Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Real Life + Berries + Homemade Vanilla Yogurt

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Berry season! Strawberry season. I am writing this post while eating that very bowl of homemade vanilla yogurt (recipe below) covered with homemade strawberry jam. I used the jam recipe offered in the Craftsy class I took last year, Jam and Marmalade the Blue Chair Way*. So good. I am an old pro at the yogurt by now, but for the jam I still had to refer to the class material, just to make sure I knew what I was doing. The two and a half batches of jam I made have turned out perfectly, and it would be a complete and utter success this year if only I would stop giving it away! I love too many people, and I feel compelled to show that by feeding them something I have made myself. But I knew this ahead of time so I froze a couple batches of Michigan strawberries (picked by my kids) to make more jam when the weather isn’t so sticky (we don’t have AC).

The funny thing about all this berry-picking and jam business is, my kids are not jam eaters. I started them out all wrong by making peanut butter and honey sandwiches, so they were never exposed to jam during their small formative years. The 3 year old sometimes gets jam since he forgets to protest, but he’s not excited about it. I try not to feel bad, and console myself that there will be more of this delicious jam for me. Until they hit the age of reason and ravenous appetites. But then, they can help with the jamming so it will all even out in the end.

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Serviceberries. Have you heard of them? They are also called Saskatoon berries or (my favorite) juneberries. They grow on trees, and look a bit like blueberries and taste a cross between blueberries and cherries. The seeds have an almond taste too, which apparently enhances jams made from them. They are not sold commercially for reasons unknown to me, though I think they can sometimes be found seasonally at farmers markets. Their season is very short (a week or two?), so they are a rare treat.

We have 3 downy serviceberry trees at the new house, though I didn’t give them much thought until I was taking some packages out to the mailbox and noticed the ripe berries as I walked under them. I knew they were edible so I ate one, and it was surprisingly sweet. I did a little research to learn more about how to preserve them, then went out with a bucket to pick what was ripe that I could also reach with a step ladder. I picked the amount you can see above (3-4 cups?), and had planned to pick more later in the week when more had ripened and I had more time. But I never did have more time (preparing the house to host a baby shower, while trying not to overdo it with a recovering back), and that ended up being my entire harvest. Real life happens and sometimes we have to sacrifice the wants for the needs, you know? The rest of the berries went to birds, rabbits and deer (I saw them all out there eating the fallen ones on the driveway). Apparently everybody likes them :) I washed and froze them individually on a sheet pan, and they are in the freezer now awaiting a future of hopeful jamming too. Juneberry jam… it sounds so nice and homey, doesn’t it?

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And the last sort of berries in my life right now… wild black raspberries. I was made aware of the existence of these berries along nearby trails by the previous lady of this house, and was told by other wild black raspberry experts (my in-laws) that they should probably be ripe sometime in July. Today, being July 2, seemed like a good day to go back and check if any of the hard, green-white berries I had seen several weeks ago had matured into anything remotely edible. So I dragged my unhappy, screaming 3 year old with me since he could not be trusted on his own at the house for 30 minutes, unlike his older and more trustworthy siblings. We walked the short distance to the woods, passed through a narrow poison-ivy-infested footpath, and were spit out onto an airy paved walkway. The very instant we passed some berries at his eye level, he returned from Hyde to Jekyll and started gleefully plucking the ripe berries anywhere he could reach. He was surprisingly good at only going for the black ones, so I let him go at his own pace while I walked ahead a bit. Every now and then he would call to me, “How you doin’ over dere, mom?” “Great. How are you doing, AJ?” “Great! I pick dem all!!” And so we walked for 15 minutes trying to find the most productive plants before we had to turn around and head home. We had only picked about a cup total since they were just starting to ripen and not many were fully black yet, but never were berries picked with more satisfaction. I also kept an eye out for clusters of wild grape… I will need to try again making wild grape jelly after a major fail last year (so big it went undocumented here).

