Oh, sew much fun!

I love to sew.  It’s so rewarding to create clothing or household items from scratch.  I have my mom to thank for teaching me her extensive skills, and my faithful Elna sewing machine that was my college graduation present and has served me well ever since.  When the kids were little, I added a serger and went to town creating sweatsuits, t-shirts, pajamas and Zubaz (remember those?) for just pennies.  As work became more demanding and our income rose, my sewing took a holiday while I focused on family time.  But retirement has given me the opportunity to resume, and grandchildren are the perfect excuse to dust off those sewing machines.

My first foray into this renewed sewing venture was pajamas.  Each year for Christmas I would make matching pajamas for our three children.  You’d be surprised at how old they were by the time that tradition was set aside!  This time I started with slipper-jammies.  You know, the soft fluffy kind that have feet and zip

up from one ankle to the neck.  And I’ve  now doubled the ante – one set with Christmas designs to wear leading up to Christmas (and beyond since their mom is as practical as I am) and another in a winter motif to find under the tree.  We’ll see if that keeps up as the number of grandchildren grows…

Next I need to fire up the serger again.  I’m sure I will need to re-educate myself on how to thread it and the intricacies of how to do the different stitches.  I have vivid memories of how tricky it is to get all four spools threaded properly and get good stitches going.  I’ll need patience, I know.  I was amazed, though, at the dearth of knit fabrics and ribbing available in the stores now.  Did women give up their sergers?  I used to have volumes of bolts to choose from, with all sorts of patterns and colors.  Whatever happened to sweatshirt material, or interlock?

Sewing in general seems on the downswing.  I will admit with some regret that I did not foster my daughter’s sewing skills to the same degree.  Fabric stores have closed by the dozens, particularly those that were dedicated to sewing alone.  How well I remember going down to Minneapolis from Duluth just to shop at Amluxen’s downtown.  They had at least two floors full of fabrics, and I always saved my money to buy my favorite fabric there – Pendleton wool.  There was no finer wool or more beautiful plaids.  But then again, we dressed differently in those days, and had more use for those formal fabrics.

I’ve never been big on following trends, so I’ll hang in there and keep sewing as long as I can find fabric.  And it’s time to get going on those PJs that go under the tree.

Morning Muffins

I was tired of looking at the two boxes of Raisin Bran that were languishing on the shelf.  I bought them for my son, but he does not appear to be as fond of the cereal as he claimed.  So I dug out an old recipe for refrigerator muffins.  I got it from a co-worker in my very first real job, and that was more than a few years ago.  But I remembered it as being a good one.  The beauty is that it uses a whole box of Raisin Bran cereal and a full quart of buttermilk.  So no leftovers of odd ingredients.  And the batter lasts six weeks in the refrigerator.

I whipped up the recipe, baked a few muffins and stashed the remainder of the batter in the fridge.  Those first muffins were not what I remembered – the bran flakes had not had time to fully soak into the batter and I could discern individual flakes in a white batter.  The next set I baked a few days later, however, were perfect.  Dark brown inside with a hearty flavor.  Good lesson – they improve with time.  The best part was being able to pop a few into the oven early in the morning and Voila! fresh warm muffins.  It worked especially well when we had overnight company.  I could spoil her with home made muffins right out of the oven without the distraction of mixing them up while she was there.  And for several weeks afterwards, I had muffins at will.  I even got that same son to bake up a batch for himself to take to work in his lunches.  Turns out he likes the cereal better in muffins.

If one refrigerator muffin recipe is good, there must be more, right?  Sure enough, a search on the internet turned up numerous variations.  The one that caught my eye was for pumpkin muffins, of course.  It is still a bran muffin, which in my opinion is a good thing – they’re my favorite.  But the addition of pumpkin and fall spices like cinnamon, cloves and allspice make for a tasty muffin.  This one makes a smaller batch, and only lasts two weeks in the refrigerator.  And now I have leftover canned pumpkin and buttermilk.  Maybe that calls for a second batch.  This recipe is from Pillsbury.

Here are versions of the recipes you can print or save:

Raisin Bran Muffins and Refrigerator Pumpkin Bran Muffins

Happy muffin mornings!

Fickle Fall Weather Workouts

It’s in-between season.  I feel like my workouts are a patchwork of activities.  Some days it still warms up enough to go for a long bike ride.  Given the right layers, I can stretch “warm enough” quite a ways.  The difficult part is having the patience to wait until later in the day when the sun has done its work. I’m within 100 miles of hitting 4,000 miles of cycling for the year, and I’m determined to get there.  Not bad for my first year of cycling.

