...Growing, Building, Cooking, Preserving, Crafting...

2006 began our urban homestead when I broke ground on a garden, which now includes perennial fruits, flowers, & many vegetable varieties. We dream of solar panels, keeping bees and hens. Until then we'll continue growing and preserving our own fruits and vegetables, building what we can for our home, cooking from scratch, and crafting most days.


Time to Relax and Enjoy

(Warning:  Mom, if you're reading this, SHUT IT DOWN because you promised not to peek!)

The holidays are here--Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Yule, Las Posadas, and almost Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year's.  I completed my final homemade gifts yesterday morning and am now [figuratively] putting my feet up.  I hope to engage in a physical foot-up session this weekend when we'll travel to see relatives for the holidays.

The goal with choosing and/or creating my parents' Christmas gift each year is to make my mom cry.  In the past I've given them family photos, framed original poetry, or have written my mom a short story--we share a great love of reading and writing (afterall, she's a retired English teacher...my high school English/Speech teacher, in fact.)  For the past several years, since I took a Geneology class via the Milwaukee County Geneological Society, I've been hoping to put together a basic family tree and gift it to my siblings and parents.  It finally came together this year.  I was originally thinking I might hire someone to hand draw the tree because I wasn't able to find an appropriate template online (or on Etsy--although there are some super cool original designs available there), but then realized I should just draw it myself.  The whole process of sketching, photocopying, touching up (usually with white-out), recopying, and finalizing reminded me of my days in high school and college designing T-shirts and program covers for various events and teams.  I'm glad I went this route; the design is exactly how I'd hoped--five generations with my parents at the center, and spreading out more in an hourglass shape than in a pyramid--and much more meaningful as a result.  In keeping with using the resources and supplies on hand, as I tried with all the other homemade gifts, I retrofitted the hand-colored final piece into a mat/frame that was out of circulation.  I'm pleased and I hope my parents will be tremendously touched.

Alice's new duds (not easy to sew so straightly
sometimes on these little garments.)
Baby doll Alice trying on her new coat and bonnet

My new "work" shoes
I also put the finishing touches on Vera's doll clothes yesterday morning then wrapped them, which lasted all of eight hours until our family gift exchange last night.  Santa, knowing we'd be running around for the actual holidays, delivered last night while Vera and I were out getting my hair cut.  He took the peppermint stick and carrot we left for him and Rudolph, respectively, and responded "Thanks!" on our note.  Vera displayed slight disbelief, but then happily handed out and opened gifts with Mommy and Daddy.  Her doll Alice was thrilled to finally have a coat and bonnet, though she had to fein amnesia upon opening it since she'd just had the final fitting earlier that day.  And Vera was very excited about her Kermit pillow and Lois Ehlert autographed book.  Ben came up with a lovely pair of locally purchased fair trade slippers for me based on the requirements for my annual slipper replacement--sturdy soles, warm, slip-on, dark color.

My first time playing Santa/Rudolph

The "Kermie" pillow is a big hit!
He also earned himself husband of the year when he presented me with a personally-designed certificate of 12 "Get-Out-of-the-House-Free" cards to be used monthly in 2012.  He knows that rejuvenation will make me a better mama, but I won't go out and do something for myself without this push.  I can't wait to use them.
Best. Gift. Ever!
This week we've managed to sneak a couple more holiday activities into the schedule.  Besides making a run for the Wisconsin essentials for my parents--this year it was Danish Kringle and a certain label of brandy that my gramma always preferred--Vera and I went downtown to check out the holiday lobby display at  M&I Bank downtown.  Then we hopped over the Grand Ave. to see the Leonard Bearstein Orchestra, which Vera absolutely loved.  We made potato latkes to acknowledge Hanukkah and may go see the Polar Express at the IMAX this afternoon.  So many opportunities though with V being a little under the weather this week, we've had to slow down a bit (hidden blessing for sure.)

Packing Santa's sleigh, holiday bank display
Winter Wonder-land
Leonard Bearstein Orchestra in all their green and gold best.
Home just in time to make potato latkes--I fried mine in
goose fat (instead of chicken fat) against my favorite
Jewish friend's wishes.
The Winter Solstice greeted us today as we read The Shortest Day, which I recommend for preschool and school-age children.  There are many activities included as well.  We made a Yuletide hand wreath via instructions in Yule, a book that I highly recommend for getting information on the history of wintertime celebrations and symbols.  It's about time to kick back with some [spiked] eggnog and reflect.

