April 23, 2011

Here at BurbEx, we want to talk to you about weed. Having weed can be a dangerous issue. You get in to trouble quickly. It starts small and gets out of control, and then before you know it, you’ve lost the battle to not only weed, but to everything else as well. It will take time, money, and hard work to recover. Yes, weed…is bad.

Katie and I have been working hard on a number of projects, but probably the most time-consuming is re-working our yard. When we bought our house, the yard was fine, non-offensive, and manageable. Except for the giant juniper bushes outside our house. The overhaul started with ripping the junipers out. A season later, we’ve shaped, planted, and cultivated three and a half gardens. Turns out ripping out sod is not a fun task, but that’s another post. Today I want to talk about our vegetable garden. Because we invested significant time and energy in to the front yard last year (and for several years to come), our vegetable garden has gone feral.

It started out as a quiet garden that had been generally abandoned. A few straggling zucchini and cucumbers remained in what was once probably a nice garden. However, the perfect sun and lack of attention quickly resulted in waist-high grass and weeds that were impossible to contain. “It will die back” I thought to myself. Summer in Denver gets hot and dry. That did nothing but spurn the garden in to producing seeds in their fluffy abandon. All of a sudden we had a garden full of dandelions. “Well, it’s almost fall. It will die back, then we’ll weed.” Yeah, right. A season and a half later, we have a disasterous nightmare of a garden. My poor vegetables last year were contained in pots because there was no way I was reclaiming the garden without a machete (Katie- take note, I want a machete.). This year, however, I determined that we WILL reclaim the garden.. So, we got started.

As you can see, we did some initial weeding, and this was as much as the garden would die back. We ripped out a total of four large railroad ties that were separating the garden in half, for some reason. The compost bin was moved to the corner, and we moved the lilac bush to another part of the yard. It took us a full day to dig that out, rip out the sod to move it, and place it elsewhere. Next, the weeding began. We have spent the past several weeks/weekends weeding. Unfortunately the garden has been pretty overgrown with crabgrass. We also are fighting lilac roots, aspen roots, and this horrid vine that grows along the fence (thanks neighbors). Also thanks to the neighbor, there are large chunks of concrete we’ve had to dig out. However, we began making progress, so I planted some seedlings, planned our layout, and we bought wood to build garden boxes.


We agonized over what kind of wood to use, but ultimately we selected an untreated redwood. Redwood is rot/pest resistant naturally, and it is quite dry in Denver. We’ll update about how that goes. We built two boxes that were 8’x4’x6″ and two boxes that were 4’x4’x6″.

As of today, we’re making some good progress. I’m hoping we’ll get as far as raking out the dirt, digging out the boxes, and filling them. We have a nice compost/dirt mix from last season. Then we can plant, line the walkways with a weed barrier, and place pea gravel on the walkways.




As you can see, we have about one corner left to finish before we can begin raking and planting. Let this be a lesson that you must be responsible when weed is in the picture, because it gets out of control quite quickly.

Cake pops!

April 12, 2011

Cake pops are one of those new, trendy desserts. They’re essentially a ball of cake on a stick, coated with a thick icing that sets up and provides a hard outer shell. We got a book explaining how to make them, so we decided to start with a spring chicken version, just to keep life simple.

To make a cake pop, you start with the most important ingredient-cake!

The nice thing about cake for cake pops is that you don’t have to make a pretty cake. You’re just going to crumble it up anyway, so the way it looks isn’t the important thing. You also don’t need to fuss with cake pans or anything else fancy like that. Because you’re just going to crumble the cake up anyway, just throw it in a large baking dish.

Once the cake is done and fully cooled, you start crumbling. Again, there’s nothing complicated about this step. You literally just take your hands and break the cake into little crumbs.

As you can see in the picture above, I’ve reduced my 9″ * 13″ baking pan of cake to a bowl of crumbs. The goal with the crumbs is just for there to be no large pieces of cake left.

Once you’ve got cake crumbs you need frosting. The key with your frosting is that it really needs to either go well with the flavor of your cake, or it needs to blend into the stronger flavoring of the cake. If the second option is your goal try a plain buttercream-the frosting will add moisture and richness to your cake without doing a lot to the flavor.

Once you have cake and frosting, you mix them together to make balls. Using a spoon, or your hands, or your kids’ hands, mix the frosting, a bit at a time, into the cake crumbs until you get a substance approximately the consistency of play dough. Once you’ve achieved that state, form balls.

