Monday, December 19, 2011

Next time I'm sticking with cupcakes

In which our heroine forays into the realm of cake pops.

A blue angry bird after taking a nose dive into the red candy melts.
 My first mistake was in thinking that I could attempt cake pops, without a dry run, starting at 10pm the night before the birthday, after a day spent assembling furniture for Baby Girl's room (so many of my fiascos seem to center around furniture purchases) and trying to find her floor again in time for the party the next day.

The Eldest is turning 11, and having heard me mention the Angry Bird cake pops I'd seen online, asked me to bring those in to school for his birthday.  I looked at the recipe - cake crumbs and a tub of frosting dipped in candy melts, how hard could it be?  Never mind that the only dipping I've ever done is into a chocolate fountain... I had confidence and to spare.

Maybe I should have suspected things were headed south when I tasted the unholy mix.  I had a very moist white cake... and it tasted like raw cake batter.  Which might be ok if you're a cake batter person.  I am not.

Then there was trying to get these balls of dough to stick to the lollipop sticks (tip:  dip the end of the stick in candy melts and let harden before sticking it into the dough ball and freezing it.  Don't know why it helps, but it does).  Maybe I got too generous with the pops - they were a good 1.5" across, and kept falling off the sticks.

No matter, I got the hang of it, and had a half dozen blue birds cooling in a block of styrofoam when they toppled over into the red candy coating.  It was about 1am by then, I was running out of steam and starting to panic.
White chocolate chip eyes, trimmed candy corn beak, black frosting details, feathers from melted candy piped onto waxed paper and cooled. And a skull fracture.

Made more red birds ... then looked over at the blues to notice their heads had all cracked.  Did the candy coating shrink when it cooled, or did the dough expand as it warmed?  I didn't know and didn't care to find out.  It would have to do.

To add insult to injury, though, the dough started extruding out of little holes in the candy coating (think of toothpaste in a tube), looking for all the world like the birds were pooping tapeworms on each other.  Yeah, you really needed that simile.

Well, I am used to cleaning up messes, so I pulled off the tapeworms and called it good.  And then went to deal with my other task of the evening, editing a 16-page computer vision grant proposal due in the morning.  While Baby Girl had a croup attack.  At about 5am I thought seriously of taking her to the ER (no, it was not epiglottitis, but I was convinced it was - I am not my rational best at that hour) but was fortunately too tired to actually follow through on that.  (She's fine, thanks).

The kids actually like the way the pops taste (they got to eat all the outtakes) so it's not a total failure:  I made a treat they want to eat but which I am not even tempted to touch.  And they are kinda cute, if you don't look too closely.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Thank heavens for Norwegian dairy farmers

Norwegians may be debating the cause of their national butter shortage (yesterday on NPR I heard it blamed on miscalculated over-exporting to the US), but no-one is arguing that you can just substitute margarine.  Because you can't.

Ginger Snaps

3/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup molasses
2 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
Sugar for rolling

Cream butter and sugar well.  Beat in egg.  Mix in molasses. 

Stir flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon and salt together and add to above mixture.  Mix well.  Shape into 1 inch balls.  Roll balls in sugar and place on baking sheet.  Bake in oven preheated to 350 F for 10-12 minutes.  Makes 6 dozen.
(from Jean Pare's Company's Coming: Cookies)

You also can't just eat one of these things.  The Man of the House calls them Ginger Crack because of their addictive qualities.  One secret to good cookies, besides the butter:  high quality ginger (and cinnamon, but mostly the ginger).  Someday I'm going to get around to trying to make these with fresh grated ginger.

And for an extra fancy touch, dip half in melted white chocolate, place on waxed paper, and chill to set.
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Wednesday, December 14, 2011


I love having a candy-apple-red front door.  Especially at Christmas.

Last night a friend came over with her daughters for some emergency help with dress alterations for a school concert, and while I pinned and stitched, she gave my wreath a makeover.  I'd had the ribbon on hand for three years, picked up at an after Christmas clearance for mere pennies.  And she didn't just make a new bow, this artist friend, with her draping and tucking, made a statement.  I mean, just look at the old bow - faded, bedraggled old thing:

 It was one of those things I didn't even bother to put on my to-do list since there wasn't a hope of getting to it.  And I am so absurdly happy with it that I had to blog about it, another thing there isn't room on the list for.  But the family packages got mailed out yesterday, the cookies for tomorrow's "family traditions" party are baked and cooling, and I am going to indulge myself in a little sitting back and enjoying the season. 

