December 19, 2013

Visit to the family (wind)Farm

In September, our family traveled to the west coast to visit with a variety of family and friends. One of our stops was in Tehachapi, the town where I did most of my growing up. My father, Bob Gates, is a wind industry pioneer and is a partner in a Techachapi area wind farm with which my family has been involved with for decades.

December 5, 2013

Black wool skirt, white cotton dress shirt

It is the time of year which brings the fall Revels Share Day, so both Violet and Millie needed a nice looking outfit with white on top, black on bottom. Violet has outgrown the white shirt I made for her last year for the Revels show, but with the cuffs folded back one extra time it fit great on Millie. Violet had some black pants, but Millie didn't really have anything to wear on the bottom. So I began working on a white shirt for Violet and a black skirt for Millie on the Sunday before the show.

November 28, 2013

Making a Witch Broom

Millie wanted to be a witch for Halloween this year. We didn't have a good broom to use as a costume prop, so I told her we could make one. I took a deadwood stick from the woods in back of my office, and cut some dead weeds around the edge of the parking lot. We got started on the Saturday before Halloween.

November 12, 2013

Cider 9: making 800 liters of cider in one day, by bicycle power

For the 9th year running, we made cider. Most of the last 9 years' cider get togethers have been organized by Ben Polito and his family, and have been hosted at their holdings in Five Islands, Maine. This year the weather was perfect, everything went smoothly, and people generally enjoyed themselves.

October 22, 2013

Pin the Eye on the Cyclops, and other fun

On Sunday in mid-October, we held a joint birthday party for Violet and Millie. Violet is turning 7, Millie is turning 5. It is a lot of work for us to do the party, and they share many of the same friends, so it makes sense to have a combined party. The weather was great, and everyone had fun.

October 7, 2013

Apple Picking 2013

A few weeks ago we took a trip out to our usual apple picking venue, Red Apple Farm. Every year, they seem to add new facilities, and every year it gets a bit more crowded. Still, we all had a fun day and hauled home a decent sized load of excellent fresh apples.

September 27, 2013

Muslin Bunnies

Our family just got back from a trip to the west coast to visit my family. I made two quick stuffed bunnies to give to the children of a friend of Becky's we stopped in to see in Berkeley.

September 9, 2013

2013 Apple Sauce - 30L cooked and canned

Last weekend we did our once yearly apple sauce run. I ordered 2 bushels (36kg) of Macs from Kimball Fruit Farm, which Buster, Millie, and I picked up at the Somerville farmers' market on Saturday morning. We also got to see a demo of a bicycle powered honey extractor put on by the beekeeping dad of the lady who runs Relish in Union Square, which was cool.

September 2, 2013

Fairy Chairs

The other week I was in the basement working on the new back gate, when Violet and Millie came down and wanted to make something. I asked if they had any ideas for something simple we could work on in an afternoon. Violet came up with fairy chairs.

August 30, 2013

Puff pastry and local peach treats

I'm still working through the last batch of puff pastry I made, in which I think I put a bit too much water. It turned out a little tough, so it hasn't been flying out of the freezer. Lately we have been getting amazing peaches with our CSA, so I took the opportunity to make some desserts with the puff pastry and these seasonal delights.

August 22, 2013

A tiny stretch of fence, in Red Cedar

There used to be a dilapidated stretch of fence with a gate at the end of our driveway, to close off the back yard. Some years ago it rotted past the point of any use as an actual barrier, after spending a while being reinforced with plastic chicken fence. Early this spring Becky asked me to make a functional fence + gate there of some sort, so we can let Buster (2.5yrs old) hang out in the back and not have to worry about him escaping if we go up to use the bathroom or fetch lunch.

August 13, 2013

A Knit Skirt for Becky

One factor which complicates achieving the goal of producing all our new clothes at home is the tendency to let your imagination run with the prospect of custom made clothing. The tendency is to think about the clothes you wish you were wearing, rather than the clothes you actually will wear. I enjoy the feeling of freedom to design whatever I want, but this can sometimes stand in the way of practicality if you just need some clothes to wear.

August 6, 2013

2nd Floor Bathroom - Completed

This project has been underway on and off for over 5 years. I finally finished the last few items and it is now 100% done!

