Thursday, August 29, 2013

Nog Brûlée

One faithful and astute reader recently pointed out to us that August was rapidly running out of days to celebrate, and we had yet to designate which of those days should be celebrated with eggnog.  Well, fear not, digital friends, because tomorrow is National Marshmallow Toasting Day!  We're going to celebrate this holiday by combining the two best parts of summer: s'mores and eggnog.  "But eggnog isn't normally even a part of summer!" you defiantly protest.  Well, just wait until next summer when this dish is on the front page of the New York Times, or some other famous publication.  This recipe is bound to go viral.  Maybe.

First, we should introduce the newest member of our family: Ed the Eggbeater.  When the plastic teeth on our old one finally did more slipping than biting, we decided to upgrade to one that was made probably 50 years ago.  (They just don't make them like they used to!  Darn kids, rastess frastess gobbeldy gook...).  Ed's got stainless steel gears, a near-zero-clearance connector piece at the bottom, and an ergonomically correct handle, like he's from the future.  So, if you ever happen to find yourself antique shopping with your mother-in-law on a beautiful gardening day, keep an eye out for one of these guys, and it will be a nice silver lining.  We just might have to have another go at egg-beater butter making, now that we've got Ed.  Thanks, Shari!
The recipe starts out like it always does here: separate the yolks from six eggs and beat them with Ed (or your analogous tool) until they're thick and yellow.  Then add 1.5 cups milk and heat 'em up until they hit 160 °F to kill all the salmonella.
Then add 0.25 cups brown sugar (or whatever type of sugar you prefer) and 10 quartered marshmallows.  Better taste-test a few marshmallows just to make sure you didn't happen upon a pile of Michelin Man turds.  Mix these in to the hot egg mixture with Ed.
When they're all dissolved, add another 1.5 cups milk and cool down.  Actually, we didn't cool it down this time, and the finished product was surprisingly drinkable warm.  Still, we think it would probably be better cold.  When it gets to your desired temperature, pour it into your fancy drinking glasses.
Now comes the fun part.  We're celebrating National Marshmallow Toasting Day.  If you were paying attention, we didn't toast the first ten marshmallows we added.  We just dissolved them with the mighty beater-like arms of Ed.  The 11th marshmallow is the lucky one.  (Or unlucky, depending on your perspective.)  Take marshmallow number 11 and soak it in the most concentrated liquor you've got for a few minutes.  It will help to swish it around in there and squeeze it like a sponge to expel the air and fill the pores with alcohol.  In case you were wondering, 190 proof (95 volume percent) is as concentrated as ethanol can get by distillation because it forms an azeotrope with water.  It results from non-ideal mixing of ethanol-water solutions. (To a certain extent, water would rather stick to water and ethanol to ethanol than water to ethanol or ethanol to water--it's a positive azeotrope!)  Ahh, thermodynamics.  If you want more concentrated ethanol, you can use 3A zeolites to remove the rest of the water, since water can enter the pores of the zeolites and form energetically favorable interactions with the pore walls, whereas the ethanol molecule is too large to fit in the pores.  Ahh, more thermodynamics.
Then add the alcohol-soaked marshmallow to the glass of eggnog, add another tablespoon of liquor, and light the sucker on fire.  Ethanol burns with a bluish flame, indicating that very little soot (carbon) is produced.  Ha ha, look at it go!
After a few minutes, it should get hot enough to start toasting the marshmallow.  We did some (extensive) experimentation with this part, and found that we couldn't get the marshmallow to toast reliably with (the less-concentrated) rum, or without adding an extra tablespoon of concentrated alcohol.  Alternatively, you could just add the alcohol and light it, then toast the marshmallow over your flambé-ing eggnog.
You might have to swish the marshmallow around in the glass a little to get it to toast (somewhat) evenly, and you might also have to blow out the flame before the marshmallow melts down into the eggnog.  Careful--you look better with fingers and eyebrows!  There will be some residual alcohol, which you will probably be able to taste. 
Once the fire is out, add a couple sections of graham crackers and some chocolate syrup that Katie made.  S'mores and eggnog--what could be better?  This is probably the start of a National Marshmallow Toasting Day tradition here at the Homestead Laboratory.  Let us know if you want to come celebrate with us--we'll make sure to have enough marshmallows for everyone!

