Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Our Design Team challenge to YOU: decorate a Frypod!

Therese Travis and the rest of our design team are conducting a contest through July 11: create a unique "frypod" with images from PaperFacesDesign. This sounds like a project for the whole family...plus, one lucky winner will get FREE STUFF. Here's the official rule page.

You'll need to purchase a design from Therese, but they're super-cheap and super-great quality. Remember the mosaic turtle card I made last week? That was all done with Therese's files. The Frypod .svg file is free from Therese. You can find a printable version of a "fry box" here, but since we're copying the King and not the Clown, you'll want to omit the side folds. Oh, you could go old-school and use an actual Frypod.

When Therese first announced the challenge, I immediately had to try it for myself. Long story short, I used Therese's awesome Steampunk Fairies design and the sudden creative burst of my brilliant husband to create what I assume is the world's first Steampunk Frypod.

I made this Saturday afternoon. As of Saturday morning, I didn't know what steampunk was, but that's one of the many benefits of being married to J: he knows. Oh, he knows. And he can direct you to three hard-core fan sites on the subject (whatever it is). At first, I was worried that I didn't understand the underlying philosophy, but I finally understood that steampunk is mostly just a celebration of technology and craft: What would modern technology look like with the pre-plastic aesthetic of the Victorian Era?

J helped with the overall design concept; the gold wire was his suggestion. I think it came out pretty rockin', and I think I'll make a larger one to hold my metallic gel pens. What would a steampunk eat from her frypod? I get the feeling that the Victorian version of French Fries would be Fuzzy Potato Sticks. Anyway, the "frypod" is a tried-and-true street food technology: Historically speaking, chances are that the first "potato holder" was invented by an enterprising Peruvian grandmother when Queen Victoria was just a gleam in a Saxon's eye.

So, where will Therese's Frypod take you? Enter now! NOW!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

My First Design Team Project

Last week I stumbled upon Therese Travis's blog while looking for a SCAL file for a 3D rose. She generously shared hers with me, and I started following her blog. When she put out a call for a Design Team, I thought, Why not try? My goal is to design a new card every week, and having assignments seemed like a great way to keep my creative juices pulpy.

Therese invited me to join, and boy! am I in good company. Check out the links to their blogs in my right-hand navigation. Therese sent us some of her wonderful designs to play around with. I chose her set of four turtles: sun, moon, star, and heart.

Not sure where I was going with the turtles, I imported the images into Sure Cuts A Lot (SCAL) and cut out a whole bunch. I used layers to separate the portions I wanted the actually cut out and those I wanted to keep as lines. I used Cricut markers to "cut" the marker lines and then put the blade back in and cut out the turtles and their central shape.

I literally ended up with a pile of turtles. I looked at them, and they stared blankly and sweetly back at me, and I realized I wanted to make a "wheel" card. I simultaneously decided that I wanted to make an easel card, which I had never done before. A couple days later, another member of the design team posted a beautiful Father's Day easel card — must have been in the air! They are really fun, and a great way to present a card.

I was in the mood to color, so I added detail with a gold marker. For my first card, I made a "beach" with river rocks I made from polymer clay, inspired by a friend's new fireplace design. For the second version (right) I used glitter glue to color the wheel; it's very shiny and impressive, but geez it took 12 hours to dry! I actually happen to know Baltimore's Glitter Goddess, so I'm thinking of sending this to her.

Thank you, Therese, Natacha and Jeannie for inspiring me! Go team!

Friday, June 18, 2010

So You Think You Can Cut?

A few years ago, my mom really got into scrapbooking and cardmaking, and started giving me extras of things she bought. At the time, I was focusing on learning electronic design (web and book design, on a small level; I'm no graphic designer), and I honestly wasn't sure what to do with all the brads and paper and ideas. One thing I found out quickly was that nothing is as relaxing for a person working in creativity than being creative in a different way. After a day of staring at a computer screen and worrying about code and "true colors" and leading and tracking and what-not, there was something almost spiritual about cutting out paper and immersing oneself in glue.

This last Christmas, Mom gave me a Cricut Personal Cutting machine that uses a cartridge with digital "dies". I was a little unsure how I would feel about having to design within the parameters of pre-designed images, but once I cut out a perfect letter, I was hooked. And having pre-designed images always sort of reminded me of the freedom of writing in form: you sometimes find more creative freedom within strict parameters.

