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Here Comes The Sun

I love midwinter. I love the themes of new beginnings, renewal and rebirth. As the snow begins to fall, I resign myself to arm chair adventures and internet gardening until spring returns and the earth is once again fertile.

The winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, and the longest night. After the solstice, which typically falls on or around the 21st of December each year, the cycle reverses and the day once again grows long. It is the point when the year is reborn and daylight hours begin to increase. We may have several cold months before spring arrives, but already the light is drawing nearer.

Photo credit Mr. Objective | Creative Commons Attribution License

Photo credit Mr. Objective | Creative Commons Attribution License

The December solstice occurs when the sun reaches its most southern decline. This is when the North Pole is tilted furthest from the sun. The earth’s axis to the sun changes throughout the seasons. This is why the sun appears in different places on the horizon through the year. It also affects the intensity and duration of the sunlight we receive.

Monuments like Stonehenge in Britain and Newgrange in Ireland were aligned so that the primary axes pointed to the winter solstice sunrise (in the case of Newgrange) and the solstice sunset (in the case of Stonehenge).

The earliest sunset actually happens before the solstice. True solar noon happens as much as ten minutes before noon on our clocks. Due to the tilt earth’s axis and our planets “egg shaped” orbit of the sun, solar noon and clock noon don’t always match. By the time the solstice arrives, solar noon is much closer to the noon on our clocks. By this time, solar noon is happening almost ten minutes later than it did earlier in the month, making sunrise and sunset happen ten minutes later as well.

In the mid-northern regions of the globe, the earliest sunset occurs sometime around the middle of December, the solstice itself around the 20th-23rd of December and the latest sunrise happens in early January.

The solstice occurs tomorrow, and Christmas will be just after it. It is a beautiful time to go for a drive and look at decorations and lights. In spite of the increasing darkness, everything is covered with a brilliant layer of snow. No night is really dark in winter.

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Perfect Cinnamon Rolls

“Cinnamon bites and kisses simultaneously” ~Vanna Bonta

Ever want a cinnamon roll NOW? Not in three hours, not tomorrow.. but almost immediately, and preferably hot! These yeast free cinnamon rolls melt in your mouth and they are ready in less than an hour. I dislike the taste of baking soda in most baked goods, and I hate the wait time for yeast doughs. These rolls are made with baking powder instead. If you prefer a firmer dough, add an egg.

Ingredients for dough:

2 cups flour

2 tbsp sugar

1 tbsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

3 tbsp butter

3/4 cup milk

1 egg (optional)

Ingredients for Cinnamon mix:

4 tbsp butter

1 cup brown sugar

3 tsp cinnamon

2 tsp vanilla extract (optional)

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Combine all ingredients for the dough in one bowl and stir. No need to separate wet and dry. When ingredients are combined, knead dough for a minute or two to get the right texture and roll it out on a very lightly floured surface until it is approximately a half inch thick.

Combine all ingredients for cinnamon mix in another smaller bowl and mix very throughly. Spread half of this mixture in the bottom of  the pan you will be using, and spread the other half on the dough.

Roll up the dough and slice into half inch to one inch slices to make the cinnamon rolls, placing each one in the pan on top of the cinnamon mixture.

Bake for 20 minutes or until done. When cooking is completed, remove the cinnamon buns from the pan immediately. Serve hot or cooled.

“I like cinnamon rolls, but I don’t always have time to make a pan. That’s why I wish they would sell cinnamon roll incense. After all I’d rather light a stick and have my roommate wake up with false hopes.” ~Mitch Hedberg

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Awesome Banana Bread

“C is for cookie. That’s good enough for me.” ~Cookie Monster

There are a couple of tricks to banana bread. One is not to over-stir the batter. Mix it until the ingredients are roughly combined but not quite uniform. We are going for a chunky batter here, not a fine paste. Another is to place the oven rack higher up in the oven so that the middle cooks before the bottom gets overcooked. These two tips will help you to turn out a nice moist banana bread, but the real trick to Awesome Banana Bread is the secret ingredient.

Ingredients:

3 tbsp butter

3/4 cup sugar

3 overripe bananas (size determines how much flour)

2 tbsp molasses

2 eggs

1-2 cups of flour (usually one and a half or so)

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

Secret Ingredient: 1/2 cup of peanut butter

 

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Cream the butter, sugar and peanut butter, and mix in the bananas, molasses and eggs until smooth.

Mix together the flour, baking powder and baking soda and add to wet ingredients. This will form a thick sticky batter.

Stir until contents are mixed but a little rough and pour into a greased loaf pan.

Bake for one hour or until done. Test by inserting a toothpick. When it comes out clean, it’s cooked.

Let pan cool for five minutes and then remove the loaf. Set it on a cooling rack or cutting board. Guard it with your life for another fifteen minutes or so. (use mace, cattle prod, cast iron frying pan to keep kids, husbands, wives and other miscellaneous house guests away)

Serve warm or cool.

 “Baking is like washing–the results are equally temporary.” ~Patricia Briggs, Raven’s Shadow

 

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Fermentation

Fermentationfer-men-TAY-shunnoun – Any of a group of chemical reactions induced by living or non-living ferments that split complex organic compounds into relatively simple substances. The anaerobic conversion of sugar to carbon dioxide and alcohol by yeast.

