Thursday, July 29, 2021

Adventures in Cake Decorating #9 - Beach Cupcakes


Another cake flashback. Memorial Day 2018. A nephew's first birthday. A beach-themed backyard party.

The more I look back at these beach cupcakes, the more I think they are among the cutest I've made, and I think I'd like an excuse to make them again. 

Bonus points for the decorations made entirely of edible things (uh, paper cocktail umbrellas notwithstanding) -- blue frosting for the ocean of course, and graham cracker crumbs as the beach sand, plus Teddy Grahams as the sunbathers, Lifesavers Gummies as their rafts, and Fruit by the Foot as their beach towels. 

Although a cupcake would have served the purpose, there was also a separate, special "smash cake" for the 1-year-old birthday boy, per current trend -- see the slightly larger, more cake-shaped one on the left that incorporates all of the decorative topping elements, whereas each individual cupcake only had one or two. You can see we set up a few different scenes. 

There's the floating teddy on his raft, surrounded by water. There's the all-sand cupcake, with the sunbathing teddy. My favorite vignette is probably the half-beach, half-ocean, with teddy floating in the waves, his toes poking up out of the water. (Just break off the legs of the Teddy Graham.)

I see now, I enjoyed making these so much because the decorating process was really just playing with food. 

If I find that excuse to make them again, I'll up the ante by making the cupcakes tropical flavors -- no simple vanilla or chocolate, but instead maybe coconut with pineapple goo in the middle. Or lime. Oh, now wait. Coconut and pineapple, the cocktail umbrellas... the cupcakes should be tropical drink flavored. 


Thursday, July 22, 2021

Deconstructing the dog bed


Why are the undersides of these dog beds made of this crappy fabric with the mere strength of a dryer sheet? It falls apart too easily from normal wear and tear (i.e., lying on the floor). The topside, meanwhile, which gets all the real use as the dog circles and scratches and flops and turns, is holding up just fine. It's this underside. 

Once, while our family was dog-sitting for us, my sister-in-law called to ask if the dog bed was washable. "Yes, of course, go right ahead." Well, that wash was the final nail in that dog bed's coffin -- stuffing fluff everywhere when she opened the machine at the end of the cycle, as the underside practically disintegrated.

This latest dog bed has made it through a wash or two, but the underside is pilling badly and seems just threads away from being worthless. I had already sewn a replacement inner pillow case out of an old bed sheet, so the stuffing is not about to spill out, but this outer cover is showing its not-so-old age. Time to fix this problem.

Thankfully, replacing one side of a rectangular pillow-style dog bed is a simple project. I have my trusty seam ripper to separate the top and bottom rectangles of fabric as well as the zipper from the one side being replaced.

Oops. Pause the project for 20 minutes or so while I reattach the zipper tab I accidentally pulled all the way off!

Oh, and then this tangle resulting from my hasty bobbin-loading:

Some people -- most people -- would just cut the the thread at this point and move on. I, on the other hand, was determined to save what turned out to be at least 10 feet of good thread. It took another 15 minutes, but I got it.

This is why the seam ripper remains my best friend.

Aside from those complications, an easy project:

Spread out whatever fabric you're using to replace the disintegrating underside. I had a big blue piece of fabric leftover from some other thing. Lay the good rectangle of fabric from the dog bed (the topside we're keeping) on top of it as your pattern. Cut out a rectangle from the new fabric to match. 

Place the two rectangles together right sides facing in (i.e., their outsides against each other, so it will be inside-out when sewn together). Sew up three sides. Sew up the zipper side -- something I am no longer trepidatious about doing since the time I finally sewed one onto a bean bag chair I was making for my dad, after procrastinating for quite some time out of fear. (Hm, did I take pictures of that project? I will have to check and possibly add a post.)

Now, turn it right-side-out. Stuff the inner pillow back in. Happy dog!

Yes, that is a dog bed on top of a dog bed. He's a spoiled boy.


Thursday, July 15, 2021

Farming in the backyard (and side yard, and front yard...)

"You guys do a lot of farming," observed one of our eight-year-old neighbors.

Not as much as I'd like, was my first thought, and not nearly as much as the neighbors a few door down, who last summer put a basket of free cucumbers at the end of their driveway, from which we gratefully selected a couple for making cold cucumber-avocado soup. 

We're surely not suburban-homesteading to the max, but I guess what we do is impressive to the eight-year-olds next door. Together, we counted the edible things growing in the side flowerbeds and backyard (recognizing that many were not in their edible season):
  1. Strawberries (recently finished)
  2. Rhubarb
  3. Raspberries (ripening daily now!)
  4. Onions (Egyptian walking and green, always in season, really)
  5. Sunflowers
  6. Apple trees (maybe next year?)
  7. Cherry tree (maybe next year?)
  8. Tomatoes (possibly 4 kinds, but time will tell)
  9. Marigolds (technically edible, but I have not tried)
  10. Many herbs (generally in season all summer: cilantro, lemon balm, spearmint, oregano, basil, marjoram, and... parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme!)
  11. And, newly planted (and therefore not previously counted) tabasco peppers and chamomile.

For not having any official "Square Foot Gardening" raised beds, we're cramming it in. I'm looking forward to our strawberry, rhubarb, and raspberry transplants spreading their roots and tubers and shoots this summer for a more productive crop next year. Fingers crossed. 

I wanted a more robust herb garden, so I spent money on it this year. But, I also like to at least pretend I'm self sufficient, so I'll be trying to save seeds from those herbs this fall.

I have been enjoying the blessing of time, thanks to working from home. Just a fraction of the time I used to spend on commuting is now spent tending the garden. I've realized that it isn't just an extra 10-15 hours a week I have -- it's extra energy. There's a momentum no longer interrupted by the commute. How many four o'clocks did I daydream at the office about some creative endeavor at home, only to find that energy sapped by 6:30? Motivation enough only to make and eat dinner, and maybe clean up after it. 

I'm still regularly a couch potato after 7 p.m., sure. But between signing off for the day and starting dinner, plus a lunch break in the backyard, there's time and energy aplenty for farming.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Adventures in Cake Decorating #8 - Bowling Cake


This is the cake that started it all. 

Or, maybe the cake that continued it all? It was before any of the niblings were born, so I didn't have regular birthday cake "clientele" yet, but I had already made baby block cakes for a friend (so many things I have learned to do better since then!). Even before that, I'd had ambitions on making our wedding cake myself -- ambitions left unrealized, as getting a great deal at a traditional bakery coincided with starting a brand new, soul-sucking job less than a month before the wedding. 

It's definitely the cake that ignited my enthusiasm for using cookies as a part of the decoration. (See later the Word World cake and cookies, the Cookie monster cupcakes with ABC and 123 cookies, a dinosaur cake I haven't told you about yet, and some sort of woodland creature cake and cookie combo I'd like to make, inspired by an autumn issue of Woman's Day magazine.)

This bowling cake was early enough in my cake decorating hobby-career that I can see now what I could have done better. Nevertheless, I still think it was awesome.

It was a large sheet cake; i.e., two 13x9 cakes set next to each other.

The bowling bowl was a smaller cake baked in a bowl. Tip: Use as round a bowl as possible (you know, some have a flat bottom inside), but then sculpt and/or patch with cake scraps and frosting.

The wood grain of the bowling lane was watered down brown food coloring, painted onto the crusted buttercream base. (Crusted = the buttercream has been allowed to sit exposed to the air, so it sets (or dries or hardens) enough that you can touch it lightly without it sticking to you.)

I thought I was so clever, illustrating that it was a 30th birthday by piping on a score sheet with the beginnings of a perfect game. Three strikes in a row = 30 points for the first frame!

Then, of course, sugar cookie bowling pins. I didn't have a bowling pin cookie cutter but rather cut these by hand using a paper template -- easy enough to do when the cookie is large and symmetrical.

And, that's a look back at one of my first three-dimensional birthday cakes.


Thursday, July 1, 2021

You may try to be a fair-weather bicycle commuter


 Len has been biking to work lately -- 19 miles round trip. Most of the time, the weather has cooperated.

When your preferred transport is an open-air vehicle, you become obsessed with the weather. Did they say it would rain today? Does it look it will rain? How hot is supposed to be? How hot does it feel? Alexa, what's the hourly forecast?

Then I was reading a Bicycling Magazine article, "6 Cycling Mistakes I've Made So You Don't Have To," by Fit Chick Selene Yeager. Mistake #3: Believe the Weather.

"Why, oh why is it still so difficult to predict the weather in the 21st century? And why, oh, why do I still believe said forecasts? (And I have four weather apps that I check obsessively before any given event.)"

I second that! I don't have four weather apps, per se, but I watch the morning news, ask Alexa, and wander outside to look around. Sometimes I'll pull up a weather radar online.

Yeager's lament is more about stubbornly going forth and then not finishing an event due to severely inclement weather. I have been thoroughly soaked by unanticipated rain plenty of times -- on the way to work, on the way home, on our Katy Trail trip -- but I've also had the opposite problem -- deciding not to get on the bike, thinking it will storm on me, only to spend a gorgeous day wasting gas in the car instead. Sigh.

Getting caught in the rain can be refreshing in a way. It can also be miserable, let's be honest. At least it comes with a rugged sense of fortitude. There is no positive feeling haven driven the car out of fear only to realize you could have biked.

The past week has been very rainy, and even still, Len biked every day. He did have to slog through rain a couple of times -- thank goodness for locker rooms.

Moral of the story? Do or don't trust the weather, and kudos to you if you biked somewhere today!


Thursday, June 24, 2021



Just a few months ago, I posted about cooking with kitchen scraps, but the overarching theme had more to do with making the most of your leftovers than using actual scraps (stems, peels, cores) -- although James P. DeWan's column did touch on that. Well, I've just learned that IKEA came out with The ScrapsBook earlier this year. It's a cookbook based on using typically discarded parts of food and features other tips for reducing your food waste at home, including uses for inedible scraps like eggshells (besides simply composting them).

Skeptical as you may be about putting banana peels in a cake and apple pulp in a burger, you might be comforted to find within the cookbook some more familiar "waste not" tricks you already have up your sleeve -- or is it just me? Things like freestyle vegetable soup to clear random things out of the fridge, a stash of chicken bones in the freezer for making broth later, cheese rinds to enrich a sauce, and watermelon rind preserves.

Another thing the cookbook has going for it -- photos. You know you're more inclined to try a recipe when it comes with a beautiful picture of the finished product. Each recipe also has a real professional chef's name behind it, imbuing the incredible with some credibility.

And another thing. The e-book is free to download. No risk to flip through. Yes, IKEA products are identified throughout the book, but they're unobtrusive.

But, wait! There's more!

A few days later, I (coincidentally?) read a newspaper article titled "Think outside the banana" that featured two recipes using -- you guessed it -- banana peels. Apparently, these slippery characters have made news before:

  • Food personality Nigella Lawson made headlines when she prepared a cauliflower and banana peel dish on TV.
  • Nadiya Hussain (a Great British Bake Off winner who suddenly had a cooking show of her own) made whole-banana bread and also brought to light a savory way to prepare banana peels common in Bengali cuisine -- think pulled pork but with sliced banana peels -- which is essentially how vegans have been using banana peels for a while now, like a shredded meat substitute.
  • And, there's an earlier cookbook: Cooking With Scraps by food writer Linsday-Jean Hard.

I guess the thing most foreign to me that I am also most likely (maybe?) to try in the near future will be one of several banana peel recipes out there, as we just so happen to have a plethora of ripening bananas at the moment. I'll keep you posted if I do... 


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.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

There once was a hole in the kitchen


And to cover it, Len was just itchin'.

Some background: A family owned this old house for decades, and then a real estate agent bought it to flip it, and now we own it. The flipper "renovated" fast and easy. I've said before, she did a great job revealing the house's charm, but the updates don't appear to have been undertaken with thoughtful, methodical, and detailed approach.

One of the major updates to the house was a complete kitchen renovation. They tore out the wall that had separated the kitchen and dining room, and we love how open it is. The head-scratching part of it, though, is illustrated in the photo above. When the kitchen and dining room were two separate rooms, it made sense to have an vent in each room, but now that they are essentially one big room, you can see we were left with a nice, large antique floor vent (which Len also spruced up, but that is a story for another time) and a small, ill-fitting, cheapo, modern floor vent just two feet away. They don't even come from the same duct run. 

Why is this so perplexing? Well, they laid brand new tile in the kitchen. They had to custom cut two tiles to accommodate the small, now-pointless vent. Would it not have been easier (both on the worker and, later, on the eyes) to close off that one short duct to that one small vent and just lay whole tile over it?

That's exactly what Len did, retroactively. Guided by a This Old House segment, Len carefully chipped out the two affected kitchen tiles, covered the hole, and cut a new rectangular section of subfloor. Luckily, in the basement, there were spare kitchen tiles, mortar, and grout leftover from the renovation. 

That's right, that's Tom Silva on the laptop screen, guiding the way.

The kitchen floor, when it was first laid and grouted during the big flip, sat around for a year collecting dirt before we moved in and ascertained it had never been sealed. We cleaned and sealed it last spring, but the once-white grout was mostly a light tan by that time. When Len grouted these two new tiles, the contrast was stark. We ended up re-grouting the entire kitchen floor so it would match. 

And of course, a couple of days later, we sealed it. Like you're supposed to.

There once was a hole in the kitchen,
and to cover it, Len was just itchin'.
Len erased that dumb hole
with a little help from Nicole.
Now that tile floor is totally [90s slang for awesome]!


Thursday, April 22, 2021

Mourning the Apple Trees and Moving On


There's a saying: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. Often used to inspire some action in one's life, it can also be taken literally, and that's what I'm doing today.

Twelve years ago, we hefted a grapefruit-sized (maybe bigger) Wolf River apple in our hands and thought, You are 300 miles from your birthplace in Thorp, Wisconsin. We are going to eat you. And then we are going to plant your seeds, just for fun. Probably nothing will come of it.

That was in fall 2008. The seeds we planted from that Wolf River apple, soon became seedlings and then saplings. They spent their first three years in pots, overwintering in our unheated garage with newspaper and blankets as insulation. In the spring of 2012, Len did the hard work of digging holes in the heavy clay of our townhouse yard and planted them . They bore fruit in 2015 and every year after that, although harvests were not large.

Our apple tree history in blog posts:

April 21, 2009 (seedlings)

November 3, 2009 (winterizing)

March 20, 2010  (after winterizing)

March 4, 2012 (pruning)

May 13, 2012 (planting)*
*The city suddenly cut down the ash tree in our backyard one day; Len dug out the leftover stump, and that is where the third apple tree now resides.

Summer 2015 (first fruit)

And now...

February 2020, we put our house up for sale because we'd signed a contract to buy the new old house. The apple trees were now almost as tall as the house. They would have to stay behind. (Our babies!)

I did a lot of searching and reading and video-watching. I cut scion twigs from each of the three trees (pencil-thick, straight, recent growth, each at least 12 inches long), wrapped them in a damp paper towel in plastic bag, and stored them in my in-laws' garage fridge, which held only beverages, so the scions could stay away from any other fruits or vegetables that could off-gas and cause early budding.

I ordered four dwarf rootstocks from an orchard, and they arrived in March. I tried my hand at whip-and-tongue grafting. Two of my four grafts seemed to have survived! Leaves popped on the scions. I planted one in the yard of our new old house and kept the other in its pot as a backup.

Come summer of 2020, some insect ate away the new leaves. I continued watering diligently, but there was no new growth. We eventually tossed the potted spare -- it also looked more like a stick now and less like a baby tree.

Now, spring of 2021, still nothing was happening on the grafted tree in the yard. I had to accept that it really was dead. (In fact, I just pulled it out of the ground like plain stick -- I guess the roots rotted, and the graft site had ultimately failed. Maybe I overwatered.) The cousins in Wisconsin have sold the farm. Unless we go steal an apple out of our old yard, this heirloom line of Wolf River apples ends its journey where it is rooted. 

Instead, we'll carry on the tradition honorarily. Last fall, I ordered three heirlooms from Trees of Antiquity: two Egremont russet apple trees, an English Victorian variety supposedly good for fresh eating and cider, and a Napoleon (a.k.a. Queen Anne) cherry tree, which is the kind my Grandma used to have in her yard (that tree cut down just last year and also on property soon to be sold). The trees arrived early this April!

Our new experiment, besides just trying to grow trees, is the art of espalier. Espalier should be a good strategy for growing more productive trees in a compact space, here along the fence (I know, I know, easy access for the squirrels). 

The first task was (gulp!) an aggressive prune to encourage side branching. 

Wish us luck.


Thursday, April 15, 2021

Rainy day lentil and chorizo stew

Early spring is a tease. A stretch of beautiful sunny days hinting of summer suddenly give way to gray, chilly days of off-and-on rain. It was on one of those days, and I needed warm comfort food. I  also wanted to "iron up" in preparation for a blood donation appointment, so lentil stew was on the menu.

I started with this From a Chef's Kitchen recipe for Soupy Spanish Lentils with Chorizo, and modified it to suit the contents of my own cupboard and freezer -- and yard. Yes, the infamous dandelions make an appearance.

Lentil and Chorizo Stew
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 large link of fresh chorizo sausage (I cut mine in half so it would fit easier in the pot)
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, finely chopped (we keep frozen sliced celery handy for impromptu soups)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • half a large red bell pepper, diced
  • 4 to 6 cups chicken broth
  • 1 1/2 cups brown lentils
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • juice of half a lemon
  • 3 tomatoes, chopped
  • a handful of fresh greens (dandelion, spinach, chard, whatever)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  1. Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large pot. Place sausage in the pa
    n and cook 6 to 7 minutes, turning to brown on all sides. Transfer to a plate. (Sausage will not be cooked all the way through at this point.)
  2. Place onion in the hot fat. Reduce heat to medium and cook 7 to 8 minutes or until beginning to soften. Add the celery and bell pepper and cook 4 to 5 minutes more. 
  3. Add the garlic, stir until fragrant.
  4. Add 4 cups of chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add the lentils, smoked paprika and crushed red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil.
  5. Slice chorizo into 1/4 to 1/3-inch slices. Add to the pot with the lentils.
  6. Reduce heat, cover slightly and simmer 30 to 45 minutes or until lentils are tender, adding additional chicken broth as needed to maintain a "soupy" consistency. 

    I had the red wine vinegar and tomato paste ready to go for the original recipe but ultimately didn't use them.

  7. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice, tomatoes and dandelion greens, and adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper. The soup will be hot enough on its own to quickly wilt the greens.
The original recipe also included Manchego toast. I went for garlic bread from the freezer.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Just dandy - a lawn that's greenish


Feast your eyes. This is what organic lawn maintenance looks like.

Hundreds and hundreds of dandelions (and other weeds for which I don't have names but know I don't want taking over my yard), pulled out by the roots. This is just one hour's work in one afternoon. There have been several afternoons spent before it, and I even did 15 minutes of rapid weeding yesterday morning before logging on to my day job.

These hours of hand-wrenching, back-aching work are what you have to look forward to if you want to maintain your lawn in an organic, earth-friendly, chemical-free way. That is, if you're trying to maintain the typical neighborhood's green-grass lawn on a lot that was not so well-maintained in the years before you owned it. We're nursing our suburban fescue back to life.

This endless toiling is a big reason why most eco-friendly lawn options involve natural landscapes of native plantings. 

Here's an example from a neighbor's house.

It doesn't look like much right now, but then, the Illinois prairies are only just awakening from winter dormancy. In the summer, tall grasses and wildflowers fill out the little homegrown preserve here. It's pretty and requires far less watering than a short-grass lawn.

We're keeping most of our open lawn, though, because we like to get out on it to play yard games. I like to keep our lawn and garden as green as possible, and I don't just mean the color of the grass. We moved our compost bin and its contents with us, when we moved houses last spring, so you better believe I'll be using our compost to fertilize the lawn. Our lawn mower is a good, old-fashioned (but brand new from Home Depot) reel mower, and our weed whacker is battery powered.

But, we've never been 100% green. We balance being green with some convenient shortcuts, because not everyone can be a full-time homesteader. So, in our garage, there's a stinky little bag of organic chicken manure from a local garden center, and there's also a bag of very non-organic "weed and feed" from my grandma's garden supplies. I'll pull as many weeds by hand as I can, and I'll even ignore a few of them, but I might pull out the weed killer spray at some point for a targeted assault. We'll use water collected in our rain barrels as much as possible for watering the grass seed when we sow later this spring, but I know we will sometimes just use the hose straight from the house, because going back and forth with the watering can is a huge time commitment.

All that is ahead of us yet. For now, I'm diligently scouring the yard with the forked precision weeding tool, a.k.a the "pokey dandelion thingy."

I'm letting most of those piles of pulled dandelions dry out, and then I'll toss them into the compost bin. But, yes, we did eat a handful.


Thursday, April 1, 2021

No photo, because I already ate it: Chocolate pudding


You know what chocolate pudding looks like. So, you don't need me to put a photo here of the chocolate pudding I made. There isn't a photo of it anyway, because I already ate it.

There are also no photos of the pudding while it was being made, because I was busy making it. Making pudding is not difficult, but it is a busy recipe. In case you have never made pudding yourself, I'll tell you why. There is constant stirring. Con. Stant.

Instead, I'll share a photo of the recipe itself, which came from Martha Stewart's Everyday Food magazines. I believe they're no longer being published, but I've kept a handful of them among my cookbooks, because the recipes are always tasty and generally weeknight-friendly.

I'll also be so kind as to give you a link to Martha's recipe online:

If you want to eat this pudding the same day you make it, you might start making it earlier than I did (6 p.m.), or plan on eating it as a midnight snack (around 9:30).

A note about the milk: I wondered if the pudding would noticeably lack a richness if I did not use whole milk. However, 2% milk was what I had in the fridge, and so 2% is what I used. This pudding turned out tasting like chocolate fudge -- no lacking anything. 


Thursday, March 25, 2021

It's electric!


Another cool restoration project and electrical update #3 to the new old house. Partially completed ourselves (i.e. by Len, with his lovely assistant), but most definitely also involving a hired electrician.

The life and times of a brass chandelier. This brass chandelier used to hang in my in-laws' foyer. At some point, they replaced it with a brighter, more modern light fixture. Because he dabbled in upcycling, restoration, and nostalgia, Len gained possession of their chandelier some time after that.

Since then, we've just been holding onto it. Its bright new condition is the latest (and final?) stage of its metamorphosis.

Before: decades of dust, tarnished brass, missing socket covers, missing crystals.

A couple of years ago, Len cleaned it up a bit and steam-punked it with old Christmas light globe bulbs for the Alley Art Festival in downtown Aurora. It could have been a funky addition to some moody dining room, but now we're glad it had no buyers.

Aurora Alley Art Fest 2018

This time around, he more thoroughly cleaned and shined the brass, replaced missing teardrop crystals, and funned it up by hanging decorative skeleton keys where other crystals would have hung. He also made new socket covers (candle tubes) painted cobalt blue.

Electrical Update #3. So, restoring the chandelier was just one part of a larger project. This third electrical update wasn't as big as last year's Electrical Updates #1 and #2, when we updated the circuit breaker box, ran wires to a couple of ceiling fans, added power to the porch and garage, and so on. In fact, we originally thought Len could just do this one himself.

Until we went into the attic.

The plan was simply (ha!) to move a ceiling light fixture from its location at the top of our stairs to a new location -- maybe five feet away -- centered over the stairs' middle landing, where we'd then hang the chandelier. The ceiling and the wires were accessible via the attic, so Len would just extend the wires and poke a new hole in the ceiling... 

Well, our house's internal workings are a mishmash of old, new, and in between. The ceiling fixture was still connected by old knob-and-tube wiring. We decided it wasn't safe to try splicing new wires to such old wires ourselves. The knob-and-tube wiring was also buried in the attic insulation, where it is apparently not supposed to be. 

Further complicating the issue is that the fixture operates on a three-way switch -- one light switch at the top of the stairs and one at the bottom of the stairs, either of which can turn the light on and off. 

We called Mr. Sparky, the electrician we'd hired for Electrical Update #2, and we figured we might as well have him take care of a few more things while he was out. The project became:

  • Run wire and add a new box at the new location for the stairwell ceiling light.
  • Disconnect the knob-and-tube wiring and refeed the wires to both stairwell light switches.
  • Add another fixture box in the upstairs hallway, so we could add a ceiling light where the hall has always been darkest.
  • Add a wall switch for the new hall light.
  • We decided to save a couple hundred dollars by leaving it to Len to complete the final step, installing the two light fixtures. 
Normally a straightforward project, hanging a light fixture gets a little hinky when the colors of your fixture's wires don't match the colors of the wires coming from the box in the ceiling. It's hard to follow the general rule of thumb of white to white, black to black (or red to black if you've got red going to the wall switch), when both wires in your fixture are black or, in the case of the chandelier, gold. 

Oh, and by the way, from the vantage point of a midway stairwell landing, the second-floor ceiling is very tall.

For the wires: Some Googling taught me to expect -- in general -- the hot wire (black) to have smooth insulation and the neutral wire (white) to be identifiable by a seam or ridges in its insulation. Fingers crossed.

For reaching the high ceiling from the stairwell landing: We used a couple of dining chairs, a solid wood door, some thick planks of wood, and the stairs themselves to build a makeshift scaffold upon which our six-foot ladder could stand. There is no photographic evidence of this creaky engineering "marvel."

Troubleshooting electricity. OK, light fixtures installed, go down to the basement to flip the two second-floor breakers back on. One on, OK. Two—BUZZZZZZ—trip! Oh no. One circuit has a problem and keeps tripping. 

We were finally able to flip the breaker on without it tripping by making sure the chandelier was off at its light switches -- trial and error because, with the three-way switch, up or down on either wall switch could mean either on or off. With the breaker on, we could see the newly installed hall light worked fine. When we tried to flip on the chandelier, BUZZZZZZ. Switch it off, quick!

Len went up and down the ladder to no avail, checking, reconnecting, and re-checking the wiring of both ceiling fixtures before concluding it was the load of the chandelier's light bulbs, not an incorrect installation, that was causing the problem. We'd hoped to use slightly larger and brighter, flame-shaped bulbs, but they were too high a wattage for the old chandelier (and/or the old house?) and were now overloading the circuit. Hence the scary deep buzzing when we tried to give it power.  

Back to the smaller 5-watt bulbs. That fixed the buzzing and the breaker tripping. 

Oddly, we were getting no power to three second-floor wall sconces and three first-floor ceiling fixtures. The weird thing is these fixtures are on a different circuit than the chandelier and new hall light. They're controlled by the breaker that originally flipped on with no problem.

Did we do something stupid while connecting the light fixtures? Lots of Googling and wondering if a short circuit somewhere along the line had somehow caused a loose wire to jump out of its connection. With our limited inventory of electrical tools, investigation would require opening up and checking the connections of every fixture and light switch on the circuit. 

It was very, very late at night.

Just call Mr. Sparky back to solve the mystery. Looking at several of the affected fixtures, Len realized their common denominator was knob-and-tube wiring. He called the electrician to come back when he could -- no emergency, just some lights out, hopefully he can figure out what's wrong. Luckily for us, he came back the next afternoon. 

Here's the peculiar way knob-and-tube wiring works. When the house is originally being electrified (a century ago?), the installer of the time takes wire from the wall sconce or whatever fixture, just finds a hot wire running through the center of the house, and ties it into it. All of these lights were at some point tied into the same single hot wire. When we had our electrician of 2021 cut the knob-and-tube wire from the stairwell ceiling fixture and disconnect it at the circuit breaker box in the basement, that one cut actually disconnected all these fixtures.

The good news, I guess, is disconnecting old knob-and-tube is just that: disconnecting. It's less destructive to just leave the wire where it is, a dead line snaking through the guts of the house, rather than ripping it all the way out. So, the electrician just reconnected that one wire in the basement, and now all our lights work.

