Handmade Christmas Gifts 2016

I ended up making way more gifts this year than I have in a long time. It’s not because I have any desire to foist handmade stuff on everyone on my list or that I think a handmade gift is the best kind of gift. It’s really more that I hate Christmas shopping and I’m not particularly good at gift giving. Frankly, making gifts is kind of nice way to give someone something kind of generic like a hat or a scarf but in a way that feels highly personal. Yes, it’s just a hat, but it’s a hat I knit in my pajamas while I rewatched Battlestar Galactica and drank a beer. Also, that mark right there might be melted chocolate from the fistful of Reese’s Cups I was eating at the same time. How much more personal can we get? Anyway, here’s this year’s gift roundup:

Star Bellied Wallabies

Wonderful Wallaby with star pocket

Pattern: Wonderful Wallaby

Yarn: Plymouth Encore Worsted in Light Gray, Neon Orange, and Neon Blue

Recipients: Our twin toddler nephews

Notes: This is one of my favorite patterns–so cute and wearable. I made the size 2 but added an inch to the length of the body, sleeves, and hood. I also charted out a star to add to the kangaroo pouches, which I knit using intarsia. I love how they turned out!

Modern Classics Christmas Stockings #8 and #9

Modern Classics Stockings

Pattern: Modern Classics Christmas Stockings

Yarn: Knit Picks Wool of the Andes in Cloud and Aurora Heather

Recipients: My in-laws

Notes: This is now the eighth and ninth time I’ve knit up this pattern. I mixed the charts from the “Modern” and “Classic” stockings like I’ve done every other time. This is, frankly, not one of my favorite patterns to make but they are at least quick to make. And that’s good, because I’m more or less locked into making these for all future family members on my husband’s side.

Ballydesmond Mitts

Ballydesmond Mitts

Pattern: Ballydesmond

Yarn: Cascade 220 Superwash Sport in Summer Sky Heather (for the blue pair) and Malabrigo Rios in Sandbank for the brown pair

Recipients: The blue pair went to one of Aidan’s co-workers and the Malabrigo mitts were for my sister, Kayla

Notes: This is a great pattern. It comes with instructions for making these in either a sport or a worsted weight yarn. I kind of prefer the way the sport version looks, but the worsted version knits up super fast. Either way–they’re easy and they look great.

Honey Cowl

Honey Cowl

Pattern: Honey Cowl

Yarn: Malabrigo Rios in Aguas

Recipient: My sister, Jenna

Notes: I’ve made this pattern once before for myself, and it’s a very soothing and meditative knit. Sadly, I got about 60% through the cowl before realizing that my skeins were noticeably different from one another so I ended up ripping back and alternating skeins. The final product is definitely worth the extra work, but it put me under a bit more time pressure than I would have liked.

Petal Pouches

petal-pouches

Pattern: Petal Pouch Pattern from Noodlehead

Fabric: various quilting cottons

Recipients: Three of my sisters–Sarah, Grace, and Kayla–and my dad’s girlfriend, Jess

Notes: I was inspired to make these after my youngest sisters visited us this summer. They are both big into sketching and drawing and carried all of their art supplies around in ziploc bags. Maybe that’s just their preference, but I thought these pouches were cute and practical. There are a thousand free zippered pouch patterns available online, but I’m glad I went ahead and bought this one. It’s not just the unique shape that makes it worth the purchase–as a novice bag maker, I feel like I learned some really useful techniques that will make any future pouch-making much easier and give me a nicer result. I really love how these pouches turned out. I even used some of the leftover skull print to make a small version of the pouch for myself.

So that’s Christmas 2016 wrapped and gifted. Now back to making things for me.

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Handmade Christmas Gifts, Part II

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I prefer to make just a handful of gifts each year so that I focus my energy on the projects that inspire me, so that I can finish my gift-making with plenty of time to spare, and so that I can avoid adding to the list of inevitable end-of-year stresses. This year I made the superhero capes that I blogged about earlier in the week, as well as two other gifts, one for Aidan’s mom and one for my brother’s girlfriend.

The gift I made for my brother’s girlfriend was an attempt to give a bit of a personal touch to an otherwise generic gift. Since we live pretty far from our family, this year was the first chance that I’d had to actually meet my brother’s girlfriend. My dad’s gift suggestion was that she would appreciate any kind of “girl stuff” like candles or lotions or the like. As it turns out, there is no shortage of generic “girl” gifts to be given, but that doesn’t mean the options are inspiring. I’m no Leslie Knope when it comes to gift-giving, but I still hate giving a gift that says, “I did the least I could possibly do to give you something.” So I compromised and paired some generic gift items—a scented candle and a tea/mug gift set—with an easy pair of knitted hand warmers.

Handwarmers via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

I made these using the Women’s Wrist Warmer pattern from Last Minute Knitted Gifts. I adjusted the pattern numbers slightly to account for using a lighter yarn and smaller needles than called for in the pattern—you can get all the specific knitting details here on Ravelry. I made these using yarn leftover from a previous project and was able to complete them in a single evening, so making this gift wasn’t a major investment of time or materials. Even if she doesn’t end up wearing them, I like to think that taking a bit of time to make something for her says, “I’m really glad to finally meet you. Thanks for treating my brother well.”

Handwarmer Gift via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

When it comes to making handmade gifts, I think that careful finishing can be the difference between a gift a person wants to receive and a gift they give some major side-eye. When these hand-warmers came off the needles, they looked like little mussed tubes of nothing. When I blocked these, I made sure to let them soak for a good long time to really relax the stitch pattern and then stretched them over some cardboard templates that I cut out myself. (Saying I made a template is a fancy way of saying that I cut a 3” rectangle out of some cardboard to stretch the handwarmers to 6” circumference.) Careful blocking doesn’t change the fact that these are essentially simple knitted tubes with a thumb-hole, but it at least helps them look a little more impressive laying flat.

