Comfort and joy


The daytime temperature this Christmas weekend was way down in the low- to mid-50s, and around these parts that means it's time to break out the snowflake sweaters, earflappy-hats and chunky knit scarves. I may be a knitter, but for whatever reason, I've never made anything in any of these categories that I deemed wearable. So, with the exception of my pride-and-joy fair isle gloves hastily finished the winter I was heavy with The Boy so that I could commence with the baby projects, my winter go-tos are all store-bought. 

Except, now, for this scarf. I've long claimed 55° to be my ideal temperature (it's actually more like the low 60s, but saying 55° makes me feel heartier), so bundling up in winter woolens now would be an admittance of weakness. Like how, after all those years in Seattle spent snickering at bumbershoot-toting tourists, the mere existence of an umbrella in our home brings me hot, red-faced shame. And yet, I like the look of winter, of people dressed in defense against cold weather, armed with snuggly textiles in bright hues. And there have been times in the past when I donned a scarf in centrally-heated conditions, nuzzling my nose in the cowled loops of a light scarf just for the sheer comfort of it. So seeing all these people in cool weather gear has sent me searching for solace in fabric odds and ends. 

(This post, believe it or not, is actually about our favorite Christmas gifts this year. So how it is that I've already spent this much web-space on a scarf I made for myself, and how I still haven't gotten to the actual creation of the thing, is really beyond me. You know that little bit of categorization on the side there, where it says "things that… I ramble about"… Yeah, I'm going to have to get rid of that soon, because, yeah, I know, this whole site is things that I ramble about. But, of course, I digress.)

This scarf was a scrap trimmed off from a throw, itself comprised of fabric scraps, I made for Mr. New Media for our new couch, whose color is incongruous with the rest of the room, but whose shape and style and price made it something we decided to live with. The blanket is bits of gray t-shirts and some flannel on one side, the reverse a patchwork of fabric reclaimed from promotional tote bags and napkins and tamale packaging with some muslin to fill it out. To get the two sides to size up, I had to trim off some of the t-shirt side, and what came off seemed perfectly suited to assuage my scarf-envy.


The throw was, admittedly, one of those things I really made for myself under the guise that it was a Christmas gift for my husband. I know this, he knows this. It's all good, because he got some other gifts, notably the Gocco prints I purchased in support of his Radiolab fanboy-ness, that were actually about his interests. 

For his part, the husband gifted me with some interesting crafty gear that has left me with a resolve to do more with ink and film. But, so far, what I've been enjoying most the past few evenings is this stampset Mr. New Media picked off my wish list (good boy) and, I kid you not, some empty cardboard boxes left on our porch alongside some linzer cookies and cranberry relish while we lazed in our post-unwrapping stupor. 


Oh, how happy I've been, imagining up little stories to accompany the days of the people who inhabit these little blocks. The boy received a barn playset equipped with all the usual farm animals, and another little playset with horses and ponies. But I suddenly realized that our play room notably lacks little people to pose and create lives for. Sure, there are the few Lego people in the mix, but they came prefabbed, complete with equestrian regalia and farmer coveralls. Their stories have already been painted on. I'm I thinking I need to find or make some fresh little people who wouldn't feel so out of place making their lives and livelihoods in these little buildings.

Alfajor vs alfajor


This, dear friends, is an alfajor. It is rich and sweet beyond belief, tenaciously gripping the inside of your mouth, while your fingers are left heavy with the smell and feel of butter that won't quite wash off. It is not for the faint of heart, or dairy intolerant. And, quite frankly, it's a pain in the ass to make. Which is why these alfajores are always last on my list of holiday consumables to make, requiring the relative low-maintenance of biscotti to whet my baking appetite.

In past years, what made these confections so painful was the fact that, while they required pretty much a day's worth of labor, the yield was disparagingly low, making for a scant handful (if you had the hands of a Smurf) of giftable units. And then there's the inherent danger. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise; the only right way to make dulce de leche is to drop a can of sweetened condensed milk into a full pot of boiling water, and for four long hours sweat bullets knowing that one day, while attempting this feat, you will forget what you are doing and neglect to keep the water level above the can, resulting in an impossible mess on the ceiling of the kitchen in your rented house. 


