Friday, September 21, 2012

Marshmallow fondant changed my life

Two posts in the same week!  But this is too good not to share. 

Over the years I've gotten used to being up past 2am the night before birthday parties, decorating the cake.  Partly it's my own procrastination, but it's also my inability to work on things like this with kids around.  And frosting takes me a long time to get right.

With Little Brother's birthday theme being yet again cops and robbers, I thought we'd have ourselves a real cops-and-robbers game in the backyard, complete with money bags stolen by the robbers (conscripted dad and older brothers), a police station, handcuffs, and 6-year-olds running around armed with mini-nerf guns.  The requisite pinata was the easiest ever (brown paper bag filled with candy and tied with string), and the cake took less than an hour to assemble.

I'd prebaked the cake in a friend's giant cupcake pan, and then smoothed it out with a coat of buttercream, but this is what you really want to know about:  How to make marshmallow fondant.

I pretty much followed her instructions, using a 10.5 oz bag of minimarshmallows, flavoring with almond extract and throwing in about a tbsp of cocoa to tint it light brown.  It was easier to make than homemade playdough, and is very easy to work with if you have lots of powdered sugar in the bowl and on the work surface (I put in 3 cups which turned out to be way more than I needed, but that also made it very easy to work with since it didn't stick to anything.)  It was softest and easiest to roll out and work with while still warm, but even after it cooled it was still very pliable.  It tastes pretty much as you'd expect: straight sugar, lightly flavored, but you make fondant for its decorative possibilities, not for its taste.

Now I am a whole 2 hours ahead of schedule, even with a blog post thrown in.  Life changing, I tell you.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Edible Lego Minifigures

Another year, another birthday... but still legos and police.  At Little Brother's insistence, this year we got a bit more adventurous and tried for colorful minifigures on the cupcakes using candy melts instead of chocolate.

Here's how:

Start with some colored candy melts.  Melt them in the microwave in snack-sized ziplock bags at 50% power.

Snip a small hole in a corner, and squeeze melted candy into a silicone minifigure mold.   The consistency is like toothpaste, so it will hold its shape.  Try not to think about how much fat saturation that takes.  Start with the head and a small dab for each hand.

Repeat with color of choice for shirt and pants

Shake or tap mold quickly for about 10-20 seconds to liquefy the melts and release air bubbles (which you should see come up to the top and pop).

Let harden in the fridge or freezer, then pop them out.

Pipe on some faces (black decorator's icing here, but you could use candy melts too) and you are all set.
And for some truly spectacular Halloween treats, check these out.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Passionfruit Plenty

 So many of my childhood memories of visiting my grandparents in Taiwan center around flavors and scents - many of them fruits.  Wax apple, star fruit, guava, papaya, loquat... all available on dooryard trees or at the open air markets.  My favorite of them all was the passionfruit, or more aptly, in Chinese, "fruit of a hundred fragrances". 

When we moved to Florida and discovered that in the warm climate we could grow all these childhood favorites, I went to the local nursery, and after picking out the obligatory citrus trees, brought home our first passionfruit.  Like all vines, it was a fast grower, even on the north side of a fence, and covered that fence in a season.  It didn't have as many flowers as I would have liked, and I had to fight the squirrels for the fruit, but it did well until winter, when a hard freeze killed it to the ground.  Not quite the same climate as Taiwan, after all.

 After a few years, I finally got it together enough to make a planter last year, and in May, picked up another passionfruit vine from the nursery.  Inside the screen porch and covered with a blanket during frosts, it survived the winter and didn't even lose all its leaves (we did have a mild winter.  In colder weather mini lights under the blanket and soaking the pot with water will probably keep it warm enough to survive).   Here it is this spring, covering the trellis.

I moved it outside into the full sun (your standard screen will cut sunlight - and UV - by a startling 50%) and the growth and flowering really took off.  Because of the shape of the large flower, pollination is most effective by a large pollinator like the carpenter bee, and not having an abundance of them around our yard, I had to hand pollinate with a paint brush to get the fruit to set.  It's a quick process, but needs to be done for every single blossom that the bees don't get, and since they only bloom for a single day, I missed about half of them.  All the same, I got over 100 fruits.  About two weeks ago, they started ripening and the real fun began.

