January 25, 2013

Becky's First Quilt

Becky started this quilt when her good friend Sandra was pregnant with her second child, intending to give the quilt to the new baby. That little girl is now three years old, and the quilt is complete!

This was the first quilt made in our household, so there was a learning curve to traverse. It is also challenging to find time to push forward projects like this with three little kids in the house, especially if you have to figure things out as you are working as opposed to just cranking thought something you know how to do already.

January 20, 2013

Cornbread from home ground cornmeal

We have enjoyed delicious chili cooked by Becky a few times in the last month, for which I have prepared cornbread. I've made a number of recipes, and its clear that people's tastes vary widely for this food. I like my cornbread to be hearty, but not overly dense, a little sweet but not that sweet, and with a strong corn flavor.

I've had good results using a 2/3 corn 1/3 whole wheat flour ratio for the grains, with 1/2 the corn being regular cornmeal and 1/2 being coarse ground polenta from Wild Hive Farm. But I had read online (I think it was on thefreshloaf.com) that freshly ground corn is much more flavorful, and I wanted to experience this.

The kids and I dredged up my C.S. Bell Company #2 grist mill and freshened it up, as detailed in this post, then ground ourselves some corn. The corn itself was purchased in a 2.2kg sack from Wild Hive.

The kids put it through on a coarse setting twice, with one girl feeding the hopper and the other working the crank. Child 1 tried dumping corn in the hopper too, but most of it ended up elsewhere.

This is what we had after two coarse passes.

I cranked the selector screw down as far as it could go and ran it through two more times with me manning the crank and Violet feeding the grist. We ended up with a nice (for cornbread) distribution of particle sizes. I was surprised to find that the cornmeal took up more volume than the whole kernel corn used to produce it.

We used this output in my current cornbread recipe:

  • 2c polydisperse cornmeal (or 1c coarse, 1c fine)
  • 1c white wheat whole grain flour
  • 1/4c chia seeds (optional)
  • 1/3c sugar
  • 2TBS baking powder
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 2c milk
  • 1/2c butter (room temp)

Preheat oven to 200C (400F).
Whisk eggs and half of milk in a small bowl and set aside.

Mix all dry ingredients in mixer bowl, add room temp butter and half of milk. Use paddle to mix on low until reasonably blended, then beat on medium for 90 seconds or until it mixtures appears lighter and coats the sides of the bowl.

Add egg mixture in two additions, scraping down the sides and mixing on high for 30 seconds for each addition.

Pour into parchment bottom lined, greased, 200mm square pan. Batter will be liquidy! Bake until cake tester comes out dry from center, about 30-40 minutes. Crust will be quite brown. Let cool for 10 minutes.

Like all quickbreads, cornbread is way better when it is just made. Our family of five ate 3/4 of this recipe with butter for dinner, then experienced a serious food coma.

I made one recipe of this cornbread with buttermilk in place of milk and honey in place of sugar. It was too crumbly though; not sure if it was from the extra tenderness imparted by the buttermilk or from the extra liquid in the honey. But I'm now back to milk and sugar instead.

Vintage C.S. Bell Company #2 Hand Grist Mill

I've recently been thinking about a home grist mill solution. Becky's mistaken purchase of whole einkorn made me think of it first, and baking cornbread made me think of it again. I read online (and everything you read on the internet is true right?) that freshly ground corn has a much stronger flavor than the dessicated and lifeless cornmeal purchased from the grocery store. Long ago I had bought the book Flour Power, by Marleeta Basey , which deals with the benefits and mechanics of home grain milling. The highly rated mills were expensive though, and so it fell away from my thoughts and the book went on the shelf.

Years ago I bought a C.S. Bell Company #2 grinder, originally with the plan of using it to mill nixtamalized corn for tamales. This mill is representative of state of the art cast iron technology for small farmstead use circa a century ago. The burrs are cast iron and not at all precision or particularly sharp, and the fixturing and adjustment system is very basic. The C.S. Bell Company has been around since 1858, and in fact still makes a new #2 grist mill which looks nearly identical to the antique one I have.

The mill was a complete fail on grinding wet corn, but it was great for another application I had at the time which was lightly milling roasted malt for all grain brewing. It churned its way through roughly 50kg of malt for quite a few batches of beer, then went to the basement and fell into disuse when my first daughter arrived and I couldn't find the time for beer brewing.

I recalled the C.S. Bell #2 in the basement though and thought I would give it a try on corn for cornbread. I've been enjoying cornbread with a range of particle sizes in the corn meal, by using half coarse ground and half medium ground corn. My experience of the #2 was that is was not effective at making flour suitable for baking what we think of as normal bread, but it was great at producing output with a wide distribution of particle sizes. So I ordered a 2.2kg sack of corn from Wild Hive Farm in upstate NY, dragged the grinder up from the basement, and the girls and I set to work waking it from its slumber and getting into shape to work once more.

It was very dusty and full of cobwebs when I extracted it from the cellar.

Well, at least no rodents living in it.

