Ten-Minute Craft: Presidential Lip Balm

With some beeswax from last summer’s farmer’s market looking for a home, I’ve been meaning to make lip balm for a while. I’ve made it before: First from a $40 Lip Balm Kit from Martha Stewart’s online shop years ago, which was just fine, although the results were not nearly so smart and artistic as represented in the catalog. (The shop closed not long after — probably because there weren’t enough suckers willing to spend $40 for $5 worth of supplies.) Then last year I made some using a recipe from an unnamed blogger I love whose recipe was slimy and gunky and had to be scooped out with paper towels and thrown away. Sad.

But I have proclaimed this Soulemama lip balm a winner. And it gave me a chance to recycle a 2008 mint container that made me laugh out loud, disturbing other travelers at Reagan National Airport. Memories…

Revisiting Sourdough Bread

This past Christmas, Santa gave Sylvia a book I’d been reading about on lots of natural/mommy/frugal blogs: Suzy’s Sourdough Circus. It was an impulse purchase for Santa, but has turned into one of Sylvia’s favorite bedtime stories — she even wants me to read the recipes. The book talks through making sourdough bread, with the starter being represented by little naked living things that dance and sleep and grow.

Now, I’ve had several sourdough stints in my past, and usually I eventually end up with a sorry mess in the back of the fridge that I’ve forgotten to feed, and, although the bread’s been good, it hasn’t been fabulous. But with Sylvia’s new interest in sourdough, we made a starter and then found a really fabulous no-knead bread recipe on YouTube that truly replicates bakery sourdough.

If you’re new to sourdough, it’s essentially a dough containing wild yeast that you keep living in the fridge. It has a wonderful sour smell and a bubbly consistency. It can be used in lots of recipes, although this month we really haven’t varied from the basic bread.

Making the Starter

In the past, I’ve used starter recipes that begin with water, yeast, and flour. I think one had salt. In this case, I went super-simple, following the advice in Wild Fermentations by Sandor Ellix Katz: 2 cups any flour, 2 cups non-chlorinated, room-temperature water. (If you use tap water, just sit the water on the counter for a few hours to release the chlorine before using it.) Stir it vigorously to get it going, cover it with cheesecloth or a coffee filter, and leave it on the counter for a while. Every now and then, give it another stir. In about a week, it’ll start getting bubbly as it picks up wild yeast from the air. (This is why you want to cover it with something porous, not a jar lid. I started mine in a wide-mouth quart canning jar covered with a coffee filter.

If it doesn’t start getting a bit bubbly and sour-smelling after 4 or 5 days, or if you’re feeling impatient, you can add a little bit (from a pinch to 1/2 tsp.) of commercial yeast. Because I was going to be traveling and wanted to get this going, I added a good-sized pinch around day 3.

Making the Bread

This video from YouTube is one of the best quick explanation of the technique, even though it’s trippy and hypnotic.

To encapsulate without the kooky voiceover, here’s all you need for a great loaf of sourdough bread:

1 cup sourdough starter
1 cup non-chlorinated water
2 tsp. salt
3 cups flour

Mix this together (don’t knead) and let it rise, as you would any bread dough, all day or overnight. I’ve been making the dough at night and baking the bread in the morning. The video shows a super-simple way to form the bread: flour the counter, gently pour the dough onto the flour; then fold in the left side, right side, top, and bottom. That’s it.

To bake, heat the oven to 490 – 500 degrees. Heat a pan with a lid (I use our trusty 5.5-quart Le Crueset). After about 20 minutes, plop the dough into the pan and cover with the lid. Bake like this for 20 minutes, then remove the lid and bake for another 20 minutes. That’s it.

Feeding the Sourdough

Every time you use the sourdough, it needs to be fed again. When I use a cup, I just add about 3/4 cup flour and 3/4 cup water, stir it up, and let it sit on the counter while the bread is rising. When the bread goes in the oven, the starter goes back in the fridge.

