Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas cookies redeemed.

Sam and I spent Christmas in San Antonio with just the two of us for company, which was wonderful and calm and relaxing. Except for one thing. On Christmas Eve there was a definite lack of Christmas cookies in our house. With only two of us, I refrained from much baking this year. After all, the two of us alone hardly needed tins upon tins of sweets. But, at 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve, I just felt like something was missing. It wasn't that I was lonely, but I was worried about having an empty plate for Santa. So I baked cookies.

In fact, I baked two batches of cookies. At least I restrained myself from doubling the batches. The first was an old classic and family favorite known as Russian Tea Cakes, or Mexican Wedding Cookies, or even sometimes butterballs (due to the excessive and delicious butter content). The second cookies was a new recipe, not designed especially for Christmas, but it has become my new favorite Christmas cookie. It is orange shortbread sandwiched together with chocolate ganache. Yum.

I like to focus on citrus for Christmas. It reminds me of Little House on the Prairie. During their Christmas on the cold plains, both girls get an orange in their stocking, and it is such a treat during that winter in their little house on that big, cold prairie. These days we all take our citrus for granted. But just think, little Laura and Mary each received one orange, which they cherished section by section. At my house we currently have a five pound box of Mandarin cuties, and I peel three or four a day if I feel like it (no scurvy here!). And their oranges were not even genetically modified to eliminate seeds!

The cookies are minimally sweet, rich with the ganache, and have a heft that makes you feel like one is enough. The orange provides a sweet scent and a demure, delicate flavor that compliments the chocolate filling. The sandwiches are also sturdy with a good shelf life, which makes them a great choice for the holidays. You can easily whip up a triple batch to package for friends and family without fear of spoilage or crumbs. We ate ours up to a week after baking, and it was only at day nine that they lost their luster. You could also make the dough alone as single cookies, sprinkled with sugar and served up with tea or wassail or just a cold glass of milk.

Next Christmas Sam and I may find ourselves surrounded by family, or with friends, or again sharing each others quiet, lovely company along. But no matter who we spend it with, there will be homemade sweets and this cookie. And every time I eat it I will remember Little House on the Prairie, and the simple pleasures in life, like citrus and a warm home on a cold night and a family that cares whether near or far. They are simple pleasures that should not be taken for granted. So, until next year, happy holidays and good luck with the New Years Resolutions.

Orange Shortbread Cookies
modified from Bon Appetit, with the addition of chocolate ganache for sandwiches

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons (packed) grated orange peel
1/2 teaspoon orange extract
1 large egg yolk
3 tablespoons whipping cream

Position rack in center of oven; preheat to 350°F. Butter and flour large baking sheet. Whisk first 3 ingredients in medium bowl. Beat butter, sugar, orange peel, and orange extract in large bowl until fluffy. Beat in yolk, then cream. Add flour mixture; beat until dough comes together in moist clumps.

Gently roll dough out to ½ inch sheet and cut circle using biscuit cutter. Place on baking sheet, spacing 3/4 inch apart. Bake cookies until golden, about 18 minutes. Transfer to rack; cool.

When ganache is cool and think, spread generously on cookies and gently sandwich together. Pack into cute Christmas tins if desired and deliver to friends and family (recommended).

Chocolate Ganache Filling

1 1/2 cups (12 fluid ounces or 360 milliliters) heavy cream
1 lb (454 grams) semisweet or bittersweet dark chocolate

In a heavy saucepan, boil heavy cream. Turn off the heat. Add chopped chocolate pieces and let it rest until melted. Use a rubber spatula to stir the mixture until all the pieces are melted.

Pour it into a room-temperature bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate the frosting until thick but still spreadable. Fill cookies and enjoy.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My punishment for cheating.

Yes, I admit it. I cheated. I bought Pillsbury sugar cookie dough in an attempt to shortcut the sugar cookie experience. I suck, I know. But if it makes you feel any better, I paid a steep price for my cheat.

Beyond the guilt and shame, my punishment is the challenge of trying to deal with these ridiculous, shapeless Christmas cookies. You probably cannot tell from looking, but those are bells, trees, stars (yes, stars!) and a pair of snowmen engaged in what looks to be an inappropriate act of passion.

Usually, almost always, like 98% of the time, I bake from scratch. Especially with my Christmas cookies. In my house growing up, we have a long tradition of decorating dozens upon dozen upon dozens of homemade Christmas cookies. The cookies are buttery and light and melt in your mouth and delicious, and always because they are made from scratch. So, I guess I deserve these horrible shapes for deviating from tradition.

Next time, I will bake from scratch. I promise.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The secret ingredient is lard.

Behold my first Christmas cookie of the season, a heart shaped biscochito. The biscochito is the New Mexican State cookie, and a very special one at that. It is an anise-flavored shortbread that appears in cookie jars almost exclusively at Christmas — and also sometimes at weddings, baptisms and quinceñeras. The cookies are dusted in cinnamon sugar. Cooks often use brandy or wine for flavor. They are light and flaky and crispy, like a good sugar cookie. And they are made with lard.

I had you until I said lard, didn't I?

Don't feel alone in your repulsion to the idea of lard. I was the same way at first, totally grossed out. And to be honest, the idea of lard still kind of freaks me out. I don't exactly know why, because I love bacon. I even save bacon fat in an old jelly jar for sauteing Brussels sprouts and melting into sauteed greens. Bacon fat is delicious. I mean really, really delicious. Do you like bacon? Most of us do. So if you like bacon, and if you eat bacon, and if you are not disturbed by the idea of Brussels sprouts sauteed in pancetta, then why would you be grossed out at lard?

It's just a little bit of pork fat. Or Manteca de Puerco, depending on where you buy it.

However, if the delicious bacon argument has not warmed you up to lard cookies yet, read on. I will try to appeal to your intellect through the power of lard science. I have a theory that the more you know about lard, the less grossed out you will feel. For example, did you know that freshly rendered lard has less saturated fat and less cholesterol than butter? Lard contains just 40 percent saturated fat (compared with nearly 60 percent for butter). So while it is not considered healthy, it is healthier than the butter or hydrogenated shortening alternative.

