A pressing matter

fleece motorcycle jacket with nicely pressed seams

Pressing and steaming differentiate great garments from home-made looking ones probably more than anything else. Mismatched plaids and stripes, uneven hem, and wrinkly sleeve caps also say “home made” instead of “tailored”, but not to the same degree, as it takes a bit of scrutiny to see those things. Unpressed seams, however, says “done at home” as much as a bowl haircut on a kid! It only takes the briefest of glance to see the puffy seams, bulging darts, and overly thick collars.

Here is an example, from a “project” page of an on-line fabrics store. I have removed identifying info so as not to shame anybody! I feel this is particularly egregious example of lack of pressing because this jacket could have been so amazing, being made from a “selvedge denim” costing $18 a yard, which is actually more like twice that expensive since it’s only 31″ wide! Pressing and steaming is super easy and very satisfying with denim because it takes a seam so beautifully, being 100% and reasonably loosely woven. Granted, it’ll take a bit of extra work to pound the thicker areas such as where seams intersect, etc. to make the finished seam as thin as possible, but it is always worth it.

unpressed, puffy, lapel on denim jacket unpressed, puffy, seams on denim jacket unpressed lapel, top view

By contrast, this jacket in a pattern review on patternreview.com, of a silk and linen blend, is beautifully pressed. You can see the difference nicely pressed seams make.
linen jacket with beautifully pressed seams

Even a jacket that I made from fleece (top pic, above) can be coaxed into having flat and pressed seams by having flat felled seams as well as having interfaced cotton facings.

Pin sizes

comparison of shaft size, Dritz #44 pin and Dritz #22 Ultra Fine

I have written before about sewing over pins. There is always a “religious war” over whether or not to leave pins in place and sew over them or to remove them as one sews. I think at least some of those who are in the “remove pins” camp use pins that are sturdier but as a result have a larger shaft and are much more likely to get hit by the needle.

I current use Dritz extra-fine pins as well as Clover “Patchwork Pins, Fine”. The Clover pins’ shaft is 0.016″. The Dritz extra-fine pins are about as fine, maybe a hair thinner. By comparison, Dritz #44 pins (red ball head) have shaft of 0.035″ diameter. That is more than twice as thick as the pins I use!

The silver ball head pin and yellow ball head pin (bottom and third from bottom) are similar in size to the Dritz #44 (second from bottom). One can see how, using those pins, the chance of pins getting hit by needle would be more than twice as much!
comparison of shaft size, assortment of pins

I used the blue ball head pin (third from top), Dritz #21, for a short while before I found the Dritz extra-fine and Clover pins. Their shaft is 0.027″. They’re OK but still a bit too thick to sew over safely.

The Dritz extra-fine and Clover pins’ shaft are so fine that if the needle hit them, they’d just get bent and nothing much else happens. I had the opportunity to sew on a Bernina Activa 145 this weekend at a charity sewing event. I loved the machine! It sews beautifully and the user interface is very intuitive, at least for me, a very experienced sewist. The machine’s owner is in the “remove pins” camp. I think I can understand why she’d prefer that. The Bernina appears much more precise and finely tuned than my 40-year old Singer Fashion Mate Model 248! Hitting a pin on the Bernina, no matter how fine the pin, may have much worse consequences than on my Singer.

P.S. Here’s a Threads magazine article on pins.

“Chatelaine”

close-up of couture technician wearing a chatelaine

A chatelaine is “a set of short chains attached to a woman’s belt, used for carrying keys or other items.” (It also means “a woman in charge of a large house”, presumably because she’d be carrying a large cluster of keys etc.) I saw “Dior And I” at the Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival a few years ago, a documentary about the designer Raf Simons and his time at the House of Dior. One interesting thing I saw in the film is the chatelaine that couture technicians wear around their neck. It’s basically a little pouch on strings, used to carry scissors, pins, chalk, etc. It struck me as being a great idea for two reasons.

The first reason is that, obviously, having the stuff they use the most around their neck is more efficient because they always have what they need right at hand. They don’t need to go back to their workbench to fetch what they need.

The second reason did not occur to me until recently when I was making the black/white/red tartan dress. I didn’t want to have to undress every time I need to try on the dress. Since I was by myself in my workroom, I just sewed in the nude. (Don’t tell anybody! 🙂 ) That did save a lot of time. Until I found that one, since I’m nude, I don’t have anywhere to clip my scissors scabbard to 🙂 and two, I still had to take off my pin cushion around my wrist, and put it back on afterwards, every time I tried on the dress. It then dawned on me that the reason the chatelaine is worn around the neck instead of, say, clipped onto a belt, is because one always has a neck to hang chatelaine from regardless of what clothes one happens to be wearing, or not wearing 🙂 .

I went looking for proof that chatelaines and couture technicians is a thing, and found plenty.

