Jester Park Natural Playscape

One of the best play areas we’ve ever been to is in the backyard of the Des Moines metro area – Jester Park Natural Playscape. It’s a mere 25 minute drive and worth it! 


We missed out on a play date earlier this weekend, and so made the trek this morning. Though it’s 82 and humid, there is some actual cloud cover and hardly anyone here! 


My kids plunged into the pond immediately. They played hide and seek with rocks, fished, made rock piles, climbed, splashed, jumped, and were totally engaged in creative play. 


There was minimal fighting and mama enjoyed soaking her feet and the views. 


The baby bison are just adorable. 


We had some lovely discussions about native plants and the organisms that benefit from them. 


The natural building area is a fantastic idea, however, we never made it out of the water! 


The metal work was one of my favorite views. 


These creatures were fun and functional! 

Oh Des Moines, I love how you’ve grown since I was a kid. I’m so excited for summer off with my kids and the adventures we have yet to have. Being a teacher enables me to remain a kid at heart with my two, and for that I’m so grateful.

Sweet Cream Cake

I made a lovely, dense, rich cake last weekend from one of my grandma’s cookbooks – there is just something so wonderful about old cookbooks.  The way recipes are described and explained – it so much less detailed and matter-of-fact than any of the modern cookbooks I own.  There was a certain level of assumption about cooking and baking knowledge, that no longer is found in contemporary cooking explanations.

cake

I whipped it up, and frosted it, with an almond flavored butter cream frosting on grandma’s wedding pottery (pictured here), to boot.  Fitting, since the old Joy of Cooking, (1946 edition) this recipe came from was a wedding gift.

image

This photo shows my grandparents – Mary and Gene – on their wedding day, with both sets of their parents.  There is a photo somewhere of my grandmother holding her wedding Joy of Cooking cookbook that I will have to look for.  That would be a nice addition to my kitchen decor, an homage to one of the two people who guided me most in the kitchen.  My other biggest culinary influence being my mother.

The Joy of Cooking is something I have been reading since I was a little girl.  I find the older editions so intriguing, as one can find explanations on how to prepare a wide variety of dishes, including game, unfamiliar German desserts, fallen from fashion puddings and fruit cakes, and lists and lists of coffee cakes.

img_2817

I settled on creating a gluten-free version of the Sweet Cream cake, just because it used what I already had on hand.  I substituted the Cup for Cup flour, for the cake flour.  The recipe below is verbatim from my grandmother’s cookbook.

My kitchen helper helped by stirring, combining, and spit shining the butter cream almond flavored frosting bowl.  The cake, frosted, right.  I left a small section unfrosted for those crazy family members who find frosting too sweet!  As much as I enjoy trying new recipes, this will be one of those cake recipes that goes into my repeated rotation.  Thank you for continuing to influence my kitchen habits, Grandma.  Miss you.

Sweet Cream Cake, from The Joy of Cooking, 1946 edition

Beat until light and lemon colored:
2 eggs
Sift, then beat in gradually:
1 cup sugar
Add:
1 teaspoon vanilla
Sift before measuring:
1 2/3 cake flour
Resift with:
2 1/2 teaspoons tartrate or phosphate baking powder or 2 teaspoons combination type (see Baking Powder, page 447)
1/4 teaspoon soda (if sour cream is used)
3/4 teaspoon salt
Add these ingredients to the egg mixture in about three parts alternately with thirds of:
1 cup rich sweet or sour cream
Beat after each addition until the batter is smooth.  Bake the cake in two greased 8 inch layer pans or in a greased 8 inch tube pan in a moderate oven 350°. Allow about 25 minutes for the layers and about 3/4 hour for the loaf cake.

Almond Butter Cream Frostingfrom Better Homes & Gardens cookbook, makes about 2 cups

In a large mixing bowl beat 6 tablespoons of butter until smooth.

Gradually add 2 cups of powdered sugar, beating well.  Slowly beat in 1/8 cup milk and 1 teaspoon of vanilla.

Gradually beat in the remaining 2 1/2 cups of powdered sugar.  Beat in enough additional milk to reach spreading consistency.

Boredom Buster Books

I finally got around to creating a set of small take-along binders for my two kids.  They are forever wanting to be busy, constantly restless in restaurants, and my eldest is always wanting to write or draw something.  Here is what my solution looks like:

A half-sized, mini binder filled with pocket dividers, page protectors with activities, and lined paper in the back for writing or drawing.

img_2419

I drew some simple, blank-ish images for the kids to creatively fill in.  My thoughts were to update these every now and then with more simple line drawings.

img_2418

We absolutely love the Crayola dry erase markers – washable, wipeable, bright, and not smelly!

My five-year old, as we speak, is working diligently on  her book, all while giving me suggestions for more pages.  I haven’t even dived into the free printable sections of the internet yet, but suspect that will be the next place I look for page ideas.

img_2424

I made quite a few simple pages with writing practice.  My eldest is working hard on learning her rather long middle name, address, and phone number.  This certainly can’t hurt!

Now I am debating whether or not to make a set of these for the drawing center in my classroom.  I could fill  it with some simple drawing ideas for the younger grades, or even with FAQ in drawing.

Balancing Act

With grad class on hold and winter break in session from school, I have managed to do some of my own artwork.  At any given time I have a minimum of five projects going, absolutely filling my brain and art room.

painting

This is a painting I did for my sister, as a Christmas present.  I painted a woman in a similar style, dressed to the nines, holding an axe.  It now hangs in her office.  I really enjoyed that particular painting, and the idea of juxtaposing femininity with a stark axe.  So, I decided to juxtapose suit and tie masculinity with a pink frosted cupcake.

In any case, I really enjoyed working on this painting.  Acrylic isn’t something I work in as often as watercolor, yet I keep finding myself moving further away from realism and being drawn towards abstraction, and acrylic is the way to make this happen.

Whenever possible, I draw from real life, making my family members pose for me.  This break, my five-year old has figured this out, and began requesting me to draw her while she does various poses.  She tried to convince my two-year old to do the same, however he cannot sit still.

A couple works in progress, with the blue underlayer still showing.

Another work in progress, before reworking the nose and hand a few times.

Someone give me some more painting subject matter, quick!  Before grad class starts up again in February!

 

 

 

 

Autumn Gardening 

September (and half of October) has flown by – that will happen when most of your week is busy with school, family, and grad work. I have a short break between classes right now, so I’m in frantic finish some projects mode.

Earlier in September, we harvested a 22 pound moon and stars watermelon from my parents’ garden. Funny to think that my son weighs about the same…

We took it to a friends’ house and only ended up eating some of it, enjoying leftovers during the remainder of the week.

I took this shot with the Prisma app, of my mom’s garden and our melon with a large zucchini. I always find fall to be so bittersweet, the coming cool balanced with the bountiful harvest as a result of the long, lovely summer days.

We also harvested some ghost peppers, by night, wearing gloves of course. I opted not to try these beauties. Though Eric and a friend said they were, “pretty warm.”

I’ve been prepping plants to bring in for the winter, as we had our first frost this past week. My Rosemary plant is so happy it bloomed this fall – I’ve never seen this before. They have the loveliest lavender delicate flowers. I look forward to fresh herbs in the howling, bitter dead of winter.

Our pumpkin and squash plants flourished this summer – some were intentionally planted and some volunteers from the compost pile. We picked these three beauties last week, before the frost.

Then we discovered two more large, but still-green pumpkins in the garden! Those sneaky little devils.

The pumpkins, frost, and coming of October inspired me to set up for Halloween.

I put my pulled the corn roots, after harvesting my black corn. The creepy roots, combined with my ceramic pieces from AP art class in high school, create the perfect spooky mood by my front door.

A few dried stalks, a rubber snake, and a ceramic-cast hand are perfect in the now empty planters at my front door.

I placed a few random ceramic masks, created from molds, around on the ground, slightly covered in leaves. My kids still find these frightening, so outside decor they stay.