The balls should go on a baking sheet into the fridge so they can harden, and they maintain their shape while you dip them. Once the balls have been refrigerated the fun starts-dipping and decorating!

You dip cake balls into candy coating wafers. These are available at most craft stores. They’re nice because they’re designed to be melted in the microwave and they stay melted for a relatively long period at room temperature. Also they come in lots of colors. If you’re opposed to buying a kind of one use item like this, you can also cover your cake pops with the white chocolate candy coating that is made for dipping pretzels (usually available in the baking aisle at the grocery store if you look hard) or with regular chocolate, which can be a little temperamental, but tastes great.

We started out with yellow candy wafers. If you are using wafers it never hurts to think about how the color of your final product is going to interact with your flavor. Most of us have pretty strong color-taste associations (think about how a “red” candy tastes), and messing with that can throw your taste-testers for a loop.

Before you start dipping, you should also gather any other decorating items you might want. You can keep it simple and just add some sprinkles, or a drizzle of a different colored wafer, or you can try making your cake pops into objects like we did.

Once you’ve got everything assembled, take your cake balls out of the fridge, a few at a time. Dip your stick into the melted wafter, and gently but firmly stick it into the cake ball.

Then take your cake pop, and dip the entire ball into the melted wafter. Make sure that you get an even covering over the entire ball, and a generous amount around the stick to help hold it in place.

Once it’s dipped, give it a second to let the excess coating drip off, and then apply any decorations you want before the coating sets.

Get a helper to hold your pops while they dry (about 2 minutes until the coating is initially set), or you can stick them into a foam block or any other kind of holder you can devise. Once they’ve set all the way, they’re ready to eat. The texture of the cake is soft and extremely moist, and if you’ve gotten a good coating of the candy wafer it keeps the cake from drying out or getting stale, so they’re an easy treat to make ahead. They’re also extremely portable as far as cake goes. As long as the wafer coating doesn’t get too hot it’s pretty durable once it’s hardened so these are far easier to transport that regular cake or cupcakes that tend to stick to their coverings.

To see more of Rachel’s cakes, visit her bakery page.

Paper and Fauna

April 10, 2011

Today’s post is about quilling. Most people don’t know much about it, if they’ve even heard of it. Most of the rest of you who *do* know what quilling is, probably recall a group of stuffy old ladies making pictures of tea kettles and kittens. I got in to quilling after seeing Yulia Brodskaya‘s art. She is hands-down amazing.

To explain further, quilling is basically taking strips of paper, and making designs by rolling them up in some manner. Yulia’s work goes a bit beyond that, but you get the idea. Quilling is typically very small work, very neurotic, and of course perfectly suited to my tastes.

My lastest fun with quilling is making paper flowers. To make them, you’ll need a few items- namely some glue, strips of paper, and a ceramics needle tool/quilling tool or similar. Most quilling strips are around 3/16″ wide. I use them in my flowers to make the centers. I then cut my own strips of paper. However wide your strip of paper is, is how tall the blossom will be. To make a daisy,  start with a strip of paper rolled in to a peg. This basically means roll your paper as tightly around the needle tool as you can, gluing the end down before slipping it off.

Next take your blossom paper and fringe it. I just got a spiffy new pair of “Grassing” scissors from Martha Stewart and I like them okay. You can also hand fringe your paper. Have fun with that.

After fringing your blossom strip, glue it to your peg and begin rolling it tightly around your peg.

Glue the end down, and carefully fold back your fringed pieces. You can stack and layer the fringed sections to create more layers of texture in your blossom. I also like using double-sided paper so that it looks pretty from all sides.

Your flowers can be placed on cards, boxes, or stems. For stems, I was using green wire, until I realized that the floral section of my local craft store has pre-cut wire pieces for stems. Much easier in my opinion. Floral tape is also convenient for keeping your stems together. Feel free to add leaves to your flowers, particularly to help cover the peg to stem area, and give it a nicer look. I’ve also experimented with flower buds and other ways of adding filler.

To make roses, I cut strips in to gentle wave patterns so that you get a nice overlapping appeal. I also glue those more loosely, rather than as a tight peg. You’ll have to experiment a bit to see what works best for you.

A nice vase, some ribbon, and you have yourself a pretty bouquet of flowers. Not just for grandma anymore!

So there’s been a recipe going around on the internet that shows how to make your own pop rocks at home. As many of the commenters on the original recipe (found here) have noted this candy doesn’t really pop like actual pop rocks do. However, with that said, it does fizz pleasantly in your mouth (if you like that kind of thing), and we have made this not once, but twice since we first saw this recipe.