Keep in mind that this health value is only relevant in fresh lard, the kind that must be refrigerated. Commercial lard (the kind that comes in the blue or green box or tub) is hydrogenated, and therefore has the same faults as shortening. Plus, it lacks flavor. Two good reasons it should be avoided.

Still not convinced? If the similarities to bacon or the healthful composition of lard does not sell you on its superiority as a baking staple, consider your alternative, shortening. Not only is Crisco hydrogenated, which is bad for your heart, it is also of dubious origins. Let me enlighten you to the historical context of the product. Solid vegetable shortening, which became popular around the middle of the 20th century, was discovered when researchers hydrogenated cottonseed oil in the hopes of finding a way to make soap and candles. Of course, soon electricity diminished the need for candles. But these same scientists noticed how much their candle-wannabes resembled lard, and so they opted to market it as a cooking oil. The name they gave it was Crisco — a contraction of "crystallized cottonseed oil."

The idea that hydrogenated shortening was originally designed as a candle should repulse you as much as your original reaction to the thought of lard.

When you use shortening, you are using what was originally developed as a household candle. Ick. Plus shortening is full of trans fats. Vegetable shortenings that are solid at room temperature — or hydrogenated — are chocked full of 'em. There is plenty of evidence that trans fats raise bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower the more protective cholesterol (HDL).

In addition, authoritative figures tout the merits of lard in cooking. Many a fine chef and baker declare lard the superior fat for baking. It makes light, flaky, savory pie crusts. And in a biscochito it makes a crispy, crunchy, not-to-sweet Christmas treat. Really lard is the only way to make these cookies taste as they should.

Of course, acquiring the lard required some less tasty experiences, including a trip into a stinky meat market, a run-in with a cooler full of frozen pig heads, and the discovery that a place with a wall of tripe and beef tongues is not guaranteed to also carry fresh lard. It took us three different stores and the purchase of more than 60 fluid ounces of rendered pork fat to find the Manteca de Puerco I needed for baking. All in all it was a pretty gross adventure, and I was almost turned completely off of the idea of baking with lard. So when my first batch came out of the oven, I hesitantly tasted the first cookie, first with a small nibble, and then with a more confident bite, chew, swallow, and a smile.

Sadly, my husband was less receptive. After his first biscochito, Sam promptly declared his mouth tasted like pork fat and poured himself a glass of Scotch to burn out the flavor. I, on the other hand, was delighted. The cookies tasted just like I remembered them. Only now I have four dozen biscochitos and none to eat them with.

I think his turn off comes down to seeing and smelling the lard pre-batter. One word of advice, if baking with meat market lard, try not to smell it. It smells like, um there is not better way to say this, it smells like rendered pork fat. Which, of course, is what it is supposed to smell like. But still, it smelled a bit ick. And it also looked a bit ick.

In summary, the Christmas consider moving into the realm of authentic baking. Just try not to look at, smell, touch, or think about the Manteca de Puerco (lard) and you will adore your Christmas biscochitos. Oh yes, and keep them away from vegetarians.

New Mexican Biscochitos

6 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups shortening
1 1/2 cups white sugar
2 teaspoons anise seed
2 eggs
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C)
2. Sift flour with baking powder and salt.
3. Cream shortening with sugar and anise seeds until fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time.
4. Mix in flour and brandy until well blended.
5. Turn dough out on a floured board and pat or roll to 1/4 or 1/2 inch thickness. Cut into shapes (the fleur-de-lys is traditional). Dust with a mixture of 1/4 cup sugar and 1 tsp cinnamon.
6. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes in the preheated oven, or until golden brown.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The great miracle of yeast.

Working with yeast makes me feel like a miracle worker. Seriously, it is as close as I get to achieving what a farmer achieves in a growing season. You start from seed with the dry yeast, plant the crop by incorporating the yeast into a dough, cultivate the yeast with careful tending over a period of time as it rises, deflates, and re-rises , monitor the crop's susceptibility to environmental disaster by keeping it in a warm, moist area, and finally you harvest the final, bountiful crop from a warm oven. Of course, unlike a farmer, my crop offers more immediate gratification. Sure, my Thanksgiving brioche took a good 16 hours from start to finish, but it was significantly faster than the summer growing season.

I used my Kitchenaid stand mixer for this decadent roll, following the instructions of Dorie Greenspan from a Fall Bon Appetit issue. Ms. Greenspan wrote about the dough with such affection, and combined with her no-nonsense, "You can do it" attitude, I could not resist.

Sam and I developed a bit of an ego as we baked. It was as though the rolls rose in proportion to our pride. With every step of home baked bread recipe, we felt increasingly proud of our efforts. And of course, with every step of the creation, the yeasty rolls just rose and rose, as though our own self confidence and ego were propelling the rise rather than the yeast. After all, how often does anyone home bake bread these days? Not often. But we did!

The best bites were straight out of the oven, almost too hot to touch, and steaming. They rolls lost luster with age, so please do not restrain yourself around a fresh baked batch. No matter that we were on our way to Thanksgiving dinner right after they baked, I still wish I had eaten two. By the time they hit the table they could have stood for a bit of butter or jam, and on the second day the rolls were in the dry phase, primed and ready for french toast or bread pudding. I never could bring myself to slather them in butter, even the day-old dry leftovers, given the lavish stick and a half in the recipe. But maybe I should have. After all, a bit of brioche is a shame to waste on anything less than perfection.

Bubble-Top Brioches
from Bon Appétit, October 2009 by Dorie Greenspan

1/4 cup warm water (110°F to 115°F)
1/4 cup warm whole milk (110°F to 115°F)
3 teaspoons active dry yeast (measured from two 1/4-ounce envelopes)
2 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 large eggs, room temperature
3 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg beaten to blend with 1 teaspoon water (for glaze)

Combine 1/4 cup warm water and warm milk in bowl of heavy-duty mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Sprinkle yeast over and stir to moisten evenly. Let stand until yeast dissolves, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes.

