Sunday, December 31, 2006

Year in review

"Youth is when you're allowed to stay up late on New Year's Eve. Middle age is when you're forced to." (Bill Vaughn)

I've been pretty ambivalent about celebrating new year's this year. Actually, ambivalent is not strong enough. Given that I was really hoping Edmund and I would become parents this past year, it's hard to look back and focus on how that didn't happen. Given all the adoption snags, it's also hard to confidently look ahead and be sure that we will be parents in 2007. So while I'll probably stay up with to celebrate East Coast new year and watch the ball drop, I'll probably be in bed before midnight.

The rest of our visit to Wisconsin has been more fun. We went to Comedy Sportz, where my budding thespian nephew went on stage as a volunteer from the audience. On NYE my mom made fondue: cheese, meat (lots of meats, including venison, elk and wild turkey), and chocolate. It was yummy! Ed and I also got to take a nice hike in the woods before brunch.

So while I don't want to reflect on the year as a whole, I thought some blog reminiscing might be fun. I read about this here and here. You're supposed to share the first line of your first post of each month. Supposedly it gives you a snapshot of your year. Since I've only been blogging since March, I'll have to start there.

March: Today I admitted for the first time that I am addicted to reading knitting blogs.

April: When my husband and I moved into our condo in Chicago's Lincoln Square, it was the first time I'd lived in a place with my own washer and dryer.

May: A member of the Patterns of the Past Yahoo group pointed me to the A Good Yarn site, which has a whole bunch of free vintage patterns.

June: Today I am 42.

July: While at my parents' last weekend, I knit up a quick fortune cookie, using the pattern for the smaller one (from IndigoMuse).

August: Surprise!

September: Because of all the new hassles with our adoption (see my Dear Sam and Sophie blog here), I haven't had much time or energy to work on Sam's blanket.

October: It's official... fall is here.

November: So you would think that garage sales would be over by late October in the Windy City, wouldn't you.

December: Well, I made my deadline: 10 Purse-onalities (recycled felted wool sweater purses with vintage tie handles) and delivered to them to my friend Stephanie yesterday for a Sunday craft show/house party.

Friday, December 29, 2006


"In this strange season when we are suspended between realization and expectation, may we be found honest about darkness, more perceptive of the light." (Jack Boozer, quoted in Night Visions by Jan Richardson)

Last night I delivered my last Christmas gifts: these cute star-shaped boxes that I decorated and filled with my famous homemade toffee (recipe to follow). These were paper mache boxes I bought on clearance years ago and swore I would decorate and use this year. So I spray painted them silver and stamped them with swirls, stars, and the word "believe" in blue and sparkly silver, then glued on blue ribbon the side of the lids. My favorite part was the packaging: I wrapped them in bridal illusion tulle. Pretty, aren't they?

Even though I have the flu or strep or some sort of throat infection, I went out with my girlfriends last night, because Virginia was in town from California and I only get to see her once a year. (That's me with her at left. She is beautiful, I think.) She's strugging with whether or not to break off her engagement, so she needed some quality time with our former women's group. Lourdes, Suzanne and Staci also made it to Caro Mio, a great Italian restaurant near my house.

The toffee recipe is from my mom, but I've become the family toffee maker. I probably do at least 6 or 8 batches a year, and everyone from my work has come to expect it every Christmas. People are always impressed, but it's really very easy. You just need a candy thermometer.

Heidi's Toffee:

2 sticks of butter, unsalted
1 1/3 c. sugar
1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. Karo white corn syrup
3 Tbsp. water.
Chocolate chips
Nuts (optional)

Melt butter on medium heat in saucepain. Add sugar, corn syrup and water. Stir and cook on medium heat until it reaches 300 degrees on candy thermometer. Watch very carefully and stir constantly after 280 degrees. Immediately revmove from heat and pour onto cookie sheets; tilt to make as thin as possible. Let sit for a few minutes till solid, but not cool, then top with chocolate chips. When they melt, spread chocolate. Add chopped nuts, if desired. (I usually don't do nuts because so many people are allergic or don't like them.) Let cool overnight or for several hours. Break into pieces.

