Monday, August 7, 2017

Super Simple Blonde Brownies

Last week, I needed a dessert to take to a party. Unfortunately, although I had a kitchen full of ingredients, none of them added up to an existing recipe in my repertoire. So I invented one. It was very simple and pretty yummy, so I thought I'd share. I think this would be an ideal recipe to teach a young child who wants to learn how to bake things. It can be made entirely by hand, or by using a mixer.

Super Simple Blonde Brownies

10 tablespoons butter
2 cups brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
2 cups self-rising flour
a handful of chocolate chips*

*I used half dark chocolate chips and half white chocolate chips because that is what I had on hand. You can use anything that is handy, even M&M's. You can also add chopped nuts if you wish.

Preheat oven to 350F and grease a 13x9 pan.
Melt butter in a large bowl.
Pour in brown sugar, vanilla and eggs. Stir together.
Add flour slowly and stir until completely mixed in.
Pour mixture into the pan and spread it out flat. Sprinkle with chocolate chips. Bake for 30 minutes. Let cool before cutting.

Sweet chewy goodness!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Knitting Through the Year - July

When you set out on the annual family trip naturally you have to take your knitting; something has to keep you sane in face of the possibly quite ferocious situations you will be up against in the next two weeks. Try a shawl. Do not scoff; it is perfect travel knitting. A round shawl, in fine wool, on a circular needle, is my invariable companion when space is limited, waiting-around probable, and events uncertain. ~ Elizabeth Zimmermann, Knitter's Almanac 

It just so happened that our epic camping trip (epic for its distance, rather than its length) was scheduled for July. Naturally I went yarn hunting so that I could take this project with me as EZ recommends. However, my quest for "fine wool" was a little more fraught than hers. I wanted to buy some from a local store because I had left things a bit late and I couldn't be sure that an online company's shipping would be fast enough. I went to Joann Fabric where I am so well known that if I get a haircut, the employees compliment me on it and vice versa. Joann's has a respectable yarn department, though not exemplary. By which I mean that they have yarn that contains actual wool, with a small but solid selection in wool, wool-blends, and cotton. They also have more acrylic than all the other types of yarn combined, but I am mostly willing to overlook that. However, on this occasion, I came up empty. I was looking for a fingering weight yarn, which is the weight used most commonly for socks and all their selections were striped, which looks charming on socks and would very strange indeed on a shawl. Shawls get progressively bigger from their starting points; socks do not.

The next day Mei-Mei was in need of an adventure, so I carted her off to Genuine Purl, a shop in Chattanooga that has delightful yarns. However, no solid fingering weight anywhere at all. I had no idea this would be such a difficult thing to find. The only lace weight (smaller than fingering weight) yarn they had was extremely fine, and my goal for this shawl was that it would be actually useful for keeping me warm in winter, not just a thing of delicate beauty. Besides which, you cannot knit as quickly with very fine yarn, which makes me impatient. It seemed, then that the only choice was to go up, which I did reluctantly, because it felt like I was straying rather far from EZ's instructions. But I found some Berroco Vintage DK yarn, which is a good basic yarn, very economically priced, particularly for Genuine Purl, which tends towards the gorgeous and expensive.

I can't believe I have talked so long about picking out a yarn. I hope you're still reading.

EZ's circular shawl is fascinatingly simple. Starting with 9 stitches in a circular cast-on, you follow the theory of pi, "the geometry of the circle hinging on the mysterious relationship of the circumference of a circle to its radius. A circle will double its circumference in infinitely themselves-doubling distances, or in knitters' terms, the distance between the increase rounds, in which you double the number of stitches, goes 3, 6, 12, 24, 48, 96, and so on ..." 

Get it? The first round has 9 stitches, then you double the number of stitches by increasing between each stitch and you have 18 stitches. Then you knit 3 rounds and then an increase round, and you now have 36 stitches, and so on.

There are amazing things that you can do with lace patterns with a circular shawl, and many have done so. Go look at this one, or this one, or this one. They are works of art created from sticks and string. Which is lovely, but ... not what I was looking for. A circle is perfect for creating a beautiful design, but for wearing? I am not sold. I am convinced that I would look like a granny in her rocking chair before the fire, wearing a circular shawl. I could be wrong, but on a project this large, I was disinclined to take chances. I decided, instead, to do a half-circle shawl, still using the pi principles laid out by EZ. In addition to being more wearable, a half-circle, it seemed to me, would take half the time of a whole circle.

