Tuesday, March 27, 2012

España Bound

The first time I traveled to Europe, when I was 19 years old, I remember having an irrational fear of gypsies. It's those guide books, I tell you! They devote whole chapters to the art of gypsy pickpocketing, which consequently makes young American girls feel as though, if they don't have a money belt slipped down between their underpants and their low-rise jeans, they'll find themselves penniless and passport-less in a train depot in middle-of-nowhere Tuscany. On the train from Paris to Rome, I remember waking up in our sleeper car throughout the night, and each time I woke up I was dreaming of gypsies.

Flash forward 15 years and I am still finding myself scared of gypsies! This time I blame Rick Steves, who wrote my current guide to paranoia in Spain. (Did you know that there are gypsies who will ride by your car on a scooter and reach in through your open window to steal your bag while you're stopped at an intersection? Thanks a lot, Rick Steves! Is nowhere safe??)

To that end, as I have been preparing for this trip to Spain, which I am about to embark on in just a few short hours, I have spent many an hour looking for the perfect pickpocket-proof bag. And when none of the bags in the shops met my qualifications, I decided I had to make my own. It needed to cross over my chest (no purse-snatchers for me!) and have a zipper, of course. And it needed to be made from a lightweight material so at the end of the day I don't feel like I've been carrying bricks. And it needed to feel happy--but not too happy--so I chose this tribal print for the outside of the bag, and a happy yellow for the inside.
I must say, I was very pleased with my zipper work! Actually, I have a confession to make: I had never installed a zipper before this one. And an even bigger confession: Before installing the zipper, I consulted my Reader's Digest Sewing Book--the be-all-end-all of sewing technique guides--and the diagrams and whatnot for how to install a zipper kind of gave me a headache, so I just sort of winged it. No idea if I did this right. But I like how the patterns on the panels line up on either side of the zipper, so that was cool!
But my vacation sewing didn't end with the bag. In a less paranoid sewing moment, I also decided I needed a new tunic, so I whipped up this little halter. Though I've never been to southern Spain, I do have a funny feeling that these colors and this print and the weave of the fabric is how it will feel. Close to Morocco, but not quite, and with floral swirls and punchy reds that have a sort of flamenco clickety-clack-with-a-rose-between-your-teeth kind of feel. But who knows if this is true...I'll let you know how it actually was when I'm back!
I tried to go out in the backyard to take a photo of myself wearing the tunic, but the dog was jumping around at my feet, and the light setting was all wrong, and then the upstairs neighbor in our apartment building opened the window and his little 5-year-old son said "Hi Wiana! Hi doggy!", and, well, that's hardly a time to continue taking glamour shots of yourself out in the backyard. But then I decided that blown-out photos can actually be quite kind, and so I share this little photo (note that I'm also wearing my gypsy-proof purse), with promises of more photos to come when we return. Adios for a bit, my friends. See you in April!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Goat Cheese & Honey Cheesecake

This pretty tart is NOT my cheesecake. But it's pretty!
Last week, I was talked into entering a company bake-off. And by talked into, I mean a coworker said, hey are you gonna enter the bake-off? And I said oh yeah, I forgot about that. Ok.

The truth of the matter is this: I was not so sure at all that entering the bake-off was such a good idea. As of late, I have simply had too much to do!! In just one week, Robb and I take off for a fun-filled 10 days (TEN DAYS) in sunny Spain. And for the last month and a half, I have been working my tail off to ensure that A) this vacation doesn't make me get woefully behind at work, B) I don't leave any unexpected messes on anyone's desk, and C) I won't think about work AT ALL while I am in Spain. And so, there have been some long hours. And there have been some nights where I woke up in a cold sweat, worried about, like, whether or not the project where you build a coffee table and grow plants inside of it is technically a terrarium or a miniature greenhouse, and if the latter, will all of the plants die if they don't have drainage?

What a silly thing to lose sleep over! But these, I'm afraid, are the things that haunt me.

And so, it was with some sort of foolish combination of energy and enthusiasm that I agreed to enter last week's company bake-off.

The contest was pie-themed! But unfortunately, pies are not really my forte. Because Robb wasn't around to make my pie crust (he is MUCH better at pie crusts than I am), and because no fruit, except like quince, is in season right now, I decided to make a cheesecake. A goat cheese and honey cheesecake, with a strawberry swirl on top.

This is my cheesecake! Sort of pretty.
I'll just cut to the chase right now. It didn't win. But think about it: when is cheesecake EVER the bake-off winner? (Stupid, stupid, stupid...always make chocolate! Always!)

Something else won. Something chocolatey.
I don't think this pie was the winner, but isn't it pretty?
Anywho, about my loser cheesecake. It was not cheap and it was not quick, but it was fabulously awesomely delicious. If you have about 4 hours and $35 to kill, follow these instructions as written and then proceed to devour it while sipping some sort of earthy red wine. Wear a Greek toga and golden underpants for extra fanciness. Super decadent, right?

