Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Product Road Test: Easiyo Yoghurt Maker

On a recent food shopping trip, Perfect Boyfriend stopped and pointed out a packet of 'yoghurt mix'. "How awesome would homemade yoghurt be?" Very awesome, as it turns out.

Of course, I wasn't going to just buy a yoghurt maker on a whim. I researched the maker I was most keen on (the Easiyo system), read online reviews, found recipes and compared prices.

In the end I paid about $18 for my Easiyo at the local Woolworths. It's available online for just under $15, but after working out shipping costs, ordering online wouldn't be worth it unless I was going to stock up on the yoghurt mix at the same time - and that would be a risky idea when I didn't have a chance to try the yoghurt beforehand.

I went for silver. Wouldn't you?
The easiyo system is basically a thermos. You shake up water and a yoghurt mix in the smaller container, fill up the big container with boiling water and let it do its thing for 8 - 12 hours. You don't even have to plug it in because all it needs is the boiling water. At the end of your 8 hour wait: there is yoghurt! Obviously at that point you want to refrigerate it, because who wants to eat lukewarm yoghurt?

I was attracted to the concept of homemade yoghurt not only because I love eating food I've made from scratch (or as close to as I can get), but also because it's a lower cost option than store bought yoghurt. The thermos makes one litre of yoghurt at a time, which would set you back $6-$10 at my local shop. In comparison, the yoghurt mix sachets are about $3.60 each if you buy in bulk online. My online research also suggested trying to make yoghurt from milk and a few tablespoons of a previous batch - that would be even cheaper!

The honey on this yoghurt was produced locally by my cousin's father-in-law's beehives. How cool is that?
Tonight I'll be mixing up a test batch of the strawberry flavour - fingers crossed it's just as great as the unsweetened greek style yoghurt, which has been my breakfast this week.

My verdict? I'm going to buy some online to give as presents (I love presents that help others save money), and I expect I'll use mine every week. It does, however, have the potential to become one of those single purpose kitchen tools that sits around getting dusty, so I really would only recommend it if you'll eat yoghurt regularly enough to make it worthwhile.

Note: this might be obvious, but this blog is not "monetised" and I am not a professional blogger. I bought this product at my local shops, and this review is my honest opinion.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Craft: Crochet Bunny

Sometimes I find it hard to give away the toys I've made. One of the most difficult toys to give away was this bunny from All About Ami. I made him for no-one in particular and then decided to give him away for a secret santa present last year. There has been a bunny shaped hole in my life ever since! Happily it has now been filled (almost...) by bunny number two.

I highly recommend the pattern; it's quick, easy, and the finished bunny has so much personality.

This guy is a lot happier looking than his brother before him. It's very easy to make the bunny look depressed by placing his eyes too low on his head, which I did the first time. When I asked my boyfriend (who was also fond of bunny number one) if he liked bunny number two, he said "this one's cuter, but I liked the other one better". The sad bunny look can be endearing!

Here's bunny with his friend Snuggles the Penguin that I posted about last year.

Snuggles is happy that he has a friend to share his bookshelf with.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Finance and Life: Goals for 2013

Well, it's taken me a while, but I've made up my mind on what I want to achieve in 2013.

I don't believe in New Year's Resolutions - why resolve to change, when you can just do it instead? However, I do love the idea of using the new year as an excuse to take stock of where I'm at and announce what I'm going to do with the next twelve months.

I'm terribly proud every time I manage to keep a plant alive long enough to produce flowers - this Portulaca on my balcony is a rare success.
Save at least 45% of my income
This is an increase from 35% last year and as such, I guess it's a bit of a stretch goal. How will I achieve it? By scheduling the transfer to my savings account and not touching the money! Seriously though, I'm in a good situation with a reasonable income, no 'bad debt' and no medical or personal issues - so why shouldn't I be able to save money like a champ? This will require me to stretch my frugal muscles (eeeeww) so expect to see a few posts on frugality soon.

Pay off my HECS-HELP debt
That's the student loan the government provides if you can't pay for uni up front. It's not bad debt (the repayments are based on income and instead of a 'real' interest rate the debt is only indexed by inflation), but I still want to be rid of it. Psychologically it will be nice to have paid my degree off, and it will improve my cashflow as the repayments will no longer be deducted from my paycheck.

Complete my Graduate Diploma
This will be the fourth consecutive year that I've chipped away at my post-graduate qualifications while working full time. Enough is enough. I worked part time while studying at undergrad level, now I've been studying part time while working in a professional career - it's time to complete my current study commitment so I can focus on work for a few years before even thinking about any more formal education. I'm enrolled in classes for the first and second trimesters of the school year, so if all goes to plan I'll be graduating in August.

