Monday, 02 August 2021 13:51

    I don't know if this is of interest to anyone, but have you ever looked at the white mould on a Brie? Ok, maybe you have. But have you looked at it through a microscope?

     

    I've been making cheese lately, and this is a particularly good coat of Penicillium Candidum (white mould) on a nearly-ready batch of Brie. I apologise, but my extreme macro setup wasn't exactly perfect this afternoon. But here's a 20x macro shot of my mould, looking 35o downward at the top of a wheel...

    Enjoy!
    Ham

    Saturday, 24 July 2021 21:52

    Here is a little (well, 0.5Kg) loaf of bread that I decided to make, (wait for it), completely by hand with common kitchen items. Using nothing but a mixing bowl, a cast iron cook pot, a sturdy spoon, a kitchen scale, baking paper, a drinking glass, and the requisite oven of course. Just to see whether I could do it without all the fancy gear. I think it looks great, and it tasted great. Certainly better than even some of the "artisan" breads in the local bakery... because everything is amazing straight out of the oven (and cooled a little).... "straight out of the shops..." well... isn't an actual "saying" for good reason :-)

     

    A lot of people make great bread at home. Many also love to share their knowledge and make beautifully produced YouTube videos. I find it amusing that these videos are frequently recorded in absolutely spotless kitchens/sets/studios with any number of fancy and specialist tools like stand mixers (sometimes in triplicate, all in differing colours and sizes), proofing baskets, loaf tins, dough hooks, dough whisks, dough scrapers, couche (bread baking fabric), and a lame or two (that's pronounced like "lahm") which is french for a razor blade specially-designed for cutting dough. With all this stuff being recommended over and over. It's easy to feel intimidated and think bread making is "out of reach".

    I have to laugh (partly with, partly at) these videos, especially when a woman has clearly "Dolled herself up" with makeup, (sometimes even pearls like some upper-middle class 50s TV show housewife), and struts her bread making stuff. Phrases like "It's so easy" (usually implying "with all this gear"), to be a domestic goddess....and while I'm sure the women are beautiful, kindly sharing their knowledge. You really can do a lot of amazing work without all that stuff.

    To the women in these videos, or any "sisters" of the female solidarity network, who now intend to correct my politically incorrect ways. Please note that I do not belittle anyone, I just think that I'm lucky to be out of my pajamas when I'm baking bread, so perhaps my whole approach to bread making and attire is fundamentally "less fancy".

    If you're wondering which bits I laugh with....

    Now, some might be thinking, "OOOOOH Ham is digging himself into trouble.... dig up Ham! But it's the Aussie way to laugh at mistakes, get in trouble, and then help to make up for it... because it's fun, right? In Australia, mockery is a form of affection, and comfort with another person..... but I digress...

    The bits I laugh with are the many bread making videos where jokes being are being made, bloopers (that are actually so much more relatable to my bread making experience, and teach me what not to do), and the usual anecdotes, banter, and playfulness that occurs every now and then.

    My answer is kinda boring, huh!

    Going back to basics...

    There are plenty of people who use mechanical mixers and fancy gear to great effect. Some bread types are indeed better made this way. However, it's also very easy to overwork your dough in a mixer and destroy the gluten network that you need to trap the air bubbles in. If you do this (as I have) you will probably get a flat, less flashy (albeit tasty) bread. In fact, it's often better to work the dough less.... sometimes a bread recipe needs a lot less than many would expect or even recommend. How many times have you been told that hand kneading dough could or should take a long time? It doesn't always have to.

     

    Ham's tested recipe (to get the depicted bread loaf).

    DAY 1:

    I weighed, then mixed a preferment (150g each of non-chlorinated water and plain bread flour) with a small pinch of dehydrated yeast in a large drinking glass (but you could use a bowl). Stirred it up, then left it on the counter, covered, but not air tight, overnight. Total effort.. about 2-4 minutes.

    This is not a sour dough bread. However, the preferment will give the final bread some extra flavour, nicer crust, and better behaved dough overall. If you're in a hurry, you can get away with leaving it for 4 hours, but longer is better, and a day or so, is ideal.

    DAY 2:

    Today will be more involved, but it'll be done at a sedate pace. There are lots of breaks, so don't worry too much.

    1. In a large mixing bowl, add:
      • 280g of warm water,
      • 2g of yeast,
      • and all the preferment mix from day 1.
    2. Mix the ingredients to combine, to make a slurry. This is really wet white, slightly lump liquid at this stage, this will make the later mixing easier.
    3. Add the following ingredients to the bowl:
      • 350g bread flour (400g if you don't have whole wheat flour)
      • 50g whole wheat flour (skip if you added 400g of normal bread flour).
      • 10g salt (fine grains, preferably non-iodised, but table salt will work)
    4. With a sturdy spoon, mix the ingredients, scraping any mix from the walls as best you can until it's well combined.
    5. With extremely wet (dripping) dominant (left or right) hand, reach in, scrape the mix from the side of the bowl with your hand into the centre of the bowl, and pinch the dough between thumb and forefinger. You don't need to pinch it off, just narrow considerably. Then let go. Turn the bowl with your dry hand about 15-20 degrees, and repeat pinching motion with the wet hand, going around at least one full rotation. Keep doing this for 60-90 seconds. If your hand starts to stick, wet it again.
    6. Cover and leave for 30 mins.
    7. Now it's time for dough "strength training". At the moment, your dough will be a slack, somewhat "shaggy" mess. That's to be expected.
    8. Wet your hands (probably both this time) so they're really wet and won't stick to the dough.
      1. Using your hand, scoop up the dough from the edge until you have a handful. Leave the rest still attached to the bowl, and pull and stretch the dough until it's ready to break. You're going to break things the first time, that's ok, but try to go a little easier next time if you do. Once stretched, fold the raised (stretched) bit over the top of the dough still in the bowl.
      2. Turn the bowl 45 degrees,
      3. Repeat steps 8.1 and 8.2 (immediately above)  8-10 times.
    9. Wet your hands again, and gently shape the entire dough ball by tucking any rough edges of the dough underneath. You want something that looks like a smooth ball of dough at the end. It's ok if it's still very "slack". Even if it's not a "ball", a smooth top with a minimum of rough edges will still work.
    10. Cover and leave for another 30 mins.
    11. Repeat step 8 (and sub steps 1-3), you can add step 9 too if you want. The dough should be getting firmer, and developing some bubbles. From here on out, try not to squash it too much.
    12. Cover and leave for 1 hour.
    13. This dough will stick to a lot of stuff. So flour the top of the dough well, and lightly rub the flour over the top so that any sticky parts are floured. Sometimes it helps to flour your hands first for this step.
    14. Flour your bench or work surface, then slowly and gently turn the dough out onto it.
    15. Pull dough out sideways, stretch it, then fold that stretched but over to the opposite side of the dough, and lightly press it down to stick. Then turn the whole dough ball 90 degrees. Repeat this 4 times (one full 360 degree revolution).
    16. Flip the dough over, and tuck any rough edges under with a 2 handed cupping motion. You want a ball-like dough now.
    17. Put the ball of dough (seam side up) into a proofing basket. Alternatively, clean your mixing bowl out, line it with a tightly woven tea towl, and flour the entire surface heavily. You need to ensure the dough does NOT stick to the cloth. You still need to put the dough in so the rough seam side is up (we'll be flipping it soon)
    18. Preheat your oven to 260 Celsius... put your dutch oven in the oven to heat up too. However, if your lid has a plastic handle, you might want to use an alternative pot, or remove the handle, temporarily. Look up the specs on your dutch oven BEFORE cooking to ensure it can handle these higher temperatures.
    19. Cover and leave your dough on the counter for another 30-50 mins. When the dough has risen, and the dough springs back slowly to original shape (after a gentle poke), it's ready to bake.
    20. Liberally flour the top of your dough (soon to be bottom).
    21. Gently flip whole dough upside down (gently) onto a sheet of baking paper.
    22. Slash the top of your dough, about 1cm deep and at at 45 degree angle. Or you can repeatedly "snip" the top with a pair of kitchen scissors...
    23. Pull your hot dutch oven out, lower dough on baking sheet into it. Put the lid on.
    24. Turn your oven down to 250, and bake covered (lid on) for 18 minutes.
    25. Take the lid off the dutch oven and bake for another 25-35 minutes. You really want to bake until the crust is dark, as this will enhance the flavour of the bread.
    26. Once it's baked, take it out, remove the loaf from the dutch oven, and put it on some sort of cooling rack. If you don't have a cooling rack, I just sat mine on my (cold and unused) gas hob stove, some people use bamboo sushi rolling mats on a plate.. whatever you have.
    27. Leave the bread to cool down before cutting into it, impatience here will undo some of the effort you've gone to so far.

     

    After all this, what are the advantages of a slow make bread?

    Now it might seem, that with 27 steps, that's way too involved for many to even contemplate. However, the time spent actually doing anything, was maybe 40 mins on my first attempt, and you get faster, reducing time to somewhere around 30 mins of actual involvement with practice.

    I like this recipe as it draws on the enhanced flavouring technniques of sourdough recipes, but without the usual sourdough flavours that some find less pleasant. In fact, it just draws out the best in the flour.

    After eating many breads over the years, this one was in no way inferior to fancy commercial artisinal breads. Does it leave the supermarket stuff for dead? Well of course it does. This bread loaf cost me about $1.25 in ingredients, about 5 cents in consumables, and 20c in power to make. This is still a vast reduction on the $7-$10 I've seen in bakeries.

    I've been cooking with this flour for years and I have never noticed such a yellow tinge in the crumb. Gentle mixing and using a preferment really brings out the best in the flour.

    Are you getting a yellow crumb?

    Sliced bread showing yellow crumb
    Here you can see a distinct yellow tinge to the crumb in these un-buttered bread slices. This is apparently a common result of a gentler dough making process, where some of the chemicals/oils of the wheat haven't oxidised into something "whiter". Wheat afterall, is not actually white, but a pale golden hue. Some say this is a sign of truly great bread, and yes it's very tasty, but I've also had many great white breads too. Try it and decide for yourself.

    In summary, I'll just finish with the facts I've learned here.

    Good bread does not need expensive gear. If you don't already have a dutch oven, a cast iron camp stove will work just as well. Sometimes, I've seen people work with a turkey roasting pan placed upside-down over a bread in the oven... so there are ways to make this work without one. I've also done this in a stainless steel stock pot... and while it works.... it seems that the steel just doesn't have the ability to store heat... and this leads to paler, less developed crust in the first half of the bake. I've then baked uncovered as instructed... then taken the bread out of the pot and baked for an additional 5-10 minutes to get that deep brown crust.

    I know people are time poor, but with a little planning, you can get a great result with slow bread making. It also gives beginners a chance to really get to know the process and feel it for themselves. They'll learn far more so than those simply throwing it into a bread maker or mixer. The lessons learned here can apply to mixer/faster breads. So it'll make you a better baker (and dough maker/shaper) than you might otherwise have been.

    Sometimes using cheaper gear teaches leads to better results than blowing it all on fancy tech. Just some food for thought.

    Stay safe and happy baking!

    Ham.

    Wednesday, 14 July 2021 04:00

    It might seem weird. Ricotta is typically a soft, salty, cheese that's made in a few days. So you might be asking: "Where does the Brie come into it?". Well, this was meant to be a few wheels of Brie. Obviously... things didn't go to plan. <Insert sheepish grin here>. When your curds don't firm up like a Brie, you could just ditch the batch, or try to salvage it as a "fresh" cheese. Like most fresh cheeses, the "firmness" of the cheese is often determined by the amount of time the cheese is allowed to drain. This is the cheese after two days. However, it will start to develop the white mould as it continues to age, and that will soften up a cheese that is already pretty soft.

    Oh how I wish that I could tell you that my cheese making is perfect.... but it's not. Stuff happens. Frankly, I haven't been doing well, as the last three makes have had increasing levels of problems.

     

    First erroneous make - Parmesan make 16 - June 2021 - Wrong Salt:

    Even cheeses that I've made many times before can go wrong. I accidentally rubbed the wrong salt onto my cheese. You see I recycled an old table salt container for a convenient cheese salting experience. So I had two containers, one had cheese salt, and the other, regular iodised salt. Which is not good, since iodine is a pretty effective antiseptic.... and will probably kill, or at least slow down the ageing process. The down side? It's Parmesan.... I won't know what the effect will be until 2022, perhaps even 2023! Good or bad.

     

    Second erroneous make - Parmesan make 17- "Das Über Vat" Test Run - July 2021 - Alarming Over-Salting:

    This time, I was excited to try my newly acquired 58L stainless steel pot for making larger quantities of really hard cheeses like Parmesan and Pecorino. Their yields are notoriously low, so making three times the usual amount of cheese per make, using all four burners on the stove and constant stirring (to avoid burning milk on the bottom) whenever heating was required (curd setting did not need heat to be on, as the heat retention of this much milk meant I only lost 0.4oC with the burners off.  The larger pot actually reduced the actual make time considerably, despite the large milk volume. I have dubbed my large pot as "Das Über Vat", as it sounds better (and often efficient) in pseudo German.

