Solar Ovens and Little Girls

by Ben N on September 25, 2014

Recently, I was at the Seven Springs resort in Pennsylvania at the Mother Earth News Fair. I had a bit of “mad money” with me and got a good show-special deal on a solar oven that was based on evacuated tubes used in the solar heating industry.
(http://www.gosunstove.com)

A few days ago, my order arrived in the mail. I immediately used it to solar re-heat the previous night’s left-overs, with good results – piping-hot Chinese Chicken while working in my driveway.

Today, I was doing work to get ready for this coming weekend’s Milwaukee MakerFaire. At the same time, my wife took our little girl, Sophia, to the library for a cooking activity. She came home with a small bag of dough that she made herself (with only a little help from the librarian…)

The idea was that children could take home their dough and have their parents bake it in their own oven.
“Sophie, how would you like to bake it in the SOLAR oven?” Her eyes lit up, followed immediately by a very enthusiastic “YES!!!!”

In the kitchen, I asked Sophie to roll the dough out into a breadstick shape as I got the baking tray for the solar oven and hit it with a coat of buttery-flavored cooking spray. She put the dough in the tray and carried it outside as I got the oven and folded it open to set it in the sunny driveway.

Sophie naturally tried to set the baking tray right at the focus of the reflectors – It was funny to see that she instinctively seemed to know the right location to put the food. Less obvious was how the tray actually loads into the evacuated tube from the end. I showed her how and let her slide the bread dough into the oven.

She eyed the oven with glee and impatience. I explained that it would take a while to bake, so she headed back inside.

I kept a bare minimum amount of attention on the oven while I worked in the garage and driveway, occasionally eyeing the steam coming out, and watching the long late-in-the-day shadow of the house stretching towards the solar oven. I moved it once to get it back into the light and smelled that unmistakable scent of  steaming hot bread.

When it was about time, I called Sophie back out of the house and had her take the bread out. Although the inside of the oven can be hundreds of degrees, you can put your hand right on the glass tube to hold it in place while pulling the tray out of the oven. While some parents would never let a small child bake with an oven in the house, my not-quite-four-year-old was baking from scratch with nothing more than sunlight and stuck her hand right on the oven with narry a burn.

I just made sure that she didn’t touch the stainless steel of the baking tray as she carried it back into the house to set it on our cutting board. Next came the butter. There’s always room for butter.

The hot breadstick disappeared quickly by greedy bite-fulls. I was fortunate to get one nibble before it vanished completely.

It was pretty amazing to see my little girl do almost all the work herself. How many other children this age bake from scratch, and do it with renewable energy to boot?

It’s said that children are our future. When I see things like this, the future is looking pretty bright indeed.

-Ben

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I Made Mozzarella and so can You

by Ben N on September 2, 2014

I’ve tried my hand at a lot of different skills, baking, brewing, sewing, and one thing I always thought would be interesting is to try CHEESE-MAKING! This past weekend, I was at the Mid-America Homesteading Conference in Joliet, Illinois. Among the many presentations was a cheese making demonstration by Mike Boehle. In it, Mike makes mozzarella from scratch and also discusses the history of cheese, tips and tricks, and plenty of other beginner cheese making knowledge as he does. He allowed me to video-record the presentation. Here is that presentation in its entirety.

One reason why I haven’t ever tried making cheese before is due to the lack of supplies. Cheese making requires a few ingredients most people don’t keep handy in their kitchen, including rennet. At the conference, there were some basic cheese supplies available at the bookstore, so I picked some up.

Back home the next day, I thought I would give it a shot. I bought one gallon of whole milk from the grocery store. It was nothing fancy, but I made sure to check that it didn’t say “Ultra-Pasturized” anywhere on it. In my kitchen, I broke out my favorite pot, a Lodge enameled cast iron, poured the milk in, and started bringing it up to temperature.

I followed the steps I learned in the presentation, adding the citric acid, raising the temperature some more and then adding the rennet.

It’s pretty interesting once the curds start forming. I must admit that the reason I enjoy baking over cooking is that it is ALCHEMY. Sure cooking involves a little chemistry, but baking is pure magic. In the same way, milk transforming into curds surely involves some sort of incantation that browning some beef never will.

Once the curds separated out, I poured off the whey and set the curd into a glass bowl, where I kneaded it like bread dough to get a little more whey out.

Next came microwaving it. Heating the curd gets it stretchy. I ran the microwave for a minute, then stretched the cheese. Surprisingly, I had to get the cheese rather hot before it was stretchy. Have you even eaten really hot pizza only to have the cheese stretch out, then snap and hit you on the lip burning you? Yeah, like that hot. It might be that since this was my first ever batch of cheese it didn’t turn out perfect, and thus effected the melting point. Other than going “ow ow ow”, I stretched and heated the cheese a few times, then formed it into a ball and dropped it into a bowl of ice-water to cool.

My one gallon of store-bought whole milk made 13 oz of mozzarella cheese. The next day, I sliced off a piece and tried it. It was firmer than I expected it to be. Perhaps I eliminated TOO much whey? The flavor was very simple. I just tasted like milk. Although the recipe didn’t call for it, I might try adding a little salt next time. Mike makes his from farm-fresh goats milk, which certainly has a stronger flavor than pasteurized/homogenized cow milk.

Of course, what good is making any ingredient until you use it! I was eager to try making a dish with this fresh mozzarella. While we are extremely lazy gardeners, we do have a few tomato plants going, and I picked a few fruits. We also have a little herb patch right outside our front door, and had basil handy. That means I was all ready for Caprese Salad!

I sliced tomatoes and mozzarella and laid them out on a plate with basil, salt, pepper, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. This dish always looks nice with its bright colors, but tastes even better with its bold flavors.

I’ll definitely have to keep experimenting with cheese. It’s not hard, and it’s pure food magic!

Til next time, keep making something of yourself!

-Ben

PS: I did a melt test and found that my very first batch of mozzarella actually melts pretty well. So, that quickly lead to me making a batch of DIY deep-fried cheese sticks! Delish!

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