Monday, January 23, 2017

Goodbye, Penny

This weekend, we said goodbye to one of our hens, Penny the Rhode Island Red. The LB went outside to feed the hens as usual and found that Penny was dead inside the "apartment" section of the coop. We realized that we hadn't actually seen her in the run part since the day before, when both hens went back into the apartment to flee a very sudden sleet-and-snow shower. Betty came out when the weather cleared, but we didn't see Penny again. Probably, she died later that day. We don't know what happened, but she had been less energetic lately. She didn't seem sick, exactly, just slower, which has been the case for both hens as their third birthday approaches. It's hard to watch them age. We all love animals and have always treated the hens as productive family pets.

I feel badly for the LB. I know the hens are very important to him. We're talking about Penny a lot and he's sad but I know he'll be okay. I've written before about the changes I've seen in the LB since we've had the hens; he took on almost all of the responsibility for their care and always made time to play with them. He has also been very careful and watchful of them when they free-range in the yard; hawks, coyotes and cats are potential threats. I think caring for the hens has made him more empathetic, in addition to the maturity and responsibility he gained. As I went through photos looking for good ones of Penny, I noticed that he's in most of them, holding Penny in his arms. Penny was much more skittish than Betty, less willing to be handled. She was difficult to photograph, always running away and hiding under bushes. She was smaller and faster than Betty, who can usually be found roosting calmly somewhere. Penny was wiry and noisy, but probably smarter than her amiable lump of a sister. She'd fly, indignantly squawking, out of everyone's arms but the LB's.

We're thinking about getting some new chicks in a few weeks, when the feed stores have them available. I'd like to get three; Betty will round out the foursome for as long as we can hang on to her. Three new girls will be a good number for us. I'm going to try to get a sex-linked breed this time, to avoid what happened with our first threesome, which became the twosome of Betty and Penny when big, scary Ginger turned out not to be a girl after all. I'm looking forward to new babies. Soon, my kitchen will be filled with the sound of peeping chicks again! I really loved having them in the house with me, even if they did kick over their water dish approximately eight times a day, and even if they did poop on the floor. I have a mop, it will be okay babies!

Goodbye, Penny. We loved you very much and we will always remember our first little red hen.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Fika and fyriskaka

Last week at the library, I came across a really nice little cookbook called Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, by Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall. Both authors are Swedish-Americans; Brones is a writer and Kindvall an illustrator. Are you familiar with the concept of fika? I had heard of it before reading this book, but didn't know much about it. I learned a lot about fika from the book, which discusses the history of the Swedish coffee break, starting with their love of coffee. Did you know that Swedes drink more coffee than anyone else in the world? The book was fascinating; I read it cover to cover as soon as I got it home. It's much more than just a cookbook; it's full of cultural insight, stories and history too.

The word "fika" itself derives from the Swedish word for coffee, kaffe; someone inverted the syllables and created the slang word "faka," which eventually became "fika" (as a language nerd, I really enjoyed learning this). Fika is an important part of life in Sweden, a special part of the day when you sit down and relax with coffee or tea as well as baked goods. Many people observe fika twice a day! Swedes build fika time into their workday, and they also take fika on the go with them, packing thermoses of hot drinks and wrapped baked goods in their travel bags. The baked goods may be sweet or savory: cakes, cookies, scones and breads can all be found at fika time.

The book is filled with simple drawings like this one, depicting a cordial beverage and bullar (buns). Every recipe has a lovely bit of artwork to accompany it. There are also drawings of people sharing fika together, friends and coworkers taking a break from everything for a little while.

I also loved this illustration, which appears on pages separating each section of the book. I really enjoy kitchenware design (you may recall that time I stitched a whole sampler featuring nothing but!), and this simple kind of line drawing is so effective. I'd like a little bit of wallpaper like this, just one wall, maybe. Very eye-catching. The chapters in the book include: the history of Swedish coffee, modern-day fika, the outdoor season (which includes recipes for cordial drinks and jam), holiday celebrations (fancier cakes and cookies), and breads/sandwiches/fika as a lighter snack.

