OK, as promised, here are the results of my "baking" (you don't actually bake these treats) experiments to find Christmas treats that are both delicious, and also healthy. I love improvising and finding new recipes, but it usually takes a few times to get one that really works. Here are the ones that turned out great.
The recipes below are healthier than normal treats in 3 main ways:
Chocolate Almond Squares
2 oz 100% bakers chocolate
1/2 cup almonds
1 Tablespoon Cream
1/8 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
Optional Ingredients (these make it yummier and healthier):
1/4 teaspoon acerola powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
Try using pecans too! If you want to be even healthier, buy your nuts raw, soak them for 12 hours in salt water, then dry them crispy in an oven on low heat, or in a dehydrator/ This reduces the phytic acid in the nuts, and activates enzymes to make them more digestable.
4 oz 100% bakers chocolate
1/4 cup cream
1/8 cup maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon acerola powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Finely Chopped Almonds or Cacao Powder (We use a raw organic cacao powder from Amazon.)
Variation: use 20 dates blended into a thick paste instead of the syrup. Stir / fold in the dates after melting the chocolate in the hot cream. The result will be a slightly stickier, more fruity truffle -- still quite good! Don't forget to let the mixture partially cool before strying to form into balls.
Make these exactly the same as the truffle recipe, but add 3-4 drops of food-grade peppermint essential oil to the mixture. Shape them into balls, or patties, or whatever you like. These taste best on their own with no extra coating on the outside.
Chocolate Covered Dried Cherries
Use the truffle recipe above and form balls of truffle surrounding a dried cherry in each one! You can also do this with raisins to make chocolate covered raisins, but this is pretty time consuming since they are so small. The cherries go a lot faster! Also try putting a whole almond or pecan in the middle.
Spiced Chai is one of our favorite winter drinks, and we can easily drink 1-2 gallons a day between all of us. We love to share this with anyone who comes over to our house, and try always to keep a pot ready on the stove. We make it 6-8 quarts at a time, so it lasts for a while (well, at least for a day!)
Chai is really just the word for "tea" in several different languages, but it has come to refer to a blend of spices usually made with black tea, but we leave the black tea out of our recipe to avoid the caffeine, and also because it really isn't necessary to make a great tasting hot drink. Sweetened with honey, our blend of chai is loaded with immune boosting spices which come in handy around the holidays, when lots of people seem to get sick. Since ours has no caffeine, we finish off each day with a hot cup before bed!
Here's the basic recipe. Feel free to innovate, and try different spices and different proportions too. We have encountered lots of different chai recipes, but this is the one that works best for our tastes. We buy all our organic spices whole (not ground), and in bulk. The main two companies we use are Starwest Botanicals and Frontier, and they are both available on Amazon.
About 6 quarts water
(optionally add 4-8 cups almond milk too)
4 oz fresh ginger, cut into slices
6-8 cinnamon sticks
1/3 cup whole cardamom pods
1/3 cup whole anise seeds
1/3 cup whole fennel seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon whole cloves
1 tablespoon whole coriander seed
Boil / simmer the entire mixture for an hour or longer. Serve with a ladle and strain with a sieve into cups to mke sure whole spices don't end up in someone's cup! You can leave the whole mixture on the stove overnight, and just reheat it the next day. You can either sweeten the whole pot with honey, or simply sweeten individual cups as you serve them. A little cream added to the cup, or a little almond milk makes the perfect cup...
It was a very musical weekend at the Santa Barbara and Ojai Farmers Markets. We are always delighted when a local bluegrass band sets up next to our stand. Siobhan and Declan enjoyed sitting on the ground watching and listening.
Deirdre, one of her fiddle students, and some of her cousins all gathered next to our stand on Sunday in Ojai to play Christmas carols and fiddle tunes for market customers. Siobhan showed up ready to jam, and played or danced the entire time! That girl was born to perform, and has no shy bones in her body.
Deirdre here... Excitement continues to build as we get closer to Christmas. We got our tree on Friday, and decorated it Saturday night with help from some aunts, uncles and cousins. Max spent most of the time holed away in the kitchen experimenting with inventing healthly Christmas treats while I tried making persimmon sugar plums for the first time!