And then I discovered Sure Cuts A Lot (SCAL, or, as J calls it, "So You Think You Can Cut") and my life changed.

SCAL is a program that allows you to design your own images on your computer and then use your Cricut as a sort of USB printer. Provocraft, the makers of Cricut, offer their own program, but they showed no real interest in developing a Mac version and so I went the free-spirited, hackerish route of SCAL. Sorry Cricut, but I already gave my loyalty (and all my money) to Apple.

The SCAL platform is truly fantastic, mimicking the familiar Adobe-type design platform. It's a lot like working in Illustrator, especially for vector manipulation. You can use special .svg files, or just import an image and SCAL will break it into cut lines. Once you have the image in SCAL, you can manipulate it any way you want.

Oh, and did I mention that you can use any font? The possibilities are endless.

My cousin has the Silhouette personal electronic cutter, which never needs cartridges and uses its own design program. There's also a program called Make the Cut, but, again, SCAL is the most Mac-friendly.

In any case, I'm not an illustrator, so even with super-SCAL I needed some images to start from. Have you heard of this amazing resource called the "Inter-Net"? It's really something else. I just googled "svg scal" and found a gillion folks who generously share their cut files. I learned so, so much from those free files.

Here's an example of a card I made using files from SCALe-files, hands-down the top site for intricate, free cut files. I added the Chinese letters for "Summer Solstice." Here's the file if you want to make your own: http://www.4shared.com/file/yp2RmqA-/chineselamp_scale_cgsays.html

As I mentioned earlier in this post, you can also import images to use as cut files. I found that coloring books are an easy resource for line-based images. I worry a lot about Creative Rights and try my best not to use others' work as my own. Here's a fun example of what I did with a Doberman and a kitten (all I did was import the images from a Google Image search, separate the layers, and click "cut"):

To be honest, the kitten was much more difficult than I had anticipated. The Dobermans were a dream: talk about a scrapbook-friendly dog! But I figured that I'd be able to easily find a SCAL-ready .svg of a kitten, free or not. Maybe I just didn't look in the right places, but I ended up using another color-book image and re-doing the eyes so that they cut correctly. Since early summer is kind of kitten season, here's the free SCAL file.

My favorite part of this card-making business is that it seems to be one of those universal languages, like cooking. On Mondays I send out a few cards to random acquaintances, and somehow I feel like I can accomplish whatever the week brings. And now I've found myself part of a real-life design team over at Too Many Ideas (thank you, Therese!) Every Monday for 3 months the team will present our takes on Therese's designs (PaperFacesDesigns).

Now to get back to cutting...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

"Cornbread, Cupcake?" "No Muffin, polenta."

We had some yummy pounded steaks in the freezer, and I wanted to make a simple side to go with them. So, I thought to myself, how can I incorporate cupcakes into this situation? The answer was obvious: cornbread.

I'm a bit more confident when it comes to corn flour, as I've wrestled with it more than the rice flour. When I say confident, I'm confident that I don't know how to make polenta. I've tried a couple of times, but the most memorable of those ended in a kind of soufflé-explosion mess.

I have, however, made buns with half white and half corn flour (like I did with whole wheat for the chocolate cupcakes), and I remember that really letting the corn flour dissolve in the warm water helped. So this time, instead of mixing the dry ingredients and then adding the wet, I mixed the flour with the warm water and let it set while I added everything else.

I'm still not sure how important the sugar is in the chemical process for this particular recipe, so I'm still adding some white sugar; that's usually what I do with yeast breads. Next time I make these, I think I'll halve the sugar amount and only use Splenda and see what happens.

By now you may be thinking, Chocolate cornbread cupcakes? Really? Of course not (this time). I decided to throw caution in the gutter and simply omitted the cocoa powder from the original recipe. The end result didn't seem to miss the extra mass.
We're referring to them as polenta muffins around the house, because it's well the closest I'll ever get to actually making polenta. All it needs is a little red sauce.

Cornbread Cupcakes
dry: 1/2 cup + 1 TB white flour | 1/2 cup + 1 TB yellow corn flour | 1/2 cup sugar | 1/2 cup sugar substitute (Splenda) | 1 tsp baking soda | 1/2 tsp salt
wet: 1 cup warm water | 1 TB chopped dill | 1/3 cup vegetable oil | 1 tsp distilled red wine vinegar
Mix dry ingredients with a fork. Add wet ingredients, except vinegar, and blend completely.
Add vinegar and immediately spoon batter into an ungreased cupcake pan, filling each section about halfway.
Bake at 350°for 30 minutes.

