Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Hello dolly

The children were thrilled with all the presents they received today, but not half as thrilled as R's collection of scantily-clad dolls who will, at last, have enough clothes to go around (I don't know what happened to their original garments, but we seem to be short of a few). These home-made additions to their wardrobe came not a moment too soon, because the lovely Ken has just joined their ranks and has the honour of being the only male in the Barbie household (he has since been renamed Eric, but I'm sure he doesn't mind that. After all, if he can put up with wearing a white tuxedo and a pink bow tie, he can probably handle anything).

I used four online tutorials, all from Craftiness is not Optional:

The cap sleeve shirt and froufy skirt (I love the gingham and lace combination)

The ball gown in pink velvety stuff (wasn't fun to sew with), plus another in red which you can see in the main photo above

And the dress, with sleeves and without. Apologies for the bad photos and horribly wrinkled backdrop - I had to be very sneaky and very fast to get these pictures taken without anyone seeing me.

The doll clothes were strangely addictive to sew - if I hadn't started just a couple of days before Christmas I probably would have produced a lot more. After Ken/Eric was unwrapped I realised I should have made a wedding dress (or perhaps a few, give the ratio of girl dolls to boy doll), so I have an excuse to make at least one more item of clothing...

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Christmas playdough gifts, and a festive paper plate garland

There have been lots of 'last days' this week, fortunately not of the Mayan variety, but emotional nevertheless. Last day of kinder (actually that was last week - my memory is already suffering from silly season syndrome), last day of playgroup, last day of school... so of course there was much exchanging of candy canes, cards and chocolates. R and I made up some cute little packages of candy cane playdough, an idea I found on The Artful Parent - it is peppermint-scented playdough in candy cane colours, red and white. We cut ours into star shapes and they looked so appetising I thought it wise to include a card explaining what it was and warning the recipient not to eat it (I'm guessing at least a couple of R's friends had a nibble anyway).

At home we have been hauling out the decorations in preparation for christmas. R has been cranking out salad spinner masterpieces in such great quantities that we had enough to make a huge garland of them and still have some left over. And the homemade aesthetic goes perfectly with our cardboard christmas tree! 

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Cardboard christmas tree: a tutorial

A few weeks ago our hot water system sprung a leak and had to be replaced. After three days without any hot water, you can imagine how thrilled I was when the plumber arrived with - drumroll - an enormous cardboard box! I was planning to make it into a gingerbread house (albeit one of strangely tower-like proportions) but my husband came up with a better idea: a cardboard christmas tree.

This idea appealed to me for two reasons. Firstly, I love making things out of cardboard...

...and secondly, although I like the look and scent of fresh christmas trees I have never felt great about knowing that a whole tree has been chopped down just so we can put it in our loungeroom for two weeks (culminating in the depressing ritual of trussing up the dead tree and putting it out on the naturestrip for collection).

Naturally the first thing I did was google 'cardboard christmas tree'. Surprisingly, I didn't find any how-tos that matched the idea I had in mind. So I'm making one myself, and hoping it might one day be useful to someone out there - someone with a giant cardboard box (grumpy child optional), a stanley knife and a hot glue gun. If you don't have any of those, never fear! Your local Bunnings (or  hardware store) can probably supply all three, if you ask nicely.

STEP 1: Cutting out. Cut your box in half lengthwise - down two opposite corners - so that you end up with two tall pieces of box, each folded in half (as pictured above). Unless your box is square, one length will be wider than the other. This is OK. Lay one 'half' box out with the narrower section on top, and rule a line diagonally from the fold at the top down to the opposite corner at the bottom.

STEP 2: The branches. Using your ruled line as a guide, draw a series of zig-zaggy shapes (to give the look of christmas tree branches) as evenly as you can, down to about 20cm from the bottom of the box. You can use this last 20cm to cut out a trunk shape - mine was about 18cm wide. When you are happy with the drawing part it's time to start cutting. I found it easiest to cut all the downward lines first, then go back and do the curved undersides of the 'branches'. Don't worry about cutting through the piece underneath - you are going to cut the identical shape out of it anyway!