When we got home, I washed up the boy to prevent him from getting poison ivy… he had walked near some, and that was too close for my comfort (I have a phobia despite never having had it myself)… and then I let him play with the big kids while I took a quick shower. I came downstairs and caught him red-handed. And red-faced. He proudly declared, “I eat dem all!” He had, indeed, eaten every single berry. So, no wild black raspberries to show for our expedition, but he did have fun, and get himself over a nasty tantrum, and also managed to eat some fruit. Real life.

I will go back soon, preferably alone and wearing pants and bugspray, and try to forage for more. I want to apprentice myself to my mother-in-law and learn how to make black raspberry jelly. It is a family favorite, and it would be so nice to be able to put some up for the year (and to give away) if I can collect enough fruit. We shall see what there is to be had.

As promised…

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Crockpot Vanilla Yogurt

Yield: 1 gallon and 1 pint

Ingredients

  • 1 gallon whole milk
  • 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk
  • 4 oz vanilla or plain yogurt (not Greek)
  • 2 tbsp vanilla extract

Directions

  • Pour the milk into a large stockpot, and heat over high heat until a thermometer reads 170 F. Turn heat to low. Remove it from the heat when it reaches 185 F.
  • Allow the milk to cool to 115 F. You can just let it sit, or cool it in a water bath. Make sure that it does not go below 105 F. When it hits 115 F, add the other ingredients and thoroughly mix with a whisk.
  • At this point you can culture the yogurt in any container(s) you like. I like to pour it into canning jars (8-6 oz works well) with a loosely sealed lid ( I always use the plastic lids shown above, available here*) to make portions convenient for grab’n’go, or use a larger plastic container for simplicity and space efficiency. Regardless, the container(s) should be loosely covered and kept at 115 F for the next 6-8 hours.
  • I use a turkey roaster as a water bath, filling it to above the yogurt line on the container(s) with hot water. Once the water bath is at the right temp, I turn it off and cover the roaster lid with a towel. I use a probe thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature, and turn on the roaster for short intervals to heat it back up, if necessary. My thermometer (from Ikea, like this one) beeps when the set temp is reached, so I can be sure I am not going to accidentally heat it up too much.
  • At the 6 hour mark, test a small spoonful of the warm yogurt to see if it the right consistency and tastes tangy enough for you. Too runny? Too bland? Let it go another hour, then test again. Keep going until it is right.
  • Store yogurt, tightly covered, in the fridge. It will keep longer than it will last before you eat it all :) Be sure to save 4 oz for your next batch!

*Affiliate links: If you purchase something through a link here, there is a possibility that I will be monetarily compensated. I only promote products that I use and love myself, and any compensation earned via affiliate links will go straight to my fabric fund. So I can buy, you know, a fat quarter or something :)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Home and Garden

I have been having so much fun watching the garden grow… picture taking has been sporadic, but I think I have documented most of the perennials as they bloom (for my own future reference and enjoyment).

The dramatic poppies bloomed and faded over a week ago, about when the strawberries started to be pickable and some yellow flowers were starting (still going), but I have no idea what they are (do you? leave me a comment!). I have picked and frozen over 2 pounds of strawberries from our garden (probably for jam), but they are really winding down and I don’t expect much more.

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The back rose bush is going strong, though the heavy rains have been knocking off petals right and left. There is another rose of unknown color by the front porch, but I think our brutal winter has depressed it mightily, since it has no buds at all and just looks stunted and sad.

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The lilies have started blooming in places, and one swath of them is completely covered in garden snails. I had to look closer… I have never seen anything like that before.

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The daylilies are just starting, both the invasive orange type and the more controlled yellow ones. Forgive the black and white… the orange lily just wasn’t popping with a reddish brick wall behind it.

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And there are other little happy things everywhere:

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And a few not-so-happy things that are showing the real damage from such an unrelenting winter… with trees now in full foliage, it is clear that the grafted rose of sharon tree that was blooming so beautifully when we first saw the house last August is 75% dead. And there are is a large leaf-bare side to a front maple as well. Not pictured is some badly wind blighted holly and a few other unidentified bushes and trees that just had a little too much winter for their own good.