One example is from a photo of a group of couture technicians of the house of Givenchy on a balcony with a model wearing a design by Riccardo Tisci. A couple of the technicians can be seen wearing a chatelaine around their neck. One woman’s chatelaine shows a pair of sewing scissors. Her chatelaine does not appear to very deep and also has a wide mouth, probably so she can easily retrieve items in it:
couture technician wearing white smock and a chatelaine
The scissors are located at the chatelaine’s upper left corner, handles up, probably for convenient access for righthanders. You can also see that in this pic of two of Dior’s in-charge couture technicians, with the designer Raf Simons:
wo of Dior's in-charge couture technicians

While the vast majority of chatelaines are utilitarian and unadorned, slapped together with random fabrics and with quick stitches:
utilitarian chatelaine

Some chatelaines are more embellished with edge binding and quilting:
couture technician w/ embellished chatelaine

I think there is a chatelaine in my future. And definitely there is more sewing in the nude in my future. 🙂

Bûche de Noël

Bûche de Noël, view 3

Continuing to brag about my holiday baking 🙂 : I made a bûche de Noël, a.k.a a Yule log to bring to the holiday dinner at my cousin’s house. I was overjoyed at how it turned out since it was the first time that I attempted many of the elements and techniques in making it: meringue, sheet cake, ganache, and marzipan. Admittedly, most of them are straightforward and anybody probably could have done them. The meringue was probably the most challenging technically, both because of the skill involved (knowing how and how much to beat the egg whites) and the baking required (baking temperature and time and cool-down).

I loosely followed this bûche de Noël recipe, using its sponge sheet cake, bittersweet ganache, and mascarpone filling.

For the for meringue mushrooms, I used a chowhound.com recipe. It came pretty good, though the egg white could have been a bit stiffer: the tips of the mushroom stems drooped a bit when piped out. It wasn’t too bad. I only needed to chop off a bit of the tip to assemble the mushrooms. I used bittersweet chocolate to “glue” the stems to the caps, and to also to make the underside of the caps a dark brown: close-up of meringue mushrooms

For the “bark”, instead of the recipe’s white “birch bark”, I used Two Sisters’ Crafting’s recipe for chocolate buttercream frosting.

The assembly is fairly straightforward, albeit with one flaw in the instructions, IMO: the mascarpone filling should go on first, underneath the ganache. The recipe calls for spreading on the ganache first then the mascarpone filling which didn’t work out so well. When spreading the mascarpone filling on top of the ganache, it was difficult to avoid smearing the mascarpone filling into the ganache because the ganache was too soft and did not make a good base for the mascarpone filling. Even the recipe itself says: “carefully spread [the mascarpone filling]over [ganache] surface, trying not to blend with ganache!

I used a marzipan recipe from foodnetwork.com, adding bittersweet chocolate powder to make the “leaves”.

Here’s the result. It was the huge hit one would expect, both visually and taste-wise!

Bûche de Noël, view 1 Bûche de Noël, view 2

Apple gingerbread cake

bittersweet chocolate apple cake aka torta di pere

For the holidays, I attempted to bake a couple of things, an activity I engage in a few times a year, always fueled by a wildly optimistic and delusional valuation of my baking skills. I made a Apple Gingerbread Cake. (I also made a Bûche de Noël, but that is a post for another day.)

I followed the recipe fairly closely, which is unusual for me. I find pastry recipes tend to have too much sugar for my taste so I usually cut back on the amount of sugar. Also, I like to increase the salt by a little. I find a touch more salt brings out sweetness more. Another place where I deviate from the recipe was to substitute maple syrup for molasses.

I could not find molasses in small enough quantity. The recipe only called for ¼ cup but the smallest molasses quantity I could find was one quart. I suppose I could have bought that and use the rest in experimentation, using it in place of sugar. It’d a lot of experimentation though, so I decided to use honey instead. I was guessing that honey is about the same sweetness as molasses, just with a different flavor profile.

As it turned out, the substitution worked great and the cake turned out to be amazing. The recipe is straightforward. I was suspicious of the step where the recipe calls for whisking eggs into the hot molasses, maple syrup, brown sugar, and butter. I was concerned that the eggs would be scrambled when introduced into a hot medium. Instead, I tempered the eggs first before adding it to the host mixture. Maybe that was not necessary, but I didn’t want to take the chance of ending up with scrambled eggs.

There was one gotcha, which I found out when I, buoyed by my success, I baked a second one. (Note to self: quit while I’m ahead. 🙂 ) When layering apple slices into the caramel, if the slices are not pressed firmly into the caramel, the cake batter may seep down into between the apple slices and the caramel and ruin the cake’s top. It’ll still taste great, but it wouldn’t look as good.

