Saturday, 31 December 2011

Opinions from the Kitchen: December Cookie Review

Welcome to 'Opinions from the Kitchen', which I'm hoping to make into a regular monthly thing. After trying tons of recipes from the internet, I've found that they can be divided pretty equally into three categories: 'Awesome', 'Ok but needing modifications', and 'Really blah'. I want to do my part to spread the word about the awesome ones, and warn you away from the really blah ones.

Today's review will focus on cookies!
Before I get on with the cookie review, however, I figured it was important to establish my credentials as a baker. This picture of a typical Christmas eve at my house should pretty much sum it up: 

On this table, I have:

            - Chocolate peanut butter balls
            - Chocolate chip cookies
            - Pets de soeur (known to anglos as 'pinwheels')
            - Chocolate fudge with and without almonds
            - Rice Krispie Squares
            - Oatmeal chocolate macaroons
            - Rocky road bars
            - Gingersnaps
            - Peanut butter cookies
My annual tradition over the last decade or longer has been to bake at least sixty dozen cookies & squares in the days leading up to Christmas in order to create cookie boxes as gifts for family and friends. This may seem like an impossibly crazy amount of baking for one employed person to do in a few days, but if we assume that each batch makes about 5 dozen, that's only 10 to 20 batches to bake, and I usually double the recipe so that I get two done at once. So basically, I'm only up until 4am for two days.

Don't they look adorably delicious in their little boxes? I always buy reusable plastic containers instead of cookie tins so that the recipient can get a lot use out of them once they've eaten the baked goods. They're also see-through, which means the stack of cookie boxes looks awesome under the tree.

Every year, I make the staples, but I also try to bring in a few new types of goodies based on feedback from the year before. I've learned that one aunt likes extra fudge while another likes extra PB balls, that one cousin is crazy about rocky road bars, that my dad's favourites are peanut butter cookies and mini cheesecakes, and that my mom doesn't like anything made with coconut.

This year, I was away for the holidays so the baking volume went down significantly. I made some old favourites and tried some classics with a twist. Here's a quick review of the winners for this season.

Terry's Chocolate Orange Shortbread Cookies

I first heard about these from a coworker and they are my mom's current favourites. She requests a batch at every available opportunity. They're extremely simple in terms of ingredients, but the process is pretty work intensive considering that each batch only makes 20 cookies (the chocolate orange only has 20 wedges). The orange peel in the dough gives the shortbread a punch of flavour, and the chocolate drives it home. These are large cookies though, and they don't change shape much in the oven. Flattening them before baking really makes a difference if you want a nice surface on which to put your orange wedge. They'll turn out equally well whether you use a dark or milk chocolate orange.

Gingersnaps with Dark Chocolate Chips

These are the only cookies I've ever made that don't taste particularly good when they're still warm. W
hen they first came out of the oven,I was super disappointed because the dark chocolate completely masked the ginger. Once they cooled though, the flavours came out a lot more. There's a good mix of crunchy ginger cookie and not-too-sweet chocolate. They're excellent with coffee. Next time I make these, I will add a little bit of extra flour to make them more crumbly and more crinkly.

Dark Chocolate Chip Comfort Cookies

These may actually be the best cookies I've ever had. The moment I saw this recipe, I knew our love was meant to be. They're a perfect mixture of soft fudgy chocolate cookie, peanut butter, and chocolate chips. I once tried adding Skor bits - don't bother, they just get lost. Go bake a batch right now, you won't be sorry.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

First Online Fabric Purchase Thoughts & Impressions

I was hesitant to order fabric online after the discussions we'd had in my quilting classes. On the pro side, there's a bigger variety of colours and prints available online than any one shop could ever hope to carry. On the con side, there is no way to know from an image what thickness or quality of fabric you're going to get.

Considering the high quality fabrics I've gotten from Earthly Goods so far, it seemed like a gamble to order from an unknown source, but the only way to find out was to actually get some fabric. I considered ordering from Pink Chalk Fabrics and Fabricworm, but in the end I chose the Fat Quarter Shop because they carried most of the prints I'd been drooling over for at least six months.

