Saturday, February 25, 2017

Budding blossoms

GB's interpretation of Georgia O'Keeffe's Evening Star IV, for a school project

Thanks for the lovely comments on my post about my grandpa. You guys are so kind and sweet. His death was sudden but not necessarily a shock, given his age, but I've been very sad all the same. I hadn't lost a family member since I was nineteen, when my mother's parents died within four months of each other. I loved them but was not nearly as close to them as I have been to my dad's parents. I've had some hard days and I wasn't sure if I wanted to blog about his death. I'm glad I did, though; it's important to share feelings and I love that I can receive support from all over. I think some people want you to fall apart when a loved one dies and I've never really felt right about that. I am sad, but I'm choosing to focus on happy memories; I know he would prefer that.

This week has been kind of tough with illness in the house. We'd been doing really well this winter, with just a couple of mild colds here and there, but this time around, the GB was quite sick for most of the week with fever and lots of coughing. She went back to school on Friday but she's definitely not totally well yet. We're taking it easy this weekend. Nobody is feeling great, actually. The Bear and I are coughing a bit and the LB is looking kind of pale and glassy-eyed, so maybe he's next in line for whatever the GB has. Sigh...I knew the easy winter illness season would catch up with me eventually. I shopped for groceries this morning and laid in a fresh supply of children's fever and cold medications while I was at it.

My week with sickies at home was about the same as usual; I keep busy with household tasks and hobbies to make the long hours pass. I crocheted some more Sunbursts and I also started a small chevron-ripple throw to use up some of my worsted-acrylic stash, which has become a little ridiculous. I'm trying to pare down, and I want a new throw for the living room anyway, so it's all good. I like crocheting ripples; I was in the mood for a project with longer rows and a little counting. I have new curtains in my kitchen, living room and dining room now and that's been lovely. It's amazing what a few simple changes can do. Reading-wise, I've been back on a Philippa Gregory kick. The Other Boleyn Girl is my hands-down favorite and I've read it so many times. My copy is getting beat up. It's a good story and nothing could be further from real life. It's also pretty trashy, so there's that.

Everything is looking like spring now. The winter jasmine is in bloom, a little later than usual. The plum trees have buds now, definitely a bit late. This winter was a bit colder and wetter than our past few, I think. Normally, we'd have plum blossoms by the final days of February. I'm thinking it will be another week or slightly more. I can't wait. I'm hoping for a good plum crop because I had such a nice time making plum jam two years ago.

Our house-painting project is nearly finished! I'm really happy with how it's looking. The window and door frames are all painted cream, along with the wood trim on the courtyard supports. The back-porch supports will also be cream, when we get to them. The vigas are light brown; we wanted something wood-like until we can replace them altogether in a few years. They have a lot of damage and are not in great shape but fresh caulk and paint did a lot for them. All of this wood was blue before; attractive but a little garish. Painting is kind of a miserable job, in my opinion, and I'll be glad when we're finished, but it's been good to freshen up the outside of the house and I think it's going to be beautiful as things start blooming this spring. I'm excited to see how the house looks with the purples of lavender and Russian sage, and the yellows of Spanish broom, santolina and yarrow. I think the neutral colors of the house will let the plants shine more.

I've got a load of wet towels with my name on them, and then there's lunch to make. This afternoon will feature homeschool work and maybe a movie. Tonight's at-home date will include turkey-and-swiss sandwiches and ice cream. It's a little too cold for exterior painting today (not for the painters, who are hardy and well-insulated, but for the paint itself). You won't hear me complaining, no siree.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

My Grandpa

My Grandpa Bill died two weeks ago. He was 92 and had been in really good health for his age but had been falling down recently. He fell in his backyard doing some gardening and spent a week recovering in the hospital. Then he was sent to a rehabilitation center to rebuild his strength. While he was at a rehab session, he had a stroke and went back into the hospital, where he died somewhat unexpectedly after a few days. I'm very sad about his death. I was close to him when I was growing up. I don't have very many photos of myself with him. I think my mom must have a few that I don't have, but I have always liked this one, taken when I was about two months old. I can't believe how young my grandparents look in this picture! They were in their early fifties when I was born. I was their third grandchild; there are two cousins older than me. My grandpa looks a lot like my dad here, though my dad is now more than a decade older than my grandpa was at the time of the photo. That kind of blows me away. Sometimes I forget how old I am too.

