Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mountains to Climb

One of my personal struggles this winter is staying on track with one or two projects. This can be a challenge in both my work life and home life, but at least the heat of a deadline and the prospect of a paycheck goes a long way toward reining in my work. But home? That’s another story.

I began the month of January with a set of goals, which included:
  • Completing the re-fabrication of a purse (the framework wasn’t ├╝ber successful)
  • Finishing a pair of winter pajamas
  • Doing January blocks for my Block of the Month class
  • Finishing fjalar
  • Fixing the living room curtains
  • Progressing on the winter quilt

All the above were to be accomplished before diving in to new projects. (I have a long queue of items waiting to be launched, so trust me, I won’t be twiddling my thumbs for some time.)

It’s January 31. Let’s see how I did:
  • Progressing on the winter quilt - Check
  • Fixing the living room curtains - Check
  • Finishing fjalar - Check
  • Doing January blocks for my Block of the Month class - Check
  • Finishing new pajama pants part of the new winter pajamas - Half-Check
While not 100% done, the list of of things I did accomplish makes it seem as though January was largely successful. This photo, however, tells a different story:

Clearly I have failed utterly in my singular approach to the month.

The winter quilt in-progress is in the foreground. In the background are the parts and pieces of my pajama top, pinned and waiting to have the shoulder seams sewn. Strewn around and on top of it is stash fabric I started sorting through to find material for the February blocks (pattern delivered early), only to realize that many of these fabrics were left over from my herringbone quilt that will be required in whole or part to make the complementary shams, which I hadn’t planned to make before late spring/early summer but now realize need to be a February project so my whole stash will be available for the March BOM quilt blocks and beyond. And underneath all of that are the parts and pieces of my purse, which I’m waiting to begin rebuilding again once I’m done with the pajamas and (now) February quilt blocks because I’m too darn lazy to thread and re-thread the sewing machine only to go back to the first thread when I rotate projects around again. In this case, I need a beige thread for the pajamas, brown for the quilt, and a navy blue for the purse with a heavy-duty needle. Yes, re-threading the sewing machine is my breaking point.

Goals for February:
  • Finish January
  • Stop setting goals—especially unattainable ones.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Kitchen Adventures: Homemade Mushroom Soup

We’re definitely neck-deep in soup season around these parts. It’s too cold for warm weather food, yet nowhere near as cold as it should be for hearty stick-to-your-ribs meals. So a few days ago I found myself scanning the bookshelf for soup recipes, both old favorites, and never-tried.

Last night I whipped up my first-ever batch of homemade mushroom soup, before taking in a double feature of super-campy ’60s-era super-hero films at the local art house.

A scene from Superargo vs Diabolicus (link to YouTube Trailer)

The recipe is from Best-Ever Soups by Anne Sheasby. These recipes take a bit of getting used to because the book was published in London, so all the measurements lead with grams or litres, and end in cups and tablespoons. Some of the ingredients, particularly fresh, aren’t available in the United States. Standard kitchen equipment and techniques differ as well.

This recipe, for example, calls for using a moulilegume or food mill with a coarse blade to blend the ingredients near the end of the cooking process. I don’t own a moulilegume, and frankly I’m not even sure how to pronounce it.

Besides sauteed onions, steamed potatoes, garlic, chicken stock and white wine, the recipe called for 12 oz of mixed mushrooms. I opted for one package of sliced baby bella and a package of bunapi mushrooms.

Parsley is added after it is blended (in my case with an electric blender), and a dollop of sour cream and a bit more parsley is added to the individual bowls. I served mine with two slices of fresh baked sour dough bread from the local artisanal bakery.

The result was supremely delicious, and it was not nearly as finicky to make as it appears! I’ll definitely make this soup again, though next time I might opt for two packages of baby bella’s, and reserve the extra 4 oz to saute and add after the other ingredients have been blended together. Oh, the possibilities...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Progress Made; Progress Unmade

This week has taken many unexpected twists and turns.

I have:

Finished and delivered a favor for a client that has been on my desk staring at me since the summer of 2008. That was both an issue of time and technology, and we had to wait for both before it could be finished. The final product—a hardbound book—was much appreciated, and won me a hug.

Completely frogged Sailing the Hudson Bay. That sounds worse than it is because I was only midway through the second cable repeat on the back, but it still super-sucks. It’s a project that has been cast aside many times since August, 2011, and I think I got lost in what I was doing and what row I was on, which meant the two main cable sections were in disagreement over which row I was on, and somehow I didn’t have the right number of stitches between cables to make the pattern come out right. After futzing with it off and on for a few days, thinking I fixed it and then discovering another issue, I ultimately decided frogging and beginning again would be the kindest thing to my sanity.

