Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Other Christmas Gifts

Unlike probably everybody, I do not seem to find the time or head space to make Christmas gifts even though I love to make things.  December basically overwhelms me and I have to retreat to my inner sanctum to stay sane. However, this was a good year, as you will see (this was also the year of my mother's raspberry quilt - still slightly astonishing to me).

We made Jennifer's hot chocolate mix for Sunday school teachers and school teachers.  The children helped to measure and mix, then I packaged the mix in bags with a little slip of instructions.  I wrapped the bags in scrap fabric with construction paper holly leaves and curly gold ribbon.  The  children wrote the notes and delivered the bags.  I am grateful for the time teachers invest in their students. . . would be nice to give gifts to all the lovely people who offer their talents and time, come to think of it.

Then I made a bag from a failed little girl dress cut from a woman's dress; into the pocket, I slipped a postcard of Christmas greetings (the horse is a joke for the family) and into the bag I slipped a loaf of Grandma's Christmas bread.   

I got a lovely, unexpected package in the mail, an absolute treat from one of my blog readers!  It was a pretty pile of fabric and notions, plus four wee stones covered in crochet.  They look so charming sitting in the plant nursery that passes as our living room windowsills.  I've started three baby jade plants from the mother plant, and started three spider plants in water.

Finally, my children outdid themselves with homemade gifts.  Ben took a pair of soda tabs that he found to my husband and begged to make a pair of earrings for me.  With Daddy's help, he checked with his aunts for a pair of old earrings to scavenge for parts. Then they spray-painted the tabs metallic blue.  When the earrings were assembled, he put them in a tiny box and we were all so proud and pleased on Christmas morning.  Genevieve gave me a beautiful beaded ring in green and blue, so I dressed in my children's jewelry on Christmas - you can see the earrings and ring in this photo. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Raspberry Patchwork Quilt for My Mother

This is a long story with lots of photos - it covers the month of December and an entire quilt, and I couldn't bear to leave out the details.  Settle in, if you're still with me. . .

My mother sent out some Christmas gift ideas in early December (we usually do, on that side of the family, to be helpful), and then she sent out a separate email begging for a throw quilt to snuggle under.  Dad had gotten her a polyester fleece blanket at Costco that she described as "slimy."  I immediately replied to her that I wanted to make her a quilt - I could see her desire and need so clearly - but that I wasn't a fast quiltmaker, so it might take a while.

Meanwhile, my sister was getting ready to purchase a quilt online for Mom, when I emailed my siblings and told them to back off: I was going to make a quilt.  This was December 6.  

The next day, I was digging in my cedar chest for some flannel sheets and lo, there was a patchwork quilt top that Mom had given me when she and Dad cleaned out their big house last year to move to a little house.  I had completely forgotten the quilt top, and I have no idea why I didn't store it with the other quilts in an upstairs closet.  

Suddenly, I had the daring idea of using this quilt top and finishing a throw quilt for Mom in time for Christmas morning.  Understand, I had never made a quilt quickly and never made a quilt to meet a deadline; I ruminate on quilt designs and colors for a while before I begin, and then the quilt is a background project that I work on leisurely when I feel like it. 

With supersonic speed, I worked up a color scheme to lend a bit of harmony to the randomness of the patchwork. I decided to employ all three methods of quilting (knotting, hand quilting, and machine quilting) for efficiency. I got myself to the fabric store right quick and bought puffy batting, flannel for a snuggly back, and calico for the binding.  I asked Rebecca for a bit of red wool yarn; her mother delivered hand-spun, hand-dyed wool from their very own sheep.  I actually felt nervous handling such special yarn.

First, I used the raspberry wool yarn to knot all the middles of the solid patches and along the border.  Then I used raspberry perle cotton to handquilt in long straight lines through the middles of the 9-patch squares.  Finally, I machine quilted around each block and made my typical "framing" lines in the border.  For the machine quilting, I used ecru thread on the top and pink thread in the bobbin to make the machine quilting as subtle as possible, just texture and strength.  I read a helpful article that gave advice on how much quilting a quilt needs; in a heavy quilt that is going to be washed, the quilting strengthens the quilt when it is leaden with water.  I was deliberately making this a heavy, snuggly quilt, and I knew it was going to be washed - I would do the first washing to help the wool ties felt down into little balls (like this). 