Tuscan Greeting via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

The gift I made for Aidan’s mom definitely took more than an evening to complete, although I finished it much earlier in the year. I thought of Aidan’s mom as soon as I saw this Tuscan Greetings Dimensions kit—not only because it matches the decor of her kitchen and living area, but also because Aidan’s parents celebrated their 30th anniversary this year. This is the third Dimensions kit I’ve made in the last couple of years. Like a lot of mainstream designs, they don’t really match up with my personal aesthetic, but they’ve worked well as gifts that I’ve given people, and I honestly think that they are some of the best kits I’ve used. Their charts are easy to read, the instructions contain good explanations of the different stitches used, they separate out and label the different thread colors, and they rarely make use of 1/4 or 3/4 stitches that can be fiddly or difficult for beginners.

Thus ends my recap of handmade Christmas gifts for 2013. All in all, it was a very low-stress year of gift-making. The worst part was when we shipped our presents and had to sit for a week in a cold sweat hoping they would actually make it to Wisconsin. We ended up getting to Wisconsin before our presents, but they arrived just in the nick of time. Here’s to a new year of making!

Handmade Christmas Gifts, Part I: Superhero Capes

Aidan and I have a nephew and godson who were born just a few days apart from one another and are now just a few weeks away from their third birthdays. We’ve always had fun coming up with gift ideas for both boys and, I think, have done our fair share of spoiling. On the one hand, it’s really easy to come up with gift ideas for really young kids because everything is new to them and because they tend to like just about anything. On the other hand, it’s hard because a lot of kids have no shortage of toys, and because so many toys (and clothes and baby care items and just about anything that you could purchase for a kid) are aggressively gendered and branded in a way that kind of squicks me out. One of the reasons that I like handmade gifts for kids is because it gives you the chance to subvert some of that gendering and branding business. Plus, I figure I should take advantage of the opportunity to make these little guys gifts because it won’t be too long before they are too cool for my crafty shenanigans.

Superhero Cape via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

I came up with the idea for superhero capes while I was searching for ideas for what became the Monster Love baby gift. Amidst all the free tutorials for things like bibs and baby hats and whatnot, I came across this free tutorial for superhero capes from Thread Riding Hood. I thought about making superhero masks to match the capes, but eventually thought better of it. I figure that little kids have enough of a time staying upright and avoiding scrapes and bruises that they don’t need to deal with the added complication of potentially obscured vision.

The tutorial has a pattern for two different sized capes—one size for 18m-3T and one for 4T and up. While my nephew and godson are basically the same age, they’ve occupied opposite ends of the growth chart since they were born. So I used the smaller size for my nephew, who is more slight, and the larger size my godson, who is both tall and broad. The difference in sizes is a matter of about 2” of length and a bit of additional width with the larger size.

Superhero Cape via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

All the fabric I used was quilting cotton from Jo-Ann Fabrics. The comic book words novelty print I used to line the back of the capes (which is the same print I used for the coffee cup sleeve I showed in an earlier post) looks like it’s still available on Jo-Ann’s website. I got a yard each of the red and purple and 2 yds of the comic book print and had plenty of fabric left over (all of the fabrics were ~44” wide). I was able to cut the blue backing for the logo out of 1/4 of a yard of fabric.

Superhero Capes via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

While I’m sure the wildly independent toddlers that received these capes would object to the comparison, these capes are not much different than the monster baby bibs I made awhile ago—the capes are larger, but the process of making them is essentially the same. Following the advice in the tutorial, I searched for something like “superman alphabet” and used one of the fonts that came up to trace the letters that I appliqued to the back of the capes. It wasn’t a terribly scientific process—I basically zoomed in on the letter I wanted until it was about 5” tall and then traced it by holding a piece of paper up to my computer screen. When you trace the logo design onto the fusible web, you just have to remember to trace the design backwards so that it will be right-side up on your fabric. I just traced the right side of the logo with a black Sharpie and it bled through the paper enough that I was able to flip the paper over, lay a piece of fusible web over the top, and trace the design backward without any struggle.

Superhero Logo via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

My crowning achievement with these capes is that, unlike the monster bibs, I managed to not totally muck up the edge stitching around the applique. In fact, I think I did a pretty bang-up job managing all the angles and curves and shape changes of the logo. There was that thing where I accidentally sewed part of the cape to itself while edge-stitching, unpicked the stitches, and then made the same mistake except worse. But aside from that episode, I think I showed real sewing growth.

Superhero Logo via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

We gave both boys a copy of Bob McLeod’s Superhero ABC with their capes. As you can imagine, it was hard to find good books about superheroes that weren’t just franchise fodder. McLeod’s book is really colorful and has great illustrations that show a different superhero for each letter of the alphabet. The book features a good number of female superheroes and a more racially diverse cast of characters than you’d see in a lot of books. Plus, the descriptions of their superpowers are silly and fun. It might be a bit before the boys really appreciate the book since they are still pretty young, but I think it stands a good chance of becoming a favorite.

Superhero ABC by Bob McLeod

Around the time that I finished making these, I dreamt that I had a huge Superman logo tattooed on my throat—so huge that it stretched almost from my chin to my sternum. The dream wasn’t about actually getting the tattoo or having other people react to the tattoo—the dream was just me thinking about the tattoo. And in the dream I was genuinely trying to figure out if the tattoo was a bad life choice. I was rationalizing that my tattoo was somehow different than other neck tattoos, because in my dream state, it seemed to me that my giant logo throat tattoo wasn’t really that noticeable. And finally, I was trying to remember everything I’ve heard over the years about the relative pain and success of tattoo removal procedures. They say that dreams are your brain’s way of working out problems while you’re sleeping, and if this is the case, I’m not sure what my tattoo dream says about my problems. Perhaps just that making gifts for people is always more stressful than we anticipate? Regardless, I’m happy with how these capes turned out and even happier that I don’t have a gigantic Superman logo neck tattoo.

