Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016 in Review and Plans for 2017

[insert canned remark about falling repeatedly off the face of the earth, to return annually with little fanfare at Mom's behest]

2016 Highlight Reel
I know I'll get mad shit for saying as much, but 2016 was by and large a pretty good year for me. In March, I got me a full-time, salaried job, as an editor, from home, with benefits. Who says miracles aren't a thing? I blame my prolonged absence from the writing scene on the fact that I now spend 40 hours a week cleaning up other people's word vomit. For all its tribulations, it's the most perfectly suited job for my present goals and lifestyle, and I'm elated to have found and kept it.

In September, I got the chance to throw some generous PTO time at a trip to New England with a couple girlfriends, which was an unprecedented blast. My goals were no drama and no bad food, and both were met and exceeded. It turned out to be a bigger financial hit than I expected, but I'm very glad I went.

A couple weeks after my return, a three-week-old orphaned kitten fell almost literally into my lap. The original plan was that I would foster her, but she's become a member of the family. My boys and I love her, and she's proven that not every blessing is planned and not every surprise is a pain.

The last couple months, by contrast, have been a period of chaos borne of overwhelm. My environment reflected my head space, or vice versa, and I found myself being clumsy and careless as I espoused the notion that imperfection is chaos, and chaos is failure. I got in a stupid accident in November that totaled my car, and my health was literally in the shitter for a good couple weeks. All signs pointed eerily to the fact that I needed to slow down and stay in. I'm still putting some pieces back together, but I'm by and large recovered.

2016 Goals and How I Did
I hesitate to use the term "resolution" anymore principally because I know myself, and resolve is not among my virtues. I entered 2016 with lofty goals. I would not say I failed in these pursuits so much as revised them and took better stock of my changed priorities.

Home and Household
Let's be honest: I was on a hardcore crunchy kick this time last year, and my goals reflected that. However, with the new job came a different lifestyle and set of priorities. While I have kept up with making a lot of my own body and cleaning products, I did not go nearly as granola as I'd intended. Believe it or not, cloth hankies are a pain to deal with and not as effective for us mucilaginously gifted types. I did my best to keep up with recycling, but it's become a pain in the ass. As I don't have pickup in my condo complex, nor a garage, I have been hording bags of recycling in my car because the one free recycling drop in town is always full. Not exactly practical. I don't home-make every single thing anymore because not everything I've tried has proven effective or economical. I still experiment, but with reduced fervor. I didn't get overly far on the self-sufficiency front, but that's because I realized refusing competent help out of pride is just stupid. I can't know everything to take care of myself instantly, but I can pick up tips and skills with a little help from competent friends.

It's been a good and bad year socially. While I bowed out of my two major social groups (modeling and D&D), I've been spending a lot more regular one-on-one time with the most important people in my life. I could have gone out more, but the trade-off was worth it.

Work and Money
While I've got a slightly better handle on my regular expenses than previously and have realized I'm not independently wealthy enough to splurge on organic food that resulted in no appreciable difference in my health, I needed to do better with budgeting than I did. I'm terrible at making myself slightly less comfortable and forgoing impulse buys in order to build up savings. As a result, unexpected expenses have put me in debt. Not proud of it, but it's the slap in the face I needed to tighten up. As for work, I'd say I've been performing well in the eyes of my employer but could be more efficient behind the scenes. There are days when the work-from-home stereotype is alive and well, and I fritter away valuable work time being distracted.

I spent months upon months experimenting with supplements and doctors' trips to arrive at a dead end in recovering from my ever-accumulating chronic issues. Repeated fruitless, expensive visits to doctors have put me off modern medicine for anything that won't kill me. The supplement experimentation didn't hurt, but it didn't solve anything. I did pretty well with diet and exercise over the summer, but I've lately used cold weather and malaise as an excuse to eat comfort food and sit around.

My One Resolution for 2017
If there's one thing 2016 taught me, it's to know myself and be forthright about it to myself and others. I know better now than to make a tedious litany of what I want to do this year, invariably fail, and give up trying. Instead, I'm going to take a simple step which I believe will beget organic growth in multiple facets of my life: be efficient in my responsibilities. I've realized that I have a bad habit of overwhelming myself with impossibly long lists of things that need to get done and repeatedly putting things off. This results in a feeling of never being fully caught-up. By extension, I am always "sort of working," and leisure activities and interruptions become impositions and sources of angst. I feel drained by other people's company and mad at myself in equal measure because I'm failing to budget my time wisely.