    I made three large wheels of Parmesan (fearing the worst from make one). Ok, so the salt is the right type.... but.... one of my wheels was considerably smaller than my other two. I set my alarm to pull the small wheel out of the brine solution at the right time... but... I forgot to check whether that was set to am/pm. So the time went way over... and the salt drew too much moisture from the curds. Those curds not only cracked, but effectively crumbled apart into a Chunky Parmesan Brine Soup. (The two other wheels are fine, but I now have a "wheel's worth of pre-grated cheese"). So what do you do with barely started, immature, over salted Parmesan curds? Well I decided to drown them in olive oil, marinading them like Fetta, and despite the tiny parts, I'm going to give it a couple of months to age (hopefully the salt will only slow the ageing process, and then I'll throw some onto pasta dishes or pizza).

    Which brings me to my Briecotta....

     

    Third erroneous make - Brie make 11 - July 2021:

    So I attempted to make a smallish batch of Brie, only 9L of milk with 600ml of cream. I calculated the amount of cultures, rennet, and calcium chloride. Heated up my milk and added the cultures as described. At least, I think I did. The milk cultured for a while, no probs. I added the rennet at the appointed time, and the recalcitrant thing wouldn't set. At 40 minutes, it was still milk. At 120 mins is was a very soft curd indeed. I did my calculations again, and 1.3mL of 200 IMCU rennet seemed fine for 10L or so.... and I was confused.

    What should have been a 2 hour, 20 minute make (max) was much, much longer. The milk smelled and tasted ok before the make, the rennet I used without issue only days ago.... but this was not happy.

    So I reached a point where the curds were scoop-able, but they just weren't right. I moulded the curds and left them to drain as normal. Hours passed, and there was very little improvement. Any attempt to flip the curds resulted in a cream cheese like splat.

    My two current theories are:

    1. When I cleaned the pot in the dishwasher, it left some sort of anti-microbial residue that hindered the curdling. When I checked the pH, it was a modest 6.2 after hours, so the acidification wasn't where it needed to be, causing the excessively soft curd. Now, please note that I usually re-boil the pots and drain prior to starting a make... but perhaps it required a better "scrubbing" than I gave it.
    2. My rennet has been out of date for a long time, it's possible (although not likely) that the rennet has finally given up the ghost. More likely, I may have accidentally contaminated the container with the syringe I was using. This would explain the sudden failure. Considering that I am down to the dregs anyway, it's time I got some more.

    So what's happening with the Brie-cotta? Well since I can't unmould the wheels as I intended, I've placed the curd in a cheese cloth and drained it like I would a fresh cheese. After two days, I've been adding salt, and putting it on my toast. However, I don't expect the white mould to develop before I eat much of the cheese....

    As an experiment, I've put some cheese into the "cheese cave" to see if it will grow the white mould, but I don't expect that it'll work very well.

     

    Brie-cotta update. Day 3.

    Well the cheese in my ageing fridge (set to 10 degrees Celsius) hasn't shown any signs of growing mould. Meanwhile, the cheese in the cloth and my proofing fridge (set to 25oC) has shown strong while mould growth. This is odd, as I've been taught that it's too warm for a mouldy rind to develop. Clearly that's not entirely true.

     

    I had no idea that the mould would grow so quickly in the warmer space. The mould has grown into the fabric and attached itself. This is not good, as it has clearly ripped a chunk of the cheese away from the main body as I unwrapped the cheese from the fabric.
    Here is the main body of "Briecotta", note the non-mouldy (furry) bits that have been torn away from the ball of curds. I have since removed as much cheese from the fabric, washed the cloth out (that took a while) and am now re-growing the torn areas. Interestingly, some of the curds that were stuck to the fabric were already tasting a lot like a young Brie (I guess that is to be expected) but other parts were really pungent. At this point, I've been eating the undeveloped curds as a fresh cheese (always better with salt) and we'll see how this experiment goes.

    What can I draw from these lessons?

    Well, a lot of it comes down to simple mistakes, that... in fairness have happened due to a lack of attention to small, but important details. Using identical containers for non-iodised and iodised salt, not checking the alarm, and imperfect cleaning strategies/out of date cultures can have a huge impact, even if they're seemingly small issues by themselves.

    Now, I am starting to conclude that there are definitely times that you should not be making cheese. If you're busy, or stressed, or tired, or just can't give the cheese the attention it needs, then perhaps postponing a day is a significant advantage. That said, if you suddenly have a huge delivery of milk descend on you, and you can't store the milk.. then you don't really have much choice. In that situation, choosing an easier, less involved recipe like Quark to use up some cheese, then going to the other extreme of hard cheeses, that use a lot of milk and relatively simple affinage process (at least compared to Brie/Camembert) and wide use window (depending on how long you age it for)

    Steps taken to avoid these issues:

    I've since changed the container for my cheese salts to avoid confusion. I'm ordering new cultures for the rennet issues. I've switched to using a countdown timer for brining instead of alarms, and I've given my pots another hand wash with less persistent detergents. I'll rinse them again, then boil just prior to the next make.

     

    Anyway, it's always the little things that get me. I hope this help fellow cheese makers to learn from my mistakes!

    Stay safe, and have fun!

    Ham.

     

     

     

    Tuesday, 18 May 2021 22:29

    I don't know about you, but if you're checking this web site out, then you've probably got an email address too. Over time, you sign up to newsletters, buy things online and register customer accounts, you correspond with friends and family, and along the way your inbox gets an ever-increasing deluge of "junk" email which is called "Spam". Interestingly few people actually talk about the "good" emails, which is actually called "Ham". Given the name sake to me, it's nice for this Wayward Ham to be considered "not junk".. at the very least.

    Wisdom can be found anywhere. While seeking reliable sources are all good and well, there is also potential for informational source snobbery that shuns a lot of good advice. A little thought and creativity can learn complex or useful ideas from a paragraph or two... often more so than a dry, long winded thesis of narrow focus, using poor communication techniques.

    I've done a lot DIY projects in the last few years using largely, self taught techniques. I started with a near empty garage back in 2015, and a handful of tools, and been slowly building up a workshop as I do things around the house. Naturally, I've bought stuff wherever it was most appropriate/affordable to do so, and ended up on numerous DIY/wood working mailing lists.

    Once in a while, though, an email has a surprisingly well-thought-out and helpful message that could apply to anyone, and this came in today:

     


    Do It For Yourself

    DIY is accessible to everyone. Making something from scratch or breathing new life into Grandma’s sitting room cabinet is a deeply satisfying and rewarding experience. Anyone can the pickup the tools and embark on their very own creative journey.

    That’s not to say that the path to DIY success isn’t a rocky one. Knowing where to start and dealing with procrastination throughout the journey can pose major barriers for both new and experienced makers.

    Here are some tips to get you started with your own DIY projects…

    Start small

    Making something from scratch can be hard. If you are a raw beginner, start small and see it to the finish. Your projects will grow along with your skills and abilities.

    Know what you want to make

    This is key to your success. Knowing exactly what it is you want to achieve will help decide things like the space you need to complete the tasks, and kind of tools and materials you will need to source.

    Plan your projects

    It’s important to spend the time planning out your projects. Make sure you have a clearly drawn design. Use cutting lists and plan each step of your project through to completion.

    Hone your skills

    Learn the basics well. Invest time in practicing fundamental skills such as measuring and marking and using the different types of tools. When it comes to your project, you will be more confident and the chance of making errors will be a greatly reduced.

    Expect the unexpected

    You will hit some roadblocks. A clear plan and knowing how to deal with some of the obstacles can be the difference in your success. The important thing is to just keep going and get your project done.

    The secrets to success

    So, you now know some of the secrets to successful DIY. There is one more thing – the tools you use. Tools for successful DIY must be versatile, durable and easy to use.

     

    Now this particular email comes from a specialist wood working tool shop. Despite the goal of selling tools, there's nothing actually incorrect about their statements. Starting small, avoiding procrastination issues, working through the obstacles to overcome, and planning is sound advice.

    Versatility, durability, and ease of use are important qualities to look for in tools, and they do help with "getting the job done". However, with a little thought, I'll go a little further.

    I will say that there are always exceptions, or perhaps people will put differing levels of priority to each quality. I'd also add some more. How about "feasibility of purchase/use". If a tool requires a ton of power and you don't have a 3 phase circuit, that's obviously a problem. If a tool is too expensive, too heavy, too large to fit, and expensive to maintain, those are also issues. Return on Investment (ROI) is a useful concept. Don't spend a fortune on tools you use rarely, but invest where the upgrade will do the most good. (The tools you use most often)

    Now I don't think any beginner will be buying industrial tools, but size and weight are always important considerations. Also, there's nothing wrong with borrowing tools, or seeking help. Sometimes there are low cost alternatives to buying everything in sight. Improvisation and creativity can lead to success too.

    Fortune cookie wisdom... is still wisdom if applied to great effect. Take what you can get out of any information source.

    Just a little thought for the day.

    Take care!

    Ham.

     

    Friday, 09 April 2021 14:31

    About four weeks ago, a friend of mine dropped by to learn how to make cheese. So for that lesson, I chose to make Brie from 18L of store bought milk and some cream.

    It sounds simple enough, but I learned that in cheese making (aside from sanitation), there really aren't any real rules that can't be bent, perhaps, even broken. Let me explain.

    So Brie is famous for the white bloomy rind that grows on the surface. This is usually a combination of Penicillium Candidum (a mould) and Geotrichium Candidum (a yeast). It's this surface that makes aging Brie difficult, not the make itself. The make is actually at the easier end of the scale. It's just the conditions have to be right for it to grow.

    Most home cheese makers put their "Candidums" (Penicillium/Geotrichium) in the milk during the make and this is called the "inoculation" method. However, it is also possible to add it after the make using the "spray on" method. This method is popular in industrial cheese making because you can get away with using less culture for similar results. Running from the Brie recipe supplied from my course, I started up the make as I do every time, and got to the point of adding the cultures. Only to discover that I had used up my Penicillium Candidum. <cue panic stations here>.

    So I did the only thing I could do, and that was adjust my Geotrichium Candidum to replace the Penicillium Candidum culture and carry on about my business. Continuing on unabated until the wheels were drying for 24 hours, and my friend had well and truly gone home for the day.

    However, in the division of attention between teaching and actually doing, I had scooped curds into a variety of cheese moulds/baskets, then ran out of curds. Some wheels drained more whey than I anticipated, so I had a 250mm wide, 10mm high wheel of Brie that I called "the pancake". The two small 10cm wheels and one 160mm wheel were fine, but the 250mm ones were a little short... so I shamelessly stacked thin ones onto others to build up the height. 

    During that relatively quiet time of drying wheels, I was flipping through the instructions and the supplementary materials. In it, the recipe clearly stated:

    "Keep the Geotrichium Candidum to an absolute minimum...."

    It was at this point, I actually stated "Oh poop". I said it again, when I found an unused container of the Penicillium Candidum, right after dry rubbing salt onto my cheeses.

    Bring on the spray solution!

    So using one of my other cheese making books, I made a solution of distilled water and Penicillium Candidum culture, put it in a "spritzing" bottle, and started spraying it onto the wheels so that they were damp, but not wet.

    Keeping the wheels on mats inside tupperware containers, inside the wine fridge at 10 degrees actually worked quite well, although the mould development was a little slow at 14 days, flipping once every day.

    Normally, this is where people would wrap the wheels in "cheese paper" and then put the wheels in a regular fridge for the second stage of ageing. However, I didn't have paper that big, so I just continued to flip them in the container, once a day, and kept the wheels at 10 or so degrees.

    This is a dangerous thing... for thicker wheels. However, the "pancake" was ready in just two weeks.... and it was amazing.

    Larger wheels take longer to age, and Brie ages from the outside of the wheel and slowly softens the internal paste into a ripened "goo" called the "Cream line". However, you can't make a wheel too big since there's a point where the cheese starts to disintegrate on the outside before the inside is done. For this reason, you'll find most Brie and Camembert styled cheeses in wheels only 1-1.5 inches high.

    As the larger wheels became ripe, the mid sized wheels were ready in 4 weeks or so, and the largest was ready in 5. Unfortunately, I was all "Bried out" by that time, and none of my friends wanted any more either.

    Here's my "Brie Pacman". This wheel was finished earlier than the other big ones (but after the pancake) due to the thin 2cm height. This wheel was probably about 20cm wide. This cheese is fully ripened, as the cream line has replaced any paste that was in the middle. This cheese was almost a Brie soup, delicious and ran everywhere.

     So this is probably going to be our new "Easter Tradition" (at least, that's what I want). If Easter is about new beginnings and a new lease on on life, surely cheese is a better metaphor than chocolate?

    Good luck with your Easter and cheese making endeavours, whether you are a person of faith or not.

    Ham.

    Thursday, 26 November 2020 04:28

    Spring time is an insanely busy time, and I'm sorry I haven't had a chance to write much lately. Wren has been making fancy higher-end hand made chocolates, (see Ren's kitchen gallery in my photography section) amongst the home made marshmallows, turkish delights, and rocky road that all seems to mysteriously vanish without a trace..... I conveniently blame the cats, but I am by no means convincing. That's when Wren isn't gardening, or making fancy "up cycled" clothing, home made soap, or other beauty products.... or just helping me with my foodie insanity.