My grandpa was a really interesting guy. He came from Indianapolis and was raised mostly by his grandparents, who were relatively prosperous during the Depression because they owned a coal-and-ice business. Everyone needed coal and ice. My grandpa joined the US Coast Guard during World War II. He was mostly stationed around the northeast but spent some time in coastal California as well. Like many men of his generation, he was self-educated and his interests ranged from gardening to cooking to tropical fish-breeding.

He met my grandmother toward the end of the war, when he was stationed near Brooklyn, New York. She was sixteen, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Latvia, and the president of the Brooklyn chapter of the Frank Sinatra Fan Club. She and a girlfriend decided they wanted to cook dinner for a couple of sailors so she called the Coast Guard base and asked for two nice ones to be sent over to her parents' home. Can you even imagine? I'm trying to picture this happening today and I just can't. They did turn out to be nice sailors and my grandmother was married to the one named Bill a couple of months later, just after she'd turned seventeen. Again, I can't imagine. They had their first son within a year of their wedding, followed quickly by two more. My dad is their youngest son. They raised their family in Brooklyn; my grandpa never went back to Indiana after he met her. He converted to Judaism but was interested in every type of religion and read voraciously on that subject and many others.

When my dad was in college, they left Brooklyn and built a house upstate, near Rhinebeck, on several acres of land. There, they raised chickens and goats and did lots of gardening. My grandpa built a small greenhouse in the backyard. He grew herbs and veggies. They bred dogs and learned to sail. My grandma worked in a local hospital and knew every doctor in the area. My grandpa was an auto mechanic who worked in a few of the big car dealerships and also taught aspiring mechanics in the local vo-tech school. Kids around my age were the last group he taught. Everywhere you went, people in the car-repair business knew Pappy, the name he always went by. I had famous grandparents. My friends loved them; I invited them to my parties.

Most of my childhood was spent about thirty minutes away, in Poughkeepsie. I loved sleeping at their house and helping with the dogs. They took me to plays and museums. When I was about nine, they took me window shopping in Trump Tower. My grandpa said a very rich man lived upstairs. I loved my grandparents' house and land. I don't remember the chickens or goats very well; they mostly had those animals while my parents lived in Georgia for a few years (I was born during that period and lived there until I was five when my parents returned to New York). I remember well the times my grandparents came down to Georgia to see us; Grandpa loved his Southern food and always ordered banana pudding, which he shared with me. He hated turkey. On holidays, my grandmother would make a ham just for him. He loved lamb with mint jelly and always gave me some jelly, but didn't make me eat the lamb. He always took a shower before dinner and combed his hair. When I met my husband, I noticed that he combed his hair the same way. It was a nice association between two good men.

My grandma is doing okay. She sounds good and seems optimistic about her new life but I know it won't be easy. They were married for 71 years, since she was a teenager. I think that will be a difficult adjustment for her. I'll do whatever I can to help. I'm glad she has my uncle and aunt nearby for support. She has a lot of friends and a dog who makes her happy. I'd like to visit her soon. She lives close to the beach, which was a dream they both had for a long time. They lived in North Carolina for a few years before finally settling in Florida. They loved the beach and wanted to be near it again when they finally retired in their seventies (only to begin working again when they got there! I tell you, they're amazing).

Thanks for letting me talk about my grandpa. He was a positive influence in our lives. My husband came to love him as much as I did. I'll miss him very much but I know he had a good, full life.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Sugar snow

In the morning, the house was warm from the stove, but when Laura looked out of the window, she saw that the ground was covered with soft, thick snow. All along the branches of the trees, the snow was piled like feathers, and it lay in mounds along the top of the rail fence, and stood up in great, white balls on top of the gate-posts.

