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DIY

Gift Guides

Gift Lab: Rolling Out DIY Sushi

August 11, 2015

NeQuana_sushi_giftlab_forblog

Product: Sushi Making Kit

Research:
I typically eat sushi 2 – 4 times a month and it has never crossed my mind to make it myself. Upon seeing this product, I suddenly became obsessed with wanting to create it for myself and others – I craved sushi almost every day. The kit looked like it would be easy and not a fussy/stressful meal to prepare, which made me more eager to try.

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Gift Guides

Gift Lab: Grow Your Own Organic Cilantro

July 2, 2015

Rachel

Product: Garden-in-a-Can: Grow Organic Cilantro & Citrus Juicer

Hypothesis:
I’ve been told cilantro is really hard to grow so I was skeptical. Could it really be that easy? Just pop the top, bury the seeds and water for a few weeks? And would lime juice help me win the guacamole competition? My answers were yes! and yes!

Research:
When I heard we would be doing a more gardener-novice-friendly grow kit, I jumped on the chance to test it out. If all goes well, I’d have fresh cilantro in the house for the Purchasing team guacamole competition in a few weeks! I also knew then that lime (and tons of it) would be my secret ingredient, so I employed the help of our new citrus juicer to get the best results!

Experiment:
So, I did just that! I opened up the can, gently buried all the seeds about an inch under the surface and then poured about 2 shot glasses of water in every day or two to keep it looking moist.

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The Uncommon Life

Gift Lab: Learning How to Knit with the Knitty Kitty

June 2, 2015

Knitty Kitty Kit | Gift Lab | UncommonGoods

 

Product: Knitty Kitty Kit 

Research:

Five years ago, my talented and crafty friend Kate started hosting Sunday night knitting get-togethers in her dorm with movies, groups of friends, and snacks. I attended most weeks to be cool like Kate, and also for the snacks, but while everyone else flew past knitting and purling to more advanced patterns, I was never able to produce more than a few lopsided rectangles filled with dropped stitches, left unfinished and eventually abandoned. Every several months, I try to take up knitting again with similar results. I was excited that the Knitty Kitty Kit is described as a rainy-day activity for ages 5+, so it’s just my speed, and is more exciting to knit than a scarf. To prepare, I abandoned my current knitting project—another sad blue lopsided length of yarn—and broke open the Knitty Kitty Kit, which came with everything I needed to knit a cat stuffed animal.

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Gift Guides

Gift Lab: How to Make Tasty Homemade Cheese

October 30, 2014

Paul Allison | UncommonGoods

Product: Italian Cheesemaking Kit

Research:
One of my responsibilities here at UncommonGoods is to answer your questions when you want to know more about an item, and what better way than to actually give this a try and hopefully a taste as well!

To prepare for this endeavor I’ve checked out Mad Millie’s YouTube channel and watched her prepare and make her Mozzarella cheese. If there’s one thing I love it would be cheese and Italian cooking. (OK, that’s two things. But two GREAT things!) In addition I’ve managed to locate some non-homogenized whole milk, there’s no question in my brief readings on Wikipedia and the instructions that starting with the right milk is key.

Hypothesis:
Surely fresh, homemade bread is better than store bought bread so I would hope that homemade cheese would be equally as satisfying.

While I am a tad nervous about the results, I feel like the instructions are clear. Although I am super glad I watched the video, so I have a sense of what my goal should look like. I’m generally good about following directions, although when I cook there are times when I can get experimental and deviate from the recipe to add a dash of this or, OOH that’s a pretty color! I’m just going to have to reign in the wild side and stick to the basics–this time around at least.

I feel like the biggest challenges are the ones I can do little about. For those of you who don’t live in New York, you may be surprised by the size of my kitchen; most surfaces are needed for storage so there’s just a limited number of spots to do your mixing and cooking. Oh, and pardon our appearance while we’re in the middle of renovations (at home)! That and I’m concerned about the size pot to use. My current plan is to use our ancient (I think this is older than me) pasta pot.

Experiment:
Well I have everything laid out, and why yes those ARE our Nesting Prep Bowls back there! The instructions say to sterilize your equipment that will handle the milk for 5 minutes. The challenge will be the colander, so let’s get a bunch of pots a boiling. It’s at this point where I wonder why I decided to do this in a heat wave and without air conditioning. My large pot isn’t making it to a boil, and alas, the lid is lost somewhere in a pile of tools. So, I give it a good 10 minutes rather than 5. Thankfully my colander in the smaller pot has reached a boil as that is my greatest concern. I prepare my ingredients, but I don’t see when I add the salt!

