Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Day 23: Culinary customs

My Christmas baking repertoire has narrowed down to mostly two things:
Fruit cake, courtesy of a recipe from an old, dear friend, Norma Green. It is dense, moist, and full of buttery vanilla flavour. And, of course, lots of jeweled glace fruit and pecans.

I love the red cherries best of all.

Here's another one, just in case the first two weren't enough.

I also make a big batch of shortbread every Christmas. I like to press the dough into these molds that I got for 25c each after Christmas a few years ago.

The problem is, I can never remember, from one year to the next, which recipe I used last time. So some years the shortbread has been crispy and buttery, with the sugar almost caramelized as it slowly bakes.

Other years it is merely acceptable.

Like today's batch.

I think it is because the recipe I used tonight used powdered sugar instead of granulated, so tomorrow night I will try another recipe. I think I know which one.

Meanwhile, there is a humongous Tupperware full of small fruitcakes that will be distributed to lucky people.
But only the ones that love it.

And Jeff enjoyed a mug of homemade eggnog with a star-shaped piece of shortbread. 
He breathed in a crumb of the cookie and almost choked to death.

Would you like the recipes?
I thought so.

Norma's Fruit Cake
3 1/2 cubes of butter
2 c sugar
1/2 tsp baking soda dissolved in 1/2 c boiling water
2 oz vanilla
6 eggs
4 c flour
3 lbs dried and glace fruit and nuts of choice

Cream butter and sugar, add soda and water. Beat in vanilla and eggs. Stir in flour and lastly, the fruit mixture. Spray small baking pans with Pam and divide mixture between them. I usually make 6 small loaves with this amount. Bake at 250 degrees for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours. Cakes are done when the top is firm, but you can poke with a toothpick to make sure.
I usually make double this recipe.

The tubs of glace fruit are prohibitively expensive, so I keep an eye on them in the produce section of Safeway after Christmas. Every two or three years, I find them marked down 75% and stock up.

Classic Shortbread
8 oz unsalted butter
1/2 c sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 1/4 c flour

Cream butter and sugar. Work in flour and salt, knead lightly if necessary. Press into greased molds or 8" round pans. Prick dough with a fork. Bake at 300 degrees for about 30 minutes for small molds up to an hour for larger pans. Shortbread should be golden brown. Leave in pans until firm before tipping onto cooling rack. For larger rounds, cut into wedges while still hot in the pan.


1 c milk
1 egg yolk
A few drops of vanilla and rum essences
Sugar to taste
A sprinkle of freshly grated nutmeg

Put half of the milk in a mug or small pan and whisk in egg yolk with immersion blender. Add essences and the rest of the milk. Heat slowly in microwave (or on stove top if using a pan), stirring often. Nog should thicken slightly when done. Add sugar to taste.

Today I am thankful that my fridge and freezer are stocked up with lots of butter.
Happy Christmas baking to you!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Day 22: Sew much to do

A couple of years ago, I determined to make use of the large amounts of fabric scraps that have monopolized the space in our smallest bedroom ever since it was happily vacated by some child or another for the bigger bedroom. Jeff complains once in a while, but not so much since he got his very own man-cave and started filling it with books and tools and all sorts of masculine paraphernalia.

So I started cutting out little squares and triangles of coordinating fabric. I have lots of samples from about thirty years ago, when I sewed for a friend who was in the business. I always knew they would come in handy some day! I pieced this top together and pinned it shortly after making my resolution, then ran out of courage when it came to the machine quilting part. 

I manned up this week and dug the sewing machine out of a heap of stuff.
The quilting isn't very complicated and sewed up pretty fast.

A little Google and a YouTube video got me past my fear of binding.

It is all very imperfect, just like me.

The pin-tucked white fabric in the centre of this square is from a wedding dress that I made almost thirty years ago. It had all sorts of pin-tucked sections and lace inserts and took about forty hours to complete. 

Pardon me if you've heard the story before, but this was when the Portland, Oregon LDS temple was being built and our family had been asked to contribute $200 to the building fund. It seemed like a fortune at the time, because Jeff was earning very little money and it was all we could do to pay the basic bills. I was working at a restaurant as a hostess, doing childcare, and also sewing for my friend. I couldn't think how we were going to come up with the money. Then my friend asked me to sew this wedding dress for some promotional thing she was doing. I charged her $200. Which, in retrospect, was too little money, but it was before I had gained a healthy respect for the value of my time. And it did solve the problem.

