za'atar ingredientsFresh sumac was part of my CSA share two weeks in a row. These little red drupes are tart and tangy, and a typical American preparation is sumac lemonade, which involves soaking the fruits in cold water and sweetening it to taste. I wanted to stretch mine a little further, so I went middle-eastern with it. I’m talking about za’atar, people.

There are an endless number of za’atar recipes– some with oregano and marjoram, some with black pepper or fennel, and some with no sumac at all– but I decided to keep mine pretty basic. In order to make the most fresh and delicious za’atar possible, I started with whole versions of all the ingredients. I dried the thyme by roasting it at the lowest possible temperature for my oven– 170°F. I left the door cracked and checked it after a couple of hours. The sumac, sesame, and cumin were each toasted in a dry pan over medium heat. I took the sumac and cumin off when they became aromatic, but I roasted the sesame until it was a lovely golden color. Each spice got a whiz in my grinder and was sifted through a fine mesh sieve to eliminate any large chunks (except for the sesame, which I left partially whole). A touch of cayenne gives this za’atar a little kick.


1/4 cup ground sumac
2 tbsp ground cumin
2 tbsp sesame, toasted and roughly ground
2 tsp sea salt
3 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

Combine and store in a cool, dry place. Yields a little over a half a cup.

This spice mixture is excellent on roasted vegetables and meats, sprinkled over hummus, or dusted on flat bread dough before it goes in the oven. Let me know how you use it!


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year four

It’s been a while, folks.

glasses pouchThe reason for this lengthy hiatus from blogging was a desire to update with a post about Nick’s anniversary present– which, had everything gone as planned, would have been a pair of wooden glasses– and which, despite being terribly late, would have been peeking out from inside this linen pouch.

The long story (hopefully) somewhat shortened, is that buying a house, tiling a floor, and living out of a single room while your hardwoods are refinished is infinitely worse than the chaos of simply moving, as we were last year around that time. In addition to (mostly) not being handmade, this year’s present would be late. I spent a little time looking for the best pair of wooden glasses that could be filled with prescription lenses and that weren’t $500. Before ordering the pair I settled on, I fired off an email with a couple of questions, and waited. And waited. After a week and no response, I ignored the obvious foreshadowing and ordered anyway. Five weeks and a paypal dispute later, I don’t have the present I planned to give, but at least I got a refund.

Traditionally, anniversary number four calls for a linen gift. This little pouch was a challenge to make, but mostly because nearly all of my craft and sewing supplies were still boxed up in the garage. Once I scrounged up the bare essentials, I spent a day on it: the glasses were applied with a little silkscreen ink and a freezer-paper stencil, the drawstring is a scrap of red yarn from my stash, and the lining is some silky bamboo jersey– soft and scratch-free for whatever lenses are inside. It won’t contain any wooden glasses, but it’ll work just fine for his pair of back-ups.

jersey interiorWhile I feel pretty guilty about not giving my amazing husband an equally amazing (and timely) gift, I’m a little comforted by the fact that I already have an idea for next year, and I think it will be fantastic. Hopefully it’ll be worthy of the man I’m lucky enough to be married to.

For past anniversaries, click: one, two, or three.

I’ll have more to show you soon.

Posted on by Jessica in Crafts, Life | 3 Comments

pip and the new house

this is pip

This is Pip. He’s a fluffy little ball of terror– attacking everything that moves and some things that don’t. He purrs in an instant, loves to perch on our shoulders, and we like him in spite of our bevy of scratch marks (although we haven’t gotten many since we trimmed his claws, so that one’s on us). We adopted this little menace about a week before we moved houses, which may not usually be the best idea– but he and Lexi seemed to start to tolerate each other just after we moved in, so everything worked out okay. She’s not totally convinced this creature in perpetual-attack-mode is a good idea, but I think she’ll warm up to him when he mellows out and spends more than a second standing still.

lexi at the new house

So far, home ownership has been exciting, expensive, and challenging. It’s hard to prioritize the many home improvements we want to make, especially when we are limited by time and money. We got a nice surprise when we pulled up some laminate “wood” flooring to find paint-covered red oak hardwoods underneath. Score! After they’re refinished, we can finally unpack our things and retire from the nomad lifestyle. I’m counting down the days.