1 - Everything Laid Out
Cheese Supplies

The recipe calls for a full gallon of milk, but my local whole foods only sold the milk in half gallons. And here’s where I have my first tip: Shake the milk before pouring it into the pot. I left a lot of good tasty stuff in the bottle. I decided to use the same smaller pot that was already in action, so it’s already warm and we’re just heating the milk up to just under my current room temperature. (Ouch! The thermometer is reading 103, and while the pot is hot from boiling the room temperature is in the ’90s.) And here’s my next mistake. I can only fit a half gallon of milk into this pot! It’s too late to stop going now, so I’ll just have to adjust on the fly.

Making Cheese | UncommonGoods
Milk for Cheese

I squeeze in the calcium chloride. With the stopper it’s not too hard to simply measure half and then the citric acid and decide to add a tablespoon of salt. I’d already mixed in the citric acid to let it dissolve as if I was going to do a gallon batch, so I have to guestimate how much to pour in. I choose to use more than half as I feel it’s likely that it’s not completely mixed. Because of the heat the mix is at the required temperature faster than I expected and before I can really get everything prepared.

Hot Pot

I quickly turn off the heat and it’s time to add the Rennet tablet. It hasn’t really dissolved, but I hope it should in the milk. I stir it in and cover the milk and set my timer for 25 minutes. After 20 minutes of refuge in air conditioning, I’m back in the kitchen and re-reading the instructions. OH NO! You add the salt in the very last step. So needless to say, I’m very nervous at this point and a bit frustrated at myself.

Ice for Cheese

I set up the ice water and I am trying to get the temperature right for the hot water. I started with warm water, from when I was boiling (rather, trying to boil) my tools to sterilize them and I decide to heat a kettle with boiling water and try to get the temperature right. I end up with water that’s just 140 degrees rather than 158, but I go with it. I check on the cheese and it looks like it’s firmed up to me.

My knife goes in and clearly separates the curds. I slice in the cubes and am a bit nervous. Did I allow enough time for the curds to set? It really just seems like a thin skin of what will become cheese. Once I begin to reheat the mixture and gently stir, the answer soon becomes clear. No. I didn’t. I think the key is to really watch the video. I recognized it wasn’t quite the same. This is definitely a case of being close enough is not going to cut the cheese so to speak.

Cheesemaking Kit

I decide to forge on. Once the curds have reached the warmer temperature I begin to scoop the curds into the cheese cloth and colander. As the curds are loose this takes a long long time and I was not able to maintain the temperature. The recipe calls for letting the curds drain for 5 minutes but the process of just getting them out of the pot takes closer to 15 minutes.

Scooping and Straining Cheese

A little forlorn, I begin to scoop up globs of curd and rest them in hot water briefly. They quickly begin to separate, so I simply start to work them quickly and it’s readily apparent that I do not have mozzarella cheese. I still give them a dunk in the ice water, though, and they do hold up better than I expected.

Squeeze the Cheese

It's not mozzerlla but...

At the end of this experiment it appears that while I failed to make mozzarella I did end up with some REALLY tasty Ricotta cheese.

So tomorrow once the kitchen is once again clean and not quite as hot it will be time to make some lasagna!

Conclusion:
When we did make lasagna with my homemade ricotta, it was AMAZING!

I clearly did not make this easy for myself, and as much as I tried to read and prepare myself, I should have started with the goal of making the simpler recipe for the first time around.

I would emphasize that it is a lot of work to make cheese at home, but that the work has much more to do with the preparation and the clean up rather than the cheesemaking itself. I think it would help to have greater counter space and I’m curious what would of happened if I’d had the larger pot to handle the milk.

I WILL make mozzarella, although not this week. Next time I’m going to do a little more research so I can be confident in the ratio of ingredients I’m going to use. I’m also going to have to have a pot of boiling water on hand so that I can properly prepare my curds and they can be stretched into mozzarella. And now that I know the drill, I won’t add the salt until the end! I’m very hopeful that with this adjustment I will be successful.

Gift Guides

Gift Lab: How to Make Cocktail Bitters

December 19, 2013

Morgan | Bitters

Research
I’m a devoted whisky (and occasionally whiskey) drinker and usually enjoy my Scotch like I enjoy the top shelf of my dresser: neat. But I was intrigued to see if bitters might prove an opportunity to salvage a liquor I’ve all but quit–rum. The recipe calls for a high-proof rum, so I picked up one of my favorite antiseptics, Bacardi 151. I also bought an aged rum (to test my bitters in later) that I was hoping might change my opinions of the drink. That rum, Plantation Grande Reserve (note the fancy pants name), was a vast improvement over any rum I could remember tasting (in either direction), in my younger days, so I was looking forward to a different experience, perhaps.
Bitters 1

Bacardi 151? Hello old friend.

