Microwave ‘Roast’ Garlic – and a gorgeous roast garlic and rosemary bread

I was looking for a garlic flatbread recipe yesterday (as you do!) and came across a very intriguing suggestion… that it was possible to ‘roast’ garlic in the microwave, in just a few minutes. Could it be true? If it was, it would save quite significantly on the time and energy involved in roasting in the oven – typically 45 minutes to an hour, fine if you’re organised and remember to put your little tinfoil parcels in with something else, but irritating and inefficient if you find yourself wanting some right now!

The instructions I’d found were only a tantalising hint, unfortunately – vague on both the technique and on power and timings. So I had a little google, and discovered that apparently lots of people were doing very similar things. Convinced now that I was reinventing the wheel, and that everyone else already knew about this trick and just hadn’t bothered to tell me, I tweeted to this effect. What was said in response surprised me – apparently, no one else had heard about it, either. So, I promised to investigate and then blog my findings. True to my word then, here goes!

Obviously, you’re not really roasting the garlic, since this requires the application of direct heat. Consequently you won’t get the caramelisation which true oven-roasted garlic gains (well, you can, but more of this later!). The process is closer to steaming, but produces a soft, sweet, cooked garlic very suitable for using as a substitute for true roasted garlic if you’re short on time and organisation – and there are ways to cheat the last mile and get that caramelisation, too.

For your microwave ‘roast’ garlic, you require –

  • Ready to 'roast'One or more garlic bulbs (I suggest you start with one, until you’re happy with the process),
  • A splash of water and olive oil,
  • A microwave proof dish with suitable loose-fitting lid (or some cling film), and
  • A microwave, obviously.

Slice the top off your bulb of garlic, at a level where you’re just ‘scalping’ all of the cloves of garlic inside.

Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of water to the bottom of your bowl (enough to cover the bottom about 5mm deep), add your clove of garlic cut side up, and drizzle over some olive oil. Cover loosely – don’t seal, and if you’re using cling film, leave a small opening on one side. Pop the whole lot in your microwave.

Now – all of these directions are for *my* microwave, which is a very standard UK-type category E (800W) device. Your microwave may be slightly (or very!) different – even if it claims to be the same – so a little experimentation is going to be required!

Softened and changed colourStart by heating the garlic for 1 minute on full power. Then take it out of the microwave, remove the cover (carefully, as there will be a lot of steam!) and give the cut surface of the garlic a speculative prod with the point of your knife. It should give very slightly, and have changed colour subtly from white to a slightly translucent creamy shade.

It probably isn’t convincingly soft yet, though, so pop it back in the microwave and this time give it 30 seconds on full. Take it back out and repeat the poking process. Depending on the size of the cloves in your garlic, it may well be ready by now. If the surface of the garlic seems reasonably soft (it won’t be pulpy), and the cloves are coming away from their inner skin, then it’s worth popping a clove out to test.

If you can crush the clove easily with the handle of a spoon, then it’s done. If not then give it a little longer. My bulb had a couple of quite big juicy cloves, so I put it back in, but only for a final 15s. So total time in the microwave, for me, of 1 minute and 45 seconds.

Crush a clove to test

After letting it cool for a few minutes, I popped out one of the bigger cloves, and it squashed really easily. Job done.

Taste a little piece – it has become quite unlike raw garlic, instead mild, sweet and aromatic, just like roast garlic. Yes, it lacks a little note of caramelisation – but we’ll get to that!

Here’s the really important thing. ONCE THE GARLIC IS SOFT, STOP!

Burnt garlic bulbBecause, these photos aren’t from my first attempt. The first attempt I made turned out like this. I gave it two initial 1 minute blasts in the microwave, and so pleased was I with the progress it got another 30 seconds. A nice toasted smell started to develop, and a golden colour on the edge of the garlic. I was delighted. Right up until I gave it a poke and it was rock hard. So let my mistake stand for all of you, and we won’t have to sacrifice too many perfectly innocent garlic bulbs!

What do you do with it now? Well, if you want something closer to ‘real’ roasted garlic, heat up your oven, wrap up your garlic in a little tinfoil parcel with an extra drizzle of olive oil, and bake it for 10 – 15 minutes at 180C until it takes a little colour. Much quicker! An even ‘cheatier’ approach might be to heat a little olive oil in a frying pan and just brown off the cut surface gently until golden. No one will ever know!

But most of the time, roast garlic is going into something else, anyway. As I said, all of this came about because I wanted to make some garlic bread to go with pasta for dinner. The one I chose to make is based on this recipe from BBC food.

To make one roast garlic and rosemary bread (serves four generously as a side dish) –

  • Dough ingredients250g strong white bread flour
  • 150ml warm water
  • 1 (7g) sachet of dried yeast
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1 bulb of garlic, ‘roasted’ as above
  • 75g unsalted butter
  • 3 or 4 sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • A generous pinch each of salt and freshly ground pepper

Kneaded dough before rising

Weigh your flour into a bowl, and make a well in the centre. In a measuring jug, combine the water, oil, sugar and yeast, and stir in gently. Now pour the liquid, a little at a time, into the flour, and combine into a dough.

Knead the dough for about 5 minutes, until it becomes silky and elastic, and set aside to rise at room temperature in an oiled bowl until well risen about tripled in size is ideal). This will take an hour or so, more if your room temperature is low!

Crush your garlicIn the meantime, you can prepare your microwave ‘roast’ garlic as described earlier, and allow it to cool. Once you can handle the garlic comfortably, pop all the cloves out of the bulb and crush them with the flat blade of a knife, leaving a little texture (you’re not making garlic puree).