I trudged through miles and miles of plain stockinette, wondering on occasion if I was knitting a maxi dress, or perhaps a table cloth. When I finally got to the end, I took EZ's advice to knit a sideways lace border. The edge of a circular shawl must be very very stretchable. In knitting a lace border you cast on more stitches for your border, which you knit back and forth on the border and every other row you knit one stitch from the shawl and one stitch from the border together. It takes an AGE. But it makes a nicely stretchy edge and it's a pretty way to finish off a plain shawl.

You are a very loyal and patient reader, to listen to me for so long, so I shall reward you with pictures. It starts out looking rather insignificant ...

How is this ever going to be a half-circle?

... and then you block it, by wetting it with warm water and pinning it flat, and magically, it turns into something very worthwhile.

Do you see the pi?

Peculiarly, I found it extremely difficult to block this into a perfect half circle. It seems as though the edges are much more willing to stretch than the body. After blocking, I decided to put a garter stitch border on the straight edge because it was wanting to curl. This meant that afterwards I needed to block just the top edge when I was finished, and it being late in the day in July, I naturally decided that it made the most sense to block it outside, on couch cushions. Otherwise, I would have had a large, damp shawl taking up the half the bed for the next several hours.

What? Don't YOU have knitwear drying on your lawn? On couch cushions? In the middle of summer?

Here I am wearing it in the traditional manner ...

... and here I am wearing it in the blanket-as-scarf style.

I think I will get a lot of use out of it, come wintertime.

Someday, when I am very rich and have large walls to fill with art, I want to knit a lace circular shawl and frame it. At the moment, a 72" piece of art would take up rather too much room.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Tale of Eggs and Flowers

Once upon a time, I pinned this pin of flowers made out of painted egg cartons. I thought it was a charming idea, but would require a lot of egg cartons to pull off. Shortly thereafter, eggs went on sale and our weekly egg consumption tripled, making an easy job of collecting enough egg cartons for a whole slew of flowers. 

I collected clean cartons for about 2 weeks, befuddling 'Stache, and cut them into flowers. Unfortunately I don't have any good pictures of the different shapes before we painted, but essentially I cut flowers with long pointed petals, rounded petals, zigzag cups, round cups, and fringe cups (to be the centers of my lilies and daffodills). I also cut leaves from the flat parts of the cartons. Pro tip: it's a lot easier to cut 4 petaled flowers than 5 petaled flowers, especially from an egg carton!

The kids and I painted them ...

And then I glued them to a cardboard circle, which I had also painted green ...

Making a pretty great wreath, if I do say so!

We used this paint, which was very cost effective since we wanted a lot of colors and these came in a set. A few of the colors needed multiple coats (I'm looking at you, yellow!) but most were adequate with one. (Later I tried these paints on wood peg dolls and they had very poor coverage on that surface, so I would avoid glossy surfaces with this paint.) It also cleaned up quite easily.

I have about 20 photos identical to this, courtesy of Mei-Mei.

Things I did right with this project:

1. Draconian color control! I asked the kids which color they wanted to paint, and then I gave them a specific flower shape for that color. Thus, all the flowers are (more or less) recognizable. One shape might have different colors, but each color (except white) only has one shape.

2. Painting in shifts. I would put two kids in their room to play and then invite the other to come paint. They got to pick their color and I would give them 3 flowers to paint. When they were done, I would ask if they wanted to keep painting, and if they did, they got 3 more of the same shape. Mei-Mei had an incredible attention span for this project! She painted all of the leaves (both sides!) at one sitting.

3. Clean up as we went. At the end of each child's turn, they had to go wash off their own brush and I would wipe down the table so there wasn't any wet paint of the wrong color to mess up the next child's flowers.

4. Arranged the colors to be balanced but still random. After all the flowers were dry (we painted them over about 3 days) I divided them by color and placed them more or less evenly spaced around the circle before glueing them down using Elmer's. Because I had different amounts of each color, it still looks organic and random because some are spaced a fifth apart, some a quarter, some a sixth, etc.

