Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sun standing still

On the longest day of the year, I roamed through the backyard at sunset. It was 97 degrees at nearly eight o'clock in the evening. We're in the middle of a severe heat wave in the southwest; my weather app told me it was 106 degrees in my neighborhood around three in the afternoon. It felt like only 101, the weather app said hopefully.

The day, and the evening, felt like forever. Dusty, oven-baked eternity. In summer, I often long for the sun to go down, wanting darkness and the relative cool it brings. But on Solstice, a celebration of light and warmth, it feels right to let go and watch the long slide into night.

For the past few weeks, we've been watching the light move inside the house at sunset. It comes in through the window in the family room, on the back wall of the house, inching its way across the family room, kitchen and breakfast nook, illuminating appliances and artwork. We watch as the column of light lines up with walls, windows and door frames, the angles changing as the days pass. The Bear calls it "Househenge." Even here in our eighties ranch, it's plain to see why the movements of the sun have always captured people's attention.

Marking time with celebrations and special days is very important to me. I watch my world carefully as the seasons pass; rhythm and ritual are integral to who I am. Seasons come and go, and summer will never be my favorite, but I'm learning to embrace it, the good with the not-so-good. In June, I'm not necessarily seeking the sun, but I can see the magic, and the possibility, in an endless summer's day.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Summer, this week

This was our third week of summer break, 2017.

We finished the session of swimming lessons. Both children passed their level. The GB will move on to the next level, while the LB will move on to diving lessons, having finished the highest level of swimming lessons. We'll go back in mid-July for another two-week session, at a different pool, which has diving facilities. No more tree for me this summer; the other pool is an indoor one.

There were two trips to the library. The children had their summer reading logs stamped and got their prizes (they can get a prize every week), and we attended two different activities: a workshop to make Pipe Cleaner Ninjas (basically poseable action figures made from pipe cleaners, beads and drinking straws), and an afternoon of free play with Zoobs, a building toy.

I tried to photograph our food more often but most of it was really boring. The highlights were pasta sauce with basil from the garden, and lobster tails. I made the lobster for the Bear and me, on our at-home Saturday date dinner. I'd never cooked lobster before, afraid to mess up such a nice food, but it was really easy. The small Bears did some cooking this week too; he made scrambled eggs and she made meatloaf! She also helped me make Raspberry Lemonade Cheesecake Bars, the June recipe in my Betty Crocker calendar. They were a bit of work, but really delicious.

I didn't finish a book this week, but I'm in the middle of reading Jojo Moyes' Paris for One. This is a collection of stories. The title story is more of a novella, I'd say, since it's longer. They're really nice stories, very sweet and romantic. She has some really famous books, such as Me Before You and After You, but I like her lesser-known books better. If you want a wonderful, funny love story, you should read One Plus One.

We have a ripe tomato in the backyard! It's almost ready for picking. We will split it four ways and celebrate our nascent gardening success.

The bathroom is finished. I mentioned last week that we were doing some work in the main hall bathroom (we have two, a larger one that the children use, and a smaller three-quarter bath for us). The Bear did most of the work and it looks great. This was a light bathroom renovation and not too hard for us. We've done a complete DIY bathroom remodel (down to floor joists and wall studs, totally gutted) in a previous house, before we had children, and it was a nightmare. This was a breeze compared to that.

I made seven Maybelle Squares this week. I'm almost finished with my fifth ball of Grey.

We'll be camping later this week, and we're starting to get ready now. I expanded my menu beyond hot dogs. We'll be there two nights; one will be hot dogs but the other will be chicken kebabs, for variety.

Today, I'm cooking for a Father's Day dinner with my in-laws. The Bear has ribs in the smoker, and I'm making The Pioneer Woman's baked beans, broccoli slaw and Cool 'N Easy Pie, one of my favorite retro summer desserts.