The recipe:
6 egg yolks
1.5 cups milk
another 1.5 cups milk
1/4 cup sugar
10 marshmallows, quartered
Another marshmallow per glass, soaked in concentrated alcohol
1 tablespoon concentrated alcohol
1 tablespoon chocolate syrup and at least two graham cracker sections per cup

Beat egg yolks and 1.5 cups milk until uniform.  Heat mixture to 160 °F, stirring often.  Add sugar and quartered marshmallows, stir until dissolved.  Chill (or don't) and pour into glasses worthy of National Marshmallow Toasting Day.  Soak extra marshmallow in concentrated alcohol, add to glasses.  Add another tablespoon of concentrated alcohol to glasses, light on fire.  Swish marshmallow around to toast evenly.  Blow out fire before marshmallow melts.  Add graham crackers, garnish with chocolate syrup. 

How are you celebrating National Marshmallow Toasting Day (other than with eggnog)?  Do you know of any other ways to flambé eggnog?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Proofing Yeast

A while back we had a string of bread loaf duds.  As in, we were making the bread the same way as we always had, it just wasn't rising as much as it was supposed to.  After eating miniature sandwiches for weeks on end, we began to suspect that our yeast was dying off.  That was an unexpected conclusion for us, since it was only about six months old. (We normally get the 1-lb bricks, then keep it in a quart-size canning jar in the fridge.)  We tested our hypothesis by getting a new brick and proofing them side-by-side.  Sure enough, the old yeast was not nearly as vigorous as the new stuff.  At the time, we didn't have the sense to take pictures for a blog post, so we repeated the experiment this weekend.

All of the demonstrations we've seen online for how to test if the yeast is good or not say simply to mix yeast, sugar, and water, and wait to see if it bubbles.  The thought is that if bubbles form, it's alive, and you're good to go.  But, as we'll show below, it's sometimes more complicated than that.  It's not like the yeast all dies at once, after all--it kind of slowly fades away and eventually the 'active dry yeast' becomes just 'dry yeast.'  Now, a biologist might say something like, "but yeast cells multiply rapidly and the growth is exponential, so even if there's just a few active cells in the yeast, it shouldn't take long before it's cranking out CO2 just like the fresh stuff!"  True.  But in the lag period while it's catching up, there's other stuff going on with the bread dough, too, and even if we take pains to keep the temperature and humidity optimal, it seems like our less ambitious yeast just can't make as poofy a loaf as the fresh yeast.  Anyway, this is how our comparison of fresh and old yeast played out.

We started out with two glasses, each with about 0.25 cups water in them.
The water is 100-110 °F.
This is the yeast.  New brick on the left, old stuff on the right.  Get ready, because in the next photo they're going to flip flop.  The active dry yeast is so active, it moves to the right side of the photo.  'Dry' refers to its sense of humor.
To the water we added a heaping tablespoon of sugar and about one tablespoon of yeast.  We used powdered sugar here since it was the first thing we found in the pantry, but regular sugar works, too.  After about a minute and a half, they look pretty similar, except a lot of the old yeast is floating.  The newer stuff is better-dispersed through the liquid.  Katie says, "why is your phone so dirty?"  "Because I had dirt in my pocket, obviously."
After a little while, the yeast will start to build up a frothy malted layer on top of the liquid.  At 9.5 minutes, the fresh yeast is clearly ahead.  It's hard to see, but the frothy layer also goes almost all the way to the bottom of the cup for the fresh stuff, but the old stuff clearly has a line above the phone.
At 11 minutes, the fresh yeast breaks over the plane at the top of the glass.  It's the winner!
Hey! OK! The race is over, you can stop now!  Ahh! It's out of control!
Katie says, "What happened to the yeasty stuff in the cup?" 
"I dunno.  Want to have a burping contest?" 
Katie says, "No.  What did it taste like?" 
"Very malty and yeasty flavored, kind of sweet from the residual sugar, but there was definitely some ethanol in there, too.  Braaaapppp."

The video shows a time-lapse (x6) of the frothy layer growing in the cups for the old and fresh yeast.   The fresh yeast is clearly more ambitious and harder working.

