30 January 2009

Do I have to go out?

Just taking the green kitchen waste out to the compost bins is a mite challenging when the bins look like this:
Compost bins half buried in snow
The greenhouse is getting a good bit of snowy insulation: Greenhouse half buried in snow
I would hardly venture out at all if it weren't for the dog needing to do what a dog needs to do. It seems to take forever just to put on enough clothes to be able to go out and stay at least mostly warm and dry. Though even the dog didn't waste much time out there yesterday afternoon, when the snow was coming in horizontally and the temperature was -5°C (23°F):

29 January 2009

Sleeping under newspapers

Hose carrying insulation into atticNow that the alumin(i)um wiring has all gone, we could finally get round to putting a decent layer of insulation in the attic. I'd say 'loft', but I recently discovered that attic≠loft in Canadian English. Though I'm not entirely clear on the distinction - so any clarification welcome!

We now have a snug 15-inch layer of recycled newsprint above our heads (it has been converted into fluff and treated to make it fire- and pest-resistant, I feel I should point out). This brings the R-value of the attic's insulation up to 50 from its previous level of around 10. Should make it a bit warmer upstairs on these cold winter nights...

26 January 2009

'Photogenic drawings'

Couldn't resist having a bit more of a play with making some high-tech versions of the Fox Talbot photogenic drawings. These are made from some pictures of the few plants that are still visible above the snow: trees, grass and seedheads of asters and Queen Anne's lace.

Black on white

Some lake-effect snow coming down this morning while the sun did its best to reach us. I've always liked the way that falling snow looks black against the sky. Not sure you'll be able to see it in this shot (unless you click on the picture for a closer look).

Thought I'd try turning the image into a negative to see if I could turn the snow white again:

I'm not sure that the snow is any easier to see, but I really like the effect made by the outlines of the trees. It reminds me of the early 'photogenic drawing process' images developed by William Fox Talbot in the 1830s (for an example see the lovely image of fern leaves in an online De Montfort University exhibit about the man). Will have to play with this option some more, I think...

25 January 2009

School lunch snack #3

Jam tartsYes!! Have managed to make sweet snacks for every school day in January. Now just have to keep that up for the rest of the year. This week the request was for jam tarts.

I once made jam tarts when I was a first-year student. I had jam and butter but no bread (of the yeast or financial varieties), and a desperate craving for something sweet to eat. Making jam tarts seemed like the obvious solution - even though the hall of residence kitchen only had one of those terrible little Baby Belling ovens. We had had a Christmas party which involved making mince pies, so I did have a bun tin to hand.

Jam tarts have never tasted as good as they did that night.

20 January 2009

Sunset through icicles

Raised beds (be VERY careful!)

Carol at May Dreams Gardens has written a great post on the subject of raised beds. I commented there briefly about my experience, but thought it might be worth blogging about it here, with some pictures to record what happened with mine (as a cautionary tale, too, perhaps).

We had a small easterly-facing back garden in Manchester (about 100 square metres/yards) which was really just a square of lawn with some shrubs around the edges and a small patio area. In 2005 (inspired by two allotment-owning co-workers) I decided to put a raised bed in the lawn near to the house as my first foray into vegetable-growing.

The frame was made from three eight-foot lengths of pressure-treated decking, screwed to four posts (the posts ended up shorter than they were in this picture). On 16 January 2005 I dug the grass up, put in the frame, added a big bag of compost, put the grass back in (upside down) and covered the whole thing with some heavy black plastic, weighted down, to stop weeds and to kill the grass. At the end of all that the bed looked like this:


Two months later, the covers were off and I was sowing my first vegetables. By the end of May the bed was looking full of green life and I was fully addicted to the process of growing food.


On New Year's Day 2006 the second raised bed was constructed.


This was not followed by a third bed in 2007 - because by then we were busily planning our move to Canada and weren't going to be in that house to gather in the harvest. I still couldn't resist planting seeds in the beds that year, though (more proof of my addiction). And yes, part of the motivation for our emigration was the chance of getting hold of a decent-sized plot of land for growing food without bankrupting ourselves.

As soon as we saw the new house in April, the potential of the barnyard as a vegetable plot became obvious and this blog records the progress we've made since we moved in here in June 2007. With ten large vegetable plots already established and plans for another one of those and three raised beds in the greenhouse this year, I find it a bit amazing that it was only four years ago that I started all this by digging out one little raised bed.

So, a warning might be in order. If your spouse suggests putting in a raised bed this year ("Just one dear, and it won't take up much space."), there is a danger that you might find yourself leaving your country a few years later to satisfy their insatiable hunger for more land for their crops. Be warned!!