The house's internal workings remain a mishmash. We have bright new light in our upstairs hallway, so I can see myself in the full-length mirror outside the bathroom. Our stairwell now glows with the soft, romantic light of a rejuvenated vintage chandelier.

Just one last thing to take care of...

Patch this hole where the stairwell fixture used to be.
UPDATE 4/1/2021:
What else will cause that terrifying buzz and trip the breaker is a loose connection. This was the case on two different occasions with this chandelier.
  1. After looking at the older photographs of the chandelier, we realized a piece had been assembled upside-down. Reversing it required unwiring the chandelier from the box in the ceiling. Upon reassembly and rewiring -- BUZZZZZZ! It couldn't be the bulbs now. It was that one of the wire connections was not as solid as it should be. This thing was touchy.

  2. We found 5-watt LED bulbs that are as bright as 60-watt but only draw the lower wattage's power. Bulbs in, works great! But, these bulbs stick up a little higher out of the candle tubes. Len made new, longer candle tubes. After installing those and putting the new LED bulbs in -- BUZZZZZZ! Now wait a minute! These bulbs worked a half hour ago.

    This time, it was one of the connections at the candle socket. The pulling and pushing of swapping out the candle tube socket covers had ever so slightly loosened a wire-to-screw connection beneath just one of the bulbs. We found which one by screwing in the light bulbs one at a time, and flicking on the light switch. One in, light works. Two in, light works. Three in, you get the idea, until number 4. BUZZZZZZ! OK, check those connections, tighten. Try again. Works! Hooray!

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Marching on


I'm writing this one week ago today, fingertips tingling as warmth returns to them. It's somewhere between 40 and 44 degrees outside, depending on whether you ask the Amazon Echo or the thermometer on the back porch. The sky is sunny, and the wind is gusty. As it is in March.

What's this all about? March 11 was our first outdoor laundry hanging of 2021. Sunny and gusty is exactly what you want, and then the air temperature doesn't matter so much. Except to my fingers. 

I wrote about laundry and numb fingers in October, too, and yes, I wimped out promptly thereafter. I'm also disappointed to report that I did not test hanging a towel out in January to see if laundry would dry on a sunny but sub-freezing day in our backyard. I forgot about until I just now glanced back at that October post. Oh, well. Next January?

March is also a time for starting seeds indoors. This year, I treated myself to a warming mat to put under my seed trays, which are set up in the basement with a grow light. 

The seeds went in on February 27. Marigolds were the first to sprout, followed by tomatoes, and now I'm starting to see some petunia, moss rose, and basil cotyledons (the first two seed leaves). Still waiting on the other herbs to rear their heads. I'm brewing an idea for a vertical herb garden along our fence, where the plants can better share the space with rain barrels. Hm...

It's probably time to flip those rain barrels right-side-up again. They'd been disconnected, emptied, and stacked upside-down for the winter. Let's add that to the to-do list and see how quickly I forget about it.


Thursday, March 11, 2021

Foosball table restoration


Jay Blades is everywhere. We first encountered the funky style of this furniture restorer on a show called "Money for Nothing." People would be about to throw something into the dump when host Sarah Moore would rescue it, take it to one of her many artisan/designer associates for upcycling, then sell it and give that money back to the original owner. Your trash was worth something! Jay usually painted one leg of a chair a neon color.

Then, we found "The Repair Shop" on Netflix. Oh, how funny, there's Jay Blades again. This time, he's helping restore old things to their former glory, the only style updates sometimes being a modern upholstery fabric.

Most recently, we discovered "Gok's Fill Your House for Free." It's actually a few years older but just as fun to watch. Think thrift-store and curbside furniture upcycled into cool pieces for home remodeling projects. And, of course, Jay Blades is one of the designers, splashing his bright colors and mod designs on dressers, desks, headboards, and a valet stand.

Anyway, in the spirit of rescuing and restoring home goods, here's one of the latest projects at our house:

Len had already built new legs for this old foosball table we picked off the curb last January, and now he's restoring the game-play components. Polishing rusty rods, replacing a broken guy, cleaning the bumpers and bearings. In the top left, you can barely make out the mess of tiny ball bearings waiting to be put back in.


Thursday, March 4, 2021

Adventures in Cake Decorating #6 - Construction Site Cake


Cakes have several things going for them at the moment.

  1. It's been a deep winter, cold, wet, and gray. We were buried in snow here, and even Texas had frozen over. Who doesn't feel like eating sugar and fat? (New Year's resolutions, shmoo schmear shmezoshmooshuns.)

  2. My coworkers had a secret-Santa gift exchange. My secret Santa sent me some great cake-decorating tools and an idea book. I've had cakes on my mind.

  3. A daily Pinterest notification reminds me of this cool construction site cake I made for a nephew's third birthday. (It must be my most photogenic cake, despite being served on a baking sheet.)

