March 29, 2013

Curing bacon

Occasionally we get big chunks of pork belly with our meat CSA, and as I outlined in the pancetta post, this is one cut of meat which is not that good fresh but unbeatable when cured. I've done two pancettas to date, but I thought it might be fun to cure a piece as bacon.

Bacon and pancetta are of course both cured pork belly, but they differ in the typical spice mix and curing procedure. While pancetta is savory, bacon is often sweet though not necessarily so. After being exposed to a chemical cure in the fridge for about a week, pancetta goes in the curing chamber to dry for around three weeks, whereas bacon gets a one day dry in the fridge and is then smoked.

To start this bacon off, I mixed up a cure based on the bacon cure in Charcuterie, by Ruhlman & Polcyn, also reproduced at Ruhlman's blog, scaled for my piece of meat and with a lesser amount of honey swapped in for the sugar. I used garlic, pepper, and bayleaf as the spices.

I rubbed this all over the 1100g piece of thick belly.

It went into a ziploc, then a tupperware. It spent the next two weeks in the fridge, getting flipped every couple days to distribute the cure inside the bag.

When it came out of the fridge, I washed it off and patted it dry. At this stage it is much stiffer than it was when it was uncured. I applied some course black pepper after drying.

The belly went onto a rack in the fridge to dry for a day.

I dug up some applewood chips we bought years ago when we tried smoking our turkey for thanksgiving on the grill (turned out well, but lack of pan dripping for gravy was a problem). The chips got soaked in water overnight.

The next day, the wood chips were drained and the belly taken out of the fridge.

We built a tiny fire in the grill with a handful of hardwood lump charcoal. The fire was all the way over to one side, with the belly on the other side. We put on a handful of soaked applewood chips and closed the vents on top of the grill most of the way.

Putting a thermocouple down the vent of the grill indicated the inside was around 105C, perhaps a bit hot. It took a little over two hours for the middle of the belly to get up to 65C. This is faster than optimal, which can probably be attributed to the smoking being too hot, but it looked fantastic when we were done. We puttered around the backyard while the bacon was smoking, occasionally adding a little more charcoal or wood chips as needed.

When it came off the grill, Becky sliced the skin off the top.

We tried slicing it up and frying it for dinner, to eat atop some french bread we had baked that afternoon. It tastes good, but I think I may have messed up the measurements for the cure. The bacon doesn't get crispy in the pan but does burn very easily before the fat crisps, and is much too sweet. Maybe I made a mistake while measuring?

Taste testers are not happy about the charred state of the bacon.

It worked a bit better to constantly be turning the pieces in the pan and to just take them out before they burn, rather than trying to let them get crispy.

It is does have an intense and smoky flavor to it, which is delicious, but it needs some work to be more bacon-like at the texture and cooking level. We won't have any trouble eating it up, and we just got another piece of belly with the last CSA load so we'll have a chance to make refinements next time.

Update - 5/6/2013
Bacon slab #2. This 1050g piece of belly came from our meat CSA. I used the recipe at Ruhlman's blog, basically halving the proportions there to fit our chunk of pork. Child 1 helped me ready the spices for the cure.

I left it in the cure for 13 days in a ziploc inside a tupperware for secondary containment. Every couple days I would flip it over. Then it was rinsed, patted dry, and allowed to dry out in the fridge overnight. On Saturday we smoked it over applewood chips in the grill for about three hours, cut the rind off, and refrigerated it. I actually put it in the freezer for a while to firm up even more, then sliced it up with a sharp knife.

Child 1 was hanging out gobbling up pieces of this uncooked bacon like mad. He must have eaten like 5 pieces!

This bacon turned out nicely. It is still more prone to burning than store bacon, but not nearly to the extent we saw with bacon #1; I'm sure I must have made a mistake in calculating the portions on that one. The flavor is fantastic; deep pork flavor heavily tinged with smoke and spices. We probably ate 500g of it just on Sunday. One mystery is that it doesn't get crispy like store bacon does. Maybe this is just because I can't slice it thin enough with a kitchen knife?

March 26, 2013

Home made lotion

We are pushing further ahead on our mission to make cosmetics and personal products at home. The latest project is making moisturizer, which is frankly quite an interesting product when you get down to the details. Typical lotion is around 70% water, 25% oil, plus some other important ingredients. This mixture would separate and go bad quickly if not for the magic of modern chemistry.

March 20, 2013

Making Felt Hats

A few years ago I made myself a gnome style gray felt hat with a big red flower on it. It is my go to hat for cool to cold weather and I wear it frequently. The kids like to wear my hat too, and for some time have been asking to have tall felt hats of their own.

