Monday, January 26, 2015

For the Birds

Daytime temperatures in our region of South Carolina tend to stay between 40 and 55 degrees in January, but one day last week, we had a glorious 65 degree day.  The sun was shining, a warm breeze was blowing, and all the little songbirds were out.  I had a stack of work to do and wasn't able to take much time away from it, but I did go outside with my new lens for a half hour and got some shots (as usual, you have to click on the picture to full-size it). 

Here's a Great Blue Heron out in the pond. 

I've been seeing this guy around for quite a while, and I love watching him fly.  A very graceful bird! 

We've got lots and lots of Eastern Bluebirds around here.  Actually, there are several pairs of Bluebirds nesting in boxes not ten feet from my office window.  This Bluebird is a female - not quite as brightly-colored as the male.  You can differentiate the juveniles, too, by their spotted breasts.

A little Chickadee...

Here's one of my favorites...the White-Breasted Nuthatch.

They have such inquisitive little faces.  

They like to creep down tree trunks, looking for insects or perhaps collecting nuts or acorns that they secreted in bark crevices at an earlier date.

Here is a common pose...downright jaunty!

I've seen so many other birds - Tufted Titmouse, Blue Jays, Cardinals, Finches, Wrens, Martins, etc., etc., but not much yet this year.  I'm going to be more intentional about keeping our feeders filled, and see who shows up to partake!

One final visitor in the late day was a lone Red-Tailed Hawk.

The lighting isn't great, but check out those talons!  He flew off before I could get any closer. 

Speaking of lighting, I'm experimenting with a lighting system we bought for my work.  Here is a small set-up in the front living room:

We've since included several more light stands.  Since we have so many trees, it's so difficult to get good lighting in the house.  I practiced on a houseplant.

Natural (but dim) lighting:

Artificial lighting and a blue background:

I appreciate being able to get a sharper image, and I know that I can probably digitally manipulate the background (somehow), but I think I'll mainly use this system for my work photos and not necessarily for my nature ones, unless it's insect photography.  I might pull out some of my samples and see what I can get to show up under really nice light.  I can't wait!

Have a great week!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Wild America

Despite the cold and the rain, the wildlife has been coming out of the woodwork here (you need to click on the photo for a full-size view)! I was surprised to see both a coyote and a raccoon trotting up our driveway (on different days) this week.  Quick shots taking with an old point-and-shoot camera for expediency's sake. 

I was working in my office later in the week and saw 'our' turkeys.  I took the time to use my new lens and got some much nicer shots.

We know we have beavers (they leave some pretty tell-tale evidence), but I rarely see them in the water.  Recently, though, I spotted one chewing on something down by our woodpile...

...and then frolicking in the water.

I greatly enjoyed his exploits! 

I caught some deer in the yard at dusk the other day...

I love how this lens lets me get closer to the action! 

The unusual cold this spring has really done a number on our winter plants.  Our camellia trees were laden with blossoms, but the nearly single-digit temperatures killed every one.  The temperatures have finally moderated, and new buds are slowly opening.  You can see how the outer petals are blackened from the frost.

We have one single, solitary azalea open.

Not a single bulb is showing itself yet, but our helleborus flowers will be opening soon.

Since it's been so dark and rainy, I've been feeling a little desperate for a sign of spring.  Since nothing was forthcoming from the outside, I decided to make it myself.  I went to a thrift store and bought a large pillow with a zippered removable cover (a nice big one, roughly 25" x 25").  Cost:  $2.  I tossed the cover and thoroughly cleaned the pillow.  Next, I went to my fabric tubs and selected a nice, light, spring-like plaid.  It's a single window panel from Target that I found at a thrift store for $1 a while back.  I cleaned it - again - and I was ready to go.  It was so easy, totally improvised, and anyone could do it!

I decided to make a false front button panel. I just folded the end flap, sewed two tidy parallel lines of stitches...

...then hand-stitched the buttons, evenly spaced across the front.

