Sunday, 27 November 2011

Make your own Christmas Crackers!

Each year I end up making my own Christmas crackers because I can never find the right colours to go with my table or because I want to customise or theme the gifts inside! Its quite easy and almost as cheap. I always end up spending more than I would have on 10 deluxe crackers from the shops but then I usually put in a gift/toy worth 2-3 dollars and a nice chocolate (or lolly if its an outside Christmas lunch!) in each one! I recommend giving it a go for your table this year - or maybe as a novel way to enclose a gift for teachers or friends at the office!

Here's what I did!

For these ones, I collected 12 cardboard tubes and then used plain white copy paper (but you can use any paper that suits your Christmas table) for the base. I then used 6 paper serviettes (that I cut in half and already matched my Christmas colours) and a piece of plastic "lace" table cloth that I got from Crazy Clarkes for $2 (and am using for a number of "craft" projects!)
I also managed to buy the cracker pulls (the bit that goes bang) for $2 at an OverFlow and of course the ribbon was another $2 bargain from a $2 shop!

And then with the gifts added - its not cheaper, just more personalised!

Place the cardboard roll in the center of the paper length ways. Tape one side of the paper to the cardboard roll and then wrap the paper around. 

Secure the paper to the roll neatly in the middle - not the ends.

Cut your serviette to size, to cover just the roll - in my case in half and tape like you did to the white paper before wrapping the tube. The idea here was to have layers of colour - so I needed to be able to see the white as its my table predominate colour this year - and have the green as a contrast. Play with your papers to get the effect that you like.

Once again secure with tape. Keep all the taped sides on one side thus making a "top side" for display and a "bottom side" to place on the table.

Cut your decorative piece of paper to a slightly smaller size again and repeat the process to build up the layers of colour and texture.

Do this with each tube until you have the amount you need!

Cut ribbon to about 15-20cm lengths (tie one on the end of your test cracker to see how much you will actually need to tie off the end with before cutting the whole lot too long or too short!)

Like this!!!

Put the cracker pull into the cracker at this point and tape one end so that it doesn't fall out before you are finished making it.

Continue to do this with each cracker so that you have one end OPEN - other wise you wont be able to put the gifts, hats and jokes in!!!

I found this box of decorations at Aldi and fell in love with the snowflakes and decided to use them on my crackers - you could decorate them further with nearly any type of Christmas decoration that matches the theme you are using.

I used hot glue to attach my snowflake to the cracker as it was quite big and I thought it would slip off while it was drying if I used PVA glue. It seemed to work well!

And here they are - ready to be filled with a gift or trinket, a hat (have a look at a party place or make your own with tissue or crepe paper) and a bad Christmas joke printed out on the computer courtesy of my neighbour!

These are the hats, jokes, chocolates and toys bundles up ready to put into the cracker.

And this is this years trinket - mini snowflake pocket watches. Only a dollar each or two on e-bay!

This is selection of crackers I have made over the years... Purple and silver seem to be a bit of a theme!

I like making my own as it always matches exactly what I want to do and also so that I can put some decent trinkets in that will last longer than till the end of the meal! I often buy Christmas jewellery (on sale from Boxing day onwards for next years crackers) for the "girls" and brainteaser or puzzle type trinkets for the "boys". When you are buying these gifts, take along a tube so that you know it will fit inside. Its not much fun to spend $20 and then discover they don't fit...

Another tip would be about chocolates as gifts in your crackers - don't put them in unless you are SURE your cracker will be cool until they are pulled. The chocolate will melt and ruin all your hard work. Either put in an un-meltable edible or leave finishing the crackers until you are setting the table and pop it in then (that's what I usually do...) Even wrapped melted chocolate has a bad habit of hitting a hard object inside your cracker when you move it from storage to table and turning the inside of your cracker to a molten mess - Hot Australian Christmas Sun and chocolate dont mix well, I've found!

Score card:
Green-ness:  If you are recycling or using papers you already have - it gets 5/5 the more you buy the "browner" this project gets!
Frugal-ness: 3/5 Just because it would be quite a lot cheaper to buy crackers rather than make them. Decent gifts cost $
Time cost: If you have all the bits there already - about 3 minutes a cracker - also depends on how elaborate you are making them!
Skill level: Pretty easy really - just cutting and taping!
Fun-ness: Heaps of fun - especially hand choosing the papers and gifts!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Succesfull homemade bread rolls - Fun to make, easy to make recipie!

Who doesn't like bread?? I got a bread maker for Christmas one year ages ago and made breads of the world for years - I loved it and so did the family! I wore my machine out and needed replacement parts, that I never got around to getting for it and so bread production came to an abrupt halt. One day - I decided to have a go at making the bread with one of my almost never fail recipes but by hand instead of in the machine and voila - It was good! And almost as easy!