This recipe is basically a straight forward sugar-syrup based hard candy, with a few twists to make it fizzy.

To start with you need a few things that are a little out of the ordinary-the most important one being citric acid crystals. We found them at Whole Foods in the bulk spices and powders. You also need some kind of flavoring or extract that you want to make your pop rocks. Vanilla and almond are the ones that most people have laying around, but they aren’t that exciting. We’ve done orange both times, which you can usually find at your local grocery store. Our Kroger-affiliate where we usually shop also had banana, anise, brandy, black walnut, and lemon. If you want more traditional candy flavors (say strawberry), your best bet is probably a kitchen specialty store like Williams Sonoma or Sur la Table.

You also need a few things you probably have in your pantry: sugar, corn syrup, powdered sugar, and baking soda.

To start out you prep your candy landing zone with sprinkling of powdered sugar. You then cover those by sprinkling a liberal handful (~1/8 c) of citric acid crystals on a baking sheet.

Once your pan is ready, you start out by assembling the simple syrup with 2 c sugar and 1/3 c corn syrup. One difference between this syrup and the syrup for something like marshmallows is that this one contains just enough water to wet the sugar and actually make it a syrup. It really doesn’t take much. Also, if you’re a masochist, you can make a simple syrup from just sugar and water. However, adding the corn syrup makes it far less likely that your syrup will seize up into a hard, chunky, unappetizing sugar lump.

If you do seize a simple syrup try not to let it get to you. It’s probably the one problem we’ve had more than any other. Sugar can be touchy, and it naturally likes to form crystals, so when you make simple syrup you’re essentially making something behave against its own inclination. A few tricks to avoid seizing a syrup: 1. use corn syrup, even just a little bit, as its sugars have a different structure that make it much less likely to crystalize. 2. Once everything is dissolved and incorporated, stop stirring. Getting a little piece of sugar that crystalizes on a spoon or a whisk can set off a chain reaction and ruin your whole evening. Instead swirl the whole pot gently to help mix. 3. As your syrup cooks, brush down the sides periodically with a wet pastry brush. This helps stop small crystals from forming on the sides of your pot, and any small amount of water you add to the syrup will cook off.

For this recipe, we’re going to cook our syrup to 305 degrees. If you’re going to make candy, get yourself a reliable candy thermometer, because for some things the difference between great and a total failure is only a few degrees.

We really like the kind in the picture because the metal holder keeps your thermometer from sitting on the bottom of the pot and telling you the temperature of the pot rather than what you’re cooking. The holder also gives the manufacturer a place to print the number in a large font so you’re not squinting at tiny little numbers trying to determine exact temperatures.

Once your syrup is cooked, take it off the heat and let it cool 25 degrees or so. At this point, you’re going to stir in a teaspoon of baking soda, your coloring if you want colored candy, and your flavoring. Make sure everything else is ready to go before this point because everything’s going to move really fast from this point forward.

You will instantly notice that your syrup starts to make a kind of sizzling noise and starts turning opaque (and colored, if you add coloring). Also notice that we are using a disposable instrument here-in this case chopsticks that we got with chinese takeout. It is possible to get hardened sugar off your kitchen utensils, but not a lot of fun. Stir until everything’s fully mixed together, but not set. You have a little time, but not to run errands or get your camera at this point. Then take your mixture and pour it onto your prepped cookie sheet. 

As long as you haven’t stirred too long, you should be able to make a puddle. If your candy is starting to harden, you might get lumps more than the nice puddle seen in the picture, but that shouldn’t effect your final product.  Now take another small handful of citric acid crystals and sprinkle on top of the candy. Just a note-citric acid tastes sour, so show some restraint unless you really like sour things. You want enough citric acid to cause your fizzy reaction, but not so much you’re turning your taste buds inside out.

Once your candy cools and hardens you’re at the fun part: the smashing!

Put your candy into a plastic bag to contain your mess and smash it into bite sized pieces using a blunt object. Don’t go too crazy, it’s nicer to have pieces of candy to eat than just powder.

When you’re done, store your candy in an air-tight container. It doesn’t like moisture, and won’t keep well in very moist environments.

The verdict at our house: yum!

Marshmallows. Food of the gods. They don’t grow on trees, contrary to popular belief. So we set out to uncover the secret to making marshmallows because frankly, we eat a disgusting amount of them. So what does it take to make a marshmallow you ask? The answer is easy: Water, air, cornsyrup, gelatin, vanilla (or flavor), and air. Lots and lots of air.

