Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Illuminating Autumn

I have Halloween decorations. Lots of Halloween decorations. So, it's always a little sad for me on November 1st to be sitting in an apartment full of skulls and webs and jack-o-lanterns that I have to pack away, with no new decorations to put out until the Christmas season. My husband doesn't let me put out the Christmas tree and garlands until December (I think he secretly likes our apartment sparse and boring, the way it is 10 months out of the year), so those four weeks are torturous for me. This year, I decided that I need some general autumn-themed objects, something to span the decorating void between Halloween and Christmas. Enter Hobby Lobby. The glass pieces (vases, fishbowls, etc.) in their floral department were half off this week and I still had most of a bottle of etching cream left from my last minute wedding present (see first post). I settled on a harvest-themed luminary.

I selected a medium-sized glass fishbowl, although a display of several smaller bowls would be interesting, too. I collected leaves of varying sizes and types outside, including oak, maple, and birch. Using my Cricut and some leftover vinyl, I cut out the phrase "share the harvest," with the words "share" and "the" at 1.75" and the word "harvest" at 2." As I mentioned in my first post, you could use contact paper for this step, but contact paper will not mold as easily to a spherical surface; consider a straight-sided or cylindrical vase for this project if using contact paper. Also, craft stores frequently carry stencils made specifically for glass etching, although I have never tried them. After the lettering was cut, I traced the leaves onto the paper backing of the vinyl, drawing in a simplified version of the veins of each leaf. I cut the leaves out with scissors (cutting the thin veins out with cuticle scissors). I pressed transfer tape over the each vinyl leaf, pressing lightly around the edges and veins. I HIGHLY recommend using transfer tape when using vinyl for intricate designs; the tape will ensure that the shape of each leaf (or letter) is retained and placed exactly where you want it. This step will save you a lot of headache. After the vinyl was affixed to the tape, I carefully peeled off the paper backing, leaving the adhesive side of the vinyl exposed. Then, I carefully positioned each word and leaf over the glass, making sure they were in the correct spot before allowing the vinyl to make contact with the glass. I applied each element in this manner. Once all of my vinyl pieces were correctly positioned on the glass, I cleaned the bowl with a streak-free cleaner, to make sure the etching cream would be in direct contact with the glass. Then I used a paintbrush to apply the etching cream, making sure to get in every corner of each letter and the veins of the leaves. I switched to a larger brush to cover the more open areas of the bowl. As always, when working with etching cream read the safety instructions and take appropriate precautions.

I should note that this project would be much less time consuming using an etching bath. Instead of a cream, it is a liquid that is poured around your glass object. It would probably produce a much more evenly frosted piece in a much shorter period of time. Etch bath, however, is more costly than the cream (which I already had on hand). Also, I sort of like the mottled look that hand brushing the cream gave my glass, it's in keeping with the rustic autumn theme I have going. After the whole bowl was covered, I let the cream sit for 5 minutes, then rinsed it under running water and cleaned the it (inside and out) with the glass cleaner again. After it dried, I went back over it with a small paint brush and extra cream to fill in the small spots that didn't get etched the first time. Then another rinse and wipe-down. One small votive inside, and voila, one harvest-themed luminary.

Although I wanted to make a piece that was not holiday specific, this project could be easily (and awesomely) adapted for Halloween or Christmas. Tombstones, ghosts, and a full moon would all be easy shapes to cut out that would look great with a flickering candle behind them. Small round votives could even be etched to look like mini Jack-o-lanters. Phrases like "Boo" or "Spooky" for Halloween. "Joy" or "Ho Ho Ho" for Christmas. The possibilities are endless. Be creative and enjoy!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Making Fresh Pasta

I think my husband and I consume more pasta annually than the combined population of an entire Italian village. Sauced, cheesed, baked; my husband even puts pasta in his stir-fry (if you can still call that mess stir-fry). So, it seemed only natural to give pastamaking a go. I looked over many recipes for fresh pasta, but eventually came up with a combination that seemed to be a happy medium of the recipes I read. Here it is:

Fresh Pasta
3 c. all purpose flour
3 eggs
3 Tbsp. water (or as much as necessary)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. salt

I put the flour in the bowl of my food processor and mixed the remaining ingredients in a glass measuring cup. With the processor running, I steadily poured the egg mixture in and let the processor run until a ball began to form and pull away from the sides of the bowl. I dusted the inside of a glass bowl with a little flour, then emptied the contents of the food processor into the bowl. I gave the dough a few quick turns, kneading it several times with my hand. It should not be tacky enough to stick to the fingers; if it is, knead in more flour. The dough should rest, covered, in the bowl for an hour before rolling.