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we bought a house

books for the backyardAfter about a month of looking at houses and weeks upon weeks of delays, extensions, and paperwork errors, we are finally homeowners! We didn’t end up in the biggest house we looked at, nor the fanciest, nor the house that would require the least amount of work– but ours was the only house I could immediately imagine as our home.

It’s a modest little cottage on a huge (nearly quarter-acre) lot, and as you may have surmised, we’ve got a lot of plans for all that space. It’ll be a while before our wallets catch up with our dreams, but I’ll keep you posted along the way.

Posted on by Jessica in Home, Life | 6 Comments

homemade ginger ale

ginger ale ingredients

I’m not ginger’s biggest fan. I like a chewy, rice-paper-covered candy or a cup of ginger tea every now and then, but when I make Indian food, I usually cut the ginger called for by half. I got a big chunk in my CSA share recently, and wasn’t sure how I’d make use of it. Enter: homemade ginger ale.

Now, this isn’t your typical, store-bought ginger ale. To me, that stuff tastes like a slightly zestier version of sprite– cloying and not very gingery. This ginger ale is slightly sweet and has a nice, strong bite of ginger. It does match the store-bought stuff in terms of carbonation, thanks to a very important ingredient:

the most important ingredient

We’re not total strangers to home brews over here, but it’s been a while since we’ve experimented with yeasted beverages. I was skeptical about how fizzy this ginger ale could be with only a pinch of yeast in it, but I was pleasantly surprised when I unhinged the top and it flew open with a loud pop. It was perfectly bubbly.

You can find the recipe here. I cut it in half to fit my one liter bottle, upped the lemon juice a bit, and used turbinado instead of white sugar, which gave it a slightly golden color. I’ll never have to worry about a piece of ginger languishing in my fridge again, because it’s definitely a repeat recipe.

ginger ale

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brass cuff

drilling holes


sawing through brass


tools of the trade


filing brass


brass cuff


the closure

I spent most of Friday and Saturday sawing, drilling, filing, and hammering this cuff into shape. My mom admired a similar bracelet while we were out shopping last month, and when I got home, I sketched up my own design. I love how it turned out, but I probably won’t make anything like it for quite a while– it required the kind of arduous work that only a mother’s day present can inspire. The cut-out is a favorite shape of mine, an homage to Gothic architecture, which I’ve long admired. Not one to waste, I used the cut-out scrap to make myself a matching necklace:

necklace + braceletI’m so fortunate to have not one, but two amazing mothers in my life. Happy mother’s day, ladies!

Posted on by Jessica in Crafts | 3 Comments

how to transform a pair of jeans

jean transformationFor most of my life, buying a pair of jeans has been somewhat of an ordeal. It all started in middle school, when I suddenly realized (probably due to the less-than-gracious observation of a classmate) that all of my pants were WAY too short. Determined not to be unfashionable for a single second longer, I dragged my mom to the mall. Several stores and dressing rooms later, we discovered that unless the shop sold pants with different lengths, anything that fit around my waist would have a comically short inseam. On top of finding a size and cut of jeans to fit my gangly preteen body, I had to look for a pair designated as “long”.

Now that there’s a much wider range of acceptable jean lengths, I’ve got other problems– if I find a pair of pants that fits around my hips, the odds are pretty good that I’ll have an extra handful of loose, gaping fabric around my waist. Since it’s an issue with the cut of the jeans and not the size, all I can really do is try on pair after pair and settle for whatever fits the best. Sometimes the best option is to go thrifting, because I’ll have access to a bevy of different brands of jeans, all with a different style and cut.

Although I always seem to have a backlog of several dozen ideas for personal sewing projects, I’m usually too invested in other endeavors to make time to sew myself clothes. Altering thrifted clothes is a nice compromise– most of the work is already done, and sometimes something as simple as moving a hem or replacing some buttons can make a garment your own. It’s also a good option if you’re not sure about the longevity of a trend, and you don’t want to spend money on a piece of clothing that may not be in style in six months. Unfortunately, I’m usually so excited about the prospect of new-to-me clothes that I never remember to document the alteration process (case in point: the shirt in the photo below, which used to be large and long-sleeved).