Chop rosemaryFinely chop your rosemary (stalks removed), and mix this, the garlic, salt & pepper into your softened butter. My butter lives at room temperature, but if yours is coming out of the fridge, a 10s blast in the microwave (with foil wrapper removed!) will soften it up and make it easier to work with. You’re pretty much all set, so go and do something else while the bread dough rises.

Well risen dough and herb butterOnce your dough is well risen, find a baking sheet or shallow-sided baking tray and line it with baking parchment. Tip the dough out onto a well oiled work-surface, and knock it back gently, shaping it to the size and shape of your baking sheet. It will be quite a thin layer, probably about 1cm thick. It doesn’t need to be perfect and I certainly wouldn’t use a rolling pin, you should be able to stretch and shape it with your hands just fine. Transfer carefully to the baking sheet – it doesn’t matter if it gets a bit ‘crumpled’ looking!

Shaped dough with butterNow spread your flavoured butter over the surface. Again, use your fingers, blobs and knobs are fine, you’re not aiming for an effect like icing a cake, but try and share the butter around reasonably evenly. Finally, stab the bread all over with a fork, and leave to prove for another 30 minutes or so until the dough is looking a little puffed up again.

When you’re happy, heat your oven to 230C and once it’s up to temperature, slide in the baking sheet. You’ll want to watch this bread reasonably carefully, because it’s quite thin and will bake reasonably quickly, and there’s a risk of the garlic burning and taking on a bitter flavour if your oven has nasty hot-spots (mine does, sadly!). Turn the bread if you notice it starting to brown unevenly. Don’t hesitate to turn the oven down to ~190C if the surface seems to be browning too fast. It should take about 15 minutes to be lovely and golden brown all over.

Bread fresh from the oven

This was a glorious accompaniment to a pasta supper. The garlic acquires all of that sweet caramelised flavour during the baking of the bread, so there’s no loss at all from the microwave roasting process compared to a more traditional approach. After baking, the garlic is sweet and aromatic with none of the raw hot flavour you get have from raw garlic in garlic bread. I will definitely be making this one again.

And serve!There are some obvious variations, which I think would work very well with this bread. Adding some finely chopped, caramelised red onions to the butter would work very well, I think. You could also throw a handful of grated parmesan into the butter mix, which would melt beautifully into the surface. You’re really in pizza-bread territory here, and the world is your oyster! Experiment!

The microwave garlic roasting technique is the real star of this show, for me, though. One of those accidental discoveries which really will change the way I cook. I recommend you give it a try!

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Copper-Bottomed – natural cleaning with lemon and salt

For Christmas, Hubby gave me a gorgeous old copper pan we found in a second hand shop in Bideford a few weeks ago. Not everyone’s fantasy Christmas gift, I grant you, but very much to my taste, I’ve been looking for something like it for some time, but every one I’ve seen has been exorbitantly expensive.

Not so this one – a real bargain, as it happened! – but of course there’s always a catch, and the pan was in, well, shall we say ‘rustic’ condition? Well used, well worn, and yes, very stained and tarnished, both inside and out. Despite his best efforts with several rounds of ‘Brasso’ to try and make it presentable for its debut under the Christmas tree, it’s fair to say that still looked like a pan which had had rather a hard life!

I took some advice, and after considering the various cleaning options, ordered some ‘Barkeeper’s Friend’, which of course has yet to make its way through the Christmas post. I’d also come across some advice that lemon juice and salt might do a useful job of getting tarnish and stains off copper surfaces.  This morning I noticed a rather wizened half-lemon left over in the fridge, and thought, ‘hey, why not give it a go?’.

All I can say is ‘Wow!’.

Cleaning in progress

It works startlingly well, even on the dark burned stains. I used a quarter of lemon at a time, working gently in circles with a bit of table salt. You can just see the colour changing in front of your eyes. I was genuinely stunned by how quickly and easily this worked – so unexpected was it I didn’t think to take ‘before’ photos! Better still, the segments of lemon come along with their own natural gentle scrubbing pad.

Finished pan - inside

It’s not a perfect finish, by any means, but it’s a really decent clean that I would be more than happy to cook with, something I really couldn’t have said before! I think I’ll probably still try the Barkeeper’s Friend when that arrives, to see if I can get a slightly finer finish – but if I hadn’t ordered it already I don’t think I’d be bothering.

Finished pan - outside

I love the patination on the outside of the pan, so I’ve left that alone. Isn’t it gorgeous? I just can’t wait to cook in it now!

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The Key, The Secret? – spicy pickled ash keys

I first came across the idea of pickled ash keys in Adele Nozedar’s lovely book ‘The Hedgerow Handbook, which I reviewed last year. I was intrigued at the time, but it was the wrong time of year to forage nice young ash keys (actually, I think I may have been a little late this year, too, but more of that later).

A lovely veteran ash treeAsh trees have been in the news lately, at least in the UK, with the arrival last year of ash dieback, a fungal disease now threatening some of the great, veteran trees of the British landscape. Historically, oak, elm and ash were the ‘big three’ trees in these parts, majestic and long-lived, our elms sadly disappeared for the most part several decades ago, succumbing to Dutch elm disease, and it seems now as if the ash, too, may be at risk of all but disappearing from our landscape.

Ash keysBefore too long, ash keys (the twisted seeds of the ash tree, which hang in luxurious bunches from the branches of some – but not all – ash trees at this time of year) may be a vanishing treat, the caviar of the forager’s larder. So why not try them now, before it’s too late? Incidentally, don’t confuse the common ash with the mountain ash, or rowan tree, which produces clusters of (also highly forageable!) bright orange or red berries in autumn.

