Friday, December 21, 2007

A new fleece on life (holiday treats for dogs)

Christmas has special meaning to me because it's when I brought home Ginger, my first dog. Five years ago, the day after Christmas, I was browsing at the Wisconsin Humane Society. Ginger (named Tasha, back then) trotted up to the window, looked at me, and cocked her head. (I found out later that some dogs can't really see people, they're mostly seeing the glare from the windows. Still.) She was ten years old and a bigger dog than I had planned on, but she was compelling — affectionate but not needy, with inquisitive eyes and adorable eyebrows. I went home, thought about whether I was ready to get a dog, and made my sister go with me to see her the next morning. Yukie thought Tasha was cute but "not the dog I would pick." We went in and played with Tasha once more, though, and I was sure she was the dog for me.

One of my favorite things about holiday shopping is picking out gifts for Ginger. Some of her crustiest toys are from Planet Dog, so their site is usually my first stop. Ginger especially loves their fleece buddies and bones. She destroyed her first fleece bone with her enthusiasm.

Because I'm behind on my shopping this year (what with baking mishaps consuming so much of my time), I went to World Market instead, where I picked up a red fleece throw with bones on it. (It's also available in blue.) And since Ginger prefers crunchy, edible gifts over fancy collars or jackets, I also picked up some organic bacon and parsley biscuits. World Market doesn't have many pet products on their site, but the stores always have a well-edited selection.

Another place worth mentioning for pet gifts: Bed Bath and Beyond. Ginger had hours of fun jumping around and playing tug o' war with her Bite Meez puppet. Though she is now mildly annoyed by it, it's an ingenious toy, especially for the low-energy pet owner who wants to do right by their dog.

By the way, if you want a reminder of what Gigi looks like when she's awake, check her out in Planet Dog's photo album. She and I will be trying to catch up on our sleep over the holidays. We hope your holidays are restful, too.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Girl Scouts and their beading personalities

I taught jewelry-making to a Girl Scout troop in Brookfield this weekend. Each girl got a kit with a pendant, beads, and findings, plus a few design tips. Then they pretty much did their own thing. I wish I had taken photos of the girls wearing their finished necklaces: one of the necklaces was pink and summery, one had Swarovski crystals and shell beads in a color-blocked arrangement, another had assorted beads in a careful, symmetrical pattern. Each was unique. I know I've mentioned this before, but I'm still astounded by how different people approach designing. Most of the girls jumped right in, but one took a long time before she started stringing (the other girls pointed this out). I can relate to that: I plan and rearrange beads on a design board, doing a lot of thinking and assessing and reacting before actually stringing. Nothing wrong with a methodical approach.

I also realized how working from a kit can still be creative. Isn't that what creativity is — putting things together in a new way? When I took my first jewelry-making class, I didn't start with a kit. I just dug into a bowl of beads. What about you — how did you learn to make jewelry? And is there an advantage to being given a kit vs. choosing your own beads?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Cupcakes, and then more cupcakes

I am a perfectionist. You’d think this would help me be a good baker.

I wanted to bake cupcakes — not from a mix — and make my own frosting. Michelle gave me Desserts from America’s Top Chefs, so when I found a recipe for Sherry Yard’s buttermilk birthday cupcakes, I decided to try it.

At lunchtime, I made a batch. After triple-sifting the flour — a commitment I rarely make to baked goods — I melted butter in a saucepan. Then, I whisked eggs and sugar over a double-boiler setup until they reached the desired temperature. I then discarded said mixture, suspicious that I had curdled the eggs. (In retrospect, I think they were okay. I was just overanxious.)

I bought lots of extra eggs. Is that good planning, or the anticipation of failure? Repeated the process again. Success!

After whipping the eggs until they achieved the called-for pale-yellow color, I folded the dry ingredients and buttermilk in — gently, so as not to deflate the foam. I scooped the batter into cupcake liners and popped the pan in the oven. I figured, cautiously, that it was better to do one pan at a time.

I started washing the dishes and kept an eye on the timer. About halfway through, I spied the butter on top of the stove. I had forgotten to add it.

No problem: I dumped half of the butter, then added the rest to the remaining half of the batter. Proud of my resourcefulness, I soon found that this batch was even worse than the first. I think I accidentally deflated the foam. Sigh.

After playing tennis and taking a nap, I was ready to try again. The process was laborious but seemed fruitful. Some thoughts about what I’ve learned:

1. It's hard to cook eggs to a desired temperature. I had a problem with this a few weeks ago when I made chocolate mousse (I curdled the eggs).