When you've finished it will look something like this:

Use the cut side as a template to draw the branch shapes onto the piece behind. Then cut that piece out and you will have half a christmas tree!

Repeat the drawing and cutting process with your other piece of card. This part is easier because you can use the first cut-out tree as a template to draw the shape onto your second half of the box. At the end of this process you will have two sections of tree:

Wow! That certainly looks christmassy. But don't celebrate just yet - there's more work to do.

STEP 3: The braces. Cut 6 small sections of cardboard, about 12cm x 8cm (or smaller, depending on the size of your tree). These will be used to brace and hold the two sections of tree together. Score each piece of card along the middle on one side, making sure you score along the 'grain' of the cardboard - the way the corrugations of the card run. If none of this makes sense to you, the amazingly talented LiEr from ikat bag has a fantastic tutorial on working with cardboard that might help.

STEP 4: Gluing the two sections together. Get your glue gun. Plug it in. While it's heating up, lay your two pieces of tree out on the floor with each piece folded down its middle fold, and the spines of the two pieces - ie the two straight edges - touching. You are going to join the two sections together. 

Generously apply glue to one half of the scored side of the cardboard rectangles and stick it onto the tree - you are going to put three of them on each side, so space them out however you think best (I did the middle one first, then one near the top and, later on, added one down the bottom of the trunk).

Once it's adhered to the tree, hold the other section of tree at a right angle to the first piece and glue the rectangle on so that it joins the two pieces at a right angle. This is kind of hard to do alone, so you may want to get a helper to hold up the cardboard while you glue. Repeat to glue on the other two rectangles.

Turn the whole thing over and repeat the rectangle-gluing process on the other side. Almost done!

STEP 5: Cutting the base. Your tree can stand up as is (hopefully) but a base will make it much more stable. Measure the width of your trunk and cut a circle of cardboard with a slightly larger radius - eg. my tree's trunk was 36cm wide, so I cut a circle that measured 38cm across the middle (and I still managed to stuff up the measurements so it was slightly too small!).

Before you proceed to the next step, it's a good idea to check that the bottoms of the two sections of tree match up. If not, you may need to do a bit of trimming.

STEP 6: Gluing the base. This next bit must be done quickly, so once again, a helper would be good: make a hot glue cross on the circle of cardboard, gluing from edge to edge so that when you place the tree on it, all four bits of the trunk base will stick. Then put the tree on its base and (quick smart, because hot glue dries so fast) make sure the sections are evenly spaced. Don't worry, Mum, I didn't do the gluing on the beautiful carpet you gave me - just the photographing!

You're done! Add some lights...

...and sit back and enjoy the show (if you are 4 years old and watching a christmas tree is your idea of fun. Otherwise you can just watch the cricket).

Happy (recycled) christmas!

Friday, 14 December 2012

Candy cane chocolate

Today was R's last day of 3-year-old kindergarten. While she was perfectly happy to say goodbye to her teacher, assistants and friends (she is going to a different kinder next year), I felt quite sad. I really hate goodbyes, and I'm not happy about the speed with which time marches on while my brain struggles to catch up. And of course at this stage of the year time compresses even further, with whole weeks rushing by in what feels like minutes. Before you know it the year is over and you're taking the kids back to school for term 1, hoping the rest of your life doesn't rush by like the final episode of Six Feet Under (in which the characters' futures unfold in fast forward, right up to their deaths. Best final episode of a TV series ever. And definitely a contender for best TV series ever).