Things I did wrong with this project.

1. I started out thinking that the kids could cut the egg cups apart and then I would cut them into flowers, but this proved to be beyond their hand strength at ages 5 and 4.

2. Also, apparently all our non-sewing scissors are crap. Might should fix that.

3. I started out with all the kids painting and me supervising, but this proved too much wet paint to juggle at the same time. Painting in shifts (see above) worked much better and the kids got some one-on-one Mama time.

4. The back of the wreath is made of flat strips of egg carton, cut and glued into a circle. I wish that I had held off until I could find a large piece of cardboard to use for my circle. It's holding up so far, but I'm seriously worried that it may not last.

We hung it in our kitchen. I love that my kids painted nearly the whole thing, and that it makes our daily lives more beautiful.

Egg cartons! Who'd'a thunk?

Friday, June 30, 2017

Knitting Through the Year - June

I will come out flat-footed and personally disapprove of crocheted borders on knitted cardigans, but without in any way trying to convert those who crochet expertly and with pleasure. May their paths run smooth. ~ Elizabeth Zimmermann's Knitter's Almanac, June 

I adore Elizabeth Zimmermann. She is more or less the patron saint of American knitting and in my head? We are best friends. Among other delightful books about knitting, she wrote Knitter's Almanac. The book is full of wonderful quips and knitting ideas and patterns that suit the natural pace of each month. I am going to follow along for the whole year. Yes, normally these sort of one-year resolutions happen at New Year's, but December-January is a mad, mad time and I'm usually doing well just to stay afloat, much less coming up with grand plans.

June's project is "a bevy of hats," very suitable for warm weather knitting.

From left to right: a tri-corner tam, a ganomy hat, and a Maltese fisherman's hat.

I grabbed whatever yarn was either convenient or cheap, dug up needles that would accommodate the yarn, and dove in. I paid no attention at all to the gauges recommended, and thus I have an adult large, a 6 month size, and a toddler's hat. Whoops.

The tri-corner tam, regrettably, was made from a cheap acrylic from Walmart that reinforced every prejudice I have against acrylic. Practically before it was finished it was looking fuzzy and worn. The hat isn't warm and doesn't feel great to wear. It feels like a project rather than a piece of clothing. However, my kids love the color and it is fun and dramatic to wear. I left out one round of increases, so the pattern calls for even more size and drama.

The ganomy hat is knit from good old Cascade 220, which made it turn out quite small. The pattern calls for bulkier yarn. Looking at it, it seems like an odd shape, but I tried it on my cousin's son and it's a very ergonomic shape. Elizabeth Zimmermann also has the charming idea that one could put a ping-pong ball or a handful of wool scraps into the end of the hat and wrap a piece of yarn tightly just below it, creating a fun bobble top.

The Maltese fisherman's hat came as a surprise. It is so cleverly designed, and in the picture shown in the book, you can't see how neatly the back of it fits to the back of the head. The ear flaps are wonderfully thick and warm. As I made it, it is just a touch small for my kids, which is a shame because they love it and I think it makes Mei-Mei look like a Mongolian warrior. (I know the pictures make it look like a typical toboggan hat, but it's very helmet-y.) I changed the pattern so that there were 4 ridges of garter-stitch above the forehead instead of the 2 the pattern calls for, because I like 1" borders better than 1/2" borders. I will definitely be making more before winter.

Aaaaand the modeling session ends with a wrestling match.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

I did a thing.

So, recently I did a thing. I (like 1 of every 3 women of my acquaintance) did Whole 30. The rules for Whole30 are here, but essentially they boil down to:

 - no sugar
 - no dairy
 - no grains
 - no alcohol
 - no beans
 - no chemical additives

Lots of vegetables.

You are supposed to follow these rules 100%. There is no internal discussion, no weighing of how "good" you've been all day vs. how "bad" that piece of cake is. You do not eat the cake. End of discussion. In fact, I was so fortunate as to make two birthday cakes for Mei-Mei (her birthday party was on the Saturday after her birthday but I couldn't not make a cake on the very first birthday she's ever had with us), and I ate exactly zero of either one. I did not even lick my fingers, which requires more strength of mind than I would have thought.