So, you’ve found a local ash tree positively dripping with lovely young, green ash keys. What now?

After pickingWell, first, you’ll need to pick some, obviously. I made rather a large batch of pickled ash keys, starting with about 800g (approximately a mean couple of pounds). The older they get, the tougher and stringier they will become, so pick them as young and tender as you can.

As well as your ash keys, you will require –

  • 1.5l / 3 UK pints of white distilled malt vinegar (spirit vinegar)
  • 3 tbsp of paprika
  • 3 tbsp of curry powder (I used a medium madras powder, because it was what I had on the shelf)
  • 1.5 tbsp of cayenne pepper
  • 4 tbsp sea salt
  • a heaped teaspoon of whole mixed peppercorns
  • a level teaspoon of whole yellow mustard seed
  • 6 – 8 garlic cloves
  • 12 small hot dried red chillies (I used my own home-grown and dried little chillies left over from last year)
  • A large stainless steel or enamel saucepan or stockpot, a smaller pan (also non-reactive), large colander, a fine sieve and a piece of muslin, and enough jam jars for your batch.

Washed ash keysPick all the ash keys free from their bunches, and wash them carefully. The first part of the process involves gently simmering your ash keys for about an hour and a half, in all, in four changes of water.  This process, while irritatingly time consuming and faffy, reduces the bitterness of the ash keys which would otherwise make them rather unpleasant to eat.

Simmering the ash keysThe smell that this process generates is not very promising – it will smell rather like you’re boiling up a pot full of bits of tree, which you are, of course. But this abates each time you change the water, and after the fourth water change the colour of the ash keys is closer to olive green than to the bright green that you started with, and if you have a speculative nibble on one (I couldn’t resist), it’s quite stringy, not particularly strong tasting, but not noticeably bitter.

Spiced vinegar steepingWhile your keys are simmering away gently, you need to make your spiced vinegar. In your smaller saucepan, combine the spirit vinegar, paprika, cayenne pepper, and curry powder, bring to the boil and then take immediately off the heat.

Strain the spiced vinegarThis smells quite marvellous. Once it’s cooled a bit (you can help it along by sitting the saucepan in a sink full of cold water), strain it through the muslin in the sieve, and if you’re not quite ready to use it, you can use a funnel to put it back inside the vinegar bottles for safekeeping. Incidentally, I’d forgotten I had some muslin and initially tried to strain the vinegar through a paper coffee filter. I can report this was very frustrating and a huge waste of time, effort and coffee filters. So, now you know not to bother!

Ash keys mixed with saltOnce the ash keys have done their four turns around the simmer 20 minutes, strain, change water circuit, they’re an olive-green colour and ready to be stewed (yes, some more!). Add the 4 tbsp of sea salt, and plenty of fresh water, and bring to a brisk boil for a quarter of an hour, before turning the heat down, covering, and simmering for another 60 minutes before finally straining again.

At the end of this, they will have softened a fair bit, and have a gently salted taste, and you will probably be royally fed up of boiling up ash keys. Don’t worry, it’s nearly done!

Strained spiced vinegar, set aside  Chillies, peppercorns, garlic & mustard  Ash keys in spiced vinegar with garlic and chillies

Now, add to the strained ash keys the spiced vinegar, along with the whole dried chillies, peppercorns, mustard seeds and peeled whole garlic cloves. Bring to a brisk boil for 15 minutes, and take off the heat. That’s it, you’re (essentially!) done, and your house probably smells like a very strange hybrid of a chip shop and a curry house. Set the pickled ash keys aside to cool. I left mine overnight, because it was pretty late by the time I finished them, and my big stock pot holds its heat quite stubbornly.

Fill your jarsWash, dry and sterilise your jam jars in the oven, then allow to cool before filling. I used 13 little ‘dumpy’ jars and two 330ml pickle jars for my batch. Assume you need at least the volume of your vinegar, and probably a bit extra, in jar capacity. Pack the ash keys, along with the chillies, garlic, peppercorns and mustard seeds, evenly but quite tightly into your jars. Once you’ve done this, fill the jars right to the brim with the spiced vinegar, and seal.

Filled jars of pickled ash keys

Don’t they make a pretty little lot? They need to be matured now in a cool, dark place for at least 2 – 3 months. But I did have a taste, and the omens are really promising – there’s a long but gentle heat from the combination of the whole chillies and the spiced vinegar, a little garlic note, and out of nowhere a subtle but noticeably ‘olive’ flavour from the ash keys themselves.  The acidity is not at all harsh, which is unexpected, there’s an almost sweet character which must come from the keys themselves as there’s no sugar in the pickle. They are, though, still a bit stringy (though much less so than earlier in the cooking process) – I think if I’d picked in May rather than leaving it until June, this may have helped! I expect they’ll continue to soften while they steep in their jars of vinegar.

All in all, then, a bit of a revelation, these ash keys! I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I don’t think it was much like this! I can’t wait to see what they’re like in a couple of months time, but I think they’ll make a very nice substitute for olives or capers, and will probably go a treat with a nice mature cheddar.

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Relight My Fire – DIY recycled wax and wood-shaving firelighters

The chimney sweep came this week, and with the equinox just passed, the nights are palpably drawing in.  We use the wood-burning stove in our living room for an awful lot of our heating in the winter – the alternative for us, living off the beaten track (and off the gas main!) is our oil-fired boiler, which is both expensive and not terribly environmentally considerate.  But even if you’re not using your fire daily, there’s nothing better than a real wood fire as the nights get colder and darker!

