Thursday, January 25, 2018

Big Gulp, the blanket

Well, in spite of my best intentions to get back to blogging, I've been failing rather miserably. I don't have a lot to say right now, I guess. The past couple of months were so stressful that I almost feel like I have a form of PTSD, like I need to come down from the stress and start thinking and reacting normally again. That has translated to not having much to say here or in "real life," either. It's all good, though. I'm rather enjoying a slower, sort of stripped-down life for now. Lots of time at home, watching shows I like (I started "The Office" from the series pilot again; I think this will be my fourth watching), reading books about royalty (as usual) and women in science, keeping warm since we seem to have decided to have winter after all (especially at night), and doing some cross-stitching instead of crochet (it's been a seriously crochet-filled year for me). It all feels right to me, for the moment.

School trundles on; we've finished a few major projects recently, which has been a relief all around. I've reached a milestone as a mother: I'm now leaving my 12-year-old at the library for a computer coding club, to be picked up when it's over. Up until now, I've always waited around while they participated in an activity. I realize that there are all different schools of thought regarding kids' independence, and I was definitely nervous at first, but for us, it's a very good idea at this juncture. He gets to do something he enjoys, gains some independence and responsibility, and I don't have to sit there waiting (nor does his sister). As a partial home-schooling family, it's particularly important to foster outside activities and chances to interact with new people. And we can split up the driving this way; I bring him down there, the Bear picks him up on his way home from work. I'm always happy to drive less.

So I finished another blanket a few weeks ago. I know, it's like a blanket bonanza around here. Let me explain. We were looking at ways to reorganize our home office, which is also my wannabe craft room. It was clear that I had a lot of yarn I wasn't using, which would be fine if we had tons of room to store it, but we don't and I decided it was time to blast through some of this yarn and get it made into something so we wouldn't need to worry about storing it. It sounds like an uninspiring way to start a crafty project, but there you go.

I decided to make a stash-buster blanket with my large supply of worsted acrylic yarn. I wanted something simple and easy, basically mindless, and went looking for ideas. On Pinterest, I came across a design for granny square potholders from a blog called knitpurlhook. This blogger, Aki, also made a blanket with the same design, which really spoke to me. I loved the idea of big squares joined simply. I didn't have enough of any one color to make a blanket like Aki's, but a multi-colored blanket suits me just fine, so I started making squares with any and all colors that I had. This blanket was wonderful for using up yarn. I decided to give my blanket a name related to drinking; well, guzzling, really. I named this blanket Big Gulp, after the giant sodas at 7-11. I also considered Slurpee.

I mentioned here when I first started this blanket that I enjoyed Aki's granny technique. She joins her rounds in a corner of the square, which helps keep the squares from "twisting" as you crochet them. I think you know what I mean if you're a crocheter. I'd previously only made grannies by turning the squares from one edge to another with each round, starting them to the left of a corner. This approach was new to me and I really liked it. I think it makes nice, neat granny squares and it's easier too. My squares have ten rounds and each measures about 12 inches without joining rounds.

The color I had the most of was cream, so I used that for joining. I actually joined as I went, edging each square in cream and attaching it with the same color as necessary. I love the way the center joins look in this design. I finally did them right, too. I have joined lots of granny squares but I've always been confused about which other squares to join to when I get to the center. The one above? The one diagonally? It has always been tricky for me. I think I'm finally getting it now, and I'm achieving the neat corners I've always seen in photos of other people's crochet. There's always something new to learn.

I always think I'm going to edge my blankets in some elaborate way, and I always end up doing something plain. I love the look of fancy borders in crochet, but I never end up wanting them on my blankets when all is said and done. I'm the same about home decor and clothes; I always think I would enjoy something frilly, but in the end, I go for straight, clean lines instead. Here, I did a round of granny clusters, splitting them up when I came to the join between two squares to avoid ruffling the edges. Then I did a round of single-crochet around the clusters. My border lays mostly flat and it's just a neat, tidy edge.

I made this blanket for the living room, where I had a crocheted blanket I didn't like very much. We've been keeping it on the arm of the couch and using it when we read or listen to the radio. The colors work well in this room; our furniture is a mixture of things we've bought and some hand-me-downs, including the couch, which is sort of an olive green-gray, and the chairs, which are a gold-camel color. I think the blanket ties everything together pretty well. Mostly, though, it's just a big, warm blanket that used up a LOT of yarn, which makes everybody happy. More room and a new blanket, what's not to love? All my yarn (stored in bins) fits in the closet now, by the way. The office feels huge; "so much room for activities!" like they say in one of my favorite movies.

