Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Decisions, Decisions: Dyeing the Silk for My Marie Antoinette Gown

So I was very excited when my silk taffeta came today (all 15 yards of it!) until I opened the box and realized it was not quite the color I expected. I was looking for sort of a Robin's Egg Blue color, and from the description and photo, this seemed like it would be perfect. Unfortunately, it is super goldy-green, not at all a good color for an albino blonde such as myself. So it looks like I will have to dye it.

 Behold, the golden-green fabric.
What is interesting about this fabric is that it is a "shot" taffeta, which means that the cross threads are a different color than the ones that run up and down. In this case the two shades are buttercup yellow and robin's egg blue. The buttercup yellow threads are what is giving off the golden haze. The challenge with dyeing this fabric is preserving the shot. If I make it too light, then both threads will become white essentially and I will lose some of the shimmer effect of the shot. On the other hand, it is so pale that the contrast of the shot doesn't really have that noticeable an effect (compared to red shot with black, for instance). So maybe I just shouldn't worry about it? I did some preliminary test swatches using various stages of color removal, optic whitener, and blue dye and came up with some interesting conclusions.

Here you can see from left to right: 
1) 100% color removed + optic whitener 
2) 100% color removed
3) 75% color removed + optic whitener (top) and without (bottom)
4) 50% color removed + optic whitener + blue dye
5) 50% color removed
6) 50% color removed + blue dye
7) and 8) 100% color removed plus blue dye
9) (center bottom) Original color

Just looking at the colors, I can tell that whatever I do I will need to lighten it at least 50% to get a color I can work with. To whiten silk, I use a product called White Brite which you can get at some grocery stores, Harris Teeter included. It's sodium hydrosulfite and sodium bisulfite which are safe for removing color from silk. You should never use chlorine bleach on silk. First, it doesn't really work that well on dyed silk. Second, it will damage and discolor your fabric. General note, whenever you are working with silk, using very hot water (140 -160 degrees) is a very good idea. The heat won't hurt it, and it cuts down the time your fabric has to be exposed to the bleaching or dyeing chemicals.

I am also thinking that I will need to use the optic whitener if I do not decide to take all of the color out. Optic whitener is a kind of dye that adds a UV tint to whites, making them super copy-paper white. It is used to color most white fabric, as natural fibers are never this white. It's also the reason that your sheets are never as glowing white after you bleach them (the bleach takes out the optic whitener). Excited about this product? You can order it from Dharma Trading along with any and every kind and color of dye you can imagine. 

In my experiment I found that the optic whitener tends to make a big difference, but only where the buttercup color  has gotten very close to white or cream. It did not make a difference on the original color fabric where the yellow tone was still present. I really only found the difference noticeable on the super white swatch (#1) and the 50% color removed + blue swatch (#4). 

Comparing the sheen and finish on all of these, I'm now convinced that I shouldn't worry too much about preserving the shot. The silk is shiny and pretty on its own. 

So this just leaves me with one question... which one? #4 seems to be a good compromise between blue and green, whereas the two blues on the end could be pretty as well. Must keep in mind that the trim I have chosen is silver toned. This will make a difference.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lesson 12. Let Them Eat Cake: The Making of an 18th Century Court Gown (My Marie Antoinette Dress!)

So I'm going to a Baroque themed masqued ball in Atlanta next month, which my dear friend is in charge of putting on. It benefits a French language theatre called Theatre du Reve. You can get tickets here Bal Masque if you are interested. I'm oh-so-excited about this event because it gives me an excuse to make something I have always wanted to make. A big ridiculous Marie Antoinette style court dress, comme ca:

 I rarely work from a pattern, so I've been using some great internet resources to try to plan this out. Claudine's Idle Hands Blog has been extremely useful.

