“… sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care…”

Hello and welcome to Library Life Hack, the Week 8 edition. This post borrows its title from Act 2 of “Macbeth”, Shakespeare’s creepiest play. Today, we’re entering the world of extreme knitting. Can an inexperienced knitter turn out a good-looking sweater in a weekend? You’re about to find out.

Don’t Know Much
I learned to knit as a child and picked up the sticks again briefly in my 20’s. But when I sat down to tackle this project, I hadn’t knit anything since 1986. Luckily, my home library was full of books for novice knitters. I found a cute funnel-neck sweater pattern in “The Yarn Girls Guide to Simple Knits”. It fit the life hack bill: practical, didn’t look like a box made of yarn and I thought I could complete it in a weekend without intervention from someone craftier than myself.

A Yarn About Yarn
Finding yarn turned out to be trickier. I wanted something that was at least 50% natural fiber, would look good, and hopefully wouldn’t cost more than buying a sweater at retail. I hit River City Yarns, where I got an education in working with gauges and understanding yarn terminology. What I didn’t get was yarn. They just didn’t have much selection in the “bulky” I was apparently looking for.

The next day I stumbled onto knitpicks.com, a Washington-based yarn seller. I was overjoyed to discover their bulky “Wool of the Andes”, a 100% Peruvian Highland wool and available in a rainbow of colors. Enough yarn to complete this project plus shipping set me back only $42.73 US ($43.93 CDN).

The Adventure Begins …
Friday night rolled around and it was time to start my knitting engines. The project began with a test swatch to make sure I had the gauge right. (Every knitting pattern and every ball of yarn in the world will give you a gauge that reads something like “X number of stitches to a 4-inch swatch, when knit on X size needles”.) “The Yarn Girls Guide to Simple Knits” stresses the absolute importance of testing the gauge, and as it turned out, my first set of needles was actually a little too small. I got larger needles and tried again. This time, the swatch was perfect.

I cast on and started knitting! And about an inch in … I decided that I didn’t really like the way the cast-on edge looked. (I’d followed the book’s instructions instead of using the method I already knew.) So, I called it a day and started from scratch again Saturday morning. This time, things went very well.

I took a break in the early afternoon for a dental appointment to patch up a tooth I’d broken earlier in the week. Things started to go a little off track at this point. My appointment turned into a surprise round of dental surgery when the tooth in question blew apart during patching and needed to be extracted. I valiantly resumed knitting in the evening. But I’d definitely lost a little bit of momentum.

Sunday, I started again, buoyed up by Tylenol and some very funny episodes of “The Vicar of Dibley” on DVD. (I do think that a knitting project is helped immensely by the right playlist of movies and TV shows.) I knit through the afternoon and into the evening. Now, normally, Sunday night marks the end of a weekend. So right about now, you’re probably wondering “Did she get finished? Was she able to knit a good-looking sweater in a weekend?”

The Answer Is …
The answer is yes … and no. As of right now — Tuesday night — I’ve finished the back of the sweater and about 4” of the front. Once that’s done, there are still sleeves to knit. I’ve invested exactly 14 hours and 21 minutes and I think there’s at least that much to go. My best guess is that it would take someone of my skills (and level of fussiness) about 37 hours to knit and assemble this sweater. To build that much knitting into a single weekend, a person would have to be a complete maniac. (And risk ending up like Lady Macbeth — totally bonkers.)

Ah, but I also answered “yes”. Remember, there were two parameters here. The first one was “good-looking”. And the finished part of this project thrills me! I love the way this wool knits up. The stitches look so even and lovely. It’s beautiful, and I can’t wait to have the sweater done and wearable.

And In Conclusion …
To conclude: no, a novice cannot knit this particular sweater in a weekend. But (and this is the joyful part) YES, armed with a good pattern and the right wool, a novice can indeed make a sweater that looks great. Even if one of her teeth blew up in the middle of the project.

This Week’s Book
Here’s the knitty gritty details on the book I used:

The Yarn Girls Guide to Simple Knits
Written by Julie Carles and Jordana Jacobs
Published by Potter Craft
Released Sept17, 2002
ISBN 0609608800

Now, The Numbers
“The Yarn Girls Guide” sells for $28.35 on amazon.ca and $24.99 on chapters.indigo.ca. That’s an average of $26.67 saved by borrowing the book. Do you save money by making your own sweaters? That’s debatable. Certainly, I considered $43.93 a bargain for a pure wool sweater. But how much value do I place on the time? If I were to only wear sweaters that I had knit myself, I don’t think there’d be very many of them in my wardrobe. But as an experiment, this has been kind of fun so far.

Have you got a good knitting story to share? Leave a comment or drop me a line at LibraryLifeHack [at] gmail.com.

