Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Project #242 - Pittsburgh Tunnels Quiz

I've been a sporcle quiz addict for about a year. Thanks to them I can enumerate all of the elements in the periodic table, name all of the Presidents of the United States and write out all of the sea areas of the BBC Shipping Forecasts.

Recently, sporcle opened up their quiz generator so that anyone can put together their one of their own. I put together a quick one honoring my current hometown.

Name the Tunnels of Pittsburgh


posted by Alison 9/30/2009 11:48:00 PM : (2) comments : splink

Monday, September 28, 2009

Project #241 - Striped Shirt

There is something about this shirt that gives me an acute case of 'I don't wannas'. I managed to get it to a state of near completion, but I just can't get myself to finish the bottom hem and add buttons. I don't think there is anything wrong with this shirt, but every time I look at it I get the urge to clean the kitchen, or cut out a pair of pants, or do anything but work on this project.

This is the exact opposite of how I usually prioritize household tasks. My normal mode of operation is to perform tasks that can be accomplished easily so that I can give myself a check mark on my to-do list. So, it's not the most efficient scheme, but it's one that maximizes my self-satisfaction. This shirt is a good example of a low hanging fruit, one that shouldn't take more than an hour to complete, but self motivation is lacking.

I'm going to put this one aside and take a break from it. Perhaps the urge to complete it will return later when I'm trying to avoid something else.

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posted by Alison 9/28/2009 01:55:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Project #240 - Reese's Caramel Bars

Clark doesn't like sweet things very much, but Reese's Pieces have a magical property that suddenly renders any dessert into his favorite thing ev-AH. I don't know if it's the weird peanut butter or the candy shell, but if I made artichokes with Reese's Pieces he would probably eat them all and then ask me to make more for tomorrow.

So, now I have the perfect ingredient to reverse a past cooking failure. My so-so popcorn toffee bars will now be rendered as the caramel bars they were supposed to be and then elevated to the next level with peanut buttery goodness. (Woooo!) I now have a proper candy thermometer to guarantee success (Yeah yeah, I talk about it a lot, but I love it so much that I can't stop talking about it. [Woooo!]).

So, I popped a pot full popcorn the same as I did here, and let it cool. I lined a 9" by 13" rectangular glass pan with greased wax paper (bad idea*) and poured my popcorn in to form a 1 - 1.5 inch deep layer. I then sprinkled about a cup of Reese's Pieces on top.

Lastly, I made my third batch of caramel this month (recipe here) and poured it over my popcorn, coating uniformly. It will sink through and form a chewy bottom layer. Just let the bars cool for an hour and then slice and enjoy.

Sharing is recommended because each bar has enough fat and sugar to take 30 minutes off of your lifespan.

*If you don't like eating paper, don't do what I did. The wax paper, despite the layer of grease did not peel off the bars without leaving half of itself behind. Instead, use thicker parchment paper. Luckily, I have a husband who doesn't mind eating anything attached to something containing Reese's Pieces, but I don't recommend it.

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posted by Alison 9/27/2009 07:05:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Peanut Time


posted by Alison 9/26/2009 11:49:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Project #239 - Fake Chicken Eggs

In order to get chickens to do what you want, sometimes you have to play to their instincts. Chickens naturally prefer to lay eggs in a nest that has already been used. It's better to use a nest that has been proven safe rather than taking a chance and building a new, untested one. Most people take advantage of this chicken behavior and put out fake eggs in a place of their choosing. Otherwise, free-range chickens will just lay where they please and their humans are left playing a real-life Easter Egg hunt.

But why fake eggs? Why not use real ones from the supermarket? Chickens are curious and they have a way of discovering that real ones, even hard-boiled, are delicious. Once they go down that path it's hard to make them stop. They'll peck at the fake ones and then ignore all eggs because those first few sure weren't tasty.

Our chickens are almost old enough to start laying eggs and we'd prefer that we got a first crack at them. I decided to make a few test eggs out of polymer clay and see how they worked for the chickens. Polymer clay is expensive, so I decided to make two with different materials in the center to see which worked best. I wrapped my clay around a ping pong ball and a large marble and then baked them at 215 degrees F for 30 minutes.

The marble egg came out just right, but the ping pong ball one exploded right before I pulled it out of the oven. That's too bad because we have a lot of defunct table tennis balls sitting around the house that are dying for a purpose.

