What does the last of the housewives do?

Month: August, 2013

Toffee with Gas

You’re getting a peek today into one of my tutorials.  I’m teaching fledgling primary school teachers how to teach science and every week we do some hands on activities around one topic.  This week we’re playing with air, and there was an activity planned which involved gelatin and a blender and various other things to make something edible with air whipped into it.  Well, you know how it is with blenders.  These were cheap and nasty ones and burned out on Monday.  We can’t have the students not knowing anything at all about air in food.  So I’m going to tell them about one of my favourite combinations, air and sugar.

But first!  Just the sugar.  For a control I need to make this food without the air.  When you heat up sugar dissolved in water quite a lot and then cool it quickly, what do you get?  Does anyone know?  That’s right, toffee, a gold star for you.  Just doing it with white sugar is a little dull, so here’s the recipe I’m using today.

Place in a large saucepan three quarters of a cup of white sugar, two tablespoons of honey, two tablespoons of golden syrup and two tablespoons of water.


Generally a toffee mix will have more water in it, but bear with me.  Heat it gently while stirring until the sugar dissolves.



Not too gently, you don’t want to be there all day.  You let that bubble away without stirring it until it gets to about 150 degrees Celsius.  You determine what the temperature is with a candy thermometer.



If you have a dodgy thermometer like I do that appears to have got water in it and is unreadable, or just don’t have one, you want to test the mix periodically for consistency.  You do this by dropping a bit of it onto a saucer of cold water.



Those little blobs will go from stuff you can swirl around, to blobs that retain their shape, to blobs that are fairly firm but can be squished, to hard crunchy little blobs.  Those last two steps can be quite close together.  Get that stuff off the heat and pour it onto a baking tray lined with baking paper.


Pretty soon it will harden and you can snap it into bite sized tooth gluing pieces.



We could go into the chemistry of what’s going on here, and it’s a lot more complicated than you’d think.  I’ll restrain myself and just mention that the sugar hasn’t really melted, kind of, because it’s thought that sugar doesn’t actually melt, it decomposes into a whole lot of other compounds, some of which melt at this temperature and some of which don’t, and it’s still kind of in solution with a tiny bit of water.  Dumping it onto a cold tray not only recrystallises the sugar and the breakdown compounds, but by doing it fast you’ve also turned it into a glass.  Don’t get me started.

So how do we add air to toffee?  I’m glad you asked.  Bicarbonate of soda.

Make the toffee as before.  But just at that point where you’re taking it off the heat, chuck in a teaspoon and a half of bicarbonate of soda.  You’d kind of expect that a bit of bicarb into this super hot boiling mess would pretty much explode.  But it doesn’t, because what it would like to react with is water, and there’s only a tiny bit in there.  Mix it fast with a wooden spoon, you want those carbon dioxide bubbles distributed throughout the whole lot before it starts solidifying.  Dump it, as before, onto a lined baking tray.



Honeycomb.  You’ve made honeycomb.  It has little to no resemblance to that waxy stuff you find in a beehive, but we’ll let that go too.  This will also set pretty fast, when it’s cool you can snap it into pieces.  Now taste some of the toffee and some of the honeycomb.  The honeycomb will give you a bit of a buzz on your tongue from unreacted bicarb, but ignoring that, aren’t they completely different eating experiences?  And the difference is air.  You lucky lucky tutorial class, you actually get to try some.  Aren’t you glad the blenders burned out?



The Cat

I am getting to the stage where you’ve heard it all before. I am making lots of stuff, litres of strawberry jam, strawberry tea, jam slice (with the failed first batch of jam), raisin bread, but it’s all a bit fresh in the audience memory. So I’m going to talk about the cat.

I first suspected that something was wrong when he would stand in front of a toilet with the lid closed and make a sound like a toddler was tying his tail into a neat bow. He wanted to drink from the toilet. A lot. To the point where he’d actually nag you to get off the thing, are you going to spend all day there? Oh, we supply a bowl of water, but apparently it has dog germs. He was one thirsty cat.

So the vet did a thing where they deftly inserted a needle into him and withdrew some fluid ounces of urine. The urine was all wrong, Linus was in the early stages of renal failure. But don’t worry, they blithely reassured me. Give him these pills and this special food and you’ll have him for years to come! He’s already nearly fifteen. I’m still getting the stains out of the carpet from the last elderly cat we had on the premises. Years, hey. Hmm. That food is really expensive.

He liked the first sachet. But not the second, after I’d bought a case of the stuff. I’m not surprised, it looks like the sort of thing a small marsupial would produce after a night on the turps.

