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I came home recently to find teenagers on our back deck, using our wifi.

Don’t worry, they had permission. The internet had gone down at their house, so they’d hot-footed it across the road to use ours. The fact that we weren’t home didn’t make any difference.

And for the umpteenth time since we moved here nearly 30 years ago, I gave thanks for this wonderful urban village that we live in.

We love our house, but it’s just bricks and mortar at the end of the day – what makes it special is the neighbourhood it’s located in. I recently came across a post I wrote six years ago, and it occurred to me that while some of the faces have changed, the essence of our community hasn’t. It’s still a street where folks say hello, share food and conversation, and look out for one other. And it made me wonder – what makes a neighbourhood a village? Why is our little corner of the inner west so magical?

When I was a child, I desperately wanted to live in a village. Perhaps it’s what every new immigrant wants – when my parents arrived in the late 1960s, barely speaking English and the only Chinese family in the area, they left behind all their loved ones. I was only four, but old enough to remember the noise and laughter and camaraderie that filled our house back in Malaysia. We went back for (very) occasional visits as I was growing up, and I have vivid memories of family and friends, gathered around kitchen tables, eating and talking loudly. It seemed to be a wonderful way to live.

So I feel incredibly lucky to have found this neighbourhood.

I love that we’re able to share our food, time and resources in a relaxed, easy way. Mark mows our front lawn, Jane brings me cocktails, and last week, Graeme dropped over sashimi plates and smoked meats. PeteV bought us a fancy bluetooth thermometer for Rosie the Smoker, so that we could sleep through the night rather than getting up three times to check the thermostat. Maude spends early mornings crocheting and drinking tea with me, Margaret made us a jar of her secret family chutney, and on a really good day, June will drop over a plate of her amazing Hungarian cabbage rolls.

In return, we hand out loaves of bread, share our old vintage ports and force feed everyone experimental chocolate. Last weekend, we pulled out an entire bed of perennial leeks from the garden and left them on the back deck so that the neighbours could come and help themselves.

I say “in return”, but in truth, it’s never been a case of quid pro quo. None of us keep track of what we’re giving or receiving, because what’s actually happening is that we’re building a community. Every neighbourly exchange gives us an opportunity to interact, nourish and build relationships, while always respecting each other’s personal space.

It also makes our village a safer place to live – when Pete and I go away, the boys have a dozen numbers to call of folks who will drop everything and run over if they need help (not that it’s such an issue now that they’re both adults). We keep an eye on each other’s houses, chase runaway pets down the road, and text when we think something might be amiss.

Let me give you an example of how well it all works. Darling Norma passed away a couple of months ago at the grand old age of 92. She’d had several strokes and couldn’t remember our names anymore, but she’d been able to keep living at home, on her own, largely because of her neighbours on both sides. They would drive her to doctors’ appointments, take out her rubbish, ring to tell her there was someone at the door (she was quite deaf), and so much more. Norma was born on our street, but it was Jane and Jacinta’s love and care that made it possible for her to spend her final days here.

Over the years, we’ve watched our sons and the other neighbourhood babies grow up and head off into the world, going to university, travelling overseas, starting careers and getting married. I hope that one day, they too will all find villages of their own. ♥

It’s been a sweet month!

When I picked up my chocolate order from Chefs’ Warehouse recently, Ezra offered me a taste of the new Callebaut Ruby. It’s brand new – Callebaut are calling it the fourth type of chocolate. Made from the Ruby cacao bean, it has a distinct, tangy flavour and the pink colour is completely natural.

Here’s some info about it from the manufacturer’s website…

 

 

Naturally, I had to bring a bag home to play with! My first attempt at tempering it was a bit dodgy, but the second batch was perfect. I found it sets well at 88°F (31.1C), with a similar texture to white chocolate (possibly because of the added milk powders). Isn’t it pretty!

