Thursday, March 19, 2015

Pi Day Car Bomb Whoopie Pies

When you're a professor and spend every waking minute with other Ph.Ds things sometimes get a little nerdy. Luckily, when you're a professor, you dig how nerdy your friends are. So, when 3/14/15 rolled around and I was invited to a "Pi Day" party at which we would make a toast at 9:26:53 (yes, down to the second) to celebrate this once a century occurrence of 3.141592653 I was obviously very excited.

The assignment was to come up with a "Pi themed pie" but it was specially requested in the invite that we be creative with our pie selections. To avoid a table full of the same pies, our hosts recommended pizza pies, fruit pies, pot pies, any pies! I first considered making an apple pie, because apple pie is simple an delicious, but after a lot of pondering (when I probably should have been prepping lectures) I decided I wanted to do something more creative. Perhaps a pie I'd never made before? Perhaps, a whoopie pie?

The first thing I did was look up whoopie pie on Wikipedia. A California girl, I've never even a seen a whoopie pie in real life, much less made one. The recipes I found seemed simple enough. Chocolate cakey cookie, white frosting. I can do this. But then, that seems awful boring... It was then that realized that this would likely be the only chance to make a St. Patrick's Day dessert. After all, I like to maximize my holiday spirit (and my holiday spirits).

So, I pulled up my car bomb cupcake recipe from years ago and set to work trying to make an Irish Car Bomb Whoopie Pie to commemorate the overlap between Pi day and St. Patricks's Day.

Car Bomb Whoopie Pies
Makes 20. 

1 box Pillsbury Super Moist Dark Chocolate Cake Mix
3 eggs
1/2 bottle (6-oz) Guinness Draught Stout

Preheat oven to 350˚. Combine cake mix and eggs in a large bowl and slowly mix in beer. Mix well for 2 minutes on medium speed, being sure to scrape the sides of the bowl to incorporate beer into all the batter. Let batter sit for at least 10 minutes to become more stiff. Liberally grease or line 2 baking sheets Spoon out batter into approximately 1 to 2 oz portions on cookie sheet. Bake 12-15 minutes. Remove cookies from the oven and allow them to cool on wire racks. Makes apx. 40 cookies

Whiskey Ganache
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
2/3 cup milk
3 tbsp Irish whiskey

In a double boiler bring the milk up to a simmer. Add chocolate chips and stir constantly with a wire whisk until the chocolate is smooth and melted. Remove from heat and stir in whiskey. Cool in the refrigerator for about one hour, checking every 10 minutes or so to make sure it hasn't set up too much. Should be the consistency of thick syrup/loose honey.

Bailey's Frosting
16 oz (one container) Pillsbury Creamy Supreme Vanilla Frosting
4 tbsp Irish Cream

Chill frosting before using. With an electric mixer whip frosting well before slowly adding the Irish Cream. If frosting gets too loose add powdered sugar to thicken it back up.

Match cooled cookies into pairs of equal size. If cookies are uniform you can skip this step, but let's be real, they're not. 
Using a small offset spatula or butter knife, frost one cookie from each pair with Bailey's frosting. Sandwich frosting between cookies and set aside. Repeat until all cookies are made into sandwiches. NOTE: I just barely had enough frosting to make all 20 sandwiches. So, if you like more frosting, rather than less in your whoopie pie, plan to double your frosting recipe. 

Place wire racks a cutting board, cookie sheet, or other large, easy to clean flat surface. Remove chilled ganache from refrigerator and dip each sandwich to cover half with ganache. Place on wire racks and chill until ganache is firm. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Updating the craft room closet

Last weekend the sun came out for the first time in ages. The college students in town put on their swimsuits and binge drank to celebrate. Your Professors, on the other hand, enthusiastically set to work cleaning and updating our homes.

My weekend task was to deal with the craft room closet. This space was quite literally the first thing that I made a mess of upon arriving. Anything the movers didn't know what to do with I shoved in the closet. Then, as the months went by, I just shoved more and more things in the closet, since it was already beyond hope. 

By the end of winter it looked like this. You can see that there isn't really much in it (although I didn't photograph the piles of junk on the floor) because the space just wasn't well designed for what I need. 

I started by taking everything out an assessing the situation. Three hanging rods, two shelves, a dozen mismatched hooks, and three colors of paint (fun fact, this closet has been both pink and mint green in it's past). Since this is a craft room and not a bedroom, it was clear to me that what I really needed was shelving. 

