Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Cake for later

Hi! So much for blogging more often, huh? Life lately is kicking my butt. But we're doing fine and everyone is looking forward to the holidays. It's good and cold outside now - way colder than it even should be for this time of year! - which makes me very happy. We even had a dusting of snow yesterday. So exciting! It melted by noon, but it was pretty while it lasted. Right now, I'm planning my Thanksgiving menu for next week. We may decorate for Christmas over the holiday weekend, or we may wait until the following week. We haven't decided yet, but I do have a new Christmas tree topper, a simple update that was a long time coming. Goodbye, tired old paper angel.


In the spirit of just beginning to prepare for Christmas, I baked a traditional Christmas cake with fruit and nuts a couple of weeks ago. This seems like an antiquated thing to a lot of people, but it's something I really wanted to get right. When I was a kid, we often ate store-bought fruitcakes with one set of grandparents, who would have them with coffee. I liked them well enough, my favorite part being the green- and red-dyed candied cherries that I would pick out and eat first, before consuming the rest of my slice of cake. I know there are lots of jokes about fruitcake and how much everyone hates it, but I like the idea of making your own in the weeks before Christmas and feeding it with liquor periodically. I like routines and schedules, they're my thing. And I like making a food that needs to develop over time as opposed to being eaten right away. It feels like a real creation then.

This was not my first Christmas cake. I'd made them in the past, but it had been about five years since my last attempt. They never turned out well. They were overbaked - almost burnt - and they usually tasted far too rich and boozy to us. I didn't want to make those mistakes again, so I spent some time browsing recipes that were new to me, finally coming across one that gave me a few things I was looking for: lower alcohol amounts, more real fruit (though I did want to keep just a little of the candied fruit, because it's pretty and festive, so I'd just make them part of the total fruit amount), better instructions for baking, and slightly healthier ingredients overall. I found all of this in a vegan recipe, of all places. I'm not vegan, and neither is anyone else in my house, but the recipe gave me what I was looking for, so why not. Vegan (almost) Christmas cake for us.


The recipe comes from BBC Goodfood, with modifications. For example, I didn't use coconut oil, I used canola oil. I did this because we're not crazy about the flavor of coconut oil in baking. I didn't use chia seeds (to make a "chia egg") either; I used two egg whites instead. I've also added conversions to US measurements, because I'm a little challenged that way and I thought someone else might find it helpful. My measurements are in parentheses.

BBC Goodfood Vegan (Almost) Christmas Cake
adapted from the original recipe

Ingredients

1 kg (about 2lb, 3oz) dried fruit (raisins, sultanas (golden raisins), currants, cherries, cranberries, prunes or figs; I used currants, regular and gold raisins, cherries, cranberries and a few ounces of rinsed, chopped candied cherries, adding the candied cherries after step one below)
zest and juice of one orange
zest and juice of one lemon
150ml (5oz) rum, plus extra for feeding
250g (8oz) coconut (canola) oil
200g (7oz) light brown sugar
4 tbsp chia seeds (I replaced with two egg whites)
175g (6oz) plain (all-purpose) flour
100g (3.5oz) ground almonds
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp mixed spice (pumpkin pie spice is a good substitute)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
100g (3.5oz) flaked (slivered) almonds
1 tsp vanilla extract

Method


1. Put the dried fruit, zests and juice, rum, oil and sugar into a large pan set over medium heat. Give it a good mix, bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes until the sugar has dissolved. Tip the mixture into a large bowl and leave to cool for 30 minutes.



2. Heat oven to 150C/130C/fan/gas 2 (I heated my oven to 300F). Line a deep 20cm cake tin (I used my basic springform pan, the deepest round pan I own) with a double layer of baking parchment (I did this by cutting three strips of parchment about five inches wide each, spreading and layering them over each other to cover the whole inner area of the pan), then wrap a double layer of newspaper around the outside, tying it with a string to secure. Mix the chia seeds with 150ml water. Leave to sit for 5 minutes until gel-like and thick (I didn't do this; I just added two egg whites to the mixture in the next step).


3. Add the remaining ingredients to the fruit mixture, along with the chia-seed mix (or egg), and stir well, making sure there are no pockets of flour. Tip into prepared tin, leveling the top with a spoon, and bake in the center of the oven for 2 hours.