I'm going to make at least two or three more and add them to one of our nesting boxes. The funny thing is that these are supposed to work even if a chicken has never seen an egg. There is supposed to be something about round objects that trigger a nesting instinct in those little peanut brains.

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posted by Alison 9/26/2009 12:50:00 PM : (3) comments : splink

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Project #238 - Sea Salt Caramels

I had a stroke of good luck this week: I found an unused gift card for Bed, Bath & Beyond and I remembered to take it with the store with me for once. We finally have a real candy thermometer, so I am no longer obligated to use our meat thermometer at temperatures it was never built to withstand. It's nice to have good tools.

That means that I can finally make caramel candies and be sure that I won't end up with something that will pull my fillings out. Caramels are my favorite candies and it's wonderful to get a batch with the perfect buttery, chewy texture.

I used this sea salt caramel recipe from once again, although with my shiny new candy thermometer managed to turn out caramels instead of a big batch of toffee (again).

I really like the trend towards mixing sweet with salty for candies. The above recipe, despite its name, isn't really salty at all, so I added a pinch of salt on top to get it to that next level. Just that little bit really adds another dimension to the taste of these candies. There's something about that briny flavor that makes my mouth water in ways that sweetness alone does not. Still, I love to make batches that are half-salted and half-traditional caramel and alternate between the two tastes when I'm having a treat.

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posted by Alison 9/24/2009 07:04:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Project #237 - Chicken Palace

After weeks of work we finally have a fully functional and permanent chicken coop. It's two stories, almost all of the wood is recycled, and all together it provides more than 6 square feet of space for each of our three animals.

The chickens knew that it was built especially for them. Before we finished their new residence I placed Elanor the chicken on the roost to see if she would be comfortable. She grabbed on with both feet and refused to let go, not even to go to sleep in the kitchen for one of the last times with her sisters. So, we let them all sleep in their incomplete chicken coop, and they haven't stopped loving it since. Each night they take the ramp to the second floor and hop one by one onto the roost. They are especially keen on it now that they have a roof and protection from predators.

Clark did all of the construction. I helped with the painting and chicken wire. The top box was made of a box-like wooden coffee table that we got for free from Construction Junction. The posts holding it up were old stair posts that we got for 25 cents each.

It looks good, and I hope it lasts for years and years.

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posted by Alison 9/23/2009 07:02:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Project #236 - Half Baked Idea Poster Prototype

This afternoon I took a trip to the Waffle Shop to do a run-through of my Visionary Ideas talk. Since my idea involved teaching chickens different kinds of phonemes, I loaded Mary into the car to see how she behaved when separated from her sisters.

One of the rules for the contest is that digital aids aren't allowed. I'll be using posters with cutout illustrations. The shop is rather small, so I made a demo poster-slide to see if it would work for the area, but I learned that instead of sizing everything for the dining room table sized diner, I would have to make everything large enough for the cathedral across the street. Nuts. I need to figure out how to make my visual aids big enough to be seen from 100 feet away.

Mary did not like her trip, but only grumbled while sitting in the Waffle Shop and grudgingly accepted peanuts as a consolation. However, when I took her across the street to the church she went completely bonkers. She's never been in a space that big and the enormousness of it spooked her. I've never heard a chicken scream before, but her only reaction to the sanctuary was an "AAAAAAAAAAAA! [pause for breath] AAAAAAAAAAAA!" She stopped as soon as I took her out of there, but the damage was done. She'd spent less than an hour out in the East Liberty neighborhood, but she was just done with me for the rest of the day.

Luckily, my talk will be later at night when she'll be a little more mellow. We'll keep her cage covered by a blanket just to keep her calm.

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posted by Alison 9/22/2009 07:03:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Project #235 - 55 Years Gown

Dim light and photography don't really mix, but it's what you have to do if you want a picture at a wedding reception with mood lighting. I sewed most of this dress right before leaving for Indiana a few days ago, but I was tacking down facings and stitching the hem up until an hour before the wedding ceremony.

The pattern is Vogue #2960, originally published in 1954, hence the name of my dress. Two people I love were born in that year, so it's a good one.

This is the first time I've ever done bound button-holes. I think I'll need to do a few hundred more before I get the hang of it; they are not for the faint of heart. I think they where a good choice for what would be a formal dress (much neater than machined button holes), but I'm dumbfounded as to why any pattern with such a difficult set of details would be classified by Vogue as "easy". I really makes me scared to try any vintage reprints labeled as 'average'.

