Friday, November 12, 2010

Strawberry Tarts for the Queen of Hearts

When there are strawberries growing in the garden, berries glowing scarlet, abundant, luscious, fragrant, demanding to be picked twice a week before the tortoises take bites out of the biggest juiciest ones, it isn’t hard to decide on the main ingredient for dessert. Strawberries with shortbread, a pavlova, a strawberry cream sponge or just plain berries with pancakes and a dash of balsamic vinegar, you hardly even need to get creative when the strawberry itself takes centre stage.

School bake sales are another matter. The school encourages healthy snacks like fruit, but I couldn’t work out how they could sell the strawberries on their own without complicated calculations of 20c per berry, 'her strawberry’s bigger than mine', and so on. An image came to me unbidden of those delicious French patisserie tarts with luscious fresh fruit delicately coated in a glaze that preserves freshness. Crisp pastry, succulent fruit and just a smidgen of extra sweetness from the glaze. I wasn’t expecting to achieve the heights of the patissier’s art just like that, but anyway went in search of a glaze recipe to try and at least get close to the tantalising image in my mind.

Discarding recipes that instructed you to use jello or apple juice in the mix, I came up with an easy recipe that did actually work in the way I’d hoped, coating the fruit with a translucent glow without making the pastry soggy. What I liked about this one is that it uses some of the strawberries for both colour and flavour, so no need for any ersatz colouring to be added.

After that it was just a case of making pastry, blind baking lots of little tart shells, and then putting them together with the best looking strawberries and a dollop of glaze.

Glaze Recipe for Strawberry tarts

1 cup of chopped strawberries
1 cup water
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornflour/cornstarch

Cook the strawberries in the water until tender enough to push through a sieve.
Strain and push the pulp through a sieve back into the pan.
Mix together the sugar and cornflour then stir it into the strawberry liquid.
Cook stirring until it thickens and clears.
Spoon it over the prepared pastry cases with strawberries in them.

I used the sweet pastry recipe from Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, which worked perfectly for these.

I couldn’t resist trying one before it had cooled properly, even though it was by now 10 o’clock at night. It was almost perfect, with crispy crumbly pastry, a bite of lush strawberry and smooth sweet glaze to meld it all together... not French, not perfect in looks with my rough and ready pastry skills, but just right for kids and adults to drool over at breakfast and beg to taste them before they even get to school. Now there are only four left ... how will we work that out this afternoon?

Monday, November 08, 2010

Shiny, Happy Hair

Heading for the shower on Saturday morning, I armed myself with a box of baking soda/ bicarb and a bottle of apple cider vinegar. Diluting them as per the recommended dose of one tablespoon to a cup of warm water, I shook them up in old shampoo bottles and stepped in to the rush of hot water to try out this crazy idea of replacing shampoo and conditioner altogether with these more mundane ingredients.

After I read about shampoo-free hair care on Simple Mom last week and got all enthusiastic about it, there was a little resistance to the idea from my husband, who can’t stand the smell of vinegar and isn’t over the moon at my brilliant discovery of vinegar as a surface cleaner. He was worried he would no longer be able to hug his wife without feeling nauseous. Middle Daughter was fascinated by the idea and attended the hair-washing experiment in person, a useful audience as I was able to get her to sniff for any vinegar residue after rinsing!

I’m pleased to announce that the experiment was a resounding success! The bicarb felt a bit strange as I massaged it in instead of shampoo, like water in consistency but just slightly squeaky. Then the vinegar rinse went on and I could immediately feel my hair getting smoother and shinier. The best thing was that it rinsed off completely, leaving not a trace of vinegar smell, even while still wet, and my husband’s fear s were groundless. He was able to hug me as much as he wanted!

Overall, once dry, my hair was softer and shinier than after shampooing even with conditioner. My scalp hasn’t had any dry flaky skin at all for the two days since, whereas usually it does immediately after shampooing. My hair is a bit floppier than usual, but that is a good thing, as it tends to bush out rather after shampooing now it’s layered and only gets shiny and smooth after several days, when it is about time to wash again.