The trick is not to cook it past 300 or it's too hard, or not to undercook it or it's crumbly. Every couple years someone in our family claims to get the "toffee curse" and it won't turn out. One year I accidentally used salt instead of sugar. Usually the culprit is an inaccurate candy thermometer.

Finally, a meme from the Sew Mad blog (whose book happened to be in German!). I don't usually do these, but this was kind of interesting and weird:

1. Grab the book closest to you.
2. Open to page 123, go down to the fifth sentence.
3. Post the text of next 3 sentences on your blog.
4. Name of the book and the author.
5. Tag three people

Here it is: "You already taste the way things must be. The other thing that made Mrs. Sen happy was fish from the seaside. It was always a whole fish she desired, not shelfish, or the fillets Eliot's mother had broiled one night a few months ago when she'd invited a man from her office to dinner--the man who'd spent the night in his mother's bedroom, but whom Eliot never saw again." (Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri)

Consider yourself tagged.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Next Christmas

"I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach." (Scrooge, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)
This is a craft project from a Christmas past. I got these wooden Christmas trees from a craft fair, stained and painted them (flicking white paint with a toothbrush for snow) then added painted hearts with the family members' names on them. For two years my mother-in-law has been bugging me to bring her another heart with my name on it. So this year I added myself and our new niece, Elena.

Yesterday while visiting one of Ed's friends in downtown Philadelphia, we walked by a Christmas tree on the curb for trash already. The day after Christmas! I couldn't believe it. I like to keep my tree and other decorations up until Epiphany (Jan. 6) though the priest at our Christmas Mass told us that we are supposed to keep the Christmas spirit until Jan. 9, Jesus' baptism. (Of course, really we are supposed to keep the Christmas spirit all year long, but we're supposed to practice for these two weeks.)

At this point in the year I always think that now would be a good time to do a few Christmas things here and there so I wouldn't always be rushed. I think one blogger even suggested a formal "make one gift per month" project. Of course, those never work, do they? Because just like we need special time like Christmas and Advent to get ready for Christmas, I think our bodies need what the church calls Ordinary Time, when there are no big feasts. And of course our psyches like the rhythm of each year: next comes Valentine's Day, so we prepare for that rather than next year's Christmas.

Still, now might be a good time (while ideas are fresh in my head) to jot down a few things I'd like to do next year that I didn't get to this year:

1. Some soft trees and a button tree.
2. Make my own cards (maybe)
3. A handmade gift for cookie baking (can't give details because other bakers read the blog)
4. These cute knit and felted pointsettias, which I saw on Knitty Gritty (now on HGTV. Yea!)
5. Stamp my own gift wrap and make matching tags
6. (To be continued...)

Now, whether any of these will actually get done is a total crapshoot, since we are expecting our son from Vietnam during 2007, and may even be preparing to travel for our daughter from China around this time next year. See the base of that tree? I already made two little hearts for Sam and Sophie. See, I'm doing my best to try to hang onto that Christmas spirit of hope!

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas in Philly

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." (Isaiah 9:2)
(Holly from my in-laws' front yard)

Christmas in Philadelphia is very different than Christmas in the Midwest. My in-laws are wonderful, loving people, but ones who will never be accused of stressing out about Christmas. My first Christmas here, they handed each other gifts still in the plastic Target bags. There are very few traditions that they have to do each year. Their tree is artificial.

But I have come to love Christmas at the Butler household. For one thing, it's always very relaxed. Since I've arrived, I've taken one or more naps per day and knit half a baby sweater. The Butlers also know how to laugh and have a good time. Last night we were cracking up during the present opening as we all tried to blow up the exercise ball Trish got her Dad. Earlier she and her dad were playing air guitar to the Stones.

But there's a little bit of sadness this Christmas, as Ed's dad is still not feeling well after last year's radiation and chemo for esophageal cancer. The current problem is back pain, and since other things have been ruled out, he is scheduled for a CAT scan tomorrow to see if there are any tumors causing it. We're all a little nervous.

So if you have time today, while enjoying your family this Christmas, say a little prayer for my father-in-law. I know he is going to be such a great grandpa, so I hope he's around for a long, long time.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Friday, December 22, 2006


"All is calm, all is bright..." (Silent Night)

You know that feeling, when everything comes together? When all the preparation is done and the dinner party goes off without a hitch? When the last of the presents are bought and you can relax and know that there's nothing left you have to do? That's where I am now.

Yesterday I finished our last big pre-Christmas project: packing for our trip to Philadelphia to spend a week with my husband's family. We were lucky enough to just miss all the airport mess from the Denver storm and arrived on time. Today we did a quick trip to the store for a few last-minute gifts and Christmas cards (I always end up writing those during the holidays). Now we can relax and just enjoy friends and family.

A lot of bloggers are taking a break this next week, but I finally have the time to do some blog reading and hope to catch up on them, so don't be surprised if you see a few belated comments from me! I also brought some knitting with me, so I may have a few things to post. Christmas at my in-laws is definitely low-key: I already took two naps today!

I'm lucky that I didn't feel too stressed this year, despite two dinner parties and travel earlier than usual. I kept thinking, "How much harder would this be with a baby?" I guess we'll find out next year. Some people are either stressing out that they won't get it all done or finally admitting that some well-meaning plans won't happen. I try to be realistic, and to plan ahead. I like this challenge that I learned about from A Very Mary Design who referenced this. It calls for making one gift a month next year, so as not to be stressed out in December. I may try to do that.

While I'm on vacation, I'm going to spend some time letting my creative imagination go wild. I might have time to read this cool website I discovered at Artsy Mama. I'll definitely go back over all the blog posts I've clipped the past few months. I may hit a thrift shop here in Philadelphia. When I get back home, I'll be sure to start making more recycled felt purses and start figuring out what to do with all my felt scraps.

I know I only have four Blogline subscribers here, but I sense there are a few more of you out there reading regularly. After the new year, I think I'll have a contest to try to get some lurkers to post a comment! I thank all of you who follow my knitting, crafty and thrifting pursuits and who have gotten to know me over the past year. I wish you all a wonderful holiday and many blessings in 2007! Now, back to those Christmas cards...

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Heidi squared

"No one has ever become poor by giving." (Anne Frank)

I know you've heard this before, but the generosity of craft bloggers is amazing. They are generous with their time, making gifts for family and friends and sharing recipes and patterns with the blog world; and with their stuff, joining swaps and other give-aways. And some just mail almost complete strangers gifts out of the blue. It's really pretty amazing when you think about it. And it really typifies what Christmas gift-giving is supposed to be all about: the gift of self to another, with no expectation of anything in return.

I once again have been the lucky recipient of another blogger's generosity. The title of one woman's blog caught my eye when I first started reading craft blogs: Vacuuming in High Heels and Pearls. Pretty clever, huh? And then it turned out her name was Heidi. I've always liked my name, but it sure isn't common (although someone once told me it's the fourth most common name for dogs), so I have been surprised to see a few crafty Heidis out there.

Well, Heidi offered a Christmas gift pack to the lucky person selected from one day's comments and I won! Isn't that serendipity? And yesterday I received her extremely generous package. Included were a mug and candle (not shown because they're already in use), eight fabric cocktail napkins, vintage jingle bells on a card, a cute "Jingle" ornament from Target, a beautiful handmade card, a napkin of vintage fabric (I think) rimmed in rickrack, a little bag of Christmasy buttons and ribbon, some snowflake gift bags, a package of apper 3-D trees, and four cute little Christmas books that I assume she made. Those are my second-favorite; my favorite was this little collection of vintage Christmas cards. Aren't they adorable?

I am so touched that Heidi took time the busy week before Christmas to lovingly put together this collection of Christmas goodies and mail them to a perfect stranger. Thank you so much, Heidi! I hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas!

Update: It looks like Heidi is snowed in in Denver. I hope you can get out soon to go visit your families in Utah!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Hostess with the mostess

"Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall." (Larry Wilde)

This is my family. My mom, dad (on phone with my grandma), sister and her husband (Yes, he is wearing a black dickie under a white sweater, a la Cousie Eddie in Christmas Vacation.) They were all nice enough to drive 1.5 to 2 hours just so I could have some Christmas celebration at my house this year. Because our snug two-bedroom condo doesn't sleep nine, I can't host any overnight holidays.

I served three kinds of homemade soup: my White Bean Chicken Chili, and two soups from The New Basics: a Winter Squash pureed with cream, and a brothier winter vegetable with potatoes, leeks, celery and spinach. The three kids (not pictured) had canned chicken noodle.

We exchanged gifts last night, and my parents were so generous, buying us a videocamera so we can take video while in Vietnam and later of their grandchildren. I can't believe how small it is! I'm taking a poll: Do people think we need one that holds more than 7 hours of video? I doubt it.

My brother-in-law kept with a tradition of giving us home improvement as a gift. Last year he installed our new kitchen lights. This year I unwrapped a piece of drywall, which meant he was going to fix the holes he left in our ceiling. In the past year he has learned how to drywall--by going to Mississippi to help rebuild houses after Katrina.

But the best gift of all was this beautiful pin made by my 15-year-old godson Jack. It's that clear polymer stuff in a bottlecap with a little wreath. I also got a matching one with a snowflake. My sister (the non-crafty one, of Jesse Tree fame) has her kids make a gift each year for each of their grandparents and godparents. As the kids get older, the gifts get nicer and nicer! Last year I got a beautiful hand-painted silk scarf. I love the idea of instilling in my kids the importance of giving of yourself, so I plan to adopt this tradition with my own children.

Thanks again, Schlumpfs, for making the treck to our house. We'll see you soon at New Year's!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

My secret Santa

"For it isn't the holly, it isn't the snow. It isn't the tree nor the firelight's glow. It's the warmth that comes from the hearts of men [and women], when the Christmas spirit returns again." (Anonymous, from my sister's Christmas letter)

One woman has singlehandedly brought the Christmas spirit to my office. Her name is Jena and she's a relatively new employee in our Publications Marketing Department. Talk about Christmas spirit: She has been counting down Christmas on the department whiteboard for a month, she baked cookies for our company party on Friday, she and her coworker did a great rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" at the party, and she twisted the arm of everyone on our floor to get us to join the company-wide Secret Santa. I joined and was lucky enough to get Jena as my Secret Santa.

I pretty much figured it out on Day One when my gift came in a soap-opera-wrapped box with a rhyming note, "On the first day of presents, my Secret Santa gave to me, a gift that's as vintage as can be." That girl scoured my blog, learned all about me, went to the Salvation Army and found this amazine felt-and-sequins mobile for 89 cents. Most people got a few chocolates or a coffee. I got this incredibly cool decoration that is so me, I could hardly believe it. Isn't it adorable?

Well, the next day I got some fruity candy in a yoga tin and snowman mug, then some Asian-themed notepaper, then a knitting loom accessory. On Friday we got our final gift and mine included this amazing vintage Christmas apron, which she found on eBay. I don't know if you can see in the photo, but it is all tiny pleats and in excellent condition. (Doesn't it look nice with those biker boots?)

That night I wore my new apron for a fondue party we hosted for six of our friends. (Oops, I mean seven. I almost forgot little Lincoln, shown at left with my friend Karen practicing to be a mom!). We had cheese fondue, then beef, chicken, shrimp, broccoli, potatoes and mushrooms in broth (better for you than oil). Dessert was Christmas cookies and the famous Schlumpf Tom and Jerrys. (Not to self: next time a half chicken breast and half sirloin steak per person is enough meat.) Everything was a hit, including the apron. Thank you, Jena, for bringing the Christmas spirit to 205 (our office) and to me!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

O Tannenbaum!

"I think that I shall never see/a poem as lovely as a tree./A tree whose hungry mouth is prest/against the sweet earth's flowing breast;/ A tree that looks at God all day,/and lifts her leafy arms to pray;/A tree that may in summer wear/ A nest of robins in her hair;/Upon whose bosom snow has lain;/Who intimately lives with rain./Poems are made by fools like me,/But only God can make a tree." (Joyce Kilmer, 1886-1918)

Ta-da! The tree is decorated, as is the rest of the house. Last weekend Ed took a short break from writing his two final papers (now done. YEA!) to decorate our tree. A few years ago I decided to go with an all gold/silver/crystal tree, which looks very elegant. My godparents give me a very fancy ornament every year, so I decided with those plus a few gold and silver balls, I can have a theme tree. The rest of my family buys ornaments whereever they go and have a more eclectic tree, but I felt like I needed a change (especially since a bunch of my "travel" ornaments were from the years I was with my ex-husband and not exactly fond memories). Maybe someday we'll have a more "family" tree when we have kids, but for now I really like this look. I do the gold star garland and gold and silver bows too.

I haven't had a chance to post some of my thrifting finds lately, but see that cute gingerbread boy quilt on the table in the background? I found this gorgeous handmade beauty for $1.50. I love it to death. I'm not usually into the "country" look, but I do love the gingerbread man motif.

Other tree-related thrift treasures include these cool ornaments. The glass balls are really heavy, not like the regular ones you buy today, and they have designs in the glass. They may be hand blown, I'm not sure. The pinecones are super-heavy and I can tell they are really old. I think there is a name for this kind of glass. Does anyone know? I hung the gold and silver ones on the tree and put the other three in a bowl with other glass ornaments. These, plus a few others that I didn't really like, were $1.50. Score!

On the topic of trees, there have been lots of cute tree-related decorations out there that I didn't have time to do but may try for next year, including the adorable cone-shaped stuffed trees that everyone is making, and these adorable button trees here and here. I have a few brass trees from Mexico and some painted wooden ones. It would be cute to make these for next year and group them all together.

Finally, among the traditional Schlumpf Christmas cookies are what we call Spritz Trees. My sister's husband believes those silver dragees are not to be consumed, so we make 1/3 without dragees for their family. Here's the recipe from my mom (She notes that sometimes they need a little more flour to work in the cookie press):

Spritz Trees

1 1/4 cups sifted Pillsbury's Best All Purpose Flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon almond extract
few drops of green food coloring
silver dragees

1. Sift together flour and baking powder.
2. Cream butter; add sugar gradually and cream thoroughly.
3. Beat in egg, almond extract and food coloring.
4 Gradually blend in dry ingredients.
5. Fill MIRRO cooky press. Form cookies on ungreased MIRRO Aluminun cooky sheets, using tree plate.
6. Decorate with silver dragees.
7. Bake at 375 degrees 10-12 minutes.
8. Remove at once to cooling rack.
Yield 6-7 dozen.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Amy's Jesse tree

"A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots." (Isaiah 11:1)
Well, we're into the second week of Advent here, so I guess I better show you all my amazing "Advent wreath." It's actually what's called a Jesse Tree, referring to the Old Testament quote above tracing Jesus' lineage back to the Israelites. We had a Jesse tree at the Catholic school I attended for a few years, and as an adult I said I always wanted one for my family.

Last year my "non-crafty" sister made this amazing one for me as my Christmas gift--and she designed it as well. It's made of felt and hangs on the inside of our front door, so you get the idea of how big it is. The tree has velcro patches on it, and each pocket contains a felted, stuffed little image that matches the scripture reading for the day. Below you see the world for Creation, the apple and serpent for Adam and Eve, the ram for Isaac, and the ark for Noah. Aren't they cute?

The daily reading is printed is on a laminated card. And the best part: She used inclusive language in the translations. Perfect for a feminist theologian like myself!

Of course, I only jokingly call my sister "non-crafty." She often feels that way in comparison to my my mother and me, who both knit and do lots of other needlecrafts. After this project she can't call herself "non-crafty" anymore. It is hands down one of the best gifts I ever received (next to the song she learned on the piano and played for me one year). Thanks again, Amy. You're the best sister ever.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Baby news

"A new baby is like the beginning of all things--wonder, hope, a dream of possiblities." (Eda J. Le Shan)
Today I went to a "Sip and See" for my friend Staci and her new baby Frederic. I think this may be a Chicago thing: Friends host a get-together, wine is served, and we all get to meet the new baby. I brought Freddy a new hat, booties and teddy bear, which I knit out of that Lion's Brand Watercolors yarn. I like the soft colors.

In other baby news, my sister-in-law delivered little Elena Torodova Butler this morning in an amazingly short labor. And my good friend D'Arcy headed to the hospital this afternoon to bring her son William into the world! I've already knit Elena a sweater and hat, but Will is coming a few weeks early so I'm behind. Meanwhile, I'll be knitting these tonight for the last of my mailed Christmas packages, which will go in the mail Monday. I need two more pair!

Our own baby news, alas, is not so happy. Seems that the dossier papers we rushed to our agency before Thanksgiving are still not back from the embassy in D.C. Which I find hard to believe, as other agencies say this process takes one or two days. So our dossier has not yet gone to Vietnam, and the big "rules might change" meeting is Tuesday. I'm so sad today, because I know for sure now that the possibility of a referral before the end of the year is impossible now. In fact, I'm afraid we're back to thinking we might meet Sam sometime this spring. How that will affect our China adoption, with the new rules there, I don't know. I should be posting about this on our adoption website, but somehow I'm afraid to, because then it makes if official, somehow. I'm hoping to hear from our agency on Monday, so we'll see what they say then.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A solemn week

"Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all." (Archbishop Oscar Romero, quoted in Context)

Although I have been busy with Christmas preparations and crafting this week (not to mention work), I haven't blogged for several days in part because I've been distracted by two big sad things in the news this week: The first was the death of James Kim, who I first learned about on several craft blogs. I don't know why I was so touched by this story: Perhaps it was because I know people (via blogs) who know them. Or maybe it's just the whole idea of being lost that we all can relate to and are so afraid of. I do believe James was a hero to go out to try to save his family. So many crafters are trying to support them. Some are organizing this gift basket project.

Then today a gunman entered the office building next to my husband's and shot three people dead before the police killed him. Ed's building was locked down during the ordeal. Not to mention the record numbers of U.S. soldiers and Iraqis dying this week... Seems like so much death and sadness as we all prepare for what's supposed to be the happiest time of the year. If nothing else, it makes our bad news of more delays on our adoption seem tiny by comparison.

Meanwhile, my mom has written a great summary of the 2006 Schlumpf Women Cookie Baking Weekend. She details that among the 1,836 cookies were 249 gingerbread people, 525 sugar cookie cutouts, 279 creme de menthe bon bons, 133 spritz trees, 171 wreaths 161 and thumbprints and more. That's my sister and my Aunt Pat decorating gingerbread boys and girls in the photo above. My Aunt Pat launched her blog this week.

In other crafting news, I am happy to report that I have now sold 10 of my "Purse-onalities" recycled felted sweater purse bags: seven to friends and three at last Sunday's house party. This brown and orange one went to my friend Karen. (Blogger won't let me post the photo.) I only have five left, though I am making more, just not at the pace I was cranking them out in the past couple weeks. I plan to try to put them on etsy early next week. When I've been hitting the thrift stores to stock up on sweaters, fabric and ties for the purses, I've picked up some other cool things. I'll try to get some photos this weekend and do a thrift post next week.

Meanwhile, I'll be praying for some peace for those who have lost loved ones in this past week. May God give them peace.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Happy St. Nicholas Day!

