Sunday, January 31, 2016

National Inspire Your Heart with the Arts Day

National Inspire Your Heart with the Arts Day

What a great day!  I do hope that most people are inspired by the arts more frequently than once a year; however, this is a good place to start for beginning arts-lovers.

The arts have always been an important part of my life.  I grew up surrounded by music and art.  Throughout my childhood, playing the piano was one of the most important aspects of my life and led to me studying music in undergrad.  There were often various art projects going on in the home, so our house wasn't always the tidiest place in the world.  

Reading is another of the arts that is a daily part of my life.  I can't remember a time when I wasn't reading numerous books at the same time.  I was an early adopter of the Kindle, mainly because I immediately saw that this would make packing for trips so much easier -- no more contemplating which books to pack or how many would be needed for the trip!  

Drama is another of the arts that I have always enjoyed -- whether acting in school productions or going to the theater.  Movies of all genres are also a regular part of my life.  

In high school, I was introduced to Andy Warhol's art and became completely obsessed with his art, his world and his lifestyle.  His life seemed to be the complete opposite of one lived by a midwestern small town girl and appeared glamorous and exotic.  

The above is a homage to Warhol, using an Absolute Vodka limited edition bottle as the base.  The tulips are crocheted and keep their form through wiring.  I chose flowers and the bright colors because they are reminiscent of Warhol's flower series.  

I can't imagine a life without the Arts.  It's troubling when I hear of school cutting out creative programs, often to funnel money to sports.  Sports are also important, but should never overshadow the arts.  I also believe that creative programs reach a broader group of kids and teach skills that can be used for a lifetime.  

Friday, January 29, 2016

National Fun at Work Day

National Fun at Work Day

It's too bad that I didn't know about this holiday when I worked in Corporate America!  It would have been fun to plan activities for my team associated with this day.  With that said, Fridays were usually the most fun day of the week anyway at my prior company.  This was the day when consultants were in the office rather than at client sites, interview and cultivation days were hosted, everyone dressed more casually, and there was an all-office lunch and happy hour.  Final Fridays often popped up with enhanced happy hours, either in the office or at a near-by restaurant.

Working from home and building Occasions by sonjabegonia, it's all up to me to make the work day fun.  Fortunately, that is not an issue because I truly enjoy the creative process.  I don't enjoy computer work as much (likely a hangover from years of sitting in front of a computer), so I just postponed those tasks for another day.  As a treat, I watched an old '80s Molly Ringwald movie - For Keeps? - while working on some new designs.  

At the end of the workday, I also received some great news.  I have been approved to sell on Handmade at Amazon!!!  I had not applied in 2015 because I wanted to see what types of stores ended up selling on the site and I also assumed that there would be some growing pains that Amazon would sort out in the first few month.  I decided to apply for an invitation last week and was pleased to be accepted as a seller.

February is going to be a busy month setting up a new shop as well as expanding my presence on various social networks.  I'm excited!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Daisy Day

Daisy Day

I love all sorts of flowers and find daisies especially friendly and inviting.  Daisies are said to symbolize purity and innocence, so it's not surprising that you often see children pictured with daisies.  Daisy crowns and daisy chains are wonderful ways to use daisies picked fresh from the field or flower garden.

I combined my affection for daisies with my hot tea obsession when creating two of the tea cozies available at Occasions by sonjabegonia.  The crocheted daisy tea cozy at the top of the post will brighten up any tea service or kitchen.

For a more dramatic tea service, check out this Gerbera daisy teapot cozy with a black base and colorful daisies.

I had a lot of fun creating both tea cozies and covering them with flowers.  They keep tea in any standard teapot warm for a long time.  

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

International Day of Commemoration of the Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust

International Day of Commemoration of the Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust

Auschwitz Liberation Day

Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK

As a child, I read Anne Frank's dairy.  I visited a concentration camp in Germany on a dark and dreary day in my teens.  When the Holocaust Museum opened in DC, I found it to be sobering and informative.  I hope that everyone takes advantage of the opportunities they receive to learn about such atrocities so that history does not repeat itself.  

Related to these commemorative days, today is also

Vietnam Peace Day

Rather than share stories, post recipes, link to Etsy, or describe my latest projects, today I decide to keep my thoughts brief.  I'll take some time for reflection and pray for peace.  I hope that you will do the same.  

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Toad Hollow Day of Encouragement and CALs

Toad Hollow Day of Encouragement

This is a day that I had never heard of until searching around the web last week, but it's a pretty cool idea.  This is a day to give encouragement and kind words to all around you.  