19 January 2009

Monochrome


Twenty-four hours of snow have given us a very black-and-white sort of world, even when shooting colour photographs.


The sun did make a weak and watery appearance earlier this morning, but it didn't last for long.

18 January 2009

School lunch snack #2


Well, actually this is week 3 of school, but last week I made rice krispie squares (just melted marshmallows and butter with rice krispies stirred into them), which didn't really merit a post all to themselves. Although I am pleased to report that the children preferred them to the official Rice Krispie equivalent snack that we've bought in the past.

This week's snacks are cinnamon buns.

Ingredients

For the dough

1 pint warm milk (at body temperature)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg
2 teaspoons dried yeast
4-5 cups of flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon

For the filling

1 tablespoon butter
Cinnamon
Brown sugar

Mix the yeast, sugar and milk together. Stir in the egg and then add the cinnamon enough flour to make a dough that you (or your mixer/breadmaker) can knead. I used about four cups of white bread flour and one cup of wholewheat. Knead it for 5 minutes or so, then roll out the dough into a large rectangle, making sure there's enough flour on the work surface so that the dough won't stick to it later on. Actually, getting the dough into a rectangle isn't possible, but something vaguely resembling a rectangle is fine.

Melt the tablespoon of butter and brush it over the dough. Sprinkle cinnamon and brown sugar over the top of the butter. Here's how mine looked at that point:

Clearly not a rectangle!

Then you need to roll it up from one of the longer sides:


This gives you a long sausage-shape which you then need to slice up. I need 20 buns (one for each child for each meal break: they have two meal breaks a day, which seems odd to me but the school says it works well, so fair enough). To make it easier I cut the dough into four first, then each of the four into five buns. If you're into precision, you could measure them to make sure they're even, but I didn't bother.


Arrange the sliced buns into a greased tray or dish and leave them to rise in a warm room, until they're looking as though they've filled out a bit. This will depend on the temperature, so can take up to an hour. Here are mine before rising:


When you're happy with their size, put them into a pre-heated oven at 400°F/200°C/Gas Mark 6 for about 20-25 minutes. I gave mine a brush of milk and sprinkled them with some white sugar before baking them.

These will keep in an airtight container for the week. I'd put the container in the fridge if the weather was hot and humid. Not that I think that's going to be a problem this week...

Am I going to be able to keep this snack-making activity going into a fourth week of school? Watch this space...

16 January 2009

Making your vegetable patch pay

I'm starting to get excited about this year's vegetables. I already have some onion seeds in trays on the living room window sill and a tray of mixed lettuce seeds next to them. These will be transferred to the greenhouse once it warms up a bit. While browsing around trying to find out exactly how hardy onion seedlings are, Google took me to pages of the Vegetable Growing Handbook: Organic and Traditional Methods by Walter E. Splittstoesser. This book was published in 1990 and looks like an interesting read. For example, he shows a table of value ratings for particular vegetables, based on the space they occupy, their yields and their monetary value, on a scale of one to ten. This was developed by the US National Garden Bureau (no date given) from feedback given by expert home vegetable growers. I've reproduced the table here (click on it for a closer look):
So, to get the most value from your plot it's best to concentrate on the higher-rated vegetables, particularly if you're short of space. As long as you like them, that is. I also liked the mention of a study in Ohio which was published in the journal Horticultural Science in 1978 by Jim D. Utzinger and H. E. Connolly which calculated that...
...a garden of 150 sq ft produced enough vegetables to provide a return for labor of $1.08 per hr; and this value was calculated after all expenses, including depreciation on the garden tools, were deducted. Few leisure-time activities pay you for doing them.
I'd love to know what that $1.08 figure would be in today's money. I wonder whether vegetables more expensive, relatively speaking, now, than they were then, for example? Organically-grown ones certainly are.

15 January 2009

Fencicles

In a bit of an Arctic snap at the moment - the temperature hit a low of -24°C (-12°F) yesterday morning, which is the lowest we've experienced here. Or anywhere, for that matter! It's not too bad, as long as you wrap up warm. I don't much like the sensation of ice forming inside my nose though...


The sun is still managing to melt the snow on the metal roofs of the barns. It re-freezes almost immediately, creating these icicles on the cedar fence next to the small barn.

12 January 2009

Twin peaks

I mentioned that I missed seeing ancient buildings in an earlier post, but I don't want you to think that there is a complete dearth of attractive old buildings here. One of my favourite churches, for example, is the Wesley United Church at Mountain View, which was completed (at that time a Wesleyan Methodist church) in 1878.

It is tucked underneath the 'mountain' (actually a rocky hillside which is, geologically speaking, a gneissic inlier*). You get a glimpse of the church as you drive on Highway 62 from Belleville to Picton. It is unusual for Prince Edward County in that it has two steeples. I snapped it this afternoon as we drove past. The sun was about to be swallowed up by a grey bank of cloud, but it just caught the spires before it vanished.

