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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

hot cross buns

This is THE BEST hot cross bun recipe. I usually leave off the cross on the top and we just call them sticky buns.

For several years, I searched for a good hot cross bun recipe. Then I found a Paul Hollywood recipe shared with the public on BBC, but when following it myself I found it didn't work the way his did. Several attempts to make his recipe work just... failed. Yes, they failed. I ended up modifying the recipe quite a bit.

This recipe is in my own quantities, yields 2 dozen large sticky buns, does not stale quickly, and I think is quite straightforward. I hope you enjoy!

Hot Cross Buns

prep: 10 mins, plus 2 hrs rising
bake: 340 F for 40 mins
yield: 1 baking tray, or 2 dozen buns

6 cups strong white bread flour
1 tsp salt
4 oz unsalted butter
2/3 c white granulated sugar
2 eggs

4 tsp fast acting dried yeast
2 cups warm milk + 2 tsp vanilla essence (not hot - body temperature is ideal)

18 oz raisins
finely chopped colored rind of 2 oranges and 2 lemons
2 finely diced apples 

optional 20 drops each of lemon and sweet orange essential oils 

Measure flour + salt + butter + sugar + eggs into the bowl of a stand mixer. Toss them together.

Add the dried yeast on top, and from a height pour the warmed milk over the yeast. The height of pouring will mix up the yeast a little, so that it doesn't merely float on top, without you having to do anything more. Leave to sit for 3 minutes or so. The yeast will become slightly frothy in this time.

Use the dough hook to quickly mix everything together, scooping the dry from the bottom of the bowl into the wet. Attach the dough hook. Turn on the stand mixer. Mix on low for a few minutes until the ingredients look somewhat incorporated.

Add the fruit while the mixer is going. Still on low, knead the dough for 5 minutes. Dough should be sticky, wetter to touch than sandwich loaf bread dough, which is why I prefer to use the stand mixer for this recipe. If the dough looks a little dry or a little wet, add flour or milk accordingly, just 1 teaspoon at a time until you reach desired consistency. Usually I don't need to adjust but other climates may need to do so. Remember that it is better to have a wetter than a dryer dough.

If you are working by hand, work the dough in a bowl with a rubber spatula for as long as you can until it forms a ball. Try to avoid adding flour if you can. Wetter is better. Once you transfer the dough to a flat surface for more thorough kneading, fruit will come off it as you go. Don't worry, just keep adding it back in as you knead.

IF you use essential oils in this recipe, be sure to use the purest, highest quality oils. Don't poison everybody with yucky synthetic fillers. 

Cover sealed (use clingfilm, or a plate, or the lid of a pot) and leave somewhere warmish and draft-free to rise for 1 hour.

After proofing, your dough will be less wet and more malleable. Once again, use the dough hook and stand mixer to conveniently deflate and knead the dough for 3 minutes.

Divide the dough into half, then half again, then half yet again, and then divide each part into three. You should now have 24 evenly divided lumps of dough. Roll these quickly into round balls, space on a greased and floured (or covered with something non-stick, like parchment) baking sheet about 1 or 1 1/2 inches apart, and leave somewhere warmish and draft-free to rise for 1 more hour.

If you want the traditional cross on your buns, this is where you do it. Make a thick but not stiff paste with 1 cup flour and water. It should spread like glue. Pour this into a piping bag and simply stripe the crosses over the rows of buns directly before baking.

When the dough balls have doubled in size and are touching one another at the edges, pop the tray into a 340 F oven and bake for 40 minutes.

After removing, they should be soft, squishy, but fully baked. No doughy parts. Leave them on the hot tray to cool.

Mix up 1 cup powdered sugar and a little milk to make a thick, gluey icing paste, and drizzle this back and forth over the buns. You can eat them hot from the oven if you prefer, and they are delicious freshly hot, but the sticky icing will melt right off unless you wait for them to properly cool.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

spiderweb challenge

Living with parents certainly has a lot of benefits, especially when you can give them a grandchild from time to time.

Every parent knows that feeling of burnout. Even the most creative and imaginative of us experience mental fatigue. We go online, we talk to our parents, we find inspiration somewhere, or some days -- let's admit it -- we turn on a movie or a story CD and try not to think too hard until bedtime. And then there are other days when we are somehow on fire with inspiration.

My mum deserves credit for the spiderweb challenge. Simple idea. Two days worth of fun. It was a ball of cheap yarn, the living room, and some time spent doing contortions and army crawling, and we had a very happy little boy. Even taking it down was fun because he got to snip away at all the pieces with scissors and watch how strands fell and loosened in the process.

What games do you think you could play with a ball of yarn?

potato stampers and painting with preschoolers

Paint is fun. Mixing is fun. Brushes are fun. Stampers are fun. 

