Homemade gifts

I did two homemade gifts this year, which is about my normal. All of my immediate family members have enough stuff from me at this point that I don’t feel compelled to make something for everyone, but I do like making stuff, so a couple of things for other people snuck into the rotation.

1. A crocheted ripple blanket in Berroco Vintage for my brother and sister-in-law (who occasionally reads this site; Anna, if you see this, at least you have some time to practice acting surprised.)
 2. A pair of Ultra Alpaca fingerless mittens (this pattern, which seems to be no longer available due to a copyright disagreement) for R’s mother. I hate buying people presents just to give them something, and I don’t feel like I know her well enough to pick out something actually thoughtful. But she has dogs to walk, so I figured something to keep her hands warm while allowing for dexterity would work.

On balance. And cleaning out cabinets.

I recently sent someone a link to Gretchen Rubin‘s post on what she calls “spending out,” the idea of using your good stuff instead of saving it for some mythical future time and thereby wasting your most valued ideas and possessions. To me, this means wearing the gorgeous boots, even though I’ll scuff them up, since they don’t do any good in the closet. Hanging up old family photos, even though they might fade in the light. Drinking out of my grandmother’s teacups, even though I might break them. Eating the expensive artisan jams and caramel sauces and pickles I buy for my column instead of keeping them, prettily, in the cabinet. Rereading the post inspired me to take a look around my kitchen this weekend to see what I’m unconsciously hoarding and use it up. The stuff I came up with wasn’t necessarily anything special, it was just all stuff that would be better put to use than not: some overripe bananas I’d stashed in the freezer, a hunk of milk chocolate, a bag of hazelnuts, some red lentils, odds and ends of rice and grain mixtures, a couple of sweet potatoes, homemade stock.

I remember reading an Anne Tyler novel when I was in high school, the one with the albino-ish guy who falls in love with one of his boarders*, and there’s a point when another character muses that if someone woke her up in the middle of night and told her — quick! — to name the most important thing in the world, she would say privacy. Poor 15-year-old Stephanie read that and was genuinely concerned that she didn’t know what her most important thing in the world was, young Stephanie being a bit of a worrier. But I’ve done and growed up and I know my answer now: balance. I need to be involved in a lot of different projects at different stages. When I’ve been around other people, I need a goodly bit of time alone. I need to do work that’s challenging, but not all the time. And when I’ve been eating either an insanely decadent banana bread made with browned butter and chocolate and toasted hazelnuts or a relatively plain, vegetable-rich lentil and brown rice soup, I need plenty of the other to balance it out.

For the banana bread, I combined recipes from the Moosewood cookbook and Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess. The Moosewood one is terrific and usually my go-to, but it makes two loaves and I didn’t want that much nor to do any math, however simple (this looks like the recipe here). I do like that it has you steep the mashed bananas in some coffee, so I started there. I had to melt the butter anyway, so I figured I might as well brown it while I was at it. And I didn’t have any white sugar, so used brown. Nigella mentions that you can add some chocolate and swap out 2T of flour for cocoa if you want. That seemed like a good idea. (Her original is here, complete with the addition of raisins, the devil’s snack) I had a hunk of chocolate around that I chopped up, which I like because then some of the fine shards melt into the batter, but you still get some chunks. Chocolate chips would work though.

I’d been writing my gift guide for Serious Eats right before I started baking, so I had Granola Lab‘s Activation Energy granola, which is made with coffee and chocolate and whole hazelnuts, on my mind. The bread already had coffee and chocolate and I had some hazelnuts on hand, so that was a natural fit. The bread turned out to be utterly delicious, not too sweet, with the banana and chocolate flavors perfectly balanced. I’m not sure the browned butter added much, what with everything else going on, but it certainly didn’t hurt anything (learn how here). I did find it a little too moist to eat easily by hand, since I’d added some liquid to the mix, so I changed the amount of flour below to help out with that.

Chocolate Hazelnut Banana Bread
adapted from the Moosewood Cookbook and Nigella Lawson, with an assist from Granola Lab

4 very ripe bananas, mashed
1/2 cup cold coffee
1/2 cup unsalted butter, browned and cooled slightly
1/2 c. dark brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
3 oz milk or dark chocolate, chopped

Combine the bananas and coffee in a large mixing bowl, set aside. Preheat the oven to 325F. Butter a 9×5″ loaf pan. Add butter and sugar to the banana mixture, then add the eggs and vanilla, mixing well. Combine the dry ingredients in a separate bowl, the stir gently into the batter. Fold in nuts and chocolate. Scrape into the loaf pan and bake in the middle of the oven for 1 – 1 1/4 hours, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Leave the pan on a rack to cool.

