Dec 17, 2013

Bake a Better Christmas Cookie

Making tastier Christmas Cookies
Growing up, my house was not a Christmas Cookie house.  In fact, my house was not an any sort of cookie house, except for selling girl scout cookies. My in-laws, however, are the baking type.  They start baking in early December, and run straight through till Christmas.  I think there's usually at least ten types of cookies, plus pecan rolls, making up plates for offices, schools, neighbors, churches, etc.  It's an impressive sight to see.  Being back in Boston, and not in Hawaii (so having a little extra heat from the oven is a good thing) I've been having a fair amount of fun getting into the Christmas cookie habit myself (although on a much, much smaller scale).  A mug of hot apple cider, a Christmas movie marathon, and a table full of cookies, royal icing, piping bags, and candy accouterments sounds like a great way to spend an evening to me.

I am not going to be the one to tell people what recipes to use for any Christmas Cookies. Often it is much more tradition than baking, and tends to factor into the "taste" of Christmas for people.  I'd rather talk about techniques.  Anyone who has ever made cut out sugar cookies knows how finicky they can be.  There are very few ingredients, and the general flavors can be very subtle.  That tends to mean that there are an awful lot of ways to mess it up.  Cut out sugar cookies are pretty much the pie dough of the cookie world.

Life lessons that I have learned making cookies:

  1. Butter: As one of the main flavor components, I always make sure that my butter is fresh.  It should smell like butter, and only like butter (not like anything else from the refrigerator).  Also, if the recipe calls for creaming the butter and the sugar, the butter has to be the right temperature.  If the butter is too warm, the cookies will be greasy, flat blobs.  Cold butter takes longer to cream (and can be hard on a hand mixer). But as long as you keep the butter below 68 degrees (when it starts to melt), then creaming will help to add air into the cookie, providing a lighter finished product with better texture. General tip: When starting a recipe, turn on the oven to preheat, cut your butter into chunks, put it in the mixing bowl, then gather and prepare the rest of your ingredients.  The increased surface area will help to warm the butter faster, but not overwarm it.
  2. Gluten: When making bread, the goal is to work the dough a lot, to create gluten and end up with nice, chewy bread. Cookies are not bread.  While some gluten is desired to help keep the cookies together and not become crumbly (which is why most cookies call for all purpose flour instead of cake flour), over working cookie dough is much more likely than underworking it.  The result is that what should be a light, tender cookie is tough and hard.  This is also why, when making cut out cookies, the first ones tend to come out nice and pretty, and the more times the dough is rolled out, the worse they are.
  3. Oven temperature: Most home ovens are not precise on their temperature.  America's Test Kitchen has someone come in to calibrate their ovens once a month.  A basic oven thermometer can be bought for under $10, and can save a lot of heartache in poorly baked cookies.  I even go the extra step and keep a pizza stone on the bottom rack of my oven to act as an insulator, helping to keep the temperature even.
  4. Baking Process: First, every time you open the oven, you're letting heat out. And the longer the oven is open, the more heat can escape.  Therefore, when I put cookies in the oven, I usually have the cookie sheet on top of the stove, with my oven mitts on before I open the oven.  I'm losing the bare minimum of heat possible, and the cookies spend more time in the oven at the correct temperature.  This also means  I open the oven as few times as possible while cookies are in there.  Most modern ovens have a window in the front, and a light inside.  Use them.

    I have also found that, for many types of cookies, baking cookies is like cooking eggs.  When cooking eggs, always take the pan off the heat slightly before they look done.  The heat of the pan will continue cooking them.  It's the same with cookies.  It took me multiple batches of ginger cookies before I learned when to take them out of the oven.  If they looked done, the bottoms were going to be overcooked.
As far as decorating sugar cookies goes, I'm not an artist.  I can't draw, I can't paint, even my handwriting is atrocious. Bee in our Bonnet has some fabulous information on sugar cookies and decorating them. This year I tried using tricks I learned from that post for my cookies, with mixed success.  My royal icing was too firm to really "flood", but the decorating was a lot cleaner than ever before.  Any of the "mixed" part is all my skills, and not the suggestions from the site.  I did even try a little bit of this "knit" technique on one of my cookies.

Be mindful of the details, and be happier with your results.  And don't forget, most importantly, have fun!

Dec 4, 2013

Three Blind Mice Never Tasted So Good

There are many things that I dislike about winter, which is why I choose to look at the positives as opposed to hiding under my bed for multiple months, waiting for it to go away. While the utter lack of humidity leads to my hair doing an impression of a hedgehog due to static, the same lack of heat and humidity make it the perfect weather to start making chocolates again!

A friend of mine recently bought a house, and after I was lusting over the size and counter space of her kitchen, invited me over to help break it in.  She and I had originally taken a truffle class together, but where I obsessively proceeded on to make all sorts of different candies, she was happy to just go home and eat her candy. When I asked what she wanted to make in this new kitchen, she said that she wanted something with chocolate.

I think that chocolate mice are probably the least exacting type of candy that I've made. When I went poking around online to see if it were possible to make something like Mounds or Almond Joy, I came across directions that essentially said to mix corn syrup with coconut until you have about the right texture.  Cool, shape, and coat in chocolate. Conveniently, that is, in fact, about all there is to it. But, as I'm really bad about staying short winded, there's a whole lot more below.

Before we talk about ingredients, I just want to say a word about corn syrup. If you have never made candy, but have all of the talk about high fructose corn syrup, you may balk at any recipe that uses corn syrup (although High Fructose Corn Syrup and what is in the baking aisle are actually different). What's insidious about high fructose corn syrup isn't actually the ingredient on its own.  It's the fact that it's in everything, so that "moderation" that the corn refiners ads talk about gets really difficult really fast. Start checking labels.  Things that you would never expect to have sugar in them have high fructose corn syrup, like bread. In candy, corn syrup helps to keep crystals small, and helps to keep things chewy.  So it is highly advisable to not just omit it.  Also, remember, we're making candy.  We already know it's not healthy.  My advice, enjoy the treat for what it is, and keep portion sizes reasonable.  If you're still concerned about the difference, check out this article.


  • Shredded Coconut
  • Corn Syrup
  • Chocolate or Candy Melts (dark or milk, your choice, but don't use chocolate chips.  They contain anti-melting agents that will just make your life harder.)
  • Optional: almonds (or anything else that you think will taste good with coconut).

Prepare the Chocolate

In this application, the chocolate will be used as a coating over the coconut, so we need to melt it. If you have never worked with chocolate, there are two very important things to know. First, chocolate is actually very sensitive to heat. It has many different crystal states within a pretty small range.  What does that mean? If you have ever had a candy bar that has melted and re-solidified, you have experienced this.  It won't have a nice snap to the chocolate, it will melt at a lower temperature, it won't be shiny.  Just generally not as pretty.  In chocolate terms, it's out of temper.  The good news is, if you are working with a good solid block of chocolate that is already in temper, it's not that hard to keep it that way.

