Wednesday, April 24, 2013

In which my crafty side comes out.

A couple of years ago, my parents bought me a die cutter for Christmas. I asked for it because it would be useful at work--I can't tell you how often I need to cut out some random shape like a train for a lesson or a bulletin board. I got a Silhouette, because it doesn't require buying expensive cartridges--you just buy individual designs for $.99 each.

I've used it sporadically, but not for anything particularly interesting. Then my friend Jackie got pregnant, and I lost my mind.

Several of us were planning Jackie's baby shower, and I volunteered to do the invitations. Any normal (sane) person would have gone to Target and bought a couple of packages of invitations, but I decided to try to make them. ...And, they were adorable.

They weren't difficult--I bought the complete pattern from Silhouette's website--but they were time-consuming to put together. In fact, when Jackie first saw them, she said to her husband, "Are you sure Kate made that? She doesn't have time to do that. She has a life!" But I did it, and I was ridiculously proud of myself. 

So, when someone needed to make the favors, I was nominated with the statement, "Well, you're so crafty, Kate..." which is flattering if totally untrue. But I was excited to do it, and in true me form left it till the last minute. I had a concept: small jar with candy and a tag of some sort, but no real ideas of how to make it work.

But work it did.

The jars were from World Market, which is an unbelievably awesome store. They were only $.99 each,  (though on the website you can only buy them in sets of 6) and I was looking for something that could potentially be useful to people in the future. There's nothing I hate more than people giving me useless crap, and these jars are the perfect size for any number of applications in the kitchen, and plenty of other places besides.

The ribbon was from Michaels (or possibly AC Moore? I went to both in a period of a couple days, and I don't remember.) and I bought the Jelly Bellies at Candy World at Arundel Mills.

The tags are double-sided--I used the onesie pattern from the card to create one side, then a simple label and date on the other. I used the Silhouette to cut out the circles, but it would have probably been far easier to just use a circle punch. I didn't have one with me since I waited till the last minute, but I actually have two at work for random projects. I have to cut out a surprising number of circles in my everyday life.

I made extra tags for the prize bags, though I had nothing to do with the games or prizes themselves.

And finally, I used a bigger version of the onesie pattern to make some decorations. It's hard to see in the pictures, but there are tiny (too tiny!) little clothespins on each onesie. They're taped onto the twine--the clothespins are just for show. Next time I'll use slightly bigger ones.

I actually had a ton of fun with this. Maybe one day I'll be that person who throws the perfectly coordinated theme parties or has the unique handmade invitations. Or...most likely not. But I'd love to do this again. It gave me a creative outlet that I don't usually have.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Culinary Adventures of Brian and Kate: Creamed Chipped Beef

It all started with the chicken pot pie.

Last fall, my friend Brian and I went to Colonel Brooks Tavern the week before it closed. In the course of our conversation, we began rhapsodizing about Pennsylvania Dutch chicken pot pie. (Spoiler: unless you have lived in PA Dutch country, this is not anything like what you think it is. More on that another day.) Both of us spent some of our formative years living in central Pennsylvania--in fact, our parents only live about 45 minutes apart--and both of us really miss this dish.

We started talking about all kinds of dishes we remembered from our childhoods, and just like that a project was born.

We badgered our parents and grandparents for ideas and recipes...and ran into problem number one, which was that none of these people cook with recipes. But we persevered. Armed with ingredients and a sketchy outline of a recipe, we embarked on our first culinary adventure: creamed chipped beef.

This meal basically defines my childhood memories of my grandparents' house. Grandma was Southern, and she cooked like it. Every single thing she made was absolutely delicious and absolutely terrible for you. She could just throw ingredients into a dish and make it amazing. She started taking a few shortcuts as she got older, but when my mother was young she remembers that Grandma always made everything from scratch-nothing out of a box, a bag or a can.

Weekend mornings at Grandma's house always meant a huge breakfast, and more often than not, creamed chipped beef was on the menu. As I got older, she started to modify the recipe to accommodate the vegetarians and vegans in the family (Grandma could veganize a recipe like nobody's business) but what I wanted to make was the original recipe. Grandma died a few months before we started our project, so ironically it was my mom, a vegan, who walked us through making it.

And really, how can you go wrong with a recipe whose first instruction is to fry a pound of bacon? You don't need the bacon itself, although it's bacon. It'll get eaten. What you really need is the bacon grease. (You can also use olive oil--that's how my mom does it. But it's not nearly as delicious.) We made this in a cast-iron skillet that originally belonged to my grandmother, which I thought was a nice touch. She cooked everything in those things.

Once you've finished the bacon, remove it from the pan, leaving the grease. Slowly add flour to form a roux. Here, we ran into the first problem, which was that my mom's instruction was to make sure the roux was very brown but not burned. I wish I was kidding when I say there were at least three phone calls to mom to clarify details during this recipe, and the first one had to do with how brown very brown is.

So, roux. Very brown. Rip the chipped beef into small pieces and add them to the pan. Continue to brown.