That’s it for this week. The next life hack we’re going to tackle is beef jerky, in response to a request from reader Stackë Peaumonde. I’ll leave you with a quote from British knitting revolutionary Elizabeth Zimmermann:

“Really, all you need to become a good knitter are wool, needles, hands, and slightly below-average intelligence. Of course, superior intelligence, such as yours and mine, is an advantage.”

Have yourself a fabulous week!

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A Simpleton’s Guide to the Staff of Life

Hello and welcome to Week 7! This week, we’re investigating simple recipes for home-made bread.

There’s something about bread. The best cook I know is an engineering technologist by day, but he thinks that bread is too complicated and scientific to try making it. My Mom’s generation will tackle pastries, pies and cookies with abandon, but also dismiss bread as too much work. Granted, there is a practical angle. When you look at the price of store-bought bread, it’s difficult to justify all the kneading and punching and messing about that traditional breadmaking requires.

And yet … like good cheese, good bread is one of life’s simple joys. And there’s nothing as good as bread that’s been lovingly made by hand. I know that there’s an easier way, because I’ve actually done it.

When I was in college, I owned a little cookbook of bread recipes. The only one I ever tried was a batter bread. It used yeast, but there was no kneading or rising or anything. My recollection is that you just did something to the yeast, mixed up the batter and popped it into a pan. The final product was a little dense, but I loved that bread.

Time marches on. I moved several times and — of course – the cookbook disappeared along the way. For this week’s life hack, I decided to try and find a replacement for the lost batter bread recipe. My home library turned up one cookbook that had a contender called “English Muffin Bread” but nothing that sounded quite like the bread I used to make. Eventually I turned to the internet and located “White Velvet Batter Bread” on epicurious.com. (You bake it in old coffee cans, which sounded so retro and cute.)

However, while I was looking through the stacks, I also found a book called “No Need To Knead” with the subtitle “Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes”. The author, Suzanne Dunaway, owns Buona Forchetta Handmade Breads in Los Angeles. She also writes beautifully. I got completely lost in her romantic, enchanting prose about the wonders of Italian breads — and her encouraging words about how simple it would be to make fantastic bread using her radical methods. I was hooked. Suzanne’s basic focaccia recipe became the third contender.

With this small fistful of possibilities, I set up the Library Life Hack makeshift test kitchen on a Saturday afternoon. Here are the results:

White Velvet Batter Bread
Time to Mix Up
50 minutes (this included getting it into the coffee cans)
Time to Rise
About 60 minutes
Time to Bake
45 minutes
Final Results
The sweetest and densest of the three. Went very nicely with honey and would probably make a great base for fruit bread. Very little crust, though, because of the coffee can.
If You Try This
I broke my “no kneading” rule on this bread. I just couldn’t figure out how to get the final half-cup of flour worked into the dough, so I put the spoon down and used my hands. (The recipe talks about stirring it with “100 vigorous strokes”. I don’t know how you “vigorously stir” something that has become a bowling ball of dough.) By the way, if you don’t have coffee cans laying around, the reviews say that you can make it in a normal loaf pan too.

English Muffin Bread
Time to Mix Up
35 minutes (this included getting it arranged into loaf pans to rise)
Time to Rise
45 min
Final Results
The closest to the batter bread of my college days. Dense, but not as dense as the White Velvet, with a really nice crust. Very nice-looking and tasted great with honey and with cheese.

Suzanne Dunaway’s Basic Focaccia
Time to Mix Up
18 minutes (of course, by now I was getting the hang of it, so I was a lot faster)
Time to Rise
About an hour (this rises in the bowl for 40 minutes and then rises in the baking pan for another 20)
Time to Bake
About 30 minutes
Final Results
The prettiest of the three with a wonderfully chewy crust and a European taste. Still a little dense, but I believe that was actually my fault. I think I needed to let it rise in the bowl a little longer.
If You Try This
Pay careful attention to her instructions about not over-stirring the dough, and let it rise until it’s genuinely doubled in volume.

Scientific Conclusion
The Library Life Hack Simpleton Award needs to go to the English Muffin Bread, which worked perfectly right out of the gate. But … if you’re keen to learn how to bake really great bread (still without investing a ton of time), I think Suzanne Dunaway’s your girl. I want to try her basic focaccia recipe a few more times and see what kind of results I get. My hunch is there’s great potential in there that just needs to be unlocked with a little experience.

Library Resources
Here are the details on this week’s books:

Taste of Home Baking Book
Published by Reader’s Digest Association
Released in 2007
ISBN 0898215285

No Need to Knead
Written by Suzanne Dunaway
Published by Hyperion
Released Nov 10, 1999
ISBN 0786864273

As For the Numbers
Both of the books I used this week are actually no longer in print. A new copy of the “Taste of Home Baking Book” can still be bought for $14.29 and up from the booksellers at amazon.ca And the original version of “No Need to Knead” is still available on chapters.indigo.ca at $36.95. (It was re-released in late 2011 as “No Need to Knead: Handmade Artisan Breads in 90 Minutes” and can be purchased from amazon.ca for $36.79.)

