Yuletide Eve

Tomorrow is Yule. We finally have everything together. I have accidentally baked five pies (I was trying to make 3), and we have two young rabbits in a marinade in the fridge. Two chickens have mostly defrosted in our sink and are ready to have citrus juice poured over them for tomorrow.

The portabello mushrooms have been selected, ready to receive their cashew and chickpea stuffing. Tomatoes have been purchased for the tops.

The sun breads have been baked. Two normal breads, one sweet. The chickens eggs have been stockpiled for the ‘nog. We drink raw eggnog on yule made with eggs from our chickens.

A crate of beer is sitting in the living room. An extra table has been brought in. The presents are wrapped and under the tree.

The most important part, the Yule log, is outside. It’s sitting, suspended off the ground so it stays dry, in the middle of a Goddess spiral. This year Dan will be joining me for my prayers, which will be a little odd. I’ve never had someone to pray with me before. I hope I can remember the lines properly.

At dawn we bless the log. The Yule log is an old tradition with a lot of variations. Many Wiccans for example rely more on the symobology of the log and often burn candles in a log that’s been decorated with objects from nature, or use it as a decoration rather than burn an actual log. One old Nordic variation on the tradition is to cut down the biggest tree in the forest, and burn the entire tree in a bonfire for 12 or 13 days and nights.

But the Yule log has some rules that go with it.

First, the log must be collected from your own or public land, or given freely from someone elses. You may not buy, trade or exchange work for your log. It must be obtained freely and without debt paid or unpaid.

Different kinds of wood have different kinds of symbology attached to them. Ash is considered an old wood, used for protection, strength, good health and visions for the future. That’s our log this year.
This Page has a pretty good list of sacred trees and their meanings. Here are two other links to more comprehensive lists. Some heathen faiths recognize many trees as having sacred properties, but some other only hold a few in esteem. We’re more inbetween.

The log should be blessed. I do this at dawn on the day of the Solstice (the 21st). First, there is a cleansing of the air of evil spirits by burning sacred herbs or incense. Usually this is sage. (This will be awkward because Dan is allergic. Because of this I have to give him permission to enter the circle after it’s cleansed.) We call on Gaia, mother earth, The Goddess, mother of all things, whatever incarnation of her that you prefer, as well as the four directions and their elements to bless our log and guard our circle. Then we make a statement of intention, why you’re there that day (to bless the yule log), what you hope the outcome will be (letting go of the old year, welcoming in a positive new year), and a humble request to the spirits that you choose to invoke that they help those things happen. Then we say prayers, asking specific spirits and ancestors to also bless our log. We reflect on the old year and let it be cleansed from us. then we close the circle. There are candles and incense involved as well.

The log (or candles on the log) need to be lit with the remnants of last year’s log (or candle) signifying the old year giving birth to the new year.

As the log burns, we make wishes for the new year by writing them on a scrap of paper and burning them over the flames. (People who celebrate with candles often burn the wishes in a small brass bowl after passing them through all three candle flames.) The wishes have their own sets of rules. They must be practical, not fantastic, in nature. (Wishing for a million dollars is not OK, but wishing for a new well-paying job would be.) They must not manipulate others. (Wishing that your boss would promote you would not be OK, but wishing to do well enough to earn the promotion yourself is.) They must be ethically sound (wishing harm on others is a big no-no) and positive (Wishing something to happen to you is better than wishing something wouldn’t happen). In general, making a thoughtful and ethical wish is the way to go. Also, spirits are NOT fond of being sucked up to, so if you are disingenuous to earn their favor it will backfire.  Only wish for well upon spirits or other people if you really, truly mean it. It’s OK to make a wish for yourself!

Then the log needs to be burned from night, through to dawn… Either by burning the actual log all night long or letting the candles burn all night. The longer it burns, the better. If it stays lit until dawn it’s considered a very good omen. (Or for all 13 days if you want to cut down a whole tree!)

