Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry, merry

December calls for thoughtful days. It's so easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle. We are about to celebrate Christmas. We have parties to go to, with office mates and family and friends. Another year is about to come to a close.

Last year I spent most of this season in the hospital, with Dave. We cooked an entire Thanksgiving meal and carefully packed it into containers and lugged it to his hospital room (along with the family china, of course). It was not exactly hot, but it was delicious.

We bought a wreath for Christmas so the room smelled like pine and we brought stacks and stacks of cookies, coffee and food for the staff, and savory bread pudding for ourselves. We got permission to bring our feisty little terrier in for the day, so that Dave could see her for the first time in months. There were very few gifts, just a couple little things, a book here or there. There was no sea of wrapping paper, no endless rounds of opening and thanking. Just lots of food and coffee with real cream and our favorite Christmas music. Lots of teasing and laughing. We were so very grateful, awed by the amazing gift we had been given, that Dave was still with us, that we were all here together. There was no room for anything else.

This year we strive to bring that same joy and simplicity to the day. I will wake early, drink spiced tea, cook breakfast, open simple gifts and remember that we are all so very lucky in so many ways.

To those of you who are celebrating, Merry Christmas! We're heading down to be with our families. I haven't decided if posting will be regular or sporadic next week. We'll just have to wait and see.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Pretty much perfect

I spent most of yesterday re-listening to old episodes of This American Life*, drinking Christmas tea (with a touch of real cream!) and embossing manila tags. After all, it isn't Christmas if you don't hear The Santaland Diaries episode at least once.

christmas tags
{christmas tags}

The Christmas cactus stamp is from here and it's currently my favorite thing in the world. Right after eggnog.

*I actually got to be in the live audience way back when Ira Glass and David Sedaris did this show together in LA. Seeing them interact was one of the highlights of my life.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A little less paper...

Don't get me wrong - I love paper with an undying passion. But I'm trying to use it in smaller doses, particularly when it comes to wrapping gifts. There's something about a big pile of crumpled wrapping paper that makes me feel sad.

This year almost everything is wrapped in felt. Mostly because it's the easiest fabric to work with - easy to cut, no need to hem all the edges, and very sturdy.

felt gift wrap
{felt gift wrap}

Making the pouches is easy. You basically just act like you're going to wrap the item, but you use cloth instead of paper and you run little seams down the edges. Make sure to leave a flap open so you can slip the item in and out. You could design these lots of different ways, depending on your sewing skills. I used some of the fancy stitches on my sewing machine, but you can also handstitch with some thick embroidery thread and it will look just fine.

Some of mine close with a ribbon. I just cut a slit in the folded over flap and then sewed a ribbon to the front of the package. To close, you just pull both sides of the ribbon through the slit and then tie a bow.

felt gift wrap

felt gift wrap

Others close with a button. Again, you cut a slit in the folded over flap and then you just sew a button to the bottom half of the package.

felt gift wrap

The goal is to have them in a variety of sizes and use them every year. They actually take up a lot less space than a jumble of wrapping paper rolls. They work best for grown up gifts like books, CDs, DVDs and jewelry, which happen to be the kinds of gifts I give most often.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The weekend, briefly

My sister and I spent an entire day in our mom's kitchen, baking and making candy.


Christmas kitchen, orangettes

Christmas kitchen, linzer
{sugar cookies}


It's the nicest way to get ready for Christmas, I think.

*Toffee, orangettes and marshmallow recipes are all from Smitten Kitchen, naturally. The sugar cookie dough recipe is from Blueprint.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday flowers

A wild little bouquet that our friends brought to brunch on Sunday.

wild flowers

My mind has been spinning all week with lots and lots of Christmas related project ideas - enough for 2 or 3 Christmases. We're having a small family cookie party on Sunday, which will be a nice way to relax and catch up. And that's probably enough to keep me busy all weekend, but naturally I have a hard time accepting that fact.

I want to: make candy and package it in glassine bags with handmade labels, make Deb's butterscotch sauce and pour it into pretty jars and give them out to people I like, build up my stock of re-useable gift wrap in the hopes of finally having a paper-less Christmas (post to follow next week), wrap all my gifts in said gift wrap, hand print tea towels with my linocuts, buy stocking stuffers, sew handmade ornaments for everyone I know, cover our windows in paper snowflakes, create some sort of beautiful wreath and re-watch the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy (which I've only seen once, in the theater, and which I purchased for myself last week for this very purpose) while doing all these things.

