Saturday, March 31, 2012

Tropical Muffins with Coconut-Macadamia Topping

These muffins define the word scrumptious! They're so moist and delicious, with a flavor that's a combination of banana-nut bread and a yummy piña colada! I clipped the recipe from a Cooking Light magazine a few months ago and have been wanting to try it ever since. This morning I had some bananas that were past their prime, so I decided it was the perfect time to whip up a batch of Tropical Muffins with Coconut-Macadamia Topping.

They smelled so good while they were baking - oh, the anticipation! I could hardly wait to dig into one. I decided to do it right, though, and actually take a few minutes to sit down at the table (instead of standing at the counter gulping one down), and have a proper cup of tea with my warm, fragrant muffin. To make it even more of an event, I got out a tea cup and saucer from my mother's set of lilac china. Those old china teacups are so thin and delicate and pretty - they make you feel fancy, just holding one in your hand.

9" x 12", watercolor, pen & ink

That tea cup looked so pretty with the morning sun shining on it - I just had to do a quick sketch of it. But I can't seem to leave well enough alone, and the sketch kept growing until I had a 9" x 12" page in my sketchbook filled with the tea cup and muffin, plus an abbreviated version of the recipe. (Mine's a little different from the original - I substituted walnuts for macadamias, since that's what I had on hand.)

Isn't this just typical of how some days go? I spied those unassuming ripe bananas on the kitchen counter, and next thing I knew, I had a warm muffin in my hand while I sipped tea from an antique china cup while smiling at my brand new illustrated recipe. Now that's a great way to start the day!

Here's the recipe ...

Tropical Muffins

Muffin ingredients:
1-1/3 cup flour (about 6 ounces)
1 cup rolled oats or quick oats
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 cup mashed ripe banana (about 2)
1 cup low-fat buttermilk
½ cup packed brown sugar
2 T. canola oil
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 large egg
½ cup canned crushed pineapple in juice, drained
1/3 cup flaked sweetened coconut
3 T. finely chopped macadamia nuts or walnuts

Topping ingredients:
2 T. flaked sweetened coconut
1 T. finely chopped macadamia nuts or walnuts
1 T. sugar
1 T. rolled oats or quick oats

1. Preheat oven to 400º.
2. To prepare muffins, combine flour and next four ingredients (through salt) in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of flour mixture.
3. Combine banana and next 5 ingredients (through egg) in a medium bowl; add to flour mixture, stirring just until moist. Stir in pineapple, 1/3 cup coconut, and 3 T. nuts.
4. Spoon batter into 12 muffin cups coated with cooking spray.
5. To prepare topping, combine 2 T. coconut and the remaining ingredients in a small bowl.
6. Sprinkle about 1 tsp. of topping over each muffin.
7. Bake at 400º for 18 minutes or until muffins spring back when touched lightly in center. Remove muffins from pans immediately; place on a wire rack to cool.

Recipe Notes:

- Macadamia nuts are the perfect choice for true tropical flavor, but walnuts or slivered almonds are great substitutes.
- Toasting the nuts before adding them to the batter really helps to bring out their flavor. I put mine in a Pyrex pie pan in the microwave for a few minutes, stirring every minute or so. Be careful - they can burn very quickly.
- I substituted Jules gluten free flour for wheat flour, with no other adjustments, and the muffins turned out just perfect.

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Funny Thing Happened While I Was Out Sketching

It was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in early March when I set off down the road from our house to do a little sketching. I wanted to add a page or two to my Greene County sketchbook and thought I'd meander along the back roads until I found just the right spot. I didn't have to go far before I found this trio of old barns just a few miles from home.

Pen & walnut brown ink with colored pencil, 7" x 11"

I wanted to capture the look of the warped boards that were curling away from the back wall of the largest barn, so I set about drawing them, using my Noodler's Flex Pen with walnut brown ink. I like the variable line that the flex pen gives, but it's tricky to keep from smearing the ink as I work. It takes a long time to dry, so I have to be careful not to swipe my hand across the drawn lines.


I was having a lot of fun chilling out in the van with the windows down, feeling the warm spring breeze on my face, and listening to an audio book on the van sound system - very relaxing. After awhile, a farmer pulled out from between two of the barns and headed across the field on his tractor, with a big yellow lab bounding ahead of him. The happy dog led the way up the hill until they were out of sight. Including them helped inject a little life into this sketch.


