Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Notebook Case

I can't take up a new hobby without being a total nerd about it so when I became more interested in wine and began reading about it I came across a suggestion that you keep notes of all the wines you try. This made a lot of sense to me because if I drank one glass of a wine that I liked at a restaurant, what was the likelihood that a month from then I'd remember the variety or where it came from, let alone the name of the vineyard?

So I bought myself a little tiny notebook for like 86 cents figuring I would carry it with me in my luggage sized purse so when I tried a wine I could just write down the basics about it plus how much I liked it. It then occurred to me that the inside of my purse can be a brutal environment where things get worn, bent and sticky. I don't get the chance to try wine as often as I'd like so if this notebook was to survive long enough to get filled up, how would I protect it?

The most obvious solution to protect an 86 cent notebook was of course to spend hours making a cover. So I found some scraps from an old pair of jeans and cut out two pouches, one just a tiny bit bigger then the other. I sewed up three of the sides on each pouch and then put one inside the other and sewed the tops together (leaving a gap so they could be flipped inside out). I then used the gap to flip them and I had a lined pouch with no raw edges (except of course of course for the gap which I sewed up.

(There were some complicated deductions in there to make sure that the pouch ended up with the right sides out and the wrong sides hidden on the inside but it was done by trial and error so I'm not going to try to explain it because I don't really remember.)

I almost forgot, when I was sewing the tops of the two pouches together I also stuck in a tab of denim I had made so I could make a closure. When it was all done I added on a snap to the tab and the bag to keep the notebook inside.

If these don't sound like very good instructions it's because they aren't. I basically just made it up as I went along since I have no patience for patterns or instructions. In the end though it worked out pretty well and it was a free way to prolong the life of my 86 cent notebook! (Am I cheap or what?)

But with the money I saved I can buy more wine, which was the point of this whole endeavor to begin with.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

All Cookied Out

Despite being unemployed I've actually been quite busy. The last few days I've been baking, cooking, baking and then cooking some more. Plus there was a little sewing and embroidery thrown in there. Because of this I've got quite a backlog of projects to report and I'll start with what was probably the most ridiculous undertaking.

Sunday (well technically I started Friday and haven't really finished yet) I baked a lot of cookies. I mean really, a lot, probably at least 7 or 8 dozen. Although it was kind of for a bake off I was the only one who ended up baking cookies which was fine because I just like having an excuse to make ridiculously fancy cookies, especially if I can find other people to eat most of them.

All the recipes came from Martha Stewart's Cookies. I've now tried seven recipes from that book and she hasn't failed me once, although that does not mean that they are all easy either. Here are the four I made this weekend:

Cigarettes Russes:

For these I had to make a very thin dough which chilled in the fridge overnight. The next day I spread small dollops very thinly on a buttered air bake pan (I didn't have those baking mats the recipe called for and frankly I didn't need them, but the air bake pans were essential). These went into the oven until they just started to brown the tiniest bit around the edges.

(An action shot of dollop spreading.)

Now here was the tricky part: they had to be rolled around a chopstick almost instantly or they wouldn't be pliable. The recipe said to do four at a time but I found that even with the boyfriend helping we could only do two at a time. Plus, if the dough cooked a minute too long it was unrollable. In addition we needed super thin dowels to get them to come out nice and narrow but the dowels, even with a generous coating of butter, still liked to get stuck once you'd rolled the cookie around it.

Finally we got the hang of rolling them but the process was so tedious we got less than two dozen done because of time constraints.

For decoration they got dipped in melted chocolate and then rolled in almonds. Next up:

Dark Chocolate Cookies with Cranberries

I think I've said this before but I think there are few things better then chocolate and cranberries. Because of this, when the recipe called for dried sour cherries (where the heck was I supposed to find those?) I thought dried cranberries would make an acceptable alternative, and perhaps an improvement.

For these cookies you make a chocolatey dough with cocoa powder, then mix in the dried cranberries and more chocolate. They called for bittersweet chocolate but of course all I had in the house was about 4 pounds of unsweetened chocolate and some semisweet chocolate. According to my research bittersweet chocolate is somewhere in between unsweetened and semisweet in terms of its cocoa content. So I just split the difference and used half of each to try to approximate bittersweet.

Here are the cookies before they were baked. I was dubious they would turn out looking like cookies but I should have know, don't doubt Martha.

Tada! Cookies! Next up we have:

Cornmeal Thyme Cookies with "Currants"

From the second I read this recipe I knew I had to try it. Truth be told I'm actually not that into sweets. (With the exception of course of my chocolate rampages which necessitate I eat something chocolatey and usually result in making brownies in the middle of the night.) But back to the cornmeal cookies: they appealed to me because they are actually more savory then sweet and I couldn't resist a cookie recipe that called for thyme!

