Chocolate Caramel Cake

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A week or two ago, my friend Ann posted a link to this Chocolate-Caramel Layer Cake, saying she really wanted to make it… but didn’t think she could (although I’m sure she could have figured it out!). Since we’d already planned a visit for this past weekend, I volunteered to give it a try. It’s only polite to make a cake when your friend drives up to visit you, after all.

There’s nothing complicated about the recipe (which you need a Cook’s Illustrated account to view, unfortunately), but I’d never made soft caramel before, so I wasn’t sure how that would go. I’ve realized that, more and more, I like to try these things out and check them off my mental list of ‘Things I Can Do’. I think the caramel would have pretty straightforward — if my brand new candy thermometer had been completely accurate / hadn’t started to melt at the last minute. TSK. There were two phases of cooking (before adding the cream, butter, etc. and after), and I cut the first phase short when I started to sense that the sugar was starting to burn ever so slightly (even though it still wasn’t up to temperature, according to the thermometer). And then, yep, the thermometer just up and melted — not INTO the caramel, luckily! — at the end of the second phase. In the end, it wasn’t a disaster; the consistency was perfect, although if I’m being critical, I can detect a little bitterness from that first-phase over-heating. Technology!

Overall, though, the cake is great. I love the icing — a nice mix of frosting and ganache. And Ann loved it, so mission accomplished.

Garden Dreams

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I’ve got lots of plans for my future garden(s), but with a due date at the end of May, the odds of my planting ANYthing this year are slim. Maybe some flower seeds, if I can get them in before Baby Sister arrives. But I didn’t grow anything the summer after M was born, and she was a good seven months old by the time that rolled around. With a newborn? Forget it. But I might as well dream about what I’d like to do, since it’s not like I’d be doing it in February, anyway.

— Not directly garden-related, but I’d like to get two piggies (I’m thinking American Guinea Hogs) for pasture and ground management. They’d do a good job of clearing down some of the weeds in the fields, and I’d like to use them as live tilling machines, too. If I had pigs, I’d change my fenced garden layout to just be straight rows. The planted rows would be covered with landscape fabric to keep the weeds down around the plants, and the rows in between would just be mowed for walking. Each spring (or fall), I could take up all the landscape fabric and let the pigs bring everything back to blank-slate status.

— When we had a blockage cleared from the well pipe this summer, we discovered an additional outlet at the edge of the pasture (ie, saw water suddenly geyser-ing out!). It was capped temporarily and then, before the ground froze, we had a spigot put out there, one that shuts off below the frost line. So now there’s running water available in a ‘new’ spot. Perfect for when there’s one day animals back in that pasture, but I also like the idea of putting a secondary garden out that way — maybe just squash or potatoes, something I wouldn’t worry too much about the deer eating.

— I’d love to have more fruit! Of any kind, really. I miss my productive raspberry patch that I had in Minneapolis (I brought a lot of the canes up here, but most didn’t survive, although they’ve come back / spread a little more each year). I need to figure out a way to let berry plants grow while stopping the weeds that otherwise quickly choke them out. Raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries would be wonderful. It would also be fun to have a mulberry tree or two, although I’d really have to fight off the birds for those. I hope the two plum trees I planted last year will do well in the future. And if I could just figure out how to install a few thirty-year-old apple trees, I’d be set. I’m afraid that waiting thirty years might be the only way to achieve that!

— I’d like to experiment with growing a large crop of broccoli and freezing a lot of it. Broccoli is the vegetable we eat most often, and good-quality, organic stuff can be hard to come by around here. I also want to get serious with row covers for broccoli, as it sort of loses its allure when there are eighty-zillion little green caterpillars to pick off.

— In general, I just want to grow enough of certain things to get us through winters. Being able to make all our own tomato sauce and pesto would be great. There will be years of (possibly endless) experimenting with what works, though. I was really happy with my sunflower crop this year, but they all went moldy within a couple weeks of being cut and put out to dry. Obviously I did something wrong, but I didn’t realize it. That sort of thing is discouraging, but it also makes me want to get it right next time.

Okay, northern hemisphere folks! I know we’re all dreaming about our garden this time of year! What are your grand plans?

Sponge Brush

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Just a quick post to recommend these little sponge brushes (like these) for toddlers. M usually gets too enthusiastic with the water when she uses watercolors (so there’s not much color left), but I was able to just get this brush wet and then give it to her without extra water. So the colors were brighter. And she had a lot more fun using it, too!

Happy Together

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Mister Chicken’s setup in the barn is a smallish coop with run, surrounded by old deck railing panels to make a larger fence. I didn’t have any illusions that the fence could contain Mister Chicken (I’ve seen him sit on top of it, and he’s small enough that he could probably squeeze through the slats), but he seemed to like the boundary and never ventured outside of it. Until this weekend!

We had nice weather on Saturday, so I let the hens out of their coop and left the door to the barn open, so they could go visit Mister Chicken. Charlie headed straight for the barn and then came back out a few minutes later — followed, after a bit, by Mister Chicken! Just strolling down the path toward the house. I knew he had a good sense of where his home was, so I wasn’t worried about his being on the loose, although I didn’t know how he and the hens would interact without a fence between them. Well, it turns out everybody gets along just fine. I think the hens would have a fit if he tried to go in their coop, but they were all content to hang out with him during the day. And when he gets cold or hungry, he just walks himself right back to his own coop.

