Occasionally crafty, and tasty, too

I made a gingerbread house. I’d never made one before, except from a pre-baked kit my daughter found at a yard sale or something one time. And I think that’s all. Housefront
First I bought some candy, and then I went looking for templates, recipes, etc. I didn’t like any of the kits, and also, whenever you buy an all parts included kit of something, what you make never looks like the picture on the box. That’s not good for the psyche. But I found a different kind of kit that I did like! And I am recommending it to you if you want to try this, for a couple reasons. Bakeset
It contains just the frame pieces and a set of good instructions, which is all you really want. It even has recipes for the gingerbread and the icing. I compared them to some online, and decided their gingerbread recipe made very good sense. I am glad I used it. It has a very small amount of baking powder; recipes I saw at websites either had none, or too much. Well, I guess those ones either shrink or spread, or I might be wrong about that, but I’m not taking the chance since this one didn’t. Housepieces
I didn’t use molasses, though, and that might have been a good thing in terms of how it baked, or it might not have mattered at all. I used dark corn syrup I already had, because I was trying to make this house for an amount of money I could recommend without guilt. You might already have dark corn syrup for some other purpose, as well, but if you don’t, it’ll be less expensive than molasses. Royalicing
People were discussing whether it would taste as good or better, and worried the dough would be too light in color. This seemed odd to me, as all I was concerned about was the physical and chemical properties; would it have the same viscosity, and would it change how the dough rose? It turned out very well, barely changed size at all, and set up perfectly. Also, still brown. Spreadingtray
I used some candy from Big Lots and some my son brought me from the store he works at. And I took my time. Baked one day, assembled and decorated another day, decorated some more the next day. I might add a little more to the back. I’m a very “less is more” kind of person regarding this sort of thing, so I had to try to see it another way.  "Finish," go back, add more, repeat. Housebase
It still wasn’t super cheap. The kit was $12 and the candy also came to around $12. It could be done for less, though, if you make your own templates and follow the recipes I am sharing below. And it could be done for a lot more if you buy a fancier kit and/or fancier/more candy. Completehouse
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Shame to end on a blur, as phone decided to focus on background instead, but I didn't feel like going down to take another photo. So there we are. And here are the recipes. I used salted butter. Screen Shot 2016-12-07 at 11.40.20 AM
Roll the dough 1/4 inch thick and place on parchment-covered baking sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes at 350º F. The edges will look crisp. Set your cutters or templates over the warm dough to see if the pieces need squaring. Let them cool completely before handling.

To make Royal Icing: 3 egg whites, 1 lb confectioner's sugar, 1/2 tsp cream of tartar, 1/2 tsp almond extract (go ahead and use vanilla if you don't have almond,) beaten on high for ten minutes. If you want to dye it, spoon some into individual bowls and add gel colors. It will harden quickly, so keep it sealed airtight or covered with a damp cloth.

If you do it yourself without a kit, just take your time, spreading icing over a foil-covered cardboard or tray (which I did only in the center first, adding more later when it was time to arrange the trees, etc.,) setting the completely cooled bottom pieces in and sealing them together with more icing, and be sure to let the base dry before adding the roof pieces with yet more icing; holding each section in place until it will stay on its own. Then wait until that's all dry before pasting on the decor. In the meantime, seal away the icing, and also keep a damp cloth over it while you work.

One other thing—when I took the dough out of the refrigerator, I worked with 1/3 of it at a time. I cut three house pieces each from the first 2/3, then used cookie cutters on the rest.

 


Cooking DNA

I started Italian-American Sunday last week on a whim. You can see my Google Plus collection about that; read the post at the bottom first. I am missing that part of my background so hard as I grow older, and don't know how to get any of it back except by cooking.

[I want to apologize for all this text before the cooking part; I don't like that very much as a rule. But I had a thought process going.]

This past week, as you know, Central Italy was upended by an earthquake. Amatrice was hit very hard. And so I thought I would make spaghetti all’amatriciana on Sunday in honor of the people there. I went to Jungle Jim’s on Thursday for Smoking Goose guanciale and a couple of other ingredients. I learned Jungle Jim's had the guanciale by asking them at Twitter. And here it is:

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You’ve probably seen this dish with bucatini; the hollow spaghetti. I read this is because that’s how it evolved in Rome, but in Amatrice, they still use spaghetti. Hopefully, they can rebuild and continue to do so in the future.

