Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Snowy End-of-Year Tramp

How was your Christmas? Ours was white, with plenty of snow on the ground, and another inch or two falling Friday for good measure. Today was sunny and crisp - about 20º when I left the house - perfect weather for a tramp along the snowmobile trails.

I thought the snowmobilers would be out in force, but I saw only a few. (The rest were probably indoors, worshipping at the green-and-gold altar - which is code for watching the Packers game. I'll take fresh air over football any time.)

The marshy lake-around-the-corner is snow-covered and serene, though I see an intrepid snowmobiler has crossed it recently. (Why intrepid? Not all the lakes are solidly frozen yet.)

Another view of the lake. I like the sweep of snowmobile track, and the wintry tree on the right:

A nimbus of cloud and the westering sun make a dramatic backdrop for the deserted outbuilding at the start of the trail:

Looking east:

(Someone has been throwing snowballs at the sky, and they've stuck.)

The snow is nearly up to my knees, powdery and dry on top, but stickier below. Here and there tiny grass heads stick up, braving the winter air:

A favourite tree seems to point to the left.

At the Favourite Tree my path joins that of the snowmobiles, and walking gets easier for a bit as the Arctic cats have kindly packed down the snow.

More delicate grassy seeds:

Of course I have to snap goldenrod when I see it. Look at the dried perfection of these myriad tiny blooms...

...each of them less than 1/4" across.

More goldenrod, with the sinking sun behind them:

I've left the snowmobile trail behind, and am working my way around the prairie restoration project. Floundering through deep snow, I realise that holiday-induced lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and the cold Mr. M gave me (dear man, how I love him!) have all combined to deplete my aerobic capacity. I'm getting a very good workout now.

Above me the sky is streaked and dappled and altogether lovely with cloud:

In a landscape of white and brown, a few tiny asparagus seeds still glow red:

My circuit of the field complete, it's time to turn for home. Slogging through a foot or more of snow is beginning to lose its charm.

The pond behind the high school looks romantic as always under the setting sun:

One last shot of a pine cone in the snow, like a chocolate-coloured rose among caramel thorns...

...then home to warmth and a cup of tea. My boots are full of snow, but thanks to my Christmas merino wool socks, my feet are still warm and toasty. (Thanks for the socks, B!)

The last Sunday walk of 2012, and a very good one too. How will you be spending the end of the year?

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Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas, Mrs. Vankowski

If someone mentions "Christmas carols", what comes to mind? Some would think of Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Baby, or any one of the hundreds of songs being played on radio stations everywhere right now. Others might think of more traditional, church-y tunes such as Silent Night, or O Come All Ye Faithful. (Guess which camp Mrs. M is in?) :)

When I was a little girl, Christmas was still called "Christmas"* in the public school system, and Christmas carols  - true Christmas carols, concerning the birth of Christ - were still freely sung. My 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Vankowski, decided that we, her students, ought to have a good working knowledge of Christmas carols, so she set out to teach them to us. Several times a week, during the run-up to Christmas, we would gather around the classroom piano, where she would accompany us as we sang our way through a quite extensive list of songs.

Mrs. V, bless her heart, was not of the wishy-washy sing-the-first-verse-only school. With what I can only admire as a proper respect for the text, she took us through all the verses of every song, over and over, until we could sing them without hesitation and with much joy. ("Remember, it's 'light and life', NOT 'life and light'", I can hear her saying.) And in the process, at least one of her students learned every verse of every one of those carols by heart, and remembers them still.

It's Christmas Eve today. As is our yearly custom, we've just listened to the live broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College, Cambridge. The dear, familiar scriptures have been read; the carols - some old, some new - have been sung. The congregation has risen, the collect has been said; now for the final, jubilant rendering of "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing". The glorious organ peals out, and a thousand-plus voices soar up through the splendid roof of the Chapel, singing as one to the glory of God.

Far across the Atlantic ocean, in a small Wisconsin village, a blogger sets down her knitting and sings along. Verse for verse, word for word; no booklet or hymnal is needed. This lovely lyric, and many others like it, are part of her oldest memories, and will remain with her when other memories have vanished. They were given to her as a child, and she counts them among her most precious possessions.

Thank you, Mrs. Vankowski. Merry Christmas to you, wherever you are.

And a very merry Christmas to all of you, my dear bloggy friends and readers.

What is your favourite Christmas carol? (Or holiday song?)


P.S. If you would like to listen to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, check your local public radio station. Though the 2012 live broadcast is over, many stations replay the service at some point during the day. You can also hear this year's service at any time during the next 7 days on the BBC World Service - click here for the link.

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*As opposed to "the winter holiday"

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Snowy Night

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Stars, not content
with lighting the sky,
have fallen to earth in glittering heaps
that sparkle in the
still cold air

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Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Blizzard and Truffles

Have you ever noticed that double consonants - as it might be "zz" or "ff" - make words look so much more interesting? Blizard and trufles don't have nearly the same oomph as their twin-consonanted counterparts.