Still, I loved wearing this dress and I think the color suits me. I made it out of three yards of silk shangtung that I purchased with this pattern specifically in mind. I don't think I've ever gotten so many compliments on a dress before. Maybe the good wedding vibes prompted everyone to be free with positive comments, but it's nice to get nice feedback on a dress that has to fit in amongst hundreds of really nice store-bought ones.

It feels a little weird to tell people that I make most of my own clothes. It's a little like fishing for compliments when I say that I made something, so I've been keeping my mouth shut most of the time in public. Still, the rumor got out, so I'm not sure if people were saying 'What a pretty dress!' or 'What a pretty dress, you know, for something handmade.'

Whatever. I like it and I'm going to wear it again.

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posted by Alison 9/20/2009 02:00:00 PM : (2) comments : splink

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Project #234 - Baby Pengiuns

I guess wasn't done making penguins even though I ran through almost all of my black polymer clay making yesterday's penguins. Every flock needs their own little guys. I went through a few drafts trying some different beak, face and tummy colorations, but this was the better combination. Still, I think they need some work and it doesn't help that the metallic clay is a little weird.

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posted by Alison 9/16/2009 01:28:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Project #233 - Pengiun Army

I've been talking to friends of Clark who are keen at business about how they started their own companies. The best piece of advice that I've gotten is that I should only consider starting a business if it encompasses my passion, and, no, making lots of money doesn't really count as a passion. It's a cliche, of course, "Follow your passion", but they are right. I keep thinking of business ideas that would be profitable, but make me wince when I think about all of the tedious programming I would have to do just to set up a proof of concept.

Still, at the end of my fantasy of building a successful software company, I always sell it for a high price and retire to making and selling little things with my hands. Maybe I should just skip to the fun part at the end.

So, just to see if I could take hours and hours of making little things, I decided to make something big for once and put it up for sale in my etsy shop. I recreated my penguin decoration set from my wedding, but instead of making everything over the course of a few weeks I did it over two days. I think I handled my repetitive task well, but it was only for a few hours at a time.

I don't think I will be quitting my job anytime soon, but it's a nice chance to make a little extra money and get some feedback on what I'm working on.

If you're interested in buying lots and lots and lots of penguins, the Etsy listing is here.

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posted by Alison 9/15/2009 01:57:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Monday, September 14, 2009

Project #232 - Half Baked Idea Speech

I ran across an interesting announcement via I Heart PGH, the Waffle Shop will be holding a speech competition for visionary ideas. For those of you unfamiliar with the Waffle Shop, it's a place to buy breakfast and a talk show. The examples of visionary ideas they gave were not very conventional ("a way for animals to run governments", "a cloning system that reinvents history"), so I came up with my own half-baked, impractical idea and sent it in.

How to Teach Animals to Speak the King's English

Wouldn't the world be a better place if animals had better manners? Deer would no longer leap in front of cars on the highway, ants would await invitations before attending picnics, and the insult of pigeon poop would be a distant memory. The only way to encourage animals to embrace politeness is on a being-to-being level. That is, we must learn to communicate with animals and get them to communicate back with us. The trans-species conversation could spur on better human stewardship of the environment, more understanding for endangered species, and help teach barbaric-mannered animals to be more considerate.

But are animals capable of the higher order brain functions needed to produce the King's English? Consider this: the computer on your desktop at home has about the same intelligence capacity as a frog. It has a number of bits in its memory chips comparable to the number of neurons in the frog's brain. Your computer has the power to correct your spelling and grammar as well as look up words in dictionaries containing millions of entries. Not only that, your computer has the capacity to let you play games, do your taxes, and remind you to send your mother flowers for her birthday, among millions of other tasks it is capable of performing. We are not asking the average frog to fill out a 1040, we are asking it to have a simple conversation and comment on the weather, something a the average computer is capable of doing.

Certainly, we have had other friends in the animal kingdom who have already learned to converse with us, for instance Koko the gorilla or Alex the African gray parrot. Additionally, it is a historical fact that Alexander Graham Bell taught his family dog to say "How are you grandma?" Now, that is not only functional and polite, but also respectful of the elderly.