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Halloween has come and gone for 2018 and as usual, we were left with a mountain of uneaten trick or treat candy. I cut up 350g of Snickers, Mars Bars, Milky Ways and M&Ms and added them to a batch of sourdough (1kg flour) – a riff on Emilie’s chocolate bread from Artisan Sourdough Made Simple. The Halloween loaves are always too sweet for me, but Michi and Jemima love them, so I baked them each a loaf…

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It’s HSC time again in Sydney (final end of school exams) and this year’s care packages were filled with chocolate cane toads. Big Boy and Monkey Girl were roped in to help with the wrapping…

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On the weekend, I revisited an old favourite – our Guinness chocolate cake recipe. I couldn’t find any Irish stout in the pantry, so I raided Big Boy’s beer stash for a couple of bottles of Monteith’s Black Beer. The result was a very dark, not overly sweet and slightly bitter chocolate cake that the kids and neighbours smashed. It has a texture similar to a devil’s food cake and baked perfectly in my 12 cup bundt pan…

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Christmas is coming and the chocolate experimenting has begun! This year’s gifts will include these chocolate thins, made with a 50/50 blend of Callebaut 811 (54% dark) and 823 (milk), mixed with feuilletine flakes and spread out thinly on textured acetate sheets. My mother adored these, and as she isn’t usually a fan of chocolate, I think that’s a good indicator of their universal appeal…

This year we’ll be wrapping them in our rescued food safe paper from Reverse Garbage instead of cellophane bags…

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Finally…and this isn’t a chocolatey thing at all…my lovely friend Margot surprised me with this painted wooden spoon last week. She commissioned clever Australian artist Emma Palmer to create it for me from a photo. This pic was taken by Emma

It’s now hanging on our dining room wall and Small Man is somewhat perturbed by the fact that the eyes seem to follow him around the room (it’s because of the concave shape of the spoon, he tells me).

I absolutely LOVE it…what do you think? Does it look like me?

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Wishing you all a very happy, chocolate-filled week! ♥

What is it we all need?

Hannah Gadsby would argue that it’s connection.  What every human being wants, at their core, is a way to connect with others.

I watched her program Nanette on Netflix recently, and would urge anyone who has access to it to spend an hour of their time doing the same. Perhaps it will speak to you as powerfully as it did to me. ♥

“Em, can you please send me a new copy of your book? Mine is covered in oil…”

My friend just laughed at me – she knows I already have both the paper and digital versions of her magnum opus. If you’re a sourdough baker and you haven’t already bought a copy of Emilie Raffa’s Artisan Sourdough Made Simple, then you’re missing out.

Yes, I know, I’ve been raving on about it for a year now, but I’m still finding new recipes in it to experiment with. Last weekend I baked two of her focaccias (with a slightly amend blended of flours) and they went down a treat…

Our current favourite though is her light rye loaf…

I’ve tinkered with Em’s formula just a little, increasing the quantity of light rye flour to 30% instead of 20%. Here are the quantities I used to make the three loaves above:

  • 100g bubbly active starter
  • 730g water
  • 40g honey
  • 300g light rye flour
  • 700g bakers flour
  • 18g fine sea salt

On top of Em’s excellent instructions, I have four tips to offer which will make this bake extra special…

Firstly, track down a decent rye flour. It’s surprisingly difficult to find – I stopped baking with rye years ago after several disappointing batches. It was only my eagerness for Em’s recipe that led me to try again, and I’ve discovered an excellent German light rye from Southern Cross Supplies. It’s a new product and only available in 5kg bags, so you might want to consider sharing with a friend…

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Secondly, even though there’s only a small amount of honey in the mix, use the best you can afford, because the flavour is very evident in the finished loaf. I’m using either the excellent Miellerie honey from Tasmania, or my friend Ian’s Pink Anarel honey, both of which add a gentle but sophisticated sweetness to the dough…

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Thirdly, be aware that this is a sticky dough. Dust the bench and your hands with plenty of fine semolina or rye flour. If you’d like to achieve a holey crumb, wet your fingers slightly, shake them off, then dimple the dough as shown in our earlier post

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Finally, turn the heat down a tiny bit and watch the loaves carefully once the lid is off the roaster – the honey turns the crust a magnificent dark brown, but it can also cause it to burn more easily.

