Thursday, December 31, 2009

Looking back for future procrastinations

I found this book the other day when I was clearing out my storage room, trying (and failing) to find space for current and future procrastinatory materials:

I Remember The One-Room School, by Myrtle Fair. It's full of first-person anecdotes from students and teachers alike, plus some bonus photographs:

I just love stuff like this. Of course the book covers many decades but it has a lot of material from the 1920s and 30s, my favourites for reading about - those two blocks of time were such stark contrasts for each other, and considering it was such a terrible time, the Depression was a rich and creative one too.

In another blast from the past, last week my mum persuaded me that it is time I took home with me a mug that my aunt and uncle gave me for Christmas one year when I still lived with her and dad. I have drunk a lot of tea from this mug:

and am having more this morning as I ponder where the book and another little problem are leading me.

Yesterday I had to hit the mall to size down on something (always a happy problem for a chocoholic like moi) and looked at wool cardigans. I really, really need a wool cardi and really, really need to not knit one myself - I want to get back to some serious writing in 2010 and cardis require a serious time commitment. But I didn't like any of the ones I saw.

Then, at the grocery store, I paused at the magazine rack and picked up a sewing magazine with a pattern for making a ladies' sweater out of a man's felted one. Hello! Still swimming in felted sweaters here!

So I'm thinking... if I make my cardi, but sew it rather than knitting it, it might be as fast as a four-hour possibly fruitless shopping trip for just the right one, yes?

And I'm thinking I should have bought that magazine when I saw it. Or maybe I can just wing a pattern myself, like I ended up doing for the mittens. The hardest part is always the sleeves anyway, and I have no shortage of those:

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


I dare you: click here and take a look at the beautiful photographs, each of them with something to say. Your mileage may vary, but this is what I'm hearing.

The one with the wreath over the fireplace:

"Hello, and thank you. I am very beautiful! I was made by somebody with her own craft studio, plus storage space where I now live comfortably in the off-season."

The perfectly-proportioned candies-in-bowl shot:

"Why yes, I do look inviting, don't I. Guess where I am? On a horizontal surface not already occupied by sixteen other things. Maybe you'd like to leave this blog and go look at real estate listings instead, h'mmmm?"

The festive tray of Santa mugs, carrying with it the suggestion of each member of the family enjoying hot chocolate in one of his or her own (a suspicion confirmed at the very end of this entry, by the way):

"Go. Just go and clean out the storage room. You still won't have space for your own collection of Santa mugs, but it's cheaper than moving and you'll feel better."

Well, I have duly cleared out the storage room and I do not feel better. But I did purge a lot of boxes and papers and stuff for Goodwill and I found a book I'd quite like to read, and I guess that's something. Right?

Monday, December 28, 2009

How to make chocolate chip meringues

This time of year, after the presents have been opened, is all about topping up the supply of chocolate chip meringues my mum started making after she found the recipe in a magazine back in the 50s.

They aren't difficult - mum insists there's a knack, but I don't think I have any special gift and they always come out fine for me. Of course, unlike mum I don't care whether they come out properly crisp, as in winter, or chewy, as on a humid summer day. They're all delicious as far as I'm concerned. Chewy meringues taste kind of like toffee and don't crumble onto the floor either, even if they do make conversation a bit slower.

The first thing you do is whip egg whites into a froth.

The eggs really need to be room temperature before you separate them, but if you forget to take them out of the refrigerator ahead of time you can always sit them in a bowl of warm water for a bit. I guess that's really the first thing, isn't it - getting the eggs out of the 'frig.

Then you add sugar - I am lazy and just pour in a steady stream of it - and it magically turns into this very white creamy-looking stuff:

You have to fold in the vanilla with a spatula.

Ditto the chocolate chips - gently! The recipe calls for two cups but you can add more, and I usually do.

The better you mix them in, the more exciting they are to eat later.

Then you drop them onto paper on a cookie sheet.

I use parchment, but back when grocery stores sent you home with brown paper bags to hold your purchases my mother saved those for the purpose. You want the bottoms of the meringues to stay dry, is the point. No greasing the pan!

And now: the tricky part. Time constraints usually force me to bake all three pans at once, so I rotate them in the oven after the first and second eight minutes and then again after the next four, and the four after that. Otherwise the tops of the peaks burn. I often drop the meringue into low drifts to minimize this risk, whereas mum can get away with making a loftier cookie.

See? If they're low, they don't get too brown.

But you can see why a loftier cookie is an improvement:

More caverns in which the chips can hide! And finding the chocolate is really the point of a meringue. That and the heavenly scent in the house for hours after you make them.

Chocolate Chip Meringues

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.

Beat together
4 egg whites at room temperature
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1/8 tsp salt
until foamy.

