Perfect muesli

Friday 28th October 2016

My life can be broadly categorised into four phases by the kind of cereal that I have for breakfast, like the classic Ages of Man from Greek mythology:

The Coco Pops age (4-14)

This was the golden age, where the most important thing in my life was opening the next box of Coco Pops to find out which toy is in the packet.

I had no concept of nutrition and so the cereal with the most chocolate in it was obviously the best. It filled me up for almost an hour every morning before I was hungry again. 

 

The Shreddies age (14-32)

Eventually I realised that I needed to eat something a bit more substantial for breakfast.

I always found Shreddies extremely comforting, and through the upheaval and homesickness of going to university I found Shreddies a constant companion.

When we lived in New Zealand I had to eat sub-standard Canadian imported Shreddies which had bilingual ingredients, but luckily in Melbourne there was a British shop where I could get the real thing at vastly inflated prices. 

 

The Weetabix age (32-40)

The transition to Weetabix was abrupt, and no-one was more surprised than me.

I literally woke up one morning and disliked the taste of Shreddies. I don't know if they changed the recipe overnight or whether my taste buds revolted. 

I also find Weetabix very comforting, and while I had braces on my teeth there were many extremely painful days where all I could eat was soggy Weetabix. 

 

The Muesli age (40 - ?)

Over the last year or so, I've found myself coveting Kat's breakfast cereal of choice, muesli.

If you'd told me from the past about this I would have laughed in your face, but to mangle Shakespeare, a man loves the cereal in his age that he cannot endure in his youth

I've tried a whole bunch of muesli in the last twelve months, but none of them quite cut it. I want something without added sugar, salt or skimmed milk powder so Alpen is out. I want something with the right balance of fruit to nuts, and Brazil nuts seem to make my mouth tingle in a bad way so Jordan's and the Dorset Cereals range are out. I also want something that's reasonably nutritious without too many calories so granola is out, and that leaves me with one option: make my own. 

So here are the results of my experiments to find the perfect muesli. If you want to try experimenting, you can change the ingredient sliders below - share your recipe in the comments. 

           







Nutrition

Nutrition values per serving (0g)

Calories 0Kcal
Protein 0g
Fat 0g
    of which saturates 0g
Carbohydrates 0g
    of which sugars 0g


Make a batch

To make 500g of this recipe you'll need:

    Ingredients

    Use the sliders below to specify quantities of ingredients per serving:

    0g Jumbo oats
    0g Wheat flakes
    0g Almond flakes
    0g Mixed vine fruit
    0g Dessicated coconut
    0g Dried apricots
    0g Dried apple
    0g Mixed seeds
    0g Chopped hazelnuts
    0g Dried papaya
    0g Dried cranberries


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    Making ketchup

    Friday 30th September 2016

    Ketchup is one of those magical foods that bears almost no relation to the ingredients it's made from. Go to your fridge now and eat a teaspoon of ketchup straight from the bottle. Does it taste of tomatoes? Does it taste of anything apart from sugar and vinegar? Quite.

    I wanted to try making ketchup to see the transformation from a bunch of fruit into a delicious goo. The secret? The recipe is 25% sugar. 

    I started off with a recipe I found on the Guardian website and adapted it - mainly to reduce the insane quantities of sugar and salt! I wanted to make a regular Heinz style one, and a Bloody Mary ketchup as sold by Stokes, because everything's better with chilli in it. 

    Below you can see the ingredients - well, the tomatoes, everything else is underneath. After an hour and a half it's reduced down into a sweet gooey mess. 

    Ingredients

    Makes about 1.25 litres

    • 1.5kg tomatoes, roughly chopped
    • 1 small onion, diced
    • 6 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
    • 40g salt
    • 350g sugar
    • 40ml balsamic vinegar
    • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
    • 6 whole cloves

    Optional Blood Mary additions:

    • 2 tbsp vodka
    • A good glug of Worcestershire sauce
    • Chilli to taste

    Recipe

    Put all the ingredients in a pan and simmer for about an hour and a half. Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn't burn.

    When it's reduced down by about half, puree it in a food processor and then sieve into a clean pan.

    Adjust the thickness with water if too thick, or reduce some more if it seems too thin. Bear in mind that it's going to be a lot thicker when it's cold.

    Allow to cool, bottle and serve. 

    The verdict

    "Amazing", "delicious", "oh, I thought it was shop-bought", "got a good kick", and "as good as Heinz" were some of the comments people made. 

    But therein lies the futility of this recipe: Heinz have perfected ketchup over the last 140 years, but they've also become deeply entrenched in your soul as the standard for ketchup. So the best I can ever hope for is "as good as Heinz". And their product is a fraction of the cost of mine. 

    Interesting, but I won't be doing it again. 

     

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    Bronze sword - er, dagger.

    Friday 16th September 2016

    I finally finished my bronze sword project!

    Kind of. You'll have to watch the video to find out. 

    Woohoo!

     

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    Proper ferrofluids

    Friday 12th August 2016

    After last week's disaster, here's a short video showing how Ferrofluids are supposed to look! I gave up trying to make my own and bought some from eBay along with some extra-strong neodymium magnets.

     

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    Ferrofluid failure

    Friday 5th August 2016

    If you love a bit of schadenfreude then you'll enjoy this week's post where one of my projects goes completely wrong. I've been thinking a lot about the way we present ourselves to the world, and I decided it was important to show that my life has a lot of fails just like everyone else's. 

    Making ferrofluid

    I wanted to get hold of some ferrofluid, a beautiful magnetic liquid. It's quite pricey on eBay, about £10 for 20mL, so I found a tutorial that shows how to make it out of acetone and old tape cassettes.

    So far so good.

    I bought some acetone from eBay (£6.95) and found my last remaining ten cassettes, mostly mix tapes that I'd made during the 90s and couldn't bear to throw away. Making something awesome from their remains seemed like a fitting end.