My children are now total champs at keeping secrets.  They kept our baby a secret for weeks without dropping any hints or bursting, and they did the same thing with the quilt secret every time they were around Granny.  

photo credits to my husband for all the quilt opening and hugging

Well, somehow, I snatched enough time this December to complete the quilt on December 23.  I had to wait for the rain to stop on Christmas morning to take pictures, but then I wrapped it in wrapping paper that Genevieve made and well, it was wonderful.  

I rarely have such a special gift to give to a beloved person, especially one they are not expecting.  My mother was totally surprised and happy. You can see it, right?

She tells me that the quilt top is from Grandma Weaver's things, but we are both guessing that Grandma did not make the quilt top.  For one thing, the fabric is very old (although still quite sturdy - probably because it was not made into a quilt and used), but also, the piecing work is beautiful and with an eye to regularity that Grandma did not have.

So, I'm back to the regular quilting in the background.  Actually, my latest quilt is nearly done after 18 months of on-and-off quilting. I'll be sure to share it here!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Midwinter Breakfast Buns to Cheer You

Rebecca passed on a recipe to me for rugelach fingers, although she said the pastry was difficult to work with and really rich with the extraordinary filling.  So I wondered if could make sweet rolls, using the extraordinary filling.  The flavors here are, to quote Rebecca, "medieval."  Chocolate, spice, citrus, nuts, and dried fruit: no flavor family left behind!

The resulting flavor is delicious: deep, dark, exotic, although the ingredients are pretty much pantry staples. I have to confess that my family was not as keen on these buns as I was, but I love them - even better the next day (I'm eating one with a glass of milk as I type). They are wonderful with applesauce or some slices of orange on the side, and deep black coffee.

I named these Midwinter Buns, thinking of the poem by Christina Rossetti, usually set to music:

        In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, 
 earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; 
 snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, 
 in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

 Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; 
 heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign. 
 In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed 
 the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ. 

 Angels and archangels may have gathered there, 
 cherubim and seraphim thronged the air; 
 but his mother only, in her maiden bliss, 
 worshiped the beloved with a kiss. 

 What can I give him, poor as I am? 
 If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; 
 if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; 
 yet what I can I give him:  give my heart.

Midwinter Breakfast Buns (cobbled together by me from disparate recipes)

In a bread bowl, whisk together well:
1 Tbsp. instant yeast
1 cup warm milk
3 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. melted butter or oil
1 egg (preferably room temperature)
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 Tbsp. gluten (optional - helps keep whole grain dough light)

Allow this slurry to set for 15 minutes if you have time or start on the filling. Otherwise, proceed.
By hand, gradually stir in 1 1/2 - 1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, starting up the kneading, ideally using the lesser amount of flour for the most tender buns. The dough will be sticky. Knead it into a ball. Grease the ball and the bowl, cover with a damp cloth, and allow to rise until doubled (this can take a while in the cold midwinter kitchen - you can speed it up with some steamy heat).

Make the exotic filling. Combine and set aside:
1 cup finely chopped semisweet chocolate (I threw chocolate chips in the food processor)
1 cup walnuts, toasted and cooled, chopped finely
3/4 cup raisins or currants
scant 1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. ground cinnamon
zest of half an orange
3 Tbsp. light corn syrup
3 Tbsp. salted butter, melted and cooled
pinch salt

Once dough is risen, roll it out to roughly 12x9" rectangle (if the dough is oiled enough, I usually skip flouring the counter here - your call). Dollop and spread the filling evenly over the dough. Roll up, starting with a long side - I use a wide bench scraper to help. Use a serrated knife to cut into 1" slices. 

