Thursday, June 17, 2021

Adventures in Cake Decorating #7 - Flame Cupcakes for Fireman Sam


Another nephew's birthday party, another cartoon character–inspired birthday cake. Cupcakes of course, in this era of serving food with as little touching as possible.

These Fireman Sam cupcakes were a simple job of using store-bought decorations -- see the toothpick toppers and edible wafers -- so the creative part was choosing icing colors. 

I did yellow and blue icing to sort of match the main character's hat and jacket. And then, the most fun part, flame icing!

I learned a new trick from another blogger's post, How to Make Multi-Colored Swirled Cupcakes, which you can read for more details, but here's a quick overview of what I did to make the tri-colored flames atop the Fireman Sam cupcakes:

  1. Make three colors of buttercream. I made red, orange, and yellow.
  2. Glob each colored icing onto its own sheet of wax paper and chill for a short while in the fridge, until you can touch the icing without it sticking to your fingers.
  3. Use the wax paper to help you gently roll each color of icing into a thin log.
  4. Now put all three logs together and slide them into an icing bag. Let the icing warm back up to room temperature, so it's again easily squeezable.
  5. Have fun piping a tri-colored swirl!


  • Keeping your three icing colors individually wrapped inside the piping bag, as instructed in the aforementioned Beki Cook's Cake Blog, will help keep each color more defined. Skipping the individual wraps and just letting the three colored logs of icing touch inside the bag works fine, especially if your colors are analogous (like red, orange, and yellow), but toward the end, because you've been squeezing, the colors will start to blend together. My last flame cupcake, as I used up the rest of the icing in the bag, was not multi-colored but rather a solid red-orange. That worked fine for the Fireman Sam theme, but it may not be OK if your colors are opposites, like blue and orange, which mix together to make gross-colored icing.
  • Edible pre-printed wafers are an easy way to decorate with precision -- no trying to draw the cartoon character yourself. The wafers taste like nothing, really. The kids may or may not believe you that they can actually eat them.


Thursday, June 10, 2021

And now, something fun - glass flowers


 Our garden is blooming with thrift-store glass, construction glue, and scrap rebar.

Inspired by the dozens of such lawn ornaments surrounding a house about a mile from ours, Len recently created seven of these glittering flowers that will be in bloom all summer long.


Thursday, June 3, 2021

Doom and gloom about water


Nine years ago, I wrote a post about conserving water and said, "while potable water may seem a constant to us Midwesterners, it is scarce in many parts of the world." Well, guess what? Even here, in the land of public drinking fountains (most of which have been covered and unused for more than a year because of the pandemic), unlimited free water in restaurants, indoor and outdoor waterparks, and the great fun of jumping through sprinklers until the lawn is soggy, even here in the land plenty, clean water is less reliable than it used to be.

And most of us don't know it. Yet.

I've already had water usage on my mind lately. A few weeks ago, a city crew was digging a giant hole in the street, repairing a water main. We had our water shut off for about half a day, and then we were under a precautionary boil order for 24 hours. It was a minor inconvenience but a reminder of how fragile some conveniences--like a constant supply of fresh water--can be. Remember when Texas froze this winter? Some people were without a water supply for more than week.

CCF = centum cubic feet = 100 cubic feet of water = 748 gallons

Also, we've been re-seeding sections of our lawn, watering from the rain barrels whenever possible, not only to be eco-friendly but also because last fall, when we were watering the lawn regularly (because our previously neglected lawn is undergoing resuscitation), we saw our water usage double from 4 CCF (almost 3,000 gallons) in a 2-month billing cycle to 8 CCF (5,984 gallons). Wow! But, get this. Apparently, the average household in our area uses 13 CCF (about 9,700 gallons) every two months, according this 2019 Chicago Tribune article

After that shocker of a water bill, our usage returned to 4 CCF on the next couple of cycles. We wondered, is 4 CCF the lowest we can possibly go, or can we lower our water consumption even more? The latest water bill just arrived. 3 CCF! That means we managed to use several hundred gallons less in March and April than our average. That's still over 1,000 gallons per month -- it takes a lot of water to live modern!

And then, just a couple of weeks ago, Ginger Zee on Good Morning America showed us the ruins of an old church, previously hidden underwater in a reservoir in Mexico, now regularly revealed by receding water levels, indicative of the megadrought affecting the western hemisphere.

Megadrought! An intense drought that lasts decades.

Here's the thing. That church isn't emerging from the deep for the first time just now. A quick Google to find the recent story brought me a story from 2015 about this same thing. Water levels in the reservoir have been fluctuating for quite some time, occasionally revealing the church and allowing people to canoe through the ruins. Even in 2002, water was low enough that people could walk through the church.

