Thursday, December 22, 2011

My Gingerbread Cookies!

For several years when I was still teaching I made these gingerbread cookies and gave them to my colleagues for Christmas.  It was a thoughtful and inexpensive way to say thank you for all of their help throughout the year.  These cookies were always a big hit!  

If you would like to make some, I should tell you that they do take a little more time than some other holiday cookies, but they are pretty simple to make.  White chocolate, instead of the usual sugar frosting, give these cookies a special and unexpected touch!

You can use any gingerbread dough recipe for these cookies.  My favorite is the one for "Gingerbread Cutouts" from The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, which I have included at the bottom of this post.  Once you finish making the dough it needs to chill for at least three hours before you can roll it out and make the cut-outs.  I like to use a large star-shaped cookie cutter, but you can make whatever shape(s) you like.  I also sometimes make some gingerbread people.  I have found that lining my baking sheet with parchment paper, instead of greasing it, makes it easier to get the cookies off the baking sheet without breaking them.  I should also add that if you use the recipe below, and you use large cookie cutters like I have, you should expect to get about 10 cookies per batch of dough.

Once you have made your cookies and allowed them to cool, you can get ready to frost them.  You will need some white chocolate (or other candy) disks.  When I first began making these cookies I was able to obtain some wonderful white chocolate from a specialty chocolate store.  Unfortunately, the business closed some years back.  This year, I used some vanilla candy disks (the kind used to make lollipops) from the craft store -- technically not chocolate, but they were still yummy!  More importantly, they were inexpensive, easy to melt, and cooled quickly.

Melt the candy according to the package instructions.  Personally, I like the double-boiler method, but some candies you can even melt in the microwave right in the bag!  If you use the double-boiler method, once the candy is melted, pour it into a sturdy plastic bag (like a Ziplock-type bag).  You will use this just like a pastry bag.  

Cut a small, and I mean SMALL tip off the corner of the bag.  I learned the hard way to not cut the hole too big or you will have melted candy gushing out all over the place!  Use the bag just as you would a pastry bag for doing cake decorating, only decorate the cookies instead.  If the melted candy is oozing out too quickly, you might have to wait a few minutes for it to cool a bit, which should slow it down some.

Your cookies are decorated, so now what?  Well, what I like to do is take the time to get some really nice cellophane bags to package them in.  You should be able to find nice bags at a craft store like Michael's, ACMoore, or JoAnn Fabrics.  Then add a nice Christmas ribbon to finish it off!

 Here is a tip for tying the ribbon to the bag:  Gather up the top of the bag and use a clothespin to hold it in place while you tie the ribbon on.  I usually cut a piece of ribbon about 18" long.  You can always trim a tiny bit off after tying the bow to make the ends look even.  You can add a homemade label or gift tag to the bag as well.  I usually get some store-bought self-adhesive gift tags and stick them to the back side of the bag.

So there you have it!  A pretty inexpensive yet thoughtful gift to give someone you just want to say "Thank You" to.  These are perfect for co-workers, teachers, hairdressers, mail carriers, etc.  I can guarantee you they will love them!

The following recipe is my slightly altered version of "Gingerbread Cutouts" from The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook (1996 edition).

Gingerbread Cookies

½ Cup Shortening                                ½ tsp. Ground Cloves
½ Cup Sugar                                        ½ Cup Molasses
1 tsp. Baking Powder                            1 Egg
1 tsp. Ground Ginger                            1 Tbs. Vinegar
½ tsp. Baking Soda                              2 ½ Cups All-Purpose Flour
½ tsp. Ground Cinnamon

In a mixing bowl beat shortening with an electric mixer on medium to high speed 30 seconds.
Add sugar, baking powder, ginger, baking soda, cinnamon, and cloves.
Beat until combined, scraping bowl.
Beat in the molasses, egg, and vinegar until combined.
Beat in as much of the flour as you can with the mixer.
Stir in remaining flour.
Divide dough in half.
Cover and chill for 3 hours or until easy to handle.