The Yule Log ceremony is accompanied by all manor of frivolity, exchanging gifts, drinking, feasting, and friendship. Being generous to friends, family, and to the poor in exchange for good blessings and carols are BIG parts of the tradition. The goal is to make the day seem so festive that the sun longs to return to earth. We also decorate with lights, candles and suns, evergreens and other signs of life and light, to remind the sun of what the world looks like when the sun shines on our land.

I know that this holiday means a lot to me. It’s one little part of my heritage that I claim for myself. Yule is a pagan tradition, but a nearly identical celebration is held by the Native Americans as well. In our household when I was a kid we celebrated the quintessential American Christmas. While paganism wasn’t forbidden by any means, it wasn’t what we celebrated. We went to midnight mass, we had a nativity scene cobbled together from several sets, we hung tinsel and angels on the tree. Now that I live alone I absolutely revel in the opportunity to celebrate Yule every year. We go all out for it.

After Yule I go on vacation. I’m looking forward to burning this year away with our log and starting next year off with a fun, happy, relaxed mindset.

Happy Yule everyone! I hope your holidays are great and your plants and animals grow well for you this year! I’ll see you all in the new year!

Homesteading Holiday Gifts; Caramels

Hi, folks! I’m back! I’m going to spare you the details of a long year for this post (maybe I’ll get to detailing it better later), and sum it up by saying that my partner, Greg, opened his own business this year with a retail board game store. (For those that don’t know, Greg and I are yonder modern and “nerdy” folks.) If that doesn’t eat up every minute of every day, I don’t know what does! Yes, I have continued homesteading… I have built a new garden bed, made some changes to my flock of chickens and herd of rabbits… But most of it came to a screeching halt over the summer as the store opened. The garden I built became over-grown with weeds (and volunteer acorn squash that grew from my compost, nothing I planted lived, really), and I fell behind on making any real advances.
Now that the weather is chilly again, and the store has settled in, I have time to start updating my blog again. Hopefully this will be more regular as well. Our homesteading task this month is tackling the holidays with a touch of old-timey know-how.
We’re making small gift baskets for our families. Gift baskets full of local and home-made gifts. We have several things going into the baskets, and each basket will be a bit different. We’ve already made Apple Butter and canned it in pint jars for a few people. (Something that I did last year as well.) The next step on our home-made Christmas gifts list? Caramels.

My sister and I are buckling down to make some candies this year. She’ll get some to keep and some to give to her husband’s family. I’ll have her dishwasher and more spacious kitchen and fancy cooking tools to work with… And more importantly, her company while cooking candies.

Last night we got together to make a bit of headway on the project. The goal is three flavors of caramels, and four (or so) flavors of old fashioned hard candies. We started with the big batch of classic soft caramels we were making and discovered that making caramels is STUPID easy. Unfortunately, Greg ran my phone through the laundry (and despite my best efforts to dry it, I will need a replacement) so I didn’t get any photos of the actual process. But I figured I could detail it for you below. This is a very old soft caramel recipe, is printed under lots of names, and makes some of the best caramels in the world, full of buttery goodness and a million calories. These are really, truly, some of the best caramels you will ever eat.

Soft Caramel Recipe
Makes: An unreasonable amount (More than 1lb, or about 200 candies depending on how big you cut them and how many you eat. This is enough to fill a whole gallon Ziploc with once wrapped, if you cram them.)

2 Cups of sugar
1 Cup of dark brown sugar (You can mix 1C white sugar and blackstrap molasses to make this, or I suspect you could just use all raw sugar instead.)
1 cup of butter
1 cup of cream
1 cup of milk
1 cup of light corn syrup (I don’t know any substitutions for this for people looking to avoid corn… If you do, please let me know!)
1 tsp vanilla

Making caramels is really easy. Start by buttering a flat pan, about 13×9 or a bit bigger. Make sure you butter the HECK out of it, especially in the very middle. Get a BIG saucepan. We used a small (6qt) stock pot and were pretty happy we did, but you could probably get by with a 4qt pan. Don’t go any smaller, though! This puffs up like popcorn! If you can get a nice heavy bottomed pan/pot that heats very evenly, and not non-stick, that would be your best option.