Roasted Beet & Carrot Tart

31f2e27f-2fc8-4fe9-adc5-1ca6a1a6f001I love love love love fall.  This fall has been supremely more busy than most of the previous autumnal seasons combined, for our family.  But, so it goes.  I got my recent Martha Stewart in the mail last week and was itching to do some baking – it has been far far too long since I have whipped up something creative in the kitchen.

first-dayGrad class, new school, eldest child starting kindergarten, and upcoming presentation at the art educator’s conference has been keeping me racing from one event to the next.  I look forward to some down time in December, perhaps.  Here is a hilarious picture of the three of us on our first official day of school. Big thanks for Eric for taking this picture and holding it together far better than I on her first day of kindergarten.

I found recipe for a tart that looked divine – but being short on time and dealing with some picky eating phases, I swapped and changed a few things.  For starters, I made a simpler sauce from sour cream and pesto.  WIN!  I just love a successful Martha Shortcut, as I call them.  Let’s be honest, her magazine and recipes are amazing but simply not realistic for most of the population.

I roasted the beets and carrots smaller than recommended, to speed up the cooking period.

Martha Stewart’s recipe called for a hazelnut-cilantro chermoula sauce.  This is a North African sauce that can also be served over eggs at breakfast.  It sounded wonderful, other than the cilantro, I absolutely hate cilantro, it tastes like metal to me.  I would have made the sauce, had I had the lemon and hazelnuts needed.  Instead of cilantro, I would have opted for parsley.

I swapped the phyllo for 2 sheets of puff pastry, because it was what I had on hand.

It baked up beautifully and made the entire house smell amazing.  Every time I see beets, I just want to get out my paint set and get to work depicting them in layers of acrylic and swirls of watercolor.

My children both enthusiastically devoured their tart, asking for seconds and thirds.  My daughter declared, “This is the best pizza you have ever made, Mommy!”  Grateful for being short on time and ingredients to find this delectable tart that we will be sure to be making again soon, with some variations in the roasted veggies on top.

 

Roasted Carrot & Beet Tart – adapted from Martha Stewart Living, October 2016 issue

  1. Preheat oven to 425°.  Peel and cut 3 medium beets into 1/2″ slices.  Peel and slice in half, 1 pound of carrots (about 12).  Put on rimmed baking sheet, and toss with about 3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil.  Roast, turning once, for about 30-35 minutes, until browning in spots and becoming tender.  Start checking on veggies around 25 minutes, for doneness.
  2. Place 2 thawed puff pastry sheets onto a large baking sheet.  You may cut to fit together.  Overlap slightly, wetting with fingers, and pressing together to make a solid sheet.  Brush lightly with olive oil.  
  3. For sauce, combine: 8 oz sour cream with 2 tablespoons pesto.
  4. Bake for 8-10 minutes or till pastry is puffed and slightly golden.
  5. Remove from oven.  Spread pesto sauce over entire puff pastry.  Arrange roasted beets and carrots on top.  Reduce oven heat to 375°.  Return tart to oven, bake for 10-15 minutes more, or until sauce is set and pastry is done.
  6. Slice and serve warm.

 

Dining Room Table

One of the things I had on my summer to-do list was to decide on what to do with my dining room chairs.  They are in the image below – boring light wooden chairs from Target that I bought when I first moved to Greensboro more than a decade ago.  The chair story also involves my lovely dining room table, a post that I started almost two years ago and didn’t finish.  So, here it is, finally 2 years later.  

3.10.14

My family before my youngest was born, shortly after we moved in.

One of the things I love about our current house, is the open spaces we have.  Our previous house, in Greensboro, had quaint 1939 charm, but lacked openness.  This is our dining room the spring after we moved to Iowa – open, airy, and with fun built-ins.

 

With that vast openness of a house space, though, comes ideas.  Many, many, many ideas.  My brain is on a pretty constant DIY cycle – it truly is a disease, I promise.  Eric can vouch for that, as he will fairly often get messages from me with content like this.  Btw, this project was a false start and ended up becoming a curbside freebie.

 

wood.pile

While I love to DIY, I am not much of a woodworker.  I get grand ideas, but my follow-through is awful.  Eric on the other hand, is fantastically talented in this field – see his live edge computer table he made.  He inherited a large stash of wood from his grandfather’s shop, when we moved back.  This is what the stash currently looks like, I promise I have a dream list of what to do with it, if time were endless.