1 cup white sugar
2 tbsp at a time, beating after every addition. Continue beating until mixture stands in firm peaks.

Using a spatula, fold in
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups chocolate chips.

Drop from teaspoon onto parchment paper on ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake at 300 degrees for 25 minutes or until cookies are light brown. Turn off the oven but leave the pans inside, preferably overnight. They need to dry out.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

I don't think there is any nicer gift at Christmas - given loved ones to spend time with - than books to read and chocolate to eat while you do it.

This book, In A Unicorn's Garden, is a fascinating mixture of social history and medieval garden planner all wrapped up in a beautiful binding - the perfect companion for a day stuck home with a wicked cold!

Here's hoping your own day is much more mobile and just as pleasant.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Mitten wrapup

These are the last photos before I wrap these babies and declare MittenFest officially complete. This pair is for a mother and son:

And they are two of the very few I know that sort of thing about. I deliberately matched the palm of the bigger pair to the fabric of the smaller - sweet, yes? You'd almost think I hadn't run out of fabric from the Fair Isle sweater I used for the backs.

I know who these are going to as well:

This was my personal favourite outer sweater and the lining sweater, which produced a ton of mitts, was the softest. I didn't have to do anything extra to make these look special.

Didn't have to do anything extra for these, either:

What's not to love about a Laura Ashley sweater in wool and silk?

I got a little better at blanket stitch after the first few tries, and eventually I decided to risk doing some in a contrast colour that would show:

Then I got addicted, and added some to this pair that really looked fine without any trim at all:

And finally, the little birdies. I so love how these came out!

I think I made 14 pairs of these this year, with another cut out to sew together later. If I was very very smart, I'd do a few more in January to be ready for next year - it's such a fun project, and so much faster than knitting 20 hats.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A last-minute cute

Like I had time for this little embroidery project, given how behind I am on everything with about a day and a half to go, but aren't these mittens going to be adorable?

Hopefully I'll have decided who's getting them by the time I've finished stitching on the palms and blocking them...

Monday, December 21, 2009

The holiday before the holiday

An unfortunate incident with a vehicle that was moving rather too quickly has me staying out with a dear friend this week.

It's not so much fun for my friend, of course, but I'm having a fabulous time. My duties are meal preparation and cleanup, small amounts of fetching, and much maneuvering of a wheelchair. The list of perks, however, are much longer. Lots and knitting and chatting and really good sleeps, and - thanks in part to my laziness/wisdom in bringing out meals that require heating only and no pans to wash - reading.

My friend likes an interesting book, and a diverse array of friends who are happy to indulge her, so her shelves offer a large and mixed selection.

Yesterday, for example, I was attracted by the title "The Full Cupboard of Life" which has proved to be a mystery from Alexander McCall Smith and quite enjoyable as an accompaniment for late-night milk-and-chocolate consumption.

Today, I noticed some anothologies: Penguin's Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales, a collection of memoirs from 26 different writers called My Wedding Dress, and highlights from the archives of Maclean's magazine titled Canada in the Fifties.

I don't think I have ever spent the last few days before Christmas Eve sitting on a sofa and dreaming over books, but golly. I gotta make sure it doesn't take a car accident to get me doing it again next year.

Friday, December 18, 2009

wine collecting conundrum

Yesterday I read a cartoon about a '93 Pinot and thought


It's a good thing I don't drink.

As it is, I can't figure out how collectors balance the whole Cake And Eat It Too thing. Doesn't aging the wine make it taste better, while increasing its rarity (assuming that other collectors were weak and uncorked it)? So you have to hang onto the wine, training yourself not to drink it, knowing you'll have something terribly exciting in a few decades' time to reward you for the effort - BUT - you're probably so well-trained by the time it's on the brink of undrinkable, it's probably a bittersweet moment when you finally get to pour it for your friends.

There are some skeins of hand-dyed yarn I can't bear to wind into a ball to knit with, they're so beautiful and precious, and yet consuming yarn just transforms it into something useful. Wine - not so much.

Those wine collectors must have amazing self-discipline.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Can there be too much chocolate?

Normally I would say there is no such thing as Too Many Chocolate Chips in a cookie, but after looking at this year's batch of chocolate chip shortbread, I'm not so sure:

Putting the chips in is kind of a violation anyway. The women in my family have been making these cookies for over 100 years and they are supposed to be untainted by anything but the core ingredients, and then rolled out and cut with a krinkly-edged cutter. They're meant to be mixed by hand too, a fearful job in the age of carpal tunnel.

I, having no time for such fripperies, just throw everything into my mixer and let it do the work. I shape the dough into a kind of long tube with four flat sides, wrap it in waxed paper to chill, then slice and bake it. I figured if I was going that far, I might as well add a little something.

