Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Or maybe it's Turtle-ly. Whatever it is, it's what we call our African Spur Thigh Tortoise (Geochelone sulcata). Although we don't know if "he" is a boy or girl, we refer to him as "he". We got him unexpectedly in December 2003 knowing only that he needed heat and veggies:

Being totally un-prepared for him (as I mentioned, he was an unexpected gift), Turtly lived in a cardboard box filled with towels in the kitchen by a heating vent until we could properly outfit him with a tank, heat rock and heat lamp. We had to chop up even the smallest of veggies so he could eat them.

So cute!!!

Now, eight years later, and still a strictly indoor pet (except on very sunny hot summer days when we let him roam around outside), he's much, much larger - but probably still small for his age since he is kept indoors.

The neighborhood kids love to gather around to watch him...especially when he's roaming around the living room floor.

He's given us some scares like the time he pulled over my Christmas Cactus and ate the entire top off. We were just about completely packed up for our move when we let him roam around the almost empty sunroom. He pulled over the Christmas Cactus pot and went to town! I didn't know if it would make him sick or not and we had a cross country trip to make with him a couple days later...

Once I took the cactus (or what was left of it) from him, he looked so upset. As it turns out, he wasn't affected at all. By the way, those floor tiles are 12" x 12" so you can get an idea how big he was in October 2010.

Turtly helping me out by disposing of the leftover cauliflower pieces from an entire head of cauliflower.
Now days, he is basically my garbage disposal. I had been thinking about getting a worm composting bin but I give almost all my veggie garbage to Turtly - I'm afraid any worms in the worm compost would starve! He takes care of all the celery tops, carrot ends, broccoli stems, and cabbage cores, etc. He might stop and rest on his heat rock for a bit in the middle of the meal, but he goes right back to finishing his meal. He definitely doesn't like to waste his veggies!

I just had to write about Turtly because although he isn't as playful as a dog or warm and cuddly like a cat, he is quite a conversation starter, he does entertain us (especially when he decides to pee all over people trying to pick him up) and we enjoy having him as part of our family. And since African Spur Thigh Tortoises can grow to be 80 years old, he might even outlive us!

Note: We do also have 2 African Dwarf Frogs that we acquired from Tristan's 3rd grade science class and a cat named "Dingle".

Update 4/29/2013: We learned late summer 2012 that this tortoise actually thrives more on a diet of weeds and if necessary, can be fed foods such as Kale or greens during the months when outdoor access is unavailable. The diet we were feeding him causes the pyramiding of this shell. Now we let him roam the back yard on warm sunny days eating all the dandelions he wants. 

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Monday, January 30, 2012

CHEESE, Gromit!

I love Wallace and Gromit! And I share Wallace's love of cheese...the whole family loves cheese! In fact, every time I'm at the grocery store, I pick up cheese, just to be sure we don't run out at home. And when Daddy ships us blocks of Sweetwater Valley Farm Cheese from Tennessee...Oh Yeah! Heaven! (especially the buttermilk cheddar and the fiery fiesta cheddar)

Not long before Christmas, I got a call from my best friend. She came across a mozzarella cheese making kit in the store where she works. I asked her to pick one up for me. She got one as my Christmas present.

Ever since that conversation about the cheese making kit, I have had cheese making on the brain. In fact, I've read so much about it that I wound up stumbling upon Cheesemaking.com - the website of New England Cheesemaking Company that sells the cheese making kit.

From there, my thoughts turned to Cheddar, Jack and Bleu cheese as well as a whole host of others for making (they have LOTS of RECIPES on the site). But, my inexperience tells me I should start with something much much easier which leads me back to mozzarella cheese. Fresh mozzerella cheese is relatively quick and "easy" to make. I have yet to receive that cheesemaking Christmas present. It still has to be shipped from North Carolina. So, wanting to make it RIGHT NOW, I started...without the kit. I used this recipe.

Finding the rennet tablets was a royal pain. If I had it to do over again, I would have just bought the kit myself online and then gone back there later to get the raw materials if I wanted to make mozzarella again. I special ordered rennet from a local Sprouts grocery store. I thought I was going to get tablets (since that's what I asked for) but what I got was Liquid Rennet - actually better than the tablets and easier to get a more accurate measurement.

I also needed citric acid. I used to use citric acid regularly to make bath bombs:

The citric acid reacted with baking soda to create the "fizz". But since I hadn't made a bath bomb since The Girl was a baby, I needed to get more citric acid. Luckily, I knew where to get some...or so I thought. I had been able to find it pharmacies by the vitamin aisle and international/specialty grocery stores. After checking several stores, I finally located it at Vitamin Cottage Natural Grocery (which happened to already carry the liquid rennet). The citric acid was in the spice aisle near the honey and stevia.