I served the cake drizzled with heavy cream, as called for in the recipe. It was a bit hit!
slice of apple gingerbread cake, served with heavy cream

So it seems that while my valuation of my baking skills remains to be verified, genius is indeed 10% talent and 90% perspiration! Sometimes.

Details, details, details

white/black/red tartan shirtdress, front view, with white boots and white hosiery

Often, it’s the the small details that separate a “home made” garment from the “Wow, you made that?!” garment. I would like to share a few details from my recent use of Dress Shop and from making a shirtdress recently.

Dress Shop generates the pattern pieces for the collar such that the undercollar is slightly shorter and narrower than the collar. The collar is then eased into the undercollar, generating tension that will curve the collar inward without needing a lot of steaming:
pattern pieces for undercollar vs collar

Also, the undercollar is cut on the bias, which gives it a bit of elasticity and makes it much easier to ease the collar into it:
collar & undercollar comparison

Another “detail” I would like to mention is buttonhole orientation. On my white black red tartan flannel shirtdress, all buttonholes are oriented vertically, as in most shirts and dresses, except for one. I oriented one buttonhole horizontally, the one near the waistline. It’s a touch I noticed in Italian tailored men’s shirts. The one horizontal buttonhole ensures that the two overlapping layers don’t shift vertically relative to each other:
close-up showing horizontal buttonhole
This is especially important for plaids, tartans, and patterns or where alignment is important, such as alignment of horizontal details (seams, piping, pleats, etc.).

Here’s another wearing of the dress, this time after getting my bangs chopped. Hosiery: Wolford Satin Touch 20; boots: Loriblu.
white/black/red tartan shirtdress, front view, with white boots and white hosiery

Shirtdress in black, white, red tartan

white/black/red tartan short dress, front view

As part of my process of refining my Dress Shop measurements set, I made another garment, this time, a shirtdress. The pattern used was “Dresses/Unfitted/Shirtdress” and is one of the Dress Shop Quick Start patterns, which is of course also included in the higher-end versions, Dress Shop Deluxe and Dress Shop Pro.

I chose a pattern that does not depart much from a close-fitting sheath. The minimal ease of the pattern makes fitting issues easier to observe, thus making it easier to fine tune my measurements in Dress Shop. The pattern is listed in the “Unfitted” folder, but its “fit” can be set to any of five fits, ranging from “form fitted” to “unfitted”. I chose “standard fit”, the next looser fit up from “form fitted”.

I found a heavy cotton flannel from Jo-Ann in a great tartan of white, black, and red. The fabric’s tartan most resembles a MacPherson of Cluny tartan. It’s slightly heavier weight than top weight, perfect for fall, winter, and fall wear down here in Texas, where we have two seasons, summer, and slightly-cooler 🙂 .

(BTW, do you know the difference between a “plaid” and a “tartan”? According to Scot Meacham Wood, all plaids and tartans are comprised of stripes that meet at a 90-degree angle, but “with most every tartan, the pattern on the stripes running vertically is exactly duplicated [my emphasis] on the horizontal axis“.)

white/black/red tartan short dress, front view white/black/red tartan short dress, front view white/black/red tartan short dress, 3/4 right back view white/black/red tartan short dress, 3/4 left back view white/black/red tartan short dress, right side view white/black/red tartan short dress, back view

As expected, the stripe matching was a lot of work. I cut each piece separately, matching the pattern of a just-cut piece to the succeeding adjoining piece. Also as expected, I goofed in cutting and had to make one additional trip to get some more of the same fabric! Of course, the new piece of fabric had to be washed and tumble dried and ironed before I can cut it, taking even more time!

The mistake was that because I worked my way through the bodice pieces, right front, right back, left back, left front, matching the pattern of each piece to the succeeding piece, by the time I get to the left front piece, in addition to matching the pattern at the left side seam, I forgot to also match up the pattern at center front! One would think that the center front would autimatically match up, but not so, because fabrics can and do skew diagonally. I did make sure to “true” my fabric beforehand, but with fabrics of a looser weave, there is the possibility of localized distortion. The lesson here is to, well, pay attention! 🙂

The match of sleeves to bodice in front turned out great:
white/black/red tartan shirtdress, closer-up front view
but not so much in the back, because matching the sleeves’ dot up to the shoulder seam rotated the sleeve a bit such that the pattern is off a bit in the back:
white/black/red tartan shirtdress, closer-up back view
For next time, I might try rotating the sleeves a bit when cutting them, so the pattern matches both the front and back bodice. Of course, the pattern will no longer run parallel the sleeve’s axis but slightly off. I wonder what that would feel like visually…

“Dress Shop” motorcycle jacket

front view of motorcycle jacket, orange polyester fleece front view of motorcycle jacket, orange polyester fleece, showing lining both sides
I am continuing to explore using Dress Shop Pro to make my own patterns. My initial attempts at a few pairs of shorts were moderately successful. For best result, I should really have spent the time and effort to make a sloper and adjust my measurements set in Dress Shop. If you’re like me though, you’d lack the patience to undertake that step. I decided that I’d make “wearable prototypes” instead and adjust my measurements set with each succeeding one. That way, my time and effort would result in things I can wear and yet also contribute to refining my measurements set.

