Jelly from the Backyard

Several years ago, Phil and I would get the lawn treated. Not sure why, but it seemed like the thing to do. At some point, with two little kids running around out there, I got less comfortable with a company that used to have “Chem” in their name spraying our lawn, and we quit. Our yard is also too shady or too sunny in a lot of spots, infested by moles, and frankly, not a high priority, so with the burst of summer-like weather this spring, it looked like this:

Last year I made some violet syrup from the violets. Tommy loves it on ice cream (the light-purple syrup is gorgeous on vanilla). Never having met a malapropism he didn’t embrace, for months he called it “violent syrup.” I was sorry when he learned its proper name.

Anyhoo, I’d also tried a violet jam from a blogger I adore, and it was nasty. I’m sure the problem was me, but mine looked nothing like her bucolic photo, and the texture, with little bits of violet, was horrible. I eventually threw it away. So this year, I thought I’d try violet jelly. Not wanting the prolific dandelions left out, I also made dandelion jelly.

“Don’t mow the lawn until I can harvest the weeds!” I yelled at Phil on my way to work last Friday morning. He’s getting used to these strange, barked commands.

The recipe for this kind of jelly is very simple. First, you pick a bunch of weeds. In the case of the violets, I picked the flower heads. With the dandelions, I picked the flower heads and then trimmed the bottom of the head so I mostly had the yellow seed part, with some green that surrounded the yellow head mixed in. (Long way to say, Stay away from the milky part, which is bitter and nasty.)

Put two cups of these prepared flower heads in a jar, cover it with two cups of boiling water, and let it steep about 24 hours. I picked more like four cups of each due to the bounty of my lawn and having invited a good friend over for this backwoods jelly making. Just use the same amount of boiling water as flowers. After about 24 hours, strain this through a cheesecloth or paper towel so you just have the infused water left.

Dandelion or Violet Jelly

2 cups infused water
4 cups sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 package (3 oz.) liquid pectin, like Cert-o

Combine the water, sugar, and lemon juice. Bring to a full rolling boil. Add the pectin and keep stirring, boiling, for two minutes. Seal this in canning jars; this recipe makes between five and six 8-ounce jars.

The violet jelly is a lovely purple color, but the dandelion, on its own, is more brownish, so we cheated and added a bit of food color (maybe 15 drops) to make the color prettier. We added this before the pectin.

If you want to make Violent Syrup, just bring the infused water, sugar, and 2 tablespoons lemon juice (rather than 1/4 cup) to a boil. Then lower the heat and let the syrup simmer for about 10 minutes. Put it in a pretty, pourable bottle; we used old single-serving wine bottles (you know, the kind that comes in a four-pack). I don’t seal the violet syrup, although I could. Instead, I keep it Tommy-ready in the fridge.

Happy weeding!

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Something from Nothing: Super-Quick T-Shirt Shrug

Recently a co-worker pinned this cool and super-quick t-shirt reconstruction project on Pinterest, and I noted it. A few days later I passed her in the hall wearing one, and it was so cute I nearly tackled her to find out exactly how she did it.

Last night I started doing our taxes, a task I loathe. Loathe. And while the ancient computer I’ve always done the taxes on was grinding through downloading TurboTax, I went through the pile of yet-to-be-transformed t-shirts from Sylvie’s and my t-shirt reconstruction day. I didn’t find an appropriate plain t-shirt, so I tried this on an old work t-shirt advertising a book on knits inspired by roller derby. (I kid you not.) Fifteen minutes later, I had this one-of-a-kind shirt. Initially I had a little wilder ribbon on it, but Phil looked, well, bemused, so I replaced it with some of the t-shirt yarn I’d made earlier and roused Phil from his book at 11:00 p.m.: “Take a picture of my shirt!”

I love it.