Which is important, because in the previous seven days I’d received two sets of calls that completely wrecked my days. One was from an overbearing out-of-state relative who wanted to enlist me in his new passion for a miracle naturapathic cure for my mother for a disease that she hasn’t even been diagnosed with. He seemed to think that if I were involved in this that my mother would be more likely to get on board. He found I wasn’t nearly as helpful in this effort as he’d hoped.

The second set was from a surprisingly persistent phone scammer on a phishing expedition. The first call began innocently enough with the woman identifying herself and saying she was looking for “X”, a person I didn’t know and definitely wasn’t at this number. Which I said, and then hung up, but that wasn’t good enough. She insisted that I had to verify other pieces of information about my business and threatened to send someone over to visit me personally if I didn’t do it over the phone. Every time I would hang up, she would immediately re-dial her Magic Jack. Pick up the phone, drop it on the cradle. Ring.

I refused to give her the information she needed verified, and instead made her tell me the information she had. Oddly, we became disconnected every time she had to come up with information herself, and with the last question didn’t call back again until the next day. In the meantime, I’d done a little googling about this scam and the company she said she was with. Every instinct in my bones had told me that this had been a scam, but that and my refusal to cooperate hadn’t helped in ending the calls. And Magic Jack calls can’t be blocked as dependably as real numbers.

The next day she called and identified herself and asked for the same fictitious person “X”. But this time I was prepared. I said coolly, “I spoke with the FBI about this yesterday, and they are familiar with your scam.” Then I hung up. Oddly, no repeat calls.

We brewed over the weekend, and Sunday turned out to be our worst brew day in the history of beer making in our household. Nothing seemed to go right. The mash failed the iodine conversion test, and no amount of resting changed that. Our thermometer stopped taking correct readings though it looked like it was still working. This caused us to over-cool the wort at the end, and we finally had to halt the process overnight to allow it to come back up to room temperature before we pitched the yeast. And yesterday the extra-active yeast created krausening and out-gassing to the extent it looked like the fermentation bucket might explode. I have never been so glad that the too-cool winter temps in the basement force us to house the ale fermentation buckets in the guest bath shower. If there had been an explosion, it would have been relatively easy to clean up. But thankfully it didn’t and the fermentation has settled down, so this morning we swapped out the airlock, which had filled with wort, with a fresh one this morning. “S”, be glad we postponed your intro to brewing for another day/another brew.

Yesterday I reached a landmark on the new winter quilt. I finished handquilting the understory of the birch forest, which is the design I chose for the hand stitching. When I reached the end I pulled the quilt off the frame and spread it out on the floor to remove the yarn boundary from that edge, and re-secure the length of yarn that marks the boundary between sky and the upper canopy. Before I did that, I had guessed that I had finished quilting 1/3rd of the spread, not counting the border or matching shams. Now it looks like it’s closer to 1/4. But, that’s 1/4 I don’t have ahead of me, so I’ll take my victories—large or small—where I can.

I still love the look of the quilt, and it will look awesome for the winter of 2012-13 when I can (fingers-crossed) finally use it.

This time last week I tried to sign up for a class at the local arts center on dyeing techniques for fabric, thinking this would be an excellent overview that I could then apply to art quilts and other projects in the future. Unfortunately, the arts center had cancelled the class because only two people had signed up before I called. Rather than ask if I wanted to sign up for the class when it’s offered again in March, the told me to take a class called “Fabulous Fascinators,” which they assured me would be very similar. I asked if the woman knew what a fascinator is, and she said that she did, and that it’s a hat. Right. So my question is: how on earth can they believe and tell people that a class on hat-making, which includes techniques in fabric folding and manipulation, is at all similar to a class in fabric dyeing? I passed. And in my opinion, fascinators are so Royal Wedding 2011. In other words, over.

I guess that means my Thursday evenings continue to be free, which is good since we’ve been watching lots of great television lately. Doc Martin is a new favorite, season 3 of Justified has begun on FX, and we’re about to wrap up the first season of Boardwalk Empire on DVD.

Monday, January 23, 2012

One Artisanal Knot* : The Figure Eight Noose

Sadly, I grew up in a knot-deprived home. Even though my father was a Scout Leader and sportsman, and I was Brownie, Girl Scout, and Camp Fire Girl, I never learned to make anything more elaborate than the knots to tie my shoes, and a granny knot.

For most of my life this hasn’t been a huge concern. But this lack of skill/knowledge really showed itself when it came time to stringing the Roman shades for our new home. Sure, granny knots secured the string to the bottom blind panel well enough, but they absolutely couldn’t hold up to the constant wear and abuse of the pull cord used to raise and lower the shade.

We put up with falling-apart pulls for the first few years, but a frayed and broken string finally forced us re-string the living room shades. And since we were re-stringing anyway, re-visit the options for knots using an actual book.

