Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Last Day of May


Four years ago this morning, you were born. You were supposed to have a June birthday, but you chose May 31, the same birthday as your great-grandfather (my grandpa, my Mom's dad) who celebrates 85 today. Following Jewish tradition, we named you after one of your other great-grandfathers (my grandpa, my Dad's dad), and it has been wonderful to watch you become your own person guided by a special name.

Not only was your birth day a surprise, but your birth was too. You showed me that I was the strongest person in the world, and I used that gift so much in the weeks afterward figuring out how to feed you, how make you grow, and how to take care of you. Despite the beginning, it has been easy to be your mother, even if everyone thought the woman with the long dark hair was only the nanny to the little boy with the curly, golden blond hair in her care. You looking so much like your father was yet another surprise, since we assumed you would get my dark hair and eyes. I can't imagine your face looking any other way.

You are loving and stubborn and shy and fearless. You love your little sister so much, and I remember the day after she was born how you wanted to stay home from preschool to watch her get her diapers changed and drink her mama milk. She has continued to be a joy and delight to you, and before she was born I never imagined how each of you would light up when you see the other's face. You love your parents, your sister, your dog, your grandparents, your great grandfather, your aunts and uncles, your great aunts and great uncles, and your first cousins once removed fiercely. I know you will love your cousin and second cousin just as much when you get meet them in person, hopefully later this year. Nothing makes me happier than hearing you say "Momma, I love you."

You are an outdoors kid. When you were a baby, I would take you walks at the lake and you would look up at all the leaves in the sky and smile and laugh. You love to plant, water, and pull up weeds. This year, working outside has been fun because I've been able to do it with you. The main reason we planted a vegetable garden is that we knew you would enjoy starting it, and caring for it, and watching it grow and we've been able to enjoy all of those things so much too because you have been a part of it.

Yesterday, we celebrated your birthday with lots of friends by playing in the dirt at the new "nature playground" and eating dirt and worm cupcakes. I love to watch you play, and run around, and just be. You are so very much my Ely.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Chance to Catch Up?

Well, preschool is over for Ely. He'll go to the Summer session for one week in June and one week in July, but other than that he is home full time with me. I'm rather excited about this, because I missed him a lot this year. I spent a ton of time with Agnes, and I'm grateful I could devote so many hours of my day solely to her in her first year. But, I dearly missed doing all the stuff we used to do every week - storytime, playground time, puppet shows, playdates, and going to the Y - with Ely.

The last day of school ended with an evening picnic. I brought my family's most favorite sandwich - brie, apple, and basil on a baguette - as our food contribution and I almost missed out on getting one. Of course, it isn't truly the end of the school year without worrying about teacher gifts.

I decided (sort of at the last minute) to make tote bags from Last-Minute Patchwork + Quilted Gifts for the two classroom teachers. I had the exteriors already pieced and sewn from good intentions last year, so all I had to do was make the straps and interiors. Of course I love to make something quick and simple much harder, so I decided to embroider each teacher's name on the outside of the bag. I was supposed to finish the bags up Wednesday evening, but instead spent those hours with my needle and floss and had to play hooky from work the next day to finish. I hope my husband (aka the boss) doesn't read this blog...

When I make tote bags, I like to use canvas or linen or a decor weight fabric for either the interior, the exterior, or both. I chose quilting cotton for the exterior because I wanted bright colors and big patterns, and had a lovely matching brown linen in the stash for the interior. Now, I've used linen for bags many times before, but I had the most difficult time with this linen. No matter how many times I trued up my piece, the folded line was not straight and the cut edges seemed to turn wavy as soon as I lifted the ruler. I decided to ignore it, and figured it wouldn't matter too much if the inside was a little wonky. It baffled me, and I wonder if it was because the linen was a looser weave than some of the other stuff I've used in the past?

The tote bags turned out lovely. I only made one change to the pattern, and that was to topstitch an additional line 1/8 of an inch from the top edge. The 1/4 inch line didn't feel secure enough for me, and I had visions of the handles ripping out.

So, I'm hoping to be able to blog a little more over the Summer. I'm not sure if this is going to happen since I'm home with the kids just about full-time, but I'll be home more so that is a good start. One of the first tasks is to finish my Alabama Chanin post about the trunk show from over two weeks ago! Another overdue post is to show you what I made and what I received for DQS6.

I also just decided to join this quilt a-long. I've loved this quilt by Melanie ever since I first saw it (actually I love every quilt Melanie makes), and I'm trying to make all the fabric odds and ends go away so my sewing nook will be a little neater.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Mint Patch, Part 2

There is another very important reason why we have a mint patch - mojitos. I can't think of a better drink for a warm evening.