    Foodie present "one-upping" insanity.

    Honestly, it's good to see Wren using all the chocolate making gear that I gave as her birthday present. Naturally in the cheeky Wren style, she "one upped" me and got me the pH meter I've been wanting for my cheese making. I do feel guilty that she spent so much, but it's going to be a huge help... so I better step up my gifting game this Christmas. Now please note that you don't need a pH meter to make cheese if you're ok with some variability in your final cheeses. It's fun in a "lucky dip" kind of way. As soon as you want consistency between one batch and another.. then that's when the pH meter will come in handy. Subtle differences in pH, can be the difference between two very different cheeses... and you just can't manage it without accurate measurement.

    Back to the current activities.

    Meanwhile, before you think I've been "slackin' off", I've been going nuts on cheese making, bread baking, mixing up oil infusions, making black garlic, drying onions, and making fancy salts/rubs for barbecue season. Wow have I missed my barbecue! With all the bushfires last year and the completely understandable total fire bans in place, I didn't really use my barbecue at all last summer. Then I was overseas for a before Covid made that impossible, when I got back just before the border closures, I had a contract job after that ended just in time for the Canberra winter. So the workshop/garage was filled with barbecue fuel I never got around to using, and I'm making up for it now.

    Did I mention that our cherry tree is nearly ready for harvest? Strawberries are everywhere, we've got apricots in the pipeline, nectarines practically ripe....We're merely days away from a major harvest inundation... so I have to finish off my current activities to make room in the kitchen. So let's talk about what I've been doing for the past month or so...

    It all started with a phone call.....

    Wren and I tend to give/sell our surplus plants, produce, and home-made "stuff" when we find that we have no more room to store it. Occasionally, we'll put our wayward seedlings on Gumtree at practically negligible cost to give the plants a good home, Wren sells soap online, (look up "TheSoapyWren" on Etsy if you're interested... apparently her store name can't have spaces, so you have to type it without them to find her shop.. not the best system from an IT guy's perspective, but hey it's not my system to fix).

    Interestingly, there aren't a great deal of craft shops in Canberra, but there are in numerous towns around Canberra. One of them is in my home town, roughly 2 hours away the Wren/Ham estate... if we can call our humble townhouse an "estate". :-)

    A lovely woman/volunteer/over worked feudal serf from the craft shop called me quite unexpectedly. It was unexpected for two reasons:

    1. The shop had been closed due to Covid... given that most of the volunteers were of a more elderly persuasion... and most at risk from the virus.
    2. Given that the shop had been closed, I thought there would be plenty of our stuff still "in stock".

    So I was expecting some bad news like there'd been a problem, or someone I knew might have died... but it was not that dire at all.

    Apparently some big burly guys had "picked up" some of my smoked salts/rubs before the closure, and had brought their friends to get more when the shop re-opened only to be disappointed when it ran out.

    So the lovely volunteer asked me if I could supply some more "product" (if I can say that without it sounding like I'm involved in something illicit) so I stumbled out to the shed and did a stock take of my smoking situation.

    The stock take... a journey of a thousand leagues... begins with... stepping around my wood working to find everything.

    My workshop is a "work in progress". Translation: "A mess". So when I'm trying to tidy up, I found all sorts of things when I'm looking for that pesky tool box, or which tool box has all the spare linen in it. (Apparently I'm a linen hoarder.. which I'm sure there's worse things to be). However after some creative re-structuring of the shed, I found I had a lot of smoking woods. Some of the ones I found were:

    • An entire garbage bin full of cherry wood from our pruning of the tree two years ago.
    • Some peach wood chips - works on a lot of things.
    • Some apple wood chips - great for pork, chicken, and some sausages.
    • Entire bag of pear wood chips - haven't tried this in an actual meal yet, but I'll give it a go.
    • Some Tasmanian Oak chips - great for red meats, but adds some sort of "something else" which I find quite pleasant. It's also shockingly expensive... which is why I only have a little.
    • Old whisky barrel chunks - great for pretty much any meat I've tried.. but better on red meats.
    • Mesquite chunks - the stronger flavour is great for red meats, more potent spices like pepper, chilli, or garlic.
    • Hickory chunks - this smoking "classic" works in the same situations of Mesquite.
    • Maple... adds a slight sweetness to the "tang" but it's subtle. The temptation to use it too much to emphasize the sweetness will lead to a smoky, but bitter and acrid taste. A light touch and milder flavoured meat like chicken breast goes really well.

    Couple this with my barbecue, some sieves, a cold smoker attachment, aquarium pump (to oxygenate the cold smoker and pump the smoke into the barbecue), and a blow torch... it was time to decide on my smoking method....

    Cold Vs. Hot Smoking:

    When most people think of smoking, particularly on a barbecue, they're thinking of "hot smoking". Add a few bits of wood, or smoking wood "dust" to your hot coals, gas burner, etc, and you get some extra "smokiness" to your meal. This is great for adding fancy smoked flavours to cooked meats and vegetables, but many more delicate foods, such as herbs, spices, and cheeses would burn, melt or otherwise decay if "hot smoked". Cold smoking may seem like an oxymoron (you need fire to make smoke, and fire is hot). However, if you burn the wood in a slow, controlled way, you don't create much heat. If you then pipe the smoke from the "hot box" to a separate "food box", the smoke is often barely warmer than ambient temperatures when it gets to the food. Sometimes smoke is piped into refrigerated rooms/containers so both cold temperatures and smoke are present.

    In short, by putting distance between the fire, and where the smoke hits the food, you get the "cold" smoking process... although remember that "cold" is relative to the cooking temperatures found in hot smoking, and offers no "cooling" capability.

    Many people know that to bring the most flavour from their spices, a "light toasting" in a dry frypan immediately before use, will significantly improve and/or amplify the flavour. However, when you're smoking spices for future use, you're not planning to roast it "just yet", as the aroma and flavour will be severely reduced if days, weeks, or months go by between the toasting and actual use. So cold smoking seems a better choice in my case. Salt can go either way, but in order to have the most flexibility in my food smoking binge, I chose the cold approach.

    The metal cylinder on the left that looks like a semi truck exhaust, is the cold smoker attachment, connected to the air intake of the Kamado.

    Selecting the salts, woods, and burn times...

    Smoked salts are one of the easiest things to make. However, salts come in many varieties.

    The salt matters, but not as much as you might think:

    Ignoring for a moment, the rise of Himalayan or Murray River "pink salts" over traditional white table salt, and the differing chemical compositions found in other locations like the Dead Sea, or salt mines under Germany vs somewhere in Africa... at the end of day, most edible salt will be sodium chloride (NaCl) with some impurities/trace elements (depending on whether it's marketed as a flaw or a benefit). The taste will be pretty similar, all else being equal. Things do change when the particle size changes, and of course, what you mix with your salt, or what you put your salt on. But don't worry about it too much. Just don't confuse sodium chloride (table salt) with sodium nitrate.  Sodium nitrate varieties are used in food, but in extremely small quantities. Normal salt quantities of the nitrate varieties would be toxic to even large men.

    Particle size and flavour:

    Salt comes in fine grains (typical with table salt), coarse grains (typical with cooking salts), flakes, and rock salt (which I feel should be called "gravelly salt", or "pebbly salt" at best). Now when you have smaller grain sizes, you'll get more surface area to attach smoke to, but you'll probably have to stir it around when smoking more often as the airflow between the grains is reduced. Since smoke attaches itself to the surface of each grain, it will have a stronger smoky flavour, than if you use a coarser salt. Conversely, rock salt tends to have better airflow between grains (less stirring when smoking) but will have a milder flavour to begin with. Since rock salt is often used in a grinder prior to eating, it will then have an even milder smoke flavour as the grains are "cracked" which makes is a "partially smoke covered" salt.

    I really like rock salt though, as it's a gateway "smoked salt". It may not taste of smoke, but the smell will be part of the flavour profile.

    Remember: Smell + taste = flavour. Both the aroma, and the taste buds work together to form a sense of "flavour". This is why wine tasters often sniff, then taste the wine before judging it as good, bad or indifferent. However, please note that studies have shown that the same wine can be served to the same professional wine judge on separate occasions, and it's likely that they'll give it three different values. Just a thought.. and something from my Perceptual Psychology class.

    Wood choices:

    Salt is quite forgiving, as it doesn't have the pungency of some spices, nor does it have much aroma, it's a very robust spice that you can't overcook easily, so you can smoke it using either the hot or cold smoking methods. However, if you mix it with more delicate ingredients, then things become less simple. If you're just doing salt, you can choose almost any wood and it'll work pretty well. If you like a particular wood smoke on a milder flavoured meal... then make a dedicated smoked salt batch for that particular meal will help with the flavour "pairing". If you use a lot of salt in curries, then you'll need to choose a more potent smoking wood type in order to compete with the potent flavours and aromas going on in that type of meal. However, see what you can get locally, or work with whatever (non toxic) woods you have on hand. Experimentation is key... also, don't limit yourself to just one wood type. I often mix two or even three types on one meal/spice batch.

    If you're smoking stronger spices (or planning to use smoked salts for particular meals that use more flavoursome ingredients) it makes sense to tailor the smoking woods to something stronger in those situations.

    Smoking times:

    Smoking spices is easy to start, but hard to master. However, if you like a lightly smoked flavour, then smoking foods for less time is an important strategy. If you want to add that noticeable smoke experience to your food, then you'll be best served smoking it for longer.

    Here's my general guidelines:

      Typical Time Smoked Practical Uses
    Lightly smoked  2 hours or less Milder flavoured/delicate foods, cheeses, background "complexity" in sauces (Note: smoke attaches to "wetter" foods very well)
    Moderately smoked 2 - 18 hours Most barbecued goods fall in this category, people who want "some" smokiness but don't want to smell like a bush fire. Also good to get the flavour/aroma with "a little less" salt in the diet
    Heavily smoked >18 hours Stronger spices, more flavoursome ingredients, and for situations where smokiness is a strong benefit. Also good for using sparing amounts of smoked "product" to get the "smokiness" you want... so it can help in reducing salt intake significantly.

    In short, start light and work your way up until it's noticeable, then keep going until you've gone too far. Then you know where your tolerances lie, and can smoke future batches accordingly.

    Here is the same salt, smoked with different woods for differing amounts of time that I've done previously. Note how peach wood imbues a brown, whereas apple and oak go more grey. Also, as the smoking time goes up, so does the darkness of the finished product.

    Kick the tyres, and light the fires....

    The small smoke trails coming out of the chimney in the first photo belies the smokiness inside.You can see the coriander seeds in the sieves, but you probably can't see the garlic bulbs on the left... unless you squint really hard and... imagine.

    Wheeling out my barbecue, cleaning it out, attaching the cold smoker, filling it with wood, running power cord to the air pump, and firing up the cold smoking setup, happens exactly as you might imagine. Naturally, I had the expectation that it'll chug along based on how much air the pump gives the smouldering fire.... While that's true, I found that the smoker blows out at the "drop of a hat" in ideal conditions, but keeps burning strong through rain downpours and storms. This is just one of the many ironies that define my insane hobby activities.

    Fitting it in around one's life....

    If I'm home, I start my day by cleaning out the cold smoker, burning any debris out, accumulated from the previous day's smoking. Using my steel brush welded to a 1m metal rod to scrape out the ash that remains in all the "nooks and crannies" while using a welding glove to hold the smoker. Letting that cool, I go inside and put salt into sieves so that the smoke can attach on all sides. I stack as many sieves into the barbecue as I can, (see above) and close the lid. Then I mix my smoke woods, put it into the smoker, start the burn, and keep an eye on it throughout the day, re-lighting it as needed. When night rolls around, I'll periodically check that the smoker is still going, but if it dies at around 9-10pm I'll shut it down so we can open up some windows to let some cool air in without the fear of triggering smoke alarms or choking on smoke in our sleep.

    Rinse lather repeat....

    This has been my last month. I have smoked salts to differing degrees, with differing woods, I've smoked coriander seeds, onion flakes, garlic granules, whole garlic bulbs, made my own smoked Hungarian paprika, smoked mustard seeds, cheeses, and even honey. (Smoked honey, with mustard and mint goes really well on lamb). I've had so much smoke in my eyes and hair, creosote on my hands, and ash in embarrassing smears across my arms, and paprika on my face... I guess I looked like some sort of backyard tribesman in ceremonial paints, grunting and wildly flailing limbs around the fire praying to the pagan smoke gods... or simply in feeble attempts to get the various forms of stuff off me.

    So I've got somewhere between 20-30Kg of "product". Some single ingredient offerings, others mixed with two or more other ingredients.... all sitting in about two dozen tupperware containers.... all in quantities too large for anyone to find practical.

    All smoked up and nowhere to go.... small jars for the "jar poor?".

    Ok, so I've smoked my spices, cheeses, garlic, herbs, and whatever else I got my hands on. I temporarily put them in tupperware, because I didn't have enough jars to put them in. I asked friends, family, even put an ad on Gumtree asking for free jars. Most people want huge jars for storing larger items. I was the "weirdo" wanting empty spice shakers, anchovette/baby food jars. If it got to jam jar sizes, it was getting too big for my needs. It seems most people toss the small jars out, thinking they're "useless". So I haven't gotten many responses.