Here are my conclusions, with no attempt at order.

1. Eggs and avocados and tomatoes with chiles are life. Anything that is bland or uninspiring can be cheered up with the addition of one or more of those things. Fortunately while I was doing Whole30 (and now at the time of writing!) eggs at Aldi were a jaw-dropping 28 cents a dozen. I bought 6 dozen a week.

2. I know I just said it but: avocados. They are seriously the heavy lifters. Pretty much anytime you are trying to sub for dairy, avocados are what you turn to. Baked potatoes with avocados are seriously my new favorite thing, particularly with bacon and a poached egg.

3. At the very end of the 30 days, I made mayonnaise because I wanted to make chicken salad. I had always viewed people who make their own mayonnaise with a sideways squint, but it was shockingly easy to do and seriously delicious.
In a large mouthed jar or a 2 cup measure, layer:
1 cup oil (if you have no diet restrictions I would just use regular corn oil; otherwise use avocado oil or a very light-tasting olive oil)
1 room temperature egg
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon water
1/2 teaspoon salt
Place your emersion blender in the cup or jar down to the bottom, piercing the yolk of the egg. Turn your blender on and very slowly, raise and lower the blender until all the ingredients have been emulsified. It is almost instantaneous, certainly less than 1 minute from oily concoction to hey presto! mayonnaise.* It makes about a cup and a third and kept for several days in our fridge and certainly would have kept longer if I had put it into a jar with a lid instead of an open container.

*Note that since this recipe contains raw egg, you do NOT want to put it on a sandwich that is going to sit in a hot car while you're at Six Flags. Quick exit from the fridge into your mouth is best.

4. Whole30 is seriously expensive. During this month, 'Stache was making his usual cheap breakfasts and sandwiches, I would make separate breakfasts and lunches for me and the kids (Kids: Oatmeal? AGAIN?") and then a Whole30 or Whole30-friendly dinner. (For instance, I would make fajitas for 'Stache and the kids and I would just have the spiced chicken and onions and peppers.) And our grocery bill still rose by 60%. And that's with eggs at 28 cents a dozen.

5. There is nothing, but nothing, like cream for your coffee. Over the course of the month, I tried various concoctions and really, there's nothing like milk. On day 31, when I had my first sip of espresso and milk, it was very nearly a religious experience.

6. I was shocked by how much I apparently had been eating without realizing it. Melting chocolate for the kids to dip strawberries in: well of COURSE you lick the spoon while you're waiting on the microwave! Um no, you can't. 'Cause of Whole30. It took a ridiculous, embarrassing amount of willpower and focus to not break Whole30 in moments like these. It wasn't that I was particularly craving chocolate at that moment, but the habit was so deeply ingrained that breaking it was really, really hard.

7. Apparently wasting food is anathema. I discovered that a lot of my eating-without-realizing-it moments were finishing off the kids' plates. Hey, there's half a cheese sandwich left! Can't waste it! Um, you have to. Because of Whole30. Even worse was when it was something that I really liked. My very hardest moment in the whole 30 days was when at Mei-Mei's birthday party, I was cleaning up and some kids hadn't touched their cake. Three layers of Victoria sponge cake! With homemade pink vanilla icing! The WASTE of it! It was gut-wrenching, but I didn't eat a bite. I think if this fearsome trial had occurred on day 2 instead of day 17, I totally would have caved. Knowing I'd forfeit two weeks of hard work was a powerful motivator.

8. Once you start having to read labels, EVERYTHING has sugar! Or dairy, or flour, but especially sugar. Salsa has sugar. Beef broth has sugar. Dried fruits that are not labeled as "sweetened" have sugar. Sausage has sugar. Someone explain this to me.

9. One of the things that is rough about Whole30 is that you have to actually think about your food. (Of course, this is also why it works.) There are no mindless, stop-by-Chik-fil-A, pop-that-pizza-in-the-oven meals. Which mostly was fine, but occasionally ... it really bites. Particularly on grocery day when you're driving home at dinner time exhausted and there is nothing at all that is quick in your car and the internet serves up suggestions of paying actual money for salad-hold-the-raisins-salad-dressing-croutons-cheese-and-chicken-sauted-in-questionable-oil. My go-to lunch at home was potato and avocado and bacon. Which is awesome and I ate it about 100 times because I had no idea what to cook for lunch. People who are better prepared than me make large batches of things so that they can have something ready-made, but somehow this did not actually happen while I was doing Whole30. I blame the lack of caffeine.

