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!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Halloween Buffet Part 3: Dirt Cake

In my experience, everybody loves dirt cake. My mom has been making this sweet, creamy concoction for as long as I can remember and no Halloween party would be complete without it. Although the recipe is easy to make, the best part about this dessert is its versatility; it can be layered in virtually any container. I think everyone who makes dirt cake has their own twist on it, but this is my mom's recipe (although I did adjust the amount of milk because the small boxes of vanilla pudding have been downsized from 4 oz. each to 3.4 oz. each).

Dirt Cake:
2 small boxes instant vanilla pudding
1 8 oz. package cream cheese, softened
1 c. confectioner's sugar
1 3/4 c. + 1 Tbsp. milk (I used 2%)
1 tub whipped topping (I used Cool-Whip)
1 package chocolate sandwich cookies (I used a store brand cookie. Seriously, it's fine.)

Using a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment (or a handheld mixer with wire beaters), beat SOFTENED cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Add in one box of pudding, beat until incorporated, then add in second box and beat until incorporated. SLOWLY add milk with mixer running, blending well to avoid lumps. Beat until the mixture is smooth and thickened (about 30-60 seconds on medium speed). Carefully fold in whipped topping.

Empty contents of cookie package into a large plastic freezer bag (or use a food processor). Using a meat mallet, beat cookies into "dirt." Sprinkle a little less than 1/4 of the cookie crumbs on the bottom of your chosen vessel in an even, then add about 1/3 of the filling. Repeat process, finishing with a slightly thicker layer of crumbs on top. Adorn as desired, then chill until ready to serve.

My mom always served her dirt cake in a plastic novelty coffin for Halloween parties. I have made this dessert for the Superbowl, topping it with dyed coconut shreds for "grass." The coconut grass would also be a cute topping for dirt cake layered inside an Easter basket, topped with plastic, candy-filled eggs. For my niece's autumn-themed Welcome Home party this weekend, I used a flowerpot lined with foil and wrapped in fall ribbon to create an autumn-themed dirt cake, complete with silk flowers. Just be sure to remove the flowers and stick a spoon in before serving or people will not even realize it's dessert (I speak from experience). Be creative and enjoy!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Favor Boxes/ Reusable Christmas Packaging

When I began planning for my wedding, I decided that in lieu of a permament keepsake at each place setting, I wanted every guest to get homemade candies in some sort of cute vessel. I've always loved the shape of pillow boxes, with a curved body and curved ends. When I starting pricing out the little boxes for over two hundred guests, however, I realized it would be cost prohibitive. The smallest size available, in plain white cardstock, would have cost about 50 cents per box. That may not seem like a lot, but when you figure in the cost of decorating and filling the boxes . . . I knew we needed a better solution. Hobby Lobby to the rescue! Craft stores sell posterboard in a wide variety of colors and finishes, and I chose a metallic silver for my favor boxes. After some trial and error, I came up with a template that had just the right curve and allowed for enough space inside the box for homemade toffee or chocolate-covered pretzels. My grandfather, a fabrication genius, transferred my template into a durable, two-piece plexi glass template because we had so many boxes to make. My grandparents and parents did the cutting and gluing, and my husband and I did the decorating. These homemade pillow boxes were about five times cheaper (and a hundred times cuter) than the plain ones available online.

To begin, I created a template. I folded a piece of copy paper into fourths. In the photo, I am using a paper grocery bag because I am making a much larger box for a Christmas gift; for a small favor box, sheet of computer paper should be sufficient. This part requires some visualization: with the folded corner at your lower left, mark out the box. You should make it the width you want for one side and half of the height desired for one side. When you open the paper, there will be two sides (a front and a back) and it will be twice the length you marked. Next I marked the curve. This part is tricky: the open space inside your box will be the space between the BOTTOMS of the curves. Make sure to take this into account and leave enough room. Use a rounded object wider than your box to mark the top of the curve. It may take several tries to get the proper radius (the shallower the curve, the easier it will be to fold, but it will also leave less space inside the box). I always find that I initially use a radius that is too small and I need to make the curve more shallow. For example, in the pictures taken of the brown paper template, that curve was too sharp and I ended up adjusting it before I transferred the template to the posterboard. After drawing in the top curve, do the same with the bottom. There should be a football shape on top of your straight sides now (see picture). Cut out the template from paper and spread it out on the posterboard. Use a ballpoint pen to trace around the template, making sure to go over the center line and the bottom curves with the pen (you could also use an embossing tool to go over these lines, it is very important to leave an impression of the curves on the posterboard). Before cutting the box out, add a tab on one edge (the whole length of the edge with angled ends) so that your box can be glued together. Cut out the box, fold along the center line, tabbed edge, and each concave curve. On our wedding favor boxes, we used rubber cement to glue the folded tab to the top edge of the box, but for the box in the photos, I used hot glue. Once the edge is glued together, fold in the curved ends, gluing one end closed if desired.

