Friday, March 26, 2010

Two-Tiered Serving Dish

When I worked at the china store, most customers were --as one would expect -- shopping for wedding gifts, replacing pieces of dinnerware broken by their grandchildren, or looking for a public restroom.  Occasionally, however, a crafty customer would arrive in search of supplies for some creative DIY project.  One day, I helped a woman who was intently combing through the clearance china, searching for a matching dinner and salad plate.  She only wanted one place setting and she wasn't particular about the pattern.  She finally explained that she had seen tiered servers made of plates separated by candlesticks.  The customer didn't elaborate on the particulars and ultimately left empty-handed, but I was intrigued by the idea and it stuck with me.  Granted, I have so many serving pieces that I couldn't possibly cram another one in my filled-to-the-brim kitchen.  My sister recently purchased new everyday dinnerware and I saw an opportunity to give this project a go.

My sister bought square, white stoneware dishes, so I found a matching dinnerplate and salad plate to create a two-tiered server.  Stoneware, however, is so heavy that fine china (easily found at thrift stores) or lighter-weight dinnerware (like Corelle) would probably be a better choice.  I purchased a small metal bud vase to act as the spacer between the plates, but an appropriately shaped candlestick would work as well.  Whatever you choose, the object should have a level top and bottom and a wide enough rim on each end that it can be securely adhered to the plates.  Finding a suitable adhesive also took some work.  Since the tiered server will hold food, I thought it was important to use a non-toxic adhesive.  Unfortunately, it seems that the strongest, most durable bonds would be formed by construction adhesive or similar glues (you know, the ones with emphatic ingestion warnings printed on the labels).  I settled on Weldbond®, a non-toxic adhesive that claims to bond wood, tile, glass, ceramics, etc.

I cleaned both plates and the bud vase, then marked the center point of the bottom of the smaller plate and the top of the larger plate.  I began with the bond between the top of the bud vase and the bottom of the salad plate; I put the small plate right side down on my work surface.  I traced the top of the bud vase lightly with a marker in the center of the underside of the plate.  Then I applied the glue thinly on both the bottom of the plate and the top of the bud vase and allowed it to dry for about five minutes.  When the adhesive was tacky, I put the surfaces together and placed weight on top of it.  I let this bond cure overnight.  The next day, I similarly applied glue to the center of the top side of the dinner plate and the bottom of the bud vase.  When the glue was tacky, I balanced the bud vase/salad plate atop the dinner plate, then placed weight (I used a large can of chicken broth) on the salad plate.  Once again, I let this cure overnight.  As I said above, the stoneware is so heavy that it was difficult to get an adequate bond between the dinner plate and the vase.  After repeating the process a second time, however, the bond held and my sister's server was complete!

This would be a great way to make use of old dishes that you maybe don't use as tableware but can't stand to throw away.  Those great old plates that fill aisles of secondhand stores?  Maybe even an extra place setting of your current dishes could become a functional, coordinated serving piece.  Be creative and enjoy!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Knitted Baby Sweater

Some friends of ours had their first baby this week and I knit a little sweater to commemorate the occassion.  I used a pattern called Child's Placket-Neck Pullover by Joelle Hoverson.  The pattern is published in the book Last Minute Knitted Gifts and at http://www.purlsoho.com/.  I did make a few modifications to the original pattern.  The number of stitches I cast on for the waistband was divisible by four, so I could work the band in 2x2 ribbing rather than seed stitch.  I made the 6-12 month size, but since I am generally a pretty tight knitter, I used size 8 needles (I also hope that it will be more of an 18 month size).  So, I cast on 112 stitches for the waistband and increased by 1 stitch in the body.  I also adjusted the number of stitches for each sleeve cuff (32 stitches) and increased by 1 stitch in the first row of stockinette.  For the placket of the sweater, I kept 5 stitches of seed stitch at the both ends of the rows.  I'm pretty sure that when I started the collar I had 58 stitches total: 10 in seed stitch, 48 in 2x2 ribbing.  I also added two buttonholes to the placket (3 stitches long each).  After seaming, weaving in yarn ends, and sewing on the buttons the sweater is ready to be shipped to Michigan.