No drinking in 2013
I might elaborate on this later, but I feel like alcohol is doing me harm and no good. I've been toying with the idea of trialling an alcohol-free life for some time, so I decided to align it with the calendar year because, well, I guess just because it's fun to say "no alcohol in 2013" :-)

Cook one new recipe a month
I love my favourite meals so much, sometimes I struggle to find motivation to learn new recipes.

What are your goals for 2013? Do you have any advice on how I can achieve my goals?

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Baking: Macarons at Home

Last year macarons became a bit of an obsession from me. My first introduction to the desert was in a French cafe (unfortunately not in France) and ever since that first crispy yet chewy mouthful they became hard to resist. What made them a real obsession was when I learned about how difficult they were to make. That cannot be true, I told myself, fooled by the deceptive simplicity of my new found favourite treat. I tried a packet macaron mix and that worked just fine. Really they couldn't be that difficult to make if the packet ones were so simple. Confident I forged ahead with my first batch of macarons... and as I'm sure you guessed, they were an utter failure. I hadn't done the slightest bit of research and was completely unprepared for the lumpy, cracked meringue-like things I ended up with. I was much too ashamed to take pictures. I wallowed in my disappointment for a while, munching on my failures for comfort. Then I got Googling. 

Despite all the cautionary tales online, I found enough encouragement to try again. One of the most helpful websites I found was Food Nouveau, which has a very detailed troubleshooting page. This helped me understand that I made crunchy meringues instead of macarons due to under mixing the batter. Armed with wisdom from the internet, I tried again. My second batch was some what of a success as they actually resembled macarons, even though they were over cooked, hollow and cracked on top.

So began my obsession of trying to bake perfect macarons at home. After every batch I'd carefully analyse the imperfections and try to work out what I had done wrong.

To spare first time macaron makers the troubles I faced, I'd like to share some of the things I've found useful in my quest to make macarons at home. 

The first and most important thing I have learned is that home baked macarons will not be as perfect as the macarons from a French patisserie (unless you have a lot of time on your hands and a lot of good equipment - which I don't!). Expect to make something cute and tasty, with a few imperfections. Something like this:

When making macarons it pays to do a little research first. There are lots of different recipes and a few different techniques out there. The recipe I have had the most success with was also from Food Nouveau. The blog includes a video and lots of pictures which are very helpful. I recommend watching a few videos before starting, it really helped me.

Almond Meal
I have always used ground almond meal for macarons, but you can buy whole almonds and process them yourself. I have a friend who tried this a few times with success. Grinding your own almonds will result in a much wetter batter as the almonds become oily when processed and it would mean you have to be careful not to over mix when incorporating the meringue. Although I buy ground almond I still process it together with the icing sugar to make it easier to sift. I find sifting to be the most time consuming part of making macarons! Processing the almond meal is worth the time and effort saved.

Egg Whites
A lot of recipes will insist that the egg whites used for making macarons should be aged before use. The idea is to separate the yoke and the white and leave the white in the fridge over night to allow some of the moisture to evaporate. I've used fresh egg whites, I have also aged them for 24 hours, and tried putting the egg white in the microwave for a few seconds before using and none of these methods seemed to be any better than the other. Aging the egg white may be important if adding a lot of liquid colouring to the shells or when using freshly ground almonds as you need to be careful about the batter becoming too runny. I've always had the opposite problem with the batter so aging the egg white doesn't seem to be an important step in the recipes I've used.

Before I started making macarons I had no idea that there were two ways of making meringue. For those who are in the same boat, there's the French Method and the Italian Method (and also the Swiss Method which I just discovered on Wikipedia!) I use the French method because it's easier and faster. Italian Meringue is theoretically meant to be stabler than other methods however. My macaron making friend uses the Italian method and her macarons seem to turn out a lot shiner than mine. I don't think the extra shine is worth the extra effort, but it would be fun to try Italian Meringue as an experiment sometime.

One of the scariest steps of macaron making is mixing the batter. So many recipes will caution against over mixing or under mixing, threatening that only a few turns more than necessary can result in disaster! In my experience, macaron batter isn't a delicate as some recipes make it out to be. I've never over mixed the batter before, but I have under mixed it on a few occasions. The easiest way to avoid this problem is to watch a lot of videos to get an idea of what the batter should look like once it's properly mixed. I mix the batter until it starts to ooze off the spoon, then I let it rest for a minute to see how much it spreads in the mixing bowl. This gives an idea of how much the piped macarons will spread. You want them to spread enough so that the lumps made during the piping process will smooth out. The batter should also be shiny when allowed to rest for a moment. Here's a comparison between two batters I've made; the chocolate one ended up being over mixed and the purple one was fine. The picture shows that the purple mix has spread a lot more when rested, while the chocolate one still has a lot of lumps that haven't smoothed over.

