Allergies, Be Damned!

The smell of lilacs is like the nectar of the gods. The sad thing is, it only lasts about a week. So, what is one to do?

Well, in my case, I take a trip to Madison's Arboretum and stick my face in blooming lilacs for about an hour and a half. By the time I'm done, I've gotten my lilac fix (and I've sneezed my head off) and don't feel quite as bad when the blooms start to brown and drop.

So, let's start with the Arboretum (lovingly referred to as The Arb). The University of Wisconsin Arboretum is actually a research facility - acres and acres of land - gardens and prairies - that's used for environmental and ecological study. Their mission is to conserve and restore Arboretum lands, advance restoration ecology, and foster the land ethic." And, to the delight of thousands of people, it's open to the public for all manner of fun. The history of the Arb is fascinating and it's wonderful to know that all this gorgeous land (and water!) in the middle of our city will be preserved for the foreseeable future.

My all-time favorite part of the Arb is the lilac grove. There are, quite literally, hundreds of varieties of lilacs. Large flowered, small flowered, double-flowered, trees, bushes, sweet smelling, spicy smelling, and even one that smells slightly of feet. Adjacent to the lilac grove is the cherry and apple grove so it's easy enough to wander from the heady scent of lilac over to the blooming trees for a bit of a palate cleanser. I love that the cherry and apple trees bloom concurrent with the lilacs. It makes the trip doubly fun. 

Here, in pictures, is a summary of my trip to the Arb last Friday. We had a stunningly gorgeous late afternoon promenade and stuck our faces in every single lilac bloom. Halfway through I started sneezing but, as the title suggests, allergies be damned - I was going to get my fill!

My friend didn't sneeze as much as me.

Blue skies and sun!

These are the tags on the trees - in case you want to identify the variety.

Look at the crazy curl on these flower petals!

Entering the apple & cherry tree grove.

Then we wandered into the maple grove.

This Norway Maple was one of the biggest trees I've ever seen.
Wildflowers by the visitor's center.

The Dress

I told you before about Cal Patch's online garment design course I'm taking...and how fabulous it is. Well, I have a finished product! A dress that I just adore. It is a simple tunic shape with long sleeves and a wide neckline.

Me mugging for the camera!
I could have chosen to make short sleeves, no sleeves, a collar...etc. That is the beauty of creating patterns from scratch. This freedom has rekindled my interest in garment sewing. Being able to make a pattern that is pretty darn close to my actual shape and then refining it even further on a muslin gives me a finished product that fits better than any commercial pattern ever has. It's more work on the front-end, but way less tailoring on the back-end.

My muslin taking shape.
What I love most about this class is that Cal starts with the basics of garment design. I feel as if I've learned the "best practice" way of drafting a pattern and fitting it properly. All without being snooty or too full of details that go over a beginner's head. I feel like I have a basis for doing more complicated designs.

The edging makes this dress.
The quilter in me wanted to use a bias tape edging around the collar as an accent. I made my own bias tape out of a coordinating (in my mind) fabric using this great tutorial. I did finish the edging by hand because I didn't want to see a stitching line on the front. But that was no big thing considering I recently hand stitched a queen-size quilt binding!

All done during the RuPaul Drag Race finale!
The fabric is Amy Butler Soul Blossoms Passion Lily Mulberry. It is gorgeous. A little loud...but gorgeous! There's no hiding your light under a bushel in this frock. :)


PS - My friend Troy says this fabric reminds him of this..

Yes, You Can Milk an Almond

There's a great website called The Kitchn. I think it's a foodie off-shoot of another great site called Apartment Therapy - which I've visited often.  I discovered the site because a friend of mine kept posting recipes from the site that REALLY appealed to me. I found myself "sharing" a lot of these recipes, just so I could find them again. (I couldn't just go to the site and start following it, like a normal person...)

Anyway. One recipe that I simply HAD to try was "making almond milk at home". 

The first time I ever had almond milk was, as a very young person, during a visit to Sicily to see my family. My cousin (actually my grandmother's first cousin), Nino, took me for a passagiare, which is the practice of taking a post-dinner walk around town. As is common, we walked to the town square to have a treat and he recommended the having the almond milk. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

Almonds figure heavily in Sicilian cuisine so I already had a familiarity and love for the taste but this was something else entirely - intense, smooth, slightly sweet. It was amazing. Unfortunately, commercial almond milk that's available here is too sweet and not at all like the drink I still have on those rare occasions that I get to visit Sicily.

