November 30, 2009

Felt Trees and the Advent Garland

I think most of the Christmas decorations are officially up as of this afternoon. That's not to say that I wont add things as the month goes by, I'm sure I'll think of one or four other things that I NEED to have to make it seem Christmasy around here, but for now I'm set.

Two of the projects I tackled this weekend were of the decorate for the holidays variety. First, I was able to finish the felt trees I started last week. I won't give you a tutorial here because they are basically just pieces of felt cut in a triangle, sewn up the long side, stuffed and sewn up the bottom. Nothing earth shattering. I'd had these on the brain for the past month and was a little dismayed to find about ten different varieties of tall skinny felt or other material trees at target yesterday. And here I thought I was being cool.... But they do look festive clustered on the mantle and the bookshelf.

My other project was an advent garland. Now I'll tell you the truth, I have no idea how well this will work. We're having our chimney cleaned Friday in preparation for some Holiday fires and the garland will definitely have to come down when the logs are a-cracklin' But I wanted to make some kind of advent calendar this year that was out of the ordinary and this string of take out boxes (filled with chocolate of course) was what I came up with. The kids will still have the open the door variety because, well, it's just not Christmas without those, but we'll see how the garland works as well. We can always take it down and eat all the candy in one go. For now though, it looks pretty darn cute hanging next to the tree.

Tonight we are hoping to finish our big weekend project so I can show you all tomorrow. Exciting!

November 29, 2009

Projects, the Long Weekend, and Wreath #2

We had big plans for the Thanksgiving Weekend. First we were going to go away for the whole thing. Disappear, off to the beach or the mountains or a town in North Carolina that, although he's never seen it, Will seems to think is the greatest small town ever. But the dates snuck up on us. We need to book a cabin! we kept saying, and then all the cabins were gone.

So on to plan B. A project weekend. We made a list, a schedule, we were going to get GOBS done. And then we ate a huge turkey and fell asleep on the couch. And after that we went to get a tree and that took the entire day. So GOBS, well, not so much.

But we did get a few things done. One big thing that is not quite finished but should be by tomorrow project and several little ones. Cabinet paint was touched up, back yard forts were blocked in so children could hide in it, the tree and the mantle were decorated. Briton helped me to stuff the felt trees I made last week and we put them up around the living room. And I made wreath number two.

I still want to make two more. But like I said before, we'll see if that really happens. This second wreath was much easier, and faster, than the ornament-yarn wreath that is now happily hanging on the front door looking all cheery and Christmas-y. I found these cool Masonite wreath forms at the craft store, I'd never seen flat forms like it before but they were hanging in a totally different section of the store so maybe I've just been missing them. Or maybe I just ' made that many wreaths in my day.

Using one of our pint glasses as a template, I traced circles all over the leftover felt from the trees I made and cut them out over the last few days.

Then last night I hot glued the circles, folded in half, with a hot glue gun onto the wreath, along with a scrap of ribbon. Presto,
wreath done.

I'll have some more pictures up in the next couple of days about our big project and some on a few other Christmas projects I have in the works. Busy, busy...

November 27, 2009

It's beginning to look a lot like....

It's Christmas time!!!!!

November 26, 2009

Hearing Bells

The Bell Ringers are out. It wouldn't be Christmas time without them. As they are arriving earlier and earlier each year means, of course, that the holiday juices get flowing sooner and sooner for me. I don't mind. It just means more time to bake and sew and wrap and deck. My kind of thing anyway.

When I saw my first bell ringer this year we were on the Downtown Mall buying an cookie, a Friday tradition for the kids and I. I pulled out my change and told Briton and Evelyn to go toss it in. And off they went to the street musician, right past the bell ringer. When they got back (after Evelyn had had a little dance to the music) I sent them off with more change, the last I had on me, to the right person this time.

"But why?" Briton asked as we walked to the Library. Oh Briton, that's a story you're going to hear for the rest of your life. In fact, I'm sort of surprised, and saddened, that he didn't remember from years past. He is a boy though, and seven, so I'll cut him some slack and tell it yet again. Because he needs to know. And so do his children. And theirs. It's a family tradition after all.

I was going to tell you all the story too but, after getting my dad to send the column he wrote about it when I was about Briton's age and reading through it again to get my facts straight I realized that I could never tell it as well as he does. So here you go. And if you would, drop a coin in the next bucket you see. Or buy the ringer a cup of coffee, or if, in this economy, even that is beyond your means, give them a smile. Have a Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Mom Never Forgot that Cup of Tea
By Clyde Bentley
Coeur d'Alene Press 1987

The tiny bell rang out for Christmas coins. But for Mom, it also jingled up memories of the best of mankind amid the worst of inhumanity.Few things mark Christmas more for me than the sight of a red pot hung from a tripod and the sound of a little bell rung incessantly by a Salvation Army volunteer.

Some of my earliest memories are of wondering why the lady in the dour uniform insisted on driving everyone on the main street of my hometown crazy with the ringing. Even more amazing was that my mother could not pass that red pot without digging through her enormous purse for the change that migrated to the farthest corner.