Passionfruit, when they are ripe, fall off the vine with the slightest touch (about half the time I am picking them up off the ground since they dropped during the night).  Their rinds shrivel within a day or two to give you that characteristic wrinkly look you see in stores.
Cut the fruit in half with a sharp knife, and you see the flavorful pulp:  little pockets of juice surrounding each black seed.  Scoop it out with a spoon and use it immediately, or if you have too much, freeze it in ice cube trays to keep for future use.

 The easiest way to use them is in a smoothie, blended with other fruits.  The seeds are edible (if crunchy) and don't have much of a flavor of their own.  I prefer not to strain the pulp since I don't want to lose any of that juice, so we just eat it seeds and all.  If you want a smooth texture, you can always strain them out.

Another easy preparation is to make a simple syrup, with 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar, and 1/2 cup passionfruit pulp.  Bring it to a boil and reduce until it is slightly thickened and syrupy.  This sweet, tangy concoction is perfect mixed into plain yoghurt, poured over shaved ice, or drizzled over a panna cotta.  Here are some recipes to get you started.  In all of them, you can increase the proportion of passionfruit pulp to get a stronger flavor.

Vanilla Honey Pannacotta with Passionfruit syrup

(1 cup plain yoghurt, 1 cup heavy cream, 4 tbsp honey, 1 tsp vanilla, 1 pkg powdered gelatin.  Sprinkle gelatin over cold cream, mix well, then heat until dissolved.  Mix in other ingredients, pour into molds, and chill until set.  Top with passionfruit syrup.) 

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Perfection in Small Things

It's been a while since I tried to sit down and write anything.  The addition of our floppy-eared, furry-tailed fifth child to the rest of the family chaos has eaten up pretty much any time I had to spare.  But today we bewail celebrate the first day of summer vacation, so it seemed like a good occasion to risk a chewed throw pillow for the sake of a post.

Last spring I came across a pot of hydrangeas that were so blue that they haunted me until I went back and purchased them.  Florist hydrangeas are about as disposable as cut flowers (they're not bred for hardiness) and I am not usually one for throwaway purchases (too many years feeding a family on a graduate student stipend has ingrained in me a certain parsimony.) But they were just so... blue.  A genuine blue, too, not the dye-in-the-water blue of carnations around Independence day and moth orchids at Home Depot.

So after a glorious month of blooms, I trimmed the dead blossoms, watered it occasionally, and hoped for the best.  It survived the mild Florida winter in the screen porch, and I was excited to see flower buds a few weeks ago.  But as you can see, it's a shadow of its former self.

But thank goodness for bud vases.  I love bud vases, because they are so much easier to fill than large vases (remember, I don't buy cut flowers... I could pretend it's because of the pesticides, but really, I'm just too cheap).  And because it's just a single flower, I don't try to keep it around past its prime and watch its sad, slow decay (can you tell I have issues with cut bouquets?)  Perfect for blooms from my orchids, and now perfect for this hydrangea:

Which is a good life lesson to help me survive the summer.  I love for my kids to have the down time of summer vacation, and I love the freedom it gives us to fit in the unscripted - the impromptu picnics and fishing trips, the Ninja's random science experiments and the kitchen upheaval when the Eldest decides he wants to make a sachertorte, the late night swims with Little Sister and walks to the park with Little Brother, past all normal bedtimes.  Which all sounds idyllic until the kids wake up crabby at 7am (why will they never sleep in??) and I realize that the day hasn't even started and the house is already completely trashed and my life looks something like that scraggly hydrangea.  It's then that I need to reframe the picture, cut off a pretty branch, stick it in a bud vase, and zoom in.  Enjoy the small perfections, so intensely beautiful that it can carry us all through the laundry, cooking, decluttering, hollering, and squabbling that ties it all together.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Horse Art

I got the idea for an art wall in Baby Girl's room when I discovered Costco Photo Center's gallery of free art images.  We had a fun afternoon of browsing through and picking her favorite horse pictures, then I added a few more images from other sources (like the Uffington and Lascaux horses) and had them all printed on photo paper for under $15 (considerably cheaper than the framed canvas option).