Last Christmas, my mother tentatively asked me whether I thought the cookies could be mixed in the mixer and I had to bite my lips before I told her I've been doing it that way for years. So now she's doing it too and hers still taste better than mine.

I'm getting some bonus time with mum next week; maybe I'll ask her to help me mix a batch so I can see where our paths diverge.

Meanwhile, I am just happy that the entire house smells like butter and chocolate. What's not to love? Unless I really did put in too many chocolate chips.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

First deliveries

I saw the first two mitten recipients yesterday and the mitts I gave them were a great success:

If you click on this one, you might be able to make out 'Mary's First Blanket Stitch' running along the contrast palm (it was the only way to squeeze out one more pair from this perfect Fair Isle sweater):

I so loved making them both - the grey ones look sort of plain by comparison with the Fair Isle, but the lining, my friends, is supersoft Italian merino in a nice heavy weight. Pure luxury.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Wool under pressure (more mittens)

I had to salvage a disaster mitten yesterday and I was so amazed by the results I decided to use the same trick on all the others.

The trick? Putting a wet piece of cotton muslin over a mitten and then pressing the heck out of it with a hot iron. I didn't even bother getting out the ironing board because a thick towel on the top of the washing machine, while unglamourous, does a fine job.

The amazing thing is that the fabric changes so completely when you do this. Unlike when you use heat, moisture, and bonus agitation (and it felts), when it just has the heat and moisture the wool relaxes and eases out. The mittens actually get bigger, as shown in this Before (left) and After (right) shot:

thereby resolving the too-tight thumb issue I had with some pairs.

And the wonky seams I couldn't seem to get right on the three-piece mittens?

They look normal now.

And I am immensely pleased.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Nothing if not organized

I got my weekend all set up on Friday night:

That stack on the left is, I think, ten pairs of mittens, cut and matched and ready to sew.

Plus some leftover sweater bits ready to be cut into something interesting for the back of another pair that had to be cut from a decidedly dull fabric.

Naturally, the weekend went sideways immediately thereafter, but thanks to

not sleeping and

not watching Turner Classic Movies

I still managed to put together all but one pair (which are destined for me, and can wait.) Some of the others still need some trimming and pressing, and one pair were a complete disaster whose only hope is really excellent blocking, and I'm getting closer to being able to put up my Christmas tree in spite of all that.

Because did I mention the only place the tree can go is the only place the sewing machine can go when it's in use?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Cutting corners

I'm trying something new and fun this year for Christmas:

not being ready.

Usually by December 1 I've finished everything but the wrapping, and the baking of cookies and delivery of same (it's tradition for me to drop by neighbours' with a lunch bag of samples from my mum's best family recipes). I don't even have to put up decorations, because I'll have reorganized the furniture in November to make room for them and then gotten them all finished.

This year, however, has been Very Difficult, putting Christmas 2009 on a tight time budget. Instead of getting all frolicky, I've been finding ways to cut corners. For example:

The house will be decorated for two weeks only.

The cookies will be baked and delivered in the last 4 days before Christmas Eve.

A lot of gifts will take the form of donations to homeless shelters and hot-meal suppliers; the rest will be bought online or home-made on a crafty assembly line.

I won't be cooking a turkey dinner on Boxing Day: I'm buying something ready made that reheats in one pan from the posh butcher shop and freezing it until then.

And thanks to all that - I think it will be the best Christmas ever! I'll have more time with friends and family, make decorating part of the experience instead of just an advance stage setting, and get enough sleep to enjoy the festivities.

(once I have all the mittens done, that is.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The weather outside is frightful

Seriously - we got our first snow in the night, not just a little dusting but the real thing, and it changed to rain around 7am while still retaining a 'feels like' rating of -6 C. So I'm looking out the window at about an inch of pristine slushy goo and looking even less forward than usual to my mandatory trip for exercise and groceries.

Fortunately, I have exactly the right boots for the occasion: Bogs.

The are not pretty, but they are insanely warm and comfy, and on a day like this, whew! that's all that matters.

That and finding a can of my hot chocolate of choice, which none of my local retailers seem to be carrying any more...

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Unintentional procrastination

MAN. I just did a bus/subway trip to get some holiday shopping done and it was a complete bust! I have a tube of toothpaste to show for a 90 minute investment. (do you think anybody would enjoy a nicely wrapped tube of toothpaste?)

And I forgot to bring my knitting with me. The knitting that is meant to be gifts I am running out of time to finish.

Well, now I remember why I make most of my presents and shop online for the rest...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Midway through the mitten frenzy

No pictures today - I realized there is just a slim chance that somebody due to receive a pair might actually read this.

However, you will be thrilled to know that I managed to come up with a girl-sized pattern in the better-fitting style I discovered last weekend, which involved much ripping and resewing and trimming and ripping again, so as to make a paper pattern of the result.

