Monday, September 18, 2017

Riding the Tram













Two weeks ago, as part of the GB's birthday celebration, we all took a ride on the Sandia Peak Tramway. The Tramway, or "Tram," as we call it here, is a popular attraction. People take the Tram to ski the Peak in winter, or to hike in warmer weather. We hadn't been on the Tram in a few years and we decided it was time for another trip. Our Tram is pretty amazing, actually, a true engineering marvel. There are two tram cars, each able to carry 50 people. Riders are carried nearly 3 miles along the cables, ascending nearly 4,000 feet to the Sandia Peak - at 10,378 feet. From the Peak, you can see the entire Rio Grande Valley and beyond, to points all over the state of New Mexico. The panoramic views encompass about 11,000 square miles. You also get a sweeping view of the entire city of Albuquerque. We always try to look for our neighborhood, but it isn't easy to find with the naked eye. Binoculars help - at least you can find the major thoroughfares.

If you'd like to read more about the history and technology behind our Tramway, take a look here.

The day we rode the Tram, there was a lot of smoke in the air from the fires in Oregon; the smoke made our air quality quite poor, as you can see in my photos. Of course, the smoke was nowhere near as serious as the fires, and people in the Northwest were on our minds for days while the smoke lingered down here. It was very hot too, even up at the Peak, and the sun beat down. We didn't spend all that long at the Peak because it was SO very crowded, and so hot, but it was fun to look through the little lens-less "telescopes" that direct your eye to about a dozen different points of interest along the horizon and closer in, near the city, without actually bringing them closer. It's one of my favorite parts of visiting the Peak, actually. There's a lot to see around here, and so much of it is very, very old. It's easy to think of the Western US as being "new," but this is actually one of the longest-inhabited places on the continent.

Taking my children up the Tram reminds me that this place will be their childhood home, the place they will remember when they are grown. They're from here. Maybe more importantly, they will be from here, later on, whether they stay or leave. They'll recall a place that is old and new at the same time, quirky much of the time, maligned some of the time, praised a lot more often than some people realize. A place that is beautiful and harsh, crowded and sprawling, roasting hot and freezing cold, stormy and still, brown and blue.

(If you're local and you're reading this, please, please make the time to vote in the Mayoral election. I almost never say anything political here, but I'm making an exception this time - please vote). 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Hint of autumn


Hello! Can you believe it's already mid-September? I can't! The summer went by fairly quickly, considering all that school vacation we had, and September has been flying by rather fast as well. We're finally starting to cool down a little bit here. I'm enjoying that very much. You know me, all about the fall weather. Life lately has been busy and a bit more hectic at times than I'd really like, but I like staying busy too. We attended a block party, which was lots of fun. We're in the thick of some large school projects and the GB is back to ballet and guitar lessons (the LB's guitar lessons went all summer). I've been dealing, frustratingly, with the medical profession again, trying to settle some medicine and insurance issues for the LB. Nothing new there, though, and it's all fine, just a hassle. Meanwhile, I've been keeping up with my plans to walk more often; I'm going to the nearby city park in early morning, when it's nice and cool, and taking a good, long walk on the paved path. I feel better for it physically and mentally. I'm glad to be taking some time out for me. I'm feeling good because of the season change too. The onset of fall always puts a spring in my step! Some fallish things I've been up to...



🍁 I've been making soups again, usually on Mondays. We're longtime observers of Meatless Monday, and I try to make interesting veggie-based soups on many Mondays. They're good for dinner, and we get enough leftovers for the some of the Bear's lunches during the week. I use recipes a lot, but sometimes I just throw things together. This was a throw-together one that came out really well. I sauteed onion, carrot, celery and garlic in olive oil. Then I added eight cups of chicken broth, a can of cannellini beans (drained and rinsed), a can of diced tomatoes, black pepper and dried basil. I let everything simmer for about 30 minutes, til the veggies were tender. Then I brought the soup to a boil and added a bag of frozen tri-color cheese tortellini, cooking for a few minutes. Right before serving, I added about a cup of chopped frozen spinach and a little salt. Delicious and easy!


🍁 I bought a fall candle for the kitchen and have enjoyed burning it a couple of times so far. The scent is Pumpkin Nutmeg Pie. Some food-y candles smell pretty terrible to me, too artificial, but this one is really nice. It's just a cheap one from the grocery store, nothing fancy, but I like it. 



🍁 The light is changing so quickly now. I like to go outside while dinner is cooking just to see the shadows lengthen in the backyard. It's getting dark well before 8:00 now. I feel like the changes all come on so quickly now, the same way they do in the early spring.


