Sunday, January 31, 2016

Living life on a large scale—Clan Size

One of the things that makes my family unique and different from the other families we know is the sheer number of us. I'm so used to having twelve brothers and sisters that I don't think of that as an incredibly and unusually large number of siblings. It's really skewed my perception of how "normal" families operate, too, because it makes me laugh when people say they came from a large family and then add that they had only six or seven siblings.

Seriously. They know nothing.

But although the whole point of this blog is to share some of the wacky and unusual things my family does, most of what I talk about is the gigantic scale on which we do everything, from cooking to laundry to road trips. But although I write about this a lot, I think a lot of times, people don't quite grasp just how big we do things. They hear the number thirteen, but they don't quite understand what that means until I start giving the numbers.

The size and scale of our garden, for instance, is something people regularly underestimate. You almost have to see it to believe it, but on a year-to-year basis, this is what we put in it.
This is about half our garden. Sadly, it's buried in snow
right now, so I can't really take a more accurate pictures.
On average, we plant thirty tomatoes every year, more if we can find space. For the past two years, we’ve also planted several hills of cucumbers (five the first year, eight the second), and those keep us in pickles well into the fall. Typically we can about sixty quarts of green beans, and in addition to that we freeze about thirty gallons more. We also can between 90 and 150 quarts each of beets and carrots every year. And last year alone we canned 224 quarts of applesauce—the year before we did over 300 quarts.

And these are just the foods we can in the largest volume. I didn’t even mention how much jam and venison we put up. But think about those numbers a little, and then consider that the Clan eats about six quarts of applesauce at a meal, or five quarts of vegetables. Trust me, we do a lot of canning, and it adds up to a lot of jars. Dad did a count last year and came up with just over one thousand jars.

No lie.

How about another area of everyday life—laundry? The Clan does laundry on a huge scale as well. On an average day we run between three and four loads of laundry. If everyone changed their clothes that day, we might have five or six loads. And I'm talking full loads. We don't mess around when we're running laundry. There's a reason the washing machine wears out so often. 

And with this much laundry being washed, our two enormous laundry baskets get mounded with clean laundry every day. To give you an idea of what I mean by enormous, these baskets are big enough that I can almost fit underneath one if I curled up tight.

Sadly, I’m not that flexible, so it ends up looking more like a turtle shell, but you get the picture. They’re BIG baskets.
I would say this is a mostly-full laundry basket. It could be fuller.
And what about the clothes we don’t wear on an everyday basis? What do we do with seasonal clothing like shorts and sleeveless shirts or polar-fleece sweatshirts? We have an entire room downstairs dedicated for storage—not food storage, but clothing, school supplies, and other household items. This room is stacked up to it’s six-foot ceiling with plastic tubs and bins, all jam-packed full of clothes. 
If this seems like way too much extra, think about it. At any one time there’s going to be one of us in practically every clothing size from adult to toddler. We do hand-me-down’s all the time, but you can only hand a pair of jeans through so many boys before it just wears out. And, not gonna lie, not all my sisters are as (ahem) dainty as I am, so a clean, unstained shirt is a hard-to-find thing at our house. However it happens, our clothing just wears out and regularly has to be replaced. To keep from having to run to town to buy new clothes all the time, Mom uses garage sales to stock up on those things we run out of most often. Even though we might not need seventeen girl shirts in size medium right now, that will probably be different next year. It just pays to store the extra.

So we fill that storage room to the ceiling. Whether it’s seasonal clothing or just a lot of t-shirts and jeans, we usually have around twenty plastic bins in our storage room. And it used to be more, but now that we don’t have to keep baby clothes or toddler sizes around, we’ve been able to cut down quite a bit.

While we’re on the topic of storage, let’s talk about the size of our house. Even I will admit that, compared to normal houses, we live in a BIG house. I’ve written before about how we only have two kids’ bedrooms, one for the boys and one for the girls. My sisters and I all sleep in the same room, but that room is quite large for a bedroom. If you got rid of the bunk beds and shelves in the girls’ room, you could probably park a pickup truck in there. And the boys’ bedroom is way bigger. It’s smaller than the garage, but it’s still pretty darn big.

