Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Eat Crisp Crackers, You Will

More snow. I'm glad, because it covered our scarred brown yard. Snow just makes everything look better. Here, it gets caught up in the needles of a pine tree...

...and light, airy snowflakes are cupped gently by this viburnum leaf.

It fills up all the nooks and crannies, reminding us that spring is still far away.

I don't mind, because I'm happy indoors, working out the kinks of my New Year's Resolution. I typically love them, even though I usually keep mine for the average length of time...two days, maybe three. But this year I felt particularly motivated. I was tired of feeling frazzled and disorganized, and "losing time" with nothing to show for it. My aim has always been to live a simple, more graceful life, yet my way of living kept taking me further and further from that goal.

For me, the key is organization. At any given time, I've got three or four ideas in my mind, plans that rarely come to fruition. I will give an idea my white-hot attention for a certain length of time. I will immerse myself in it: read books, attend seminars, and let the rest of my life slide while I learn. I gather together binders and binders of materials. When at last I'm ready to execute said idea, I get incredibly discouraged if the results aren't perfect. Then, I feel overwhelmed by the amount of data I've gathered and end up quitting completely. Not finishing what I've started is the trait I like least about myself.

But now I've got Google Calendar.

Is it an exaggeration to say that Google Calendar has changed my life? I don't think so. How many times have I wanted to change my house with the seasons, and then look up in July and see that I've forgotten to take down Christmas decorations? How many times have I gone on trips with girlfriends who are nicely organized with their toiletry kits, and my things are wrapped up in a Walmart bag? Not because I didn't have nice toiletry bags - I do - but because their whereabouts were unknown. How many times have I planned an extravagant garden, only to be unprepared when the last frost date came and went, and therefore didn't get my seeds started in time? Or purchased, for that matter? And where was that garden plan?

No more.

I actually started the process a few months ago. I went through the attic, where I stored clothing in big Rubbermaid bins. Clothes from college, clothes from high school, clothes I was saving for fabric, for some unnamed project...piles and piles of clothes.

I went through those overwhelming bins and donated over 30 garbage bags full of clothes to Goodwill. I'm left with things I really like: my long sleeve t-shirts in an array of earth tones, my favorite jeans, my most comfortable sweaters. I now have five Rubbermaid bins, sorted by clothing type and season. That feels good.

I spent weeks making lists of things that I wanted to do, but had never taken the time to do on a regular basis. I scheduled them all on Google Calendar, and now I get a daily email that reminds me to do something. If it's Tuesday, my email reminds me to do an all-over house cleaning. Friday, to feed my sourdough. Saturday, to journal. I've also scheduled reminder emails to arrive 2 weeks before every birthday on my list, and every new season. I've scheduled in days to plan the garden, days to buy seeds, and days to plant. I've scheduled in days to purchase the supplies I'll need to for the fall display I want to make next year...oh, and that's scheduled too. No more peering at my overflowing pantry and wondering what to make for supper. On Sundays, Google Calendar reminds me to make a weekly menu. Now I'm cooking an incredibly diverse range of meals. Our bedding is now organized by season, and set, and it's rotated and Febreezed on a regular basis. The refrigerator is clean and organized. My rubber stamps, which were formerly crammed into two small baskets or shoved on top of a tall bookcase, are now tidy in their new shelf.

I've been able to return to my gratitude journal. I've got pages and pages of ways to celebrate the changes of the seasons with both food and decorations. A tasty dessert waits in my freezer for a quick thaw, in case a friend stops by unexpectedly. Sacks of bulbs are hibernating in my basement, which will be brought up next fall in two week intervals...tidily scheduled...for December-to-spring flowers. I love the way my new graceful life is unfolding.

It was time-consuming to make the lists and to get everything scheduled properly, but now that everything is set up, it runs like a well-oiled machine. My mind is freed from the stresses of my former disorganized life, and with the time I've saved, I can focus on more important things. I love the idea of practicing random acts of kindness and I've started, yes, scheduling those on Google Calendar. It's a slow start, just one per month right now, but I feel really good about it. I've also scheduled more trivial things, like weekly lessons to learn how to french braid my hair, something I've always wanted to learn. Every week I seem to schedule something new - a new book to get from the library in a few months, a date in May to give cheesemaking another go.

