Sourdough for Beginners (like me!)

When I first heard about sourdough about 2 years ago, I was intrigued but thought it would be too much trouble and would not fit my lifestyle. Feed a bacterial blob twice a day? You must be mad. But as time went on, the intrigue stayed and my lifestyle, or maybe just the view of what’s worth spending my time on, has changed.

When I saw that there would be a fermentation meet-up at the first Zero Waste Festival a year ago, I was ready. Ready to give proper, homemade bread a chance. After some wobbly beginnings and a few trials and errors, I found a way to keep the sourdough alive and myself sane.

Rest assured it was a bumpy ride – despite my efforts to consult Google in the hope of giving me an easy ‘how to’. I found several methods but none of them really fit my schedule. Then I came across Zero Waste Chef blogspot ‘How to Prevent Your Sourdough Starter from Taking over Your Life’ and that was it. Anne Marie is quite the chef and she uses sourdough regularly. Therefore she doesn’t store her starter in the fridge as I do. She also made up her starter from scratch. That might have been a step too far so I went with the safe method of getting it off someone who knew what they were doing. I believe that the starter was 20 years old when I bought it so now she’s a full-grown adult of 21 years. I called her Marjorie, just for fun.

It might have taken a while to get to where I am now which is because it needs a few shots to find out how your flour, water, bacteria and oven behave. It also depends on the time of the year – every fermentation is quicker in warmer weather – your sourdough starter might be ready after 6 hours when it’s hot outside rather than 8-10 hours when it’s not.  Nevertheless, a year on, I am now happy with my sourdough bread and the occasional sourdough cake or pastry.

So, if you are a Monday to Friday working person and like the idea of having freshly baked bread at the weekend but don’t have time to attend to (and bake from) your sourdough starter every day, here is my regimen.

I keep my sourdough starter in my fridge in a flip-top jar. I usually keep about 90-100g of it at a time. Let’s this be Jar #1.

If I want to bake on Saturday during the day:

Sourdough starter taken out of the fridge

Sourdough starter taken out of the fridge

Thursday night (8-10pm): Take your sourdough starter (Jar #1) out of the fridge. Leave two tablespoons of the sourdough in the jar you store it in and transfer the rest into Jar #2 (or a suitable non-metallic container). Feed the Jar #1 with 40g of fresh flour (I use spelt wholemeal) and 40g of de-chlorinated water. I always keep a jug of normal tap water on my counter – the chlorine naturally dissipates after a couple of hours. Mix well together so that there is no loose flour and put aside on a counter-top. Put Jar #2 back in the fridge.

Freshly fed starter

Freshly fed starter

Friday morning (8-10am): The mixture should at least double in size and show nice bubbles throughout. Repeat feeding the starter (Jar #1). Leave two tablespoons in the jar, add fresh flour and water, transfer the rest into your Jar #2 from the fridge. You can make so many delicious things from this ‘discard’ – I make Anne Marie’s crackers that I adjusted a little for our taste.

Fed starter after 8 hours

Fed starter after 8 hours

Friday night (8-10pm): Decide what you are going to bake the next day and how much leaven you will need. Prepare the leaven according to the instructions and set aside to be ready to bake in the morning. The leaven is basically just a lot of sourdough starter. Following the chosen recipe, combine starter from Jar #1 with fresh flour and water. You can now prepare your starter for the next week (Jar #1)– following the feeding method above. Put it in the fridge until next Thursday evening. If you forget to do this now, you can always do it tomorrow from the leaven. You can now also think what to make from the unfed starter in Jar #2.

Fed starter after 8 hours

Leaven ready for use and new starter

Saturday morning: Start baking. There are many many recipes on the web and in various cookbooks – start with what suits your taste the best.

IMG_9088

The ready loaf 🙂

Saturday afternoon: Munch away!

 

Most of the time, I bake one loaf of sourdough bread which comes to about 1kg and that lasts us for a couple of days and keeps well (if stored properly)- for up to a week. I will publish the recipe shortly 🙂

Besides that, I always make the crackers from my Jar #2. Crackers, waffles, pancakes, crumpets….my brunch favourites!

Recently I also started to try making more things from the dough – different breads and filled pastries and cakes. My hands-down favourite is one with a milled poppy seeds filling. It’s a Slovakian thing 🙂

   # I use spelt flour only for my sourdough starter but it’s up to you what kind of flour you use. It can be white wheat, whole wheat, spelt, rye. Every flour gives a different flavour and consistency to the starter. Some purists only use rye flour for rye bread or spelt flour for certain cakes and keep several jars of different starters at a time. Giving my simplifying tendencies, I only keep one starter. My bread recipe calls for rye leaven and strong white flour for the actual bread flour but I use my spelt starter with rye flour to make the leaven and it works perfectly.

   # Feeding the starter three times to get the leaven works fine for me (and gives me enough discard to make the crackers) but if you don’t have time, some recipes make the leaven directly from the refrigerated starter. So even if you didn’t have time to do it a couple of times, you can still bake bread. Also the other way around – if your plans suddenly changed and you don’t have time to make the bread on Saturday morning, just feed the starter one more time and make the bread on Saturday evening or on Sunday morning. No stress 🙂

   # If anything happens to your fridge starter (like, I don’t know, water from thawing chickpeas gets into it :)) and you still have some unfed discard in the fridge, you can easily revive it. You can also dry or freeze some starter for mishaps like these.

   # A healthy starter smells sour but pleasant. If it gives off an acetone whiff, it’s no good – get a new one or resurrect some from your fridge discard jar.

   # If your starter (or discard) develops a thin layer of black liquid on top, it’s not all lost. This is hooch – just pour it out and the rest is good as new.

   # If a thin layer of velvety film appears on top, likewise, just scrape it off and throw away. This is kahm yeast, an unpleasant but harmless growth.

   # But most importantly, do give it a try. Maybe it won’t be for you. On the other hand, maybe you will never go back to anything other than a good slice of sourdough bread.

