Monday, February 23, 2015

Bread Beautiful...

This is nice: I managed to make one of those flat loafs of bread we can buy here in Ireland which are half way between a focaccia and an actual bread loaf.

The recipe is simple:

800 Grams of Flour
450 ml of Water
90 ml of Olive Oil
2 Teaspoons of Salt
7 Grams of Yeast
1 Tomato
Basil, either dried or fresh

I placed everything, except the tomato and the basil, in the bread machine. If you don't have a bread machine, knead by hand.

This is the dough I got:

I placed it on my (best friend) and gave it a shape.

Then I have transferred it on the baking sheet, brushed with olive oil and slices of tomato, sprinkled with dried basil:

This was at 11 am. I have put it in the cold oven, and by the time I got back home last night it had trebled in size.

So at 8 pm, I switched on the oven to 220 degrees Celsius and waited until it was nice and crusty.

And here it is, splendid!

This morning my husband demanded a panini for work :)

This recipe is easy to replicate and shows that bread needs patience and time...

Thursday, February 19, 2015

On Saving as a Fine Art

This is a difficult topic for me. First of all, I don't like money. I don't like the system it created, I don't like the fact that people would do anything to get it: stepping over any principle, killing, starving others. I don't like it. I deeply despise it.
In fact, I believe one day we (or, more likely, our children and grandchildren) will live in a world where money is regarded for what it is: a waste of paper.
I believe a society based on resources instead of money would work way better, and that's why I support The Venus Project.

In the meantime, we have to do with what we have. And make sure we are not wasting, not wanting what we don't need; reducing, reusing and recycling as much as we can.

Moreover, I want to make sure I am not wasting my time in the office just to buy things I don't need or just to pay the bills.
That's not our purpose in life. Our lives should be lived to their fullest potential, we must make room for love, laughter, hobbies and passions.

However, and this is one big "however", I find myself in the position of not yet being able to leave my full time job to be a home maker. I would just love to stay home, raise my children, sew, cook, volunteer and have time to write and read.

This is why saving is important. Saving means we'll be able to pay off our mortgage sooner that the (scary!!!) 35 years we signed up for and retire to live somewhere sunnier and brighter when the children will not be children anymore. At least, this is the big plan.

I know life is long and mysterious, and no plans can really be made, but I feel I have to do my best to try and make it easier for us all in the years to come. Even if one of us (myself or my husband) dies tomorrow, my children will still have a roof on their heads and food on the table. And that's another thing that makes me sleep well at night.

Now, back to saving, which is where I had started my post.

Before I buy something, I ask myself a few simple questions: Can I find it cheaper? Can I find it second hand? Can I do without? Do I really like it?

Can I Find It Cheaper?

In the last few days I have been pondering and caressing the idea of making a quilt out of a bunch of old jeans pairs I have stored from many closet spring cleanings. A friend of mine also gave me a bag of old jeans because she knows I am always looking for fabric.
Searching online for quilting tutorials, I found a very good website with a great tutorial for beginners, which seemed written just for me.
Awesome! But hey, I don't have the cutter... nor the mat... I thought: I'll go get the cutter and the mat in the craft shop close to my office straight after work!
Wow, the prices put me off. What's the point in paying above 20 Euro for the Cutter and above 15 Euro for the mat? I want to make the quilt from old jeans, originally purchased in second hand shops and given to me by a friend... It is my first try at quilting, the quilt itself will probably look like crap, if I have to spend over 35 Euro just to begin???
No! In the evening I went on eBay, found the cutter and the mat and I spent all together under 10 Euro. They are probably not the best quality tools, but, seriously, how many quilts am I going to make in the next few years? 
So, with some patience, on the 4th of March my cutter and mat will be here, and I can then start my quilt. I will have to wait, I know, but I'm busy in the garden now after work, so I'm not pressed for time. And those extra 25 Euro are still in my pocket :)

Can I Find It Second Hand?

