Monday, December 12, 2011

Handmade Gifts From the Heart

This time of year can cause us all a great deal of stress … presents to buy, people to please, and it feels like there’s never enough money or time to go around. A few years ago I started keeping a “gift file” where I keep pages ripped from catalogs and notes on things I’ve seen throughout the year that might make a thoughtful gift for one of my loved ones. I also shop at antique stores for things that will make unique gifts for those people who appreciate things like that. Recently, I also began keeping a “handmade gifts” file where I write down ideas for things I can make that will cost very little but will still fit the bill for Christmas gifts. Here are a few of my favorites that can be done last minute…

*Gingersnaps in a Jar*

Buy a vintage quart-sized canning jar at an antique store (usually around $5) and fill with the following ingredients. Tie on a tag with the baking instructions and throw in a new wooden spoon or vintage pot holder and this gift is good to give.

Re-type or print out this tag and
affix to jar

1 1/4cups packed dark brown sugar
2 1/4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Assemble the jar ~ Spoon the brown sugar into the jar and press down into an even layer. In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, soda, and salt into a bowl. Using a funnel or spoon, add the flour mixture to the jar and tap lightly to form an even layer. Sprinkle the ginger, cinnamon, and cloves on top. Print out (or re-type) a tag with the baking instructions (at right) and attach to the jar with a fancy ribbon or piece of raffia.

*A Selection of Homemade Baked Goods*

Some crowd pleasers:

   * Peanut Butter Balls:

   * No-knead Bread:

   * Iced Sugar cookies (recipe below)

Wrap in tins, baskets, or bags, throw in a card, and hand deliver or overnight the package to special loved ones. Most of the cost of this gift will be incurred in the shipping, and will vary depending on where the recipient lives.

~Iced Sugar Cookies~

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 sticks butter
2/3 cup white sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla


1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
4 teaspoons meringue powder (available online or on the bakers supply aisle, even Michael’s)
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons water
Sprinkles, optional

Combine flour, salt, and baking powder in a small bowl and whisk to stir.

In a large bowl, combine the butter and sugar. Beat on high speed until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla, beat well. Add flour mixture and beat on low speed until just combined.

Press dough into a ball and flatten into a disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Roll out dough to ¼ -inch thickness and cut out cookies. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 13 minutes until edges are lightly browned.

Icing: Combine the powdered sugar, meringue powder, and salt in a small bowl and whisk together. Gradually add the water, whisking until smooth. Using an offset spatula, spread on cookies and add sprinkles immediately. Let cookies dry for at least 1 hour before handling, preferably overnight.

My handmade soap wrapped in strips of scrapbooking paper,
in a dish stamped “Handmade in Italy” that I found
in an antique store for $5.

*Homemade Soap*  

If you’re a soapmaker or would like to try, check out my soapmaking instructions here: Just make sure to cut the bars neatly (or use a special wavy cutting tool) and wrap with wrapping paper, or the kind of printed paper sold at craft stores (like Michael’s) for scrapbooking. Place the soaps in an interesting container from an antique or secondhand store and tie a ribbon or raffia around it. (I trawl my local Goodwill shop for home goods where they sell for 49 to 99 cents each.)

Note: Remember that homemade soap should cure for at least 2 weeks before using, so if you make it last minute, be sure to tell the recipient what date the soap can be used.

*Homemade Bird Treat Ornaments*

I saw this idea in the December 2011 issue of Garden Gate magazine …

3/4cup white or wheat flour
3 cups bird seed mix
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup raw peanuts
1/2 cup boiling water
1/4 ounce unflavored gelatin
3 tablespoons light corn syrup

Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Measure the boiling water in a glass measuring cup. Add the gelatin to the water and stir until its dissolved. Add the corn syrup and mix well. Pour the liquid over the dry ingredients and mix well. It should be very thick and sticking together. Spoon the dough into muffin tins. Using the end of the handle of a wooden spoon, poke a hold through the middle of each “muffin” while it’s still wet. Allow the ornaments to harden for at least 3 hours, then dump out of the pan and tie a ribbon through the hole for hanging on trees outside. Your loved one will enjoy watching the birds snack on these ornaments all winter long.