Cross Stitched Christmas Ornaments

Here I am, publicly talking about cross stitch again, which I think means my crafting shame has decreased a bit. I’ve been eyeing some of the cross stitch Christmas ornament kits that are around for awhile now. Cross stitched ornaments appeal to me because they have a purpose, and because I have fewer aesthetic objections when it comes to Christmas decorations. Frankly, I much prefer an anything-goes Christmas decor to a more sanitized, monochrome Martha Stewart approach. At Christmas time, I embrace a whole host of things that I otherwise dislike, including Frank Sinatra, claymation, and glitter. One of my life goals is to own a miniature Christmas village, complete with little figurines ice skating on a frozen pond made of cellophane. I’ve even found myself wishing I had a really good Christmas sweater.

Miniature Christmas Village, Birkenhead (1)

I’m coveting this mini village. Photo by Rept0n1x, via Wikimedia.

So while I rarely come across a non-holiday cross stitch design I really love, I rarely find a Christmas-related cross stitch design that I’d totally turn my nose up at. Maybe I need to just embrace this and make cross stitching for Christmas my thing.

Cross Stitch Ornaments via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

Anyway, as I was contemplating the purchase of an ornament kit, I rediscovered a set of small cross stitch kits I’ve had sitting around in a drawer for awhile. These are the kinds of cross stitch kits you can buy at places like Michaels or JoAnns for a couple of dollars. Aidan bought me the sock monkey kit last year (you can get the same one here), and I think I picked up the tree and Santa kits for $.99 at JoAnns a couple of years ago (they’re also available online). I’ve always been confused about what to do with these little 2” designs—how many of these little things do you need hanging on your wall? But then I saw someone who was stringing ribbon through the tab on the plastic frame and hanging them as Christmas ornaments, and I realized I was being obtuse. So it goes.

Christmas Tree Ornament via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

Sock Monkey Ornament via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

So I stitched these up and got them ready to hang on the tree. I just popped the Christmas tree and the sock monkey into the plastic frames they came in and put a ring of hot glue around the back to secure them. The Santa ended up not fitting in the frame he came with because of where I backstitched the year, so I used a little 3.5” embroidery hoop I had sitting around to frame him. After the design was secure in the hoop, I trimmed off most of the excess fabric, used a hot glue gun to glue the remaining fabric to the hoop, and then glued a piece of white felt to the back of the hoop to hide the back of the cross stitch.

Ornament backs via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

The Santa was totally worth the five minutes of extra work because he’s my favorite. Why is he hugging a Christmas tree? I have no idea, but I want to kiss his little cheeks.

Santa Ornament via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

Thoughts on Making Gifts

At Christmas, the craft world is abuzz with talk of lengthy gift lists, craft-induced stress, late-night craft-cramming sessions, and the nightmare that is having to wrap an unfinished item. At the same time, parodies of the homemade gift pop up over and over again. Crafters are losing sleep over their lists of gift projects while a whole host of voices want us to believe that everyone secretly dreads a handmade gift. Of course, the parodies, like most pop culture tropes, are cheap, one-dimensional, and tired. Unless you are watching a period piece, you rarely see a skilled maker produce a beautiful handcrafted item that the receiver loves, despite how often this happens in real life. And I think that people who really believe that “the only real gift is a purchased gift” are a small, albeit vocal, minority of people you probably don’t want to hang out with anyway. But given all the stress and anxiety and hurried toiling that comes with gift-related crafting, I’ve been wondering: why do we give homemade gifts?

I don’t mean that as a rhetorical question, as if to say: “why bother?” I ask the question genuinely, as in: How do we make decisions about when to make gifts and what to make and for whom? What kinds of values underlie those decisions? When does making gifts pay off and when is it an unnecessary drain on our creative energy?

Kari at UCreate has a list of 10 reasons to give handmade gifts that sums up a lot of the reasons I like to make gifts. My biggest motivation for giving handmade gifts is that it allows me to give things that are personalized and unique. Handmade gifts can also be a sure thing for people that you know appreciate certain items–I like giving Aidan socks because he wears them enthusiastically and his mom always likes getting knitted dishcloths. In the past, I’ve given something handmade when I’m short on gift ideas, which can work well if it matches the person’s interests and personality. I was stumped for gift ideas for my sister’s 12th birthday and ended up making her this sock monster. It might seem like a random gift, but it matches her quirky personality and her love of all things cute and silly.

But other motivations for giving handmade gifts can creep in, like the belief that handmade goods are inherently superior. Or the belief that a handmade gift is the only way to provide a personal gift or the only way to opt out of the rampant consumerism that takes over during gift-giving seasons like Christmas. The idea of a handmade Christmas is nice, but does it run the risk of replacing the pressures and expectations of consumerism with a different set of pressures and expectations?

Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t also an aspect of performance to making handmade gifts. By that, I mean that I wonder if there is some part of us that is working to show that we are skilled and to have this skill verified by the people who receive the gift. I think this performance is more unconscious than anything and, to some extent, unavoidable. Of course I want to have my skill recognized. I take pleasure in having people appreciate the time and thought and skill that went into making something. But it’s dangerous to let that desire for praise or the need to perform “craftiness” take over—if you fall into a place of looking for external validation as the primary marker of the worth of what you’ve done it only breeds bad feelings and disappointments.