There are several layers of functionality to a language. That is, any language must be learned (in ascending order of complexity) phonetically (sounds), lexically (words), morpho-syntactically (grammar), and pragmatically (intention and discourse structure). By tracing along this pathway, starting with sounds and words and ending with polite conversation, we can teach nearly any animal to communicate with us from the humble grasshopper to the mighty elephant.

Of course, we practice what we teach. My husband and I care for three Rhode Island Red chickens who are currently undergoing lessons in elocution and table manners. They have brains the size of peanuts and yet the are keenly aware of the goings on in their tiny backyard and are prone to gossip, a habit we are trying to mend.

We took a cue from Mr. Bell and his talking dog in order to train our chickens. In order to prepare his dog for speech he first trained it to growl continuously before teaching it specific sounds. We used pumpkin seeds to encourage the utterance of specific phonemes. We knew off hand that they could say 'buk buk', which gave us two important consonants, Through a system of rewards we managed to get them to say 'rrr', 'mmm', 'nnn', and so forth until they were prepared to form words and then sentences.

I propose to teach these methods in detail to a live audience. I hope in the end help spread good grammar and fine manners throughout the animal kingdom and build a new era of communication.

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posted by Alison 9/14/2009 07:02:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Project #231 - Mini Mushrooms

I made tiny mushrooms for my planters, you know, because mushrooms are awesome. Though it is a little odd that the cutest mushrooms in nature are usually poisonous. For instance, I know of no red toadstools that won't at least make people violently sick when eaten. Hmm...there's a metaphor in here somewhere.

Also, speaking of eating dangerous mushrooms, I had to take these out of my herb planters immediately because the chickens thought they were food. It's like living with a backyard full of toddlers. I constantly have to chase them down yelling "What did you just put into your mouth!? Give it to me!!" Of course, the chickens are not fans of being yelled at, so I have to chase them down and hope they drop whatever little piece of plastic they were tasting.

I baked the mushrooms with little twisted pieces of wire inside them to keep them upright.

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posted by Alison 9/13/2009 08:13:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Project #230 - Hamburger Cake Toppers

So, Clark and I had penguin cake toppers on our wedding cake, but I know that if Clark had been in charge, we would have had hamburger cake toppers. On a hamburger shaped cake. Scratch that, they would have been on top of a giant pile of hamburgers because the man does not really care for cake.

Sadly, he does not share my sweet tooth. That means that I usually get to eat his dessert (yay!), but he usually does not buy sweets (boo!).

Personally, if I could go back in time, I would top my wedding cake with miniature wedding cakes...that would be topped by even smaller wedding cakes. Hmm, I should make those anyway.

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posted by Alison 9/12/2009 08:56:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Friday, September 11, 2009

Project #229 - Terrarrium

My husband really misses his ducks*, so I made a little terrarium scene with some mini replicas of our beloved Yama and Sabu. I wanted him to take it in to the office so he would have a little something green to look at during the winter.

Plus, nothing says love like a terrarium.

He is also a big fan of moss so I dug up a patch from the concrete on the side of our house and arranged it to fit in the jar. I had a bare spot, so I added a little clover plant, too. They are both from a super shady part of the yard, so they should both be kept out of direct sunlight.

The jar doesn't drain, so I have a layer of gravel at the bottom to absorb excess water without completely removing it from the system. The soil is ordinary potting soil and the moss is just sitting on top.

Keeping the moisture equilibrium in the jar shouldn't be hard. Just open the jar if the glass fogs up, and spritz it with water if the moss feels dry. Otherwise, the jar should be sealed.

*In case you missed it, the ducks moved back in with their breeder because duck quacks do, in fact, echo, especially at 6 am on a Saturday. Just in case you're worried, the breeder does not eat birds.

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posted by Alison 9/11/2009 01:55:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Project #228 - Stovetop Popcorn Toffee Bars

I've grown a little sick of salty, fake-butter microwave popcorn, so I went back to basics and learned how to pop popcorn on the stovetop, something I've never done until this week. It's so easy that I might give up the microwave kind forever. Just take a medium sized pot and pour enough vegetable oil in it to cover the bottom. Heat it until it starts to smoke. Throw in 2-3 tablespoons of kernels, depending on the size of the pot. You want enough to cover the bottom of the pot without any sitting on top of one another, but not so few that there is extra oil and you end up with a greasy bottom layer of kernels.

