It had a good run, but I’m calling it

Long time followers will remember that I made my own laundry soap about a year ago. I’ve modified it here and there over the past year, and even switched to a powdered version around 6 months ago. It’s worked well for me, and I’ve been generally pleased with the results. I like knowing exactly what’s in it (my eczema/dermatitis has all but disappeared over the last year), and I really enjoy knowing that I made it myself (I’m weird like that). And the best part? It costs only pennies per load.

However, there have been some drawbacks. Because it’s made with soap rather than a high-powered chemical detergent, it does a good job of cleaning day-to-day laundry but has trouble with bigger stains. And, as a parent of small children, that’s kind of a problem.

Another issue? We have hard water. Really hard water. Hard water impedes the cleaning power of soap, and makes it more difficult to rinse out completely. While not a problem at first, you can definitely tell on some items (like towels) that there has been a bit of mineral buildup over the past year.

So what’s the verdict? It had a good run, but I’m admitting defeat on this one. While I still believe that my laundry soap works, it just can’t handle the stains and messes that my family creates. When the kids are older, and if we ever get a water softener, I’ll give it another go.

So goodbye, homemade. We had a good run, and I’m sorry to see you go. Hello Tide Free and Gentle, clean(er) laundry…and itchiness, but that’s a topic for another day.

If you want to try it out for yourself, here’s my (new and improved) recipe:

  • 4 oz laundry soap
  • 16 oz baking soda
  • 16 oz borax
  • 12 oz washing soda
  • 12 oz oxyboost
  • essential oil(s) of your choice (optional)

They sell laundry soap in your detergent aisle next to the borax, or you can be a weirdo like me and whip up a batch of 0% superfat coconut oil soap. It’s extremely drying, and I wouldn’t recommend it for washing your body or hair, but it does an awesome job of cleaning up messes of all kinds.

Grate your soap (I use my food processor, and it’s done in a flash), and combine it with everything except the essential oils. Using your food processor or blender, blend up 1-2 cups of the mixture at a time until you’ve gone through the entire batch. I like to add in around 3 drops of essential oil per cup of laundry soap mixture. Lavender smells nice, and mint smells clean – I like to combine them for this recipe. When blending, we’re looking for a nice powdery consistency. Give it a minute to settle after each batch is blended before opening the food processor (nobody wants a cloud of borax and baking soda exploding in their face).

That’s it! Use around 1 tbsp for small loads, and up to 4 tbsp for bigger or dirtier loads. As previously stated, this recipe works really well if your laundry is generally stain free and your water isn’t too hard.

DIY instant oatmeal packets

So I know it’s summer, and it’s hot as all get out right now, but school is fast approaching (or has already arrived for some of you) and it’s always nice to have something fast and easy ready for breakfast. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, and it’s so quick and easy. I actually prefer it to the instant oatmeal packets you can buy at the store. “But Casey, it only takes like 5 minutes to cook oatmeal on the stove. Why go through the extra steps of making individually portioned packets?” Oh, hush. It may only take 5 minutes for oatmeal to cook, but you still have to assemble your ingredients (if you’re not putting anything in your oatmeal shame on you), and then you have to clean a pot.

I’m a fan of these things because they’re portable (all you need is a microwavable bowl or mug and a spoon), they’re quick, and they’re delicious. You can customize them to no end. They can have more or less sugar (whatever your preference is), and you can add in extra bits of whatever (flax, chia seeds, wheat germ, protein powder, etc) to make it even healthier if you’re so inclined.

I recommend setting up an assembly line to make things faster. This is something that kids can help with too! And if they help make it, they might actually eat it.

Instant Oatmeal Packets

  • 1/2 cup instant oats
  • 2 -4 tsp “healthy stuff” (chia seeds, flax seeds, etc)
  • 2 tsp dried milk (this is optional, but delicious)
  • 1 -3 tsp dried sweetener (brown sugar, granulated sugar, vanilla sugar, maple sugar, etc)
  • a pinch of salt
  • add-ins of choice (around 3 tbsp total is usually reasonable)

So what kinds of add-ins should you use? I’m a big fan of fruit and nut combinations, but I’ve also used chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, etc – just use a pinch, or it’s too overpowering) and coconut. If you use fruit, make sure it’s DRIED fruit of some kind. Make sure everything is chopped up into bite-sized pieces. Nobody wants to crunch down on a whole almond in their oatmeal (unless you do – you do you I guess).

