Saturday, June 30, 2012

Soap box

Don't worry - I'm not about to start proclaiming or declaiming or exclaiming. I just want to tell you about the soap mold Kim made for me.

After a post-Christmas hiatus on soap-making, I geared up production again last week and tried making milk soap with goat's milk. My first batch (made with a recipe from here) wasn't so hot - it took forever to harden (after two days I sliced it anyway, but it was still too soft), it's greasy to the touch, and each slice has a dark centre, all of which sent me back to the Internet on a quest to figure out what happened. And here's what I learned.

The Gel Phase: this is something you either want to happen or you don't want to happen. It all depends on preference. More specifically, many people who make milk soaps don't want it to happen because they believe it makes the end product darker, and apparently light-coloured milk soap is something to be desired. Other people believe the quality of the end product is better if the soap does go through the gel phase. Which leaves beginners like me scratching our heads.

But here's what I figured out. If you want the gel phase to happen, you insulate the soap really well during the first 24 hours, to keep in the heat. That means wrapping it in blankets or towels and not peeking. If you don't want the gel phase you do the opposite: as soon as the soap is poured into your mold it goes into the fridge, if not the freezer. Those were the instructions I blindly followed with my first batch of milk soap, but apparently it was not enough, because that dark circle in the middle of each slice is a sign of a partial gel. And if there's something gel-lers and non-gel-lers agree on, it's that you don't want a partial gel.

So in my second batch I went for the gel phase and got a much better product. Yes, it's a touch darker in colour, but still a lovely creamy tan.

Super-Fatting: even though this makes me think of my arthritis-is-flaring-and-I'm-too-sore-to-exercise physique, what I'm really referring to is a component of the calculations that go into a soap recipe. Most beginner soap makers follow someone else's recipe, but at some point you may want to experiment with a different combination of oils, or be forced to experiment because you run out of one oil or another. That's when a soap calculator comes in: you enter the amounts of each of the oils you are using and the calculator tells you how much lye and how much water you'll need. (You can find a reliable soap calculator here.)

But there's another input to the calculation, and it has to do with how much oil you want left in the soap not taken up by the lye in the saponification process. If you are making a nourishing facial soap you will want a higher superfat number (more oil left) than if you are making a laundry soap. When I got an unpleasantly greasy first batch of milk soap I wondered if the superfat percentage was off in the recipe because of the fat in the milk. It turns out that a standard superfat percentage for soap is 5%, but for milk soap it should be 3%. Sure enough, when I ran the recipe I had used through the calculator with a superfat of 3%, the calculator called for a greater amount of lye than I had used in the first batch. I adjusted it for the second batch and got a much better product.

But wait...wasn't this post supposed to be about a soap box?

Until last week I had been using assorted found objects as molds - milk cartons, plastic trays, silicon muffin cups - because I found the commercial molds available all over the Internet way, way too expensive. Many of them are fairly simple boxes made of wood. And who do I know who likes making things with wood? Kim, of course.

Here is my lovely soap box. It's made from scraps of cedar, with a top that helps insulate the soap as it hardens, but which lifts off easily.

With a lining of parchment paper...

...and a removable front, it's a breeze to slide out the hardened block of soap for cutting.

Kim constructed the box to my specifications, but I think I got the proportions a little wrong - the bars of soap are a bit too wide to fit comfortably in the hand. Luckily for me Kim's game to make me another one!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Morning harvest

This is what came out of the garden this morning: two heads of Bambi lettuce, the first bunch of new carrots, the first bulb of fennel, the first batch of snap peas, a baby bok choy, two small heads of broccoli, some spinach, and some Chinese stir-fry greens. And a handful of calendula and chamomile blossoms. I feel rich!

And if you're sharp eyed you might have spotted the kale hiding behind the bok choy. I am actually eating kale, and sort of enjoying it, chopped beyond all recognition and disguised among the other greens in my almost daily stir fry. I haven't been quite brave enough to try one of the recipes all of you have suggested - the recipes where kale stands proudly as kale - but I'm working up to it.

Really. I promise.  

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Feta update

It's good! It's really good!

