Have You Tried Milk Art?

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This is a super popular project for folks with kids, because you can teach them all about surface tension and the properties of soap and fat and all that good science-y stuff in a nice controlled environment, with very pretty results.

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The supplies are simple: a large shallow tray (a rimmed baking sheet will do), watercolour paper (sized to fit in your tray), cotton swabs, liquid food colouring, a few drops liquid dish soap, and some milk. You can use almond milk or rice milk or homogenized milk or cream or whatever — you just need some milk with a decent fat content. The results will apparently differ depending on the milk you use (almond milk is supposedly the best), but I only had regular old 2% on hand so I can’t really speak to that.

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On a level surface, pour milk into your tray so that the whole bottom is just covered.

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Now start dotting the surface of the milk with food colouring. Go with whatever floats your boat.

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Take a cotton swab and dip it in your dish soap.

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Gently touch the swab to your milk surface. POW! Watch that science happen.

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This is that same spot a few seconds later.

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Touch the swab all over to make the  colours mix or drag it across the surface to make a trail.

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Now lay your paper down flat on the surface of the milk, then slide it off.

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Let it drip a bit and lay it or hang it somewhere to dry.

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I liked how the colours kept changing as I put in more paper, so I didn’t replace my milk, but you can if you like.

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After a while I had nine full sheets and I was quite pleased with the results.

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You can do whatever you want with these sheets: cut them into shapes and frame them, use them as stationery or greeting cards … whatever you want.

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In my case, I ironed them flat using the high steam setting on my iron.

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You can tell that I let this one dry on a sheet of newspaper can’t you?

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Then I played around with the order of them a bit.

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And used Blu-Tack to put them up on the wall in our bedroom.

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The colours I used complement the other quick wall art I made a few weeks ago so I am very happy with how they turned out – though I would like to try it with almond milk sometime.

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Sweet Heart Place Markers

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On Friday we’re having a few people over for dinner.  It’s not that we really celebrate Valentine’s Day, but it’s a good excuse to have a super fancy dinner party — where all the attendees are wearing sweat pants.  And really I think that Valentine’s Day is overhyped as a generically heterosexual romantic thing when really, why can’t we use it as a time to celebrate our love for friends and family?

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Anyway, this is the idea I came up with for place markers for each diner’s plate: SALT DOUGH!  You remember salt dough, right?  I guarantee you made it at least once as a child, or made it for a child as an adult.  If not, then NOW IS YOUR CHANCE!

It’s easy peasy.  Preheat your oven to 250°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or not, your choice).  Start with a bowl, 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup fine salt, and 1/2 cup water.  I like to add in a pair of gloves because this stuff is majorly drying to the skin, and you’re gonna have to knead it.  Plus I intend to colour it with gel paste colouring, which has a tendency to stain.

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Mix the flour and salt together, then add the water in bit by bit.  Sometimes you won’t need it all.  Today, given that Ottawa is SO FREAKING dry right now (neither Gren nor the Pie will come near me because I’m a walking static shock machine), I used it all.

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Use your hands to get everything properly mixed together.

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The dough will be very dry.  If it sticks to your hands then you need more flour.

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Here’s where I added the gel paste.  You can leave that out and paint the ornaments later, or leave them as is for a nice soft white finish.

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I got bored kneading in the gel paste and ended up liking this marbled texture so I rolled with it.

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And rolled it out with a rolling pin.  Not too thick, or the dough will puff up in the oven and take too long to dry, and not too thin, or it will just break.  But it’s not rocket science, so don’t worry too much about it. You can always re-roll scraps, too. It’s not like you’re worried about it being tough — you don’t eat this stuff.

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Then I used a cookie cutter to slice out the shapes I wanted.  Decorate them however you want with other dough or whatever. I was originally going to imprint my guests names into the soft dough, but I forgot about the whole gluten-equals-springy-dough thing and it didn’t work out.  Oh well.

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I used a skewer to poke a hole so they could be hung them up if the guests wanted to.

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In the end I had fifteen 3″ hearts, with only a little scrap of dough left.

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Lay the ornaments flat on the parchment and bake for an hour, flipping them halfway through.  If your oven burns hot, put the rack on the upper portion of the oven and/or turn down the heat if possible.

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Remove the “cooked” ornaments to a rack to cool completely.

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I used a silver Sharpie to write my guest names on each ornament and strung them with coloured thread.

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The blank hearts I hung from the light fixture in the middle of the dining room, to give a bit of height to the table decoration.

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Washing Soda & SCIENCE

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Washing soda (sodium carbonate) is a nifty substance.  You can use it to boost your laundry soap’s cleaning power, as a mild abrasive in cleaning, or as a base for making your own laundry soap.  In the industrial world, people use it as a flux for creating glass, to clean biological specimens (like in taxidermy), and as an electrolyte in chemical processes.  SCIENCE.  We’re going to use it in a chemical process in a little while, in fact, and hope it turns into some really nifty Christmas gifts. Problem is, washing soda is not always easy to find.  But you can easily make it at home.

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So let’s do some science.  All you need is some regular old baking soda.  See how it clumps up.

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Spread that in a baking sheet and preheat your oven to 425°F. Slide that into the oven and bake, stirring occasionally, for about an hour and a half.

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And then you have washing soda.  That’s it.  I’m not even kidding.

