Wednesday, February 29, 2012

DIY Project: 4 Month Lemoncello

I went to Italy early last year, for a friend's wedding. The entire wedding weekend, we drank this delicious Italian lemon liquor, Lemoncello. I've been thinking about making it myself, using the lemons from the lemon tree in our backyard, ever since we drank the last drop out of the bottles we brought home from that trip.

I found a bunch of different Lemoncello recipes online, mostly following the same, general process:

1. Zest lemons.
2. Infuse vodka.
3. Lots of wait.
4. Filter. Filter.
5. Add syrup to zest-infused vodka.
6. More waiting as flavors combine.
7. Filter. Filter. Filter. Filter.
8. Bottle.
9. Wait a bit more, as flavors mellow.
10. Drink! Finally.

The recipes vary wildly, some taking as little as 2 weeks, other's taking months. After selectively modifying & combining a few of them, I started my 1st batch of lemoncello 2 months ago, using only the [absolutely delicious] lemons from our lemon tree. The process of removing the zest of 30+ lemons, using a vegetable peeler & a paring knife, meticulously cutting off any white pith (which, if left in, will leave your liqueur bitter) literary left my fingers numb for a week afterwards. My vodka has been sitting in a glass gallon jar at the bottom of my pantry, infusing lemon flavor, ever since.

I've let my lemon peels infuse the vodka for 2 months, which might seem crazy when you could infuse for as little as 2 weeks, but apparently the shorter process will cost you in taste. While my vodka has been steeping, I've been assembling bottling supplies, designing and printing the labels, and fantasized (a lot) about drinking my hopefully delicious Lemoncello. From the research I did, I learned that the infusion is ready for the next step when the peels crack like a potato chip. If it bends instead of breaking, they should continue to infuse. So, for the last few weeks, I've been checking the peels for doneness, and finally, yesterday, the scooped-out-peel cracked with a delicate little crush.

Subsequently, I spent all of yesterday filtering, adding syrup, filtering some more, bottling, wax dipping, labeling, and ribboning, my very 1st, homemade batch of Lemoncello. In terms of "aging" the Lemoncello, there seems to be a few different approaches. Some of the "rush" recipes don't call for any waiting time at all, after the addition of the syrup (hence, the "rush"). Others call for bottling right after the addition of the syrup, and then letting it sit and combine/mellow simultaneously in the bottle. And a few, meticulous, long-winded recipes call for you to let the Lemoncello sit for another 2 months in the infusion container after addition of syrup, before you bottle it. Then, after you bottle it, wait some more before you drink it, to allow it the flavors to mellow further.

Personally, I am curious how the outcomes will differ, if all that wait is really worth it?
Since this was my first batch, and in the spirit of recipe-tinkering, I chose to bottle half of the batch right away, and let the second half combine in the gallon jar before I bottle it. Now, both halves will spend a minimum of 2 months sitting in a dark corner, to allow the lemon infused vodka to combine with the syrup, and then for another month after I bottle the second half, for the flavors to mellow.

Since the Lemoncello should mellow in darkness, I was planning on storing the bottles in the cardboard box the bottles came in, but then I had a brain flash. What if I make the gift bags & store the bottles directly inside. Win-win, right? So, I spent the rest of the evening making these cute little gift bags (which only took a couple of minutes per bag to make) using some linen scraps I had left over from another project.

After 2 months of extremely impatient waiting, I am so happy to have a tangible product in hand (even though it won't be ready to drink it for a minimum of another 2 months, & even then, I'll leave if for several more months after that, to achieve a really mellow, soft flavor).
And I kind of love how they turned out! This summer, when the Lemoncello is finally ready to drink, we can gift these (I love, love, LOVE having homemade, ready-to-go hostess gifts for dinners, parties & get-togethers on hand), and all we have to do is grab one while heading out the door.

Instead of sharing a half-baked recipe that is still in tinkering-mode, I thought I should point the way to some Lemoncello sites instead. Luckily, there are a lot of great Lemoncello resources out there, with recipes, tips, tutorials, and comprehensive instructions. Here is a collection:

1. LemoncelloQuest - a great resource with TONS of information
2. WhatsCookingAmerica - good recipe with great instructions
3. - basic recipe, with great ratings
4. Shutterbean - basic tutorial, with step-by-step pictures, for a quick Lemoncello.
5. SeriousEats - DIY Lemoncello

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

DIY Project: Chalkboard Menu.

I have wanted a chalkboard wall menu in my kitchen for quite a while, with the dual purpose of meal planning, as well as to avoid the nightly "what's for dinner?" questions. As always, I had a pretty specific idea in my mind.

