Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bad Biscuits and Fairy Houses

I have a problem making biscuits. As a Southern woman, this shames me. My potato salad is impeccable, I can whip up a cobbler in no time flat, I take pride in a perfectly seasoned pot of lima beans.

But...I cannot make biscuits.

My mother makes insanely good biscuits. Her recipe is simple: butter, flour, milk. And, like, magic fairy dust or something, because they are that good. But I can't make them. When I make them, they wind up sad little flat discs.

I have searched high and low for a good recipe. I've gone to the back of flour packages, baking powder tins, Allrecipes, craft forums, the list goes on and STILL I haven't found anything that comes close to Mama's biscuits. It drives me batty.

On Christmas day, I was in charge of the bread and I found this recipe. I followed it dutifully, although I was dubious about the insane wetness of the dough. I'm talking CRAZY wetness. The one diversion I made from the recipe was that I cut the biscuits a bit smaller than it called for. I wound up with these:I mean, seriously. Ar to the gh. They were peaked AND split in the middle. And while they tasted good, still...I don't think this is the recipe. Sigh.

The day after Christmas we went up to Cowtown and spent a lot of time out on the farm. I went out several times with my little digital camera and pretended to be a real photographer. (It's a pity that all of my favorite hobbies require pricey equipment.) I got a few shots that I really liked, including lots of fairy houses, as Will and I spent a great deal of time convincing Jeffrey that fairies were real. His pragmatism can be exhausting, but it inspires groovy pictures!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Cookie Bake

Last night, we had several friemily members over for a big Christmas cookie bake. We made Oatmeal/Apple/Cranberry, White Chocolate/Orange/Walnut, Chocolate Chip (which did that thing that chocolate chip cookies do half the time and for no discernable reason in which they spread out and taste fine but look like lumpy discs), and sugar cut-outs. I used a recipe I've been doing for cut-outs lately which is slightly cakier than the recipe from my childhood and which I think takes a frosting better as it is less sweet. However, we wound up not frosting them at all and using the sprinkles and sugars that my sil and I had accumulated over the last year or so. We let the kids do all of the cutting out and decorating, which meant that there were a looooot of cookies for Santa at the end (and also that I am going to be doing another batch of cut outs for myself and the grownups later.) Seriously. It's cold season, y'all.

A few things made this potentially life-threateningly messy situation less messy and stressful for the adults.

  1. I rolled the dough out between two sheets of wax paper to 1/4 inch thick before chilling. When I came up with this idea a few weeks ago, I thought it was BRILLIANT. Turns out that bakers have been doing it for years. Oh, well. In any case, doing this made it really easy to give each child half of a sheet and save the scraps for a quick roll and toss into the freezer.
  2. I lined half of our kitchen table with floured wax paper and set the cookie trays up on the other side. The kids cut out the cookies on one side and decorated them on the other. This worked pretty well, although I think that next time I'll do an assembly line from one end of the table to the other. Less walking around and therefore smoodging of dough all over my kitchen. I wish I'd thought to take a picture, but I was totally in the moment and forgot. My sil got some, I think.
  3. I let go of my anxiety about the whole thing. I tend to be crazy meticulous when I'm deep in the zone of a new obsession and cooking has become IT lately. But I realized that this was not about me and my fantasies of silver-iced perfect stars. It was about a bunch of friemily hanging out and the littles having a high old time making messes and memories. They were all flour-covered, sugar-wired, and HAPPY at the end of it all. And so were the adults.
Oh, while I'm at it, I'd like to share with you my new recipe collecting dealio. I'm sure this is another one of those "Uh, yeah, NotHannah. Pretty much EVERYBODY does that." things, but I'm a little slow coming into this cookery stuff.

While I love cookbooks and use recipes from them frequently, I find myself more and more using the internet (and friends) as a source--mainly because many of these recipes are rated and/or have been tested by folks whose opinions and tastes I trust. I had collected quite a wodge of printed out pages and scraps of crumpled paper and it was getting to be a mess. The solution was rewriting or reprinting anything stained and crinkled past recognition and slipping the pages into clear plastic page protectors tucked inside a three ring binder. The plastic keeps the pages from getting wet and icky and the binder stands up on its own on the counter.

I've started dating when I use each recipe and adding a little note about the event or the reaction folks had to the dish. I could probably even add pictures to some of the recipes. I think it'll be a cool thing for my kids to look back on--and a great way for me to record good times with friemily. And family illnesses. Whatever.

