs, add to the infused brandy 1 oz liquid of raw honey and pure bottled lemon juice, shake and store.

As a non-alcoholic tincture, set up
1 oz weight of the mixed herbs into a pint jar, cover with apple cider vinegar, cap and store for 4 weeks from full moon to full moon. Flavor with lemon and honey as for the brandy above.

Or, set up 1 oz weight of the mixed herbs into a pint jar, cover with 60:40 ratio of pure vegetable glycerine and pure distilled water, and follow the instructions here, by Bulk Herb Store, for making a glycerite in the crock pot. This video by Shoshanna shows a method that only takes three days and yields a safe, yummy tincture which is easy to feed to children and picky pregnant mamas, so this is my favorite way to set up a cal-mag supplement. You can mix together the glycerite tincture with the brandy tincture for a less alcoholic but very effective and good tasting tincture.

Most tinctures are strong enough in this proportion of herbs to menstruum that 1 tsp daily is sufficient for most adults.

Friday, February 14, 2014

choc box -- chocolate truffles

Chocolate Truffles. 
chili choc truffle batter

Possibly the priciest choc to add to the box at a good chocolatier's. Locally to me, truffles often run $2.50 apiece. That runs up quite a bill by the time you've filled half a box! My way may not look quite as perfect, but is pleasingly homemade, charming, delicious, and will cost you a mere fraction of the professional price.

Are you ready? Oh, boy. I'm not. I can't believe I'm revealing my secrets!

This recipe has been coveted by many over the last six years, since I was newly married and my mother gave it to me. I needed a WOW factor that first Christmas. Her recipe came from somewhere...don't know where, nor does she, and was just for the truffle filling. If you want the hard shell, too, then that's all me.

Oh, boy. You had better love me for this. ;)


You need a good heat-safe glass bowl, such as a pyrex jug, to pop into or over a pot of water as a make-shift double boiler. You need a cookie scoop or melon baller for shaping truffles.

You also need:

1/2 c heavy cream
10 oz dark chocolate, chopped
1/4 c butter, softened
powdered sugar for rolling

That is the basic truffle. Really. See why this has been a closely guarded secret? It's too easy!

dark choc almond truffle batter

Bring the cream quickly to a simmer and reduce heat.

Add butter and choc. Melt down over lowest heat in double boiler, being careful not to scald choc. Once completely smooth, add flavorings or extras as desired, and let cool.

Refrigerate for 4-6 hours until fully set.

Scoop out a lump of batter and shape into a ball with your hands. Roll in powdered sugar, or powdered sugar with plain cocoa powder, or even just cocoa powder, to help prevent sticking as you form. Work quickly with as cold hands as you can manage.

Place truffles on a baking tray and fridge again. Just to be sure. You can stop here, package them up, eat them, whatever. They're adorable and delicious as is. Sometimes, I mix up truffle batter and leave it unformed in a bowl with a load of spoons out for friends to shape their own. It's fun for a change. Buuuutt... Let's do the whole thing!

Once truffles and tray are properly chilled once more, melt your choc coating. Pictured are chili chocolate truffles with a white choc coating.

Be extra careful when melting down white choc not to overheat it. Really, white choc isn't chocolate at all, and so tends to be less stable and more prone to dry crumbling if overheated.

Dollop melted chocolate on your cold tray. Pop a truffle on top. Place back in the fridge and chill again.

Now, you can coat the top in one of two ways.

Do as pictured above and drizzle the choc over the top, letting gravity do most of the work. Use a toothpick or bamboo skewer to gently tease the choc down to meet the base, forming a sealed shell.

Or, you can lift the truffle, hold the base, and dip into melted chocolate to coat. Up to you. If you have clumsy fingers, you might find the spoon method a little cleaner.

Ah, yes. I knew you were going to ask that. Chili chocolate truffles? Almond truffles? More? Oh, yes. I will share.


Chili Truffles
1 Tb honey
1/4 tsp hottest cayenne

Coconut Truffles
coconut oil instead of butter
coconut milk instead of cream (don't heat)
optional sprinkle finely shredded coconut over the wet shell

Nut Truffles
add 1/2 to 3/4 c finely chopped nuts of choice
or, hide a soaked almond in the center of a truffle before shaping 

Orange Truffles
3 Tbs candied orange peel
2 tsp orange extract

Coffee Truffles
add 1 Tb strongest instant coffee to batter

If you want to add a liqueur for flavoring, such as rum or cointreau, use a 2-3 Tbs less cream and then mix in that liquid amount of liqueur once the truffle batter is melted together. It may depend slightly on the type of liqueur you use as to how strong you will need to make it. Play.

