Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Musical Christmas

Each year we struggle with what to get the kids for Christmas. They never really need anything but this year we decided it was time to get them a piano. They both have enjoyed playing for two years, and are good about practicing so we thought it would be the perfect gift.

However, getting the piano into our house was no easy task. On the day we arranged to move it, the weather was nasty with below freezing temps and ice pellets. We rented an enclosed trailer which protected the piano from the freezing rain, and we had help from a strong and willing friend. It still was not easy because the driveways and sidewalks were covered in ice. Luckily everyone and even the piano survived the move and made it safely home.

We waited until 2 days before Christmas to pick it up so that we could keep it from the kids as long as possible. Once we got it home, I disguised it by putting a garbage can and boxes on top and then covering it with a sheet and blanket. We duct taped the sheet and blanket and told the kids it was very fragile and that they shouldn't touch it because it might break. It worked and the kids were completely surprised when they took the sheets off, and our house has been filled with music ever since.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Mixed Ecosystems Cake

I made this igloo ice cream cake for Christmas. The recipe is from my December 2006 Martha Stewart Living Magazine. The cake is very time consuming because it involves ice cream, and has to be made in steps over several days time -- a true labor of love. I found the cake and butter cream recipes to be very good and easy to work with. The chocolate cake was moist, and easily molded to line the glass bowl that I used for the igloo shape. The center of the cake is chocolate and vanilla ice creams. And the icing was a delicious white-chocolate butter cream that I'll definitely use again. I molded the penguins out of fondant but you could also use marzipan.

My husband, a biologist, gave me flack when making it because I was mixing ecosystems. Penguins live in Antarctica and since humans don't dwell there, igloos would be nonexistent. I explained the cake was fictional, but he suggested that I make Inuit people or polar bears instead of penguins. I argued that penguins were easier to make, and well, cuter. Our friend even suggested making puffins. So maybe next time, if I ever feel ambitious enough to make this cake again, I'll make a true Arctic igloo cake with puffins.

Felted Teacups

Some of my friends (the ones who sew) received these adorable teacup pin cushions for Christmas this year. The idea came from Betz White who appeared on The Martha Stewart Show, and gave a tutorial on making the pin cushions. I fell in love with them because they encompassed two of my favorite things, tea and sewing. Of course they could always be interpreted to be coffee cup pin cushions, depending on your beverage preference.

The cushions are made from wool sweaters that have been felted. Making these involves both hand sewing and machine sewing. I also used fabric glue for gluing the handle and the saucer to the cup. The zigzag stitch works well for sewing the I-cord together to form the handle, and also sewing it to the saucer.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Fan and Feather Scarf

Hand knitted scarfs make great gifts if you have the time. I've made several this season. The kids' teachers each got one, a couple of friends, and two family members all received scarfs for Christmas.

This fan and feather pattern is by far one of my favorites. There are quite a few fan and feather patterns out there but this one produces the prettiest and most feminine results. One of the reasons it's called fan and feather is because one end looks like a fan and the other a feather.

The pattern I used is posted below. I will warn you that this scarf is very time consuming, expect to spend about 12 - 15 hours knitting it. This particular scarf is about 80 inches long because I like to be able to wrap it around the neck at least once. You could shorten the length and save yourself a few hours.

I used size US 11 needles.

Cast on 28 sts.
1. k28
2. p28
3. k2, (p2tog) 4 times, (yo k1) 8 times, (p2tog ) 4 times, k2
4. p28

Repeat the 4 rows until desired length, bind off.

Coffee Cup Cozies

My sister asked me to make these for her. She wanted to give them to her coffee drinking friends for Christmas......apparently they drink a lot of coffee. These were fun to make and it also gave me an opportunity to use up some of my remnant pieces of yarn. I used only cotton and wool yarns as I thought they would make a better insulator for the coffee.

The pattern is simple.

Cast On 12 sts using 6 US needles
1. K12
2. K3 P6 K3
3. K12
4. K3 P6 K3

Repeat rows until about 9 inches in length, sew the ends together with a darning needle.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Getting my "Girl" Fix

It's probably a good thing that I don't have a daughter of my own because it would be hard for me to refrain from buying all the pretty "girly" fabrics. I am, however, very blessed with many little girls in my life -- one who will be receiving this skirt and purse ensemble for Christmas.

I take pleasure in sewing for little girls and this season has given me my "girl fix" for sure. I always welcome the opportunity to create something feminine because it doesn't happen very often in my wild and crazy boy-filled house.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Beanbag Frogs

I've made a dozen (and counting) of these bean bag frogs as Christmas gifts this year. It started out as a gift idea for one of my nephews. I decided I would make all my gifts this year and was puzzled about what I could make for the boys. Girls are always easy to make things for, boys are a little trickier. When I found this pattern on a website called The Purl Bee, I absolutely fell in love with it!

After I made the first frog, I was hooked and decided I knew several people who would be getting one of these charming little frogs from me. I even made a couple of these for my nieces, that are beyond the toy and doll age, and added lavender in with the beans so that it could be used a drawer sachet.