Firelighter burning well

We have a fire most nights in the winter, and that brings with it a requirement for firelighting.  We cut our own kindling wood from our log supply (well, I say ‘we’ – Hubby does it!) so it’s not as tinder-dry as the bags of kiln-dried kindling sticks you can buy at great expense.  While I’ve succeeded in lighting the fire with newspaper, cardboard and kindling, it’s a frustrating exercise, doesn’t always work first time, and we tend to use a firelighter to get the kindling going nice and quickly and conveniently.  There’s only one downside – the white firelighter blocks you get from the co-op or the garage *stink* of kerosene.  I don’t want them in my living room!  And while I occasionally see the nicer wax & sawdust type for sale locally, I can’t buy them reliably.

But they gave me an idea – with the waste-wax I have available from old candles (believe me, I’m really bad at throwing things away, even stuff like this!), the really grotty old stuff that really can’t be recycled into new candles, from melt pools, stained with soot, with old wick and ash and even match-heads in it, in different colours and scents, could I make my own?

The answer is resoundingly *yes*, but with a caveat…

Equipment and 'ingredients' (1)You want about equal volumes of wax and closely packed wood shavings.  I was hoping to use some wood-shop waste, to make the whole thing completely free and recycled, but the stuff I could get hold of was too fine and dusty and mixed with big chunks of ‘stuff’.  I think the shavings produced when hubby breaks out the wood-turning lathe would be ideal, so I’ll save those in future.

'Ingredients' (2)For this batch I used a cup of wood shavings I stole from the supply we keep for the henhouse, it’s a tiny amount and probably cost a couple of pence at most (and technically I suppose is a recycled by-product, anyway!).  You also want an egg box (I had a few old dozen-sized egg boxes that have been damaged beyond useful re-use), and a double-boiler arrangement for melting your wax, preferably with an inner container you don’t want to use again for ‘clean’ candle-making, and a thermometer for safety.

Take your dirty grotty old wax and put it all into the double boiler, and heat the water up to about 75 degrees celsius.  This should allow you to melt the wax down without getting too close to the flash point of your wax.  I’ve used an old can which previously held malt extract for home-brewing, it’s about the perfect size for melting candle wax.  Really, any dirty old wax goes here, and don’t worry about trying to remove old bits of burnt or unburnt wick, wick sustainers, matchsticks, or anything like that.  Add more wax in stages as the contents of the can melt down, until you have the sort of volume of melted wax you need (it was about 1/3rd of the can, once melted, for me).

This part of the process is where my caveat comes in – it took a bit over an hour to melt down all this wax, during which I couldn’t really leave the wax unattended on the stove (though I did get the chance to have a nice chat on the phone with my little sister).  The time investment in making these as a standalone project probably, for me at least, make the cost / benefit of this project a bit suspect!  There may be ways around this, more of which later!

Melted wax with about half the shavings addedOnce all your grotty old wax has melted down (it will smell quite peculiar if, like mine, it contains fruity, citrussy and maple-syrup scented candle-waxes!), add your shavings in batches, stirring as you go.  You want most of the wax to be absorbed into the shavings, leaving just a little bit of ‘free’ wax to set the mix as it cools.  Pack the mix into the wells of the egg boxes, filling them to the top, and squeeze down the contents with your fingers (wait for it to cool partially before doing this, if you like).

Firelighters settingMy mix made an almost perfect dozen firelighters (I also made two ‘experimental’ lighters with rolled-up cardboard in the well). Allow the firelighters to cool, and then separate them (tear, or cut into the underside of the egg carton to get things going).  Mine look like rather suspect pink raw minced beef products because of the red waxes that went into the mix!  There’s a very subtle smell about them if you stick them right up to your nose, but nothing unpleasant.

So far so good, right?  But it’s all ‘for nowt’ if they don’t actually light fires!  Would they do the job?  Would all the wax melt and dribble out and make a mess of my lovely newly-serviced wood stove?

Setting fire to the lighter & kindlingBuild your kindling ‘jenga pile’, and nestle the fire lighter in the centre.  Then set fire to the cardboard edge of the lighter with a match, and watch it go!  It burned amazingly well, cleanly, with no wax dripping, and got up to a really good temperature, the kindling wood was snapping, fizzing and crackling almost immediately and the fire got off to a roaring start!

I suspect actually about half the total volume of firelighter would have done the job – a whole egg-well seemed a bit generous.  I might under-fill the wells a bit in future and see if it still does the job.

But ‘in future’, if the process is this time consuming?  Well, if the performance of these firelighters weren’t quite so good, I suspect I wouldn’t be making them again.  I think it will be a task that I do ‘in the background’ in a second can when I’m using the double-boiler for clean candle-making anyway (I’ll be doing quite a bit of this in the build up to Christmas!).  If you’re doing any similar candle craft, and have space for a second melting pot (or if you have one of those natty thermostatically controlled wax melting gadgets that you can set-and-forget to a greater extent) then I can thoroughly recommend making these free, recycled little firelighters.

Keep those home-fires burning bright!

Enjoy your fires this winter, folks (and have a look at my useful little tip for cleaning the glass on a wood-burning stove, while you’re at it)!

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Using Your Bottle – self-watering planter success!

Earlier in the week I wrote about my last batch of bottle cutting experiments.  Just a quick post to update, especially about the self-watering planter which, I had to admit, I had my doubts about!