Pa came in, shaking the soft snow from his shoulders and stamping it from his boots. 

"It's a sugar snow," he said. 

Laura put her tongue quickly to a little bit of the white snow that lay in a fold of his sleeve. It was nothing but wet on her tongue, like any snow. She was glad that nobody had seen her taste it.

                                                                 - Little House in the Big Woods - Chapter 7, The Sugar Snow

"The Sugar Snow" is my favorite chapter in one of my favorite books. It's late spring in Wisconsin and all the snow has been melting as the weather warms up. Laura learns later in the chapter that this spring snowfall is called the "sugar snow" because it signifies the best time to make maple sugar, from the sap collected from tapped maple trees as winter draws to a close. Grandpa, Pa's father, has been gathering the sap in buckets and pouring it into a huge cauldron where it boils over a bonfire, with lots of skimming, until it becomes syrup. Pa goes to visit him and brings home maple sugar for his family. In the next chapter, which happens to be my second-favorite chapter in the book, they all go to Grandpa's house for a maple-sugaring dance. The family dances all night while they make, and feast on, maple sugar, and the children make candy by pouring hot syrup onto pans of snow, something I have fantasized about doing since I was nine years old.

We had this kind of snow on Sunday night, into Monday morning. We woke up to a few inches of thick, wet snow on the grass and trees, clinging to patio furniture and cars and fences, the streets and pavements wet but completely clear of snow. The temperature was just above freezing, which meant the snow fell off the branches quickly, hitting the ground with soft plopping sounds that we could hear all around us from inside the house. We aren't in late spring yet, of course, but this was just like the sugar snow as I have always pictured it.

I love a really cold, fine snow that covers everything and keeps you indoors for a day or two. But a snow like this - a wet, heavy one - draws me outside to look around. I think it has a lot to do with my imagining of a sugar snow in the Big Woods. I think of a deep forest draped with this kind of snow, all the trees coated in feathery white, the animals scurrying beneath to avoid the falling clumps. I remember snow like this in my New York childhood, usually occurring in March. We had lots of maple trees there and quite a bit of syrup-making. My favorite field trip in my elementary school years was to a state park which had an environmental education program; they gave a demonstration and we tasted real maple syrup on a little piece of Eggo waffle. We went a few times; I thought a lot about the sugar snow chapter while I was there, even if there was no snow to be found.

My children are growing up in a place where snow is relatively rare, and can shut down the city for a day with only a few inches. Snowmen and sledding happen roughly every other winter. One thing is for sure, though: the impulse to taste this kind of snow must be inborn - not to mention timeless and universal - because both of my children do it every single time. On Monday, we stayed in the house most of the day because it was so damp and chilly outside. We went out for the GB's ballet class in the late afternoon. By then, the snow on the ground was almost all melted and only a little remained on bushes. We walked past a big juniper and both of them grabbed some snow to eat. The GB, who has not read this book yet, knows I think of it as sugar snow. She said it was "like cotton candy with no flavor," a reaction not unlike Laura's ideas about fluffy clouds of snow.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Love and chocolate

February usually brings a stretch of warm, sunny weather that feels more like mid-spring than mid-winter, and we got our taste this past week. The sky was perfectly clear for days and we played in the backyard most afternoons or took walks in the neighborhood. We spotted lots of bulb sprouts pushing up, including in our own backyard, where the tulips are poking through last year's dead primroses. We found a small animal's jaw bone on one of our walks; it's fascinating and I kind of want to make it into a pendant, creepiness be damned.

I spent an afternoon clearing debris from a section of the raised planter bed from the water feature to the big rosebush on the side wall, an area about thirty feet long. I tore out last year's mint and Russian sage, pruned back the big rosebush and both the small ones, and cut the hibiscus stalks down to about an inch. I still need to clear out the primrose bed and the barrel where I've been planting geraniums the past few summers. But now there's a snowstorm on the way - our February miracle was fleeting this year. An icy wind howled all day and snow should move in overnight. They say we could get as much as three inches, which is a lot for us. I have my fingers crossed; I'm not ready to let go of winter just yet.

