I’ve been trying to behave. While everyone and their grandmother is Instagramming homemade sourdough or who-knows-what, I’ve been squelching my urge to bake, because how many cookies do I need to eat, seriously? I’m not saying I miss going into the office, but I miss having an outlet for all that baking.
I had to give in, though, when I found the recipe for Chocolate Peanut Butter Frosting on Sally’s Baking Addiction. Cupcakes were required, and immediately. How could I say “No” to chocolate and peanut butter? Besides, I reasoned, I could share these with my parents – there was no way my dad was going to complain about that combination.
I started out with my usual chocolate cupcake recipe, which I can almost make in my sleep. How good are they? The cat thought she needed to try them.
Why, kitty, why???
The frosting recipe was simple enough to follow, but made a way bigger batch than I’d usually use. Naturally this meant I had to go nuts piling it on, right? I mean, if I’m going to bake something utterly unnecessary, I might as well go whole-hog.
It was also really stiff, and I realized after piping the first couple that I should have added a touch more milk to it in order to soften it up. Normally, I hold a cupcake in one hand and rotate it as I pipe with the other; this stuff was a two-hand job. My hands were shaking so badly trying to get enough pressure on the piping bag that a casual observer might have thought I have some sort of neurological problem.
Despite the stiffness, the frosting wasn’t at all dry or hard, even after a couple of days. And its firmness may have been beneficial when one of them toppled off its plate onto the floor; it flattened a little bit but didn’t make a huge mess the way a softer frosting would have. In any case, they went over really well and were the perfect excuse to bake something.
Did you know that Darth Vader never uttered the words “Luke, I am your father”? And that Humphrey Bogart’s Rick didn’t actually tell the piano player to “Play it again, Sam”? If you’re swearing up and down right now that those are the right lines, darn it – and maybe you also remember reading Berenstein Bears books as a kid – you’re likely experiencing the Mandela Effect. It’s a psychological phenomenon in which large numbers of people share the same false memory, and so named after the false memory many people share of Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s (he didn’t, as you might have suspected). This article provides some great examples – as a psych major, I love how weirdly fallible the human memory is.
What does any of that have to do with this project? Nothing, really, except for a common misspelling of near-homophones. Mandela was an anti-apartheid revolutionary. A mandala is a geometric figure representing the universe in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism.
Guess which one I recently stitched up for the Hoopless Hoopla swap on Lettucecraft?
My partner mentioned she’d like something featuring blue, pink, and/or gold, and had listed mandalas as one of her themes, and it felt like a perfect dovetailing of aesthetics. When I set about searching for a design, I inadvertently saved the same one twice, which I took as a sign that it was the one.
I don’t know who designed this, but isn’t it gorgeous? When I looked at it, my eye automatically divided it into three sections, and I decided an ombre effect would suit it perfectly.
I used DMC shades 3843, 3845, and 3846, the latter of which used a huuuuuge amount because I neglected to account for the fact that each successive “ring” would be so much larger than the last. I had enough, but boy, was I kicking myself for picking a design with such an intricate outer circle.
(And honestly, despite my griping, it’s not that big: only five inches across.)
Some gold seed beads added a touch of elegance and brought the design up to the next level. I agonized over the beads longer than I should have, and tried about ten different iterations of seed beads vs. E beads vs. both, but in the end decided to keep them small and subtle.
I was pleased with how this came out and hoped that my partner would like it, too (spoiler alert: she did). But I positively squealed at the cuteness of what she sent me:
Isn’t that lovely? I love the elegance of blackwork, and those tiny pops of red in the flowers positively make this.
Some time ago, I was sorting through some of the…ahem…treasures I’ve managed to accumulate over the course of my so far brief and unexciting life. When I came across a key, I knew immediately that it had belonged to my first car. That car has long since gone to that great scrap heap in the sky, and the key had no practical value to me, but I couldn’t just throw it away. No, I had to memorialize it somehow! What to do? Wear it as a pendant? Turn it into a super-confusing keychain (“But what’s this one for?!”)? I set it aside for further rumination.
