Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Padding, Pillows, and Plenty of Pudding

Before our current cold snap, I was able to get out in the yard and get some much-needed work done...under careful supervision, of course.

My sister brought over a big load of rich, healthy compost, which I'll till into our poor soil soon to add some much-needed nutrients.

Everything seemed to come to life at once. My autumn sedums look like miniature lettuce heads. They'll make a beautiful display in September.

I found another nice natural groundcover. This is persian speedwell...tiny blue flowers that spread in bright patches in our yard.

Blue is such a lovely color in the garden!

The columbines are making great headway. I expect to see stalks within two weeks.

Not to be outdone, the lilacs are showing bright green leaves all over. I simply can't wait until they bloom! I have the most beautiful bouquets in nearly every room in the house.

I found evidence of past life...some insect spent some time here in the fall!

Best of all, though, I found evidence of future life: the ground under our big pine tree is littered with tiny bits of fuzz, which the birds nesting above have dropped from their nests.

Lots of activity inside, too. Single flowers make beautiful displays in egg cups, assisted by a few pebbles within to help the stems stay upright.

Besides flowers, I've been thinking of more ways to bring some bright color into the house. I recently bought this pillow at IKEA for, I believe, around $10. I wanted to buy more, especially the blue plaid counterpart, but that could get expensive pretty quickly. How hard could it be to make my own? As it turns out, making a pillow is incredibly easy.

I found a man's button-up shirt at a thrift store that I thought would work nicely. Cost: .75.

I found an ugly old pillow that the cats had been kicking around on the front porch. Origin: unknown. Cost: free.

I placed the pillow on top of the spread-out shirt...

...and cut out around the pillow, making sure to leave a wide margin on all sides. I should've left a wider margin, but that was easily solved by removing the cover from the brown pillow to make it a better fit.

Then, I turned the shirt inside-out and simply stitched around the edges, making a nice, even square. I did this by hand, which took less than an hour. If you use a sewing machine, this would take mere minutes.

After your pillowcase is sewn, unbutton the shirt and turn it right side-out. Slip in the stuffing (or the pillow you're covering) and button the shirt up again.

Ladies and gentlemen, that's a pillowcase!

Or, if you prefer the flip side:

I'm really pleased with this less-than-$1 DIY project. The two pillows are complementary, I think, and make a good pair. I'm envisioning a whole stack of beautiful plaid pillows. All I need is a thrift store shirt!

I can't wait to go back!

My knitting needles have been clacking along, albeit slowly. I haven't had too much time to work on my cardigan, and certainly a sock yarn-weight cardigan takes much longer to knit than one knit with the typical DK- or worsted-weight yarn. I'm pleased with the way it's turning out, although I'm still a bit nervous about the modifications I'm making: lengthening the body, raising the neckline, and lengthening the sleeves, not to mention the size and gauge guesses. I will make it work somehow! I think it will be a perfect cool-weather cardigan.

Of course, I've been very busy in the kitchen as well. We just finished off the last of the coconut cream cupcakes, and my homemade butterscotch pudding with carmelized bananas and homemade whipped cream only lasted 2 days. But I did have time for another sweetie...any excuse to use my new tart pans!

From-Scratch Chocolate Pudding Tarts
Adapted from food.com
Serves 4

1/4 cup cocoa
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/4 cup sugar
4 - 6 tablespoons butter, melted

To make the crust, preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Mix all ingredients together and then carefully press into your pie or tart pan. Bake for 5 - 7 minutes.

For the pudding, mix all ingredients but the milk and vanilla together, and then add milk. Whisk until fully combined, and then microwave uncovered for 3 minutes.


Then you'll continue to microwave in one minute increments, stirring after each minute. You'll notice after 4 or 5 rounds that a thick brown "skin" covers more and more of the pudding's surface each time. I usually stop once there's just a small bit of light brown remaining in the center.

Mix in the vanilla, and you're done! Note: if you like a sweeter pudding, add 1/3 cup sugar instead of 1/4 cup sugar. I just prefer the "darker" taste of a less-sweet pudding.

Spoon the thickened pudding onto the graham cracker crust and refrigerate.

YUM! These cool in a few hours and are ready to eat. They're absolutely delicious. I've been making the homemade pudding for years - I'll never go back to the powdered stuff! - but this is the first time I thought to pair it with a graham cracker crust.

It's a good match.

You'll notice that I don't have a photo of the tart out of the pan and ready to eat...a certain someone likes these a little too much, I think! They didn't last long enough to photograph. That's all right...it's quick and easy to make more!

I hope you'll give them a try. Have a great week!

Monday, March 21, 2011

St. Patrick's Day Takes the Cake (Pop)!

Exciting things are happening.

The first flowers, and the first bees (!!), have made an appearance. I have a lovely spread of crocuses in the yard, ranging in color from deep purple to a lighter, bluish shade.

The shy face of this daffodil will be gloriously displayed within a few days.

My hydrangeas and lilacs are budding furiously. The columbines are unfurling all over the yard. I must have nearly 50 plants now, all from 6 little seedlings I coaxed back into living several years ago. Other nice things are happening, but one of my favorites is happening inside.

I had a great idea this morning.

I bought this metal spice rack at IKEA for $1.99 recently. I didn't intend to use it as a spice rack, but knew it would be good for something. Today I finally took off the packaging...

...and placed a plastic bag in the bottom.

I shored up the sides with moss (one medium size bag = $2) and filled the container with violas.

I love it! I have a beautiful, simple planter - container, moss, and flowers - for only $4. It makes a lovely centerpiece.

Nothing beats a cheerful table!