I pretty much always use linguine. If a dish wants angel hair or something, generally it doesn’t appeal to me anyway.

So I Googled some recipes, found several that claim to be the most authenticest at all (try amatriciana ricetta tradizionale in the search window,) and decided to use two as influence for my dish today. I added the Serious Eats suggestion of white wine for deglazing the pan to this recipe I found which is charming in its English translation. I did not remove the guanciale before warming the tomatoes, as some other sites suggested.

Apparently, one important aspect in the original version is using a different pecorino than Romano. Romano is strong and salty, and according to the self-appointed authority, the sauce wants a milder one.

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However, I couldn’t find the right pecorino at Jungle Jim’s, not because they don't have a jillion cheeses, but because it's made in small amounts and isn't widely available.

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So I stood there and sniffed all the cheeses made with sheep’s milk to guess what might work, then ended up choosing something I decided would just be right because it’s what I’d have to use.

That’s how it works, you know.

The other aspect is whether to use fresh or boxed tomatoes or tomato sauce. I speak with someone on Google Plus occasionally who tells me that where she lives in Italy, the tomatoes and tomato sauce come in boxes instead of cans. So, I bought boxes at Jungle Jim’s when I shopped for the cheese and the very important guanciale. I do have fresh tomatoes, but all the ones coming in now are yellow, which we don’t want for this sauce.

Finally, I read today that people are encouraging restaurants to serve Bucatini All’Amatriciana and send the proceeds to the Italian Red Cross. You might see if a restaurant in your city is participating, or donate directly if you are able.

Ingredients for last night's Linguini All'Amatriciana:

8+ ounces (225-250 g) guanciale cut into small strips
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium heat chili pepper (you could use a few flakes)
1/3 cup (80 ml) dry sherry (when it calls for white wine, what I have for it is dry sherry or dry vermouth)
750 ml box Italian tomatoes (I used strained, but I think chunks would be better, or a large can of San Marzano tomatoes, squished with your hands like Lidia does.)
1 lb dry linguini
1/2 cup grated (microplaned) Pecorino Romano mixed with 1/2 cup Trugole
(I think that's 50 grams each, maybe don't quote me.)

And here's what to do with it:

Heat olive oil in wide pan large enough to hold all of the above. Add the guanciale and the chili pepper, and stir around until the guanciale is starting to become translucent. Serious Eats recommended medium high. I heated to medium high, then turned it down a little when I added the meat. This took about five minutes, but you could turn it down more after the oil is heated, and go more slowly. Guanciale
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Turn it back up to medium high and add the sherry or white wine, and scrape the pan with a nice flat wooden spatula. Or what you have. After a minute or two, add the tomatoes and a pinch of salt. When it bubbles, turn it down to simmer. If you put in a whole pepper, take it out now. Pomi
Cook the linguini about two minutes short of done. Be sure to add plenty of salt to the water. Then take the pasta right out of the water and add it to the simmering tomato sauce. It's better to do that than draining it, but if you have one of those cool pasta pot inserts, yay, just be careful adding it all at once. Then add a half cup or so of the pasta water, stir it in, and add the cheese, stirring some more. Let it cook for a few minutes to thicken the sauce and finish the pasta. Cheesepan
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You might be used to sauce just put over pasta at the very end, and this will have a different texture. You will love it, but it will thicken more as it cools, and be less nice later on. So eat it right away, and if you aren't going to eat this much at once, cut the whole recipe in half.

Serve with more cheese for the top. You will just love the guanciale, and it will have been worth seeking it out. Other recipes will tell you it's okay to substitute pancetta or something, and I'm sure you can make something nice with it, but it won't be the same food at all.
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Imaginary Grace: garden update, part one of two

Hah, it's been two months since I shared here. First, May was just horrid. It was no May at all, just cold and weird. That didn't ruin the garden, but it had an effect on a few things. The summer squashes aren't having a good year. But there's still time. Growth is stunted or strange in a few other places, too. But there's still time. 

