Monday, March 30, 2015

Martha & Me - March

This month, with Martha's help, I baked something a little unusual: a delicious mango upside-down cake, made with bananas, rum and caramel. I chose this recipe because I love pineapple upside-down cake and often make it the lazy way, using canned pineapple rings and a box of yellow cake mix. It isn't difficult to make from scratch, though, and the mango cake recipe in the March issue of Martha Stewart Living was quite simple, even though the cake itself seems rather exotic. You can also find it here on Martha's website.

For me, mango has been an acquired taste. I personally did not taste mango until I was eighteen years old, and even then, it was dried mango that I ate. I think it was a few more years before I ate any fresh mango and it had to grow on me. I think this recipe would have seemed very extravagant when I first started cooking, but mangoes are much more widely available today and not as expensive as they once were. I bought two large mangoes, as per the recipe's suggestion, but I could have gotten away with just one of them (and should have tried to do so, since one of my mangoes was much riper than the other, even though I'd bought them together and both had been sitting on the counter for nearly a week by the time I baked this cake!).

Mangoes can be a little difficult to work with. I peeled the skin off with a veggie peeler, working downward from the stem end of the fruit. Then I stuck a corn-on-the-cob holder into that same end to give myself a little handle for slicing the fruit off the pit. That's the hardest part of working with mangoes, I think. The corn-holder works pretty well, though. I picked up that trick from some cooking show of yore; I'm thinking maybe it was Rachael Ray? I don't remember. But it works, if you want to give it a try sometime.

Two mangoes was too much. No matter, the small Bears loved having mango slices with their breakfasts and lunches for a few days afterward. The small bowl in the above photo contains mashed banana; I ended up mashing two small, very ripe bananas; I'd been letting them ripen just for this recipe and one of them went a little too far, so I had to remove part of it. An extra one gave me just enough for the recipe.

Making the caramel was my favorite part. I'd only done this once or twice before and was a little fearful. It was fine, though, and once poured into the cake pan, it hardened almost immediately and looked really pretty too, glassy and dark-amber colored.

I enjoyed arranging the mango on top of the hardened caramel. I tried to make it look like Martha's, of course. Meh...this might take some practice.

The batter was simple to make, done in muffin style with the wet ingredients added to dry and lightly stirred to combine. The wet ingredients included eggs, oil (I used canola oil instead of the recommended safflower), the mashed banana, buttermilk (I use the reconstituted powdered type), vanilla and a little rum. Martha suggests golden rum, such as Bacardi Gold. Not being big rum drinkers, we tend to keep a less luxurious version on hand. Ours is light rum in a big plastic jug labeled PRESTIGE RUM (ooh-la-la, fancy), but I don't think it matters much when you're baking with it. The batter was sort of thin and I wondered if I'd done it right, but I poured it over the layered mango and caramel and popped the pan in the oven. The baking time was perfect for my oven, for a change.

Once cooled, the cake is inverted onto a platter. This was sort of problematic for me. First, I don't own a totally flat platter, only the kind with slightly raised sides, good for serving meats with their juices. This, combined with the fact that I used a baking pan with side handles, made it difficult to turn the cake out of the pan neatly. One section of the edge broke as it descended, as you can see above. But it came out okay otherwise, and it looked really pretty with the caramel and cooked mango on top. The caramel hardened a little as the cake cooled, becoming thicker and slightly chewy, a nice contrast to the mango which was very soft.

I really liked it. The cake itself was like very moist banana bread. You could taste the rum a little, but I thought the vanilla came through more. The mango was delicious. I think the caramel complimented the mango really well; it was sweet but there was still that sharpness, almost astringency, of mango. I could definitely taste the difference between the riper mango and the less-ripe one, so I'd recommend using the ripest mango possible in this recipe to maximize the flavors. I'll remember to use a different cake pan next time for a nicer presentation, but given that the cake was gone in a couple of days, I don't think anyone around here was inspecting it closely! We all liked this cake very much and I enjoyed baking it too.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Midsummer Sprigs

I've just finished cross-stitching the Midsummer Sprigs ABCs sampler by Alicia Paulson. It was a lovely piece to create and I enjoyed the work so much. I think it's my favorite stitchery yet.

I mentioned how much I was savoring the work; it felt like it was going too quickly! It took me about a month to stitch the whole thing, which did seem fast. But I loved the work so much! I couldn't wait to work on it. I did most of my stitching in the mornings while the small Bears were in school; I sat in the living room, which gets direct sunshine in the early part of the day. I needed good light behind me, to help me stitch on the black linen. It's 28-count, with the stitches worked over two threads. The stitches are tiny; this is not work for tired eyes. It helped to hold something light-colored, like a dishcloth, on my lap while I worked.

