Friday, February 27, 2015

Home, alone











After a fairly difficult couple of weeks, I was in sore need of some time alone at home. Do you find it as restorative as I do? Home is my favorite place no matter what, but there are times when I just need to be alone, puttering quietly around the house and the yard, lost in thought; able to think. Yesterday morning, I decided there would be no errands or serious housework for me. I baked, I inspected my potted bulbs, I worked on my Midsummer Sprigs sampler, I had a look at my new library books. I felt refreshed and ready to see everybody again.

This sampler is such a joy to work on. It's going faster than I want it to; I sit down to stitch and end up in a trance, almost. I can't get enough. The black linen is easier to work on than I'd thought it would be, as long as I sit in the window with the light behind me. I could happily stitch for hours but I'm trying to pace myself and savor the work.

I'm reading two books now. One is Ovenly, a baking cookbook by the owners of a bakery by the same name in Brooklyn. It's a beautiful book and the recipes are so interesting; they all incorporate sweet and salty flavors, as well as spicy ones. I haven't tried any of their recipes yet (my baking yesterday, an orange tea loaf, was an old recipe from Southern Living), but they look delicious. I'm also reading We Two, about the relationship between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. It's fascinating! I love biographies. I'm extremely nosy. I have to know all about people.

I just finished reading a wonderful book that I can't recommend highly enough, called Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home. This book is comprised solely of letters written by a young woman (Nina) to her sister back home after Nina moves to London from the north of England to become a nanny. It's hilarious and sweet. Oh, and you should watch Chef. It's streaming on Netflix. Fair warning, lots of profanity in both.

I'm so ready for the weekend. I welcomed the Bear home from business travel to Washington, DC. We took the LB for hospital tests for his kidney condition before the Bear left; everything is stable - no better but not worse. The tests are stressful for everybody. I haven't felt great for about two weeks now, just a long, crummy cold. I need to hunker. I'm going to read and stitch as much as I can. It's cold again here, with some snow. We're actually having a no-school snow day, if you can believe it. Fine by me. Tea and afghans, ahoy!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Martha & Me - February


I'm determined to keep trying something new from each issue of Martha Stewart Living over the course of this year. During the month of February, I tried two new ideas. I helped the small Bears make valentines for their school friends, using a printable template found on Martha's website here (there was also a pictorial included in the magazine), and I made a batch of Honey Blondies. The recipe can be found here.



Martha's valentines appealed to us because they were simple and funny. I have to admit that I love kids' crafts a lot but I'm not into fancy valentines. Some of the ideas seem so complicated. I like to let my kids make things themselves, as opposed to making everything for them. But I do enjoy a homemade touch and it's always nice when you can give a unique creation, so Martha's printable valentine cards really appealed to me. We chose the "You're a Catch!" design, on page 5 of the PDF in the above link. We actually modified it a bit, copying it to a graphic art program and erasing the colored "waves" on the original design. We don't have a color printer and anyway, we thought it would be more fun to decorate them ourselves. We could have just drawn waves but the Bear wanted to try making a stencil on his new toy, the 3-D printer. So much for not making complicated valentines! Ha.


What did we catch with these valentines? Swedish Fish! I ordered a box of individually-wrapped fish here. For each valentine, I helped the kids assemble four wrapped fish and stapled them onto each card near the fish hook illustration to look like the fish had been "caught" on the hook.


I think they were well-received. They were among the simplest, least expensive valentines given that day, from what I saw when I attended their parties. But I don't think kids' valentines should be fancy or extravagant. In fact, I sort of chafe at the idea, so this was a great approach for us. I liked spending the money on candy instead of licensed-character valentines, for one thing. I also liked the play on words, it was cute and silly. These valentines worked great for us and I would definitely use them again in the future.


I also tried a recipe from the February issue, Honey Blondies. These are bar cookies made with honey, brown sugar and bittersweet chocolate. I had some trouble with my camera around the time I made them, so I don't have my own photo of a sliced bar. To be honest, I felt a little disappointed with them, though the rest of the family liked them a lot. They were easy to make, though, and I liked the technique.