They're also cheap. Say, what?! Yes, stamping paint is cheap. There isn't any need for fancy wood and rubber blocks that cost a ton and require special ink pads as they don't work in poster paint. You can use anything. Cookie cutters, combs, rubbery animal feet, those spongey bath letters someone gave you when your kid was born because every infant needs to see the alphabet right away, shoes, hands, even vegetables. If you get into body part stamping, keep a close eye on things, be prepared to get painted yourself, and have the bath tub on standby. Life can become hilarious and messy rather quickly.

Potatoes are accessible and inexpensive in most parts of the world, and they make great stampers. Parents, be reassured. You really don't have to be good at food sculpture to do this. See how expert I am at cutting shapes into potatoes? I'm a genius, I know. So you can probably pull off a few stampers yourself.

Tips for painting with preschoolers: 

  • Oversize cheap t-shirts make brilliant coverall aprons.
  • Keep those outgrown plastic kiddo dishes, even ones that have lost their lids or matching set pieces. They are excellent for art projects.
  • Don't be afraid of mixing. Or mess. Or unused paint. It's all good. Mess is how they learn.
  • The younger the child, the bigger the piece of paper. This tip comes from my mum, and it's so true!
  • The younger the child, the fewer the tools. What seems simple to you is a lot of new for them. Allow time for full exploration. They'll let you know when they are ready to get more complicated.
  • Start youngest children with one color. Move up to two colors in time. Mixing will be inevitable, so they'll already have a 3rd color just from those two.
  • Thick paint is easier to clean up and less frustrating for young children. Thick poster paint is often cheap. Save the water colors and fancy pencils for older kids.
  • Don't worry about how to hold tools. They're still exploring how their hands work, as well as how to create their own art.
  • Tape a large piece of paper to the shower wall. Or don't. Give naked toddlers bath paint or non-staining poster paint and let them have at it. This makes the easiest clean-up ever.
  • Paint outdoors. One of my 4 year old son's very favorite paintings was done on a wooden board last summer. He decided to dip the outdoor broom into the swirled paint, and brushed it over the board. He created straight, thin streaks of muddy rainbow color, of which he is infinitely proud.
  • Get involved yourself. Don't take over and do for them, but do get your hands involved and casually create alongside them. They will see what you do, copy, imitate, reject, ask, and even want to contribute their own print to your painting. Let them sometimes. Set boundaries other times. It's very important for kids to see that everyone works differently, and that's okay.
  • Save every painting. At least, save it until they themselves tell you not to. You won't be able to recognise accurately every creation your child likes and is proud to have made, but you will honor them and assure them of your pride and love when you keep their work. They won't want to keep everything forever. Just keep it long enough for them to let go when they're truly ready. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

herbal wardrobe sachets

Freshening up your clothing, whether it is in regular use or stored away, is not only fun and easy to do, it's a good idea. Certain herbs help to keep away moths and spiders and other creatures that invade the home.

On the left are mixtures of dried lavender and orange slices. On the right are more orange slices with star anise and stick cinnamon. To each bag I also added little wooden discs cut from an old tree branch -- free, and easy. To each wooden disc I added 6 drops of essential oils to complement the herbs already in the bag mixes. More essential oils can be added several months later as needed, but these wooden discs last a while.

Essential oils you might consider using include basil, pine, lavender, cedarwood, sandalwood, cinnamon, clove, citrus, lemongrass, rosemary, sage, thyme, wormwood.

Herbs you might consider include lavender, rosemary, sage, thyme, wormwood, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, clove, citrus slices or peels, or even coffee beans.

What lovely combinations can you think of to tuck away in your sweaters after this winter? What essential oils might you add to a few wooden pieces that could sit in your husband's funky smelling boots, to combat the odor? What combination of flowers and scents could you blend to secretly hide in your friend's underwear drawer for them to discover?

wildcrafting autumn harvest

I didn't get this written up several months ago when we actually did the harvesting, but here it finally is! This bounty was all harvested on a family adventure one day in late September 2015. We're now in January 2016, but better late than never, right?

Did you know there was such abundance to be found in England? And this isn't even close to the potential of wild growing goodness we could have brought home that day! Pictured here are apples of various sizes, a glass bowl of sloe berries (from the blackthorn tree), the smallest basket of large red rose hips, the middlish basket of smaller red hawthorn berries (from the hawthorn tree), elderberries, and a wagon of walnuts.

Throughout autumn and summer last year, I also wild harvested many more elderberries and elderflowers, blackberries, sloe berries, horseradish root, plantain weed, plantain seeds (much like chia seeds and good for eating), poppy seeds, comfrey weed, dandelion, red clover tops, apples, hazel nuts, celeriac, chamomile. Now that it is winter, I can think about heading to the woods with a spade and basket for some blackberry roots, dandelion roots, more horseradish, and anything else interesting I can find before dormant plants come back to life in the spring.