My favorite combinations:

  • cranberry almond
  • chocolate walnut (chocolate chips)
  • cinnamon apple
  • coconut almond
  • caramel apple (butterscotch chips are the “caramel” here)
  • cinnamon raisin

Everything fits nicely in one of those snack-sized plastic bags. Or, if you’re opposed to plastic, you can make your own packets out of wax paper or parchment paper. Fold a piece of parchment in half, and then fold up the edges a couple of times to make a pocket (staple it to make sure it stays folded up). After you’ve filled the pocket, fold the top down a couple of times and secure it with another staple. Easy peasy.

To cook it, just add some water or milk (around 1/2 – 2/3 cup, but I don’t usually measure it) and microwave for 1-2 minutes. Delicious.

Dishwasher detergent, part 3

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that I made my own dishwasher tabs 4 months ago and have been using them ever since. Initially, I was very happy with them. They got everything reasonably clean (I’m not good about rinsing my dishes before they go in, so they missed the occasional bit of dried on gunk), they smelled nice, and they were dirt cheap. Forward to about a month ago, and I realized I needed to change something. Let me preface this by saying that we have hard water. Like, really hard water. Everything was still getting “clean,” in that the food was coming off them, but the hard water was starting to leave a film on my dishes that became more noticeable with every wash. That made me so, so sad. Sure, I could have gone back to the store bought stuff, but I don’t really do that.

So I decided to go back to the drawing board. I googled, I researched, and I experimented. I finally ended up with a recipe for dishwasher tabs that I’m really, really happy with. I think you’ll like it too! The downside? It’s no longer ok to let your kids lick them. So unfortunate, I know.

And so, without further ado, my new recipe:

New and Improved Dishwasher Tabs

Makes approx 5 dozen tabs (sure, you could scale this back, but I find it easier to make big batches of things less often)

  • 2 c. washing soda
  • 1 c. oxyboost oxygen bleach (no it’s not actually bleach, but it does pack some serious cleaning power)
  • 1 c. baking soda
  • 1 c. citric acid
  • 1 c. salt
  • 30 drops lavender essential oil
  • 30 drops tea tree oil
  • 2-4 tbsp water

The essential oils are optional, but they do appear to have some disinfectant properties (and they smell nice, too). It appears that you can add or replace one of the oils I’ve used with lemon essential oil and have good results as well, but I haven’t tried it myself.

Mix everything except the water in a large bowl, and slowly dribble in the water while stirring. Only put in 1 tbsp at a time (or use a spray bottle), and mix well to combine. You’re going for a wet sand consistency. You want it to JUST hold its shape when you squeeze it with your hands. When you have the right moisture level, fill your molds (egg cartons are perfect here), pack them tight, and let them harden for a day or two. Voila! Clean dishes.

Want to try it for yourself? It’s easy, and you totally should. Washing soda, baking soda and salt are all going to be cheaper at Walmart than you’ll ever find online, but these are the Amazon links for the oxyboost and citric acid I use (making a purchase using these links will earn me a small commission at no extra charge to you).

If you’re not into making stuff (what’s wrong with you?), head on over to my store and buy the finished product instead! You can even tell people you made it yourself – I won’t tell anybody.

Wine making 101

Wine making sounds intimidating. If you go to a store where they sell brewing and wine making equipment, it seems even more complicated than you originally thought. It makes you wonder: How did they make wine before all the fancy-pants equipment and ingredients became available? Easy. The trick is finding fruit that has NOT been treated with any chemicals or pesticides (easier said than done if you usually go to the grocery store for your produce). Fruits you’ve grown yourself or get from a friend’s yard are the best way to go. Commercially grown organic fruit might work, but I haven’t tried it myself. And you need something that has NOT been washed. Read on to find out why!