Here's another picture of the church that I took last July. Just to remind myself that one day those naked trees will be dressed in green again.



*I suspect this might be interesting in itself, but I got lost in geology-speak when I tried to find out more.

POSTSCRIPT: See VP's great explanation of what a gneissic inlier is, in the comments!

09 January 2009

Falling off a cliff

One of the grown-ups' presents for Christmas was a second temperature transmitter for our weather station. This one is for the greenhouse, so that we can monitor the conditions in there. Spot the moment when Mike transferred it outside from the heat of the kitchen:


The lower line is the temperature outside the greenhouse.

08 January 2009

Crash and burn

Fascinating sunset this evening. Looked to me as though the sun was falling through the sky.

05 January 2009

School lunch snack #1

Scho-ol dinners, Scho-ol dinners,
Concrete chips, concrete chips,
Soggy semolina, soggy semolina,
Quick, quick, quick,
I feel sick.
This is what we sang when I was at school (to the tune of Frère Jacques). Ungrateful little brats, we must have been, as this was in the days when the women working in the school kitchens made proper food from scratch. It was pretty good, too - I have particular soft spots in my memory of egg-and-bacon pie and some sort of deep-fried cheesey thing (cheese aigrettes, perhaps?). The mashed potato was awful, though, and I've never been able to face liver-and-onions since.

Anyway, this nostalgic ramble into my childhood is bringing me to the point. It was back-to-school today for my kids and so, back into the packed-lunch routine. School dinners aren't an option here. I don't know if that is true for the whole of Canada, or even the rest of Ontario, but they certainly aren't on offer in this school. I know they got a bad rap in the UK after Jamie Oliver exposed the miserly methods of modern school kitchens (turkey twizzlers were something that my kids ate, I have to admit (covers her face in shame)). But for a full-time working parent, school dinners are wonderful things, particularly now that Jamie Oliver's campaign has started to improve the quality of the food.

Now, I absolutely hate making packed lunches, even though I'm not a full-time working-out-of-the-home mother any more. I also detest the pre-packaged school lunch items that the supermarkets sell. So one of my resolutions this year is to avoid buying the drink cartons and snacks that are on offer there and to make more cookies and cakes at home. Today snuck up on me a bit and I wasn't adequately prepared to face the challenge. Luckily, this classic snack is quick to make and I was able to whip some up before the children had to leave for the bus (though it doesn't come until 8.55am, so I do have more time than many...).


Ingredients
  • 70g chocolate (whatever type your kids (or you) prefer)
  • 70g butter
  • 1 tbsp syrup
  • Cornflakes (didn't weigh them, but quite a few!)

Melt butter, chocolate and syrup in a bowl over simmering water (or in the microwave). Stir in the cornflakes so that they are all coated with the chocolate mixture. Spoon the cornflakes into paper cake cases and put in the fridge to harden. By some fluke this made exactly 20 cakes - precisely enough for two each for each child for a week. So that's one lunch element sorted for this week, at least!

03 January 2009

Why I don't have chilblains this year

We didn't light the kitchen woodburner until January last year*, so I thought I'd compare the temperature recorded in the study for December last year to the December in 2007. (The study opens off the kitchen and is very close to the woodburning stove.) The difference is quite striking (the upper line is December 2008, the lower one December 2007):


We did turn on the old electric baseboard heater as December 2007 got colder, but even then the study was a couple of degrees colder than it was in 2008. There are clear peaks both year on Christmas Day - evidence of someone toiling over hot pans, perhaps!

*Not for reasons of masochism, I should point out, but because we had concerns over the safety of the stove. The January cold rather over-rode those fears...

01 January 2009

Coffee and cholesterol croissants

When the condensation starts freezing on the inside of the windows, in spite of the geothermal heating and the newness of the windows, you know it is cold outside. At 7.00am it was -18.4°C.


So a perfect morning to have warm croissants for breakfast.


I've never made croissants before, but I found a straight-forward-looking recipe for the croissants that used to be made by the pâtissiers on the SS France. I also discovered a fantastic video demonstration of how to make croissants by Esther McManus from an episode of 'Baking with Julia [Child]' on the PBS website. It's a two-day job, as you have to leave the dough to rest overnight after all the rolling, but the process isn't particularly difficult. There was enough dough for 32 croissants, so I made 16 regular croissants, 8 pains au chocolat and 8 almond croissants. I'd probably halve the recipe next time - as this is far too much for just the four of us (although they do seem to be vanishing fairly fast, I have to say).

Perhaps not the healthiest start to 2009...