Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Indigo dyeing workshop, part III: Pole wrapping

I am still savoring the memories from last month's shibori dyeing workshop.  On the second day, we learned a couple of different pole-wrapping techniques.  Here's Akemi's bokashi demo, in which she added a couple of pleats to take up extra fabric width, and then scrunched the fabric up on a piece of PVC pipe, with a twist for added interest:

I was a little afraid of pole-wrapping, since a friend of mine tried it once and found it difficult to wrap the fabric tightly enough.  But I tried two different techniques and loved, loved, loved the results.  Here's a peek at my arashi sample, dyed onto a lightweight organic cotton:

Can you guess how I prepared the fabric?  I pleated it back and forth lengthwise, wrapped it around the pole at an angle, tied it with some linen twine for the resist, and then scrunched it up onto the PVC pipe before sticking it into the dye bath.  As you can see from the photograph, the part that was on the outside took up the most color, while the innermost layer just took up a little bit of the indigo.

Everyone at the workshop had a blank habotai silk scarf, and I decided to use bokashi shibori to dye mine.  I didn't want big, solid borders, so I followed Akemi's example and put in a couple of lengthwise pleats before basting the scarf into a tube and scrunching it up onto the pole.  The basic process was simple, and I absolutely love the result:

I'm already dreaming about the quilts I can make after I dye some more cotton shibori fabrics in indigo.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Indigo dyeing workshop, part II: The dye bath

As I wrote in my last posting, over Thanksgiving weekend, I had the chance to take a wonderful shibori indigo dyeing workshop with Akemi Nakano Cohn, and in this entry, I thought I'd say more about working with the dye bath. 

I had never done any serious fabric dyeing before, and on the first day, the dye bath seemed very alien and forbidding.  When Akemi showed us how to make the dye stock solution and dye bath, I wrote down instructions in minute detail--how to make a paste with the indigo powder, how to transfer it to a Mason jar with a rubber spatula, how to mix in the lye solution, and then the thiourea solution, how to stir up the stock solution, and so forth.  There were a lot of prohibitions to keep track of: don't ever add water to lye (always the reverse, or you will regret the energy release from the chemical reaction as the water hits the lye all at once), don't mix too vigorously, or you will oxidate your stock solution and dye bath, don't wring out your fabric over the dye bath (do it under the surface of the bath), don't let the dye bath get too cold, don't splash or make lots of turbulence in the dye bath--basically, don't do anything that will add oxygen.  Also, don't forget to thoroughly wet your fabric before dyeing it.

On the one hand, there was something comfortably familiar with the setting, since I was a chemistry major once upon a time and logged plenty of hours in lab.  From that standpoint, there was nothing new about the necessity of keeping a particular solution in a reduced state.  But I also hadn't been at a lab bench in over 25 years!

By the second day, however, I felt like an old pro.  Granted, I didn't make the dye bath myself, but when I arrived, it had a beautiful yellow-green sheen, and I could tell immediately that we had particularly good bath to work with.  At a certain point in the afternoon, I could also see that the dye bath was pretty much exhausted, and I helped to stir (not too vigorously!) after Akemi added more dye stock (don't forget to wait 30 min. or so before the revived bath is ready!).

Here are two of my favorite pieces from the second day:

Both are dyed Kona PFD.  For the workshop, we were supplied with a lighter weight organic cotton, but I also bought some Kona, since it's the weight I prefer for quilts, and I wanted to see how it would do in the indigo bath.  It dyed beautifully, and I was really pleased.

The first piece is nui (stitched) shibori.  After the first day of the workshop (and after Thanksgiving dinner), I did eighteen rows of hand-stitching.  It took about two hours altogether, plus another fifteen minutes to pull all of the stitches tight.  I dipped it four times in the dye bath (dipping means putting something in for about 15 minutes, and then taking it out for 20 minutes or so to oxygenate before putting it in the bath again for another dip).  Had there been time, I would have put it in the bath for another two rounds, but even so, I'm pleased with the depth of color.

The second piece is itajime shibori, which involves folding and clamping.  I just pleated the fabric lengthwise, and then pleated the resulting long strip again, down to the right size to clamp between two rectangular pieces of wood.  The wood acts as a resist, which leaves most of the piece with just the barest tint of blue, in between the dark areas that are at the edges of the clamped fabric.  Again, I dipped four times, which made for a strong and beautiful contrast.

