Home-made Graham Crackers

Since the temperature decided to graciously drop below 100 degrees this month and we started school again, it feels a little bit like fall. Not completely, but a little. Since many of the trees weren’t able to survive the heat and drought with green leaves, it looks a little like fall too.

I was hit with a cooking mood last week. I had recently stumbled across a recipe for graham crackers from Smitten Kitchen. Since I’ve wanted to try making graham crackers from scratch for quite some time, I decided to give it a try.

In case you decide to try the recipe, I did make a few changes to make these fit with what I had on hand already. I used 100% whole wheat flour rather than white flour. To me, part of the draw of graham crackers is the hearty whole wheat taste, plus it is just a whole lot better for you. By the way, if you haven’t been a fan of whole wheat flour I would suggest making sure you buy good quality. I ran out of my huge bag of Azure whole wheat organic unifine flour and thought I could replace it for a few days with stuff bought from Walmart. The amazing difference in the fineness of the grind makes a huge difference. The flour from Walmart seems heavy and coarse after using the finer ground flour. Thankfully I have a new bag of Azure flour in my freezer now.

The brown sugar I have on hand is light brown muscovado sugar, so that is what I used. I was able to use my chilled butter without actually freezing it. I don’t have a food processor so when I mix butter into flour I do it by hand, and when I say hand, I actually mean “by hand.” It seemed to work fine for this recipe. If you have a machine to help you with this, by all means use it.

I used our local honey from the Farmers Market and our full fat raw cow’s milk. I didn’t do the cinnamon sugar topping, mostly because I forgot. But they didn’t really need that.

Besides being a little time consuming, they were pretty easy to do. The trickiest part for me was figuring out how long to cook them for. I’m not used to my new oven yet, and it seems to be a bit on the hot side. The first batch came out delicious, but not as crunchy as a graham cracker usually is. The second batch ended up getting a bit scorched on the bottom, but having a delicious crunch. There was one pan that ended up perfect, but I’d have to do some playing around with it and lots of checking to repeat the results. Either way, they were delicious and very hard to stop eating.

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Rice and Beans Month

We are eating rice and beans this month in support of Lahash International.  Rice and Beans month is a way for us to stand in solidarity with the poor by simplifying our diet and financially giving to those who are hungry in East Africa.  As we make meals based around beans and rice, we attempt to focus on praying for and connecting with those who may only eat beans and rice every month of the year.  Since beans and rice should save us money on our grocery budget this month, it means we can also physically share with those in East Africa by sending our savings to provide more food.

When I first told Elise what we would be doing this month, she was less than thrilled.  Many tears were shed as she tried to wrap her mind around eating two meals a day based on just these two things.  Now granted, we do add other stuff to our beans and rice, and maybe she didn’t realize that beforehand.  I am trying to stay away from meat and too many expensive additives, since I really do want to see how much of my budget I can send off to help others this month.  The first meal on March 1st, Elise woke to me making some sweet brown rice for breakfast.  “I thought we weren’t doing beans and rice for breakfast?” she asked with a worried expression on her face.  “Well, not always, but today we are.”  Elise didn’t eat much breakfast that day.  The boys loved it.  In later meals, the roles switched as Elise found she loved the other recipes I tried that day.  She ended her day by eating 5 bowls of lentil stew!  The boys, on the other hand, decided the bean recipes were not as thrilling as a bowl of rice with milk and sugar.  They picked and complained over their bowls.  But even Will has a small grasp of what we are doing.  He shares with anyone who is willing to listen that:  “Guess what?  We are only eating rice and beans every day this week.”  (He doesn’t quite have the concept of a whole month.)  Seth either has a very short memory, or is clinging to the slim hope that I might forget, because every meal he still asks what we are having to eat.  And every time I tell him yet again that we are having “beans and rice,” he groans and says,  “Me don’t like beans.”

I am hoping that as we continue this it might help each of my kids stretch and grow just a little bit.  For Elise, I hope that she does start to develop a heart for those who have less, and perhaps start to see how she can make choices that impact others positively.  For Will, I hope that his excitement over the uniqueness of this experiment will turn into excitement for helping other people around the world and in our community.  For Seth, I am just hoping that maybe he will learn to eat beans without me having to physically put the spoon into his mouth.

As for me, after just 5 days, I have had to face the fact that I use food (especially deserts) a lot as a stress reliever.  I’m realizing how I need to replace that craving for something to eat with a craving to follow after God and rely on him to meet my needs.  I’m still grappling with this, but the first step towards change is to have our eyes opened to the need.

Introducing Ada and Bea.