This time, I made sure to take a picture through each step of the transformation. Brightly colored jeans were a perfect candidate for this project– even the higher-quality versions of these pants seem to be made of a super stretchy cotton/spandex blend, which is not my favorite fabric for jeans. Altering a thrifted pair gives me total control over the fit of the jeans and the color they’re dyed, and I was able to select a pair that was 100% cotton and not stretchy at all.

Step One: Select a pair of jeans. Find a pair that fits well, and don’t worry about the style of the pant legs or the length (unless they’re too short) because those things are easy to alter. I ended up with a pair of boot cut Levi’s, and knew I’d want a narrower and shorter pant leg.

Step Two: If you’d like to alter the shape of the pant legs, start by ripping out the hem around the bottom of each leg. If you’re not changing the length, you can roll it back up and re-hem it after adjusting the sides. Next, put the jeans on inside-out. While standing up with your legs as straight as possible, pin the outside of one pant leg so that it’s better fitted to you. (Although it’s more visible, the outside seam is a flat seam, and is much easier to adjust than the felled seam on the inside of the leg. Unless you’re prepared to rip out a couple existing seams up most of the length of the pant leg, you should leave that one alone.) I usually pin the leg in front of a mirror so I can see what I’m doing, and I typically start pinning a little above the knee.

After you’ve got the leg pinned the way you like it, test out the fit by walking around, (carefully!) sitting down, and removing the jeans while they’re still pinned. You want to be sure there’s enough extra room for movement and that the bottom of the leg is large enough to fit over your heel. You’ll need much more leeway if the jeans you’ve selected aren’t stretchy. Once the jeans pass the fit test, lay them flat and scrutinize the pin placement. Make sure the front and back sides of the pant leg lay flat against each other, so you can avoid any accidental gathers when you sew the new seam. I usually make small changes to my pin placement to ensure they’re all in a straight line. When you’re satisfied with the first leg, fold the jeans in half, carefully lining up the outside seam of each pant leg. Begin pinning the un-pinned leg, checking as you go to make sure their placement matches the first leg. When both legs are pinned, I usually just do a visual check to see if they look identical. If you’re really diligent about accuracy, you can measure as well. Try them on once more while they’re both pinned to make sure you like the fit.

To sew the new seam, start a few inches above the first pin. Sew along the existing seam, then gradually move in, meeting each of your pins until you reach the bottom of the leg. After you’ve sewn each leg, try the jeans on again. Really test them out this time– do some lunges or try sitting indian-style to make sure you’ve given yourself enough room to comfortably move. If necessary, make adjustments to the seam. When you’re happy with the fit, serge the outside of the seam (or, if you don’t have a serger, trim and sew a zig-zag stitch to prevent fraying). Re-hem the bottom of each pant leg, and you’ve got yourself a new pair of skinny jeans.

Step Three: If you want to dye your newly-skinny jeans a really bright, vibrant color, it may be a good idea to bleach them first, so the blue of the denim doesn’t contribute as much to the final color. I mixed up a bleach solution in a large plastic bin and let them soak for a few hours (I used about 4 gallons of water and 3/4 of a gallon of bleach). After you’ve removed a sufficient amount of color, thoroughly wash the jeans to remove any bleach. If you’re okay with a more muted color, or the jeans you selected were really light to begin with, you can skip this step. If you’re dying your jeans a warm color (yellow, orange, red, or pink) you’ll want to get as much blue as possible out of your jeans, and this may take more bleach and a longer soak. Because I was planning on dyeing them turquoise, I stopped bleaching when they were a faint blue color.

Step Four: You’ve got a few different options for dyeing your jeans. Most craft stores carry Rit dye, which is a good option if you’re not planning on doing a lot of dyeing in the future. They’re uncomplicated, cheap, and work on a variety of fabrics, but often don’t have the longevity or brilliance of fiber reactive dyes. I inherited a big box of procion dyes from my mom, so I didn’t have to spend a lot of time or money amassing all the materials needed for this process. This is a pretty good starter kit with some basic colors, if you want to give fiber reactive dyeing a try. Remember, procion dyes only work on natural fibers (cotton, linen, hemp, wool, or silk), so keep this in mind when selecting a garment to dye. If you’ve got all the materials needed for fiber reactive dyeing, all you need are these instructions.

turquoise jeansBecause I already had all the materials I needed to alter and dye these jeans, my only expenditure was the five bucks they cost at the thrift store. Not too shabby for a custom fit pair of jeans!

