A CHRISTMAS WREATH AND CLIMATE CHANGE

It is my tradition on November 25th to begin the Christmas season by hanging a wreath on our front door.  This wreath is always fashioned from cedar greens gathered here on the farm.  This year I prune the boughs from a low bush cedar growing outside our kitchen door.  I clipped cautiously for this is also the burrow of rabbits.   The boughs are extraordinarily heavy with seed buds.  Nature under stress from the summer drought produced more than normal cedar seed buds.

Cedar buds. Exquisite natural adornment for the Christmas wreaths.  Their fragrance the perfume of Christmas.

I weave  the branches through the vine wreath to the accompanied of Handel’s Messiah.  Another Christmas tradition.  White alyssum still blooms in the garden.  This tiny flower always grew in my Mother’s garden.  I tuck a spray into the wreath.  My David Austin roses had a difficult hot summer.  In late autumn they put on a splendid show and were still blooming when it was time to more them inside to their winter home.  I tuck them into water filled florist vials and fasten them to the wreath.  A fragment of elegant silk ribbon and my Christmas wreath is finished.

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THE MANNEQUIN’S CHRISTMAS PARTY . . . a fairy tale for all sewers and unorthodox fashion mavens

Fairy tales are meant to be told and retold especially at this time of year.  Now more than ever the world needs to believe in a little magic.   I have a mannequin.  Her name is Victoria.  She has been my alto ego for many years.  I whisper secrets to her,  and regale her with stories as I  sew  my way through life.  This is story of Victoria’s first Christmas party

The heavy cream parchment envelope was addressed  to  Miss Victoria Mannequin. The Atelier.

It hung from a scarlet silk ribbon tied round the atelier  room door.

“You appear to have mail, Victoria.'” I said with great excitement.

‘”Shall I  open it for you?”  I asked my mannequin.    Victoria really didn’t receive much mail.  In fact I couldn’t  remember her receiving any mail at all

Victoria has been my close companion as I threaded needles and  welded my flashing silver scissors cutting out Chanel inspired suits, little black dresses, evening gowns and even a wedding dress.   She has stood  uncomplainingly  as I pinned fabric, draped ruffles and adjusted collars and hems on her patient form.

”  This is exciting.  It’s an invitation to the annual mannequin’s holiday party. ‘

“Miss Virginia,  I want to  be  outrageously gorgeous.  I must  carry the sparkling purse The Tin Man sent from The Emerald city.”

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“Of course, darling Victoria.  I am sure Tinny would want you to look outrageously beautiful.”

“And your feather boa.  I ‘ll fling it over my shoulders and it will drift around me when I dance?”

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“Dear Victoria, the feather boa is absolutely you.” I exclaimed.  ” It’s very flirty and more than a touch romantic.”

“I want to sparkle like the stars in the winter sky.  Do you think  your crystal necklace  would light up my night?”

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“The crystals will shimmer and shine and you will positively glow.” I replied.

I fastened the layers of crystal around her neck not hesitating to guild the lily.

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From deep within my closet of beautiful  memories I took out a scarlet silk tunic worn  to a Diwali party, and buttoned  it on her.  Then I added a rich, sapphire silk jacket.  You can never have too much silk or two many jewel like colours when you dress outrageously beautiful.  I draped the jacket over her shoulders.  Adjusted the feather boa and pinned on a red silk  rose to my sweet Victoria.

“You are ready for your party, Victoria.”

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Victoria  twirled and danced around the room.  The feather boa floated.  The crystal necklace sparkled.  The Tin Man’s purse glittered.  She was outrageously beautiful.

“Miss Virginia, do you think this is all too much?”

“No my wondrous Victoria.  You look perfect!”

With a flash or her red soled dancing shoes Victoria swept out into a star spangled night and  the waiting limousine.  When I woke the next morning I saw a pair of shoes, the soles worn thin, outside the atelier door.  It was a very good Christmas party.

(ADDENDUM   Recently my mannequin decided she was going to re-invent herself.  After months of wearing  spandex  and watching Netflix she said good-bye to Muriel the stay-at-home mannequin and changed her name to Victoria.  I believe there will be exciting times ahead for her.)

REMEMBRANCE DAY . . . we will never forget why we live in a democracy today.

I grew up during WORLD WAR TWO.  I may have been a child but I understood we were a country at war.  Canada was defending democracy.  We grew victory gardens.  Collected metal.  Bought war bonds.   And coped with food rationing.  I remember the heart-breaking day a telegram was delivered to my Grandmother.  The official notification of my uncles death.

