Monthly Archives: December 2007

The 12 Days of Christmas — 70’s Style

It’s been mentioned here that Stately IPB Manor’s favoritest Christmas decoration is Boomer’s 12 Days of Christmas wall hangings. Before either Schnookie or I was born, Boomer worked with her mother to make this felt/bead/sequin masterpiece:

12dayssmall.jpg

Each day of Christmas has it’s own felted oval, strung on four length of ribbon. My earliest memories of this are from when they hung in our house on Long Island, when I was six or so. They were always hung in the dining room, the only decoration we were allowed to put up before Christmas Eve. Fortunately they could hold all our attention until the 24th; all of Advent could be spent discussing with Schnookie whether the coolest element of it was the brown bugle beads on the three French Hens, or the ruffled collar on the ten lords a-leaping, or the gold braid on the four calling birds, or the little pearly beads in the centers of the flower by the eight maids a milking.

12daysmosaicsmall3.jpg

We bemoan how terrible Stately IPB Manor is for the Christmas tree — the natural spot for it is taken up by a couch so it gets plunked into the corner where we’ll see it the most, but also where it looks the most ridiculous — but this fact is well off-set by how perfect the bow window in the living room is for displaying the 12 Days. No, it’s not the traditional dining room placement, but this way we can relive our youth and spend every day wondering which felt scene is our favorite. We are eternally grateful for Boomer and Boomer’s mother for making such a well-loved heirloom for our most loved season!

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Spice Cookies… That sounds spicy!

There are three things that simply make Christmas for me: the tree, Boomer’s 12 Days of Christmas (both of which will be documented here soon, I promise) and spice cookies (which will be documented here… NOW!)

Our family has a lot of cool things going for it, but one thing we’re completely lacking are family recipes. Dad invented an “Irish spaghetti” and a delightful original stew he called “Chicken Glop” but that’s about it. The one real recipe that’s been passed down to us by an older generation is these cookies, which come from Boomer’s mother’s mother. Because Schnookie hates baking cookies, it falls to me to produce a batch — or two, or four — every year. This is fine with me as I adore making them. They’re crazy easy to make, requiring no special techniques, although I feel like there are three steps that seem extra special to me.

The first is the spices: allspice, cloves and cinnamon. They get mixed into the flour and baking soda, but I like to take the extra step of putting them into their own little bowl, preferably the eggshell blue melamine one.

spices

This way I can admire them. The cloves, in particular, are especially striking looking, I think. This year Schnookie treated me to fancy spices from Penzey’s. Even just smelling them I knew this batch would be the best one I’d ever made. (In this picture you can see how well-loved the recipe is; I always love seeing Gram’s handwriting on the little slip of paper every year.) I like to mix the spices together on their own, and then sift them into the flour. The flour-spice mixture then gets stirred together, making a beautiful looking, and even-more beautiful smelling bowl of dry ingredients.

The dry ingredients are mixed with the wet and almost instantly the dough turns into a really tough mess. I tend to forget this immediately after baking the cookies, so every year it’s a surprise. “Oh, right! This! Fun. Sigh.” Fortunately, I do remember that the dough is pretty nasty raw, so it’s not a surprise when I do the inevitable “oooh! Cookie dough!” taste test. The second special step is “shaping” the dough. This is a refrigerate, slice, then bake recipe. I learned to make these by helping Boomer when I was little. Boomer’s technique for “shaping” the dough was to slap a big hunk of dough on some wax paper and then squish it into some semblance of a log. Because the dough doesn’t rise or spread in the oven, the cookies come out looking just like the shape of the log. As a result, we grew up with spice cookies that weren’t perfectly round like the slice-and-back cookies you see in magazines or bakeries. We had cookies that were, at best, misshapen blobs. One year I tried making them round and it just seemed so, so wrong. So wrong.

