Thursday, December 24, 2009

Pumpkin Pie Tartlets

When baking a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, I found I had some dough and filling left over. I took out a muffin tin and baked a few miniature pies, which turned out really well, so I made them again for our Christmas Eve shindig.

I used the pumpkin pie recipe from Domestic Sluttery (plus a dash of a few extra spices—cardamom, nutmeg, and cloves), and my favorite pie crust (from A Platter of Figs by David Tanis). The crust is very simple: 2 cups flour, 2 sticks butter, one egg beaten with enough ice water to make 3/4 cup, 1/2 teaspoon salt, refrigerate for one hour.

And just for convenience (the Domestic Sluttery recipe uses metric measurements), here's the list of filling ingredients for us Americans:
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon each of ginger, nutmeg, and cardamom, plus a dash of cloves
2 eggs
1.5 cups pumpkin puree
one 14-oz. tin of evaporated milk
With the oven preheating at 425º, I used a rolling pin and then cut out the tiny crusts with the lip of a drinking glass. (They'll pop out easily, so no need to grease the muffin tin.) They bake at 425º for the first 15 minutes, then at 350º for another 35-40 minutes. Yields about two dozen pumpkin pie tartlets.

These would make a fantastic dessert for a seasonal cocktail party. Also, hardly anybody ate the pie at Thanksgiving, so it sat in the fridge for several days before we finished it—this might sound weird, but I think portion-sized pies are more hygienic.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Then & Now

The field behind our house, 17 September 2009:

The field behind our house, 20 December 2009:
(Both of these pictures were taken around 4pm.)

And look at this drift outside my bedroom window—isn't it beautiful?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Great Book #70: Suite Française

I remember the literary hubbub surrounding the English-language publication of Suite Française in the summer of 2006: the trade paperback was stacked on the front table of every bookstore I walked into, with that melancholy tinted black-and- white cover photo of a couple —in a crowded city square, a single suitcase at their feet—who clearly have no idea where they'll lay their heads tonight.

Irène Némirovsky was a Parisian Catholic (of Russian-Jewish extraction) who died at Auschwitz in August 1942 at the age of 39, and this unfinished novel wasn't discovered until the author's daughter started going through her notebooks in the 1990s. I've been listening to the audiobook while I knit, and I understand why the critics have called it a masterpiece: the prose is beautiful, clear and unaffected, and it's remarkable that Némirovsky could cast such cool, keen eye on something so horrible that was happening in real time—the story reads like it was written with the benefit of many years' hindsight.

Most of the characters are intensely unlikable, and in their flight from Paris they resemble rats on a sinking ship. Only the Michauds—humble, hardworking, and sick with worry over the fate of their son—are characters we can get behind. The Michauds are the only men in the book who don’t trample on others to save their own skins; unlike the other men, Maurice Michaud doesn’t consider himself irreplaceable.

Yet there are occasional moments of grace: a refugee crouching in a ditch during an air raid notices a white butterfly flitting among the wildflowers; a mother holds her child so tightly it seems as if she wants to put the baby back into her womb, the only safe place; a young woman tends to a wounded soldier during “the summer they were 20, in spite of everything.”

These moments are rare, however. The book is divided in two (the “suite” being unfinished): “A Storm in June” follows a bunch of miserly, hypocritical Parisian snobs as they flee the city, and “Dolce” observes a community of superstitious farm wives, including two young women locked into cold and loveless marriages. The novel’s prevailing attitude can be encapsulated by Hubert Péricand, who leaves his family a foolhardy teenager eager to see battle, and returns to them a cynical young man:
The people around him, his family, his friends, aroused a feeling of shame and rage within him. He had seen them on the road, them and people like them: he recalled the cars full of officers running away with their beautiful yellow trunks and their painted women, civil servants abandoning their posts, panic-stricken politicians dropping files of secret papers along the road, young girls, who had diligently wept the day the armistice was signed, being comforted in the arms of the Germans. “And to think that no one will know, that there were will be such a conspiracy of lies that all this will be transformed into yet another glorious page in the history of France. We’ll do everything we can to find acts of devotion and heroism for the official records. Good God! To see what I've seen! Closed doors where you knock in vain to get a glass of water and refugees who pillaged houses; everywhere, everywhere you look, chaos, cowardice, vanity and ignorance! What a wonderful race we are!”
Living (and dying) the way she did, witnessing all that she did, it’s no wonder Némirovsky’s characters are either selfish bastards or misanthropes. From the preface to the French edition: "She had absolutely no illusions, not about the attitude of the inert French masses—'loathsome' in their defeat and collaboration—nor about her own fate." She refused to stop writing even when the rest of the French publishing industry were rolling over for the Nazis, and she knew they would eventually murder her for it.