For example, after the last thing that I made, a halter top sheath dress, I changed some measurements before making this biker jacket: reduced the “across back” measurement by 1/2″ and decreased the “bust back” measurement by 1/2″.

I intended this jacket to be only a “wearable prototype” to further refine my measurements set in Dress Shop. However, I got carried away with the trims a little bit! 🙂 I had some black and white harlequin pattern cotton left over from when I made my Carnaval Austin costume earlier this year, so I used that for trim: undercollar, front facings, welts and bags for hand warmer pockets, wrist straps, and epaulets:
3/4 front view of motorcycle jacket, orange polyester fleece front view of motorcycle jacket, orange polyester fleece, showing left side lining
hand warmer pocket, topstitched hand warmer pocket, topstitched & opened
wrist straps and would-be epaulets

Did I say epaulets? I meant “would-be epaulets”, of course. 🙂 I was going to add epaulets but when I inserted the sleeves, I completely forgot to insert the epaulets. So now I had two left-over epaulets. What to do? Since I had put some effort in making them, making sure the pattern lined up and was the same on both epaulets, I didn’t want to waste them. I used them as “back straps” at the jacket’s back side waist. Doing that allowed me to add a bit of gather to that location, to improve the cut and fit a little:
3/4 back right view of motorcycle jacket, orange polyester fleece

I also had some tan bottomweight cotton twill laying around on my cutting table, so I used it for the inside pocket’s welts:
inside double welted pocket & facing & lining inside double welted pocket

For buttons, I had a bunch of multicolor buttons of assorted sizes that I bought as part of a big bag at Jo-Ann, so I used the brown buttons. I wanted to use the sage green buttons but I don’t have enough of them in the set.
BIG button!

I also topstitched with black topstitching thread, mainly to anchor the seam allowances, because the fuzzy fleece obscures the topstitching quite a bit so it is not as decorative as topstitching would normally be:
topstitched seams

I used an ivory cotton voile for the lining, with the thinking that it’d be light and not add much bulk. Plus, it’s much smoother than the fleece which makes donning and doffing the jacket easier. The fleece can be quite fuzzy and thus “grabby”. The cotton voile is a bit too sheer, however, so it doesn’t actually hide the jacket’s inside very well, like a lining should. It’d have been more suitable as lining for a garment that one doesn’t take off in public, say, a skirt. (Well, at least *I* don’t take my skirt off in public. 🙂 )

front left view of motorcycle jacket, orange polyester fleece front right view of motorcycle jacket, orange polyester fleece side view of motorcycle jacket, orange polyester fleece

Sewing machine presser foot as helping hand

using sewing machine's presser foot as a
A “helping hand” is not new in sewing, nor in many crafts, for that matter. For example, there exist antiques of the “bird’s beak” clamp. Similar devices exist in jewelry making, watchmaking and other tiny-scale crafts, such as fishing lure tying.

I’m reasonably dextrous so I can manage manual tasks well. There are times though, when an extra hand would make things go quicker and/or less fiddly. For instance, when I need to rip a long long seam, as I did recently when shortening the skirt of my “Dorothy” costume. I wanted to re-use the costume but wanted something a bit racier than the skirt’s modestly long hem. Afterall, Halloween is the time to having fun dressing up the way that would get one arrested any other day 🙂 .

Anyway, the costume’s skirt hem has about two million yards of ruffled cotton eyelet trim:
Dorothy costume, front view
All of which had to be removed before the skirt can be shortened. The seam is straight and simple, but there was just so much of it!

With someone or something holding one side of the seam, things would go much quicker. Enter my sewing machine’s presser foot. It has enough grip force to anchor one side of the seam firmly and is a “quick-release” clamp of sorts which makes it easy and quick to move the seam along.