I decided to have it framed professionally. I'd never done that with my own needlework before. It seemed too extravagant. For me, it is kind of extravagant. But I'm philosophical: though my budget is small, I find so much happiness in my hobbies that it's worth splurging sometimes. Not often, just once in a while. The supplies for this sampler - the pattern, the linen and the embroidery flosses - were my Mother's Day gift from the Bears last year. It seemed right to do the framing correctly, to honor a beautiful gift.

The sampler is inspired by the paper-mosaic floral designs of Mary Granville Delany, who began creating her works when she was in her seventies. Mary Delany created striking representations of various flowers and plants in colored paper on black. I've liked Mary Delany's artwork for years, ever since I learned about her in a visual-arts course in college, so Alicia's sampler really appealed to me, with its summery florals and plant life. It's simple yet dramatic.

I chose a wooden frame with metallic paint, inspired by our visit to the deYoung Museum in San Francisco last summer. The museum's American Painting collection contains many examples of trompe l'oeil paintings, some of which have stark black backgrounds and ornate, gilded frames. The paintings are mostly massive, their frames several inches wide, with elaborate matting. I really loved the look: black background, bright, colorful focal points, golden framing. I had some help from the framer, who steered me away from the brighter gold-painted frames I looked at first, suggesting a softer burnished-bronze frame with a subtle scroll design.

I ended up having the sampler framed twice, though. The first time, I found that they had put a white backing behind the linen. When it was stretched, the backing became visible through the linen and it looked pretty awful. It was distracting; you lost the visual drama of bright colors on black. I spent half a day stewing over it, annoyed but afraid to seem pushy. It hadn't occurred to me to ask specifically for a black backing, I thought they'd know to use one. In the end, I took it back. They were very gracious, re-framing it with black backing which looked much better. For glass, I chose "museum" quality, to protect the sampler and cut down on glare. I'd rather leave my stitchery glass-free because I love that look, but it would fade fast here.

I hung my sampler in the living room, on the wall above the couch where we already have a large collage frame and a smaller collage of pictures from our wedding. I'd thought of hanging the sampler in the family room instead, as part of the display with family portraits I have over the couch in that room, but it didn't work there. I like it in the living room; it's a little fancy and it looks good with the black frames. I'm planning some more embroidered pieces for the space to the right of the wedding collage; there's about two feet until the end of the wall.

One of the best things about hanging it in the living room is that I can see it when I walk in through the front door. I made that beautiful thing, I think delightedly.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Color Collaborative: March: Bird

Photo from the American Bird Conservancy

We have many interesting birds here in the high desert. I've discussed the road runners in the past; these large birds nest in the bushes and trees near our house and can often be spotted in our front yard. There are robins, crows, starlings and sparrows, just like in other climates. Then there is the pinyon jay, a small, noisy bird with blue feathers unique to the Great Basin area of the western US. I think the pinyon jay is one of our most fascinating wild birds.

Photo from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Pinyon jays eat pine nuts, the seeds inside pine cones. They're known to have good memories, able to cache pine nuts in secret places and find them again later. I find them very difficult to photograph; they move quickly and they blend into the landscape in a place like this, where the sky is almost always blue. You see them flitting from one bush to another, or rustling about in a tree, a flash of color against dusty juniper and cedar. They're not exactly sky-blue themselves; they're duller than that, more of a cadet blue, or cobalt. Their heads are more brilliantly colored than their bodies; the feathers around their eyes glisten with a deep royal-blue tone, set off by shiny black-bead eyes and a sharp, slender black beak.

Photo from Nature Works

They're alert and they seem very smart. They exhibit flock behavior; if you see one, there are bound to be several more nearby. Over the past few weeks, I've been watching them in my backyard. We've been putting the dirty straw from the chicken coop on the backyard planter beds, to help fertilize the soil and protect new growth. I've watched the pinyon jays pick up pieces of straw and carry them out over the arroyo. I've also watched what I think could be nesting behavior in a juniper in our backyard. I always know the jays have been around, even if I haven't seen them, when straw is scattered on the patio under the planters. They're fractious, easily distracted and quickly scattered. They'll fly off in an instant, crying out across the arroyo, if I try to approach them. And oh, how I've tried - barely breathing as I tiptoe across the patio with a crust of bread, a handful of birdseed or (maybe especially) my camera.

