Kombucha what?

Kombucha. Comb-boo-cha. Ever heard of it? It's the hippie, new age, magical "elixir of life". It's actually just fermented sweet tea, but I prefer "elixir of life", don't you? I'd heard about kombucha maybe a year or two ago and had seen bottled versions for sale at the co-op and eventually at the grocery store. After figuring out what it was, exactly, I bought a bottle of the stuff and gave it a try. Fizzy, light, pleasant. Like a weird little soda.

Then we all started food swapping and everyone brought freaky awesome things like tomato jam and homemade flax crackers and kombucha. I tried a sip of homemade kombucha brew and was hooked. Luckily for me the starter culture needed for brewing kombucha, a SCOBY, is readily available if you have kombucha-brewing friends because every time you brew a batch, you grow another SCOBY. By the way, SCOBY stands for Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. Mmmm, delicious. Except, it's really weird-looking. When I brought it home, Chris asked me if it was a "pig's ear floating in formaldehyde". It is not.

So, we've got this fermented sweet tea beverage that some people claim can save the world and others aren't so sure about. I think it's tasty, and I haven't felt any negative effects from it and I only have a glass or two a week. Sometimes I put a splash in my smoothies. Read up. Make your own decision about it and then you can decide whether you'd like to homebrew some yourself or buy it at the store. Be forewarned, a regular storebought kombucha habit will get expensive, real quick.

There are plenty of tutorials out there for brewing your own kombucha, this one from Bonzai Aphrodite looks pretty good and so does this one from Apartment Therapy's Re-Nest. I used directions that a friend got from another homebrewer and it turned out magnicently. The basic idea is that you brew a whole bunch of sweet black tea, you add the SCOBY and then you let it ferment awhile. An additional delicious step is to do a second fermentation with fruit juice, like pomegranate juice. That is what I did and what I plan to keep doing because it makes it a fizzy, fruity little drink. From start to finish, my brew took about 3 weeks: 16 days for the first fermentation and another 5 days for the second fruit fermentation. I did notice that the bottles I opened later were even fizzier and more awesome, so next time I'll probably try and wait another week. The longer you let it ferment, the more vinegary your kombucha will be, but mine wasn't vinegary at all after that amount of time.

Kombucha Thoughts:

  • It's a unique taste, but you'll grow to love it.

  • It is technically a tiny bit boozy, because of the fermentation, but I've never heard of anyone drinking it for a buzz. Or being successful at getting buzzed from it even if they tried.

  • There are usually little particles floating around, but that's ok. You remove the actual SCOBY after fermentation so don't worry about that.

  • The SCOBY is super gross looking. Just deal with it.

  • SCOBYs are living things so you have to keep it alive; that means keeping it in starter tea (which is really just kombucha itself), keeping it in glass and away from plastic and keeping it in the fridge.

  • The "starter tea" that you keep your SCOBY in smells nasty and vinegary. Try not to spill it all over your kitchen floor, swearing and throwing things in the sink will surely follow.

  • Once you get your hands on a SCOBY, you can continuously make new batches of kombucha. After you are done brewing, there will be a new SCOBY (the "baby") attached to the original one (the "mother"). You can carefully separate these slimy things, keep them in a bit of your kombucha and then use one of them again for you next batch. Each SOBY only has 4-5 batches in it, but by that point you'll have saved new ones to used so you'll be fine. You can also let your SCOBY grow into a super SCOBY by leaving the "baby" attached to the "mother". (This is so weird, right?) That's what I did the first time, but I'll separate the new "baby" next time and try to pawn it off on someone.

Super weird, right? Your first step ought to be buying a bottle of it at the store to make sure it settles with you and that you like the flavor. I find my brew to be more delicious than store-bought though, but you'll at least get a basic idea. Give it a shot, try it with a fruit juice second fermentation and email me if you want more specific directions :) I like to have a small glass of it a few times a week and pretend that it is superhero juice. 

free holiday printables

Christmastime has snuck up on me. I probably say that every year, but this year it's insane. We enjoyed warmer weather through much of December and haven't had a significant snowfall. We only just put up our decorations last night and I haven't done any holiday baking, except for the batch of cookies I made for our cookie-themed FSC Swap earlier in the month.

