Monday, June 28, 2010

Piles of Surprises

More birthday posts, I know. Yes, her birthday was at the beginning of the month but the craziness and business have dragged it out so that the posts have spanned all of June. Probably July too, if I don't get it in gear...anyway, here you go.
We don't use the fireplace very much for heating the house, but we get a lot of mileage out of it as a staging area. Whenever we have something to give her, gifts for birthdays and what have you, we put it in front of the fireplace. Then we wait for her to notice the goodies in the morning. The surprise and delight on her face every time is killer. This was her little pile of birthday gifts this year:

- Birthday Shirt, which has become a yearly tradition. For her 1st, we bought one of those generic "Birthday Girl" ones from some big-box store, and I was never satisfied with it. So last year we made her one with iron-on transfers, featuring owls (It said "Who's Two?", ha-ha). This year, of course, it was totally Beatles-inspired. Next year I might try stencils or something, because every brand of iron-on transfer we've tried barely lasts one day before starting to flake off. Sometimes they're peeling in a matter of hours.

- Beatles Quilt, made with love (and some choice language) by Mama.

- Yellow Submarine Hoodie, also made using iron-on transfers. When they flake off I will replace them with nice embroidered patches; I just couldn't find the ones I wanted in time so I used transfers.

- Spider-Man Sticker Book - Spidey is loved very nearly as much as the Fab Four in our house, and stickers are a continual source of fun. This was a HUGE book with tons of stickers and little scenes to place characters in. I still expect to find Spider-Man, the Green Goblin, and Mary Jane stuck all over the house.

- Dragon PJ's - my husband picked these out for her, because, although they are from some cartoon movie she will probably never see, they had a little cape with hood that Velcros to the shoulders, so that it looks like a dragon costume.

- Beatles Coloring Book - we made this ourselves. I took an old 3-ring binder and filled it with all the readily-printable Beatles stuff I could find on the Internet. I hit the jackpot when I stumbled upon pages from a never-published Yellow Submarine comic book. They are AMAZING, and many are only half-colored or less, so it was perfect. I also added a set of 10 Smencils (those things are awesome) for her to color with.

- Wooden hand-carved (but not by us) train toy - just the engine car. She's way into trains at the moment (show me a 2-3 year-old who isn't), and was quite taken with this one when we saw it at the farmer's market. The guy who makes these is really nice; I plan to go back and get some of his kid-size furniture, doll furniture, and step stools. 

- Cardboard Playhouse - we had seen one at the mall, but as it cost $60 and we could not bring ourselves to spend that much on something our cats would probably use as a scratching post, so we made our own. I came up with the concept (I might have even drawn a sketch or two) and my husband did the execution. The purple duct-tape was my idea; I wanted something that looked like trim and we needed a way to shore up everything. The bad-ass chimney, however, was all him. It's totally awesome.

I waffled between thinking it was too much and being convinced it was not enough, or between being proud of all our hand-made-by-us/artistic/hand-made-by-local-crafters stuff and being gripped with fear that she would scorn our hard work and ask for a new set of Yo Gabba Gabba dvd's. I needn't have worried, because she loved all of it. She put the hoodie on immediately and dragged the quilt around with her. She was thrilled with the coloring book and tried out the Smencils right away. She played peek-a-boo in the playhouse and pushed her train up and down its walls. When we left to go out for her much-anticipated birthday pancakes, she insisted on bringing along at least half her presents. This, of course, meant that ten minutes after we left the driveway, the back seat of our car was littered with colored pencils, various articles of clothing, and half-colored pictures, but I didn't mind one bit. We had been up until 3:30 am finishing all this stuff for her, and even though we were exhuasted, I did not begrudge her even a minute of sleep. Not when I could look into the back seat and see my newly-three-year-old girl, wearing her hoodie and scribbling away in her new coloring book while softly singing "All You Need Is Love" mixed with "Happy Birthday."    

Friday, June 25, 2010

Snapshots: Mid-June 2010

6:00 p.m., on a Wednesday: the thermostat says it is 84 degrees in the house, although, since it is located in a cool, dim hallway, I know the main part of the house is several degrees hotter. My child is running her little Ikea push-cart into the back door over and over, each time causing a loud "THWACK" noise that reverberates in my already-throbbing skull. She is cackling madly, and is, of course, naked.

