Monday, December 29, 2014

Two years

Two years ago today, I published my first post to this blog. I'd been an avid reader of blogs for a long time and thought it might be fun to have my own, but I wasn't sure I had enough to say.


Blogging has been such a happy addition to my life. I truly enjoy my interactions with other bloggers; we are birds of a feather. I've come to cherish this little space. I love to share my hobbies, my thoughts and ideas and our family life with like-minded people. I love knowing that you're out there, caring about the same things I do, looking for joy in every day. Thank you, friends, for reading and for being supportive and kind. Thank you for inspiring me.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Love and joy

Merry Christmas from our family to yours! Thank you for all the well-wishes and holiday wishes lately. You have warmed my heart. We're all healthy again, thankfully. We're celebrating at home, just the four of us - keeping warm, eating good things and watching holiday movies. No snow here, but we do have the clear, icy-cold weather that I really love. I hope you have a wonderful holiday. We'll be on a merry jaunt for a little while. Back soon.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Two sunsets

On the last two nights before the winter solstice, I stood in the backyard and watched the mountain. It was cold, and I wasn't feeling well, so I was bundled up in a heavy fleece jacket. When I photograph the mountain, I tend to stand on top of the little brick stairs outside our bedroom for a better view over the garden wall at the other end of the yard. I need to duck underneath an apple-tree branch and lean my right shoulder hard on the rickety screen door, but otherwise it's a fantastic place for a mountain shot.

The first night was clear, the cold air sharp in my tender nose, my aching lungs. The mountain put on its show, turning pink for just a few minutes as the sun set. Then it darkened from the top down, gray to black. Soon, there were stars and stars. That night, it snowed a little and we woke up to a whitened mountain. Clouds lingered, foaming over the peaks all day. By sunset, bits of blue sky showed through. No watermelon glow that night, though. I watched the clouds until they were all I could see: pale, pearly wisps in a darkening sky.

Inside my house, lights were on. There was food in the oven and a candle burned on the stove. The Christmas tree, that symbol of pagan celebration, glowed brightly in the living room. My children were under afghans, reading books. My husband was on his way home from work, in his old car that refuses to die. I was tired and I felt poorly and I was panicking a little about being sick during the week before Christmas, but I mostly felt calm. It would all get done (and it did). I thought: I am so, so rich, in all the ways that really matter. I have a comfortable home, healthy children, a happy marriage. I have an ever-changing mountain and an endless sky. At Solstice, and always, I am astonished by the bounty overflowing in one little life.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Sit, stay

The wildest week is over. I ended up getting sick too and it was the worst possible timing. The small Bears were well enough to go back to school, and all the big events were happening, just as I was feeling worse and worse. I had to back out of things I had volunteered to help with. It felt terrible, but it was the right thing. I rested, watched TV and movies, crocheted when I felt like sitting upright. It wasn't so bad; we still made it to our events and I was able to help with the LB's class party on Thursday. Last night, we did our ritual meandering drive around the neighborhood to look at Christmas lights. The Bear even tolerated some Christmas music.

This time of year, I find that things wind down as quickly as they wound up; the school break is here, the Bear's work shut-down starts in a few days, and we're all settling in for the holiday. I'm mostly feeling better. I just came home from the grocery store. I bought food for the week, as well as for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners. Ham on Christmas, and for something different, crab legs on Christmas Eve. Lots of cheese both days. A pomegranate and a persimmon, cordial cherries and Clamato. A half-gallon of egg nog. It's flippin' festive up in here.

I realized that I've already made it to December 20 without watching Love Actually, and I think I'll remedy this tonight. After that, A Christmas Story is the only one of my must-watch holiday movies left to watch; we always watch it on Christmas Eve. I've got plenty (way too much) to eat, books and magazines to read, movies to watch and all my favorite people close by; let the holidays begin.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Color Collaborative: December: Spice

Pumpkin pie is considered by many to be a quintessential holiday-season dessert. It came as a surprise to me, then, to learn that plenty of people have never eaten it. I suppose it's my own cultural bias; I'm an American, and pumpkin pie is a major component of our Thanksgiving feasts. And, as I've mentioned, I was born on Thanksgiving Day, so maybe the holiday meal stands out for me more than it does for most people. I often make pumpkin pie for Christmas dessert too; it's perfect for the festive season and, frankly, it's very easy.

