eBay find!

eBay shopping is hit and miss. One might even say it’s mostly “miss”! The “hits” are very worth it though. For instance, I got these Via Spiga pumps on eBay just about nine years ago for $20, shipping included! I have received a tons of compliments on them. I do love them! I think they’re a great blend of classic, sophisticated, a little bit hipster-ish and yes, a little bit staid and frumpy :) . They look great with more tailored and classic outfits:

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though they can also work with more trendy stuff:


Vogue 8900

I made Vogue 8900:


I went with a black/white striped cotton sateen from Fabric Mart, an on-line fabrics house. I played with the stripes to create a silhouette that minimizes width up top and adds width on the bottom: a halter-like orientation up top and horizontal stripes on the bottom.

Matching the stripes was challenging but fun. I cut left and right pieces separately: cut one piece, then flipped it over and put it on the fabric, right sides together, matching the stripes and cut the other piece. Cutting thus took more than twice as long as normal.

I started with the two front pieces, matching the stripes at CF, then cut the side pieces (side fronts and skirt side fronts), matching the diagonal stripes to the horizontal stripes where I thought most visually important (top of the side pieces up at the armscye and top of the skirt side front). Then I cut the side back pieces, then the back pieces. All the while I was telling myself, at least it was stripes and not plaid! :)

I added white pipings in some seams to play up the shape of the dress and also to visually break up the stripes and also to somewhat camouflage the impossibility of matching diagonal stripes to horizontal stripes. For the piping, I was going to use a bright color like fuchsia or kelly green or goldenrod, but in the end I decided on a more monochrome palette for the dress and went with white piping.

The pattern does not call for a lining, but since the sateen is somewhat light and slightly sheer, I added a lining. I used the same pattern pieces for the dress for the lining.

Construction-wise, the biggest issue I had was the bias binding around the cut-outs at the sides. (The neckline and armhole are also finished with bias binding but that does not present a problem.) The side cut-outs are a problem because they’re a flat two-dimensional oval shape rather than a three-dimensional oval like the neckline and the armholes. I simply could not get the bias binding to lay flat.

It seems to me that a bias binding, folded twice, simply will not lay flat around the perimeter of a flat oval. I suppose there may be some combination of stretching and easing of the binding and/or the dress that can accomplish that. Instead of the bias binding, I opted for a facing. I used the dress’ pattern pieces to draw up a pattern piece for a facing:

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I joined the pattern pieces, overlapping seam allowances, then trace a 1 3/4″ wide facing pattern piece.

The construction steps are:

  • Construct the dress and the lining in the same way, following the pattern instructions, inserting the hidden zipper in the dress.
  • Join dress and lining wrong sides together and basted at the neck line and armholes.
  • Apply bias binding at neck line and armholes.
  • Slip stitch lining to the zipper tape.
  • Stay stitch both dress and lining together around side cut-outs.
  • Sew facing to cut-out, right side together.
    Trim seam allowances, clip, press seam allowances open, turn facing to inside, press again.
  • Turn edge of facing under 1/4″ and slip stitch facing to lining.

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Another version of McCall’s 6953

After making more refinements based on previous iterations of McCall’s 6953, I made another version of McCall’s 6953.

I used a cotton plaid flannel which would normally seem more suited to pajamas than dresses, but turns out to make a pretty comfy dress. I trim the dress in white cotton. When I tried on the bodice during a fitting, I noticed that the Peter Pan collar and the white faux pocket flaps made the dress look too much like a Catholic schoolgirl’s uniform, so I spiced up the design a bit with a peek-a-boo tulle netting band near the hem. I trimmed the band with the same white cotton fabric used for the collar and pocket flaps. I slip stitched the band’s trim to the tulle so it won’t stick out:

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I bound the tulle band’s raw edges with rayon seam binding. I also catch stitched the band’s upper seam allowance so it will stay in place up against the skirt.

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And oh, I made a matching hair scrunchie, with the same white trim! :)

Rice flour in Vietnamese baguettes?

