Sunday, December 30, 2012

Burning Bûche

I was denied sugar as a child.  The deprivation started when I was five.  I like to blame my brothers who required multiple root canals when they joined our family that year, but the truth is by the time I was eleven I had already had eleven fillings myself (despite six years sugar free).  Some of us just have teeth that feel more deeply than yours.

The house rule was pretty extreme, and included potato chips, honey and raisins - anything that could stick and start a r(i)ot in the crevices.  But somehow we convinced my mother that baking was an "educational experience" (algebra! chemistry!), and that after the fact, it was cruel to deny us the (marzipan) fruits of our labors.  Sugar was suddenly allowed if you were using it to cook.  And so began my love affair with baking - souffles, cakes, 100 almond meringues for my mom's birthday when I was 8, the flaming cherries jubilee flan when I was 10.

When this gas station went up for sale this year, I may have briefly fantasized about starting my own cafe/bakery, opening the garage door so people could dine al fresco, planting morning glories that would climb the rusty gas pumps.  J would stop in for a milkshake on her way home from school and I'd pretend not to eavesdrop as she told her friends about her latest crush. I'd paint everything in the colors of Frida Kahlo's house and decorate the walls with works by local artists...  But reading  Confections of a Closet Master Baker was a reality check- 3:00 a.m. is a good occasional bedtime, not an hour to wake up on a daily basis, and really would I want to do this all day every day?

I always thought I really loved baking, but I'm coming to terms with the idea that maybe I don't love it that much after all.  I remember when my mother met my husband for the first time.  After seeing our tiny, open-to-the-rest-of-the-house kitchen she asked him "where do you hide when she bakes?" I was totally puzzled, but  he seemed to know just what she was referring to and replied "I try to just get out of the house when that's happening."  If all goes well with a dessert, I am focused, annoyed by interruptions (your presence is an interruption) but pleased with myself in the end.

When things do not go well, however, I throw things.  On the floor, in the sink, in the trash prematurely.  I have an early memory of getting banned from baking for a month after removing a sheet of smoking cookies from the oven and taking them outside where I threw them one at a time against the side of the house (no mom, I still don't know what I was thinking).

Baking is not relaxing for me.  I like decorating (when it works), I like presenting pretty desserts to an appreciative recipient and I really, really like eating sweet things when I master a recipe I like.

This Christmas, I decided to try a bûche de noël (aka yule log).  My mother-in-law had suggested it last year, and if ever there was a dessert that was all about the decorations, this is it.  I figured if I gave myself enough time, I could do each of the difficult things in advance, and how hard is it to bake a jelly roll the day of?

So I made some meringue mushrooms and attached the stems with milk chocolate from instructions I got here.  And I painted holly leaves with three types of chocolate (semi-sweet - in the freezer for 15 minutes before peeling worked best)

And I made birds out of both egg white and marzipan to see which would come out better (marzipan looked less like silver poo).

and I even got crazy with a spun-sugar nest for my birdie.  I was having a grand ol' time!

And then, ho-hum, I thought I'd just throw together a cake.  I wanted a chocolate sponge with mascarpone filling to keep it light, and a chocolate ganache frosting because it's so pretty.  I started with Julia's sponge, but I added rum to my chocolate after it started melting and the whole thing seized (the person who suggested I try to salvage this mess for truffles narrowly escaped getting hit with a whisk).

My whisk-assault victim braved the store on Christmas eve at 4:00 to present me with $16 of replacement chocolate, which I managed to ruin again, I'm still not sure how.  At that point I cried.  Loudly. And I would have totally given up, but what a waste of decorations!  So I sought the most basic cake recipe I could find (Joy of Cooking) and with the help of my mother-in-law, managed to bake, sprinkle with khalua, fill and roll it without a hitch.  We cut off the ends to make a couple of limbs.

The ganache (recipe here) couldn't have been easier, and I thought the spatula made it look bark-like without me having to take a fork to it, so I left it alone.

Then I dressed it.  First I added my bird's nest with a couple of chocolate 'eggs' (truffles made by my sister-in-law).

Did I mention I made a chocolate Joyeaux Noel sign, but forgot the y?  There is no erase on chocolate. Fortunately I had tools to numb the pain.



Friday, December 21, 2012


It's Friday - what a hard week this has been for everyone - those who lost and those of us who were reminded of how much we have to lose.  Wow, does having kids ever make you vulnerable in new ways.  For all of us who want to DO something but are paralyzed by the 'what,'  the crafty world has three things going on that are helpful.