I laid the pillow onto the fabric and cut around the shape.  I used the sewing machine to quickly sew 3 sides of the pillow.

I hand-stitched the final seam after inserting the pillow, but it didn't take long - maybe an hour from start to finish.  And I love the pillow.

It's the same size as one of our big IKEA pillows that we paid maybe $30 for, sham and all.  This pillow cost me $3 and a little bit of time, and it's a perfect fit for this couch.  I love the colors and the fabric.  It fairly shouts me, anyway!

I'm definitely going to do this again soon!

I finished the front panel of my knitted sweater, but I was thoroughly sick of cabling and dragging my feet about starting the back panel.  The silk in the wool caused it to have less "give", and therefore my wrists have been sore.  I decided to take a break before starting on the back panel with a pair of stranded colorwork socks.

I've fairly flown through the first sock.  I'm getting ready to start the toe, so another two - three hours and it will be done.  I'll have more details and pictures once the pair is finished.  I'll say it again..there's nothing as soft and comfortable as a pair of hand-knit socks!

Otherwise, I've been hard at work on the business.  It's been very busy for the past 2 months.  Oh, well, at least I have a wonderful assistant.

Have a great week!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Bread, I Said!

Two weeks before Christmas, I opened a package of Brownberry 100% Whole Wheat bread.  I don't eat bread like I used to, but I still like a piece every few days.  Todd rarely eats sandwiches, so half the loaf was still in the fridge, forgotten, when we left for Oregon.  When we got back, the bread was waiting for us.  I was still getting over the flu and feeling weak, so I didn't run to the grocery store for fresh produce like I usually do.  I pulled out the bread to make a peanut-butter sandwich, and realized:  it was still soft and fresh three weeks after its wrapper was opened.  Three weeks!  How is that possible?  When I make bread, it starts to get hard on the second day if I don't freeze it.  So I did some research, and there's all sorts of nasty things in store-bought bread:  preservatives, extra sugars, dough conditioners, and genetically-modified ingredients.  I called Todd at work and said:  "We've had our last slice of store-bought bread."  I embarked on a bread-baking extravaganza. 

Annie's Eats is a trusted website I bake from frequently, and she had several sandwich bread recipes, so I started there.  Her white sandwich bread recipe is my go-to recipe - absolutely delicious.  This weekend I tried her Oatmeal Buttermilk Wheat Bread recipe. 

Lovely dough.

Filled the pan even before the second rise!

Look at that rise!

Nice big loaf.

Sliced easily.


Individually wrapped and popped in freezer.  So easy to pull out a slice and microwave a few seconds to thaw it.  It tastes as good and fresh as the day you froze it!

My only gripe with this recipe is that one slice = 205 calories and 37 grams of carbs, compared to my usual Brownberry slice, at 110 calories and 20 grams of carbs.  I try not to be a fanatic about calories and carbs, but I do think they matter.  I definitely felt deprived on the day I had a slice of this bread, since I had to cut out my afternoon snack, and was hungry all day.

Back to the drawing board.

Next I tried her Whole Wheat Bread with Wheat Germ (I left out the rye)Right away I noticed that the first rise was fairly small.  I went ahead on faith, though, and baked the loaves.

I thought I'd divided the dough evenly, but one was definitely much smaller than the other.

Sliced up easily enough and I got 31 slices (minus the heels) out of them!

This recipe worked out to 94 calories and 17 grams of carbs per slice.  That would be perfect, except the small loaf, when sliced, produced pieces that were really half-slice size.  I'm going to get totally shortchanged on days when I get one of these.

There's one other recipe on her site that I'm going to try, and one from King Arthur Flour, too.  It might take a little while to find the right one, but I think it's worth the trouble.  Baking bread is easy (and therapeutic), wrapping up the slices and popping them in the freezer takes minutes, and thawing out a slice for consumption takes seconds.  It's definitely worth it to me to further reduce our processed food intake.