Vera's Hand Wreath
Now you can personalize
Speaking of eggnog, it was fridge cleaning time yesterday as we prepare to travel for a week or so.  And sometimes when you reorganize and wipe down the refrigerator you just end up making a chocolate cake.  Well, not usually, but when I found a flat, half-empty bottle of locally made rootbeer in the fridge, I wanted a way to use it creatively.  Ben and two of his close buddies who live in our neighborhood have been leaving holiday cheer on each other's front stoops for the last couple of weeks.  A personalized bottle--as in, he and his son are pictured with Santa--arrived from one friend and after a single, delicious root beer float made with Sassy Cow's Orange Chocolate Chip ice cream last week I tucked it into the fridge and kind of forgot.  Have no fear, I found a recipe for a Root Beer Float Cake and we were on our way. It was a perfect treat for Ben and I to savor along with some of that holiday cheer after the gift exchange and after Vera had turned in for the night.  We caught up by the light of the tree and licked our forks and plates clean.

Root Beer Float Cake (Gluten-Free)
Makes a 6-inch layer cake (nice and small!)

Sometimes you just gotta make room for chocolate cake
Adapted to gluten-free from a recipe from Joy the Baker.  I was incredibly surprised and thrilled with the texture and flavor once it was converted.  I didn't think this cake tasted much like root beer, but it ended up being a fantastic gluten-free chocolate cake recipe at least.

1 c. root beer (not diet, heaven's no!)
1/2 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 c. (1/2 stick) butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 c. + 2 T. granulated sugar
1/4 c. brown sugar, packed
1 c. all-purpose gluten-free flour
1/ 4 t. xanthan gum
3/4 t. baking soda
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Grease 6-inch springform pan and either dust with GF flour or line with a parchment round.  In a small saucepan, heat root beer, cocoa powder, and butter over medium heat until butter is melted.  Add sugars and whisk until dissolved.  Remove from heat and let cool.  In a large bowl, sift flour, xanthan gum, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.  In a small bowl, whisk egg until just beaten.  Then egg into cocoa mixture until combined then gently fold flour mixture into cocoa mixture.  Batter will be slightly lumpy.  You can give it a quick whisk, but don't overbeat.  Don't worry, the batter is very loose.  Pour into prepared pan and bake about 45 min. or until a skewer/knife poked into center comes out clean.  Let cool completely, remove from pan, cut in half cross-sectionally.  Frost first layer and place second layer on top, frost all over cake, smoothing top and sides.  Slice and serve with eggnog cream.

Serve with fork AND spoon!
Chocolate Root Beer Frosting: (The salt gives it a nice balance once paired with the cake!)
1/2 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/3 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
3 oz. semi-sweet gluten-free chocolate chips, melted
1/2 t. salt
1 1/4 c. powdered sugar
1/4 c. root beer
In the bowl of a stand mixer or with hand mixer, beat softened butter and cocoa powder.  Once combined, add melted chocolate, salt, powdered sugar, and root beer.  Beat together until smooth.  Spread on cake layers as directed above.

Eggnog Cream:
2 c. eggnog
1/2 c. sifted powdered sugar

Beat with whip attachment in an electric mixer (or with hand mixer) until frothy and slightly thickened.  This won't whip up stiffly like heavy whipping cream, but will gain a little more body at least.  I recommend pouring the cream into a shallow bowl and placing the cake slice on top. (Serve with both a fork and spoon!)

Nothin' but crumbs left.
We're spending Christmas in Tinseltown (where it will be 70 degrees--I've never celebrated this holiday in a warm climate before...should be interesting).  Can't wait to see extended family and Vera's beloved cousins.  We're also heading to downstate Illinois to catch my family next week.  Although I was hoping to see my siblings, in-laws, nieces, and nephew I'm relieved at least about the lodging situation.  Although my parents have a sizable home, there's often little room at the inn.  With everyone's sleeping quirks and requirements, it's often impossible for individual families to be contained to one room, not to mention my parents having to sleep clear across the house from each other.  One of my favorite lines from Tina Fey's Bossypants on the topic of heading home for the holidays:
"...the retro chic of spending Christmas just like Joseph and Mary did--traveling arduously back to the place of your birth to be counted, with no guarantee of a bed when you get there.  You may end up sleeping on an old wicker chair with a dog licking your face while an Ab Rocket infomercial plays in the background.  It's a modern-day manger."
Lights on Wisconsin Ave. at Grand Ave.
City Hall via the M&I Bank Christmas Tree
On that note, enjoy the holidays and this new season however and wherever it will find you.  I'll be taking a break from blogging probably until the New Year.  Have a happy one!