The list will have to be trimmed, but it's nice to dream.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Gingerbread snacking cake

I found this recipe in a Christmas Martha Stewart years ago, and it is a firm favorite. Martha (or her people, credit where credit is due) almost always nail the gingerbread recipes. They understand the need for copious amounts of spice and dark molasses. This particular recipe has both dried and fresh ginger.

The cake is perfect when baked in a 9x13 inch dish and lightly dusted with powdered sugar, as directed. It is moist and spicy and light. I fancified it over the weekend by baking it in two 9" cake pans (8" would have been better, I think) and dolloping barely sweetened whipped cream over it. My poor cakes fell quite a bit, but I just hacked at them with a large knife until they were more or less evened out and then covered the mistakes with the whipped cream.

gingerbread snacking cake
{gingerbread snacking cake}

The lesson? Enough whipped cream fixes everything.

gingerbread snacking cake
{gingerbread snacking cake}
Gingerbread snacking cake (serves 12 - recipe from here)

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pan
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the pans
1 cup boiling water
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2/3 cup packed dark-brown sugar
1 cup unsulfured molasses
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
2 large eggs, room temperature, lightly beaten
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting (or whipped cream)

*Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-by-13-inch cake pan (or two 8" cake pans); set aside. In a bowl, combine boiling water and baking soda; set aside. In a large bowl, sift together flour, ground spices, salt, and baking powder; set aside.

*In an electric mixer with the paddle attachment, cream butter until light. Beat in brown sugar until fluffy. Beat in molasses and grated ginger, baking-soda mixture, and flour mixture. Beat in eggs.

*Pour batter into prepared pan; bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack. Cut into squares; dust with confectioners’ sugar. (Or even out the layers and dollop with freshly whipped cream).
For the whipped cream - homemade whipped cream is really worth the few minutes it takes, if you have a mixer. Dump one carton of heavy whipping cream in a mixer. Beat on the highest speed for a few minutes, slowly adding a tiny bit of sugar (I like to use about 1/8 of a cup, for a tiny hint of sweetness) and a dash of vanilla. It's done when you have pretty peaks and it tastes right to you.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Shop updates...

For the late shoppers...

gc 2
{heart of light gift certificate}

Heart of Light gift certificates are now available, redeemable in my Etsy shop. I will send you an e-certificate for no shipping fee (naturally) but if you want something tangible, $2 shipping gets you a paper certificate and my favorite deluxe Arturo card and envelope. The Arturo cards are Italian and the paper is divine. They say "happy holidays" or "happy birthday" so you can pick your occasion.

And just in time for gift wrapping - chalkboard gift tags! I tried my hardest to get these up last week, but the weather did not cooperate and painting takes about twice as long when you are dealing with rain and wind.


Chalkboard gift tags are designed by me and laser cut from 1/8" birch, then painted with chalkboard paint. You get a set of four different tags which you can re-use for years to come. Just write on them with chalk (or chalk marker if you want lots of control), tie them on your gift and then wipe them clean with a damp cloth afterwards.

Okay, enough shilling from me. Come back tomorrow for my favorite recipe for gingerbread cake.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Our tree is trimmed! I'm doing a little fist punch in the air right now.

It might not be traditional, but we love it. We decided that we didn't want to run out and buy a bunch of ornaments just to fill the spaces, so we've been slowly collecting a motley mix. It's perfect for us. We have ornaments from trips we've taken and some that were gifts and the rest are handmade.

The simplest are just prints (from some of our original linocuts) that I backed on colored cardstock and cut out.

linocut fig, christmas tree
{linocut fig, christmas tree}

There are some laser cut robots (having access to a laser cutter is incredible - it is literally the only thing I miss about Dustin being in architecture school).

laser cut robot, christmas tree
{laser cut robot, christmas tree}

And of course, the luchadores from last year peek out from all over the tree.

london bus, tree
{luchador, hiding behind a bus}

Monday, December 14, 2009

The weekend, briefly

A full day of rain.

kumquats, rain
{kumquats, rain}

Some Christmas decorations (laser cut snowflakes!).

snowflakes, mirror
{snowflakes, mirror}


molasses, sugar
{molasses, sugar}

A dinner party with my girls.

kris' eggplant
{kris' eggplant}

A birthday brunch for D with out of town friends.

birthday brunch
{birthday brunch}

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday flowers (cheater edition)

There are no flowers in my house this week. There is also no real food and no clean clothes. It's that kind of week. We're caught up in the holiday bustle and we're living off gingerbread cookies and milk and we have no complaints.