Plus, I:

bought a ton more sweaters to felt (ton = 7.)

cut out all the remaining outer mittens and liner mittens needed for the entire Frenzy.

cleaned up all the wool dust from the washer and dryer where I did said cutting.

managed to cram all the sweater remains - enough to make any number of little bags and slippers and so forth if I could only decide how - into a giant green plastic garbage bag to do something with later.

put the remaining 5 uncut sweaters into my crafty cupboard as a start for next year's festive frenzy, whatever that might prove to be.

resisted ice cream.

Man. Do I ever need a holiday.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Holiday lights on wheels

The trip to see the CP Holiday Train was great (as was my haircut). The music, furnished live by Odds, was fabulous and the lights breathtaking. Tons of people were walking (or rolling along in strollers) alongside this big long train and about 90% of them had either cameras or tripods in hand, and sometimes both.

I hope they had better cameras than I do, though, because the only other picture I took that worked out was this one:

But that's okay. The real thrill is seeing it in person, and I get to do that again next year. Think I'll have written any fiction at all between now and then?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Midnight snack

I've always been intrigued by those fancy cake things you see in the grocery stores around this time of the year. They have big ribbons on them and they're wrapped up (or boxed prettily) and they say things in Italian on the side.

But I never thought of buying one until last year when my friend Bob said are you KIDDING? they are FANTASTIC, you have to get the TRE MARIE brand!

So this year I kinda hunted around different chain grocers until I found one that sold Tre Marie. And I bought one.

Around 11 o'clock that night I got hungry.

I decided that this is a very big cake. Except that it looks more like bread than cake. And 1/12th of it is 300 calories, except do I really want to eat 1/12th of a chocolate-free breadlike cake in one sitting? Having discovered a nutritional breakdown in English on the underside of the wrapping, I am thinking no. I am also thinking it's good that I don't hate sultanas.

A very thin slice is enough.

The next day, various friends of Italian descent or Italian-by-marriageness informed me that panettone keeps forever, and is in fact meant as a bread thing to eat with coffee or tea or something otherwise breakfasty. So I tried it again in the afternoon and thought of tea (which I was not in a position to drink at the time) and I liked it better...

... though not as much as I think I'd like the smaller Tre Marie panettone I saw in the store - the one with the custard-looking filling.


(Nah. It still wouldn't have any chocolate in it.)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Fire alarm

Yesterday I came in from an exciting trip to the garage to find the house was filled with the smell of burning plastic.


In these situations, I always panic about the source of the problem. Did I leave a giant plastic storage tub on the stove again? (don't ask.) Is it wafting over from somebody else's house under construction? Might there be a sudden problem with the wiring?

No smoke, no fire, no clue.

I raced around the house opening the windows, sniffing carefully in every room, unsure where the smell was worst. But pretty soon I'd narrowed it down to the ceiling fixture in my office, huzzah. A minor evacuation (hard drive, camera, knitting in progress) ensued, and then I tried to figure out which breaker sends power to that particular light.

It was while I was racing up and downstairs from the fuse box to see whether the secondary light in that room had gone out yet that I thought to turn on the ceiling light again and hope that the power had been cut.

It hadn't. And that is how I discovered one of the high-efficiency bulbs in it had burned out.

These bulbs have a peculiar habit if they burn out and get left in the fixture, even for a few seconds.

You may not be able to make out the little grey oval patch of melted plastic on the left there, but you can probably see the blackened bottoms of the tubes. Smells like the dickens and can't be very wholesome for your lungs, to say nothing of the hours (14 and counting) it takes to get the smell out of the house - if, like me, you forget what the problem is from the last time and take an extra fifteen minutes to get it out.

Yep, this has happened to me before. Just once, but it should have been enough!

Goes against my grain to waste energy, but I'm thinking it's time to switch back to the old style bulb for a while... or at least a different brand of this kind.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Train and a haircut

Well, I don't know what's more exciting today - my much-anticipated haircut (if you are a longtime reader, you may recall last year's disasters on that front, from which my hair has finally, officially, Grown Out)

or the CP Holiday Train.

I first noticed the train a few years ago when I was getting a lift downtown for, appropriately enough, a holiday party. This train rumbled past on the tracks alongside the road I was on - and what a train! All lit up with bells and bows, cars and cars of it. I'd never seen anything like it, and believe me, I've seen my share of trains.

The train crosses North America just above and below the Canada/US border, stopping periodically to open up a boxcar that serves as a stage for a band. The band plays, and people who've come out to hear it donate money and canned food for local food banks.

Plus, it looks really really awesome. Or did I mention that part already?

You can find out more at the Holiday Train Blog, and if you decide you just have to check it out in person, you can find the train's schedule, for both the US and Canada, here.