Secondly, water and chocolate are not friends.  They are anti-friends.  Even a tiny bit of water in melted chocolate will cause it to seize, and then you can't use it for dipping your mice.

Some people will advocate using the microwave to melt chocolate.  This can work, but I've not had much success with it.  I have the bad habit of over heating the chocolate.  So I prefer to do things the old fashioned way.

If you decide to use candy melts, there is no need to chop your chocolate. I find the flavor isn't quite as good as with real chocolate, but I will admit that they are a lot easier to use, and there is no risk or seizing.

If, instead, you are using a large bar of chocolate, get out a good solid knife to chop it down. Why?  Because as I said above, chocolate is sensitive to heat.  I want to use as little heat/time as possible to get it all melted evenly.  Smaller pieces, that have a high surface area, will melt faster.  The general goal is to get the chocolate into nice, tiny pieces that are all about the same size.

I melt my chocolate at home by putting it into a metal bowl, and putting that bowl on top of a small pot with a couple of inches of water in it.  In this case, my friend had a Pyrex bowl that would also withstand the heat, so we just used that.  Put the bowl of chocolate on top of the pan before turning on the heat.  Steam= water, and if any gets into your chocolate, that can leave you very sad with a bowl full of seized chocolate that will never be used for dipping, and little naked coconut mice.

Heat the chocolate slowly over low heat, stirring often, and turning off the heat periodically if the water in the underlying pot reaches a simmer.  The chocolate will be heated by the water under it, not by the stove.  You only need to get it to about 70 degrees Farenheit, so there's no need to rush it.

The Coconut Mixture

After trying the method referred to above, I realized that yes, there's very little actual measuring involved.  In this application, about half a bag of coconut made give or take 20 mice.  So I use the amount of coconut to approximate the number I want to make, and will mix in the corn syrup accordingly. Mix in small amounts at a time until the mixture will stick together well enough to work with.  To test it, grab a small ball from the bowl and squeeze it into a ball.  If it sticks, and isn't sprouting little coconut hairs, you are good to go.  At this point, if you just want to make little candy bars, shape them, dip them in chocolate, let them set, and you're done.  Personally, I think the mice are kind of cute.

I have a scoop that I use for this next part, for the sake of making mice that are about the same size.  But a spoon will work just about as well. Start scooping out little balls of coconut, and roll them between your hands to get it nice and compact.  This step can be very sticky, so I will often rinse my hands in cold water to help keep the coconut from sticking.

Each mouse will take 1.5 balls of mixture, so make several balls as bodies, and then half as many balls of the same size for the heads.  The balls that are made for heads, cut in half and roll them into little cones, using your hands.  To add the ears, I will take a dab of melted chocolate, and add it to one end of the body.  Take two slivered almonds that are about the same time, and use the chocolate as glue between the head and the body.  Chill the mice in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes or so, making sure that there is no residual water on the bodies (I usually will do the mice in batches, so that by the time I have finished the last bodies, the first ones to go in are ready for dipping).


Now that the bodies are chilled and the chocolate is melted, it's time to start dipping.  Take a mouse, put it into the chocolate, coating completely, then remove (a fork works just fine here), letting excess chocolate drip off.  then place on parchment paper or a silicone mat to set. The cleaner this step is, the better, but you can also just trim some extra chocolate off the edges once it's hardened.  As you can see from the photos, I'm definitely neither a professional nor perfect!

If you don't want blind mice, you can use icing, or candy googly eyes, or anything else I haven't thought of.  In my experience, they don't tend to last long enough for anyone to notice.

Most importantly, have fun. You can always eat mistakes, and cleanup can be a tasty job too! Don't forget to lick the bowl!


Financial Outlay: Under $10 for over 20 mice, each about 2 inches long
Time: About 1 Hour
Quality: Tasty!  The visual beauty may vary depending on your skill with chocolate, but these are handcrafted!  If you got one at a candy store, it would probably be at least $2 each. Also, people tend to be really impressed when the notice that it's a chocolate mouse as opposed to just a blob of a candy bar.
Fun: I like doing these. The recipe is easily scale-able, the coconut mixture is kind of like a really crumbly clay, it's tasty, and can be done with multiple people who may not have much kitchen experience.

Nov 20, 2013

The Cost of DIY- is it "Worth it"?

Everywhere you look on the internet there tends to be an ongoing struggle between DIY and not.  I would guess that the pintrest DIY and Crafts category is one of the most often pinned, and on the other hand, you get sites like Pinterest you are Drunk. There are the raving fans of ideas such as the living plastic dinosaurs, versus the folks raging against The Elf on the Shelf (which was never a thing when I was little.  And if it was, there's a good chance that the elf would have gone wandering off and never found his way back through the mess that was my room...) Then there are the folks that get actively angry at people like Martha Stewart or Maria Kang for "shaming" people for what they don't do (or how Pinterest is a horrible thing that makes people feel bad about themselves).

If we ignore the category of talent and skill (which can often be a factor in these things), often it tends to boil down to time or money.  People have a limited amount of both, and use it in different ways.  But in general, there are people who spend time to save money, and there are those who will spend money to save time. When it comes to DIY, it's fairly obvious which group most of those people are in.  They are willing to spend extra time to save money on whatever it is that they are doing themselves.  And people will do anything themselves, if you look hard enough on the internet. Don't believe me?  Check out this video of a guy who built a functional Wall-E.  Just because someone has done it, or you could do it, doesn't mean that it's a good idea.

That's the problem with most DIY articles.  The person who has done it is excited about what they were able to do, and wanted to share it.  Hey, that's what I do all the time.  When there are pretty pictures, and people who talk about how easy something is, it's really easy to think "I could do that", thinking that whatever the project is, it will be easier and better than buying it.  The question is, is it really economically smart?  The cost of materials is not the only economic factor to consider when embarking on a project.  Time is money. The factors that I would recommend considering for the economy of any DIY project are as follows:
  1. Financial Outlay: This one is fairly obvious.  It is the cost of a purchased object, or the cost of all of the materials to make one.
  2. Time: What is your time worth? A tongue in cheek statistic says that Bill Gates earns more than $100 in the time it would take to bend over and pick up a $100 bill that he dropped, and there are those that argue that a stay at home mom's yearly salary would be over $100K a year if they were paid for the work that they do. If you were to take the amount of time that a project takes, and spend that time working to earn money instead, would the finished product be more or less expensive than buying it? Also, especially for those who like to multitask, is this something that requires constant attention, or does it just require time to work? (For more of an idea on this topic, this blog post delves in a little more)
  3. Quality: Sometimes you just can't beat homemade.  Whether it's clothing that provides a perfect fit, or cookies that come out "so much better" than what you can buy at the store, quality adds value.  For clothing, this could be what you make compared to a professional bespoke item.  For food items, look to restaurants or bakeries.  How much better is the finished product than the corresponding object that you could buy?
  4. Fun: This is a completely subjective standard. If time, money, and quality were no object, would you still do it? Personally, I like doing things.  I like making things.  I like constantly creating.  If I had unlimited time and unlimited money, I would still cook, bake, craft, build, and probably learn more materials intensive things.  But I would probably never clean.  I would have a roomba, house elves, maids, whatever it took so that I would not be required to clean.
From my constant perusal of Pinterest, I would say that most DIY projects tend to be mindful of the financial outlay, quality, and fun.  Most tend to ignore time, with the exception of recipes.  Recipes are often broken down into active prep time and total prep time. A turkey can take multiple hours to prepare, but the active prep time can be relatively low. Sugar cookies can be baked pretty quickly, but if you want to decorate them then it can take hours.

