The Cinnamon Bread Test

As a kid, I always looked forward to when our neighbor, Mrs. Anderson, gave our family a loaf of her homemade cinnamon bread. My favorite way to eat it was to broil thin slices with a little butter on top, and then unswirl my way through each piece so every bite had some of the cinnamon filling.

Before she moved away, Mrs. Anderson gave me this copy of her recipe.


As delicious as Mrs. Anderson’s Cinnamon Bread was, it took me several years before I dared to test her recipe. Why? It might be hard to see in the photos above, but her recipe is a little vague. Sort of like the incomplete recipes contestants are challenged with in the second round of each episode of The Great British Baking Show.

Maybe seven or eight years ago I decided to give it a try, and it actually turned out great.

First problem: I couldn’t tell from her handwriting if she wrote “a scant TB of dry yeast” or “2 scant TB of dry yeast.” I went with one packet of dry yeast. It worked.

Other question marks:

  • “a little sugar”
  • “2/3 to 3/4 C sugar”
  • “enough flour to be able to knead”
  • “roll dough into rectangles”
  • “spread with softened margarine”
  • “sprinkle brown sugar over dough”
  • “..and then a mixture of sugar and cinnamon”
  • “roll up”
  • “[bake] 35 min or so – or until you think it looks done”

This is how I addressed these questions:

  • pinch of sugar
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • roughly 5 cups of flour
  • roll the narrowest part of the dough slightly smaller than the pan I plan to use
  • soften one stick of butter and use it to both grease the pans and spread of the dough
  • sprinkle two generous handfuls of brown sugar over the dough
  • dust about 1-1/2 Tablespoons of cinnamon sugar over the brown sugar
  • tightly roll dough starting from one of the narrow ends and seal all edges
  • bake at least 45 minutes, depending on the size of the pan

I quickly realized my pans are smaller than hers were, so I usually make two mini loaves as well. Once I started doing that I didn’t have to worry as much about the filling spilling out of the pans and burning in the oven. (Just to be safe I always cover the bottom rack with aluminum foil.)

Here’s a little photo journey of the bread I made this weekend:

Getting the yeast jump started with a pinch of sugar and hot water.

Getting the yeast jump started with a pinch of sugar and hot water.

The yeast mixture five minutes later.

The yeast mixture five minutes later.

Yes. I cheat. I use my stand mixer to do the initial kneading.

Yes. I cheat. I use my stand mixer to do the initial kneading.

Because this is a rich dough — containing sugar, eggs, vanilla, and butter — it tends to be wetter and a bit softer than traditional bread dough. After five or six minutes of kneading, the dough needs to rise until doubled in bulk.

Ready to rise!

Ready to rise!

Luckily, the radiators were just warm enough (without being too hot) to do the trick. I covered the bowl loosely with plastic, and topped it off—as the late great Julia Child might say— with an impeccably clean towel.


I love the idea of taking a photo before the dough rises to help gauge when it’s doubled in size. Compare this to the previous photo of dough.

It has risen!

It has risen!

Next is the fun part—hand kneading the dough, dividing it in half, and then trimming a little extra off each half to make the small loaves.

Turned out onto a lightly floured surface.

Turned out onto a lightly floured surface.

Divided and ready to knead.

Divided and ready to knead.

I don’t want to overwork the dough at this point. I just knead it for a minute or so to smooth it out. I knead until it feels a bit like soft bubblegum. Then it’s time to roll. I like longer rectangles, because they result in more swirls when then bread is sliced.

Roll the width of the dough so it's almost as wide as the baking pan.

Roll the width of the dough so it’s almost as wide as the baking pan.

Next, brush with the softened (in this case over-softened) butter, sprinkle with brown sugar and cinnamon sugar mixture, then start rolling it up.

Not having made the bread in nearly a year, I forgot to leave about an inch of bare dough at the end I'd be rolling toward. Oops!

This is why you need to start with a piece of dough not quite as wide as your pan. t invariably spreads out a bit as you roll it up.

