Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Knitted Wire Cuff Bracelet

Lately I've been interested in knitting with wire. I looked through several books about crocheting and knitting jewelry and was struck by the beautiful and novel designs that can be created with wire. Also, while some jewelry-making supplies can be pricey, wire is relatively inexpensive; perfect for a crafter on a budget. My aunt's birthday was earlier in December, in fact it fell on the day of a horrific Tax Law exam, so I didn't have a chance to get her a gift. I thought a funky knit bracelet would be perfect for her. I knew I wanted to knit a fairly wide cuff bracelet and that I wanted it to be beaded. After knitting a test swatch using 32 gauge wire, I decided the wire was too thin to hold its shape. Off to the hobby store.

I purchased 40 yards of 28 gauge tarnish-resistant silver wire for about $3.75. I also picked up some square, glass beads. I recommend using inexpensive aluminum knitting needles for this project because the wire would be hard on more delicate wooden needles. Before casting on, I threaded my beads onto the roll of wire (because I did not know how much wire the project would take, I knit off the roll). I ended up using 25 beads. Then, on size 4 knitting needles, I cast on 30 stitches. Note: the recipient of this bracelet has thin wrists, so 30 stitches may not be adequate for everyone, determining the necessary number of stitches may take some trial and error. I knit the bracelet in stockinette, trying to keep the wire taut and even. I also finger blocked after every row, pulling and straightening the stitches. I incorporated the beads on purl rows. When I needed a bead, I would simply slide it up the length of wire and purl it into the next stitch. On each beaded row, I used 5-6 beads, spacing them out along the length of the row. I did not strictly count stitches in between, but I tried to eye the placement so it looked "right" to me. On the next beaded row, I staggered the beads, so they were not directly above the previously placed beads. I knit for 1 1/2 inches, then bound off. The purled side of the cuff ended up being the right side, because the beads were more visible on that side.

I chose 1 1/2 inches as a width because it made a pretty bold cuff (and coordinated with the length of the ribbon ends I had purchased), but really this bracelet could be made in any width. My local hobby store sold the necessary hardware as "ribbon ends," but they are essentially folded pieces of metal that you crimp over the end of the cuff. They have a loop on the edge through which you insert a link of a chain. On the other side, I attached a chain ending in a lobster clasp (you know, the hook with the little lever that is incredibly difficult to put on by yourself). You could also use a toggle clasp, but I didn't know the exact circumference of my aunt's wrist, so I liked the flexibility afforded by the lobster clasp.

Knitting with wire could be applied to a wide variety of projects, like chokers or earrings. In addition to jewelry-making, I've also seen wire knit into household items, such as beautiful beaded napkin rings. I was thinking copper wire with green, brown, and burgundy beads for an autumn table. Be creative and enjoy!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Black-Bottom Cookies

Now that the first semester of my 2L year is done and my exams/papers are out of the way, I can get back to posting (and sleeping). As promised in my last post, here is the cookie recipe I developed for my sister's holiday party. The recipe uses both cocoa powder and melted chocolate to get a really rich flavor. Also, I rarely bake with shortening, in fact I make a concerted effort not to, but I feel like chocolate laden baked goods turn out better with shortening. I used to make a black-bottom cupcake recipe with all butter and it seemed like the butter's low smoke-point combined with the chocolate (which is notoriously easy to burn) imparted an unpleasant, burnt flavor to the cupcakes.

Black-Bottom Cookies:
3/4 c. shortening (I like the Crisco butter-flavored sticks)
3/4 c. packed brown sugar
1/4 c. granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 c. cocoa powder (I used Hershey's special dark, a mix of natural and dutch-processed)
2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
4 oz. bar bittersweet baking chocolate (I used Ghirardelli)

Cream Cheese Filling:
4 oz. cream cheese, softened
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1/2 Tbsp. sour cream
1 egg white

First, beat cream cheese with sugar. Add in sour cream and egg white and beat until combined. It may still be a little lumpy. Melt chocolate in a heat-safe bowl. I melted mine in the microwave in 20 second intervals, stirring in between, but you could also use a double boiler. Watch the chocolate closely, it burns easily and it is not salvageable once it does!

For the cookies, I sifted together the flour, cocoa, soda, and salt. In my stand mixer (with the paddle attachment) I creamed the shortening and sugars. Then I beat in the two eggs. The, with the mixer running on low, I added in the melted chocolate. Then I added half of the flour mixture, stirring to combine before adding the second half. The dough will be stiff.

At this point, I refrigerated my filling and dough. It was a little dry in the morning, I would probably not chill it for so long next time. I preheated the oven to 350 degrees. I shaped the dough into balls (each probably a little smaller than a walnut). I took a flat-bottomed glass and lightly pressed the dough balls, slightly flattening each one. Then I pressed my thumb into their centers and filled the depressions with the filling. I baked the cookies for 6-8 minutes. They were really soft when they came out, but after cooling on the baking sheets for a few minutes they set up.