Add flour and salt to yeast mixture. Blend at medium-low speed until shaggy lumps form, scraping down sides of bowl occasionally, 1 to 2 minutes. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating until blended after each addition. Beat in sugar. Increase mixer speed to medium; beat until dough is smooth, about 3 minutes.

Reduce speed to low. Add butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until blended after each addition, about 4 minutes (dough will be soft and silky). Increase speed to medium-high and beat until dough pulls away from sides of bowl and climbs paddle, 8 to 9 minutes.

Lightly butter large bowl. Scrape dough into bowl. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rise in warm draft-free area until almost doubled in volume, about 1 hour 15 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes.

Gently deflate dough by lifting around edges, then letting dough fall back into bowl, turning bowl and repeating as needed. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and chill, deflating dough in same way every 30 minutes until dough stops rising, about 2 hours. Chill overnight. (At this point, use the dough to make 12 brioches, or 6 brioches and 1 tart, or 2 tarts.)

Butter 12 standard (1/3-cup) muffin cups. Divide dough into 12 equal pieces; cut each piece into thirds. Roll each small piece between palms into ball. Place 3 balls in each prepared cup (dough will fill cup). Place muffin pan in warm draft-free area; lay sheet of waxed paper over. Let dough rise until light and almost doubled (dough will rise 1/2 inch to 1 inch above top rim of muffin cups), 50 to 60 minutes.

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 400°F. Place muffin pan on rimmed baking sheet. Gently brush egg glaze over risen dough, being careful that glaze does not drip between dough and pan (which can prevent full expansion in oven). Bake brioches until golden brown, covering with foil if browning too quickly, about 20 minutes. Transfer pan to rack. Cool 10 minutes. Remove brioches from pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The leftovers are the second best part.

The last piece of leftover pie is eaten, and while we still have some straggling turkey and dressing and mashed sweet potatoes left in Tupperwares in the fridge, at this point I think it is safe to say that the Thanksgiving feast has drawn to a close.

My husband and I spent this Thanksgiving in San Antonio, away from our families. And while the tradition of the whole family gathered around the table was not a reality for us this year, we certainly remembered our loved ones through the tradition of preparing family-specialty dishes. Sharing traditions and passing them through households is perhaps the best part of Thanksgiving. In fact, I dare say the sharing of traditional dishes is even better than the "everything sandwiches" my husband looks forward to creating from Turkey Day leftovers (imagine your traditional Thanksgiving plate, only sandwiched between two pieces of bread).

I have yet to find another family that shares my family's Crab Demose tradition. Before every Thanksgiving feast, we began the meal with a rich, flavorful seafood appetizer served out of hallmark seashell plates. I have no idea where the recipe originated, but I do know it is something my grandmother - Grandmarj - used to prepared for her holiday table. Given the lavish amounts of mayonnaise in the recipe, combined with the rich flavors of mustard and curry, and rounded out with a bright squeeze of lemon, the dish is so flavorful that it is perfectly at home on a Thanksgiving table.

So on Thursday, while the pies baked and the kitchen was full of aromas of nutmeg and sage and browing meats and baking bread, my husband and I sat down to a table for two. We feasted on Crab Demose as a bountiful amuse bouche to the main meal. My grandmother, my own mother, and the entire extended family were with us in spirit. I felt thankful to share the holiday with my family, if not in person via the tradition passed from kitchen to kitchen.

Of course, this does not need to be a Thanksgiving-only dish. You can whip it up for a decadent lunch, an impressive first course at your next dinner party, or perhaps with a nice green salad for your own dinner tonight. Any way you make it, I hope it finds a place in your recipe file reserved for special occasions and special people. Maybe someday it will also become your special tradition.

Crab Demose
Serves 4 -6

This dish is best served in a shallow shell, and yes, I mean a real shell. The best part of this dish is the crunchy crust that forms over the top. To maximize crust and ensure everything heats through as it should, arrange the dish in shallow layers. It also helps to use piping hot wild rice when you assemble the dish, otherwise it will not heat through.

1 cup mayonaise
4 tsp premium mustard, I prefer Dijon
4 tsp yellow curry powder
1/2 tsp salt
2-4 tsp lemon juice to taste
1/2 lbs. lump crab meat
1 cup wild rice, cooked
1/2 Parmesan cheese

Combine first five ingredients to create sauce. If sauce is too think to spread easily, thin with a little bit of milk. In a shallow dish, lay down a bed of wild rice, hollowing out a crater in the center. Layer lump crab meat in rice crater. Top generously with sauce, ensuring all crab is covered. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and place under broiler until melted and brown crust forms.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

We interrupt your regularly scheduled program...

This just in, Sincerely Yours, Kate has breaking news. We interrupt your regularly scheduled asymmetrical skirt programming for this brief update on the season's best chili.

I am usually a ground beef and beans kinda girl when it comes to chili, but this is an all brisket style with a secret addition of squash. I was wrongly incredulous when I first saw the recipe in a Bon Appetite last fall. But Sam was smittin' and so the first time we made this recipe was for a chili cook off at his work. We did a bad job reading the instructions and started making the chili at 9:30 p.m. only to realize that there were many steps after two hours of braising, then two more hours of braising, etc. So needless to say we set the alarm and had mini-chili cooking sessions throughout the night. But seriously, this chili is worth it. Sam took a respectable 2nd place, but we both think this pot-o-deliciousness should have won. A department secretary took first place, and Sam swears she bribed the votes with candy. Plus, as any of us who work in large offices know, you ALWAYS want to keep on a secretary's good side, even if it means voting for the wrong chili.

Anyway, unfair second place standing aside, this chili is now a favorite, and a real crowd pleaser. Ever since getting married, I have been trying to establish a new household tradition of the chili cook-off Halloween. It worked the first year, because Halloween was on a weeknight and no one wanted to party. We had a massive chili cook off with a dozen entries. But last year my plan failed. Halloween was on a Friday and everyone wanted to drink beer, not cook chili. This year I reinstated Chili Halloween, but took away the competition component. We had friends over and made a big pot of this and a big pot of veggie chili. The brisket chili was a smash hit!

