Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Year of the Snake

As a young child I vividly remember being lucky enough to attend a Lunar New Year celebration in our city's Chinatown with my Aunt and Uncle. I was completely mesmerized by the colorful sites, sounds, exotic food and especially the giant dragon being paraded down the narrow street, although I later discovered it had traumatized some of my other young relatives.
I was certain I had been transported to some magical fanciful place when I was, in actuality, a mere 40 minute drive from my suburban home.
Of course, as a six year old, I felt this celebration was infinitely superior to the "western" New Year's Eve, which involved banging some pots and pans at 8:00 and sleeping through a party I was too young to stay awake for.
Although many New Year's have since come and gone, I still look forward honoring this festive celebration, even if just on a small scale, with fun food and some easy to craft asian inspired decor.

Pagoda Orange Blossom Cake

This year marks the year of the snake and since that might not be the most appealing subject to focus on while planning treats for your menu, I thought I'd include some other less reptilian good luck elements in this fun asian inspired dessert.
Although this very unauthentic confection doesn't use traditional Chinese ingredients, the orange flavor, popcorn flowers and pagoda are all in keeping with the symbols of prosperity. Orange hued fruits, sweets and candy, flowers and the color red are all thought to bring luck and good fortune in the coming year and who couldn't use a little of that. 

You'll Need:
Orange flavored layer cake 
Orange tinted icing
Red Licorice-
*you will need a pack of both the traditional (these have an opening in the middle) and either the shoelace or peel apart variety 
meltable white or pink chocolate
sprinkles- red, orange or gold
thin coat hanger or craft wire
wire cutters
Despite an arsenal of cake decorationg supplies in my pantry, my work with icing is marginal at best. I have yet to produce an attractive looking icing rose. So for this I thought I'd eschew traditional frosting flowers for the much more forgiving chocolate coated popcorn and fruit roll up stems.
Bake and frost cake with desired flavor and color. Duncan helped me out and I used orange juice in place of the water called for in the recipe for added flavor.
before - looking quite orange
cut wire into 3 strips (2 equal size- one longer)
 roll peel apart or shoestring licorice (I doubled it up so as not to be too thin)
twirl both ends of thin licorice and press into shape, squeezing firmly. It should remain this way. 
insert wires with licorice into cake, adjusting to leave exposed section of wire at the top for roof
 Carefully slide rolled licorice onto wire

 Continue adding strips of licorice and curly roof as desired building up height.
 This is a fairly simple design.
*remove wire and licorice and discard before serving- no one wants a trip to the dentist*

dip popcorn in melted chocolate (ideally I would have used pink but my craft store must have had a Valentine's rush so I improvised with white and colored with pink sprinkles)
Cut green fruit roll up into strips and arrange on cake for branches
 arrange popcorn cherry blossoms as you like
I melted 3 Blue Rasberry Jolly Ranchers on a foil lined cookie tray (about 4-5 minutes @ 350 but will vary) Once cooled, I peeled it off and placed over hole in Bundt cake as a pond
A Fun conversation starter- guess your guests' signs

Floating Water Lanterns

Last Thanksgiving our neighborhood released sky lanterns as part of a fundraiser for our local food bank- it was an amazing experience watching the paper lantern disappear into the sky powered by a small flame. As my craft skills don't extend to creating anything airborne, aside from the odd paper airplane, I thought I would create a mini version of another lovely idea for this occasion: water lanterns. 

You'll Need:
plastic cups - I bought transparent red
decorative scrapbook paper (lightweight), tracing paper, or printed out patterns of your choice
flameless votive candles
container with water
pebbles or sea glass

This and many other delightful photos and facts about Chinese New year traditions: click here 

These lovely patterns were from Dover Publishing.
Trim base off of plastic cups leaving a rim of about 3/4 inch- be careful the edges can be sharp
Cut paper to desired size and fold into rectangles or roll into cylinders, taping to secure. Trimming patterned paper into lotus shape makes a nice design.
 Decorate as desired with patterned paper or pens or colored pencils
Place paper lanterns into cups (I didn't need tape or glue) and pop a flameless votive into center. They should float without difficulty

I added a name and border to this lantern (made from folded tracing paper) using a red sharpie and placed it in a gold rimmed champagne glass filled with water for a unique place setting
 Since weather didn't permit launching these down a winding river - I tried a few options inside
I added sea glass, pebbles and water to a clear dish and perched on a cake stand to create a makeshift lake
or you can float them in a trifle bowl
Try several different options and as they don't need very deep water to float, shallow serving trays will work too

Easy Paper Lanterns
Since lanterns are such a wonderful way to enhance the decor and lighting in your celebration, in addition to the floating lanterns, why not display a few of these traditional accents. These are simply the classic grade school craft version, updating the construction paper to more elegant scrapbook or printed wrapping paper.

