13 September 2012

tutorial: making stamps



Lately I've gotten super into making stamps, ever since taking a class at my friend Heather's store Bespoke. Way back in high school art class, we made wood block prints, and it's pretty much the same process, so getting a refresher was nice.

I've been making stamps for a whole lotta things, like the labels on my jam jars.


I've been wanting to make a stamp for a greeting card cover, one to celebrate a wide range of occasions and congratulatory purposes. And I thought I'd bring you along for the ride as I make it, so you can try it yourself. Though a steady hand never hurts, the thing about making stamps is that it's super easy. And you never need anything to be perfect. That's the charm of stamps: they will always look a little imperfect, so it's best to embrace that and go with it. Here's what you need to know.

Stamp-making tutorial:

Materials: You will need a few things that you probably don't have laying around, namely: 1. Tracing paper, 2. A set of linoleum cutters, and 3. A block of carveable linoleum. (I recommend the Speedball types since they are waaaaay easier to cut than regular block linoleum, and are widely available at art supply and craft stores. For this project I used Speedball "speedy carve," since it's the cheapest and this stamp is pretty big. Buy the blue or pink stuff if you're doing a smaller stamp and don't mind a slightly higher price.)


This is what the cutter looks like, and it costs less than $10 for the full set, including several sizes of gouge blades. 



I use the smallest size gouge blade almost exclusively. 


Design: Using Photoshop, Word or the design program of your choice, lay out the stamp design as you want it to look, in the same size you want the final stamp to be. If you're going to be creating a stamp of an image, not words, you could print it out or just trace right from a book or magazine.


Print out the image. It doesn't matter if it doesn't print perfectly, as mine didn't, thanks to low toner (we keep printing until the last hint of toner is gone -- waste not, want not!). It just needs to be clear enough to be traceable. 


Tape tracing paper over your image to keep it all lined up nicely, and start tracing in pencil. 



Graphite will transfer magically onto the Speedball speedy carve (not as well onto regular block linoleum -- another reason why I recommend using the softer stuff). Line up the traced image FACE DOWN on the speedy carve in the way that conserves the most space. You can get a lot of stamps out of one block if you position your cuts economically. Holding the image still, rub with medium pressure all over the back of the image.


Remove the tracing paper and you'll see a nice transfer of your image that you'll follow for cutting the stamp. It should appear backwards, so that it will print forward. If you accidentally reversed the image, start over at this point, and just use the other side of the lino block. 


Carving your stamp: As a first step, use the smallest gouge blade to trace around all of your graphite lines, outlining the elements of the stamp that you'll want to see on the finished stamp (as opposed to the negative space, which you're removing). Try to stay close to the line, or even on the line, depending on the design. Go for what I did on the outer left portion of the Y below, not what I did on the right side (which I later cleaned up). 


A tip on technique: For letters with corners, start in the corners and cut outward. For letters with curves, hold the blade still with one hand and turn the lino block with the other. You'll get the cleanest lines that way. 


You don't have to go deep with your gouges, and it really depends what kind of final look you want. I personally prefer clean-edged stamps without the grooves visible in the negative space, so I tend to go down a good 1/8 inch. But I have seen a lot of really cool stamps with the gouges visible, so it's just a personal preference. The gouges between letters or images don't have to be pretty. All that really matters is trying for clean edges on the visible positive space portions.



Repeat the process until your whole stamp is carved, and then do any clean-up you think it needs. After your first stamp, you'll also see if there are any areas where the lines are too thick and you can trim them down then. A bit of advice: You can always go thinner with the lines, but you can never go thicker. Start thicker and gradually thin the lines down. 

Now you're ready to print. 


Printing: There are two major methods of printing with stamps: 1.) Traditional ink-and-brayer, and 2.) stamp pad. Stamp pads are way easier and more convenient, but I'll show you both just for fun.

To print with liquid ink, start by mixing up your colors (you remember your color wheel right?) to make the final color you want. I was looking for a teal print, so I started with blue, white and metallic gold.


I mixed it up with a disposable chopstick and then rolled the ink on my small brayer.


Then I rolled the ink on the stamp...


... and positioned the card over the stamp, getting a fairly crooked result. Because this type of ink is a little bit tacky, it's hard to lay it over the card without making a mess, so lining the card up over the stamp is what's easiest. It's also more error-prone.