On a lark, I went and Google’d “Vietnamese baguette recipes”. All of the links on the first page of search results either have no mention of rice flour or explicitly advise against using it. The reasons range from “it doesn’t work” to “it weighs the dough down” to “rice flour has no gluten”. In my opinion, none except the “rice flour has no gluten” claim is correct.

As you may know, I bake a lot, mostly traditional French baguettes. I used to be skeptical that rice flour can possibly work in a baguette, for the exact same reasons above: rice flour has no gluten, it will make the dough more dense, etc. Actually, the assertion I found way back then was that Vietnamese baguettes has mashed cooked rice in them! Mashed cooked rice?! Forget about it, I though. Until I actually experimented with using various percentages of rice flour in my baguettes. The rest is history! I am now a firm believer that yes, it is essential to use mashed cooked rice in Vietnamese baguettes. That results in baguettes with thinner (but still crispy) crust and much lighter crumb, neither of which is achievable with flour-only dough.

More red stuff!

Austin is not Rio de Janeiro, but we do have a Carnaval! It’s a huge samba dance party in the style of Brazilian carnavals, right down to the semi-nekkid, and quite inebriated :) , people. It’s always a ton of fun: lots of hot people, lots of booze, lots of driving samba, all night long.

Since the venue is mostly dimly lit, and the atmosphere is quite sexy, everybody aims for hyper-revealing, hyper-glittery, hyper-sexy, costumes. If one has on a two-piece swimsuit, one might be overdressed :) .

I wanted something distinctive and sexy and creative that would stand out in the dark. I was going to alter my Dorothy of Oz costume to make it super short and more revealing, but then I stumbled upon some red 4-way stretch wet-look PVC that I’ve had around for a long time. Additionally, I have some red with white polka dots cotton left over from a dress which goes perfectly with the PVC. After a couple of design iterations, I settled on a “Minnie Mouse meets military officer” theme for the costume.

The main piece is a military-style cap. I had made a pattern for it a long time ago but never did make anything from it. For some extra definition of the cap’s shape, I added white piping around the cap’s crown and around its bill:


I drafted the pattern from the top from my body measurements with no ease since the PVC can fit skin tight and still allow for movements. I just “guesstimate” about things like the depth of the back and front neck lines, the armscye curves, etc. The result is not bad, I think.

For the skirt, I started with a draft of the curved low-rise waistband, copied from a pair of low-rise denim shorts. The waistband is 3″ wide, and the skirt is 8″ wide, resulting in a skirt 10 1/2″ long :) . Did I mention sexy? Anyway, the skirt is a straight strip of fabric pleated with 3/4″ pleats every 1″ or so.

I also made a backpack-style purse to carry some essential stuff such as phone and keys. I used a pants zipper for the opening. A YKK two-way zipper would have been much easier to open and more convenient. Also, the backpack-style straps, only on one side of the opening, mean I need to close the purse after every use since carrying it unzipped would leave it gapping, which would not have happened with straps on both sides of the opening.

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That’s pretty good mileage! :)

I’m getting great mileage out of my Vogue 2899 “bombshell” dress! :) We were just in Vegas for my S.O.’s birthday and of course that was another chance to wear it.

As I mentioned previously, the bodice, in size 10, was too short on me. I attempted to fix that by adding extra length at the top of the front. That also required that the “drape” piece (that goes around the neck and down the back) be longer. The result fit much better, albeit still not quite 100% right.

Vogue 2899 Vogue 2899

Padding for ironing board

For the longest time, I marveled at the laundry shops’ ability to press shirts to a starched crisp glass-like finish, wishing I could do the same. It turns out that the reason I have failed to achieve the same wrinkle-free result was because my ironing board does not have sufficient padding. I don’t remember now what prompted me to do it, but one day I stacked up two folded up towels (total of four layers) on my ironing board as padding for some tasks, and was amazed at the result! I could get the same, perhaps even better, excellent result as the laundry shops! I have now made a new ironing board cover, with four layers of old towels underneath. :)

Vogue 8849

The other dress that I made for my S.O. for my company’s holiday party was Vogue 8849. I did not make any significant design changes. Design changes included: making the dress floor-length, a thigh-high slit in front of the left leg, and ending the back flounces at the side seams instead of continuing all the way around.

The thigh slit meant adding a seam in the skirt’s front; not a big deal. The skirt front has darts so I just extended the left dart into a waist-to-floor seam/slit.

I did not want to have the flounce in front. In this case, it would not have been flattering to the wearer. I don’t know if many women can wear such a flounce since I think it emphasizes one’s tummy. I tapered the rear flounce’s width to nothing at the side seams. Also, I finished their edge with a two-thread rolled hem stitch on my serger because I did not think the stitch-fold-stitch-fold-stitch edge finish dictated by the pattern instructions would work very well on such a pronouncedly curved edge.

The fabric was a nice red cotton sateen. The fabric turned out to be more wrinkle-prone than I’d have liked, but it did have a very nice sheen which added glitz, especially in a darker room. The contrast fabric was a red embroidered polyester organza from Jo-Ann Fabrics.

I liked the method by which the neck and arm hole bindings were applied: straightforward and easy to apply and looked great.

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I made one of these holiday stars. The challenging part is how much to cut and fold and how much to overlap the underside “flaps” to result in a flat underside (which is necessary to glue two stars together back to back). I have a couple of tips that will make things easier.

With a 8 1/2″ x 8 1/2″ square (using 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper), the dimensions of the cuts and folds and overlaps are as follows:


Additionally, the shape of the stars makes it applying pressure while the glue dries quite problematic. I used “clamps” to hold the stars together: a string of rubber bands with ends hooked together with a safety pin:


Vogue 2899

My company’s holiday party this year had a theme of “James Bond 007”. The dress code was “cocktail, or as your favorite Bond character”. There was no question that I was going to be as slinky and sexy as possible. I aimed for Halle Berry’s character of “Dr. Jinx Johnson” in “Die Another Day”, specifically, in a slinky red beaded dress, in the “ice party” scene.
I already had Vogue 2899, bought quite a white ago. Lengthening the hem to ball gown length will work perfectly. I went with a red polyester knit from Jo-Ann. It was a fairly cheap knit, I’m afraid, which is a bit against my usual approach of “if you’re going to put a lot of effort into a garment, make sure the fabric is worth it”. But it has very nice fluid hand and suited the dress very well.
I went with a smaller size 10; I’m normally a size 12 on top and size 8 on the bottom. The pattern I bought was 4-6-8 so I graded size 8 up one size. The pattern’s directions say “No provision made for above waist adjustment.” and they were not kidding about that! It turned out that size 10’s bodice is too short on me, so the cool shaping seams in the back ended up about 4-5″ too high and caused a lots of fit problems. Unfortunately, by the time I figured that out, it was too late to make length adjustments.
So I did the best I could to camouflage the fit issues by adding a drape across my butt. The drape covers some of the wrinkles and also draws attention away from them. I added soft pleats to the drape to match the pleated sides so the drape looked like an extension of the side pleats and blended in nicely.

drape to fix Vogue 2899's fit problem drape to fix Vogue 2899's fit problem

The dress looked quite presentable in the end and I looked… smashing, in it if I do say so myself. It was a big hit at the party as well. But, you be the judge.

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(The other dress in the last pic was my take on Vogue 8849. More on that in a future post.)


We were up at my brother’s up in Dutchess County, NY enjoying “the full Norman Rockwell”, as my brother put it, of a snowy Thanksgiving.

snowy Thanksgiving, Dutchess County, NY

We had turkey and in the aftermath, turkey soup. The twist was that my sister-in-law made pistou, a “Provençal cold sauce made from cloves of garlic, fresh basil, and olive oil”. That, plus super-sized garlic crouton made from a baguette made for a very memorable turkey soup.

turkey soup w/ pistou and garlic crouton

Knife sharpening hack

Just about every ceramic cup/bowl that I have has a ring of unglazed area underneath. This is where the thing contacts the kiln while the glaze is being fired. The unglazed area makes an excellent sharpening stone/hone. It’s the same idea as a ceramic steel. It feels a lot more abrasive than the metal steel I have so I only resort to this honing if I feel I need more honing than the metal steel provides.

How I bake cheesecake

When I baked my pumpkin cheesecake with three-chili powder for my company’s Thanksgiving potluck lunch, I baked at 325 ° and baked until it reached an internal temperature of 150 °. I put the filled 9″ springform mold into a big baking tray then put some hot water into the tray. (I wrapped the bottom of the springform mold with foil to keep water out.) I believe the moisture helps keep the cheesecake’s top from drying out and cracking.

I used a baking thermostat that beeps when a set temperature is reached. At 150 °, I turned off the oven and let the cheesecake sit until an inserted cake tester came out clean. Then I opened the oven door and kept it ajar for about twenty minutes, then opened the oven door all the way for another twenty minutes, and finally took it out of the oven and ran a knife around the edge to release the crust from the mold. Doing so relieved tension in the batter as the cheesecake cooled and shrank away from the mold, avoiding cracking. I let it cool on the table for another twenty minutes. That yielded a perfectly baked cheesecake: not too overdone, and no cracks.

I chilled the cheesecake overnight in the fridge, loosely covered.

three-chili pumpkin cheesecake

Pumpkin cheesecake with three-chili powder

I baked a pumpkin cheese cake for my company’s Thanksgiving potluck lunch. To make it “not just another pumpkin dessert”, I added ground dried chili. It’s the same mix that I used for my Texas chili, consisting of dried ancho, guajillo, and pasilla chili, ground in a bladed coffee grinder. I used 1 teaspoon of the mix in the recipe. I tasted the batter and I thought it was spicy enough, but I guess the raw batter obfuscated the actual spiciness and the cheesecake turned out to need a bit more heat. And that was despite my sprinkling another teaspoon or so on top of the cheesecake post-baking. (BTW, if you taste raw batter with eggs in it, spit it out, don’t eat it. :) )

I reserved a couple of tablespoon of the “plain” cheesecake mix and piped stripes on top of the cheesecake’s top pumpkin layer, then drag a skewer across the stripes to make the resulting pattern. The batter was liquid so the design was not as sharp and crisp as I would have liked: by the time I put the cheesecake into the oven, the design had begun to “bleed” a bit and became slightly blurry. Next time, I would wait until the very last moment before putting the cheesecake into the oven to decorate it so hopefully the top would start getting baked right away and not have time to bleed out.

three-chili pumpkin cheesecake

Oh, and the cheesecake was quite well received :) .
cheesecake, all gone!

Pea soup with prosciutto and pasilla pepper

It has been unseasonably cold down here in Texas, like 20 degrees below “OMG it’s cold!” That, and the presence of a bag of peas in the freezer, a holdover from when my S.O. had a minor surgery, meant it was time for a hearty soul-warming pea soup. A couple of pieces of prosciutto ends in the freezer pinch hit for the usual ham hock. Our local supermarket would package ends of legs of prosciutto and sell them for a third of the usual price. I buy them whenever they’re available in order to always have a few on hand in the freezer. They’re great for soup, stews, sauces, etc.

My pea soup was pretty much the standard pea soup: onions and carrots, garlic, peas, chicken stock (no celery; Whole Foods does not have single stalks available, only in bundles). My differentiation was the prosciutto instead of ham hock. I rendered the prosciutto, took the prosciutto bits out, and sweated onions and carrots in the rendered prosciutto fat. I added garlic, then peas and chicken stock, simmered for about 10 minutes. I puréed the soup in batches, then put the prosciutto bits back into the soup, added ground dried pasilla chili, and simmered it for another while.

We ate the soup with garlic bread, made my way. That was a nice, hearty, cozy, meal for a chilly winter evening!

Chocolate truffles: what not to do

My company had this thing where we volunteer to send surprise gifts to randomly selected users of our product, as a way to show our appreciation. All those who do so will have their gift entered into a contest and the best gifts win prizes.