I’m baking three smaller loaves rather than two larger ones (the original formula was for a single loaf using 500g flour), so I allow 23 minutes at 220C fan-forced with the lid on, then 16 – 18 minutes at 200 – 210C fan-forced with the lid off. Occasionally, I’ll pop the loaves on the shelf for an extra 5 minutes at 170C just for good measure. Adjust according to how your oven bakes – mine has a tendency to run hot.

Once cool, the loaves keep really well in a beeswax wrap!

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As my friend PeteV says, this recipe is a keeper! The loaf has a chewy, elastic crumb, a slightly nutty flavour, and a gentle sweetness that makes it perfect with everything from cheese to peanut butter to slow smoked brisket. I’m baking it at least once a week these days, as the boys can’t get enough of it (neither can I, if I’m honest). Thanks for such a fabulous recipe, Em! ♥

It’s been four months since our last update, and you’re probably all wondering how our Waste Reduction Plan is going.

The answer is…not bad.

We’re still managing to keep our waste down to one medium kitchen bin bag per week (most of the time). We haven’t opened the cling film box or used a paper towel all year. But some things have been trickier to stick to than others.

1. Paper

We’ve had great success cutting back our single use paper consumption – the cotton napkins I made from the Daiso teneggui (Japanese tea towels) have lasted more than 40 washes and I haven’t had to repair (or iron) a single one…

We used to  go through mountains of kitchen paper towels; now we don’t even buy them. They’ve been replaced completely with tea towels, knitted or crocheted dishcloths, and absorbent waffle weave squares that I cut from an old bedspread…

I can’t rave enough about the knitted and crocheted dishcloths – they’re as sturdy as iron, wash well, and just keep going. The ones Rose sent me in 2013 are still in regular rotation, and I finally had to repair one after six years of constant use. These get washed every day or two…

We’ve substantially reduced the amount of parchment paper we’re using by switching to reusable teflon sheets for most of our baking, although I still weaken and use parchment for anything that’s going to be too gross to wash up…

The KeepCups are a winner and I haven’t bought a coffee in a takeaway cup all year. These days if I don’t have my reusable cup, I’ll skip coffee or sit in to drink it. Having said that, I have bought a few bottles of water this year – not by choice, but sometimes a food court won’t offer water by the glass, and I don’t always remember to bring my water bottle.

Small Man (gently) chastised me for forgetting my KeepCup the other day. “I always have mine in my backpack”, he told me. I was very proud of him – he’s the true eco-warrior of the family, the one who pulls me up if I get lazy and throw a teabag into the bin instead of the Bokashi bucket… (Edit: since writing this post, we no longer put teabags in the Bokashi. Pete has dug them up after six months and noticed that they weren’t breaking down. Bugger…)

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2. Plastic

In terms of plastic shopping and vegetable bags, we’ve done well. We travel with mesh bags, small carry bags, furoshiki, and our lastest discovery, t-shirt tote bags…

I sketched a rough pattern if anyone is interested in making these – there are also lots of instructions online if you’d prefer to make them without sewing…

Cling film no longer even lives in our kitchen, as we’ve found that the beeswax wraps replace it almost completely. For the few items that can’t be wrapped in beeswax (like meat or soupy leftovers), we use a bowl covered with a plate, a piece of foil, or a reusable plastic box.

The best thing about the beeswax wraps is that they aren’t just an eco-friendly alternative solution, they’re actually massively better at keeping things fresh. Coriander, ginger, cut avocado…all the fruits and vegetables that might have oxidised or gone slimey in plastic…stay crisp and colourful under beeswax. And it’s the perfect way to keep sourdough fresh in our humid Sydney climate…

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Unfortunately we’re still a long way from eliminating plastic completely, but we have tried hard to reduce our single use consumption.

There are two areas that we continue to struggle with – the first being purchased items. We buy all our meat in bulk, and it almost invariably comes in sealed plastic bags. We wash and RedCycle these as much as possible, but it’s hard to get them really clean, and I don’t want to run the risk of contaminating the recycling process. Similarly, anything purchased online arrives packed in plastic of one sort or another – again, these can be RedCycled, but it’s not an ideal option. Medicines, skincare products, cereals – we’re still a long way from being plastic free.

