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Simple ways to celebrate the holidays without breaking the bank

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Editor’s note: This story, by Jennifer Cazzola, was originally published in the Dec. 2013/Jan. 2014 issue of From Scratch. Read that issue here. Read more from Jennifer at the Black Fox Homestead.

The holidays are a time to celebrate with our family and close friends but often times our schedule is so overloaded with holiday parties, shopping, and entertaining, that the season can pass by without spending quality time with our loved ones. Not to mention the fact that gift giving can be more of a financial burden than a blessing.

With that in mind, here are a few ways that will give the gift of quality time together, that shouldn’t break your budget.

Have a pre-holiday tea

Begin the Christmas season with an intimate afternoon tea. Tea fare need not be fancy or expensive. It can be as elaborate as scones and finger sandwiches, or as simple as a single tea cake. In addition to an assortment of teas, provide coffee, and perhaps punch or sparkling cranberry juice for the non-tea drinkers among your guests. Light lots of scented candles, play some soft music (Thomas Newman’s Little Women Soundtrack is a good one) and provide an atmosphere of peace and tranquility where guests can visit and reconnect before the holiday rush sets in. If schedules are already beginning to fill, consider allowing guests to come and go at their leisure.

Organize a skating party

Whether you are fortunate to live near a picturesque pond, or an outdoor rink, invite your guests for an afternoon of skating together. Bring along a basket of scarves and mittens to keep warm, as well as a thermos (or two) of hot cocoa. Extend the afternoon by inviting everyone back to your home for chili or beef stew and old fashioned board games such as Yahtzee, Monopoly, or Sorry.

Host a cookie exchange

Cookie exchanges are the most popular and obvious way to lighten the Christmas baking load while enjoying a nice visit with friends. However, it can be the gateway to a sugar overload at a time when neighbors are already bequeathing you with tins of holiday fudge. If you feel you might be cookie-ed out over the holidays consider a soup exchange or even a casserole exchange instead.

Invite a small, intimate gathering of friends to bring a batch of favorite soups or casseroles and a visit over a cup of coffee or cocoa. Allow everyone to leave with enough healthy food to get them (and you) through the rest of the holiday season. Don’t forget to ask everyone to include a hand written recipe with their offering.

Host a gift wrapping party

A gift wrapping party is another way to lighten what can be a heavy load while getting in a visit. Provide a large table, a few snacks, and a marathon of classic Christmas flicks. You and your friends can enjoy the time together while accomplishing a mammoth task that is often put off until the last minute.

Some things to consider in advance:

  • Holiday schedules begin to fill quickly. Schedule your event and contact your guests as soon as possible.
  • In an era of email and Facebook a handwritten invitation sent by post can be a gift in and of itself.
  • To lighten your load and expense, allow guests to pitch in with the food.

Find out how to brew your own beer

Find out how to brew your own beer

Want to brew your own beer? It’s a great time to do it as grain harvests start coming in.

Maybe you’re even one of the lucky few to have your own hops yard, or your own homegrown grain stores.

But either way, brewing beer is definitely worth doing.

“Home brewing is part of our history and heritage,” Marcus Bezuhly, of Homebrewstuff.com, said. “In fact cultivation of beer ingredients were one of the first priorities of early settlers (in America). George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were both prolific home brewers.

“I personally find a romance to making something at home that most people take for granted by going to the store and buying off of the shelf,” Bezuhly said. “At the very least it makes you appreciate the time and effort that goes into making products from scratch.”

Sustainability

It is possible – with perhaps the exception of brewers yeast – to produce all the ingredients needed to practice home brewing on your homestead.

Apples from a small orchard can be used for cider, any number of grains can be used to make beer and any sugar producing fruit can be used for wine.

“There is a huge range of fermented beverages that can be made from home,” Bezuhly said.

Production

At its most basic form, brewing beer means making a wort with boiled grains and sugars – or the appropriate extracts – fermenting the wort by adding yeast and then filtering and bottling the finished product. Fermentation usually takes up to three weeks and involves keeping the fermenting wort free from oxygen, light and extreme temperatures.

A lot of home brewers ferment their wort in closets and garages, using vapor locks to keep oxygen from entering while allowing waste carbon dioxide to leave the fermenting bucket.

If CO2 cannot escape, brewers run the risk of explosions from the buildup of gases.