We make ours with gin, as my husband will not do rum. Now that I've made them with gin for several years, the rum ones taste a little funny to me. I won't turn one down though.

I've tried several recipes, and the two below are my favorites. The first one - a regular mojito recipe where I simply replaced the rum with gin - is great because you don't have to prep anything ahead of time, as long as you have superfine sugar (also called castor sugar). I can find castor sugar locally at Whole Foods or Fresh Market, though any gourmet kitchenware/food store should carry it.

The second recipe is a recent discovery in Frank Stitt's new cookbook, Bottega Favorita. I was thrilled to see a mojito made with gin - he calls it a Southside - in the Cin Cin! and Cheers! chapter. When we lived in Alabama, we drove the hour to Birmingham as often as we could to eat at one of Frank Stitt's restaurants, Chez Fonfon. He owns three others, and I've eaten at Highlands Grill (we received a gift certificate here as a wedding present and it was the best present ever!) and the cafe side of Bottega. Not only does Frank Stitt make wonderful food at all four restaurants, he uses local Alabama and Georgia food purveyors and has done so for a long time. The Southside is delicious, but you do need to have simple syrup which is, of course, simple to make but needs to be cool before you use it.

Gin Mojito
serves 2

- 3 oz. fresh lime juice (about 3 limes)
- 2 Tbsp. superfine/castor sugar
- 6 sprigs of fresh mint
- 3 oz. gin
- seltzer or water to taste

1. In a small pitcher, combine lime juice, sugar, and mint. Stir and muddle the mixture until the sugar has dissolved.
2. Add the gin and stir until combined.
3. Fill glasses with crushed ice. If you want, you can run a wedge of lime around the rim and dip each glass into granulated sugar.
4. Pour cocktail (you may strain if you'd like) into the glasses and top with seltzer or water to taste. Garnish with a mint sprig.

adapted from Bottega Favorita by Frank Stitt; serves 2

- 4 lime wedges
- 2 oz. simple syrup (recipe follows)
- 2 oz. fresh lime juice
- 4 mint sprigs
- 3 oz. gin
- splash of club soda or water

1. Squeeze the lime wedges into a small pitcher or cocktail shaker, then drop the wedges in.
2. Add the simple syrup, additional lime juice, mint, and muddle with a spoon or muddler to bruise the mint and extract the oils from the mint and lime peel.
3. Add the gin and stir to combine.
4. Fill two glasses halfway with crushed ice; pour the cocktail evenly between the two.
5. Add a splash of club soda or water to taste.

Simple Syrup
The recipe for simple syrup is very basic - add equal parts sugar and water and heat on the stove until sugar is dissolved and mixture has thickened slightly. You can store extra in a tightly sealed jar in the fridge for several weeks, or if you have a tiny saucepan, you can reduce this recipe. If I find I'm not using my syrup up fast enough with mojitos, I make lemonade or limeade as a special treat.

- 2 c. sugar (I use natural cane which makes the syrup an amber color, but works and tastes just the same)
- 2 c. water

1. Combine sugar and water in a small heavy saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat.
2. Simmer for 2 minutes, then remove from heat and let cool.

I think I'm going to make some gin mojitos this afternoon for our impromptu Memorial Day grill fest.

Mint Patch, Part 1

At the beginning of last Summer, my husband got a few sprigs of mint with roots from his mother and planted them so we'd have our own mint patch. Since mint grows very enthusiastically (to put it mildly), We chose an ugly and unused long strip of grass between our ugly driveway and even uglier backyard fence. My husband is a true Southerner - he was born in the South, grew up in the South, and comes from many generations on both sides of Southern born and bred people. While I often call myself a Southerner, it's only because my parents moved here right before I was born. My husband's favorite beverage is fruit tea, also frequently known as tea punch. There are a few food and beverages unique to the part of the South we live in - one is hot chicken, the other is meat and 3, and the last one is tea punch. While you may find these three in other parts of the South, you don't find them with the same frequency and intensity as you do here. I am a huge fan of all three, but while I only eat hot chicken at Prince's and meat and 3s at Arnold's, I will make fruit tea at home.

Most people associate sweet tea with the South, but I have never been a fan. It is just way too sweet. I like my tea, both iced and hot, nice and strong. I might like sweet tea better if it was just a little sweet, instead of the all too common sickening sweet. I feel the same way about lemonade; tart is much preferable to sweet. There is only one place I know of where I like sweet tea, and that is Interstate Bar-B-Q in Memphis, where they serve a wonderful peach sweet tea I've never seen anywhere else.

