Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Gardens!

Pick a peck of peppers...

I miss my garden.  By the end of January every year, I would pay significant amounts of money for an afternoon spent with dirt between my toes, a hoe in my hand, and sun on my shoulders.  Luckily, if I can't have that, I can at least have the beginnings.  It is time to start seedlings!

Growing an edible plant is one of the best hedges against economic misfortune one can undertake, at least in terms of percentage return on investment.  The other day, I saw a 3 oz. jar of basil pesto in the grocery for $3.39, or $1.13 an ounce.  Last year, I grew 2 basil plants that yeilded enough basil for me to put up 14 8-oz. jars of pesto, or 112 total ounces of pesto, not counting the basil I ate on sandwiches, in salads, and in fish marinades.  I did contribute some olive oil to the pesto (I freeze just the basil and oil, adding salt and cheese when I prep my meal), but I got over 37 times as much pesto out of plants whose seeds cost about the same amount as that one expensive jar of store pesto.  Try making your mutual funds give you that kind of return.

I'm a serious gardener, but anyone (even if you have no land) can grow at least one edible plant this year.  If you really want to see a significant ROI from a plant you can enjoy for months, I recommend you grow peppers.

I call peppers my "big babies."  I start them on Groundhog Day (because I have a greenhouse and can put them outside earlier; if you don't, aim for Valentine's Day for seed-starting), and I keep them under grow lights in the house for months, slowly moving them to bigger and bigger pots until I finally move them into the big outdoor containers in which they will give me pounds of peppers for a small initial investment.  As this year goes on, we'll follow that process in these posts, but trust me, it is inexpensive and easy.

For right now, if you want to join me (and you are in growing zone 5/6 or north), go ahead and pick your peppers.  I like to grow mild chiles, because they have more flavor than green bell peppers and are fairly expensive to purchase, even from farmer's markets.  This year I picked these varieties from Burpee:

Salsa Delight, $3.95 for a seed pack:  My favorite pepper, these go straight into salsa, chili sauce, and fish and pasta dishes.  They bear well and freeze beautifully, as do all peppers.

Big Daddy, $4.75:  I tend to grow lots of experiments, and this is one for 2010.  Supposedly a big, sweet Marconi pepper, I'm hoping for peppers that are good for stuffing and grilling.

Bananarama, $4.95:  Banana peppers are fabulous frozen, which makes them so easy to throw on veggie pizzas over the winter with sun dried tomatoes and cheese.

Hot Zavory, $4.95:  One of Burpee's experiments for the year, this is supposedly a mild habanero.  We'll see.  Given that I can get peppers to produce every molecule of the spicy compound capsaicin that their DNA allows, I give even odds that by August these will be too hot to touch.  If not, they could be a lot of fun.

Paprika, free:  I saved paprika seeds last year, which is the only way I will grow paprika from now on.  I found the process of drying and grinding the peppers to be too laborious, but I'm willing to eat them fresh.

There you go.  We'll follow the process as time goes on, but for $18.60, we should be able to mess with peppers from the first of February to the first of November if not longer.  Just over $2 a month for a lot of pleasure.

The Analysis

Fast:  No.  Remember, I'm starting these things in February in hopes of eating some peppers on the Fourth of July.  Then again, it isn't like I actively have to do much with them, just give them time to grow.

Cheap:  Investment up front.  $18.60 is actually pretty expensive for seeds, but I wanted these particular varieties.  I'll still get my money back and more from the harvest, and the seeds are certainly cheaper than the antidepressants I would be taking otherwise to get through the winter without something green and growing.  (You can do better price-wise on pepper seeds at your local hardware store, as long as you are flexible about variety.)

Good:  Oh, just wait until that first batch of salsa this summer!
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Monday, January 25, 2010

Projects from the Remnant Rack: Ersatz Cotton Balls

No, they aren't disposable.

Hi, my name is Jennifer, and I have a fleece addiction.

Let me back up a bit.  In previous posts, I talked about finding sustainable replacements for the kind of disposable items that are so annoying to pay for.  For me, one of these is cotton balls.

I know, I know.  They aren't that expensive.  But cotton balls are one of those inherently disposable items that slowly leach money from your wallet while they add to the landfill.  So, since I use cotton balls primarily as makeup removers, enter the ersatz cotton ball.

