Cooking without

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it’s usually about abundance

For me, cooking has generally been a positive experience – I don’t just mean that I enjoy it, but that it is associated with abundance (often from the garden) or a desire to cook with a specific ingredient or create a particular dish. In recent years, however, I have increasingly found my cooking constrained – dealing with restricted diets or needing/wanting to avoid particular ingredients. From my own perspective, this has been mainly related to making more ethical choices – supporting local producers, avoiding processed food, considering animal welfare, not using ingredients associated with habitat destruction and so on. But when I cook for others, there are other limits. Vegetarian cooking is never a problem – I used to be a vegetarian myself and anyway there so many wonderful dishes that don’t include meat that this, in itself, is never an issue. Gluten-free baking, on the other hand, is a challenge and this is something I have been exploring over the past few years as a result of cooking for one particular friend.

My most recent excursion has been into vegan cake-making. If you search the internet, you are overwhelmed by vegan cake recipes and so, at first sight, making a vegan cake seems entirely straightforward. However, the restrictions that I put on the ingredients I am prepared to use make it much more difficult. For example I never use margarine and many vegan cake recipes rely on this for both cake and frosting. Many recipes also make use of ingredients that have ethical issues linked to them – avocado, for example, is something I never buy because of the social problems and environmental degradation associated with the huge western demand for this fruit (you can read more here). And then there are ingredients like aquafaba (the liquid from cans of chickpeas or other legumes), which sounds great, but since I never use canned chickpeas, is not particularly something I wish to buy. And that’s before we get on to how I feel about food miles and the packaging certain ingredients have associated with them. Life is complex for the ethical cook!

So, when I offered to make a cake to take to yesterday’s tea party, my heart sank slightly when I remembered that the person whose birthday we were celebrating is vegan.  I put aside my happy hens’ eggs and organic butter wrapped in paper and searched for a recipe using ingredients that I had in my store cupboard. And finally I found a chocolate cake recipe that I was happy to make. I first tested out a gluten-free version and that was a bit dense, but the wheat flour one (modified a little from the original recipe) that I took to the tea party was light and moist and very easy to make. So, if you want a vegan cake, look no further…

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vegan chocolate cake

200g plain flour
200g caster sugar
4 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
½ teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
250ml water

Simply put all the dry ingredients into a bowl and whisk them together by hand with a balloon whisk to remove any lumps and get some air into them. Add the wet ingredients and gently whisk them together until they form a smooth batter. Pour the batter into a lined loaf tin (13 × 23cm) and cook for 45 minutes in a preheated oven at 180ºC.

I wanted to put some sort of frosting on the cake, but I simply couldn’t find a recipe that I was happy with, so in the end I made ganache. Usually this involves heating cream to just below boiling point and then, off the heat, stirring in very dark chocolate. Vegan dark chocolate is the norm, but a cream substitute is more of a challenge. I don’t use soya products if I can help it (for both environmental and social reasons), so I trundled off to the wholefood shop and examined the alternatives. In the end I selected organic coconut cream in a recyclable carton. I put a couple of dollops of this in a pan, heated it to below boiling, removed it from the heat and then stirred in chocolate until I achieved a nice gloopy consistency, before pouring it over the cake.

I was hoping to retain some of the coconut flavour, but sadly this was swamped by the dark chocolate. However, the verdict was good and I produced a moist and decadent cake despite all the limitations.

It’s certainly a cake I would make again… although not whilst we have an abundance of eggs!

Over to you

I think its all too easy to be a little bit lazy… or possibly it’s just a symptom of being worn down:

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a completely non-cynical hat, but I do have a reusable coffee cup and a bear

We look at the world around us – the environment, health, politics, agriculture – and when something seems amiss, we say ‘someone should do something about that’. It would be lovely if corporations and governments had the motivation to solve all the world’s problems, but they don’t. With my cynical hat on, it seems to me that the majority of corporations are mainly interested in profit and the majority of governments are interested in power. I know that there are exceptions, but it does appear that when we place power in the hands of institutions, decisions tend to be made without humanity.

Individuals can have the same motivations, but often our choices are very personal and very complex. They certainly depend on a whole range of emotions and drivers… one of which is caring for the world and the people around us, so let’s try to focus on that one.