Here's what I did...

I put 310mls of water into a bowl.

Then I added 2 tablespoons of sugar (you need this for the yeast to feast on and do its thing), 2 teaspoons of salt (to inhibit too much activity of the part of the yeast!) and one large egg.

Then I added 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

Then 4 cups of flour. In this batch I  have used white flour but you can use up to 2 cups of wholemeal. If you use more you will end up with very heavy rolls that you might not like too much. This recipe is for white or part wholemeal not 100% wholemeal flour.

Then add 2 teaspoons of dried yeast. I use Lowans Instant yeast - found with the flours etc at my local Woolies.

Mix it all together with a spoon, metal, wooden, plastic... or your hands... It wont matter - just get mixed together!

Dump it all onto the bench and start kneading to bring it all together and get the gluten forming strong bands.

If its to wet, shake a bit of flour over it and knead in until its the right consistency. Dry enough to feel elasticity and wet enough to feel smooth. May take up to 10 minutes to get to the right state.

When you are hapy with it - dump it back in the bowl to rise.

Cover with a tea towel and leave somewhere warm to rise and double in size. When it has risen simply punch it down (just like it sounds) and then knead it again for another few minutes until elastic-y and soft again.

And then leave it to rest for 5 minutes or so.

Cut the dough ball into quarters with a large sharp knife.

Cut each quarter into thirds (assuming you want 12 rolls out of your ball of dough, that is!) or quarters if you want 16 rolls and roll into balls, or shape the way you hope to cook and eat them. Sometimes I do knots. Roll the small quarter into a snake and then tie it into a simple knot. There are many traditional roll shapes - experiment and have fun!

Put each of your 12 or 16 rolls as you make them on to an oven tray that has been lightly greased with oil or butter and leave them there to rise again.

Cover with a tea towel again until they have risen and are looking light and fluffy.
Pop them into the oven on about 250 and keep an eye on them until cooked - probably 15-20 minutes.
If mine are looking a bit too brown on the top and when I tap the with my fingernail sound "solid' and not "hollow" then I put a piece of tin foil loosly over the top to stop them burning while the insides catch up.

Once they sound hollow - they are ready to come out. If you try and eat them too soon, they will seem like they are uncooked and will feel like dough in your mouth. Give 'em a good 10 - 15 minutes to cool down. they will still be warm (yummy) and when you put the butter on it will still melt but your bread will have gained some structure and will be much better for the wait - also you wont burn yourself.

I had a vision of getting some yummy shots of the bread when it came out of the oven but my husband and brother came home when they rolls were on the bench and got stuck into them thinking that I had made them for them, which I had, but was hoping to take a photo first...

I allow about 2 hours to make these in the summer - from idea to pulling out of the oven and about 4-5 in the winter. Its not a "hmmm... I'm hungry, I think I'll make some bread" sort of an activity. If you hurry the bread it doesn't rise enough and you get "heavy" bread.

If on the other hand you come home having totally forgotten that you were making bread and see the bread has risen all over the bench, simply punch it down and knead it again. This applies if your rolls are left too long and have risen up and off the oven tray on the bench. We call this Franken-bread in our house (as in Frankenstein's monster who came to life) If you cook it in that state it will have a very yeasty taste.

Score card:
Green-ness:  4/5 If you are using organic flour its gonna be much better for you than "shopbread" as you know exactly whats in it!
Frugal-ness: 4/5 much cheaper than good quality shopbread and better for you
Time cost: 2-6 hours depending on the season and available sun/heat source!
Skill level: Easy peasy! Good holiday activity with the kids!
Fun-ness: Awesome fun-ness! Especially after a few sucessful batches and then you start making Vegemite pinwheels, adding cheese to the top, popping in a few seeds, experimenting with grains, trying pumpkin bread....

Thursday, 17 November 2011

How to make yoghurt, yogurt or even yoghurt! No Easi-yo? Still Easi-as!

I like yogurt (no matter how you spell it) I just think its awfully expensive for what it is and I never know what to do with the containers when you ahve fininshed it. If you go through a litre a week, that's 52 containers a year to find a project for... I tried a few times to make it but ended up with a bacterial soup that I wasn't game to eat. Then I stumbled upon Easi-yo. Its a yogurt making system with a flask and containers that you buy and then use their powdered yogurt mix to make up cheap yogurt in various flavors. My issue was that when Aldi opened down the road they were selling a litre of Yogurt for the same price as the mixes - ready to go!

So the flask and containers were relegated to the back of the cupboard until last year, when I discovered a recipe that is really easy, cheap and gets me the results that I want!

Here's what I did...