I am not sure if they really are called Sugar Plums, I think I heard someone call them that, but they are a Japanese treat called Hoshigaki. I first had them at a contradance that we played for a few years ago. They were the most delicious treat ever! Sweet and sticky almost carmelized dried persimmons. The best part about them is that they do not have any added sugar!!
Later my sister-in-law learned how to make them when she worked at a farm to table cafe in our town and later experimented with making them at home. They look really awesome when they are drying, like bright Christmas ornaments hanging in the window! Ever since trying them at the contradance and seeing them at my sister in law's house, I have wanted to try making them.
So yesterday at the farmers market, we traded our microgreens with another vendor for some Hachiya persimmons. Hachiya are a variety of persimmon which is inedible until soft, but for making Hoshigaki, you need to start while they are still firm. I peeled the persimmons and then tied twine to the tops of them to hang them. They are hanging in our sunny main living room right now. I plan on leaving them hanging for about a month. In a week I will start to "massage" them every day or so to get rid of excess moisture. I have no idea how they will turn out, but we'll see! If they don't taste good, then at least we will have super cute, festive persimmon "ornaments" hanging in the living room, so it will be great either way!
For the last several years, we have had a big pine cone collection in our Christmas box, but I didn't know what to do with them. On the way home from the market yesterday, I saw some beautiful pine cone ornaments hanging in the window of a local florist shop. I did the same thing with ours last night, and hung them in our living room. Together with the drying persimmons, they look festive and cheery! They were simple to make: just screw an eye-hook into the top of a pine cone, add a ribbon/bow, and hang it with twine. My brother pre-drilled the eye-hooks with his drill, which made it a lot easier to screw them in.
Max here... While Deirdre was busily crafting and decorating with others in the living room, I was trying to come up with some good recipes for Christmas treats that are not wildly unhealthy. We both LOVE Christmas baking and Christmas treats all season long. Growing up, I was the household Christmas baker, and turned my parents' kitchen into a cookie factory each December. Deirdre's family has an impressive array of decadent baked goods which they make every year. The hours of work and preparation that go into it are a big part of the joyful anticipation that leads up to Christmas for us.
But more recently, we have eaten almost none, because they are so often loaded with sugar, white flour, and vegetable oils which don't do our bodies any good. I am currently on a quest to find/create alternative recipes that are both completely delicious, and less taxing on the immune system. At a time of year when colder weather and late-night parties already make us susceptible to illness, we don't want to make ourselves sicker by eating tons of refined sugar and flour! I like to be healthy for Christmas time!
I came up with a few recipes that worked, and I'm working on refining them, and making a few new ones. I will post the final results with photos in one or two days!
What do you do when rain is in the forecast, and you have trays full of transplants in the greenhouse? Strap your kid to your back, and get to work prepping beds!
We all went out to the farm this morning to get beets in the ground before the rain came. As I write this post, rain is coming down steadily on our drought-worn landscape, and has been for the last 6 hours. Since you have to wait for several days after rain to till beds, getting stuff in the ground beforehand is always ideal. And, the new plants love the water.
The first step in bed prep is to run our BCS tractor with the power harrow attachment over the bed. This loosens the soil several inches down, and tears out any residual crop material or weeds left in the old bed. We use a 30-inch rake to remove the plant material from the bed surface. Then, depending on what crop is going in, we make a pass with the broadfork to loosen the soil down to 10-12 inches deep without disturbing the different soil layers. One more pass with the harrow leaves a perfect seedbed ready for either transplanting or direct seeding.
Today, we transplanted red beets, chioggia beets, and golden beets. Farming with kids has its challenges, like eager 3-year-olds wanting to shove delicate little plants all over the bed, and babies deciding they have had enough back-carrier time! When they are happy, you have to work fast! Get it done before they get fussy!
Hi Folks, Max Speaking. As we begin to wrap up 2016, and especially since we didn't post much this year on our original farm blog, we thought we would outline some of the farm highlights of the year.
We started the year with our brand new 14x32 foot greenhouse -- quite an upgrade from our previous Harbor Freight 6x9 foot house! Lots of room to grow microgreens now...
We quickly realized that once the days got warmer, we would need a shade cloth to keep excess heat out of the house during the day. We bought an 80 percent reflective shade cloth which works quite nicely. It came in handy on summer days that got up to 112 degrees...