I was also intrigued by using dried currants in a cookie. That was of course until I went to the grocery store to look for dried currants only to find the only thing they carried were zante currants which are actually little tiny raisins. Which made me wonder, which had this recipe intended? Do they actually sell dried currants anywhere in the United States? So I went with the zante currants which were still good but not nearly as exciting as dried currants would have been. I also splurged for fresh thyme because it seemed like dry thyme just wouldn't have been quite the same.

These are the finished cookies. They ended up being closer to cornbread then a cookie, a perfect accompaniment for tea. And finally:

Cappuccino Chocolate Bites

The first step in making these was to make the chocolate goo that went in the middle. It was simply cream and chocolate which was heated and mixed, then chilled overnight, and then whisked. (I'll admit I got a little help from my prep chefs with the whisking, I'm a bad whisker, no upper body strength).

Then it was time to make the cappuccino cookies. They were flavored with fine ground cappuccino grounds (I cheated and used instant). I rolled the dough out according to their instructions and began to cut out the cookies only to find that the dough got soft so quickly (perhaps as a result of the high butter content) that it was hard to get the shapes out without destroying them. What I ended up having to do was put them on the porch (it was 20 degrees out) every few minutes to chill them so I could continue working with them.

Once I had them all cut out, cooked and cooled I filled a piping bag with the chocolate and began to pipe it onto the cookies.

In the end I ended up having at least twice as much filling as I needed (but don't worry, I made another batch of dough today and used it all up.) This was surprising since I haven't found any other serious flaws with the recipes so far. As a final touch these cookies got a dusting of cocoa powder and confectioners sugar.

Here are some of the cookies ready to go to the party (I left a few at home, it wouldn't have quite been fair otherwise).

I don't want to think about cookies again any time soon. I even had to take a few days break from eating them, I got sick of the smell of butter if you can imagine that.

I almost forgot to mention the biggest revelation, I didn't have to cream all the butter and sugar together by hand. It finally occurred to me to try it in my food processor and it worked perfectly! To think I'd been doing it by hand this whole time. Although there is additional clean up with this method if you are making as many cookies as I was it still saved time over doing it by hand. (And also, as I mentioned, I don't have much upper body strength so creaming by hand is a lengthy process.)

That was a lot of cookie related information so here is a wrap up of what I thought of each recipe, in case you decide to try them too:

Cigarettes Russes: Although technically and visually impressive the flavor was really close to a sugar cookie so I'm not really sure they warranted the effort.

Dark Chocolate Cookies with Cranberries: The substitution of cranberries worked perfectly and these were definitely popular. They weren't that difficult and although the recipe makes a huge batch of dough it can be frozen so you can make only as many as want and save the rest for easy cookies some other time.

Cornmeal Thyme Cookies with "currants": These were surprisingly popular and were also the most unusual of the cookies I made. Although fairly simple to make they are more on the sophisticated side so I wouldn't suggest making them for a children's birthday party (unless of course you have weird kids who like cornbread cookies with herbs in them.)

Cappuccino Chocolate Bites: By far the most popular cookie I tried but also a big pain in the tuches (which means ass in Yiddish but somehow seems less offensive). The dough was difficult because it had to be frozen every few minutes to be workable so you either need a big freezer or very cold weather. The filling was also tricky because it has to be made ahead of time and then whipped up for use and finally piped onto the cookies (although I also did it with a butter knife which worked fine). And of course, to top it all off, they don't transport well because the cookies are fragile and the filling is very squishable. But despite all this they were still worth it, so doesn't that really say something for their flavor? But as cautionary note: I think they contain more butter than anything else so I wouldn't try to substitute margarine, their flavor is too dependent on butteryness.

After all this cookie consumption one would think I'd want to exercise to work off all that butter, but then clearly one doesn't know me very well. I'm off to do more baking.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Black Bean Salsa: A Healthier Party Snack

I've been talking a lot about all the cookies I've been feeding my friends and family but out of fear that I might contribute to the onset of Type 2 diabetes among them I decided I needed a healthier alternative.

Coming up with healthy snacks to bring to a party is harder then I expected. It should be something you can eat out of hand, it has to be as good a couple hours after it was made as when it was first assembled (if not better) and it probably should be able to sit at room temperature for awhile. Once I added healthy and vegan on to this I was practically stumped.

So I went back to that old stand by: salsa. But this isn't store bought salsa, it's much better and more practical in the winter then a tomato based salsa (most of the tomatoes in our stores are too expensive or not worth eating.)

