Easy Homemade Instant Hot Chocolate

Homemade Rich Hot Chocolate Mix

Homemade Rich Hot Chocolate Mix

Instant Hot Chocolate Mix is a great convenience – especially when you head outside.  That said,  really good rich hot cocoa mix isn’t cheap – but you can easily make gourmet all in one mix at home with quality bulk ingredients for a fraction of the price of buying it already prepped very easily and quickly.

These also go great with homemade marshmallows which you can flavor any way you wish – peppermint or cinnamon anyone?

Click on the post title for the full recipe.


Nearly Instant Granola Bars

Easy Homemade Granola Bars with Whole Oats

Easy Homemade Granola Bars with Whole Oats

Once you’ve given these oat bars a try chance are good they’ll replace your prepared granola bar purchases.  They are super quick to pull together, decidedly tasty and cost a fraction of what commercial granola bars cost.

Now to be sure these aren’t super health food – they have quite a bit of fat and sugar mixed in with the whole grain oats – but then at least in terms of sugar content that’s not really different from the commercial product.  All the same, these are our favorite for packing along when we head off into the outdoors on adventures where we’re burning loads of energy.

Once you give them a try I’m sure you’ll be keeping this recipe handy.

Click on the post title for the recipe details.



DIY Conical Build Pt 1 The Materials

The foundation material for the conical needs to be stainless steel in order to keep the vessel from rusting.  Now for grade of stainless – something like 304 or 18/8 which is used for stainless pots and buckets should be just fine and is fairly common.  With that determined what options exist for us to get that material at reasonable cost.  Well, free is obviously best, but since I used up much of my pile of salvaged stainless steel sheets (mainly BBQs) building the wood fired pizza oven I don’t have much of that left.

Then there’s the buy option, and actually as I am going forward I find myself buying some stainless material for the legs – but now that I consider it I could have gotten away without making that purchase, but more on that once we get to that stage of the build…

Materials with which to build the DIY Conical

Materials with which to build the DIY Conical

Anyway back to the fundamental parts of the conical – the vertical segment and the cone.  Well since the top is basically like a pot without a base I thought I might as well go that route and build it out of stainless steel pots which are readily available and low cost.  As an added bonus the top segment is already nicely rolled and sealed.

Now some folks I’ve seen building conicals use a cone made from spun stainless funnels – but since I couldn’t find one easily and at low cost I figured I would just form one up from some more stainless steel sheet (or pot bits).  It’s more welding but I kinda want the practice to improve my skills so really not all that bad.  Plus as indicated before – by brewing in the conical with the associated 90 minute boil I would be able to achieve excellent sanitation even where weld imperfections might otherwise thwart chemical cleaning.

Now for the disadvantages… well these pots are pretty thin – definitely thick enough to do the job without problem but thinner material is often more difficult to weld effectively. Still cost and availability prompted me to consider this my best option – especially since I was reasonably sure that I would be able to handle the welding of the think stainless with the Henrob OA torch based on my experience with the stainless pizza oven.

The price – well a pot set from Harbor Freight where the largest pot is 4 gallons cost me $20 and and a 5 gallon pot at the local homestore cost me another $20.  Now some folks I’ve seen building conicals use a cone made from spun stainless funnels – but since

Now for the cool part right – the triclamp fittings that make the conical so versatile.  Well, these are available at low cost off ebay or amazon from manufacturers in China.  How low cost is low cost?  Well a 1.5″ weld-on tricalmp fitting runs $1.99 with free shipping!  So I purchased a bunch of 1.5″ fittings, gaskets, caps, threaded fittings, valves and the like along with a few 2″ fittings to allow me to pass the electrical heating element into the conical.

Total cost for the bits and bobs… slightly over a hundred bucks.  Not bad for a prototype.



DIY Conical Fermenter and Brewing System on the cheap

I’ve been brewing beer at home for quite some time – since before I could legally drink what I was producing.  Much of that has been from kits or from malt extract and my homegrown hops in large part because of the ease with which that can be accomplished.  When I’ve gone over to the all grain side it’s been with cobbled together motley collection of coolers, strainers, bags and the like – which all things considered has gone pretty well.

Recently I’ve wanted to increase my all grain brewing in part because it offers more control but truth be told because it also promises to be significantly cheaper since malt extract and kits are now getting to the price point they produce beer for half the price of purchased product.

DIY Conical Fermenter and Brewing system beside a 3 gallon keg

DIY Conical Fermenter and Brewing system half completed beside a 3 gallon keg

In my review of the systems that are out there I’ve been drawn to the one vessel systems – either the brew-in-a-bag systems, or the brew in a single vessel like the braumeister out of Germany or the more recently introduced grainfather – which really resembles a large commercial coffee urn.  But the one that really caught my fancy was the system that has you brewing in a single vessel that vessel being a conical – now that is efficiency!

