Sunday, February 14, 2016

Pavlova quest part II

The quest for the perfect pavlova continues. A visit from the in laws coupled with making ice cream resulted in 12 eggs whites going begging. The first attempt followed my previous protocol, but wary of warnings about overheating, I stopped just when I felt no grit in my meringue (i.e. All the sugar was dissolved, about 5-6 minutes beating). This resulted in stiff peaks and a meringue that held its uncooked shape well, but not as stiff as I would usually use. Baked on the second lowest rack, preheated to 180 and then turned down to 150 for 30 mins, followed by 120 for another 45.

And here's the baked result.....

Disappointing to say the least.

So of course I had to try again.  After much googling, I discovered this wonderful site:
Which is really what I have been looking for - a comparison of different techniques (the scientific method at work!). As it happened I was also concerned with exactly how much egg white there is in a "large egg"' so as to convert my bantam egg whites to "large" as used in most recipes.  Turns out it's about 58% of the egg weight! but of course what really matters is the ratio of egg white to sugar. And this great site discusses this at length, finally coming up with a ratio of 1:1.65.  This happens to be pretty much what Stephanie Alexander uses (1:1.8, assuming a standard "large egg" is about 60g, even though in the supermarket these are actually sold as "extra large".... You can see why my obsessive compulsiveness really appreciated someone else's thorough examination of this topic!)

So coupled with my own intuition that my previous meringue just wasn't stiff enough, this website, as well as a continuing niggling feeling my meringues were too brown, I have concluded my major problem (aside from the insufficient beating) was that my oven is just too hot (Ilve do promote how good their ovens are at retaining heat) and didn't respond quickly enough to turning the temp down.

So here's what I changed:
1. Weigh the egg whites - I had 110g from 6 bantam egg whites, so used about 180g caster sugar (I followed the Stephanie Alexander recipe for attempt 1 and used 6 whites to 250g sugar). Cornflour and white vinegar as usual, although I left out the vanilla to try to keep the meringue white - more on this later.
2. Follow the beating protocol in Pavlova quest part I by beating to soft peaks, then adding sugar gradually on speed 6, then upping the speed to 10. I added the sugar much more slowly, taking around 4-5 mins, then when beating on speed 10 I stopped maybe every minute or so to check the stiffness. I was looking for stiff peaks that stood upright when lifting the beaters out, but still curled over when I inverted the beaters (pointing skywards). So pretty stiff, but not yet over beaten. Whole process took about 10 minutes. Apparently, according to Phillipa Sibley, if there's a meringue shaped hole when you lift the beaters, that's way too far.
3. Piled the pav higher and a smaller circle than before, to allow for some spreading.
4. Preheat to 150C only, then turn down to 110C immediately, and bake for two hours. Leave in oven overnight.

And here's the result:

Yep, great height, kept shape beautifully, cracking not too bad (at least compared to previous one!), colour ok. And another photo just to see the height:

So what have I learnt?

I think my oven is still a little too hot as the cracking indicates the meringue was still expanding after the shell had mostly set, but I'm wary about going less than 100C due to issues with weeping that I've had before (100C is a critical temp for cracking, as above this steam is still being generated by the marshmallow part during the drying out of the entire meringue). I'm not sure whether the weeping previously was due to under or over cooking..... Both seem to be possibilities! 

I left out the vanilla as I read it makes the pav look browner, rather than snowy white, but as the second attempt was also pinky brown, albeit much lighter, I think this is more due to the temp being too hot (which also explains cracking) so next experiment is either to preheat a little lower and/or cook at a lower temp.

I also had quite an airspace between the marshmallow and top part of the shell. This doesn't really worry me normally, as I just fill it with cream and fruit, but this time the cracking was slight enough that I didn't really notice until we cut the pav and there was a small collapse! The great website above seems to imply that this is due to an overly long cooking time (as the marshmallow is now shrinking as it loses moisture), so this just points to the need for lower temps (or shorter cook times). Overlooking also causes weeping supposedly, as sugar leaves the mix in solution (excess moisture?). So given my oven retains heat so well maybe I need to also leave the door ajar on cooling, or reduce the temp after say 1 hour.

So many parameters to test, so many pavs to make!

Stay tuned for part 3.....

Friday, April 3, 2015

G is for Garlic

Well it's been quite a while since my last post. I've had endless colds or so it seems, and last weekend was Rose's 2nd birthday party, so that has kept me fairly busy baking a giant Peppa Pig cake.

Now that summer is officially over and indeed, the weather is cooling quite a lot, it's time to plant garlic. The last 2 years' garlic crops have been very disappointing, with either the plants being  decimated by aphids, or the garlic bulbs being very small on harvest. Perhaps with last year's lot, it was harvested a bit too early hence was a bit small.