The thing that amuses me the most is the way Mister Chicken wants to lead his new flock, and the fact that the hens have absolutely no time for that. You can tell sometimes that he’s trying to convince them to follow him here or there, but they just do what they want — they’re independent ladies! He’ll go back to his home and then crow for them (here’s a little clip!), and I’ve had to explain to him that if he wants to see the girls, he’s going to have to go to them. I’m pretty sure he’s an ‘older’ rooster, and he has the look of having had to defend himself from other roosters (as well as the dog who plucked his tail), so I’m sure he’s quite happy to be the only guy with ‘his’ new ladies — whether or not they care!

Squeaky Mouse

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Meet Squeaky Mouse — who is a hamster, of course. I never had a chance of convincing M that this wasn’t Squeaky Mouse (our previously imaginary mouse friend), though, so we’re going with it. I’d always intended to get M her first hamster when she was around the same age I was when I got mine — about four. But… I really like hamsters? And she just loves animals so darn much. She’s been really, really excited about Squeaky Mouse and asks to go see him after she wakes up in the morning and after her nap, plus whenever she happens to think about him. She understands that he’s sleeping most of the time and doesn’t seem bothered by that, although she gets really happy when ‘Squeaky Mouse waking up!’ She won’t be allowed to hold him, but she’ll be excited to pet him once he’s a little more relaxed with us.

He’s settling into his 29gal aquarium (my parents’ old fish tank), which I’ve tried to make as interesting as possible. His main bed seems to be in that overturned little crate, and he’s done some tunneling through the big pile of bedding that’s behind it. You can’t see it in the photo, but there’s a ramp that goes from that area up to the raised platform. I might eventually replace the grass hut with something — maybe a bowl of sand — because he doesn’t seem to use the hut very much, now that he’s got that crate.

He’s been understandably nervous the past few days, so I haven’t been doing anything other than letting him sniff my hand to get used it. But this evening, he let me pick him up without even flinching, so I think we’re making some progress. Long time readers of twelve22 might remember my last hamster (when I was in college!), Monty, who was SO tame. I couldn’t have a cat in my apartment, so Monty was my substitute cat. We’d be pretty lucky if Squeaky Mouse approached that level of friendliness, but we’re already pretty happy to have him around!

Winter Chicken Care

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In the past, when I’d contemplate getting chickens, the thing that would always start the doubt creeping in was WINTER. Sure, who wouldn’t want to raise a bunch of little peeping chicks in the spring and then saunter down the path to let them out each summer morning? But how would I deal with the winters? I feel fairly neutral about winter, in general, but that’s due largely to the fact that I don’t have to spend much time out in it.

But it hasn’t been too bad. Granted, though we’ve had some extremely cold days this month, it’s been a milder-than-average winter, over all. But even on the more wicked days, I still come back inside thinking I’d rather take care of dozens of animals outside than all these ungrateful wretches who live indoors (meaning the cats and dogs, not the humans!).

I usually go out mid-morning (between 9:00 and 10:00am-ish), and I bring out water, chicken food, and a ‘salad’ for the hens. They’re going through much more feed right now than they did in the summer, since they can’t spend the entire day eating their way through the property. The bowls of treats are made up of our leftovers and produce odds and ends (usually fruit or veggies that are a bit too over-ripe for M and I). If it’s really cold, I’ll scramble up a few eggs or make oatmeal for them. Mister Chicken gets the same in his bachelor pad.

In the autumn, I went on a search for a feeder and waterer that attached to the wall — since my hens would consistently knock over or spill anything on the floor of their coop (I think anything hanging from the ceiling would have been just as bad). In the end, both the feeder and waterer I wound up with were meant for baby pigs. They work SO well, though! I actually have two of the waterers, with only one of the holders mounted to their wall. That way, I bring in the frozen one each day when I bring out the fresh one. So I don’t have to trudge out to the coop, get the frozen waterer, thaw it, fill it, and go out again. And the hens seem quite happy with their wall-mounted feeder, too, even though they can no longer A) kick the crumbles all over their coop or B) kick bedding all over the feeder.

Cleaning out the coop is less enjoyable in the winter, I suppose (although it’s not very enjoyable when it’s hot out, either), but at least when we have stretches where the temperature never gets above freezing, the chicken droppings don’t smell. So I don’t have to clean it as often. I like the idea of the deep bedding method (you just keep piling new bedding on top of old, and the old stuff starts to safely compost), but I worry that their coop is too small for that. I don’t want ammonia to build up.

And in case you were wondering, the coop is NOT heated, though it is well insulated. My hens have quite large combs, and I’ve noticed a little bit of frostbite at the tips, but they don’t seem bothered by it, nor by the cold in general. Since they like to lay eggs right at the back of their coop, I’ve often climbed in and had the door blow shut behind me, and I always think to myself that it’s actually quite comfortable in there (temperature-wise), compared to whatever’s going on outside. I like to prop their door open on days where the temperature is above 20˚F and not too windy. They may or may not venture out, since they don’t love the snow, but often they’ll trek over to the deck and hang out under there.