Deirdre took a trip for a friend's wedding in January, so I had Siobhan all by myself for 4 days, including two farmers markets! Nothing like a seasonal cherimoya, a tricycle and a family of baby dolls to keep a little girl happy on a long market morning!
The next day we had another market, so this time Siobhan wanted to bring her violin and busk by the stand just like she has seen her parents and cousins do as well. She earned $6 in about 5 minutes, and she doesn't even know how to play yet!
Toward the end of January, we shaped a lot of new beds. For the first time, we shaped beds all the way from the center of our 1-acre leased property (where the greenhouse and main washing station is) to the edge by the ranch road. 32 beds in total at the time this pic was taken. At the time, we were digging them all out by hand with shovels, after making one pass with the rotary power harrow mounted on the back of our BCS walking tractor. Even though you see our 4-wheel tractor in the background, it did nothing to help us, because it is too big for our 30-inch bed system, and it was not even starting at the time we made the beds.
We helped Siobhan shape and plant her own 10-foot garden. Proud future farmer. (maybe!)
Even though we are in the middle of a drought, we still had at least one rainy market that month. Rain is great for plants, but not for market customers. You don't see too many customers traipsing around the market today, but a farmer and her daughter are making the most of it!
February: Up until now, the only storage we had on the farm were some portable "garage" tents from Harbor Freight, which were set up directly on the soil, with just a dirt floor. Once the rain came, they got extremely muddy, and the stakes came out of the ground in windy weather. It only took dragging a 17 foot tent back home out of neighbor's orange orchard once to convince me that we needed to figure out o more permanent solution. Since we lease the property, we didn't want something all that permanent, so we settled on a wooden floor, secured by concrete pier blocks, with new tents bolted into the frame. I recruited my two brothers and a friend, and we completed most of the job in one day. I finished the rest myself another day. We used a bunch of old pallets as the support for the floor, built a secured frame around them, and then put plywood over the top which tied everything together. Having just built a similar frame for the greenhouse a few months earlier helped a lot when designing this one. We now have 36 feet of very usable storage and workspace -- this really turned out to be a great investment.
Happy Valentines Day from First Steps Farm! Micro Amaranth and Endive make a nice valentine flat. This brought a lot of traffic to our market booth!
What the heck!? How did SHE get up there?
Spring crops growing in mid-February.
Deirdre and our worker Gillian filling orders for Ojai Valley Online Farmstand in our awesome new packing tent. No dirt floor to get all muddy! The wooden floor has been amazing, especially during rainy days!
Mid-March. Crops of Garlic, Lettuce and Arugula. Gillian is weeding in the background.
April: Up until now, we only had two normal sized refrigerators for our produce. This really wasn't enough for our needs, between the produce sales for the webstore, and our own produce. We found some descriptions online of projects where people took a trailer and converted it into a walk-in cooler on wheels using an air conditioning unit and a "Coolbot." We bought a 5x8 trailer in April, and started the project ourselves. It got placed on hold for several months, and we only finished it a month ago. More details on that in a post of its own later... below my brother Tom using a sawzall to cut the whole for the AC unti.
In may, we got permission from the Ojai Market manager to bring more than just microgreens. Thi was great news for us, because now we are allowed to bring and offer for sale all our vegetables. We kicked it off with beets, kale, lettuces, green onions, cilantro, salad mix and arugula.
We experimented with growing sunflower microgreens right out in the garden, instead of in greenhouse flats, and it worked pretty well!
June: Declan was born! This put farming on hold for a while -- except for the essential chores and harvesting to keep things going. Deirdre will be posting the whole story of Declan's birth from her perspective in another post...
Three weeks old -- Declan's first time at the farmers market!
July: I tried out some yellow sticky traps to catch some of the flea beetles ruining all our arugula crops. Zucchini, Curly kale and cherry tomatoes grow in the background.
Declan, 6 weeks, at the Santa Barbara Farmers Market.
When we decided to have a 2nd child, it sounded like adding more craziness to an already crazy schedule and life. Ironically, since Declan was born, we have ended up getting more done than ever before, because it forced us to be more organized and efficient with our time. For the last year or so, the farm had been largely my project, with Deirdre helping out only on webstore packing days, and at markets. Since Declan's birth though, we have managed to get out to the farm as a family multiple times a week, and Deirdre has taken a much more pro-active role in planning and working on the farm. It can still be a HUGE challenge to get both kids out the door in a timely manner, and keep them both happy and out of trouble, AND try to get some work done at the same time, but we committed to getting out there as a family every morning even if it felt impossible. It has been getting more manageable the more we do it.
