Monday, January 25, 2010

Babette - it starts with domestic violence

My Gingerbread Husband is slightly colour-blind. No, I'm not trying to insult him. After years of fights because I've been insisting that no, the bloody cushion isn't green, it's blue, or no, my skirt isn't brown, it's dark purple, you numpty, a professor at his university finally proved for once and for all that his colour perception is slightly skewed. I have the vote of the independent adjudicator on my side, yet still he insists on interfering in all matters colour-related. Opinionated AND colour-blind: he's just looking for a smack.

The latest tussle is taking place over the Babette blanket I want to make for his sister, my Gingerbread Sister-in-Law. Yes, I know, it's my own fault but I thought he might like to be involved in the decision-making process, i.e. bow to my superior wisdom, but instead he gets all feisty and offers ... suggestions. First of all, I made him look at pages of Babette blankets in Googlespace, but he basically lost the will to live after the first three pictures, so he chose picture one on page one and insists that this is the one his sister would like. It's a very pretty blanket to be sure, and I do like the colour-scheme, but I have a feeling that his choice was expediency and not an informed decision. But, no, he's sticking to his guns - so these are the colours we're going for.

I have bought about FORTY skeins of yarn. I've laid them out every which way but still he insists the colours in the picture are different. And not only is he colourblind and opinionated, he's ALSO incapable of expressing any colour in words apart from those depicting the Olympic rings.
"Isn't there a bit too much of that yellowy-white colour?" he'll ask, plucking at the cream.
I remove the cream.
"Now there's too much red," he'll say.
"Ruby, scarlet or cerise?" I'll ask (anything vaguely red - even dark pink - comes into this category.)
He looks startled, as though I've said a bad word.
"That one," he says and points at one of them. "And put in more of that orangey colour in."
So I add a skein of copper and two peach.
He stands back and squints again.
"Nah," he says. "Still not right."
We look at the photo. "Have you got any of that bluey colour?" he asks.
I point at the lavender.
"It's different," he says, shaking his head.
I explain that it's a different yarn - the blanket in the picture was made in the US, using a different type of yarn, so the colours won't be the same as the picture, it's just a guide.
More negotiations. Finally, we have a heap of yarn that bears no resemblance to the colours of the blanket in the picture, all laid out on the sofa.
"Oh well," he shrugs, "I've no clue about stuff like this. Just do it whatever way you like."
This is manspeak for I've had enough of this girlie nonsense. My testosterone has just plummeted to critical depth - I need to go and swing a sword at an Ork.

For crying out loud. That's what he says now. I'll be fifty squares into this when he'll look at it mournfully and say "The one in the picture looks ... different." It won't be a criticism. It won't be a comment, positive or negative. He will just establish - with his sad blue eyes - that it's different.

I'm telling you: he might need a smack.

Career change, please

Whew, I've been busy. I have a ton of exams to correct and I'm getting daily offers of extra work - all of which I am politely, but firmly, turning down. I've got more work than I can shake a stick at and believe me I'm very, very grateful. Sadly, none of these offers of work come from my Top Five Jobs list, so I thought I should publish it in cyberspace, in case a headhunter from a dream factory might be trawling through random blogs.

1. A professional chocolate taster
I have more than thirty years of experience and have conducted scientific taste experiments on chocolate from all over the world. I am fluent in at least three main varieties (dairy milk, white and dark) and proficient in dozens of local dialects (caramel, strawberry-yoghurt, honeynut crisp, mint creme - among others.)

2. A bed tester
Having spent at least one third of my lifetime horizontal and comatose, I consider myself well-versed in the art of bed-judging and a discerning sleeper. I can identify a lumpy mattress within seconds and with a few well-chosen moves, I can adjust a pillow to its optimal position according to the neck/head ratio within seconds. If you want to know if your bed will appeal to the sleeping public, I'm the woman to call.

3. A full-time crocheter-slash-crafter
"Oh, you wouldn't like to do it if you had to do it for a living!" I disagree. Bring on the hooks, babe.

4. A mosaic maker or claymation animator or a surgeon
I am strangely drawn to career choices that require excellent fine motor skills: I could happily spend hours pushing little colouredy bricks into place. Or shaping plasticine penguin wings for stop motion filming. Or sewing up an artery - if I could get over my overwhelming desire to throw up over the operating table.

5. A film editor
I was going to add that to the four above, but decided to give it its own category. Cutting bits out of film, frame by frame analysis, second by second? Lurve it. Chop, chop, chop.