The absolute easiest way to make wine is:

  • Mash fruit
  • Add sugar (and water if needed)
  • Stir vigorously several times per day
  • When the bubbling slows, strain your liquid and put it in a carboy
  • Wait.
  • Wine!

Sounds simple, right? It is! Obviously things can go wrong, but things can go wrong making wine the “normal” way, and that costs an insane amount of money to get everything you “need.” I bought a 2 gallon plastic bucket, a 1 gallon glass jug (called a carboy), and a short length of tubing to siphon it into my wine bottles when it’s done. I spent under $10, and can make as much wine as I want. No extra ingredients to buy, no fancy chemicals needed.

Mash up your fruit in a clean, food-grade bucket. Get in there with your hands, and really squeeze. Grapes and cherries are what I’ve used so far, and squishing them in your hands is….strangely satisfying, a little slimy, and a lot of fun. You want to crush up every. single. piece. Anything left whole isn’t going to add anything to your wine. You can technically use any fruit that’s juicy (so no, you can’t make banana wine this way – I don’t know why you’d want to, but don’t). Apples, all kinds of berries, cherries, grapes, you name it. You can even combine a few different types of fruits to make a more interesting wine. I haven’t made apple wine myself, but I’d imagine you’d smash them up with a hammer or meat mallet or something. Just make sure you crush them up really well, and don’t lose any of the juice! In this picture, I’m squishing up cherries. The pits are kind of pointy, but it’s fun to make them all go POP. And a little messy. There was splatter.

Washing your fruit is a BIG no-no in this instance. Weird, I know, but we’re trying to grow some wild yeast here. Yeast lives on the outside of pretty much all fruits (and everything else, for that matter). Yeast needs liquid and carbs (sugar) to really thrive. And what does yeast produce when you keep it happy with a lot of sugar? Alcohol. It’s like magic. Feed the yeast, keep them happy, and they’ll make you some wine as a thank you present. Isn’t that nice of them?

After you’ve thoroughly mashed your fruit in a bucket, you may need to add some water. You don’t need much if your fruit was extra juicy, but if you’ve got something that’s a thicker consistency you’re going to want to thin it down a bit. Use distilled or filtered water if you can. Tap water contains an unknown (to you) amount of chlorine, and chlorine kills stuff. Good for keeping your water bacteria-free, bad for keeping your yeast happy.

Next, you’ll want to add in some sugar. Honey is an excellent choice, because it takes the yeast a little longer to eat. This means that your wine will have a longer time to develop its flavors. Regular granular sugar can also be used, and it is consumed really quickly by the yeast to get a good fermentation right away. Because honey is expensive, I usually use some of each. But how much sugar should you add? I have literally no idea. Wing it. I have a 2 gallon bucket, which I fill about 2/3 full with fruit and water. For my latest batch of cherry wine (currently in the bucket phase), I added maybe 1/2 cup of honey and… I don’t know…. like… 2.5-3 cups of granular sugar? Hard to say, because I kind of just kept going until I felt good about it.

The reason you can’t give an exact amount here is because it depends on too many factors. If you use a really sweet fruit (like very ripe concord grapes or strawberries), you don’t need a ton of sugar because it’s sweet to begin with. If you use something without much sugar in it (like my super sour cherries), then you’ll need more sugar. Don’t worry too much about adding too much or not enough sugar. You can always add more if it doesn’t seem like it’s doing much in a couple of days (which is what I wound up doing with this batch). Or, if you go a little sugar crazy and wind up with wine that’s way too sweet for your taste, add some vodka to it or something. I’m sure that’ll make it better (possibly not, but it couldn’t hurt, right?). What I’m trying to say here is that it’s fun to experiment. We’re not going for top quality wine here. If we wanted that, we’d spend a couple hundred dollars to get the fancy pants ingredients, special yeast, and weird chemicals that do I don’t even know what. This way is more fun.