The strip of blue heart fabric is from Daisy Kingdom dresses that I made for Bethany and Annie one Easter. I still have the dresses, but apparently they are not stylish enough for today's girls.
They were considered to be very fashionable at the time, is all I'm saying.

So, the quilt is finished, just in time to be put in the mail for a very precious little boy.
And I am thankful for the sewing teachers that taught me, at the grand ago of twelve and thirteen, to use a sewing machine. And the kind lady from church who taught me, on a few Saturday mornings, some handy short-cuts and skills that have stayed with me all these years. 
It changed my life, in a good way.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Day 21: I am an Amazon fan

Try saying that five times fast.

I have become, of late, an online shopper.
Specifically, an Amazon shopper.
I can find everything I need, at a better price, and I don't have to drive around in the weather and traffic. 
Tonight, thanks to my favourite frugal website, I found this Richard Scarry game and a set of books, which was just what I needed to finish up my Christmas shopping for a couple of precious grandchildren.
Total cost: $0.00.
I paid for them with my Discover Card Cashback Bonus.
And shipping was free.

But if I hadn't spent over $25, it would have been free anyway, because of my free month of Amazon Prime that came with the Kindle Fire that I bought on a lightning deal a couple of weeks ago.

And that Kindle is already filled with free books that I found on that same frugal website.

And my house is full of smoke detectors that came in a contractor's six-pack.

And my minimalist shoes (most of which came from my favourite shoe website, 6pm.com)  are all fitted with Pedag metatarsal pads that I bought by the dozen on Amazon for much less than my podiatrist charged.

And the Lego man flashlights that we gave the grandkids for Christmas last year (bought on Amazon, of course) are replenished with lithium batteries that cost mere pennies compared to the local stores.

And Bethany and I will both be drying foods all season next year, thanks to a sale on Nesco dehydrators.

And you know those lovely Silpat baking mats that cost a fortune from Demarle? Found some Made in American ones for $5 a piece that will make some nice gifts for my Kiwi friends.

So yes, you might say that I am thankful for Amazon these days.
You can call me the Amazon Queen.
Or Queen of the Amazon.

Have you made any grand purchases on Amazon lately?
Or do you have any favourite websites that you would like to share with the rest of us?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Day 20: Truth in advertising

Today, after a very trying day (which I will tell you about soon, whether you want me to or not), Sam, my witty piano student, sat industriously scribbling away at something while his little brother was having his piano lesson.
Noah and I were playing lots of duets today, as you can see.

I am thankful that Sam very kindly didn't make my behind as copious as he should have if he were being truthful.
And I am thankful that all five of today's aspiring piano players were as sweet as could be, or we might have had a repeat of the tears that followed my altercation with Western Union customer no-service this morning.
How's that for a teaser?
Do you even care?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Day 19: I heard the bells

Sometimes I just need an excuse to post cool pictures of cool things.
Take these here bells.

Every Christmas season for the last several years, I've had the most fun experience of participating in a bell choir. As a piano player, life can be lonely at times, in a musical way of speaking, which is one of the reasons I sometimes give group lessons to my piano students. 

So ringing bells with a group of music-makers is particularly satisfying to me.
And this year, for the first time, Bethany is ringing too, so it is even better.

The music this year is more challenging than usual and we have thirteen ringers, so practices have been frequent and long. I do love a challenge.

But the hardest thing, as usual, will be not grimacing when I make a mistake.

Because you know I will.
Make a mistake.

So today, I am thankful for friends who have indulgent husbands who buy them very expensive sets of bells.
And who let me play with them.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Day 18: The Milkmaid

A few months ago, I discovered raw milk.

At first, it seemed a little  gross, but I knew it was better for the body than the highly processed product that we find in the grocery store. If you think I am weird, go take a look at the information on this website.
I know that some of you probably think that drinking raw milk is bound to end in disaster some day, but I have researched it thoroughly and am satisfied that the farmer uses good practices and the cows are happy and well-pastured.
See that layer of cream on top?
That, my friends, is real milk.
And do you love the carafe on the left (made in France) that I found at a garage sale this summer and fits one half-gallon of milk exactly?
Sometimes my life is just one long flow of serendipity.

Today, I am thankful for Christine at Cast Iron Farms, a wee dynamo of a girl who gets up early every day of the year to milk her beloved cows so that people like me can drink their lovely creamy milk. She home schools her two children and takes care of pigs and horses and chickens and rabbits and sheep and goats and turkeys and her vegetable garden and somehow manages to be smiling every time I see her.