And then, well, June has been busy doing double duty. I've taken hundreds of pictures to share here, but time passes and it all changes! Here is some of what I was looking at this morning.

My carrot forest! Best carrot year ever. Carrotsandcosmos

Volunteer tomatoes in the snap beans. There are six of them, and this is where I wanted to plant tomatoes next year, so...but also, all that area was cleared away and there haven't been tomatoes there since 2014, so I guess some birds were very busy. Surprises

I planted twenty asparagus bean seeds. Seventeen of them seem to be thriving. Animals got to two, and another never appeared. Longbeans

This is my happy spot right now. Happyspot

More tomatoes. I have them everywhere. Last year was such a poor year for them, I am overcompensating. Tomatoannex

The deck garden. Deckgarden

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And some of the flowers in the 16x4 area next to the neighbor's yard, currently named "Defense Against the Dark Arts." You may imagine why, as you choose. Marigolds

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Summer

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Seedlings and Friends

Some stuff I got going in the garden. Starting Sunday, the bell and hot peppers, eggplants, and remaining tomatoes in greenhouse can all stay outside full time. Some of the tomatoes are already living outside. All that remains then is to sow some cucumber seed, and hopefully a pumpkin or two. And of course there are cosmos and marigold seedlings out there, and I have some basil to plant with the tomatoes.

CabbageEarly Jersey Wakefield cabbages, two more in a different spot, and red and yellow onions.

CarrotsCarrots, not ready yet to be thinned. I think these are Danvers. I got free Purple Dragon seeds that I'll plant for autumn.

ChardlingsRainbow Swiss Chardlings. There are two more in with the sugar snap peas.

HotpeppersHot peppers from a seed mix. There are five here and six more already in pots.

Lettuce Buttercrunch, red and green leaf lettuce.

MustardTendergreen Mustard. It's said to taste like a mustard/spinach hybrid. I don't remember which kind I had last year.

PeasandleeksTwo varieties of peas, and leeks.

Saladrose Salad Rose radishes. They form a border between the onions and two varieties of snap bean seeds, which I just planted.

Squash One Black Beauty zucchini and two yellow crookneck squashes.

SugarsnapSugar Snap peas and a couple more chardlings.


Quiet anticipation

It's been spring for most of the month. We're expecting a cold spell tonight through Monday, then it all sets off again, colors and scents and tastes. I'd say I can't wait, but I can...because I don't really need to. I have seedlings to mist and plans to reshape and a battle with squirrels, rabbits and deer to prepare for.

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I'm Not the Measuring Kind (edited with more pix)

This past week, I made a quilt using techniques I learned last year when sitting in bed hand-sewing pieces together for a crazy quilt.

Every morning I got up ready to tackle a section of it after doing the usual early household tasks. On Monday, I chose ten fat quarters, trimmed them to exactly match each other, then cut each into four pieces, again matching them to each other instead of measuring. On Tuesday, I sewed them into nine blocks, and set the extra pieces aside for something else.

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On Wednesday, I brought one of the blocks to Hancock Fabrics' senior citizen discount day to choose fabric for the back. Hancock
Then I cut nine pieces of batting and backing fabric to match, leaving plenty of extra to be taken up by sewing, and then I quilted lines down each of the nine blocks, doing three at a time on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Each day I sewed the three blocks to each other on the front, trimming away the extra batting, then folded the back seams together. I hand-stitched one set of back seams, but did the other two sets on the machine. That’ll come all right in the end.

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Yesterday, I sewed the fronts of the three rows together and pinned the backs; egregious amount of pins. Then I needed a break from it. I think it’ll work best to hand sew the two long rows, and then I’ll go over the sections that are machine stitched, so it all matches. I might do that this evening. And then I’ll sew on some binding, another day this week after I buy or make some. In the end, it will be around 52x58 inches.

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Handstitching
In between working on these sections, I rearranged my fabric remnants, yardage, scraps, and paint supplies, and took pictures of that as well, as personal encouragement and for the record, etc. There is also a large picnic basket filled with fabric and sheets from thrift stores to use as backing, lining, and more.