{girls' christmas party, last year}

My annual high school girls' Christmas party is tomorrow and I'm so excited. We made these flower pomanders together last year. It is our 11th year of being supremely dorky together - girls, I love you.

D's birthday is on Sunday, which is a rather lovely day to have a birthday. He's already put in a request for savory bread pudding for brunch, and I'm happy to comply.

It's going to be busy but fun. Bring it, weekend.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Putting it all together - gluing the gingerbread houses

Most sources recommend using royal frosting to glue your gingerbread house pieces together. This works, but it takes a long time to set up, which means you need to find ways to keep the house propped up while it dries.

We glue our houses together with boiling sugar. It's dangerous but very effective. I have no idea where we got this technique, but it's easily the most exciting/terrifying part of the whole process.

sugar glue
{sugar glue}

The technique is simple - pour 3 or 4 cups of sugar in a large cast iron skillet and heat it until it starts to boil, stirring occasionally, then lower the heat to the lowest setting or turn it off completely. If it starts too get too thick while you work, hit it with a bit more heat.

You have to have everything ready and you need two people. Wearing gloves helps in case you accidentally drip hot sugar on yourself, but it's best if you also have a big bowl of ice water next to your work station, just in case. Hot sugar causes terrible burns, so it pays to be safe even if you don't end up needing it (my sister and I both came out unscathed this year).

gluing houses
{gluing houses}

One person should dip the edges of a piece in the sugar and the other person will hold the other pieces ready. The sugar cools quickly, so you have to work fast. Press the pieces together and hold it for 5 seconds or so while it sets up.

gingerbread house assembly
{gingerbread house assembly}

Here's how we did it, specifically.

- Kick all pets and children out of the house. Or at least out of the kitchen.

- One person holds the front and back of the house up. The other person dips the edges of a house side wall in the sugar and then carefully positions it between the front and back pieces. Repeat with the second wall. Set the base of the house aside for at least 5 minutes (this gives it a chance to really set up, which will make it sturdier for the next step). If you work assembly line style, you can get all the house bases set up and then go back down the line and attach the roofs.

- The roof is the tricky part. One person should hold both roof pieces while the other person picks up the entire base of the house and dips the top edges in the hot glue (this is where you are most likely to get burned, so be careful). Set the base down and press the roof pieces in place. Let it cool for 5 - 10 seconds and then tip the house over again and dip the roofline in the sugar (this just ensures that the roof is nice and secure).

- Have a base ready. We just use a rectangle of cardboard covered with aluminum foil. Dip the bottom of the house in the sugar and position it on the base. This keeps your house from shifting around, which is critical if you're going to transport it. Add the door, if desired, by dipping one edge in glue and sticking it on the house.

Voila! Finished houses that will not come apart, no matter what you do and are completely edible.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Gingerbread houses - stained glass instructions

We had our annual gingerbread house party last weekend. Lots of cookies were eaten, a mess was made, houses were decorated, cider was drunk. Circe, the little terrier, only had to go on time out three times (crowds get her worked up). I call that success.

The stained glass windows are my favorite part of our houses and our process is constantly evolving. Here's a brief timeline.

stained glass
{stained glass}

Late 1980s - Sort Lifesavers by color. Place each color in a separate bag. Crush with a hammer. Scrape bits out and place in window holes before baking the gingerbread. Cons - pieces don't always melt evenly and working with semi-powdered sticky candy is frustrating.

Mid 1990s - Sort Lifesavers by color. Place each color in a separate Pyrex 1 cup glass measuring cup. Heat in microwave, swirling every 15 seconds. Once it bubbles, pour the hot liquid into open holes on baked gingerbread (make sure your gingerbread pieces are all laid out on greased aluminum foil or a Silpat before you get started). Reheat briefly as necessary to keep the liquid pourable. Cons - after the first re-heating, the liquid starts to discolor quickly and then you end up with brown-ish windows. Also, hot candy can burn you badly.