Oh, and this how the costume ended up looking (I didn’t get arrested 🙂 ):
Dorothy costume with matching purse

Braiding purse handles

purse handles
I have a Tignanello purse that I really really love that was showing its age. I love its shape, a satchel shape with full length two-way zipper to allow the purse to open really wide. I love its utility, having just the right number of pockets and zippers in just the right places. I love its color, a pale red wine color, which can go with dark hues such as blacks and browns as well as with brighter spring and summer hues. I love the handles configuration, just the right sized hoops for carrying on my arm or swinging in hand.
After a few years of use, the leather of the handles became worn and cracked. The rest of the purse was still in tip-top shape. I really hated to discard it just because of that. Also, it’s so difficult to find a suitable purse that I felt it’d be more efficient to try to prolong use of the one I already have and love.
Enter Paracord braiding! Paracord is a kernmantle-style cord, generally made of nylon and originally used as suspension lines of parachutes. I think today, paracord is so widely used in so many applications that it has become a common name, like “xerox” has.
Paracord appears to be used in many many craft applications, but most commonly made into bracelets and used to wrap handles. It was easy to find a really good video tutorial for paracord braid cover of a handle. It was also easy to get into a rhythm, to produce uniform braids, at least for me. As you can see from the result, I got pretty good at it after only about a third of a way into doing the first handle.
Another plus of paracord is that you can get in many different colors. I used a purple one that I just happened to have around and the purple matched my purse reasonably well.
So far, the braidings appear to hold up well, but it has been only a couple of months. It’s not yet clear how this particular brand of paracord stands up to abrasion of repeated use. (I bought the paracord at Home Depot.) One thing is for sure, new, spiffy, braided handles sure beat spending loads of time looking for a new purse. The only thing better would have been to make my own purse, which I may yet try at some point.

Making a matching clutch purse for costume

finished clutch purse

When I sew a garment, I like to make a matching hair scrunchie as to wear as an accessory. A matching scrunchie signals that the garment is probably custom made and not just an off-the-rack one. For my Halloween costume this year, I rehashed a previous year’s costume: Dorothy of Oz, shortening it quite a bit, from “slightly demure” to just about “call the police!” 🙂

The shortening resulted in quite a bit of left over fabric. Instead of the usual scrunchie, I decided to try my hands at making a clutch, since the costume has no pockets. The costume’s skirt is quite voluminous and I could carry a lot of stuff under it, but it would mean having to hike up my skirt and making a scene every time I need to retrieve something!

I sized the clutch to fit my phone. In retrospect, it could have been a little wider and longer to also accomodate keys, lipstick, etc. I used fusible felt to add body to the fabric, and underlined the clutch to make the inside appear a little more finished. A pocket with a Velcro secured flap on the outside was sized to fit credit cards, driver’s license, and a bit of cash. The wrist strap was a strip of selvaged, interfaced with fusible shirt-weight interfacing.
velcro closure on clutch purse's credit cards pocket

A lesson that I discovered almost immediately is to construct all the details such as outside and inside pockets first before closing up and attaching zipper. I did not and as a result, had to struggle a bit when attaching the outside pocket.

inside of clutch purse

The end result was reasonably polished, and people did notice it and knew that the costume was custom made:
Dorothy costume with matching purse

Using fabric scraps to trim greeting cards

finished card

Every sewist has come up against the difficult decision of what to do about fabric scraps from sewing projects. Some scrap pieces are small enough such that tossing them is the obvious thing to do. However, often the scrap pieces are big enough that they seem like they might be useful for small projects. The problem is when I’m staring at a bunch of scrap pieces seems to be the time when I’m the least creative. I’m full of ideas at any other times, but the sight of scrap pieces seems to stanch my creative juice.

Conversely, when I set out to make custom greeting cards, the very process seems to blank my mind as to what to make. I’d stare at a greeting car blank and draw a… blank, as to what to put on it.

Enter fabric scraps! Why not use the leftovers from a garment project to make greeting cards?! Immediately after I’m done with a project, I would already have all fabrics and thread and trims are already at hand, and more importantly, they are all coordinated, matching or contrasting each other. And the machines would already be threaded with the right color thread. All I’d need to do is to throw them together on a greeting card blank.

Here are two cards that I made using scraps resulting from shortening my “Dorothy” Halloween costume. With these two cards, I was going for the “deliberately unkempt” look, leaving raw edges and “tassels” of thread at ends of stitch run, leaving the wrong side of the cards unfinished, etc. Well, OK, I was just being lazy. 🙂

I just used the same mid-sized universal needle that I used for the garment in making the cards. I can see how sewing card stock might dull the needle, so be aware of that ad change needle sooner than you would normally would.

For these two cards, I used the blue gingham cotton and the white lining fabric for border: cut 1″ wide strips, place them right side down and sew them to the card down their center, fold and press, and zig zag or topstitch:
ready to make cards fabric trimmed with scraps attaching fabric border to card attaching fabric border to card attaching fabric border to card

I leave the strips long and trim them after I started attaching them. Swiveling the card to one side made it easier to do trimming:
swivel card to trim border

I used the white netting for the crinoline for an “overlay” of one card. I want to be able to customize the card further with, perhaps, lettering, so I attached the netting with small safety pins, including them as a design element. The safety pins allow me to remove the netting later to embellish the card some more, to customize it to the occasion e.g. birthday, wedding, etc.:
finished card

