Super Simple Syrups & Cordials

WP_20130929_001Making syrups is one of the most delicious ways to preserve some of nature’s tastiest and healthiest offerings.  By taking herbs, berries, roots, and spices and creating these concoctions of goodness, you can extract the wonderful properties, vitamins and health benefits and make very useful syrups.  These can be used for making cocktails and mixed drinks, sweetening tea, coffee and cocoa, drizzling over ice cream or even using in an icing or a pancake and waffle syrup.  Some even work well as medicines–soothing a sore throat or combating a cough.

To take the syrup up a notch, mixing it with alcohol like vodka, bourbon, whiskey, or rum helps to turn it into a cordial or liqueur–perfect for sipping as a sweet, after-dinner treat.  We’re going to share our basic recipe, along with some tips on how to customize and experiment to create your new favorites!

To start the process, you are basically making a very strong tea.  Add 1 cup herbs, berries, roots or whatever you want to decoct to 1 quart of water.  These can be fresh or dried.  Some of our favorites include: licorice root, dried rosehips, fresh mint leaves, fresh or dried rose petals, lavender petals, fresh basil leaves, and dried elderberries.  (We get most of our dried ingredients from Mountain Rose Herbs, we’ve included a link, but you can source from a place you trust.  We like knowing everything is organic!) Bring this mixture to a slow boil over medium high heat in a sauce pan with no lid; and then turn down and let simmer for 1/2 hour to 45 minutes.

Strain this mixture and compost the herbs, berries, etc. Pour the strained liquid back into the pan and add 1/2 cup raw, local honey or sugar for every pint of liquid. Stir until dissolved.  You shouldn’t need to cook this mixture any further unless you want a very thick syrup.  For honey, we prefer to NOT cook it since many of the beneficial enzymes can be destroyed by cooking.  If you are using sugar and want a thick syrup, you can bring the mixture back to simmer and cook until it is the consistency you want.  Once finished, you can decant to a jar or bottle.

For a cordial, you will basically just be adding alcohol to your syrup (or syrup to your alcohol).  Let the syrup cool completely (if you add alcohol to hot syrup, the alcohol could “cook” out of the mixture.) I like to add about 1/2 cup of vodka, whiskey, bourbon, or white rum per quart of syrup.  You can make it stronger or weaker depending on your tastes.  Combine this well; bottle and cap.  You can store cordials and syrups made with honey in a cool, dark place, but, they will last longer if you refrigerate them.

It is really that easy!  You can make combination syrups if you like (elderberry and wild cherry bark is one of our favorites for a medicinal syrup) and you can add spices, essential oils or extracts for added flavor.  There are so many possibilities and this is such a delicious way to preserve some of those herbs and fruit growing in your garden.  These make wonderful and gorgeous gifts as well. Happy sipping!

Anybody Can Make This French Bread!

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Soup season is upon us and for us, that means warm, delicious bread to go along with!  We have a few go-to recipes but none are as easy as this one.  With only a few ingredients, this decidedly un-fussy recipe makes loaves of light, crunchy-on-the-outside and moist-on-the-inside golden bread.  Just perfect for slathering with butter or dipping into a bowl of soup or stew.  You can even start this when you get home from work and have it along with supper…so easy!

Ingredient List:

1 packet dry yeast or about 1 1/2 Tablespoons dry yeast

1 1/2 cup very warm water (I just use tap water, getting it hand-washing hot)

1 Tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons sea salt

3-4 cups unbleached white flour

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour

oil (olive, vegetable, nut)

Corn meal

water (for the crust while baking)

Dissolve the yeast and the very warm water in a large bowl.  Add the sugar and salt and 2 cups of the unbleached white flour and beat well with a large, wooden spoon. Add in the whole wheat pastry flour and enough of the remaining white flour to make a soft dough that is not sticky.  If your bowl is big enough, you can knead it in the bowl, otherwise, dump the dough out onto a lightly floured counter top and knead until it is smooth, round and elastic. This whole mixing and kneading process will take less than 10 minutes.  Lightly oil a medium-large bowl (glass, ceramic or pottery works best) and put the ball of dough in.  Cover with a clean towel and place in a warmish, draft-free place.  Let rise until doubled.  This takes about a half-hour.

