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Star Trek Quiet Book

 

I’ve been pretty absent from this space for the past several weeks, due in most part to this project, which took up all of my available free time from early December through Christmas Day. (Literally, finished it about an hour before my family arrived on Christmas.)

The project? A Star Trek themed quiet book for my almost three-year-old niece.

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It’s almost entirely hand-sewed, with the exception of most of the pages being machine sewed together (in lines that aren’t straight! hooray!). I bought the pattern here, after someone sent me a link to this blog awhile ago. My niece is finally old enough to be able to really play with a quiet book, so I thought Christmas would be a good time to finish it.

I’m pretty proud of how it came out, considering that I’ve sewed nothing but a t-shirt blanket before. There are definitely things I’d do differently if I made a second one. And I think I used the wrong needles on my sewing machine for felt, which led to having to hot glue the last couple pages together at the last minute. But all in all, I’m glad I was able to translate my love of Star Trek to this handmade gift.

Here’s a look at the inside pages.

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It looks like this page says “Meet me crew” from the angle that I took the photo, but it actually says Meet the Crew. These are doors to the holodeck. Open it up, and you get…

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Finger puppets! The whole crew is there, including the two ladies that I added to the pattern in the name of accuracy and gender equality. From left: Commander Riker, Counselor Troi, Lieutenant Commander Data, Lieutenant LaForge, Dr. Crusher, Lieutenant Worf and Captain Picard. (I used their rankings as of the beginning of the show, knowing that some of them move up in rank as the show and movies went on. Details, you know.)

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The hole at the bottom of the hand is big enough to slip a tiny hand in.

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Worf’s bat’leth spins on the button.

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The saucer section stays on the page while the battle bridge separates on a snap that you can’t see in this photo. This page took forever, since each of the layers of the saucer are hand sewed together.

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All Star Trek TNG fans recognize Geordi’s visor, though the order of these photos makes it seem like you help Geordi see by removing the visor. Which is not true. Without his visor, you see his foggy (creepy) white eyes. In any case, the visor attaches with snaps.

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The original pattern uses “set phasers to kill” since these little gray things are floating probes to destroy. But this book is for a three-year-old, so I didn’t want to use ‘kill’ because that nuance is lost (that you aren’t hitting a human). So I changed it to ‘stun.’ When you remove the probe, you see the little explosion left behind.

Each of these buttons are from my grandma’s button container (my niece’s great-grandma). I’m glad I was able to incorporate something of her in the book.

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I love this page because it was fun to sew a path for the shuttle. Though it’s crooked as all get out, including the pocket. Straight lines are not my forte. Have I said that before?

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This page was also time consuming because of the tiny clothes all being hand sewed, as well as Picard’s body which is underneath his Locutus of Borg outfit in this photo. When you’re ready to de-Borgify him, you can put on his regular uniform (attached with velcro).

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I need a little break from sewing for a bit to catch up here and on some reading that I neglected in the last few weeks. But then I’ll be back at it again, working on my skills (and getting new machine needles!). Going to do Mark’s t-shirt blanket next, but after that? No idea. Definitely want to incorporate at least some sewing into my week though, since I found it to be really calming.

While I sewed the quiet book, I devoured podcasts, including all of Serial and many episodes of Book Riot. So not only did the project cement my interest in sewing, but it introduced me to more great media to consume. (Now I just need to find someone else who listened to Serial so we can talk about it! Ah!)

 

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the annual holiday cookie box – 2014

Well, I’m back from the Never Where – the place where you don’t sit at your computer for more than a week due to work and craziness – and oh, that thing you do each year where you bake non-stop for three days and then host a dinner party.

Ever since our first Christmas together in 2009, Mark and I have made boxes of holiday cookies for loved ones (with the exception of 2012, when we paid for surgery for our cat, Maggie, which ate up the budget for the boxes). We usually go all-out on both variety and quantity. And this year was no different.

Definite Santa’s Workshop Explosion at Next Gen House.

So here’s a look at what we made this year. Starting with what our dining room table looked like when I brought the ingredients home from the store. (And that’s not even everything.)

