The line must be drawn here…

This year, I haven’t made or given teacher gifts, I didn’t handknit anything for my secret Santa recipient, I haven’t made batch after batch of cookies. And I am okay with that, I think. 

In previous years, not only have I given presents to all the kids’ teachers, and aids, and speech therapists, I made the presents from scratch- one year I knit 7 mini stockings, and put Starbucks cards in them. It was good because I totally was able to internalize the structure of sock knitting, with all these mini socks. But I also remember staying up late the night before the last day of school, weaving in ends of yarn.   This year, I decided to cut the teacher presents, for lack of time and energy. 

A noro striped scarf I made for Secret Santa last year- if the recipient has worn it, I haven't seen it...

In previous years, I have made scarves or felted bags for the person I’ve drawn for secret santa at school, and this year I couldn’t bring myself to it.  Part of it was that my local yarn store has closed and I don’t have anything stashed away that would have worked. But I noticed that when I made the decision to skip knitting something for my colleague, a weight lifted off my shoulders.

Similarly, when I decided to skip the cookies, I felt so relieved. We’ve made tons and tons, and given some away, but eaten a lot myself, too. Not having to make several different recipes of cookies, and put together tins or plates for people was a relief.  There is the chance that I will be able to zip my ski pants, too, so there’s another benefit. Don’t get me wrong- we aren’t entirely Scroogey-  we have decorated, and hosted a party, and we have gifts, (some homemade) but having a slightly simpler Christmas has helped us with some peace on Earth.

Gingerbread houses- another project we didn't do this year.

Or at least peace in our own house. I don’t think my kids will look back, and say, “Hey, remember when we made gingerbread houses, and mom yelled at us for putting too much food coloring in the icing?”  This year, I am trying to draw the line at yelling.

What’s the opposite of rice pudding?

The boy’s first grade teacher asked me the other day to make up a batch of rice pudding for their “Christmas around the World” party on Friday.  I thought, “ooooh, I can blog it.” Little did I know that everyone else in the world has blogged it also- google has a ton of extremely “authentic”  Swedish rice pudding recipes. I threw out the ones that called for evaporated milk, and raisins (bleah! the texture!) and also decided I didn’t want to get into separating eggs and making a meringue to spread on the pudding, who cares whether that’s authentic or not?

So, first we weren't Jewish and making latkes, now we're not Swedish, and making rice pudding. I wonder what we aren't going to be next? Chinese, I hope, or Mexican...

            I wound up taking what I know about rice, and what I know about pudding, and making a leap. I can’t really say it’s authentically anything, though. Note- I used 1% milk, because that is what we always have. This would probably be better with whole milk. Also, I just got a brainstorm, what about steeping a Chai tea bag in the milk? Of course, then it would not only be not Swedish, it wouldn’t be great for first graders, either…

Beating the eggs with the sugar, and then adding the hot milk a little at a time prevents the eggs from scrambling.


First Grade Rice Pudding

2 cups cooked rice (you know how to cook rice, right?)

2 cups milk

2 eggs

½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Heat the milk to almost boiling in a large, heavy saucepan. Meanwhile, beat sugar and vanilla into eggs. Temper the eggs by adding about half a cup of hot milk to the eggs and mixing, then add that mixture to the rest of the hot milk.  Now add the cooked rice to the egg and milk mixture. Add all of it to a casserole dish nested inside another dish.

This is a casserole nested inside a 9x13 lasagne pan. I poured an inch of hot water in once it was in the oven.

Sprinkle with the spices. Place the pans in the oven, and carefully add hot water to the outside pan. This forms a water bath, and helps the custard cook evenly. Cook for one hour at 350 degrees, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

            One of the traditional things Swedes do with this pudding on Christmas Eve is put an almond in it about 10 minutes before it is finished. Legend has it that whoever gets the almond in their serving will get married the next year.  That will go over well with the first graders…

So, as I see it, rice pudding is a blank slate- what would you do with it?