July 12, 2013

Black bean dyed A line dresses

I put together two more copies of the super simple A line dress patterns for the girls, and we dyed them using black beans.

The fabric, construction, and seam finishing is the same as in the previous post on the A line dresses, but I did drop the hem about 10cm and bring in the side seams a little on Violet's dress. To tell you the truth I'm not completely loving how this A line pattern looks; it is very sack-like. But it is extremely fast and easy to do, which is a plus. On these I used white #30 Tire silk thread throughout, rather than the junk thread I used on the muslins.

Lately I've been thinking about dyeing of fabric. Here is the vision that I find enticing: Stock undyed bolts of a select few types of fabric, in wovens perhaps a wool, a cotton or cotton/linen, and a silk, and one roll of jersey knit in cotton. Dye fabric off these bolts as needed to make clothes. Doesn't that sound simple, but profoundly powerful and adaptable? Sure, it is nice to luxuriate in the bounty that is the modern textile industry, with zillions of combinations of fiber blends, weaves, and colors. But I think that contributes to the fabric stash build up problem; you see something interesting and buy it to have in your stash, only to neglect it later since its not exactly what you want for the project you are working on. It is also tiring to have to shop for the right combination of features in a fabric. It could be more straightforward to lay in a stock of high quality fabric you are happy with, then set the color later as part of the sewing project itself. I think I could be quite happy with a basic palette of colors on good fabric.

July 6, 2013

Tamales - from corn kernels, pig fat, & cream

I grew up in California and love mexican food. When I moved to the Boston area, I found the offerings in this cuisine sorely lacking (these days I think Anna's and Boca Grande are pretty tasty). One less common dish I especially favor is tamales.

June 28, 2013

Gearing up for A line dresses + graffiti muslins

After my last sewing project, the 6 gore silk-lined woolen skirt with inverted pleats and suspenders, I wanted to do some simpler projects to try and up the product/effort ratio in my sewing life, and give me a feeling of having more garments to my name. About the simplest thing I could think of would be some summer A line dresses for girls.

June 20, 2013

Signal Acquisition & Filtering on Simple Embedded Systems

I've been working on an embedded system at my job, and recently had the opportunity to design some low pass digital filters in Octave for that project. I thought I would put up some notes on what I did, both for my future reference and on the off chance that they might help someone else. I'll present only items that are very generic to any electrical engineering/software project, nothing proprietary.

June 14, 2013

Flour face off: two flours for Fresh Pasta

A while ago I bought some Semolina flour from KAF to try out for fresh pasta. I had made a few batches using part semolina and part all purpose and they turned out nicely. This time however, to gain more experience with the unique characters of each flour I decided to do two batches: one from pure semolina and another from pure all purpose.

June 7, 2013

Wool & Silk Skirt, with Braces of same

I've been working on and off on a pair of high waisted pants for myself, to be held up with braces. During this process, Violet expressed a keen desire for a skirt made of the same material to go with the white shirt I made her last year, also to be hung on suspenders. I had enough of the wool/cashmere blend fabric that has been in my stash for years (probably from, but I'm not sure) to make a skirt for a 6 year old, so I told her I'd be happy to make her such a skirt.

June 5, 2013

Apricot Jam

We are nearly out of the latest shipment of my mom's jam, and apricots are showing up at the market, so it seemed an auspicious time to cook up a batch of apricot jam.

The apricot jam I have made in years past is low sugar and quite tart. I started making it when I found myself being driven to penury by a penchant for a similar jam from Hi Rise bakery in Cambridge. Their jam (like everything in the shop) is delicious, but expensive if you eat it frequently.

June 3, 2013

Chinese bakery style strawberry cream cake

Becky's birthday was about a month ago, and she diverted me to the chinese bakery in Lexington on my way home from work to pick up some cake. We were all reminded how amazing chinese bakery cake can be; light and fluffy, not too sweet, with whipped cream frosting and fresh fruit. It is nice cake for any weather, but is especially good in the summer. Another notable virtue of this type of cake is that you can eat several slices at once without passing out. I do love a good butter cake with buttercream frosting, but it can only really be eaten in small doses.

The Mystery
After we all enjoyed chinese bakery cake, Becky said I should make that type of cake more often, such as for the kids' birthdays. I started snooping around online, and was surprised to find that apparently no one has the straight dope on chinese bakery cake. Maybe I would have more luck if I googled in Chinese! Some sources report that the chinese bakeries use chinese sponge cake mix, which makes a lot of sense, but which is useless for my purposes. Several sources report that this cake is closest to biscuit de savoie or genoise (european style sponge cake, leavened solely with egg foam, and tenderized with syrup). My efforts at genoise and biscuit have not been stellar, so I pursued other avenues.

May 30, 2013

Brace Yourself - Homemade Suspenders

Haven't posted in a couple weeks; I really wanted my next post to be a sewing post, but I've been struggling to finish the project I wanted to show. It is a skirt for Violet, which I am almost done with, but for a few last buttons and buttonholes.

In the meantime, I thought I would show the suspenders I made to hold the skirt up. I have been working on and off on a pair of high waisted pants for myself, to be held up with braces, and Violet had the idea that she would like a skirt with suspenders to wear with the white shirt I made her last December. I'm hoping I can finish the skirt before she grows out of the shirt!

May 6, 2013

A pile of English Muffins

Last weekend I had mixed up a batch of 70% hydration french bread type dough with 1000g of flour, and Violet had asked if we could make english muffins. So we used some of the dough to make muffins for breakfast on Sunday, and they were such a hit that instead of making baguettes we turned the rest of the batch info muffins Sunday afternoon. All in we made about 30 muffins, which had disappeared by Wednesday. The kids are really, really into them, and are begging to eat them for every meal. I don't know how long this will last, but we resolved to make even more english muffins this weekend.

Making english muffins is pretty easy, at least the way I do it. Basically you make up rolls, then cook them on both sides in a pan and finish off in the oven if needed. It ends up being more work than turning the same dough into fewer but bigger loaves, but not tremendously so.

May 2, 2013

Kite making with paper and bamboo skewers

Becky thought up the idea of kite making as a fun activity for the kids to do with some friends at a scheduled meetup, so I began researching kites that can be made quickly and cheaply with kid friendly materials.

April 29, 2013

Lardo - the tasty cured pig fat

Much of what you eat in charcuterie is fat, whether it is marbled in to a whole muscle like coppa or ground up in chunks of various size in a cured sausage like sopressata. Since becoming interested in this pursuit I had read about straight up cured fat, or lardo. Like the average american I was a little intimidated by this concept, but Becky is more intrepid than I when it comes to weird meat and fat eating and thought it sounded promising.

April 26, 2013

Darn it! - and other mending

Being in year two of our No Clothes Buying challenge, we have started running very low on socks, underwear, leggings, pants, and skirts. I have not, in general, risen to the challenge of sewing enough clothes for my family of 5 to keep the no clothes buying on a sustainable footing, which makes me sad and somewhat disappointed in myself. Ah well, not every ambitious project is destined for success. But one way to extend the runway for no clothes buying, and for any clothes already in use is by mending.

April 11, 2013

Enterprise #5 antique meat grinder

This is the cute little brother of the Enterprise #10 meat grinder which I detailed in a previous post. I actually bought this one first, off ebay, but later developed the opinion that this one was not going to cut it and I'd better go to the next size up. After overhauling the #10 and getting it working well, I wanted to tune up the #5 and sell it off on ebay. But now that I have it working in top form, I'm instead thinking of selling the #10!

April 8, 2013

Puff pastry

Now that we are not vegans, we again eat tremendous quantities of butter every week. I began to ask myself "Why in the world are we not eating some of that butter in the form of puff pastry?!"

I've wanted to make puff pastry for some time now, but had not actually undertaken it until a few months ago. Becky has made it before, and is a very dedicated lover of the stuff. Now that I've made two batches of it, I'd say its a worthwhile thing to do at home; not all that much harder than making and preparing a pie crust from scratch.

April 4, 2013

I love my iron! (and ironing board)

One of the most essential tools for making sewing easier, faster, and better is a good iron. There is a post on this topic over at Male Pattern Boldness right now, and I felt the need to expound robustly on the subject to such an extent that I thought I'd better make a blog post out of it rather than clogging up the comments section on Peter's site with my blather.

