Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Holiday Turkeys

So I have to admit that the following project was not made by me. Nor Christie. It was made by my coworker, Andrea, who has quite a few crafty tricks up her own sleeves.

I couldn't just let this project go though - they're just too cute!

If you feel the need to make placecard turkeys for your loved ones at your turkey dinner, these turkeys could give you some needed inspiration! (she even made a mini turkey for her tiny nephew!)

Holiday Turkey Project


Sunday, November 9, 2008

Hummingbird Cake

Yup. It's made from cute little hummingbirds.

Okay. Not really. That's gross.

This cake is actually a kind of spice cake morphed with a fruit cake. Most people, including myself, cringe at the thought of fruit cake. Well, cringe no more people! This cake is super moist, super rich and ultra decadent. It will be a smash hit at
any party. Be sure to bring some milk to wash it down!

Hummingbird Cake:


3 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 cups sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon

3 eggs beaten
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 - 8 ounce crushed pineapple - undrained

1 1/8 cup chopped pecans (save 1/8 cup for frosting sprinkles)

1 3/4 cup mashed bananas (about 2 1/2 bananas)

  • Combine first five ingredients in a large bowl and mix.
  • Add (beaten) eggs and oil, stirring until dry ingredients are moistened. Do not beat.
  • Stir in vanilla, pineapple, 1 cup pecans and bananas. Stir well.
  • Pour batter into 3 - 9 inch greased and floured pans. Be sure cake is thick around edges.
  • Bake @ 350 degrees F for 23 - 28 minutes. Insert toothpick until clean. (My cakes were done at 20 minutes so be sure to keep a close eye on them.)
  • Cool in pans for 10 minutes. Removed from pans and allow to cool completely on wire racks.
Cream Cheese Frosting:


1/2 cup margarine or butter, softened
1 - 8 ounce package cream cheese, softened

1 - 16 ounce package powdered sugar

1 tsp. vanilla

  • Cream butter and cream cheese with mixer.
  • Gradually add powdered sugar. Beat until light and fluffy.
  • Add vanilla and beat more.
  • Spread cream cheese frosting between layers and on top and sides of cake. Sprinkle pecans on top.
  • Refrigerate.
(Trying something different with the bullets - not sure if I like it or not...)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Halloween Ghost Bags

So for me, Halloween wouldn't be Halloween unless candy was involved. However, I have very few friends who appreciate getting a big bag of candy from me for Halloween (likewise). I came upon the cutest candy bags knowing that my friends would appreciate the sentiment but not the contents.

But who does love candy? The nephews.

I spent this Sunday past making a handful of fun felt bags to fill with goodies and send out to the nephews (three of them, ages nearly 3, nearly 4 and nearly 14) and to my stepbrother (age 14). I know that for the two bigger boys the end product may be a bit childish but the goods inside will be appreciated.

I found the idea for the ghost bag online at Better Homes and Gardens (yup, my fave craftie website). I knew that when I finished my test a couple of weeks ago that I wanted to do SOMETHING not involving studying so I guess this was the project.

I downloaded the template from the website and blew it up until I had the size I wanted. I think I ended up with a 9" x 11" template (it doesn't matter as long as the ghost fits!). My next step was the craft store.
Normally, I would just suggest buying squares of pre-cut felt, but I decided to go with the felt on the bolt because in general, it's a bit stiffer. I got a yard of orange and a yard of white (on sale 50% off!) and then a couple pieces of black and purple in the pre-cut pieces. I felt that purple is a more Halloween-y color than the navy blue that BHG suggests for the "Boo!" letters.

When making multiples of anything, make one first to make sure it works. Then you can have one completely done and just tweak the remaining whatevers.

Ghost Bag:
My first step was to cut out a template for the actual bag. I used the 11x17 sheet of paper the ghost was printed on (I had multiple copies) and measured it out. Remember that 90 degree corners are awesome (not 87 or 92, etc). I used that template (cut out) to just draw an outline with a Sharpie (one of the fine point kind). You can also pin the paper to the felt and cut out the bag that way. Don't forget to cut out two!Next draw an outline of your ghost and cut it out of the white felt. You only need one of these.
Now take one of the bag pieces you have cut out and position the ghost piece where you want it with his entire body on the felt - you will cut off the excess in a bit. Pin it on and sew the entire edges with the sewing machine (if you don't have a sewing machine, you can sew it by hand but it will take forever).The next step is to take the ghost felt rectangle and plain orange felt rectangle and stitch the three corners, leaving the top open. Personally, I chose to stitch the bottom of the bag so the stitch was in the inside of the bag (place the ghost felt and the plain felt outsides facing inside and stitch the bottom. Snip the excess fabric and turn inside out.).
Turn the bag so the outsides are facing out. Sew each side of the bag shut. Using shears or regular scissors, cut the excess of the side of the bag.
Now you will have to draw a line from the ghost handle part out in each direction along the top of the bag and cut the excess orange felt. Make sure that the front and back line up while cutting.

