learning

In Search of Homemade Bread

For many years now I have been trying to provide my family with homemade bread. The stuff from the grocery store is full of preservatives and highly processed ingredients, and wholesome artisan bread is too expensive for the amount we go through each week. Years ago I purchased a breadmaking machine and enjoyed using that for some time. The down side was that it took 3.5 to 4 hours to make a small loaf of bread. Theoretically I’d set it up at night before going to bed, but that didn’t always work out as planned. I’d be too tired and forget. Or, I’d get woken up in the early morning hours by the grinding noise of the breadmaker (life in a small home). Several months ago my breadmaker finally broke when I attempted to make spelt bread. The recipe I was using was obviously faulty and the resulting dough was more like cement. It was so hard to churn that the metal spokes that turned the rotor of the bread machine actually tore off! I decided it was time to try my hand at making it myself.

My next venture was into the Five Minutes a Day breadmaking made popular by the authors’ two books. I tried a basic recipe of theirs from an article in Mother Earth News and decided this was the answer I needed, so I ordered the two books and went out to buy loaf pans. At first I was really happy with the technique: it was easy to mix up a big batch and it didn’t take too long to make bread. I assumed I’d get better with practice, and so tolerated the frequent mistakes. But it didn’t seem to get any easier and eventually the list of “cons” outweighed the “pros”. My kids complained that the bread “tasted funny” and refused to eat it. Even I grew tired of the yeasty smell and taste. The whole schtick behind these books is you get that “sourdough” type flavour with this technique. I like sourdough bread, but not in every loaf I make, and I found the flavour overwhelming in these recipes. I eventually found out that I could cut the yeast way down, which went a long way to getting rid of the taste, but then it also took a lot longer to make the initial batch of bread. Then there was the fact that I didn’t have enough room in my fridge to store the dough (which you make in large batches). I also could not get consistent loaves no matter how often I practiced. One day the loaf would have a good “crumb” (the texture of the inside of the loaf) and the next it would be gooey, hard, or unevenly cooked. The crusts were never soft, even in the soft-crust recipes, and the loaves cooked unevenly. This latter issue is definitely a problem with my ancient oven, but that’s what I’m stuck with right now. I got tired of the kids rejecting my loaves, and of wasting so much good organic flour (the pigs enjoyed it all very much, of course). I stopped trying and we went back to cheap, store-bought bread.

After taking a suitable break from my Five Minutes a Day failure, I felt ready to try my hand at real, old-fashioned breadmaking. The kind where you actually knead the dough. In all my years of making bread I’d never actually done this before, and felt it was time to give it a try. I surfed through YouTube to get some ideas and inspiration. It felt a lot like Googling “gardening” – way too much information and everybody seems to do it differently. I found it rather confusing and overwhelming. One person swore by using a yeast “sponge” rather than proofing yeast, others claim that yeast won’t work without sugar and yet they proof their yeast with just water. Rising times seemed to vary considerably, and when it came to whole grain breads some people didn’t use gluten, which I’ve been told is essential to get any rise from these heavier flours. There were those who knead by hand and those who knead with a mixer (I have a KitchenAid with Dough Hook, but have yet to try it on bread). I decided to start simple.

I found a beginner’s bread recipe in an old copy of Hobby Farm Home I had lying around. I followed the instructions and was very pleased to see things rising as they should, with the correct texture, etc. I was also rather surprised at how little time it took – the first rise was only 1 hour and the second 30 minutes. The bread baked for 30 minutes, so in just over 2 hours I had bread. That’s half the time of machine bread, and the same time as the Five Minutes a Day technique (when you pinch off some ready-made dough you still need to let it rest and rise for 90 minutes before shaping). For a first effort I was pretty pleased with the results. The loaves were on the small side, but the crumb was not bad (could still be fluffier, IMO). It had baked evenly and I had 2 loaves with relatively little effort. Even kneading the dough was not half as hard as I thought it would be.