So let's calculate the "actual cost" for something that I will make often.  Socks. If I search online, hand knit socks are going for about $20-$40. I know, you can buy socks at Walmart for $1, but I want to compare something that would be reasonably close in quality.  Let's see if it's worth it to make them. As a note, I am doing the calculations as I write, so I actually don't know how this is going to turn out.

  1. Financial Outlay: 1 skein of yarn.  I already own knitting needles, scissors, and a yarn needle. If I had to buy all the initial equipment, I would include that into cost.  But as I tend to use it often, the cost becomes negligible. When I knit, I like to use good yarn.  If I'm going to be feeling it for hours, I want it to feel nice, and especially if I'm going to be wearing the finished product, I need to like the feel of it. So as an average, let's estimate $20 for a skein of good sock yarn.
  2. Time: Here is where the time component comes in.  Knitting takes time. So depending on the thickness of the yarn, the size of the needles, the size of the socks, and the complexity of the pattern, the pair can take anywhere from two hours, to a ridiculously long time. It is a little hard for me to estimate the amount of time, as I am the sort that will keep knitting in my purse, and pull it out on the bus, in a waiting room, at the bar, or wherever I am.  So, for the sake of argument, let us just say that it takes 10 hours to knit a pair of socks. At minimum wage, $7.25 an hour would make the cost $72.50.  However, I would usually be knitting while doing other things (chit chatting, watching TV, riding the bus, etc.), so I'm going to discount that by 30%, which still makes it $50.75.

    So the cost of this pair of socks is over $70! Holy Cow! I don't know about you, but I would never buy $70 socks.  So based solely on cost, it makes way more sense to just buy them (and, if you're now comparing them to $1 socks from Walmart, the difference is even more striking).  However, let's move on to 3 and 4.
  3. Quality: If I make a pair of socks for myself, they are going to fit perfectly.  Why? Check out my post here.  These socks will be made specifically for my feet, and conform perfectly to any abnormalities about them.  I am going to choose a yarn that I love (and pay more for it), and the perfect pattern.  Would this be worth an extra $30 to me if I was buying a pair of handmade socks in a store?  No, probably not.  Would the fact that I made them with my own two hands mean more to a person I made the socks for (if I wasn't making them for myself)? I think so (but still, probably not $30 worth). There is a quality that permeates an object made with love.  Not to get all sappy here, but there is an intangible quality that makes Mom's or Grandma's cookies better than that of any bakery.
  4. Fun: As I've said, I like making things.  And, I like doing things like knitting, crocheting, beading, baking, and an inordinately long list.  I'm the type of person who needs to always be doing something with my hands. It's not something I am doing to save money, it's a hobby.  I like the act of making things, and I like the finished product.  So instead of spending extra money on going to movies or collecting stamps, I'm doing something that leads to a useful item when I'm done.
Economically, making my own socks is a bad idea.  But this is not something I'm doing to save money.  If I was going to embark on a DIY project so that I wouldn't have to pay for it (not because I actively wanted to do it), calculating time, quality, and financial outlay would help to demonstrate exactly how much I'm actually saving  by doing it myself.

In an attempt to help make any of the tutorials that I make more helpful, I will try to utilize my own rubric. That way, you can make up your own mind as to whether or not it's actually "worth it". 

Nov 15, 2013

Squash-ing Misconceptions

A bit of a caveat: In the act of coming down off of Halloween, and building up to Thanksgiving, I admit I've been running into a certain level of writer's block on what to post. I have several projects in progress, but nothing at any level of completion. I feel obligated to use the season to be topical, and nothing was really working for me.

I think the role of marketing, distilled down to one sentence (other than buy this!), is: “Make hard things look easy, and make easy things look hard.” One of the reasons that I tend to try to do just about everything once is so that I can judge for myself. Croissants, for example, are exactly as much work as one would expect – a fair amount. Pie crusts, however, with a little bit of science knowledge, are really easy. Sometimes the improved quality that results from making something from scratch far outweighs the time sink, like most of the candy I've made. On the other hand, sometimes the experience can be summed up as a a check box of "Ok, I've done it. Let's not do that again.”

Which leads us to soup.

In a completely unscientific judgment, I would say that after cereal, chips, and pasta, soup tends to take up the most aisle space for a specific food item in the supermarket. Sometimes it gets its own aisle, which for a food is basically winning. And honestly, soup can often be super easy and super cheap to make. It can take time, sure. But there's also a big difference between something that requires a great deal of effort or constant attention, and something that just needs a while to cook.

If you make your own stock, it will take some time. This is reason number x why I love my crock pot. I can throw in bones, cover with water, and let the crock pot leech all the lovely collagen out of the bones while I'm at work. Which really, is the difference between broth and stock. Stock is thick and rich, and permeated with gelatin. Broth, if we're being completely honest, is just "chicken water". When I get home, voila! Chicken stock that I can later freeze in ice cube trays and use for various purposes. Of course, I am not going to judge you for buying stock. Depending on the soup you make, it may make no difference whatsoever. And if a can or box of chicken stock is the deciding point between ordering a pizza or making soup? Buy the stock.

Despite my obsessive experimentation with zucchini earlier this year, I don't tend to cook with squash all that often. It's just not something that tends to fit into my repertoire. But that was one of the positives of having a CSA this year. It forced me to cook with ingredients that I wouldn't normally use, and try things that I wouldn't normally eat. So I looked around this weekend, and noticed that I still had a bunch of squash left over from the CSA. Conveniently, they're squash, and could be called "nature's canned goods". They will last a really long time, if they haven't been cut open.