Last year, I decided to pass entirely on the endeavor. My parents — one an Argentine, the other the wife of one — cried foul, and so this year I was back in the kitchen for another round with the alfajores. 

The difference this year is that I now have a husband who has brought back for me some Parisian macarons. When Mr. New Media suggested that he might be conferring in The City of Light without me (the cost and reality of me transatlantically schlepping two ungratefully whiny little ones summarily ruling out such possibility of me simply tagging along), I was a tad resentful. But then I turned to the macarons, whose images had been making the rounds through seemingly every blog I frequent. And I sent him to Paris, by himself, with orders to bring me some. 

The thing is, all those images, like this and this and this, offered no context, just pretty, macro-tastic shots of cookies stacked in teetering towers. And, because of their shapely resemblance to hamburgers, I just assumed they were, well, bigger. But when the husband brought back slick embossed boxes lined with neat little rows of macarons in every pastel shade imaginable, I was surprised to see that they were the size of a thumbprint. The French evidently know a thing or two about food. Each one of those thumbprints popped perfectly into my mouth, no need for uncouth chomps that would send wasted crumbs dribbling from my chin.

So this year saw the advent of the mini-alfajor. They're easier to make. When the only thing holding your cookie together is butter, the smaller the surface area, the better. I'm able to pile on more of the golden stuff. And small = precious, so a few go a long way. Assign each alfajorlet its own little wrapper, line them up in a nice tin, and you've got yourself something highly giftable.


That big, chocolate-covered thing is a commercially produced Alfajor, sent from my parents who just returned from their Argentine vacation. It was this same variety that served as my introduction to the cookie nearly two decades ago. Its similarities to mine or the ones you'd find in a cookbook are minimal, but it has its own delicious merits nonetheless. This Havanna one is more like the best Moon Pie you've ever had. Cakey and tongue-coatingly sweet. And rich as hell. Quite the treat, especially since I only get it when someone visits from Argentina. But now that they're on my brain, I'm thinking I have to find a local source…

Tags: alfajor, cooking, holidays

Things in jars


When I was nine, my mom took me to a holiday fair at the church by my grandmother's house. It had all your basic carnival stuff — games and crafty bits and doilies for sale. What I remember, though, is sitting down at a table where some guy was walking a bunch of kids through the steps to make an origami crane. I was no newcomer to paper-folding, but I was impatient. And being antsy and getting ahead of myself, I probably fouled up a couple of crucial steps. And I probably ended up with something other than the crisp, lily-white masterpiece that could be hung from a tree. And I definitely remember being scolded by the guy, and how he reported back to my mother at the end of my time there that I was very bad at following directions. Evidently, all it takes to steamroll the patience of some well-meaning churchy type is a kid who can't fold on cue. 

I'm still quite bitter.

But he was kind of right. Oh sure, I can read directions and understand them and even see the validity in them. I'd just like to think that I can simply intuit the proper course of action. I get ahead of myself and I just want to do what feels right. Alas, my instincts, like my sense of direction, often prove faulty, and before I know it I'm written off as that kid who can't get her act together enough to fold a freakin' bird. 

And so here we come to bread in a jar. I've always wanted to try this. I mean, come on. It's the marriage of the two great loves of my life — sweets and containers. I HAD to try this. But when the recipe warned explicitly NOT to fill the jars more than stated, I looked at the amount of batter remaining and I snorted. How much could it rise? The answer, of course, is high enough to prevent closure of the jars. So, lesson learned. But what a mighty delicious lesson it was. 


In past years, after the liqueur making, I drained the cranberries from the liquid and toss it out with the yard waste. This year, continuing the trend of reducing and reusing, I decided to put it to good use. That's damn good fruit there, all candy-sweet from its time spent in sugar and alcohol, nature's preservative. And, my, are they perfect in these breads. We're dutifully working our way through that first directionally-challenged, but still rather palatable, batch, and have found that a half-pint worth of sticky-sweet cranberry bread is quite suitable for any snacking environment. In the meantime, I whipped up another batch with the last of the cranberries and, filling the jars just so, achieved the little ping of the canning lids, indicating that the breads were properly sealed away, and that my latent direction-following skills haven't atrophied.


