Friday, December 30, 2016

Little Santa Project

I'm not quite sure what the status of Santa is around our house. Over the last few years, E and Z had been making a lot of, "If Santa's real, then how come…" type of noise. My boilerplate response: "Only people who believe in Santa get presents from Santa." Maybe they took this to heart, "how come…" discussion this year, even when I say things like, "It's not too late for Santa to make all your presents back." Or, "Did Santa treat you well this year?" I'm not sure if I'm humoring them or they're humoring me.

Anyway, E brought home a stack of good old dot-matrix printer paper from school on the last day before vacation and this inspired him artistically in a way nothing else has in a long while. He quickly turned out a super-cute Santa drawing that I knew right away I wanted to turn into an embroidery.

I had a bit of unexpected downtime Christmas Eve day (the wonder of being home all day on the 23rd to clean, so that the 24th only entails cooking and setting the table) and again Christmas day (after the guests left) and I stitched up the Santa. E started him off, sewing up the right side of his pants and overalls. I thought it would be cool if he did the whole thing, but one length of floss was enough for him (but he did pull of a serviceable backstitch, which could come in handy some day). After I finished, I framed him up in red fabric and hung him between the front windows by the tree, where he keeps busy making me smile.

For more on how to turn kid art into heirloom embroideries, see this post.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Handmade Holiday 2016

This year wasn't a very making-ey sort of holiday for me…I just wasn't in a crafty mood! But I did make a few small things.

By special request from one of my mothers-in-law, a pair of fingerless gloves (Ravelry link).

For the annual ornament exchange I do with my mom, sisters, and aunts, I made little matryoshka dolls. The design came from Fa La La La Felt, and the flowers and head scarves are made from a little kit of kimono printed felt I bought a long time ago which doesn't seem to be available anymore.

After pulling several late nights to complete my ornaments for last Christmas, and while still feeling in the hand-making spirit, I made these last January, while watching the Men in Black trilogy with the boys (which is why every time they ask me if I remember a scene from one of those movies, I have no idea what they're talking about). I think I will do the same this year (though not necessarily with MIB), and get my ornaments made well in advance!

For M, I "made" this Jeeves and Wooster songbook, which only involved buying, downloading, and printing sheet music from the show's theme song, plus a few of Bertie's signature tunes ("Mini the Moocher," "Puttin' on the Ritz," etc.). Sadly, I couldn't find a copy of "47 Ginger-Headed Sailors."

I also hole-punched and put the music sheets in a binder, and made a cover collage, so that counts as handmade, right?

Z and I made vanilla extract again this year. I had planned to get it going early enough that it would be ready to use when we gave it away, but we didn't get to it until the weekend before Christmas.

On the receiving end, this little snowman was a collaboration between my mom, dad, and sister.

And, of course, the annual grammy jammies. This year the boys have all graduated to jammie pants only, with t-shirt tops. I only managed to get a night photo, with flash, but I sort of like the old-school snapshot vibe that gives it.

I have one last gift still in progress. I'll share photos once it's done and given away.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Solstice Night

"Tomorrow's the solstice," I say.

"Does that mean we get to burn something?" M says.

"Tomorrow's the first day of winter," I say later.

"Does that mean we get to burn something?" C says. Pyromania runs in families.

I planned to finish some Christmas projects, but inspiration struck and I spend most of the day writing—what I'm supposed to be doing with my days. E and Z get home and I mix up some frosting so they can ice the few remaining sugar cookies that have not been devoured by people who don't get the concept of Christmas cookies. I then hide them and the other types in the freezer. I pick up M from his bus stop so he doesn't have to walk home with his guitar. I walk out to the field to take a picture of the sunset. I make baked macaroni and cheese and put it in the oven just as C gets home and we all troop through the woods in the dark to the river. I realize how much more humane it is, not to always be rushing home from work at five or six at night and trying to squeeze a full life in around the margins.

We build a fire and bask in the relative warmth—34 degrees after several days below zero. It's a simple affair—no picnic,  no thermos of hot chocolate, no script. Just family and light and warmth in the dark. We hear an owl make a sound—not a hoot, but an otherworldly gurgle and trill—and another answer it from across the river. We hear the heaving and cracking of ice and the faint trickle of water beneath the ice. We pile snow on the coals and head home to hot, bubbling macaroni and cheese.

