Category Archives: Equipment

Mud loving mats

This is another boring but kinda useful post. And it may not apply to you at all if you live in a city and you don’t get muddy.

But, if you have children or dogs and/or live in the country, you may find this of help.

Last autumn when it was really wet and therefore muddy, our wooden floors got unfeasibly dirty. The entrance hall comprised of dirt, wet foot prints, mud, bits of grass. No doormat could deal with the amount of detritus that was coming in.

When I was out and about in London one wet day, I noticed some rather fine establishments would put out these particular mats inside their doors, when it rained. I looked into it and they were by UK Mats.

Now, UK Mats has great customer service. I know, I used it a lot last year as I tried to work out what to get; the great thing is that it makes mats to order so in almost any size you want.

But in the end, I didn’t get my mat from there because I realised that I really needed a mat that could be machine washed. After some research one name kept coming up: Turtle Mats. These are not cheap (neither are UK Mats) and there are lots of ones out there that look the same but aren’t. People who have a Turtle Mat do rather go on about how good they are. Which both annoyed and heartened me. Annoyed because I really didn’t want to be spending nearly £90 on a doormat. Heartened because it seemed that if you did, it was worth it.

We went for the largest size (hence the price, you can get them from £23) and ours is from the Classic collection. There are lots of others in the range and I’m sure they work brilliantly, but I don’t do patterned doormats.

Anyway. We’ve had ours for a year now and it is, indeed, brilliant. It seems to suck water and mud from your feet, it doesn’t slip and when it gets too dirty you can put it in the washing machine.

I was so impressed I didn’t buy the company, but I did buy a Mud Hog to go outside, too.

(I’ve tried, but can I take a decent photo of this? Course not.)

Vacuum sealing

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One of the single most useful things I have in my kitchen is completely unattractive to look at and completely unattractive to talk about, and yet it’s really valid (I’m looking for another word for useful and I cant’ think of one). Especially at this time of year if you have lots of produce to freeze. It’s my vacuum packer. I got it last year when I briefly considered getting into sous vide cooking (to cook sous vide – or under vacuum – the food needs to be vacuum sealed). Of course to begin with, I was looking at vacuum packers that were all gorgeous and stainless steel. Until I discovered that the reviews on them were not good.

So I got this one. Which I’ve been using for nearly a year now and can report is excellent. But it has, from what I can see, two features that this one doesn’t and I don’t think you need these two extra features (the extras being that the more expensive one holds the bag in the machine – you don’t really need this, and it has an extended vacuum button which I’ve never used).

So I would do yourself a favour and buy the cheaper one. They are ugly, ugly machines. But that doesn’t matter. What they do is useful and I promise you that if you get one, you will be vacuum sealing everything in your path.

Why do you need a vacuum sealer? Why let me tell you.

By taking the air out of food, it keeps longer. But I don’t really vacuum pack food for the fridge, because no food in my fridge really stays there for that long (although I did once vacuum pack a doorstep of parmesan cheese which I kept in the fridge). No, where vacuum packing comes into its own is for food you store in the freezer. By sucking the air out of a bag of food it takes up less space, you end up with a freezer of what looks like industrial space food which I think is COOL and it doesn’t suffer from freezer burn. Seriously you will be vacuum packing every single item in your freezer.

Here are a few tips. You can’t vacuum pack liquids unless you have a chamber vacuum sealer. These are expensive. So you do need to have a bit of technique if you seal something with liquid in it or that’s soft. You can either just seal it, vacuum part of it but stop before it’s squashed your bread rolls into pancakes (this takes practise), or freeze the item in a normal container first, and then vacuum pack it (I did this with the blackberries you see above, I froze them on a tray first and then vacuum packed them). You can’t seal anything if there is any liquid breaching the seal.

You can, if you are so inclined, also vacuum pack stuff like shampoo bottles before you go on holiday so they won’t leak. But that’s a step too far even for me. I have, in the past, vacuum packed some nuts that my partner couldn’t stop eating with the words STOP written on the packet. And I have vacuum packed jumpers to stop moths getting at them. It works brilliantly.

You do need special bags for vacuum sealing – and the most economical are on a roll, so you can cut them to size. Just make sure they will fit into the width of sealer you have (most do). But you can also ‘seal only’ so you could seal a packet of peas, for example, in their shop bought bag rather than clipping it shut.