The other fruity by-product of the liqueurs this year was the dried apricot mash that I'd, for a few months, been salivating over, figuring out some good application for it. When we finally strained that liqueur and got our first taste of the macerated apricots, we decided two things: (1) it was too good not to share, and (2) there was nothing we could do with it that would showcase its awesomeness other than just putting it in a jar and sending it out. So that's what we did. I attached little spoons (they'd been gifted to me a year ago and had been sitting untested in a drawer ever since) to the jars. Because a cute little jar just begs for a cute little spoon.


I'd love to bake some of this up in a round of brie. Or serve it cold on a water cracker with prosciutto. Or spoon it directly into my mouth from the jar. Or spread it on a bagel with some salami and Muenster. Now, that's a good way to start the day. 

Decked out


We picked out our tree from the neighborhood nursery over the weekend with one child a pathetic, sickly pile on Mr. New Media's shoulder and the other too little to have any interest in the matter of Christmas, present-filled or otherwise. A fine tree it is, though, perhaps the best we've ever gotten. It's certainly the largest, threatening the ceiling with such gusto, it's difficult not to admire. Usually, when we get around to getting the tree, it's either the super cheap one we get at Ikea's promotional tree lot, or the settle-for-what's-left, misshapen, unideally-sized, not dense enough tree that needs to be backed into an obtuse corner to conceal the awkward gaps and protrusions. This year's tree, by comparison is perfection.

So we hauled down the boxes of accumulated decorations from the attic, and upon opening the first box, I was flooded with memories of Christmases past. Which was mostly images of cobalt blue orbs and candy-colored fruits and icicle-shaped glass things sent to their painful deaths on the hard floor below by the indelicate hands of a curious toddler. This year, I decided, and likely for the next few years as The Girlie enters and grows out of the rattle-all-the-ornaments-off-the-tree stage of development, those ornaments will remain boxed. Which means that new decorations are in order.

First off, the topper. We'd had this brassy angel thing that we picked up years ago because it was just a smidge better than everything else on the the shelf. But we've never really liked it. And really, it should be a star up there, anyway. So, while I  let The Boy go to town with a glitter pen and piece of yellow linen, I traced and cut out a star from some red felt. Cut out some diamonds for a reverse-applique look, and stitched all together. Easy-peasy and sparkly. With a good helping of snot from a runny toddler-nose. Perfect.


While I had my pile of felt out (how I do love a good pile of wooly felt) I decided to cut out millions of little swatches, vaguely leafy and roundish. Stitched them together to make twenty feet of garland, which was enough to go around the tree two and a half times. Note to self: cut out another couple million swatches next time, and maybe that will be enough. More felt was sacrificed for some stuffed orbs. 

Somewhere out on the Interwebs recently, I'd seen seen a tree festooned with vellum origami balloons wrapped around the strung lights, making for a lovely glowy aura. Our vellum is of the brittle card stock variety that cracks and tears when you try to coerce some crisp lines out of it. So I turned to, of all things, my stash of origami paper which is durable AND translucent AND has interesting textures and patterns that make for some very cool effects when lit up from inside.


Then, of course, we needed to finish off those gingerbread men with some bright quick-drying paint. After that, all that was left to do was let The Boy hang the goodies as high as he could on the tippiest of toes. Which is about halfway up the tree. Which makes for a tree that doesn't photograph terribly well in its entirety, but does have some pretty interesting close-up shots. So that's where I leave you, today. More shots of our tree in its macro glory here.




I've done my time in office environments. There are times I actually miss the structure, camaraderie, and ready access to vending machines. And there are days the kids have me so haggard I would actually prefer the company of a receptionist with anger management issues or even, dare I say it, sales people. On the other hand, there are the postscript errors generated by outdated computers that a skinflint newspaper company refuses to upgrade, the harried requests for work on spec that seemingly need to be completed before work for paying clients, the misguided idea that anything good has ever come out of a meeting.  Thankfully, these are no longer vignettes in my day-to-day life. On the list of things I relish about not having officemates is the lack of going away/birthday/wedding/generally congratulatory cards floating around my workspace that obligate me to conceive something sweet and pithy for someone I only half care about. 