So although the old stuff is still kind of active, it's key to have a fresh 'standard' to compare to.  If you don't want to open a new brick of yeast just for the test, you could make a video like the one above when you do open a new package, and six months later when you suspect the yeast is kind of phonin'-it-in, watch the movie next to a current proof test to see how the activity compares.  (Or show the movie to the yeast for inspiration.  "You used to be able to do that, little yeasties!")

So what do we do with the less-than-active-yeast (sedentary dry yeast?), now that it won't make good bread anymore?  We have been using it in things that don't need as much leavening, like pizza crusts and pancakes.  We could probably make some sourdough starter with it, too, but we haven't tried that yet.  Don't worry--it's not going to waste!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Whiskey Barrel Sifter

When we moved into our new place, the mailbox was perched precariously on a rotten board bolted to a cock-eyed 4" steel pipe protruding from a not-level whiskey barrel planter.  Evidently, at some point during the last winter, the snow plow had blasted the mailbox, knocking it out of square in all three dimensions.  But the front was still *kind of* facing the road and so, strictly speaking, it was still functional.  But, failure seemed imminent, and wanting to make a good impression on our new neighbors, we thought we'd make fixing the mailbox one of our first priorities.

We rapidly discovered that this was a project that would involve much more than just pushing the pipe back to square and re-bolting the mailbox to it's support board.  Upon emptying out the whiskey barrel planter, we discovered three things.  First, the bottom half of the barrel was filled with the same gravel that was used in the driveway.  Second, there was no wooden bottom in the planter, either because the boards had completely rotted away, or because they had been removed to accommodate the steel pipe, which went into the ground.  Either way, it meant that moving the planter was the same as pressing its self-destruct button.  Third, the steel pipe had partially fractured underground, right at the point where the pipe went from vertical (the part in the ground) to angled (to get the mailbox close to the road).  It was very rusty, and the pipe could be bent further off-kilter, but not back toward it's original position.  That's likely because the impact from the snow plow had introduced a large number of dislocations in the steel's grain structure, which drastically reduced it's ductility along the negative of the snow plow's initial force vector.  But, that's not important right now.  What is important is that we now had a completely broken off mailbox pipe, an imploded whiskey barrel planter, a pile of gravelly dirt, and most importantly, no mailbox.

This is what the mailbox was supposed to look like. 

This is what the mailbox actually looked like (approximately): pipe broken off from the previous winter's snowplow, board securing mailbox to pipe rotted away, single dead cockle burr adorning the planter.  Could have been post-apocalyptic if one didn't know any better.

We managed to get the mailbox back to functional by cobbling together a mailbox stand out of some nearby sticks and the section of pipe that was still in the ground. (The picture above is the finished product, after all the hard work described below.) Since we had demolished the former planter around the mailbox, we felt a little guilty about not replacing it with at least some sort of flower-growing device.  After all, we had the dirt...but it was full of rocks, which don't get along with flower roots very well.  What we needed was a soil sifter.  However, a further complication is that since we were just moving into the place, we hadn't had a chance to accumulate a pile of wood scraps from which such sifters are customarily manufactured.  Head scratching and cursing ensued.  Fortunately, the realization eventually came to us that what we did have was a sizable pile of whiskey barrel planks.  Maybe, just maybe, those would work for the sides of a makeshift soil sifter.

