Friday, March 28, 2014

Healthy Homemade Chocolate Bars (or hearts, or chips, or . . .)

Every once in a while I get a hankering for some chocolate (who doesn't?) Instead of running to the grocery store and buying something made with soy, refined sugar, emulsifiers, and who knows what else, I whip some of this up in my double-boiler at home. It's even safe for my friends who can't have dairy, eggs, or gluten. Pure and simple goodness!

Or if you want something a little more fancy, you can add in any number of extras - almonds, coconut flakes, mint swirls, dried cranberries - whatever floats your boat!

Healthy Homemade Chocolate
1/2 cup coconut oil (I prefer this brand) (butter also works great)
1/3 cup honey (more or less, depending on how dark you like your chocolate) (maple syrup is good, too)
1/2 cup cocoa powder (I prefer this brand)
dash sea salt
Melt all together gently in a double boiler, stirring very well (or it will separate, leaving all of the honey on the bottom and VERY bitter chocolate on the top! I know this from sad experience! ) Pour into molds and cool (I usually put mine in the freezer because I'm impatient and I want to eat some right away!) 

One great thing about this recipe is that if you mess this up, you can just re-melt it and try again - add more honey, stir it up better if it separates, etc.

This batch makes about the same amount as five 1.55-oz candy bars. 

Because they don't have any added stabilizers, these chocolates will melt at about 76 degrees (the temperature your coconut oil melts), so you may want to store these in the refrigerator.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Honey-Sweetened Dried Cranberries

Here's another pantry staple that I've been wanting to make at home for a while. The ones in the store are almost always sweetened with sugar and coated with vegetable oil - both of which I'd prefer to avoid, so when I found a recipe (in The Complete Book of Small Batch Preserving) I was overjoyed. I adapted it to use honey instead of sugar, and it worked great (although the finished product is more sticky than what I'm used to, but I presume that's because I don't add any oil).

Homemade Honey-Sweetened Dried Cranberries
makes 3/4 cup (I always double or even quadruple the batch)
2 cups fresh (or frozen) cranberries
1/4 cup honey
Cut cranberries in half and place in medium bowl, stir in honey. Cover and let stand 24 hours, stirring occasionally. Drain off liquid. Place cranberries on a baking sheet and place in a 100 degree F oven for 24 hours (I use my dehydrator),
Store in an airtight container.

The Perfect Salad Dressing

In another of my "well, duh" moments, I discovered last night that mixing salsa (fermented, of course!) and sour cream make for the best lettuce topper ever! I think the kids still prefer ranch (salsa's a little to spicy for them) but I'm hooked!

Ooh, and if you add an avocado - perfection!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Incubator Success!

Ever since I first got chickens, I've been dreaming of hatching my own hens' eggs. I've tried getting breeds known for going broody (Orpingtons, twice!) and even buying bantams that had hatched out their own chicks before (only one ever set (Millie) and she got eaten 2 days before the eggs would have hatched. That was heartbreaking!) So when The Instigator (aka Mama Hen) told me that my niece wanted an incubator for her birthday, I told her I'd chip in for whatever she decided to purchase, if she agreed to hatch out some eggs for me.
She chose the Hovabator #1583 (the circulating air model) and also purchased the automatic egg turner and thermometer/hygrometer, for a total of $175. I was very skeptical that it would work - I'd tried to use one of those foam incubators before, with no success (to be fair, I'd been given it for free, it was definitely used (dirty), and it didn't have the fan. It turned out the thermostat didn't work, and even after I replaced it, I couldn't get the unit to keep a constant temperature.) But I still gave her 40 eggs to hatch out, figuring you never know, it might work!

And work it did! 21 days after we dropped off the eggs, the kids and I were back at her house for the weekend, eagerly waiting for "our babies" to make their appearance. On the drive over, she'd texted me that the first egg had pipped, and it hatched completely shortly after we arrived.
It was the most exciting, nerve-wracking, joyful experience I've had since I delivered my own children. All weekend, we waited, holding our breath as another chick would start "unzipping" her shell (yes, I called them all girls, hoping for mostly pullets!) and urging her on as she gave the final push and emerged from the shell. All day and night the sound of chirping came from the back bedroom (I don't know how my niece got any sleep in there!) and though the kids were running around and having fun with their cousins, I kept stealing back to the incubator to check on the chicks. As each chick hatched, we would remove it from the incubator and put it in a "first brooder" box to dry off under a heat lamp, so it wouldn't knock the other eggs around so much. Then, once it was dry and rested, we would move it to the main brooder with its siblings.

Halfway through the first day, I knew I was hooked, and went on Amazon to order my own incubator. I got the exact same setup she had (why mess with what works?), and as soon as it arrived I started another setting of eggs. 
My daughter added some incubator graffiti when I wasn't looking!
It was extremely simple to use. I set everything up, then made sure that the incubator kept a steady 99.5 degrees (Farenheit). I added water into the reservoir, put the eggs in the turner, and closed it up. Other than adding water anytime the humidity went below 40%, I didn't do anything (other than watch anxiously and dream of fluffy little chicks!)

(I highly recommend Anna Hess' ebook Permaculture Chicken: Incubator Handbook - exactly the information I needed, giving me confidence and peace of mind. Well worth the $2.99!)

On day 19, I removed the turner and set the eggs onto the wire floor, then closed everything back up again. Right on schedule, the first egg began to rock, and soon I saw a tiny hole in one of the shells. Before long, she was pecking a ring around the top of the shell, and her sisters were starting to crack their shells, too. At 11:00 at night I was awakened by the sound of LOUD chirping - the first chick had hatched! 7 more had pipped, and were peeping and wiggling inside their shells. The hatch had officially begun!
Exhausted babies!
For the next two days, I was on a non-stop "chick high" running back to the incubator over and over to see how things were progressing. By Sunday morning, there were 25 chicks, and by the end of the day 27 of the 41 eggs had hatched (I'd gotten 23 from the first batch at Mama Hen's, and 25 from the second batch she hatched out for me - about a 60% (25 out of 41) hatch rate - not too bad!)

It wasn't until about Tuesday, when the "chick high" had faded, that I realized that those 77 adorable little fluffballs would grow into full-sized chickens very quickly. Now where was I going to put them all?!
My "babies" at three months old, in the new chicken run my husband put up for me
This post added to Old-Fashioned Friday, the 104 Homestead Blog Hop Farmgirl Friday, and the Homestead Barn Hop.