The other method is to use a ready-made stamp pad. I recommend buying stamp pads that have the sponge part sticking up from the base of the pad, so that you can use the pad to ink up a stamp much larger than the pad's surface area. Just lay the stamp out and press the stamp pad all around it, being careful to blot away any lines of ink that pool around the pad's edges. 


Starting with any background design you want, print your layers from back to front. Here I used some tree-texture prints in the background (that's a store-bought stamp), with my new handmade stamp as the foreground. If you use a really dark or opaque ink for your background, you may want to use pigment ink for the foreground (instead of regular dye ink) so that it will be opaque. In general, only use pigment for the foreground, since pigment over pigment usually doesn't look so good.


Repeat the process for the foreground. I used regular dye ink in black for the foreground. Pigment would have been overkill.


And you're all done! Yay for you!


For bonus points, you can glue your stamp to a block of wood (flooring samples from Home Depot or Lumber Liquidators work especially well -- don't pay the high price for the stamp mounting blocks at the craft stores). That makes printing a whole lot easier.

Another tip: wash and dry your stamp between uses, or anytime you want to switch colors. You'll be glad you did, and you'll avoid ruining ink pads.

P.S. When Mark saw me laying out this text on my computer, he assumed I was making it for silk screens (I've been screening some other things lately) for t-shirts, and he said, "Well that's awfully mean and sarcastic." Haha. Mean and sarcastic card, anyone?

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xoxo,

10 September 2012

ultimate comfort food: tortilla soup (gf)


My favorite foods have always been real foods. So much of my issue with gluten-free eating is how much fake food there is: fake "bread," fake cookies that are supposed to be like Oreos but are a far cry, fake everything you can imagine. There is nothing comforting or healthy about fake. It's the worst of both worlds.

So I find myself drawn to foods that are naturally gluten free, and which don't require any weird substitutions (xanthan gum, anyone?). That makes a lot of Mexican food, already one of my favorite cuisines, pretty much ideal. Anything with a flour tortilla is out of the question, of course, so I'm not chowing down to my heart's content on burritos (sniff, sniff). But most anything built around corn tortillas, provided they are gluten-free, is a-okay.

Good thing, because I was recently craving tortilla soup in a b-a-d way recently. I'd never made it before, but decided to try my hand, and it turned out amazingly well. As in best-I've-ever-had well. Lucky me. And now lucky you, since my recipe is right here. Disclosure: This isn't a super quick meal to prepare, but you could easily break it into stages (broth one night, soup the next) so that it would still be suitable to a weekday dinner. If you're tempted to make it from storebought broth, I won't try to stop you, but it won't be as good. You'll also need to add a little garlic to the soup since it probably won't be noticeable in the broth (maybe a little onion, too).



Chicken tortilla soup (naturally gluten-free)
12 cups water
4 large chicken drumsticks or 2 large breasts on the bone
1 white or red onion, halved (skin on is okay)
1 celery stalk
2 carrots, cut into 3-4 segments each
2 garlic cloves (unpeeled is fine)
1 T. salt
2 cartons (or cans) diced tomatoes with Mexican seasoning
1 can of corn, or kernels from two ears of corn
2-3 cups masa or finely ground corn meal
1-2 t. cumin powder
Cilantro, chopped (optional), for garnish
Avocado, sliced (optional), for garnish
Sour cream (optional), for garnish
Thin tortilla strips, deep fried (optional), for garnish
Extra salt as needed

1. Cook the chicken and make the broth.
In a large stockpot, combine the water, chicken, onion, celery, carrots, garlic cloves and 1 T. salt, and bring to a bare simmer (barely bubbling). Continue simmering uncovered for approximately one hour to 90 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through, and water has turned the color and flavor of the broth. Skim off foam that accumulates along the way. Once cooked, remove the chicken, and then strain all of the other ingredients out of the broth. Salt the broth enough for it to taste yummy, and not like dishwater (salt makes all the difference!), and return to the burner on medium heat. Remove any skin and bones from the chicken, and roughly chop it into soup-sized pieces. Add to the broth.
Note: If you wish to make the broth a day ahead, strain and salt the broth, and then put it into the fridge. Keep the chicken pieces whole to prevent them from drying out until right before you make the finished soup. 

2. Make the soup.
In the large stockpot containing the broth and chicken, add the cartons or cans of tomatoes and the corn. Heat the soup to a simmer. Slowly and carefully whisk in the masa, starting with 1-1.5 cups and gradually adding more only if the soup is still very thin. Whisk in the cumin, again starting with very little, and tasting along the way. Bring the soup back to a simmer, and cook for 10-15 minutes to combine the flavors. Before serving, add salt salt to taste.

3. Serve and enjoy.
Serve the tortilla soup, garnishing it as you wish.

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xoxo,

06 September 2012

thankfulness thursday / why i took a break


Today I'm linking up with my friend Ashley, author of Domestic Fashionista, who had this wonderful idea to practice thankfulness in order to be more thankful and happy. It's happening every Thursday until Thanksgiving, so get in on it! What are you thankful for? Plenty, I'm sure, so add your voice.

A few weeks ago, I posted that I was taking a little break from blogging in order to be less tempted at every turn to buy more stuff, which is an occupational hazard of writing a home blog (and a lot of you agreed with me!). While it's certainly true that I've been feeling the need for a break from the home blog part of things, that's only part of the story. After all, this is also a food blog, an entertaining blog and a DIY/crafts blog.

The truth is that I needed a break from having a public self. (Now, having actually typed that out, it feels a bit dramatic, but it's true.)

I wrote a few months ago about the discovery that I have to be gluten-free for the rest of my life. I'm generally a pretty matter-of-fact person, and tend to meet challenges head-on. So at first I thought, "No problem. I'll just figure this out." But soon I realized that giving up such a fundamental part of the American diet is fraught with complex emotions. And I think I've been in a type of mourning.

I love food, and food is certainly important to me. But it's really not just that. It's not just knowing that I'll never again get to treat myself with a Dunkin Donuts Boston creme donut, or that cookies and creme ice cream is permanently off the menu. It's not giving up daily sandwiches since I was never much of a sandwich person anyway.

Food is social, food is tradition, and I've never been more aware of that fact than I am now.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that Thanksgiving is my favorite time of year. I love the planning, the cooking, the hosting, the tradition. All of it revolves around food, around doing things a certain way, and all of that has to change now. We also used to love going out to eat, but now I'm so hesitant to even set foot in a restaurant after having learned the hard way how sick I can get from mere cross-contamination in a restaurant kitchen. We're talking about something as small as toasting gluten-free bread in the same toaster as regular bread. There are still times when I have to eat restaurant food, especially when traveling, but a major part of the joy is gone for me, at least for now.

On one hand, yeah, whatever. I have to eat different foods. Big deal. On the other hand, it's a major life shake-up, and one that's forcing me to rethink things every day and constantly mourn the traditions, family recipes and ways of entertaining that are no longer a part of my existence.

But here's the thing: I'm still super grateful. (I knew I'd get back around to thankfulness at some point here...)

Despite how tough the transition has been for me, even when I haven't wanted to admit it, I still wake up every day so thankful that I've finally figured it out. After 20 years of mysterious, seemingly disconnected symptoms, many of which doctors refused to acknowledge, I finally have the answer that I've been seeking. And I can't even express how grateful I am that my solution is truly a solution, not just treating the symptoms. And it's drug-free! Amazing.

My health still isn't perfect, but I feel a thousand times better than I used to, and I'm on my way to total healing. I will tell you, though, that going gluten-free is not a great weight loss plan.

Recently a woman I know was diagnosed with breast cancer. A tiny stage 1 lump that had shown up in several mammograms and didn't appear to be growing, but her doctor decided it warranted a biopsy, and it turned out to be malignant. Her reaction was, "Why me?" I wonder what my reaction in the same circumstance would be. With total sympathy for her, and how tough it must be to get that diagnosis, I can't help but think that I'd feel really fortunate to have caught it that early, and to know that it's completely treatable. 

We don't often get clear answers when it comes to our health, and we don't always get them quickly. But when we do get them, it's worth being thankful. Real answers -- not just bandaids and drugs to mask the symptoms -- are few and far between in life, and when we have them, the real healing begins.

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xoxo,

05 September 2012

jammin'


If you have some annoying pop song stuck in your head (I'm talking to you, Carly Rae), perhaps this post will inspire you to swap it out for some classic Bob Marley instead.

By some definitions, namely those of schoolchildren, summer is over. And I've barely posted at all this summer, so now I've got a backlog of homemade stuff I'm pretty stoked to share. We've definitely had a lot of summer going on lately, with loads of backyard barbeques, camping and enjoying the best of the season's produce.

Nothing says summer to me like peaches. Unfortunately, in the west, we usually get pretty mediocre peaches, nothing like the ones from the south that I grew up enjoying. But this year, maybe owing to the high heat we had super early in the summer, or just discovering the joys of the Sierra foothills peaches now that we live close enough to buy them, we have been getting some phenomenally juicy, delicious peaches. So delicious that I found myself buying cases of them.

I hope you like jammin' too. 

That meant, of course, that it was finally time for me to learn how to can, since cases of peaches won't last nearly long enough to eat them all, especially in our bulging household of two. I had made jam before, to great effect, so the jam making part of it was easy. But canning always seemed scary to me -- too many chances to mess up, numerous ways germs could sneak in and spoil the batch, the chance that I could give contaminated food away. Really, though, people have been canning food and mostly not dying from eating it for quite a few years now. Once I reminded myself of that, it became a lot easier to sack up and try it.

A few notes on method:

1. Scores of nice folks have covered the basics of water bath canning, which is what I do, so I won't reinvent the wheel. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has also the info you could want about safe home canning, if you want to give it a go (you should!).

2. I am way too lazy to peel and slice a zillion peaches, so I use the food mill method: 1. Roughly crush the peaches (reserving 1 or 2 peaches for every 10), leaving skins on but removing pits, and place them in big pot. 2. Cook on very low heat for 45-60 minutes until most of the juice has come out of the peaches and the flesh has become very soft. 3. Process the juice and pulp through the medium sized plate on the food mill. 4. Return resulting skinless pulp to pot. 5. Peel and slice reserved peaches and add them to the pot. 6. Add sugar and pectin, if using, per the recipe. 7. Can or preserve accordingly.

I decided to try a test batch, and to make it interesting, I threw in a handful of fresh mint. It was super yummy, and I definitely recommend adding fresh mint to your jam. I would have done it with the bigger batch, but didn't have enough mint to make it happen. Notice in the pic below how the skins are in there and the peach chunks are all irregular. Thank goodness for the food mill. If you're skeptical of milling your jam, I understand, but one nice benefit is how much redder and fuller flavored it gets from being cooked with the skins. That's how red wine becomes red wine, after all. If they take the same grapes and don't let them sit with their skins, then it becomes rose wine, which is widely scorned by many with bad memories of white zinfandel. (I happen to love rose wine, especially the stuff from the south of France.) So think red wine and cook with the skins on. You'll be happy you did. Also, milling is not straining. You won't be making jelly. Just a smoother jam.


Here's the resulting peach mint jam, which didn't last too long (because we ate it, not because it went bad). But, I didn't like the handwriting-on-green-tag label (green tags are code in our house for both "gluten free" and "don't stick your gross gluten-tainted knife in my pristine jam!"), and didn't love the lack of chunks in the jam.


Time for the real deal.

For the big batch, I followed the steps in my food mill method above, namely reserving some of the peaches and chopping them up, then adding them late in the game so that the resulting jam would have some pretty chunks.


Then I filled up a whole slew of half pint and pint jars. Here are some waiting for their turn in the water bath. 


Feeling like a voyeur, spying on the bathing cans. 


I pulled them out and let them sit overnight...


And then discovered, to my shock and sadness, that the jam was too bland. I had gone way too light on the sugar. (What? A cup of sugar in a whole pot of jam isn't enough?)

So, back to square one. Or possibly square two.


If you do what I do and dump out all of your jam, it's important to start with new lids. You can reuse the jars and screw rings, provided you re-sterilize them, but the lids are meant for single use only.

The  jam went back in the pot, this time with the proper amount of sugar. Then another round of sterilizing jars, filling them, processing them in the water bath...


This time, though, I wanted the jars to be a little bit more attractive than with my first test batch. And thankfully I also took a class this summer in stamp making (more on this to follow soon) at the amazing store owned by my friend Heather, Bespoke. So I busted out my linocutters and my speedy carve, and made a little stamp to adorn the jam.



The next day, after resting the jars appropriately, I tasted the jam and found (hooray!) that I had fixed the sweetness problem and it was now worthy of giving away to friends and family. So on the labels went. 


Of course, even with the pretty labels, the jars are still only half dressed. So I made another couple stamps, tied on some ribbon, and then deemed the jam gift-worthy.


Jammin' and stamp-making. That's probably the story of my summer. Have you made any crafty projects lately? Any interest in a stamp-making tutorial?

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xoxo,

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