Monday, April 30, 2007

I have a sock pal!!

I joined a sock exchange, Sockapalooza 4, organised by Alison at the blue blog. I waited

impatiently to be assigned a sock pal, someone for whom I would knit a pair of socks. My identity will remain a secret to her until all the Sockapalooza participants mail their finished socks in August. I now know who I'm knitting for, but I don't know who is knitting for me!

My sock pal seems like a really nice lady. Her sock request was simple; no strange likes or dislikes. That means that I pretty much have a free hand in deciding on colour and design which, paradoxically, makes it a little more difficult. I had a look at her blog, on which she had pictures of some sock yarn in her own stash. The question is, do I use variegated yarn, which is what I see a lot of in her pictures? Or should I do something completely different from what she usually gets herself?

Should I choose a pattern first, or the yarn first? Ah, the dilemma! But it's the happiest dilemma I've had all day. All week!

As you can see, I added the Sockapalooza 4 button to my page. As you probably figured out pretty quickly, I haven't figured out how to make the darned thing link to the Sockapalooza 4 page. Help!

There will be pictures tomorrow. Also tomorrow, Moocow will be presenting her thesis. Good luck! I'll be with you in spirit!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Red apples or green?

Causes of Stress

Things are stressful for me at the moment. Group projects aren't going as planned, I'm feeling a lot of (undue?) pressure from my advisor (who also happens to be the director of my programme), funding for next year is uncertain, I don't know what I'm going to do about health insurance.....

However, these things come and they pass. I try to find solutions, I slog through and overcome. Other things are constant, low (or not so low) level, background things. I've tried to deal with it, we've talked, compromises have been attempted. In the end, I'm the one doing all the things necessary to keep my/our surroundings pleasant.

We're all busy, aren't we? Surely, though, a civilised human being ought to have certain standards. Moocow, please tell me I was never this bad!? I apologise for how messy I was growing up. I didn't fully appreciate how stressful it is to have to face this every day. It isn't just mess; it's filth.
That stand you can see (and the guck that, hopefully, you can't) is a turtle resting station. My roommate is tagging and tracking Blandings turtles. After the radio transmitter is attached to the turtle's shell with epoxy, they have to keep it overnight so that it can set properly, and then paint over the white epoxy so their dark shells don't have a huge, white spot.

What happens when turtles get nervous or feel threatened? Apart from pulling into their shells, they also excrete. That poor turtle urinated everywhere....almost a week ago. This area has looked like this for more than that period of time. I have to fight the urge to disinfect my slippers every time I walk past.

It doesn't matter how clean I keep the rest of the apartment. To get to the kitchen, one must past through this area. I can't help imagining the sorts of things I'm tracking from a carpeted room that hasn't been cleaned or vacuumed for over a month to the rest of the place. I will spare you pictures of her bathroom. Thankfully, the door is often closed. When it's not, I catch glimpses of McD's food wrappers spilling out of a trash can (In the bathroom? Don't ask.) and buildup of other unmentionable things before I hastily avert my gaze.

It stresses me out, and it disgusts me. There, I've said it. I think it's disgusting. And such is the situation in my home, my sanctuary.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Roasted Red Pepper Soup

I think I've inherited my mother's love of soups. But really, who could not love them? They're almost impossible to mess up when you're making them. There's a soup for every occasion: light consommes; thick, chunky soups; piping hot ones for cold winter nights; deliciously refreshing cold ones for hot summer days; soups made from vegetables, soups made from fruits. The Chinese have elevated soup-making into an artform. You have your wintermelon soup that is slowly cooked inside the entire melon, soups made from a variety of medicinal ingredients that are healthful, soups with colourful names such as Buddha-jumps-over-a-wall. Today, however, I made a creamy roasted red pepper soup.

It was very simple, and complete in less than an hour. I can't give you the recipe, with quantities and such, because of copyright laws, but I can describe the general process. As I said, it's hard to screw up a soup; just use quantities as you see fit, and taste and test. First, you have to roast your red peppers and stick them in a plastic bag so that the steam will make it easier for you to remove the skins. Roughly chop them. Then, it's butter, onions and a sprig of rosemary into a pot until the onions are tender. Remove the rosemary. Add the red pepper and broth and simmer until it's all softened, then add some tomato puree. Puree the soup (easy, if you have an immersion blender!), add some heavy cream, and season to taste with salt, pepper and a bit of paprika. What could be easier?
Here, I swirled some heavy cream into the soup and sprinkled it with a little more paprika, as suggested in my recipe book for a nicer presentation.

