Monthly Archives: January 2011

Homemade Christmas Goodies

I am writing this post in honor of my fabulous, crafty friends.

I have these three friends, and we call ourselves the PREPs.

Here we are in September 2009, with the first PREP baby {the second baby has since arrived, and the third will be here soon…!!}.

The name “PREP” goes back to the first year I worked at Camp Nawakwa, and the first summer we all worked together and became friends. We were young and definitely preppier than anyone else who worked there, and so we bought four matching A&F shirts emblazoned with the word PREP. And we wore those shirts once a week, on a designated day. Yup. We…were probably pretty silly. But regardless, we became the PREP girls.

Things certainly have changed since that first summer almost 10 years ago (i.e. we can’t fit into those shirts anymore. Also, wow. 10 years.), but we remain the PREP girls. And every year around Christmas, we get together for an annual dinner. We all bring a different part of the meal and we have a little gift exchange. The past few years, as babies, families, and lives have taken over, we haven’t done a gift exchange, and we kind of agreed to the same this year.

However. I got some amazing, lovely, gorgeous homemade goodies this year. Meredith and her husband Paul did an impressive amount of canning for some beautiful and delicious treats:

Blueberry syrup? I can’t wait to have this on pancakes, oatmeal, and ice cream. Also, she reused (sanitized) beer bottles, and apparently you can just pop on new bottle caps!

Apple butter, preserved lemons, and hot sauce. How adorable (and yummy) – I love those little canning jars.

Roasted Red Pepper spread – we sampled this at the PREP Christmas dinner, and it was delicious!

Oranges Confit…not sure how to eat these, but I’m intrigued. They’re also just so pretty!

It didn’t end there… Kelly P. made this amazing looking lavender sea salt scrub – perfect for dry winter skin! I can’t wait to try it out!

And of course, there is arguably the most homemade of homemade gifts – Kelly M.’s brand new baby, Charlie. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of him, but he’s so precious. All in all, it was a great Christmas.

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Homemade Almond Roca (Butter Toffee)

This was, hands down, the favorite thing I made this Christmas season. I have loved Almond Roca since discovering it several years ago in an employer’s Christmas basket.  It’s sweet and salty and the texture is perfect – crunchy, but not break-your-teeth hard. It had never occurred to me that I could actually make this candy at home, until I saw this post on Tasty Kitchen. And, now that I know I can make this at home, I pretty much want to make caramel and toffee all the time.

Soon after the post on Tasty Kitchen, there was also a recipe for Butter Toffee on Pioneer Woman, so I used a combo of the recipes.

This recipe is not for those afraid of butter. There are four sticks in this, plus sugar, water, salt, almonds, and semi-sweet chocolate chips. Basically, you melt the butter, add the water and sugar, and cook till it gets nice and dark. I used a 5.5 quart pot for this; the first time I made this, I actually started out in a smaller pot, but switched partway through.

I don’t have any process shots of this because, frankly, cooking sugar frightens me a bit, and I didn’t want to take my eye off of it for a second. The Tasty Kitchen post has great pics, so use that for reference.

I used a candy thermometer for this, since it seemed a little easier than trying to gauge the done-ness by eye, considering I’ve never made candy before. The Butter Toffee recipe says to cook to 298 degrees, and the first time I made this, it cooked to 298 degrees and it turned out perfect. There was also minimal burning on my pot.

The second time, however, it didn’t really go above 250 or so, and it was starting to get pretty dark and burn to the bottom of the pot, so I pulled it off the heat when it looked like the right color. The texture of the finished candy was a little off: it was a little bit sticky – meaning that although the candy was hard, it stuck a little to your teeth. After doing some research, I think that it may have had to do with the heat being too high, which led to burning, which led to me not cooking it long enough. Most recipes recommend cooking on medium heat, but the Tasty Kitchen one says high heat. I have revised the directions below to say medium. In retrospect, the fact that I had to switch pots midway through the cooking process the first time probably helped, because it cooled the mixture down a little bit so it didn’t burn. In addition, apparently overstirring can cause issues too – so I’ll have to try again with lower heat and less stirring.

When it’s done, pull it off the heat, stir in the almonds, and pour onto a large, greased, rimmed half sheet pan (or jelly roll pan).  Spread it out evenly, then sprinkle the chocolate chips on top. After a few seconds, the chocolate chips (I’m guessing you could also use other chocolate, chopped up) will be melty enough that you can spread it out evenly.

Then just sprinkle with chopped almonds, and let cool. I put mine in the fridge to help it along, and it cooled pretty quickly. I tried both scoring it and just breaking it, and I prefer just breaking it. Even though I scored it and most of the pieces broke along the lines, a lot of it just broke haphazardly anyway. This one pan was enough to fill a tin, which I brought into work. For the second batch, I included it in cookie tins that I gave to my PREP girls (with plenty leftover for me and my parents).