Change up dark, milk and white chocolates in combinations. Have fun. What more combinations can you think of?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

choc box -- salted caramels in chocolate

 Salted caramels coated in chocolate.

Ah, yes. More Valentine's Day prep. That day. I know, I know. My American readers will enjoy this. My other readers will feel quietly irritated because it's that day, because I'm married, because I am being mushy gushy and concocting sugary treats for my sweetheart.

Well. Only half of this is for my sweetheart, actually. The other half is not for me -- he is forced to share his half -- but for a few select family members who need a pick-me-up this month. And it was fun to make. This also gets a confusing decadence and frugality tag, because they taste so amazing yet cost relatively little to make. Can you imagine buying a 25 piece box from a good chocolatier? Me, either. Yikes. This won't cost a bomb. You might even have cash left over for a cute little red-and-hearts-covered tin from the local dollar store.

Finding a proper recipe citation was difficult. This particular recipe seems to have been splashed about all over the internet, word for word, without proper sourcing attached! Major blogger faux pas! I am attaching a link to the recipe here, and will continue with my own notes as to the process of caramel making. Nope, the first batch was not perfect. But this is a reliable enough recipe that you should manage to get something edible, at least, and the second or third try will probably yield something obviously homemade but delicious and charming. Like mine. (I knew you were looking at that chocolatey photo above and thinking it doesn't look very professional! Nope. Better than.)

The "original" instructions, as found on several blog pages, read as follows:

  • 1.5 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1 tb vanilla extract
  • 1 cup heavy or whipping cream
  • 4oz salted butter, room temperature
  • coarse sea salt (I used La Baleine Coarse Sea Salt)
  • special equipment: candy thermometer 
Combine sugar, honey, and vanilla extract in a large non-reactive pot. Turn on the heat and let the sugar and honey melt and cook until caramelized (it will slowly become a deep, dark brown color.)
While the sugar is cooking, bring the cream to a simmer.
When the sugar reaches the color you like, whisk in the butter in small knobs, until well mixed, then add the warmed cream, whisk until smooth.
We let this mixture cook until the temperature reached 233F. 
Pour the hot caramel onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment. Let cool about ten minutes, and then sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Continue to let it come to room temperature, and then cut into small squares, roll, and wrap in packets of parchment or waxed paper.

I have to laugh that everyone gives away their naughty little cut and paste trick by failing to remove the side note, "I used La Baleine Course Sea Salt". Ha. Okay, enough jabs. Down to work.

My instructions

1 1/2 cups white sugar -- you want the most refined sugar possible, as less refined (brown, raw, etc) yield inconsistent results

1/2 cup honey -- yes, I did use raw honey. I currently have a gallon of the most beautiful honey bought straight from a local beekeeper, which has never had heat applied to it, leaving it a beautiful pale yellow. The recipe still works.

1 Tb vanilla extract -- vanilla bean paste works, too, although the pics in this post are of a batch made with extract

1 c heavy cream -- in the UK, this would be double cream

4 oz (8 Tbs) salted butter, softened

Celtic sea salt for sprinkling

You also need a candy thermometer, a large non reactive pot at least 8 inches diameter and 6 inches deep, and a second pot suitable for heating the cream. No lids required here. I also found a whisk to be better for controlling the rising bubbles than a wooden spoon.

You also need about one hour of time. Yes, an hour. It takes approximately 30 mins just tending the stove while you bring the fully combined ingredients to the right temperature, so if you have kids...set aside the time. Make this during naps or something. Melted sugar is HOT and burns badly so take the precautions necessary, and don't do as I do with most cooking and involve the toddler. Yes, he napped during this one, then woke early and was plopped in front of a Curious George show while I finished pouring out the 'batter' and snapping pics.

Before you get started, line a casserole dish with parchment paper. I hate wax paper. It doesn't work. Use parchment, and on the sides as well, not just the bottom. I know, the "original" recipe says cookie sheet, but I tried that the first time and it just spread out way too thin. I want something to bite into. I used a 7x11 inch casserole dish with relatively straight sides (less angled, more straight up and down) and got an even sheet of caramel a little less than 1/2 inch thick.

In the large pot, measure out sugar, honey and vanilla and turn on the stove heat to medium.

In the small pot, measure out cream and get that heating on medium-low. Cold cream would be a bad thing to add to hot sugar, so you need to bring the cream to just under simmering and keep it there, ready.

