Friday, September 28, 2012

Real Life: WIP Overload!

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Life is very full these days. Full of kids, full of school details, and chock full of works-in-progress. I’m stocking up for the looming Christmas craze that takes over in October and November. Currently, I am stitching up stacks of cashmere hats for babies and toddlers, making mountains of flower pins and preparing to start taking custom fleece hat and baby boots orders. Etsy has recently created a beta testing group for sellers that offer options (size, color, etc) for some of their products, and I am very excited to be a part of this. It will make listings for customized orders much simpler and that much more likely to be successful. It’s the little things, you know?

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I’m also cooking up some new sewing patterns for my LEVEL Design shop on Etsy, but those aren’t as easily photographed. Computer work, illustrating, writing. I am trying to keep myself on track amidst the pressing tide of FAMILY LIFE that keep rising as we get more into the school year and all it entails. But I am optimistic, and feeling happy to be creating saleable things again, as naptime and quiet evenings allow. It is good. It is very good.

Well, it’s time for me to go rescue the baby from imminent danger and filth (he has located the recycle bin while I typed)… naptime is just around the corner…

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

From the Kitchen: Homemade Soft Pretzel Recipe

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Oh, hello. Pretzel, anyone?

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I found this recipe on the King Arthur flour website. If you haven’t been over there to see the amazing selection of recipes, you really should. So many winners. They are called “Hot Buttered Soft Pretzels”, but I skip the buttering for thigh-related reasons, and they are still amazing.

Homemade Soft Pretzels

Ingredients:

Dough:

  • 2 1/2 cups All-Purpose Flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 7/8 to 1 cup warm water

Topping:

  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 2 tablespoons baking soda
  • coarse, kosher or pretzel salt, optional

Directions:

Place all of the dough ingredients into a bowl, and beat until well-combined. Knead the dough, by hand or machine, for about 5 minutes, until it's soft, smooth, and quite slack. Flour the dough and place it in a bag, and allow it to rest for 30 minutes.

While the dough is resting, prepare the topping: Combine the boiling water and baking soda, stirring until the soda is totally (or almost totally) dissolved. Set the mixture aside to cool to lukewarm (or cooler).

Preheat your oven to 475°F. Prepare a baking sheet by spraying it with vegetable oil spray, or lining it with parchment paper.

Transfer the dough to a lightly greased work surface, and divide it into eight equal pieces.

Allow the pieces to rest, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Pour the baking soda/water into a 9" square pan.

Roll each piece of dough into a long, thin rope (about ~ 30" long), and twist each rope into a pretzel. Working with 2 pretzels at a time, place them in the pan with the baking soda/water, spooning the water over their tops; leave them in the water for 2 minutes before placing them on the baking sheet. This baking soda "bath" will give the pretzels a nice, golden-brown color.

Transfer the pretzels to the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle them lightly with salt, if desired. Allow them to rest, uncovered, for 10 minutes.

Bake the pretzels for 8 to 9 minutes, or until they're golden brown.

Remove the pretzels from the oven. Eat the pretzels warm, or reheat them in an oven or microwave.

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Mmmm… pretzels.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Get Crafty: Knit. Not.

When asked, my canned response is, “I can’t knit.”

But, that’s not really true. Once upon a time, long ago in the hallowed halls of the University of Notre Dame, I knit something. Two things, actually. I think, in a fit of what can only be described as blind passion, I even followed a pattern. But that was both the start and the end of it. I have a knit-only scarf that has been a WIP for over 5 years now. Sigh. But I am still proud that I made some mittens that are very wearable.

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Sorry for the weird photo… they were hard to photograph. Lumpy, shapeless things always are.

I love wool in almost any form, and I love yarn even if I don’t have the patience or direction-following skills to become an excellent knitter. I also “can’t crochet”, but I happened to make a crochet hat and scarf that I (and sometimes my girls) still wear occasionally, another college-era creation. The yarn came from my mom’s stash… I believe it had been slated for sweater-hood at one point or other, but I just LOVED the color. Still do. Very vibrant and warm. I did not follow a pattern for either hat or scarf, and I was very lucky that they turned out. Happy accidents. I do not and never have understood crochet language, though I think I must have known how to double crochet because of the band around the hat’s edge. 

