Snackraments: Salted Caramel Chocolate Shortbread Bars

Photograph by Tracey Wilhelmsen, shamelessly stolen from her Flickr.

Photograph by Tracey Wilhelmsen, shamelessly stolen from her Flickr.

Guys.  Let me tell you how epic these bars are.  I made them once for a Yuletide open circle in 2011, and my High Priestess still requests them fairly regularly.  In fact, I got an e-mail from her this week asking if I would post the recipe to our group’s website.  Trust me, these really are cookies that will be remembered.  My mom calls them “wonderful bites of heaven,” and she’s not a woman to lavish praise.  I’ve tried to describe them as being “like a grown up Twix bar, with lots more interest and subtlety”, and that seems to go over well.  But even so, they do have to be tried to be believed.

Now why have I only made them for the coven that one time?  Well, there’s three major reasons.  The first is that I only have Pyrex 9×13 pans at the moment, and those have sloping sides and rounded edge curves.  These bars really do much better with pans that have straight sides and 90-degree corners, and I’m a perfectionist enough to want to hold off on making the bars again until I get the pans I want.  The second reason is that I personally don’t have much patience for recipes where I have to do different components over a longer stretch of time and keep things all chilled.  I like a baking task where I can get everything done within an hour.  The third reason?  Willpower doesn’t exist when it comes to these cookies, and I’ll be damned if I get stuck with leftovers.

That being said, it might be worth considering halving the recipe and making it in an 8×8 or 9×9 pan, especially for smaller gatherings.  I already am an advocate of halving the caramel itself as I think the original amount overwhelms the shortbread and chocolate.  If I were to halve the entire recipe, I’d use half of the caramel on cookies and maybe save the other half to use as an apple dip…for which it works extremely well.

Salted Caramel Chocolate Shortbread Bars

For the shortbread layer:
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup sugar

For the caramel layer:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 cup sugar
4 tbsp. light corn syrup
2 (14 oz.) cans sweetened condensed milk

For the chocolate layer:
8 oz. semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 tsp. light corn syrup
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
Fleur de sel or sea salt, for sprinkling


To make the shortbread layer, preheat the oven to 325° F.  Line a 9 x 13-inch baking pan with parchment paper.  In a small bowl combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Stir with a fork to blend, and set aside.  In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until well blended, about 1-2 minutes.  With the mixer on low speed blend in the dry ingredients just until incorporated.  Transfer the dough to the prepared baking pan and press in an even layer over the bottom of the pan.  Bake 15-18 minutes or until golden.  (If the crust puffs up a bit while baking, just gently press it down while it is cooling.)  Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool completely.

To make the caramel layer, combine the butter, sugar, corn syrup and condensed milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  Heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter is melted.  Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer, stirring constantly.  Continue simmering and stirring until the mixture turns an amber color and thickens slightly.  Pour the mixture over the shortbread layer, smooth the top, and allow to cool completely and set.  (I chilled at this stage to ensure that the caramel layer would not melt when the warm chocolate was added.)

To make the chocolate glaze, combine the chocolate, corn syrup, and butter in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water.  Heat, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth.  Pour evenly over the caramel layer and use an offset spatula to smooth the top.  Allow to cool for a minute or two and then sprinkle with fleur de sel.  Chill, covered, until ready to slice and serve.

If cut into 1.5-inch squares, the recipe yields 4.25 dozen cookies.

Recipe originally from Lisa is Cooking and popularized by Annie’s Eats.

Snackraments: Raincoast Crisps

For those not in the know, Leslie Stowe’s Raincoast Crisps are delicious crackers that cost an arm and a leg for a meager 6 ounces of product at Whole Foods.  Luckily, this recipe comes pretty close to duplicating this rather unique cracker, and it makes for an amazing Snackrament.  In the first place, these Crisps are full of whole foods that are great energy boosters:  whole wheat, honey, flax seed, sesame seeds, pepitas, herbs, dried fruits…it’s a manageable power bump in cracker form.  In the second, it’s time-efficient: the batter comes together in a flash, bakes in just 35 minutes or so, and the second bake is just maybe 25 minutes.  The third place?  These are so delicious, they are downright addictive

Best of all, the loaves store wonderfully in the freezer, and it’s easiest to slice these loves thinly when they’re frozen.  If you’ve got one in your freezer, you’re 25 minutes (and practically no mess!) away from having a great offering to share with your gods.  I often eat them plain (they’re just that good!), but I’ve also arranged them on a snack platter with various cheeses and cheese spreads, savory jellies, grapes and other fruits, garlic-free hummus, and spiced nuts.

And did I mention that the complexity of these crackers means they pair fantastically with just about any wine. No?  Well, try it yourself!