In a measuring cup, combine water and milk at a ratio of 2/3 milk to 1/3 water. (I use soy milk, because ugh, lactose. Brian swore this was sacrilege. He's probably right.) Slowly add the mixture to the skillet, stirring constantly. You want to cook this down to get rid of the flour taste, and the nice thing is you can cook it down over and over again if you screw something up. This is the hardest part for me to describe, and the hardest for us to figure out on our own. You don't want it to be too runny, and you don't want it too thick, and you don't want it to taste like flour. 

That's it. Serve it over biscuits or toast; I neglected to take a picture of the assembled dish, but that's ok because my biscuits turned out to be freaks of nature. Serve with the aforementioned bacon, if any has survived to the end of the process. (Not likely.)

Brian, being Brian.

This was a tough one for me, because it wasn't like Grandma's. But then, nobody cooks like Grandma. Even my mom's chipped beef isn't quite the same, and she's been making it for ages though she now makes it vegan, which isn't nearly as good. (For the record, to veganize this dish, use olive oil instead of bacon fat, use soy milk instead of regular milk, and omit the chipped beef.)

It was a passable attempt, but like anything else I'll get better at it as I make it more often. (Not that often. My arteries can't handle it.) I'll probably never make it as good as Grandma's was, but I should be able to match my mom's.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars. We could have used cooking it down a little bit more, but this was a close enough facsimile to make me happy, and a good base to work on to make it better.

Brian's rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Book Log 2013 - The Year So Far

This year, the one resolution that I've been able to keep has been to keep a list of all of the books I read. I've always been curious about how much I actually read in a year, so I decided to find out. Earlier tonight, I tweeted that I have read 54 books so far this year, at an average rate of one book every 1.9 days. A couple of people asked me what I've been reading, so I figured I'd post it here. I have to admit, this list makes my tastes look somewhat less than sophisticated, but so be it. I'm enjoying myself. ...and my new Kindle. (Thanks, Mom!)

A few notes: This list includes children's and young adult novels that I've read, but not picture books. #6, #7 and #36 are for elementary school kids. #2 and #27 are for high school, more or less. (In reality, #2 is for no one. It was the most nauseatingly terrible piece of trash I've ever inflicted on myself.)

Also, I included a couple of novellas that I read. Cheating? Perhaps. But even without them, I've read 51.

  1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese
  2. The Vampire Diaries: The Return, Volume I - L.J. Smith
  3. Storm Front - Jim Butcher
  4. Naked Heat - Richard Castle
  5. Heat Rises - Richard Castle
  6. Benjamin Franklinstein Lives! - Matthew McElligott
  7. The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon - S.S. Taylor
  8. Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion - Janet Reitman
  9. Fool Moon - Jim Butcher
  10. The Custom of the Army (Novella) - Diana Gabaldon
  11. A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows (Novella) - Diana Gabaldon
  12. Club Dead - Charlaine Harris
  13. Dead to the World - Charlaine Harris
  14. Dead as a Doornail - Charlaine Harris
  15. Definitely Dead - Charlaine Harris
  16. All Together Dead - Charlaine Harris
  17. From Dead to Worse - Charlaine Harris
  18. Dead and Gone - Charlaine Harris
  19. Dead Reckoning - Charlaine Harris
  1. Deadlocked - Charlaine Harris
  2. A Touch of Dead - Charlaine Harris
  3. Jesus Freaks - Don Lattin
  4. Frozen Heat - Richard Castle
  5. Baltimore Blues - Laura Lippman
  6. Grave Peril - Jim Butcher
  7. Mormon America - Richard Ostling and Joan Ostling
  8. How to Lead a Life of Crime - Kirsten Miller
  9. Summer Knight - Jim Butcher
  1. Death Masks - Jim Butcher
  2. Blood Rites - Jim Butcher
  3. The Surgeon - Tess Gerritsen
  4. The Apprentice - Tess Gerritsen
  5. Memories of the Future: Volume 1 - Wil Wheaton
  6. Dead Beat - Jim Butcher
  7. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin - Erik Larson
  8. Fourth Grade Rats - Jerry Spinelli
  9. Irish History for Dummies - Mike Cronin
  10. The Sinner - Tess Gerritsen
  11. Body Double - Tess Gerritsen
  12. Vanish - Tess Gerritsen
  13. The Mephisto Club - Tess Gerritsen
  14. The Keepsake - Tess Gerritsen
  15. Ice Cold - Tess Gerritsen
  16. The Silent Girl - Tess Gerritsen
  17. Last to Die - Tess Gerritsen
  1. Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life - Gretchen Rubin
  2. Proven Guilty - Jim Butcher
  3. White Night - Jim Butcher
  4. A Brewing Storm (novella) - Richard Castle
  5. Small Favor - Jim Butcher
  6. Turn Coat - Jim Butcher
  7. Changes - Jim Butcher
  8. Ghost Story - Jim Butcher
  9. Cold Days - Jim Butcher