Just place the saucepan over medium heat, and add everything EXCEPT the vanilla. (I suggest adding the butter first, to start it melting so the rest doesn’t stick.) Then cook it forever and ever, stirring it pretty frequently. Once the butter is melted and you have a good boil going (this is when it will expand rapidly as the air gets mixed in), you’ll be wanting too cook it for another 20-30 minutes, still stirring. Your total cook time will probably look something like 40 minutes depending on your heat and pan type. When you’re done, the liquid will have reduced and the foaming will have gone down.

Around 15 minutes after it starts boiling, you’ll want to start to test for doneness. The easy way is a high quality candy thermometer reading 244*F exactly. But I don’t actually have a candy thermometer and my meat thermometer only goes up to 220*. Luckily there’s another way to check the doneness. Prepare a small cup of ice water, and then drop a small amount of boiling caramel into the ice water. It may sink as it falls in. Scoop it out and feel it. It should be pliable, but firm and holding it’s shape, feeling stiffer in the middle then on the edges. When you eat it, it should feel like a caramel in your mouth.
If the caramel is too soft, it needs to cook longer. If it’s too hard it’s cooked too long. Add two tbs cool water and lower the heat, mixing until it meets the above description. If your mixture meets that description, remove it from the heat, place on a trivet or hot pad and then stir in the vanilla.
When you add the vanilla, do not have your face over the mixture to smell the delicious sweetness, stand back a bit instead while stirring. As you pour it in, the moment it touches the lava-like candy liquid, all the alcohol will burn off IMMEDIATELY in a cloud of very hot steam that will be rather unpleasant to have your face in.

Once the vanilla is stirred in (this will only take a few seconds) pour the mixture into your buttered pan, scraping the inside of your pot with a rubber spatula. Work quickly as the mixture will start to cool as you pour and if you take too long it will come out lumpy and funny looking. It should pour in nice and smoothly and form a nice, flat surface to cool. Take this opportunity to immediately wash your pot or pan in hot soapy water before the caramel can cool and dry, sticking to the sides worse then glue.

Let your caramel cool completely… You should be able to gently tap the center of the caramel in the pan without leaving an indent on the surface with your finger, but it should give if you press on it. At this point you can cut it with any old knife and eat as is, but my sister and I found a better way. We pulled a large sheet of parchment paper out, and flipped the pan on top of it, gently removing the caramel sheet from the pan onto the parchment paper. We then used pizza cutters to cut the caramel into strips and then into small bite-sized pieces. We went for about 1″ strips, cut into about 1/2-3/4″ pieces. They varied in size a bit, but came out beautifully.

We then used the same parchment paper to wrap them individually. We had a 15″ long roll and cut that into 3″ strips which then got cut into quarters (making rectangles of about 3″x 3.75″). This size worked perfectly for wrapping them individually.

caramels1

And voila! We sat and watched some TV as we wrapped out delicious little beauties into wonderful looking candies for Christmas! I hope you consider making caramels for your own family and friends for Christmas! It was extremely easy and they are delicious!

Next time, flavored caramel and hard candies!

Until then, stay calm and farm on!

Catching Up

Folks on here are pretty great. I vanish for a while and people express concern… It makes it feel like the past year of blogging was really worth something! Well, I basically got sick of talking about my life for a while. Homesteading can be rough and when you have losses and low production it isn’t very fun to be reminded of it constantly.  Things are looking a bit better right now and so I will probably go back to writing at least semi regularly… Thanks so much for your support!

Things have been generally busy here on the homestead. We lost all of the black and copper maran chicks we hatched out due to local cats. My four year anniversary with Greg came and went. We added several new rabbits to the herd and we now boast two rabbits out of a buck from Dave Mangiones rabbitry. We are still building new cages and our PVC shelf in the garage to go with ’em. Our garage is a mess of building right now!
One of our chickens (Tender, the nicer of our Golden Girls) was murdered by our killer husky, Nukka. RIP Tender. You made an awesome Coq Au Vin! Our Husky now wears a shock collar as this is the second animal dead due to her extreme prey drive and there have been far more than two attacks. While we haven’t used it yet it is there if we need it and we have plans for deliberate training sessions in the future, rigged so she associates the shocks with the animals, not us.