A funny story here. A couple of years back, some friends were complaining Christmas is expensive. No surprise there, they complain all the time they have no money. 
They complain children are expensive, food is expensive, clothes are expensive... That's an awful lot of complaining. 
We are talking about a couple where both work full time, with 2 young kids.
We all know how expensive childcare is, but that is something we should not be complaining about. Before you have children you know you are going to spend money in childcare, and a fair amount that is.
I raised my first son exclusively with second hand clothes. I had to buy them in the charity shop back then, because I had no friends that could give me their kids clothes. We were new in Ireland, no family close by, no close friends, it was different.
My son was always well clothed and warm. Saving on clothes meant I could afford the best shoes for him when he started taking his first step, and those are way more important than clothes.
My daughter too, she always wears second hand clothes, however now I'm lucky to have this friend who has two older girls and passes on to me everything they outgrow. That's even cheaper. Again, I can get her good shoes and boots because I don't spend anything on clothes.
Sometimes I feel bad, I feel like I never buy anything for her, so I'll get her a hat or something she will like, like a tiny handbag.
So, for me, second hand is always the first choice. For myself and my husband too. I bought all his winter jackets second hand, otherwise they are really expensive. All my clothes are second hand and all my shoes are second hand, except my runners, purchased on sale because I wanted a particular kind and could not find them in good enough condition in the charity shops.

Can I do Without?
The answer, most of the times, is YES. Look around yourself, you more than likely already have everything you need. Someone once said, a woman never has enough shoes. I don't agree. Of course we like shoes, we like handbags and nice clothes. But really... Do I really NEED that extra pair of blue jeans? Probably not. Do I really, really NEED another set of plates for the kitchen. No, I don't.
If I put aside the want, I can save money to get something I really need, or something that would make my life easier. Like a steam mop. Which I recently purchased on sale. I have done without so far, I could keep it that way. However, I have not purchased useless clutter so I have room for the steam mop and money to invest in a model that better responds to what I want.
Why did I get the steam mop? Because it's great, it also has a part that detaches so it can be used as a handheld steam cleaner. It means less and less chemicals in the house as it eliminates the need for the floor cleaner. It also means I don't need to boil the water to mop the floor anymore. I plug it in and the steam is ready in a few minutes. The plan is to eliminate all carpets from the house, so that is going to be very handy upstairs as well in the coming years.

Do I really like it?

When I want to indulge in something I might fancy to have, then the hardest of questions comes in... Do I really like it? I might. In fact, if it catches my eye, I kind of like it. Is it worth throwing out something else to make room for it? Probably not.
Will I like it once I get home? If the answer is not a definite YES, then I don't buy it.

The habit of questioning myself before I put my hand in the pocket to reach for my hard earned money has saved me a lot so far. 
I have to provide for two young children and they are learning themselves that a present doesn't always come in a box. Sometimes Santa Claus will get things second hand just to make sure they are tried and tested ;)
The fact that we don't watch tv plays a huge part in the saving, not just because we have one bill less to pay each month, but because we don't get to see advertisement. The ads are written to make you want things, and rightly so, but I'm happy to avoid that.

All in all, we are doing fairly well, there is no stress in our house since we both work and do without a lot of silly things we don't really need. We are not pressed by fashion, trends and the likes. We live simply, we enjoy just being together without the need to go out and spend money on entertainment.
We live altogether, a very fulfilling life. We are always busy and try to involve the children in everything we do inside the house.

We tend to try and fix something ourselves before we hire someone to do it.

What we save by fixing things ourselves we can spend on weekends away and holidays.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Garden - Ready for Spring!

Yesterday, in the office, I kept thinking that, by the weekend, I should buy the cinder blocks and give the polytunnel a new "look". The project has been in my mind for a while now.

I kept thinking I would go to the builder's shop on Saturday, then, as soon as I got home, I saw the shining sun in the crispy air, and could not wait any longer.

I ran to the shop and got 12 blocks and 4 bags of topsoil.

So here they are, after I carried them from the car, to the front door, and through the sitting room... My back hurts, my arms hurt, but it's a great feeling. I've made it!

Then I told my kids I found a guest in the polytunnel, and they both came to see her.

That's our new garden pet, a little green frog, scared to death by us.

After clearing the polytunnel from weeds and rubbish,  I placed cardboard on the soil, and placed the blocks as I wanted them. I have abandoned the romantic idea of wooden raised beds, they rot and must be fixed or replaced every year.

In the left corner, I placed also a piece of garden net, shaped as a cylinder, that will aid the growth of the beans and peas. I made sure is nice and firm in the soil.