I had decided to make cheese ravioli, so while the dough rested I made the ricotta filling:

Ricotta Filling:
1 c. ricotta cheese
1 egg
1-2 Tbsp. fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine
Pinch salt
Pinch nutmeg (optional)

After the pasta and I had both rested for the appropriate amount of time, I divided the dough into two portions and began to roll the first half in my pasta machine. You could also roll the dough by hand, but I like mine really thin and, unfortunately, my arms are really weak. Using a pasta machine, you should start on the largest setting out, decreasing the size until the pasta is the thickness you like. Once the pasta is thin enough, you can make it into your desired shape. Cut it into wide strips for lasagna noodles, thin strips for fettucini, or thinner strings for spaghetti.

Using the ravioli roller on the pasta machine and my filling, I made about 65 ravioli, but with more thinly rolled pasta this recipe could make closer to 100 ravioli. I also used some of the dough to make tortellini. My husband had never tried it, so I made a dozen or so just so he could try them. Once the dough was rolled to my desired thickness, I cut it into squares. I put a SMALL bit of filling in the center of each square, then brushed the edges with water. I folded the dough into a triangle, then wrapped the long side (or hypotenuse for the mathematically inclined), around my index finger. I brought the two corners around my finger and pinched them together, then folded the top point down (see picture, showing each step).

When the pasta was ready to be cooked, I put a pot of salted water on to boil. Once the water came to a rolling boil, I placed the ravioli in, one-at-a-time. They only take a few minutes to cook and, conveniently, they float when they are done! Also, if you make more pasta than you are ready to cook, filed pastas could be frozen individuually on a cookie sheet, then put them into a Ziploc bag. String pastas could be air-dried over a piece of dowel with each end resting on the back of a chair and stored in airtight containers.

Needless to say, after all of this hard work, we engorged ourselves on ravioli. I had mine with butter and parmesan and my husband tossed his with a little marinara. Perfect.

Note: Homemade pasta is something of a blank slate for the creative cook. You could roll fresh herbs into your sheets of dough, or mix roasted garlic or sun-dried tomatoes (or both!) with your dough. Butternut squash puree filled tortellini with brown butter and sage? Sweetened ricotta filled ravioli sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar for dessert? Any flavors you love could be integrated into your pastamaking foray; that's the fun of it. Be creative and enjoy!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Handmade Lye Soap

Two summers ago, I took a basic soapmaking class at a local soap supply store. After making my first batch in class, the compulsive do-it-yourselfer in me knew I had to buy the ingredients to make more soap at home. My first solo attempt at lye soap, made at home in my parents' kitchen, was scented with orange essential oil and had swirls of cocoa through it (because I heard chocolate was a good emollient). I was so confident in my abilities, I made a double batch of soap of orange-chocolate soap. Unfortunately, I failed to take into account the fact that it would literally take my husband and me two years to use all of the soap from that first batch (even though it is really recommended that you use homemade soap within a year of making it because it has no added preservatives). I did give several bars to my grandmother, who is now hooked on it because it doesn't burn the sensitive skin of her face. Now, finally, we are down to our last couple of bars and I can justify another batch.

The process that occurs when soap is formed, when fats mix with the alkaline lye, is called saponification. Handmade soap is made through a different process than commercially produced soaps. The method of soapmaking I learned is called "cold process," where saponification takes several days and glycerin, a biproduct of saponification, is left in the finished soap. Glycerin is an emollient that is beneficial to the skin, and it is frequently removed from commercial soaps. (Norma Coney, The Complete Soapmaker: Tips, Techniques & Recipes For Luxurious Handmade Soaps).