I used Aldi's full cream milk powder (about $6 a kilo and I get about 5 lots of yogurt of of a bag) with a tub of cheap "what ever I feel like" yogurt (as long as it has LIVE cultures in it, it should work - if you use a flavored one, you will get a residual flavour in your yogurt.) and the Easio-Yo flask (white in the background) and the 1 litre container (with the red writing on it) that comes with it. Easi-yo units are about $20 and of course as soon as I bought mine I found one at a second hand shop for $5 - shop around they are available. 

I sterilize my container in the microwave by boiling about 2cm of waterin it for 2 minutes on full power. Since I am trying to cultivate bacteria, I want to make sure that its bacteria that I want to eat. This should kill the rest!! I also pop some water in the lid and zap that as well.

In the meantime, boil just over a lite of water in the jug to fill the flask with.


Tip the boiled water into the sink and fill the container up to about 1/3 with cool filtered water. Then add 2 cups of milk powder.

Put the lid on and shake to mix the milk powder with the water. Make sure there are no lumps in it.

Fill the container to within a centimeter of the top and add 2 tablespoons of the yogurt to the mix and stir or shake it in. The better distributed it is, the better your yogurt is going to be.

When the jug has boiled, pour the water into the flask so that it is level with the top of the red part of the inside of the flask. Too high and it will overflow. Too low and you wont have enough heat to make your yogurt.

Make sure the lid is on properly and gently lower the container into the flask being careful not to splash boiling water on yourself.

Pop the lid on the flask and leave it for 8-12 hours depending on how thick you like your yogurt.
Once it has reached the consistency you like, place the container (without the white flask part) of yogurt in the fridge to cool.
Sweeten to taste with sugar or honey and add fruit, syrups, muesli etc.

Some suggestions:
Vanilla: Add 1tsp vanilla essence, 1tbspn vanilla ice-cream flavouring and 2 tsp sugar. Mix well.
Strawberry: Add 2tbspn strawberry topping and 1/2 cup sliced strawberries
Honey: Add 1tsp vanilla essence and 1 tbsp honey. Mix well.
*If you use skim milk powder the end result will be a thinner yogurt, more like the commercial product.
*For thicker yogurt use a good Greek yogurt as the starter, full cream milk powder and let it set for 18 - 24 hours.
*You can leave your yogurt to set for up to 24 hours before removing from the thermos and refrigerating.
*The longer you let your yogurt set, the more tart it will become.
*Use a couple of spoons of this yougart for your next batch. I find I need fresh yougart every 3rd batch as my yogart gets "stringy." Tastes great, just has a weird texture which freaks out my family!


Score card:
Green-ness:  3/5 Pretty green but not the greenest thing you can do to save the planet!
Frugal-ness: 4/5 Good frugal living - once you have the Easi-yo flask that is...
Time cost: Nice and quick - probably the same amount of time as to make a cupp a once you've dont it a few times!
Skill level: Super easy! Give it a go!
Fun-ness: Always fun to make things you can eat!!! 

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

What else can you dye??? Dying teatowels, mats and cushion covers!

The dying bug is hard to shake! I had intended to do the towels and if that was successful, then give the curtains a go. Then of course if you are doing the curtains and the cushion covers on the couch match the curtains - it makes sense to do them as well doesn't it?? I thought so too! and the extra dye for the purple ones was a whole $4. I thought the budget could stand that and so I went ahead and did them as well.

Here's what (else) I did...

These are the original cushion covers...

And this the new improved version - The purple was a good match, they are just brighter. The green ones are an entirley different colour. If I was going to do this again, I would WASH the cushion covers in the machine and try to get out any fabric protector that hadnt worn off, off. I think that that is the cause of the patchiness.

The $5 cotton IKEA mat on the kitchen floor. Its on its last legs and has been washed many many times...

The mat after it was dyed. This mat just got the left over dye in the bath so it wasnt as strong as the dye bath I used for the cushions and curtains even though they were all done together. I think the patchiness is the same "not wet through" issue as the mat was VERY heavy and VERY wet. As an experiment, It was OK and I'd do it again!

I was getting quite excited dying the curtains - there is no proper "before shot" as these were the first thing I thought of doing. We use a LOT of teatowels in our house (cheaper than paper towel) and some are in a fairly scary state of threadbareness! Anyway - this is the before image...

And this - the after. They went through the "leftover dye" bath rather than full strength, but I thought they would come out in a stronger colour as they were all 100% cotton - according to the label... I was hoping that the blue ones would go green and the redish ones more purple rather than just a tint - not that its detracted from their teatowel purpose in anyway!

Score card:Green-ness: 3/5 Not as much water used as the other items but still of concern
Frugal-ness: 5/5 No cost as the whole experiment was left overs and already hads!
Time cost: An extra 1/2 hour per item - and a much needed cuppa!
Skill level: Pretty easy, especially if you have already dyed things
Fun-ness: Can be tooooo much fun - very hard to know when to stop... Try not to pop through your husbands grey 1980's grey suit, no matter how much better it will look in patchy bottle green!!!