First, we took it apart and the girls started scrubbing with a sponge, brass bristle brush, and hot water with a little Simple Green.

Cinderellas! Clean the grist mill!

They were very eager to do this, and were pretending they were Cinderellas doing their arduous chores.

Under the inner burr there was a sizable deposit of old malt grains from its previous service in brewing. Some insects (probably those annoying dry moths!) had clearly gotten to this food source and caused a some pitting in the housing of the mill. Nothing serious though, and it was soon cleaned out.

After the pieces had thoroughly dried out, I wire wheeled the burrs, the shaft, and the fasteners on the grinder in the basement. Then the burrs got a coat of shortening and went into the oven to bake it in to the porous cast iron.

We put a coat of furniture paste wax on the other surfaces. The girls eventually had to bail out on this step because it was too stinky. They did enjoy the final buffing.

We tried grinding some rice to test things out and flush out any remaining dirt and oil. This went fairly well.


Upon disassembly, it was clear that it was going to need to be taken apart after every use since like 30g of material were left inside in assorted nooks and crannies.

I washed it up and after a few hours drying, Child 1 and I put it back together. First, the fixed end plate is installed.

Next, the female burr is put in. Nothing seems to hold it in at this stage.

The cross pin is installed in the main shaft, which is threaded through the male burr.

 The spring and washer are threaded on the shaft and the assembly is seated into the female burr and back plate.

There is a chunk of steel to serve as a thrust bearing between the gap setting screw in the front cover plate and the main shaft. This is positioned in the shaft recess in the front cover, and the cover is installed.

Finally the handle/flywheel is put on the shaft, which is now protruding from the rear cover. The set screw is tightened onto the flat on the shaft, and it is ready for action.

Speaking strictly from experience with my particular mill, I think it is well suited to making cornmeal for cornbread (which we did in this post), and for crushing grains for home brewing or livestock feed. Probably would do ok on coffee if you needed to grind a lot of coffee. Not the right machine for making flour. All the same, it is charming and makes a nice addition around the house as an element of functional interior decorating.

January 17, 2013

Vintage Boston Ranger 55 Pencil Sharpener

Who will sharpen the sharpener? The answer in this case is me!

We are heavy pencil users at my house, and the kids have a big bin of colored and regular pencils which are in daily use. Regular pencils for drawing and workbooks, colored pencils for drawing and coloring. Until recently we have been using the little single blade style handheld sharpeners. These, however, seem to dully quickly and henceforth do a disappointing job of pointing your pencil. Of course you can just get a new one every month or so, but that seems sub-optimal. 

I recalled from my youth the simplicity and effectiveness of a handcranked desk or wall mounted pencil sharpener, and started cruising ebay. There are some cool vintage pencil sharpeners out there, but I was a bit concerned about an antique being too dull to actually be very functional. Eventually I decided to give a Boston Ranger 55 a try. The vintage ones are not as cheap as I had expected they would be! It arrived looking good and feeling solid, but performing poorly. What to do?

January 5, 2013

Wrap up for 2012, Outlook for 2013

2012 was an excellent year. Everyone in our house was healthy and happy for the most part, and our lives progressed in a satisfactory direction. 

As far as goals and accomplishments go it can also be counted as a success. At the beginning of the year, I posted some 2012 new year's resolutions to this blog. Here is how we performed on these points, plus some additional items of note, and finally thoughts on the year ahead.

From 2012:

1) No buying of clothes for the whole year
Score: GOOD
We indeed didn't buy almost any clothes this year, excepting some tights and shoes for the kids. 

I didn't stock up on anything before the start of the no-boughten-clothes 1yr challenge, so with normal wear and tear I am now extremely short on underwear, socks, and pants. Still doing ok on shirts. I've got plenty of pants, but they are falling apart, wearing through in thin spots at the fly and bum, and ragged at the bottoms. There is one pair of pants I have that is in decent shape, but I save wearing them for occasions when I need to not look like a homeless guy. 

At the beginning of the year I mended one pair of pants that was in good shape with a patch at the knee (shown in the header picture), using Gutermann spun silk thread. This thread fell apart in several locations around the patch over a year of frequent wear and washing. The spun silk thread is fuzzy, hard to thread in the needle, not very strong, rather rough when sewing, and apparently not too durable. So its not clear to me what you are supposed to do with this stuff; it just doesn't seem terribly useful. I have used Gutermann polyester thread extensively and find that to be a high quality product, but I think the spun silk offering is not worth using.

After a little research, I learned that you can also get filament silk thread, made from long fibers of silk rather than short fibers. This thread is lustrous, beautiful, easy to sew with, very strong, but also a little stretchy. It is also expensive! I've been using TIRE brand #50 silk thread from Fujix, both for hand sewing, and recently for constructing a pair of wool trousers for myself. It does tend to get tangled more easily than polyester thread, but as usual the denizens of the Treadle On mailing list had some useful suggestions to improve that issue, mostly focused on keeping the spool from over rotating with its own inertia and adding a little drag to the thread close to where it comes off the spool. I resewed the patch on my pants in the picture with this thread.