    The first step was to smash the cassettes up and place the tape in a kilner jar, then fill it with acetone and leave for a few days for the solvent to dissolve the tiny iron particles off the plastic tape.

    I left it a week just to make sure, then poured the brown liquid into a bowl and let it settle. 

    The settling process took quite a while because the particles were so fine, but I discovered that by putting a strong magnet on the outside of the jar I could speed the process up massively - it cleared in just a few minutes and produced some beautiful patterns, below. They moved ever so slowly, like magnetic urchins.

    Once the iron particles had settled out, I poured the almost-clean acetone back in the bottle and left the brown goop outside so the rest of the acetone evaporated. It became quite hard and lumpy, like a metallic cat poo.

    Once the actone had completely evaporated, I added a little vegetable oil and voila!

    Oh. That's not what it's supposed to look like.

    I did some more research and found out that the particles on magnetic tape are far too large to work as a ferrofluid.

    They're around 500nm across, which is awfully small, but ferrofluid particles need to be 10nm - fifty times smaller. So the goop went in the bin and I bought some ferrofluid from eBay, which I'll write up shortly.

    Failure

    I've always joked that we need a separate version of Facebook called Failbook where everyone posts photos of their average days, talk about arguments with their partners and how they feel generally unsatisfied with life.

    Obviously no-one has the life that they portray on social media but it's easy to forget that when you see their perfectly curated exhibitions and compare them to your own. I'm just as consumed with self-doubt, worry and paranoia as you are, and I don't think it helps to hide it.

    In eighty posts for this site I've only ever mentioned failing twice, once when I nearly ruined our front door with a jigsaw and once when a batch of charcoal caught fire while it was cooling down. 

    In reality, almost all of the posts I've ever written have involved some kind of failure, but I've omitted them without evening considering it.

    When we made cola I pretty much wrecked our food processor with the plastic-eating essential oils. When I made salt from seawater I took the Teflon coating off an expensive frying pan because I was too impatient to wait for it to evaporate. When I learned to make lace I lost count of the number of times I had to unpick it and start again because I had trouble learning the motor skills, and I melted a set of plastic petri dishes for the licky experiment by trying to sterilise them in steam. 

    My point is that it's completely normal to fail repeatedly, and you only need to succeed once to make it work.

    So in future posts I'm going to be more honest about when it goes wrong!

     

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    Copper refining part 2

    Friday 10th June 2016

    Last Friday I finally got around to melting down a bunch of old scrap copper that I'd had lying around for months. I've now got enough copper and tin to cast my bronze sword!

    My technique has really come on since I built my bucket furnace. I borrowed a friend's leaf blower for the air induction and it's way better than Kat's old hairdryer.

    I've discovered that it works much better with real charcoal than charcoal briquettes, which leave a lot of claggy residue in the furnace and stop it getting hot enough.

    Here's a quick video showing the refining of the scrap copper into pretty little ingots. It takes about two hours to get hot enough to melt the copper at 1084 °C, but then it's so hot that it melts down the next batch in a couple of minutes.

    The molten copper is indescribably beautiful and quite took my breath away. It's a pale shimmery metallic salmon colour with a strong orange glow. I think I'm a little bit in love with it. I watched a Youtube video of a guy pouring gold a while ago, he said that after you see your first pour the metal takes up a little piece of your heart forever. I think I know what he means. 

    At the end of the video are the wooden model sword that I carved, and a test aluminium version that I cast last year. Can't wait to cast the bronze one!

     

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    No More Nails

    Friday 27th May 2016

    I was talking with a friend who made a joke about how the crucifixion would have been very different with No More Nails. This got me thinking...

     

     

    Sadly, they never replied...

     

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    Pizza oven

    Friday 20th May 2016

    I've always wanted a pizza oven at home but we just don't have the room to build one. So when Dan asked me if I wanted to build one in his garden I jumped at the chance!

    All about the base

    First of all we laid a brick base for the oven topped with a layer of paving slabs. We put a layer of fire bricks, from an old night storage heater, as the floor of the oven. I've never done bricklaying before - it was fun!

     

    The oven

    A few weeks ago we built the oven. We started with a dome of sand the size of the inside of the oven and then covered it in wet newspaper.

    On top of this we put a 5cm thick layer of wet clay/sand mix and left it to dry for a week. The first time we did this we only left it for a day, and the dome collapsed when we removed the sand!

    Once it had hardened we cut a hole in the front, removed the sand and started a fire inside to bake the clay hard.

    A couple of days later we made the arch. This was another sand former in an arch shape at the front of the oven and then built an arch out of bricks with a clay/sand mix for the mortar. In hindsight this should have been a cement mortar but hey ho. Then we added a thick sawdust/clay mix as an insulating layer.

    Cooking up

    The moment of truth - we fired it up to make the first batch of pizzas! OMG they were good. The oven took about three hours to get to temperature and then the pizzas cooked in under a minute.

     

    Final layers

    The final layers were another clay/sand layer and then a strong cement mortar as a final waterproof layer at the end. We decided to cover the arch in a layer on mortar too, because the clay/sand mix that held the bricks in place didn't look very strong. We made a little door to go at the front and it's all done!

     

    Paint job

    Well almost. Dan wants to paint it so here are my favourite three ideas for the paint job. Vote for which one you think looks best!

     

    Retro

     

    Flames

     

    Ladybird

    Leave a comment below saying which paint job we should go for, or suggest an alternative.

     

    Your vote

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    Making a ring

    Friday 18th March 2016

    I recently caught up with a good friend, Vicky, who rivals me in terms of how many different hobbies she has. Her kitchen worktop was covered in jewellery making tools, and she asked if I wanted to learn how to make a simple copper ring. Of course I did!