Grease a cookie sheet; set aside.
OR line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

On a lightly floured surface, roll half the dough at a time to 1/8 inch thick.
Using a cookie cutter, cut into desired shapes.
Place 1 inch apart on the prepared cookie sheet.

Bake in a 375ºF oven for 5 to 8 minutes or until the edges are lightly browned.
Cool on cookie sheet 1 minute.
Transfer cookies to a wire rack and let cool.
If desired, decorate cookies with icing and candies.

For Gingerbread People:
Prepare as above, except roll dough to ¼ inch thick.
Cut with 4 ½ to 6 inch people-shaped cookie cutters.
Bake in a 375ºF oven for 6 to 8 minutes or until edges are lightly browned.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Easy & Elegant Tissue Paper Flowers

Make these beautiful tissue paper flowers to add a handmade touch to your gifts this year!  All you need to make them is some tissue paper, a pair of scissors, and a piece of string.

Let's get started!  

First, cut your tissue paper into approximately 6" squares.  There is no need for exact measurements here (The larger your squares, the larger the diameter of your flower will be).  I took my tissue paper and folded it into thirds the long way, cut three equal-sized strips about 6" wide, then folded those strips in thirds and cut them to get a bunch of squares.  For really full flowers like these here, plan to use 5 - 6 squares of tissue paper per flower.  You can use less, but they just won't be as full.  The more you use, the fuller the flowers will be.

Stack your tissue paper squares directly on top of one another.  

Beginning at one end, accordion fold the squares, as you would if you were making a paper fan.  Make a fold about every 1/2 inch or so.  

Keeping the tissue folded, find the center (I do this by folding it in half) and cut two small slits on either side of it.  Your slits should be perpendicular to your fold lines.  Do NOT cut all the way through the middle!   Just cut close to the middle without actually going through.  You are cutting these slits for the cording that you will tie to hold the layers of the flower together.

Cut an approximately 18" long piece of cording (or yarn, string, ribbon, whatever you have on hand), and wrap it around the center of your accordion folded tissue.  Do this in such a way that the cording slides into the slits you made in the previous step.  Then tie it in a knot to secure.  Leave the ends of the string.  You can use these to affix your flower to something when you're finished.

Next take a pair of scissors and cut the ends of the accordion into a nice curved shape.  Doing this will give your flower pretty, rounded petals.

Now comes the fun part!  

Spread open the accordion folds.  

Starting with the top layer, CAREFULLY pull up each layer of tissue paper toward the center of the flower.  
As you do this, you will begin to see your flower take shape.  I recommend doing the top layer on each side, then moving on to the second layer on each side and so forth until you have pulled apart each of the six layers.

Tie your flower to a wrapped package, a gift basket, or a bottle of wine!  You can make an entire bouquet if you like!  Just use some green pipe cleaners instead of the cording to tie off the center of your flower and form it into a stem.  Layer different colors of tissue paper instead of using just one color.  Let your imagination go wild.

Have fun!

Monday, December 19, 2011

My List of Children's Books About Quilts & Quilting Part 2

This is a follow-up to my previous post where I began my list of favorite picture books for children about quilts.

So, onward with the remainder of the list....

I discovered The Secret to Freedom by Marcia Vaughan at our library.  The story is set in the years before the Civil War and tells the story of Lucy, a young slave on a southern plantation, and her older brother.  Lucy learns the "secret to freedom" when her brother brings home a sack full of old quilts.  He explains to her what all the different patterns mean for slaves trying to reach freedom by means of the Underground Railroad.  Lucy decides to help by hanging out the "right" quilts at the right time for the runaways that depend on the messages.
One thing I really liked about this book was the Author's Note at the end.  In it, the author explains the quilt code further and describes the most important patterns used in the Underground Railroad.

Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors isn't really about quilts, but it is a sweet story about a little girl whose mother sews her a coat made of fabric scraps (much like a quilt).  When the children at school laugh at her coat, she tells them how her mother stitched the coat with love and that it is worth more than gold.  "And though we had no money I was rich as I could be in my coat of many colors that mama made for me."

Eight Hands Round:  A Patchwork Alphabet by Ann Whitford Paul is a really unique alphabet book that teaches children the names of twenty-six different quilt block patterns.  It is a "creative look at a meaningful folk art tradition."