These cutesy Gift & Canning Labels I designed for From Scratch Club ought to get me in the holiday mood, yes? Head over to FSC, download & print :)

And if you are still in the gift planning stages, check out my Nice & Naughty Gift Planner from 2008...

 or A Homespun Holiday Planner from 2009.

Enjoy! I'll be heading over to Mom's this weekend for a cookie bake-a-thon and hope to wrap up any last gift-buying too. Next week I'll start on some edible gifts and, with any luck, it will be be smooth sailing until Christmas. But before all of that, I'll share with you my first-ever kombucha homebrewing experience. Stay tuned for a story about fermented sweet tea! Riveting!

Maple cream

Have we talked about maple cream yet? My records indicate that we have not. So let's talk about it. IT'S HEAVEN. IT'S SO DAMN GOOD.

That's really all I have to say. Maple cream is pure 100% maple syrup that is whipped into a frenzy. You can spread it on your toast, on pancakes and on anything else you can think of. I've been known to even spread maple cream on top of cookies. Then again, I've also been known to do the same with Nutella. It's really something special. I even gave a bunch of jars of maple cream as stocking stuffers last Christmas, in order to spread the maple cream cheer. I buy mine from Wells Maple Farm at the Troy Farmers Market. It's worth every penny.

If you like maple things-- and I hope you do-- then you should make it a priority to snatch up some maple cream. I'm not sure that it's available in many grocery stores, but that's ok because it's a perfect excuse to buy some from the friendly older gentleman that sells maple products at your local farmers market.

ps- When I Googled "Wells Maple Farm" to see if there was a website, this 1988 New York Times article popped up about a tough maple season in 1987, when I was a perky three-year-old. Love it. Which got me thinking about something I heard recently on NPR about a new reverse osmosis process that maple producers are using to reduce their energy and fuel costs and to help produce better yields. Something about "science" that reduces the time they need to boil down the sap. Sounds good, but then again what do I know?

Non-dairy milks, an exploration

We've been down with non-dairy milks for awhile now. In fact, we rarely ever buy cow's milk these days, preferring instead to use unsweetened vanilla almond milk for most things. After experimenting with soy milk and almond milk, I decided to get friendly with all the non-dairy milks I could find. Except hazelnut. I didn't even realize hazelnut milk was a possibility until after I set up this little project, so forgive me. I'll try it soon.

Why non-dairy milk? Maybe you have dairy sensitivities. Maybe you are vegan for other reasons. Maybe you are just an adventurous eater and drinker. It's good to try new things and switch up your habits from time to time. At least I think it is. I eat way more things now than I did even a few years ago.

I present to you my unscientific, imperfectly executed round-up of non-dairy milks. When available, I compared the unsweetened, original flavored versions that are available in the refrigerated section. I also chose the most mainstream brand for each milk, in an effort to pick ones that are widely accessible and easy to find. Exceptions are noted below. Generally speaking, I don't pour myself a glass of milk to drink. I bake and cook with it, use it as the base for my daily smoothies and sometimes pour it into my coffee or tea. So if you are a die-hard, drink a glass of milk person, I can't say which non-dairy version might suit you best.

Coconut Milk
In addition to the cans of coconut milk you've probably used for making curries or sweet desserts, you can also buy a coconut milk beverage that has reduced fat and richness of straight-up, pure coconut milk. It's still sweet and creamy and makes a great substitute for coffee creamer and for use in Asian-inspired soups and sauces. For desserts, your best bet is the canned variety of coconut milk.

Notes: Unsweetened coconut milk (for drinking) is really tough to find, and the Original or Vanilla versions are much tastier. My two cents. Available in refrigerated and shelf-stable packaging.