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It was only shortly after these projects that I was given my first sewing machine, and I would have to say that my passion is clearly for sewing, not yarn arts. I guess when you know what you love, there’s simply no going back…

Friday, September 21, 2012

Thrifting for Gold: New Favorite Mug

I feel silly writing about this, but I’ve found a new daily companion. At a thrift store.

It’s a mug.

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Isn’t it lovely? With that pot-belly sort of shape and the impossibly thin and arching handle. I loved it at first sight. Until then, I was a one mug sort of girl. I have had a favorite mug for ages. This green beauty is my first pottery love:

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I love this mug and have felt, from time to time (particularly as I warn my kids not to spill/bump/drop/touch it) that I would be very very sad indeed if the worst should happen. I bought this mug on a family camping trip to… Yellowstone? Maybe? I don’t remember. But it was definitely a souvenir, and I remember the little shop where it came from, if not the final destination. I was 14 or 16 or thereabouts, already a tea drinker. This hand-thrown green mug has probably held an ocean over it’s lifetime. We have mugs that match our dishes, but they have no style a very small capacity. I never use them unless we have company and I need to have more than one mug around. Do you have something like this, that reminds you of comfort and warmth? I look forward to my morning cup of tea, and I like holding my nice curvy mug to warm my hands.

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The new mug fits wonderfully too, and holds a bit more. Drinking tea is definitely a ritual for me and, while I don’t expect to be buying any more mugs for a good long while, it’s nice to have a backup to my most used possession. It also has a nice little artifact that I didn’t notice until I was washing it at home… a tiny cross stamp. Now I love it even more because it will remind me what’s even more necessary than a healthy dose of caffeine in the morning. Perfection.

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One other mug that I just love is this personalized child’s mug that was given to my daughter for Christmas last year by her godparents. I think it’s adorable, and I know she loves it for many of the same reasons I love mine. It was made by Moorefield Pottery on Etsy.

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I think I had better go make another pot of tea and warm up my hands again…

Cheers!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sewing Class: Invisible Zipper, Blind Hem, Green Skirt

Look!!

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My very first invisible zipper!! Take a better look:

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The sides of the yoke match up purrrfectly. And you can’t see the zipper! I’m so proud. Yes I am.

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I designed this skirt myself, inspired by juebejue’s take on the A Plus A Line skirt at Burdastyle. Even though it was a free download, The Selfish Seamstress made some very valid and thought-provoking comments about the waste of paper caused by printing this pattern (it’s about 50 or 60 pages!), and I was planning to eliminate the pleats anyway. So, my A line skirt journey started in my garment design software and required eliminating darts in favor of a yoke, lots of fitting, and learning some new skills, like the invisible zipper (thank you, FTLOC) and a hand-stitched blind hem (thank you, Craftsy class!). I started drafting and finished it in less than a day (thank you, elementary school and naptime). I am very happy with the result, and have worn it out of the house. And it still looked good when I got home. Hooray!! It’s made of stretch sateen purchased at Joann’s, FYI.

Inside out, you can see the vintage stretch lace hem tape I used. But on the outside you see… nothing!! It’s blind!

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Both the yoke topstitching and the partial lining understitching were accomplished using my edge-joining foot, which made them easy and perfectly parallel to the seam.

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Since I opted not to line below the yoke (I didn’t have a suitable lining material on hand), I came up with a trick to enclose the scratchy tail of the zipper. Wrap and stitch the end with scrap fabric, and attach it to the seam allowances. Easy peasy. Comfy… wumfy?

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Seriously, this was an ego boost. I can make things! Nice-looking, professional, very wearable finished things! I want to sew more.

What are you working on these days? Where does your inspiration come from? (I want to know!!)

Monday, September 17, 2012

From the Kitchen: Ham Fried Rice

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This recipe came from my mother-in-law, specially requested by my husband. Now I know why! It’s a staple in our dinner planning now, and every time I make it he sings a song about it. “Fried rice, fried rice, cheese and baloney, after the macaroni…” It entertains the kids, and I imagine one day, when they have their own kids, they will have to sing it too. That’s life for you.

I’m posting it here mainly for own sake… I always think I have posted it in the past, and I come to the blog to find my recipe (because it’s faster than digging out my recipe box and it’s not yet in Paprika in my iPad)… but then, it’s not here. So I wing it (it is one of those types of recipes where you can vary the amounts of ingredients and it doesn’t matter much). But, today, I remedy that. And it will save me time and consternation in the future. And you can feel free to enjoy it too, if you like.