I’ve wanted a conical for some time now, and since I’ve started to get a hang of welding stainless steel with my Henrob oxy-acetylene torch when I built the stainless steel pizza oven I wanted to give it a try – but since my welding isn’t exactly commercial grade the idea of doing a 90 minute boil in the conical – which would sterilize the nooks and crannies left in my imperfect welds that might be otherwise hard to get clean – efficient and able to accommodate my stainless welding limitations.

Because I didn’t want to invest too much money into the project I decided to start with a few cheap stainless steel pots – a four pot set from harbor freight, the largest one a 4 gallon unit, and an additional 5 gallon pot.  Both the set and the larger pot were nineteen bucks each.  Tri-clamp fittings from e-bay, direct from China added another $40 or so, toss on a pound of stainless tig rods and we’re looking at about a hundred bucks.

Now, I’m frugal, but one of the other factors here is that this is a prototype, and as such it won’t be perfect, so it doesn’t make sense to dump a lot of cash into something that inherently will be less than the optimal design.

The other thing is that this won’t handle a full five gallon batch – but it should be sized right for three gallon batches, which if this system is as easy to use as I would like to make it is about the perfect size for turning out loads of different beer variations.

Oh, and I’ve got a twist up my sleeve that I’m going to explore, but I’ll save that for later.  Stay tuned to see how it works out.


Lemon Pavlova – A Straight A Desert

Lemon Pavlova - so good, so simple

Lemon Pavlova – so good, so simple

This is a desert that is guaranteed to WOW those to whom it is served.  I know,  it oft been the desert I’ve been requested to bring, and it was the desert I would request in return for straight A’s when I was in school – it may explain why I was honor role.  For all of that awesomeness it is an incredibly easy desert to prepare.  IF you are one of those folks who can’t seem to make a piecrust – then this is definitely a desert for you.  Click on the post title for the full recipe and for a detailed step by step walk through the steps watch the video.  You won’t regret it!


Meat Grinders – Meat Money Maker

Owning a meat grinder is a great way to save money on your food bill – which let’s face it isn’t likely falling.  In fact, there’s a good chance you can pay for the addition of the grinder to your household the first time you use it – and that is a pretty incredible payback.

#32 hand cranked meat grinder - simplicity and durability

#32 hand cranked meat grinder – simplicity and durability

You’ll often see bigger cuts of meat, beef and pork roasts and whole turkeys selling on special for a fraction of what ground meat costs.  While you could make a paying proposition of simply grinding up these cuts instead of buying ground meat there is an even more lucrative possibility.  I like to cut up roasts into thick steaks and chops and then trim off the parts that will be extra fatty or gristly – you know the parts that would otherwise end up being left on the plate.   I wrap the steaks or chops in a good butcher paper and toss the trimmings in ziplock bags and everything goes in one of my freezers.  Then once a year I’ll grind and process all of the accumulated trimmings.

When it comes to the turkeys, which can be offered up at crazy low prices to induce Thanksgiving and Christmas shoppers to visit one retailer or another I trim the breasts off first and wrap those to use in place of chicken breasts.  Then once the breasts are off I like to cut off the easy to remove meat for grinding, and then toss the carcass(s) into a big pot with a bit of water and boil them down.  I like to use a reciprocating saw to cut the turkey skeletons up so that I can cram more into one pot.  Once the carcasses have been cooked cool them down and then strip the remaining meat off of the carcass and then pressure can the meat and broth for cooking and easy hearty soups.  I usually freeze the cooled fat rather than can it and then add it after.

#12 Electric Meat Grinder

#12 Electric Meat Grinder

So a meat grinder makes a great fit into an active home kitchen – given this what are some realistic options.  Well the lowest cost entry point is a tinned cast iron hand cranked grinder, they are a bulletproof design, and are very affordable.  I’ve had one of the smaller ones – a #10 (about $30) and it did a good job, but while it is bulletproof and easy to crank it is limited in terms of throughput.  One advantage is that it can be clamped on a counter – as long as your counter isn’t something that mars easily.  I found this grinder too small for my purposes – but then I tend to do big batches in a single go.

I now have the largest of the hand cranked cast iron grinder, a #32 – which costs about $40. It requires a solid mounting to a working surface – usually by bolting them down, so it probably isn’t something you are going to be affixing to your kitchen counter.  I generally bolt it to the surface of a workmate portable workbench which I then need to hold down with some of my weight applied with one of my feet while cranking.  It does a great job but certainly does give a good workout.  If you are smaller you might want to opt for the medium size #22 which like the #32 needs to be bolted to a work surface.

