Monday, March 24, 2008

Losing the battle with Nature

Last summer I set up a little herb box out my kitchen window. When the herbs died back in the winter, I didn't do a thing, figuring that I would just replace them in the spring. Well, lo and behold, they survive the winter and start looking all sprightly and green. Thoughts of parsleyed rice pilaf, chive omelettes, chives in vinaigrette start to float through my mind...I noticed that the chives tended to lean a little forward for some reason, but I figured they were just reaching for the sun.

Then, two days ago my new DH told me, "There's a bird sitting in your 'huh-herbs'," as he likes to call them. No wonder they were flat!! So I promptly stick little toothpicks throughout the box, thinking, "Take that, Bird! Now you try and sit your little ass in my grass!" This morning I looked out the window though, and there she was, bold as brass, cooing in my parsley. I shoo her away, and the little miss doesn't deign to fly away until I start lifting up the screen! She flies about 10 feet away to rest on a telephone wire and I grumblingly stick more toothpicks into my box. I should've known it was a futile gesture by the way she watched me so unconcernedly. In fact, now that I think about the way she was perched on the telephone wire, she looked rather....constipated. This afternoon my DH came home, looked out the window and said, "Your bird dropped an egg in the box."

And there it is. As are the felled toothpicks in the foreground.

My first, overwhelming urge was to pick the egg out of the box. But then I realized that I didn't have the heart to try to do something with the egg once I'd picked it up...throw it out our second floor window? Lay it on the brick ledge where the mother would knock it over as soon as she tried to move it? Turn it into a mini omelet with my new chives, as my evil aunt suggested? All would be bad karma. My DH called over his shoulder, "Face it, you lost the battle when the toothpicks didn't work," and he's right. Oh well, I can concede defeat gracefully when I must.

Now I have a buh-bird box instead of an huh-herb box.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Universal Poncho Pattern

Looking at a poncho in a store, I figured that it was just a big rectangle attached to a small rectangle. "Hey, I could make this at home," I thought. So here's some instructions about how to determine the size of those two rectangles. This isn't the only way to assemble a poncho, or even the best way, but it's probably one of the easiest. I'm not going to say anything about how you make those two rectangles; whether you knit them or crochet them or weave them or cut them out of fleece, that's up to you. But here's how you get them:

You only need to make two measurements:

1. The distance from your shoulder to your wrist (s-w on the diagram). If you don't want to make a full length poncho, make this the distance from your shoulder to mid-forearm. Or from your shoulder to your elbow.

2. The neckline depth (nl on the diagram). This determines the size of the neck opening. It should be big enough to get your head through, but not so big that the poncho will slip off your shoulders. To determine the smallest feasible nl, take the circumference of your head, then divide it by 4. Unless you're going for a really snug neck opening (say, to make a turtleneck), you'd probably want to add a couple of inches to that. 5 inches was what I used.

Here's a bad drawing of the poncho being worn, viewed from the front:

Rectangle A is really big. It drapes all the way around, hanging over the right shoulder (the wearer's left shoulder).

Rectangle B is much smaller, covering only the left shoulder (the wearer's right shoulder).

Here's the two rectangles laid out:

Rectangle A is the width of one shoulder-to-wrist length (s-w). It is the length of 2 s-w plus 2 nl.

Rectangle B is the width of 2 nl, and the length of s-w.

And then you sew the red seam to the red, and the blue seam to the blue.

Then you can add a finishing to the neck opening. Maybe a round of single crochet to just to tidy it up, or pick up the stitches with smaller needles and add some ribbing. Or knit in the round up 8 or 10 inches to make a turtleneck or cowl neck.

And that's it. Pretty simple eh?

What to do with discount acrylic yarn

As you all know, I am cheap. So when I saw gigantic 100g balls of acrylic yarn on sale for HK$5 each, I bought 10. I intended to make a poncho with it, but as it turns out, I vastly over-estimated the amount of yarn needed. I've made a poncho and a skirt, and I still have 5 balls left.

I like acrylic because I can dump it in the washer and dryer and not worry about it shrinking. In a house with parrots - messy, poopy, fruit pulp flinging parrots - it is pretty much the only way I'm going to wear knitted garments. My clothing gets much abuse.

But isn't acrylic stiff and scratchy and uncomfortable and ugly? A double knit weight acrylic garment can practically stand up on its own. Not if you block it. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I found out that you can in fact block acrylic, once.

After you've knitted your piece, you lay it out on a towel, spritz it damp with water, stretch and pin the edges down to the desired shape, shield it with another towel, and then press it with a hot steaming iron. Not actually iron it back and forth, but press the iron down, pick it up, move it, and repeat until you've done the whole surface. (Don't press too hard though, you'll flatten it.)

I'm no industrial chemist and I don't know how it works, but it "kills" the bounciness in the yarn. It will stay in the blocked shape more or less permanently. It gets a lot softer, drapier, and takes on a slight sheen. It won't be as warm anymore, but it becomes quite a pleasant material to wear.

There's my poncho. I didn't work from a pattern, I saw a similar poncho in a store and figured that it was just a big rectangle attached to a smaller rectangle. And then from the neckline I knitted straight up about 6 or 8 inches, enough to create a floppy mini-cowl. Unfortunately I haven't been able to wear it out much. This winter was so absurdly cold that the poncho was pretty much suitable for indoor use only. Also, I haven't figured out how to wear a poncho and carry a backpack simultaneously.