With the help of a hand-me-down workbench from a friend and a circular saw, a few sheets of MDF scrap were soon cut into the right sizes to back these photos.  I painted the edges of the MDF with an off-white to match the room's trim, used a thin layer of wood glue to fix the photos onto the boards.

Then of course the pictures sat stacked on her dresser for months until I finally got around to hanging them up today.  But I do have an excuse:

Introducing Barclay, here at 11 weeks, the newest member of our family

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

May cause unexpected twirling

With physical therapy and doctors' appointments added to the usual round of activities, there has been little time to tackle the project backlog.  So this less-than-ten-minute project was particularly satisfying.  The materials were lying around the house, but I hadn't had the time to put thought into just how I was going to make Baby Girl a canopy so she could have a real princess bed.

This is what I used:

  • Pair of sheer curtains (LILL from Ikea, at $4.99 cheaper than I can make 'em)
  • Pair of bracket curtain rods (old ones I had in the garage, you can find them here)
  • 4 binder clips
  • white plastic tape
  • ribbon
  • screw hook
  • drywall anchor (something like these)

I took apart the curtain rods (each pulls apart into 2 halves) and joined them bracket-to-long-end to make a square.  A bit of crimping with the pliers, and the long end slid into the end bracket up to the bend pretty easily.  Since this doesn't need to be particularly sturdy, I just crimped it tight and taped it to hold it together (something like duct tape or electrical tape should work well).  Before closing the last joint, don't forget to thread on your curtains.

A binder clip in each corner serves to both hold the curtain in place and also to be an attaching point for hanging.  I had a garland I'd made for a party years ago, which dressed it up easily, slipped under the edge of the binder clip to hold it in place.

Loop 4 equal lengths of ribbon through the binder clips, gather them together, knot off, and hang from a screw hook.  There wasn't a joist where I wanted to place it, but since this whole thing is less than 5 lbs, a drywall anchor was a sturdy enough mount for the screw hook.

I think it's calling out for a little more embellishment - maybe some ribbon streamers, or some flowers.  But this isn't a bad start for 10 minutes... especially judging from Baby Girl's reaction:  she jumped on the bed and started twirling, because words failed her.  And then lay down to show me just how a princess sleeps.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Acorns and Pearls

Years ago I saw an idea in a Better Homes & Gardens holiday book, which is just too good not to share.  And yes, it is now February, and this is a decidedly autumn project, but I thought I'd post it so you can have it in mind for future broken pearl necklaces or stray acorns.

For a candle ring, you will need a 6-8" grapevine wreath, lots of acorns, and assorted pearls to fit the acorn caps.

The acorns can be gathered from your neighborhood oak tree in the fall, and the wreath can be made from stray grapevine (around here it is everywhere)... but if you gather your own, be sure to bake it in the oven at 250F (after you've shaped the grapevine) for an hour to kill any larvae within the the wood or acorns.  Not only are exiting insect holes unsightly, wood boring insects like powder post beetles can set up shop in your home and invade your studs.  Don't ask me how I know this.

Once you have your materials gathered and prepped, the assembly is easy.  Cover the wreath uniformly with acorns, some of them with the nuts replaced by pearls, glueing it all in place with a glue gun.  A word of advice:  if the nuts did not fall out of their caps during the baking process, pull them out anyway and put a dab of glue under the cap before putting them back in; this will keep those acorns in place for years to come.

For co-ordinating napkin rings, cut a 12" length of ribbon, flame-seal the ends to keep them from fraying, and with a needle and thread sew on a 2-acorn sprig, with a pearl replacing one of the acorn nuts.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

More fun with power tools

So much for anonymity
Over the summer I saw an idea for a  monogram photo collage on pinterest which was perfect for brightening up an empty corner of a kid's room.  With hundreds of free photo print credits at an online retailer (long story involving my bargain-hunting brother), it was a matter of minutes to get a stack of photos ordered, but it took until after Christmas (but before the broken arm!) for me to find time to work on this project.

I'd initially planned on just making a large "J", but with so many photos and a 2'X4' sheet of MDF, it seemed the best way to use up the space was to go with the whole name.