A Rosemary Raisin Pecan crisp with a slice of Gruyere cheese and a dollop of red pepper jelly

Basic Recipe
2 cups all-purpose flour (can replace up to 1 cup with whole-wheat flour)
2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt (if you find them not salty enough for your taste, increase up to 1 tsp.)
2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup roasted pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup flax seed

For Rosemary Raisin Pecan Crisps Add:
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary

For Cranberry Hazelnut Crisps Add:
1 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts
1 tsp. fresh, chopped thyme

For Salty Date and Almond Crisps Add:
1 cup dried, pitted dates, roughly chopped
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, sprinkled on top of loaf before baking

For Fig and Walnut Crisps Add:
1 cup dried figs, roughly chopped
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (roasted, if you like)
2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease two 8×4-inch loaf pans or several mini loaf pans, for a smaller crisp.
  2. Measure out fruit and seeds and chop nuts and any herbs and set aside. If you are using raisins, you can plump them if you like by soaking in boiling water for 10 minutes and then draining before adding to recipe)
  3. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda and salt. Add the buttermilk, brown sugar and honey and stir a few strokes. Add the pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and flax seed. Add your fruit and nuts as per the recipe specifications above. Add any herbs as specified. Stir just until combined.
  4. Pour the batter into two greased 8 x 4” loaf pans (or several mini loaf pans). *If making Salty Date and Almond, sprinkle salt on top of loaves before baking.
  5. Bake for about 35 minutes (less for mini loaves), until golden and springy to the touch. Remove from the pans and cool on a wire rack.
  6. Once loaves have cooled, wrap or place in a freezer bag and put in freezer for at least several hours (to make them easier to slice thin). When ready to bake, remove from freezer. Slice the frozen loaves as thin as you can and place the slices in a single layer on an ungreased cookie sheet.
  7. Preheat oven to 300°F. and bake them for about 15 minutes. Remove from oven, flip them over and bake for another 10 minutes, until crisp and deep golden. Remove to a cooling rack to cool and crisp up.
  8. Recipe makes about 8 dozen crackers.  If the crisps soften in storage, they can be re-crisped by popping them in a 325°F oven for 4-6 minutes.

Snackraments: Homemade Saltines

Yesterday I mentioned that I’ve taken to using my homebrewed kombucha and some salty crackers as my general go-to items for cakes and ale.  I like the continuity of using a brewed beverage as the ‘ale’, and kombucha would qualify there as it has a very tiny bit of alcohol (definitely not enough to get anyone drunk).  Also–as I’ve mentioned before–I’m a huge fan of the sour-sweet beverage, and it pairs really well with something nice and salty.  I’ve found through my general snacking that Saltine crackers and kombucha are a match made in heaven.

As you probably know, Saltine crackers are just about the cheapest item in the cracker aisle.  If you’ve ever made crackers before, you’ll probably also know that it is a little bit laborious to get the cracker dough rolled out evenly and thinly enough to make crisp crackers.  Combine the two, and you’ll probably think I’m completely crazy for suggesting that you try making Saltines.  However, I do think it is worth a good try.  You really can’t beat homemade items for use in your cakes and ale ritual.  With a little patience, you can can roll the Saltine dough thin enough with a rolling pin.  If you can get your hands on a pasta roller, though, making these crackers will be so easy, you might never buy a box again.

Yummy yummy homemade saltines!

Yummy, yummy homemade saltines!  Image and recipe from the blog Stresscake.

Makes about 60 2”x2” crackers but may vary based on how thinly rolled and size cut

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup water
½ teaspoon kosher salt
water for brushing
kosher or sea salt for sprinkling

  1. In the work bowl of a food processor, pulse the flour and salt to combine.
  2. Add the melted butter and process until a coarse meal – less than a minute.
  3. Add the water and process until a dough is formed – about 1-2 minutes. It may not come together and look sort of crumbly. Turn out on the work surface and knead until it forms a moist dough.
  4. Let rest 30-60 minutes to allow the gluten to relax.
  5. Preheat oven to 400°F and line two sheet pans with parchment paper.
  6. Divide the dough into quarters and roll thin. You have two ways to do this, I much prefer the pasta machine method but you can do it by hand.
  7. By hand – lightly flour the work surface and the top of the dough and using a heavy rolling pin, roll as thinly as possible.
  8. With a pasta machine – Roll ¼ of dough through twice on settings 1-6 then once on setting 7. You’ll have a long very thin sheet. Cut in half if it’s too long to handle easily.
  9. Cut into squares – I like about 2”x2” – brush lightly with water, sprinkle with salt.
  10. Bake 400°F for 8-10 minutes until lightly golden. Keep and eye on them as they brown quickly and rotate the pans halfway through baking.
  11. These will crisp up as they sit out of the oven and will keep, tightly wrapped, for a few days. Though if you live in a humid climate they may soften. If so, re-crisp in a 350°F oven for a few minutes.