Monday, 14 November 2011

How to dye curtains at home! Lots of fun, but not a total success this time...

Since I dyed my old-ish bath towels so successfully, I decided that I would have a go at the curtains that were sun bleached and very faded. They were 100% cotton (lots of man made fibres wont dye well if at all) and needed replacing/updating/refreshing. So I thought I would give it a go.

Here's what I did...

First weigh your item - you need to do this so that you use enough dye to get the colour you are aiming at. I rolled this curtain up and popped it on my kitchen scale. For the Tintex dyes that I used - you need 10gms of dye powder for every 500gms of material.

Thoroughly wet the fabric - this step tuned out to be more important than I originally thought. On my first dye attempt - I did bath towels. They soaked up the water so well that the issue that will become apparent further along didn't arise. At any rate, I think a lot of curtains and pillows will have been coated at some point in their manufacture with some sort of fabric protector and will be harder than you think to get wet evenly. (see photo below) A small squirt of detergent may help to get the water into the fabric.

I am using Tintex high temperature dyes for this project as they will be more colour fast and long wearing. There is a bit of a price difference between the cold water and the hot water dyes.

To weigh your dye, zero your scales with a Pyrex (hot water safe) glass (not plastic, unless you like it dyed too!) container that holds at least 250mls of boiling water.

Add the dye powder - I was aiming for slightly less than 20gms...

Add the boiling water - carefully. The splashes of dye wont come off lots of surfaces!

Then add the dye concentrate to your pot of boiling water. I used a 30 litre pot and it was probably a bit small for the amount of material that I wanted to dye.

Slowly and carefully add the curtain to the dye bath ensuring that all the material gets submerged.

Bring the pot to the boil and keep an eye on it so that you don't boil the dye over and stain everything in sight!!! Also keep the curtain moving as much as you can in case there is a fold or twist and the dye cant get in to parts of the fabric.

After 30 minutes (40 minutes for darker colours, less for lighter) bring the pot to the sink. Be careful, that's a heck of a lot of boiling dye to spill on you and the floor!

Using a couple of pairs of kitchen tongs, lift the curtain out of the dye and drain as much of the dye out of it as you can. It takes a fair bit of strength to hold boiling curtains at eye level!!! Also, the stream is hot - be wary about where you grab the curtains. Don't be tempted to grab it with your hands, the staining to your hands will be minimal but the burns might not be!

Leave the curtain to sit in the sink for 5 minutes to let the dye set. In the meantime, prepare the dye bath for the next curtain.

Let cold water run over the curtain and start the rinsing process. Once the curtain is cool enough, squeeze as much water and dye out of it as possible.

Then hang on the line in the shade to dry.

This is when I discovered that I hadn't dyed these as well as I had hoped to...

The lighter colour is the original faded colour and the darker one the dye - This photo was taken on the line when I first noticed the unevenness. I didn't spot this until the curtain was unfolded.

After deliberating for a day or so - Note: The patchiness got worse when it was dry - I devised the following plan...

I spread all 4 curtains on the lawn and wet them with the hose.

Then I made up the dye as a CONCENTRATE - just the first part in the jug at the beginning of this post and put it in an old spray bottle. I'm tough in the photo but I got a tea towel pretty darn quickly as the dye concentrate is made from boiling water! Then I sprayed the lighter parts of the curtains with the concentrate. The water helped dissipate the dye and stop it from looking like I had simply sprayed it.

This is a wet but not re-dyed curtain...

You can see the difference in this image already.

I left them in the sun all day to dry, hoping that the heat of the sun would help set the dye as I had no other way of applying heat to this volume of material. I also only had 20gms of dye left to over dye all four curtains. After about 6 hours in the hot sun, I popped them through a rinse cycle in the washing machine and hung them out to dry again. I ran an iron over them and then re-hung them.

This is a before shot of the curtains...

This is an after shot!

The patchiness is not too obvious, either in the photos or in reality. It was quite stressful with such limited resources and I think the stress has coloured my perception of the success of the project. The real test will be to see who comments and how when they come to visit. The neighbours have been over to see "what I was up this time" so their comments wont count as they already know the trials and tribulations I went through!!! What do you think???

Score card:
Green-ness:  3/5 Lots and lots of water used and I'm not sure I like that I poured all that dye onto my back lawn either...
Frugal-ness: 4/5 Extending the life of something with minimal cost - Very Frugal!
Time cost: About 45 minutes a curtain, but gave me an opportunity to clean out that corner while the curtains were down that I wouldn't have taken or cared about otherwise!
Skill level: For the more confident - not a good beginners project!
Fun-ness: Am happier now that they are back up and look OK - but the stress levels were quite high as I thought I had ruined the curtains for a while there!!!!  
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