4. Remove the cake from the oven, poke holes all over with a skewer and pour over 2 tbsp of rum. Leave the cake to cool completely in the tin.

5. To store, peel off the baking parchment, then wrap well in cling film. Feed the cake with 1-2 tbsp (I'm going with 1 tbsp) of alcohol every fortnight (two weeks), until it's time to ice it. Don't feed the cake for the final week to give the cake a chance to dry out before icing.

I'm so happy with how this has gone so far. It's dark but not burnt. The smell while it baked was just intoxicating - family members came in from outside to see what I was up to! My cake is now sitting on the buffet in the dining room, inside a plastic pie-taker container. I just gave it its first repeat feeding on Sunday, one tablespoon of light rum. It's the cheapest rum in the world, but we have a lot of it so it's perfect for this job. I haven't decided yet how I will decorate my cake, but I'm considering trying my hand at fondant. That may be an optimistic plan, so I might stick with basic icing, but we'll see how ambitious I'm feeling when the time comes. I think it will be a festive holiday treat either way. Soon, I'll turn my attention to cookie-baking! Tis the season, very nearly.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Boo!



The jack o'lanterns are carved and the costumes are ready. I have three and a half pounds of candy. Halloween is here!

We carved our pumpkins on Sunday afternoon and photographed them after it got dark (sorry for the blurry children!). This year we have a dragon (by the Bear), a skull and crossbones (the LB), and a chicken (by the GB, in what I presume is a tribute to the late Caramel Hen). I don't normally carve my own pumpkin; I help out but mainly observe and clean up. We tried them with candles in the backyard just to see how they looked on Sunday evening, and we'll put them out front with candles tonight when it gets dark outside.

What is Halloween like where you are? Here, we go out trick-or-treating in costumes from about six to eight in the evening, collecting candy or little trinkets (pencils, glow sticks, etc.) at neighborhood houses. Most neighbors participate, but a few will leave the lights off or even hang a sign on the front of their house letting people know that they do not take part in Halloween. We used to have a neighbor who would serve hot dogs in his driveway for kids and parents alike; he moved to Seattle a couple of years ago. Many neighbors go all out with decorations. We have our spider lights on the front gate and we'll put our jack o'lanterns on the front walk for a spooky welcome.

I think Halloween has become a much nicer event than it was when I was a kid. People don't even do the same things anymore. I don't know if it's the times, or the place (I didn't grow up here), but it's different now. We had a lot of fun, don't get me wrong, but there was much more mayhem and a fair amount of destructive behavior - pumpkins smashed in the street, eggs thrown at houses and cars, toilet paper in the trees, all kinds of nasty stuff in mailboxes. In my neighborhood, there were police patrolling all night long, breaking up large groups of kids, questioning everyone and searching bags. The night before Halloween was much worse, actually, and we always knew it as Mischief Night. You don't see that kind of stuff now, though, which is really for the best. Halloween seems more wholesome now, at least where we are.

Tonight is supposed to be very cold. We had another storm come through last night, bringing rain to us and snow on the mountain. I'm just getting glimpses of it as the clouds begin to break up this morning. It's the first real snow of the season in the foothills. Tonight, we should have our first freeze. I'm a little nervous about the cold while trick-or-treating; this morning, the weather forecast said it will be the coldest Halloween night since 1991! Scaaaary. We'll just have to bundle up and move quick.

I hope you have a wonderful Halloween!

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Ripples and raindrops

Hello! How are you doing? I'm well, but what a week we've been having here. We had a big storm over Tuesday and Wednesday - related to Hurricane Willa, I think - which brought us an incredible amount of rain. We had something like two and half inches at our house, which is pretty major for a fall storm, and it was the best kind of storm we could hope for in our drought-stricken area. It rained lightly, sometimes moderately, for about 36 hours, which means that the rain really got a chance to soak in. I'm hopeful that the rest of this fall and winter will bring more good storms. Miss GB had a school field trip to a nature center in the mountains during the rain and came home soaked through and covered in mud, giving me lots of cleaning and laundry, but she had a wonderful time.