The girls were so impressed by the results that all three kids tried it themselves at hairwash time yesterday and they also have nice soft shiny hair today, which is easier to comb.

So apart from the fact that it seems to work better than shampoo and conditioner for us, why give up conventional shampoo in favour of some basic kitchen ingredients?

1. It’s natural. Shampoos are full of goodness knows what chemicals and fragrances, all of which we are rubbing into our scalps and possibly absorbing through our skin. We use shampoo to strip away our natural oils and then conditioner to try and replicate the effect of the oils. Baking soda just cleans without stripping and vinegar balances out the ph of your hair and scalp.

2. It’s very cheap. Shampoo and conditioner for the whole family can get quite expensive, whereas this way we are just using a small amount of cheap ingredients that we already have in the house.

3. Better for the environment and sustainable. The fewer complex chemical products that we need to use in our homes and flush away down the drains, the better for our local environment and for the whole planet.

You can read much more about it here if you want more details of shampoo-free hair-care. As for us, we’ll be carrying on the experiment and I’m going to try out some herb rinses to alternate with the vinegar; rosemary first for me and maybe chamomile for the girls.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Un-Halloween Costumes

Halloween goes by without a blip on the radar here. While some communities in Cape Town and around have started organizing trick or treating for their kids, it’s an import, not really engrained in the culture in South Africa and out on the farm it’s not even an option. Reading American blogs though it sounds like the biggest fun is thinking up and choosing a costume and our girls did get to do that this weekend. Our school spring fair had a fancy dress competition and they both entered straight away, as soon as it was announced.

Last year was the first year that it had been put on and almost every little girl went as either a princess or a fairy. So this year, in a bid for diversity, the teachers told them they’d get more points for thinking up an original costume, funny, ugly, different.

Much deliberation went into coming up with ideas. Youngest and I went through an online list of suggestions for Halloween and she came up with a shortlist of six options that we thought we could manage. Little Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland, a gypsy fortune teller, a jockey, Little Bo Peep or a cowgirl. She likes to take time over her decision making, weighing every single option fully before coming to a final conclusion.

Then we went through to the bedroom, where Older Daughter was thinking about her costume. She had only one plan so far: a genuine Chinese dress and parasol brought back from China by her aunt. But she wasn’t convinced it would meet the originality/funny criteria. So when I grabbed my bright red winter dressing gown from the back of the door and jokingly suggested to Youngest that we could also add Father Christmas to her list of options, it was Older Daughter that ran with the idea.

She spent the rest of the day searching out an old Father Christmas hat, making a cotton wool beard and trying on cushions round her middle. We unearthed our old sledge from the garage and she carefully oiled it with linseed oil over the next couple of days. She wrapped up boxes in saved Christmas paper. Filled a black bag with soft toys and practised saying Ho ho ho in a deep voice.

Youngest meanwhile had got her list down to three, then two and finally settled on being a jockey. All this needed was her riding gear plus the creation of some jockey silks, which of course I left till the very last minute. Friday afternoon saw me recklessly cutting out some leftover silky fabric into a vest shape, hand-stitching hems and shoulder darts (sewing machines frighten me to death), as I sat on the bench watching her riding lesson, and then handing it over to my sister in law, who is a sewing whizz, to machine stitch on the contrasting pink triangle and contrive a fastening.

I had the bright idea of ironing the hat band into hems to save stitches and fell victim to the menace of a hot iron in contact with man-made fabrics. Before I knew what had happened the band had shrivelled away altogether and the iron was blackened... I still have to Google a way of cleaning it.... But I salvaged enough fabric from the ruins and the costume was complete.

They both looked great on the day. Father Christmas won a prize, our jockey didn’t. In a way Halloween trick or treating would have been a better option for all-round happiness with no winners and losers, but in the end most of the fun was had already in the costume creation itself.