Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Easiest Home Improvement Ever

I've learned many things about home renovations, but the most important thing is that renovations ebb and flow.  Some months, you are ninjas, demolishing and rebuilding things with lightning speed!  And other months, you are sloths, who prefer to crawl up in tall trees and hang out until things look better.  (Non sequitur of the day, sloths are incredibly cute and did you know they can starve to death with full bellies?  Check it out.)  We are sloths this month, kids.  OK, we are sloths this fiscal quarter.  It's hard to do things when it is cold/rainy and this Jan/Feb have been particularly narsty.  So, when our renovation behavior gets sloth-like, I become a big fan of the low-hanging-fruit approach to home renovation.  This requires assessing your to-do list and picking the things that can be knocked off with as little effort as possible. The low-hanging fruit in our life was replacing the hall light.

The hall light in our upstairs hall was really ugly.  Grandma-floral-70's ugly and on top of that, it put off yellow light, making everyone look sallow.  If there's one thing I hate it is overhead light, and especially unflattering overhead light.  From the moment I moved in, that hall light's days were numbered.  (Well, it was really just the shade who's time in this mortal sphere was limited.  The fixture itself was pretty unexceptional, it lived to see another sunrise.)  Here is the hall light shade after I tore it off the ceiling in a fit of tackiness-induced rage. 

(Just kidding, the husband took it down very gently.)

It turns out that there are only four standard sizes of ceiling fitting.  Who knew!  I learned this from the helpful website of Schoolhouse Electric.  Schoolhouse Electric is a Portland company and all of their shades are designed and made in the good old U.S. of A.  Their shades are incredibly gorrrrrrrgeous and if you have one bone in your body that gets excited about home renovation, their website is like crack.  You won't be able to stay away.  www.schoolhouseelectric.com.  Get on it. 

We wanted something vintagey and cute that would give off nice light.  All of the 4" fitter options are lovely: http://www.schoolhouseelectric.com/shades-type.asp?type=Fitter&code=4&fixDtl=0   but I chose the especially lovely P-4383-08-4.  

Hey baby.  Lookin' good.  Wanna come live at my house?

This literally was the easiest home renovation project ever.  I forked over 60 bones to Schoolhouse and a box arrived on my porch a week later.  I considered getting up there with a ladder to do this myself, but my 6' 1" husband arrived before I could get to it.  He unscrewed the four set screws holding in Grandma Uggo:

And put Miss Hotstuff on there and screwed the screws back in.  (While standing on the ground.  Tall people, bah!)

(This is the part where he's not totally sure it is awesome, but goes with it because his new wife has stopped ranting about the evil overhead light.)

Looking good Hotstuff!  Doesn't she look vintage-Hollywood-movie-theatre-glamour?  20's-deco-chic?  Whatever it is, I'm in.  Now, if you'd like to come over and stand in the hall, you won't be frightened off by everyone's sudden attack of jaundice.  Yay for a glamour-filled jaundice-free hall!  Hey, you have to celebrate the little stuff, right?  A non-hideous overhead light is call for celebration in my book any day.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Macaron Madness

Do you ever go somewhere and eat something new and think "uh oh, I might have to stay in Barcelona forever because I can't live without this weird cured ham and it definitely isn't coming to a QFC near me any time soon?"  What?  You don't?  That's just me?  Hmm.

Well when I was last in France, I had that experience with macarons.  Not to be confused with macaroons, macarons are these totally gorgeous pastel French confections, which marry crunchiness and chewiness in this way that is completely addictive.  They're so pretty you can barely bring yourself to eat them, but when you do you just want to keep eating them.  It is my personal opinion that macarons are going to be the new cupcake (after pie has its day in the sun.) 

Macarons can be found all over France, although the most famous macaron bakery is undoubtedly Laduree, which coincidentally has a super fun pastel website: www.laduree.fr.  (Macarons can also actually be found in Seattle, especially at Honore Artisan Bakery in Ballard and they are worth the trip!  http://www.yelp.com/biz/honore-artisan-bakery-seattle-2.) They're super excellent as last-minute birthday presents, I-love-you-presents, Valentine's or Easter presents.  Gentlemen, take note!


In any case, macarons are beautiful, delicious and hard to come by.  While I was busy planning our wedding, I had seen a couple of tutorials on how to make them yourself, which I had filed under "things to do when I have time to do things".  That time is now, my friends.  So on Wednesday, following this tutorial, I made my first attempt.  They turned out ok!  