That year winter came early to my home town of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.  On November 11th, 1945 with my classmates I walked in bitter cold  the two miles from school to attend the Remembrance Day ceremonies at  the Armouries.

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If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England.  There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed:

Gave,  once,  her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home

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And think, this heart,all evil shed away,

A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given,

Her signs and sounds; dream happy as her day;

And laughter, learnt of friends;  and gentleness,

In hearts at peace,  under an English heaven.

” The Soldier” was written by an English poet,  Rupert Brooke (2887-1915).  He died in the first world war.

My father-in-law  grew up in a quiet town in Southern Ontario.  He enlisted and his training as a flight sergeant took place in an equally small town in Saskatchewan.  This is where he met and married.    He returned from the war to live t he rest of his life in    Saskatchewan.  He is survived by his two sons.

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My uncle,  Bertram Henry Henderson grew up in my home town, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.  He and his two brothers enlisted in the Regina Rifles.  He died in action October 27, 1944.  His last letter home was dated October 27, 1944.  It was written in the dim light of a candle in a bottle.  The letter was in his effects returned to the family.

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My older sister and myself with my Uncle Bert shortly before he was shipped overseas.

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This document shows the location of his grave in Belgian.  It also identifies the family who would be responsible for the maintenance and care of his grave site.

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Our Uncle’s grave continues to be looked after by the Belgian Family entrusted in their care more than 70 years ago.  Members of that family continue to maintain contact with our family.

My father grew up in a small village in southern England.  He fought in the war to end all wars (World War One).  When war ended he immigrated to Canada to join his older brothers in Northern Saskatchewan.  The only time he talked about the war  was to tell us how  he had befriended some Turkish prison of war soldiers and they had taught him  to make Turkish coffee.

On November 11th we will attend Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ladner village.  At 11:00 am we will stand in silence for two minutes  remembering those who died for Democracy.   The lone bugler will sound “last post” followed by a twenty-one gun salute. Before we depart we will place our red poppies at the base of the cenotaph and bow our heads in respect.  We will remember.

SASHIKO INSPIRED PATCHED JEANS . . . a simple way to sew knee patches

A SASHIKO INSPIRED INVISIBLE MEND

The jeans had been mended not once but three times. They had done yeoman’s duty in the garden. They had moved furniture into a new house. Their knees worn thin sanding an old floor. Pruning an apple tree had left a large tear. Every worn mark was a memory. Not to be discarded. Each permanent wrinkle and scrunch represented how many cars polished. A roof repaired. A window replaced. They were a pair of jeans with a history of accomplishments and jobs well done. Not to be discarded but repaired to continue a life of of challenges, and sometimes to simply sit on a bench in the morning sun.

My machine does not have an arm that allows one to easily sew patches on blue jeans. My solution is to undo the outside legs. For rough wear jeans I cut the front pant leg close to the seam after I have unpicked a little of the hem each side of this seam. I cut the seam open just high enough to work comfortably with the patch. I suggest you don’t use this method with closely fitted jeans. You lose a half inch on each side seam.

I buy bargain priced dark blue jeans at our Ladner Hospital Thrift Shop. (for that sashiko look). I salvage as much of the jeans as possible. Removing the zipper. Cutting leg off using the bits and pieces for other projects.

Measure the area to patch and cut two pieces the same size. Try to round out the width of the patch to even inches. It makes drawing the sashiko lines simpler.

Pin the patch to the jeans making sure you are leaving room to sew the side seam.

Use a jean needle or a #16 needle to saw this heavy fabric.

Sew the patch on with dark thread using an overcast stitch to prevent too much fraying. Give the patch a good press to smooth the fabric.

Using the width of the ruler mark vertical on the fabric.

Use heavy white cotton thread (I used quilting thread) if possible for the top thread. Black in the bobbin. Do not back stitch at any time. Leave extra long tag ends at the beginning and end of each row. Pull the white thread through to the back and tie off with a strong double knot.

Sew the side seams together in a half inch seam. Sew with the back leg of the pants as the top fabric. Use the old edging as a sewing guide.
When sewing the side seam you will need to blend the original seam wear it joins with the new seam. The easiest way is to unpick a few of the original stitches to “finagle” them to meet with a flat join. It might not be perfect but this is not haute coture sewing. Give the side seams a good press – pressing them to the back of the jeans.