Want to get on the Google Calendar train? It's not as hard as you think! You don't have to do daily tasks like I do. It's easy to add just one or two things per week. You'll be amazed at the amount of time you'll save! I feel like I've got enough time to constitute an extra day each week, just from prioritizing and careful scheduling. I've already got two converts...there's room for plenty more! Google Calendar can be accessed from the upper left hand corner of your Gmail screen. Good luck!

Being the organizing maniac I now am, I decided to reorganize my yarn, too. It was formerly crammed into the small cabinet where my rubber stamps now reside. I found a tall wooden cabinet, though, that's much better for yarn.

I love having it so spread out and accessible now!

Alas, a certain someone is less than pleased with the new arrangement. My new yarn cabinet has doors!

I got the new cabinet set up just in time, because the sock yarn minis have started to pour in! I've joined three different swaps, which will bring me a total of 60 minis by mid-February.

I found a really good recipe for crackers this week and I've been dying to try it. Why bake crackers when they're cheap and easy to buy? Well, I like having control over the ingredients, and I love to bake. And these are delicious!

Crisp Crackers
Adapted from 17 and Baking
Makes 80 crackers

1 1/2 cup white flour
1 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup warm water

Mix the flours and the salt together, and then add the olive oil and water. Mix for about 6 minutes, then separate out into small balls, brush with olive oil, and cover. Let rest for about an hour.

Don't expect a rise! Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Roll out your dough into very thin layers. You can bake sheets of dough and break it into individual crackers later, and that's what I probably should have done. I have these cookie cutters, though.

I haven't had a chance to try them out yet. They work perfectly with this dough. A warning, though...the more you handle the dough, the less pliable it is. The crackers in my final batch were a lot thicker than those in my first batch...

...and they tended to puff up, like miniature pita bread. This is a bit too thick! About half this width works perfectly.

I brushed a little bit of olive oil on each unbaked cracker and then sprinkled it with a combination of onion powder, garlic powder, and salt. The combinations are endless, really.

Bake for 5 - 10 minutes, until golden brown.

Oh my goodness...these are DELICIOUS! I can't wait to make more! I hope you give them a try. Have a great week!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Stamp Champ

It's cold and rainy. I haven't taken my camera outside in a week, or felt very inspired to take any photos at all. Instead, I have a whole host of indoor hobbies that keep me occupied when I can't bear the thought of stepping outside into the gloom. This week, I've turned to one of my inside pleasures...rubber stamping.

Does anyone remember this classic scene?


Well, around here, it's MARTHA, MARTHA, MARTHA...Stewart, that is!

I've got more enthusiasm than talent, unfortunately, but I still have fun with my little projects. I've collected some really fun stamps.

Here's a sampling of some of my vintage-style odds and ends stamps.

I have lots of animal stamps...some silly, like this frog, and others that are more classic, like this ewe and her lambs, or a goose and her goslings.

I have several sea-inspired stamps...

...and of course several nature-themed ones.

Todd bought me these pretty butterfly stamps for Christmas. I've been stamping them onto the white paper I use on our outgoing personal packages.

I bought these vintage-look nature stamps recently...

...and I've picked up my fair share of actual vintage stamps from the 40s and 50s, so stiff and beaten down with use that sometimes it's difficult to get a good impression with them...but I love them nonetheless.

I've got 2 1/2 alphabets and hoping to add to that number soon!

I've got several "border" stamps that allow room for stamping within, too.

My stamps are currently a disorganized mess on my tiny craft table, but in our next house I hope to have a craft room, where I can organize my yarns, stamps, ribbons, wrapping papers, model kits, sewing and embroidery supplies, and photo albums and equipment. I'm really looking forward to it! Until that time comes, I'll continue to rummage through my baskets, continually surprised by stamps I'd forgotten about. I don't currently scrapbook, but use the stamps to make cards.