I learned to sew ~12 years ago while taking some excellent pattern design classes in night school at Mass. Art, and we had gravity feed irons in class. They are definitely a different animal, with their own set of pros and cons. There must be very good reasons that they are de rigueur  for people who do this for a living, and using one in class certainly opened my eyes to the inadequacy of the entirely typical garbage iron I was using at home.

It wasn't long until the dastardly home iron piddled on a sewing project of mine one too many times, and I resolved to get something better.

March 29, 2013

Curing bacon

Occasionally we get big chunks of pork belly with our meat CSA, and as I outlined in the pancetta post, this is one cut of meat which is not that good fresh but unbeatable when cured. I've done two pancettas to date, but I thought it might be fun to cure a piece as bacon.

Bacon and pancetta are of course both cured pork belly, but they differ in the typical spice mix and curing procedure. While pancetta is savory, bacon is often sweet though not necessarily so. After being exposed to a chemical cure in the fridge for about a week, pancetta goes in the curing chamber to dry for around three weeks, whereas bacon gets a one day dry in the fridge and is then smoked.

March 26, 2013

Home made lotion

We are pushing further ahead on our mission to make cosmetics and personal products at home. The latest project is making moisturizer, which is frankly quite an interesting product when you get down to the details. Typical lotion is around 70% water, 25% oil, plus some other important ingredients. This mixture would separate and go bad quickly if not for the magic of modern chemistry.

March 20, 2013

Making Felt Hats

A few years ago I made myself a gnome style gray felt hat with a big red flower on it. It is my go to hat for cool to cold weather and I wear it frequently. The kids like to wear my hat too, and for some time have been asking to have tall felt hats of their own.

March 19, 2013

Homebrew Hard Cider Aftershave

I've been shaving full time since August with one of my home made straight razors, in conjunction with home made shave soap, brush, and strop. For aftershave, I have been splashing on some drug store witch hazel, which is decent (though I have little experience with aftershave and thus not much basis for comparison).

But I must confess to harboring a strong desire to make up some home made aftershave, to continue the recent trend in taking charge of the products and hardware used for personal care. In time, I would like to plant a witch hazel bush and harvest bark from it to make witch hazel aftershave, but that is a longer term project. So as an experiment, I made up some aftershave using homebrew hard cider and goop squished out of my aloe vera  houseplant. I like it quite well!

March 12, 2013

Homemade chapstick

My chapstick of choice is regular Burt's Bees. We've been running low these last couple months, and the last two stores I looked in did not have it in stock. I'm sure I can find it someplace, or just order it online, but the experience of having to find the time to go into a shop only to be frustrated in my desire to engage in consumer activity is annoying. Wouldn't it be great if I could just make my own chapstick in my kitchen whenever I needed it? How hard could it be?

Being possessed of an approach to life favoring the purchase of ingredients or raw materials over finished products, plus my newfound desire to free myself from consumer enslavement to the tyrannical chapstick corporations prodded me to do some research on home made chapstick. Turns out it is possibly the easiest personal care product to make at home. Plus you can proactively adjust the formulation to suit, instead of serially buying unsatisfying commercial products to try to find one that mostly fits your desires.

March 7, 2013

Food Experiment - The Mayan's Favorite Drink

Violet saw a book at the library about Mayan heiroglyphs and picked it out for us to read at home. She is very interested in early humans and ancient peoples, so this book really hit the spot for her. On one page, there is a side panel about "The Mayans' Favorite Drink", made from cacoa beans. Violet was keen to try it out, though you might not guess it from her expression the in above picture! I think she had just finished eating a raw cacao bean, which is an interesting experience if you have not tried it before.

The process for turning cacao beans into something edible involves fermenting them immediately after they are harvested. This makes them edible, and apparently they don't really taste like chocolate at all until after the fermentation. I could not easily locate unfermented cacao beans, so I got the next level intermediate product: dry, unroasted cacoa beans. These are sold as a "Superfood" these days, so they were easy to order from Amazon.

March 1, 2013

Greist mechanical buttonholer on a handcranked Singer 99

I've been making all buttonholes by hand since I moved to exclusive use of my treadle machine a little over a year ago. I like handmade buttonholes (although some of mine can get pretty ugly!), but even doing them poorly takes me a lot of time.