Sometimes I hear them before I see them, loud cackling and cawing preceding the flock as they fly over the wall from the arroyo. When I do see them, I try not to blink; they're elusive and endlessly interesting, these darting, swooping, jewel-toned neighbors of mine.

Photos courtesy of the sites linked in the captions. Click on each link for more info on the pinyon jay.


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, March 23, 2015

The other camera

After a lot of consideration, I joined Instagram in January. I wasn't sure what to expect; I'm sort of apprehensive about most social media, having waved the white flag at Facebook almost two years ago. Frankly, it made me feel unhappy. I began to dread logging in, so one day I just stopped. Maybe a draconian approach, but I felt better immediately and I haven't looked back. In recent months, I'd entertained the idea of tiptoeing back into the social-media pool; Instagram seemed like fun, from what I could see on some of the blogs I read. Bloggers were connecting with each other and sharing things in a slightly different way. I know there is a lot of talk about bloggers migrating lately. I know, I know. It's a problem. But I'll get back to that in a minute.

Let me say this first: I'm happy to report that I like it there. For one thing, I'm enjoying using my phone's camera more often, which is something I'd wanted to do for a while (I dabbled in it last fall, publishing a post with only camera photos, which was a real change of pace for me). I'm not great with my phone's camera, but the filters and editing tools on Instagram are useful. I like being able to upload a photo, finagle it a little, add a caption if I want, and shoot it out there for the world to see. I like that. It's quick and easy.

I've always been big into photographing the minutiae of my day, and of the world around me. I keep my Nikon in the kitchen so I can grab it any time, taking a photo of my cooking, the food on my plate at the table, the small Bears' work at the kitchen counter. Sometimes I stroll around the yard, snap-snap-snapping away until I realize I've taken 47 photos of the same unfurling bud. Or I get into my mountain-snapping pose on the brick steps outside our bedroom, leaning back into the rickety screen door as old as me, cobwebs in my hair and apple-tree twigs poking my neck to capture that Sandia sunset I'm always on about. I've been a shutterbug since I was a teenager; I bought my first camera, a Kodak Ektralite 110, when I was fourteen. Me and my cameras, we're thick as thieves. I don't pretend to be an awesome photographer; I'm just having fun. I practice and I think I get some good shots now and then. It's a part of my life I really love.

Blogging has given me a place to share my photos, which are plentiful. When my children were younger, I made photo diaries: I would take a picture every few minutes throughout our day. I liked doing this because it was a record of daily life at that moment in time. My life was pleasant enough, and I knew this, but it seemed very, very hard sometimes, between diapers and feedings and colic and reflux and naptimes and the general feeling of being "stranded" at home with really little ones. I think my photo diaries were partly a response to this sense of being ground down by motherhood: if I could add something thoughtful - artistic, even - to my day, I felt a little more connected to the world outside, to people who combed their hair and ate sitting down. I used to be one of them. I could remember it! My photo diaries did help me. I still look at them sometimes. I feel reassured that I wasn't as big a mess as I thought I was; everyone was clean, fed, dressed and usually pretty happy, contrary to some of my memories. Life was hard but good.

I'm very glad to have started a blog because I love to write. I love it even more than I love taking photos. I'm glad that blogging allows me to do both. I feel like I've found a good little niche for myself as a blogger; I can't believe how enjoyable this has been! I've made wonderful connections with other bloggers and I get to have my own little space to share whatever I like, the things that make me happy and excited and inspired.

I do think that Instagram would have worked well for me during those spit-up years, though. I would have used it a lot. I used Facebook the way I'm currently using Instagram: quick snapshots of the daily routine. But on Facebook, I was clever; I wrote sarcastic, pithy commentaries about dirty diapers, leaking breasts, toddler tantrums, sibling squabbles and a very stupid dog (when I had one). I was a little caustic, actually. On Instagram, I'm nice. I share pretty things. But I assure you, all is not pretty in my world. I'm just like you, I promise. If I have a complaint about Instagram, it's this: I'm less than three months into my membership and I'm already sick to death of perfectly-staged photos of food, craft supplies, furniture, shoes. You name it, and it can be arranged gorgeously.

The best Instagram post I've seen yet was from my friend Leanne. She shared a photo of a mess her son made on the carpet. I think there were lentils and dry penne pasta involved. It was real life and I liked it. I haven't shared anything like that yet but I will. I almost shared our new toilet seat this weekend. Pure joy in my heart, I tell you.

