Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Flower (and Flour!) Power

It feels like spring around here...in the house, anyway. As far as I'm concerned, spring begins on March 1st, and I'm making the appropriate preparations. I've bought some new white enamel vases at IKEA that are perfect for spring tulips.

Other vases have been pressed into service. I read somewhere that you can take a small bouquet and split it into several different vases, making it appear that you have many more flowers than you actually have. This is just one small bouquet from the grocery store. I think I'm in love!

I spent a long time inside my local Jo Ann's last week, carefully choosing fabric that will help me change the seasons inside, too.

I chose this natural linen-like fabric, and a pretty pale blue striped one, for the living room couches. I'll cut and sew covers for the seat cushions, replacing the dark red plaids that I'm currently using. I've got enough fabric for some throw pillows, too!

I bought these cheerful colors for various bookshelves. I'll create a small fabric runner for them, lightening up all the dark wood and bringing a bit of spring cheer!

I love blue and red ticking. I splurged and bought two Martha Stewart ticking bags several years ago and I never get tired of looking at them! I bought this red ticking fabric to make fabric ties and pillows, and I think it contrasts nicely with the tan linen.

This happy fabric was only .50 at Goodwill! I'll use it as accent fabric and for other small projects.

I'm starting to pull out my spring dishes...a pale green set from IKEA, and some of my spring-themed Emma Bridgewater dishes, like these robin cereal bowls that Todd bought for my Valentine's Day.

I love that detail!

I treated myself to some new rubber stamps that make me think of the coming season - mason jar stamps, which remind me of the mason jar bouquets I have all summer long...

...and mums, which are technically a fall flower, but can be brought into spring with light colors. I love this design and am planning on stamping some wrapping paper next week!

All of this planning and organizing, plus my regular work, has left me a bit too busy for knitting lately. Valentine's Day planning kept me from it the first two weeks of February, and I'm confronted with knowledge that for the first time in two years, I don't really have anything "on the needles." I've finally selected a next project, but with garden planning scheduled for later this week, I'm not sure when I'll get to it!

One place that's received plenty of attention in the midst of my hustle and bustle is the kitchen. It seems like I've been cooking and baking daily! This week I've made miniature apple pies, jam stacks, homemade baguettes, and Martha Stewart's Christmas crinkle cookies...and that's just the baking! It seems like more and more, I walk down the grocery store aisles thinking, "No, I could make that. I could make that." It feels really good.

I had another kitchen victory recently when I discovered that I could make bagels at home that tasted just as good as those at the local coffee shop. I met some girlfriends at a bakery and had my heart set on a big, crunchy bagel. I was really disappointed to learn that this particular location didn't sell bagels...but I couldn't get them out of my mind. I looked up a recipe and went to work!

Whole Wheat Bagels
Adapted from This Chick Cooks

2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cup white flour
2 1/4 teaspoon yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
3 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon salt

Mix water, yeast, and honey together, and then add remaining ingredients. Mix for about 5 - 7 minutes. Cover, and let dough rise in a warm place for about an hour. Your dough should double in size.

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees, and let a large pot of water come to a boil. Separate your dough into balls and poke a hole in the center with your finger, twirling it around until the bagel shape naturally forms.

Now, in order for your bagel to have that nice, chewy exterior, it needs to be boiled. I boiled mine for 2 minutes per side, flipping carefully with tongs halfway through.

Then, I baked them for about 15 minutes, until a nice golden brown.

They were delicious! And so easy! Toasted, with a bit of cream cheese...yum.

Of course, these are incredibly versatile...the sky's the limit when it comes to flavor combinations. I can't wait to make another batch...after I take this latest batch of rising dough and make more jam stacks, that is! :)


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Be Mine, Valentine

Traditionally, I've never cared one way or another about Valentine's Day. It ranks well below Halloween and just barely above St. Patrick's Day on my radar. Yes, it's nice to acknowledge and to receive acknowledgment from your significant other, but the commercialism has always been a bit of a bother. This year, though, I felt inspired to embrace the season, in a major "do it yourself" way!