Yay! The bag is done! Now for the decorative elements:

Turn on your tv. This part is a bit time consuming.

Decorative Elements:
Using the letters from your template, cut out two eyes, one mouth, one "B", two "O"s and one exclamation point. Using fabric glue (I'm guessing you could use hot glue except that it might leave trace amounts on the fabric if it leaks through) apply the appropriate letters and eyes and mouth. Use a heavy book for weight and lay it on top of the bag. Leave overnight for best results.

Now you're really done!

But, if you are like me, you have multiple after finishing your bags you may want to make tags.I simply used a cookie cutter to outline a bat shape onto black cardstock (only because I'm lame and like everything to be the same). After cutting out the bat shape, I took a hole punch (well, more like a brad punch because I couldn't find my single hole punch) and made a hole in the corner.

I wrote the recipient's name on one side with a rock star product called (generally) the metallic paint marker. These things are FABULOUS. Except if sniffed in excess, may cause wooziness (please try to avoid sniffing especially if pregnant). They write superbly well and are super shiny! Love it! So anyway, I used that to write the recipient's name and my name on the tag and tied it onto the bag with a black cord ribbon I had lying around. Because I have stuff like that. Lying around.
Now for simplified instructions because I got really wordy up there:
1. Cut out felt (ghost and bags).
2. Sew ghost onto bag.
3. Sew bag together.
4. Cut excess felt off top of bag to align handles with top of bag.
5. Trim with shears.
6. Cut out decorative touches.
7. Glue decorative touches.
8. Label bag.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Say Goodbye to Summer with This Simple Summery Pie

Yes, some kids have been in school for a month already. Yes, I've been wearing a jacket to work for the past week. Yes, the sun is gone by the time I get home at night. But the official first day of fall is still a few days away, believe it or not.

It might not be beach weather anymore, but you still have time to whip up a delicious, summery pie before those turning leaves turn you to thoughts of apple, pumpkin, and pecans.
I got this recipe from Mom (actually her entry in an old Union County Cookbook), and it's almost too simple to be believed. Here's what you will need: 3 egg yolks, one can of sweetened condensed milk, and 1/2 cup key lime juice, plus a graham cracker crust and whipped cream. Now maybe this makes me lazy, but I think any ingredient list that I can count on ONE HAND should win some sort of award.

And the directions are just as simple: beat the yolks, stir in the sweetened condensed milk and lime juice, and pour into the crust. Bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees, cool, and refrigerate for a couple of hours. Serve with whipped cream. The result is a smooth, tart, summery burst of flavor.
I was inspired to make this pie for the first time a couple weeks ago. Because my local grocery is Whole Foods, I wasn't able to buy a prepared crust, so I pulled out the iphone and quickly found a simple recipe for that as well: 1 1/2 cups crushed graham crackers, 6 tablespoons melted butter, and 1/4 cup sugar. Mix these together and press into a pie plate, then bake 8 to 10 minutes in a 350 degree oven.
Making your own crust adds a nice homey texture to the pie and only adds about 15 minutes to the process. (Always assuming you're working with cooperative grahams; my first attempt involved some frighteningly resilient ones - considering how hard they were to break with a mallet, I don't want to know what they'd do to teeth.)
pre-baked crust, ready for filling
I baked my first pie conventionally - that is, in a conventional oven - but for pie #2 (about a week later - what else are you supposed to do with the rest of that lime juice?) I decided to test out our fabulous countertop oven. Originally I bought the oven for heating up party foods, which it does quite well, but this was my first attempt at using it as a real "oven" oven. The pie came out perfectly - not noticeably different from the first one - and without having to heat up the house by turning on the big oven. Too bad I learned this trick so late into the summer - would've saved some AC bills. Stay tuned for additional tests of the Delonghi oven...
Postscript: To me there is no greater testament to the simplicity of this pie than that, after reading a boastful email from me about pie #1, my friend Russ - admittedly talented at many things but not exactly known as a baker - was inspired to go home and make one of his own, and had made yet another one within a week (again, the leftover lime juice...). If you like lime-y-ness, and you like pie, there's no excuse not to try this yourself.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Goat Cheese Stuffed Peppers, Round Two

Round Two of my quest for the perfect goat cheese stuffed pepper, or rather for the perfect recreation of the bite-size stuffed peppers I had my last night in Barcelona at the excellent El Xampanyet, took place a few weeks back. To refresh your memory, the first round of peppers was tasty but was too heavy on the garlic and, due to the use of peppadews instead of bell peppers, a little too peppery to pair with the subtle goat cheese flavor.