I will say that buying soapmaking supplies is a rather hefty initial investment. Because the recipe I used is from The Soap Barn Co., LLC (see Note below) and is probably proprietary, I won't post it here. There are numerous websites, however, with free basic lye soap recipes, like the one found here. Coconut oil and palm oil may seem pricey, but they really do make beautiful, richly-lathering bars. I bought bulk amounts of both and still have oil left after three full batches (almost 10 lbs. of soap). Handmade soap in specialty shops usually costs more than $5 per bar and you can make your own for a fraction of that price, depending on the type of oils and additives you use. I should also say that, as the name suggests, making lye soap requires the use of, you guessed it, lye (a.k.a. sodium hydroxide). Lye, when mixed with water, creates an alkaline solution that can cause burns if it comes into contact with exposed skin (if you've seen the movie Fight Club, you know what I'm talking about). The fumes that are produced when the lye and water are combined can also be irritating, so don't inhale them. When you purchase lye, be sure to read all safety instructions before working with it and wear appropriate protective gear. Besides, rubber gloves and safety goggles really get you into the mad-scientist spirit of soapmaking, and that's half the fun!

First I prepared my mold, which was just a clear, plastic, shoebox-sized container. I used a cheap garbage bag as a liner for the box. Then I measured the lye into a plastic pitcher and combined it with the appropriate amount of water, according to the recipe I was using; once mixed, the solution heated up rapidly. While I waited for this to cool down to the correct temperature (I've read temperatures ranging from 80 degrees Farenheit to 110 degrees Farenheit, so again follow your recipe; my target temp was 80 degrees), I measured the oils into a stainless steel pot. The alkaline mixture can corrode some metals, so use caution when choosing a pot to mix in (I got my stainless stockpot at The Salvation Army Thrift Store for the sole purpose of soapmaking); use either stainless or enamel. While the lye solution was still cooling, I heated the oils to the appropriate temperature. The idea is for the lye solution and the oil mixture to be the same temperature when combined. When the temperatures were correct, I slowly mixed the lye solution with the oils using a rubber spatula, then it was time to stir. You can stir by hand, which takes a L-O-N-G time, or use a handheld mixer or immersion blender (my personal favorite). Using my stick blender, I mixed the soap until "tracing" occured (or "trailings" appeared), which essentially means that when a spoon is drawn through the mixture, lines will stay on the surface of the mixture, remaining distinct. Sometimes this is subtle and requires a careful eye to see, although with a stick blender it happens rather quickly. Once trailings appeared, I mixed in my essential oil (I used lemongrass) and poured the contents of the pot into my prepared mold. I snapped the lid onto the plastic shoebox, wrapped it in a blanket and put it upright in the closet, so it would be out of the way in our small space. Insulating the soap with a blanket slows down the rate at which it cools, preventing it from separating.

I allowed the soap to sit, covered and wrapped in a blanket, for a full day. Then I uncovered the mold and left it exposed for another day. After the second day, I pulled the block of soap out of the mold and cut it into bars. The size, and even shape, of your bars are a matter of personal preference; I made generous 4 oz. bars that measure about 2" x 3". The bars will need to cure for several weeks. I stood mine up vertically (as pictured) on a wire rack and will leave them to cure for probably 4 weeks. In about a month, my husband and I will have beautiful, lemongrass-scented soap.

Note: The Soap Barn Co, LLC is an admirably socially and evironmentally conscious business. I enthusiastically encourage anyone in the Genesee County, MI area to take a class with Ms. Grant or stop by her store to be inspired by the many oils, additives, and prepared soaps. For those who are not in the Gen. Co. area, supplies may be ordered through The Soap Barn Co.'s website at and shipped to you. Once you learn the basics of soapmaking, there are endless combinations of essential oils, fragrance oils, herbs, flowers, etc. that can be used to make your uniquely perfect bar of soap. Be creative and enjoy!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Remounting Window Treatments

One of the worst parts about apartment living is the constant feeling of living in an off-white world. The walls are off-white, as is the carpet, and the linoleum flooring in the kitchen and bathroom. And sure, the landlord is fully amenable to the renter investing the time and money to paint the walls interesting and lively colors, as long as the renter is willing to invest an equal amount of time and money to paint them back to white one day. So what's a girl to do to break up the monotony of this stark, apartment existence? Well, in our first apartment, I decided that window treatments were a good solution. Fabric comes in an endless variety of colors, patterns, and textures, it's portable, and when it's time to move the only labor required is patching up a few screw holes.