Oh yeah, and I also baked a really delicious apple cake in three layers that sadly imploded on itself. I guess apples are too heavy to stack so high...? It tasted good, but looked rather sloppy. Which brings me back to the showstopping dish of the night. Aside from being delicious, one benefit of chili is that it is not a greedy dish. It never goes for looks and taste simultaneously like my cake tried for. A good old fashioned chili just skips the vanity and puts all of its effort into the taste. And this Haloween, the chili delivered.

Texas Beef Brisket Chili
A cold-weather favorite, this all-beef, no-bean chili gets added appeal from a seasonal ingredient: butternut squash. For best results, make the chili at least one day ahead so that the flavors have time to meld.

  • 6 large dried ancho chiles*
  • 6 ounces bacon, diced
  • 1 1/4 pounds onions, chopped (about 4 cups)
  • 1 5-pound flat-cut (also called first-cut) beef brisket, cut into 2 1/2- to 3-inch cubes
  • Coarse kosher salt
  • 6 large garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 10-ounce cans fire-roasted diced tomatoes with green chiles (1 3/4 cups)
  • 1 12-ounce bottle Mexican beer
  • 1 7-ounce can diced roasted green chiles
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro stems
  • 4 cups 1 1/2- to 2-inch chunks seeded peeled butternut squash (from 3 1/2-pound squash)

Place chiles in medium bowl. Pour enough boiling water over to cover. Soak until chiles soften, at least 30 minutes and up to 4 hours.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Sauté bacon in heavy large oven-proof pot over medium-high heat until beginning to brown. Add onions. Reduce heat to medium; cover and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle beef all over with coarse salt and pepper. Add to pot; stir to coat. Set aside.

Drain chiles, reserving soaking liquid. Place chiles in blender. Add 1 cup soaking liquid, garlic, chili powder, cumin seeds, oregano, coriander, and 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt; blend to puree, adding more soaking liquid by 1/4 cupfuls if very thick. Pour puree over brisket in pot. Add tomatoes with juices, beer, green chiles, and cilantro stems. Stir to coat evenly.

Bring chili to simmer. Cover and place in oven. Cook 2 hours. Uncover and cook until beef is almost tender, about 1 hour. Add squash; stir to coat. Roast uncovered until beef and squash are tender, adding more soaking liquid if needed to keep meat covered, about 45 minutes longer. Season chili to taste with salt and pepper. Tilt pot and spoon off any fat from surface of sauce. DO AHEAD: Can be made 2 days ahead. Cool 1 hour. Chill uncovered until cold, then cover and keep chilled.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Asymmetrical Folds Skirt - The Upholstery Version.

If you like asymmetry, and if you like folds, and if you also like skirts, then today is your lucky day. Why, you may ask? Because today I debut for you none other than my fourth version of the Asymmetrical Folds Skirt. The skirt based on a pattern from Stitch Magazine. My fascination with the skirt started with the green velvet version, continued with a set of four identical red gingham versions for a family reunion tribute, and then moved on to a fall foliage interpretation. Today, you find yourself viewing the latest incarnation of the pattern, this time in a handsome upholstery.

This version is made entirely of home decor fabrics. As such, it is both heavy-weight and full of body. My husband is worried that I look like a sofa, but I think I look stunning and original. We may both be correct in our interpretations. In fact, I will go so far as to say that I think I look like a plus-size Anthropologie model (is that overly vain of me?). If I was going for that vintage carpet bagger look (and I was), I think I nailed it.

A few important things to note about this version of the skirt. First, I lined the whole darn thing in a pale green home decor-weight raw silk. That may prove to be a mistake for three reasons, 1) it just might be too warm for South Texas, 2) silk tends to smell when introduced to sweat, and well, what is a lining for if not to be the first line of defense against sweat (also, see reason #1), and 3) even if it is not too warm and does not smell, raw silk is darn expensive, especially for a lining that is note seen. But then again, to all of those reasons I say, "whatever!" It is the perfect shade of pale green.

Another point to note is that the heavy-weight fabric was just too thick for button holes once doubled up in folds along my hip. I even took it to two upholsterers in my neighborhood to see if they could help. They could not. So instead of buttons I basted the folds in place and stitched hook and eye closures where the buttons might have been. The folds are a bit bulky, they certainly do not drape as gently as the velvet or cotton versions, but the body of the fabrics helps the hem of the skirt to flair and shape at my knees, which is a look I really like. Overall I am very pleased and look forward to the next 50 degree Friday evening. I think I have a good outfit for a date with my husband.

If you think that four Asymmetrical Folds skirts are too many, then you can just go ahead and stop reading this blog. But if perchance you, like me, believe that there is no such thing as too much of a good thing, well then you are going to want to stay in touch. Check back in a few days, I think you will be pleasantly surprised by what lays in store (well, maybe not surprised, as I am being a bit obvious over here, but at least you will be delighted).

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Asymmetrical Folds Skirt - The Fall Version.

Well, it's almost Halloween, which means here in South Texas the weather is finally dipping below 80 degrees and the sun fades earlier in the evening. The trees and grass still grow green, and my air conditioner hums along at least 75% of the time, but the grocery store is stocking fresh pressed cider and I bought candy corn for a ceramic pumpkin dish in my kitchen, so in other words, it's fall.

And what better way to celebrate than with a new fall skirt? This is none other than my favorite Asymmetrical Folds Skirt pattern, but this time sewn up in an Autumn cotton blend. I reviewed the skirt this winter in great detail already, so below is a modified pattern review for this version. If you like this, and if you like the original in green velvet, stay tuned. You just might be in store for a treat (no tricks) next week.

Pattern Description:
The pattern comes from the inaugural issue of Stitch magazine, a publication from Quilting Arts. "Add a modern twist to the classic wrap skirt by working all the angles. Asymmetrical folds that button down the side, the shaped hem, and contrast lining guarantee you'll be a standout in any crowd." The skirt is a take on the basic wrap, but with more decorative closure that includes a four-buttons detail closure along the hip. Each buttonhole is made near the edge of the skirt, through folds of doubled over fabric. Part of the lining shows with each fold, and the hem is raised asymmetrically into a gentle arc as a result of the doubling-up of layers on the edge.