The filling could be made more interesting with the addition of peppermint extract. These cookies would also be great without the filling, maybe with chocolate chips added in. Or white chocolate. Or with pieces of Andes mint. Dried cherries would be delicious. Be creative and enjoy!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Stuffed Mushrooms

My sister hosted her second annual holiday party today and the theme for this year was a cookie exchange. I'll post the cookie recipe later, but first I wanted to put up the surprise hit of the night: a batch of stuffed mushrooms I made as an appetizer. I don't really love breadcrumb-based stuffings, and although crab is a traditional ingredient in stuffed mushrooms, my boxed-mac-and-cheese budget doesn't allow for seafood. I decided to simplify.

Stuffed Mushrooms:
3 lb. button mushrooms (about two dozen)
1/2 sweet onion
3 cloves garlic
1 1/2 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. salt
4 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
3 Tbsp. grated parmesan cheese

First I wiped any dirt from the mushrooms and removed their stems. I also cleaned out the underside of the caps a little (basically maximizing room for filling!). I trimmed the hard, dry bases of the stems off, then chopped them finely. I also finely chopped half of a sweet onion and minced three cloves of garlic. I heated the butter and oil in a nonstick skillet over medium, medium-low heat. Then I added the onions, mushrooms, and salt and let them soften and cook down (probably 8-10 minutes), stirring occasionally. I didn't allow them to brown too much. Then I added the minced garlic, stirred, and allowed it to cook for another minute. Once the mushroom mixture was cooked, I took the skillet off of the heat and allowed it to cool slightly.

I put the softened cream cheese in a mixing bowl and added the parmesan cheese. I mixed it with a fork to combine, then added in the mushroom mixture. I put the cleaned mushrooms on a baking sheet, then filled the cavities with the cream cheese mixture. I baked the mushrooms at 400 degrees for about 15-20 minutes. The mushrooms will give off liquid as they cook, this is normal. Once the mushrooms were slightly shrivelled and no longer so liquidy, I removed them from the oven and transferred them to my serving platter.

These mushrooms could be varied endlessly to suit your tastes. Next time I might start by cooking bacon, then sauteeing the mushrooms and onions in the fat and adding the meat back in before baking. Maybe feta and sun-dried tomatoes? Bleu cheese and dried cherries? I see many mushrooms in my future . . . Be creative and enjoy!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Old T-Shirts, New Rug

This project was sort of a happy accident. I had been reading a book about traditional braided wool rugs and decided I could translate the craft into a braided t-shirt rug for my bathroom. I combed through my local thrift store looking for large men's t-shirts that matched my bath towels. I bought seven shirts for just over $3. I tried to focus on solid-colored shirts with little printing on them. Also, I looked for t-shirts that did not have side seams. Several of the shirts had breast pockets, but I removed them before I began working.

I took my second-hand haul home and eagerly began cutting the shirts into 2" wide strips. Then I sewed the strips together into long strands. The edges of the strips naturally curled in toward the "right" side of the shirt, so when I added a new strip to the strand I made sure to maintain the curve. Once I had a long strand of each color, I began braiding, keeping the edges folded into the center and hidden. After about ten feet of braiding, however, I realized that t-shirts are just too thin for such a rug. My sad little braid was flat and knobbly. Dismal failure. So I pulled the braid out and tried to come up with something to do with all of those t-shirt strips.

I've read about crafters knitting with old sweaters or denim jeans, so I decided to try knitting my t-shirt strands into a bath mat. Our small apartment has a SMALL bathroom, so this would not be a full-size rug. I needed a mat to fit neatly between the scale and the toilet, so I was really eyeing the size when I cast on. I just bunched up my first strand and, using size 15 needles, cast on 25 stitches. I worked in stockinette stitch (knit a row, purl a row, knit a row . . .) for three rows, then switched to another color. One thing that I did differently with the t-shirts was stitch the ends of each strand together when I changed colors. With yarn, I would incorporate the new yarn without knotting and just knit in the loose ends. With the t-shirts, however, I was worried that these free ends would be too bulky when incorporated, so I just seamed the strips together with my sewing machine. This did take a lot of extra time, but I think it was worth it. Also, when I needed another strip of the same color, I stitched it to the end of the previous strip.

I continued to knit in stockinette stitch, changing colors every three rows, for forty-two rows. I finger-blocked as I went, pulling and straightening the stitches after each row. Then I bound off loosely and weaved in the beginning and ending tails. Right off the needles, the rug measured about 16" x 21". I'm trying to block the rug right now (wet t-shirts hold their shape when they air-dry right?), so that the rug will lay more flatly and the edges won't curl under so much. I'll update on that later.

I loved being able to use a material for this rug that so many people overlook and even discard. Also, I definitely can't complain about the price! I think a larger, more colorful rug for my kitchen floor may be in my near future. I knit almost every usable scrap of 6 t-shirts, and part of a seventh shirt. The sleeve seams weren't really a problem and any printing on the shirts conveniently rolled toward the inside and became invisible. T-shirts make a surprisingly thick rug, so this knit mat would be good in an area with a cold floor (basement laundry, chilly bathroom). If you are a better color knitter than I am, consider a rug with an interesting design. Use a knit t-shirt rug to add a bit of interest to any space. Be creative and enjoy!