After you have it all mixed together, you’re going to want to let it sit. I currently have my 2 gallon bucket sitting underneath an upturned water-bath canner (it’s basically just a giant pot). You want to keep the bugs out (this stuff is a fruit fly magnet), but you don’t want it airtight because that yeast is going to be releasing a LOT of gas in the early stages and it’ll blow the lid off anything you put on it. Plastic wrap with holes punched in it covered with a thin towel might work. I’ve used a plate to cover the bucket before, and that worked pretty well too.This picture is last year’s grape wine after the second day in the bucket. You’ll note that there are a few bubbles, and some of the fruit is bobbing toward the surface.

For the first few days, you’re going to want to stir this mixture pretty vigorously. We want the yeast to take over before mold has a chance to get a foothold. Stir it several times per day at first. In the beginning, the fruit usually sinks to the bottom and you’ve got juice at the top. After a few days, you’ll notice that your fruit is floating and looks weird. It starts floating because yeast is filling the fruit with gas. That’s a good thing. It’ll also start to smell a little boozy. That’s a very good thing. It’s going to look disgusting, though. In a good way. I really wouldn’t worry about it. This picture is of my current batch of cherry wine (I know, I know, I’m confusing you by showing pictures of different fruits. Just go with it).

This is on day…. 4? 5? I don’t really remember. I added more sugar after day 3 because it wasn’t doing anything. It took off pretty quickly after that. You’ll notice at this stage that there are a TON of bubbles just under the surface. Vigorous stirring will make those bubbles go a little crazy. It’s like you’re stirring a weird bucket of soda or something.

This is so exciting! As it keeps going, it’ll get cloudy. This is the yeast. That’s also a good thing. Once the bubbling slows down (meaning it doesn’t look like this every time you stir it), you can move it over to a carboy. Strain the fruit out, and get it into the bottle using a funnel or something. There is actual equipment that makes it easy, but I don’t like to do things the easy way. A fine mesh colander will get the fruit out of the way, and then you can use a short length of tubing (you really will want that for bottling at the end, so you might as well get it now) to get it from your bowl or whatever into your carboy. I keep using that word. Carboy. If you’re not familiar, it’s like what they sell apple cider in around the holidays. Just a big glass bottle. A 1 gallon bottle is perfect for our purposes (I have more than a gallon in my current bucket, but the fruit will take away a lot of volume when it’s strained out). You can buy them online or at a local brewing store. (Though if you buy one by clicking this link, I’ll get a small commission and you can help support my weird hobbies).

Once you move the mixture over to the carboy, the yeast will still be working at turning the sugar into alcohol. They’ll still be releasing gas, too. This means that you can’t put a lid or stopper on the bottle. They sell these things that are like one-way valves that fit in a stopper for a carboy, but that means buying something (yes, they’re inexpensive, but still). Instead, I use a balloon. Just pop your balloon on top of the jug and watch your yeast blow it up. It’s fun! And it gives the yeast a real purpose. Makes them work a little harder, because they can see results. That last part probably wasn’t true.

Again, this is last year’s batch of grape wine. You see how it’s super cloudy? That means it’s nice and yeasty, which means that it’s going to be good and boozy. But in a classy, winey way.

Put your soon-to-be-wine in a cool, dark spot of the house. A sunny window upstairs is a bad spot. We’re cultivating a fungus here, not growing a plant (sounds gross when you think of it that way, doesn’t it? Don’t even worry about it). Check on it periodically. Let the air out of the balloon. When it stops blowing up the balloon and the liquid is clear (which will likely take about a month, give or take), that means that your yeast is all dead. Congratulations! The yeast has created so much alcohol that it’s killed them all. What a way to go, right?