    1. We started off with a reel of 2mm copper wire. Vicky says it works with anything from 1.5mm up to 3mm

    2. The wire was bent around a metal mandrel (nice word) to a size slightly larger than the finished ring

    3. We cut the wire to make a hoop

    4. And then bent it using special plastic pliers to make the ends of the hoop line up

     

    5. Next we got some jewellery solder

    6. And smeared it across the ends of the hoop

    7. The ring was then placed on a fireproof block

    8. And heated gently until the solder flowed across the joint and sealed it.

     

    9. We cooled the rings down in water

    10. And then placed them in a solution of vinegar and salt pickle to remove the oxidised copper

    11. The rings were washed in water again and the black cupric oxide rubbed off with a finger

    12. Leaving just the rather beautiful red cuprous oxide

     

    13. The rings were then put back onto the mandrell and hammered to be round and the correct size. Sadly this knocked off most of the cuprous oxide.

    14. They were then polished using an impressive array of different grades of sandpaper

    15. Ta da!

     

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    Home made spectroscope

    Friday 4th March 2016

    Pretty much everything we can observe about the universe comes from the light we can see from stars. I've been doing an Astronomy course over the last year and I've come to realise just how much information can be obtained from light!

    One thing that's really impressed me is how it's possible to find out all kinds of things about the composition of a star from looking at its spectrum. For example helium was observed on the Sun before it was discovered on Earth.

    For a few quid I bought some diffraction gratings which smear out an object's light into a wide spectrum. 

    Making a spectroscope

    Apart from the diffraction grating, it's all simple stuff. I bought ten gratings from Amazon for £3 if you'd like me to post you one, and I also have some spare razor blades.

    You'll need:

    • Black electrical tape
    • Cardboard
    • A long cardboard tube, about 10cm diameter
    • A razor blade
    • A 500 lines/mm diffraction grating

    We need to block out almost all the light except for a very thin slit at one end of the tube. This makes for clearer lines in the image.

    First of all, cut a circle of carboard that's about the same size as the tube diameter. Cut a rectangle from the middle of the circle that the razor blade will cover. Now carefully break the razor blade in two (obviously it's very sharp) and tape one part to each side of the circle, making sure the sharp bit of the blade protrudes from the semi-circle, like the top right image below.

    Now tape the blades onto the card leaving about a 1mm gap between the two halves of the razor blade - like the bottom left image below. A smaller gap gives a clearer image, but needs more light to show a spectrum. 1mm seems to work for me.

    Now tape the disc to one end of the cardboard tube, making sure that you still have a 1mm gap when you've finished. When you're done it should look like the bottom right image below. You can check it's okay by looking down the other end of the tube and you should see a very thin slit of light.

    Now you need to attach the diffraction grating to the other end of the tube, like this. Make sure that the grating is mounted in the same orientation as the slit, that is when the slit is vertical, the text on the grating is the right way up.

    The easiest way to do this is to hold the tube up to a CFL-type bulb in your home and place the grating at one end.

    Rotate it around until you can see clear lines in the spectrum - if it's the wrong way round you'll just see a single unbroken line spectrum.

    Have a play with it and you'll see what I mean.

    Once you've got it in the right orientation, tape the grating to the other end of the tube and you're done! Yes, I taped this one upside down.

     

    So what am I looking at?

    Good question. White light isn't one colour, it's a bunch of different wavelengths. When you look through the diffraction grating at a light source, you'll see rainbows off to either side of the slit. The grating spreads the light out into different wavelengths like a prism.

    At the blue end (normally depicted on the left, but you might have yours upside down!) is light with a wavelength of 390nm, and at the red end most people can see up to about 700nm. Most lights produce radiation beyond these wavelengths, but you can't see into the ultraviolet or infra-red so it just looks black.

    Different light sources display very different spectra. I took some rather beautiful photos so you can see what it looks like.

     

    Incandescent lights

    Old school incandescent tungsten bulbs, and halogen lights, produce their light by becoming incredibly hot and emitting radiation as visible light. When you look through a spectroscope at one of these lights, you see a continuous spectrum of light like this:

    These kind of lights actually emit more radiation in the infra-red than in the visible part of the spectrum, but my camera and your eyes can't see this, so the red just fades out as the wavelength gets longer on the right side. This is why these lights are really inefficient and also why they're really hot to touch.

     

    Compact fluorescent light

    About a decade ago everyone switched to compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs in their homes. These bulbs work in a totally different way to incandescent lights. They contain mercury atoms which emit energy in the ultraviolet. We can't see ultraviolet so the inside of the tube is coated in phosphors using various metals including europium and terbium which absorb the UV energy and re-emit it at very specific visible wavelengths.

    The mixture is chosen carefully to give a particular colour of light which is how you get warm, cool and daylight CFL bulbs. But unlike incandescent bulbs, they only give off a very specific set of wavelengths of light, as you can see above.  With the help of my good friend Wikipedia, you can identify exactly which atoms are emitting which parts of the spectrum shown.

    Mercury's pretty toxic so we'd ideally like to move away from CFLs over time. And also as you can see, the light isn't actually that good compared to incandescent bulbs, which is why a lot of people don't like them very much.

     

    LEDs

    Enter the Light Emitting Diode. These are lower power still than CFL bulbs, and their spectrum is much more like tungsten bulbs.

    Don't be fooled though, LEDs also only emit a very narrow set of wavelengths (I'm not sure I fully understand why) so they are also covered in a layer of phosphors. Most household LED lights gives off a blue light which the phosphors absorb and re-emit as other colours.

    Because the mix of phosphors is so clever it gives the appearance of a full spectrum, but you can see a dip in the blue part of the spectrum, and less at the red end than an incandescent light.

    The horizontal stripes in the image are due to the shape of the LED torch that I used. Good LEDs produce a very nice colour, use a tiny amount of energy and last a really long time. I'm gradually moving all our lights over to LEDs, starting with the halogen bulbs.