School Apples

The cliched old image of a little boy or girl bringing in a shiny red apple for Teacher originated during the days of one-room schoolhouses, when communities pooled their resources to hire and retain a teacher. Part of the teacher's salary would be paid by the students' families in food. Due in no small part to Johnny Appleseed's influence, many pioneer families would plant an apple tree on their property. The fruit not only kept well in cellars, but the tree grew quickly and provided welcome shade in the summertime. Come autumn everyone would have a plentiful apple harvest to lay away for the winter. Thus it was that schoolchildren often went to school with a basket of apples (yes, a basket, not just one), and/or some jams, vegetables or bit of pork. You get the idea.
So, when I wanted to give a small gift to some teachers who had really gone out of their ways to be kind and helpful to me in the last couple years, this quaint old custom provided the perfect inspiration. Lana and I had purchased this Japanese craft book a year ago, but I had never had the chance to make anything from it. Too busy to shop for the materials, let alone figure out the pictures (annotated in Japanese, of which I speak zilch), and put anything together. Well, today I did, and here is the result. My apple is propped up against a salt shaker. If you will notice, mine is laughing open-mouthed, compared to the one in the book that sports a rather milquetoastey grin. Also did away with the fake reflection marks on the left cheek...didn't want to bother with the fiddly cutting and gluing. I was going to turn it into a keyring so that it would be somewhat useful, but the corded arms and legs, with the glued-on hands and feet, indicated that that would be a bad idea. Oh well. I have to make a few, so maybe my next one will be green. Stay tuned.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Going Against the Flow

While most knitters on the blogosphere seem to be making resolutions to de-stash, I seem to have gone the complete opposite route. I've been making lots of yarn purchases lately. Not that I've had, or will have, all that much time to knit it all. Not that I have a tonne of space to store it. But I just haven't been able to resist!

First, it was visiting The Yarn Tree in Brooklyn with Moocow and our brother. Yes, our brother actually agreed to accompany us to a yarn shop! He was very patient while I enthused over the Koigu Painter's Palette Premium Merino sock yarn. It was so soft and resilient, the colours so beautiful, I couldn't resist, despite the price. Does anyone need a $24 pair of socks? Not I! Do I deserve such a pair of socks? Probably not. But I couldn't resist the allure of the yarn, and so I picked out two complementary colourways and bought a skein of each. Linda, the owner, offered to wind them into centre-pull balls for me, but I wanted to leave them on the skein to appreciate their sheen and prettiness.

The sport weight Frog Tree Alpaca is to swatch for a sweater in the Japanese knitting magazine, Keitodama. The pale green, silk and alpaca blend yarn was a steal. Enough for a scarf, and half-price.

That seemed to be the end of my stocking-up, until I learned about the yarn crawl that three LYSs in my area were holding. You get 10$ off your purchase at each of the three shops, and a stamp. When you have all three stamps, you can enter into a raffle for a $25 coupon at any of the three stores. There were things I'd been wanting to get, so I used it as my excuse to get them. But a visit to Eastside Weavers, especially, usually means that I can't help getting other things that catch my eye. There was a pink, lavender, yellow and silvery 100% linen that would be great for a summery scarf or shawl. I also picked up some creamy white roving to practice my spinning on.
And, it's hard to control yourself when your sister is encouraging you! Moocow loved the sock yarn that she got from Pat last time, when we went for our spinning lesson. Now that I've shown her how to knit a sock on two circular knitting needles, I think she's hooked. She sent me to buy some sock yarn to knit a pair for her BF.
She said she trusted my judgement, and so I chose this luxuriously coloured blend of spruce green, grey-brown, deep maroon and orange. The colours look pretty true to the real thing on my monitor, but if the real thing doesn't please Moocow, I'm perfectly happy to keep it myself. I also got two other colourways. I signed up for Sockapalooza 4, but my sock partner hasn't been decided yet. If possible, though, I think I'd like to use one of Pat's yarns, because they're so beautiful.
The next day, I went to Beauknits in Cohoes. They may be the only shop in the area that carries Brown Sheep Yarn's Wildfoote sock yarn, which I've always wanted to try. I got these two hanks for a great price. I also like the mix of forest greens and greys.
At The Yarn Depot, I bought some half-price baby yarn to knit something for my landlady, who is expecting again. They don't know if it will be a boy, or a girl, yet, so I had to choose some neutral colours. I also bought two pairs of KA bamboo circulars for more sock knitting. I really liked the other pair (in a larger size) that I'd bought before.