However, to my surprise the bread still had a yeasty, sour sort of flavour to it and the kids rejected it. I’m not sure what the problem is, but I suspect water may be an issue – we have sulfur in our well water and though I thought I’d used spring water from the store there may have been some well water in the kettle I used to heat the water (I did this meticulously with the Five Minutes recipes but cutting down on the yeast had a much greater effect on taste). I’m going to try the recipe one more time, being careful about the water source and see if that’s the problem. And I may look for recipes that call for less yeast (I use Fleischmann’s, nothing unusual). Otherwise I’m not sure what to do except keep trying recipes until I find one, or a technique, that works for us. Rhonda Jean over at Down to Earth has some great articles about homemade bread so I think I’ll try her recipes next. I’m determined not to be dependent on store-bought bread, especially since my kids eat it by the ton and I want their food to be wholesome and healthy (plus I suspect that they eat so much of it because it contains ingredients that folks crave but that don’t provide much in the way of nutrition). I’ll keep you all posted on my progress.

Categories: Homemaking, know your food, learning, lifestyle, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Connecting with Home

[cross-posted to my other blog]

I’ve been on quite a reading kick lately, devouring books over my morning tea – which I enjoy out on the deck during these lovely summer days – and in bed after the kids have gone to sleep. My tastes are varied but from the initially random selection of books a theme has emerged. I have found a new interest…dare I say it may become a passion? I’m finding myself drawn to stories and books about my home and native province, British Columbia.

I was born and raised in Vancouver and spent all but a few short years living there. While I traveled somewhat around the province while growing up nothing really stuck with me in terms of places or names. It wasn’t until I moved back here with my new family and we took our first camping trips together that I began to really learn the geography of BC. We explored the Okanagan north and south, and traveled through Cariboo country on our way to visit the mother-in-law. When we began house-hunting on Vancouver Island I learned the major place names and regions. Slowly I’m getting a feel for southern BC, getting to know it. And as I’ve gotten to know it I’ve become more curious about it: the geography and natural history in particular.

One of the books I picked up recently was In Search of Ancient British Columbia, Volume I.

I was riveted – especially the parts about Vancouver Island. As I read through the book I thought about the concept of the Staycation, made popular when gasoline prices shot up a while back. The idea is to explore one’s own backyard, one’s home region. I couldn’t ask to be in a better part of the world for that. BC is vast and filled with wilderness; with so many different bioregions it’s like visiting a different part of the world each trip. There are so many wonderful places (many I learned about in the aforementioned book) that I began to feel I could spend my whole life just choosing camping spots in BC and never run out of amazing experiences. While I value the experience of traveling abroad, it’s not something practical for our family as more than a once-or-twice in a lifetime opportunity. Meanwhile, our lifestyle lends itself to short, impromptu trips during the week when the rest of the world is working or during the “shoulder season” when families are still tied to their schools. Perfect for a staycation.

The next book I picked up was a history of Burrard Inlet. I grew up in an old one-story house up on the hills of West Vancouver, with a to-die-for view of the western half of the inlet (something modest families could afford back in the sixties), so the book was particularly interesting and meaningful to me. I began to see that while all the books I had picked up from the library were interesting in their own right (the story of Emilie du Chatelet, a female scientist before there were such things and Voltaire’s long-time mistress, was wonderful) there was something different about the books on BC. Their meaning went deeper for me because this place was home. And I began to think about that concept more.

My current book is called Writing the West Coast: In Love with Place. I wasn’t sure I would like it, but I felt drawn to it all the same. Most of my reading had been technical in nature and here I was going to take a side trip to the more abstract world of creative writing. I’m only partway through the book, but it has taken the kindling feelings from the first few books and stoked them into a burning fire. The stories are about the concept of Home, about belonging, and the role of a place’s natural surroundings in finding that connection. I read with great interest an essay by a young woman, a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. She wrote of her home on the west coast of Vancouver Island and how she felt connected to it through her culture and its history. I had just recently learned some of that history in the previous books I’d read and was really touched by her writing. In fact, the best way to describe it is I was envious. To have a sense of place like that, to be able to feel connection through elders and ancestors, through stories and legends and to know that your people had lived and sustained themselves there for thousands of years…that must be something really special. It was the role of Nature and the natural surroundings of the places in these stories that really resonated with me, because I too feel this deep sense of connection when I’m out in Nature. Not being much of a writer I haven’t been able to find voice to this feeling, not in a way that does it justice. These stories are giving me words.

And in reading I’m feeling the stirrings of something deep within me. Perhaps it is my stage of life, who knows. But I’m feeling an urge to explore this place, and to find new ways to connect with my surroundings. Besides a strong desire to start heading off on small camping trips again, something else has started bouncing around in my head and it won’t go away: kayaking.