The first step is of course the pannier hoop skirt, which gives the dress its distinctive shape. To make it you need stretch free fabric and steel banding to make the hoops. The easiest way to get the banding is to go to a lumberyard and ask for steel lumber strapping. They will give it to you for free if you can use the stuff they have taken off of wood bales and are going to throw away, or you can buy it from them new for about $0.30 cents a foot. It comes on a giant reel and you have to wind it up and tape it to transport it. I cut up an old bed sheet for the fabric component, although you can splurge and use silk or something like Claudine did.

Working without a pattern means one thing, of course, lots of math and some trial and error. I started just by making an ellipse on the floor with ribbon to decide what the bottom perimeter measurement needed to be. I settled on about 120", not wanting it to be too terribly big. Then I started graphing using some graph paper I generated online. Graph Paper Generator

To get the measurements, I basically drew out the shape I wanted the finished product to have, then I measured the distance across the skirt at 5 evenly spaced places. Using these figures, I created a set of ratios to represent the relationship of these measurements (with the bottom rung equalling 1 and the smaller ones equalling a fraction of 1). Then I multiplied the fractions by the number 120, which represents the desired size of the bottom. This gave me the sizes for all of the hoops and the information I needed to cut the skirt, which was just 2 identical bell shaped pieces.

This is my first shot of the pannier with the hoops installed. One thing about a pannier as opposed to a circular hoop is that the hoops have to be secured inside the skirt to make it elliptical. Otherwise it will tend to pop into the round no matter how you have cut the fabric. In this photo the bottom 3 hoops have yet to be secured, and the top two have just been tied into shape with embroidery floss. All of this while I was coming up with a good way to do the stay strings. It looks like Claudine used strings tied together, but I completely lack the coordination to tie things together which are under pressure, so I decided to engineer something that would be a little bit more controllable and adjustable.

What I came up with was kind of a string clasp mechanism like you see on brown envelopes. I attached a 1/8" ribbon to one side of the hoop and a button to the other side, allowing the string to be tightened and attached by winding the end of the string around the button.

 Shot from under the skirt looking up at the left side. Strings running from the front left to the back left part of the skirt. You can see the closure area for the hoops at the back.
Final product...


Not too bad, I think. Looks a lot like Claudine's, which was my goal.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Life Unnoticed?

So I suppose it has officially been long enough that I owe the internet world an update. Let's begin:

Ribbon Store: 
Check. I'm still just selling online, but I'm shipping at least 100 orders a month, which is enough to keep me from going nuts from boredom and gives me some small reason to get out of bed every day. If you're dying of curiosity, it's

Still standing. I don't think I've made any major unreported improvements, unless you count the shelf build-out I did for the laundry room (post later).

Personal Life:
Still married (apologies to all of those who lost big in my mother's "will they last a year?" office pool). Still have the kitties. Haven't de-friended anyone... yet. And I've basically decided that instead of trying to become a lawyer I should have gone to Hollywood and tried to become a movie star.

That last thing I said is actually not as far off base as I had originally intended it to be. I used to be quite involved in theatre, and if you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have said that my ultimate life goal was to become an actress or a costume designer. But alas, the lie drew me in as is has so many others.  I speak of course of the promise that a law degree will serve as an instant passport to success and riches, cutting out all of that corporate-ladder-climbing nonsense, whilst also not demanding any particular kind of human talent. It all sounded so perfect. Guaranteed. Easy. Formulaic. For once, something I would not have to struggle to be better than everyone else at. It's science: take A, add J.D. get sexy 6-figure job on Easy Street. Yes, the lie. You know, I used to feel cheated by the lie, but now I have almost a fond sense of compassion for the whole ordeal. I try to look at the three-year life pause as a well needed break from my lifelong quest for indomitability. Law school did sort of coincide with my last real urge to try very hard at anything, so I'm not sure if apathy begat law school or vice versa, but there you have it.