Speaking of the garage, take a moment to consider how we get places. There’s no way we’d all fit into a normal van, and it’s really not cost-effective to have to drive two vehicles every time we all have to go to town together. On long road trips or when we go camping, this is usually a different story, since we need a second vehicle to haul camping equipment, etc. But for little trips, it’s just better to have a vehicle we can all fit in.

Enter the “School Bus,” our fifteen-passenger van that just barely manages to hold us all. I don’t know what we would have done if there had been one more baby, but at least we all have a place to sit and a seatbelt to ourselves when we have to drive somewhere.

These are just some of the mundane, everyday things about the Clan that would be normal and ordinary if they weren’t so HUGE. If the numbers I’m throwing out there are surprising to you, well, get used to it! The Clan is full of surprises, and you should have guessed that by now. Because of the size of our family, everything we do is just bigger (and better) than what everyone else is doing. Big bedrooms, mongo gardens, and hundreds of canning jars is just the way we roll.

Author's Note: Special thanks to Mom and Dad for helping me research this post, by the way. I mean, I kinda knew how much of everything we planted and stored, etc. But fact-checking the numbers with them has made sure I've got everything right. Turns out we don't have thousands of jars, just hundreds.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Boy Cheese and Girl Cheese—just what are they?

When you’re part of the Clan, you’ve got to walk the walk. But it’s equally important that you talk the talk, and to do that, you’ve got to know your cheeses.

We’re not concerned about Brie and Munster here. We honestly don’t care if you know Colby from Cheddar—I’m not really sure those two are different anyway. But it’s very important to us that you understand the distinction between boy cheese and girl cheese. A lot of people skip past boy cheese and girl cheese and go straight to the fine lines between soft and hard cheese, cheeses with rinds, and all that other nonsense. The Clan tends to stick with the simple stuff, and trust me, you can’t get much simpler than boy cheese and girl cheese.

You see, back when the only kids in the Clan were David and Eli, they were very interested in the next baby (me), and particularly concerned about whether I would be a boy or a “grill.” They had a hard time with the r’s and l’s of that word back then—in fact, "girl" has been a hard word for the entire Clan. I can’t say whether they were disappointed or excited that I turned out to be a “grill,” but the way I see it, they got what they got and they’d better be happy with it.

So there.

For the longest time, however, my sisters and I were the “grills,” and occasionally our difficulties with this word has led to a little confusion. Most noticeably, Mom always got raised eyebrows from the littlest kids when she would make grilled-cheese sandwiches. But until Becca came along, no one ever commented on this.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to have a conversation with my sister Becca, you’re missing out. She’s the kind of person who doesn’t stop talking—not even to eat and sleep. She likes to tell everyone what to do and she has opinions about everything that she won’t hesitate to tell you, like it or not.

Which, in a lot of ways, reminds me of me. Weird.

Anyways, Becca likes to be involved in the things that are going on at our house. But to her involvement doesn’t necessarily mean doing the actual work so much as it means watching you do the work and telling you all the ways you’re messing up.

Huh. Now that I think about it, she reminds me a lot of me. That's...kind of scary, actually.

Like the rest of us, Becca had several years where she struggled with “grill” and girl. But for her, grilled-cheese sandwiches clicked perfectly. I guess for a two-year-old, grill and grilled sound pretty much the same, so one day she proudly declared to Mom that “grill-cheese sandwiches are for just grills" because they have "grill cheese."

Once we figured out what she was telling us, you can be sure we thought it was pretty hilarious. But Becca hadn’t quite finished with her earthshaking declarations for the day, and went on to tell us that there was cheese for boys too.

Apparently, “grill” cheese is the cheese used to make “grill”-cheese sandwiches. And boy cheese is the other cheese. You know, the stuff that comes in blocks from the store.
This is "grill" cheese....
....and this is boy cheese. Now you know.
This really make sense once you think about it. It’s so simple, in fact, that I’m really surprised I didn’t think of that a long time ago.