     

    Sunlight

    You'd think that the cleanest, most complete spectrum would be sunlight, but that's not the case. The inside of the sun is rather hot, and so it radiates light as a broad spectrum. But as the light passes through the outer parts of the sun, and through the Earth's atmosphere, cooler atoms absorb specific wavelengths of light and the resulting spectrum has characteristic dark bands, which you can clearly see in the image below.

    These are called Fraunhofer lines after the person who discovered them, and each one is caused by a specific atom. This is how we know the composition of the Sun, and also how helium was discovered - absorption lines were seen in the Sun's spectrum that didn't correspond to any elements that scientists knew about on the Earth.

     

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    Making lace

    Friday 18th December 2015

    If anyone wants to teach me a new skill, I'm all ears. So I was really excited when a friend, Denise, who is one of Britain's most experienced lace makers, asked if I wanted to learn to how to make bobbin lace. But pretty soon I realised how incredibly hard it is!

    A 'simple' bracelet

    Densie taught me how to make a 'simple' bracelet, which wasn't at all. Bobbin lace involves twisting pairs of turned wood bobbins together in a specific pattern to make the lace textile.

    Denise's studio is absolutely full of bobbins, thread, books and of course lace.

    Her bobbins range from simple wooden ones to complex designs made from exotic patterned hardwoods, intricately carved bobbins made from bone, and some that are several hundred years old.

    The starting point was a template, or pricking, which has holes showing the positions of the pins.

    My bracelet was made up of nine pairs of 'passive' thread and one pair of 'worker' thread, which was blue.

    The passive pairs are pinned at the top of the pricking, and then the worker pair is threaded through them by twisting the pairs of bobbins together.

    It's extremely satisfying once you get it right, but rather tricky to get there.

    After you've completed one square, the pattern changes to four set of plaits, and then back to another square.

    This repeats until the bracelet is long enough to go around the relevant limb, and then small eyelets were tied into the ends to fasten it.

    All together it took me about five hours to make this, and I'm very proud of it!

     

    A fancy bookmark

    Next Denise suggested I make a torchon bookmark. This was considerably harder and took me several months to complete. I kept getting stuck, finding that the pattern had broken down and I had to unpick it several times before I finally got the hang of it. During this time I got extremely frustrated and nearly gave up while I was in the Learning Curve Dip, but finally mastered it and now I'm looking forward to starting my third piece.

    If you have a skill you think I'd be interested in learning, leave a comment below!

     

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    Phonyetics

    Friday 11th December 2015

    I always laugh when I hear people struggle to spell words phonetically, when they say random words starting with that letter instead of the standard (if dull) NATO phonetic alphabet.

    I've been collecting a list of confusing words that don't start with the sound of that letter, just to confuse people further.

    I'd like to find some better words for some of the letters, if you've got any more add a comment below! 

    Thanks to Bryan for his suggestions, do you have any more? Leave a comment below.

     

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    Google Cardboard

    Friday 4th December 2015

    Virtual reality has been the next big thing since I was a kid, but I've yet to be impressed with it. What I do love is Google Cardboard, VR on a budget!

    It was released last year, but I've only just got around to buying one.

     

    Where to get it

    You can buy all sorts of fancy viewers, but I bought mine for £4 from eBay (I love eBay). It comes flat-pack and takes all of two minutes to assemble.

     

     

    Now just download some VR apps like the awesome-for-three-minutes RollerCoaster VR, put your smartphone into the headset and be amazed!

     

    I know it looks terrible but it's quite a lot of fun :)

     

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    Making halloumi

    Friday 13th November 2015

    Years ago I got excited by cheese-making, but it went the way of all my hobbies once I realised that I needed a way of closely monitoring the temperature and humidity.

    Then last week I saw that milk was on special offer in our local supermarket and thought I'd have a go at making halloumi at home. It doesn't need any special conditions because it's kept in the fridge in brine, so it's a lot easier. 

    Ingredients

    • 2 litres of full fat milk
    • 2 tsp rennet (I used Langdales)
    • 50g sea salt (I made my own)
    • A 30cm square of cheese cloth, or a clean tea towel

    Instructions

    Heat the milk in a saucepan to 32°C, then add the rennet. Stir to mix it completely and then cover the pan and leave it for an hour or two.

    The rennet acts on the milk proteins to turn the liquid into a strange semi-solid congealed mass - this is the curd. Cut the curd into cubes about 3cm across, and use the knife at an angle to cut across it a few times. Leave it for half an hour, after which time the whey should have started to separate out. 

    Put the pan on a very gentle heat and bring it up to 38°C. All the instructions I've read say to do this over half an hour, but that's very hard. It took me about 10 minutes to get up to temperature. Stir it very gently, and you'll see that the curds break up into small lumps in the greeny-coloured whey.

    Line a colander with the cheese cloth and put it over a clean saucepan. Gently pour the curds into the cloth, making sure that you're saving the whey in the pan below. Once the whey has all drained off, you need to compress the remaining curds.

    You could do this by simply putting a small plate on top of the curds and then resting some heavy cook books on top, or I bought a cheap cheese mould from eBay (I love eBay) which has holes that allow the whey to drain out. Leave it to press and drain overnight. 

    The next day, the curd will be a hard mass, which you need to cut into blocks about 5cm wide so the brine can cure it. 

    Heat the whey in a saucepan to 85°C and put the cheese into pan. Keep a close eye on the temperature, don't let it get too hot, and wait until the cheese floats to the surface. Some instructions said this will take about half an hour, but it was more like 15 minutes for me. Take the cheese out and leave it to cool.

    Finally you need to make up the brine to cure the cheese in. Add 500ml of whey to 500ml boiling water, and stir in 50g of salt. Cool the liquid to room temperature. 

    Sterilise a large clean jar and place the cheese into it. Top up with the brine almost to the brim, and place a small piece of cling film on top of the surface of the liquid to stop the cheese drying out when it floats. 

    Leave it for a week, and then enjoy!