I preheated the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and grabbed whatever squash that I had. I think there were two delicata, one kabocha, a sugar pumpkin that I had not actually carved for Halloween, and a butternut squash (as I said, I had a BUNCH of squash). So I grabbed a roasting pan, sliced the smaller squash in half, the medium sized ones into quarters, and the pumpkin into chunks large enough to fit into pans without being unwieldy. I tossed the seeds (although toasted pumpkin seeds are both easy to make and super tasty), threw the pieces into two pans (as there was way too much for just one), sprinkled a little brown sugar over the top, threw in a couple cloves of garlic, and stuck them in the oven for somewhere around an hour while I did other things around the house. Does it sound like this was done somewhat haphazardly with little attention to detail? Good. Because that's exactly what it was. Periodically, I would check the progress, by sticking a fork in the various pieces. When everything was nice and soft, I took the pans out of the oven and let them cool on top of the stove for a bit.

Once they are were cool enough to handle, I took my ice cream scoop and each piece of squash, and just scooped it out of the skin. I figured that it would be a whole lot easier to do it this way than to carefully peel each one (which it was!). I put the meat of the squash into a large saucepan, and added some chicken stock. At this point I used my immersion blender, but you could also use a potato masher or even a wooden spoon to mix it up, and break down clumps. A little bit of salt and pumpkin pie spice (I thought the combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger worked rather well), and a little heat from the stove, and I had a large pot of creamy, homemade squash soup. It's not rocket science, and honestly, not even that much food science. But it was easy, tasty, and (before adding the spices) could be used for many different types of soup. Curried soup? Sure. Want to add cream or even sour cream to thicken it up a bit? Why not? It may be a bit slow, but it is easy.

Also, when was the last time a can of soup made your entire house smell amazing? I'm guessing never. Roast some squash for a while and you'll be able to skip the air freshener.

Nov 5, 2013

Cocktail Taste Test: Taking a Ride on the 20th Century

Being election day, and therefore illegal to sell alcohol while polling stations are open, I felt a little cheeky, and decided to share that which you may not currently procure.  Over the past few years I've developed a taste for well crafted classic cocktails, in part thanks to bartenders at Drink, Island Creek Oyster Bar, Eastern Standard, and Citizen's Public House.

I've discovered a few things in my quest for tasty cocktails.
  1. Vodka, being completely flavorless when it's at it's best, adds nothing but alcohol to a drink.
  2. If you ask a skilled bartender what their favorite cocktail is, there is a very good chance that they will say a sazarac (in my experience, it's probably close to 80%).
  3. Always, always, always be nice to bartenders. And get to know them if you find someone who is really good. This goes beyond the normal "be nice to staff, especially those who handle your food, to avoid having foreign fluids in it".  A good bartender, (if they like you), will get to know your palate after a while, can recommend things that you've never heard of, make up drinks on the spot that you'll love, will sometimes save you a seat at the bar on a busy night (if they find you entertaining), and will sometimes provide you with an extra drink of something nice after you've paid the bill.
  4. If you get a list of classic cocktails that you tend to drink, you may find yourself being "that guy" if you go to a different bar.  Recently, after ordering 2 cocktails for which I had to give the waitress the recipe for the bartender, the friend I was with "dared me to order something off the menu". In my defense, both cocktails I ordered were classics, both dating to before 1940!
The picture at the top was from a gin tasting I did at my house.  For the longest time I didn't like gin.  I found it sharp, and reeking of pine trees (yes, I know it's juniper, but I've smelled an awful lot more pine than juniper in my life).  Which is why I was surprised the first time I had a 20th Century, so named for the Twentieth Century Limited train line, that ran between New York and Chicago. It is light, floral, with a touch of lemon. Not a drink that I would expect to find gin in.  And yet, there it was.  This was when I found out how much gins can vary.  

So this is how the tasting worked.  There were five different gins, from three different brands.  We tasted each of the gins straight (about a quarter shot), and then mixed a 20th Century (don't worry, you'll get the recipe at the end), to compare how well they worked for that cocktail. By the end, each person only had the alcohol for about 2.5 drinks total, so we were all able to coherently discuss the results.  So before getting into the specifics of the gins, here is the cocktail that we used, as it is one of my favorites.

20th Century Cocktail

2 ounces Gin
1 ounce Lillet Blanc
1 ounce Light Creme de Cacao
1 ounce Lemon Juice

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice.  Shake, and serve in a cocktail glass with a lemon twist.
The Results of the Tasting

Citadelle Gin

This is what I consider the standard for cocktail gins.  It's pretty subtle, not overly dry, and plays well with others.  It doesn't have much in the way of strong flavors, which would make it not the best choice for a martini; but is versatile enough to work in any gin cocktail.  Hendrick's is another in the same category, although Hendrick's has a bit more juniper to it.

Barr Hill

Barr Hill comes from Caledonia spirits, in northern Vermont.  They started as beekeepers, and moved into making mead, and then distilling spirits, all with their honey. The honey doesn't make the gin sweet, but it does seem to add a lot of floral notes.  It's complex, and has a really nice flavor to it.  The only way that I would even consider drinking a martini is with this gin.

The downside is that it doesn't really play well with others. Being so well constructed on its own, if you have a cocktail that has more than three ingredients, the flavors just start competing, as opposed to working together.  So the 20th Century just tasted muddled.

St. George Dry Rye Gin

If you have never tasted rye whiskey, it will be hard to describe the flavor exactly.  This is a gin that is made with a lot of juniper, but is also cooked down with rye, to help balance it out.  Just with a rye bread, there are flavors of pepper and caraway.  On it's own we felt it was a little overpowering, so unless you really like drinking rye straight, this isn't a beverage to drink straight or as a martini.

The surprise in it, however, was that it seemed to relax back into the mixed drink, and wasn't overpowering, going against all of our guesses.

St. George Botanivore Gin

A light, floral, complex gin, it really hit the middle between Citadelle and Barr Hill.  Based on the descriptor from the company said that it "earned its name because it's loaded with botanical ingredients. We distilled 19 different botanicals to compose this spirit (no small feat!) and the resulting gin is beautifully balanced and vibrant".  That had me a little scared to begin with, because that sentance screams "overworked" to me.  But it really isn't.  If you want something that is a little more complex than Citadelle, but is easier to find than Barr Hill, this is a good option for a multi-purpose gin.

St. George Terroire Gin

If you like your gin to taste like you've just eaten your Christmas tree, this one has the proper juniper levels for you. I would never be able to drink this one straight, but it is still a big step up from something like Tangueray or Bombay Saphire (my opinion). I was expecting this to be bad across the board, but was actually pleasantly surprised when it came to the cocktail.  It created a bit of a sharp bite, but the juniper in it actually played nicely with the spices in the Lillet.

Oct 31, 2013

The Other Fall Flavor: Apple Cider Gummy Candy

Over the past few years I've watched the "pumpkin" trend become huge.  Pumpkin lattes, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin beer, pretty much anything that someone can add the flavor of pumpkin to becomes pumkin-y as soon as it hits fall.  I tend to shrug at the whole thing.  I don't have anything against fall or pumpkins; I'm just not a huge fan of anything when a fake flavor is added to it.  That, and I tend to prefer the other "fall flavor".  Apples.