Generally, I don't eat much dark chocolate. I greatly prefer the sweeter milk chocolate or even white chocolate over the darker varieties. I don't know much about dark chocolate either, such as the percentage designations and so forth. In fact, I needed help from a clerk in Trader Joe's to pick a suitable chocolate for this recipe; I just didn't know where to begin. She suggested this one and it seemed okay to me. I enjoyed chopping the bar with my chef's knife; it was very tender and flaky and I had zero temptation to nibble any while I chopped.


Blondies usually require some stove-top cooking in addition to the baking stage. You have to melt the butter with the sweeteners in the recipe - in this case, both honey and brown sugar. I used basic clover honey to make my blondies, but Martha suggests trying different types of honey. I thought the honey flavor was fairly mild in these bars so I can see using a honey with bolder flavors, if that's what you're into.



Once the butter and sweeteners were ready, it was a simple matter of stirring in egg, flour, vanilla and salt, as well as the chopped chocolate. I liked the swirled effect of the chocolate through the batter. That may have been a sign of chopping it too much, but I thought it looked pretty. They baked quite quickly, though I did need to add five minutes to the recipe's suggested baking time.

 

When cooled, I removed the whole thing from the pan and cut it into sixteen squares. They were very moist and thick, and they had browned nicely. I thought they were just okay-tasting, though. They were a bit too sweet and the chocolate didn't really come through at all. I would just use semi-sweet chocolate chips if I made these again; it would be cheaper and I always have them in the pantry. All in all, this recipe was good but not great. I will probably try it again with modifications, namely a little less sugar.

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Thanks for following along with my challenge! If you want to join in, please leave a link to your blog post so we can see what you tried this month, or tell us about it in a comment (it can be from anywhere, you don't have to use this magazine!). I'm already starting to think about March, having received the latest magazine last week; both a recipe and a sewing project have been catching my eye.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Duet








Learning to play "Dust in the Wind" by Kansas, February 21, 2015.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Good things

It was a long week. I wasn't feeling well, we had lots of schoolwork to do, everyone seemed a little cranky and out of sorts. I think it's the time of year; spring break is still over a month away but it feels like it should be sooner because the weather here has mostly been warm - a lot warmer than average. It's nice. But it's weird and frustrating too, like we skipped a season. I think that's what's bothering me most about this warm spell - the disorientation it has created. I found good things in the week, even though it wasn't an easy one. I'm getting better at finding those silver linings, I tell you what. My days are full and I fall into bed at night, used up but mostly happily so.


The Bear and I went to a bakery on Private Friday and were stunned to see these there. Do you know what they are? They're called kouign amann, and they are a type of pastry which originated in the Brittany region of France. We had never heard of this pastry until two weeks ago, when it was made by the contestants on The Great British Baking Show. The owners of the bakery are also fans of the show, it turns out, and they decided to make some of their own. I thought it was a delicious pastry - very buttery and only lightly sweet. We were intrigued watching the show and it was a very pleasant surprise to have the chance to try such an exotic treat for ourselves. Go try them at Swiss Alps Bakery, if you're local.


I've been admiring my Valentine's Day gift from the Bear, a set of Clover steel crochet hooks in the smallest sizes. I was planning to buy a single hook for my potholder-making, and he suggested a set. Hey, you don't have to twist my arm. I haven't tried them yet but they look pretty in my hook roll. The new hooks have caps for the ends. They're sharp! I've been using my bigger Clover hooks since November, when he gave them to me for my birthday and I'm a total convert. He appreciates good tools and he thinks I should have them too. My sweetheart!



I bought purple tulips this week when I shopped for groceries. The prices are coming down so I've been treating myself more often. I'm usually drawn to the bright pinks, reds and oranges but these cool purple ones called out to me. Do you move your flowers around the house? I get urges to see them in different places and might move them once a day. First, the living room, then the buffet in the dining room, then the kitchen table, maybe after that my dresser top. I just like to see them in a new place. They look good anywhere, and different too.


Not to be outdone, the tulips in the backyard beds are all emerging now. I've planted about 40 new ones since last year, including a Darwin hybrid mix. I can't wait to see what they look like. I'm hoping for better ones than last year's mixture provided, many of which were stumpy with weird, pulpy flowers. I'm hoping for a more classic look from this batch. I'm happy to report that my potted tulip bulbs are beginning to sprout too! It's looking good so far.