And, I'm afraid, that hasn't been all of my yarn purchasing this month. There's also the Cascade 220 I bought (and will eventually post a picture of) for a Cardigan for Arwen. Yes, I've been a very bad girl. But, if I knit it all, I think I'll feel better.

Quick Cinnamon Rolls

I meant to post this a while back, but other things kept cropping up. I like cinnamon rolls, a lot, but every once in a while I get a serious craving for them that won't go away for weeks until I finally have some. Late one night, I just couldn't wait and I stopped off at the supermarket on my way home to pick up a roll of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls. I won't scare you with the information on the nutrition label, but I made a conscious decision to say, "What the heck, I need these rolls tonight."

However, I've been sitting on a recipe I copied from The Best Quick Recipe (from Cook's Illustrated). Can good cinnamon rolls be made in an hour's time? With Moocow up to visit a week ago, I finally had someone other than myself as taster. The recipe was simple and, as we had our dinner that night, the rolls were baking in the oven.

They came out almost picture perfect, and smelled just as cinnamon rolls should. However, I found that some of the dough in the middle, where it is in contact with the brown sugar and cinnamon filling, was still rather damp and had the flavour and aroma of uncooked dough. Not entirely pleasant, to my mind. Moocow and my roommate, however, didn't seem to find it as objectionable. From others, I've heard that some people like the dough a little undercooked.

Nevertheless, I am determined to see if I can improve on this attempt. Next time, I believe I will make the dough sheet a little thinner before I add the filling and roll it into a log (so that the layers are thinner). The recipe called for it to be baked at 425 F, which is kind of high. I'll lower the baking temperature to 400 F, and extend the baking time for 10-15 minutes, to see if I can get the inside to cook better before the outside is over-brown.

If I can get this recipe to work correctly, it would be great to have fresh cinnamon rolls in just over an hour. The best part is, I only used 1 stick of butter (8 tablespoons) for the recipe, which makes 8 rolls. That means only 1 tablespoon of butter in each roll!! I've convinced myself that that's a paltry amount.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Reiterative Challah-making

I love bread. My favorite food is good bread with good butter(....and then....probably it's mangoes). Unfortunately, I've been so busy in the last couple of years that I haven't had as many chances to bake bread and experiment with recipes as I would have liked. As I am unemployed for the time being, I have seized upon the opportunity to sink my fingers into dry flours, wet slurries, and warm, sighing mounds of fermented dough, always looking forward to the rewarding smell of baking bread that will fill the house.

The pompe a l'huile was yummy and quick but also too rich for everday consumption. I find challah to be one of the most visually pleasing types of bread, its brushed egg-braided form giving such tantalizingly voluptuous, undulating golden curves. Looks nice AND tastes good - who can argue with that? To that end, I have been baking challah reiteratively, starting out with a recipe from my breadbaking class at ICE (recipe by Nick Malgieri...nice, but a tad too sweet), Cooks Illustrated (too dry, instructions to bake at 425F waaaay too hot, and not much flavor), then moving on to the My Challah recipe in Maggie Glezer's fantastic book A Blessing of Bread: the many rich traditions of Jewish bread baking around the world. I picked it up in a used book store at the Albany Farmer's Market last weekend with Lana for under $10. It came out looking lovely, but it was still missing that stretchiness that the best challahs display when you tear a piece off. Here's a picture.

This morning I woke up and while I waited for the tea kettle to boil I started the slurry for Doris Koplin's Sweet Challah. (Teeny bit more sugar, uses bread flour, and 1 more egg yolk than My Challah) It's sunny, so unlike during the rest of this winter, I didn't have to put the dough onto the toaster oven set at 250F in order for the yeast to be happy. It had a nice home on the window sill in a patch of sunlight. Within an hour and a half I was ready to cut and braid. Unfortunately, I suffered a brief loss of my braiding mojo, with the result that I had to braid and unbraid several times before I remembered exactly how. In the meantime, the dough relaxed and stretched, resulting in a longer and less voluptuous braid. Here it is proofing in a spot of sun, with a view of the street below.
It turned out looking OK though.
More importantly, the texture was PERFECT, as you can see here. I got those stretchy strands I wanted. Tasted pretty darned good, too. Maggie Glezer, you rock! Maybe I shall move onto babkas next - she has a gorgeous picture of a double pinwheel chocolate babka in her book....