Ever since I’ve stuck with the tried and true traditional blob-shaped log:

sliceandbake

No, they’re not going to make the cover of Gourmet, but I’d rather they live up to being a family recipe, complete with the history of all the misshapen blobby cookies that came before them cooked into every batch.

misshapen blobs

The third step that seems special is the actual baking. These cookies do not change color while baking, so it’s a delicate, delicate matter making sure they don’t get over- or under baked. This year I was able to ascertain, thanks to Schnookie’s it-takes-a-rocket-scientist digital timer, that exactly 5 minutes and 43 seconds in our ovens is the amount of time to ensure the perfect spice cookie.

spice cookies

I almost didn’t write this post because I’m not convinced I can describe what they taste like. I’ve eaten them every Christmas for as long as I can remember, so to me, they taste like spice cookies! If I had to take a stab at it, I’d say they’re light (you can eat about 800 before you realize it), buttery and a bit dry (like a tea biscuit, almost). The spiced flavor is just strong enough but not overpowering. And to me, they’re Christmas on a plate.

Here’s the recipe for anyone who wishes to give them a whirl.

1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
1 lb butter (or as the handwritten recipe says, “oleo”; it never fails to make me laugh)
3 eggs (well beaten)
5 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cloves
1 tsp allspice

Mix the sugars and butter until smooth. Beat in the eggs. Combine dry ingredients and mix into the wet ingredients.

Shape dough into logs and refrigerate for at least two hours. Slice into cookies about 1/4″ thick.

Bake 5-7 minutes on 425. The cookies will not change color much, so watch for them to appear cakey.

Makes a zillion cookies.

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Filed under Baked Goods, Cookie, Cookie, Cookie Starts With C

IPB Manor Finally Does Something Right

We have a nosy across-the-street neighbor who loves nothing more than telling us all the things we’re doing wrong with our house and yard. And in the unlikely event that she can’t think of anything unkind to say about our home maintenance and upkeep (always under the guise of trying to be “helpful”, mind you), she will then move on to pointing out the flaws of all the houses and yards around us. We know first-hand that our front-yard raised-bed vegetable garden is an endless source of consternation for her, so imagine our surprise when, after we put up our simple holiday wreaths, she enthused to Boomer that our decorating touch was gorgeous, and that we “simply must put them up again like this next year.” Color us shocked! Of course, they do look awfully nice, if we do say so ourselves.

The Garden Fence, Bedecked

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The Things We Hang By The Chimney With Care

We were raised by a handicrafter, so the single most cherished part of the entire Christmas extravaganza for us is our needlepointed stockings. For a certain type of stitcher, needlepointing a Christmas stocking is an essential part of your life experience, so Boomer naturally made us all stockings when we were kids. We started out with a set of relatively matched rinky-dinky stockings, with red backgrounds and very blocky pictures (think Atari graphics) of Christmas trees or reindeer or whatever. Of course, that set had only four stockings in it, “Dad”, “Mom”, “Kate” and “Liz” (aka Schnookie). When it came time to remedy the lack of a “Nel” (aka Eleanor, aka Pookie) stocking, Boomer went to the stitching store and found a glorious hand-painted canvas that made her think of her wee darling Pookie (or, uh, “Nel”), so that was what she made.

Pookie’s Stocking

Other than the creepy little jester doll there that looks like Greg DeVries, this is perfect. I absolutely adore the colors in this, and Pookie and I agree that there is something about the rings of light around the candles that just is Christmas for us. I have also always really loved the amorphous, fluffy whiteness of Santa’s beard and hair just connecting with the fur trim of his hat, as well as the delicate little holly sprig at the top of the composition.

A closer look

The first Christmas after Boomer finished Pookie’s stocking, we discovered a problem: it was bigger than the others, didn’t match the simple designs of them, and pointed the wrong way. In a household of four jealous, squabbling kids, it meant that those of us who weren’t Pookie hurled vicious, petty insults at Pookie for the ungainly beauty of her stocking. Boomer doggedly got to work, then, making equally lovely stockings for the rest of us.