The easiest solution to create what I was looking for, would have been painting it straight onto the wall, using chalkboard paint. However, since we're renting, that was not an option. So instead I began searching for large chalkboards online. 1st stop: Etsy. Quickly, I found great framed chalkboards, like this one, and this one, but it wasn't quite what I had in mind. Besides, I didn't really like the price tags... Honestly, $150 for a homemade chalkboard in a vintage frame, which probably cost 1/4 of that to put together! Caaa-Ching! Somebody is obviously raking in the cash. All I could think was (a) "you cannot be serious?", and (b) "I should start a chalkboard business".

Then I stumbled upon Simple Shapes, a lovely Etsy shop, selling vinyl wall decals. Their Weekly Planner was VERY similar to the vision in my mind.

Using vinyl decals would give me the painted on look that I was looking for, while still being removable, and shave at least $100 off the price tag. However, I wanted plain panels, without the cut-out weekday labels Simple Shapes was selling. So, I figured I could make my own. With that in mind, I went looking for plain vinyl decals.

I found these Wallies Peel & Stick Chalkboard sheets, which looked pretty much identical to the Simple Shapes version, sans the weekday cut-outs and the top lettering. And they were $16 for 4, with free shipping (Yay for Amazon Prime!). The letters, also removable vinyl, were $10.

I ordered 2 packages (of 4) vinyl chalkboard panels, and 1 package of vinyl press-on letters. Although, I was a bit worried that they would be flimsy, fall off, or be difficult to write on with chalk & chalk ink pen, especially on our slightly textured walls. My supplies arrived 2 days later (Another yay for Amazon Prime!), and much to my relief, the panels didn't appear flimsy, or cheap. They tested well with both chalk and chalk ink pens, they erased well, and the letter looked even better than I had hoped.

A couple of minutes after I ripped open the box they came in, I already had applied all the panels onto my wall. I didn't measure when positioning them, instead just slammed them up, estimating the position of the 1st piece, using the doorframe of the pantry that is 1/2 foot to the left of it (out of frame) to make sure it was straight. Then I used that piece to position the next piece one, and so on. I added the letters above, and the entire application took about 2 minutes.
Super easy!

Here is my new chalkboard menu:

I'm really happy with how it turned out, and they work well. I've literary been using this thing every single day since I got it. As an additional bonus, when I added it all up, I realized I actually saved a few bucks by doing it myself.

Price Comparison:

Simple Shapes Weekly Planner - $54
Simply Shapes shipping - $12
Total: $68

2 x Wallies Peel & Stick Chalkboard - $16.08 ea = $32.16
Press-On Removable 6" Vinyl Letters - $10.54
Shipping - $0.00
Total: $42.70

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Recipe: Butter Cookies

As I mentioned over here, I send all my fabulous friends from book club a mug full of my favorite, homemade cookies for our Valentines gift exchange. I was worried they wouldn't be very tasty after a couple of days bouncing all across the country, but I was assured that they were still delicious upon arrival. This morning, I recieved this tweet:

Toni's request started this chain reaction, & it was suggested that I post it here.

And since there isn't much I wouldn't do for my girls, here it that recipe:

Butter Cookies

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup confectioner's sugar
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder

1. Cream the butter until smooth. Stir in the sugars a
nd vanilla extract until they are evenly blended. In a separate bowl, combine flour, salt, and baking powder.
2. Add dry ingredients to the creamed mixture, 1/3 at a time, stirring after each addition, until dough is smooth.
3. Divide dough in 2-4 pieces, and place each piece on a large piece of plastic wrap, pat each into a 1/2 inch thick disc, and then wrap in plastic. Refrigerate until firm, 1-2 hours (or 20 mins in the freezer).
4. Unwrap one piece of dough, place it between 2 sheets of plastic wrap, then roll it out to a thin disc. If the dough gets too soft, refrigerate for a few minutes, and do another piece in the meantime.
5. Cut cookies and place on parchment paper, and pop them in the fridge. You want the cookies to go into the oven cold, so they don't melt out. Repeat with remaining dough.
6. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, place cold cookies an inch apart on lined cookie sheets, and bake cookies 3-13 minutes depending on size (regular sized cookies are 10-13 mins, mini cookies are 3-5 mins (in my oven). When done, they will still be a little soft to the touch, and just barely golden around the edges - the cookies have a better texture if you don't let the edges brown.
7. Leave cookies on the sheet for 1 minutes, then transfer to wire rack to cool.


P.s. This dough is also excellent rolled into logs, and stored in the freezer, for a convenient supply of homemade, ready-to-bake cookie dough.