My favorite thing about making these is that I can use up all my scrap pieces of fabric that I've been accumulating over the years.

Gingerbread Reindeer

Every year I find a reason to make these gingerbread reindeers. Usually it's for the kids' holiday parties. I think I've made them for Ethan's class for the last 3 years now. I found the recipe several years ago in a magazine called Martha Stewart "Kids." That magazine is no longer published but you can find the recipe here.

The reindeer is an upside-down gingerbread man. I use melted bittersweet chocolate for the face and antlers, a red hot for the nose, and white chocolate chips for the eyes. The antlers are also sprinkled with sugar just before the chocolate starts to set. The combination of the chocolate and gingerbread is delicious!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Santa Claus is Coming to Tea!

I put these boxes together for the first-grade teachers that I work with. Inside the box are Madeleine cookies frosted to look like Santa along with some loose-leaf teas. I thought up this cookie project in collaboration with my friend and fellow baker, Eileen. They took a lot of patience and time but were a lot of fun to make. I tied the box together with honey sticks and a card that says, "Santa Claus is coming to tea."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Santa Baby

Being the proud auntie that I am, I couldn't resist posting this adorable picture of my niece, Madelyn. She just turned 10 months and is almost walking. My mom said shes walks along the cupboards and has figured out how to open the cupboard doors but doesn't take anything out -- just looks to see what's inside.

I'm looking forward to kissing those sweet little cheeks in a couple of weeks when we meet up with my sister and her family in Wisconsin for New Years.

Friday, November 28, 2008

November - Home Improvement Month

November has turned out to be home improvement month for us. Some planned improvements and others not so planned. It started earlier this month when we had a shed built in our backyard. The shed which is actually a mini barn was built in one day, by one person. It was impressive to see how quickly it went up.

While the kids and I were in Arizona visiting family, Keith painted the shed. He wanted to surprise us so he didn't tell us the color he was painting it. When we returned home, we were delighted to see it painted to look like an actual barn. Little did Keith know that he was painting our shed to look almost identical to a shed that I grew up with. When I was around the age that my boys are now, my dad had built and painted a backyard shed that also looked like a mini barn. I wish I had a picture of my childhood shed to show the comparison.
Also planned for this month was a new Lopi wood-burning stove, fireplace insert. Keith installed this himself, with a little help from me. It weighs almost 500 pounds and took a little creative maneuvering to get it in place. Keith made a wood plank to fit on our car jack in order to raise it up to the height of the hearth, and we pushed it into place. He had to order special stainless steel pipes to fit into the chimney which then had to be fitted into the stove. It was a lot of work but well worth the effort.
The stove makes our house very cozy and warm. In fact as long as the fire is burning hot enough, the blower stays on, and it heats our house to the point where our gas furnace doesn't even kick in. The stove is also EPA certified. It recirculates the combustion gases and doesn't let them escape like a typical fireplace or stove. When the gases are recirculated they get burned a second time. Not only does this make it a "greener" burn it also creates more heat.

The fireplace insert can actually be used as a stove top. Keith really likes this function. He's heated soup, tea, and cider on top of the stove.

The new fireplace insert also brought a few more unexpected expenses such as a new fireplace mantel. We had a limestone mantel cut to replace the wood one which would have been a fire hazard above the stove. Also during the process of the stove installation, the picture hanging above the fireplace was broken, along with a lamp shade.

We have one more, less exciting home improvement still to come this week - replacing our broken garage door. This will require some not so fun, labor intensive, garage cleaning! Everything needs to be moved out of the way, including emptying shelves, so that the door can be installed. Yuck!

A Bountiful Thanksgiving

Place cards made with clove initials in tangerines

Yesterday we spent a lovely Thanksgiving with friends. And after spending two entire days in the kitchen, there was no shortage of food. Again, we tried to make this year's menu as local as possible and most ingredients came from our garden and CSA basket.

The fresh, free-range turkey came from our local co-op, and I prepared it with an herb butter made with rosemary, oregano and thyme that all came from our garden. Surprisingly enough, our herbs have survived the below freezing, nighttime temperatures.

I made squash (from our CSA basket) stuffed with sauteed mushrooms and onions, rice and cheese. We received an abundance of potatoes from the CSA, and also a big bucket of sweet potatoes from our garden so I decided to make gratin potatoes in order to incorporate all the different types of potatoes. I used about five different types, yellow, red, purple, baking and sweet potatoes all went in the gratin casserole.

I also made my usual sides Tuscan-style stuffing made with pine nuts and red peppers, and green beans with caramelized shallots. For the salad, I used local apple-pears and goat cheese, with sugared walnuts and red onions.

One friend brought home-made dinner rolls, a Thanksgiving tradition in her family and a recipe that's been passed down from her grandmother. The rolls were a delicious attribute to the menu and huge hit with the kids. And considering that's about all the kids ate, I'm glad there were plenty.

Another friend brought this beautiful array of cheeses and breads.