We’ve added the first non-feline animals to our little homestead. These two little half sisters are Nigerian Dwarf goats. We’ve had them for over two weeks now, but they just now are officially named. Naming in our house usually goes like this. For days or weeks I and the kids start throwing out all sorts of ideas for names. An apparently uninterested John silently listens. Only because I know him so well, do I know that he will have his say eventually. And eventually he does. One day he will say: “What about . . . ” and I love it, and that is the name. Interestingly enough, this is exactly how our children were named as well.

And so, Ada and Bea were named. Ada is the older and more white one. She will be registered in Elise’s name. Elise has put in lots of hours working at taming the goats, who came to us straight out of a field and were not in the least bit interested in human attention beyond feeding and watering. But taking advantage of their love of food, we were able to slowly get them used to being around us and eventually to be touched by us.

We haven’t finished fencing their field yet, and because John’s back decided to go out last week, it will probably be awhile before we do. So for now they are living in a small pen in our yard. They’d grazed it down to the ground, so we supplement their diet with goat ration and alfalfa hay. And each day we take them out once or twice and tie them out in our yard where they eagerly attack our weeds. Those who say that goats will eat anything, didn’t actually ever own a goat. Goats are actually quite picky eaters. They do love alfalfa hay and oddly enough dried leaves are like candy to them. Instead of going towards the greenest and best of the grass in the yard, they seek out the tiny little dry looking weeds, which they tend to pull out by the roots. I figure eventually I’ll be left with nice healthy grass throughout the yard.

Taking the goats out on a lead has greatly sped up their taming process. But it took us awhile to figure out how to do it without risking losing the goats entirely. We had bought the cutest little goat halters at Tractor Supply, but as soon as we held them up to the goats’ heads, which are small enough to fit through the 4 inch by 4 inch holes in their fencing, we realized they’ll probably never be large enough to fit the halters. We looked at the little dog collars we had bought, but those also were way too large and we weren’t sure how to make sure they’d keep them on even if we did tighten them up. What ended up working were dog harnesses. They don’t fit perfectly, but well enough that I don’t worry about the goats slipping out of them and I they don’t seem to press on their throats or stomach when they pull hard.

Though they run when they see me coming with the harnesses, once I do get ahold of them, they stand pretty still without bleating while I get them hooked up. Then they eagerly take off because they know wherever we take them there will be tasty treats and/or fun things to climb on. Today I took them around to what is one of their favorite places. They seemed to light up when they saw where we were going and instead of hurrying to eat, they jumped up on the rock stairs to our front door and stood on their own personal mountain with apparent excitement.

Our plan is to hopefully welcome little goat kids late next year (these ones are still babies themselves) and fresh goat milk.

A Few Exceptions.

I know I haven’t posted anything about our June food challenge lately. We are still “technically” doing the challenge. I say “technically” because we’ve made plenty of exceptions over the month. But I just had to come to the realization that this was supposed to be a fun learning project, one in which I make the rules. And so, here are a few things we’ve allowed into our diets and the reasons.

-Frozen tortellini, frozen italian sausages, and other similar items that were already in my freezer or pantry. Basically, after over one full week on the challenge, I had spent all my allotted grocery money for the first half of the month. So, I tried to make things stretch. Instead of planning out meals I wanted to try, I just worked with what I had on hand. I figured, 1) I wasn’t buying these things, since I already had them, 2) we’ll be moving soon so the more I empty my freezer the better, and 3) I need the practice at using things on hand instead of just going to buy more and letting things go bad. We still made plenty of our own dishes and ingredients, for example, the tortellini was cooked and then combined with my own tomato cream sauce.

-White sugar (only for making iced tea). My husband drinks iced tea every day. We had a discussion at the beginning of the month about how to make his normal iced tea without white sugar. I had expected him to use my sucanat sugar, but he was concerned about how quickly we’d go through the expensive alternative. So far I haven’t actually bought white sugar this month, he’s just been stretching what we already had on hand, but it is getting quite low.

-Store bought milk. When I ran out of grocery money, I had to give in and buy some pasteurized whole milk at the grocery store rather than the more expensive goat milk we had been drinking. Now that we have passed the mid point of the month, I have refilled my goat milk jars and also bought my first raw cow milk.

-Butter. Because it took me so long to find a source for raw cow milk with cream, I realized my choices for butter were to buy ultra-pasteurized cream and make it myself or just buy butter. I’ve done both this month. The thing I’ve realized about butter is that I use a lot of it, and it takes a lot of cream to keep up with. So even though I now have some cream settling from my cow milk, I am realizing that it isn’t enough for all our butter needs, especially if I want to use the cream for other uses as well. So we will probably continue to buy some butter. I’m ok with that, since as long as you check the ingredients lists you can easily find butter that has just cream and salt in it.