On the right, a terracotta pot that will probably house the melon plants and maybe a strawberry or two...

And there, in the green coat and lilac hat, is my little daughter, emptying the little pots into the raised bed we just built. She loved the task and she loves the frog. She kept talking about the little pots and the little frog and it was just awesome to involve her in the work. Last night, at the dinner table, she could not stop telling she had worked with Mamma in the garden and there was a little frog that kept climbing and falling... The smile on her face was the greatest reward I could possibly ask for!

The layout is not complete yet, there will be more net and more pots and I'm glad I also managed to sort the seeds I have at home, so I can plan what and where to plant.

Last night then, I dreamt of my Grandmother. She worked the land and raised cows, chicken and rabbits all her life. There was no choice for her. It was either that or starvation.

The way this kind of hard work reconnects me with where I come from it's amazing. I feel closer to my ancestors, closer to my parents than ever when I get to put my hands in the dirt.

This year we'll hopefully have a better organised garden, every year it gets better, and finding this solution with the cinder blocks it's a great achievement for me. It means I won't have to start from scratch every single Spring and we are ready to go in no time.

We will get there, slowly but surely.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Busy Saturday

It's early morning, and I am taking advantage of everyone else's sleep to have a few minutes of quiet. Writing should be done this way.

I came downstairs and found the coffee machine ready, prepared by my lovely Au Pair. She loves me very much. She loves all of us.

I think we are indeed very lucky to have her in our life. We share many things, above all the love for children and cooking.

The first time we baked together, a few weeks ago, she said: "Vanessa, this is like being back home with my Mum, on a Sunday we would always bake biscuits and cakes".

Her mother will always send us recipes to try and I am more than happy to. My mother does the same, mothers who raised children always have good tips and tricks to make life easier for younger mothers. It's like a network of knowledge and love and care that beats any physical distance. It makes us all feel together and working for a common goal.

Yesterday I was cooking all day. Well, cooking and baking!!!

So the first recipe that comes to mind is a bit of a classic in Southern Italy, Ciambelline al Vino, or Wine Donuts.

The base of the dough is made with white or red wine, and they are indeed a sweet treat for everyone to enjoy.

Ciambelline Al Vino


750 Grams of Flour
250 Grams of Wine
250 Grams of Sugar, either white or brown
One sachet of Yeast, 7 Grams
200 Grams of Vegetable Oil
50 Grams of Olive Oil
A Pinch of Salt

The funny thing is, all these are staples found in every house, so to make these you don't really need to go shopping.

Mix all the ingredients together until you get a nice, soft dough:

Once done, divide in little balls and flatten them a bit

On the side, have a bowl with brown sugar ready

Make a hole in each ball and there you have a donut!

Place the donut in the sugar on one side only, and lay your creations on a baking tray lined with oven paper

Here is what you get after baking in the oven at 180 degrees Celsius for 15-20 minutes.

When you pull them out they will still feel a bit soft, but they become crunchy when cold. Yum!

Egg Free Savoury Cornetti

These can be made sweet, or salty. Here is the salty variation.


500 Grams of Flour
250 Grams of Milk
250 Grams of Butter or other cooking fat (olive oil, vegetable oil, coconut oil, soy spread...)
A Pinch of Salt
One Sachet of Yeast, 7 Grams

Filling of your choice

Place the flour in a bowl

Place in it the melted butter and the milk

Work the dough and then divide in 4 parts

With the rolling pin, make a circular shape out of each part of dough and divide in 8 slices

Here, I have chosen to fill them with soft cheese and cooked ham, but really, the possibilities are endless :)

Roll each cornetto starting from the outside

Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes and here is what comes out!!! 

School lunchbox sorted for over a week :)

Monday, February 9, 2015

Risotto alla Milanese

In the last couple of years, I have crowned myself the Queen of Risotto.

I always thought it would have been hard to make those creamy, delicious, wintery risottos I saw in the Italian Restaurants.

Tonight I have proven, once again, it is one of the easiest dishes one could make in about 10 minutes.

To that time, you need to add the actual cooking time of the Arborio rice, which is on average 14 minutes.