UPDATE: The wet blocking worked even better than expected. No more curled edges! I just soaked the rug for a few minutes, squeezed out a little excess moisture, then placed it on top of two towels spread on my floor. I rolled it up tightly in the first towel like a jelly roll, squeezing as much water out as I could. Then I unrolled it and pulled out the soaked towel. I spread the rug out on the second towel, stretching it and uncurling the edges until it was even and flat. Then I left it to dry for several days. Voila!

UPDATE #2: A ravelry member, TeriCloth, suggested an easier method for cutting the strips. Using the technique for making continuous bias tape would save the hassel of sewing the strips into one long strand. Here is a link to a youtube video demonstrating the method.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What-To-Do-With-All-The-Potatoes Hashbrowns

I cooked Thanksgiving dinner this year and I thought it was generally a successful event. There were a couple of side-dishes, though, that had to be abandoned for lack of time and kitchen space. I planned to roast root vegetables (butternut squash and carrots) with potatoes and dress them with a balsamic honey glaze. It just didn't happen. So I had to figure out what to do with a five pound bag of yukon gold potatoes. As luck would have it, PBS aired an old episode of Julia & Jacques: Cooking at Home with potatoes as the star ingredient. They made a large hashbrown cake of leftover baked potatoes, cutting it into wedges and topping with sour cream and cheese to serve. I didn't want to make a whole potato cake because my husband would not help me eat it, but I loved the idea of hashbrowns.

I started with four or five small round yukon gold potatoes, washed and trimmed of any bad spots. I cooked them in my microwaveable potato baker (see earlier post) for six and a half minutes. Then I put them on a cutting board and chopped them with my large biscuit cutter. Julia Child would have removed the potato skins first, but I left them on. I heated about 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter in my nonstick skillet over medium-high heat (with just a little olive oil to prevent smoking). When the fats were hot, I added my chopped potatoes and plenty of salt, gave them a quick stir to distribute the butter, then left them alone. To get a good crunchy, brown crust on the potatoes, you have to resist the temptation to stir them constantly. Once they were browned on the bottom, I gently turned the potatoes with a spatula and let the other sides brown. Then I scooped them straight to my plate with a little ketchup on the side (hey, I'm an American girl, what can I say)? I meant to take a picture of the hashbrowns on the plate, but I had eaten them all before I had a chance to!

This would be a great way to use up leftover baked potatoes, as Julia and Jacques did. Also, they used more potatoes and really pressed them into a cake. They cooked them on the stovetop, then transferred the skillet to the oven to brown on top. Then they were able to slice their potato cake into wedges for serving. I didn't have enough potatoes (or patience) for this treatment, so I just left the potatoes in larger pieces, loose in the pan, without flattening them into a large patty. As a variation, you could fry bacon in the pan first, then cook the potatoes in the bacon fat. Add onions or scallions. Top with your favorite cheese. Be creative and enjoy!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Punched Aluminum Lantern

I checked a book out of the library this week called eco craft: recycle, recraft, restyle by Susan Wasinger. It includes some clever ideas for using common throw-away items to create decorative household items. One project that caught my eye was a mock punched tin Christmas ornament made with flattened pop cans. I have always loved the look of punched tin and thought this would be a great way to use up some of the many cans we have in our kitchen (a definite downside of moving to a state with no can deposit). I think that punched tin is most beautiful, however, when it is illuminated by a candle. So rather than crafting Christmas ornaments, I made a lantern.

First, using household scissors, I cut the tops and bottoms from 10 soda cans. I started by cutting around the top edge of the can, then straight down the side, then around the bottom. I evened out the edges once the tops and bottoms were removed. I flattened the metal sheets by gripping the short ends and running them against the edge of a doorframe (you could also curve it over the edge of a table or workbench). The actual lantern only requires 8 cans, but I made an extra "side" to practice on. I wore heavy work gloves when handling the cut cans because the edges are VERY sharp. Once the cans were flattened, I sprayed adhesive on the printed side of every can, let them dry for a moment, then put them together. I ended up with five sheets of metal, shiny on both sides.

For a pattern, I looked at a lot of pictures using Google Images. I was thinking about Celtic knots, but I wasn't sure how that would translate into punched dots. I looked at art nouveau designs, basic shapes like stars and circles, cirlicues, and on and on . . . I eventually saw a picture of a beautiful Moroccan lantern, and it inspired the pattern I drew. I used the metal sheets as a guide for size, then drew the pattern. I traced it three more times. My husband and brother-in-law made a frame for me using an eight foot length of corner molding, cut to the appropriate size with mitered ends.

I affixed a piece of cardboard and a piece of styrofoam to a board. Then I taped down my first sheet of aluminum with the pattern on top. Using a hammer and nail, I punched holes through the cans. I learned quickly that it does not take much pressure to go through both pieces of aluminum and tapping too hard will put a tear in the sheet. Also, as I said above, I made an extra sheet to test out my pattern and I ended up making a few small changes to my design. I eliminated a small circle from the center of my original drawing because that many punches so close together created a problem. Once all of my surfaces were punched, I glued the frame together using wood glue, then hotglued the metal sides in. I used lengths of square dowel hotglued into the four vertical corners to secure the edges of the metal (see picture). I will probably use wood filler to fill in the mitered corners that had small gaps, then sand and maybe stain the frame. Until then, however, the lantern will look great glowing in my window (especially now that it is dark by 5:00 pm here)!

