Archive for the ‘homemaking’ Category

Free Motion Quilting

A few years ago after I learned to knit and discovered that I was, in fact, somewhat creative I became interested in quilting. I loved the look of quilts and the creativity involved in putting them together. I grabbed a couple of books from the library and got rather excited looking at all the patterns. Then I read about how one actually quilts and decided that hour upon hour of hand-sewing was not something I was interested in doing.

More recently, when I began planning in earnest for our new home, I thought about how moving to a bigger house often means having to fill that extra space with Stuff, and I wrote a post about how I didn’t want to get sucked into buying things that had no meaning or would fall apart after a while. I imagined crafting the things that would fill my new home and that brought my thoughts back to quilting. The kids would have their own rooms and I thought how wonderful it would be to have a lovely hand-made quilt for each of them, not to mention one for the grownups’ bed. So I decided to look into it again.

At the library I found a book about something called machine quilting and I got very excited. You could do this on a sewing machine? Way cool. The book was brief but it got me Googling. I found the Missouri Star Quilt Company, which has great video tutorials on its site. And then I found my epiphany, my golden muse, the inspiration that moved me to action: The Free Motion Quilt Project. This blog was started by a young quilter named Leah Day, a petite soft-spoken gal from North Carolina with an adorable American accent. Frustrated by the lack of options out there for free motion quilting (FMQ) she set out to create one new pattern each day for a year. From there her website grew to include all sorts of wonderful articles and videos to guide one through machine quilting. I was hooked!

But I didn’t have a sewing machine.

Thanks to Leah’s website I had a good idea what to look for in a machine for FMQ. I’d been scouring Craigslist and UsedEverywhere but none of the machines offered had what I was looking for. Plus I knew I really needed to try these machines out before buying and that would be very difficult if I was trucking around all over town, dragging the kids with me, sitting in someone else’s home begging for fabric scraps!

I was getting impatient with just watching all Leah’s great videos: I was ready to get started! Luckily, over the last couple of months my consulting business suddenly got very busy and I was able to bring in a nice chunk of extra money for our family. I decided to treat myself and buy a new machine. I could certainly think of many uses for it besides quilting, like mending clothes, making cloth napkins and placemats and other things for the home. We don’t have a sewing machine store here in town so last week, when I had to head to the Big City for an appointment, I dropped by their main sewing store.

I “test drove” a few machines, using quilted samples the store had available. I didn’t tell the salesgirl that this was the first time I had ever FMQ’d before! I ended up falling in love with a model that was, of course, much more expensive than what I had planned to spend. But it was on sale and came with a quilter’s kit (FMQ foot, table extension, etc.) and had a nice large harp space for quilting. Not to mention a great work light (I had the sobering middle-aged lady experience of realizing that my eyes aren’t what they used to be). Mostly I just found sewing on this machine to be smooth and easy and it didn’t scare me! So I took the plunge and purchased my first sewing machine: a Pfaff Ambition 1.0.

I couldn’t wait to get started on it, and thankfully I had saved an old bed sheet that had a big hole in it, so I had plenty of fabric to play with. I also had a sewing kit I’d picked up from a friend’s yard sale years ago full of notions and scissors and thread. After reading the manual carefully and learning how to thread the machine and wind a bobbin, I was all set. I did a few runs of straight stitching before getting impatient and switching to the FMQ foot. I folded a swath of fabric four times over, sewed around the edges to form a rectangle, and then began to practice FMQ as per Leah’s instructions.

Not only was it as easy as she made it look (which confirms to me that I made a good choice in machines) but it was also just as fun as it looked, too! I am hooked. I had so much fun practising different designs. Here are a couple of my test swatches (I apologize for the photos being hard to see clearly: I only had this fabric and white thread, not a great combination for contrast):

My first attempt. Learning the basic motion of the Stippling design, the most common FMQ pattern.

Moving up to more varied Stippling shapes.

Then I tried some other beginner designs from Leah’s website.

My first attempts at Flowing Glass, Sea Oats, Rainforest Leaf, and Trailing Spirals. Too much fun!

After several samples I was itching to make something “real”. Next chance I got I headed to the local FabricLand store and got myself a membership (my mother has had her membership since I was a wee child so it felt good to join) and came home with some “fat quarters” and a “charm pack”. I decided to use the fat quarters to make placemats that I would just FMQ without any piecing. The truth is, I don’t even own an iron let alone a rotary cutter, cutting board, or quilter’s ruler. It was rather slapdash, but turns out you don’t need much perfection to make a simple placemat. I was really pleased with how they came out (the colours of the plaid are much bolder in reality; not sure if you can see the stippling well either).

Double sided placemat with Stipple quilting.

I’m planning on making some more placemats. Until I get an iron and some proper cutting tools that’s all I can do, but it will allow me to practice my FMQ while still producing something useful. There is an exception, however: I’m getting this quilting set from appleturnover‘s Etsy Store. The owner of the shop is a friend of mine from back in our mum-and-baby-group days. She asked me to be a tester for her quilting kit: the pieces are already cut and I will be quilting along with videos she shot on her lovely antique hand-crank machine. I’ll still need to get an iron, but the cutting tools can hold off for a while longer.

Stay tuned for more quilting projects!


Soup from the Pantry

During the cold months I love to make soups from scratch. While there are many wonderful recipes out there, some of the most useful are those you can make using goods from the pantry. You can ensure that you always have the ingredients in stock so that when the mood for soup hits you, you don’t need to worry about whether you have all the ingredients.

One of my favorites is Spicy Lentil soup. Made with coconut milk it is rich and creamy, and the warm spices of cinnamon and cardamom are perfect flavours for a winter’s day. It whips up in about 30 minutes, and is very simple to make. Here is the recipe, from the book Soup: superb ways with a classic dish.

Spicy Lentil Soup

Place into your soup pot: 2 chopped onions, 2-3 cloves garlic, 2 – 4 chopped tomatoes (if I don’t have fresh ones around I used diced ones from a can, drained of their juices; works just fine), 1/2 tsp turmeric, 1 tsp ground cumin, 1 cinnamon stick, 6 cardamom pods, 1 1/3 cup red lentils, 3 3/4 cups water.

Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cover. Simmer for about 20 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and cardamom pods.

Put in a blender (or use a hand blender right in the pot, as I do; less to wash up) to mix it up to a smooth consistency. The recipe says to strain it but I don’t know why and never do. Add a 14-oz can of coconut milk and 1 tbsp lime juice (I use RealLime, which stores in the fridge for ages). Salt and pepper to taste.

Serves well with homemade bread rolls, which is just what I’m having tonight after a day being snowed it. Perfect!

Bread Success!

I posted recently about my frustrations with trying to provide home-baked bread for my family. I started with the 5 Minutes a Day technique, but quickly grew discouraged and disappointed. I mentioned that I was going to try Rhonda Jean’s recipe over at Down to Earth, and I’m happy to say that my problems have been solved.

Turns out I was using nowhere near enough water. And therein lies the problem for beginner breadmakers such as myself. I’m the kind of gal who needs a recipe. I have no feel for ingredients, how they contribute to the final product and what ratios to use, so a recipe is essential for me. What I guess I didn’t understand (or, more likely, chose to ignore) was that breadmaking is not really suitable to rigid recipes. Turns out that the consistency of your dough will vary based on the temperature in your home, humidity, flour composition, how the yeast happens to feel that day, etc. As Rhonda Jean continually emphasizes in her articles about breadmaking, to get the right dough you need to understand how it’s supposed to feel. Her detailed photos of dough during the kneading process clued me in to the fact that my dough was not right. At the end of her required 8 minutes of kneading (a good starting point for beginners, and far longer than I’d kneaded bread before) her dough looked smooth and stretchy. Mine lacked any stretch and after only a few minutes of kneading I was sweating buckets and my arms ached. Something wasn’t right.