The day is based on the legend of Toad Hollow written by Ralph C. Morrison. This Bugs and Bunnies blog post provides a great overview of the history of Toad Hollow and the creation of the day of encouragement.  

I think it's easy to forget to say kind words on a daily basis, especially when you're operating in a stressed and over programmed environment.  One place that I've found an overwhelming amount of kind words and encouragement is in the fiber arts community -- particularly in the knitting and crocheting communities.  It's fun to share photos of completed projects and ask questions in various virtual groups and also provides immediate feedback as well as longer term inspiration.

With that in mind, here are three CALs that I'm participating in over the next few months:

CALs or Crochet-a-longs

Each of these projects is a virtual crochet-a-long where a piece of the project is revealed on a schedule and people post progress pictures throughout the CAL.  Each are in their early stages and it's already been very interesting to see how the same pattern looks in different colors/yarns and made by different crocheters.  

Scraps of Yarn CAL Mystery Scarf

Creative Crochet Workshop created a scraps of yarn mystery scarf CAL that is published in four parts.  I was drawn to this project because I have a lot of scraps of yarn (where do they all come from???) and I love the flower theme.  

My first week's completed motifs are pictured above.  I'm purposely using as many colors as possible.  I'm looking forward to the next set of motifs being revealed tomorrow morning.  

Crochet with Me CAL 2016

Beatrice Ryan Designs is hosting a crocheted afghan crochet-a-long over a 12-week period, with new sections available each Saturday.  It's only been 3 weeks and I've already learned a few new stitches and techniques that I'm sure I'll use again in future projects.  Her directions recommended that the afghan be made using 1-3 colors, so I've selected white as the main color, with red and black as contrasting colors.

Again, the end is a mystery.  I do know that there will be edging and a border, which is great news because the different stitches are creating a jagged edge.

Wonder Crochet Blanket CAL 2016

American Crochet has created the final CAL in which I'm participating right now.  The Wonder Crochet Blanket CAL is unique because every two week, a different designer creates the next section of the blanket.  As with the Crochet with Me afghan, I'm learning new stitches and enjoying seeing the various version crocheted by fellow CALers.

So far, I crocheted the first section with white and blue and the second in a bright orange.  I don't know if I'm going to stick with these three colors or incorporate more throughout the afghan.  I kind of like the idea of changing colors with each section to highlight the fact that the piece has been designed by numerous artists.

This one is a long CAL -- a new section is announced every two weeks, so I won't have the completed work done until the end of the year.  I hope that I don't lose momentum!

Monday, January 25, 2016

National Peanut Butter Day and Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day

National Peanut Butter Day - January 24

I celebrated National Peanut Butter Day yesterday at breakfast with a toasted English muffin topped with peanut butter and coconut.  Very tasty!

It took a long time for me to grow to like peanut butter.  I have never had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  I thought Reese's peanut butter cups were awful until college.  I've never had a desire to spread peanut butter on celery (Ants on a Log) or an apple.  Peanut butter cookies were okay but never my first choice.

I always enjoyed peanuts (but, again, not my first choice of nuts) but just didn't get the appeal of peanut butter.

A jar of peanut butter will last for years in my house.

I've slowly come to like peanut butter in limited quantities.  I love a good peanut dipping sauce.  Chicken and broccoli in Thai peanut sauce is delicious.  A thin layer on an English muffin accompanied by coconut, honey or chocolate is a good breakfast or snack.  

Peanut butter day also reminded me of a day I spent in Plains, GA with my family last April.  Plains is best known as Jimmy Carter's hometown (growing up and now) and for peanuts.  This little town does a wonderful job of keeping it's small town feel while accommodating lots of tourists.  The Jimmy Carter  Museum and homestead is wonderfully maintained and operated.  President Carter continues to teach Sunday School when he is in town at a little Baptist church.  The main street of the town is lined with cute stores that sell antiques, souvenirs, and lots of peanuts.

In Plains, I was introduced to peanut butter soft serve ice cream -- I would definitely try that one again.

For more information about this spot, visit the Plains GA site

Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day - January 25

Bubble wrap!  Not as easy to find these days since companies have found less expensive ways to pack their boxes.  Whenever I do receive a box with bubble wrap, it is impossible to resist popping the bubbles.  Since I live alone, I don't even have to share the popping privileges!  

CNN has a great article dedicated to Bubble Wrap on their site today.  If you're yearning for the sound of bubbles popping, the videos are a must watch.  