We're getting reading for Valentine's Day around here. The small Bears addressed their valentines for their classmates this morning. It seems that almost everyone gives a candy valentine these days, which isn't really that kosher with me, but it's what they're doing now. I'll die on a different hill. We bought the valentine kits at Target last week, along with a small chocolate treat for the teachers. I volunteered to send in Capri Suns for a party. This morning, I baked a completely superfluous treat for my valentines, Cookie Pie, of all things. It's February's recipe in my Betty Crocker calendar. The Bear and I have long had a running joke where I ask him what he wants for dinner and he tells me "candy pie," so when I saw an actual candy pie in the calendar, I figured now was my chance.

Can I be frank? Right now, I'm wearied by political discussion on blogs. I don't begrudge anyone their opinions. I'm interested and I care very much, but I need a break. I hope you'll understand. I've also deactivated my Instagram account, for those who follow me. I need a break from that too, for other reasons. I don't think I have enough to share, for one thing, and I can't seem to make the time to interact with others the way I probably should. I may go back eventually, but I'm happier with less media noise and fewer things competing for my attention.

Thank you for the sweet comments about my Apple a Day Hotpads. I really enjoyed making them. They're easy and cute. I hope you'll try the pattern yourself. I've been having fun with my Sunburst squares lately and even engaged in a little outdoor hooking this week! So nice. I sat on the patio while the kids played and Betty took a dust bath. I had my basket of yarn and my sewing basket on the table. I was wearing flip-flops! It felt nice to crochet with bare toes. I don't know why I liked it so much but I did. I was trying out join-as-you-go with my Sunbursts, to see if I liked joining them that way, and I really did! I think I'll keep going, making about ten centers and joining them. I don't want to do them all at the end, like I did with my Flowers in the Snow blanket. There will be twice as many of these. It's good to have a project again!

I hope you have a good week ahead, and a very happy Valentine's Day!

Cookie Pie
adapted from Betty Crocker 

1 pouch (1 lb 1.5 oz) Betty Crocker sugar cookie mix
1/2 cup butter, softened  
1 egg  
1 cup M&M's® chocolate candies red, white and pink  
8 Reese's peanut butter filled hearts milk chocolate candies, unwrapped

Heat oven to 350°F. Spray bottom of 9-inch pie plate with cooking spray.

In large bowl, mix cookie mix, softened butter and egg with spoon until soft dough forms. Stir in 3/4 cup of the chocolate candies and the 1/2 cup peanut butter chocolate candies. Press dough in bottom of pie plate. Sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup chocolate candies over top; lightly press into dough. Press heart-shaped candies lightly into dough.

Bake 28 to 30 minutes or until center is set and edges are golden brown. Cool completely on cooling rack, at least 2 hours, before cutting. Store tightly covered.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Apple a Day Hotpads

Hello! I hope you're having a good week. We've been working on an exterior painting project on the weekends lately. It's very hard work so the busy week almost feels like a break. The hard work of painting (not to mention scraping and sanding) is so worth it, though. We're painting our house's wood trim, as well as the vigas (beams) over the courtyard. Everything was painted a cobalt blue, a popular look here for pueblo-style homes, but ours was faded and we wanted a change. We're painting the trim around the doors and windows a buttercream color and the vigas, when we get to them, will be a dark brown with grayish-green undertones. The main color of the house, finished in stucco, is a slightly peachy beige. Someday, I'll have new stucco in an earthier color and natural wood vigas (ours have always been painted and are not nice enough to strip), but for now we'll work with what we've got. I don't share full photos of my house on my blog, but I'll try to share something when the painting is finished.

I've just finished a crochet project that I really enjoyed. I made apple-shaped hotpads as a birthday gift for my mother. She has a loose theme of apples in her kitchen and I thought she'd enjoy something to go along with that. The apple shape is not my own design but the hotpad aspect is; for the apple design, I used a pattern called Apple a Day Dishcloths by Yarnspirations (click here for the pattern; it's free but you'll have to download to read it). Here's how I made the dishcloths (which are lovely all by themselves!) into something a little more.