Ready for the Holidays--Ready for some Snow

Brick Road Skirts for my nieces  Ruffles Galore!
Although it's been stressful at times, the holiday hand-crafted gifts are just about done.  I had a slightly rude awakening late last week that put my procrastinating in check.  All this time I thought I was going to be seeing my nieces and nephew at my parents' house between Christmas and New Year's, but found out that our paths shall not cross this year.  So the final week of sewing that I thought I had starting today was cut short so that I could finish the gifts, get them mailed before the postal rush, and have them arrive in time for the girls at least to open their matching gifts together before they go home to their respective states.  I spent a good solid 5 hours this weekend completing the second Brick Road Skirt for niece #2--whoever invented ruffles should be tortured with one.  Wow!  There were yards and yards of ruffles, hours and hours or gathering and re-gathering, but I'm very happy with the results and I hope the girls enjoy spinning around in their new fanciness.

I also spent late Saturday night--as I watched some junk TV--cutting and piecing together my nephew's gifts.  As long as their mother--who I think is still a regular follower here--promises not to show/tell them about these gifts, I am posting photos here.  After reading Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot, I've been trying to consciously choose gifts that challenge the gender barriers.  From what I've read, boys don't often excel in reading/writing like young girls do so I thought I'd make some journals for my tween/teen nephews to encourage them to write, sketch, or whatever else 10 and 13-year old young men would do with a blank book.  I've had some minor bookmaking experience over the last ten years and have been keeping a box of scraps and cool paper at my craft corner in case I got back into it.  The idea for these journals evolved over time--mostly last week as I was lying in bed with my "monkey mind" going a million miles an hour.  As I found out what supplies were/were not available, the binding and composition changed.  But overall, they are what I had imagined.  I used some newsprint paper I acquired a couple of years ago and used some cool maps ("Who Says North Is Up?") from the Syracuse Cultural Workers annual calendar that's regularly gifted to us from some of Ben's relatives.  I have a feeling these boys will appreciate the work that went into these books and I hope they have fun jotting or scribbling down their thoughts, ideas, and drawings.  This week I just need to put the finishing touches on a couple other projects.  In general, I feel like I can somewhat coast until this weekend when we hit the skies.  

Basic stitching around the cover's edge
"Monogrammed" with stickers from the craft store
Used paint samples as separators
"Sleigh Ride"
We've done a good bit of running around this month, but I feel like I've seen and hung out with more friends in December than I've seen in all of 2011.  Friday night we joined some close friends for a "sleigh ride" (actually a wagon ride for lack of snow) up in Cedarburg.  It was a great cold night and fun to be bundled up in the back of the wagon pulled by two beautiful Percherons.  There was cider, hot cocoa, old-fashioned board games, and Santa for all to enjoy afterwards.  Still hoping to do something special for Solstice this week and will also try my hand at some potato latkes to acknowledge Hanukkah and have a family gift exchange before we pack up and leave town.  

Yesterday I made special pancakes to celebrate our first family breakfast together in quite some time.  I got this idea from the children's book Christmas in the Big Woods.  Ben reminded me that it was a work of fiction, which is why their gingerbread-person-shaped pancakes turned out perfectly.  Yeah, I guess I should have realized that, but we gave it a shot nonetheless.

Gingerbread Pancakes (Gluten-Free)
Serves 3-4

It is KEY to spray the cookie cutters before pouring in the batter.  Otherwise, just drop scoopfuls on the griddle.