Christine and her family are living their dream, homesteading on a few acres in McMinnville. 
I am thankful that, for now at least, small farmers in Oregon can still sell their milk to people like me, who are trying to get back to real food.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Day 17: Would it be redundant...

...to be thankful for Thanksgiving?
Because I am. Thankful for Thanksgiving.

I love a crowd on holidays, even though all the cooking and cleanup exhausts me. Bethany and family defected to Utah for the week, so we were expecting a small table, just Sam and Charlie and the missionaries for dinner. I'd adjusted to the idea and embraced it, deciding to cook a ham and a small, boneless turkey breast instead of the usual gigantic bird that would defeat my powers of innovation on the leftovers front. 
Then, a day or so before the Big Day, Jon and Jenny's family, complete with Jenny's niece from Utah, decided that they would come after all. And on Thanksgiving Eve, Charlie told me that he had invited our favourite Samoan to come too.
So our small table turned into two tables and I was happy.

Thanksgiving Day around here was the only gloriously sunny day in the midst of a rainy couple of weeks.
Sam, Charlie, and Wrangler arrived nice and early, so after we got some prep work done in the kitchen we went for a walk.
There is a beauty-berry bush just down the road and I want to know why it is not mine.
We finally ripped mine out because the few berries it produced were never this spectacular.

I missed the lovely dinner photo op. But trust me, it was a sight to behold.
A huge ham from Zaycon Foods that was the best we have ever eaten. A small turkey breast and a herbed panko-encrusted pork roast completed the meat menu. Mashed potatoes, rice pilaf, mashed carrots and parsnips, broccoli, Jenny's Jello, green salad, rolls, and gravy for the first course. Which causes me to realize that I completely forgot the stuffing. And I had designated a box of Stove Top just for the occasion.
For dessert we had honey-lime cheesecake, pumpkin pie, apple pie, blackberry cobbler, and butterscotch-pecan pie.

Jeff sat working on his Lego boat while we finished eating dessert.
Don't you just love those chubby cheeks?

Jon had to head to work right after he ate, but he did justice to the pie first.

Jenny and Camilla.

For some reason, Sam liked this photo better than the one I took.
Go figure.

Jon has been working on making ghillie suits for his family for some time, and had to show one off to Charlie before he left.
I could say many things here, but I shall refrain.

Wrangler was sweetly underfoot most of the night, always in the hope of a crumb or two. He decided to help with the dish-washing.

My kitchen floor has never been so clean after a big dinner.
Reason # 52 to own a dog?

After as much food had been stuffed into out bodies as possible, we played a rousing game of SpongeBob Uno.
Naked Homer images will always remind of Thanksgiving from now on.

Who is this strange creature?

When the ruckus had died down and most people had gone home, Sam, Charlie, Jeff, Mo and I all sat down to introduce Mo and Sam to the joys of Labyrinth, the movie.
They both declared it to be "weird", which was a mystery to us Osbornes, because to us it is iconic.
I think we shall have to make Sam watch it twenty more times, until she appreciates it for the genius that it truly is.

Let's hear a shout-out for Labyrinth!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Day 16: a loaf of bread

When bread machines were a new-fangled device, I swore to my walking buddies that I would never own one because "I could make bread just as well by hand, thank you very much". 
Well, in my usual "famous last words" tradition, I have eaten those words many times over. As I listened to my friends rave over their machines, I had to have one. And that was the end of life as we then knew it. 
Bread no longer came in plastic bags in various scarily long-lasting incarnations. It came fresh out of the bread machine with a funny hole in the bottom where the paddle sat.

I've lost count of how many bread machines I have used up and thrown out. It's never the motor that gives out, it's always the pan, in one way or another. It kills me to throw out a perfectly good machine, but it's almost as expensive to buy another pan as to buy a brand new machine, so out it would go.
A couple of years ago I found an almost new machine at a garage sale for only $5.
It's been going strong ever since and has been one of my favourite machines. Another one, found this summer for the same price, awaits the death of the first before entering its moment of glory.

So yes, today I am thankful to whoever invented the bread machine.
If you have one and don't use it, send it my way. I know several people that would love to have one but are waiting for summer garage sales.