9:00 p.m. on the same night finds me on the couch, glass of wine in hand. Piper is tucked in bed, happily reading books to a stuffed elephant, and I have the last lonely cupcake from her party. I dug into the tub of frozen leftover frosting and now a mini-mountain of chilled strawberry-meringue buttercream quivers atop the little cake. I boot up the Xbox, flip through our Netflix queue, and put on an episode of The X-Files. Frosting, wine, a quiet house, and the company of Mulder and Scully all combine to give me one of the least-stressful moments I've had in months.

Somewhere along the line, I tripped over or ran into something, injuring my pinkie toes yet again. The right is far worse than the left - putting on my favorite sandals too quickly can cause a grunt of pain. I am constantly breaking, cracking, or bruising my pinkie toes. I'm starting to wonder if I could just have them amputated. I know toes are for balance or...something...that I didn't pay attention to in Biology...but I am not sure lopping them off would make me less of a klutz. At the very least, I could not ram them into things or catch them on stuff, have to hear the sickening crack! noise, then spend ten minutes rolling around on the floor and three weeks babying them.

It's too hot to cook. It's too hot to think. It's 95-99 degrees but the humidity and crap makes it feel like 107. It's too hot to...I don't know what else, because my brain, like our poor, limping-along laptop, tends to fare badly in this weather and can only go for so long before it starts to smell like burning plastic and slows to a crawl. I mean the laptop, not my brain. Well, actually, I mean the laptop AND my brain.

I have 2.5 friends here, and 1.0 of them is moving away. I was okay at first, happy for her and excited for the changes this will bring to her family, but the more I thought about it the sadder I got. She's finally going to get to stay at home with her son, but this will happen hours and hours away, where we cannot hang out all day and watch our kids finger-paint together. She's moving, and unpacking, and will have a whole new place to set up and decorate, but I'll be too far away to go over and help her set up and take her kid to the park for an afternoon so she can get things sorted out. All the stuff we were going to do together - play dates and crafting and helping with years' worth of birthday parties and meeting downtown for lunches and coffees and sharing bottles of wine - is no longer going to happen. And that makes me pretty damned sad.

I was so into chipotle-flavored things: chipotle black bean burgers, chipotle hummus, chipotle sauce, chipotle salsa. I think I would've happily slurped on a chipotle lollipop if I found one. Then, just as I made a HUGE pot of this soup, (I altered the recipe sligthtly by adding more onions, because I had a drawerful of them) the very smell of chipotle anything makes me want to yak. Actually, no, wait - the very thought of chipotle anything makes me want to yak. So now I have this giant freaking pot of bean soup (and those baby limas gave me hella trouble, despite what Heidi says, and I feel compelled to point out that I pretty much worship that woman's cooking and this is the first thing of hers that I did not fall madly in love with at first bite) and I am the only one in the house who is going to eat it. Er, um, not eat it, because...yak. So I tried to puree it into some sort of hummus-like bean dip/spread that my husband would eat (and maybe I could put on a sandwich), but it was gritty and full of flecks of crunchy baby limas.

So I stuck it in the crock-pot overnight to try and cook the beans into mush, and now I have semi-gritty bean mush that I cannot stand the smell of. It made my house smell like chipotles, yak, and really the whole ordeal just pissed me off. I hate it when cooking things fail, and I especially hate it when I am left with a freaking cauldron of some inedible concoction. I guess I'll cook it some more and see what happens. My house already smells anyway, how much worse can it get?

Don't answer that.

Monday, June 21, 2010


Do you really need an anti-bacterial hairbrush? What in the heck are
you doing with that thing that requires it to be "Cleaner. Fresher. All the Time." ?

Found at Target.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Catching Up With Cupcakes

Hellooo? This thing on?

I feel like I have just come off some sort of crafting/hostess marathon; it's been non-stop action since the end of May. I was swamped with birthday projects, then we celebrated the day, my in-laws came the next day and were here for five days, during their visit I ran around non-stop tending to some low-fi business ventures, my in-laws left, and four days later we had a birthday party.  Whew! I am pooped. We have a couple of weeks to get ready for the next round or three of houseguests - our home is going to be a busy place this summer. 