So, with Carrie coincidentally in town to help out with my next attempt, I next opted for a jar of fire roasted red peppers, also packed in brine (not necessarily the brand depicted here, but something similar).

I was delighted to find that the jar contained several whole, peeled bell peppers (I was prepared for pieces); soon after removing and draining the peppers, however, Carrie and I realized that filling these peppers whole and intact would result in an alarmingly large quantity of goat cheese per pepper - much more than any mouth would want to take on. (Just think of what a ripe bell pepper looks like, and imagine the interior capacity - quite a mouthful!) Instead, I ended up halving each of the roasted peppers lengthwise.

I used the same ingredients, in roughly the same quantities, as before: about 7 ounces of goat cheese, a minced garlic clove (minced by hand this time rather than with a press), and several finely chopped black olives (despite the fact that Carrie's not an olive fan, she actually didn't mind these once they were safely masked in the goat cheese), plus salt and pepper. Because I knew I'd be using the Ziploc trick to fill the peppers, this time I went ahead and put my ingredients directly into the bag for mixing. This requires significantly more kneading/mixing than does the deviled-egg filling (you don't want anyone getting a huge chunk of garlic in a single bite), but is achievable, and it saves washing a bowl. Then, as before, I snipped a corner off the Ziploc. With the halved pepper lying open on the plate, I squeezed about a 3/4" diameter log of the goat cheese mixture along its length, then folded, or rolled, the edges of pepper half up around the goat cheese. After doing this for each pepper half, I put the plate in the refrigerator to chill until dinner - about two hours.
When it was time to serve, I sliced each pepper/goat cheese log into pieces of about 1 1/2" in length. If serving these as hors d'oeuvres, you might want to secure each segment with a pick; this would ensure that the pepper remains secured around the cheese but would also allow guests to avoid handling the slightly slimy peppers. For our casual dinner, though, I left them as is. We thought they were delicious. The goat cheese mixture stood up well against the more subtle red pepper flavor, and the balance of garlic against goat cheese was just right as well. I think this may have had to do with avoiding the garlic press; the slightly larger, and less juicy, bits of hand-chopped garlic result in a subtler flavor (in my opinion at least).

The pepper strips were a bit messier looking and messier to eat than the tidily self-contained peppadews, but in general we were happy. I would say if you're looking for more goat cheese flavor than pepper flavor, this is your best option so far.
Lesson learned:

#1 Mixing the goat cheese mixture in a Ziploc bag works well and saves washing a bowl. (Apologies to the environment for the whole disposable plastic bag thing.)

#2 Hand-minced garlic results in a subtle garlic flavor that provides a better balance with goat cheese than does pressed garlic.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Brady Bunch Lunch

It’s a seminal moment in life when one’s formative years resurface as pop culture nostalgia…. Wait a second. We’re reminiscing about the 90’s already? My copy of Jagged Little Pill isn’t even dusty!

But having your teenage years serve as fodder for VH1 is nothing compared to watching them turned into American history for the preteen-and-under set. For my sister, this milestone came last fall when her younger daughter saved up and bought herself the newest “historic” American Girl doll: Julie, a young girl growing up during the bygone days of the 1970’s. Leave it to the folks at Mattel to unearth rainbow patches and Jiffy Pop as essential artifacts of American history. In fairness, I can see that our nation is young enough that you quickly run out of relevant eras to commemorate – it may not be too long before they introduce “Madison, Girl of the New Millenium” complete with iPhone, Crocs – er, sorry, Rainbows – and Jonas Brothers cd.

At any rate, my Mom had a lot of fun whipping up a bunch of clothes to augment Julie’s peasant-blouse-and-bellbottoms wardrobe: tie-dye top, loud print dresses, and cranberry velvet ensemble worthy of Laurie Partridge, to name just a few. Another project she had in mind but didn’t get done in time for Christmas was a metal lunchbox similar to the accessory set you can buy from
American Girl . We tried to get this done in time for Christmas, but as often happens that time of year, other things took priority. I ended up taking it home with me, promising to send it to my niece (“Julie”?) ASAP, and giving her full permission to nag me until I delivered. (A crucial measure given my notoriously poor performance in actually finishing projects such as this.)