To the lumber store I went in my little tiny Echo and asked the young man in the lumber yard to help me put my 8' board lengths in through the window. "I'll just hold them with one hand while I drive," I assured him. "I'm not going far." He mumbled something under his breath and wandered off. I drove home cautiously. 

At home, I unboxed the fancy miter saw my parents got me for Christmas and set it up in my basement. To make the 2 shelves I cut 6 lengths of 1x4 and 2 lengths of 1x10 and 2 lengths of 1x8. I screwed the 1x4 in place in the closet. 

The whole closet was already in need of paint, so I gave all of the trim and the new shelf joists a coat of high gloss white. I realized I never finished painting the closet floor, so I gave it a little touch up job, and pulled out the gallon of Antique White I've been using to hide a multitude of sins in this house to give the rest of the closet a once over. Then, I spent my evenings after work painting various pieces of shelving (1x8 and 1x10) in high gloss to match. 
I picked up a new chain pull for the overhead light so that it could be switched on (there wasn't one when I moved in, which is mind blowing because if you recall, this room was a chocolate brown cave-- so I can only assume that the girl living in this room was a mess at all times...) I replaced the hodge podge of various hooks and clips that had been mounted over the years with two matching coat hooks spaced perfectly for my ironing board (thanks pinterest) and put it all back together. 

I was able to put about twice as much stuff back in the closet as I initially took out and it still looks better than it did. 
Closet organization for the win. Who needs to binge drink in the sun anyway?

Monday, March 9, 2015

A key hook 2 years in the making

If you know me at all you know that I am pretty much always looking for something. My cell phone, my ID, my keys, and now, my mittens. Despite my efforts to stay organized, my keys allude me about 80% of the time. When I lived in a shoebox of an apartment it was pretty easy to find the missing object most of the time. I only had 800 square feet to search. But now with 3 bedrooms, a garage, a basement, and living space, the search for missing objects has become a significant portion of my day.

In an attempt to get the key situation under control I decided I need a key hanger. About 2 years ago I saw this key hook on Pinterest and thought it was a great and very cute solution. I started saving keys for the someday project. I kept a little cache of my high school locker keys, bike lock keys from the locks cut off my stolen bikes, keys to apartments I moved out of, etc. In November the day finally came that I had enough keys! All I had to do was bend them and I would have something as beautiful as this.
I brought the keys home with me for Christmas and asked my dad for his help with the key bending. We went out into his cold garage to find pliers and he gave the first key a tweak. It snapped in half. He tried another, same result. At this point I decided that this wasn't going as planned. Perhaps my dad lacked the finesse necessary for such a task.

I went went back home to Wisconsin and tried again in my warm house, with my remaining keys. I broke one immediately. I tried warming the key over a candle first then bending, and broke another. I was beginning to give up hope. Then, I decided to give up and use one "real" key that came with my house. After all, a key to your first home seems like a good sentiment for the key holder. Of course, this one bent perfectly the first time with no trouble.

Luckily around this same time I was fighting another battle with keys my home. See, when I moved into my house I was given about 10 keys. All of them opened knobs on 3 of the 4 exterior doors and the deadbolt on the back door. The front door, conversely, had no key at all. This was completely unfathomable to someone moving from LA, but when I asked the realtor he simply explained that people don't lock their doors here. What!? Needless to say I had the lock changed so that I could lock my front door, but when I did so was given exactly one key to the door. Copies, I figured would be easy enough to get made. This is where I was wrong. I tried the local True Value Hardware, but the kid learning made me two copies with the wrong blank that wouldn't fit in the door. I tried the "Minute Key" kiosk at Menard's and got two more keys that didn't work. I went to Home Depot and the women there told me that no, they couldn't make that key. So I stopped locking my door again and hid the key away for fear of losing it, but on the bright side, at least I had more keys to play with.

When I heated it up and tried to bend it, one of the useless keys from the True Value ALMOST worked. I was just giving it a tiny final tweak when it snapped. Infuriated, I pulled out the super glue and stuck it back together. The "Minute Keys" alternatively, bent without a fight. Of course, they're the ugliest ones.

After this whole fiasco I had spent about $15 in keys and burnt myself twice. I had a scary little graveyard of broken keys to my house, car, old apartments and padlocks, and I had exactly 4 kind of ugly bent keys.