Gift giving is emotional, for both giver and receiver. And for the giver, it seems that the emotional stake in a gift increases the more we invest. We worry more about whether a person will like a gift when it is expensive or when we’ve had to go out of our way to get it. Or, in the case of the handmade gift, we worry more about how a gift will be received if it took a lot of time or precious materials to produce. When we inflate the value of handmade goods (simply by virtue of being handmade) or burden ourselves with more gift projects than we have reasonable time or energy to produce, we increase our emotional investment and, likewise, our risk of disappointment if the gift is not received in the way we hope. When we have an inflated emotional investment in a gift or when we’re desperately looking to have our work validated in specific ways, this puts more pressure on the receiver. And perhaps that’s where some of the disdain for handmade gifts comes from—from people being put in a position where they not only receive something they dislike, but where they know, implicitly, that there is added pressure to be extra appreciative or to actively praise a person’s skill.

 

There’s always a risk that someone won’t like a gift. The question for me, as a maker, is: how do I keep my emotional investment in a handmade gift in check and make giving a handmade gift as positive an experience as possible? I find that my best handmade gift-giving experiences come when I’m realistic about my time, my ability, and about the person that I’m giving a gift to. Likewise, my worst experiences have come from not being realistic. Usually, being realistic means that I focus on my energy on just a few handmade gifts at Christmas and the occasional handmade gift through the rest of the year rather than trying to make something for everyone. To stay realistic, I’m continually asking myself questions like:

  • Is working on a deadline or making something for someone else going to make me feel resentful? Do I have the creative energy to make this gift or am I already immersed in projects I’d rather being working on?
  • Is this gift appropriate for the receiver? Am I making it for them because I think they will appreciate it or just because I want to make them something?
  • Have I chosen materials appropriate for the person who will use the gift and for how the gift will be used? If I’m thinking about using expensive or delicate materials, do I think the receiver will appreciate those materials? Are these materials that I love and want to keep for myself?
  • Do I really have the time to make these gifts? Have I factored in other life events and responsibilities that will zap my energy or interrupt my ability to work on these gifts? Do I have time to do the finishing work that will make this item shine?
  • If I’m starting to feel overwhelmed or stressed, what can I cut from the list? What can be saved for the next gift-giving occasion?
  • Can I actually make this thing and make it look good/be functional?
  • And when it’s done: Am I happy with how it turned out? Do I feel good giving this as a gift?

It’s always a challenge to be realistic about your time, especially at Christmas when everyone is busy and there is continual pressure to make the season special. But I think it’s also difficult to be realistic about your ability. The bizarre ornament your 6-year-old niece made in art class is charming, but the dry, burnt cookies you receive from someone who only dusts their measuring cups off once a year in December are decidedly less charming. It’s tempting to use new skills to make everyone gifts (because, “Hey! Look at this awesome thing I can do now!”) or to learn a new skill because you want to make a particular gift. But being new to a craft means that even simple projects can take a good deal of time, can require the purchase of new tools and materials, or can make you feel insecure about what you produce, all of which inflate your emotional investment in the gift. It’s not that I think you can’t take up a new craft and start making gifts right away or that every new crafter endures a period of making endless items of shame. I’ve sewn gifts for three people in the very short time that I’ve been sewing, but I’ve tried to be mindful of my ability in doing so by picking projects I feel confident I can execute well and that aren’t a burden to complete.

I take for granted that the only acceptable response to a gift is to say “Thank you,” even if you’re visualizing the fastest route to Goodwill while you unwrap it. But there’s no denying that the handmade gift, despite the thought and love that might go into it, can become a special kind of disaster. I like to think that being mindful about why and when we give handmade gifts can help us avoid playing out the parody.

Since I’ve been thinking a lot about handmade gifts, I’m curious: Are you making gifts this season? How do you choose what to make and who to make gifts for? Where do you think handmade gifts go wrong?

(All of the pictures in this post are of knitted gifts I’ve made over the years. You can click on each picture to get all the project details on Ravelry.)

Spicy Pumpkin Pie

In the past, I’ve made two different pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving: the fail-safe recipe that comes on the back of the Libby’s pumpkin can and the crowd-pleasing candied pecan pumpkin pie recipe I’ve shared on the blog before. For both of these recipes, I’ve always used canned pumpkin, and doing so has always produced excellent results. I had heard that making your own pumpkin puree could have uneven results and it just didn’t seem worth the bother, especially since I have tasted too many pies made with homemade puree that were not good at all. (Side note: these terrible pies were always made by a special breed of foodie whose righteous fervor for whole,organic, locally sourced ingredients is inversely proportional to their ability to cook. Am I the only one who has encountered this kind of person before?)

I was talking to someone once about making pie for Thanksgiving and when I said that I used canned pumpkin, this person was overcome with a look that was some mix of betrayal and indignation that was so strong that I was convinced that they must think that I used a canned pumpkin pie filling. But no—they just couldn’t fathom that, as someone passionate about baking, I would deign to use canned pumpkin. Oy.

Yes, the pie is reading Mother Jones. Ignore the chewed up part around the edge, which was due to a dumb error on the part of the baker.

Ignore the chewed up part around the edge, which was due to the clumsy hands of the baker.

Last year was the first time I experimented with making a pie with fresh pumpkin. We bought a sugar pumpkin at the beginning of fall because our godson was obsessed with pumpkins. Basically, we bought a pumpkin just so we could watch him carry his tiny pumpkin around the apartment saying “da puh-kin” over and over. After a few weeks, Aidan suggested that we might actually use the pumpkin for something, so I roasted and pureed it following the instructions at Oh She Glows and then baked it into a pie using a Cooks Illustrated recipe that calls for cooking the pumpkin mixture down before baking the pie. The result turned out to be easily the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever made. At first, I just assumed that this was because I had used a different, better recipe. But when Thanksgiving rolled around, I made the same recipe with canned pumpkin and while it was really good, it lacked a certain something that kept it from being the kind of out-of-this-world pie that the first one was. I made this recipe again this year with fresh pumpkin and even though I was a teaspoon short on ground ginger, the pie was excellent.

Fresh Pumpkin Puree via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

And so, since then, my feelings about the canned vs. fresh pumpkin debate have been complicated. Fresh pumpkin can be a wonderful thing, but it’s not the only way to go and it’s not without it’s complications. Canned pumpkin make a really good pie. And what’s more, it’s reliable and does not involve the extra prep work and planning that making your own puree involves. Making your own puree isn’t difficult, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t kind of a PITA, especially if you’re in a high-stakes baking situation or juggling the preparation of lots of different dishes (hello, Thanksgiving).

But making a good puree depends on getting good pumpkins. You need the little ones that are called sugar pumpkins or pie pumpkins. One of the aforementioned terrible pies was made by one of the aforementioned cooking-inept foodies who could recite the many virtues of spelt flour but did not understand that different varieties of pumpkins have different uses. Getting good pumpkins might also involve buying them earlier in the season, and possibly even processing them and freezing the puree ahead of time, to make sure that you aren’t left choosing from a selection of picked-over, dried-out, late-season pumpkins. (I’ll be honest—I bought a can of back-up pumpkin in case the pumpkin we bought this year turned out to be crappy.)

And finally, the biggest issue with fresh puree is that it tends to be more watery than canned puree, and the extra liquid will throw the proportions of your pie filling out of whack. After I pureed my pumpkin, I let it sit in a fine mesh strainer over a bowl for 30 minutes. At the end, I had roughly 2.5 cups of puree and nearly a cup of liquid that had drained away. Draining the pumpkin is often listed as an “optional, but recommended” step to making fresh puree. Looking at that cup of liquid, I’m not sure how optional it is if you want good results.

drained pumpkin puree liquid

In addition to straining the puree to get rid of any excess liquid, cooking the pumpkin down a bit also helps improve the final texture of your pie. That’s one of many reasons why I really love this Cooks Illustrated recipe. While cooking the filling before baking involves some extra steps and dirties a pan, the result is a wonderfully smooth, rich texture.  And while I’m kind of moony-eyed about how this pie turns out with fresh pumpkin, this recipe also works wonderfully with canned pumpkin. This pie has great flavor. If you compare the ingredients list to other pumpkin pie recipes, you might expect the amount of spice in this pie recipe to be overwhelming. It’s definitely well-spiced but it’s not too much—the spices just make a pumpkin pie that tastes truly decadent and rich. The original recipe uses a traditional pie crust, but I like to make pumpkin pie in a graham cracker crust. There are lots of benefits to a graham cracker crust: 1) it’s a delicious flavor compliment to the pie filling, 2) it’s quicker and less fussy than making a traditional crust, and 3) you can invite your favorite toddler over to share the leftover crackers and watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and, in under an hour, you will have made a best friend for life.

I hope you had an excellent Thanksgiving with plenty of good pie!

Spicy Pumpkin Pie via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

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Spicy Pumpkin Pie (crust adapted from Martha Stewart, filling adapted from Cooks Illustrated)

Recipe notes: The recipe calls for using a food processor to mix the filling. Each time I’ve made this recipe, I’ve used my food processor with good results. If you don’t have a food processor, you could definitely use a blender, but I don’t see why you couldn’t also use an electric mixer. It might result in a slightly different texture, but I’d be surprised if it were a significant difference. The key thing would be to make sure that you have the mixer going as you start to pour the pumpkin mixture into the eggs so that you don’t scramble your eggs. This is easy enough if you have a stand mixer. If you only have a hand-held mixer, you probably want to enlist a kitchen helper.

In my experience, this recipe makes more filling than will actually fill a regular 9” pie plate. Last Thanksgiving, I increased the graham cracker crust recipe by 50% and made the pie in a spring form pan instead (as if I were making a cheesecake).  This is a good route to go if you like a higher filling-to-crust ratio but it doesn’t look very traditional. You could also pick up a package of pre-made miniature graham cracker pie shells and fill them with your left overs. You could keep your mini-pies as a gift to yourself, but giving a kid their own personal mini pie is another way to make a fast friend. Of course, you would need to adjust the baking times accordingly for either of these options.

For the crust:

  • 12 graham crackers (or 1.5 c of graham cracker crumbs)
  • 5 tbsp butter
  • 1/4 c granulated sugar
  • A pinch of salt (skip this if you use salted butter)

For the filling:

  • 2 c of fresh pumpkin puree or 1 15 oz can of plain pumpkin
  • 1 c dark brown sugar (packed)
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2/3 c heavy cream
  • 2/3 c milk
  • 4 large eggs
  1. To make the crust, pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees F. Pulse the graham crackers in a food processor until you have fine crumbs. Melt the butter and drizzle over the crumbs. Add in the sugar and salt, if using. Pulse the ingredients together until combined. Dump the mixture into a 9” pie plate and press firmly into the bottom and up the sides of the pie plate. Bake until golden, about 10 minutes.
  2. When the crust is done baking, turn the oven up to 400 degrees F.
  3. To make the filling, pulse the pumpkin, dark brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and salt together in a food processor for about a minute. Pour the pumpkin mixture into a medium sauce pan and bring it to a simmer over medium-high heat. Once the mixture starts sputtering, continue to cook for another five minutes, stirring constantly to keep the mixture from burning. The pumpkin mixture will be thick and shiny.
  4. Remove from the heat and whisk in the cream and milk. I do this in batches, adding half the cream, whisking to combine, adding the rest of the cream, whisking, and then repeating the process with the milk. Return the pumpkin mix to and heat it through, removing it from the heat as soon as it begins to simmer.
  5. Pulse the eggs in the food processor to combine the whites and yolks. With the processor running, slowly pour about half of the pumpkin mixture into the eggs. (I transferred half of the pumpkin to a glass measuring cup for this step for more controlled pouring.) Stop the food processor and add the rest of the pumpkin mixture to the egg mixture. Pulse the filling until everything is mixed well.
  6. Carefully pour the filling into your prepared crust, being careful not to overfill the crust. The pie will settle a bit while baking. After the pie has been in the oven for about 5 minutes, you can carefully ladle some of the excess filling into the pie.
  7. Bake the pie at 400 degrees F for about 25 minutes, until the filling is puffy and appears dry. The filling should still wiggle at the center if you gently shake the pie. Allow the pie to cool on a wire rack.

Butter-Dipped Rolls

Aidan and I are temporarily in the mid-west, visiting our families and enjoy a bit of a holiday break. The direct deposit notification in my inbox this morning tells me its the end of the month, which means that the new year is right around the corner. Aidan and I have been having an ongoing conversation about new year’s “resolutions,” which I think are dumb because they are usually vague and seem more like comments on things that people hate about themselves than a decision to do things differently. I told Aidan that it seems like a better idea to just set a couple of goals for things you’d like to accomplish over the course of the year. But, Aidan says, this “goals” business is really just another way of talking about resolutions, which I was ready to concede until I was watching some morning news show on Christmas and they had a psychologist on encouraging people to set goals instead of resolutions. And if a morning show psychologist says goals are better than resolutions, it must be the truth.

Thus, I’ve set five goals for 2011 that involve reading Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, blogging more consistently, starting a yoga routine, participating in NaNoWriMo and making more bread. I came up with this list a few weeks ago while I was distracting myself from finals work, but the dinner rolls I made on Christmas only testified to the fact that I need more bread in my life. Aidan suggested at some point that we buy the dinner rolls that come in a can so that I would have less cooking to do on Christmas. It was a sweet thought, but I assured him making the rolls was no big deal. And when we sat down to eat on Christmas, the first thing that he said was, “These rolls are amazing–way better than anything that could ever come out of a can.” They were, indeed amazing. So amazing that the picture I took of them while they were still in the pan is the only picture I have because we ate them ALL.

dinner rolls

This recipe is from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible, and is really just a variation of her white sandwich loaf recipe, divided into little dough balls, bathed in butter, and then baked to cozy, soft deliciousness. The other nice thing about this recipe is that you can partially bake them ahead of time and then throw them in the oven for a few minutes right before you’re ready to eat so you can serve them warm. They’re heaven. Plus, they look so cute all nestled together in the pan. What more could you want?

Butter-Dipped Dinner Rolls (adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible)

For the starter:

  • 1 1/4 c all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 c plus 2 tbsp water, at room temperature
  • 1 tbsp plus 1 tsp honey
  • 1/4 tsp instant yeast

For the flour mixture and dough:

  • 1 c all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp dry milk
  • 1/2 tsp instant yeast
  • 4 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/8 tsp salt
  • 4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  1. For the starter, combine the flour, water, honey, and instant yeast in a large bowl. Whisk the ingredients until smooth and long enough to incorporate air into the starter–about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and set aside.
  2. For the flour mixture, whisk together 3/4 c flour, dry milk, and yeast. Reserve the remaining 1/4 c flour to add in as necessary while kneading the dough. Sprinkle the flour mixture on top of the starter and cover the mixing bowl with plastic wrap. Allow the starter to sit at room temperature for 1-4 hours. (After sitting at room temperature, you can put the starter in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours. Just be sure to let the starter sit at room temp for 30 minutes to an hour before you begin kneading.)
  3. Add the salt and softened butter to the bowl and using either a wooden spoon, spatula, or your hands, mix the starter and flour mixture until all of the flour is moistened. Knead the dough in the bowl until it starts to come together and then turn the dough out onto a well-floured counter. Knead the dough for 5 minutes. The dough will be very sticky, but add only as much of the reserved 1/4 c flour as necessary. Cover the dough with your mixing bowl and allow it to rest for 20 minutes.
  4. After resting, knead the dough for another 5 minutes until it is very smooth and elastic. It should be tacky to the touch but should not stick to your fingers. If necessary, add additional flour to the dough while kneading but keep in mind that adding too much flour will result in dense rolls.
  5. Place the dough in a lightly oiled container, cover with lightly greased plastic wrap, and allow it to rise until doubled–1 to 1 1/2 hours.
  6. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and gently press it into a rectangle. Pull out and fold over the dough from all four sides of the rectangle to form it into a tight package, place the dough back into the container, and cover it once again with the plastic wrap. Allow it to rise until doubled (this time the dough will rise higher because of the air incorporated from the first rise)–1 to 2 hours.
  7. Turn the dough out on a lightly floured service and gently press it down to push out the air. Roll the dough into a long log and then cut it into 12 even pieces. Shape each piece into a small bowl, being sure to pinch closed any seams that might result.
  8. Roll each ball of dough in the melted butter to coat them completely and then arrange the dough, evenly spaced, in a lightly greased 9″ round pan. Cover the pan with lightly greased plastic wrap and allow the rolls to rise until doubled–around 1 1/2 hours.
  9. When the rolls have doubled, bake them in a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes or until a thermometer inserted in the center of the rolls reads about 210 degrees. If you are making the rolls ahead of time and would like to reheat them right before you serve them, bake them for 15 minutes (so they register around 180 degrees) and then reheat them for 5 minutes in a 375 degree oven.
  10. Unmold the rolls from the pan and allow them to cool until just warm and then pull apart. If desired, brush the tops of the rolls with additional butter.