The Quilt-Block History of Pioneer Days by Mary Cobb is another of my favorites.  I'm just going to quote from the back cover on this one.  "In this book you can find out what dozens of quilt-block designs -- from a simple nine-patch block to Martha Washington's star -- tell about America's early days.  Easy papercraft projects will let you make your own quilt blocks without sewing a single stitch."  

This book would be especially useful in an upper-elementary classroom where students are learning about pioneer days.  It's a great way to incorporate art as well as mathematics with social studies.

 I stumbled upon The Log Cabin Quilt by Ellen Howard at a second-hand store and knew it would be a fine addition to our collection.  It tells the story of a pioneer family that sets out for the woods of Michigan from Carolina.  The mother has recently passed away and the grandmother refuses to leave behind her flour sack of fabric scraps.  The three children, along with their father and grandmother, try to make their new log cabin feel like home but to no avail -- until one cold and bitter evening when the children find a unique use for the fabric scraps.

My final book is Sewing Quilts by Ann Turner, which "captures the importance of quilting and the simple joys and fears of a little girl growing up in the early twentieth century."  The little girl watches her mama sew a log-cabin quilt, and she knows that, somehow, the quilt will keep her family safe from harm.

So, that completes my list.  I'm sure that as time goes on, we will acquire more books similar to these.  I'll just have to add a part 3 if that should happen!  I hope you have time to check out some of these books from your local library and possibly even add them to your own collection some day!

Happy reading!  Happy quilting!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Crocheted Snowflake Ornaments

Need a quick and elegant last-minute project for the holidays?  How about making some crocheted snowflake ornaments?  All you need are basic crochet skills, a few simple supplies, and you can make a couple of these in an hour.

Some of the patterns I used for these snowflakes are from the book Beyond the Square:  Crochet Motifs.  The designs I chose can be found in the hexagon section of the book.  I also tried a couple of the free snowflake design patterns on the Lion brand web site.

For the snowflakes shown here, I used "Vanna's Glamour" yarn in "diamond," which is a white yarn with a silver metallic thread woven throughout.  I like this yarn because it gives the finished snowflake a little sparkle without my having to do the extra step of adding glitter during the stiffening process.  
I used a size D3/3.25mm crochet hook to get the size snowflakes I wanted.  You could certainly use a larger hook with this yarn.  Experiment to see what you like.

Once you have crocheted your snowflakes, you will probably want to use some sort of stiffener to finish them off.  I used a simple method of dipping them in a mixture of equal parts white glue and water.  I first measured and mixed up the glue and water.  Next I saturated the snowflake in the mixture and squeezed out the excess.  Then I lay it flat on a tinfoil-covered piece of cardboard (thicker is better).  I used sewing pins to keep it in place while it dried -- about 24 hours.  

There are many different methods out there for stiffening crocheted snowflakes -- spray adhesive, glues, starch.  For your convenience, I have included a list of web sites that I found particularly helpful at the bottom of this post.

There are many different ways to give these beautiful one-of-a-kind ornaments.  Besides giving them as stand-alone gifts, you can use them to embellish a store-bought gift.  
How about giving one to your child's teacher (along with a thank you card made by your child)?  
How about leaving one in the mailbox for your mail carrier?  
Slip one over the neck of a bottle of wine for a lovely hostess gift.  
Making a gift basket for someone on your list?  How about replacing the bow with a snowflake instead?  
The possibilities are endless!  
No matter how you decide to give them, I hope you have fun making these simple, inexpensive, and elegant gifts for your friends and family!

Want to learn more?  Check out some of these web sites:

Click to download the free snowflake crochet patterns.  It will take you to a pdf file.  Pages 2 and 3 of the pdf file have some great information on stiffening and describe a few different methods.

JPF Crochet Club
Click where it says to download the free pdf file for the snowflake pattern shown.  If you read through the pdf file, you will see a description of how to stiffen the snowflake using fabric stiffener.

This page describes how to starch a crocheted snowflake.