    One nice lady who lived "not far" responded to my Gumtree ad and had a rather impressive food forest, and collection of jars she wanted to be rid of. Several reusable shopping bags full of empty jars later, I was off and packing like the smoke-smelling madman I had become. Now most people boil their jars to sterilize them. I prefer to use the oven set to 100oC with jars on one shelf, and correspondingly placed lids on another. This works well... until the oven element "blows up" and fries the plastic in the lids in a blaze of over-heated glory... as happened when I'd placed the maximum amount of jars inside.

    <cue groaning here>

    Several hours later, after scraping all the burned plastic out of the oven and giving it a good clean...<cue more groaning here> I dismantled the oven and replaced the heating element. Yes, cleaning and fixing the oven is exactly as fun as it sounds. However, when it was back up and running, I sterilized jars, filled them with smoked product goodness while the jars were still hot, sealed them up, then re-sanitized them in the oven for good measure. I do this to avoid poisoning the folks I care about... and those whose efforts I appreciate with a thank you gift.. or those who simply buy my excess produce and fund my next batch of insanity.

    Jars of modestly smoked rock salts of a mere 12 hours with Peach and Apple wood came out a middling grey. Jars of 28 hour smoked table salt came out a dark charcoal, almost black colour, and whoever opens the jar will probably set off their smoke alarm, or think it should. However, it works surprisingly well in pumpkin soup. Smoked pepper is fun, because if it starts black, everyone is wondering where the smoke is coming from, but still works well in a pumpkin soup, mashed potatoes, or casseroles. Home made, freshly smoked paprika is going to be orders of magnitude more flavoursome than the store bought varieties. Like many powdered spices, toasting it just before use, really brings out the flavour and smell of both the spice and the smokiness. Works really well on steaks, or in any meat rub you care to mix yourself.

    Smoker's going, and slowly working on the latest batch of salt, but meanwhile back in the kitchen...

    I diced up a lot of onions, set up the dehydrator, and let it run for a day or so to ensure the onion bits had as little water as possible. Since onions (like most plants) have a high moisture content that 500g onion you diced is going to much smaller and lighter when it's done. Nine re-lightings of the smoker later, and your onions look like this:

    Onions still on the dehydrator trays
    Some close up dehydrated onion flakes.

    These are too big for a pepper grinder or salt shaker, so I've decided to blend these down to more manageable "chunks", or "granules" so I can put the onion and the smoked rock salt into a salt/pepper grinder. If I were to use this with table salt, I'd probably be more inclined to blend it for longer to get closer to a nice "powder" or at least, finer grains. So into the blender it goes...

    The onion flakes before blending...
    Blending the flakes on slow for a short period of time... and we get:

    ... open up the smoker and the salt looks like..

    This salt was smoked on Tasmanian Oak and Pear wood... and has gone brown like the peach wood above rather than grey. If I had gone very heavy on the smoke, it would likely go grey.

    Mixing it with other stuff...

    I generally prefer to keep my mixes relatively simple. That way, people can add "extras" to taste later on. So this particular batch is going to be smoked salt, coriander, and onion. Onion salt is a popular product, the smokiness adds the aroma of barbecue, and the coriander seeds adds a slightly citrus-like flavour that pretty much works with everything.

    Here's a nice close up of the mixed salt, coriander and onion.

    Making it presentable...

    Recycled jars are environmentally friendly and cost effective. However, they aren't the prettiest of packaging. So we typically scrape the labels off during the initial cleaning. But we do the "old lady" thing by placing circles of fabric (fabric "hats" which I sometimes call "bonnets" over the lids, and printing our own labels. If they're just for us, we'll probably just use some masking tape, write the info on the tape, and skip the lid covers altogether. If they're being given/sold, we'll "give them a face lift", using Wrens graphic design skills, proper labels, some scrap fabric, and a pair of pinking shears.

    This is not the same mix, but a couple of jars we filled earlier. The left one is a jar of smoked salt & pepper. The right, a jar of smoked salt.

    Not going backwards.... financially.

    Making stuff for fun is one thing. Making things for sale is another matter entirely. Your standards have to "go up", quality control becomes important, as is sanitation. However, most hobbyists don't document things well. They'll buy ingredients, sometimes over months or even years, and forget to account the full list of expenses. Then suddenly you're putting a lot of effort and effectively giving your money away. Most people can't do that for very long before it all becomes too much. I believe that if you sell something, make it good, and charge a fair price. To do that:

    • Break each product down into the component ingredients.
    • Calculate the amount of each ingredient in each product.
    • Calculate the cost of that amount for every ingredient and add them together.
    • Factor in consumables such as cleaning supplies, wood chips, blow torch gas, and the cost of each amount.
    • Wear and tear on pumps, or other equipment.
    • Your time... most people woefully under charge for this. Cleaning and preparing jars/ingredients is something to account for.
    • Any additional packaging, labels, rubber bands, fabric.
    • Transport costs. If you are taking things "just down the road", that's easy. Sending things in post, or driving hundreds of kilometres is an expensive proposition.
    • Don't expect that you can match commercial, large scale industrial producers in low costs. You're not in their league. Make something better and you'll get customers coming back, even if you are relatively more expensive.
    • Many craft shops have their own rules for labeling, and they won't sell it if the rules aren't followed. Nut warnings, ingredients, and labeling conventions must be followed, here's an example:
    The finished product, almost ready for sale. My membership code is truly "Ham", and that tells the shop that I should get the cash from the sale. Dalmation refers to the black and white of the salt and pepper mix. "Smokey" may seem and outdated spelling compared to "smoky" as an adjective. However, I'm old fashioned in my linguistic tendencies, and I'm trying to appeal to an older demographic. If you think that's wrong, I'm sorry, but the labels are on there now. :-)
    Remember how I needed jars.... this is why. It's not even one third of what I've made.. please ignore the dust and fluff that's accumulated on the tops, that will be removed shortly. I've made this much because shipping it in drips and drabs over the course of a year is expensive, and has a high degree of problems (smashed jars, lost parcels, attempted deliveries outside of business hours, the list goes on). So to increase my profits, or to reduce the chance of going backwards, I have made a lot.

    Ren has been doing the same things with her chocolates, designing little cardboard chocolate boxes, and cutting/folding them up. She's tried a dozen different flavours of fillings, ranging from nuts, pralines, jams, dried fruits, etc, etc. Each time we have to break everything down and really dig into the details.

    We then also have an entire spreadsheet dedicated to every product in every store, how many we supplied, how many have been sold, when the remainder is likely to become out of date, how much they cost to make, how much to charge, how much profit can we expect after tax and commissions are taken out. Truthfully, we use these products to practice and hone our making skills, and fund the basic costs. We're certainly not making enough to retire on, but it makes the hobby a more affordable endeavour.

    I better check the smoker.... again.

     

    Take care and enjoy your Christmas "maker/baker/barbecue/smoking binges"... whatever that involves.

    Ham, and the snoring cat Clarence.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Thursday, 09 July 2020 11:11

    It might seem like winter is a bad time to harvest things, particularly to those who live in colder places. Now, while I freely admit that Canberra isn't likely to snow very often, it regularly gets as low as -4oC, and occasionally even -8oC. Fortunately, we haven't quite gotten that low just yet (and we're now into July) so the late autumnal harvests are now finally getting to the stage that we can clean those up, and tend to the garden for some winter sowing. What?! Winter!... Have I gone mad? Almost certainly, dear reader, but not necessarily in this particular instance.

    Here is our most recent bounty... a few dozen Kiwi Fruit! The vines which have wandered their way up the cherry tree have been surprisingly effective at confusing the Cherry Slugs, and so we had our first ever successful cherry harvest back in Summer time. Now winter is upon us, and the Kiwi vines have died off, we hopped back up to the cherry tree to pick our... Kiwi fruit.

    You might recognise the colander as the same one as the one holding the cherries in an earlier post. If you didn't, that's ok, I'm sure you have much more important things to think about.

    We ate a few, but like all things when the harvest hits you in full force, once a year.. we had to preserve the remainder. So Wren made some Kiwi syrup, Kiwi sauce, and Kiwi jam.. and the list almost certainly goes on from there... Fancy a kiwi-flavoured indulgence? It's weird but it goes well with Quark cheese on toast!

    Kiwi's aren't the only things that are coming up. We've harvested some "Purple Congo" potatoes when we were redoing some raised beds. (They really are purple) and our spinach is doing surprisingly well. The more we cut it, the more it seems to grow. Frankly, it's not the most exciting crop ever, but apparently my rate of consumption is no match for this plant's growth rate... and I can eat a lot. :-)

    Now what?

    Wren and I are particularly fond of berries. We have blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, loganberries, and our entire front yard is a giant crop of strawberries. Which interestingly, is yet another plant that fruits in both summer and winter. However, we adore a rather unusual type of strawberries the most, and that is the "Alpine Strawberry". It has tiny fruit, but it packs all the flavour of larger strawberries into that tiny package... so if you live in a cooler area and have a sweet tooth, and want to make the best strawberry-infused beverage, pastry, jam, etc... you definitely want to give these little nuggets of pure joy a go. If you're anything like us... they won't often make it inside... let alone into a cake. Cut up and infused in tea, the alpine strawberry makes a healthy, sweet addition to the beverage.

    Alpine strawberries must be sown in winter-like conditions. The springtime "thaw" is the threshold that triggers germination. If you plant them in spring, and there's little-to-no frost left... they will just rot away. If you're running that late, put the seeds in the freezer, for at least a few weeks, then plant them... preferably in early spring.

    Now is also a good time to start planting raspberry seeds, in trays, and keep them in the dark. They take around 3 months or so to germinate, so they need to get started in the cold weather. There are plenty of good sites online to guide your sowing and growing efforts.

    I suppose the point of this blog post is to hopefully inspire you to see your garden beyond the harvests of spring, summer, and autumn. Now is also an excellent time to start cleaning up those leaves, tidying up and preparing beds for winter and spring sowing. However, I do recommend that you do these things when the sun is out, and definitely in the warmer parts of the day.

    Happy gardening!

    Ham.

    Sunday, 24 May 2020 11:01
    Monday, 18 May 2020 02:49

    Preface:

    I think I need to create a section called "Rens corner", but she only made some non-committal noises when I asked her if she'd be interested. However, despite the fact that I didn't actually do this, I feel I can add a little bit of wayward experience, and advice.

    Back to the pretzels...

    When most people think of bread, and they think of loaves, or flat breads, or even rolls in one form or another. However, outside of Germany, pretzels often fall somewhere off the "mainstream bread" track.

    I think pretzels in Australia (and perhaps other countries as well) are often mistaken for the ones found in the potato chip aisle at your local supermarket. These are quite a bit different to the true fresh bread-like pretzels that are so popular in Germany.

    If I had to put pretzels in a "bread category", I'd probably be putting them into the same category as the humble bagel as both are boiled, then baked. So if you like the idea of a salty, freshly baked bagel, then real pretzels are probably appealing to you.

    Ren arbitrarily decided to make fresh pretzels yesterday as I was out in the workshop, so there weren't any photos of the process. Sorry.

    Side note: This is actually the first dough to be proofed into our recently emptied, defrosted, and retrofitted freezer that has been (temporarily) converted into a much larger bread proofing box and occasionally, higher temperature cheese cave. So I'm going to guess that testing the setup was part of her motivation... but it is weird to think we proofed our dough, which is usually best done at around 25oC... in a freezer. (Don't worry, I'll add another article about this conversion).

    So I came back in from my workshop to be hit by the smell freshly baked pretzels all cooling on a wire rack. Let's just be clear here, having poor impulse control when it comes to eating freshly made bread, I tried to help myself to a pre-dinner snack.. but was thwarted by the rather unexpected security system....

    Those pretzels had fused to the rack, and were having the kind of issues "letting go", that some Jewish mother friends of mine have. Their words, not mine.

    In fact when slowly prised away from the rack, the non-stick coating was attached to the pretzel, rather than the rack... since I don't think non-stick coatings are healthy to eat, I simply opted to cut the pretzel away from the rack, and leave the base still attached to the rack, ready to be soaked and scrubbed away later.

    I don't know if it was the fact that I was really hungry, or the fact that it's pretzel-based deliciousness, but I was going to have a second one, no matter how hard it was stuck on. I guess I looked weird muttering again to the pretzel/cooling rack, sometimes gentle words of encouragement, and other times, using scarier-than-average knives.

    All in all, the humble pretzel is a delicious alternative in bread making that is great as a treat now and then. However, I strongly recommend that you use baking paper during the cooking and cooling stages to avoid similar problems if you want to try to make some.

    The recipe Ren used...

    Ren used the pretzel recipe found in "Germany" recipe book, part of the "Gourmet Pilgrim" series. Which is one of the few recipe books that comes shipped in a biscuit tin. The book is actually an interesting read, and shows you how to make foods found in various regions of Germany, a bit of history and culture is thrown in there too. In all of this self-isolation, perhaps a book like this is a good gift idea for yourself or people you know.

    More information about the book can be found here:

    https://www.gourmetpilgrim.com/our-books

    Unfortunately, due to copyright, I can't share the recipe with you. However, there are plenty of freely available pretzel recipes out there on the web for you to try.