I’m also not sure what the best options are – is buying something in heavy thick glass which needs to be recycled better than purchasing it in thin recyclable plastic? Glass and aluminium can both be recycled, but rarely are they reused, and the energy output to change them into a different form is huge.

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The other area that’s been tricky has been freezer storage.

We’ve invested in sturdy plastic freezer boxes, which seem to work well. We tried glass containers, but found them too heavy for stacking. We particularly like these 800ml boxes from Daiso – they’re cheap, wash well, and don’t go wonky in the dishwasher…

Instead of using lots of small plastic bags, we’ve been wrapping items in our rescued food safe paper from Reverse Garbage, and then freezing them in bulk in reusable plastic bags or boxes. It seems to be working well so far…

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3. Organic Waste

Between the chickens, worms, and the Bokashi bucket, very little organic waste now goes out in the red bin.

The Bokashi has been trickier to use that we expected, as the worms won’t go near it, so we’re having to bury the remains in the garden. Also, some things don’t seem to break down, including large bones, rind, and anything overly fatty. Still, it’s been a great success, particularly for all the items that couldn’t go into the worm farm, such as citrus, alliums and cooked leftovers…

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4. Shopping

Over the course of this year, I’ve become a committed Salvos store shopper!

Not only do my purchases donate much needed funds to the Salvation Army, but they also save me a fortune. I recently picked up this brand new Turkish plate at the Salvos as a gift for my mother’s birthday. It retails for $80, but I paid just $4…

The added bonus is that buying secondhand reduces our environmental impact – I’m sure it’s better to cut back on shopping altogether, but I don’t appear to be genetically or culturally wired to be able to do that.

I am, however, trying to make more informed choices. At my niece’s wedding recently, I realised that everything I was wearing had a story – my jacket was sewn from upcycled vintage saris, my jewellery was made from old watch parts by my friends at Oli and J, and my bag was handpainted vintage Japanese silk. Not surprisingly, I didn’t run into anyone with the same outfit on!

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5. Mend and Make Do

I’m mending constantly these days.

At the beginning of winter, Pete pulled out an old jumper that I’d knitted for him when we were in college. It took me forever and he wore it just once before declaring it to be too hot for Sydney.  I married him anyway.

The jumper was full of holes, so I washed it carefully and mended it badly in mid-June. Pete still wouldn’t wear it and neither would Small Man. Admittedly, it’s no longer particularly fashionable and it weighs a ton. But Big Boy, who is the essence of kindness, said “It’s ok, Mum, I’ll wear it when we walk in the mornings”.  And he did, for most of winter. I love that kid so much it hurts…

When spring arrived, he gave it to me to wash and store for next year. It came out of the wash (I promise I was very gentle) with even more holes! By this stage, I’d learnt how to darn, so I set about patching all the broken bits. The end result looks a bit like a starry constellation, but it should last another year of morning walks…

Our new mindset is…with the exception of underwear that is so threadbare that you can see through it, everything can be mended. I bought this e-book of old war instruction flyers and have found it inspirational (it reads well on the iPad but probably wouldn’t be great on an old Kindle reader)…

Here is one on saving fuel for the war effort – “Buttered Toast – or Bullets” – was particularly thought-provoking…

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Our waste reduction plan is a constant work in progress! As always, when I write these posts, I learn so much from all of you, so please let me know your tips and suggestions in the comments below. And if you’re on a similar mission, I’d love to know how you’re going with it! ♥

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Here are the posts so far on our Waste Reduction Plan:

27 Jan 2018  A Waste Reduction Plan

2 Feb 2018  A Long, Rambling Catch Up

15 April 2018  Our Waste Reduction Plan – Progress Report

20 April 2018  Our Waste Reduction Plan – Fine Tuning

1 June 2018 Our Waste Reduction Plan – June 2018 Progress Report

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Tips and tutorials for making your own eco-friendly products:

Mesh Bags

Mesh Bags (pattern at the end of the post)

Furoshiki

Knitted Dishcloth

Crocheted Cotton Dishcloth

Crocheted Acrylic Dish Scrubber

Beeswax Wraps

Cloth Napkins (second half of post)

Sewing a Utensil Holder

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