This requires another slight digression:  I love the remnant fabric bin at my local fabric store, and winter is the time that this bin is filled with fleece.  After everyone spent Christmas making homemade Snuggies, that bin is full of mis-cuts, unwanted yardage, and the ends of bolts.  So, if you aren't ultra-picky about the patterns you buy (and make no mistake, there are some cute ones and some wonderful solids in there), you can usually pick up fleece remnants ranging up to a yard and a half in length, all for 50 to 70 percent off.

I have been raiding the remnant bin for months to find pieces with which to make fleece socks, so I happened to have some white fleece ends left over, but any color would do.  Simply cut your fleece remnant into 2"x2" squares, and there you have it -- make up remover pads, otherwise known as ersatz cotton balls.  Fleece doesn't fray, so you don't have to worry about hemming, which makes this a fine no-sew project.

Yep, it's that easy!

I hang a mesh laundry bag on the back of the bathroom door, and when I have a reasonable bag full of dirties, I toss them in the white load.  I don't up the amount of detergent I use, and the weight of these is so negligible that I don't think my machine is adding more than a few cents extra water.  In the summer, I'll be hanging that mesh bag out on the clothes line to dry, so they will dry for free.  Best of all, I can use these again and again.

The Analysis

Fast:  I think it took me 10 minutes to make a jar full of ersatz cotton balls, enough to last me a while.  On a busy grocery day, it could take me that long to slog my way down the make-up aisle to get cotton balls.

Cheap:  I raided my own fleece stash and used pieces too small for anything else, but assuming you buy light-colored fleece for this project, you should be able to make all you need for about a quarter of a yard.  If you get your yardage from the remnant bin, you should not be spending more than 50 to 75 cents.

The closest analog to these is disposable make-up remover pads, which Rite-Aid has for $1.69 for 80; jumbo cotton balls should come in for about the same price for 100.  Assuming four to five purchases of each over the course of a year, you will spend $8.45 on your makeup remover pads if you buy the disposable, compared to about 75 cents for the reusable kind.  That leave $7.70 of pure savings, plus the warm fuzzy of knowing you didn't contribute these bits to the landfill.

Good:  I would say these are just as soft or softer than cotton balls, and they remove makeup just as well.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Product Showcase: Pepsi Throwback

Welcome back to the 1970s

I have been reticient so far in this column to plug any specific product, but a few product selections out there really have improved my "fast, cheap, and good quotient."  One that is right on the border, though, is Pepsi Throwback.

In about the mid-1970s, soft drink manufactureres began using high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to flavor their drinks.  It was purely an economic choice; HFCS is produced domestically from mass-grown corn (often, from corn that has been genetically modified in some way, but that is another kettle of worms), while natural sugar is often an import from areas tropical enough to grow sugar cane, hence subject to tarriffs.  HFCS also tends to extend the shelf life of some products, an additional economic boon for food manufacturers.

HFCS is a combination of fructose and glucose in certain proportions to each other; the most common is HFCS 55, which is 55% fructose.  And it has set off a firestorm of controversy.

The corn growers' industry has gone as far as to take out advertising promoting the acceptability of HFCS, and you know what?  They are right about some things.  It originates in corn, so it is "natural."  It is calorically equivalent to many other sweeteners, so by virtue of calories alone, it shouldn't change your weight.  And yes, like everything, a little bit probably won't kill you.

On the other hand, HFCS is a sweetener that is blended by man, and as such we cannot assume that our bodies can naturally handle it.  Sweetness typically is a sign to our bodies that a food is safe; the fructose in a blueberry tells us it is ripe, full of vitamins and antioxidants, and ready to eat.  There is a reason that we love maple sugar but don't eat maple leaves.  The further we get from foods we could have eaten 10,000 years ago, the more we are playing guessing games with our own bodies.

In the case of HFCS, who knows how our bodies handle it?  I know I have experimented, and if I hold my diet constant and substitute only one HFCS soda for an equivalent natural sugar soda, I gain noticeable fat in places I don't expect to find it, like my back.  If I switch back to the natural sugar soda (same caffeine, same calories, same caramel coloring), it goes away.  That's just me; we have no longitudinal studies.