We also had an unfortunate hen loss this week; one of our younger three hens, Caramel, died on Wednesday. Poor Caramel. We don't know what happened, but we'll miss her. Now we're down to three hens and would you believe old Betty is still alive? Yes, our black and white hen, the Barred Rock from the original three we started with almost five years ago. She has slowed down a bit - and hasn't laid an egg in years - but she's still trucking along. She's one tough Betty.


I've been working on a new blanket, just trying to get this silly stash whittled down. I had so.much worsted acrylic yarn, collected over the past seven or eight years since I started crocheting seriously. I like to use this kind of yarn for most of my blankets because it's durable and washable, and I can get lots of colors. Once it's all gone (someday?) I will turn to my stash of DK acrylic yarns and probably make some blankets with that too. I can't believe all of this yarn. I don't even think it's a particularly large stash as these things go, but it's a lot for me, you know? I can usually be found trying desperately to get things OUT of my house (it's sort of a passion, especially lately), but the yarn supplies crept up on me. No worries, though, I can always find something to make. This time, it's an old standby, the Neat Ripple pattern from Attic 24, which I used around 2012 to make my first big blanket - we go way back. I've also make a smaller DK baby blanket; it's such a great, simple design. My friend Jo is making one too! Hers is so pretty; the colors remind me of Neapolitan ice cream.



Mine is more of a hodge-podge, but I'm having fun with it. The colors are all in family for my general tastes, and are leftovers from various blankets of the past. I have a lot of cream, dark brown, gray and black to use up, so those are getting more repeats than any other colors. I like the look of the cream here, since many of the colors are rather deep - I think it lifts this blanket out of looking somewhat gloomy and boring. I have never really used black in a blanket before, though, so that's been a new experience. I'm not even sure why I have black yarn, actually - but that's the joy of stashbusting, isn't it? You just never know what you'll find!


I love the easy, rhythmic pattern. I started with 216 (213+3) chains for my foundation row, using a J/10 hook (one size up from the I/9 hook I continued with, to help keep the foundation loose). It's about five feet wide and I'll crochet as long as the yarn holds out. It's meant to be a general-purpose couch blanket, good for TV, reading, lounging, napping (if only...). I've been crocheting over my yarn ends, a decision I may live to regret. It's easier, and I'm enjoying not having to do all that darning right now. Ask me again in a few months...or maybe don't.


I'm really enjoying this blanket. It's relaxing, and I'm not in any hurry to finish, so I'm just picking it up when I have a little time. I try to make a stripe every day. I'm not always successful, but some days I make two stripes, so it all works out. It's really nice to have a simple, soothing project on the go again.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Dwindle days











October is my favorite month, I think. Where I live, it's the month when the weather begins to turn most noticeably from warm to cool, with often stunning changes in the weather as well as the landscape. We've just come off a prolonged period of stormy weather that brought days of cool, wet and windy conditions, our first really cold nights and the first need for the furnace (mainly in early morning and in the evening). Some years, it takes a long time to finally cool off and feel like fall, but this October has felt more normal - clouds on the mountain, brisk winds, cold mornings and crisp days.

Around here, we've been busy with school projects and activities. We've done lots of yard work to prepare for winter and we're getting ready to have some flooring replaced inside the house. Wardrobe purging continues (we've both lost some weight recently), and this morning I cleaned the freezer and got rid of some old frozen foods we were never going to get around to eating. In my spare time, I'm crocheting, mostly. I started another blanket, a stashbuster to finally get me through to the bottom of my worsted acrylic hoard. I'm using Lucy's Neat Ripple pattern, a tried-and-true design that uses lots of yarn and makes a warm and visually-interesting blanket. I've been crocheting so much that I've barely had any time for reading lately, but I would like to change that. I think there's plenty of time for both, so I've put about fifteen books on my holds list at the library. That should keep me busy for a few months at least. I can read and ripple interchangeably.

