Saturday, October 29, 2011

Under Construction

This mess here is part of what will, by week's end, be an awesomely amazing bridal shower present for a dear friend of mine. I've been working on other parts of it up till now. I probably shouldn't have left the embroidery for last, but I did, so I must finish the project! I'll blog about the various parts of it later--once the whole thing is finished.
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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Memo Board...of Sorts

You have probably seen rag garland tutorials somewhere in the last couple years. I didn't find out they existed until last year, but I thought the whole idea was a bit too "country" for my decorating tastes. Recently, however, I decided to make a small one to hang in my laundry room. I was going to add some clothespins on ribbons to it and make it something of a fancy-looking, decorative clothesline--a place to hang the "unmentionables" to dry. I had read several tutorials for the rag garlands, and every one of them said to tear TONS of rag strips--"you'll need more than you think," they all boldly proclaimed. Well, when you think you need several tons, but your garland is under three feet long, you may wind up with an extra ton of rag strips! What to do with them? The obvious answer is to make a rag wreath for your bedroom, and to add clothespins to the wreath to make it a memo board!

I'm not going to write a tutorial on how to make a rag wreath--you can google "rag garland" and get about two bazillion hits. To turn the garland into a wreath, just bend a wire hanger into a circle and use it as the base you tie your rag strips around. At first I tried to keep all the strips lying flat, but then I decided that made the wreath look...flat. So I just fluffed and twisted and pulled until most of the strips were coming forward and the wreath looked properly three-dimensional.  (This photo is pre-fluffing.)

I was originally going to spray paint the clothespins white. While I was waiting to get a chance to do that, however, I saw some stamped clothespins. What a great idea--make the clothespins pretty!  I used pink and green ink pads and stamped with a variety of floral images. Some were wide stamps, so I held several clothespins together and stamped them at once. You could also try spray painting, then stamping, or even overstamping different colors and patterns onto a single clothespin.
Once my clothespins were pretty, I arranged them on the wreath (I decided I wanted half to face in and half to face out) and dumped out my stash of narrow pink ribbons. For those who like numbers, my wreath form (or wire hanger circle) is about a foot in diameter, and I used ten clothespins. If I were to make this again, I might increase it to an even dozen clothespins. The ribbons I wound up liking best were about 1/4 inch to 3/4 inch. Eighth-inch ribbon was just too skimpy (although it might be fine if you used two or three strands), and wider ribbons didn't blend as well.
I tied a piece of ribbon around the wreath (just like the rags), put a clothespin on top, and put the ribbon ends through the clothespin. In the picture below it's done very loosely, but of course I snugged it up tight to the clothespin spring. Once the clothespin was pinching the ribbon, I double-knotted the ribbon ends on top of the clothespin. I experimented with the ribbon length a bit, but I decided I wanted the ribbon tails just a bit shorter than my rag ends, so I cut my ribbons about the same length as the rag strips. (The extra knots took up a little length, resulting in ribbons just slightly shorter than rags.)

Next, I rescued the ribbons from my feline helper/inspector.

Once all the clothespins were tied on, I added one last loop of ribbon for hanging, then stuck it to the wall with a small Command hook. I love those, by the way. They prevent my commitment-fearing self from having to put holes in the wall until I'm sure I like the wall arrangement!

(The flowers in the paper cone were on clearance this summer at Pier 1 for less than it would have cost me to purchase the flowers alone!)

Closeup of the beribboned clothespins.  I'm liking my new "memo wreath"!
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Saturday, October 22, 2011

My Book Wreath Project

I've seen book page wreaths on lots of decorating and crafting blogs, and really wanted to make one of my own.  Don't worry, this isn't the five-thousandth tutorial on how to make a book page wreath.  If you want to see how I did it, go here--I mostly followed her tutorial, using a dollar store wreath form and a 50-cent, slightly-torn-up book from Goodwill.
I will give you a few pointers, however.  First, the wreath is going to be HUGE!  Remember--you're adding twice the length of your pages to the diameter of your wreath form.  If I'd thought about it, I probably would have cut my pages in half horizontally to make more "square" pages.  It would've still been PLENTY fluffy!  Second, you WILL stick your finger in the hot glue.  Use a low-temp glue gun unless you plan on taking up a second career as a cat burglar and need to burn your fingerprints off.  
This is also a very "deep" wreath front-to-back.  If you're using a foam wreath form, cut it in half--you'll get two identical, thin wreath forms and your wreath won't stick out quite as far from the wall.  Something I did that I didn't see mentioned on any of the tutorials was to flatten out the wreath some by pressing it, then hot-gluing some of the groups of pages together.  This helped it look more like a wreath and less like a half-sphere that someone forgot to finish.
I hung it from a ribbon in my foyer, added the floral arrangement I used last fall in the foyer, and was horrified.  The flowers by themselves looked okay last year, but combined with the wreath, it looks something like my curly hair on a bad day!  Way too much round poofiness!