Oh, one last thing--this didn't work:

I was all excited about my cookie scoop with the press-the-dough-out back, but it wound up being a flop and a half. It couldn't cope with my very wet chocolate chip dough and while it was better with the oatmeal and turned out some nicely shaped cookies, it was a pain in the butt and took much longer than just eyeballing a table spoon and smooshing the dough out with my finger. Save your $3.99.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Brownies and Bookmarks

Jeffrey's best friend, D, requested I bring brownies to the class Christmas party and because he's such a good kiddie and I'm thrilled that Jeffrey HAS a best friend, I was happy to oblige. Upon asking, I found out that he didn't want frosting, nuts, or chips anywhere near those puppies (he's an Aspie, too, so I'm pretty sure it was a texture thing), so I went looking for a kick-ass recipe that didn't have any extras. After many stops and starts, I found this one at (which is an AWESOME site, btw), and decided to give it a whirl.

I pressured my mother several months ago into making homemade brownies and the results were pretty dismal--through no fault of her own, I'm sure, as she's quite the whiz at baking. So I was a tad nervous about the whole thing, particularly with the bit that called on me to heat the butter and sugar together. I'd never heard tale of such a thing in a baking recipe.

However, these guys wound up being lovely, lucious chunks o' chocolate heaven: rich and dense and gooey and yummy. My mind is reeling with all the possibilities of this recipe: adding chips of all kinds and nuts and marshmallows and caramel and peppermint bits and...Sigh.

The only difficulty I experienced was cutting them. I think they weren't cool enough yet, so I had some stickage on my knife. Wiping it off and giving it a spritz of Pam after every few strokes kept this to a minimum, but my brownies didn't have nice, clean edges. (Not that the six-year-olds cared.)

(As a side note, for some reason, getting a picture of these brownies was way harder than it should have been. I don't know if it was the weird light today or if they were just so dark with chocolate heavenliness, but I never could figure out how to capture their fudgy perfection. Not even when I crawled on the floor or stood outside in the middle of my yard. The picture below comes closest.)

Having finished the brownies, I moved on to the teachers' presents. Jeffrey's teachers have gone above and beyond the call of duty this year and I wanted to do something nice for them. The scented coffee rests didn't pan out because I ran out of time, so I whipped up some bookmarks based on something I've seen all over the internet, most recently here. (Anna Maria Horner is like a fairy godmother of groovy design stuff.)

I didn't do it exactly like AMH (and others) suggested, mainly because my Hell-Mart doesn't carry double-sided heavy fusible and also because I wanted to fiddle with the idea of a string of beads attached to each bookmark.

First, I gathered my fabrics. I chose the tropical rayon print (leftover from our shower curtain, which is starting to make me insane) for Jeffrey's parapro, since she said on Monday that she hated cold weather. The red fan print (sturdy, well-made cotton) was for his classroom teacher, since she's kinda funky and eclectic. The green calico was for the special ed teacher. I have tons and tons of this left over from my teaching days when it covered a bulletin board showcasing British Romantic poets. I'm thinking matching skirts for River and I in the spring for the rest of it (and possibly skirts for my sil and mother and all of the women in my neighborhood. There is a LOT of fabric left.) Anyway, it's a pretty print, and I don't know the spec ed teacher as well as the others, so I went with it.

I like a big bookmark, so I used a business sized envelope for my template:

Then, using a neutral cream thread, I sewed the suckers together. The rayon was, as rayon often is, a pain in the butt as it slipped and slid and wallowed all over the place. The cottons were lovely, although I did press all of them before adding the fusible just because I didn't like them looking crinkly after the turning right-side-out part.

Slipping the fusible in was easy with all of them except the fan print, which required lots of cursing and poking with various poky objects until it lay flat. *Quick aside here to say I did this whole project--and soothed River when she woke up with a bad dream at nap time--in about an hour, so I was flying trying to get them done. I would be much less curse-y and sweaty if I did this project again.*

Tucked the ends in, ironed each bookmark, sewed the ends shut while doing a topstitch all the way round, catching a coordinating hemp string just above the knot tied in the end. In retropect, I wish I'd used thread that matched the string to do the topstitching, but, again, I was in a curse-y, sweating hurry. Next time I do this project, I think I'll use a buttonhole or maybe even an eyelet hole to slip my string through. And I'll topstitch much closer to the outer edge.

Threaded matching beads onto the string, knotted the beads in place, and I was done. They aren't perfect, but I'm pleased with the way they turned out. I slipped them into envelopes with a gift certificate to a local new and used bookstore and a package of chai tea. The teachers seemed pleased with them, and it made me feel good to give them something personalized. Goodness knows they deserve it after being so patient and hard-working with the bug for four months.