The longest night, the shortest day, are done. The earth will begin its slow turn back toward heat and light. In the time before astronomy, it was not always assured that it would turn back, that winter wouldn't set in to stay. Even today it can sometimes feel that way. But rest assured, friends, light follows darkness. This one may be colder and darker and longer than we've experienced in a long while, but spring will come.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

In the Stockings

Stuffing stockings is my favorite part of the whole Christmas gift-giving rigamarole, and I would be truly happy if it was the only part I had to participate in (but sadly it's not). So I was a little surprised when I came up short on ideas for E and Z's stockings. I had M's pretty much wrapped up (though not literally 'wrapped up' since I don't usually wrap stocking stuffers), but I couldn't think what to get 11-year-olds. I put out an emergency call on Facebook and got lots of good ideas from friends, plus a couple of admissions of lackluster performance in the stocking-stuffer department.

I thought I'd share here what I've gotten for each boy's stocking, just in case others are finding themselves fresh out of stuffing ideas. (I'm 99.9% sure my kids don't read my blog, but if I'm wrong, now would be a good time for them to go away and find something else to do).

First, M, who has always been easy to shop for because he has so many specific interests. For him I got a few CDs (French music because he's learning French and Harry Connic Jr. because he's developed an interest in jazz), guitar strings and picks, a new game (Fluxx—have you played it?), a tiny model kit, and some fun candy. There should be a book, too, but it hasn't arrived yet. And I'm thinking I might add some ski socks to the pile when I go out for the last round of shopping tomorrow.

What I finally came up with for E and Z: wool knee socks, pencils, comic books, build-your-own wind-up robot and zombie kits, candy, and a lot of fun doodads from a store in Damariscotta called Fernald's —gyro wheel, whoopee cushion, duck whistle, "Super Awesome Trading Cards." I'm pretty excited about this haul, but also slightly nervous it won't all fit in the socks!

I won't show C's stocking stuffers here, because there's a slightly greater than 0.01% chance that he'll read this, but in years past, I've gotten him things like a book, a CD, good chocolate, a card game, a gadget of some kind, socks.

How about you? What are you stuffing into stockings? What do you hope Santa puts in your sock?

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Cube

Many years ago, I used to make cube-shaped ottomans from discontinued samples of upholstery and home dec fabric that I could get at a nearby fabric store for a dollar each. I would sew the fabric squares into a cube, with a zipper on one seam, and give them away to family and friends. The idea was to stuff the cube with all those packing peanuts you end up with when you order things in the mail, but which your are loath to just throw in the trash. I don't remember how many I made, but there are at least two in existence today. One we have, but we gave up on the packing peanuts a long time ago, because they would break down and then the cube would spew styrofoam dust around the house when kids jumped on it. I tried stuffing it with fabric scraps, but that made it into a heavy, shapeless lump. So now it sits in the basement, awaiting new life and another kind of stuffing.

But last time I was at my sister's house, I saw that she still had hers and that it was stuffed full of peanuts and being used in its full footrest glory (with no little kids to mash the stuffing into packing peanut dust).

Last winter she asked me to make her another one, because she had a lot of packing peanuts, but at the time I was between sewing machines, and then I got busy making sleeping quilts, and then I went hiking and then suddenly it was November, with her birthday coming up.

I didn't have time to go to the store with the upholstery fabric samples, but I happened to be at my local-ish fabric store the day before Thanksgiving and decided to pick up some home dec fat quarters. At first I was disappointed in their selection—nothing seemed to go together—then I decided to focus on a single color, that sort of magenta-ish—and was able to come up with six different, fun, funky fabrics, that look awesome together.

It took me a while longer to actually sit down and sew the damn thing together  (and a bit of head scratching, and googling, to figure out how to make it into a cube—the secret is to stop sewing a half-inch shy of each end on the first four seams), so it was well after my sister's birthday once I got it in the mail, but hopefully she'll be pleased with it, and still have all those packing peanuts.

Here it is, less-than cube-ish, stuffed with laundry.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas Cookies 2016

I had big plans to mix up all of my Christmas cookie dough over thanksgiving weekend and then freeze it to bring out, cut, and bake over the next few weeks. That didn't happen Thanksgiving weakened, or the weekend after either, nor the one after that. All last week, I got butter out of the fridge to soften, only to put it back after I ran out of time or eggs or sugar. Finally, Thursday, I went on an epic mixing spree, and whipped up five batches of dough (the secret is to start with the lightest cookie—sugar—and end with the darkest—chocolate gingerbread—so you only have to watch the mixing bowl and paddle once, when you're done. In addition to my three staple Christmas cookies— the aforementioned sugar and chocolate gingerbread and spekulatius—I made two new kinds: chocolate sables, which are my all-time favorite cookie and which I made for the first time last month, and heidesand, which I just rediscovered after more than two decades.

