Thursday, December 29, 2016

Four years

After a quiet Christmas, we've been enjoying a calm week at home. We've been out most days for quick errands - trips to the library or the grocery store, a little drive down to the Bosque, hitting up the feed store for Layena and black-oil sunflower seeds, dinner out one night when the ham leftovers just got to be too much. Mostly, we're staying home, filling our days with books, crafts, games and movies, sleeping in, making fires in the evenings. It's one of the best things in our year, actually, these two weeks around the holidays when the schools are closed and the Bear's employer shuts down. Sure, we all get a little antsy with the free time, and I can't keep up with the eating or the dishes, but it's nice to have a break from real life for a while.

Among all the very sad celebrity deaths this year, I have to tell you that I am most upset about George Michael. Gutted, actually. He was my first and longest celebrity crush, since I was a little girl. I loved him even more when I got older. So good-looking! Just two days before his death, I was demonstrating his dance moves from "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" to my skeptical children. I'll always love you, George.

My Christmas presents this year included a new laptop, so we've been busy getting it up and running, moving all my bookmarks, photos and files from the old laptop, which finally churned and wheezed itself nearly to a halt over the past few weeks. It was only a couple of years old and not meant to be a long-term solution for my computing needs (which are admittedly few), but it was a real pain in the neck, especially at the end. I like my new laptop much better so far. I am sure it will enhance my life as a consumer of Teen Mom videos and murder-related podcasts only the most erudite and illuminating media.

Today marks my fourth blogging anniversary. I want to say thank you to everyone who takes the time to read my blog. I'm not very good at responding to comments but I appreciate them very much. I am consistently surprised, and honored, by how much people care about me and my family.

As I've often said, blogging has helped me become so much more appreciative of my own life. Like most people, there are parts of my life I'd rather not share on my blog, some of which played a major role in my decision to blog positively in the first place. I've sometimes wondered if that's disingenuous - I'm deliberately avoiding shining a light on the lousier things. I'm sure there are people who view it that way and I get it - it's sort of a highlight reel. But I also know what I've dealt with and how it brought me down and prevented me from enjoying the bounty of good things in the life I've created for myself. Taking the time to acknowledge and appreciate them through photography and writing has helped me heal and grow. I am stronger for having reached out. I am better for having found a community filled with people who understand. Thank you again for being just plain good.

Happy New Year! I hope 2017 brings all the best things to you and yours.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Merry merry

Two days before Christmas and the fridge is almost too full, the freezer definitely is, and everyone is ready to stay home for a couple of days in between neighborhood walks. Excitement is in the air: there may be a little snow on Christmas Eve. Everywhere I've gone for the last few days, everyone has been talking about it.

Yesterday was a full day of soft, cold rain; during a short break in early evening, we drove around looking at Christmas lights in nearby neighborhoods. It's a yearly tradition. The small Bears sipped hot cocoa in the backseat and we old ones looked forward to something stronger afterward.

Today, the sun shines weakly through lingering clouds and it's cold and still a little damp. I've already been to the store for last-minute groceries and now the afternoon stretches out, movies and egg nog in the offing. I still have gifts to wrap, but it will get done. I should try to finish today, because if it really does snow tomorrow night, I won't be able to stop watching to do anything else.

I wish you and your family the merriest of Christmases!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Tamale time

Tamale-making has become one of my favorite adopted holiday traditions since moving to New Mexico ten years ago. Tamales, if you aren't familiar with them, usually consist of a dough filling wrapped inside a corn husk and cooked by steaming. The fillings might contain meat, vegetables or a corn flour called masa, or some combination of these, along with spices and sometimes cheese. Tamales have origins in ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures; today they are commonly eaten in places with  Mexican or Latin American cultural influence, New Mexico being one place where they are very popular. Many people make tamales around Christmas or other festive times.

Have you ever had a tamale? I'd never tried one before I came here, but now I really enjoy them. Our tamale-making day usually happens just before Christmas. The Bear and I make them together. I make up the masa filling (we like a meatless tamale, made up of butter and shortening, with masa, chopped green chile and corn kernels and spices). He does the wrapping, which I find a little tricky.

We either steam our tamales in a big stockpot with a steamer basket inside, or we cook them in the steamer basket part of our pressure cooker. Either way, they come out great. The masa filling cooks into a stiff little log, almost like a corn cake. You don't eat the husk; it's just a wrapper for cooking in, but you do want to scrape out the crusty bits of masa from the folds of the husk because those are pretty tasty.

