Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Handmade Star (Wars) Flakes

The candles are lit...

...and the ornaments are up.

We've put up the Christmas cards we've received, and prepared a batch of cards to go out.

Todd is faithfully opening up his daily advent calendar. I just cut old envelopes in half and stamped the date...

...and filled them with silly jokes, Bible verses, songs, and other little things.

I've been in a rush, because we're getting ready to start our hectic Christmas season, full of family time. I had time, though, to pound out one final Christmas craft and hastily photograph it this morning before it gets tossed in a suitcase.

Star Wars snowflakes!

These weren't nearly as difficult as I expected. I went to Anthony Herrera's website and downloaded the templates for the characters. The printout shows a large circle sectioned off like a color wheel, with one sliver showing half of a Star Wars character's face. You cut out the circle, fold it in half, and fold it, accordian-style, until the character's face is at the top of your wedge. Then, using scissors and a sharp X-acto knife, just cut out the shaded areas.

I made General Ackbar...



Storm Troopers...

Boba Fett...

...and Darth Vader.

It's a great craft for kids and Star Wars fans alike!

Signing off until next year...have a great holiday season!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hello, marshmallow.

It's December 13th, and there's still no snow. We have lovely frosts, some mornings...

But the ground is lamentably bare. The bare dirt where our tomato plants grew this summer looks especially forlorn.

At least this soft ground means that the squirrels can easily dig up their buried treasures!

To cheer myself up a bit, I spent a morning at Goodwill recently. I started going to Goodwill in high school and, up until a few years ago, was a regular visitor. However, they're raised their prices quite a bit and it's harder and harder to find a really good deal. Sometimes, though, I get lucky. I found this glass soap dispenser for $1...this exact model retails for $13 on amazon.com.

This little terra cotta pots usually sell for around $1 each, but I got these for a quarter. I will use them as garden-themed egg cup displays this spring. Eggs fit in them nicely!

This rubber stamp, which cost $1, still had the original $8 price tag on it. Score!

I got 10 of these silly envelope seals that I'll use for Valentine's Day for .50.

Eddie Bauer sweaters usually start around $55, but I got this beautiful one for $3.

Sometimes I find amazing things that would be difficult to find in a store. I found this German rabbit cake mold - unopened - for $5.

It has an ingenious construction. Included are long metal poles...

...which you slide into the slots around the rabbit form. Then the cake bakes, upside down. After baking, you can slide out the poles and separate the halves to reveal a solid rabbit. This will be perfect for Easter!

Another amazing find was this picture frame. At first glance, it looks like a large cross-stitch that probably sat in someone's attic for years.

But if you look closer, you will see that the cross stitch is contained within an amazing wooden frame.

It's a beautiful rich color, and the leaf design is perfect. It's solid wood, with no nicks. It was an absolute STEAL for $5. The woman behind me in line noticed the frame right away and lamented the fact that she hadn't seen it first.

It was a good trip!

Since I decided recently to cut down on my sugar intake, it was only natural that I would immediately go out and purchase a candy thermometer.

I discovered a recipe several years ago that I've been meaning to make. I learned that if you mixed copious amounts of sugar and corn syrup with a single box of gelatin...

...you can make homemade marshmallows. They make great gifts this time of year. Martha Stewart has some beautiful ones in her magazine - peppermint flavored and marbled with delicate red swirls. I decided to try the basic model first, and I apologize in advance for the photo quality...dark day + dark room + Todd's point and click camera = poor photos.

Basic Marshmallows
Martha Stewart
Makes one 9 x 12 pan full

4 envelopes (3 tablespoons + 1 1/2 teaspoons) unflavored gelatin
3 cups white sugar
1 1/4 cup corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup powdered sugar

First, line a 9 x 12 pan with wax or parchment paper, and brush the bottom and sides with vegetable oil. Set it aside.

Mix your sugar, salt, and corn syrup together with 3/4 cup cold water and bring to a boil. The recipe says to boil it without stirring until your thermometer reaches 238 degrees, or about 9 minutes. My thermometer goes from 200 - 250 degrees, so judging 238 was a bit difficult. In the end, I decided to just boil it for 9 minutes and move on.

While your mixture is boiling, put 3/4 cup cold water into your mixer bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin on top and let it sit until your syrup mixture is completed.

After your syrup mixture has boiled for about 9 minutes, pour into the mixing bowl. Starting at low speed and gradually increasing to high, mix for about 12 minutes. I wasn't sure how stiff the mixture should be - like egg whites? It became glossy and moderately stiff after 12 minutes, so I hoped that was enough.

Pour the mixture into your prepared pan and let sit at room temperature for at least 3 hours.

Next, spread some powdered sugar on your counter and flop the solid marshmallow brick on top of it. Cover it with powdered sugar...