This concept could be used to make holiday-themed lanterns to put on outdoor steps or along your walkway. If you didn't want to go to the trouble of making a frame, I think these punched sheets would even look great matted and framed as art. Maybe punch several cans, then wrap them into cylinders, secure the ends, then wire them along a strand of Christmas lights. Be creative and enjoy!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Cornbread, Chili, and the American Frontier

"We'll get along somehow . . . Why not? We're healthy, we've got a roof over our heads; we're better off than lots of folks."
-Pa Ingalls, On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder

A few weeks ago I got the sudden desire to re-read the Little House series of books. I've been thinking a lot about economy in the home, using the resources available to their greatest advantage. The books provide ample insight into using your environment in a responsible manner (for example, Pa hunts and traps, but not in the spring when the animals could be caring for young, thus ensuring that the game will be abundant in the fall). What I did not remember about the books (I guess because as a child I wasn't concerned about such things) was the strength of spirit of Laura's parents. They moved three young children from Wisconsin to Kansas to Minnesota to South Dakota by horsedrawn wagon, leaving behind a house that they had built by hand each time. They were driven out of Kansas by the government, they lost crops to grasshoppers, experienced harsh blizzards and prairie fires, suffered malaria. Not only did they survive, they were happy and appreciative for what they did have. The books have provided me with a much needed reality check.

Also, all of the frontier cooking inspired me to do a little experimenting in the kitchen. I wanted to make a hearty meal, something that would sustain even the Ingalls family through the ridiculous amount of work they did each day. Cornbread and chili would fit the bill (and my husband would be happy to eat it). I realize that the Ingalls family didn't eat chili when Laura was young, but later in her life she did make the dish for her family on Rocky Ridge Farm in southern Missouri (see The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook). Ma Ingalls served cornbread frequently on the prairie because cornmeal was less expensive than wheat flour. Granted, this is most definitely not Ma's cornbread (which was essentially cornmeal, salt, and meat drippings); this is more like a sweet, dense corncake.

Crunchy and Sweet Northern Cornbread:
1/3 c. yellow cornmeal
2/3 c. all-purpose flour
1/3 c. granulated sugar
2/3 tsp. baking powder
Dash salt
1/3 c. milk
2 large eggs
1/3 c. vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and butter two 16 oz. ramekins. Combine cornmeal and milk, allow to soak 10 mins. In a separate bowl, mix flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Mix eggs and oil into cornmeal mixture, then stir in flour until moistened. Divide batter evenly between two ramekins. Bake 30-35 mins, until puffed and cracked. A tester inserted in middle should come out clean. Run a knife around edges and remove from ramekins to cool. Cut into wedges and serve.

Thick and Spicy Chili:
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes with herbs (I love the Full Circle brand)
1 15 oz. can tomato sauce
2 cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 lb. ground beef
1 onion finely chopped
1 clove garlic minced
2 Tbsp. chili powder
1 1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. cayenne
2 tsp. brown sugar
Dash oregano
Beef stock as needed

In a cast iron pot, saute onions in a little vegetable oil until softened. Add minced garlic, stirring for 30 seconds. Add beef, breaking apart with wooden spoon. Cook until meat is no longer pink. Drain off most of the grease, then add in seasonings (including sugar). Cook spices with meat, stirring, for a minute or two until they are fragrant. Add in tomatoes/sauce and drained beans. Allow mixture to simmer (mine went for about an hour). I added beef stock to achieve the consistency I wanted, which was admittedly thick. If you like a thinner chili, add a larger can of tomato sauce or use juice instead.

This was exactly the hearty meal I have been craving since I started reading the Little House series. The cornbread could be doctored up in any number of ways: cut the sugar and add jalepenos or cheese, skip the ramekins and make corn muffins, even top with strawberries and whipped cream for dessert. Chopped green pepper could be added to the chili. Also, I buy rather strongly flavored dark chili powder, so you may need to play with the spices until it suits your tastes. You may want to forget the cornbread altogether (especially if you are a Southern cornbread purist) and serve the chili in bread bowls. Be creative and enjoy!

PS: I have a few Christmas projects in the works, but there won't be any pictures until after the holidays.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Microwave Potato Bags

My sister and I went to an Apple Butter Festival/Craft Show a couple of weeks ago. There were many cute and clever items for sale, but I was especially intrigued by a booth selling potato baking bags. Essentially, they are fabric pouches that can be used to microwave potatoes, corn on the cob, or asparagus. You can also heat tortillas or dinner rolls in them. I had never seen anything like them before, but my sister said a lot of places sell them in Branson, MO. When I got home from the festival, I did an internet search and found quite a few sites describing and selling the bags. So, what is a compulsive crafter to do? Make one (or two), of course.