Winter is now in full swing here. We have had a lot of snow lately and the past few months as it got colder the rabbits were just not producing. Nobody is sure what happened to give us three months of no rabbits but a week ago Kibbles and Iams popped out 20 kits for us! Yikes! Unfortunately, we lost four rabbits from these first litters of the season. We struggled a bit with the cold last year, and I suspect we will just loose more kits in cold weather than warm. Two of the kits simply got out of the nest box and it is far too cold for them to survive without their siblings. One of the kits was a runt, and didn’t get fed enough. That kit was in a litter of 11, so I cant say I am surprised that one did not get fed. The fourth kit Iams removed from the nest deliberately. It had a large, infected looking lump on its face when I found it. I am not sure how the lump got there in the first place but Iams knew that this kit wouldn’t make it and pulled it out of the nest. This leaves 8 kits in each litter which is still substantial and they are doing great now. I am really looking forward to what the future holds for our rabbitry!

Egg production for the chickens has fallen off. At this point none of the three Australorps are laying, but at least two of them molted also. Nugget is still going strong and laying an egg every couple of days… But her eggs are often coming out strangely shaped, too big, or double thick shells. This is how double yolker eggs are born, but it is also how chickens prolapse and die. Golden comets are notorious for having issues with their reproductive tracts and are twice as likely to prolapse as a heritage breed as a result. But they also lay very large eggs even through the winter. It is a trade off we make with many domestic animals; High, year-round production often means a higher mortality. This is why I only breed my rabbits once every 2-3 months and why many dairy cows die after only three pregnancies.

And speaking of unreasonably productive chickens, we put the last of the Cornish Crosses in the freezer a couple weeks back. This experience has taught me that I do NOT like processing chickens. I have no problem with slaughtering the bitey monsters, nor with gutting them… But feathers are the worst, whether you skin or pluck. It takes forever and a lot of effort to do either and it left me with a large feeling of apprehension every time I had to dispatch another bird. I started thinking that their constant attempts to bite off my fingers were charming and wondering how well Cornish Crosses would lay… All because I did not want to deal with that awful skin. Eventually every one of those chickens met their fate at the end of my butchering scissors, but it was rough. Next time I am taking them to a processor and letting them deal with it. Can I butcher any chicken I need to at any time I need? Heck yeah, but I have no reason to take on that much stress and effort at this point in my life. Some day I will invest in a plucker and then I will consider butchering chickens myself again. For now the ones I did process have gone on to feed some great local people including myself and are delicious!

Our gardens have gone dormant for the winter. I have some root veggies in the ground under the vauge hope they will come back in the spring… The pepper plants were potted and brought indoors and the tomato plants were ripped out and deposited in the chicken pen. The real champion of our garden was our heirloom organic Kale. This plant took the hot and the cold like a champ and are only just being ripped up as the weight of the snow is crushing them, not the cold. The mother rabbits really appreciate the huge hunks of kale they have been getting as a result! I will be planting a HUGE patch of his kale next year and making kale chips. It is very exciting!

And Christmas is on us once again. Some of you may have guessed but I am not Christian. I still celebrate our modern Christmas, though, because I love the ideas behind a modern Christmas. Almost every culture has a winter fesiltival of lights to bring a bit of sunshine into the grey and cold. I love giving and getting presents and I love how many different cultures went into producing the holiday as it is today, from the Christians to the pagans with Saturnalia and the history of the tree and even the contributions of a commercial society like Santa Claus and holiday TV specials! I feel like Christmas is our modern society’s festival of lights and whether you put an Angel, a star, or a peacock on top of your tree it is beautiful to look at. I hope everyone has a happy holiday this year, and whatever you celebrate for your religion I hope you have a Merry Christmas anyhow!

And don’t worry…. I am sure you will hear from me again soon!