I have to admit that I'm not particularly skilled at piping. My trays of macarons always end up looking disordered, but I have definitely improved over time. The best advice I can give is to pipe straight downwards. There's no need to pipe a circle or a swirl (like I did the first time), simply pipe downwards until a disk of the required size is piped. I've also learned to leave plenty of room between macarons - they do spread a bit! This is one of the more successful trays I've piped. They're not perfect circles, but they're close enough.

One of the easiest and tastiest fillings I've used is chocolate ganache. It's so simple; heat cream until just before boiling, pour the cream over chopped dark chocolate, mix until well combined, then leave in the fridge to chill for several hours.

My Next Batch of Macarons
While I have been happy with my last few batches of macarons, there are still a few things I would like to improve. The main problem I have is that my macarons develop an air pocket under the shell when cooked. My theory is that I am cooking the macarons at too high a temperature. Next time I'll try to keep this under control and cook them at a lower heat over a longer period of time. If you know of any other solutions, please let me know!

Don't Be Discouraged!
I'd like to offer a final word of encouragement. Macaron making can seem very daunting to amateur bakers at home, but they are definitely doable. For me, keeping the process as simple as possible is the key to making macarons at home. I'm sure I could make a much more authentic macaron if I used Italian meringue,  ground my own almonds and used a template for piping, but I know I probably woundn't make macarons if it took me half a day to do. This may in fact be a bit of a lazy girl's guide to baking macarons. Still, it works for me. Hopefully some of this will be useful to you as well. Good luck!

Monday, 21 January 2013

What's for Dinner? Vegetarian Chilli

This is one of my favourite meals! I like to cook up large batches so I can eat a bowl then and there, but still have plenty to take to work for lunches. It's easy, tasty and full of protein.

Vegetarian Chilli
Olive oil - approximately 1 tablespoon
2 x 400g tins red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 x 435g tins refried beans
4 x garlic cloves, minced
2 x red tomatoes, diced
1 red capsicum, sliced into 1x2cm strips
1 cup boiling water
4 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon chilli flakes
1/2 teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoons Mexican chilli powder

Heat olive oil in a large frypan (preferably a frypan with reasonably tall sides) over medium heat.
Combine all ingredients in frypan. You may need to stir the refried beans vigorously - they're not easy to integrate but they'll make the chilli extra creamy and tasty.
Allow chilli to simmer on low-medium heat until the water has been absorbed and the chilli is a smooth gravy-like consistency (this takes about twenty minutes).

  • This recipe makes about eight hearty serves. It can easily be halved.
  • The chilli freezes and reheats very well.
  • This is a dish you can add any veges to - whatever you have in the fridge, it'll taste great! I've tried mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, carrot and corn (though not all at the same time).
  • Leave out the chilli flakes if you're not keen on hot food.
  • I like to eat my chilli straight, but you can use it as a topping for nachos, a taco or burrito filling, or even serve it over rice.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Baking: Egg Free Red Velvet Cupcakes

What do you bake when some of your favourite friends are coming over for an afternoon of crochet and gossip?

Red velvet cupcakes!

Of course, having an egg allergy in the house, I was determined to create my own allergy friendly recipe. And I completely forgot to add buttermilk to the shopping list... so this recipe is a little different from most red velvet cakes.

125g butter, soft but not melted
2/3 cup caster sugar
200g plain yoghurt
2 cups self raising flour
1/4 cup cocoa
2 teaspoons red food colouring
1/2 cup milk
Cream cheese frosting:
250g cream cheese
50g butter
1 tablespoon golden syrup
400g icing sugar

Preheat oven to 160 degrees celsius, and line a cupcake tray with patty pans.
Using a handheld mixer, beat butter, sugar and yoghurt together in a large mixing bowl.
Sift in flour and cocoa, add milk and food colouring. Beat until well combined.
Fill patty pans to about 3/4 full, and bake for 20 minutes or until a skewer inserted into a cupcake comes out clean.
Once cupcakes have cooled, beat all frosting ingredients together until well combined.
Spread frosting over cupcakes.

  • This recipe makes 12 standard sized cupcakes.
  • If you don't frost the cupcakes, they will freeze and thaw well.
  • Egg free cakes will need to bake for longer, at a lower temperature, than standard cupcakes.
  • If you have buttermilk on hand, substitute 3/4 cup buttermilk for the 1/2 cup milk in this recipe.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Is the $10,000 Chery Unethical?