Or do we?  Since the 1970s, we have been conducting an experiment on our population, changing the diet to include HFCS, saturated fat, and fast food, and the lifestyle to include more time in front of the TV and computer and less outside getting exercise and Vitamin D.  Our obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates are through the roof.  It is a jumbled mess, but addresssing some of these areas has to help.

This brings me to Pepsi Throwback.  It is made with natural sugar, just as it was in the 1970s, avoiding the HFCS.  I find that the mouthfeel is less cloying, and it is less likely to leave that overly-sweet residue in your mouth.  I like the taste better. 

It is offered in three varieties:  Pepsi Throwback, Mountain Dew Throwback, and Heritage Dr. Pepper.  As an History of Advertising instructor, I appreciate the vintage designs, especially the "10, 2, and 4" campaign on Dr. Pepper.

And it is only available through the end of February.  If your budget includes an occasional soda pop purchase, and you want to send a message to the big conglomerates that consumers want options about what they put in their bodies other than "HFCS or abstinence," you may want to pick up a pack. 

The Analysis:

Fast:  Yes, it is just as fast to pick up a 12-pack of Throwback as it is the standard Pepsi sitting beside it.

Cheap:  No.  Last night, I paid $4.58 for a 12-pack, which is 38 cents a can.  If you can hold out for a "3 for $11" special, it brings it down to under 31 cents a can.  Don't start buying this product if you are needing to make big cuts in your budget, and don't pass up more nutritious foods so you can "vote" for Throwback.  This only works if you substitute Throwback for a normal soda pop purchase, and then make it an occasional treat and not your beverage of choice.

Good:  A qualified "yes."  A can of carbonated sugar may never be the best thing you can do for yourself or for sustainability.  But sometimes "better than usual" is a step in the right direction.
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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Let it Snow: Snow-washing Your Rugs

Clean rugs, no chemicals, good upper body workout -- what's not to love?

As I hope it is becomming clear in these posts, I am no fan of winter.  I am so eager to go south that I grow a dwarf key lime tree, letting it live outside during the warm months and bringing it in to a south-facing window in winter, where we both look longingly out, searching for sun.

However, there is one thing that you can do in winter that meets our trifecta of fast, cheap, and good.  (Well, two things, but the other one really shouldn't be all that fast....)  You can snow-wash your wool (and other fiber) rugs.

Cleaning wool throw rugs is problematic, because you can't always vacuum them completely clean, and they don't wash well.  So, you are often forced to use a spray or sprinkle carpet cleaner, which just introduces unnecessary chemicals into your house.

A better solution is snow-washing, the traditional technique for cleaning rugs from before the era of vacuum cleaners.  Nothing could be easier:

  1. Wait for a snowfall.  A fairly cold snow is best; a good packing snow has a tendency to pack itself right onto the rug, making it a little too wet.

  2. Take your wool rugs outside and turn upside down in clean snow.

  3. Beat out your frustrations on the backs of those rugs.  I have a rug beater because I actually clean rugs with it, but you can get the same result using a clean broom.

  4. Pick your rugs up.  If you have really waited a while between cleanings, you will be rewarded with a spot of dirt in the snow where the rug once was.  The snow flakes and granules have worked their way into the rug and scrubbed gently on their way out, removing the dirt.

  5. Shake off the excess snow and lay the rug flat in the house in a place it can dry.  A basement or foyer with a hard surface floor is perfect, as you don't want any residual snow melting onto other carpets.

  6. Return to its place when dry.

The Analysis:

Fast:  Yes.  I feel this strategy is actually faster than spraying on a chemical and dragging out the vacuum to sweep.

Cheap:  Yes, this one is my favorite kind of cheap:  free.  You just wait for Mother Nature to provide a snowfall.

Good:  I think so.  The rugs get clean without introducing chemicals into your home at a time when your home is likely closed up and less ventilated anyway.  You even burn a few calories and work out some frustrations in the process of beating.
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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Crocheted Bath Puff

As I suggested last post, one of the best ways to make changes toward a sustainable lifestyle is by reducing the things on which you hate to spend resources (time, money, natural resources) and substituting something that works better.  I find it a challenge to eliminate expenditures on disposable items and replace them with more durable alternatives.