I read numerous tutorials before I settled on a method for making the bags. The bags are comprised of a layer of batting sandwiched between two layers of fabric. I bought 1/4 yard of 100% cotton calico fabric. I wanted to buy 1/2 yard of fabric and 1/4 yard of 100% cotton batting, but I could not find the right batting. The closest I found was 87% cotton and 13% poly-something. I ended up purchasing 1/4 yard of prequilted layers of 100% cotton fabric/batting. This actually made the project easier, because I only had two loose layers to work with rather than three. So, I ultimately had 1/4 yard calico, 1/4 yard prequilted cotton/batting combo, and a package of extra-wide, double fold bias tape. These materials were sufficient for two bags, all for under $5.

I would recommend pre-washing and pressing your fabric before beginning. I evened all of the edges of my two pieces of fabric, then cut them in half (across the 9" length, not across the width of the fabric), making four rectangles total. Then I placed one rectangle of each fabric with right sides together, then pinned the shorter sides (see photo to right). Using my sewing machine, I stitched the short sides together, removing the pins as I sewed. This step is easier if you keep the batting side facing up on the machine. Once both short sides were stitched, I flipped the rectangles right sides out, with the batting sandwiched in the middle. At this point, the long sides should still have raw edges, but the short edges should be finished. I cut two lengths of the bias tape to cover the long sides, then using one length of tape, I enclosed one of the long, raw edges in the fold of the bias tape and topstitched all of the layers together (see photo to left). I repeated this process with the opposite side.

Once the exposed edges were covered, I placed the calico (this will be the outside of my bag) facing upward, and folded the right edge in about two inches. Then I folded the left edge all the way over, meeting the fold on the right (see blurry picture to right). I know this seems a little counterintuitive, but this is how the top of the bag is formed. I cut a short length of bias tape (probably 3.5") to create a loop for the bag to hang by; I tucked this loop into the bag, leaving the loose ends sticking out of the side a bit. Then I stitched over the bias tape along each of the open sides, making sure the catch the loop ends in my seam on one edge. The only thing left to do was to turn the bag right side out and flip the flap over the top to close it up.

I read a lot of instructions that said to wash the potatoes but not to poke them before placing in the bag (I guess to avoid starchy potato ooze?). I find the thought of a potato exploding inside my pretty fabric bag less than thrilling, though, so I did pierce the potatoes before I microwaved them. I cooked the potatoes for about 8 minutes, flipping the bag over about halfway through. I would recommend testing the bag in your microwave before using to make sure the power is not too high. As I said before, these bags can be used to cook/heat a wide variety of items in the microwave without plastic bags or cling wrap. Make a set in varying sizes, or use bold fabrics to liven up your kitchen. Be creative and enjoy!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Fine China Storage

The year before I started law school, I worked for a fine china and crystal manufacturer. Needless to say, during my time with the company I amassed a huge collection of china, but I was soon confronted with the problem of storing it. My store sold "china savers," essentially thin, quilted fabric bags that would protect your china from dust, but not much else. I needed something durable enough to move my china across several states, not just keep it dust-free in my sideboard. I found a set of rigid-sided china storage containers online, obviously better than the quilted bags, but with a price tag to match. I eventually decided to make my own storage containers using doctored hat boxes. As a preliminary matter, I'll say that I was hesitant to put this project on the blog because it is rather complicated. The sewing is not difficult and the supplies are not expensive, but there are a lot of steps that must be done in a specific order. Because it is such an involved project, this post will be much longer than usual, so brace yourself.

For the bodies of my storage containers, I bought a set of 3 paper mache hat boxes at a craft store, although they can also be purchased individually. When choosing a size for the boxes, remember that they will be lined with foam, so this should be taken into account along with the diameter of the plates. I also bought 1/2" thick green foam and inexpensive fabric. I opted for plain black fabric with white accents, but you could use any pattern (leopard print, floral, whatever strikes your fancy). I used both spray adhesive and fabric glue for my china storers, but you could use hot glue in place of the fabric glue. I also purchased nylon strap material (like the kind used at the bottom of backpack straps); it's usually sold by the yard. The handles are made from a single length of this strap material that is threaded through the guides (see below) and sewn together into one single loop.

To begin, I cut a round of foam to fit in the bottom of the hat box and a rectangle of foam to line the inside "wall" of the box (see picture). Then, I cut out all of my requisite fabric pieces: three circles and six rectangles all together.
1) One circle should be the size of the bottom of the hat box (this will be part of the interior lining)
2) The second circle is for the bottom of the box and its diameter should be about four inches greater than the diameter of the bottom of the box (when affixed to the hat box, this circle should hang over about two inches all the way around)
3) The third circle is for the lid of the box, and should be about 1" greater in diameter than the lid of the box (it should hang over about 1/2 inch)
4) One rectangle should be as long as the circumference of the box + 1" seam allowance. It should be as wide as the heighth of the wall the box + 2.5" overhang (so use a measuring tape to measure the outside of the box, add an inch, and the depth of the box + 2.5" as the dimensions of the rectangle)
5) One rectangle will be a band to cover the exterior edge of the lid. It should be as wide as the lid is deep + seam allowance. It should be as long as the box's circumference + seam allowance.
6) Put the lid on the box and measure the distance between the bottom of the lid and the bottom of the box itself. This (+ seam allowance) will be the width of the rectangle that will be a band around the exterior of the box. The length of the band should be the circumference of the box + seam allowance.
7) The three remaining rectangles will serve as guides for the nylon straps (see photo to the right). Size isn't terribly important here, they just need to be long enough to accommodate the straps. When I sewed the guides on, I essentially stitched "tunnels" for the straps to go through.