One of my walnut cheese boards in the finishing process.
*Something Unique from Nature*

Nature provides some of the most beautiful gifts I can imagine. This year, I made a point to give away some of our farm’s bounty. My husband milled some downed walnut trees and I selected some nice planks to cut into 12” x 8” slabs for bread or cheese boards. I sanded the slabs down and applied food-safe Butcher’s Block wax as a finish. I affixed small rubber feet on the backsides so the board is slightly raised and won’t slip on a countertop or table. For more on this project, see my previous post here:

Enjoy your handmade holidays and don’t stress!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Homemade Reese's - A Halloween Tale & Treat

Peanut butter balls - a delicious little Reese's-like truffle

Remember back in the day when folks actually used to give out homemade candies and goodies to trick-or-treaters? My sister and I would occasionally get a popcorn ball, or a small bag of chocolate chip cookies from the neighborhood old folks and we'd eat them just like the snack-sized candy bars that filled our plastic pumpkins. Then, the "razor blade in the candy bar" incident happened somewhere in America (who knows if it actually did happen or it was an urban legend) and moms everywhere recoiled in horror and suspicion over anything homemade at Halloween. 
As I was out walking this morning I was thinking if there was a way to bring back the homemade Halloween treat for trick-or-treaters. Would kids even want them? I thought, I could put my peanut butter balls (recipe below) in individual little baggies with my return address label on it, then people would know they could "trust" the source. But then, no, I'd have to put an ingredient list on it too because every other child out there is gluten intolerant, lactose intolerant or has peanut allergies, et cetera, so they better know what they're getting. But then if some overly eager child ate the thing before mom could thoroughly vet it, I'd be asking for trouble ... in the form of a lawsuit. What a sad, sad state of affairs we find ourselves in these days.  
So, do your family a favor and make these treats for yourselves ...

I love chocolate. And I love peanut butter. And let’s not forget salt. When I was young, my mom used to make these delicious little balls of peanut butter and chocolate goodness that contain absolutely nothing healthful. But I firmly believe in all things in moderation and eating these once a year—whether that’s Halloween or Christmas—certainly won’t kill you; though they’re so addictive they might put you in a sugar coma! Consider yourself warned.

12 ounces crunchy peanut butter (not the “natural” kind that separates)

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

16 ounces powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 bag semi-sweet or milk chocolate chips (good quality with cocoa butter; make sure the ingredients do not contain nonfat milk)

Kosher or sea salt

In a large bowl, with your hands, mix together the peanut butter, butter, sugar, and vanilla. Make sure it’s thoroughly combined and mixed. Wash your hands. Roll the mixture into balls and drop onto a wax-paper lined baking sheet. Freeze for one hour.

Melt the chocolate chips in a double boiler or microwave, according to the package instructions for melting. Using a skewer, a mini spatula, a spoon—whatever works—roll or dip the balls in the melted chocolate and place on the wax paper. You may have to patch up the sides with melted chocolate (this is where the mini spatula comes in handy) if the candies come out a little rough. If you’ve got any fingers free from melted chocolate, sprinkle a pinch of Kosher or sea salt on top. Place in the refrigerator or freezer for a little while to set up.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Seeing the Forest Through the Trees