My Yummy Lunch Today


Wrapping up this post, I had to share a picture of my yummy lunch today.  I made Eggplant and Spinach Curry served over jasmine rice.  It was a hot and spicy dish because I used a couple serrano peppers, along with plenty of fresh ginger, curry powder and other traditional Indian spices. To complete the sauce, I used a combination of milk and tomato sauce for a creamy and slightly tomatoey finish to the dish.  

Saturday, January 23, 2016

National Pie Day

National Pie Day

Created by the American Pie Council in 1986, this is a day to celebrate pie.  Any excuse to have a piece of pie!

Pie was a common dessert for Sunday dinners and holidays when I was a child.  We were definitely more of a "pie family" than a "cake family."  My Great Aunt Mildred made the best cherry pie when her cherry trees produced the tart fruits.  At the holidays, there were always several kinds of pies to choose from, although they could not be served directly after dinner because the meal itself was so good.

For my 16th birthday, I chose to have banana cream pie rather than a cake to celebrate.  The English cream filling was so rich and decadent . . .and also makes perfect cream puffs.

Savory pies and quiches were not very common, but I've grown to really enjoy them too.  I often make quiche in various flavors since it's a good way to use up leftovers and have a dish that is suitable for any meal.  While I haven't experimented with chicken or turkey pot pies, I admit that Marie Callendar's pot pies are a guilty pleasure.

Pies are also a staple food in the diner scene.  My tea towel series of diner slang depicts numerous classic diner foods, including Apple Pie with Cheddar Cheese . . . or Eve with a moldy lid.  This concept sounded absolutely dreadful to me as a child but now I can see the wisdom of topping the sweet pie with a sharp bite of cheddar. 

I also fun creating mini replicas of pie slices for my Etsy store.  I currently have three classic pies features in my store -- pumpkin , chocolate cream, and cherry -- and plan to design more in 2016.  I also have a goal to produce the pattern so fellow knitters can make their own mini pie slices.  

Friday, January 22, 2016

Roundup - A Week's Worth of Days in One Post!

This week has been a strange one for a number of reasons.  I started out the week submerged in a binge watch of all three seasons of Ray Donovan, courtesy of a Showtime freeview on xfinity.  Now, I can creatively fix a lot of crazy situations if I find myself in Hollywood.

It was also SO COLD in Chicago that Archie had to settle for 2 walks a day and I pushed the limits on how many layers are feasibly possible.  Spotty WiFi and an additive knitted snowflake blanket pattern added to the oddness of the week.

So . . . catching up on the week's holidays this morning.

National Nothing Day - January 16

This day is a day to do nothing, so it's a good thing I didn't write about it on the 16th!  Nothing much is written about the day, which is totally appropriate.  The one fact I found is that it was created in 1973 by Harold Pullman Coffin.  He was a newsperson, so perhaps this was his appeal for a day without the need to report the news.  

I watched the second half of the 2015 season of The Affair on the 16th and started knitting a new blanket.  I can't just sit still and do nothing unless I am sick, so this was a close to nothing as I could get.  

Ditch New Year's Resolution Day - January 17

Oh, how sad.  The first half of January was filled with optimistic national days helping people be positive, create resolutions, start new habits, and look forward to the new year.  17 days later and this day encourages people to give up.

I'm not a New Year's Resolution kind of person, but I do enter each year with vague internal goals.  I'm not giving up on them yet, especially since I've always heard that it takes 21 days to create a new habit.  

In 2013, I adopted March 1 as my personal New Year's Day because it was the day that I left my longtime job in corporate America to take a well-deserved sabbatical.  Since that major decision, I've been enjoying a more relaxed life and exploring fiber arts in earnest.  

Martin Luther King Jr's Birthday - January 18

Although born on January 15, MLK Jr's birthday is always celebrated the 3rd Monday of January.  The national holiday was approved by Congress in 1983, honoring this amazing person.  I wish we could have seen what else he would have done in his lifetime.  This is a great day for all to reflect on how far we've come as a nation.  Amidst petty political and religious fights, we have made significant progress with regard to the rights of women, African Americans, and the LGBT community.  Of course, there's miles to go, but we're getting there.  

I'm personally grateful to have moved to Chicago after undergrad and be exposed to so many different ethnicities and religions.  Growing up in a small town in Mid-Missour was great, but it was also very sheltered and insular.  Traveling and then moving to a large city was very eye-opening.  I hope that everyone takes advantage of opportunities to learn about different cultures and embrace new experiences.

National Popcorn Day - January 19

Popcorn!  Who doesn't love popcorn?  