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Aunt Barbara’s Favorite Macaroons

When we lost Mark’s Aunt Barbara in November, we knew we needed to include vanilla macaroons with the boxes this year in her honor. It was her favorite of our cookies, and she would never say no to me bringing her a batch when we visited. They’re a really easy cookie, made in the food processor.

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Oatmeal Cookies with White Chocolate and Cranberries

These are one of those classic cookies that gets a holiday touch with its special add-ins. Mark makes a mean oatmeal cookie, and I had a hard time not stealing all of these when they came warm out of the oven. Plus the little bags I found with the circle bottoms to hold a stack of cookies were just too festive.

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Grandma Stiffler’s Molasses Cookies

My grandma Stiffler (paternal grandmother’s mother) apparently made some mean cookies, which is where my own grandma learned it. I have several of my grandma’s cookie recipes, and I put a tribute to her in the box every year, since she was the best cookie baker I’ve ever known. These cookies are nearly like gingerbread, but they are soft and melt in your mouth. They are also fantastic frozen and then dipped in coffee. I think the powdered sugar stencils jazz up their appearance a little, but stencil or no stencil, these remain one of my favorites.

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Lemon Sables

We decided when looking at our list of potential cookies, that we were missing something citrus, so we went with a light, lemon shortbread cookie. These are refrigerator cookies, so you make the dough, shape it into a log and refrigerate it for awhile. Then roll it in egg yolk and coarse sugar and slice off pieces.

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Kahlua Fudge

This fudge turned out really deep and rich. Delicious, but you need it in small bites or you will have an instantaneous sugar coma.

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Muddy Buddy/Puppy Chow Knockoffs

These were a no-bake rip off of the muddy buddy/puppy chow paradigm – Butter crackers with peanut butter and vanilla dipped in chocolate and coated in powdered sugar. Easily the easiest thing we made, but super delicious. Plus, having a few no-bake items really helps make our list manageable.

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Mark’s Famous Fruitcake

This fruitcake requires a 10 gallon food-grade Lowe’s bucket. It’s a crazy old recipe that barely makes sense, but each year Mark hobbles through it and literally gets up to his elbow in mixing batter. You can get a contact high from the rum in it, but that’s what makes it fruitcake that you want to eat, and not one you want to use as a door stopper.

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Bacon Almond Vanilla Brittle

Our first batch actually didn’t turn out that well, since we were following the recipe too closely, and not relying on our guts when it comes to the sugar. We’ve made candy before, so we should have waited for it to get to the right temp instead of going by the time in the recipe, which is always so variable. So the first batch ended up as misfit ice cream topping chewy stuff. But the other batches? Holy cow, so delicious. And our house smelled like bacon for days, which is nothing but positive.

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Peanut Butter Truffles

Another good no-bake recipe, these are those decadent cereal bites that are filled with peanut butter and sugar and crunch and then dipped in those weird colored fake chocolate wafers. Which aren’t real food, but whatev. It’s Christmas.

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Chocolate Peppermint Biscotti with White Chocolate and Candy Canes

I made life easier this year and bought peppermint candy cane sprinkles instead of going through the nightmare of unwrapping candy canes (which is so hard! why?!) and then putting them in the food processor which is the most awful noise in the world.  This biscotti is a favorite because it lasts forever (purposely stale baked goods for the win!). And it’s festive.

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Sugar Cookies with Royal Icing

Of any of the cookies we made this year, I think I’m most proud of these. We try to only do one cut-out-and-decorate cookie each year because they are ridiculously time consuming. So we left gingerbread for next year and did classic sugar cookies. I always make each box a name tag cookie, with their names piped on, for a personal touch. I’m always so happy once we finish them all that we did them. Especially because this recipe? ROCKS.

And because I’m so proud of them, commence gratuitous photos.

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The angel cookie cutter above (she’s flying toward the left, holding her hands out, wing on the back) and the Santa head above are old family cookie cutters that I inherited and I’m always so happy to make use of them each year.

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Posting will be a bit sparse here through the holiday season, since I’m spending most of my available free time working on a rather epic homemade gift for a special almost three year old niece. That and I’m busy stuffing my face with the extra cookies we put in the freezer and getting that contact high I mentioned from the fruit cake.