Here's a story I know many of you can relate to ... A few years ago, I was living a life of total deception. Deception regarding money, that is. I was working my editor-in-chief job in an office, believing that I needed all the trappings that go along with that title. If I wanted a new, expensive pair of shoes, well, I had a credit card. If I wanted new kitchen appliances, well, just open a Lowe's credit card! If I wanted new furniture, that's what credit cards are for! I was living well beyond my means, believing that "one day" I'd eventually pay off all those debts and the money I earned would actually be mine. Wrong.
Well, a change in "life circumstances" (as a friend calls it) occurred and I no longer had a paycheck that enabled me to keep riding that merry-go-round. I was faced with a huge reality check. I realized just how crushing and devastating all that debt really was. It caused fear in my heart (Will they come to get me? Will I have to file bankruptcy? How can I save face?) and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. I immediately sold on Craigslist anything of value that could provide some cash. It's amazing how things looked differently to me. Why the hell did I spend $300 on that handbag ... those shoes ... that baubble? I ate through my freezer and pantry--no more shopping at Whole Foods--and somehow managed to survive. Every dime, every penny was cherished and every purchase, no matter how necessary (toilet paper!) was scrutinized. I went through a process of transformation. My mindset was that every time I felt the urge to whip out a credit card, I asked myself "Do you really need that? Or do you just want it? Why do you want it?"
Flash forward two years later, and the reason I'm writing this blog is because this morning I officially became debt free. I've been working for about a year and a half as a freelancer, and every time I'd get a paycheck for a writing or editing job, I'd put 3/4 of it toward that monster debt. My newly formed, farm-based bread business, The Local Loaf, funded groceries and provided needed cash flow. (Thank you Shannon Hayes for inspiring me to become a "Radical Homemaker.") The process caused all kinds of squabbles with my new husband ("Pay off those credit cards!"), and many "sacrifices" on my part--can you believe no haircut/color for 8 months?--but for the first time in my life I could see the forest through the trees. My husband's Midwestern upbringing and natural frugality, combined with our ever-increasing mission of self-sustainability and rejection of consumerism has led me to this day. Dave Ramsay's "I'm debt freeeeeeeeeee!" was also ringing in my ears. It has definitely been a journey to get here; but the journeys where I've learned the most have always been a result of having the least.
Now the fun can really start!   

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bling My Barn

barn before
Last Friday, just after finishing mowing the lawn, I was outside with the dogs. A red truck came idling up the drive, which is always concerning (I guess we live off a gravel road for a reason). The man behind the wheel asked if I had any interest in having my old barn painted and if so he could give me a quote and a good price since he and his crew had just finished painting our neighbor’s barn about 4 miles down the road. My first inclination was to shoo him away, saying I wasn’t interested because these types of approaches usually scare me, but then I thought ... it would be nice to have that old eye-sore made over. What’s the danger in getting a quote?

blinged barn
So, we ambled down to the barn in the stifling 95-degree heat and humidity and he described how he and his crew travels around, painting all the barns, outbuildings, even houses in the area every year. He said it would be great for him to round out the week with another job. We talked about the regional differences and colors of barns in the Midwest (red), as opposed to Kentucky (where I moved from, and where all the barns are black, for tobacco) and Tennessee (where he is from). He offered to do the job for little more than what paint would cost, so I made the call to the hubby at work. After asking a few more probing questions like “Are you a gypsy?” (kidding), we decided to take him up on the offer, quietly saying a prayer that it would all be OK. About an hour later, the paint truck rolled up with the crew and instantly our barn roof was being painted with a shiny aluminum asphalt paint. It took about an hour for it to be sprayed and finished. They came back the next morning and painted the body red—in about 3 hours. Incredible!
After they were done, we walked all the way around, pointed out some thin spots, one area of touch up, and asked that one of the pipe gates be wiped down from overspray, and they did it without consternation. Incredible … again!
So, as you can see the results at right, we’re quite pleased with the transformation. I guess sometimes you do have to step outside your comfort zone and take a chance … and give someone else a chance.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Double the Fun