I also used tiny scraps of fusible fleece (left over from making a matching clutch purse for the Dorothy costume) to make petals of a flower, which I fused to the card. (The heat of fusing warped the card a bit but when it cools, it returned to almost normal shape, being only slightly wavy, which added to the “unkempt” look!) I added a small pearl for the flower’s center: I removed the presser foot, set zig zag stitch width to the widest, set stitch length to zero, threaded the pearl onto the sewing machine’s needle and turned the wheel by hand to zig zag a few times to attach the pearl.
flower with fusible fleece petals and pearl center

I wanted to use oral letter size envelopes for the cards so I trimmed the cards and added the cut-off pieces to inside the cards as “leaves” in a book:
inserting

Oh, and it would also help the card making process if you already have a stock of greeting card blanks on hand so you don’t have to spend time making some and can just get right to creating cards.

Vietnamese Red-Cooked Baby Back Ribs

Vietnamese red cooking: adding caramelized sugar to pork baby back ribs

Red cooking is billed as “Chinese stewing“, but there is nothing specifically Chinese about it. It is also one of the more major cooking techniques in Vietnamese cuisine. I would not be surprised if the technique is also prominent in other Asian cuisines.

In Vietnamese cuisine, the technique is called “kho“. There are variations of the technique in every region of Vietnam. Also, since it is possible to use a lot of salt and fish sauce and sugar in “kho”ing, resulting in a highly salty and sweet dish, the technique probably also served as a way to preserve food in the old days, when refrigeration was not yet commonplace.

I remember my Mom’s red cooked pork belly, cod, shrimp, and chicken. Not fondly. 🙂 I never did like her red cooked dishes because they were always too salty and not sweet enough. Also, I also particularly hated her red cooked cod since most fish, especially less fatty ones, become hideous if cooked for a long time. My Mom never did grasp that fact. I can say with some confidence that I did not inherit the culinary gene from my Mom! 🙂

I generally avoid red cooking seafood. The length of cooking time required for the caramel and other flavors to infuse the protein would render the seafood completely inedible. Instead, I like to use red cooking as a stewing method, to cook dishes to be reheated and eaten several times during the week. Sometimes, I would do red cooked chicken or shrimp for a dinner, but it’s not technique I employ often for a single-meal dish.

Basically, red cooking features caramelized sugar as the main ingredient, resulting in a dish with reddish golden brown hue. My general procedure for red cooking is to sautée thinly sliced shallots as the aromatic for the dish, then add the protein and caramelized sugar and season with fish sauce and black pepper, adjusting the taste with salt.

With pork belly, pork ribs, or beef chuck roast, I would first cube and brown the meat in a cast iron Dutch oven, then remove the meat and sweat the shallots in the same pot. While I’m sweating the shallots, I make the caramel by heating about two tablespoons of white sugar in a small Teflon saucepan. When the sugar starts to melt, I return the meat to the pot so it would be heated up enough by the time the caramel is ready.

Remember that at this point, the caramel will darken very rapidly, turning dark and bitter very quickly, even if removed from heat. The trick is to add it to the meat just before it turns the desired shade. I like to add the caramel to the pot when it turns golden reddish brown and just starting to foam, as in this video, where I was making red cooked pork baby back ribs:

After adding the caramel, I add water or stock and a couple of Thai peppers and simmer for a couple of hours. I often add hard boiled eggs to the stew, but towards the end so they won’t be too overcooked. Letting the dish sit overnight in the fridge allows the flavor to round out more and also for the eggs to absorb the caramel sauce. It’s also common to add ginger and/or lemongrass. Another variation calls for coconut juice in the stew (not coconut milk!), though I don’t usually usually add coconut juice as my S.O. doesn’t care for its taste.

browned ribs, ready for caramel caramel, ready to add to ribs

Pinning zippers?

When pinning zippers, do you pin parallel to the zipper tape, or at right angle to the zipper tape? Maybe it depends on your pinning habit.

I always pin perpendicular to the stitching line and sew over the pins. (Cue rancorous sew-over-pins religious war here! 😆 ) I do that for several reasons. When several layers of fabrics are pinned, they are shifted in relationship to each other, like this:
fabric layers are distorted when pinned
At places where the pin enters and exits the fabric layers, the layers are shifted, the thicker the fabric, the greater the shift. Thus shifted, the fabric layers will be distorted when stitched.

Additionally, if I pin parallel to the stitching line, I’d need to either remove the pins as I sew which I find time consuming, or to pin a distance away from the stitching line, which compromises accuracy.

If I pin perpendicularly to the stitching line, the fabric is still distorted, but in a direction perpendicular the stitching line and thus won’t result in distortion of the stitched seam.