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I imagine that this is how the surface of the moon looks up close.  See how grainy it is?

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So why does this work?  Well, the chemical composition of baking soda is NaHCO3.  The chemical composition of washing soda is Na2CO3.  So when you bake it, the high temperatures cause the baking soda to release water (in the form of steam) and carbon dioxide.  Here you can see the difference up close: baking soda on the left, washing soda on the right.  TADA.

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Newfoundland Fighting Jam Jams

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For some reason I still don’t understand, I volunteered to do some baking for prizes to give out at the Pie’s final video game tournament before we move.  Because the group is called Newfoundland Fighting Jam, the Pie and I thought it would be funny to make up some Newfoundland Fighting Jam Jams.

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You may have heard of jam jams.  From what I understand, the general version is a round sugar cookie sandwich with jam in the middle, where the top cookie may or may not have a hole in it.  The Newfoundland version of this uses a softer molasses cookie.  If you don’t want to make your own you can order some from Newfoundland’s own Purity Factory.

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Of course, because we can’t leave well enough alone, we had to mess with the recipe a little bit, and we used our ninjabread cutters to make the cookies.  Keep in mind that below is a doubled recipe, so unless you want a million cookies, I suggest you cut it in half.

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Start with 1 cup butter and 1/2 cup shortening (both at room temperature).

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Cream those together in an electric mixer with 1 1/2 cups packed dark brown sugar (the darker the sugar, the fluffier your cookie will be, due to the high concentration of molasses).  Beat the crap out of those ingredients until they’re super fluffy.

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Now beat in 3 eggs, one at a time, waiting for each one to be fully incorporated before you add in the next one.  If you want to halve this recipe, I would use one egg plus the yolk of another.

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Add in 1 cup molasses (fancy or whatever, whichever intensity of flavour you prefer) and 3 teaspoons vanilla extract.

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Look at that silky, creamy molassesy goodness.

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In a separate bowl, sift together 6 cups all-purpose flour, 4 teaspoons baking powder, 2 teaspoons ground allspice, and 2 teaspoons ground ginger.

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Slowly add your dry ingredients to your wet ingredients until you form a nice soft dough. And I mean really soft. Resist the urge to add more flour. The squishier your dough is now, the squishier your cookies will be.

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Split the dough into 4 parts (2 if you’re halving it) and chill it for at least an hour. Two is preferable. And you want to have all your working surfaces, tools, hands, etc., as cold as possible while you’re working with it.

When you’re ready to go, preheat your oven to 350°F, line some baking sheets with parchment paper, flour a work surface, and get your rolling pin handy. And you’re going to need a lot of flour. Like for the work surface, for your pin, for your hands, for the dough … It’s tacky stuff.

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Working with one part of your dough at a time, leaving the others in the refrigerator, roll it out to about 1/4″ thickness (or about half a centimetre, if you’re feeling metric), and cut it out with your cookie cutters.  If you’re doing a circular cookie, some jam jam aficionados like to cut a small hole in the top cookie for the jam to poke through, but that’s up to you, my friend.

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If you’re making something other than circles or symmetrical shapes, remember to flip your cutter over so you can make a top and bottom to your cookie.  Our ninja cutters had a duller edge on top, so it made it a little harder, but we persevered.

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Eventually we developed an easy system, but it took a bit of time. You will probably sort something out yourself.

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If your dough gets too soft, huck it back in the fridge for a bit to stiffen up.

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Bake your cookies, rotating the pans halfway through and keeping a close eye on them, for somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes, depending on the heat of your oven and the size of your cookie.  You want these babies to be nice and soft, so make sure to pull them out before they get too brown.  If they don’t look done yet, don’t worry — they will continue to cook on the baking sheet.

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Spot the corgi for bonus points!

Allow the cookies to cool completely, then take a wodge of your favourite jam (I used raspberry here, but you could go full-Newfie and use partridgeberry or bakeapple if you want to be truly authentic) and spread it thinly on the bottom of one of your cookies. These ones used about a teaspoon of jam per cookie.  Press that cookie’s pair on top of the jam and then heave the whole batch into a warm oven (like 250°F) for a few minutes to make the jam all cement-y.  This also warms up the cookies again and makes them soft so you can do a little bit of repair work if any of them got bent too out of shape.

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TADA.  Newfoundland Fighting Jam Jams.  A mouthful to say.  A mouthful to eat.  A win-win situation for everyone!

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I made this up after doing a bit of research, and my main inspiration for ingredients came from these four down-home recipes, in addition to my own family recipe for Molasses Gems:

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Missing the Rock: Jam-Jams

Salt Junk: Jam Jams Cookies

Mmm…ade: Newfoundland Jam Jams

Rock Recipes: Soft Molasses Cookies or Giant Jam-Jams

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Freezing Berries

Here’s a quick tip for you.

When freezing berries whole, lay your berries out in a single layer on a greased baking sheet and freeze them that way before sealing them in a plastic bag.  Then they won’t stick together and will actually defrost in better condition than they would had you just chucked them straight in the freezer bag.  Tada!

Makeshift Carving Board

This is another marvelous Martha Stewart invention.

I do not own a carving pan or board for meat.  I just don’t.

Instead, I place a cutting board (wooden or plastic) inside a rimmed baking sheet when I carve.

Not only do the juices not get absolutely everywhere but they’re nicely contained should you need them later.