There is a violent act towards the end of "A Storm in June" that disturbed me so much I had to stop listening for a couple of months (I started the book in early October). I don't want to tell you what happened that so turned my stomach, in case this novel is on your list, but suffice it to say my mother will not be reading Suite Française. The passage in question is one of the most shocking things I have ever read.

I get that war is hell and it brings out the very worst in people, but doesn’t it also, if only occasionally, bring out the very best? There were plenty of people who didn’t wish to survive at the cost of their humanity; not every person in France was apathetic, not everyone was a collaborator; just because the word “heroism” is grossly overused doesn’t mean there are no heroes. We see virtually none of that in Suite Française because that wasn't the author's experience; but I imagine it's rather difficult to give your characters a happy ending when you know your own will be anything but.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Patternmaking with Cal Patch

I'm trying to improve my sewing skills, so to that end I signed up for a patternmaking workshop at the Brooklyn General Store last Sunday. There wasn't actually any sewing involved (yet)—you take your own measurements and plot them on newsprint paper to make a pattern for a jersey t-shirt. As it turned out, I was the only person who showed up for the class, so I basically got a private lesson with the marvelous Cal Patch.

Cal has recently published Design-It-Yourself Clothes: Patternmaking Simplified, which I really wanted to buy on the spot, but I must sheepishly confess that I can't bring myself to pay full price for a book when I can get a discount online. (Cal is totally cool with this, and she feels the same way; authors receive the same percentage whether you pay the list price or get 40% off. It turns out we're both published by Crown/Random House, and we talked about how the titles on the Potter Craft list have gotten much better in the last couple of years. Her book being proof of that, of course!) I'm planning to use some of my Christmas loot to order myself a copy.

Her book is full of patterns that are fresh and modern without being trendy, and they're designed so you can easily modify them to suit your own taste and measurements. It was raining hard when we left Brooklyn General, but I was feeling really cheerful and inspired despite having no umbrella. Cal is a great teacher, and I highly recommend taking a class with her.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


My aunt, grandparents and I baked a ton of cookies last Friday: chocolate chip, anisette toast (same thing as biscotti), almond cookies filled with raspberry jam, snickerdoodles (recipe forthcoming)...and the prettiest cookies of all, pizzelles. You can buy them in a plastic tub at the grocery store, but as with everything else in life, the homemade kind is infinitely better. Here are a few shots of my grandfather baking pizzelles using a waffle iron that's at least sixty years old.

'Fante's, 1006 E. 9th St., Phila. PA'

He melts some butter on the iron, drops a gob of dough on, closes it, and leaves it on the open flame for twenty seconds or so, flipping the iron midway through and cooking for another twenty seconds.

It takes up to ten minutes for the iron to get good and hot, so the first half dozen cookies weren't golden brown like they ideally would be.

Here's my grandparents' recipe, should you like to try your hand with an electric iron like this one (or look for an old-school iron on eBay, knock yourself out):
6 eggs
3 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
2 tbsp. vanilla or anise
1/2 lb. butter or margarine
half orange rind and juice
Whisk eggs and add sugar gradually, beating until smooth. Add cooled butter and flavoring. Sift flour and baking powder together and add to egg mixture. Dough should be sticky enough to drop by spoonful.

My crazy 84-year-old grandfather doubled this recipe and stood at the stove for four and a half hours without a break, baking these pizzelles one at a time, blithely ignoring our pleas for him to sit down and rest. Crazy, I tell you.

They taste great with eggnog.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

the Aran sweater myth

(Teach Synge, Inis Meáin.)

I'm always embarrassed to discover a mistake in my guidebook. I may be well traveled in Ireland but I'm certainly no expert, and I am aching to get back to work on the revision so I can correct all the gaffes I've found so far. (Alas, it's been postponed indefinitely because of the economy.)

The latest error concerns the Aran sweater myth, which is so pervasive that it was even included in some of the cultural history books I used for reference. I propagated it thusly on page 339:
In John Millington Synge's heart-wrenching one-act play set on the Aran Islands, Riders to the Sea, a young woman realizes that the clothes of a drowned fisherman (found on the shores of Donegal, and buried there) are those of her missing brother when she notices the stitch she herself dropped while knitting his socks. Art imitates life on these islands, for each family used a unique pattern when knitting pullovers (called báinín, "baw-NEEN") for their fishermen in the all-too-likely event that one should be lost at sea.