Next, I pressed all of my fabric pieces. I also pressed under the top and bottom edges of the two rectangles that will be bands around the exteriors of the box and lid. I did the same for my strap guides, this time pressing all of the raw edges under. I topstitched the edges using contrasting thread (for looks), but this step isn't really necessary. Next, I sewed the lining together (circle from step 1 above + rectangle from step 4 form the lining for the interior of the box). Once sewn, it should be a cylinder with an open end, like an empty soup can. Then, I stitched the short ends of each exterior band together (rectangles from step 5 and 6 above), creating two "belts," one skinny and one wide. The three strap guide rectangles (step 7), should be sewn into their places before the pieces are adhered to the box. One guide should be sewn to the center of the circle for the bottom of the box (circle in step 2). Two should be sewn to the band that will cover the exterior of the box (on opposite sides of the circle from eachother, see photo). I also sewed buttons and loops of bias tape to the band for the lid, and corresponding buttons on the exterior band for the body (see photo of finished container). Now the pieces can be assembled.

I used spray adhesive to adhere the circle from step 2 to the bottom of the box, taking care to keep the strap guide centered on the bottom of the box. I also adhered the overhang to the vertical side of the box (see photo). I repeated this process for the top of the box, although there was no strap guide on the top to worry about. It's not too important that the edges of the overhang are even, because they will eventually be covered by the finished "bands. " Next, I tucked the lining of the fabric inside the box, over the foam, then glued the overhang to the exterior of the box. Then, I worked the "band" over the exterior of the box, making sure to keep the overhang from the lining and the overhang from the bottom of the box tucked under the finished band. It is important orient the strap guides correctly, lining them up with the strap guide on the bottom of the box. I repeated the process for the exterior band of the lid, although (as mentioned above), there are no strap guides to line up here. I used the fabric glue to adhere the edges of the bands to the box and lid. My last step was threading the nylon strap through the three strap guides, leaving enough excess for handles, then sewing the strap ends together. The length of strap MUST be threaded through the strap guides before the ends are sewn together. Ultimately, once the ends are sewn together, you will have a single loop of material that forms two handles and supports the bottom of the box. Then I worked the nylon loop around until the seam was hidden beneath the strap guide on the bottom of the box.

As I said before, these storage containers could be made using fabric in any pattern you would like, hopefully something that you won't tire of quickly. I'm also trying to work out storage for my serving platters and bowls, so perhaps more posts will come. Hat boxes come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, so this idea could be used to store almost anything. Skip the foam and cover rectangular boxes in fabric for storing photos, cds, dvds. Cover them with baby or child-themed fabrics for nursery or kids room storage. Christmas cards or decorations? Sewing supplies? Be creative and enjoy!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Creamy Potato Cheese Soup

This morning was the first time all week we've seen the sun. We've had rainy, chilly fall weather in St. Louis since last weekend-- the perfect excuse for making a rich, creamy soup. Before we moved here, my husband had started ordering potato soup at one of our favorite restaurants. I decided to try my hand at creating a version he would eat at home. My sister-in-law makes a good cheesy potato soup, so I called to ask her about her method. She couldn't remember all of the steps, but the ingredients were pretty much what I expected. Using her recipe as a starting point, I set to work. Here's what I came up with:

Potato Cheese Soup:
7-8 c. potatoes, peeled and diced (I used 3 LARGE russet bakers, cut into about a 1/2 in. dice)
4 c. chicken stock (if using storebought, a 32 oz. box is perfect)
1 tsp. salt
2 c. milk (I used 2%, but whole milk would make a much richer soup)
2 c. shredded cheese (I used mild chedder)
5-6 strips bacon
1/2 white onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 tsp. flour
Freshly ground pepper
Hot sauce

I combined the potatoes, salt, and stock in my dutch oven and put them over medium heat to cook, covered. I know it seems like a lot of salt, but potatoes absorb a lot of sodium while cooking. While the potatoes were cooking, I cut the strips of bacon in half and cooked them in two batches in my non-stick skillet. Once the bacon was nice and crispy, I removed the strips to a paper towel-covered plate to drain. I reserved two tablespoons of the bacon grease and discarded the rest, wiping out the pan with a paper towel. I returned the reserved grease to the hot pan and added in the chopped onions, cooking them until they were soft and translucent. Once the onions were cooked, I sprinkled the flour over them and stirred it in. This will help thicken the soup later.

Once the potatoes were tender, I removed two cups of stock and several scoops of potatoes. I added the milk, four strips of the bacon (crumbled), a few generous dashes of hot sauce, and the cooked onions to the remaining potatoes and stock. Then I used my stick blender to puree the mixture. You could also use a blender, but it may need to be done in batches. It is also important to take care when puring hot soups in a blender, leaving the lid partially open and covered with a towel (you don't want a volcanic explosion of potato soup in your kitchen).