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I made a lower arrangement that fit farther back in the corner, and behold--the decorating version of a poofy hair disaster is averted!  (At least, I think so.  Any comments?)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

No Mantle? No Problem!

This bookcase in the middle of my living room wall has never been used for books.  It's sort of the visual center of the room--the other three walls all have doorways, and this is the only purely decorative wall.  I love books, but didn't really think my book collection was all that visually stimulating (at least from the outside), so I've always had various arrangements of photos and knick-nacks. 
Somehow or other, I'd never really done much as far as decorating it seasonally is concerned.  This summer I'd had a couple paper lanterns in it (thus the couple of visually-unbalanced shelves--I put away the lanterns but hadn't rearranged things yet), but that was about as far as I'd gone.  Over the past couple weeks as I was blog-hopping, I'd gotten a bit jealous of all the people with the wonderful fall mantle arrangements.  I live in a rather hot area, and mantles aren't exactly de rigeur in houses around here!  Then I happened upon this post, which reminded me that just because one doesn't have a mantle, it doesn't mean one can't decorate as though one had a mantle. 
So, I took my nondescript bookcase arrangement and created four different small fall mantles!  For the top one, I got rid of the glass-and-metal candle holder and substituted in a raven garden ornament (clearance last year at Target) and two ink well candle holders (clearance at Anthropologie).  The second shelf got three Goodwill wood-look ceramic candle holders with clearanced Target candles and a grapevine pumpkin from Target's dollar spot. 
I moved my collection of violin-playing angels to the bottom shelf, where they mix nicely with some branches that fell out of my tree in our last big storm.  The next-to-bottom shelf has quite a mix of items!  In the middle is a drippy brown pillar candle which I nestled in a green glass compote amongst a bunch of acorns and small pine cones.  More acorns are underneath, mixed with some "cranberry" vase filler I also used elsewhere in the room.  On the right, my miniature violin sits on a pedestal made from moss-covered foam.  I love the way the pedestal makes it look "important" rather than just "toy-like."  On the left, I used some terracotta pot saucers to support a red glass cup and saucer and a Ukranian egg I got in Brazil.  (There are lots of people of European ancestry in southern Brazil.)  I'm thinking I may sponge-paint the saucers with shades of green, brown and gray to make them blend a bit better, but overall, I'm pleased!
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Autumn Fruit Tartlets

It often happens that my most creative cooking is done late at night.  I was wanting something sweet, but was out of ice cream (oh, the horror!).  I remembered I had some raisins and dried dates, and I also had some pear butter a friend had made and given me, so I decided to make up some little tarts. 

I used the raisins, dates, and some walnuts, as well as some vanilla, cinnamon, milk, instant tapioca pudding, and wonton skins.  
I started by soaking the dried fruit and walnuts (which I toasted for a few seconds on a plate in the microwave) in milk.  Why soak them?  Well, the dates were getting a little dry.  I mean, even for dried fruit.  I didn't want hard fruit, I wanted sweet bits of chewy deliciousness.  Why milk?  It was the liquid the instant tapioca called for, and I figured I'd just add the extra soaking liquid to the pudding.

The instructions say to let the tapioca soak five minutes in the milk before you start cooking.  Do it.  I didn't, and I'm fairly certain that's why my pudding never got completely thick. 

After I made the pudding, I mixed in the fruit and nuts, along with some vanilla and cinnamon.  Sorry, I don't have exact amounts--just add and mix until it smells good!  At this point you can either wait for the pudding to thicken as it cools, or you can be impatient like me and just move quick before things run out of the wrapper.  When you're ready to move on to the next step, lay out a few wonton wrappers and a small bowl of water, then heat up some oil in your iron skillet.