Christmas Caramels

First off, let me say that these are really, seriously good.

That said, I’m not really sure I executed this recipe the right way. I have an excellent idea of what various kinds of batters and doughs are supposed to look like, but I really have no frame of reference for candy making. The one thing I know when it comes to candy is that you have to be vigilant about what “stage” your candy is supposed to be at when it’s finished, whether it’s soft ball or firm ball or hard ball or whatever other vaguely sports-related stages there are. Some people have a high level of candy knowledge that allows them to visually identify when they’ve achieved the appropriate stage. Bully for them. Most people use a candy thermometer. I struck a balance between using a candy thermometer and just winging it by holding a cheap meat thermometer (which I actually use for bread making) in the pan with one hand while I stirred with the other, even though I’m pretty sure the thermometer is at least 5 degrees off. Still, I think I did well pulling the caramel off the burner when it got to the firm ball stage given that the finished candy is pleasantly soft and creamy while still holding its shape at room temp.

Caramels

The tricky part came with the first step of the recipe, in which you boil a mixture of sugar, corn syrup, and water until it is a “deep golden” color, at which point you add the cream and butter mixture. Except there’s no indication in terms of time as to when this otherwise translucent mixture will suddenly achieve deep golden-ness. My decision to incorporate the cream mixture was dictated largely by my anxiety about burning the sugar, which peaked after stirring the sugar mixture for the length of several Christmas songs, at which point I would have described it as “kinda” golden. (Maybe 10 minutes? Probably not more than 15?) It still bugs me to think that there might have been a better level of golden that I didn’t hold out for, which is probably why my caramels are lighter in color than some of the others I’ve seen. But like I said before: they are delicious. But really–we’re talking about sugar, cream, and butter. Short of burning, it seems pretty hard to screw up.

Caramels 2

Unlike Ina Garten, I do not have any fancy-pants flaked French sea salt, nor did I have any desire to purchase some just to make this recipe. I don’t have that kind of cash laying around. Instead, I used some humbler Morton’s sea salt in the caramel recipe and decided not to sprinkle any salt on the finished candy. All in all, I thought these were pretty easy–the trick is just to prepare everything in advanced and keep everything you need in reach so you can move from one step to the next without the risk of burning or overcooking the caramel.

Ultimately, these caramels made it on a goodie tray I made up with some leftover oatmeal cookies and some dark chocolate brownies that I took over to a delightful Christmas Eve dinner my office mate hosted at her house. Despite all the leftover sweet stuff I’ve got hanging around here, I just pulled some mini-cheesecakes out of the oven for Aidan and I to enjoy after our Christmas dinner this evening. I hope you’re all having a tasty holiday. Merry Christmas!

goodie tray

Fleur De Sel Caramels (from Ina Garten)

Note: I’ve linked to the recipe as its posted on the Food Network website, but the recipe posted there is wrong as many have noted in the comments. What I’ve posted here is based on the ingredient list given on her show. Also, I cut the caramels into 1 1/2″ rectangles and ended up with about 25 pieces.

  • 1 1/2 c sugar
  • 1/4 c light corn syrup
  • 1 c heavy cream
  • 5 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 tsp fleur de sel (or, for those of us who are broke, any kind of sea salt you can get your hands on)
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  1. Line the bottom of an 8×8 pan with parchment paper, letting the parchment hang over the edge of the pan, and grease the parchment. Set aside.
  2. In a medium sauce pan, combine the sugar and corn syrup with 1/2 c of water. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium high heat, and continue to boil until the caramel is golden in color. While boiling, gently swirl the pan to keep the caramel circulating in the pan. Watch it carefully because it can burn quickly.
  3. At the same time, bring the cream, butter, and salt to a simmer in a small sauce pan. Keep the cream mixture warm until you’re ready to add it to the sugar.
  4. When the sugar mixture is golden, slowly add the cream mixture to the sugar mixture. Cook and stir for 5 to 10 minutes over medium heat until the mixture reaches 248 degrees (firm ball stage). Pour the caramel in the pan and then refrigerate until its firm.
  5. When the caramel is cool, use the parchment to remove it from the pan and transfer the caramel to a cutting board. Cut the caramel into small pieces and, if desired, sprinkle additional salt over the top of the caramels. Wrap the caramel pieces in small squares of parchment, twisting the ends of the parchment to close. Store in the refrigerator or keep at room temperature.

My Thanksgiving Contribution

For the second year in a row, two of our friends are hosting a potluck-style Thanksgiving celebration for we grad students in our program who are staying in town for break. Last year, I brought four pies as my contribution. And because I am full of surprises and excitement, I decided to do a repeat performance this year. My first step was to whip up two double pie crusts–enough for four single crust pies. As always, I used the all-butter pie crust found on Smitten Kitchen. The recipe is great, easy to throw together, and I’ve had fantastic results with it in the past. But lately, my crusts have been turning out not great. There is definitely some user-error occurring. Probably not the kind of thing that other people necessarily notice, but enough to hurt my soul. All of my pies are still uncut, but I’m interested to see how the crusts turn out this time. I think one of my winter break projects may be figuring out what’s been going wrong and trying to perfect my crust-making skills.