Edible Gifts Easy As Pie

A week ago, I shared my ideas about edible gifts with the folks at the Zero Waste Christmas Festival in Dublin.

As promised, here are all the recipes I mentioned for anyone who’d like to try gift some yummy surprises this Christmas.

If you are looking for sweet, savoury or boozy treats – here are some for you to try – most of them are simple and quick, some of them need a little bit more time and craft, some of them are even fully plant-based.

When gifting a food gift, remember that the packaging is a part of the gift – you can decorate your jars or boxes with festive ribbons, cut-outs, labels or go natural with pieces of holly, evergreen, cones. Forego the impersonal wrapping paper and customise your presents using materials you already have – that pieces of cloth or forgotten Christmas paraphernalia will come in handy!

EG2

Skip directly to recipes

Chocolate Pralines
Chocolate Bark
Cookie Mix
Christmas Biscuits
Raw Truffle Mix
Candied Peel
Crackers
Pestos
Marinated Cheese
Chutneys
Pineapple Vinegar
White Mulled Wine Mix
Eggnog
Mint Liqueur

Sweet

Chocolate Pralines

(inspired by Ina Garten)

Ingredients
300g good dark chocolate
100g good milk chocolate
250ml double cream
2 tbsp liqueur of your choice (I used grenadine syrup)
½-1 tsp vanilla extract

Method

Chop all the chocolate until fine.
Bring the cream in a small saucepan just to the boil, turn off the heat and let sit for 20 seconds.
Pour the cream through a fine mesh sieve into the chocolate. Whisk until all chocolate is melted.
Add vanilla extract and liqueur/syrup if using.
If you are pressed for time or just want the easy way, pour straight into silicone moulds and refrigerate. It will set in about 2-3 hours. Take out of moulds and pack. The less handling the better as the chocolate will thaw.
If you want to go for more of an artisan look, let the chocolate mixture cool in a room temperature for about an hour. Dollop 2 tablespoons of the mixture on a sheet and refrigerate them until firm (about half an hour). Take out of the fridge, roll them in your hands to form a ball and roll them in icing sugar, cocoa powder, dessicated coconut, chopped nuts or anything else you fancy.
These will keep refrigerated for weeks (allegedly, they never lasted me that long!) but serve at room temperature.

Chocolate Bark

If you are looking for something chocolatey with a nice wow-effect, you can try one of these chocolate barks.

In short, it comprises of choosing the ingredients you want in your bark (nuts, candy dried fruit, spices, etc.), spreading them onto a baking sheet and covering with melted chocolate coating or tempered chocolate.

It might involve a bit of a skill (tempering the chocolate as you might not find a chocolate covering without palm oil) but you can easily source the ingredients in bulk, so it’s worth to try.

Cookie Mix (Chocolate Chip and Walnut Brownies)

The internet is full of recipes for jarred cookie mixes and rightly so, it’s a fun present that is easy to make and looks good.

The idea is that you layer all dry ingredients in a nice jar and gift them with instructions – with wet ingredients to add and how to bake.

This is my one of my favourites:

Layer up in a jar:
1 1/2 cups (300g) granulated sugar
1 1/3 cups (160g) plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (75g) cocoa, unsweetened
2 cups (300g) semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup (75g) coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans

Wet ingredients to be added:
2/3 cup (160g) melted butter, divided into halves
1/2 cup (125ml) boiling water
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Method
Heat the oven to 180 C. Grease and flour a 30x20cm baking pan.
In a large bowl, combine cocoa and baking soda. Blend in half of the melted butter. Add boiling water and stir until well blended. Stir in sugar, beaten eggs and remaining butter. Stir in flour and salt.
Stir nuts and the chocolate chips into batter. Spread batter in the prepared baking pan. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until the brownies are firm and begin to pull away from sides of pan.
Cool before cutting into squares. Voilá!

Christmas Biscuits

If you are a baker or do not shy away from mixing some flour, butter and eggs, you can always bake nice Christmassy biscuits, pop them into a jar or a box and I guarantee you they will be received with thanks.

Every year, I make these ‘gingerbreads’ – in inverted commas because they, in fact, have no ginger in them. They are actually honey cookies which are soft and taste like Christmas.

Honey Cookies (Medovníčky)

Ingredients
500g plain flour
190g honey
150g icing sugar
60g butter
2 eggs
1 tsp baking soda
3 crushed cloves
½ tsp ground cinnamon

Method
Mix all the ingredients into a (somewhat sticky) dough.
Divide into halves and place in a bowl, cover with a plate or wrap in a beeswax wrap (instead of cling film) and leave to rest overnight in a cold place.
Knead for a few minutes before rolling out.
Preheat the oven to 180C.
Roll out to about 5mm thickness and cut out shapes with cookie cutters.
Place on a baking sheet with baking paper or silicone mat.
Bake for 6-8 minutes – do not over bake – the edges shouldn’t be browned.

The cookies can be decorated with lemony sugar icing – whisk 1 egg white, 140g icing sugar, juice from one lemon until the sugar is dissolved and the icing is shiny and thick. Fill in a freezer bag or a paper cone with the icing, make a tiny hole in one corner and decorate.

However, if you don’t have time to do that just brush the cookies with a beaten egg white or whole egg before baking. You can also add a dollop of jam and a walnut half on top.

pernicky

Some from last year…

Raw Truffle Mix

If you are looking for a cookie version for your vegan friends, here’s an idea.

The recipe is courtesy of Íde of Bring Your Own – you can buy all the ingredients in bulk in their stall or, if you’re pressed for time, even buy the mixture already jarred.

It’s super easy.

In a nice jar, layer up 50g of almonds, 50g of dates and 10g of coconut flakes. (Feel free to double it up for more truffles.)

Method: Tip out the coconut flakes in a blender and blitz them to shred them. Tip out on a plate and put aside. Put the rest of the ingredients in the blender and blend until a sticky consistency. Roll out small balls and finish them rolling in the shredded coconut. That’s it!