Self-watering planter

Well, it works!  The compost is staying moist, the water level in the reservoir is very slowly – but visibly – dropping, and the basil seems to be thriving!  There seems to be an added bonus with this design, which is that the glass captures the heat from sunshine much more effectively than traditional pots.  The soil feels quite warm to the touch on a sunny day, which can only do good things for the plants’ growth over the winter, right?

So, many more of these to come, I think!  Hubby not too sure about me filling up our windowsills with recycled wine bottles, but I’m sure he’ll come around!

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Using Your Bottle – testing some ideas for bottle cutting crafts

I’ve been wanting to play some more with the bottle cutting jig since my first attempts at bottle cutting a few weeks ago.  This weekend I found a few hours and raided some bottles from the neighbours’ recycling bins, and got to work.

Almost completed bottle cutting projects

My success rate this time stayed stubbornly around the 1:3 mark.  It’s becoming clear that two things are combining to be a problem.  The first is that accuracy in the score mark is absolutely critical – if you don’t get a perfectly straight even score that meets neatly, there’s no chance of the bottle breaking cleanly.  The second is that bottles are *rubbish*.  Of the bottles I’ve cut – and failed to cut – so far, not one is made up of even thickness glass, and most of them aren’t even anywhere near round in section!  This makes getting an even score more challenging, as well as tending to make the bottle break unevenly as a result of the variable thickness of glass.   There are a handful of gadgets on the market (and one interesting looking one, called the Kinkajou, about to come on the market) which might well improve my hit rate on nice reliable score lines, but I’m still trying to keep this a low-cost hobby for now!

Glass cutting jigStill, a couple of hours work (mostly removing labels!) got me three new nicely cut bottles – a 500ml green cider bottle, and two punt-bottled wine bottles, one of which I cut long, and discarded the top to make a vase, and the other cut more centrally to give a top and bottom section.  Sanding down (see my previous post for more details of the cutting process) gave me safe cut edges.

I’ve really wanted to play with etching, because I’ve seen some beautiful glass decorating projects, but hubby really wasn’t very enamoured with the idea of me using concentrated acid paste in the kitchen (and I can kind of see his point!).  I settled on using some frosted-glass effect spray paint made by plastikote.  This slightly offends one of my fundamental design principles, actually, but never mind!

The ideas for using the bottles were mostly gleaned from Pinterest, which is a new and rather addictive time-sink (those of you who’ve also discovered this can have a browse of my boards here).  I used some black sticky-back vinyl as a masking material for two of the pieces.

Masked-off bottle topIsn’t it great when you discover that the bits and bobs you’ve bought for one craft can be pressed into service for another?  I dug out the rotary cutter, ruler and cutting mat I bought for quilting, and got to work cutting strips of vinyl.  Two to wrap around the bottom of the cider bottle, to give a striped finish, and the off-cut with some newspaper to mask off all but the edge of the cut-off top of the wine bottle.

Masked tealight holderThis vinyl is a great masking material for glass, as it adheres tightly, stretches just a little to account for the wonkiness of the bottles, and comes away cleanly without leaving any residue.  The resulting cider bottle makes a very pretty tealight holder which would make a lovely little gift.

Masked vase with rubber bandsFor the bottle destined to be a vase, I borrowed another idea in wide circulation on pinterest and applied rubber bands, some overlapping, rising and falling. The first thing to note about this approach is that the rubber bands don’t arrange themselves  – it actually takes quite a lot of faffing to get a pleasing arrangement of lines.  They’re not an ideal masking material, either.  As you apply the instructed two or three layers of the frosting paint, some will settle on the top edge of the rubber bands (this is much less of a problem with vinyl which is very thin and doesn’t collect ‘overspray’ in this way).

Dave with vaseThe rubber bands came off easily once the paint had dried overnight, but it took quite a lot of delicate trimming away of the extra paint with a scalpel blade to get a reasonable finish.  I’m still not entirely happy with the outcome, and if I try this approach again I’ll try to get away with one, perhaps two layers of paint rather than the three I used.  Still, the result is quite pretty, isn’t it?  Dave said he wanted to be in the photo, and who am I to disappoint him?

Landscape fabric with stringFinally, and perhaps most interesting for me, is the bottle cut in half.  I’ve made a self-watering herb planter, based on a photo I saw – guess where? – that’s right, pinterest again.  The top of the bottle is up-ended inside the bottom.  I lined it with a cut rectangle of landscape fabric about 4″ by 8″, one half of which I threaded through with a bunch of jute string. Fold this in half with the string dangling through the neck of the bottle. Then, fill with compost and plant (in my case, with some rather sorry-looking home-grown basil I always forget to water).

This is where I admit to being a really neglectful gardner.  I’m full of enthusiasm, but when it comes down to it I have a nasty habit of forgetting to water, to pot on, to plant out…  my garden thrives on it’s own resources more than on my care, and my houseplants have to have a strong will to survive!

Self-watering wine bottle planter

So if this contraption actually works (and the jury is still out on this – it’s early days) then it’s going to change my window-sill gardening forever.  Herbs that will water themselves!  In a planter which is recycled, free, and really pretty, rather than something ugly and plastic and more suited to greenhouse shelving than living room windows.