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Carol’s Ham Fried Rice

Ingredients:

1 tbsp oil

1 onion, diced small

1/2 cup celery, chopped small

2 cloves garlic, pressed

1 cup ham, cubed small

4 cups cooked rice

2-4 tbsp soy sauce (to taste)

3 hardboiled eggs, peeled and diced

Directions:

Add oil to large pan and sauté onions, celery and garlic until fragrant and translucent. Add ham and cook until heated through. Add rice and blend, then season with soy sauce, fluffing with a fork. Add in chopped egg and blend. Serve hot!

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Oh, as I was putting all my photos away after writing this, I found where I went wrong in the past. I HAD planned to blog it (I KNEW it!), but must have put my photos in the wrong place (silly me). Here is another time I made it, prettied up with green onions and an egg (not how we normally eat it, but you can tell we usually do use our rice bowls!). Curious…

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Friday, September 14, 2012

Sewing Class: My Craftsy Habit… a review and a WIP

Have you been over to Craftsy yet? It’s kind of amazing! They host online classes by industry gurus on all manner of crafty subjects… sewing, quilting, knitting, crocheting, baking, candy-making, cheese-making, paper-crafting, gardening and all sorts of other things. Hours of video footage as you are walked with much hand-holding through a project. If you get stuck or want feedback, you can upload pictures and ask questions. It’s really wonderful! They also have smaller project-based educational units called “workshops” where you can ask questions, and they host a platform to buy and sell indie patterns. I sell my sewing patterns there (Shop Indie Patterns'>here!), and I’ve found it to be a marvelous space to be creative and learn. I think the concept is remarkable, and I can't imagine an easier or more affordable way for a virtual shut-in like myself to get this sort of expert tutelage. Did I mention that they guarantee your satisfaction? Love it or your money back. To date, I have signed up for 3 paid classes and 3 free classes, and I think they are fabulous.
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In fact, I think Craftsy is so very fabulous that I decided to become a Craftsy affiliate. I was already in the process of compiling this post when I learned that being an affiliate was even a possibility, and (in case it isn’t obvious) blogging just for the sake of it doesn’t pay. At all. But if, after doing your research, you decide a Craftsy class is right for you too, signing up via the link at the end of this post will be a way to support this blog without spending an extra dime of your hard-earned money. For love or money, I would never recommend a product or service that I didn’t feel was both a good value and something I would purchase myself. I say what I mean, and I have integrity. I am very glad to have the opportunity to take Craftsy classes myself, for my own personal and professional benefit, and I hope that no one will think less of me or my humble blog for taking a rare opportunity to be (potentially) paid for making a recommendation I would surely make anyway. OK, back to the fun stuff…
I recently finished watching all the lessons for the Sew Retro Perfect Bombshell Dress with Gretchen Hirsch (of Gertie's New Blog for Better Sewing blog fame). I am not really into retro styling, prominent tattoo art or very short bangs, but I think Gretchen is both very accessible as an instructor and incredibly talented as a sewist. I have learned so much taking her classes, and I look forward to completing my own dress. It really does inspire confidence to see the instructors actually doing each step as you go, talking you through the particularly challenging parts and assuring you that you can always try again if it doesn’t work out perfectly the first time. Gretchen re-did parts of the garment she was making (right in the videos!) when she didn’t feel it was up to par, and it was reassuring to see that even these amazingly talented people sometimes have to get out the seam ripper. I also really love perusing the completed projects uploaded by other class participants… very inspiring when it comes to fabric choice or design details!
Thus far, I have made an initial muslin of the bodice from the original included Burdastyle pattern (the white one). After fitting it on both myself and my mannequin (still unnamed), I made some changes to the bra cup pieces to get better fit with more coverage, and to eliminate the sweetheart in favor of a curved center front (I’m not as retro as some). I also let out the sides since the first muslin was tighter than I thought would be comfortable. My second muslin of the bodice (the red one) with all the changes was really confidence building, and I am looking forward to getting into construction of the actual dress. I am considering eliminating the center front seams and reorienting the grain, but haven’t fully figured that one out yet.
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Material-wise, I was hoping to stash-dive for some navy cotton I knew I had tucked away, but it turned up less fabulous than I was imagining when I had it in hand again. Plan B is to find something sateeny but not pricey. I do not want to spend much, but neither do I want to invest a lot of time into this project only to have the materials disappoint. I have since located a few options acceptable to both my wallet and my aesthetic sensibilities, but I haven't decided completely yet. I'll keep you posted. I had hoped to finish this during the warmer months of 2012, so I had better get my act together very soon or find a nice cardigan to go with it :)
I am also signed up for Online Couture Dress Class'>The Couture Dress with amazing instructor Susan Khalje and Online Sewing Class'>Jean-ius! with long-time Threads editor and contributor Kenneth King. I have watched bits of each, and am really looking forward to learning more. My talented mother-in-law took a quilting class (Quilting Quickly, I think?) and had only good things to say. And my sewing blogger + real-life friend Jodi over at SewFearless has said she got a lot out of the class Online Machine Quilting Class'>Quilting Big Projects on a Small Machine, and I know my mother-in-law liked that one too. They (wisely) offer some free short classes on varying topics, so you can get a feel for what they offer and how the classes work.
If you are thinking about signing up for a paid class, be patient and I'm sure you can get your class for half off or more. For example, this weekend (9/14/12-9/17/12) Craftsy is having an Endless Summer sale and all classes are $19.99 or less (the best prices I’ve seen yet). Often, even if they are not hosting a sale, if you purchase a class, they'll offer you the option of buying a second class for a lower price. Since you always have access to the online classes and can watch them as many times as you want, you can sign up when the price is low and view the material when you actually have time. I signed up for my first class in April this year (when life was truly insane), and I have been enjoying the videos as time permits.
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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