🍁 I've been blessed with more homegrown fruit, tiny white-fleshed peaches this time. They came from my next-door neighbor's backyard. He has a tree that hangs over the the wall onto the arroyo behind our street. He said we could have the fruit on that side of the tree (he's not very spry and can't go over the wall himself). I considered making jam with these peaches, but in the end, we're just eating them fresh. They're not very flavorful, but they are juicy, and hey, free fruit.


🍁 Right now, I'm reading The Radium Girls by Kate Moore. It's fantastic. Have you heard about it? It's a non-fiction book about young women who were poisoned with radium, a radioactive element, while working in watch factories in the era around World War I. They used radium to paint the numbers on the watch faces. Most of them used their lips to make their brushes pointy for finer painted lines. Many of them eventually became very ill or died from the radium they ingested. It's a sad but very interesting story. I first read about these women in the excellent book The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum and was very intrigued by their story. Highly recommended if you enjoy books about science and history!


🍁 Lastly, I just have to boast a tiny bit about my Maybelle blanket project. I have just five squares left to crochet! I can't believe I've made it this far. Maybelle has been about eighteen months in the making - most of which was spent dithering about what kind of blanket to make. I am hoping to finish crocheting the squares this weekend-ish, and start joining them next week. I am so.excited.to.be.this.far. So excited!

Thanks for your comments lately, and hello to new readers out there. Thanks for stopping by. I hope you have a great weekend! We'll be doing the usual things - housework, yardwork, chauffeuring of children - but tomorrow is Private Friday and I'm very happy about that.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Homemade Funfetti cake


Thank you for the birthday wishes for Miss GB! For her birthday, I tried my hand at a homemade layer cake. It was the first cake I'd ever made completely from scratch and I was nervous, but it turned out to be really fun! I even made buttercream frosting. The cake layers were a bit difficult for me, but I learned a lot and I think it worked out okay in the end. The recipe is a take on the Pillsbury cake-mix favorite, Funfetti Cake, which was very popular at birthday parties when I was a kid. You can still buy this cake mix, and the frosting to go with it, but these days, professional bakers are creating confetti, or Funfetti, cakes in the swankiest bakeries. In looking for interesting cake recipes, homemade Funfetti-style cakes show up everywhere. The GB helped with my search; once she set eyes on the Funfetti cakes, she had to have one.

What is a Funfetti cake? It's a basic white layer cake with rainbow-colored candy sprinkles in the batter, decorated with vanilla buttercream frosting and lots more sprinkles on the outside. I followed a recipe from Cook's Country (America's Test Kitchen's magazine), called Confetti Layer Cake. I enjoy baking cookies, quick breads and pies, but I'd always thought homemade cake seemed a bit intimidating. For my first attempt at a homemade layer cake, this was a really straightforward recipe. It was also my first time using cake flour, which took some getting used to. But, to my surprise, baking a homemade cake wasn't so hard at all. The cake was delicious and I would definitely make it again (possibly soon, for the LB's birthday, but I'm still waiting on word from him).

Confetti Layer Cake (adapted from Cook's Country, April/May 2014)

3/4 cup rainbow sprinkles
6 large egg whites, room temperature
2/3 cup whole milk, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups (12 ounces) cake flour
1 1/2 cups (10 1/2 ounces) sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces and softened

For the frosting:
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 32 pieces and softened
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cups (1 pound) confectioners' sugar

For the cake: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray two 9-inch round baking pans with nonstick cooking spray. Line bottoms of pan with parchment and spray parchment. In the bowl of a food processor pulse 1/2 cup sprinkles until coarsely ground, 8 to 10 pulses; set aside. Whisk together egg whites, milk, and vanilla in bowl; set aside.

Using stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt on low speed, about 30 seconds. With stand mixer running, add butter, 1 piece at a time, until combined and mixture resembles moist crumbs. Add all but 1/2 cup egg mixture and mix until just combined. Increase speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Slowly add remaining 1/2 cup egg mixture. Scrape down bowl and beat on medium-high speed until well combined, about 15 seconds. Stir in ground sprinkles.

Pour into prepared pans and smooth tops with rubber spatula and bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 21 to 25 minutes. Cool cakes in pans 10 minutes then turn out onto rack to cool cakes to room temperature, discarding parchment, about 2 hours. Once cool, use a long, serrated knife to level the cakes and cut off any dome or excess off your cake.