With the ink drawing finished, it was time to head home. I turned the key in the ignition... nothing. Hmmm. Confusion. Tried it again. What?! Huh? The battery was dead. Oh, no-o-o-o-o! It was the audio book - the CD player had drained the battery.

Okay, now what? My husband was out of town, my daughter lives 35 minutes away. Who could I call to jump start the van? I knew AAA would probably never be able to find me out there in the boonies. The farmer in my sketch was up over the hill somewhere. I didn't know if I could even give someone directions to find me. I had been wandering along, turning left or right as the spririt moved me, figuring I could always use the GPS to find my way home.

I walked up the hill behind me to where there was an old farmhouse, but as I approached it, I saw no signs of life. It was locked up tight and looked as if it hadn't been lived in for years. I headed back to the van, where I got out my manual to read up on the directions for jump-starting a car. 

Then I waited... and waited... and waited. Until I finally saw an SUV coming down the hill toward me. I jumped out of the van and waved my arms to flag it down. The nice lady stopped and agreed to help, so I began hooking up the jumper cables to our cars, but I must not have inspired much confidence, because she smiled sweetly and insisted on calling her boyfriend, "just up the road," for help.

A few minutes later, he drove up in his pickup truck and cheerily made the last connection on the cables. With the SUV engine roaring, I turned my ignition key... nothing! Still deader than roadkill. After another minute or two, though, it started! What a wonderful sound! I wouldn't have to spend the night in my van on Fisher Hollow Road, thanks to two neighborly Greene County folks who went out of their way to help.

One additional note about the sketch - when I began adding watercolor to it later at home, I realized that the Noodler's Walnut ink I had used wasn't waterproof. Since I didn't want to end up with a muddy mess, I decided to add just a dash of color to the sketch with colored pencils.

And, can you guess why I included that framed title on the lower edge of the sketch? Yep, because I had smeared the ink on the border line really badly there and it looked awful. So, I just lettered a title on another piece of paper, cut it out, and glued it over my boo-boo.

I'll never look at this unassuming little sketch without thinking of that moment of puzzlement and utter confusion when I turned the key in the ignition and heard absolutely nothing. Really, the look on my face must have been priceless.

Monday, March 19, 2012

My Homemade Sketch Kit for Painting On the Go

On my way to the grocery store this afternoon, I decided to dawdle a bit and stop to sketch this hot pink house that I pass every time I go to town.

Watercolor, pen & ink, 3-1/2" x 5"

I did a light pencil sketch first, just to make sure I had the proportions right, then I inked the lines and added some details...

I used a sketch kit that I keep in a tote bag that I take in the car when I run errands. I made it from the cardboard box that my wonderful set of sable brushes from Cheap Joe's came in. Here it is, set up on my lap in the van, with a Moleskine sketchbook and my Winsor Newton travel watercolor set attached.

Here's how it works. The box measures 4-3/4" x 12" x 1-1/4" and has a hinged lid. Just about everything I need for sketching fits inside...

I keep the small sketchbook in a Ziploc bag, just in case a bit of paint leaks out of the palette. For tools, I carry a couple of mechanical pencils, two Pitt pens, a click eraser and a kneaded eraser, a small ruler, a waterbrush, and a couple of rubber bands to hold down sketchbook pages on a windy day. (I always have a water bottle with me to refill the brush.)

On the top of the box, I put four strips of adhesive backed Velcro.

I used two strips of Velcro on the bottom of the paint set to fasten it to the box.

The back of the sketchbook got two more strips of Velcro.

The box functions as a mini desk, with the sketchbook and paints securely attached. The lid can still be opened to access my tools, or it can be kept closed with another strip of Velcro.

The sketchbook can be fastened horizontally or vertically.

I stapled a wide elastic strap to the inside of the box and wrapped it around the bottom to hold a supply of paper towels and tissues used when painting.

Two more Velcro straps wrap around the box to close it up tight and hold everything in place.