For this year I've decided to reinvest with new varieties. I've got 3 different ones from the Digger's Club: Korean red, early white, and glamour.  And I'll put in a few bulbs from last year's miniature harvest.  

I've prepared the bed with mushroom compost and cow manure, and as usual I'll be cramming in more than is probably recommended. But we'll see how it goes come the December solstice and the next harvest.

p.s. it turns out that whilst the bulbs from last year's harvest were small, the actual cloves were a reasonable size.  So hopefully some good will come of those.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

F is for Flock Block

There are lots of recipes for these around the web - the Flock Block, otherwise known as a bird seed cone.  I decided to adapt recipes I found online to suit what I had to hand. You can use anything really, the only required ingredients being some eggs and an oil of some sort to act as a binder.  This is a baked flock block, hence the inclusion of eggs.  I did see quite a few recipes that used an animal fat (such as lard or other fat that's solid at room temperature) but whilst these might suit a climate with cold winters below zero, that would just fall apart in our much milder Australian weather, particularly when it gets over 40C here in summer!

So here is what I used, mainly as this is what I had to hand:

  • 2 cups mixed grain
  • 1 cup crushed egg shells (I like to recycle, but shell grit would do just as well)
  • 1 cup pellets
  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup barley
  • 5-6 bantam eggs (or 4 standard eggs), lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup treacle (or molasses, honey or similar)
  • 1/2 - 1 cup vegetable oil

Mix together all the the dry ingredients in a bowl.  Mix together all the wet ingredients except for the vegetable oil.  Add wet ingredients to dry, mixing well, and then gradually add in the vegetable oil until you get a mix that's wet enough to stick together well when a handful in squeezed into a ball.  The amount of vegetable oil you need will obviously depend on the dryness of your mix ingredients.

Put into a lined tin - I used two loaf tins, and this produced blocks about 2-3 cm deep.  Use a chopstick or similar to poke a hole in the mix to use for hanging it later. Bake at 200C for about 20 minutes until starting to brown.  Cool, attach string, and hang for your chickens to enjoy! 

Other suggestions to add:

  • Meal worms
  • Peanut butter
  • Wheat germ
  • Any other seeds you have
Our chooks took a day or two to figure out what to do with it, but once they got the idea, the entire thing was demolished within about 2 days!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

E is for egg tracking: Eggspense review

Usually I just get a pen and put a few marks on my wall calendar to track how many eggs the girls lay each day, but I've long had it in the back of my mind to look into writing an app to do it.  Of course it's been done already!

I was after something that would record how many eggs we got each day so I could look at totals and patterns over the year, and maybe put in extra things that it would be nice to track, such as when I worm them (and be able to set reminders).

I'm notoriously cheap when it comes to buying software but I thought it would be nice to have something on my phone, so after a little bit of searching backyard chicken and egg forums, I decided to give eggspense a try, as it works on Android.  I think it only cost me a couple of dollars.  It doesn't allow me to put in reminders, but it does record the expenses of keeping chickens so you can work out how much it costs per egg!  This is a constant refrain of Mr Potter, who insists that the chickens aren't earning their keep.  Well of course not, they're pets as well as egg producers - the whippets certainly aren't a cost neutral exercise either!  But seriously, I've been a bit concerned about the egg quota lately - it seems to me that with 5 young chickens we should be getting more than 2 eggs per day on average in the laying season.  It's been a bit hot lately, and they do tend to lay a bit less when things are scorching, but overall its's been a mild summer and not unbearable like the summer before Rose was born.

So here's the first two weeks of egg tallying.   I haven't bought any feed lately, so there's nothing under expenses as yet.

The plot that I've shown here I've actually recoloured in Irfanview (best freebie imaging editor around for quick and dirty fixes and ease of use!). So here's my first bit of feedback for the developers: what's with the dark blue dots on black background for your charts?  And the tiny tiny font on the chart?

And I couldn't manage to share this chart directly with blogger, but it was easy enough to download and save, which I need to do so I could edit the colours!

On the plus side, the app's pretty easy to use, and I generally remember to put the egg numbers in straightaway as I'm rarely without my phone, which couldn't be said for the old method of writing it down on the calendar in my study.  It would be great to also be able to set reminders of things such as worming though, or just log other things of note, such as when they moult or when a broody hen might affect the egg numbers.