Schnookie’s Stocking

It is impossible for me to look at my stocking as anything other than a child. It is the very embodiment of the feeling of being a little kid who knows how loved she is. Boomer says she picked this one for me because the girl has hair kind of the same color as mine, and I find so simple an explanation to be the best possible kind. I just love the thought of my mother sorting through the canvases at the store and seeing this one, where that one detail provided the connection between it and her daughter. From a completely bratty standpoint, though, I was always jealous that Pookie’s was “prettier”; because mine has a composition that is more about the tableau of tree-trimming, the background sort of necessarily became a plain white. To make up for the lack of royal blue with glowing orange candlelights, my stocking has the silver tinsel to offer. I have always loved how special the metallic thread made this look, and the dog playing with the string of tinsel has always delighted me.

A closer look

The years passed with us delighting every year when our stockings reemerged from the attic, bringing with them all the thrill of our childhood holidays. Of course, there was one sad little thing to go along with them: Boomer’s childhood stocking.

How sad is that?

Yeah, she still had the one she made back when Schnookie was a baby, the one that said “Mom”, but we don’t ever call her “Mom” anymore. It was time to return the favor to her, and give her an ornate, beautiful stocking stitched with love and admiration. We decided we would surprise her, and went to the same store she bought our stocking canvases and threads at, ready to pick out something that would fit perfectly along the mantle with ours. They had a vast array of stockings to choose from, but we quickly discovered that needlepoint design trends had changed a lot since the early ’80s. There wasn’t anything that matched the sort of chunky, colorful look of the ones she made for us, so we decided the next best thing to do was to buy the most elaborate, beautiful, rich canvas they had, with a detail-heavy Nutcracker theme.

Now, neither of us had ever done any needlepoint before, and we were stunned at the complexity of the next step after picking the canvas. When you do cross stitch, the designs come charted, with explanations of what threads to use; if you don’t like the fiber in question, the shop we use has a conversion chart so it’s simple to change out, say, DMC cotton floss for Needlepoint Silk or something. But needlepoint doesn’t have those kinds of instructions. If your canvas doesn’t come with fibers already selected for it, you then get to select the threads you want to use to work the design. In our case, it was finely-detailed enough that we didn’t want to get all hung up in any fancy stitches, but we still had to select about 45 different colors, including 5 different metallic threads. (Because of the tinsel on my stocking, we both agreed that Boomer’s had to have metallic details on hers.) We spent hours on this, and then discovered that a hand-painted canvas and a gazillion silk threads are really expensive. A friend of mine asked, after this project was completed, whether I could make a stocking for her; when I told her how many hundreds of dollars were involved, she decided to get one of those $30 “handmade” ones from L.L. Bean instead.

I don’t know what compelled me to do this, but I decided I wanted to stitch this, a choice that was fine with Pookie, who knew she didn’t really like working needlepoint. It was very odd at first, working without instructions. I was uncomfortable for quite a while with having to decide where to stop with one color while working shading and start with another. And the way the needlepoint stitches fit together on their little diagonal, instead of the square cross stitches I’m used to, took some adjusting. I actually started this, then put it down in frustration, apologizing to Pookie that I doubted I’d ever finish it. Then, after moving back East and leaving Boomer behind in Arizona, I picked it back up again, and in a flurry of productiveness, finished it in about 10 weeks. It will probably stand forever as my all-time favorite project; once I got into the swing of things, it was endlessly enjoyable to work on.

Boomer’s stocking

There are so many details on this piece, but here’s a closer look at the richness of the color (and the metallic threads!):

Up close

It should be mentioned that all three of these stockings were finished by the people at the shop we bought the canvases from. None of us would really trust ourselves with doing the backing and trim for something as important as a Christmas stocking, and really, the finisher did us proud. They are all exquisite. And finally we have a mantle where all the stockings are equally beautiful and impressive — the irony here, though, is that we’ve never, ever, ever put presents in them. I don’t know why that was one tradition that never caught on at IPB Manor, and the thought of defiling our stockings with something as mundane as stocking stuffers is anathema to us. So instead they are just our very favorite decorations during our very favorite time of year:

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon will be there!

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Breaking Out Of A Rut, Soup-Style

Many years ago, when I was just starting out as someone who “likes to cook”, Pookie suggested I buy “The Daily Soup Cookbook” while we were browsing at a Barnes & Noble. She explained that Daily Soup was one of her favorite places to eat in the City, and she wanted me to make their chicken pot pie soup for her. So I bought the book, and was quickly overwhelmed by all the ingredients in it that I’d never heard of, the intimidating meatstuffs, the homemade stock, the long cooking times and dried beans. I was still on training wheels as a home cook, and most of these recipes seemed totally out of reach for me. I was intimidated by most fresh ingredients, and the only meat I ever cooked with was boneless, skinless chicken breasts, so I settled on their Chicken Barley Soup recipe and basically never looked at anything else in the book again.

Fast forward about ten years, and here I am, a bit more confident as a cook, and looking forward to a long winter making soups in my new kitchen. However, the only two soups I ever make are the aforementioned Chicken Barley one and Cook’s Illustrated’s Pasta e Fagioli, which is a soup that takes about 15 minutes to whip up. Frankly, I’m bored. So last weekend I found myself digging out my Daily Soup book… and what a revelation! None of it seemed scary at all, there were no ingredients I was afraid I couldn’t find, and if there were elements in interesting recipes that I wasn’t necessarily interested in eating, I knew how to work around them. As I raced through the pages I found myself marking nearly every recipe as one I wanted to make immediately. After a few weeks of listlessly casting about through my ever-narrowing repertoire of meals I think I’m willing to make on worknights, I was suddenly rejuvenated, and the first two soups to get the call were a Sausage, Cranberry Bean and Polenta number, and a Braised Pork Chili.

The Sausage, Cranberry Bean and Polenta soup turned out like this:

Pot O’ Slop

First off, yes, I had a nicer picture of this soup all plated up and garnished with sage leaves, but frankly, I love how this picture turned out. It looks like a big pot of lumpy brown goo, sort of like whatever it is the ship’s crew gets to eat in Master and Commander. All appearances aside, this soup was just insanely comfort-food delicious. I couldn’t find cranberry beans at my bobo grocery store, so I went with pinto beans, and because my bobo store is, well, bobo, I also had to buy massive amounts of sweet Italian sausage, all of which I used here (what can I say? I’m too lazy to only use one third of the coil of sausage and save the rest for a later meal). The recipe was pretty straightforward: brown up sweet and hot Italian sausage (half a pound of each, or in my case, half a pound of hot, and 1 1/2 pounds of sweet) in some olive oil, remove the sausage from the pot and then sweat up some chopped onion, celery and garlic. Then you add 8 cups of stock (I added closer to 10 or 11 because my stock is frozen in units of something between 3 and 4 cups; cooking is an exact science at IPB Manor, no?), the dried beans, some thyme and some salt and pepper, and then simmer the bejeesus out of it until the beans are soft. Then you pour in a quarter-cup of instant polenta in a stream, stir it up until it thickens, then add a bunch of chopped broccoli rabe and some fresh chopped sage. Wait, wait, you say, where’s the broccoli rabe in that picture? Heh. Right. Well, I’d left the last of our farm produce waaaaay too long in the fridge, and after we noticed the funky smell of their rottingness, Boomer took it upon herself to clean out the produce drawer. And with it went all my fresh produce for this week. I’d been waffling about adding the rabe in the first place, because I knew Pookie wasn’t going to want it, so in the end it was all for the best that the decision was made for me. (I think the soup would have been significantly better for the rabe, though. It was scrumptious, but in a very simple “Hey! It’s sausage and beans!” way. I think the greens would have given this an added complexity that would have greatly improved it as a solid meal.)

Next up was the Braised Pork Chili:

Sweet Baby Jeebus this is good.