Unfortunately, this uncongeniality towards cards has carried on to our personal greeting-sending. In past years, our commitment to holiday card posting has been full of intention, short of actualization. We have, squirreled away with our wrapping accoutrements, boxes of greeting cards, some cute, some sweet, some poignant, some with monkeys, most unopened. There were a few stand-out years when we actually managed to sit ourselves down at the dining table and, with zombie-like concentration, dash out a few signatures and addresses and semi-personalized messages. Most years, we're happy if we manage to toss in a hastily signed card with our outgoing holiday packages.


Last year, deciding on a new tack, I designed and Gocco-printed up our own cards, and somehow that motivated us to actually fill them out and get them delivered. Probably because once you Gocco something, it NEEDS to be sent out into the world. Otherwise, it'd just be a big ol' waste of screens and bulbs and inks, all finite resources in this post-Gocco economy. And I did the same for this year, printing onto some of that paperboard I've been hoarding. I love how the paper takes the ink, keeping lines crisp and color rich. Last year's cards were printed onto watercolor paper, which resulted in bleedy prints, the ink sending out little tendrils into the paper fibers, an effect I didn't entirely mind. Still, I like these better. The kraft paper look appeals to me. And there are little variances in color and texture that lend it a natural interest and offer the ink something to catch against. Gocco and paperboard are a happily natural fit.


To solve for the lack of copy-space on the inside of the cards, with images of organic cereal Os and all, I attached a small envelope to tuck away photographic goodies for family. And maybe one of those ornaments we made up last week. And maybe some other flat-ish token for those people who wouldn't necessarily squeal in delight at a chance to own a picture of our children, ablur from the incurable inability to both be still for the split second it takes to snap a photograph. On the facing side, we'll attach a greeting or family message of some sort, printed onto the vellum cardstock we've had stashed away since we printed our wedding invitations ten years ago. The vellum's translucence allows some of the packaging imagery to show through, which makes it fun, I think. No sense trying to disguise the fact that these cards once held our breakfast makings. 

So, yeah, I'm pretty excited about sending these out this year. Now to compile the little goodies to fill those little envelopes.




The happiest day of the year for me isn't Christmas or my birthday or the first day of school, when all those pesky kids stop running errant through the neighborhood all aclamor with a lack of real responsibility. No. The happiest day of the year is the one when that crotchety UPS woman arrives at my door with the bottles that I will proceed to fill with goodness, alcoholic and otherwise, for the coming gifting season. 

The first year we bottled up the liqueurs, we went around town, touring all the boutique-y cookware shops (plus our beloved Archie McPhee's, oh how I miss thee) and managed to eke out a very small number of bottles of the cork top variety. Those bottles ended up costing more than the supplies for the liqueurs themselves, and shipping proved a nerve-racking endeavor. So sourcing an affordable and consistent bottle supply became an early priority for the next year's batch. And that's how I came across this outfit, which I have since dubbed the Happiest Company Ever. 

Mr. New Media will readily attest that I'm a sucker for empty bottles, boxes, tins, jars, things that hold other things. Some people can't walk by a mirror without checking themselves out. I can't pass an unfamiliar box without cracking it open and maybe taking a whiff (I'm also always smelling things... how weird is that?). So when I open that box that Ms. UPS gruffly plops on my doorstep, it's like I'm revisiting a collection of old baby photographs. I pull each one out tenderly, marvel at its perfect little cuteness, sometimes letting tears well up. Happiest day of the year. 


A close second is the day we fill the bottles with the good stuff. Now, the world is made up of two classes of people. The upper strata is comprised of those who can perfectly and effortlessly decant liquid from one vessel to another without making a sploshy mess, rivers of liquid dribbling down the sides and puddling in a sad little mess on the counter. These people can also usually manage to put a fresh garbage bag in the can without it ballooning outward and inward and in every which manner save the one in which trash can actually be stored. I am not so blessed. So the task of transferring the liqueurs from the large glass canning jars to those happy little bottles falls squarely on Mr. New Media. He's happy enough to do it because (1) it's his sole responsibility in the whole holiday making arena, and (2) because it may be his only chance to sample the liqueurs for himself. So now our bumper crop of liqueurs are all huddled together all cute and innocently awaiting deployment to the gift-receiving public.