Now how did I go from talking about kindergarten to musing about death? I do apologise. What I really wanted to say was that R and I had heaps of fun making candy cane chocolate (a.k.a. peppermint bark) as end-of-year gifts for her teacher and two assistants. This stuff is fantastic for making with kids because it involves a couple of super-fun things: smashing up candy canes and sprinkling smashed-up candy canes onto melted chocolate. I based mine on this recipe but really, no recipe is required. Here is what we did:

  • Smashed up a 170g packet of large candy canes (sealed inside two plastic bags; bashed repeatedly with the base of a little milk-boiling pan. You could also use a hammer or a rolling pin)
  • Melted a packet of white chocolate melts in the microwave; stirred til smooth; spread out on baking tray covered with baking paper
  • Sprinkled half of candy-cane mixture on top, pressed in lightly with back of spoon
  • Once chocolate had cooled, broke it into shards.

R did the smashing and sprinkling; I did the melting and spreading. Then we repeated the process with a packet of milk chocolate melts and the remainder of the smashed candy canes. She enjoyed it a lot, and K is looking forward to making a batch to give to his teachers for when school wraps up next week.

Oh, and it looks pretty and tastes rather good too!

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Hey pesto!

The other day R asked if she could have 'hey pesto' for dinner. Hey what? 'Hey pesto pasta' (I was not even aware she knew the term 'hey presto', but K is into magic tricks so perhaps she has heard him say it. Either that or she learned it from a Disney movie, like everything else she knows).

So last night the three pesto-lovers in the house had our first homegrown 'hey pesto' of the season, and now I feel like it's really summer. Our entire last summer's crop was used for pesto, and this season's will go the same way too, because if there are other uses for large bunches of basil I have not yet discovered them.

My pesto is made with basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic and parmesan and is a wonderfully quick dish to make when it's late and I don't have the energy for anything complicated (which, sadly, is the case just about every night of the week). I make it by picking off the basil leaves (being careful to remove the odd caterpillar here and there), washing them and blending with a few tablespoons of olive oil and a small handful of pine nuts (raw, I don't bother toasting them). Then I add a finely chopped clove or two of garlic and about 1/4 cup of finely grated parmesan. I also like to put in a generous teaspoonful of chilli - usually sambal oelek, but fresh chilli is good too. Once the pasta is cooked and drained I return it to the pot, put in the pesto and toss to coat, sometimes adding a tiny bit of water or oil to thin it out. And - hey pesto! It's done.

If you like basil but have never made pesto, give it a go - it's so easy. To give an idea of how much basil to use, when I'm not using home-grown I find a whole supermarket bunch of basil is sufficient for a 500g packet of pasta.

Monday, 10 December 2012

8 days of fried food

Tonight is the third night of Hanukah. Over the past few days I've been making Hanukah-themed papel picado, the Mexican festival paper cut-outs. I was inspired by this post I found via The Crafty Crow, and have really enjoyed snipping away as I watch TV (now with only one eye, since I am still recovering from the insect attack referred to in my last post). I put them up in our front window and they look lovely and festive.

Every night so far we've been celebrating Hanukah with - naturally - the lighting of the candles and much spinning of dreidels. Plus a couple of tiny gifts for the kids, and some chocolate coins.

Today we bought a whole bag of dreidels for K to give out at school along with instructions for how to play the dreidel game (you can find instructions here if you need them). The mini dreidels look so cute with all their different colours.

I didn't grow up in an observant family, so until recently I had no idea that it was customary to eat fried food on Hanukah. Fried food! For eight days! Now that's a tradition worth keeping. My son is a big fan of latkes, and we are all glad of an excuse to eat the sugared jam donuts (see below) that are sold in Jewish bakeries at this time of year. But why stick to the Jewish dishes? Hot chips are hard to resist, as are pancakes. Then there are all those delicious Asian foods - spring rolls, pakoras and samosas. Mmmmm...

With one Jewish and one Anglo-Australian parent our children are not short of festivals and celebrations, and at this time of year we have a bit of an overload. Five more days of Hanukah to go, plus, over the next two weeks, all the end-of-year parties (playgroup, school, kindergarten) and a couple of birthday parties. And then there's Christmas... oh boy. If you've read this far, Chag sameach! Now go get yourself some fried food.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The perils and pleasures of gardening

It was very satisfying to get a bit of gardening done this weekend. I finally planted out some remaining eggplant and tomato seedlings that I couldn't work out where to put until now (having made space by pulling out several bolting lettuces), sowed some more carrot seeds (my last lot of carrot seedlings died after being accidentally mulched over by the other gardener in the house) and staked the larger tomatoes, some of which already have some decent-sized fruit on them:

Didn't notice those black spots til I uploaded the photo. Hmm, must check that out...