These girlies are back to laying an egg apiece almost every day. They're funny and sweet and I adore them.


And these two - well. I love them to pieces. I'm really enjoying this middle-childhood phase of life, it's my favorite so far. They're independent, playful, imaginative, active and fun!


I ordered some wildflower seeds selected for desert xeriscape gardening. I desperately want more flowers to cut for bouquets in the summer. I feel optimistic about these because the Bear tells me that they use a similar mixture on the grounds of his workplace. He says they're LUSH down there, so I have everything crossed for these. I ordered them from an Etsy shop, EarthCare Seeds. They were very affordable, shipped quickly and the seller included free heirloom kale seeds too! I've never grown greens but we'll give it a try.


These gorgeous sunny days have led to spectacular sunsets. I took this photo looking over the back wall and westward down the arroyo. Those clouds tell the truth - that's a winter sky. Warm though the afternoons may be, when night falls it still looks like winter. March is usually rougher than February; there are still storms on the horizon. I'm not done with winter yet - there are still afghan evenings ahead, baking afternoons, stews and soups, mornings of crochet and stitching in the sunny living room chair, nights spent reading beside the Bear in companionable silence.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Color Collaborative: February: Precious



This is not my precious thing. By that, I mean it doesn't belong to me. It belongs to my son and I am its trusted guardian. Sometimes I wish I were not; it's extremely fragile and is, in fact, falling apart. I'm afraid to touch it. I have it tucked away and I hardly ever take it out. It's a family heirloom, passed through six generations so far, a tiny leather-bound copy of the New Testament of the Holy Bible.


The binding is torn and is attached by only a small strip of very fragile leather. The leather is faded, cracked and dry but the gilt imprint shines. The leather was once supple and smooth, a handsome little book for a young boy. It was purchased, and gifted, in Ohio in 1887. The giver, my husband's great-great-grandmother, and the recipient, her three-year-old son, were Presbyterians. They were devout followers of their Scottish ancestors' faith. What were 19th-century Presbyterians like? I'm picturing austerity, simplicity, refinement. I'm picturing dark clothing, long Sunday meetings, a large but plain meal afterward. A devotion to hard work, good manners, studiousness. A comfortable life but not a fancy one. In my mind, 19th-century American Protestantism looks like this book.



The flyleaf has been inscribed. The first child to receive this book, CBH, was my husband's great-grandfather. He gave it to his eldest grandchild, my husband's uncle, CWH. He is my father-in-law's elder brother. CWH never had any children of his own. My husband's elder brother died at age seventeen. It must have seemed unlikely that my husband would be the one to produce the first grandchild but here we are. The book was given to my son when he was about three years old. This has not been inscribed in the book. We've all been afraid of damaging it. I may try, though. I think it would be nice. The facing page, which I think is called the colophon, has pencil scribbles from some long-ago child. I don't normally condone writing in books but I'm glad for it this time.


Inside is the only bit of color, a green grosgrain-ribbon bookmark decorated with an illustration of Christ. It's pasted onto the ribbon and is peeling at the top edge. I'm told by past keepers of the book that the ribbon has always been in it, at least as far back as 1950, when its last living recipient got it. I suppose it could be original, from 1887. I hope so. I'm careful with it. The edges are curled and faded and a bit frayed. The part that stays inside the book is darker, and smoother. The sticker is hardly faded at all, Christ's robes wine-colored, a crisp white stole around His shoulders. The sheep flanking Him are finely detailed, their fleeces snowy. He stands amid detailed rocks and plants with a clear sky behind Him. He is color and light in a drab little book with miniscule print and tissue-thin pages.


Now this precious little book belongs to my son. He has not been raised in a church-going family, though we do read Bible stories and we celebrate Christian holidays as well as some Jewish ones, in a nod to my own mixed-faith heritage. He has seen this book a few times and he thinks it's interesting. It stays with me for safekeeping, wrapped in old cotton Anne Klein scarf, tucked into the back corner of my underwear drawer with other treasures: letters written to me by my husband, my son's baby teeth in individual, marked envelopes (my daughter's soon to join them), my newborns' hospital hats and bracelets. I don't know who will receive this little book next, or when, but I plan to let my children handle that when the time comes. For now, I'm proud to keep it safe for them, a slice of family history and, hopefully, their own future.