...and start cutting! You can use cookie cutters, but I just cut mine into logs...

...and then squares.

The final step is coating each square in powdered sugar, which is easily done by swirling them, a few at a time, in a bowl of powdered sugar.

Now you've got a big stack of marshmallows, ready to be dunked into hot chocolate, wrapped up in cellophane as gifts, chopped up and mixed into cookie dough, or whatever you'd like to use them for.

They last about a week, stored in an air-tight container.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Brownies for the Devil-May-Care Crowd

It's December, and I'm ready for snow. We've been so close. Last week, a sleet shower deposited a cover of tiny little balls of ice.

Rain followed, however, although it was still cold. Our neighborhood animals seem oblivious of these changing temperatures. The birds still visit the feeders and lounge casually on our lilac bushes. The little cat we've been feeding still comes around for a handout.

The squirrels are still busy in the yard, although they pause a bit when the rain is coming down.

The intermittent cold temperatures mean that we've had some beautiful frosts.

I love when frost gathers in the fern-like leaves of the yarrow plants...

...and on its still-blooming flowers.

The frost covers the long, blade-like leaves of my irises and lilies.

It makes beautiful, intricate shapes on the seed pods that I've left up for "winter interest."

I love it!

Although Christmas is just a few weeks away, I've fallen far behind in Christmas decorating. This is the busiest time of year for our business, and that occupies a good deal of my time. I stubbornly insist on hand-stamping our Christmas cards, and we have a LOT of cards to send out. Even though I'm doing them assembly-style, it's still taking a bit longer than I planned. Then there are the loads of Christmas gifts that must be packed and sent to our out-of-town friends. Thankfully, Todd surprised me with some poinsettias last week. At least we've got some semblance of Christmas around here!

My mother surprised me last week, too, with a quilt. My great grandmother hand-quilted it in the 1930s, and I love it!

I've been too busy, myself, for any sewing, or quilting, or knitting. But I did carve out some time for a quick craft project. Anyone who dabbles in rubber stamping knows that those little stamps can be awfully expensive. You can pay up to $20 for just one stamp, although most fall in the $8 - $12 range. I've found a cheaper way to expand my collection.

I paid $20 for this series of vintage women's faces.

There are 22 faces total and they come in one 8 1/2 x 11 inch rubber sheet.

I cut them out, one at a time, and sprayed the backs with adhesive.

Then I glued them on a $1 piece of foam, along with some others I'd found on etsy for around $1 each.

I let them dry overnight, and then use scissors to cut around the shapes. The foam cuts easily and it takes no time at all to cut them out.

Then, when I want to use them, I just put a little piece of double-sided tape on the back and stick them on a clear acrylic block to stamp the image.

It's the same quality as a wood-mounted rubber stamp, but for a little time - and almost no money - I've got a whole new stack of stamps!

Although I haven't been doing much crafting lately, I have been making a lot of cupcakes. Carrot cupcakes with cream cheese frosting...

Vanilla cupcakes with vanilla frosting and sprinkles...

And the same cupcakes, with chocolate frosting and sprinkles. The sprinkles make them awfully festive and it's just not the same without them.

For as many cupcakes as I make, I'm not much of a cake person. When I really want a treat and calories are not an issue (which sadly has been the case around here lately!), I look to my favorite brownie recipe. These aren't tall, light, cake-like brownies. They're compact, dense, and incredibly fudgy. Topped with a generous slathering of vanilla frosting - and sprinkles - and served with a bowl of ice cream...I can't imagine a more rich, decadent dessert. I call them my fudgy, pudgy brownies and I make them when I'm feeling really devil-may-care.

Easy Fudgy, Pudgy Brownies
from allrecipes.com
Makes 12 brownies

Brownie Ingredients
1/2 cup butter
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup white flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder

Crackling Glaze Frosting (optional)
3 tablespoons butter, softened
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup powdered sugar

To make the brownies, preheat your oven to 350 degrees and grease an 8 inch square pan. Melt your butter in a saucepan. Once melted, remove from heat and stir in sugar, eggs, and vanilla. In a separate bowl, mix together the cocoa powder, flour, salt, and baking powder, and then fold the dry mixture into the butter mixture. Do not overmix! When combined, pour into your pan and bake for about 25 minutes.

To make the optional frosting, combine all ingredients and mix well. It may initially resist your efforts, and if you like, you can sprinkle in some milk - just a bit - to help it mix. When combined, frost brownies while they're still warm.
Try some this week. They're easy and delicious!

Sadly, Todd and I will not be indulging in these sweet treats for much longer. We want to commit to healthier lifestyles, and to train ourselves to reach for apples instead of cupcakes! However, I'll still be in the kitchen, trying to mix up the best flavor for the least caloric price. Stay tuned!