-Cheese. We did end up buying some cheese this month. The reasons were several: 1) Most cheeses don’t really have added ingredients beyond what I would put in them. 2) Hard cheeses take longer than 1 month to age, so I can’t actually make them this month and also use them this month. 3) Cheese making requires a lot of milk, so I can’t actually afford to do as much as I had originally intended. I actually have a surplus of milk and cream right now and am hoping this week to try my hand at another cheese recipe. I want to make my own cheese, but I’m giving myself the benefit of a slow start in this area.

-Father’s Day. For Father’s Day I made my father-in-law’s favorite cookies (at least his favorite of my cookies). These cookies are ultra-refined from the white flour to the white sugar to the powdered sugar icing. But I couldn’t bring myself to try to substitute anything in them because well, they just wouldn’t be the same cookies. And I have to admit, they really were delicious. On a side note, I also made a key lime pie for John, and that I did try to do with the natural unprocessed ingredients. I allowed a little white sugar in the meringue topping because I wanted to make sure it turned out, but everything else was on my list of approved ingredients. It did turn out (after freezing to make it set more completely).

I imagine there will be some more exceptions in the week to come as I have again almost reached the end of my grocery budget and have run out of several items I bought to use this month (like muscovado sugar, sucanat sugar, and maple syrup).

Overall, though I have learned a lot, experimented on many things, and will continue to cook, bake and eat closely to this model. Financially, even though I have had trouble staying on budget this month, I am feeling pretty confident. Many of the things I bought, I bought in bulk, so they will last much longer than one month. I’m also attempting to can and freeze some of the summer produce so that we will have these ingredients through the winter, which will hopefully lower those winter grocery bills.

I am planning on sharing more of the techniques and recipes I’ve used as well as any new ones I find, but it will take some time for me to add them on here. So look forward to reading more about this adventure. We’re moving to a farm in 2 weeks, picking up baby goats in 3 weeks, and hopefully adding baby chicks soon after that, so I imagine we’ll have plenty other adventures to share as well in the weeks to come.

Make your own yogurt.

I have finally found a process for making yogurt that takes very little time and turns out great tasting yogurt. I bought an actual yogurt culture, rather than using store-bought yogurt, so that I’d have a little more control on the results. The website I ended up using to order my starters was Cultures for Health. I ordered both the villi yogurt starter and the filmjolk yogurt starter. Both of these are mesophilic starters, meaning they work at room temperature and don’t have to be heated.

So far I have started the villi yogurt. I haven’t tried the filmjolk yet, but I’d like to soon. I just wanted to make sure I had the process well under control before adding another yogurt to keep going. Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Get the starter going. The starters come in a little sealed envelope and are in powder form. You need to culture this powder to start the process. There is enough powder for two batches, so you only use half the envelope and refrigerate the other half just in case you need to restart the yogurt later. Mix half the powder into one half cup of pasteurized milk in a clean and preferably sterilized glass jar. The milk needs to be pasteurized for this step because raw milk will eventually kill off your starter. Cover the jar with cloth or a coffee filter and secure with a rubber band. Set the jar on your counter and leave it for 24-48 hours. (The room temperature of your kitchen needs to remain above 70 degrees for this to work. If you keep your air conditioning ultra low, you might need to find a warmer spot for the yogurt.)

Step 2: Start checking the yogurt at 24 hours and every 12 hours after that to see if it is done. You will tip the jar and see how thick the yogurt is. If it is still runny like milk, it needs more time. Once it clings together and looks like yogurt, it is done.

Step 3: Start your yogurt. At this point, you can use either raw or pasteurized milk. I haven’t tried raw yet, as I ran out of money for dairy fresh milk over a week ago. Since we just got paid again, I will be buying some more fresh milk and will give it a try. The important thing to note is that you will always need to keep a mother culture going with pasteurized milk, so that that you don’t lose the potency of the starter in the raw milk. So if you use raw milk, do not use all of the mother culture you just created. If you are just using pasteurized milk, then it doesn’t matter as you will perpetuate the yogurt with the new yogurt you create. To start a batch of yogurt you need one tablespoon of the mother culture for every cup of milk. I have been using quart jars, so 4 Tablespoons of mother culture or previous culture is added to the jar and then it is filled with milk. Shake or mix and cover again with cloth or a coffee filter to let it breathe. This time you will only need to let the milk sit 12-18 hours. Mine is usually done in a little over 12, though I have left it longer when I’ve forgotten and it still has been fine.

Step 4: Continue to perpetuate the yogurt. In order to keep making your own fresh yogurt you need to do step 3 at least once a week. Waiting longer than 7 days will cause the culture to start to weaken. You will be using the yogurt you made the last week to start the next batch, unless you are using raw milk. Then you will always need to keep a small amount of yogurt going with pasteurized milk only and use part of that (never all) to add to your raw milk. Hopefully that makes sense. The instructions that come with the starter are very thorough, so there are more details and suggestions in there.