Posted on by Jessica in Crafts, Sewing, Tutorial | 8 Comments

pickled beets

My history with beets has been fairly limited until recently. In my youth, I caught a whiff of some canned, cubed beets and decided I did not like them. Years later, in my early twenties, I had a turkey sandwich topped with shredded beets. I found them completely inoffensive, and made a mental note to give them another try. That mental note was completely forgotten until I got a few beets in my CSA share, and I realized I was dealing with a vegetable that was all but foreign to me.

Initially, I focused on sweet recipes, because who can resist beets when they’re cloaked in chocolate or studded with poppy seeds? I also made a tasty batch of veggie burgers loosely based on this recipe, in an attempt to recreate my usual order from our favorite Ohio burger joint. At some point, I stumbled across the words “pickled beets”, and knew immediately it would be my next dish.

roasted and sliced beetsA lot of the recipes I looked at started by boiling the beets, but I elected to roast them– I already had the oven going, and I’ll take a roasted veggie over a boiled one any day. To prepare beets for roasting, cut off the stems and leaves close to the top of the beet (if you like, save the greens for later). Rinse the beets thoroughly and wrap them in foil. Bake in a 400 degree oven for about an hour, or until a butter knife easily cuts through to the center of the beets. I roasted my beets a day ahead of time, and let them cool in the fridge. When I was ready to make my pickles, I peeled off their skins and cut them into quarter-inch slices.

As I do with everything I cook, I read a lot of recipes and reviews before I got started. Lots of people mentioned adding hard-boiled eggs to their pickled beets, and I was totally on board. I imagined some purple-hued slices of pickled egg tossed with salad or arranged artfully on a tray with some antipasti. I also thought about the most probable scenario: me, standing in front of the fridge with a fork in hand, eating pickled beets and eggs out of a jar and trying not to leave a trail of fuchsia drops to the sink. It was then that I decided full size chicken eggs might be a bit unwieldy, and I used that excuse to visit a local Vietnamese market and pick up some quail eggs.

hard-boiled quail eggsAt a fraction of the size of a chicken egg, I knew they’d be perfectly bite-sized and easy to fish out of the jar. To hard boil quail eggs, cover with water in a small saucepan, and bring to a roaring boil. Cover the pan, remove from it from the heat, and let it sit for 5 minutes. Immediately rinse the eggs with cold water and allow to cool before peeling. I boiled my quail eggs a day in advance and kept them in the fridge until it was time for pickling.

Pickled Beets, based on this recipe.

2 cups cider vinegar
1 cup water
2/3 cup sugar
3 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon pickling spice
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns
1/2 bunch fresh dill
2 red onions
3 medium beets, roasted, peeled and sliced
Optional: A dozen hard-boiled quail eggs, or 4 hard-boiled chicken eggs

Combine the first nine ingredients and half of a red onion in saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for half an hour. Allow the pickling liquid to cool, then chill overnight, allowing the flavors to develop.

On day two, strain the pickling liquid, discarding the solids. Slice the remaining red onion into quarter inch slices. Alternate slices of beet, red onion, and peeled, hard-boiled quail (or chicken) eggs in two quart jars. Fill jars with pickling liquid, then marinate for 24 hours. Keep in the refrigerator.

pickled beetsI had grand plans for these pickled beets, but rather than putting them in elaborate salads or elegant, open-faced sandwiches, I’ve found myself mostly just eating them straight from the jar. After going through a jar and a half, I decided I really needed to put them to use in something, and made myself a rosy-tinted egg salad sandwich by tossing in some diced beets and quail eggs. It was perfect between two slices of thick-cut white bread. It’s no antipasti platter, but the beets transformed a humble childhood favorite into something kind of fancy.

egg salad sandwich

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around the house

this was a good lunch


the tiniest houseplant


billy balls


succulents in cans



Lately I’ve been a bit busy with some non-blog-worthy projects, but I should be finished soon and back in the swing of things. Here’s a little of what I’ve been up to:

Because I can’t seem to pass up leeks anytime they’re available at my CSA drop, they tend to accumulate in my fridge before I can decide what to do with them. This is my favorite way to use them up (along with a few carrots). It’s pretty hard to improve a smitten kitchen recipe, but I think adding a poached egg and some bacon just might do it.