A few weeks ago I was asked by Tabitha Alterman, the Mother Earth News and Natural Home & Garden food and gardening editor, to write a blog for their website. So, I asked myself if I had the time or motivation to do two blogs, and decided that I didn't. But ... I'm doing it anyway!
My new blog over there is called "Common Fare" and I'm writing mostly about food and cooking, including my Chocolate-Bacon Muffins (seen at right) and Lemon Polenta Cake. Click here for the recipes. I'm not sure what the deal is with the "Comment" function for the blogs there, but the situation looks a little bleak. Consider opening a user account and then you can Comment away your afternoons!
Hank and I have recently returned from the Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, Washington, which was a big hit. I did "The Art of No-Knead Artisan Bread" workshops on Saturday and Sunday from the prep kitchen at the Fairgrounds while behind me, Eating Well magazine's food editor, Jessie Price, sliced fish and prepared appetizers for her demonstration. It was a hoot, and she was great! What wasn't great was the oven at the fairgrounds. An electric range not capable of sustaining 475 degrees (and hardly even reaching it for that matter), yielded less-than-perfect loaves and downright despicable baguettes. Though it did make me want to hug my hard-working Kenmore Elite Pro gas range when I returned home. I realized I would not have my bread biz, The Local Loaf, without that crucial piece of equipment.
All in all, it's shaping up to be a busy summer. Lots of gardening, farming, and projects in the works, which I'll detail here soon. Love and miss you all!   

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Woman's Workshop

It seems like every other show on HGTV is about this new trend of creating a "Man Cave" for the man of the house. I guess that's a positive for men who need to escape, but at our house, we've just about completed the time-honored woman's workshop--that is, the kitchen. It's been about 6 weekends of grit, grime, and unpleasant surprises, but the end result is so worth it!
It's amazing what paint and a router tool can
accomplish when remodeling on a budget.
First of all, our Osage County, Kansas, four-square farmhouse is 105 years old. The former wallpaper in the kitchen dated to the early 1910s. And not in a good way. Stuck behind the cabinets (as the cabinets were added sometime mid-century), the old cherry-and-bluebird-printed paper was dirty and crackling. The shelves were covered in (last time I counted) about 5 layers of contact paper, followed by a layer of grime. The cabinets were everyone's favorite mid-tone wood grain, and the walls were wood paneled, of course. It was a "fabulous room of wood" akin to Ace Ventura's "fabulous room of death." The countertops were vintage laminate with a mauve tone. This all converged as a hot mess, but we decided to live with it for a time in order to determine what would work best for us, what we could afford, and what really needed to be hired out and what we could do ourselves.
We began with the cabinets, which we were NOT going to spend big money to replace. They were custom built for this house at some point and perfectly sound--just in need of a facelift. My handy husband read up on routering and transformed the flat, boring cabinet doors by routering a seam down the middle and rounding off the edges. We primed and painted the cabinets inside and out, using Valspar's Kitchen & Bath Enamel (a soft gloss paint so lovely it actually made painting FUN). Hinges, as we all know, are a complete nightmare to replace, so I painted the old ones a flat black and we bought new pulls and knobs online at a plumbing warehouse for a fraction of the Lowes price.
New sink and faucet, my handsewn curtain,
and a handmade Ball jar light fixture.
We replaced the old sink and leaky faucet with a single bowl cast iron sink and vintage style pewter faucet (again, both bought at a plumbing warehouse online for a fraction of the cost). The countertops were our one and only splurge ... an exotic granite that we both fell in love with at the slab warehouse in Lenexa. We hired a local tile man to do the subway-tile backsplash which he did in one day for a price so low I'm embarassed to report it. We couldn't even buy the tools to do it ourselves for what he charged! I finished it off with a handsewn burlap window curtain, some framed antique prints of vegetables, and a ball-jar light fixture that my husband made from scavenged parts. The only things left to do are install the schoolhouse lights, and the kitchen island my hubby is making from pine and walnut harvested from our farm. (I'll update with more photos when it's done). All in all, we did not have to take out a home equity line of credit to remodel our kitchen (we did have to use a little tax refund money for the granite though); we just had to put in alot of sweat equity to get it done. But we both agreed, we had fun doing it, we loved the late-winter indoor time together discovering each other's DIY skills and we just wouldn't have done it any other way.          