My high school best friend's parents were from Germany, and a generation older than most high schoolers' parents. Her dad was a chemistry professor (retired, possibly?) and her mom did some translating work on the side of keeping a spectacular house. Inside the She was a stickler for rules and details—inside the medicine cabinet were labeled hooks for each person's toothbrush, including one for me; the juice jug in the fridge had a table that said "for breakfast only" and at that meal you were allowed only a tiny glassful. They weren't what I'd call rich, because they did not engage in conspicuous consumption, but they must have had money and they spend it well. They lived in a modest-sized house but it was beautifully proportioned and tastefully decorated; they were thrifty in their food expenditures (her mom bought generic, which mine never did, even at our poorest) but always served multiple dishes at breakfast and dessert after dinner; they drove sturdy but older cars (Subaru and toyota), but travelled to Europe and had a cabin in the mountains. They were intellectual and sophisticated in a way few people I knew at that time were—they listened to classical music, discussed politics, had extensive vocabularies (the first time I heard the word "turbid," was when her brother used it to describe the iced tea). They took me on my first trips to the ballet and the ski slope. I housesat for them when the bicycled around Europe after their children's high school graduation (my friend had a twin brother).

One year around Christmastime, my friend's mother invited me to their house for tea and cookies. Among the many beautiful and delicious cookies arrayed on the tray, were humble brown rounds. They didn't look like much, but they had a buttery, melt-in-your-mouth taste and a sandy texture. Mrs. Stickler told us the German name of the cookie and that it translated to "sandy moor." She also said they gained their sandy texture from browned butter.

My friend and went to colleges on different coasts and over the years we grew apart and out of touch, the way people do, especially back in the days before email and Facebook. I haven't heard from her in many years. I don't know if her parents, who were as old when we were in high school as my parents are now, are even still alive. But I've never forgotten those cookies, and now and then have tried to find a cookie called "sandy moor," with no luck.

Finally, this year, it occurred to me to enlist the internet. I tried Google translating "sandy moor." I tried searching "traditional German Christmas cookies." I finally got a hit with "German browned-butter cookies," which led me to this website, with a recipe for Heidesand—or "heath sand"—cookies. As I read the description and history of the cookies, tears poured down my face. I'm not sure why. Perhaps I missed my friend, and her family, who had opened up my world a bit. Perhaps I missed that time in life when mothers baked cookies and had tea parties. Perhaps I just really love browned butter, sugar, and salt.

I made a double batch, so certain was I that these cookies would transport me back to a time when I was 17. The browned butter came off without a hitch, and the dough came out every bit as crumbly and hard to work as the recipe said it would. I managed to work it into logs by scooping handfuls of dough crumbs into ziplock bags and mashing and rolling them into submission.

The next day I took the logs out of the fridge and attempted to slice them, upon which the disintegrated back into crumbs. I let them warm up a bit and tried again, with a larger, sharper knife, which helped some, though many slices lost chunks on their way to the cookie sheet. The recipe recommends rolling the edge of the cookie slices in pearl sugar. I didn't have any pearl sugar, but I did have some naturally colored red and green sugar, but it refused to stick to the cookies, no matter what I tried (I was tempted to lick the edges to make it stick, but don't worry, I didn't).

They aren't the prettiest cookies on the tray, but they are good, buttery and a little sandy. They're a little tough and don't quite have that melt-in-the mouth quality of Mrs. Stickler's. I think I might have overworked the dough, and sliced them a bit thick. The ones that I managed to stick a little sugar to are better; the sugar adds another texture layer of crunch and just a tiny bit extra sweetness to a not-too-sweet cookie. They're definitely going to become a regular member of the Christmas cookie line-up, though I might try some other recipes, to see if I can hit that perfect sandy sweet spot.