Now you can siphon off the finished wine into bottles. Try not to jiggle it too much (there will be a thick layer of dead yeast at the bottom – if you can’t stand the gross get out of the … wine… cellar? I don’t even know). If you need to bring it to another room so as to not make a mess while bottling it, I’d probably let it sit for a day or two on the counter to let the sediment settle down again. Use a short length of plastic tubing to suck it out of the carboy and empty it into a bottle (literally, suck it up like a straw, and let gravity pull it into the bottles). Just don’t let the end of the tube get too close to the muck at the bottom. You don’t want that in your wine. They make these neat little clips to stop the flow of liquid through your tubing so you don’t get wine all over everything when switching the hose to another bottle, but the children lost mine the same day I got it, so I only lost about a half a bottle of wine on the floor when I did this last time. Cork it if you want, but I didn’t want to bother with a big cork thing because it seemed too complicated. I use bottle caps like what you’d put on a beer bottle. It’s cheaper and easier than buying corks and whatever you call that cork-squeezing-and-inserting-into-the-bottle-doohicky. This means that there will be no air exchange through the cork, meaning that the flavor won’t change over time. So it won’t get better with age, but it won’t get worse either. It’s wine. Drink it. You’re welcome.

 

DIY vanilla extract

Looking for something that’s easy to make, and incredibly useful? Look no further! Vanilla extract is right up there at the top of the list of things I’ll never buy again. REAL vanilla extract is incredibly flavorful. So much better than the cheap artificial stuff I was buying before. Apparently, if you want to get all technical about it, artificial vanilla is made using only artificial vanillin derived from wood pulp (gross), where as real vanilla extract contains several hundred additional flavor compounds that give it a complex, deep flavor. It smells good, too – I’d wear it as perfume, but it would make me smell like a cupcake and I don’t want that (while I do want to smell like a cupcake, I don’t want to be craving cupcakes all day). And, fun bonus, it makes a great gift. But no, I can’t make it for you. Apparently that’s illegal unless I want to get a Food Processor license and prepare it in a commercial kitchen (no thank you).

So how, exactly, do you make vanilla extract? It’s likely the easiest thing I’ll ever tell you how to make. Put vanilla beans in vodka and let it sit for at least a month. THAT’S. IT.

There are 2 kinds of vanilla beans (well, for our purposes anyway). Grade A beans are the kind that you see fancy-pants chefs using. You can slice them down the middle and use the back of a knife to scoop out the innards. They’re flavorful, moist, supple, and expensive as all get out. And you do NOT use them for vanilla extract. That would be like putting grapes in trail mix. Sure, you COULD do it, but it’s weird, a waste of grapes, and that’s what raisins are for.

Grade B beans are what we’re looking for when making vanilla extract. They’re much drier, difficult to bend, highly concentrated, and next to impossible to cut down the middle like you would a Grade A bean (at least not without losing a finger). The most common varieties are Madagascar, Bourbon and Tahitian beans. I’ve heard that Tahitian beans are slightly sweeter and a little more floral, but I haven’t noticed a big difference (I buy whatever’s cheapest on Amazon at the time). Speaking of which, the vanilla market is extremely volatile and prices can vary dramatically. Keep an eye out for a good deal.

The second ingredient required is alcohol. We’re looking for something with no flavor to it, because we ONLY want to taste the amazingness that is pure, concentrated vanilla. It’s a thing of beauty. Seriously. This means we want CHEAP vodka. I mean that. You want the cheapest vodka you can find. Cheap vodka is disgusting, because it’s basically just alcohol. As the liquor store guy said when I bought it, “That’ll rot your insides.” Perfect. We are going for a high percentage of flavorless alcohol.

Once you have your ingredients, put them together. Beans should be cut into approximately 1″ long pieces. No need to slice them down the middle. It’s pointless for our purposes, and you WILL cut yourself. How many beans should you use? This is the only bit that requires a bit of precision. Legally, you’re required to use about an ounce of beans for every 8 ounces of alcohol for it to be considered actual vanilla extract. I can’t give an exact number of beans to achieve that weight, because they can vary quite a bit in length. I use a kitchen scale, and aim for 15 grams of beans (1/2 ounce) to put in the ADORABLE 4 ounce bottles I have. Can you use less than that? Sure. But then it’s not vanilla extract, it’s just vanilla flavored vodka. Can you use more? I guess, but vanilla beans aren’t the cheapest thing in the world and the alcohol can only soak up so much vanilla. You can also just add a ton of beans to a full bottle of vodka.