The soup recipe below combines this one from Heidi Swanson and this one from the Times. It’s wholesome and delicious and makes a week’s worth of lunches for pennies. I don’t really measure anything when I put a pot of soup together, so this recipe has more of a narrative quality, than a reproducible list of ingredients and instructions, but there’s enough information there to follow along, if you’re interested.

Red Lentil Soup With Lemon, Sweet Potato and Brown Rice
Chop and onion and several cloves of garlic; soften in olive oil. Add a spoonful of cumin, two spoonsful of tomato paste (I keep a tube in my fridge: best thing ever), and a pinch of cayenne; stir for a minute. Add a finely chopped large carrot, two finely chopped sweet potatoes, a cup and a half of red lentils and a cup of mixed brown rice and any other grains. Cover with water or stock by two inches, bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer until lentils, vegetables, and rice are cooked through. Salt to taste and stir in the juice of one lemon. Serve as is, or fully or partially puree for a smoother soup.


*FINE. I looked it up. It was Celestial Navigation.


Last winter, a friend emailed a link to this gorgeous cashmere turban and suggested I knit one. I tried, but I had a really, really hard time reverse engineering it. There are a lot of elements in the mix; the bottom edge is clearly shaped and there’s a seam at the center back and the construction of that knotting was not immediately intuitive to me. Frankly, a year on, I’m still having a tough time wrapping my mind around it. It seems straightforward enough when I look at it, but when I try to understand the mechanics of the structure, I come up short. It’s like the Klein bottle of headwear. I’ve been keeping an eye on Ravelry to see if anything similar turned up, but most of the patterns there just looked a little … off. Either too self-consciously vintage or too sloppy or too all goddam wrong. Then last month, I stumbled upon Drops’ Edith Piaf pattern and figured I might as well give it a shot to grok the construction, if nothing else. I’d say I’m medium-happy with the results (though decidedly unhappy with this ghastly camera photo). I like the fit and that it’s evocative of a turban without looking like I wrapped a towel around my head. I do want to redo the band to make it smaller, but that’s easy enough since it’s knit separately and added after the main hat is done. I used two strands of sportweight alpaca I had around, so it’s soft and extremely warm. Is it the knit turban of my dreams? No. But it’s a nice enough hat to put into the winter rotation.

Paper Christmas Tree

You guys, I have to tell you, I’m feeling kind of festive this year. I haven’t had anything resembling a tree since about 1999, which was the year of The Christmas Branch, a pine branch I put in a vase and on which I hung a single ornament, ever so late ’90s Generation Nowhere irony mixed with Peanuts-Christmas-special-tinged nostalgia. I wanted to do some holiday decorating at my place, but I didn’t want a physical, 3D tree tree, just something evocative of a tree and seasonal goodwill. I toyed with the idea of painting one on kraft paper or making one out of paper snowflakes or outlining the shape on the wall with fairy lights, but then the idea of gluing strips of paper to a large piece of kraft paper came to me and I figured I’d give it a shot.

In another 12 years, I’m sure I’ll be rolling my eyes at my second-decade-millennial Brooklyn-rustic DIY-precious aesthetic, but right now, I kind of love it. One unforeseen benefit of using paper that was already printed on one side is that the print shadow shows through, except on the bright white edges, which gives some visual depth and could, if you were so inclined, look like snow-tipped branches.

It was ridiculously easy to do. First, I cut a length of kraft paper and sketched out a vague triangle shape. I keep a lot of scrap paper around for notes and lists and whatnot, so I took some of that and cut it into quarters, widthwise. I was entertained to see that some of what I happened to grab was from the Haggadah from Michelle‘s seder this spring.
“Allow the bitter to move you” and “Nourish the self with mystery” are good reminders regardless of the holiday. “See the sandwich of both sides” sounds like the kind of fortune cookie I tend to end up with.

Then I just glued the strips in overlapping rows, starting at the bottom. I started out keeping everything tidy and lined up neatly, but quickly figured out that I liked the way it looked when placement was a little more haphazard.

Optional step: set the glue overnight with a large, sleeping cat.