But that's Mexico, you think. Not us. Well, check out the U.S. Drought Monitor, and you'll see the entire southwestern United States is in a drought, most of it an extreme or exceptional drought on a scale that goes None, Abnormally Dry, Moderate Drought, Severe Drought, Extreme Drought, Exceptional Drought. In fact, half our country is abnormally dry or worse. I inevitably think of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, or perhaps a future drought era as depicted in Interstellar.

So, what do we do?

Landscaping, for instance. Plant for your geography and climate so your garden will thrive in the natural amount of rain it gets. Supplement with collected rainwater. We easily use 12-20 gallons of water from the rain barrels daily just for our new-grass patches -- on days it doesn't rain, that is. You could also use rain barrel water for washing your car or your patio furniture or anything else outdoors.

According to the EPA, 70% of the average American's water usage happens indoors, though. Letting it mellow will save you, at most, a few gallons a day. It's better than nothing, but there are more impactful water conservation activities to consider. 

Get appliances that use water more efficiently, if you can -- whether it's a full-scale gray-water system, an HE washing machine, a WaterSense-labeled toilet, or a high-efficiency showerhead.

Working with the appliances you already have, number one priority: fix any leaks.

Then, just take shorter showers. My mom used to wash her hair at the kitchen sink instead of in the shower. Like at a salon, the water was off during the shampoo scrub and while the conditioner soaked in. So, think of those types of adjustments that might reduce your time standing under the running shower. 

Also, hand-washing. Shut the faucet off while you're soaping your hands for the recommended 20 seconds. And, for goodness' sake, don't let the water run while you're brushing your teeth -- that's two whole minutes if you're doing it right!

I'll also recommend paying attention to how companies use water, from the obvious (like water suppliers and the agricultural industry) to the less obvious but heavy hitters (like manufacturers of anything), and how the government regulates them. You have the power -- by how you purchase things and how you vote, to name just a couple of ways -- to influence how your community and we as a nation conserve (or waste) this precious resource.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Making the most of passive energy efficiency


Big old windows. The downside is their large area of draftiness. The upside -- for our windows, anyway -- is they are south-facing. In the northern hemisphere, that means sunlight! Over the winter, I began making notes about the excellence of passive solar energy. As the temperatures fall, so too does the angle of the sun, until it dips below the overhang of our house's roof, which shades these windows in the summer but in winter is like a hat tipping hello and letting the sun beam into the dining room, the most popular room in the house during cold months, according to the cat and me. 

The thermostat is in the dining room, too. I noticed on a sunny autumn day, the temperature in here held at 72 for a good six hours, even though it was chilly outside. Our heat is set to 68. That means the furnace didn't kick on for all that time. Passive solar energy, baby!

So, in the winter, it's a little cool upstairs. There are windows up there, but they don't offer the same greenhouse effect as the big bay window in the dining room. That's OK. It's not literally freezing on the second floor. The pipes aren't going to burst (she said, fingers crossed and throwing salt over her left shoulder so as not to jinx anything, and then wondering how long you have to wait before you can let the dog lick up the salt). 

The point is, finding the warmest spot in the house and parking it there all day is just what you do in the winter instead of choosing to reside in the coldest room of the house and trying to heat it to optimal comfort. You don't force the universe to bend to your will, you make do with what the universe has given you. ...Don't you?

Now that we're leaning back into warmer months, the sun is higher in the sky, and its rays don't stretch across the dining room floor as they did in winter. I've moved the cat bed onto the ledge right up against the windows, so she still gets some direct sunlight for napping. Now also, the leaves are filling out on the trees that surround us, further shading the house.

Last week, I saw a Popular Science article about cooling your house without air conditioning. It offered the flip side of my passive solar energy ponderings, quoting architect David Wright on passive solar design: “all the things that you can do when you’re designing a building to basically naturally condition it and make it a better place to live.” I.e., working with the universe to keep yourself comfortable instead of cranking up all the utilities in a battle against the weather. 

Our roof has that nice overhang, wide enough to shade the house in the summer, but not sticking out so far that it would also block the winter sun. It works well for both seasons. I mentioned the trees. In the winter, their leaves are gone, allowing sunlight to hit the house and heat it up. In the summer, the foliage blocks the sun somewhat, helping to keep the house cool.

One of the things I disliked about our previous home was the lack of windows, or maybe more specifically, the positions of the windows in relation to each other. It was near impossible to get a cross-breeze going to cool that house on a warm day. In our new old house, however, we have windows on all four sides, plus a nice open floor plan, plus a whole-house fan that can draw air up and out through the attic. Yes, the fan uses electricity but far less than the air conditioner. (And, once we've fully restored the windows to good-as-new functionality, it will be even easier to open them up strategically to take advantage of wind direction and get optimal airflow through the rooms.)