My grandma always had a big tin of popcorn for the winter.  She made her own popcorn in big batches and flavored it herself.  Along with the typical buttered and caramel, she also made a peppermint popcorn that I have never had anywhere else.  It was pink and very pepperminty.  Sometimes, it was also a bit scorched, so you just had to eat around those parts.  

My sister and I tried to replicate the peppermint popcorn one Christmas and it was not a success.  It was okay but not great.  The issue was that Grandma was notorious for writing down recipes but not including everything, so it's trial and error to get the same taste.  She passed this trait down throughout my maternal side of the family, so all of us know that adjustments are needed when following a recipe. 

I have a lot of peppermint candies left over from the holidays, so maybe I'll give the peppermint popcorn another try.

I would be amiss not to mention Garrett's Popcorn when writing about this day.  What a wonderful find in Chicago!  This famous popcorn shop has the best popcorn for purchase.  It's a bit pricey, but worth it.  I stick to the Chicago mix - a combination of their caramel and cheese popcorns - a perfect combination of salty and sweet.  First time enjoyers beware - it's easy to overindulge.  

Penguin Awareness Day - January 20 and Squirrel Appreciation Day - January 21

These two days are devoted to my mom because these two animals have taunted her over the years.  In my teens, crazy squirrels kept on popping up in my mom's life, so we started to associate her with the squirrel wars.  I'd have to interview her for all of the sordid details, but I can say that a bike is involved in one of the tales.  

Penguins popped up in her life much later in life.  Remember the movie, March of the Penguins?  Such a great documentary that it won an Oscar.  I think it also solidified Morgan Freeman as "The Voice".  

When discussing the movie with my parents, I discovered that Mom thought that the penguins were huge -- the size of people!  It wasn't until the credits were rolling and the camera crew were shown alongside the penguins that she discovered their actual size.  Obviously, more trips to the zoo were needed and penguins replaced squirrels for a time.  

National Blonde Brownie Day - January 22

Whew!  Caught up to today and am back on track to celebrate national days on their intended day.  

This day is one that I will probably not celebrate by making a blonde brownie, simply because I don't see the purpose of the blonde brownie.  Chocolate brownies are so much better, especially dark chocolate fudge brownies!  I like them with or without different kinds of nuts - or a bit of espresso powder -- or a caramel drizzle -- or with a bit of zing from chipotles or bacon -- all are very tasty.  

Friday, January 15, 2016

National Hat Day and Strawberry Ice Cream Day

National Hat Day

Today, I wore my new Hello Kitty Hat in celebration of National Hat Day.  It wasn't as cold as usual, so I didn't wear it very long.

I wasn't always willing to wear hats, even though I was constantly told that keeping your head warm will make you warmer overall.  When it would get really cold, I would compromise with earmuffs.  Some years, a beret was acceptable.  A hooded jacket was pushing it.  Throughout school (including college) and into my 20's, my hair was more important than warmth.  This is what happens when you're a teen in the '80s.

These days, I will happily wear hats, hoods, and anything else that will keep me warm.  Amazingly, my hair doesn't look that different than when I fix it in the morning.  

My grandma had a very nice collection of hats and looked quite smart when she was dressed for winter or special occasions.  I also have an aunt that wears all sorts of hats and you can tell that they make her happy.  I only wear hats for warmth, so they are ones that have been knitted or crocheted by me for me.  I don't know if I'll ever venture into hats as fashion statements for year-round usage.

Strawberry Ice Cream Day

Strawberry ice cream continues to rank third in popularity, with vanilla and chocolate always at the top of the charts.  It's probably best known as betting the third stripe in neopolitan ice cream.  Remember how important it was to open the box up so that you could cut the ice cream in strips so everyone had an equal amount of each flavor?  

I did not have strawberry ice cream today to celebrate the flavor, but thinking about it makes me look forward to spring.  Just a few more months, right?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

National Dress Up Your Pet Day

National Dress Up Your Pet Day

This day is fun day (at least for pet owners!) that also helps promote pet adoption.  It's founder, Colleen Paige, has founded a number of pet-focused holidays and is a Pet & Family Lifestyle Expert.

It's become very popular to dress up your pets for the holidays as well as everyday life.  Ugly Christmas Dog Sweaters, elaborate Halloween pet costumes, fashion accessories of all types, and sporty sweaters and shoes are just a few of the ways pet owners may dress up their pet.

I wasn't really aware of all of this until I adopted Archie, my shih tzu mix, about 1 1/2 years ago from PAWS Chicago.  When fall came around, I decided that he needed at least one sweater for the cold winter.  After a week of knitting, I had a variety of dog sweaters for him and an idea for an addition to my Etsy store, Occasions by sonjabegonia.  