My plan, which I will commence as soon as I post this, is to take realistic stock of all my daily and weekly tasks and responsibilities, and assign regular dates and times to them. For instance, Thursday after work is always errands and grocery shopping, and Sunday is always meal prep. Sundry chores like floors and bathrooms will be assigned specific dates and one-hour time slots, and all will get Google calendar entries with reminders.

My hypothesis is that, if I'm not constantly figuring out what to do next, I will accomplish more in less time. I can knock out my chores for the day within an hour after work and have my evenings and weekends free to tackle new things, which I will plan out as they come. I won't feel put off by last-minute plans and can be present with people because I'll know my own affairs are in order. I can pick up new or old hobbies without second-guessing whether it's the best use of my time. Hell, I can even watch TV and movies without feeling like I need to fold laundry at the same time. I'll be the master of my own domain, and I think my confidence and willingness to grow will improve as a result. Stripped of the front of being perpetually "too busy," I'll have no choice but to try new things, be honest when I don't want to, and otherwise explore and fill this newfound "spare time" by broadening myself.

If this year is to have a theme, it's competence begetting confidence, or commanding respect versus demanding it. It's time to stop making excuses to myself and others, get on top of my shit, and get out of my comfort zone. I'll have nothing to sweep under the rug if the floors are always done on Friday.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Homeowniversary Update: Closets and Health Stuff and Worms -- Oh My!

. . . No, health stuff and worms are not related, although there was that one supplement experiment. . .

Posts have been scarce for the last few months. I was balls-deep in my busy work season from mid-January to mid-March, and the vast majority of my domestic pursuits have been redundant to the point of being unworthy of documentation. I figured I'd refrain from sharing what little I've been doing around the house until there was enough of it to merit a full post (unless you follow me on Facebook, in which case you're probably subjected to multiple inconsequential posts on the subject daily. Sorry about that. . .).

Today seemed as good a time as any for an update, as it was a year ago today that I closed on my condo. I've evaded repossession, HOA reprimands (mostly) and meeting the neighbors, and only one thing's caught fire. I'll count that as a successful year in review.

In the spirit of spring cleaning and all that jazz, my focus has mostly been on rearranging my closets to maximize efficiency. The cleaning/cat closet and the patio closet have been my primary focus, and I'm pretty pleased with how they turned out (ask my Pathfinder group -- I may have squeed when they asked where my trash lived now and I showed them that it fit under the sink and that I had a separate recycling bin and a cleaning closet now that all of the stuff from under the sink was hanging on the door).

The patio closet may not be pretty, but it's functional. There are four of those green totes in there, and each one holds, respectively, all of my Christmas, seasonal, painting and gardening stuff. Now there's only two loose things instead of piles to exhume when I need something from the bottom.

Aesthetically, since I finally got around to putting Christmas stuff away, I've been trying to avoid buying more seasonal stuff, but the Dollar Tree actually had a lot of cute decorative crap this year.

Not bad for under $10, am I right? It's a little tacky, but I think my place can pull it off.

I also finally got around to setting up my worm bin, which fits perfectly on a shelf in the cat closet. Most of my worms arrived dead and I'm awaiting new ones, but it'll be nice to have a little self-sustaining ecosystem going in a couple square feet. Plus they're currently feasting on coffee and tea -- classiest invertebrates ever. Momma's proud.
As for the health stuff, I've been on something of an experimental kick with my body in trying to figure out what might be causing some of my most obnoxious symptoms (mostly persistent acne). Before anyone crawls up my ass, yes, I have been to the doctor several times for everything and have yet to receive treatment and results I felt were worth my money. I can throw money at copays and prescriptions, or I can research shit myself and try what others are saying have worked for them. My first guess was an estrogen /progesterone imbalance, so I got on DIM and vitex, plus milk thistle to help my liver process the shaking up of the hormones. Worked great for a couple weeks, then acne came back, so back to the drawing board. Then I realized it might be from a persistent two-year bladder thing I've had, so I got D-mannose and marshmallow root to calm the inflammation down. I've only been on these a couple days, so the jury's still out.