Running is always a good staple.  I’m used to running year round.  I’m putting more miles on my running shoes these days, trying to get back that old endurance back.  I hate to admit it, but these days I consider I’ve had a good run when I maintain 9 minute miles.  Sad when I remember what I used to do, but I remind myself to accept aging gracefully.

If it’s really ugly, I hit the pool.  I have resumed my Y membership after putting it on hold for the summer, hoping to rebuild some upper body strength.  Those first few sessions in the pool were killers – why did I think it was okay to stop swimming for 6 months?  The payoff is in the locker room, though.  My faithful early morning buddies are there, and it’s great to see them again.  My friend Louise is my inspiration – 20 years older than me, and she works out every single day.

And what’s all this for?  Why cross-country ski season, of course!  Our registrations went in for the big races long ago – City of Lakes, Mora and the Birkie beckon, snow willing.  February is not all that far away, and I’m anxious to get out on my skis.  Not much I can do about it until the snow falls, though.  I’m not about to break my neck attempting roller skis.

We have vacation time coming up Thanksgiving week.  If we hear of snow within driving distance, it’s likely we’ll go find it.  If not, we’re talking about heading a bit further south and substituting a cycling trip.  After all, we can be as fickle as the weather.

The Peanut Butter Dog

Spot is a Bassamation.  She’s a stray that wandered onto the Texas farm of my brother’s fiance shortly before they were married, while they were preparing the grounds for their outdoor chuck-wagon wedding reception.  Try as they might to find her owner, she was still around when their wedding day came, so they tied a bandana around her neck and she mingled with the guests.  Our kids were enamored with the gentle dog but it was my husband, Rich, who surprised us all.  After years of resisting the kids’ persistent pleas for a dog, Rich looked at me and said “I could live with Spot.  Should I go tell the kids?”

Not too surprisingly, we were the hit of the reception – the family that was rescuing the black and white dog.  But getting her home to Minnesota was something else again.  Turns out that various shots and a health certificate were required – fortunately my niece volunteered at a vet’s office who obliged by seeing us on a weekend.  And then there were the flight restrictions.  Our airline didn’t take dogs.  Period.  And all the others would not fly dogs in the heat of the summer.  The idea of renting a car to drive her home was not appealing, but was slowly becoming our only option.  In step my mom and sisters and a wonderful breeder.  While out on a drive in the country, Mom and the others passed a breeder’s sign that said “We ship our dogs anywhere.”  Anywhere?  Not being shy, they trotted up the drive and relayed our predicament. Given her love of dogs, the breeder immediately offered to assist in our rescue of this stray.  Once we identified a flight that a) left before 7am, b) was heading north, c) was non-stop, and d) the temperature had not yet reached 70 degrees, Spot was winging her way to her new home.

At the time, the vet estimated she was 3-5 years old.  She has spent over 11 years as a beloved member of the family.  And although it was the kids who pleaded for a dog, it’s Rich that Spot adopted.  The two are inseparable.  They say that strays are devoted to the person who rescued them, and somehow Spot knows it was Rich.  She’s slowing down these days – at age 15 or so, she’s entitled.  And I finally found a way to worm my way into her heart.  Peanut butter.  The arthritis in her bones is evident in her stiffness and the way she moans.  The vet recommended a homeopathic tablet to help ease her pain, and it’s working.  The trick to getting her to take it three times a day is peanut butter.  I administer the doses, so she now follows me around the house looking at me with her big eyes and a look that says “more peanut butter now?”  I still may not be her favorite, but I’ll take it.

Fall at the Cabin

If it’s MEA weekend, that means a trip to the cabin, right?  Never mind that we no longer have kids in school, and want to take advantage of the teachers’ convention days off.  It is still a fall ritual.

Knowing this was coming, we debated whether to leave the water system running after our previous visit.  I don’t know if it was laziness or foresight that led us to take the risk.  After all, one can’t argue the niceties of running water.  Watching the temperatures dip to 14 degrees some nights Up North, I admit to being a bit nervous about our decision.  But all was well upon our arrival, and we did appreciate the convenience.