I hope you have a great week! It will be very hot here (100+ degrees every day), yikes. Wish me luck.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Crochet as crochet can

These summer days have proven to be busier than I expected. It's good - nobody has complained much about boredom yet, and the sibling squabbling has been minimal. We've kept up daily math, writing and art homeschool time, as we'll do all summer. I'm also trying to leave plenty of time for them to entertain themselves, which is also important. It's really hot now. Today has the added bonus of being smoky outdoors. I think there's a wildfire in a national forest somewhere in the state; smoke is blowing into the valley and making everything hazy. You can smell it in the air too; I'm just hoping we can keep the swamp cooler running without getting smoke inside the house. Anyway, we're busy and it's good, but of course there isn't a lot of time for me. I'm complaining just a little, but that's me in the summer: slightly disgruntled with the whole situation. Meh. I'm not good at taking time for myself, or getting over the guilt when I do, but I'm working on it.

I've been crocheting as much as I can, in the in-between times when I'm not teaching, driving, cooking, cleaning or sitting through a lesson somewhere. I've debated bringing yarn with me, as I have sometimes done in the past, but I haven't felt like it yet this summer. I've been reading a lot instead, aiming for a book or two per week. The crochet has been wonderful, though. I'm almost halfway through my Maybelle squares. I've finished four colors now and have started my fifth. I'm enjoying this project so much, even still. I had such a hard time finally settling on a blanket motif - it took me about a year of trial-and-error crochet! But now I feel settled and it's fulfilling the way I want it to be. I don't feel stressed out. Instead, I feel like I'm doing something I love. Plain and simple.

The square pattern comes from here, a blog called My Rose Valley. I've made 78 squares so far. My blanket plan calls for 169 squares. I want a big square blanket - 13 by 13 squares. It will be about 100 inches on each side before adding the border. I haven't even begun to think about the border yet, though. First things first - finish all the squares and join them. I will probably join as I go, but that's not set in stone yet either. For yarn, I'm using my trusty standby, Stylecraft Special DK.

This is the main flower color I'm working with at the moment, Pale Rose. The outer rounds are done in Grey. I'll join the squares in Grey too. It's for our bed, and we prefer a cool, soft color palette in our room. I've been thinking a lot about rooms and light lately. Maybe it's the searing sunrise as we approach solstice. I considered making a blanket with bolder colors (burgundy, mustard, leafy green, navy) and cream as the main color, but I might save that scheme for the next blanket I make for the LB, who has a bright, sunny bedroom on the western side of the house. Our room, at the back of the house with northern exposure, seems to want soft, watery colors instead.

After I finish with Pale Rose, these are the remaining flower colors. From left: Petrol, Grape, Denim and Duck Egg. Petrol and Denim look very similar to each other in my photos, which is unfortunate because they're quite different in real life. Petrol is dark blue-green; Denim is, well, like a softly worn pair of jeans.

My full range of colors for this blanket, as seen in my yarn basket. I wanted a small palette for this one. I realized a few months ago that my biggest problem in blanket planning is trying to work with too many colors. In some incarnations of this blanket, I had as many as 25 colors I was attempting to wedge into granny squares, hexagons and other motifs. It's just too much. I'm in awe of people who can wrangle a huge color palette into a pleasing blanket design. I am not one of them. I can't tell you how liberating it feels to finally admit this to myself. Crochet feels creative and fun again.

(Glamorous grocery bag where I keep my squares, lest anyone think it's all pretty straw baskets around here).

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Summer, this week

This was our second week of summer break, 2017.

I see now that I need to remember to take more photos in my summer weeks. Of food, especially. It seems like I'm always cooking, serving or cleaning up after meals now that my children are home all day.

We started swimming lessons. We went every morning in the week and we'll go every morning this week too. The pool is...well, the pool. Nothing ever really changes up there. I sit under the tree, I read a little (it can be difficult to focus on a book depending on who's nearby), I chat with other parents and family members. I've known some of them for years; babies have become school-aged children in the time I've sat under that tree at the pool!

It's really hot now. May was surprisingly cool and somewhat wetter than usual, but June has taken care of that. The swamp cooler runs day and night. I try to do all my household chores in the early morning. The swimsuits and towels dry in no time flat on the clothesline after we return from the pool.