Anyone out there want to give me a job doing any of the above (have no training whatsoever but enormous amounts of panache), please contact me toutesuite.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Goodbye snow... hello rain

Hello all!
A special welcome to all those crafters who have come over from Crochet Pattern Central: so nice to see you. Come in and have a look around - the kettle is on, make yourself a cup of tea or coffee and take the weight off your feet. I've spent hours and hours clicking my way through CPC, so it's given me a huge thrill to see a link to MY pattern on it - woohoo! That's me! Me!

Well, the snow is melting as fast as the memory of it fades. Piles of brownish slushy snow line every path and street, people have to hop over puddles to avoid getting their feet wet. However bad it might be over here, people in Ireland are enjoying it even less. We've had an unusually cold winter in the British Isles this year. (My mother phoned me in December to report the news of our Big Freeze: "It reached minus 16 degrees Celcius in County Carlow," my mother told me in hushed awe. I had to break the news to her that I'd been forced to do my Christmas shopping at minus 15°C just that previous Saturday, but I got precious little sympathy: the point was, we're used to these temperatures in Bavaria - but this was Carlow, for crying out loud.) The snow brought complete and total chaos to Ireland and Great Britain: no-one has winter tyres for their cars (in Germany people have winter and summer tyres, the winter tyres are more suited to travel in snowy conditions), there aren't that many snow ploughs, and emergency supplies of sand and grit quickly ran out, meaning that many people were forced to take an impromptu enforced holiday and simply stay at home - roads were impassable (do you hear the collective cheering of Ireland's school children?).

Now that the white stuff is melting, local authorities in Ireland have to deal with flooding and, bizarrely, water shortages. Half the country is water-logged, the other half is schlepping buckets of water up the stairs to flush the loo. (Shakes head).

Well, the bad weather's far from over, so I thought we might take up our hooks and make a scarf to protect us from the February chills. This one's quick and (once you get the hang of the pattern repeats) nice and easy. If done extra wide with a lighter yarn, it makes a nice summer scarf as well. As you can see, I've gone for worsted weight (Aran weight) yarn in a vibrant blue.

PATTERN: Wavy Scarf

Wavy Scarf (c) O. Rainsford 2010
This pattern uses American English terms.
sl st = slip stitch
ch = chain
sc = single crochet [double crochet in British English]
hdc = half double crochet [half treble crochet in British English]
dc = double crochet [treble in British English]
tr = treble crochet [double-treble in British English]

This pattern is worked in multiples of 6 + 1 extra stitch in the first round. You need approx 150 - 200g yarn (depending on scarf length and whether you add a fringe.)

Chain 211 (i.e. 35 x six stitches, plus one extra.)
Row 1: 1 HDC in the third chain from the hook ,1 dc, 1 tr, 1 dc, 1 hdc, 1 sc, * (1 dc, 1 tr, 1 dc, 1 hdc, 1 sc, ). Repeat from * to the end of the row.
Now, your row should look like this:

Row 2: 4 ch, 1 sc in the tr below, 2 chain, 1 dc in the sc in the row below. Continue till the end, finishing with a tr in the last sc of the previous row.
Like this:

Repeat rows 1 and 2 till the scarf is the desired width.

Photo Tutorial

I'm a visual learner, so I love photos. If you're like me, I hope this will help...

The toothpicks show the sets of six stitches, they show where you’ll do a sc every time. To start off each row, we actually do one chain stitch instead of a dc. So we start by doing a hdc into the first stitch on the left of the red toothpick (third chain from the hook) and the two chain stitches create a fake sc.

Here you can see what it looks like when I have done my first six-stitch group (sc-hdc-dc-tr-dc-hdc-sc) The second sc is in the stitch marked by the green toothpick.

And so we continue, in multiples of six – the orange toothpick marks the end of the second six-stitch group and we’ve finished up with a sc again. You continue on till you’ve reached the end of row 1 and you should end with a sc at the end of a six-stitch group.

Turn your work. Now, I’m only working with two six-stitch groups, but you can see how I’d begin the second row: chain 4 (the first two are a kind of fake dc)

and then do an sc into the top of the tr in the row before. Chain 2, then do a dc into the sc of the row before:

And so you continue till the end of the row. Have a look at this – see the pattern emerging? The toothpicks mark where you did a sc in row 1 in the six-stitch group and a dc in row 2.

At the end of the row, you turn and do one chain (the fake sc again), then continue with a hdc, dc, tr, dc, hdc, sc – just repeating row 1. You can see how this row is beginning to take shape, and once again the toothpick is showing us where the last dc in previous row is, with one extra ch as our first fake sc.

Keep going! The toothpick shows the last sc in the six-stitch group.

Add a fringe and wear with pride :-)

The legal bit:
You may make these for your personal use, as gifts, or to sell at craft fairs or craft markets. You may not reproduce this pattern in print or claim it as your work. You may not sell the pattern. Do not copy and paste pattern to another website, please use a link.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Yoo-hoo! I'm here!

I'm still here! Come in, don't be shy - I wanted a more welcoming colour-scheme. I though the old one was a bit drab, a bit Victorian. I'm quaint, but not that quaint.

Need a colour fix this morning? Let me see, let me see... how about this?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

I hate January...

Boo-hoo. A forlorn and battered Christmas tree waits to be collected by the bin men. It looks so lonely, doesn't it?

A nice cup of tea

All this talk of tea has made me a bit homesick.
Irish people drink a lot of tea. A LOT of tea. In fact, we're #3 in the list of tea consumption per capita in the world, after Turkey and Great Britain. A cup of tea bookends most significant occasions in the British Isles: good news? Put on the kettle. Bad news? Put on the kettle. Just news? Put on the kettle. There are few ills that cannot be cured with a nice cup of tea (and please note, it must be a nice cup of tea): a shock must be instantly treated by pressing a hot, sweet cuppa into the victim's hands, news of an engagement will be briefly interrupted while someone sprints to put on the kettle, and many's a broken heart has been soothed by a pot of tea and a plate of chocolate biscuits.

The Germans, on the other hand, are much better at drinking coffee. They haven't really got the hang of the whole tea-drinking lark: tea is served black in cafés - if you ask for milk, you get a little jug of condensed milk. To add insult to very real injury, the tea is NOT made with boiling water. It's nearly boiling, but not quite, and that's what makes the difference between a nice cup of tea and a cup of ...sigh... tea.

How do you make a nice cup of tea? Well, for starters, you need a teapot. Sure, a mug is okay, but you have to have at least two cups, so a teapot is simply more efficient. You heat the water and when the kettle is screaming at boiling point, you pour a little water into the teapot to warm the pot, then you swish it out again. Yes, you do. You can't just plonk tea into a cold teapot, that's a barbarian practice. None of that. So you warm the pot and you add your tea, or teabags if you absolutely must, to the teapot. Then boil the kettle AGAIN. No, no, no, you can't just use the recently-boiled hot water, it actually has to be bubbling energetically when you pour it in on top of the tea. Then you let the tea draw, during which time the tea-leaves settle (any impatience at this point will mean that you'll end up with weak tea with a scum of leaves on top.) Once the tea has drawn and settled, you pour it into a nice mug - yes, porcellain tea cups are lovely, but you want to have more than two sips of liquid before you refill.

Do you think I'm exaggerating? I'm NOT. I come from a house where TEA is of UTMOST IMPORTANCE and on the subject of a badly-made pot of tea, normally mild-mannered people tend to get HET UP and PASSIONATE and then they start using THEIR OUTDOOR VOICES. My father makes the tea because - as a trained chemist - he knows how to make it properly. My mother is also allowed to make the tea, as is one brother-in-law, and my tea-making is ... well, it's endured. When I make the tea, I'm aware that my parents' beady eyes are watching my every move very closely, afraid that I'll mess up and ruin a nice cup of tea.

Occasionally a well-meaning visitor or guest will stumble into the kitchen and try to do something nice for my parents by putting on the kettle to make them a pot. Swift action follows: one or other of them will gently push the visitor aside, urging them to go and sit down, take the weight off their feet. My gingerbread husband was almost outlawed by his in-laws when he decided, in his amiable and do-goodery way, to make the tea. It was his first visit to Ireland and my mother, a little awed by the huge German that had turned up with her daughter (she was, at that point, still using the same voice with him as she uses with the hearing-impaired: very loud and VERY! WELL! ENUNCIATED! "He's foreign, Ma," I said crossly, "He's not bloody deaf!"), was powerless to stop him. She watched in horror as he flung loose tea (the wrong amount) into the (cold) tea pot and splashed (too little) water in on top. Needless to say, the kettle was not boiling - it had boiled, but long ago enough that its angry on-the-boil vibrations had stopped. Proud as punch, the gingerbread husband put the pot down on the table and covered it - with a grandiose flourish - with our thermal tea-cosy.

I'm not sure if this really happened, or whether memory plays tricks, but I do believe my mother clutched her throat. My father walked into the room and immediately sensed that some catastrophe had occured.
"He made the tea," she croaked, and pointed at the gingerbread husband, who was pouring cups of weak, leafy tea for all. My father blanched.