     

     

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    Halloween Masks

    Friday 30th October 2015

    A quick one this week, if you're going to a Hallowe'en party this week I'd totally recommend these awesome masks from Wintercroft, a Cornish design company. Here are some examples from their website:

    They're £4.50 each and are emailed to you as a PDF. You cut them up, glue the templates onto some card and assemble them. There's a video on Youtube showing how to make one.

    This one took me about two hours to make, and it's great! Okay, so mine's not as good as some of the examples above :)

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    Open cola

    Friday 2nd October 2015

    The recipe for Open Cola, an open-source recipe for a Coke-type drink, came out in 2001. I've always wondered what was in Coke so thought I'd have a go at making some with Ash and Pete.

    Here's what happened.

    First of all we got all ingredients together. This was no mean feat in itself, and cost about £40 - but this is enough to make several batches. We sort of followed the recipes on Wikipedia and Cube-Cola. Most of the essential oils came from an online supplier, with everything else coming from eBay (I love eBay).

    Flavouring formula

    • 3.50 mL orange oil
    • 2.75 mL lime oil
    • 1.25 mL cassia oil
    • 1.00 mL lemon oil
    • 1.00 mL nutmeg oil
    • 0.25 mL coriander oil
    • 0.25 mL neroli oil
    • 0.25 mL lavender oil
    • 10.0 g food-grade gum arabic powder
    • 40 mL water (the Wikipedia recipe says 3ml but this really didn't work for us)

    Put on some gloves and goggles, the essential oils are pretty fierce. Measure out the oils and mix together, as shown below left. Mix the gum arabic powder with the water until it forms a cloudy liquid, and then add the oils.

    You'll need to blend these together into an emulsion, which can take several minutes in a food processor or with a whizzy stick. Eventually it will form a cloudy emulsion as shown in the bottom right. You can tell it's an emulsion because if you put a drop into a glass of water, it won't separate into a oil layer on the top of the water. Don't leave it in the food processor too long because the oils start to attack the plastic.

    We (okay, I) made a right mess of this step because we didn't dilute the gum arabic with enough water, so we wasted quite a lot of the mixture. We ended up with 30g of the emulsion when it should have been nearer 60g.

    The mixture smelled absolutely incredible but it didn't taste too great - very very bitter.

    Concentrate

    The two recipes we were following deviated quite widely here, so we made a new middle path.

    • 1.5kg plain granulated white table sugar
    • 750mL water
    • 30.0 mL caramel colour
    • 17.5 mL 75% phosphoric acid (particularly nasty, watch out)
    • 30.0 mL flavouring formula
    • 1g caffeine tablets, crushed up, diluted with 10ml of water and passed through a coffee filter

    Put the sugar and water in a pan and heat, making sure it doesn't boil. Add the caramel, phosphoric acid (carefully!) and caffeine solution to the flavouring formula and stir carefully.

    My pH sticks said that the mixture was about pH 1, so don't drink it.

    Once the sugar has all dissolved in the water, adding the flavouring and stir, then allow it to cool. We made just over two litres of the concentrate, enough to make 14 litres of cola. This is what the concentrate looked like.

    Drinkies

    We diluted the mixture 7:1 with sparkling mineral water and tried it - absolutely delicious! We had a bottle of Coke to compare it with, and to be honest after our magical open source cola, the "real thing" tasted dull and lifeless.

    I've since tried it with soda water (also nice) and with straight tap water and it's still great! I've had really good feedback from everyone who's tried it, although almost nobody has guessed what flavour it's supposed to be - especially since it's not brown.

    So it's a winner in terms of taste, how about cost? If we hadn't messed up the first stage we would have had more like 28 litres of cola and enough ingredients left over to make another 2-3 batches. That's about 70 litres of cola for £40, which is about half the cost of buying it.

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    Poker Scrabble

    Friday 11th September 2015

    I'm still obsessed with poker and a bit sad that Kat doesn't enjoy the game at all. It's all about maths and she loves maths! So in an effort to make the game more friendly I've invented Poker Scrabble, hope you like it.

    Essentially it's the rules of Texas Hold 'Em but using Scrabble tiles instead of cards. The aim of the game is to make the highest scoring word using your two letter tiles plus five community letters.

    To play, you'll need a set of poker chips and a set of Scrabble tiles. Depending on your house rules, you may allow players to look up words in a dictionary before they play, or afterwards.

    Structure

    The structure of the game follows Texas Hold 'Em exactly.

     

    1. Blinds

    The player to the left of dealer puts in the small blind, and the next player to the left puts in the big blind.

     

    2. Hole tiles

    Each player is dealt two letter tiles face down, moving clockwise from the player to the left of the dealer.

    Good hole tiles are high value letters. Kat was dealt QI in a match a while ago, which netted her a big pot.

     

    3. Pre-flop

    The hand begins with a "pre-flop" betting round, beginning with the player to the left of the big blind and continuing clockwise. Betting continues until every player has folded, put in all of their chips, or matched the amount put in by the other active players.

     

    4. The Flop

    The dealer deals three face-up community letter tiles. The flop is followed by a second betting round. This and all subsequent betting rounds begin with the player to the dealer's left and continue clockwise.

     

    5. The Turn

    After the flop betting round ends, a single community letter tile is dealt, followed by a third betting round.

     

    6. The River

    A final single community letter tile is then dealt, followed by a fourth betting round.

     

    7. The Showdown

    On the showdown, each player plays the highest value valid Scrabble word they can make from the seven tiles comprising his two hole letter tiles and the five community letter tiles.

    A player can use both of their two letter tiles, one, or none at all, to form their word. Players who use all seven tiles to make a word get a 50 point bonus.

    The player with the highest value word wins the chips and play continues with the dealer moving round one position clockwise.

    Kat is annoyingly good at this game.

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    Making salt from seawater

    Friday 4th September 2015

    When I told a friend I was going to make salt, her reaction was 'why bother?'. True, it's pretty cheap but I was curious to see the point where it turns from being water to being salt. We had some friends staying and their kids were really interested to see the process, so maybe your kids would like to see it too.