We had a tiny party for Piper on Sunday, and I do mean tiny. We invited a couple of her little friends (and their parents, who are our friends), a couple of our friends, and turned everyone loose in the house. The total count was less than a dozen people including us. I did bake my ass off for the occasion, though (or, considering all the butter that went into those Martha Stewart recipes, perhaps I mean I baked my ass on).

I made these first, Margarita Cupcakes with Tequila-Lime Glaze, from Gail Wagman's Cupcakes Galore. The cupcake part went well enough; I swapped out the white sugar for agave nectar, since I am on a quest to eliminate white granulated sugar from our household and I knew at least one of our adult guests was a diabetic. It went pretty well, resulting in only a slightly denser cake than usual. This recipe is really, really good and contains actual tequila (as does the glaze) so they really tasted like margaritas when they were done! The worst part was grating all that lime rind. The glaze...well, I'll get to that. 

Exhibit number two: I borrowed a friend's copy of Martha Stewart's Cupcakes to make these babies. Strawberry cupcakes with strawberry meringue buttercream frosting. And holy crap, they were good. At least, the second batch were. The first batch nearly defeated me. I was a little afraid of swapping out the white sugar for agave nectar, as I've generally found Martha's recipes do not tolerate substitution very well. During the mixing stage, I added four whole eggs instead of three eggs and one egg white, and while speculating on that extra yolk's possible effects, a long hard look at the batter led me to conclude I'd used too much agave nectar. I didn't want to throw it out, so, buoyed by the spirit of improvisation (and some tequila-soaked strawberries from the punch I was making), I threw in some ground cinnamon and almond extract, dumped it into round cake pans, and baked up a couple of freezer-friendly coffee cakes to serve when we have company next month. I realized while I was measuring ingredients for round two that I had also screwed up the baking powder in the first batch, and the finished cakes were pretty dense, but also buttery and flavorful. They will be great sliced into finger-size pieces and dipped in a cup of coffee.

For the second batch I went back and consulted Heidi, re-reading what she had to say about swapping sweetners. I decided that my mistake was in not following my instincts the first time around; the recipe called for more than two cups of white granulated sugar, and I had doled out the agave in proportion to that number. Normally, even if I were baking with white sugar, I would've cut that amount at least in half, as I do with the sweetners in nearly every recipe I make. The second time around, I used a mere 3/4 cup of agave nectar, double-checked my measured ingredients, and ate some more tequila-soaked strawberries reduced my baking temperature as per Heidi's instructions. The finished products required a double-baking; I had to pop them in for a few minutes the next morning to firm up their middles. I think the combination of liquid agave and disagreeing with Martha about what constitutes "finely chopped" strawberries made the cakes a little mushy, but they (mostly) firmed up during the second, lower-temperature, bake.

After the first pan of 12 cakes went into the oven, I added some lemon extract and grated a little lemon rind into the batter to make strawberry-lemon cupcakes. Strawberries and lemons are two of Piper's favorite things; she will eat both straight-up and right out of the fridge, so I ran with it. Those turned out pretty well, too, lemony without overpowering the strawberry flavor.

The morning of the party, I found myself trying to get a tequila-lime glaze to set at 10:00 a.m., mixing and re-mixing as per the instructions but producing only a runny green syrup that tasted good, even if it refused to stay atop the cupcakes. I don't know if it was the tequila in the glaze, the heat in the kitchen, or some sort of food-photography trickery, but it just ran off the cakes and puddled on the plate. Frustrated, I stuck it in the fridge for a while and moved on to the complicated strawberry-meringue buttercream frosting recipe.

Oh, Martha! Your cupcakes nearly undid me, but this stuff more than made up for it. I did not try any fancy substitutions this time, followed the instructions exactly, and was rewarded with a mixer-bowl brimful of fluffy strawberry goodness. Even my husband, who normally avoids any sort of fruit-flavored baked good was found licking the beaters and muttering "There's three sticks of butter in this...huge bowl...we are so screwed."