Cover the pot and shake it gently on the burner. Popping will start after only a few seconds and probably last only a minute. Keep shaking. Wait until the popping dies down and remove the pot from the flame. You should have a pot full of popcorn and no lingering oil. Almost every time I end up with every kernel popped and no yucky burnt ones, which would be a miracle with microwave popcorn.

It's overall much, much cheaper than buying the bagged kind. Also, I love buying anything where the ingredients list contains only one item. It even says 'ingredient' instead of 'ingredients'. I love it!

Of course, I can never eat all of my popcorn. Coating the popcorn in something keeps it from getting stale, so I opted to cover mine in toffee. Actually, I wanted to coat them in caramel, but I don't have a thermometer that goes high enough to distinguish between frim-ball and hard-crack, so I ended up with hard crack popcorn. All things considered, it was a tasty way to go, but not the best idea if you have dental work.

I used this recipe for fleur de sel caramels for the coating. Despite the name, this recipe is not salty at all. If you want toffee follow the recipe, but cook the caramel mixture to 258┬░F.

Line a baking pan with wax paper and grease the hell out of it. Add a layer of popcorn. Make the caramel/toffee mixture and pour it over the popcorn. Don't stir. Let it cool for an hour. Slice and then gorge.

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posted by Alison 9/10/2009 10:54:00 PM : (1) comments : splink

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Project #227 - Turtle Cake Toppers

Sometimes things just don't work out. Sometimes your head pops off in the oven and fuses to your torso.

Oh well, it's nothing that a little glue can't fix. Still, I'm not in love with the way these turtles are sitting, probably because real turtles don't sit. Their limbs somehow look too long and too short at the same time; it's just awkward. Oh well, I'm going to chalk this one up to experience.

I do think the flower is cute, so I might start using it elsewhere. It's a good way to specify animal gender without getting graphic.

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posted by Alison 9/09/2009 03:21:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Project #226 - Forest Edibles Hike

Hello! Come into the woods with me today where we shall dine on the dew and fairies of the hills of West Virgina. I'm told that fairies are quite tasty when dipped in honey-mustard.

Continuing my decade-long quest to uncover new sources of free food, we now turn to the forest, specifically the fungus-covered part of the forest. I've been researching wild mushrooms and sometime yesterday I convinced myself that I had enough just enough knowledge to find some of the easier to identify ones without getting us killed.

We used a remote state park in West Virgina to test my mushroom hunting skills. We neither saw nor heard one other person during our entire hike. I pulled up some mushroom identification web pages on my mini-laptop while we were still at the B&B so we could use them as a reference guide on the path.

Of course, the laptop restarted on its own and we were suddenly left without any external guidance. I think these could be chanterelles (tasty!) or they could be false chanterelles (blech!). It's almost like every edible mushroom has an evil twin! Mushrooms are jerks.

These bracket mushrooms were one of the first big mushroom specimens we ran across. I'm pretty sure that these are oyster mushrooms, and luckily, there are no poisonous look-alikes in North America. However, after researching at home it seems that there are some untasty imitators out in the woods. I have a small sample of this mushroom in my fridge, but I'm a little scared to try it out. They do smell really, really tasty, though.

Okay, I am positive that these are turkey tails, as they have no look-alikes. Aren't they lovely? They smell heavenly, just like the oyster mushrooms (?). They are a little too tough to be eaten, so they are usually consumed by steeping them to make tea. I'm told that they are good for fighting off cancer.

I found them after wandering off of the path and down a slight slope to investigate some fallen logs. We took just a little so that the patch would have a chance to continue growing.

I found these little puff balls growing on the same log. We left them as they were, but it looks like something has been nibbling on them.

I also found this adorable moss patch on the same log. It was about the size of a quarter. Most people probably don't think it is possible for moss to be cute. Those people are wrong.

We also found wild blackberries on the trail. They were so ripe and perfect that we couldn't resist having a few.

Later that day, we took a trip over to the Dolly Sods, mostly because I heard a rumor that there were still blueberries and huckleberries growing over there. We found neither, but the environment was so unique it was still worth the ride up some scary, blind dirt roads.

