Thursday, 24 March 2016

My Big Fat Eating Day

This is a bit of a note-to-self.  I've had one of those days where I just can't. Stop. Eating.  Perhaps writing it all down will shame me into doing something differently the next time these urges come along...

For breakfast, I often have two slices of heavy German-style rye bread, toasted, with peanut butter and sliced banana (man, I could eat that right now).  Today, I had three.  Okay, and I had one of yesterday's experimental waffles while I was waiting for the first lot to toast.  Bad start?  Well, I figured that I felt hungrier than usual, so I should just eat more.

I took my two little boys to their gym classes and then we went upstairs for their snack.  I planned not to eat anything, but I shnarfed the boiled egg yolk that The Big Small left and a couple of The Small Small's pistachio nuts.

I'm not going to make this a food diary of my entire day (that would be too shameful) but, needless to say, the pattern continued.  As I sit here thinking about what was different about today, I suppose there were just a lot of those moments where I thought "what the hell?" - a bit like how I used to say alcohol affected me and why it made nights out so eventful.  (Incidentally, I read a great line the other day about how drinking alcohol lets you borrow happiness and energy from the next day and using caffeine lets you borrow energy from later in the day - so true, right?) 

The other major difference today was that I hadn't planned ahead.  There was no homemade soup in the fridge for lunch like there usually is.  It was just me and The Small Small for dinner, so instead of cooking a good meal, we went for a long walk, stopped off at the park on the way home, and then ate super-quick cupboard food.  There was plenty of cheese and chocolate in the house.  I know my demons; I just can't always dodge them when they come at me! 
Emergency dinner: packet (white) filled pasta with cream cheese, spicy peppers, rocket, pickled onions and gorgonzola.

It has been interesting to notice when my two little boys suddenly eat a ton more than usual.  There are common phenomena with young children - like growth spurts, when the folds of fat at their wrists and ankles seem to stretch out overnight - which make it acceptable for them to have a day or even a week's binge.  But it's not okay for adults, it is?  Or should we just go with our desires for a short time, accept them without guilt and then start again with the next decision?  If only it were that easy!  Especially when I think about how hard I work at the gym!  Sssssake. 

As for today, the best thing for my health would be going to bed.  Right now!  There's wine aboot this hoose, after all...

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

'Old' Wood from New - Now!

I really love those old apple crates that are everywhere just now.  I know: I'm such a cliché.  Ho hum.

They are just so damn versatile.  Fill 'em, stack 'em, put things in 'em, on top of 'em, sideways, upside-down, even the right way up.  The problem is that they're so flippin' expensive.  I blame all those bars with bare Edison bulbs (I love those too) that use mini ones to hold their cutlery and big ones piled high as the gantry.  Cool = pricey.  The solution?  Tea and vinegar.  Yes, tea is the solution to many a crisis, but vinegar?  Stay with me...

My reasons for doing it this way, and not with a commercial wood dye or stain are pretty much my reasons for everything: first, the supplies are cheap and I may even have them already; and second, I believe they are less harmful to the environment and to my health. (Disclaimer: this is purely speculative!)

The other hero here is Ikea, as is often the case.  Ikea here in the UK is currently selling these pine storage boxes for £5 or £9, depending on size.  Sure, they're purdy, but they're not a patch on an old, beaten-up, discoloured version.  So here's a quick run down on how to make new wood look old - giving it heaps more character and individuality.

How to 'age' new wood - instantly!

what you'll need

steel wool (the fine threaded, messy type and not the stuff that is like silver plasticky ribbon and often called a scourer)
white distilled vinegar (other types will work, I'm sure, but this is cheap and it's easy to see the colour change)
a teabag and boiling water
a couple of jam jars
a paintbrush or two - about 1/2 inch wide

what you'll do

First, fill one of your jars about 3/4 full of vinegar.  Then take a chunk of steel wool that will fit comfortably inside and pull it apart a little.  Remember school chemistry - the more surface area, the quicker the reaction?  That's the fella.  If some of the steel wool sticks over the surface of the vinegar, that's cool.  You'll see it start to rust really quickly because it needs the air.  Leave the jar lid off if the smell of vinegar doesn't offend you too much or put it on loosely if you want.  Let the air get in there though and you'll hear it start to fizz.

You'll need to leave it for at least 24 hours until a decent amount of rusty steel wool has started to colour the vinegar brown.  I poked it all around with my paintbrush to get it going but really, it just needs time.  After 24 hours, you can use it.  Wait another day and it will be darker and give a darker result.  Water it down and it will be lighter.  (This is the case for new steel wool.  If you're using previously rusted stuff to make a further batch, the vinegar will go brown within a few hours.)

Once the vinegar jar is ready, brew a jar of strong tea.  You don't need to leave the bag in, but you can if you like.  I left mine in for a couple of hours, although I started using it immediately.  I'm impatient like that.