I realized that both the Heidesand and the sables are types of shortbread, and that I really love shortbread. Butter + sugar + flour + salt = yum! I'm thinking maybe I should write a cookbook of nothing but shortbread. I looked online and found that there's one (but only one) out there already (and appears to be out of print), plus a murder mystery and a romance with the word "shortbread" in the title. So maybe, after I finish up a couple of other book ideas, that will be my next project.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Indoor Garden

I used to love to garden. Back when I lived in dorms and treehouses and apartments, I kept houseplants and windowsill herbs. I worked in community gardens and other people's gardens. And then we got our very own house and our very own, lots and lots of, land, and suddenly gardening didn't seem all that appealing to me anymore. At first I blamed the baby. And then the other two babies. But recently I saw a neighbor rototilling with a baby on her back, so that excuse doesn't hold water. Also, those babies aren't really all that babyish anymore. Certainly no impediment in the garden. So I don't know what it is—the busy-ness of May, with three birthdays and baseball season and stuff. The bugs? The overwhelming sensation of "where to start?" on 20 acres? a preference for wild plants and wandering? Sheer laziness?

Whatever it is, I found myself getting back to my windowsill gardening roots last spring when I planted a parsley plant in a little orange pot. It did so well, even while we were gone over the summer, I decided to start a couple more herbs—the ones I always wish I had fresh but never do (basil and cilantro). I don't know if either of them does well as a potted plant, indoors, in the winter, but I'm giving it a try.

Right now they're in the sun room, hopefully getting ready to sprout, but after the holiday decorations come down, I'll move them to the kitchen window, where I can snip off bits of tasty herbs whenever needed. (Maybe that's what I don't like about gardening…the very long walk through the house, down the stairs and around back to collect my vegetables. Maybe it's time for indoor hydroponics).

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Finishing Touches

We moved into our house just a little over 14 years ago. It wasn't quite done when we moved in—there was no bathtub (and poor one-and-a-half-year-old M had to take his baths in the tiny Elmo tub of his infancy), there was no kitchen sink (we did dishes in the bathroom for a period of time there). There were no doors on the kitchen cabinets. I think there was no siding. But over time, bit by bit, C finished up most of the major details.

The minor details? Those have necessitated a bit more nudging on my part. I did a major kitchen overhaul several years ago, although this involved more reorganizing and furniture-finishing by me than carpentry by C (though there was a bit of that) and then last year, around this time, C added a decorative shelf along the base of the cabinets, above the backsplash.

That almost finished off the kitchen. There was just the tiny detail of a gap between the tile over the stove and the stove hood (caused by Mr. Energy changing stove hoods after a few years to a more powerful, but also lower-profile model which left an expanse of yellow paint hanging in the air).

At first I wanted him to chip out the top row of partial tiles and fill in the space with whole tiles (we have plenty of extra), but I soon realized that would never happened, and I'd be stuck with the greasy, food-splattered yellow paint (for some reason we used matte paint in the kitchen, which is impossible to clean) forever. So I *let* him trim it out with wood, on which I hung three cute hooks and three festive potholders (purely decorative). It was a good compromise, I think.

The other small detail in the kitchen that had been annoying me all these years was that he never finished off the end of the upper cabinets. It was just ugly wood with screws in it. I had C add a piece of plywood to cover up the mess and I decorated it with more seasonally appropriate potholders (I ordered them all as a set on Easy) and a clay sun M made in art class some years ago. This is a spot no one is likely to notices, situated as it is in a narrow hallway on the way to the fridge and the bathroom, but I notice it and now it makes me much nappier than it did!

There are still a few very tiny unfinished details in the kitchen—pieces of trim here and there in places that don't even bother me and it would be nice to have crown molding, for no other reason that to stop dust from accumulating on top of the cabinets—but for now it's done enough.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Wild Wednesday ~ Snow Day

Monday we had a snow day.

It wasn't the first snow of the season, but it was the first real snow-snow, where enough piled up for tracks and sledding and canceling school.

It's been a long while since the boys would get up and run outside, snowsuits over pajamas, to play first thing in the morning.

Their electronic devices sing a sweeter siren song than snow and I had to cajole and bribe them to go out and stay out.

One of them, mad at me because I didn't want to drive in the snow to take him to his friend's house, never went out at all.

No one wanted to accompany me on a walk through the woods, so I went on my own. Saw a few tracks—squirrel (first photo) and these that I'm not sure who they belong to. The diagonal arrangement makes me kind of thing weasel family, but they're so close together. Thoughts?