My cooking has reverted to my favorite type of foods - soups, stews, baked goods and one-pan casseroles. I went looking recently for a healthy slow-cooker version of butternut squash soup and came across this one from Gimme Some Oven, which I can't recommend highly enough. It was fantastic, sweet and savory and a little spicy. I loved the addition of carrot and apple. Seriously, go make it. I also recently made Jamie Oliver's leek and potato soup, which we all loved; we ate every last drop of it. I'v been baking things like quick breads and apple crisp. I'm still enjoying my new Mark Bittman cookbooks and looking forward to borrowing Ina Garten's new one from the library.

Yesterday, I bought what I need to try again at making a traditional Christmas cake with dried fruit and nuts. I want so badly to get this one right. But I should probably stop talking so much about Christmas. First things first - Halloween is just around the corner. Pumpkins to buy, costumes to finish, jack o'lanterns to carve!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Balloon season


Hello! I've been so absent from my blog lately and I'm really glad to be back. It's just been a busy time with school, kids' activities and events, and some household projects going on in the middle of it all. Busy and happy, which is really good. And I am so incredibly, unbelievably glad that autumn is here! It feels like a gift, I'm just so happy.

I have lots more to say about my favorite season, but I wanted to share a little local flavor today. Our city just finished hosting its annual Balloon Fiesta, which is always a fun time. Though, to be fair, we don't actually go to the Fiesta proper. Instead, we go up to a city park on high ground to watch the balloons ascend in the morning, particularly during the event known as Shape Derby, which is when the "special shapes" balloons are highlighted. Unfortunately, this year's stormy weather prevented many of the shape balloons from flying on the designated day, so we didn't get to see very many, but I thought I'd show you a little bit of what we did that morning. We go up there every year for this event, which is held on the second-to-last day - the second Saturday - of the Fiesta period, and I've shown them to you before. Some years, it's an incredible experience, like the year we got to play balloon crew on the spur of the moment when a balloon landed right there in the park. Other times, like this year, it's more watching from afar as a selection of balloons goes aloft, but it's always interesting.


There's always a fair-sized crowd up there with us. We stand, or sit, on the hill and watch the balloons rise out of the valley, just a few miles away. There weren't many people around when we first arrived, as in this photo, but it filled in quickly. People were friendly and there were lots of people visiting from out of town, which is nice to see.


The weather wasn't great. The multi-day storm was in its early stages that morning, and the clouds were just starting to spread over the mountain. It made for great views, though! Look at the sun highlighting that strip of clouds as it rolled over the peak. I think this was the last day we actually saw any mountain; it's still mostly obscured three days later, at least in the view from my house.


Meanwhile, to the west, it was looking a little bit like nighttime after the sun came out over the mountain.


I goofed up and forgot to bring a zoom lens, but I've tried cropping to give you an idea. Just above the tree, toward the left, you can see the popular Darth Vader balloon. Over toward the right, there's what we think may have been a cow-shaped balloon, but we aren't sure. There weren't many other shapes up that day, but we did see the Bimbo Bread bear, Mr. Z the giant zebra's head, and the Kissing Bees. I'm sorry not to have better photos for you. Mr. Z is a particular favorite of ours; he belongs to a family we know from school.


There were all sorts of things going on up there. We watched this man on his apparently all-terrain unicycle. He was amazingly good! I've never tried a unicycle myself but it looks very hard. This guy was just rolling around, doing his own thing. I really loved watching him.


This lady was getting bored standing around to watch the balloons, so I took her down to the playground after a while. She needed to move. There were a lot of other kids down there and she had a good time. Eventually all the balloons had ascended and there wasn't much to see from the hill anymore, so the Bear and LB joined us. Then we drove home via the bagel store for a late breakfast. Not the best sights of Balloon Fiesta, but it's a nice family tradition and we were glad to keep it going for another year. Maybe next year, the weather will cooperate more.


I did have another interesting balloon-watching experience earlier in the week. I was at home by myself one morning when I heard a whoosh-whoosh-whoooooosh from outdoors, behind the house. I ran to the window and saw a balloon descending toward the mountain. It looked like it was following roughly along the arroyo behind our house; maybe the pilot was using it as a guide, I'm not really sure. By the time I had grabbed my camera and gone out to the backyard, the balloon had moved a bit north but was still descending. I'm assuming it landed in a large park up the arroyo. There's a big open field there where balloons have occasionally landed.