Our house's age gets credit for these energy-friendly design elements, and around the world you'll find other examples of ancient buildings designed perfectly for their climates, because they were built before electricity was a given, before you could simply install central AC and forced-air heat. Modern materials and technology can help us take these climate-intuitive designs to the next level. 

As weather extremes become more common, and our energy needs push our power grids to the max, structural designs that are resilient within the climate are a necessity. Passive solar design helps us use less energy and saves us money on ordinary days, but it will also literally save us in the future when we'll need to survive sweltering temperatures during an extended power outage, an increasing likelihood as more frequent storms, fires, and other extreme weather events threaten the reliability of our already strained utility systems.


Thursday, May 20, 2021

A "reel" sense of community


Last Thursday, I took advantage of a beautiful spring morning to kickstart my day with some fresh air. I mowed the lawn before logging in to work. 

A mowing snapshot from last summer

Oh, my reel mower, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

  1. It's much lighter weight than a gas- or battery-powered mower. I can just pick it up and carry it, which is sometimes a more convenient maneuver than pushing.
  2. But, it's still a decent arm workout to push it across the lawn.
  3. It's human-powered, which has several perks. With no gas or oil to fill, no battery to recharge, you just get it out of the garage and go. It's ready to mow at a moment's notice. 
  4. The whirring blades are the only noise. Someone can get your attention without having to holler their lungs out. You can mow in the early morning without annoying your neighbors.
  5. If you need to stop -- for conversation, for a water break, to get debris out of the way -- you can just stop and start as frequently as you like without having to get a motor going again.
  6. You can feel good about being earth-friendly and lawn-friendly. The way reel mowers cut reportedly makes for healthier grass.
  7. It's a conversation starter, and that's what really sparked this post.
But first, I'll also share the downsides of using a reel mower, just to give the whole picture.
  1. Sometimes it leaves sprigs standing -- especially taller, thicker stalks of grass and dandelion flower stems. You have to go over some areas twice, or get them with the weed whip.
  2. Same problem if you let your grass get too long. The wheels of the mower are more likely to mash down long grass before the blades can chop it.
  3. Twigs will temporarily jam the blades. It's as simple as backing up so the stick can come loose, but it can be annoying. Take time to pick up debris from the yard first.
  4. You must take the time afterward to clean the mower, which helps keep the blades in good condition. Some of you already take excellent care of your lawn tools, so this is not a downside but rather a given. 
  5. A reel mower doesn't give you that quintessential fresh-cut-grass smell that a power mower does. Maybe because it doesn't shred the grass or heat it as it spits it out the other side. Maybe it's the missing cloud of gasoline exhaust. Anyway, the scent of a reel-cut lawn is lighter, more reminiscent of the grassy air that hovers over a quiet field than the heady mulchiness of hot-mown suburbia. But you can still inhale that childhood aroma as your neighbors cut their grass.
Now, back to mower's being a conversation starter. People see us using it and want to know.

How do you like it? I love it. 

Does it actually cut the grass? Yes, but see notes above. 

How often do you have to sharpen the blades? My user's manual says I could go several years without sharpening as long as I keep the blades clean and in good condition. This is only my second season mowing with it, but so far, so good.

Can I try it? Yes!

That's what happened last Thursday morning. A couple walked by, and the wife said something like, "She's got the mower I want!" So the husband asked me, "Can my wife try that thing?" Delighted to be of service, I let her mow a few strips of lawn for me. Try before you buy. Pushing is believing.

What a great thing about yard work. Meeting the neighbors. It's something Len quickly noticed when we moved into our new old house, something that had been missing in our old neighborhood, where the lawn (and snow) service was included in the homeowner association dues. 

The developer of our previous neighborhood had utopian ideas about a sense of community built into his neighborhood design. Large front porches, where people will sit and gather and chat. Wide sidewalks to easily accommodate two passing strollers. A centralized "town center" of small shops. It didn't happen. People hung out in their tiny, privacy-fenced backyards, barbecued in the alley out of their garage, drove their car one block to the mail room. Businesses fizzled. Sure, we met some neighbors, and the sidewalks were busy thoroughfares on Halloween, but we also lived next door to others we never saw! Without compulsory yard work to bring people outside, people naturally hid inside.

One could argue that if the regular maintenance of the lawn is taken care of for you, you have more freedom to do the fun kind of yard work, tending flower gardens and turning your front porch into a comfortable outdoor living room. We often ate dinner on our front porch. We liked it. But, well. We Americans are prone to maxing ourselves out, aren't we? A rare few of us choose a house we can comfortably afford, while many families buy the most house they can possibly afford, so they're still working long hours just to pay the bills. No time or money for gardening, home improvement hobbies, or just sitting out on the porch waiting for neighbors to stroll by.