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Paintcase
I liked making a quilt this “as you go” way, and mean to keep using it, so that I don’t have to navigate large projects through my little sewing machine and table space. Also, it was faster. However, I will leave even more room around the back for seam allowance another time, and I also want to try finishing the edges of each block, then sewing them together. That way, I won’t even need to add binding, which is something I don’t like. I prefer to make a “pillowcase” finish, then stitch around the edges for added durability. When I try this, I'll probably make more large blocks, maybe twelve 18x24 inch ones. Otherwise, they could be any size. A third option is to do it the way I do crazy quilts; make the blocks with only front and batting, stitch them all together, then add a solid back with the pillowcase method. I guess it'll depend on the design and my mood each time.

Soon I’ll get up each morning ready to tackle the garden and yard work, assuming bronchitis and etc. is in seasonal abeyance. But my next project in the meantime is a blue crazy quilted library bag. Stay tuned…


with March anticipation

For the more linear-minded readers: I'm talking about two different things here, intermingled. I'm a person who enjoys a certain amount of data, and working numbers, etc., but I also enjoy feeling the soil beneath my bare feet, and watching for signs of renewed life each spring. SedumDon't lose the forest for the trees. 

There are now roughly seven weeks until the frost-free date I go by, April 20. But let me back up. When I moved to New Jersey after six years in Michigan, I was excited to be in zone 7. Some people said I wasn’t, as the USDA Hardiness Zones hadn’t yet been updated, and if a chart says something, well, the chart must be right forever. Chart bedamned; it was easy to tell right off the bat how things would be. This meant for me mainly that rosemary would live through a winter outside. Now the newer zone guide from 2012 calls the areas I lived in 7(a,) because no matter how you wish to view the world, it's all warmer than it was when the old data was used. To be honest, I already grew everything in Mid-Michigan as though it was zone 6, not 5, and other gardeners there did the same. You don't need a chart to tell you everything is growing for nearly seven months instead of less than six, and that some of the plants aren't dying under the winter snow.* 

Now I’m back in zone 6. For refined delineations, just west of me, it’s 6b; the urban heat island of Cincinnati, similar to the areas I lived in NJ, except a little cooler in winter. Here a mile or two east, they call it 6a. This actually means little to me other than not expecting rosemary to last in the ground all winter, so I pot it and bring it in. It's very rarely below zero, but the cold we do get is sustained longer.* And most outdoor planting starts about two weeks later. My in-ground herbs perform the same each year, lasting much farther into the year than I’m told to expect, coming back earlier in the spring in the same manner, but I don’t plant tender annuals earlier because of that, for a couple reasons. Abovetable

First, the soil is rarely ready to be worked until at least the second week of April. April is so agonizing! I stick a thermometer in the ground and watch the soil slooowwwwlllyy rise to above 50 [10] degrees (today, the pots are at 42 [5.5] and the ground is 40 [4.5]) as it also slowly begins turning workable, for putting in carrots, chard, and green beans. This is significantly different from New Jersey, where the soil is very sandy, and warms much faster in spring, though it is not tillable much sooner. The heavier clay-infused soil here is slow to warm, and I grow so impatient waiting for it, I have taken to more and more container gardening each year. I can start a couple weeks earlier that way with some of the things I grow. But that method usually requires more water.

The other reason is that nights here definitely stay cooler for longer into spring, even when the days are very warm. Peppers, in particular, need warm nights in order to grow well. I have three sweet/bell pepper seedlings already going, and planted six from a hot pepper mix and two peperoncinis yesterday, so they might need time in the little plastic greenhouse before beginning life outside sometime in May.

So anyway. Soil temperature and arability, and night air temperatures are my true keys to starting out well in the garden. Based on previous years, I’ve marked my wall calendar with expected tasks I can get done through March and April, and am getting the greenhouse ready for interim housing.