I’ll update with more photos of the herb planter once it’s clear whether there’s any merit to the design.  In the meantime I suspect there’s quite a bit more mileage in breaking bottles for fun and (perhaps??) profit…

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Bottling It – a first ‘crack’ at recycled glass craft

Some time ago, I came across a blog claiming that you could cut wine bottles with a burning bit of string soaked in acetone.  This sounded hilarious fun, but also a tad more dangerous and unpredictable than I was entirely happy with!  The idea didn’t desert me, though, and as time went by I was thinking of more and more different ways I might use recycled wine bottles, if only I could neatly (and safely!) cut them in half.  Green Glass make some beautiful drinking glasses out of recycled bottles, which were another source of inspiration.  This is a real ‘upcycling’ craft (a word which often seems to be an excuse for selling overpriced old junk on etsy!) creating something pretty and useful out of the contents of your recycling box!

Glass craft - candle holder

So I did what we all do, and broke out a bit of depth-first google searching.  A few idle lunch-breaks worth of reading later, and I eventually decided that I was happy to experiment with a cutting process where hot and cold water are used to ‘crack’ a line scored on the outside of the bottle with a diamond-tip glass cutting tool.

DIY cutting jigOf course, the knack is getting the score line straight.  People will sell you various bottle cutting jigs and devices that work on this principle, but I didn’t want to buy any expensive kit for this, at least to start with.

Jig with cutting toolA bit of thought and collaboration from my lovely husband, and we built this contraption out of leftover wood from the shed.  It’s a v-shaped cradle to hold the bottle with a solid end, and notches cut in the side to stabilise the handle of the cutting tool.  The cutting tool itself came from amazon and cost a couple of pounds.

Give some thought to what you want from your bottle, and whether the traditional bump found in the bottom of most bottles (called a ‘punt’, apparently – here I was thinking a punt was a flat bottomed boat propelled with a pole on shallow rivers in British university cities) is a use or a hindrance.  It might be fine if you want to make a vase, for instance, but not so useful if you want a candle-holder.  Some bottles are tapered or squared-off, and these you probably also want to avoid!  Now, give your bottle a good scrub and remove all the labels. You should to do this first, before there are any sharp edges to work around!

Scoring the bottlePut your bottle in the jig, place the glass cutting tool in an appropriate slot and gently press the scoring head against the side of the bottle.  Now, very slowly, rotate the bottle against the point of the cutting tool.  You’re aiming to complete a perfect full rotation, without leaving a gap or ‘over-writing’ the start of your line at the end.  If the score line isn’t complete and perfectly straight, the bottle isn’t going to crack evenly.

Accuracy is everything, as it’s a one-shot deal and mistakes cannot be corrected later – but on the plus side, the bottles are free and only destined for the recycling bin in any case, so try not to fret about it too much!  My success rate so far for a clean break is about 1 in 3 – not great but it’s early days and I suspect practice will help improve this somewhat.

Once you’ve scored your line, it’s time to get it to crack.  Different approaches are advocated, but I went for the simplest one.  Boil a kettle of water.  Holding the bottle over the sink, pour freshly boiled water gently over the score line, rotating the bottle slowly.  After a few seconds, put the bottle under the cold running tap and repeat the process of rotating it.  I haven’t got any photos of this bit, because both my hands were a bit occupied at the time!

Uneven breakYou’ll have to do this a few times, but you’ll see – and perhaps hear – the score lines start to give way.  If you’re really lucky, the bottle will break cleanly straight along the score line.  This one didn’t!  The fracture line wavered quite dramatically above and below the score line over about 1/3rd of the circumference.  I’m not sure why, whether it was to do with the score line, or the fact the bottle itself which was quite uneven in thickness.  Whichever it was, it’s a dead loss, so throw it away and fetch another one from the recycling bin.

Other approaches I’ve seen advocated include candle flame followed by ice cube, and tapping the bottle from the inside near the score line, though this requires a crank-headed tapping tool. I have no idea if these approaches might result in a better success rate – certainly tapping may give a different, more controlled break than hot/cold shock.

Fortunately, my first try (when I wasn’t taking photographs – typical eh?) did break cleanly, giving me a goblet about four inches high which I wanted for a candle holder.  It broke with a very slight ‘notch’, which I was able to crack off using the glass cutting tool to give essentially a clean cut.  A very *sharp* clean cut.

Sandpaper to grind the edgesSuccess!  But that’s not it, of course, since you’d have a candle holder specifically designed to maim the unwary, which is a silly enough thing to keep around your own house, never mind consider giving as a gift.  Those sharp sheared glass edges are going to have to go.  My approach is low tech – wet, fine grade silicon carbide sandpaper.  I used a slightly coarser grade to take the edges down initially, and then finished with some really fine paper.

Working wet greatly reduces the production of glass dust, which is nasty dangerous stuff that you should not be inhaling.  Work in a well ventilated area (outside, for me!) and ideally wear a dust mask.  Feel the edge *very* gently and tentatively with a fingertip to check the sharp edges are gone to your satisfaction.

Carefully work on the edges as well as the flat cut surface.  A little piece of sand paper wrapped around a pencil or something similar is good for the inside edge without scratching the glass.  I’ve seen the use of a dremel advocated – I can see how that would work really well but you’d want to be really careful about dust, probably dipping the grinding head in water every few seconds to keep it wet.  You’ll want to do much more careful and comprehensive smoothing work on the rim if you want to use your cut bottle as a drinking glass – but your extra efforts may well be worth it!

Finished candle holderThe result is really pleasing, the cut edge after sanding has a mostly-frosted appearance but still shows some evidence of the manner of its birth.   It’s not a perfect, machined straight line, but just has that little bit of hand-crafted variability.  You could etch the glass now (something I’m looking into!) or paint it if you liked, but you’re the proud owner of a hand-made recycled glass candle holder.