I love my husband. I mean, I'm really crazy about him. I risked arrest (or at least a fine!) in Italy a few years ago by, as tradition dictated, clamping a Todd-inscribed padlock onto a structure on the Ponte Vecchio and tossing the key into river below, ensuring that we'd have true love forever.

So far, so good (wink wink)!

This year I decided to make Todd a little book filled with expressions of my love. It took a while to make, but wasn't too difficult. I gathered a stack of same-size envelopes and cut two pieces of cardboard to size...

Then, with a nod to tradition, I stitched various red, white, and pink buttons in a heart shape onto a piece of neutral-colored fabric.

Once completed, I wrapped the fabric around the first piece of cardboard, secured it with pins, and embroidered a quick border.

Then, I did the same thing with the other side. Book cover and back completed!

Next, I determined how many envelopes I wanted for my book and laid them edge to edge, securing them with a piece of scotch tape.

I had quite a stack! If you decide to make these, make sure your envelopes aren't overfilled...I learned that the hard way. They won't lie flat and your book will be very untidy.

Now, to fill those envelopes! I filled mine with lots of little things. Some miniature cards...

...and some homemade ones. This one was so fun to make. Make concentric cuts into a heart shape, with a little "pull me" tag in the middle...

Secure the heart to your card. When the recipient pulls the tag, your message is revealed!

One envelope was filled with haikus I'd written in the traditional 5-7-5 meter. These were so fun! The paper I chose made the envelope too thick, however, so I ended up typing them out and filling my envelope with small slips of paper.

What's a celebration without confetti?

Since Todd and I have a great love of board games, I decided to use the ones we played most frequently to stage messages, which I then photographed and printed off on small 2 x 2 pieces of paper for one envelope.



...and Boggle!

Many other little things filled the pages of my book, and I felt really happy when I surveyed my filled envelopes.

To finish off the book, I attached both covers by stitching a wide ribbon onto their edges.

I covered up the frayed fabric edges and the cardboard with card stock. If I would've had more time, I would've made it look a lot nicer, but I was on a deadline!

With his Valentine's Day card tucked into its front, this was a really happy little book that brought a lot of joy on the big day!

It was really fun.

Gift done, I had to decide what to make for "the big meal." Todd and I don't go out to eat very much since I really love to cook, and we didn't want to compete with Valentine's Day crowds. I decided to make something warm and filling - our favorite chicken noodle soup with homemade french baguettes and salad.

But it was Valentine's Day, so...carrot hearts!

I got this idea from last month's Martha Stewart Living. It didn't take much time at all. Peel and slice your carrots normally, and then you can use a cookie cutter to make the top of the heart on each carrot...even the really small ones!

Use a knife to chop off the sides and even up any sharp edges.

Then I decided, on the spur of the moment, to cut my potatoes into hearts, too.

It made a really warm, delicious meal, and it was so much fun to eat. Todd was absolutely amazed!

I'd been planning the dessert for about two weeks. It was a big project, inspired by I Am Baker's wonderful site. I was initially afraid to make this, thinking that I didn't have enough experience or that it would be just too much. I don't ever want to be afraid to try, though. I decided that I could whip up some quick molten chocolate cakes if this was a bust.

First, I made plain white cake and vanilla cream cheese frosting...four of them. When I had two stacks of layer cakes with a layer of icing between the two layers, I used these broken skewers to measure out identical circles on both stacks of layer cakes.

With one layer cake stack, I hollowed out the center in a cone shape, carefully saving the crumbs.

With the other, I made the same cone shape, but with a little upside-down 'v' shape in the center.

I combined the crumbs from both cake stacks, dyed them red with food coloring, and patted them into place securely.

Then I stacked the "v" cake on top of the cone cake. I gave it a crumb coat...

...and put it in the freezer until Valentine's Day.

When the big day arrived, I made another batch of cream cheese icing and fully iced the cake. It was meant to be all white, but I couldn't resist a few sprinkles along the edge of the cake.

Here it is, fully iced and ready to go...

And here's the surprise! When you cut into it, a heart appears!