We always put up the tree the day after Thanksgiving - ostensibly to get as early a start on the Christmas season as is decent, but really, it's the one chance we have to do it, since weekends in December are always jam-packed with activities.  I am usually eager to deck the halls, but this year, with my newly minted garland, I was a bit reluctant to put Thanksgiving away.  But the kids couldn't wait, and so by evening's end, the tree was trimmed,

the stockings were hung,

and every possible spot was draped with mistletoe for lots of kissing.

Have you ever heard of Holiday Specs?  They're cheap plastic holographic lenses that transform lightsources into fun shapes.  A local grocery chain mailed us a snowman pair years ago, and they've become a holiday tradition: on Friday night, we light the house and run outside in our pj's in the dark, to look at the house through our magic spectacles.  They've gotten a bit beaten up over the years, but still manage to make our minilights look like snowmen.

Little Brother with his spectacles on.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A little bit of love for the Dining Room

My dining room is a work in progress.  We've been in the house for over 4 years, but there is nothing on the walls, no window treatments, nothing but a table and chairs and an incongruously fabulous chandelier I got for the cost of shipping it across the country by Greyhound ($60).  We only eat there a few times a month when we have company; mostly it is a place littered with homework, crayon drawings, and my most recent crafting excesses.  It seems that after painting the room and finding the table on craigslist and hauling it home, I ran out of steam.  For 4 years.

But this year, inspired by a friend's dinner in the woods, I thought I'd try to dress up the room a little for Thanksgiving. I loved the garland they made, so with some borrowed circle punches (thank you, Jenn!) and some fall colored cardstock, I made enough garland to criss cross the room, loop up the stairs, over the archway and backyard sliders ... yeah, it's a little addicting. And it brought some lovely color into a room that is, well, pretty much entirely Behr's Harvest Brown.

Then, because the table, which started out a lovely vintage trestle from Bavaria, is starting to show the effects of 4 children and a careless crafter, I thought I'd make a tablecloth and some napkins from some fabric I picked up years ago (for another dead-in-the-water project of making slip covers for the green velvet chairs.  It was easier to make peace with green velvet than get around to white slipcovers.  Circle garland, however, I can do - anyone want to trade me some slipcovers for a few hundred yards of garland?  ;) Bet they'd be cute in Christmas colours...) 

But back to the table linens.  I don't like to hem, so I thought I'd go for a fringed look, and found some good ideas here.  But rather than try to cut square napkins along the grain with a ruler and rotary cutter, I measured along the edge to the desired width (19" worked well), then pulled a single thread out, which left a neat line to cut by:

Then I pulled off enough of the strands to make a 3/8" fringe, and stitched along the edge to lock it in:

An easy enough project to start and finish in a day, so I could start setting my table a day early for the big feast (instead of leaving it to the kids while I'm pulling the turkey out of the oven, as has been our "tradition" so far).  Not bad for a last minute effort, don't you think?

(The candle ring and napkin ties were made last year - it was a good year for acorns - but never used because I had no napkins.  I'll put up a tutorial for them sometime soon, when I make  up a couple more).

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Turkey Sugar Cookies

Albuquerque was a turkey, and he's feathered and he's fine...

I've had this turkey cookie cutter for years, and have never used it - Thanksgiving is sort of taken over by pie, so who has time for cookies?  But for 5's preschool party today they had a sign-up that included cookies, and tomorrow night at their Thanksgiving program his class will be dressed up as turkeys (and singing, among other songs, the Albuquerque Turkey song), so this was too perfect an opportunity to pass up.

There are many variations of the soft, white, "Lofthouse" sugar cookie recipe... and here at Peppermint Plum is one that tastes great and has simple measurements (no 3/4 tsp here!)  There are some gorgeous cookies on Pinterest frosted with royal icing... (which I won't link to because last time I wandered onto Pinterest I lost all the time I gained in falling back) ... but I do agree with Tammy that royal icing sort of ruins a sugar cookie.  When you eat a lofthouse cookie, at least half the reason you're flirting with diabetic coma is for that pile of buttercream frosting.