Oops! I forgot to leave about an inch of bare dough to help seal the edge.

Oops! I forgot to leave about an inch of bare dough to help seal the edge. No problem. I wiped some of a cinnamon and sugar off, then swiped a little water on the edge.

All sealed up and ready for the pan!

All sealed up and ready for the pan!

Place seam-side down in a buttered bread pan.

Place seam-side down in a buttered bread pan.

Repeat with the rest of the dough and they’re ready to bake.



The smaller loaves were done after about 40 minutes, but the larger ones took 10-15 minutes longer, proving that even when you try to make sense of a vague recipe, you still wind up with inexact instructions.


This bread freezes really well. Because I made it ahead of time and froze it for our big family Thanksgiving, I don’t have a photo showing the inside of a loaf. I’ll try to get a photo of the swirled cinnamon goodness when we finally cut into these beauties. If I do I’ll add it to the post later.

I’m really glad I decided to try to decipher Mrs. Anderson’s recipe. My bread might not be exactly the same (I use skim milk and real butter instead of  2% or whole milk and margarine), but no one has complained about it yet. Not unless they’re complaining that someone else ate the last piece.


Simmering Stock

My love of making something out of virtually nothing isn’t new. It was already well-ingrained in me by high school when my Botany teacher explained how you can turn old bits of vegetables into soup stock and still have something left for the compost heap.

That’s when I started saving and freezing scraps. I put some onion skins and tomato cores in a gallon-size zip bag and popped it in the freezer. Every time I used fresh vegetables, I’d add any trimmings or peels to that bag. Over the course of a few months it began to grow. My dad noticed and asked why there was garbage in the freezer. “It’s for vegetable stock,” I said. That’s when he started calling it Garbage Soup.

Not the most appetizing label. But it is made of random bits of produce that would otherwise have wound up in the trash.

I still save scraps. And when the bag is full, I simmer up some savory stock.

I wish I’d thought to take a photo of the over-stuffed zip bag of random vegetable bits, but I didn’t think about it until I’d popped everything into a stockpot and covered it with water.


You can see there are bits and pieces of all kinds of vegetables, including one of those bite-sized sweet peppers that was starting to wilt. Not fresh enough for a salad, but fine for soup stock.

I simply empty my frozen veggie scraps into a 6-quart stockpot and top it off with water. I typically toss in a few peppercorns and a bay leaf and turn the heat up to high. It can take a while for the water to heat up, but thawing the veggie bits overnight in the refrigerator speeds it up a little. Just before it begins to boil, I reduce the heat to simmer and partially cover the stockpot, then simmer for about 30-45 minutes, until the largest vegetable bits are good and tender. If you want to salt your stock, wait until it’s finished cooking.


Next, I use a large slotted spoon or “spider” to remove the veggie bits from the pot and into a colander placed over a large bowl to collect any runoff, which I pour back into the stockpot.


After that, I ladle or pour the stock through a finer sieve and into a bowl to trap pesky pepper seeds and tiny leaves. Ideally, I’d line the sieve with a layer or two of cheesecloth to reduce the amount of sediment in the stock, but I discovered I was out of cheesecloth.


I wound up with about 4 quarts of gorgeous, healthful, and flavorful vegetable stock. Here’s a peek at the final result:


I cool it in the refrigerator overnight, then freeze the stock in 1-cup, 2-cup or even 1-quart containers. You could freeze it in ice-cube trays it you like.

My favorite way to use the stock is in vegetarian risotto, but I also add it to cream-based soups or use it in recipes calling for chicken or beef stock.

You can make stock from just about any vegetable trimmings you want. That said, I’d advise against adding too much of any strongly-flavored things. One year I tossed in a few too many dried up bits of fresh ginger root, another year, too many tough asparagus ends. (I was able to mix that broth with a different batch to even out the flavors a bit.)

Here’s a fairly comprehensive list of what went into this year’s broth: kale, spinach, sweet peppers, stem ends of a couple hot peppers, asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, turnip, red and yellow onions, garlic, tomato, green beans, snow peas, zucchini, green and red cabbage, summer squash, celery, carrots, scallions, swiss chard, ginger, parsley, and butternut squash. This year I even found a few artichoke leaves and the leftover ends of a couple potatoes that I’d grated.

Leeks are a good addition, as are parsnips, corn, and beets—but go easy on the beets unless you want really red stock. Lettuce, mushrooms, eggplant, and cucumbers don’t add much to the party, but sometimes I’ll toss those in, too.

Homemade vegetable stock is a great way to use scraps you’d normally discard, like the tough stems from cauliflower and broccoli, seed cores from sweet peppers, dried ends of celery, and the crowns of root vegetables.

Less than an hour after making this year’s vegetable stock, my new zip bag was already starting to fill up.



Blanket Coverage

I’m usually up for a creative project, so when a friend asked if I’d help her make something for her dad’s birthday, I asked “When?”

Julie’s dad is a big Milwaukee Brewer’s fan, so she bought three yards of official Brewer’s fleece to make a fleece throw. After deciding she preferred a contrasting color for the back, she bought a couple yards of a solid neutral, too.

We finally carved out time in both of our busy work schedules and got crafty earlier this week.

First, we lined up both fabrics on her kitchen floor and cut them to roughly the same length, about seven feet; she wanted it extra long since her dad is tall. Next we smoothed the wrinkles out. Fleece-on-fleece doesn’t shift too much, but since the floor space was limited I knew we’d be moving this around a lot to make the cuts and tie all the knots, so I used a needle and thread to loosely baste a giant X to hold everything in place. (After we finished, we pulled the basting threads right out.)

IMG_0783Once we trimmed off the selvage edges we were ready to start cutting.

There are tons of patterns and instructions online for making tied fleece blankets. Measurements may vary, but it’s a pretty basic process. In our case, the directions said to start by cutting 8-inch squares out of each corner.IMG_0784

Next, it said to make 8-inch long cuts every two inches along all four edges of the fabric.


My rotary cutter and cutting mat with its handy-dandy measuring grid really sped up the process.

Once I had several strips cut, Julie started knotting. After I finished cutting I knotted, too. Instead of tying the two strips together like shoe laces, we held both layers together and tied it as if making a knot at the end of a single piece of thread.

We soon realized two things:

  1. Tension matters. Tight knots can cause the fabric to bunch up. But if knots are too loose, they might come untied. Aim for uniform tension.
  2. The pattern we were following wasn’t clear on what to do at the corners. Do you make two knots right on top of each other? Or do you tie the abutting knots together? It’s a subjective decision, so just make sure you use the same process for all four corners.

I wasn’t watching the clock, but I’m pretty sure it took the two of us less than three hours to make the extra-long blanket. Neither of us had made one of these before, but I imagine the work goes faster with each one you make.

Julie (who’s standing somewhere behind the blanket in the photo below) said she and her husband will go over the blanket to make sure all knots are tied with a similar tension before giving it to her dad this weekend. I hope he likes it!


Have you tried your hand at a tied fleece blanket or throw? How many have you made?

Going, Going, Gone

It’s a good thing today is National I Love Yarn Day, because you really have to love yarn when you put several weeks into knitting something only to realize you made a really big mistake.

That happened to me when I was knitting a hooded sweater coat last spring. I thought I was almost done, but when I tried attaching the sleeves it was clear I’d made a mistake in the ribbing. I dreaded the thought of frogging (a knitter’s term for ripping out stitches) 10-1/2 inches worth of knitting—and both sleeves—that I set the project aside all spring and summer. But once cooler weather reignited the urge to knit, I told myself I couldn’t start any new projects until I finish this coat. (Okay, so I made an exception to make something for my sister’s birthday. But that only took a couple days.)

Two weeks ago I got up the courage to frog my work. It wasn’t as painful as I thought, since the yarn is a bulky roving and doesn’t unravel as easily as smoother yarns.





See all those live stitches? The first thing I did was slip a lifeline in. A lifeline is just a piece of yarn in a contrasting color that helps keep the stitches from raveling. I use them a lot when knitting lace or any complex patterns, so when (not if) I catch a mistake I can restart without having to re-knit an entire thing.

Threading the lifeline:


Lifeline firmly in place:


Worst of all, there were three sections I had to unravel and re-knit: the right side, the back (which is the big stretch above) and the left side. Each section is knitted separately, which is why I really needed the lifelines. Finally, I slipped the work back onto my circular needles:


It took nearly a week of evening knitting to re-knit it all. Then I realized I’d decreased on the wrong edge of one side, so I had to re-re-knit a couple inches of that. After that, I realized the larger back section was too short. So my next step will be frogging about three rows, knitting several more, then decreasing. Again.

Did I mention the sleeves use the same unusual ribbing pattern? With most ribbing patterns if you knit a stitch on one side, you purl it on the other. But this is a staggered ribbing—to make it easier to match the pattern when you attach the sleeves—so I’ll have to stay on my toes when increasing and decreasing if I want the pattern to stay in check.

Otherwise you’ll soon be reading another post about why it’s lucky I love yarn enough to rip things out and start over.

What are some of your biggest knitting blunders, and how did you fix them?



Missing My Muse

Whether you’re an artist, writer, musician, or chef, chances are you have a muse who inspires your creativity and joy. For the last 15+ years, mine was Doggie Lily. She passed away yesterday, August 16 after along and healthy life – up until the last few days, anyway.

Lily. March, 2015. Age 15-1/2.

Lily. June 25, 2015. Age 15-1/2.

How couldn’t that sweet face and those sparkly eyes not inspire, or at least motivate, you? (Yes, she was usually trying to motivate me to give her some cheese, cucumbers, doggie treats, or take her for a walk. I bowed to her wishes most of the time.)

Who or what is your muse?

Note: I realized I had the wrong date on the photo, and just corrected it. This photo of Lily was June 25, 2015.

Word Play

I love cooking, but never wanted to be a chef or baker because having to cook isn’t the same as wanting to cook.

As a full-time writer, I keep things interesting by covering different subjects. Learning something new with each project prevents me from getting bored. But over time, spending 40+ hours per week at the keyboard writing for fun became a foreign concept.

Until recently.

About a year ago, one of my best friends entered the first ever Rockford New Play Festival, and her play was one of the short plays chosen to be read by actors. Watching her play, and the others, read aloud before an overflowing crowd really inspired me – on multiple levels.

  • The plays were really good. The actors reading them were good, too. And the audience was enthusiastic. I was inspired as a writer.
  • It was impressive that a new and relatively unknown playwriting event in Rockford could draw such a large and diverse audience. I was inspired by the local arts community.
  • I was inspired that a relatively small group of people pulled it off.

Upon hearing entries were being accepted for the second annual Rockford New Play Festival, I thought it would be fun to enter, even if playwriting isn’t my forte. Encouraged by the friend who participated last year, I decided to give it a try and soon a rough idea that had been percolating in my brain for a while became a 10-minute play, The Grove.

I submitted it in May and forgot about it. But the creative writing bug had bitten again. Suddenly I wanted to test myself with different types of writing.

When I read about a 24-hour short story competition, I registered right away and counted down the days until they assigned the length and a general theme (they encourage writers to stretch and play with the theme) I would never have thought to write about.

Guess what? The contest’s prompts spurred my creativity and the ideas poured out.

In a weird way, having a tight deadline helped focus my efforts. By removing the luxury of obsessing over every comma, the 24-hour deadline made the writing process more visceral and less precious. I loved every minute of it!

Entering these contests was something I did for fun, and to stretch my creative writing muscles. The winners of the 24-hour Short Story contest won’t be announced for a few weeks yet, and I don’t hope to be among them.

Then again, I didn’t expect The Grove would be one of six 10-minute plays — out of 520 entries from across the country — selected to be read at the second annual Rockford New Play Festival. But it was.

