Sunday, March 29, 2009

Disembodied Summer Queen Arms
...but at least she's starting to look more human than just teal swirls. She should have a head in a week or two with any luck.
This is getting exciting for me - it's been 10 years (10 years!!!) since I started Spring Queen, and it'll be nice to finally be finished the series.

Friday, March 27, 2009


I thought I'd do a little home brewed vanilla extract primer, because I seem to retype these instructions somewhat regularly.

So - I'm a foodgeek. I brew my own vanilla extract. Yes, you can make your own vanilla extract. It's easy, it's inexpensive after the initial investment, and it's really, really good, especially if you like to bake. Well ok, if you don't like to bake, this is utterly useless to you and you can skip the whole post :-)

First - there's vanilla beans. You've probably seen them at the grocery store, with one or two sad little dried beans stuffed into a glass jar for an outrageous price. Just leave them alone. You'll thank me.

Buy your beans - in bulk - online. I buy through eBay from Vanilla Products USA, usually about a half pound or so at a time. They're reasonably priced (go do a search - you'll see) and great quality - a totally different beast than what you find in a grocery store. You don't need to buy the highest quality beans - I generally buy the cheaper ones, and am quite happy with them.

There are two basic types of vanilla beans. Madagascar Bourbons are robust in flavor and have loads of seeds. They're great for just about anything you want vanilla for. Tahitians are more "floral" in flavor and have fewer seeds. I like the Tahitians better for things like creme anglaise, pastry cream, ice cream base, creme brulee, etc. It's a personal preference - as inexpensive as they are on eBay, get a few of each and play with your food.

To make your own vanilla extract, you need: Vanilla beans + booze + time.

So let's say you bought yourself a half pound of beans from eBay. FYI, you want to store your beans as airtight as possible - I keep mine in a ziploc bag with the air squeezed out, then in a rubbermaid container, then in a dark cabinet. Air dries them out.

In addition to the beans, you need:

1. A glass foodsafe jar (dark glass if you have it, but Mason jars are cheap and work just fine). It's my understanding that plastic breaks down after a period of time so glass is better. You want something with a wide mouth so you can fish the beans out relatively easily at some point.

2. A dark cabinet where you can keep your extract while brewing.

3. Cheap a$$ rotgut vodka, enough to fill your jar - do not waste the good stuff on this, because the vanilla will take over any flavor the vodka may have. Save your Goose to marinate an olive.

4. Patience. That's the hard part.

So to get it started, make sure your jar is clean and dry. I start a fresh batch with about 6-8 beans, depending on how generous you're feeling with your bean stash. Split the beans, toss pods and seeds into the jar, and fill the jar with vodka. Screw the cap on tightly, and stick it in the cupboard.

Every time you use a bean, throw the scraped pod into the jar of brew. If you use the pod to poach in cream for a pastry cream type product, rinse it off before you add it to the brew. You can also stick the pod in your sugar jar for a week for vanilla sugar...but then still add the pod to the brew. So what I'm saying here is use your vanilla beans as normal, but instead of throwing out the pod, you're going to recycle it into vanilla extract. Thrifty, eh?

And in between - ignore the jar. Let it sit in the dark and do it's thing. You'll notice the color deepen, and when you open it, the vanilla aroma will get stronger and stronger. How long it will take for it to be ready to use depends on your pods to vodka ratio, and how often you add more pods, but it will probably take a couple of months to get a usable strength at first. Basically, you'll be able to tell by smell and a little taste when it's ready.

I siphon some off the "mother jar" into a smaller jar to use, then add more vodka to the mother jar. In the year I've been brewing, I did sieve out the original beans and started again with fresh ones. I find the home brewed vanilla to have a sweetness to it, and a wonderful aroma.

And if you're REALLY adventurous, you can make your own lemon, lime, and orange extract much the same way. Using a vegetable peeler, carefully peel the zest off the citrus fruit (avoid the pith), add to a jar, cover with vodka, then either trim the peel off the fruit or halve and juice as normal.

Happy brewing!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Assorted Stuff

If you're a Mystic Stitch fan, there's a really great sale at their website right now - 4 patterns for $34; they're usually $15 each. Their addy is http://www.mysticstitch.com/; click on special offers.

I'm up in PA visiting my boyfriend this week (spring break at school), and am continuing my quest to check out local cross stitch stores. I visited Just Cross Stitch in Limerick, PA this week. It's a small store, with primarily sampler/country/small stuff type patterns in stock. They did have a nice selection of Mill Hills and threads, and some hand dyed fabrics. Unfortunately they don't carry much of the style of cross stitch that I do, so I ended up leaving without a purchase.

Still plugging away at Summer Queen. Mind you, most of what I've been doing is filling in the grey shading, as well as getting some of the white filled in on the teal skirt. Whew, there's a lot of white on this one!! For now, getting Summer finished is my priority as far as stiching goes - no new projects until she's finished (hahaha).

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Introducing Gremlin

I had a question about the critter getting a belly rub on my profile picture, so I thought I'd introduce her here. Her name is Gremlin, and she's a 5 year old peach faced lovebird, silver pied color mutation. I was in contact with the breeder when she was just an egg, and we "met" when she was about 4 weeks old. At the time, she was bouncing around with the other chicks following her (looking like a little alien with only half her feathers in) and came right up to me with a "who the hell are you" attitude. She came home with me a couple of weeks later.

Gremlin spends most of her life living up to her name - she's full of mischief, as most lovebirds are. No, you don't have to keep lovies in pairs - they're actually more friendly with their human family if they're singles. She does have a buddy - my cockatiel Piper, who lives in the cage next door. While Gremlin doesn't like to be handled by most people, she'll happily roll over and get a belly rub from me. She's a bit hard to photograph when up to her usual antics because she's very alert and immediately gets defensive when the camera comes out LOL

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Old Stuff

One of my primary reasons for wanting to have a blog was to start cataloging some of the needlework and other projects that I'm doing now, and to also show some things I've done in the past. So on that, here are two of my favorite cross stitch pieces that I've given to my parents.

This is from 1999 (I'm really glad I date my large pieces, otherwise I'd never remember!). It was supposed to be a bellpull, but I never did find bellpull hardware that I really liked, so my mom went ahead and had it framed. It's DMC floss on 28 count linen so 3 threads, no backstitching, and very simple colors. I really don't remember the designer or name of the design, but my mom has always liked Jacobean style florals, so she really loved this pattern. I loved that it only took me about 2 weeks to finish the piece.

This is from 2003; it's called "Dream Lover" and thus far is the only piece I've completed from Silver Lining (I've started another iris called Edith Wolford that is purple and orange). I made several trips to visit my folks during the period where I was working on this, and was informed - repeatedly - by my father about how much he loves irises, and did I know irises are his favorite, and that he really loves this piece, and by the way, did I know how much he loves irises? So guess what dad got for Christmas....? Ah well.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

As promised - Fairy Idyll, finished in February 2009.

Some close ups of Fairy Idyll

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Progress on "Meeting on the Turret Stairs" from Artecy.com

As you can see, this project required a different approach than the Mirabilias do. I've been working it one 10x10 block at a time, and usually drop down a couple of stitches here and there to make sure the next row lines up. I really love how it's coming out. The material is an 18 count off white Aida - it looks a little darker because of the lighting where I was taking the picture.

Update on Summer Queen

More of her skirt done, and some of the grey shading. All of the "white" spots on the dress still need to be filled in, but I try to leave the white for the last of the floss stitching.

Materials for Midsummer Night's Fairy by Mirabilia
Yeah, ok, I know. It's another Mirabilia. I think the background color for projects is very important. I still think the best way to find a good fabric is to get your floss together, and just toss the pile on top of the fabric - you'll see fairly quickly what works and what doesn't. This is Misty Blue 32 count belfast linen.
Materials for Sleeping Beauty by Mirabilia
This is a great example of why it's really great when people share pictures of their needlework. Sandy on the Mirbilia yahoo group had a fantastic background color for her version of Sleeping Beauty, and was kind enough to help me find the same fabric. It's a hand dyed 32 count lugana from Picture Plus called Fathom - it has a really pretty pattern (although subtle) to it.
New Toy!