Tamales are a fair bit of work, so you definitely want to make a big batch if you're going to do them. They're great for a party. Sometimes, the Bear takes tamales to his annual work potluck holiday luncheon and they're very popular. He always makes sure to leave some at home so he can enjoy a few himself! You can buy premade and frozen tamales in the grocery stores too, which is a nice way to try different fillings. I like chicken fillings better myself, but pork is another popular kind. I've never tried one, but I've heard of tamales with sweet fillings too, almost like a rice pudding or other sweet comfort food. We stick with the masa and veggie filling and eat them as a side accompaniment to meat, but you can experiment with almost any kind of filling, I think. The Bear likes to eat his tamales with warmed red chile sauce, for an extra kick.

We're fortunate that all of the ingredients for our tamales are easy to find in local mainstream grocery stores but you can probably find them in a Latin or Hispanic specialty market. The Bear wrote up his own recipe a few years ago, based on his experiments with making tamales at home. They're a little on the spicy side, but that's easy to adjust. Here's how we make our tamales, with his notes, if you'd like to give it a try...

Fresh Corn Tamales
1 lb. prepared masa (add water to dry masa according to package directions)
1/4 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup shortening or lard
2 cups frozen corn or kernels from 2 ears fresh sweet corn, roughly chopped
2 large green chiles or 1 cup frozen prepared green chiles, thawed and well-drained
1 1/2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp cayenne
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
Dried corn husks, about 2 oz. (before use, soak husks according to package directions)

Combine the wet ingredients and fat together in a bowl. I use a potato masher to really amalgamate things, but a food processor would do even better.

Combine the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Add the dry ingredients gradually to the dough to get even distribution and good mixing. Working by hand, I sprinkle over the dough about a quarter of the dry ingredients at a time.

(He writes here about different ways of wrapping tamales, but you can wrap them any way you like, generally like a little package with the ends of the husks tucked under the tamale to hold it closed. If your husk is long and pointy, you may prefer to fold the sides inward and then fold the bottom tip upward; the top will remain open, so put it in the steamer carefully. With pointy husks, you can also use two of them with the flat ends together, as shown below, to get a package that is closed on both ends).

Use about 1/4 cup dough per husk (I use a cookie scoop).

Layer tamales inside steamer basket, or stand them in basket with open end pointing up. Steam tamales for 30 minutes.

Serve warm with condiments as desired, such as chile sauce, salsa or mole.

Our recipe yields a good 15-16 tamales (we often double the recipe, as we did here). We refrigerate them in a plastic container for up to a week and heat them in the microwave as needed. They're also easy to freeze and enjoy later on. I'm really glad we brought tamales into our holiday celebrations, especially since we make them together; it's something I really look forward to every year at Christmas time.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Cookies, mainly

I spent all of last weekend (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) baking cookies. I do this every year, always on the last weekend before school ends for the holiday break. I start planning my cookie-baking sometime in November, going through recipes that I already have, as well as new-to-me recipes from websites and cookbooks, usually settling on four recipes to make. I stock up on butter for about a month, buying a pound of whichever brand is on sale in a given week when I do my grocery shopping. (I'm not picky about butter brands; for cookies, Kroger's store brand is just as good as Land O'Lakes or Challenge butter, in my humble opinion). Most of the cookies are donated to the school, for a fundraiser. We have an annual art show during that last week of school, with cookies for sale all evening. You can buy a nice mixture of cookies, packaged in a plastic takeout box, for a few dollars, all of which goes back into the school. I love to bake cookies, so I'm happy to make enough for a big donation, plus few to hold back for home too.

This year's cookie assortment came out particularly well, I think. I tried to avoid some of the recipes I've had trouble with in past years, such as my biscotti that always spread too much during the first "loaf" phase of baking. I didn't bother with anything that required the addition of almond paste or lots of food coloring; I find both kind of hard to incorporate nicely. This year, I wanted simple, easy recipes that looked nice too. These are the cookies I made, arranged clockwise in the above photo (click the cookie's name to see the recipe):

Raspberry Almond Shortbread Thumprints
Mexican Wedding Cakes
Citrus Slice and Bake Cookies 
Mint Chocolate Delights 

I think the shortbread cookies are my favorite. I love almond flavoring in a cookie and the icing is a nice touch. My icing was a little too runny to make pretty designs on the cookies but the flavor was there. I was in the mood for Mexican wedding cakes this year, having gone a good decade without making any. I used finely chopped pecans in them, but most kinds of nuts work well, especially walnuts and almonds.