If you have about 2 hours to kill and you're broke, might I recommend a modification? Cut all of the filling ingredients in half to make a short cheesecake, and just put it right in the fridge once it's cooled. It becomes almost more like a fancy frosted graham cracker cookie, and the richness of the goat-and-cream cheese and sweetness of the honey become a little less overwhelming. (Yes, I'm one of those people that is overwhelmed by cream cheese...and yes, I tend to scrape off half of the goop that comes on bagels...why do they think I need all that? So messy!)

Without further ado, I present to you the non-award-winning adaptation of...

Warren Brown's Honey and Raspberry (er...Strawberry) Cheesecake, from United Cakes of America

For the Graham Cracker Crust:
9 full graham crackers
3 tablespoons superfine sugar
3/4 stick unsalted butter, melted
1/8 tsp salt

For the Filling:
16 ounces cream cheese
16 ounces goat cheese
1/2 cup superfine sugar
1/2 cup honey
4 eggs
1/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup strawberry puree (To make the strawberry puree, bring about a cup of sliced strawberries and a half cup of sugar to a boil. Cool down, blend in a food processor, and set aside.)

Preheat the over to 300 degrees. Grease a 9" x 3" round pan and line the bottom with parchment. (Note that I was too scared to use a spring-form pan--thought it might leak in the water bath!--so I used a shorter cake pan instead. But if you use a spring-form pan and succeed, let me know.)

Crush the graham crackers (a food processor helps) into fine crumbs and toss it with the rest of the crust ingredients. Press it firmly into the pan and bake for about 10 to 12 minutes. Set aside to cool and leave the oven on.

Put a roasting pan in the oven and fill it about 2/3 full with water.

In the bowl of a mixer, beat the cheeses on medium speed to soften them. Reduce the mixer to slow and add the sugar and honey in 2 additions each (about 3 minutes total). Add the eggs one at a time, allowing each to combine. Mix the sour cream, heavy cream, and vanilla together, then pour into the mixer slowly.

Pour the filling into the crust and drizzle about 1/4 cup of strawberry puree on top. Use your fingers to trace a swirly fancy design into the top.

Set the cake pan in the water bath and bake for about an hour. (The center of the cake should be slightly wobbly when you nudge it...that's the best I can describe it...sorry!)

Turn off the heat and leave the oven door ajar for 1 hour. Remove the pan from the water bath and let it cool for another 4 hours. Then put it in the fridge overnight.

Run a spatula around the edges to loosen it and plop it onto a plate for serving. Eat it!

(And if you're making the cheater version, bake it for the full hour so it really cooks through, but just pull it out of the oven and let it cool on the counter for a bit. Then eat it!)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Meet Hot Lips (the Knitted T-Rex)

So I don't know if you all remember, because it was SO LONG AGO that I hardly remember, but do you recall when I decided that I was going to knit a dinosaur from the appropriately named book Knitted Dinosaurs? I actually went so far as to ask all of you which dinosaur you wanted me to make, and based on your votes (and the votes of your children and dogs), I decided to make the T-Rex!

Folks, this was so long ago that there were leaves on the trees, and they were turning pretty colors. Want proof? This is a photo I took from the window aboard the Amtrak train as I rode up to Rhinecliff to go to the Sheep and Wool Festival. See? Leaves!
And here is the dinosaur's tail, which I knitted on the train whilst sipping coffee. (Actually, looking back on this, I can't think of a more idyllic way to spend a Sunday morning...)
Not long after the Sheep and Wool Festival, I actually finished knitting all of the components that make up a knitted dinosaur. These include (clockwise from top): a body that, unstuffed, looks like a snake with a crocodile head, a mouth that turned out to be way too large, two tiny useless forearms, a couple of legs, a couple of of foot pads, and in the middle, a spiky ridge to run down the middle of his back.
Over the course of another week or so, I sewed the whole thing together, attaching this to that, stuffing each little limb, and weaving in all of the tails. I must say, sewing a dinosaur together is a bit less romantic than knitting him on a train while admiring fall foliage. But he came together really nicely (except for maybe that giant mouth.)

My roadblock came right before Thanksgiving, and it was so stupid I can't even stand it: I didn't have any felt for the teeth and the eyes. That was it. That was the ENTIRE roadblock. And so my poor dinosaur sat there fully assembled for months, with no eyes and no teeth. He was basically soulless.