Notice that I used red wine vinegar, which added a tiny tang. Cider vinegar would be perfect for this recipe. They were a bit sweeter than I'd like, but honestly they tasted pretty Southern. They'd be incredible with mint instead of dill. Sweet tea, anyone?

Whey too many cupcakes

With a fridge full of cupcakes, the idea of ginger cupcakes was floated, and I just had to make more. I didn't feel like doing all the work for some of the more scrumptious ginger cupcake recipes I found, so I figured I'd just adjust the original vegan chocolate cupcake recipe.

Of course, I couldn't deal with just using water, so I whipped up a quick batch of cheese just for the whey. I can always count on a rich base if I replace water with whey...and I wasn't disappointed. I usually use 2 cups milk with 2 TB vinegar for quick fixes like this one.

I also took the opportunity to halve the recipe and test it in my mini-cupcake pans. Perfect! Although I guess it goes without saying that these aren't even vegetarian, what with the whey...

Mini-batch Chocolate/Ginger Cupcakes
dry: 1/2 cup + 1 TB flour | 1/2 cup sugar | 2 TB unsweetened cocoa powder | 1 tsp ginger | 1 tsp pumpkin pie spice | 1/2 tsp baking soda | 1/4 tsp salt
wet: 1/2 cup warm whey | 1/2 tsp vanilla extract | 2 TB + 2 tsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp distilled white vinegar
Mix dry ingredients with a fork. Add wet ingredients, except vinegar, and blend completely.
Add vinegar and immediately spoon batter into an ungreased cupcake pan, filling each section about halfway.
Bake at 350° for 20 minutes. Cool completely, and use a knife to loosen the sides. They should fall right out. Silicon pans make this even easier!

These came out so great that I made another half-batch with chopped mint in place of the spices, and using only rice flour. I have such high hopes for rice flour, but it tends to have only contempt for me. The flour didn't dissolve very well (one problem was that the liquid was room temp, not warm), making the end result a little gritty. Oh, and I forgot I was making a half-batch when I added the coca powder, so I really can't blame the rice flour for the heavy little buggers we ended up with.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Incredible, Edible, Vegan Cupcake

So the other day, also our first really hot day of the year, I really wanted to make cupcakes, but had no milk or eggs. These are the only days when I want to bake. So I went Googling for vegan recipes, which sounds like much less of a workout than it was. Amazing how many recipes included butter. I had butter in the fridge, but if you're going to do something, you might as well do it with an undeserved sense of self-righteousness.

I finally found a base recipe that could actually be considered vegan, and didn't include any soy-based products or juice, which I didn't have, at
Instructables.com, compared it to a similar cupcake recipe, and voile I could make cheap, yummy, fairly-guilt-free treats. Did I mention my husband was busy working 30 hours straight at the time? I was really betting on some awesome cupcakes.

This isn't the end of my tale of cupcakeness, but I'll pause to share the recipe I used for my first batch. Please note that this is just my version of tried-and-true recipes created by very talented chefs whom you should look up and support by buying their cookbooks. Anyhoo:

Chocolate Cupcakes Ingredients:
dry: 1/2 cup + 1 TB white flour | 1/2 cup + 1 TB whole wheat flour | 1 cup sugar | 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder | 1 tsp baking soda | 1/2 tsp salt
wet: 1 cup warm water | 1 tsp vanilla extract | 1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp distilled white vinegar
Mix dry ingredients with a fork. Add wet ingredients, except vinegar, and blend completely.
Add vinegar and immediately spoon batter into an ungreased cupcake pan, filling each section about halfway.
Bake at 350° for 20 minutes. Cool completely, and use a knife to loosen the sides. They should fall right out. Silicon pans make this even easier!

The first batch of cupcakes was a huge hit. They were incredibly moist, light, and not nearly as oily as my previous egg-free baking attempts. Note that in the recipe above it says not to grease the pan: I found that there's enough oil in the recipe that you don't need any more.

Enjoy your cupcakes and I'll be back soon with more cupcake tales...of...interest...!