The citrus cookies were so easy to make; I think the best part was dyeing sugar yellow and orange for decorating the dough logs before slicing them up. I don't think I realized you could make your own colored sugar so easily. I'd tried it once and couldn't make all the dye blend into the sugar. It turns out you need to stir a long time and chop up the dye clumps with the spoon and eventually, you'll get really pretty colored sugar. I'm looking forward to trying it again, actually!

The mint chocolate cookies are one of my old standbys; I make them every year. The recipe makes a LOT of cookies and they're really festive for this time of year. I buy a bag of the mint-mixture chocolate chips as soon as I see them for sale around Thanksgiving, just for these cookies. All in all, a good selection of recipes and plenty of delicious cookies - twenty dozen before donation!

Have a cookie or two with me? I'll make you some tea, too. I don't know about you, but this week wiped me out. Everything happened all at once. Fun, but exhausting. Today is our first official day of the holiday break, although yesterday afternoon saw me pretty much sacked out in a recliner for a couple of hours, before dragging myself to the kitchen to make couscous and heat some sausages. Just before bedtime, I threw away my checklist for the week. I slept for ten hours last night, waking disoriented at 8:00 this morning, the latest I've slept in months. I guess I needed it. This morning, we did battle at Costco for ham and vodka. It's gray and very windy outside. I'm thinking about settling in with my yarn basket and a festive movie this afternoon. Let Christmas commence.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Holly jolly

Hello! Thank you for your sweet comments about my cross-stitch sampler, and for joining in with my link party too. Lately, I'm flying through the days, which are filled with things to do and places to be. I'm sure it's the same for you. I'm doing my best to take time to savor the season in between the tasks and commitments, which is often easier said than done, but I think I'm doing okay. All the gift-shopping is finished, but nothing is wrapped yet. I'm still hoping to finish the butterfly mobile decoration for the GB, but my hands are hurting so much when I crochet with the cotton yarns that I'm not sure I'll make it. I wanted to crochet two more butterflies. I might have to call it good with the ones I have; there are 18 of them, after all. 

This is our last week before the holiday break. School finishes on Thursday and we won't go back for almost three weeks. It's going to be really nice to have some time off. We have a few short day trips planned, and of course, lots of holiday festivity. I've been baking up a storm for the past few days, amid the recitals and art shows and school parties. I need to donate a substantial amount of cookies to the school for a fundraiser, and of course we need a fair amount for home too. 

Everything is decorated here, inside and out. Would you believe that I'm still reminding people to stop touching the Christmas tree? They're eight and eleven. I can't blame them - it is a pretty crazy thing to have standing in your living room for a month - but I hear that ting-ting-ting of an ornament being manhandled and I feel like I'm in a time warp. "Leave that tree alone," I say from the kitchen. "I'm not touching anything," they invariably reply.

I realized that this week marks ten years since the Bear, LB and I moved to New Mexico (the GB was born here). I've been thinking about how we've come to adopt some of the local holiday traditions. I can no longer imagine Christmas without luminaria. Next weekend, we'll make tamales. This morning, I took the small Bears to see a Christmas mariachi performance, which was fantastic. It was put on by a student group from the University of Texas, all of whom were massively talented musicians, dancers or singers. The show is a popular tradition here, celebrating Christmas in Mexican culture, and it was bright, colorful and happy.

How are your holiday preparations coming along? Are you in the thick of Christmas or are you biding your time? We're just starting to listen to festive music. We have not watched any Christmas movies yet; I have a feeling we'll do that on Friday, when there is no school. I just ate my first candy cane after lunch today. I'd say I'm easing into it at this point, juuust about ankle-boots-deep so far.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

My Sweetiepie ABC's

I'm really excited to share my newest cross-stitch creation today! This alphabet sampler was so lovely to make. It will be a Christmas present for my Girl Bear. The sampler is My Sweetiepie ABC's, designed by the talented Alicia Paulson. I received the sampler kit as a gift for Christmas last year, so it's a nice symmetry to give the finished and framed sampler to the GB for Christmas this year. (It looks like the kit is not available right now, but you can still buy the pattern in Alicia's online shop). If you've never stitched one of Alicia's samplers, I think you should try to do one very soon. Her designs are so pretty, full of sweet motifs, and her color schemes are always beautiful. I've worked from both her kits and her patterns and have thoroughly enjoyed them. Alicia says this sampler is her favorite thing she has ever designed and I think it's my favorite cross-stitch I have ever made.

I started stitching my sampler in late September. I love the planning phase of any project, but I especially enjoy preparing to create a cross-stitch design. There's so much possibility in a hank of embroidery flosses. I love to look at the chart and find where each color will be used. Sometimes there's just a little glimpse of a particular color - a few stitches in one small spot - and it makes me kind of antsy to get to that part, particularly when the color is a vibrant one. That single strand of bright pink in the above photo - I was so excited about it.