The Dolly Sods covers a plateau on top of a mountain. Over the last century, the area was extensively logged, ranched nearly to death and then set on fire for nearly a decade. After that, only ferns and lichen could handle the soil, so the cattle moved on. Now the land was only good for one thing, blowing it up with mortar shells by troops in training for World War II. Today it is part of the Monongahela National Forest.

Still, despite the abusive history it's a pretty place and home to plant and animal life that is not found anywhere else in the area.

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posted by Alison 9/08/2009 02:31:00 AM : (1) comments : splink

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Project #225 - Wrap Front Shirt

The pattern for this shirt is B4789, and I've made it least twice before. So, really I should not have been surprised that it's such a low-cut pattern...but I was. I have a goldfish-strength memory sometimes.

It left part of me thinking that I needed to install a 'modesty panel'. Is there a grimmer name for anything in fashion? It makes me think of the fussy calico dresses work by my grade school teachers, the kind with tiny pastel floral prints and a prim white panel if the dress even dared to show some collarbone.

So, for that reason, I'm going to reject the idea of a 'modesty panel' and show a little d├ęcolletage. Whatever, it's not like we burn people for doing that anymore. Right?

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posted by Alison 9/06/2009 03:14:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Project #224 - A-Line Skirt

I finished my green corduroy A-line skirt in the car at the last minute as we drove to the Cass Railway, the first stop on our 2nd Anniversary trip. I spent most of the 4 hour car trip in my pajamas, which is actually a pretty comfy way to travel. When we arrived at our hotel I did a quick change and Clark drove like a maniac on little mountain roads to get us to the train just before it left. We made it with just 5 minutes to spare.

The whistle on the train is very loud. Next time I'll ride in one of the rear cars just to protect my hearing.

Clark's Dad worked for Union Pacific Railroad until he retired last year. Clark inherited from him a strong case of train fever and spent a while after dinner deciphering the machinery on the Shay #6 that drove us up and down the mountain.

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posted by Alison 9/05/2009 03:13:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Friday, September 04, 2009

Project #223 - Strawberry Shortcake Cookies

Oh, Martha. Usually I can depend on you to publish recipes that turn out exactly like the picture. I've even made all of your candy recipes from last December's issue without breaking a sweat. How could it be that the one recipe that would throw me off would be one for a simple cookie. Your cookies look like fruity delights and mine look like...biscuits with dried fruit bits.

Still, thank goodness I have a husband who isn't picky about snacks.

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posted by Alison 9/04/2009 03:39:00 PM : (2) comments : splink

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Project #222 - Bias-Cut Silk Dress

I've never worked with silk charmeuse before. It's a beautiful, lustrous fabric, but with a reputation for being difficult to work with. It's slippery, quick to tear, and shows needle and pin marks. Plus, fabrics cut on the bias (that is, fabrics cut at a 45 degree angle) have a little stretch in them and are therefore more prone to warping and stretching.

Silk charmeuse really is all drape and no body, but it's perfect for a slinky cocktail dress that's supposed to hug your curves. This was how sexy clothes were built before the creation of mass-produced knit fabrics. Marilyn Monroe almost certainly never wore a jersey dress. Instead, she wore clingy fabrics cut on the bias to hug her curves, with a dart here and there to show off her waist.

Still, I think I managed to pull it off. I used some navy batiste for the lining to add some stability. Batiste is usually used to make lightweight shirts, but it has a good hand so that it's easy to sew with and yet has enough drape not to spoil the lines of the dress.

I really liked the pattern, Vogue 2898. The foot petal to my sewing machine is broken from overuse, so I sewed this entirely using the push-buttons on the machine display. This method of sewing is growing on me because I have a little easier time controlling the speed. I've learned the trick to sewing charmeuse neatly is to set the needle pace really, really, slow. Still, it was simple enough that I only needed a few hours to sew the dress together and finished in time for my wedding anniversary dinner. Time for sushi!

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posted by Alison 9/03/2009 06:12:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Project #221 - Woodland Apron

Each year for our anniversary I try to make something that is on theme for the traditional type of gift for that year. Our first anniversary was paper, so I put together a photo album for him. This year is cotton, so I made him an apron out of cotton fabric. Clark likes to cook and get messy, but it's hard to find an apron that fits him and doesn't look to feminine.

I purchased the fabric for the apron back last fall in Tokyo. Clark only sort-of liked it until I pointed out that it included a hedgehog balancing an apple on its back. After that, he really liked it. Of course, bright, garish colors are also his style.