1. First, it sounds like Sandy Hook Elementary will be relocating in the new year and the PTSA wants to decorate the new place all winter wonderland - their website says:

Snowflakes for Sandy Hook

Please help the students of Sandy Hook have a winter wonderland at their new school! Get Creative!!  Make and send snowflakes to Connecticut PTSA, 60 Connolly Parkway, Building 12, Suite 103, Hamden, CT  06514, by January 12, 2013. Snowflakes can also be delivered to CT PTSA.   Please call us before for office hours at 203-281-6617.

I'm thinking if you have kids that are old enough to know what happened and want to help, this would be an of-all-ages-and-talent-levels activity.  If you don't remember how to make a snowflake (seriously?!) check out this awesome post here.

2.  I'm also loving this cross-stitch and the quote from Mr. Rogers, just when we need him most.  Proceeds of this pattern (and any other digital sales by the end of today) go to Sandy Hook and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  You can buy it here.

3. Finally, one of our Boston Modern Quilt Guild members told us that Quilter's Corner in CT is making 600 pillowcases for students - see their post with more information here.

I've been thinking a lot about my sister who is a teacher this week (well, I generally think about her a lot anyway, she's one of my favorite people).  I don't know how we ended up on different coasts, but I miss her.  She and her husband have always hung lanterns in their yard at Christmas and this year I decided to join her in an east coast/west coast connection.  Here are mine, I'll post pics of hers too if she sends me some!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Concentration on Quilts

We went away with the baby for the first time this weekend - or at least for the first time where we all had to share a tiny hotel room.  I just figured we'd keep her up late and then all go to bed at the same time.  But that doesn't really work when the crib is right next to the bed and she can stand up and stare into your eyes while she cries you a river Justin Timberlake style.  Just picture us, laying her down and then jumping over the bed to hide on the floor with a shared I-pad for 40 minutes while we waited for her to "really" go to sleep.  So traveling is decidedly less fun with a baby, but we're still glad we went, if only to appreciate being home more!

Speaking of firsts, I probably should've started this blog with my first quilt, since that was the beginning of the current crafting era - the project where I finally threw my mother's 1962 Brother sewing machine out the window (not literally, I actually took it to the goodwill truck because *technically* it still worked) and bought a modern sewing machine; the kind that can applique and sew buttonholes without making you sacrifice your first born.  

This quilt was for my niece.  I'm going to stop apologizing for the quality of my pictures now (but I just want YOU to know that I know that they aren't great).  When I look at this quilt now the first thing I see is that I have a lot to learn about choosing fabrics.  So many of these blend into each other more than I wanted them to and then POW that deep purple really socks you in the eye, huh?  I also see that I don't love the long term visual effects of a tied quilt.  The batting gets messy looking after lots of washing, which means it's probably time for me to learn to really quilt.  

But now let me introduce you to the awesome.  Each of those little diamonds (inside the purple/yellow/pink squares) is actually a flip up door hiding a picture of an animal. 

And there are two of each animal.  So this quilt is actually like that old game concentration where you try to match up the animals.  There are poorly appliqued elephants, sheep, monkeys and horses, but for the cat and the dog I embroidered the baby's actual pets.  This is her kitty, and that is her doggy:

This quilt recently came back to me because, like many a baby quilt, it does not fit a traditional bed and at the age of two my niece is a member of the bunk bed club and needs a bunk bed quilt.  I wish I had been warned about this in quilting class - that those baby quilts only see the light of day until the baby can climb out of the crib and then they're useless.  So my sister asked me to add something to it; make it longer, make it fit a bed.  And I would love for it to be useful! But making a quilt bigger is like hemming pants, sewing on buttons or de-balling a sweater.  I can do it, but I won't.   For her third birthday there will be a new quilt for the big girl, I'm thinking cats...

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

But I gave you a BABY!

My husband's funny.  He's also thoughtful and patient and a good cook, but it's the funny that I love most.  Like this morning he was in the mud room (east coast reference) and I was asking J "who's in there? Is dada in there?" and I hear this old-lady voice say "ho hum, nobody in here but us chickens. bwok bwok!"  Maybe you had to be there.

Anyway, he hit the big 4-0 this year.  I kind of got out of the thoughtful, milestone-gift thing because I'd given him a DAUGHTER just three weeks prior, but this summer I wanted to re-visit the birthday and give him something more, well maybe not more, but something else (I trotted the "I gave you a daughter" thing out again for Valentine's day so it was starting to get a little played).

I wanted something that was more specific to him and his life than a quilt, so I decided to do a little embroidery/applique, wall-hanging thing.  I started with the idea of sailing - he's sailed since he was young, mostly with his dad (I lasted all of one afternoon on the water, but he admitted after the fact that I was right, we HAD almost capsized and I haven't been back). Sailing went with the idea that life/love/happiness is a journey and not a destination, which I like, in spite of Oprah. (We kind of miss her though, don't we?)

