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!)