 

Not too long after we were settled, Eric began working on plans to create my dream dining room table from some of his grandfather’s wood.  He settled on a large plank of oak.  It was thick enough that it could be butterflied into 2 pieces to fashion the table.  He found a sawmill in Boone, Iowa and took the plank there.

 

cutting.board

Side note- it was around this time that Eric also made a series of beautiful cutting boards for family members.  Somehow I didn’t end up with one of these bad boys, maybe in the near future?

 

finished.table

Because this table was a project that was worked on during the 9 months before I had our second child, there are not much in the form of documentation images of the project.  This is the table shortly after it was completed.  The legs were ordered from The Legge Shop, an Etsy shop from New York.  They were custom-made and came with a plate to be bolted in the middle of the two planks, to prevent too much flexing between the two pieces of wood.

 

I kept dreaming of bright, modern chairs to go along with my table.  I finally just bit the bullet, and spent a few bucks on bright yellow, Krylon Sun Yellow, spray paint to update my existing chairs from Target.  I did end up sanding the chairs in a few spots, and using a white base-coat spray first.  This was to ensure that the yellow coat adhered stronger and with less coats.

The kids have been thrilled with the bright color and my youngest keeps requesting to sit in the “lellow” chair.  I can already tell that the chairs yellow coat will need to be updated within the calendar year, but the upside is they are easier to clean with a new coat of paint.

 

The final outcome – table and bright chairs just make me smile.  The yellow is so cheerful and fun with the live edge and industrial legs of the table.  Now if I can just get Eric to craft a bench from that excess wood…

 

Go West (via Prisma App)

My current favorite app is Prisma – I’ve been using it on some of our photos from our trip out West and the results are stunning. It’s almost enough to make me want to just use this app and not paint.

Actually, if anything it inspires me to turn more of my photos into paintings.

Eric and me at the top of the tram ride at Teton Village. Corbet’s Cabin is at 10,450 feet.

The tram ride at Teton Village.

My children watching Old Faithful erupt.

Grand Tetons.

The app is very Instagram-like and easy to use. On the first screen, simply select your image, crop or rotate, if you like.


Then, on the next screen, choose from a series of filters that transform your photo into a painting or drawing in the vein of various famous artists’ styles.


Grand Prismatic Hot Pool.

img_0622

But then there is this – popularity creates sluggish results.

Bleached Bones + Beetles

insect.collection

A portion of my childhood insect collection.

Quite frankly, this is a post I have been wanting to write but also avoiding like the plague.  It will easily be one of my most personal posts to-date, as it shares parts of my childhood history.  I have always collected objects and items from the natural world – having amassed a large rock and insect collection in my early years, and at some point beginning to include bones.  I grew up in the country, and so the natural world and its circle of life were not at all foreign, scary, or the least bit gross in my mind.  We  had dogs that would regularly bring roadkill up from the wooded ravine, the harsh Iowa winters often took a toll on the old and sick animals, and our cats would present me with a wide array of interesting rodents and birds.  So, quite naturally, I became interested in bones.

collection1

Turtle shell (found by my grandmother), sand dollar, and rodent skull.

This wasn’t the typical childhood hobby as it didn’t involve toys, ceramic figurines, or the normal collectibles, though it did involve books – field guides to be exact.  It wasn’t a hobby that I freely discussed with peers at school.  Usually friends found about my bone collection while standing in front of it, looking at stark white skulls that I had painstakingly put back together, labeled, and put on display in my glass case.  My parents didn’t discourage my collecting, but instead bought me a hinged lid, glass display case, much like a Queen Anne jewelry case, in hopes of containing and organizing it.  As the collection grew, my parents maintained a good-natured attitude about my hobby, and to some degree, encouraged my curiosity with the natural world.  I was however, firmly told no, when I checked out a book from the library on taxidermy – my dad very firmly the line there.

Even as an adult, when the bone collecting comes up, I skirt away from the topic, never knowing how others will react.  My husband one time said in the presence of some friends, “Give yourself credit, those are museum-quality bones you have in your collection, a collection you started as a kid.”  That encouragement from him has given me the courage to share my self-taught trade secrets on cleaning bones.

collection2

More from the collection: raccoon skull, mounted stag beetle, and fossilized plant.