Hollow Book Safes

 Just moments ago, I got an idea to make book safes for my nieces and nephews- little books to hide important things in…then I realized I don’t have time to make them before Christmas, but maybe next year. I did come across this extremely complete tutorial for hollowing out a book, though.  Now that I think about it, giving everyone book safes at the same time is a bad idea, then little brothers and sisters know which book holds your secrets…I have great visions of lining vintage books with velvet, though…maybe I just need one for myself.

Angel costumes we have heard on high

My sister-in-law called me a week or so ago, wanting advice. “You’re so crafty,” she said, “and you have such great ideas, I wonder if you can come over and help me with ideas for these angel costumes for the kids’ Christmas play. It’s just that none of them match, and they’re too long…you’re just so creative…” I agreed to come over, and thought of what I’d say, things like, you know, “gold belts would look great… or why not try halos? or how about cutting holes in white sheets?”

It turned out that when I got there, she had about a dozen non-matching costumes for kindergarteners, all of them long enough for the kids to trip on as they walked up to the stage. We looked at what she had, and I said, “In a perfect world, what would you want?”

I traced this template from the best existing costume, then laid it out on rectangles folded in quarters. Zip zap with the rotary cutter...

All of the costumes looked like they had been put together at different times, by different people. Some with genuine sewing skills, and one of them was, no kidding, a sheet with holes cut in it. My SIL said that in a perfect world she would want the costumes all to match, and not be as long, and this one (she pointed to one of the several lying on the floor) had nice wingy sleeves. By the way, she also had a bolt of white muslin. Well.

We figured out that we could trace a pattern with the one with the sleeves she liked, and had enough muslin to cut out 8 at 18 inches long, which was just right on my nephew, who is one of the Angels in question. I took the bolt home, washed the fabric and ironed it, which is always the worst part. In fact, since my SIL agreed to iron all the bits and pieces as they came off the sewing machine, sewing them wasn’t so bad. I checked the internet to see if anyone in the blogosphere had any tips about angel costumes, but seriously, they were along the lines of: gold belts, halos, cut holes in sheets…

SIL brought the kids over to my house the next day and we set up an assembly line, cutting out the necks and sleeves from a symmetrical pattern, like a valentine heart. (The kids weren’t in the assembly line, by the way, they pretty much ran around, swordfighting with sticks, and breaking up the ice in the goldfish pond with a shovel.)  Then I stitched the sleeves and armpits, then the necks. We were going to try to get away without doing the necks, but then one angel ripped it when trying it on, so I zigzagged around each neck hole.

Artsy? or just underexposed? you decide...

All the angels were adorable at the Christmas play, although I didn’t get any pictures- we were late, as usual, to the performance, and they took off the costumes pretty quickly after the show was over.  It took an afternoon of work, but we’ll see the costumes for years as my nephews and nieces work their ways up from angels to census takers to shepherds year by year.

Sigh, in a perfect world, I would have had more time, to hand-bind the necks with silver ribbon, a simple detail that would be invisible from the audience, but I would know…

Making Latkes

We’ve been so busy this past week, that today is the first time we have to make some homemade Latkes. We’re not Jewish, but last year the girl came home with a recipe for Latkes, we made them and discovered how delicious they are with French Onion Dip, and a tradition was born)
The girl just learned how to peel potatoes at Thanksgiving, so she peeled some, and now she’s grating the potatoes. Sigh, my little girl, so grown up… Last year we didn’t have any applesauce, so we just grated some Golden Delicious apple- which was a tasty alternative. This year, we have some homemade applesauce, but I forgot to take it out of the freezer…so we might grate some apple again. Sour cream is also a traditional topping, but now that we have tried French onion dip, I’ll never go back.