2007 - Make a sugar syrup in one large batch. Have Pyrex 1 cup glass measuring cups sitting next to the stove with food coloring waiting. Once the sugar syrup is ready, divide it up into the measuring cups, stir in the food coloring and start pouring. Reheat as necessary to keep it pourable. Cons - Will discolor eventually, but withstands re-heating much better than the Lifesavers did. Will still burn you badly.

stained glass process
{stained glass process}

I'm pretty happy with our current strategy. It worked out well. I only burned myself once and it was minor. The colors are much brighter and the "glass" is clearer than with the Lifesavers. It's also nice not to have to buy a million Lifesavers and then sort them all out. I'm thinking about upgrading to Isomalt next year because it won't discolor at all, but it's expensive, even from the restaurant supply store.

Stained glass windows recipe (adapted from multiple sources for stained glass candy)

3 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups white corn syrup
1 cup water
Food coloring, as needed

*Combine sugar, syrup and water in a large saucepan with a candy thermometer. Cook over medium high heat until the temperature reaches at least 260 degrees. The mixture will come to a boil quickly, but then it'll need to simmer for a while in order to get hot enough. The temperature is critical because the hotter the sugar gets, the harder the candy will set up later. Don't over cook it too much or you'll end up with discolored syrup that won't take color as well.

Added on 12/13 - last year my candy thermometer was on its last legs and the readings must have been off because my windows didn't set up. From now on, I vow to always do a quick test to make sure the sugar is hot enough. Just grab a small piece of aluminum foil and dribble a spoonful of the sugar syrup on it. If the sugar syrup is at the right stage, it will set up very quickly, within a minute or two, as soon as it cools. It should be hard and glossy and pop right off the foil easily. If this doesn't happen, you need to cook the sugar longer. I'm not going to rely solely on my thermometer ever again.

*Remove the syrup from the stove and add food coloring (we divided the syrup into 4 containers and added 6 drops of food coloring to each).

*Pour into the window spaces of your baked gingerbread. Wearing gloves will help prevent burns, in case you drip some hot sugar on yourself. Re-heat gently if the mixture becomes too thick to pour easily.

Clean up: All you need is a lot of hot water and a little bit of time. First of all, if you have lots of leftover sugar syrup, go ahead and re-heat it and then pour it into a baking tray lined with aluminum foil. This reduces the amount of hard sugar you have to clean up. Put your dishes in the sink and run hot water all over the outside of everything to get any sugar off (be patient). Then you can fill the measuring cups with water and stick them in the microwave for a bit to melt any sugar remaining inside. The pot can be filled with water and heated on the stove.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Christmas tea

Christmas tea is a December tradition for me. It's just strong black tea with plenty of spice and a bit of citrus. I always pick up my blend from a local(ish) tea house.*

I brew it strong and add some milk. Paired with a pumpkin muffin, it's the perfect way to celebrate on a chilly morning.

christmas tea, pumpkin muffin
{christmas tea, pumpkin muffin}

If you don't have a local tea house with their own blend, I highly recommend Harney & Sons Holiday Tea. The beautiful tin is an added bonus.

*Bamboo Tea House in Claremont, for my SoCal people

Monday, December 7, 2009

The weekend, briefly

I didn't quite hit all my goals this weekend (I never managed to carve out an hour for reading) but I did start the weekend with a pot of Christmas tea.

christmas tea
{christmas tea}

There was lots of rolling and baking and eating of gingerbread dough. I managed to throw a bit of a wrench in the works by falling hard and spraining my wrist on Saturday. Then I successfully staved off the worst of the swelling by wrapping it tightly and using ice. Which would have been great if I hadn't fallen asleep with the ice pack on and given myself frostbite. Actual frostbite, with ugly blisters and everything. Consider yourselves lucky that I'm not sharing a picture.


Candy helps distract you from things like frostbite. Especially if you're using it to decorate gingerbread houses.

Tiny little dogs on your shoulder help too.


Joey is my sister's latest rescue dog. I don't know how she keeps finding stray animals.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Friday flowers

I've been slammed this week. Between real work, the shop and the upcoming holidays, it's hard to keep up with everything. I never made it to the store to pick out flowers, but D surprised me with these sweet yellow tulips and the footed glass vase (thrifted, naturally), which I love.