Spoon a touch of pear butter (you could probably use apple butter, too) into a wonton wrapper, then a small (you'll need less than you think, especially if it's still runny) spoonful of your fruit-and-nut tapioca.  Dip your "impeccably clean" (as Julia Child used to say) finger into the bowl of water, run it around two adjacent sides of your wonton wrapper, fold it in half, and pop it into the frying pan.  Your filling is already cooked, so you're just trying to brown the outside a little.  When the color looks good to you, pull it out. 

It took a few minutes to make them, mainly because "minute" tapioca takes a while to make, what with the soaking and the waiting for things to heat and all, but they were surprisingly good!
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Saturday, October 15, 2011

This Morning's Breakfast

My sis/roomie and I both slept rather late this morning, and we'll both be having late suppers, so we wanted a rather substantial brunch. Somehow or other, it was decided that I (the less gourmet one of the pair) would make Eggs Benedict. So I looked up this recipe on my trusty, and set to work.

This pot was inherited from my great-grandmother, and it includes a double boiler (needed to make the hollandaise sauce) and an egg poacher. When have you ever heard of a pot having an egg poaching attachment? That's what the round thing with the three little muffin cups is. We didn't have English muffins, but we decided that croissants are a perfectly good substitute. No Canadian bacon, but smoked ham deli meat works; and no worcestershire sauce, but a splash of soy sauce works just as well...I hope.

We decided to split the recipe in quarters. Not only did we not have a full dozen eggs, but we didn't feel the need to eat two servings each, all by ourselves. After starting the hollandaise sauce, however, I decided that I should only cut the measurements for the sauce in half. That was a good decision--there was a little extra, but not twice too much. Note: before you add the butter, the hollandaise sauce looks and smells kind of yuck. Add the butter as soon as you get the eggs and lemon juice whipped up. Yes, I know that if I were a real foodie I'd have real lemons on hand, but for right now, the "RealLemon" stuff in the little plastic squeezy lemon will have to work.

Isn't this pretty? The hollandaise sauce started to come together and look nice as soon as I started adding the butter. It smelled a lot better, too.

Once you get the hollandaise sauce made, you have to keep it warm while you do everything else. My solution was to pull the double boiler out, clap a lid on it, and put it in the microwave with a hot pad underneath. It helped--the sauce was still warm--but I think it would have worked even better if I'd warmed the lid in some hot water beforehand.

Never start preheating the oven when the recipe tells you to, at least not on your first try. I nearly burned my croissants! By the way, even though you're supposed to butter the English muffins when putting everything together, there is absolutely no need to butter croissants--they're practically made of butter.

I tried two different ways of poaching the eggs, partially because I wanted to experiment and partially because I needed to poach four eggs and my pan and my pot would only hold three each. The first way (which, in the busyness of getting everything done, I forgot to photograph) was by oiling two of the little muffin cups of my poacher and putting them over the water, just like the double boiler. I added the eggs, salted them a bit, and let them cook. The second way, pictured above, was part of the way apparently espoused by the folks over at America's Test Kitchen. Unfortunately, my sis only told me part of the method. I heated water in a pan (not a pot--it's supposed to keep the eggs from floating around so much), salted the water a little, and slipped the eggs in. No white vinegar in the cupboard, so I couldn't add any to the water, but it's supposed to help keep your eggs unified. Unfortunately, I managed to overcook all the eggs. Not rubbery, but definitely solid all the way through. Apparently you're supposed to add the eggs to the boiling water, then turn the water off and just let them sit for a while--I guess until the whites are opaque. Then the yolks should still be nice and runny, perfect for soaking up with your English muffin (or croissant).

Fry up the lunch meat in an iron skillet with a little bit of olive oil...

And put it all on a plate! Definitely worth making again.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Thrill of Success; the Agony of Defeat

I don't really enjoy everyday cooking, but I'm always up for a challenge, cooking something particularly interesting-sounding. That's how I wound up making six bazillion spanakopita triangles for my family's Christmas Eve get-together last year.