I am just so happy everyone enjoyed the cookies <3

Sunday, February 19, 2012

DIY Project: Chalkboard Mustache Mugs

After I made the Valentines-themed heart mugs last week (& gave them all away), I've been thinking of a million different variation of that project. For me, this mustaches-themed version was the obvious choice for which one to try next.

I made each mustache a different shape & a different color, to help everyone keep track of which mug is theirs. And if that wasn't enough, I also make the paint into homemade chalkboard paint, so mug-chuggers can scribble their name on their mustache, using chalk. Try losing your cup in the crowd now!

I really love how these turned out. They look hilarious on their own, and even funnier when you drink out of them. They are also really useful when having guests over. I used more of my new favorite, over-sized mugs for this project, and they hold a massive 20 oz of drink. Equally perfect for coffee guzzlers & lazy pants alike.

I took a few more pictures this time, to go along with the instructions:

What's you'll need:
China paint (see images 1, 3 above)
China paint thinner (see image 1 above)
White-Dry non sanded Grout
Paint brushes
Exacto knife (see image 2)
Stencil material - I used Avery label paper (see image 2)
Oven-safe ceramics of choice
Mortar & pestle (see image 5)
Paint tray OR paper plates (see image 6)

Optional: bamboo sticks

What to do:
1. Assemble materials. (Duh.)
2. Create your stencil. I drew one side on my label, freehand, and then folded the label laterally, to create the other half, to match the first (see image 4 above).
3. Cut out your mustache stencils using the exact knife.
4. Apply stencils to mugs (see image 7), making sure the position of each mustache is fairly consistent throughout all your mugs.
5. Add some grout to your mortar & pestle, to remove all grout clumps (see image 5). This is a new step, compared to last time. I hoped this would decrease the number of stubborn grout clumps that I couldn't quite get rid of last time. I pestled the grout into a fine power, and it actually worked pretty well.
6. Prepare chalkboard china paint, by mixing paint with a small amount of grout, estimating the ration of 2 tablespoons to 1 cup of paint. Stir until smooth, & add a few drops of thinner if the paint dries out. Initially, I used a paint tray to mix my paint and grout, stirring with bamboo sticks (see image 6), but it was really difficult to get a smooth mixture. So, this time, I switched to pouring the paint on a paper plate instead, and then dusting with grout on top (you don't need that much), and that proved to be a far superior way to get a smooth chalkboard paint mixture (see image below).

Much better.

This method change made a big difference. The paint was much easier to apply evenly, without leaving brush marks, an the finished mustaches were much smoother, but still fully functioning as chalk board.
7. Let paint dry (photo 8) & then add a second coat. Let dry.
8. Remove stencil (see photo 9), and, if needed, correct any leaking paint smudges. I used a sharp tip of a bamboo stick to do small touchups, and they were perfect for the job.
9. Let dry for 24 hours.

10. Preheat oven at 300 degrees F. Cure ceramics in oven for 20 minutes, or according to directions on your paint of choice.
11. Let cool.

Mission "Mug O' Mustache" accomplished! (I totally realize it is completely ridiculous that I would call it that, but I couldn't resist.)

Now, come on over for a drink! Image Source: My Instagram

"Coffee? Tea? Milk or Sugar with that? And... which mustache?"

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Backyard Oasis

I finally, finally, FINALLY completed the final touches on my outdoor sitting area this weekend, complete with my newly painted rug!

I spent all of yesterday out here, happy as a bird with a french fry, soaking in the sun, peace and happiness this place gives me. And this little guy, let's not forget how happy he was to explore the backyard for the 1st time. The pool, was particularly intriguing, but the bird house, and our very active hummingbird feeder both got their fair share of attention as well.

One of the new additions to this place this year, besides the rug, are the double curtains. Last year, I only used sheer, white curtains which looked beautiful, was very functional for adjusting the shade and gave great atmosphere at night. This year, I'm putting this place up really early in the year, and I realized I needed to weather proof it a little bit, so that when it rains (and it rains a lot here this time of year) I can still sit out here. I love listening to the rain, but I don't really love getting soaked. So, I added some shower curtains.

Say what? Shower curtains???

Yup. Shower curtains. The Husband, upon hearing my plan, quickly proclaimed "You're crazy!". (As if that was news...)

I know, I know, shower curtains sounds a bit nuts, but I figured it would be the easiest way to add some protection from the rain. So, I ordered 12 white, fabric shower curtains online (1 for each corner, & 2 for each doorway). Upon their arrival, I realized they had subtle striped pattern. The stripes weren't really part of the plan. I had wanted plain white curtains, but I was way to impatient to exchange them, so I kept the stripes.