Take the simple bath puff.  A nice, moisturizing body wash is a luxury I enjoy, but I find that I use less of the product if I put it on a bath puff rather than a wash cloth.  However, commercial bath puffs are scratchy and fall apart fairly easily.

Enter the crocheted bath puff.  I found this idea on WikiHow, a fabulous resource for finding instructions on how to do a wide range of things.  Since I have been experimenting with crocheting flat circular shapes (that is, doilies), this is a fabulous way to "do it wrong" on purpose and wind up with a bath puff.  If you are familiar with circular crochet, you will understand that putting two stitches into every stitch will create a very curly shape very quickly.  If you have wanted to learn to crochet, this is actually a very easy project with which to start.

I like this project because it is so easy to hold the growing puff in your hand, making it a great choice to work on in places you might not otherwise crochet, such as an airplane, a commuter train, or even on the beach.  I suggest you use a light solid or ombre color of cotton yarn as shown in the instructions; light colors look better as they lighten.  Cotton yarn wears like iron, even as it lightens with each successive wash, so you will have these for years.  And unlike commercial bath puffs, you can pop one in the wash each week and be sure you have a fresh, clean puff.

The Analysis:

Fast:  I crocheted one of these in three hours while I watched mindless TV; this is pretty fast for a crochet project.  No, it is not as fast as picking a disposable one up at the store.

Cheap:  I caught a sale on 2oz. balls of Lily Sugar and Cream yarn for $1.29 each.  This compares favorably with the $1.17 I paid for my last disposable puff.  I tend to buy about four disposable puffs a year if I use that variety, for a total yearly expenditure of $4.68.  I made two crocheted puffs so I could alternate in the weekly laundry, for a total of $2.58.  If you figure it out on a cost per month, the crocheted puffs will have paid for themselves in just under seven months; everything after that is pure profit.  No, 39 cents a month won't let me retire in the Florida Keys, but it is a start. 

Good:  Softer on my skin, better for the environment:  I like these little guys.  I even think they look a bit like pieces of coral, so they remind me to put that 39 cents in my Key West fund each month.
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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Philosophy 101: On Not Paying for the Boring Stuff

In my last post, I made a bit of snarky fun of the financial-writer convention of using giving up a daily latte as a way to balance the budget.  As I suggested, I have been guilty of doing this myself; as I also suggested, coffee lovers will not want to be separated from their gourmet beverage of choice.

This is an example of one of my personal touchstones of sustainability:  if you perceive a cut as a sacrifice, you will be less likely to follow through with it.  Making a lifestyle change to sustainability is just like a diet; if you promise to give up your favorite cookies at New Year's, you will be off the wagon by February.  But if you cut something from your diet you don't like anyway and perhaps substitute something healthy you love, it will become second nature.

Sustainability is the same way.  If you are adopting this lifestyle to balance or cut back a budget, you will be tempted to start with the things you view as an extravagance, and cut there.  Indeed, if you are facing five- or six-digit credit card debt, the loss of one or more household incomes, or bankruptcy and foreclosure, you probably will have to adopt a more monastic approach for a while.

However, if you are just looking to live a better life using fewer resources, I suggest you start by looking at the bill you hate most to pay, and make your initial changes there.

For me, it is the electric bill.  Yes, I'm a big fan of summer air conditioning and running my various necessary appliances, but I absolutely hate the day the electric bill arrives.  Somehow, it is boring, and I never really feel like I'm paying for something tangible, even if I am.  So my first moves toward sustainable living addressed the electric bill.  Easy changes I made included:

  • Closing the window coverings on south-facing windows in the summer to keep out the heat from the sun.

  • Hanging most laundry outside to dry, as soon as the air temperature was over 60.  (I'm a wimp, but this year I aim to be out there in slightly cooler weather.)

  • Making sure to bake more than one thing when I use the oven.  If I do a roast, I will certainly bake bread and maybe a batch of cookies while it cooks.

  • Only running a full dishwasher.

None of these were hard changes to make, and each one gave me a small feeling of control over that bill that I hated so much.  And with the exception of hanging out the laundry (which did require purchase of a clothes line), every one of them was free and took very little time to execute.  I just needed to think a little harder about the timing of some events.