I was really impressed with the yarn we selected for this project.  Lily Sugar n' Cream, 100% organic cotton.  It's machine washable and super reasonably priced.  This was my first full sweater and I'm pretty pleased with the way it turned out.  I will say that I ended up with several rather large gaps under the arms where the sleeve stitches were held, but I just stitched them up with yarn and it's barely noticeable.  I'm hoping that little Kellan will be able to wear this sweater in his second fall/winter.  Fingers crossed!  This was a great pattern, especially for newer knitters because it incorporates so many techniques (kitchener stitch, anyone?).  If you have a little one to knit for, give this pattern a try.  I think it would be appropriate for a girl, too.  Maybe with lacey cuffs and waistband.  I also think this sweater would be cute with a design knitted on the back.  A skull and crossbones for your little rocker?  Be creative and enjoy!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Seasoning and Cleaning Cast Iron

Last week, I went home to Michigan for a lazy (but much needed) spring break.  On an afternoon shopping excursion, I mentioned to my grandmother that I always keep an eye out for cast iron cookware in thrift stores.  Over the years, my husband has given me several pieces of beautiful Le Creuset enameled cast iron cookware, but I needed a good, old-fashioned skillet.  A heavy, blackened, well-worn pan like the one I remember my Grandma S. frying chicken in for Sunday dinners when I was younger.  My grandma told me she would try to dig out my great-great-grandmother's cast iron.  I should have known that I wouldn't be disappointed.  My grandparents' house has everything.  That random, oddball thing that you might need once in a decade?  They've got it.  School assignments.  Craft projects.  Science experiments.  I cannot think of one instance when I needed something and my grandparents either didn't have it or couldn't think of a better alternative.  Cast iron, it turns out, was no exception.

So, I packed my Great Great Grandmother's 10 inch skillet in my already overloaded suitcase, checked it at the airport, and brought it to St. Louis.  The pan was in good shape, but it did need to be cleaned and seasoned.  Cast iron is porous, and seasoning (or curing) is a process that fills these pores with fat, creating a rust-resistant, virtually non-stick surface. (See Living the Country Lifestyle All-in-One for Dummies). When I started researching the care of cast iron online, I was shocked not only by the variety of opinions on the subject but also the zeal with which those opinions are advanced.  Seriously.  Cast iron appears to be a contentious topic for many people.  The biggest debate seems to be whether seasoned cast iron should be washed with soap, detergent, or just water.  Many commentators are concerned that the oil used for seasoning the cast iron will become rancid if the vessel isn't washed in soapy water.  Others contend that soap will be detrimental to a carefully seasoned surface.  There is also some debate about the best type of fat to use for seasoning the cast iron.  Based on the sources I read, here are the methods I decided on for the initial cleaning, seasoning, and continued care for my cast iron.

Although the debate rages regarding the use of soap on cast iron that has already been seasoned, the sources pretty consistently state that cast iron should be scrubbed with soapy water BEFORE seasoning.  (See the Lodge website: http://www.lodgemfg.com/use-care-seasoned-cast-iron.asp).  Most cast iron aficionados contend that this is the ONLY time that soap should touch the skillet.  Although my skillet is older, you should know that new cast iron comes with a wax coating on it that should be removed before seasoning.  So I scrubbed out my skillet with dish soap and a nylon brush.  Then I dried it thoroughly with a dish towel (I remember my mother telling me, when I first started cooking, not to leave her skillet wet because it would rust.)  Once the skillet was well washed and dried, it was time to season it. 

Commentators disagree about the best fat to use for curing cast iron.  Some sources said vegetable oil should be used (America's Test Kitchen), others said vegetable oil can sometimes leave a sticky film.  Some recommended coconut or palm oil.  Others said good old lard or bacon grease, while some sources say animal fat is more likely to go rancid if you don't use your cast iron often.  Lodge and Food Network's Alton Brown, both sources I consider trustworthy, recommend melted vegetable shortening.  I preheated my oven to 325 degrees F, then put a generous teaspoonful of solid vegetable shortening in the bottom of the skillet.  I set it in the oven, just to melt the shortening, then removed it using an oven mitt (the handle will be HOT, use caution).  I used a wad of paper towels to thoroughly coat the inside of the skillet with the melted shortening.  Using aluminum foil, I made a drip pan to catch any excess fat and placed it on the lower rack of my oven.  Then I inverted the cast iron skillet on the upper rack with the bottom of the skillet facing the top of the oven.  I baked it for an hour, then repeated the oiling and baking process (I did NOT rewash the skillet).  The skillet may give off a slight burnt odor while baking, this is normal.  After the second hour, I removed the skillet from the oven (don't forget the mitt) and allowed it to cool at room temperature. 

