Friday, December 26, 2008

2009: A Low-Fiber Diet

In case anyone hadn't noticed, the economy went to a small town in southeastern Michigan (Hell, population 266) and decided to stay for an extended visit. Things are tough for a lot of people right now: the financial system is tottering, jobs are getting scarce, and neighborhoods are becoming ghost towns in some communities as banks foreclose and people walk away from money pits they can no longer afford. At Christmas dinner last night, the topic of "hard times" came up once again, and my long-time friend, Betsy (she of the great attic emptying adventure) noted that it seems that every two generations, something really bad happens (war, recession/depression) because people forget. There may be some truth to that: my parents were born in the Depression (Dad in 1931, Mom in 1933), and I picked their brains, and later my grandmother's brain, about what life was like during the Depression. They got through it through hard work, frugality, and being creative; their "tricks and tips" can make getting through these Hard Times a little easier. While the Big Bad Wolf (an iconic figure during the Great Depression) isn't quite at the door, he keeps sniffing around, and I want to keep him away.

One way to make things a little easier for us to is reduce the discretionary spending. "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without," was a popular chant during the 1930s and early 1940s, and tracking all those pennies means more of them stay in my pocket. However, my hobby/passion/avocation for all things fiber is one of the few things that I really hate to give up. Fortunately (?) I'm currently sitting on a huge stash: at least 6 fleeces, boxes of other fiber, and boxes of millspun fibers of varied types. There's so much that I really don't have any room left for any more fiber. So what's a girl to do when things don't fit? Go on a diet.

For 2009, I'm going on a "low fiber" diet. This means that I don't get to buy any more millspun yarns until I make a good-sized dent in what is already stashed away. This means that I don't get to buy any more rovings, fleeces, or batts until at least some of what I have is combed, carded, and/or spun. This means I finish the projects I've started and dropped, or I frog them and use the yarn for something else. The fiber has got to go! This is stash-busting on a serious scale, so I have to get serious about it.

The list of projects is long and varied, including:
  • an afghan for my mother
  • two sweaters for Stephen
  • two sweaters for myself
  • an Irish hiking scarf
  • 6 prs of socks
  • a "Canadian Cloud" scarf
  • hats, scarves and gloves for my niece and nephew
  • gifts for friends
At this point, projects underway (the second of a pair of Opal Peacock socks and a tea cozy) should be finished before New Year's, so I can start with a fresh slate. How much stash will will I use up in 2009? We can only wait and see.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Great Christmas Cookie Adventure

I know my way around a kitchen. There's a big sheaf of ribbons--mostly blue--for my cooking and baking hanging in the corner of the kitchen. I also got my grandmother's and great-aunt's recipe collections when they died, so I have multiple generations of recipes, especially cookie recipes.

Just like Christmas, Christmas cookies are a big deal in my family. Everybody has their favorites, there's a lot of entertaining, and naturally, I make nearly every "favorite cookie." I don't make small batches--most of these make 3-10 dozen, so by Christmas, I have a dining room full of tins of Christmas cookies, most of which will be eaten or given away before New Year's. I used to make several kinds of candy, too; that has stopped, as the weather is always a bit "iffy" around Christmas, and candy doesn't respond well to "iffy."

This year's great Christmas cookie adventure had to be in two parts, as I had a Christmas party to attend early in December, then I had to concentrate on work until the 19th. The first big "bake" included some of my favorites, along with mixing up the dough for the Christmas fruit cookies, a long-time, often-requested favorite of nearly everybody. For the first big bake, there were:
  • Georgia's Cookies (a kind of brown-sugar shortbread with pecans)
  • Spritz Cookies
  • Mincemeat Cookies
  • Christmas Fruit Cookies (a refrigerator cookie full of nuts and dried and candied fruit)
This year, I found a nice 9x13" shallow basket that serves as a perfect cookie transport and serving device. All it needed was a large towel folded in the bottom, then a fancy"Christmas" towel for the cookies to rest on until they were gobbled up. The first basketful of cookies went off to a potluck Christmas party, and came home nearly empty.

The second big bake was Christmas Eve, as the time until Christmas was drawing to a close. This was a "scary big" bake, so I could wrap up everything before Christmas Day. The day before, I had mixed up the doughs that needed chilling, so Christmas Eve I started early and worked hard, cranking out as many cookies as I could. This marathon cookie baking was interrupted only by a batch of jelly for Christmas gifts, but it was a nice break, because baking pan after pan of cookies gets old after six hours. For this bake, I turned out:
  • Christmas Fruit Cookies
  • Brown-eyed Susans (a short cookie with a Hershey's Kiss in the middle)
  • Striped Susans (the same cookie but with Hershey's Hugs)
  • Anise Drops
  • Spritz Cookies
  • Festive Cookies (my grandmother's name for Mexican Wedding Cakes or Russian Tea Cakes)
  • Santa's Whiskers (another sliced refrigerator cookie that is rolled in coconut)
  • Lebkuchen
  • and a batch of scones for breakfast
Making Lebkuchen is...interesting. The dough, full of nuts, candied citron, molasses, honey, and spices, is incredibly sticky, so there's a lot of flouring surfaces to keep the dough from sticking to everything. Flouring surfaces means everything is covered in flour, especially your intrepid author--I had flour in my hair, all over me, and I finally had to kick off my clogs and work in my bare feet, as I was starting to slide around on the floury floor. However, I got the little cookies, cut in the shape of hearts with an old canape cutter, into the oven and baked. So far, so good!

