Thursday, December 28, 2017

Sweet Holidays

As far back as I can remember, I've always loved to bake. Especially at the holidays. This year, I took a little break from my usual Christmas cookie baking routine. After all, I've adopted this habit of keeping a batch or two of cookies in the freezer ready to pop into the oven at a moment's notice.

Instead, I decided to try something different - for me anyway.

The folks at Fine Cooking sent a holiday message that included a recipe for homemade marshmallows in early December. So I decided to try them.

I was surprised how easy they were to make. You just need to have a candy thermometer, or you're sunk.

I experimented with a chocolate variation that isn't included in the online version-adding 1/4 cup cocoa and one tsp of vanilla to the mix instead of two tsp of vanilla. I made a vanilla batch and a chocolate batch, and I have to say the chocolate version is wow-yum!

A few things that I did that contrasted with the original recipe (besides adding a chocolate variation): I used a 11x17" jelly roll pan instead of a 9x13" cake pan. The marshmallows turned out more square that way; and I cut them up with kitchen shears rather than a knife - much easier except for the little incident when the shears connected with my finger! Ouch! Those shears are sharp!

I also experimented (not very successfully) with crushed chocolate mint candy canes. I sprinkled the candy bits on top of half of the chocolate marshmallows. Yummy idea at first, but a couple days later, the candy cane bits were turning the marshmallow tops into a gooey mess. Note to self, stick with the plain sugar-cornstarch coating!

Dave and I usually head over to my brother's for Christmas dinner. So instead of cookies, I baked a Cheesecake for the crowd. Oh-so-yumm!

I like the plain ole' New York Style Cheesecake with the sponge cake base in the Juniors Cheesecake Cookbook. (I see there is a 20% off holiday special right now) So creamy and dreamy. Just like a stop in the Juniors Cheesecake store in Times Square!

Plus I've never really been a big fan of graham cracker crusts, so the sponge cake is a little more work (not much) but so worth it!

And I had to do some baking. Although Dave's favorite holiday treat isn't really baked in the oven so much as grilled in the pizzelle baker. It just wouldn't be the holidays without pizzelle to munch on!

I can see that I should get my ice skates sharpened so I can get myself over to the rink for some laps around the ice! The aftermath of all these rich foods isn't going to be pretty!

Happy Stitching!

Happy New Year!


Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Little Bird Told Me

On Friday. I introduced a new membership program called The FLOCK. The FLOCK is a series of monthly quilt block kits. Each kit contains all the fabric pieces - which are precision laser pre-cut - to make a new patchwork/pieced block each month. It's not a block-of-the-month program or a sew along.

A new block kit, representing a new bird will fly into members' mailboxes each month. Make them, collect them, then use them in quilted projects. You can find a lot of the particulars here.

Today, I thought I'd tell you a little more about why this project is so important to me, with all its intricate blocks and details.

The Birthday Bird

I guess you can say that I've always been a bird person. I'm gonna place some of the blame on my sister.

On her 14th birthday she received a pet Quaker Parakeet (named Phoenix) in our formerly pet-free home. This crazy little bird changed our lives as a family.

A pet bird can be noisy, destructive, and messy (they like to toss aside seed shells when looking for the best tidbits). But they are intelligent, endearing, and very fun!

These days, I share my home with three birds (as well as my husband, Dave), or perhaps I should say they share their home with us!

First, there's Peaches, a 34-year-old Blue-Fronted Amazon parrot. Yes, she talks, but mostly she likes to sleep, eat, and sit on my knee while I write patterns and newsletters (she's sitting on my knee as I write this note!)

Then we have Woodstock (a Jenday Conure) and Doodle (a Sun Conure).

Woodstock is a picky eater. Doodle is a feathered garbage can. But they both agree that orange juice is delicious any time of the day!

While birds are 'trainable,' Woodstock seems to be a little slow on that score, so Dave (who is her main human) (all three birds are girls) must always check his shirts for . . . a-hem. . . accidents.

It has been said, that if a bird poops on you, you are lucky. Dave and I must be the luckiest people on the planet! But we adore these girls.

 It Doesn't End There

When I travel, I'm always on the lookout for bird things to do.

Last year on a weekend outing to Niagara Falls, Canada with my good friend Brenda Miller, I was thrilled that we were both interested in visiting the Bird Kingdom!

Who wouldn't, right?

And it doesn't stop with birds in cages, exhibits, or zoos.

From Maine . . .

This was our vantage point from Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park this past fall.

Dave and I participated in the annual Hawk Watch. The Park Naturalists and many other birding enthusiasts set up shop on the side of the mountain to watch, and count, migrating raptors.