Cook the sugars together. It might take about 10 or 15 mins to achieve a good, dark color. The first time, I melted it all down and didn't really take the time to caramelize the sugars (burn them) and the flavor wasn't quite right. The raw pale golden honey also lightened everything for me. You want to try to achieve a dark oak color in the caramelized sugar. Not actually burned, just dark.

Add the butter once you've reached a good color. Instantly, as you whisk in the soft butter, the sugar will thicken and lighten, and heat will reduce. (No thermometer yet. You'll just see it bubbling less.)

Once the butter is fully absorbed, add the hot cream. Don't dump and splash it, but do at it all at once. The sugar will right away start to rise and froth. Whisk it! This is normal. This is good. This is why I told you to use a large enough pot.

Now, here starts that half hour process of cooking the caramel to the right temperature.

You need the candy thermometer. Either attach it somewhere convenient, immersed as deep in the center of the liquid as possible without touching the bottom of the pan, or dip it in as needed. You probably won't need to bother checking temperature for about the first 15 minutes.

Oh, and keep that butter paper! It makes a handy slick surface on which to rest your sticky utensils for easy cleanup.

Now, the biggest difference in all caramel recipes is the temperature. The temperature you will need to achieve is dictated by altitude.

Your candy thermometer shows you
  • 240 F = soft ball -- once cooled, candy can be formed into a soft ball, but doesn't keep it's shape
  • 260 F = hard ball -- once cooled, candy can be formed into a ball, or cut, and it keeps it's shape but is still bendy in the hands
  • 275 F = soft crack -- once cooled, a bar of candy can be bent a little but then breaks
  • 305 F = hard crack -- once cooled, the candy is hard and brittle, no bending at all
At sea level, most people will need to reach around 240-244 F for a good caramel texture. Not too hard to chew.

At my altitude, 3000 ft elevation, I need to achieve 252 F. Just barely more than halfway between soft ball and hard ball. One batch my husband and I took to 260 F, as per one blogger's instructions, and it was too hard for our preference.

To find out what you need to reach, keep that thermometer in the pot and watch it, whisking down the froth as needed. Once you reach soft ball stage, use a small spoon to drop a little of the caramel batter into a bowl of cool water. Fish out the caramel, test it, eat it. Decide (quickly) if you like the density. If yes, pour it out into your prepared dish. If no, let the pot cook a little longer. Test every few degrees F increase.

I find that the sugar takes the longest to reach soft ball temperature. Then, the time from soft ball to hard ball is much less by comparison, so do keep an eye on the thermometer as you perform your water drop test.

After you have poured out your caramel batter into your lined dish, leave it to cool for 10 minutes before salting. If you salt right away, it will sink instead of staying prettily on the top. If you leave it much longer than 10 mins, the salt doesn't stick as well.

We prefer Celtic sea salt. Lovely stuff. I buy it course textured in large bags through Azure Standard for the best price, and grind it up more finely as needed for baking with the blender or mortar and pestle. The caramels were salted with course salt.

I let them cool all day. Give them at least six hours in a chilly area of the house. A very sharp knife on a large cutting board, and I chopped up the slab into strips, then the strips into squares. You can do any size you prefer.

At this point, you may wrap the caramels in twists of parchment paper and store for a month (yeah, right!). Or, pop them onto a baking tray and stick them in the fridge. I know, crazy color difference between upper and lower here, right? That's lighting more than anything else. Mine are fairly pale in color, though, due to the raw honey I mentioned. But good flavor.

Really. Fridge them. 2 hrs. It makes coating with chocolate that much easier.

To coat, melt down some good quality dark chocolate over a low heat. Drop the caramels one at a time, bottom side down, in the melted chocolate and use a small spatula or spoon to coat the top. Lift the piece with a fork, shake off excess choc, and place on a baking tray. Non stick. Sprinkle just a little more course sea salt over the top.

I fridged them again at this point. You don't have to, but my house is either warm from an Arizona summer or warm from a winter fire most of the year round, so I find my results are just more consistent if I properly chill all melted chocolate products when I set them up. They don't have to be stored in the fridge. Room temp is fine in most cases. Eat within a month. Shouldn't be too difficult, right?


I am no candy expert. However, I have learned a few things during this process. I've already explained the drop test for determining top cooking temperature for your elevation.

There is a chance you get it wrong. Like me. No, really, I did! Unbelievable, right? 

The first time, I made them too soft. If this happens, you can melt them down again and cook them further, with thermometer, to a higher degree. Cool and cut as directionables indicate. 