The new camera got here! I previously had a Canon PowerShot A75, which is a little 3.2 megapixel PHS style camera (PHS = push here, stupid). I really liked it a lot - it was simple, took pretty good pictures, had gone with me to Nashville and Maine and Virginia and New Hampshire among other places, all that good stuff...up until it died about a month ago. Since it was about 5 years old at that point (and did I mention 3.2 megapixels?), it really wasn't worth getting fixed.

I eventually want to get a really good camera, as I enjoy photography and would like to pursue it more as a hobby at some point. However, it's just not in the budget to drop a thousand dollars on a camera right now.

The new toy is a Canon PowerShot A590IS, which was very reasonably priced, partly because they are discontinuing the model right now. But at what I wanted to pay for it (and 8.0 megapixels), it's perfect for me for right now. Yay!

As soon as I figure out how to use it, I'll have some new pictures posted.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Short List

I thought I'd share a couple of the projects I have lined up to get started sometime in the forseeable future. You know how that goes - there are designs you love and want to do "someday", and there are those you're planning to do as soon as you can handle yet another ongoing project (in my case, I usually have all the materials gathered into a kit). There's something great about knowing that it's there waiting for you, whenever you're ready to go, isn't there?
I have two projects I'm working on quite a bit right now - Summer Queen and Meeting on the Turret Stairs. I also have Crystal Symphony and Silver Lining's Edith Wolford which are not quite in the UFO status but I haven't worked on them any time in the recent past - my goal is to get back to them and finish them sometime in 2009. So, I'm not quite sure how soon I'll allow myself to start yet another one, but it will be soon :-)

I've always loved Mirabilia's Midsummer Night's Fairy. Last summer, I decided to do Mermaids of the Deep Blue, and ended up buying an extra large piece of Amsterdam Blue linen for it. I decided to go ahead and do Midsummer's on the spare piece. Once I got all the threads, however, I felt that the Amsterdam Blue was too dark of a background compared to the colors of the Fairy. So back into the stash the Amsterdam Blue went, and I recently got a piece of Misty Blue belfast linen, which is a much lighter blue and perfect for the background. I think the only way to really know if a background color is going to work for a piece is to gather all the threads, then hold them up to the fabric to see how it will work. Unfortunately that's a little difficult to do since I shop online for fabric, so a little glitch here and there is to be expected.

Anyway, I have Midsummer kitted up, complete with threads, specialty threads, beads, fabric, ready to go when I finish one of the other Mirabilias that I'm working on. Now I just have to decide what to do on that other piece of Amsterdam Blue - another Mermaid, most likely.

This is http://www.artecy.com/ version of My Sweet Rose by John William Waterhouse. It's one of my all time favorite paintings. I had a poster of it that moved around to several different apartments with me until it just about disintegrated. I have the pattern, but I don't have any of the materials for it as yet - it will just need DMC floss, and I can do it on Aida since none of the background fabric shows.

And last but not least....another Mirabilia, Sleeping Beauty. I attempted to do Sleeping Beauty many years ago - it was actually the first piece I ever tried to do on linen. Simply put - it went horribly. I had no idea what I was doing and I didn't know anyone who could help me with it. I just didn't have the skills at the time to make it happen. I gave up working on it, and goodness knows what happened to the materials, threads, etc - I probably threw them out.
I have since learned how to stitch on linen, which is now my fabric of choice. I still love the design , so I decided to give it another crack. I just got a piece of Fathom lugana by Picture This, which is a hand dyed fabric. Many thanks to Sandy on the Mirabilia yahoo group for pointing me towards that fabric. It's the first time I'm using hand dyed fabric, and I'm really looking forward to working on it.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Purple Chicken (aka chicken in wine sauce)

Thus called because well...it's kind of purple when it's finished. This is a family favorite; it's rich, tender, flavorful. The chicken is ultra-tender and wonderful.