Since the farm got a little bit neglected around the time of Declan's birth at the beginning of the summer, there was some serious weed clearing to do as the first part of our "back to the farm" family adventure. Clearing weeds and driving them over to a burn pile on the ranch was what we did for the first few days.
What do we do with our kids while we farm?? Anything that will keep them happy and safe! I even was able to get some tractor work done with Declan strapped to my chest. Working with him on our back is a now a normal part of our workday, whether on the farm or at the market.
Napping in the shade of tomato vines.
Siobhan watering some of our transplants.
Siobhan picked 6 bunches of turnips all by herself, and sold them at our market booth. She is not shy at marketing, and sold them all in about 15 minutes! She used her money to buy a popsicle and popcorn from two of our neighbor vendors at the market. Declan was trying to eat the greens...
Need to keep a market baby contained? Just pop him in a box!
Deirdre here -
Yesterday Siobhan awoke to find her boots in front of the fire place filled with treats from St. Nick, (delivered with help enlisted from the older generation). Traditionally, the time of visitation by Santa Claus (aka St. Nicholas) was on December 6th when children would put out their boots or stockings and receive treats. We like any excuse to celebrate so we are very happy to be visited by St. Nick twice in December.
This year, Siobhan's boot was filled with tangerines, kefir, yogurt, banana chips, chocolate mints, and chocolate covered almonds, raisins and cacao nibs.
Our boots were not quite as healthy... chocolate, chocolate and chocolate, in different forms. (I guess St. Nick knows that we eat plenty of healthier stuff without persuasion so we qualified for the 85% chocolate bar boot. Phew!)
I was excited and genuinely surprised to find my first issue of Taproot magazine sticking out of my boot. Taproot is edited by my favorite blogger, Amanda Soule of soulemama. A few days earlier, my sister in law had shown me the publication in our local health food store. As I perused the magazine I couldn't believe that every article spoke to me: articles on food, contradancing, farming, enjoying the natural world, etc! Thank you St Nick! I thought I knew exactly what my boot contained but apparently he doubled back around 3 am to sneak this one in while I was sleeping. (Thanks Max! You sure know what I like!)
This year, I decided to bring out our little collection of Christmas picture books out on St. Nick's day too. Siobhan and I spent the rest of the day reading them all! Both Max and I have some of the fondest memories as kids, during the anticipation that builds up to Christmas. These books were a big part of that for us, and it is so special to see Siobhan having some of these same experiences herself. I don't know whether its more fun for her or us!
Hi Folks. Here we are, making our first post! It's a little hard to know where to begin, but let's jump in. A couple years ago, we started a blog to document the development of our small farm, "First Steps Farm." We realized that rather than simply writing about the farm operations, we wanted to write about the whole lifestyle we are creating around the farm and for our family. So, this blog is called "First Steps Farm Life."
This blog is basically a journal for us to post all our little steps along the path to a beautiful life and culture for our family. The idea of "Creating Conscious Culture" is a common theme throughout, and we explain what we mean by this in more detail here.
Although the explanation on the "Conscious Culture" page can sound a bit heavy and heady, we actually intend this blog to be a source of lightness, fun, beauty, inspiration, excitement, positive energy etc... It is not intended to be a dogmatic platform, even if we do occasionally step up on the box to voice an opinion. We just want to share what we are doing to create a beautiful culture in our own home and community, and since a good thing always becomes better when shared, we want to share it with all who are interested. If it is truly beautiful, beauty speaks for itself, and we know that others will see it, appreciate it, and want to take part in it. But we also realize beauty has as many faces as there are people in the world, and although we certainly don't accept an "anything goes" mentality, we make it a goal to stay open to infinite beautiful variations, many of which we can't even imagine.
We will be posting on a variety of topics, all areas of intense love and interest to us. You can expect to see posts on the following topics:
About the Authors
Max and Deirdre Becher farm together on First Steps Farm in Southern California. They love farming, raising their kids, playing music, contradancing, cooking, and working together to create a vibrant culture of celebrating life. See it all unfold right here!