So I tried to rescue my first batch. Melting and recooking worked. But I took the temperature too high. This is when I brought it all the way to 260 F, actually I think just a bit higher, and they were...yummy but hard to chew. Rrrh. I didn't feel like melting the same batch down a second time. But, if you cook your caramels too firm, you can melt them down again and add 1 or 2 Tbs heavy cream. Again, cool and cut as before. 

Hopefully, this helps you rescue an otherwise "failed" batch! Please let me know if you make these, and how they turn out. I would especially like to hear from you what temperature you found best, and what elevation that was.   

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

date and nut bars

Here's another one for the Valentine's choc box. Or just on a regular weekday afternoon with tea. Or as a reward for being a fabulous helper boy in the kitchen, and because Mama adores me. Yep. We love these bars. Delish. Tastes like something expensive but really isn't.

This recipe is kinda hard to attribute to any one place. I've seen variations of it in several "Old English" cookbooks. You know, the type you find on holiday in Scotland or Oxfordshire or something, in one of those old touristy stone building tour gift shops. I've taken a recipe that has been reliable for us and doubled the choc.

Okay, super easy to make but don't taste easy. (I love that combo, in case you couldn't tell yet.)

Date and Nut Bars:

4 oz (1/2 c) soft butter
5 oz (1/2 c) white sugar
4 oz self raising flour (use 1/2 c plain flour + 1/2 tsp baking powder)
1 egg, beaten
8 oz chopped dates
4 oz chopped walnuts or almonds
8 oz plain (semi sweet) chocolate

Preheat oven to 350 F.

In a bowl, either by hand or in a mixer, cream butter and sugar together. I like to do things fully by hand wherever possible so usually I just do it in a bowl with a wooden spoon.

Add flour, egg, dates, nuts. Mix well. If the batter seems a little too stiff, you may add 1 Tb milk.

Spread into a 7x11 inch pan, greased and lined with parchment. Not required to line the dish, but trust me. It's easier later.

Bake 30 mins at 350 F.

Once you take the cake base out of the oven, smelling it's golden goodness all through your house and reminding your toddler that it's very, very hot, too hot to eat yet, melt your choc and spread over the top of the still warm base.

Let cool all the way, until the chocolate sets again. Use a properly sharp knife to slice into bars and store as you would do cookies.

Thank you, Mama. I love it. See? Yummy!

Monday, February 10, 2014

rice pud

Rice pudding. Oh, so yum. This is one of the easiest recipes you can follow for a creamy, homemade rice pudding, not that it's all that difficult to make at the worst of times.

You need:

4 Tbs butter
1 c arborio rice -- the type used to make risotto -- very starchy makes very creamy
4 1/2 c milk -- anything but 1%
(for dairy-free, canned coconut milk works best)
1/2 c brown sugar
large saucepan with lid

Melt the butter in your pan.
Add the rice and cook over medium heat until the rice absorbs all the butter.
Pour in your milk and sugar.
Bring to a simmer, keeping an eye on it and stirring as needed, and just before the milk starts to rise out of the pan reduce the heat and pop the lid on.

Now, either carry on with the stovetop or use the oven.

Stovetop -- lid on, keep rice at just under a simmer, where it is just barely bubbling in the center, for about an hour. Stir every 10-15 mins. Pudding is done when the rice is fully cooked and the texture is to your liking.

Oven -- either use an oven safe pan to begin with and leave the rice in it, lid on, or transfer to a preheated casserole pot with lid. Dutch oven style pots do nicely for this. Bake covered at 325 F for 45 mins to 1 hour, until rice is fully cooked and the texture is to your liking.

Serve warm or chilled, with a drizzle of thick cream poured over the top and a healthy dollop of homemade strawberry jam.

Makes enough to serve 4 rugby players.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

choc box -- chocolate dipped apricots

These are pretty easy to make. With Valentine's Day is coming up, what better statement to make for your beloved than that you took effort to make something at home, with your own hands? Even better, these homemade things won't contain corn syrups, high or low fructose, and that is something most chocolatiers cannot boast.

Chocolate dipped apricots are one of the easiest things to make, and yet they are unusual and decadent. I used sulphered dried apricots as they have a bright orange color. Unsulphered apricots taste just as good to me but have turned brown in the dehydrating process. About 25 regularly sized apricots will require approximately 1/2 c of dark chocolate chips. Melt the choc over a low heat. Dip the fruit. Set on a non-stick or parchment-covered tray to cool. Add to your amazing little box of homemade chocs, or start your box, and stay tuned for another post or two coming your way before the big day!