I really thought I’d have trouble doing this every 7 days, but to be honest, I’m on my 3rd batch and I haven’t once made it a full 7 days without needing to start another batch. Just make sure you don’t run out of yogurt because then you will have to start all over again. The taste of this yogurt is very much like plain store-bought yogurt. It goes very well with honey to sweeten it. I’ve also been using it in place of buttermilk in my recipes because I haven’t started a buttermilk culture yet (that will be done pretty much the same as the yogurt I believe). The yogurt is thin, but not so thin that you can’t eat it with a spoon. And if you want to thicken it you can strain it through butter muslin or a flour sack towel. I started to strain my first batch, but I would have had to let it sit for awhile to get a very thick consistency, so I decided it wasn’t worth the extra step in the process.

Homemade Spaghetti

Lately when I tell John we are having something homemade or made from scratch, he invariably finds an ingredient I didn’t make. For example, the other day we had homemade chicken noodle soup. “Did you make the noodles?” he asked. And of course, I hadn’t. I don’t know whether to feel complimented that he thinks that I can make everything, or annoyed that I’ve set the bar so high that he is no longer surprised when I do.

So today I set out to see if I could make a meal completely from scratch. I had planned on making ravioli today, but we haven’t successfully made a batch of cheese I could use to fill it with, so instead we made spaghetti. Well, I guess it was probably closer to linguini. The pasta was made from scratch from a recipe in my Good Housekeeping cookbook (exchanging the white flour for whole wheat). It is basically flour, salt and eggs. I had to add a bit of water too in order to get it to hold together as a dough, and kneading it was quite the workout as it is a very stiff dough. After letting it rest, I tried to tackle rolling it out thin. I’d love to have a pasta press, but I knew we could probably make something work without one. John came to my rescue and finished rolling the dough for me, as I was making pretty slow progress. It was still thicker than pasta should be, so Elise and I set to work cutting it into strips and rolling it again to make it thinner. It took a bit of time, but we ended up with a beautiful pile of whole wheat pasta.

I didn’t get pictures of it, but Will stepped in to help with the sauce making. He had fun helping me peel tomatoes and then enthusiastically started stirring seasonings into the resulting tomato pulp. We let it simmer for awhile before cooking and adding some ground beef from my Dad’s farm raised cow. For sides to our meal, I also made a garlic studded baguette with whole wheat flour and olive oil (another recipe from Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day) and green beans (fresh ones from Walmart).

The only ingredients that did not follow the rules exactly for the meal were the store-bought butter we spread on the bread (because I haven’t found a good source for raw cow milk yet), the freshly grated parmesan we sprinkled on top of the sauce (because it takes a minimum of 10 months to make parmesan cheese and I already have some in my refrigerator), and the whole milk the kids drank (which I had to give in and buy at the grocery store because we are out of goat milk). So I guess I didn’t completely succeed in doing a meal 100% from scratch, but it was pretty close. And it was delicious if I do say so myself. The time I spent in the kitchen today was pretty significant though, so I don’t think I could tackle this on just any day.

Great Finds Online.

Today our our order came in from Nuts Online. I found the website while doing a search for unsweetened dried fruit. We ordered cranberries that are just dried cranberries, nothing added, bananas that are just dried bananas, nothing added, unsweetened coconut (that unfortunately does have a preservative added), and raw cocoa beans (thought they’d be interesting to play around with since chocolate doesn’t fit into my rules for the month). It wasn’t cheap, the items cost me about $30 and then another $10 to ship them, but I’ll let you know as I use them if the money was worth it. We tried everything immediately of course. I had to force Seth to stop eating the bananas. They are sweeter than banana chips, and a softer texture. I think I prefer regular banana chips, but Seth thought these were delicious. Elise and Will liked the cranberries, which are definitely tart, but fun to eat. I’ll add some of them along with the coconut to our granola.

We didn’t really make anything today. We spent the morning at a friend’s farm (which is why Seth is dirty and has a scraped nose in the previous picture). For supper we’ll be at my parents’ farm. But I have started using my whole white wheat flour in cookies, pancakes and tortillas. I think it has a great flavor and texture. Yesterday I also made my first official batch of chicken broth. The chicken was salvaged from the bones and will be used in another meal and the broth was used to make artichoke potato soup for supper last night. I learned how to retrieve an artichoke heart from a fresh artichoke, but I don’t know if it was worth the effort as I could hardly taste them in the soup. Perhaps I needed more artichokes? I also made some whole kernel bread to go with the soup. It had whole kernels of rye and wheat in it and served with raw local honey it was a big hit with both the kids and John. John said it was a bread with a lot of character. He took the last of the loaf to guys’ night, and since I haven’t seen sign of it since, I assume it was finished off there.