Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Frost in my garden

It is the middle of winter, and we are experiencing some very cold nights.

I love getting up early and walking around the frost-covered garden to admire the tiny icicles that have formed on eucalypt and wattle leaves over night.

The vegetables get a decent chill, too, which improves the taste of some winter cabbages. Many people don't realise that you can actually grow vegetables all year round, even in the coldest parts of Australia. And we are talking of temperatures down to minus 8 degrees Celsius over night!

However, too much of a good thing can also be bad, and that also goes for frost. I have planted my winter vegetable garden in a spot that will quickly thaw once the sun comes up.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Cake in a bottle - Update!

When I first looked into the ins and outs of bottling fruit and vegetables, I came across the somewhat unusual concept of bottling cakes, which was described in a German canning book called "Weck's Einkochbuch." (Weck is Germany's oldest bottling company.)

I know this sounds bizarre, but it is possible! Obviously, this is not as essential as preserving surplus food from the garden. Nonetheless, I did give it a go just for the fun of it. It is actually kind of handy to open a jar of cake to serve to unexpected visitors, and it allows you to bake several cakes in one sitting and keep them fresh for up to six months without the need for a freezer.

However, you do need to make sure that the jars you are using are either perfectly straight or better still, conically shaped with the wider end at the top, otherwise you will be serving a jar of crumbs (in which case your visitors will think you are not just slightly unusual but downright mad).

I used straight Fowler's Vacola jars (as seen in the picture). However, as the quality of the glass used in Fowler's jars varies substantially, you need to check carefully for little knobs or uneven surfaces on the inside of the jars, otherwise it becomes close to impossible to get the cakes out. The instructions below assume you are using a system similar to Fowler's or Weck's, consisting of jars, rubber rings, lids and clips. If you are using a different system (eg Mason jars), adjust accordingly.

This is how to do it:

Choose a recipe you like (any mix using baking powder as rising agent should do).
Fill clean glas canning jars half-full with the cake mix, making sure that the bottle rim remains perfectly clean so you won't have crumbs stuck to it later on.

Bake your cakes at moderate heat (160-180 degree Celsius) in the oven for 60 minutes or according to your recipe. Check with a wooden skewer whether the cakes are done.
Remove cakes in jars from the oven. If a cake rose above the top level of its jar, cut the excess off with a sharp knife.

Put on the bottling ring and lid, attach the clips, put jars in a hotwater canner, fill with water up to 2/3 the height of the jars and process at 100 degrees Celsius. It is important that the temperature of the water you add to the canner is the same as the temperature of your jars, otherwise you risk breakage.

Processing time is 20 minutes if the jars were still quite hot when you put them in the canner. It is 30 minutes if you allowed the jars to cool down.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Households asked to slash energy consumption

This article was published in the Palerang and District Bulletin in July 2008. When I first looked into household energy consumption, I was struck by two things - the incredible increase in energy consumption overall, and the contribution of lighting and entertainment to our energy usage. Once I realised the running cost of halogen downlights (something I had not been aware of as I never had any), I noticed that most of the newer houses seem to have halogen lights as the default option. Clearly, we need to better educate architects and builders when it comes to household energy efficiency. The other major culprit in our household energy expansion are the new widescreen televisions that Australians are so keen on. Many of these new televisions use more energy than the average household fridge.

NSW households are under pressure. Petrol prices are going through the roof, food is getting ever more expensive, water restrictions are still in place, and now the NSW state government has unveiled a new $150 million plan to cut energy consumption growth to zero. This will affect both households and businesses, as everybody will have to make significant cuts to their energy use.

Based on a business as usual scenario, residential household energy use is projected to increase nationally by 56 percent between 1990 and 2020. The latest ABS data show that in 2006, the vast majority of energy in NSW came from non-renewable sources, with black coal providing 89 percent of the total NSW electricity generation. This compared with only 7 percent for renewable energy from wind, solar, hydro or biomass.

It is clear that if we are to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent or more by 2050, business as usual is not an option. We need to both reduce our overall energy use and change to a different energy mix by replacing coal with lower emission resources such as natural gas and renewable energy. While households only have limited influence over the structure of our energy supply, the good news is that it often does not take much to improve the energy efficiency of your household and reduce your energy use.