You'll Need:
assorted scrapbook or sturdy wrapping paper featuring Chinese inspired designs
glue or tape
tassels, beads, ribbons or odds and ends (optional)
flameless votives

Fold paper (any size rectangle will do) and make even parallel cuts part way through from folded side, leaving an uncut border at top.

  Unfold, roll into cylinder and tape closed.

Decorate, add ribbon or paper handle and tape a flameless votive inside if desired (these are fun as just decorative without the light accents as well)
I trimmed small strips off the paper before making the lanterns to save to use for extra decorative borders and accents- mixing up the patterns a bit
Hang or display for instant ambiance!
Folding Screen

I saw these mini mirrors in my local Dollar Store and figured their asian inspired design would be perfect decor for a Chinese New Year, and of course the price was right! I've seen inexpensive mirrors and frames glued together countless ways, repurposed into lanterns or placed in groups to create multi-paneled larger pieces, but for this occasion I thought I'd try to create a tabletop screen.
 Black is considered unlucky for New Years in China so using a gold paint pen I doodled some Chinese inspired pattern to brighten up the finish but painting them a solid red or gold would be a great option as well.

 The only tricky part was figuring out which way to tape the panels together so they folded correctly.
I first propped them up with a small piece of tape holding them together until they were positioned correctly and then secured more firmly with larger strip of tape
My first attempt using electrical tape didn't stick- so I picked up Gorilla Tape under advice from a helpful man in the home improvement store. If the less than attractive back will be visible, you can cover with decorative paper to hide any "oopses".
Display anywhere it will nicely reflect light- I tried it on our hand me down Asian inspired coffee table 
or with my Buddha from Target

PennyWise Quick Tips:

* I got many of the party and decor supplies shown at the dollar store- but don't forget to visit the toy section for ideas- I found this toy snake perfect for the theme- and they had him in red!

*Redress other holiday items to fit your theme. These flameless candles were on my mantel for Christmas covered with birch scrapbook paper simply taped into place (lots of tutorials online)
With a quick wardrobe change- they're now perfect for this setting.

Wishing all of our readers Good Luck, Success and Happiness in the New Year!

Friday, January 18, 2013

A Secret Garden Tea

I've always had a love-hate relationship with the month of January. 
On the one hand there are the grim, grey and icy days, when sometimes stepping out your front door is a daunting prospect, but then again, this unfriendly climate offers the perfect excuse to retreat to the cozy comfort of a good book or revisit a forgotten or unfinished project, preferably accompanied by a steaming cup of tea. It's a time when new ideas start to brew and and as magazines arrive with glossy pictures of gardens, it seems Spring is right outside your window even through the bare branches and crisp frozen ground.

That's why I was especially thrilled to hear that the blog 2 Bags Full decided to host a Grow Your Blog Party party at this time of year! What a wonderful way to "virtually" meet and mingle with other bloggers and readers and help one another's ideas and enterprises come into full bloom. The theme of "growth" along with the cheerful floral design button brought to mind one of my all time favorite children's (or any perpetual child's) books on those themes:
 The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

When young, I was captivated by this story of the misplaced girl discovering a mysterious forgotten garden on her uncle's grand but dreary estate. Of course extensive searching of my own childhhod backyard proved that my suburban home did not, indeed, have any such fanciful place but I still delighted in the possibility. Years later I realized that the garden was a metaphor and paralleled the characters development etc etc- but at the time it was a tale of hope, magic and possibilities. With that in mind and since gardening season is still a ways off, I thought I'd create my own indoor secret garden escape in honor of this fun event. 

"Might I have a bit of earth?"

                         Mary in Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden

I couldn't be more thrilled to have my post featured as one of Jody and Stan's favorites on
Simple and Sweet Fridays
Please visit their delightful site Rooted in Thyme!

As a confessed bibliophile, the idea of cutting out the pages of a book, especially a childhood classic, is a horrific thought. So I hit the thrift store for a less precious tome and with all due respect to Danielle Steel (I actually have a copy of this in my "beach read" section and it's a pretty captivating read) I didn't feel as badly about substituting this romance I found for $1 for the real thing. I've seen some photos around the internet featuring plants set in books but couldn't find a clear tutorial so I improvised with a bit of trial, error and mess.