Mom didn’t just drop a coin or two in the pot. A big, boisterous Englishwoman, she stopped at every Salvation Army bivouac she ever came across to give the volunteer a little pep talk. More often than not, she broke out in a spontaneous and embarrassingly loud rendition of “Jingle Bells”.I just passed it off as parental insanity and slunk behind the nearest streetlight lest any of my friends happened by.

One Christmas after I had passed into that black hole of cynicism – adolescence – I decided to put an end to all this nonsense.

“If you are going to give them money, Mom,” said the all knowing I, “why don’t you just write a check? Then you can get it over with and have a receipt for your taxes.”

At Christmas time, Mom was more ebullient than Scrooge the morning after. But my suggestion caused a gray pallor of Christmas past to wash over her. She quietly sat down to explain.

My mother grew up in a large family in a working class London neighborhood. Her childhood was full of all those wonderful British street urchin adventures with which Dickens and Masterpiece Theater regale us.Except for the maniacal vision of a certain German fellow with a small, bristly moustache, she would have grown up into one of those plump, sarcastic matrons who populate “Andy Capp”.World War II turned Mom’s picturesque life upside down. The double-decker bus my grandfather drove became an ambulance, my grandmother was issued a helmet and a bucket of sand to patrol for incendiary bombs, and Mom found herself celebrating her 17th birthday wearing an RAF uniform.

During that time of terror, she said, the Salvation Army offered Londoners a tangible link with more peaceable times. When the Blitz made street corners unsafe, the dark-cloaked soldiers of God took their brass bands down into the air raid shelters for concerts accompanied by bomb blasts. She recalled how many families who returned to surface to find their once-neat homes reduced to rubble counted on the Salvation Army for food and shelter.

Later in the war, Mom was transferred to a unit in North Africa. Although they were supposed to staff a secure air base she and her fellow WAAFs spent weeks dodging from desert town to desert town as Rommel kept the Tommies at bay.

The Brits were at a low ebb when they pulled into a particularly desolate Algerian village. The heat, the dust and the strange environs constantly reminded them that Piccadilly Circus was an eternity away.

To Mother’s everlasting surprise, a very un-African sight greeted them as the trucks pulled to a halt. Two Salvation Army members in full uniform had set up a table and greeted each airman and airwoman with a hot cup of tea and those buttery cookies the English insist on calling biscuits.

“It was as if they had brought a bit of home to us,” Mom told me. “It was amazing – two little old ladies out in the middle of the desert.”

Mom said she never found out what became of those dedicated ladies. Every Christmas, however, she expressed her earnest thanks to their bell-tinkling descendants.

I never again chided her for singing “Jingle Bells.” I’ve puzzled a few bellringers, however, with my words as I dropped coins into the pot.

“Merry Christmas, Mom.”

November 25, 2009

Candied Orange Peel

So yesterday I mentioned that I had candied orange peel strips cooking away on the stove and today I was able to get them just about finished, they still have some more drying to do but for the most part, they are officially candied.

I've never candied anything in my life. At least not that I can remember. But I have this fantasy that one day I will candy all the fruit necessary to make my annual batch of fruit cakes (which reminds me, I forgot to buy boxes for those things today, darn!!) I will probably never be organized enough to get all the cherries and lemon peel and pineapple and odd little bits and pieces of things that are red and green and sweet candied that I would need, but a girl likes to dream.

The recipe for these comes from the River Cottage Handbook #2, which is all about preserves and is my cookbook de jour (even though it's pretty much past time to preserve anything, I still enjoy reading jam and chutney recipes, laugh, go ahead) Having fallen in love with the River Cottage Family book and in like with the River Cottage Cookbook, I was pleased to see that this handbook is just as good, if not better, than the others. If you have any interest in making jam, I highly recommend it. It's not as exhaustive as the giant Stocking Up tome that I have been using (circa 1975) but since a lot of what is in that is beyond what even I would be interested in preserving, I think the handbook is a better bet for the every day jammer.

Candied Orange Sticks adapted from the River Cottage Handbook #2

4-5 large oranges
2 cups of granulated sugar (500 g)

Run a knife around the oranges so the peel is split into quarters. Carefully remove the peel from the orange in whole, quartered pieces, a spoon inserted under the peel helps if they seem to be ripping. And really, you can use them ripped into little chunks if you want, they just wont be sticks, they'll be chunks.

Slice the peels into thin strips and put them in a heavy bottomed pot with enough water to cover. Bring the water to a boil then reduce to a simmer for 5 minutes. Drain completely then add fresh water to just over half covering the peels. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, for 45 minutes (stir every once in a while or you'll end up with blackened bits like me :)) Add the sugar and stir until dissolved, put the lid back on and simmer another 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave the whole thing for 24 hours.

The next day, bring to a boil again, reduce to a simmer and cook uncovered 30 minutes or until the liquid is a thick syrup. Remove the strips of peel with tongs onto a wire rack (with a drip pan beneath) and allow to dry 24 hours or, if you're impatient like me, pop them in the oven at your lowest setting (170 for me) for 2-3 hours.

I tossed about half of mine in granulated sugar to see which I would like better. The plan is to dip these in chocolate closer to Christmas for gifts. If they make it that long. They are yummy little snacks.