Anyway, that’s how winter chicken care is going! Definitely not as bad as I expected. And we’re still getting 2-5 eggs per day, so I think the chickens must be happy enough, too!

Stripy Project

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Since M is still enjoying talking about our trip to the zoo, I made a quick animal project for her to do this morning. We saw both zebras and tigers yesterday, and she was especially excited about the tiger. So stripes! I cut out a couple animal shapes and then made a small pile of black stripes for her to glue down. Because I’ve spent so much time watching how M uses her left hand, I tend to notice and be extra happy when projects wind up being good for dexterity. I liked how she would use the glue stick with her right hand and then pass it to her left hand to hold (properly) while she placed a stripe on top of the glue. She was very happy with her stripy animals and had to bring over her pups to play with them when she was done.

Then I asked her some questions about tigers:

How big are tigers?
BIG!

What do tigers like to do?
Play outside.

What do tigers eat?
Grass. And snow.

So now, thanks to M, you know all about tigers.

Como Visit

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Today we went to the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory. I feel like it’s a must-do in the winter: a chance to see green plants and feel humidity again! We invited our friends Lora and W; I’ve known Lora for ages (ie, decades), and W is 1.5yrs older than M — and both Lora and I are pregnant right now! I’m biased, of course, but when it comes to toddlers/preschoolers, you couldn’t ask for two better kids to take on an outing. Zero drama the entire day.

This was the first time I’ve taken M to a zoo when she’s been actively interested in seeing the animals. Last spring, she was quite nervous about the big animals, but this time around she was actually excited to see the zebras and giraffes. Her favorite animal that we saw today, bar none, was the little mouse running around in part of the conservatory. She thought he was ‘soooo cute’ and wanted him to sit on her hand (he didn’t). This is playing nicely into my plan to get ‘M’ a pet hamster in a couple more years! M napped the entire way home, and as soon as she woke up, she said, ‘I saw Squeaky Mouse!’ Squeaky Mouse being the name of our imaginary mouse — and therefore all mice.

I’m trying to do more structured/intentional activities with M, so I took our outing as an opportunity to do a little ‘extra’. Last night, we sat down and made a list of the things we thought we would see at the conservatory. I thought up most of the list, of course, but M thought we’d see bees, a mouse, water, and the sky. M added some color to the drawings (I helped her choose the colors of some of them), and then we brought our list with us today. When we stopped for lunch, we crossed off the things we’d seen. I think the only one we never found was ‘bees’. Which, you know… maybe in another five months!

Valentine’s Tree

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With our Valentine’s decorations up, the mini Christmas tree that was on the sideboard looked a little out of place. But M loved having it there (she loves anything that lights up!). So I replaced it with the slightly larger, white tree that had been up in Rob’s skyroom. Valentine’s tree! I grabbed some pink and red ribbons for garlands, and then M and I made ornaments.

It was the perfect excuse to try out the ‘porcelain dough’ I keep seeing on Pinterest. It’s just baking soda, cornstarch, and water, which you cook on the stove to form a dough — here’s a recipe. The results? Well, it’s not compared to porcelain just because it’s nice and smooth — it’s also a lot more fragile than salt dough. A few of our ornaments broke while we were decorating them (mostly my man-handling, not M’s). But we had fun, and I love how they turned out. We used cheap finger paints, which actually took on a translucent, glaze-y look, which I like. Toddler art is, perhaps, an acquired taste, but I think M did a fantastic job. She’s always so impressed with how art projects turn out, too, which is the best part. ‘Oooh, pretty!’

Another project down. I’m trying not to think about where I’m going to store all these new Valentine’s decorations!

Outside!

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While friends out east are dealing with feet of snow (I’m a little jealous, to be honest!), we’ve been having a mini warm-up — it got ABOVE FREEZING today! Not that I’m a huge fan of playing outside when it’s really cold, but M has a really difficult time with it. Even if she’s bundled up, very cold air makes her gasp, especially if there’s a breeze. So today’s weather — right around freezing, with almost no wind at all — was perfect for going out in.

She was delighted from the very start, since she loves her snow pants and snow boots and likes the idea of playing out in the snow. We went to bring water and food to Mister Chicken, and then we did the same for the hens. M hasn’t had a chance to chat with her chickens for quite a while! I had already let them out a few minutes earlier, so when M and I got back down there, only three were still in the coop.

‘Where’s Charlie?’ M asked. Then the other two came trundling through the snow, from under the deck.

‘There’s Charlie!’ she said and gave one of the chickens a pat. And it WAS Charlie! I have no idea if A) she’s realized they wear different colored leg bands (though I don’t think she could have seen that from a distance); B) it was a lucky guess; or C) she just knows the chickens so well that she can tell who is who at a glance. (I know was Laverne’s comb looks like, but otherwise they’re all pretty similar.) At any rate, Charlie would never deign to let ME pat her, but she went right up to M. My little chicken whisperer.