I just had a birthday and I'm feeling old now. But of course, I've always felt old. It is so strange to look back on days where I had no clue what would become of me. It was an unsettling feeling then, but a positive one, I think. It made me at least believe that whatever happened and wherever I landed, it would be at the end of some kind of adventure - one that, of course, never happened thanks to my flirtation with the path of least resistance. Now I'm feeling like I have to redeem myself and my lost time. But I'm helpless. I fill my days with these little amusements and projects, but they never make me feel like it's anything I can be proud of. So much of it is accomplished within my little home world and I'm convinced that doesn't count. I think I'm letting my hermit tendencies get the best of me. It's always been a battle though. Socially, I tend towards lonerism, but I have this incredibly strong urge to be around people and, more than anything, to perform. Tricks, feats of trivia, comic musings, works of art and song... it doesn't matter I guess. Will work for recognition. And all because I am so painfully aware that my worst fear is a very real possibility. What if I can't help but lead a life unnoticed?

One of my favorite paintings. Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Over a Sea of Mist. It's so lonely and full of longing, yet promising at the same time. I feel that way sometimes. Like the whole world is laid out at my feet but somehow obscured from me.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Lesson 11. Spiders Suck

Dear Spiders,

I think you know that I take a very compassionate stance on most issues. So you'll forgive my candor if I just come out and say it. I hate you. I hate you blindly and without reason. My hate is simple and pure. There is only one prerequisite, and you've got it. 8 legs.

Now some people will stand up and defend you and say that you're a vital part of the ecosystem or some enduring symbol of God's devotion to all creatures big and small. Bullsh*t. You and your kind are a public menace. Street thugs. And I'm not going to take it any more.

You come into my house and spin your little webs and string up some fluffy pod full of 1500 or so of your disgusting evil progeny, and you think I'm not going to notice? You think you can just waltz in here and take over the joint? And I'm supposed to be thankful? Because you eat gnats and other small winged insects? No way. I've got the Orkin man for that, so if you want to dine chez Juliet, you're going to have to take me down first. And I'm not going down without a fight.

And furthermore, tell your friends in the liberal media, that their propaganda campaign is NOT going to work on me. As soon as you start spinning multi-syllabic verbal delights on those repulsive little death nets you like to leave all over my basement, then we'll talk. Until then, my can of Raid Max and I will be here... waiting for you.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Lesson 10. If at First You Don't Succeed, Scream and Break Things: The Ribbon Carousel

Yes, I'm back. And you can probably guess what I've been doing all this time. With the exception of a few therapeutic ribbon dyeing breaks and a whitewater rafting trip (more on this later), I've been trying to finish the mythical ribbon carousel. And here it is. In my not-so-attractive basement, aka The Lab. It's where the magic happens, what can I say.

So it's made. But not without a good story, of course. You see, the item that appears before you is not the only one of its kind. No, about 5 days ago another identical one was born, but as it came to pass, was exactly 1/2" too large to fit through my basement door. So I had the fun experience of busting the whole thing apart with a rubber mallet, cutting everything down an inch, and putting it all back together. Which was not fun, because it has about 150 pieces. Now it just needs to be painted and mounted on the base. I was thinking about doing a square base about 30" tall with storage drawers for extra ribbon not on display.

En train de making this beast, I also had a fun adventure of learning to make silicone molds. The little ribbon carvings are actually plaster casts I made of a wood carving I ordered from Van Dyke's Restorers. Originally I was going to put them at the top and the bottom, which would have been pricey, so I decided to cast many from one original. I ordered the original then went down to my local art supply store to get materials. I ended up getting both Smooth-on Oomoo 30 and Rebound 25, which are pour on and brush on mold silicones, respectively.

 I tried both, but I'm not sure I'd use either formulation in the future. The pour on kind made a good cast, but finding the right size container was a pain and my wooden carving wanted to float, letting the silicone get underneath. The brush on kind was a hassle because it takes 4 coats to get the mold thick enough, and I'm not sure the impression is quite as nice. What I really wanted was silicone putty, but it looks like I might have to order that from the internet. I used ordinary plaster of paris to make the carvings. I might rethink this too. They seem strong now but they were super fragile when I took them out of the molds. Maybe I should have just ordered the wooden ones.

And now for the whitewater rafting pic.