Maybe it's hubris, but I do feel confident about continuing my indigo dyeing experiments on my own, and I am already imagining a dye shop in the backyard this summer.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Shibori! Indigo dyeing workshop, part I

As I mentioned in my last post, the day job has been applying enormous pressure over the past several weeks, and it’s put me in a frustrating state of stress and fatigue that hasn’t left much time or energy for fabric-related creativity. I finally got a bit of a break over the weekend, however, with a wonderful two-day shibori indigo dyeing workshop with Akemi Nakano Cohn, sponsored by the 2013 Maiwa Symposium. Here are some of my creations:

I can’t rave enough about Akemi’s inspiring workshop. I’ve collected Japanese cottons for many years and know a fair amount about the dyeing techniques to produce them, but I had never had the chance to try indigo dyeing myself. After just two days with Akemi, however, I feel ready to forge ahead on my own, assuming I can figure out where to set up a dyeing station in our house. On the first morning, we learned how to mix the dye stock solution and prepare the dye bath, and then we embarked upon developing a wide variety of shibori techniques, including itajime (fold and clamp methods), nui shibori (hand stitching and gathering), kanoko and other tying/knotting techniques, plus arashi and bomaki (two forms of pole wrapping). We really covered a lot of ground in just two six-hour sessions!

Altogether, I dyed a dozen different samples. We started with itajime, and here are my first two pieces:

Can you see how they were dyed? Unfortunately, I didn’t take photos--too busy prepping fabric! Basically, itajime involves accordion pleating followed by clamping, which produces all manner of visual effects. In the piece on the right, which was my very first effort, I pleated the fabric lengthwise into twelve sections, and then pleated into fourths in the other direction, which gave me a small rectangular shape. I then clamped with chopsticks and rubber bands for a resist (which yielded the chevron lines that you see), plus some clothespins here and there for good measure. For the piece on the left, I pleated lengthwise in fourths, and then I pleated in an equilateral triangle shape and clamped with chopsticks. I also tried a pair of clothespins in each corner, but the folded fabric was too thick, and the clothespins basically fell off in every round of dyeing.

Both fabrics are a lightweight organic cotton from Maiwa Supply.  The first fabric went through the dye bath twice, while the second had four rounds of dyeing. Indigo dyeing requires multiple rounds of dipping in order to produce dark colors, so it requires a lot of patience.  It's hard to resist the temptation to unwrap your fabric prematurely to see how the dyeing pattern looks! I’ll say more about what it was like to work with the dye bath in a later posting. Stay tuned!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Creative necessity

The pressures of the day job have been getting to me lately, especially since too many work obligations have left me without the time and energy for quilting over the past few weeks.  I get frustrated and stressed when I don't have time for creative contemplation, and last night I couldn't sleep for all the thoughts spinning in my head.  Basically, I'm not happy if I'm not creating.  Finally, around 1:30 a.m. I just got out of bed to work on a quilt that I started imagining back in August for VMQG's latest challenge. 

I spent about forty minutes or so cutting fabric and piecing before going to bed, and I continued with another forty minutes or so of sewing this morning.  I didn't work on the actual challenge quilt, but a small preliminary study in order to experiment with raw edge applique.  For me, the challenge fabrics immediately inspired a vision of scattered leaves across a pieced background, and with the preliminary study, I'm trying to see if I can bring that vision to life.  Here's the quilt thus far:

It feels so good to be creating again.  I will sleep well tonight!

Saturday, September 21, 2013


I went downstairs to my sewing room one evening a couple of weeks back, and here's what I found:

Aaack!  I'd been had, yet again!