Snackraments: 30-Minute Homemade Soft Pretzels

Up until I joined with Hartwood Grove, I took the ‘cakes’ part of ‘Cakes and Ale’ pretty seriously.  If I was going to be doing a ritual, you could be pretty well assured that I’d be making cookies the afternoon before the ritual.  However, some people in HG really preferred to watch their sugar intake, which put the kibosh on my cookie habit.

For awhile I struggled with what savory foods I could do in lieu of cookies that would still afford their conveniences:  quick and easy preparation, able to be stored well for at least 24 hours, delicious at room temperature, low-mess to eat, and not requiring any special utensils, plates, or napkins.

I’m pleased to say I now have a whole arsenal of savory recipes at my disposal, but my most favorite to prepare for a crowd are these soft pretzels.

Quick, easy, and delicious.

Quick, easy, and utterly delicious.

I have to admit that these pretzels are not my all-time favorite pretzels.  Alas, this recipe skips poaching the formed pretzels in a baking soda/water solution prior to baking, so they don’t develop that chewy, mahogany exterior that screams “pretzel!” to me.  However, they are pretty darn good in their own right, and I have a feeling that people who love “Auntie Annie’s”-style pretzels would completely adore them.  Better still, this recipe tolerates a good portion of whole wheat flour, so there’s no great need to make these a refined white flour bomb.  In fact, I prefer these pretzels made with half white and half whole wheat flour.  (I also prefer them at room temperature instead of oven-warmed, which is a definite bonus when they’ll be sitting on the altar for an hour or so while ritual happens.)

In my opinion, though, the best part about these pretzels is that they have a time commitment that’s exactly what it takes to whip out a batch of drop cookies:  30 minutes.  Despite the fact that these pretzels are a yeast bread, you don’t have to punch down a dough or wait hours for it to rise.  If you have a stand mixer, you don’t even have to expend muscle energy to knead the dough for 5 minutes.  The most laborious part of the whole process is rolling out the ropes of dough.  Easy, right?

In 30 minutes, you’ve got (potentially) healthy, savory ‘cakes’ for an entire coven.  Can’t really beat that, can you?

30-Minute Homemade Soft Pretzels

1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
1 tablespoon (or 1 envelope) active dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
4 – 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (or mix of whole wheat flour and all-purpose flour)
1 large egg
course sea salt for sprinkling

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper or silicone baking mat. Set aside.
  2. Dissolve yeast in warm water. Stir with a spoon until fairly mixed, about 1 minute. Some clusters of yeast will remain. Add salt and sugar; stir until fairly combined. Slowly add flour, 1 cup at a time. Mix with a wooden spoon until dough is thick. Continue to add more flour until dough is no longer sticky. Poke the dough with your finger – if it bounces back, it is ready to knead.
  3. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes and shape into a ball. With a sharp knife, cut ball of dough into 1/3 cup sections. This measurement does not have to be exact – use as much or little dough for each pretzel as you wish – the size of the pretzel is completely up to you.
  4. Roll the dough into a rope with an even diameter. A 20-inch long rope will give you ample space to twist the pretzels and still have open spaces after they rise in the oven. Once you have your long rope, take the ends and draw them together so the dough forms a circle. Twist the ends, then bring them towards yourself and press them down into a pretzel shape.
  5. In a small bowl, beat the egg and pour into a shallow bowl or pie dish. Dunk the shaped pretzel into the egg wash, or use a pastry brush to brush the wash on. Place the pretzel on the baking sheet and sprinkle with salt.
  6. Bake for 10 minutes at 425°F degrees. Turn the oven to broil for the last 5 minutes to brown the tops. Watch closely to avoid burning.
  7. Allow to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature. Pretzels may be stored in an airtight container or zipped top bag for up to 4 days (will lose softness). Pretzels freeze well.

I’ve noticed that this recipe is almost identical to Alton Brown’s Homemade Soft Pretzels.  The only differences here are that Alton adds a couple ounces of butter to his dough, includes an hour or so of ‘rise time’, bakes the pretzels 25°F hotter, omits the egg wash, and poaches them in that baking soda solution before baking.  I’m sure his tweaks make an already great pretzel recipe tons better!

Potions in Action: Kombucha (Part 3: How to Grow a SCOBY)

Adding a beautiful SCOBY to a brewing jar.