Oh my gosh, I loved that car! I paid for him myself, and promptly named him Humbert (yes, after that Humbert), because when you’re all of 21, what’s cooler than having a dirty old white car named after a dirty old white man? (I now know the answer is “Probably anything”, but I didn’t get out much.) Suddenly, I had my own transportation to and from university and my summer job. I could play designated driver for the cute guys I worked with. I could be ridiculously puerile and go joy-riding with my cousin, driving past my crush’s house and hoping no one saw us! All the possibilities!
He had cheap vinyl seats which I promptly covered with cheap red-and-black polyester seat covers, upon which I spilled at least one Caramel Coretto, probably more. He had a sunroof that I could open with one hand; closing it thusly when rain came out of nowhere, however, eluded me, and I recall a few wet drives down major thoroughfares, trying to steer with my knees so I could use both hands to wrestle it shut. His white paint made him the ideal canvas for painting peace signs and rikki-tikki flowers in watercolour on his rear column.
In short, he was perfect.
When I was in Michaels back in the spring, I was lucky enough to stumble across 40% off shadowboxes. Further rummaging yielded a picture of me perched on his hood, and because I’m sappy, I finished the whole thing off with a couple of dimensional stickers.
The red fuzzy dice really classed him up, no?
The finished shrine is currently occupying space on the kitchen table until I can figure out where to hang it. However, I’m feeling rather self-satisfied at having actually done something with my sentimental detritus for a change.
This past Thursday, I happened to find myself on someone else’s blog (also hosted by WordPress) and I saw a notification alert in the upper right-hand side of my screen. When I clicked on it, a message popped up congratulating me on my 12-year anniversary of running this blog. Well, then. The date didn’t even occur to me in the days leading up to it, and I didn’t (and don’t) have some sort of special anniversary post planned.
Instead, submitted for your approval, I have two long-finished, never-posted projects.
First up: A Lively Tune by Louise Gregoire Originals. This one j-u-u-ust got framed this winter (pre-quarantining).
The eagle-eyed among you will notice this was actually completed back in 2016 – that’s how long it took for a frame to be decided on – but I started it probably 15 years earlier. It was one of those projects that kept getting put aside because something else took priority. When I studied Ukrainian in university, we watched a National Film Board production called “Teach Me to Dance” (Navche meni tantsjuvate), and every time I picked this up to work on it, that was what crossed my mind and not the actual name of the design. The boy with his wind instrument (surely not a clarinet) seems secondary to the two who are dancing.
Finding a frame took ages. When it was finally decided that yes, this should be framed, it was discovered that a standard 8″ x 10″ was going to be a fraction too small, and cut off some of the background. But lo, Michaels had an 8 1/2″ x 11″ frame that let everything show without a ton of extra blank space.
My mom decided that it needed to go in the hallway, across from another Ukrainian-themed piece I stitched.
This one is a bit *cough*a lot*cough* older: a sampler featuring the Ukrainian alphabet. I designed it myself to hang in my grandfather’s room in the seniors’ home, modifying a Roman alphabet I found in a design book, and adding a few little bits of traditional design for interest. We used to have to recite that in class, and while it’s one thing to be four or five and reciting your A-B-C’s in kindergarten, it’s quite another to be 19 and stumbling over your ah-beh-veh’s. In any case, after he passed away, we got it back, and it’s now hanging in my parents’ hallway.
(Fun fact: the “soft sign” – the very last character, at the far right of the bottom row – doesn’t actually have a capital version. It’s not a letter per se, but a way to modify sounds the other letters make. I’m not really sure why I gave it its own capital. Symmetry, probably.)
When the Harry Potter books were initially released in the late 1990s, I more or less ignored them. They were clearly for kids (I mean, clearly), which I was not (I mean, clearly), and I found all the hubbub tiresome. Then the movies came out, and…I still didn’t care. Nope, not at all.
More than 20 years later, I decided it might be time to see what all the fuss was about, and picked up a paperback copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone last summer. I didn’t have high hopes, because the last two series I poked at to see what all the fuss was about were Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray, both of which were utterly terrible. And actually, pretty much the same books, give or take a little kink.