The Party House and Changing Dreams

Anyone who’s talked to me about houses for more than 90 seconds knows about my odd obsession with the Party House. This house, tucked away in a little Indianapolis neighborhood of ranch houses and yard gnomes, stands out like a mafioso’s sore thumb. I’ve loved it for years. The house has a strange history: Its late owner bought up several lots (no doubt from neighbors wanting to get the heck out of there) and built a weird compound, with the 7,000-plus square foot Party House facing the main road. When the original owner lived there, the whole house was decked out in Christmas decorations year round, and I’ve heard tell that there were wild, and I mean WILD, parties back in the day.

I often would change my route so that I could drive by the Party House, it fascinated me so. And when the house eventually was foreclosed and the original owner (nay, Creator) died several years ago, I got my realtor to take me through. Because this was such an Indianapolis curiosity, the listing company only wanted serious buyers. (“We’re not serious buyers!” Phil kept telling me.) I had to both get pre-approved for a loan and sign a waiver saying it was my own fault should I hurt myself while in the house, which was not nearly up to code. Open spiral staircases with no rails fell a story onto hard Italianate tile, for example. The foreclosure company was at a loss on how to price the house, and eventually settled around $550 thousand. The house eventually sold for $267 thousand. After it sold, I often would see trucks of lumber and workmen at the house; the outside color was changed from bright blue to a more understated taupe. I was happy someone was finally giving the house some love.

Turns out, they were looking to flip the place. In this economy. In Indianapolis. A neighbor just sent me the listing, and the fully re-pimped house is now being listed for $2.2 million. I was in love with the kooky house, whose eclectic decor was split between a few different styles. The only furniture in the house during my walk-through was a broken tiled end table with three (instead of four) elaborately scrolled metal legs. It could go so many ways, I’d thought. Now it’s been fully staged and committed to one style, reminding me of a lot of the houses (like Whitney and Bobby’s empty house) shown on my friend Julia’s blog, Hooked on Houses.

So, here is my beloved Party House, now fully immersed in new-money, Hollywood style, in a neighborhood otherwise consisting of mid-century ranch houses.

This seems a world away from what Max and I did on Sunday: Starting seeds for the summer using the soil block maker I got for Christmas.

I really (and I mean REALLY) wanted to buy the Party House back when my realtor showed it to me. I kept thinking of the fun (yet dangerous, with those open staircases) parties we could have, and what an experience it would be for kids to grow up in this crazy place. I look at it now and wonder whether its elaborate kitchen with the flat-screen TV would be good for making cold-process soap or sourdough bread. And whether the play-pit couches would be comfortable for knitting Scraps of Beauty throws. And if I’d have to bust up the life-sized dolphin fountain to plant a decent garden.

It’s probably best I don’t have $2.2 million to spare.

Pizza Dough Friday

I hadn’t planned to post today, but as I was mixing dinner, decided to share.

Most Fridays now are homemade pizza night.I mix the dough in the morning and leave it in a bowl covered in a wet towel, around noon Phil puts the bowl in the fridge, and when I come home I pour a glass of wine and make us some pizza. Super-easy end to the week.

I’d been using the pizza dough recipe in The Pioneer Woman Cooks (love this book!), which is also online here. But recently I started using a great recipe from the new book Artisan Pizza and Flatbread in Five Minutes a Day. The recipe, printed in Mother Earth News, makes enough for six to eight pizzas, the idea being that you make a big batch, keep it in the fridge, and cut off chunks as you need them over a two-week period. That works great for people who don’t have jars of condiments falling out of the fridge like we do. Consequently, until the fridge is under control, I halve the recipe and make three pizzas when I get home.

Here’s the super-easy recipe, halved from Mother Earth News. If you’ve got more fridge space than me, you can double it:

1-3/4 cups warm (100 degrees) water
1/2 Tbsp. yeast
1/2 Tbsp. kosher salt
3-3/4 cups flour

Pour the water in a bowl. Sprinkle on the yeast and salt. Stir around a bit — they don’t have to be completely dissolved. Pour in the flour, stir until it all comes together; don’t knead, just get a sticky dough that resembles muffin batter. Let it rise for a few hours — until doubled in size — then put in the fridge.