Ordering fabric from a US store usually means that the shipping fees will be quite high, so I ordered quite a bit at once. This should be enough for one full size quilt and a few smaller items. My package arrived today after a week of waiting impatiently. This is how the fabric was packaged inside the box:

The first package held 1/2 yard of 8 fabrics:

White Birdcages - J'Adore Stella collection by Dear Stella Fabrics
Sea Bears in Line - Get Together by David Walker
White Linen Tortoises - 
Little Apples by Aneela Hoey
Blue Allover Hydrants - Off to the Rescue by Becky Taunton
Red Allover Hydrants - Off to the Rescue by Becky Taunton
Annie's Big Dot - Annie's Farm Stand by Holly Holderman
Black Grande Gighnam - Annie's Farm Stand by Holly Holderman
White ToadstoolHouses - 
Woodland by Natalie Lymer

The second package contained my larger yardage cuts of these 3 fabrics:
Black Dressforms -  Black and White by Michael Miller Fabrics
Blue City Dogs - Brown Stone by Timeless Treasures Fabrics
Black City Dogs - Brown Stone by Timeless Treasures Fabrics

The last package was my Brown Stone fat quarter bundle, containing more of both City Dogs fabrics, as well as 6 other complimentary fat quarters. 

So first off, I am definitely impressed with how the prints I chose from a small picture actually look in full size. I was worried that the colours wouldn't be well represented on the screen, but they are pretty much exactly what I thought they would be. The size and scale of a few of the prints is different from what I expected though. I thought the birdcages would be larger and farther apart, and the houndstooth in my fat quarter bundle is smaller than I imagined. This isn't a big deal, they look awesome.

Where I do have a bit of an issue is the thickness of the fabrics. These are not at all the same grade quilting fabrics as what my local quilt shop carries, they are more like what you would get at Fabricland. The cotton fabrics I normally buy are much thicker. You can get an idea of how thin these are by looking at the Turtles and Toadstool Houses above - in both you can clearly see the design from several layers below showing through the white fabric.

I probably wouldn't use these fabrics in the same quilt as my regular Earthly Goods fabrics because they are so different in weight and they would shrink and wear differently. I did think of this possibility when I placed my order though, so there's enough here for me to make entire projects without having to mix.

I plan to pre-wash everything before sewing, and will be making a full size quilt with most of these fabrics. How well they hold up during washing and quilting will really be what determines the quality of my new fabric haul. Once I've figured that out, I will review them further.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

'The Dead Planet' Dalek Painting

We just watched the Doctor Who Christmas special, and it seemed like a good time to talk about my first piece of fan art related to the show. I had never seen Doctor Who before I met Sam, but as a lifelong fan he got me into it pretty early in our relationship. Over the last two years, I've gotten to know most of the eleven Doctors, met some interesting monsters, and seen a lot of rock quarries decorated to look like barren planets.

I'm a big fan of geek crafting, and I really like making things for Sam, so it didn't take long before I started on my first whovian art project. The Dalek seemed like the coolest and most recognizable subject for a painting.

I did a bit of research and found out that the Daleks were first introduced in a 1963 episode named 'The Dead Planet', so that determined my concept. I chose this picture of an all black one from the Doctor Who Gear website as my model:

Painting a dead planet was pretty easy. I tried to give the red sky a colour gradient and lots of texture to make up for its plainness, neither of which really show up in the photograph (sorry). Someone pointed out later that I should have added several suns, but the planet in the episode only has one (hmm, kinda like it was filmed on Earth or something). For the Dalek itself, I mixed in some linseed oil to create a black-on-black contrast with the matte paint. It turned out pretty well, and now hangs in Sam's office.

There is a companion piece to this one, which will be a hand sewn felt TARDIS. I've been working on it for over a year now, and it's finally almost done! Look for that one soon.  