The leftover syrup is pretty tasty to, I added a little to a jar of vodka that I have soaking with a lemon and sugar on my windowsill and mixed the rest with the same amount of honey which, by the way, was divine dribbled over a chunk of Stilton with apricots for a little late afternoon pick-me-up. In fact. Even if you don't want candied fruit, I'd say it's worth it to boil a few orange peels in sugar and water just so you can mix the syrup with honey for your cheese eating pleasure. That good. I'm tellin' ya.

Now, I'm off to make a Pumpkin Pie for tomorrow's festivities. I hope everyone out there has a very happy and tasty Thanksgiving!

November 24, 2009

Let the Holiday Chaos Begin

Things are looking a little crazy around here these days. I feel like I've got projects in various stages of construction all over the place. There are felt trees waiting to be stuffed and closed in a pile on the sofa, another coated with glitter drying by the back door. A pot full of orange peel strips halfway through the candying process on the stove. And Advent Calender halfway assembled on my desk. A bag full of fabrics and garlands and ribbons in the mudroom waiting for Friday to come along so they can be tied and draped and wrapped. Not that it will all be ready by then, but it does seem a little like I've got a thousand things waiting at the starting gate that is the day after Thanksgiving. And then there's the turkey that will be arriving with the groceries (Oh Retail Relay how do I love thee) in the next hour or so and really, no where in the fridge to put it. And of course, being me, I stopped in the middle of all of it today to try my hand at making a necklace.

I've never been a big beader jewelry maker type of person. I don't have the hand-eye coordination to deal with things that small. They just frustrate me. But last night I was at Michael's (by myself no less, good thing too since there were 9 people in line and one cashier who was on the phone being talked through ringing up a sale, fun) and I wandered into their new jewelry making aisle.

As I stood there looking at strings and strings of beads I found myself reaching out and grabbing a few. Earlier in the day I'd flipped through a catalogue and took a fancy to this necklace, or at least the style of it. I'm really more of a scarf and/or bracelet person. Necklaces have had a tendency to be yanked and broken by little curious fingers. But every once in a while I like the idea of something funky and pretty to string around my neck. Not $59 funky, I don't love it that much, but for a few dollars worth of beads and ribbon, well, that I could do.

It was fun, and pretty much a no brainier project. I'm not sure I'll ever become a big necklace making diva, but for a quick little afternoon project, it was just the ticket. Now excuse me while I go stuff some felt Christmas trees. T-3 days and counting.

November 23, 2009

Christmas Wreath #1

Yes, Number one. Although it may turn out to be number only given how long I spent on it and the fact that I'm not out of the Christmas ornament and foam balls that I though would stretch to two wreaths at least. I would like to have one for each of the windows at the front of the house, one for the window on the end and one for the door. But we shall see. I do have a few ideas about some quicker styles. I know I know, I'm a little nuts.

I haven't re-made Christmas decorations for ages. In fact, I cant really remember when I made a whole slew of things for Christmas other than the year we were without ornaments and had to make enough for a whole (although very small) tree. Our tree will be it's usual hodge podge of hallmark ornaments, and I wouldnt have that any other way, but doors and mantles and table and shelves are all waiting to be decked. I've been living ina fairy world thinking that Christmas is still far away, but then Will reminded me that our tree hunting trip would be THIS FRIDAY> ACK! Thanksgiving isn't even here and I'm BEHIND ALREADY!

So today I dug in. I've got fabric cut for some mantel things that will get sewn over the next few evenings, a list started of what I still need (candles, ribbon,some kind of treeskirt, wrapping paper that matches, - yes a little OCD I know, but it's so pretty that way!) and now, one wreath down.

I know the ornament wreath is all the rage this year. It seems to be everywhere and don't get me wrong, I like it, I just wasn't ready for string that many shiny breakable balls together to hang on my oft-slammed ( I have kids after all) door. Padding is required. Which is how I arrived at the felt, ribbon and or yarn covered foam balls mixed with the classic ornaments.

It didn't turn out to be the fastest project I've done lately, but it wasn't terrible. And it wasn't the assembly that took so long, it takes a long time to wrap enough yarn around a foam ball so no white shows through. And then there was the ornament that I broke and the one(s) I dribbled glue all over (see the ribbon wrapped around the ornament, yeah, good thing for extra ribbon).

Between the wreath now safely hanging above my desk in the mudroom (if you can call it that at this point-but that's a whole other issue), the pile of wood sitting next to the fireplace and the big box of gifts that just arrived in the mail I'm having a hard time concentrating on the fact that I still need to get Thanksgiving dinner in order. I don't suppose Will would be ok with just skipping over the rest of this week and starting Christmas a little early.

November 20, 2009

The Owl and the Pussycat, well, just the Owl for now

Not that I can really say I love that poem, but it does get stuck in my head. And for some reason, I find myself intrigued by folksy owls these days. So after my successful freezer-paper-as-stencil project earlier int he week, I thought I'd give it another go and revamp my library bag.

Actually this bag is more than my library bag, it's also my taking my computer to the gym bag and my I need some way to tote all my junk bag. The problem is that it's kinda ugly. Will's grandfather gave it to me when we visited them earlier this fall in Kentucky. As with all grandparents, we generally leave with more than we came, and this time the bag was part of the pile heaped in our car. As it turns out, it's the handiest bag I've had in a long while. Pockets in just the right spots, handles the right length, fits my computer or a slew of books or my gym clothes or sometimes even all of that at once. So despite the fact that it says "Paducah Technical College" on one side, I've been carrying it around a lot lately, with the words facing in that is.

