Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas!

I used to be a letter writer. I mean, a real letter writer. Long, handwritten letters. My godparents have a 24 page letter I wrote to them from Rome tucked into their two or three file cabinet sections dedicated to Stuff From Finnish Goddaughter. They have saved all my letters.

I also like writing cards. I used to write lots of them. Postcards, note cards, handmade cards...

Then I went to grad school. Then I got my first academic job. Yeah... But I have managed some holiday cards. Not a lot, but a couple. Typically based on responding to someone who wrote to me, but not always. Everyone I did not write to - I am torn between apologizing and figuring that those whose opinion is worth it will not mind at all.

The only people I consistently write to and even send Christmas gifts to - I am blessed with a family who is not very focused on gifts at all - are my godparents. It's sort of become a thing: my whole life they sent my family 4 Christmas tree ornaments, usually with the names of my family members on them. When my sister and I moved away from home we split them up and we all have enough handmade ornaments for a tree of our own. When my Fuzzband and I settle down permanently, one of the perks will be that I will bring my godparent-made ornaments from Finland. Since I moved to the US, my godparents now send me an ornament or two as there are two of us. Typically they are either handmade or unicorn themed. I love unicorns, and it has also become a thing between my godmother and myself.

And so, as my godmother and I both revel in crafting, and my godfather appreciates our skills, that is what I have been regaling them with for decades. I have made them garlands, balls, cross stitch things... Typically Christmas themed items, of course, but I have sent them handcrafted items out of season, so to speak. When I visit, their home is riddled with crafts I have produced over the years. It is amazing to have godparents like these, and it is such a privilege to be so present in their home.

This year I did not make them the traditional Christmas decorations as they have recently downsized and really don't need more stuff. Instead, I made a bunch of Christmas cards over US Thanksgiving weekend that they can send to family and friends over the holidays. The theme this year was basically origami Christmas trees: instructions from Flowerbug's Inkspot. Very addicting! OMG! So much fun to fold, glue, add sparkles, rhinestones, punch snowflakes... I made my godparents about a dozen cards - but forgot to photograph them. They looked so impressive all arrayed on the counter... Oh well...

However, here are a few I either did not include because they needed a bit more work, or that I made later.

This one I made from one of my old thank you cards that depicts the Turku Cathedral - which is my favorite church in the world. I cut it out of its original, summery setting and added a snowy tree we can peek behind to see the magnificence of 14th century awesome. I am particularly pleased at how the snowflakes cut out from tissue paper have a slightly ethereal thing going on:

This one was missing something originally - it was one of the first I made. What it was missing was SPARKLE! I had heirloom sequins, but they really needed pastel Rhinestones added to them, and snowflakes. I love my snowflake stamper... 

An ode to tea at Christmas time. The true addict will drink tea from a cardboard coffee shop cup, a holiday themed mug, or a cup with a saucer, or - let's face it - a rubber boot. When I found this crafting paper, it SPOKE to me:

Mulberry paper and teeny heart shaped buttons. I love the buttons. It may be a problem in my life. They are so ADORABLE!

One of the great card inspirations in my life is CET over at Sartorial Sidelines. She makes cards every Christmas and they are works of art. How she manages the time is a mystery, but then she is one of the two most organized people in the world. As I said about the other organizational wonderwoman: If I was Jesus, I would hire her to organize my second coming. Yes, that's how organized these ladies are!  

And finally, because it is adorable: a glimpse of our Christmas Beaver:
We bought him a few years ago in Essex, CT, "The Best Little Town in America." The Fuzzband and I were visited by one of my oldest friends, the remarkably talented Tonja  and her partner T, and decided to get out of New Haven; do some sightseeing. So, we went exploring Essex for their Halloween Scarecrow weekend event. It was a nice little town with some eccentric scarecrows and the lovely, quaint and delicious Griswold Inn. There was also a Christmas shop, and one of the types of ornament was these animals made from bristles. Of course we got the beaver! Here Mr. Christmas Beaver is posing in the tree with our brand new Finnish flag string from Uniquely Nordic. 

So, Merry Christmas! God Jul!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Happy Halloween!

My amazing friend and colleague KR found a haunted house gingerbread decorating class at the local fancy tea and cake shoppe, The Bon Bonerie! In other words, give them money, show up to a ready made gingerbread house, icing, candies, etc. and  HAVE FUN! So, today, in the middle of grading, job applications, article rewriting and other less than relaxing activities, KR, her Mom, and yours truly spent a lovely afternoon of playing with sugar. This was followed by a late lunch, black currant tea (with milk) and a fat slice of tangerine cake, aka. Harvest Moon cake. I feel more relaxed than after a long night's sleep! Thank you KR!

If you would wander into my office next week, this is what you would see:
 Or from the side, where I usually sit when meeting with students:
Let's do a close up of the dangling spider web, shall we:
Ok, so my cellphone takes very poor quality photos, but the cobweb is only attached at the points and under the coco-puff (a kind of breakfast cereal, apparently) spider. I am ridiculously proud of it...

And lastly, when I go behind it to put the kettle on, in Dante's potentially miss-remembered words:
Now, back to work!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Beet cake for potluck

Back in 2013 I discovered that my family's carrot cake is perhaps even better when made with beets. The Benevolent Overlord thinks there is no reason to ever make carrot cake again unless made with beets. I have been hankering for a slice of beet cake, but given a desire to eat healthier, above all smaller portions and less sugars, I was not going to make a cake and have it hanging around the house. Bad idea. Bad. Luckily, the beginning of the semester came to the rescue: the Labor Day Departmental Pot Luck!

I love cream cheese icing, but decided I needed to jazz it up somehow. While the cake baked and cooled I did some happy Internet searching, and settled on a Honey Ginger Buttercream Frosting from as the filling layer. As you can see I slathered it on nice and thick.

For the actual icing that I would use to ice and decorate the cake, I went with Wilton's Cream Cheese Icing. Instead of the orange juice I used ginger liquor, and instead of the grated orange peel I used dried ginger - grated ginger would clog the icing tips. An issue I had was the icing was highly volatile and softened much quicker than usual, even given the temperature or the room. As The Benevolent Overlord pointed out, alcohol has properties that will soften butter. Note to self - ginger liquor gave a fabulous flavor, but makes icing harder. 

Carrot cake is very crumbly, so I started with a thin layer of icing just to seal in the crumbs:

I edged the cake with a cheerful yellow basket weave - always fun to do! - and topped it with beets:

The color is obviously off, but here's a close-up of the beets:

I am particularly pleased with the beet tops. And you know, the beets I peeled for this cake did have a bumpy look, even if not quite so "dog turdy" in appearance as these. While doing the veins in the leaves, I managed to brush the piping at the top of the basket weave, which was already compromised by the heat/alcohol. There was no saving the edge without mussing it up, so I added a helpful caption in case someone was wondering what kind of cake it is:

Hah! The hosting professor's daughter was quite fascinated with how I got my elbow in the cake, so I got a story out of it as well. 

Over all, it was a truly delicious cake, even if I do say so myself. The beets and the ginger married beautifully, and everyone liked it. We got to take leftovers home, so we ended up having only two pieces, which is plenty. Yes, we had it for breakfast the next day. Decadent!

And here's the full view: 

I will definitely make this combo again, and am glad I discovered the ginger icing!

Monday, September 8, 2014

What to do with lots of squash? Part 1.

We love delicata squash! So, now that we live in a house (the landlord said we can do anything we want with the yard), we decided to plant some. We put them in a plot behind the cedar trees. However, only a few of the seeds in the package are actually delicata - most are butternut squash. We love butternut as well, so we are only slightly disappointed. Over the summer the plants have grown, and above you see how they are growing up over the cedars and around the cedars.  It is hard to capture in a photograph, but it is pretty awesome.

The first butternut squash was emergency harvested as a deer had nibbled on it. Here is a picture of it from its non-nibbled on side, along with (left to right) everclear being infused with a mint variety nicely called "julep" (I'm looking at you TMV and LH!), everclear infusion based on Samovar Blend tea (KT, this one is for you!), and my felted teacosy. The beer in the background is leftovers from a departmental pot-luck (more on that later. Maybe). When I cut into the squash a few days later, it smelled more fragrant and delicious than any butternut squash I have ever purchased.

One day a week or so ago the Fuzzband - although I think we decided to call him Benevolent Overlord after Doug Berman, who is titled thus on Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! (The best radio show in the 'verse!)... So, Benevolent Overlord declared we need to find at least ten butternut squash recipes. Well, I did. I went through our cookbooks, because I am a cookbook person. We have a pretty exciting lineup of butternut squash and pumpkin recipes!