    So when making breads, don't limit yourself to what you think is "normal". Try the breads and treats made in other countries, and see whether or not you can avoid certain sticking situations I had to deal with.

    Stay safe and happy baking!

    Ham (and Ren by proxy).

    Tuesday, 05 May 2020 11:53

    A sous vide machine is something that may seem excessive or complicated at first but well worth the investment. I honestly think is one of the greatest things to have for a reasonably serious cheese maker. If you make cheese, you don't want to over shoot, or drop below desired temperatures, frantically adjust, then forget an important step, all because you're stuck trying to control the temperature of your milk. Imagine how much more time consuming it gets when you make two or even three types of cheeses all at once. With sous vide devices in place, you simply set it up, turn it on, and get on with the actual cheese making.

    Star Wars and bad puns...

    I don't know if anyone particularly cares about "Star Wars Day" (which for people who haven't a clue, is "May 4th"). It comes from the Star Wars quote:

    "May the force be with you" (just exchange the word "force" for "fourth")


    However, being a bit of a nerd myself, with that pesky I.T./Scientific Instruments/Drone company career, years upon years working in academia, and living on campus for over a decade (as a staff member) I really didn't have much chance in nerdiness stakes.

    So how do I celebrate a fictional holiday for a fictional story? No, not buy buying a light sabre. Although, I decided I'd buy something that's shiny, somewhat cylindrical, and capable of burning flesh, and that is....

    By literally buying my fourth, sous vide machine on May 4th. To increase my functional cheese making capacity (factually) by a third over my previous capability.

    Sounds almost like a tongue twister, doesn't it?

    Sous Vide Explained:

    It has come to my attention that I really haven't given much explanation about what a sous vide is. Sous vide is a french term (Pronounced "Sue-veed") that translates as "under vacuum". It's a rather unusual way to cook things, that is becoming very popular of late.

    The general gist is this. You stick a piece of raw meat (maybe with some herbs, spices and/or butter) in a vacuum sealed bag. Then put that bag in a bath of water and cook it in extra low temperatures (generally somewhere between 51-90C (or 125-199F) for a very long time.

    If barbecuing "low and slow" (low temperatures for a long time) produces a more tender meat at 110-120 degrees Celsius, (compared to higher temperatures), then sous vide takes this to a whole new level. In some ways, it goes beyond slow cooking. So if you want your meat to disintegrate into flavoursome tenderness on contact with your tongue, this is probably the way to go.

    While the meat is cooked to delicate perfection, the down side of this is that you don't get that browned "bark" in your meat, so sous vide steaks are often seared with a hot pan for a few seconds after cooking to get that delicious, almost charred effect. Also, you won't get any "smokey" flavour.. because nothing really got that hot in the first place.

    If you're wondering... "Aren't we in the cheese making section?"

    Well I use my sous vide machines somewhat differently, in that I use them to control the temperature when making cheeses.

    When I first learned to make cheese, the instructor assumed that everyone would have a very basic setup. Namely, a boiling pot full of water. If you are managing your temperature manually, when the bath water cooled down, you'd scoop water from the boiling pot into the bath to increase the temperature, and then scoop some of the cold water and put it back into the pot to minimise waste/stop overflowing.

    It works, but it requires constant monitoring. You'll literally spend all day, scooping water from the pot, to the bath, and back again. If you've got several cheeses to make, you really can't manage several vat temperatures all at once and still make that many cheeses without help.

    By using a sous vide machine, I can just set the temperature I want for each bath, and let it do the rest. Once you have one machine, you'll never want to go back to the manual control method.

    Sometimes I like to make a few different cheeses (each needing a different temperature) I'll run several vats with their corresponding sous vide machine controlling that temperature. Other times, I want to make a lot of the same cheese, then I need to run multiple vats with multiple machines at the same temperature to ferment an appropriate amount of milk.

    Other times, if the stove is busy, I'll stick 2 or even 3 sous vide machines into the one vat to rapidly increase the temperature of my water bath. This can be very handy when making cheeses that involve cooking the curds. You need the milk temperature to rise by roughly 1-2 degrees Celsius per minute, and that gets hard for larger vats of milk. However, the stove and a very large saucepan/stock pot is still going to be a better method for rapid heating.

    Anyway, when this fourth one arrived at my door step, I was a little surprised when I opened it. The plug was clearly not designed for Australia. This particular one was a 220V model, but came with a European plug. You can get an adaptor, but when I have so many fluids around, I prefer to use an appropriate power plug, so my plan for May 6th or for another Star Wars pun, "Revenge of the Sixth" I got the plug converted "to the dark side" (white adaptor to black Australian plug).

    Now it works really well!

    So if I use four, 12L vats to culture my cheeses, heated by four sous vide machines. I can handle up to 48L of milk in any given session. Depending on the type of cheese(s) made, I can get a yield of 3.5-5Kg of a low-yield cheese like Parmesan, or up to 7Kg of Brie, perhaps somewhere around 10-12Kg of "fresh" cheeses like cottage or cream cheese.

    I have no idea what I would do with 10+Kg of cottage cheese... I'm more likely to make Parmesan, Halloumi, Cheddar and a small amount of Quark all at once. Simply because they stagger the finished time well, and can be used in a variety of differing meals.

    Anyway, I hope you are safe and well out there! I think I need to plan my next cheese making session!

    Ham.

    Saturday, 02 May 2020 01:11

    It might be something that only hits the hobbyist cheese maker at the last possible minute. You spend hours, even days making one type of cheese, so you want to get the best 'bang for buck' ratio you can. Looking at all those huge 200Kg wheels of cheese waiting patiently to be cut up at the local delicatessen/cheese monger/fancy food establishment, a cheese making hobbyist might just think a seemingly simple little thought "I could go bigger too", and dream of somewhat more impressive 2Kg, or 5Kg, or even larger wheels.

    What a journey that innocuous thought has created....

    Dear reader, in this self-isolating time, I may have gone a little more nuts than is probably warranted. In the past two months, I've made:

    • 20L of milk into two small Parmesan wheels.
    • Another 20L of milk into Pepato, (one medium wheel)
    • 10L of milk into Swiss. (medium)
    • Another 20L into Parmesan. (one bigger wheel)
    • 20L into Jarlsberg (Two medium wheels)
    • 22L into Gruyere infused with black garlic. (an even bigger single wheel, weighing in at just under 2.9Kg).

    Looking at the general trends, I'm definitely getting bigger, and there are definite advantages:

    1. Making bigger batches means I can make twice, three times, even four times the amount of cheese with only modest amounts of extra time and effort (well... there's extra cleaning.. and a corresponding amount of time will be needed when brining, but not much else).
    2. Making bigger wheels are more space-efficient in the wine fridge.
    3. Bigger wheels may take longer to age or allow the cheeses to be aged longer, allowing greater flexibility on the consumption date.
    4. Surface problems like unwanted moulds are far less likely to reach the bulk of the cheese internally.
    5. It's generally harder to excessively dry a large wheel. This prevents cracking/crumbling... unless you put it in a dry environment for particularly long periods of time. Still not recommended though.

    However, there are down sides, which I've mentioned before in other articles. But the one that brings this particular blog post to life is the dimension of my last cheese. The 2.9Kg Gruyere.

    While I'd love to tell you that I love waxing my cheeses. The truth is that waxing only suits the harder cheeses. While Gruyere fits into this category, I used a particular recipe which incorporates "Propionic Shermanii" culture, the culture which creates the bubbles or "eyes" in Swiss style cheeses.

    Cheeses made with Propionic Shermanii will swell up during the first phase of the aging process. As such, wax is likely to crack and not work very well as a moisture and microbe barrier. To make matters a little more interesting, I've infused black garlic throughout the cheese, and during the pressing phase, this has breached the surface all over the place. In short, the rind has many breaches. To stop unwanted mould from growing, I need to basically spray the entire surface of the cheese with vinegar, remove as much air as possible from the surface, and seal it up while providing the cheese enough room to expand.

    It is for this reason, despite my general abhorrence toward the excessive use of plastic, that I break down and use vacuum sealed plastic for this sort of case. Ok, so that's the solution, why bring this up as a separate post?

    My larger wheel is too wide to fit in the standard 28cm wide roll of plastic that my Food Saver can handle. Interestingly, it's extremely difficult to get a wider vacuum seal bags/rolls. When the bag is wider, the length is often significantly shorter. So when you need something that's 35cm x 40cm... or more on each dimension, you're not going to find that outside of industrial machines. Even if you could, many of the commercial sized bags will only work on commercial machines. You see most home-sized vacuum sealers need a textured bag, and the commercial machines use smooth bags, and use other means (usually higher temperatures) to melt the bag closed.

    Ham's cheap-ish attempt at an improvised solution.

    At present the cheese is in a large, dry-curing bag that I'd normally use in my more meat-oriented endeavours, but I used a sous vide trick of submerging most of the bag (except a small opening in the zip lock seal) to use the water pressure to squeeze a decent amount of the air out. This was then sealed it up. However, I don't think this is going to work long term.

    The longer term, but still improvised solution:

    Now I could just buy an industrial sized machine, and buy the bags to fit. Obviously that would work, but that is a very expensive way to go. Some of these vacuum sealers cost thousands. I don't make enough large cheeses to justify that kind of expense, so my solution:

     

    Buy the home-sealer-friendly, but larger 45cm x 6M roll, and use my existing machine.

     

    Before you ask: "How will that fit in a 28cm wide Food Saver?" 

    Ham's plan to use a wide roll in a standard vacuum sealer

    By sticking 28cm or so in at a time. Using the vertical (grey) image, depicting a wide section of plastic roll. The procedure is as follows:

    By using the seal-only function (not vacuum then seal function) on the vacuum sealer:

    1. Sealing the corners somewhat diagonally. You may need to cut off the corners first (indicated in blue), so the machine will allow it.
    2. If the corner seals don't cross over in the middle, (like the top edge in the diagram) trimming the corners off (if not done already) and sealing the middle (like the bottom edge of the diagram) may be done.
    3. Put the large piece of meat/cheese/whatever inside the bag using the unsealed end now! (It won't go in afterwards).
    4. Seal the bottom corners, cutting off if needed. Important, leave a gap between the sealed corners for the final sealing (marked red on the image)
    5. Again, trim the bottom corners off (still marked blue) to allow the sealer to finish with a "suck and seal" as normal.

    Using the "vacuum then seal" function:

    1. Stick the (now skinny enough) unsealed end (still marked red) into the food saver, allow it to suck the air out, and then melt the final seal in place. All done!

    It's obviously a more involved process, but I think it'll work. I'm waiting for the delivery of the new rolls, and I'll update this when I give it a go.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Post delivery update:

    Well it actually worked! However, I must warn you that this is a very fiddly way to do this. It took me nearly 20 minutes to convince the machine to do this. Oh, and you know how I put that step 3 in bold... Yeah I missed that the first time. The good news was that I remembered it as the very next seal was still hot, so I just peeled it back open.

    Here I'm about to do the final seal. (Open end is on the right) So this bag is upside-down, relative to my drawn diagram above. The bag looks like a really wonky heptagon in real life. At the left, you can see the cross over of seals that would be at the top of the diagram above. At the top-right, you can see the double seal where I undid and redid the seal there.
    Here's the final, vacuumed sealed roll. In this image, the last seal is at the left. I went around resealing with a second line of sealing, to be safe. It took a very long time to suck all the air out, perhaps leaving the opening a little wider would have facilitated that.

    So now you know how to seal a 450mm wide roll in a 280mm wide sealer. Sounds like a square peg really does fit in a round hole, doesn't it?

    In case you're wondering where I got the wider rolls from, (because I couldn't find it on eBay, or the usual haunts). I ordered them from from a Aussie supplier over in Western Australia called La-va. They sell higher-end vacuum sealers and accessories. You can find the link to the rolls here:

    https://la-va.com.au/product-page/e-vac-structured-standard-vacuum-seal-rolls/

    Note: Just remember that most household vacuum sealers need the textured/structured kind of bags. If they are just clear plastic, they are for commercial sealers, and won't work in your machine.

    Stay safe and have fun!

    Ham.

     

    Sunday, 12 April 2020 02:18

    Isn't it fun when you can't go to work? Some people may disagree. Unfortunately, my workplace has entirely shut down "Until further notice" because our clients have all shut down. In short, there's literally no one to support, and so I put my efforts into staying positive and creating delicious cheese.

    I recently found a dairy that will:

    1. Offer me milk at discounted prices.
    2. Allows me to get the large quantities of milk without running into numerous item limits at the local supermarkets.
    3. Deliver to my door.
    4. Offers a surprisingly high number of people who want to talk to me in these self-isolating times. I think I've spoken to everyone but the guy who actually milked the cows, had deep philosophical conversations with their sales rep, and actually kept more in contact with them than many of my friends and family. But that's a whole other story that I won't bore you with here.

    This has been an amazing relief to my cheese making endeavours.

