Category Archives: traditions

This Year’s Wreath

As some of you know, my family really likes making our own Christmas wreaths. This year was no exception. I think six or seven wreaths were made during our annual Thanksgiving Family Retreat and Wreath-making Extravaganza.

In prior years, we’ve roamed our cousins’ property cutting boughs from a wide variety of pine and fir trees. This year we used the scraggly lower branches of a couple freshly cut balsam fir Christmas trees and some showier white pine for accents.

For some reason, I got it in my head that I wanted to go with a white and gold color scheme for my wreath:

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My bow is a little small, but that’s what you get for buying a new, unmarked roll of wired ribbon at Goodwill. I still like it, but I’ll probably keep adjusting the bow all season.

Once I get my gold Christmas lights up outside, it should look even better. This may be my favorite wreath so far.

Making wreaths is one of my favorite family traditions. What are your favorite creative holiday traditions?

 

 

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Jack-o-Lantern Extravaganza

In the spirit of this spooky season, I’m re-posting one of the more popular posts from over the years. It’s from 2012. Have a spooktacular Halloween, everyone!

 

Pumpkin Obsession: Extreme Edition

My brother gets a little crazy every autumn. Brice is always buying pumpkins in October, and he carves them all, or as many as time allows. Gourds aren’t even safe from him at this time of year.

As of Monday he said the current count was 26. That was nine pumpkin-shopping days before Halloween, so he may have even more by now. (I think he’s regretting not following through on his idea of planting a pumpkin patch this summer.)

It all started way back when little Bricie won a ribbon in a pumpkin carving contest. Not that lots of actual carving was involved – his creativity caught the judges’ attention.

Every Halloween season, Brice & I wind up talking about pumpkins. When I carve jack-o-lanterns, I only do one or two. I carve slowly, but add special touches like freckles (by plunging a metal skewer through the shell) or scars (by scraping skin and a little flesh off the pumpkin). Brice? He uses power tools.

Use extreme care when using power tools – especially on round objects.

Brice’s carving isn’t completed yet for this Halloween, so let’s take a tour of their yard from a Halloween past. (The great photos are by my sister-in-law, Jeanne.)

Hmm, doesn’t that white jack-o-lantern way back there appear to be eating something? Let’s take a closer look….

This last one looks a bit Seussian, don’t you think?

All right. It’s time to admit my role in my brother’s autumnal obsession. A couple years ago I gave him two Extreme Pumpkin Carving books by Tom Nardone.

Hey, Bri, it seems Nardone has an annual pumpkin carving contest. Enter it, and maybe you’ll repeat your childhood success with another win!

What are some of your favorite Halloween traditions? How many pumpkins do you plan to carve this year?

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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