So I spent a few days trying to encourage him to eat it. “This is bogus”, he’d say. “Where’s the real food?”

He’d also stick his claws into me quite a lot. The dogs, on the other hand, thought the stuff was delicious, so I’d have to guard Linus every time he wanted to eat, which was every ten minutes. So very irksome. So I looked up do it yourself renal care food. Wow, too complex, and I don’t know if I’d like to risk grinding chicken bones in the Thermomix. So many supplements, and who knows if you’d get the balance right? Question, what would he be eating in the wild? Answer, nothing, he’d be dead. And guess what my research also uncovered? A cat will actually starve itself to death if it doesn’t approve of the food choices its human is making for it. I’ve had cats all my life, this really shouldn’t come as a surprise.

So for the moment we’re going with a compromise. He gets the pill, that’s not a problem. I mix some marsupial poop with the renal kibble and a scoop of delicious kangaroo meat, his previous high protein diet. Human grade too, sometimes I suspect the pet grade stuff is just sawdust soaked in blood. He’s stopped sticking his claws into me quite as much.

He’s not nagging people to stop using in his water bowl as a toilet any more. This may just work.

Flavoured Milk

“Why can’t you just be normal and buy Nesquick?” asked the Moose. He’s been requiring a lot of fuel lately, what with the intense timetable and having to stoop so his head doesn’t poke a hole in the ceiling. He found a forgotten tin of the stuff in the back of the pantry and sucked it down with about two litres of milk. “Buy more Nesquick!” he demanded. It’s just strawberry flavouring, yes? Strawberries are cheap at the moment.

What you do is chuck a punnet of strawberries into the Thermomix, take off their hats first and give them a rinse. Half a cup of sugar and a cup of water. Varoma for ten minutes, speed two. One hundred degrees for half an hour, speed two. The Muffet caught me trying to sieve the damned stuff through a tea strainer.

“Who cares about lumps?” she trilled. So I just dumped it in the jar. It possibly would have better without them, but hey. I wanted to make chocolate syrup too, and there was much else going on, not the least an analysis of sheet music costs for the last four years for the choir. Something to put off til at least bedtime.

Chocolate syrup is also easy. A cup of finest cocoa powder, half a cup of brown sugar, a cup of white sugar, a cup and a half of water. One hundred degrees at speed three for ten minutes. I added a personal touch of a tablespoonful of malt syrup which I finally tracked down to the health section in Woolies, curse them.

It isn’t very thick, but it’s delicious and rich.

I can’t get the kids to try it though, they’re busy with the strawberry flavour.
“Do you like it?” I chase the Moose around the house asking. “No!” he says. “Well, yes, it’s delicious. But I wanted Nesquick!” I think he’s trying to tell me something. I wonder what it is?

Strawberry Iced Tea

It’s like this. No, that’s not right. It’s not like I actually went out and… Well, what with one thing and another, I appear to have a job. Only a small one, mind. But it does involve quite a lot of standing up and talking and rather gives one a thirst.

I’ve tried the sipping of water and it isn’t enough. I’m not just talking, I’m projecting. Singing a little bit. By the end of the first day what I most felt like was a glass of honey with a splash of whiskey in it. The following week I discovered that the beverage I was looking for was iced tea. Which is odd, really, because I don’t like tea. Sometimes I feel like it, or the occasion seems to demand it, and then I have it black with one. Most of the time I regret it, because it makes me feel like my tongue has been sandpapered and I get a squeezed feeling about the kidneys. But I appear to be able to drink iced tea with no ill effects. So naturally ones thoughts turn to making the stuff.

It turns out to be dead easy. In its most simple form it is actually tea diluted by its volume again in cold water and heavily sweetened. I fancied it flavoured, but the peaches you can get at the moment come from very far away. What is cheap and a plausible tea flavour is strawberries.

First make a pot of tea. I have in the collection a teapot that makes about a litre of tea.

Four scoops of tea in the mesh strainer thingy. I really must go and buy some nice tea for this exercise, because once the kids discover it I’ll be making it a lot. Then put a decapitated punnet of strawberries into the Thermomix, along with a peeled and deseeded half a lemon. You knew the Thermomix was going to come into it. Zap the fruit. Pour in the hot tea. Zap again. Taste for sweetness. There isn’t any. I have a small pot of honey that I found in my handbag last time I cleared it out, I have some vague memory of someone giving it to me. Its time has come.