If I sound surprised, it's because I am. Our jar of home-made feta has been hiding out in the fridge in its brine for the last three weeks, waiting for us to muster enough courage to eat it - I was really worried this was going to be one of those interesting sounding experiments that turn out badly. But this morning, as Kim was looking for things to add to her scrambled eggs, it finally seemed like the right time to have a taste. So we took the jar out of the fridge, held it up to the light, opened it, smelled it. It looked right and it smelled right, and when we finally tasted it, it was briny and creamy and intense, just like feta should taste.

Success! Now the problem will be rationing our $28 feta so it doesn't all get eaten today.

As a side note, just look at that breakfast: home grown eggs, strawberries and greens, and feta from our newly initiated kitchen dairy. No, the bread's not home-made, but this plate still gives me a happy sense of accomplishment.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Chicken coop renovations, Part 53

Kim loves her chickens. You know that, I know that, everyone in a 20 mile radius knows that. She loves them for their personalities, and for their interesting social structures and psychologies. But most of all (I suspect) she loves them because they give her an opportunity to build things.

In the two years we've had a flock at Mucky Boots, Kim has built internal walls inside the coop, built new nest boxes, built a chicken tractor and then a chicken yurt, built chicken doors and chicken fences, and built Chicken Alley as a way of getting the chickens from coop to orchard without trashing my vegetable garden along the way. She has built moveable roosts and fixed roosts, gates and brooder boxes, and then when we transformed the tool shed into Coop #2 she got to do much of the above all over again. As Kim often says, one of the great things about chickens is that if you build them something, they use it. (For a brief but thrilling history of chicken building at Mucky Boots, go here.)

Once she saturated the market here at Mucky Boots, she began to look farther afield, and so she started building nest boxes for other people and selling them at chicken swaps all over southern Vancouver Island. And that was great, until one fellow came up to admire the boxes and ask about their construction, and then said that he had been experimenting with nest boxes mounted on the exterior of the coop, to free up space inside the coop and to make egg collection easier.

I was standing there as he said it, and a little voice inside my head said "Oh, no." And sure enough, pretty much as soon as we got home Kim began working on a design for an exterior box for Coop #2.

There were some technical problems to consider, like how to keep the overhanging roof of the boxes from getting in the way of the drop-down doors, how to best protect the boxes from the elements, and how to organize the construction and box swap with minimal disruption to the poor hens just trying to lay an egg. But this weekend the old boxes came out and the new ones went on, and don't they just look lovely.

It is a five-part nest box, with three comfy spots for hens in Coop #2-A and two for those in Coop #2-B. This photo shows the internal dividers, and the holes Kim cut in wall of the coop. The box itself was built with scrap lumber (my honey is a thrifty one), with only the door hardware purchased.

All the egg collector needs to do is walk around to the back of the coop, unlatch the door and drop it down, and voila, there are the eggs, right at eye level just waiting to be collected.

Here is the view from the inside (Coop #2, Enclosure B)...

...and the finished product, complete with roof.

These new arrangements are taking some getting used to for the hens doing the laying. Just imagine, there you are, nestled in a cosy nest box laying an egg, when all of a sudden the wall behind you disappears, leaving you open to view. There have been some indignant squawks emanating from the back of Coop #2 today...

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Dust bath

If you wandered over to Mucky Boots today you might be excused for thinking there is some kind of archaeological dig going on, or maybe a hunt for buried treasure. Because everywhere you look there are excavated hollows, with all the vegetation in a two foot radius coated in dry dirt. But no, it's just dust bath season.

Chickens like nothing better than scratching out a chicken-body-sized hollow in the ground and then wallowing and flapping in the dry dirt. They work the dust deep into their feathers, to help keep them clean, dry and in good condition, and to discourage any pests from taking up residence. The entertainment factor for human spectators is purely incidental. (Go ahead, click on that link!)

The birds at Mucky Boots, always keen to excel at their chickenly duties, take their dust baths seriously. Hector and his hens staked out the orchard as their preferred location which, happily for me, meant that the job of weeding around the trees was done for me. 