They silently drank their tea through pinched lips. Gingerbread husband, too much of a tea philistine to notice that his murky tea-flavoured water was in any way different to what had been made before, happily drank his, thinking he'd scored brownie points with his future in-laws. As soon as he could without insulting the hapless foreigner, my father removed the pot from the table and poured the leftover tea down the sink. He filled the kettle and set it to boil, washed out the tea pot with a splash of boiling water, added the leaves using the same measuring spoon they've been using for 35 years, then filled the pot with the exactly right amount of boiling - yes, boiling - water. The pot was placed on the table and allowed to draw and settle for a few minutes before the tea was poured.

My mother took hers the way a drowning man would grab a lifebelt. "Now, that's a nice cup of tea," she said, nodding significantly at my gingerbread husband. Husband, still innocently unaware of his faux-pas, agreed happily.

And that was the last time he was ever allowed to make a cup of tea again.

Till my father gave him a step-by-step tutorial and supervised his first attempts. I believe there may have even been a written test, as well as the oral exam, but I'm not entirely sure. Now his services as resident-tea-maker are also ... endured. They don't completely trust him, but by the time we reach our 25th wedding anniversary, the pain of that not-nice cup of tea may have finally faded.

You think I'm joking, don't you?
Believe me, I'm not.

I could make that!

As a crafter, I think we tend to look at things in different ways. Anything fibre-related in shops makes me stop and stare. Then I nonchalantly wander over, pick it up and examine it carefully: could I make that? I often put it back smugly, thinking, "I could make that!" Of course, most of the time I never do - yes, yes, I know... I just like to reassure myself that I could weave a bamboo placemat or knit a hot water bottle cover if placed in a life-or-death situation. But occasionally I'm prompted into action. Or shamed into action, might be a better way to describe it, I'm afraid.

I was in a lovely little specialty store recently, looking for a birthday present for an English friend. I had an idea: I'd buy here an inexpensive china teapot, with a tea-cosy and a packet of fancy tea. I picked up tea-cosy after tea-cosy and thought, "I could make that! I could make that! I could make that!" And then realised that I should be smacked on the wrist if I bought something that I could so clearly make, with a little effort and imagination. I browsed pattern sites online but all of the tea-cosies were far too frilly and ornate: I wanted a straigtforward, honest-to-goodness, it-does-what-the-name-says tea-cosy. So, to follow is a pattern for a Straightforward Tea-Cosy.

Straightforward Tea Cozy

Straightforward Tea-Cozy
© O. Rainsford 2010

sl st = slip stitch
ch = chain
dc = double crochet (treble in British English)
2-Dc cluster = (Yo, Insert hook in next st, yo, draw yarn through st, yo, draw yarn through 2 loops on hook) twice, yo draw yarn through 3 loops on hook.

First of all, you need a teapot. Mine – a Christmas present from Santa – is a 1.4l stainless steel teapot, standard-issue in the British Isles (can be bought at most department stores.) This pattern should also fit a china pot, it may need to be tweaked with an extra stitch here or there.

Important note: TURN your work at the end of each round, so each alternate round shows the ‘front’ of the stitches or the ‘back’ of the stitches. This is important later, when you have to work the flaps of the cosy.
The photographs show the different sections of the tea-cozy worked in different colours. You can do a plain cosy in a single colour, or alternate with stripes of different colours. Once you have mastered the basic structure, you can experiment with colours and embellishments.

Starting at the top of the cosy and working down: chain 3, join with sl st in first chain to form ring.
Round 1: Ch 3 (counts as dc now and throughout), 9 dc in ring, join with slip stitch, TURN [10 dc in total.]
Round 2: Ch 3, dc in same stitch, 2 dc in next 9 stitches, join with slip stitch, TURN [20 dc in total.]
Round 3: Ch 3, dc in same stitch, dc in next st, *2 dc in next stitch, dc in next st; repeat from * to first stitch, join with slip stitch, TURN [30 dc in total.]

Round 4: Ch 3, dc in same stitch, dc in next 2 st, *2 dc in next stitch, dc in next 2 st; repeat from * to first stitch, join with slip stitch, TURN [40 dc in total.]
Round 5: Ch 3, dc in same stitch, dc in next 3 st, *2 dc in next stitch, dc in next 3 st; repeat from * to first stitch, join with slip stitch, TURN [50 dc in total.]
Round 6: Ch 3, dc in same stitch, dc in next 4 st, *2 dc in next stitch, dc in next 4 st; repeat from * to first stitch, join with slip stitch, TURN [60 dc in total.]

Check that the tea-cosy is big enough by putting it on top of the teapot. This round part should come down far enough to just about touch the handle and the spout. **If your teapot is bigger, or wider, you might have to do one more row. In which case you would follow the instructions for round 6, but this time you would add a dc in the next 5 stitches after the double dc, giving you a total of 70 stitches when you’re done.