Sashiko is a type of Japanese stitching used for decorative or functional reinforcement. I have reinterpreted the concept of a sashiko visible mend with the dark blue jean fabric and machine sewn white thread.

THE COLLECTION AND CARE OF AUTUMN HYDRANGEAS

In the field across from my garden Sand Hill cranes are performing their migratory mating ritual. They prance. They dance. A strange ballet of bowing, jumping and stretching their wings. In the sullen autumn sky geese fill the air with their strident cries. It’s time to harvest hydrangeas before their petals are battered by winter rains.

Colours like the last bit lavender in my water colour paint tray.

A blush like a summer wine in a heavy crystal goblet

A blue of a favourite summer shirt.

Colours of bruised plums and summer memories.

I gather the memories of summer glory. Come December they will be fashioned into wreaths.

They go into buckets and jars for a couple of weeks in 2-5 cm (1-2 inches) of water. As the stems suck the water the flower heads dry and keep their colour. A light spraying with cheap supermarket hairspray acts as a fixative and stops them being so brittle. If you want them to dry retaining their texture, but not their colour, add a drop of glycerine into their water.

When harvesting the hydrangeas I cut stems as long as possible. It gives me option to use them in bouquets or in wreaths. I don’t pass the perfect blossoms with short stems. They can be used in wreath making. I use vine wreaths and armed with my florist’s scissors I simply tuck and weave the flowers in place.

Add a sparkling glitter of light with a battery wreath light. It will shine a holiday welcome through the long winter nights.

PUMPKIN SPICE CREME BRULEE . . . an elegant Thanksgiving dessert

Crème Brûlée is like Coco Chanel’s little black dress.  Perfection in its simplicity.  Perfection in its execution.   Designed to impress but not to over-power.   Always in good taste.  And the memorable ending to any dinner.

If you only make one French dessert in your life – make it crème brûlée and make it yours.  My new recipe is similar to the dessert we served in our restaurant ROXY’S BISTRO, but I have simplified it and made it practically fool-proof.  It contains just three ingredients; cream, eggs and sugar.

Generally I make the classic version – with vanilla.  Or,  feeling creative I’ll poke around in the drinks cupboard and use cognac or Grand Marnier as the flavouring.    One can even put a generous dab of jam in the bottom of the ramekins before you pour your custard.  

  For Thanksgiving dinner create an elegant dessert.  Simply add pumpkin pie spices to your custard.  A good dash of cinnamon, a little bit of ground ginger and freshly grated nutmeg and a breeze of ground cloves are the exotic spices that give you the traditional pumpkin pie flavour. Like Chanel’s little black dress the possibilities of changing this recipe are endless. You can make this dessert two days ahead of your Thanksgiving dinner.

It is pure alchemy.  How could such simple ingredients  – eggs, milk, cream, sugar – bring grown men to their knees.  This recipe for crème brûlée  was always on the menu at our restaurant in Regina, Roxy’s Bistro.    We made it five days a week for seven years.   Repetition makes perfect, and I perfected this new recipe so it is right every time.   This recipe is perfect for six generous servings, but if you are having a large dinner party it doubles beautifully and serves twelve.

Put on your apron and find the recipe at my alto ego MRS.BUTTERFINGERS http://mrsbutterfingers.com/?p=2393

FREEZER ENGLISH CUCUMBER PICKLES . . . QUICK AND SIMPLE TO MAKE

Slender, delicate, refreshing English cucumbers. Beloved in cucumber sandwiches. Adored in Salads. Admired in pickles. English cucumbers piled in glorious green pyramids at the vegetable markets. I fill my shopping basket with them. Cucumbers to nibble on now. Cucumbers to enjoy in the winter months ahead.

English cucumbers are so reasonably priced in the summer. The thrifty minded will stock up. This recipe is incredibly simple. The first time I tasted these cucumber pickles I swooned over them. I couldn’t believe they were freezer pickles. The recipe is courtesy a pickling aficionado friend of mine. Her pickles and chutneys are legendary. Before I tuck the pickles into the freezer I will label then JEAN’S PICKLES.

Slice the cucumbers, onion, and green, red or yellow peppers very thin. In a large bowl mix vinegar, sugar, salt and celery seed, Toss in your vegetables and stir well. Cover and pop into your refrigerator for three days. Give the mixture a quick stir every day. Then pack into freezer containers or canning jars and freeze. Thaw before serving.