Becca has become our resident expert on kinds of cheeses. She's got such a good understanding of girl cheese and boy cheese that she was even able to tell us that the cheese we use to make "grill"-cheese sandwiches isn't just any old "grill" cheese. It's actually American "grill" cheese. Kind of like American “grill” dolls.
Yeah, we have a couple of these in the house. We're actually OK with dolls, believe it or not.
Becca is five now, and my sisters and I have finally graduated from "grills" to full-fledged girls. It's kind of a relief, actually, but "grill" cheese is still a thing, and it’s very important that you be able to tell the difference between that and boy cheese. If you mix them up around here, it can be safely assumed that you really don’t know anything. That’s just how it is.

And I guess I never realized Becca and I had so much in common, especially when it comes to telling people what we think. I'm not really sure what I'm going to do with this new information now that I have it, but there it is.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Bran Muffins - a Clan favorite recipe

     A little bit of a cooking how-to for you today. These bran muffins are one of my favorite foods - super tasty. They're also easy to make and can be stored in many ways so you can have them on hand whenever you need them. When we make them, we'll make some extras to freeze in ice cream buckets for emergencies. The recipe is very simple and it's pretty much impossible to mess it up. A single batch is about five dozen muffins. For the volume of people we feed at this house, we make two batches.
  • Bran flakes (16.3 oz box or equivalent)
  • 1/2 cup vinegar
  • 3&1/2 cups milk
  • 2 cups water
  • 4 eggs (whole)
  • 2/3 cup oil
  • 1 cup sugar
Mix well, then add:
  • 5 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons baking soda
     Fill cups 2/3 full. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. The batter can also be stored in an airtight container for up to two weeks. The muffins can be frozen and thawed out for later, or eaten fresh.

     Now here's my more detailed explanation of the recipe, since in my opinion it helps to have some of the insider's tips before you start.

     First of all, the recipe calls for an entire box of bran flakes. The box size I'm talking about is a 16.3 ounce box, but you could probably find larger or smaller boxes of bran flakes, or just measure how many cups of flakes are used in one batch. Something important I'd like to point out is that I'm talking about plain, ordinary bran flakes here. Not raisin bran or sweetened bran flakes. You want the straight bran flakes.
     I wouldn't advise just adding the bran flakes to the rest of the ingredients as is, because they don't soak up as much moisture that way and they'll make your muffins pretty lumpy. You don't have to grind them to powder, but smash them up a bit so they're not as huge. Once that's done you can add the wet ingredients.

     The 1/2 cup of vinegar and the 3 1/2 cups of milk are a substitute for 4 cups of buttermilk, something we never have around. Instead we mix the 1/2 cup of vinegar with 1 1/2 cups of milk, let the milk curdle a little, and then add it and the rest of the milk to the muffins. This is way easier than using buttermilk, especially if it's not something you normally cook with.
Curdling the milk. It'll have some solids in it now, which is exactly what you're looking for.
     When I'm making muffins, I typically let the bran flakes sit in the wet stuff for about five minutes so they soak up plenty of moisture and get soggy. If Mom's making muffins, she's usually in more of a hurry and she'll skip this step. Again, it won't change the way they taste at all, but it makes the muffin batter a little less soupy. If you don't care, skip right over the waiting step and keep adding ingredients. The end result will be pretty much the same.
1/2 cup vinegar, 3&1/2 cups milk, & 2 cups water with my bran flakes
     The reason I separated the recipe into two parts is because that's the way I was taught. You want to add the dry ingredients last, particularly the flour. Why? Chemistry. We love chemistry here.

     When you add flour to your muffin batter, it gets moist and the strands of gluten start to connect into long stretchy strings—lots and lots of long stretchy strings that you can't really see. Gluten strands form the little air pockets that are everywhere in bread, giving it it's distinct texture and appearance. If the flour gets added first and gets stirred more and more as you add the rest of the ingredients, those gluten strands will stretch and stretch and stretch—and then break. Then you'll have bunches of short little strands that won't form decent air pockets, and the carbon dioxide formed by the baking soda reacting with salts in the batter won't make your muffins rise at all and they'll come out of the oven like little bricks.

