lip balm

Making our own lip balm is easier and faster than preparing dinner most nights. Even with highest quality ingredients, making it is cheaper than buying it, and one can make it just so. What’s more, melting oils and waxes and watching them set is ever so pleasing.

Sourcing your ingredients and some good tins is the trickiest bit. (Locals, we are particularly fond of places like The Soap Dispensary in Vancouver, and Self-Heal Herbs in Victoria for this stuff!)

We made this with young friends recently (with the elders in charge of melting ingredients) and it took no time at all.

There’s not much to it:

1 tablespoon shea butter 

1 tablespoon coconut oil 

2 tablespoons sweet almond, hemp oil, or olive oil  

2 tablespoons beeswax, grated, or up to 4 tablespoons if you prefer a firm, less oily balm 

optional: 1/4 tsp edible oil/extract such as peppermint, orange, vanilla 

Melt the butters, oils and wax in a double boiler, or a heatproof bowl set inside a pot, above an inch or so of water, set to very low heat.
Once melted, remove from the heat and then stir in the flavoured oil.
Pour the mixture into tins and let it set without lids until morning, or chill it in the fridge if you’re in a hurry.

Like making soap, a little effort once a year or so is all that’s required to make what we need. I like that I can refill the containers, too, when we run out. Nothing wasted.

gingerbread village

Having spotted a charming image of flat gingerbread houses carved in low relief and filled with powdered sugar, we just had to try it for ourselves.

A whole wintry afternoon was spent in great joyful making. We altered our gingerbread recipe with 1/2 light rye and 1/2 whole spelt, maple syrup and birch sugar. Not a problem. Before we baked the cookies, we used any implement we could find – metal straws, toothpicks, ornate silverware, fine knives – to carve and draw into the house-shapes.

We thoroughly enjoyed researching old buildings and borrowing their architectural details. When we lived in Europe we were particularly fond of shops at the street level and apartments above, along Dutch canals, along Parisian streets. My youngest made her own patisserie, complete with striped gabled awnings, and baked goods in the windows!

We set a cup of birch sugar zinging in the blender for a few minutes til it was thoroughly powdered. When rubbed into the grooves in the baked, cooled cookies it had a better result than bought icing sugar (and a little less sweetness for our holiday diet, too).

This way of decorating feels like printmaking, like rubbing ink into an etched plate. Such fun.

‘Tis a lovely thing to do with family and friends on a chilly winter’s day.

sauerkraut

There are useful things that I like to make purely for the pleasure of it, to have just what we want at a higher quality than one can buy, and enjoy the thing knowing it’s homemade. Sauerkraut goes a step further, being so strikingly economical. As a health food, it succeeds in making me feel better immediately upon eating it. I love that it will balance stomach acid, whether you’ve too little or too much, but mostly I just love to eat it. I figure that fermenting sauerkraut is worthy of becoming a habit for life. Here’s how I’ve been making it.

Begin with a cabbage, sea salt, and a very clean, very strong glass kilner jar, (we like Le Parfait or Fido), with a fresh rubber seal. A small clean glass jar is useful later, too.

All set? Weigh the cabbage. Ours was conveniently a full kilogram.

Calculate how much 5% of the cabbage’s weight would be, then measure that amount in sea salt. (In our case, 50 grams.)

Reserving a nice big leaf, chop the cabbage as you like it (or grate it on a traditional kraut grater if you’re lucky!) and throw it in a clean, sturdy bowl.

Now bash it. We found this old muddler at a favourite antique shop, how easy would it be to turn one on a pole lathe! It works brilliantly – but the flat end of a handle-less rolling pin or whatever you find around would function.

We like making kraut with friends, taking turns having a bash. The goal is to see a good deal of liquid emerge from the cabbage.

When you put the cut, bashed cabbage in a clean, strong kilner jar, you want to see enough liquid to submerge the cabbage. Don’t worry, you can add more water later if necessary, though I’ve never needed to.

Tuck the cabbage leaf that you saved all round the top of the chopped stuff, putting it to bed so nothing is floating, nothing exposed to air. Place a small clean jar or glass with some water in it inside the large jar, to weigh down the big leaf, and close the large jar up tight.

A dark, cool cupboard will be an ideal place for the sauerkraut to live while it ferments.

In a while – my friend waited only a week while I waited three – open it, pull back the cabbage bedding, and sample your wares. When you figure it has fermented to your liking, eat it up. I move it to the fridge -some folks say there’s more probiotic action before refrigeration, and some folks are a little nervous of things like this and trust the fridge- and use it up within six weeks. This time I shall set a reminder to make some more before we run out!

We were very much impressed with the flavour. The texture was a shade crunchy for the smaller folk, so the verdict is to try a different cabbage. Savoy, preferably. And experiment with how thinly to cut the veg. Not bad for a first try. No mold, no burping the jar, no airlock required, no special crock, nothing to do but be patient.

We like Sandor Katz for great writing on fermentation, and tremendous ideas on what else to ferment.

Ah yes, you’ve caught us. Now we’re eyeing other people’s prize cabbages, and plotting to grow our own.

artichoke harvest

Growing artichokes is very much like a long friendship of the sort that, once established, requires little and gives a lot.

I longed to grow these gloriously elegant, edible flowers. I did try, in London – not enough sun, too many snails. And in Sussex – another failure, do start the seeds in late January! One must be patient with an artichoke’s youth, though if you really have started early enough to catch some cold weather, you may see flowers that summer. Finally at our lakeside garden, the seedlings sprouted very well, and grew into tender adolescents.

A year later they took off with impressive splendour and soon we harvested the giant buds. To prepare them, we cut the base flat, and stand them in a bit of water, covered, to steam for a very long twenty minutes, during which there is plenty of time to melt butter and squeeze lemon into finger bowls.

When a low leaf pulls softly away, it is time. With our largest mixing bowl ready in the center of the table to catch the great leaf-pile, and tiny bowls of lemon butter at each place, we pluck petal after petal from the outside of the artichoke, dipping, scraping teeth over leaf to graze the softest bit. More patience required, but the sweetest kind. This is most definitely a seductive food. I help the children when they reach the heart, prickly on one side and still protected under tiny leaves on the other. If you pry at a slight angle, with a sharp knife, you can separate the itchy prickles from the artichoke heart without much trouble. Then a buttery, lemony chin is inevitable, as is a bit of rapture.

All this for a bit of water, a haircut in late summer, a mulch before winter. Resilient plant. These artichokes may be our companions for twenty years! What a pleasing thought.

curing garlic

Each year in late autumn we plant the garlic, and each year around midsummer, we dig it up and lay it out to cure in a warm, airy, shady spot.

(Our cats were here to oversee the whole project, we got them from a rescue at garlic-planting time. They’re adults now, and such affectionate creatures, yet such brilliant hunters, curbing our rabbit, rat and mouse populations. Luckily they don’t like garlic themselves.)

The garlic bulbs are petite in the site I chose this year, but this harvest is still plenty for our needs. An easy thing to grow, and one less thing to remember to buy, I love that.