Once we accept that the ‘someone’ who can do something (even if only a little something) is ‘me’, it’s very easy to take the next step. And that next step need only be something tiny – smiling at someone on the bus, taking your own cup for take-away coffee, refusing a straw or a plastic bag. The next step might even be not doing something – not buying that pair of shoes that you don’t actually need, not upgrading to the latest piece of computer hardware, not lashing out when you see something on social media that annoys you.

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Let’s make rainbows!

And that way, one tiny step at a time, we change the world and make our lives happier. This week I ordered a book from the library rather than buying it. This week Mr Snail offered to try to mend a keyboard for a friend so she doesn’t need to buy a new one. This week we will be eating almost exclusively locally produced food. This week (hopefully) I will be finishing off my final blanket to go to Syrian refugees.

So, it turns out that we can all make the world a bit better place. Do you have plans to do something kind (for a person or the environment) this week?

Cupboard love

Just a very quick post to share my delight at this:

IMGP3761It isn’t finished yet – there will be bookshelves at the far end and an edging where it meets the wall, but this afternoon I will be able to start filling it with preserved food and preserving equipment.

It has been great to support a local craftsman who is just getting his business started. He sourced the wood from a sawmill nearby, so that was another local business supported. This is how we build strong and sustainable communities… not to mention strong and sustainable cupboards!

Yellow

A long-planned project is coming to fruition this week.

It all started last November. Mr Snail and I were in the kitchen when the was a sudden creak. Before either of us had time to react, there was more groaning and then the shelves fell, spectacularly, off the wall. Admittedly they had a lot of cookery books on them and a large mixing bowl and a brass jam kettle, but even so it was a surprise. The mixing bowl did not survive, and the clothes airer that was beneath them was rather distorted (it’s metal – if it had been wood, it would have been smashed), but everything else survived pretty much unscathed. Except the shelves, and the wall. We were left with holes in the  wall and damage to the plasterboard (dry-wall) . The lower brackets were still attached to the wall, but the upper shelf (the culprit, as it turned out) had departed from the wall in its entirety with the brackets still attached and taken quite a bit of the plasterboard with it.

So, what to do? List the cookery books on e-bay? Put up new shelves? Buy some floor-standing shelves? Or dither for ages in a state of major indecision? So we went for the last one. I filled the holes in the wall; we bought some paint… and then we stalled… for a couple of months. The wall remained unpainted. The brackets that were still attached remained in the wall, we considered various pieces of furniture… and then we did nothing. Until a friend happened to phone one day and mention that his 30-year-old son had moved back in with them and was looking for work.

Admittedly, this doesn’t sound like the answer to many solutions, but Richard’s son is, in fact, a very skilled cabinet-maker. And so, after a bit of discussion, we commissioned Tim to make us a fitted storage unit for the kitchen – somewhere to store all the preserving equipment as well as all the preserved food I make each summer. In addition, there will be shelves standing on part of the work-surface, so they won’t be able to fall off the wall and I can keep all my books – hurrah!

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we have a plan!

After much discussion, we agreed on a design and then came the issue of sourcing the timber. Tim visited a local saw mill to make sure the wood was good quality and stored properly before ordering it. Of course, when it arrived, some wasn’t up to spec. so more had to be ordered. Then he hurt his back and that delayed things a bit. During all this time, Tim was moving out of his parent’s home and setting up his new workshop, but we didn’t mind that it was taking a bit of time, we weren’t in a rush.

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a sunny wall – with a few of Pauline’s light-catcher rainbows

And then, on Saturday I got a phone call to say that he was nearly ready to install the cupboards and would this week be convenient? The answer, of course, was “yes”, but that meant spending Sunday making the space ready. There was a dresser to be moved and a wall to be painted. Of course, once all the preparation had been done, the wall was painted fairly quickly… which is where the yellow comes in. We bought environmentally friendly paint, which goes on like a dream and does not smell (there are no VOCs in it). It’s the same brand that we used to paint the limery and that has stood up well to a very challenging environment, so this should be good for the kitchen.

And now, we await the arrival of Tim later in the week… apparently he’s just oiling the work top one last time. I can’t wait!