[Date, time and other details for the event can be found here: 2015 RNPF.]

Accepting a creative challenge is never a mistake, but letting one slip past you is.

What creative challenges have you taken on lately, and what did you learn from them?


Upcycled Bag

Here’s a little experiment I tried with some of that t-shirt yarn (aka “tarn”) I made a few weeks ago. All I did was coil it and secure it into place with single crochet stitches and cotton yarn.

Drawstring tarn bag

Drawstring tarn bag

Well, that’s how I built up the sides.

I started working the bag at the bottom, and added a few chain stitches here and there to increase the diameter of the spiral. Once it was the width I wanted, I switched to single crocheting thought the spaces (as opposed to through the loops like a standard single crochet).

Adding chains between some of the single crochets allowed the coil to get wider

Adding chains between some of the single crochets allowed the coil to grow wider

Since I wanted random colors, I used shorter scraps of tarn and several colors of cotton yarn leftover from other projects.

The drawstring is simply tarn that’s been chained. I made slots for the drawstring by skipping six stitches (evenly spaced around the bag) and adding an extra chain stitch over each gap. Then I worked a couple more rows, adding those skipped stitches back by crocheting into the chain spaces. (Trust me. That will make sense to crocheters.)

Some people tie strips of tarn together with knots, which adds more texture. Others sew one piece of tarn to another. I chose to join them as if I were linking two zip ties together. It’s faster and easier than it sounds:

  1. Fold the end of a strip of tarn over by about 3/4″ and make a tiny cut at the fold. (I discovered the smaller the cut the better, since the opening can stretch larger when you pull the tarn through.)
  2. Do the same thing at both ends of a second piece of tarn.
  3. Slip the second piece of tarn through the hole in the first, then through the hole at the opposite end and gently pull it tight.
  4. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

If that’s not clear, here’s a link to another blog that beautifully illustrates all three joining techniques. (And yes, I plan to make their tarn Swiffer Duster cover next!)

I love that this fun and funky bag was made entirely of scraps. It’s really the epitome of this blog – creating something out of virtually nothing.

Tarn it all!

Funny how things happen. My last post centered on my Want-To-Do List, and just a few days later I crossed one item off the list: Make t-shirt yarn.

There are numerous online tutorials for making t-shirt yarn, here’s a link to just one of many blogs that gives clear step-by-step instructions.

I set up a card table, got out some old t-shirts, a rotary cutter, scissors, and a cutting mat and within a couple hours — while binge watching a show I wanted to catch up on — I’d turned ten ratty old t-shirts into 10 balls of t-shirt yarn, also called “tarn.”


The best part is it doesn’t matter if the shirts are stained, since the fabric curls up on itself. The blue-green tarn above was from a shirt I’d worn while painting, but you can’t even see the paint specks in the final product.

Before starting to make a rug or something larger, I decided to try knitting a dishcloth from some tarn. Having no idea how far one ball of tarn would go, I used two colors and worked a slip stitch here and there to add a little flare.

I totally guessed on the gauge but did pretty well for a first try. Using size 15 needles, I cast on 15 stitches (easy to remember, huh?). And because I was alternating colors I knitted 21 rows, plus the cast-off row. The dishcloths are about 7″x7″.  I used a stockinette stitch so one side of the dishcloth is smooth and the other has more texture for scrubbing.

With plenty of the both colors left, I decided to make a second dishcloth using a simple garter stitch, alternating colors every two rows. That created bold stripes on the “front” side. I’m still working on that dishcloth, but here’s a what I have as of now:


Next up I’ll try crocheting a dishcloth to see how that goes!

The best part of making tarn? You still have the sleeves and shoulders of the old shirts for dust rags.


Want-To-Do Lists

With the season finale of Orphan Black airing tonight, it seems somehow appropriate to say there are some days – make that many days – I wish I had a clone.

