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!