I hadn't really considered window treatments a serious possibility because beautiful, luxurious home decor fabrics didn't really fit into our shoestring budget. I knew that twenty dollar per yard fabric was not really an option for my husband and me. I happened to get lucky one day, however, when I went to the yard sale of an interior designer in my husband's hometown. Frugal crafter heaven! She was selling her leftover fabrics for next to nothing, so I ended up buying a partial bolt (probably 4-5 yards) of rich burgundy and ivory striped fabric for less than $20. I found a coordinating burgundy fabric with a subtle stripe pattern on the clearance table at a big box craft store. Although I got lucky with the yard sale, I wonder if other local interior designers would be willing to sell their leftover fabrics at heavily discounted prices. This may be a great way to get luxe fabric on a small budget.

Once I had the fabric, I needed the know-how. I researched window treatment how-to books and eventually purchased The Complete Photo Guide to Window Treatments by Linda Neubauer. It was a little pricier than some of the other available guides, but I definitely think this book is worth the price difference. Using the guide and a lot of muslin, I finally made swags that draped the way I wanted (or as close as a novice like me could possibly get them). My husband and I bought lumber and hardware to build a cornice board to mount the swags on, and after a couple hours of staple-gun wielding my window treatment was complete. Although the swags were a little bit lopsided, and a little bit small, we were happy to have a splash of color on the wall.

When we moved to another apartment, however, we had to leave the valance at my parent's house. Just this week my dad pulled the staples out of the fabric swags and cut the cornice board to fit our new living room window. Although our window now is nearly a foot shorter than our old sliding door, I decided to use all three swags and the side jabots when I remounted the fabric. I started from the outside, working my way towards the center. The side jabots went down first, as seen in the picture. Because my fabric is striped, it was really important to make sure the pattern was well-aligned vertically (no crooked stripes!). I lined up the back edge of the fabric with the back edge of the cornice board, then worked my way forward and around the front edge. Then I did the side jabot on the opposite end the same way. Next came the left and right swags, then the third swag centered over top of the other two. I lifted the cornice onto the edge of my ironing board once all of the fabric was mounted. By hand, I recreased the folds of each swag, adjusting them until they laid the way I wanted. I used the steam setting on my iron and lightly steamed each crease (I'm not sure if this really did anything useful, but it made me feel rather professional). My husband helped me mount the window treatment in our living room using L-brackes screwed into both the wall and the top piece of the cornice board. Voila, no more hospital walls!

With a little bit of patience, basic sewing skills, a good iron, and lots of muslin it's possible for anyone to make basic window treatments. Like mine, they may not look perfectly professional, but it is a satisfying undertaking (and a whole lot cheaper than paying someone else to do it). Also, moving to a new place does not have to be the death of any window treatments you already have. Don't be afraid to rip out the staples and give remounting them a try. Be creative and enjoy!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Home Canning and a Note About My Purpose

In addition to tutoring for the LSAT this summer, I worked part-time at a farmer's market. The particular farming family I worked for is known throughout Illinois and the St. Louis area for their delicious peaches and apples. Toward the end of the season, I bought a peck of beautiful Crest Haven peaches (and got a great deal on them thanks to my employee discount). I should preface this by explaining that every year my family members try to come up with a Christmas gift for my endearingly crotchety 96 year-old great grandfather, something that will not be terribly offensive to him. We all thought my mom had finally done it two years ago when she gave him a very plush, soft faux fur blanket until he opened it and asked, "What the hell is this for?" After my grandmother explained that it was a blanket for him to use while watching TV, he promptly handed it back to my mom claiming, "I don't need that." My grandmother visits Great Grandpa once a week, though, and tells me that he has a small bowl of peaches with his lunch everyday. The peaches we sold this summer are better than anything they sell in the supermarkets at home and vastly better than the peaches that come in cans. Maybe my great grandfather won't reject home-canned peaches outright, and I'm sure I'll have some takers on the jam.