We're in the middle of some DIY renovation in the main bathroom. The vanity top and porcelain sink were in really bad shape so we bought a new all-in-one vanity top, the kind with an integrated sink bowl. The countertop is a nice, light-colored Corian and the sink is white. We bought a new faucet, light fixture, and towel holders too, all in brushed-nickel finish. And we'll be painting the walls. We hadn't had a major headache home improvement project in what, a few weeks, so we went and found ourselves a new one. Any excuse to go back and forth to Lowe's three times a day.

My repaired dryer is actually making me really happy. I didn't realize how poorly it had been working before it finally gave up. Clothes are drying much faster now.

On the subject of laundry, I got a great deal on Tide this week. My goal is eight cents a load. I only manage to do this a couple of times a year, through a perfect storm of store sales, manufacturer's coupons and other discounts, but when I do, wheeee! It's a rush. Seriously.

The Bear and I went to Which Wich for lunch yesterday, after our second trip to Lowe's. The children were spending some time with their grandparents, enabling us to shop and work, so we took advantage and stopped for lunch. It was just sandwiches but it was nice to eat a meal out, and alone with him. I saved half of my club sandwich for today. Lately, I've been eating a lot of PB&J's and cheese slices with my usual lunchfellows.

The GB started her summer ballet class. It's rigorous, which will be really good for her. She will go back in the fall with new skills. 

I finished one book, I Found You by Lisa Jewell. Do you like her books? This is her newest novel. I really enjoy her books, which are mostly mysteries. Her characters are very believable and the dialogue is good. This book involves a man with amnesia, which seems like a tired plot device, but it's a good story and it kept me guessing.

In the yard, new things are happening. Nicotiana is in full bloom, evenings and mornings only. The hibiscuses are just getting their swirly cage-like buds; there should be flowers in about three weeks. I pruned back the second rosebush bloom and am now watching the third bloom just beginning to unfold. We cut back the nandinas, which had become very overgrown. One of them is right behind my clothesline on the back porch. Isn't it lucky how we keep finding ways to make sure I can stay on the laundry?

I've been working on my Maybelle squares again. It's so nice to be back in the crochet habit after a few weeks away. I've just started my fifth of nine colors! I'm nearly halfway through making the squares for this blanket. 

The Bear took the small ones on a hunt for obsidian, in a place where he knows you can find it, and they came home with a big bagful of interesting pieces. They washed and dried them and have been studying them all week. I don't know what we'll do with it, but even I have to admit it's really cool stuff.

This week, we'll be back to the pool and we'll go to a couple of library events for kids. Today, in between whatever I can help with in the bathroom, I have plans to bake with Miss GB, and later I will roast a chicken. It's hot for the oven to be on, but the leftovers will come in handy for the Bear's lunches this week. I'm making lists for a camping trip later this month. So far, I have: s'mores ingredients, hot dogs, buns, ketchup. That should be plenty, right?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Voluptuous vanilla

Last week, we made our first ice cream of the summer. We've decided that we should be making it more often, so we have plans to make several different flavors as the summer unfolds. Homemade ice cream is just plain wonderful, isn't it? I'm loving it now, but I was really intimidated by the idea until a few years ago. It was the custard part that worried me, I think. I was concerned about cooking it wrong and getting scrambled eggs in sweet cream. But now I see that it's actually very easy and that having good recipes makes all the difference. Good ingredients matter too, of course, and when you make your own, you know exactly what's in it.

I prefer ice cream without lots of "stuff" in it, such as nuts, chocolate bits, candy, etc. I really love simpler flavors and smoother textures. Vanilla ice cream is actually one of my favorite kinds. I never tire of the scent or the flavor of vanilla. Everyone seems to enjoy vanilla ice cream; it's simple but versatile. We've made a lot of different vanilla ice cream recipes in our ice cream machine, some more successful than others. We tried a new one this time, from our favorite ice cream book, The Best Ice Cream Maker Cookbook Ever by Peggy Fallon. This really is an awesome book, the title does not lie. I have the popular Ben & Jerry's book as well, but I think Fallon's recipes are easier and they just seem to come out better for me. I've loved everything I've made from Fallon's book, and have plans for several more of her recipes in the near future.