I think it would be about a third of a cup. Possibly half. That took it up to the desired sweetness. I thought I’d filter it into a jug, there was a lot of pulp that I’d rather not strain through my teeth. I added a litre of water to the jug. The we have it, strawberry iced tea.

The Moose said it tasted just like Liptons, which I’m fairly sure is a compliment. I thought it was much nicer. If it doesn’t last until Friday, I’m sure I can find five minutes to make up some more. I wonder what other plausible tea flavours there are?

Strawberry Jam

You know I love a challenge. A bunch of radical feminists I’m involved with are planning various bits of a fair at the boys school, prior to taking over the world. Baby steps. We’re going to do a cake stall, to which I plan to contribute at least a large amount of biscotti, but also Devonshire teas. “How much cream would you need for twenty dozen scones?” asked our fearless leader. “You know the IGA has cream in two litre jugs? That ought to do it” was the reply. “What about jam?”

What indeed. Once you’ve got a Thermomix it seems that anything is possible. I’ve made marmalade. Strawberry jam shouldn’t be too hard. Frank has strawberries for ten dollars a kilo at the moment, nice ones too, so the time is right to experiment.

Despite all my experience with the Thermomix everyday cookbook, I decide to start with their recipe. Not with a great deal of hope. I have 750 grams of strawberries because some kind of got eaten. I adjust the amounts in the recipe accordingly and put in the zest of one and half lemons, one and a half peeled and quartered lemons, 375 grams of jam setting sugar because I’m nervous and the strawberries. Cook for 35 minutes at 100 degrees on speed 1. And if you do that, you’ll get strawberry sauce.

I cooked and cooked it, probably another thirty minutes at 100 degrees. Then I thought bugger it, and turned the heat up to Varoma temperature. Twenty minutes on that temperature finally gave me something that looked like it might set, given some encouragement in the fridge. But because of all the lemon it had a noticeable tart lemon flavour. And because it was Thermomixed for such a long time it was very smooth.

It is recognisably jam, though if I heat it up and sieve it it would be jelly. Not bad for a first attempt, but I wouldn’t be ladling it onto scones for the local plebeians. I think it will ultimately end up in jam slice, that needs a tart jam.

Today it’s round two. It did stop raining for about twenty minutes, which enabled me to duck out for some chicken to schnitzel for tonight’s complicated evening, some fresh pasta for tomorrow nights complicated evening and another kilo of strawberries. Also a much needed coffee from Rino, you should try it. My research of last night, done while the strawberry sauce was cooking, suggested the jam might be helped along by some green apple.

I put half a green apple, minus core, into the jug and zapped it. Then added half a peeled lemon, the zest of half a lemon, five hundred grams of strawberries (saving some for afternoon tea), one hundred and twenty grams of jam setter sugar because that’s all I had left, and a hundred and thirty grams of caster sugar.

Cooked it at one hundred degrees for thirty five minutes, this time on reverse speed one to see if I could salvage some bits of strawberry. Not with much hope, they’re too soft not to be utterly mangled even by the blades in reverse. Once again, strawberry sauce, but not as tart as yesterday’s. Breathing deeply, put it on for a further fifteen minutes. Lost patience and put it up to Varoma temperature for fifteen minutes. That did it.

You ladle a bit out onto a saucer and see if it’s starting to firm up. If it spreads out in all directions, you keep going. Not a lot of strawberry bits survived, but more than in part A. I do seem to have quite a few lemon pips in there too, I should fish them out before plating up. I bit into one during initial tasting and they’re quite unpleasant.

So I’ll stick with iteration the second, especially if I can figure out how to separate out the lemon pips. I think they need to be in the cooking bit for the setting to occur. Maybe a really large holed sieve. I’m going to fossick around for a bit for a tiny jar so I can send our fearless leader a sample. I can’t be part of an organisation that serves Aldi jam.

Knife Shopping

Don’t make me talk about when my favourite knife died. You can find it in the archives. It involved sorbet. And epic foolishness on my part. Foolish foolish foolish. I need to let it go, that lesson is learned, and now I need a new knife.

I had blocked out today to wait for the shower screen guys, but as they managed to turn up twenty four hours early I was free to accept a kind invitation from a neighbour to chase her around the Bay then go on an excursion to Peters of Kensington. Exactly the emporium from which I had been planning to buy my new knife.

I do love Peters of Kensington. There’s a ton of stuff there, you need to go around four or five times to absorb the amount of stock you’re being presented with. Avoid looking up in the section with the expensive porcelain figures, there’s a really creepy clown perched above the shelves. We stopped at the little cafe for refreshments. It was full of the elderly taking tea, Rosemary Clooney crooning about whatever will be will be, we had to get up to the knife section before we were tempted to buy velvet cushions and book in for hip replacements.

