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12 Days of Christmas Treats Giveaway, Day 1

It’s that time of year again.  You know, that time when I drop everything and make stuff like crazy for Christmas.  This year, my friends, I was not really sure if I could pull this off.  As you can see, I haven’t exactly been posting a lot lately.  It’s  a trend I have been noticing with a lot of blogs.  We only have so much free time in a day and  as the online options expanded to include such things as Instagram and Snapchat, blog writing went on a decline.  For me, it’s not because I am busy on other platforms that have kept me from blogging–it’s more that homeschooling is taking up more and more of my time and attention every year.  That’s as it should be since we have long since past the stages of finger painting and basic arithmetic. However, I miss coming here and chatting about things I have been working on.  So, I decided that this would not be the year that I give up my annual tradition of giving a box of goodies away.

In the past, I have had a theme (breads, cookies, candies, and last year it was diy gifts).  This year, I think I am going to be more general and say it’s the 12 Days of Christmas Baking.

It’s no secret that I love to bake and also no secret that I love to try new recipes.  No matter how many tried and true recipes I accumulate, I am always ready and looking to try new things I haven’t made before.   Even new versions of old classics catch my attention.  So, this year you can expect to see some new things I haven’t made before mixed with a few easier versions of goodies I have made in the past.

As usual, I will be giving away a box of goodies accumulated over the next 12 days from all the crafting and baking. Just like last year’s give away, you may enter by leaving one comment per post. Only one comment per person will be counted per post, but if you leave a comment for all twelve days, you will be entered twelve times! The box will mostly likely include many of the treats featured in the posts, but perhaps not all of them because not everything travels well or keeps well. Plus, I will be trying some new recipes, so there may be a flop or two. However, I will try to ensure that the winner has a nice variety! Because of perishability issues, I will have to limit this to a domestic (that is, just the United States) contest. Comments on all 12 posts must be received by noon on December 19, eastern standard time. I will pick a winner at random on the 19th and hope to ship on the 20th.

Today, I am going to start off really easy with this Sweet and Spicy Pretzel and Nut Mix recipe from Food52.

I first made this the week before Thanksgiving and we all loved it so much that it was gone in a week.  With that first batch, I dialed back the cayenne pepper quite a bit.  We loved how it wasn’t too sweet, but also not too savory.  It’s perfect for this time of year when sometimes there is just too much sweetness going on.  I think it will be perfect to snack on during the upcoming marathon baking sessions.

Today’s batch has about 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne along with 1/2 teaspoon of coarsely ground Korean chili pepper powder.  This batch is considerably more spicy, though I would not say it’s overwhelming.  I also added about a cup of chopped dried apricots to give the mix a fruity dimension.

The thing that I love about this recipe is that it is super easy.  You toast some nuts.  While the nuts are toasting, you mix up the flavorings in a big bowl.  Then, toss all the nuts and pretzels together, put everything back in the oven to bake for a little while, and then it’s done.  Easy Peasy.

This batch will be gone before the 12 days is done, but it’s so easy that I am sure I will be making another batch.  I think it will look pretty in a clear bag tied with a bright ribbon for gifting as well.

Leave me a comment to be entered to win a box full of Baked  Christmas treats.  Tell me what your favorite snack is so I can try that, too!  Thanks so much for stopping by!

DIY Stitch Markers

When I started knitting 12 years ago, I tried using stitch markers. They were the plastic rings that you get at big box craft stores and I hated them. They seemed to get in the way sometimes and make the stitches around it wonky. So, I stopped using them and used little bits of yarn instead. They worked pretty well and did not get in the way of my knitting, and were cheap and always available.

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A couple of years ago, I got a set of metal ring stitch markers in a swap. I did not use them at first, but little by little, I did begin using them and found them quite handy. The rings are thin and they are easier to move from one needle to the next than a piece of yarn. Plus, there’s no way that you will miss it when you are knitting without looking. I now have a few sets of these stitch markers and they are indispensable to me now, especially in complicated lace projects. In one project alone, I had 13 stitch markers in use. A sweater knit in one piece will often take at least 5 or six or more. Pretty soon, I had run out of stitch markers.

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Instead of going to etsy and buying more, I decided to try to make my own. I had a bunch of beads leftover from shawls that I had knit, so my purchases to try were really minimal. It turned out to be pretty easy, quick, and inexpensive, so I thought I would share with you what I did.