First, always prepare your pan ahead of time. For this you’ll want a 9×13 glass pan, oiled more than a bp oil spill.

Then take a piece of parchment paper (with overhang) and place it in the oiled pan. Oil the heck out of that too. Set aside.

Next soften your gelatin by sprinkling it over cool water. This allows the granules to absorb the water and become gummy. It’s really kind of gross.

It takes a few minutes for them to soften, so in the meanwhile, you take your sugar, water, and cornsyrup and place it in a heavy-bottomed pan. Whisk the ingredients together, moving them gently but constantly until it comes to a boil or turns clear. Clip a candy thermometer on the pan (not touching the bottom or sides) and heat the mixture WITHOUT stirring until it reaches 238 degrees F. If you’re like us and live at high-altitude, knock off ten degrees and cook it to 228 F.

As the syrup gets close to temperature, place the now-softened gelatin in a mixing bowl and begin beating gently to break it up. Take the syrup off the heat and poor very slowly in to your gelatin mixture, being careful not to pour against the sides or beaters. You are trying to avoid setting of a crystalization reaction and seizing up your mixture. Also, you don’t want to hit the sides to avoid having crunchy sugar chunks in your marshmallows. Pouring slowly, beat in the syrup mixture, and beat it to stiff peaks, much like you would meringue, increasing the speed as you go.

Once you reach stiff peaks, add in your flavoring. We chose to do 1 tsp of vanilla and 1 tablespoon of honey.

When your mixture is stiff and glossy, pour it all in to your oiled pan. Using an offset spatula, smooth the mixture down.

Allow it to set for 3 hours uncovered. The longer you let your marshmallows sit, the firmer they will be. Three hours makes a nice, spongy marshmallow. If you want to swirl in some color, you could do so now for a marbled effect, by dotting color on top and dragging a toothpick through it, or for an even color, add it during the beating process with the flavoring,

The mallow

Once you’ve allowed your marshmallows to set, liberally powder your counter space. We chose to omit this step and turn our pan out on to wax paper. Bad idea. The powdered sugar gives the marshmallows something to hold on to so that they’re not insecure and sad, holding on to the counter for dear life. They are very sticky. Very very sticky.

Turn your pan out on to the powdered counter and oil a sharp knife. Cut the marshmallow block in to small cubes. Or big cubes, as we did. Take each cube and toss in powdered sugar. We also tossed in some vanilla sugar we made a while back and it really gave them nice flavor. Keep in an airtight container- or in colorado. We’re not sure how long they’ll be good for. Ours only lasted a week before we ate them all.

Sidenote: If you want good toasting marshmallows, these aren’t it. They’re soft and will melt all over the place. Try letting them sit out for a couple days before toasting. Let us know if that works.

Marshmallows (Martha style):

Vegetable oil, for brushing
4 envelopes unflavored gelatin (3 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 teaspoons)
3 cups granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar

Vanilla sugar:

To make vanilla sugar, we save the vanilla bean pods when used in other recipes. You can use them solely for the sugar, but it’s always nice to multi-task. Place a vanilla bean in approximately two cups of sugar and let it sit for at least a week. Shake the container (mason jar, tupperware, etc) every day to keep the sugar from clumping. The vanilla will infuse the sugar. The longer you let it sit, the stronger the flavor.

One of the projects we have started is taking apart a chair. Neither of us have done much upholstering, but this chair was too good to pass up. After cramming it in to our tiny car, we got started pulling staples out. The plan is to take apart the chair piece by piece, cut new fabric pieces using the old ones as a template, and put the chair back together. The chair cost $9.99 at Goodwill, and we found several yards of fabric at goodwill for $5.99. Total investment so far is about $16.

Here is what the chair looked like initially:

We love this chair for it’s shape and of course the awesome buttons. Once we got the chair home, the staple-pulling began. Lots. and lots. of staples. We started pulling off layers of fabric, batting, and cardboard support. The piping came off and we stripped it down to the core frame, burlap support, and usable foam.

The batting scraps have gone in to our suet feeder to help birds with nesting. The fabric pieces we’ve carefully taken apart so that we can begin cutting our new pattern.

Since this is an on-going project that we have not yet completed, we will post updates along the way. The next step is to cut out the fabric, acquire new batting, and re-cover the buttons pulled out of the chair. Then the re-assembly can start!