Late October is not the most attractive time of year at the cabin.  Fall leaves are down, grass is beginning to turn brown, skies can be gray.  But it also has its compensations.  As our son Erik said, there is good reason to keep a fire burning in the fireplace, and yet it’s not freezing cold when you step outside.  On one of our requisite hikes, our feet swished through the fallen leaves, or trampled the quieter blanket of pine needles, depending on the nature of the surrounding trees.  The lack of leaves provided greater views, exposing the environs that are usually hidden.  We saw stark evidence of the July storms that blew down vast numbers of trees in the area, and the frequency with which they were snapped mid-way down their trunk.  That left the tree tops either skirting the ground, dangling in mid-air or caught in between by other trees.  A prime example was situated right on the edge of the trail.  A huge tree was snapped in two and its top half rested on two other trees, one of which was right next to the trail.  It’s branches were trimmed to allow us to pass, but bright red plastic tape adorned the branches and announced “Killer Tree” all along its length.  We understood its meaning – its perch was precarious and the tree could easily topple unexpectedly.  We’d just never seen it so spelled out so literally!  I only wish I’d taken a picture.

Our next  discovery was beaver territory.  We came upon an opening that was littered with trees chewed by beavers.  Some had toppled, and were further gnawed along the trunk while accessible on the ground.  Others were poised to fall, their trunks thinned to a narrow stalk.  What was so unique was how recent the activity was – the exposed wood was creamy white and the wood chips were fresh and moist.  We could see the teeth marks, and discovered that we could pull apart tree layers in the supple chips.  It wasn’t hard to spot the nearby beaver mound in the lake, and we retreated down the trail hoping to witness their activity, but the beavers declined to oblige.

At the conclusion of the weekend, it truly was time to winterize the cabin.  No point in pressing our luck further.  It was opportune to have Erik there, so Rich could show him the ropes.  Plunging into the chilly lake water to remove the water intake, laying the hoses out in the yard, and disconnecting the few pipes under the cabin.  It’s time to pass on the knowledge.  After all, we intend to keep coming for MEA weekend for years to come.

All things pumpkin

I love fall.  And this year’s foliage as been particularly spectacular, especially Up North.  The yellows, oranges and reds all burst on the scene at once, rather than being interspersed with the more reluctant trees still holding on to their green.  I don’t know when I have enjoyed the colors more.

But there is something I anticipate even more.  Pumpkin bagels.  I wait all year for Brueggers to bring them back for the fall season.  I haunt their doors and hope they have enough for me to bring home a dozen.  And of course, they are the best when fresh and spread with pumpkin cream cheese.  Mmmmm.

Earlier this fall, while still waiting for pumpkin bagel season to start, I found something new – pumpkin English muffins!  Yup, none other than Thomas’ English muffins makes them.  They toast up crispy and spicy, and slathered with peanut butter they complement my coffee nicely in the morning.

Even though canned pumpkin allows us to bake pumpkin muffins all year long, somehow they taste best in the fall.  Pumpkin chocolate chip is a particularly decadent version, and a favorite of my daughter’s.  I prefer Bran Pumpkin muffins with raisins or dates.  I needn’t even mention pumpkin pie.  It’s a required staple on our Thanksgiving table.

Pumpkins themselves are particularly appealing.  The outdoor fall decor at the New Scenic Cafe caught my eye as I passed by on my bike recently – so festive and seasonal.  There is nothing like a pumpkin patch, and searching out just the right pumpkins for carving.   It’s been a few years since we’ve carved a pumpkin, but what is better than inviting a mess by scooping out seeds and carving the face?  And I love to see the candle flickering inside, illuminating the pumpkin’s personality.

Hmmm, I think I will have to pay those grandkids a visit soon.  Perhaps they need help carving their pumpkins.  And I’m sure they’d love a pumpkin bagel.

The Road less Traveled

I wanted to go up the North Shore.  The leaves were peaking and I had my heart set on cycling alongside the beautiful blue lake in contrast to the brilliant yellows and oranges.  But Rich had other ideas.  My first clue was the slip of paper left on the kitchen counter the night before with cryptic notes that I quickly identified as a bike route.  Just not my route.

The day dawned clear and bright – the perfect fall day for a bike ride.  We left early and picked up my friend, Myra, and her bike then Rich broke the news I’d feared.  “We’re not going up the shore.  I figured out a better route.”  And sure enough, we headed in the opposite direction.  Myra was more flexible and gracious than I was, but I knew it wasn’t worth fighting – Rich was driving.  So off we went.