I was drawn to many of the recipes in the book, wanting to try almost everything. Swedish baking uses basic ingredients like butter and eggs, with spices, seeds, dried fruit and nuts for flavor. Caraway seeds, cinnamon and cardamom figure often. I decided to try a recipe called fyriskaka, or apple cake, first. Fyriskaka can be made with other fruits too (click here for a recipe on Johanna Kindvall's website for pear fyriskaka; it's the same recipe which appears in the book, only substituting pears for apples. You can also see more of Johanna's lovely illustrations on her site).

The recipe calls for cardamom, which I needed to prepare. We keep whole cardamom pods on hand for Indian cooking, usually using the pods whole and removing them before serving the dish. I needed the seeds on the inside for the cake recipe, so I opened the pods by crushing them with the back of a heavy knife, removing the tiny seeds inside and then grinding them finely (we have a dedicated Krups coffee grinder just for spices).

The recipe is simple. You melt butter and stir in the ground cardamom. While the butter cools, you peel and slice a few apples, then toss the apples in a mixture of cinnamon and brown sugar. For the batter, you mix the melted butter with sugar, eggs, flour and baking powder. The batter is spread in a springform pan with the apple slices arranged on top, and into the oven it goes. I ended up adding about 15 minutes to the recipe's suggested bake time because my cake was still wet in the center at the end of the recipe time.

It was baked nicely after the extra time, but did not rise much. I think it's meant to be a bit more like a tart. That's what mine was like, anyway. It was very tasty. The apples were perfectly spiced and still juicy, while the cake was a bit dense and soft in the center with crisp edges. I think the cardamom was a bit overpowering, though. It may be due to my using freshly-ground seeds, as opposed to pre-ground ones, but I think I would use about half the suggested amount next time. Freshly-ground cardamom can be potent.

In true fika spirit, the Bear and I had our fyriskaka with coffee, which mellowed the cardamom flavor some, so maybe it's meant to be strong, to go with the strong flavors of coffee. Either way, this was a nice recipe to make. I'm really glad I found the book in the library; I'm even considering buying a copy for my cookbook collection, which is saying a lot because I like to keep it rather spare. But the recipes are so interesting and the book itself so attractive, I think it would be a nice one to own eventually. I have a few other recipes in mind to try soon. I'll let you know how I get on. In the meantime, if you like Scandinavian culture, definitely give Fika a try; it's a great combination of history, style and everyday life.

Monday, January 16, 2017

When the rain came

Hello! Thank you for joining in with my link party, and thank you for the interesting comments about our most recent hawk sighting. I enjoy seeing them in the yard, though it's true that they are a little scary to have around. We've seen another one since I shared that post; this one was patrolling the garden wall on the eastern border of our backyard. It's a good spot for a hawk because he can see two yards at once - double the chances for a tasty rodent snack. We've seen plenty of those being spirited away lately too.

This weekend was stormy and we stayed inside for most of it. I do so love my stormy days, especially in cold weather. This one was mostly rain, though I think there may have been a little sleet last night when the temperature fell. We had three-quarters of an inch of rain, which is pretty impressive for us. There was a fair amount of schoolwork to do and we all found plenty of other things to keep busy with. The LB is working on a science presentation about types of interactions, including electrostatic ones, so we did a lot of things with balloons.

I crocheted - I'm working on a birthday present - and caught up with my magazines, which have been piling up since before the holidays, when I stopped having enough time to read them as they came in. On Saturday, we watched War Games, an old favorite of the Bear's, which held the LB in thrall for its entirety. My little hacker. Yesterday afternoon, we built a fire. I'd been doing laundry all day and was so glad to sit down with a book. I roasted a chicken for dinner, which we ate by candlelight (and a little extra light from the dimmed light fixture over the table). I have a lot of candles, I realized while cleaning up after Christmas, and I've decided to use them more often. It's less about ambience than it is about de-cluttering, but don't tell my family.

I bought myself a tiny ivy plant last week, which is now sitting on a small table the Bear built and gifted to me for Mother's Day last year. I had an amaryllis on this table until recently, hoping against hope that it would bloom for a second year. I'd stored it according to directions I read on a gardening website, taking it out in early November to start growing again. It sent up two beautiful, healthy leaves but no bud ever came. I waited and waited and finally gave up. I'm not really a houseplant person (I love them but I'm no good at keeping them alive). I really craved some green in the living room, though, so I went to Lowe's and checked out their little display of easy-care plants. The ivies were my favorite. I chose mine because of its variegated leaves. It's early yet, but it looks good so far.