Yeah, you can't really see me in this picture and there's  reason for that. I had just taken a massive wave to the face and gotten knocked back into the seat behind me. Front left - you can kind of see my head.

Back to business. In other news I took some time out today to learn how to ombre dye ribbon. This was a bit tricky. You are supposed to get the gradient of color by dipping the ribbon into dye multiple times. The problem is that when you are working with a piece more than a few inches long you have to fold or wind the ribbon so you can hold it. As I found out this can create pattern problems as more dye soaks in on the outside layer because it is more exposed. The solution I found was to fold the ribbon really loosely and wiggle it vigorously into the dye. This seemed to drive the dye up in between the layers a little better.  I've been dyeing velvet but I would like to move on to some kind of taffeta if I can find one. What I really need is rayon but its not really produced in the US, which makes me crazy. I would have to import it.

I ended up sending this batch off to the mother of one of my friends. She is a florist and probably has a good eye for ribbon critiquing.

But alas, that's what I have been up to. I'm thinking about starting on the base for my carousel. Or maybe I should go exercise. Going to a charity ball on Saturday. Tried on the evening gown I bought last year during my pre-wedding fast-fest and let's just say it wasn't pretty. I kind of looked like a sausage in a too-tight casing. Depressing.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Major Plot Point Revealed

I didn't want to say anything until now. Perhaps because I wasn't sure myself if I was really going to do it. But now I think it's official.

I'm opening a store.

A ribbon store.

Photo of a cute ribbon store in San Francisco. My design will be a little bit different.  More 16e arrondissement, less Paris Flea Market

How me is that?

Somewhere between building that wall, repainting, making those curtains, and relight-fixturing every ceiling in the house, I developed this strange desire to branch out beyond my own familiar environs. Thus began a few month long search for my beruft, my true professional calling. I didn't know at first. The horrible thing about being fearless and moderately capable is that you quickly find out that you can do almost anything. So what should I do with myself? Build chandeliers? Decorate houses? Plan weddings? Design stationery? Bake cakes? The mind reels. So I sat down and used the reasoning skills that I paid so much to acquire.

What do I really want?
To have a place to go and share pretty things with the world where people will get to know me and notice what I do.

How should I do it?
As cheaply as possible in case I fall flat on my face?

What do people like?
Colorful things; low cost impulse purchases that make them feel happy for a few minutes.

And who doesn't love colorful grosgrains?
So I decided. I will open a ribbon store. But not just any store. This will be the Neiman Marcus of crafts. No fabric, no sewing machine parts, nothing to intimidate the novice crafter. All the icing, none of the cake.

So I decided to do this in earnest about a month ago and the weeks have flown by as I've plunged myself into planning and construction. I have thousands of yards of ribbon in my living room. I've been buying in great bulk and selling off my excess stock on ebay to finance the venture. The thing about ribbon is that you need variety, an overwhelming and carefully selected variety. Committing $50 to a huge roll of ribbon is tough. That's where ebay comes in. I sell off 2/3 of it, and I've paid for the quantity I will sell in the store. At least this is the plan. Hopefully my sales will catch up with my purchases.

I've also been building all of the fixtures for the store. I've decided that everything has to be custom and absolutely beautiful if I am going to create this sort of ribbon wonderland that I have in mind. So about a week ago I set off building some draft ribbon racks. This was the first prototype, built last Thursday.

Not really very beautiful, but it was more a utility draft. I figured I needed to see what worked structurally first before worrying about the aesthetics. I can always use it for overflow storage in a back room or something.

Then the next morning I built this:


I think it captures the look I'm going for, although when I build the real ones I'm going to make a larger version. This one is 72"x25" and I think I should go for 84" in height at least and perhaps a bit wider.