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While wandering with my camera after the rain, I even found one little (big) bat sleeping in the tree.

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As to the “home” part of this… Here is one of the doors I was thinking about painting (possibly red)… I am supposed to be resting and not over exerting my back, but when I have time and feel up to it, I have been slowly slowly scraping off the peeling paint in preparation for repainting. Sometimes I just can’t help myself… so… I mean to say… it’s almost ready to be painted. Which means it is looking terrible and of course I want to paint it. Right now. And then considering the house as a whole… the shutters are currently an orangey peach. I am gunning for eye-pleasing contrast, and thinking classic colonial black might just be the ticket. But then the (ample) trim might need to be painted white from the current gray… it’s getting complicated…

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There’s no place like home!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Listing to the Left (or, My Month in Bullet Points)

I had written a whole whiny blog post about this over a week ago, but it turns out that just writing it and ruminating for a while was enough to get the angst and frustration out of my system. The bullet points?

  • I hurt my back a couple weeks ago (almost right after my last blog post).
  • I was in heaps of pain.
  • I am now doing physical therapy for a bulging disc in my lower back as well as sacroiliac joint dysfunction.

I wasn’t feeling very happy or articulate the week it happened which has led to more blog silence than I had hoped when I so optimistically laid out our summer plans. I was, however, able to sketch out a picture which, I feel, accurately captured my mood as well as that of the people who have the good fortune to call me mom.

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I’ve sold my art before, people. True story.  This was a masterful self portrait. #unappreciatedinmyowntime

A few weeks into rehabbing my back, I am feeling much better but I am certainly not pain-free. But then, I wasn’t pain-free before this most recent excruciating occurrence. I had been having more and more frequent events (caused by participating in such activities as lifting things, bending, and sleeping) that caused postural crookedness, stiffness, and back pain. I still wake up every day with back pain. I am happy that, at least now, I am doing something about it. At the tender age of 33, I have a lot of life left to live, and only one back to see me through. So… fixing ‘er up is a good investment.

The sticky part is that, while I am convalescing, I can’t lift things (or people). I have decided that I will limit my lifting of anything heavier than… oh, let’s just say… my sewing machine :) And, since I have been told to spend several hours of every day (and every night) lying on my back with my legs elevated, I have also solicited a lengthy list of summer reading material from people I respect. I am several books into that list at present, and am enjoying it:

  • The Client, by John Grisham (a re-read for me, but it was on hand before the requested library books were available)
  • The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey (excellent, and interestingly written from the point of view of a man who was also injured and recovering while flat on his back)
  • The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander (simply fascinating; still in progress, but the gritty reality of crushing icepack and survival-against-all-odds is inspiring)

Lots of resting is not to say that I can’t still do most everyday tasks at this point in life, since I have no tiny baby to care for (just a tantrum-prone 3 year old and 3 big kids who can do almost everything for themselves). I still go grocery shopping and cook and take the kids places, but I need to be reasonable with my activity. Which means I have had to shelve basically all of my home improvement plans for now. I had wanted to do a few projects after school was out but before a baby shower that will be at my house next weekend, but that was clearly just not going to happen. I am supposing that mid to late July might be a good time to think about picking up where I left off, and in the meantime I am dreaming of what else I want to do:

  • Paint the entry and stairs and hallway. And all the interior trim I have not yet painted (there’s a lot).
  • Caulk the exterior and the sunroom (winter will be back before we know it!).
  • Re-color the grout in the kitchen/hall/sunroom/bathrooms. Painstaking and tedius hands-and-knees work, but it will be worth it at some point.
  • Paint the exterior doors and shutters. I was initially thinking of doing a faux wood finish, but (after thoroughly considering the wear-and-tear of 4 kids with varying degrees of proficiency on bicycles) I am currently pondering red doors and black shutters. Classic colonial. Still not sure what I will do about the garage door. And I might replace the current falling-apart-injection-molded-ill-fitting shutters with DIY correctly-sized board-and-batten ones with authentic-looking hardware. So, the jury is still out and maybe some more thinking is a good thing.
  • Renovate the sunroom bathroom. Remove a couple defunct cabinets and counter and put in a full closet with doors for towels, sunscreen and other pool items. Replace the sink/counter/cabinet with something nicer. Paint the bathroom.
  • Repair the fallen and loose tiles in the pool, and fix the damaged pool coping. Learning that pools can be spelled W-O-R-K if you don’t have piles of M-O-N-E-Y.