Pattern Sizing:
The skirt comes in five sizes XS (26 3/4 inch waist) to XL (38 1/2 inch waist). I sewed the XL with plenty of room. Previously I attempted to increase the size, as XL is often too small for me, but it turns out the Stitch version of XL is plenty big. It would be a simple pattern to tissue fit, so consider taking your measurements and comparing to the actual pattern pieces before choosing your size.

Fabric Used:
I picked up the beautiful stretch-cotton, fall fabric at Elfrieda's Fine Fabrics in Boulder, Colorado on a trip home earlier this spring. I bought five yards thinking it might become a dress, but I never found the perfect frock pattern (or the nerve for such a vibrantly patterned dress). So, I thought, why not use some of the yardage for a work appropriate skirt? The lining is synthetic "linen-like" fabric in brown that I choose for color, easy drape, and low price.

Pattern Alterations or any design changes you made:
An important heads up – the pattern pieces for the skirt facing and interfacing are shorter than the actual skirt, but they should be the same. Make sure you measure and make adjustments before cutting out the facing pieces. A formal correction is available on the Stitch website here.

With that said, I lined the entire skirt rather than only lining the facing area per the instructions. It is just as easy to sew a second skirt for the lining and attach them along the side and waist seams. The lining gives the skirt a bit more body, as well as a bit more modesty and substance. On my first version of the skirt, I stitched the entire lining to the outside of the skirt inside out, and turned them to secure the lining on all four sides of the skirt (waist, sides, and hemline). On this version I only stitched the waist and sides together, and instead hemmed the skirt and lining separately. They remain unattached. The lining hem is about 3/4 inch shorter than the skirt, so it never pokes through. This is an infinitely better way to line the entire skirt than my first version.

What did you particularly like or dislike about the pattern?
I have no dislikes. I just love the drape and style of the skirt. The pretty Grecian-style drapes along the mid section camouflage a tummy, and the asymmetry creates a nice visual line down to the calf. The cut is flattering for all shapes and sizes. I like that the pattern was a piece of cake to cut and sew, with only three major elements plus facings. Also, after cutting out the fabric, the skirt only takes about an hour and a half to sew, including hemming and buttonholes. It offers instant gratification.

Would you sew it again? Would you recommend it to others?
Stay tuned next week to find out the answer to this little question.


This is a fun and simple skirt with more personality than your average wrap. I think it works for work, dress up, and play depending on fabric. Best yet, it is easy to fit and makes a great project for beginners.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Kate's custom fitting shell.

A week ago I had a special appointment with a Palmer/Pletsch fit instructor. Patti Palmer and Martha Pletsch are authors of my favorite fit book, Fit for Real People. They are also the founders and instructors at the Palmer/Pletsch International School of Sewing in Portland, OR. If I ever win the lottery or become independently wealthy, I plan to visit them for fit workshops and help. Until then, I am finding assistance with wonderful instructors locally, like Marilyn, who helped me created a custom fitting shell.

Palmer and Pletsch pioneered a particular style of tissue fitting that helps identify and execute pattern alterations on the pattern itself, rather than through tedious muslin fittings. Since tissue fitting yourself is very challenging (how do you see, let alone fit your back by yourself), my morning with Marilyn was invaluable. Marilyn helped me discover all of the quirks of my own figure, and translated these into pattern alterations to help garments fit me as they were designed.

I went into the process thinking of these physical quirks as flaws, although the more I think about it, the less I like to think of my body shape as flawed. Certainly there are areas of my body that are less than they could be (carrying extra weight, for example, or upper arms that are less toned due to a lack of exercise). These "quirks" might fairly be considered flaws. But there are also parts of my shape that are simply intrinsic to my genetic code. My broad shoulders and narrow hips, for example, can never be undone by any amount of exercise. My height, my bone structure, the length of my torso are all examples of "quirks" that are not flaws. True, they differ from the standard shape used to draft commercial patterns, but just because they are different does not mean I need to think of them as flaws or deformities. So instead I will think of these shape alteration specific to my figure as my quirks, my idiosyncrasies, or to make it fun, my Kate Traits.

Kate Traits: The Back

We started with the back, which is ALWAYS the proper place to start. An ill fitting back will result in garment discrepancies in the front, so it is important to always fit the back bodice first. Marilyn put me into several sizes of pre-sewn fitting shells, looking careful at the back to determine the correct pattern size based on my shoulder breadth. First things first, I was able to GO DOWN A SIZE in patterns. I always thought I needed a size 24 based on my high bust of 46 inches. However it turns out my best size is actually a bit smaller, and this smaller size fits more appropriately to my shoulder width.

As I have always surmised, my front side is significantly larger than my backside. However, trying to buy to fit my front always results in ill-fitting garments with shoulder issues (see Everyone's Favorite Claire McCardell as an example). Rather than buying big and scaling back, Marilyn succeeded in showing me how to buy for my smallest part and increase size with alterations for specific quirks and idiosyncrasies, thereby ensuring a stronger, closer fit overall. Brilliant.

Looking at my back in the tissue fit, Marilyn immediately wrinkled her brow at the wrinkling and puckering in the lower armhole area, which she acknowledged is due to my high round back. Apparently, I have a very prominent protrusion in my spine just above my shoulders where my back becomes my neck. This rounded area pulls the fabric and affects fit in the arm area. It is so protruding, in fact, that it requires a full 3/4 inch high round back adjustment. According to Marilyn, this is a fairly significant amount to add to the back, so it should be added in two areas. I add a 1/2 inch to the highest high back, and 1/4 inch to the low high back. Conveniently, these areas for alteration are noted on the Palmer Pletsch fitting shell, which made the alteration easy (and you can see in the above photo), however for other patterns I need simply gauge the two areas for alteration based on arm hole to make the alteration.

My back torso is also a bit longer than average, so I added 5/8 inch in back length. This was done as a horizontal adjustment just above the waistline. On other patterns it should be made at the lengthen/shorten line if noted, and if not, always made above the waistline.