I hope you have a good week ahead. Mine will be busy, but I'm very much looking forward to Friday because it will be our first Private Friday in six weeks! We missed one the week before last due to a snow day. We have plans for breakfast and possible paint shopping (we need to do some exterior, yesterday). Nothing too exciting, but I can't wait. I'm all about finding things to look forward to at this time of year. Besides Private Friday, I'm looking forward to: watching the next episode of Victoria (I really like it so far), more stormy weather in the forecast, more crochet (I have a bunch of small projects in mind), new bedding for the small Bears (I love having new linens in the house even if they aren't for me) and maybe a new tablecloth for the kitchen soon.

How about you? What are you looking forward to right now?

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Hawk watch

On Sunday afternoon, we noticed a familiar shape in the pyracantha hedge along our backyard wall. It was a Cooper's hawk, one of the many we've seen lately in our backyard and around the neighborhood. I've written about the hawks before, as recently as last week, and more extensively a few months ago. These hawks are everywhere and their population is growing quickly. Apparently, every city park has a mating pair now, and as the lizard and rodent population grows, so does the hawk population.

I have a theory about the hawks and why they come to us. Our property backs up to an arroyo - a large concrete drainage canal, part of a vast city-wide network of them built to channel water downhill toward the Rio Grande, which runs through the center of the city. The arroyo creates a large open space behind our street. It's like having a whole city street removed, so it's quiet and it helps the mountain view too. It's wide open, with lots of low scrub plants and brush, which must make for good hunting and eating.

All of the hawks are alert and watchful, but this one seemed particularly crafty - he perched in the hedge directly beneath our wild bird feeder. I have to think this was deliberate. All the small birds flew away immediately upon his entrance, as they always do, and they stayed away, until long after he was gone. He must have sat there for fifteen minutes, just watching and waiting. We watched right back, from inside the house, and the Bear took these photos while we stared each other down. I think the hawks are getting more brazen lately - strength in numbers, maybe.

We're having more small birds visit lately too, since we got this squirrel-proof feeder over the summer. We've had many interesting birds this winter - finches, a curved-bill thrasher, lots of scrub jays, black-eyed juncos and flickers, all lovely colors and sweet song. But those hawks - they don't seem to rest. They watch and wait. They turn a sharp eye on anything that moves. They glide in and out like they own the place. They'd just as soon eat a hen as they would a mouse, so we're very careful. I hope they keep coming, though; I'm fascinated and a little unnerved as I watch them work, a few minutes of urban-woodland drama through the kitchen window.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Winter Project Link Party

Welcome to January's Winter Project Link Party. I hope you'll join me in sharing any and all craft projects that you're working on this winter. I also hope you're feeling more excited about crafting that I have felt lately. It's tough; after almost a year in crochet limbo, I'm still feeling a bit noncommittal about new projects. I want to start another big blanket, but I'm having trouble mustering the enthusiasm to stick with anything for very long. Ultimately, I'd like to crochet a large blanket for our bed, using soft, pleasing colors that will brighten up our sunless bedroom. I've shared numerous attempts over the past year, but I'm not really feeling any of them beyond making the first few motifs. I've tried flowery squares and hexagons. I still like the hexagons best, but they're not really singing out anymore either. I don't know; I hate to think that my blanket days are done, but maybe I've made enough blankets for a while. This possibility has been creeping in for about a year now.

I've been feeling a surprising amount of stress about this blanket, actually. It's silly. But I miss having a big project to work on, and of course the act of crocheting will always be important to my mental and emotional health. I don't want to stop trying, but maybe I need to let the creation happen more organically, without so much planning and rigor, and certainly without so much anxiety. I finally decided over the holidays to stop thinking so much and just start crocheting something. I gathered all of the colors I'd been using for my hexes (I have tons more skeins of those colors, so I can always go back to the hexes another time if I want to), adding some others in warmer tones - deep orange, gold, lime green - and just started making some eight-round granny squares, just your basic, old-fashioned 3dc clusters with 2ch corners. I like my grannies to have larger blocks in the centers, so I always do the first two rounds in the same color, just a personal preference.

