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Sweet, Salty, Crunchy, Yummy!

December 16, 2011

My holiday baking and candymaking extravaganza has begun! We’re not showing our house right now (holidays and pending contract!) so I’ve started on the craziness that happens every year usually in early December. Last night I was up late making the first few batches of pistachio brittle! Last year was the first year I made this brittle, and it was a HUGE hit. It was also a HUGE trial! The idea came from one of the Martha Stewart issues I was looking at last fall/winter, but the recipe in the magazine was a disaster! I believe the ratio of sugar to water was 2 cups sugar to 1/4 cup water. It just did not work. After two tries I took out my trusty Party Nuts cookbook, which saved the day – as usual. If you don’t have it, go get it. And while you’re at it check out author Sally Sampson’s cooking magazine ChopChop.

My recipe here is the same basic, simple brittle recipe you can find in Party Nuts (I’ve doubled the amounts – I know, it’s a no-no, but it worked). I’ve chopped up my pistachios and cut the brittle, which I took from the Martha Stewart Living magazine. The end result is sweet, salty, crunchy and yummy!

Ingredients:

2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup water
3 1/2 cups coarsely chopped salted pistachios

Before each session of candymaking I test my candy thermometer by boiling a pot of water, and making sure the thermometer reads 212 degrees farenheit. If you’re going to rely on your thermometer it needs to be accurate!

Before you get started prep your pan with enough foil to have a hang-over on each side, and spray the foil very well with spray-oil.

Butter a spoonula (or a spoon and a spatula) to stir and spread the brittle, and butter a large knife for cutting up the brittle. Have a large cutting board standing by, ready for the brittle. Finally, chop your pistachios (in the food processor if you can – save your energy!) and measure out the amount you’ll need – have it standing by!

Now that you’re prepared, put the sugar and water in a pan over high heat and boil. (I admit, I’m a bit lazy here – I just plop the thermometer in at the start, and I don’t wash down the sides of my pan with a wet pastry brush. Every time I’ve tried to do that I’ve ruined my candy, so I skip it now.)

Boil at high heat for about five minutes, or until all of the sugar is dissolved and the liquid is clear. Reduce the heat to medium-ish and continue to boil until it reaches about 305 degrees. Pay very close attention once it hits 260 or so, as the temperature will rise very quickly. Every recipe I’ve seen indicates 300 degrees, and some say a few extra work well to counteract humid conditions. I like a little more of the burnt sugar taste of caramel in my brittle, so I actually cooked this to almost 320. You have to watch it VERY VERY close, and take it off the heat as soon as you start to smell that “burnt sugar” smell. It should just be starting to turn cinnamon colored. If in doubt, take it off, because if it goes too far you’re stuck with nothing but a mass of burnt sugar.

Immediately after you take it off the heat, stir in the pistachios, quickly! You’ll notice there are no photos of this step. Dump your candy onto the prepared foil and spread it as quickly as you can into a relatively even thickness. Let the brittle sit for about two minutes, then pick it up using the foil overhang and plop it over onto the cutting board.

Working quickly cut the brittle into square-ish pieces. If it gets too cool it will start breaking rather than cutting. You can stick it in a low oven for a few minutes to soften it back up, or you can just go with the flow and break it up (my choice). Let the brittle cool for another 10 or 15 minutes and you’ll have a lovely treat everyone will be happy to eat!

Crafty Christmas: Glass Ornaments

December 12, 2011

If you’ve been to a craft store around the holidays I’m sure you’ve seen towering stacks of these glass ornaments in a variety of shapes and sizes. Every couple of years I pick some up and make something out of them – usually to attach to packages full of sweet treats. I’m making ornaments again this year, so I thought I’d share what I’m making, as well as some other ideas you might be able to use to make your own nifty (and cheap!) ornaments for your own tree, or for gifts!

I wait until these glass balls go on sale at my local Hobby Lobby before I buy them. It seems that every other week during November and December they’re 40% or 50% off, and it’s worth the wait to me. Other supplies you’ll need depend on how you want to use your ornaments. I’m going to make some for my tree that are very similar to the candles I made earlier this week – using micro beads and double-sided tape and adhesive dots. I won’t walk through that again here – just click over to my earlier post to see the process – it’s exactly the same!

Over the weekend I dug through my mom’s ornaments for a few to use around the house (since mine are all packed away and buried right now). I came across this ornament that I made for my first Christmas in my own place. That year my roommate and I made bunches of ornaments, but this is the only one I can find now. It’s a simple process – white glue drawn on the glass in a design, then sprinkled with glitter. I thought I’d make a few more this year to tie on to packages. I used a small paintbrush and a toothpick alternately to draw on my design on the ornament above, but I got lazy and just squirted the glue right out of the bottle onto the glass today.