Finally, because I have a thick middle, I need to add about an inch extra at the side seam at the wast, and taper the stitching line to its mark. I also need to eliminate back darts. Marilyn suggested I can create an "essence of dart" by stitching a tiny, essentially non functional dart if they are part of the design element of a pattern, but for me there is no real need to taper material. I need all I can get to cover my midsection without pulling.

Kate Traits: The Front

When the back fit, we moved to the front. The first alteration Marilyn noticed was a forward shoulder. Apparently, along with my high round back I also have shoulders that slope slightly more forward than average, so I must add 3/8 inch to the shoulder seam at the armhole on the back bodice, and true the seam by tapering my new stitch line to the existing stick line. This means I must also DECREASE the shoulder seam on the front of the bodice by 3/8. The idea is to never, ever, ever alter the circumference of the armhole when making alterations. So if you add to one area along the armscye, you must take it away from another area.

Next she lengthened the front bodice 5/8 inch on the shorten/lengthen line to match the alteration we made to the back. The general idea in all of these alterations is to make sure that the seam lines always remain the same. The armscye should not change on the bodice, lest you need to make changes on the sleeve too. Therefore if you add 5/8 to the entire back of a garment in a way that changes the side seam, you must make the same alteration to the front to lengthen the overall side seam. Otherwise you end up with mismatched side seams.

With the shoulders fit, we jumped right into the full bust alteration, for obvious reasons. The pattern only pulled partway across my bust without coming close to my center front, and because I needed to add a gigantic 2 1/2 inches in my full bust adjustment, Marilyn taught me the new and improved Y-bust FBA. It magnificently adds the needed width and length in the full bust while keeping better proportions than a standard full bust adjustment. The Y-bust involves spreading the adjustment over two areas, rather than one. It is so helpful I plan to post a second post focused entirely on this new technique. It's that helpful.

The Y-bust gracefully assisted the tissue bodice in covering my ample bosom, and the shoulders maintained a very nice, flush proximity to my chest. No armpit, shoulder poufing as I have experienced with other FBA. However, due to my ample tummy, the pattern was still not long enough to pull down to my waistline. Thus Marilyn added 2 5/8 inches in length at the center front. With a lesser adjustment (less than an inch), you would simply true the seam at this point by drawing a new stitching line lined up along the new center length to the side seam (in order to avoid altering the side seam length, as mentioned earlier). However my addition is so significant, she encouraged me to carry the 2 5/8 straight through the bust point, before truing the seam. It makes sense to me, I have a lot of roundness to cover in my center belly.

Kate Traits: The Sleeve

As expected, my overall larger body size also means larger arms, although my right arm turns out to be bigger than my left. My left gun clocks in at 14 1/2 inches around, while my right arm measures a full 16 inches. Marlyn assures me that this is not a visibly noticeable difference, and I should always alter for my larger side on both sides.

Again, the idea when making sleeve alterations is to NEVER change the circumference of the armhole, so before making any sleeve adjustments we traced the original armhole onto tissue and marked where to reattach later. After all adjustments, we placed to original curve back on the arm to maintain proportion.

Overall we added 2 inches to the upper arm. We also shortened the sleeve by 1 inch total, taking 1/2 from above the elbow, and 1/2 from below the elbow to maintain proportion.

Kate Traits: The Skirt

The good news is that like the bodice, the back skirt fit well in a size 22. Again, I eliminate the darts entirely to accommodate my thick waist. I have an incredibly flat derriere (that is the honest to god alteration terminology in the book!), so there is no need for me to dart the back to accommodate any curves. Marilyn again suggested that I can always create an "essence of dart" for design aesthetic without actually changing the back width of the skirt.

The front of the skirt, wow, it was shockingly too small. In the end we added about 5 inches to the side seam and eliminate front darts entirely. These changes were coupled with changing the top stitching line on the skirt. In order to keep the hem straight, the adjustment needs to be made at the waist. The center front of the skirt should always match the center front of the person, so in adding waist width I also had to pull up the waist of the skirt along the center front of the waist, to avoid a droopy middle. It is, quite frankly, hard to explain, but works wonderfully to keep everything proportional.

Overall it was a great experience. I am pleased to use my new found size 22 as my starting point, and especially pleased about this as it puts me back into the size range of most traditional patterns which often go up to 22 but not beyond. Yay!

My next order of business is learning to use the fitting shell as a guide for altering other patterns. I may even retrace the lines and laminate the fitting shell for a permanent reminder of my body map. And with that I am filled with a renewed vigor and enthusiasm for sewing. Let the custom alterations commence!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Austin City Limits tests my limits...of mud!

I remember my first Austin City Limits. It must have been 2002, because it was my junior year of college. I went up with my friends Billy and Melissa. I had no idea what I was in for, but I went just for kicks. I guess that is just what you do when you are in college. The truth is that I am not and have never been a super cool music person who knows all the hip bands. But I have always been someone who likes outdoor shows, and I like to get involved. That day we arrived first thing in the morning and stayed through the last show, without ever once purchasing anything to eat or drink. After the show, we went to Kirby Lane's on the drag by UT, and Billy was so hungry he at a pancake off of a stranger's discarded plate. It was awesome.

Since then, the show has become a bit of a tradition. Last year Sam and I went, and the festival tested our limits of both heat and rocking! Last year was my first three-dayer, and this year was my first three-dayer in the mud. Because boy was it muddy. Friday was beautiful and sunny. Saturday it poured and we stood in front of the stages in our rain coats getting soaked. Sunday it did not rain, but it sure did mud. Zilker Park recently installed brand new grass, complete with hefty natural fertilizer made from reclaimed sewage, and the mud turned this effort into rich, brown, thick, smooth goop that was entirely unavoidable.

Sunday I plopped a plastic tablecloth down on a hill between two stages and did not move once from my island of mud-free safety (except for once, to find a bathroom, which ended up being a distressing and unpleasant intermission from my mud-free island). The shows were great, the crowd was in high spirits, and I feel like I got a glimpsed of what it must have been like to be at Woodstock. Rock on Austin!