There are endless possibilities for decorating these pillow boxes. For the wedding, we selected ribbons that matched our colors and placed a wax seal where the ends of the ribbon joined. For the box that I made for the photos, I ended up using velvet ribbon and silver beads to create a poinsettia, appropriate gift wrap for the Christmas present I would like to enclose in the box (pictures to follow in a later post). These boxes would provide a special way to package gift cards for the holidays or birthdays. Select blue or pink heavy paper and decorate them with baby-themed items (rattles, passifiers, ducks, large safety pins, etc.) for a baby shower. Use black posterboard with orange ribbon and plastic spiders for Halloween party favors. Be creative and enjoy!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Halloween Buffet Part 2: Witchy Fingers

When I was still living in Michigan, every year my family and I would go to my aunt's Halloween party. Most people brought a dish to pass, and I used to make sugar cookies in the shape of fingers with almond fingernails. They were generally good-tasting, but I came to find that there were a few problems with these treats. 1) Sugar cookie dough spread out too much in the oven, making flat fingers instead of nice, plump, rounded ones; 2) because they were so small, the cookies tended to dry out in the oven; 3) they were yet another sweet to add to the already dessert laden buffet table; and perhaps most importantly 4) party-goers seemed to have an aversion to eating flesh-colored fingers with painted nails, a bit too cannibalistic I guess. I liked the creep factor of the fingers, however, and wanted to come up with a sustitute recipe that would solve my problems but keep the overall effect. I thought about shortbread dough, hypothesizing that it would spread less in the oven, but it was still a sweet; I wanted something savory. I settled on the concept of breadstick/soft pretzel dough; it would become plump in the oven, not flat and it would be a divergence from dessert. I also decided to tint the dough so it wasn't so fleshy. Creepy green witch fingers with bright red nails! The recipe below makes about 3 dozen witch fingers, depending on size.

Witchy Fingers:
1 1/2 c. All-purpose flour (plus another 1/4 c. or so for kneading)
1/2 c. lukewarm water (it should not feel much warmer than your finger when tested)
1 tsp. active dry yeast (or just use half of a small package)
1/4 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. oil (I used olive oil)
2 Tbsp. grated parmesan cheese
Sprinkle of garlic powder (optional)
1 Tbsp. melted butter
8 drops green food coloring
36 almond slices (choose ones with a nice rounded shape and no cracks)
Red food coloring

1) Mix sugar with warm water until dissolved and sprinkle yeast over top to proof.
2) Mix salt with flour, and garlic powder if using, in a mixing bowl and make a well in the center. Pour in water/yeast mixture, then add oil and food coloring. With a spoon, mix flour into liquid until moistened. At this point you can add more color if needed, 8 drops should give you a bright, ogreish green. Turn dough onto a floured surface; it will be sticky, so keep the extra few tablespoons of flour on hand to sprinkle over dough as needed, until it reaches the right consistency. It should not stick to your fingers, but should also have no visible white flour on the surface.
3) Knead for 5 minutes, until smooth, then form into a ball. You could use a stand mixer with a dough hook for the mixing and kneading, but for such a small amount I prefer to do it by hand.
4) Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl and let rise, covered, about 1 hour
5) While dough is rising, use a small paintbrush to apply red food coloring to the almond slices. I just put several drops of coloring in a small bowl and laid out some plastic wrap to protect my countertop.
6) Preheat oven to 400 degrees and cover two baking sheets in parchment paper or nonstick baking mats. You will probably end up with three baking sheets worth of fingers, so I used two pans (while one was baking, I was shaping fingers on the other one)
7) When the dough has risen, sprinkle the parmesan cheese over the top and give the dough a few quick kneads to incorporate the cheese. Then break off a very small piece (about the size of a plastic bottlecap, like those found on 2 Liter bottles).
8) Roll the dough into a thin rope, creating a bulbous center. Remember that the dough will rise as it bakes, so the dough rope should be quite thin (about the size of a pencil, or maybe just a little thicker)
9) Press an almond "nail" into one end of each finger, and use a paring knife to make three lines across the finger at the middle "joint"
10) Bake the fingers for 6-8 minutes depending on size. They should not really brown at all on the outside, although the color of the fingernails may deepen. When the fingers are finished baking and still hot, brush them lightly with melted butter. Move to a serving platter.