From the Kitchen: The Post about Guacamole

There comes a time in the blogging life of every food lover when they have to post about guacamole. Perhaps it’s the ombre yellow green of the fruit itself, short-lived and fickle in oxygenated environments, or maybe it’s the unmistakable creamy texture and subtle flavor. Either way, the avocado in it’s most beloved form is something irresistible and addictive.

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But it’s really a special treat in these northern climes… avocados are generally expensive and must be used at just the right time, or they will be unripe and bitter or overripe and stringy. They can be unreliable and disappointing. Avocados are like the little girl who had the little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When they are good they are very very good, but when they are bad they are horrid. Ergo, guacamole, at least in our small grocery budget house, is rare.

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However, on a recent lucky day, one of my most wonderful friends called me from the grocery store asking if I wanted some avocados. They had been mispriced down to $1.25 for 5. Which is about 20% of the regular price here. Yes please! They were quite unripe, but a few days on the counter and they realized their full potential.

I ate half of one on a salad, which was wonderful, and the others I slated for guacamole. The remaining half from my salad I put in a small bowl, added about 2 tbsp lemon juice. I then filled the bowl to cover the half with cold water, then put it in the fridge to see how it would fare the next day. Turns out it was quite lemony and not as delicious as fresh, but it had not browned and was perfectly suitable to add to guacamole. In case you ever need to store half an avocado!

So, here’s how I handle avocados:

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(Alton Brown taught me to pinch forward from the back of the knife and push the stone off the blade to avoid a potential ER visit. Thank you, Alton.)

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(Why would anyone buy a special tool for scooping and slicing avocados if they had any idea that they could peel so beautifully and with zero waste?)

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My new favorite guacamole recipe comes mainly from Cook’s Illustrated, but I tweaked it to my preferences. I include less garlic, some cumin and some tomato from my “garden” (a weedy, rocky area that produces volunteer tomatoes despite neglect and no watering).

Fresh Guacamole

(Makes about 1 1/2 cups)

Ingredients:

2 avocados, ripe

1 tablespoon minced onion

1 small clove garlic, minced or pressed through garlic press

1 tsp dry cilantro leaves

Cumin, to taste (1/4 tsp?)

1/4 cup finely diced tomato (~1 roma)

Table salt

1 tablespoon lime or lemon juice

Directions:

1. Halve 1 avocado, remove pit, peel and chop flesh and place into medium bowl. Using fork, mash lightly with onion, garlic, cilantro, cumin, tomato and 1/8 teaspoon salt until just combined.

2. Halve and pit remaining avocado. Peel, then dice; transfer to bowl with mashed avocado mixture. Sprinkle lime juice over and mix lightly with fork until combined but still chunky. Adjust seasoning with salt, if necessary, and serve.