Are you baking anything for the holidays? I’m always looking for more ideas for next year’s boxes!

(P.S. – If you want the recipes for any of these, I am happy to share. Just leave a comment!)

 

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aunt barbara’s christmas tree

November was a crazy month at our house. A lot going on in general, and then we received the unexpected news that Mark’s Aunt Barbara had passed away. Aunt Barbara was one of Mark’s closest relatives, and a constant presence of love and support in his childhood and adolescence. She lived alone, and we’ve tried to make an effort to go to Cleveland see her every two months or so.

Every time we visited, she sent us home with something from the house (and a bag of chocolates from Malley’s). She was trying to slowly downsize her possessions, and one year she wanted to give us her Christmas tree and asked if we’d put it up. She had downsized to a smaller fiberoptic tree and her beloved Nativity set, but she really loved Christmas and wanted the tree that her family had for years to go somewhere to be enjoyed. And we agreed.

Sunday night, Mark was out of town. So I put up Aunt Barbara’s tree.

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The house was quiet and the lights were low (conveniently, our dining room overhead light is broken). I sorted all of the branches and attached them. Aunt Barbara was nothing if not meticulous, so each branch still had its original labels and the tree remains in perfect condition. I added some lights – a combination of her lights and some that we had. Cheap tree lights don’t stand the test of time very well – though the first year we unboxed her lights, we found strands carefully wrapped up in tissue paper marked “broken.” Which is so Aunt Barbara, it’s not even funny.

With the lights on, I pulled out the ornaments. Just the plastic ones this year, since we don’t know how Stormy and Vader are going to do with a Christmas tree, and I have a sneaking suspicion that this tree is going to be on its side at least once during the season. There are some great vintage glass ornaments, but I didn’t want to take the chance.

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Aunt Barbara’s ornaments date back many years, in particular to times when people didn’t buy a lot of individual ornaments like we do now. No Disney characters or sports teams or hobbies. Classic Christmas ornaments, 12 identical ones in a box. Probably purchased from the Five & Dime.

Aunt Barbara’s mom, Mark’s grandmother, Eleanor, loved elephants. So there are some of those.

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There’s something beautifully simple about her ornaments. Nothing in particular distracting – all of them adding a bit of color and sparkle to the tree. Her tree isn’t Pinterest-worthy and isn’t themed or color coordinated. Some people would probably call her ornaments vintage. Because they are older than me and none of them light up or sing or play movie scenes.

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I got to thinking about how much this tree is a reflection of who Aunt Barbara was. Simple and utilitarian, but not lacking in happiness or brightness or celebration. I’ve never met anyone who took such joy in such simple things. In a season when we all fall prey to the lure of sales and discounts and gifts upon gifts, Aunt Barbara was more happy with a box of my homemade vanilla macaroons than she ever would have been with a gift we bought at Target.

I met Aunt Barbara for the first time about five and a half years ago. I was charmed by her immediately, her sense of humor and the fact that she was both smart as a whip and stubborn as a mule made us get along well.  I like to think we had a special connection – especially because she left Cleveland to come to our wedding in 2010 – an event described by other family members as a coup of epic proportions. (On the two conditions that she return to Cleveland that evening and also not be forced to eat fish at the wedding reception. We complied.) She wasn’t effusive, but I know she loved me as her niece and not just someone her nephew married.

This season will be hard and there will be no Christmas trip to Cleveland, with her worries about us driving in the snow. She loved Christmas, and we loved visiting her at Christmas especially.

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Aunt Barbara’s life was a reflection of her priorities – her faith being chief among them. If she had all of her needs met and could worship every day, she was truly happy. She exalted in the Christmas season in the best way – by not going after more and more, but by putting up her Nativity to remind her of why we celebrate in the first place. Even when this full-size tree stood in her house, it wasn’t about which fancy LED lights she could get on clearance at an after-Christmas sale or which Hallmark collection ornaments she had. She had the same ornaments year after year, and that’s part of the beauty of this tree.