I've decided the next step is an elimination diet, wherein I eliminate potential sources of irritation and intolerance from my diet and see what might be causing a problem. As much as I am convinced food intolerances are largely a glamorous first-world fad and that people who make food services workers jump through unnecessary hoops to accommodate their medically unnecessary requests are assholes, I'm at the end of my rope. The people who assure me I should be able to eat whatever I want don't have to wear the evidence of their dietary choices on their face. I'm getting awfully tired of having the worst skin of anyone I know, of getting sick all the time and of being unable to kick a two-year infection, and diet is the variable I have the power to change. If I strip my diet down to bare necessities and nutrients and there's no appreciable change, I'll know it's just my lot in life, genetics or whatever. I have a hunch it's dairy since that's what I eat a lot of and crave (which is damn shame, because my homemade yogurt was starting to turn out really good), but I'll also be cutting out gluten, probably coffee (ugh), sugar, alcohol and eggs for three weeks. I already eat pretty well and don't keep bread or pasta in the house, so dairy's really the only hard part, plus social drinking. It'll be worth it if it fixes anything. Maybe I'll document the process when I start it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A Recluse's Guide to Going Out, Socializing and Survival Thereof

Just when you thought she'd abandoned the blog, she returns with yet another treatise on something trivial and narcissistic. You should've known better.

Since my domestic pursuits have been ongoing yet unremarkable since my last post and I felt like writing anyway, I figured I'd share a sort of psychoanalysis in the guise of an informative article on one of my favorite topics: staying the fuck at home. However, this one will be a little different in that I've actually learned some tricks for getting over the all-consuming desire to secede from society and will impart them to you, my faithful reader, who clearly also needs a life since you are, after all, reading this.

As background, in case you haven't heard my primary descriptor/excuse for antisocial behavior, I'm a recovering homeschooler who lives alone and works from home. On a neurological level, I'm predominantly introverted (ISTJ if you're into that) and, while having successfully evaded formal diagnosis, likely embody some cocktail of schizoid PD, social anxiety, low self-esteem, anhedonia, over a decade of untreated major depression and/or devout pessimism that manifest collectively as misanthropy (can you tell I have too much time to think?). As a rule, I leave the house twice a week on average, but lately it's been more than that, and I've somehow managed not to snap into a full-blown hermit or lash out at my fellow man for having the gall to be in my company. I've noticed some trends and patterns in how I approach social situations, positively or negatively, and thus believe myself at least marginally qualified to offer some personal insight if not applicable advice. I've ranked them in order from least desire/necessity to interact to most:

Say "Leave Me Alone" Without Even Opening Your Mouth
     This is a tactic I generally employ for trips to the grocery store, large parties, crowds or other places where the goal is to extract myself as efficiently and invisibly as possible. I've found that dressing plainly and unremarkably, yet also tidily, gives others little cause to notice you (I'm also a firm believer in buns as the universal hairstyle indicator of "I'm a bitch, back the hell off"). Walk briskly, avoid eye contact, yet don't appear sullen or suspicious. The goal is to appear busy, not in need of a hug or handcuffs.

Employ Conversational Escape Routes
     For me at least, the aspect of socialization I most dread is being approached and asked to talk about myself, followed closely by being talked about and being introduced. After years of ungraciously shutting conversations down with closed-ended, curt responses, I've found the easiest way to not appear bitchy is to answer questions with other questions and try as efficiently as possible to get conversational assailants to talk about themselves instead of you. Granted, if you find yourself with a Chatty Kathy, this may backfire, but this is where other escape routes come into play. If you're pretty sure you're going to be miserable at some social function, set an alarm on your phone to go off during the party, even multiple if you like. This gives you an out to answer your phone or take that crazy pill, whatever excuse you prefer, when in reality it's buying you time to hide in the powder room with a beer.

On that topic . . .

Give Yourself Some Liquid Courage
     Before you get on my case about enabling, this is only advisable if you know your sweet spot and don't exceed it, and if drinking makes you more socially acceptable and not less so. Assuming your hosts drink, it never hurts to bring a six-pack of your favorite beer or a bottle of wine to a party. Not only does it make you appear to have contributed, but you're guaranteed at least a small stash to imbibe. Grab a beer early so you can drive home later, and cut yourself off before you're obviously drunk, but that little lapse in inhibition can go a long way toward getting you out of your own head for a bit.