Archie is happy in sweaters and bandannas, but draws the line at leg warmers and shoes.  Here are some of hits stylish duds, all of which can be custom-made for your pet!  Check out the entire gallery on Flickr

The classic monogram sweater.  This is the sweater that started it all and is a best-selling sweater because it can be made in any color and with any monogram.  Archie's monogram really pops on the dark red sweater and looks great against the snow.

Archie is happy hanging out on the couch or napping on his pillow in his blue hooded sweeter.  The pointy top makes him look a bit like an old gnome.  

Archie's tough guy look is this skull and cross-bones sweater.  He also wears it in celebration of Halloween because he doesn't have any costumes (yet).

Archie in quiet contemplation in his maple leaf sweater.  The colors match a lot of my fall wardrobe, so we're a matcher set on autumn walks.  

Archie ready to deliver a Valentine in his heart sweater.  As you have seen, he looks great in any sweater.   

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Feast of Fabulous Wild Men Day

Feast of Fabulous Wild Men Day

Okay, this is the most bizarre day I've encountered to date.  What does this mean?  How is it celebrated?  Who is invited?  Why is it January 12th?

Sadly, I was not able to find any credible details about this day, it's origin, customs, or a good description.  It is mentioned on a number of various sites and in a few articles, so some people must celebrate it somewhere.

I know that Hallmark is clever at making up holidays; however, I don't think this is one of their creations.

So . . . I'll leave it open to interpretation . . . maybe by this time next year, more information will be available regarding this truly odd day.

If it's not too cold in your area, go out and look for some fabulous wild men!!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Learn Your Name in Morse Code Day

This morning, my day started off oddly and the rest of the day didn't go as planned.  Good thing I can be flexible now and then.

Around 6:00 am, I awoke to the sound of helicopters circling the neighborhood.  The happens occasionally, so I didn't think much of it.  They continued to circle, so I finally moved to the couch, knowing that true sleep was over.

About 7:00 am, the helicopter sounds hadn't waned, so I turned on the TV and discovered that there was an apartment building fire in Rogers Park.  The building on fire was a close three blocks away and firefighters were having a difficult time with it because of the extreme cold.  This is a building I walk by regularly.

As soon as that report was over, the newscast quickly mentioned that for those viewers just tuning in, David Bowie had passed away in the night.

That truly shocked me.  I ended up watching the Today Show (which I haven't done regularly in quite some time) to hear details, tribute, and flashbacks.  I grew up with 70s/80s David Bowie, but didn't really appreciate his early work and creative genius until college.  What an elegant man!  I love that he was able to keep his personal life private and only reveal what he wanted others to know.  Many celebrities (really and reality) could learn a ton from his legacy.

I look forward to listening to Bowie and reading more about his life over the next few days.

Now -- on to the intended topic of the day --

Learn Your Name in Morse Code Day

Today, Morse Code is celebrated because Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail first demonstrated it on January 11, 1838.  Soon after, it became widely used in the military and aviation worlds.  SOS continues to be an internationally recognized distress signal.  It also adds drama to many movie and TV show plots when someone is trapped in a contained space and needs to subtly communicate a message.

I have never delved into Morse Code, so thought it would be fun to participate in this day and learn my name in morse code.  Thanks to the internet, it's easy to find a code chart and figure it out.  

SONJA =   - - -  -- -- --  -- -  - -- -- --  - --

Curious about your own name?  Check out Learn Morse Code

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Houseplant Appreciation Day

Houseplant Appreciation Day

The Gardener's Network created Houseplant Appreciation Day for two reasons, as stated on their website:

  1. To remind people after the holidays that their forgotten houseplants need a little attention
  2. To celebrate beneficial houseplants and to encourage growing houseplants.
Once again, an occasion in January is helping us get back on track after the holidays and providing ideas for New Year goals.  

For many years, I did not have any houseplants because I traveled and worked quite a bit.  When I was at home, my focus wasn't on keeping plants alive.

Over the past few years, I have purchased and rescued a small collection of houseplants that thrive in my condo and can be kept healthy with minimal effort.  My home has great light, especially in the southern facing windows, so each plant has found a happy place to live.  I am also fortunate that Archie has no interest in the plants, so there are no accidental plant deaths.  


Aloe Vera Plant

The above picture is of a portion of my mother aloe vera plant.  It was a rescue plant that I saved a couple years ago after a neighbor moved out and left the plant in the rain.  The plant was overgrown and falling out of it's large pot.  