So here is the buttercream version of those feathered turkeys, not quite so picture perfect, but much easier, and much more tasty.  The recipe for the frosting is the same, except for the brown I added a 1/4 cup of cocoa powder.  I'm not crazy about the results (sugar cookie icing should taste of vanilla and almond, to me), but it was easier than brown food coloring, and seemed like a good idea at the time.  Besides, the kids like it.


Before adding cocoa to the buttercream, make a few pouches of colored frosting for the feathers and details. You'll need a lot less than you think you need... for 3 dozen cookies, I used 1.5X recipe of frosting, and had way too much colored frosting left over. A couple of tablespoons of each color is plenty.  Then snip a hole in the corner of your ziploc bag... and start small, you can always cut it bigger.

Pipe a few lines of color onto your chocolate-frosting-smeared bird.  You can add a beak, eye, wattle, and foot if you like.

Then draw a toothpick through the frosting to give it a feathered look.

And Albuquerque is now ready to strut his way to the preschool party.  If you let them harden off a bit overnight, the frosting will dry enough to let you stack them on a plate without too much damage to the details.

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving is the perfect American holiday.  Family, friends, counting our blessings.  Food.  Green beans, sweet potatoes, and squash from the garden.  And the music... Shaker hymns like "Simple Gifts," and Aaron Copland's "The Promise of Living"

The promise of living
With hope and thanksgiving
Is born of our loving
Our friends and our labor.

The promise of growing
With faith and with knowing
Is born of our sharing
Our love with our neighbor.

The promise of loving
The promise of growing
Is born of our singing
In joy and thanksgiving.

(--from his opera The Tender Land, lyrics by Horace Everett)

Ignore the terrible retouching I did for privacy's sake

This year a partner-in-crime friend convinced me to help her knock off the Give Thanks advent calendar tree from Pottery Barn, and I am so glad I did.  Each leaf is a pocket with a scrap of paper with someone's name on it, and the little people are excited every morning to see who gets to write something they are thankful for.  5 has been doing his own writing wtih some spelling help, and Baby Girl dictates blessings that usually have something to do with ponies (but she's mentioned her family, too).  And I am looking forward to finding out what the big boys have furtively been writing, when we read them on Thanksgiving Day.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Even a sparrow's fall

Last weekend our family went on a vacation with some friends at a beach cottage on a little island in the Gulf of Mexico, an idyllic paradise without cars, shops, and which you have to take a boat to get to since the bridge washed out in a hurricane decades ago, and the locals decided they were better off without it.

The first morning out, I broke out the running shoes (which I admit have gotten little use in the last few weeks - 2 birthdays and Halloween just about swamped me) and went for a predawn run on the beach. It looks like it takes a beach to keep me running. About a mile into the run, and having encountered not a soul, I came upon a least tern on the beach, caught on a fishing lure which was hooked through his chin and his wing. He was flapping desperately to free himself, and when he saw me approaching, ran into the surf, which tumbled him over and over, nearly drowning him. Overhead a flock of gulls - no terns - hovered, whether out of curiosity or cannabalism, I don't know. After a few minutes of fruitlessly trying to catch him with my hands, I tossed my t-shirt over him, which calmed him enough to let me pick him up. The hooks could not be removed without wire cutters, and he'd broken his own wing trying to free himself. Nothing for it but to walk back to the cottage and hope there was a wildlife rescuer in the phone book.

A half-mile back, I spotted a woman walking her dog on the beach. I'd found an injured tern; did she know where I might take him? Yes, there was a lady on the island, Susan, who did this sort of thing, and her husband Richard was a building contractor at those green-roofed buildings down the beach; when she was heading out to walk her dog she'd heard him already at work. I should be able to cross the dunes at the boardwalk and find him there.

Richard wasn't there, but his sister-in-law was, and after making a couple of phone calls, decided to drive the bird over to Susan. So we put him in a box, I retrieved my t-shirt, and he was on his way to help and healing.