There are #32 grinders which come with big pulleys in addition to the crank.  If you’ve got a bit of space this might be a good option – bolting the grinder and a big electric motor (a Harbor Freight farm or compressor duty motor would be my choice) to a solid work surface.  This would combine the last a lifetime or two design of the cast iron mill, the capacity of the #32 and the advantages of electric grinding with hand crank back up.  But you’ve got to have the space to store a setup of this size.

#32 meat grinder left and #12 grinder right with the plates in front showing size difference

#32 meat grinder left and #12 grinder right with the plates in front showing size difference

On the electric grinder front, I’ve got a #12 Kitchener brand grinder which features a 400 watt motor. This is a pretty good home size grinder – I’ve done a lot of grinding on it, but it definitely isn’t a professional or industrial model.  The construction is solid, but you can hear the motor laboring at points and it needs to be shut off an cooled periodically to avoid overheating.   Now, it’s priced right – this brand and similar models run about $70, they have a pretty good throughput rate, and it doesn’t require any mounting to counters or work surfaces, but while I’ve been using it for about three years now I’d be surprised if it end up being handed down to my kids.  I know my #32 hand cranked unit will be still going strong for my great grand kids.

I’ve also seen small grinders that are mostly plastic and use suction mounting to attach them to a counter.  I haven’t used one of these, but even the #10 sized mill needs to be solidly attached to the end of a counter with the pretty strong built in clamp.  Since I have used apple grinders that feature the same suction mounting and had them move around I can’t believe these will do anything more than waste your $25 and frustrate you – if you are looking for something on the smaller size go for a #10 cast iron mill, or one of the electrical ones.

What about one of the mill attachments for your stand mixer?  Since they are similarly sized to the electric grinder I have my reasoned guess would be that they would be pretty good buy you’d have to watch the motor and ensure that you shut things off and let it cool unless you really do have a heavy duty mixer.

In terms of incorporating these into you food strategy, I usually spend part of a day or two once a year grinding the meat trimmings I’ve accumulated in the freezer from cutting up beef, pork and venison and making them into burgers and fresh and cured sausages.  Another day gets spent grinding up those discount turkeys and then canning cases of stock that result.

Check out the price of these meat products in your grocery or butcher shop and it should be clear that this is a strategy that can not only add capacity to your home but save loads of money.


Homemade Marshmallows

Beating Marshmallows in the stand mixer

Beating Marshmallows in the stand mixer

Marshmallows likely strike most folks today as some complex food that must contain several dozen compounds with long and complex names able to be made only in complex factories.  The reality is exactly the opposite – marshmallows are simple and easy to produce at home.  Moreover, you can make some great flavoured marshmallows – such as these peppermint ones that are the perfect accompaniment for hot chocolate.

Click on post title for full recipe details.


Vacuum Food Bottle Showdown – Stanley vs. Thermos

Vacuum Bottle Tops and Lids

Vacuum Bottle Tops and Lids

I feel like you should be reading this and thinking monster truck announcer voice for this epic showdown between the two leading brands in vacuum bottle technology battling it out to see which is the champion of the lunch box!  The reality is slightly less epic.

My guess is that for many folks the value of a vacuum food bottle has diminished as microwaves have become pervasive in many workpalce kitchens.  But that isn’t the case for all workplaces, nor is it true for many kids – including mine.

For them especially this is relevant because food restrictions due to allergies can really cut down on what you can put in a kid’s lunch box – no nuts or nut butters is pretty standard, but last year there was even a prohibition against bringing fish to school because someone had an allergy or at least one that was close enough that the administration didn’t want to trouble themselves with deciding what was in or out.

In anycase, a vacuum bottle allows you to pack a warm lunch that can not only diversify the regular fare, but at least in my home is a very economical means of packing lunch.  We’re talking here things like leftover butter chicken, Thai curries, and hearty soups with a chunk of homemade bread or a wholesome whole wheat biscuit.

Vacuum Bottle Heat Loss Chart

Vacuum Bottle Heat Loss Chart

All those things do best nice and warm, and I’ve found that cheap vacuum bottle just don’t cut it given I reheat lunches shortly after 6am.  So this fall  when shopping for a few quality vacuum bottles I found those made by – Stanley and Thermos brands came with a variety of competing claims on how long they would keep contents warm or cold.  With them priced reasonably closely I decided to pick up a few and trial them to see which ended up being better.