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Great Do-Over

Take a minute and think about one of life's great questions: If you could do one thing over, what would it be? Would it be a decision you made about a job, a house, a child, or a conversation about marriage or divorce? Would it be a day, or merely an instant in time? Over the past week, I've pondered this question over and over and for some reason mapped out the trajectory my life would have taken if I had done just one big thing differently ... where I'd be living today; what job I'd be working; how many kids I would've had; and the list goes on and on. The fact of the matter is that I love my life as it is now, so I wouldn't necessarily change its trajectory, but I would "do-over" an instant in time that occurred last week, but changed my life dramatically.
Last Monday was a regular day for me, in and out of the house, going back and forth between my writing/editing work and my house/farm work. Around 1:00 I decided to go outside and spray paint a silly fixture for our kitchen, so I let my two little dogs out. As I did my painting I looked over to the west and saw my Cairn Terrier, Pearl, gazing up at me, watching. Next I heard the mail man's SUV pull up. I called after Pearl, but she wasn't around. I called and called but she didn't come. I looked out at the road and saw the mail man pulling away and then I heard that sound. You know what sound I'm talking about. Can't even write it because I sob when I think about it.
Pearl was the great dog love of my life and she'll never be forgotten. If I could do one instant over, it would be that instead of going back to my work when I glanced over and saw her sitting there, I would have gone over and scooped her up, looked into her coal eyes, and told her how cute she was, just like I did practically every hour of every day, as crazy as that makes me sound.
Thank you to our friend, Matt Stallbaumer, for the beautiful painting of Pearl shown here, which he did in just a few days. It will hang proudly and prominently at home and will always remind me of her, and to love often and freely, even if it makes us incredibly vulnerable to pain.     

Monday, February 14, 2011

Bacon = Love

On this day of love, Valentine’s Day, what better time to salute the man I love? Now, I will get around to telling you how to make those little nuggets of joy you see pictured at right (it’s SO easy), but first, you have to read this …

For some couples, love “grows” on them over time and they learn to admire the not-so-annoying characteristics of their life partner. Not for me. From the first day I realized I love my then boyfriend, now husband, Hank (or Oscar Henry, more formally), I adored everything about him. A real man, through and through, he can change a tractor tire in the middle of a blizzard just as easily as he can whip up a Texas-style chili and cornbread dinner (as he did last night). He can build a home addition (our new mudroom) like a professional (even applying the Pythagorean theorem to the roof pitch!), just as he will steam clean the carpets when the two puppies have gotten a little out of hand. He goes to work in town every day, because that’s what must be done, but he will rush home at a moment’s notice when an animal is in distress and must be put down. He will build fence all day long in the summer heat, and the next day, scythe grass for our pigs—because the pigs love fresh greens, and because scything is good exercise, of course! I have a great man by my side, and he inspires and motivates me to be a great woman.

Now, about the bacon … what better way to say “I love you” to a man than with bacon? Chocolate-covered bacon, of course! I saw a segment on Cooking Channel (my new obsession, but thankfully hardly anything calls for “crème fraiche”) the other day about “pig candy” made by some business somewhere. It was simply bacon dipped in chocolate. The way you make it is:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place the bacon on a rack, on top of a baking sheet (so the grease will drip down and not drown the bacon). Start checking for doneness after 20 minutes, but I cooked mine for about 35 minutes (this will depend on the thickness of your bacon and your oven). You want the bacon to be crisp and curled—not so crunchy it shatters, but not limp at all. Let cool for a few hours—you want all the grease to be dried.

Heat some semi-sweet chocolate chips on top of a double-boiler and stir until thoroughly melted. Dip the bacon, one slice at a time, into the melted chocolate and thoroughly coat. The chocolate will be a little thick, so just use your rubber spatula to scrape away the excess. Place the dipped slices on a clean drying rack and cool. When your sweetie comes home from work tonight, the chocolate-covered bacon will no doubt put a smile on his face. Now there’s no need to run to town for a box of Russell Stover. Happy Valentine's Day!