Those of you with whom I’ve shared my sourdough starter in the last year, have also had it sent to them vacuum packed. You lucky, lucky bastards.

 

Bread bakers’ hand scrub

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I often see hand-scrub for gardeners. And yet, I’ve never done any gardening which simple soap and water has not been able to see off.

Bread baking however, is another matter. I make bread about five times a week. Because I use the Dan Lepard method of making sourdough, which involves lots of rests and light kneading, and because sourdough is a high hydration dough, which means it can be a bit sticky, I end up washing my hands a lot. I often go out and realise that I’ve still got dried on bits of dough around my cuticles. I think bakers need handscrubs far more than gardeners, and yet I’ve never seen a bakers’ hand scrub and if there were one, I bet it would smell nauseatingly of fake cinnamon or vanilla. Both wonderful smells but if you want to fill your nostrils with such, you’re better off baking a cake.

This is a great little scrub which you can make with natural ingredients. Don’t make too much in one go, as it’s best fresh (although it keeps for a really long time). It takes off any dried on bits of dough (or anything) really well, and leaves your skin soft, moisturised and clean. If you want to, you can add a few drops of essential oil of your choice.

Also makes a nice present if you’re so inclined.

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You need a clean jar, granulated sugar, olive oil (despite the pic, just use regular not extra virgin), salt and a lemon.

You use one part sugar to one part salt to one part olive oil. So let’s say you use a cup measurement, that would be one cup of sugar to one cup of salt to one cup of olive oil. So two parts dry stuff to one part wet. Then the juice of one lemon. Mix all together, add a few drops of essential oils if you want and that’s it. It will separate out after standing for a while, that’s okay, you dig your hand through the oil and make sure you pick up some of the scrubby salt/sugar. Because I’m so lazy, I often find lemon pips in the mixture. That’s okay.

How to make your own reed diffuser

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Last week I did some radio.

What usually happens when I do radio is that everyone who I know rings me up saying “YOU’RE ON THE RADIO”. Which is why you have to switch your phone absolutely off. I love doing radio, especially when it’s live, because there is part of me that just wants to take over the airwaves and say ‘fuckbollockshitcuntwank’. But of course I never do because then my radio career would be completely over.

But doing radio is a buzz and you come out of the studio all pumped up. So, now that I’ve told you that, quite gratuitously, I can tell you that I came out of Broadcasting House, having been a star for six minutes and as I blinked in the sunshine I realise that my family had quite forgotten about me. They’d gone off on a jaunt and the text messages hadn’t got through so I was completely alone. No idea what to do or where to go.

Now. Being completely alone in the West End is often the stuff of fantasy for me. I love the West End. I was born there, it’s my home. I know almost every shop along Oxford Street. The very thought of being able to wander, aimlessly and without time-limits or being asked if two women can have a baby or what’s a teenager or who decided if we should be happy or how far is it into space or how old was I when I started smoking or did I do drugs and if so were they uppies or downies, well, that thought often replays in my mind when I haven’t got two minutes to rub together.

So here I was. Alone, in the West End with no-one needing anything from me. And of course, I didn’t know what to do with myself. So I went into all the shops until I finally gave myself up to John Lewis, the floors of which I backcombed until I was so up on its stock, I could have donned me an “INFORMATION” sash and diverted any customer to any corner of its emporium.

This is when I discovered that Johnny Loulous has almost an entire floor dedicated to reed diffusers. Reed diffusers are those room fragrance things that cost a fortune and involve liquid in a glass container with sticks sticking out of them. Like the picture above. They are supposed to fragrance a room continuously, but are safer than candles

I’ve been horribly spoiled over the years by expensive fragrance. I discovered Creed when I was 26, and there was no going back. It’s not the only perfume I wear now but I never wear anything that’s cheap. You can’t cheat with fragrance.

Unlike a body perfume, room fragrance doesn’t develop over time. It just is. So if it annoys the fuck out of you when you first smell it, the high chance is, it always will. We have Jo Malone’s Room Sprays in the bathroom (I grew up with an aunt who used plug in air fresheners which was enough to put me off for life. JM room sprays are not cheap but they are beautiful and they last years) and I once stupidly bought a ‘leather one’ – I can’t remember the exact name – hoping it would grow on me. It never did. All it does is really annoy me and I now realise that I don’t like any fragrance that purports to smell like leather anything.