I don’t know why it has suddenly been buzzing around in my head, but I’ve been thinking that I’d like to learn to kayak. There’s something about being so close to the water that appeals to me. Then I began reading of the tours offered by our local kayaking outfitters, and I pestered my Dad and Stepmum with questions about their sea kayaking trip around Haida Gwaii some years ago. I was excited by their stories of wildlife encounters, even just paddling over a shallow section of reef studded with a rainbow of sea stars, rays, fish, and other creatures. Of camping on sandy beaches in isolated island coves with nobody else for miles around. The solitude, the quiet, the closeness to nature. This is something that really, really appeals to me. And what a way to find that connection to Home that I am suddenly seeking with such intensity.

Categories: community, learning, lifestyle | 1 Comment

Meet the Neighbourhood Residents

Every morning after I wake up I slip into some sweats, pull on my rubber boots, and take the dog for a walk. Sometimes we meander through the property before heading onto the Trans Canada Trail, a section of which runs alongside the bottom edge of our property. Other times we head to the forest next door. I’ve taken a keen interest in learning about the native plants and trees in this region, and on my walks I mentally identify those I’ve come to recognize, while taking samples of those I haven’t. In winter, when we first arrived, it was harder to identify those without leaves. But now that spring is in full force they are making themselves known. I also like watching the cycle of the seasons begin anew – it’s my first time, too, in this place.

I enjoy reading about the plants and animals other would-be farmers are dealing with on their new properties. Chile chews about life in Arizona, a climate vastly different from my own temperate rainforest. While she is dealing with foxtail on her new acre, Jenna and Jer at No Name Farm have been tackling mesquite and cactus since they bought their 15 acre plot. So I thought some of you might be interested to see what lives in my neighbourhood.

One of the first plants to rear its head in early spring were the Stinging Nettles, which I soon harvested. Next came these interesting subjects:

These are Vanilla Leaf, also known as Deer Foot. Each cluster of three leaves grows on a single tall stalk that rises about 1.5 ft above the ground. They are a lovely pale green and grow in carpets-like patches. When dried, they smell somewhat of vanilla and apparently will repel flies if hung in doorways, etc. I have dried a clump of them, to me they smell not half as lovely as real vanilla, and we’ll see how well they keep the flies away when it’s warm enough for open doors and windows. But they do look very pretty in the ground.

Around this time I also began to notice some flowering plants. This is a Western Trillium, so named because of its three leaves topped by a three-petal flower. They are quite large and, I think, have a primordial look about them:

Another flowering plant that showed itself at this time is Pacific Bleeding Heart. The flowers are interesting in that they form a sort of bubble (the petals spread apart then come together at the tip) which is heart shaped. This specimen is growing up against the skirt of our home, but it is abundant in our woods as well:

We have lots of ferns here. Many are evergreen species but lately I’ve noticed a different kind of fern sprouting from the ground. Here’s a shot of two different species:

The one on the right is a Sword Fern, an evergreen. The fronds grow from ground level. On the left is a Bracken Fern, a deciduous plant. These begin growth as a single stalk that reaches upward from the ground while side branches begin to unfurl. I’ve noticed these for a couple of weeks now and they are getting taller and taller. I read they can reach upwards of 3 – 5 metres!

Also in the last couple of weeks, the Pacific Dogwoods have begun blooming. It is strange to me to see flowering trees here even though I know they are native (the dogwood is the official flower of British Columbia); I’m used to evergreens. They are gorgeous trees when in bloom; we have several in our yard but they are also growing abundantly in our woods. I snapped this photo from a tree that was growing sideways, presumably to catch the sun, but they can grow quite tall:

I’ll finish up with a picture of some of the more mobile residents of our neighbourhood. The elk have returned and are staying longer to feast on the new grass. I snapped this photo yesterday from the end of our driveway:

Categories: country scenes, learning, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A New Beginning

For the last couple of years I’ve written about the environment, frugality, living simply and sustainably, eating locally sourced foods, gardening, etc. All this has been in anticipation of fulfilling our dream of buying a small acreage. Now that we’ve “bought the farm”, my blog posts will focus on the giant learning curve that lies ahead of us.

As you can see, I’ve changed the look, the blog title, and other information to reflect this new part of my journey. I was born and raised in the suburbs, and have only really ever lived on a typical suburban residential street or in a high-density urban neighbourhood. Consequently, I have MUCH to learn!