The hardest part about brewing kombucha is laying your hands on a SCOBY.  If you don’t live on the West Coast, where you can usually find someone giving away free SCOBYs on Craigslist or offering them in exchange for a ride share to Portland, they’re pretty hard to find locally.  Of course, you can always import them from elsewhere if you order them online, but you’ll end up spending an average of $25 for a single SCOBY…which you’ll hate in a couple months when you find yourself swimming in a surfeit of free daughter SCOBYs.

It is, however, very easy to find bottles of brewed kombucha in pretty much any health food store in the country, if not the local grocery store.  For the low investment of one bottle of unflavored, raw kombucha and two weeks of time, you can grow your own SCOBY.

Items You’ll Need:

  • One 12-16 ounce bottle of raw, unpasteurized, 100% kombucha (with no fruit juices or other flavorings).
  • One glass container deep enough to accommodate at least 1 quart of liquid but wide enough to have a diameter the exact size (or a little smaller) than what you want your final SCOBY to be.  In other words, if your brewing container is 8 inches in diameter, you want a glass bowl (or spare brewing container) that is also 8 inches in diameter.
  • One clean dish towel
  • One large rubber band
  • 2 teabags of green or black unflavored tea (Flavoring oils kill SCOBYs.  Yes, Earl Grey is a flavored tea.)  Alternately, use about 8 grams of loose leaf tea and strain the leaves out before adding sugar or kombucha.
  • 1 tablespoon white sugar
  • 2 cups (1 pint) boiling water (Note:  if your city chlorinates your water, dechlorinate it or it may kill the SCOBY.)

GT’s Organic Raw Kombucha, original flavor (which is unflavored) is perfect to use for SCOBY growing.

Since the goal here isn’t to kill off any yeast or bacteria through temperature shock (which would happen by putting two liquids of the same temperature together), begin your SCOBY growing process by popping your bottle of kombucha on the kitchen counter in order to let it come to room temperature.

Meanwhile, put the sugar and teabags in the glass bowl.  Pour two cups of boiling water over the ingredients and stir to combine the sugar.  Allow the tea to steep for 10 minutes or so, then remove the teabags and allow the brew to come to room temperature.

When both the kombucha and the sweetened tea are room temperature, pour the entire bottle of kombucha into the bowl of sweetened tea.  Taking care not to let the towel touch the brew, cover the bowl with the towel and secure it in place with the rubber band.  Set the entire thing in a warm, dry place and forget all about its existence for at least two weeks.  Visually check the SCOBY’s growth process at that time.  Chances are you’ll have a new, happy SCOBY that’s about a quarter-inch thick, floating on top of the brew.  However, if the SCOBY hasn’t quite grown as thick and uniform as you would like, let it continue to grow for another week or so.

At this point, you can brew up a massive batch of sweet tea and start brewing some drinkable kombucha by adding the SCOBY and a bit of the culturing liquid to the sweet tea, or you can put things on pause.  If you need to store the SCOBY for a time, you can continue to leave it in the bowl.  Just make sure the liquid doesn’t completely evaporate.  You may want to look into setting up a “SCOBY Hotel”, which is just a second vessel identical to your brewing vessel that will hold a quantity of very strong kombucha liquid and extra SCOBYs.  If you are gifting the SCOBY to a friend, you can put it into a glass mason jar (it folds!).  Place the SCOBY into the jar, then strain any solids or strings out of the culturing liquid before adding the culturing liquid to the glass mason jar.  If the culturing liquid doesn’t quite cover the SCOBY, add some room temperature sweetened tea to the jar until it does.  Seal the jar with a plastic lid.  You can use mason jar storage to refrigerate extra SCOBYs if you like.  However, keep in mind that refrigerating the SCOBY does have the potential to kill off some of the yeast and bacteria that you want, and the SCOBY will never again lie flat in the brew once it has been folded.  Use fridge storage as a last resort.

Keep in mind that there will be a fair bit of variety in the SCOBY that will grow.  The first time I grew SCOBYs, I did two side by side using the exact same materials:  identical bowls, towels, and culturing tea (I brewed a 4 cup batch and divided it between the bowls).  The SCOBY resulting from one GT’s bottle was picture perfect:  completely uniform and seriously thick.  The SCOBY from the second bottle was kind of thin and the color was splotchy.  It almost looked like it didn’t have a middle.  The sour culturing liquid from both, however, smelled and tasted just fine.  I gave the pretty SCOBY to a friend and used the ugly one myself.  Ugly SCOBY and its progeny have been my faithful brewers ever since…and my ticket to any number of Craigslist ride shares to Portland.

Potions in Action: Kombucha (Part 2: How to Brew It)

SCOBYs in Jars!