But because I am slightly obsessed with nice smells, but it’s not practical to always light a candle or spray the room, I’ve sometimes looked at reed diffusers and thought about buying one. But a few things irk:

  1. Whenever I’ve smelled them in people’s houses they largely smell of nothing.
  2. They’re a bit 2011.
  3. The really nice ones cost a fortune.
  4. You often can’t get refills so you have to buy the whole thing again.
  5. The containers the fragrance comes in are often overly fancy and annoying and you’re paying for it.

So I got to the department chock full of reed diffusers and started to smell all of them. And the ones I really liked were by True Grace. Two really appealed – Greenhouse, * which smells of tomatoes ripening on the vine, and Wild Lime.

[*Note, I’ve linked to the candle because the room fragrance doesn’t appear to be on the TG website, but it does exist.]

Better yet, they sold refills for £18.50 (the original kit costs £32 which I think is a bit mad. Note: if you buy the refill direct from the True Grace Website, you also get 20 replacement reeds with it; you don’t if you buy it in John Lewis, despite it still costing £18.50 which is annoying).

This got me thinking. Why couldn’t you make your own?

So I did, I bought a refill (Greenhouse), took it home, put half of it in an old, clean Stokes’ Brown Sauce bottle (this is the best brown sauce ever), stuck some wooden skewers in and hey presto. A not cheap, but cheap-er reed diffuser refill for £9 a pop, but full of really extremely nice smelling stuff.

Two tips:

John Lewis also sells replacement reed diffusers for £3 for a bundle of short ones or £4 for a bundle of long ones. Reeds, of course, have little holes in them that the fragrance works up through but honestly? I’ve found wooden skewers work really well too. Don’t tell the fragrance industry though.

Turn the sticks upside down whenever you need to revive the scent. This is why most people’s smells of nothing after a while. If it gets too intense – which it won’t – remove some sticks.

I realise there are wars on. But if there’s not one going on in your home town and you fancy a nicer smelling house, try this.

Making your own yoghurt

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The reason I started making sourdough was because nowhere near where I live does proper sourdough. And even if it did, it would cost a fortune. As it is, making my own bread costs me about 50 pence per half a kilo of flour loaf. That would cost about £7 in a shop.

There is no such imperative to making your own yoghurt. Sure, once upon a time, you could only get really not very nice yoghurt (thin and sour) but, now, supermarkets are full of them. Thick, creamy Greek yoghurt, drinking yoghurt, yoghurt with naughty corners, yoghurt stuffed full of fruit or delicately flavoured with vanilla or coconut. So there’s not a huge heap of point making your own – I may as well come clean.

But here are some reasons to make your own:

If you eat a lot of it, making your own does save money. I made some today which would have cost about £2 in the shop and cost me about a quarter of that.

You know absolutely what goes into it.

You can use it to make frozen yoghurts and cakes (more on these another time).

I also use rather a lot of yoghurt in Ali’s Oatmeal Pancakes which we are totally obsessed with and top them with yet more yoghurt.

You can also make just what you need.

You make it using almost any type of milk.

If you find you’ve run out of yoghurt, which I realise is hardly a crisis, as long as you have some starter and milk, you can make some overnight and have some for breakfast.

If you get any whey off the top (sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t), you can use it to make sourdough (just use it to replace some or all of the water).

You can use it to make your own drinking yoghurts and save a fortune (I’ll write about how to do this next week).

So if you’ve decided to give it a go you should know that you can make yoghurt using no special equipment at all. Just a flask, or even a bowl wrapped in towels and placed in a warm place like an airing cupboard.

But where would be the fun in that.

Regular readers will know I love a gadget. The yogurt maker I have is an electric one by Lakeland. (£19.99 so it will take a while to recoup savings made on making your own, but isn’t that always the way when you buy a gadget. Note: I get 20% discount on Lakeland products.) I liked the idea of an electric one as the temperature is controlled.

Yoghurt, like sourdough, needs a starter to get going. However, unlike sourdough, I find you can’t use a bit of your ‘old’ yoghurt to make a new batch. I find the cultures in the yoghurt weaken over time. I know some people have written about having a starter going since year dot. But this hasn’t been my experience. So what I do is buy some organic Greek style yoghurt (because that’s what I like) and freeze it in an ice cube tray and then take it out and defrost one cube per half a litre of milk (approx).  I find that one small pot of bought yoghurt provides starter for about eight batches of my own. Probably more. I was never great at maths.

