Happy Half-Baked Birthday, Lars-of-Ours!

Lars, Anders, & Yet Another Transformer
There he is, my 10-year-old son.  Lars celebrated his birthday at home with family on December 26th.  The laser tag party with friends from school won't be until next week.

The gift unwrapping went without a hitch.  Lars received a couple of duplicate toys, and surprised us all by generously offering them to Anders instead of exchanging them for other toys for himself.  This was also the first birthday in our household that the non-celebrant boy didn't have to be physically restrained in "Grampa Jail" to prevent him from "helping" his brother unwrap gifts.  Ah, they grow up so fast!

For his birthday cake, Lars requested that I just "surprise" him.  I know he's not a chocolate fan, so after pouring through Rose Levy Beranbaum's Cake Bible I opted for the Cordon Rose Banana Cake with a Lemon Buttercream Mousseline frosting.  Sounds delicious, doesn't it?  I've made this cake several times before, both times frosting it with a chocolate ganache frosting, and it was heavenly on previous occasions.  I always get nervous about making frosting from scratch, but even when it doesn't look pretty it still tastes a whole lot better than the stuff I can buy in a can at the grocery store.

I did happen to read a variation for this recipe on Rose Levy Beranbaum's baking blog that suggested reducing the butter in the original recipe by two tablespoons and adding two tablespoons of canola or safflower oil, and I tried that this time.  Also, whereas in the past I've used King Arthur Flour's Queen Guinevere Cake Flour for cakes, this time Bernie went to the Earth Foods organic grocery and came home with King Arthur Unbleached Cake Flour Blend instead.  It wasn't self-rising cake flour or anything goofy like that, and the package didn't suggest any recipe modifications.  What else?  Now that I'm thinking about it four days later, I don't remember actually adding the sour cream with the other ingredients, but I was sick and drugged up on Alka Seltzer cold tablets at the time, so who knows?  I used my Magi-Cake Strips as Beranbaum recommends, just as I always do, and I started checking for doneness after the minimum baking time.  I think I baked the cake for about 32 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake came out clean and when I touched the center of the cake, it seemed to "spring back." 

Lars's Birthday Cake, Fresh From the Oven
Doesn't that look delicious?  I set the cake on the wire rack to cool for 10 minutes before I loosened the sides with a thin spatula and then inverted the cake onto the cake plate to cool completely before frosting.

I was a nervous wreck about the frosting.  I lowered the thermostat in the house and opened the back door so my kitchen would cool down, since the recipe warns that too-warm butter will result in frosting that "breaks down irreparably."  I nervously worried about how to tell whether the egg whites were at the soft peak or stiff peak stage, and although I followed the directions as best as I could, I ended up with a frosting that was grainy and goopy looking.  Only when I added gobs and gobs of lemon curd did the frosting thicken up to the point that I could put it on the cake.  I glopped it on, sprinkled some chopped macadamia nuts across the top, added candles, and told myself it was okay if the cake was ugly because it was going to taste fantastic!  Ah, the power of positive thinking!

Lars Wishing With Ugly Cake
...But positive thinking has its limits.  My cake was all RAW BATTER inside!  It was ruinous, revolting, and almost completely inedible (to adults, anyway; the kids ate some of it).

Eew!

Bless his heart, Lars told me it was okay because he doesn't like cake anyway, he just likes the frosting.  Still, it was pretty disappointing to have spent half the day working on the cake and end up with a gross, goopy mess.  Don't you just love how my buttercream frosting looks like small curd cottage cheese?

I think I'll order a bakery cake for his party next week!

UPDATE JAN. 4, 2010: I just read a FABULOUS buttercream frosting tutorial on Baking Banter, the King Arthur Flour blog.  There are wonderful photos showing every step along the way (so THAT'S what the soft boil syrup stage was supposed to look like!) as well as tips and trips to "fix" buttercream frosting disasters in case things go awry.  I'm bookmarking this for the next time I get up the courage to tackle a cake baked from scratch!

Merry Christmas 2010: The Christmas Card

When I decided to do a Christmas card blog post instead of an actual Christmas card this year, I asked my dahling husband to help me select an appropriate image.  He declined.  See what happens when I'm left to my own devices?  I find this one delightful; it reminds me of Animal Farm. 

To all of my business contacts and vendors, a handful of relatives, and the ONE friend who has sent me an actual, physical Christmas card so far: Thank you!  Yes, I got it; yes, I enjoyed it; and no, you're not getting one from me this year.  It's Christmas Eve, no cards have been ordered or purchased, and this is the best I can come up with at the last minute.