In fact poor “Julie” (and Julie) didn’t get her lunchbox until this summer – many stupid things factoring into the delay – but I believe she was pleased with the results.

Although I’ve tried my hand at many things, I am certainly no metalworker. Thus, to make this box I of course needed to find a small-sized metal lunchbox to cover. Often you can find these filled with candy at Target-like places, especially around Christmastime, but we had trouble this (last) year. In the end we found the perfect size mini-lunchbox, not in a store, but in one of my sisters’ minivans: a used but perfectly acceptable specimen about 4” x 2 5/8”, with the Tootsie Pop logo on both sides and around the edge.

Julie’s lunchbox features a 70’s-ish flower graphic – cute, but to me, not as uniquely true to the era. In my memory at least (and admittedly, my lunchbox-carrying days were in the 80’s, not the 70’s) lunchboxes were all about branding: TV shows, movies, and toys. My sister had Annie, I still have my old Dark Crystal, and one of us had Strawberry Shortcake at some point. I remember people with the Dukes of Hazzard, Cabbage Patch Kids, GI Joe, etc.. No doubt many would have gone straight for Scooby Doo to evoke the 70’s, but for our family the quintessential TV brand of the era will always be
The Brady Bunch.

Now as it happens I have a bit of experience in the area of recovering metal lunchboxes. Several years back, in the spirit of many things
Christopher Guest , I gave my brother a Mitch&Mickey full-size lunchbox that has never to my knowledge carried a peanut butter sandwich but has intrigued one or two people over the years it’s sat in his office. For the Mitch&Mickey box I just formatted scanned images into two rectangles the size of each face of the box, printed them onto sticky-back paper, trimmed, and attached. I made smaller “stickers” to cover odd existing designs along the box edges, then gave the whole thing a couple coats of clear acrylic spray to both protect and add a nice sheen. (This final step is a bit dicey if you’re using an inkjet printer, as the ink can run if you’re not careful.)

The process for the Brady Box was essentially the same, although I had a bit of trouble at first finding high-resolution Brady images online, particularly the classic blue nine-square grid which I had envisioned as one face of the box. In the end I found a few helpful sites, the best of these probably being the
Brady Bunch Shrine, and also scanned some of the images from the episode guide that accompanies The Brady Bunch – The Complete Series which I just happen to have on dvd. Then I just messed around with the images in Photoshop and InDesign, formatting them to the dimensions of the box.

Whereas for Mitch&Mickey I could use smaller stickers to cover the edges of the lunchbox, the scale of the Brady Box was too tiny for that. I opted instead to completely paint over the edges of the Tootsie Pop box with enamel paint (like you use for model cars). The stuff’s a bit of a pain to use – very goopy – and careful as I was it was virtually impossible to avoid getting it where you didn’t want it, but two coats of the stuff did a good job of covering the Tootsie graphics. As with Mitch&Mickey, I gave the whole thing several spray coats of clear acrylic protection.

For a fun touch, I took a few additional Brady images I’d found online and made them into magnets using inkjet magnet paper (very fun stuff) to decorate the inside.
Julie’s official lunchbox comes complete with an actual (albeit inedible) lunch, including sandwich, chips, thermos, and Hostess-style cupcake. Although I’ve made my fair share of FIMO/Sculpey items in the past, for this project I opted for a more basic, and in many ways easier modeling option for the food: salt dough.

I have a great fondness for this medium. High on my roster of happiest memories are the nights we would pull out our homemade salt dough ornaments each Christmas along with our salt dough Nativity set. (My own contributions to both of these were minimal and somewhat embarrassing; I was probably about 5 when we made them.)

Salt dough is a very easy-to-make and easy-to-use dough that you typically mold, bake, and paint. (I suppose you could tint it into individual colors if you wanted.) Anyway, salt dough really deserves its own post, but here are the basics: 2 parts flour to 1 part salt to ½ part water (approximately – actually, start with that much water but be prepared to add half as much again). This forms a Play-Doh like dough that’s easier to mold than Sculpey and of course far cheaper. If you want, you can add wallpaper paste for elasticity (I don’t do this) or a little oil to make it less sticky. Because of the salt, the finished texture is a bit courser than Sculpey, but the results are pretty satisfactory. In fact, for food (especially bread) the texture is almost desirable. After molding, set your items on a cookie sheet and bake for several hours at a very low temp (about as low as you can set the oven) until hard.