I wanted to make the cheese using fresh milk from a dairy farm, and I actually found a place north of Denver, Johnsons Acres, that could supply the milk. But the farm required shares be purchased and I wasn't ready to dive into that yet. Still, they also offered a great many things that interested me from Goat's milk (for my soap), fresh cream, ice cream and buttermilk to local honey, beef and sushi grade wild caught salmon. I told Mr. LH I wanted to find a home fairly close to a farm - dairy, vegetable, whatever. I wound up buying whole milk from the grocery store - at least it comes from a supplier in Colorado and they "claim" their milk is in the grocery stores by the day following pick-up.

As soon as I got home with the citric acid, I got to work making the cheese. More about that below.

If you do it correctly, mozzarella cheese won't take long to make. The entire process took less than 45 minutes and it was so rewarding to wind up with a ball of freshly made mozzarella cheese!

I didn't try it immediately so I wrapped it and placed it in the refrigerator. A little later, we sliced off a piece and tried it. The cheese was very mild, but also very tasty. Then we tried it melted on Triscuits (it melts beautifully!) but tonight was pizza night so...

We used half of that cheese and absolutely smothered the pizzas with it! It tasted wonderful though it always does so I don't know if I can take credit...

If you want to read about my "cheese trials" (because it took me FOUR attempts to get it right), keep reading...

As mentioned before, as soon as I got home with the citric acid, I got to work making the cheese. I had been looking forward to this since before I special-ordered the rennet. I disolved the citric acid in cold water, added it to cold milk and began to heat it all up to 90F. The milk started to curdle a bit while I was heating it up (possibly from the addition of citric acid). Once I added the rennet, the mixture almost immediately turned into curds.

I let the milk sit covered for 5 minutes and then an additional five minutes to let it settle but the curds never formed a smooth layer as pictured in the "how-to's" I had been studying. You can see in the photo below where the curds pulled away from the sides of the pot.

I went ahead and drained them anyway and proceeded on to the next step.

I was to add hot water to the curds and work it into a ball, kneading it with a spoon. After two additions of water, the cheese was stretching nicely and becoming smooth. Then disaster happened. I added the last bit of hot water to keep it stretchy and the whole cheese practically disintegrated before my eyes! I think the hot water got a little TOO hot.

Okay...okay...breathe in...breathe out. I went to the store and came home with TWO gallons of milk.

Attempt #2:
The first batch never formed that smooth layer of curd at the top. In the instructions, it noted: if having problems with milk forming a proper curd you may need to increase this temp to 95 or even 100F ...

For this second batch I heated the milk to 100 degrees. The milk did NOT start to curdle from the citric acid this time. Nor did it start to coagulate as quickly with the addition of the rennet. However, it did form that smooth layer of curd as shown in the "how-to"...

...except it was VERY soft and didn't ever "firm up". I could cut the curds into cubes, but it never firmed up any more - even after 45 minutes. It was so soft, the cubes of curd wouldn't hold their shape when I tried to move them to the colander. I couldn't strain the curds because they would ooze through the holes of the colander.

Close eyes and count to ten...one...two...three...ten...

Attempt #3:
So maybe the 100 degrees was too high. I tried for 95 degrees this time (this being my last gallon of milk for the night - thank goodness milk was on sale this week).

The results...the same exact thing as attempt #2. This time I tried to strain the runny mess through cheesecloth just to have something to show. I placed it in a bowl to cool thinking maybe it might separate more overnight in the refrigerator and maybe I could still do something with it because I sure wasn't going back to the store again that night! It looked like REALLY small curd cottage cheese. Or maybe sour cream gone bad...

At this point I started to blame the altitude just because I had NO idea what else to blame it on. Then I told Will I didn't know how many times I was willing to try it before I gave up. But I knew I would try  to make the cheese again and I knew I would go back to the beginning. Even though my first batch didn't quite do what I expected it to, I almost had it right...besides, I still had plenty of rennet and citric acid.

I'd have to go BACK to the store in the morning to get MORE milk because I really, really wanted to get it done in time for Mr. LH to make his pizzas (as he does most Sunday nights now). Heck, at this point, I just really, really wanted it to WORK!

Day 2:

The "cheese goop" in the bowl actually wound up MORE runny after a night in the refrigerator. But, Mr. LH got me two more gallons of milk. Thank heavens he was willing to let me try it again even though I was going through milk like mad!