Well, it cooks itself, so I'm only going to consider the 10 minutes it takes to:

1. Chop a large white Onion and place in a non stick pan with about two tablespoons of Olive Oil.

Soften the onion and add a spoon of Vegetable Stock paste, then add about half a cup of Water and blend it all. You should get a cream that looks like this:

Then add a few filaments of Saffron. It is very expensive so use only a little.

Here is the little jar my mother sent to me a couple of months back. There is about 200 Euro worth of saffron in it, and it comes from her garden, from the bulbs I bought for her two years ago. At present, the price per gram is higher than that of gold...

Stir in now a couple of tablespoons of Turmeric Powder. It will give the rice the yellow colour and a nice taste. Plus, it's a super good food :)

Now put in about 6 cups of Water.

Stir and bring to the boil, adjust the Salt and let boil for a few minutes.

Add 3 cups of Arborio rice

Stir a bit, cover again and let cook on low to medium heat for 14 minutes, stirring every now and then. 

Once the timer goes off, add a dollop of Butter and grate some Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese on it, stir again and serve. And, more importantly, enjoy!

The doses above will be enough for 4 adults, plus you'll have a bit left over for your lunch box...

Coconut Oil... what else?

It's been a long, long, long time since I posted on my blog.

Life has been busy, the little one turned 2 years old and I have been cooking, cleaning, working and doing everything else on full throttle. Especially, being a mother. The hardest job of them all :)

A friend of mine recently told me about coconut oil. He uses it for his wonderful hair, black, curly hair, and for his skin.

I have read online for a few days and then I told him: Ok, you sold me coconut oil!

Great. In the past few days I've been experimenting with this wonder of nature. I bought two jars of coconut oil (it is, in fact, below 25 degrees Celsius, a solid, white paste).

My son has eczema quite often behind his knees. Coconut Oil!
My husband suffers from psoriasis since he was 7 years old. Coconut Oil!
My hair look a bit unhealthy and have no volume. Coconut Oil!

I've been spreading it, melting it, rubbing it... The benefits of this oil are endless.

I have been cooking biscuits and egg-free snacks at the weekend, and in the place of the butter I have used coconut oil.

It is truly marvellous. It gives a great taste to many different things and it has now earned a spot on my kitchen counter. Since it is something you can both eat and use as a cosmetic, I have placed it next to the stove and that's its spot. I never want to run out of it now that I have tried it!!!

I am also reading the book The Coconut Oil Miracle, by Bruce Fife. It is in fact a very interesting read and I also recommend reading online about the benefits of this oil.

Below is two simple recipes for the beauties in the picture: Coconut Oil Egg Free Cornetti and Coconut Oil Biscuits

On the left, Coconut Oil Biscuits


125 Grams of Coconut Oil

Melt the above in a saucepan

80 Grams of Dark Chocolate
80 Grams of Walnuts or Hazelnuts

Shred both the above in tiny pieces and add to the melted Coconut Oil

2 Eggs

Beat them and add them to the Coconut Oil and Walnuts and Chocolate mix

7 Grams or one sachet of Yeast, stir in the mixture

400 Grams of Flour

Fold into the mix above until you obtain a smooth ball of dough

Once you have the ball, start taking little pieces of it, roll them into tiny balls and flatten them a bit onto a baking tray lined with non stick paper.

Cook in the oven for about 20 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius.

When you take them out, they might seem soft, but they will become nice and crunchy as soon as they are cold.

Lovely and easy.

On the right, Egg Free Chocolate Cornetti


100 Grams of Coconut Oil

Melt it in a little saucepan

125 Grams or one pot of Yogurt, I used chocolate flavour but you can use vanilla or white yogurt, they'll be just as nice

Add it to the melted Coconut Oil

250 Grams of Flour

Fold into the mixture above

1/2 Sachet or 3.5 Grams of Yeast

To be added to the mix

Once you have worked the ingredients together, divide the dough in two parts. With the rolling pin, form a circle and divide as you would do with a cake, in 8 parts diameter-wise.

Put on each part a teaspoon of your filling of choice, jam or chocolate spread, and roll them, starting from the larger side of each "slice".

Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius, and, as for the biscuits, they will become crunchy once they cool down.

I have been placing them in my son's lunchbox for the past week and he loves them :)