8 bone in chicken thighs, skin removed and excess fat trimmed off
5-6 strips of bacon, cut into small pieces
1/2 lb carrots, peeled and cut into thick slices
1 lb button and cremini mushrooms, sliced thick
2 large onions, peeled, halved, sliced
1 rib of celery, sliced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups chicken stock
4 cups dry red wine, divided
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 tablespoon corn starch
2 tablespoons butter
fresh chopped parsley or chives for garnish

Cook the bacon in a dutch oven until crispy; remove from pan. Sprinkle the chicken thighs with salt and pepper, then brown in the bacon fat (may need to do in batches). Remove from pan. Try not to snitch too much of the cooked bacon. Drain off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat, then sautee the onions, celery, carrots, and mushrooms in the pan over medium heat until cooked down, about 12-15 minutes. Add the garlic and sautee an extra minute. Remove veggies from the pan, then add 1/2 cup of wine to deglaze the pan, scraping well to get all the fond (aka the stuff browned onto the bottom of the pan). Put the chicken, bacon & veggies back in the pan with the chicken stock, 3 cups of wine, and thyme, and bring to a boil. (You should have 1/2 cup of wine left over) Transfer the dutch oven to a 250 degree oven and bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until chicken is falling off the bone. Take the dutch oven out of the oven. Using a slotted spoon, remove the chicken and veggies to an ovenproof bowl or plate. Be careful not to let the chicken fall apart. Turn the oven off and return the chicken to the oven to keep warm. Put the dutch oven on the stove on medium high and reduce the wine/stock by half. Reduce the temp to medium low. Mix the corn starch in 1/2 cup of remaining wine, then add to the wine sauce; whisk well. Then do a Julia Child and dollop in the butter, and stir to melt. Return the chicken and veggies to the pot, and let simmer for a few minutes until thick. Salt & pepper to taste.

Typically I serve this with mashed potatoes or brown/wild rice and a green veggie, and maybe a glass or two of pinot noir. To make a fully Francophile-esq company meal, I'll round it out with chocolate mousse for dessert. For even more "frou frou" ness, I've been known to use boneless chicken thighs, and tuck a sausage into the cavity.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

I'm trying something "new" these days. I've made my first foray into online downloads of cross stitch patterns. They really have exploded in availability in the last couple years. I'll admit - I like my newspapers and books in print rather than online, and I like to browse through a needlework store for patterns.

When it comes to cross stitch, I like designs that are substantial, pretty, and romantic - bonus points if they've got a Victorian flavor to them.

I found Artecy.com after a couple of websearches. What I like about them: all of their designs are posted so you get to see upfront what's available for your membership; you have the option of buying the designs one at a time OR pay a one time fee for as many as you'd like (both of which are reasonable); and they have a huge variety of cross stitch designs of famous paintings. They certainly have other designs, but it was the classic paintings that really got my attention. Getting your design is simple: sign in and download the design in PDF format. The bonus is that because I'm trying to downsize my "stuff", I can just keep the patterns in electronic format until I'm ready to work on them.

I recently started working on "Meeting on the Turret Stairs" by Frederic William Burton. As a friend of mine pointed out, I tend to do very feminine designs (queens, mermaids, fairies, flowers, etc), so I really wanted to do something that featured a couple and wasn't so in-your-face girly. It's still quite romantic though (but you knew that).

I've had to adjust my style of working on cross stitch projects in order to successfully work on it, and thus far it's going really well. There are no partial stitchs or backstitching, but the whole design is stitched (no background material shows) and there's a great deal of confetti stitching. Additionally, many of the colors are VERY similar.

So what I've done is put all of my floss on floss cards, and keep all the excess cut floss on those as well. Rather that work on larger areas (you can see how I follow shading on Fairy Idyll pics that I've previously posted), I'm having to basically work on one 10x10 square of the design at a time. I've found it easiest to start at the top, and work on one square moving left to right. I've completed the third row (just above the tops of their heads), and I like how it's shaping up. Also, by focusing on and completing a small area at a time, I'm finding the confetti stitching much less annoying that I normally do. I'm working with 2 threads of floss on an 18 count Aida. That's one nice thing about these designs - since all of the background material is covered in stitching, I can save a little money and use Aida instead of my usual linen.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

An update on the progress of Fairy Idyll. I actually took this at the end of January before the digital camera kicked out. I love how you can see the outline of the arm and the rabbit head, although they haven't been filled in yet. .
The electronics gremlins are running rampant in my home unfortunately, hence the break in posts. Not only did my laptop crash and burn (had to replace the hard drive) but so did my digital camera (which I will have to replace completely).

So pictures may be a little scarce for the time being, but I'm working on that. However, I have a couple of posts I'll put through tonight.