All you need is a can of black beans (or you could make your own, if you have the time), some green and or red pepper (or yellow, or orange), onion, and frozen corn.

I simply chop the peppers and onion and add them to the black beans (which I rinse). I throw the frozen corn in boiling water for just a couple of minutes and then drain and let it cool before adding it.

For the seasoning I used cumin, coriander, sea salt, garlic powder, lime juice (or was it lemon?) and a little bit of oil (olive or one with a more neutral taste, like peanut).

I'm not sure if this step really adds anything but I'm a slave to the instructions of all the Indian recipes I've read: I toast the whole cumin and coriander before grinding them up. I do this by throwing them in a little cast iron skillet over medium heat, stirring fairly constantly until they get toasty but not burned.

I mix about a tablespoon of oil into the salad and a couple of tablespoons of lemon (or was it lime?) juice. I then mix in the spices, salt and garlic powder. As for measurements....I never have any. I do pretty much everything by eyeball and to taste.

Here it is:

Nice and healthy right? Of course I negated much of that by serving it with store bought tortilla chips. If I had more time in the future I might attempt something healthier but I have to admit, the scoop shaped chips really are handy.

P.S. You could clearly add tomatoes if they were in season but I like having a recipe that is not dependent on them for the 2/3's of the year when the ones at the store taste like cardboard.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Shirt to Shirt Refashion

The back story: this past Halloween I was working at a chain coffee shop and my boss told us we could wear whatever we wanted (as long as it didn't violate any health code regulations) for a costume. I thought it would be hilarious to come dressed in the uniform of a competing chain. (It was quite funny but not so funny when our store closed its doors less than two months later.)

Of course a uniform wasn't nearly as easy to obtain as I had hoped but one of my coworkers got this shirt for me to wear:

If you can't tell it's a Dunkin Donuts shirt. I think it cost her about 50 cents so after Halloween I held onto the shirt thinking the material might be good for something.

It is made of a really thick soft knit so recently it occurred to me that I should try my hand at making a tank top (since they charge $8 and up for them). The shirt is x-large which allowed me to avoid the embroidery.

I used one of my favorite shirts as a pattern and cut out a front and back piece. I also cut out a piece of woven print fabric that I sewed onto the top of the front. I did this by putting the right side of the little woven piece against the wrong side of the knit, sewing along just the top and then flipping it around to the front so the top was a finished edge.

I then used orange lace hem tape to sew down the bottom of the woven piece. I zipped up the sides of the shirt and all that was left was straps. (The bottom didn't need finishing because I used the bottom of the original shirt.)

I used the woven fabric to make the straps and then sewed more of the orange lace over that. To cover up where the straps were sewn on I added two covered buttons. I made the buttons using this nifty kit that comes with metal fronts and backs. All you do it cut a circle of fabric and use their little rubber contraption to snap the two metal pieces together with the edges of the fabric tucked in between.

It's a fairly horrendous closeup but you can see the button and the straps.

Despite the frustration of sewing with knits (pieces never quite come out the same shape as the pattern you cut them from) I am happy with how it came out. I am also getting used to not having to finish as many edges since knits don't really unravel, I may never go back to woven fabric.

Oh and as for the cost; the shirt was free (the coworker gave it to me, I guess the look on my boss's face when I showed up was worth 50 cents to her), and the lace, fabric and buttons were from the stash. So all it cost me was my time (which I have plenty of these days anyway).

Monday, January 12, 2009


Today mom found a wasp in the house. We don't know how he got there but one can only imagine that he was taking refuge from the cold. Because it's only getting up to about 20 or 25 degrees here mom couldn't bear the thought of putting him outside because it would have meant fairly immediate death (or so we think, we're not entomologists).

So instead she transferred him to our verdant back porch to live among the potted plants. She used one of these handy bug catchers:

We have several and they are indispensable for humane bug removal. I have no idea where you could find them but I highly recommend them.

Of course I protested because the wasp's new home happened to be along the route I travel many times a day to get to my part of the house.

I'm not sure what this means in terms of karma but several hours later this is what my boyfriend spotted on the back porch, right where mom had relocated the wasp to:

So instead of saving him from freezing to death (which in this case I think is preferable) she delivered him into the waiting jaws of this horrible gross terrifying spider. (Can you tell I really don't like spiders?) (In fact I dislike them so much that I wouldn't have been able to take these pictures, the boyfriend did using the macro lens on his camera and I get the willies just looking at them.)

Although I guess technically I should be grateful that the spider saved me from the possibility of getting stung I'm really not, I'm more worried about what that spider could do to me considering he had no problem taking down a wasp. Yuck.

Since I can't bear to end a post on that note how about something much cuter, like Wiggin in the snow?