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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 
CJ at Above the River
and February's guest poster, Sarah at mitenska
 
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, February 16, 2015

Heartwarmer


Heartwarmer is my latest crocheted afghan and probably my most eagerly-awaited one. The Bear, who took the photos in this post, started using Heartwarmer almost as soon as I wove in the last ends. He'd been lying in wait, it felt like. But I was happy to see him so excited about using one of my blankets, especially since I'd made it with him in mind. He's tall and my other blankets are a bit too short for him to cover up comfortably in a recliner, which is his preferred position for watching TV at night. Heartwarmer is a big blanket, plenty long enough for his needs at nearly 70 inches. He can cover up all the way to his chin. I named this blanket Heartwarmer when I first started working on it, back in September. It was my winter project, meant to keep my lap warm as it grew and pooled around my feet. I love having a fall-into-winter afghan project; it's becoming a happy yearly tradition for me.


Heartwarmer is made with my own improvised crochet pattern. I wanted a blanket that was warm but not overly heavy. I wanted it to be a little like the cotton waffle-weave blanket we've always used on our bed: warm enough to use alone in the summer, or as an extra layer of warmth under the quilt, but not a heavy, thick blanket. Heartwarmer feels like this to me, and the stitch pattern reminds me of the waffle-weave used in our bed blanket.


I chose to make my blanket in a striped pattern, chunky stripes of eight rows for each color. I've always admired a woolen blanket sold by LL Bean, the Hudson's Bay Point Blanket, with its bold stripes of color against a neutral background. Have a look at that link, though, and you'll see why I don't own one of these blankets. But I love the look and decided to try to replicate it in crochet. I used gray instead of off-white, because I love gray, and slightly softer colors than the LL Bean blanket uses, because they match my decor better. I think I got a similar feel, though. It's simple but graphic. I like the colors a lot; they're soothing to the eye and clean-looking. I used gray throughout the blanket, to give it a bit of a pattern, but the other colors were used "randomly" for interest.



The Bear had fun playing with the stripes when he took these photos. He finds the geometry of them pleasing, he says. Always with the math, this one.


I do think the texture of this blanket is very interesting. It feels, and looks, woven just like I'd hoped. But it's lightweight and uses surprisingly little yarn, since the stitch pattern contains as many chain spaces as it does hdc stitches. It creates a rippled effect as well as an open, airy honeycomb look.

I'll preface this by saying that I'm not skilled with pattern-writing, but here's how I crocheted this blanket:

The foundation chain should be in multiples of 3 (+2 for turning). I did 204 (+2) chains for mine (with worsted-weight yarn and a size I hook, moving down to a size H hook for the first row). For row 1, make (US) half-double (hdc) stitch in each chain, starting in the third chain from the hook, with two chains for turning at the end of the row, turn. For row 2, hdc in the chain space, *chain 1, skip 1, hdc in next stitch* (repeat between **) all the way to end of the row, ch2 and turn. For row 3, hdc in first chain space, *ch1, hdc in next chain space*, ch2 and turn. Repeat row 3 as desired.


My border is simple as can be, just a round of single-crochet stitches in navy blue. On the sides, I made one sc into the "post" of each hdc stitch. For the corners, I did 2sc, ch3, 2sc. This gave them a simple, pointed look.


It drapes nicely, due to the lightweight fabric. It doesn't get a lot of time to hang around draping the furniture, though; it's always in use, it seems, whether being worn or being used in tent-making. I absolutely love to see my blankets in use. It's...heartwarming (bear with me).


Heartwarmer is crocheted with I Love This Yarn worsted-weight acrylic yarn in the following colors:

Greybeard
Cranberry
Sungold
Dark Olive
Coffee
Stonewash
Old Rose
Lavender Smoke
Rosy Cheeks
Mid-Green
Navy
Burnt Pumpkin
Glacier
Sea Blue
                                                                        
Size: about 45 inches wide by 70 inches long
Hook: H (5mm) Clover
Started September 2014, finished February 2015
Made with love by Thistle for her Bear
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