My uneven sawing (what is the proper way to saw through 4 layers of cake?!) caused some cracking around the top of the heart, but overall, I was really pleased with how it turned out.

I hope everyone had a great Valentine's Day! These are fun ideas that aren't just limited to February 14th...they'd be great for birthdays, anniversaries, or other special days.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Snow Stops & Flip-Tops!

After our destructive ice storm last week, the sun came out. It was dazzling on the ice. Bushes looked like they were full of diamonds...

...and plants looked like they were made of glass.

But our reprieve didn't last long. Just a few days later, it began to snow...

...and snow...

...and snow.

These European starlings argued noisily over our suet feeder. We made sure to keep all the feeders well-stocked so no one would go hungry. I wanted to leave out cut-up apples and carrots for other wildlife, but Todd suggested that we may not want to draw them to our yard.

Too late! This star-shaped print tells me that a possum came snooping...maybe the same little guy I found last year?

These longer tracks belong to raccoons. Their long, nimble fingers are very efficient when it comes to gathering food!

Because it's been so cloudy outside, I decided to bring home some cheerful flowers. Nothing says "spring" like tulips!

I have a lot of wide-mouth vases that are difficult to fill with the small bouquets I bring home from the grocery store. More often than not, the flowers end up flopping to one side, no matter how cleverly I cut the stems.

I learned a good trick to avoid this. Using tape, make a grid on the mouth of the vase...

...and then you can carefully arrange your flowers as you'd like. The tape supports the stems and makes your bouquets appear much fuller.

Now I just have to be patient until these start appearing in my garden!

I haven't been completely happy with the mittens I knitted last month. They're just a little bit large, so I decided to knit a more practical pair. To those of you who haven't seen this before, I'm happy to introduce you to convertible mittens. They're fingerless mittens with an attached "cap". The cap has a loop at the tip, which is used to attach the cap to the wrist part of your glove when not in use. I use these as normal mittens when outside, and when I drive, I flip the top down so I have a better grip on the steering wheel. No more pulling off my mittens when I need to use my cell phone!

It's the best of both worlds!

In my experience, convertible mittens always have an annoying seam across the back, from where you picked up stitches to create the cap (see left mitten). I decided to improvise and knitted a 4 inch, 3-stitch I-cord braid. It was easy to sew it on, and I think it looks much better than the glove with the bare seam.

I've really enjoyed wearing them this week!

Last week, I noticed a past-its-prime container of cottage cheese in the refrigerator. I hate wasting food, but I didn't relish the thought of trying to eat slightly curdled cottage cheese, which is sketchy to me even when fresh. Then I remembered a random recipe I'd found a few months ago, which was for a dessert that used a ricotta-based dough. Ricotta and cottage cheese are relatively interchangeable, right?

This had to be one of the best snacks I've had in a long time. The dough was soft and chewy, and the warm jam added just the right touch of sweetness. These were so easy to make, too! Doesn't everyone have some old cottage cheese to use up?

Cottage Cheese Jam Stacks
1 tablespoon warm milk
2/3 cup cottage cheese
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon butter, room temperature
1 egg
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon yeast
1/2 cup jam

Combine warm milk, honey, cottage cheese, butter, and egg. Add yeast, mix well, then stir in flour and salt. Mix for about 8 minutes, and then cover bowl and let dough rise for about an hour.

After the rise, turn your dough out onto a floured surface. Roll it out thin and, using a cookie cutter, cut out your circles.

You probably want to roll your dough out a little thinner than I did here!

One you have all your circles cut out, spray a cookie sheet with a nonstick spray. Give a generous spread of jam (I used blackberry - YUM!) to a circle, put another circle on top, and give another generous smear. Stack one final circle on top. There's your stack!

These can be a little messy! Because my dough circles were a little too thick, some of my stack layers slid a little. It's easy to right them, though.

Let these stacks rise for another 45 minutes and then bake for 15 - 20 minutes in a preheated oven set to 350 degrees.

Stacks of soft, warm, slightly sweet bread with sweet jam? Oh, yeah!

This recipe should yield around 12 stacks.

I hope you try it. Enjoy!