 Lay slices cut side down in a greased 9x13 pan. Cover. Refrigerate 2-24 hours (very handy to serve for breakfast!). To bake, remove buns from fridge and uncover at room temperature for 10-15 minutes. Bake at 375 for 20-25 minutes. Serve warm.

Note: to skip the refrigerator rise, allow sliced buns to rise again at room temperature. Then bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes.  

Sunday, December 14, 2014

How We Got the Middle of the Tree

Here's the first Christmas-y post of the season for me - all about decorations in this post because I didn't take pictures of the Christmas cookies.

I bought a plain pine wreath from the church youth group fundraiser, and pulled out my stash of picks to decorate it.  A pick is a little posy of things on a single wire and you poke it into a floral arrangement or wreath or whatever.  I have a weakness for fake fruit and bright colors, but I rarely use my picks.  I love how this wreath turned out!

The children set up the two manger scenes; this is a new spot for this bookcase because we are also shifting rooms around upstairs.  That's a topic for another post!

Now, the tree story.  My husband's best friend came along to the hilarious tree farm that our family  usually goes to.  The two of them, out in the muddy tree field in a cold misty rain, suddenly got grandiose visions and selected "the twins."

The twins were two enormous, unshapely trees that the tree lot was selling for $25 (thrifty, sure, but just read on).  See those 9-foot poles that Genevieve and the best friend are holding?  Yeah, the twin trees were feet taller than those poles.  In vain, I tried to coax the men out of their Napoleonic complex.  In vain.  They stretched out in the mud (no one had warned the best friend to wear old clothes and bring work gloves - he was wearing his nice black concert clothes and dress shoes) and sawed the trees down.

The netted tree laid in our dining room while my husband finally understood that it was two feet taller than our dining room ceiling (shocker), so he sawed off the bottom of the tree.  Finally upright in the tree stand, its top branches still bent against the ceiling.  He was rigging up a special brace for it when it fell over while we screamed and grabbed and fled.  So my husband sawed off the top and now we had nothing but the middle six feet of a Christmas tree.  It looked so. . . .strange.

For the first time, my husband looked at me in apology and embarrassment, and offered to chuck this tree and get a new one. I couldn't bear more money and more mud, so I suggested we just make the best of it.  He fetched the tippy-top of the tree back from the trash, plunked it a cup of water, and wired it back on top of the tree.

It looks much better decorated (nothing breakable - just in case) and next year, I am choosing the tree.

My husband tells me that next time, he wants to put such a magnificently tall tree in our living room which has actual 11-foot ceilings.  I pointed out that we'll have to get rid of some furniture in that room first.  Makes the Christmas tree seem not worth the bother. . .

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Back Yard, December 9, 10:47 am

*Genevieve's new tree house ladder boards on the maple tree which she begged to do on Sunday afternoon, while her father and I waved her sleepily away with vague permission, quite sure she couldn't manage; imagine our (proud) surprise when we looked out finally on Monday morning!
*I think that's a house the children were assembling with an overturned wooden chair, wooden table, and assorted seltzer bottles from the recycling bin
*a pink plastic chair I pulled from the neighbor's trash a few weeks ago; my husband is horrified; I told the kids it was supposed to stay in the clubhouse - we have the only small children on this block and we try to keep not to be the eyesore next to the prim yards around us
*one of my retractable clotheslines - the white disc opposite the board ladder on the maple tree
*the Radio Flyer full of mud and a snow shovel
*in front of the black compost bin which sits among the three raised beds
*bars on the law firm's windows - no one else has bars on their windows in our neighborhood
*pale green parsley in the bed to the left; I hope it keeps hanging on because it sure brightens up our winter soups.

*an immediate camera turn to my left is the clubhouse, with the rags Genevieve nailed up as curtains; I thought it would a nice beginner sewing project for her to sew curtains for the clubhouse, but she asked for rags instead.  I wonder what the judge and the state representative next door think. . . .

This post is due to Jennifer Jo's brilliant series - I hope she makes it A Regular Thing and invites us all to share links.  It's poignant and funny to see what's going on in one shot (I cheated here with two) of our lives.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Selfie, With News

I told you I had news, and now I finally got around to taking the photo to go with it.