Great site with lots of information about making crocheted snowflake ornaments.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

My List of Children's Books about Quilts & Quilting (Part 1)

I've realized that I have a "thing" for children's books that feature quilts and/or quilting.  I seem to have amassed a small collection of these types of books -- most of them purchased before I even had children!  I guess I used the excuse of being a teacher to make some of these purchases, since you can never have enough books in your classroom.

Anyway, I thought it might be a nice idea to compile a list of the titles we own and then add to it as I discover more titles along these lines.  So, here goes....

I absolutely MUST begin this list with The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Fluornoy, for this is the book that really started it all for me.  It was after viewing an episode of the PBS show "Reading Rainbow," featuring this book, that I became interested in making quilts.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The Patchwork Quilt is a beautiful story about a little girl who loves listening to her grandmother as she pieces a patchwork quilt made of fabric scraps from every member of their family.  The little girl learns how to sew the patches onto the quilt too, and when her grandmother becomes too ill to work on the quilt, the little girl and her mother finish it.  It is a wonderful story, not just about quilting, but about the love within a family.  As well as being featured on "Reading Rainbow," this book was a winner of the Coretta Scott King Award.

Patricia Polacco's The Keeping Quilt is the next book in our collection.  As with most of her work, this is a story rich in family tradition and accompanied by Polacco's signature artwork.  It is the story of a quilt made by Patricia's great-great-grandmother and passed down through her family for almost a century.  

Throughout the story, one generation after another uses the quilt to mark special events in their lives.  The quilt is used as a Sabbath tablecloth, a wedding canopy, and a blanket to welcome each new baby into the family.  Patricia Polacco's The Keeping Quilt is "a heartwarming story of one family's special symbol of enduring love and faith."

The Quiltmaker's Gift by Jeff Brumbeau is a "charming fable for our times that celebrates the joy of giving."  It is the story of a generous quilter who gives away all of her quilts to the poor and needy.  An angry and greedy king decides that HE would like one of her quilts, but the quiltmaker will only agree under one condition -- he must give away all of his worldly possessions.  He must, himself, become poor before she will make a quilt for him.  After many attempts to change her mind, the king finally relents and begins to give away his beloved things.  With each gift he gives, he becomes more and more happy.  Finally, when he has nothing left to give away, the quiltmaker presents him with his quilt.

The artwork in this book (done by Gail de Marcken) is incredibly detailed, stunning, and a visual inspiration!

The Quilt Story by Tony Johnson with illustrations by Tomie dePaola is the next book in our collection.  This is a cute story about two little girls -- one from pioneer days and the other from modern times, who share the same quilt.  

The story begins with a pioneer mother sewing a quilt for her young daughter.  The girl's name, Abigail, is sewn into the quilt.  The little girl loves the quilt and it is a great comfort to her during times of sickness and especially after a move across the prairie.  After a time, the quilt becomes forgotten until it is found again, mouse-eaten and torn, in an attic by another little girl -- presumably a distant relative of the first little girl.  She takes the quilt to her mother who mends the quilt for her.  Just like the girl from pioneer days, the modern girl has to move to a new place.  The quilt brings her a sense of comfort during a time when she feels sad and helps her adjust to her new home.  

This book has a lot less text than the previous three books I have shared, so is a good choice for reading to younger children who may not be able to sit and listen for a longer story.

My final book for this blog post is Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson with paintings by James Ransome.  Another featured "Reading Rainbow" title, this book is about a 12-year-old slave girl who wants desperately to reunite with her mother and find her way to freedom.  With the help of her "aunt" she goes from working in the fields to working in the Big House as a seamstress.  

Working in the Big House allows Clara opportunities to overhear discussions about the Underground Railroad.  She soon gets the idea to begin stitching a map to freedom in a quilt which is made of scraps she salvages from her work in the Big House.  Eventually, Clara makes her way to her mother and to freedom.  However, the quilt is left behind with her "aunt" in the slave quarters on the plantation and used by many others who have heard of the quilt and its map to freedom.

Well, we have more titles, but they'll have to wait for another day....


Click here for my follow-up blog post Part 2.