The Christmas Card as we know it is in serious decline, anyway.  When I was a little girl, I remember tons of Christmas cards like those pictured above coming to the house.  These days it's mostly so-called photocards, and it's not my cup of tea.  Used to be, you'd tuck a recent wallet-sized photo of the kids inside the Christmas cards you sent to faraway relatives, folks who actually might want to carry around a picture of your kids in their wallet.  To be honest, most of the photocards we get at Christmas end up in the trash.  I can go look at your kids on Facebook any time I want, after all -- and at least on Facebook it's clear whose kids belong to whom. 

Still, kudos to those of you who sent some kind of Christmas greeting in the actual mail -- hopefully next year I'll join you.  Without further ado, here's our family Christmas Card Post:


It's been a busy year for all of us (isn't every year?).  Rebecca went to Paris in January for the Maison et Objet trade show and had a wonderful time; if you missed it, you can read about those adventures here.  The rest of the year, Rebecca barely kept her head above water, juggling work, homework supervision, kids' activities, laundry, and grocery shopping.  I was about 15 minutes late to just about everything all year long.  So I'm really consistent! 

Bernie has been traveling a lot with work, but we enjoy the perks of his working from home when he isn't on the road.  He drives the boys to school whenever he has the chance, he has been enjoying cooking more often this year, and of course he has spent hundreds of hours of "free time" doing things like painting, installing can lights, chandeliers, and crown molding, and hanging artwork around the house. 


Lars is doing well in the fourth grade this year, and is mildly annoyed that he has already read all of the books that his class is reading together.  He continues to do well with his piano lessons and is currently playing the theme song from Jaws about a hundred times a day.  Lars also enjoys composing his own songs on the piano, and he specializes in "ominous" music.  When he's not reading, tickling the ivories, or playing with Legos, Lars is either drawing or asleep.

Anders started a new school this year for second grade, and although he has had to work hard to catch up to the other students, he's doing very well and is definitely in the best school for him.  He is also excelling at piano, but not so much at getting dressed in the morning (ahem!).  Anders enjoys playing chess competitively, reading, Legos, and doing anything Lars is doing.  His new thing is parting his hair to one side, and for some reason, he desperately wants a tuxedo.

We're headed to church now for the candlelight Christmas Eve service!  I hope this Christmas message finds all of you and your loved ones safe and sound, enjoying one another's company and the blessings of the Christmas season long after vacation has ended and we all go back to work and school.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you!

Three Days Until Christmas? Let's Rip Out All the Countertops and Start a Kitchen Remodel!

It all started so innocently.  I had ordered wallpaper for the boys' Jack-and-Jill bathroom, but before the paper was installed I wanted to remove the cultured marble vanities and replace them with granite remnants.  My granite fabricator sells leftover pieces from other jobs at a fraction of the regular price, and since the vanities are small I wasn't going to need much, anyway.  Once I was at the granite place, though, looking at all the gorgeous slabs of stone, I started thinking about my kitchen countertops again.  How can I have nicer granite in the boys' bathrooms than I have in my kitchen, after all?

My kitchen has granite countertops that I lovingly refer to as Baltic Barf -- you may be more familiar with the term Baltic Brown.  I have seen some Baltic Brown granite that actually does have brown in it, but alas, mine is decidedly mauve, and not in a good way.  As if the black-and-pink splotched counters weren't bad enough, the builder chose the nastiest, cheapest commercial bathroom type tile on the planet for a backsplash and used huge grout lines.  Yuck, yuck, yuck! 

Our Kitchen Before it was Ours: Home Inspection Day


We've done a lot in the kitchen since we bought the house already: Replaced all the light fixtures, painted, painted again, installed crown molding, custom draperies and shades (naturally), upgraded all of the appliances, recently replaced all the light fixtures again (one of the dangers of the design biz), and upgraded the gas fireplace logs in the sitting room area off the kitchen. 

Breakfast Room soon after we moved in, Lars at the table

Breakfast Room with Custom Draperies, Temporary Chandelier
Don't draperies make a HUGE difference?!  This Home Depot chandelier was recently replaced with a nicer, larger one with fabric shades from Nulco that has more of a French flair to it:

French Country Chandelier from Nulco Lighting
And yes, I know the pattern on my dining chair fabric fights with the drapery fabric, but these chairs were a bargain buy at a clearance outlet.  They will eventually be slipcovered, reupholstered, or replaced, once my kids learn to wipe their hands on their napkins instead of on my chairs.  The drapery fabric is from Vervain and I absolutely love it:

Monado from Vervain, Havana Colorway
But still, what continues to bug me most about the kitchen is the pink and black countertop and the wretched backsplash tile.