Finally, I secured the sparkly, light up star at the top of the tree. I like that it’s a star and that it shines so brightly, because it makes me think of her – now in a better place. I hope that I let her example lead me this holiday season. And when I make a batch of vanilla macaroons – now officially named Aunt Barbara’s Favorite Macaroons from now until eternity – I will feel her joyful spirit.

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Mastering the Art of French Cooking dinner party

Ever since I was introduced to Julia Child, I’ve had an item on my bucket list – to cook an entire dinner party from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Everything from appetizers to desserts. I was able to check it off my list this month when we had a few friends over for a Christmas feast. (Excuse the poor phone photos – way too busy that day to break out the good camera.)

The first course was French onion soup (Soupe a l’Oignon Gratinee). The soup was really simple to make, though it takes awhile, since the onions cook low and slow, releasing the most amazing flavors. Once it’s finished, it’s topped with swiss cheese, toasted baguette and a bit of olive oil drizzle and set in the oven to brown and melt. We ate every drop.


The main course was beef stew with red wine (Boeuf a la Bourguignonne) over parsley potatoes with buttered green peas with shallots (Petits Pois Etuves au Beurre). The stew was so tender and flavorful – unlike any crock pot stew I’ve ever made. I don’t know if it was the ingredients or the method or a combination of both, but the stew was also worth its effort. I made enough potatoes to feed an army (I overestimate how many will be needed every single time I make potatoes), but they paired well with the richness of the stew. The peas were also a hit, even with a few guests who only took the peas to be polite, but ended up really liking them. (That’s always the mark of a great dish – when people who ordinarily would pass it up find it delicious.)

The French bread (Pain Francais) was something I had been wanting to make for a long time, having never made bread only from my hands before. (I’ve always relied on the dough hook of my mixer for kneading, the few times I’ve made homemade bread.) Jacking up the heat in our house that morning really helped the dough rise, since usually we keep it pretty low in the winter. I’m glad I thought to do that and followed Julia’s recommendations on temperature. After hours of kneading and rising cycles, the payoff was worth the effort: crusty on the outside, soft on the inside loaves that rang hollow when you thumped them – Julia’s indication that they are done. We ate all three loaves in a matter of minutes and they were so delicious in and of themselves that we didn’t even need the honey butter! 

For dessert, it was a chocolate almond cake (Reine de Saba) and upside-down apple tart (Le Tarte des Demoiselles Tatin). Somehow I only took a photo of the apple tart when it was still upside down (crust on top) in the frying pan. At first I was skeptical that the cake recipe could really feed 8 people, especially when I saw that the frosting was nothing but a few tablespoons of butter and an ounce of chocolate. But it was so rich and creamy, we had leftovers – a little goes a long way. I should know by now not to doubt these recipes. I’m glad I didn’t do the American thing and slather the cake in 50 pounds of icing and make 6 more layers. It was perfect the way it was. And adorable on a cake stand, too.

The apple tart was tricky, and I was nervous about burning the apples, so it was a little less caramelized than I’d like, but it worked out fine. It was also rich and very heavy on the sugar, so a little piece went very far. Perhaps that’s the theme of these French recipes – a little goes a very long way. 

My friend Anthony chose some fantastic wines to pair with the food, according to Julia’s recommendations in the cookbook. Even people who aren’t usually wine people were impressed – it was like the wines were made for this specific menu!

Though the meal took 13 hours from start to finish and required assistance from other people (greatly appreciated), it was worth it. I feel like even through the busy, frenzied prep (and the fact that I needed this white board to keep track of where everything was in the process), I could find the joy in cooking these recipes and realize the painstaking care that was made in writing them. 

I could hear Julia’s voice in the text and knowing that the hands in the bread making photos were hers makes it all the more special – and really makes it stand out from other cookbooks of today. Ghost writers abound in today’s celebrity cookbooks, so knowing that Julia wrote and developed these recipes and their specific methods was having a connection with an author of a cookbook that I haven’t experienced before. And to have people linger over a meal at the table for three hours blissfully full and content? Probably just how Julia intended.


For more on my obsession with Julia, check out these posts on watching The French Chef and a book review on her biography, Dearie.