My loaded peck of peaches made six quarts of slices in light syrup and a little more than six half-pint jars of peach jam. This was only my second solo canning mission, so I used my trusted guide, The Complete Book of Home Preserving by Ann Serrane, a gift from my mother's mother. My copy is from 1955, and I figure if the instructions were good enough for preventing botulism then, they are good enough for me now. I'm also told that the Ball Blue Book of Preserving (from the Ball Company) is a great guide. Old favorites and more trendy recipes for the chic, modern home-preserver (tapenade, anyone?).
My husband and I live in a rather tight apartment, though, so I don't have the closet space to store a lot of canning paraphenalia year-round. I made a makeshift canning rack by piercing a disposable pie tin with holes and placing it in the bottom of my stockpot. I was able to steam process three quarts or four half-pints at a time this way.

In addition to peach products, I made about 4 and 1/2 quarts of tomato sauce. I was able to score some free (but admittedly yucky) tomatoes on their way out to the dumpster one day. I'm sure most markets pick through their produce on a daily basis and might be willing to donate overripe fruit (including tomatoes) to an impoverished but ambitious home-canner. I removed bad spots and cores from about 50 pounds of tomatoes. I cooked the good bits with a little salt until the skins were loosened, then I strained the seeds and skins out of the pulpy juice. I did reserve some quartered tomatoes, which I left in large pieces and peeled the skin from. As I cooked down the strained juice, I added these larger pieces of tomatoes in to keep some texture to my sauce. Sauteed onions, garlic, fresh herbs, salt, pepper, and sugar (yeah, I know, but I like it sweet) rounded out my sauce. Beautiful on pizza!

I wanted to end today by writing a little bit about the purpose of my blog. I love creating and crafting and I want to keep a record of the things that inspire me. Hopefully, this will in turn inspire you. It is not really my intention to provide step-by-step instructions for you to create an exact replica of whatever I have done (although I am happy to provide more detailed instructions for any project). Rather, I would like the projects to be a jumping off point for fellow crafters, something that can be molded to other purposes. Always feel free to contact me, however, with any questions on project specifics; I'll do the best I can, although most of the time I'm just winging it! Be creative and enjoy!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Monogrammed Mani/Pedi Kits

Writing about my last-minute wedding gift yesterday got me thinking about some of the projects we made for our own wedding. I really wanted our bridal party to have special, but functional gifts. The groomsmen were pretty easy: cufflinks, ties, and crystal decanters and DOF glasses. The bridesmaids, on the other hand, were a little more difficult to buy for. When my husband and I were planning the wedding, I was very opposed to spending money on useless keepsake junk (does anyone really need a paperweight with someone else's name and anniversary on it? Really?). So, I bought each of the girls (a pretty heavy drinking lot, by the way) a set of colored, polka-dotted wine glasses, but needed something to go with. A fortuitous trip to the Shipshewana, Indiana fleamarket gave me an idea.

There are numerous booths at the fleamarket that sell very inexpensive (but good quality) nail clippers, tweezers, nail files, etc. I purchased one of everything for each bridesmaid (and myself of course!) and decided to make manicure/pedicure kits. I bought super discounted $1/yd. fabric, binding tape, grosgrain ribbon, and clear vinyl (which is surprisingly inexpensive at fabric/craft stores). I also purchased iron on letters to put monograms on the completed kits.