My floral-arranging-genius of a mother went all out for my sister’s wedding, and I was lucky enough to take home some of the succulents and billy balls after the arrangements were dismantled. Short a few pots, I stuck some in tin cans that were on their way to the recycling bin. I removed the labels, poked a hole in the bottom for drainage, and painted clear enamel on any part of the can I thought might come in contact with the ground (and by clear enamel, I mean some of this— no need to get fancy). This helps assuage any paranoia I have about leaving rust spots on my porch, but I’d imagine dipping the cans in paint might have a pretty cool aesthetic effect as well.

I managed to snap a pretty good shot of Lexi being casual. She’s pretty camera shy, so most of my cat photography features her sleeping or moving away from the camera. She even manages to distinguish regular phone usage from surreptitious picture-taking, which continues to baffle me.

In other news, we have begun the daunting process of looking for a home to buy. Based on what we’ve seen so far, I can say the odds are pretty good that you’ll see a kitchen or bathroom makeover on the blog at some point. Luckily, I know a pretty good handyman.

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wedding presents

A couple months ago, my little sister got married. Although my sisters are just six and eight years younger than me, I’ve always felt a sort of parental responsibility for them. I approached Savannah’s wedding as I do all their major life events: with a bittersweet mixture of adulation tinged with a tiny bit of sadness– because I can’t believe how quickly they’ve both grown into such terribly beautiful and brilliant young women. Ok, enough corny gushing and on to the presents:

nan's wedding presentNick carved some wooden spoons from a piece of dalmata, a hardwood from the Peruvian jungle. I got my hands on a couple yards of linen and made my sister some fancy fabric napkins. The pattern I silk-screened has been waiting around for the perfect application, and this was it. You’ll definitely see more of it soon, so keep your eye out.

Of course, I was asked to contribute some macarons:

wedding macaronsI developed a couple of the flavors for these macarons around her wedding colors, but they turned out so tasty, I’ve already got plans to make them again. I love a good lemon macaron, but wanted to come up with something a little different for the yellow-colored treats. When I stumbled across honey powder, I knew it’d be perfect. I added a couple tablespoons to the macaron batter, and mixed up a batch of mascarpone frosting that was sweetened with honey to pipe between the baked cookies. Each macaron sandwich was kissed with a single drop of honey before it was frosted and assembled.

I’ve had the idea for key lime pie macarons ever since I had my first taste of speculoos. If you’re unfamiliar with it, imagine a paste with the consistency of peanut butter and the flavor of graham crackers. It’s an integral part of my recipe because it exactly mimics the flavor of a graham cracker crust. Before I baked a batch of these, I did a quick google search to see if anyone else had the same idea as me– and it seems like a lot of the “key lime pie macarons” out there are really just “key lime macarons”. To make the shells, I added about a half a tablespoon of lime zest to the macaron batter, but didn’t color it, so that the green specks of zest became not only a flavoring agent but a decorative element in the finished cookie. I used the standard recipe for key lime pie filling, but cooked it on the stove top, and strained it like a custard. After it was chilled, it became perfectly thick enough to pipe. Tucked into the center of each macaron, behind a ring of key lime pie filling, I piped a little speculoos. The combination of the softly spiced graham-cracker-like paste and the bright, tart key lime filling was absolutely perfect, and each bite tasted just like a bite of key lime pie. This may be the best thing I’ve ever invented.

Last but not least are the matcha macarons. I’ve made them dozens of times, and they’ll always be one of my favorite flavors. I used a tablespoon of matcha to flavor the shells, and filled them with my standard mascarpone frosting.

As expected, her wedding was incredibly lovely– it was elegant, lively, and so much fun– just like my sister. Of course, I wish for nothing but the most blissful, carefree life for her and her husband. Love you, Nanny-poo.

Posted on by Jessica in Crafts, Food, Life | 2 Comments