2. Combining ingredients can also be a challenge. I think I over-beat the eggs or the rest of the batter, because the cupcakes rose perfectly about halfway through the cooking time, then fell, defeated, by the time they came out of the oven.

3. Even though you can fill sunken cupcakes with frosting to build them up, nothing beats a gently domed top.

By the way, they do taste okay. Buttery — even the early ones where I forgot the butter — like little pound cakes. And tasty with the chocolate cream-cheese frosting that I found at the eleventh hour. Literally: I had to Google frosting recipes late last night after my chocolate ganache wouldn’t set. Oh, I had had such big dreams of a fudgy layer under a glossy chocolate glaze.

While I hesitate to say the cupcakes were disappointing, they weren’t nearly as spectacular as I’d hoped. At least I didn't bust out the Betty Crocker devil’s food cake mix — which I bought in case of emergency. And yes, this is reminiscent of what happened Thursday night. I’ve been off my game lately when it comes to baking. That’s one thing I prefer about jewelry: being able to take time to design and re-design, instead of scrapping the whole thing because I forgot part of it.

Wish me luck: I've got more baking to do.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Baking up holiday mishaps and some cookies, too

Yesterday night, Denise brought over her premade green and red spritz doughs (dohs!), and I was trying a new recipe for milk chocolate florentines. Even though there's no shortage of holiday cookie recipes available, it's hard to venture away from the tried and true. Still, the thought is made more palatable by glowing reader reviews, so I decided to risk it. Turns out that the hard part wasn't combining the ingredients but putting the optimal amount of dough (a scant teaspoonful) on the cookie sheets. Once we mastered this, Denise set to work on her spritzes.

A little about Denise: she loves math and sudoku and has impeccable handwriting. She likes precision — having things just so — but she's also a kind girl who looks both ways before crossing the room at a party. Anyway, she meticulously spritzed green dough onto cookie sheets, reusing pieces that didn't conform to the desired tree shape. I should have left her to her own devices, but when the timer went off I thought I'd help out by removing the finished cookies from the oven. I grabbed the bottom sheet and dropped half of the cookies on the floor of the oven, where they started smoking. We watched for a couple minutes, mourning the loss of trees that she had labored to cultivate, then picked up the offenders with tongs. It was sad. Denise reassured me that it was fine and gave me a bunch of undamaged cookies, because that's who she is.

If she gives you some spritzes, make sure you tell her how tasty and perfectly formed they are. By the way, we did not get to the red dough. The late hour and smoke-filled kitchen dampened our holiday spirits. She'll be making the red spritzes from the safety of her own home.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

My snow day

Yesterday should have been a day of finalizing stories for a BeadStyle deadline and starting work on the May issue. Instead, I stayed home from work: we had a snow day! I know exclamation points are gratuitous, but if you've ever been granted a reprieve from school or work, you know that the joy of a snow day can't be overstated.

After shoveling in my pajamas, I ate scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee. I did laundry and called my friend Heather, who lives in Omaha. I rarely get to chat on the phone on a weekday, so it was a luxury to spend an hour and a half catching up. Then it was time for lunch and a nap during soap operas. (My day could have been better if I'd had a nap sans soap operas.) After shoveling again, I tromped to the grocery store and said hello to my neighbors as we shook our heads at the shin-deep snow. Everyone was in a good mood — why get upset at the weather? — and it made me happy that I live in the Midwest.

It's rewarding to have a day filled with small pleasures. Even though it would've been nice to also bake, wrap gifts, and watch the episode of Everwood where there's a snowstorm and everyone stays inside, there are only so many hours in the day. I'm back at work today, trying to meet tomorrow's magazine deadline. I should probably be frantic about it, but I'm not.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Miss O and Friends

Visit Miss O and Friends by December 27th for a chance to win a signed copy of Cool Jewels: Beading Projects for Teens. This website for girls also has stories, recipes, and celebrity interviews. One of my favorite features: a razzle dazzle page where budding designers can click on beads and charms to make colorful jewelry. Check it out.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Buying handmade

I sold jewelry and ornaments as part of the Bay View holiday event this weekend. Unfortunately, a combination of snow, sleet, and icy roads kept most people at home. Even so, the event was fun: I sold a few pieces, got my eye makeup done, and entertained myself with string cheese and cream puffs for a few hours. I also bartered with Anita Reed to get hand-painted light-switch covers. That's one of the best things about selling handmade goods: you can use them to procure other handmade goods. Bartering is a handy system.

This Saturday, I'll be shopping at Art vs. Craft. I'm hoping to pick up notecards and blank journals, as well as more of Anita's light-switch covers. If you're in Milwaukee, you should stop by. It's a great array of handmade stuff, all in one place. Better than braving the mall.