Anyway, first up was a crumb-topped apple pie.

apple pie

Then a pecan pie, which I made for the first time last Thanksgiving and for the second time yesterday.

pecan pie

And because pumpkin pie is traditional, I figure that I need to make at least two for a group of around 12-15 people. So I’ve got your standard, no-fuss pumpkin pie from the back of the Libby’s can . . .

pumpkin pie

. . . and for a little variety, a candied pecan-topped pumpkin pie.

candied pecan pumpkin pie

It looks a little homely, but this was a big hit last year and Aidan has already decided that this will be his one piece of Thanksgiving pie. Now all that’s left to do is (literally) whip up some whipped cream. I’m looking forward to some good food, definitely looking forward to some good beer (to take the edge off my end-of-the-semester anxieties), and already scheming ways to get out of the touch football game I hear is planned for this afternoon. Happy Thanksgiving!

Apple Crumb Pie (adapted from the Better Homes and Gardens 75th Anniversary Ed. Cookbook)

  • Single pie crust
  • 6-7 cups of apples, peeled and sliced (I used about 6 Ginger Gold apples)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 tbsp flour
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/2 c flour
  • 1/2 c brown sugar
  • 3 tbsp butter
  1. Line pie plate with single pie crust and crimp edges.
  2. Toss sliced apples together with sugar, 3 tbsp flour, cinnamon and nutmeg until coated. Spread apple mixture evenly in pie shell.
  3. Mix 1/2 cup flour and brown sugar together. Use a pastry blender to cut in butter until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs. Sprinkle brown sugar mixture on top of the apples.
  4. Cover edges of the pie with tin foil. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 40 minutes. Remove foil and bake 20 minutes more until bubbly.

Pecan Pie (adapted from the Better Homes and Gardens 75th Anniversary Ed. Cookbook)

  • 1 single pie crust
  • 3 beaten eggs
  • 1 c corn syrup
  • 2/3 c sugar
  • 1/3 butter, melted
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 1/2 c shelled pecans
  1. Line pie plate with single pie crust and crimp edges.
  2. Stir together eggs, corn syrup, sugar, butter, and vanilla until well-combined. Stir in pecans. Spread pecan mixture into pie shell.
  3. Cover edges of the pie with tin foil. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 25 minutes. Remove foil and then bake for 20-25 minutes longer until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

Pumpkin Pie (an unintentional mash up of the Libby’s pumpkin pie recipe and the pumpkin pie recipe in the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook)

  • 1 single pie crust
  • 1 15 oz can of pumpkin
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1/4 tsp cloves
  • 1 12 oz can of evaporated milk
  1. Line pie plate with single crust and crimp edges.
  2. Whisk together pumpkin and eggs until well-combined. Stir in sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Slowly add evaporated milk to pumpkin mixture. Pour pumpkin mixture into pie shell.
  3. Cover edges of pie with tin foil. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 25 minutes. Remove foil and bake for 25 minutes more until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Candied Pecan Pumpkin Pie (adapted from the Better Homes and Gardens 75th Anniversary Ed. Cookbook)

  • 1 single pie crust.
  • 2 beaten eggs
  • 1 15 oz can of pumpkin
  • 1/4 c milk
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp flour
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp allspice
  • 1/2 c brown sugar
  • 1/2 c chopped pecans
  • 2 tbsp melted butter
  1. Line pie plate with single pie crust and crimp edges.
  2. Stir together eggs, pumpkin, and milk until well-combined. Stir in sugar, flour, vanilla, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. Pour pumpkin mixture into pie shell.
  3. Cover edges of pie with tin foil. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 25 minutes. Remove foil. Stir together brown sugar, pecans, and butter. Sprinkle mixture over top of pie. Bake for 20-25 minutes more until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Costumes and Cookies

This past weekend, our friends hosted a Halloween party at their house full of good food, plenty of drinks, fun costumes, and one incredibly nerdalicious rap from one of my office mates about composition and rhetoric. I’m sure pictures and video of said rap have been posted to facebook by now (I don’t know for sure because I don’t do the FB thang anymore) but the best part was definitely the last two lines, which were something along the lines of “Like that Burke guy, can I get an ‘I identify’?” Seriously. We grad students are a strange breed.

Aidan and I went as Stan and Wendy from South Park, and I knit hats and mittens for us to wear for our costumes. This is what Stan and Wendy look like on the show:

SP Stan and Wendy

And this is what Aidan and I looked like in our costumes:

Aidan/Stan and Anna/Wendy

Not a great picture, but you can see how something that was supposed to be a fun costume got a little frightening when I put a black wig on. Still, we had fun.

For the party, I made another batch of the pumpkin cupcakes I made for a department potluck a few weeks ago, but I also made a batch of some peanut butter candy corn cookies using a recipe featured that week on Tasty Kitchen. These start with a basic peanut butter cookie dough with some peanuts mixed in. You shaped the dough into balls with a piece of candy corn in the middle so that the candy corn melts while the cookies bake. Then after you pull the cookies out of the oven, you top them with a couple more pieces of candy corn. The result is a nice sweet and salty combination and the melted candy corn in the middle of the cookie adds a nice chewy texture.

PB Candy Corn cookies

And here, I have to cite Aidan who gave the best synopsis of these cookies when he told me that they weren’t the best but were “tweakable.” These are definitely a “good, not great” kind of cookie. I like the concept, but I also would have preferred a slightly softer cookie, which I think might be achieved by cutting some of the butter with shortening. Aidan also suggested that the peanuts were too much texture, and I agree. At times, the addition of the peanuts also made it difficult to get the candy corn into the cookie dough. You would probably get just the right amount of crunch with these cookies by simply substituting crunchy peanut butter and omitting the peanuts. If anybody out there makes these or has made them, I’d love to hear about it.

more cookies

Great cookies or not, we had an excellent Halloween. Hope you did too.