I always enjoy going to Austin, because there is always something new to do. On Saturday night three very talented deejays at my radio station put on a quarterly soul event, the Super Soul Shakedown, here in San Antonio, and this year they took the gig to Austin for the ACL music festival. So we saw both Brownout and T Bird and the Breaks. They are two Austin bands we have seen here in our own home town, and it was fun to see them on their own turf. The KRTU Soul guys put on a great show, yet again, and Sam and I totally shook our stuff as we huddled underneath an overhang outside the window of the club to avoid the heat inside and the rain outside. I think we had the best seats in the house.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Your best assets.

A very wise seamstress and fellow blogger recently gave me some simple, yet powerful, advice. She said that I need to embrace what looks best on me, regardless of my attraction to other styles. For example, I am drawn to the New Look shape of the 1950's. I love a tiny waist and full hips enveloped in an even fuller skirt. Yet my own shape is much more decidedly the inverted triangle shape. I have a poorly defined waist, and narrow hips. It seems obvious, I know, that 1950's patterns are therefore a poor choice for my sewing aspirations. However, up until this point I have ignored that reality and tried to create the New Look silhouettes in my wardrobe.

But this advice - dress for what looks best on YOU - is wise and true. And with this advice I am choosing to release my stubborn attraction to the New Look and instead embrace the styles that look best on me. It turns out these style are largely looks from the 1930's. And, as it also turns out, these styles are beautiful.

I did a bit of research into the fashion of the 1930's in hopes of identifying exactly what about these shapes and silhouettes suits my own shape and silhouette. The more I can pinpoint what works for me, the better able I will be to adapt my tastes to my figure reality, and ultimately sew things I like to wear.

And here is what I found. The most characteristic fashion trend from the 1930s to the end of World War II is attention at the shoulder, including butterfly sleeves and banjo sleeves. Patterns were designed with broad, rounded shoulders cut in one piece with the yoke.Feminine curves were highlighted in the 1930s through the use of the bias-cut in dresses.

It was in the 1930's that the "Sweater Girl" image emerged, modeled after Lana Turner. The "sweater" look become an informal look for young women that relied on large breasts pushed up and out by brassieres. This look continued to be influential into the 1950s.

The strong shoulders of the 1930s is expressed through wide lapels, shawls, capes, boat necklines, and accents of feathers or frothy scarves. Short bolero jackets, capelets, and dresses cut with fitted midriffs or seams below the bust increased the focus on breadth at the shoulder. Short hair remained fashionable in the early 1930s, but gradually hair was worn longer in soft or hard curls.

Darts were replaced by soft gathers. Necklines received dramatic attention, often with wide scallop-edged or ruffled collars. Fabric flowers might be placed at the neckline, on one shoulder, or at the center waist or center neckline. Bows were another popular accent.

I have broad shoulders, a prominent bust, and short curly hair! I feel like a model image of 1930's fashion, and it is so empowering. Let the sewing commence.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sunday Breakfast.

Breakfast is arguably the best meal of the day, especially when whipped up on Sunday mornings in the comfort of your own kitchen with your PJs on and your husband rubbing his eyes sleepily and sitting with you while you cook. Last Sunday we made fried eggs on toast with french-style pistou.

pistou is a simplified pesto. It skips the pine nuts and the cheese and relies entirely on fresh basil, olive oil, and a tiny bit of garlic. We used the remains of our potted herb garden basil. I cannot tell a lie, we were bad herb gardeners this year. The summer was so hot, and well, we were lazy waterers, and the result has been a sub-standard herb garden. Our parsley is a bit yellow, the rosemary and sage haven't grown an inch, and our thyme has shriveled to nothing. The basil is the only plant growing, and we let it get so big and unwieldy that it has become hard to use at all. It is almost like a mini tree at least two feet high, with hefty trunk-like stems with little to no foliage. It featured an abundant, top-heavy flowering of new leaves up top, but I think the new leaves block the light for the lower branches, perpetuating the unfortunately bare stems. All in all the plant had lost its functionality as a ingredient-producing garden and had grown into a bit of an eyesore and a constant reminder of our poor gardening skills.

So last weekend I made a dramatic move. I cut nearly the whole plant back. I just took my scissors and - whack-whack-whack - trimmed off all of the giant branches of leaves away, leaving a tiny plant behind. Sam was upset. After all, he is a sensitive soul, and the idea of killing away a portion of a living thing that we are responsible for can be upsetting to sensitive types. But the good thing is that his sensitivity led us to save my trimmings, and as a result we had a lot of basil to make
pistou. And pistou is simple and delicious.

The word
pistou means pounded in French. Traditionally, the ingredients are crushed and mixed together in a mortar with a pestle. We used a mini food processor. The dish hails from the Provencal region of France. It can be used in soups, or as a spread on bread or served over pasta. But for our breakfast, we served it with eggs over toast.

Poached Eggs and Parmesan Cheese Over Toast with Pistou

1/3 cup (packed) fresh basil leaves
1/2 small garlic clove
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 large eggs
2 1/2-inch-thick slices brioche or egg bread, toasted
Parmesan cheese shavings

Puree basil, garlic, and oil in mini processor until very smooth. Season pistou to taste with salt and pepper.

Add enough water to medium skillet to measure 1 1/4 inches. Sprinkle salt generously into water. Bring water to simmer over medium heat. Crack eggs 1 at a time and gently slip into water. Cook until egg whites are just set and egg yolks are still runny, about 3 minutes.

Place hot toasts on plates. Top each with Parmesan. Using slotted spoon, transfer 2 eggs, well drained, to each piece of brioche. Sprinkle eggs with salt and pepper. Drizzle with some of pistou and serve.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A missing pantry staple.

We forgot to buy olive oil, so tonight we were forced to cook our dinner in butter instead. Sauteed grape tomatoes with oregano and lamb meatballs with cous cous are browning up in on the stove right now. Our house smells amazing. Also, I feel like Julia Child. "Just a little bit of butter, enough to taste..." My poor husband is worried about the saturated fat content of our meal, but me, I am just enjoying the benefits of missing a pantry staple. Tomorrow, we go to the store.

p.s. We did not actually use an entire stick of butter as the photo suggests. That is from another recipe from a few months ago.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The D.U.K. #2

Do you see that tall dude in a chefs coat in the front of this picture? And do you see how all of us are smiling huge, goofy grins? Well, that's because that tall dude is a Real. Live. Professional Chef. And he had just cooked us dinner. Also, probably, because we drank 11 bottles of wine. But mostly because of the chef.