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Take the dough out of the bowl and knead down.  Divide in half and form into two long loaves.  Lightly oil a cookie/baking sheet and sprinkle with corn meal (white or yellow, it doesn’t matter).  Place your loaves far enough apart that they won’t touch when they rise and bake.  I like to cut a few slits in the top of each loaf, but this isn’t necessary.  Cover with the towel again and let rise for another 20 minutes or so.

Heat oven to 400 degrees and brush the loaves with cold water. Pop in the oven on the middle rack.  After about 15 minutes, brush lightly with more water and bake 30-45 minutes until golden.  When you tap the loves with your knuckles they will sound hollow and that is how you will know they are done! Remove from oven, cool a bit, if you can wait, and enjoy.

The leftovers of this bread make great French toast or salad croutons so, if for some reason it doesn’t all get eaten fresh, it makes for a great next day snack!

Spicy Soaps & Soothing Salts…So Perfect for the Season!

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Oatmeal Spice with Comfrey and Oatmeal Lemongrass soap

There’s a crispness in the air and mornings are cool and dark again. Fall conjures up thoughts of warm tea and hot cocoa; bowls of steaming oatmeal, and long, soothing soaks in a full tub.  Our latest additions to the Raggedy Hen Farm shop are all about seasonal comfort and we’ve been so excited to share them with you!

We have two new thick bars of soap chock full of our usual organic, natural and nourishing ingredients:

  • Oatmeal Lemongrass–This goats milk soap is made with plenty of Coconut oil and Olive oil and we’ve included organic Cocoa butter and beeswax from our own bees.  Organic Vanilla powder, organic oats, and Lemongrass essential oil all come together to make a subtly-scented and oh-so-good-for-your-skin bar of natural soap.
  • Oatmeal Spice with Comfrey–We got a little carried away with visions of warm cookies and spicy tea while creating this soap.  We started with a big pitcher of comfrey tea–made from organic comfrey we harvested from our garden.  Coconut oil, Olive oil, Cocoa butter and beeswax from our bees provided a wonderful canvass for spicy additions like peppermint, clove and lemon essential oils, and organic cinnamon, ginger and vanilla.  We tossed in some poppy seeds for exfoliation and organic oats for healing softness and what we have is the perfect soap for the cold months ahead!

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We have long depended on the muscle-soothing powers of Epsom salt for our own aging muscles and are always on the hunt for bath salts that are not filled with harmful detergents, chemicals or dyes.  It can also be tough to find bath salts that are not overwhelmingly scented.  We decided to create the very soaking salts we craved!  These Lavender Patchouli bath salts are made with the simplest ingredients: Epsom and Sea Salts, Sodium Bicarbonate (baking soda), and Vitamin E Oil for extra healing.  We add organic lavender and patchouli (yes, the actual powdered leaves of both plants) and just the right combination of organic lavender and patchouli essential oils.  This makes for a crisp, rejuvenating-scented bath and soft, clean skin. It even leaves the bathroom smelling fresh and relaxing too!

You can find these new seasonal offerings in our Raggedy Hen Farm shop (along with some other comforts and treats.) They may be just what your weary self is craving after a busy, bustly Summer!

Slowin’ Down

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Three of our hens: Marilla (Barred Plymouth Rock), Hilda (Buff Orpington) and Jolene (Rhode Island Red) searching for treats among the garden beds.

As much as we love reaching into the nest boxes mid-Summer and finding them full of eggs, we also accept this not the reality of year-round chicken keeping.  The girls slow down when the days get shorter and we’ve chosen to not use any supplemental light in the hen house. Fall and Winter are generally the times that hens will moult, but we haven’t seen any sign of moulting yet from our older hens.  We are crossing our fingers that the younger layers will NOT moult this Fall, since they are only 8 months old.  Two of last year’s hens DID moult in their first year and we were told by seasoned chicken folk that this is not common so, we’re watching to see what happens. Moulting is when the hens “shed” out their old feathers and get new ones.  The best laying hens moult fast and get back to the laying business quickly (hens don’t lay while they are moulting–or most don’t–since all their energy and efforts are going to re-growing those feathers.)