I decided to start making 1/2 gallon batches just in case they didn't turn out. At least I would get four attempts this time.

Attempt #4:
I decided to go back to heating the milk to 90F again since that was the closest I had come to completing the cheese. I also decided to try the microwave method instead of the hot water method for cooking the curds to reduce the chance of having "disintegrated cheese" again.

When I read over the recipe for the microwave method, I noticed this: "Do not prepare any other food while you are making cheese. Put all food products away." These instructions were not on the previous instructions I had been using. Hmmm...during attempt #1, there was no other food around and it worked (except at the end). During attempts #2 and #3, we also had dinner cooking. I wonder if that had anything to do with it...

Well, I got started again...using half the recipe this time. The milk started to curdle slightly with the addition of citric acid.

The addition of rennet had the same results as attempt #1. (they still seemed a bit soft so I let the pot sit for an additional 5 minutes)

I drained the curds in my colander to strain out the whey.

Then (and this is the part I did differently) I place the curds into a microwave safe dish and heated it for a minute on "high".

This created more whey separating from the cheese so I drained it and began kneading it with the spoon. I zapped it again in the microwave for about 30 seconds, drained it again and kneaded it more. It was starting to come together!

One final zap and I was in the home stretch, pulling and rolling my cheese until it (sort of) resembled a ball. I salted it at this point and continued kneading it. The cheese was a bit dry  - it kept tearing and every zap in the microwave would dry it out (this is where the hot water method would be better, I think). Next time I'll keep it a little moister.

I wound up with a very tasty ball of mozzarella! So I made another batch, this time leaving it a little moister. It stretched better then. And yes, after all this it would have been easier and cheaper to have just BOUGHT mozzarella at the store in the first place. But I get a lot of satisfaction from making my own stuff - even things that have me wanting to pull my hair out.

On a related note, I really want to figure out how to make the cheese balls like the chef in the following video from Food Wishes. And whaddya know...the chef is at The Lodge in Vail, CO! Maybe I should pay him a visit for a mozzarella ball tying tutorial :)

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

...and Purl

A continuation of my "learning to knit" adventure...

A couple nights ago, I moved on to chapter two of my book and learned the purl stitch. It was a bit awkward at first, but after several rows of alternating the knit and purl stitches, I got a little more comfortable with it, got a little faster, and was absolutely thrilled to see the familiar pattern I have always associated with knitted items:

I spent a rather frustrating morning learning how to increase stitches, but finally got it. I was having trouble keeping the yarn on the needles at first but I'm sure, like with the knit and purl stitches, with practice I'll get better. I think I'll have to pull this apart and start from the beginning again because I have already forgotten how to cast on :) No matter, though. I wasn't making anything in particular anyway. This is my "practice patch".

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Our Gook-A-Mol-E Tree

Okay, Guacamole...but we call it Gook-A-Mol-E around here. While I was grocery shopping yesterday, I noticed the avocados were on sale and suddenly I had a craving for guacamole. Interesting how that happens, huh? I grabbed 2 of them because I can hog quite a bit of guacamole.

Of course, while Mr. LH was cutting them open because he makes the guac around here, he asked if we were going to try to sprout the pits. Why not? We haven't done that yet. And though our "sunny window" spots are practically non-existent, I figured I could create someplace to keep the dishes for the next couple months while the avocado pits do their thing. I HAD been considering installing shelving right in front of the windows, hadn't I? Yes, I have. Glass shelves. Right across the front of the windows. I could use that extra space for houseplants...and avocados. But then I read from the experts (The California Avocado Commission) that you need a warm place out of direct sunlight. THAT was much easier to provide!

So while Mr. LH finished making the guacamole, I proceeded to prep the pits...toothpicks, water, etc.

I do hope they do well. These were organic avocados so maybe they'll have a better chance of sprouting. And I have heard they could take three months or more to get to the planting stage. That would put us into Spring - the perfect time to move them outside for a bit of sun each day.

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Friday, January 27, 2012


We've been lucky this month, as far as the weather is concerned. Temperatures would bounce between the high 20's with gusty winds to the mid 60's and bright sunshine.

We've managed to get a bit of snow, too, though not enough to really slow anything down. Anything from a few 1/2 inch snowfalls (like the one this morning) to the 4" that fell one night and disappeared by the end of the day. And if you're keeping track, we've had approximately 40" of snow so far this season.

It's funny...though everyone has gotten used to the daily routines of school and work continuing in spite of the snow, it still manages to generate excitement. Not only from myself and the "Pickles", but also from the other children in the neighborhood and at their schools.