2 cups grated peeled potatoes,

1 small onion, grated,

 1 teaspoon salt,

 grind of pepper,

1 tablespoon flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder,

2 eggs, beaten

Soak the potatoes in cold water for an hour, then drain and press out as much water as possible. Mix the potatoes, onion, salt and pepper, then add the flour and baking powder. The flour makes the latkes hold together when they fry, but too much and you lose the crispiness. Add eggs and mix well. Drop the mixture by tablespoons in a well greased, hot frying pan. Spread out with the back of the spoon. Cook on one side until golden brown, then flip. Eat immediately, or save up on a plate in the oven set on 200. The advantage to doing this is that everyone gets to eat together, but the disadvantage is that they really are best fresh out of the frying pan. I think it is worth it for everyone to eat at the same time.

This recipe makes about 15 or 16 latkes.

Simmering stock

For years, when we go to DH’s grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving, one of the aunts has gathered up all the turkey bones after dinner, and given them to the dog, Lady. I always thought of that Far Side cartoon, where a dog is sitting at a table, with a chicken bone sandwich in front of him, thinking, “I think she’s trying to kill me.” A couple of times I voiced my concerns about the poor dog eating poultry bones, but they usually ignored me and gave the bones to the dog anyway. Lady wound up living a long, full life, barking at strangers who drove out to the farm.

            There’s a better thing to do with bones, though, than try to kill your dog. I’m talking about stock, of course. According to Ratio, which has become my new bible, homemade stock is what separates the good from the great. For example, I am doing braised leeks for my contribution to Thanksgiving dinner. So, I chop the leeks, wash the dirt off them, put them in a casserole and cover with broth, then throw in the oven for an hour. I could dissolve some boullion, or open a can of broth. But homemade stock has a feeling to it, and a rich flavor, that isn’t too salty or tinny. It is worth having around. And not that hard to make, with either turkey bones, or chicken.

            So, you have some bones left over (I plan to beg some from our hosts before they give any to the dog. Sigh, Nate is the next generation of dogs risking perforation…) get out the crock pot, and cram the bones in.

I swear I had a photo of the crockpot, but I totally can't find it- here's Alice. Cute, isn't she?

Skin is fine, meat is fine, connective tissue, like in the rib cage or the wings, is great. As the connective tissue breaks down in the simmering water it will create a smooth “mouthfeel” in the stock. The crockpot is the ideal vessel because it stays at just the right temperature. When stock boils, it can evaporate too much water, and scorch. Trust me, this isn’t a smell you want in your house. To the crockpot, add a chopped yellow onion, some carrots and celery. These are for flavor, and you’ll strain them out later. The ratio book says do a 3:2 ratio of water to bones, by weight. I usually get a pitcher and pour water in until the bones are covered.  Although, I did get a food scale for my birthday (thx DH) so maybe I’ll weigh the bones this time.  Simmer all day, or night, if you can stand the smell of turkey soup when you wake up.  I can’t- it gets into my dreams… Anywho, simmer all day, then decant. Use tongs to pull out the big pieces, then strain the stock in a fine mesh strainer. I have a five quart crockpot, which make a little less than 3 quarts of stock. I strain them into 1 quart yogurt containers, pile them in the freezer, and pull one out when I want to make soup. I use it to make rice and beans, as well. One of my favorite applications is just to mix it half and half with spicyV-8 juice. And, of course, making braised leeks for Thanksgiving dinner in Nebraska. After the pan comes out of the oven, it can wait until the next day. I add bread crumbs and fresh-grated parmesan cheese, then bake again until the cheese melts, then put it at the kid’s table. That way, I know I’ll get a good share of it.

Even Sharks Don’t Celebrate Shark Week

So, like three years ago, I got a great idea for a halloween costume- a surfer being eaten by a shark, head first. I had seen a shark hat on the internet, but it was ridiculously expensive, and I thought, I could make that. Then, the boy wanted to be a praying mantis that year, and wanted me to be a venus flytrap…so I put it off. Then last year, I thought of it again, and googled instuctions, or patterns, whether knit or sewn, and preferably, free, of course. Nothing.