Once everything is together, let it sit for a month. It should be shaken periodically (daily is recommended, but I have the worst memory in the world so it winds up being closer to once a week or so). I leave the beans in the bottle until it’s all gone, and shake before I use it each time. When the extract is gone, pop the used up vanilla beans in a small container of sugar and let THAT sit for a while. Again, shake it periodically. It makes a fantastic vanilla sugar that’s just delightful for rolling cookies in, and for sweetening drinks. After that, the beans are pretty useless and can be thrown away.

How easy is that? No excuses now. And yes, I know it’s a little pricey, but if you combine it with a couple of cookie cutters or some cute cupcake liners it would make an awesome Christmas present. Just sayin’. Go try it!

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links – if you purchase the products shown using my links, I may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

Beeswax wraps: easy, but messy

So making food is awesome and all, but what do you do with the leftovers (or with things that need to spend some time in the fridge)? Plastic wrap? Aluminum foil? Plastic sandwich baggies? I’ve been eyeing these beeswax wraps for a while now as a natural, reusable alternative to plastic wrap, but they’re hella expensive.

As it turns out, they’re super easy to make! It sticks to metal, plastic, glass, and even itself (I hear you can fold them to make little snack or sandwich bags, or wrap fruit or vegetables with it…I’ll let you know how it works out). And, as it just so happens, I had this adorable bee print fabric that’s been waiting for the right project to come along. (And some homemade coleslaw that needed to be covered)

There are a bunch of recipes and methods floating around out there, but this is what I did and it worked out beautifully. You want to use a thin fabric for this. Something about the thickness of a bed sheet would do nicely. Cotton is ideal. This recipe was enough for me to make (with a little extra):

2 12″x12″ squares

1 10″x10″ square

1 8″x8″ square

Beeswax reusable wraps

5 tbsp beeswax pellets

4 tbsp pine resin powder (if you don’t tap, crystallize and grind your own pine resin into a fine powder, store bought is fine)

1 tbsp jojoba oil

Line a baking sheet with foil or parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Put the ingredients in a glass bowl and melt together either in a double boiler or microwave. Using a cheap brush (this stuff won’t wash out, so get a brush dedicated for making wraps or buy a cheap one to throw out afterward), paint the liquid onto your pre-cut cloth (make sure to do this on your lined baking sheet – this stuff is messy). Get the edges really well so they don’t unravel (sewing isn’t needed if you wax it properly – if you have pinking shears to cut the edges, even better). You don’t need to gob it on, we just want enough so it’ll melt into the fabric once it goes in the oven. Periodically reheat the mixture in your bowl if it starts to solidify. Bake wraps for 10 minutes. When they come out of the oven, pick them up (I was able to use my hands, but they were definitely toasty) and wave them around to harden the wax. The end result is a little tacky, but not actually sticky. I hear the tackiness mellows out over time.

That’s it! Easy peasy. Heads up, though. This stuff is hard to wash out of the bowl. It’s easiest to melt the wax again and then wipe it out with a paper towel. Boiling water (via the microwave) took care of the rest for me.

To use the wraps, just press them wherever you want them to go. Hold them in place for a second for the wax to melt a bit and they’ll hold their shape better. If they get dirty, wash by hand with soap and cool water (hot water will melt the wax and you’ll have quite a mess). Because they need to be washed with cool water, don’t use them to wrap raw meat.

So that’s it! If you want to try it yourself, check out these links (if you purchase anything I’ve linked in this post, I’ll earn a small percentage of the sale at no extra charge to you). Or, if you don’t need a pound of pine resin (Seriously, WTF, why isn’t it available in a smaller size? Now I need to find other things to make with pine resin), I can make it for you! Let me know in the comments (or email me at [email protected]) with what sized wraps you’d be interested in and I’ll post them for sale in my store! Prices are TBD, but check the store for more info soon.