"The more we love, the bigger we are." (The late William Sloane Coffin)

Does anyone out there celebrate St. Nicholas Day? Today is the feast day of the bishop on whom Santa Claus was modeled. Especially in German families, the tradition is to put your shoe out the night before and you get goodies. When we were kids, we usually got small stuff, like coloring books and candy. My mom and my sister and I still exchange St. Nick's gifts (they're in the mail!), though my Irish husband hasn't picked up the tradition. We are going out to dinner and a comedy fundraiser tonight, so maybe that counts.

I sent my Vintage Christmas Swap package yesterday to my partner Sarah. While I was initially excited to have an overseas partner, I wasn't that excited when the postage was $15! I sent her a bunch of cool things, which I won't mention here in case she is visiting my blog. Having learned from my last swap, I did wrap each gift in cute Christmas fabric and tied them with a yarn bow. That little snowman tin is not vintage, but it contains my yummy homemade toffee, the recipe for which I will share with you now. I make a dozen or more batches of this every year and it's quite the hit. The secret is that it's actually really easy, if you have a good candy thermometer.

Heidi's Christmas Toffee
1 c. unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1 1/3 c. sugar
1 Tbsp. and 1 tsp. white corn syrup (Karo)
3 Tbsp. water
The best chocolate chips you can buy (I often use Ghirardelli)
Chopped nuts (I skip because so many people don't like or are allergic to nuts)

Melt butter over low/med heat. Add sugar, corn syrup and water. Turn up to medium heat and attach candy thermometer to pan. Stir constantly and heat to 300 degrees, watching very carefully after 280 degrees. (You don't want it to be heating too quickly or you can't control the temperature). As soon as it hits 300, remove it from heat, remove the candy thermometer, keep stirring and pour onto cookie sheet. Tip cookie sheet to spread toffee as thin as possible (quickly, before it starts cooling). After it sets up a minute or two, sprinkle chocolate chips (about half a bag or little less) on top. Once they've melted (a few minutes), spread the chocolate to the edges of the toffee. Let harden over night. Break into small pieces and store in tins.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

O Christmas tree!

"The mystery that Christians are asked to embrace is not that Jesus was God but that he was God-made-[human], which is to say, prone to the feelings and doubts and joys and agonies of being human.... God-as-omniscience, by definition, could do and be none of these things. Hence the sacrifice entailed in God becoming [human]. So, at the core of the very gospel on which fundamentalists rely for their passionate certainty is a definition of humanness that is marked by imperfection and uncertainty. Even in Jesus. Perhaps especially in Jesus." (Andrew Sullivan, Newsweek, Oct. 9. 2006)

This is what our porch looked like after the big First Snowfall of 2006 last Friday. See over there on left, that little bit of green? That would be our Christmas tree stand, now frozen into a big solid block of ice. Oops.

Well, I hauled it in and ran hot water on it in the bathtub for a long while, and finally got it thawed. On my way home from Cookie Baking Weekend, I bought a nice tree (may be pine, but the guy thought it might have been a Douglas Fir mismarked) for $38. Definitely cheaper than Chicago. It's about 7 feet tall, not too wide (necessary in our small condo). And it looks so pretty even without decorations, that I'm not in a hurry to get them on. Maybe this weekend.

More cookie recipes tomorrow.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Cookie Baking Weekend

"Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King. Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King. Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! We're going to see the King." (My favorite Advent song/text and music by Andrae Crouch)
Happy first day of Advent, everyone. I'm just home from another weekend in Wisconsin, this time for what we call Schlumpf Women Cookie Baking Weekend. As you can see from the above photo, a lot of cookies were baked. Over 1,800 actually. I am not kidding.

When I was growing up, my mom always baked lots of special cookies at Christmas, and my sister and I helped. We're not a family that has chocolate chip cookies at Christmas. No, we only have these seven or eight kinds that we only have at Christmas: gingerbread boys and girls, wreaths, spritz trees, creme de menthe balls, homemade toffee. When my sister and I were in our 20s, I lived in California and she lived in New York. We both tried to make the traditional Schlumpf cookies, but it was a lot of work for one person.