The first motifs are exciting, if slightly daunting. How can this turn into a full-fledged sampler? A for apple, for example, is just a tiny piece, but every piece is important to the finished whole. It's mostly a pleasure to watch the design take shape. Counting threads - especially on 28-count linen - can get a little tedious, but if there's one thing I've learned about stitching, from my first project at seven years old (a teddy bear's face in yarn on plastic canvas), it's this: I must stop working when it doesn't feel good anymore. Put everything away and do something else. Stare out the window, make a cup of tea. I can come back a few hours later, or the next day, with fresh eyes and a better attitude, and the work will be pleasurable all over again.

I liked the way this sampler was broken into quadrants, which made the design seem a lot simpler. The daisy, above, stretched down toward the quadrant below, which gave the sampler a nice balance. I enjoyed Alicia's choices for each of the letters, especially the less-obvious ones, like the pie for P and the mail for M. The heart for X (xox) was particularly clever, I thought. I don't know if I would have come up with that one, but the pink heart is very sweet and it reminded me of how my GB, as a toddler, called every heart shape a "valentine."

I don't know whether I have a favorite motif. I liked the quilt a lot, and the house, but really, I adore them all. I know Miss GB will like them all too, but I have a feeling about this little octopus. She really likes sea animals; in particular, she has a thing for octopuses.

I finished stitching in mid-November. I had decided before I even started that this sampler would be framed professionally. I often frame my own cross-stitched pieces; I'm no expert, but I do a presentable enough job, I think. This sampler is a special gift, so I wanted to have it framed as nicely as possible. I spritzed the piece with water and ironed it with the stitches facing down into a towel. Then I wrapped it up in a dry towel. I recommend using a towel to transport your stitched pieces. Lay the ironed piece on a towel that is folded in half horizontally. Then, starting from the top, roll the towel with the stitched piece inside. This protects the stitched piece and makes it easier to carry. It also prevents the stitched piece from getting wrinkled before you can bring it to the framer's. Once there, you can unroll the towel and the stitched piece should be nice and neat for the framer to work with.

For the frame, I chose a very simple wooden frame in a light finish. I think the wood is maple. I didn't want any matting; I felt it would detract from the sampler. I really like the spareness of the design, and the negative space - the way each motif sort of stands alone from all the others. The framer showed me a wide array of frame styles and I didn't like anything very much until I suddenly saw this one on the wall over her shoulder. It was exactly right. I am so happy with it. After I give it to the GB, we'll hang it over her chest of drawers. I hope she will enjoy having this sampler in her room. As soon as I saw the design, I knew I wanted to make it for her. I look forward to surprising her with it - she saw me working on it but she didn't know it was meant for her. It was a delight to make, especially with her in mind, a sweet and lovely design for my sweet and lovely girl.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Winter Project Link Party

Hello! Welcome to December's Winter Project Link Party. This link party is for sharing your current craft projects and giving and receiving encouragement for working on those projects and maybe even getting them finished. I hope you'll want to join me in sharing what you're working on right now!

I finished the My Sweetiepie ABC's cross-stitch sampler and dropped it off at the framer's a couple of weeks ago. It's back home now, ready for Miss GB's Christmas (I'll share it here soon). I moved right on to another project when I finished the sampler. My current crafty pursuit involves these colorful crocheted butterflies. I'm almost done making them; I'd like to add two more solid-colored ones, a light pink and a dark pink. You're probably wondering what I plan to do with them...well, they will soon become a decoration for the GB's room. I plan to give it to her for Christmas, if I can finish it in time, so I've been working on it quite a bit lately.

I'm not usually one for making rainbow-colored stuff, but I loved doing it with these butterflies. Aren't they pretty? I'm using a pattern called Bountiful Butterflies, from crochet designer The Hat and I (that's a Ravelry link). I'll use the butterflies to make a hanging decoration, similar to what you see on the link. The butterflies will hang from beaded strands that are attached at the top to a ribbon-covered embroidery hoop. Fancy! It's actually pretty simple, but it's taken a little bit of guesswork to figure out.

Let me backtrack a little: I first came across the idea on Pinterest, where I saw a photo of a finished decoration, which I just LOVED. Then I tracked it down to Ravelry and saw that there weren't formal instructions for the decoration, just the butterflies themselves, so I studied some of the project photos and came up with a plan for making my own decoration. It will hang from the ceiling, over the GB's bed. Fortuitously, there is already a plant hook in the ceiling exactly where I want it. It won't be exactly like the ones I saw online, more inspired by them. 