On to the divisive issue of cleaning seasoned cast iron after cooking in it.  I decided to respect my elders and centuries of tradition: no soap.  I've never been much of a germaphobe and maintaining the seasoned surface of the skillet to ensure good cooking is my number one priority.  For cleaning, simply scrape off any bits of stuck on food (course salt mixed with a small amount of oil can be used as an abrasive for removing really stubborn food).  Then rinse with hot water and dry thoroughly.  Don't allow cast iron to sit in a sink full of dishwater.  Also, don't airdry the cast iron, as this promotes rusting.  Without fail, everything I read said that cast iron should NOT be washed in the dishwasher; it strips the seasoning, then allows water to sit on the unprotected surface.  Also, the first few items cooked in the skillet after seasoning should be fatty foods (fried chicken, bacon, hamburgers).  If, after time, the skillet begins to develop rust, foods stick heavily to the pan, or cooked items have a metallic taste, simply wash and reseason the cast iron.

I'm so honored to be able to cook in something that belonged to my Great Great Grandmother, something that has a history.  Unlike most cooking implements, which may retain sentimental value but become increasingly impractical as they age, this skillet has only gotten better with time.  With proper care, this cast iron pan will probably outlast me and may belong to my grandchildren or great grandchildren.  In the meantime, though, I look forward to using my skillet often.  Don't be afraid to pick up well worn but sound cast iron (no cracks) at a yard sale or flea market.  With a little care and attention you will have a cooking vessel to last a lifetime.  Be creative and enjoy!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Wallpaper Envelopes and Cards

Regular readers of this blog know about my affinity for thrift stores and general love of crafting with things that people consider disposable.  On my most recent trip to a secondhand charity shop, I came across rolls upon rolls of old wallpaper.  Most of them were partial rolls, presumably what remained after various redecorating projects (undertaken mostly in the 1980s judging by the prints).  I selected a very reasonably priced (39 cents!) roll of mottled bluish-gray paper, convinced that it would be perfect for . . . er, something.  I eventually decided to make envelopes with the beautiful, heavy paper.  When I make cards at home, I always need extra envelopes and I thought the wallpaper would make the perfect unique packaging. 

I started with commercial card envelopes in two sizes, one greeting card-sized, one note card-sized.  I carefully pulled the envelopes apart along the seams.  I used them as templates, tracing around the edges as precisely as possible.  I cut my new envelopes out of the wallpaper, then used a straightedge to crease the flaps.  Then I used rubber cement to adhere the edges of the bottom flap and two side flaps (side flaps folded in first, then the bottom flap on top).  I carefully covered both surfaces in rubber cement and let it dry for a minute until tacky.  This will ensure a permanent bond when the surfaces are brought into contact.  Pretty easy, right?

I noticed while making the envelopes that the wallpaper I bought was very soft, almost fabric-like.  I thought it could be sewn, so I decided to make greeting cards with the wallpaper that incorporated stitching.  I sketched a simple design of branches and a bird on white cardstock, then carefully cut it out.  I used the same white cardstock as the base of the notecard.  I cut a rectangle of heavy, silver cardstock for the front of the card.  Then I cut a slightly smaller rectangle from the wallpaper.  I centered the wallpaper on the silver rectangle, leaving a border around the edges.  Then, using my sewing machine, I stitched the two layers together.  I used spray adhesive to attach my cutouts to the card front.  Then, I sewed the silver rectangle to the white cardstock base.  The photo below shows the stitching, although I know it is a little blurry.  I am really happy with the way the card turned out; I've never sewn paper before and my machine stitched through it beautifully (thanks to my Grandpa for the sewing machine tune-up!).

The wallpaper was the perfect material for my envelopes and cards.  Next time you are at a rummage sale or thrift store, keep an eye out for unique wallpaper.  It could be used to make mini envelopes for gift cards, bookmarks, origami boxes.  Maybe gift tags?  I'm sure you'll come up with even more creative things to do with this versatile material.  Be creative and enjoy!