As we speak I'm working on kind of a cool project. I decided I want to have something flashy in the center of the store, so I'm building a large hexagonal ribbon carousel. I'm going to mount it on a storage cabinet base, and hopefully hang a pretty chandelier above it. A great centerpiece I think. Construction is  still in its infancy though. You know how in school when you are learning geometry you think you will never use it? Well I did (with a refresher from google, of course). Believe me, cutting the angles for this 12-sided beast was quite tedious. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Lesson 9. Upgrades are contagious: my homemade chandelier

I love upgrades. Always have. Even when something is okay to start with, it's my opinion that better is always, well, better. It's not that I'm a particularly critical person, mind you. That is to say, I don't automatically see fault in everything around me. It's more like I view my environs with a constant eye towards improvement.

This attitude has been the basis for much of my interaction with our newly acquired Edwardian four-square. Nothing wrong with the house - just... plain. I suppose that's what happens when you strip a hundred-year-old structure down to the studs and start over. Loses a bit of character, no? So I've made it my mission to add back that which was sacrificed to the drywall gods. Hence the addition of crown moulding, wainscot panel in the dining room, and the ornamental trim in the bedroom and living room. As many of you may already understand, however, the problem with upgrades is they are prone to contagion. Once you make a substantial improvement, it can make everything around it look out of place. And with that, I submit for your approval... [drumroll]... [and here you will note I am calling upon my undergraduate education in history and french to effectuate a witty allusion]...

L'Affaire du Lustre (trans. The Chandelier Escapade)

Silk waiting to get sewn.
It all started some time ago with 42 yards of foreign silk and a dream. A dream that did not work out as planned. As you may recall, I had set out to make bold colored curtains for my then-brick-red living and dining room. After fashioning a set of turquoise and goldenrod yellow panels a for the two rooms, respectively, I had a crise de conscience and realized the error of my ways. It wasn't a terrible combination, mind you. It just wasn't me. Of course the brick red wall color never was. That's what I get for trying to design around an element I never liked in the first place instead of just starting fresh. I guess you just have to go ahead and shoot that white elephant because he is not going to go away. The best you can really do is make him a lampshade hat and call him a statement piece. And I just couldn't justify turning half of my downstairs into a pantone fiesta.
The pantone fiesta, aka the living room.
I decided right off that this time I was instead going to design around an element I did like: the curtains. Particularly, the yellow dining room curtains. So that's where I started. Surveying the room, I mentally went through what I liked about the yellow panels flanking the bay windows. I decided that what appealed to me was how sunny they made the room look and how they highlighted the antique gold finish of the mirrors and framed artwork we had chosen for the room. I also like that it highlighted the gold and sky blue color palate of our formal china.
Elysee by Bernardaud. Gilt pattern over sky blue background. Uses a solid sky blue charger.

And that's when it hit me. Could it really be that simple? Seized with this flash of genius, I bolted over to the china cabinet and removed one of our solid blue chargers. I dashed into the other room, returned with my basket of acrylic paints and started mixing madly. A few minutes later I had about a teaspoon of paint roughly the same color as the plate. A light coat on the room's leeward wall confirmed my happy suspicion: Yes! It works!

So I dashed off to the Home Depot, returned with a gallon of paint matched to my self-rendered sample, and had the room completely coated before the afternoon was through. I was really delighted with the result, but my joy was unfortunately somewhat short lived. Changing the wall color had made the room look so bright and coordinated that the plain iron chandelier above the dining table now looked like an impish little black spider spinning its way down from the ceiling. It had to go.
The former chandelier. Yuck.
And thus began the multi-week odyssey of finding the right replacement. The room had turned out to be such a graceful and delicate space that it needed nothing less than the architectural equivalent of a tiara. So that's what I set out to find. I had an exact vision in my mind of what I wanted. The only problem was that what I wanted didn't exist. I had, some months hence, found a specimen that piqued my interest. It had two drawbacks however: the $900 price tag and the fact that it was embellished with smooth "oyster" prisms instead of facet-cut prisms (read: no sparkle). So I couldn't justify the price only to have to spend more money to switch out the crystals.
Crystorama's Delilah chandelier. Right concept, wrong everything else.
 I searched and searched and could find nothing I liked as much. After visiting a local antique lighting store, I decided I would probably have to locate a chandelier base and add crystals myself if I was to get exactly what I had in mind. This proved challenging too. Antique chandelier skeletons without crystals are few and far between. Places like the store I visited love to buy them on the cheap, refinish them, add a few hundred dollars worth of prisms, and sell them for tens of thousands of dollars. Not a bad business model, if I do say so. So I turned to my old friend, the internet. Now that I was looking for a prism-less fixture, I ended up sifting through an entirely different selection of chandeliers. Finally, I found it.
Elysian Fields chandelier by Progress Lighting, co-branded as Thomasville.
There was no question. This was it. It would have to be gilt and crystals would have to be added, but this was definitely the one I saw in the dream. So I ordered it, and in the mean time I turned my attention to the living room.