As for when you want to/feel like you should go out and are not under duress:

Take Classes on Topics of Interest
     The beauty of classes is that it gets you out, but the attention's not on you. Find a Meetup group for a field/subject/activity you enjoy, and take advantage of free classes. You don't have to talk to anybody if you don't want to, or you can strike up conversations on the subject with your teacher or classmates.

Give Yourself a Groundhog Day
     In my experience, the hardest part of going out is talking yourself down from the ledge of cancelling. When you only have one place to go, it's easy to feel like rescheduling or cancelling is easier than getting dressed, getting your head in the right place and venturing out. If this is your problem, try to plan all your errands and meetings on one day. Set up your day so that each social interaction feels like ticking off a box on your to-do list, and you'll find it more rewarding. You'll also be less inclined to shut down since it's easier to stay "on" than to turn yourself on to begin with. That came out wrong.

Schedule Downtime Commensurate with "On" Time
     If you tend to feel depleted by going out, try to schedule some "you" time either soon before or soon after the taxing social event so you can charge or recharge your batteries. You may find you resent the imposition on your solitude less if you make it a point to commit to it on your own.

Get Involved in a Small Group That Meets Regularly
     If you have a hard time with new people unstructured socialization, consider joining some kind of hobby group with a predictable crowd and schedule. It will be awkward at first, but if you stick with it, you will find that cancelling means violating your routine, which will feel worse than going. Plus, you will learn your place/role within the group, which lends a sense of security and belonging.

Host Your Own Stuff
     This one stone kills so many birds it's not even funny. You have fine control over the crowd, the time frame, the environment and the activities, and you need not worry if people don't like you -- they wouldn't have come if they didn't. Plus, you'll be too busy preparing to overthink.

And most importantly. . .

Sleep on It Before Committing
     It's amazing how much less fun something sounds the closer the date gets. If you find yourself regretting making social commitments, don't make them in the first place. Say you will get back to people on invitations, take a macro view of your calendar to make sure you're not overbooking yourself not just that day but that week, and give yourself outs so you don't beat yourself up later for committing and flaking.

Hopefully this is helpful to someone.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015 in Review and Goals for 2016

[insert sentimental introductory paragraph here]

I figured, both for the purpose of getting things straight in my head and for accountability, it would be worthwhile to compile a list of noteworthy milestones, lessons learned and all that good stuff from this past year and append a short list of broad resolutions for the coming year, because I'm a white girl and we do stuff like that. So, without further ado, here's a tenuously categorized litany of 2015 and all it wrought:

Home and Household:
Obviously, the big thing this year was succeeding in purchasing property, but it was big in more ways than one. The mortgage application process alone was invaluable in teaching me how to accept and ask for help and also showing me that rejection and uncertainty need not spell ruin and a shameful march back home to be a spinster with one's mother. Setting up my own place has done wonders for me; even the delusion that I am capable of being an independent adult makes me better at actually becoming one, to the point where I will get a rush from knowing my bills are paid early and performing big maintenance tasks. I now have something tangible to channel effort into and take pride in, and this little '70s foreclosure condo has proven the most supportive environment to personal growth I've ever found myself in.

On a micro level, household management has become my art medium. I revel in isolating specific things, such as cabinet organization, diet and decorating, and optimizing them through research, trial and error. There's no one around to please but myself, so I can tinker and tweak to my heart's content. I like to think at least some of my experiments have been fruitful and practical, but they're mostly just fun for me.

Once again, I'm going to attribute improvements in the arena to living alone. It's a lot easier to avoid getting peopled out when you have a sanctuary of solitude, and I'm slowly getting better at making social commitments and suppressing the urge to flake out. I was concerned briefly that I would relish solitude to the point of becoming an actual recluse, but my social life is the best it's been since college. Since I'm less dependent on people than ever before, I have put a big dent in my people pleasing reflex. I'm getting better about cultivating deeper relationships with people I actually like and letting go of ones that feel like a chore. I'm now involved in two small hobby groups (modeling and D&D) that meet routinely, and I'm finding I look forward to these get-togethers. I've been entertaining a bit more now that I have the space and wherewithal and find that I enjoy spoiling my friends, on my terms. Haven't had to break anyone's kneecaps yet -- they keep coming back.