I hit a snag when I tried to glaze the lebkuchen. The "original recipe brought from Germany," which is identical to the recipe in my Betty Crocker cookbook, calls for making a sugar syrup, then adding confectioner sugar and glazing the cookies while hot. This was fraught with disaster, as I needed to create basically a candy syrup (cooked to soft ball stage) in the middle of a rainstorm, and the results were somewhat less than what I wanted. OK...take a deep breath and try option two: a thin confectioner sugar-water glaze. Better, but still not perfect. I had to settle for that, however, as I was running out of time. Later, my palate memory finally identified the taste as the wonderful "molasses" Christmas cookie my mother's close friend made when I was small. She finely ground the hazelnuts and candied citron, used cookie cutters to create fancy shapes, and then frosted them with regular cookie frosting and sprinkles. Ah-ha! The next batch (there's still dough in the refrigerator), will be frosted just as Mrs. Weaver's cookies were.

I finished the last batch of cookies around supper time, and Stephen chased me out of the kitchen to make us soup and sandwiches for dinner. Not fancy, but wonderful after a day spent up to my elbows in butter, flour, sugar, and spices. The dining room is full of cookies, the refrigerator is full of cookie dough, and I'm feeding all my friends cookies for the near future!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Playing Santa's Little Helper

Christmas gifts are lovely things--fun to give, fun to get. Handmade Christmas gifts are particularly lovely, as it means the person took some of their valuable time to make something for the recipient. The bad thing about handmade Christmas gifts is that they take time--something in very short supply these days. There's an old saw about "having either time or money": if you don't have the time, you can usually rush out to a store and buy the recipient something; if you don't have the money (these days, because you're unemployed), you probably have the time to make some thoughtful handmade gift.

The problem with this is when you: a) don't have the time because you're one of the lucky ones with a job; and b) you don't make enough to spend a lot of money on gifts. Trying to make thoughtful handmade gifts is tough when you're trying to fit 36 hours into a 24-hour day.

The economy, quite frankly, stinks this year; it's become chic to be cheap frugal. Handmade gifts sounds like an excellent alternative--after all, who wouldn't like a set of hand-embroidered kitchen towels, or a hand-knit tea cozy? Even better when the gifts can be made out of the overly large fabric and fiber stashes--stash-busting and giving at the same time is a "two-fer," and always a good thing. A great idea, but the sands of time are running out.

I gave it my best--got the kitchen towels, out of a beautiful bunch of huck toweling, sewn in a couple hours. The "wrinkle" was in the embroidery--even a simple Swedish weaving pattern on the end of a towel takes about 8 hours, and I have 8 to do. I think I can make it, if I give up eating, sleeping, and everything else between now and Christmas. Not practical; I'm on the 15 yard line, and it's 4th and long in the Christmas Bowl. Time to "drop back and punt."

Thank God for gift baskets. Those wonderful inventions, that in good years provide an interesting (if somewhat expensive) solution to last-minute gift-giving, are a lifesaver for the crafty giver. The trick is to know how the fancy baskets are done.

1) Smaller is better. The trick to a lot of gift baskets is the size of the basket--it's slightly smaller than all the stuff that's going into the basket. "Small" means the basket will be overcrowded, giving a feeling of abundance.

2) Excelsior is my friend. I love excelsior. It's the straw-like stuff that is in the bottoms of the fanciest gift baskets. It makes great padding, is natural and biodegradable, and is once again easily available. Fill up the basket well with excelsior, so the goodies are shown to their best advantage, then pile them in.

3) High quality items mean a high-quality basket. Cost Plus World Market is a wonderful place to find basket goodies, and if you're a great baker or an awesome chef, this is the time to whip up a batch of incredibly luscious treats, or put up that special Christmas jelly that everyone loves. Great handmades also personalize a gift basket in ways that commercial baskets can never duplicate.

4) Shrinkable cellophane. I don't know who invented this stuff, but it's a wonder. Just wrap up the basket (I usually pull it up to the top and put a big bow on), then use a hair dryer to shrink-wrap the basket, just like the fancy commercial baskets.

This year, everybody is getting "Breakfast in Basket," a selection of coffee, tea, cocoa, scone mix, and my award-winning homemade jelly. The baskets are beautiful, everybody seems to like what I put in them (they fight over my jellies and jams), and now I can focus on making wonderful, thoughtful handmade gifts for everyone next year.

Note: This was posted after Christmas, so my friends didn't find out what they were getting for Christmas.