This can be a win-win-win situation – good for the environment, good for national energy security and good for your wallet. And if you use the savings you make to opt for 100 percent Green Power, you will also contribute to changing our economy to a lower carbon future.

The easiest way to achieve an energy efficient house is to incorporate all significant features right from the start, such as solar orientation, insulation in walls, ceilings and floors, thermal mass and double-glazed windows. The savings in running costs for energy efficient houses will very quickly pay back the initial outlay in extra spending, as an average of 39 percent of energy consumed in typical Australian homes is used for heating and air-conditioning.

Unfortunately, most existing buildings are nowhere near that ideal, and many homes leak energy at an alarming rate through lack of insulation, cracks in the walls or gaps around windows or doorframes. Insulation should be a number one priority for all homeowners, particularly in our climate.

Energy use for residential lighting almost doubled in Australia between 1985 and 2005, and one of the major culprits has been the popularity of halogen downlights.

Contrary to popular opinion, halogen downlights do not save energy. Most halogen globes are as inefficient as traditional incandescent light bulbs, and several halogen lights are needed in the place of one standard light bulb to achieve even lighting levels in a room. As a result, energy consumption increases significantly.

Replacing inefficient light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) or micro-CFLs (for halogen light fittings) is a simple solution. Turning lights off when leaving a room further reduces energy consumption.

Stand-by power is also a major contributor to household energy use and can account for as much as ten percent of your electricity bill. Many electrical appliances continue to use power even when they are turned off. In an average Australian home, items on standby power together generate over 750 kilograms of unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions each year. The easiest way to ensure you are not paying for phantom power is to turn appliances off at the wall when not in use.

The popularity of game consoles, set-top boxes and plasma televisions is another factor in the rapid increase in power consumption. The energy requirements of televisions, for example, have risen rapidly with the increase in screen size, and large screen televisions can use up to four times as much power as older style televisions.

Refrigeration, on the other hand, is one area that has seen a massive improvement in energy efficiency of 40 percent over the last decade, making it more environmentally friendly to replace an old fridge rather than getting it repaired. If you are buying a new fridge, make sure you retire the old one.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

St Martin's Bread (Weckmänner)

You can tell it's winter in our part of the woods. It is cold outside and baking bread warms the kitchen and fills the house with a lovely scent.

These little bread men are called "Weckmänner" (sweet bread men). Traditionally, in my Rheinland home town of Cologne, they are eaten on St Martin's day, which is in November. However, June and July in South-Eastern Australia have a kind of November feel for me, and so we eat them now! They are, in fact, delicious any time of the year.

This recipe was developed by my mother, who is an excellent cook. It reflects very much the cultural mix of the modern Rheinland, as she developed it from a combination of a Turkish and a German recipe. The result is delectable.

Here is the recipe:


500g plain flour (plus extra flour for kneading)
7g yeast (or 2 teaspoons of dried yeast)
12g baking powder

approximately 250ml warm milk
1 cup of plain yoghurt
6 tablespoons of vegetable oil

70-80g of sugar
2 teaspoons of salt

Mix the flour, yeast and baking powder in a large bowl. Add all other ingredients to the bowl and mix to a batter-like dough. You need to continue beating it until the dough starts to develop bubbles at the edges.

Cover with a dish towel or a lid and leave to rise for at least 30 minutes in a warm spot. The dough needs to double in size.

Add a tablespoon of flour to improve consistency before tipping the dough onto a floured benchtop or table. Knead the dough (and add flour as necessary) until the dough is no longer sticky.

Divide into nine or ten segments, then form little men. It is a Cologne tradition that one of their arms is folded over - don't ask me why or what it means! Add raisins for buttons and eyes. In Cologne bakeries, you can also buy Weckmänner holding little clay pipes - to our great excitement when we were children. (I wonder whether today's children would find this exciting?)

Lay the little men onto a baking tray and let rise again.

Mix some egg yolk with a tablespoon of yoghurt and apply with a brush to give a nice warm colour.

Bake for 12-15 minutes at 210 degrees Celsius.