Homemade Greek Yogurt

This past weekend, I did a bit of Trim Healthy Mama cooking, prepping special agent brownies, chocolate baked oatmeal, kai si ming, and homemade yogurt. Even though I’ve blogged about homemade yogurt before, I’m gonna talk about it again today, since I’ve learned a few things about making it, and it’s one of my favorite always-have-in-the-fridge-ready-to-grab food items. If you are following THM, this recipe is also FP, so you can eat it with any type of meal.

Just look at this yumminess:

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Simplicity Saturday: Homemade deodorant

Those who know me know that I love my convenience items. Life is busy and I want to be able to get things done quickly and easily. However, I also love DIY cleaners and things like that – I think they are safer for the environment as well as for my family, and as long as I plan ahead a bit so that I always have some on hand, they are pretty quick and easy to make. One DIY item I’ve made and liked recently is deodorant.

I admit I was hesitant at first to make this since I sweat a lot and was really worried about being stinky all summer. But since I had the ingredients for this popular deodorant recipe from Passionate Homemaking, I decided to give it a try.

I started out with these 3 ingredients:

Coconut oil (I used Nutiva)
1/4 cup baking soda
1/4 cup cornstarch

And I decided that I would try to refill an old deodorant stick with it. I just took a knife and scraped out any last little pieces of the old deodorant so that it was fairly clean, like this:

First, I mixed the baking soda and cornstarch in a bowl. Now that I’ve been using this deodorant for a while, I admit that I’ll do something different with this next time I make it. This part is a little gritty and it kind of cakes in my armpit.

Then I added in the coconut oil and mixed it all up and started to scoop it into my empty deodorant tube.

When the tube was full I just kind of smoothed over the top – with one use it becomes pretty smooth, so there’s no use really spending a lot of time on smoothing it over.

I had a bit that didn’t fit, so I just put it into a small jelly jar. I did add a bit of tea-tree oil first, just to try something a little different in that part of the batch. And that’s it, quick and easy homemade deodorant!

My first specialty cake!

This month, Pooh turned 3, and we decided to celebrate his birthday with the family when we went to my parents’ house for the holiday weekend. I thought about buying a cake, but I’ve recently been inspired to try some cake baking of my own, so I googled around and found a couple cakes that I thought Pooh would like. Ultimately, I went with a train theme, complete with a little Thomas on top.

This being my first cake, I didn’t want to be overly ambitious in my baking, so I went with boxed cake mix and canned frosting. Here are my expenses:
2 Aldi cake mixes: $0.99 each
1 Aldi cream cheese frosting: $1.29
6 eggs: a free gift from my mom’s chickens
oil, food coloring, etc: shamelessly stolen from my mom’s cabinet
various and sundry small snack items: gathered from my kitchen
Total cost, not including labor: $3.27

I’ll let you decide how much my labor is worth!

First, I baked all the cake. One white cake mix made 2 round cakes, one 8″ and one 9″. One chocolate cake mix made 2 small (6X9, maybe?) oblong cakes. Once they were all baked and cooled, I gave the round ones a crumb coat and stuck them in the fridge overnight.

One oblong one I cut into 12 smaller rectangles, and gave each of those a crumb coat too. This was much more difficult since they’d been cut! It would have been much smarter to bake them all separately, or use a heavier cake mix, or even let them sit out and dry for a while before attempting any icing, even a light coat. I’ll know better next time.

The second oblong cake was extra. Since we were also celebrating my dad’s birthday, and he loves German chocolate cake, I just iced it with coconut pecan icing, which was as close as I could get (okay, as close as I could find at Walmart) to German chocolate.

The next morning, I gathered bowls, the food coloring, and my “freight”, and got to work. My sister and her daughter had arrived by then, and they helped. Here’s my niece, ready to get to work – isn’t she a cutie?!

First we iced the round cakes in white, and placed them, touching, on a cake board (we used a piece of wood covered with cake paper). My sis (who has made lots of great cakes) suggested we cut out a small portion of one cake so that the two would fit together better = great idea! Then I took a toothpick and drew two half-circles on each cake, about 1.5 inches apart, to create a giant 3, then I traced the 3 with icing. I could have just started with the icing, but I’m not that brave. With the 3 made, I used pretzels to create railroad ties on it.

We decided the juncture of the 3 needed a stop sign, and luckily we had a red Jolly Rancher handy.

That was the easy part! Next came the freight cars…

Each of the small rectangular cake pieces we iced in a different color, adding 3 cheerios along the bottom of each side to form wheels. On the top, we used pretzels to create a box, and then filled the box with some kind of freight.

Ultimately, our freight included fruit snacks, smarties, a swiss cake roll, mini chocolate rice cakes, cheeries, chocolate waves, sand (crushed up cookies), and a mixture of them. The freight cars were placed around the larger cake, with pretzels connected each one to the next.