You will Need:
used book 
*Of course make sure it's not some rare first edition, and that is is large enough to hold plastic liner
plastic pot liner (54 cents at Lowe's)
craft knife
small plant- I could only find ivy at the supermarket
coat hanger or strong wire
craft moss, mini stones
silk flowers
popsicle sticks
drawer pull, button or decor for the door
mini furnishings or accessories of your choice, small animals, flower pots, benches etc
print outs - on our printable page of this or any favorite garden themed book
modge podge
sealer or varnish

 Paint the book if desired

Decoupage cover art on front (and if desired- title on book spine). I also gave my book a wash of gold acrylic and I painted a quick watercolor blur of blue, green, and brown inside the cover which will be the backdrop for the garden  
Once dry, spray with sealant to protect finish and voila- and easy redo from steamy romance to treasured child's story (at least on the outside)

Next place liner on desired position on page and trace around. Using a craft knife cut out section of pages to create an opening. This takes patience (you have to remove many sections individually to get to the desired depth). Paint top page with a coat of modge-podge or clear sealant to protect from spills. 
Insert liner in opening to ensure fit, cutting out a bit more if needed.
Remove liner, place some small stones in bottom and  add and arrange plants, moss and decorations reset into book once complete.
For the secret door I used the same process to create my Elf Door from the Post Scandanavian Christmas, using popsicle sticks, adapting the width to desired size.

 "Plant" door in soil base
To form ivied entryway, cut wire or coat hanger to desired length and form an arch which will fit around door with some room to spare. Press into soil and wind ivy around wire to create arch.
Add moss and stones and glue on silk flowers. Add any other accessories you fancy to make your garden your own.

I glued a ribbon to inside cover and attached a key. Simply wedge ribbon between some pages to hold book open and display your garden.

You can water lightly or spray to keep moist, but your garden might not last forever.
When garden outgrows base, remove liner and plant something new or for staying power use convincingly "faux" foliage

"Where you tend a rose, my lad,
a thistle cannot grow"

from The Secret Garden

An invitation

 from Robin Redbreast

A chatty Robin led the way to the garden in the story, but should you want to host Secret Garden Party without a feathered friend to lead the way, you can borrow his image and create this easy invitation. Since the Key was such a major element in the story I added one to the top with ribbon.

You'll need:
printable from printables page
sturdy paper
Key charms (these I found in the scrapbook section of my craft store $2.00 for a pack of six- but flea markets or yard sales usually have delightful vintage keys as well)

Print out the image and attach to blank card or sturdy paper. I use spray adhesive to avoid those nasty glue bubbles. Cut two small openings near top and attach a key with ribbon.
( I also included a blank version of the image that could be used for menu or place cards.)
These images were all downloaded free from The Graphics Fairy -The most wonderful site for vintage clip art and inspiring ideas!

Fairy Cakes and Lemon Curd Tartlets

In the story, Mary, Collin and Dickon were often left to their own devices, freely roaming the grounds of Misselthwaite Manor. If they were to pack a picnic tea to bring to the garden I'm sure it would consist of lots of sweet treats, fresh berries and ripe produce from the kitchen garden as well as the favorite rustic oatcakes made by Dickon's mother.
Admittedly as much as I enjoy baking and partaking of sweet confections, my skill level in the kitchen doesn't reflect my enthusiasm. So I often resort to simpler semi-scratch creations that still capture the spirit of the occasion but for authentic Yorkshire recipes (and delightful activities) check your library for these two wonderful companion books to the story:
The Secret Garden Cookbook
Inside the Secret Garden

You'll need:
for fairy cakes
pound cake- thawed if frozen
white icing (melted in microwave) or glaze
mini marshmallows
for tartlets
filo cups
lemon or coconut curd
berries and mint leaves for garnish

sweet treats with the help of Sara and the Dickinsons

Fairy Cakes

Cut poundcake into about 1/2"- 3/4" slices. Using biscuit cutter or 2 varied sized drinking glasses cut out circles. Pour some glaze larger circle and place smaller on top. 

Cut marshmallow in half on the diagonal and dip cut side into sugar sprinkles. pour more glaze onto top of cake, let drizzle down sides and arrange marshmallow buds like flower. I first saw this marshmallow idea in the book Hello Cupcake! A must have in your cookbook collection if you love fun sweets!

Curd Tartlets

Fill cups with curd. Add berry and mint leaf. The mint adds a nice fresh taste. No culinary skills needed here!
serve with tea and garnish with mint sprigs
Animals were important symbols in the story so be sure to invite some along
Quick PennyWise Tips:
I have a strip of "faux" grass from a home improvement store I use as a table runner that is great for any outdoor theme party (it's been used for a dinosaur baby shower, Kentucky derby party and July 4th) so I got my money's worth out of it.

"Shop" in your home home for any objects that might go with your theme before hitting the store (I had the concrete duck outside and the moss covered bunny in my easter decorations)

"If you look the right way, 

you can see that the whole world is a garden"

 Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden