Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Year of Pretty - December 14, 2014

Today's Pretty Post is actually a super cute post....THESE PUPPIES ! ! ! !


Today being Sunday, it's a big baking day, but I wanted to share this adorable photo of Santa's little helpers. No original source given, just a random tumblr account where I couldn't locate the photo after five minutes of scrolling. Oh well, enjoy!

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Year of Pretty - December 08, 2014

 .. . .perfect for the creative person. This would also be a great way to use left over yarn. What's also nice is that with a bit of adult super vision when attaching the yarn to the wreath, this is a fun project for kids to create. Imagine their concentration while winding the yarn into smaller balls....

I've given instructions for both a permanent and a temporary wreath. In the permanent version, the balls of yarn are glued together; both to the wreath form and to each other. In the temporary version, the balls of yarn are attached with thin wire. This is in case you may want to use the yarn again for another project and don't want it to be covered in hardened glue.

You can also use a foam wreath for your base and wrap it in yarn. I found that to be a bit time consuming, so I opted for a rustic twig / vine wreath I had on hand. Essentially, when we pruned back the grape vines in the garden, I twisted then into wreaths and let them dry that way. But you can pick one up pretty cheap at your local craft store.


Directions for Yarn Wreath:

Needed:
yarn in four or five complimentary shades
styrofoam balls in various sizes
large eyed needle
desired size wreath form; twig or grapevine
hot glue gun and glue sticks, or 20 gauge wire
wire cutters and eye protection
hanging ornament for center
clear fishing line
scissors

What to Do:

1. Wind various yarns around the different sizes of styrofoam balls, leaving a 12 inch tail. If you are using a smaller wreath, make smaller balls, larger for a larger wreath. Essentially, the size should be in proportion to the overall size of the wreath.

2. Thread the tail end of yarn onto the large eyed needle. Pull the needle through the ball of yarn repeatedly until the tail is secure.

3. Arrange balls of yarn on wreath form in the desired sequence in order to cover the front of the wreath as shown in the photo.

4. Apply hot glue to the back of each yarn ball and press in place along the wreath. Hold until ball feels secure. Repeat with all yarn balls; glue yarn balls together at sides where they touch.

OR

4. Attach each ball of yarn to the wreath with the 20 gauge wire by threading the wire through each ball and then twisting the ends of the wire onto the twig wreath until secure. Wearing eye protection, clip ends of wire with wire cutters. Twist and tuck exposed twisted pieces into the wreath for safety. Thread wire through yarn balls at sides where they touch and repeat twisting to secure, clipping ends as needed.

5. Attach hanging ornament to inside top of wreath with clear fishing line. Trim ends of fishing line with scissors.

Your wreath is now ready to hang or give away as a gift. I have found that round cake trays with domed lids from the grocery store's baking department are great way to store wreaths when not in use and are convenient for gift-giving. Just stick a pretty bow on the top of the dome and you're done.

Happy Christmas Crafting!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year - Christmas Baking Begins

It's here ! It's here! it's the most wonderful time of the year !

The Christmas season is my favourite time of year for a number of reasons. The cold snap in the air. Mittens and hats and scarves. Spending time with the family. The excitement in a young child's eyes; and the certain sparkle in the eyes of the young at heart.

But by far, this is my favourite time of year for baking. Each year around mid November, I pull out all my baking books and magazines and start marking what I want to make. I also begin a list of ingredients I'll need. I try to keep my selection of recipes down to an even dozen. However, each year it is a struggle between the tried and true cookies that our family loves and the new recipes that I want to try. There is also a discussion and decision meeting with the family. So quite often that selection process ends up at about 16 different varieties.

You may think that 16 different kinds of holiday treats is a bit overboard, but in a family of bakers, this is actually quite easily accomplished. My parents are lucky to have a large kitchen. Having two mixers going at the same time is also a time saver. (I bring mine over to my parents' house and we set them up side-by-side).

Most of the recipes call for a chilled dough, so the batters are often made in advance and then wrapped and labeled for a later time. We find that if we make all the dough over one week, and then do the baking the following week, it doesn't seem like such an ordeal.

When it comes to rolling out the dough and cutting the shapes, we have three stations going; two on the long kitchen table and one on the counter. So really, there are three people working on three different cookies at one time. We just make sure we are all working on recipes that call for the same oven temperature.

The dining room table gets converted into the cooling and storage area. Once a particular batch of cookies has cooled overnight, they get packed into a large tins and labeled. Hard cookies will stay in the dining room, soft cookies will head to the freezer downstairs.

But more important than the actual baking are the memories we share as we are making the dough and cutting the shapes. There are some pretty amazing conversations that occur when there are three people all rolling, cutting and baking at the same time with Bing Crosby playing in the background.

Okay, so what do we need with 16 types of cookies, with between 50 to 60 cookies per recipe? Well, in truth, we give most of it away as gifts. My Oma (grandmother) lives in a wonderful home where a good majority of the residents are of Western European decent (predominantly Dutch, but also German, Danish, and Belgians). They all enjoy home baking, especially those traditional treats they remember from their homelands. So we pack up a couple large tins with an assortment of 4 or so dozen cookies in each for her to offer to her guests that come for coffee. Oma is also diabetic, so we know she won't be eating them herself; and she doesn't have time to bake. My Oma is, and has always been a social butterfly. Her personal appointment calendar rivals that of most teenagers.

Mom likes to give baskets of home made jams, jellies, salsa and a variety of baked goods to her close friends. This will take up another 15 to 20 dozen cookies. Then she also brings a large platter of them to the Christmas Concert for her students. There goes another 12 dozen. I take a few of tins packed with 3 or 4 dozen each to my work, so there is another 10 to 12 dozen. What are we at now ....52 dozen?? That's 624 cookies. Which, if you've been following my math, leaves 176 cookies or 14.67 dozen. These get divided into individual treat bags with a dozen per bag and tied with pretty ribbon to hand out as needed (the postman, the pharmacist who takes my mom's prescriptions over the phone, the delivery driver who comes every other week with her dialysis equipment supplies). Some will go home with my brother and his girlfriend, others home with my nephew.

So really we are left with about 6 dozen assorted cookies for actual drop-by guests and "personal consumption." And when we feel we can't stand to look at another cookie, we pack up the remainder and stick them in the freezer until summer. Lebkuchen and Speculaas in the middle of July? Why not.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting some baking and cookie photos. I hope you will be inspired by these and want to bake something tasty for someone you love.

Happy Baking!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Year of Pretty - December 03, 2014


Today would be a great day to just cuddle up, stay inside, read a book and drink hot cocoa.

Full article can be found on BHG.com - 8 Rules for Smart Splurges

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Year of Pretty - December 02, 2014

Have you written your letter to Santa?

Each year, millions of children write to Santa with their deepest wishes and desires. In Canada, there is a special address operated by the Canada Post just to receive (and respond) to these letters. In Vancouver, there is a huge post box set up near Canada Place where children and their parents can drop off their letters.

In our family, letters to Santa are still required, and must be submitted no later than December 01. Of course, we don't mail them to the North Pole. Instead, we pass them along to "Santa's Helpers", who conveniently live at my parents' house.

Santa's Helpers are very busy people. So, these helpers greatly appreciate any additional information such as store location and/or website address that would help save them time and/or money. I know, I know...it's not about the gifts. But it is about making other people happy.

And honestly, it also takes a lot of stress out of trying to figure out what gift would make another person happy; especially when you have family members who are a little hard to pick out gifts for. My dad is a classic example. I could bake him his favourite cookies or sew him a beautiful shirt, but without the list I wouldn't know that what he REALLY wishes for is a set of four tire racks to hang his winter tires in the garage during the summer (and if anyone has any ideas on where to HIDE four tire racks in the meantime, please let me know).

So in honor of anyone beginning to stress about what to give those hard to shop for people on your list, today's Pretty Post is this cute illustration of posting letters. I'm not sure who the original artist is. I tried to decipher and search the name of the artist's mark in the bottom right corner, but with no luck.

Stay happy and healthy, and fingers crossed that Santa or his Helpers are working on making your Christmas wishes come true.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Under the Tuscan Sun

Today is my last day in Siena, Tuscany. I know, I'm a little sad about this. Only a little, since there are other places to go and things to see.

So today I decided to have a "day off" from site seeing. No plans.

After a nice, late breakfast and shower at La Locanda di San Martino, I wandered over to Piazza del Campo and sat in the morning sun watching the little kiddies run around chasing pigeons. It really ought to be a national sport. Silly pigeons; so focused on the possibility of food left from tourists, they don't have the sense (or desire) to fly off. Then a Jack Russell terrier and a very excitable dachshund started in on the game. Pre-schoolers, small dogs and birds...what could be more entertaining?

After that I headed over to the Siena Cathedral to sit on the white steps and soak up some more sun. Did I mention today is clear skies and 23 degrees? Slight breeze. Anyhow, sitting against the warm white stones, feeling the sun shine down on my arms and face...in late October. Amazing.

Time to stroll along the winding streets and do a little window shopping. After about two hours of walking, it was time for a late lunch. I found myself back at Piazza del Campo and opted for a little table, some fresh bruschetta pomodoro, some house pasta, a glass of wine, and you guessed it....more sunshine.