With help from my mom, we took apart the aloe plant, decided which plants were healthy and could be saved, and repotted what fit into the large container.  I had a number of shoots that didn't fit into the planter, so I let those dry for a few weeks, then planted them in two smaller planters, which now sit in my kitchen.

It looks like I will be taking apart the mother plant again this summer and thinning it's leaves.  I may be giving little aloe plants to all of my neighbors so I am not overrun with aloe.  It would also be interesting to learn more about the uses and benefits of aloe vera from sites such as herbwisdom.  


The Chicago Botanic Garden has an excellent collection of Bonsai trees, with over 200 trees on display rotation throughout the spring and summer.  Bonsai is another aspect of Japanese culture that fascinates me.  The miniature trees are carefully trained and pruned to grow in fantastic shapes.  This art form can be traced back at least one thousand years and is an interesting history to review.

I have not taken the plunge into the craft and think I'll save this activity for much later in life.  In the meantime, I am happy with my little faux bonsai tree.  This guy was purchased at IKEA after a summer tour of the gardens.  Leave it to the Swedes to offer a simple, affordable alternative to authentic bonsai!

Jade Plant

The jade plant is a succulent that would actually be a good starting point for bonsai.  It's super easy to take care of since it needs very little water and thrives in windowsills.  I've had the above plant for about 4 years and it's grown quite a bit in that time.  

If you want multiple jade plants, it's easy to start new ones.  I took a single petal and placed it on wet dirt.  Eventually, roots formed and I now have a little starter jade plant.  

Walking through various Chicago neighborhoods, it's common to spot huge jade plants in shop windows.  Some of the plants I've seen must be 40-50 years old.  At that point, I doubt they're going to be moved, because large jade plants are also extremely heavy.  

Jade is a great plant to give as a housewarming or shower gift because it is so easy to maintain and also goes by the names of friendship tree, money tree, and and lucky plant.  

Peace Lily

This Peace Lily was my first rescue plant.  It was sitting by the garbage dumpster, looking very sad.  When I took it home, it was more for the lovely blue container than the plant that looked like it was dying.

Surprisingly, it pepper right up after a long drink of water and some sunshine.  I didn't know what it was until it bloomed later that year.  I've now had it for several years and it regularly sports numerous white lilies.  

This is a houseplant that works for it's space in your room by helping to clean the air.  It's another one that is easy to maintain as long as you don't overwater it.  

Saturday, January 9, 2016

National Take the Stairs Day and HelloKitty Hat

National Take the Stairs Day

January is full of national days that focus on getting fit, keeping resolutions, and the like, so I wasn't surprised to learn that today is National Take the Stairs Day.  I live in a 3rd floor walk-up, so every day is the stairs day for me.  

HelloKitty Hat

Okay, I'm much more excited about my new HelloKitty Hat than National Take the Stairs Day.  After making the sheep hat earlier this week, I decided that I could adapt that pattern and make an adult-sized HelloKitty hat.  I love it!

I've been a big HelloKitty fan for decades and enjoy poking around the Sanrio store on Michigan and little shops in Chinatown to discover what new products have been created.  By now, I think that they've made just about anything you desire with a HelloKitty or other Sanrio character design.

One of my dream trips is to spend time in Japan (other than layovers at the Tokyo airport - been there, done that).  There are so many aspects of Japanese culture that I'd like to explore in addition to HelloKitty.  Of course, one could make a trip just filled with HelloKitty -- resorts, restaurants, hospital, airplanes -- the list goes on and on.

I wish some of these attractions would come to the US just in case I don't make it to Japan in the near future.

Friday, January 8, 2016

National English Toffee Day and Mixed Fruit Cheesecake Pie Recipe

National English Toffee Day

I love toffee so was happy to discover that today is National English Toffee Day.  This is one of the few candies that always show up at our house for Christmas.  My mom would make this in a cast iron skilled when we were young.  As adults, my sister has adopted this as her signature candy to give for the holidays, so I always look forward to eating some in December.  The above toffee is from this year's batch.

I have purposely not attempted to make this candy myself because I want it to remain a special holiday treat.  The ingredients are simple - sugar, butter, nuts, semi-sweet chocolate - and once you get over your fear of hot candy, it's a pretty quick recipe.  Based on what I remember from childhood and followup conversations about toffee, it is essential to use a well-seasons cast iron skillet, real butter, quality chopped, toasted nuts and semi-sweet chocolate.