Additionally, I can sew over the pins. (After stitching, I remove pins all at the same time, saving a lot of time.) I know that many people who warn against sewing over pins, citing the danger of hitting a pin and breaking needle, throwing machine out of alignment, eye injury, etc. There is definitely that danger. However, the risk of hitting a pin, and of whether or not the needle will break on hitting a pin, depends on the size of the pins used. I use Clover’s Patchwork Pins which are only 0.4mm in diameter i.e. very very fine. They are flexible and bend very easily but can be bent back into shape, yet they are sturdy enough to anchor layers of fabric. As such, in the very rare times when the needle hits a pin squarely, the pin gets bent, but that’s all.

In the same spirit, when I pin zippers, I pin perpendicular to the teeth and tape as well. Since the pins will “ride” over the zipper teeth and might foul the presser foot, as the second and third pins in the following pic show:
zipper tape pinned with pins perpendicular to tape

As such, I need to remove the pins rather than sew over them. However, removing the pins negates the point of pinning (to ensure layers do not shift), so instead of removing a pin altogether when I sew up to it, I would pull it out just enough so that only its tip is still engaged, as is the case with the top pin in the above pic. (In fact, I just realized that in the pic, even though the point of the point of the pin is still engaged in the zipper tape, it’s barely visible!) This affords me the benefit of layers still being secured against shifting, yet the point of the pin does not present an obstacle.

Vegan bacon?!

I recently made some new friends who are vegans. That may sound like “making friends with collectors of dryer lint” but I assure you that they are actually pretty cool people. As I love to cook for friends, I tried my hands at vegan cuisine. I’m not a vegan, but tackling vegan cuisine is akin to trying a new, unfamiliar, ethnic cuisine. It’s a fun challenge.

The first thing I attempted was mini BLT sandwiches for a potluck dinner. (“BLT” are “bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches”.) The two ingredients that were challenging were bacon and mayonnaise. It’s not difficult to find vegan mayonnaise, though I had to mortgage my house to buy a jar of the stuff. I found several brands of vegan mayonnaise at a local Whole Foods. It tasted quite decent and surprisingly close to real mayonnaise.

The other challenge was, obviously, the bacon. I scoured the Web for a vegan bacon recipe and settled on one from itdoesnttastelikechicken.com that seemed promising. The recipe used coconut chips as the base ingredient. Coconut chips turned out to be quite hard to find. The coconut chips that I found had too much small bits of coconut in the mix. The smaller bits would char too easily in the oven. I needed to sift the chips to isolate the bigger chips.

Since I didn’t have a sifter of the appropriate size, I made a sifter using the cardboard stock from a cereal box. I punched the sifter’s holes with a paper punch:

sieve for coconut chips, made from cereal box

sieve for coconut chips, made from cereal box

I baked the chips at a much lower temperature than called for in the recipe. The recipe’s 350° for 5-10 minutes resulted in burnt chips that were not as crispy as I’d have liked. Instead, I baked at 150°-175° for a long time. The process was more akin to dehydrating than baking.

bake/dehydrate at approximately 150 °

The chips keep for a long time, weeks, in an airtight container.
If you want that umpteenth degree of crispiness, you can always toast them in the oven for a few minutes before using.

Use shoe boxes to organize sewing notions

We all have different methods of storing our sewing stuff.
Recently, a member of my local chapter of American Sewing Guild gave a presentation on how she organizes her sewing stuff.
One approach that she and I share is storing items in boxes stacked on shelves. Her boxes are all uniform, labeled with their general contents, and stacked to a maximum of three high on shelves. My boxes are old shoe boxes labeled with a listing of their contents. 🙂

I use shoe boxes since they are often of the same shape and size and thus will stack better. I suppose boot boxes, or boxes for shoes for Shrek, would be very different in size, but those are few and far between: I have few pairs of boots, and I don’t know Shrek.

For labels, I use a piece of paper folded to about the same size as a box’s cross section, with a fold in the top which would hook onto the box’s edge and be secured by the lid. The labels are usually just hand written. If I get ambitious, or if a box’s contents have changed too much, or if the list gets too big, or if the box’s contents change often, I’d make a list on my computer and print that out. A printed list is easier to edit, but obviously has a higher “start-up cost” than a hand written list.

using shoe boxes for sewing notions close-up of label for shoe boxes containing sewing notions

V-shaped hem slits

I’ve been asked to clarify/explain how I did the V-shaped slits in my Dress Shop shorts:
20160723_sat_dsc_5029_1

The slit is basically a “lined” diamond shaped cut-out in the garment fabric. When folded in half along one of its axes, the diamond turns into a V shape. By locating the points of the diamond on the hem line, the result would be a V shape “slit” at the hem.