It has been satisfying. I need something to work on that I can put down and come back to. I'm joining the squares as I go, just because it's a simple way to see quick progress, which I find that I need to keep me going right now. I don't always need it, and in fact have eschewed it in the past because it seemed a little too much like cheating, but for the moment, I'm enjoying it. I don't know that this will be my BIG blanket, though I do think it could make for an interesting bed cover. Maybe I'll stop when it's throw-sized and put it in the living room; I have two crocheted throws in there that are 4-5 years old and beginning to show their age. We'll see. For now, I'm just grannying.


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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Butterflies and beads

Bountiful, beautiful beaded butterflies! This is the decoration I made for the GB's room, given to her for Christmas and now hanging from the ceiling over her bed. I had a lot of fun making it and she loves it, which is even better.

I first got the idea to make this decoration when I saw a photo of a similar one on Pinterest. I couldn't find a source right away, so I searched further and found another photo that linked back to Ravelry. There, I found a pattern for butterflies crocheted with basic cotton yarn, called Bountiful Butterflies and designed by a crocheter named Marken, of The Hat and I, which seems to be an online pattern shop. Marken had used a bunch of crocheted butterflies to create a beautiful hanging decoration wherein the butterflies were attached to beaded strands and hung from an embroidery hoop. The strands cascaded in a spiral from the hoop and it all looked really pretty and bright and cheerful, perfect for a girl's bedroom.

I enjoy making crocheted decorations for the GB's room, like a garland using Maybelle flowers which hangs over her headboard. I thought one of these hanging decorations could be a nice addition, but the project took a bit of planning because there weren't really instructions for making one. It didn't look too difficult, though, and I improvised a bit. The hardest part may have been the crocheting, actually. The pattern is easy to follow, but I'm not a big fan of crocheting with cotton yarn; it makes my hands hurt, I find it annoyingly splitty and it sheds fibers everywhere. I sneeze a lot when I crochet with cotton. But it's a nice yarn for decorations because it's strong and can be crocheted tightly for stiffness and structure, and it comes in such vibrant colors.

I crocheted 20 butterflies in a rainbow of colors - some solid butterflies and some dual-colored. I ended up using only 18 of them; the ones I did in light aqua gave me too many blues in the rainbow sequence. 18 was plenty for a good spiral. I did make one change to the butterfly pattern in that I didn't add the "bodies" as shown; I thought they looked a bit heavy and lumpy when I did the first few, so I decided to frog that part and not make any more. I think they still look sufficiently butterfly-ish without bodies.

If you'd like to make one of these decorations, here's how I made mine.

After I'd crocheted the butterflies, I put all the parts together. For the strands, I used .25mm nylon beading filament (Beadalon Supplemax illusion cord) and 6mm/8mm faceted plastic rondelle beads (see bottom of post for links to these products). I used an 8-inch wooden embroidery hoop for the top part.

I wanted my butterflies to hang in a helical formation, at a reasonable height above the GB's bed, so I started with a 16-inch length of Beadalon for the first butterfly (the lowest-hanging one) and decreased each subsequent strand by half an inch, so that they would march upward along the spiral.

For each length, I used a sharp needle to thread one end through the top center of a butterfly, knotting tightly to secure it. Then I strung beads on from the opposite end of the strand, leaving two inches at the end to attach to the hoop with a tight knot. After they were all tied on, I moved them around to space them evenly around the hoop.

Next, I cut a quarter-yard of pink tulle fabric into long, 2-inch-wide strips and wrapped them around the hoop, covering the tied-on strand ends as I went. I tied the ends of the tulle strips to each other to secure them and buried the knots under the tulle as I wrapped the strips.

For the hanger, I cut four 12-inch lengths of the same beading filament and affixed one end of each strand to the hoop with a tight knot, passing it through the tulle with a sewing needle. Then I gathered the strands at the top and knotted the other end of each to a small plastic ring. Fortuitously, the GB already had a sturdy plant hook in exactly the right spot on her bedroom ceiling.

Here's the view from the doorway, zoomed in a bit. The decoration hangs at a good height, I think, especially for a person who still likes to stand on the bed to look out the window.