Today we have snow both inside...

...and out.

A blizzard is sweeping across the Midwest, making it a very good day to stay home and crochet (with plenty of tea-and-truffle breaks).

Truffles have got to be one of the simplest (and best) candies ever. Just chocolate and cream, with optional flavourings of your choice, are all the ingredients you need to make these nuggets of heavenly richness and delight.

To make your own truffles, start with a 1:2 ratio of cream to chocolate. (Heavy cream and dark chocolate work best.) By 1:2 ratio, I mean 1 fluid ounce of cream for every 2 ounces by weight of chocolate. I used a half-pint (8 fluid ounces) of cream to a pound (16 ounces) of chocolate for each of my batches. You can of course use metric measurements if you like - just preserve the ratio.

A pound of chocolate, with a half-pint of cream, will yield about 35-40 1" truffles.

Note: Do NOT use "chocolate candy coating" to make truffles - it won't work. :)

Quickest Truffles:

First weigh your chocolate - break it up if necessary. I like to use good quality semi-sweet chocolate chips, with a 3.5-oz. Lindt 70% bar thrown in - this gives a dark, edgy truffle with very little sweetness. (Using all semi-sweet chocolate chips works too and gives a slightly sweeter truffle.)

Tip for breaking up a chocolate bar: Leave it in the wrapper. Place on a folded towel, and thwack it with a rolling pin. Go up and down, from end to end, in both directions. Flip it over and thwack some more.

Peel it open, and there you are:

Some recipes tell you to chop the chocolate, but I find this tedious and unnecessary. :)

Now heat your cream to boiling (in a roomy pot), then remove from heat and dump the chocolate in:

Start stirring....

It will look like gloppy chocolate milk at first, but don't give up. After a minute or two, a magical transformation begins:

Keep stirring, and soon you'll have a glossy, silky, utterly tempting pan of chocolatey goodness just begging to be tasted.

Now's the time to add any flavouring. Liqueurs and liquid extracts, such as lemon, orange, or mint, work very well. You could also use a very strong espresso, or coffee essence if you have it. Start with a little (perhaps 1/2 teaspoonful), adding more if necessary. As a conscientious cook, you'll want to taste the mixture repeatedly while stirring in the flavourings.

You can also divide your plain truffle mixture into more than one bowl, and flavour each one separately.

For this batch, I'm using peanut butter (several tablespoonsful):

That's it for the first step. Set the bowl in a cool place (a freezing porch works really well for us) and let the mixture firm up.

Slightly Fussier Method, with Infused Cream:

After weighing chocolate, place it in a heat-proof bowl and set aside. (You can if you like put the bowl in a 250º oven while the cream is heating - this will give you a head start on melting the chocolate.)

To infuse the cream, first choose your flavours. I used the zest of one orange; you could also use fresh mint leaves, whole or ground spices, or anything that takes your fancy. Place the flavouring in a pan, and pour the cream over.

Heat the cream to boiling, then pour it into your bowl of chocolate. For smooth truffles, strain out any flavouring bits.

Stir until smooth and glossy, and check flavour. (My mixture wasn't nearly orangey enough, so I added some orange extract.) When mixture is to your taste, set aside to cool.

Here are my two truffle mixtures cooling:

The peanut-butter batch is slightly gritty-looking, and the fussy orange-infused batch is satiny-smooth.  (Both taste wonderful.)

When the mixture is cool but not hard, scoop it into little lumps on a baking sheet lined with parchment, waxed paper, or silicone mat. The lumps need not be smooth - you will take care of that later.

Pop the baking sheet into the freezer for 5-10 minutes to firm up the chocolate. While the lumps are firming up, get your coating ready in a small bowl.

Suggested coatings: Cocoa powder, finely grated coconut, chopped toasted nuts. (You can use sugar, but it will soak up moisture from the truffles and become sticky. Confectioner's sugar, on the other hand, will dry out and become slightly crunchy. Go figure.)

Take the baking sheet out of the freezer, and one by one, roll the truffles quickly in your hands to smooth the surface. Then drop them in the bowl of coating. You can roll the truffles in the coating, or use a small dish with a lid and shake them. Whether rolling or shaking, do 3 or 4 at a time.

My orange-infused truffles were rolled in either finely ground, unsweetened coconut, or plain cocoa powder. The peanut butter truffles were rolled in chopped toasted peanuts, and sprinkled with a tiny bit of coarse salt.

As you coat the truffles, put them right back on the baking sheet. When all are coated, chill once more until firm. Try not to sample too many. You want to share these with loved ones, right?