Having a sketch kit with me in the van means I can stop whenever the mood strikes and capture a scene. But having it available, and making use of it, are two different things. (Confession: I hadn't added a sketch to this sketchbook since last October.) Too often I'm rushing here and there, feeling the pressure to accomplish everything on that endless to-do list, and I don't allow myself the "luxury" of a half hour to sketch. Today I realized just how foolish that is. Doing this little painting was so much fun and took so little time. I'm promising myself that I'll take the time to do more like it. Those half hours of happiness are important, and I'll get everything checked off that to-do list eventually. I need to remember to ask myself, "What's the rush?"

Or, as that sage philosopher, Ferris Bueller, once said...

Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop to look around
once in awhile, you could miss it. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Spring Things

I had planned to post my new "spring things" blog header on the first day of spring, March 20th, but I just couldn't wait! All this warm weather has me itching to throw away all reminders of winter and jump headlong into a new season of daffodils, butterflies, lush green grass, and short sleeve shirts. I sat outside yesterday in the warm sunshine with my grandson and watched him feel the tickley touch of grass on his perfect little feet for the first time. He looked at the grass, then at me, with a combination of wonder, uncertainty, surprise, and pleasure. There's a whole new world opening up to him with the coming of spring. I'm glad I'll have a chance to see it through his eyes this year. 

Some thoughts on spring for you to enjoy ....

Every spring is the only spring - a perpetual astonishment.  ~Ellis Peters

It's spring fever.  That is what the name of it is.  And when you've got it, you want - oh, you don't quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!  ~Mark Twain

Spring is when you feel like whistling even with a shoe full of slush.  ~Doug Larson

Science has never drummed up quite as effective a tranquilizing agent as a sunny spring day.  ~W. Earl Hall

Spring shows what God can do with a drab and dirty world.  ~Virgil A. Kraft

In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four and twenty hours.  ~Mark Twain

The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another.  The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.  ~Henry Van Dyke

The day the Lord created hope was probably the same day he created Spring.  ~Bern Williams

The seasons are what a symphony ought to be:  four perfect movements in harmony with each other.  ~Arthur Rubenstein
The year's at the spring
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hillside's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in His heaven -
All's right with the world!
~Robert Browning

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Case of Mistaken Identity

It was a startlingly bright afternoon last November, when I gave in to my longing to leave my work and head outdoors to do a little sketching. After several cold, drizzly days, the warm afternoon and deep blue sky were calling me. I grabbed the backpack that I keep stocked with sketching supplies, hopped in the van, and drove a few miles down the road to where I saw these cute little calves sunning themselves.

Watercolor, pen & ink, 9" x 12"

I pulled off on the side of the road and started my pencil sketch. Before long, an old pick-up truck pulled up alongside me. The driver, an older man in his 70s, just smiled and gave me a quizzical look. I finally held up my sketchbook and said, "I'm a sketcher -- an artist." He nodded and said, "Oh, okay, we saw you down here and just wondered what was up. Thought you might need some help." "No, I'm okay," I replied, "just sketching the cows and barn." Curiosity satisfied, he nodded, smiled, and headed down the road.

I used masking fluid to save the whites of the fence wire, and added texture to the grassy foreground by spattering paint through a piece of screen.

Back to my sketching ... finishing the rough pencil sketch ... doing the ink drawing...

Fifteen minutes later, a big tractor came down the road and stopped next to me. A younger guy this time, but with that same smile and puzzled look on his face. I once again held up  my sketchbook to show him what I was doing. "Ohhhhhh! You're an artist! My dad said you were an assessor!"

Some of the tree branches were drawn with masking fluid before the background washes were painted. A long, fine rigger brush works well for painting twigs and branches.

That's me, the Sketcher/Assessor! No wonder they were puzzled! They thought I was a tax assessor, come to look over their property, but instead of walking around measuring and jotting down notes (so I could raise their taxes), I just sat in my vehicle, staring at their barn and cows. We had a good laugh over that one, and after talking a bit, realized that we had met before. This was the wonderful guy who had plowed our driveway after the blizzard of February 2010. After being snowbound and without power for 6 days, I had been so-o-o-o glad to see him. My hero! But now, without all those layers of winter snowsuits, coats, hats, and gloves, we hadn't recognized each other.

The Door Barn

He went on to tell me that they call the little barn up in the field "The Door Barn", because it was constructed out of old wooden doors. Now, that's recycling in a big way! Hmmm, when you have an entire building made of doors, how do you know which barn door to open?