These hats are made from a charcoal gray wool/rayon blend felt made by National Nonwovens, purchased here (style TOY2003). When I first made my hat, I didn't have much experience with felt, other than knowing for sure that I didn't want the dryer lint-like garbage they sell as felt at the craft store. The National Nonwovens blends are affordable, came in many colors, and appeared to be reasonable quality, so I thought I would try it out. It turned out to be rather too thin for a winter hat, so I made two hats and nested them together. My hat has held up well over the few years I've been wearing it, but in future I think I'll try harder to work in 100% wool felt. Having used both the blend and all wool felt for dollmaking, it is abundantly clear that the 100% wool is a far superior product. It is stronger, better looking, more cohesive, and harder wearing than the blend, though it is significantly more expensive.

In my family, I'm mostly the one taking pictures and as a consequence I have few pictures of myself, and none with my hat on. But someone else took this picture of me riding the press bike with Child 1 at cider weekend 2011 with my hat on. Yes, I'm also wearing wooden shoes. This year a newcomer to cider weekend saw me in the same outfit and said "What's this? The cider elf?" What they did not know is that I look like this all the time, not just for cider!

A few months ago we embarked on making hats for Violet and Millie. I had a bunch of the wool blend felt left, so we just used that rather than buying new material. Though I'm not completely satisfied with it, I already have it and it has served adequately in my own hat.

Millie's Hat
First we made up a simple paper pattern from head measurements.

 The base of the cone pattern is 1/2 head circumference plus a little extra. The height of the cone is taken from the location of the future edge of the hat up to the future hat tip on the side of the head. However, this hat turned out too small, so we had another go at it with increased dimensions.

Millie cut and basted together the halves of the inner and outer hats, and did a few of the whip stitches to join them up.

 I stitched up the remainder, then spent some time steaming the hats to shape them and stick them together.

Then I sewed them together at the rim with the D-9 treadle.

I had a helper to turn the balance wheel when starting.

Millie wanted her hat to look exactly like mine, so I made another little flower applique out of nicer 100% wool felt and put it on.


And a happy hat owner!

Violet's Hat
Violet wanted to do her own decoration on her hat, so we put some of the blend felt in a hoop and she drew what she wanted to embroider on a piece of paper. I helped transfer the design outline to the fabric, then she embroidered it, which took about a month of on and off work by Violet.

We just used my hat as a pattern this time, but made it a little smaller with the same vertex angle at the top of the cone.

Violet cut out the pieces, pinned them, and whip stitched the inner hat. I did the outer one (the one with the embroidery). Once again I steamed the two hats together, then pinned them in place. Violet stitched them together with the Singer 99 handcrank.

She was very pleased with her design.

And very pleased with the hat!

March 19, 2013

Homebrew Hard Cider Aftershave

I've been shaving full time since August with one of my home made straight razors, in conjunction with home made shave soap, brush, and strop. For aftershave, I have been splashing on some drug store witch hazel, which is decent (though I have little experience with aftershave and thus not much basis for comparison).

But I must confess to harboring a strong desire to make up some home made aftershave, to continue the recent trend in taking charge of the products and hardware used for personal care. In time, I would like to plant a witch hazel bush and harvest bark from it to make witch hazel aftershave, but that is a longer term project. So as an experiment, I made up some aftershave using homebrew hard cider and goop squished out of my aloe vera  houseplant. I like it quite well!

March 12, 2013

Homemade chapstick

My chapstick of choice is regular Burt's Bees. We've been running low these last couple months, and the last two stores I looked in did not have it in stock. I'm sure I can find it someplace, or just order it online, but the experience of having to find the time to go into a shop only to be frustrated in my desire to engage in consumer activity is annoying. Wouldn't it be great if I could just make my own chapstick in my kitchen whenever I needed it? How hard could it be?

Being possessed of an approach to life favoring the purchase of ingredients or raw materials over finished products, plus my newfound desire to free myself from consumer enslavement to the tyrannical chapstick corporations prodded me to do some research on home made chapstick. Turns out it is possibly the easiest personal care product to make at home. Plus you can proactively adjust the formulation to suit, instead of serially buying unsatisfying commercial products to try to find one that mostly fits your desires.

The first order guideline for a simple chapstick formulation is 25% wax, 75% oil, plus extras like scents, colors, etc. After reading the ingredients on a tube of Burt's Bees, I set out to create a stripped down version for home use. The kids and I made up a 60g batch as a trial, mostly using stuff I already had onhand for soapmaking.