You can make yoghurt using UHT milk, in which case it’s even simpler as you just use the UHT milk (at room temperature) and go straight to the bit where you put it into the yoghurt maker with the starter. Don’t dismiss this totally. I have a litre of organic UHT in the cupboard for yoghurt making emergences.

I’m totally aware of how that sounds.

So this is what you do. Get some milk, about 400ml. Don’t sweat it if you have a bit more or less. I use organic milk; either semi skimmed or whole milk. I have truthfully found no difference at all in the end product and so I use what we have. Whole milk is much better for you (less sugar) but we only get it twice a week so I usually have semi-skimmed and that’s what I use; the yoghurt in the picture was made with semi skimmed and it is so thick and creamy.

If you want to guarantee really creamy yoghurt use two tablespoons of skimmed milk powder. You stir it into the  milk before you boil it (or into the UHT milk before you add it to the starter, make sure it’s dissolved). I always use it.

I do, of course, have a digital probe thermometer which I put in and it’s great as it also has an alert so tells you when it reaches a certain temperature (more on which this is useful in a moment). As soon as it reaches 100C (at which point it will froth up so you have to be on it), take it off the heat and leave it. Note: it takes longer to cool down milk for yoghurt than it takes to heat it up so be prepared.

(Note: all equipment that you use to make yoghurt, such as a probe thermometer etc must be really clean.)

Now, yoghurt is made from milk due to two types of of bacteria: Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. These multiply when the milk is at a particular temperature. If the milk is too hot it will kill the bacteria, if it’s too cold the bacteria can’t be bothered to work. This is why it is now crucial that you cool the milk to the right temperature. Some people are able to do this by dipping a clean finger into the milk, if it’s right you should be able to count up to ten with your finger in the milk. I have really cold hands so this is hard for me to get right so I use the digital thermometer to tell me when the milk has reached 44C. This is where the alert comes in.

Why 44C? Well the temperature window you’re aiming for is no warmer than 49C (kills the bacteria above this) and no cooler than 33 (bacteria can’t get going). 44C works really well for me.

When it reaches 44C you mix a bit of the milk with the starter and make sure it’s all well combined, then add the rest of the milk, mix gently but well and put in the yoghurt maker following the instructions for your own particular one.

That’s it. It’s usually done after 6-8 hours. For a milder yoghurt leave for less time but sometimes it’s not set after six hours anyway so you have to go longer. When it’s done, put it straight in the fridge and then later decant into another container (if you want to) and use as you wish. I find it keeps easily for five days, we’ve never had to test it for longer.

A few trouble shoots:

If your yoghurt doesn’t set, it’s usually due to one of three things:

Your starter didn’t have enough bacteria in it. This is why it’s really a good idea to freeze fresh yoghurt and then defrost it just before you need it. There’s no reason you couldn’t freeze your own yoghurt I suppose, but I always freeze shop bought as I think that way you’re starting with a really fresh culture.

Your milk was too warm or too cold. Temperature is key.

You may get some whey on the top, either stir through or drain off and use it to water certain plants (blueberries love them, but dilute it, about 1/10 parts water and note I’m not a gardener, this is just what I’ve read). Or as I said above use it to replace water in bread baking.

So to summarise, this is what I use:

400ml of of full cream or semi skimmed milk to make the same amount of yoghurt (i.e a shade over 400ml)

An ice cube size of starter – about 30ml, more if you want the yoghurt to set more quickly and if you want a milder taste (the less time it takes to set, the milder/cleaner the taste, more starter yoghurt means it sets more quickly, in less time).

Two tablespoons of dried milk powder.

Update: February 2014. Since I realised that a teaspoon of maple syrup was only about 15 calories, and the difference such a small amount could make to certain foods, I have been less reticent about using it. Some freshly made, but chilled, yoghurt, with a teaspoon of maple syrup and some soft, squidgy, cut up Medjool dates is really delicious and I’m not one to really say that of yoghurt based desserts.