So, when we both moved back to the Midwest, the idea for Cookie Baking Weekend was born. We would get together at one person's house (usually mom's, as she has the largest kitchen) and bake all the cookies together (in double, triple, and quadruple batches) and be done with it in two short days. It has become one of my favorite family holiday traditions, because my sister, my mom, and I (and now my sister's daughter, Clare) and assorted guests (this year, my Aunt Pat) get to spend time together. But don't think this is any vacation. We work, work, work!

One of our best cookies is our sugar cookie cutouts. We made 535 this year (3 double batches) and had 12 different shapes, which we frosted and decorated. We do it assembly-line style in order. Even so, it took five of us almost three hours to frost and decorate all these cookies. Aren't the Santa faces cute? They have red sugar hats, two black frosting eyes, a cinnamon red hot candy for a nose, and a half a miniature marshmallow for the hat pom pom. That's one of the more putsier ones.

If you're looking for a good sugar cookie recipe, this one is awesome. The secret, my mom thinks, is that it calls for Crisco, not butter. They are crisp, not soft, but really tasty. I'll share the recipe, which we have been using for 37 years now. It came from my kindergarten teacher.

Cut-Out Sugar Cookies
(from Heidi's kindergarten teacher Mrs. Nancy Kumm)

3/4 c. vegetable shortening (Crisco--not butter!)
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 1/2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt

Cream shortening and sugar. Add eggs and vanilla and mix. Add flour, baking powder and salt. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill for at least one hour. Roll out to 1/8-inch thick on floured board. Cut out with cookie cutters. Put on ungreased baking sheet. Bake 375-400 degrees for 6-8 minutes until golden. May sprinkle with colored sugar before baking or frost and decorate after cooled.

I'll be posting more about CBW this week and sharing more Schlumpf family cookie recipes. I'd love to hear if anyone else still bakes Christmas cookies, and what your favorites are.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The last of the Purse-onalities--for now

"You think you know what you are, what's to come. You haven't even begun." (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Well, I made my deadline: 10 Purse-onalities (recycled felted wool sweater purses with vintage tie handles) and delivered to them to my friend Stephanie yesterday for a Sunday craft show/house party. All in all, I made 15 of these, since I sold 5 others to friends already. I'm a little pursed out right now! But here they are. This one is a tan purse with a green and navy nordic print pocket, green striped fabric lining, and a green and navy striped silk tie.

I picked up the purle in this his grey argyle sweater for two mini front pockets. The inside linig is a purple apple print (I think--can't remember!). The tie handle is a dark grey.
These colors are fun: The sweater is aqua and orange striped, the inside fabric is peach with orange dragonflies, and the tie is a two-toned blue stripe.

Another mix of the purple and argyle: This time with the argyle serving as the pocket. The inside fabric is a purple floral, and the tie is a grey and silver pattern. I went for the mismatched vintage button look on this one.

It's hard to see from this bad photo but this is a plum nordic patterned sweater, the inside fabric is vintage purple and lavender apple print, and the tie has plum and pink in the stripes.

I love orange, but my husband pointed out that this tote bag (bigger and no magnetic clasp) is Chicago Bears colors. (Boo! I'm a Packer fan.) But I still like blue and orange together, especially in this cute stripe. The inside is a blue denim with emboidered white polka dots, and the tie has brown with a thin blue stripe.

Another tote bag of chocolatey brown with a tan and cream stripe. The cuffs made the pockets. It's lined with that cute comic sheet fabric and has a brown tie handle.

Again, hard to tell with this bad lighting but this is dark forest green, with a brown, tan and green striped pocket. The inside is a green/white stripe and the tie handle is brown.

I have a couple cute sweaters already felted for a few more, but I think I'm going to take a break from these for now. It was starting to be too much of a chore, no longer fun. My goal is to sell 5 more. That will have covered my costs and made some decent profit.

I've found that people like the neutral colors the best (browns, tans, sage greens) and prefer the larger size tote. Which do you like the best?