I basically started by laying out all of the items I had bought with the correct spacing between them. I determined the size of fabric I would need to cut, taking into account the space I would lose to stitching. I opted for a rectangle that would have manicure tools on each end, then would fold in half and roll up (see pictures: the crease in the center is where the rectangle would be folded in half, then rolled up from bottom edge in photo to top). I cut the fabric first (which was a rather thick, home decor canvas), then cut plain white muslin as a liner; the size of mine is about 12" x 20". Using the size and height of the various tools, I decided what size to cut the vinyl (about 12" x 6"). This made my pockets just under 6" deep. I stitched binding tape along the top edge of each piece of vinyl. Then I pinned the vinyl to the lining fabric and stitched perpendicular to the edge at regular widths (wide enough to accommodate my tools, there is stitching between each item under the vinyl). Then I pinned the fabric, lining and vinyl together and stitched binding tape around the entire perimeter of the rectangle, making sure to stitch through all of the layers. The binding tape covers the raw edge and binds (hence the name) all three layers together.

When I was finished binding the outside of the rectangle, I cut a length of ribbon, folded it in half, and stitched the fold under the binding tape edging about 1/4 of the way up the side of the rectangle. When the parcel is folded in half, this ribbon will be halfway up the edge. When the bundle is rolled up, from the plain edge toward the ribbon edge (as shown in the picture, the right edge would be rolled under all the way to the left edge), the ribbon will wrap around the outside of the roll to hold it together when tied in a bow. I finished the bundle by ironing on the monograms and filling the pockets with the goodies. These instructions may be unclear, but the pictures should help.

This project is just a jumping off point; it can easily be adapted to other tasks (just in case you don't need a mani/pedi kit). Seed packets, gloves, a ruler, marker, shears, twist ties for attaching plants to stakes for a gardener, maybe with a cute garden print fabric. One end with long, narrow pockets for knitting needles or crochet hooks and maybe two rows of vinyl pockets on the opposing side to hold stitch markers, measuring tape, cable needle, small scissors, etc. Sewing notions? Screwdriver or wrench sets? Hotwheels for race night sleepovers? Be creative and enjoy!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Last Minute Wedding Gift

Last week, my husband and I were invited to a Saturday wedding three days before the event. Apparently, quite a few guests backed out of coming and the caterer's payment was non-refundable, hence the last-minute invite. Even though we were just glorified seat fillers, I still wanted to take a small gift, some sort of keepsake. I originally intended to etch the couple's monogram on a set of wine and martini glasses that I had on hand, but was promptly informed by my sister that the couple does not drink (--like, at all). So, after a trip to wander around Hobby Lobby, I ended up with six octagonal, beveled craft mirrors (half price this week!) and a small jar of etching cream. Conveniently, the mirrors already had protective felt pads on their undersides, so a set of six mirrored, monogrammed coasters was my goal.

I used my Cricut to cut the couple's monogram out of some leftover vinyl I had on hand. Cricut also sells vinyl cut to size for their cutting machines, but it is rather pricey. Alternatively, you could use letter stencils to trace the monogram onto contact paper (or just freehand them if you are feeling especially artistic). It is very important to make sure your glass objects are clean before you apply your letters/cutouts! I decided to have just the letters frosted, so I applied the vinyl surrounding the cutout to my glass, leaving the actual letter out. You could also have the entire surface etched with just the letters left clear, in which case you would apply the actual individual letters to the glass and spread the etching cream around them, covering the entire surface. Make sure to smoothe out all of the edges so no etching cream gets under your stencil (any glass that comes in contact with the cream will be etched). Etching cream is typically comprised of flouride compounds that alter the glass after contact (according to Wikipedia). Pay attention to the manufacturer warnings on the cream you buy because it can irritate skin, eyes, etc.

I used a small paintbrush to apply the etching cream to the letter "spaces," making sure to apply it rather thickly, filling in each letter completely. The particular brand of cream I bought needed to sit for a full five minutes before being rinsed off. I also cleaned the glass again with a streak-free glass cleaner once it was rinsed. When you do rinse the cream off, it will look like there is no etching. Don't worry! Once the glass is dry the etching will be more apparent.

Note: I bought the smallest container of etching cream available, and although it seems rather expensive I only used a very small fraction of the bottle. That tiny container will last for many projects to come. Don't be sticker shocked. Also, even though this was just a small, inexpensive project, this idea definitely lends itself to more ambitious pieces. I'm thinking of large hurricanes for the holidays with Christmas-themed phrases/pictures. There are definitely a multitude of possibilities using this technique. Be creative and enjoy!