 Now, I am a pretty good knitter, good enough to follow patterns, and good enough to figure things out on the back of an envelope. So, I bought some Cascade 220 at the local yarn store, now sadly out of business (moment of silence, please) and examined an extrememely realistic plastic shark out of the boy’s toybox. I started knitting. Like, almost a year ago. What slowed me down was uncertainty about the fins. I wanted to felt the hat, shrinking it on purpose in the washing machine, and I know that I can expect about a 25% decrease in length, but less than that in width, so knowing that, how long do I make the dorsal fins? And the pectoral fins are smaller, but by how much? And the tail, it’s crooked, but is it crooked enough to rip out and try again, or is that the kind of thing felting will hide?

Before felting the shark is floppy and flaccid.

The thing with felting is, there is no going back, so the hat sat in a tote bag for almost a year, not because of a failure of knitting, but a failure of nerve…of will… Anyway, with Halloween coming up again, I figured it was time to do or die, so I took a few photos and threw it in the washing machine. I checked it once in the middle, decided it could go a little longer, then left it in slightly too long. I got distracted. It is really cute, but it isn’t as long as I’d like. Some might say my head is too big. They might be right…

Felted stuff shrinks a mysterious amount- it is hard to predict how it will fit.

Knitting patterns, I have discovered, are hard to write, so if I get organized between now and the rapture, I’ll write it up- this has really great possibilities, of course, thing about the variations of “being eaten by something” costumes. I long for a little blond girl I can dress up as the Princess Bride being eaten by a screaming eel…what about a worm, or a goldfish? Squeeee! Someone needs to have a baby so I can make a goldfish hat!!!!

Oh, wait, someone did have a baby. Excuse me. I have to go buy goldfish colored yarn.

Eyeballs, gills and gums (do sharks even have gums?) then I added lacy picot stitched teeth. I might redo the teeth, except it's kind of a pain.

I don’t know karate, but I’m a black belt in furoshiki

In the old days in Japan, people used to walk to the public baths- in fact, they still might, if this Shonen Knife song is any indication.  People would tie up their stuff in a bundle to take with them. Furo means bath, and shiki means bundle, and because in Japan there is an art to making everyday things beautiful, furoshiki has become an art. There are different folds, different wraps were created, beyond what I think of as a hobo bundle.

oooh, pretty tags, too

People gave gifts wrapped in fabrics, with different ties best suited to different sizes and shapes of packages.
After WWII, when paper became cheaper than it had been in Japan, and it was fashionable to lose the old style of doing things, and adhere to new, furoshiki declined as an art. People wrapped in paper.

As a green American (actually, I’m a white American, but I like to think of myself as environmentally aware) I hate wrapping things in paper. Also, I’m really bad at it. I used to work at a Hallmark store, and hated being on “complimentary gift-wrap” duty. Picky people would stand over me thinking to themselves, “I could have done this better myself” and they likely could have done it better- I was hopeless. Even now, I claim my kids have wrapped the packages at Christmas, because it looks like it was done by a 5 year old.
Last Christmas, there were 15 people opening presents at my family’s celebration. There were 2 garbage bags full of wrapping paper thrown away when we finished. And we even saved out the shiny gift bags and the paperboard boxes. I hate wrapping, and I hate throwing it away. So, I like furoshiki. For some really beautiful pics and a chance to practice your Japanese…

All this year, I have been shopping thrift stores for silk scarves- ARC in my town sells them for a dollar, and sometimes has them half off. The tricky part is finding scarves for boy presents, but bandanas or animal prints are surprisingly common. I guess I’m surprised because I don’t wear zebra print scarves, but they are all over the thrift stores.
My other idea has been to sew gift bags. I have made my daughter a big pink drawstring bag and a couple of smaller bags out of a pink skirt I got at ARC. $2 and I will use them for every gift occasion until they wear out.(picture) Before my son’s birthday, I’ll make him a couple of bags as well.
My goal is to have no paper wrapping at Christmas for my immediate family. Anyone join me in a no-paper holiday?

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