I like to think that, if terns can pray, this little guy's pleas didn't go unanswered, whether or not he has realized that yet or ever does. A visiting jogger throwing a t-shirt over him, a dog-walker telling her where to go, a construction worker putting him in a dark box, even Susan clipping the hooks and transporting him to the mainland where they taped his wing and put him on meds to fight off infection, none of that probably feels like an answer to prayer.

I called Venice Wildlife this morning to check in on him, and he's doing well and his prognosis looks good. Good enough to soon be out in the wild again, flying.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Can you find the Halloween addition?  I'll remove it in November and it'll be our Thanksgiving wreath.
 This time of year is too busy to allow time for blogging, but I wanted to put up some pictures of our Halloween home and maybe inspire you on your own home decorating adventures.  I'm not much for gruesome and gore, so it's mostly creepy crawlies around here (and cute ones, at that). 

A yarn candy bowl the Ninja made last year.  Find instructions here.

Banner from my creative sister-in-law.  Felt, ribbon, and heat-n-bond.

Mini treat pumpkins, hung from a tree and lit with an LED tealight.  You may need to trim the opening with some scissors to get the light to fit.

More pom-pom spiders.

And this was a purchase my mother insisted on - "You'll never have time to make it!" - and she was right, I didn't.  But I have the glass, and the cutter, and the silicone and grout, and will one day get around to replicating this.  Maybe when things slow down in February.

And the kaleidoscope of butterflies is down, and in the process of being replaced with a few bats.  Maybe I'll actually get it done before Halloween... I'll post a picture if that happens.  Right now the priority is getting the kids encostumed before the first party.
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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Not too safe

This parenting thing is not for the faint of heart.  I have no idea who this Elizabeth Stone is to whom the following quote is attributed, but I remember the first time I heard it, thinking, That is it:  "Making the decision to have a child - it's momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking outside your body."

Not far from our home, in the development where we rented for a year while we were getting to know the area, there is a playground structure the kids have dubbed "The Spiderweb."  The geometrically correct would call it a buckyball within an icosahedron, but no matter; they scale it pretty much as a spider scales its web, rambling over its ropes 12 feet up in the air.

Last weekend Baby Girl got introduced to it by dad (who is generally better at this sort of thing than I am), and insisted on visiting again today.  Armed with all the affirmation from the NY Times' article scorning too-safe-playgrounds, I biked them over and proceeded to have my heart skip a few beats every time Baby Girl (remember, she is only 2!) decided to stand with her small hands on the top of the metal frame and bounce on the ropes.  Or when she was climbing and hung by her arms for a few seconds before regaining her footing.  Little Brother, more cautious and afraid of heights, asked me, "Mom, what does 'outclimb' mean?" (remembering a line from the Berenstain Bears' No Girls Allowed.)

I hail from a respectable line of overcautious Chinese women, in whose philosophy a child's injury equals a mother's oversight.  But the article claims, and I tend to believe, that there is such a thing as too safe, in playgrounds, and in the larger arena of real life.  And aren't your best (or at least strongest) playground memories centered around the now banned merry-go-rounds, rope swings, and wooden teeter-totters where you first learned the principles of centrifugal force, gravity, and who-not-to-trust-on-the-other-end-of-the-seesaw?

And so we climbed, with mom valiantly staying far enough away to resist grabbing for the backs of their shirts, and enjoyed their flush of pride when they got to the "tippy-tippy-top."

The view is so much better from up here.  
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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Rocking Horse Makeover

A friend of mine called a few weeks ago with this offer: she had an old rocking horse her dad had made which her boys had outgrown, and it was on its way to Goodwill, but she knew Baby Girl was crazy about horses... would I like it for her?  Would I?  Just the kind of challenge I love, and I had carte blanche to redecorate it however I wanted.

It was sturdy and had good bones, but was in need of a makeover...
Started out by removing the old mane, tail, and bridle
But after some plastic surgery...
The jigsaw gave it a new profile
Fresh make-up...
Quite a few coats of white paint

A soft new 'do...
And some tasteful accessories...
Hot-glued braid bridle, modge-podged gingham fabric accents
She is ready and waiting for an almost-3-year-old's birthday.
And the best part?  With most of the supplies already on hand, this one put me back just $3.50 in fabric and trim.

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