When I realized that pumpkin pie is not universally known, I began to read about its history*and I learned some surprising things. I had always believed that pumpkin pie, as we know it today, was served at the first "thanksgiving feast," held in 1621 by Pilgrims and Native Americans in Plimoth Plantation, the first permanent English settlement in North America. At least, that's what we learned in school. But the pumpkin "pie" served then was more likely to have been plain, stewed pumpkin flesh, or hollowed-out pumpkin shells filled with milk, honey and spices and then baked. The latter sounds rather tasty, but it's not exactly "pie" as we know it - there was no pastry crust! The basics were there, though: cooked squash, milk, flavorings. The first recipe including pastry appeared in France in 1651; by the 1670's, there were many English recipes for pumpkin pie with pastry. These recipes called for many eggs, other fruits, nuts. But another essential quality had emerged: pumpkin was now part of a custard filling, no longer roasted or baked alone. In 1796, the first American cookbook was published; its "pompion pudding" recipes, utilizing "pastes," quite closely resemble the pie recipes of today.

Pumpkin pie recipes usually call for cinnamon, ginger and cloves (and sometimes nutmeg), giving the pie earthy, zesty flavor and a warm color. Spices would appear to be one of the earliest, and most important, features of a pumpkin pie - in any incarnation. Most recipes seem to have included some type of flavorings, and no wonder - cooked pumpkin is rather bland all by itself. Pumpkin is plentiful in the fall, especially in New England where that first Thanksgiving took place; it makes sense that people found ways to use it. Have you ever tried to cook pumpkin from scratch? I have, and it was kind of a hassle. I'm glad that canned pumpkin is readily available where I live. I don't buy the canned "pumpkin pie mix," though; I prefer to use plain pumpkin and add my own spices. It's fresher-tasting and I can adjust quantities as necessary.

When you open a can of plain, cooked pumpkin, it doesn't look much like pumpkin-pie filling, does it? The color is garish, sort of a bright, streaky orange tone. It doesn't have the warmth of pie, rich with spices, egg and milk.

After stirring in the eggs, milk and spices, the color warms and deepens, and the pumpkin mixture begins to look more like our beloved pie.

As the pie bakes, it fills the house with the rich, brown scent of roasting pumpkin and spices. They wouldn't make all those candles if it wasn't amazing. The color of the filling deepens further during the baking, especially at the edges of the crust where it seeps into the crevices, hardened and sticky like caramel. The spices have darkened in the baking too; flecks of cinnamon and clove scattered on the custard's surface stand out now. The pie looks spicy. The flavor is warm and quite sweet, but there's a bite at the back of the throat; you notice it. I eat it with whipped cream sometimes, but usually I eat it plain. Pumpkin pie is a tradition; you could make it any time of year, but who does? It's a cold-weather food. We make it when the wind blows across the roof and the kitchen is the toastiest room in the house, when we gather with loved ones and feast.

Pumpkin Pie (from Libby's Pumpkin)

3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 large eggs
1 can (15 oz.) pumpkin
1 can (12 oz.) evaporated milk
1 unbaked deep-dish pie shell (fresh, frozen or refrigerated)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Mix dry ingredients in a small bowl, set aside.

Beat eggs in a large bowl and whisk pumpkin into them. Stir in spice mixture. Gradually whisk in evaporated milk.

Pour into pie shell and bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then turn oven down to 350 degrees and bake 40 to 50 minutes more. Pie is done when a knife inserted in center comes out clean. Cool on wire rack for 2 hours.

(I always place my pie dish on a foil-covered baking pan to catch drips as the pie bakes. I also use an aluminum pie shield (I have one like this) after the initial 15 minutes of baking to keep the crust from burning).

If you have any pie filling left after filling the crust, you can pour it into buttered ramekins, baking alongside the pie for about 45 minutes. I know two children who really enjoy this.

*A fascinating timeline of pumpkin pie history can be found here, if you'd like to read more.