We have big plans this weekend (a couple of family parties), and I know we'll be very, very busy. But I'm making little promises to myself. I will make time for my first pot of Christmas tea this season, I will give myself at least one hour to sit quietly and read, and I will keep the house clean. It's so hard to feel relaxed and focused when my living space falls into chaos.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Fly off the plate rolls

Dinner rolls are incredibly important to me. They are a crucial part of Thanksgiving dinner and the process of eating the leftovers. They are necessary for making mashed potato and turkey sandwiches, which are essential to my happiness.

Biscuits are wonderful, but they don't do it for me on Thanksgiving. The perfect Thanksgiving roll has a light texture and a relatively soft crust. The flavor is delicate.

These were perfect.

rolls, fluffy
{rolls, fluffy}

Fly off the plate rolls from Prairie Home Breads (a go to resource for excellent bread)

Makes 16 rolls

1/4 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water (I used milk instead)
1 package active dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp)
3 3/4 to 4 1/2 cups all purpose flour
3 tablespoons instant nonfat dry milk (I left this out)
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, beaten
3 tablespoons melted butter

*Proof the yeast - add it to the lukewarm water (or milk) along with 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar and let it sit for 5 minutes or so, until foamy.

*In a large bowl, stir together 3 cups of the flour, the salt, the dry milk powder (if using) and the rest of the sugar. Stir in the yeast mixture and then add the egg and the melted butter. Beat well.

*Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for 7 - 10 minutes. The dough will be soft. Knead in up to 1 1/2 cups more flour until the dough is elastic and only slightly sticky. Place the dough in a large oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover with a damp cloth and set aside to rise, about 45 - 60 minutes or until doubled in bulk.

*Grease two 9-inch round cake pans and set aside. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Cut the dough in half, then cut each piece in half again. Cut each quarter of dough into 4 equal portions and form each portion loosely into a ball. Place 7 rolls around the perimeter and 1 roll in the middle of each prepared pan. Cover with clean tea towels and let rise until doubled, about 45 minutes. (If you need a bit more time, you can put the pans in the fridge after about 30 minutes. They'll hold there for a couple hours with no problem.)

*Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the rolls for 15 minutes, or until risen and lightly browned. Serve warm.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A little something for you ...

Hop over to Marta's beautiful blog for a chance to win my navy rosebud belt. You only have until this evening to comment, and the winner will receive the belt in time for Christmas (pinky swear!).

New favorite toy

I picked up a new paper punch the week before Thanksgiving and proceeded to go nuts with it. Talk about mindless, satisfying craft projects - it's the easiest tool to use and it makes paper even better than it already is. I have the lace border punch, but now I am a little tempted to buy some of the other patterns.

table setting
{table setting}

These napkin rings were super simple. I cut pieces of kraft paper about 3 inches wide by 4 inches long and then used the border punch on the long edges. I rolled my napkins up and then wrapped a strip of the punched paper around each one, using small Zots to secure the paper ring in the back (Zots are one of my craft staples). Then I just tied a bit of cream colored crochet thread around the paper.

I did the same thing for the candle holders, except I used vellum instead of craft paper, so the candle light would show through and the lace pattern would be a little more subtle. I neglected to take anymore pictures because I was busy getting food produced. They looked great lit - you'll just have to take my word for it.

thanksgiving table
{thanksgiving table}

The votive candle holders are sturdy, squat little guys that D found at the thrift store the day before Thanksgiving. He just walked in the door with them and said he had picked them up on a whim (except he must have said it differently, because I'm pretty sure he's never said the word "whim"). What he didn't know was that I had already made the little vellum wrappers in a fit of craftiness and then realized that we didn't own any votive candle holders, so I wasn't going to be able to use them. I know. It's like it was fate.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Cauliflower with mustard lemon butter sauce

The surprise Thanksgiving hit this year ...

cauliflower with mustard lemon sauce
{cauliflower with mustard lemon sauce}

The original recipe is here. I had to modify it a bit to make it work for the big day. I am not a fan of juggling trays of roasted veggies while guests are in the kitchen.

I followed the recipe as written until the step where you add the sauce. At that point, I simply tossed the roasted cauliflower with the sauce, piled it in a dish and set it aside. Later, I popped it in the oven at 375 for about 30 minutes to finish it off.

It would probably be even more delicious if you made it the way they recommend, but my method worked well for a non-fussy large batch recipe. I think you could cut the butter substantially to make it a bit more appropriate for every day eating. I'll probably be experimenting, because even D appreciated it and he has previously confessed to a slight uneasiness about cauliflower (albino broccoli, as he refers to it).