Requirements: a strong knot that would actually become stronger and tighter as weight is applied, and a knot that would have the waste or cut end traveling upward instead of down from the knot. The Figure Eight Noose seemed to fill the bill, and is made to attach rope to a carabiner. Any knot that is used in rock climbing is a knot to be respected, in my opinion.

The reason this knot is called the Figure Eight, is that you’re basically making an “8” with the cord.

See the eight?

And finally put it tight.

The noose closes up as weight is applied, and the final knot is well-concealed within the wooden bead I use as part of my pull.

Three down, a dozen more to go...

*A nod to Portlandia season2. For my local peeps who have never heard of or seen Portlandia, the Portland they depict has a lot of similarities to our town...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Finished Object: Fjalar

I gotta admit it: there were times I wasn’t sure this was going to happen.

Oh, cables I love. Super wooly deep-winter sweaters I love. Elsbeth Lavold designs I love. But this particular sweater was swimming with trials and tribulations. Even when I got to the final wrap-up of sleeves, it turned out that the sleeves knit as-directed, for a myriad of reasons, did not work and had to be frogged and re-knit several times.

Water under the bridge. The baby’s been born and I’ve worn it on the two coldest days of the year with nary a shiver.

My personal critique of the design is that I’m not a huge fan of this particular shoulder/sleeve shaping. And, though I like the collar details and shape, the back of my neck would have appreciated a softer fiber choice.

The wool is Brown Sheep Lanaloft Worsted bought during my LYS’ annual sidewalk sale several seasons ago for a whopping $40 total. It’s rare anymore to knit a sweater for less money than it costs to buy it new. Other than my time in it, that was definitely true this time around.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Converted Fan of Spider Silk; Still Not a Fan of Spiders

Until this morning I had never heard of a spider that spins golden silk. But here’s vivid proof, in a cape made from silk produced by over a million Madagascar Golden Orb spiders over seven years, now on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

A short radio interview about the process of collecting, and the silk itself, can be found here.

I’m particularly fascinated with the fact that several grams of spider silk placed in the interviewer’s hand seems to give no sensation of weight.

The fact that the beautiful silk is spun by the female spiders, and the role of male spiders is primarily lunch, surprises me not at all.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Kitchen Adventures: The Little Sweet Shoppe around the Corner

With a few exceptions, homemade candies have never held a prominent spot in my family’s kitchen. Growing up I recall making peanut brittle, and peppermint bark, and very occasionally chocolate-covered pretzels. Everything else “sweet” fell under the heading of baking. So imagine my surprise when an article in the December 2010 Better Homes & Gardens magazine plunged me headfirst down the candy-making rabbit hole.

Three recipes from this issue really got my creative juices pumping, and I had had every intention of making all three things to bring along to family holiday gatherings that year. Unfortunately, I suffered a major cooking set-back on the first item I tried, and didn’t have the heart, time or fortitude to plunge into the rest. And I had absolutely no one to help me troubleshoot it except to say “yes, I hear that even things like humidity will cause them to fail...”, which, if you’re wondering, is no help at all.

Twelve months went by, but I never forgot about the candy. I was determined I would try one more time.

Eggnog Marshmallows:

My first-ever marshmallows. They turned out very fantastically, and are exceptionally sweet, so a single marshmallow makes a super dessert. I topped them with melted white baker’s chocolate, to which I added a bit of vanilla. I think next time I would omit the chocolate, or maybe use a semi-sweet dark chocolate to off-set the sweetness of the marshmallow. These make an obnoxiously huge mess, so are off-limits as day-of making when company is coming over.

BHG suggests topping them with white nonpareils, but I found them to be non-existent in this part of the world (and unnecessary, really).

Pink Grapefruit Gumdrops:

This was my first attempt at grapefruit gumdrops, but my second attempt at gumdrops. This is a “Test Kitchen Variation” for the main recipe: coconut gumdrops. My 2010 fail was on those coconut gumdrops. More on that below.

I followed the instructions for the grapefruit gumdrops to the letter, except I used the food coloring I had on-hand, which happened to be neon pink. Awesome choice, in my opinion. The coconut sugar coating could have been ground up more, but I haven’t had a chance to replace my blender (burned out the motor earlier in 2011), and my stick blender was throwing coconut and sugar all over the kitchen. Amazing tart flavor, set well, and definitely something I will make again. Store-bought gumdrops? Never again!

Coconut Gumdrops:

Second attempt, and finally a success in 2011. The first time it never set up. In retrospect, I think the fail was due to a can of coconut milk that had set on the shelf too long. It was still within its sell-by, but had separated. Since I had never used coconut milk before, I had no frame of reference to know there was a problem when I opened the can. The coconut gumdrops are a very mild flavor, and not terribly coconut-y, but are delicious none-the-less.