This is one candy that I will not purchase because I don't want to be disappointed.  I know what really good toffee tastes like, so I'd rather wait for the holidays than eat a sub-par toffee.

With that said, I do enjoy a Heath candy bar every once in a while . . .

Mixed Fruit Cheesecake Pie Recipe

I'm on a mission to use up the remaining random ingredients from the holidays, so I made this Mixed Berry Cheesecake Pie.  After cooling in the refrigerator, I enjoyed a delicious slice this afternoon with a cup of coffee.

Here's how I made it --

Mixed Fruit Cheesecake Pie

I had a ready-made Keebler pie crust in my pantry, so that's what I used.  I would typically made a graham cracker crust with crushed graham crackers, sugar, and melted butter.  

Cheesecake Filling:
2 8 oz packages cream cheese, softened
1/2 C granulated sugar
1/2 t vanilla
1 t lemon juice
2 eggs

Cream the cream cheese and granulated sugar.  Once combined, add the vanilla and lemon juice and mix.  Finally, add the eggs one at a time and beat until combined and fluffy.

(I used an immersion blender for this because I didn't want to pull out my KitchenAid for a small job.  It worked really well.)

Add the filling to the pie crust and bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes or until the center is firm, not jiggling.  I covered up my pie with aluminum foil for the last 5 minutes of baking time so that the crust and top didn't get too browned.

After cooking, let cool on the counter before topping with the mixed fruit topping and refrigerating.

Mixed Fruit Topping: (prepare while cheesecake is baking)
12 oz bag fresh cranberries, washed and sorted
1 granny smith apple, chopped
1 T fresh ginger, minced
1/3 C granulated sugar -- adjust to your sweet level
1/2 C water
1/2 t salt
1/2 pint blackberries (optional)

Add all ingredients except the blackberries to a medium saucepan and cook over medium heat.  When mixture starts bubbling, reduce heat to low.  Cook until the cranberries make a sauce and the apples are softened, about 15 minutes.  Remove from heat and stir in the blackberries.

Let cool.  Spread mixture over the cheesecake after both components have cooled to room temperature, then refrigerate for 2-3 hours before serving.

Note:  You will have leftover topping, which is a good thing!  It can be eaten alone like traditional cranberry sauce, served over ice cream, used as a condiment on a turkey sandwich, spread on toast for breakfast, etc.

Makes 8 servings.


Thursday, January 7, 2016

National Tempura Day and Baa-Ble Hat

National Tempura Day

Who doesn't love the Japanese dish, tempura?  Tempura is typically vegetables and seafood coated in a light batter and deep-fried, served with various dipping sauces.  If someone in your party doesn't like sushi, there's usually a tempura dish on the Japanese menu that will satisfy them  Parents also find this to be a way to get picky kids to eat almost any vegetable.

Growing up, we learned to eat all kinds of food and have fun in the kitchen cooking different cuisines.  I remember helping make tempura on a variety of occasions.

Since it's a dish best eaten right out of the fryer rather than as leftovers, I haven't made tempura in quite a while.  Tonight, I think I'll bring out the Fry Daddy and have some tempura shrimp and vegetables -- small batch style.

Battered green beans have jumped out of Japanese restaurants and onto the appetizer menu of gastropubs in the past few years.   Tempura batter has also become a part of the State Fair food culture, used to batter a variety of crazy foods to sell to fairgoers.  This phenomenon helps provide the notion that almost anything can be improved by battering and frying.  When fried properly, the items should not be very greasy, but it's still a good idea to enjoy in moderation.  

Baa-Ble Hat

On Facebook, I'm a part of a huge knitting group that shares completed project pictures and discusses various knitting topics.  The past few months, I've seen the same sheep hat pop up over and over.  It ass very cute, but I didn't really investigate.

After seeing one of my friends make a Star Wars hat for the new year, I decided that I needed a new hat too and looked into the sheep hat.

The pattern is a free download and was created by Donna Smith to celebrate Shetland Wood week.  No wonder so many sheep hats were popping up!  On Ravelry, there are thousands of completed Baa-Ble Hats.

The pattern is very well-written and was a fairly quick knit since the colorwork only used two colors at a time.  When reading comments from fellow knitters, I noticed that many stated that their hats turned out too large.  Mine was a perfect fit, so I think that the issue was loose knitters, rather than a pattern error.

I'm not a fan of pom pons, so I left that off of my finished hat.  