10. It is incredibly easy to eat a low-calorie diet while on Whole30. (Well, sure, once you toss out bread, pasta, milk, butter, and sugar, no wonder!) While on Whole30 I was also using an app (Sparkpeople) to track my calories. In order to lose weight on the schedule I wanted, I was supposed to eat 1200-1500 calories a day unless I exercised. That seemed like a scary small number in the beginning, but most days I struggled to even break 1000 calories. And I was eating potatoes! And bacon!

On what planet do these words even make sense coming out of my mouth?

11. My best take-away from Whole30 was portion control. I have had a difficult time with portion control as long as I can remember. If one piece of pie is good, two pieces of pie are better. It didn't even have to be sweet: I can eat mashed potatoes and peas for DAYS. But with Whole30, the foods were good but not indulgent and I think that helped. I was able to retrain my brain: one bowl or plate of food = dinner. No seconds. The two times I overate (Can I even TELL you how remarkable it is that only overate twice in a whole month??) I could actually tell. It felt uncomfortable now, even though it was an amount that the month before, I wouldn't have blinked an eye at.

12. I lost 17 pounds. That was nice.

I posted all of my meals on Instagram, which was very helpful to keep me honest. 
To follow me on Instagram go here. 

When Mama is taking pictures of her food every day, pretty soon everybody needs pictures of their food every day.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017


A common question from friends, family and random strangers is, “Does she know English yet?” And the answer is, “Yes! Um, no. Well, sorta.” Also complicating the matter is the fact that Mei-Mei is almost entirely silent in public, a striking difference from the wild and screeching hellion that we know and love at home. It can be hard to explain the amount of English, Chinglish and Chinese that we have going on at home without a lengthy dissertation. So, here’s that (semi) lengthy dissertation.

Here are the words that Mei-Mei says by herself in English:
Thank you
All done
Stop it 
Thomas [the Tank Engine]
Train [anyone picking up on a theme here?]

*Mama is the same in Chinese and English.
**Bye-bye is essentially the same in Chinese and English.
***Car means vehicle. Choo-choo means a toy car or a toy train.

A lot of adoptive families use Baby Sign in their first months at home, so that they can communicate effectively from the beginning. Since we learned some Chinese, we didn’t do Baby Sign, but there have been a couple of gestures that we’ve made up and are part of our family pidgin.

Moving the hand, palm side down, over a plate of food – all done
Pointing at an empty spot on the plate – I want more of what I just ate
A buckling motion at the waist – the Tula carrier
Using both hands to push inwards along Mama’s shoulders – I want to stay in the carrier
Maintaining eye contact and opening the mouth wide (optional sticking out of the tongue) - Snapchat

Before going to China, I did lessons 1-15 with the Pimsleur Mandarin course. I highly recommend Pimsleur for people who don’t have a lot of study time per se because it is all CDs. I borrowed them from the library and kept them in the car and learned Chinese while driving around town. We have also made COPIOUS use of Google Translate, which has been a lifesaver. (If you’re heading to China, though, remember that Google doesn’t work in China unless you have a VPN.) These are the words that ‘Stache and I  know in  Chinese and use regularly:

Baba – Daddy
Gege – Brother
Mei-mei – Sister
Wo (men) – I (we)
Ni (men) – You (y’all)
Ni hao – Hello
Bu – No/not
Shi – Is/am
Haishi – Or
Keshi - But 
Ma – word that ends a yes or no question
Yao – Want
Chu – Go
Guolai – Come here
Zheli* – Here  
Nali* – There
Zai nali* – Where is
Fenxiang – Share
Xiang – Would like
Shanghai – Hurt
Peng – Touch
Hui huilai – Will come back  
Mingbai – Understand
Chi – Eat
Hue – Drink
Shuijiao – Sleep
Chin chin – Kiss
Baozhe – Hold
Ai – Love
Xianzai – Now
Guo yihuier - After a while
Niao niao – Pee
Shema – What  
Yi dian* – Little
Hao – Good
Hen – Very  
 Piaoliang – Pretty
Yi, er, san, sz, wo – One, two, three, four, five   
Shui – Water
Cha – Tea
Kafei – Coffee
Tian – Sweet
Jige – This/that
Maozi – Hat 
Wawa – Doll 

*The Pimsleur course uses speakers with Beijing  accents so I learned to pronounce these  “djar,” “nar,” “tzai nar” and “eediar.” Also, any words that end in "shi" I pronounce more like "shir."