Here’s what you will need:

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The beads are glass and are 6/0 size, which is the size commonly used in fingering weight knitted beading projects. They come in strands or in tubes. If you get the ones from Japan, the holes will be more uniform. Why use beads? Well, I suppose you don’t have to, but it does cover up the gap in the ring and you can make them all different colors to designate different things in your knitting. A green one can mean make a stitch here, while a red one can mean decrease a stitch, for example.

I used 10mm jump rings, which fit up to a size 6-8 needle comfortably, depending on your yarn. Right now, I am knitting a chunky sweater on size 8 needles and I found that the markers were getting a little stuck on the yarn, so I am using bigger, dangly ones for that project instead. Since I used up the 10mm ones, I got some 9mm rings which is not a huge difference in size, I know, but the package came with more rings for the same price, making the markers even cheaper!

The hypo cement, the tool, the beads, and rings can all be found in the beading section of your local big box craft store. The tool is just your basic wire cutting pliers. I think I paid less than $5 for this pair.

Got everything? It’s easy from here. The first step is to take a ring and use your tool to gently open it enough to slip a bead on the ring. Just insert the tips of your tools inside the ring and gently pull on the handles.

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Slip a bead on. Then, place the ring in that little notched part of the tool like this:

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The notch holds the ring in place while you squeeze the opening closed. Be gentle here. Too much force can cause the ring to break or get out of shape.

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I do a whole bunch of these at once before I get out the glue. It helps to make the gluing process go more quickly and then you don’t have to smell the fumes as long. Before you begin gluing, make sure you are in a place with pretty good ventilation. The glue is quite smelly! Also, be sure to work over a surface that you don’t mind getting glue on. I used a plastic tray from the grocery store. The top of a salad greens container would work perfectly, especially for drying the rings.

Take a ring and apply a tiny bit of glue over the seam of the ring.

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Then, slide the bead so that it is situated over the seam and the glue. Don’t worry if the glue makes hairs or gets in your fingers.

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The tube takes a little getting used to since it is heat sensitive. I had a lot of glue oozing out at one point, but I just left it in my container and let it pool there. That allowed me to dip the rings in the pool of glue, but it was a bit messier that way. Anyway, just be sure you are working over something plastic, preferably. Paper will stick to the glue.

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Place the beads on a spare piece of plastic tray or lid and let them dry. When they are dry, it will be easy to pull off any stray glue hairs or globs. Incidentally, I did try making these without glue at first, but I found that the beads slid around too much and left the gap in the ring exposed. That gap can get snagged on your yarn; something that is most definitely not desirable!

Check your rings when you are done. I jiggle the beads a bit to see if they will move, which they should not. Sometimes, the gap in the ring will still be open if the bead has moved. I just discard those. I think out of about 150, I only found one or two that needed to be thrown away. Pretty easy, right?

Well, I will hope you will try making your own, but in the meantime, I’ll give you a chance to win a set. Leave a comment and I will enter you in a drawing to win a set of 20 stitch markers of varying colors. If you want to give me some fun ideas for cheap activities to do with the boys this summer, that would be fabulous, too! Drawing will be next Wednesday, June 11, at 10:00am, EST. I will ship anywhere, so comment away!

Four Cookbooks Worth the Shelf Space

Lately, I have been perusing some fascinating cookbooks. Cookbooks are just about my favorite kind of books to read during this time in my life when free time is scarce, and my brain often scattered-feeling. Other than the half-hour or hour before I go to bed when I sometimes read more serious books, cookbooks are what I read in the little snatches of time that I have during the day. They are practical for me, giving me ideas for the never-ending quest to answer the question, “What’s for Dinner?” and I don’t have to follow a narrative thread, which can be frustrating when one’s thoughts are interrupted every other minute.

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Right now, the ones capturing my attention are these.

As of now, I have only made one recipe from each of these books, but each of those recipes have been wonderful, good enough to make again. And again. And again. I think this is pretty rare, and while I would not necessarily purchase a cookbook based on just one recipe, I think all of these books have enough recipes that are screaming at me to make them immediately that I am willing to make bookshelf space for them.

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Rustic Italian Food has some wonderful recipes for homemade pastas and other Italian classics, but it also has chapters on yeast breads and charcuterie. I made the recipe for Focaccia, and it was some of the best I have ever had.