But I have perfected the art of making a delectable loaf of 100% wheat bread, and I will share the secret.
Well, secrets, really.
The first involves soaking the flour. An overnight soaking in an acid medium helps to reduce the phytic acid in the flour. Phytic acid is a digestive inhibitor and is present in all grains. It can cause gastric distress and prevent absorption of nutrients.
The second secret is Bob's Red Mill flour. I bought a bunch when it was on sale at Bi-Mart and it makes everything great. I usually grind my own wheat, but this stuff is so fine it makes a wonderfully textured end product. But I suspect that even my own ground flour will be better after a good soak.

So here is how I make my bread.
I use the basic bread machine recipe, then I put it on steroids.
Note that I have edited the instructions slightly.
3 c whole wheat flour
About 1 1/4 c water
2 tbs acid, such as yogurt, kefir, lemon juice, buttermilk
1 tsp salt
About 1/3 c coarse mixed grains, such as 10-grain cereal
2 tbs ground flaxmeal
2 tbs honey
2 tbs fat, such as butter, olive oil, coconut oil
1 tsp dry chia seed

Mix this in the bread machine for a few minutes till everything is blended. It would be well to make a dough that is a little sloppier than usual, as it will stiffen on sitting. Adjust liquid or flour if necessary. Turn off the machine and let the dough sit at room temperature for 24 hours.
You heard me. 
Then add 1 3/4 tsp yeast and 1/2 tsp Baking Soda and start the cycle again. Make sure the yeast gets all mixed in and add a little water if it has stiffened up too much.
And get ready for the best loaf of whole wheat bread you have ever eaten.

NOTE: I have amended the recipe (yet again) to include baking soda, as it negates the sourness of the acid.

You can soak any recipe that has liquid in it. Just hold off on the eggs and leavening until the final mixing process. Pancakes and waffles are supposed to be awesome like this, although I haven't tried it yet.
And you could, of course, double or triple the recipe and make the loaves in your mixer and bake in the oven. And you could try your favourite recipe and see how much better it is.

If you want copies of the pdf files that have detailed information on this soaking process, which you should also do to nuts because of the enzyme inhibitors in them, leave me a comment and I'll email it to you.
And I'd love to hear if you try this and like it. I'm all about soaking my nuts and grains lately and I think it's making a difference to my digestion and general state of health.

Happy Thanksgiving, dear friends!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Day 15: Wardrobe pizzazz

Going to be totally shallow for this one.
We have a new Goodwill store in town. I went looking for a skirt for my Halloween party costume (we went as Johnny and June. Guess which one I was....) and found two.
I am quite partial to this one, although I had to re-glue a lot of the gold sequins because they were decorating the carpet. It adds umpteen more possibilities to my choice of outfits and I wear it all the time.

The photo stinks.
I was getting ready to go out this morning and the sky was so dark because of all the storm clouds that it made my house dark, even with the lights on.
You try taking a photo in the mirror in a dark room without using a flash and see how well it works!

I am thankful for my $6.99 skirt and how happy it makes me when I wear it.
It flows around my ankles and makes me feel all girly.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Day 14: A father's love

Today, I am thankful for the love of my father. A love that I never had cause to doubt.
Well, there was that one summer when I was eighteen, but that was my fault, not his.
Partly because of his example, my sister and I both married men who have been thoughtfully loving fathers.
And partly because we are just clever that way.
Our Dad was pretty hunky, wasn't he?

And I am thankful for the love that Jeff has for our children and grandchildren. 
You see, he didn't have the rock steady example in his life of what a father should be. His father and his grandfather before him were alcoholics. Historically, the pattern continues until someone with enough strength can break the cycle. That someone was Jeff.

Sometimes, the lack of a concerned father in his life has caused him grief and it has not been a pretty sight. But with great determination, he overcame that deficiency, and has helped to raise two daughters who married good men and two sons who are (and will be) awesome fathers. I often wonder if our children understand the enormous burden that Jeff has carried as he has felt unloved and undervalued by his Dad. His struggle continues even today.

This is one of my favourite photos of Jeff. It's about ten years old. I just snapped it one day when he wasn't expecting it. 

So, let's all be thankful for the love of good fathers. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Day 13: Busy hands, happy heart

Yes, I know I'm behind.
Deal with it.
Nobody cares but me anyway.

I am thankful for whoever it was that taught me to knit.
I think it was one of my aunties.
I remember my Mum knitting things for Anne and me when we were young. A pair of mittens comes to mind. I was about six years old and the weather was very cold. Mum sat up late one night, finishing them for me. Her fingers were already slightly arthritic, I think, because she used to complain of "rheumatism".
I wore them to school the next day and lost them.