Yes, that is me, and I am almost 20 weeks pregnant.  Wheeeeee!  We are thrilled, and the children are especially thrilled because they are old enough to grasp a large part of what is happening.  They were so sweet, keeping our family secret for so long, and then joyfully, shyly, telling people once we all agreed it was time.

I still have flashes of nausea - the first trimester was pretty bad which is why there was a lull in blogging (and I can't bear the thought of these beans, although tomato soup remains my friend).  The exhaustion has retreated for now.  We are hoping to find out the baby's gender at the next ultrasound and then, of course, I will begin some baby sewing.

This is a special time in our family life and I'm so grateful for my health and the experience and maturity we bring to this special time.  Of course babies are wild cards and there will be times of frustration and (my nemesis) sleeplessness ahead, but my husband and I have been through it before and we won't have toddlers around this time.  We're a bit giddy, actually.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Slow Cooker Kale and Sausage Stew

To celebrate the gift of (organic! delicious!) sausage from dear Rebecca's farm, I made this stew.

 I am surprised I have never blogged about this recipe because we love it, it's easy, and it's a clever way to get good flavors out of the slow cooker.  I am picky about slow cooker recipes because I cannot tolerate the bland, overcooked mush that results if the cook doesn't understand the cooking method of the slow cooker. Yes, the slow cooker is forgiving about cooking times, unlike the oven or the stove which is timed to the minute; however, continuing to cook dishes after they are done (dry beans and stock excepted here) erases any flavors they used to have.  I love it when flavor and ease meet, as they do in this recipe.

Slow Cooker Kale and Sausage Stew - originally from a Real Simple mag

Combine in 6-quart slow cooker:
4 cups canned tomatoes - maybe chopped or broken up
1 large onion, chopped
several garlic cloves, chopped roughly
1 lb. sausage - bulk or links, whatever flavor you like (Italian? country?)
some grinds of pepper

Nestle 2-3 large potatoes (about 1 1b. total) in mixture. Pile chopped kale on top to fill slow cooker to brim - maybe 7-8 cups chopped, but really, I just use the amount of kale that I have.

Put the lid on and cook on low for 6-7 hours (until the potatoes are tender and the sausage is cooked through - might even be just 5 hours, depending on  your slow cooker).

Fish out the whole potatoes and put them in a serving dish.  Add 1/3-1/2 cup olive oil and 1/3-1/2 cup warm milk, a bit of salt, and mash well with a potato masher; they should be quite soft, although I don't peel my potatoes, so there are delicious shreds of potato skin throughout. Set aside to keep warm.

Stir the stew together in the slow cooker, breaking up sausage links if you want to.  To serve, place a dollop of mashed potatoes in a soup plate with a scoop of stew on top/beside.  Serve with good bread for swiping up the delicious juices.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Scandinavian Christmas Nightie

I wish I had a white painted barn or an old farmhouse, white, with a bleached wood bench for Genevieve to model this nightie.  It says Christmas in Scandinavia to me (or an LL Bean catalog shoot).  Every time I see this nightie, I get a happy holiday vibe.

She barely let go of her pink nightie which had worn thin and short, been patched, and was fraying.  However, as soon as the Scandinavian nightie was done, she ditched the old nightie so fast I had to get Ben to "model" it for posterity.

Everything for the new nightie was from my stash (important these days as I condense my sewing space). She chose the striped flannel and, due to that voluminous 80s skirt and ruffle, I had to supplement the stripes with the flowered flannel.  I was thrilled to dig through my pretty stash of woven ribbon for a little piece for the bodice, and it only took a few minutes to hunt out the eyelet lace.  I have already explained my philosophy of (not) matching buttons, and I told Genevieve the button in the middle is a kiss from me.

Originally, I thought the nightie was long enough without the ruffle and I was worried about tripping hazards, but Genevieve begged and got her floor-length nightie.  We are both very pleased with the Scandinavian nightie; she barely lets it out of her hands to be washed.  Success!