You probably won't see any shawls, crios (woolen belts), mairtíní (stockings sans feet), or other traditional garb outside the Aran museum, though the scarves and gloves sold in the shops are no less cozy for their lack of authenticity. Of course, the most popular seller remains the fisherman's sweater, knit in the traditional unbleached wool or a variety of jewel-toned yarns, but you have to wonder if the sweater pattern used by Sarah Flaherty and other speedy native knitters is one designed specially for the tourists.

Otherwise, as Pat Boran wryly notes, Aran jerseys are "now worn almost exclusively by German hippies, University College Dublin science students, and on RTE soap operas."
This story (about cable patterns being used to identify drowned fishermen) was circulated by the head of an Aran knitwear company in the 1930s. Kate Davies, the very talented knitwear designer and textile historian, has enlightened me here. (The distinction must also be made between a family cable pattern (false) and identifying one's own handiwork.)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sinkhole Alley (First Month's Free!)

I haven't had all that much to say lately; most of my knitting projects are for Christmas and therefore top-secret, and I'm still stalled on my reading list thanks to an incredibly disturbing scene in Suite Française. (Yes, it is a book about war, but this scene horrified me for a different reason. I'll persevere, and tell you more about it once I've finished.)

My research reading is going swimmingly, however, and I thought you might enjoy this excerpt from Chapters of Dublin History:
Close by Old Church Street on the west were three streets worthy of some notice. The first was the Hangman's Lane, a name naturally not much relished by the inhabitants, and consequently corrupted into Hammond Lane, which it is still called.

In the same way Bumbailiff's Lane, off New Street, on the south side, became the meaningless Fumbally's Lane. There was another Hangman's Lane from Kimmage to Dolphin's Barn, where Tom Calvin, the hangman of '98, is said to have lived. It is now called the Dark Lane. Dublin also contained such names as Cutthroat Lane, Murdering Lane, Cutpurse Row (Corn Market), Hell, near Christ Church, flog Hill (St. Andrew Street), The Common Lane (Watery Lane, now Brookfield Avenue), Gallows Road, Gallows Hill, Gibbet Meadow, Dirty Lane (Bridgefoot Street and Temple Lane South), Dunghill Lane (Island Street) and Pinchgut Lane. Some 18th century street-names were even coarser; yet, they were the recognised official names, figuring in postal addresses, and found in maps and directories. The age of refinement was yet to come, and it has already reached its extreme point in renaming Dublin streets and lanes.
How'd you like to live on Dunghill Lane?? It was actually on the map--that's what really gets me!

Friday, November 27, 2009


(Continued from Waterford retroblog.)

I have a fond memory of the first time I went to Glendalough, in May 2000. I'd started chatting with an American guy on the bus down from Dublin, and once we'd checked into the hostel we had a drink at the hotel pub, then went for a walk in the graveyard in the dusk. It was deliciously spooky—and that night I stopped feeling homesick. (It was my first time traveling on my own, which admittedly took some getting used to.)

These photos are from May 2006, when I was researching the travel guide: two views of 'St. Kevin's Kitchen' (so called because the little tower reminded somebody of a chimney), and a view of the round tower, which is 30 meters tall. St. Kevin founded a monastery in this valley in the 6th century, but most of the ruins of the 'monastic city' date from the 11th and 12th centuries.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Onion Pie, mmm mmm!

My sister and I are doing some of the cooking for Thanksgiving this year, and today I baked this simple-but-delicious savory pie for the first time. My grandmother used to make it for family dinners.
3 cups sliced cubed onions
3 tablespoons butter
2 eggs
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 pastry shell
My favorite pastry recipe is from David Tanis' A Platter of Figs, which yields two crusts and is equally great for sweet and savory:
2 cups flour
2 sticks of butter (cut into thin slices)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 egg, beaten, and enough cold water to make 1/2 cup
Mix the flour, butter, and salt, then add the egg and water. It'll be a little sloppy, so you'll need to throw in a bit of extra flour to make the whole thing come together. This dough needs refrigerating for an hour.

Anyway, back to the filling instructions:

Sauté onions in butter until tender. Pour in pastry shell. Beat eggs slightly then add milk, salt and pepper. Pour mixture over onions. Bake at 425º F for 18-20 minutes or until golden brown.

Some notes:
--This recipe makes a 9" pie.
--I added some cumin and fresh basil to the basic recipe.
--I used both yellow and red onions.
--The two pies were in the oven for just about half an hour.