My salt-dough apple attempts kept cracking (possibly adding the wallpaper paste would’ve fixed that), but I eventually got something satisfactory. I made the sandwich in separate components – lettuce, cheese, ham, bread – so they would be easier to paint, and ultimately assembled it with GOOP glue (you want something goopy to make up for unevenness). I even lucked into finding a tiny ziploc bag the perfect size to hold Julie's ham sandwich. (Wikipedia says Ziploc bags were originally test marketed in 1968, so nothing anachronistic here.)

My cupcake was the most fun; it felt like cheating to just paint the swirly icing on, so I formed my own, carefully, with the salt dough, and glued it onto the cupcake after painting. I used craft acrylic paint for everything and, as with the lunchbox, gave everything a good coat of clear acrylic to protect it.
Julie’s lunchbox comes with a cute little thermos, but I had no luck finding anything good to convert into a mini thermos. Chapsticks are too tall and thin, medicine bottles, even small ones, are too big and often have raised writing on the caps. The only other good options are made from glass, which seems inappropriate for what after all is supposed to be a toy. In the end my food took up so much space inside the lunchbox there wasn’t room for a thermos anyway, so I decided that “Julie”’s Julie probably buys milk from the cafeteria.
Assuming they even had pasteurized milk way back in the 1970’s...

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Triple Layer Lemon Cake

This cake is tasty.

It's tangy and sweet, but mostly sweet. Everyone is always so impressed with a triple layer cake. It's so easy to do though.

A coworker of mine requested a citrus-y cake and I forgot to download a recipe before going home for the weekend. Luckily, I had made this cake earlier in the year and had the recipe at home. It's pretty time consuming, but completely worth the effort.

The cake recipe comes from Better Homes & Gardens website (one of my personal favorites) and even has pictures! Woo!

Here's my suggestion on order of making the three parts of the cake:

Lemon Curd

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3 teaspoons finely shredded lemon peel
  • 6 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 6 tablespoons water
  • 6 beaten egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup butter or margarine, cut up


1. In a medium saucepan stir together sugar and cornstarch. Stir in lemon peel, lemon juice, and water. Cook and stir over medium heat until thickened and bubbly.

2. Stir half of the lemon mixture into the egg yolks. Return egg mixture to the saucepan. Cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat until mixture comes to a gentle boil. Cook and stir for 2 minutes more. Remove from heat. Add butter pieces, stirring until melted. Cover surface of the curd with plastic wrap. Chill at least 1 hour or for up to 48 hours. Store covered in refrigerator up to 1 week or transfer to a freezer container and freeze for up to 2 months. Thaw in refrigerator before serving. Makes 2 cups (sixteen 2-tablespoon servings).

Lemon Cake


  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 4 eggs
  • 2-1/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons finely shredded lemon peel
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 cup buttermilk or sour milk
  • 1/2 recipe Lemon Curd (see Recipe Above) or 1 cup purchased lemon curd
  • 1 recipe Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting (see recipe below)
  • Lemon peel curls (optional)


1. Allow butter and eggs to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, grease and lightly flour three 9 x 1-1/2-inch round cake pans. Combine flour, baking powder, soda, and salt. Set aside.

2. In a large mixing bowl beat butter with an electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 seconds. Add sugar, lemon peel, and lemon juice; beat until well combined. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each. Add flour mixture and buttermilk or sour milk alternately to beaten mixture, beating on low speed after each addition just until combined. Pour into prepared pans.

3. Bake in a 350 degree F oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until a wooden toothpick comes out clean. Cool cakes in pans on wire racks for 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pans. Cool thoroughly on wire racks.

4. To assemble, place a cake layer on a cake plate. Spread with half of the Lemon Curd. Top with second layer; spread with the remaining Lemon Curd. Top with third layer. Frost top and sides with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting. Cover and store cake in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving. If desired, garnish with lemon peel curls. Makes 12 servings.

Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting


  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 16 ounce box Domino 10x sifted powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel


In a medium mixing bowl combine cream cheese, butter and lemon juice; beat with electric mixer on low to medium speed until light and fluffy. Gradually add powdered sugar, beating well until reaching a spreading consistency. Stir in the lemon peel.

Cake Assembly

To assemble, place a cake layer on a cake plate. Spread with half of the Lemon Curd. Top with second layer; spread with the remaining Lemon Curd. Top with third layer. Frost top and sides with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting. Cover and store cake in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving. If desired, garnish with lemon peel curls. Makes 12 servings.