Give the gift of a full belly – #pghsavesXmas

There are so many deserving charities that need help this time of year, especially with the demand of the holidays. While there are many good causes to support, I have a soft spot in my heart for hunger relief agencies, as evidenced by my desire to run for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in May for the Pittsburgh Half Marathon.

Also, I’m a lurker/follower of a great local blog called IheartPGH, which is exactly what it seems from the title – a blog about this great city and its people.

And I read this week that she’s raising money for CHS, an organization that provides many needed services – mental health, homeless assistance, housing assistance, and today I found out – a food pantry. In cooperation with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, they serve as many people as they can in the Oakland area. And many in our city need food more than they need a fun Christmas present, as great as that is.

Not only is she raising money, but she’s holding giveaways as well, and donating and spreading the word helps you win entries to walk away with some great prizes. Helping others have enough food to eat and spend Christmas with a roof over their head and a full belly while also getting to enter for great prizes and use the awesome hashtag #pghsavesXmas? Sounds good to me. Makes me feel like Pittsburgh’s a super hero, and that let’s me geek out a little bit too. Win.

Visit IheartPGH to check out the giveaways and ways to donate! (And follow her blog while you’re at it – you’ll learn so much more about Pittsburgh that you’ll wish you had three extra days in the week to fit in more cool stuff.) 

spreading holiday cheer with cookie boxes

The first Christmas Mark and I were together, we combined our baking super powers to make assorted holiday cookie/treat boxes for friends and family. The tradition grew over the next few years, each year upping the ante and making the box bigger and badder. Last year, because of Maggie’s surgery and its associated expense, we had to forego the cookie boxes. This year, we prepared to resurrect the tradition and got our plans together, including the necessary three days off of work it requires. And then Maggie passed away the morning we were supposed to start.

We decided there would be no better way to work through our sadness than to spread some cheer and joy, so we forged ahead. Two and a half days later, we had 16 cookie packages ready to be sent across the country and hand delivered to family and friends. And our dining room looked like Santa’s workshop exploded.



Mark has a family recipe for fruitcake that actually tastes good. It’s such an intense job to make that it has to be mixed in a food grade bucket, but it’s worth it.


My grandma Taylor was known for her cookies, and the molasses cookies she always made came from her mother’s recipe. They are amazing chilled in the freezer, dipped in hot coffee.


I am slowly becoming a biscotti fan, and after I made chocolate peppermint biscotti with candy canes and white chocolate for our 2011 boxes, I had to repeat it this year.

I also experimented a few years ago with homemade marshmallows, and they made an appearance as well. This recipe is even good as they dry out, and they go great over a mug of cocoa.


Mark made batches of a classic favorite – white chocolate cranberry oatmeal.

Shortbread is one of my favorites, so I tried a new recipe for vanilla sables, which was delicious (and also didn’t crumble like a lot of shortbread does).


Mark made eggnog fudge, which was a hit even with people (like me) who don’t like traditional eggnog. 


I can’t bake anything without considering at least one item that includes peanut butter, so I tried a classic Good Housekeeping recipe for toffee peanut butter rounds. Not the prettiest cookies in the world, but definitely the kind where you can eat 4 without even thinking.


Two boxes got a special addition, due to these particular family members having an affinity for them – vanilla coconut macaroons.


And last but not least are my favorites each year – sci fi gingerbread. Being geeks to the core, we love our Star Wars and Star Trek cookie cutters. (The Star Wars once are from Williams Sonoma and the Star Trek ones were custom-made for me by an Etsy seller, though Think Geek sells some now.)

In the interest of time, we used white royal icing and colored sugar instead of coloring all of the icing and filling in the cookie details. But they still turned out awesome and close to the right colors (Chewy got close with orange).

I particularly love the red symbol of the Klingon empire. The warrior’s cookie of choice.

Star Trek: Delta shield, Vulcan salute, Klingon empire

Star Wars (light side): R2D2, Yoda, C3PO and Chewbacca

Star Wars (dark side): Darth Vader, Storm Trooper, Boba Fett, Death Star


We even had enough grape jelly that we could share a half pint in each box!