Today I took defensive action, by going to Ikea for some of the hooks that hang over the edges of cabinet doors:

The idea is that fabrics in use for current projects now hang, rather than sitting in a tempting pile on my cutting table.  We'll see if this system actually works in practice--I'm not optimistic about my ability to put things away at the end of my sewing sessions, even in this minimal fashion.  But it beats the constant resort to the lint roller, and maybe as an added bonus, my fabrics won't get as wrinkled.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Piecing at a snail's pace: WIP Wednesday

Progress on my heron quilt is so incremental that I think it will get monotonous if I keep showing the view of the whole thing, so I'm just going to provide photos of little segments and hints until the entire top is done.  This past week, I finished the top left part, and I put together another unit of curved flying geese:

The flying geese are made from an exquisite piece of yukata fabric that I bought many years ago from Kasuri Dyeworks, the fabulous Japanese fabric store that used to be in Berkeley, CA.  Alas, Kasuri Dyeworks closed when store founder Koji Wada and his wife Debbie decided to move to Wyoming for their retirement, and sadly, Koji passed away just a few years later.  He was a wonderful man, with tremendous knowledge of and passion for Japanese textiles.  Kasuri Dyeworks apparently still makes it to a few select quilt shows, however, and I keep dreaming of going down to the Road to California one of these years in the hopes of purchasing a big bundle of intricately dyed yukata and katazome cottons.  Maybe January 2014?

In the meantime, the heron quilt is slow going because I'm also trying to do more sewing for my Etsy shop.  I managed to make a couple of drawstring pouches, plus I prepped fabric for a couple of ID holder wristlet coin purses.  Here's one of the pouches, in pale green vintage kimono silk, with a gorgeous butterfly and hollyhock design:

The quest for organization continues as well, especially my determination to use every bit of spare space to its best effect.  I noticed that the end of my pine frame bookcase underneath my cutting table wasn't doing anything useful, and I had a scrap of peg board that was just the right width, so I screwed it to the exposed end of the bookcase.  For a bit of perspective, here's the before photo:

And here's the close-up afterwards, underneath the table:

Now there's finally a good place to store rulers, plus a few other odds and ends, including the funny little stuffed brain cell that my sister gave me a while back.  I might paint the pegboard and the back of the cabinetry under my cutting table someday, but not before next summer.  For now, the utilitarian look will have to do.  Kudos to the Ellison Lane Sewing Studio Spotlight, in which so many of the studios demonstrated the virtues of pegboard, not to mention how fresh and cheerful it can look if painted in bright colors.

My day job is about to speed up again, so I might not have any quilting progress to show for a while, especially since I absolutely must put sleeves and labels on three quilts that are going to the Northwest Quilting Expo in Portland, as part of a special exhibit of quilts by the Vancouver Modern Quilt Guild.  Hope the rest of you out in the blogosphere will enjoy a lot more sewing time.  Happy quilting, everyone!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Slow and not so steady: WIP Wednesday

Where did the week go?  And what happened to summer?  Earlier tonight it was rainy and horribly windy--it sounded like mid-October outside, and now the temperature has dropped significantly.  I'm hoping we'll still have some good weather, but at the moment it really seems as if Vancouver's short summer has already come to a close, a good two weeks earlier than usual.

The day job kept me much too busy this past week, so I didn't have nearly as much time for sewing as I would have liked.  I did manage to make a little progress on my heron quilt, by starting work on the upper left corner.  I hadn't done any paper piecing in years, but the technique seems made for free form flying geese.  I also thought the quilt would be monotonous if I stuck to blue fabrics, so I'm starting to throw in some flecks of red.  Here's this week's piecing:

And here's what the creative process looks like on my new design wall, combined with fabric chaos in the foreground:

I also had fun making a fabric bag for scrap storage, as part of my ongoing drive for organization.  It certainly beats the plastic shopping bags that I usually use:

Happy sewing, and may all of your WIPs bring you creative energy and enthusiasm!

Monday, August 26, 2013

The final tally

Plum season 2013 has come to a close.  The final count: 207, give or take a handful.  That's well below last year's crazy bumper crop, but still an excellent harvest for our one little tree.

Here in Vancouver, the weather is already cooler and cloudier, the days are noticeably shorter, and the start of a busy semester is looming.  Fall is just around the corner, but I will hold onto summer until the bittersweet end.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

What's big, orange, and furry, but smaller than a breadbox?

Our younger cat!

Actually, I can't say with absolute certainty that she's smaller than a breadbox, but at least she's smaller than a breadbox box:

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Studio Makeover, Part IV: Design Wall

I wish I had a fully finished sewing room to show for the Sewing Studio Spotlight, but my studio makeover is still a work in progress.  Most of the major elements are in, however, although I'm still waiting for those darned floating shelves to arrive.  (I think they may have floated out to sea or something!)  Here's my newly completed design wall, which I just finished putting up today:

I've never managed to find room for a design wall and have instead made do with beds, tables, and floors for years.  My studio has limited free wall space, but I realized I could hang small design boards from the folding door of the closet in addition to using the space next to the closet door.  This design board triptych, made from 3/4" thick insulation foam covered with quilt batting, isn't huge, but it's big enough for my wall quilts, which are rarely larger than 40" high x 60" wide.  The two panels on the door are each 14" wide x 48" high, while the third panel is 38" wide x 68" high.