So, as per her instructions, I kept adding water. I even added it while kneading, using my invented-on-the-spot technique of dipping my hands in warm water and rubbing them together; I did this several times during the kneading process. Assessing the dough while kneading made it easy to correct; if things got too sloppy I simply dusted more flour on the surface, which the dough picked up as I kneaded. I was thrilled to bits when I completed my kneading time and ended up with a stretchy, smooth-surfaced dough. It rose beautifully, far more than any other dough I’ve attempted thus far. It was soft and lovely as I punched it down for the second kneading (a relatively short 2 minutes). In the loaf pan it rose far above the rim of the pan – again a new experience for me. And the ultimate test was the final result: bread with a lovely crumb, a nice crust (not too crunchy, great for sandwiches), and best of all – it tasted like bread (not some yeasty, poor imitation of sourdough). My kids actually ate it and liked it!

After following Rhonda Jean’s instructions I finally understood her emphasis on needing to feel the dough, to use one’s senses rather than a rigid recipe as a guide. With each loaf I get better at figuring out how much water to use, and how to slightly adjust with water or flour during the kneading process when I don’t get it exactly right from the start. Best of all, it now makes using whole wheat far less intimidating. My previous wheat breads were all heavy – now I know that I just need to add more water to the dough when whole grains are used – forget the recipes and just go by feel. Right now I’m doing half-and-half with whole wheat and organic white flour, but am looking forward to trying other grains such as rye and spelt. I do add gluten flour to all my recipes (Rhonda Jean suggests it even for 100% white flour when starting out, until one gets a good feel for the dough and the process), and so far I’m thrilled with the results.

A big thank you to Rhonda Jean for her wonderful advice. Finally, I can provide my family with delicious, fresh, homemade bread and ditch the store-bought for good!

In Search of Homemade Bread

For many years now I have been trying to provide my family with homemade bread. The stuff from the grocery store is full of preservatives and highly processed ingredients, and wholesome artisan bread is too expensive for the amount we go through each week. Years ago I purchased a breadmaking machine and enjoyed using that for some time. The down side was that it took 3.5 to 4 hours to make a small loaf of bread. Theoretically I’d set it up at night before going to bed, but that didn’t always work out as planned. I’d be too tired and forget. Or, I’d get woken up in the early morning hours by the grinding noise of the breadmaker (life in a small home). Several months ago my breadmaker finally broke when I attempted to make spelt bread. The recipe I was using was obviously faulty and the resulting dough was more like cement. It was so hard to churn that the metal spokes that turned the rotor of the bread machine actually tore off! I decided it was time to try my hand at making it myself.

My next venture was into the Five Minutes a Day breadmaking made popular by the authors’ two books. I tried a basic recipe of theirs from an article in Mother Earth News and decided this was the answer I needed, so I ordered the two books and went out to buy loaf pans. At first I was really happy with the technique: it was easy to mix up a big batch and it didn’t take too long to make bread. I assumed I’d get better with practice, and so tolerated the frequent mistakes. But it didn’t seem to get any easier and eventually the list of “cons” outweighed the “pros”. My kids complained that the bread “tasted funny” and refused to eat it. Even I grew tired of the yeasty smell and taste. The whole schtick behind these books is you get that “sourdough” type flavour with this technique. I like sourdough bread, but not in every loaf I make, and I found the flavour overwhelming in these recipes. I eventually found out that I could cut the yeast way down, which went a long way to getting rid of the taste, but then it also took a lot longer to make the initial batch of bread. Then there was the fact that I didn’t have enough room in my fridge to store the dough (which you make in large batches). I also could not get consistent loaves no matter how often I practiced. One day the loaf would have a good “crumb” (the texture of the inside of the loaf) and the next it would be gooey, hard, or unevenly cooked. The crusts were never soft, even in the soft-crust recipes, and the loaves cooked unevenly. This latter issue is definitely a problem with my ancient oven, but that’s what I’m stuck with right now. I got tired of the kids rejecting my loaves, and of wasting so much good organic flour (the pigs enjoyed it all very much, of course). I stopped trying and we went back to cheap, store-bought bread.