But that’s all data-based stuff,* and what I’m really doing is watching for signs of renewed life outside. Lemon balm appears first, then parsley and mint. I’m hoping to have success with peas this year; never do seem to get many peas, but when the parsley rises, the planting of peas and onions will inaugurate my season of outside pleasures. Newseedlings

PS: Easter dinner in many places has traditionally featured lamb with peas and pearl onions, and mint sauce. Early potatoes with new parsley, perhaps. The tradition is because that’s the fresh stuff available right at the beginning of spring. It’s neat to think about, though I’ve tended to live in areas where an autumn-cured ham was the end of winter holiday tradition instead, on the table with the new stuff just appearing. Isn’t nature awesome? Primrose

Another PS: Sometimes I dream of living in zone 8. I’d breathe better in winter. But I’d have to give up the Cincy Symphony, Jungle Jim’s, and the awesome Mt. Washington St. Vincent de Paul for it. Would I be willing to? …well, yeah. Near water; I like the nature of people who are friends with the sea. But that's drifting back in time to another topic altogether.

*For people who want more details on USDA chart drawbacks: Snow insulates the ground and also helps soil renewal, so some very cold places actually have warmer and richer soil than you might imagine, and stuff grows marvelously there in summer. In some places, the temperature range is so extreme, what grows well can't be predicted by how things go in January. To name two drawbacks to a chart based on low annual temperatures. Planttable

Lemonbalm


Sloppy Joes

Appurtenant to yesterday's blog post, here is how I have made sloppy joes. 

 

Sloppy Joes 

This would feed eight people. I made this amount thinking of leftovers.* 

 

2.5-2.75 lb ground round

1 medium onion (about a cup, small or fine dice)

1 yellow or red bell pepper, small or fine dice

15 oz unseasoned tomato sauce (not British tomato sauce, which is just ketchup.)

6 oz tomato paste

1/2 cup warm water

@3 tbs brown sugar

@1 tbs Kirkland Sweet Mesquite seasoning (a similar style of barbecue seasoning would do.)

@1 tbs chili powder.

 

—Brown meat with onions and peppers. Drain, saving liquid for soup or gravy, if you like. 

—Stir in the paste, let it cook for a couple minutes, then use the paste can to add the warm water. 

—Stir in the tomato sauce and seasonings. You can try adding less brown sugar; we thought this amount balanced things well in the end. 

—Simmer at low heat with a lid on for 10-30 minutes, depending on the time you have. 

—Add a little more seasoning after tasting, if you like, and stir well. You might like a little freshly-ground pepper.

—Serve on warmed or toasted buns. I like dill pickle slices on mine.

 

*Making a half recipe would take 1.3 lbs ground round, 8 oz tomato sauce, half everything else. You can use chuck or sirloin; the moisture content and total volume will be slightly different.

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The second half of winter is sooo long

Seeds I started a few days ago are coming up nicely. Actually, one of the SS 100s (cherry tomatoes) took off like a rocket overnight, and already needs to be directly under a plant bulb. I wrote to a Master Gardener at the OSU extension office to ask a couple questions about this.

I have seeds arriving shortly from Jung, as well, and I plan to buy only one plant this year from a garden center; a Mr. Stripey or one of the pink Germans. Neither of these produce a whole lot of fruit, but I love them so.  

MixedflowersThis is a pile of mixed annual flowers. It was kind of an experiment. Soon I'll decide what to do with them next.

Eggcartons

Leggyss100

Purplebasil


first sewing weekend part two

Riches! 

Riches are relative, aren't they? Recently, a friend sent me enough embroidery floss to fatten my box again so that I will need no more through winter. In fact, I worked through the summer to gather clearance materials and thrift store goods enough to last all winter as well, and will need to buy nothing more than some machine thread and possibly some batting. 

But sometimes I look at blogs and watch TV shows in which people have bulging-full cabinets full of fabrics of every description. I'm momentarily envious, then I remember that I have just what suits me; items all carefully chosen, all loved and ready to be sewn with joy. More than that would just confuse me. 

As well, I ran across some old sewing baskets at eBay last night and thought about if I could buy a new one, and then I thought much better of it. What a dumb thing that would be to do. I adore collecting boxes and containers, but must not allow them to outstrip the space I have for them. And I have a great old sewing basket that was my mother's, anyway. So I cleaned it out last night and lined it with a favorite piece of fabric bought a few months ago, and then today I reorganized it all. Here, then, are photos of chaos managed by love. A wealth of color and potential creativity at my beck and call.

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