Last year I bought a mechanical buttonholer for something like $30 on ebay, figuring I could make an adapter to put it on my D-9. It is a Greist, and is all metal construction with die cast templates. After getting the buttonholer, it looked like it was going to be more challenging than I had hoped to make the pieces to put it on the W&W, so its been sitting on the shelf while I spend a lot of time doing buttonholes by hand.

But just the other week I brought in a hand crank Singer 99 for my kids, and it has a standard low shank foot. So last weekend I tried putting the buttonholer on to do the holes for a button fly on the second muslin for the pants I've been trying to make for the last couple months. It is fantastic! Quick to set up, easy to use, fast and efficient, and makes a nice buttonhole. It is also entertaining to watch, and has a nice sound to it as you crank: click-click-click-click...

February 19, 2013

Handcrank Singer 99 in the house

My two daughters (4 and 6 yrs) are always very interested when I do any sewing on my W&W D-9 treadle machine, and really want to use the machine themselves. This is difficult since they are not big enough to both have their hands manipulating the work and their feet on the treadle to drive the belt. Its also tricky to get the belt going the right way every time until you get used to it, and if the action is run in reverse for more than a stitch or two things will get tangled up or at least unthreaded. Most machines treadle D-9s have an anti-reverse pawl riding on the flywheel, but mine was broken and I haven't bothered to fix it yet.

I asked about a good people-powered kids machine on Treadle On, and the overwhelming response was that the Singer 99 in handcrank configuration was an excellent machine for kids. With the handcrank there is no ambiguity about which way its going to run the machine when you start cranking it. The kids can also reach the handcrank and guide the fabric reasonably at the same time, this machine being a little smaller than typical. I just finished reading an interesting biography of I.M. Singer by Ruth Brandon, so I was also happy to enjoy some fruits of the Singer empire.

February 11, 2013

Quinzhee snow huts

Well, we got a lot of snow in Somerville last weekend, a reported 71cm (28"). All the shoveling piled up some impressively tall snow heaps. While annoying from a shoveling perspective since one must sling the snow up higher and higher, these heaps looked like snow huts waiting to happen. A Quinzhee is a pile of settled snow that you dig the center out of to make a shelter. I've never made one before, but had heard about them from my friend Ben and read about them in mountaineering books.

February 8, 2013

Making Liquid Rosin Soap

Last year I started making soap. The initial impetus was to make shave soap to support my transition to homebrew straight shaving, followed by the desire to supply our modest needs for bar soap. I also wanted to supplant the Dr. Bronner's liquid soap I like to use for bathing, and this was my first effort in that area.

February 7, 2013

Making Transparent Rosin Soap

Last year, I set out to make soap. My first try was a cold processed castile soap, which didn't turn out great. To satisfy our needs for hand soap at our house, I decided to try to make some transparent soap.

February 1, 2013

The Beauty of Home Rendered Leaf Lard

I have been on a constant hunt for leaf lard for 6-7 years now. The internets reported that this hard to obtain lard, gently rendered from the fat deposits surrounding the kidneys of a pig, made sublimely flaky pastry without imparting a noticeable meaty taste. At the time I first started looking, I turned up Flying Pigs Farm, which would sell me leaf fat but not rendered lard via mail order. They did however sell rendered lard at the green market in Brooklyn at Grand Army Plaza, so one time when we were visiting Becky's brother in Brooklyn we went to this market and I bought them out of the few tubs of leaf lard they had at the stand. I used this lard to make some fine pie crust (25-30% lard, remainder high quality butter), and have always wanted more.

January 25, 2013

Becky's First Quilt

Becky started this quilt when her good friend Sandra was pregnant with her second child, intending to give the quilt to the new baby. That little girl is now three years old, and the quilt is complete!

This was the first quilt made in our household, so there was a learning curve to traverse. It is also challenging to find time to push forward projects like this with three little kids in the house, especially if you have to figure things out as you are working as opposed to just cranking thought something you know how to do already.

January 20, 2013

Cornbread from home ground cornmeal

We have enjoyed delicious chili cooked by Becky a few times in the last month, for which I have prepared cornbread. I've made a number of recipes, and its clear that people's tastes vary widely for this food. I like my cornbread to be hearty, but not overly dense, a little sweet but not that sweet, and with a strong corn flavor.