Of the things I can do without guilt or fear of hurting myself, there is also quite a lot to keep my upright daylit hours busy:

  • I just helped my parents stage their rental house (the one I grew up in) to hopefully sell it.
  • I made strawberry jam.
  • I am planning to continue to work on making custom window treatments for the whole house - I just finished up and installed 4 curtain panels for the boys’ room.
  • I made some baby gifts for my new niece or nephew due October-ish.
  • I have a small cushion reupholstery project to finish for a friend before school starts.
  • The list goes on.

So… there you have it. A moment in the life of a recovering person who stinks at doing nothing. I will report back, hopefully soon, of the things that are occupying my mind and hours. It is still summer, after all, and I intend to enjoy it…

Friday, June 6, 2014

Wheeeee!!! It’s the Last Day of School!!!

Today is the last day of school. It’s not even a half day. It’s like… *mental math fail*… a quarter day. We will say goodbye to the school at 10:30 AM and go straight to Dairy Queen (lunch be darned!) to celebrate the start of our collective easy breezy summer freedom.

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Yesterday there were raisins stuck to the floor, a broken attic fan to deal with, home improvement clutter all over the kitchen and school papers strewn through out the house from classroom cleanup. I was sweaty, sore, and crabby. But today… today is the start of something new. SOMETHING WONDERFUL!!!

My 4 children and I will do so many fun things every day, they will ALL be asleep each night before their precious heads hit the pillow. I believe.

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We will search out every free local activity, museum, and park and enjoy each and every one of them without getting hurt at all.

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I will take the kids to the public library every week where they will select educational grade-appropriate reading material and the occasion rainy-day documentary while being complement-worthy quiet and keeping their hands and feet and teeth to themselves.

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We will hit up the produce market like a well oiled machine with no need to discipline anybody mid-citrus aisle. We will go strawberry picking and no one will fall in the mud or declare that they “just… can’t… hold it…” the moment we park. Also the trip will be faster than going alone because they will all be so helpful!

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We will take daily walks for fresh air and exercise while gathering wild black raspberries and singing songs in rounds and we won’t even encounter any poison ivy (or dinosaurs).

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My 3 year old will potty train himself in 2 days and be able to handle a four hour roadtrip with only one pee break, and that singular stop will happen at an impeccably clean gas station, but he will still decide not to crawl on the floor or lick the partition wall… on principal.

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We will have quiet rest times every day from 1-3 PM. Swimming will happen only after mom has had a sufficient nap.

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I will teach the kids to sew and cook and make their own lunches. They will all listen intently to my instructions and I will not have to treat any burns or clean up any hidden messes from anyone sneaking the cooling baked goods.

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We might even decide that we don’t actually need to avoid biohazard indoor play areas and we will absolutely not get some sort of nasty stomach bug that will ravage the extended family vacation. No way.

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It will always be sunny but no one will ever get sunburned, and the mosquitos will turn into rainbows and unicorns.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!

Verily, friends, I will be banging on the locked school doors come early-July begging them to take my children back early. However, right now, I am still under the beautiful warm-weather-induced delusion that is, actually, SUMMER. You know? Where the living is easy?

Don’t you dare  tell me anything to the contrary today OR SO HELP ME I WILL TURN THIS BLOG AROUND SO FAST YOUR HEAD WILL SPIN!!!

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Happy Summer “Vacation” to all you fellow moms of school-agers out there! Get earplugs. And rum. Godspeed!