I had trouble getting the egg whites to make peaks as stiff as I wanted, but I think that was because it was so rainy a.k.a. humid a.k.a. not stiff peak weather?  Which I think then later resulted in a more flat macaron than I really wanted, but I did manage to get at least a little crunchy/chewy.  And the best news is, it isn't that hard! Check out the cuteness:

OK, not quite up to Laduree standards, but not bad by my kitchen standards!
This is my version:
1/2 c. egg whites
Enough almonds to make 1 1/4 c. flour when ground
2 1/4 c. confectioners sugar
Pinch of salt
1/3 c. granulated sugar

1.) A day or two before, separate the egg whites.  Put the egg whites in the fridge (I covered mine but I'm going to try it uncovered too,) and let them sit there for at least 24 hours.  Better separate slightly more than 1/2 a cup, so some can evaporate, I think I used about six eggs.
2.) If you can find almond flour, you are extremely lucky and can skip this step and just measure out 1 1/4c. almond flour.  If you can't, I processed slivered almonds in my food processor until they vaguely resembled flour.  Gritty large grain flour, but whatever. (It gives the cookies texture?)  Process the almond flour and the confectioners sugar together until it is as fine as you can get it.
3.) Using a stand mixer and whisk attachment, whip the egg whites with the pinch of salt on medium speed until frothy.
4.) Turn the speed up to high and gradually add granulated sugar until glossy stiff peaks form.
5.) Gradually and gently fold in the confectioners sugar/almond mixture.  The batter will be slightly lumpy.
6.) Add six drops of food coloring.  I used red to make pink cookies, but I'm looking forward to making purple and yellow ones in the future.
7.) Line some cookie sheets in parchment.  (If you want to be anal retentive, trace circle outlines on the back of the paper as guidelines.)
8.) Using a pastry bag, or ziploc with the corner cut off, pipe the batter into circles on the parchment.
9.) Let the cookies sit half an hour on the counter until they are matte and have a soft skin on the top.
10.) Bake in a 300 degree oven for 12 minutes with the door propped open by a spoon (very important).
11.) Let them dry completely on their parchment before trying to move them.
12.) Match the halves together with the jam of your choice in the middle and enjoy!

I did pink cookie halves with boysenberry, raspberry and strawberry filling but I'm looking forward to trying yellow cookies with lemon curd, lavender cookies with grape and the French are very fond of pistachio with green cookies.  Laduree also does a caramel fleur de sel which sounds off the chain!  OMG I can't wait to get started on my next batch.

Happy Macarons!

Friday, March 18, 2011

30 before 30 - #10

1. Host mah jongg night.
2. Make jam.
3. Host brunch. (Done!)
4. Go for a picnic.
5. Go grocery shopping on my bike.
6. Finish my year-end photo albums.
7. Take Fred to Lost Lake.
8. Rearrange the backyard.
9. Eat at the Space Needle.
10. Stay in bed all day.  (Done!)
11. <edited for privacy.>
12. Have a really girly slumber party.
13. Play a round of mini-golf.
14. Get the craft room sorted and gorgeousified.
15. Go for a weekend in the San Juans.
16. Have an individual date with each NGS.
17. Go for a hike.
18. Plan and cook a week’s worth of dinners.
19. Go to Portland to see old friends.
20. Perfect a signature recipe (one slightly more nutritional than Bundt cake.)
21. Go to the drive-in movies.
22. Get a mani-pedi every month. (Done for Jan and Feb!)
23. Go ice skating. (Done!  Colorado with the parentals!)
24. Find the perfect shade of lipstick.
25. Host a big tea party in the back yard.
26. Make a quilt top.
27. Take six dance classes of any kind. (Two down.  Love the Little Red Hen.)
28. Ride on a Ferris wheel.
29. Organize our finances and filing system.
        30. Plan an awesome 30th birthday party.

This is a slightly delayed post, but in retrospect I took advantage of President's Day and knocked #10 out of the park.  I stayed in bed allll day.  My view for the day looked something like this:

 It was everything I wanted it to be, lazy, decadent, relaxing and fun.  I read, napped, snuggled, talked on the phone and generally ignored my huge to-do list.  It was incredibly relaxing.  I managed to hoover myself out of bed around 5 to shower and have dinner with my favorite person which was the perfect way to end the perfect day.  Thanks Presidents!  Couldn't have done it without you!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Quilt in Progress

OK people, I've been sloooowly making progress on the 30 Before 30.  There is an unfortunate bias on my 30 Before 30 list towards things that can only be done in warm weather.  So I'm trying to knock off the winter-weather friendly items while it is still winter.  Therefore, behold the beginnings of #26, "make a quilt top".

Quilting is fairly new to me.  Two years ago, out of sheer boredom while hanging out in a fabric store, I bought a set of fat quarters and a pattern for a little lap-sized quilt.  As soon as it was done, I realized the pattern was too busy and the colors didn't go with anything I own.  Whoops!  I'm now on a quest to make a real bed-sized quilt, out of patterns and fabrics that I love enough that we might actually want to have the quilt on our bed. 

I'm struggling not to make the colors too girly, but its hard.  So far, I'm trying to stick to pink, yellow, blue, gray and a little green.  I'm following a pattern from the lovely and talented Alissa of Handmade by Alissa, and I hope the quilt will turn out looking something like her Land and Sea quilt, except instead of coral and brown, I'm going for pink and grey.  Here is the inspiration:

(From www.handmadebyalissa.com.)