In order to be able to move the outer curtains independently of the inner ones, I hung the shower curtains on a wire, on the outside of the canopy frame, hidden under the edge of the roof. It looks like it was made this way, with the added benefit of being able to easily remove the waterproofing later in the year, when I won't need it anymore.

A few days later, it started raining. Much to my satisfaction, my new curtains did their job, just as planned! I sat out there, rolled up in warm blankets, with my Kindle and a cup of tea, listening to the rain pouring all around me, literary beaming (one or two "HA! I told you it would work"'s to the Husband may have been involved). And, the stripes really add to the overall look, so I'm glad I kept them.

Some more of the specifics of this place:

1. Parrot pillows - I love these colorful parrot pillows, from World Market last summer (can't remember price though). I picked them for their tropical feel, and their colorful feathers inspired my color choices for the rest of this space as well.
2. Blankets - a must for cold evenings & pre-summer hangouts.
3. Lime tree, lanterns, and poufs - The lime tree smells lovely, and the green leaves really add to the tropical feel. I always keep a ton of lantern out here, for light and great ambiance, and this particular one casts pretty patterns all over the curtains, which is beautifully at night. I also keep a lot of poufs out here, for extra seating and tired feet.
4. Bamboo wind chime - It sounds like vacation. When sitting out here in the summer, with the sun on your face, listening to its gentle plink-plonky music, it is easy to imagine you're on a beach in Thailand.
5. Höstö hanging flower box - $15, from Ikea. These are great for storing blankets, books, and other bits & pieces you might want within arms reach. Planned laziness at its finest.
6. Painted rug - Look, it fits in perfectly!

Now, if you'll need me anytime in the next 8 months, you'll know where to find me.

Friday, February 17, 2012

DIY Project: Chalkboard Heart Mugs

I made these cups as a Valentine gift for my fabulous book club friends, and while it took several days to finish, this project was quite easy.

I had this idea to paint mugs with chalkboard paint, but since I couldn't find chalkboard china paint that wasn't black (& I really didn't want a black heart for Valentines), I ended up making my own chalkboard paint.

What you'll need:
China paint in desired color - I used Pebeo Porcelain 150 China paint
China paint thinner - Pebeo Porcelaine 150 China Paint thinner
Dry White Unsanded Grout
paint brushes
oven safe Porcelaine china of your choice - I used large humongous cups
stencils or painters tape, to create a sharp edge on your design

What to do:
1. Make the chalkboard paint by adding a small amount of grout to the china paint, 2 tablespoons grout to 1 cup of paint is the correct ratio.
2. Mix very well, until the paint is smooth, and all the little grout clumps have completely dissolved. If needed, dilute the paint a little using the thinner. (I did not have any thinner, but I wish I would have, since the paint quickly got thick, making it difficult to get a smooth application. Make sure to use one that works with your brand of china paint & remember to keep the ratio of grout to paint.) A mortar and pestle would be great for mixing in the grout (Note to self: get a mortar and pestle).
3. Create the stencil for your design of choice. I used Avery label paper for my stencil, which worked really well. I folded my paper in half for symmetry, and then cut the heart out. I used the cutout heart as a stencil for the next label, so all the mugs would look pretty similar.
4. Stick the stencil to the cup.
5. Cover the stencil with a couple of layers of the paint, carefully remove the stencil, and let the paint dry for a full 24 hours.
6. Bake piece in the oven at 300 degrees F, for 35 minutes, or according to the directions on your paint of choice.
7. Let cool.


I stuffed my mugs full of heart-shaped butter cookies, a note, & a small package of chalk.

Here are some pictures my friends posted of their mugs on Twitter & Instagram:

Monday, February 13, 2012

DIY Project: Repurposed Bookmarks

I made these the other day, for all the lovely ladies in my book club. Who doesn't like to have a pretty bookmark when you're reading that great book? Well, I do, and I hope my friends from book club do too...

I've seen several version of this project on Pinterest, like these cute little hearts, perfect for a valentine, or these toothy little monsters , which would be great for kids (this tutorial also describes how to make the bookmark "from scratch", not using envelope corners).

What you'll need:
some envelopes
pretty cards, card stock, or craft paper

What to do:
1. Cut off the corner in your desired shape.
2. Glue on your decoration (if your decorations are directional, make sure you align them to the corner you would like to use it on - I made some for the top corner & some for the bottom corner).
3. Let dry.

Voila! Pretty little bookmarks.

I used white envelopes for my bookmarks, but it might be even better to use colored ones, as they would be easier to see in your book. I cut my envelope corners in a square shape, and decorated them with some colored paper, topped off with some gorgeous and very silly antlered animals, cut outs from left over holiday cards. Pretty, functional & recycled!