So we trimmed the ends of the whiskey barrel planks, screwed them together with some corner brace scraps, and stapled 0.25" hardware cloth to the bottom.  (Ok, we did have a few scraps, just not the right ones.)  Ooh, it looks very vintage-ey.
Here's a closeup of the corner.  The cut end smells like white oak.  It must have fewer tannins to leach into the whiskey than the red oak.  Anyway, definitely drill out the holes before screwing it together.  These are some old boards, after all!
Our first attempt used just 0.25" staples, but these proved insufficient.  (Not all that surprising, really, but we were in a hurry.)  So, we added longer staples (the one in the middle of the corner brace board).  Most of them folded over before we could pound them all the way in, but on average, they probably went about an inch deep.
We didn't think to take pictures of the mailbox planter when we were sifting it, but our place is full of opportunities to use the sifter.  Here's another one along the driveway.  Lots of rocks from the driveway have migrated into the flower bed.  We checked the lease agreement--it didn't say anything about flowers being included in the flower beds.  That's why it just looks like dirt.  On the other hand, a dandelion has also migrated from the flower bed to the driveway, so nobody is staying where they belong.
Pop quiz!  What's the next step in this process?  If you guessed 'scoop up the dirt with rocks and put it in the sifter, you're right!  Congratulations.
And this is what it looks like after being sifted.  Large rocks and clumps of dirt captured by sifter, nice dirt passed through and stays in flower bed.  In hindsight, the 0.25" hardware cloth is a little large.  0.125" (1/8") would have been better to catch some of the smaller rocks.  Alternatively, we could add another layer of the 0.25" stuff, but offset by 0.125".  For now, we'll just hang the sifter in the garage and claim it's an antique.  If anyone asks, we'll tell them it's so old, it was made before 0.125" hardware cloth was invented.

What size hardware cloth do you prefer for your soil sifting tasks?  Do you know of convenient ways to separate gravel from soil without a sifter?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Washing our Wasps

On Thursday, we wrote about the second law of thermodynamics, which explains, in a sense, why clutter seems to naturally increase around a homestead of any kind. Today, we'd like to write about the fourth law of thermodynamics, which is much less-known. The fourth law states that when the ambient temperature approaches summertime values, residential buildings will experience a dynamic flow of wasps attempting to construct nests in the protected outdoor spaces most inconvenient for the occupants of said buildings. (Don't bother looking that up; it's only in very advanced textbooks not available to the general public.) We have experienced the fourth law in full force this summer. (To the tune of two dozen nests around our garage and shed, although not all of them are active.)  And like the second law, we will fight thermodynamics on this front as well.

Accentuated constriction between thorax and abdomen, long gangly legs, loitering around in sheds...yup, that's a wasp alright.

It is actually with mixed feelings that we write this post.  Wasps are quite beneficial for the garden, preying especially upon pesky caterpillars of various flavors and many other antagonistic insects.  We would prefer to ignore the wasps if possible, but when they are building in our primary work areas and other places we are likely to disturb them (as dictated by thermodynamics), they've gotta go.  Also, the European paper wasps we're seeing are non-native and have displaced many of the local native species, basically by being better at their job than the natives were.  Apparently, it's possible to relocate the nests by taking them down and reattaching them elsewhere with superglue, but when the colony has more than one or two wasps, we can't see this ending happily for anyone nearby.

The standard approach to removing these helpful pests is to go to the store, get a can of synthetic chemical-laced spray, and blast the nest at dusk from 15-20 feet away. (Other/inert ingredients = petroleum distillates, which are not all that 'inert' for humans or aquatic life).  The wasps fall to the ground, hacking and sputtering, and die a minute later.  The nest is knocked down and stomped a couple times with thick-soled shoes just to make sure everything is good and dead. (Ironically, just the "inert" ingredients are typically enough to kill the wasps, which you can see for yourself if you happen to have petroleum distillates around, e.g., for cleaning up oil-based paint.)  The "active" ingredients are typically pyrethroids, which are longer-lasting synthetic versions of natural pyrethrins.  The natural pyrethrins can be extracted from chrysanthemum flowers and are even permitted in "official" organic gardening. Pyrethroids are not.

We started thinking about what we might do to get rid of the wasps instead of buying a can of spray.  So, we began our reseach on natural ways to kill wasps by doing what many technically literate humans do these days: we asked the Great Googley Moogley.  As usual, the internet was full of people who have already solved our problem.  Apparently a soap and water mixture will knock 'em down pretty well, and all we needed was a sprayer to get the mixture there from a safe distance.  The sprayers are not terribly expensive, and have a multitude of other uses around the homestead.  (Supersoakers have such small reservoirs and slow delivery that they're not even practical.)

So, here's how it went down in our neck of the woods.

Trouble brewing.

More trouble brewing.  It's looking right at me!  Run away!  Just kidding.  Apparently, wasps have facial recognition capability.

So just in case any wasps are reading this post, here's a message just for them.  Yes, that is the wasp's head from the previous picture, cropped to perfection in MS Paint.