I used this with a tea light for a test burn, as much as anything to check that the heating from a candle wasn’t going to cause  unexpected cracking or breakage after the bottle’s relatively rough treatment!  And to get photographs, of course.  I expect this will look even better with a votive candle, but I didn’t have one to hand.

Finished candle holder

This was just a first attempt – but I had a lot of fun and will certainly be doing some more bottle cutting in time for Christmas!  I love that the detail of the bottle is still very much part of the finished piece too.  Definitely something to try – though probably a craft for grown-ups!

For a few ideas, try my next post on bottle cutting – ‘Using Your Bottle – testing some ideas for bottle cutting crafts’.

Finally, an apology to those of you who were emailed a part-finished version of this blog post yesterday – a mistake on my part, I’m afraid!  I’ll try to restrain my itchy mouse-finger from wandering over the ‘Publish’ button so enthusiastically!

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Sourdough Saga: Episode 6 – awesome home-made sourdough pizza

I’d heard good things about sourdough pizza bases.  Let me say, I was certainly not disappointed!  The Rowdy Chowgirl’s post on the subject was part of what inspired me to get my own sourdough project underway in the first place, and I followed her lead and went to The Traveller’s Lunchbox ‘The Pizza Project’ for inspiration and guidance.

Sourdough pizza - done!

It all starts with an overnight sponge, as usual.  I made a full two-loaf batch of dough.  I reduced the salt again, now down to 8g in the full batch (so just shy of half what I started out with for my first loaf), and had to use about 100g of wholemeal flour due to running out of white, but otherwise made up my usual dough, dividing it into two uneven halves straight after the balance of the flour and salt were incorporated.  To the smaller half, destined for the pizza crusts, I added a teaspoon of sugar.  I then treated the two balls of dough just the same – stretching and kneeding them every couple of hours between periods of resting –  until I added cheese and sundried tomatoes to the larger half and set it on it’s way to being another gorgeous loaf.

Shaped dough, resting.The pizza dough was divided into two balls for its final proving.  The dough remained very soft and just-handlable, which seemed ideal.  After proving (and after the loaf of cheese and tomato bread had already made its passage through the oven), I gently rolled the dough and then shaped it out by hand into two rough rectangles (I have a rectangular baking tray, and am not averse to funny-shaped pizza!) on baking parchment sheets.  This is a great idea – for which I can’t take the credit! – as the dough is soft and thin and would be nigh-on impossible to handle, I think, even with a peel.  You’ll want quite a lot of flour on the underside of your dough to stop it sticking to the parchment while you’re shaping it.

The tomato sauce for the pizzas is simplicity itself – one finely chopped onion, sweated down with some minced garlic in olive oil until soft, then add a tin of plum tomatoes, a good shake of mixed italian herbs, big pinch of pepper and a sprinkle of dried chilli flakes, a small spoon of vegetable bouillon powder (you could substitute half a stock cube) and a glug of balsamic vinegar.  Squish with a potato masher to get the required consistency, and bubble on the hob for about half an hour before allowing it to cool.  You could blend it, if you prefer a completely smooth sauce, but I like mine with a bit of texture.  Give it a taste, since you might find you want to add a small amount of sugar, depending on how sweet your tomatoes were to start with.

Pizza toppings, ready to go.Be sparing with your toppings – don’t overload the pizza and don’t over-complicate things, you want the great simple flavours to shine through.  I used some finely sliced cherry tomatoes, small pieces of my dry-cured maple bacon, a sliced mozarella ball and some crumbled goat’s cheese. Smear the sauce lightly over both pizza bases and then arrange your toppings over the top.  The quantity was about perfect for two largeish rectangular pizzas.  You’re not trying to plaster the pizza in cheese, since this will stop the moisture escaping from the dough and tomato sauce and turn what should be a glorious crispy crust into a disappointing soggy one.

Pizza, all ready to go into the ovenThe key to baking this pizza is a very very hot oven.  I pre-heated my little non-fan top oven to its highest temperature – allegedly 270 centigrade (I’ve not checked this with an oven thermometer, but it’s certainly reasonably blistering!) with the baking sheet inside.  The thicker and heavier your metal baking sheet, the better.  Getting the pizzas from kitchen counter to oven safely and quickly is really a two-man job, so get your glamorous assistant – wearing the best oven gloves you have at your disposal – to snatch the baking sheet out of the oven, closing the door behind them.

Before they burn their fingers through the gloves, use the baking parchment to slide your pizza off the side and onto the baking sheet.  Return it to the oven as quickly as possible, and watch the magic happen.  Seriously, I was sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor staring into the oven for this bit!  The edges of the pizza will start to rise and brown, and all the while the cheese first melts and then starts to go bubbly and golden.  To encourage it along a little, I put the grill on, too.

The pizza cooked in less than five minutes.  I didn’t remove the baking parchment half way through baking like others have suggested.  The paper did start to scorch a little but didn’t burst into flames.  It did come out of the oven slightly stuck to the underside of the pizza, tearing as I tried to remove it – not a disaster and easy enough to peel off – but I’d used quite lightweight baking parchment and I suspect better quality paper would solve this particular minor difficulty!

This is great pizza, and you should definitely make some.  The sourdough certainly adds a distinctive quality, producing a wonderful crispy crust with holes in, but also a pleasing ‘solidity’ which avoid straying into stodginess.  It’s nothing short of *amazing* fresh from the oven (we ate it standing up in the kitchen!) and is very nearly as good cold for lunch the next day.  The partly wholemeal flour in the dough adds a nice extra texture to the pizza, too.  There’s remarkably little ‘naughty’ here, either – certainly compared to commercial pizza offerings.  Something made out of such great, simple ingredients can’t possibly be bad for you!