Here are my personal recommendations/suggestions:

You will need about 4 -5 lemons for the lemon peels because by the time you use your nifty lemon zester (my fave tool...oh crap! I literally just now remembered that I bought a microplane and never used it!) and chop the lemon peels, they get a lot smaller. Make sure to chop them as it will be very zesty!

Make your lemon curd first and refrigerate it for a good bit (more than one hour). It sets up VERY nicely over an hour.

When putting your lemon curd on the cake, first put some frosting in a decorator's bag (you don't need a tip) and cut a small hole in the end. Pipe frosting around the bottom layer of the cake and then put your lemon curd on. The frosting will contain the lemon curd and make sure it doesn't ooze over the edge, into your frosting sides. Do the same for the middle layer.

Lemon curls are pretty on top. Leave one lemon for decorating the top. It's pretty.

Note: The picture above is from the first time I baked the cake. I forgot to take a picture this week!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Where There's Newprint, There's a Way

Like me with my Brady Piñata, my Mom hadn’t dealt with papier-mâché in years when she went about making her fantastically scary Shelob. Once she got going, however, she was inspired to further inventiveness with this incredibly handy and versatile craft-form. First, Mount Doom, but later, masks to represent orcs and Ringwraiths. (In this case, no human actually wore the masks, but they were mocked up to be terrifying on their own – and can I just say that I’m not sure I would really want to wear a papier-mâché mask on my head, at least not without its having the opportunity to air out for several days. The flour/water paste combined with newsprint is an incredibly foul smell to have so close to your nostrils.)

She started by inflating several standard-size rubber balloons to about the size of a human head, maybe a bit bigger. These she covered with two or three layers of standard newsprint papier-mâché. This yields an egg-shaped base, which when dry can be cut in half to make two basic “masks.” When I arrived in Georgia, she and my nephew had already made a couple of these into orcs by applying features such as eyes, nose, scars, and scary lumps to the half-eggs with other bits of newsprint molded and dipped into the flour glue.

Here's her orc after having its newsprint features applied.
The night before the party, while Mom made two other masks into Ringwraiths, she asked me to do a couple more orcs from the remaining bases. For inspiration, I pulled out pictures from the Lord of the Rings movies showing some of Weta Workshop’s especially unpleasant creations.

Orc #1 was based on this attractive guy:

It was quite helpful to look at this image as a model, as I immediately realized that, while the egg shape made a good base, I would need extra dimension to really bring him to life. Taking fists-full of soggy newsprint (and momentarily oblivious to the fact that he would need to be dry and painted in less than 24 hours), I first started building up the sides of his face to form his high, elongated cheeks. I did the same to build out an area around his mouth, so that it would appear to be a cavity in the mask rather than something applied to it, and for fun added a protuberant tongue. (For lack of time, I didn’t attempt to build any dimensional teeth - perhaps a mistake.) Again for the eye sockets, I built out newsprint both below and above, mainly above. The nose was fun – more clumps of newsprint, up into which I stuck my thumbs (yes, gross) to create deep nostrils. I knew I couldn’t recreate this orc’s massive batwing-like ears without some kind of extra support – maybe cardboard? – so I went for a smaller version of the same thing. Because I was working fast, and sloppily, I found that my surface was pretty rough – even ridgier than that of my lovely orc model. Given more time, I suppose you could let the built-up papier-mâché dry and go back over with a couple smoothing topcoats of newsprint. But these are orcs after all, not beauty queens, so I wasn’t too worried about the wrinkles.

Orc #2 was based on an orc called Grishnakh – different looking but just as generally disgusting as the first model. I used the same process as before – this time giving him a wider nose and heavier browbone. I should say that all this built-up wet newsprint gets a bit heavy, such that especially for this guy the shape of the mask was somewhat distorted by the weight. In a way he looked more clownish and silly at this point than scary, but the great thing about making orcs is that it’s nearly impossible to mess up – your result might be different than expected, but it’s no less an orc. Sum total I probably spent about an hour and a half on both orcs, getting my hands completely gooey in the process, then left them to dry overnight.

Next day, I had two still quite soggy orc masks sitting on the counter. Seeing as the newsprint was more than an inch thick in several places, not too surprising. With the party a few hours away, I pulled out a hair dryer and, switching back and forth between the two orcs, began drying. I regret to say that the carbon footprint for this project was relatively large, as I spent more than a half-hour blow-drying orcs, passing the time reading Entertainment Weekly, until they were still clammy but dry enough to paint.

