Nothing Beats a Beet Cake

This is a truly extraordinary cake: not only will it slip beets into veggie-phobic kids, it tastes amazing, contains no fat (besides the minimal amount contained in cocoa powder), no eggs (so it’s vegan too), it has a great texture and baking it is an esthetic joy. Seriously. Beets may stain your hands, but their color is so beautiful it’s impossible to hold a grudge against them.

1 large beet

1/2 to 1 cup apple sauce

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp apple cider vinegar

1 1/2 cup all purpose flour

1/2 cup cocoa

1 cup sugar

1 tbsp cornstarch

2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1/4 tsp cinnamon

Peel and dice beet into 1/2” cubes, and boil until soft. Drain the beets and puree in the food processor with 1/4 cup fresh water.

Preheat oven to 325°F

Put pureed beets into large measuring cup and mix in enough apple sauce to get 2 cups of beet and apple puree. Add vanilla, vinegar, and 2 tbsp water.

Sift all the dry ingredients together then combine with the beet mixture.

Pour in a greased 9” by 13” pan or two 8” round layer pans and bake for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick pricked into the center of the cake comes out clean.

To decorate the cake as shown in the top picture, make a paper doily then (right before serving) sprinkle some powdered sugar on top. If you sprinkle the sugar ahead of time the cake’s moisture might make it vanish from sight….

Easy home-made bug spray

An evening stroll in the garden should be relaxing: it’s a time to check on the ripening tomatoes, snack on a strawberry then squish a bug or too — but too often lately I’ve been chased back inside by a swarm of aggressive tiger mosquitoes who seem to be eagerly waiting for their dinner (me), and who attack the minute I open the back door. I’ve made some bug repellent sun cream, which works well, but if I’m just popping outside to gather a few basil leaves then it seems pointless to spend 5 minutes rubbing it over exposed skin. Today I adapted my recipe, putting the essential oils in a vodka base rather than the water and oil emulsion I used for the cream — I sprayed some on then I offered myself to science and to my mosquito sisters, parading up and down their favorite haunts, brushing against the leaves where they lurk.

Success! I repelled all the mosquitoes — not a single one bit — but the neighbors’ cat still came to greet me as usual.

I will post a more detailed recipe after further testing — but here are the ingredients I used: neem oil, citronella EO, lavender EO, peppermint EO, soy lecithin, and, of course, vodka.

The Most Refreshing Summer Drink

This drink cannot be bought, only grown — so if you don’t have a garden (a sunny windowsill will work too) then you’ll just have to buy a pick-up truck. It’s worth the trouble.

All you need is a sprig or two of fresh lemon verbena, a hardy, sun loving little herb with a fresh lemony scent. You will also need a few sprigs of mint. I like to combine spearmint with chocolate mint, but any variety will do. Go to your garden in the morning, harvest the fresh herbs, pour boiling water over them and refrigerate till you’re hot, sweaty and ready for a healthy, invigorating afternoon drink. Don’t add sugar, it will keep you from tasting the beautiful, subtle combination of flavors.

Mint is easy enough to find in stores but I’ve never seen lemon verbena for sale.

Cleaning dissected

At the core of any cleaning product is the surfactant. It can be any chemical, such as soap, which has the ability to lower the surface tension of water. Instead of forming round drops on the surface of materials, the surfactant will make water spread out and wet the material more efficiently so it can dissolve water soluble soils faster. Surfactants have schizophrenic molecules: one side of the molecule hates oil and loves water (hydrophilic), the other hates water and loves oil (lipophilic). This property allows surfactants to emulsify a solution, or to break down the water and oil molecules into small drops so they appear to be combined. When you add a drop of liquid soap to a pan filled with greasy water you can see how quickly the oil floating on the surface breaks into tiny droplets… so you can imagine the same grease spot on a dish or a favorite shirt. Since one side of the soap molecule is holding onto the oil and the other won’t let go of the water, all it takes is a little mechanical action such as scrubbing, the rotation of the washing machine drum, or the pressurized jets of water in the dishwasher, to dislodge the grease. All? Well, not quite.

Tap water is never pure H2O. Minerals such as calcium and magnesium are present to varying degrees. Water with a high mineral content is called “hard,” and for a surfactant to work properly water must be “softened.” The minerals must be rendered harmless either by sequestering them within the solution (by surrounding them) by precipitating them (transforming them into insoluble particles which drop out of the solution) or by ion exchange (swapping electrically charged ions to prevent the minerals from interfering with the surfactant). Traditional soap, defined as animal or vegetable fat saponified with sodium or potassium hydroxide, is particularly sensitive to hard water. This is why, despite the plethora of DIY recipes calling for soap, I will not use it in a machine. More on this later.

Detergents are much less sensitive to minerals than soap, but they still need soft water to work efficiently. The minerals tend to latch on to the surfactant molecules, preventing them from grabbing onto soils. There is a dizzying selection of surfactants made by the chemical giants of the industrialized world. Often these are skin irritants, but for most people only in much higher concentrations than those used in the end product.