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Perfect Weekend

Moocow and I had an incredible weekend! On Saturday morning, we went to the winter farmer's market in Troy and had fun looking at the lovely produce, tasting cheeses and jams, eating breakfast and, of course, planning for dinner. As you can see, we got some beautiful spinach and mushrooms (golden oyster, blue oyster and shiitake) for a salad, and some bolero carrots. We also got some jams - some time, I'll have to take pictures of the quince and sour cherry jams that I bought.

Then off we went to Ballston Spa, to the Medberry Inn and Spa, where we had a soothing soak in mineral baths, massages and facials. We browsed the quaint little area of historic Ballston Spa and poked around in some antique shops, after which we headed off to Moocow's true goal for this trip: Mrs. London's Bakery in Saratoga Springs.

I've been here in Albany a year, but I hadn't yet been up to Saratoga Springs. What a difference from Albany! It's a little like Georgetown, and perhaps a little what Bath (in England) might be like - a lively spa town, with interesting shops and restaurants and people there enjoying themselves.

Mrs. London's is, according to Saveur, the best bakery in the country. After reading that bold statement, Moocow just had to come try it. We had the best panini either of us had ever bitten into, and I had the most divine lemon meringue tart. The butter cookie tart crust was perfectly delicate and crumbly, the lemon the perfect balance of sweet and tart, and the meringue light and subtly flavoured. What a treat! Now that I've been there, I will most assuredly be back. Often.

And, just a block away from the bakery, Saratoga Needle Arts! How could I resist? Walls of cubbies, filled with an amazing selection of gorgeous yarns. I came away with 7 skeins of Cascade 220 in a heathery lavender colour, for A Cardigan for Arwen in the Winter 2006 issue of Interweave Knits. They were having a Debbie Bliss sale (30%!!!), and I so wanted to try knitting with the Cashmerino Aran called for in the pattern, but they just didn't have enough balls of the colour I liked, so I got the Cascade 220 instead.

We'd had a late lunch at the bakery, and got back late from Saratoga, but we started preparing dinner right away, since we'd decided on shepherd's pie.

First, cooking the rich, stew-like portion of the "pie," with lamb, leeks, peas and carrots (from the farmer's market), and preparing the mashed potatoes that would go on top. Then, the stew goes in the bottom of a casserole dish, it's topped with the mashed potatoes, and browned in the oven. The recipe was taken from Saveur (I'm not sure which issue, but Moocow would know), and turned out beautifully. It got rave reviews from Moocow and my roommate.
And, in case you thought we weren't being healthy, we had spinach salad with lightly sauteed mushrooms and a light, red wine vinegar vinaigrette.
Moocow was to leave Sunday morning, but inclement weather persuaded her to stay an extra day. And what did I have her do in that inclement weather? Go out to buy the sewing table that I had been saving for, and which she had promised she would help me carry up the stairs into the apartment when she came to visit. So, while Moocow did her readings for class the next day, I spent most of the afternoon assembling my sewing table.

It went from this....... this! I got blisters from wrestling with the screwdriver, but it's all assembled now, and I moved my fabric stash and sewing supplies, as well as my extremely heavy Bernina 1630, into the table.
Here, you can see how it looks all opened up. The large door swings open to hold up the extension on the side (for a larger work surface), and there is room for thread and other sewing supplies. And the space I created in the laundry room from moving my sewing things? Why, it's filled with all the new yarn I've been purchasing! Yes, I really should stop, and I will. Right after the yarn crawl that's coming this weekend......