Brands: Silk Pure Coconut (Original, Vanilla) & So Delicious (Original, Unsweetened, Vanilla)

Soy Milk
Soy milk is a popular  alternative that is almost as high in protein as cow's milk and is higher in calcium. It's also packed with magnesium and Vitamin D. Soy milk separates less during heating than many other non-dairy milks, so it is great for cooking and baking as well as regular ol' drinking. It's the non-dairy milk most people know about and are familiar with because it's been around for a long time.

Notes: Available in refrigerated and shelf-stable packaging. Unsweetened versions exist, but I couldn't find one for this tasting so I went with Original. Chocolate soy milk is one of my favorite treats, especially right after a long run.

Brands to try: Silk (available in lots of flavors, including seasonals), 8th Continent (lots of flavors, including light and fat-free varieties) & West Soy.

Oat Milk
Oat milk is really tasty. It's sweet, oat-y & creamy. I hadn't tried it before this grand experiment, but I think I'll keep it in the rotation for awhile. Oat milk has more calcium than cow's milk and is also one of the lowest-fat options of the non-dairy milk crowd. I was surprised to note that it ranks second-highest on the protein scale for non-dairy milks, coming in right behind soy.

Notes: I've only seen this in shelf-stable packaging and I haven't seen an unsweetened version.

Brands to try: Pacific Natural Foods (Original & Vanilla)

Almond Milk
Almond milk has a delicious, creamy consistency similar to soy milk. It's great in smoothies, cereal and for drinking. Almond milk has a slightly nutty flavor (as you might expect), is high in flavonoids and Vitamin E (which lower cholesterol) and contains as much calcium as cow's milk. I like to put a splash of almond milk in my tea. Almonds are one of the healthiest nuts you can eat and almond milk is the lowest calorie option of the bunch.

Notes: Available in refrigerated and shelf-stable packaging. Our current fave of the non-dairy milks is Unsweetened Vanilla Almond. Give it a try.

Brands to try: Blue Diamond Almond Breeze (Original, Vanilla & Chocolate in both Sweetened and Unsweetened versions) and Silk Pure Almond (Original, Vanilla, Dark Chocolate & Unsweetened)

Hemp Milk
Hemp milk is super nutritious. It contains the same amount of calcium as cow's milk, is rich in heart-healthy omegas and contains all ten essential amino acids. Bam! It does have a little bit of a grassy or nutty flavor, which I find to be awesome. I've heard it is distinctly "not great" in coffee, but I haven't tried that myself.

Notes: I've only seen this in shelf-stable packaging.

Brands to try: Living Harvest Tempt (Original, Vanilla, Chocolate & Unsweetened Original, Vanilla)

Rice Milk
Rice milk is light and sweet but lacking in many nutrition categories. Your best bet might be to buy a rice milk blend or enriched rice milk product that has added vitamins and minerals. It's good for drinking since it isn't too thick. I rarely use this in my smoothies, though, because I like to add a bit more creaminess.

Notes: Available in refrigerated and shelf-stable packaging. Try a rice-soy blend, like the one from Eden Organic.

Brands to try: Rice Dream (Available in lots of flavors, including crazy ones like Chocolate Chai, Vanillla Hazelnut & Horchata. Also comes in Enriched and Heartwise varieties.)

And because I took the nerdy time to create this spreadsheet, I might as well share it. Click to enlarge.

For full disclosure, I almost always buy vanilla flavored milk.

For drinking, smoothies and making desserts, I like vanilla better. For savory cooking though, you'd be smart to stick with original unflavored versions. In conclusion... they are all good for different uses.  Rice milk is the least nutritious, hemp milk is pretty much a superfood with its complete protein and omegas, and soy milk rivals cow's milk in terms of protein. I happen to love almond milk, find coconut milk a little too sweet for most things and I think oat milk is a tasty new find. And, of course, all non-dairy milks are cholesterol-free. Just to put aside another myth, you should note that most of these milks actually have as much or more calcium than cow's milk. Surprised?

I know I left out your favorite brand of such-and-such non-dairy milk, so tell me about it in the comments. What is your preference for non-dairy milk? Did you know you can make some of your own non-dairy milk? It's true. If you... say... had a Vitamix blender, it's actually really easy. Stay tuned...