Here's our sprayer, it's a one-gallon model.  $10 at Home Depot.  We used a mixture of about 0.5 cup dish soap in 0.5 gallon water, but we didn't need nearly that much solution, even for the two-dozen nests we had to knock down.

We pumped it up fifteen or sixteen times and adjusted the sprayer nozzle to put out a good jet.  That looks like it shoots pretty far!  At least we'll have a chance to get away if it doesn't work.

Here it goes!  We sprayed the heck out of the nest, but in reality, all the wasps fell to the ground in the first few seconds, hacking and sputtering just like they do when sprayed with the commercial spray.  Sorry there's no close-up of the action--the photographer was being kind of a scaredy-cat. :-)

And then after a minute, they just kind of...died.  Weird.  But there you have it...soapy water is just as effective as a can of commercial wasp spray.  Apparently it works for two reasons: insects breathe by diffusion of oxygen through tiny holes in their skin called spiracles and are covered in a waxy coating.  Just water, with a high polarity and surface tension, doesn't affect insects because it's repelled from the waxy coating, and the insect can close its spiracles to keep the water from getting in.  The soapy water has a much lower surface tension, so it can get into the spiracles (maybe through capillary action?), which essentially stops the insect from 'breathing'.  Also, the soap can dissolve the waxy coating, which lets both the soap and water underneath the insect's exoskeleton, where they wreak havoc on cell membranes and stuff.  Not sure if anyone has actually quantified those two effects, but just spraying insects with water doesn't kill them, so the soap is definitely doing something.  Now we just have to figure out what to do with the extra soapy water we mixed up.  Car wash?  Cat wash?  Extra distance from the sprayer would be good there.  Here's an idea: Katie, you take this little pistol-shaped squirt gun.  I'll use this big, lumbering, slow sprayer thing.  Now, we'll stand back to back, take ten paces...

 Have you taken out any yellow-and-black pests without the cans of commercial spray?  Do you have a good way to encourage wasps to relocate without having to kill them?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Battling Thermodynamics: The Corner Shelf

The second law of thermodynamics says, in one phrasing, "the entropy (or 'disorder') of a closed system is (essentially) always increasing."  While a homestead (or a laboratory) may not be formally closed, personal experience tells us that these systems also tend to follow the second law of thermodynamics without a considerable effort to the contrary.  But while "the law" may ultimately win in the end, we can definitely fight it for the time being! (Just like the Bobby Fuller Four...)  To that end, we have developed a powerful new tool to fight homestead entropy: the corner shelf.  (Ok, maybe it's not that new, but we designed this version out of standard dimensional lumber and built it for much cheaper than we could find an equivalent shelf anywhere else.)

We started by building a frame of 2 x 2 lumber.  Six 6-foot 2" x 2" boards are needed for this design.  The distances between the support pieces aren't critical, we just tuned them to what we wanted to stack there.  We left 0.75" at the top for the shelf part, and we put screws in at an angle from the bottom side of the support pieces.  The support pieces have to be level, or it will look like Picasso built it!  Picasso was a huge fan of entropy; he's not on our team.

Then we made the shelf pieces out of 1 x 12" (back piece) and 1 x 4" (front piece) boards.  For six shelves, we needed one 8-foot 1 x 12" and two 8-foot 1 x 4" boards.  The sketchup model assumes that the 2 x 2" boards are actually 1.5" square, but make sure to check before cutting the square out of the back--ours were closer to 1.375.  Also, don't be confused by the wood grain in the model.  The grain in both pieces runs parallel to the longest dimension of the 1 x 4" board.
Then we put the shelves into the frame.  It looks like this from the top.  We screwed them in from the bottom with 2" screws.
When it's done, it will hopefully look something like this.

Or maybe like this if you're really tall.
Here's how the real deal looks in a corner.
And here's how it looks when it's actively fighting entropy.  All that stuff would just be in a pile on the floor if it weren't for this shelf.  Well, it might be jammed into a closet somewhere else, but that just means the shelf helps keep the whole place looking better.  Plus, that corner would have just been empty otherwise.  Although it was built for this particular corner in our old place, it fits quite nicely in a corner behind a door in our new place, too.
If you're interested in the Google Sketchup model, you can download it here, kindly hosted by OpenDrive.