(I'd rather not use disposable pie pans, but I am making six.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

High time for a new hat

My grandmother needs a new hat. Every winter she wears this terrible tatty gray thing that has to be twice as old as I am! So I scoured the Ravelry database looking for the perfect beret, but none of the free patterns seemed anywhere near as lovely as Ysolda's Gretel—which is, of course, worth every penny and then some. I was a bit overwhelmed by the tubular 2x2 cast-on at first, but it's like all things in knitting: once you get the hang of it, it's easy-peasy.

I stuck with the smallest size because I figured I'd need a third ball for the next size up, but because I used larger needles than called for I think the beret turned out somewhere between fitted and regular, which is perfect.

Pattern: Gretel by Ysolda, fitted size.
Yarn: Rowan Felted Tweed Aran, ivy, 2 balls.
Needles: #6s for the ribbing, and #9s.
Raveled: here.

I think this beret looks great knit in a proper tweed, too; I'll knit one for myself in Kilcarra eventually. (It's one of my favorite yarns, from a mill in County Donegal.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Cloisters

I'm in New York all this week, and taking the opportunity to do a few things I don't usually have time for when I'm only up for a night or two. I can't remember if this was my third or fourth visit to The Cloisters, but at any rate I love being able to pretend I'm back in Europe for a few hours. It was gloriously warm and sunny out, entirely too spring-like for late November.

The Bonnefont Cloister and herb garden.

These ladies have always been my favorites of the collection. They're early 16th-century reliquary busts; here's a better photo.

One of many spooky characters carved in the capitals of the Cuxa Cloister.

Tomb effigy of a knight in the Gothic Chapel.

(I'm skeptical.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Waterford retroblog

Last week I got my tickets to Shannon for Shelley's wedding in Westport (and general catch-up in Galway), plus Ryanair tickets from Knock to London to hang out with Seanan over New Years. This got me thinking about the little road trip he and I took two years ago, when we spent a couple nights in the guesthouse at Mount Melleray Abbey outside Cappoquin, County Waterford.

I'd got the notion of a monastic retreat from H.V. Morton's In Search of Ireland, published in 1930. (At the time I was working on a story idea, and though that story's on the back burner now my experience there was still very worthwhile.) The English travel-writer outlines the history of Mount Melleray like this:
In 1830 a band of Trappist monks expelled from France arrived on the slopes of the barren Knockmealdown Mountains with 1s. 10d. between them! They made some kind of shelter and a little oratory. The peasants came from the hills to do a day's work for them. Their farm-lands grew. They became known for their good works. Rich men made wills in their favour, and so, gradually and within one hundred years, the penniless settlement has grown into a large, prosperous, and obviously wealthy community. Their farm-lands are a tribute to their energy and their knowledge. They have made what was once a wilderness a place of corn and fruit; and grass, where fat cattle graze...

We went out into the garden and into the grounds. There are rows of open graves. At first the visitor does not understand what they are. He has to be told that it is part of a Trappist's duty to dig his own grave...
(I hope that, like the vow of silence, this excessively morbid practice has been discontinued. At any rate, we walked the grounds and didn't see any ominous holes in the ground.)

Long after Morton's visit to the abbey, in August 1985, three local children claimed that the Virgin Mary appeared to them in a grotto just down the road. We took a walk down there too, where there's a sheltered area for masses and all the usual religious bits and bobs, candles and prayer-cards and suchlike.

The whole time we were at the monastery I only took pictures of the splendid old windows in my room. I wanted to document our visit, but not at the risk of offending the monks; after all, we were meant to be pilgrims, not tourists.

The first night we got up at 4am to hear the vigils sung in the chapel. I think it was more of a chant, but at any rate it was a rather surreal experience to be rising at the sound of church-bells in the middle of the night. I was too lazy to get up the following night, although I'd wanted to.

In H.V. Morton's time, the monastery offered more than just a quiet retreat; the writer describes being woken in the middle of the night by another guest gone delirious for want of a drink.
Father Brendan, the guestmaster, I have been told, is one of the greatest living experts in the treatment of dipsomania. I believe that when a drunkard goes to Melleray he is given the amount of liquor to which he is accustomed, but in reduced quantities every day until, at the end of the cure, he is drinking water. But it is the moral influence of the monastery which pulls him through.

The voice whimpered on for half an hour or so and ended in silly babbling laughter.
The monks we met—those few who were delegated to interact with the guests—were such lovely old men, warm and welcoming, with a great sense of humor. We had simple, filling meals in the guesthouse dining room, and at the end of our stay we just slipped an envelope into a box on the guestmaster's door.