Serve these little breadstick fingers with "bloody" marinara sauce for dipping. This dough could also be used to make other shapes (like snakes). My husband can't seem to get over the fact that they are green (I guess you can't please everyone), so you could always opt for plain, untinted dough. You could also swap your favorite sugar cookie dough for the bread dough when making these fingers, despite my reservations about it (just brush the cookies with an egg wash before baking). One thing I haven't tried, but would like to, is using thin slices of garlic for fingernails rather than almonds, although I'm not sure how the red coloring would take. Use the method to fit your Halloween needs, whatever they may be. Be creative and enjoy!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Halloween Buffet Part 1: Goblins' Bones

It's almost my turn to host the weekly meeting of my knitting group. Usually, the knitting is accompanied by heavy snacking and since law students are all rather competitive in nature, I think hors d'oeuvre making has become just one more thing for us to compete in. The bar has been set pretty high: bruschetta, stuffed mushrooms, cheese straws, eggplant with goat cheese and tomatoes. Rather than continue this vicious gourmet cycle, I thought I would attempt something completely different and set up a Halloween-themed buffet. So I'm going to try to come up with a creepy, original recipe every week until the end of October. For the first recipe, I was thinking about bones. A silver platter piled high with edible bones seemed perfect for a spooky buffet, but it took me some time to decide what the right medium would be (having nearly an hour-long commute gave me plenty of time to think, though). . . Meringue! Crispy, sweet, lighter-than-air meringue bones. After reading a multitude of recipes, I came up with a mix that seemed to be a reasonable, middle-of-the-road meringue. I also decided to write my recipe in terms of relative proportions rather than a set amount, to make it easier to make larger quantities. To test this recipe, I used three egg whites, which made about 14 bones that are about 6"-9" long.

Meringue Bones
For each egg white:
1/4 c. granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. cornstarch
1/32 tsp. salt (for 4 egg whites, use 1/8 tsp. salt)
1/8 tsp. vanilla extract (as you increase the amount of this recipe, do not use more than 3/4 tsp. extract)

1) Preheat oven to 250 degrees and line two baking sheets with non-stick mats or parchment paper. Fill a small dish with water and set nearby baking sheets
2) Mix sugar and cornstarch in a measuring cup, set aside
3) Separate egg whites from yolks, setting yolks aside for another purpose
4) Combine egg whites, salt, and vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment (or other mixing bowl if using a hand mixer with wire beaters)
5) Whip egg whites on high speed until very soft peaks form, about 30-40 seconds. Do not overbeat the eggs, or the sugar will not dissolve properly when added and your meringues will be gritty
6) Lower speed to medium and SLOWLY pour in sugar/cornstarch mixture.
7) Increase speed back to high and whip until the mixture forms stiff peaks, about another 30-45 seconds
8) Working quickly, use a rubber spatula to scoop the meringue into a piping bag (or a one gallon freezer bag as I used)
9) If using a freezer bag, squeeze the mixture into one corner and twist up the top before snipping off the corner
10) Pipe bone shapes onto the prepared baking sheets
11) Dip a finger in the small bowl of water and smooth out any points or particularly lumpy areas
12) Bake for 20 minutes at 250, rotating the sheets, then lower temperature to 225 degrees and bake another 30 minutes
13) Turn oven off but allow the bones to remain in the oven for a full hour after baking

Be careful when removing the bones from the baking sheets, as they will be brittle at this point and may break. Don't worry if one does break, though; it will be delicious crushed up on ice cream. Also, I made some smaller, rib-like bones for illustrative purposes, but really bones that vary so much in size should be baked separately because they don't need nearly as much time. A really ambitious Halloween party host or hostess could construct most of a skeleton out of meringue bones and lay it the length of the buffet table (ribs, vertebrae, pelvis, arms, legs); it would be so perfectly creepy! This recipe could also be used to make the traditional, kiss-shaped meringues for the holidays (consider peppermint extract instead of vanilla). Be creative and enjoy!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Houndstooth Clutch