Before dinner the men, boys and dogs went for a long hike in Brown County. Shhh.....don't tell anyone, but they got a little lost. They went off the trails and ended up calling us to say they'd be a little late. Thankfully they found their way back out of the woods and to the car, and made it home just in time for the turkey to come out of the oven.

Thanks to my friend, the dogs also ate a special thanksgiving dinner.....yes, that's right, Thanksgiving dinner for the dogs. What did they eat, you ask? Well she prepared a casserole of sweet potatoes, pork and rice.

And lastly, for dessert I made a pumpkin cheesecake with a praline topping of home-made caramel, drizzled chocolate and toasted pecans.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Happy Birthday Mac!

Today is Mac's birthday and it's hard to believe that I am a mother to a 12 year-old boy! It feels like it was just yesterday that he arrived into this world. Maybe it was all the complications during my pregnancy, the hospital stay for preterm labor or the 6 weeks of bed rest that followed, that make the memories so clear.

He was determined to come when he wanted and he did -- 4 weeks early. He was only home for 16 hours when we had to readmit him into the hospital for an extremely high bilirubin count of 28! He spent the first week of his life, not in his newly painted fish bedroom, but instead in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

However, he was worth every complication, every struggle, and every ounce of worry and stress, a thousand times over! He brings so much joy into our lives every day. He is a smart, creative, funny and compassionate human being. I am so blessed to be his mother and look forward to sharing in all of his future dreams, sorrows, and endeavours to come. Happy Birthday Mac!

The birthday cake that I made for Mac is a recipe from my friend, Stephanie. She made me this cake for my birthday and it was delicious! My family loved it then and they loved it again tonight when we ate it for Mac's birthday. It has a lot of yummy ingredients like sour cream, pudding, German chocolate, and bittersweet chocolate chips. And served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream it's simply delicious!

For Granparents' Ears Only

I'm posting video of the kids' piano recital for their grandparents who weren't able to attend. They both have been playing the piano for two years now and this is their third piano recital. Half way through the recital one of the hammers broke on a key and made it difficult to hear the note when played.

Ethan: Ecossaise.........J.N. Humel & Mussette...........Anon

Mac: Happy Farmer from "Album for the Young," Op. 68, No. 1o. .....Schumann

In the Hall of the Mountain King..................................E. Grieg/arr. M. Meir

Friday, November 14, 2008

Maple Sugar Cookies

This is a new favorite sugar cookie recipe of mine. If you like "real" maple syrup you'll love these cookies. The recipe is from the November issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine. I made two alterations to the recipe. (1) I added 1/2 tsp. of baking powder and, (2) I added an extra egg yolk. Also, I didn't find it necessary to freeze my cookies before baking, but did make sure the dough was nice and cold before rolling. The cookies are sprinkled with turbinado sugar. Try making a batch, and I guarantee that you'll have lots of help eating them.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Family Photos

When the boys and I were in Arizona, I took some family photos with my camera. These are few of my favorites

Monday, November 3, 2008

Early Christmas Baking - A Family Affair

Last weekend while we were in Arizona, my mom, sisters and I decided that we would do some early Christmas baking. We spent almost all day Saturday making cookies, bars and candy. My mom did a lot of prep work ahead of time. She made some of the doughs in advance, and packed everything up, including cookie trays and all the ingredients to be brought over to my sister's house. This was a huge job in itself.
We made over a dozen different types of Christmas treats, most of the batches being tripled in size. Everything went very smoothly except for one batch of spritz cookies.
We all wore our Santa aprons that Mom made for us last year. Even the smallest helper, Madelyn wore her Santa bib. The three boys got new "Santa's helper" aprons this year too, even though the only helping they did was to sample the cookies and ingredients. However, they had a great time playing outside in Auntie Kelly's rocks, and also did a pretty good job entertaining Madelyn at times.
A picture of all the girls in their Santa aprons

My sister Kristin (on the right) was a good sport, she doesn't really like to bake but played along with us anyway.

The cookie samplers!

Grandpa was our #1 cookie sampler -- that is when he wasn't napping or watching the football game! Occasionally he'd make his way into the kitchen to see if we hand any broken cookies for him to eat. Here's proof of Miss Olivia helping Grandma, even if it was only for five minutes. She had more fun spending time playing with her cousins.
Grandma with her littlest helper, Madelyn, who's always smiling!

After Madelyn's Santa bib came off, she wore her favorite shirt - and mine!


Sunday, November 2, 2008

Halloween in AZ

( L to R) Poseidon, Jeff Gordan, Fifties Girl, Hershey Kiss and Indiana Jones

We flew out to Arizona on Halloween morning and the kids were treated to lots of Halloween goodies, both in airport and on the airplane. Several Southwest employees were in costume, and the kids got to vote on their favorite pumpkin display at the ticket counter. They were given spider and bat rings, squeezable pumpkins, and candy.

The kids trick-or-treated with their cousins until they so exhausted that couldn't walk any further. Once back at Auntie Kristin's house everyone changed into their Halloween pajamas and surveyed their loot of candy.