When I was a kid, we had an apple tree in my yard.  I remember picking apples with my sister, attempting to climb the tree, me trying to stand on her shoulders to reach the top...  It really is amazing that neither of us ended up in the emergency room because of that thing.  But the apples that grew on it were amazing, and we always made plenty of applesauce from the apples that we picked.

Living in Boston, many years later, I tend to be conflicted with regards to the fall past time of apple picking.  On one hand, getting the apples directly from the tree tend to give you the best possible fruit; the apples that you pick will last for months in the refrigerator; the cider, and cider donuts at Honeypot Hill are amazing; and it's one of the few times when it is socially acceptable, as an adult, to climb trees (a skill which I am quite pleased to still posses). On the other hand, it is more expensive, and because it's a "thing" that all the folks in the city do as a fall activity, I kind of want to tell everyone there that I'm not just a tourist, that I've worked on "real" farms; that I'm not the type who will run screaming away from a mosquito, having never seen one before.  The tipping point is a good friend of mine who grew up in Hawaii.  He gets a huge kick out of being able to pick an item of food off a tree and just eat it directly.

Being close to Halloween, I decided to stick with the theme of candy.  One of my favorite types of candy to make is gummy candy.  It's easy to make, and easy to adjust the flavor profile.  Also, it allows me to make them into all sorts of fun shapes. It's one of the great things about the prevalence of silicone ice cube trays these days is that they work equally well for the making of candy. I may be slightly obsessed, and have several of them in all sorts of fun shapes.  For anyone with geek tendencies, there are several fun ones at Thinkgeek.

So much better than store bought gummy bears!

Apple Cider Gummy Candy

  • 6 Cups Apple Cider
  • 1 1/4 Cups Granulated Sugar 
  • 6 Envelopes gelatin
  • 1 1/4 Cups Water
  • Optional: cinnamon, sugar
Reduce the apple cider until there is only 1 cup, by simmering in a 2 quart saucepan.  This is the slowest part of the whole recipe. If you boil the apple cider, it will give a different flavor due to caramelizing the sugars. I try to do this part the day before, because it needs to cool before adding gelatin.  The good side of having to spend a long time simmering apple cider is that the entire house will smell amazing.

After the cider has been reduced and cooled, place it in a bowl and sprinkle the gelatin on top, to allow it time to bloom while cooking the syrup (if you want to add cinnamon, now would be the time to do so).

Always be careful when making candy, as serious burns can occur.
Put the water and sugar in a saucepan, and attach a candy thermometer.  Cook over medium heat until the syrup reaches the hard crack stage, at 300 degrees Farenheit.  Add the cider/gelatin mixture, and mix until fully incorporated.

Candy setting in silicone ice cube trays

Pour mixture out to cool, in either a greased 8x8 inch pan, or into silicone molds, and allow to cool to room temperature.

If the mixture was set in a pan, then either slice the gummies into squares, or use cookie cutters to cut out shapes.  If silicone molds were used, then the candies can simply be popped out of the molds. At this point, they will still be sticky, and you have a choice.  If you set the candies out to finish air drying, the edges will be a little tough, like a swedish fish, but will still be soft and chewy in the center.  If you want to keep the entire piece soft and chewy, you can roll each in a coat of granulated sugar.  Personally, I like to maintain the details from my molds, and will let them air dry just a little before packing them in tupperware.  While they will get tougher over time if they are not coated in sugar, they never seem to last long enough to make that an issue.

Oct 23, 2013

Don't Fear the Candy: Turning Candy Corn from Trick to Treat

My fall "decorative" table.  Pumpkin, apples, and homemade candy corn!
It's getting close to the end of October, and we all know what that means, Halloween! Costumes, candy, apples, pumpkins, colorful leaves (and in my case a silver tabby who decides that it's cold enough to be a constant lap cat); it's a holiday almost made for creativity. As a kid I always made my Halloween costumes. And no, you don't get to see any pictures of those.  To the best of my knowledge, none exist. But between my sister and I we did have some great ones.  Spider, skunk, coke machine, some monster type creature that sprung fully formed like Athena out of the random depths of my young mind... All I remember was that it was purple and green, and I got to use these rubber monster gloves with fur on the back of the hand.  Yes, I was an odd child. Not really a surprise.

You should always be prepared for the challenges of your costume.
Over the past several years I've really lacked costume inspiration. My attempt to rock the classic "Charlie Brown" style sheet with eyes in it as a ghost led to an unfortunate incident where a group of people questioned if I was supposed to be KKK. And I am currently less than a week out from a Halloween party and still haven't even decided on a costume.

Where I have found inspiration, however, is with the Halloween candy. One of the great things about October is that it is usually cool and dry enough to make candy making a good idea. I have decided that, even if you're not the type who wants to try making candy, everyone should have the chance to eat the "real" version of candy types, just to understand the comparison.  The use of preservatives, cheaper ingredients, modified production methods and such do make candy available to a wider market, but at a price.  And that price is usually either flavor or texture.  There is absolutely no comparison between homemade marshmallows and the kind that you get for $1 a bag (although if I'm going camping, I would probably still just grab the bag of them for s'mores).

To that extent, I know lots of people who really hate candy corn.  It tends to fall squarely into the "why would people eat that?!" category, and can be considered sugared wax. To those folks, I would definitely recommend trying the real thing.  And, while I am not one of those people, it is exactly what I decided to do (and I'm really glad that I did).

As this is the first time I was attempting to make something, I turned to Alton Brown.  Because while the flavors of his recipes often require a bit of tweaking, the technique is usually spot on. So the link to the recipe is here. The basic idea is to mix powdered sugar, powdered milk, and salt thoroughly (no lumps!); make a syrup with corn syrup, granulated sugar, water, and butter (bring it to the softball stage); combine the two along with a little vanilla; cool, color, and shape.  The only special equipment that you would need is a candy thermometer. That really doesn't sound so hard, does it?

Here are the three colors of dough for the candy corn.
Here you see the dough after it has been cooled, separated and colored (sorry, it's hard to take pictures while carefully managing temperatures of a syrup.  I'd really rather not get a sticky 230 degree substance on myself, or my camera). Yes, you also see the first run of candy corn I made, before I was planning on making this a post.  I just didn't take any pictures during the first go round. I guess that just means I have more to eat.  Oh horrors...