I worked in sections, and let the first part dry completely before turning it over and working on the next.  It took about four turns to get the whole thing done, using the container the ornaments originally came in to hold them while they dry. I think last time I rigged a skewer that I could hang them on while they dried – I just wasn’t that organized this time!

I took this picture at World Market – I’m not going to make these this year, but I thought it was a great idea. A square glass ornament has a picture decoupaged on the back (facing forward) and glitter was used on the sides to “frame” the picture. I think this would be a great way to repurpose old holiday cards – I can’t seem to make myself get rid of them! If any of you decide to make these I’d love to see how they turn out!

I have another glass ornament project I’ll be sharing with you later on in the week, when I can dig everything out to photograph it. I’m going to squeeze in as much crafty fun as I can before Christmas! Happy crafting everyone!

DIY Decorations

December 5, 2011

I’ve had big plans to share lots of crafty Christmas decorations with you guys here, but I’ve found myself super busy (as always) with a myriad of holiday doings of late, and I think my plans must be altered a bit. Later this week I will have some ideas for using those glass ball ornaments you find at craft stores everywhere, and next week I’ll have an easy and inexpensive modeling dough recipe and some basic ornaments you can make from the dough. I might even be able to squeeze in a felt ornament tutorial and free pattern – I’m hopeful, but noncommittal.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share a few links to other bloggers with great tutorials and crafty creations. I hope you find something fun to make!

How About Orange is one of my daily online stops. I love her aesthetics and all of the practical goodies (and time wasters!) that can be found on her blog. Right now on the left sidebar you can find links to several years worth of paper ornament posts with directions. I think my favorite right now is the Lacy Snowflake above, but they are all cute, easy and so inexpensive to make!

Angry Chicken is another favorite of mine, and a good place to stop by for inspiration. There is an easy Advent Calendar project up right now. I’ve always loved the idea of an advent calendar, but never have attempted one myself. I think this would be a great way to do it if you have kids. And if you do give stickers (in an advent calendar or otherwise) I recently learned that wax paper is a great accompaniment. Kids can play with the stickers, move them around, and reuse them if they use wax paper.

Young House Love is a great general DIY site – lots of home stuff, which you know I love. They have some great ornament projects, and I particularly love the little animal ornaments. What a fun addition to a tree! I probably love these even more because they remind me of a couple of wreaths I’ve made by spray painting plastic toys. Maybe next year when I have access to my Christmas stuff I’ll pull ours out and take some pics to share here.

One last favorite – Martha Stewart, of course. There are probably millions of ideas on marthastewart.com, but I’m loving these button ornaments, myself. I’m not making them this year, but I have a feeling they’ll show up at some point in the future!

‘Tis the Season to be Thrifty

November 29, 2011

No, for once I’m not talking about thrifting, as in shopping at a thrift store. I’m talking about saving a little money. At my house, spending during the holidays can get a little out of hand. Both my husband and I love Christmas, and love to give presents. Also, there’s the baking, the socializing, the charity drives at work and the decorating. As I’m making a concerted effort to reduce my spending this holiday season, I thought I’d share some of my thrifty ideas here over the next few weeks. I hope you find something helpful!

As I’ve mentioned before, we’re in the process of selling our house right now. This means a good 85% of what we own is packed away. Turns out the Christmas stuff is on the very bottom of the back of the stack of boxes in storage, and nobody wants to dig it out. Since we won’t be doing a ton of decorating (keeping everything understated – festive but not my normal over-the-top) I decided to make a few purchases and repurpose some existing items. I decided one of my purchases would be candles, and set out to find some on sale on Black Friday. My plan was to decorate the lower part of pillar candles with epsom salts for sparkle, and set three or five in a dish I already owned, surrounded with more epsom salts. (Yes, it’s a Martha Stewart thing.) I found a few sales, but none quite as cheap as I hoped. I considered (for about 3 seconds) going to the Dollar Tree, but their candles always seem to smell like crayons – not a pleasant thing.

I finally broke down and headed out to Walmart on Sunday. If anyone has cheap anything, it’s Walmart, right? While I was looking at the pillar candles (and trying to talk myself into buying them because they were still more than I wanted to spend) my eye wandered down to the end of the aisle. Inspiration and relief struck at the same time. I would use novena candles (also called prayer candles) and decorate the glass! I ditched the epsom salts in my buggy and headed to the checkout with five, $1.29 candles.

I’ve actually decorated quite a few novena candles since I moved here to Texas. I know back in West Virginia these candles were not as widely available as they are here. Every grocery store, Walmart and even quite a few convenience stores carry a decent selection. I’ve found them at flea markets too – got a great deal on a case one time. If you’re not in the southwest you should still be able to find novena candles – look in the Hispanic foods section of your grocery store. I’ve glued just about everything to the glass: scrapbook paper, magazine pages, silk scarves, printed cotton, ribbon, glitter and now micro beads.