I had thought about funning it up before, but couldn't think of what to do with a sort of vinylish big pocketed bag that would make it look good without taking it out of commission for very long, because I NEED it. I cant be bagless while it gets cross stitched (as if I have the patience for that anyway) or hand appliqued (again, like I have the patience) and using a sewing machine was out due to the size of the opening. But when the freezer paper thing panned out, well, I figured how bad could I screw up a stencil? So I took the plunge.

Now I wasn't brave enough to attempt something in a totally different color, just in case the paint wasn't as opaque as it needed to be, so what ever it was, it was going to be blue. And a blue owl? Well, why not, Probably better than the blue hedge hog I started off with. The eyes ended up freehand because I didn't want to try to iron over the paint and I think I may add some kind of texture, maybe with Modge Podge or more paint, but maybe not. For now I'm just happy to have a bag that doesn't advertise a college I didn't go to in a town where I don't live. Woo hoo to freezer paper. I'm thinking tee-shirts might be next...

November 19, 2009

Rainy Days

Generally I like the rain. I even love it some days. I've lived a lot of my life in rainy places but really, Virginia rain is something else entirely. The night we moved here, within minutes of landing at the airport just out of town a downpour began that was harder than I've ever seen in my life. It didn't rain, it didn't even pour, it DRENCHED. It soaked and flooded and just the dash from the car to the door of the hotel was enough to soak us through. I remember that Briton asked sleepily as we tucked him into the bed if we could go to the park in the morning. No, I told him, everything would be muddy and wet in the morning, but maybe in a few days when things had dried out.

Much to my surprise and Briton's delight, the morning dawned hot and totally dry. After years of living in rain soaked lands I almost thought I'd dreamed the storm the night before.

In the two and a half years since then, I've gotten pretty used to the torrential rain that sometimes thunders down upon us, but sometimes, even I get fed up when the rain pours so hard you cant even go out to get the mail.

Today was one of those days. Evelyn and I made a dash for it to hit the gym (me) and the playzone (her) but after that we spent a lot of time inside just hanging. After a while though, even Playdoh and Sleeping Beauty lost it's charm and we still had an hour before the bus run.

I started this project a few weeks ago but got distracted and didn't finish (bad mama) so today seemed like the day. The best part about this was that Evelyn could help me make it, and then she could play with it. And what else is better on a crummy day than a new toy, right?

If you don't happen to have four plain wooden blocks just lying around (and who does really, I bought these at the craft store just for this project, because I'm nuts like that) see if you can dig up four alphabet blocks. The irony is that if I'd started this a few weeks earlier (ie, before I went a little crazy cleaning out bins in the basement) I too would have had alphabet blocks. That's just the price I pay for having obsessive cleaning binges.

Anyway, my kids have always loved puzzle blocks. We bought our first one on a trip to Paris when Briton was two and it kept him busy for HOURS while Will and I ate in cafes, gazed at paintings and generally enjoyed ourselves. But for something that kids seems to love so much, they're not as common as you might think. We've gathered a few more through the years, but not a lot.

So there I sat one day, clearing out a bunch of old High Five magazines that had been loved to death and I realized that some of the pictures would make great puzzles, and even better, great block puzzles. And if I was going to make a block puzzle, why not throw in some family photos as well, just for kicks.

Trace around the blocks while they are centered on the photo or picture and then trim carefully along the lines.

You want to err on the side of small or you'll get bumpy edges (see those edges, not fun, kids like to peel bumpy edges. Now I know better though)

Then apply with Modge Podge, one coat under the paper, another coat or two on top. Easy Peasy. One tip, don't let your kids play with them before they dry. In fact, you might want to hide them until they are dry, otherwise they start looking a little ratty right off the bat. But nothing that another coat of modge podge couldn't take care of.

November 18, 2009

Dutch Baby Love

Growing up in Northern Idaho, my hands down favorite dinner was the big poofy golden oven pancakes my mom called Dutch Babies. I thought I was the only kid in the world who's mom (and dad, too since they both made them) knew how to make such deliciousness. I mean, pancakes were all well and good, but Dutch Babies were glorious.

Later I realized we were not the only family who made dutch babies. In fact, I found to my dismay you could even get them in restaurants for goodness sake. They appeared by any number of names. German pancakes, Oven pancakes, Dutch pancakes, Even Yorkshire pudding is really a dutch baby made with beet fat instead of butter. But even after finding that they were not unique to my family, I continued to adore them. What's not to love. Eggs, milk, flour and tons of butter. And the toppings are endless. Jam, syrup, powdered sugar if you're feeling sweet. Bacon and gravy, anything and gravy, even just a slathering of more butter or a sprinkle of salt if savory's your thing. It's all pretty much fantastic.

I still make them, although not for dinner as much as I'd like to. Will doesnt quite get my passion for them, but the kids love them, and so they live on as a favorite dish.