I’m very much looking forward to this new adventure, and I hope you will all continue to follow along with me as I plunge headlong into rural living.

Categories: learning, the dream | 1 Comment

I’m sewing!

sewing-machineIt was several months ago that I excitedly took possession of an old hand-me-down sewing machine. After “test driving” it with some scraps of paper and finding it working perfectly, it sat for all this time waiting for me to find a project. That opportunity presented itself recently when I purchased a pair of pants that needed to be hemmed – usually I would send these to my mother, an excellent seamstress, but this time I decided to do it myself.

I also happened to finally get around to a thrift store expedition, from which I brought home 3 men’s flannel shirts ($5.99 each) to turn into cloth wipes. I cut them up into squares, not bothering to measure since I don’t really know what size I like best anyway, and because I am impatient, and because I wanted to use as much of the fabric as I could. 

scrapsreadyFor the last few days I have been happily sewing away whenever I get the chance, even treating myself to an old movie (The Apartment, 1960, staring a very young and beautiful Shirley McLean) one evening. The flood of memories this brought back was really lovely – my mother sewed throughout my whole childhood, and I had forgotten how many evenings were spent with her sewing while watching a movie on TV. Not only were the memories happy ones, but it felt extra special to be passing this scene on to my own children.

I had a few glitches to overcome. First, the bobbin winder didn’t work because the rubber ring that rubs against the main wheel had dried up and broken off. Determined not to be put off I wrapped a rubber band around it. I have to remove the cover plate and hold onto a few parts, but I can wind my bobbins and that’s all that matters!

I also had a frustrating first attempt when the stitches kept getting all tangled up. If I hadn’t used it when I first brought it home I’d have worried it was broken. After trying all sorts of variations on thread and bobbin tension I resorted to Googling the subject. Sure enough the advice was to check the needle to make sure it was inserted correctly. I double-checked and, even though I’d read the instructions, I’d still managed to put it in the wrong way! With another problem solved, I happily proceeded.

Since then I’ve broken a few needles but was finally able to head out yesterday and get some replacements (thank goodness the standard needle size hasn’t changed in the last 40 years!). The pants were successfully hemmed and I’m almost finished with my wipes. I used a wide zig-zag stitch and polyester thread since they will be washed frequently. Here’s a sneak preview:

wipes

I’m very happy to have learned another skill in the repertoire of self-sufficiency. I doubt I will take this hobby much farther than doing little projects like this one – I am far too impatient to properly measure things. (knitting a test gauge is usually done under self-imposed duress!). But it is still a very useful tool and, combined with the warm memories it provides of my own childhood, a priceless addition to my home.

Categories: being green, Homemaking, learning, simple living | 5 Comments

Giving kids Real Life money experience

I’ve been mulling over the notion of allowances for some time now. I’ve talked with various mamas I respect about the systems they have in place for their kids. They’ve come up with various schemes that appear to be a good fit for their respective families. But I have yet to figure out a way to incorporate allowances into my children’s lives while still keeping true to our particular values and in a way that is meaningful to me.

My objections to allowances are many. But what they all boil down to is a feeling of allowances being artificial and arbitrary. There’s too much control at my end and too little at theirs. Ultimately, the idea of distributing random amounts of money to my children in exchange for duties to which I’ve arbitrarily assigned a monetary value so that they can buy things that I’ve decided I don’t want to buy for them doesn’t seem Real. Nor does forcing them to save money whether they want to or not and introducing arbitrary rules to govern this process. Accordingly, I’m not convinced that my kids will really get much out of the experience in the long run.

Well, I recently had a lightbulb moment after reading a post on a finances forum. Someone mentioned getting our kids involved in the family finances. And the more I thought about this, the more I decided that this was key to giving them a Real Life experience. As a child I had no idea what our finances were like, how money was managed in our family, what the money went to or how that was decided. And I certainly didn’t have any say in the matter. So the benefits I reaped from my parents’ incomes were understandably perceived as something I was naturally entitled to as their child. It was mystery money that came from some unknown place, was distributed in some unknown way, and ultimately ended up in my hands.

In our family, especially recently, budgeting has become a conscious process. We maintain spreadsheets that are updated regularly. We set limits on spending in various categories in order to achieve certain goals we’ve set for ourselves. Husband and I regularly discuss our finances to monitor and make any changes necessary. We may review various items, introduce new circumstances or make requests. It’s a constantly updated, fluid process. And it’s something that Daughter is not far from being able to participate in.