Maybe it was because my expectations were so low, but I devoured Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, and then got the complete boxed set of all seven books for Christmas. Talk about your revelations: “Oh, so this is what everyone was going on about!” My biggest surprise came when I realized Harry was older than I am. Prior to reading the books, my only knowledge of him came from seeing newsy bits about the movies, whose main trio were all decidedly younger than me. But no! According to the books, Harry was born July 31, 1980, meaning that the Boy Who Lived rings in the big 4-0 this year.
Naturally, I had to bake something to celebrate. I’ve seen a lot of recipes for Butterbeer cupcakes floating around the internet, most of which make my teeth hurt to look at them. Harry may be older than I am, but I get the feeling that my lack of a sweet tooth renders me pretty old, too.
Instead, of completely sugar-bombing my test audience, I made some really simple Cheater Butterbeer cupcakes instead. How simple, you ask?
Start with these:
I promise I’m not sponsored by either General Mills or Kraft Foods, but I wanted something foolproof. When you empty the dry cake mix into your bowl, add the pudding mix, and then proceed as directed on the cake mix box (oil, egg, water, mixing times). Be sure to only fill the cupcake liners half-full as indicated – the pudding mix does not add the volume to the batter one might expect, and you’ll be short if you try to fill them 2/3 full as you would for any other recipe.
I baked mine in Gryffindor red, naturally:
I opted for an über-casual build-your-own-cupcake type of topping. Rather than make a stiff, pipeable frosting, I made homemade whipped cream. This was spooned on to the eater’s desired thickness – I thought that it would look more like the foam on top of a mug of beer that way. (And saved me dirtying a piping bag and tip – woo hoo!) A drizzle of caramel sauce sealed the deal.
Want to make this even simpler than it already is? Grab a tub of Cool Whip, or a can of it if you’re craving perfect peaks. Usually whenever I whip cream it’s got cream cheese in it to act as a stabilizer, and without that, it separates after about a day in the fridge and looks a little gross. I’m so glad I got perfect first-night shots here.
Also: although I chose to do mine up like this, some of my testers discovered that with leaving the cupcakes naked and adding the toppings later, they preferred cutting the cupcake in half and laying it flat-side down on the plate, to prevent tipping over later. This also allows more surface area for whipped cream and caramel, so win-win.
The addition of the pudding mix to the cake mix made the cupcakes slightly chewy, but wonderfully moist. The whipped cream was a marvelous balance against the sweetness of the cupcake and the sauce – although my testers also discovered that the cupcakes were good enough to be eaten with nothing on them, so you do you.
And with that bout of kitchen magic, I sit patiently to await my invitation to Hogwarts.
The second round of swaps on Lettucecraft recently took place, and I signed up for the Adult Merit Badge swap as fast as my little fingers could complete the questionnaire. I was never a Girl Guide, but I love me a merit badge! My partner listed ten different possible themes to choose from, and I was thisclose to working with “Coffee” when I started Googling bad science puns (she’s a biology teacher, and had listed “Science” as one of her themes). Before I knew what was happening, “Coffee” was all but forgotten, and darn it, I was going to dad-joke the heck out of “Science”.
It was a bit of a masochistic choice on my part, because I am not a science-type person. In Grades 11 and 12, we were made to choose at least one science class of the “big three” to take: Biology, Chemistry, and/or Physics. This was exactly one more science class than I wanted to take. Why not an extra period of French instead, so I could hinky dinky parlez-vous with the best of them? Or English? Never mind that I probably already gave Mr. Klymko a Level-5 Motrin headache on a daily basis anyway: this was my education we were talking about.
I eventually opted for Physics for two solid reasons. Primo, it seemed the “cleanest” and the least likely to feature funny smells, oozing, or explosion; secundo, my aunt taught Chemistry, and I thought it might be weird. (This was really terrible logic on my part, because she taught me math in Grades 10 and 11 and I actually understood it for the first time for reasons that had nothing to do with our shared name. And if I had known that I’d take up recreational baking, I would have volunteered to learn about chemical reactions in a heartbeat.) Because Physics was also the hardest of the three and didn’t garner a lot of wiling victims, the school combined the Grade 11 and 12 students into one class, and we covered both levels in one academic year. Every single day of Grade 11, I had double Physics, and it was brutal. (But! Having gotten both years out of the way at once, my Grade 12 schedule was such that I had the entire afternoon free every other day, so I can’t say no good came of it.)