I'm not saying people in our current neighborhood are more fiscally responsible. The difference here is that lawn maintenance is another bill to be paid -- you must budget some time and money for it, because it's your own responsibility. Some people put more effort into than others, but the fact remains: If everyone has to be outside at some point, taking care of their respective yards, you will actually encounter each other and be part of a community. It's nice.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Green thumbprints


A brief spring garden update, with the joy of sharing plants.

Len and I were already out on an adventure visiting the Chicago Tribune's printing plant to pick up an old newspaper vending box, when he got a text from a friend. A new fence had displaced some raspberry and rhubarb plants in the friend's yard. Did we want them?

While I had transplanted a few raspberry canes from our previous yard to the new old house's yard, only one solid cluster had survived the drain line repair last spring. With the friend's offer, we could accelerate the spread of our new raspberry patch. I decided, as with the apple trees, not to be sad that I was no longer propagating a particular raspberry lineage but instead to be glad that I was continuing the tradition of growing any raspberries. 

We returned home with a trunkful of discards both manmade and natural. The vending boxes (two of them!) are in the basement, repurposing to follow. The rhubarb is now growing next to our small strawberry patch, of course, which, I may have mentioned, came from my parents' garden and has miraculously survived two moves. Here's hoping the strawberries thrive once more in their sunnier permanent home.

More recently, for Mother's Day, Len's mom dug up some plants out of her own garden so we could plant them in ours. I feel like a proper Mother's Day gift ought to have been the other way around... Well, we also have some hostas growing around our back porch that originally came from Len's mom's yard and have moved with us from townhouse to new old house. I was thrilled to see that most of them made it through the winter and appear to be coming back strong this spring. (They looked a bit pitiful last fall; I was worried.)

Special thanks to all the family and friends who've shared pieces of your garden with us. Whether in actual foliage or in spirit, your green thumbprints are all over our yard, and we love it. 

New goal for me: Just keep all this stuff alive.


Thursday, May 6, 2021

The dandelion wine chronicles


Inspired by the weeds in my yard and some encouragement from a friend, I decided to try making wild-fermented dandelion ginger wine, following this blogger's guide:

Let's see how it went.

Sunday, April 18 - picked and washed dandelion blossoms, separated petals, put petals in gallon glass jug with raisins, ginger, sugar and water. Covered with layered cheesecloth to allow air but not bugs.

I swirled the jug once or twice a day to stir and better see whether any bubbles were bubbling, which really hide among the petals floating at the top, and also got hard to see as the water clouded golden.

For extra credit, I started reading Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine.

Wednesday, April 21 - It was the third day, so I gave the jug one more swirl in the morning, confirmed bubbles. Boiled water to sanitize another gallon glass jug and our siphoning equipment, but first kept aside some extra boiled water to cool for topping up the brew later. (Boiling not only "cleans" the water, it also helps evaporate the chlorine from the tap water, which, as a disinfectant, could potentially hamper the active yeasties.) 

Later in the afternoon, filtered the brew through a cheesecloth and transferred it to the new jug for the second ferment. I smelled a very light fermentation odor, but mostly I smelled ginger. It tasted like sugar water at this stage.

Interestingly, Bradbury describes the dandelion flowers going into a wine press, golden liquid flowing out. The recipes/instructions I find online all just have this sort of soak approach, no pressing unless you count the ones that have you squeeze the petals in a cheesecloth to extract all possible liquid when it's transferring into the second jug.

By Friday, I could tell that fermentation was indeed underway, albeit slowly. There were tiny bubbles forming on the surface, like a gentle carbonation, and the balloon on top of the jug (my makeshift airlock) was starting to inflate, ever so little by little, from the gas produced by the fermentation. We were on our way!

OK, the next Friday, April 30 - Oh no.

Fermentation was still happening. If I held a flashlight to the jug, I could see the little bubbles inside rising to the top, again, like watching a light carbonation -- more so than I could that first week. But, I also saw something on the surface of the liquid that was not a cluster of bubbles. Mold.

Mold! In denial, I waited a few days. Maybe it's not what I fear it is.

Monday, May 3 - It's definitely mold. Most likely, my brew was fermenting too slowly, giving bad things a chance to get a foothold before the good things (wild yeast) to make the environment inhospitable for the bad things. My guess is that the kitchen was too cold for the first ferment, so it took too long to really get going.

I knew I was going to have to dump the whole things, so I took a chance sip (a wine-taster's swirl and spit). It tasted like slightly sour sugar water. Not great. Fermenting, but not on its way to something potable.

Sigh. Dump. 

I guess I won't return to the taste of spring later this year, but maybe, maybe I'll try again another time.

I will keep reading Dandelion Wine to the end. It's lovely.