Now that we all know what kombucha is and how I find it is influencing my well-being and spirituality, you might want to know how to brew up a batch for yourself.  Well, grasshopper, let me show you the way.  Please note that while this list might look intimidating, most of it can already be found in a well-stocked kitchen.

You will need:

  • A SCOBY. Growing one is the subject of a future post.
  • Prepared unflavored kombucha or vinegar.  The brew needs to be a little acidic when starting out to minimize contamination from undesirable microbes.  I hold back some kombucha from a previous batch.  If starting out, it’s perfectly acceptable to use store-bought plain kombucha (I like GT’s Original).
  • Unflavored, caffeinated tea. The SCOBY uses the caffeine protein for food.  While it can grow and survive in some herbal teas, save experimentation for later.  Teabags are fine, but bulk loose tea is far more cost effective in the long run.  You don’t need high grade tea here, so don’t go buying anything too fancy.  You can use any mix of black, green, white, or oolong teas.  Each one will yield a subtly different finished product.  You can also use yerba mate (green or roasted).  Although yerba mate is not proper tea, it has plenty of caffeine and can safely brew a tasty kombucha.  If using yerba mate, you will most likely need to quadruple the amount of tea you would regularly use.
  • White refined sugar.  You need something with proper glucose and fructose for the yeast and bacteria to eat.  No artificial sweeteners or stevia need apply.  Other natural sweeteners can support a SCOBY, but the extra nutrients they bring to the party can retard SCOBY growth or make the culture more palatable to mold and undesirable bacteria.  Regular old white sugar is the safest thing to use.
  • Filtered water Or not, depending on the quality of your water and how your municipality treats it.  I often use tap because my area has amazing water, and the city doesn’t chlorinate it.  If you do have chlorinated water, you absolutely MUST dechlorinate it before proceeding.  Chlorine kills SCOBYs.
  • Large clear glass jars with wide mouth openings.  Do not use crockery, plastic, or metal.  Kombucha is acidic enough that potentially poisonous substances could leech out of crockery or plastic.  And, for whatever reason, SCOBYs hate metal.  I highly recommend using Anchor Hocking’s “Heritage Hill” line of canisters, but without the lid.  All Anchor Hocking glass is made in America, is lead-free, and is recyclable.  The company also is proactive about becoming even greener.  You may want more than one if you’d like to start a ‘SCOBY hotel’ for storing extra SCOBYS.  An important note:  if the jar is taller than it is wide, you cannot fill the jar up to its full capacity.  Its maximum capacity for kombucha brewing is the point where it is as deep as it is wide.
  • A 10-inch glass pie plate (or a larger deep glass dish if the brewing vessel diameter is over 10 inches)You want to avoid folding or bending your SCOBYs as they’ll tend to hold even the slightest fold and won’t lie flat in your culturing ‘booch.  A 10-inch glass pie plate does wonderfully for temporarily holding a SCOBY and some starter (don’t let it sit dry!) while you’re setting up a new cycle of tea to brew.  A mixing bowl might allow the SCOBY to fold or curve.  You can also often find glass lids to cover the pie plate while it’s sitting out, which will minimize any possible contamination, though a clean tea towel will work, too.  Speaking of…
  • A clean, white, cotton cloth for covering the jar opening.  Choose cotton for its breathability.  Choose white because it will be easier to see any dirt or contamination that might end up growing on the cloth.  Also, the acidic kombucha has a small potential to leech chemicals out of dyes if the cloth comes into contact with the brew.  Of course, it’s kind of hard to accidentally drop the cloth into the brew, so don’t stress if you can’t find white cloth.  I prefer white flour sack dish towels, but anything will do.  Even old T-shirts.