The idea is pretty simple, although I've seen version that are very fancy indeed with vanilla or herbs or caramelized apples at the bottom. I'm sure those are all great, but for me, the simple way will always be best.

for a large cast iron pan

stick 1/2 stick of butter (I know I know, you can use less, but it wont be as good) into the pan and stick the pan in a 400 degree oven until the butter is totally melted and just beginning to brown. Then beat together

2 cups of flour
2 cups of milk
4 eggs

until you have a nice smooth batter. When the pan is ready CAREFULLY pull it out of the oven, pour in the batter and pop it back in as quickly as you can without burning your hand. For a small pan halve the recipe. Cast iron really gives the best results but any heavy oven safe frying pan will do. I've even done them in a Le Creuset and it was delicious.

Turn the oven light on so you can watch the show, in about 30 minutes the pancake will be puffy and golden, take it out as soon as it's beginning to brown all over. The poof will fall as the steam escapes. If your pan is well seasoned it should just pop out onto a cutting board in one piece. If it doesn't, just cut right in the pan and pull out the wedges, serving with the toppings of your choice. If you want to get adventurous, add a few breakfast sausages to the pan and let them cook before adding the butter. The sausages will stand up on end when the batter rises. This version, in case you are wondering, is basically what Toad in the Hole is. Which kids, by the way, find hilarious.

November 17, 2009

The leaves they are a fallin'

It's no secret I'm obsessed with leaves lately, the fall colors this year were nothing short of spectacular and I loved every minute of it. Seeing the last of the fall leaves crumpled on the ground this past week has been, well, kinda sad. So to help make up for the lost fall color, I've been concocting a little project. The key ingredient here is, probably surprisingly, freezer paper.

Yes, freezer paper still exists, although why they sell it anywhere other than craft stores is beyond me. Even as a canner, freezer, dryer of foods I have never found an occasion when freezer paper was necessary. But obviously someone out there still uses it as freezer paper. Maybe somewhere there are whole groups of people who re-wrap their meat in it, and who am I to question that. For crafts, though, it's a handy thing to have around.

We used to keep freezer paper around the house for finger painting, back when I was foolish enough to let my children go to town with paint. Now a days I leave the painting projects to school and art classes and to be honest, I almost forgot the freezer paper even existed. But last week I ran across a stenciling project using freezer paper and had to give it a try.

I've been pondering the idea of wide table runners. I know, who ponders table runners? But really, I've been trying to decide on a more or less permanent (at least until I get bored and do something different) table covering. But since I love my table and I don't really want to cover it, just dress it up, I decided on the idea of a wide runner.

During my weekend trek through Jo-Ann's I found two likely candidates. A heavy denim that is almost exactly the shade of blue of my cabinets and a brownish gray suiting fabric that I just plain loved. The suiting is still sitting in my fabric pile, waiting for inspiration, but the denim seemed like the perfect canvas for a little freezer paper experimentation.

At first I thought I'd scan some real leaves to trace onto the paper but didn't find any leaves I was absolutely in love with in the neighborhood, (and I was too impatient to go hunting for some further afield) so I pulled some images off the Internet to print. Traced, trimmed and ironed on, Evelyn and I spent a fun morning painting the leaves in.

Once the leaves were dry I peeled the paper off (freezer paper leaves no residue so you can iron it onto just about any fabric) and voila, a table runner. Well, almost, I still need to hem the fabric, but even with raw edges it look pretty cool, especially given the three year old contribution.

November 16, 2009

Rows of Bows

I never thought I'd be a mother of a bow obsessed girl. In fact, I have a secret horror of bows. You cant blame me, I spent part of my childhood in Dallas. In the early 1990's. Yeah, remember those bows? Well, I guess if you weren't in Dallas in 1991, you probably wouldn't. But let me tell you, they were BIG and they were EVERYWHERE. I even remember one of my friends mothers who everyday wore a bouffant ponytail with an enormous bow that matched her outfit. It still give me the chills.

And yet, here I am, with Miss I must wear something pink and frilly every day and there needs to be not one but TWO bows in my hair, one for each pigtail. I've spent a lot of money on Etsy in the past two years on bows and hairclips. And even I will admit, it's ridiculously cute.

A few months ago Will's mom sent Evelyn a set of grosgrain ribbon bows in hot pink that we've worn, oh, at least twice a week and probably more since. And the other day she was sitting in my lap listening to me read Periwinkle Smith and the TwirlyWhirly Tutu for the billionth time when I looked down and those bows and thought, "well, I could make those."

This weekend I made a dreaded trip to the fabric store (dreaded because it's so SLOW to buy anything there, I wait until I have a pile of projects waiting in the wings before I brave it) and bought spools of ribbon in Evelyn's favorite colors. And today, despite the fact that I had to settle for snappy clips instead of alligator clips because I had been to three fabric stores and the craft store and hadn't found what I wanted, I started bowmaking.

Once I'd gotten myself going in the right direction it was pretty much a snap. Loop, loop, loop, loop, snip, wrap, glue. That's pretty much the drill. And now Evelyn has a row of bows on her clip holder. Well, she will tonight. After she has had a chance to wear EVERY ONE today.

November 13, 2009

Not to beat a dead horse but...

I've been hanging onto this rain coat because it was the best kid coat ever.