Happy, happy, happy.


I'm particularly smitten with the tags which I created using a few of my favorite things (cue Julie Andrews): the Gocco, reclaimed paperboard and blackboard paint (what can't it do?). Oh, I'm on a roll with this paperboard stuff. Can't get enough of it. When I informed Mr. New Media of the New World Order, the one in which we'd be putting aside all cereal boxes, cracker boxes, the envelopes our photo prints arrive in, instead of sending them to the recycling bin, his eyes glassed over with that you're-crazy-but-I'll-just-smile look he gives me. And he gave me the yes-dear nod. And he promptly forgot. And then ensued a few weeks of me picking things out of the recycling whilst cursing that good-for-nothing-husband of mine. But now there's a bulgy bag in the corner of my already over-stimulating (read: cluttered) workspace just waiting for crafty things to happen. Which should be any moment now.

Ornamental grub


We arrived home in the early evening yesterday, worn from travel, and sick from whatever it was that The Boy was throwing up earlier in the week. Ours is the kind of neighborhood where people are ON TOP of the holidays, and as the light grew dim yesterday, we could see that the residents of our street had already decked their porches and trees with twinkly lights and stars. Even our neighbors next door, who didn't return from their Thanksgiving trip for a few hours after we did, had managed to emblazon the behemoth of a tree in their front yard. Not sure how that happened, exactly. But I'm sure it required a certain dedication to the season. And a willingness to pay other people to do things for them. At any rate, I was impressed.

So, between the shame at not having prepped the house for the upcoming holidays, and having spent a week of relative un-craftiness in the Colorado wilderness (suburbia, wilderness, same diff), I was amply inspired to get in some seasonal making. 

Step 1: Rustle up salt dough recipe

It may have looked like autumn out there today, what with the overcast sky and occasional shower, but at 77° (what gives, Houston Weather In November?) there's no way I'm turning on the oven, so I made sure my recipe was an air-dry one. I added the appropriate spices to give it a gingerbread-y aroma. I also tossed in some molasses to try to darken the dough a tad, but it didn't really work out that way. Oh well.

Step 2: Gather materials

We were given these fun little cookie cutters a few years back, but we seldom make roll-out cookies. So, we had long ago given them over to The Boy for his play dough fun. First things first, they needed to be reclaimed. Then I decided, for extra adornment, I'd make a little stamp of sorts out of my beloved metal type. I just clamped the letters together with a mini binder clip and called it good. (It's kind of nice having a name that's also a word. Makes it a little less narcissistic to put our name on things. Just a little.) Brought the toy rolling pin down from the top of the bookcase, where we'd banished it after The Boy used it as a whacking device one time too many.


Step 3: Reach really freakin' deep for my inner reserve of patience

Once the dough was mixed and kneaded into submission, I called The Boy over and we got down to business. I let him roll out small batches of the dough, as much as he had the attention span for, which is to say not much. He'd give the dough a couple passes with the rolling pin and run off to the other room where he was working on some lacing cards. Fine by me. I finished the rolling and called him back for the cookie cutter stage. Then, his favorite part — stamping the dough with the metal type. Then I added the hole that we will later string yarn through to make it an ornament. Actually, very little patience was needed, as The Boy was, for once, happy enough to take instruction. All in all, 'twas a nice, relaxing way to inaugurate the crafting season.


So, I went through the trouble to find an air-dry recipe, but several hours later the dough is pretty much still as soft as it was at inception, so I may just have to pop them in the oven. Maybe I'll wait for tomorrow, when the temperature will approach a sane level for this time of year. We'll keep some here for the tree we'll eventually get. Some will go out in Christmas packages. Maybe we'll make up another batch for teachers. I remember my childhood tree being adorned with one of these, brought home from a hard half-day spent at pre-school. I also remember licking it for the saline hit. Because that's the kind of kid I was. Hopefully, The Boy's memories of these ornaments will be so rich.