Lest you find my studio sterile in its uncluttered glory, here's a more honest angle:

Two weekends ago, I also replaced a pile of cardboard storage boxes with an Antonius drawer/basket system from Ikea, along with a much smaller pile of cardboard boxes:

I have another drawer set that can be stacked on top of the first one, but for now, I'm going to stick with the current arrangement, since I like having the open space beneath the wall cabinet.  Eventually, I'll make a fabric cover for the wire baskets, and I'll place washi paper on the inside of the glass doors to protect my fabric from light.  I would have preferred solid doors, but unfortunately, Ikea doesn't make them in that size.

Alas, I haven't made any quilting progress lately, but at least the design wall is getting some use, and the quilt on the left should get some attention in the upcoming week.   I'm linking up to the Studio Spotlight at Ellison Lane, The Needle and Thread Network, and later, to WIP Wednesday at Freshly Pieced.  If you want a more complete view of my studio and the state of the makeover thus far, please check out the following links:

Studio Makeover, Part I: The Semi-Before Photos

Studio Makeover, Part II: The Waiting Game

Heron quilt: WIP Wednesday

Studio Makeover, Part III: Organization

Happy quilting, everyone!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Smoked Spanish Paprika Chicken Stew

A couple of weeks back, I had planned on making pork cutlets, tonkatsu style, but the neighborhood grocery where I like to shop didn't have any pork.  There was plenty of chicken, however, and I knew I had a lovely, fragrant tin of smoked Spanish paprika at home, so I started dreaming up a chicken stew, with paprika as the main seasoning.  Here's the recipe I came up with:

Smoked Spanish Paprika Chicken:


1-2 Tbs. butter
6 chicken thighs
1 medium onion, chopped
1/4 c. red wine (or white)
3/4 c. chicken stock
1 can chickpeas (drained and rinsed)
1 bay leaf
1 scant tsp. smoked Spanish paprika (pimenton)
1 tsp. oregano
pinch of cayenne pepper
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 c. finely chopped parsley

Rinse chicken pieces and pat dry; sprinkle w/ salt and pepper on both sides.  Heat butter in a skillet and brown chicken on both sides (in two batches if necessary).  Remove chicken from pan and set aside.

Remove some of the chicken fat in the skillet if the amount seems excessive, but leave enough to saute the onions.  Add chopped onion to the skillet and lightly brown (5-7 min.).  Add the pimenton to the lightly browned onions and saute for 30 seconds or so.  Add the wine and deglaze the pan.  Return the browned chicken to the pan and add chicken stock, bay leaf, oregano, and cayenne.  Simmer, covered, for 30-40 min. until chicken is fully cooked.  In the last 10-20 min. of simmering, add the chickpeas. 

If needed, add additional salt and pepper to taste.  Stir in chopped parsley at last minute and serve.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Studio Makeover, Part III: Organization

As the floating shelves I ordered find their way to Vancouver, I've been working on other aspects of my studio makeover.  I like modern interiors with clean lines, minimal clutter (more aspiration than reality in my life!), and a place for everything.  I don't mind all manner of creative fabric chaos while there's work in progress, but I want to be able to store things away when finished and start anew with a clean slate on the next project.  For that to happen, in addition to new cabinetry and shelving, my ideal sewing room will also need all manner of storage boxes, bins, canisters, and other containers, so that I can put all of my supplies in order.

In my 10' x 11' sewing room, I have to think about how to exploit every square inch of space.  In order to put away some clutter that's been leaning all-too-visibly against a wall for a few years, I used an old sheet to make a sling.  It now hangs from the back of a door as part of my behind-the-door storage for an extra cutting mat, random bits of tag board, and some boxes:

There are also a few boxes and other items leaning on the wall just to the left of the door.  But with the door open, as it almost always is, everything is nicely hidden away:

For above-cabinet storage, the original plan was to go out and buy some nice boxes, but then I started feeling guilty.  I sew--shouldn't I make them myself?  There are excellent on-line fabric box tutorials (e.g. here and here), and as a start, I came up with this pencil box-sized prototype:

Finally, I did a little trolling around the web for insights about my likes and dislikes.  The quilt studios that appeal the most to me have light colored walls and ceilings, lots of natural light, wall space, and plenty of cabinets, drawers, and other storage to tuck fabric and other supplies away while they're not in use.  Here are links to a few favorites:

Fellow VMQG member Terry remodeled her studio last year and produced a great example of clean and efficient design in a tight and difficult space.  She's been reorganizing more recently as well--for details, click here and here.  Since I also have a relatively small studio, her approach offers enormous inspiration.

I can only envy Carol Taylor's 1570 square feet of space.  For photos of her gorgeous studio, with its multitude of windows, high ceilings, and generous closet space enclosed with large, flannel-covered sliding doors that serve as design walls, see here.

Selvage Blog also works in a wonderful, open, and brightly lit space with plenty of room to hang quilts.  She seems to have a lot less fabric than I do: she must be remarkably self-disciplined!

A builder in Missouri posted photos of a terrific garage conversion.  I love the storage cube unit with all of the bright fabric-covered drawers--it makes the space so lively and eye-catching.

By chance, it turns out that Ellison Lane and The Sewing Loft have also launched a series of Sewing Studio Spotlights that are well worth a look, so stay tuned to both blogs over the next week or so.

I had hoped to show off the heron quilt's progress on a spanking new design wall, but the latter is still a few days away, so the evolving quilt top is lying on my cutting table at the moment.  I'm not entirely sure where I'm going with this quilt, beyond an invocation of flight, water, and movement, and maybe a view through a window, or a series of moments caught on film:

It's still Tuesday night here on the west coast, but I'm linking up to WIP blogs on Freshly Pieced and The Needle and Thread Network.  Happy WIP Wednesday!

Monday, August 12, 2013

And today's number is...


That's how many plums we've harvested as of this evening.  There are still a few dozen on the tree, but plum season is definitely well past its peak.  It looks as if this year's harvest will be in the range of about 150-180 plums, far below last year's bumper crop, but much more in line with the amount we can actually eat.

Plums, anyone?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Plum update

Tuesday's pickings!
As of yesterday evening, we had harvested 51 plums, which is maybe a third of the total, so plum season is in full swing!  In fact, ripe plums were dropping from the branches yesterday afternoon, so I need to borrow my neighbor's gripper-arm thingy to pick the ones that are out of reach.  Plums are definitely at least ten days ahead of last year's schedule--what a beautiful summer!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Heron quilt: WIP Wednesday

At Saturday's farmers' market, I met a wonderful textile artist, D.H. of Maritime Blues, who uses linoleum block printing to make placemats, napkins, tea towels, and other housewares, as well as the occasional quilt.  Her exquisite work immediately caught my eye, and I couldn't resist buying a placemat set and a couple of tea towels to use for quilting.  D. told me that she usually sells at the Kerrisdale farmers' market, or occasionally at Kitsilano, so I was lucky to find her at Trout Lake.

Placemat and napkins from Maritime Blues
We had such a nice conversation that I decided to start immediately on a small quilt with one of her heron block placemats, rather than the other quilt I had in mind.  I haven't gotten very far, other than to haul out all manner of blue fabrics--hand dyes, traditional width Japanese fabrics, modern Japanese and Japanese-inspired prints, and other odds and ends--and to settle on the basic placement of the heron blocks.  Here's the beginning:

It's been a while since I've had much time for quilting, since our backyard "farm" and other projects have kept me busy lately.  I'm in the midst of a sewing room makeover, but as mentioned in my last posting, that venture is on hold for the moment, as I wait for some shelving to arrive.  But I did manage to put up the wall cabinets and am pretty amazed at how good they look.  Here's the view from Sunday, before I finished cleaning up from all of the drilling and assembling:

Here's a close-up, which I think looks interesting, because the removal of all other visual context just leaves behind the basic geometry and seems almost like a work of modern art:

"Cabinet" (2013), private collection
Speaking of modern art, I was browsing in a bookstore on Sunday while taking a break from the shelf-shopping expedition, and I happened upon a book of art by Ellsworth Kelly.  Some of his work from the early 1950s offers wonderful inspiration for quilting.  I don't want to violate copyright by posting any photos, but you can see a few examples of his art here.  I particularly like the one that's third from the top--unfortunately, I've forgotten the title, but I think it's from 1950. 