I love the Lion Brand Homespun yarn and had gathered quite a collection of leftovers from various projects. Then, serendipity struck and I found a bag of the yarn at a garage sale in the summer.
I had enough to make an afghan, so I laid out the colours carefully.
And I don't know why my foot is in the photo, so don't ask.

Here is the finished work. I rather love it, but can't keep it because my house is already full of blankets.
But I can't bear to give it away because I love it so much.

I've been gathering marvelous yarn over the last year and have quite a collection, waiting for the winter crocheting bug to hit.
Hasn't hit yet.
I discovered that the back of my favourite chair makes a great yarn holder when I am unwinding the hanks.

I have been trying to come up with inspiration for these lovelies, but so far I'm bone dry.

There's something about creating beautiful things from a piece of glorified string that makes my heart happy.
What is your favourite winter sitting-by-the-fire and trying-not-to-let-your-mind-rot pastime?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Day 12: Reading material

As a young girl, I was relatively famous for my reading habits. 
I read every single book in the small school library. I loved receiving books for gifts and treasured them. I made paper covers and a bookmark out of cardboard to slip inside each one. I read Little Women at least ten times and owned all four books in the series. The Secret Garden was probably my favourite book and I was more than a little in love with Dickon.

My friend, Janet, told me once, years after we had left England, that the thing she remembered most about me was how I was always reading and chewing on my leather bookmark. I still remember the taste of that old bookmark.
I also used to tear off little pieces of the page corners and eat the paper.
True story.
If Jeff had known the depth of my dysfunction, he probably would have run, screaming, for the hills, instead of luring me away from my friends and family.

This little gem is all that remains of a favourite book of both Anne's and mine.
Little Old Mrs. Pepperpot. It is about a little old woman who has the annoying habit of shrinking to the size of a pepper-pot at the most inconvenient moments.
I should probably toss it, as no one will ever read it again, unless I can convince some of my younger grandchildren to sit still long enough to listen to it. It is cover-less and falling to pieces. But it is a remnant of that innocent time and I cherish it.

Does it make me a hoarder if I confess that I still own most of the books that were mine as a child? 
The Little Women series, all brown-spotted and ragged, but with paper covers and bookmarks still intact.

For many years, I have been a fan of the murder and mayhem as promoted by such authors as James Patterson and Patricia Caldwell. Lately, I have lost patience with the increasing brutality and decreasing chapter size and quality of the writing and have been looking further afield for my reading pleasure.
Lately, and with no particular intent, I have been reading books that are set in the time frame of the Second World War. Here is a quick list of some of them that I think you will enjoy.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. By Jamie Ford. A tender little tale of a love that never died, angst between father and son, and the Japanese internment camps in Washington state. There are some twists that make you want to read the book again in order to catch the clues.

The Zookeeper's Wife. By Diane Ackerman. This is an immaculately-researched book about the Zabinskis, a couple who ran a zoo in pre-WWII Warsaw and who saved the lives of hundreds of Jews during the war. The details of their life as they continued to live at the zoo with a variety of animals and transient Jews in hiding is fascinating. Antonina Zabinski, the wife, kept a journal, so many of her thoughts and fears are taken directly from the journals. I loved this book.

Sarah's Key. By Tatiana de Rosnay. A little-known event that took place in Paris in July, 1942, is the basis for this story. The French police were told by the Nazis to round up Jews for deportation, which they proceeded to do with great diligence. The plot bounces back and forth between present-day Paris and 1942, and has some horrifying, as well as redeeming, turns. It is an easy read but will twist your heart inside out.

The Book Thief. By Markus Zusak. I'm sure I am the last person to read this book, but I loved it and have to recommend it. The format is a little strange and takes some getting used to. It is narrated by Death and bounces around a bit, but once you get it figured out, the unfolding of the story is mesmerizing. I read it in about 24 hours; I think I stayed up until 2 o'clock in the morning to finish it! The story is about Liesel, a girl in  World War II-era Germany, the people she loves, and the books she steals. It is a story about selfless love, nightmares, the Jew in the basement, and the value of a good book. This book will make you laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time.

Today I am thankful for authors who write good books, books that are well researched and tell worthwhile stories of human courage and foibles and the love that can be found in the cracks of history.