It was a very serious knife section. I was pretty sure that I wanted exactly what I had last time, a sixteen centimetre Wusthoff chefs knife. My friend had just bought a Shun knife and was very impressed by it. So sharp she was worried she’d lose a finger, or slice right through her kitchen bench. I should at least have a look at one. The serious sales assistant unlocked the display and very gently laid the knife in front of me. I felt like I should swish and flick and bring down rolls of dusty wands. I did swish it a bit, but it has a very straight handle, it didn’t nestle in my hand like the Wusthoff. Then the serious lady started singing the praises of the knife, it was outrageously sharp, but very delicate. “You couldn’t cut pumpkin with it”, she said. “Or anything with a bone, you could chip the knife”. “And you can’t sharpen it with a steel, the angle is different to European knives. You have to get it sharpened professionally”. I got the feeling she didn’t really want to sell it. I hefted the Wusthoff. Ah, that’s the one. “I’ll take this, plus a paring knife”, I said. “Great! You know they’ll sharpen it for free. You can write to them and they’ll send you a reply paid envelope and you can post it to them. They’re in Perth. They’ll send it straight back. You’ll only be without your knife for two weeks. Oh, and I’ll have these knives sent downstairs for you”. What, you wouldn’t trust me to carry them downstairs? I did wonder if she was in the right profession at all.

We had a bit of time before the car was towed, so Ho for my favourite section, the gadgets. I spent a bit of time in front of this, saying to myself “I don’t need it, I don’t need it…”

With heroic self restraint I avoided buying it, which meant I had none left when I came across the carrot sharpener. It sharpens carrots!

I believe the idea is to create lavish curls of carrot for your fancy salads. But the excellent side effect is… Weaponised Carrots!

I’ve got my new knife home now, and it’s already cut strawberries and carrots and cucumber and capsicum and pork ribs and broccoli and I love it. I promise to hand wash it and replace it in its cardboard sleeve. And I will never let it near sorbet. I promise.


Unexpected Shower Screen

I know you’ve been on the edge of your armchairs, wondering how the muttering bathroom renovation has been coming along. Are they able to ablute inside yet? Would it be safe to go near them in warm weather?

I’ve been trying not to think about it, because it causes me to clutch at my hair and mess up its perfect symmetry ahahaha. I ordered all the bits early in April. Early in May the kitchen company indicated they were ready to go ahead. I called the supply place, My Bathroom and Tile Centre in Drummoyne, if you’re looking for someone to avoid, who had indicated they’d like a week’s notice. They were getting two weeks. And that’s where it all started to come unstuck.

Well, you’ve heard most of it. Only delivering half the tiles. Forgetting to bring the bath waste. None of the tradesmen turning up at the advised time, mostly late, but some early. Discovering that the existing bathroom drain was actually just a hole in the floor and not even at the lowest point. And the towel rails. Oh, the saga of the towel rails. First they had just forgotten to bring them. Then they were the wrong ones. Then they weren’t ready. I suspect they just forgot to order them, actually. Then it was going to be six weeks, because they were being hand plated by specially imported Irish leprechauns who only worked under the light of a full moon. Then it was going to be another six weeks, because they’d delivered one brand new shiny one and one battered one in a dusty box. Well they finally turned up yesterday, and here they are.

Aren’t they beautiful. And I had an added bonus today. A phone call from My Bathroom and Tile, almost exactly a month after they said the shower screen would be ready in a week. Where was I this morning? Well, a spot of gym, some shopping, that kind of thing. The shower screen people had popped by and were less than gruntled to miss me. I tactfully suggested that as they’d advised it would be installed on Wednesday, that being tomorrow, I hadn’t stuck to the premises like I had on so many other days, waiting, waiting, waiting for that next tiny step forward towards a working bathroom. Stick around, they suggested. Sure enough, miraculously before school pickup time, I finally had a shower screen.

Complete with a five year warranty, in case it explodes in the night like that of a good friend. You hear all the horror stories when you renovate. “Don’t touch it for twenty four hours or it will leak everywhere”, they suggested. What a tease. But it does mean that tomorrow night it will be possible to shower indoors without soaking the entire room for the first time since we moved into this place twelve years ago come Lammas Eve. Or thereabouts.