Over the year, I made two dresses and a wool cloak for the girls, though both of those were partially completed projects from previous years. I made Violet a dress shirt. Becky and I made Child 1 a sleep sack, and I did some hasty costumes for the girls.

2) Bake all our own bread 
Score: GOOD
I did bake 99% of the bread we ate at home, as well as the bread I ate as a buttered sprout sandwich for breakfast almost every day at work. I probably baked in the neighborhood of 60 loaves over the year. We started out the year eating a LOT of bread, but mid year Becky went on a no grains diet kick, which cut back the amount of bread eaten by her and the kids to essentially zero. My own bread needs for breakfast toast are modest, so this sharply reduced the demand for baking bread. In the fall, Becky relaxed her diet a bit and the kids now eat bread again sometimes, especially if I bake something special like rolls or french bread on the weekend. 

3) Cut back on spending and consuming
Score: FAIL
As most people (and the federal government) know, once your spending is at a certain level, it is surprisingly difficult to cut it back without some overriding externality forcing a change in behavior. We did not succeed in doing so.

Other accomplishments for the year gone by:
  • Started doing more dedicated work on reading and math with Violet and Millie. Violet's reading is coming along and has really improved since we started doing Explode the Code workbooks. If she was in school, she would be in Kindergarten this year.
  • Switched to straight razor shaving, now using home made razor, soap, brush and strop
  • Made quite a lot of progress on our second floor bathroom; it's done except the drawers I need to make for the cabinet at the foot of the tub. Did some other more minor house projects.
  • Made a couple dolls
  • Started making soap. I've made enough bar soap and shaving soap to last for a while and it shouldn't be hard to keep up with our requirements in this area.
  • Started this blog
What I would like to do in 2013, in addition to continuation of bread baking, cider making, etc.:

1) Year 2 of the No-Boughten-Clothes Challenge
What I need to succeed with this will be: pants, socks, underwear, and probably a pair of shoes. I think I can get my sewing up to speed enough to make the garments I'll need to get through the year. I could probably get by with no new shoes for another year if I wear my wood clogs a higher percentage of the time. I epoxied on new heels for my main pair of wood shoes, and I expect I could retread them another time or two. I'd really like to get into making shoes, and I think making wood bottom leather upper clogs is within my capabilities with some skill and technique development. Hard to see having the time to bring that in this year though. 

What I would love is to get to a place where I can dress full time in good looking clothes I made myself. In the meantime, scraping by with worn out clothes and a sparsely populated sock drawer should motivate me to get there! I think in year 2 I'll have the dubious pleasure of experiencing home made wool undies.

I don't know if Becky will be up for year 2. She is struggling with some items wearing out that will be hard to replace, like stretch leggings, etc. She had talked about how she was going to go on a shopping trip to the mall on Jan 1st this year, but we'll see. At times she has expressed a desire to go for year 2. 

To get the kids through a potential year 2, I will need to pick up the pace on the sewing probably. We do have a lot of second hand clothes for Millie and Child 1, but not for Violet.

2) Start making liquid soap
Dr. Bronner's is the only product I need in the shower (it helps that I have no hair). I really like the peppermint variety. But it would be cool to make exclusive use of homemade soap, and to do this I need to make something that can replace my Dr. B's. I purchased Making Natural Liquid Soaps, and I have a plan and all needed supplies, but I haven't executed on it yet. I'll also keep up production of shaving and bar soap as needed.

3) Offer some kind of class for our community of Somerville homeschoolers
Not sure yet what it could be, but Becky and I hope to do something in this area, possibly over the summer. 

4) Finish housework to close our open building permit
The permit has been open ~5 years now. Time to get it done and move on! So I've got to finish the 2nd floor bathroom, finish the back porch, fix some doors, out railing in the back stairway, and do some trim and detail work. 

January 3, 2013

Enterprise #10 antique meat grinder

Something like a month ago I was making my usual sprouted einkorn sandwich bread, when my KitchenAid popped a tooth in the attachment gearbox whilst grinding up the sprouted grain. I resolved to get a better food grinder, and thought the amount of power input required and frequency of use at our house would make a human powered machine attractive. Turns out there are plenty of rusty old hand cranked meat grinders on ebay for pretty cheap! I rejuvenated this one and put it to use.

January 1, 2013

Christmas Cookies

My sister Annesly, Becky, and the kids went to my aunt Susan's house the week before last to make christmas cookies. I had to work unfortunately! Looks like they had a nice time though.

Susan premade the dough and had all the supplies ready. Here is Millie rolling some dough out.

Cutting the cookies.

Ready to bake.

Now for the decorating (and nibbling).

Susan said Child 1 only dumped out one bottle of cookie decorations, which for him counts as being quite well behaved.

There were sugar cookies, and gingerbread cookies.

I was feeling sick so I actually didn't eat any, but Becky and the kids ate all of our share within two days.

Annesly has more pictures of cookie making up here.