The display case housing my collection is long gone, but in a recent basement clean-out, my parents came across the tub with what remains of my collection.  After tossing out the unsalvageable, I am in the process of trying to decide what parts to allow my children to keep, what to take to school for still life study, and what to display in my current home as a proud reminder of my childhood love.  You can see the beginnings of this display in the vertebrae on the living room built-ins and the illuminated deer head on the living room wall.  Now, thanks to recent inspiration from Busy Mockingbird’s post on Beetles and Bugs, I think I will combine my artmaking and collection in some interesting ways.

I remember when I discovered the rich Southwest scenes and vivid abstract paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe and wanting to know more about her and life life.  I was thrilled reading of her discovery of bones in New Mexico and shipping them back to her studio so she could paint them.  It felt like an ah-ha moment, like perhaps my career choice in the arts made the collecting of bones more appropriate and a part of my destiny.

bones.before

Bones before cleaning.

Just as Georgia O’Keeffe saw something beautiful in bones, I was always attracted to the lines, negative spaces, and curves of bones.  Not only did I draw them, but I learned all I could about bones, preserving, archaeology, paleontology, anthropology, museum studies, and similar avenues of study.  I thought for many years that I would go into such a field as a career.  It was over the course of this self-taught hobby that I learned how to clean the bones, identify species and individual traits, and basic common anatomies.

If I found bones that were not yet bare (i.e. still had skin, fur, etc.), I would place them in an old rabbit cage.  This way, there were exposed to the elements and to any helpful bugs that would speed up the process of decay.  If you are interested in the fascinating stories that bones can tell, I highly recommend the book, The Bone Lady: Life as a Forensic Anthropologist, by Mary H. Manhein.  It was one such book I read while delving into this world of bones.

Once the bones are fairly clean, I begin the bleaching process.  I used to use actual bleach – but have since moved to a less chemical-laden method.  I place all the bones into a large plastic bucket or tub.  Next, I boil a large pot or two of water, and I pour into the bucket 1-2 cups of hydrogen peroxide, and then add enough boiling water to submerge the bones.

bubbling

I always do this outside, for it can be both messy and stinky.  I leave the bones to bubble away, usually 4-6 hours.  Depending on how debris-free the bones are, one soaking may be enough.  If not, I repeat the process.  I have been known to don rubber gloves and scrub the bones with an old toothbrush, as this speeds up the cleaning process significantly.

drying

When the debris is gone from the bones, they are placed to dry, in the sun.  The sun is what completes the bleaching process, making them a brilliant white.

bones.after

Here are the bones after drying in the sun.  As you can see, there are still a few stained areas.  With a few more cleanings, they may go away, or they may be there to stay.  There is where using household bleach may be helpful, if you truly want them perfectly sun-bleached.  The skull is from a raccoon – a roadkill find.  The jawbones are from a deer – a winter death in my parents’ field.

deer

The rest of the deer had already been cleaned and mounted on the wall to be lit up with battery-powered lights.  I love the new variety that are strung on thin wire – it makes for easy manipulating of the lighting arrangement.  I put this up back in the winter, but have kept it up all year long and have been enjoying it still.

I am always open to questions about the collection, my methods, and the cleaning and preserving processes I use.  I have never done any taxidermy and have never killed any of the animals in my collection.  I am not against hunting, it just isn’t for me.

Pie Crust 101

done.pies

A good pie is a flaky crust filled with delectable filling and a side of ice cream.  Once on masters the crust, and figures out correct volume for your particular pie pans, you are free to experiment and create new combinations of pies.

But I truly believe, a good pie is all about the crust.  I have done quite a few posts about pies – but still get frequent requests for my crust recipe.

I have used the same crust recipe for a number of years now, one that my dad shared with me.  I always use it, because it creates perfection.  Why the vodka, you ask?  My dad discovered the vodka crust method from J. Kenji López-Alt’s article in Cook’s Illustrated.  The idea is, you are able to add more liquid to the dough, without making it tough by adding too much water.  Most of the vodka bakes out and there is no after-taste.  In a pinch I have used gin in place of vodka, and used bourbon once to make a fantastic bourbon apple pie.