Family relationships have also improved -- living apart, I believe, has helped us to see each other as friends with an extensive shared history, and family gatherings are becoming something to look forward to. We razz each other to the point of appalling the people around us, but it's like our secret affection handshake.

Work and Money
I'm blessed to have been able to support myself entirely from my remote editing work and actually had a pretty flush year. I'm finding that work makes me feel safe, like I'm investing in the security of a financial buffer by prioritizing it. I got positive feedback that made me feel valued even as a contractor, and I feel like, if this gig collapsed, I could make valuable contributions elsewhere.

I've been pretty good, actually, at keeping on top of my bills. I've yet to get a good budget in place, but that will be a priority in the new year. Even without it, and with being less frugal than I could be (friggin' Amazon), I believe myself at a visceral level to be more or less on top of my finances.

Apart from slacking big time on exercise, which is nothing new, I think I did a pretty good job of taking care of myself. Finally kicked a prolonged ailment, through great trial and tribulation, and have been good about buying progressively healthier groceries. I've identified a number of fixes I could make and implemented many of them, and realize there's still more I could do. I'd say I'm going a little bit granola, but I still can't stomach the stuff.

As for resolutions . . .

Home and Household
This year, I really want to pursue self-sufficiency in any way I can. I made big steps in waste reduction in the last six months (e.g. learning how to recycle, switching to reusable menstrual products and using cloth over paper towels), but I'd like to take paper reduction further by making and using cloth hankies and giving family cloths a try. I intend to get a small worm compost system going to minimize organic waste as well. Further, I want to really maximize what little garden space I have and use it to produce food, perhaps even taking it so far as investing in a grow light and getting stuff going inside. I've already started experimenting in making my own cleaning implements and body products, with the goal being to use up commercial products and replace them with homemade ones as I run out. The primary goal is to make or learn how to make rather than to buy. Livestock isn't an option right now, so I can't be fully self sufficient, but I have every intention of cultivating these skills while I have the luxury so that I'm prepared if and when they become a necessity.

In addition to the more domestic end of things, I want to get better at doing the hard stuff. I want to cultivate at least a working knowledge of how to troubleshoot plumbing and auto issues, how to build and mount heavier household fixtures as well as how to shoot. If you've read any of my gender politics stuff, you know I firmly believe no one is entitled to anything from anyone, and I'd like to walk the walk by learning how to do the things I'd otherwise ask men in my life to help with. Again, self-sufficiency.

I've got a pretty good thing going with my present social circle, so I'd like to cultivate my existing relationships. I'd like to entertain more frequently and with less fanfare, so that it's less of a contrived production for everyone. In finding that bigger, scarier social functions are usually at least tolerable when I get up the nerve to attend, I'd like to cultivate a strategy to talk myself down from flaking out at the last minute or learn not to commit as a reflex. Above all, I want to get better about giving and receiving without overthinking it. I want to be freer with expressions of affection and appreciation and not freak the hell out when I receive them.

Work and Money
Budget, budget, budget. Since I don't have the security of a predictable income and benefits, I want to really focus on building my savings, getting ahead on my mortgage, staying out of debt and getting my spending under control. Amazon and organic food get expensive very fast, so I'd like to have a concrete amount to spend on these items and find strategic ways, e.g. couponing and waiting for sales, so that I don't exceed the allotted amount.

As for work, I want to diversify my avenues of income. If I can, I'll try to pick up more online gigs to fall back on, or I'll apply somewhere concrete if that's not feasible. I also intend to get my resume out there in the off chance freelance work becomes available. I've become my social circle's go-to grammar nazi, and it's time to capitalize on that. In the near term, I want to focus on time management and develop a productive routine that minimizes distractions from burnout. I've realized I've been afraid for a long time of flying too close to the sun with my income, but I feel like if I build myself a safety net, reaching higher will be easier.

The biggest thing here is developing a routine of regular maintenance, even when I'm not going anywhere or seeing anyone. This means proper grooming, even if I stay in my pajamas. I'm doing pretty good with diet, but I could do better. I use entertaining as an excuse to overindulge and eat terribly, so I'd like to find healthier things I can serve my friends. I live literally right outside a public park, so I'd like to schedule time outside for exercise and Vitamin D, perhaps justifying it as foraging. I also need to get back into regular yoga, since I live very close to my studio now and it's a shared activity with my mother, who also needs it.