As for other creative summer activities, if you're interested in making an awesome Viennese chestnut almond torte, check out my July 28 blog entry.

Happy WIP Wednesday!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Studio Makeover, Part II: The Waiting Game

Yesterday, I went to buy the floating shelves for my studio, only to find that the ones I want are on backorder, and I will have to wait 2-4 weeks for them to arrive.  I suppose it's an object lesson on home renovation as an exercise in delayed gratification.

Thus my sewing room makeover is on hold for now, although there's still plenty of organizing to be done in the meantime.  Since I didn't have shelves to install yesterday afternoon, instead I put together a metal frame and baskets (Ikea's Antonius system) for fabric storage, which necessitated refolding all of my batik fabrics, and that took hours.  Fortunately, my traditional-width Japanese cottons didn't require nearly as much effort. 

For Mrrr, chaos meant opportunity:

Mrrr discovers the benefits of home renovation

Unfortunately for Mrrr, all of the renovation wreckage has been put away, so that I can get back to sewing as I wait for my shelves to arrive.  I've started a new quilt and hope to report some progress for WIP Wednesday. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Studio Makeover, Part I: The Semi-Before Photos

As I mentioned earlier, I'm installing some new cabinetry and shelves in my sewing room in order to try and get the clutter under control.  I'm too embarrassed to show the true "before" photos, but I'm willing to show at least some of the challenge.  Here's what things looked like earlier today, with the room prepped for work:

My studio is a ground floor room, about 10' x 11', with windows that take up most of one side, as well as two doors, since the room functions as a passage way to the rear of the house (I won't explain Vancouver urban architecture and the way most houses are cut up for multiple suites and rentals).  Here you see the view from the entryway and the arrangement of my cutting table and sewing machine table.  The plan is to install 72" of kitchen cabinetry on that back wall, with a 72" long floating shelf directly below.

I also have storage just to the left of the entryway:

Here I'm part-way through my renovation--you'll have to imagine what it looked like without the wall cabinet, which I installed last week.  And no, the space didn't look nearly as orderly as it does at the moment.  In addition to the wall cabinet, I'm also planning on installing a floating shelf halfway between the top of the wall cabinet and the ceiling, and I have a metal frame and wire baskets that will replace some of the red boxes on the right.

As you've probably guessed, most of the existing furniture is from Ikea, and most of the new installations are as well, although I think I'm going to get the floating shelves from somewhere else.  I'm particularly pleased with the Billy wall shelf, because with the help of various chat forums and websites, I did a bit of an Ikea hack.  I mounted the shelf with an Akurum kitchen rail, so that I could hang it from the wall studs, rather than relying on drywall to bear weight.  The method worked perfectly, so much so that for the life of me, I don't know why Ikea doesn't recommend it for everyone.

I'm excited about how things are shaping up, and how I hope my studio will look by the end of the long weekend.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Plum season has begun!

Remember yesterday's plum?  I picked it this morning.  DH and I shared it, and it was delicious!

Plum season has officially begun, just five days earlier than last year.  I'm curious (and anxious) to see when the rest of the plums will ripen.  Last year, it took another two weeks before we were picking plums regularly.  I had thought the plums might develop more quickly this year, since it's been so sunny.  But so far, they aren't running all that far ahead of last year's pace.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The farm report

Plum season is almost here!  I've had my eye on this plum all week:

It's still not quite ready yet, but it is oh-so-close and tempting.

DH and I have also been enjoying the occasional fig over the past few days.  In addition, although we're only getting a decent amount of fruit from one of our three blueberry bushes this year, that one bush is looking good:

We've been scarfing blueberries for the past couple of weeks, although I have to confess that the vast majority of them come from our local farmers' market.  During the season, I buy a five-pound box every Saturday from Beckmann Berry Farm.