Good enough.

I went to Goodwill and paid 99 cents for this sweet "Gone Fishing" sign that I can only imagine adorned the wall of someone old man's office.
I removed the metal hanger and gave it a couple of coats of white, glossy spray paint. Then, I tried to come up with a classy way of attaching a ribbon to the back. I tried nails, I tried glue. But alas, duct tape was the answer.
Using some little baby-sized 6 cent screws and my cordless screwdriver I affixed my 4 ugly bent keys.
All in all, this is not at all what I expected, but it was 2 years and about $20 in the making, so I'm hanging it up anyway.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The best scarf is a finished scarf

2014 was a year of new beginnings for me. New house, new job, new state, new friends. But, I have a confession to make: With the exception of my dissertation (which to be fair, is sort of a big deal) I have not finished anything in almost a year. I can't remember the last time I finished a book, or a knitting project, or frankly, even a full-length movie. No, in 2014 I have just been starting messes without any intention of finishing them, which means my craft room, my bookshelf, and my psyche are kind of in various states of disarray.

Thinking about it now, finishing things would have been a terrific new years resolution. But I resolved, instead, raise more hell in Madison and Milwaukee (certainly a more realistic resolution, right?) The good news is that even though it wasn't my resolution, I'm getting the year off to a good start.

I finished something.

I started this white wool "blanket scarf" back in December when Old Navy had a rack of scarves on sale and I couldn't really justify buying one. Instead, I bought two skeins of Fisherman's Wool in white and a size 8 circular needle before getting on the plane for CA to defend my dissertation.

Unfortunately, I got distracted on the plane and messed up pretty abysmlly in a couple of ways.

1) I couldn't decide if I wanted to do a seed stitch or a basketweave, so I decided to aim for the middle. So, I worked one round in a K2,P2 pattern, and the next round just the opposite. The result is not particularly attractive.

2) I twisted my stitches when I was joining the round, twice. So, this isn't just your standard mobius scarf, it's a twisted mess.

Now, my friend Sarah at the fabric store would have said that I should rip it all out and start over. She'd say that the best knitting generally has to happen twice. But, I haven't finished a damn thing in a year. So, it's funky, but warm. And frankly, the best scarf is a finished scarf.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Budget Basement Bathroom Face-lift

When I was house shopping in Whitewater I saw a lot of really, really gross basement bathrooms. Soggy floors, half finished walls, toilets next to washer/dryers. So, in comparison, the bathroom the basement of my little house was actually not so bad.
Someone had done a bad job caulking around the relatively new shower, which created an issue with the drywall, the toilet hadn't been cleaned in years, there was a little mold growing on the door and, of course, like every other room in the entire house, it was brown. After a summer without a dehumidifier in my basement, even though the bathroom wasn't being used, by February the mold situation had gotten a bit worse and I was trying to throw a party in the basement. I couldn't very well have guests using the bathroom looking like this.
I started with the mold situation. I mixed up about 1 cup borax to one hot gallon of water in the bathroom sink and brushed the walls and door down with the mixture to remove and kill any mold.
When the walls were dry, I picked away the broken/damaged plaster and identified the shower leak. With dad's instruction via phone, I wiped down the poorly caulked seams with "rubbing alcohol" (read, nail polish remover, I knew where it was) and gave both edges of the shower a fresh coat of caulking on the inside and outside.

I bought some pre-mixed mud for patching and filled in the holes as best I could. While I was at it, I took down the sad and kind of moldy medicine chest that was hang from the wall by two rusty screws and a soggy piece of heavy-duty cardboard.
Once the patches were dry, I invested in a gallon of really serious mold-resistant primer (KILZ Premium) and coated every inch of the bathroom: walls, ceiling, edges, trim, baseboard, all of it. White was a big improvement over brown, I'll say, and worked great for the ceiling and trim, but I wanted something a little more exciting for the wall color. Unfortunately, the sky was dumping snow on Whitewater and I had to teach all week. So, rather than go pick out a new color, I grabbed the remaining half gallon of Abloom by EasyCare (which I'm sure the next owners will lament as I lament the brown) and gave the whole thing a quick coat.