Homemade Almond Roca

Slightly adapted from here and here

Makes one 12″x17″ or 13″x18″ pan

Ingredients:
-4 sticks (1 lb) butter (salted or unsalted)
-2 rounded cups white sugar
-1 teaspoon kosher salt
-4 Tablespoons water
-2 cups sliced almonds
-1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
-1/2 cup chopped almonds

Directions:

  1. Grease a rimmed  12″x17″ or 13″x18″ jelly roll or sheet pan (I used nonstick cooking spray).
  2. Combine butter, sugar, salt, and water in a large saucepan or pot over medium heat.
  3. Bring to a boil, stirring gently but constantly. It will gradually change color and consistency, from thin to thick, light yellow to darker golden brown.
  4. Cook till it reaches a smooth, dark brown color, or till a candy thermometer reaches 298 degrees. This will probably take about 20 minutes.
  5. Remove from heat and add sliced almonds, stirring to combine.
  6. Pour onto baking sheet, spreading evenly with a silicon spatula or offset spatula.
  7. Immediately sprinkle chocolate chips evenly over the top of the toffee, and let sit for a few minutes to soften.
  8. Use a spatula to spread the chocolate evenly over the toffee.
  9. Sprinkle with chopped almonds.
  10. Once completely cooled, turn onto a large cutting board and use a knife to break it into pieces.
  11. Store in an airtight container.
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Baby Mac’s Chenille Quilt

When I found out that my best friend of 20 (!) years, Kelly, was pregnant, I immediately started thinking about something special that I could do for her or give to her when the baby was born. I thought about a quilt, but she’s from a family of quilters (and quilts herself), and I was worried about living up to those standards.

However, I came across this quilt on Aesthetic Nest, and immediately thought it would be perfect. It seemed pretty straightforward and forgiving (i.e. something I could reasonably do and complete), and was absolutely beautiful.

The tutorial from Aesthetic Nest is pretty clear (I also referenced this one from Made), but I did make a few changes, and I had some notes/tips on the process.

Here are the fabrics I used: a quilting cotton for the backing, and three coordinating pieces of flannel for the chenille. They were all from Joann Fabrics.

Lest you think I was super on top of it, she didn’t know whether she was having a boy or girl, and as I obviously picked boy colors, I didn’t kick it into high gear till she actually had the baby.

{I’m going to go ahead and apologize in advance for the varying colors of these photos. I have learned that PhotoShop can only do so much. And that the lights in my apartment are terrible.}

I purchased 1.5 yards of each fabric, so mine wasn’t square. I wanted something a little bigger – something Baby Mac could use, but also something that could be used as a throw (the colors also luckily coordinate with the Mac’s living room paint and furniture). After the trimming before and after sewing, it ended up quite a bit smaller (unfortunately, I didn’t measure the finished quilt so I’m not sure how much was lost).

I washed and dried the fabric beforehand. This caused quite a bit of fray, so I trimmed and squared the edges using a rotary cutter and mat. Then I layered the fabric, with the backing print side down, then the three layers of flannel. I layered it so the light blue was on the bottom, then brown in the middle, and medium blue on top. If I had to do it again, I would probably put the light blue on top or middle – it got a little bit lost in the quilt. The backing fabric is a bit larger than the flannel; I would recommend cutting it a bit closer (it will just make it a little easier when stitching and cutting at the end). I put a few pins throughout to keep the layers even.

The tutorial says to just measure corner to corner, but since my quilt was rectangular, I wanted to find the true bias. I have a handy ruler that shows the 45 degree angle, so I just lined it up like you see above and drew a diagonal line using a washable ink marker (I had this on hand from past sewing projects, but this is the one I have, from Joann Fabrics). You could also fold one corner down so that the top and sides line up, and mark along the diagonal fold. This is the guide for the first stitching line.

Now, I have a super duper awesome walking foot for my sewing machine. It’s not at all necessary for this project (and it’s sort of a pricey attachment if you don’t do a lot of sewing or quilting), but I bought it when I had a discount at Joann (yes, I worked at Joann Fabrics). And it’s really handy whenever you need to sew some layers. This was really helpful with keeping my layers together and even, but I think that the flannel is so “sticky”, they’ll probably lay pretty flat anyway.  And some shifting of layers is to be expected. I’m just not sure if they would have shifted more without the walking foot.

After you stitch the first line, flannel side up, flip over your quilt and stitch with the backing side up. These are the stitches you will see, and the top stitching tends to be prettier and any thread tension issues will be hidden on the bottom. Also, you may be able to see above that I had not figured out the correct tension on my sewing machine for the layers, so my first line was a little ugly (tension too loose).  Stitch parallel lines .5″ apart – I used the guides that came with the presser foot, but you can also use your normal presser foot as a guide (you might have to move your needle over to make it a full .5″ – just measure from the tip of the needle to the edge of the presser foot).