I thought she'd never grow into it.

Time flies

November 12, 2009

Flashback, Flashforward

I actually had something totally different all written up for today. I usually start my mornings at the gym (I do a lot of baking after all) where Evie plays in the excellent childcare, I get a chance to work out and then I can sit in the peace of the cafe and write. This morning I was kind of moaning about my indecisiveness as to whether I'm going to jump whole hog into the digital world or if I really need a big paper desk calender after all.

And then Evie and I took a walk in the rain. Well really a dash. Thursday mornings she goes to a kids-only story time at the library which she loves because she gets to be big and which I hate, just a little bit, because it means she's growing up, although it does give me 30 whole minutes to look for books that dont involve princesses or Captain Underpants.

But back to the rain. It's been raining here for almost three days and wont stop for at least another day and a half. It's cold and wet and everything looks gray and soggy and even though I complain about it, it makes me think of home. Home in Portland, home in Ireland. I have a thing for wet, cold places. Who knows.

When Briton was three were were living in Dublin in a tiny tiny apartment. Will wont admit it but it was 300 square feet. I know this because on one particularly rainy day I used this digital measuring tool will had and measured the whole place. Twice. Just to be sure. Actually I think it was 298 square feet. So, pretty small. Which meant that, rain or no, we went out every day. We walked and walked and hopped on buses and rode the purple train into town and the green train out to the seaside towns of Dalkey and Bray. It was just the two of us all day and it was wonderful. And now he's seven. And Evie is the one walking in the rain with me, holding my hand and almost ready to go to preschool.

Life is busier here. We have a house to renovate and a real kitchen instead of half an oven and three burners and all my bakeware sitting in boxes across the ocean and school functions and a car and, although the town is much smaller, a bigger life. I dont get to spend as much time just being a mom of a three year old as I did back then. I guess that's probably true of all second and third and how ever many after kids. But today I got to walk in the rain with my daughter and buy her a cookie even though it was almost lunch and then I watched her blow me a kiss and walk up the stairs of the library like a big girl. It's a good kind of day. Even with the rain...

November 11, 2009

Again with the Bread!

Back in our Dublin days, we were car-less, and except for Will who rode a bike, pretty much completely wheel-less. Well, unless you count the stroller, and the bus, and the train. OK, so we weren't wheel-less. But we didn't have our own personal form of transportation. Which led to a lot of walking. Fortunately we lived in a little village in the middle of Dublin that had just about everything we could want within a few blocks of our flat.Actually, we lived smack in the middle of three little villages. Every day Briton and I would walk down to the center of Rathmines to the grocery store and then up the road to Rathgar to the butcher and the bakery and then home again with out haul. But there were times when walking even a few blocks with a tired toddler and the pouring rain was just too much, which meant we often shot across our square to the little convenience store.

Now when I say convenience store, I'm not really talking about the grungy 7-11's we're used to here in America. These were actually closer to very very small grocery stores. You could, and we often did, buy everything we needed for dinner at the local SPAR. They had sandwich bread (including half loafs of sliced bread which I never got over laughing about, who buys half a loaf? OK, we had no storage so we did but still?) and french bread and pasta and sauces and pizza and milk and a pretty decent selection of cheese and even some meat. It was a little more expensive sure, but if you needed to, you could live pretty well off of just food from SPAR.

My favorite thing to get at SPAR however, was the brioche loaves. It looked like sandwich bread, it cost about the same as sandwich bread, but oh, it did not taste like sandwich bread. I'm not sure at that point I'd ever had brioche before and later when we went to Paris I had REAL brioche which was, of course, a different beast altogether, but this SPAR brioche was pretty darn fantastic. They also sold little packs of brioche buns, with and without chocolate chips, which were one of Briton's all time favorite snacks.

Now you know me, I get all nostalgic for things as time. And when it's gray and rainy and cold out, well, I get a little homesick for Ireland. And since I'd made a batch of Brioche dough for our supper clubs camping trip over the weekend (yum) and still had a little left, I decided to make a batch of chocolate chip buns for the kids for an after school snack. Well OK, I ate one too. Just right with a big steaming cup of tea.

Brioche Buns - Adapted from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day

(this makes a LOT of dough. Two large loaves and two batches of buns. You can cut the recipe in half or freeze the dough after the first rise, defrosting and baking later)

1 1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 1/2 T yeast
1 1/2 T salt
8 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup honey
3 sticks melted butter(reserve wrappers for greasing pans)
7 cups unbleached flour (the original recipe called for 7 1/2 but it has been so moist here I've been reducing the amount of flour in the bread to get a good wet dough)
1/2 cup chocolate chips

Mix yeast, salt, eggs, honey and butter with the water in a large (5 quart or bigger) bowl. Add the four and mix without kneading, using a spoon and/or wet hands until you have a nice wet dough. Cover and allow to rise at least 2 hours then refrigerate until ready to use. (You need to refrigerate it even if you are using it that day so that the dough is workable)

Using about 1/4 of the dough, mix in the chocolate chips and divide into 1/2 cup sized balls, shaping them into flattened ovals. Allow the buns to rise for about 30-45 minutes then bake for 20 min at 350. I brushed them with a well beaten egg so the top would be glossy but you wouldn't have to do this for it to turn out great.