I hadn't been able to think of a good way to wrap the decoration for Christmas, so I wrapped a rubber band through the plastic ring and hung it off the drawer-pull on one of the end tables in the living room, next to the Christmas tree. I put an adhesive gift label on one of the butterflies. Most of her presents still come from Santa, but this one and the Sweetiepie ABC's sampler I took credit for. She was very excited to find that both were for her.

She tells me that she especially loves lying under it and looking up. I can see what she means. It's pretty fun to look at it this way. I wish her the sweetest of dreams under a spiraling, sparkling rainbow of butterflies.

Bountiful Butterflies Decoration
Yarn: I Love This Cotton and Sugar 'N Cream worsted-weight cotton, assorted colors
Hook: H/8 (5.00mm) Clover Amour
8-inch wooden embroidery hoop
Approximately 400 small plastic rondelle beads, In Bloom brand
Beadalon Supplemax nylon beading filament
Tulle fabric in 2-inch strips, from a 1/4-yard cut of tulle
1-inch plastic ring for hanging
Started: October 2016
Finished: December 2016

Monday, January 2, 2017

Año nuevo

These last few days of the holiday break have been quiet and calm, with lots of time together at home. I don't mind being at home; I can always find things to do. The Bear can too. The small Bears are getting better at it, which I really appreciate. We've finally reached a stage where we can all stay busy doing our own thing for quite a while before reconvening to do something together. They don't need to be entertained as much anymore, which is wonderful and bittersweet at the same time. They put together a gingerbread house (from a kit) with almost no help from us. I think they did a great job with it, probably better than when I help them; I have really bad icing-aim. We stayed home for New Year's Eve, as usual, celebrating with movies and a "party buffet," as I called it. I tried to make it a little fancy - shrimp cocktail, sherbet in ginger ale. We enjoyed sparklers and a few minor fireworks in the backyard. I can barely remember New Year's Eve before children; the Bear and I were in bed by about 10:30 ourselves, as usual. We've been sleeping like logs every night; I think we were really run down before the break.

We took Christmas away yesterday, which has been a big relief. I like the holidays very much but the stuff gets to me after a while, not to mention the food. It's all gone now, eaten up or packed away. I have healthy minestrone soup in the crockpot for tonight's dinner. The house is cleaner than it has been since November and I feel accomplished, settled: another Christmas in the bag. We're at the tail-end now; the Bear will go back to work tomorrow, the small Bears will be back to school on Thursday. I'm looking forward to my own routine.

The break has been a very musical one, which I've really loved. The LB received a new guitar for Christmas, a full-size one that should take him into adulthood. He was playing the Bear's guitar for the past few months and now he has one just like it. I'm working on ways to distinguish them without doing anything drastic. The GB received a book of sheet music for the songs on Taylor Swift's "1989" album, which is pretty much her favorite music ever. She works on her songs every day when she's finished with her regular practice music. I'm impressed, I have to say. Right now, I can recognize at least three songs when she plays them - "Blank Space," "Bad Blood," and "Welcome to New York." The LB plays some of them now and then too. 2016 was the Year of Taylor at our house and 2017 is shaping up for more.

Yesterday, there was a hawk in the backyard. It was probably a Cooper's hawk, as I've written about before. They come and go, but I hadn't seen one in the yard in several weeks. This one flew into the yard like the proverbial bat out of hell, wings flapping like mad. There were at least fifty small birds in the pyracantha hedge along the back wall and they all flew away instantly. Then the hawk sat on top of the swing set surveying the yard. I didn't think to grab my camera until he was poised to fly away, so I got him zipping across the yard. He went away but it was a good half-hour before the little birds came back, and then only one at a time. It's a jungle out there. The mountain looks beautiful right now, with snow almost down to the foothills. We had some sleet and a few flakes over the weekend, but mostly we had rain down here. The snow line has stayed high for the most part so far, around 6500 feet. We're at 5500. There's snow in the forecast for Thursday night and I'm really hoping we get some. The rain has been nice, though. For a La Nina year, we're doing really well in the Southwest, rain-wise.

Thank you for the comments you left on my blog anniversary post. I really appreciate knowing that people enjoy my blog. I love blogging and I plan to continue indefinitely. I hope you're enjoying the start to 2017 and that you had a good holiday season. I'll be back soon to share my crocheted butterfly mobile decoration!
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