The more I mulled this over, the more I felt this was key. Here is Real money coming in. The kids are aware that the reason their father isn’t around during the day, or often not home in time for dinner, is because he works. So the sacrifices made to get that money are obvious. We’ve already talked about the fact that our funds are limited and that Husband and I make decisions about what we want to spend money on and what we don’t. We’re planning on establishing regular family meetings once Daughter is old enough to participate in a meaningful way (probably in another year or so), and during these meetings finances will be part of the discussion. Anybody wanting to buy something or change the way money is allocated will be allowed to state their case, and as much as possible decisions will be made as a family unit. By giving our kids a clear view of how money comes into the family and is distributed, having them see and experience what saving money can do, and by being a part of the whole money management process I feel they’ll be learning at a level that artificial economic systems like allowances just can’t reach.

This fits in with so many of our family values, not the least of which is how our children are educated. I’m excited that I’m onto something that I can feel really good about.

Categories: learning, money matters | 1 Comment

Fear and Doubt

In establishing The Dream as a concrete goal for ourselves I decided to take a leap of faith and confront my fears about living away from the Big City. So far, all my posts have been in support of that dream, but lest I leave you all with a false impression of my full confidence in the venture, let me be clear that I still face fear and doubt sometimes.

I’ve been corresponding with some fellow homelearning families living in the region to which we wish to relocate. One of them commented that, while there is a thriving homeschooling community there, some of the families who live in outlying areas participate sporadically in activities. One mama confessed that they don’t go often because it’s a long drive, they are trying to reduce their reliance on the car, and because her kids don’t really thrive well in large groups.

I can certainly relate to that last point – Daughter also has challenges with large groups of kids. She enjoys playing with friends, but does best in a playdate situation where one family with 2 or 3 kids comes to visit (or we go to their home). Still, we do participate in two regular homelearning activities with larger groups; there’s lots to do at these functions and Daughter tends to involve herself in crafting or other activities rather than play with a group of kids. However, these are the same kids she has been spending time with for years and she knows most of them by name. Just because she doesn’t always join in with their games doesn’t mean she doesn’t gain a sense of community just by being around them. It’s nice for her to see so many kids living her life when outside in the “real world” she’s an anomaly, and a misunderstood one at that. Then, of course, there’s the social benefits for me. I get to be with a group of women I admire and get along well with, and participate in some adult conversation.

I worry that, were we to move too far out from that town we’d end up not being able to participate in regular activities that take place in the town itself. And that leaves me feeling anxious about isolation. While it’s true that I enjoy spending time at home, I am still a social extrovert and I enjoy connecting with my mama friends on a regular basis. I know that my kids will find plenty of things to occupy themselves with if we are living on a small acreage, have animals and a garden, and can spend more time walking through forests and visiting other natural places. But I do fear that they would be bored and lonely were they not to have regular interactions with other kids.

And Daughter, at least, enjoys her classes at the Ecology Centre and Community Centre. She has a passion for science and, when she is a bit older, will likely enjoy belonging to groups such as The Young Naturalists Club, visiting places like The Planetarium, and attending courses devoted to young learners interested in her sort of subject. I worry that there won’t be enough of these opportunties for her should we be too far away from town (and the College there).

The problem is, I don’t really know what daily life is like there. Certainly I know several homeschooling families who live in very rural areas and they all seem to be thriving. Perhaps I’m just a victim of Big City Mentality. Perhaps my worries of isolation are the same unfounded fears people associate with homeschooling and socialization.

All of this is to say that yes, there are moments when I get this panicky feeling inside of me and a voice in my head says “Are you crazy?”. There are moments when I think that the only way to make this move a success would be to live close to the town and give up some of The Dream – perhaps we will only have 1 acre and I’ll be boarding a horse in someone else’s barn.  But then I wonder why bother making this move if we can’t end up with what we really want. Why not settle for “not what we really want” and remain here where our family lives and where I’ve developed a wonderful community of mamas around me? But I feel I have to do this. I have to try. Because if I don’t I think The Dream will keep haunting me, and I’ll continually feel as though I’m missing out on something that could be wonderful, if only I could be brave enough to give it a try.

Categories: learning, the dream | Leave a comment

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