At The Boy's school, the plows scrape all the snow from the parking lot into one big mound that shrinks and grows with the weather and probably stays put until May or June. The Boy climbs all over it with his friends until I arrive to pick him up.

The mountain may not look like much now, but it's been sitting there since early December. In fact, a couple weeks ago it covered ALL the grass in the area and went up another three or four feet!

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Word Art

Yesterday, I discovered Wordle.net - a place where you can create "word clouds" from random text, a blog, etc. You provide the words and Wordle.net provides the word cloud - in colors and fonts you can customize and in a variety of layouts. It takes a bit of getting used to, but the best part is, it is free!
I decided to create a word cloud using coffee terms - about 25 terms give or take a couple. It was easier using the advanced feature. I could control the words and their "weight" a lot better (and faster). In order to have a jpg file of your project, you need to take a screenshot of it. Otherwise, you can print it to a pdf file.

Of course, you could always print it out at home or take it to Kinkos and have them enlarge it but I thought having it printed on premium canvas might look better.  So, I hopped on over to Zazzle and created a custom poster with my new image. (You can go there to purchase it if you like). Then out of curiosity, I had it double matted and framed so see how it would look. I think it's a cute piece of "art" for our coffee brewing station! I might have to actually buy it later :)

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

My New Toy

I got what I wanted for Christmas, though I didn't expect it this year. Am empire red KitchenAid Stand Mixer. I've wanted one for years but we just couldn't justify paying so much for a mixer. It's so pretty and smooth that I have to reach out to touch it every time I walk by it.

I couldn't wait to try mixing something in it so I made a batch of pumpkin bread on Christmas Day. I thought about making more doughnuts before the "Pickles" had to start back to school, but wound up mixing Mr. LH's pizza dough one day and my biscuit dough the next. It's mixed up muffins, cookies and even Mr. LH's celebration cake.

If I let the mixer sit idle for a couple or three days, Mr. LH asks if I even like it...so I am determined to make sure he knows it's getting used...a LOT. In fact, it's permanent spot is on the counter...NOT in a cabinet (it's too heavy to lift out of a cabinet anyway).

I'm looking forward to making my buttercream icing in it. The icing gets too stiff to mix with my hand-held mixer (and it's actually what killed my Sunbeam mixer several years ago). But the next recipe to be whipped up in this is doughnuts.

Now to start checking out the accessories for this baby...

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Knit One...

I've been teaching myself how to knit. I've wanted to learn for awhile because a) knitted items seems softer to me...maybe because of the stitch...not so nubby as crochet, and b) the craft seems more versatile than crochet. I don't really know if either of these is correct, but regardless, I wanted to learn to knit. The final push for me to start knitting was after watching an episode of Little House On The Prairie when Grace Snider says, "But Isaiah, all womenfolk can knit!"

All womenfolk but ME! It didn't take long for me to take the plunge!

I picked up a knitting book at my local thrift store several months ago, Knitting For The First Time. I even found several pairs of knitting needles (why pay retail when you don't even know if you'll like it).

Everything had been waiting around for me to start. I figured I'd put it off long enough and one night, I pulled  out my book and grabbed up some yarn and a set of needles and started from the beginning...chapter one.

I'm not making anything in particular...just row after row of stitches. If I had to call it something it could be called a scarf...eventually. Right now it's more like a wrist warmer. I can't even joke "knit one, purl two" because I haven't yet gotten to the chapter where I learn how to purl. It is definitely slow going right now especially since I keep pulling out stitches but I'm hoping with time and lots of practice...

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Western Day

When we moved "out west", The Girl was all about going "Western". She wanted to become a cowgirl and live on a ranch. Maybe she'll live in Wyoming when she grows up and raise horses and ferrets...

She was quite thrilled when they announced "Western Day" at her school. Everyone was to dress "western". She spent all week planning her outfit from her straw hat down to her weathered red boots. She certainly did her part to participate! I think she's only missing the fringe, a lasso and spurs:

She even took her Build-A-Bear Horse, Brownie, with her to school.

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Faculty Of The Year

Mr. LH had a meeting to attend - just a regular college meeting that he wasn't thrilled about going to but that he always dutifully attended.When he came home, he had with him an award...for Faculty of the Year!!! We were both floored! I knew he could do it and HE knew he could do it, but we just didn't think it would be so soon! Hooray, Sweetie! I'm so proud of you!!!!! Is that enough exclamation points to let you know how proud I am of him?

I made him a Cheerwine Cake the next day (from our increasingly small stash of the beloved beverage) and The Girl helped me "decorate" with a sign because how else are you supposed to decorate a lumpy brown chocolate cake.

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