    Shameless product placement
    Am I heating up the milk or encouraging shameless product placement. (Why choose, I can multitask too!) I suppose I was offered a free sample, so technically this is sponsored. But they don't know I run a web site.
    In this case, these are two 10L batches, both making a somewhat experimental variety of Parmesan.
    Cooking the Parmesan curds
    Cooking the Parmesan curds. This is best done using direct heat because this would take all day using the water bath method.. and time is critical here.

    Moving onto the moulding, pressing, brining and drying, you eventually end up with... <cue drum roll here>

    A wheel of Parmesan, roughly 875g from 10L
    A wheel of Parmesan, roughly 875g from 10L of milk (5L full cream, and 5L skim)

    I still had some milk left over, so I decided to make something close to Parmesan, but with a couple of twists:

    1. It used nothing but full cream milk... and
    2. It had a bit of "kick" into it.

    So the answer is Pepato. Pepato is a Sicilian cheese... sometimes made with sheep milk. However, it's effectively a Romano cheese (full cream milk Parmesan) with whole peppercorns added. Remember: when adding things to cheese, you need to sterilize them first. So I literally boiled some peppercorns in a saucepan for 30 mins, then used the resulting sterile peppercorns, and boiled.. err.. peppery reduction to the curds prior to the moulding stage.

    This is the result:

    Pepato!
    Pepato!

    Pepato is close in recipe to Romano and Parmesan in some ways, however, it has a higher moisture content, so it won't age as long as Parmesan. Valerie Pearson's book "Home Cheese Making in Australia" suggests aging it for 2-10 months at 10-12oC in the "cheese cave". I've actually already crossed the 1 month point... so I'm thinking I'll let it age "as is" for another month, then cut it up and vacuum seal the pieces so I can age varying pieces to different degrees, and see which I prefer.

    I hope you're all safe and well. Try to have some fun too. Take care!

    Ham.

    Sunday, 15 December 2019 09:37

    Problems with choosing an appropriate category....

    It may seem strange to worry about this, but bees fit into a number of categories here. Do I put it under pet care? gardening? wood working? or food stuffs? In any case, there's a lot of reasons to do a bee keeping course for us...

    Why do a bee keeping course?

    Ok, so I make cheese, and make things from wood. Wren makes candles, soap, cosmetics, and "beeswax wraps". Every single one of these activities finds a use for bees wax. My cheeses can be coated in wax for aging and preservation, wood working uses wax for polishing, smoothing, and preserving wood (particularly chopping boards). I couldn't quite tell you what the beeswax does in soap... (perhaps some sort of softening?) but I know it's used in natural ointments, lip balms, and deodorants which Wren makes and sells a lot of.

    Adding to the fact that we both have a "sweet tooth" (or should that be "sweet teeth?"). Honey is used in our ridiculous tea obsession, on sandwiches and toast, we make honey cakes (thanks to a certain former Russian-now-Kiwi-who-lives-in-England for the recipe) we use it to feed the bacteria in our bread making, and give the bread a slightly less refined sugar component. In short, beekeeping is something that fits well into our existing activities. If I could run it in my back yard, I would also do it for the pollination benefit in my garden. Unfortunately, the simple fact is we're too close to our neighbours, we don't have enough flower diversity to keep a hive going well in winter. Another reason that we can't do it at home is the fact that our yard gets way too little sun to maintain a healthy hive in Canberra's climate.

    This is the bee keeper's equivalent of "Where's Wally?" (Americans call it "Where's Waldo?", and almost every country calls it something different). The game in this case is called "Where's the queen?" Do you see her? No, nor do I! Bee keepers will go frame by frame, looking for her, to assess the health of the hive. There's a distinct possibility that if she is there... you'll miss her... and if you don't see her, she could be dead, off mating "in flight", or taken a swarm and left for greener pastures... or more flowered pastures.

    Booking the course and why we joined the association.

    Nonetheless, we decided to do the "weekend beekeeping course" run by the Canberra Beekeeper's Association in the off-chance we could find somewhere to put a hive. It's a popular course, booked months ahead of schedule. Given the sensitivity of bees to cold temperatures, and the reluctance winter usually has when letting Canberra go. These courses usually only run from late September to February. If you're interested, I highly recommend that you join the club first. Whether you join as an individual, or a family, the price is the same. $40 per year. If you are a member or have a family membership, the course price drops $40 per person who does the course. So I effectively paid $40, to save $80 for the two of us when we booked the course... and now we're both members and can turn up to meetings and join the mailing lists should we want or need to.

    The members meet on the third Wednesday night of each month, and are some of the loveliest people I have ever met.  They aren't just interested in making a buck, many of them do it to impart knowledge and to share their passion. This makes them really great at telling you what you need to know, and everyone brings something meaningful to the meeting. I was particularly impressed by the diverging opinions, the reason one person liked one particular type of hive, while another found that a completely different style of bee hive suited their needs. Each person had a "beekeeping philosophy", ranging from almost purely natural for educational and pollination purposes only, to a heavy focus on honey production and commercial pollination. Most of the people I met were of the retiree persuasion, so you can understand why production might not be so critical. When people expressed a controversial opinion, they outlined their reasons, and had at least considered the perspective of others. In this age of Internet "Trolls", the ever-abundant "over-inflated senses of entitlement/intelligence", and general infantile behaviour from people who should know better, it was a joy to see such collaborative attitudes.

    Things I learned from the course:

    Always learning.

    The fact remains that beekeeping is a process of ongoing learning. Even long-standing, 7th generation beekeepers will inevitably need to get a second opinion, a helping hand, and/or maybe major assistance at some point. As people grow and change, so too do their perspectives, their needs, and their priorities. The way things are done are constantly evolving. People are discovering things about bees that we had absolutely no clue about, and that is not going to change unless the bees do indeed die out.

    The course was largely taught by a man called John Grubb who had been bee keeping for roughly 12 years. While he did his best to answer the multitude of questions thrown his way, he was honest when there was something he didn't know. You see, you can only speak in general guidelines, but as soon as you start thinking something is "certain", the bees will "surprise" you. This was a recurring theme. However, before you start thinking John didn't know anything, I should state that he covered a lot of material, and incorporated at least two practical sessions a day. (Bee suits, gloves, and jackets were provided). One of the fundamental lessons he taught us was that every hive can be different, and that there are many reasons a hive can behave strangely. Observation is key, and to think carefully about your actions when considering the bees.

    The occasional "Pro tip".

    One of the most important and interesting facts was the fact that if you eat a banana before visiting a hive, the potassium in the banana makes you smell like the "alarm pheromone" which will not make the swarm as docile as you'd like. In fact, it's unlikely to go well for you... or anyone around you. Another interesting tip was that you can be arrested for using a beekeeping smoker during a total fire ban. Trust me, you don't want to be wearing a bee suit on during bush fire weather anyway.

    The costs of getting started:

    It might seem surprising, but beekeeping is a hobby that can be surprisingly affordable, or surprisingly expensive to get into. A common break down of costs include:

    • Beekeeping suit + gloves ($100-$200)
    • Smoker $75-300 (don't buy the sub $40 models)
    • Basic three box Langstroth hive ($200-250)
    • Tools, tape, clean drop sheet, spare frames, perhaps a box. ($150)
    • Bees (varies by area). Usually $50-150 Some are sold with hives, or a nucleus hive (a.k.a: "Nuke").

    So that's a total cost of about $500 and up. It's not uncommon for some of the fancier hive styles to be over $1000, but depending on whether build it from scratch, buy a kit and you assemble it yourself, or buy them pre-made you can do it cheaper or much more expensively if you wish.

    Note that the total above does not include extraction tools, they usually cost about $200-400 for a 3 frame, stainless steel centrifuge in Australia, possibly a "hot knife". (up to $100)  If you're interested, it's likely the local club will have that to borrow if you join. Of course, you also need jars to put your honey into as well.

    Note that in some states and territories, you are required by law to register your hive, and have a design that is "inspect-able". True "natural beekeeping" hives may not have that facility and thus will make it illegal if you're found out.

     

     At the end of the two day workshop, we were much more informed than we were previously. I feel that when the opportunity presents itself, we'll start a hive. However, there's a reasonable amount of work into the hobby, and you can't just ignore the hive for months on end (unless it's winter). I think if you want to succeed in this hobby, you're going to need to be able to keep an eye on the hive, and treat them as you would a respected pet. If you go on holidays for three months, there's no telling whether or not the bees will be there on your return. If the work doesn't seem so bad, I'd heartily encourage you to do the course and see if you'd like to proceed from there.

    Good luck and happy bee keeping!

    Ham.

     

     

    Sunday, 01 December 2019 12:08

    If you didn't read my last post about "what would you wait 14 years for?" then you probably don't understand just how unprepared we are for this harvest. We harvested 6Kg yesterday, and another 3Kg today, and we haven't even done the "low hanging fruit"  yet. (I actually mean that quite literally).

    So what do you do when your cherry tree has easily produced something akin to 50-100Kg of fresh, viable cherries? Obviously eat as many fresh as possible, but no one can eat such a glut, without severe repercussions (and I do speak from experience). However, eating everything is impossible, especially when it's only going to be good on the tree for another week or so. Oh, did I mention that front yard of strawberries is producing 20-50 strawberries per day? (That should continue until the new year) Our blackberries, loganberries, raspberries, figs, nectarines, peaches and apricots are mere weeks away from harvest too. Christmas time is indeed a busy time of year! Even without the Christmas "spanner in the works" and all that it includes.

    Enter the food preservation frenzy!

    Just "Jammin"

    Ok, we're highly experienced when it comes to making apricot jam. However, cherries are a new addition to our schedule. Making jam in on one batch, I call it a "jam session". However, when making it in excessive quantities, in multiple batches, sometimes concurrently, other times, in rapid series over days, or even weeks, I have to make some sort of fun out of it. To my pun-tastic and groan-worthy-joke-oriented mind I like to call such an undertaking: a "Jam-boree"... usually because we get some friends over to help, and it always makes things more fun! Pipping cherries by yourself for hours on end... not so fun... unless you're listening to all the songs your partner doesn't like, and nibbling a scary amount of the freshest cherries you've ever had. Let's face it, I picked them after all!

    Messy bench showing many cherries in varying stages of being cleaned, stalked, pipped, and prep'd
    Top Left: A view from atop a ladder, amongst the cherry branches. You might think that all cherry picking is the same, but it's not. The further from the ground, the slower going it becomes. You have to keep climbing down to move the ladder, instead of just walking over and reaching up for the lower branches. Wind in branches can really knock you around when you're on a ladder, and move more and more as the branches thin out. This can make grabbing the cherries you want quite difficult as they sway in and out of reach.
    Top Right: Cherry preservation happens to be very messy and involved. It's totally the cherries fault.. Note the pot full of cleaned, stalked, and pitted cherries right up the back. That's all me. :-)
    Bottom Left: This is a 50cm wide colander with cleaned and stalked cherries.
    Bottom Right: Reducing the cherries and sugar into a delicious jam can take quite some time. I recommend keeping a better eye on it than I did... noting the jam on the edges.

    In light of the massive surplus of cherries, and other fruit bearing down on us in the coming weeks, I bought 20Kg of sugar, 10 packets of pectin (also known as "jam setter".. which is branded and erroneously spelled "Jam Setta"... <cue spelling error-based cringing here> which if you're interested, helps to ensure a nice thicker consistency to the end jam. Making jam is simple, making jam well is not so easy. Making a good jam is a balancing act between batch sizes, the speed of reduction, and how far you reduce it down. If you don't reduce it enough, you get a syrup. If you reduce it too far, you get fruit-flavoured toffee. All of them are delicious, but the applications for the final extreme-end products can be severely limited.

    What we've learned about jam making from hard-won experience:

    1. Larger batches in "one big pot" will take forever to reduce. If you don't consistently and frequently (by frequently I mean almost constantly) stir it, you'll burn the jam on the bottom before you know there's a problem. It is a major pain to clean up a burned jam pot. Wren and I highly recommend you limit it to 4L at most in one pot when you're just starting out (there's no reason you can't have multiple pots though). Using non-stick or stainless steel woks work, as do paella pans. The shallower depth will accelerate the reduction, but they're not as shallow as most frypans/skillets, which easily spill if you stir/boil too energetically, or fill it up too far (which is very easy to do). Regardless of your cooking implement of choice, ensure you only have it on medium heat at most on a small or medium sized burner/element. You're aiming for a slow simmer, not boiling.
    2. You'll get better and more consistent results with smaller batches.
    3. Slow and steady is far better than trying to rush. Make sure you have enough time to complete this task. Interruptions can get very messy.
    4. You can sterilize your jars and lids in boiling water, this is a great idea if you have swing-top lids with soft rubber seals. However, we find it easier to just put clean jars (and corresponding lids) together on the shelves in our oven and set the oven to 105 degrees for half and hour. If the gaps in your shelves are too big and lids fall through, try putting them on a baking tray/pizza stone/even one of those wire cooling racks people use for cakes. Timing the jam and jars is important. You need both the jam and the jars to be hot when you fill the jars so you don't crack the glass when you pour it in. Waiting until they're cool to fill them will not seal the lid, nor will it be properly sanitized. Once a jar is full, immediately and tightly put the lid on before you start pouring the next jar.

    Yesterday, we turned that 6Kg of cherries into roughly 12 jars of cherry jam.

