29 December 2008

Snow dragons and black monsters

This is our black monster, an enormous, centrally located, custom-built fireplace, chimney and wood box. It is terribly inefficient and puts lots of smoke back into the house, which reduces our indoor air quality. The wood box we wanted to demolish because it is unused space and will interfere with the necessary hearth pad for the new efficient soapstone wood stove we plan to install. Once Kevin began tackling the job, he realized it was a larger job than either of us had anticipated since the wood box is welded in places to the chimney, which we had planned to keep, and it was overbuilt out of oak floor boards with a layer of fire-resistant insulation behind that then more metal.

Kevin empties the wood box of our kindling and paper to begin the demolition. The interior was built in a similar manner as any hardwood floor. The top was a 200 pound piece of bluestone that our neighbor had to help remove to the garage. Have we mentioned how wonderful and helpful our neighbors are? If we can't find a way to reuse the bluestone, we'll sell it to someone who can.

Top off, and one side under deconstruction.

Savannah helped in her own way by building a nest out of the paper we had saved to start fires with.Finally the wood box is gone! We'll have to have someone sand and stain the unfinished oak floor beneath it (or attempt it ourselves) to match the rest of the main floor. Here Kevin is attempting to work on the fireplace as well. He got two sides off but the job was just too big to complete in a day without welding supplies.

As if that wasn't enough for the day Kevin still had the energy to trim the elm tree out front that had been damaged in the ice storm. He used his new chain saw and safety gear and I helped as much as I could in clearing away the debris.

Kevin evaluates the main branches that fell and begins to saw them into more useful sizes.

Here's the toughest one. If he had tried cutting directly by the tree trunk, the main branch could have fallen on him. By cutting the end shorter first and some of the "legs" it was standing on, he eventually got down to the trunk without incident.

Finally, a stack of logs beneath the tree to dry out and a pile of smaller branches to be hauled away.

In between hauling off cut logs and branches, I helped amuse the rascal by building a snow dragon for her to ride on.
It was a little on the tall side for her but with a little help up, she did just fine!

Hope you can see it without much contrast.

Savannah loved the snow dragon. Ride on size worked out well for her.

25 December 2008

I'm dreaming of...

A white Christmas is ours this year. Winter has come in all its glory bringing ice, then snow, then wind and more ice, snow and wind. Good thing Santa saw fit to shower us with ice skates, sleds, poles and snowshoes this year!

Now that the holiday rush has passed and we can enjoy our time together more leisurely, I've begun to prepare for baby. I knit this striped stocking hat with the pom pom for baby and can't wait to see it on. Savannah wants one too so I've begun one for her as well. For newborns hats are supposed to fit over a grapefruit and I think mine is slightly larger so it will have to be saved for the fall or winter. I created my own pattern since I couldn't find a pattern for exactly what I wanted.
New hat on bunny.

Baby's new stocking hat.

The elven view.

Savannah spent her Christmas Eve playing in the ice-covered snow making snow people and then smashing them down and making an old-fashioned garland as an offering for the birds and squirrels on Christmas day. There are few reds as beautiful and varied as that of cranberries. They may not be as sparkly and uniform as pomegranate jewels, but what other fruit could match their range of reds and still be suitable for everyday wear?

Stringing together cranberries and popcorn for the woodland garland - our offering to the birds.

Christmas Day we snuggled in bed until 8am, then opened our stockings before breakfast. After breakfast it was time for presents! Savannah opened her presents from Santa first, then had to be encouraged to open her other gifts half an hour later. I guess you could say she's mesmerized by her furbies.

Savannah asked Santa for a very specific limited edition furby this year. Little did Santa's helper know that furbies are a collector's item that have not been produced by the elves since 1997. TGFE (Thank God For Ebay!).

Savannah on her sled with baby and big sister furby. These cute little things talk and sing to each other in Furbish. Savannah is teaching them English.

Savannah played with her pirate Jack-in-the-box from Dearest over and over again.

Savannah even got a present from baby Eastler!

Savannah models her homemade beanie. Look for these on etsy from the Portland Beanie Company.

Santy Claws even saw fit for the furbeast to have some fresh organic catnip toys made by this elf named MeowWow.

Kevin opens one of his gifts from Grandpa.

After presents we made a big Italian lunch (fresh marinara sauce, salad with apple cider vinegar dressing, chicken parmigiana with organic whole wheat spaghetti) to share with our neighbors. They brought nature photos over and we looked through some amazing pictures of coyotes, garden spoils and other wildlife that they'd captured on film over the years from their yard. Soon we'll have our own collection. Then we spent the afternoon snowshoeing and sledding and enjoying the great outdoors. Ahh, country life.