Now it gets a little tricky: place a stitch marker after the 30th stitch (or 35th if you have done the alternate for bigger teapots, marked ** above.)

Turn your work and begin the next round:

Round 7: Decrease by working 2-dc cluster in the first two stitches: *[yo , insert hook in first st, yo, draw yarn through st, yo, draw yarn through 2 loops on hook,] repeat from * in next stitch, then yo and draw yarn through 3 loops on hook. This creates what looks like this: ˄. Now dc in the next 26 stitches, 2-dc cluster in the final two stitches in this round. TURN
Round 8: Repeat round 7: 2-dc cluster in the first two stitches and last two stitches of this round, but with 24 dc in between. TURN
Round 9: Repeat round 8: 2-dc cluster in the first two stitches and last two stitches of this round, but with 22 dc in between. TURN
You can see the effect in the photo: the yellow part shows how we’ve decreased the number of stitches. This shapes the area around the teapot’s spout and handle.

Round 10: Ch 3 (counts as dc), dc in each stitch across (no more decreases!) TURN [22 dc in total.]
Round 11: Ch 3 (counts as dc), dc in each stitch across, TURN [22 dc in total.]
Round 12: Ch 3 (counts as dc), dc in each stitch across, TURN [22 dc in total.]
Round 13: Ch 3 (counts as dc), dc in each stitch across, TURN [22 dc in total.]
This is shown in the photo – the pink part:

If you drape the cosy over the top of your teapot, it should reach down as far as the bottom of the handle/spout. In the next round we’re going to increase again, so the bottom rounds will stretch to meet under the handle and spout sections.
Round 14: Ch 3 (counts as dc), dc in the same stitch, dc in next 20 stitches, 2 dc in last stitch. TURN. [24 dc in total.]
Round 15: : Ch 3 (counts as dc), dc in the same stitch, dc in next 22 stitches, 2 dc in last stitch. TURN. [26 dc in total.]
** If you have a bigger teapot you can add an extra row of dc along the bottom – no increases!

And that’s the first side done! Now you turn it around and do the whole thing all over again, on the other side. Start at the stitch marker and do from Round 7 on again. Make sure your work is facing the same direction as it did on the other side.

When you’re finished, it should look something like this:

Fold it over and stitch the sides of the last two (or ** three) rows together.

You can tidy up the sides by doing a row of sc (Br. English: dc) along the edges of the spout/handle openings.

This is the finished product without any edging (I'll use a contrasting colour to edge the spout/handle openings and along the bottom as trim.)

The legal bit: You may make these for your personal use, as gifts, or to sell at craft fairs or craft markets. You may not reproduce this pattern in print or claim it as your work. You may not sell the pattern. Do not copy and paste pattern to another website, please use a link.

Other ideas:

Builder's Tea-Cozy
This is the builder's tea-cosy: the no-nonsense, cuppa-tea-and-chocolate-bikkie tea cosy for the life-saving mug of tea that you need at the end of a long, hard day:

(Round 12 has been done in a contrasting colour, same colour used to edge spout/handle openings)

Straightforward Springtime Tea-Cozy

(altenate rows in contrasting colours)

Old-Fashioned Tea-Cosy

Expecting the Queen for tea, are we? Time to get out the best china...

This cosy is done in sky blue till row 14 - the last two rows, 14 and 15, are done in grass green. Simple crochet flowers are sewn on and the stems and bees are added using a simple stocking stitch.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Where's the blizzard, eh?

We were told a huge snowstorm was heading for Bavaria but so far, we've been spared. If anything, there was a slight thaw this afternoon: all my snow-shovelling at seven o'clock this morning was for naught. I feel a bit cheated. Not that I'm complaining - there's still enough of the white stuff to keep us going for a while:

But, still, Mother Nature and I will have to co-ordinate ourselves better. What's the point of falling out of the bed at an uncivilised hour on a Saturday morning, if she's going to do it for me anyway?

Sew far, sew good

I bought a sewing machine - yes, that's her, in all her glory. I haven't sat at a sewing machine since my home economics classes twenty years ago. Back then, if I remember correctly, I made a cushion cover. Ironically, the need for cushion covers to hide our eclectic collection of oft-washed-but-still-grubby cushions was what prompted me to buy my first sewing machine ever.