After I blended the soup, I stirred in the reserved potatoes and most of the stock. I ended up using all but 1/3 c. of the stock, but it depends on how thick you want your soup to be. Also, the soup will thicken as it cools, so you may want to make it a little on the thin side to begin with. I stirred in the two cups of cheese until it melted, and added a few grinds of black pepper. I served the soup and topped our bowls with the remaining bacon. Sliced scallions would also be delicious on top.

My sister-in-law knows someone who adds ham to this soup. It could be made with beef stock and vegetables, even left unpureed for more of a stew. You could also puree all of the potatoes if you find chunks objectionable. Use a more daring cheese in place of the cheddar (gruyere, perhaps)? Maybe substitute beer for some of the stock? This recipe could be a starting-point for your perfect potato soup. Be creative and enjoy!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Flax Seed Heat Wrap/ Care Package

My grandmother has been suffering with pretty severe neck and shoulder pain for the past couple of weeks. Living over 500 miles away, there really isn't too much I can do to help her, but she did tell me that she tried to use her heating pad on her shoulder without much success. I decided to make my grandma a little care package including a microwaveable heat wrap. I did some research and found that although some heat wraps are filled with rice or wheat, flax seed is really the best option. Other fillings can emit an unpleasant, "cooked" smell when heated. I also wanted a wrap that could cover both her shoulder and neck simultaneously; that's why the wrap in my pictures is rather oddly shaped.

I started by cutting my basic shape out of fabric. It is important to use only natural materials that won't melt in the microwave (no polyester); cotton is a good choice. Also, there should be no metallic threading in the fabric. For the descriptions below, I am going to write them as if I had made a simplified rectangular heat wrap rather than the crazy shape I actually made. I cut two rectangles out of the fabric, one for the front and one for the back. I also cut two slightly larger rectangles to serve as a removable cover that can be washed. With right sides together, using my sewing machine set to a short stitch length, I sewed around the perimeter of the rectangle, leaving the fourth side open. Then I turned the wrap right sides out, and began to fill. I put in a small amount of flax seed, then topstitched across the wrap, enclosing the seeds in a small pouch. I repeated the process, filling, then stitching until I reached the unstitched top of the wrap. I filled this last portion with seeds, then folded in the exposed edges and topstitched the wrap closed. This process created a segmented wrap that ensured a more even distribution of the seeds. I also did not fill each pouch to its absolute capacity, as I was concerned that this would put too much pressure on the seams. I sewed the cover the same way that I did the wrap itself, but instead of stitching the fourth side closed, I covered the exposed edges with bias tape.

I tied the heat wrap with a bow and enclosed instructions for using it: Microwave for 3-4 minutes, testing the temperature before applying it to the sore area as it may be quite hot. Also, it is important to keep the wrap from getting wet (seeds + water, not good), so it may be best to store it in a plastic zip-top bag. I shipped the heat wrap with a jar of homemade chicken stock, soup mix, and a bar of lemongrass soap. Even though I am not able to be there with my grandma, at least she'll know I'm thinking of her and hopefully the flax seed wrap will help soothe her sore muscles. The wrap could also be placed in a plastic bag and frozen, to be used as a cold pack. The method for making the wrap could be used to make a heat pack of virtually any shape or size, suitable for any muscle aches and pains. Be creative and enjoy!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Chicken Stock, Chicken Soup, and Risotto!

In light of the country's current economic condition, and the economic condition of law students in general, I am making a concerted effort to be more thrifty. I am especially trying to focus my attention on the kitchen, spending less on groceries and getting more out of them. In this spirit of frugality, I decided to make stock with the bones of a chicken I roasted last week. Disclaimer: Let me just say that although making stock is economical and rewarding, it is time consuming and, in my experience, no one will appreciate it as much as you do. I make risotto with homemade stock and my husband won't even try it . . . I make nachos and it's like Christmas morning.

Anyway, after we ate our chicken, I cut the carcass apart with my kitchen shears and put the bones in a zip-top freezer bag. I also keep a second bag in my freezer in which I store the tops of leeks, the outer layers of the onions, carrot peels, the tops of a fennel bulb (pretty much any vegetable scraps that aren't too gross or insignificant to keep). When I was ready to make my stock, I placed the chicken bones and vegetable pieces in a stockpot and covered it all with water. I also threw in a few whole peppercorns. I brought the liquid to a boil, skimming off the foam that rose to the top. Once the liquid stopped foaming, I lowered the heat until the liquid was at a bare simmer. I also added a little salt (but not much, because I will probably season everything I cook with the stock). I let the stock simmer for about 5 hours, keeping the bones fully submerged and adding more water when necessary. When the bones are cooked in the liquid over a long period of time, they release collagen into the water, which turns into gelatin . More time = more collagen = more flavor. Because stock requires bones, there is no such thing as vegetable stock; it is vegetable broth (see Alton Brown, I'm Just Here For the Food).