Big Gulp Blanket
Yarn: I Love This Yarn worsted-weight acrylic in the following colors: Old Rose*, Rosy Cheeks, Lavender Smoke*, Sea Blue, Glacier, Arctic, Antique Teal, Stonewash, Dark Denim, Graybeard, Light Gray, Graphite, Coffee, Linen, Sungold, Dark Olive, Mid Green, Ivory (*discontinued)
Hook: Clover Amour I/9 (5.5mm)
Size: approximately 65 by 78 inches
Started: November 2017
Finished: December 2017

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Dulce de Leche Cheesecake

Back in November, I baked a cheesecake for my birthday. I've always been an avid proponent of cheesecake in virtually any form, but this recipe - dulce de leche cheesecake - was new to me. I saw Pati Jinich make it on her Create TV show Pati's Mexican Table, which I've been watching as often as possible for the last year or so. Have you seen it? Pati is from Mexico and she cooks lots of different kinds of traditional Mexican foods as well as modern twists on classic dishes. She is a busy mom of three growing boys; I enjoy seeing the ways she incorporates home-cooking and nutritious choices into their daily lives.

A few weeks before my birthday, I saw an episode of her show where she baked a dulce de leche cheesecake. It looked delicious and I was intrigued: the cheesecake had a cookie crust and a creamy, rich topping made with dulce de leche, a kind of caramel made by cooking sweetened milk for a long time, until it thickens and turns golden brown. Pati made her cheesecake with ingredients imported from Mexico, including Maria biscuits in the crust and Nestle La Lechera canned dulce de leche. As a resident of New Mexico who isn't much experienced with Hispanic cooking, I've always been intrigued by the products we can buy here which are imported from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Dulce de leche is one of those products; I've seen it on the shelves but had no idea what to do with it. This cheesecake recipe seemed like the perfect chance to give it a try.

Pati has a wonderful website with lots of recipes and tips available, and she also writes cookbooks (you can check out her Amazon page here). I had already asked the Bear for Pati's first cookbook as a birthday present, and I found the cheesecake recipe on Pati's site. I baked the cheesecake on my birthday (I love to bake my own birthday treats, no need to feel sorry for me) and it was even better than I thought it would be. It was amazing. It wasn't the fastest recipe to make, and there were a number of steps, but nothing complicated at all for such an impressive dessert. I mentioned it here on my blog after I'd made it and a few people messaged asking for the recipe. I checked Pati's site to see if she allowed recipe-sharing on blogs, and she did say she preferred for people to ask for permission, so I emailed her.

YOU GUYS - Pati Jinich wrote back to me. She wrote a pleasant, friendly message thanking me for being a fan and gave me permission, with some parameters, for sharing her recipe on my blog. I was so excited! I really didn't know if I'd ever hear from her, but it made me like her even more. What a nice person and a great cook too. Pati fan 4 life! I would have shared the recipe sooner but life took a turn for the seriously lousy around my birthday and my blogging enthusiasm flagged, but I'm feeling much better now and ready to get back to it, so here's that lovely cheesecake. Thanks, Pati, for allowing me to share your delicious recipe.

Dulce de Leche Cheesecake
Recipe by Pati Jinich

For the crust: 
1 1/2 cups finely ground Maria cookies vanilla wafers or graham crackers 
6 tablespoons unsalted butter melted, plus more for greasing the pan 
For the cream cheese filling:  
1 pound cream cheese at room temperature 
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk  
3 large eggs at room temperature
For the dulce de leche topping:  
1 1/2 cups sour cream 
1 14-ounce can dulce de leche or cajeta  
1 cup chopped pecans

Butter a 9- to 10-inch springform pan and set aside.  

To make the crust: In a large bowl combine the ground cookies and melted butter until thoroughly mixed. Turn the cookie mixture into the springform pan. With your fingers, pat it evenly around the bottom of the pan, gently pushing it up the sides to make a crust 1/2- to 1-inch tall. Refrigerate while you make the cream cheese filling and dulce de leche topping. 

To make cream cheese filling: Place the cream cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat at medium speed until smooth and light, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the sweetened condensed milk and continue beating until well mixed, scraping down the bowl as needed. Add the eggs one at a time, again scraping down the bowl as needed, and continue beating until the mixture is well blended and smooth, set aside.  

To make the dulce de leche topping: In a medium bowl, mix the sour cream with the dulce de leche until combined. 

Adjust the oven rack to the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350°F.  

Remove the springform pan from the refrigerator. Gently spread the cream cheese filling evenly, trying not to distress the crust. Place the cheesecake in the oven and bake for 35 minutes, or until it is set and the top is lightly browned. Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 10 minutes before you add the dulce de leche topping. 

Spoon the dulce de leche topping over the cream cheese filling, add the pecans all around the edge and place the pan back in the oven for 10 more minutes. Remove from the oven and let the cheesecake cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours before serving. It tastes even better if it chills overnight.