After six months or so, when I've averaged out the expenses over a decent length of time, I'll post an update on how much it really is costing me to produce eggs!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

D is for Dried apricots

After our recent apricot harvest, we got a bit sick of eating them.  By we, I mean Rose (who didn't seem to like them much) and me, since Dad doesn't eat fruit.  Plus some of them were a bit overripe and squishy for my taste.  So I decided to dehydrate them in the oven.

First, halve the apricots and remove the stones, plus any squished or bruised bits.  You can treat them with ascorbic acid supposedly to stop them going brown when they dry - I had ok results, but didn't really try to improve things.  I found a great article online which covered all the detail.

Anyway, I crushed 500mg of Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) tablets using a mortar and pestle, and dissolved the powder in 1 litre of water.  Soak your prepared apricots for 5 minutes or so and then drain and dry well.

Spread out to dry - I used a pizza tray as it had holes on the bottom to help with the drying. Leave the oven on the lowest setting possible (mine goes down to 50C) for as long as it takes.  I left mine in for 24 hours, but they probably could have done with a bit longer.  I used the fan forced option on my oven, as I think that ideally the temperature should be as uniform as possible.  I didn't leave the door ajar, but did crack it open fairly frequently to let the steam escape.

You can see the results in the photo - they do taste good!  As they don't have any preservatives, the article above recommends freezing or vacuum packing to prevent mould growth.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

C is for cucumbers

Cucumbers are one of the few vegetables (along with peas and possibly cauliflower) that Rose will actually eat.  So this year I planted 3 Lebanese mini munchers, from Diggers' Club.  I chose these ones as the actual cucumbers are quite small, to suit my small plots, and I've trained them over the wire that encloses each plot.  As my plots aren't that big, I'm always looking for ways to increase how much I can cram into them, so training them seemed like a good idea.  They have tendrils to climb with, but don't seem to climb without some help, being happier to sprawl over the ground.

After a slow start, they're cropping really well.  I get maybe a half dozen each week now, with plenty on the way.  They're lovely and crunchy.  But it looks like the natives (mice?) have found them too. Fortunately, I think there's enough to go around, although I have been picking them a bit earlier than I would ideally like to make sure we don't lose too many.

While I'm here, seems like a good time for a panorama update. We've just done a top up of all the mulch in the backyard (six cubic metres of pine bark) as it was wearing very thin with the whippets doing laps down the bottom and then up over the lawn.  I'm forever trying to repair the lawn, although summer is probably not the best time for it.  Amazing how much greener everything looks with a dark base to set it off.

Monday, January 26, 2015

B is for Broody hens

Of our 5 chooks, we have two culprits that seem to recurrently go broody - Henny (Light Sussex) and Caramel (Wyandotte).  It's only those two usually, but when they hog the nesting boxes, no-one else seems to feel like laying either and egg production goes right down!  This may have something to do with the fact that Caramel in particular gets rather nasty and pecks and fluffs up her feathers when anyone comes near.  After all, she's just protecting her eggs, and she's not to know that they'll never hatch! Henny is much more complacent, but then the Light Sussexes seem calmer all round anyway.

Henny and Caramel share the chicken prison under the coop.
Jenny is in the main run area.
There's a plethora of advice and cures for broodiness out there, but the only one that works for me is to put them into "chicken prison".  The basic idea is that by getting them off the nest and putting somewhere they can (literally) cool down, they hormonal drive to nest eventually settles down. This takes anywhere from a few days (for Caramel) to up to a week (for Henny).  I've tried cooling them using the oft talked about cures like putting ice cubes in the nesting boxes, but all that seems to happen is that I get wet shredded paper in the boxes.  Similarly, returning them to the run just results in a temporary break (when they might have a bit of a forage for some food and a drink) and then a rapid return to the nesting boxes.

So I invested in the "chicken prison" which is just a dog crate (bought off ebay for $26) which conveniently sits underneath the coop in the run, and has two doors on the front and side for easy access.  Although the crate came with a solid, removable plastic tray for the bottom, I took it out and just put in some finer aviary wire for a base (the crate wires are too far apart for the chooks to stand comfortably), so the droppings go through into the run.  I prop it up on a few big blocks of wood to help with this, and also to aid the cooling effect.  I put water and a little feeder inside, plus 1-2 broody chickens and leave them to it.  They stay in there, day and night.  As the prison is undercover, being underneath our elevated coop, they're protected from the direct sun and rain.

After a few days, the chickens have usually been "punished" enough and I'll let them out.  Usually, they go straight back to the flock, relieved to not have to watch the others enjoy the kitchen scraps while they miss out.  Occasionally, Henny in particular will go back on the nest, in which case it's back in prison for another few days!  More often than not though, they seem to be "cured".  At least for a few weeks, when the cycle starts all over again.....