I started by crocheting the dishcloth pattern as directed, using worsted-weight cotton yarn - cream for the center and green or red for the outer edge (I made one of each). The pattern is really easy, especially if you're used to crocheting in the round, and it works up quickly with worsted-weight yarn. The stitch sequences to produce the apple shape are pretty clever; I was not at all sure how the shape would develop but it showed up all at once in that final cream round. As much as I like the dishcloths, I don't think my mom is very keen on crocheted ones, it's not really her cleaning style. I had an idea to make additional apples as backings for a double-layered hotpad instead, so I made two of them in solid green and red, following the pattern as written but without the color change.

I stitched the "seeds" onto the fronts, then I put the wrong sides of both apple pieces together and slip-stitched all the way around the edges to attach them.

The pattern includes directions for a leaf and a hanging "stem," both of which I added after the pads were slip-stitched together, to make sure they were securely attached through both layers of the pads.

Cute, huh? I think they came out really well. They're useful and versatile for the kitchen. They measure about eight inches across, large enough for most pans or dishes, or you could use them side by side for a bigger one. I'm not sure they'd work for super-hot pans fresh from the oven, though you could certainly add more insulation between the layers. They're thick enough this way for a moderately hot dish on the table or counter-top. Mom can put them in a drawer or hang them on a hook by the stove. I had fun planning and making them; it's always nice to be able to put an even more personal touch on a handmade gift.

Apple a Day Hotpads
I Love This Cotton in Rosebud, Green Apple, Ivory, Forest Green and Brown
Clover Amour hook, size G/6 (4.00mm)

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Winter Project Link Party

Welcome to February's Winter Project Link Party! I hope you'll join me in sharing your current crafty projects in a supportive, encouraging link-up. This month, I'm sharing yet another blanket-motif start in a long series of them as I try to figure out what I want for a new bed-sized blanket. I've shared so many different ideas over the past year and none of them have felt right to me. But I think I may have finally found something I love! Can you believe it? I've been so wishy-washy. I've been getting bored easily and even starting to think my crochet race has been run. It's depressing, really. This time, I'm feeling that old twinge of excitement and it's wonderful. Crochet is fun again!

These are Sunburst granny squares - well, the centers of them. I made one complete square so far to try it out, but I'm leaving the rest unfinished for now while I decide how I'd assemble a blanket made of them. I'm leaning toward join-as-you-go, because there will have to be a LOT of them to make a queen-size blanket, and also because I really enjoy JAYG - to me, it's a little like a puzzle as it all comes together. Anyway, I have long admired Sunburst squares, but I was very intimidated by the idea of trying new stitches, so I hadn't tried them.

These new-to-me stitches are the puff stitch and the cluster stitch. In reality, they're no trouble at all! They're easy and fun. I found a great pattern for Sunburst squares, by Priscilla Hewitt (click here for a PDF of her pattern), where the stitches are explained really well. I've adapted the pattern a bit; my squares will be made with the first four rounds only. In the above photo, the purple round is puff stitches and the green round is cluster stitches. I really like the shapes of them. Who knew a granny square could be so liberating?

I'm using Stylecraft Special DK, as I often do for blankets. I'm a huge fan; the colors are beautiful and it's really nice to be able to play around with yarns, trying different ideas, without worrying about wasting yarn.

This is real life as a crafter, people. I've been piling discarded motif attempts on a shelf above my desk for the past year. I have six different things up there as we speak: large traditional granny squares, large hexagons, circles-in-squares, a flowery square called Paeonia, flowery hexagons and a couple of others. Not seen are small solid hexagons and small bulls-eye squares. It's been a slog, what can I say? If our bed can be dubbed the crochet museum by a certain local wiseguy, then this shelf must be the crochet graveyard.