Hug a mug

We are currently in the middle of Plastic-free July – an event aimed at getting people to cut down on single-use plastics. Things like straws and plastic shopping bags are relatively easy to give up for most people (I don’t tend to use either now), but some things are less obvious. For example, disposable coffee cups: with their plastic lids and plastic-coated cardboard that’s generally not recycled or, indeed, recyclable, and often can’t be composted. The answer, of course, is simple – get a reusable cup and ask the coffee shop to put your drink in that.

One of the problems with the re-usable (and disposable) versions is that many of them don’t have handles. Last year, I crocheted a cover with a thin handle for my (very elderly and well-used) cup, so that I had some way of keeping a hold of it:

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cup holder in use (on a train)

When my friend Katie saw this, she asked if I could make her one too. I liked mine, but I decided that it could be improved upon, so I bought a KeepCup and started to experiment. In the end I came up with a cover that has two handles, so that you can easily hold on to your cup, and also give your mug a hug:

This cup and cover is with its new owner now and I’ve had good feedback. Now, isn’t that so much nicer than a cardboard cup that you simply throw away?

Bag a bag

In the spirit of my last post, I’ve decided to spread a little more happiness by having a give-away. I’m offering you the opportunity to be the proud owner of one of the items that I made for our craftivism exhibition. The embroidery is for sale in my etsy shop, but I’ve decided to give away the “Ditch the plastic bag” bag:

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the bag on display

 

It is made from a repurposed t-shirt, with the message appliqued in felt. Bags like this are, unsurprisingly, quite stretchy, so are not ideal for lugging pounds of spuds home from the greengrocers, but are great for lighter items, such as yarn, tea and biscuits!

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it could be yours

 

I am happy to send this anywhere in the world. If you would like to be entered into the draw to win it, simply comment below, or in the post on the Snail of Happiness Facebook page, or on Twitter (@thesnailofhappy), and tell me what you’d like to put in the bag if you win it. I will include any comments left before midnight on Tuesday 13 June (BST) in the draw.

Good luck!

The Heart of Manchester

“Are you still going to Manchester?” I was asked several times last week. The answer, of course, was “yes”. Our Crafting a Kinder World event had been arranged months ago, but its timing, following the bombing earlier on in the week made it particularly appropriate and especially important for me to be there.

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Ready to craft

So, on Saturday, The Make It Shop opened to welcome anyone who wanted to join us for a spot of crafting. Originally we had intended to make random gifts to hang in the community garden, round the corner from the shop and next to Chorlton library, for anyone to take. But in the end we decided to do our little bit to fill Manchester with love and so we made hearts – lots of hearts – fabric hearts, paper hearts, crochet hearts, knitted hearts, foam hearts, felt hearts, cardboard hearts, sparkly hearts. We’d also received a parcel of hearts from Solidarity in Crafting  of Leicester and these were added to our collection. Still, the intention was that they would be taken from the garden by anyone who wanted one… spreading the love even further.

We had a stream of lovely people during the day; all of them made at least one heart and some of them came with us to the garden to help with the decorating.

To begin with, there were just a few garlands on the railings:

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The start of the day

But by the end of Saturday, we had a community garden filled with all sorts of hearts and flowers, just ready for anyone in need of some love to take away:

Not only that, but we also had our Kindness Tree in the shop, covered with little gifts:

So, if you are in Manchester, nip over to Chorlton and take a heart or a flower or another little gift, with love from us.

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Ear-ear

Things wear out, It’s only to be expected – our belongings won’t last forever. Many things can be repaired, but sometimes you need a replacement. However, before I reach for my laptop to order an new ‘thingumy’, I try to decide whether we already have an alternative or whether I can make a replacement using something in the house.

IMGP2901So, when the foam covers on Mr Snail’s headphones started to disintegrate, rather than ordering new ones or, even worse, new headphones, I decided to have a go at making some replacements. I have plenty of cotton yarn, even having used loads in my charity blankets, and this seemed like it might be the best fibre to have pressed against ears. It’s easy to make circles in crochet, or even ovals, as I discovered this was the shape of the ear pieces. One side has a wire coming out, so the cover for that need to incorporate a hole for the cable to pass through. In the end, it took me about an hour to fashion these replacement covers.