  • Large rubber bands for securing cloth to the jar opening.  I’ve found that cover rubber band head bands from the dollar store are great for this.  For a dollar, you get like 8 or so.  They fit the Anchor Hocking jars well, last forever, and look more attractive than an office supply rubber band.  Of course, twine or string can also work, but it is trickier to tie it in place tight enough.  If you need to use twine, practice your technique before you’ve got a full batch in a jar in order to minimize losing your towel in your kombucha.
  • A cooking pot.  The volume capacity will depend on how much tea you want to brew.  For my 6 quart batches, I typically use my 4 quart saucepan.  A 3 quart one could work, but I’d dramatically increase mess from boil over, splashes from stirring, and spills when pouring.
  • A fine mesh strainer.  This will come in handy to strain out loose leaf tea, but I also find it pretty essential in transferring brewed kombucha to individual bottles.  No need to transfer ‘booch strings and sediment to what you drink!
  • A reliable probe thermometer.  This is obviously optional unless you are like me and have a tendency to think that “touch temperature” is fine when it’s really a good 20°F off.  You don’t want to kill your SCOBY and culture by adding it to tea that is either too hot or too cold.  Optimum kombucha brewing temperature is between 74°F and 84°F.  As a rule of thumb, I don’t add my culture to ‘warm’ tea until the temperature is 80°F or below.  Ideally, you should not allow the brewing kombucha to fall below 70°F as colder temperatures can allow the growth of undesirable strains of yeasts and bacteria.  f it is the winter months and ambient room temperature is in the 60s, you may want to consider creating a system to warm your ‘booch a few degrees.  If you’re really paranoid about wanting to know the temperature of your brew without constantly disturbing the SCOBY, I would suggest adhering an aquarium or strip thermometer to the outside of your brew rig.
  • Wooden spoons. You’ll need to stir your brew before you culture it!  Wooden spoons are safer when it comes to ensuring that the SCOBY won’t touch metal.
  • Reusable plastic or glass straws.  Straws are used to obtain a small amount of brewing kombucha from under the SCOBY so that you can taste the brew and assess its progress without disturbing the SCOBY.  Simply slide the straw between the SCOBY and the glass jar, push it a few inches under the SCOBY, place your finger on top of the straw, then withdraw it and pop the bottom of the straw in your mouth and move your finger aside.  If you desire a second taste, use a different straw.  Save the environment and choose something reusable (and preferably glass in this case).
  • Dish soap without bleach or antibacterial ingredients.  You want everything to be clean, clean, clean before brewing, but you don’t want to kill the SCOBY and culture.  Make sure to wash and thoroughly rinse everything–you cannot have any soap residue–and always make sure your hands are clean before handling the SCOBY.
  • A number of 16-oz glass bottles with caps.  If you want fizzy or flavored kombucha, you’ll need to do a second small fermentation in individual, capped bottles.  I am currently using old GT’s kombucha bottles and caps as I really like their wider mouth and lack of a neck.  They are exceptionally easy to clean and fill.  Many other brewers swear by “EZ Cap Beer Bottles”.  With this style of bottle, you can also order extra swing tops and gaskets in case those break or wear out.  No matter what type of bottle is chosen, I would recommend clear glass over colored as it is easier to see dirt, contamination, and spoiled ‘booch in them.  I would also recommend the purchase of a bottle brush and a filling funnel to help with cleaning and filling.
  • Flavorings.  Use your imagination!  Just about any fruit juice will work, as will stronger, sweetened herbal infusions.  With the exception of using candied ginger, I vastly prefer to use liquid flavorings as I dislike ‘chunks’ in my beverages.  You can either make your own juices or you can purchase natural juices from the grocery.  As far as amount goes, I think it’s best to stick close to the GT’s 5% juice, 95% kombucha ratio.  Five percent of 16 ounces comes out to 0.8 oz, which is hard to measure out so I round up and add a solid ounce (2 tablespoons) of juice to 15 oz of kombucha.  The sugars from the juices help to create the carbonation, so if you’re using a low-sugar juice, you may want to add 1/4-1/2 teaspoon of white sugar to the bottle, too.