I haven't been sewing much lately, although I did manage to make a bunch of drawstring bags and zippered pouches for my Etsy shop a week ago or so.  Here's a shot of a few of them:

Sewing time has been scarce lately for a variety of reasons.  First, I came across the Studio Ghibli film fest at the Pacific Cinematheque, so we've been spending a lot of evenings at the movies over the past ten days.  Second, my big baking project took a big chunk of time out of the weekend.  Third, I'm in the midst of remodeling in my sewing room and am installing a lot of wall cabinetry in order to try and get the clutter under control.  I'm too embarrassed to show any "before" photos, but I hope I'll have some photos of the end result by early next week.  I'm planning big trips to Rona and Ikea this weekend.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Summer Baking: Chestnut Almond Torte

About once a year or so, I'll bake a fancy, decadent cake.  This year's excuse came with an invitation to a dinner party this evening, and since I know one of the guests is allergic to wheat gluten, I pulled out an old favorite recipe for a flour-free Viennese chestnut almond torte.  My recipe originates from Lilly Joss Reich's The Viennese Pastry Cookbook (1970), but I've tweaked it over the years.

Here are the ingredients:

The torte:
4 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1 15.5 oz. can of chestnut puree
2 Tbs. rum (optional)
1 cup ground almonds (I use Trader Joe's almond flour)
5 egg whites

Chocolate whipped cream filling:
5 oz. bittersweet chocolate
1 c. heavy cream or whipping cream

Apricot glaze:
1/2 c. apricot jam
2-3 Tbs. rum (optional)

Chocolate icing:
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate
3-4 Tbs. water
1-2 Tbs. butter

9-inch springform pan

Step 1: Baking the torte

Butter and flour the pan (use almond flour instead of wheat flour if you're avoiding wheat gluten), and set it aside.  Take the chestnut puree and pass it through a wire mesh sieve or ricer to fluff it up--you should have a heaping 2 cups of puree when you're done.  Alternatively, you can boil or roast the chestnuts, peel them, and then rice or grate them, which is what I used to do until we moved to Vancouver and I discovered that canned chestnut puree is readily available in the French and Italian specialty shops here.

At this point, you can start preheating the oven to 350 F.

Next, beat the egg yolks and sugar together in a large bowl until they are thick, pale yellow, and form the ribbon.  In another bowl, beat the egg whites until they form stiff and shiny peaks.  (For detailed advice on these steps, I consulted Julia Child, The Way to Cook, but I'm sure you can find excellent tutorials on the web as well.)

If you're using the rum (I skipped it because there will be children at tonight's party who will likely not enjoy the taste), sprinkle it onto the chestnuts.  Use a rubber spatula to mix the riced chestnuts into the beaten egg yolks and sugar.  Next, fold in the ground almonds, and then quickly but carefully fold in the egg whites.  When you have incorporated the egg whites, pour the batter into the springform pan and place it in the oven.

Bake at 350 F for ten minutes, and then reduce the heat to 325 F.  Continue baking for another 45-60 min.  The torte is done when you insert a fork or toothpick and it comes out dry.  When the torte is ready, take it out of the oven and let it cool on a rack until it reaches room temperature.  When the cake is cool, run a knife around the edges, and remove the ring of the springform pan.  Lick the crumbs, if any, so you can get a first taste of your torte.

Note: the torte at this point will look quite modest.  It should rise a bit in the oven, but it's likely to fall as it cools, and it's usually only about an inch or so thick (at least when I make it):

Don't worry about how the torte looks: it tastes delicious, I promise.  I've wondered if it would rise more if I tried took the sieved chestnut puree and heated it in a dry pan in order to take some of the moisture out.  Maybe it would--my memory might be failing, but I have the feeling that the torte rose more back when I started with whole chestnuts.  But maybe not, given the high ratio of chestnuts and almonds to eggs. After all, a French spongecake made with the same techniques would use well under a cup of flour.  Perhaps I should add another yolk and white? 

I usually bake the torte the night before and then do all of the assembly the next day.  If you wanted, though, you could bake in the morning and assemble in the afternoon.  Putting the cake together after it's finished and cooled takes a little over an hour, or more, if you decide on a fancier finish.

Step 2: Making the filling and layering the cake

For the whipped cream filling: Put a large metal mixing bowl in the refrigerator so that it will be cold when you're ready to whip the cream.  Then melt the chocolate in a double boiler.  I just use a mixing boil set over a pot of barely simmering water:

I usually use Lindt chocolate with about 60-65% cacao, although this time I went up to 75%, because that's all the local grocery had at the moment.  Dove bittersweet chocolate also works well, as will any chocolate with a smooth, creamy texture when it melts in your mouth.