Here is recipe #1 (complete with an attempt at food photography):

This is perhaps my favorite cook book: 400 Best-Ever Soups,
edited by Anne Sheasby (Hermes House, 2008). The recipe is on p. 150.

Squash Soup with Horseradish Cream

1 butternut squash
1 cooking apple
2 Tblsp butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1-2 tsp curry powder - I used hot + extra for garnish
900 ml / 3 3/4 cup vegetable stock
1 tsp chopped fresh sage - I used dry
150 ml / 2/3 cup apple juice
lime rind, shredded, to garnish - I did not use this
salt and black pepper

Horseradish cream:
4 Tbsp heavy whipping cream
2 tsp horseradish sauce - I used freshly grated
1/2 tsp curry powder - again, I used hot

  1. Peel squash, remove seeds, chop the flesh. Peel, core, and chop apple
  2. Heat the butter in a large pan. Add the onions and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes until soft. Stir in the curry powder. Cook to bring out the flavor, stirring constantly for 2 minutes.
  3. Add the stock, squash, apple, and sage. Bring to boil, lower the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes until the squash and apple are soft. 
  4. Meanwhile, make the horseradish sauce: whip the cream until stiff, add the horseradish and curry. Refrigerate until ready to serve on soup.
  5. Puree the soup. Return to pot and add apple juice. Season to taste. Reheat gently, without bringing to boil.
  6. Serve the soup  in bowls topped with a spoonful of the horseradish sauce and a dusting of curry powder. Garnish with shredded lime rind, if you like.

It was delicious! Seriously. And it was even better the next day. While "best ever" is an absolute I don't like to put in writing outside hyperbole on Facebook, this book sure does live up to its name. Benevolent Overlord said it was the best squash soup he has had - and we've had some darn fine ones. I would rate it at a solid 8 out of 10, Benevolent Overlord at 9/9.5! Regardless, we are remembering this one.

If you try this, I would love to hear how yours turns out, how you modified the recipe, etc.

While my food photography is crappy, to say the least, here is one more shot:

P.S. The drink shown above is actually worth a note in and of itself. It is a mudslide with banana... (Ooo! The webpage has some other promising recipes, too!)We made our own creamed whiskey for the mudslide, since we had the ingredients for it, and did not want to go out and buy Bailey's, the most famous creamed whiskey and staple in home-bars as well as commercial bars. I have to say, the home made turned out more to our palette than then purchased version. What is left of the creamed whiskey now stored in an old everclear bottle in the fridge waiting for further adventures.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fuzzband's Birthday - Featuring Cake!

My Husband had a birthday on Friday. Now, the problem when we lived in New Haven was that it was always too hot to bake and decorate a birthday cake for him. However, now we live in Cincinnati - in a house! - and we have air conditioning. So it is cool enough to actually, you know, bake AND spend hours playing with buttercream! This was a very drawn out process, but lots of fun!

The Process

1. I bought on-sale Malted Milk Balls at Easter.

2. Decide on a surprise birthday party and coral the guests. I decided on a very small gathering of friends from the area, although I did try to get The Best Man to come from Pittsburgh... Fuzzband has dreamed of a pot-luck appetizer dinner, so that is what I asked peeps to bring.

3. Monday, 5 days before B-day, I stayed home because I had a doctor's appointment, which I combined with lunch with my friend KR. She also took me shopping for ingredients for the B-day. The Fuzzband has the car, and it would have been suspicious if I had borrowed it. PLUS I got to hang out with KR! I had drawn a plan in my little memo book, "Dichtung und Warheit" - KR did not get it, apparently, but when she saw the cake it all made sense. The Fuzzband'd engineering mind grasped it immeidately when he saw it on the B-Day. Although by then he had also seen the cake....

4. Wednesday I had a dentist's appointment, so once again I stayed home. And baked meringue, using the Joy of Cooking's Meringue I recipe.  I left them in the oven, hoping Fuzzband would not get inspired to use the oven. The gamble payed off!

5. Friday, B-day. I stayed home on the pretext I need foot X-rays. My medical issues sure have been agreat for excuses not to go to the office and prepare for the party! While I did figure out where I need to go for X-rays of the sore foot, (the joys of the US health care system! Aaargh!) I actually spent most off the day in the kitchen with the Birthday cake:

The meringue had gotten a bit sticky on the surface, so I turned the oven back on and dried it out. Worked like a charm! Must remember for future reference.