Taking a break, stepping out, and looking at familiar scenes with new eyes - it's a great way to spend an hour. And you never know whom you might meet. Adventure waits around every corner, and sometimes, just down the road. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Two-Story Window Treatment - Revealed!

All of my efforts in designing, planning, and fabricating the window treatments for the living room of this spectacular lake front home were rewarded when we stood back and gazed up at the finished results...

Embroidered faux silk slouch panels soar dramatically upward, drawing your eye to the center arch. Sheer panels soften the leading edge with the merest wisp of golden fabric. Deeply pleated swags swoop between 6" holdbacks in an antique pewter finish and are edged with gorgeous tassel fringe featuring metal and beaded accents. The silky polyester lining of the overdrapes helps to keep the entire treatment light and airy, and allows the embroidered pattern on the fabric to show.

Because of the extreme height of the panels, we couldn't use just any tassels at the top. They needed to be large enough to look substantial when they were eighteen feet off the floor. That meant we had to order 12" long tassel tiebacks and adapt them to hang from the decorative medallions. I love the way they look.

Two more tassel tiebacks were used to sweep each drapery panel to the side, revealing a view of the lake and allowing sunlight to pour into the room.

My husband, Fred, does all of  my drapery installations, and I appreciate him more than he'll ever know. He's calm under pressure and meticulous with measurements - just what every designer wishes for in an installer. I was a little nervous about having him drill and hammer and steam and fuss with swags when he was wa-a-a-ay up there on an extension ladder, but he did such a fantastic job that even the perfectionist in me was proud. He built special extensions for his "Little Giant" ladder to give him room to work on the window treatments without crushing them. Very clever!

When the homeowner first caught a glimpse of her new window treatments, she exclaimed, "Oh, I can't believe how they change the room!" She and her husband love the new look and feel they made the right choice early on when considering all of the design options I had presented.

Those earlier designs are long forgotten now, and we can't picture anything else at these windows. The simple drapery panels with their elegant accents have softened the hard angles and made the room feel warm and inviting. It finally feels complete.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Two-Story Window Treatment - The Design Process

You may remember the cuff-top draperies and slipcovers I made for one of my favorite customers last summer. Well, she was so happy with the way her kitchen turned out that we almost immediately began planning the window treatments for her living room. It turned into a lengthy process, however, as we searched for just the right design.

The two-story-high windows offer views of a lake below and allow plenty of sunshine to brighten the interior spaces. The homeowners, of course, didn't want to block either the view or the light. They also wanted to avoid using drapery panels in the design, because they might seem too similar in size and visual weight to the tall columns that stand on either side of the fireplace.

Here's an inside look into the process I went through in designing the custom window treatments for this expansive wall of windows...

I began by importing a photograph of the client's room into my design program on the computer. Designing on a photo is a great way to visualize how various styles might look on the actual window.

Swags seemed like a natural for this window configuration. Style 1, below, features raised swags, (swags that are pulled up higher on one side), hung from custom wrought iron hardware. They help to soften the sharp angles of all those windows, but don't obstruct the light or the view.

Style 1

In Style 2, I layered a contrasting fabric under the first one.

Style 2

Next, I thought I'd see how the same style would look with sheer or semi-sheer lightweight fabrics. I also changed out the hardware, using a chunky rod with finials for the top of the arch and large holdbacks for the upper windows.

Style 3

In Style 4, I simplified the treatment again by removing the underlayer, then treated the lower windows with swags and cascades of their own.

Style 4

Style 5 is a more formal version of the earlier designs. The pleated jabots and cascades give it an elegant, refined look.

Style 5

Taking a different tack with Style 6, I thought I'd see how cornices would look on the upper windows. Their interesting curves act as a frame for the sky outside. Simple rectangular cornices on the lower windows repeat the color and texture of the ones above. Gathered sheer panels add a touch of softness and are pulled to the side to keep things open and light.

Style 6

For the center arch, I suggested using an insert of Tableaux faux wrought iron, custom made to perfectly fit the window.

In Style 7, below, I removed the lower cornices and added softly draped swags to the upper ones.

Style 7

Unfortunately, none of the above designs struck my clients as being just right, so we put things on hold for awhile. Weeks passed, and it was driving me crazy that I hadn't come up with anything new for them. I wanted to design something that would make their hearts sing!