I've been thinking about this project for months, since July or so. I bought a few new colors of cotton yarns for the butterflies, to add some brighter colors to my mostly-pastel stash. I had fun choosing beads. I found these multicolored, faceted rondelle beads at Hobby Lobby. I'll use bright pink tulle strips to cover the filament strands where they attach to the hoop at the top. The ideas work in my head, but we'll see how they translate to the real thing. With any luck, I'll be sharing it here soon.

This rainbow on my desk has really grown on me. It has also brought to mind just how full of rainbows my 80's childhood was. I've been remembering all the rainbow things I used to have! I had a stretchy Care Bears belt; a pair of Kangaroos sneakers with rainbows on the sides; a Strawberry Shortcake shirt with a rainbow strip running up one arm, across the chest and down the other arm; shoelaces, hair ribbons, plastic barrettes, a ski hat! Rainbows everywhere. Even the Bear had rainbow suspenders when was a little boy (I have photographic evidence).


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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

First snow

We woke to a light dusting of snow yesterday, the first snow of the season. I went out to the backyard very early, before making breakfast and helping the children get ready for school, to look around and take a few pictures. The hens were awake and they watched me walking around the yard. They were cold, nearly silent and mostly still, standing on one leg at a time while waiting for their breakfast.

I was cold too. We've been having much colder than average temperatures this week, which looks to continue into next week too. It's hard to believe that we started November with warm, almost balmy weather, and now it's ending in a wintry way. You can see our warm autumn, though, in the way some of the leaves are still green. There are even still a few geranium flowers, in spite of our new sub-freezing nights. It's their last hurrah, for sure, so I've been savoring the sight of them on the patio. Yesterday, their leaves were little star-shaped cups of snow.

Flurries fell throughout yesterday morning. The sun hid; an icy wind blew. This morning, it's frigidly cold but the sun is bright. Things have changed out there. The backyard looks different, already a bit less green. The trees across the arroyo, which glowed golden last week, now wear just a few brittle, brown leaves. The mountain peaks are delicately frosted today, white lace against a crystalline sky.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Thankful weekend

We've had a lovely long holiday weekend here, with good food and lots of relaxation. We started with my birthday on Wednesday, which was a nice day. I had my favorite cake, the delicious Berry Chantilly cake from Whole Foods Market, and received some really great presents, including a frame loom, which I'd been wanting for a few months; I have a lot to learn, but the Bear helpfully included a book and I have some videos bookmarked. There were also new mugs, boxes of tea, a flower press that goes in the microwave (can't wait to try that), a new kitchen apron and two beautiful handmade presents from my children - a stitched card and a necklace with painted wooden block-beads, wrapped up in paper box with a strawberry drawn on the top. It was a very happy day and I felt so loved by my sweet little family.

Thanksgiving was a nice day too. I roasted the turkey whole, which I don't usually do, and there were a few moments of panic but it came out really well. It was a sixteen-pound turkey, which seems huge but it was the smallest Butterball turkey in the store! There was a lot of meat and it was all good, even the breast, which I have often allowed to overcook in the past when roasting a whole turkey. We had lots of other food but not too terribly much of anything. We ate leftovers for three days and now we've just got a little turkey left in the fridge, plus three lunches' worth in the freezer, for the Bear to take to work. I'm definitely ready to stop eating turkey, but only because I'm bored with it, not because it was terrible turkey. Tonight's dinner will be steak; the Bear asked for "meat from a four-legged animal."

We've spent most of this afternoon slowly preparing the house for Christmas. The lights are up outside, courtesy mostly of the LB, who is really into wiring things up. He had a whole vision for the yard this year and we mostly let him run with it. We've been staying in the house today otherwise because it's really cold and windy out. There may be a little snow tonight. I'm excited but it's just so weird: four weeks ago, we were carving pumpkins in the backyard in abnormally warm weather for late October. Now, it's just three packed, crazy weeks until the long holiday break.

Thanks for your birthday wishes and kind words on my posts lately. I have to tell you that I really needed a nice, homey birthday and holiday weekend. I had some really awful news about a member of the community recently, the kind of news that I think most parents would find startling and worrisome. Between that and our current national climate, I was feeling pretty lousy. I've always had the same type of response to bad news or troubled times: I go inside, shut the door, turn off the TV and the computer, unplug the phones if I have to. I'm glad I took the time because I feel better now. There's a lot to be done and I'm ready to do it.
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