To make one like it, you'll need:

--1/4" medium density fiberboard
--photos (in b&w or sepia)
--modge podge or white glue
--paint (black or dark brown)
--jigsaw & drill

I started out letting John pick his favorite font for his name.  The fastest way for me to get the letters right next to each other was to print it out and then fold the paper - I'm sure there's a more involved way to manipulate the text and print it out just right, but it wasn't worth figuring out for me.

To help me enlarge the name, I divided each letter roughly into halves, then sketched out a similar grid on the MDF.  Chalk is a nice forgiving medium for this task, followed by sharpie after you're satisfied with the result of your sketching.

If, like me, you are using antiquated (i.e. older than me) tools and a jerry-rigged set-up on clementine crates, then the easiest way to cut around all the bends and sharp corners is to drill holes ( a 1/2" wood boring bit is nice for this) at all the sharp corners or interior cuts, and then go dot-to-dot with the jigsaw:

The dots don't have to be followed sequentially or unidirectionally - the easiest way to handle an inside corner is to come at it from opposite directions.

Having the recipient there to help hold the MDF steady is a nice bonus

After the name is all cut out give it a light sanding and paint the edges your desired colour.  (If you are concerned about the MDF off-gasing, a coat of paint over the entire exposed surface of the board will help with that.)  Then comes the fun part of gluing on your photos.  I used modge-podge, but a thin even layer of white glue should work as well.  I didn't take pictures of the process, but what worked for me was to lay the photos over the name, then crease them by pressing your finger along the edge of the MDF - this will give you a nice bend in the photopaper that you can cut along.  Glue on your photos, let it dry, and if you want you can give the edges  another light sanding to distress it.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

It seemed like a good idea at the time

Life Imitates Art

Yesterday Little Brother was poring over a playmobil catalog and commented "Look, Mom, this boy fell off his bike and broke his arm."  I was mildly concerned that he was so traumatized as to be projecting his own life onto an advertisement, until I looked closer and saw that our life is now indeed mirroring a playmobil scenario.

Last week, the Eldest and the Ninja managed to, with a bike, a scooter, and a tow rope, give the Ninja a compound supracondylar fracture of the humerus.  The Ninja stayed incredibly collected and calm through the whole ordeal, while the Eldest, who had cajoled his brother into this adventure (complete with a guarantee of payment if he got hurt) and who felt responsible for disregarding Dad's express orders against tying ropes to bikes, was near hysterical with grief.  Which all makes the Eldest sound worse than he deserves.  He has a soft heart and a strong conscience to balance out his harebrained ideas.  Privately Dad and I call him the Instigator... and he's also the one all the little kids flock to, because he is the most exciting playmate.

The Ninja is the contemplative, deliberate one in the family, the one who often lives in his own mind in a world governed by logic.  The risks he takes are, if misinformed, at least calculated (hence the request for a guarantee).  Once, when he was 3, and not believing me when I told him that he couldn't tell by looking at it whether the stove was hot, he watched for me to turn off the stove, and then, when I was busy with his brother, went to deliberately test it.  I had no idea until he didn't come when called to do his chores, and going to look for him I found him running his fingers under cold water in the upstairs bathroom, tears streaming down his face and crying defiantly, "I don't want to tell you what I was doing," which turned soon enough into "Mommy, why was it still hot after you turned it off?"  And so I found myself, while assuaging his wounded pride and bandaging his blistered fingers, trying to explain thermal conductivity to a 3-year-old. 

With such different personalities in the house, coexistence is not always a peaceful thing, and so often I am called in to arbitrate irreconcilable disputes.  Which may explain why I could be calm at the scene of the accident and through the ambulance ride, in the ER, and at Radiology, but narrowly escaped bursting into tears when the Ninja asked to talk to the Eldest on the phone through a pain- and narcotic-clouded haze, and said, "I forgive you.  I forgive you.  I'm all right.  No, it doesn't hurt too much."

We are home now, held together with a few pins, plaster splint, and the closeness of a shared trial.  A little frailer, a little more aware of our fragility, but oh, so much stronger for it all.