Storing the Sourdough and the Bread

Ideally you store the sourdough in a crock with a loose-fitting lid. Previously, I’d kept the sourdough in my fridge in a canning jar, but this time I recruited a decorative crock that had been sitting in our TV room. The lid is loose, which is what I’ve read you should use, but this is probably up for debate. My mother-in-law tells me that the crock that came with her sourdough has a tight-fitting lid with a seal and works just fine. Live and let live, I say.

The bread has this great crunchy crust when it comes out of the oven, and, to keep the crunch, the bread should be stored in a paper or cloth bag — not a tightly closed Ziploc. If you put it in a Ziploc, the crust just gets more soft. Not bad, but not as bakery-like. (I think the crust gets too hard in an open bag, and the bread gets stale. I prefer to let it get soft in a Ziploc. But, live and let live, I say. –Ed.)

I figure that a loaf of this bread costs maybe 50 cents, and it truly tastes like bread from a bakery. Also, since it doesn’t require kneading, the hands-on work is next-to-nothing — maybe five minutes to mix the bread and feed the sourdough, and another five minutes of hands-on time when it’s getting baked. Totally worth the trouble.

Use It Up: Sylvie’s Red Vest

Back in 1999, when we lived in Brooklyn, my parents came to visit. We went to a Yankee’s game, walked around Central Park, visited our favorite restaurant. Saturday morning, we spent a bit of time doing my favorite Saturday-morning acivity: Walking a couple blocks to a magnificent farmer’s market near the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.

Morehouse Farm Merinos, a merino wool farm in upstate New York, always had a booth, and I think I knit through just about every kit and pattern they offered. Mom, who periodically tried to take up knitting, was very interested in a super-simple toddler-vest pattern featuring hand-dyed yarn; she thought it would look adorable on my then-two-year-old nephew, Gabe. After contemplating for a bit, being my mom, she decided not to spend the money. So the next weekend I went back, bought the kit, and sent it to her.

This summer, after my mom died, my sister and I were going through her things, helping my dad with the sorting. I found numerous bags of knitting supplies, almost all purchased with me in the hope that we could share knitting. Most were partially knit, some had never been touched. Knitting wasn’t really her thing. The vest kit I’d sent her was still in the bag, although she’d wound the skeins of yarn into balls. I took the kit, and all of her half-knitted projects, home with me, and left them in the bag for six months, unable to look at the things she’d touched or remember all the craft-store trips she’d indulgently shared with me.

But after the holidays, I finally, tentatively, opened the bag. And remembered the feel of Morehouse Farm yarn, and the fun morning we’d spent buying artisanal cheeses and vegetables and talking with the Morehouse Farm owner. The nephew the vest was intended for is now 15, so I made it in Sylvia’s size. It was a very fast knit, having no ribbing or embellishments. Sylvia knew it was from Grandma’s house, and that it had been intended for her now high-school-aged cousin; its history made it more exciting for her. When I finished, she wore it immediately — before I could block it. Then she wore it to bed. Then she wore it the next day, injecting her own style.

My mom would be so happy.

Homemade Alternative: Body Balm

A couple years ago a friend started selling Neal’s Yard Remedies products, and I got hooked on the Wild Rose Beauty Balm. As frugal as I typically am, I somehow ignored the $65 price point for a little 1.8-ouce jar. When we went to one income, the beauty balm had to go. I tried a couple homemade alternatives, but hated all of them — either too hard (like lip balm) or too squishy and icky feeling.

Then I found this recipe, augmented very slightly from Organic Body Care Recipes. I love it. Love it. It fills two recycled Wild Rose Beauty Balm jars for, from my very rough calculations, about $5. So less than 5 percent of the commercial product’s price. This doesn’t smell like Wild Rose, but it has a really lovely, summery smell, which is especially nice in the middle of winter when I’m most plagued with rough skin.

Note: I’ve been playing with some beeswax recipes lately, and melted beeswax is tough to completely clean from utensils. I designated a one-cup Pyrex measuring cup to be my dedicated beeswax melter.