A few notes on the quilting process (because I’m not in any way an expert sewer, I thought I’d share some notes for other not-regular sewers who want to tackle this project):
-It was long and tedious. I don’t know exactly how long it took me, but it was spread over the course of a few weeks. I kept getting distracted or tired, but somewhere between 4-6 hours for everything would probably be accurate.
-I’d recommend testing out your tension before stitching your first line – I ended up setting mine between 6-7 (normally it’s 4). I had some trouble getting the tension correct. I also found that it worked out better if I rethreaded the needle after I wound bobbins.
-I used less than 1 500-yard spool of thread. I just used white, but you could pick a color to blend in with your background fabric.
-My lines at the ends somehow ended up curving, so I had to correct them. Luckily, I either ended up trimming off the edges, or covering with binding, so it didn’t matter too much.
-It was hard for me to keep a super straight line, so my stitches are FAR from perfect (little wiggles here and there, etc.). But this quilt is really forgiving, and really, when it’s done, no one is looking at each stitch.
-I kept running out of bobbin thread midway through a line (argh! Why don’t bobbins hold more thread?!), but I found that if I just did a few stop stitches at the start, and either cut the threads really close or pulled through to the flannel side, it worked well and you couldn’t tell.
-Wind at least 3-4 bobbins at once so you don’t have to stop and wind new bobbins every time you run out.
-I pressed my quilt after I finished stitching it to set the stitches; I’m not sure if that is totally necessary, but I was concerned about the stitches coming out because of the stopping and starting mid-line.
-I would definitely try to keep the stitches .5″ apart. Mine kept getting a bit wider, but when it came to using the chenille cutter, narrower channels would have been better.
-Speaking of, I would really recommend the Olfa chenille cutter. It made the cutting process really quick and easy. I had to rotate the blade several times because it dulled really quickly. Now, my channels were a little wide, so not all of my cuts were centered, which meant that the chenille was a little uneven when washed. I would have preferred it to be a little more even, but like I said, this quilt is very forgiving.

Here is the quilt, totally sewn and cut, but not trimmed or bound. At this point, I laid the quilt out and trimmed/squared off the edges. I ended up cutting off at least 1″ from each side. It wasn’t totally even, as I didn’t really have a foolproof way of making sure it was even (since it wasn’t square, I couldn’t just fold it corner to corner), but it was pretty close. If anyone has tips for evening out/trimming a rectangular quilt…let me know.

{I ended up finishing this up at my parents’ house over Christmas break, hence the background changes.}

Then, I used a salad plate and rounded off a corner, then used that corner to round off the other three. I really love the rounded corners on this; I think it makes it a little more special.

To finish the quilt, I used 2″ satin blanket binding, but instead of creating a .5″ border, I did a 1″ border. That meant I didn’t have to cut the 2″ binding in half, which was infinitely easier. I folded the two edges in to the center and pressed, then pinned around the edge of the quilt, using extra pins on the corners. I folded under the edges and overlapped them – this made it pretty thick, but it made sure there weren’t any raw edges showing. Then, I stitched around the edges, getting as close as I could to the edge, removing the pins as I went.

-Be careful that you catch both sides of the binding when sewing – don’t get too close to the edge, because if it’s pinned unevenly, you might miss the underside binding and have to start over. Not that I did that or anything.
-Don’t go too fast – it’s easy for it to get derailed, especially on the corners. I just stitched and carefully rotated the quilt when I got to the corners, holding the binding and kind of using my fingers to keep it flat and even.
-My corners (and the rest of the binding stitching) were a little wonky, but you really couldn’t tell that much.
-You could also finish this using traditional quilt binding, and create your own binding or use pre-made quilt binding (that was my original plan, but they were out of the right color when I went. I’m glad I went with the satin blanket binding now.)

Here’s the quilt with the binding complete but not yet washed. It’s still really pretty at this stage, isn’t it? After you admire your handiwork, throw it in the washer with a little detergent, then dry it.

When you pull it out of the dryer, you will be rewarded with fluffy little rows of chenille and a slightly more puckered backing.

I finished this up right before the annual PREP Christmas dinner with my favorite girls, so I was able to give it to Kelly while I was home for vacation. I think she and Baby Mac loved it, and I’m so glad I got to give her something special and made with love.

It was the first time I’d broken out my sewing machine in months, and it was so great to get back into the swing of it – there’s such a nice rhythm to sewing, and creating something, especially as a gift like this, feels so amazing. And I’m planning on making more of these, so hopefully my technique will be refined!

{Speaking of homemade, I got some amazing homemade goodies from said favorite girls this year. Separate post to come; I think I’ve made you read enough so far.}

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