Biology, however, was a bit of newish territory for me. Through the magic of the internet, I found a picture I liked, to use as inspiration for my badge. My partner told me she has a purse where she affixes any badges she accumulates, and my hope was that her students would get a kick out of this one, too.
Oh, how I love working with felt! The badge is about 3″ high from top white border to bottom white border. When I first found my “inspiration image”, I honestly had no idea whether all the little bits contained in the cell were accurate, but through research I discovered that yes, they were – this is a rough representation of an animal cell!
I made my nucleus and cell phone out of felt, but embroidered the facial features and, in the end, the mitochondria and the vacuoles. I had initially cut small bits of felt for the latter two, but the bright red and green felt made it look like a Christmas ornament and not, you know, an actual science thingie. The satin stitch I went with instead wasn’t a tremendous effort, and helped the overall appearance, I think. Once I had all my features stitched on, and my layers of felt where they ought to be, I added a white backing to hide the stitches.
A close-up, for good measure:
My partner really liked it, which is a huge relief! Her comment: She even got the detail of the endoplasmic reticulum being attached to the nucleus. I just smiled and nodded – although I do know which one the nucleus is!
Wondering what I got in the mail? My partner absolutely nailed it, and did a mash-up of my “Cats” and “Cupcakes” themes.
Her daughter helped pick out the colours, which are honestly so perfect purrfect for something cupcake-themed. She even attached a safety pin to the back of it for easy wearing and removal, which is the ultimate thoughtful detail.
It’s so nice to have the swapping up and running – I love being able to craft outside of my usual comfort zone.
I actually made this last year for Canada Day, too, and it a) got inhaled so quickly that I never got any “completed” pictures, and b) was such a hit that my mom stole my recipe for a get-together at her sister’s house a few weeks later. So when I wanted something vaguely patriotic to make, this felt like the obvious choice: Strawberry Shortcake Icebox Cake.
Because I’m working from home and get to skip the commute, I used what would normally be my on-the-road time to clean and chop the strawberries as prescribed.
Once they were ready to go, the rest of it came together really quickly and beautifully after work.
Two things I did differently from the recipe: I used 3 full cups of heavy cream (horrors!) rather than the 2 3/4 cups called for in the recipe; also, it was too ding-danged hot to turn the oven on and do the topping, so I settled for a sprinkling of graham crumbs instead.
If, however, you are making this on a day when it’s not 38 degrees with the humidity, or you have a naturally higher tolerance for the oven in summer, I highly recommend making the topping. It’s crunchy and wonderful against the creaminess of the whipped cream-strawberry mixture.
The first piece was a mess to get out of the pan, but look at the beautiful layers it revealed! The ladyfingers do tend to get quite soft after a couple of days, so best to enjoy this within the first day or two after making it.
Although I am not by any stretch of the imagination a professional baker, I’m a relatively experienced one. I understand how to not overmix, how to check for doneness, and how to fold in the cheese. And while I accept that there are some things I will likely never have the inclination to attempt (croquembouche, anyone?), my Moby Dick white whale continues to be vanilla cupcakes.
It should be such a simple thing, right? But nearly every recipe I’ve tried has left me underwhelmed: they’re either dense, or dry, or some combination of the two. Maybe it’s because my chocolate cupcakes are fail-proof and so moist-moist-moist that vanilla pales (and fails) by comparison, but it still drives me nuts. My go-to cookbook, Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, has a vanilla recipe that’s really similar to the chocolate, but with two tablespoons of cornstarch (and no cocoa, obviously). Was that what made it not-perfect? I’ve tried varieties that call for cake flour rather than all-purpose, to no avail. (I’ve also since read tips that recommend adding cornstarch to your A.P. if cake flour is unavailable, which really makes me think there’s a connection there somehow.)