The view was stunning, but the breeze was quite stiff - and chilly both days we were there. Dave and I were amazed at how skillfully some of the participants spotted and identified various hawk species (at least a dozen different species) as the gusty winds swept them right by us before we could even catch them in the binoculars!

 . . .To Alaska

I seek out activities that will integrate birds, bird-watching, or bird interaction while on the road.

This Bald Eagle greeted a cruise ship back into port in Seward, Alaska. The main reason I took the tour this summer was to see Puffins. On the trip, I saw Puffins, Kittiwakes, and more. Plus some mammals, too!

Are you starting to get the idea? I'm obsessed with birds as I travel.

 No Place Like Home

However, by far, my favorite place to see and experience birds is in my own backyard.

Dave is the gardener guy around here, and he likes to plant things that draw in birds.

This Pileated Woodpecker found something fascinating about our young oak tree.

Two years ago, it was Dave's crazy idea to dig up the front yard and install a small pond. In the summer this is my most favorite place to work.

I set up my laptop on one of those lap desks and sit on the front porch where I have a perfect vantage point to one of the favorite bathing spots in the pond's stream. On a hot day, it is THE place to find a variety of birds in the yard.

Goldfinches, robins, sparrows, doves, and these Cedar Waxwings are only a few of the bird species that stop by to distract me from the computer work.

With all these visitors, you would think I'd never get anything done! But it seems just the opposite. The sound of the water and the feathered visitors only add to the experience of the tasks at hand. I am a very lucky girl! The Gray Catbird is one of my favorite visitors to the front porch.

We added a feeder with dried mealworms (I know it sounds gross, but it's all dried up). The birds, like Mr. Catbird, can't resist. And the catbirds in particular don't seem to mind that I'm working only inches away.

Crafty Birds

I think you're getting the picture. I really, really like birds! All these birds, and all this observation, only make me want to know more about these creatures.

And they are the perfect subject for a quilt.

It's not uncommon to find birds featured in competition quilts like this beautiful piece that was on display at Houston Quilt Market and Quilt Festival this past year.

Keeping Up Appearances by Jan Reed

Quite a few quilt applique patterns are available depicting some of the most popular songbirds species. But there are very few realistic pieced patterns for bird quilts or blocks (at least that I'm aware). After all, birds have some unique challenges when it comes to quilty shapes. They have a lot of wings and tails, heads and beaks, feet and feathers, that don't necessarily translate to four-patches and half-square triangles.
Here's WHY

I like applique, but I'm a traditional piecer at heart. And I don't mind complexity - I look at each block as a puzzle to solve.

I decided to combine precision laser-cut pieces, detailed, sometimes really detailed, patchwork shapes and build a series of quilt blocks one bird at a time. And not just popular birds like Cardinals and Blue Jays - although I'm sure they'll show up in the block kits - but a variety of birds from any where in the world.

That's The FLOCK, in a nutshell

Along the way, I want to share my love of birds with you, and learn some things, too!

In a way that only quilters will understand - Hands on. At the sewing machine.

The piecing will not be limited to standard shapes--that's why the kits are pre-cut and the pattern includes no cutting instructions.

I hope this explains where this crazy idea came from!
Want to join me on this journey?

All you have to do is click here to learn more, and click here to join The FLOCK.

Happy Stitching. . .and Birding!

Merry Christmas!


Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Couple Good Ideas

First, a confession, I’m kinda a soap-snob, as well as a closet collector.

A few years ago, when I was on vacation or traveling, and shopping from boutique to boutique on some pretty Main Street somewhere (I don’t honestly remember exactly where - it was quite some time ago), I found these Pre de Provence soaps. Ever since, they have been my absolute favorite personal decadence every day at shower time.

I buy the big 250g bars. You can do a google search and find them several places these days (you couldn’t when I first started looking for them). I’ve always had great luck ordering from The Frenchy Bee (not affiliated with them in any way, I’ve just had good service from them in the past).

And I love all the scents I’ve tried. My favorite scent by far is Lime Zest, but poke around, there are lots to choose from!

I don’t see these small personal-sized soaps on the site any longer, but you might find them if you search around a bit. They’re great for stocking stuffers. For me, I like to throw one in my bag when I travel. I would hate to be without my little scented decadence just because I’m on the road.

Now I’m getting off track a bit, as long as I was poking around in my soap collection. . . you can recognize some of my travels here . .

Any guesses where this came from? Ayuh!

This one was included in a gift from my niece last Christmas - or maybe it was the year before - as you see, I’m not the only one in my family who seeks out these special scented decadences! I decided it’s time to enjoy this one. . .