Candied Peel

I like this recipe because it’ using up orange or other citrus peel that would otherwise end up in the compost bin.

I takes a little bit of time to make but it’s mostly waiting time – plan accordingly.

I made it a couple of times and really like the recipe from Bright-eyed Baker which you can find here.

My only note would be don’t cover the pan so that the water can evaporate – I made this rookie mistake the first time I made it…

Savoury

Crackers

There are few things that go together better than crackers and cheese, or even better, crackers, chutney and cheese.

You can make up a hamper filled with this holy trinity of foodiness…here are a few recipes to help.

Sourdough crackers

If you heard about sourdough and were intrigued or even better, gave it a shot and realised it’s the best thing ever, I am happy for you. If not, maybe try some sourdough bread and you may just become interested enough to try it.

If you do have sourdough and feed it regularly, you know you end up with quite some of the ‘starter discard’ but don’t do what it says on the tin. Don’t discard it – rather turn it into delicious crackers.

This recipe is an adaptation of a recipe from Anne Marie Bonneau, the Zero Waste Chef, which you can find here.

Ingredients
1 1/2 cup unfed starter from the refrigerator
6 tbsp olive or sunflower oil
1 cup rye flour
1/2 cup spelt flour (plain or wholemeal)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
3 tbsp linseed

Method
Combine starter and oil in a non-metallic bowl. Add flours, salt, baking soda and seeds. Combine. If necessary, knead the dough a few times to incorporate the last bit of flour. Cover bowl with a plate or towel and let rest for six hours at room temperature (I often skip this step and it’s fine – just rest it for about 15-20 minutes before making).

Store in the fridge after this if you won’t bake right away. The dough will keep in the refrigerator for about a week. Let it warm at room temperature for 15 minutes to half an hour to making rolling easier.

When you’re ready to bake, divide the dough into quarters on a generously floured surface.
Preheat oven to 190C.
Roll the dough out about two millimeters thick.
Transfer the dough to ungreased baking tray.
Cut into rectangles with a pizza cutter or a knife. I do this on the working surface rather than on the baking tray – but that’s me 🙂

Bake for 6 to 8 minutes, turn crackers and bake 6 to 8 minutes longer. Crackers are done when crispy and slightly browned. Know your oven and baking trays – some may bake quicker and some longer (glass baking trays are usually slower to bake on as I learned).
Transfer crackers to a rack to cool. Store in a glass jar. These also freeze well if you don’t munch on them all at once.

crackers

Easy crackers

If sourdough isn’t your thing, fear not, these easy crackers from The Kitchn are as good.

Ingredients
3 cups (360g) plain flour, or a mix of plain and whole grain flours
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup (250ml) water
Optional topping: 1 tbsp sesame seeds, 1 tbsp fennel seeds, 1 tbsp poppy seeds, 1 tsp sea salt

Method
Heat the oven to 230°C and place a rack in the lower third of the oven. Sprinkle a baking sheet lightly with flour and set aside.

Mix together the dry ingredients. Add the oil and water. Stir until a soft, sticky dough is formed. If a lot of loose flour remains in the bottom of the bowl and the surface of the dough, add more water a tablespoon at a time until all the flour is incorporated. Let it rest for 5-10 minutes.
Divide the dough into halves and shape the dough into a square. Working from the center of the dough out, roll the dough into a rectangle roughly 2mm thick or thinner. If the dough starts to shrink back as you roll it, let it rest, uncovered, for 5 minutes and then continue rolling.
Sprinkle dough with topping (optional): Brush the surface of the dough very lightly with water. Combine the seeds in a small bowl and sprinkle half of them evenly over the surface of the dough.
Cut the dough into cracker-sized rectangles using a sharp knife. If you are after more fancy shapes, use cookie cutters.
Transfer crackers to baking sheet and prick with fork to prevent them from puffing during baking. It’s fine to crowd the crackers very close to each other.

Bake the crackers in the oven for 12-15 minutes, until the edges are browned. Thinner crackers will bake more quickly than thicker ones; you can remove the crackers as they brown to your liking and continue baking the rest. While the first batch of crackers is baking, roll out and cut the remaining dough.
Transfer the baked crackers to a wire rack to cool completely. The crackers will crisp further as they cool. Store the crackers in an airtight container on the counter for 3-5 days. If you’re crackers are a little old and less-than-crispy, lay them on a baking sheet and put them in a 180C oven for a few minutes to re-crisp.

Pestos

If you are heading to a Christmas party and want to bring some crowdpleasers to the savoury table, you can make some pesto – it’s quick, easy and you can even use up things otherwise destined for compost.

Also, you don’t need to feel limited by the classic components – mix up your nuts, greens or use nutritional yeast instead of cheese if you want your pesto be fully plant-based.

I will borrow a carrot pesto recipe from Lindsay Miles of Treading My Own Path which you can find with 3 other great pesto recipes here.

Carrot Top Pesto

Ingredients
2 large handfuls of carrot tops
1 large handful of basil
1/3 cup (50g) cashew nuts (or other)
9 brazil nuts (50g) (or other)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large garlic clove
1/2 avocado (or 3 tbsp of olive oil)
1/3 cup (30g) nutritional yeast or grated cheese (or to taste)

Method
Blend the nuts in a food processor until they resemble coarse breadcrumbs and set aside.
Chop or crush the garlic, then add the basil leaves and carrot tops in the blender and blend until fine. Add oil and avocado and blend again. Add nuts and cheese/yeast if using and pulse to combine. Add more oil to taste if required. Store in a glass jar in the fridge, and use within 5 days. Can be frozen.

Marinated cheese

If you are putting together a foodie hamper, you can include a jar of marinated cheese. It’s easy, quick and looks and tastes good.