These brightly-colored balloons are my favorite kind. I know it's a grainy cropped photo, but I was so happy to be able to catch it before it disappeared behind my garden wall. I could just make out the pilot, his passenger and the flame with my naked eye as the balloon passed. It was fun to have a balloon go right by the house like this. I waved, but I don't think they saw me! I'm sure they landed safely just beyond my neighborhood. Another Balloon Fiesta in the books, and now it feels like autumn is officially here (the ongoing stormy weather certainly helps; umm...it currently sounds like my roof might be the next item going in the arroyo).

Friday, October 12, 2018

Paintbox Yarns Giveaway Winner!


Hello! I hope you're having a good week. We've been busy, busy, busy here with the kids on Fall Break from school and some home repair work going on, but I plan to be back here on my blog very soon. If the weather holds out, we'll be going up to look at the hot-air balloons tomorrow (we're in the midst of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta as we speak). In my spare time lately, I've been working on a stashbuster ripple; I'll show you my progress soon. I'm very excited because there's a possibility of snow for us later in the weekend, which is just stunning - last winter was so warm and dry it felt like we'd never have wintry weather again, and here we are this year, in mid-October, waiting on a storm that should bring very cold temperatures and maybe even a little snow. You just never know! I'm happy to be having a more normal autumn, though - it just feels right to me. We have the furnace all ready to go if we need it and I'm kind of looking forward to having it kick on some early morning in the near future. Today, we're working around the house and later, picking up the Bear's car from the dealership where he he took it for an oil change. Life has been busy and kind of boring too, but the good kind of both.

I'm announcing the winner of my Paintbox Yarns Simply DK yarn giveaway today! Thank you to all who entered the giveaway. There weren't very many entries, so your odds were really good! Thank you also for the kind words about my cushion cover that I made with this yarn; I enjoyed making it and having the chance to bring you an opportunity to try the yarn for yourself.

The winner of my giveaway is Lorraine of Mama's Mercantile! I've sent you an email, Lorraine, so please look for it in your inbox. A representative from Lovecrochet will contact you via email soon and you can arrange your prize with her. Congratulations!

Friday, September 28, 2018

Paintbox Yarns cushion + a giveaway!


 If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know that I am a serious fan of acrylic yarns. I use them for almost everything, but especially for items I crochet to use around the house. This includes blankets and decorative items. I find that the durability of acrylic yarns works really well for my household, allowing things to really get used in everyday life. I also like acrylic yarns for their affordability; my crafting budget is rather limited, but I love to crochet, so acrylic gives me the chance to make as many things as I want without spending a fortune. I love other fibers too, don't get me wrong, but I come back to acrylic yarns - particularly in worsted and double-knit weights - again and again for the kinds of projects I like to make.

I was delighted recently to be offered the opportunity to try out Paintbox Yarns Simply DK, sold on the LoveCrochet site. Are you familiar with LoveCrochet? You should be! LoveCrochet is a global hub for crocheters: a dedicated site where makers can find inspiration from our thousands of patterns, share projects and shop from the world's biggest stash of yarns. LoveCrochet's aim is to inspire everyone's inner maker, spread the joy of making and to make making a magical experience. Through their site, crocheters can connect with one another in forums, share their creations, download patterns and purchase yarns like those in the Paintbox line, along with brands like Debbie Bliss and MillaMia. They offer lots of free patterns and they regularly post tutorials and how to guides. When you shop with LoveCrochet, you'll get free delivery on all orders over $60 and 20% off orders over $100 with free returns on everything! For knitters, they have a sister website called LoveKnitting and an app for all your knitting needs. Knitters and crocheters alike will find lots of great resources and supplies on their sites.



Paintbox Yarns Simply DK comes in 60 beautiful and vibrant shades. LoveCrochet asked me to choose a pattern from their library to use with my yarns. I decided on the Daisy Cushion, a pretty granny-flower pattern designed to be made with Paintbox Simply DK. I opted to use Misty Grey for the main color, along with Blush Pink, Slate Green and Mustard Yellow for the flowers (I provided my own cushion insert and buttons to complete the project). My yarn arrived in a lovely organza drawstring bag. I got started as soon as possible and found that this yarn is very nice to work with - really soft and light, with very little splitting.