And there's my skirt. It's a slight modification of this pattern from I resized it smaller, lengthened it a bit (I don't want people to see quite that much of my thighs), and sewed a lining out of an old Boyfriend T-shirt. It is probably the most patterned garment I've knitted this far. It's certainly the most feminine.

The original pattern called for cotton yarn, and for good reason. In acrylic, it's not terribly practical. Too cold for winter unless you wear a thick pair of tights underneath, but too hot for summer. And in Hong Kong, spring and autumn last all of two weeks.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Wedding Cake by Candlelight

We got married yesterday in an intimate civil ceremony in Alexandria, VA. Who knew it was so easy to get married here? No birth certificates, blood tests, or even a witness were required!

The cake turned out to be a different matter entirely. It was just the two of us, but of course, we had a wedding cake. I've been planning it for three months, but only started baking on Sunday after I got off work. Buttercream was made on Sunday. More buttercream and cake made on Monday. Tuesday (yesterday AM) I started slicing and icing the cake as soon as I jumped out of bed, and only stopped at 12.30, when it was time to get dressed and go to the attorney's office for our ceremony. The picture here was taken without a flash so everything's a bit romantic and golden-looking, but the cake was actually quite white.
There were many different combinations considered, but we ended up deciding on this simple yellow cake with vanilla buttercream and a lemon curd-blueberry filling. I think I should have made the Swiss dots smaller, but didn't really have time to scrape them off, repair the cake, chill it, and start over again, before we had to leave, so here you witness the very studly result. The flower topper, which consisted of liseanthus, hydrangea and freesia, was ordered from Helen Olivia in Old Town who did a fantastic job. The flowers made our car smell gorgeous on the drive home. As for the cake itself, it tasted heavenly.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Bread experiment

I've owned a copy of the celebrated Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book for more than a year, but after trying out just one recipe (Manuel's Rye Sour), and not meeting much success, it has sat, unused and unappreciated, on my shelf. The four or five loaves I made from that recipe were squat, coarse, and the flavor did not compensate for the time invested in babying the starter. As readers of this blog will know, I have been baking from the Tassajara Bread Book instead. The format is a lot simpler and more straightforward, and it was a nice, unintimidating jump-off point into the mysteries of breadmaking. Still, after baking the same loaf six or seven times, I was looking to try something new when I found myself with a few hours around the house yesterday. Not wanting challah, I skipped over Maggie Glezer's A Blessing of Bread, another favorite. Reluctantly, I flipped through Laurel's book again, and chose the Buttermilk Bread recipe with some misgivings.

This recipe did not involve a starter and so was similar to the basic Tassajara Bread recipe. It could also be done in one afternoon, instead of five days. Unfortunately, when I started getting my ingredients together, I realized I did not have enough of either whole wheat flour (which was of dubious freshness anyways), or honey. Knowing that bread allows for substitutions, I replaced half the honey with some blackstrap molasses I had purchased from the coop down the street, and half the flour with all purpose. As I found out this afternoon when I finally gave the book a chance and spent some time reading it through, the first substitution was OK, but the second one was a big no-no. My poor loaves turned out dense and short because the AP flour didn't have enough gluten. Compare the picture above with this picture of my first experience with oven spring. Fortunately, the flavor is still very good, so at least they're edible. The molasses turned my bread a dark, almost pumpernickel color, but made the house smell amazing. I worried that the molasses flavor would overpower the bread, but once the loaves were done, it just left a nice dark caramel taste and was not objectionable at all.

While the bread was not a technical success, I am glad that it brought my attention back to this fabulous book which guides the novice breadbaker carefully, thoughtfully, through the age-old process of breadbaking with a deep spiritual respect for the loaf throughout. I wouldn't recommend it as a starting point for someone with absolutely no baking experience, as the technicalities it describes can be intimidating and are unhelpfully scattered through the book in disparate sections, resulting in much flipping back in forth. After the laid-back introduction by Tassajara though, it was the perfect next step. It starts with an introduction to the value of breadmaking in grounding us in the important things in life - family, community, health, and valuing the local over the global and corporate. It even quotes Gandhi. Then it eases you into a Loaf for Learning, which is a recipe intended for novices and old hands alike. Other recipes follow, interspersed with invaluable tips, techniques, and troubleshooting. I'm enjoying it so much, it's become my bedtime reading!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Chocolate Birthday Cake

Made this cake last weekend for my brother-in-law-to-be's birthday, with some help from my SO. My awesome new KitchenAid Pro Limited Edition mixer (which deserves a separate blog of its own) made quick work out of the various components and was a joy to work with. The cake itself consisted of chocolate cake with a truffle filling and coffee frosting. Its walls are coated with chopped walnuts I had lying around (a last-minute addition to hide the airy holes in the whipped American-style frosting) and the rosettes on top are given an appropriate finishing touch with chocolate-covered espresso beans. I took a chance on an "untested" chocolate cake recipe from Best Recipes; between us Lana and I have made quite a few of the desserts from that book, and very few ever worked out right. This cake, however, was fantastic. It was light, tender, with a mild but definitely noticeable chocolate flavor, and no weird sour aftertaste. It's my new favorite chocolate cake recipe.

All in all, a tasty combination, but as you can imagine from such a rich cake, it went down like a lump of lead and kept us up all night!