17 December 2008

A cowl for the cold

I like to hand make as many gifts as I can for the holidays. To me there's nothing that says I care about you like taking the time to make something with my own two hands. First there's the idea, which takes time, then selecting the fabric, yarn or ingredients, planning the time to make the gift and then making it and wrapping it - each step during which the recipient is thought of. Holiday packages from our house usually include homemade toffee, hot pepper jelly, candied almonds, and other handmade items for the little ones like aprons or craft sets and blankets. Most of the gifts I've made this year I have to keep mum about until Christmas day but with less time this year than in previous years, I also bought some homemade gifts on etsy - my favorite place to shop for inspiration and for homemade items that I can't make myself.

Yesterday a project I had to complete for work was stopped abruptly so I had the evening all to myself to finally make a Christmas present I've wanted for a long time - a cowl to keep my neck warm inside and out. Cowls are all the rage at the moment in the knitting community ever since big bulky knits started appearing all over the runway. Many of the cowls are either too bulky for my tastes or too lacy making them impractical for the weather here. So I decided to make my own pattern in a bulky weight yarn by Lion (Wool-Ease Thick and Quick). I learned a lot from making it and though I will wear this one, I'll make some changes to the next one I make before writing down my pattern. I think the height of 10 inches is too much for me and I should have stopped between 6 and 8 inches. Trouble is, I love cables so much it's hard for me to stop cabling! I also learned that by decreasing stitches by about 5-6 at the end and beginning is important to help it keep its shape, to prevent rolling and keep the cold out. Of course, Savannah wants one now and when I told her I'd be happy to make her a matching one, she said, "No! In pink please!"

It fits over my head easily, even though mine is the largest in the house. At the top you can see where I learned to decrease a few stitches to help the cowl keep its shape. Next time I'll do the same at both ends.

A terrible picture I took of myself wearing the cowl. Next time, I'll make a somewhat shorter one but it's nice to have the option of pulling this one up from beneath my jacket collar when I'm outside braving the Northwest wind. It also folds over like a turtle neck.

13 December 2008

Old-fashioned apple fritters

I recently bought a series of small pamphlet-sized cookbooks, each with a subject on the fruits of your gardening labor. The recipes are old-fashioned grandma, county fair, farmhouse-style recipes on topics such as squash and zucchini, apples, tomatoes, herbs, etc. They have proved to be brilliant! This morning we tried apple fritters (a breakfast recipe for this time of year when the crispy apples for eating turn a bit softer) and they were delicious. They tasted a lot like the fried dough you can buy at county fairs except much fresher like a warm doughnut out of the frying pan and into your hand. We would definitely make these again! Since I modified the recipe from the original, I'll post it here.

Old-fashioned apple fritters

  • 1c flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon (heaped or rounded)
  • 3 Tb sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
Sift together dry ingredients in a bowl.

  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2-3 Tb plain or vanilla yogurt
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 c apple, diced
Mix together wet ingredients then blend with dry ingredients. Add diced apple.
Drop about a 1/4 c into hot frying pan with 1/4 inch of vegetable or canola oil and fry on each side until golden brown. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and nutmeg and serve plain or with maple syrup and butter drizzled on top.

Notes: You could substitute for the water and yogurt 1/3 c of milk if you prefer.

12 December 2008

Touched by the ice queen

Yesterday and through the night we had an ice storm. The ice hitting the window sills sounds like an old fashioned typewriter in surround sound. After breakfast we crunched through the ice coated lawn to see the damage that the ice had done and to try to protect the new pine we planted. One of my favorite trees had branches splintered all over the ground. All morning we heard the cracks of thunder, followed by the brushing of pine needles and raining of ice as these majestic trees lost limbs under the burden of ice.

The large limb on the right is about 10 inches in diameter. This tree occupies a central location on our front lawn and was about 50 feet tall.

Like a dainty gloved hand, the branch of this deciduous tree reaches out.

The ice queen left us with some amazing sculptures in the cattails and goldenrod.

The cattails bow their weary heads to the ice queen.

It's funny how something as hard and sharp as ice can bend trees into the most beautiful rounded shapes.

In the midst of all this ice a new family member was born, baby Evan. Here's the Christmas hat I knit for him. It's so tiny it almost seems doll-size. I'd forgotten how small newborns are.

And for the new baby girl soon to come down the road from us, a sweet little fleece bear hat and booties.
And for us, a plate of homemade toffee with toasted almonds and chocolate on top...mmm, my favorite. Good thing I only make this once a year!