I'll probably add to this as I ruminate more on it, but these are the prevailing themes. Hopefully this was insightful for others too.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Brief Treatise on Gift Guilt

Obligatory attention-grabbing stock photo!

'Tis the season . . .

If you've known me for any length of time, you know I am about the least gracious gift recipient of all time. Not that I'm rude or ungrateful about it, or at least I try not to be -- I just overthink gifts and make the exchange awkward for everyone involved. When I'm the recipient, I either feel wildly unworthy of this great gift I love or horrible if I don't end up liking or using it. As a giver, I assume I'm burdening the recipient with clutter and guilt.

Gift exchanges just do not make sense to me, especially when they're prescribed. Don't get me wrong -- there are few better feelings than coming across something, thinking "So-and-so would love that," and seeing So-and-so genuinely delighted to receive it. This does happen, but I'd argue it's the exception and not the rule. How often do we scrimp and save hundreds of dollars for birthday and Christmas gifts because we have to, only to pick up something vaguely pertinent and present it to the recipient because we have to, only to have them fake a smile and stash the gift somewhere out of sight because they have to? What part of this makes anyone feel good?

I know a number of people who dread the holiday season because of the socially prescribed level of planning, commitment and investment involved, and I don't blame them. You're either in the Christmas spirit or you're a Scrooge, Grinch, etc. There's little recourse for folks who just want to spend time with friends and family without the burden of investment -- no one wants to be the only guy who didn't bring presents, nor the only one who did. There's no winner in this scenario except people who sell things that people give to other people (and bless their sorry asses for putting up with the rest of us).

This year, I'm trying to overthink this less (and clearly failing by about 500 words and counting). I'm trying to tell myself that if I can just make myself want to give gifts, it will feel less like an obligation, and if I bring gifts, I'll feel less like a schmuck for receiving gifts. Currently, my plan is to make everyone gifts. While there is a very, very large and very loud part of me that says this will backfire -- that I'm not only burdening my loved ones with storing this homemade crap they won't use, but fishing shamelessly for their validation like a kid who needs his fingerpainting mounted on the fridge -- I'm trying to tell myself that they will probably neither use nor like what I make them, and that that's okay. I'm not foregoing any better or more expensive gift just to make them something cheaper, so they're not missing out in that respect. What I will be giving them, and myself, is the knowledge that I put forth focused and tailored effort to make something I thought maybe they would like, and right now as I figure out how to be authentic without being a massive bitch, that's the best I can do. I can apply myself and not expect the gratification of affirmation.

As for receiving gifts, let me first say, to anyone for whom this is pertinent: I am seriously perfectly content without gifts. I will feel like much less of a shitty human being if you leave me off your list, so win-win for both of us. YOU DON'T OWE ME SHIT. I love you and don't want you to agonize over pleasing me. Since I know there are those who insist on gifts, thank you I guess? Enjoy your wacky potions in thrift store bottles, because I know you, as a good human, wouldn't want me to agonize either. At least, that's what I'm telling myself.

As a footnote, I for one do not believe it's at all cheating to drop less than subtle hints as to what kinds of gifts you'd get the most use out of, with the caveat that they are not requisite to your affection or good graces. I labor under the assumption that anyone giving a gift wants the givee to like it, so why not make this easier? Wishlists, ideas and expression of voids you'd like filled (heh) all help everyone involved come out of the exchange smiling. No, the person shouldn't know you well enough to read your mind. Cut that shit out. If you want something, say so. If you don't want something, or anything, say so. If someone says so to you, do your best to respect it. This "but I HAVE to get her something/but he HAS to get me something" attitude needs to die.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Homemade Greek Yogurt in a Crockpot: How I Did It and What Not to Do

In case you are not among the hapless schmucks who follow my self-indulgent documentation on Facebook, my most recent domestic experiment consisted of an appropriately seasonal diplomatic mission with the colonies -- bacteria colonies, that is. I was determined that Greek yogurt, one of my four basic food groups amongst coffee, kale and snark, should absolutely be something I learn how to make on my own, and I'm pleased to report that I succeeded. 