     

    Collecting

    I wanted to get some nice clean sea water, so we went out for a sail in St Austell Bay and collected 5 litres of water from a spot about quarter of a mile offshore.

     

    Filtering

    When we got back, I left it to sit overnight so any big particles settled to the bottom, and then filtered it through a bunch of coffee filters. There were a few specks in the filters, but generally it was pretty clean.

     

    Boiling

    Okay, so this isn't the most environmentally friendly way I could have done it, but waiting for it to evaporate in the UK would have taken weeks. As the water level went down it became more and more cloudy.If you're doing this at home, don't use steel pans! It went a bit rusty.

    Eventually it became a white crystalline sludge, at which point we ran it through another coffee filter but this time we kept the solid material.

     

    Drying

    We spread the sludge onto a piece of baking paper and dried it in the oven at about 85°C for a couple of hours, until it was completely dry.

     

    Flaking

    Once it was dry, the salt had caked into large lumps, so we pushed it through a sieve. Ta da!

     

    In total we got 134g of salt from 5 litres of water. Average sea salinity is 3.5% so the maximum yield was 175g. There was a lot crusted onto the pan, and some of the salt will have evaporated with the water, so this is about right.

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    Copper refining

    Friday 21st August 2015

    I've just had my first go at copper refining from some old scrap copper pipe, and it's really really hot.

    I've been playing with aluminium up to now which melts at a balmy 660 °C, easily achievable with my furnace. Copper melts at 1084 °C which makes it glow bright yellow!

    Here's a quick video of my first attempt at copper.

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    Coconutella

    Friday 14th August 2015

    I'm a massive Nutella fan, so when a friend posted a link explaining how to make it, I ran right out to buy some hazelnuts. I wanted to avoid using palm oil, and thought it would be extra awesome with coconut oil instead. I made a batch with normal oil, a batch with coconut oil and a batch with dark chocolate just to see what would happen.

    Here's a quick video showing what I did:

    Ingredients

    Update: I've since discovered a much simpler version if you're in a hurry - see the end of the post for details.

    • 170g hazelnuts
    • 340g chocolate - milk or plain depending on what you like
    • 45ml coconut oil (or vegetable oil if you prefer)
    • 3 tbsp icing sugar
    • 1 tbsp cocoa powder
    • ½ tsp vanilla essence
    • ½ tsp salt

    Method

    Heat your oven to 160°C (non-fan oven 180°C) and bake the hazelnuts for 10-12 minutes until they brown slightly.

    Microwave the chocolate until it's just liquid and then stir to make it smooth.

    When the hazelnuts are done, rub the skins off with a tea towel, leave them to cool down and then puree in a blender for about 5-10 minutes until they become smooth and buttery. If they're very fresh nuts, you may want to roast them for a bit longer, otherwise the water in them is going to react with the chocolate to form a solid mess.

    Add all the remaining ingredients and continue to blend for another few minutes, until the mixture is smooth.

    Strain through a sieve to remove the larger chunks (there will be some small pieces left in the mixture) and then scoff it all straight out of the bowl immediately.

     
     

    Update

    Since I wrote this post I've refined the ingredient and made it much simpler, here's an updated recipe:

    • 170g smooth hazel butter (like Biona)
    • 340g chocolate - milk or plain depending on what you like
    • 3tbsp coconut oil

    Melt the chocolate in a microwave and then mix all the ingredients together. Done!

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    Making soap

    Friday 5th June 2015

    I've wanted to try this ever since I saw Fight Club! I've seen several methods for making soap, but I'm always attracted to using dangerous chemicals, so lye seemed the obvious way to go.

    Lye, sodium hydroxide, is an incredibly caustic chemical with a bad boy reputation for removing fingerprints and dissolving corpses. During the second world war, Leonarda Cianciulli liquidised three victims in Italy using the stuff, and Santiago Meza López, "The Stewmaker", claims to have disposed of 300 bodies with it. 

    I decided to make a floral lavender soap and a macho coffee soap inspired by The Art of Manliness. They say that coffee soap is very good for cleaning harsh smells from your hands.

    I used The Sage to get the right quantities of oil, water and lye, and off I went!

    Ingredients

    Lavender soap

    • 1 litre (916g) of olive oil
    • 286ml cold water
    • 115g lye crystals
    • 20g ground lavender
    • 20g lavender flowers
    • 10ml lavender essential oil
    • Food colouring (optional)

    Coffee soap

    • 1 litre (916g) of olive oil
    • 136ml cold water
    • 115g lye crystals
    • 3 double espressos (totalling 150ml)
    • 1/2 cup of coffee grounds

     

    You'll also need:

    • Eye protection, a face mask and gloves - I can't overstate how dangerous lye is
    • 1 litre of vinegar - in case you spill lye on yourself you'll need to neutralise it really quickly
    • Thermometer
    • Bowls and stirring tools that aren't aluminium or wood - lye will eat through these
    • A stick blender - it reduces the stirring time from an hour to 5-10 minutes
    • Moulds to pour the soap into - I used four old takeaway containers with lids
    • Towels to wrap the moulds

    The pictures are all from the lavender soap, but it's the same process for making the coffee version. 

    Method

    First you'll need to make the lye solution. Put on all your protective gear. Mixing lye with water is extremely exothermic, and so it's really important to add the lye crystals to the water and not the other way around! If you're making the coffee version, wait for the espressos too cool, then mix with the water. Make sure you've got 286ml of liquid in total.

    Do this outside as the fumes are really nasty, and add the crystals bit by bit, stirring continually. By the time I'd added all the lye, the water had jumped from 10°C to 95°C. You really don't want it to boil.

    Now you need that to cool down to 50°C maximum, so leave it outside and heat the oil to about 50°C as well. Once the lye has cooled, pour it gently into the oil and gently mix together. Add the ground lavender and the lavender oil, plus the colour if you're using it, then blend with the stick blender for 5-10 minutes until it's the consistency of thick custard.