After Mount Melleray we drove to Ardmore, where we'd planned to spend the night, but it turns out absolutely nobody (save us) visits Ardmore in the low season. The lovely B&B I'd stayed at in May 2006 wasn't open, nor was the old hotel. But we visited St. Declan's and did the cliff walk before leaving, of course. Ardmore is far and away my favorite spot in County Waterford.

(Angels in the graveyard; St. Declan's Church; a close-up of Adam and Eve; the view over Ardmore Bay; Seanan on the cliff walk.)

So we spent the night in Dungarvan, where we had a delicious dinner at The Tannery (the portions were rather dainty though), and the next day we drove to Glendalough.

Seanan had never been to Glendalough, which surprised me—I figured it was the sort of place you'd visit on a school field trip even if your parents never took you. It's one of those rare tourist destinations that somehow manages to feel completely unspoiled; but that probably has much to do with it being so near Dublin, so most people only come for the afternoon.

Anyway, we had very nice eating and sleeping there too, at the Wicklow Heather (a great meal every time I've been there) and at Heather House, which is owned by the same folks. The village of Laragh is only a kilometer away, and that's where most of the accommodation is, plus a convenience store and petrol station. I've never been to the pub in Laragh, but I've heard the grub isn't very good. Eating at the Wicklow Heather is a no-brainer. And we got to have breakfast there too!

(I'll post better Glendalough photos at some point. The foliage was really pretty—we were there at the beginning of November—but my pics from this trip don't do it justice.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Too Many Hobbies?

After spending my childhood drawing and painting, I feel that part of me has atrophied—I may be a published author, but in another sense I still feel creatively unfulfilled. I wanted to be a fashion designer when I was a kid, which probably has a lot to do with why I'm so obsessed with knitting now.

Last spring (thanks to Margaret) I discovered Writing Alone and With Others by Pat Schneider, which is one of those great books on craft and practice that can change your life, if you let it. But one of the passages that struck me most concerns everything that isn't writing or reading: the concept of too many hobbies. Schneider proclaims, "I gave up sewing forever," and rather implies that there is no room in a writer's life for any other creative endeavor. I don't know that she meant to say this, but that's the impact it had on me, and naturally I have to disagree.

To a certain extent I think the practice of diverse arts can enrich and inform, like creative cross-pollination; but there's no denying there is such a thing as too many hobbies, leaving one feeling scattered and unaccomplished in the few activities that matter most. There never seems to be enough time to do everything because there isn't enough time to do everything. A couple of recent posts on the Unclutterer blog have driven this home for me (Saying farewell to a hobby, part 1; part 2).

The trouble in giving these hobbies up, though, is that on some level we all think we can be Renaissance women and men—if we only devote enough time to each thing in which we think we ought to excel, then we will, and in the process we will become better, more "well-rounded" people. I "ought" to speak at least two foreign languages, play the guitar, sew my own sundresses, knit all my own sweaters, paint and read and write. But we can't all be Leonardo da Vinci, and if you've ever read his biography you'll know that's actually a good thing.

I have a left-handed Fender acoustic guitar in my closet that hasn't come out of its case in years. I guess I should find it a better home. I know I'll never be as good a painter as I am a writer, even if I do take it up again. But I'm not really talking about jettisoning the hobbies you aren't AMAZING at—if you love to do it, it doesn't matter if you aren't "good enough" to do it along with the pros.

Maybe it comes down to this: if you're truly passionate about it, you're already doing it. What do you think?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Little Birds!

I feel a little guilty casting on a sweater for myself while Santa's workshop is open for business, but it is nice to work on something more ambitious in between cranking out the gifts. It's another pattern from Ysolda: Little Birds, from the inaugural issue of Twist Collective. I've been obsessed with this cardigan and itching to cast on for a whole year now. I bought the pattern without really considering if the cut of the cardigan would flatter me, however, and I think I'll find it more wearable as a pullover. I'm using Knit Picks Palette, which is a great value: soft, great colors, and only $1.99 or 2.19 a ball! A slightly different color scheme, too—green is more flattering than beige.

Raveled here.