Remove the melted chocolate from the heat and let it cool until it's lukewarm.  Then take your metal mixing bowl out of the fridge, pour in the heavy cream or whipping cream, and beat the cream with an electric mixer or by hand until it's nicely whipped.

Use a rubber spatula to incorporate the whipped cream into the chocolate.  Start with one fairly generous dollop of cream to lighten the chocolate.  If you start with too much whipped cream, the chocolate will solidify, and you'll end up with flecks of chocolate suspended in your cream.  But if that happens, don't worry--your filling will still be perfectly tasty, with a little added texture as well.

Gradually incorporate the rest of the whipped cream:

Almost there...

Time for a break, and some finger-licking goodness.
Now you're ready to start putting the torte together.   Take a bread knife and split your chestnut almond cake in half horizontally:

Can you see the large cracks in the top half?

Don't worry if your two layers aren't the same thickness, or if one of them falls apart a bit--that's what glaze and icing are for.  Honestly, this recipe is pretty forgiving, even if it seems complicated.

Use your rubber spatula to spread the chocolate whipped cream filling on the bottom half of your torte:

In progress...
Now, place the top half of the torte over the filling layer:

I had a bit of a disaster, and the top broke into about half a dozen pieces when I tried to pick it up.  But it really didn't make a difference, and it will make even less of a difference with the final steps.

Step 3: Apricot glaze  

The apricot glaze is simplicity itself.  Take about half a cup of apricot jam, add 2-3 Tbs. rum if desired, and heat it in a pot over medium low.  When the jam starts bubbling, start stirring.  When it thickens, the glaze is ready:

Immediately pour the hot glaze onto your torte and spread it evenly over the top with a spatula:

Remember the broken top layer?  Now you can't see the cracks at all.

Step 4: Icing and finishing

For the icing, melt 4 oz. chocolate in a double boiler.  Now here's the weird part: add 3-4 Tbs. water (or 6-8 Tbs., as in Reich's original recipe) to the melted chocolate.  The results will look terrible, and you'll be certain you've ruined the chocolate, but stir the water in until the mixture has an even consistency.  Then add 1-2 Tbs. butter, and mix until the butter is thoroughly incorporated.

I confess that the resulting icing this time around looks grainier than usual, perhaps because of the 75% cacao chocolate?  It does taste smooth, and when I've made this icing in the past, it's had a smoother appearance as well, especially after it's had time to cool and harden.  I confess that the addition of water strikes me as a pretty odd step, but the technique comes from Reich's mother, who apparently used it successfully.  If you don't want to take chances, you can just add 6-8 Tbs. of butter to the melted chocolate and go with a much richer option, but I always thought there was already enough chocolate and cream to do the full butter topping.

Now things get messy, so at this point, I always put the torte on top of a small plate, to provide a little extra height to work with.  Spread the icing on the top and sides of the torte:

If you take the more watery option and use the full 6-8 Tbs. of water, you will have a much runnier icing.  You will be able to spread it across the top, but you will have to settle for letting it more or less run down the sides of the torte.  That icing will harden nicely, however, so don't worry that you're going to end up with a soupy mess on top.

At this point, you can consider yourself done.  I didn't like how my icing looked, though, so I decided to take a few more steps.  First, since the icing was on the bitter side (again, thanks to the 75% cacao chocolate that I used), I used a sieve to sift powdered sugar on top of the torte.  The powdered sugar appeared pretty messy, but I knew it would soak into the icing over time.

For the finish, I toasted some almond flour in a dry saute pan and then let it cool before sieving it on top of the torte and patting it onto the sides:

If your icing looks good, other more minimalist finishes include sprinkling toasted almond flour, toasted and coarsely chopped almonds, or if you thought ahead, a bit of saved chestnut puree around the outer edges of the torte, or taking a whole chestnut and placing it in the center.

I thought my torte still looked messy (the almond flour and chocolate icing all over the cutting board didn't help), and I happened to have some whole almonds in the kitchen, so I toasted a few in the saute pan and ringed them around the edges.  Voila!  Here is the finished chestnut almond torte:

Bon appetit (or perhaps I should say, Guten Appetit), and happy baking!