There was a bit of a delay in making this, because Boomer tossed the peppers in the Great Produce Purge. So after restocking the fridge, I was able to give this a go. I’ve never braised anything before, but after my experiences making pulled pork, at least the science of how a pork butt gets turned into tender, succulent deliciousness was not intimidating to me. This one starts out quick-soaking a pound of black beans, while simmering 3 lbs of cubed pork butt in 6 cups (or 8-ish in my case) of chicken stock (I think I was using my Thanksgiving-leftover turkey stock, but I didn’t bother really checking). Then you dump the beans into the pork and stock, along with the following chopped items: 3 onions, 2 cloves of garlic, 2 habaneros, 2 ribs of celery, 2 pickled jalapenos, 2 green bell peppers and 1 28-oz can of whole tomatoes (drained). Toss in 3 tablespoons of chili powder, 2 tablespoons of Mexican oregano, 2 tablespoons of kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon of fresh ground black pepper. Then cover the pot and put it in a 325-degree (F) oven for an hour. After the hour is up, remove the pot from the oven, slap it back on the stove, put in 1/4 cup (I used 1/2 cup) of bulgur, simmer for 20 minutes, then add 2 cups of corn kernels and let everything get up to a nice heat.

I opted to serve this, despite the bulgur, over brown rice, in part because I love any excuse to eat brown rice and in part because it stretches one pot to make leftover lunches for the entire week. I didn’t have any of my own chili powder on hand, but thank heavens for those freebies Penzey’s Spices includes with every order — I used some Penzey’s chili powder instead. Either the Penzey’s blend is crazy hot, or the habaneros I used, which were the size of apples and were fire-engine red, were rocket-hot, because this turned out to be a four-alarm chili. It was also insanely delicious. I was so pleased with how the pork was melt-in-your-mouth perfect, and I also loved how the addition of celery made this a tiny bit smoother than I’m used to with my regular chili recipe. There was just a bit of vegetal sweetness from it that was a nice little anchor in the flavors.

So that was my excitement from the last little stretch of cooking. I have to say, I’m a little embarrassed now to look back at myself as a 20-year-old, being too afraid to soak some dried beans or use hot peppers. This has been a good exercise for me to see really clearly how much more competent I am now after a decade of puttering around making rinky-dink dinners for Pookie and Boomer. I’ve learned quite a bit in that time, despite my belief to the contrary. In short, these soups were good for both keeping body and soul together, and for my self-esteem!

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Holiday Cheer with Stitches Part 2

Immediately after publishing the first post about my Christmas stitching I commented on how lovely our mantel looked with it’s advent caledars, creche and Christmas bear. “Heeeeey, wait!” I cried, “I stitched that Christmas bear!” So here’s what I forgot on my previous post:

bearsmall.jpg

This was done up as a model in my favorite stitching shop, and in person, it’s just about the cutest thing ever. “Cute” is not usually a trait I look for in my needlework, but look at the bear’s face:

beardetailsmall.jpg

How was I supposed to not make this? It has a sparkly green garland! And little red beaded holly! And it has fuzzy threads!

Truth be told, the specialty threads and beads are a pain, but the finished product is a delightful addition to our holiday mantlescape.

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Holiday Cheer with Stitches

Christmas is without a doubt my favorite time of year. When I was little, my father wouldn’t let my family start putting out Christmas decorations until Christmas Eve; here at Stately IPB Manor we make up for all those lost years by putting all kinds of decorations out starting December 1st. There are advent calendars everywhere, candle pyramids, stockings, little felt santas and snowmen Boomer made ages ago, and of course, seasonal stitching. Schnookie put up a post highlighting her contributions to this and I was eagerly looking forward to doing the same. Then I lined up all my pieces to photograph them and realized that I’ve a lot less here than I thought! Looks like I need to start prioritizing Christmas stitching for next year. But in the meantime, here’s what’s hanging on the walls this holiday season.

I didn’t realize it until putting this post in order that these four pieces fall are done by two designers. The first are from Prairie Schooler. Prairie Schnooler holds a ginormous place in my stitching heart, as their designs were the first real ones I ever did. The overall look of their work is very simple, with big blocks of solid colors that are perfect for beginners. They’re also very country, which is something that does not factor into IPB Manor’s general eclectic style (which we call Modwardian — one part masculine Victorian, one part modern, and 98 parts “hey, this looks cool!”) but because they are imbued with some 20 years worth of sentimental value, I overlook the country. PS Christmas pieces somehow manage to exude “the Christmas of your childhood” in their every stitch. I think it’s in the distinctive Santa-red that dominates the designs.