Finally, I thought I would just try something completely different - drapery panels! We had ruled them out at the beginning, but maybe we had been a little too hasty. It wouldn't hurt to give it a try. I drew up one panel design - only one - and emailed it off to them.

Style 8

A few hours later, I held my breath as I clicked to open their reply: "We LOVE it!" were the first words I saw and all I needed to know. The design work was done, now on to the fabrication!

Stop back tomorrow to see the fabulous finish to all this planning.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Treasure Hunt Fun for Everyone!

Is there anyone out there who wouldn't love a treasure hunt? Deciphering cryptic clues and following the trail to a great surprise awaiting you in some hidden spot - what could be more fun on a Saturday afternoon?

Last weekend, my five-year-old granddaughter, Lilly, was coming for a visit, and we had a little gift to give her, a coloring book that we picked up at a museum on our last trip. But rather than just hand her the gift, I decided it would be a lot more fun, and prolong the anticipation, if I made a treasure hunt for her. This is a longstanding tradition in our family. I've been doing it since my kids were young, and it has never failed to delight everyone involved. Sometimes I think the hunt itself is a lot more fun for the kids than the jackpot they find at the end.

I have a stash of old clue cards that I've made over the years - these are the ones that I used 30 years ago with my kids - so I pulled them out last weekend to make a treasure hunt for Lilly.

I had to laugh when I started going through them and realized that most of them were things that we don't even have anymore: furniture from our old house, children's toys that were long ago given to Goodwill, appliances that were replaced twenty years ago, and all those pieces of our life that were such a big part of it then, but have long since been stored away or discarded. There's a picture of a cassette tape player, the one that my kids used to listen to for hours on end and take everywhere with them. There's a sketch of a record player and a high chair, and the changing table where I must have changed at least a thousand diapers (cloth ones!) I realized it was time to start updating my stash of treasure hunt clues.

I did some quick little sketches on 3" x 5" index cards of places and objects around the house. When Lilly arrived I handed her the first clue...

She took off like a shot! Up the stairs she ran, to the bench on the landing, where she searched under the throw pillows for the next clue, which said...

Then she raced back down the stairs to the bar stools in the kitchen, where she found a clue hidden under the cushion, reading ...

Lilly is just learning to read, so she relied on the sketches to figure out where to go next. Photos can be used instead of drawings, if mom and dad aren't feeling artsy.  Just snap some pictures of things around the house, print them out, and add captions, if you like. The sketches are a little more cryptic, though, and make the hunt more challenging.

To prolong the fun, I always arrange my clues in a sequence that requires the kids to run from one end of the house to other when following the trail to their treasure. Upstairs and down, indoors and out - the more mixed up things are, and the farther they have to run, the more they like it.

Sometimes I challenge them to find a clue on a moving target ...

A treasure hunt like this is great for early readers. The drawings and text work together to help them figure out the clues.

When my kids progressed into elementary school and were comfortable with reading, I sometimes made treasure hunts that used poems as clues. Trust me, these were not great poetry, but it was a lot of fun. We had rhyming clues like these:

The first clue today
Will be found in the place
Where you go in the morning
To wash your face.
Go up the stairs and look around
That's where the next clue will be found
When dishes are dirty,
We put them in here.
So go find your next clue,
And your prize will be near.
In a hidden compartment
In this very room,
You'll find your surprise
In the dark and the gloom.

Treasure hunts are fun for kids and grownups alike. I once made a treasure hunt for my husband, and he actually had to get in the car and drive down the road to find his next clue!

We've done treasure hunts for special Christmas presents, for oversized gifts, for baby showers, for birthdays, and even for the Fourth of July. But you don't need a special occasion to put on a treasure hunt. It's perfect for brightening up a dreary winter day, or for injecting some fun into a hot day in August when all the summer activities that were so exciting in June have lost their appeal.

And you definitely don't need to have something impressive as the treasure. The smallest gift can be "treasure hunt worthy." It's all about the fun and excitement, the laughter, and the thrill of the quest.

When our granddaughter, Lilly, finally found her gift, after following eight or ten clues all over the house, she grinned up at me, breathless from her running, and begged, "When I come next time, can we have another treasure hunt?! Please?!!!"

Why not start a new family tradition in your home? Whether you do it with drawings, photos, or rhymes, give it a try - I can guarantee it will be a hit.

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