Ingredients
Brie or other soft cheese
Shallots/onion
Red capciscum pepper
Dried porcini mushrooms (a small handful)
Peppercorns
Bay leafs
Garlic cloves
Salt
Parika
Chilli flakes
Sunflower oil

Method
Cut the cheese into 5mm slices and sprinkle with salt. Layer up in a jar with thinly sliced shallots, pepper and halved garlic cloves. Soak the mushrooms in a bit of boiling water for few minutes, then squeeze out the water and add to the jar. Add a couple of peppercorns, a bay leaf and some chilli flakes. Work your way up to fill the jar. Once full, pour over sunflower oil to cover everything. Leave in the fridge for 5 days for flavours to combine. The cheese can be served with crusty bread or crackers. Leftover oil can be used in cooking – salads or aforementioned pestos are a good choice!

Chutneys

The third part of the cheese-cracker-chutney combination may require a bit of effort and time but it’s definitely worth it. Preserved in sterilised jars will keep for a year (and maybe even a tad longer).

I took inspiration from this classic apple chutney recipe.

Classic Apple Chutney

Ingredients
1½ kg cooking apples, peeled and diced
450g granulated sugar
100g molasses
500g raisins
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 tsp mustard seeds
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp salt
700ml cider vinegar (I used a mixture of homemade apple scrap or pineapple vinegar)

Method
Combine all the ingredients in a large, heavy saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil over a medium heat, then simmer uncovered, stirring frequently, for about an hour, or until thick and pulpy. Remove from the heat, leave to cool and transfer to sterilised, clean, dry jars and seal.

chutney

Chutneys ready to impress…

Raw Pineapple Vinegar

If the recipient of your edible gift is a fan of healthy homemade concoctions, you can surprise them with a raw apple cider or pineapple vinegar.

The latter I came across when a pineapple I bought started to go sour but I refused to throw it out – I looked up a recipe for a fruity vinegar and the result pleasantly surprised me. I used this recipe from the Fermented Food Lab.

Ingredients
½ pineapple
4 cups (1l) water
1 cup (180g) brown sugar (I used a mix of granulated sugar and molasses)
2 whole cloves

Method
Cut up the pineapple into big chunks and leave the skins on.
Mix the the sugar in 4 cups of water until sugar dissolves.
Add the pineapple and the sugar water to a glass jar.
Add in the cloves.
Cover with a cloth and secure with a rubber band.
Store in a cool, dark place (away from direct sunlight) for 3-4 weeks.
Stir the pineapple every few days to aerate it and prevent mold from growing on the surface.
If mold forms on the surface, scoop it out. Don’t worry, the vinegar is still good.
Taste the vinegar after 3 weeks. If it tastes sour and acidic like vinegar, strain out the pineapple chunks and bottle it. If not, let it ferment for another week. Repeat until it tastes like vinegar.
Store in a glass container or bottle in your pantry for several months to a year.

Use in salads or in a chutney 🙂

If you like apples and use a lot of them for cooking, you may be left with some cores and peels that seem to be no good for anything else but that’s a mistake – with the same method as above (fermentation of sugar water by fruit), you can easily make apple cider vinegar. Find the full recipe here.

Boozy

If there is one part of festive food that I look forward to during the year it’s the boozy concoctions. Casually sipped with friends while catching up, sweet enough to be a dessert but somewhat too sweet to drink too much which avoids the next day hangover. Perfect.

The following recipes are also easy to make, don’t need heap of ingredients and are quite easy to buy in bulk.

White Mulled Wine Mix

Do you think that all mulled wine has to be red? Au contraire. White mulled wine is just as (if not more) delicious.

Put together a bottle of wine, an orange and jarred spices and you have a gift that won’t go unappreciated.

Spice Mix
55g white or brown sugar
5 cloves
3 cardamom pods
1 star anise
A piece of cassia bark or a small piece of cinnamon

Layer up in a small jar. Print out the following instructions and attach to the jar.

Add: 750ml white wine, 250ml water (optional), 3 slices of orange/lemon. Bring almost to boil. Strain, reserve spices and serve. Add 55g of sugar and repeat.

Eggnog (Vaječný koňak)

This recipe was definitely the favourite sample at my workshop. There are many methods and recipes for this Baileys’ type of liqueur – the following one is quick, easy and delicious. (It does contain raw eggs so if you prefer, look for recipes that cook the egg yolks in a bain marie first.)

Ingredients
3 egg yolks
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tin condensed milk
300ml dark rum (the Aldi one works nicely)

Method
Whisk egg yolks, sugar and vanilla extract until foamy. Add condensed milk and whisk for further 3 minutes. Stir in rum and taste, add more rum if you’d like. Pour into a clean bottle, store in the fridge and use up in a week.

Mint Liqueur

If you prefer something longer lasting and also plant-based, you may try this simple mint liqueur.

Ingredients
350 ml vodka
300ml water
30 mint leaves
300g cane sugar
Zest from ½ lemon

Method
Shred the mint leaves with your hands and place in a dark container with the lemon zest. Cover with vodka and leave to macerate for 3 days. Then strain through a fine mesh sieve, a coffee filter or a muslin cloth. You should get a clean liquid.
Over a medium heat, dissolve the sugar in water. Add this syrup to the mint macerate, transfer into a clean bottle and leave to ripen for three weeks in a dark place.

Dandelioney

It’s something I kept hearing about when I was a child but we never actually made it at home. Probably because we lived four doors up from a beekeeper who always supplied us with amazing local honey. I am talking about ‘dandelion honey’, another Spring treat that’s quite satisfying to make!

It’s a very simple, 4-ingredient recipe – water, lemons or oranges, sugar and dandelion flowers.

Recipe

  • 450 dandelion flowers
  • 1.5kg sugar (white or brown)
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 orange
  • 1.5 l water

Step 1 – Collecting

Since it’s best to collect the flowers and steep them without washing (the pollen strengthens the flavour), I picked them early in the morning after a night of rain and before the doggies could get to them. I guess since the extract is boiled afterwards, it’s pretty safe to use them without washing. A little piece of advice: the collected dandelion heads will stain your hands and your bag so use one that can get dirty and perhaps a pair of gloves.