1 1/4 c. all-purpose gluten-free flour (I use Bob's Red Mill)
1 t. xanthan gum
2 t. baking powder
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 1/2 t. ground ginger
3/4 t. ground cloves
1/4 t. ground nutmeg
1 T. brown sugar
1/2 t. salt
1 1/3 milk--cow's, almond, coconut, soy, etc. (start w/ 1 c., add extra 1/3 c. if needed for thinner batter)
1 T. molasses or sorghum syrup
3 T. oil
1 egg, slightly beaten (I also tried it with egg replacer, but the consistency was a bit gummy)
Pure Maple Syrup

In large bowl, stir together all dry ingredients until well combined.  In small bowl, whisk together wet ingredients.  Add wet ingredients to dry and stir until smooth.  Let sit about 10 min.  Heat griddle or skillet on medium-low heat (lightly grease with butter, ghee, oil, coconut oil.)  Pour 1/2 c. batter for each pancake (into greased cookie cutters to make shapes if you desire), allowing room for them to expand.  Cook until tops get bubbly and start to look dry.  Carefully flip and cook other side until golden.  Repeat until batter is gone, greasing skillet in between as needed.  Serve with maple syrup, butter, or other accoutrements of your choice.

Now all we need is Frosty!
We received a special delivery today after returning from a holiday lunch with Great Grandma.  My cousin, who is spending more time at home with her kiddos these days, has had more of a chance for creativity--something all of us moms need more of, no doubt.  She came up with this "Just Add Snow" Snowman Kit, which I think is brilliant.  Now we just need some snow!  I do look forward to seeing some of the white stuff outside our door.  I know it will encourage Vera to get outside more on cold days, but I wouldn't be terribly disappointed if it waited until after all of the holiday travel.  Happy Holidays to you all; I hope you find peace in these last couple of weeks of the year.


My Holiday Sweatshop...and Remembering What We Celebrate

Lights on Wisconsin Ave. looking east from 6th St.
"Santa's workshop" has been in full swing this week with the help of some amazing friends who have taken/are taking Vera for a morning so I can sew away on some gifts--especially ones I don't want V to see.  Yesterday morning I began Brick Road Skirt number two for my other niece as well as a tiny overcoat for Vera's doll.  As I was sewing up a storm I had time to sip lukewarm coffee and let my thoughts wander.  A big realization I had was how impossible it is to make these quality gifts at dirt cheap prices if you are accounting for actual the time and labor put into them, not to mention the materials (though mine were all scraps or things I had on hand.)  A friend and fellow knitter made a statement in a recent blog post--when she was challenged with the idea of selling her knitwear--about how much she'd actually have to charge for each product.  It was decidedly more than she believed anyone would easily pay.  Since I've become a more serious crafter over the last several years I've gained enormous appreciation for the work that's put into handcrafted items.  It's no wonder an adult size cabled sweater could cost hundreds of dollars, hand-sewn kids clothes carry boutique prices, and foods like meticulously cracked and picked hickory nuts can go for almost $25/lb.  I had a pretty clear idea about all of this before yesterday, but after my four hour sweat session in the morning, I can now firmly offer that there's absolutely no way the cheap goods people buy at big box stores can be manufactured in the workers' or environment's best interest.  It's truly saddening to me, but gives me even more motivation to sew away on these gifts knowing that it's one less item being demanded via exploited labor practices from China, Vietnam, India, or other foreign lands.

I have now knocked out two of the seven (or eight?) gifts I have on my to-do list.  Will I finish in time?  Probably.  Although I'm sure I'll spend some late nights next week in my craft corner putting on the finishing touches.  How does Santa do it?  After taking Vera to see the new Muppet movie recently, she was excited about Kermit the Frog.  I took a well-worn Kermit T-shirt (probably another relic resuscitated from my brother's crusty college dwelling), cut the print from it and turned it into a pillow.  It's very basic, but she's going to love it.  I even found some green piping in my stash to decorate the edges. So here's where I insert (hoping for a chuckle) "It's Not Easy Being Green."  After the above paragraph, I reiterate that it certainly isn't easy.  But I know it's the right thing for me to do and I think Vera will be happy with this novelty gift.
Perfect green piping from my stash
And plenty of matching material on hand for the back
Hand-sewn cards
I used to make all my own holiday cards as well, but in recent years have gone the way of printed photo cards.  Once you have kids, all the relatives just want to see holiday photos, right?  I only ordered about a third of the printed cards that I did last year, using e-mail and social networking modes to share our holiday wishes/photos otherwise for a much lower carbon footprint (much lower cost in printing and postage...and much less time filling them out.)  Don't get me wrong, I still love each and every one of the people to whom I normally send hard copies of cards, but in keeping things more simple this year, time spent writing and mailing cards had to be cut.  I did, however, sew some handmade cards yesterday to supplement the printed ones and sent these originals to my family members with wallet size home-printed candid shots of Vera tucked inside.  I've made several types of machine-sewn cards before and it couldn't be easier.  In fact, we made our own wedding invitations this way and I still treasure the prototype.

