Batty for Halloween

Bat quilt

Being an American, living in the UK, there are a variety of things that I miss (and don’t miss). I miss boxed cheesy macaroni. The kind with the silver package of artificial cheese spread that you squeeze out of the packet onto steaming hot macaroni shells. I swear they put some addictive chemical in that cheese because, while I’m all for homemade, there ain’t no homemade mac&cheese I’ve tasted that compared to what’s in that box.

Sad.

Another thing I miss? Halloween. Celebrated properly. With lots of little kids dressed up in the neighborhood, ringing doorbells, shouting trick or treat. Candy corn. Caramel apples. My grandma used to give out caramel apples as treats. Mind you, she lived in the country side and you had to be driven there to get them, so she didn’t have to make many. Scarecrows on porches. Pumpkins as decorations. Jack-o-lanterns at every house. Over the past decade or so that I’ve lived in the UK, Halloween has started to be more celebrated here but it hasn’t reached anything remotely approaching US standards. I try my best to encourage the neighbors to get into it by putting up Halloween decorations. I even screeched to a halt in my car the other day when I was going by a specialty greengrocer that happened to have small gourds for sale. Some of them are now sitting on my windowsill for decoration. The acorn squash, quite difficult to find here, is now in my belly.

A decoration I recently completed was my Batty for Halloween quilt, which I briefly mentioned before. I bought some Halloween fabric a couple of years ago when I was in the US during that season and finally found the perfect pattern to make with them. I mean, really perfect pattern!

I used a seam ripper a bit on this one as I did have trouble getting the bat wings from the 3 columns lined up. But the quilt top went together in an afternoon so it wasn’t that bad!

DSC04154

Because I didn’t have a specific project in mind when I bought the fabric, I only had a fat quarter of the fabric I ended up liking for the backing, and it wasn’t quite wide enough for the quilt top. So I cut some squares from my Halloween fabric scraps and added them to the backing fabric.

Halloween fabric

I machine quilted using stitch in the ditch but, because I followed the bat outlines, you see bats on the back too. Which I’m really loving. Look closely and I hope you can see them too.

quilted bat outline

Then, because I miss candy corn so much, not only did I have candy corn bats, but I bound the quilt with that fabric too.

binding fixed

I’m working on more homemade Halloween decorations. Soon I’ll have too many and I’ll be completely over the top. It’s just part of my nostalgia! Do you celebrate Halloween?

Appetite Disturbance

Appetite Disturbance

I like baking. I like baking cakes, especially. I especially like blogs that show cake baking at its finest. Like this blog and this particular cake. That is a lot of cake. And icing. And macarons. But really when would making such a cake be warranted? Can I really justify making this cake, and during the week, no less?

Sure can – because it’s World Mental Health Day today! And today at work there is a “bake-off” fundraiser. Each year, on October 10, the Mental Health Foundation holds a global celebration to promote mental health education, awareness and advocacy. The theme for 2014 is Living with Schizophrenia. The Mental Health Foundation website provides information about schizophrenia, and suggests holding a Tea and Talk fundraiser. Because this is for charity, I really wanted to bake something spectacular. I think that THAT cake fits the bill. For the bake-off, we need to name our cake. I’ve named mine “Appetite Disturbance” which is a symptom of schizophrenia. But it may also be what happens to people when they eat this cake.

Obviously this isn’t my recipe. I’m just following instructions – which are rather lengthy but very well-written. It is, however, an epic cake and I’d like to share my experience making it.

I typically make a cake, all of it, even an elaborate one, the day before I’m going to serve it.

This cake required different three different kinds of icing: Swiss meringue buttercream frosting, ganache, and a glaze. Even the buttercream was split into three different flavours: vanilla, strawberry and chocolate. 2 (yes, 2) flavours of macarons. 3 cakes cut in half horizontally to make a 6 layer cake. Didn’t I say that was a lot of cake?

Even if I stayed up all night, I wasn’t sure that I would finish it. So I started on Tuesday, making the buttercream and one batch of the macarons. The next night I made the other batch of macarons, ganache, and the cakes. Yesterday I make the glaze, and then put everything together. Putting it all together was relatively easy. But here’s some problems that I had, which I normally wouldn’t have had if I would have made it all in one go.

First, the buttercream. I would normally make this and then frost/ice the cake immediately. But the instructions said the buttercream could be left in the fridge for 5 days before use. I’m good at following instructions. But when I got it out of the fridge, it was obviously very hard to spread and I wasn’t sure whether to leave it out to get warm – which would have taken forever – or what. So I stirred it to get it warmed up. And it curdled and stayed curdled. No picture here. It’s ugly. I was about to throw it out and start again, but then remembered that handy invention called the web. I internet searched for how to “un-curdle” swiss meringue buttercream. Hint: heat up about ½ cup of the curdled stuff in a microwave, until it’s runny, and then while the mixer is going, pour the heated stuff back into the mixer with the curdled stuff and the icing will become smooth again. True story.