The front of the cushion calls for 25 flower squares. I made 13 pink and 12 green, all with yellow centers. I enjoyed making these little squares! The technique was new to me, and I thought the flowers looked very pretty with their pointy little petals. I did find the pattern just slightly confusing at times, however. It's written in both UK and US terms, which is good, but it took me a little getting used to. I always find myself getting confused between doubles and trebles! Some of the other language in the pattern took a bit of getting used to as well, but I think this may be a difference between UK English and US; nothing major, just slight wording differences, I guess you could say.

Once I'd made all 25 squares, I crocheted them together in strips of five squares with the colors alternated (the pattern suggests sewing the squares together, but I much prefer to crochet squares, so I did that instead). Then I crocheted the strips together to create a solid piece and got started on the cushion's back, which is just a big granny square, all in gray, with rounds joined in the corners (I was so glad to see they used this technique in the pattern, as it's my new favorite way to make a big square and it worked great here too). 



I also liked the construction aspect of the cushion, as in putting front and back together and adding closure. The cushion front and back are joined on three sides by a round of single crochet, leaving the fourth side open. Then the fourth side is worked almost in the round, by adding a button strip along the front and a solid edge on the back. The button strip is really simple but effective, made with four chain loops evenly spaced along the top edge. The buttons (I used simple varnished wooden ones) are sewn onto the back top edge and they're easily fastened into the button loops. Simple. 


My finished cushion! I'm really happy with it. I think the colors work well together and look nice in my living room. The cushion cover turned out just slightly large for my 18x18 pillow insert, which isn't ideal, but it's close enough and I don't think the size difference is very noticeable. I can only assume this happened because my crochet tension was a little loose. I don't mind, though. I think it's lovely just like this.


I love the back as well. It's just a simple granny square, basic and effective. You really can't go wrong with a simple cushion backing. I like it so much I would display it this way sometimes as well.


And I like the way my Daisy Cushion looks with the other pillows on the couch. It looks right at home! I'm really glad I chose this project and I absolutely loved working with Paintbox Yarns Simply DK. Thanks, LoveCrochet, for the opportunity to try it out and make something pretty for my home.

Daisy Cushion
Yarn: Paintbox Yarns Simply DK in Misty Grey, Slate Green, Blush Pink and Mustard Yellow
Hook: Clover Amour E/4 (3.50mm)
Pattern: Daisy Cushion by Paintbox Yarns, Lovecrochet.com
Size: just over 18 by 18 inches square
Other materials: 18 by 18 cushion insert, four buttons (1 1/4 inch), thread
Made: August-September 2018

****************

Would you like to try some of this yarn too? Scroll down for an exciting surprise!



LoveCrochet has generously offered to send one lucky reader TEN balls of Paintbox Yarns Simply DK in the colors of their choice! Aren't you so excited!? I know I am. I loved working with this yarn and I can't wait for you to try it for yourself. Then you could make this cushion cover too (twice!) and we can be cushion twins! Or make something else of your choice. No matter what you make, it will be gorgeous with all those colors to choose from.

Here's how the giveaway works...please read the following carefully.

To win my giveaway, you must leave a comment on this post (one entry per person). Your comment must include your intention to be entered in the giveaway (just say you wish to be entered). You also need to go to the Paintbox Yarns Simply DK product page, have a look around, and tell me at least one color that you really love from the product line in the SAME COMMENT. You can list as many as you want, of course!

I will draw the giveaway winner from the comments in two weeks, on October 12. I will then contact the winner via email (and subsequently announce the winner on my blog). The winner's email address will be forwarded to a LoveCrochet/LoveKnitting representative who will work with you to choose and send your ten balls of yarn. Your prize choice may depend on available stock. 

To enter (and win) my giveaway, you MUST provide a way to reach you via email. You will need to make sure I can email you through your Blogger profile, or provide your email address in your entry comment, or send me an email by clicking this link.  If you send me an email, you still have to leave a comment to enter the giveaway, okay? I just want to make it fair and fun for everybody. :)

This giveaway is open to readers in the US, UK and AUS/NZ.

Okay, go! Get that lovely Paintbox Yarns Simply DK for yourself!
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