Whenever I think about this sweater, I remember that song from Man of La Mancha:
Little bird, little bird
in the cinnamon tree

Little bird, little bird

do you sing for me?
...which is, of course, completely inappropriate. This sweater is sweet and innocent, and that song is just the opposite!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Yet More Spookery

Right now I'm reading a biography of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu—my favorite writer of ghost stories, as you know—and the following passage, from a letter to the author's mother, was just too deliciously creepy not to share. It concerns a vision his wife, Susanna, had shortly before her death in 1858 at the age of 34.
...she one night thought she saw the curtain of her bed at the side next to the door drawn, & the darling old man [i.e. George Bennett, her father], dressed in his usual morning suit, holding it aside, stood close to her looking ten or (I think) twelve years younger than when he died, & with his delightful smile of fondness & affection beaming upon her, I think she also said that his hand rested on the bed clothes as he used to place it. The words were as you say 'There is room in the vault for you, my little Sue', & with the same tender happy delightful smile he moved gently away as if he were going softly out of the door letting the curtain fall back. She lighted a candle & got up in the hope, if I recollect rightly, of seeing him again, & little Ellen who slept on the sofa & is easily woken, was so...

I have examined her [i.e. Ellen] since I wrote the above as to her recollection & she says that the words were, when he placed his hand on the bed, 'Ah, little Sue, you are very poorly', & she replied 'Oh! no, I am pretty well' & then he said 'there is room in the vault & will you win the race & get there first'...little Ellen too is quite clear that she told her that her attention was first attracted by a sound as of the door opening & that this had startled her as she knew it was locked. She told little Ellen that she was certain it was not a dream. 'I think', she said, 'it was a sort of vision that God sent me, to prepare me.' In the morning having told it to me she said 'it is my warning'. She cried a great deal but not in agitation or grief, but with a sort of yearning, as it seemed to me, after the darling old man, & she dwelt with delight upon the beaming smile of love with which he had looked on her all the time...
I suspect Susanna might have lived had her father stayed inside Mount Jerome where he belonged, but I guess we'll never know.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Welcome to Babyville

Gosh, it feels like it's raining babies! Well, not really, only three in my circle are recently arrived or on the way. I really like knitting things for babies though—instant gratification! ('Instant' in knitting terms, anyway.)

A hat for Alaina, born September 2009 to my stepcousins Evan and Sonia. Used up the pink Cashsoft Baby DK I had left over from Olivia's elephant. I really like this hat pattern by Janet Russell—it's simple and quick, and the crown decreases make a very pleasing swirly shape. (Raveled here.)

A cardigan for my nephew Quinn, born August 2009. (He's already worn it, but no pictures as yet.) The pattern is Debbie Bliss' V-Neck Cardigan with Contrast Ribs, from Baby Knits for Beginners. I used Knit Picks Swish Worsted, and I'm happy with it apart from the size of the armholes—if I had a do-over I'd increase a couple more times than the pattern calls for. Not that I'm an expert at babies and their teeny proportions, but the armholes do seem a bit tight. (Raveled here.)

I have made three penguins so far, but this one for Ailbhe and Christian's baby is certainly my best yet:

The pattern is Alexandra Virgiel's Pasha, from I used Knit Picks Swish Worsted (white and gold) and Lion Brand Woolease Solid (black), less than a ball of each, plus sock yarn leftovers for the garter-stitch scarf. (Raveled here.) This little guy had to make a transatlantic journey to reach the parents of his future owner, but I made sure he was well insulated for the trip:

Hee hee!

I am so happy for Ailbhe and Christian—they are two of the very best people I know, and they're going to be terrific parents. And on that note, stay tuned for Welcome to Babyville, part 2...

Monday, November 2, 2009

Depression Cake recipe

(There was supposed to be a Get Psyched for Halloween, part 3, but then I ran out of time. And as Kate points out, it's not like I need an excuse to share my favorite ghost stories.)

Anyway, here is my grandmother's Depression cake recipe—"a poor man's cake," says my grandfather—which I mentioned in my essay for Cast On over the summer. I'm transcribing the recipe as-is, with the ingredients listed as you need them.

One 16-ounce box seedless raisins. Boil slowly for 20 minutes in 2 cups water. Add:
2 cups sugar
1/4 lb. oleo (or butter)
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. powdered cloves
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup cold water
Let cool.

Sift 4 cups flower and 1 tbsp. baking soda. Add flour and baking soda to mixture and mix well until smooth. Beat 1 egg lightly and add last to above. Grease tube pan and cook 1 hour 15 minutes at 375º.

(You can use any sort of pan—loaf, square, bundt, whatever. One of these days I'll get around to baking one, and I'll post a picture. Also, you might want to make a middle-class-man's version with some cream cheese I recall, this isn't the moistest cake in the world. It is very good comfort food though!)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Get Psyched for Halloween (#2)

Here are six things guaranteed to spook you:

1. Happy Birthday, Mr. Poe
Recounts a sighting of the ghost of you-know-who.

2. Havoc, In Its Third Year by Ronan Bennett
No ghosts, per se, but this is one of the most haunting books I've ever read. Finished it more than two years ago and I still get the willies whenever I think about it.

