Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Become your inner fashionista

Recently, I've been playing around a lot with clothing alteration. Weight loss, though generally a good thing, can be a serious downer on one's wardrobe. Since I don't have a fortune with which to buy an entirely new wardrobe, I've been resizing my favorite pieces for further wearability. It takes courage to cut up and sew an already wearable garment, so once I began with small alterations, my creativity took over and I tried other stuff, like turning a pair of jeans into a skirt, or chopping the arms off a sweater. And I discovered that I liked creating Frankenstein clothing. My latest attempts have proved very successful, as well, and now the challenge is to create as many things as I can from one garment. Call it maximizing on my investments. My latest creation was saved from a stock of dress shirts being shipped out to the local Salvation Army store.
Since I was going for a sleeveless ruffled blouse, the first order of business was to remove the sleeves, cutting along the shoulder seams. I always cut on the opposite side of the seam I am removing, to allow for a little extra room when hemming the rough edges later on. Next, I turned the shirt inside out and put it on. This is extremely difficult with a button-up shirt. Be warned. I pinned the extra fabric around my bust and along the curve of my back, to give the otherwise straight garment a more feminine shape. I carefully removed the shirt, now full of pins, and stitched in the darts and tucks.
After trying on the shirt, right way out, I marked the v-neck line with a white pencil. I cut this part out.
Next came the ruffles. I removed the cuffs, keeping them aside for future consideration, then open each sleeve up by cutting along the seam. I cut two long strips from each sleeve and sewn the 4 pieces together, end to end. Using the iron, I pressed the long strip in half lengthwise to create the finished edge of the ruffle. Back to the sewing machine, I sewed a line of gathering stitch along the long, open end, then pulled on these stitches to gather the fabric into a ruffle.
I pressed and finished the ends of the ruffle, them pinned it to the collar of the shirt, spacing and stretching the ruffle as needed to fit along the neckline. Once pinned, I stitch the collar in place, and pressed the raw edges towards the shirt. I top-stitched the raw edge to hide it from view.
Finally, I trimmed the excess length from the bottom of the shirt. I pressed under the raw edges at the waist and on the sleeves, and stitched.
I am incredibly happy with the results. This is one of the first times I visualized what my project would look like, and the resulting piece actually looked like what I had imagined. Very happy. Then I realized that I had some interesting leftover bits that I just couldn't possibly throw away. Two cuffs, a collar, buttons, a 4-inch piece of fabric removed from the waist - they just screamed potential.
I tackled the cuffs first, deciding that they would make great cuff bracelets. By themselves, they reminded me of the Playboy Bunny costume, and since I wasn't looking to make a fluffy white tail to complete the outfit, I went a different direction, embellishing the cuff with an assortment of buttons. My mom has this GIANT cookie tin full of buttons that date back 3 generations. None of them match, and there are some really beautiful specimens we received from a friend who was a sales representative for sewing supplies. They were absolutely PERFECT for this project.
I picked out my favorites, decided on their placement then stitched the buttons onto the cuff, one by one. I used an assortment of flat ones and round ones, mostly in black, though I did include a touch of silver here and there for that bling factor. And I love it.
I happen to be partial to headbands, and the collar seemed to lend itself perfectly to a hair accessory. All I needed to do was measure it on my head, open up the 2 ends, and insert a wide piece of elastic to complete the loop. One new headband!

Finally, I used the excess fabric I removed from the waist to stitch up a cute little carnation brooch. I simply ran a line of gathering stitch along the unfinished edge, gathered it up, then bunched the bottom together and hand-stitched it into a rosette shape. I stitched a safety pin to the bottom of the flower, and tah dah! One pretty little flower pin.
There you have it - four different pieces from one men's shirt, and all of it made with what I had stored away in the sewing room. I admit that I do have a relatively well-stocked sewing room, but all of what I used can be found for incredibly cheaper at a Salvation Army of Value Village store. Certainly less than the cost of buying the items new.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Breadmaking, take two.

So, regardless of how few views my first post got, I still managed to inspire my own father to take up his electric mixer and try his hand at baking fresh bread. He was drawn in with the promise of fluffy white loaves and a house filled with the delicious aroma of baking bread - and was promptly let down, due to a bad batch of yeast, as we later discovered. His resulting loaves resembled tea cakes, dense and yellow in hue, and so filling, you can really only eat one slice at a time. Needless to say, I felt a little bad for having lead him astray(even though I had nothing to do with the yeast), so this morning, I paid him a visit, large bag of flour in one hand, a fresh jar of yeast in the other.Have flour, will travel.

First, I explained how to not read too much into the recipe, even though I did say to follow the directions. I know, I know, I'm giving contradicting information, and at this, my father accused me of cheating. What can I say, I tend to tweak recipes to my own liking when I cook! I under-mix my bread to avoid making something too tough to eat. When a recipe says to knead the dough for 10 minutes, I knead for five. It's also a good philosophy to follow if you want to avoid adding too much flour to a recipe, again keeping the dough from becoming too tough.