The Maria biscuit crust was a first in my baking. I've worked with graham cracker crusts quite a bit, but I'd never made one with Marias, though they are not new to me; we have eaten them occasionally for years. They're a very simple cookie with a slightly lemony flavor and very little sugar, so they're actually quite similar to graham crackers. The small Bears liked them when they were very little and I didn't mind so much if they had a couple, since they're relatively healthy. They're cheap to buy, and you can get individual sleeves of about 40 biscuits, or you can buy them in a box with four sleeves inside. I don't know a lot about Marias, but my understanding is that they are the most commonly eaten biscuit or cookie in the world, having their origins in Europe and then being imported to Latin America. I used my old, battered springform pan, which I will never, ever get rid of.

The canned dulce de leche was interesting. I don't know what I thought it would be like - more liquid, maybe - but it was actually a thick paste, almost like peanut butter. Upon seeing the texture, I thought it would harder to work with, but it mixed very easily with the sour cream for making the topping.

The cheesecake base was very straighforward, a simple combination of cream cheese, eggs and sweetened condensed milk. In keeping with my attempt to use as many authentic Mexican products as possible, I used La Lechera sweetened condensed milk, imported from Mexico. It was exactly the same as my normal American brand, Eagle, but it was actually a little cheaper, so I may just switch. Mexico is only a few hundred miles from here, but imported food always feels exotic and adventurous to me - even when it's milk and sugar in a can.

The only change I made to this recipe was to put pecan halves on the edge of the cake instead of the chopped pecans Pati suggests. This was just a personal preference; I had lots of pecan halves (a Costco-sized bag of them) and they look so pretty this way, I just wanted to leave them whole. They're also easy to arrange very nicely in a circle around the edge of the pan.  

After the cake cooled and I removed the outer ring, I was really impressed with the way my cheesecake looked. The layers were clearly defined, and while I would have liked my cake to turn out a little more neatly on the sides, I was mostly very happy with the presentation. I was particularly impressed with the way the dulce de leche/sour cream topping stayed intact on top. I thought for sure it would be dripping down the sides, but nope, it stayed nice and thick and stable.

My cheesecake was delicious. The crust was crisp and buttery, the filling was sweet and rich, and the topping was creamy and a little tangy, with a surprising slight bitterness. You could really taste the dulce de leche and its complex flavors. We ate very slim slices because it really is a rich combination when you put it all together, but a slim slice was just right. I'm really glad I made this cake for my birthday - it was the perfect combination of flavors for my tastes and it gave me the chance to try some new things, ingredients as well as methods. I'd make it again any time. I hope you'll want to try it too. If you like the look of this recipe, I'd think you'd really enjoy Pati's website, show and cookbooks; please check them out via the links above.  

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Finally, a storm

We're having a stormy day. You know how much I love storms, but this one is special. We hadn't had any measurable precipitation since the end of September, at least by official reporting at the Albuquerque Sunport. I know we had a little here at my house on two occasions since then, one in October and the other in November, but apparently nothing happened at the airport. Today, though, there has been rain in the city and snow up on the mountain. By my backyard weather station, I'm measuring two-tenths of an inch of rain. Not a lot, but I'll take it. We just haven't had anything in so long.

I think today's storm feels like an event for a lot of people here. It broke a 96-day streak of dry weather, within the top five driest stretches ever recorded. I'm feeling particularly excited about it. Not just the rain, but also the hunkering feeling that I just haven't had much lately. I had more hunkering time in the summer, during the monsoon, than I've had all fall and winter so far, which is just strange. I won't even be able to spend much time at home today, what with a trip out for school pickup, and two others for guitar and ballet lessons this afternoon.

I've been savoring the morning at home by myself. I started chicken tortilla soup in the slow-cooker (my recipe is here), watched a little Netflix, and read one of my new library books. I used my newest crocheted blanket for the first time. I only finished it yesterday, my quickie stash-buster that only took me two months to make. I really churned this one out. I'll share it soon, but there it is up on the arm of the couch. It was comfy. I didn't really do any housework. I'm proud of that. I needed to just hang out at home by myself on a stormy morning. It never ceases to amaze me how restorative a cold, wet morning spent inside the house can be.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Friday Happies

Hello! Thank you for the kind words you left on my last post, as well as email messages. I appreciate all of your good thoughts and concern. I'm feeling much better now. We had a hard few weeks with a lot of things to discuss and decide, but we have a good plan and the Bear will stay healthy.