I did buy a couple of other things for this project. I decided to use micro beads when I came across a set of 16 different colors on sale for $14.99 at Michaels. In addition I bought a larger container of pearly white beads, some double-sided tape and adhesive dots. I only used two of the containers in the multi-pack and about 1/4 of the pearly beads. As I plan to use others for Christmas ornaments (more about that later this week) I’m not counting the full purchase price towards my total spent on this project. Taking all of that into account my final total including tax was $15.67, or just over $3 per candle. These would make great gifts as well.

I started by removing the labels from the glass of each candle. We had some adhesive remover, and I used that because these particular labels were REALLY stubborn. After removing the labels be sure to use a little glass cleaner to remove any residue from the glass so the tape or dots stick well.

Next, apply the double-sided tape or adhesive dots in whatever pattern you would like. Work in sections, applying a little tape, then sprinkling the micro beads, then more tape and more beads, until your project is completed.

When you sprinkle on the beads I’d suggest doing so inside a box lid, or a cookie sheet, or something with sides. Those things go EVERYWHERE! You’ll notice in the pictures I didn’t do that, and I ended up tiny beads all over my coffee table, clothes and carpet. With the dots I found that after I sprinkled I’d scoop the stray beads into a pile and sort of mash the dot into the beads to get all of the edges covered. Work with one color at a time, and be sure to gather all of those stray beads and pour them back into the container to use again.

That’s about it for this project. Depending on how stubborn your labels are, and how intricate your designs, these can take 10 minutes to an hour to complete. I used thick tape on these and relatively simple patterns and knocked them out in about two hours (again – stubborn labels!). Now my candles are lined up on my coffee table, just waiting to be lit up and glowy some night soon.

Pretty Vintage Dishtowels

November 25, 2011

Here is a project I made for a birthday present, but that could also be a quick and easy holiday present, or just something pretty for your own kitchen. I can see these in a gift basket with a cool old cookbook, perhaps an apron, oven mitts and some crocheted dischloths. You could also use them to wrap vintage cookie-cutters, or a loaf of homemade bread, or just about anything.

My friend Sarah and I have more in common than just our names. Among our commonalities is a love for vintage goodies – especially those that are kitchen-related. She had a birthday recently, and my mind went to the vintage kitchen place immediately when I was thinking about what to get her. I remembered she had mentioned wanting pretty dishtowels at some point in the past, so I set my mind to thinking.

I’ve collected a few fun old tablecloths that have great colors, great patterns, and a variety of stains and holes. I found two in my stash that are made out of thick, soft cotton, that I thought would work well as dishtowels. One in particular seemed appropriate to use. I purchased this white tablecloth with the teal mushroom print a couple of years ago, with the plan to make two aprons from it. At the time Sarah & I were baking up a storm trying to start up a small baking business. Although the business didn’t happen, the tablecloth was determined to be Sarah’s in one way or another.

I’ve included some photos and basic instructions below, but really, it’s just cutting a rectangle and hemming it. I added some trim and a loop for hanging, but you wouldn’t have to. I hope you enjoy!

Supplies Needed:

  • dishtowel (for size comparison)
  • vintage tablecloth – stains and holes are just fine, you can cut around them!
  • trim (ricrac, pompom trim, ribbon, etc.) if desired
  • scissors, (pins and a ruler are optional)
  • iron
  • sewing machine

Lay out your vintage tablecloth flat on the ground or a large table. Use your existing dishtowel to determine where you would like to cut out your new dishtowel. Take into account the patter, use existing hems if you can, and avoid any stains and holes.

Pin your dishtowel to the tablecloth, being careful to align the grain of the tablecloth with the edge of the existing cloth. Lay your ruler alongside the dishtowel and mark along the far edge – this is your seam allowance. (Full disclosure – I didn’t align, pin or use a ruler. I tend to eyeball these things, and this was no exception. If you feel comfortable just cutting go right ahead, but you may have a wavy dishtowel when all is said and done.) Cut out your towel.

                                    

Fold over one long edge about 1/2 an inch and with your iron set at the appropriate level press the edge. Steam may help you get a good hem. Then fold the edge over again about 1/2 an inch and press again. This double-fold will keep your edges from fraying. Fold and press the other long edge in the same way, then fold and press each shorter edge in the same way. The corners will be a bit bulky but this is to be expected.

 

Start sewing at any corner, using a regular straight stitch. Be sure to anchor your stitching by reversing the direction for a few stitches as you begin. As you reach each corner again anchor your stitches, then stop sewing with the needle in the fabric. Lift the presser foot and swivel your towel 90 degrees, then continue sewing. Keep going until you have finished your towel.