It was impossible to hide the cake from Pooh when it was done, and once he saw it, he kept climbing up on the kitchen stools asking for some. When I told him we could not have cake until after we sang happy birthday, he happily sang the entire song for me.

I’m pretty sure this cake was a huge hit – at least Pooh seemed to love it!

My To-DIY list

I love making things for myself rather than having to rely on lots of commercial products. When Pooh was in diapers, we made our own cloth wipes, I make my own laundry detergent and dishwasher soap, and (when it’s not 100+ degrees outside), we bake our own bread. Sometimes we get silly with it:

This morning, P-daddy brought home some delicious multigrain raisin buns (nope, not homemade, though you can bet they are now on his bread-baking list!). He piled his with mozzarella, tomato, and basil, but I opted for a sweet treat of Laughing Cow cheese with homemade blackberry jam:

I realized as I ate it that in all my 40+ years, I’ve never made homemade jam or jelly! My mom does, and lovingly provides it for us, and I actually helped pick the blackberries that went into that jam, but making jam/jelly is one thing that I need to put on my To-DIY list. uh-oh. I don’t really have a To-DIY list! Well, at least I didn’t before this post. Because I realized that just having a nebulous idea in my mind isn’t enough! Crystal over at Money Saving Mom keeps a running list of new DIY projects, with one assigned per month. I didn’t want to be that specific, but I did want to have a real actual list. So here it is, my ongoing To-DIY list:

1) Vanilla
2) Jam/jelly
3) Liquid hand/body soap
4) Busy bags for kids
5) Wool nighttime soaker
6) Bar soap
7) Household cleaners
8) Insect repellents (for humans)
9) Natural insecticides (for the garden)
10) Granola/snack bars

I’m sure the list will grow as I continue to think, but just getting those down into one spot helps me think about them more concretely. What about you? What are you To-DIY musts?

Nature’s Bounty

Yesterday I mentioned talked about our produce co-op and showed what we got in it this week. What I didn’t mention is the fact that we are overflowing in veggies right now! We hosted a potluck on friday night, and part of our contribution was veggie strips. Of course when I purchased them, I bought way more than we needed. Plus, rather than taking their contributions home with them, lots of people left them for the rest of the party-goers to enjoy. This meant that at the end of the night, we were left with a ton of food! That’s both good and bad. Luckily, I was able to pawn off share the desserts with my sisters and their families, leaving us with just a few cookies and brownies that we promptly froze (except for this really incredible cinnamon coffee cake that I forced myself to finish).

One thing that was left was a gorgeous (and huge) veggie tray, with zucchini, yellow squash, cucumber, carrots, snow peas, broccoli, cauliflower, yellow pepper, and I think there’s more that I cannot remember. That, plus the extra carrots and peppers that we already had, plus our co-op shop, means that we are swimming in veggies! This is only a small portion of what we’ve got:

While this many veggies sometimes means that some goes to waste, we are really trying right now to use our resources well and not waste food. Plus, it’s the beginning of the school year, which is the most stressful time for me. So, I decided to take advantage of all the veggies and prepare lunches for this week. Here’s how it went:

First, I chopped up onions, peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, and tomatoes to make a chunky veggie sauce for noodles. I got the sauce going on the stove and the water boiling for noodles, and then started on the rest.

Second, I washed and chopped up cabbage and peppers, and portioned them and some carrots out into 5 individual servings. When the noodles and veggie sauce were done, I made 5 individual servings of them as well.

When I stored those in the fridge, I grouped them by day, so that I can just grab a stack and toss them into my lunchbag:

With that, I can add an apple or tangerine (no prepping needed), and I have a super-healthy lunch and snacks for each day of the coming week, that includes my 5+ servings of fruits and veggies.

Third, I washed and chopped the rest of the carrots, celery, cucumber, and cabbage, and packaged them so that they are ready to eat (or cook) whenever we want them. I washed the green and black grapes, removed them from the stems, and packaged them, so that they are easy to grab for a snack for Pooh. I also washed and chopped mango and nectarines so they are easy to add to smoothies or yogurt. P-daddy and I have been talking about pickling lately, so I decided to cut some carrots into matchsticks and pickle them as well. Then I prepped homemade french fries for the freezer and diced red and yellow peppers to freeze for later. Once I added the rest of the noodles in veggie sauce, we had quite an array:

Now my fridge is full, I’m ready for the week, and I feel a great sense of accomplishment! And Pooh is asking for grapes so I must run – luckily I’ve got a few all ready for him!