Park meadow

There were enough dandelions for me and the bees…

 

Collecting

It was about half a bag of dandelion heads…

Step 2 – Steeping

Cover the dandelions and sliced lemons/oranges with 1.5l of cold water. Bring to the boil, simmer shortly, turn off the heat and leave to macerate for 24 hours.

Steeping

A pretty mix

After macerating

After 24 hours…

Step 3 – Cooking

Strain the mixture through a very fine sieve/muslin cloth/nut milk bag/tea towel or whatever you can find and squeeze out all the liquid.

Straining

Squeeeeeze!

Add 1.5kg of sugar and bring to the boil. Simmer uncovered on low heat for about 1.5 hours or more, if you think it’s too watery but the mixture will thicken when cooling so don’t be too stressed!

Cooking

Add sugar and simmer.

Step 4 – Preserving

Prepare the jars by washing in hot water and sterilising them. (Put them in a cold oven and set the temperature to 100C/212 F, when the temperature is reached, leave them in for 15 minutes, then turn off the oven but keep the jars warm until you need them.)

Jars

Ready to be sterilised.

The above recipe makes about 1.5l of syrup (5 smaller jars and 2 Bonne Maman jam jars :)).

Pour the syrup into warm jars, close tightly, turn upside down, cover with a blanket or towel and leave to cool. Done!

Ready

The colour!

The consistency and colour of the finished product are very much like that of proper honey and even the taste and smell are very similar.

This honey contains significant goodies – trace elements and vitamins such as calcium, magnesium, iron, sodium, phosphorus, silicon, vitamins A, B and C and the antioxidant lutein. Who knew…

Another good thing about this homemade sweetener is that the only waste I created was the paper bag from sugar.

As a bonus, even though I am not an expert, it looks like a valid vegan honey replacement if you happen to be looking for one.

I cannot wait for our Sunday pancakes and putting it to the test in some oaty flapjacks! What would you use it for?

Hallowe’en & Co.

With Hallowe’en around the corner, the ‘holiday season’ is starting. Ireland, and Europe in general, might not be as wild as across the ocean but it does mark the beginning of the consumerism season. Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Many of these festive days lost their original meaning (or were artificially created) and became an excuse to buy. Buy and consume more and more stuff. It’s a matter of choice though!

Take Hallowe’en, for example. Did you know that the practices of Hallowe’en mostly come from Celtic paganism in the British Isles, and the feast of Samhain, the new year? They believed it was the time when ghosts and spirits came out to haunt and the Celts would appease the spirits by giving them treats. The feast was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and parts of Britain.

In Slovakia, until some years ago when the American version of this holiday wrestled its way in, this time of year was solely dedicated to remembering those who left us with November 1st  being All Saints Day and with All Souls’ Day the following day. Instead of scary costumes and parties, people went to cemeteries to light a candle for their dearly departed. It was (and I hope still is) a time for family visits, crisp evenings walks on beautifully lit graveyards with a quiet atmosphere of self-reflection.

dusickovy-cintorin

Candle-lit cemetery in Slovakia (source: Dnes24.sk)

The Slovakian take on things and also not having small children makes me slightly oblivious to the commercial part of Hallowe’en. I prefer the ‘autumnal-harvest-following’ atmosphere of this time of the year and preparing oneself for winter.

Since there is also a 3-day weekend around Hallowe’en in Ireland, we are often not at home for the day but if we are, I prefer to keep it low-key and low-waste. Here are my few tips you might find useful.

Decorations

  • Reuse the ones from last year or the year before, I guarantee you they will be still perfectly fine (I mean, if you stored them well) and nobody will notice the repetition. No need to buy more plasticky junk than we already have.
  • Go natural. Carve the pumpkin (roast the seeds, make a pie from the flesh and compost the jack-o after the holiday), put small decorative pumpkins on your window sill and eat them after Hallowe’en, use colourful leaves, acorns and chestnuts as a table decoration. Let your mind loose and use everyday objects to make decorations.
  • Make seasonal decorations with your kids – you spent some quality time together and won’t need to queue to pay in the supermarket for the unimaginative ‘Made in China’ junk.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Go natural with decorations…(Source: pexels.com)

Costumes

  • Rent rather than buy if you have to.
  • Better still, make your own. Last year, we were invited to accompany my boyfriend’s nephews for their trick-and-treating at the last minute. I put together a costume which wasn’t bad – perhaps not the most exciting one but did the job – a pirate! A stripy t-shirt, tracksuit bottoms, a scarf, bandana, homemade eyepatch and a borrowed foam sabre (or you can easily make one from cardboard) – add a bit of ‘arrgh’ and there you are!
  • You could also be a ninja – black pants, black t-shirt with a black dressing gown back to front, a face mask made from another black t-shirt and you’re all set.
  • Or, if you have a little bit more time and some leftover white paint, you can always try to create a skeleton costume – just paint the bones onto a black t-shirt and leggings. Or, if you want to use up a t-shirt one more time before cutting it to rags, cut out the ‘bones’ and wear an opposite colour t-shirt underneath (black on white or white on black).
  • Homemade costumes are fun, original and can be totally zero waste…Internet is a great place to look for some inspiration!

Treats

  • This is a tougher one. You can be the unpopular lady/guy who offers some easy peelers or other fruit but since we all know that (almost all) kids really want the sweet stuff, you might want to skip this one.
  • You could also try some homemade cookies, buns or other bite-size treats but unless you know your neighbours, well, these might end up in the bin regardless.
  • One more option that might work is to get small glass jars (from yogurts) and fill them with nuts and chocolate/yogurt-covered raisins or sweets bought in bulk (in the cinema or the Pick&Mix section in Tesco for example).
  • If you think these will still raise suspicion, you might need to give up and buy conventional wrapped candy. If so, go for the biggest bag available!