“Builders” are chemicals added to enhance a surfactant’s cleaning power, primarily by softening the water. They include many types of phosphates, EDTA (a persistent organic pollutant because it does not biodegrade easily and it is widely used) but also less harmful chemicals like sodium carbonate (washing soda, which precipitates the minerals), borax and citric acid. Zeolite, a volcanic or man-made mineral with a honeycomb structure and a negative electrical charge, is used for ion exchange.

After the minerals have been dealt with and the soils have been lifted, the next step is to prevent everything from redepositing on clothes, dishes, or the machine. The white haze visible on clear glasses comes from the calcium settling back into place after the water has been rinsed off. Different chemicals are used to prevent redeposition, but the one I use is called methyl cellulose (or CMC for carboxy methyl cellulose) because it can also be used to make very pretty slime, marbleize paper and even delicious food.

Two more elements for proper cleaning don’t necessarily require a chemical solution: time and heat. A burnt pot of rice is impossible to clean, but if you soak it overnight the crust comes off effortlessly. Even with soap, bacon fat will stick to the pan till hot water is used to dissolve the grease. The problem is we often don’t have enough time to soak everything overnight, and we don’t want to use hot water either (to save energy or the color on delicate fabrics). The solution? More chemicals. Triethanolamine (aka TEA) is used as a low temperature activator and doubles as an anti soil redeposition agent but it is caustic and needs to be handled with great care.

Commercial cleaners then throw in a few extra features: enzymes break down certain molecules which helps remove stains, blue dye or optical brighteners are added to make white appear brighter (a bluish white seems brighter to our eyes than a yellowish white), and finally anti corrosion chemicals are added to protect not only the machines, but metal finishes on dishes and the paint on fine porcelain). Sodium metalsilicate is commonly used to protect metals from corrosion, but boric acid, sold in hardware stores as a cockroach killer, is a possible substitute. I prefer to use enzymes in pre-wash sprays, because they work much better when applied directly to stains, and when given time to work before being diluted and washed away. As for optical brighteners, putting a small amount of old fashioned bluing into the bleach compartment of the machine works just as well.

Scent does not effect cleanliness in any way, but it does influence the perception of cleanliness. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV ad for a detergent which did not include a shot of someone ecstatically sniffing laundry. Removing scent is a big advantage of making your own detergent, because it is often responsible for irritating sensitive skin.  If you really can’t get used to neutral smelling laundry, you can mix 1/4 tsp essential oil with a drop of soap in a cup of water and spritz your clean, dry clothes with it.

The dreaded phone call

It happened last week. My husband got the dreaded phone call from school, and picked up the boys immediately. When I arrived home, expecting an hour or two of quiet work, I was confronted by all the members of my household, wet, nude, each in very different states of mind. My husband was flustered, my elder son close to hysterics, and my younger son was overjoyed, dancing around and singing, not minding at all the special shampoo which they all had to keep on for ten minutes.

Pediculus humanus. Head lice.

Here I must admit to something shameful: I had been hoping for this day to come, because there were various remedies I wanted to try out. So at first I was a little annoyed that my husband had already bought and applied medicated shampoo which contained pyrethrum extract (the same chemical ancient Roman soldiers rubbed on their heads) and piperonyl butoxide.

Here’s the difference between theory and practice: when you comb your child’s hair and the dandruff which falls out starts to scurry away, the last thing you want to do is start blending an exotic mix of oils and herbs. All rational thoughts about avoiding exposure to poisons fly out the window and you will want to run out and buy anything and everything which will immediately kill, kill, KILL! Still, just because my boys had already been treated with the standard insecticidal soap didn’t mean I couldn’t supplement with my own concoctions.

I had some Neem oil, a dark greenish oil from India, which I’d bought to help relieve eczema symptoms and to make a bug spray for my plants. It repels insects but its strong garlicky smell repels most humans too, which is a plus for lice. Close head to head contact should be avoided, so stinky hair is desirable. But Neem does much more. I couldn’t take the time to mix it up with anything and just rubbed it pure right on both boys scalps. It was a bit itchy at first (it should normally be cut with another oil such as coconut or olive oil) but it went to work quickly: within 20 minutes, the nits, tiny little eggs which female lice glue to the bottom of the hair shaft, were sliding off instead of needing to be yanked out with the hair. By the next day the oil had completely cleared all the dandruff away, which made it much easier to look for the stray louse, the tiny nits and all the teenage nymphs and nymphettes. But there’s more! Neem doesn’t actually kill bugs but it messes with their hormones, preventing them from moulting, which they need to do four times before they can reproduce at the grand old age of 8 to 9 days. This will keep them from making a comeback in case an egg or two escaped notice during the hours spent nit-picking.

Which brings me to the most important line of defense: no matter what chemical you apply there is sure to be one or two resistant bugs, three or four hardy little eggs left. That’s all it takes to start up a new colony. Tie up you own hair, settle down by a good light with a good book, then pick away, checking every single hair on the head, preferably several times in a row, then twice a day for at least a week. The comb above won the gold medal at the 1926 Düsseldorf Health Exhibition, and it’s still the best around. Even so it won’t pull everything out. You’ll need to use your fingernails to pull out nits one at a time. The “gross” factor disappears quickly, replaced by a strange, primal contentment. Nit-picking is a very soothing activity. The little eggs crunched between fingernails give a most satisfying pop. I’m almost sad they’re all gone.