     If you were making cookies, this would be a bigger issue. In muffins, it's not such a big deal, especially since you've only got a handful of ingredients. As a rule, I'd say that unless you intend to stir and stir and stir and mix and mix and mix, you won't have any problems. But that's the chemistry behind why I add flour last. It's pretty much just a habit of mine. Mom cooks with the dump and mix method, so flour is sometimes first, sometimes last, sometimes in the middle, and we're still alive, so that method works too.
This is the ideal look for your muffin batter. If it's wetter, that probably means your
bran flakes didn't get as wet as they could of. No biggie. These muffins are foolproof.
     The muffin tins we use are actually silicon, so the muffins don't stick. They just pop right out, no problem. With metal pans, the muffins tend to stick to the sides and the bottom, so when we do have to use those pans we'll line them with paper muffin cups to save hassle. You only want to fill the cups about 2/3 of the way, otherwise you're going to have over-sized muffins spilling out of the cups - that makes it a lot more complicated to get them out.
     As you can see, these are fairly plain muffins. They're not very exciting to look at or very sweet, but as muffins go they're fairly moist so they last well. They're also my absolute favorite kind of muffin, best eaten with butter once fully cooled. The raw dough can also be refrigerated for something like four weeks in an airtight container—where I live they don't last that long. If you should happen to get your hands on some bran flakes, these muffins are a good way to use them.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Getting rid of Christmas leftovers

Now that Christmas is over (thank goodness!), I plan to go back to regular post topicsduct tape, wooden weapons, worn-out appliances, and that kind of thing. But before I really call it quits for this holiday season, I thought there was one more thing I should mention: the dilemma of what to do with Christmas leftovers. Actually, it's not really much of a dilemma. I know we'll eat them all eventually. Really the question is: how long will it take to eat it all?

First of all, I should explain why we have so many leftovers right now. Some of it is actually ours, things we made that didn't get eaten and that we brought home. But some if it was given to us, because people know that if they give us food, we'll eat it. This happens to us a lot, actually, and we've been given some pretty random food this way. For instance, one time we were given a five-gallon bucket of peeled, hard-boiled eggs somebody had bought for a funeral or wedding. They gave us the leftovers, and we had egg-salad sandwiches and deviled eggs for two weeks. That was a good deal.

But most the time the leftovers we get are from family get-together's, and they're more along the lines of sandwiches and potato salad. Christmas is no exception to the food giveaway, although we don't usually bring home an incredible amount of food. This year, however, the haul is a little more extensive than usual. At the moment, all the Christmas leftovers are sitting on the counter in the laundry room, and as you can see, there's quite a selection.

We've got a little bit of everything here. There are still some nuts in almond bark kicking around. There's also some fudge left, surprisingly enough, and of course we ended up with some extra candy canes. We also have a whole tub of Mom's peanut brittle.....
....some cookies....
....and some more cookies.
A quick disclaimer: These are cookies Grandma sent
home with us. They're not your ordinary Clan cookies.
In addition to all of this, we still have some of our caramel corn left. I didn't get around to doing a post on how we make that, but I'm sure it'll turn up at some other year since we always make caramel corn for Christmas. Caramel corn is pretty good stuff, but it's not nearly as exciting now as it used to be, and we still have a gallon of it left.

These are the Christmas leftovers we came home with this year, though. And I'll admit that I'm a little surprised how much we still have left, because usually we get through it pretty quickly. It's been a week since our last Christmas party, and we still have a ton.

But if I were to make a guess at how long those leftovers will stick around, I wouldn't give them more than another week. I've been taking cookies to work in my lunch, and we've been having peanut brittle and caramel corn for snacks recently. In fact, yesterday we finished off all those frosted cookies, so I don't think it'll be much longer now before everything is gone.

Take it from me. The Clan can go through leftovers at an incredible rate.