Though my husband claims I seem more stressed this holiday season, I actually feel fairly at peace.  I just disguise it well as I walk around looking dazed, disgruntled, or desperate for a nap.  We've had a chance to check out some cool holiday events this month--a circle tour of downtown Milwaukee to check out the Milwaukee Holiday Lights, the MATC Culinary Student Gingerbread Houses at the Milwaukee Public Market...
Kremlin (?) Gingerbread House
An Homage to my hometown--Paris...Illinois

Holiday Sparkle at St. Paul Fish Market--"Goldfish Tree"
...a Wine and Cheese Tasting at a friend's home, and the Holistic Moms Network Alternative Cookie Exchange at our house.  There will be more fun towards week's end as we celebrate Winter Solstice. 
My friends' amazing hors d'oeuvres spread for the Wine and Cheese party
Wine for the Tastin'
Karen's lovely mantle

Gretel’s Gingerbread Cookies (Gluten-free, Dairy-free Soy-free, White sugar in icing only)

Makes 3-4 dozen cookies

This is a very easy dough to work with.  It’s not too sticky and therefore fun for kids to play and shape/cut/roll while mom/dad is punching out cookies…of course the kids can do this as well!

1 c. coconut oil, melted
1 egg
1 t. water
1/4 c. honey
1/2 t. ground allspice
2 t. ground ginger
1/2 t. ground cloves
1/2 t. cinnamon powder
1/8 t. peeled and grated fresh ginger (optional…but might want to add a little extra ground ginger)
1 t. baking soda
3 c. blanched almond flour, or more as needed (I ended up using 3 1/2 c. approx.)

Preheat oven to 350F.  Grease or line a cookie sheet.  Mix all ingredients together in a bowl, until the dough is dry enough and not sticky to work with.   Add more almond flour, if necessary.  Roll dough (use a little extra almond flour to “dust” the rolling surface, as needed) and cut out shapes.  Place cutouts on cookie sheet and bake 10-12 min, or until edges turn golden. 

Decorating Icing
1 egg white
1/2 lb. organic powdered sugar, sifted
1 T. water
1 t. cream of tartar

Combine all ingredients in an electric mixer (or use electric beaters).  Beat on high for 2-3 min. until glossy.  Spread onto cookies or put in decorating bag to use for piping.

Ready for the Swap
We finally decided last week to approach the holiday season by presenting Vera with stories of all cultures' winter traditions.  So far we're learning about Hanukkah and Las Posadas, we've read Christmas in the Big Woods (part of the Little House Series), How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and watched A Christmas Carol.  We also plan to talk about Yule (Winter Solstice) and Kwanzaa; read 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, and watch "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" (indulging my inner 80s child) and hopefully learn about Chinese New Year and Ramadan later in the season.  It's not that I expect Vera to celebrate all of these festivals or even pick one.  My goal is to begin exposing her year by year to the ways in which people of all ages celebrate this special time of year around the world.

Othr Gluten-Free goodies for the cookie exchange
Chocolate Drizzled Peanut Butter No-Bakes
Gluten-Free Yumminess!
Through my efforts, not only have I learned more than expected about these other festivities, but have realized that this time of year for me is really about memories.  I put my great-grandmother's glass ornaments--given to me by my own Gramma--on the tree; I read/tell stories we enjoyed as kids; we sing carols that I couldn't carry in a paper bag when I was eight; we exchange gifts in the spirit of generosity that our parents so overwhelmingly demonstrated; I display the toothpick, clothespin, and popsicle stick creche I sloppily glued together in 2nd grade; I bake cookies by family recipes; and carry on other traditions however subtle or strange--like hanging all the greeting cards around a doorway/window and bringing the trifecta of brandy, pickled herring, and frozen Tom and Jerry mix to my parents who live far enough south of the Cheddar Curtain so as not to have easy access to these regional goodies.  For me, this time of year is for reflecting, remembering, (hopefully relaxing...eventually), and maybe doing it all while I sit quietly by the light of the tree in the living room.