Next up was some gelato. It's absolutely true that Italy has the best gelato. I mean, Spain and Portugal come pretty close, but I think Italy has it down to a science. This time, I chose Cherry English Trifle and coconut. English Trifle in a gelato you say? Why yes! The gelato custard base is made and then a layer is spread into the pan. Pieces of sponge cake, amarena cherries and liqueur are then layered on top. Then more gelato custard base is spread on top. Repeat the layers. So good! And where did I eat my gelato? Why, sitting in the sun of course!

Back to wandering the streets. There are so many leather goods and pottery shops here. My mom has asked for a pair of brown leather boots. She and I are the same size shoe, as well as the same through the ankle and calf muscles. Which means if the boots fit me then they should fit her. I think she's going to really like the ones I bought her. And if she doesn't, well..... I really like them, and I know they fit me....so it's really a win-win situation.

Then it was time to head back to the hotel for a quick nap and to catch up with family back home. I also worked on some design sketches for a bit. I'm happy to report the new sketches are coming along nicely.

Dinner was at Osteria La Logge. This Michelin-rated restaurant is warm, inviting, and just a little quirky. I passed by the spot during the day and couldn't help smiling at the display of old trumpets used as candle holders in the window and the old weigh scales by the cash register. Also catching my attention were the large display windows into the kitchen, and that one of the windows was open with a screen in place. This meant that the kitchen is the star of this restaurant (as it should be), and that the restaurant is happy to display their working kitchen in hopes of enticing the people walking by. The open window let prospective guests (the restaurant does not advertise but replies on word of mouth) know that the kitchen is "open for conversation" and therefore approachable. And the wonderful aromas coming through the window definitely had people stopping to take a longer look. An interesting way of advertising, but it seemed to be working. I knew I needed to eat in this restaurant.

The lead server is Mirco. He was amazing at finding me a spot in an already-booked restaurant. If you do visit, be prepared that you might not be seated at your own table. I was seated at an oval table with two other men, but the table gave me a great view of the room. The kind gentlemen promptly offered me some of their Brane- Cantena Margaux 2000 Gran Cru (yes, a French wine in Italy....even Italians get tired of their own wines I guess). Already in the room (and in full swing) was a party of ten gentlemen from various states in the United States. They were visiting the area on business. More on this gang a little later.

The space used to be a pharmacy, and still retains the beautiful cabinetry; now filled with books, glassware, bottles of grappa and scotch, as well as limited edition bottles of wine. A cabinet of additional glassware by the kitchen proudly displays snapshots of famous guests including Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Stiller and Morgan Freeman.

And what a kitchen! High end Italian kitchens tend to be laid out in a square format, rather than the traditional "kitchen line" I'm used to in North America. Essentially, each cook works in their space on their particular item (garde manger, veg, meat, etc), and then bring their item to the center island to plate. This, to me, seems to cause less confusion, less shouting of "BEHIND", and ensures each station has access to the plate, which means in theory it would leave the kitchen sooner. And as a result, all of my dishes arrived within great time.

The food was fantastic. I started with a simple pappardelle with house ragu. Noodles and meat sauce, right? I didn't want this dish to end; I could have ordered another portion it was so good. The meat sauce was somehow both robust in flavour and light in texture at the same time. The noodles were spot on.

As soon as my plate was cleared, it was replaced with my second course, stuffed rabbit. The medallions were crispy on the outside while moist on the inside and stuffed with spinach, rosemary and salvia.

Somewhere (and somehow) between my dinner plate being removed and my dessert arriving I ended up invited to the table of 10 Americans; who as it turns out were with Jackson Family Fine Wines .....Freemark Abbey, Hartford Family Wines, Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, Stonestreet...and Tenuta di Arceno, which produces Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Reserva under winemaker Lawrence Cronin. Meeting a group of like-minded people also interested in wine and food is fantastic and always evokes great conversations, along with some hilarity. Case in point: I was educated on the word "Schmeg"...as in "Waiter, there is some schmeg in my glass".

For dessert I took Mirco's advice and had a hazelnut cake and chestnut sauce dish. I liked how cheeky this dish was. It resembled mushrooms and a forest floor in the fall. The airy sponge cake was divided into pieces on the plate in a puddle of hazelnut cream. Cylinders of pastry made to resemble pasta or the stems of mushrooms offered a bit of saltiness and were filled with vanilla pastry cream; a nice contrast. Chestnut gelato. Heaven.

The business men headed out to their next party and I found myself with Mirco, his friends (my original dining partners) and their friend; a lovely woman from New Jersey. Some grappa, scotch and more wine resulted in dancing into the wee hours of the morning in a closed restaurant, causing people passing by to (once again) pause and look in the windows.

So a day with no plans turned into my most enjoyable day in this city. Tomorrow I leave for San Gimignano (again) and then on to Montepulciano. But I will take with me these wonderful memories of this beautiful city of Siena, and look forward to returning again soon.