The steps are:

  • Cut a piece of lining larger than the diamond by 3/4″ on each side of each axis.
  • Draw the diamond shape on the wrong side of garment fabric, with two of its points on the hem line.
    I’d recommend making the diamond larger than the desired slit size by 1/4″, as I find the shape “shrinks” a bit during construction.
  • Pin the lining to garment fabric, right sides together.
  • Stitch the outline of the diamond shape, drawn earlier, pivoting at corners. Use short-ish stitch length, especially around the corners:
    mark and stitch diamond shape

  • Slash inside of diamond, through both layers, from corner to corner:
    slash inside diamond through both layers

  • Press seams open, turn lining to wrong side of garment and press the diamond shape, then fold in half along one axis and press.
    turn and press diamond shape

  • Fold along hem line and press and voilà!
    finished at-hem V slit

Sewing and turning a spaghetti strap

There are a multitude of methods to make a spaghetti strap.

One method calls for using needle and thread. I used to do this, but have never been happy with it because the thread has to be inserted near the end of the tube and the fabric tends to fray and the thread’s knot would slip out half way through. When it does, I’m pretty much up a fairly undesirable type of creek without a paddle, because it’s impossible to recover from that.

The first method calls for using a bobby pin. I have not tried this method, not having ever used a bobby pin and therefore not having one. This method seems promising, though I can see that the length of the bobby pin, or rather the lack of it, can make turning the tube over the pin quite a fiddly affair.

The second method uses a tube turner, the type with a hook in the end, faces the same problem of the tube’s end fraying and letting the hook free.

The third method uses a plastic drinking straw as a DIY tube turner.

The last method calls for stitching the tube casing wrapping a length of twine or cord, then stitch across one end to anchor the cord, and then turning the tube back over the cord. A variant of that calls for anchoring the cord stitching the tube. This is better because there is less “trapped” fabric in the anchored end and hence less bulk, making turning the tube easier.

My method is a hybrid of these last two methods and the first method. I just use a length of sewing machine thread anchored to the tube’s end with a “bar tack”: reduce stitch length to almost zero (effectively making a thread bar) and zig zag near tube’s end, then pull out a length of thread:
zig zag near tube's end, then pull out a length of thread

Thread the length of thread through a large needle, then run the needle through the tube, blunt end first, to turn the tube:
thread secured to a needle, ready to turn the tube

My method does not require an extra cord like the last two methods, and does not run the risk of the tube’s end fraying and the thread pulling loose half way through the turning process.

One constant among all these methods is that if you are making tubes from woven fabric, use fairly light fabric, and cut the strips for the tube on the bias (at 45° to the fabric’s fibers) which results in more stretch in the strip, both lengthwise and crosswise, making turning the tube easier.

Precision is overrated! :)

Baking fish or seafood en papillote is one of my favorite quick-meal methods. I can be as fancy as I want, or as slap dash as I need to be. I can sautée the aromatics like onions, shallots, or garlic beforehand, perhaps with spicy marinated olives, to bring out more flavor. Or if I’m in a rush or feeling lazy, I can just toss everything into the packet and go with that. However I do it though, I simply use a large-ish piece of parchment paper, fold it in half, and crimp it. It’s not like the end result would taste any better or worse if I am casual about the shape of the parchment paper.

Recently, I came across an en papillote recipe that calls for cutting the parchment paper into a heart shape! My immediate thought was: “Who has time for that?!” But, I suppose that if I was the type who cook wearing beautifully manicured and painted nails, like the person in that recipe, I’d probably also want to be very precise with the shape of the package! Either way, the end result would be equally delicious :

halibut en papillote, before

Before…

halibut en papillote, after

…after

Custom range duct, five years later

You may remember from five years ago when we got a new GE Profile cooktop that I had to fabricate a custom duct for the exhaust in order to make use of the existing ducting. Heck, whom am I kidding? Even I don’t remember that, why am I asking you?!

It’s kinda cool looking back at that post, seeing how I went about making that exhaust, how I made a mock-up, a prototype of it, using packaging from Marie Callender frozen dinner entrées:
Cardboard prototype for exhaust manifold

prior to cutting out the tin sheet and riveting:
Laying out and cutting of exhaust duct exhaust duct folded and riveted

My neighbors were suitably impressed when they saw me in my garage bangin’ away (get your mind out of the gutter!), hammering and riveting the zinc sheets into shape. One of my neighbors, a man, even made a remark about how he wished he had the “skill set” to do something like that!

I was rather proud of the finished exhaust:
completed exhaust manifold for GE Profile cooktop, side view completed exhaust manifold for GE Profile cooktop

I wanted the exhaust to be fairly air-tight, so I used foil backed duct tape and clear silicone caulk on the riveted seams. My concern at the time was for the longevity of that caulk, given that the floor of the duct will probably collect a lot of oil and grease, which may seep out and react with the caulk, breaking the seal and leaking oil and grease.

I am happy to report that the exhaust’s ducting is holding up perfectly! Tim Allen would be proud!