Hypothesis
I don’t think I’ve ever tried bitters before, but I’m coming in with a semi-open mind. I like bitter things. There’s something smart-sounding about the word “bitters.” As I have a general preference for straight alcohol, I’m not sure how much this will “add” to the experience, but perhaps since I’m less predisposed towards rum, it may make that drink more enjoyable. (Spoiler alert: I cheated and came up with this last line after the experiment.)

Experiment
Preparing the mixture is actually a good bit of fun, adding the composite spices and ingredients as if your high school science teacher were a part-time bartender. (I didn’t see you and you didn’t see me, Mr. Chard.)

DIY Cocktail Bitters | UncommonGoods

Here I am masterfully peeling an apple and not cutting myself, the skins to be mixed into the jar of rum and spices. No blood! Easy enough.

The preparation requires a morning and evening shake of the mixture in its jar, which is a fun way to interact with your little blooming bundle of joy, and to appreciate the visual richness and beauty of the concoction as it does its thing. Eventually you’ll forget to shake it one morning and you’ll feel guilty for the rest of the day. Just let it go–it’ll be fine.

DAY 1 TEST
Finally, after a long and eager wait, 2 weeks are up and it’s time to open my present! Hold on there just a minute, bud–a few more steps before we’re ready for cheers. First we have to strain through cheesecloth (which doubles as gauze if you cut yourself peeling that apple earlier–try to use the clean portion).

Bitters | UncommonGoods

The liquid is separated from the solid ingredients, which are placed on the stove to simmer with water then cool. This is a good opportunity to be extremely impatient, blow on the mixture, and just dump it in hot anyway. (Again, you’re probably fine.)

Bitters in Process | UncommonGoods

After cooling, we strain the mixture once again. OK, this is your exit solids! In the trash you go! We then get started on simple syrup (a sugar and water mixture that is heated and added in equal parts to the rum mixture). Add to dropper bottle then the big payoff.

I decided on bourbon because, well, I like bourbon and it seems to feature in a good number of bitters cocktails. I could make a cocktail, but I’d rather really taste the bitters here just to see how they work with the alcohol. A bit of bitters drip drop into some Buffalo Trace bourbon.

Drinking Bourbon

Unfortunately, it wasn’t doing it for me. Nope. Had I done something wrong? I don’t think so. Was it last Friday when I neglected to shake the bitters? Were they exacting their revenge? Nah – I don’t think bitters hold grudges (although they are called bitters…). I think it was just the combination. The iconic Buffalo Trace flavor now muddled into something indecipherable and a bit all over the place. I added a bit more but that just added to the confusion. My eyes saw the Buffalo Trace and my mouth was failing to compute.

Give up? No way. We’ll try again tomorrow.

DAY 2 TEST
New shirt, new day, new opportunity to drink.

Back on the saddle and off the wagon with something a bit more compatible, perhaps – rum. Yes, my aged rum would make a late-game, surprise guest appearance in a highly unscientific evaluation.

In one glass – straight aged rum
In the other – that same rum with a few drops of bitters.

Bitters and Rum

This one makes sense. The rums obviously blend well, and this time I’m able to actually taste the spiced apple. Not overpowering, but definitely adds another dimension. Yeah – I get it.

Conclusion
I could see this enhancing a mediocre rum or allowing for a drinker to taste a decent one from a different perspective. I imagine you could mix into a number of different cocktails with different alcohols. (The instruction booklet names a few.)

The highlight for me though was the process. Enjoying a drink usually consists of nothing more than opening a bottle and pouring it. Occasionally this might involve stirring in a few extra ingredients–and sure–there are even bitters you could buy. But there was something very satisfying about the process; in the interaction with all the individual ingredients, in the ultimate unification of those flavors. There was something satisfying in the wait. Alcohol is one of those things that can take longer than anything to get right. We buy liquors that have been waiting for years, heck, decades to taste just right, then we sip them and they’re gone.

This kit represents the process, the time, the care that goes into a good drink. This probably won’t change my lineup of standby drinks or undying love of a good straight Scotch, but it was an interesting ride, I learned a bit, and I have something new to taste along with some of my old favorites. Nah, I ain’t bitter.