Recently I came across this recipe, and was hopeful. Straight-up all-purpose flour, no separating of eggs (not that I inherently dislike separating eggs, but anything that calls for just the yolk or just the white invariably leads to wasting the unwanted part, unless you have an excellent recipe-stacking strategy to use up those leftover yolks or whites, which I do not), nothing funny.
And…they weren’t bad.
They came out a little browner around the edges than I would have liked, but all things considered…not bad. The batter was thicker than pretty much all of my other scratch recipes, and I think I overfilled them a bit because of this, which in turn necessitated baking them a minute or two longer than might otherwise be prudent. Whether because of bake time or simple batter composition, they were just a wee bit on the dry side, too. I could see making them again, but filling the cups less full – and mayyyybe adding an extra tablespoon of oil to the batter for moisture?
I topped them with a root beer buttercream icing, which paired so perfectly with the vanilla cake, like having a root beer float. Oh, and because you’ve probably noticed the liners by now…
Yep, those are absolutely Christmas liners. Everyone’s socially distancing – who was going to see these anyway? But look how pretty they are!
After my underwhelming success with vanilla, I went back to my old standby – chocolate – for a Father’s Day treat. There was pretty much no doubt in my mind that they had to be topped with peanut butter frosting.
To add a bit of texture and interest, I put a few Reese’s Pieces in a baggie and smashed them with a rolling pin before sprinkling the aftermath on top of the frosting.
This is the best combination…
They’re practically moist enough for themselves and the vanilla cupcakes, if cupcakes worked that way.
Light and moist and perfect, no crumbling at all.
Has anyone had tremendous success with light, moist vanilla cupcakes? Or am I better off box-mixing it?
Soooo…a few weeks after the last swap of Craftster/first swap of Lettucecraft wrapped up completely, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a little ‘zine-type booklet in the mail from the organizer. She had made a list of some of her own little good things (like big fluffy cats, fun clothes, oak trees, etc.) and sketched out a small cartoon for each one before photocopying the whole shebang and sending one to every swap participant. How cool was that?
I wanted to send her something back, but what? I like it when crafts can be functional as well as pretty, and somewhere along the line I hit on the idea of a hand-embroidered monogrammed handkerchief. I know the thought of handkerchiefs grosses some people out, but I envisioned this being the perfect accessory for delicately wiping away a tear of joy at a summer wedding, not handling winter-level snotty output. I mean, the handkerchief, at least, won’t fall to shreds after bouncing around one’s purse or being balled up in one’s hot little hand, so there’s that. (This is back when the virus was a problem for other continents, and there was no conceivable reason that there might not be summer weddings. Oh, how I laugh now at my childlike naivete.)
That was nearly two months ago, and I’ve yet to hear boo from her about it. There are lots of reasons that could have happened, right?
The Canada Post/USPS liaison I’ve come to rely on has finally failed me, and it’s lost somewhere in the bowels of the postal system. Maybe it’s just due to the newfound slowness of everything, or maybe USPS squeezed the benign-looking greeting card envelope and was alarmed by it’s plush squishiness and had it destroyed, or maybe the envelope glue gave out and there’s a card and a handkerchief sitting loose and unclaimed somewhere.
The postal system did its job, but as I forgot to add my Lettucecraft handle to the card when I signed it, the recipient has no idea who her mysterious benefactor of such beautiful, heirloom-quality linens is.
It made it to its destination in a prompt and timely fashion, completely unscathed by its rather plebeian form of transport, and…she can’t believe that someone sent her this. A handkerchief? How disgusting! This is the 21st century, people, and Kleenex were invented for a reason! Ugh! It’s things like this that help viruses proliferate. And anyway, this is ug-leee! Those colours assault my delicate eyes!
Of those above, which one feels the most likely? And yet, which one does my mind jump to?
In any case, even if she positively hated it, I was pleased with how it turned out. I used the white handkerchiefs from Sublime Stitching, and they are honestly so perfect. I washed them before starting to embroider in order to remove any sizing, and they’re soft and delicate but not totally papery.