The Chery J1 will soon be selling for $9900 - brand new.

Given that this car has been criticised for having inadequate safety features:
The car doesn't have stability control, which, from the beginning of this year, is mandatory for all passenger vehicles registered in Victoria. There are anti-lock brakes but only two airbags, at the front.
Do you think it's unethical to sell such a cheap car if it's poor quality?

My concern is based on the idea that those who aren't doing well financially (or are, um, just plain old cheap) will buy this car based on the drive away price, not knowing that it potentially isn't the standard of quality you expect of a new car.

If I bought this car, I would be concerned that it would be less reliable and more prone to those mysterious car "issues" than, say, a new Toyota Yaris.

On one hand, I feel like large corporations have a responsibility to market products that won't need to be replaced any sooner than the average for that industry. What I mean is that if the average small car can survive to 250,000 kilometres before it gets driven to the big scrapyard in the sky, it's unethical to produce and sell a car that can only make it to 150,000. Whether or not the Chery J1 would be unethical by that measure is far too technical for my knowledge of cars.

On the other hand, it really is the responsibility of the consumer to undertake research on any product they purchase, including safety issues for a product like a car where poor quality could cause your untimely death. I wish I'd learnt more about safety ratings for cars before I bought my car in 2010 - it's only rated at three stars, and now that I know a little more, I should have paid more for a higher-rated car. I can't blame anyone but myself for that.

I'm also conflicted about whether the difference between a three star rated car (such as the J1, or my little Nissan) and a five star rated car is honestly large enough to increase the statistical likelihood of death or serious injury in an accident. Mr Money Mustache explains much better than I can that safety is an illusion - your chances of dying in a car accident are so minuscule anyway that a slightly "safer" car could be said to make no difference at all.

What are your thoughts? Are cheap, poorly-made cars unethical? Is the difference between a three star safety rated car and a five star car enough to make any real change to your chances of being hurt in a crash?

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

What's for Dinner? Zucchini and Haloumi Fritters

Haloumi is one of those foods that never seems to go off... which is why I'm always happy when I check the cheese drawer in my fridge and find a square of haloumi just begging to be turned into dinner.

For those unfamiliar with haloumi, it's a Greek style of cheese traditionally made with goat and sheep's milk. It's only become popular relatively recently, most often as a key ingredient in vegetarian dishes.

Grated Haloumi

I've tried out a few recipes with haloumi now, and it's fast becoming a staple for me. So when I found this recipe for zucchini and haloumi fritters, it went straight to the meal plan for this week.

I'm a fiend for garlic, so I added a minced clove of garlic to the mix, as well as generous quantities of salt and pepper.

The recipe calls for the fritters to be shallow fried in oil, but I don't like eating too much fried food - fried vegetables, especially, seem like a big "stuff you!" to nutrition. I fried the first few fritters and then decided I would experiment with baking them. Worst case scenario, I would have some inedible fritters which I would have to trash.

I baked mine for about twenty five minutes on 180C, which worked perfectly.

Baked Zucchini and Haloumi Fritters

I'm planning to take these to work for lunch 'as is' - between veges and cheese I feel I've covered enough food groups - but they'd work well as vegetarian burger patties or sandwich filling.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Could You Live on the Dole? And How?

In case you missed it, this week our Federal Families Minister, Jenny Macklin, stated that she could live on the dole. This has caused a massive amount of controversy in the media, with a Greens senator declaring that he will live on the dole for a week to experience the hardship of the unemployed, and calling on Macklin to do the same.

In one sense, this is a ridiculous question because if any given person loses his or her job and is forced to rely on welfare, of course they scrimp and struggle and get by. What's the other option - give up and let yourself starve to death? So who would honestly answer "no" to "could you live on the dole?"

That doesn't mean it would be in any way easy to live on the dole. What I'm sure of is that those of us with well paid jobs have no idea how hard it is to make ends meet on the dole (or Newstart Allowance, as it is officially titled). I doubt that a week is enough to understand how brutal that kind of existence would be. A year might be more appropriate.

The political furore over this issue started me thinking: what would I do if I lost my job and I had to live on the dole?

My reality:
My job is extremely secure, I have an emergency fund, and I live in a dual income household which means that if either Perfect Boyfriend or I became unemployed, the employed partner could support the other.

But let's imagine...
If I'm going to imagine a scenario in which I'm on the dole, I would also, for fairness, exclude my current fortunate situation in which I have a partner who could support me. So let's pretend I'm single, and renting (which I would be if I was single at this age).

According to the Human Services (formerly Centrelink) website, if I was unemployed my dole payment would be $492.60 a fortnight.