But hey, if you still think that Hallowe’en will just create unnecessary waste and belly aches from all the sweets, there is always an option to skip it completely. Go somewhere nice for the weekend, go for an adventure or just turn off the lights, unhook the bell, make some popcorn and watch telly. And don’t mind the Grinch comments, it’s not like you’re missing your only chance to take part – it will all happen again next year – and every year for the rest of your life! 🙂

Drink up!

If you are living in the Northern hemisphere you have just experienced the summer solstice a few days back which means the summer is officially here. For the lucky ones who live in southern climates, you‘ve been enjoying high temperatures for what, about two months now? For us, living in countries with very schizophrenic whether, we can only hope that the 20+ degree days are still to come. Either way – forgive me now, all you Irish and Brits – it’s time to swap your cup of tea for something more refreshing to keep you hydrated!

Early Summer is a great time for harvesting some of nature’s reserves and making the most of them. Elderflower is one of my personal favourites. From late May to early July, you can pick the white flowers full of yellow pollen and with a beautiful aroma. There is an abundance of recipes to use them with. The timeless classic which keeps the summer flavour for the longest is a cordial. ‘Bazovy sirup’ (in Slovak) or elderflower cordial is easy to make and very rewarding to use.

I started experimenting with it last year when I realised that we had an elderflower tree (or rather a big bush) growing in our back yard. The internet provides countless recipes and variations of this syrup so you can pick and choose which one suits best. Usually you will need: elderflower heads, sugar, lemons, citric acid and water. Combinations of all of the above depend on how strong/sweet/durable you want your final product to be.

Methods of preparation vary too – you can make it raw or cook it and treat it like a preserve (by water-boiling it after it’s canned). I have chosen the middle ground – cooking it for durability but without the subsequent bottle boiling. This year, I followed a recipe that seemed to work the best and here it is…

Elderflower cordial

Ingredients
30 big elderflower heads
60g citric acid
2.5kg sugar
2 lemons
3 litre water

Start by boiling 2 litres of water and leaving it to cool.

Prepare your bottles/jars by washing them in hot soapy water, rinse properly  and place in a cold oven which is then turned to about 100℃, so they heat up gradually and all the water dries out. If you are using the spring cap bottles, make sure that the caps can take heat – I made a boo-boo and one of my caps melted on me. (Lesson learned!)

Tip: If you don’t have suitable bottles already, buy some French lemonade (or other drinks you can find) in bottles you like. These are often cheaper than special preserving bottles and work as well! Also, their caps can stand the sterilisation process in the oven 🙂  

Pick the elderflower heads. Since it’s the pollen that brings the flavour, try to pick them on a sunny day and not straight after rain. Don’t wash them, just get rid of any little bugs by slightly tossing them. Remove the thick stalks and place in a big enough pot or any container you can find.

Elderflower heads

Collected elderflower heads…

Slice the lemons and squeeze the juice out of them before placing them in the pot. (If you can’t get unwaxed lemons, place them for about 10 minutes in lukewarm water mixed with some vinegar which will get rid of the nasties. Wash, rinse and use them.)

Pour in the cooled water – 2 litres – mixed with the citric acid. Squash the flowerhead so that they are covered in liquid. Cover and leave in a cool dark place for about 24 hours.

After a day strain your liquid into a pot through a muslin cloth or a fine sieve. You should always have two litres of liquid so measure and add cooled boiled water if necessary. Some say that not squeezing the mixture when straining prevents clouding of the cordial later and there might be some truth in it. If you can’t resist squeezing it just go for it 🙂

Straining

Creative ways of straining!

In another big enough pot, place 1 litre of water and all the sugar. The rule of thumb seems to be 1kg of sugar per 1l of water. I, however, think that’s too much and used only 2.5kg for my final 3 litres of liquid. It’s still a lot of sugar! You have to remember though that sugar is also a conservant so if you are making your cordial to keep (it lasts up to a year), it helps to keep  it from spoiling. There are some alternatives if you don’t want yours want to be too sweet – you can swap it for brown (muscovado) sugar or stevia and as for preserving, you can increase the citric acid a bit – don’t forget that this will make it more sour as well. Warm up the sugar and water mixture on a medium heat to get a sticky syrupy liquid.

Add the elderflower water and bring to the boil. You can just bring it to the boil and turn off or boil it for up to 30 minutes to make sure it lasts, it’s up to you. I chose the former…we’ll see what happens!

Leave it rest for about 5 minutes. Pour, still hot, into prepared sterilised bottles or jars. Turn upside down to seal properly and let cool. I wrapped them in tea towels for slower cooling and left them like that overnight. Once cool, store the bottles in a dark place for up to a year.

Bottles upside down

Cooling upside down…

The best part is using this cordial up – let your imagination run free. Mix with still water, sparkling water, prosecco, gin, pour into your tea or on top of your porridge. My personal favourite is a shot of the cordial and ½ cup of white wine topped with sparkling water. Summer feeling in an instant.

Elderflower cordial

Final yield – about 4l of cordial

If you don’t like elderflower or can’t get any where you live, perhaps another herbal concoction might be of interest. If you like mint and happen to grow some in your garden or windowsill, you know how rapidly it multiplies. If you’ve had enough of mojitos, mint sauce or mint frozen in ice cubes, you could try a mint cordial.

Mint cordial

The preparation of this is very similar to the elderflower cordial. You will need:

Ingredients
2 big fistsfuls of mint (about 20 biggish stalks)
2 lemons
2 l water
1kg sugar (or 500g and some stevia to taste)
15g citric acid

Boil 2 litres of water and leave to cool. Prepare your bottles (as above).

Wash the mint stalks and leaves and roughly chop them. This will help releasing the essential oils from the leaves. Don’t waste anything, use up the stalks as well!

Slice the lemons and place them with the chopped mint in a pot. Pour over the cooled water, stir and leave to rest for about 24-48 hours. You can stir it once or twice while waiting.

Strain the mixture into a biggish pot through a muslin cloth or a fine sieve. Slowly heat up adding the sugar and citric acid. Warm up to 70-75℃ to retain aromatic materials and stir until all the sugar has dissolved.