And a lovely ending to the day? We watched Stranger Than Fiction, which was unexpectedly meaningful and enjoyable. I think this is a weekend I will treasure and remember with pleasure for a long time, especially when finals roll around.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Falling for a Drop Spindle

Moocow has come up to visit me, and what fun we had today! I took her to Eastside Weavers, a local yarn store, so that we could take a drop spindle spinning lesson together. Way back in August, when I was still exploring the area and looking for LYS's, I found my way to Pat Bohrer's house/workshop/store and bought some gorgeous laceweight camel/silk yarn. I've been waiting for the right lace pattern to do it justice (now that Victorian Lace Today has come out, I think my wait is at an end), but I had seen all the lovely roving and drop spindles that Pat had in her shop.

Pat is a lovely woman; interesting to talk to, kind and funny, and amazingly talented (she spins, dyes and weaves - all of it spectacular). She showed Moocow and me the basics of spinning with a drop spindle, and what ensued were several hours of chatting, browsing, spinning and - of course - dropping the spindle!

The concept is simple, the execution anything but. You draw out sections of roving as you spin the drop spindle to put twist into the fibres you are spinning to form a yarn. The challenge is producing something smooth, strong (i.e. unlikely to break when you pull at it gently) and relatively consistent. Moocow does like the unevenness of what she calls "virgin" spun yarn, i.e. yarn spun by someone who is just learning and who doesn't know how to control the thickness. Pat let me systematically try out every one of her drop spindles so I could decide which one I liked the best. I tried a Turkish drop spindle, as well as a collection of top- and bottom-whorl spindles.

Pat also demonstrated spinning on a Louet spinning wheel and skeining yarn on a niddy-noddy, we had fun trying to figure out how to do Navajo plying, and we saw all the looms and spinning wheels she had in her house, too. Moocow fell in love with an almost-complete woven rug, while a woven, brocade-like scarf fairly took my breath away.

Pat also introduced Moocow to needle felting, where you basically prick a wad of roving until it forms and holds the shape you want. Moocow really got into that; rather worrying, if you ask me.....!

So, what goodies did I come away with? I settled on a bottom-whorl Ashford drop spindle. Not as gorgeous as some of the drop spindles that are available (they're veritable works of art), but I felt comfortable with it. I also got a book on drop spindle spinning and some wine red corridale roving for spinning (Moocow loves the colour, and wants a pair of mittens). Pat also threw in some little bits of wool (white), tussah silk (pink) and merino/tencel (lavender) for me to play with.

A couple of weeks ago, when I was at The Yarn Depot (the other LYS I like to frequent), the owner (also named Pat) was knitting a sock using Pat's sock yarn. I loved the colours, but especially liked the soft, bouncy feel of the yarn. Today, Pat told me that that was her merino superwash yarn, handpainted by her. Of course, Moocow and I couldn't resist. Moocow bought the colourway on the left (the one with the colour of fall leaves), and I got the Easter-y colourway on the right.

At times, I almost can't wait to retire!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

New Toy

I was out of commission for a little while - very, very sick with the flu - just in time for spring break! I had a fever of 102 F, and finally succumbed and went to the doctor, who prescribed some heavy duty ibuprofen to bring down my fever, but could do little else for me. So the next day, having taken the ibuprofen so that my eyeballs were no longer burning a hole to the back of my skull, and I could turn my head without pain, I drove home.

When I got home, lots of sleeping and getting pampered ensued. Moocow, my brother (also home on break), my mom and I did get out a bit while I was home. But I just couldn't wait to share my new kitchen gadget, the immersion blender that I've been coveting for ages and ages! See how pretty it is, fresh out of the box! It didn't come with a lot of fancy accessories, just a blending beaker, but I think that's more than sufficient. In fact, the blender and the beaker were both larger and heftier than I'd imagined.
I decided to use up some plain yogurt that was in my fridge. I poured the yogurt, some soy milk and some frozen raspberries into the beaker and turned on the blender.
And had a beautiful, pink smoothie in seconds! And cleanup was a breeze, too! Three cheers!

But I wasn't done yet. It's asparagus season right now, and I'd brought two beautiful bunches of asparagus back up from the city. I used one today to make a creamy asparagus soup. It was fun, blending the cooked asparagus, then making a roux with butter and flour, and then adding in some sour cream. I bought a nice, fresh loaf of Italian bread at the supermarket today, and it made a very satisfying lunch. I'm thinking the next thing that I'll make with my blender is roasted red pepper soup. And then I believe I'll start a hunt for the perfect tomato soup recipe. I am completely enamoured with this latest addition to my kitchen!