(That's Grishnakh on the left, Orc #1 on the right.)
As with my vase, the orcs looked quite cool in their bare-newsprint state – somehow about as scary and gruesome as you’d want them to be. As before, though, I knew that to achieve a true orc-y effect, I needed to go ahead and paint them. Again using my images for guidance, I squirted several different shades of acrylic paint onto a palette: grayish hues for #1, reddish brown ones for #2. Working quickly and haphazardly, I daubed different colors from each of the chosen palettes over each mask; this achieved a nice blotchy skin tone which to some extent made up for the loss of the patchy newsprint effect. Because I had defined the features so well dimensionally, I found not too much additional painting was necessary beyond the blotchy skin tone. However, I added dark paint to the insides of any crevices or cavities to exaggerate the depth, and did some general shading around the cheeks and brows. Then I used a pinkish white color for the eyeballs of each, and gave the grey one a reddish-black tongue and the brownish one rotted-looking teeth.

As party time neared, I was charged with the task of setting up the orc ambush scene. Mom found several odd garments to use for their bodies – old graduation robe, pancho, lengths of old fabric – which I took out to the chosen cluster of trees, along with coat hangers, wire, duct tape, and the four orc masks. Working with my brother-in-law, I found that the best method for hanging the orcs was to make two holes in each mask: one at the bottom (below the chin) and the other at the top (above the forehead). We pulled the coat hanger hook up into the bottom hole, secured it inside the mask with duct tape, and wrapped a length of wire around the top of the hook which we pulled up through the hole at the top of the mask. Then we tied the other end of the wire around a tree branch at about head height. Afterwards I draped the fabric and clothes over the coat hangers, trying to suggest some type of body mass beneath. Some of my judgments here, however, were questionable: particularly the pairing of a red length of fabric with a black graduation robe, effectively turning Grishnakh into a University of Arkansas grad. Anyway. To add a little ferocity, I found several long branches, which I propped up alongside the orcs to represent some type of staff-like weapon. (All the "real," plastic weapons were in use by the party guests.)

Once assembled in the woods, the effect was pretty cool. Somehow my initially clownish Grishnakh proved the scarier (despite his Razorback regalia), while the pointy-eared orc looked a bit goofy. Perhaps it was the lack of teeth. Neither actually came out much like my model - I guess the images wre more inspiration for my own unique creatures than literal models to be copied. My nephew’s and Mom’s orcs looked equally good, and the grouping as a whole made a great backdrop for the archery contest.
The whole papier-mâché dimensional mask idea is one that I'd love to try again - given more time it would've been fun to add stringy hair, build out the ears, use cardboard to make teeth, and otherwise get these guys a little closer to the Weta models. However, I think it was pretty good work considering the time constraints. Maybe for Halloween. Or if my brother ever decides he's Peter Jackson.

Lesson Learned: Where there's newsprint, there's a way: Dimensional papier-mâché sculpting is a really fun and reasonably quick way to achieve great effects; however, next time allow at least a full day for the thick, gloppy newsprint to dry.

Midsummer Madness: A Birthday in Middle Earth

As noted in this space before, I come by my slight creative insanity honestly. This was clearly in evidence on my recent trip home to Georgia. One of my nephews (we’ll refer to him as “Legolas”) had just turned twelve, and my visit coincided with his party, to be attended by two friends of approximately the same age, his brothers and sister, and several of his cousins, ranging in age from two to sixteen. These kids have celebrated each other’s birthdays for years, and it’s always fun to see them have a good time together. Last year, Legolas’s parents put together an incredibly elaborate and fun Harry Potter party, which featured various activities related to Hogwarts classes, etc.; this year, he wanted a Lord of the Rings theme. (What can I say? The kid has good literary taste.) Over the course of several weeks, and making ingenious use of dollar store finds, my Mom and sister set about planning a range of activities that could see the kids through the major highlights of the saga. (My own contributions to the party were minimal [insert link], but the party as a whole is worth posting about, so due credit will be given as appropriate.) I have to say, too, that one of the things which really made this party work is the fabulously diverse nature of my parents’ lot, which provided amazingly convincing settings for many Middle Earth locales.

Before I get to the activities, I should mention that several of the party-goers were in costume: Legolas complete with pointy prosthetic ears, Aragorn, Éomer, and others in mail shirts with shields, etc., boy Hobbits in tunics (Frodo with a gold ring on a chain around his neck), girl Hobbits in cheerful vests and skirts, Éowyn in a more Rohan-esque vest, blouse, and skirt, and of course Galadriel in white gown with golden crown (crafted from a dollar store windchime). Nearly all of this was made by Mom in the days leading up to the party.