We quickly discovered that it's pretty hard to pipe a frosting full of seeds and the occasional chunk of fresh strawberry, and by now we were pressed for time, so I settled for dropping dollops of the stuff on and topping with cut strawberries, which resulted in a picture at least somewhat like the one in the book. The lime glaze, on the other hand, refused to set and look like the thick green layer atop the cupcakes in the recipe's photos, so I just drizzled it on and hoped for the best. I had tried to make candied lime slices the previous night to use on the cupcakes, but it turns out when you boil limes in sugar syrup, they turn a sickly green color that is not at all appetizing.

I put the margarita cupcakes and the tequila punch out of the kids' reach, set snacks, a homemade cheese ball, and sliced fruit on the table, made some unsweetened tea, strawberry lemonade, and put some Izze juices in a bucket of ice, and made little signs for everything. Then I sat down with a cup of punch and enjoyed the party. I think everyone had a pretty good time, Piper played until she was exhausted, and most of the food disappeared, so I called it a success. I made some pretty cool decorations, but those will have to wait until another post. Until then, have another look at these puppies:

Mmmm...I'll leave you with your drool.

Monday, June 14, 2010

"This is special. It's mine."


"This is my special blanket. It's my Beatles quilt." 

As my husband predicted, she loves the thing. She curled up with it in her tiny rocking chair, murmuring about her "special blanket" and napped under it the very first day. She drags it around the house and offers to cover me with it when she can see I'm in a rotten mood (double heart-punch there). When people ask what she got for her birthday, she can, with a little leading, tell you "My mommy made me a Beatles quilt." 

There was quite a kerfluffle at bedtime a couple of days ago when it had to be washed and was not yet dry at bedtime. It had to be draped over her dresser to air-dry, so that it was in the room with her, even though it was too damp to use on the bed. No other blanket will do. 

Even though I shake my head every time I look at that rumply binding or any of the 100 other mistakes I made, I call this one a win.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Beatles Quilt

My in-laws departed this morning, and although I am still decompressing from their visit (while trying to put my house back together and help my kid through junk-food withdrawal), I wanted to start sharing the birthday crafts. This was the biggie, in terms of money, time, planning, perseverance, and sheer determination.

Most of the front is one big piece I bought off of Ebay, after I could not find a satisfactory way to use the Beatles fabric I had on hand. I knew she would totally love, it, too, which was why I hovered in front of my computer one night a week before her birthday, anxiously awaiting the end of the auction and upping my bid to make sure I got it. In the end, with shipping, I think I paid about $27, which is three times what this stuff sold for originally, but that was two years ago and they didn't make more so what are you going to do?

It was already wide enough, but I added the black strips at the top and bottom to accommodate for the length of a three-year-old vs. the usual baby-quilt, doesn't-cover-the-whole-crib-mattress length. The back is part of a top sheet from a set of flannels that had seen better days. After conferring with my friend Amy, who hand-sews gorgeous quilts (the adorable baby one she made before Piper was born is still in rotation and gets regular use at our house), I decided not to put any batting between the layers. The flannel itself was fairly weighty and I wanted Piper to be able to use it in all seasons. Plus, it's been excruciatingly hot and humid here and the thought of trying to work on a heavier blanket, much less put it on my easily-overheated kid, made me want to scream.

The first thing I discovered when trying to trim up the top piece was that all of my scissors suck. Every last pair. I would've given both my pinky toes for a good-size mat and rotary cutter, but since I did not actually start work on the quilt until the day before her birthday and the thread, binding supplies, and a few other doodads had driven the project cost up past $50 I decided to just power through. I messed up a little, since I was hacking away, but hopefully it doesn't show.

The second thing I discovered is that my sewing machine hates me. It really, really hates me. At one point during this adventure, it completely stopped working and would only emit a loud, screech-like beep while flashing red lights. No amount of pleading, cursing, turning it off, or unplugging made it stop. I cured this by unplugging it, getting a screwdriver, and taking off the cover for the mechanical area where the needle is; the only problem was that once I'd replaced it and plugged the machine back in, it started randomly sewing by itself. It was seriously possessed, sitting immobile when I tried to use it but then whizzing away without me even touching it. I again unplugged it and unscrewed the cover, inspected everything, blew a little canned air around, and put it back on. It cooperated fine the rest of the night, much to my relief. 