A few weeks beforehand, I received my long-awaited silk shipment only to discover that my first choice shade of teal was out of stock and that the manufacturer had been so thoughtful as so send instead what he considered a very close substitute. It was, in fact, quite close. And very pretty. But it simply did not work with the red walls. The shade I had originally chosen was sort of a dull teal with a sage sheen. A pretty neutral tone. The replacement, however, was a vibrant version of the same hue. Needless to say, the juxtaposition was a comic overstatement. So I set about figuring out what color could possibly tone down the ultra-bright curtains. I settled on a monochrome palate and had some paint mixed in a sage-toned blue-green. After painting the room, I just couldn't decide how I felt about it, especially since the dining room was still red. So I decided to just leave it alone for a while.
The settee (pre-curtain hanging) and its biggest fans, our spoiled kitties. 
In the interim, I stumbled upon a really adorable little settee in almost the same shade as the wall color and was able to get it with rewards points from my credit card. I also picked up a small red end table and made some red silk accent pillows in essentially the same color as the walls used to be.

Silk pillows. Center is curtain fabric embellished with leftover crystals from my wedding dress
Looking at the room now, with coordinating furniture and accent pieces, I decided that I did not, in fact, want to change the wall color again. I still had a red and teal room, but this time it was 80% teal and 20% red, a distinct improvement over the unsettlingly combative 50/50 ratio that had so irked me before.

The chandelier arrived about 3 days later, and I quickly set about planning its makeover. I used the assembly diagram to plot out where I wanted to place the prisms and how many of each size and style I would need. The final count was 192, a quantity which I split among almond and french pendalogue shaped drops in sizes ranging from 1.5" to 2.5".
Almond prism (above)
Pendalogue (below)
While I was waiting for the crystals to arrive, I worked on changing the finish to antique gold. The original finish was a dark bronze (called brandy by the manufacturer) so I simply painted the entire frame with oil based gold leaf paint and then added some antiquing glaze and gold sheet leaf to highlight the carved features. Mr. Delta and I had picked up a large ceiling medallion on sale at a home improvement store a few months beforehand, so we applied that to the ceiling before getting Howard (our handyman) to hang the fixture. I probably could have done it myself, but I noticed when I was taking down the old fixture that the mounting box was slightly dislodged from the stud, so I called Howard to  fix the problem and he was nice enough to go ahead and hang the new chandelier while he was up there.

Room view with new paint and chandelier.
The prisms arrived shortly thereafter, and so did the mini-magnets, which I had chosen, after much consternation, as the means of affixing the prisms to the chandelier base. In other words, I do not weld. I'm crafty, but I'm not Flashdance crafty. 
Neodymium ring magnets. Tiny!!

I chose 3/16" diameter by 1/8" thick neodymium ring magnets, which have about 1 pound of holding power under ideal conditions. Although the prisms only weigh a few ounces each, I found this size to be the absolute minimum because the magnets had to stick to concave and convex surfaces on the chandelier base. Affixing the prism to the magnet proved to be the trickiest part of this exploit. Soldering proved impossible because the heat demagnetized the magnets and there was not enough surface area connection between the magnet and the prism pin to use glue. I finally ended up making little half centimeter loops of fine wire and hooking them through the top of the magnet. It took me about a day and a half to prepare all of the prisms and add them to the base. The worst part was trying to keep the prisms fingerprint and debris free. Harder than you might think even with plastic gloves. In the end I think all of the hard work paid off. It really is exactly what I envisioned in the room, and for less than the alternative would have cost.