But so far, I've stuck to prettier images. I'm still learning the ropes and gaining followers and I think I'll hold off on toilet-related posts for now. I like to take photos of things as I see them, just whatever is around me. Color is key; I really like to photograph ordinary things which happen to be colorful. I like to capture some of the foods we eat, like a delicious pepperoni pizza made by the Bear. I like to play around with yarns and embroidery floss. I've noticed the beautiful colors of the equestrian roping supplies at the feed store. The sunsets and blossoming trees and, a few weeks back, snow-covered berries are all catching my eye. It's the same stuff I photograph with my big camera, for the most part. The everyday things that make up my world and bring me joy and wonder. Sometimes I use both, the DSLR and the smartphone: I have both in my bag and I take a photo of everything twice. I look like a tourist in my own city but I don't care: I have a record and that's what I came for.

I'm no good at selfies, no good AT ALL.

Now, about those bloggers who prefer Instagram...I do have an opinion on that. First, let me say that I get it. I understand that blogging is maybe not the coolest game in town anymore and people are looking for the next big thing. There have been people "discovered" via Instagram, and they're making money now and attracting adulation. I have no problem with people making money with their online pursuits; heck, if someone offered me a good opportunity, I might take it. But I'm not really in it for that. I love blogging and I find much fulfillment in it. I also realize that Instagram is quicker; blogging requires a little more planning, maybe. That said, I don't see how Instagram could fully replace blogging. I can't speak for anyone else, but blogging, for me, is a passion, whereas Instagram is a pastime. Do you see the difference? It doesn't fill my cup the way blogging does. My friend Gillian once explained to me this way, when I was dithering about joining Instagram (and I'm paraphrasing; she's brilliant and she probably said it better): "Instagram is like saying hi as you pass a friend on the street, blogging is like chatting with them over a cup of tea." She speaks the truth, people. Listen to her.


If you're so inclined to find me, I'm thistlebear on Instagram. I'd love to connect with you over there and I hope you'll still check in here too. I'm not going anywhere.

All photos in this post were taken with my Moto X smartphone via Instagram.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Evening glow

Me, my boy and our plum trees at sunset - March 15, 2015.

She turned to the sunlight
    And shook her yellow head,
And whispered to her neighbor:
    "Winter is dead."

                             ― A. A. Milne

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


Over the weekend, we practically lived outside. We ate on the patio and played with the chickens but we worked a lot too. We've been working on the wrought-iron gates which surround the courtyard leading into our house. We started this project last spring, but then it got too hot in the summer to continue, so we waited until spring came around again. The project involves removing old blue paint, put on by a previous owner of the house. It dried very drippy and lumpy and is now faded. We're taking off the old paint and putting on a glossy coat of plain black. It's hard work. But we've done two out of three sections now and it looks so much better. Next, we plan to repaint the wood trim, which is the same shade of blue as the metal, fading and peeling. I'm trying to decide on a color! The house is peachy-tan stucco and the metalwork will soon be all black. We're going to look at paint samples on Private Friday this week. I've never done any exterior house-painting and I'm excited and a little nervous.

This week has started off sort of cool and stormy so far. We've been inside in the afternoons, the small Bears and I. After homeschool is finished, we're each doing our own thing. I've been sewing a little. Both of them have been drawing a lot. The GB seems to have a real artistic streak and she will happily draw, color and paint for hours. The LB is not as artistically-inclined and I'm trying to encourage it. He enjoys it when he gets going but it's not something he seeks out on his own, you know? They've both been copying illustrations from books lately. Yesterday, they were engrossed for a long time. She copied a picture from Happy Birthday Moon and he did one from Home For a Bunny. I remember enjoying this as a child too. I had notebooks and sketchpads filled with my own renditions of anything Garth Williams ever illustrated.

Did I ever tell you that we listen to The John Tesh Show most afternoons? I really like radio shows with lots of talking and random facts. The music he plays can get a little repetitive - lots of soft rock, seventies through today. I learn something new every time I listen, though. I listen to Delilah in the evenings sometimes too. She's wonderful. I love the way she can comfort people or put the smack down on them, or sometimes do a little of both. Anyway, back to John Tesh - he plays Michael Jackson fairly often, eighties stuff mainly. He played the song "Human Nature" the other day. The LB and I had a conversation about it:

LB: I don't like when he plays this song.
Me: Why not? I think it's a nice song.
LB: Because she sounds like she can't breathe. She's gasping for air.
Me: Who is?
LB: The girl who sings this song. She's so out of breath.
Me: This is a man singing. He always sounded sort of like this.
LB: A man? What the heck? Did he drink helium?