I didn’t track the cost of my ingredients, because I just don’t think there’s any point in trying to compare the cost of store-bought bread with homemade. Keeping track of the time involved is more important in this case. So … based on the savings involved in borrowing books instead of buying them, this week’s life hack is worth $51.24. Cha-ching!

And that’s it. Do you have a favourite easy-bake bread recipe that you want to share? Leave a comment below or send me a note at LibraryLifeHack [at] gmail.com. And make sure you come back next Tuesday, when we’ll find out if it’s possible to knit a good-looking sweater in a weekend. Have a great week, everyone!

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Get Your Goat On

Hello and welcome to Week 6! Library Life Hack has officially been in existence for a month, so I thought I’d do a quick re-cap of what we’ve covered so far:

This week also introduces a new feature – the Check-Back. In Week 1, we built an imaginary stock market portfolio and it’s time to check in and see how our stocks are doing. You’ll find the first Check-Back here – and I have to say that I was happily surprised by the results.

And Now, We Conquer Cheese
This week’s post is a food hack: making your own goat cheese. As a bonus, I finally figured out how to get a slide show into the posts. If you read all the way to the bottom, you can see a short visual chronicle too!

Becoming a DIY Cheese-Mistress
Good cheese is one of life’s simple joys. And … this particular simple joy can be a little pricey. So, I hit up my home library to see if it was possible to make good cheese on your own.

The best resource I found was Barbara Ciletti’s “Making Great Cheese at Home”. It turns out that it’s possible to make cheese at home, but making hard cheeses like cheddar and provolone requires that you invest in a cheese press, cheese molds and a bunch of other stuff. Since we’re not doing a year-long study of cheese here, I refined my search down to soft cheeses, and then to goat cheese, which required almost no equipment and a whole lot less messing around.

In fact, the only tricky part was sourcing was a small quantity of cheese starter. It’s a long story, but I ended up buying the starter from Cottonwood Co-Op in Fort Macleod, Alberta (pop. 3000). Enough starter to make four batches of goat cheese set me back a mere $6.99 plus $4.00 shipping.

I really liked the idea of working with a co-operative. Co-ops, like libraries, are one of the great original life hacks and the kind folks at Cottonwood couldn’t have been more helpful. They even offered their resident cheesemaker as a resource if I ran into trouble.

So Easy, a Goat Could Do It
They actual making turned out to be dirt simple. Heat a gallon of goat milk up to 86 degrees F, stir in one packet of starter, put a lid on it and go away for 12 hours. When you come back, spoon your fledgling goat cheese into a pair of jelly bags and hang them up to drain for another 12 hours. When that’s done, just roll the drained cheese out of the bag and chill. It can then be salted and flavoured. One gallon of goat milk left me with 800 grams of cheese (about 1½ lbs.). It had a nice mild taste and the texture was lovely and smooth.

Yum-Tastic
I opted to flavour half the recipe with chives and the other half with cracked peppercorns and garlic. With salt and the other ingredients added, that nice mild goat cheese became yum-tastic! Just so fresh-tasting and creamy and … wow. Since I had a lot and it only keeps for a week, I took my cheese to work to poll my colleagues on their favourite flavour. It was a squeaker, but the peppercorn-garlic was the winner.

Now, the Numbers
The ingredients for one batch of goat cheese, including peppercorns and chives, came to $19.75. That works out to $2.47 per 100 grams. At the low end, Wal-Mart goat cheese is $3.28 per 100 grams. At the high end, a lite version of the fancy French Boursin is $5.60 for 100 grams. That’s an average of $4.44 per 100 grams. The verdict? You’re not saving a ton of money ($15.76) but the finished product is so much better than its commercial cousin.

The book isn’t available at amazon.ca, but it’s $22.95 at chapters.indigo.ca. Add that to the cheese savings and the total for this week $38.71.

Here’s the information on this week’s book:

Making Great Cheese at Home
Written by Barbara Ciletti
Published by Lark Books
Released Dec 31, 2001
ISBN 1579902677

And that’s it. Thank you for reading this week’s post! And extra special thanks to Trent at Cottonwood Co-Op for all his help with this week’s life hack. Come back next week, when we try breadmaking — without a machine and without all that kneading and punching.

One Last Thing: A Request
This week, I got a request to investigate a life hack for beef jerky. This came from Stackë, an avid hiker who likes to take beef jerky and dried fruit on extended day trips. Stackë writes that “Store-bought jerky is hideously expensive, even at Costco. Is there a way to make it at home — preferably without investing in a lot of equipment?” Stackë, I don’t know yet. But I’m excited to find out! Watch for the answer in the next few weeks.

Do you have a life hack you want to see me try out? Drop me a line at LibraryLifeHack [at] gmail.com. Have a great week and see you in seven days!

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