Bulk Cooking

Next week, classes begin and we all have to hit the ground running for a new semester. For me, in times of stress, my good eating habits can often fly out the window in favor of convenience. I really don’t want that to happen, for several reasons:

1) My health – While I may love Taco Bell and french fries, they are not the healthiest choices. My normal diet consists mostly of lean meats, whole natural foods like beans and grains, and lots of fruits and veggies. I think this contributes significantly to my overall good health.
2) My weight – I’ve been a Weight Watcher for a while now. I hit my goal weight about 6 months after goal, and maintained my weight for several years, though I did gain a bit while marathon training. When I moved to Texas 2 years ago, to start a new job, I gained again, and have just finally gotten back on track and am down to about 5 pounds above my goal weight. I refuse to let stress de-rail me this time!
3) My budget – Convenience food is expensive! While a $2 meal at Taco Bell may sound cheap, I can actually prepare a nice home-cooked meal for less than that per person!

So this evening, once Pooh and P-Daddy hit the sack, I’m going to work on some food prep. I’m setting a goal for one hour, and I’m going to try to do the following:

1) cut and boil potatoes for french fries
2) cook a couple cups of brown rice
3) cook a pound of angel hair pasta
4) chop and cook peppers and onions
5) clean out the fridge

Hopefully, this will put me in a good spot in terms of getting the week going with nutritious home-cooked foods that are easy to grab and go!

Sweet Potato Pancakes

I mentioned in an earlier post that P-Daddy and I have been experimenting with making healthy alternatives to typical convenience foods. We try to use up the foods we have, and often have to come up with creative ways to use up fresh produce. This is especially true with potatoes. I’m a carboholic, as is Pooh, but P-Daddy really doesn’t eat a lot of potatoes. Since we get at least one kind, and sometimes several kinds, in our produce co-op every 2 weeks, we virtually never run out of them. These homemade french fries are just one way we’ve found to make them last, and to use them when it’s most convenient for us. Today, we’ll talk about another way: Sweet Potato Pancakes!

We’ve been making pancakes in bulk and freezing them for a while now. Here’s our basic recipe, but any that you typically use will work (we’ve even used boxed mixes with good results):

Basic Pancakes:
2 cups flour (we often do 1/2 whole wheat and 1/2 white)
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 TBSP sugar
2 cups milk (or water)
2 eggs
2 TBSP butter/oil

Mix wet ingredients first, then add dry. Pour by 1/8 cup measure onto a hot griddle, turning when bubbly.

Last time we made pancakes, though, we decided to use up some of the potatoes we had. We started by slicing up several sweet potatoes and putting them on to boil:

Once they were soft, P-Daddy used an immersion blender to mush them up a bit, then assembled the ingredients for basic pancakes.

He just added the mashed up sweet potatoes to the wet ingredients and made pancakes as normal. Typically, as the pancakes come off the griddle, we layer them on a cookie sheet, as you can see in the pic at the top of this post. Then we freeze them for a couple hours, remove, and stack the pancakes into a bread bag. That way, we have frozen pancakes ready to grab from the freezer and pop into the toaster on rushed (or lazy!) mornings:

This works really well for us, because Pooh’s favorite breakfast is “pancake faces” – basically, it’s toasted pancakes, spread with peanut butter and a tiny bit of honey, with cut up fruit strategically arranged into a face. He’ll often eat all the fruit first and ask for another face before he eats the pancake, and we tend to oblige, since we love that he loves fruit so much!

And a final note: Life as Mom hosts the Ultimate Recipe Swap on Thursdays, and there are tons of recipes over there for using up fresh produce – it’s gonna take me a really long time to try them all out! But rest assured, when I do, you’ll hear about it right here!

My new favorite convenience food

P-daddy and I are pretty healthy eaters most of the time. We of course occasionally grab fast food and have unhealthy snacks, but for the most part, we prepare healthy, simple, nutritious food at home. We even sometimes attempt to find ways to make our unhealthy choices a little better for us. Lately, I tried this with my #1 vice: french fries!

Now, I grew up with my daddy making french fries for us in a Fry-Daddy, so that they were completely saturated and deep-fried. I also LOVE McDonalds’ french fries, and could eat them every day if my heart and waist could handle it! Unfortunately, I seem to have passed my love of french fries on to Pooh, who makes a meal of them every chance he gets.

Recently, I embarked on a quest to healthify some french fries. I started with a couple pounds of red potatoes that we’d gotten in our produce co-op but hadn’t used. First, I cut them all into french fry slices.

As you can see in the picture above, I left the peels on – it’s a personal preference, and appeals to my lazy side. Anyway, next I covered them with water in a large pot and brought them to a boil.

After a couple minutes of boiling, when the potatoes just started to soften, I drained them and left them to cool. Then I placed them on a single layer on a flexible cutting board lightly sprayed with oil, and I stuck the whole thing in the freezer for a couple hours, until the pieces are frozen.