Second, the macarons. Wanna know how many videos I watched on how to make macarons before I made them? No, trust me, you don’t. I’ve actually made them twice before. The first time, they were near perfect. The second time, they were close to inedible. The thing about macaron dough is that if you under-mix, then you get cracks in the top which is not how it should look like, and if you over-mix, then you don’t get the classic “feet” – you just get a very flat meringue/sugar disc. This time, when I made the strawberry flavour, I thought I was nearly to the point of over-mix and was worried about lack of feet. But they turned out great! You can see them on the top of the cake.

For the chocolate flavour, I really didn’t want to push it as close as I thought I had with the strawberry so I didn’t mix it as much. And while I got feet, the macarons aren’t smooth and shiny on the top, and a couple are cracked. So I think that was slightly under-mixed.

Chocolate macarons

For that reason, none of the chocolate macarons are displayed on the cake top, only inside the cake.

macaron inside cake

Third, the ganache. Ganache can split/break/separate. Essentially instead of a nice shiny glossy smooth chocolate spread, you get a grainy oily mess that has no business being put on a cake. When I made the ganache the night before I needed it, it was fabulous. Exactly what you expect. Then I put it in the fridge to microwave the next day. The instructions said I could! I was very very careful about not putting the ganache in the microwave for too long between stirs, but I could see it was close to separating. It finally came together but I did have to give it a zap during the cake construction process because it kept going a bit grainy.

In the end, the cake came together fine.

Second layer

The second of six layers. Ganache and macarons.

6 layer cake

6 layer naked cake. Don’t worry – it will look better in a minute.

Not naked cake

I just had a few panics during its construction because of my inexperience in storing individual bits and then putting the cake together. Overall, I think it looks pretty good. I’m hoping that I won’t be able to show you what it looks like inside, in a future post, because it means the cake will be all gone. More money for the charity and less temptation for me.

My next challenge? How in the world am I going to get this cake to the office for the bake-off?

cake light 2

 

Blog hop? Who me?

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I haven’t been blogging long but have already found such a welcoming spirit in this electronic world. I was nominated by the very talented Hayley Margaret from A Stitch to Scratch (don’t you just love, love, love that blog name!) to participate in a crafty blog hop. I’m not sure where it originated but I’m so surprised but also chuffed to be included! I answer 4 questions below and then get to nominate two other bloggers to participate.

Why do I write?

Most of what I write is really formal, related to work. Lots of technical words, no flowery adjectives allowed, precision writing that takes care and a lot of time. All important and necessary, but lacking personality. When I decided to start a blog, so that I could keep ‘fieldnotes’ on my fabric and flour projects, it also gave me the opportunity to write in my informal voice, the way I would talk to a friend. For me, blog writing is a really quick way to express my creativity, whereas my professional writing is a slower way to describe a different aspect of my creativity.

What am I working on?

I’ve got so many projects, both fabric and flour, that I’m either in the middle of or want to start. To keep track of my fabric projects, I made my own clip boards, out of card board and a bull dog clip, backed the clip board with crafting paper that had quilt-y themes, and then printed my lists using free downloadable backgrounds and fonts (thanks, Pinterest!). I have four which hang next to my cutting table.

mini quilt clipboard

I’m after some washi tape to dress up the bull dog clips and make them look less…boring.

But what I really need to finish is this Halloween quilt.

bat quilt top

Bat quilt top

backing of bat quilt

Quilt back

I “only” have to make it into a quilt. I like piecing quilt tops together, but haven’t embraced quilting yet. To finish in time for this Halloween, I’ll probably just stitch in the ditch, and grumble the whole time. I hope to post about this project soon.

For flour projects, my workplace is sponsoring a charity bake-off on Thursday, which I’ve entered. My planned bake has 6 layers and includes macarons. I’ll be posting about whether this went to plan (or not!) later this week.

How does my blog differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm….Uh….[long pause]. I was inspired by a lot of baking and quilting blogs. And something I noticed in the ones I found particularly inspiring was that I got a real sense of the passion and personality of that person. So in some ways, I hope my blog isn’t that different from others of its genre, because I want to share my passion for crafting and baking, in my own voice. If that happens to inspire someone to do a particular project or make a particular bake, then I’d be chuffed about that too. Oh, and the pictures on my blog are different (read: worse) than other blogs – definitely a skill I need to improve!

How does my writing process work?

I literally just sit down and write as if I was talking to a close friend. Although in normal speech I probably swear…And I keep a list of ideas for posts and work on them when the moment strikes. Blogging has also meant that I need to keep crafting and baking so that I can keep posting. It’s my own way to keep myself inspired and motivated.

The blogs I’d like to nominate next week are:

First, don’t forget to follow A Stitch to Scratch! Then, when you’ve done that, you should check out these relatively new bloggers. This took me awhile because there are so many inspiring blogs out there. But…I finally chose based not only on content but, because I want to improve my photography, I’ve chosen blogs whose photos I very much admire. They also happen to be hosted by couples.