As we move into our journey of sustainability, ask yourselves what you hate the most to waste:  money, time, resources?  Then ask yourself what aspect of your life bores or irritates you, and take your first sustainability steps there.  How can you decrease a bill, produce less waste, or use less of a resource you value?  Make it a challenge to yourself, almost like a game, and you will soon have a lifestyle.

What are you going to change this year?
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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Poor Man's Latte

Some days, I feel kind of sorry for Starbucks.  After all, they built a business by selling an experience:  for a few minutes every morning, you could go somewhere and have things just as you like them.  If you want a triple shot of espresso, extra raspberry syrup, but no whipped cream, you just told the barista, preferrably speaking that special little code that put the ingredients in just the right order.  Part quirky hangout, part predictable chain, part special club, Starbucks was never really about the coffee.

But the recession hit, and soon frugality and finance writers made a great deal of hay out of what you could save by giving up that daily latte.  I think I've been guilty of that one at least once myself.  (If you are curious, giving up a $3.50 latte every work day for a year, minus two weeks' vacation, will save you $875.)  I'll bet the PR department at Starbucks groans every time they read a frugality article, because they know they will be the first suggestion for a cut.

Working at home is a great deterrent to getting a daily coffee at a coffee house, but one thing will send me cruising back, at least temporarily, into the arms of Seattle's best-known export:  the annual arrival of Pumpkin Spice Latte, and its cousin, Gingerbread Latte.  Good heavens, these things are like drinking cookies!

In an effort to provide the same experience for less cost, I experimented, and I have come up with my "Poor Man's Latte."  Coffee snobs will turn up their noses, but this recipe seems to provide just the right hint of extravagance without the high price.  You will need:

1 large mug coffee
1 scant spoonful instant pudding mix (I use Jello's seasonal Pumpkin Spice flavor)
1 scant spoonful honey (I buy raw honey from a local provider; see caution below.)

That's it!  The pudding is currently on sale here for $0.39 a box, and I get about 8 servings out of it, so that's 4.9 cents per cup.  The honey I buy in bulk, $15.95 for 80 oz, and I'll probably use about a third of an ounce, so that is 6.6 cents a cup.  You will adjust for your tastes, so you may use more or less of each, but let's call my coffee flavorings cost 11.5 cents per mug.  Of course, yours will be a bit higher if you like a splash of milk, but try this first; the pudding mix gives a bit of that latte mouthfeel to the coffee, so you may need less milk than you usually use.  We should be able to satisfy our latte cravings for about 50 cents a mug, counting our coffee and water costs.

Starbucks will be thrilled that I point out the overall savings of $750 per year over their tall latte.

Raw honey has not been pasturized, so you should not feed it to anyone you think is immuno-compromised.  And, of course, never give honey to an infant under the age of one, because their immune systems are not mature enough to handle the risk of injesting trace amounts of botulism spores.  Older than that, and we build up our immunity to these spores and can handle them just fine if our immune systems are healthy.

The Assessment:

Fast:  Yep.  Yes, it takes an extra moment to add in the flavorings to your coffee, but it sure takes less time than standing in line in a coffee house.

Cheap:  Yep.  As shown above, the flavoring mix is only pennies per cup.

Good:  Your call.  I have a sweet tooth, and I'm not much of a coffee snob, so I'm not going to get worked up about masking the refined flavors of the beans or some such.  If brewing fine coffee is one of your passions, you won't be making your budget cuts in this area.  Then again, if that is the case, you are probably already grinding beans and brewing at home anyway, and you never set foot in a chain coffee house.
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Friday, January 1, 2010

Rescuing the Bread Machine, 1.0: Four Ingredient French Bread

Happy New Year! Let's get 2010 started off right, with a quickie project that can net big financial returns (on a percentage basis, anyway).  Let's make Four Ingredient French Bread.

I can hear the groans.  If you aren't making your own bread already, you are no doubt deterred by the whole knead-and-rise cycle, and I don't blame you.  I absolutely hate the process of turning the dough out onto the counter to knead it at least twice per loaf, and I really hate cleaning the flour up off the counter or cutting board or whatever I decided to use.  Somehow, this bit of the process always makes me feel that I'm tied to my kitchen for the entire day.  ("Nope, sorry, you'll have to go to the movies without me; it is baking day!")