Well, the end result is that all claims aside they all perform equally well and seem to loose heat at comparable rates – the biggest determining factor being the starting volume of the contents you load rather than which brand or model you choose as can be seen in the chart.

So knowing that which ones win out.  Well, for adults I like the 17oz Stanley – it’s a nice size and had the much better designed top.  Thermos tops should really be redesigned to give better grip.  As the contents cool there can be a pretty substantial vacuum pulled which fights against easy opening of the top.  But all things considered for the kids the 16oz Thermos brand ones win – particularly based on size to volume.  They are a nice meal size for kids and they are only 2/3rds the size of the Stanley which makes a difference in a jammed backpack.   The folding spoon originally struck me as gimicky, and likely to get lost in short order – but somewhat surprisingly we’re about five month into their frequent use by the kids – at least once a week – and those spoons are still around.

Slightly more worrying is the silicon gasket.  I worry every time I wash them that the gasket will go missing – but so far so good.  I will probably end up contacting Stanley and Thermos and asking to order a few replacement gaskets to have in the spare parts drawer.  Apart from that I can see both of these living up to their claims of a lifetime of use, and both have already paid their cost back in lunch savings (roughly $25 to $30).

These definitely trump the cheap thermoses that will end up disappointing and being chucked time and again.  Buy something that will deliver and keep you happy.


Corn Grain Mill Review

Cheap Corn Mills - great for nixtamatal

Cheap Corn Mills – great for nixtamatal

These mills are cheap (like $25) and readily available, but are they any good?  Definitely, and you probably should pick one up.  But, like so many things you need to understand what they are good for.

Now, what they are great for is making nixtamatal – that is grain corn processed with alkali for making things like tortillas.  It’s an easy grind material which is the perfect fit for this machine – and fresh nixtamatal is awesome!

It’s also OK cracking grain for animal feed or malted barley for brewing beer.  Now, what it isn’t perfect in that latter role – a roller mill would be better – but hey for $25 it’s a pretty affordable malt crusher.

So what doesn’t it do well?  Now, that’s grind grains for flour.  That is why I first picked up this mill a couple of decades ago – and the poor results and high cost of mills capable of producing fine flour prompted me to start on the path that resulted in the Homestead Grain Mill that is simple to build for yourself at low cost and produces great flour.

Replace the cotter pin holding the rotating burr in place with a bolt (in this case a #8)

Replace the cotter pin holding the rotating burr in place with a bolt (in this case a #8)

Dissembled Corn Mill

Dissembled Corn Mill

But that mill isn’t designed to make nixtamatal – which is why this cheap cast iron mill still sees loads of use in my home.  Fresh tortillas made from homemade nixtamatal are awesome – and this cheap mill and a good tortilla press make turning them out easy as well as cheap.  Bags of feed corn are running $10 for 50 pounds!

Now there is something that is lacking on these mills – all of those I have seen hold the front rotating burr in place with a cotter pin – which bends and allows the burr to slip back and freewheel.  This can be easily overcome by replacing the cotter pin with a bolt.

Apart from that weak part these mills are all pretty well and solidly made.  Sure, they look like they have loads of adjustment range – but I’ve got a number of slightly different variations and they all have loose tolerances, which is perfectly ok for grinding nixtamatal.

With prices starting at $25 you can order one on amazon and pick up a sack of feed corn and the fixin’s for a great night of Mexican food for less than the cost of the same meal out – and you’ll not only end the night with several meals worth of grain corn left but also with a mill that will last you a lifetime of enjoyable quality meals.


Chewy Oatmeal-Barley Raisin Cookies

Fresh Oatmeal Barley Raisin cookies packed for a day of skiing

Fresh Oatmeal Barley Raisin cookies packed for a day of skiing

You know those cookies from the store, the “fresh like” ones that are soft and chewy and oh so good.  I have a soft spot for the Oatmeal-Raisin ones.   These ones trump those.  They taste better, feature all whole grains, and can be whipped together in under ten minutes.  They go together quickly, if you are doing it by hand try to grab a Danish Whisk – you won’t go back to a wooden soon after you’ve tried it – or they can be made with even less effort with a stand mixer if you have one.

I think cookies have an undeserved reputation in some folks mind that they are a hassle.  I think a big part of that can be resolved by using silicon baking sheets.  They pretty much guarantee that you won’t suffer from the burnt bottom syndrome and they are reusable for many years – my oldest ones have been around for about ten years and are just about at the point that they need to be retired.

This recipe uses whole barley flour milled in the Homestead Grain Mill but you could just as easily substitute whole wheat, rye, triticale or spelt flour.