The chef is Chef Jason Dady, and indeed, he came over to John and Lauren's house on Thursday to make us a fabulous dinner. It was all part of D.U.K., or Dady's Underground Kitchen for those of you not in the know. Basically, it is a super cool idea on Dady's part to set aside some dates for private cooking for a group of ten. It's underground, because he sends out the dates at random on his Twitter feed, and the first to respond get the date. We provide the kitchen. We bring the wine. He cooks a five course meal, and we eat it. Yum.

The D.U.K. became a reality thanks to my dinner club compadre and fellow food nerd Lauren. Lauren is good with social media, and she astutely harnessed the power of the interweb to secure a private dinner, cooked by San Antonio chef Jason Dady, via Twitter a few weeks ago. Now, to understand the magnitude of this experience, you must understand that Lauren, her husband John, me, and my husband Sam have an above average infatuation with food. This includes of course home cooking, but extends much farther into the culinary adventures of fine dining out, as well as into the current events of our city's culinary activity. We are the kind of friends that get together and gossip about new restaurant openings. We eagerly share in detailed descriptions of meals we've recently eaten. We take cooking classes at the local school. We plan our weekends around eating out at new restaurants. And of course we know who San Antonio's big chefs are, and we follow their work (some of us even stalk them at Costco on occasion...).

And that is how we knew about Chef Jason Dady. John, Lauren, Sam and I have eaten at several of his restaurants together. He has a fancy and romantic restaurant, The Lodge, in a 1929 mansion in the Castle Hills neighborhood. He operates my favorite Italian restaurant in town (and conveniently near my house), Tre Trattoria. He has a great wine and tapas place up north, Bin 555. And he has a smokin' BBQ joint not to far away, Two Bros BBQ. And, rumor has it straight from his mouth (in which case I guess it is not really a rumor) that he is opening another restaurant soon in the Fairmount Hotel in downtown San Antonio. So when Dady offered to cook for us and an intimate group of friends, we freakin' jumped at the chance. That's just what food nerds do.

And it was delicious. And really relaxed. Chef Dady didn't just cook for us, he spent the whole night interacting with us too. He was such a nice guy. He let us watch his every move without making us feel like we were creepy stalkers. He indulged all of our questions and encouraged us to interact while he cooked. He even conversed eagerly about our favorite reality television show "Top Chef" and different Food Network stars. Usually when I try to talk to chef-like people about food TV, they get all hoity toity and judgmental and tell me they are too busy being "real" cooks to indulge in television. But not Chef Dady. He is cool enough to understand that us food nerds take our culinary entertainment where we can get it, and he was happy to bond over the TV shows. Totally cool.

Dinner was amazing. The food was delicious and creative. Our 3rd course was a rabbit, head to tail, and it involved the loin and a combo of the offal meats encased in cured meat, poached, then pan seared. As he was plating he said to me "I can guarantee you there is not a better dish being served in all of San Antonio tonight." It was really cool to see his pride and confidence in his work, and after tasting it, I seriously believe him. It was amazing. And the coolest part is that his inspiration for the dish was eggplant, and he built the rest of the amazing plate around its flavors. His inspiration was not the rabbit, not the sauce, but the vegetable. Neat.

The dessert was a special treat for me, because I am the Dady Crostada's #1 fan in San Antonio. Seriously, I think about it more than any other dessert. And for those of you that know me, you know I love dessert. I think about dessert about as often as men are accused of thinking about sex. That is to say, I think about dessert about ever six seconds or so, and I most certainly think about it morning, noon, and night. Anyway, once long long ago at Tre Trattoria I had a pear crostada served with cinnamon marscapone, and it was damn near the best thing I have ever tasted. The next time I went to Tre, I saved room for dessert, but alas the crostada was no longer on the menu. So I wrote a comment card, and I have written a comment card every visit since. I have even channeled my longing for crostada through Sam and his Twitter account. And so imagine my delight when I arrived to our D.U.K. dinner and saw "Samwar's Crostada" on the menu. My heart did a little skip. I had been waiting for that dessert, longing for that dessert, and at last I had the dessert. I enjoyed every D.U.K. course, but especially dessert.

Below is the menu, and photos, to commemorate the meal.

D.U.K. #2
September 3rd, 2009

Chef Jason Dady presents:

Hors de oeuvres:
"Smoked" Popcorn
Nutella, Chorizo and Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Filet Mignon Meatballs with Horseradish Crema
"What's in Your Fridge" Challenge - aka Peach, Leak, and Cheese Bruschetta

1st Course:
Fresh Seasonal Figs with Local Chevre Goat Cheese, Honey, Marcona Almonds, Balsamic and Proscuitto de Parma

2nd Course:
Forbidden Rice Crusted Scallop with House-cured Guanciale, Heirloom Tomato, Sweet Corn, Fresh Texas Peas, White Polenta, and Lemon Beurre Blanc

3rd Course:
Rabbit "Head-to-Fluffy-Tail" with Celery Root Puree, Summer Bulb Onion, Japanese Eggplant and Vanduvan

4th Course:
Samwar's Crostada with Organic Nectarines and Made to Order Chantilly

When the meal was over, Chef Dady teased us about our impressive wine consumption (9 bottles of wine and one bottle of Port were already dry) and helped us celebrate our achievement by opening a second bottle of port. It was not necessary, but was very well received. As Dady said himself, "DUK was a smashing success (and I mean smashed)!" So we cheersed, and we drank, and we even whoo-ed a little bit (we were, after all, smashed at that point). All in all it was a delicious, libatious, one-of-a-kind dinner that goes down in my book as one of my best ever.

p.s. Do you see that look of adoration in Lauren's eyes? Looks like ohmypuddin has found a new hero.