Initially, I considered investing in a yogurt maker, but that somehow felt like A) cheating and B) a waste of precious counter/cabinet space. Instead, I followed The Tasty Cheapskate's recipe for crockpot Greek yogurt "for dummies." Since either I'm a special breed of dummy or the recipe isn't quite as dummy-proof as I'd hoped, I'm going to share my process as well as what absolutely not to do. As a disclaimer, I have attempted this a total of twice, once with success and once with a mild case of food poisoning. Since they didn't occur in that order, I'd say progress was made.

Rule #1 of yogurt making/biggest mistake I made the first time since it wasn't mentioned in the recipe: KEEP EVERYTHING SCRUPULOUSLY CLEAN. Any bad bacteria you introduce or don't eliminate has the perfect environment to propagate itself and wreak havoc on your digestive tract. Anything that comes into contact with the yogurt should be sterilized, including spoons, thermometers, jars and the crockpot itself. I kept water boiling in my electric kettle throughout the yogurt-making process and poured it over any new utensil to be used -- I suspect you could also sanitize everything all at once, if you're better at planning than I am.

Rudy is why we can't have nice things.
To get started, you will need a 7-quart crockpot, a reliable thermometer, an oven or other draft-free warm environment, a thick sacrificial towel, a gallon of whole or 2% milk (I used whole and can't vouch for 2%), 1/2 cup of plain yogurt* for starter, enough airtight containers to hold a gallon collectively, and a large chunk of time to devote to babysitting your batch. I suggest starting on a weekend afternoon about six hours before you usually go to bed, on a day when you have nowhere to be in the morning. Supervision's only really necessary when the milk is coming to temperature, but I wouldn't leave it alone until its temperature is stable.

*When selecting a yogurt for a starter, the most important thing is that it have the five requisite live cultures and minimal extra stuff like pectin, flavoring, gelatin, etc. -- you can determine all of this by checking the tub it comes in. Look for a good plain yogurt whose flavor and consistency you like -- I used Mountain High. Greek yogurt starter does not make Greek yogurt; in fact, using Greek yogurt as a starter can throw off the bacteria balance and give you a wonky batch.

Now, then. On to the process:
  1. About six hours before you want to go to bed, pour your gallon of milk into your sanitized crockpot, put the lid on, and turn it on Low. At this point, you should be able to leave it alone for two hours or so. Take the milk's temperature periodically to see how fast your crockpot heats up -- I generally crank mine up to High after two or three hours when I get impatient. The idea is to slowly heat the milk to 180 degrees to kill any harmful bacteria present in the milk.
  2. When the milk reaches 180 degrees F, turn the crockpot off, unplug it, take the lid off, and leave it to cool to about 130 degrees. This takes about an hour, so don't stray too far. The milk will develop a skin throughout this process -- just skim it off with your thermometer and flick into the trash. Do not stir it in, or you'll have gross slimy lumps in your yogurt. Do NOT rinse your skimming implement in tap water and put it back in the yogurt, or you might as well pitch the whole thing now.
  3. When the milk reaches 130-ish, get your starter and your oven ready. I like to measure my yogurt into a Pyrex measuring cup -- you'll want something roomy that you can pour from, and make sure it's sanitized! Arrange your oven racks to the lowest level, and make sure your oven is warm but not hot. I turned my oven on to Warm for a bit, but some people just turn the oven light on or set the oven to a bread proofing temperature (spoiled bastards). A too-cold oven will slow down the culturing process, and a too-warm one can kill your bacteria.
  4. When the milk reaches 115 to 110 degrees, ladle a bit of milk into the measuring cup with the yogurt, and whisk them until they're smooth. This tempers the yogurt and keeps you from having lumps. Mix this slurry back into the crockpot of milk, working quickly so your temperature doesn't drop below 110.
  5. Put the lid back on the crockpot, and wrap the the whole thing in your sacrificial towel. Stick the bundled-up crockpot in your warm but NOT HOT oven (you want it to maintain around 110 degrees overnight), and close the door. Leave the oven light on if you can. If you have a self-cleaning oven with one of those little levers that locks the door, use this to help trap heat. If you share your oven with others, leave a note so that no ones turns it on. Once your crockpot is all tucked in, you can hit the hay. 