So... off to try this, seemingly simple, recipe in my own kitch(e)n!

Step one: Soak raw, preferably organic almonds in water overnight or up to two days.

This step was easy - although I didn't read the instructions properly and I put them in a covered mason jar instead of an uncovered bowl. I'm not sure if this made a difference but the idea of leaving an uncovered bowl of soaking almonds on my counter and bug-attracting.

Although, after two days, this is pretty gross too

Step two: Drain and rinse the almonds

 Yep. Done and done.

Step three: Put almonds and clean water in a blender

Again, easy enough. Although, don't fill the blender too full or it will spill over. I ended up doing my blending in two batches.

Step four: Pulse until almonds are chopped up, then blend for a full two minutes

So, seriously, two minutes is a LOT longer than you'd think. I actually set a timer and was surprised at how long this seemed. I'd highly recommend timing it instead of going on instinct or, I promise, you won't have blended it enough.

Step five: Strain the blended almonds

My first (failed) attempt

So...yeah. Here's where things got sticky (and messy). My first attempt was to use cheesecloth. That got me nowhere fast. The stuff just sort of sat on top of the cheesecloth not draining and, again, I wasn't about to leave it on the counter and just walk away for a couple of hours while it dripped - glacially slow. So, I strained in two steps:
  1. I strained the milk through a fine-mesh sieve, pushing against the solids with the back of a wooden spoon, squeezing out as much milk as possible. 
  2. I filtered the milk a second time through coffee filters. The finer silt that was left was minimal but it made a difference in the "grittiness" of the milk. And I wanted the very smooth milk that I remember.
Part two of straining

The final product is smooth and very tasty. I chose not to sweeten it but, if I did, I would use a small amount of honey. The last tip I have is this: the actual recipe (link above) calls for 1 cup of almonds to 2 cups of water, with 2 cups of clean water to blend with in step four. I found my final product to be more watery than I would like and I think, in the future, I'll blend with 1/2 the water called for, in order to try to give the milk a little more "body".

Yummy on cereal!

Overall, it wasn't a bad first try although I would like to find a more efficient straining system. 

Finally, what to do with the left over ground almonds? The recipe suggests using them "as is" as an additive in smoothies or yogurt (good addition of protein) or drying it to make almond meal which can be used in baking. I decided to try drying it out just to see what the process was like. The answer... long and arduous. LOL  In a 200 degree oven, spread out on a cookie sheet, the meal took nearly four hours to dry to a point where it felt like almond meal. I had to go in occasionally and break up the lumps so they'd dry too. I now have a bag of almond meal in my freezer that I'll have to find a use for at some point. Maybe a coating for fish??

Oh! And the almond milk only lasts a few days to a week in the 'fridge so don't make a lot unless you're really thirsty. It will separate but that's not "going bad" - you just have to shake it. You'll know if it's bad because it will start to taste sour. A little honey could help extend the life because it wards off bacteria, for what that's worth.

Give it a try, if you like almond milk or think you might like almond milk. Then, on a warm summer evening, sit on the patio and sip a glass. You may feel like you're in Sicily for a few minutes. :)

- Alex

Abandoned Baby Birds

What if I told you that you could knit something quick and completely adorable PLUS it would help tiny abandoned baby birds?

(not my actual knitting but LOOK HOW CUTE!)

My friend Melissa turned me on to a nest knitting pattern put out by our Dane County Humane Society's wildlife service. Knitted nests are the perfect cozy place place for abandoned babies to grow or even for nursing a sick bird.

(my actual knitting)

These nests are knitted with doubled or tripled cotton or acrylic yarn so they are really sturdy and washable. For my nests, I used some (leftover from a sweater) Rowan Cotton Jeans from my stash. I had two 50g balls and was able to make a nest from each (with very little left over) when knitting with the yarn doubled on size 6 dpns.

This pattern is so spot on. The bottom sits completely flat and the stockinette sides curl over just right to form a stiff nest with just enough give.

I went ahead and tied a nice knot on the bottom. This way it will be sure to hold up through a washing.

Folks who live here in Dane County can drop their finished nests off at the Humane Society. And for those folks outside of our area, I'm positive your own humane society, wildlife rescue, or Department of Natural Resources would have a use for these as well. A little research will most likely prove fruitful. I can vouch for this nest pattern though, it knit up beautifully.

Knit on friends,


PS - When I say this was a quick project, each nest took me about 3 hours. And that is with talking or TV watching going on at the same time.