Unlike commercial foam covers, these are fully biodegradable, so when they wear out, they can just be composted. The verdict so far is that they are comfortable and do not reduce the sound. Well, that’s a result.

Coffee break

Over the years I’ve written a lot about tea – mainly about the hidden plastic in tea bags and my quest for plastic-free tea. I don’t often, however, write about coffee. This is, perhaps, because we’ve been buying coffee beans and making coffee in a cone with a washable cotton filter for many years now (long before we gave up tea bags… in fact since before I started blogging I think). However, I’m always looking for good coffee and any changes that can make it a little bit more eco-friendly. Recently we have been buying our coffee in the 1kg wholesale bags the roasted beans arrive in at the shop. This prevents the use of any extra packing, but still there’s a paper/plastic pack involved.

I was interested, therefore, to read about an experiment examining the best way to pack roast coffee. Once roasted, coffee beans release gases and ‘mature’ for a few days, allowing the flavour to develop. If roasted beans are put straight into a bag and sealed, the gasses are trapped and the coffee develops a stale flavour. To address this, many good quality coffee brands are packed in bags with a plastic valve, but these valves are generally not recyclable.

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sustainable production, compostable/recyclable packaging

Interestingly, it turns out, after roasting, placing the beans in paper bags allows them to develop a good flavour. From an environmental perspective, this is good, as paper can be readily recycled or composted. So, this week I ordered coffee from Roasting House, who roast the beans to order and then pack them in paper bags. Of course, they do use a plastic pack to send them through the post, but they use biodegradable and recyclable plastic and I will reuse this anyway (I never buy new postal packaging and always keep a stash for re-use). It’s single material, which is far better than the plastic-bonded-to-paper packaging of the wholesale bags we were getting previously.

The company take their environmental impact seriously, aiming for zero waste to landfill, buying 100% renewable electricity and making local deliveries by bicycle. In addition, they source their coffee from farms that operate under sustainable practices. It’s possible that I am much closer to waste-free coffee now.

Running Hot and Cold

We have just had to replace our 17-year-old washing machine. I won’t go into the details of its demise, but it has gone to be recycled – a service that we decided to pay for to ensure that it actually happened. So, we have had to buy a new one…

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hot and cold

After some research, we chose to buy an Ebac, the only company whose washing machines are made in the UK. The choice was relatively straightforward as they seemed to have the best ethical rating that we could find and we are trying very hard to buy British whenever we can. However, the big choice was between ‘single fill’ and ‘dual fill’. (“Oh,” I hear you saying “what an exciting life you do lead, dear Snail.”) For those of you not au fait with washing machines, the difference is whether all the water comes into the machine cold (single fill) or whether you connect to both your hot and cold supplies so that not all the water heating is done in the machine (dual fill). For us, it initially seemed like a no-brainer: our water is heated overnight using cheap electricity (known as Economy 7), so let’s use the cheap hot water to do our washing. Yes?

 

And then we started reading up on the subject and it appeared that it may not be worth it. Modern washing machines, you see, use relatively little water and tend to wash at relatively low temperatures. So, most of the limited amount of water that is required by the machine from the hot source is supplied by the water already sitting in the pipe (i.e. cool). So the argument goes that you mostly fill the machine with cooled water whilst replacing it with hot water in your pipes, which then cools down and wastes energy. Hmmm.

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the new machine

However, we needed to think about our own domestic situation. Because we live in a bungalow, and because of the way that our plumbing is arranged, our hot water tank is actually less than 1m away from our washing machine… ok, there’s a bit more pipe than that because it goes down and then up, but there’s no more than 2.5m of pipe, including the connector pipes. So, the water runs hot very quickly through to the washing machine. And, therefore, our final decision was to buy a dual fill machine. So far, it seems to have been the right choice- the machine is taking in a significant proportion of hot water, based on the temperature of the pipe, and this means that the machine itself should be using less energy than with single fill. Combining this, when possible, with only washing on days when it’s sunny and the solar panels are working, should be the best option both financially and environmentally.

 

It’s all too easy to read advice on the web and make what appears to be an informed decision. However, a bit of thinking is also good too… the internet cannot replace common sense!

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