First stop for the group was The Prancing Pony, otherwise known as my parents’ back patio, where Barliman Butterber (the cleverly disguised father of the birthday boy) served the guests salty snacks with beer (that would be IBC for some, barrel-shaped HUGS for others) while local fiddlers, possibly recognizable to their party-going children as two of my violin-playing sisters, provided entertainment.

When all had had their fill, Barliman escorted the group around the side of the house to the front yard, where (possibly transformed into another character?) he instructed them on the basics of fencing, before leading them up to meet Gandalf (another brother-in-law, complete with cloak and staff) at Weathertop – conveniently located on the hill in front of the house. Here, the fencing lessons proved life-saving, as two terrifying Ringwraiths – papier-mâché masks, spray painted black, suspended on coat hangers with flowing, weblike black fabric – were awaiting them amidst the trees. Each member of the group, including the two-year-old, got a turn fighting off these fearsome baddies.

After Weathertop, the party proceeded through a creepy patch of woods, where they were ambushed by four gruesome orcs [read here about orc fabrication]. These they fought off with bows and arrows (of the suction-cup variety). Safe at last, the group continued around the other side of the house and down a steep incline to Lothlorien, the (spray-painted) golden wood. (Yeah, we skipped the Mines of Moria. This way Gandalf didn’t have to go anywhere.) Here our lovely Galadriel was put to work, presiding over her silver mirror and testing each of the other guests’ knowledge of Tolkien lore with LOTR trivia questions . Upon a correct answer (younger ones were given assistance), guests were presented with a bag of lembas, a popsicle (maybe not canon, but very appropriate considering the Georgia midsummer climate), and of course a green cloak with an attached leaf brooch (cloaks made by Mom from dollar a yard Wal-Mart fabric, with my sister and I on brooch assembly: silk leaves, stripped from their plastic veins, ironed onto a sturdy fabric backing, and highlighted with gold paint).

On around to the swingset frame, where none other than Shelob – papier-mâché piñata courtesy of Mom, with wiggly hairy legs of doubled-up pipe cleaners and eerie bulging yellow eyes – awaited the group for yet another challenge. Each guest took a blindfolded turn at defeating the horrible spider, armed only with courage and of course Sting, one of many plastic swords in my parents’ grandchildren-friendly collection.

The spider proved so formidable that our initial Sting actually broke from its hilt and had to be replaced. Mom had cleverly given Shelob a segmented body, with two separate balloon-formed cavities. The nice thing about this was there were actually two piñata-bashing victories, and two candy spillages. When at last the beast was bested, its sugary sweet insides collected by the assembly, the group proceeded inside for the final challenge.

The front hall may not look like Mordor, but there at the foot of the stairs rose the fiery Mount Doom, another of Mom’s papier-mâché creations. Each guest was given ten gold rings, and standing above the mountain, took his turn at destroying the Ring of Power (or actually, getting the highest out of ten into its opening). (The rings were a dollar-store deal: 100 for $1.)

Next, all gathered round the table to celebrate by feasting on Mount Doom cakes – mini chocolate bundt cakes drizzled with fire-colored frosting and bedecked with more of the gold rings (made by Mom) – along with miniature Ents – made from pretzel rods and green-tinted chocolate (courtesy of my sister).
That's our lovely Éowyn with an Ent in hand, partially obscured Mount Doom on her plate, with Legolas besider her (note the Vulcan - er...Elvish ears).Desert plates were then whisked away and replaced by cards for a special LOTR version of Bingo (my sister’s creation), with L-O-T-R across the top of the card and various characters arranged below each letter. As characters were randomly drawn and called out (eg., “R-Treebeard”), players marked off their scorecards with precious gems (er…dollar-store green glass tiles). Adults were amused that each round of the game was won by one of the very youngest party guests, but that’s the lovely, equalizing nature of Bingo.
Finally it was time to depart Into the West – that is, about five minutes away to the home of Legolas – where presents were opened and Hobbit-hole cake (made and decorated by my sister) was served.
Then, exhausted with knife, sting, and a long burden (or something like that), the adults crashed while the older kids stayed up watching The Return of the King and younger folk watched the much shorter Lord of the Beans
. A fitting, restful ending to a truly fun and memorable day.

Lessons Learned:

#1 Kids' birthday parties ought to include cake and ice cream, but that's not to say you can't also introduce a little bit of culture into the festivities.

#2 Never underestimate the potential of papier-mâché: from piñatas to fearsome creatures to fiery mountains, newsprint and glue can be a great friend.