Sep 15, 2014

Making Peach Jam Without Added Pectin

I've been wanting to try my hand at making jam without added, store bought pectin. Not because there is anything wrong with pectin (it's extracted from apples; you can even make your own), but because some people seem to prefer the flavor of no-pectin-added jam.

Of course, in order to jell up, all jam needs some pectin. But certain fruits (apricots, berries, peaches and apples) are naturally higher in pectin, so you don't need to add store bought or homemade pectin to them.

In the end, although this peach jam is delish, I can't say I think no-pectin-added jam is any better than the pectin-added variety. And it took a considerably longer to cook down and jell than any jams I've made with added pectin. Nonetheless, it's nice to know I can make pectin-free jam, if I want to.

How to Make Peach Jam without Added Pectin
(recipe from The Ball Blue Book, 1984)

8 cups of peeled, pitted, crushed peaches (I used about 8 large peaches)*
1/2 cup water
6 cups granulated sugar**
Crushed peaches.
First, you may wish to review the guidelines for canning using a boiling water bath canner.

1. Pour the prepared peaches and the water into a large, non-reactive pot. Gently heat for 10 minutes.

2. Stir in the sugar. Slowly bring to a boil, stirring often.

3. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring often to prevent scorching, until the jam jells. To test for jelling, place a saucer in the refrigerator. Once it's cold, spoon a small amount of the jam onto the saucer and place in the freezer. If the jam jells after a couple of minutes in the freezer, it's done.
Simmer down the jam.

The jam once it "jells."
4. Pour the jam into clean, hot jelly jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Process for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath canner.***


* To learn how to peel peaches the old fashioned way, click here. Or get yourself a soft fruit peeler; to my mind, that is the only way to go!

In addition, your job will be much easier if you buy freestone peaches. (Cling peaches are difficult to pit.)

** Sugar both helps the jam "jell" (or set), and helps preserve the finished product. You may adjust  the amount of sugar in this recipe, but it may not jell well, and it won't last as long in the cupboard.

*** If you live at a high altitude, read this important information about adjusting canning times.

Sep 12, 2014

Free Art History Curriculum: Claude Monet

Monet painted the bridge in his garden many times, over many seasons.
Claude Monet: b.November 14, 1840 in Paris, France (find it on the globe) d. December 5, 1926 in Giverny, France (find it on the globe)

Style: Impressionist (Learn more about impressionism here.)

See some of Claude Monet's paintings here.

Be sure to give your child plenty of time to study each work of art. Ask: Do you see any similarities between Monet's paintings and Van Gogh's or Da Vinci's? How is Monet's art different? How does Monet use color and shade to create a certain mood? How does Monet use brush strokes? Whose sunflowers painting came first: Monet's or Van Gogh's? How do Monet's paintings make you feel?

* Short biography of Claude Monet
* Longer biography of Monet
* Coloring page: "Water Lilies" (to print, right click and save to your computer, then print)
* Coloring page: "La Promenade"
* Coloring page: "Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies"
* Coloring page: "Sunflowers"
* Activity: Tape resist Monet-inspired painting
* Activity: Watercolor and oil Monet-inspired painting
* Activity: Create a 3D water lily
* Activity: Crayon resist Monet-inspired painting
* Video: Claude Monet for Kids
* Video: Linnea in Monet's Garden
* Video: Footage of Monet's real gardens (also here)
* Video: Impressionist painting for kids: chalk pastels
* Video: Paint Like Monet: A Beginner's Guide

Learn more about this free art history curriculum for kids, plus a list of all artists covered so far, by clicking here.

Sep 10, 2014

Walmart's Savings Catcher: Hit or Miss?

Perhaps a month ago, my local Walmart began touting what they call "Savings Catcher:" a website or app customers can use to automatically check for lower prices at mother grocery stores. If the Savings Catcher finds a lower price, Walmart gives the customer the difference. So, if for example, you purchased a certain brand and size of cheese at Walmart, but store #2 has the exact item on sale for a buck less, Walmart will give you that dollar. Sounds great, right?
Well, the first time I tried Savings Catcher, I had zero savings. The second time, after a large shopping trip that would feed us for at least two weeks, I received a whopping $1.62 in savings. Hmmm...

How Walmart's Savings Catcher Works

After you shop at Walmart, you can either scan a smart phone QR on the bottom of the Walmart receipt (after downloading the Savings Catcher app), or you can use your computer or other online device to go to Savings Catcher online. (I don't have a smart phone, so I can only give details about what it's like to use Saving's Catcher on my computer.)