To create the corns, roll the dough into thin ropes, and lay out three ropes.  One white, one yellow, and one orange.  Squeeze the colors together so that there is just one long tri-colored strip.
white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white
yellow yellow yellow yellow yellow yellow yellow yellow yellow yellow yellow yellow 
orange orange orange orange orange orange orange orange orange orange orange orange 
Cut the strip into triangles kind of like this, using either a knife, a pizza cutter, or a bench scraper:
Unlike with the storebought candy corn, you will end up with half of it with a white point, and half with an orange point. After the candy corn is cut, if you feel the need you can smooth out any rough side edges.  It acts just like edible clay and if you want to make other shapes, it would be easy to do so.  I have some thoughts that I want to play with, to add to my "geek candies" The last step is to lay them out for a little bit to dry, just so that they don't get all smushed.

Completed candy corn, set out to dry
And one of the advantages of being the one to make it? You can snack on all the rough edges or ugly pieces!

The taste is really a lot better, and it is not waxy at all.  I assume that in the store bought stuff, there is actually wax.  Does this take a lot more time than just buying it?  Of course. Is it worth it?  That's up to you.  Personally, I've been developing the perspective that if I'm going to eat something that's not that healthy for me, I'd rather have it be the highest quality possible (unless I'm specifically craving junk.  I have not yet undertaken making my own devil dogs, hmmm...).

A note about doing this with kids. Once the dough has cooled enough to color and handle, assembling the candy corn is something that I think that kids could help with (of course, be completely honest with yourself about the kids that you are working with. I have some adult friends that I may not trust making candy corn, let alone children.).  As far as the first steps go, however, please remember that making candy has the potential for serious burns, and should not be done with young children.

Oct 15, 2013

Blog Recommendation: Michael Ruhlman

I have recently developed a love for Michael Ruhlman.  I originally discovered him via the iPhone app Ratio, but have not yet picked up the book that it is supposed to accompany.  And It wasn't until very recently that I started reading his blog. There are recipes, cocktails, food rants, and all sorts of fun stuff. It's a very easy read, the photography on the blog is fantastic, and I often learn something while reading it.  The perfect combination!

I was originally just going to share it on the Puritan Therapy Facebook page, but there were too many posts to really pick just one.  So here is the list of where I think you should start.

  1. America- Too Stupid to Cook: Ten thousand times yes! Over the decades marketing has convinced us that many life tasks are just too difficult.  Cooking is not hard.  Cleaning (while obnoxious) is not hard. Sewing is not hard. But marketers have spend millions of dollars and many years trying to convince us otherwise, so that we will buy whatever it is that they are trying to sell.
  2. The "No Nitrates Added" Hoax: Another giant "boo!" to marketing. The moral of the story, if you don't understand how food works, you can easily be manipulated by deceptive marketing.
  3. Food Fascism: This is one that I experienced myself when I was in Portugal doing my massage training.  I was the black sheep because, not only did I not aspire to be a macrobiotic vegan, but I actually ate RED MEAT! (I would also like to point out that even if you are smoking "organic" cigarettes, it's still highly likely you will end up with a smoking related illness... but I digress)
  4. Bacteria! Run Away! Run Away!: This article even has delightful images drawn by Alton Brown! This article addresses the concerns about washing chicken. While I am much more prone to agree with Harold McGee with regards to the chicken stock argument, there is definitely an overreaction with regards to "germs", at least in the US. 
  5. Cook Your Own Food Eat What You Want Think For Yourself: Where common sense trumps the most recent news story of what common food will kill you this week.  See, for example, the poor, maligned egg.
  6. Friday Cocktail: The old-fashioned with homemade bitters : This gets me on multiple levels.  I do love me a good cocktail, but I also like knowing how to make random things.  I may now need to try making bitters...
  7. In Love with French Onion Soup: Lastly, here is one of his food recipes, to give you a taste (pardon the pun) of what they are like.  I have not tried this recipe, but it holds up to what I have come to believe about very old school peasant food recipes.  It is very simple, does not have a lot of complicated ingredients, and does not involve a lot of fancy techniques.  It reminds me of challenges on shows like Top Chef where the chef has been asked to make the judges "last meal".  Inevitably the chef who wins is not the one who composes a highly technical and complicated plate.  The one who wins is the chef who makes the requested dish like their grandmother would make.  Simple, comforting, and well executed.
Not that Michael Ruhlman needs any help from me to gain readership, but I like to promote people who I think are doing good things.

Oct 8, 2013

Science and Cooking at Harvard

I saw this link multiple times on my Facebook feed, and even had two people send it to me directly.  My reaction when I saw it was something akin to "aw crap".  I've been going to the lectures throughout the series.  They are after work, and the lines have been getting long enough for me to really not want anyone else to show up, lest I not get in.  I'd heard about the first one from a friend of mine, and when I heard that Harold McGee was going to be speaking, I jumped at the chance. You may not know who he is.  My friend, who invited me to the first lecture, didn't know who he was. He is, essentially, the father of modern food science.

Ever wonder why toast turns brown? Why milk will curdle when mixed with lemon juice? What's the deal with water and chocolate?  Why are beans, in fact, the musical fruit?  Harold McGee knows. His first book "On Food and Cooking" is not a cookbook.  It's much more of a textbook, but about the science of food.  On his blog, Curious Cook, he recently did an article on the required heat for making caramels.  He has also been inspiration for people like Shirley Corriher and Alton Brown. Yes, I may be a little excited about the fact that I now have a signed copy of "On Food and Cooking".

The evening that he spoke, he split the time with Dave Arnold from Cooking Issues. He had some really neat demonstrations with regards to the heat transference of oil vs. water, the effect of liquid nitrogen on marshmallows, and the process of infusing substances with flavor (during which I made the mental connection with why drip coffee is more bitter than espresso, and why the proper steeping time for black tea is only 2-3 minutes). He also brought in a new toy he had for making popcorn. I think the point with this (other than being able to paly with his new toy) was to further demonstrate the ideal gas law in respect to cooking (PV=nRT). But back to popcorn.  If you watch Mythbusters, you may have seen this work before.  If not, here's a clip of how it should work.  Got it? Now let's take a look at what should NOT happen.

It doesn't matter who you are, you can still clear a building with burnt popcorn
This would be what happens when you don't pay close attention to how your valves are sealed, and just keep adding heat to try to get your pressure up.  This photograph, taken by Nate Holstein, captured the moment just after the fire alarm went off. Yes, this professional chef, highly successful restaurateur, and one of the founders of the Museum of Food and Drink set off the fire alarm and evacuated the entire science building at Harvard.

Jose Andres at Harvard University
The best combination of science and entertainment thus far has been the lecture by Jose Andres. Yes, the picture on the screen is of Jello, he was talking about diffusion and  spherification. If you search for images of his food, he composes these absolutely beautiful plates, where he has concentrated flavors, and encapsulated them into a liquid ball with a gelatin skin. Or you can watch even better videos.  The video of him building a Chihuli salad to the right is kind of amazing.