Before you start painting the potions on, beat up your wood a bit.  I took mine outside and rubbed the neat ends of the panels on my paving stones so they looked worn down.  Then, I put some gravel on the paving stones, lay a panel on the gravel and rubbed it around a bit.  (Happily, it was a wet day, so some mud got on there too.)  I hit it with a hammer and clawed it a bit with the claw end.  My husband jumped on it.  I stabbed some with a pointy thing so it might look like woodworm.  Do whatever you will with whatever you have.

My new wood, after a good beating

Next, paint on the tea with a paintbrush.  It goes on very easily and you will see a slight darkening straight away.  Paint with the grain and try not to leave and puddles or very wet patches.  You don't need much to make a difference.  Apparently, this all works because there are natural tannins in the wood which discolour when the rusty vinegar hits them.  Adding tea increases the amount of tannins.  (I've also read that you can add some coffee grounds to your tea for a darker finish.  However, you have to rub off the grounds right away or they'll leave dark spots.  Sounded like more trouble to me so I didn't bother but give it a go if you want.)

Let the tea dry (use a hairdryer if you're an impatient git, like me) and then paint on the vinegar mixture.  You will see it darken before your little eyes.  As with the tea, avoid very wet patches as they will show when dry.  I know this because I let my boys do some 'painting', and those areas are very patchy and look, well, faked.

This photo was taken immediately after I put rusty vinegar on the tea-stained top panel.  The bottom panel has been covered with tea only.  Look at the instant colour change!

Both panels have been painted with tea and one coat of rusty vinegar, then left to develop overnight.

My first batch of wood went a grey/blue colour, which I was a bit annoyed about, but then decided that it looked natural and rustic.  Then I gave one panel another coat of (older) rusty vinegar and it went really brown, almost as if it had been painted.  It was too regular.  I wiped it down and, hey presto, the finish was brown but still distressed.  Perfect!  I'll have to do the same with the grey/blue panels now so the thing looks like one piece!

I've also wiped down wood that has been stained and dried for a few days and some brown came off.  I'm guessing that some of the rusty vinegar soaks in and the rest sits on the surface so it can be removed easily. 

Bottom panel after tea and one coat of one-day-old rusty vinegar.  Top panel after the same, plus one coat of two-day-old rusty vinegar, then wiped down.  They're sitting on a piece of new crate, before any staining.

You could try mixing the tea and rusty vinegar together and painting just once but, as the tea will eventually grow mould, I thought it better to keep them separate. 

I think sanding would also add some good effects so I might give that a go.  Incidentally, on my last panel, I tried the (now about 4 days old) rusty vinegar on its own, without putting tea on first.  It turned out just the same!  The vertical end batons here were painted with vinegar only and the four horizontal pieces in tea first.  Can you see any difference?!  Made me think I'd wasted my time by using tea at all!  However, the age and darkness of the rusty vinegar and the individual piece of wood both seem to affect the final result, so I can't be sure that all the panels would have behaved the same way throughout the process.  I guess that's the fun of it - it's a bit unpredictable, just like a real, ageing piece of wood.

But I think it's fair to say that the older the vinegar mixture, the darker and more brown it will turn the wood.  Removing the steel wool slows down the darkening of the vinegar but, as there were still little 'crumbs' of metal in my jar, it continued to get darker over time, despite the wool having been taken out.

As for cost, the steel wool set me back around £2 for a large bag.  Apparently, it has "hundreds of uses around the home".  The vinegar was about 40p, the paintbrushes were pilfered from the kids' painting stash (although I'll probably not return the rusty one!) and the teabag - well, that was free cos I made a cuppa in the process.  (You could even combine your wood ageing with baking and make my Chocolate Tea Cake at the same time!  Then it would almost be like the teabag giving you money back!  Man, I'm suuuuch a skinflint...)

If you want to know more, check out this tutorial at A Piece of Rainbow or the links from my Pinterest Homey Ideas board for lots more photos from someone who is obviously a lot better at planning than I am!  And make sure you let me see the fruits of your labours.  I'm especially looking forward to hearing how you choose to abuse your wood before staining.  Get in touch on facebook if it's too tricky commenting here (I have that issue with other blogs I follow).  Have fuuuuun!

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

(Long-Overdue) Chocolate Tea Cake

My name is Caroline and it has been at least 3 weeks since my last blog post. 

When I started this malarkey, I resolved to post twice a week.  Then I found out how much time goes into the writing, photographing, faffy formatting (yes - believe it or not, this page could be uglier!) and that goal became more of a weight on my shoulders.  Combine that with the ongoing double-bathroom-refurb saga, which gobbles up loads of my online time, a touch of home redecoration and the usual toddler craziness,...well, I hope you'll forgive the delay.

If you follow my facebook page, you'll already know that I've been doing a lot of research into all things sugar.  I decided almost a year ago now to cut out all "packet sugar", thinking that was a simple enough definition, but now I am having doubts and a fair level of confusion.

[My 'big article' on sugar and sweeteners is still to come.  I e-lost about 85% of it somehow.  The words that came out of my mouth were pure filth and I will leave them to your imaginations.]