3. Real Vampires with Brad Steiger
Episode #106 of the Paranormal Podcast with Jim Harold. Apparently 'real-life' blood-suckers are far more terrifying than their Hollywood counterparts.

4. Let the Right One In, based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist.
An exquisitely disturbing vampire film I watched at Seanan's house the last time I was in Tipperary. I have yet to read the book, but I hear it's amazing.

5. A Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter by Sheridan Le Fanu. I know I've posted this one before, but gosh, is it good. (Or listen to it at Librivox.)

6. A Voice in the Attic, another gem from Castle of Spirits. I've posted this one before too, because it is seriously frightening.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Get Psyched for Halloween (#1)

One of my favorite travelogues is H.V. Morton's In Search of Ireland, published in 1930. Here's a short excerpt on the spooky St. Michan's Church in Dublin, where you can descend into the vaults and see for yourself:
Coffins lie stacked one on top of another almost to the roof…the weight of the dead pressing on the dead has caused the coffins to collapse into one another, exposing here a hand, there an arm, a leg, or a head. The idea of dead men pushing their ancestors from their coffins is worthy of Edgar Allan Poe. But what does startle and horrify is that these men and women, many of whom have been dead for 500 years and more, have not gone back to the dust…

‘Yes, they do tell a ghost story about it. It’s about a thief who went down one dark night to take a ring from a lady’s finger, and, as he was working away, the lady sat up in her coffin and stepped out over the side and walked away. Yes, she did! And they say she lived for years after. But that’s all blarney, sir...'

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Make Do and Mend: Tarot Breakfast Tray

When I lived in Boerum Hill I had really cool roommates who were both crafty and thrifty—Rachel made a colorful quilt out of old t-shirts, and Rel found some great furniture and other random stuff on the street (curbside shopping, can't beat it for the price!) She came upon a lone tarot card (I think it was Death), and she cut a small rectangle in the center and used it as a switchplate cover. Rel also found an adorable (if rather banged-up) breakfast tray someone was tossing, but she ended up passing it along to me when she moved out. That was back in 2003, and the breakfast-tray-with-potential had been sitting in my basement waiting for its makeover ever since.

Before: cute but scratched and faded vinyl tray covering and white paint job that was probably never sealed—it was flaking and splintering.

The plan: pull off the vinyl, strip the paint (using an stripper), sand the bare wood, stain it, put on a new lining using the decoupage technique (with Mod Podge Hardcoat), and seal it all up.


The eco-friendlier paint stripper worked pretty well, and I applied two coats of a dark stain. I knew the decoupage would be tricky, so I did the bottom of the tray first since most of the time it won't be visible. (Naturally, the reverse side turned out great, but there were a couple of tiny tears on the side everyone sees! Fortunately the pattern on the paper is busy enough that you'd never notice unless I pointed it out.)

I measured the paper, adding a fraction of an inch on all sides (to be removed with an exacto knife later), and applied the Mod Podge with a foam brush directly to the paper before positioning it on the wood. Then I smoothed out the air bubbles with an old credit card. Some decoupage tutorials suggest using wrapping paper, but I think that's a bad idea—I used relatively thick, high-quality paper, and still had a couple small problems with the paper tearing (too much glue and too much friction from the credit card). After the paper was in place, I waited for the glue to dry before trimming the edges. Repeated the process on the top surface, then painted on three thin coats of Mod Podge over the whole tray (over a period of a few days).

I panicked a little when the first topcoat went on though—an air bubble appeared out of nowhere, and it was impossible to smooth it out (as I'd been able to when I initially glued the paper on). I got frustrated—'why does every DIY project I attempt come out like CRAP?! ARGH!!!'—and then decided to watch Pride & Prejudice with my mom and try to forget about it. The topcoat had dried by the time I came up to bed, and lo and behold, the paper had tried perfectly flat and smooth! HOORAY!!!

To my dismay, the Mod Podge Hardcoat instructions say you've got to wait a whole month between the last coat and actually using the finished piece. It's perfectly dry now though, so I'm going ahead and taking pictures, and I'll eventually pick up a can of polyurethane. The Mod Podge people say you don't need an additional sealant, but I don't believe them.

Here's a close-up of the oh-so-appropriate new paper lining, purchased at a stationery shop in Florence in 2002 (and up to now, gathering dust in a roll under my bed). I'm such a sucker for pretty Italian papers.