In fact, the base of a tree seems to be one of the preferred sites for dust bathing - that and the sunny side of the workshop, all along the foundation.There has been so much excavation around the roots of two of the big cedar trees near the workshop that I began to wonder if the chickens could undercut the roots enough to make the trees unstable. But I suspect that's just my natural ability to find things to worry about talking...

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


What does the name "Bambi" bring to your mind? Probably a baby deer or a starlet, am I right?

Not me. Not any more. These days Bambi is my favourite salad green, beating out my old standby Anuenue hands down. Bambi is a gem romaine, which means it's the cutest bundle of crisp, dark green, tasty leaves you've ever held in your hand. The fully-grown heads are grapefruit-sized, and make a generous salad for one, and they're the best thing I have grown, as far as I'm concerned. And since I'm someone who doesn't naturally gravitate to lettuce salads, that's saying something.

We first had gem romaine at the Genoa Bay Cafe in a deconstructed Caesar salad, with the individual leaves stacked log-cabin style on the plate. I tracked down the seeds at Johnny's over the winter, and started them in the greenhouse in early March. We're eating it as fast as I can grow it - I'm on my third planting, and can see many more in my future.

Our local bunny is a fan, too. I'm thinking that once I plug all the holes in the fence he's using to make his way into the inner sanctum of the vegetable garden, I'm going to have to plant a little patch of Bambi in the pasture just for him. A bunny and his Bambi. It could be a movie...

Sunday, June 10, 2012

New kid

There's a new kid in the Mucky Boots flock, and it ain't a chicken. It's a rabbit. 

We first spotted it a couple of weeks ago, hanging out in the back pasture where the chicken tractor and chicken yurt are, and now we see it every day. Just a regular rabbit, but it doesn't seem afraid of either us or the grown-up chickens wandering around very close by. Gump and his flock cruise around the pasture eating grass and bugs, and there's the rabbit right beside them, nibbling back dandelion stems like pasta strands. Does s/he think s/he just blends in?

We're charmed, even though the little bugger has found a way into my vegetable garden and is helping itself to my lettuce...

...but we're also a little concerned, because Miss Comfort Queen herself, Petunia the cat, is an expert and somewhat bloodthirsty rabbit hunter. We know this because a few times a year she leaves the bottom half of one on the door mat. (Yes, the bottom half - neatly severed at the waist line, and no, we don't know what she is doing with the top half. Perhaps that's where the tastiest bits are.) We love our Petunia, and want her to live out her kitty destiny, but we'd rather she left this particular rabbit alone.

Come to think of it, Petunia gives the adult chickens a wide berth - after all, most of them are bigger than she is. So maybe our rabbit is hanging out with the chickens for a little protection.

What a smart rabbit.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Just for Jean

What's that growing in my garden? No, you are not seeing things. That's kale.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you probably know I don't like kale. I have tried really, really hard, but I really, really don't like it.

My friend Jean, on the other hand, loves kale and thinks I should too, because it's so darn good for me. She's right, of course, and when I read that my go-to greens (spinach and chard) contain enough oxalic acid to add to my struggle with arthritis, I knew it was time to get over whatever feelings I may have about kale and just start eating the darn stuff.

So now there are two lovely rows of kale in my garden - Red Russian and Lacinto - and here is a photo, just for Jean.

And now I need some good ideas. What's your favourite way to eat kale?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Do you know this flower? It's an annual, which means I normally wouldn't look at it twice (I'm all about perennials, you know) but it caught my eye a couple of years ago on a trip to the Butchart Gardens. It was used in the planters that decorate the top of every garbage receptacle (only at Butchart would the waste bins be horticultural works of art) and I fell in love. What a colour!

So this winter, when I was trying to inject a little whimsy in my oh-so-practical planting list, I added cerinthe to my seed order. I was imagining the small, trailing version I saw at the gardens, so I didn't read the description very carefully. Imagine my surprise when my little seedlings grew, and grew, and grew. They're about 18" high at this point, which makes the container I planted them in completely unsuitable, but once they started to flower I didn't care. 

These flowers could make me not care about a lot of things. It probably sounds ridiculous, but somehow most items on my list of things to worry about just fade into the background, when I have these blooming on my porch.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...