After taking a suitable break from my Five Minutes a Day failure, I felt ready to try my hand at real, old-fashioned breadmaking. The kind where you actually knead the dough. In all my years of making bread I’d never actually done this before, and felt it was time to give it a try. I surfed through YouTube to get some ideas and inspiration. It felt a lot like Googling “gardening” – way too much information and everybody seems to do it differently. I found it rather confusing and overwhelming. One person swore by using a yeast “sponge” rather than proofing yeast, others claim that yeast won’t work without sugar and yet they proof their yeast with just water. Rising times seemed to vary considerably, and when it came to whole grain breads some people didn’t use gluten, which I’ve been told is essential to get any rise from these heavier flours. There were those who knead by hand and those who knead with a mixer (I have a KitchenAid with Dough Hook, but have yet to try it on bread). I decided to start simple.

I found a beginner’s bread recipe in an old copy of Hobby Farm Home I had lying around. I followed the instructions and was very pleased to see things rising as they should, with the correct texture, etc. I was also rather surprised at how little time it took – the first rise was only 1 hour and the second 30 minutes. The bread baked for 30 minutes, so in just over 2 hours I had bread. That’s half the time of machine bread, and the same time as the Five Minutes a Day technique (when you pinch off some ready-made dough you still need to let it rest and rise for 90 minutes before shaping). For a first effort I was pretty pleased with the results. The loaves were on the small side, but the crumb was not bad (could still be fluffier, IMO). It had baked evenly and I had 2 loaves with relatively little effort. Even kneading the dough was not half as hard as I thought it would be.

However, to my surprise the bread still had a yeasty, sour sort of flavour to it and the kids rejected it. I’m not sure what the problem is, but I suspect water may be an issue – we have sulfur in our well water and though I thought I’d used spring water from the store there may have been some well water in the kettle I used to heat the water (I did this meticulously with the Five Minutes recipes but cutting down on the yeast had a much greater effect on taste). I’m going to try the recipe one more time, being careful about the water source and see if that’s the problem. And I may look for recipes that call for less yeast (I use Fleischmann’s, nothing unusual). Otherwise I’m not sure what to do except keep trying recipes until I find one, or a technique, that works for us. Rhonda Jean over at Down to Earth has some great articles about homemade bread so I think I’ll try her recipes next. I’m determined not to be dependent on store-bought bread, especially since my kids eat it by the ton and I want their food to be wholesome and healthy (plus I suspect that they eat so much of it because it contains ingredients that folks crave but that don’t provide much in the way of nutrition). I’ll keep you all posted on my progress.

Signs of Summer

I don’t have a clothesline yet and not even sure where to put it as the layout of the house and yard is unusual. So for now I’m using my wooden clothes horse. The family cloth, however, doesn’t dry well over thick round wooden rails and tends to get blown off easily. So I rigged up this hemp twine across a corner of the deck:

I mentioned in my last post that the strawberries were ripening. We’re in full-on strawberry mode now, and have been enjoying regular bowls of sweet goodness all week. Thank heavens at least one of my children partakes in our harvesting!

Easy Bread

I’ve been baking my own bread off and on for a couple of years now, ever since I bought a breadmaker. I liked the ease of the breadmaker, but with a 4 hour cycle I would often think “hmm, I’d like some bread” but didn’t want to have to wait that long so I just wouldn’t bother (and it didn’t keep well). I could have mixed it up at night and set the timer, but in our small home it would invariably wake me up when it started whirring away at 4 am. Anyway, I managed to break it a few weeks ago when I attempted to make spelt bread.

Spelt does not have gluten, which means it doesn’t rise. I should therefore have been suspicious when the recipe I found online didn’t call for wheat gluten, but it was my first attempt at using a bread recipe other than those in my breadmaker’s user guide, and my first time baking with spelt flour, so I hoped for the best. The rock hard dough was too much for the breadmaker’s motor and one of the hooks that attaches to the paddle-turning thingy ripped almost right off. This was a thick chunk of metal, my friends! Anyways, the spelt bread was a dud (and not just because the paddle broke) and from then on I had no breadmaker.

I decided to try the “5 minute bread” I’d been hearing about. These two books, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day and Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day, provide readers with a “master recipe” that one can draw on for up to two weeks. This means you skip half the breadmaking process on bread-day. A four-hour process is reduced to less than 2 hours and that I can handle. Plus, there is no kneading involved so making your bread each day is easy-peasy.