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Hydrant and Woodland Needle Books

My habit when hand sewing has always been to plant my needles and pins into the leg of my pants or the arm of the couch to keep them handy. This usually works fairly well... unless I get distracted and forget they're there or unless I'm sitting on a sofa with a pattern and colour that the needles naturally blend into. I often lose needles in the middle of projects. This probably could be avoided if I used a pincushion, but I find them too bulky to carry around and hard to store in a bag with my ongoing projects.

Until last week, I had never heard or even conceived of such a thing as a needle book. In my giveaway week browsing, I came across this pattern for a toadstool needle book over at Generation Q. I knew right away that I wanted to make one, and it just so happens that they're having a contest for those who design their own needle book. I definitely couldn't pass that up.

I decided to go with a fire hydrant design in yellow and black like the ones here in Edmonton. (For more details on the stylish sweater worn by the hydrant below, see here.) 
I drew out a pattern on some graph paper and raided my felt stash for supplies to get started.

Two days later, I had this:

Since it turned out so cute, I decided to make the toadstool from the pattern as well. I think this will be a fun gift to send someone in a quilting swap.

Here is what they look like on the inside: 

Even before I was done putting the second one together, I realized that I was actually using my little hydrant needle book instead of the arm of the sofa. It's really handy and fits perfectly in the bag with my sewing supplies. I didn't lose a single needle while making the little toadstool. I have to admit that I did lose one while making the hydrant, so I guess that's a 100% improvement once I started using it! Based on that, I highly recommend making yourself one of these useful little cuties.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Tourtière: Baking à la canadienne française

Tourtière is a French Canadian staple for the holidays. It's made up of ground meat and flaky pastry, and is served alongside the turkey for Christmas dinner. This type of pie is typically eaten with ketchup, and can be a bit of a mystery to anglophones, who are used to having gravy and vegetables in their meat pies.

These freeze easily, so we typically make several at one time to take to dinner parties and give to family and friends. Even though I wont be going home for the holidays this year, I am still looking forward to quite a feast

So let's get on with the baking. I purchased some pork from the wonderful Irving Farms, and a smaller amount of beef and veal from another local farm at the Old Strathcona Farmer's Market. I made two large balls of flaky pie dough ahead of time, and let it rest in the fridge overnight.

I cooked the meat with some garlic, onion, nutmeg, cloves and a little bit of salt and pepper until it was brown and most of the liquid was gone.

Once the meat was ready, I let it cool while I rolled out the dough for my first pie plate. I used about a fist sized ball of dough, and a whole lot of flour to prevent it from sticking.

Once I had the dough rolled out into an approximate circle big enough for the pie plate, I pressed it in there without cutting off the extra dough.

Next, I filled the pie with meat and rolled out a second ball of dough for the top of my pie. This one has a little notch in the middle for the steam to escape during baking. I also painted the edge of the pie bottom with some egg to allow the top to stick.

The hardest part of all of this is getting the little notch that you've cut in the dough aligned with the centre of the pie. I'm not very good at this. My aunt uses a toothpick to mark the middle, but I just kind of eyeball it. I believe that the wonky looking ones are made with extra love. 

Once the pie top is on, I mash the edges with a fork to seal the dough, and then use a knife to cut off the excess all the way around the pie.

Now my pie is ready to go in the oven. First, I paint the whole top with a little bit more egg so that it will bake up golden, and then I pop it in the oven to bake before starting to roll the next one. After a while, you've got an oven full of pies. I try to put the later ones at the back since they will be ready last. I always manage to burn myself doing this, and this time was no exception.

Take them out when they're golden, and enjoy! Yum.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Homemade Stockings Hung by the Chimney with Care

We made these stockings a week ago, but it has taken me this long to get a somewhat decent picture during the 10 minute window per day where the sunlight actually falls on our mantel. I'm still not entirely satisfied with it, but it will do.

This was our first family craft project, and I hope it will become a tradition. Sam and I each made our own stocking using a paper template that I drew. The mini stocking for Sigmund uses the same template, but I shortened it a bit. The whole thing only took about an hour and a half to complete, and I think they turned out amazing.