Homemade Alternative Body Balm

1 Tbsp. cocoa butter
1 ounce (2 Tbsp.) beeswax
1/4 cup coconut oil
9 Tbsp. apricot kernel oil
A few drops essential oil, if you like

Put all the ingredients in the top of a double boiler (or a dedicated Pyrex measuring cup in a pot of gently boiling water) and gently melt together. Remove from the heat and let this sit for about 10 minutes. Stir gently for a minute or two, then pour into containers. (This exactly fills two old 1.8-ounce glass jars.) Let cool completely before capping.

Lovely, lovely, lovely.

Phil’s 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 Spaghetti Sauce

Here’s Phil’s version of fast food:

1 pound ground beef + 1 onion + 1 (15 oz.) can diced tomatoes + 1 (15 oz.) can tomato sauce + 1 (6 oz.) can tomato paste

(And maybe some garlic, mushrooms, salt, pepper, basil, oregano, even a splash of Balsamic vinegar.) Start the spaghetti water. Heat olive oil in a deep skillet and saute the chopped onion and fresh sliced mushrooms with the herbs and spices until the onion is clear and softening (5-7 minutes). Add chopped garlic for 2 minutes. Push it all to the side of the skillet and brown the ground beef (add more oil if necessary), then add the tomatoes, sauce, and paste. Bring to a simmer, taste for spices, adjust if necessary. Done. (I embellished a bit. It isn’t quite as simple as it was described. –Ed.)

The kids love spaghetti night.

Using It Up

Yesterday while making chicken for our dinner, I realized how much our daily habits have changed in trying to tread more gently and use up what we have. Building responsibility with all resources, no matter how small, is important to treading more gently and consciously.

So, the chicken. I cleaned out the cavity, and the liver got cooked up for our geratric Dachschund, who becomes amazingly spry and puppy-like during dinner prep. The other pieces in the cavity went into a bag in our freezer, waiting to be made into stock. As I cleaned the carrots, the peels and ends went into another bag for stock, and into the freezer. Periodically, I throw a chicken carcass or two and several handfuls of vegetables scraps into the slow cooker, cover with water, and a day later have stock.

A couple small potatoes had gone bad (quickly, as I was just in the potato bag a couple days ago), so those went into the compost bin on the counter. The compost bin is actually a gallon milk jug with the handle intact but the top cut off. We use this until it gets nasty, then we recycle it and start with another. The garlic peelings also went into the compost bin.

The carcass and any bones left from dinner went into the stock bag. The leftover chicken went into the fridge and will appear again this week in soup.

In short, nothing from yesterday’s meal went into the trash. It all found another use after our meal.

Walking the Walk

Christmas 20011 was different. After a seven-month battle with advanced colon cancer, my mom died very suddenly last May, and each milestone this first year without her has been painful with her absence. We’ve persevered, but there was the feel of getting-through this year, of going through the motions.

Atypically, I decided this would be the year we would get our kids a game system. It seemed important somehow. Our nine-year-old would tell me about all the things his friends had — the trips to Disney, the PS3s, the multiple meals out. We don’t live an austere life, but we have resisted the several-hundred-dollar game systems that seem to suck up kids’ brains faster than satellite TV. We’ve had numerous conversations about how families each make their own decisions, and how you can’t tell whether someone is “rich” by the stuff they have. But in a year where my defenses were down, and remembering my own mom playing Breakout and Pong with my excited brother and me, I started looking at ads and reading reviews.

And Max was excited about the system — the system my sister, neice, and I bought at midnight with hundreds of other Target Black Friday customers — but his reaction was more one of finally getting what he had coming. It wasn’t the Ralphie/Red Ryder moment I’d hoped for. Tommy, his younger brother, was more excited about the misshapen Harry Potter owl I’d knitted him from yard-sale yarn. And I realized that next Christmas we could have more PS3 moments, or more excited owl-hugging moments. I want the latter.

So I’m embarking on a year-long project to show my kids the fun of intentional downshifting, creative deprivation, homemade holidays, giving to others, and seeing “stuff” with clearer eyes.