Chandelier closeup
Room view taken from entry to living room
 I'm relatively happy with the look. I was even able to accessorize with this adorable 1920's cherub clock that I found in an antique store in Atlanta for $22. Kind of my favorite part of the whole room.

There's my clock! Also, flowers. One of my better attempts at amateur florism, probably.
Until later -----

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Non Sequitur: My Vosges Caramel Toffee Brownie Escapade

I had fully intended to start describing all of my recent and current projects, but I got so excited about this topic that I couldn't wait.

Let me start by first saying that I have been in love with Vosges Chocolate ever since I first chanced upon that violet hued house of haut chocolat on a high school trip to Chicago in 2002. This week they were running a 15% off coupon code for Easter so I thought I would treat myself. I ordered a 16 piece box of Fleur truffles, a few candy bars, and a box of their new Caramel Toffee Brownie mix. At $18, it was a splurge, but I thought, "Why not?" Mr. Delta has, after all, never gotten upset with me for any expenditures related to baked goods. The package came yesterday and I immediately wiped out the bars and have thus far made it halfway through the truffles. Delicious!

So right now I'm on a break from stringing my new chandelier with crystals, so I decided to make the brownies. Let me begin by saying the instructions are terrible! The first step is to take a stick and a half of butter and cook it with the included sugar bag for 5 minutes. But seriously, anyone who has ever cooked anything knows you can't go by time alone. Factors differ kitchen to kitchen. What I want to know is what exactly is the objective of the cooking process? To make a caramel like substance? Or just to have melted butter mixed with sugar? Which is exactly what I had after 5 minutes. So I looked back at the instructions and discovered there is supposed to be an instructional video online. Hooray I'm saved!

 But No. After logging on, I discovered that the video is not yet up and running. So I just had to guess.

Using my law school skills of inductive reasoning and context interpretation, I set out the facts in an attempt to figure out what to do.

1) The word "caramel" is in the name of the mix.
2) Caramel is made from browning sugar in butter.
3) There would be no point in cooking the sugar if the goal were not to brown it.

Thus, I decided to cook it longer. After about 2 more minutes it started to turn a nice golden color, so I removed it from heat and poured it into the mixing bowl as instructed.

After letting it cool for a while, I noted that it was starting to get really, really hard, which I knew would make adding the eggs very difficult. So I went ahead and added the eggs even the mixture had not yet cooled to "slightly warm."

Wow! What a mess. The moisture in the eggs made the mixture turn into a thin caramel sauce full of very hard lumps. The caramel mixture had also adhered to the mixer blade in a concrete-like fashion. Frustrated, I resorted to my traditional problem fix. Brute force.

The lumps have sunk to the bottom, but you can definitely see the caramel concrete on the beating spade.

Here's the thing about sugar. No matter what you do to it, it will dissolve in water... eventually. Increasing surface area is key to making the process go faster though. So I went ahead and added the called-for vanilla extract and set my mixer to medium and let it beat for about 5 minutes. It made a lot of noise and walked across the counter for a bit, but eventually the hard sugar bits essentially got pulverized into grains a little smaller than rice. I was going to just let it keep beating, but I decided to just let it sit for a while and come back in a few minutes to see if the granules had softened any more. And that's what I'm off to to right now.


Mission accomplished. When I got back to the caramel, it had, as I suspected, softened up a little. I let it beat on low for about a minute and decided to move on. There were still a few small crystals, but I think they will probably enhance the texture. I added the dry ingredients pouches (chocolate paillettes and a cocoa flour mixture) and stirred. This was difficult because it got so incredibly thick. The texture was really more like taffy than anything else. Once it was sufficiently incorporated, I tasted some (so delicious!!!!) and then I scooped the batter into a foil lined, buttered pan, spread it out, and put it in the oven at 350 for 20 minutes. Then I am supposed to add the toffee pieces to the top and put it back in the oven to cook another 25 minutes.
9x9 pan lined in foil and greased with butter
Ready to bake!