Once at the Savings Catcher website, you'll need to set up a password, then enter a 21 digit number off your receipt, plus the date of purchase. That's it; the website does the rest. You'll receive an email that your info was received by the site and then, within a handful of days, you'll get another email explaining whether Savings Catcher found any better deals at other grocery stores. If it did, the email tells you how much money is going back into your pocket.

According to the Savings Catcher FAQ, each customer may enter up to seven receipts per week, and there is no minimum number of items that must be on the receipt. However, receipts can be no more than seven days old.

The Good

* Savings Catcher online is very easy to use, taking no longer than two minutes, tops, to enter your password and receipt information. Presumably, using a smart phone scan is even easier.

* Any money that comes back to you can be saved up - or turned into a gift card right away.

* According to a news release, Savings Catcher will soon include produce and general merchandise.

The Not So Good

* Not too surprisingly, there are a number of items Savings Catcher does not consider. It doesn't compare prices on advertised sales that offer a percentage off, that require a separate purchase to get the advertised price, BOGO deals where no price is listed, online purchases, store brand items, deli, bakery, weighed items (like meat), consumables (like toilet paper), health and beauty items, and "select general merchandise items...including, but not limited to, electronics, media and gaming, toys, sporting goods, housewares, small appliances, home d├ęcor, bedding, books and magazines, apparel and shoes, jewelry, furniture and seasonal products...tobacco, firearms, gasoline, tires, prescription drugs, optical and photo products and services, or products that require a service agreement such as wireless, automotive or financial products."

* If Savings Catcher finds an item at a lower price, you can only get the savings in the form of a Walmart gift card.

* Each customer can earn a maximum of $599.99 Reward Dollars per year.

The Bad

* The Savings Catcher website says they "compare advertised prices from the top retailers located nearby the Walmart store where you shopped." The list of stores they compared prices with is available once your receipt has been processed and you've received information on what (if anything) you saved. In my case, none of the stores were what I'd consider comparable to Walmart; they were stores that very, very rarely have prices lower than Walmart. Worse, we have at least two grocery stores - closer than some of the stores Walmart used as comparables - that are what might be called "discount" grocery stores, with prices more in line with Walmart, that the Savings Catcher did not include. I hate to say it, but this seems pretty disingenuous; if Walmart really wants to make comparison shopping unnecessary - if they really want to "offer customers yet another reason to trust us when it comes to helping them save" -  then they need to compare prices with ALL the grocery stores in a given area - even those that may have lower prices than Walmart.

* Savings Catcher appears to work best if you buy a lot of processed food. The only items I saved money on were two processed food items my husband likes to eat once in a while. I suppose this shouldn't be a surprise since the Savings Catcher FAQ says they don't compare prices on anything weighed - which is a good portion of what we buy when we cook from scratch. (That said, Walmart is promising to soon include produce in the Savings Catcher; that could make Savings Catcher more worthwhile.)


While I'm not very excited about how Savings Catcher currently works, I do think it has potential. If Walmart will compare prices with all grocery stores in a given area, and if they will include produce and meat, Walmart will really have a competitive edge. In the meantime, I will probably continue adding my receipt information into Savings Catcher - at least for a time - in the hopes that it will improve.

Sep 8, 2014

How to Make Beef Stock or Broth

I've written before about making stock - from chicken, vegetables, fish, and beef - but recently we purchased half a steer, and I found myself with a lot of wonderful beef bones. And since more and more people are buying their beef in bulk and have far more access to beef bones than they used to, I felt a new - more detailed - post was warranted on making your own beef stock. (Not buying part of a steer anytime soon? You can still make your own beef stock. Just find a real butcher's shop and request some beef "soup bones." These are bones that still have some meat on them, and which are full of good marrow. They will be inexpensive - or the butcher might give them to you for free.)

Please note that all you really need to make stock is bones and water. All the other ingredients are optional - but do improve the flavor of the stock and the nutrition of the finished product. So feel free to vary the ingredients, depending upon what you have on hand. However, I do highly recommend using the recommended vinegar, as detailed below; it really does help get all those good nutrients out of the bone marrow.