The "Reverse" Cappuccino
This is done by a professional chef.  But, like virtually any form of cooking, with a little science, and the right ingredients, you can do versions at home.  This encouraged a friend of mine and I to do a "sphere" dinner.  For a starter we had olives, then we made spheres of a roasted vegetable soup, had 4 types of meatballs (Italian, Asian, middle eastern and Mexican flavors), and spheres of yogurt served with fresh raspberries and macerated strawberries for dessert.  To top it off, we did a "reverse cappuccino".  This entailed spheres of a yogurt/milk mixture combined with some honey, and some espresso balsamic vinegar caviar on top.  Everything was exceptionally tasty, but nowhere even remotely near as pretty as a world famous chef can do.  Even without having any catastrophic failures, only the reverse cappuccino was pretty enough to even try to photograph.  So now that you've seen the best, here is the layman's attempt.  It was very tasty, but I think that I could use some more practice...

Why am I telling you all this today?  Today is the first day of the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC).  Registration is still open, and it promises to be a lot of fun.  I'll be taking it, and I recommend that anyone else does as well.

You can find the course at:

Oct 1, 2013

Desperately Seeking Samoas

There has been a nasty cold going around Boston, which led to me staying home from work sick for two days. Legitimately sick, not "oops, I have a cough.  Vacation day on the couch for me!".  I am historically very bad at admitting that I am sick and staying home accordingly.  I could be dragging my spleen behind me, and I'd be saying "no, I'm fine, really!"  So this was actually a pretty good accomplishment for me.  The downside was that I fell behind on my blog entries. The upside is the following true story, proving that I am quite happy to laugh at myself.

Despite all of my baking, candying, and other unhealthy food making, I don't tend to keep much in the way of sweets in the house.  I make things, and then tend to just feed everyone around me. Co-workers, friends, my favorite bartenders, pretty much anyone who I think would appreciate a tasty treat. Not only does it give me a way to avoid eating 10 tons of junk, but it also gives me the excuse to keep making new things. Occasionally this backfires, however.

On Monday I had a scratchy throat.  Monday/Tuesday morning I felt as though I'd been gargling razor blades. This was about the time that I decided that work was just not going to happen that day. I proceeded to stay in bed, feeling very grateful for my tablet, so that I could peruse Facebook and chit chat with people at my leisure. Around lunchtime, I realized what I wanted.  I wanted cookies.  Of course, I have no cookies in the house.  There is a 7-11 close by, but I didn't want prepackaged cookies.  That was just not going to cut it.  And there was no way that I was going to attempt to go to a bakery with good cookies.  Let's be honest, there was no way that I was going to leave my apartment. I started the mental rundown of cookie recipes, waiting for my lizard brain to shout "Yes!" (this is, in fact, the way that I tend to make all decisions on what to eat/drink).

Crack, in Cookie Form.
I had found this recipe for homemade Samoas a while back, and had been meaning to try it.  Depending on your girl scout council, you may know them as Caramel Delights.  If neither of these names have any meaning to you, then please, just walk away.  This is not me judging you, this is my attempt to save you from cookie crack. There's a reason that girl scouts sell so many cookies, and Samoas may be that reason.

As soon as I thought of it, my lizard brain decided that is what it wanted, no questions or substitutions.  So I look through the recipe. Basic sugar cookie ingredients, no problem.  Chocolate, no problem (I may have an entire cabinet of chocolate making supplies). Coconut, no problem. Caramels. Fifteen ounces soft caramels. Well, crap. That is a problem. I don't even have a caramel sauce that could be used to fake it. Meanwhile, I know that my lizard brain is not going to be satisfied until I get these cookies. Sigh. 

Well, if there is one thing that I'm good at, it's problem solving. I don't have caramels, and if I just change the flavor profile of the cookie, that is not going to be satisfying.  But! I have sugar. Sugar is in caramel.  And cream. And corn syrup. And despite the fact that I've never actually made caramel, I do know some of the physics of sugar (as a note, I would highly recommend this article by Harold McGee, in which he discusses the melting point of sugar.  It's actually a topic that is still debated). I also had this recipe by David Leibowitz for a salted butter caramel, that I had been tempted to try.

So yes, what I'm saying is that I proceeded to make caramels.  I will give you the full image, for your amusement.  First, I'm sick, with stuffed up sinuses, unshowered, and in my bathrobe.  Because tending to caramel is similar to watching a precocious two year old, it has to be constantly watched.  Therefore, I grab a chair, and sit down in front of the stove, so that I can carefully watch the temperature of the cooking sugar. I can only imagine that the image was rather amusing.  Or maybe it's just me.

The caramels recipe is very good, although they are not "soft" caramels.  The second time I made them I tweaked some temperature points, and used a higher quality butter, and they turned out amazing.  But, that's getting side tracked.  After pouring the caramels into a pan to cool, and sitting down to rest for a little bit, I proceeded to make the sugar cookies, then the topping, and then put them all together. If you opt to try to make your own Samoas, believe it when the recipe says that the coconut burns quickly, and to keep a close eye on it.  The coconut on the edges of the pan will brown very quickly, and not evenly with respect to the rest of the pan.  I did not, however, burn mine (yay!)

I think that I finally had finished cookies at around 7:00 PM. Yes, it was a ridiculous thing to do when sick. Yes, it would have gone a whole lot faster if I'd had proper ingredients. But I gotta tell you, the finished cookies? Totally worth it. Also, I had a little bit of the caramel and coconut mixture left over at the end.  So I made them into balls and just dipped them in chocolate.  All I will say about those is that it is something that will definitely, definitely happen again.

Sep 26, 2013

300 (Posts About) Sandwiches

I think that I've just become pragmatic in my old(ish?) age. My Facebook feed has exploded with the story about the sandwich blog. If you haven't seen the story, you can find it here. The commentary I've seen about it is anywhere from "really, do we need that much help making a sandwich?" to feminists decrying the whole endeavor as the worst thing ever, to folks saying that if she wants to get engaged faster, she should just make sandwiches more than a couple days a week.

On one hand, I'll admit, I'm falling down on the job here. I have not actually read her blog yet. I have heard that her photography is phenomenal, and I've read the article that started off the furor. How this woman's boyfriend's demand of sandwiches lead to a blog, and how the whole blog is a countdown until she has made enough sandwiches for him to propose. It's both an awful and great premise for a blog, right? To some, it can be this romantic gesture, raising the common sandwich to the level of devotion from the Notebook (I'm really hoping that I'm wrong on that one, but I can see how some could think so). To others, it's an anti feminist example of everything that is wrong with this country, nay the world! To food photographers, it's an interesting point of skill. To every Simpsons fan out there, I know you're thinking of the same scene I am:

But no matter how you look at it, it has a catch. People who have never read the blog are talking about it. She has created a story that has people talking. There could be not one single true point in the story, other than that she has a blog about sandwiches.  And if she's a quality writer, it won't matter. The craziness got them in the door, and she ended up with a readership. Am I jealous that I haven't found such a hook?  Maybe.