Here, in all its 12″ x 12″ glory, you can see the pattern of the floor beneath it faintly.
Once it’s folded into quarters, you get a slightly better sense (maybe) of how wonderfully soft the fabric really is – that drape, though.
A close-up of the embroidery! I used this pattern, which is probably something I would never have bought for myself, but I love how it turned out. I used stem stitch for the A, satin stitch (outlined with backstitch) for the petals, lazy daisy for the leaves, and a single French knot for the centre of the flower.
I’ve still got three hankies left from the package…I might have to stitch up one for myself, because wedding season is bound to resume sooner or later.
This is how I envisioned my self-isolation when authorities everywhere told us to stay home and flatten the curve:
This is what it’s actually been like:
Ha! Just kidding! I’d kill for a paper file right about now. But seriously, I’m working from home, yanked from my extremely paper-based environment and plunked into a paperless wonderland. And I’m not complaining, because hey, I have a job, I and those I care about are healthy, and I’m helping people. But it’s hard not to be a little jealous of those who have all the time in the world to bake and craft and create all day, every day, or who can undertake some great project. Apart from saving the commute, my routine really hasn’t changed. The grass is always greener, right?
Because my weekdays are filled with PDFs and occasionally wonky network connections, I took the opportunity over the weekend to try something deliciously retro: Ribbon Jell-O. I don’t have deeply-rooted memories of this being made for family dinners (but a classmate’s mom made it once, I think?), so I wasn’t in danger of ruining the nostalgia. Also, it’s a) bright and colourful and b) pretty straight-foward and simple, which was reason enough to give it a try.
(A word to the wise: I was a heck of a lot happier before I started reading nutritional information on things. There’s a whack of sugar in this, so, you know, proceed with caution.)
I’m not going to rewrite the recipe here – the original is quite simple enough to follow – but offer some insight for those who might want to follow in my footsteps.
Be aware of the capacity of your kitchen implements. The recipe called for “six small bowls” to mix the Jell-O. I used soup bowls, figuring they’d be more than enough – but by the time I added my one and a half cups of water to each flavour, those babies were full. Ditto the “small saucepan” for warming the milk. Luckily, I decided while the milk was still in the carton that a small saucepan couldn’t hold a litre and sized up. Also: some of the comments complained that all the layers wouldn’t fit into a 9″ x 13″ pan as promised, so I bought a deep (3″) disposable one just for this project.
2. One of the comments asked whether it was necessary to grease the pan. The author swore she never did, but I didn’t feel like taking that chance. I gave my shiny new pan a couple of quick spritzes with PAM and spread it around with a small wad of waxed paper. It’s a really easy insurance policy (and I promise it doesn’t make your dessert greasy).
3. The layers take about 45 minutes each to set up, which adds up when you’re adding 11 of them in total. This is actually a great isolation dessert, because really, where are you going to go?
4. Remember the 3″ pan I procured just for this? Holy heck, am I ever glad I had it! That puppy was almost full to the top when I was finished. Oh, and heavy, too! I had decided to store this in the basement fridge for the duration, and had the foresight to realize I didn’t want to have to carry it upstairs each time I wanted to add a new layer. Because there’s no way those soup bowls were going to make it downstairs without spilling, I emptied each one into a 2-cup measuring cup when it was time to add it and took that down instead. (For the white mixture, I measured out my cup-and-a-half in another 2-cup measuring cup.) An added bonus: because my last few colours were gelling even at room temperature, it was easy to pop the measuring cup into the microwave for 20 seconds or so to loosen everything up again.
5. I’ve blocked out a lot of high school physics class, but I can tell you that there’s a lot of pressure working on this structure from all sides. The adhesion of the white to the colours isn’t absolute, and in serving, the layers start to slide a bit.
6. It fares slightly better if you lay it on its side, although it will also collapse from this position. If I ever make this again and really want it to stay intact, I’ll do individual parfaits – but as it is now, it’s still delicious and fruity, even when it’s a slippery mess.
Thanks for looking – hope everyone’s staying safe! 🙂