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We just could not stop eating this bread. I had to wrap it up and hide it in the freezer so that we wouldn’t all go into a bread coma. Yesterday, we had sandwiches with it and they were delicious. The bread is moist and spongy on the inside and crispy on the outside. I am already eying some of the other bread recipes to make, not to mention the recipe for lamb mortadella. I must research how to get a beef bung.

I have so many America’s Test Kitchen Cookbooks, that it is difficult for me to buy any new ones these days since they seem to be recycling so many of their recipes. This DIY cookbook, though, is a little different. Here are recipes for making your own cheese, beer, candy, gravlax, and tofu. This is all stuff we normally just go to the store and buy. Why would you want to spend 20 hours (12-18 of those are just soaking the beans) making your own tofu when you could just go to the store and buy a box for a couple dollars?

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I asked myself this very question on Saturday as my younger son and I stood and stirred soymilk for half an hour on the stove.

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Then, I asked it again when I had to squeeze out boiling hot milk from a cheesecloth bag. The husband had to come and rescue me from this job since I have just about the weakest hands of anyone I know.

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Lastly, I asked it again when the curds did not separate after the first 20 minutes and I had to boil it all again to add more nigari. But, when I lifted the lid the second time and saw that soft tofu, I asked no longer.

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I knew when I gave my kids a taste of fresh tofu floating in a little pool of ginger sugar syrup that all the work was worth it. For this recipe, I was initially just intrigued by the idea of making my own tofu, but on the way, I discovered a flavor I had forgotten from my childhood. It surprised me and gratified me at the same time. I love the surprises that come in cooking…well, the good ones, anyway, haha.

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We had half of the tofu in ramen and the other half I cooked with some ground pork, soy sauce, preserved mustard greens, and garlic. The boys all loved the tofu. It was a different texture than store-bought tofu; fluffy and soft, yet coarser at the same time. Next time I make it, I will have to double the recipe or something because it was a lot of work for just a little product and everyone loved it so much that it was gone before we knew it. I just have to find time to make it again.

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Sometimes, my motivation for cooking or trying new recipes is a pursuit of a flavor or dish that is in my memory. This pursuit led me to buy this book almost as soon as I heard about it.

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Not only does it bring back really vivid memories of sunny Saturdays wandering around the streets of old Jerusalem with a friend and a camera, it also brings back memories of new flavors; breads the size of my head and covered with toasty sesame seeds, schwarmas with all sorts of crunchy veggies and spices, fresh mint tea, hummus as smooth as silk, and sweet, buttery desserts.

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The recipe for fattoush has all the flavors that remind me of Israel. Mint, parsley, lemon, garlic, sumac, yogurt, and cucumbers all combine to create a lovely, crunchy, flavor packed salad. We all decided that the bread was unnecessary. We’d all prefer to have the bread on the side as opposed to in the salad. Next, on my list of things to make from this book is the recipe for stuffed quinces, only I probably won’t stuff them.

Vietnamese Home Cooking is the first Vietnamese cookbook that I have seen that seems truly authentic to me, not that I have ever lived or even visited the country. The book has a fabulous glossary complete with photos for all of the non-western ingredients called for in the book. I find this immensely helpful for shopping purposes.

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The recipe I decided to make first from this book was the one for Shaking Beef. It was a risky one, using the very expensive beef tenderloin cut, but super fast to cook. Aside from marinating the beef in the early afternoon, this dish took all of 20 minutes to prep and cook. Of course, we all loved it, even my youngest who normally dislikes beef. For him, it was probably the tenderness of the cut that won him over. For the rest of us, we loved just about everything in the dish, even the bed of baby kale that was underneath the beef. It wilted slightly from the heat of the dish, but remained nicely crunchy, and, since it was bathed in the sauce, it was packed with flavor. There was a little too much sauce, so I would probably cut that in half next time, but otherwise, I am thinking of ways to get beef tenderloin on the cheap so that I can make this dish more often.

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Today, because half of us have little colds and the other half of us have been fighting off a mild tummy bug, I am making the chicken broth from this book, with the intention of having Vietnamese chicken noodle soup for dinner. Doesn’t that sound restorative?

I know I could have broken this post up into four different posts, but I thought this survey would be more fun. With these four cookbooks, I could be happily cooking and trying new recipes for awhile. 2013 is shaping up to be a delicious year.