Never let it be said that I'm strictly focused on healthy baking, though.  I also made these absolutely amazing Eggnog Cupcakes this weekend, also from the Annie's Eats site.  I'm not a fan of eggnog, but Todd is.  I bought some for him last week since I thought that stores might be phasing it out soon, since it's seasonal.  I made the cupcakes, but tried a different frosting.  Her frosting calls for 20 tablespoons of butter.  A real indulgence.  I'd just read about a flour-based frosting on Can You Stay For Dinner? that, halved, only had 8 tablespoons of butter.  Todd prefers whipped frosting and not much of it, so I halved the recipe and used 1/2 cup of eggnog instead of milk (with an extra dash of nutmeg, too).  Can I just say that the combination was AMAZING?  The cupcakes had an almost spongy quality, perfectly complemented by the light frosting.  And the flavor was perfect, even for a non-eggnog lover like me.  I highly, highly recommend these.

Because I had leftover eggnog, and I was still on a baking tear, I made eggnog mini muffins (recipe here, from Two Peas in a Pod).  The recipe is for full-size, but to make any full-size muffin recipe into a mini muffin recipe, reduce baking time by 10 - 15 minutes.  Mine were done in 9 minutes.

I didn't make the eggnog glaze, but these didn't have a strong eggnog taste to me.  Just nice little coffee cake bites.

Aaaaand, last but not least, I made two loaves of my favorite banana bread (recipe blogged here).  This time I added 3/4 cup of cinnamon chips, which really took it over the edge. 

This is a real indulgence, though.  One slice = almost 400 calories.  These slices, too, were individually wrapped and put into our now-bursting freezer.  Oh, well, bread keeps in the freezer for 3 months, and I'm sure all of this bread will be long gone before then. 

It was the perfect cold, rainy weekend for baking, and I look forward to finally finding that perfect whole wheat sandwich recipe.  I'll post it when I do.  Until then, I look forward to eating my mistakes!  :) 

Have a great week!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Life Cycle of a Sock

It's been raining, raining, raining for the past week, and I haven't had much of a chance to use my new, fancy lens.  But even with dim light and threatening storms, I've pulled it out a few times.  I'm pretty excited to see what I'll be able to find when the sun comes out! 

Speaking of wild animals, our cats have been enjoying their new cat tree.

I have to use a catnip bribe to get our older cat, Bosewichte, onto it.  But Tabitha...she's in kitten love.

Besides work and taking gratuitous cat photos, I've been spending a lot of time knitting.  I'm still weak from last week's flu, and this seemed like an opportune time for finishing an ongoing project.

I am very pleased with them.  They're super comfortable and fit perfectly (the pattern, German Stockings by Cookie A, offers 40 different sizing combinations!).  I love the details.  There's a little purl seam going up the entire back of the sock, and the cables are wandering on top and down the side of the foot.  The only thing I'm not crazy about it the moss stitch center (between the cables).  If I knit them again, I'll do a different stitch.  Overall, though, I think these are going to see a lot of wear!  Now I am happily knitting myself a sweater with some very soft wool/silk yarn from KnitPicks.  It's knitted in four pieces and then seamed together.  It's a pretty easy knit, but I'm a little unsure about the sizing.  Fingers crossed that it will fit!

I've also been baking, a little too much, this week.  I compiled a list of single-serving dessert recipes for my personal cookbook, and did some sampling.  I think the chocolate brownie recipe is my favorite.  It, along with a list of twenty-nine other single-serving recipes, is located here.  Be forewarned, though...'just one brownie' sounds innocent, but that single brownie has quite a bit of butter and sugar in it!  Especially if you, ahem, decide to double the recipe and then top it off with cream cheese frosting...two days in a row (it's half of a stick of butter in the doubled brownies, not counting the frosting...sigh). 




(finished off)

I also tried the single serving chocolate chip cookie recipe (doubled) and it's pretty tasty.  I was definitely feeling the pain at the gym this morning, though, so no more sweets (and a lot more sweat!) for me this week.

Hope you're enjoying the new year!