3. Can be covered with plastic wrap, pressed directly onto surface of mixture, and refrigerated up to 1 day. Return guacamole to room temperature, removing plastic wrap just before serving.

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Friday, September 7, 2012

My Life in a Nutshell: When School Changes EVERYTHING

I’m there… that place where things that were obstacles and hindrances are now opportunities. Let me explain…

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Way way back in 2009, when my oldest child started kindergarten, I had my hands FULL. I had 3 kids… ages 4, 3, and 2. Lots of small people who were needy needy needy and also quite a big mess to clean up after. Not that I was a good housekeeper then, so it wasn’t as painful to live in a messy house as it is now. Our days were unscheduled, and I was frightened of school and how on earth we would be able to go from no schedule to a half day, integrating naps and finding a way to still be creative (I had opened my Etsy shop in February 2008). My husband played piano at Mass, requiring me to care for all the little people during Mass alone. He also played hockey on Monday and Thursday late nights and coached hockey on Saturday mornings. Again, more kid watching/feeding/distracting/appeasing ALONE. It was very tough on me, and the cause of some amount of domestic discord over the element of personal freedom and the perceived fact that I had none. Poor me, I thought.

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September 2010 was easier as the kids got older and less needy, and school for the oldest was all day. I was pregnant with #4 and having a fair bit of free time to myself since #2 and #3 could play independently or together. #1 started going to Saturday hockey with my husband. The late night weekday hockey wasn’t so bad because no one was waking up and needing attention then, so I could spend that time as I pleased. The kids were old enough for Liturgy of the Word during Mass, and that became much less of a trial. Baby was born in April, and we made it through the school year just fine. But then…

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Wham! 2011. It was a rough year. #1 kid was all day in school, and #2 was in half-day kindergarten. It was INSANE. So, I’d wake up, feed people, get #1 out the door, get #4 down for a nap, then it was lunch for #2-4, then walk #2 to school, then get #4 down for another nap, then go get #1 and #2 with #3 and #4, then police the homework and feed snacks, then make dinner, then extracurriculars, then baths/bed and then… burnout. Big time. We were also terribly unhealthy, and being sick with sick kids does not a happy mommy make. Hockey nights were harder because there was no guarantee of free time, and I feel that the school year just couldn’t end soon enough. It was awful, and I do not wish to repeat it.

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Now, here we are starting school in 2012. Those same kids are 7,6 and 5. Plus we have the new guy… 17 months old now and BT (“big trouble”). But somehow, life has eased up. So much so that I can’t truly believe it yet. After the wake up and breakfast (which they can largely do on their own), the three big kids leave the house at 8:30 and don’t come home until 3:45 (kindergarten changed to full day in our district). I don’t even have to walk them there or back. That is 7+ hours of being down to 1 kid, and he naps for 2-3 hours of that time. All of a sudden I am not constantly interrupted (my house is very clean! my meal and grocery planning and paperwork are not so hard to accomplish!). And during nap time, I have decided that I am not permitted to do housework. I can do personal projects (yesterday I sewed a whole skirt! properly!), or house projects (there is much to be done), or I can spend it creating items for my Etsy shops, or promoting them. At Saturday hockey, all three big kids will go with my husband, and for weeknight hockey, I will have more time to do as I please since everyone is sleeping at night again. I am trying not to tackle too much at once just because I can, but I have NEVER had this sort of time before in my life with children (8 years next week), and it’s hard not to get ambitious. Should I wash the windows and scrub the screens? Why not? I’m used to eeking the most productivity out of every moment because there were so few, but now… today is only really day 3 of this newfound time and I have accomplished more than I did all summer. It’s true! I have arrived.

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This is not to say that things will never be difficult again, but now, I have helpers. They have the skills and motivation to do some of the housework. They don’t need as much help. They don’t require constant supervision. The little guy is trouble but when there’s only one to mind and no one else besieging you with constant questions, it’s OK. In fact, he’s still sleeping now. I’ve written this entire blog post without hearing a single noise except the dishwasher and the tapping of keys on the keyboard. I feel like I can truly appreciate where I am, but only because I haven’t always been here. Even when it changes again, I will be proud to know that all along I’ve been doing my best…  and I am still here… and I am still me…