I signed up and decided to make some chocolate truffles. I followed America’s Test Kitchen’s recipe and process, as described on this page. I divided the recipe into four batches and flavored each differently. The flavors were: orange zest and ginger, bacon, pasilla chili, and Chihuahua de Mexico smoked salt.

I want to share with you my method, or rather what not to do! :) The recipe calls for putting the truffle mix into a parchment-lined 9″x9″ tray and chill for 2 hours then lift it out, cut it into rectangles and roll each rectangles into balls. I couldn’t do that since I needed to make four different flavors so I divided the mix into four small containers and flavored them separately. I planned to scoop the truffle mix out with a spoon. That sounded good in theory but was a nightmare in practice because the chilled truffle mix was stiff and difficult to scoop. (Once scooped out, the mix softened quickly in my hands so it was then not difficult to form into balls.)

Next time, I’ll probably make “dividers” in the 9″x9″ tray so I can chill all flavors in the same tray and then handle it as the recipe suggests.

Halloween 2014

For Halloween this year, I went with stylized versions of Wizrad of Oz’s Dorothy for myself and Scarecrow for my S.O.
They’re off the same design and construction, differing in fabrics and of course, sizing.
The top part of the dress is Simplicity 3618 and for the skirt is Butterick 6049.
The blouse is also from Simplicity 3618. I made half of the blouse in a lining material and the other half in lace.

I used blue gingham checked (what else?!) fabric for the Dorothy costume and a “fall harvest” cotton for the scarecrow costume. I made the hem high-low and trimmed the hem in 4″ wide ruffles. The white ruffles were on sale at Jo-Ann. I made the brown ruffles for the scarecrow costume from a brown polyester organza, cut and sewn into a bias tube 4″ wide and gathered into the skirt’s hem.

For fit and comfort, I added a stretch side back panel to the bodice on both dresses. The panels are lined in stretch lining. They allow the bodice to be very snug fitting without being uncomfortable.

Dorothy costume, front view

Dorothy costume, front view

Dorothy dress, side view, showing elastic panel

Dorothy dress, side view, showing elastic panel

Dorothy & Scarecrow

Dorothy & Scarecrow

Texas Chili!

The distinguishing character of Texas chili is believed to be that it does not have beans and has cubed meat, not ground meat. Additionally, it often has masa, corn flour (not to be confused with corn meal) as the thickening ingredient.

I did a take on Texas chili this weekend, with a chili blend of equal parts of dried ancho, guajillo, and pasilla chili. I ground up all three chili in a coffee grinder. (Cleaning the grinder with a brush was good enough for me; no need to grind breadcrumb or rice in order to clean it.)

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Then I made a mix of equal part of each chili.


The recipe is quite straightforward, pretty much similar to most stew. First I render some bacon:


then removed the bacon bits and browned cubed chuck roast.


Then I removed the meat and sweated the onions and garlic and added the chili, plus Mexican oregano and cumin, towards the end to “toast” them.


I deglazed the pot with half a bottle of beer (Lone Star, for that authentic Texas vibe :) ).


After the alcohol has evaporated I added beef stock, canned diced tomato, Grade A (formerly “Fancy”) Vermont maple syrup, apple cider vinegar, added the meat back to the pot, brought to a boil and simmered for two hours.


I like to cook my stews and chilis a day ahead and let it sit overnight in the fridge. That gives the flavors time to develop fully.

Beeswax and hand-sewing thread

So I recently discovered, after 30-plus years of sewing, that applying beeswax to thread before hand sewing virtually eliminates tangling. I also stumbled on the revelation that whenever I need to thread a needle for hand sewing, thread two needles at once, one to use right away and the other to be used the next time. That saves a bit of time the next time I need to do any hand sewing.

I have since also learned that instead of running the waxed thread between fingers, one can also run it under a warm iron to “set” the wax into the thread, to further reduce leaving wax residue on fabric.

Great corn bread recipe…

I just found this “Southern style” corn bread recipe, supposedly by someone who grew up in the South. It sounds yummy! I think I’ll try it with jalapeño and scallion, with a batch of my chili…

(Image from Books, Cooks, Gadgets and Gardening.)