Best buys for a family summer

IMG_2784Sitting on the beach yesterday, I realised just what a grumpy bastard I am. I think it may be a legacy of working in my parents’ cafe from the age of seven, where I was forced to interact with members of the public (who could be delightful or incredibly awful and I found the whole experience mostly stressful, just never knowing if a psychopath was going to walk in). Or it may be because I am a curious mixture of highly sociable or hermit. But I find situations where I am surrounded by lots of random people hard going. Especially if I am trapped in a sitting situation.

So any sort of theatre, cinema, play experience is not as enjoyable for me as it might be for others. And the beach. I’d enjoy the beach – I adore the seaside – if I could be suspended in some sort of pod, unseen but all seeing. With a supply of water, a toilet and some food. My partner said I should get a beach hut but a) I don’t have a spare £100K and b) that wouldn’t do it as beach huts are on the promenade usually and you get people walking by and looking in. Just the thought of it makes me want to dig myself a cave.

I love the beach in winter, where you can’t really sit but you have to walk and there is no-one about. My idea of heaven is the beach at Orfordness where you are surrounded by unexploded bombs and access is strictly limited.

It is surely no surprise that I chose a career as a writer.  I can’t think of a more antisocial, keeping people at arm’s length job.

This UV tent is as close to a pod as I can get. No-one looks inside. I can experience the wilds of the sea whilst feeling entirely cocooned. I can keep an eye on my children (luckily my partner is not like me and actually plays with them on the beach and *sharp intake of breath* goes into the sea). As long as all my things are in the tent, and I have a good view of my children, I am blissfully happy. It’s a best buy. It costs £65 on the site I link to in my original blog post, but if you do a search for ‘The Shelta UV Protector’ you can find it at other places too. I got mine from Little Explorers but it doesn’t seem to do it anymore, at the time of writing Amazon did it from Safetots for £40.

If you haven’t yet got your Sun San sandals then what is wrong with you? Get some. We spent all day on the beach in ours yesterday and my children paddled in the sea and by the time we got home they looked like new. If you are a regular follower of this blog however, you’d have got yours in April before they largely sold out…

Rather than fighting your children to get sun lotion put on them, don’t forget about UV suits. You can get these almost anywhere (put UV sunsuits into Google). Ours are a mixture of Ozone by Sposh (more on this make in a minute) and John Lewis own make (whose designs this year are really annoying, either pink and ‘girly’ or skulls and supposedly aimed at boys, last year I got a really cool red and grey one for my eldest). Do buy a good make though as the fabric should be properly UV50 SPF. But with a UV suit (I recommend a one piece over a two piece)  most of your child is covered and they can swim and play without you fretting that they need a top up of sun lotion every five minutes.

Now, hats. Many years ago, I picked up three floppy sun hats by Sposh Ozone at Romaine’s Junior Style Sales. What you get at these sales is very hit and miss of course, and I can’t say I saw those hats again at subsequent sales. But at that time, I picked up three hats for a £1 each. They proved to be some of the best things I ever bought for my children. These hats are floppy, have fitted from when my eldest was two to still fitting her perfectly now at aged nine, they give UV protection, wash well, fold up quite small and seem to stay on in all but really high winds. I was never able to find them again until recently when a friend saw a picture of my two girls and asked where their hats were from so I searched again and found them here. (This is the same site I link to for the UV tent, because the place I got mine from – Little Explorers  – doesn’t do the UV Shelter anymore. This site, Sunproof, also does UV suits if you can’t be bothered to look far, but you can get UV suits from most places so shop around.)

At a really good price of a penny under a fiver, postage included (they come in the red that I’ve linked to but also blue). Most other places sell them for £14 odd.

I just stocked up on four more. I really recommend these hats, they are brilliant and look great. I realise that the size we have is large which says fits from 7-14. But we have them and they are interchangeable for my four year old and my nine year old (they are cotton Lycra so slightly stretchy). But buy whatever size you think suits you.

Great children’s ruck sack

 

If your child walks or cycles to school, or even if they don’t but you find they have about five different bits of luggage to carry to school, this is an excellent ruck sack. It has lots of useful pockets (I love a dedicated pocket), it’s well made, has reflective stripes.. but perhaps most importantly, it’s endorsed by the Backcare Charity.

This is the small size, but I’ve found it plenty big enough for a nine year old. But, if you don’t think that will be big enough, there’s also a large size.

£25 from John Lewis.