So, let's talk about it.

It's chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, all the better to represent the earth beneath our feet. A little extra cake baked in a bread pan made a partial tier on one end for a three-dimensional, excavation look. 

The edible decorations are candy: Whoppers as boulders and various Hershey minis for a brick or cinder-block wall. Crushed Oreos are the loose soil. I repeated my grass tufts from the Cars-inspired cakes, again using Wilton tip #233 and a little chocolate icing dropped into the piping bag with the green for the occasional streak of multicolor multidimension.

My sister-in-law found the fun orange traffic-cone candles. And, I did indeed use the toy bulldozer to bulldoze the "3" into the layer of Oreo dirt to reveal the chocolate icing mud beneath it.

Using toys as cake decorations always makes me think of a dinosaur cake I saw in the grocery store bakery, oh, ages ago, back when I wanted such a dinosaur cake for my birthday. (Let's be honest, I still think dinosaurs are pretty cool.) I remember it was a sheet cake with a small volcano (maybe made of cake and frosting, maybe made of plastic) and a river painted onto the frosting in deft shades and swirls to look like it was flowing. There were small plastic dinosaurs and plastic palm trees to complete the scene. It's been a long time since I've seen a cake in that style in a bakery case. 

Part of me wants to place nothing on a cake that isn't edible. Another part of me remembers that old dinosaur cake and realizes how fun (and handy) it can be to use toys as decorations. 

I never had that dinosaur cake for my birthday. This is not a lament. I had many awesome homemade birthday cakes as a kid -- one shaped like a flying saucer, a giant Rice Krispies treat in the shape of a jack'o'lantern, a stacked brownie-strawberry-and-whipped-cream thing. More than once I asked for apple pie as my birthday "cake" because I loved my mom's apple pies. But, the grocery store dino cake has stuck with me for some reason. It was one of those imprints that just never leaves your brain.

I wonder if any of the cakes I've made for my niblings will be among their Polaroids of life left out on top their mind-desk, easily rediscovered with a random sifting of the surface, or if they will blur into a kaleidoscope of birthday extravagance, where everything is so big and amazing that no one thing can stand out. Maybe they'll remember instead a super-delicious but plain-looking cake on a random Sunday afternoon, or a cake that toppled when the dog tore through the kitchen (it'll happen), or some other cake in a bakery window that they saw but never had.


Thursday, February 25, 2021

Spring is coming


Remember in the late fall, those first mornings of light frost on the ground? It feels chill-you-to-the-bone cold and wet outside. Time to line the windows with plastic wrap and hunker down for the season. Sorry, dog, just a short walkies today. Your face stings in the northerly wind. Your bare hands take turns holding the leash, one in a jacket pocket while the other one turns red from exposure to the icy air, then switch.

And now, in this last week of February, after an epoch of single digits on the thermometer out back (and some double digits, but all negative) and never-ending snow, the temperature cracks 30 and even creeps above freezing. The sun is out. Oh, glory! Spring is coming! You strip off the wool mittens, unveil your face from behind the Tom Baker scarf, and let your bare skin breathe in the refreshing air. The dog gets a full four blocks today. Steady on the ice patch of a sidewalk. Never mind that four months ago a day 20 degrees warmer felt like certain frostbite.

So it goes every year, I think. You face November's dropping temperatures with dread. Maybe you have holidays to brighten things up, but they'll only carry you so far past the winter solstice, i.e. early winter. Most of the season still lies ahead. The sun disappears forever, temperatures continue falling, your living room couch becomes a hoard of fleece blankets, and you know that old groundhog is going to see his shadow like he always does. And then one day, it's five o'clock and you notice sunlight still lingering on the horizon. Today, it might be 20 degrees colder than that first bitter wind promising winter was coming, but it is also 40 degrees warmer than it was two weeks ago. Sweet joy.

At this point, green thumbs start to itch, and the snow can't melt fast enough. There will still be temperature ups and downs. The weather will oscillate between hints of spring and reminders that it's still winter, getting our hopes up, and then trying our patience. 

I'll try to moderate my springtime dreaming, try to keep it real. Here are a few seedlings of hope in my head right now:

  • New trees! Apple and cherry, scheduled to arrive in early April. We're literally putting down roots at our new home -- and attempting to espalier. Expect future posts on this topic.
  • A more purposeful herb garden. I have some perennials (sage, oregano) in a bed out front, but I have my eye on a sunnier space along the fence in back, near the rain barrels. It will be a lush mix of more perennials (thyme, rosemary, parsley) and some annuals (cilantro, basil, chamomile) -- with cutesy identification markers.
  • The Big Restoration of Our Windows and Doors. You're right, this is not very moderate. It's huge. But there it is. Hopefully, future posts on this as well.