A "bee"-lated birthday wish...

A card to a "deer" friend...

...and lots of encouraging, pun-filled cards for my husband.

I used rubber stamps for our Christmas cards this year...

...and use them to make quick gift tags for last-minute gifts. Someone got a spicy cinnamon loaf this week!

My poor sock yarn blanket lies ignored while I work on my next pair of socks. These are called "The Gardener" and it's a wonderful pattern, but difficult. They're only my second pair of toe-up socks. I've had to learn lots of new techniques - converting a Magic Loop (2 needle) pattern to 5 needles, working from 2 different charts at the same time, and Cat Bordhi's "riverbed construction" method for the heel.

You can see the "V" in the sole of the sock. It's supposed to create a better-fitting sock. Yes, it took a little bit of math to get this nice shape!

The heel has a little peaked overhang like a gnome's hat. This might be an error, but I'm going to pretend like it's part of the sock's charm.

It looks a bit shriveled and narrow here, but I can assure you that the pattern will really POP once I block this out! I can't wait to see it!

I've been baking, baking, baking this past week. Four loaves of sourdough, a batch of baguettes, two loaves of cinnamon swirl bread, a giant batch of chocolate chip cookies for game night with the girls, and this charming coffee cake...and that doesn't count the meals I've cranked out as I've forced myself to go deeper into my cookbooks!

Listen, you can't go wrong with coffee cake, so that's what I made for a get-together with some new friends. I think it went over really well, and was delicious reheated the next day! Again, this came from the Smitten Kitchen website, which I'm, well, completely smitten with.

Monkey Bread
Makes one cake
From Smitten Kitchen

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided (2 softened, 2 melted)
1 cup milk, warm
1/3 cup water, warm
1/4 cup white sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons rapid rise yeast
3 1/4 cup white flour
2 teaspoons salt

Sugar Coating
1 cup packed light brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 stick unsalted butter, melted

Cream Cheese Glaze
3 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla

To make the dough, incorporate milk, water, melted butter, sugar, and yeast. With mixer, mix on medium speed for 6 or 7 minutes. Form into a round ball and let rise in a warm location for about an hour.

When you've got a nice rise, turn out your dough onto a floured surface and pat into an 8 inch square. Cut into 64 pieces.

Quickly roll each piece into a little ball. They don't have to be precise, and they won't want to hold together! That's all right.

Here's where the fun begins! Mix brown sugar and cinnamon in one bowl and place your melted butter in another bowl. Dip each ball into the butter, then the cinnamon/sugar mixture, and place them in a greased bundt pan, staggering the seams.

Continue to build layers until you've used up all 64 balls. It doesn't take that long, I promise!

Cover and let the dough rise again, in a warm place, for 50 - 70 minutes. Deb of Smitten Kitchen suggests using a warm oven for both rises.

Doesn't it look good? I can tell you that the kitchen smelled wonderful by this point...and I hadn't even turned on the oven yet!

Now it's time to turn on your oven! Preheat to 350 degrees and bake for 25 - 30 minutes. Turn bread out and let it cool for about 10 minutes.

Can you see how each little ball has adhered to its neighbor with a sticky cinnamon/sugar bond? YUM!

While it's cooling, make your glaze by combining all glaze ingredients and adding extra milk or powdered sugar to achieve the desired thickness. I love it!

Let's just say that it's more delicious than it looks here, in a dreaded nighttime photo. The next time you get together with friends or need to bring a dish to some gathering, I highly suggest this relatively quick and easy dessert.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Hedgehog Spikes & Long-Legged Snipes

It snowed! Not our usual heavy onslaught, but light, delicate flakes that landed softly on every surface. I love this type of snow. The flakes nestled in the dried spokes of this bronze fennel plant, showing off their amazing and varied designs.

Light, feathery snowflakes filled this Rose of Sharon seedpod...

...and coated this pine bough.

I played around with Photoshop in an attempt to get more of a contrast, and liked this outcome, which doesn't give a nice contrast but does convey, a bit, the frozen feeling in my fingers when I was outside taking photos!