Freezer English cucumber pickles will keep in your refrigerator at least eight weeks or your freezer at least a year. They are delicious served just as they are or use them generously in sandwiches, topping a burger or in a salad.

(A cautionary word. If you are using a French mandoline for the first time BE VERY CAREFUL. It does a beautiful job of slicing but it is extremely sharp).

The recipe for FREEZER CUCUMBER PICKLES awaits you in MRS.BUTTERFINGERS. http://mrsbutterfingers.com

DECADENT DOUBLE CHOCOLATE FLEUR DE SEL COOKIES . . . a rich, dark, salty and sweet treat.

French bakers have always known a whisper of salt brings out the very best in dark, rich chocolate.

This decadent little cookie is a riff on the fleur de sel double chocolate cookies created by my favourite bakery in Toronto – Bobbette and Belle.

It has a quiet, unassuming almost old-fashioned appearance that ends with the first delicious, crumbly addictive bit. This is not your mother’s chocolate cookie. It rather reminds one of a rich shortbread cookie. The first nibble of double layers of chocolate and the exquisite drift of sea salt takes you to the moon and back.

This superb cookie benefits from baking a day or so in advance of serving. The chocolate flavour intensifies as it rests quietly in the cookie jar. Its unique salt sweet flavour is the perfect ending for any dinner party especially when you add a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream.

The recipe and and some baking tips for DOUBLE CHOCOLATE FLEUR DE SEL COOKIE awaits you in my kitchen. MRS.BUTTERFINGERS.

THE VERY VERY BEST TOMATO SAUCE . . . and just three ingredients – thank you Marcella Hazan

Early morning. I’ve walked out to the garden to harvest tomatoes. My farmer neighbour is cutting hay in the field near by. The swaths lay in military straight rows. The air is filled with the perfume of the freshly cut hay. The sun catching diamonds of dew suspended in delicate cobwebs in grass around the garden.

Like glowing rubies tomatoes hang suspended from vines. A tomato house protects them from low night river fog that growls and prowls our gardens and blight the tomatoes. It’s not an elegant structure. A wooden frame and heavy plastic curtains open for sun then close at night. It gives an extra month or so of growing time and generously increases our crop of tomatoes.

I’ve picked a heavy basket of tomatoes; irresistibly sweet, juicy, rich and bursting with flavours. Tomatoes you eat over the sink, sprinkled with a little Malden salt. Juice running down your arms and a beatific smile on your face. Now is the time to practice tomato alchemy and turn these tomatoes into sauce.

Start this sauce by melting butter and onions.

Then add your chopped tomatoes.
Simmer the sauce crushing the tomatoes (not the onions).

To me this recipe is the simplest, most elegant and finest of all sauces. Chopped tomatoes, butter, onion and salt. Five minutes preparation time. Forty-five minutes cooking time and the occasional stir. Serve it over linguine generously anointed with parmigiana cheese. Toss it with gnocchi. Or simply stand at the stove and eat a spoonful or too. After all, one simply must taste to check salt seasoning.

The recipe is from Marcella Hazan’s book Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (1992). A much used, food spattered, absolutely adored book. I share the recipe in my kitchen MRS.BUTTERFINGERS.

Dear friends, “bel cibo”.

THE JEWELLED FRUIT TARTS OF PARIS . . . CARAMELIZED PLUM TART

It is at this time of year when the days shorten and dusk creeps quietly into our lives.  When we put away the warm whispers of summer.  When we scuff through fallen leaves removing the silver dust of Paris.  This is my favourite season in the city of light.

 It is at this time of year my thoughts return to my little house in Paris to pack away the summer memories.  To take down the linen  curtains that dance at my windows and replace them with  enveloping rich, dark green velvet.  To cover the worn stone pavers of my kitchen floor with a faded and warm carpet.

And it is this time of year, market basket under my arm, I raise very early and head for the markets.   I am abroad even before the street cleaners.  Searching for the last stoned fruit of the season to make just one last plum tart.

The Paris pastry shops beguile us with dazzling displays of fruit tarts.  They are perfectly imperfect with simply arranged seasonal fresh fruits made even more irresistible with sugar-studded , heavily caramelized, crunchy rims.   This is pie perfection!  Honest pies that promise you everything and deliver.   My alter ego happily shares her dreams of Paris and her recipes with you.  Bon Appetit, dear friends.   The recipe for plum tart awaits you at MRS BUTTERFINGERS

(a reposting – plums are so abundant at this time of a year )