We have been getting, on average, 2 eggs a day from four laying hens for the past week or so.  This is a bit of a drop from 3-4 eggs a day. We are down to just under 13 hours of daylight where we live and for the past week, those days have been dark, cloudy and rainy.  I’m pretty sure the hens have figured out that the long, sunny, warm days of Summer are gone and there is no need to be laying clutches and clutches of eggs. Chickens lay eggs when their instincts tell them those “babies” can survive.

Since we’ve chosen not to light the hen house to make the chickens think the days are longer and we think they deserve a bit of a rest, we’re attempting to keep our egg production “enough” for our household by managing the ages and size of our flock.  When we started keeping chickens, we quickly realized that the recommended three hens for our two adults was not going to cut it.  The second year we got three more.  When one of those turned out to be a rooster and one of our older hens went broody, we entertained the thought of adding a few more.  There are definitely pros and cons to having a mixed age, mixed breed flock. It takes time and effort to integrate the youngest ones into the flock.  We’ve noticed that things don’t really settle down until the youngest pullets are full size and starting to lay.  If we had a big enough plot of land, we would likely raise larger flocks of different ages separately but, living in an urban area, that’s just not our scene!

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Dottie, a Silver-Laced Wyandotte, at 17 weeks old. We’re hoping she’ll start laying later this Fall.

So, as we go into the “lean” months and the older hens ease up, we are hoping that our three young 17-week old pullets will start laying later this Autumn.  We’re not sure if they will, or if they’ll wait until Spring, but we’re giving it a try.  Like many folks who start keeping chickens and taste their own free-range eggs, we are not keen on having to buy eggs at the store!  Meanwhile, we understand the cycles of the hens and appreciate their need to keep warm, moult and take an egg-laying break, and it only lasts a couple months.  Last year, with only two laying hens (two of three), we had our last egg on Christmas Eve and they were easing back into production by the end of January.  Stay tuned for how things go this Fall and Winter!

Autumn Tasks at Raggedy Hen Farm

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We were allowed no illusions; no lingering, clinging bits of Summer.  Autumn has struck our little wet corner of the world with a determined smack.  Days of blustery rain, leaves starting to turn and tumble from the trees, and, as happens here in the Pacific Northwest, all the grasses are greening up again. Those “someday” tasks we’ve had on our list to get done before Winter hits moved to the top of the page and we’ve been rushing a bit to get them done!  Here’s a brief account of what we’ve been up to the past few days–in between rainstorms and warming coffee breaks:

  • Finish spreading compost on all the beds
  • Trimming back the tomato plants (cutting off the new growth and maximizing sun exposure for the many large, green tomatoes still on the vine
  • Harvesting ripe pumpkins and winter squash
  • Planting garlic
  • Planting fall/winter crops like lettuces, collards, kale, etc.
  • Harvesting figs and waiting patiently as the persimmons ripen
  • Putting away lawn furniture
  • Cleaning off the back deck, tucking the grill under cover, and gathering decor items
  • Trimming and cleaning potted plants
  • Bringing in geraniums for winter storage
  • Contact the city for a delivery of leaves later in the season
  • Tidy garage
  • Harvesting, pruning and drying some of the woody herb plants

There are a few tasks that have to wait until it gets much cooler.  We will be pruning back the raspberries, grape vines and roses, but we wait until after the first frosts to tackle those jobs.  Last year, it felt like we were able to slip into Autumn slowly on the backs of sunny, crisp afternoons but, as every year is different, that has definitely not been the way things are unfolding this year.  Every night for the past week, I’ve been hearing the migrating Canada geese honking their goodbyes as they fly overhead and we’ve had noisy flocks of all sorts of birds congregating in the back conifers and evergreens as they move through the neighborhood.  While it only seems a few weeks ago that we were sitting out in the orchard watching the chickens forage at the nearly 9:30 pm dusk, we are now shutting them up in their cozy henhouse by 7:30 pm.  Soon, they’ll go to bed before we even have supper.  Like every season, we savor and celebrate as we go about our chores–there is something so reassuring about the first dark days of rain–we start to anticipate buttery Chanterelle mushrooms (we ate our first batch of wild-harvested ones just the other night, sautéed up in butter and garlic); evenings of reading, warm cookies and hot tea; and fresh pressed apple cider from nearby farms.  Fall is here for sure, and we might as well enjoy it!