By the next day, the wind had carried away most of the snowflakes, but it was cold enough for a hard frost. Hoarfrost is formed in very cold temperatures when a source of water vapor is nearby. It adorned this marigold seed pod like a spiky hat.

Cold weather outside means bored cats inside! Everyone was yawning yesterday, stuck inside with a slight case of cabin fever.

Thankfully, a big box arrived from Emma Bridgewater. My mugs are here! They are really amazing.

These are Jack Snipes, secretive birds that have a mating call similar to the sound of a neighing horse. Listen for yourself!

Snipe Call

Bitterns are funny-looking birds that live in wetland areas. They use their long, pointed beaks to catch insects and small fish.

Waxwings are beautiful birds whose feathers are so soft and downy, they almost look like fur. They're so named for the colored tips of their wing feathers, which resemble sealing wax. They have a unique courtship ritual, in which the male and female pass a bit of fruit back and forth until the female decides to accept the male.

These are male pheasants. The females are brown and plain; only the males have bright plumage. They live in open grasslands and are frequently hunted for sport.

The red grouse is another game bird found primarily in Great Britain. They're a bit dumpy, but I think they look quite arresting with their rusty feathers and large feet.

My favorite is the great bustard. They remind me of a young English courtier in years gone by...strutting, with plumage fanned and a bit of a ruff at the neck. These are large birds, with a wing span of up to 8 feet. The largest recorded great bustard was almost 50 pounds! They have a loud, guttural call:

Great Bustard sound

When not admiring my mugs, I've been working on my sock yarn blanket. It's grown significantly. I've almost completed my fifth row!

Every diamond is different. I haven't yet begun to repeat colors although I will soon. Some people have blankets consisting of over 1,000 squares! When you consider that each square takes about 30 minutes and costs around $1 (if you're buying pre-measured "sock yarn mini skeins" and not using leftover sock yarn), it's a considerable undertaking. I'm making mine on the cheap. Each square only takes about 2.5 grams of sock yarn, and I've got enough bits and pieces to go much farther without having to purchase more yarn bits. Most of my yarn has been acquired through swaps, or gifted to me from another knitter.

It's really easy to make, if anyone is interested. You can make your squares as big or small as you'd like. For this particular pattern:

Cast on 31 stitches.
Turn your work and knit one row.
Turn your work again. You're facing the wrong side. Slip one, knit 13, PSSO (slip 2, knit one, and slip 2 slipped stitches over the knit stitch), knit to the last stitch, knit last stitch through the back loop.
Knit your right-side row, slipping the first stitch and knitting the last stitch through the back loop. When you come to the center stitch, slip it! If you have trouble finding it, just look on the front side - it's the stitch that remains after your PSSO.
Repeat, knitting each side until you come to the center, and then either slip or PSSO (depending on which side you're working on), until you have just 1 stitch left. Draw your yarn through, secure, and weave in ends.

I've really been on a baking kick lately. I'm excited to expand my horizons in the kitchen in 2011. Here's a sweet, spicy offering from Deb at Smitten Kitchen that was quickly devoured and praised by every recipient.

Applesauce Spice Cupcakes
From Smitten Kitchen
Makes 18 cupcakes

2 cups white flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon cloves
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups unsweetened applesauce

5 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices. In a separate bowl, beat together butter, sugar, and vanilla. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each egg, and then beat in applesauce. Stir in flour mixture and mix until just combined. Spoon into greased muffin tins. The batter looks a little funny, but don't worry!

They bake up nicely. Bake for 18 - 20 minutes and cool on wire rack.

For frosting, beat together the butter, cream cheese, and vanilla. Mix in cinnamon and powdered sugar and beat until smooth.

I was originally going to frost mine the "regular" way, but I stumbled across an old Wilton tip and decided to try something new. I topped the cupcake with several small points.

I liked the way it looked. Before I knew it, I'd decorated the whole batch!

They remind me of little hedgehogs. The cake is spicy and dense, more muffin than traditional cupcake, but they're sweet and tasty, and I'll definitely be making them again.