Want to know how long it took me to fix this problem? FOUR MONTHS. God, that is so embarrassing. I know that I've been talking about this theme a lot recently, but why do I leave so many things right on the verge of completion? Here's what I'm thinking: This is the year that I attend a special month-long workshop held by, like, Oprah Winfrey, and my yoga teacher I loved so much in San Francisco, and maybe my mom, and possibly a life coach, and when I emerge from this workshop, I will be a person who actually completes things in a reasonable amount of time. Or, you know, doesn't start things until the other things are finished. Or, you know, become a perfect person.

Yup, totally gonna happen. I'll go call Oprah right now.

OK, my quest for perfection may be a bit unrealistic. What I should be focusing on is this: I finished the damn dinosaur. I had to walk seven blocks to buy the felt, and then it took one whole hour to cut out his felt teeth and eyes and sew them on. And now, I present to you: Hot Lips Houlihan the T-Rex!
So about that mouth...this is what I was talking about when I said it turned out a little, um, large. (I used a different yarn at a slightly smaller gauge and wow does that make a difference...well, now we know.) 
You'll notice, too, that his entire body is actually a little large--18 inches nose to tail! In fact, to show you just how large he is, I posed him next to a toy dinosaur that I've had for years and years. Not that this comparison will be helpful at all for anyone who hasn't seen the toy dinosaur before. OK, maybe I just wanted to take a picture of them together because I thought it was cute. So sue me!
For similar reasons of cuteness, I also decided to take pictures of Hot Lips eating the smaller T-Rex as he tries to run away.
And then they became friends.

Epilogue: After giving it some thought, I don't actually think that Robb and I need a stuffed dinosaur in our house. And so, pretty soon, he will be leaving his little buddy to go join a yet-to-be-born baby. (I can't tell you who yet. But if you are pregnant and you are a friend of mine, you might be in the running. But don't get your hopes up, because it might not be you.)

Let's hope that Hot Lips brings years of joy and fun to this little baby, and that his giant teeth and mouth don't scare the crap out of the child and scar him/her for life. Yay!

In the meantime, thank you, friends, for participating in the making of this dinosaur! I hope it was all well worth the wait.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Cheater Scarf

This has probably been one of the dumbest winters ever (at least in this California girl's opinion.) One of the great perks of growing up on the West Coast and then moving to the East Coast is the magical appearance of this white fluffy thing we call snow. This year, however, I have seen none of it (except for on Halloween, which made no sense.) I have two pairs of Sorrel snow boots and nowhere to wear them, people! Instead, I've been bundled up like I'm in San Francisco--layers of dresses, sweaters, jackets, and light scarves. Even hats--my beloved hats!--are more of an optional accessory than a must-have line of defense. Crazy town, I tell you. 

From January until last night, I have been pretty much living in my purple/gray tie-dyed scarf. Truth be told, I AM STILL NOT SICK OF IT. Other people might be sick of looking at it, but not me. All the same, I got to thinking that I should maybe have one other scarf option to get me through the rest of this stupid winter. And so I decided to turn a crummy old short scarf into a ladylike cowl.
I'm not going to lie to you. This scarf came from the lost-and-found at the bar where Robb works. And no, it's not the first item of clothing I've worn that's been left behind by drunk people. Ever wonder where your favorite hoodie went after a murky night at the bar? The bartender's girlfriend is probably wearing it. 

This scarf was a little scratchy, a little synthetic, and the edges were raveling just a bit. Plus, it was way too short to be worn as a scarf--48 inches! Four measly feet!--and so it was literally good for nothing. But Robb brought it home, and I went ahead and washed it, and then it just sat there doing nothing. And I hate it when clothing items (or items in general) just sit there doing nothing. So last night, in what can only be called "a fit of clothing repairs" (seriously, I fixed ripped pajamas, tank-top straps, holes in sweaters...I was on a roll), I took some white yarn and sewed the edges of this scarf together. (For those who want to try this trick at home--even non-knitters--it's super easy and here are some tips. Though you can always hack it and sew the ends together any old way you like--the seam goes at the back of your neck, so it can be as Frankensteiny as you please.) 

Once the edges were sewn together, I could slip the thing over my head and wear it like a big loopy necklace (which provides zero warmth). Or I could wrap it around my neck twice, like shown above, which is an awesome cuddly way to keep your neck warm (plus it looks all fancy and twisted.)
And if the wind picks up and my ears get cold, I can lift up one of the loops and slide it over my head like a hood. It is surprisingly warm! And when I look at my reflection in car windows as I walk by, I feel feel very glamorous, and maybe just a little bit "old Hollywood insane."

Of course, you could also go ahead and knit yourself a simple little scarf and sew the ends together, but my thinking is this: we only have one more month of this silly little winter to endure, so rather than spending that month knitting the scarf, why not grab some old ugly thing and turn it into something a little fresh and useful, something to give your purple tie-dyed scarf (or your equivalent of a purple tie-dyed scarf) a time out. And then before you know it, it will be spring, my friends! Spring!