 Don't forget to visit the other Color Collaborative blogs for more of this month's posts. Just click on the links below: 

Annie at Annie Cholewa 
Sandra at Cherry Heart 
What is The Color Collaborative?
All creative bloggers make stuff, gather stuff, shape stuff, and share stuff. Mostly they work on their own, but what happens when a group of them work together? Is a creative collaboration greater than the sum of its parts? We think so and we hope you will too. We'll each be offering our own monthly take on a color related theme, and hoping that in combination our ideas will encourage us, and perhaps you, to think about color in new ways.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Wintry weekend

The weekend started on a high note - it was Private Friday and the Bear and I spent part of the morning gabbing over coffee, a breakfast burrito with green chile and a blueberry scone before going to Costco (it's always better to shop there child-free). We picked up the small Bears at school and they were beside themselves with excitement because there had been a school-wide demonstration with a real tanker truck in the parking lot. Each class came out to see it and hear a lecture about trucks and road safety. They were both wearing sticker-badges from the county sheriff's office; they were truck experts! They were flying high until Saturday, when they both got sick with the latest fever-cough-lethargy thing. The Bear and I are okay so far, and we pray it lasts through this busy week.

We stayed close to home all weekend, obviously. The warm weather we'd had for several weeks broke this weekend. It snowed on Saturday night into early Sunday, our first real snow of the season. I love snow when I can just stay home. I think we had about an inch, just enough to make everything look pretty. Yesterday, the wind was fierce and icy-cold, the sky a mix of dark clouds and surprising glimpses of sun. It was a tea-and-afghans day. We watched Christmas movies. I took a break from the computer. Today, it's still cold and breezy but the sky is clear and the mountain is sparkling. I may escape for a walk around the yard soon.

Meanwhile, inside, they convalesce. I have them both in the family room - the GB on the couch and the LB on a camp cot - so they can watch TV and keep each other company. I keep remembering things I need to do. Generally, I'm still feeling relaxed, though; the confinement buys me time, if anything. This weekend, the Bear and I did a lot of cooking. We made fresh corn tamales together, and I baked about ten dozen cookies and made two kinds of fudge. I will be donating some to the school's bake sale this week, but we're keeping the rest. The bake sale will be held at the school's art-and-writing open house, an annual extravaganza. The Bear and I completed a project for the LB's teacher, involving hot glue and nylon rope. Our fingertips are blistered but we've done our part.

How are your holiday plans coming along? Are you feeling cool or stressed? I hope this week brings you peace, joy and lots of cookies.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Candy apples for the teachers

I'm developing a real enthusiasm for canning these past couple of years. It was tricky at first, and I'm still by no means an expert, but I understand it better now and I really enjoy it! I still marvel at the fact that you can turn fruit into something totally different with some cooking and a few added ingredients. It feels a little magical to me, even though I realize it's a simple process. I love doing it and I'm happy to share my creations. This year, I made a festive jelly for our teachers' holiday gifts.

This is a really simple recipe that I came across as I looked for something fun and different to try; there are many versions out there but I decided to try Taste of Home's version, which was well-reviewed and seemed especially easy. You need only four ingredients to make this jelly and it cooks and sets quickly. I scaled the recipe, using less juice and low-sugar pectin. I ended up with three half-pints - two for the teachers and one for us!

Candy Apple Jelly (from Taste of Home)

4 cups apple juice
1/2 cup Red Hots candies
1 package (1 3/4 oz.) powdered fruit pectin
4 1/2 cups sugar

In a large saucepan, combine the apple juice, candies and pectin. Bring to a full rolling boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Stir in sugar; return to a full rolling boil. Boil and stir 1 minute. 

Remove from heat; skim off foam. Ladle hot mixture into six hot sterilized half-pint jars, leaving 1/4-in. head-space. Wipe rims. Center lids on jars; screw on bands until fingertip tight.

Place jars into canner with simmering water, ensuring that they are completely covered with water. Bring to a boil; process for 5 minutes. Remove jars and cool. Yield: about 6 half-pints.

This jelly was simple and fun. I loved watching it cook. The candies melted immediately into the apple juice, turning it bright ruby-red. While I was making the jelly, I was reminded of the Bear's nostalgic tales about a favorite dessert in his elementary school's cafeteria: apple slices cooked with Red Hots and served cooled and thickened, like bright red apple-pie filling. Fancy! I only remember applesauce and canned peaches in my own school years. I asked him about those apples later, by the way, and he got a glazed look in his eyes.