I'll take a break from the crafting tomorrow (Santa shopping!), but will be back to it on Sunday when we have our huge cookie bake with Will's family. I've decided to spend the Christmas moolah from my grandparents on cookie cutters and decorating tips.

Ooh, and maybe some of that stuff that makes frosting shiny.

Is it normal to get this excited about baking?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


In the spring and summer, I'm pretty much all about the garden and outside. In the fall and winter, all of my other crafty multiple personalities come out and my brain explodes with the craftiness of it all.

To wit, in the past two weeks I have:

  1. Made marshmallows! Who knew you could MAKE marshmallows?? Thankfully, cool chick over at Artisan Sweets did and she hooked the world up with the recipe, which made me lose my mind and absolutely NEED a stand mixer. How in the world have I made it this far without a stand mixer? HOW? Anyway, these puppies are soft and lucious and wonderful. I doubt you save any money on them, but the art of it (ART!! With MARSHMALLOWS!!) is totally worth any time and/or cash you spend. (BTW, I came across a recipe for cardemom marshmallows and am now dreaming of some kind of chai/cocoa mixture with a thick blanket of sweet goodness floating on it. Heavens.)
  2. Converted a cute (but space-sucking) table runner into two cute (and space-saving) pillows. Apparently, as a Southern woman, I'm supposed to have a bunch of tables lying around to put doilies and runners on. Um. I don't. But my mil got this one on sale and I hated to keep NOT doing anything with it at Christmastime. Clearly, pillows were the answer. The runner was made of felt and at first I had lots of lofty ideas about keeping the trim intact. This wound up being nigh unto impossible due to all kinds of odd design flaws (both in the runner and in my expertise level) and so I wound up making smaller pillows with no trim. Still, very cute. (But I now have NO idea what to do with the leftover red felt. Suggestions?)
  3. Made four kinds of cookies (FOUR) for gifts for the front office of Jeffrey's school and Will's co-workers. I have made oatmeal with spiced dried apples and cranberries, white chocolate chip/orange/walnut, gingersnaps (with chunks of candied ginger), and chocolate chip. Tonight I'll do sugar cookie cut-outs and I'm trying some benne seed wafers. One thing I've realized as I do more baking is that following directions is key. Chilling and letting sit at room temperature and kneading or stirring or whatever is not just for show: it's all about texture and flavor. I mean, check out these cookies. Are they gorgeous or what? (And they tasted like little bits of perfect yumminess.
  4. Tomorrow while River naps, I'll sew up some scented coffee rests for Jeffrey's teachers and maybe mix up some spiced nuts to go in the gift bags. What else would go well with scented coffee rests?
  5. Then I'll make up a batch of batter of each of the cookie kinds for our family cookie bake on Sunday.
  6. Because I'm crazy.

Monday, December 1, 2008


So, when I last wrote, the garden was growing great guns and I was reveling in it. The garden is now damp and cold and withered and I'm reveling in my warm and cozy house, up to my neck in craft and holiday shmussing.

The garden was a success. In particular, my herbs and tomatoes did really well. Too well, in fact, in the case of the tomatoes. If you'll recall, I grew my Better Boys in wire cages and the Romas on a rope system. I'll reverse this next year. In the deep, soft soil of my beds, the BB's vined out like crazy while the Romas stayed put and produced like mad. So those will be swapped.

A few things must be done before next growing season:

  1. I'm transplanting some raspberry bushes to one of the shadier beds. They need less sunlight and more trellising than the plants I grew there last year and I can always grow lettuces and spinaches alongside it.
  2. I MUST treat early for aphids and fire ants. The two thrived off each other and decimated my peas. Bastards.
  3. The soil still needs to be amended with more organic material. I'm currently flinging kitchen scraps into the beds and will be applying some leaves when the wind stops blowing so frickin' much.
  4. The paths need to be weed free. Will saw a snake in an overgrown patch over the summer and nearly lost his mind. So I'll be laying newspapers and maybe pine straw, again when the wind chills out.
  5. I'm digging up the strawberry plants. They didn't do as well as I'd like, although I was fairly pleased with production. I might put them in the herb bed, but the bed they're in now is in prime sun location, so I feel like I need to put it to better use, maybe for lima or green beans.
There's more to do for next year, like culling through seeds and deciding if trying to start some would be worth it, but for now, I think I'll do some more reveling--I made bread today AND I've got a little pot of orange peels, cinnamon sticks, and cloves simmering on the stove. My house smells like heaven.