My stocking was made using some black and green knit fabric that I bought way too much of. It is lined on the inside with a cool burberry print, and I used a second layer of the knit fabric as batting to make it nice and thick like a stocking oughta be.

Sigmund's stocking is made from fabrics in the Perfect Pitch collection by Dan Morris. It is lined with thick black and green knit. His name ended up being very difficult to read because of the pattern on the red band, but luckily he can't read anyway. He will know it is his because it's the only one that smells like catnip.

The outside of Sam's stocking is also from the musical themed set of fabrics. It's lined on the inside with the burberry print, and has a layer of knit fabric inside as batting.

To construct the main part of the stocking, we cut out 2 copies of the stocking template from the outside fabric, the batting fabric, and the inside lining. We sewed the outside and batting together, turned them inside out, and the stuffed the lining inside. To finish them up, we sewed a band on the inside and turned it out to hide all of the seams and give us a nice place to write our names. During this step, we added a ribbon between the band and the lining for hanging them up.

These stocking are in fact the only Christmas decoration that we'll be putting up this year. I'm really proud of how they turned out. Making them was a fun family activity, and I look forward to putting a treat inside.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Origami Style Gift Box Tutorial

I have many fond memories of elementary school art class. Our teacher (more about her here) was a skilled visual artist, and the projects she thought up for class were great for developing creativity. I remember making gift bags from magazine images, origami frogs that could jump, and my very first clay sculpture which was an ashtray with a cat's head, four paws and a tail sticking out (it was supposed to be a bowl, but didn't quite get there).

One of the most memorable and useful items we learned to make were origami boxes. I've made hundreds since art class, some as small as 1cm across (made from post-it notes). This is a great project to do with kids. Technically this isn't true origami because it requires cutting and not just folding, but we won't worry about that.

Your list of supplies:

- 2 sheets of paper, cardstock or thin cardboard
- Scissors
- Ruler
- Pencil
- Tape or glue (optional - the box will usually keep its shape without it)

Step 1 - Fold your paper diagonally and trim to make each sheet into a square. One square should be 1/4" to 1/2" smaller than the other. the thicker your paper, the more difference there needs to be.

The easiest way to do this is to draw a line with your ruler at the desired distance from the edge, and fold into a triangle along that line. In the picture, you can see that I folded one sheet all the way to the edge, while the other one only goes to the 1/4" line.

Step 2
- Once you unfold your paper, you will have a diagonal line across the middle. Fold diagonally the other way to create an X.

Step 3 - Fold two opposite points towards the centre. They should meet right in the middle of the X. Press your folds, and then fold these two sides towards the centre again so that the edges meet at the middle line. Press folds again, and then unfold. 

You should now have lines dividing your paper into 8 sections.

Step 4
- Press the other two points inwards in the same way you did the first time. Keep pressing your folds to get nice crisp lines.

Step 5 - You will now have a grid on your piece of paper. This is where you need to make a few cuts. Cut along the lines hilighted in blue. Each cut is 2 squares long.

Step 6 - The middle 4 squares are the top of your box, and we will now make the sides by folding in the points. Fold the big pieces on either side inwards so that the points meet in the middle. Tape or glue in place.

Step 7 - After the previous step, you have a flap that is 2 squares long on each side. Fold those to 90 degrees, and fold in the two sides that they're attached to until the flaps overlap. You can then tape each flap to its match on the other side to make the box shape (don't worry about being neat, the tape will be hidden).

Step 8 - Fold the remaining pieces on each side inwards so that the points meet in the middle. This will cover the two flaps you just taped together. Secure with a little piece of tape at the points. 

You now have the first part of your box! Repeat the same steps with your second sheet of paper so that you have a bottom and a lid that fit snugly into each other.

If you've gotten this far, you should now have the irresistible urge to make more little boxes. Go with it!

Try decorating the paper for your box cover with a random pattern before you fold it up (this works especially well if you have wee ones who want to help). You can also recycle soft drink cases into lovely boxes like the one in the picture at the top (12-packs only - the cardboard for cases of 24 is too thick to fold). 
I'd love to hear about your creations or see them on Flickr.