Monday, February 6, 2012

DIY Project: Painted Rug - Part 2

I finally finished my painted rug project this weekend, painting in little spurts in between cooking and preparing for our Superbowl Party. Luckily, it did not take very long, and only needed one coat. My friend Cate over at Show My Face suggested over Twitter that I cover the tape with white paint first, in case the paint leaks under the tape. Unfortunately, I didn't not have enough white paint left, and I didn't have time to go and get any more, so I had to skip that step. If I ever make another rug, I will definitely get enough paint for that, to get those crisp tape lines, especially if it has as much texture as this one.

I painted the rug in 4 different, coordinating colors to create an ombre effect. I chose a teal that matches one of the garden stools I use as side tables in the outdoor room, and then added 3 successively lighter shades. The colors really remind of me of the color of the water in the tropics.

To create the ombre effect I was looking for, I just estimated the distance, dividing the rug in 4 pretty-much-equal parts (if you look closely, you can see the blue tape I used to mark each strip), & then I painted each strip a different color, from light to dark. I didn't tape each 1/4, instead I just brought the roller up to the line of the previous color, and just slightly overlapped the darker shade, which created a very nice blended transition.

Looking up close, I really liked the effect of the shiny painted tape against the flat paint, and it gave me a great idea for another project.

Photo edited using Instagram.

As soon as I was done painting, I was itching with impatience. I could not wait to remove the tape and finally see my finished rug! With no small amount of effort, I waited until the paint had dried, so I could see if I needed to add another coat of paint. But it looked good, so I didn't bother with a second coat. I just ripped the tape off. And here it my brand new rug:

Not bad, especially considering that I had no clue what I was doing. Now I just need to remove some of the paint splatters, and hubby is going to fix that broken board on the patio. Then I am finally ready for spring & summer. I can't wait to finally, finally have my outdoor room back together!

Friday, February 3, 2012

DIY Project: Painted Rug - Part 1

I created an outdoor room in my backyard last summer, something that I had wanted to do for quite a while, but I never had the time. Well, early last summer, I made the time.

What started with a cheap Ikea canopy and some matching outdoor furniture, a dozen cheer curtains, and some pillows, eventually turned into this:

My personal oasis. I spent much of summer sitting right there, reading, writing, listening to music, sunning, and relaxing with the Husband. We had lots of parties, and spend many late nights with friends under that canopy. I got so many comments on this project all summer long. Everyone who saw it, loved it! I was really happy with it as well. It ended up looking very close to the "vision" that I had in my head when I came up with this idea. I LOVE when that happens. It's such a satisfying feeling.

Of course, I had to put it away when the crappy (as in non-summer) weather began, and I've been missing my outdoor room all winter. And then, the other day, I could not wait any longer, so I decided I would bring it out from it's winter storage. I put up the canopy, hung the curtains, and rolled out the rug... only to see this:

Ewww. I had completely forgotten about that stain. As it turns out, another negative of buying furniture at IKEA, besides the aneurism-inducing assembly, is that if any moisture comes in contact of said furniture, it will shed color like a red sock in a load of whites. And you'll end up looking like a pink marshmallow. Or, as if you rolled up a couple of dead bodies in that rug. Damn. Now what?

When in doubt -- Pinterest.
Trusty Pinterest, what would I do without you? In a few minutes, I had found a pin detailing "How to paint a rug". Perfect.

A couple of trips to my local big box home improvement store, and a few Amazon orders later, I began painting my dead-body-stained rug. Since the rug was natural fiber, with lots of texture, I had to really slather the rug in paint to cover it. Halfway into my first layer I ran out of paint.


After yet another visits to Home Depot, 3 more layers of paint (that dead-body stain was ridiculously stubborn), and A LOT of time spent impatiently watching paint dry, I had finally created a blank canvas.

Now it was time to tape my pattern. Oh, joy. The taping... I went through 3 different types of painter's tape, before I even found one that could actually stick to the rug. Who knew painter's tape was such a fickle little bitch?

Anyways... after sever hours of back-breaking taping, crawling around on all fours, I got this ridiculously crooked-looking pattern. I didn't use a tape measure, can you tell? The rug was a bit warped, so I figure it would just waste time to be super meticulous, as it would not be straight in the end anyways. I just used my eye to start, and then I followed the previous line to create the next. It worked fairly well, except that annoying box at one end that doesn't look anything like the rest. Oh, well.

I think hope it will still look ok when all is said and done. Besides, the furniture will cover large parts of it anyways. Cross your fingers.