After the stock was finished cooking, I strained it through a fine mesh strainer into a 2 quart glass measuring cup and put it in the fridge overnight. In the morning, the fat from the stock had risen to the top of the vessel and hardened. I skimmed it off, then poured the stock into ice cube trays and froze it. Once the cubes were solid, I put them in a gallon-sized plastic bag in the freezer. Now I have homemade chicken stock at my disposal!

Within a few days, though, that chicken stock was burning a proverbial hole in my freezer, so I couldn't wait to use it. First, I made risotto. I melted a little butter in a deep-sided saute pan over medium heat and added about 1/2 c. of short-grained rice (I used pearl rice, but arborio is the traditional rice used for risotto). I added a splash of white wine and let it cook down for a minute. Then I started to ladle in the heated liquid, about 1 1/4 c. stock and 1/4 c. water, two ladlefuls at a time, stirring frequently. Once the rice was just starting to get tender, but still firm in the middle and was absorbing the liquid more slowly, I added in a pinch of salt, grind of pepper, pat of butter, and parmesan cheese. It would have been great with leftover roasted asparagus or sauteed mushrooms, but I just ate mine plain.

Today, I made chicken noodle soup with my stock (pictured above). Onions, celery, carrots sauteed in a little butter. Then I added the stock and a little Italian seasoning. Once the vegetables were tender, I stirred in the noodles and roasted chicken. It was the perfect meal for a chilly, rainy fall day.

Your homemade stock will be way more flavorful than the stuff you buy in cans or boxes, so you may even find it necessary to water it down a little. I plan on keeping three bags in my freezer at all times: bones, vegetable bits, and stock cubes. Hopefully, we'll have hearty, natural, additive-free soups all winter long. I hope this post will inspire you to stretch your groceries a little further by making stock. Be creative and enjoy!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ribbon Poinsettias, Bows, and Pinecones

I made a variety of trims for the pillow boxes I wrote about last week, but there just wasn't enough space to include them in that post. I'm sure there will be plenty more adornments to come between now and Christmas, as I find more random things that look pretty glued to a box. I should mention that for wrapping and bow-making, I love ribbon found in the floral section of craft stores. It comes in a wide array of colors, sheer and solid, and it's usually much cheaper per yard than decorator ribbons.

We are lucky enough to live in a building with large pine trees in the courtyard, so several weeks ago I gathered pinecones with dreams of natural winter crafting. I researched the most common ways to prepare pinecones for crafting, and generally I found two methods: washing and baking. Washing will actually remove the sap, baking melts the sap and sort of glazes the pinecones. I did not find the thought of washing dozens of pinecones with a scrub brush in a bucket full of soapy water very appealing. Instead, I preheated the oven to 200 degrees, lined a baking sheet with aluminum foil, and spread the pinecones in a single layer on the sheet pan. I checked the pinecones after 30 minutes and ended up letting them bake for another 10 minutes because they were especially sappy. After the pinecones have cooled, they can be sprayed with a clear coating (although if you are planning on using the pinecones as fireplace kindling or coating them with scented wax, this isn't necessary).

The bow that I affixed the pinecone to was much more simple to make than it appears. I used 1" sheer ribbon that was not wired, but for a bow any larger I would definitely recommend wired ribbon. I cut a piece of cardboard to the size I wanted the diameter of the finished bow, then I wrapped the ribbon around the cardboard (three wraps gave me three loops per side, six total). I made two marks in the center of my ribbon loops (see picture) then slipped the loops from the cardboard. I cut the ribbon along the lines, being careful NOT TO cut all the way through the loops (about the middle third of the ribbon should remain uncut). I slipped thin florist's wire through the slits and wrapped it tightly around the center of the loops. Then I separated the layers on either side, fanning the loops out. Because I was using unwired ribbon, I flipped the loops inside out to make them fluffier, but this shouldn't be necessary with wired ribbon.

The poinsettia is my version of a project I saw in a Martha Stewart book some time ago, but was unable to find again. To make my poinsettia, I cut three diamonds from velvet ribbon (mine is 2.5" wide). I found the ribbon I used at Big Lots and got a great deal ($3 for 50 ft)! Note, the pictures will probably be easier to follow here than the written instructions. I'll use mountain/valley terms to explain the folds for the poinsettia petals. First, I folded the diamond in half lengthwise, wrong sides meeting, creating a mountain in the middle. Then, I pinched the portion of ribbon on either side of the ridge in the middle (this should create a valley, then another ridge, with the edge of the ribbon on the outside). Ultimately you should end up with three ridges, one in the center and one on each side of it. I used a hot glue gun to secure the folds, applying small dabs of hot glue in the creases; then I flipped the ribbon over and secured the creases on the backside. Once all three diamonds were creased and glued, I folded each in half and secured it with another dot of hot glue. Then I glued the three together, forming a six-petalled flower (although yes, I do realize poinsettias have more than six petals). Then I glued small beads in the middle (I wanted silver to match the pillow boxes, but gold would be more realistic).

These trims could be used in a wide variety of ways. As mentioned above, the pinecones could be placed in a basket by the fireplace to be used as kindling, or dipped in scented wax and used to scent a room. The poinsettias could be affixed to napkin rings (I think Martha Stewart may have done this), holiday wreaths, or pillar candles for display on a mantle. Be creative and enjoy!