Find yourself some books on plants. Many are available for regions all over the world. Learn to recognise what free medicine and food you can collect while you're out on walks. Get in the habit this year of taking a plastic bag and a folding knife in a pocket so that you can harvest whatever goodness you might unexpectedly find. Make sure to harvest judiciously, not stripping the wild but leaving enough seeds, roots, or leaves for the plants to keep growing as healthily as you found them.

herbal garden paint

There's nothing to it. Grab some powdered herbs and take them outdoors. Let your kids have fun. Powdered herbs are all plant material, and most will be totally fine all over the garden. Many will be good for the soil. Mix into water or mud to make paint. Sprinkle in places. Explore being messy in a new way. Kids love it.

Yellow -- turmeric
Green -- nettles, seaweed, or pretty much any green herb
Dark purple -- blackberries
Red -- beets, hawthorn berries
White -- arrowroot powder

Add raw egg to mix up into a brush-friendly paint for al fresco art.

dehydrating ginger root

Ginger is a staple herb in my house. I use it in various teas, especially through the winter. Fresh ginger is undeniably the best. But when you're caught in a pinch, germs flying around, or you just want to mix up some Ginger Snap Tea with all the ingredients ready to go in a jar, dried ginger root is handy to have available.

Start by peeling the roots. Then chop them into small lumps. My pictures should give you an idea how much the root shrinks as it dries so you can determine how small to chop based on your need.

All of the above, the chopped and the peeled-and-waiting-to-be-chopped, dried to make this quantity. It doesn't look like nearly so much, but it's good. Simply add the chopped root to your dehydrator on the lowest heat setting and leave it alone for 24 hours, or until the root is fully dry.

egg noodles

They're easier to make than you think. A lot easier, a lot yummier, and a lot healthier. We scrapped the traditional Christmas roasts this year and served up noodles with a rustic lamb bolognaise for lunch. It cut down on time and effort tremendously and everyone loved it.

Homemade Egg Noodles 

(3 cups flour and 5-6 eggs serves approximately 4-6 adults)

You need a stand mixer with a bowl and dough hook.
You need strong white bread flour.
You need eggs.
You need salt.

If you want to make this by hand, you can. It just takes longer to knead the dough to elasticity, but it's definitely possible.

Add 3 cups of bread flour to the bowl. Add a pinch of salt for each cup.

Now crack in about 4 large eggs. Start the mixer going with the dough hook. Watch the dough. As it starts to bind, you'll see if you need to add another one or two more eggs.

Knead the dough (with the mixer or by hand) for a full 5 minutes. You are aiming to create a smooth, elastic lump of dough that holds together around the dough hook, comes away from the sides of the bowl, and is not so sticky that it clings to your finger when you press it. Basically, the texture should be very similar to bread dough. Malleable and soft.

If it is too dry to bind all the flour properly, add another egg. If it is just a touch dry, add 1/2 tsp water until you reach the right texture. If it is too wet, add a little flour. Eventually it will all come right. If you find the dough becoming too stiff for you to work by hand, flop a bowl over the top of it and walk away for 10 minutes. Your arms will have a break and the gluten will relax a little so you can finish kneading.

Once you have a smooth ball of noodle dough, you are ready to begin shaping noodles. The most basic way is as my father did when I was growing up: roll it out on a floured surface to about 1/4 inch thick, and use a knife to cut into long thin strips that boil in the water. Dad would then cover the cooked noodles in a white sauce with tinned tuna fish and green peas added, and that would be dinner. One of our favorite meals growing up!

If you have the luxury, a pasta press will take a bit of elbow grease and time out of the equation for you.

First, divide the dough into smallish balls, about the size of a small eating apple or a clementine. Use the pasta press to flatten each ball to 1/2 inch thick first, and then flatten again to 1/4 inch thick.

At this point, you can leave the dough on a safe surface for an hour if you like. It doesn't need to stay protected from the air super much.

Once you are about 30 minutes out from dinner time, get a large pot of water boiling. Large. The largest you have. The best way to prevent pasta from sticking is with lots of water for it to swim around in, and bring it to a proper rolling boil.

Now, use your machine (or your knife) to cut the shapes of pasta. Here, you can see my machine isn't all that great. It's very old! Granny had it many years ago and the cutters are not as sharp as they once were, so I use it but I don't get as fine a noodle as you would with a good quality new Italian press.


Add noodles to the boiling water and stir in quickly. You can keep rolling and adding more pasta as long as there is water enough for the noodles to move about, even if some of the noodles are already cooked. You will easily be able to see if they're cooked by biting one. As you're ready, transfer noodles to serving dishes or whatever else you plan to do with them. Tuna noodle casserole, a good bolognaise, or just buttered with a sprinkling of dill, homemade egg noodles are satisfying and delicious.