The top and bottom got puckery when I sewed on the black strips, which is when my Google-Fu helped me discover that I am a dum-dum who was supposed to cut off the selvages. I could not bear to rip it all out (and by now it was 10 p.m.), so I just moved the fabric over 1/4" and sewed it again. Which is probably good, because I'm sure I'll have to wash it, not to mention my kid can be hard on her stuff, so at least I know at the top and bottom parts will stay put.

I pinned it all the way around the edges and just sewed "in the ditch" (is that the right term?), the seam between the black & blue parts, on both top & bottom. Then I went once all the way around in the purple border area. I called that good enough for now - eventually I will go back and hand-sew a few stitches here and there to keep things where they belong - and moved on to the binding.

Oh, the binding. I had never done binding before, and Googling it at 1:00 a.m. is not a path to perfection.  I had the perfect stuff for it; a jelly-roll rainbow of pre-cut 2.5" strips I bought at Wal-Mart of all places. They're the same pattern as the black top/bottom strips, actually, a subtly shaded graphic dealie that went nicely with the busy patterns of the panel. Anyway, I had to sew enough strips together to make a binding, and it took me a few tries to get the angles right. The more I did, the better I got, so by the last couple pieces I was confidently whizzing along.

Putting it on was something else altogether.  I had read what Heather Ross and Amy Karol had to say on the subject, and both advised hand-sewing it on the back, which was not an option. No time, no patience, no skill. I could've just sewed it inside-out, turned and top-stitched it thus eliminating the binding altogether, but I really wanted the look of the rainbow binding around the edge. The other directions I found, for a no-hand-sewing way, were not so great. I started out with poise and confidence, which quickly degenerated into me shoving fabric through my machine while swearing, sweating, and nearly crying at 2:30 a.m. I think I did cry, actually, because I could not figure out how to do the mitered corners without creating a big lumpy mess. My directions were totally inadequate; no amount of clipping and turning and shoving and smoothing could totally fix the problem, so I just did the best I could.

Somewhere around 3:00 in the morning, sweating in the super-humid Southern night, sitting at my possessed sewing machine, looking at my crooked stitching and lumpy corners, tears welling in my eyes, I felt like a total failure. Failure as a person (why could I not get it together and not only decide on but start this project months ago?), failure as a crafter (again: lumpy, crooked, puckery, NOT RIGHT), failure as a mother (what kind of mom would give this wreck to her kid? Who gives only handmade presents anyway?). My husband, who had also been up working on other projects, saw me sitting there dejected, and said:

"I know what you're doing. STOP IT. It's not as bad as you think, and she is going to love it. Now finish the damned thing so we can get to bed. Stop obsessing and just do it."

And he was right. No, it was not going to be picture-perfect, but it there was love in every one of those crooked stitches and lumpy corners. I realized that love had kept me going, even though I was running on 3 hours' sleep because I had also been up late the previous night working on presents. We had looked for other presents, we'd spent months poking around on line and taking torturous trips through the toy aisles of Target, Wal-Mart, Toys R' Us, and every other big-box store. We had looked in specialty toy stores and learning toy stores and every place we could think of. All that looking, and we could not find a single thing that was right for our funny, chatty, Beatle-obsessed kid. THIS was the right present, this and the other things we'd dreamed up. I loved her too much to give up and go get any old made-in-China-plastic-thing. I owed it to her to see it through, to give her these gifts I knew she would love. So I put my pedal to the metal and was done by 3:20 a.m. We set up her little pile of gifts near the fireplace, like we usually do, took a couple of pictures, and fell into bed.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010


Out for birthday pancakes this morning. 

Today's the day! My baby is three. THREE!

And just to make me weepy, here's a look at zero:


And two:

We are crazy busy getting ready for my in-laws' visit. They are coming tomorrow and staying for five days. They are lovely people, but not always the easiest houseguests to host and entertain. I will be back as soon as I can with a show-and-tell of all the birthday crafts. Almost all of Piper's presents from us were handmade this year and whew! that was nuts. I can tell you that I DID make a quilt, which was like some sort of crafting Iditarod-style endurance test. She was thrilled with all her gifts and so far today has had a blast. Right now, I'm off to make a strawberry cake with lemon-cream cheese frosting!