What You Need to Make Beef Stock or Broth

Roasting pan
Large pot
Cutting board
Slotted spoon
Containers for freezing or canning the stock

about 5 - 8 lbs. beef soup bones, cut into pieces (the butcher will do that for you)
5 carrots, cut into 3 inch pieces
5 stalks celery, cut into 3 inch pieces
2 onions, quartered (leave the papery skins on)
2 - 3 cloves garlic, cut in half (leave the papery skins on)
handful of parsley
4 - 5 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 - 3 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon peppercorns
Vinegar (I use Braggs apple cider vinegar)

How to Make Beef Stock

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

2. Place the beef bones in the roasting pan. Most likely, you'll get frozen bones from the butcher. You don't need to defrost them - just stick them in the pan, frozen. Add the carrots, celery, onions, and garlic to the pan. Once the oven is fully preheated, place the pan in the oven and roast, stirring occasionally, until the meat on the bones looks cooked through. With frozen bones, this takes approximately 60 minutes. If the bones weren't frozen when you put them in the oven, it will take about 30 - 40 minutes. (NOTE: The roasting stage is also optional, but greatly improves the flavor of the stock.)
Before roasting. You'll notice I absentmindedly added the herbs at the roasting stage. This by no means ruined the stock, but I do think it's better to leave the herbs out until the simmering stage.
After roasting.
3. Pour the contents of the roasting pan into a large pot. Be sure to include any fat and liquid in the pan. Add the parsley, thyme, bay leaves, and peppercorns.

4. Add 1/2 cup of water to the roasting pan and use a spoon to scrap the bits of beef off the bottom of the pan. Pour into the stock pot. Add enough cold water to cover the contents of the pot. Add a splash of vinegar.

5. Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently about 4 hours.

6. Strain the contents of the pot, reserving the liquid. (The vegetables can be composted or given to your chickens. Any meat on the bones can be picked off and frozen for soup made at a later date. Or you can give them to the chickens. It's possible to re-use the bones for stock making, but they won't make as fine a stock as the first batch; still, if you want to do this, it's okay to re-freeze the bones so you can use them another day.)

7. Place the stock in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning, skim off any congealed fat you find on top of the stock. It should be firm enough that you can just lift it out with your fingers.
Overnight, all the fat rises to the top and becomes firm enough to lift out.
The stock is finished. This batch turned out beautifully gelatinous.
8. The stock may now be frozen or canned. To can, leave 1 inch headspace and process in a pressure canner: pints 20 minutes, quarts 25 minutes*.

I chose not to can this batch because it turned out really gelatinous. While that makes it questionable for canning (because it's thicker and therefore might not heat all the way through, killing any bad bugs during processing), gelatinous is a good thing! In fact, it's what gourmet chefs want. (What is the trick to getting it gelatinous? I'm not absolutely sure, but I think it's simmering it very low, and not adding any water to the pot once it comes to a boil.)

* NOTE: If you live at a high altitude, read this important information about adjusting canning times.

Sep 5, 2014

Free Art History Curriculum: Leonardo Da Vinci

"Mona Lisa" is one of Da Vinci's most famous paintings.
Leonardo da Vinci: b.April 15, 1452 in Vinci, Italy (find it on the globe) d. May 2, 1519 in Amboise, Kingdom of France (find it on the globe)

Style: High Renaissance (A simple explanation: "The Renaissance happened in the 14th - 16th centuries. It was a time when people in Europe had a reawakening of thought, art, literature, science, and government. They experimented, fought wars, and experienced religious change, moving away from Catholicism toward Protestant thought." Learn more about the Renaissance here.)

See some of Leonardo Da Vinci's famous paintings here. Learn about Da Vinci's interest in invention and science here.

Be sure to give your child plenty of time to study each work of art. Ask: How is Da Vinci's work like Van Gogh's? How is it different? How do you think Da Vinci's interest in science influenced his work as an artist? What stories do Da Vinci's paintings tell?

* Biography of Leonardo Da Vinci
* Another bio of Da Vinci
* Coloring page: "Mona Lisa" (another one here)
* Coloring page: "Lady with an Ermine"
* Coloring page: "Proportions of the Human Figure" (to print, right click, save to computer, then print)
* Coloring page: self portrait
* Coloring page: Last Supper
* Inexpensive Kindle book: Who Was Leonardo Da Vinci?
* Free book: Leonardo Da Vinci for Kids: 21 Activities
* Interactive website: Museum of Science, Leonardo Da Vinci
* Video: Why is the Mona Lisa so Famous?
* Video: 10 Worst Things That Have Happened to the Mona Lisa
* Activity: Da Vinci made his own paint; you can make paint, too.