While first aid was going on for the meringue, I made chocolate ganache from our Chocolate cookbook - it goes with Stephen's favorite dessert, their Tropical Fruit Vacherin, of which there is a photo on Facebook. I also melted the chocolate for chocolate buttercream - Wilton's recipe - to be mixed with whipped cream for a less sweet and lighter filling. While those were cooling I baked the Devil's Food Chocolate Cake from The Joy of Cooking.

This is what I turned out in the end:

I googled some molds to make my own three dimensional fish cake topper, but came across a tile design, which had a neat textured relief thing going. As it is flat, it would also mean I could make a higher cake!

I wanted to make the sides have a sort of under the water vibe. They're supposed to be water grass and the Malted Milk Balls are bubbles or rocks in muddy water. :

Fuzzband really liked the cake! Yay! Everyone else did, too!

Below you can see the layering: chocolate cake at the bottom, then meringue, chocolate cake, and topped with meringue. There were Malted Milk Balls between they layers. I put the meringue at the top to get a super smooth top and no crumbs. Fuzzband is not big on buttercream icing, so I filled the cake with chocolate ganche flavored whipped cream, and did my very best to have as thing a layer of buttercream icing. Having a top layer that does not release any crumbs makes this easier. Please take a moment to admire the thin layer of icing at the top - the chocolate layer is ca 1 mm thick, or less in places, and then there is the colored buttercream icing - and sprinkles to make the fish glisten! KR and I picked those out.

The Surprise: Friday!

On Fridays we often go out for Mexican, so to keep the Fuzzband at home, we came up with a plan that our friend MF was coming for dinner - she lives a bit further out so this is rare enough to warrant a Special Occasion. I also told the Fuzzband that I had told her of our new meal plan - The Fresh20 - and had mentioned the black bean quesadillas on the menu for this week, and that she was excited, so I would make those for her on Friday!

The plan was that our friends the Ms and KR would just pop in around 6 pm and as the Fuzzband opened the door, they would say "surprise" and hand over their appetizers. HOWEVER! Once MF had arrived, I noticed we were out of toritllas, and thought "Shit! Now he'll have a good excuse to go out!" but instead he offered to go to the store to buy more! Woot! Off he goes. The Ms and KR arrive at the same time minutes after the Fuzzband left, KR parking partially in front of our driveway as she always does, thinking the Fuzzband was at home. I told her Fuzzband would be irritated first, but then realize what the situation was, and she should help set the party up and not move the car. So, we pull out the table to make it bigger, set it with cheerful napkins in the birthday boy's favorite color - green - and set it up with all the appetizers everyone had brought!

The Fuzzband gets home, and as he comes into the kitchen from the garage (the guests were hidden behind the corner in the dining room) he's griping "Somebody has parked partially in front of our driveway! I would like to let you know I did NOT spit on the car"!!!! He walks into the dining area and  - SURPRISE!!! He was completely surprised! And delighted! And speechless! And his griping about the offending car was not only hilarious, but he completely forgave KR. I was a bit worried he's recognize the car, but luckily he did not. An absolute success! Thank you, gang!

Everything was delicious: Ocra and veggie patties; prosciutto, melon and goat cheese canapes; chile-cheese dip and tortilla chips; quacamole; Italian orange and egg salad; potato veggie salad; and potato chips and Amerikan Dippi from Finland we love, and had told the Ms and KR about the previous weekend. I had made a HUGE pitcher of Singapore Sling. The Fuzzband loves it, and he was born in Singapore!

It was a lovely evening of chatting, laughter, and a garden and compost tour for the gang.

Other things we did on the B-Day weekend: Saturday!

We drove south to Kentucky, and had lunch: our first visit to Chick fil A! We've been getting their calendars from family friend sin Maryland for years, ever since the chain came out with a Cows in Shining Armor version. The calendars are all about celebrating the glory of cows, so we should all eat more chicken to spare these noble beasts!

We went to the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky - Kentucky is gorgeous!

On our way back to Cincinnati we wen't to Miyako's in Crescent Springs for Hibachi dinner. Crescent Springs is just across the river from Cincinnati in Kentucky. 

When we got home, the Fuzzband's newest hobby of ax collecting was initiated with the arrival of this beauty:
Isn't he handsome, this Canadian lumberjack of mine?!

We capped the B-day celebrations with cat-sitting our neighbors' cat, Zoey, eating cake, and watching Call the Midwife on their Netflix. Lovely!