Now, I don't mean to disparage Michael Jackson. I was a big fan, still am. But it made me stop and think. Do you remember when Michael Jackson was the biggest, most famous entertainer in the world? I'm sure plenty of people thought he sounded like a girl then too, but he was so cool! It was just Michael, that's just what he sounded like. At least that's how I remember thinking about him. I told this to the LB; he seemed skeptical. He likes "Beat It," though. No girly voices there, just dance-fighting between gangs, I think.

How is spring (or fall) shaping up where you are? Here, the plum trees are in full bloom. I was out at sunset the other night and they were positively glowing. I'll share some photos soon. Some of my tulips have buds, which makes me really happy. Everything is poking out of the ground now, it's looking so green all of a sudden. We'll be on spring break in about a week and I can't wait; we've been going non-stop since early January. I can't wait for a little stretch of doing very little. I'm planning to do some crafty things (with and without children), go to the park, take walks and get ready for Easter. Yes! Spring agrees with me, I'm really glad it's just about here.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A night in Sweden

Back in December, we visited an IKEA store in Tempe, Arizona while on vacation. We ate lunch in the restaurant; I had a salmon dish and the Bear had the Swedish meatballs plate. My lunch was okay but we all loved the meatballs. It was decided that I should try to make them at home sometime. I'm almost positive that I'd already tried making them a few years ago, but the memories are hazy. I asked here on my blog for a good recipe, and Julia came through with this one, from a blog called Damn Delicious. They were described as being "so much better than the IKEA version," so they definitely seemed worth a try, which I did last week.

Traditionally, Swedish meatballs are made with a mixture of ground beef and ground pork. I used ground turkey instead of pork because ground pork is a bit difficult to find. The recipe also calls for panko - Japanese bread crumbs - but I only keep the seasoned Italian type in the pantry, so I made my own plain bread crumbs from a few slices of whole-grain sandwich bread (it's easy - you just dry the bread in a very low oven for about half an hour and then crush the slices into fine crumbs). The other ingredients are pretty basic - onions (sauteed in oil before going into the meat mixture), egg yolks, salt, pepper, allspice and nutmeg. The meatballs are browned in oil, then moved to a paper towel-lined plate to drain while you make the gravy.

Once you've made the gravy, the meatballs go back into the skillet to heat through. The gravy thickens as it simmers. It's a rich gravy, made with both butter and sour cream. I used chicken broth instead of the suggested beef broth because I find that beef broth can have a tinny flavor. I don't think it mattered much; simmering with the meatballs gave the gravy a very meaty taste and plenty of spicy flavor from the nutmeg and allspice too.

Swedish meatballs are often served with lingonberry sauce, or jam, but we don't have any. We do have lingonberry drink concentrate, though, which we bought on our recent visit to IKEA in Arizona. We mixed it up with club soda for a bubbly beverage. I thought it was funny to make our Swedish drink with club soda from Mexico. East meets West? North meets South? I don't know! It was tasty, though. It reminded me of cranberry juice and soda, which I love to drink in the summer - with or without booze.

I served the meatballs with mashed potatoes, to help sop up the abundant gravy, and carrots. The meatballs were good and I think everyone liked them. There was plenty for everyone, the recipe makes a huge amount of meatballs. The gravy was rich and creamy, but a little on the thin side. I might use a bit more flour next time. The meatballs would have been tough if they'd simmered any longer, so I might back off the simmering time a bit. This was a fairly involved meal to make. Not difficult, just a little time-consuming. I'm not sure I'd agree that my meatballs were better than IKEA's, but I did make some changes to the recipe. They were tasty, though, and definitely a change of pace for us. All in all, we enjoyed our homemade Swedish feast!


You guys aren't going to believe this. Remember Sidney's Square, the blanket I made for our friend's new baby? He's here now and I was shocked and amazed to learn that his name is Siddharth. My jaw just about hit the floor when I heard. I was only joking when I called him Sid! I guess it's really Siddharth's Square then. I swear I had no idea what they would name him. Time to buy my first lottery ticket? Hmmm.

If you're thinking about baking Irish soda bread for Saint Patrick's Day, I humbly suggest the recipe I like to use, found here. I made a loaf yesterday. It's delicious and so easy.
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