Soft yogurt, warm yogurt. . .
In the morning/after 8-ish hours, check your yogurt. It should be set up, like gelatin. If it is still runny but looks yogurty, you can stick in back in the oven to continue curing longer. You can also let it cure longer if you like a tangier yogurt, so be sure to test. DO NOT try to heat it back up -- this was a giant mistake I made the first time. Also, do not stir it at this stage, or you'll end up with a nasty cottage cheese consistency. If you're happy with flavor and consistency, take half a cup off the top right away, and stick this in the freezer to start your next batch. Then, you can go ahead and scoop the yogurt into your choice of airtight containers and stick it in the fridge.

If you like a good thick Greek yogurt, you can strain off the whey (make sure to take your starter for next time before straining so the bacteria balance is correct). Set up a large colander over the sink (if you don't want to keep the whey) or over a large container (if you want to keep the whey). If the latter, make your colander a little kickstand of some sort so the colander doesn't sit in the whey as it accumulates. Line your colander with a clean tea towel, T-shirt or cheese cloth, and pour/scoop in all your yogurt. Leave this for two to six hours; the longer it sits, the thicker your finished product. I left mine for a little over two hours as I had somewhere to be, and the finished product was about Yoplait consistency. In the future, I'd leave it a couple hours longer.
Turn and face the strain . . .
When your yogurt has strained to your desired consistency, you can either pack it up right away or whip it with a mixer or eggbeater to ensure a uniform texture. Once your yogurt is packed in its airtight containers, it purportedly lasts in the fridge up to two weeks. If you don't think you will go through it that quickly, you can freeze it (probably). If you chose to save the whey, use it in smoothies for a splash of protein, or use it as a buttermilk substitute in baking.

The total cost of the ingredients was ~$6 for a gallon of organic milk and half a cup of yogurt, which came out to about $0.50 per one-cup serving of yogurt seeing as I yielded three quarts. If I strained it longer, I'd probably yield 2-2.5 quarts at $2.50-$3 each, or $0.60, $0.75 a serving. Considering organic Greek yogurt retails for ~$3 a pint, that's a hell of a savings. If you reuse your containers and make a new starter every time, you can make this process even more economical.

Pro tip: before you wash all your dishes, slather some of that yogurt on your face. The lactic acid and beneficial bacteria make an excellent mask -- just rinse it off after ten minutes.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Elderberry Syrup and Plans to Culture All the Things

As of today, November 15th, I am officially free from the bonds of Q3 earnings, or "busy season" with my work. This means more time to play in the kitchen and continue trying to optimize the ways in which I take care of my home and my person. Today held a series of small victories on that front.

First, on a mission to Vitamin Cottage for elderberry syrup implements, I discovered this:

As some of you are aware, I've been meaning for a while now to start making kombucha and actually attempted to grow a SCOBY at home using some store-bought kombucha, but that experiment has . . . fizzled out, shall we say. Thanks to, I suspect, a combination of ginger in the existing kombucha, using metal utensils, using non-organic sugar and/or keeping it in too cold an environment, I remain sans SCOBY after three weeks. Since this kit comes with a SCOBY, all I'll need is a gallon container to start what will hopefully be a successful batch, with potential for further brews. Plus, pear and ginger sounds awesome.

While at Vitamin Cottage, I also discovered that organic Greek yogurt is obscenely expensive, so I went a-Googling and found this recipe for bulk quantities of homemade Greek yogurt made in, of all things, a crockpot. This strikes me as the most economical way to keep Greek yogurt around, since I eat it every morning. If I'm especially crafty, I can probably even stock up on gallons of milk when it goes on sale and freeze it till I'm ready to make yogurt.

Finally, I got around to making a batch of homemade elderberry syrup -- FrugalGreenGirl's recipe, to be specific. For those who've yet to be subjected to my proselytizing on the subject, elderberry anything is excellent for boosting the immune system and treating colds and flus. I've now used the commercially available Sambucol (basically elder berry Zicam) to nip two colds in the bud, but that runs $15 for 30 tablets, or one cold. This syrup ran about $5 for a two-cup batch. Ingredients are nothing more than 1/2 cup dried elderberries, 1 tsp fresh ginger, 2 cinnamon sticks, 4 cloves, and 3 cups water, brought to a boil, simmered on low for half an hour, strained and mixed with 1/4 cup of honey. It purportedly keeps in the fridge for up to three months -- we'll see if it lasts that long, knowing my propensity to come down with stuff. I'm planning to drizzle a tablespoon or so on my morning yogurt to keep me evenly supplemented.