Once you’ve assembled your materials, the first step is to whip out a pen and paper and figure out just how much kombucha you want to brew.  For example, if you want to cultivate a habit where you consume 16 oz a day and you estimate your brewing cycle to be 9 days, you will need a minimum yield of 144 ounces.  You’ll likely need to add at least another 48 ounces to take into account the amount you’ll need to reserve for the next batch, the amount needed to safely hold a SCOBY in transfer, as well as the ‘dregs’ amount at the bottom of the jar that you’ll not want to drink.  The grand total you’ll need then is 192 ounces, or six quarts.

Once you’ve determined the amount of brew you’ll need, multiply your conversion factor across the following ratio equation:

3 quarts (96 oz) finished kombucha = 3 quarts (96 oz) filtered water (half hot, half cold) : 1 cup white sugar: 12 grams tea leaf (about 4 teaspoons of a ‘tight packing’ leaf or about 4 tea bags) : 2/3 cup  (5.3 oz) unflavored kombucha

Since we want 6 quarts of finished kombucha, we simply double the ratio values.  If we wanted 1.5 quarts, we would multiply everything by 0.5 (or 1.5/3).  If we wanted 8 quarts, we would multiply everything by 2.6 (8/3).

To make my 6 quarts of kombucha, then, I take the following steps:

  1. Bring 3 quarts of filtered water to a boil in a 4 quart saucepan.
  2. Add all the sugar, stir, and let the mixture boil for another five minutes.
  3. Remove the pot from the heat, add the tea, stir, and let the tea brew for 10 minutes.
  4. Set a fine mesh strainer over a 2-gallon glass jar and pour the tea concentrate through the strainer, which will catch any loose tea leaves.
  5. Add enough cold filtered water to the jar to bring the total volume to 6 quarts of liquid and stir.  At this point, the temperature of the brew will often be about 100°F.
  6. When the temperature of the brew drops to below 80°F, stir in the reserved kombucha starter and carefully lay the SCOBY on top of the liquid.  (Even though it usually floats, the SCOBY may sink, hang sideways, or do a number of things.  It’s fine.  Sometimes they just do that.)
  7. Cap the jar with the dishtowel and rubber band and set it in a warm, tranquil room with good air flow for 7-12 days, occasionally taste-testing the brew to gauge when it is finished.
  8. When the brew is about as sour as it is sweet, remove the SCOBY and set it aside in a covered pie dish with enough brewed kombucha to keep it covered or afloat.
  9. Set aside enough brewed kombucha to culture the next batch.
  10. Strain the kombucha through a fine mesh strainer into a second glass container big enough to hold  all the liquid.  Discard the sludge in last couple inches of liquid, and discard any material that has collected in the strainer.
  11. Pour 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) of flavoring juice into 16-ounce bottles if you desire flavored kombucha.  Add about 1/4 teaspoon white sugar to bottles you desire to be unflavored.
  12. Fill bottles to capacity limit with the kombucha.
  13. Cap bottles and allow them to sit at room temperature for 24-36 hours, then transfer to a refrigerator.
  14. Open bottles carefully lest they have over-carbonated, and enjoy!

Bottled homebrew kombucha just waiting to be consumed.

Potions in Action: Kombucha (Part 1: What It Is)

Kombucha SCOBY floating at the top of a towel-covered glass jar.

I have a small confession.  After I started making my own yogurt, which had a side effect of deepening my personal spiritual practice, the DIY bug bit me hard.  I started looking for other opportunities to introduce more unprocessed, healthful foods into my diet.  One of those was sprouting, and I ate so many that I decided my best friend needed a sprouting set for Yule.  This boy has himself a mad GT’s Kombucha habit, which I’ve mercilessly teased him about for years–both because kombucha looks absolutely disgusting and because a daily bottle of GT’s translates into an annual habit of $1460.  Unfortunately for me, I had the brilliant idea to continue the jest by packaging his sprouting seeds and beans in repurposed GT’s bottles.  As I had none lying about, I bought six and steeled myself to consume their contents over a week.

By day three, I was hooked, too.

If you’ve never heard of kombucha (kŏm’bū’chah), allow me to introduce you.   It is just a beverage made of fermented sweetened tea that ends up tasting a bit like an effervescent, diluted, semi-sweet apple cider vinegar.  It often has some dry white wine or champagne notes, and it blends with fruit juices and herbal syrups very well.  The disgusting part is this:  you ferment this tea by culturing it with this thing that looks like an aborted alien fetus.  This beige, rubbery pancake with brown tentacles on its underside is properly termed a ‘zoogeal mat’ or a ‘biofilm’, and it is a Acetobacter-generated cellulose matrix embedded with many species of bacteria and yeast which all live together in symbiosis.  In fact, this particular biofilm is often called a SCOBY, an acronym for ‘Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast’.  A wide range of the yeast and bacteria’s metabolic (including acetic acid, ketones, and gluconic acids) accumulate in the liquid medium of the tea, which is eventually drunk as kombucha.

Yup, that’s right.  The thing that makes sweet tea into kombucha is not only the inclusion of bacteria and yeast, but their poop, too.  Yummy, right?

As bona fide tea snob and a biologist, it took all the courage I could muster to drink my first bottle.  To be fair, the GT’s bottles are very attractive and it was only my memories of a former housemates woefully neglected (to the point where it was moldy and maggoty) kombucha brewing operation that steered me off.  Once I actually got the brew in my mouth, I realized I really liked it.  When I do go out drinking, I find I’m a sucker for any lightly sweet cocktail with sour mix, lime, or carbonation.  Kombucha hits a lot of those high points.  Kombucha also plays well with lots of other flavors and makes very sweet, cloying fruit juices much easier to stomach.  A lot of people mix 20% juice with 80% kombucha, but I’m more partial to a 5% juice 95% kombucha ratio.  I find that the resultant tart/sweet ratio of that will be very close to cranberry juice’s.

This is pretty much what I am doing for my friend’s dry seed/bean storage. I think it looks awfully cute, is really easy to fill and pour, and it will make him laugh.