After all, the message is timely:

I’ll admit to two things, then I’ll move on. There’s something special about feeling connected to someone half a world away every single day--in Sweden, France, or just in Mickey Mouse land!

And the second thing is, since I have this ‘thing’ for nice soaps, if the hotel soap is particularly memorable, I’ll grab an unused bar from my room and throw it in my suitcase to enjoy at home.

But I digress. Back to the gift ideas.

Not only am I a soap snob, but I’m also a sock snob. Proud of it, in fact!

While in Alaska earlier this year, I found these socks - World’s Softest (that’s a pretty big claim, don’t you think?) - in a boutique shop near my hotel in Palmer, Alaska. I just had to see if they lived up to the name. And they did!

I went back and picked up another pair, as a gift for my sister who bird-sat for part of the time I was away. Then I found them online, and ordered another pair for myself, and some for my husband. Don’t tell Dave, but as long as I was looking up the website for this note, I just ordered a couple pairs for his Christmas stocking - pun intended.

Umm, yah! I mean, who doesn’t love to have comfy toesies, especially this time of year!

There. I feel I did my good deed for the day. You are in on my deepest, darkest snob-secrets, and you have a couple of ideas for the soap and sock snobs on your list, too.

Happy Stitching! (and Stocking Stuffing!)

Joan Ford

Thursday, December 7, 2017

An Adventure for All

I've got a list as long as my arm of things to do to get ready for the holiday and to prepare for some new and exciting things coming to the Hummingbird Highway.

Then, why is it, that I find that my mind is wandering to my first travel event for 2018?

The event is the Scrappy Sails Cruise to Puerto Rico, St. Kitts, and St Maarten, coming up March 3-10.

Could it be that the weather has been dull and gray and I'm already aching to sit by the pool or under a tree with a bit of hand-stitching? Or maybe procrastinating over that long to-do list has given my mind an excuse to wander.

OR maybe it's kinda like this silly little roll of spent 35mm print film I unearthed in the back of a drawer while looking for something else. What pictures does it hold? What is the subject matter of those pictures? Who? What? When? Where? It's like finding a mysterious little time capsule!

For the past few weeks, I've been cutting the fabrics for our project on board. An hour here, and hour there, fifteen minutes, between tasks, the length of a podcast. A chapter or two of an audio book. It's actually pretty relaxing.

The cruise operator for this particular cruise, Quilt Retreat at Sea, likes to keep the on-board project a mystery until we’re all on board. A lot like that little roll of film.

I can give you a few hints. . . our project is pretty large, as cruise projects go. And it has lots of blue-ish fabrics. . .

. . . And brown-ish fabrics. Blue and brown - Like the sea and the sand. Very cruise-like. And there's some background fabrics too, to tie things together.

The quilt itself is all done. Lots of really fun techniques and technique twists. Incorporating the blue . . . 

 . . . and brown fabrics liberally, 

and scrappily (is that a word?) throughout the quilt.

For those on the cruise, the quilt is a lot like the photos inside that roll of spent film. You can *guess* where these hints will lead, but you really won't know until we get there.

From my perspective, the quilters who plan to attend are the surprise element. I know a few people who will be on board - there are two Barbara's --both very fun and both from New York State. And Terry and Lynn will probably sit right in the front row in the classroom to keep me on my toes! (*wink*). Can't wait to see Nancy again. I know some folks, but not everyone. . . yet. . .  I do know we'll all be fast friends upon arrival.

We know our ports of call, Caribelle Batiks, pictured below has already been in touch with Jacquelyn - our Quilt Retreat at Sea classroom contact. They can't wait to greet us and show us .. .

. . . how to make batik fabrics, Caribbean-style while we're in St. Kitts.

But we don't *really* know the full extent of the adventures that await at all three ports - Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, and St. Kitt's in the Eastern Caribbean. I do know for sure, these stunning island destinations, recovering from a devastating hurricane season, absolutely won't disappoint. And they are READY for us!

Personally, I'm ready, too! Fun? Great quilt project while we're at sea? And lots of secrets revealed?

Bring it on!

In case you were wondering, a few seats are left on the Scrappy Sails cruise. Are you coming? We’ll hold your spot and your quilt kit will be waiting for you! All you gotta do is call Michelle (210-858-6399) to make your reservation. Or tell Santa you want to come. And maybe you’ll have an exciting adventure waiting for you in your stocking when Christmas rolls around in a few short weeks.

Oh my! That just snapped me back into reality. I have to do shopping, wrapping, baking . . . .

Happy Stitching!

Joan Ford