Awww, he's so handsome. But what I can't figure out is how he can stand to have his butt directly on the cold snow like that.

The Final Homemade Holiday Gift

I know I already said this but I swear this is the final post this season about homemade holiday gifts. This one is a little belated because I didn't even see the recipient until after New Year's.

Here it is:

Although Toaster wasn't part of the gift...isn't that belly just irresistible? It looks so soft and white and downy, I always succumb and rub it, only to be reminded that it is just a trap waiting to be sprung. No matter how asleep he looks he is just waiting for you to get close enough so he can bite your hand. But he is only there so provide a size reference for what was supposed to be the subject of this post: the owl.

I made the wall hanging for a collector of owl related items. Here is a close up:

I started by having my boyfriend (who is more artistically inclined then me) draw a simplified version of a Great Gray Owl from a book on owls. I then used this as a pattern to cut out a piece of hound's tooth fabric which I appliqued to the white background. I then used mostly chain stitch to add in the detail. The eyes came out a little googly, I definitely need more practice with my embroidery.

In order to make the embroidery into a hanging I added a border of dark paisley around the white rectangle. I then lined it with a white layer and added some pretty green fabric for a backing. I sewed in three tabs to put a dowel through and tied green cord to that.

Although I wasn't totally satisfied with my embroidery skills adding the border and backing made it much more appealing. I just think I need to design myself a sampler or something so I can practice a few more stitches. Maybe I should do a sampler made entirely of eyes! That would be both creepy and very helpful.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

More Cookies!

Since a copy of Martha Stewart's Cookies miraculously arrived at my doorstep recently I will share with you a couple more of the recipes I tried.

First there were chocolate biscotti. Although the recipe calls for pistachios I decided to substitute almonds and I couldn't resist throwing in some dried cranberries (because I think cranberries and chocolate is a much overlooked flavor combination).

Making biscotti is halfway between making brownies and cookies. You begin by making a very dry dough which you form into a giant log. This gets baked, is allowed to cool, then sliced into individual biscottis which are baked further.

Here is my loaf after the initial time in the oven. (Sorry for the dark picture.) It crackled a little more on top then I expected which made slicing it without it falling apart a little difficult.

Here are my sliced biscotti. I didn't do the best slicing job ever but I'm not very patient when it comes to these things.

Despite the crumbling issues they were delicious. When they first came out of the oven they were still nice and gooey inside but after a few days (yes they stayed good for quite awhile) they attained the dry consistency one expects from biscotti (although not the tooth breaking consistency one finds in bad store bought biscotti).

For my next recipe I chose pumpkin cookies with brown butter icing. These were a perfect choice because they gave me the opportunity to use up some of our backlog of canned pumpkin. The only hitch was that both the cookies and icing called for evaporated milk and because of mom's lactose intolerance this isn't an option.

This led me to research evaporated milk alternatives the most common of which seemed to be diluting powdered milk with only two thirds the usual liquid. Of course this isn't very helpful because powdered milk also isn't an option for us.

But since evaporated milk (unlike sweetened condensed milk) is supposedly just milk with some of its liquid evaporated I figured I could just do that myself.

So I put a couple cups of milk in a small pan on very low heat on the stove and measured its depth so I would know when it was almost half evaporated. And I waited....and waited...and waited. After a long time (perhaps hours) it was finally reduced by half. Since I don't have any basis for comparison (I've never bought or used evaporated milk) I'm not sure how close an approximation it was but I do know my cookies came out fabulous.

Between the evaporated milk, the butter and the pumpkin they were ridiculously moist and the spices (cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg) made them very reminiscent of pumpkin pie and gingerbread.

The icing was an adventure in and of itself. I haven't really done much with brown butter before so trying that was a surprise. One second you just have a pan of hot butter and the next brown bits begin to appear suddenly. With the addition of confectioner's sugar, evaporated milk and vanilla to the butter the icing was also ridiculously good.

Look at those brown flecks in the icing, just like the recipe said!

You'd think that everyone would be grateful for the delicious bounty that my new hobby provides but of course someone had to decide they were on a diet so now I'm being cruel every time I bake something delicious.

But I don't think that these cookies were even that bad, I mean they had pumpkin and cranberries, they should just count as fruit!

P.S. Some of you may have noticed that despite my concerns about lactose in my cookies I still use butter. There are several good reasons for this.

1. Butter is just better, although I use margarine or vegetable oil for lots of things for cookies it just seems silly since so much of their flavor comes from the butter itself.

2. Butter isn't actually that bad in terms of its lactose content because it is mostly fat (and therefore the ratio of lactose is much lower). On the other hand skim milk is much worse because with the fat removed there is much more lactose in the same amount of volume.