My little sister, who's a skilful dressmaker and designer, told me to buy a Pfaff. Not a Singer. Not a Brother. Not a Janome. A Pfaff. "They're like tanks," she assured me. “They're indestructible.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but any household appliance that comes with the descriptor ‘indestructible’ is immediately to my taste. So I made my way to the local Pfaff dealer, where a charming young lady showed me the wonders of the Pfaff range. Wowee – sewing machines have come a long way since I was last let loose at the pedal. They have a range of fancy stitches and neat little time-saving devices – some even have an on-board computer, like a spaceship. I’m not sure if they’ve been IQ-tested but I’d hazard a guess that they’re at least as smart as a baboon. And they come with a sexy iMac-colour trim: turquoise, cerise, jeans blue, deep purple. They’re the hip sewing machines on the block.

“That’s wonderful,” I said. “But what I want in a sewing machine is basically what a typewriter is to a computer. These models are like top-of-the-range laptops, and I’m looking for the electric typewriter among sewing machines. Simple. Backwards stitches, forwards stitches and maybe a cheeky zigzag. That’s really it.”
She pulled out their cheapest Pfaff model - €380 (about $550).
“It is lovely,” I said, “but I can’t even use a sewing machine so I’d prefer something cheaper to start with. Do you have anything more –” swallow “– economical?”
She scratched her head. “Well, we have a Singer for €150. But it’s not like a Pfaff. It’s not …indestructible.”
Right. And indestructibility obviously doesn’t come cheap. Knowing the wasteland of my finances in the post-Christmas period, I had to admit defeat and trudge back home.

By the time I’d got back home, I'd had a brainwave – Ebay. I’d never bought or sold anything on Ebay before, so I had to click my way through their online tutorial to figure out how on earth the whole thing worked. I found an auction for an older Pfaff model with only minutes to spare so I bid on it. I was outbid. I bid again. A minute to go. I bid again, as did a dozen other people. Refresh. Rebid. Refresh. Rebid. And I lost. Holy cow – people do that for fun?

Wiping the sweat from my brow and waiting for my heart-rate to return to normal, I realized that auctions really just aren’t my thing. No, I don’t like the element of competition or surprise – I don’t work in the cut-throat world of business for a very good reason. So I found an Ebay shop and bought one for €100. Two days later it arrived at my door. It’s precisely what I’m looking for: it sews forwards, backwards and I have a choice of three zig-zag stitches, which was probably a terribly fancy feature when it first came out. The casing is metal, the case is hard plastic, and I suspect that it is, indeed, indestructible. It’s at least 30 years old and, as far as I can tell, is still in perfect nick. The manual has a range of incredibly quaint black and white drawings, showing what the very latest in spiffy fashions was back in the 1970s when this machine was first sold – groovy trousers with appliqué apples and ducks on them, midi skirts with peasant blouses, and saucy mini-skirts for the more daring. My little machine really is a tribute to the old-fashioned German workmanship of the former Federal Republic, when 'Made in Germany' meant it was actually made in Germany, not made in Asia and assembled in a factory in a suburb of Stuttgart.

So now she sits on my desk. I gentle press the pedal and she chug-chugs. Press a little harder and the needle whirrs in a rhythmic chug-chug-chug-chug, leaving a line of perfect, neat little stitches.

Gentle readers, I believe I’ve just fallen in love.

Friday, January 8, 2010

I'm ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille (aka: I have followers! Yikes!)

"Can I borrow your camera?" I ask my gingerbread husband.

"Of course," he says. "Why this new-found interest in photography?" 

A valid question. Vast tracts of my life have gone unphotographed: I don't believe there's a single image of me between the ages of 14 and 20 (those pesky teenage years) and I myself am not known as Bavaria's answer to ... Anne Geddes. Yes, okay, okay, I admit it: I know so little about photography that I can't even name a famous photographer, bar the lady who takes pictures of babies in flowerpots. 

"I have followers," I say proudly.

He looks alarmed.

"On the Internet!" I say.

He looks worried.

"Cyber-followers," I add, hoping to make it better. I don't. "See, my blog has followers - people who actually read my posts. And I have a sneaking suspicion that they're all quite nice, so I'm going to take a few wee pictures for them - of the snow and the pretty houses in the twilight."

"Aaaah," nods the gingerbread husband. I carefully pack his camera in my handbag and begin the long process of getting ready to head out into the freezing cold of a Bavarian winter - wrap scarf around the neck, twice, three times; pull hat down over eyes, pull scarf up over mouth; squeeze into coat; try to lower arms far enough to fish gloves out of coat pocket (note that all this extra padding means that I now have the same stature as a snowman: I can just about manage windmill motions with my arms and that's all.)

"So," says gingerbread husband. "When can I read this blog of yours?"

"Oooh, whooaaahahaha," I say - which is what a startled laugh sounds like when it's delivered through three layers of scarf. "Oh, my goodness, um, well, there's nothing on my blog that you don't know already. Boring stuff. Yawnworthy."