Ok, the moment of truth is nearly upon us. I took the brownies out of the oven and they have been cooling in the freezer for about an hour now. Mr. Delta will be home any minutes, so we are in a race with the clock!

What I should note is that I ended up cooking the brownies about 10 minutes less than what was suggested. This might be because I used a 9x9 pan instead of an 8x8. Brownies are notoriously hard to get just right in the done-ness department. I normally err on the side of underdone, so I opted to take them out after about 36 minutes total bake time (16 minutes post toffee). I think they will be fine. I stuck a toothpick in the center and it came out clean.

I am interested to see how the toffee component comes out. I read online that other people have had issues with it totally sinking into the abyss of batter, so I decided to poke my pieces of toffee into the surface upright like little toffee tombstones. There was some toffee still on the surface when I took my pan out of the oven, so maybe it helped. The toffee does liquify pretty thoroughly though. I expect to see lots of little pockets of toffee in cross section of the finished product.


Le resultat!!

Perfection! These brownies came out so incredibly delicious! I froze them for an hour so they were really cold and they cut into perfect cubes like a dream. You could really taste the caramel base, and the toffee topping was wonderfully marbled throughout. All in all, a brownie win, even at $18 I suppose. Now that I know the cooked caramel base secret, I might try to make them myself next time. I think even with premium ingredients, I could probably render a similar concoction of my own for about $6. And we all like saving money, don't we?

Sidenote - I am in love with this three-tiered bluebirds cake stand set. Mr. Delta got them for me from Neiman Marcus as a surprise. All I had to do was rip the page from the catalog and subtly tape it to the refrigerator. (Can you believe that worked?)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Lesson 8. Rome was not built in a day: Updates!

So, everyone is constantly telling me that I should start a blog. (Only 2 of my friends actually know about my journaling escapades.) But I've long believed that blogs are for people that don't actually do anything and that if I spent my time blogging I would never get anything accomplished. And that, my friends, is why you have not heard from me for a few weeks. Needless to say I have lots of projects to share. In law school they teach you that when you're going to tell someone a lot of stuff at once you should first set out a "roadmap" of sorts. So here goes. (Putting that degree to work, am I not?)

When last I checked in, I was about to complete my drapery project. Needless to say, I got them done and was immediately dissatisfied (like I am about almost everything). The color palate was all wrong. What was I thinking - red and teal? red and gold? So I struggled for a while and decided to repaint both the living room and dining room different colors. See the painting painting post for results. Then I hung the curtains and was relatively happy.

On to the next project - 

The little iron chandelier in the dining room just had to go, so I found something a bit more exciting and an actually still in the process of crystalizing it. This will make for a good post. Also picked up a few objets d'art to spruce up the new color scheme.

In the living room I found a wonderful little settee which just happens to be the exact same color I painted the room. Strange, yes. But it seems to work. Made a few accent pillows in red silk (I still like the idea of teal and red, just not on a grand scale) and picked up a little red table. I'm thinking now that I may want to recover our white sofa at some point, but the lazy side of me thinks I will wait.

Picture of the sloping ceiling connecting to the
flat ceiling at the back of the house.

Crown moulding conundrum solved!

So I had also been struggling about what to do with the central foyer in terms of crown moulding. The funny angled ceiling in the back of the room and the cut-out stairwell were making it challenging to find a way to run crown moulding around the room continuously. Finally I just gave in and opted for a construction based solution. I essentially made a little rim around the stairwell and put in a false ceiling where the sloping room connected to the foyer. That gave me a continuous surface on which to install the moulding, among other benefits. Right now I am actually waiting on the plaster to dry on the new ceiling section.

Photo of the beginning stages of me building the rim around the stairwell.

I also had a nice little dinner party last night to celebrate the near completion of the home makeover. It was my very first attempt at floral arranging. Post to follow.