Much more peaceably, I've also been moving toward starting a small cross-stitch project. Last spring, I completed Stitchrovia's Retro Kitchen design, with plans to make two more small kitchenware pieces by the same designer. I'm starting with Little Red Coffee Pot and will also make Little Vintage Tea Pot, both to hang in the kitchen. I'm really excited to stitch again; it's been about three months since I finished My Sweetiepie ABC's.


If this is your first time joining in with my link party, please see this post for more information.

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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Svenska scones

Life hums along here at Casa del Osos as we enter February. Right on cue, the weather warmed up significantly this week; yesterday afternoon, we played in the backyard without jackets! We're busy with school projects, music and ballet lessons, evening work at home for the Bear and plenty of driving for me. There's a lot to do but we're happy this way. Another Private Friday is right around the corner! I think we're headed back to Lowe's to look at paint again, but hey, we'll be together and there should be time for a kid-free meal in there too.

The Bear and I recently started exercising together in the evenings, after the kids have gone to bed. We have long had stands for our bicycles to make them work like stationary exercise bikes and have used them separately, but we've decided to try to ride together when we can. It's been years since we had time to do active things together, which we used to enjoy a lot. We're just riding bikes in the garage, but we're side by side and it's more motivating to do it together. The Bear has been a runner for years but lately has been sidelined by a knee injury, so the bike is a good choice for him. Actually, he will be having knee surgery in about a month, to repair a couple of different injuries to the same knee. We've been busy planning life around his recovery period. March is usually a pretty busy month for us, but good knees are kind of a big deal.

I'm still enjoying my winter cooking and baking, though of course if I'm riding my bike like the Wicked Witch of the West in the garage, I should watch what I'm eating too. I haven't baked very many decadent treats lately, but I have made a few lighter things like quick breads and Bisquick-based breads. I tried another recipe from Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, by Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall - Svenska scones, which were easy and tasty. I'd actually never made scones from scratch before (Trader Joe's sells a nice just-add-water mix and I've made those lots). I love scones, but have mostly had sweet ones. Svenska scones are interesting because they are savory, with caraway seeds and sunflower seeds, but no sugar at all. I only made one change, which was to reduce the butter by a tablespoon (I don't think it affected the dough). I made them on a Tuesday night to eat alongside bean-and-ham soup; they were quick and almost effortless (no kneading!), which is the best kind of baking for a Tuesday night.

Svenska scones
(from Fika)

1 teaspoon whole caraway seeds
3 tablespoons raw sunflower seeds
2 3/4 cups (13.75 ounces, 390 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons (2.5 ounces, 71 grams) unsalted butter
1 cup (240 milliliters) milk

Preheat the oven to 480 degrees F (250 degrees C). Grease a baking sheet or line it with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

Toast the caraway seeds and the sunflower seeds together in a frying pan over medium heat. When the seeds start to color and have a nice aroma, turn off the heat and remove them immediately from the pan. Place the seeds in a bowl and let them cool for a few minutes.

Sift the flour together with the baking powder and salt. Add the butter in small pieces and work together with your fingertips until the dough resembles a coarse meal. Mix in the seeds; then stir in the milk and mix together quickly to get a semisticky dough. Don't knead the dough.

Divide dough into 2 equal parts and shape them into 6-inch (15-centimeter) rounds. Place the two rounds 2 inches apart on the baking sheet and, using a knife, score into quarters, cutting only part way through the dough. Poke a pattern into the top of the scones with a fork. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the scones are a light golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly before breaking along the scored lines into quarters. Serve warm.

We thought the scones were delicious! They were not as crusty as some scones I've tried; they had more of a soft texture, like a buttermilk biscuit (which has always been my favorite part of eating at KFC, thank you very much). We liked the seeds too; the sunflower seeds gave a subtle nuttiness, with a gentle hint of caraway's distinctive flavor. The GB said she could taste the butter, even with the reduction I made. All in all, a great recipe. Fika makes me happy. It's such a lovely little book, full of interesting new-to-me recipes, and I still so glad I found it.
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