    Chillin', Churnin', and Jammin'

    We started making a batch of home made cherry ice cream last night, we finished it this afternoon. The process was quite involved. We weren't sure about this new recipe, so we only used 1.6Kg of cherries, 3/4 of a cup of sugar, and roughly 400g of thickened cream. After blending, reducing, and simmering, we only have 1.5L of ice cream to show for it at this stage. It should be ready for serving by tomorrow. Making ice cream is basically blending fruit into pieces or even puree, reducing it down to thicken it up, adding sugar and cream, simmering it to ensure the sugar is dissolved, then churning it and freezing it at the same time. Then just freezing it to both store it long term, and to firm it up some more.

    Then we made another 8 jars of jam after dinner. I expect we'll make another 30 or so jars of jam before we're done, and freeze another 10Kg of cherries for later use. Cherry relish has also been discussed. However, for each batch of cherry-based products, I can spend anywhere between 20 minutes, and an hour just picking the fruit. Then washing, stemming, and removing the seeds can take another 30 mins to 1 hour, depending on the harvested amount.

    Day three of "Cherrylimpics" We've had the "warm up" jam batch. The mad sprint-like work on the ice cream. Now we're going for the marathon of cherry preservation. This time, it's not a team sport, it's largely a solo effort. So I spent 5 hours picking cherries today. Picking nearly 20Kg, I then spent another 3 hours pitting cherries. When Wren came home from work, we made another 12 jars of jam, and we're in the process of freezing 5Kg of pitted cherries for future use. I'll do another 5Kg tomorrow.  That leaves about 4Kg for another batch of ice cream.. I'm thinking I'll add some chocolate chips to it. I have chocolate, a grater, and arms threatening to fall off after a day of fruit picking, cleaning, pipping, and preserving. What can possibly go wrong?!

    I'll keep this updated, and add more pics when I can.

    Stay safe, and have fun!

    Ham.

     

    Tuesday, 26 November 2019 09:50

    It seems like a pretty serious question, doesn't it? 14 years is most of a childhood. When we look at ourselves today, can we even imagine how we each will change in the next 14 years? It's roughly one sixth of a life... unless you happen to be my favourite 105 year old... who has lived through two world wars, with the depression in between, the first Australian radio station, TV, the first transistor, and all the technology and drama afterwards. The stories she tells, and the "Aussie battler" sense of humour is both inspiring, and humbling....but back to the question at hand....

    Wren bought her home in 2004 "off the plan". It was completed late that year, and after she moved in, she planted two trees in early 2005... one apricot, and one cherry. (Don't worry, she chose a variety of cherry that does require a second tree to fruit). Now the trees are fully grown, and the apricot has been nigh on bullet-proof. It produces an average of 30-50Kg of edible fruit a year... factoring some loss to the wildlife like possums, bats and birds. Some years it's less, and other years been enough to bend branches to the ground. Let's just say that we're experienced apricot jam makers... when we finally get sick of the fresh fruit. However, the cherry tree has been a completely different story...

    This cherry tree has been an epic saga, of dogs digging it up, pests, leaf curl, rain damage, storm damage, cockatoo damage, and almost every other dilemma you can imagine. Yet Wren has persisted, and with a few years of my help, we've managed to beat back one problem after another, until the problems are either eradicated, or substantially reduced. Now please note that we do NOT spray chemicals in our garden, and this choice means that the typical "kill everything with spray" isn't an option, so it requires a bit more thought and care.

    Lessons learned the hard way:

    1. Pet management is needed for younger plants:

    Wren spent years fostering homeless dogs. Now as you'd imagine, many dogs who come from broken homes have issues, poor training, and some long-established bad habits. Wren mentioned that dogs frequently would dig up the garden, rending garden and trees alike decimated. The back lawn looked like a mini moonscape with holes, divots, and other ankle-destroying landscape features. I shudder to think how many hoses and hose attachments Wren bought over the years. Fencing off trees is something I would recommend if you have digging/chewing-prone pets... whether that's dogs, chickens or something else entirely.

    2. Soil health leads to plant health:

    Canberra is not renowned for its high quality soils. In fact, in most suburban areas, there's a heady mix of clay, rock, and builders fill that lies mere centimetres from the surface. Wren dropped this cherry tree directly into this soil, and I'm going to be honest here... she wasn't exactly gung-ho on the watering and soil conditioning front. It survived, but I wouldn't say that it thrived.

    In 2017, I did a Permaculture course, and using my new found knowledge, decided to turn the largely unused lawn space into a garden for herbs, vegetables, and fruit. So I carpet mulched the lawn to kill it, then added mixed compost, manure, and straw, on top of that, and then layered another layer of mulch for effect. I then ran several lines of "dripper hose" along the length of the former grass areas to encourage soil moisture, worms and microbial activity. Six months later, the trees showed a visible sign of improvement, namely in surprisingly rapid growth, beyond what we had seen in previous years. A healthier plant is less likely to suffer from disease, or if it does get one, the effect is mitigated, slowed, and perhaps more limited to a smaller section of the tree.

    3. Pest management instead of pest eradication:

    This tree has suffered from "Cherry slugs" for many years. Flies lay their eggs on the leaves in early summer, then the "slugs" eat the leaves until there's literally nothing left, and then grow into flies, mate, and the eggs fall to the ground as they're shed in autumn, they lay dormant there until spring, some slugs crawl their way back up to the tree, or were laid in the tree already.. and the cycle starts itself over again. By allowing our kiwi fruit vine to grow up the tree, planting lemon verbena and garlic at ground level, and spraying "Neem oil" extract on the tree, the biodiversity of the leaves from various plants, along with the strong fragrance of the neem, verbena and garlic, confuse the pests and make it harder for them to find the tree. There's a lot of merit to separating trees with different plants in between, and the results are not only less problems, but staggered harvests, easier management, and of course, diversified crop yields.

    Watering the ground instead of spraying leaves has not only reduced water use, but also avoided some diseases like leaf curl, or at least, substantially slowed it's progress. Some fungus or mould based problems are spread by dripping water from one leaf to another. Keeping the water off the leaves while watering the roots provides moisture without the associated problems of foliage watering.

    4. Netting really is essential:

    You might think that animals might leave you something, but for many years, the cherries were just starting to ripen. We'd go to work with a lot of cherries on the tree, almost ready to pick, and when we came home, we'd have literally, nothing left but "pips on sticks". I freely admit that I've spent some quality time from 5am-7am sitting on the top of a ladder, effectively working as a fruit-paid scarecrow to ensure the birds don't eat my crops once they've found a hole in the netting, or on trees that I haven't got enough netting for.

    There are a lot of ways to net a tree, but for fully grown fruit trees that are definitely not dwarf varieties, a 10m x 10m net may not be enough, and that's the biggest one I've found that's commercially available. The tightness of the weave is also important. I prefer as tight a weave as possible. Preferably 10mm x 10mm square holes or smaller. This eliminates small birds who I've seen dive through a 30mm x 30mm hole in the net to get to my raspberries. Tighter weaves are also less likely to get caught on branches, and reduces the chance of branches growing through the net over time.

    The timing of putting the netting can also be important. I prefer to let the flowers be pollinated by bees and birds (as well as any pests eaten by birds) while they're out in spring. I leave the netting off entirely during this phase. However, while the fruit is still green, I'll try to net the tree then to discourage problems like "early tasters", or fruit destruction by cockatoos.

    If you need a useful tool to put netting up, I recommend Ham's cheap "net putter-upper-er". It's basically one of those extendable painting poles, with a cheap roller attachment screwed on to the end, but with the roller cut off so that there's just a 50-100mm straight piece of metal at the end, and I round off the cut tip to reduce the chance of it catching the net or on anything else. You simply stick the pointy end through the holes in the net, and lift it up and over branches. If you must do it from within the tree, you can poke the pole up and through the branches, and work the net over one branch after another. Just remember to ensure that have enough slack to pull the net over, as the pole may give you a lot of reach, but it also gives the net a lot of leverage to work against you. If the net gets caught, you may not be able to move the net further.

    5. Regular watering does NOT mean over-watering:

    It may seem odd, but watering once a week, even when the tree is fruiting, is better than watering every single day. If you over water trees, the fruit can split when the water content in the fruit exceeds the fruit skin's ability to grow. I strongly urge you to water with a good soak for an hour, then leave it alone for a week. This is much more similar to sporadic rainfall. By allowing the soil to dry out a bit before the next watering will reduce moulds, fungi, mildew and other diseases while giving the tree a regular supply of water, softening soils, and encouraging soil life to aerate the ground, decompose sources of nutrients, and manage potential soil-born issues by increasing diversity and therefore, competition.

    Over watering can result in increased problems such as fruit drop, cracked fruit, plant disease, lower yields. Again, I'd recommend using a watering system to maintain "watering discipline".

    And the result, after 14 years? Is this!

    I don't claim to be a "natural" green thumb. I just try to learn from my mistakes, to try different solutions until something works, and get my hands dirty on a reasonably regular basis. A fruit tree may seem expensive when you see a price tag of $50-100, but the harvested yield of just one season once the tree is mature can outweigh that many times over. I paid $15 per kilogram for a box of cherries grown in Young last week to bring to a birthday party because these weren't ready. There's probably 3-4 Kg of cherries shown in this shot alone. For extra points, can you spot the kiwi fruit leaves in this image?

    So there you have it, and I should mention that these cherries are edible now, but will get a bit of extra sweetness in the coming days. If you haven't tried fruit toast made with fresh or dried cherries, you are truly missing out, and I encourage you to try it.

    Never give up, and eventually you'll learn enough to succeed. Happy gardening, and happier harvesting!

    Ham.

    Wednesday, 23 October 2019 11:35
    Bird of Paradise
    A bunch of "Bird of Paradise" plants in bloom.

    Birds of Paradise are known for their unusual flowers by many. Experienced gardeners will also remember the challenges that the extremely large, flexible, yet fibrous leaves from plants like these can pose. Particularly when you're pruning, or removing them. You see, the leaves are too large for easy cutting with secateurs. You can trim the overall bush reasonably well with hedging shears... but the base of the plant can be really challenging, even with a chainsaw!

    Hedging shears start to fail in the dense, fibrous, often-clumped together stalks. I tried a pruning saw, but found that the teeth clogged up with fibres.. when the leaves didn't simply sway with the motion of the saw. A whipper/line trimmer failed completely, so I even went and got my chainsaw out. However, the hugely long fibres found in the leaves are drawn by the chain into the saw, and generally jam there. I even derailed the chain once when the accumulated fibrous bits managed to wedge under the drive gear.

    Enter the mattock.

    Lacking an axe, I decided that I needed to swing a mattock around, and half-hack, half-dig the Birds of Paradise plants out. Now when one plant had over 1.5 square metres of tightly packed, dense stalks, that's a lot of work for an I.T. desk jockey like me. I consumed over 5L of water over the next 4 hours, and chewed through a box of tissues. Listening to "A hard hand to hold" by Ace Young while struggling with some plants may not sound enthralling to some, but lyrics ended up being somewhat prophetic, after the day I had, I needed a day to recover, because I am still struggling to hold things properly.

    In fairness, it wasn't all the mattock-swinging that wore me out. The local landscaping supplies place delivered my order a few days ahead of schedule. Now the one thing most people don't know about landscaping suppliers, is that they will literally tie sleepers together, forklift them into the truck, and when that truck gets to your place, they will literally tip sleepers, soil, and whatever else you ordered into a pile next to the road, get you to sign off on the delivery, and drive off as fast as possible. Sorting it out, or moving your overpriced lumps of wood away from the calculating eyes of kerb-side collectors, when you have 13x 70Kg sleepers to move it is "all up to you". Now, with Wren at work, and neighbours who are pregnant, elderly, or riddled with cancer... I understandably-yet-unfortunately, didn't have anyone volunteering to help me out. So after moving all 910Kg of bulky, extra thick cut ironbark (a particularly dense wood), into the safer areas of my yard, my everything hurt.

    I still have maybe three square feet of stalk to dig out, but I was hoping to find a better (powered) option to cut this back. Unfortunately, I haven't found it yet. That's a problem for tomorrow. Perhaps a fine-toothed blade will be better at not dragging fibres on something like a reciprocating saw will help...

    To sum up what I know so far:

    1. Use hedging shears to cut pack the leaves a bit, and make access to the stalks easier.
    2. Long-handled loppers can help you get a bit further down, but this is very time consuming.
    3. Use mattock to hack/dig the rest out... but for larger plants in harder soil, this will take quite some time.

    Here's the mess created by the pruning....

    An update on the reciprocating saw:

    A reciprocating saw with wood cutting blade

    This is a reciprocating saw. Think of it as a jig saw for demolition.

    I tried this on the smaller clump of severed stalks today. By cutting it away in sections, I found this worked well. I didn't have a fine-toothed metal cutting blade, but I used a wood-grade blade and to my surprise, that didn't jam up like the pruning saw. Getting in low enough  for easier cutting was quite challenging for a tall guy. In the space of about 20 minutes, I managed to remove most of the smaller clump. This is a huge improvement, and so this is the tool/method I'd recommend...

    However, I didn't get as much done as I'd have liked, since I had a visit from those door-to-door religious people who genuinely asked me "Are you ready to make a life long commitment to your God and saviour?".