    Pour some of the lavender flowers into the bottom of the moulds, then add the gloopy soap, seal the moulds and wrap in towels to keep the heat in. Leave for 24 hours for the soap to set.

    The next day, pop the soap out of the moulds, cut them up and leave to cure for 6-8 weeks. This allows all the lye to react with all the oil to make soap, called saponification.

    Here's a short video I made of the process:

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    Metal casting furnace

    Friday 15th May 2015

    My aim this year is to cast my own bronze sword, and to do that I need to melt the bronze. I just made a bucket furnace that's good enough to melt copper and tin, the metals in bronze alloy. My furnace is based on the Mini Metal Foundry on Youtube.

    Ingredients

    Here are ingredients to make it.

    • 10 litre metal bucket - the body of the furnace
    • 5 litre plastic bucket - to make a void in the centre of the furnace
    • 15 litre plastic bucket - to make a lid for the furnace
    • Tin can - to  make a void in the centre of the lid, to release pressure
    • Two metal hoops - these will become handles for the lid
    • 1 inch steel pipe - this is the air intake for the furnace
    • 25kg dense castable from Castree Kilns
    • dog - serves no useful purpose

     

    Making the lid

    First of all I made the lid, with 10kg of the dense castable and 1.3 litres of water, mixed thoroughly.

    I set the tin can in the centre of the mix and sunk the handles into it. Then I let it cure for 48 hours. The dense castable material is strange stuff, it's very dry and at first I didn't think it was going to cure. But 48 hours later it's hard as rock.

     

    Making the body

    I needed to make a hollow body for the furnace, so I used a small bucket filled with water in the centre to make the void.

    I used 15kg of dense castable with 1.95 litres of water, which pretty much filled the bucket. I let this cure for 48 hours as well, and spent several hours cleaning all the gack off the kitchen table, floor and ceiling.

    The mistake I made here was spilling some of the dense castable into the white bucket in the middle. When I poured the water out, there was a 2cm layer of rock hard material in the bottom - turns out it sets underwater just fine! I hacked it into little pieces and pulled it out with no problems.

    Once it had set, I used a hole saw to cut a piece out of the side, and fitted a steel pipe to force air into the furnace. This is hooked up to Kat's hair dryer - shh, don't tell her!

    Here's the finished furnace, the next step is to fire it up!

    Here are some pics of the first time I lit it up, to melt some aluminium as a test. Aluminium melts at a much lower temperature than bronze, so it's easier to work with and cheaper.

    The crucible is made of ceramic bonded clay graphite, it's a Salamander A2 from Castree Kilns. It's rated to 1600°C. The original instructions I followed used an old fire extinguisher, but I've been told that these are quite unreliable and prone to sudden failure.

    Finally here's a quick video of the furnace in action:

    The next step is to make a sword template out of wood and then cast it.

    I've no idea how that works but it's going to be fun finding out!

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    Making a knife

    Friday 20th March 2015

    I don't think I've ever learned so much in one day. A friend and I went on a knife-making course with Dave Budd in Devon, where we started with a steel bar and ended up with a rather fetching blade.

    I couldn't recommend Dave highly enough, he is extremely patient, friendly and knowledgeable. 

    I've never tried metalwork before, the tricky bit seems to be getting the temperature right. Dave gave us tips on what colour the steel should be for different parts of the process: we need a bright orange for this step, or a dull red for that one. Once the metal is the right colour, it's like working clay, the steel bends easily and is great fun to work with.

    Here's a quick rundown, each step has an image below it.

    Edit: Dave sent me a bunch of corrections!

    Bashing it into shape

    1. We started with a half inch bar of spring steel

    2. First of all we heated and hammered one end flat until it was about 5mm thick, and then hammered a point onto one end.

    3. When you start flattening the sharp side of the blade, the steel will try to bend away from the sharp side. To counter this, we curved it - the sharp side is going to be the inside of the curve.

    4. We flattened the sharp side, the blade has straightened itself out during this process.

    Refining the blade

    1. We hammered the other end of the bar into a point to make the tang (the bit that goes inside the handle)

    2. Next we refined the blade to about 1mm on the sharp side, and then gently straightened it out. The blade is covered in a layer of scale (iron oxide, rust) which I've accidentally hammered into the surface of the blade, but hey - it's hand made.
    3. Then we ground the blade down to the shape we wanted. This is the point where it suddenly turned from a lump of metal into a knife.

    4. Then it was time to harden the metal. This is done in three stages: Normalising (letting it cool from a red glow) to soften the metal, refine the grain size and de-stress the steel; Hardening (quenching the metal in oil from a red glow) to harden it, but leaves the steel brittle; and finally Tempering (in an oven) to reduce the hardness and brittleness.

    Finishing touches

    1. Next we ground the scale off the blade (you can see pits where I hammered the scale in) and sharpened it. It's really, really sharp.

    2. The final step of the course was to fit a handle. We drilled some little pilot holes into a lump of cherry wood, then heated the tang and burned it into the handle. Awesome.

    3. When I got home, I worked the handle into the shape I wanted with sandpaper, starting with a rough 80 grit and working up to superfine 1000.

    4. Finally I bought some leather from eBay (I love eBay) and made a sheath for it. Awesome!

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    Making Charcoal

    Friday 6th March 2015

    One of my most ambitious projects is to make a bronze sword, which involves learning a whole bunch of new skills. My original plan was to get tin and copper ores, and smelt them to refine the metals, but after a visit to Geevor tin mine I realised that I'll need at least a tonne of rock, so I'm going to buy tin and copper metal and start from there.

    So my first task is to make charcoal to make the bronze.

    What's charcoal?

    I didn't really understand what charcoal was until I started researching this project. Essentially it's wood that's been heated in the absence of air, to remove all the water, oils and other volatile chemicals, and leaves pretty much just carbon. The absence of air is the really important thing here, because otherwise it just burns.