So why am I discussing kombucha in a blog about my spirituality?  Well, after a couple of weeks of regularly consuming kombucha I did notice a subtle change in my well-being.  Looking back, I realize that my health the first few days wasn’t spectacular, though it caused me no major hardship and I barely noticed it at the time.  For maybe the first three days, I had this light, intermittent headache–and I’m not headache prone.  I did also have a light case of diarrhea, though it wasn’t something where I would have to run to the bathroom urgently.  The evening of the second day, I had a few hours where I felt cold chills and feared the onset of a flu, but it quickly cleared.  I also got a few pimples even though my complexion is typically (and blessedly!) clear.  I was also more lethargic than normal, but I attributed that at the time to post-travels malaise and mild frustration with how messy my housemates had let the pad get while I was gone.

What I did notice, though, was how I felt a couple weeks later.  In short, I was in a GREAT mood!  I was feeling bizarrely optimistic, which really hasn’t been the case at all this whole year.  And I had energy.  I got a bee in my bonnet to really clean up the house–but it wasn’t a mania.  Over a week, I just did small discrete projects like dusting the window cases and re-merchandizing the clutter treasures my housemates display there.  I went on neighborhood walks.  I finished a lot of things that had been on my “To Do” list for ages.  It’s not like I’d ever get an energy rush…it’s more like my standard energy baseline went up a couple of notches.  I also noticed my sleep was a lot deeper and in longer lengths (I typically wake up several times a night these days).  In short, I was becoming a slightly better version of myself, and that little bit of increased optimism and energy was having a lot of positive spill-over benefits.

Snackraments: Homemade Cheez-Its

I strongly believe that the cakes and ale we share with the gods during ritual should be prepared by hand if at all possible.  Not only do you have the opportunity to put energy and purpose into the creation, but–frankly–you’ll probably have a better food item to share when you’re done.  All these crackers and cookies you buy in the grocery are full of artificial colors, preservatives, trans fats, and all manner of very non-sacred things.

So to help me focus on what I could prepare for ritual food, I’m starting this “Snackrament” series:  recipes that make delicious–but easy–things to prepare for the ritual cakes and wine.  I’ve decided to I begin with Cheez-Its in honor of the Church of All Worlds, who coined the word “Snackrament”.  In their article “Sacraments and Snackraments” in Creating Circles and Ceremonies, Oberon Zell Ravenheart and Lisa Gabriel humorously put Cheez-Its in a whole separate sacramental food category.  They write:

The first heresy declared by the Roman Catholic Church was the Artotyrite heresy–named for a practice of the Montanist sect, who ate cheese on their communion bread.  For over 40 years in the Church of All Worlds we have affirmed the right to diversity in “snackraments” by honoring the Artotyrites with Sunshine Cheez-Its (accompanied by an explanation of the symbolism, as well as jokes:  “What a friend we have in Cheez-Its, Cheez-Its saves, etc.)

This one is for you, Church of All Worlds.  Thanks for keeping ritual funny!

By the way, It takes 30 seconds to throw this dough together in the food processor and about 4 minutes to roll and cut the crackers. They bake for less than 30 minutes. Now tell me that’s not faster than a trip to the grocery store!  Magically, I think the salt in the crackers and the protein provided by the cheese will be very grounding.  There’s some good biology behind that:  muscle tissue requires both proteins and salts to continue functioning, especially under fatigue, and salt stimulates the brain.  Still, the fat content here is going to make this a Snackrament that should not be a full meal!

Homemade Cheez-Its

8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon vegetable shortening (or another tablespoon butter)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons ice cold water
coarse salt for sprinkling

Using the grating disk of a food processor, grate the cheese. Then, switch to the regular chopping blade and add the butter, shortening, salt, and the flour. Pulse to begin mixing, then leave the machine run until the mixture resembles coarse sand.  While the machine is running, add the ice water. You may add a few more drops of water to help the dough come together into a mass or into large clumps, but be careful not to add too much. You don’t want a wet dough.

Pat the dough into 2 discs, and wrap the discs in plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes (or longer).

Preheat oven to 375⁰F.

Using parchment paper, wax paper, or a silicone mat, roll each disc to a sheet 1/8-inch thick or less and cut the sheets into 1 inch squares (a pastry wheel or pizza wheel is easiest). Use a toothpick to punch a hole into the center of each square.

If you have difficulty separating and transferring the crackers onto the baking sheet return the parchment paper/mat to the refrigerator for 10 minutes (while you roll out the 2nd dough disc).

Bake for 10 – 15 minutes or until puffed and browning around the edges. If you pull them out too soon and the crackers don’t have the desired crispiness you want then simply return them to the oven for 2-3 more minutes.

Move crackers to a cooling rack, then serve when cooled.