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posted by Alison 9/02/2009 03:24:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

Project #220 - Homemade Noodles

Here is something I will never, ever do again. I will never make handmade pasta during a dinner party where I am expected to feed 10 people again. Ever.

Pasta sounds like something that would be so easy to make. It's just two ingredients: eggs and flour. The recipe I used called for three eggs for every two cups of flour. Mistake #1: deciding to make three batches of pasta, each out of a different kind of flour. We were going to make wheat flour pasta, semolina four pasta and bread flour pasta. If we had taken the, oh I don't know, 12 hours to roll out all of the dough it would have made enough pasta to feed 60 people.

And really, making the dough is misleadingly simple. Just pour out the flour into a bowl and make a divot. Crack three eggs into the divot and scramble them without disturbing the flour. Then mix the eggs and flour together, finally kneading to form a stiff dough.

I was smart enough to make some of the dough in advance. Mistake #2: not making all of the dough in advance. I wanted to give my guests a chance to make their own pasta because it sounded fun. The pasta dough making wasn't too bad for everyone, however, dough needs time to rest (~15-30 minutes) so there was a little while where I couldn't work on the pasta at all.

Here is the heart of the problem. I stupidly thought that running the dough through the pasta press would be one simple step. Mistake #3: stupidly thinking that running the dough through the pasta press would be one simple step. Actually, it's six steps. You have to feed the dough first through the sheet pasta press, starting with the widest setting. Then you feed the sheet through again and again, setting the press one degree narrower each time. After doing that five times only then can the pasta be run through the noodle cutter.

But how hard could that be? It's just turning a crank, right? Well, first, you need two people, one to turn the crank and the other to feed in the dough. By the last run through the little ball of dough we started with has grown into a sheet more than a yard long. The good news: that sheet will be enough to feed one person. The bad news: it took almost 10 minutes to make. Multiply that by 10 people...and you start to see the problem.

To compound that some of the party guests took too much and a few people didn't get any. Between Clark and myself we made about 7-8 dishes besides the pasta, so there was plenty to eat, but some people were still disappointed that they didn't get to try the dish of the evening. I was far to worn out to continue cranking, so those people are just going to have to be satisfied with rain checks.

Despite the trouble, fresh pasta is really, really good. I'll just make it far in advance next time.

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posted by Alison 9/02/2009 03:11:00 PM : (2) comments : splink

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Project #219 - Flower Arrangements #2

So, the flower arrangement from last week was a little bonkers, and not the easiest thing to arrange or maintain. So, in the spirit of giving out actual useful information I'll talk about some simpler flower arrangements made from the same bouquet.

This project would be good to note if you're thinking about doing your own simple arrangements for your/anyone's wedding. I could have saved myself a lot of money if I had some simple, accessible arrangements to crib from. Still, I carry with me some hard-won lessons. Leave flowers with multiple, large blossoms arranged vertically to the professionals. {Also, I will never be ready for floral foam.})

Statice is a great flower for anyone just getting into cutting their own. They'll put up with a lot of abuse (extreme temperatures, forgetting to water them for a day) and dry well if you're nervous about timing fresh flowers correctly.

Just fanning one type of flower in a vase is about as easy as it gets for arrangements. This works best for tree branch-shaped flower stems with multiple blossoms at different levels. Trim off anything that would be underwater and make sure you have a nice assortment of heights. Using multiple colors of the same flower will also add interest.

Fossflowers are a popular annual and will grow in most lawns. They sprout chaotic stems thick with little, hairy blossoms. Just a few stems will fill a lot of space and create informal, natural looking arrangements.

Delphinium are also easy yard flowers. I like to leave a little foliage on them to break up the columns of purple.

For two big, attention-getting flowers with single, circular blossoms like sunflowers and zinnias I like to treat them as equals and arrange them in one big ball. They'll tone each other down and and won't drown out more subtle blooms.

Otherwise, two different flowers with different blossom arrangements sometimes work best when placed at different vertical levels. Columnar snapdragons dominate the top half of the arrangement while puffy Joey Ptilotus (I think that's the right name...) fill in lower down. There is a little bit of mixing, especially with the ptilotus creeping up top, just to keep the bouquet from looking completely bifurcated.

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posted by Alison 9/01/2009 03:19:00 PM : (0) comments : splink

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