Today's projects weren't quite as crazy--or so I thought. I just wanted to try out a recipe for "Quick Pao de Queijo" that I'd found (Brazilian cheese bread--amazing stuff), and take a go at the "Brazilian Lemonade" that I'd found at the same website. (Lots of really tasty-looking stuff there, by the way). I figured this was the perfect time to try the cheese bread, because I had a gluten-free, dairy-free friend coming to visit, and this stuff uses tapioca flour. I figured I'd just substitute some soy cheese for the real stuff, and we'd be golden!
This is the tapioca flour. The box looks like it's straight out of the 70's!

The recipe called for putting all the ingredients for the batter into a blender and mixing. here you see my food processor and several of the ingredients (I was using part soy and part milk cheese for this first trial batch). You can also see that I'm not exactly the neatest cook around--flour tends to go everywhere. This was where I got the beginnings of an idea that a blender and a food processor may not be completely interchangeable--my batter tried to escape!

Ever the valiant cook, I contained the batter and poured it into muffin tins) it was supposed to make a full dozen, but apparently either my food processor didn't make the batter as fluffy as a blender would have or I just filled them too full). I put water in the last three muffin cups so they wouldn't burn. I popped it in the oven, pulled it out, and was too distressed at the results to remember to take a picture.

Did you know that the first ingredient of soy cheese is oil? Did you know that when you melt soy cheese, you pretty much wind up with straight oil? I'll have to try this again, but with real milk and real cheese, instead of almond milk and soy cheese; and with an actual blender!

Well, on to project number two. Apparently "Brazilian Lemonade" is actually limeade with sweetened condensed milk. I nuked the limes a few seconds each to soften them and make them juicier.

Then I made my sugar syrup and put about half the cut-up limes in the food processor. My mistake was following the directions where they said "put half the limes and half the sugar syrup in the blender," but putting all that in a food processor!

Sugar water everywhere! Let my wet, sticky counter be a lesson to you--food processors and blenders are not interchangeable. Guess what appliance is next on my list of things to get! But when I started over again with less sugar syrup and more limes, I wound up with something like this--much better!

The next step was to strain the mixture through a sieve, so you wouldn't have to strain it through your teeth when drinking it. Guess what other basic piece of kitchen equipment I don't have?

I wound up putting it very slowly through a fancy silver tea strainer. It took forever, but it worked! (Guess what I got at Target that weekend?)

The last step was to add a few tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk. Sounds crazy, but it just makes it amazingly good--like a lime creamsicle! My only piece of advice for the sweetened condensed milk is to buy one of those tinytinytiny cans if you possibly can--my sis/roommate used what was left over for coffee creamer, but there was a LOT, and I had bought a small can!

So there you have it--I'll have to try again on the pao de queijo, but the lemonade was a big hit when I took it to a Dr. Who-watching party that night!

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Decorating for Fall

I found this pretty silver serving dish at Goodwill for two bucks! Prices marked on other stickers ranged from ten dollars down--apparently it had been on the shelves for a while. It's thoroughly black, and probably just silver plate (which doesn't take heavy-duty polishing very well). However, for two dollars, I thought I could probably find something to do with it.

I think it will make a very nice holder for my fall coffee table decoration! In the past couple years, I've just sort of laid everything out on the table, but this sort of dish will be a good way to hold it all together, I think. And the black patina probably works better with the fall colors than bright white silver would!
I have an assortment of randomness--the two glittered pumpkins and some of the leaves were sent home with me after a friend's fall wedding; the fruits, raffia, and some of the berries and leaves were in a box purchased on sale from Jo-Anns; and the other items are floral picks, also sale purchases from previous years.

I started by piling in the raffia, trying to fill up some of my space, and the floral picks, trying to arrange them in a way that was attractive to me but NOT to my cat, who has been known to chew on non-food items.

I kept just piling everything in, trying to separate most of the fruits from each other with leaves, and putting leaves around the edge to soften that up some.

Unfortunately, I want a table arrangement, not a floor arrangement, so I had to do some re-arranging once everything got into its place. I discovered that it's hard to visually anchor a footed bowl to a glass table, so I put a few of the leaves and berries underneath. That required taking out a few of the leaves from the edge, which allowed the pretty flower pattern on the silver to show.

I also changed which pumpkin was where, just because I like the dark brown one better than the gold one.

Finally, I took the red amaryllis wreath off the bottom of the table, where it had spent a good chunk of the winter and summer. I love amaryllis flowers, but that just made things to busy-looking. Yay for my first fall decorations going up!