A while back, I read Davina McCall's book Davina's 5 Weeks to Sugar-Free.  I enjoyed it but - let's get this clear - she uses plenty of sugar.  It is generally in the form of dates (I use a lot of them too) and other dried fruits, along with plenty of maple syrup and honey, but that is still sugar.  Not "packet sugar" though.

Since then, I've discovered that there's a sugar-free bakery in North London.  While I can't find any info online about the content on their bakes (their website is being tarted up...pun intended...) but how on earth can they be sugar free?  Unless they use only no-sugar sweeteners like stevia but then everything would taste like diet coke and tumbleweed would be blowing through the place before you can belt out that Masterchef "buttery biscuit base" song.  I see a lot of fruit dotted around the photos and there is probably a lot that I can't see, in the form of fruit purées, so there's a hit of fructose right there.  Not "packet sugar" though.  Don't get me wrong: the concept and the products intrigue me and I'd love to visit.  I just don't
get what you can get away with calling "sugar-free".  (That the bakery looks gorgeous and is open until 10, 11 or even 12 at night does enhance my Big Smoke envy though.)

But why does it even matter?  I'm not trying to go sugar-free; what I am trying to do is avoid highly-refined foods of any sort.  I suspect that this is what the term sugar-free means at the moment, but its increasingly widespread use does confuse me as to whether I'm opting for something packed with artificial sweeteners - which is what I associate the term with in a supermarket yoghurt, for example - or something that may contain plenty of sugar but only in its naturally-derived, lightly-processed form.

Most recently, I borrowed Susanna Booth's Sensationally Sugar Free from the library (there's that Scottish frugality again).  She, too, focusses on using fruit, dried or otherwise, vegetables, nuts and milks to create those elements that our tastebuds require to accept 'sweet' items, but she also uses stevia and some pretty interesting techniques to replicate the sweetness that would traditionally have come from packet sugar.  She makes no claim to remove the wheat or fat from her recipes but, even so, some are free from those too.  I enjoyed this book much more than I expected to.  The latest recipe that I've tried is her Chocolate Tea Cake.  That's a chocolate cake with your cup of tea in it, not merely one to eat alongside it (although you can do that too). 

It has a deep, dark and interesting warmth about it (perhaps the touch of cloves that you should keep in even if, like me, you generally hate the things) and keeps well for a few days.  I know this because I made it for my mother-in-law's birthday and, between a postponement and a certain someone omitting to actually take it to her house, we didn't even cut the thing until two days after it was made.  Oh, and no packet sugar.

Chocolate Tea Cake

- very lightly adapted from Sensationally Sugar Free by Susanna Booth

makes about 12 slices

what you'll need
a teabag (she suggests Earl Grey but I was out so used standard Punjana, incidentally and by far my favourite 'normal' teabag)
110g pitted dried dates (the sugar part)
100g unsalted butter, very soft
2 eggs
75g wholemeal spelt flour
30g cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder
pinch of ground cloves
pinch of salt

50g (no-added-sugar if you like) dark chocolate, plus extra for decorating

a loaf tin (22x11x7cm) lined with a silicone liner, greaseproof paper or lightly buttered
a stick blender (or food processor but it'll not be so quick)
a small saucepan

what you'll do

  • IN ADVANCE: make a strong wee brew (in case that gets lost in translation, make a strong cup of tea) with about 150ml boiling water.  I made myself a cup in the process too and reserved 150ml for the recipe.  Any excuse for Punjana.
  • soak the dates in 125ml of the tea for as long as you can, and ideally for at least 4 hours or overnight.  I use the tall, slim jug that came with my stick blender for this.  It makes pureeing them much easier than chasing them around a bowl.  Keep the other 25ml of tea for later.
  • THE BAKE: when the dates have drunk up most of the tea and are soft and squishy, blitz the mixture with a stick blender (or food processor) until totally smooth and bit-free
  • heat your oven to 160°C and prep your loaf tin
  • scrape the date mush into a small-ish mixing bowl (or keep it in your processor), add the eggs and softened butter, and blitz them together briefly. 
  • sift in the flour, cocoa, baking powder, cloves and salt.  Fold or mix gently until just combined.
  • spoon the mixture into the loaf tin and flatten the top with a spatula or knife
  • bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean.  Cool in the tin.
  • THE TOPPING: while the cake is cooling, melt the chocolate and reserved tea in a small saucepan over a gentle heat.  Once the chocolate is almost all melted, remove from the heat and stir well, until all the chocolatey lumps have gone.  Pour into a small bowl and chill in the fridge until set (about 20 minutes).
  • when the cake is cool enough to cover, beat the ganache until spreadable (you might need to warm the bowl a tot in your hands / over some warm water / in the remnants of the oven's warmth / in the microwave but only for a few seconds, to get the ganache moving) and spread over the cooled cake. You can then top it with some chocolate curls shaved from a bar with a veg peeler, or whatever else you fancy.
  • wrap and leave in the kitchen until the day after you needed it...hmm...