This wasn't a cheap DIY project (the materials were about $25, and the paper couldn't have been more than a euro or two), but I can rationalize the expense somewhat because I'm planning to use the paint stripper (the priciest purchase) on another project. And it's quirky yet practical—just my style. Yay!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Great Book #85: Uncle Tom's Cabin

Julie at Forgotten Classics has recently finished her reading of Uncle Tom's Cabin, that seminal novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Legend has it that upon meeting Mrs. Stowe, President Lincoln exclaimed, "So this is the little lady who made this big war!"

Stowe's characters—the Christ figures of Uncle Tom and little Eva; runaways Eliza and George, Cassie and Emmeline; and everyone Tom encounters as he suffers through a succession of owners—illustrate in all-too- human terms what Condi Rice has called our country's congenital defect (and no doubt that's the only thing Dr. Rice has ever said that I can agree with!) The novel doesn't merely demonize the slaveholders (that would be too easy, and anyway not all of them are depicted as such; some are weak men with good intentions). Stowe emphasizes that just because Northerners didn't own slaves didn't mean their consciences were unstained by the evil.

Anyway, if you enjoy audiobooks, you should definitely listen to Julie's podcast in lieu of reading Uncle Tom in book form, since she provides so much insightful commentary in addition. I just love the reader's note, with which she begins each set of chapters:
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin to expose the inhumanity of treating human beings as things. Former slaves agreed that her examples were true to life. Thus, some of the language and attitudes in this book are offensive because they reflect an ugly history. It is said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. The reader does not wish to be responsible for dooming anyone by censoring either history or literature. Therefore the book will be read as it is written, offensive language and all.
Julie's reading sometimes brought me to tears, but I don't feel the urge to write a long post on this book. It's an important work— melodrama and all—and everyone (American or not) should read it at some point.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Emily capelet!

Sorry, but I have to gush a little: I fell in love with this capelet as soon as I saw Ysolda tweeting about it. It's so elegant and neo-Victorian, and the attention to detail is really fantastic—the short-row shaping, the intricate cable and scalloped lace, the built-in i-cord edging around the neck. Knitted it to go with this awesome green dress, which I'm wearing to two weddings this year. I was hoping for better pictures, but the weather's been terrible lately, so I just snapped these before I headed off to Jenny and Greg's wedding tonight.

Pattern: Emily Capelet by Ysolda
Yarn: Lana Grossa Chiara, ~ 2.25 balls in color #21, purchased from Woolbearers.
Needles: #9s
Raveled: here.

The pattern calls for 'heavy fingering to light worsted' and Chiara is a DK weight (perfect, you would think), but my gauge was too fine, so I cast on 68 stitches (instead of 52) to get the same length (13"). The yarn is marvelously soft and fuzzy (it sheds a lot, but that's okay), but I still can't figure out what color it is. It was a pale green (so I thought) when I bought it, but as soon as I got it out of the shop and took a ball out of the bag to fondle it again in natural light, it seemed gold, not green at all. Fortunately there's some bronze-ish beading on the bodice of this dress, so it's complementary no matter which color it is.

And I happened to have three adorable little buttons left over from Mamacita's 2008 Christmas present, so it's even a bit of a make-do-and-mend.

I was chatting to Jenny's friend Brenda at the wedding, and she said I looked like a character out of a Brontë novel. I love it!

Friday, October 16, 2009


Last weekend I went apple-picking with Angela, Matt, Kelly and Jeff at the Warwick Valley Winery.

We got cider (I had raspberry, yum!) and took our cups into the orchard for some one-handed picking. (Kelly also picked up a bottle of pear liqueur, which unfortunately tasted like turpentine, or maybe rubbing alcohol. However we described it at the time was very hilarious to me, but unfortunately I can't remember what it was. A couple pints of cider makes one very merry, but rather forgetful.)

We spent the night at Matt's family cabin in Highland Lakes in Sussex County, which is an absolutely gorgeous part of New Jersey— especially with all the fall foliage—and Kelly was finally forced to stop calling it "Dirty Jerz." Bwahahaha!

We got to the cabin late in the afternoon, and went for a walk by the lake.

There was a wedding going on in the clubhouse, and we considered crashing it, but contented ourselves with frolicking on the tiny beach:

(What a ham.)

(The view from the road.)

Things I neglected to take pictures of: inside the oh-so-cozy cabin, with an old wood-burning stove; apple pie and apple turnovers; rock-climbing in Montclair on Sunday afternoon (or attempted rock-climbing, in my case. I wimped out of climbing and only rappelled down, while Kelly kicked butt both up and down, and Matt and Angela of course made it look easy-peasy.)

One more awesome thing: Matt's grandmother's collection of owl figurines.