    Because all the water and stuff has been removed, it burns massively hotter than wood, hot enough to melt tin and copper and make bronze. I only need a small amount to make a sword, so I found a method that you can do in an afternoon, and Rob and I got stuck in.

    Here's what we did, and you've got to guess what we did wrong.

    A simple kiln

    First we acquired a 200 litre drum and a 60 litre drum and cut the tops off with a jigsaw (below, left), which is a legitimate use for that tool. We cut small flaps into the bigger drum to allow air to get in.

    Both drums had previously contained engine oil that we didn't want in the final charcoal, so we lit fires in them both.

    While they were cooling down, Rob sawed up some dry logs (below, middle) and we packed them into the smaller drum so tightly that we could turn it upside down without them falling out (below, right). This is important.

    So far so good.

    Cooking the wood

    Next we turned the small drum upside down and placed it in the middle of the big drum. Then we packed sawn up pallets all around the edge of the big drum (below, left) and set light to it. We kept feeding the fire and let it burn for two hours (below, middle).

    This heats the wood in the smaller barrel in the absence of air, which turns it from wood into charcoal. After two hours we let the fire die out, and let the barrels cool down until we could touch them (below, right).

    Then we tipped the large barrel onto its side and carefully pulled out the small barrel, which was now full of charcoal!

    The charcoal was still really hot, so we put a lid over the barrel and left it for a few hours to cool down.

    Cocking it up

    Spotted the mistake yet?

    When we came back to check on it three hours later, the charcoal was on fire!

    Because we were so excited we removed the small barrel too early and a stray ember from the fire must have landed amongst the charcoal, which was nice and hot and suddenly had access to lots of oxygen.

    Oops. But it was obviously good charcoal because it was blisteringly hot.

    So we've all learned an important lesson today here folks: you can't hurry love. We'll be making another batch soon, and we'll be much more careful this time. And we salvaged one bag of usable charcoal before it all burned.

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    What's a jigsaw for?

    Friday 30th January 2015

    My new motto is 'power tools allow you to make bigger mistakes faster' after I nearly destroyed our brand new front door with the very first cut.

    I find woodwork extremely therapeutic and rewarding. If you've never tried it, I'd recommend signing up for an evening course at your local college to learn the basics.

    Wood is satisfying and easy to cut, and forgiving of small mistakes. It's great to use a piece of furniture that you've made yourself; I've made benches, tables and boxes over the years and each one has a special place in my heart.

    Our old front door (left) was falling apart, six years of Cornish rain and wind wrecked it, especially since we didn't treat it properly when we fitted it.

    So we bought a new bare timber door and I set up the saw horses in the lounge to trim it to size. My favourite part is cutting the holes for the lock with a chisel (I love chisels), and my least favourite is the letterbox  because it's a pain to cut out such a big hole.

    The siren cry of the jigsaw was what nearly wrecked the door: "Use me, use me! I can make a nice quick, clean cut for you." But it lies.

    In my hands jigsaws are no good for cutting any depth, because the flexible blades wander all over the place - I trimmed 2cm off the top of the door, which looked fine on the top side, but on the underneath it wandered between 2cm and 4cm!

    I nearly cried.

    Luckily we had some room at the bottom of the door, so when you come around don't mention that it looks a bit thin at the top. Everything else went smoothly once I'd abandoned the power tools, and it fits perfectly.

    Now my jigsaw has a warning on it.

    Do you have any power tool horror stories? Share them below...

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    Custom Monopoly Board

    Friday 9th January 2015

    When I was 18 I made a custom Monopoly set for my best friend, Jon, called Jonopoly. I butchered an existing Monopoly set from a car boot sale, and printed out new properties out on a cheap black and white dot matrix printer and stuck them onto the board.

    I spent hours painstakingly making the game, and I was thrilled when he recently posted some photos of the board, along with a message that I forgot that I'd written on the inside of the lid:

    "There's a piece of my soul in this game, so even after I die, I'll still be alive. Please don't throw it away, even if you've forgotten all about me or hate my guts. If we can't keep the good memories what's the point of living? If it's past the 21st October 2014 and you haven't seen me for a while (even if it is because I ran off with your wife) find out where I am and call me - if you read this out I'll forgive anything you've done. See you in the future whatever may be happening. Love from Mat x"

    Needless to say we are still in touch, and I haven't run off with his wife (yet).

    As is the way of life, these things come full circle.

    Some friends gave me a game called Make Your Own Opoly. Remembering Jonopoly, I was excited by the idea of making a version for the sleepy Cornish town where we now live.

    However after reading the instructions I was utterly horrified at how much they'd massacred the game. A quick look at TDC Games' website will show you the kind of thing I'm talking about. So I decided I could do it better.

    First of all, I bought a 2002 edition Monopoly set from eBay (I love eBay) and discovered that someone had created a Monopoly board template using Adobe Illustrator. I downloaded that, updated the board to the stardard UK format, changed the property names and got the board printed as a 20" square poster by Asda Photo of all places, which cost about £10.

    Actually it cost me £20 because I messed up the first one after gluing it to the board. Then I re-created the property cards, community chest and chance cards in Illustrator, and printed them at home.

    Finally I designed a new box and had it printed by Asda Photo again (co-incidentally the box template is also 20" wide), cut it out and glued it to the existing box.

    Ta da!

    Let me know if you'd like me to email you the files you'll need to make your own custom Monopoly board. You'll need Adobe Illustrator to edit them. My guess is that you'll need 5-10 hours spread over a week or so in order to make your own.

    What board game would you customise?

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    What's this about?

    Hi I'm Mat and I'm addicted to new hobbies. I used to think this was a bad thing but now I'm embracing it.

    Writing them all up in this blog encourages me to finish projects, and helps me keep track of which ones I've tried.

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    Casino trip

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