After you roll and top, bake the pizzas at 500 degrees for about 10 minutes. Done and done. (My favorite is the pizza dough slathered with pesto and topped with leftover cooked chicken and parmesan.)

Tackling the Home Haircut

We have a longstanding haircut routine: Phil and I meet after my work and all three kids get a cut (cut + tip = about $20 X 3), then we have the mandatory dinner out at a “family-friendly” place the kids approve of and we despise. So it ends up being around a $100 night that soaks up the whole evening. Back in high school my mom trusted me to cut, color, and perm (remember those?) her hair, and she was never publicly ostracized, so I felt like maybe I could tackle at least the boys’ haircuts, and we could spend less time and money each month on this routine that always ends up being unpleasant. After I snagged a copy of Haircutting for Dummies on the Free Books table at work, I felt armed and ready to tackle home haircuts. But getting the kids to give up Haircut Nights balloons! Dum-Dums! an indoor slide!) was going to be a tough sell. So I hit them where it mattered: Cash.

I made a deal with the boys that since the haircut out, base price, was $14, I’d pay them $7 to do the haircut at home. Money talked, and they agreed. Then I got cold feet. My dad once — only once — gave my brother a haircut in an effort to save money. I remember my poor brother emerging from the bathroom where he’d been shorn, sporting Frankenstein-like bangs that climbed nearly to his hairline. My mom just leaned over and put her head straight down on the dining room table so she wouldn’t laugh out loud, but I could see her shoulders shaking until she could get herself together. The world is cruel. I didn’t want the same fate for my boys, so last month we still did the traditional Haircut Night.

This weekend, though, I bought a pair of professional scissors, and, because Tom was getting closer to saving enough for a Lego set he wants, he asked several times if I could cut his hair. Max decided he was going to grow his hair a bit more; I think he wanted to evaluate Tom’s haircut before he let me loose with a pair of scissors.

Tommy has thick hair, and I always say that when he’s ready for a haircut he looks like a middle-aged lady sporting a sparkly holiday sweater, shopping at a discount department store. His hair gets that kind of boufy look. It sneaks up on you, and suddenly he looks like he’s bargain-hunting for a pair of Sansabelts, which is how he was looking this week. So it was time.

Sylvie wanted to be part of the action, but she has curly hair like me, which is more difficult to cut. I know I’ve come home many a time over the years with either over-curled and styled cuts (“I look like Jermaine Jackson!”) or straightened hair  (“I look like Linda Tripp!”) from hairdressers who didn’t know how to deal with my hair. So for her, I just pretended I was cutting the back, and merely gave her bangs a little trim.

Following Tommy’s haircut, he emerged the handsome boy we know, $7 closer to a General Grievous Lego set.

Sylvia’s Birthday Treasure Hunt

Sylvia turned four last week and got to have her first friends birthday party. For the first activity I pulled out an old but favorite party trick from the book Your Three-Year-Old: The Treasure Hunt. We’ve done this for years, and it’s really fun for kids. Max was a little sorry that the boys at his party just got goodie bags and didn’t have an actual Treasure Hunt for his tenth birthday this year, so you know they’re fun if a pre-adolescent is still into them.

I’m also trying really hard to give kids goodie bags with things that won’t immediately end up in a landfill when their heads are turned. So for Sylvie’s birthday I tried to avoid the party aisle and instead tried to include some more useable treasures.

The hunt itself is simple. Each kid gets a container: We used plastic buckets with attached shovels. I was on the fence about these, being plastic and all, but I thought the kids could actually use them all spring and summer, and if they break, they could be recycled. Inside the bucket is a colored piece of paper; each kid gets a different color. Hidden around the house are treasures with the same color paper attached. When they find one, it goes in their bucket. There were four treasures for each party girl.

Here’s what we included.

I made each of the girls an apron using a simple and free pattern I love from Sew Liberated. This is one of my favorite kid presents for two- to five-year-olds because it’s designed so kids can put it on themselves. It’s also really easy and fast to make.