Store finished truffles in the refrigerator, in a sealed container. When you hear them calling your name (and they will call your name), pull out a truffle or two. Let them come up to room temperature while you make a cup of tea or coffee, then enjoy!

I will leave you with a few more snow pictures, taken this morning when the storm was still young:

Heavy-laden pine

Squirrel's eye view from the garage door -
already a good 6" deep,

and hours of snow yet to come.

Happy winter!

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Beading for Christmas

I don't know about you, but every year at about this time I go into a sort of crafting trance. (Perhaps crochet trance would be more accurate.) I fall asleep visualising stitch patterns; I wake up thinking about what project needs to be finished next. Cooking seems to go out the window (though as we haven't starved yet I must be cooking without realising it).

Last week I took a breather from crochet, and worked instead on my friend Judy's Christmas beading commissions. It's been a rough year for Judy, who underwent an unexpected hip replacement in the spring, and spent 3 months in hospital due to post-surgery complications. She finally got home in August, and in late October we met for our traditional pre-Christmas crawl through her stash of beads. Together we settled on tentative stone combinations and necklace lengths, and the rest was up to me.

Judy requested three sets for Christmas giving. First up, a necklace and earrings for one of her sisters:

Amber and goldstone, with abalone and some silver accent beads, make a rich, almost barbaric combination.  The finished necklace has a bit of 20s vibe, I think.

The goldstone and amber are incredibly warm and glowing together. Judy loves this necklace, and I hope her sister will too.

For Judy's other sister, a necklace and earrings in delicate rose quartz:

Simple and elegant were the watchwords here, but I let myself go a bit over the earrings:

(I love putting dangly bits on earrings. Especially earrings for other people.)

Our third project involved a certain string of pearls which had become our beading bête noire - or perhaps bête pêche would be more appropriate:

Judy bought these pearls years ago, and we've never been able to work them into a project (until now). They're very lovely, all orangey-peachy and iridescent, but somehow they clashed, either colour-wise or shape-wise, with everything we put next to them.

However, these silver beads - a recent addition to Judy's stash - seem to work out just right:

The earrings include a bit of moonstone, which picks up the warm tint of the pearls:

This set is destined for Judy's cardiologist - the third or fourth set I've made for her, I think. Only an inveterate and incredibly generous jewelry-lover like Judy would repeatedly give necklaces to a doctor she sees once a year. I hope this one will be to Dr. M's taste.

The jewelry respite is over, and the beaded gifts are on their way to the lucky recipients.

Anybody seen my crochet hook? :)

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What gifts are you making this year? (I promise I won't tell anyone.)

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Monday, December 17, 2012

Hunting for a Christmas Tree

Time once again for the annual tramp through the woods in search of a Christmas tree. This year Mr. M decided to come along (hooray!). We've been visiting the same tree farm for years now - it's only a mile outside of town and the price is just right. ($15 per tree, any size - and I do mean any size.)

I was hoping for snow on the ground today - it seems so much more Christmassy - but yesterday's rain has washed it all away. Instead of crisp and white and invigorating, we have damp and brown and raw. Luckily I love the woods in any weather. :)

After picking up a saw at the owner's farmhouse, we drive down the road a mile or so, then turn onto a path that winds through trees and scrub. We park in a likely spot, and the search begins.

Mr. M heads off to look at the Christmas trees, while I am distracted by dried flowers...

...and the ghostly grey line of brush that fronts the woods. The brush is thicker and greyer than ever this year:

This is a very casual tree farm - the trees are scattered haphazardly over several acres, with plenty of room in between for grass. More dried flowers catch my eye...

...while Mr. M is sticking to the task at hand.

While he searches this section, I head over to the next field to see what's available. One little tree there is covered with beautiful baby cones, all rosy in the damp:

I am strongly tempted to choose this tree for the sake of the free decorations, but it has suffered badly from the drought and the lower branches have lost all their needles. The search must continue.

Detail of pine bark (looking just like swirls of chocolate frosting, I think):

Here and there branches are spangled with drops of water...

...each one reflecting the world in miniature.

I find two likely trees, and fetch Mr. M to take a look. After much agonising on my part (and much patience on Mr. M's part) we finally settle on one. (Do you have trouble choosing a tree?)

While I'm messing about taking photos of what look like dried thistles...

...Mr. M is doing the manly thing. He has cut down the tree, hoisted it to his shoulder, and is heading back to the car before I realise it.

Hey, wait for me!

We return the saw, pay for the tree, and head home to warmth.

Now the tree is up, the lights are strung, and boxes of decorations are standing by. It's a nice little tree, despite the slight wave to the trunk and the bit of a gap near the top. Not perfect, but I rather like it that way.

(And it makes lovely shadows on the wall.)


What kind of Christmas tree do you like? Tall or short? Natural or artificial? As perfect as can be, or one with a few quirks? Do tell.

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