I am by no means pie scientist, I just do what I know works best – check out J. Kenji López-Alt’s Serious Eats article on pie myths for even more information on pies.  I will have to test out the rubber spatula method on my next pie!

Dad’s Pie Crust – makes a double crust for a pie

Ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup cold butter
3 tablespoons ice-cold water
3 tablespoons cold vodka

1.  Preheat oven for particular pie recipe temperature.  In a medium mixing bowl, use a pastry blender to cut in cold butter until pieces are coarse crumb size.

2.  Sprinkle 1 tablespoon ice-cold liquid at a time, alternating water & vodka; gently toss with fork.  Push moistened dough to side of bowl.  Repeat using rest of liquid.  Dough will be dry, do NOT give into temptation to make dough moister by adding more liquid, however, if it is unworkable, dry and crumbly, you may add 1-2 more tablespoons of vodka.  Too much water will make your dough tough.  Divide dough in half; form into a ball.

3.  On a lightly floured surface, use your hands to flatten ball of dough.  Roll dough from center to edges into a circle 12 inches in diameter.  Do not overwork the dough and do not allow dough to warm up.  Refrigerate while preparing filling, or if your baking time is delayed.  If the dough is too warm, it will stick and tear.

4.  Carefully transfer dough to pie pan, by wrapping around a rolling-pin, not allowing it to stretch.

5.  Transfer filling into pie pan.  Repeat steps 3 and 4 for second ball of dough.  Gently drape second circle of dough over the filling.  Use your fingers to seal the edges of the dough.

6.  Optional: brush dough with milk and sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar.  Cover edges in foil or with crust shield.  Place piece of foil on bottom rack of oven, or pie drippings pan.  Place pie in preheated oven, on middle shelf.  Bake, according to filling directions.

7. Let cool on wire rack.

 

butter

Crust is all about the right ingredients – like cold butter and cold vodka.  I am always a big fan of organic butter.

pie.tools

Crust is also all about the right tools: pastry cutter, marble rolling-pin, silicone baking mat, and crust shields.  My first few pies were without these tools and it wasn’t impossible, but a little more frustrating to work without them.

Sometimes I stack the fillings high, sometimes I keep my pies classic, and sometimes I mix and match the fillings.  Following the correct volume, thickeners, and sugar amounts is important – once you have mastered the basics, any pie is possible.  These two pies are strawberry-rhubarb and raspberry-rhubarb.

My newest and most favorite pie tool is the silicone mat.  I measured my pie pans and now never have the issue of a crust being too small and falling apart when I try to roll it larger.  I still have the occasional small piece of crust is lop-sided and then a patch is needed.  I never said my pies all looked like perfection – but taste is another story!

See more about my must-have pie tools below.

pie.crust.brush

Depending on the pie, there can be a proper finish.  For my double-crust fruit pies, this entails a brushing of milk and sprinkling of Demerara sugar.  Sometimes cinnamon is also called for.

 

My favorite pie tools are the following items:

A marble rolling-pin helps keep the dough colder while you are working with it.  I refrigerate mine before rolling out the crust.  I do not wash it with soap, just hot water.  

A silicone pie mat prevents sticking, helps with correct measurements, and makes cleaning up the countertops easier.  

 

A pastry blender works better for cutting in cold butter than a fork, but now I am intrigued with the idea of using a rubber spatula, and will be trying that next.  
King Arthur all-purpose flour is the only kind I use these days.  The quality is top-notch and it never fails for all my baking needs.  Unless I am baking gluten-free, and then I use Cup for Cup.  I am still working on a perfect, from scratch gluten-free pie crust.  I will let you know when I make the break-through.

You may have noticed earlier in this post, that my pie shields are a tad on the small size. I may have to invest in these adjustable ones in the near future.  

A pie drip catcher means you are no longer wasting rolls of foil, trying to keep your oven free of the bubbling over pie fillings.  


I don’t believe in all the crazy sugar-fad items, but I sure do like the taste of coconut sugar.  I will be trying this combination out on the top of my next pie!