The recipe we tried this time is called Voluptuous Vanilla Ice Cream. One look at the recipe and you'll see why it has such a suggestive name. It's totally lush. It's a play on the standard French vanilla recipe, but with even more egg yolk. Lots of vanilla extract too, but not vanilla bean. I think this is because the richer base needs a stronger punch of vanilla flavor; vanilla bean's subtle flavor might be lost in all that egg. Anyway, there are different kinds of vanilla ice cream; this one is the rich, full-bodied, lush kind.

Voluptuous Vanilla Ice Cream (from The Best Ice Cream Maker Cookbook Ever by Peggy Fallon)
Makes about 5 cups 

3 cups half-and-half or light cream
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
6 egg yolks
1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract

In a heavy medium saucepan, combine the half-and-half, heavy cream, and sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is hot, 6 to 8 minutes.

Whisk the egg yolks in a medium bowl. Gradually whisk in about 1 cup of the warm cream. Return the egg mixture to the saucepan, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring, until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon (at least 160 degrees on a candy thermometer), 5 to 10 minutes. Do not boil or the egg yolks will curdle.

Strain the custard into a bowl and partially cover. Let cool 1 hour at room temperature. Stir in the vanilla. Refrigerate, covered, until very cold, at least 6 hours or as long as 3 days.

Pour the custard into the canister of an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer's directions. Transfer to a covered container and freeze at least three hours or as long as 3 days.

This was the best vanilla ice cream we've made yet, for several reasons. One, it was downright amazing. The richness of the eggs and the heavy scent and flavor of vanilla made it clear why Fallon calls it voluptuous. Also, the high proportion of half-and-half to heavy cream was a good idea. Other recipes which use more heavy cream have tended to be greasy, in my experience. They leave a coating of fat in your mouth. This felt lighter and cleaner, while still being lush. Finally, this ice cream didn't have that icy, brittle texture that some homemade ice creams develop. It only started to feel slightly icy after it had been in the freezer for a couple of days. Until then, it remained smooth and creamy, which was really nice. We will definitely make this one again.

Some notes and suggestions from my own experience with the recipe:

* Use the finest sieve or strainer you have (for removing bits of cooked egg from the custard). A mesh colander worked well for me.

* I've had bad luck with "coating a spoon" directives in ice cream recipes. Now I always rely on temperature (using my Thermapen).

* Use good-quality pure vanilla extract. There's a lot of extract in this recipe and you will want the best flavor.

* We chilled the custard overnight, as we usually do. The longer, the better, in our experience. We have an ice cream maker that requires ice and salt to achieve freezing, and it helps a lot to have the custard very cold when it goes in the canister. Your mileage may vary depending on your machine, of course.

* Don't skimp on any ingredients. When I first started making ice cream, I thought I could make it "healthier" by playing around with the cream amounts, to varying degrees of success (but mostly pretty low). I decided to be honest with myself: ice cream will never be a health food. If I keep it to an every-few-weeks treat in the summertime, it's okay to enjoy it in its full-fat, full-sugar form. And it makes ice cream that my family adores, and I don't feel I've wasted ingredients either. Everybody wins.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Summer, this week

This was our first week of summer break, 2017.

We went to the library to watch Inside Out, which I loved! My children enjoyed it too. What a cute movie, with some really important educational moments. I always take advantage of movie showings at the library, especially in the summer. A couple of hours in relatively quiet, air-conditioned darkness, for free? Sign me up!

I finished two books this week. I read The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo, a novel that I wasn't sure about when I added it to my summer holds list (it came in very quickly for me), but I actually loved it. The story is from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old girl who was "the one left behind" when she and another girl were innocent victims in the holdup of a sandwich shop; the holdup ends with the other girl being kidnapped. The author leaves a lot to the reader's imagination, and there are a few disturbing parts, but it's a good story.