    I have mentioned that I'm an irreverent kinda guy right? I merely replied:

    "From a logical standpoint, to be life long, I'd have to have been committed since birth, and given many religious beliefs regarding abortion, and the termination of a life before birth... life-long might be considered even longer. Now, since I can't go back and start again, I can only say that such a commitment would be impossible at this stage. If you're simply asking whether I am willing to shift from my current beliefs for the remainder of my days, then I'm sorry I'm just not interested, good luck with your spreading the word though".

    We then had about an hour-long chat about gardening. I think it was just to break up the door-to-door grind. When they left, they covered the remainder of my street in record time, so I knew they weren't having much luck.

    (sac)Religious anecdotes aside... *

    I hope this helps someone, and at least helps to eliminate some of the tools that I've found to be ineffective.

    Stay safe, and happy gardening!

    Ham.

     

    * Note: Yes I know that's not the right spelling of sacrilegious.... which originally meant "thief of sacred things" in middle English/Latin. Rather than simply "anti-religion", "profane" or "disrespectful" as it is often used these days.

    Friday, 20 September 2019 16:34
    InfraredTree
    Infrared Tree Shot

    One of the many, many ways to learn about photography is doing a weekend workshop. Photography workshops are an interesting alternative to self study and are almost always aimed at an intermediate level. Partly because it's hard to get beginners to fork over money for skills they're not even sure they want yet, and even harder to get "know it all" expert photographers to admit they don't know everything. Pros are often time poor, and have their own projects too, so it's not overly surprising that some find spending time with the newbies a bit harder to justify. (Hey, no judgements here).

    An incredibly artistic, skilled, and wonderfully humble friend works for an art gallery in rural NSW. He invited Wren and this wayward Ham to a weekend workshop on landscape photography that his gallery was hosting. Being in the middle of nowhere, it's surprisingly hard to get the numbers to run a workshop like this, and I needed a weekend away, so off we went. Wren and I were two of just seven attendees. My friend made a third. He's an amazingly experienced photographer, having photographed many challenging, highly reflective works of pottery made by members of his family (including himself), and many of his pictures are featured in artistic magazines, gallery "coffee table" books, and so on.

    Back to me though, because I'm the only topic I'm really qualified to talk about. :-)

    Signing up for the workshop was interesting, and surprisingly haphazard. However, I was asked to answer the usual questions about things like:

    • How experienced are you with the technical aspects of photography?
    • What is your primary camera?
    • Have you done landscape photography before?
    • What do you hope to get out of this workshop?

    The first three questions, when I answered them on behalf of myself and Wren, re-reading my response made me pause.

    Wren and I have been shooting pics for years, in numerous countries, and varied subjects. Even though we have shot together for so long and have learned from each other, we still have very different styles of shooting. Wren is more "in the moment" and intuitive in her "on location" work, but hugely technical with her post processing. Whereas I am more technical in shooting (certainly not post processing) and often use preconceived ideas, planning, and strategic execution. I then use some exotic... perhaps even eccentric software and techniques to do my post processing. We can shoot the same thing and come with wildly divergent shots. Nonetheless when you have to articulate how good someone is (you or others) it's often surprising how far we've both come.

    My last answer, seemed to resonate a bit with Bill Green, the guy running the workshop. When I arrived, he asked me if he could use my final answer in the class itself. Of course, days had passed since I submitted it, and I was wracking my brains trying to recall what (if any) profundity had been instilled into a bureaucratic process like filling out a form. If you're interested, here's my response:

    I think life has gotten in the way of our recreational photography. We're both looking for inspiration and 
    it's always interesting to see how others approach their photography. Everyone has something to teach us,
    and we understand that. I also find that beginners have interesting ways of asking questions, which helps
    to refine my own understanding, and allows me to teach others more effectively down the track.

    Landscape workshops often have a class component, and a "go out and shoot" component. Whether the class is actually in a classroom or outdoors is entirely up to the person running the show... and the outdoor component is often subject to the vagaries of weather, transport, locations to shoot, and of course, the people in the class. The class will cover basics of equipment, exposure and composition. This usually involves example shots  projected (often poorly) onto a screen.

    I think it's good to see kindred spirits on the "photographic journey", whether they're just starting out, beaten up with hard-won experience, and/or beaten down with old age. It's funny, some beginners run with far newer and better gear than I own. Most of mine is showing signs of age. I've upgraded my Canon DSLR rig a few times in the last decade or so, but I seem reluctant to part with any of it, so I re-purpose my old cameras to backup bodies, or in one case, converted it to infrared.

    Now, think about this, if you're going out to the same location, to take photos of the landscape, the odds are people are going to shoot the same thing, perhaps with differing exposures, and perhaps with slightly, or not-so-slightly differing angles but at the end of the day, I think it's important to differentiate yourself from everyone else. Whether that's a choice to shoot a tree on the other side of a steep hill, come back, realise that you left your entire camera bag back up the hill, and have to run back and get it... like.. <cue bashful muttering here> I did.

    Or just forgo the visible spectrum and shoot with a camera few people are likely to have. In my case, it's a circa 2008 model Canon 40D permanently modified to shoot only in the colour-tinged areas infrared. Of course, that camera was calibrated to a focal length.. <again cue bashful muttering> that I've completely forgotten what I told the conversion team to calibrate the focus system to.... yes, I know.

    So my solution? Magnified live view + Tripod + Timer Release +  Manual focus = Focused images! (See I showed my working and got the right answer). Note that I said focused, not necessarily sharp. Infrared is a much wider range of the spectrum than the visible part, and as such, there's going to be an inherent level of "softness" to the image. Great for smoothing skin in portraits.. just a shame about the pasty complexions. 

    Back to the workshop...

    After doing a full day, then a sunset shoot, then back to my friends place for dinner, then I had to get up in the dark to do a sunrise shoot, most of an hour's drive away, then do that shoot, then back to the classroom, I started to look at my images, only to find...

    That my memory card had failed. <Aaaaaargh>

    <cue my relief that I'm an I.T. guy>

    So I spent most of Sunday afternoon, using data recovery software to get my hard-earned infrared pics back. So here are some of them:

     

    I call the pic above, "Photographers, chasing the light". I guess that means I was shooting from the shadows. That "slightly pink, but we'll call that white" hill was covered in grass (not snow). See how sunlit grass appears white, while shadows are almost pitch black? That's infrared for you! That tree to the left of this shot is the same one as above.

     You know that tree on the other side of a steep hill I was talking about, this is the one!

     

    Anyway, I wasn't the only one who earned some hard-won experience. One of the women dropped their lens, and broke their lens hood and filter. But it was just the filter and lens hood. eBay will be her next best friend.

    Then Wren and I had to drive the multiple hours back to Canberra... that was a long, long day for me.

    Conclusion:

    So there you have it, weekend photography workshop isn't always for the "faint of heart" but you get some real opportunities to refresh your knowledge, get some motivation to get out there and take pics, and of course, maybe teach some newbies a thing or two about what is possible, and maybe give them some inspiration.

    Bill came up to us "advanced" shooters at the end on Sunday afternoon and said that he felt sorry that he couldn't help us as much as he would like. However, I don't really feel that I had the time to shoot the location and do the "hey how would you shoot this scene?". He had others to sort out and I'm relatively self sufficient.

    Anyway, I hope this doesn't scare you from doing workshops. Some come in the form of a single day, others go for weeks as part of major hikes or tours. It's really a matter of how intensely you want to do something. Personally, I think learning is best done at a relaxed pace. It gives you a chance to absorb the info and tinker around.

    Go out there and take some pics with whatever camera you have!

    Ham.

     

    Thursday, 27 June 2019 02:13

    I do like my better quality tools, but until recently, I'd always balked at the cost of Festool because I honestly doubted that the finished result would be two, three, or even five times better than a commensurately cheaper brand of sander. I mean, the wood is still ground against some sand-like grit glued to some paper. The engine isn't noticeably more powerful, nor is the overall shape different to my old Bosch GEX-125-150 random orbit sander (ROS). However, my Bosch had problems, and while it was getting repaired under warranty, I needed something "that just worked, right then, and right there". So I bought the now somewhat out-moded ETS-150/3 since it was on sale.

    I have to say, that while you do not need to buy the most expensive tools on the planet to do some really nice work. I have been very pleasantly surprised by the combination of things which does make using the Festool easier on the user, and it would have the most benefit for those who use it every day. If you're a professional wood worker of any type, then you can not only save money in time, but also in consumables as well. If you're a light DIY-er using a sander once or twice a year.. then this is not the sander for you.

    The ETS-150/3 is a dedicated 150mm ROS, as opposed to the Bosch, which is a 125mm sander that can take a bigger sanding pad. I honestly believe that this Bosch model only has problems when pushed to the 150mm for long periods of time. Both are great tools, it's just that they are built to different price points. While the Bosch is also a higher-end model, it is priced at half the cost of the Festool.

    What do you get for another $300 on a sander?

    Options... lots of options... some only at the time of purchase though:

    More specifically, there are different models of Festool sander with specific orbits which vibrate either 3mm or 5mm as the pad rotates. I opted for the 3mm model so I could get into corners more easily. However the 5mm model is a bit faster/aggressive. There are also models with fixed or for a little extra cost, detachable cables, which is nice if you damage your cables. You can also use backing pads of varying softness/hardness (purchased separately). So you can choose a pad with an appropriate "firmness" for the task. Many other sanders have only one size or hardness available in Australia.

    Warranty:

    There's a three year warranty but the best part is a 10 year guarantee that parts will be available after the model ceases production. You've spent $600 on a sander, it's nice to know that you can get the $10 part to fix it, right? Festool also offers pickup and free postage of faulty tools from your workplace/home... so no more taking it to the shop, and waiting for middle men/womenfolk to get around to it

    Performance:

    This is the big one for me. Most sanders have 6-10 holes in the disk so that dust can be sucked up to the bag/dust extractor. The Festool's has a LOT of holes of varying sizes more evenly throughout the backing pad and paper, and the engine blows air through some, while the dust extraction sucks through others. By doing this push/pull combination, the amount of grit and gunk that clogs up the sandpaper is substantially reduced. This means that you can sand for longer without having to clean up your sandpaper. It also means the paper doesn't get "cooked" by friction heat when it's clogged, which makes it last even longer.

    The Festool branded sandpaper is also better than the stuff I typically get in Bunnings. Being designed for the hole-ridden Festool pads, the sheets have the matching holes, to facilitate the extra airflow. Despite having less sanding area overall, Festool sheets clog less often than cheaper brands. Furthermore, while Festool sheets cost about 30% more, I've used the same three (different grits) sheets of Festool sandpaper for the same amount of time I'd go through an entire 10 sheet packet on cheaper sanders. Of course, your mileage may vary, especially if you are stripping paint/glues/plastics more than the unvarnished, aged, low-resin hard wood that I've been sanding.

    A piece of advice:

    Everyone gets bored of sanding. However, like most sanders, this sander works far faster (and better) when you have a relatively light touch. Pushing it down may seem like a way to remove more material, but this also restricts airflow, puts more wear and tear on your sander's motor, and undermines this rather expensive sander's features that keeps the abrasive surfaces, abrasive. So don't be tempted to undermine yourself and the longevity of your tools with impatience. Even with the Bosch and other cheaper models, avoiding unnecessary pressure is recommended.

    Conclusion:

    Buying tools can be a very slippery slope. Who doesn't want to be able make/fix/adjust more while doing it more easily? However, keeping yourself grounded, and your expectations about what you're actually doing realistic, is important when deciding what to buy and how much to spend.

    If you're doing a lot of work, go and ask for a demonstration of Festool equipment at your local retailer. Then do some research, and decide if the extra (yes it's an optional extra) cost is worth the benefits. I can only attest to this sander, but Festool have impressed me with a tool that seems, at first glance, hard to differentiate from other brands.

    I'd like to finish up with an update on the Bosch. It turned out that the orbital gearing was slightly "imbalanced" which caused enough vibration when working to break the bolt attaching the pad to the motor on several occasions. That has been fixed, I also replaced the Bosch pad with one that wasn't damaged (by being thrown off a broken bolt) for $21.95, and then I went to my local "Specialty Fasteners" shop and bought the strongest "high tensile" bolt to replace the broken one, and it cost me a princely sum of $1.00 (Australian). Now it works well.. and without any problems. However, even though it doesn't have all the clogging reduction of the Festool, I just use a standard "abrasive cleaner' stick on my sandpaper when needed. I don't want you to think that the Bosch, or other brands can't deliver an amazing result, and I have used ancient, cheap, and hard-used tools to make beautifully smooth surfaces. You can get similar results with any brand of tool and careful use! It just isn't quite as easy, or necessarily comfortable. Ultimately, if I find myself using the old Bosch rarely, I'll either sell it on Gumtree or give it to a family member.

    I hope this helps you with your tool purchasing decisions, whether for or against. Just remember, it's not the tools you own that make you a better wood worker (although they can certainly help) but the skills you learn from using them. The more you do, the more you will improve, so go have fun making sawdust, shavings, and whatever you leave behind must be your finished project. :-)

    Have fun, and stay safe!

    Ham.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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