We measured out:

  • 30g coconut oil
  • 15g avocado oil (with Vitamin E)
  • 15g beeswax
  • 0.6g Peppermint essential oil

The ingredients all went into a pyrex beaker and were slowly melted on a low flame on the stove top.

After everything looked well melted and blended, we poured it out into a saran lined bowl to cool overnight for testing the next day.

If we felt it needed some adjustment, we could remelt and add some additional wax, oil, or fragrance, then pour into some empty chapstick tubes I bought on Amazon.

But the next day we decided it was pretty nice as it was.

So we returned it to the beaker for remelting.

While it was heating up, Violet and Child 1 readied the empty tubes.

It was easy to pour straight from the beaker into the tubes.

A short time later, they were hardened and ready to use. I now have one in my pocket, one in my bag, and one in my desk drawer at work. Violet labeled one for herself, and is looking forward to giving a few to her friends as gifts.

Violet says this is the best chapstick in the whole world!

Millie is not a mint lover, so she is not crazy about it. Next time I'll get some fruity scent for her, or maybe make a batch of unscented. I think its pretty good stuff, certainly good enough to replace boughten chapstick.

The ingredients work out to about $0.08/tube, and I expect we can refill the tubes a few times before they are worn out.

In my opinion, this formulation is a little on the soft side, especially coming out of your hot and steamy pants pocket. So next time maybe I'll up the wax %. I've also been reading up on home made cosmetic products at the excellent blog, which on one page suggests substituting a few percent of a harder, higher melt point wax like carnauba for some of the beeswax to help with the heat softening issue. Becky however rather likes her chapstick soft and feels that commercial blends are often too hard. Easy enough to have different formulations for different tastes!

March 7, 2013

Food Experiment - The Mayan's Favorite Drink

Violet saw a book at the library about Mayan heiroglyphs and picked it out for us to read at home. She is very interested in early humans and ancient peoples, so this book really hit the spot for her. On one page, there is a side panel about "The Mayans' Favorite Drink", made from cacoa beans. Violet was keen to try it out, though you might not guess it from her expression the in above picture! I think she had just finished eating a raw cacao bean, which is an interesting experience if you have not tried it before.

The process for turning cacao beans into something edible involves fermenting them immediately after they are harvested. This makes them edible, and apparently they don't really taste like chocolate at all until after the fermentation. I could not easily locate unfermented cacao beans, so I got the next level intermediate product: dry, unroasted cacoa beans. These are sold as a "Superfood" these days, so they were easy to order from Amazon.

March 1, 2013

Greist mechanical buttonholer on a handcranked Singer 99

I've been making all buttonholes by hand since I moved to exclusive use of my treadle machine a little over a year ago. I like handmade buttonholes (although some of mine can get pretty ugly!), but even doing them poorly takes me a lot of time.

Last year I bought a mechanical buttonholer for something like $30 on ebay, figuring I could make an adapter to put it on my D-9. It is a Greist, and is all metal construction with die cast templates. After getting the buttonholer, it looked like it was going to be more challenging than I had hoped to make the pieces to put it on the W&W, so its been sitting on the shelf while I spend a lot of time doing buttonholes by hand.

But just the other week I brought in a hand crank Singer 99 for my kids, and it has a standard low shank foot. So last weekend I tried putting the buttonholer on to do the holes for a button fly on the second muslin for the pants I've been trying to make for the last couple months. It is fantastic! Quick to set up, easy to use, fast and efficient, and makes a nice buttonhole. It is also entertaining to watch, and has a nice sound to it as you crank: click-click-click-click...

Here is my buttonholer layed out on the counter for inspection by Child 1. My unit came with a number of cams, and I see that extras are not hard to find on ebay.

Here is my fly getting buttonholes. So much faster than hand buttonholes! Once they are layed out and everything is set up (tensions, stitch length/width, etc.) it takes less than a minute to do a buttonhole.

With setup and cleanup time added it, it would make sense to do one buttonhole by hand. But if there are more, this charming contraption will start to shine. There is a discussion on Treadle On right now about buttonhole options for old sewing machines, and Helen Howes from the UK wrote that she has done 10,000 buttonholes with her attachment! Awesome!

To sum up, I am extremely pleased with my buttonholer and looked forward to using it extensively. For a few buttonholes that are highly visible or that I want to make especially interesting, I'll continue to improve my hand work. But for the rest I'll be cranking them out (quite literally) with the Greist on the 99.