Da Vinci was more than "just" an artist; if you like, you can add projects related to mirror writing (also here), flying machines, catapults (also here), helicopter, etc.

Learn more about this free art history curriculum for kids, plus a list of all artists covered so far, by clicking here.

Sep 3, 2014

What to Do with Strawberry Runners

If you grow strawberries, chances are your plants will produce runners - shoots that eventually grow leaves and create additional strawberry plants. (Technically, they are known as "stolons.") These runners are both a good thing and a bad thing. They are bad because they eventually over-crowd your strawberry plants, making them much less productive. They are good because they are an easy way to get new strawberry plants.

How to Get Rid of Strawberry Runners

If you don't want new strawberry plants - and don't know anyone else who wants them, either - you'll want to pinch or cut back runners as soon as they appear. This will keep your existing strawberry plants healthy and productive.

How to Use Strawberry Runners for New Plants

If you want new strawberry plants from your runners, there are two methods you may wish to try. The first, and easiest for novice gardeners, is to wait for the runners to grow new plants with at least three leaves. Then cut the runner (the stem that connects the baby plant with the mother plant) off and dig up the baby plant. Replant it wherever you like.

The second method is also easy: Before the runner produces leaves, place a four inch pot filled with good, wet potting soil beneath the runner. Press some of the runner down into the potting soil. Make sure this piece of runner is covered with soil, then place a small rock on top to keep the runner in place. Make sure the soil in the pot stays moist. After a few weeks, the runner should have rooted in the potting soil; remove the rock. When there are at least three leaves on the baby plant, cut off the runner stem. Plant the new strawberry plant wherever you like.

Sep 1, 2014

Apple Skillet Cake Recipe

Apples are one of my favorite ingredients. With them, I can make anything from healthy applesauce and baked apples, to sweet, delish apple pie and cake. Here's the apple cake I made last week; it is quick to make - and a real crowd pleaser.
Apple Skillet Cake Recipe

1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (packed) brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 eggs
1 teaspoon pure pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup melted butter + 1 tablespoon cold butter
2 1/4 cups apples, peeled, cored, and chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place an 8 inch cast iron skillet in the oven to preheat.

2. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour, granulated sugar, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.

3. Pour the eggs, extract, and 1/2 cup melted butter on top of the flour mixture. Mix until almost blended. Add the apples and fold by hand until everything is just blended.

4. Remove the skillet from the oven and place 1 tablespoon of butter in the pan. Swirl the butter around until it's fully melted and covers the entire bottom of the skillet. Pour the apple mixture into the skillet and bake for about 40 minutes, or until the sides of the cake are dry and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

5. Allow cake to cool in the skillet for at least 20 minutes. Cake is best if served the day after baking. (The spices mellow overnight.) Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream on the side, if desired.

Looking for other ways to use up apples? Check these posts:

*  Making applesauce
* Freezing apple pie filling
* Apple spice bread recipe
* Apple pie jam
* Dehydrated apple rings (without a dehydrator)
* Homemade apple pectin
* Recipes using crab apples

Aug 28, 2014

Free Art History Curriculum for Kids: Vincent Van Gogh

"Starry Night" by Vincent Van Gogh.
"Starry Night" is one of Van Gogh's most famous paintings.
Vincent Van Gogh: b. March 30, 1853 (Zundert, Netherlands- find it on the globe) - d. July 29, 1890 (Auvers-sur-Oise, France - find it on the globe) Question: How old was Van Gogh when he died?

Style: Post impressionist (learn more about post-impressionism here)

See some of Van Gogh's most famous paintings here.

Be sure to give your child plenty of time to study each work of art. Ask: What colors did Van Gogh favor? What kind of brush strokes does he use? What do his paintings make you feel?

* Short biography of Vincent Van Gogh
* Slightly longer and more detailed bio of Van Gogh 
* Article: Did Van Gogh's vision create his style of painting?
* Coloring page: "Starry Night"
* Coloring page: more detailed "Starry Night"
* Coloring page: "Room at Arles"
* Coloring page: "Sunflowers"
* Coloring page: "Self Portrait"
* Video: Art with Marti and Dada - Vincent Van Gogh
* Video: Van Gogh inspired art with oil pastels and watercolor
* Activity: Van Gogh inspired finger painting
* Activity: Van Gogh printable art book

Learn more about this free art history curriculum for kids, plus a list of all artists covered so far, by clicking here.