Fermenting things is one of my passions. I believe that fermenting food is not only a good practice for food storage, but for good health.

Louis Pasteur was a french chemist and is credited with discovering how fermentation takes place. Pasteur was approached by a gentleman who was at that time fermenting sugar and beet juice to create alcohol. He used very large vats in this process, and was puzzled to find that many of his vats were producing alcohol well, but there would always be some in which the beet juice would turn to a slimy sour mess, and yield no alcohol at all. This was costing him hundreds of francs for each batch he had to discard. In an effort to find a solution for his problem, he turned to Pasteur, who examined the vats, and collected samples from some which were producing alcohol, and from some which were not. Pasteur carefully examined the samples, and found that the vats which were producing alcohol contained yeast, and the vats which were not, contained black rod-shaped bacteria. These bacteria were instead producing lactic acid, which is the substance that sours milk (and alcohol). While he was not able to tell the man how to prevent this bacteria, he was able to tell him about the yeast which was required to produce alcohol.

“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal; my strength lies solely in my tenacity” ~Louis Pasteur

The standard North American diet is lacking in fermented foods. Even the traditionally fermented foods that are being produced today for mass consumption are not fermented, but pickled, usually in vinegar. Examples of these foods are pickles and sauerkraut. The fermented versions of these foods are considered by many to be far superior to the vinegar pickled versions we are accustomed to.

Some examples of fermented foods are sourdough breads, wine, beer, kombucha, kefir, yogurt, pickles, sauerkraut and fermented vegetables. There are also a variety of fermented condiments such as ketchup, salsa, kimchi and cream cheese.

One of the benefits of fermentation is that it does not rely on pasteurization or high heat canning methods. These methods have their place, but the process kills many perfectly healthy enzymes and bacteria in the foods they are preserving.

Fermentation helps to replenish the good bacteria we need in order to properly digest and assimilate nutrients. We live in a world that has declared war on bacteria. The use of anti-bacterial soaps, sprays, wipes and obsessive sterilization of everything remove much of the good, as well as bad bacteria in our lives.

 “Molecular biology has shown that even the simplest of all living systems on the earth today, bacterial cells, are exceedingly complex objects. Although the tiniest bacterial cells are incredibly small, weighing less than 10-12 gms, each is in effect a veritable micro-miniaturized factory containing thousands of exquisitely designed pieces of intricate molecular machinery, made up altogether of one hundred thousand million atoms, far more complicated than any machine built by man and absolutely without parallel in the nonliving world.” ~ Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory In Crisis

 

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The Compost Hut

“A fool looks for dung where the cow never browsed.” ~Proverb from Ethiopia

It is estimated that as much as 30% of the garbage that winds up in landfills is green compostable material. This seems excessive to me. Composting not only prevents these organic materials from ending up in landfills and incinerators, but also reuses them to create highly nutritious soil that can be used for gardening. The health of our plants and the quality of our food are directly related to the presence or absence of nutrients in the soil. Compost helps to loosen packed “clay” soils, and gives sandy soil better water retention.

Gar-bage – gärbij  noun – a thing that is considered worthless or meaningless.

 While shopping for compost bins I found every imaginable shape and size. Some composters sit neatly on the ground, tucked onto a corner of the yard, others are more like barrels on casters that make turning the compost as easy as giving the barrel a push. There are instructions online for building and endless variety of home made compost pens, bins, barrels and even trenches. Each set of plans had features I liked, and some I didn’t. Finally I decided to draw up my ideal composter. I wanted a lid to prevent too much rainwater from cooling the compost, and fairly open sides for good ventilation. A larger compost pile will heat up and work much faster than a very small one.

 Several sketches later, a trip to the hardware store was in order, and this is what we came up with:


The world is full of pallets that still have some use left in them. This one, covered with landscape cloth became the floor.

 

A couple of 4×4’s made good steady corner posts and wrapping some chicken wire around this allowed us to leave lots of gaps for ventilation.

Due to the sheer size of the thing, we chose to build it right where it will be staying. The best place to keep a composter is on level well drained ground, out of prolonged direct sunlight and strong winds, which can dry out a pile.

Now that the composter is built and ready, all that remains is to collect the necessary ingredients and get started. I purchased a small kitchen compost bucket with a filtered lid to cut down on unpleasant odors. I also purchased biodegradable compost bags on a whim.

 

I have never used these before, and I am not sure if I will continue, but I was curious to see how quickly they break down, and if they really make the process more convenient. I don’t mind the two seconds it takes to wash up the compost pail, but I couldn’t resist trying these.

Now that the composter is built and ready, it’s time to start the pile. With plenty of last falls leaves blowing around, and the grass beginning to turn green in patches, I should have plenty of start up material.

“My whole life has been spent waiting for an epiphany, a manifestation of God’s presence, the kind of transcendent, magical experience that let’s you see your place in the big picture. And that is what I had with my first compost heap.” ~Bette Midler

Do you compost? What kind of composter do you have?

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