So, home-made sourdough pizza crust – Just Do It!  I promise you will not be disappointed!

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Sourdough Saga: Episode 5 – how to look after your starter

Imagine, if you will, someone arriving at your house for a party, and bringing with them as a gift a rather odd looking jar with a label on it which says ‘Feeeeeed meee!’… Congratulations on being the new owner of a bouncing baby sourdough starter.  It’s rather a rude hostess present, I suppose, a bit like giving someone a puppy without asking them first (ok, maybe not *quite* that bad!).  But now you have this living thing someone’s entrusted you with, and you’re stuck having to look after it.

What sort of person would do such a thing, you might ask? Guess what I took to my little sister and her husband yesterday…

Feeeeed mee!

Isn’t it pretty?  I had to promise her a full set of care instructions, so here they are!

I keep my starter in the fridge between uses.  So far I’ve been feeding & baking once a week, so I haven’t tried to extend the gap between feedings more than this, though I believe it may be possible to go two or three weeks.  My starter is a wholemeal starter, but you could convert it to white flour, progressively, if you prefer.

Assuming you’re planning to bake on a Sunday, this would be my schedule –

  • On Friday morning, take your starter out of the fridge, stir in a couple of teaspoons of wholemeal flour, and leave it on the countertop (I like to think the beasties would appreciate a small breakfast snack as they come up to an active temperature).
  • Friday evening, once you’re home from work, it’s time to feed your starter.  In a bowl on your kitchen scales, weigh out equal weights of wholemeal flour and warm water (about blood heat) and combine to form a loose paste.  The starter has been started and fed on cheap bottled water so far, filtered water would be absolutely fine, if you have it, and converting my starters to tap water has also been successful (but might be a bit of a gamble if your water is particularly high in chlorine / chloramine).  I use locally stoneground wholemeal flour – avoid anything bleached or treated.
  • The total weight of the feed should be about equal to the starter that’s in your jar.  I’ve written the weight of the empty jar on the lid for you to simplify working this out!
  • Combine the feed with the starter (you could do this in the jar but I prefer to tip it all out into the bowl to give it a really good energetic mix) and put it back in the jar.  Leave the jar on the countertop for the next 24 hours.
  • Watch in wonder as the whole thing fills with bubbles and doubles in size over about the first 12 – 18 hours, before it settles back down a little.
  • On Saturday evening, take a good ladle-full or two of your starter (about half the total volume) and use it to start your overnight sponge.  Return the rest of the starter to its spot in the fridge.
  • On Sunday morning, let the baking begin!

If you’re not baking this week, do all of this but then discard the ladle-full of active fed starter (or better still, use it to start a new jar of starter to give to a friend?).

When you get your starter out of the fridge next week, you may find a layer of greyish liquid has formed on top, and the smell isn’t quite what you expect.  This doesn’t seem to be a problem, I’ve just been pouring the liquid off the top before going ahead and feeding the starter in the normal way.  I imagine this would be more marked if you went longer between feedings.

I hope you sourdough starter gives you as much baking pleasure as I’ve already had from mine!

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Sourdough Saga: Episode 4 – cheese and sun dried tomato bread

After the gratifying – if unexpected! – success of my first sourdough loaf, I couldn’t wait to do it all again as soon as possible.  The first loaf didn’t last very long, either, and certainly didn’t get a chance to go stale!  So the next free day I had was dedicated to another baking day.  I used broadly the same technique as for my first loaf (see ‘Sourdough Saga: Episode 3‘ for details) but with double quantities, and a downward adjustment to the salt content (10g in total in a two loaf batch).

Second sourdough bake

There were a couple of new things – first, the loaf shape.  I wanted longer, narrower loaves, instead of the round I baked the first time.  I’d love a full set of lovely baker’s bannetons, but they’re expensive and I’ve got nowhere to store them, so I improvised with a couple of long thin serving dishes I was given for Christmas last year by a friend, lined once again with a clean tea towel dusted generously with rye flour.

Dish used for provingIt’s not quite the right shape, as you can see, and tilts up at the tips rather, but it allowed the final proving to produce a loaf of approximately the size and shape I was after.  The ridge on the inside of the dish does leave an imprint on the loaf, but it’s all character!

I had a generous handful of grated cheddar cheese and some sun-dried tomatoes left over from the previous day, so decided to make one of my loaves a cheese and tomato bread.  I incorporated the extra ingredients during the final kneading, sprinkled across the surface when it was flattened out, and then folded into the dough during the shaping of the loaf.

Sliced cheese and tomato sourdough loaf

I think the cheese and tomato make a great addition to this sourdough. Something about the cheese flavour mutes the lactic sour note quite noticeably, making this a sourdough loaf that might go down better with people who aren’t that keen on the distinctive ‘sourdough’ flavour. The chopped sun dried tomatoes add a lovely sweet herby note (they were stored in herb oil).

Texture-wise this loaf seemed to prove slightly less well than it’s unmodified brother, with a slightly denser texture and smaller holes.  I’m not sure if this is the result of the extra oil / fats incorporated with the additions, or whether it has more to do with the difficulty I had keeping my oven up to temperature when baking two loaves together.  On the salt question – I don’t notice a difference from the further reduction, and it’s likely I’ll reduce the salt again next time I bake a loaf.  All in all, this is a great loaf and one I’ll definitely make again in the future!

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