The return to normalcy after the holidays has been really welcome. I never do well with long stretches of idle time. I can always find things to do, of course, but I like having a routine and a plan for my days. I like knowing where I need to be. A few days without a plan are fine, but a few weeks starts to grate on me. I've been cleaning in the mornings while the small Bears are at school, straightening up the kitchen and living areas, washing all the bedding and scatter rugs, wiping down mirrors and windows and just generally getting things tidy again. Christmas makes it hard to clean the house, I find, with all the new things taking up space and collecting dust. I love having the tree up, but the living room is so much brighter without it. I guess what I'm saying is that I'm kind of glad to have it all behind me. This is one of my favorite times of year, and one where I feel like I'm at my best - motivated, enthusiastic and positive. Most of the time, anyway.

Today, I'm partaking of a fun tradition my friend Gillian started a few years ago, Friday Happies. I like it and I should do it more often. It would help me keep positive and keep me blogging, too. So here are my happies for today...

I never make New Year's resolutions because it's too hard to keep them. I always feel pressured and give up. But, I do try to do some things better. This year, I'm going to try to keep up better with my magazines. I've always got a book going, but I often put off reading a new magazine until it doesn't really feel relevant anymore. Do you know what I mean? Why read a summertime issue of a home-and-gardening-focused magazine in the dead of winter? I could learn things for the next growing season, yes, but it feels weird and wrong. I like my magazine-reading to be in the moment, whenever possible. To that end, I started the year by sitting down at the kitchen table with my tea and spending an hour with Martha. Now I have a couple of new soup recipes on the docket and a new shower-door cleaning technique to try. Good for me.

Did you notice my kitschy, fruity tablecloth up there? It was a Christmas present, along with another that has a toile design in blue on white. They're both oilcloth, purchased from Freckled Sage on Etsy. I know tablecloths might seem like strange Christmas presents, but I really wanted them. I'd been eyeing them for a long time, and when the shop had a really good sale on Black Friday, I ordered two for myself. I love oilcloth; it's so easy to care for and the patterns are bright and fun. I usually keep a vinyl cloth on the kitchen table because I can't keep up with the grossness, but nothing looks as good as real oilcloth, in my opinion. Everybody better treat them right!

I bought a new candle and have been enjoying it in the dark evenings. It's just a cheap one from Walmart, but I love the pretty coral-pink color and the scent, Sweet Pea. It doesn't smell as good as real ones, but pretty close. It was nice to put the pine-scented candles away for next year and start something fresh and light.

Evenings are indeed early and dark, but the weather has continued to be warm and dry. We haven't had measurable precipitation since the end of September. I know that sounds crazy to those dealing with blizzards and extreme cold this winter. But here, it's calm and clear almost all the time. There are a couple of potential storms in the forecast for this weekend and next week, though, so our luck may be changing. I would love to have some rain or snow. In the meantime, I'm drying things outdoors on many days, like these tights belonging to Miss GB.

My pothos/philodendron is growing! Slow but sure. There are pieces on two sides of the pot that are beginning to put on leaves that I think will eventually begin to trail. I've been watering on Sunday afternoons and it's starting to feel like a habit now.

Check out my amaryllis! It's so neat. The bulb is dipped in thick red wax and it never needs potting or watering, you just leave it to grow on its own. I've never seen anything like it, but I'm really excited because it has two stalks, which means two sets of flowers and they will be bright red - nice and cheerful for wintertime.

I'm very nearly finished crocheting my stash-buster blanket. I have just two more squares to make for the lower right corner, and the blanket will be ready for a border. I've really enjoyed making this blanket, especially during times of stress lately. A simple, fast-growing crochet project always feels good.

Other happy things of note:
  • The LB, at 12, is now taking an interest in his hair - both style and daily management. I never thought I'd see the day. He was always good about showering every night, but now he's become very agreeable to a morning hair routine too! It's actually funny. We looked through photos online from men's hair-styling websites and blogs, and we chose something to show the hairstylist. Then she showed him how to comb it and give it a simple style with a little gel. I've helped him a bit at home and now he's looking sharp every day.
  • I have some sewing to do soon, which I'm looking forward to. I need to make a set - quilt, pillow and mattress - for another doll bed, similar to what I made for the GB's doll, Nora, a couple of years ago. I've already made another tiny 12-square Flowers in the Snow blanket. All of this is for another doll, the American Girl Truly Me doll that we gave the GB for this past Christmas (it looks just like her, with "caramel" hair and green eyes, so much fun to have a doll with your own features!). Madeline (the name she chose) is Miss GB's first really nice doll. The Bear has already built a lovely wooden bed, which she sleeps in every night. He was finished in time for Christmas but I was not. I only had the crocheted blanket ready, but the GB is a very understanding young lady and she's giving her tired, old mom a chance to come through with the rest sometime in the near future.
  • My other Christmas presents include DVD's of the first two seasons of The Golden Girls, a show which makes me indescribably happy. "Shady Pines, Maaaa!"
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