When I was renting my own tiny flat, I was paying $520 a fortnight rent.

So, obviously the very first thing I would do is break that imaginary lease and move in with a family member. Sure, it wouldn't be all that great to sleep on the floor of my brother's study, but it beats homelessness.

Next up: I would change the insurance on my car from comprehensive to third party only. This might seem like a strange next step, but because of my age and the relatively short time I've had my license, my insurance is stupidly expensive. It would represent something close to 15% of my income if I was on the dole. I love my car, but I accept that it's a convenient luxury rather than an absolute necessity, so I would change my insurance immediately and if the length of time I went without finding work stretched on, I would consider selling it.

I would sell my furniture, white goods and anything that could bring in some money - if for no other reason than because when you're flat broke, you can't pay to store your furniture!

What wouldn't I give up? I'd like to believe I'd be able to keep my private health insurance and mobile phone. In the scenario I've outlined, because I could live with a family member, I'd be able to afford to eat something other than two minute noodles, and to contribute to household bills. I would need to tighten the budget for food and ongoing bills, but I think it would be possible to get by.

But, wait: this imaginary world doesn't seem so bad?
Yep. That's my conclusion too. And do you know why this scenario is liveable, and not a world of horrors? Because I'm so freaking privileged. I have strong relationships with family members who have stable homes and would welcome me with open arms. That is pure luck. It's pure luck that I don't have a whole family of drug dealers, that my relatives aren't violent thugs, that they're alive. Not everyone is in this situation. Some people have no family at all, or a family so terrible that living on the streets looks like a better alternative to them. 

If I didn't have family to rely on, I would have to rent or pay a mortgage. Even if you share a house with as many people as possible in a crappy suburb, could you find a room for less than $100 a week in Perth?

Additionally, I'm healthy. If you had any kind of health problem, I imagine that it would be extremely difficult to find money for medical care on the dole. 

I don't have children. I do not know how any parent pays for school fees, uniforms, books etc while on the dole. The allowance goes up slightly if you have children, but not enough to cover the costs of the little tykes.

Shouldn't people on the dole just get jobs?
Sure, if I was on the dole I'd have a good chance of finding employment quickly. That's because I'm lucky enough to have been born into a literate family, lucky enough to have attended good public schools, lucky that I'm smart enough to get okay grades even with a stressful family situation and patchy attendance, lucky that my Dad pushed me to go to uni, lucky that said Dad supported me financially while I was at uni, lucky that I have an Aunt who told me to apply for graduate jobs... The list goes on.

Try to imagine being born into a family where nobody has ever had a job, and in fact, nobody can read and write. Try to imagine growing up in a family where your parents never enrolled you in school, or they enrolled you but failed to feed you breakfast beforehand or even keep food in the house, failed to take you to school, never encouraged you to go. Imagine growing up without ever learning to read and write well enough to complete the most basic school work. Imagine having nobody in your life who could provide you with information about how to better yourself, nobody who could teach you basic life skills. Imagine having never used the internet, or read a book.

How easy would it be to find a job then?

I am so very, very grateful for everything I have.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Book Review: Teeny-Tiny Mochi Mochi

Anna Hrachovec, the creator of the website Mochi Mochi Land is one of my favourite designers of knitted toys. Her knitted creatures are are both wacky and adorable. Best of all, for me, are her tiny Mochi Mochi - a collection of people, creatures and objects all knitted in miniature! I decided to buy the book about thirty seconds after discovering it and it's one of my favourites, proving very useful for last minutes presents or speedy knitting gratification.

The first pattern I tried was this little gnome. He lives in my pencil tin at work and has made me feel better about life many times!

Here are a trio of monkeys, another pattern found in Teeny-Tiny Mochi Mochi. Although I do have a habit of knitting animals in unnatural colours, these guys were always intended to be blue, like the monkeys in a barrel toy.

My favourite pattern from the book are the bride and groom. I've given these as presents to two couples recently. While the pattern itself is very quick and easy, I had a lot of trouble making the faces cute. I initially tried the black, beady eyes but decided they were too creepy. Googly eyes were hilarious, but not really flattering for the bridal couple. In the end I decided to draw eyes on paper and coat them in clear glue before sticking them on.

Overall the patterns in this book are simple and fun to knit. I recommend it for intermediate knitters, primarily because tiny knitting can be fiddly and it could be nightmarish if you were not confident with increasing or decreasing or knitting in the round. I highly recommend Teeny-Tiny Mochi Mochi and any of the patterns from the Mochi Mochi Land website. It's even worth a look if you've never picked up a pair of knitting needles in your life! Have a look a her gnome vs snowman exhibition, it's great (go on :-P).