"You must be writing something interesting," he pointed out, "if you have followers."

"It's just about the weather and crochet and baking and stuff," I say. Which it is. Isn't it? "And you feature prominently as well," I add - because honesty is the basis of any relationship, right?

He gives me a wink. "Yeah, right."

Little does he know, I think. So I give him a kiss and make a run for it, arms flailing, scarf trailing. Phew, that was close!

Yes, I'll show him my blog. Some day. I promise. In the meantime: best wishes from the gingerbread house!

Batten the hatches, me maties!

Hello all!
Thank you for dropping by again, it's so nice to see you! I hope, wherever you are, you're safe and warm on this bitterly cold January evening. A huge snowstorm has been forecast for Bavaria and we're being urged to stay at home and not travel unless absolutely necessary.

Okey-dokey. I see no other option but to stay at home, to bake, blog, craft and read... I mean, who am I to defy authority? I am, after all, a good girl (you there in the back row - stop sniggering.) Anyway, we have enough to eat for several days, we are the proud owners of four - you read that correctly: four - hot water bottles, so I think it's time to batten the hatches and get down to getting cosy... Let's roll up our sleeves and do a little baking, shall we?

Basic Madeira Mixture

I use this mixture to make what I call muffins - but they're not muffins at all. Muffins are made with oil, as far as I know, and these - the little sisters to big, beefy American muffins - are variously called buns, tea-cakes or fairycakes in the British Isles (yes, in the interests of bloggery I surveyed my British and Irish colleagues for a consensus.) So I just call them muffins, which is an easier term for my German friends to remember (and pronounce). They're made with the most basic of all baking recipes - the Madeira mixture. This is based on a 2+2+2+1 variation:
2 ozs self-raising flour
2 ozs sugar
2 ozs butter
1 egg.

Lost already, American readers? Well, I've had to move with the times and adjust it to the metric system (sigh). And self-raising flour isn't available over here - I have a suspicion that Germans consider it cheating. So here's the adjusted version that'll make approximately 20 fairycakes/muffins:

250g white flour + 2 heaped tsps baking powder
250g sugar
250g butter
4 large eggs

In the Imperial system this would've been 8 ozs flour, sugar, butter and 4 eggs (actually, 250g is a bit more than 8 ozs, but let's not split hairs.) I use a so-called yoghurt butter, a light butter for people who don't want/like full-fat butter. Believe me, full-fat butter and I are good friends, but we don't want stodgy muffins, so we're opting for a lighter butter.

Cream the eggs, butter and sugar.

Optional step: transfer the mixture to less aesthetically pleasing bowl after splattering the kitchen wall with cake batter because the pretty bowl was too small. :-(

Sift in the flour + baking powder. Mix till there are no lumps. If you want a plain muffin, spoon into paper cases in a muffin tin and bake for 20 mins at approx. 180°C/350°F. Tidy up by licking the beaters of the mixer and running your finger along the inside of the bowl to greedily scoop up the leftover batter (note: you may have to do this quickly, as children and husbands have the uncanny ability to track down and lick baking bowls and utensils. Hide in the broom cupboard if necessary.)

If you plan to add to this recipe (e.g. by making Apple Crumble Muffins), do NOT lick the beaters. Do NOT maul the wooden spoon. Put them DOWN - that's right, you heard me: put them down, nice and sloooooooowly. You're going to need them again in a moment.

Madeira Sponge Cake

Alternatively, spoon the mixture into a round baking tin and bake for about 25-30 mins (or till you can stick a skewer into the cake and it comes out clean). Leave to cool, then split in the middle, spread with jam and whipped cream. Sift some icing sugar on top and eat fresh with a piping hot cup of tea. Yum, yum.

Apple Crumble Muffins

These are delicious by themselves: they’re not too sweet and taste lovely with a cup of tea or coffee on a cold winter’s day. They also make a tasty portion-sized dessert: serve warm with a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream or in a small puddle of hot custard.

First of all, preheat your oven to 180°C (350F). For these fairycakes you’ll need the basic Madeira mixture. I used the four-egg variant. As the names suggests, you’ll also need an apple

(stop looking covetously at my swanky apple chopper. I got it at IKEA. Go and get your own), which you chop into small pieces:

You add it to the Madeira mixture and sprinkle a teaspoon of cinnamon in on top. Now you mix this quickly with your electric mixer (aren’t you glad you didn’t lick the beaters?)