This one is from a four-part series of “Woodland Santas”:

pssantasmall.jpg

The palate of basically one green, two reds and two browns makes for a simple piece that speaks to the peacefulness of a winter night. The little candle is another PS design addition that fills my heart with the glow of the Christmas tree in an otherwise dark living room in the wee hours of Christmas Eve. While the charts are always intended to be done with cotton floss, I substituted silk threads, which are a little tough to match perfectly. I think it worked well here, particularly with the flax colored, slightly homespun-looking linen. The evergreen frame was a perfect finishing touch.

This second one is a little distinctive for us in that we, being not religious at all, don’t generally have a lot of Christ in our Christmas decorations (a family heirloom creche is the other notable exception):

poesmall.jpg

As with the previous one, this one has big blocks of a few colors, but the vines around the manger bring a down-to-earth elegance to this piece. This detail of the donkey shows the gentleness of PS pieces that never fails to make me sigh with Christmas happiness:

poedetailsmall.jpg

There are few, few things that remind me of what Christmas meant to me as a child than a Prairie Schooler Christmas design.

The other two designs are from Shepherd’s Bush. A dear friend of mine has a term for things that are too elaborately decorated with tiny details — “seedy ducky” (her family had some gee-gaw that was a duck decorated entirely with tiny seeds). Shepherd’s Bush designs are the needlework equivalent of seedy ducky with beads and curlicues and flowery custom-cut mattes, and as a result, I generally avoid them like the plague. But then they started a series of samplers based on traditional Christmas carols. And they made them in as non-seedy-ducky a style as they could. And I discovered I couldn’t resist!

The first in the series was “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”:

emmansmall.jpg

This piece was especially fun because it’s a true sampler. This means, at the top, the design includes a simple version of some kind of pattern — in this case, Swedish weaving and whitework. As you move down the bands, the patterns grow more and more complicated. This lets you practice the pattern, until at the bottom, you can execute an intricate and involved version of the top band. The Swedish weaving looks easy at first, but as I worked the piece I realized the counting involved was a lot harder than I expected. But because it was a true sampler, I was able to slowly work my through it with a bit of a safety net.

Band 1 (the Swedish weaving is the pinkish stuff):
emmandetail1small.jpg

Band 2:
emmandetail2small.jpg

Band 3:
emmandetail3small.jpg

The finishing of this piece included a custom-painted matte and a gorgeously carved frame. My only complaint with this is that I was a far, far lazier stitcher in 2002 than I am now, and so I didn’t take the time to center the verse. The chart had a seedy-ducky font, which I substituted something more staid, but wanted the thing to be done, so I just barreled ahead. This was an awful, awful mistake. If this piece was going to be hung up for more than just 30 days a year, I’d fix it. But since it doesn’t, I just let it serve as a reminder to not be a lazy.

The second in the series was “Angels We Have Heard on High”:

awhhoh2small.jpg

Remember what I said about being lazy? Well, apparently I didn’t learn my lesson. This chart included a ridiculously ugly angel at the top — which you’ll see I included. Why? Because I was too lazy to think to not follow the chart step-by-step. Why don’t I just rip it out? Because I’m lazy! We’ve been over this! Fortunately, the rest of the design is so darling I can easily overlook the ugly-assed angel.

awhhohdetail3small.jpg

I keep hoping they’ll do another, preferably for “Hark the Herald”, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” or “I Saw Three Ships” (my favorite carols). I also think, every year, that I’d like to design my own piece that would be all the verses of “I Heard the Bells” done in some simple, Quakery alphabet, but then I realize that… I’m lazy! And as long as there are Prairie Schooler Christmas designs, I’ll be pretty much set.

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