Previous Owners' Mauve Sofa Complements the Baltic Barf
I had fleeting hopes that I would find some perfect replacement backsplash tile that would make the existing Baltic Barf counter look more terra cotta than pink, but that turned out to be a lost cause.  Although I'm sure Baltic Brown looks great in the right kitchen, mine ain't the right one -- I never in a million years would have selected that stone for my home.  It's just not me. 

So, what kind of stone does say Rebecca, you might ask?  Allow me to introduce you to CD Volcano, three slabs of which are scheduled to be installed in my kitchen next month:
Isn't that breathtaking?  The drawer box that the man is holding in the foreground gives you an idea of the scale.  This stuff is even more dramatic in person. 


Can you believe that's natural stone that just came out of the earth that way?  The owner of the granite import company flew to Brazil to selected CD Volcano himself and bought up the whole lot of it on sight.  If granite could be custom ordered, and I could select all the colors I wanted, I still couldn't come up with a slice of earth more perfect for my kitchen than this one.  Gush, gush, gush!

Since there's a lot going on in the granite, the backsplash is going to be a simple 3" x 5" polished creamy marble in a brick pattern, with a herringbone section inlaid above the stove.  The new faucet is from the Brizo Tresa collection:
http://www.brizo.com/
 So this year, when all the gifts are unwrapped and the debris has all been carted out to the curb and the kids head back to school, I'll have countertop demolition to look forward to!  There will be no post-Christmas blues in my house this year!

Eight Days Until Christmas, and the Panic Begins to Creep In...


Behold, the Christmas Lights!  You know, I insisted on the lights for the flower box greenery sprays despite the difficulties in getting the cords up there inconspicuously, but doesn't it look a bit like the flower boxes are on fire now?

If you haven't gotten my Christmas card yet, that's because I haven't mailed any.  I haven't bought them yet, either -- or even picked them out.  I ordered pretty Christmas angel stamps over a month ago, but it looks like those will get stuck on bills instead of Christmas cards this year.  I'm thinking of starting a St. Patrick's Day Card tradition in 2011, but don't hold your breath.

Meanwhile, I have a mountain of Amazon boxes piled behind the cutting table in my sewing room containing unwrapped gifts for my children.  They aren't even secured behind a locked door, I can't remember what I ordered or who anything is for, and I have no idea whether I'm done shopping for the kids yet (if what I bought so far is 70% off one boy's list and only 30% from the other's, I'm going to have to head back out).  So you know what I'll be working on tomorrow.

Tonight, we're baking.  I use that "we" very loosely, because Bernie mixed up the dough, refrigerated it, rolled out all the little cookie balls and swirled them in the granulated sugar.  I flattened each one slightly with the bottom of a drinking glass, chilled the trays of unbaked cookies on the screen porch (next to the He-Man Tree) so they would crackle nicely, adjusted the racks and set the oven to TruConvect, and pulled the cookie sheets out of the oven at just the right degree of doneness.  Really, these are 80% Berniemade and only 20% Rebeccamade cookies.  I must give credit where it is due. 

Yummy!  They are Crackled Molasses Sugar Cookies, by the way, and since molasses is high in iron and I'm slightly anaemic, I'm pretty sure this is a health food for me.  That's my story, and I'm sticking to it!

Happy Christmas, everyone!

Tree Number Three: The Manly Outdoor Freeze-Your-Butt-Off On the Screen Porch Tree

Now, you might be thinking it's mean of me to put Bernie's tree outside in the cold.  However, when we were house-hunting, a screen porch was at the top of Bernie's wish list.  It's his favorite place in the whole house, where he likes to sit and drink his coffee in all kinds of weather, so it's actually the perfect place for his little tree.  It has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that I hate that tree topper with a passion and have tried unsuccessfully, year after year, to "accidentally" have it get mixed in with the giftwrap trash.

Actually, although I didn't want it on my bird tree or on the sugarplum kiddie tree, it works pretty well with the ornaments on this tree.  We have skiers, tool belts, fishing lures, basketballs wearing santa hats, and motorcycles on this tree.  This year I added the red balls and the red, green, and gold garland to unify the tree a bit, with the pleasant side effect of making the star topper look better.

Don't you just love the fish in the icebox ornament?  You can't put an ornament like that on just any old tree. 

The only thing still lacking for this tree is a skirt to cover up the metal stand.  I haven't seen one I like yet, and it really ought to be made of outdoor fabric so it doesn't get mouffy.  I am tempted to make one myself now that there are so many choices beyond basic Sunbrella canvas (Pindler & Pindler has some gorgeous outdoor chenille fabrics that I used for a client's custom dog bed cover once), but the only work I'm going to get done in my sewing room for the next couple of weeks will involve giftwrap, scissors, Scotch tape and stick-on bows! 

In fact, I'd better head up there right now and see how much wrapping I can accomplish before I have to get ready for our church Christmas concert tonight.  Wish me luck!

Death Comes to the Satanic Alarm Clock

This alarm clock will never hurt anyone ever again
Have you ever been tormented in your dreams by a shrill, piercing siren that cannot be silenced?  Over the last ten years that I've had this alarm clock, I have had recurring dreams that our home security alarm was going off, believed myself to be standing in front of the keypad, typing in our code to no avail as the assault on my eardrums intensified...  I have also dreamed that I was standing in front of this very alarm clock, pushing the "snooze" and "off" buttons, but that the awful noise continued.  My dream self then yanks the cord out of the wall, pulls the backup battery out of the alarm clock, and still the painfully loud noise will not abate.  This kind of awakening does not put me in a pleasant mood.

This is the most evil alarm clock in existence.  It is too loud, and its dreadful squawk makes me yearn for more soothing sounds such as fingernails on chalkboards, crying babies, and mating cats.  Furthermore, it has way too many buttons to be dealt with by groggy persons who are still half asleep.  You think you have turned it off for good, only to have it start bleating again when you are in the shower, on the toilet, or downstairs making your latte.  In fact, I am almost positive that this alarm clock was possessed by demons.

Since it's a busy time of year, fitting in an alarm clock exorcism was out of the question.  However, enough is enough.  I very gently flung the alarm clock down a flight of stairs (really, my husband should be thanking me for the amount of restraint I exercised instead of complaining about the little ding on his wall that could have been a gaping hole).  Then, because the evil beast was still functional, I took it out into the garage and vented my fury with a hammer.

Fear not, little ones -- this alarm clock will never hurt anyone again!

Christmas Tree Number Two: Woodland Forest Theme

The second tree at our house is sort of a "woodland forest" theme.  It all started with a beautiful wire and glass bead garland I found in a catalog several years ago, pictured as part of a tablescape.  I bought a bunch of them for this Christmas tree, and I think it looks like glittering ice and snow.  Then a snowflake ornament thing started, and then I bought a couple of feathered bird ornaments, which blossomed into a full-blown bird ornament obsession.  I looked at hundreds of tree toppers before choosing this blown glass star topper from Christopher Radko, but I didn't like the way it was made to attach to the tree so Bernie made some custom welding modifications for me, and my sparkly sprays at the top of the tree cover up the wire spiral that secures the star to the tree.

New to the tree this year are the true red poinsettia sprays and the red cranberry sprays.  I had sort of burgundy poinsettias on this tree in previous years and I couldn't stand them another year.  Now that I have more red on this tree, it works with the first Christmas tree skirt I ever made back when Lars was a baby and I was sewing on a Husqvarna Viking Rose sewing machine. 
As you can see, the concept is really similar to the subsequent skirt I made for the kids' tree, but I was much more limited on the other machine when it came to built-in decorative stitches to embellish the patchwork seams.  There's no hand embroidery or beadwork on this skirt, just readymade gold piping trim and machine embroidered poinsettias on every other skirt section.  If you look carefully, you can tell that I had to do some gathering around the center hole at the middle of this first tree skirt, too, because I made the pie slice pattern too wide on the skinny side and I didn't end up with a flat circle when I sewed all the pieces together.  Live and learn!

That's it for today; back to work for me!  I'll show you Bernie's special Christmas tree in a few days.  Happy Advent!

...And We're Off to the Races: 17 Days Until Christmas!

I am so unbelievably overcommitted and overextended right now, so this will be shorter and sweeter than most of my posts. I've got my Christmas decorations up, the Salvation Army Christmas stockings were filled with goodies and dropped off at church on Sunday, and I have gathered up almost all of the gifts for the family of homeless children that we're sponsoring this year through A Child's Place.
Our family has decided to scale back on the slightly overboard gift-giving we've indulged in in the past, and instead take on more tangible hands-on charitable giving this year in addition to just writing checks to our favorite charities. Although it's been hard to find the time in the midst of pageant and choir rehearsals and goings on at the schools, it has turned out to be so worthwhile to incorporate service projects into our holiday traditions. There has never been a better antidote to the gimmee-gimmee-gimmee epidemic that comes over the kids at this time of year than our family shopping trip to Target with our sponsored children's wish lists in hand. We chose Salvation Army stockings tagged for boys the same ages as ours, so Lars and Anders were really able to think about what would be the best small toy to put in each stocking along with the hat, gloves, markers and toothbrush, for little boys who might not get any other toys this Christmas. We were assigned a family of girls for the A Child's Place Christmas sponsorship, and although the minimum commitment we agreed to was to provide a grocery store gift card, one article of clothing, and one new toy for each child, we were able to come up with almost everything on our kids' wish lists thanks in part to the generosity of an old high school friend of mine who is actually mailing me a tricycle from a U.S. military base in Germany (thanks, Jennifer!!). With the economy still limping along feebly and so many people still looking for work, there are more families in need than ever. Does your family's holiday tradition include service projects, or did you add any new service projects this year? If so, please tell me about it in the Comments section!