During all stages of the process, proper sanitation cannot be over emphasized.

“Clean everything, then sanitize it. When you are done, clean it again,” Bezuhly said.

Once the process is complete, filter the sediments out of the beer and bottle it.

Bottling your beer can be done in a couple of ways.

“The least expensive method is to recycle used beer bottles, clean, sanitize, refill and cap them. The alternative is to use kegs and bottled CO2 to store and carbonate your beer,” Bezuhly said.

You can also purchase flip-top bottles with attached stoppers.

Steps

The first step is to clean all your equipment, the spoons, the boilers, anything that will come in contact with your wort.

Then, mix your wort according to the instructions of your recipe (see the Blond Recipe from EDGE Brewing Co. in this magazine).

Boil your ingredients according to your recipe and then chill the wort in ice water and then transfer it to a fermenter. Many recipes recommend you strain the hops from the wort at this time.

“Pitch” or add the yeast. Some yeasts require “blooming,” where the yeast is added to warm water before adding it to the wort, similar to how yeast is proofed while making bread.

Cap off your fermenting bucket, being sure to place the vapor lock in place. In about 24 hours, you should see bubbles coming out of the air lock. If you do not see any activity in about 48 hours, then you have problems and need to start over. If this happens, consider getting new yeast, as dead yeast is one of the most common problems brewers face.

Allow the wort to ferment for at least a week, depending on the recipe. Once this happens, siphon the wort from your fermenting bucket into another – clean – container, leaving as much of the sediment in the fermenting bucket as possible.

Bottle your beer from the new container. Some home brewers have been known to filter the beer at this point using filter papers, but it depends on the recipe. At this point, a little sugar or dried malt extract is added to increase carbonation.

Cap off the bottles and allow it to age for about a week before refrigerating. As the beer refrigerates, more sediments may settle. Do not drink this material, as it is generally composed of dead yeast.

While you may be tempted to use bread yeast instead of baking yeast, it is not recommended. While the product will be alcoholic, it probably will not taste very well.

Outside of having a good recipe, that’s about it.

With a little effort and some investment, you will have your very own beer. With a little practice, you can produce a product enjoyable for you and your friends.

If you are interested in trying to brew your own beer, check out this recipe from Bezuhly.

Just like a lot of home production projects — think yogurt, kombucha, etc. — it may seem intimidating at first, but with a little bit of effort, you’ll have it down in no time.

The Blonde

  • Original gravity 1.051
  • Final gravity 1.013
  • Alcohol (by volume) 5.0%
  • Bitterness (IBU) 31
  • Color (SRM) 7.3°L

Ingredients:

5lb Light Liquid Malt Extract
1 lbs American Two Row
.5 lb Caramel 15°L
.5 lb Wheat Malt

1 oz Mt Hood Hops – Boil for 60 min (of 60 min total boil)
.5 oz Tettnanger Pellet hops – Boil for 30 min (of 60 min total boil)
.5 oz Tettnanger Pellet hops – Boil for 20 min (of 60 min total boil)
.5 oz Tettnanger Pellet hops – Boil for 10 min (of 60 min total boil)
1 tb Whirlfloc Tablet – Boil for 10 min (of 60 min total boil)
***If you have a coil immersion chiller, add 10min before boil is complete***

Yeast:

(Liquid) Wyeast 1056 American Ale -OR- (Dry) Safale-05  – Pitch into fermenter of cooled wort. Ferment at 65°F for 7 days. Rack to Secondary for an additional 7-14 days.

Procedure:

Heat 2.5 to 6.5 gallons (depending on the size of your kettle) of water to 155°.  Steep specialty grains in muslin bag for 30 minutes. Rinse grain with hot water and remove from kettle.  Add liquid malt extract and bring kettle to boil.  Once a good boil is going, add the first hops and start a timer.  Maintain a boil and add hops according to the schedule above.

***If you have a coil immersion chiller, add 10min before boil is complete*** 

When boil is complete, transfer wort to sanitized fermenter, then add water to make a total volume of about 5.25 gallons.  Pitch yeast into cooled wort (<75°F).  Ferment according to Schedule above.

Homebrewstuff.com offers kits to make the beer brewing process easier. Check out their beer equipment kit and the blonde ingredient kit.