Look at that red jelly. It's almost shimmery. You should smell it in the cooking stage; the whole house is scented with apple and cinnamon. Do you remember Atomic Fireballs jawbreakers? It smells just like them. I quite like the ladling phase, working fast to get all the jars full without spilling. I used a regular Kerr half-pint jar for our portion. For the teachers, I used different half-pint jars, short and squat with wide mouths. Mine are made by Ball; I'd never seen a jar in that shape until this summer. I bought mine in Walmart but I have since noticed that Hobby Lobby carries them too. I thought they were cute and different, nice for gifts. I processed the jars, adding five minutes to the recipe recommendations since we're above 5,000 feet in altitude.

Goodness, it's just so pretty. I can't help it, I always have to look at my preserves this way, with the light glowing through them. I don't think jelly could ever be more festive than this. 

I made some tags from card stock; I stamped a reindeer in brown ink on one side and wrote the contents of the jelly on the other side. I cut out some holly-strewn fabric to use as covers for the jar lids. My tea tin is the perfect size for this, so I traced around it with a pencil on the wrong side of the fabric and cut the fabric with pinking shears.

Festive! Each teacher will also receive a small papier mache dragon ornament. Our school's mascot is a dragon. I found the ornaments at World Market last week and thought they would be perfect for our teachers. I wrapped the ornaments in tissue paper and put them, with the jars, in gift bags. I'll take them to school next week before we break up for the holidays. 

Of course I had to try some from the jar we're keeping for ourselves. I put it on a toasted, buttered English muffin. I liked it a lot. It's not really spicy; you taste the Red Hots, but it's just a hint of cinnamon flavor. I'm glad I used the low-sugar pectin; it really doesn't need to be much sweeter than it is. It's made with candy, after all. It jelled nicely and was easy to spread. I would certainly make it again, Christmas or not. I hope the teachers like it. It's hard to know people's flavor preferences, but this is fun and the jars are small, so I think it would go over well with anyone. I would love to try making it with mulled cider sometime; can you imagine? Yum. Oh, and the Bear's cafeteria memories came flooding back when he tried some, just as I'd hoped. It warms my heart to know that I can remind him of the good times when it comes to school lunch.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Season's scenes

I think I'm enjoying this holiday season more than I have in a long time. Maybe it's because my children are getting older; they can participate more now. But maybe that makes me slow down and enjoy it more too. The clock is definitely ticking on their belief in Santa Claus; this may the last year for the big one. But they both still believe and they're both very excited about Christmas. I'm still feeling relaxed about the whole thing, like I'd been trying to. My shopping is done. Yay! Now it's just the wrapping.

I'm excited too. I'll be baking cookies this weekend, a few different kinds. I may make some fudge too. It's good to be in the kitchen, good to be at home in general. I love having the Christmas tree up; there's just something so comforting about knowing it's standing in the living room. I bring my tea in there, sitting for a minute between tasks. I made rice pudding last week, on a rainy afternoon. I used our eggs and raisins we made this fall. I love to make rice pudding; the stirring is satisfyingly repetitive. I've been making soups; just this week, both pasta e fagioli and chicken soup with matzo balls. My Italian grandmother and my Jewish one were visiting me in the kitchen.

There's so much going on: recitals and school events. Advent chocolate every day! I love how caught up my children are, how completely Christmas-crazy they get. There's a little greed, sure, but it's mostly about the fun. They love the early darkness and the colder weather. They get so excited to be in the car when it's dark out. Isn't that funny? It's a huge thrill for them and I love their excitement. It's not just Christmas, it's wintertime and all the unique things winter brings: cocoa and cookies, afghan-snuggles, crafty afternoons at the kitchen table. It may snow this weekend! I really hope it will be cold enough for a fire. I'm so happy to make the season festive for them, to keep their bellies full and their bodies warm. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Rabbit for a Bear

I've just finished making a Maggie Rabbit soft toy for my Girl Bear. Maggie will be one of her Christmas presents. I had originally planned to give her Maggie for her birthday, back in September, but I wasn't able to make Maggie in time. I'd been working feverishly to finish the Flowers in the Snow blanket in the above photo. I think it worked out fine; the GB got a few more months of growth and maturation under her belt. I've seen remarkable changes since she started kindergarten this fall; I think she'll better understand that Maggie is a delicate doll to be played with gently. I really hope she'll like her Maggie Rabbit. I like her a lot myself!