To make the frosting, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with whisk, whip butter, cream, vanilla, and salt on medium-low speed until combined.

Slowly add sugar and continue to mix until smooth, about 2 minutes. Increase speed to medium-high and whip frosting until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.

To assemble, spread 1 1/2 cups frosting on one cake layer. Top with second cake layer and spread top and sides of cake with remaining frosting. Press remaining sprinkles around bottom edge of cake and outer edge of the top of the cake. Store at room temperature for up to 3 days or up to 1 week in refrigerator. Always bring refrigerated cakes to room temperature before serving.


A little secret: my absolute favorite part of making this cake? Grinding up the sprinkles for the cake batter in my mini-chopper. I really enjoyed this and I'm not even sure why! But look at those pretty colors (I used Betty Crocker brand). They got a little dusty in the grinding but it didn't matter at all once they were in the batter.



I think the purpose of the sprinkle-grinding is to keep them confetti-like as the cakes bake. I'm not sure, but I suspect that full-size sprinkles would look splotchier. I used eggs from our hens, so I upped the egg whites from six to seven, since our hens' eggs are somewhat small. I did make a mistake with the cakes, and that was to open the oven to check on them as they baked. Both of my cakes were a bit sunken in the centers, and I think this was why. I was just so excited to see what happened. Next time, I will sit on my hands - or at least use the oven light and look at them through the window instead.


It was evening and quite dark in my kitchen by the time I made the frosting, put it on the cake and added decorative sprinkles, so my photos of that process aren't very good. But here's the cake the next day - Miss GB's birthday - just before I served it. Making the frosting was easy-peasy - just put everything in the stand mixer-bowl and whip. I used off-set spatulas in two sizes to spread the frosting on the cake. It's not perfect, but I think it looks okay. Decorating with sprinkles was fun; I used a small off-set spatula to press them into the sides of the cake at the bottom, and just sprinkled by hand along the top edge.


Ta-da! It's so pretty inside. Disappointingly, my cakes sank even more in the middle, from the weight of the frosting, I think. But I was happy with the cakes' texture and flavor. The frosting was really good too, sweet and rich but not cloying like prepared frosting can be. It all tasted better at room temperature, just like the recipe suggested; the vanilla flavoring really blossomed. Miss GB was very pleased with her birthday cake, which made me very happy. I loved doing this for her. I learned a lot in the process! I can use the basic cake and frosting recipes again and again, not just for Funfetti-style cakes. I'm so glad I tried baking a birthday cake from scratch. I feel like cake-baking is almost in my arsenal now! This cake is fun and festive, and you really can't go wrong with sprinkles.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Nine




Yesterday, our Girl Bear turned nine. We had a lovely evening celebration at home, with cake and presents. We had already gone out for her birthday dinner on Monday night, at Red Robin (her choice, just like the last three or four years). I baked her cake over a couple of days. It was my first from-scratch birthday cake and it wasn't the easiest thing I've ever done, but I'm pretty proud of how it came out. She loved her cake and I felt wonderful about making it for her. I'll tell you more about it soon. We had a nice time watching her open her gifts. It was an eclectic selection of things befitting a little girl with varied tastes and talents. I love watching people - especially children - open their gifts almost as much as I love opening my own.

We are so proud of our daughter. She is becoming a lovely young lady. She's great company and she always has something interesting to share. We love watching her grow and change. Nine feels, to me, like the time when they go from little kid to big kid. I know they call them the "tween" years, this space between childhood and adolescence, but I don't see anything "between" about it - my daughter at nine seems to know exactly who she is and what matters to her. She works hard and plays hard, is always ready to try new things, doesn't back down from a challenge. It's amazing to watch her move from strength to strength - dance to math to music to computers to art. Our girl at nine is delightful, sweet and smart. We're so excited to see what nine brings.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

A Friday


Now that we're back in our school-year routines, I thought it was time for a new photo diary post. I took some photos of our doings on Friday, September 1, which was a "private Friday" for me and the Bear. Nothing terribly exciting happened, but that's not really the point. Just another regular day in the life.


8:15 - after taking the small Bears to school, we go to the Range Cafe for breakfast. I had a buttermilk biscuit and coffee. The Bear had an omelet. We read the paper, people-watch and talk about anything but politics.


9:30 - we usually spend the morning out doing things together, but the Bear has some work to do, so we go home for a change. This is fine with me; I spend a couple of hours crocheting and watching Escape to the Country, which is so good! Thanks, blogging pals, for the suggestion.