The other book I finished was less satisfying: Framed: Why Michael Skakel Spent Over a Decade in Prison for a Murder He Didn't Commit by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Do you know about this case? Michael Skakel is a cousin of RFK's children, through their mother, Ethel. In 1975, a teenage neighbor of Michael's named Martha Moxley was murdered in their wealthy Connecticut neighborhood. The murder went unsolved for decades, before they tried and convicted Michael, who was 15 at the time of Martha's murder. I've been following this case for years, since I first saw a segment about it on Unsolved Mysteries in the 1990's, and had read all the books on it. RFK Jr.'s book is new, and explores some other theories. It was an interesting read, well-written and perhaps unintentionally kind of funny in places, but I still don't know what to think. I'd say I'm about 50-50 on his guilt.

We made our first ice cream of the season. I think I'll share more in a few days, but it was a very luscious and rich vanilla recipe that was so incredibly good. OMG.

There were several rainy days during the week, which was so pleasant. June can be a relentlessly scorching month here, dry and very hot, with few storms to speak of. But we had three or four days with rain at some point! It was very welcome. The forecast looks to be reverting to Normal June Conditions for the next week or more, so I'll just have to reflect on the cool, grayish days we enjoyed. Only a few more weeks until monsoon season!

Garden report: our tomatoes are budding now, and our herbs are ready to eat. The sunflowers are about six inches tall. The nicotiana is blooming. There are tiny green grapes. The hibiscus stalks about about a foot tall. The roses are on their second bloom. The geraniums in the patio barrel are thriving!

I had another Kir Royale. What a lovely drink, fizzy and ladylike. I think this is going to be my new summer tipple.

The dryer has been repaired, by Mr. Bear. The new heating element took about five seconds to install, and I was right back in business with the laundry the same night of the installation. It would have been just fine with me if the shipping and installation had taken slightly longer.

Swimming lessons begin this week, along with summer ballet. We've never done summer ballet before, always thinking it would be nice to have a break, but Miss GB is becoming a serious dancer (she'll start her sixth year of ballet in August) and it will be good to keep up her skills over summer.  We have guitar lessons for the LB earlier on the same afternoon each week, so we'll just go right from one to the other. My talented, determined children!

The swamp cooler is back on, as of yesterday. We held out as long as we could. Now we have our old friend blowing cool, damp air through the house again. You know it's summer when you've fired up the old swamper.

I hope you have a good week! We'll be summering it up over here. Tomorrow, I'll be back under my shady pine tree on the hill next to the pool - year seven, I think!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Bend and stretch

I've barely done a thing since last week. Just hanging out around the house, tending to my plants, watching the sunsets. I've been eating a lot of fruit - I can't resist it now that all the summer fruits are available. I think I've had ten pounds of strawberries so far. I've been reading a lot. I've slept about nine hours every night. Now that I've spent almost a week in full flop-mode, recovering from those last few weeks of school which very nearly did me in, it's time to make some plans.

Things I'm looking forward to this summer break:

- Blogging: I think I'll write "summer, this week" posts again, like I did last summer, because it helped the time pass.

- Crochet: I want to make good progress on my Maybelle squares. I could have them all done by September if I put my mind to it, but I don't want to rush.

- Other projects: I haven't done any needlework in about six months, so I'd like to start something new. I have some other crochet ideas too, including a bag.

- Reading: I've done my summer library book-requesting. Most of the books have many holds, so it takes all summer to get them, but they trickle in and there's always something to read.

- Mental health: I'm going to try really hard not to let the weather get to me.

- House stuff: I want to do some redecorating in the LB's room. I haven't done any since he was seven or eight, and he's nearly 12 now. I'm looking for ideas that can take a boy's room into the teen years.

- I also want a new art poster for my kitchen.

- Summer food: I'm going to make ice cream more often this summer. I want to try at least two kinds I've never made: chocolate and peach. Maybe mint-chip too. And popsicles and smoothie pops. I need more cold, fruity food in my life.

- And summer drinks! Cheers to summer.

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