Rather than rehang the the moldy medicine cabinet, since no one lives in the basement, I just hung a mirror I already had kicking around (painted in college when I went through a yellow/hot pink phase), found the bathmat, towels, and art from my old bathroom in CA, and called it a day.

For about $30, I would call this a major improvement.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Mat Cutting: A really self-centered half-craft

Last week a fancy red tube emblazoned with gold lettering arrived in my mailbox. In it was my doctoral diploma, a sheet of paper representing many years (4 by the most conservative estimates, or about 24 years if you want to play the "terminal degree" card) of education and hard work.
When I finished college back in 2007 (gulp) my mom took me down to the frame shop to buy a custom frame and custom mat for my diploma. Then, it sat in my high school bedroom for 7 years largely ignored. But now, with my B.S., my M.A., and my Ph.D. in hand I drove into Janesville in search of frames to hang them all up in my office like the gloater that I am.

The custom frame counter offered to frame the set for me for about $270 (this was including a 70% discount-- sit with that for a moment). Obviously not interested in going that route, I made my way over to the off-the-shelf frame section and picked out some budget frames that would work just fine. I contemplated for quite some time just how large a frame it is socially acceptable to use for a diploma. The lady doing the custom framing suggested a 16x20 frame for any 11x14 document. If you have a tape nearby, eyeball how large 16x20 is. It's huge. Too big, I decided. So, in the "digital sizes" section I found a 14x18 frame that matched the smaller ones I'd picked out for my standard 8.5x11 diplomas.

I already had the mat for my bachelor's that my mom had picked out with me, but I wandered back to the frame counter to find out what it would cost to get a couple of mats cut. For 2 mats they wanted almost $90. What? It's mat board? You cut it. What? I give up Michael's.

So, after much contemplation I decided to take matters into my own hands. And by matters, I mean mats. I sifted out a 50% coupon, bought a $15 mat cutter, a $9 piece of mat board, and a $5 standard diploma mat. Then, I went home to do it myself.

I started with some cheap leftover white mat I had taken out of one of the frames I'd just bought, just for practice. Luckily, I found that my rotary mat and board (for quilting) worked perfectly for measuring and cutting.

First, going mostly on intuition, I cut an 8.5" x 11" mat to fit my slightly too large M.A. diploma (thanks for that, CGU). Then, I cut a larger (14x18) piece out of my charcoal colored piece of mat board and somehow managed to get the inside hole to the right size for my diploma. 
Once I had done that, I was on a roll. I stopped in at the goodwill and picked up an ugly, beat up white frame with a white mat and brought it home. I gave it quick coat of orange spray paint, cut the mat to size, and framed this darling dishtowel my sister in law gave me for Christmas (don't judge me, I need art).
I'm certainly no pro, and true, the mats didn't turn out perfect so maybe I'll replace them if I ever get any better at this. But for now, I'm pretty pleased to walk into my office and see this every day. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Wall art to make me feel better

A week ago I woke up and looked in the mirror to find the left half of my face entirely paralyzed. After a trip to the ER and a week of steroids my face is still sagging and shows no sign of improvement. Even better the (confidence inducing) doctors have literally no prognosis. It might be better tomorrow. It might never get better. Needless to say, I'm feeling a down. But, after a morning of sewing pillows, hanging light fixtures, and baking cookies, I found that was feeling a bit better despite my face.

I've had a plain white canvas sitting on the floor of the craft room since summer just waiting for inspiration and to be hung on the wall. I sifted through my pinterest boards looking for the right quote to image to hang up, but I just couldn't get inspired. All of the things I'd pinned in the past suddenly felt hokey or wordy and I couldn't find anything on my own boards worth replicating. Eventually I ended up looking through the board of a Georgia art teacher named Laurie (who I want to be friends with now, naturally) and found this image.
Obviously, this is too many words to hang on the wall, and the "you are probably an artist" had that hokey feel to it that I just can't deal with, but something about it really resonated with me. That's the message I need: not a cliche about creativity and courage, not an inspirational message about taking chances. Make something. You will feel better.

Aside from all of the words, I ran into a problem with the ugly factor of this piece. This is not something I want on my wall. So, with 6 days left on my InDesign license I tried my hand a little typography and came up with this:
So, I gave the canvas an intentionally rough coat of gold acrylic paint and, using my quilting rulers and a pencil, sketched out the words. I went back over it all with Sharpie, did a little touch up, and alas, felt better.