Enter the bread machine.  Remember that Christmas, probably about 20 years ago at this point, that everyone got their bread machines?  I know your family had one:  the year that every present under the tree seemed to be the same large, heavy cube, and everyone took turns exclaiming in glee over their new toy that would ensure fresh baked bread every day.

Wrong.  The thing is, most of those bread machine recipes turned out to be very complex (I remember buying a huge box of powdered milk, because my machine required something like a tablespoon of the stuff per loaf of white bread.  Good thing that stuff is shelf stable.), and if you did manange to hang in, you got one of those oddly crispy-all-around square loaves with the little divot in the bottom where the mixing paddle sat.  No thanks.

But now, I want you to go into the attic or the basement, and retrieve that bread machine.  If you sold yours, I'm sure your mom, your brother, or your Aunt Gertrude isn't as organized as you, so borrow theirs.  And then, find the "dough" cycle.

Dust off that bread machine!

Most of these machines have an option in which you can use them to just mix and knead the dough and let it rise.  If yours doesn't, you can still complete this recipe; just use the "white" or "light" bread cycle, and take the dough out before the baking cycle begins.  You will need:

3 cups white flour
1 cup water (plus or minus a tablespoon or two, depending on the humidity in your house)
1 T. bread machine (fast acting) yeast
1 t. salt

That's it.  Now throw all that in the machine's hopper, set it for "dough," and walk away.

Here are the dry ingredients in place.

My dough cycle runs for an hour and 30 minutes.  Sometime at about the halfway point, once I know the ingredients have been through the mix cycle and at least one rise, I take the dough out and put it in a greased bread pan or on a cookie sheet if I want more of a long, thin loaf.  Then I let the dough rise for the final time.

Sometime, I'm working and I completely forget about the bread, so it makes it through both rises in the machine and just sits there.  Big deal (unless you don't have the dough cycle -- then set yourself an egg timer so you don't forget to do something to the dough before it bakes); I just let it rise a third time in the baking vessel of choice.

Sometimes, I like to let my bread rise on the wood burning stove, just to feel extra-folksy.

When the bread has roughly doubled in size, pop it in a 350 degree oven for 35 minutes, take it out, and enjoy.  If it is winter, don't forget to prop that oven door open while it cools off to let the heat escape into the house!

There are a couple of easy variations to this recipe that will increase the health value:
  • Experiment with specialty flours.  Right now, I like a mix of one cup each of white flour, light whole wheat flour, and oat flour.  This increases the whole grain content of the bread.
  • Add one tablespoon of flax seeds to increase the omega-3 fatty acid content.  They make a nice little crunch (kind of like the carraway seeds in rye), and the extra omega-3s help ward off depression, which is no joke around here when the days are so short and the sunlight so precious.
  • If you make your own cheese (Don't panic--we'll get there!), substitute one cup of the remaining whey for the water to increase the protein and use up more of that valuable and often-wasted whey.
The Assessment:

Fast:  Yep.  I timed this one out, and the entire process takes 2:12 with two rises of the bread.  Your involvement is 12 minutes:  I gave you a minute for each of the ingredients, a minute or two to take the bread out of the machine and put it in the baking vessel, and a minute to take it out of the oven.  I even gave you a minute to dust your bread machine.  If you have to venture into the attic or go to Aunt Gertrude's, you are going to have to view that as a sunk cost.

Cheap:  Again, yep.  I got my flour on sale this week for $1.74 for five pounds, which works out to 13.2 cents per cup by weight.  Three cups is therefore 39.6 cents.  Figure on two or three cents for the salt, and a cent or two for your water costs.  I don't have a price handy on the bread machine yeast, but store brand by the jar certainly isn't any more than 30 cents a tablespoon, so we can comfortably say that our loaf cost 75 cents or less.  The cheapest loaf of white bread I could find this week at the store without the dreaded high fructose corn syrup was $2.39, meaning you can bake three loaves for the price of one store-bought.  If you use one of the variations, the loaf will cost somewhat more, but then you would have to compare your product to the price of specialty breads, and you will still come out ahead.

Good:  Have you tasted homemade bread?  Or smelled it baking?  This loaf wins this contest hands down.  You know exactly what you put in it, so you know exactly what is entering your body and exiting your pocketbook.  That's a great way to start the year.
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