I checked out a great book from the library this week called Simply Sublime Bags: 30 No-Sew, Low-Sew Projects by Jodi Kahn. I actually enjoy sewing and have no aversion to hauling my machine out for the smallest of projects, so the promise of no-sew bags wasn't really what attracted me to this book. No, the thing I loved about it is that Ms. Kahn makes beautiful bags out of ordinary objects that everyone has lying around the house: zip-up pillow covers, placemats, shower curtains, etc. I was especially enthralled by a keyhole clutch she made out of a piece of heavyweight houndstooth fabric. Although I did not have any fabric that would make an interesting bag, I did have an old houndstooth silk camisole (too short-waisted to wear, but too cheap to pass up at the thrift store) that would make a beautiful purse. To avoid sewing in most of her projects, and to stabilize her chosen fabrics, Ms. Kahn uses a lot of duct tape. I unfortunately never seem to have any duct tape on hand, and I'm less than confident in my ability to use it as a stabilizer without making a big, reflective, self-adhesive mess. My silk camisole would need to be stabilized with something, though, so I started to dig through my sewing basket.

I found some polyester interfacing, but it was not iron-on, so I decided to use spray adhesive to adhere it to my fabric. First, I needed to turn my shirt into a single, flat piece of fabric. I turned the camisole inside-out and machine stitched across the bottom of the shirt, attaching the bottom of the front side to the bottom of the back side. Then I used scissors to cut open the side seam on each side, from armpit to the bottom of the shirt. I spread the shirt open, now with my first stitched seam along the bottom running through the middle of my piece of fabric. I had some black linen material on hand and decided to use it as a lining for my purse. I cut rectangles two rectangles of about 16" by 20" out of the interfacing. Iron-on interfacing would make the next step much easier, but I didn't have any, so I took my fabric, spray-adhesive, and interfacing and headed outside. It's important to use spray-adhesive in a well ventilated area, so I always do my spraying outside. I coated the back of my fabric and the rectangle of interfacing, allowing both surfaces to dry for several seconds. Spraying both surfaces to be adhered will create a permanent bond, so be sure that you line everything up exactly how you want it before you allow the surfaces to make contact! I repeated the process for my linen lining and, presto: stabilized fabric ready to be cut and sewn. I used Ms. Kahn's directions for cutting the shape of the purse, which allowed for a roomier, flat-bottomed purse. For specifics on cutting the fabric and constructing the purse, I highly recommend taking a look at Simply Sublime Bags. To make the process easier, however, you could simply fold your fabric in half and stitch up each side for an open-topped purse. If you cut a slightly longer rectangle, say 24"-30", you could fold the bottom third of the fabric up (as you would with a business letter) and stitch along the sides, then turn it rightside-out, leaving the final third as a flap for closing the purse.

I added keyhole handles to my clutch, like Ms. Kahn's. I used her process for cutting the keyholes, although I changed the dimensions slightly (mine were about 1.25" by 3.5"). I was very careful to position the handle openings in the lining with the openings in the outer fabric. I pressed the flaps created by cutting to handles to the back side of the fabric (and the back side of the lining); that way when the outer fabric and lining are put together, the handle flaps will be hidden, sandwiched between the layers.

I also really wanted the top edges of my purse to be rather rigid and hold their shape and I thought a lot about how to achieve this effect. I didn't really want to buy any supplies for this project, keeping with the thrifty spirit of using an old shirt for a purse. I thought the stir sticks that hardware stores give you when you buy paint would be great: lightweight but rigid. I was not too enthusiastic, however, about the prospect of driving to The Home Depot in rush hour traffic to try to shmooz the paint guy into giving me two wooden stirrers. I was thinking about strips of heavy cardboard and strips cut from plastic detergent bottles (both of which would have worked) when I noticed that a construction crew was remodeling a townhouse by my building. From the construction waste, I scavenged a long strip of plastic, a piece of those annoying vertical track blinds that are found in hospital rooms. Score! What is it they say about one man's trash? I cut four strips (two for each side) 3/4" wide and long enough to span the top of my bag. I rolled over the top of the lining and stitched along each side to create a pocket for my strips.

To finish, I flipped my houndstooth fabric pouch rightside-out (taking care to push out the corners at the bottom) and tucked the lining pouch inside it. I lined up the keyholes on either side and topstitched around each handle, keeping as close to the edge as possible. Then I topstitched along each side of the top edge of the purse, being careful not to break a needle on my plastic strips. The interfacing worked like a charm and the rescued-from-the-dumpster plastic strips really help keep that cute, mod shape to the purse. This project could easily be simplified by eliminating the handles and using heavier fabric or iron-on interfacing. Be creative and enjoy!