I’d like to nominate Perelincolors, a blog about travel to gorgeous places. I love their “About” page too because their posts are inspiring – just what they set out to do. They are also relatively new bloggers and so I’d like to give a shout out to them.

My second nomination is for Amaryllislog. A mix of fabulous photography and entertaining commentary on life, crafts, cooking, nature, and did I mention the photos? This is a more established blog and I’m sure I can learn a lot from them.

Bad blogger, bad!

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I’m new to blogging (learn more about me here and why I blog here) and registered for WordPress’s Blogging101. Each week day we get an assignment to help us understand “good blogging” and improve techniques. There will be 30 days of assignments.

One recent assignment was to take the Daily Prompt, another writing tool provided by WordPress, and write a post around the prompt. The prompt for October 2 was “Ready, Set, Done”.

At Day 13, nearly half way done, I’ve found Blogging101 to be brilliant. I was ready to start blogging but didn’t have a clue how to go about it. I’ve posted a few times now, learning and remembering each time. For example, I kept forgetting to tag and categorize my posts but I think I’ve set up my system for posting so that I won’t forget. However, I have an admission to make, as I’m feeling kinda guilty – I’ve only done about half of the assignments. Part of this is due to technophobia. Part of it is time. Part of it is that I can’t believe that I’m blogging to begin with (squeal) – something I never thought that I’d do but am now having loads of fun doing!

So for my Blogging101 community (and the blogging community in general), please let me dull my guilt by apologizing. I’m sorry that I haven’t been a good neighbor, that my widgets aren’t in order, and that my sidebar lacks links to blogs I love. Hopefully I’ll catch up soon, but in the meantime, let’s all just keep on having fun! Ready, set…blog.

Put a zip in it!

At the end of August, I saw this tutorial for a cute shark pencil case that I thought both boys would love. I showed the picture of the finished product to them and got animated nods to go ahead. I was hoping to have them made in time for the start of school.

Shark fabric

But that was delayed -I just couldn’t get my head around some of the instructions and was less than enthusiastic about putting in a zipper “in the round” no less. I have no formal sewing training and had never put a zip in anything (although I was frequently asked to “put a zip in it” but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t a reference to sewing!). It didn’t help that a lot of comments from crafters about the tutorial indicated that they were having difficulty seeing how the zipper was put in. I have no idea why I decided to go ahead. Partly I didn’t want to disappoint the boys, and partly because I love a challenge – it can’t be that hard, can it?

Ahem.

To make the outside of the sharks, I used Comma pre-cut charm squares, a Zen Chic for moda line. Not sure when this came out but I’ve had it in my stash for at least a year. It’s a great mix of charcoals and black. The inside was a scrap of red fabric that I’ve had in my stash since, well, I started a stash. Putting together the outside of the shark was relatively simple.

Shark body

But I got stuck on number 4. So a clarification of the methods: from instruction number 4 – 8, this refers to the FINS only. Finally figured that one out.

Zip attempt number 25!

Then came the zip (and inner lining). I pinned these two layers to the shark in lots of different ways and then tried to turn it the right side out so that I could see which way was correct. I stabbed myself with pins a lot doing this. When I finally I thought I had it figured out, I started up the sewing machine. A normal foot wasn’t going to work as the space was so small. I tried using my zipper foot – of which I have 0 experience and for which I couldn’t even get it to stay on. So I took the foot off and sewed without a foot. At all. That’s probably all sorts of major sewing rules completely thrown out the door. Afterwards, I thought I should have tried my darning foot, although I’m not sure that would have worked either.

I first sewed the zip to the shark and then sewed the red inner lining to the zip, rather than do both the zip and the lining to the shark at the same time. The primary issue with sewing without a foot is that it is really hard to keep the stitches straight. Once sewn, I used some hand stitches, especially at the mouth corners, to help stabilize the zip.

DSC04107

All things considered, I don’t think the zipper mouth, open, looks too bad. A bit wonky on one edge because of the wobbly seam.

The main issue is how the zip closes. It hardly looks professional and it bugs me…deeply.

Finished shark

One thing about using templates is ensuring that they are printed out at the right scale. I thought I had printed out the template at 100%, but the final shark did seem pretty small with lots of excess zip (in the end I cut the zipper shorter) and the pouch wasn’t quite deep enough for new pencils. Argh. So maybe I didn’t print it out to the correct scale.

All these problems I could see in the finish. But the lovely thing? When I handed them over to the boys, they saw none of these. They just simply loved that their mum had made them a “cool” shark pencil case, which they now keep in their school desk and contains well-loved (read: short) pencils. So while the imperfections may annoy me, the joy I received from their non-judgmental reaction helps me to move on from those mistakes. In the end, it appears, I learned more from this project than just how to swear at a zipper.