If you’d like to add trim you can sew it on before you do all of the hem, and turn it over with the hem – this will anchor it well, but will also add a lot of bulk to your seam. I chose to add the trim after I’d hemmed. At first I zigzagged the edge of the ricrac to keep it from raveling, but I decided that wasn’t really necessary for the second towel. I stitched the trim along the width of the towel, in line with the pattern on the fabric. I folded the trim over just once and stitched the edge, stitching through both layers of trim and the hem of the towel. If you’d like to add a loop for hanging simply cut a length of ribbon or trim, hem or zigzag stitch the ends, then sew into the hem where desired.

I hope I didn’t make that seem overly complicated. Let me know if you make some yourself!

Happy Turkey Day!

November 23, 2011

Tomorrow is the official start of the winter holidays, at least in my mind. I will be spreading Thanksgiving out over two days – one with my husband’s family, and one with mine. I am so thankful to have both of our immediate families so close to us! I do wish we could bring a few more people closer – I miss them even more during the holidays. I hope you get to spend time with your nearest and dearest this holiday season.

I’ll be doing a little cooking, and I thought I’d share a quick dressing/stuffing (whatever you call it!) recipe. This year I’ll be using part of this recipe to stuff mushrooms (still making a casserole full for the purists). I’m making it vegan, but you can switch out butter for the olive oil and chicken or turkey broth for the veggie broth for a more traditional dish. Get your bread and cube it a day ahead so it has time to get stale, or toast your cubes for a few minutes to dry them out before assembling this. (I’m using a loaf of garlic sesame bread for extra flavor.) I caramelize the onions for a sweet taste, and I’ve included instructions on making the stuffed mushrooms at the end.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 1 cup chopped mushrooms
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 10 cups bread cubes
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dried or 1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley
  • other herbs, as desired (I like to add savory, oregano, basil, and whatever else I come across, especially when I’m making this vegan, to add to the flavor)
  • 2-3 cups vegetable broth

Directions:

Sauté the celery, mushrooms, red pepper and garlic in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until softened – don’t forget to add some salt, pepper, and a pinch of thyme or other herbs – season at each step and the flavor will be great! Remove the veggies from the pan and add another tablespoon of olive oil and the onions, seasoning again. Saute until caramelized. In a large bowl combine the veggies, onions, bread and seasonings. This is completely safe to taste for seasoning as you go, so take a bite before you bake to check for salt, pepper and herbs. Stir in broth 1/2 cup at a time until well moistened. Bake in a greased covered shallow casserole at 325° for about 35 to 45 minutes. Take the cover off the last 5 minutes to brown.

If you’d like to make stuffed mushrooms clean your mushrooms and remove the stems (you can use the stems, chopped, in your stuffing recipe). Toss the caps with a small amount of olive oil and season lightly with salt, pepper and thyme. Place the caps upside down in a lightly greased baking dish. Add a heaping spoonful of the stuffing to each cap – really push it down in there and mound it up as much as you can – this is about the stuffing after all! Bake at 325° for about 25 minutes. (If you’re not going vegan, add some parmesean, romano or other hard cheese to the top of these – yummy!)

Happy Turkey Day everyone! Go forth and be thankful!

Buffy Slays

November 9, 2011

Most of the folks who know me know of my love for all things Joss Whedon. First, foremost, and especially – Buffy. And since the show was cancelled a while ago (I refuse to acknowledge the actual number of years, for it will make me feel old) my Buffy fixes have been mostly just rewatching episodes over and over again. This, however, is a banner week for Buffy fans living in Austin. This week is just downright Buffy-tastic.

Last night the hubby and I met friends at The Highball here in south Austin for Teen Angst Tuesday and a special live performance of “The Prom” – the senior prom episode from season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was downright awesome. The folks from The Institution Theater went all out, including some hilarious “commercials.” I wish I had taken some pictures, but I was having too much fun and forgot completely. By the way – the food was pretty good too. Hubby and I shared a burger and onion rings, and I tried some oysters from across the table – all yummy.

This weekend is Austin Comic Con and I’m pretty excited, because a whole slew of Buffy folks will be there, including James Marsters – AKA Spike (and lots of other cool characters, but hey – we’re talking about Buffy here). In addition to the slew, there will be some Buffy panels to sit in on. I expect to stand in line a lot, but it will be worth it.

OK. On top of all of this awesomeness I just managed to snag (through a fabulous friend) tickets to the sold out Buffy Sing-Along at the Alamo Drafthouse on Saturday! When I first moved to Austin I went to several of these lovely events, but somewhere along the way some issues arose with rights to show episode, and sadly my favorite sing-along went away. Not only do we get to sing our hearts out, we also get to watch “Hush” – the only Buffy episode ever nominated for an Emmy. And on top of that, Mr. Marsters is introducing both. I am having a complete geek out. I know I’m bordering on unbearable about this (sorry sweetie!) but how often does this sort of Buffy extravaganza happen these days? Not often enough, that’s for sure.