For a larger loaf, put 1/4 of the dough into a loaf pan and allow to rise for 1 1/2 hours, baking 35 minutes at 350. I added chips to one of the loaves as well. Both were delicious.

November 10, 2009

Is it that time of year already?

I'm going to cheat today. Instead of writing something, I'm going to send you off to read something I've already written somewhere else. Sneaky aren't I?

A month or so ago I wrote an article about homemade holiday gifts which was really fun because I got to play around with all sorts of ideas before deciding on the best ones for the article. So if your starting to feel that holiday panic rising in your throat, hop on over here for some inspiration. And hey, while your there, give the article a rating too, just for me?

November 9, 2009

Remote Control

Raise your hand if you spend more time looking for the remote every time you want to watch TV than you would just getting up and turning on the TV. Yeah I thought so. I mean, I cant be the only moron who does that. The problem in our house is that there isn’t a good place for the remotes. I had been keeping them in a basket in the coffee table but I also keep magazine clippings and things I want to read but haven’t yet in the basket so they often get buried. And more often than not they just get left on the couch cushions where they slip down between the cracks during the jump fests Evelyn is prone to in the late morning.

Lately I’ve been on a “a place for everything and everything in its place” kind of kick. My basement, while NOT clean, is cleaner than it has ever been. I actually found the thing I needed down there in less than ten seconds last week. A miracle if ever there was one. Part of this organization thing is that I’ve become addicted to this blog. The woman is a whirlwind of organization. I actually tried to convince Will to let me buy all new bins for our basement storage so it would look pretty. Like this. Ahhh. SO pretty…..

Anyway. During my obsessive read through of her old entries I came across the idea of a remote tray. Ahhh! I thought. Now THAT is what I need. After all, I have this brand spanking new (but supposed to look like it’s been there forever) bookshelf. Why not make and official spot for those darn remotes.

Actually I’d already read that article and though “if only I had a cool little box like she had” and was cleaning out the playroom when I came across one of those wooden trays that Melissa and Doug toys come in and are too nice to throw away so you stack them in a closet. And that’s when I had the “Aha!” moment.

The box got a few coats of trim paint and while it dried I considered options for the bottom. While I like her brightly colored paper the truth is that it wouldn’t hold up in our house. In fact, it would have been colored on and spilled on and probably ripped up by the end of the week. So instead I decided on fabric, something thick and absorbent (just in case) and a little sound dampening (humm, can you tell I have young children, must be crayon proof and sound dampening to qualify). A leftover scrap of wool from Nigella’s bed seemed like the perfect fit and so after the paint had dried (three days! I love oil paint for it’s washability- ack, again with the kid proof thing!- but man does it take a long time to dry!) I cut a square to fit the bottom and glued it in with that indispensable craft item, Eileen’s Tacky Glue. Love that stuff.
*Oops, I jsut realized she uses fabric too, where did I see a paper covered one, all well. I still needed the all important absorbent wool....)

The amazing this is, it’s working. The kids get the whole, remotes go in the box, at least for the most part. And now I can spend less time looking and more time lazing. Or, if I’m being honest, less time frantically scrabbling around for the remote while my children melt down in exhaustion when all they want is a few minutes of veg time PLEASE MOMMY! Ahh, peace…

November 6, 2009

Between Halloween and Christmas

November always seems to fly by. Halloween is over, Christmas is around the corner. Too late to keep up the Halloween decorations, too soon to put up the tree, too short to do "November Decorating". So usually it whizzes right by with no wreath on the door, no "things" around the house to make it seem like fall. Which is really OK. Because there is enough going on outside to make up for it.

And then I saw the ginkgo leaves. I'm fascinated with ginkgo leaves. I love how leathery they are, how long they've been around. I love their shape and size and I love the bright, butter yellow they turn in the fall. The kids and I were out walking the other day and passed a row of ginkgo trees on the way to downtown. The sidewalk was covered with bright yellow leaves and the kids scooped up hand fulls to toss in the air, rub between their fingers and slide into their pockets and I couldn't help but think what a pretty wreath they would make. So yesterday Evie and I took a big plastic bag with us and went on a leaf expedition.

I'm pretty sure the people passing in their cars thought I was crazy, scooping up leaves and stuffing them into bags while Evelyn looked stonily on, angry with me because I would not let her wear her yellow Salt Water Sandals on our walk. But when I got home I had plenty of leaves for my wreath. What I didn't have was my hot glue gun.

You see, I had a "uh-oh, the children have the hot glue gun" moment a few weeks ago and decided to hide it from them. But I did such a great job of hiding it that I couldn't find it myself. After practically tossing the playroom shelves I finally found it (behind the paper rack, under the modem) and got to work.

Overall I'm pleased with the result. I could have added a few more leaves but ran out of glue sticks just as I got around to the top again so I just went with it. I love the bright yellow against our (newly painted and will need to be RE-painted because I used the wrong paint and it's already peeling ) front door. Hard to believe though that it only has about three weeks of life in it before the jingle bell wreath comes out to replace it. Now, if if my head would stop spinning I could go hunt down the bag-o-pine cones I kept from last year to add to a bowl on the counter for a nice, insidey, fall-winter look. Humm, Need to get back to organizing the basement I guess!