The ideal would probably be to say a sentence in Chinese and then repeat it in English: “Ni yao shuijiao ma? Do you want to go to sleep?” (Three guesses what the answer is and the first two don’t count.) In practice, we rarely do this. It’s oddly difficult to switch gears between languages. What isn’t hard at all (for reasons I don’t know) is to mix the two languages. “Ni yao yogurt haishi ni yao orange juice?” “Xianzai ni brush your teeth, then shuijiao.” (Any linguists out there who have insights into this phenomenon, feel free to chime in!)

It’s very clear that Mei-Mei is understanding more English than she speaks (or is just brilliant at deducing from tone and context, which is also possible). We’ll say things like “We only eat in the kitchen; come back in here” or “Do you want to be in the pack ‘n’ play or go play with your geges” and she’ll respond appropriately.

The plan (the hope) is for Mei-Mei to learn English, probably taking about a year to become fluent, and for me to hang on to my Chinese, learn more, and teach the boys once they start kindergarten. Whether Mei-Mei will lose her Chinese and then relearn it again in kindergarten or whether she’ll retain it, we don’t know. Generally three-year-olds don’t hang onto their Chinese by themselves, so either way it will take a bit of effort, but we think it’s worth it.   

I'm exhausted just thinkin' about it.
Edited to add: At the time of this post, Mei-Mei was 3 and a half years old and had been home exactly two months.

Monday, January 23, 2017

How to (Successfully!) Take Your Little Boy Out to Tea

In Chattanooga, there is a completely charming little tea room called The English Rose. In college, going to the tea house was my reward for finishing finals. When I was first married, I would pinch my pennies so that I could take my sister to the tea room when she visited me. When I realized that my son enjoyed tea, I couldn't wait to take him. Here are my best tips for taking your four, five or six year old son out to tea.

(I'm writing about boys, because that is what I know best, but most of these may be fairly applicable to girls as well.)

1. Ditch the fancy clothes. It will be a temptation, particularly if the tea room in question is a fancy one, to dress your little guy to the nines. Resist. Settle for clean, coordinated playclothes. It's important that he feel comfortable. Of course, if he happens to be the 1 out of 100 boys who actually prefers a suit and tie to a T-shirt and overalls, go for it.

2. Order a child-friendly tea. Pick a tea that's not too bitter. My favorite choice is Lady Grey, but if your son hasn't had too much experience with hot tea before, go with a fruit flavored tea, one without "Zinger" in the title. Add milk or cream if he complains it's too strong, but try to avoid adding sugar. Once he learns that you can put sugar in tea, it's hard to go back.

3. Order a bowl of ice. Kids have a hard time with delayed gratification, and tend to prefer drinks that are warm rather than hot. A bowl of ice will allow you to cool his tea so that he can drink his warm tea at the same time that you are drinking your hot tea. Put two large spoonfuls of ice into his tea cup and tell him that when the ice melts all the way, he can try a sip.

4. Order an American-style dessert. Unless your child has exceptionally refined taste, he will probably not take to British "biscuits" which tend to be lamentably subtle in their flavor and sweetness. Order tea, a plate of sandwiches that you think will appeal, and a dessert that your son will think is awesome.

5. (the most important one) Ask, "What do you want to talk about?" And no matter what, stay on topic. Whatever he wants to talk about, the whole tea time. Our first tea time, my son wanted to talk about Thomas and Friends. I knew next to nothing about Thomas at the time, so I kept asking What color is [name of engine]? Is s/he a diesel engine or a steam engine? Objectively speaking, it wasn't a particularly sparkling conversation, but the lingering association of tea time is that during tea time, Mama has time to listen. 

And that is - and should be - the very best part of tea time.