12:30 - we eat lunch and then go to pick up the children at school. We sometimes go to the park across the street to play on Fridays after school, but it's very hot and nobody feels like playing, so we head home.



1:00 - when we get home, I get the idea that I might do some pruning, but seriously, it's way too hot. I go back to crocheting instead.



Midafternoon - we're all doing something. I crocheted, cleaned a little, did some laundry and read a magazine. The GB, with help from Daddy, made some squashes and pumpkins with Sculpey clay.


The (very sweaty) LB stayed outside in the backyard, working on the computer. He recently became interested in something called Software Defined Radio (you can read about it here). He has some help from the Bear, but he's mostly teaching himself how to do all of it. In basic terms - by using various software components, he can receive signals from passing satellites and translate them to visual images. His software lets him generate a schedule for satellites passing over the area. Then he captures images from the satellites on his computer and processes them to make them easier to see. This boy is amazing.


5:30 - I take Miss GB (far right) to her first ballet class of the new school year. She is now in her sixth year of ballet. Her new teacher is very strict. I think she'll learn a lot. She was happy to see her dance friends again; everyone goes to different schools. I was glad to see their moms too.


6:45 - the GB and I arrive home for dinner, prepared by the Bear and LB while we were at ballet. They made lasagna and salad. It was really good and so nice to come home to dinner. Friday evening ballet class is a new thing for us, so dinner will be later than usual, but she's moving along in ballet and we'll make it work. After dinner, it was time to start the evening routines and they were in bed by 8:30. The Bear and I watched Midsomer Murders and ate our stove popcorn. It was a good day!


I'll leave you with this satellite photo the LB received on Saturday with his software radio system. This photo was taken by one of three satellites that passed over the area, transmitting this image from space as it went by. He processed the image and added color (it transmits in gray-scale and pretty low quality), using a tool on the computer. You can see our location marked with the yellow + sign. The white area is Tropical Storm Lidia passing over Baja California in Mexico. How cool is that? I completely adore having stuff like this in my life.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Party at Maybelle's


Five and a half months on, Maybelle is still in progress. I'm getting very close to being finished now, though, with just 28 squares left to make. I'm still enjoying the work - these squares are easy and fun to crochet - but I have to admit that I'm starting to get a little antsy. I want to be joining them and watching the blanket take shape. But as I keep reminding myself, I'm almost there, it won't be long now. Maybelle will be a blanket before I know it. (Maybelle is made with this pattern from the blog My Rose Valley).


I think this angle gives a good idea of the sheer quantity of squares. There will be 169 when they're all finished. I've made more than that for a blanket before, but they were smaller, and faster to make. I've been bundling the squares when I've finished with each center color. This has really helped me keep track of everything as I've worked. I'll do this again with the next blanket that has individual motifs. I've come to appreciate this kind of blanket more lately. I generally prefer stripes, for the soothing back-and-forth crochet. I still love that, but I'm realizing that the instant/delayed gratification of individual squares is not to be underestimated. Me working: there, I made a square...45 minutes later...there, I made another one.


I like all of my nine center colors (all my yarns are Stylecraft Special DK), but I think the squares made with Parma Violet are still my favorite. I like the softness of this color. Sometimes I think my color aesthetic is sort of stuck in the early to mid 90's, when I was a teenager and really started noticing such things. I loved the lived-in, casual, semi-preppy look - washed-out jeans, rugby tops, button-down Oxford shirts, cotton sweaters. I often bought boys' or men's clothes because they were even more worn and faded-looking. Everything I wore was blue, teal or purple. Those have always been my favorite colors. Looking at this blanket, as well as the past few I've made, I see now that those will always be my colors. Even now, it's almost everything I wear too. I'm happy with it - to be frank, I'm kind of old, soft and faded myself.

I'm so excited to have this blanket on our bed. For one thing, it's cold back there in the winter, our bedroom being at the northwest corner of the house, with little sun exposure and plenty of wind. But also, I can't wait for the colors and the visual interest. Our room is boring. That's deliberate - we both feel more relaxed in a very neat, lightly-decorated bedroom - but I think this blanket will go a long way toward making the room a little more interesting. I still might want to replace the duvet cover and pillow shams; I'm leaning toward plain off-white, just crisp and bright. Right now, we have a small floral pattern. I had told myself that when I finally finished an afghan for the bed, I'd treat myself to a new duvet set, but now I think I'll wait and see how my blanket looks with the current one, which I really like and is still decent. Decorating is fun to think about, not to mention all the online cart-filling-up (the online cart-deletion is decidedly less fun).