One thought I had, though, is this: would there be the same amount of uproar if the whole thing wasn't about sandwiches? The simple act of putting food between two pieces of bread has a really weird connection to sexism in the American culture. I mean, the phrase isn't "Get in the kitchen and make me a fillet mignon, woman!", it's a sandwich. And if you pay attention to media, it would appear that men are the only ones who eat them. From Jared at Subway, to the great ad blitz around the Super Bowl, to Dr. Cliff Huxtable's quest for a hoagie, they seem to be portrayed as a fairly masculine food. I'm sure that, if I really wanted to dig, there are probably many academic papers that go into this. But honestly, I can rarely stomach feminist blog entries, let alone 22 year olds trying to create enough novel ties in a thesis to get it accepted by whatever college they are in.

My pragmatism kicks in at a different point, however. I love food, and I love to make food. I've been in relationships with folks who are the same. I have been served foods that I would consider being deserving of, um, forms of physical gratification best not discussed when I know that one out of the 5 or so readers I have is my mother. I also understand the concept of an "in joke" in a relationship. If I remove what I consider is the narrative sheen of the story behind the blog, I can see an interaction something like this:

Considering how often he makes food for her, and the fact that she knows that he loves sandwiches, she opts to make a sandwich for him as a nice gesture.

Him: (in a sweet, playful tone) mmm, you keep making things like this, and I may be forced to marry you.
Her: Oh really? So, how many sandwiches gets me a diamond then, huh?
Him: I dunno, um, how about 300?

Which, became an inside joke that could be spun into the crazy tale that has the internet in an uproar. Personally, I think that I would be the most impressed if this was just a ploy to get their wedding paid for. Boars Head? Oscar Mayer? What do you think? The wienermobile could make great transportation from a wedding to a reception.

Sep 24, 2013

Using What's Around You

I have always been a fan of crafts that do not take a lot of money or space, for the fairly obvious reason that I have usually had a limited amount of both.  Knitting, for example, takes up a whole lot less space than a wood working shop. And when you don't have to pay for materials, even better! My newspaper route provided me with a ton of plastic straps that I tried doing stuff with as a kid, with little success.  Then, I was a bit weird.  Who am I kidding, I still am.  But! That behavior now is actually somewhat trendy, as I'm just "up-cycling".

I also have a bad habit of looking at a project, seeing the basic structure of how it works, and assuming that I can just do it.  Sometimes it works beautifully.  Sometimes it leads to disaster.  On the good side, at the beginning of the hackey sack craze in the 90's, I saw one and thought "You paid how much for this?  I can make these!"  Several hundred dollars and a case of carpal tunnel syndrome later, I still considered that a win.  On the other hand, sometimes I just end up with a house full of reeds, and a bunch of splinters (just don't ask.)

Which brings us to today's project/materials.  In my small attempt to make my tiny apartment not look like a disaster area, I've been trying to get organized.  One of the easiest ways that I've found to do that is to just have lots of baskets to just throw things into, to hide the mess.  It's less organization and more "out of sight, out of mind", but hey, baby steps, right?  So I've been scouring places like Marshalls and TJ Maxx and anywhere else I can find cheap, but nice stuff, and I had that thought.  "That's how much?  I could make something like this."

Before I go into details about the whats and hows, take a look at the finished product.

Can you tell what the materials were?  I'll give you a hint, it was completely free.

If you guessed plastic bags, you're correct! So I'm going to show you how I transformed some old shopping bags into a basket. For this week, it's all about turning the plastic bags into cording that you can use for this, or any other project (Knitting, crocheting, whatever).  The next post will go into how I turned that cord into a basket. 

The materials that you will need:
  • Plastic shopping bags 
  • Scissors
Additional item that can be helpful:
  • Drop Spindle

Creating Cords

No matter how you decide to do a basket, or what you decide to do with your plastic bags, it helps to first have them in a workable format. First, only use bags that are clean and dry. That should be obvious.  Are any ripped?  Depending on how you're going to use them, they could be just fine. In this case, everything is taking the form of a cord (yes, I know that there is a portmanteau for plastic yarn, but I think that it's stupid, and refuse to use it). This means that I will have to join multiple strips of plastic together. For the white plastic bags, as I want that rope to have a small gauge, the strips will be about one inch wide.  I would recommend not going narrower than that.  In my experience, when I was spinning it that way it started to lose structural integrity, and snap. 

Cut a small hole in each end of the strip.
Cut a small slit in each end of the strip
The pieces will be woven together, so cut a small slit near each end of the piece. To connect the pieces, interweave the two pieces like in the photo to the right, and gently pull tight. The two different colors in the photo are shown for the purpose of demonstration.  Unless you want your rope to change colors, both pieces would normally be the same color. 

Thin Cord

The hardest part of this: keeping the cat from attacking the plastic.
For the thin white cord, I opted to do all of it at once, using my drop spindle.  If you don't know what a drop spindle is, it's a very simple tool used for spinning wool into yarn. While I was making the basket, I would just break off pieces about the length of my arm to work with. If you don't have a drop spindle, you can either twist it manually, or attach each piece to a wrench, pen, pair of scissors.  Pretty much just something that you can twist, but won't break your plastic.  As you can see in the photo, the drop spindle just looks like an elongated top, with a hook at the top. The basic way to use it is just to spin it, allowing the length of cord you're working with to twist itself. Then, once a section is done, wrap the cord around the base and start on the next section.  Before you run out and spend any money on something that you're making because it's free, can you think of something that you have lying around that can help you do the same thing?

The Thick Cord

The brown plastic bags will be playing the role of the pine needles in my basket.  I want the cord that they become to be much thicker, so I am not going to be cutting them into strips.

Lay the bag out flat on the table

Fold one third of the bag in towards the center.
Fold the bottom one third up to the top, so the bag has a folded edge on both the top and the bottom. This will leave you with a long rectangle, the handles of the bag at one end.

Fold the bag in half one more time.

Make a slit in the end that was the bottom of the bag. Repeat these steps for each bag that will be used.
With the two bags that you want to connect, slip the handles of bag 1 through the slit in bag 2.

Then slip the handles from bag 2 through the handles in bag 1 (see now why we only needed to make one cut?)
Gently pull the two bags taut.
Twist to form a cord (for this one, I did not use the drop spindle, and just did it with my hands).

The bags from my local supermarket make a cord that is about 1/4 of an inch diameter.  Depending on the bags that you use, it could be rather different.
While it may look a little uneven at the moment, we will continue to adjust it while we make the basket.

Next: Turning your cord into a pine needle basket.