I started with the sails.  They represent the places he lived that made him who he is.  The size of each sail corresponds to how long he lived there.  Pink/orange represents the Caribbean where he grew up, purple for his alma mater, and green for New England where he has been ever since.

Boat: The boat I named after J, and made yellow, because, and try not to puke here, we sometimes refer to her as "all that is goodness and light."  I figure she'll take him on lots of adventures in this lifetime and it's his job to steer her toward safe waters.

Anchor: The anchor is a J for Julie, I'll keep him steady if he needs it.

Cat: The cat who sails with him sports four long whiskers; one for each cat he has adopted and loved.  For the record the first two lived a combined total of 22 years and the other two are still alive, so it's not as bad as it sounds.

Fleur de lis: The little flag on top is a fleur de lis, because I married an eagle scout, and he is nothing if not prepared.

Birdies:  The birds who fly with him are Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss.  They sound like seagulls to me, but he thinks they are songbirds.  They make up his favorite band of all time, Sleater Kinney.  There was a period of mourning when SK broke up, and when he comes home from Wild Flag concerts these days it's like he's just come home from a holiday visit with a divorced parent.  I try not to pick at the scab.  And frankly I'm a little more appreciative now that I've gotten into Portlandia (featuring Carrie? Right?), an awesome show that you shouldn't miss.

I knew I wanted to put a quote on there, but was getting really frustrated with  googling adventure, journey, sailboat, etc.  I finally found this one by Louisa May Alcott, and promptly butchered it with short choppy stitches where I should've gone long, but hey - I am not afraid of thick floss for I am learning to wield my embroidery needle, or whatever.

I wasn't sure about this quote initially, because I don't feel like it's very reflective of our relationship and I didn't want it to sound too negative or like we've really had to OVERCOME something when that doesn't feel true.  But in the end I think it's a great approach to life in general, and maybe one that both he and I shy away from sometimes when it comes to big life decisions.

The inside-joke (like between me and me) of this thing that cracks me up whenever I look at it now, is how wrinkly it's gotten (it was perfectly smooth when I framed it).  Background:  I am notoriously bad at keeping secrets.  I can't even start my Christmas shopping until December because I just give the gifts as soon as I get them.  Every time a preview comes on for Life of Pi I ask everyone whether they'd like to know the secret twist at the end because I read the book.  In fact just last week I snuck off to pick up a quilt from the longarmer that I was going to bind as a surprise for Christmas and as soon as I walked in the door I shouted "I can't stand it" and whipped the quilt out of the bag to show it off.  So anyway, I did a lot of internet asking to find out how you frame something like this, and the general consensus is that you sew each set of opposite sides of the picture together in back.  Well, who has the patience for that when the intended recipient is IN THE NEXT ROOM?  So I just taped it with blue electrical tape and called it a day.  The tape doesn't seem to be holding up so well, but hey.  I'm just learning to sail this ship, ok?

Monday, December 3, 2012

What comes first, the book or the tree?

I love holidays - there's something about them that gets me all camp counselor.  Not only do I want to make/bake/sing things, I want everyone around me to do it too.  I'm very proud of the fact that due (at least in part) to my persuasive nature, I've never worked in an office where anyone successfully opted out of Sneaky Snowman (the Secret Santa of the new millennium).  As December slips in this week it's the first time I'm kind of missing (and that's a seriously lower-case "missing") work and the thrill of putting a weird gift in someone's mailbox.

Admittedly some of my traditions have started to get a little stale. Last year I ran out of worthy songs for my annual "A Very Julie Christmas" mix and had to instead compile the album "10 reasons to be glad you don't celebrate Christmas" made up of the most awful x-mas songs I could find, including that Dear Mr. Jesus song that came out when I was in 5th grade about the abused kid and the one about the cat that freezes to death to save the mouse.  Strangely, no one ever requested a copy - please let me know if you're interested.

So to get myself in the mood this year, a friend and I hit the Family Trees Exhibit at the Concord Museum.  They've got over thirty trees, each one decorated along the theme of a children's book - everything from the Owl and the Pussycat to The Stinky Cheese Man, some of them even decorated by the authors themselves (including Salley Mavor's Pocketful of Posies, which is what drew me in the first place).  A copy of the book is propped up next to the tree so you can read it while sitting in front of the tree if you want.  If you live in the area I would highly recommend a visit.