10 December 2008

Reduce your fabric stash for a good cause (and maybe win a contest)

Every quilter I know has a fabric stash that includes much coveted fabric as well as fabric that makes you wonder, what was I thinking when I bought that? Anyway, now's your chance to do some good and reduce the sinfully large size of your stash (making room for new fabric, of course) AND enter yourself in a charms contest for 36 random 5 inch charms. The link to the contest, called Charms for Charity Contest, is posted below.

Charms for Charity Contest

The neatest thing of all is that the fabric will be donated from quilters all around the world to make quilts for charity. Definitely something I'd like to be a part of!

09 December 2008

Christmas Candy Chalet

FOR SALE: Cozy cottage with private yard, sophisticated paint scheme, new roof, professionally decorated interior and exterior, well-insulated. Perfect for a couple hungry for delicious views and the sweet offerings of the winter wonderland.

For the first time, we made a gingerbread house. At first I wasn't sure if Savannah was enjoying it since she was so serious while decorating it but she said she loved it so much she wanted to make one every year. I think the recent practice caulking the house helped me pipe the icing. It turned out well enough considering it was our first attempt. Savannah did 100% of the decorating minus most of the piping.

Fait accompli!

06 December 2008

Our own wildlife refuge

Some days we are surrounded by wildlife and today was one of those. During breakfast a hawk (couldn't tell if it was red-tailed or grey-tailed) perched on the dead tree by the pond and fervently looked for a warm furry morsel scurrying in the grasses below. We were hoping to see it dive for prey but finally, a mob of songbirds drove it out of the neighborhood.

On our way to the grocery store we came across a lovely doe standing in our neighbor's field. She looked at us for a long time until we decided to scare her back into the woods, since it is hunting season afterall. Savannah could tell the difference between a doe and a buck. As the doe leapt away flashing the underside of its tail, Savannah was impressed by how white it was.

During lunch a great blue heron stalked its way around our pond. It discovered many small snacks along the edge of the cattails but no big fish today. We saw herons all over Florida and Savannah wanted to know why it hadn't gone to Florida or Mexico to fish there.

In the afternoon we saw eleven Turkey hens walking through the paths that run through our woods. They are shy, timid things that cower in the brown goldenrod before leaping out into the open. They're fun to watch and I'm considering putting some cracked corn or apple squeezings out for them.

In the woods we found a rabbit and two woodpeckers. The rabbit wasn't afraid of us and kept sitting up on its haunches to get a better look.

It's great having our own wildlife refuge here in the backyard. The animals remind us that this is their land and our house just happens to have the privilege of being on it. It's nice for those days that we feel like prisoners inside a snow globe looking out at the world that's too cold to play in. Plus, here's one more animal I've spotted around the house:


04 December 2008

Christmas Spice Cookies

Savannah still hasn't recovered from the bug she picked up. Last night her coughing sounded terrible and when it became incessant with bits of crying in between I got her out of bed at midnight to try a few home remedies. She drank warm honey water, had some saline solution for her nose and I placed an extra pillow beneath hers to keep her more upright. After I tucked her in again there was no more coughing for the rest of the night. Still, her eyes have blue around the inside corners indicating that she's slightly dehydrated and sleep-deprived.

Today was our day to go to the library to get Christmas books but we agreed she wasn't yet well-enough so we traded in today's Christmas calendar activity for baking cookies, which was not a hard sell! Here's our recipe for Christmas Spice Cookies - kind of a hybrid between spice cookies/ginger snaps and sugar cookies. It's a great one for using up all the colored holiday sugars in your baking cabinet that seem to last for years otherwise.

Christmas Spice Cookies

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease baking sheets with butter or line with baking paper.

  • 1c unsalted butter
  • 1c packed brown sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 egg (plus an egg yolk)
  • 1 Tb vegetable oil

Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy, then add the rest of the wet ingredients and blend.

  • 2 1/2 c all-purpose flour (scant)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp coarse Kosher salt (or 1/4 tsp if you use any other kind of salt)
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 3/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 3/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • course granulated sugar with or without coloring

Sift together all of the dry ingredients reserving the course granulated sugar for rolling the dough in.

Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet until incorporated then roll into small balls to dip or roll in the coarse granulated sugar before arranging on the baking sheet. These balls will "melt" like little snow balls in the warm oven to flatten so give them plenty of room on the baking sheets. Bake for 9-13 minutes depending on size of balls. 11 minutes usually does the trick for us.

Notes: The cookies should come out crispy on the outside and slightly chewy on the inside. For a spicier cookie, increase the cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon to 1 tsp each. You could also omit the coarse sugar and bake them plain or drizzle a homemade icing on top. Enjoy them before Santa does!

Here's one happy little Santa's helper, even if she is not yet at 100% today.