I've had good results using a 2/3 corn 1/3 whole wheat flour ratio for the grains, with 1/2 the corn being regular cornmeal and 1/2 being coarse ground polenta from Wild Hive Farm. But I had read online (I think it was on that freshly ground corn is much more flavorful, and I wanted to experience this.

The kids and I dredged up my C.S. Bell Company #2 grist mill and freshened it up, as detailed in this post, then ground ourselves some corn. The corn itself was purchased in a 2.2kg sack from Wild Hive.

Vintage C.S. Bell Company #2 Hand Grist Mill

I've recently been thinking about a home grist mill solution. Becky's mistaken purchase of whole einkorn made me think of it first, and baking cornbread made me think of it again. I read online (and everything you read on the internet is true right?) that freshly ground corn has a much stronger flavor than the dessicated and lifeless cornmeal purchased from the grocery store. Long ago I had bought the book Flour Power, by Marleeta Basey , which deals with the benefits and mechanics of home grain milling. The highly rated mills were expensive though, and so it fell away from my thoughts and the book went on the shelf.

Years ago I bought a C.S. Bell Company #2 grinder, originally with the plan of using it to mill nixtamalized corn for tamales. This mill is representative of state of the art cast iron technology for small farmstead use circa a century ago. The burrs are cast iron and not at all precision or particularly sharp, and the fixturing and adjustment system is very basic. The C.S. Bell Company has been around since 1858, and in fact still makes a new #2 grist mill which looks nearly identical to the antique one I have.

The mill was a complete fail on grinding wet corn, but it was great for another application I had at the time which was lightly milling roasted malt for all grain brewing. It churned its way through roughly 50kg of malt for quite a few batches of beer, then went to the basement and fell into disuse when my first daughter arrived and I couldn't find the time for beer brewing.

I recalled the C.S. Bell #2 in the basement though and thought I would give it a try on corn for cornbread. I've been enjoying cornbread with a range of particle sizes in the corn meal, by using half coarse ground and half medium ground corn. My experience of the #2 was that is was not effective at making flour suitable for baking what we think of as normal bread, but it was great at producing output with a wide distribution of particle sizes. So I ordered a 2.2kg sack of corn from Wild Hive Farm in upstate NY, dragged the grinder up from the basement, and the girls and I set to work waking it from its slumber and getting into shape to work once more.

January 17, 2013

Vintage Boston Ranger 55 Pencil Sharpener

Who will sharpen the sharpener? The answer in this case is me!

We are heavy pencil users at my house, and the kids have a big bin of colored and regular pencils which are in daily use. Regular pencils for drawing and workbooks, colored pencils for drawing and coloring. Until recently we have been using the little single blade style handheld sharpeners. These, however, seem to dully quickly and henceforth do a disappointing job of pointing your pencil. Of course you can just get a new one every month or so, but that seems sub-optimal. 

I recalled from my youth the simplicity and effectiveness of a handcranked desk or wall mounted pencil sharpener, and started cruising ebay. There are some cool vintage pencil sharpeners out there, but I was a bit concerned about an antique being too dull to actually be very functional. Eventually I decided to give a Boston Ranger 55 a try. The vintage ones are not as cheap as I had expected they would be! It arrived looking good and feeling solid, but performing poorly. What to do?

January 5, 2013

Wrap up for 2012, Outlook for 2013

2012 was an excellent year. Everyone in our house was healthy and happy for the most part, and our lives progressed in a satisfactory direction. 

As far as goals and accomplishments go it can also be counted as a success. At the beginning of the year, I posted some 2012 new year's resolutions to this blog. Here is how we performed on these points, plus some additional items of note, and finally thoughts on the year ahead.

January 3, 2013

Enterprise #10 antique meat grinder

Something like a month ago I was making my usual sprouted einkorn sandwich bread, when my KitchenAid popped a tooth in the attachment gearbox whilst grinding up the sprouted grain. I resolved to get a better food grinder, and thought the amount of power input required and frequency of use at our house would make a human powered machine attractive. Turns out there are plenty of rusty old hand cranked meat grinders on ebay for pretty cheap! I rejuvenated this one and put it to use.

January 1, 2013

Christmas Cookies

My sister Annesly, Becky, and the kids went to my aunt Susan's house the week before last to make christmas cookies. I had to work unfortunately! Looks like they had a nice time though.