Our river has partially frozen over already, which didn't happen at all last winter. I'll take that as a good sign of a white Christmas and winter to come.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Not-Quite-Perfect Peppermint Bark

For a few years now, I've been working on perfecting my peppermint bark recipe, with the twinned goals of deliciousness and minimal labor. I thought I had the formula just right this time:

  • 2 bars Green & Black's white chocolate
  • 2 bars Green & Black's mint chocolate 
  • small package Annie's chocolate bunny grahams
  • a couple of scoops of tiny peppermint candies from the candy store
Unfortunately, I ran into a couple of problems when assembling my ingredients:

  • The grocery store did not have G&B's white chocolate, so I had to buy the much more expensive bars at the health food store.
  • I accidentally bought dark chocolate rather than mint chocolate
  • I couldn't find chocolate bunny grahams anywhere and had to settle for Newman's Own chocolate alphabet cookies, which contain palm oil and left me feeling guilty about the rain forests
  • the peppermint candies from the candy store were not as tiny as I had remembered

Undeterred by these setbacks, I forged ahead. My first time-saving plan was to break up the first bar of white chocolate and melt it on the pan in the oven. I pictured the pieces getting all soft and gooey, and easily spread with a spatula. Unfortunately, they turned brown and crunchy and not at all melty.

Not willing to waste that pricey bar of white chocolate,  I transferred the brown chunks to a hot water bath and added a couple scoops of coconut oil to help smooth out the mixture as it melted.

I then smashed up a couple tablespoons of the not-quite-small-enough-to-use-whole peppermint candies and added them to the white chocolate to help disguise the brown color, and spread it all on a sheet of parchment and placed the pan outside in the cold to firm up.

I then placed both chocolate bars in a hot water bath and Z helped me bash up the cookies, right in the bag (with a small hole to let out air) with a hammer. I added several drops of mint flavor to the melted chocolate (a step I could have skipped had I bought the mint bars) as well as the cookie crumbs, spread the whole mixture over the first layer of light brown white chocolate, and placed the tray back outside.

Then I melted the last bar of white chocolate (in a hot water bath, having learned my lesson), added a few more spoonfuls of crushed peppermints, and spread it over the hardened chocolate layer. Over the top, I sprinkled more mint candies, not bothering to smash those up, which I think might have been a mistake, because the final result is a lot for the teeth to handle.

I placed the tray outside one last time for a few minutes and then transferred it to the refrigerator while we all went to go see Fantastic Beasts. When we got home, I broke the bark into hunks and squirreled it away for holiday season munching.

And the best part about the bark being not-quite-perfect? We'll have to eat it all ourselves, in the privacy of our home, where no one else can see the brown layer, or break a tooth on the over-large peppermint bits, or notice how the chocolate cookies end up a little more soggy and less crunchy than the bunny grahams would have.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Getting Our 16th Tree

As we prepared to go out and get our tree Saturday, it occurred to me that this will be our 16th tree that we've gathered off this land—the first one being when M was just a baby and our house was just a shell covered in silvery house wrap. So of course I had to go in search of photos from Christmas Trees Past—these are from 2006:

Our tree-getting ritual has looked pretty similar all of these years—only the babies get bigger and bigger, and move from slings to backpacks to sleds to their own sturdy feet. 

This year they trouped ahead, in search of their own vision of the perfect tree, each of them casting their vote for a hemlock here, a spruce there.

As always, however, we keep up the search until the perfect balsam fir appears.

And then another and another.

We argue the merits of each, until our toes get cold and we get thirsty for hot cider.
They're taller now—the boys and the trees—and we pick one that towers over us a bit, cutting it down and then trimming it to the top seven or eight feet. 

This makes for a sturdier trunk, than the old saplings we used to bring home, and often (though not always) denser branches.

This year we aimed for a tree whose angled upward, hoping that, laden with ornaments, they would end up more horizontal than droopy.

We said our words of thanks to the tree, for bringing light and life into our home this dark and cold wintertime, and E and Z did the honors, sawing it down and then cutting it to length and clipping away extraneous branches.
We take the tree home and set it up in the space we've cleared and cleaned in anticipation. And then we put on Christmas records and decorate, a process that everyone loses enthusiasm for far too soon.

This year's tree is big and sturdy enough that it holds every single one of our numerous ornaments, including the "normal" ornaments that E specially requested—a box of gold glass balls that I bought at Kmart, back when C and I didn't have enough ornaments to fill out a small tree, as hard to believe that there ever was such a time. 

Finally we place the elf in his place of honor, at the top, hugging the glass star, ready to preside over our festivities of the season.
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