Mint cordial prep

Mint cordial preparations…

Pour into prepared bottles, turn upside down and let cool. Store in a cool dark place afterwards. Once open, store in the fridge.

Use as you wish – mixed with water, in cocktails, in tea, poured over a fruit bowl or just like that, a bold glug from a bottle 🙂

Mint cordial

Pink mint cordial 🙂

Finally, if you don’t want to mess around with pots and pans, sieves and spoons but still want something more than just a plain water, here are 5 tips for sprucing up your aul jug…

  1. Cucumber – orange – ginger :: Put a few slices of cucumber, orange and a piece of peeled ginger in a jug of water. Leave in the fridge for a few hours to mix. Drink. If the day gets too much, add a shot of Pims!
  2. Strawberry – basil :: Add a few freshly sliced strawberries and ½ cup of basil leaves to a jug of water. Drink straight away. Instant summer hit.
  3. Apple – cinnamon :: A few slices of a sour apple and a cinnamon stick. Leave to infuse in the fridge for a few hours. Unusual combination of soothing and refreshing.
  4. Lemon – ginger :: Slice half a lemon and place into a jug with a thumb-sized peeled piece of ginger sliced thinly. A cold version of this power drink.
  5. Lavender – lemon ::  Slice half a lemon and add to ½ cup dried lavender (or fresh if you have it) into a jug. Let it infuse and drink in the afternoon to relax. Good sleep guaranteed.

Have fun and mess around with more flavours if you want: cucumber & rosemary, pear, cranberry & mandarin, melon & mint – the sky’s the limit!

Ups and downs

Switching to a simpler life came with one added bonus – I can engage my creative skills in making things myself. Being made from simple ingredients, they are better for me – and I get the satisfaction of making something with my own paws.

However, as with everything, there are successes and failures. I want to share my experience with homemade potions to encourage you to try something new (and not be discouraged if something doesn’t work)!!

Laundry

As mentioned in my last post, a homemade laundry gel is not only very easy to make but also much cheaper in comparison to store-bought products. I gave it a chance after an experiment with soap nuts which did not work for me at all. I bought a kilo of them when I started looking for an alternative to conventional laundry products. I closely followed the instructions on the nice textile bag. All was well until after a full 40 degree cycle, the clothes came out just simply wet. No feel or smell of cleanliness or freshness. I also probably didn’t fasten the little bag with the nuts properly so they ended up spread all over the wash. I was not impressed! Quickly after this, I decided to look elsewhere. In true zero waste fashion, I thought I would use the nuts for some second-degree laundry (rugs, mats, etc.) but never actually came around to do that. So, if anyone wants to give them a chance, I will happily send them my bag for free!! Maybe you can have better results than me. (Conclusion: Laundry gel – YES, soap nuts – NO)

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Soap nuts vs laundry gel…

 

Kitchen

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Buying in bulk 🙂

As we have a dishwasher, I searched for a recipe for homemade dishwasher tablets. After some internet research and entering the world of opinions on Borax I, luckily, found a recipe that consisted of washing soda (soda crystals), baking soda, salt and citric acid. Simple enough ingredients and simple enough instructions. Basically, mix it all together. Well…. The first batch was great. Consistency was fine, cleaning power decent as well. So I went ahead and bought a bulk pack (a 5kg tub) of citric acid. Hmm. Perhaps a slightly rushed decision. Every batch after the first one just didn’t cut it. The mixture either turned to liquid (this apparently happens in humid conditions – Ireland, duh!), turned to stone (citric acid reacting with the sodas apparently) or didn’t really wash the dishes properly (when the citric acid was added right before the wash). So, after a few trials and errors, I reluctantly went back to shop-bought tablets. I chose the Ecover brand which is supposed to be not damaging to the environment but every tablet is still wrapped in plastic. Not ideal. However, I haven’t given up on this one yet. Especially when looking at that full citric acid tub 🙂 I will try again. Perhaps the drier summer climate will help the result. (Conclusion: Dishwasher tables – MAYBE)

One more nature-friendly swap for your dishes is to change the shop-bought rinse for vinegar. I tried out red wine, white wine, malt and apple cider vinegars. They all worked perfectly and are all cheaper than the original rinse. (Conclusion: Vinegar rinse – YES)

Personal hygiene

I am not a big fan of mouthwash but here and there I like to use it. I don’t like, however, the alcohol-laden Listerine and similar products, so I searched for a natural one. The internet proved to be full of ideas and recipes which were pretty easy with simple and easily found ingredients. I followed the recipe from DIY Natural. Water, baking soda, a few drops of essential oil and you’re done. You can add some xylitol if you don’t like the salty taste of baking soda 🙂 [Recipe I use: Mix together 1/2 cup filtered water, 2 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp xylitol, 2 drops of tea tree oil, 4 drops of peppermint oil]. You might need to mix the concoction more often than you buy a bottle of Listerine (big batches are not really wanted as the oils blend and the mouthwash changes taste slightly) but it literally takes 2 minutes and I am fine with that. (Conclusion: Mouthwash – YES)

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Some time back, I came across an article on Treehugger about natural body scrubs and said to myself that I am going to try them out! I picked the last one with sea salt and oil. I used some sea salt that I bought in bulk (well, bulk-ish – a 2kg tub), olive oil from the kitchen and added some dried lavender from my garden. I mixed everything in a nice little Kilner jar and put it in the bathroom. But, boy oh boy, what a mess trying to use it! Maybe I am just fussy but it just didn’t work for me. The oil was everywhere and most of it was soaked in my towel rather than by my body. Not to mention the bathtub was all oily and slippery after use. I suppose if you use very hot water for your shower (which I don’t), it wouldn’t be as bad. Either way, I was happy when I finally finished the jar. I still like a good scrub though so might try the dry one – no added oil – less mess guaranteed. (Conclusion: Oil scrub – NO).

