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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Violets in October

Violets in October

I was walking to my in-laws the other day with my twelve-year-old son. Always look down and up, I say, or you miss a lot. In late October, there were violets growing and blooming along the sidewalk. They are usually gone shortly after May; in fact, I used to populate my early May baskets with all color and kind of violet, and tried many methods of preserving them. Seeing them this late in Autumn, all glorious purple in symphony with the red and gold leaves surrounding them on the ground made me uncommonly happy. One of my best friends in the world was named Violet Ellen, no coincidence, I think. Just the other day I took out a bunch of purple silk violets attached to a brooch to wear. Something told me they were autumnal yet, and Mother Nature proved me right.

One never knows where inspiration will come. My unlikely muse appeared this morning when I was watching one of my favorite shows, Sunday Morning. Keith Richards talked about his life, and his phenomenal immune system and strong constitution. Well, I supposed he would have to have one like that! He began to talk about his lemon tree and gardens, and it turns out that he was “always planting something.” I found that inspirational, and it made his music mean more to me. Such a simple act, so fundamental and basic as planting to promote life, keeps people going and ties them together no matter who they are or what they do in life. He, too, is an artist, and a craftsman, and a citizen of the world.

I dedicate this blog to my dear friend Francesca and her new husband Tracy. They are a beautiful couple, and I’m very happy for them. We, too, are now autumnal, but we continue to bloom as though we are in eternal spring.

My idea for the day is the Holiday cake. I’ll start with Halloween, and move on to Winter, Christmas, even Valentine’s day [the latter is not my favorite holiday, but I love the color and trappings, the Valentines themselves, and the story of the Saint who gave the holiday its name].

For a Halloween cake, which I’m sure you’ve seen in cooking mags, and in Better Homes and Gardens and Good Housekeeping, start with a cake mix, usually chocolate or devils food, or use your own home made cake. Then, use a dark fudge, chocolate, or smooth creamy frosting. My husband makes fantastic frosting from scratch, but for “art projects” like this, I like canned, Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines, or your store’s brand, which can save money. Look for sales.

For other ingredients, small gummi worms and bugs, any candy bugs or monsters, marshmallows, large, Lorna Doones, Pepperidge Farm Chessman, other squarish cookies like Vienna fingers, or even chocolate covered grahams or Fig Newtons, candy sprinkles in Halloween colors, food coloring, tubes of icing, cake decorations for Halloween, candy pumpkins, pretzels to make fences, etc. Finally, chocolate wafer cookies are needed in large quantities. You will crumble them, to make “dirt.” Think old-fashioned graveyard, ghosts, and tombstones. My miniaturist friends and muses like Margaret Grace and Deb Baker, and the late Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Thorne would excel at this type of culinary activity. Martha Stewart would have a few ideas, too.

Bake the cake in a large square or rectangular pan. Glass works, and so do large, somewhat deeper cooking sheets, the kind used to make the layers of Yule log. You’ve seen them on Julia Child and Jacques Pepin TV shows. Bake according to recipe or directions. I leave the cake in the pan. Let cool. Ice with the dark chocolate frosting.

The, let the frosting set a little bit, and the fun begins!

You can use a photo or drawing of an old graveyard, or maybe you have a picture of a graveyard cake. Arrange cookies like tombstones. You can write names on them with the icing tubes. Crumble the cookies and scatter over the frosting to make the dirt. Create small fences, and maybe even a tomb or sarcophagus with the square cookies. You can get creative and slice gumdrops for shingles or use candy corn or candy rocks here and there to make paths and ruins and stone benches. If you are artistic, you can make Marzipan figures and ghosts, especially for the tops of sarcophagi. Talk to your friends who make gingerbread houses and terrariums. Make ghosts by spearing or “impaling” [a nod to Vlad Tepes!] two large marshmallows together. Arrange candy pumpkins in a pumpkin patch, and scatter gummi worms and monsters. You could also use plastic and porcelain cake decorations, like the kind I buy made in France, originally made for New Years bread and cakes. Voila! Display. This is a great project for the Blue and Gold banquet the boy scouts have, because there is always a cake contest.

If you want a vampire cake, use red velvet cake as the base and go whiled. You could go very Goth with it if you like.

For Thanksgiving, there are tiny turkeys and pilgrims, or you can make them of candy or Marzipan. Use food coloring to tint cocoanut to make “hay” to scatter and use pretzels to build cabins or make fences. There are a lot of Native American art miniatures and little tables and pots and pans to create the first Thanksgiving dinner. These can also be made of nontoxic bread dough clay, recipes on the net, or of marzipan. Think Thanksgiving colors, if you can make little flowers, do it, also, large bubble gum balls with some frosting or slivered almonds attached as “feathers” make good turkeys.