For me, the flexible cutting board was essential. If you use a stiff cutting board or a cookie sheet, the frozen potatoes can be difficult to remove. But with the flexible sheet, I just gently rolled the edges in, and the frozen pieces unstuck themselves. I’ll note that if the potatoes are touching each other, they stick to each other as well (ask me how I know!). When I removed the frozen fries, I transferred them from to quart-size ziploc bags and popped them back into the freezer.

Then, when I want french fries, I just grab a bag and shake some of the fries onto a lightly sprayed baking sheet.

I then take a small bowl and pour a couple teaspoons of olive oil in it, then use a pastry brush to lightly spread the oil over the potatoes. After baking until the potatoes are soft and the bottoms are browning, (I go by look and texture, not by time, especially since I’ve been using a toaster oven for these), I flip to broil for a few minutes to get the tops browned. After all that, here’s what I get:

Perfectly cooked and delicious oven-baked “fries”! Sprinkle with a little salt, and I don’t even need catsup!

Saving as Earning

I’ve slowly been making my way through a seemingly endless list of travel and expat blogs, just to see what is out there. Some I know I’m not likely to ever visit again, others I find interesting and could spend hours just reading through the posts, and others inspire me in a variety of ways. Friday evening, P-daddy and Pooh went to bed early and I had the living area all to myself (with the exception of our sweet puppy Elvis, who was curled up next to me), and I decided to check out some blogs. In the midst of it, I came upon a blog that I’m sure to refer to numerous times: Down to Earth appears to be a wealth of posts on simple homemade goods written by a woman in Australia. While the wealth of topics she covers is enough to make the blog great, this line caught my eye and completely convinced me that her blog *must* go on my forever list:

A saved dollar is 100 cents; an earned dollar will have about 30% tax removed, so it really is only 70 cents. I prefer now to spend time doing things that will save us money instead of working to earn it. Cooking from scratch, shopping wisely for groceries, growing food, making our soap and laundry liquid, using green cleaners – all these take more time to do but they save so much money and give much better quality, it’s worth the effort.

This attitude is one that we are fully in support of. Learning to make the most of what we have, and do better with what we have, and produce simple alternatives to many consumer goods is part of our goal as we prepare to move away from the US. While yes, part of our reasoning is the lack of availability and expense of imported items in El Salvador, the pure pleasure we get from doing it ourselves is enough to make us want to continue!

Homemade Yogurt, anyone?

One thing I noticed last time I traveled in Central America was the lack of availability of some things that I eat regularly. One general category of lacking items was fat-free dairy. Especially fat-free yogurt, which I eat regularly. It might be available, but in the huge Paiz/Walmart I was in, I was pretty shocked that there was none. Nothing. Nada. I opted for some low-fat variety, but it was disappointing.

Hmmm…I don’t really want to switch to eating full-fat or even low-fat yogurt, so lucky for my fat-free dairy habit, yogurt is super-easy to make! I’ve done it already on a couple of occasions, and our entire household is convinced that the homemade stuff is better than the store-bought. Look at this yumminess:

Here’s what you need:
1/2 gallon of milk (I’m using fat-free, but use whatever you want)
1/2 cup yogurt w/ active cultures (this is your starter, can be homemade or store-bought)
cooking thermometer (might be optional)

Here’s the super-easy (but not quick) process:
Heat the milk to 180 degrees (almost boiling), then let it cool to 115. Add in the starter, wrap in a towel, and set in a warm spot (in the oven with the light on, or on the counter if it’s a pleasantly warm day and you don’t have AC) for about 8 hours. Unwrap, and YUM! Serve alone, with fruit, or in anything you choose. We like to make a fruit/yogurt/granola parfait, kind of like this.

Some additional notes: For me, the thermometer is the easiest way to go. I want the milk to get hot enough to kill anything I don’t want living in there (that’s the 180 part), but I don’t want it to be too hot to kill my starter (that’s the cooling to 115 part). Some people can do this without the thermometer, but every time I’ve tried I haven’t made any yogurt. But if you have a crockpot, and a house that’s not too cold, I understand that you can heat the milk in the crockpot on low for about 2.5 hours, turn the crock off, and let it sit for about 3 hours. Then you can just wrap the crock and you are ready for incubation. If you try it without a thermometer and it works, lemme know! We used the crockpot, but also the thermometer.

A final note that a dear friend of mine in Guatemala used to just make hers by testing the temp on her arm like you do a baby bottle. I’m just not that confident. But perhaps the lesson to be learned from that is that yogurt-making is *not* an exact science! If the milk reaches close to boiling, it’s probably good, and the range at which the culture will grow is not tiny (I’ve read 105-120, but have not experimented with that).