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Magical Garden Continues..

I have been so busy watching magical things pop up around the new house. One advantage to an older home is that we inherited a fully established vibrant lawn, mature trees and an amazing landscape. Here are some of the sights from yesterday…

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From front to back: flowering chives, sorrel (it bolted… maybe I should have done something to it to prevent this, or maybe it’s what is supposed to happen?) and some crazy rhubarb (I am told this particular one should be harvested in the late summer).

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Unidentified specimen in the herb garden. Might be a weed. But it sure is pretty!

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Lots of strawberries. It looks promising for enough to make some quantity of jam, but I am not counting my berries until they are picked.

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Honeysuckle! Smells divine… just starting to open by the sunroom doors (the blurry background is the energy meter it is hiding!)…

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Unidentified. Maybe allium.

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Poppies! Not sure when they will bloom… so I check them daily just for fun!

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I don’t know what these little flowers are, but I like them.

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Lovely lovely lilac. Korean lilac, I believe. There is a tree-like white one too that is just finishing.

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Bleeding hearts seem to thrive in the shady front bed. White and pink…

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Allium? Not sure. And I am too lazy to Google. Anne, don’t Google it for me :)

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Peonies everywhere! I love peonies and I cannot wait to find out what colors are here. There must be more than 10 peony plants in various places around the house. I nipped off all the side buds on each stem to hopefully make the main flowers more showy. We will see.

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I don’t know, but I like this type. It has been sprinkled around a bit too, popping up in mixed sun/shade around the house.

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Unknown. This is a little shrub on each side of the driveway by the road. I thought it was just a little evergreen until the flowers popped up. The previous owner doesn’t know what they are either, so I guess I should look into it (to avoid killing it accidentally).

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Columbine. I have found it in beds, but this stuff is popping up like weeks in cracks near the fence. Very happy there. I guess it is prolific :)

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Lilies waiting to pop!

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Bed of day lilies. There are a few clumps of stella de oro  in there, but it’s mostly the invasive type. Looking forward to seeing what color. The lambs ear is starting to pop up and I suppose I should rip it out before it takes over completely (like my last house.. oops). I don’t want to have to move again just to get away from it.

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Hostas everwhere. Lots of kinds!

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And ground cover… mostly varieties of sedum, vinca and some sort of creeping evergreen.

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Irises… all white or blue so far, but there are a lot that have yet to open. There is also the purple smoke plant that we transplanted from my friend’s house. So far, it seems pretty happy here.

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There are ferns around back in the shade, but I have never seen this kind before.

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Red maple (maybe not too healthy, sadly) in front of some ornamental cherry trees, honey locust and Japanese maple trees.

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I even found a prickly pear type cactus… it survived this Michigan snowmageddon winter, so I have to think it likes it there. Odd, but happy making.

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Hens and chicks. They are only in one little spot by the garage door, but I kind of love them. They make this picture look distorted but they are all weirdly oblong like that. Succulents… defying expectations.

There is sooooo much more… no way to capture all of it. There are climbing roses, burning bush, holly (not too happy after this winter), hydrangeas, sedum (a non-ground cover type); hyacinths, tulips and daffodils have all bloomed already; the ornamental pear trees were magnificent 2 weeks ago; and there are so many other plants I haven’t identified and aren’t close to blooming yet. I plan to take pictures every 2 weeks or so all summer to get a real idea of what is here and when it does what it does. I am not sure how else to inventory or catalog all of it! I get the distinct feeling I am not in control…

The previous owners just came over to help us open the pool (wonderful people!), so I got to wander around with the former gardener herself and ask questions. She is a little old lady with great grandchildren, and she has more energy than I do. While dinner was in the oven, she took me for a walk in the nearby trails and showed me where there is a lot of wild black raspberry. Marvelous :) She told me repeatedly that I will never be bored here, and fully believe her. Despite my initial reluctance and the lengthy list of “we’ll get to it someday”s, I am definitely loving the new house and its grounds!! But I had better get my gardening game on…