What are your favorite entropy-fighting devices?  Have you made any custom-built corner shelves?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

(Almost) Automatic Salad Bowl

Last summer, our friendly neighbor gave us a big orange bowl, a bag of dirt, and a packet of lettuce seeds. She asked if we could grow the lettuce for her, and bring it back to her when it was ready.  She probably had no idea, but in our small-scale gardening experiments, lettuce has been our achilles' heel.  Whatever we've tried, we've had trouble producing nice-looking heads of lettuce.  But, not wanting to be poor neighbors, we said we'd give it a try and see if we could get her some lettuce.  Unfortunately, this lettuce, like all the lettuce we've tried before, came up thin and leggy.  That's when we vowed to fix this habit of ours and grow a nice full bowl of salad for her.

A bowl of sad-looking lettuce.  Tasty, but definitely not optimal productivity, and most definitely not pretty.

Also, since we were moving away soon, we wanted to give her back her lettuce bowl.  One of the tenets of good neighboring is, of course, to return things as-good or better than they were in when borrowed.  So we decided that when we gave her back the bowl of lettuce, it would be souped up and ready to snort salads out the tail pipe for months! 

From a quick search of the internets, it seems that the most common causes of lanky lettuce are too little light, too much heat, and maybe too much water.  Apparently, having to fight against a breeze or frequent brushing (e.g. from someone's hands) can also make the lettuce grow a little stockier. So, our souped-up salad bowl should have it's own adjustable light source on an automatic timer, an indicator for when to water it, and something to provide a breeze across the growing plants.  Welcome to the (almost) automatic salad bowl.

We started out by building a box out of some wood scraps to hold the bowl and light source.

Oh good!  The bowl and sad lettuce fit in the box.

Let us (ha!) replace the sad lettuce with some happier-looking stuff that we had started outside and needed to be thinned.

Then we needed an indicator to let us know when the soil was dry.  So we found this circuit diagram, but modified it slightly (shown above) to accommodate the components we already had (or could find nearby).  The circuit works like this: because soil contains exchangeable cations, when the soil is wet, an electrical current can flow through it.  (The ions become dissolved in the water, which makes them mobile, or able to move between the probes.)  When the soil is dry, the ions are not mobile, and no current can flow between the probes.  So, in our circuit, when the soil is wet, current flows through it, bypassing the transistor and white LED.  When the soil is dry, current reaches the base of the transistor (Q1), which opens the gate for current to also flow through the LED.  Or, more succinctly, when the soil is dry, the LED lights up.  The variable resistor is used to adjust the voltage across the probes, or basically, the sensitivity of the circuit.  One disadvantage of this design is that it's always sucking a little bit of power, even when the bulb is off.  But it's much easier to notice a lit bulb than an unlit one, and the power draw is pretty small.

This is what the circuit looks like in real life.  We initially attached short probes to make sure it would work ok.  The power source is an old cell phone charger, and the fan is normally used for keeping computer processors cool.

Looks like it does!  When the probes are separated to simulate dry soil (left), the LED is lit.  When the probes are connected by a conductive medium to simulate wet soil (right), the LED goes out. Yay!

Then we replaced the test probes with more appropriately-sized ones, and mounted everything onto the box we made before.

We found out that we had to keep the probe tips pretty close together for the circuit to work properly in the soil, so we secured them with a piece of heat-shrink tubing.

We stuck the probes in the soil and plugged it in.  Then we added about a cup of water, and adjusted the variable resistor until the light went out.

Freshly watered, and the light is off.  Yay!  It works, even in dirt!

Finally, we added the light source to the tall post in the corner.  We didn't want a big fluorescent light fixture over our little box, but we couldn't find a small fluorescent grow bulb that was the right size.  We ended up settling on a non-fluorescent grow bulb (it seems to be incandescent, but the wattage is pretty low).  It puts off a lot of heat, which is unfortunate.  The fan helps to keep it a little bit cool, but if we were to do this again, we would probably look for a different kind of bulb.  Hopefully it satisfy our neighbors' lettuce capacity!

Have you built any specialized plant-growing devices?  Any ideas for how we could improve ours? (well, improve our neighbors'.)  Let us know in the comments section below!