Fruit tea is basically ice tea with fruit juice added to it. There are so many variations of fruit tea. Some recipes use pineapple juice besides orange juice and lemonade. Other recipes call for the addition of mint while the tea is steeping, or extra sugar. My mother in law likes to add Mountain Dew to hers. I'm sure there are many other secret ingredients I don't know about. When I moved to Alabama almost ten years ago (the real South, I thought, as opposed to the South I grew up in), I was determined to figure out how to make fruit tea.

This is what I came up with:

Fruit Tea

I like fruit tea strong and if I have mint, then I absolutely want to add it, as it adds another lovely, nuanced flavor to the brew. I think the juice makes it sweet enough on it's own, but if you are a sweet tea fan then you may want to add extra sugar. You can also play with the proportions of juice to tea.

- 6-8 black tea bags
- 4-5 mint sprigs
- half of a 12 oz. container of frozen oj concentrate (I buy mine at Trader Joe's because there is no added sugar or high fructose corn syrup; your Whole Foods or natural foods store might carry a similar product but mine doesn't for some unknown reason - don't let me get started here...)
- half of a 12 oz. container of frozen lemonade concentrate (again I buy mine at Whole Foods to avoid HFCS)

1. Boil 8 cups of water in a tea kettle.
2. In a large pyrex or stainless steel bowl, add the mint and 6-8 tea bags. I usually tie or clip the tea bags together, so they don't fall into the bowl and are easier to remove later.
3. Once the water is boiling, add it to the bowl. Let the tea steep for the recommended time.
4. When the tea is ready, remove the bags and the mint. Stir in the oj and lemonade concentrates. Since you only use half of a container, you have enough leftover to make another batch in a few days. I find that fruit tea disappears quickly in my house.
5. Chill in the refrigerator, then pour into a pitcher.
6. Serve over ice and with a mint sprig.

I learned a neat trick at the Savannah Tea Room for making any tea decaffeinated. The caffeine in the tea leaves is released in the first minute of brewing. If you want to decaffeinate any tea, discard the water after a minute of steeping, then add new hot water. The resulting tea will be decaffeinated. I use this trick a lot since I don't like to have caffeine after my much needed one cup of coffee in the morning, and I also like to avoid any chemical process that decaffeinates tea or coffee.

Friday, May 8, 2009

A Peek

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Auction Quilt

The auction for Ely's preschool was over a week ago, but I didn't have a chance to write about the quilt before I jetted off to Chicago. There are 3 classrooms at Ely's school, and the classroom projects for the auction are a big deal. Each classroom paints a large canvas with the art teacher, but the room parents are responsible for coming up with the idea and implementing the other project. I'm not a room parent, but I'm "creative" which means I get roped into helping with anything that needs some artistic oversight. I actually didn't mind helping at all. Right after college, I taught elementary school art and when I lived in Texas, I taught adult knitting classes. Some days I really miss being in some sort of classroom and watching children (and adults) explore the world through art.

The auction always benefits the school's scholarship fund, but this year the auction also raised money for the upcoming playground renovation. Instead of the classroom projects being a free-for-all, we were told they needed to have an outdoors theme. Somehow we came up with the idea of a picnic, and decided to put together a family picnic kit. We got a wicker picnic basket with plates and silverware, and bought games, bubbles, kites, an insect cage, and other fun outside activities. To house the diversions, the children decorated the outside of a sturdy canvas bag with a bug and flower scene using their fingerprints and a little inspiration from Ed Emberley. And because sometimes picnics have to happen indoors, the children decorated a cookie jar the same way, so the indoor picnic could have some special treats too. I volunteered to sew some napkins and a picnic quilt, because it can't be a picnic without a quilt.