The lettuces are growing beautifully. I have one tub of lettuces almost big enough to start picking salad leaves from, and another tub with seedlings coming up, as well as a few mature plants still left in the main vegie patch. As we currently consume more than we grow I've decided to try out Liz from Suburban Tomato's growing system and sow seeds every month or so in little pots until they're big enough to transplant to the tubs or vegie patch. This way I should have a steady supply of lettuce. I'm planting mixed lettuce seeds and cos, as well as some rocket seeds from last year's enormous rocket plant.

We are also harvesting bits and pieces here and there - mostly lettuce, but also a few garlics (one large one, two tiny ones). Last week we picked most of the ripe strawberries - a small but delicious crop:

...and it was just as well we did because the few that we left were eaten the following day by birds. Now I've had to set up a ridiculous-looking netting system to keep them out, which is a shame, because strawberry plants are too pretty to cover up.

Also coming along nicely are the beans. I have personally inspected every leaf and removed several caterpillars. I am not so fond of butterflies these days... (and I have a serious gripe with insects in general, which I will get to at the end of this post).

M's chilli collection is flourishing (and yes, that is mint in the foreground, not a chilli). I have no idea what all the different varieties are, but there are chilli plants scattered all around the front and back gardens, as well as on our porch. Today he told me that one of them, the rocoto, will grow to be ten feet tall. What will we do with all those chillies, I wonder?

I'm looking forward to picking some basil this week for our first home-grown pesto of the season. Below you can see our two giant pots of basil, the one at the back doing brilliantly while the one at the front is looking totally puny. Weird. All we can come up with is that we think we may have used different soil in one of the pots.

I suffered a gardening-related injury today: an insect flew straight into my eye while I was harvesting rocket seeds. As I write this my eye is still sore and watering. What is it with these creatures? They invade my home (we had to take out a massive cockroach last night), they eat our plants, and now they are flying kamikaze-style into my face - a declaration of war if every I heard one. Tomorrow I will be stocking up on pyrethrum and keeping my sunglasses on!

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Salad spinner painting

I had read about these paintings here, but had to wait til I found a salad spinner in an op shop before I could give it a try. Now I can't put the spinner away because R is totally addicted to painting with it! And I can completely understand why, because I've tried it myself and it really is fun. Have you noticed how children love randomness and surprise? This activity combines the pleasure of dropping or squirting paint onto a surface and the physicality of spinning the spinner with the excitement of an unpredictable (and very pretty) result. 

The process is incredibly simple, once you've laid your hands on a salad spinner. All you need are some paper plates that fit inside (I found the Black & Gold brand ones from IGA perfect for this, or you could cut down some larger ones), some paints (we used Radical Paints, which are easy to squirt or drip onto the plate) and - as recommended on Casa Maria's Creative Learning Zone - some hairgel. Yes, hairgel. Apparently it gives a nice sheen to the painting, and who am I to mess with her tried and true method? Anyway, R loves the smell. Once you have the equipment and supplies assembled, all you do is drop paint on the plate, put the lid on the spinner and turn it around.

For something that uses a lot of paint this is a surprisingly un-messy activity, provided you remember to put some newspaper under the spinner to soak up the paint that leaks out the bottom.

R likes to apply paint (and gel), spin, then examine the results and add more paint. She often repeats this process a few times before she declares the painting finished. We are going through the paint at a rate of knots, but then we have been doing this every day since I bought the spinner...

Here are some of the beautiful paintings by R (plus one by K):

I would love to do this with the kids at playgroup but we would need several spinners to avoid frustration. So for now it's just our at-home art activity - until I find another few spinners at the op shop!