I took it slow making Maggie. I had never made a soft toy before, and I wanted to do it right. There were new experiences; I had never used a water-erase marker before and needed to buy one before I could get started. I'd always used tailor's chalk or water-erase pencils, but hadn't tried the marker. I really liked it! I couldn't believe the way it disappeared, like magic. I will definitely use it for future projects. Making Maggie was very enjoyable and a bit challenging. I learned some new skills. I had never really used the blanket stitch before and there's a lot of it in the body-construction. I think I'm an expert now! I probably should have stuffed her a bit more, especially in the face, but I didn't want her to be too plump because then her dress might not fit. I think she looks okay; maybe she's more of a jackrabbit, like the ones we have here in the desert.

Do you remember when I showed you this black fabric with strawberries? I was cutting out dress parts with it, using Maggie's peasant dress pattern. I wanted to make a practice dress before I cut into Maggie's beautiful Liberty dress fabric. As much as I enjoyed sewing Maggie's body, I was very apprehensive about making her dress. Doll clothes are difficult! The few pieces I'd made in the past were fiddly and not much fun for me. Judging by the pattern, I knew Maggie's dress would probably also fit one of the GB's baby dolls, Nellie, so she got a new dress herself. I didn't have elastic for her dress but it fits her well enough. Apparently, it's her school uniform. Or so I've been told.

Making the sample dress helped my confidence a lot, but I still felt nervous making the real thing. I just took it very slow, spending almost three hours on just this one part of Maggie's creation. I loved working with the Liberty lawn (who wouldn't?), and I can totally see why it's so sought after. Maggie's dress isn't perfect - the hems are a little crooked and I probably should have used a finer needle in my sewing machine - but I think it turned out pretty well. I love that the pattern fits the other doll; I think she may be getting a flannel nightgown soon.

I loved making Maggie's boots. They were easier than they seem and it was enjoyable to watch them taking shape as I worked. I found it easier to lace them up using two needles, one on each end of the floss. This allowed me to poke the ends through exactly like shoelaces.

I think my Maggie has a sweet little face, but it's not perfect. Her eyes are lopsided and her nose is a little pinched. I didn't starch her whiskers. But I think she's cute. I'd never embroidered a face on anything before.

I struggled to knit Maggie's capelet, so I came up with my own crocheted design. I'm not much of a knitter; I can cast on and knit as many stitches as will fit on the needle, but I don't know how to do much else. After many attempts at understanding the kit's capelet pattern, I opted to crochet the capelet instead. I was afraid I would ruin the yarn from frogging so many times. My crocheted capelet is very simple; I just made a foundation chain long enough to go around Maggie's back (about 8 inches, I think; this is sport-weight yarn and I used a G/6 hook - the first thing I ever crocheted with one of my new Clover hooks!), then did four rows of half-double crochet (hdc) stitches, followed by a row where I decreased in both the first two and last two stitches of the row, following that with two rows of that same length. I didn't count stitches, I just eyed the size and shape. I ended up with a slightly trapezoidal shape, narrower at the top for Maggie's neck. I left a tail of yarn at one end, then reattached my yarn and did a row of slip stitches across to the other end and left a tail on that side. I hope that makes sense; if you're a knitting-challenged Maggie-maker, please feel free to borrow my idea.

I had my difficulties, but I really loved working on Maggie. I'm really glad I made her for my daughter, and that I did while she is still quite little. I kept my Maggie-making a secret from her, which wasn't easy. I don't have much child-free time, since our school situation is unusual and they're home with me a lot. I preferred to work on Maggie in daylight, since there is so much hand-stitching, so I did most of the work during the mornings while the small Bears were at school. I could only do a small bit at a time, but I savored the chances when I had them. The LB knew about Maggie; he'd watched me work on a Saturday morning while the GB went to her music class with the Bear. I think the LB wants a soft toy now too; I've got my eye on Basil Fox, one of Maggie's friends, but I'm also considering making another rabbit but using some of the boy clothing patterns now available instead of the dress. We'll see.

Maggie is hidden away in a closet for now, waiting to surprise the GB on Christmas morning. I took this photo while the GB was playing outside. Don't you love a Christmas secret? It's so much fun to work behind the scenes. I hope the GB will enjoy Maggie - a lovely girl rabbit for my sweet Girl Bear.
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