For Christmas, you could use any cake for a base, as you really could for Halloween, since the frosting will cover it, but I think that a red velvet cake with white frosting would be great for Christmas or Valentine’s day, even 4th of July depending on how you decorate it. Follow same baking, cooling, frosting directions as above for Halloween cake.

For Christmas scenes, you can build graham cracker or tiny gingerbread houses, or use decorations like tiny bisque light up houses, great with an led candle inside, candy canes to build and make fences, [think Candy Cane lane], Dept. 56 or Lemax figures and miniatures to populate the top of the cake, mirrors or foil for little skating ponds, edible silver and gold dragee decorations, marshmallow and toothpick snow men with licorice gumdrops hats, all sorts of Christmas candy, doilies, or vintage cardboard houses. Get some old Wilton cake decorating books, and if you are a lucky collector, Dennison crepe paper idea books to peruse.

For Valentine’s day, you can decorate with pink icing, tiny cake decorations, you can make stand up heart people with cake decorations or gingerbread magic. Also, tiny cherubs and miniature marble columns made for wedding cakes, pink bridesmaid or Quincenera statutes, tiny Polly pockets in pink, etc, would make great toppers for a Valentine’s cake as well. There are still candy Kewpies made and sold this time of year, as well as the great classic conversation hearts, which would make great pebbles for pathways or shingles. Again, if you are good with marzipan, go for it.

For St. Patrick’s day, try a white cake colored with lime yellow or green food coloring. You could also tint icing green. Make a miniature Irish cottage out of graham crackers or gingerbread, and use the gold, green, and orange colors of St. Pat’s. You can find all kinds of miniatures There are tiny pots of cold, and these could be made as well with a chocolate dessert cup filled with gold jelly beans of dragees.

For Easter, use any yellow, white, or pink cake, or use food coloring. Tint frosting yellow or maybe lavender, and use the bisque light up houses and figures sold at Walgreen’s and dollar stores for Easter, or make your own as described above. Miniature Royal Doulton bunnies are great additions to this type of cake decoration, or make bunnies of marshmallows and candies. Plastic and candy eggs abound to inspire you, as do miniature chocolate rabbits. You could use Easter grass, or use cocoanut. There are tiny baskets in craft stores and wooden ornaments, and even miniature Easter trees you could use.

For the 4th of July, use the red velvet cake, and white frosting, and look for Dept. 56 4th figures, miniatures of Uncle Sam, red, white, and blue Jelly Bellies and berries, make houses as described above, use marshmallows and tiny American flags.

These cakes have become great family traditions, for us. You could adapt the decorating ideas to cupcakes, or smaller loaf cakes, and they are great hostess gifts or pot luck contributions. They are also good centerpieces. You can make them as complicated or simple as you like, and they are creative and can involve the whole family.

Other Holiday gift ideas for an handmade, thoughtful, but cost-effective holiday:

1. Cut pictures from old cards to use as collage for new ones. Punch a whole in them and use pretty colored yarn or ribbons to make a garland or individual ornaments. They are also great to cut out as paper dolls, or to decorate gift wrap.
2. For gift wrap, invest in some plain newsprint, which you can buy at Office Supply Stores like Staples or Office Max, and decorate with No. 1. Or, use newspaper, B and W or the colorful funny pages and comics. Plain brown paper decorated with dried flowers, bittersweet, holly, or evergreens is great. Even fake florists picks work, and all the big craft stores have huge varieties already on sale. Watch pets if you want to use the bittersweet and holly. The plain brown paper idea is also very Victorian. Aluminum foil or Mylar paper is great, old wallpaper samples, and craft paper of all types. Brown bags, either cut up, or used as decorated gift bags work, too. Colorful or plain cellophane tied with pretty ribbons, especially silk, which can be recycled, are pretty. I like to use lace as well. If you are giving a large piece of linen or a towel, use it as a gift wrap and tie it all up with twine, raffia, or ribbon. Save little toys and tiny ornaments to decorate packages. Costume jewelry and beads work well, as do holly leaves and tried twigs glued on to look like winter trees. I also like to make snowmen from cotton balls, a trick my mom showed me, and glue them on the package. There are oodles of ideas for hiding gifts, or wrapping tiny packages within huge boxes to throw off the scent, as it were. I also love gift baskets, and use all sorts of containers, especially pretty boxes or vintage tins. You can also decoupage or spray paint what you want.
3. Along the same lines, if there is a crafter in your family, go through your art/craft supplies, and create a craft box or basket for them. I include pages from magazines I like to cut up and use, Victorian scraps, glue sticks, safety scissors, buttons, material swatches, little jars of beads and clay, small watercolor sets, colored pens and pencils, mini notepads, little sewing kits, pins, and needles, pincushions, you name it. Most of these are things I have, or they are supplemented from the dollar store. Etsy is also a good source for finding kits of these materials reasonably.
4. Christmas ornaments with a lovely note or card are great office and hostess gifts. Great Hanukkah gifts are gold chocolate coins in boxes wrapped in blue Mylar paper. Go to Marilyn Waters’ The Toy Maker site, just Google it. She has dozens of free printouts and projects for holidays, including easy boxes and favors for Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, you name it. There are other sites for creating paper toys, cards, and book marks for Day of the Dead, Purim, Ramadan, Christmas, and Kwanzaa. Waters also has plans for Halloween houses and toy theaters, as well as games and paper dolls, all in color, all printable.
5. Select your favorite poems, write them, select images, and make a scrapbook for the holidays. There are many images in public domain and clip art you can use. Also, there are old magazine images and dozens of ideas from scrapbook stores or sites. You can include recipes, or compile a cookbook, use family photos, etc. You can also make calendars, albums or date books. Kids love to do it, and it is a great alternative to the “Christmas Letter.”
6. Go to the dollar store, flea market, or craft store, and look for sales like mad. For about ten dollars, you can build a theme stocking or basket for a child or teen. You can put together Nativities for older recipients, a neat purse with cosmetics or toiletries, a roasting pot with cooking utensils and mixes, a bucket with car-wash and car care paraphernalia, etc.
7. Vintage books, or dollar store books, stacked and tied with a pretty ribbon, also sold by the spool in craft stores and dollar stores, are wonderful for those of us who love to read. They make great office gifts and contributions to silent auctions. Check out Barnes and Noble, Borders, and Walden, they are having more book and card sales than ever.
8. Bake, and package attractively as described above. Most of my gifts will be baked goods this year, made from my Mom and Grandmother’s recipes. When I cook from their handwritten, hand compiled recipes, I feel like they are standing next to me, telling me what to do.
9. Knitters and cricketers, do I have to say more? Get moving! Yarn is on sale everywhere, the dollar store has great deals. You can do simple book marks for small gifts or stocking stuffers, edge hankies or doilies, you name it. So, “Stitch and Bitch!” You can combine knitting/crochet get-togethers with holiday parties, pot lucks, or tree trimming. Kids can get involved, too. They can always make yarn dolls or ornaments wrapping yarn around Styrofoam. Visit you local library book sales and stores for patterns, McCall’s Needlework and Crafts, and Martha Stewart Living magazines.
10. Kits, all kinds of them, simple and complicated abound this time of year. They can be made as is, used, or adapted. Michael s has great one’s for kids. Get them unplugged and teach them to use their hands.
11. Having said that, there are digital programs and ideas out there, many free, for making family books and albums you “publish.” You can also get these made at Walgreen’s and other photos centers.
12. One of the best gifts I got from an office friend was a box of Christmas cards. She knew I needed them, but did not have time to get any or make any. See what someone needs, even if it is small like this, and help out. Offer to decorate someone’s tree, or help with yard ornaments. If you have the time, give an hour to baby-sit, promise to cook a casserole or covered dish [and do it!], take someone out to dinner, help with spring planting, etc., or with Holiday clean up if your recipient is hosting a gathering. They will love you for it.
13. Have a gift for everyone! I mean it! Drawing names is great in big families, so is limiting gifts to children, but you can always print a book mark, enclose a favorite photo in a card, fill a bag with someone’s favorite candy, gum, or mints, buy a box of twelve ornaments at the dollar store, and hand one out to everyone in your family at dinner. I handed out collage jewelry and small ornaments as favors at my wedding. Everyone loved them. I also made candy bags one Christmas as favors, and included ornaments made and decoupaged from luggage tags. People still talk about them, and I will do something again this year.
14. Shop sales, shop all year, and put all in a plastic tub. Think small, and use the prepaid post office boxes. I go to all kinds of craft sales, rock shows, flea markets, and antique markets, and surf the net and old books for ideas. I watch Create on PBS, and always have my radar on.
15. duplicate the simple gifts in Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, and other vintage stories. Include a copy of the book, or a Bibliomania or Web URL so that your recipient can read the entire story.

Even in a recession, the holidays don’t have to suffer. It really is the thought, and a few well-chosen and printed essays on that subject, wouldn’t hurt to be included in someone’s stocking.

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