Now, for the photographic meat and potatoes: Christmas Decorations! Woo-hoo!

This is my favorite of our three Christmas trees this year (yeah, that's right -- I said three trees. We all have our weaknesses!). This tree is next to the fireplace in the sitting room area of my kitchen. We refer to it fondly as "the kids' tree" because of the toy and candy themed decorations. This works great along with all of the handmade ornaments they have made over the years.














Christmas Tree ornament in paper, Elmer's Glue, crayon & glitter, made by Anders in preschool

Another fave, this is a varnished and glitter-painted cookie Lars did in preschool

I'm sure my sisters remember these Raggedy Ann & Andy clothespin ornaments from our childhood Christmas tree. One of the orange pom pom "hair" pieces came loose on Raggedy Ann, but after a few drops of Elmer's Glue she was as good as new. Note to self: Assemble an ornament repair kit and pack it away with the Christmas ornaments for next year!

Can you believe my mother didn't want this beautiful fish ornament anymore, either? It's another one that was on our childhood tree for as long as I can remember. It looks handmade, and I think she might have gotten it from some trip to a Scandinavian country before I was born. Mom, feel free to enlighten us all as to the origins of the fish in the Comments. I'm "fishing for comments" today, can you tell? ;-)

Now, last year about this time, I was knee deep in piano research, feeling very discouraged about how expensive pianos were. So every time Bernie asked the kids "What should we get Mom for Christmas?" Anders stubbornly replied, "I'm getting her a piano! I have $25 in my piggy bank! She only wants a piano!"

So, this is the little red sparkly piano that Anders got me for Christmas last year:


I added this blown glass golf clubs ornament for my Lars this year, who loves any color as long as it's orange, and who has been taking golf lessons after school:

...And I couldn't resist this blown glass pair of green Converse sneakers for Anders. He wears those green Chuck Taylors almost everywhere he goes:

At the bottom of this tree, soon to be completely obscured by wrapped packages (if I ever get around to wrapping them, that is), my tree is wearing a crazy-quilted Christmas tree skirt that I worked on off-and-on for about two years, more off than on. It was a fun way to use a variety of Christmas-themed quilting cottons, and I used the project as a sampler to try out lots of decorative stitches on my Bernina Artista sewing machine. I experimented with bobbinwork techniques (wrapping threads that are too big for the sewing machine needle around the bobbin instead, and sewing upside down on the project so the bobbin thread shows on top -- LOTS of fun), hand embroidery, and hand beading.

I love how the heavy bobbin threads give the machine embroidered stitches a "handmade" look, and it was fun and relaxing to play around with bead embellishments. I used Nymo thread to hold the beads securely.
THIS is why you want to step up to the next level sewing machine that has a couple hundred decorative stitches that you're sure you're never going to use! This project reminded me of a collage of Christmas cards while I was working on it.

The feather stitch and blanket stitch were embroidered by hand, the floral stitch is preprogrammed into my sewing machine, and I stitched the line of beads and the floral seed bead embellishments by hand.


I've got little sequins, paillettes, and seed beeds stitched on in this picture, too, and I hand-stitched a little jingle bell to the points on the outer edge of the tree skirt.

Project Notes:
This was a relaxing project, but it took forever to complete and you really can only see the fruits of my labors around the outer edge of the skirt.  Even crawling up under the Christmas tree with my camera, I still couldn't get a picture of all the embroidery and beading at the center of the pole.  Uh, duh!  Poor planning strikes again.  If you're reading this thinking that you might like to try making something similar, I definitely suggest concentrating on the outer edges of the skirt when you embelllish the patchwork seamlines.  In hindsight, I wish I'd made a table runner instead of a tree skirt.  Then it would have taken me way less time, required a lot less trial and error geometry to figure out how to make a pattern for each "slice" of the skirt so that I'd end up with a circle, and best of all, no one would have to crawl underneath my Christmas tree to see the embroidery! 

Happy Advent, Folks!
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