Leave it aside for a moment and prepare the crumble. To make a quick crumble topping, you need a slice of butter – about 50g – plus two large dessert spoons (tablespoons) each of flour, brown sugar and porridge oats (oatmeal). Voilà:

You rub the flour and butter between your fingers till the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. With a wooden spoon you mix in the sugar and oats. It should look something like this:

Now spoon the Madeira mixture into paper cases in your muffin tin (just a tip: use a spoon to give it a good mixing before you begin. Otherwise you’ll find that the pieces of apple have sunk to the bottom of the bowl – you’ll have a batch of apple-free muffins to begin with, and apple-heavy muffins at the end.) Put a teaspoon of the crumble mixture on top of each.

Bake in the oven for approx. 20 minutes. You’ll have to keep an eye on them, as this time depends very much on the temperature setting of your oven. My old oven turned out perfect muffins after 18 minutes every single time; my new oven needs two or three minutes longer. While they’re baking, you can tidy up – yes, yes, go on. Lick the beaters and scoop up any spots of cake batter than might have dribbled down on to the counter top. You know you want to.

After 20 minutes (10 of which are spent with your nose pressed to the glass of the oven door watching the muffins rise as if by *magic*), you can test whether they’re done by sticking a skewer or wooden toothpick into one; if it comes out clean, they’re ready. I personally like to remove one, break it open and look inside. Naturally, this one then has to be scoffed quickly – nothing like a hands-on (teeth-on) test to check whether it’s really done. If this quality control is witnessed by indignant family members whose fingers you've just smacked away, just state that it’s what they ‘breakages’ in the business and all part of professional baked goods production. (Ssshhh! That's our story and we're sticking to it.)

Once again, this time with exact measurements:
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F.
250g flour + 2 tsps baking powder
250g sugar
250g butter
4 large eggs
1 apple, peeled, cored and cut into small pieces
1 tsp cinnamon

Crumble topping
20g butter
2 dessert spoons (tablespoons) flour
2 dessert spoons (tablespoons) brown sugar
2 dessert spoons (tablespoons) porridge oats/oatmeal.

Bake for approx 20 mins.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Too much yarn? Never!

I love yarn. Actually, I love colours and yarn comes in so many pretty shades... I just love it. I can't photograph my stash because it may become incriminating evidence of my general looniness, and I'm really trying to keep that under control. Suffice to say, I have a LOT of wool. Why do I love it? If you're a fellow crafter, you don't even need an answer to that. If you're not, here's a photo of the delight that is my yarn:

Luvverly, eh? I pick up my little basket and look down at all the lovely colours and my hands twitch in delight.

The reason why I've got a rainbow in my basket is that I'm trying to finish up projects that I started last year. I have a few baby blankets in progress: I've finished one and am finishing up a second. They're VERY bright, rainbow-coloured, in fact. See, babies apparently can't even distinguish pastels very well, whereas they're attracted to very bright colours. So I thought I'd give those babies a run for their money:

Oh, come on! Take off those sunglasses! It's not that bright.
Actually, it is. Brighter, in fact. The camera tends to wash the colours out a bit. But it's actually very pretty and cheerful, and hopefully some baby somewhere will enjoy it.

We Three Kings of Orient Are

Good morning, all!
More intrepid readers might notice that there are two posts for the 6th January - one was published just past midnight, this one is being written on the morning of the Heilige Drei Könige (lit.: the Holy Three Kings), or the feast of the Epiphany in English. It's a public holiday here in Bavaria. We're particularly blessed with holidays in this part of the world: Bavaria has more public holidays than just about anywhere else in Europe. And we're ecumenical, too: as well as state holidays, e.g. the 3rd October to commemorate the reunification of Germany, we celebrate both Protestant and Catholic holy days. I for one think that we should go one step further: why not celebrate a few Jewish and Muslim holidays as well? Just in the interest of fairness and equality, you understand.

Anyway, on this day in Bavaria, Sternsinger (lit. star singers) - children dressed as the Three Kings - go from house to house and sing songs or recite poems. You give them a donation (often for charity) and they inscribe C+B+M and the year above your door in chalk. (So this year, for example, we'd have 20*C+B+M*10.) There are different theories about what the letters stand for: many people think they represent the names of the three wise men, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, but actually it stands for Christus mansionem benedicat - Christ bless this house. When I first moved to Germany and saw this written above people's doors in chalk, I found it a bit spooky and I didn't dare to ask what it meant - was it a cult? Was it some kind of secret symbol? Nowadays, though, I really like to spot the houses that have been blessed.

This is our first year in this house, so I'm hoping we'll have Sternsinger at our door today. The only problem is, the groups of Sternsinger are becoming fewer and fewer: parents aren't keen on letting their children wander around the town, and few parents seem willing to go with them to keep up this lovely tradition. In any case, I have my spare change ready - and I've chalk on hand as well - so let's hope my house is paid a visit today!