I started with a recipe that came in my Mother Earth News magazine. It was a whole wheat recipe and was very simple to make (once I’d gone out and bought wheat gluten, that is). It has taken me some time to perfect the actual bread-baking because the oven in our new home runs very hot. I’d end up with bread that baked too fast – the crust would be too hard and dry and the insides were doughy. I’ve been trying lower temps and today I tried 400 and ended up with a pretty-close-to-perfect loaf. I suppose I’m still not “up there” with the true breadmakers who knead their dough and start from scratch each morning, but we go through a lot of bread in this household and if I’m to ever meet my lofty goal of not having to buy store bread I need something I can handle. I’m going to order the books soon so I can try other recipes. I’m hoping to find something that would make good sandwich bread for kids – light, with a softer and thinner crust.

Sorry, Martha, but it’s over between us.

I used to love watching home renovation shows. It started way back in the early nineties with Bob Vila’s Home Again series. The last show I was addicted to was Trading Spaces before we discontinued our cable service. I loved getting ideas on how to decorate a home, seeing what I liked and disliked, and imagining what my future house would look like when I had it done up just the way I wanted.

In fact, it was only recently that I was entertaining the idea of being in a brand new home. There was the condo fiasco, and then the chance to purchase bare land that would require a house to be built upon it. The first didn’t pan out because, you know, I was temporarily insane and all. And the second didn’t pan out because we would have been house/land poor, living on a shoestring, with no chance of paying off our mortgage before we died. And so we ended up here, on glorious Vancouver Island, with 4 beautiful acres to call our own for less than half the price (and half that much land) on the Mainland.

It did come with a home. Well, a mobile home to be precise. Otherwise known as a trailer. Renovating these things is not quite the same process as doing renos on a stick house. These puppies are metal framed, with metal roofs and walls made of something – I haven’t quite figured out what – but they don’t have studs you can hammer nails into and the walls are thinner than standard drywall. Old trailers generally aren’t worth very much and therefore renovations don’t tend to produce enough value increase to make up for the cost. So there’s no real incentive for us to either add on to the place, or redecorate to bring it into the new century. The 80’s country-style wallpaper and cabinets are going to stay, and there is therefore little incentive for me to shop at Ikea or Home Sense for funky trinkets, carpeting, or cheap modern furnishings. So little point, in fact, that it has pretty much robbed me of even the effort of thinking about what might look good in that corner, or whether I should try to match the bathroom towels to the wallpaper.

And do you know, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest, and this brings me great surprise on a regular basis. I wander around doing my laundry and picking up toys and find myself happy and content with our little trailer home. It’s warm and dry and therefore serves its purpose adequately. It’s also in good condition, which means that even though the wallpaper and cabinets are dated, they are all in good shape and there isn’t that decrepit, falling-apart look that does more to make a home look unattractive then a lack of fashion sense, IMHO. And I can’t deny that cleaning a 1000 sq ft house takes considerably less time than cleaning one much larger.

I regularly ask myself how I came to this point. How did I, who used to spend considerable time daydreaming about whether my future mud room should have wainscotting, or whether I want the exterior to be shingles or hardiplank, get to the point where I am happy living in a mobile home with wallpaper in every room (and every room a different pattern)?

I suppose part of it is that I don’t think of this as a permanent house. It won’t last forever and there will come a time when it will make more sense to get rid of it and start over again. We might replace it with a newer model, build something more permanent, or just sell the place and move on to a bigger acreage. Who knows? But this isn’t THE house in which we will see our children grow up and ourselves grow old. So perhaps I have just put off my inner Martha for a time, and am therefore able to be patient and content because in the back of my mind I will yet, one day, get to design my own home.

On the other hand, it may well be that I have managed to truly internalize some of the values of Living Simply to which I aspire. Perhaps I am not just learning, but feeling, that Stuff really isn’t necessary for happiness. And it may also be that when I can look outside my window and see this:

…instead of this:

…that suddenly what my house looks like isn’t of much concern.