Maybe you noticed that St. Patrick's Day was last week. I'm Irish...I think.

Just in case, I decided to celebrate it properly, and made St. Patrick's Day-themed cake pops. They're so fun and tasty, you've got to make them! All you need is a cake, some icing, candy melts, and lollipop sticks, all easily purchased at your local grocery store.

To make it easier on myself, I bought a white cake mix and a can of vanilla frosting and tinted both green with food coloring.

I used my KitchenAid to reduce the cake to crumbs. I suppose a purist would've cut off the brown parts of the cake for an even green, but the brown and green mix made me think of mint chocolate chip ice cream, which is certainly a positive association.

Next, I mixed in half of my can of frosting and stirred until the crumbs resembled cookie batter.

Then, I rolled the batter into one inch balls and placed them carefully on wax paper.

I bought some Wilton candy melts in milk chocolate and vanilla flavors, which melt easily in the microwave. Most recipes say to mix shortening into the melted candy to make it more fluid, but I didn't have any. Canola oil is a fine substitution! Once I obtained the desired consistency, I dipped in a lollipop stick and inserted the candy-covered end into my cake balls. Easy!

I put them in the freezer for about 45 minutes. This serves two purposes: to harden the ball so that it stays on the stick, and also the cold, hard ball causes the melted candy to harden quickly, which is definitely a benefit.

When they were nice and cold, I just swirled each ball around in the melted candy until completely coated, tapped the stick to make sure the excess chocolate dripped off, and gave them a good sprinkling of green sugar.

I used a drying rack and the bottom side of a styrofoam egg carton to support the pops until they dried.
They dried within a few minutes and stored easily until the big day.

To use up the leftover icing, I made simple chocolate sandwich cookies and piped the tinted icing into the centers. YUM!

One recipe makes over 40 pops, depending on how much batter you eat beforehand! :) Cake pops are easy to make but a bit time-consuming.

It was worth it, though. DELICIOUS. Cake, icing, and a thin layer of candy? Yes, please!

These can be tailored to any holiday, of course. The possibilities are endless. I hope you give them a try!

Have a great week!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

More Spring in Your Step

I love spring.

I love the colors of spring flowers: deep purple, vibrant red, bright orange, and electric yellow.

I love spring bouquets. I bring home armfuls of clearance flowers from the grocery store and set up vases all over the house.

I've pulled out my vintage mason jars and put them to work! Ahhhh...happiness.

I've finally gotten out in the yard, under the watchful eyes of Tabitha and Bosewichte.

Joy! The lilacs are budding out.

My achillea (yarrow) is popping up all over the yard, the little fern-like leaves filling in over the faded grass and patches of dirt. Soon I'll have maroon, white, and yellow yarrow all over!

The daffodils have made great progress.

Feverfew is spreading...

...and the tulips, with their pink-edged leaves, are unfurling in patches all over the yard.

Here come the irises! My great-grandmother had over 100 varieties of iris in her garden. I only have three...but just wait until we move and get settled somewhere!

I look forward to the brilliant green of my false dragonhead plant. It is otherwise known as the Obedient Plant, despite being very disobedient in the garden by spreading mercilessly. Thankfully I have a messy, easy-going garden that doesn't mind a little disobedience!

This wild ajuga is a welcome sight. It's considered an invasive plant, but it's a nice ground cover with deep green, almost purple leaves. It keeps down the grass a bit, so we don't have to mow as much.

Lo and behold, the first insect of spring!

To continue my theme of bringing spring indoors, I've ordered some vintage insect prints. This page was taken from a 1903 book and shows a variety of butterflies that are common in this area.

I love the detail! I've bought a large wooden frame for it and just need to cut the matte.

I sewed a series of bunting flags for a back wall of the sunroom. I can't believe what a difference a bit of cheerful fabric makes!

So, although it's 38 degrees outside, and pouring down rain, and everyone feels more like this:

...we'll continue to celebrate these little bits of spring in our lives!

Of course the kitchen is a great place to bring out the flavors of spring. I made a light, tasty cake last week that was absolutely delicious and a perfect end to a day spent in the dirt. It's part yellow cake...part cheesecake...and part crumb cake. How can you go wrong?

Lemon Fruit Crumb Cake
Recipe from Beth Hensperger's "The Best Quick Breads"
Makes one cake

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups white flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
2 cups fresh or frozen fruit

8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup sugar
zest of one lemon
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 egg
1 tablespoon flour

Crumb Topping
1 1/4 cup white flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
6 tablespoons cold butter, diced

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. If you don't have a 10-inch springform pan, you can use a regular cake pan, but the presentation isn't as nice. Whatever you've got: grease and flour it.

First make your cake. Cream the butter and sugar until smooth, and add the eggs, beating after each addition. Add the vanilla and mix well. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt, and add that to the sugar and butter mixture, alternating with the milk. Mix until combined, but do not overmix!

Pour the batter into your prepared pan and spread it around a little. Sprinkle your fresh or frozen fruit on top, making sure that you've got an even distribution. Set aside.

Make the cheesecake! Beat the cream cheese until smooth, and then beat in remaining ingredients, combining well. Pour on top of the fruit layer of your cake and spread it around!

To make the crumb topping, combine all ingredients but the butter, and then cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or fork. Sprinkle evenly on top, pressing it gently into the cheesecake. Careful...those handprints will bake into the cake top!

Bake for 55 - 65 minutes and let it cool. The cheesecake layer melts into the cake layer, making it even softer and more delicious. The lemon in the cheesecake gives it a nice fresh zing, as does the warm fruit. I highly recommend this!

I hope you have a nice, bright spring day, no matter what your weather's like. Enjoy!