Sylvia saw the aprons in progress and declared that she didn’t want something so girly, so she got to choose her fabric from my stash. She designed an apron that was kind of a home-sewn version of a mullet. Denyse Schmidt business in the front:

Anna Maria Horner party in the back:

We also included glitter playdough using this recipe:

Sylvia broke out her playdough after the party and we played for a while. Shiny things are fun, even for a girl who despises princesses or girly aprons.

The only things she requested for her treasure hunt were pencils and candy, so we included a couple Easter pencils and this candy bag:

It was actually supposed to look like a pot of gold under a rainbow of Rainbow Twizzlers, like here, but after going to three stores not finding Rainbow Twizzlers, I settled for just colorful Twizzlers. Next time.

The party girl had a great time on her treasure hunt, with her cupcakes in the shape of a lightsaber (the idea came from here), some simple crafts, and weather that allowed the girls to play outside for a while.

Here’s to being four, Birthday Girl!

When Life Hands You Lemons

Yesterday morning I discovered the bread dough I’d left rising 24 hours before. It’s been a busy few days. See, normally, you mix the bread dough (this sourdough) in the morning and bake it at night, or in the night and bake it in the morning. Mixing it one morning and baking it the next morning… not recommended. The dough had done what I’ve learned dough does: risen like it should and then, unattended, fell. But I pressed on. The dough was extra sticky and didn’t feel right, but still, I baked it yesterday morning, thinking maybe it would right itself.

It didn’t. What came out of the oven was flat like unleavened communion bread. Very sad. That night, when I got home from work, I contemplated throwing it away, but instead made my sad bread into croutons. Croutons are simple. You just cut the bread into crouton-sized pieces, drizzle them with a bit of olive oil so that they’re touched with olive oil but not sodden, add some dried herbs (I used powdered garlic and parsley), stir it around so they’re coated, then bake on a baking sheet at 250 degrees until they’re dried (about 30 minutes, stirring a couple times). And now the inedible and laughable bread becomes something useful on salads and soups — something that didn’t end in the trash. (I ate a bunch right off the cookie sheet. –Ed.)

The croutons became, yesterday, a ridiculous metaphor for the proverbial making lemons into lemonade. The week before, the president of the division of the company I work for had called a global meeting for yesterday morning (the same morning I discovered my too-long-risen dough), and there were many hallway conversations and much speculation about what this meeting would entail. Up to this point I’ve been through five company sales, the last in 2001, so I had my own theory that I largely kept to myself.

My theory turned out to be right: Several pieces of my company, including my piece, are being put up for sale. In a quickly changing publishing market, any instability isn’t welcome news, even if it wasn’t unexpected. And as the sole breadwinner — a breadwinner who was having trouble making bread — for a family of five, I had my own immediate negative reaction. But I could see the looks on the faces of colleagues who hadn’t been through a sale and didn’t think selling businesses was even possible: they were gobsmacked. I was sad.

After the short meeting, my team gathered, and I explained that this wasn’t the worst news we could have received. Our piece of the business was still viable; the five or six (truthfully, I’ve lost count) sales I’ve been through in the past had all turned out just fine and put me in a better position than I was pre-sale; it wasn’t as if we’d gotten news that our part of the business was shuttering and we were instantly without jobs. Having seen how various companies have handled or mishandled sales in the past, I know how forthright, transparent, and compassionate my current company was in communicating this difficult news.

So of all the possible reactions, in my professional life I’m going to make croutons from what on the surface appears to be inedible bread. As I told my team, the best way to find a good outcome is to brush ourselves off after what was obviously going to be a less-than-productive day, and make our piece a valuable and sellable product by doing what we do well. And when I come home from work tonight, I know there’ll be homemade croutons to sprinkle on my salad and a husband who is just finishing some garden tasks and kids who are bustling with news of their days and backyard ducks being delivered in one short month. And regardless of the outcome of this immediate situation and the twists and turns it might take in the short term, everything will turn out just fine.