The past month or so I’ve happily been very busy with work (including a rush article this week that went from pitch to final copy in seven hours, and the interviewee wasn’t available for the first three of those hours). During weeks like this what little free time I do have is typically spent catching up on not-so-fun stuff like cleaning – and yard work whenever the weather permits.

Ever notice how the busier you are the more craft/DIY projects you suddenly want to do?

It’s probably a form of escapism to picture ourselves working on creative endeavors. After all, who wouldn’t prefer to spend two hours focused on a fun project than toiling away at their day job?

Here are a few projects on my want-to-do list. Stay tuned to see if I actually get around to any of them:

  • Turn old pop cans into tags for my hostas and heirloom tomatoes
  • Take pile of old t-shirts and turn them into t-shirt yarn
  • Make something from said t-shirt yarn
  • Crochet more hexagons for the would-be bedspread while berating myself for choosing to make the pieces so small that I’ll hate piecing them together one day
  • Piece together these odd-sized bits I made as a kid when learning to knit, and turn them into the knitted version of a crazy quilt
The evolution of my knitting

The evolution of my knitting

I can’t be the only person who dreams up new project ideas at the opportune times. So what’s on your Want-To-Do List?

Simple Roasted Tomatoes

Pretty much every grocery store has a reduced-for-quick-sale section. Ever wonder what to do with large quantities of over-ripe produce like these tomatoes I bought for under three dollars?


Whenever I see decent reduced-price tomatoes, I feel compelled to try to replicate my friend Meetal’s ridiculously delicious roasted tomatoes. I’ve never quite matched her results, but I keep trying.

The first time I tasted them was a couple years ago when Meetal, our sisters, and I went to a big flea market and Meetal volunteered to bring lunch. She sliced a loaf of ciabatta bread into two layers, pulled out some of the bread-y bits to make more space for filling and loaded it up with roasted tomatoes, arugula, and fresh mozzarella. She cut the overflowing loaf into four sections and individually wrapped them for us to enjoy while wandering through the flea market.

I’m not sure if it was our reaction to how delicious the sandwiches were, or just how good they looked, but a couple passersby asked where we bought them. Boy, were they disappointed to found out Meetal made the sandwiches!

Separately, each ingredient was good. Combined, they were even better. But the richness of the roasted tomatoes was by far the star ingredient.

That day, Meetal told me how she slow roasts the tomatoes and finishes them off by adding fresh basil and a dash of balsamic vinegar.

I can never remember the specifics of her recipe, so if I’m wrong I hope she’ll chime in and correct me. (Then again, she might not want any of us knowing her secret for perfect roasted tomatoes.) The truth is, as long as you slow roast the tomatoes it’s hard to go wrong.

I started by washing the tomatoes and removing any bad spots. Then I splashed some olive oil in the bottom of two shallow baking pans. I cut the tomatoes into large chunks and tossed in a few whole, peeled, cloves of garlic and a few chunks of onion. (One time I put in a little red bell pepper, too, which lent a nice hint of sweetness.)


Although I couldn’t remember the temperature Meetal uses, I knew it was low. So I set the oven at 300F degrees.

The hard part comes next. Waiting. Because these are slow roasted, expect to wait at least five or six hours before it even starts to look like this:


It’s more than worth the wait, though, since the flavor intensifies as the moisture evaporates and the ingredients caramelize.

At this point, you can use a fork to peel off and pick out tomato skins if you like. I picked some of the larger skins out then used a potato masher to work the mixture into a chunky sauce.


Next I added some basil (sadly it was dried, not fresh), a splash or two of balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.

If you don’t like chunky sauce, let it cool a bit and pop it into a food processor or use an immersion blender to achieve the consistency you prefer.

While I didn’t have ciabatta bread, fresh mozzarella, or arugula on hand, I had some gnocchi in the freezer so I made this:


There’s still a lot of roasted tomatoes leftover, so I might yet make the sandwiches. You can uses this sauce with almost any pasta or just dip some nice rustic bread in and enjoy. It would probably make a great pizza sauce, too.

Have you ever bought bulk quantities of over-ripe produce? What did you make with it?



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