Was I really cheating? I was merely using the recipe as a guideline, which is hard to explain even in its simplest form - which brought about the next question: How do you teach the art of recipe adaptation? I don't know that you can. I suppose it can best be described as using your senses while cooking, and no - I don't mean common sense. I'm referring to touch, smell, taste, sight, and sometimes even sound. I knead my bread until it looks and it feels right. I always taste, no matter far from the finished product I might be. I proceed the same way with all my cooking, as you'll most likely see in future posts.

Back to cheating our way through bread making. The next step was to find an ideal environment for the dough to rise properly. I remembered an old Salton hotplate my mom keeps hidden in the back of the cupboard, and deemed it ideal for the task and an excellent substitute for my coffee maker. We insulated the hotplate with a towel, as it was a little warmer than necessary, but an hour later, we very pleased with the results.

To change things up from the last batch, I decided to follow the variation suggested by Miss Crocker and turn these loaves into cinnamon-raisin bread. We had added cinnamon and raisins to the dough before the first rising, and sandwiched a layer of cinnamon sugar into the bread when rolling up the dough to place them in the loaf pans. With the promise of a cinnamon-y swirl inside, we set the loaves back on the hotplate for a second rising. I suggested making a few miniature versions for my niece, who was watching the whole process very intently. Perhaps I'll be teaching her the art of bread-making next?

Fresh out of the oven, the loaves look perfect. The house smelled delicious. I was happy the lesson had been a success and, hopefully, this lovely afternoon in the kitchen had re-instilled my father's confidence in his baking skills. Perhaps, sometime in the near future, I'll come by for visit and find the house smelling of deliciously fresh-baked bread - and it will not have been my doing.
White Bread (as adapted from Betty Crocker's Cookbook, copyright General Mills 1969)

2 packages active dry yeast(2 tbsp. if you are using bulk yeast)
3/4 c. warm water (110 degrees F)
2-2/3 c. warm water
1/4 c. sugar
1 tbsp. salt
3 tbsp. shortening (I like to use good olive oil when making a savory loaf)
9 to 10 cups all-purpose flour
Melted butter (I like to use good olive oil when making a savory loaf)

Dissolve the yeast in 3/4 c warm water. Into this mixture, add the 2-2/3 cup water water, sugar, salt, shortening, and 5 cups of the flour. Using an electric mixer, beat until smooth(about 1 minute). Mix in enough remaining flour to make the dough easy to handle(not sticky).

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place in a greased bowl; turn greased side up. Cover; let rise in a warm place until double, about 1 hour.

Punch down dough; divide in half. Roll each half into a rectangle, 18x9 inches. Roll up, beginning at short side. With side of hand, press each end to seal and fold ends under loaf. place seam side down into a greased loaf pan. Brush loaves lightly with melted butter. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

Heat over to 425 degrees F. Place loaves on rack in center of over, not touching sides of oven or each other. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until deep golden brown, and sounding hollow when loaves are tapped. Remove from pas, brush tops again with melted butter and allow to cool on racks.

Makes 2 loaves.

To make cinnamon-raisin bread:
Stir 1 cup raisins and 1 teaspoon cinnamon into mix with first 5 cups of flour - otherwise, the raisins will want to escape during kneading! After rolling the dough into rectangles, brush each loaf with 1 tbsp. water, and sprinkle with a mixture of 1/4 c. sugar and 2 tsp. cinnamon. Continue with recipe as written above.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

That warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

There's something incredibly rewarding about baking your own bread. Creating a perfect environment for the yeast to grow. Kneading the dough to work the gluten, making a more tender loaf. Waiting ever-so-patiently for the bread to rise. The wonderful smell of freshly baked bread filling the house. And slicing through the crust of your own warm-from-the-over creation? Heavenly. What better way to warm up the house on another chilly winter evening? Therefore, today's plan of action was to pull the trusty Betty Crocker Cookbook off the shelf and get kneading!

I've learned over time that bread is a remarkably easy and difficult thing to make. Follow the directions very carefully and bread-making becomes a simple exercise in patience. Optimal water temperature make for better yeast growth, so out comes the thermometer. Yeast is dissolved, and wet ingredients get mixed together with the awesomeness of my 1956 Sunbeam Mixmaster junior. I think it makes everything taste better.

It's amazing how much flour can be absorbed into a loaf(or 2)of bread. This one takes 10 cups!

Again, temperature plays a key role in creating a fluffy, tender dough. This bread needs an hour of rising, covered with a clean dish towel, propped on the espresso machine. Mine has a heat plate on top to keep the cups warm, so it has proved to be the ideal dough-rising location. Better than on top of the fridge, or behind the computer monitor.
Next step, rolling the dough to up into a loaf. It's not as simple as shaping an oval to dump into a loaf pan - no - this requires rolling pin skills! A bread loaf is actually made by flattening the dough into a long rectangle, then rolling it like a jelly roll, squishing the ends, and dropping that into the pan. Make sense? Think about it the next time you eat a slice of bread. Trying tearing a piece off and you'll notice how the bread tears in a distinctly spiral direction.
Another hour tucked under the towel on top of the espresso machine, then it's into the toasty oven for a half hour (see what I mean about the patience?) and finally, FINALLY - well, have a look.

See how rewarding it can be? And WAY better that driving to the store, especially in this cold weather. Bonus of baking your own bread, besides the eating? Suddenly, the house is a whole lot warmer. :)