I based my quilt off of Erin's picnic blanket, though I made my squares a little bigger and I left off the rock pockets. I was going to make a rectangular quilt, but once I laid out 16 squares I thought it looked plenty big to fit a family. I kept the colors non gender specific, which was a good excuse for me to use a lot of orange. I was able to pull a few appropriate polka dot prints out of my stash, and added some solids, small prints, and other polka dot-like fabrics to create the top. Amy Butler, Denyse Schmidt and Anna Maria Horner all had some wonderful fabrics that worked so well together in the top. The quilt top was easy enough to assemble, and the back was just two pieces of the same sky blue kona cotton solid. I decided to quilt in the ditch to give the quilt a little more stability and durability, since the quilt was going to live at someone else's house, and I didn't want to worry about it disintegrating in the wash. I tied the centers of the squares with orange embroidery floss. The quilting part drove me batty. For some reason, I'm having a lot of trouble lately with my fabric shifting as I quilt. I don't know if I'm not stretching the backing tight enough, or not using enough safety pins, or if it is something with my machine but it made the quilting part very slow and frustrating. It took me twice as long to quilt the whole thing as I thought it would take me. I used my favorite Denyse Schmidt orange print for the binding (it was also one of the few fabrics I had enough yardage of) and sewed it on using a large zig zag stitch. I thought the decorative stitch was a nice detail, but on the back side the edges lifted up too much, so you could see the line of thread where I attached the binding on in the first place. That bugged me enough to sew all the way around the quilt edge again with a straight stitch to keep the binding edge tacked down on the back.

Of course I still wasn't finished once the binding was complete. We had decided the quilt needed to be personalized by the children some way, and the easiest way to do that was to make a label for the back. Using a Micron pen, the teachers and each child wrote their name on the label. There were a few reluctant children, so we had them draw a small picture and we wrote their name by their picture. At the very top, I wrote the name of the school, classroom, year, and city and wrote made by my name at the very bottom. As you can imagine, this label ended up on the large side. By time twenty-two 3, 4, and 5 year olds wrote their names, the label was 10x12 inches. I was able to cut a small amount off, but I decided to add an orange border to finish off the label and separate it from the backing as I used the same fabric for both. I was a little worried about how well the label was going to adhere to the backing, and I wished I had sewn it on before quilting or had even pieced it into the backing. Then, I came across a great method for making and attaching a label in Last-Minute Patchwork + Quilted Gifts by Joelle Hoverson. Joelle uses a lightweight fusible interfacing sewn on top of the label with the fusible side facing the label's right side. Once you've sewn all around the label/interfacing, cut a small hole in the interfacing, trim the corners off and turn the whole thing right side out. Next, punch out the corners, center the label, press with an iron, and you have a patch that is completely adhered to the quilt! You still have to tack down the edges with a blindstitch, but I felt so much better knowing the center was attached too. I thought this was a great way for making labels, and I know I'm going to use this same method again in the future.

As for the napkins, I more or less used Heather Ross's napkin pattern in Weekend Sewing with a zig zag stitch around the edges to sew the opening closed (I liked how the zig zag stitch also matched the zig zag on the quilt binding). By the time I finished the quilt, I wanted to forget about the napkins, but I already had most of the squares cut as they were rejects from the quilt top so I plugged along and finished them the night before the auction.

When the whole project was put together - basket, canvas bag, cookie jar, napkins, and quilt - it looked fantastic! Each little part made the whole picnic set colorful and whimsical and personal. I liked how we included so much of the children in our project, from their fingerprints to their sweet signatures in their own handwriting. The picnic set brought a lot of money, and a special little girl is now the owner of my quilt and all the other picnic items.

Now that I've had a couple of weeks to recover, I might even be talked into making a quilt again for the class auction project next year. Just remind me to start in January.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

It's Good to Get Away

I spent the weekend in Chicago with 17 girl friends and 2 babies. We've been friends for over 8 years since we met (thanks to this woman) online while planning our weddings. Many of us have met in real life, but this was the first large gathering of our group. None of us could figure out why it took us 8 years to have a get together. We stayed in three condos right on Lake Michigan and spent the weekend hanging out, talking, laughing, eating, drinking, taking photos, missing the friends who couldn't be there, throwing a blessingway for our two pregnant friends, nursing babies, pumping breastmilk, reading trashy magazines with a little walking thrown in just so we wouldn't feel like complete sloths. Not much sleeping happened and we were amazed no one peed in their pants with the high level of laughing, as just about all of us have one or more children.

The get together came at the right time for me. I so needed to get away from my life. I was able to relax, and read, and not worry about taking care of anyone but myself. I flew home on Sunday with my patience replenished and on a happy high from the wonderful weekend. I was ready to be with my family and return to being a mom. This was the first night I'd spent away from my family since August 2007, and even on that trip I wasn't entirely alone since I was pregnant with Agnes. It's hard for me to leave my children when they are babies, and it's not something I can really think about until their second year.

The weekend was a good reminder for me that I need me time. I usually get Saturday mornings to myself, but I think every once in a while I need more than a few hours a week to reset my buttons. Since another get together isn't going to happen for 18 months, I'm going to need to come up with some other ideas for escaping. What do you do?