I first learned about this fabulous exhibit here at Salley's site (and you should totally check out her post because all I had was a phone and a squirming little one, so my few photos are almost not worth uploading).  But here are a couple of my favorites:

This is the Julia Child tree based on a children's book about her cat, Minette's Feast and yes, that is a stuffed kitty with a pearl necklace on its head sitting on top of Julia's cookbooks.

And this one based on The Giving Tree was covered in tiny black and white photos of trees and people with trees that somehow made it just as melancholy as the book itself:

I was just in love with the whole thing.  

So this got me thinking - how fun would it be to have a literary holiday tradition where you decorate a mini-tree with your kid inspired by their favorite book of the year?  What?  You think Miss J is too young to have a favorite book?  I will admit, we got off to a rocky start with the whole reading thing.  She kept eating them, causing frantic re-writes:

But recently she's gotten into reading them to herself  and she DOES have a favorite, called Vegetables by Sara Anderson. 

It's a fairly nuanced story, but she's pretty sophisticated for her age.

So I  got some lights, and an itty-bitty Charlie Brown style tree and some construction/tissue paper and made some vegetable ornaments.  I have to say, they came out pretty well considering I draw about as well as I sing.

I did a peach for the topper.  While it's not featured in Vegetables, a peach does show up in the prequel to Vegetables, Fruit.  The "Peach Fuzzy Hair" page in Fruit is one of the reasons J doesn't really like to read it - we think baby head rubbing is totally funny and I'm secretly hoping if she hates it enough she might grow some hair to make us stop.

And here we are all lit up:

...and she sees the peach.

So here's to new traditions and the hope that J never picks Fast Food Nation or 127 Hours as her favorite book of the year.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Wedding Rings

I love weddings, always have, which is kind of ironic considering I didn't really want to get married for a long time.  But there's something about making heartfelt, passionate, meaningful promises to someone you love, love, love, out loud that just gets me.

I thought once I tied the knot in this FABULOUS DRESS I might lose interest in the NY Times wedding announcements. But Styles is still the first section I turn to every Sunday, skimming the longer entries for stories of how people met - because who cares where the bride's mother works?  I want to read what the pickup line was!

This summer my favorite party by far was thrown by my friends Scott and Danny, in celebration of their wedding after EIGHTEEN years together.  It was held outside at a house where they've vacationed every summer for years. From the party favors of fancy cheese (Danny's a true connoisseur) to the part of their ceremony where guests blessed pieces of sea glass collected by the couple's families in summers past, it was just such a thoughtful and loving night.

So what does a novice quilter do for newlyweds she loves?  Well, not the traditional wedding ring quilt with all of its intricate paper piecing.  And certainly nothing big enough to cover that king size bed! And a minimum amount of quilting the sides together, because I still just suck at that.

I decided to go with a picnic quilt (I'd recently made one for myself) because it's such a nice thing for a "family" to have.  I started with a traditional (and free!) pattern found  here, modifying the edges and turning the paper piecing into solid circles).  I ended up with this:

Oh, I'm sorry, are you having a hard time picturing the picnic they could have?  How's this?

Those are some seriously wavy edges, but the recipients know it was made with mucho cariño.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Housecoats and Ponchos

Ugh, if I'd only known when I walked into Target that this one little purchase would prevent me from ever leaving the house again...

I just cannot take this thing off.  I get that I look like a fat old man cookie monster, and that there is grocery shopping to do and a new car seat that isn't going to install itself and mail to retrieve, but I cannot bring myself to even untie the sash.  I totally get now why grandmas call them housecoats.  Why would you ever relegate such a lush piece of acrylic to just one room or time of day?

So what to do stuck inside all day?  Sewing project!

I stopped at Joann's on Friday, not because I'm the kind of gullible person that gets manipulated by Black Friday "sales" but because the super-expensive batting was 60% off that morning (no, seriously, this was like a REAL sale).  So I was making a beeline for the stuffing corner when I saw this pattern out of the corner of my eye:

Now, I stopped sewing clothes for Miss J when I realized she'd never wear the 2 dresses I'd made her, because while she was busy outgrowing them, they were sitting in the IRONING pile.  But this was seasonally appropriate (no procrastinating!), and did not involve a zipper.  I went blue fleece to match her eyes, and trimmed it with a pretty ribbon that I also used for the velcro closure at the neck.  It has a Russian princess feel and reminds me of one of my favorite childhood books,  The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.  So here's the finished product:

And here it is on my model:

Not the greatest shot, but we were interrupted by a well-meaning passerby who wondered why I was making my child crawl around outside in 32 degree weather with no mittens.  Dude, it's a poncho, you don't need mittens - be impressed I got her to keep the shoes on!

I'm pretty pleased with it - it's as comfortable as my housecoat but decidedly more attractive.