You know, when I think about it, most of my troubles come from the fact that I foolishly asked for my metal accents to be gold rather than chrome. I live in a house that celebrates its hundredth birthday this year. We have lights that turn on by pulling a string. In two of the rooms we still have gorgeously ornamented gas light fittings. I can’t have a bathroom that looks like something out a spaceship. But I wish they’d warned me that I would pay for being so very difficult, I might have just gone and bought all my fittings off the shelf at Recollections. Be warned. Learn from my tale of woe. Though, on the bright side, I may have a finished bathroom by the end of the week, and then all of the lies and disappointments will fade quickly into the past. First world problem? It’s up there.

Extracting the Essence

“I need some cheap vodka”, I told my husband. “Is it the Horror?” he asked. “Because I can take him to a movie if that would help. After I get home from soccer.”

No, not to put inside me, to make vanilla essence. Although the Horror’s piano teacher is threatening to bring a hip flask to his next lesson, tea just isn’t strong enough for him at the moment. I digress. I don’t know about you, but I get through a metric buttload of vanilla essence and that stuff isn’t cheap. It goes into most of my baking. I think it works as a flavour enhancer, you can’t really taste half a teaspoon in a batch of biscuits, but they’re just tastier for it. Make your own vanilla essence? How hard could it be?

Well, it isn’t hard, but it does take a little forethought because it takes a year. Most methods suggest six months, but I think a year is better. It’s very simple. Buy six vanilla pods, the best you can find. Stick them in a bottle of cheap vodka. I like the vodka because its cheap, tasteless and colourless, so I can see how strong the stuff is. Periodically shake the bottle. I’m sure you can finesse this and maybe shorten the process by heating it, processing the beans in some way, but you can’t beat it for simplicity. You just have to wait.

The one on the right I’m using now. It’s maybe two thirds the strength of bought vanilla essence. I could strengthen it simply by leaving the lid off for a bit and letting some of the alcohol evaporate. Or I could just add a bit more to my baking. It’s still strengthening and I give it a shake every time I use it. The one on the left is one that’s only been going for a month. See, I am capable of planning ahead.

Emboldened by this success, I’ve recently turned my attention to lavender. Over the holidays I suggested the Horror clean out his school bag. It turned out to be a little sticky at the bottom. He handed it to me. “I’d like you to wash this and when you give it back I’d like it to smell like lavender” he said. There’s something compelling about that boy. I found a lavender sachet at the bottom of my sportswear drawer, still a bit scented, and stuck it in the bag as it dried in the sun, giving the desired effect. But it made me think that here’s something that looks very easy to do, given enough lavender plants.

We gave the Horror some lavender plants of his own for his birthday, but I was resigned to waiting until they’d got big enough to harvest some time in the far future. Imagine my delight when, walking home from the Grasshopper with my takeaway coffee, I noticed that my neighbours had evidently spent the weekend trimming their lavender bushes and there were all the trimmings in their green bin, sitting publicly out on the public footpath. Honestly, the things people throw out.

It’s a green bin, there’s nothing wrong at all with scooping out an armful of lavender clippings. It’s the kind of lavender where the scent is in the leaves as well as the flowers. I’m a bit of an expert now, having chatted to the man at the garden centre for a full five minutes.

I have a litre jar that’s been recently emptied of pickled beetroot, so I start packing the leaves and flowers in. I’ve done a bit of googling on extracting, and you can either extract with a solvent, as it may be ethanol, found in large quantities in cheap vodka. Or you can steam distil the stuff, which gives me flashbacks to third year organic chemistry. Off to the bottle shop for cheap vodka then, and it’s worse than buying condoms. Middle aged housewife buys litre bottle of cheap vodka, appears to be wearing homemade fur vest, doesn’t seem to have brushed hair. Aha. “Don’t judge me!” I want to shout. “It’s for the lavender!” As if that would help.

I’ve packed the jar as tightly as I can, and it packs down even further with vodka in it.

It’s a litre jar, and a litre bottle of vodka. Can you see how much vodka is left? Familiar as you are with Archimedes principle, this will tell you that that level is exactly the volume that the lavender is taking up in the jar. So even though it looks like it’s packed very tightly, there’s more vodka in that jar than lavender.

I’m going to leave that on the windowsill for a while. Maybe some months. What’s extracting into the alcohol is scented oils from the plants, and the longer I leave it the more will come out. The theory is that when I filter the bits of plant out, I can leave the jar with the lid off until the alcohol evaporates, I’ll get a concentrated lavender oil. Which I can add to the Horror’s bath to leave him smelling delicious, which will hopefully distract people from noticing that he once again hasn’t washed his knees.