So far, I've cut all the pieces to make all the squares.  The squares won't be squares until I piece them together, but before that I have to figure out which colors go with which.  So far my color study looks like this:

(Sorry for the dim light, my camera was AWOL and the iPhone wasn't quite up to the task.)  I finally got it moved onto a bed so I can really try it out and I'm suddenly doubting the color mixing.  On a bed, it looks something like this:
Again, apologies for the photography, you try fitting a whole quilt into the frame when you can only stand in one tiny spot.  A different, if not better angle:
The colors aren't really popping like I'd like, so I think more futzing with it is necessary.  (Yeah, that's the official quilting verb: futzing.)  Otherwise known as obsessively arranging, then re-arranging your squares.  I think this might be the hardest part for beginning quilters, other than the whole cutting-in-straight-lines thing which is incredibly hard to get used to.  If you're looking for tips on quilting, you really shouldn't look to me but everything I needed to know about quilting I read here

It's really nice to have a long involved creative endeavor to while away the dark winter months.  Quilting is the jam because it has so many little milestones that feel like huge accomplishments.  I cut all the squares, bam!  I figured out the measurements of the between-pieces and cut them, bam!  I finished the color arrangement, bam!  OK, I haven't actually finished the last one, but I hope to soon.  Every step seems huge, although it is a bit like crawling a marathon.  Wish me luck as I do battle with the colors!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Trim Magic!

All you people who were hoping for actual how-to tutorials on house renovation, today is your lucky day!  I recently learned the coolest method for stripping trim and I couldn't wait to share it with you.  (OMG, I have officially turned into a home renovation nerd!  I think stripping trim is cool.  Ugh.  Feel free to de-friend me on Facebook now.)

In our 110 year old house, we have a LOT of trim.  Let's see...10 rooms, 14 doorways, 27 billion windows = a metric sheeton of trim.  Most of this trim is in pretty bad shape.  My personal favorite paint job:

It's a little hard to see, but clearly someone painted over a previously heinously chipping paint job, got done and thought "oh yeah, that totally looks good!"  Who are these paint heathens?  I want to smack them.

So needless to say, in order to paint them correctly, we need to get the old paint off.  Turns out there are several schools of thought on stripping paint.  First are the "sandpaper only" people.  These are the masochists.  Sanding paint is unbelievably hard.  These are also the people without complicated molding.  Our molding has very fine details which could easily be obliterated by using any sort of motorized sander.  Sanding 27 windows and 14 doorways by hand?  NO THANKS!

The next school of thought is are the "chemical strippers".  Not like go-go dancers in gas masks, more like crusty old men who came of age in the 70's and think its fine to lather your home in a compound so toxic it makes paint melt.  Leave that stuff on there for an hour or two, long enough to breathe it in real deep, then wipe it off, and repeat until you have paint free windows.  Unfortunately, I'd really like to have non-mutant babies someday so this is also not an option.

The third school is the "heat it and treat it" school.  This involves taking a heat gun to the paint until it gets soft and bubbly and then gently separating it from the wood it has been hanging on to for the past several decades.  This school appeals to the bubble-wrap popping side of me.  It is much faster than sanding or stripping and becomes a game of how clean you can get the trim.  It does give off some chemical fumes, but not nearly as much as chemical stripping, and you don't need any physical prowess or extreme cleanup like sanding.  SO, my lazy-girl's guide to paint stripping is as follows.

Step 1.) Buy yourself a big-ass heatgun.  We got this handy sucker off of Amazon.  Ain't she a beaut?
 Industrial-like!  She's got a fun stand on the back so you can set her down while still warm.  Important note: you can't just turn off a heatgun, apparently it causes the fan to break.  This heatgun has a "hot" setting and a "fan" setting.  When you're done using it, turn it from "hot" to "fan" and set it on its back for a while until the whole thing is cool.  Then you can turn it off.

2.)  OK, find your handy piece of trim you're trying to strip.  Hold the heatgun a couple inches from the trim, and try not to point it at anything else (the carpet, the blinds cord, your little brother, etc...)  All of these things will burn and be extremely unhappy under the intense heat this thing can put off.

3.) Hold the heat gun over the paint section until bubbles start to form.

Wait until tiny bubbles become slightly bigger bubbles.

Wait for it...wait for it...when the section seems soft, slip your putty knife in at the bottom and slowly push through the patch.  Don't force, it just go slow and wait for the paint to lift off of its own volition.

Go putty knife, go!

Almost there!

Success!  Neaten up the edges while the area is still soft.

4.) Enjoy the fruits of your labor and debate whether the type-A side of you is going to make you finish the whole window.  

 (This section done in about 5 minutes.  Not bad!) 

In our case, we decided not to do the whole window since we're not ready to repaint, which could mean we'd live with the odd scabby appearance for a while.  (So instead of a whole scabby looking window, we only have a partially scabby looking window.  Which is sooo much better?)  Soon, window, I'ma show you who's the boss.  I refuse to be cowed by your chippy tyranny any longer!  We shall overcome the heinousness!  Soon...