At the local market, a girl was selling homemade cosmetic products and I was curious to try her natural clay toothpaste. I tried it twice. The second time just to reassure myself that this is not for me. I am not sure if it was the weird texture or the extra salty taste. Simply put, it was just yuck. But then again, that’s just me – my friend used it and loved it!! I happily traded her Waleda toothpaste for my clay one. Until I find something else acceptable to brush my teeth with (pure baking soda sounds like a very unlikely candidate for me), I will keep using the Kingfisher natural toothpaste. Smooth and refreshing. I like. (Conclusion: Clay toothpaste – NO)

Cleaning

If you haven’t tried it yet, the internet-praised cleaning power of baking soda and vinegar is, in fact, true. I was a bit sceptical at the beginning as it did seem a bit odd just to scrub the bathroom with some white powder and spray what is basically a sour water but it does work. The child in me also loves the fizzing when you mix those two together 🙂 There are dozens of uses for this combo but I mostly use them to get the bathroom to a spotless condition. Including that pesky black mould that is an organic part of an (c)old house in a humid country. (Conclusion: soda and vinegar – YES)

There are many more but these are just a few examples of fun stuff you can try to make yourself ! Homemade soaps, lotions, shampoos…all you need is an open mind and maybe a bit of patience 🙂

 

Green Whites

One of the things that I like about Zero Waste is the fact that I save money. Money that can be spent on going out, meeting with friends, trying out new fun stuff. So when I learned I can replace the commercial laundry detergent with something simple for a fraction of the price, I was sold on it pretty quickly.

All I needed to swap all the chemicals usually found in laundry products for something greener were two things – a bar soap and washing soda – and a bit of time to mix them together. I found this laundry detergent recipe in the Bea Johnson’s book and adapted it a bit.

You might be sceptical if this easy solution works but I’ve been using it now for a couple of months and I am very happy with the results!

What you need

Bar of soap – recipes in cyberspace ask for all kinds of different soaps but your basic castile soap bar, laundry soap or any natural soap bar will do. Bea recommends using the blue one which contains optical brighteners. I bought mine in Slovakia last time I visited but I am sure you can find it anywhere 🙂 Dr. Bronner makes soap bars that should be fit for the purpose!

Washing soda – or soda ash – usually sold in supermarkets in the laundry aisle. It took a little bit of internet research to find out that in Ireland I need to look for soda crystals! I found one kilogram bags being sold in Tesco – the bags are still made of plastic film which is not recyclable but at least the pack lasts some time.

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The last ingredient is just warm water. Other than that a few utensils will come handy – a basin or a bucket for mixing, a measuring jug, a measuring cup and a mixing spoon. Depending on the method you use, you might need a hand blender to liquidise it.

How to make it

For a 3-litre (about 3 quarts) dose, you will need a ½ cup of washing soda and a ½ cup of soap. Measure up the washing soda and pour it in the basin. Grate the soap (I use a conventional cheese grater) and add to the basin. Mix them together a little.

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Pour in about 0.5 litres of hot water (about half a quart). I use boiled water to start the mixing. Stir until the soap and soda are mostly dissolved. Add another litre of hot water. I then pour in 1.5 litres of cold water to bring the temperature to lukewarm. Stir the mixture for a little while and leave it to settle, best overnight. In the morning, when the liquid has turned into a wobbly jelly, enjoy this chemistry magic for a while and then break it with the mixing spoon. To bring it back to liquid form (it will be nicely thick), use a hand blender for a couple of minutes. If you used an unscented soap and you would like to add some scent, you can now add a few drops of any essential (not synthetic) oil – lavender, citrus or tea tree work well.

I asked my lovely boyfriend to film this part of the preparation process – please be kind with your comments 🙂

Pour the finished product into a prepared jug (I use a 3l plastic milk jug) and voila, your laundry gel is ready to use.

If you don’t have a hand blender or you want to skip this step, you can pour the warm mixture straight into the jug you are going to use to store the product and leave it to cool in there. Just make sure you shake it a couple of times in the next few hours to ensure all the ingredients are mixed properly. I found that with this method, the gel is more likely to separate when not used for a while but then just shake the bottle and you’re good to go.

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How to use it

I usually use about a cup (250ml) per load, adjusted for the amount of clothes and level of dirtiness 🙂 One 3l dose lasts me for about 13 washes. With 3 washes per week on average (darks, lights and towels for 2 people), I have enough for a month to 5 weeks. The recipe is very easily doubled or tripled if you want to make more, so no need to skimp!

I normally pour the gel into the detergent compartment in the washing machine but I don’t see why you couldn’t put it directly in the drum.

How much it costs

I mentioned in the video that this laundry gel costs about 10 times less than a conventional gel. These are my calculations:

Expenses:

300g laundry soap €1.501kg soda crystals €1.39

For 3l of the gel I need 60g of the soap (one pack lasts for 5 doses or 15 litres of gel) and about 90g of the soda (for 15 litres I use half a pack for €0.70).

In total, 15 litres of the gel costs €2.20. That is €2.20 for 65 washes (5 x 3l dose x 13 washes per dose).

A comparable conventional laundry detergent (let’s say Persil Small & Mighty Non-Bio 60 washes) costs €19.80 – which is 9x more. On offer, Ariel Bio Washing Liquid 60 washes costs €10.00 which is still 5x more than my non-toxic and totally working laundry gel.

The prices might vary where you live but I guarantee you that you can save money (not to mention all the chemicals which will not get into the waterways from the washing machine).

Final notes

My friend also uses this recipe because she and her daughter have very sensitive skin and conventional laundry products are quite irritating for them. So, that’s another brownie point for the homemade stuff.

Finally, if you’re asking about fabric softener that would be natural and eco-friendly, think  vinegar. Apple cider vinegar and white distilled vinegar work well for me.  About a ¼ – ½ cup (60 – 120 ml) with a few drops of essential oil of your choice (I like grapefruit or tea tree) will give the clothes nice smell and touch.

Well…are you tempted to give it a try yet?