November 5, 2009

Jam! Well, Butter really, but kinda close....

Having totally missed the chance to make strawberry AND grape jam this year (what was I doing in July, August and September?? Oh yeah, that HOUSE thing) I realized that the whole growing season was about to pass me by without one single jar of jam in my cupboard which, if I'm honest, is really what propelled us up Mount Fuji on Tuesday for our apple picking adventure.

Apple Butter is the easiest jam you can make. It's also the one I've been making the longest. Before I was married or had real dishes, my dad and I used to make apple butter and blackberry jam every fall while we were both living in Eugene (we were also both in the same department in college,except he was a doctoral student who taught some of my friends and I, well, I was "oh your Clyde's Daughter. But since I got to store my junk in his office it all turned out OK) SO even though we aren't really big Apple Butter eaters, it has a special place in my heart. Plus Will's 98 year old grandpa eats the stuff by the spoonful. And he'd be pretty disappointed if I didn't have a jar or two I could send him every winter. So into the pot went the apples.

If you've never made jam, this is a great place to start. And if you REALLY want to make it easy on yourself, get a food mill. I hear what your thinking, what on earth would I do with a food mill when I was done? But it's a really useful little tool, great for things like mashed potatoes (so much better than mashed mashed potatoes!) and lasts forever. Mine was my grandmothers in fact, and it's still cranking along. If you don't have or want to get a fool mill though, start with quartered apples that have been peeled and cored and follow the steps as normal, mashing with a potato masher instead of running it through the mill.

So first, you want to wash and quarter your apples. If you have a food mill, you don't need to bother with coring or peeling and personally, I think cooking the apples with the peel on makes the whole thing taste much better. Fill up your biggest pot and add about a cup of apple cider, apple juice or in a pinch, water. I have a ginormous preserving pot (also inherited form my grandmother) that I cook all my jams in.

Put the lid on and cook away until the apples are falling apart to the touch. If you want, you can pop this in the fridge till the next day at this point. I like to at least let it cool down a bit so it's easier to handle.

Once it's cool enough, run the apples through the food mill. Here I've switched to a smaller pot because the apples have cooked way down. If I wanted to make a larger amount of butter I'd make a second pot of cooked apples at this point, but for us, this is a good amount. Plus, I like to use the big pot in a later step for something else. (which means that it's nice to have two big pots, but if you don't, don't worry, you'll just have to wash up between steps, you'll see what I mean later on)

Once you've run all the apples through the mill you can either a) press the skins through come cheese cloth to get all goop out, b) toss the skins or c) feed the skins to your greedy chickens who will practically knock you over to get to the apple goodness.

Now, put the pot of what is basically applesauce back on the stove and cook it on low until it has reduced down to a REALLY thick consistency. Once it's almost as thick as you want it, it's time to add sweeteners and spices. It doesn't really help for me to give you measurements since it totally depends on the sweetness of the apples, the sweetness you want the finished butter to be and the flavor you are going for. The reason apple butter is so easy is that you don't need pectin since apples are naturally full of pectin (pectin is what makes jelly gel) and since you don't need pectin, you also don't need a specific amount of sugar to get your jelly to set. I like a combination of honey and sugar (for this batch I used 1/4 cup honey and 1 cup of sugar, the apples were pretty tart!) and a mix of cinnamon and pumpkin pie spices (about 1 1/2 tsp of each for me, but as I said, you'll have to taste it to judge for yourself) Stir the sweeteners and spices in and let it cook for another half an hour or so.

On to the jars. The key to making safe jam is to have everything clean and hot. There are several methods for sterilizing jars. You can pop them into boiling water, you can run them through your dishwasher (don't use soap though!) or you can put them in the oven for 20 minutes or so. I've done all three and usually end up with the boiling method because I need a big pot of boiling water anyway. Sterilize the jars and rings and pour some hot but not boiling water into a bowl with the lids (to soften the seal)

While the jars are hot fill them almost to the top with jam, wipe down the rims and add the lids and rings, tightening firmly but not crazy tight. Put the jars into that pot of boiling water, making sure the lids are covered, and let it boil away for about 10 minutes.

Carefully take the jars out (see that tool, that is a useful thing to have!) and set them on a towel to cool off. You will know that the jars are sealed when they "pop" and the lids no longer depress. If they don't you can either put them back in the boiling water for a few more minutes or just plan on using those jars first and keep them in the fridge.

Now, a few hints about jam making that I've learned over the years. If you are going to make jam even once, it's worth it to get a wide mouthed funnel and jar tongs, it just makes things so much easier. If, at the end of filling your jars you don't have enough to fill the last one, just screw the lid on and keep that one in the fridge for immediate eating. When you go buy jars, think about what you are making the jam for. If it's for your family, get larger jars so you have less to store. If you are giving gifts, get smaller jars so you have more to give. You can always mix and match, other than the wide mouth variety, all jars have the same lids and rings. And don't forget to label the jars before you forget what's in them and open up one thinking it's going to be apple only to find out it's sauerkraut!

Finally, it sounds like a lot of steps but it really is easy. Don't be intimidated by the idea of jam making, get out there and try it!