Grape and Petrol are numbers eight and nine. I'm halfway through my Grape squares, and after that, it's just Petrol left. Then it's a-joining I will go. I'm still thinking JAYG, because I like the lacy look. And would you believe that I'm already thinking seriously about my next blanket. I know...cart before horse and all that. But I have a good-sized stash of worsted-weight I Love This Yarn that I need to pare down. I'm thinking about large solid-colored grannies joined in cream. I really thought I'd want to run back to the comfort of stripes after making squares all these months, but I'm feeling the love for squares now, thanks to Maybelle.

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I'm starting to think about my Winter Project Link Party for 2017-18. I hope you'll want to join in! You can read more about my link party by clicking on the photo in my sidebar. The first party will be in early October. I'll be partying with Maybelle, at least at first. Thanks for your consideration!

Friday, August 25, 2017

When life gives you peaches...


This year, the local apple crop has been pretty poor; I have only a few apples on my own tree and they're small and shriveled. There were very few blossoms in the spring. Few blossoms equals few apples. It seems like this happens every other year, based on my experience as an apple tree-owner. In the good years, there are more apples than I can use. I frantically peel, cook and mash apples for fruit leather and applesauce. I make pies and crisps. We eat apples in hand all day long. One year, I tried making apple jelly, which was pretty to look at but completely terrible to eat (it was syrupy, like honey, and tasted just like rotting apples...mmm).

I'm disappointed not to have more apples, but there's always next year. In the meantime, a neighbor who often gives us some of his apples (which are way better than ours, especially for straight eating), gave us peaches from his backyard instead (his apples haven't done well this year either). He has one large tree, which he started from a seed, and his are the nicest homegrown peaches I've ever seen. Not perfect - he doesn't use any chemicals - but very good, and even nicer for the neighborly gesture. We ate some of his peaches as is, which was lovely, but I also decided to try out a recipe for peach ice cream that I'd recently come across. I've been wanting to make peach ice cream all summer, but the peaches in the store this year were pretty blah. The homegrown ones were just right.

I found a really interesting recipe on a blog called Stephie Cooks (click the link to have a look). The blogger, Stephie, calls this The Best Peach Ice Cream. I was intrigued. I've had homemade peach ice cream before (not made by me), and found it to be somewhat bland. Mostly, I tasted the cream and vanilla flavoring in it, but there wasn't much peach flavor to me. Sometimes fruit ice creams can be very bland because the fat takes over. You need stronger flavors in the fruit, particularly more acidity. I thought Stephie's technique of macerating the peaches in sugars and lemon juice seemed like a great idea because it would really bring out the peach juices, making a stronger flavor in the ice cream. This ice cream contains some surprising ingredients, including the juice of a whole lemon, brown sugar, vanilla extract and a tiny bit of almond extract.

(Stephie got the recipe from her friend; I'll refrain from reprinting it here because I don't have their permission to do so, but please have a look at the link if you're interested in making some incredible peach ice cream yourself).


I sliced the peaches thinly, and mixed them with the sugars, lemon juice and flavoring extracts in a large bowl, leaving it all to sit for 15 minutes. By the time I came back, the peaches were soft and there was a lot of juice in the bowl. I could smell the change as much as I could see it - the peach scent had intensified greatly.


The peach mixture goes into a food processor next, to be pulsed until it's a chunky semi-liquid. I don't have a food processor, so I used my Osterizer blender, which worked fine.


I poured the fruit mixture back into the same bowl I'd macerated the peaches in (after rinsing it out), because it has a tight-fitting lid, and stirred in the heavy cream. Then I put the lid on and stuck the bowl in the fridge overnight. The next day, it was thick and creamy, almost like pudding. We processed it in our electric ice cream maker and froze it in plastic containers for about four hours before serving.


The ice cream was smooth and creamy, with lots of little bits of peach in it. I loved the texture; it wasn't icy at all (something I'm always trying to troubleshoot with my homemade ice creams). The flavor was so interesting, not what I was expecting. The brown sugar and lemon gave a slight tartness, almost a back-of-the-throat sensation of acidity, while the almond extract heightened the peachy flavors without really being noticeable as almond - it wasn't like eating marzipan, in other words. It was like a deep-rooted peachiness that you could smell and taste. Peaches and almonds are closely related botanically, so it was a really good idea to combine both in this ice cream. It isn't health food, to be certain, but the whole effect is of fresh, bright fruit and mellow cream, light and clean. We enjoyed this delicious and surprising ice cream very much, and we'll make this recipe again for sure.


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