We started in Gary New Duluth and immediately headed across the St. Louis River on the Oliver Bridge.  It’s a unique old bridge that wasn’t frightening on a bike, but I might have questioned its soundness in a car.  We were off to a good start.  We traveled on small local roads, and soon turned onto Military Road.  There was no traffic and we were able to ride 3 abreast on the tree-lined route.  The sun was out and soon warmed us as well as infusing the leaves with depth of color.  I guess it was about this time that I had to admit Rich had made a good choice.  It was a wonderful circle route, which is always preferable to an out-and-back course, we didn’t hit any sections of dirt road, and we got our fill of fall colors, including some very picturesque spots.  Midway Myra and I even convinced Rich to extend the route an additional 10 miles to make it last even longer.

Returning along highway 23 we stopped at the scenic overlook.  Usually it is a sleepy little wayside, but that day it was overflowing with people taking in the view.  And for good reason – the colors were spectacular.  We joined in the fray, taking our share of foliage pictures.

That evening, we met friends for dinner in Duluth.  They called to say that they were going to be late.  They were staying north of Two Harbors and the traffic was terrible…  There were thousands of “leaf peepers” on the road along the North Shore, and they were barely crawling along.  Rich’s face lit up.  He was vindicated, and even I realized that it had been a good idea to avoid the North Shore.

The next day, I just left the choice to Rich.  We were up at the cabin doing fall closing-up chores, but had reserved the afternoon for a bike ride.  He chose our route around Turtle Lake.  As the road narrowed and turned to packed dirt, we had the best colors yet.  The tree branches closed us in overhead with brilliance, and the fallen leaves blanketed the roadside.  Truly spectacular.

In the future I will just have to remember – the road less traveled is the one we want.

These cookies are Ambrosia

You never know where you will find a good recipe.  This time it was at the South Bay B&B on Lake Whatcom, near Bellingham, Washington.  We were there with our youngest son, Erik, who was a high school senior at the time.  These chocolate chip cookies kept magically reappearing as Erik cheerfully did his part to empty the cookie jar each time he passed.  I had to agree, they were good.  Fortunately our hostess easily parted with the recipe, which she readily admitted came off the enormous bag Ambrosia chocolate chips.

Now I have plenty of experience in failing to successfully replicate others’ recipes.  But this one truly worked.  My results were every bit as good as those at the B&B, and disappeared equally quickly.  Over time, in different kitchens and any season, these cookies consistently turn out to my liking.  That is no minor feat.  Not only are they my family’s favorite, but my son-in-law and now my grandson both ask for them.  What more evidence do I need?  After all these years of testing cookie recipes, I think I can say with utmost confidence that I have finally found the formula for the ultimate chocolate chip cookie.  It is moist, chewy, substantial and generously pocked with chocolate chips.  Nothing better.

I can also attest to the durability of this recipe.  It stands up to a 2-year-old’s manipulation and fascination with dough.  Baking cookies has become a favorite activity of mine with my grandson.  He has his own idea about how cookies should be formed.  But the result is still always delicious.  And he and his daddy are happy when they get to take a bunch home.

Sadly, the lovely B&B is no longer in operation.  But it will be fondly remembered each time we bite into a chocolate chip cookie, because it is unlikely I will use any other recipe.

In the event that you have the same passion for home made chocolate chip cookies, I can save you a lot of research and trials.  Here is the coveted recipe:

Here is a copy of the recipe you can print or save:  Ambrosia Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe

Now I will have to start on a new recipe quest.  I don’t think my family will mind.

Cookie Help

That search for the ultimate cookie recipe?  I guess I have been at it even longer than I thought.  Just recently, while browsing through a shelf of my lesser-used cookbooks, thinking it was time to prune the collection, I came across a thin volume titled The Complete Chocolate Chip Cookie Book.  Inside was an inscription from my sister and a date – December 30, 1982 – for my wedding shower!  It would appear to have all the advice I need.  Chapter headings include Tools, Ingredients, Worries, People and An Everyday How-To.  Oh, and it even has a definition, complete with illustration: “The perfect chocolate chip cookie is not so crispy as to be dry, nor so gooey as to be wet.”  Hmmm, close enough to my own personal view.  Clearly, this deserves a reread, and perhaps a promotion to my “current” cookbook shelf.  It’s worth a try…  And best of all, my find triggered warm memories, almost as delectable as a chewy chocolate chip cookie!