Sara's secrets:

In recipes it's rare that you use an entire lemon - both the zest and the juice or even the whole lemon. Save these lemon leftovers (squeezed or hard, dried lemons work too) to clean the microwave with. I place any leftover lemon pieces in a microwaveable bowl filled halfway with water and microwave for 1-2 minutes until the microwave is filled with condensation. Then I wipe it down with a paper towel and all the grease and things that go "pop" in the microwave come right off. I never have to scrub the microwave anymore.

02 December 2008

Sick for Santa and Charlie Brown trees

Savannah has been sick the past few days with a high fever, sore throat, and runny nose. Her cousins have been true to their nickname (the germ factory) every year we've spent time with them. One night she was in and out with fever dreams, crying out and mumbling those dream words that sink into the pillow without registering any meaning, so I slept beside her and talked her through the night. When I was little and had fever dreams, I always had the same one through which I was paralyzed to help myself and that ended with my death. But when Savannah woke up in the morning she said she dreamed all about dancing with the Nutcracker and sugar plum fairies and meeting Santa...some fever dream. No wonder why she's not afraid of anything.

Today she was mostly fine with the kind of runny nose that you get when crossing Rudolf with a dripping faucet, and red, watery eyes. We couldn't be without tissues for anymore than 3 minutes. I told the little darling that she had to get well soon so she didn't sneeze in the batter for Santa's cookies and make him sick too.

This morning we had school again. For December we do a special calendar that Savannah looks forward to everyday. Once a day after her reading lesson and homework, she opens one door and discovers a new activity to help us prepare for the holidays each day. Some days there are also special little treats behind the doors, but she's not allowed to peek ahead. It's all about anticipation, patience and surprise.

Here's her calendar with the little doors she opens to reveal a new activity to prepare for Christmas. Somewhere in there we have to make hot pepper jelly, candied almonds, toffee and flavored popcorn.

Yesterday we did our house cleaning to prepare for the holidays and today was her day to pick out and decorate the tree. Picking out the Christmas tree is Savannah's job and she's very good at it. Every year we have a different tree and every year it's wonderful. This year we learned some important lessons while selecting a tree. We decided that since we want to plant some evergreens in our yard in a loose zig-zag to give our lovely neighbors a bit more privacy at the top of our driveway and because we want to do things as green as possible, we would purchase a whole tree with the root ball attached. The tree would sit in a lovely green bucket that I picked up at the local Agway in our greenhouse, which remains 20 degrees colder than the rest of the house on most days, perfect for a live evergreen. Perfect that is until we picked up the tree and it weighed 200 pounds. So, on to plan B, this tree is going right into the ground with mulch and protection around its leaves for the winter this week. Savannah was crushed about not having this tree as her Christmas tree but I told her we could get dressed up in our hunter orange clothes and hike through the woods until we found our own tree. She found lots of trees that she liked - mostly 40 feet tall - but we finally stumbled on a little Charlie Brown tree that needed to be removed since it was dwarfed in a dense grove of much taller evergreens that had crowded it out. And Savannah loved it. She told the tree that she would be nice to it and give it water to drink and sunlight and pretty things to wear if it came home with her. I cut it down and we gently dragged it home to decorate.

Yes, it is a slightly bent, sparse little Charlie Brown tree, but it needed to come down anyway, and it's really ours, we cut it down ourselves on our own land, and Savannah loves it. What more could you want in a Christmas tree?

Just in case it wasn't clear - we love nutcrackers. Here are some of the two-foot tall ones that find their way into our living room every Christmas. When I was little my stocking always had a nutcracker soldier on it. Now Savannah loves them. It's a compliment to Daddy when she asks him to be her Nutcracker and dance to Tchaikovsky with her.

Savannah's leather armchair with a little Christmas cushion she helped to make last year.

For decorating the tree we have ornaments from all over the world that represent some of our favorite memories. Most of the rest of the ornaments were handmade by me. Today we found an ornament from our trip to Hawaii, one from Kevin's race in Osaka, a bell from Chinatown where Kev and Savannah ate their first dim sum, the golden aspen leaf from Colorado, the soldier bell I found in Camden, the wreath Savannah made at the library's holiday festival... Each ornament brings back memories of times spent together. I find it nearly impossible to buy over-the-counter, generic ornaments now no matter how shiny they are because it's so wonderful to unpack these little memories and re-live them for a few minutes every year as we find their perfect spot on the tree.

At our local Agway, they always have interesting farm-related toys for kids. We picked up a grasshopper Grow-A-Head for Savannah on our last trip and it has become her science project for the next week. She's learning a handful of new words and concepts: seeds, roots, germination, chlorophyll, condensation and absorption with this project. It's pretty good timing because we can model the same concepts with the Christmas tree. She has a science activity sheet for the week (in addition to the daily reading and writing lessons plus homework).