Now I want to make a hello kitty hat similar to the Baa-Ble hat, then I really need to stop with the winter knitting.  It's so easy to procrastinate through random projects -- feels productive, but it's not a need-to-do activity!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

National Bean Day and Crocheting

National Bean Day

As with many of these obscure holidays, I couldn't find a definitive reason behind National Bean Day.  The best reason I found was that it commemorates the death of Gregor Mendel, a geneticist who used bean plants in his research work.  

Whatever the reason, beans deserve to be celebrated!  They are versatile, easy to prepare, inexpensive, and can be found in all cuisines.  They can be dressed up or dressed down, made into hot or cold dishes, be the star of a dish or a supporting ingredient, and are a good source of protein.

One bean I frequently prepare is the pinto bean.  This is my basic recipe for Slow Cooker Pinto Beans.

Slow Cooker Pinto Beans Recipe

1 lb dry pinto beans
4-5 slices good quality pork jowl or smoked bacon, diced
1 large yellow onion, diced
2-3 serrano or jalepeno peppers, diced.  Adjust hotness by including/excluding the seeds

I soak the pinto beans overnight in a bowl, then rinse and place in the slow cooker the next morning.  Add the pork, onion and peppers, then cover with water so that everything is completely submerged with about an extra inch of water.  Cook on low for 6 hours.

At the 6 hour mark, I check on the beans and add the cumin and salt to taste.  I LOVE cumin so use several tablespoons.  After that, I cook for another 1-2 hours, depending on how tender I want the beans.

The beans are great right out of the slow cooker.  I also usually turn half of them into refried beans the next day, using bacon fat and adding some chili or chipotle powder.  

Beans freeze well and are a great staple to have on hand for a quick meal.

Crochet Projects from the last few days

This past week, I have taken a break from work and crocheted 4 quick projects from a book I've owned for several years -- Crochet One-Skein Wonders, edited by Judith Durant and Edie Eckman.  This book is one of a series of one-skein wonders books and all of them have a wide variety of patterns in different skill levels.  They are great stash busters if you have a mix of random single skeins.

The yarn for each of these items was from my stash, so no money was spent.  While crocheting, I was also able to think about what items I'd like to add to my Etsy store in January and which existing items need replenishing.

Center Table Runner

I used a skein of variegated sock yarn for this center runner for my dining room table. The pattern was for a smaller placemat size with 12 large motifs.  I wanted a larger piece for the enter of my table, so I expanded the runner to 18 large motifs.  I really like the way it turned out.  A future project would be a tablecloth using this same technique.

Lucky Dog

This book has a handful of crocheted animals and all are cute.  I selected the dog and used the rest of the variegated sock yarn from my table runner project to crochet his ears and embroider features, then light blue fingering weight yarn for the rest of the body.  The pattern used an interesting method of decreasing for the body so that the curve of the upper body was more realistic than many amigurumi I have seen.  Overall, the shaping ideas are ones I'll consider using in future projects. 

Montana Hat

I used grey worsted weight yarn to knit this interesting hat.  The brim was worked in rows, then joined together to form a headband.  After that, the crown was worked in the round after picking up stitches along the top of the headband.  I enjoyed this pattern because I learned how to create a twisted cabling effect in crochet - something I had not done in the past. 

Mobius Cowl

This cowl was made with super bulky orange variegate wool and a N hook, so it was a very quick and easy project.  By crocheting through the back loops, the ridges were former and added great texture.  Before joining the two ends, there is a twist so that it lays properly.  A fun afternoon project that will keep me warm in January!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

National Bird Day

The 14th Annual Bird Day is sponsored by The Avian Welfare Coalition and Born Free USA.  It's a day to celebrate birds, educate children and adults about the needs of birds, inform the public about helping stop extinction of bird species, and take the time to appreciate all things bird.  If you're interested in learning more, visit the official National Bird Day site.

I have never owned a bird or interacted with them up close, but there are several species who have come into my life at some form through the years.

My grandma was a bird watcher and always had full bird feeders hanging along the clothesline outside the kitchen windows so she could enjoy them in the room where she spent a lot of time preparing meals.  A red cardinal sighting was always a treat and worth a mention.  More common birds were also welcome, unless they were mean or took more than their fair share of the seeds. 

Living in the city, one of the most common birds I encounter are pigeons.  People seem to have strong feelings about them and either love or hate them.  I like observing them in the winter because they are able to puff out their feathers for warmth and appear to be little balls of feathers.  

I took the below picture a year ago at the Davis El stop in Evanston, but it's a common scene on any winter day.  These smart pigeons are not afraid of people, especially when there's a heat light in play.  They show no hesitation when taking a prime spot under the heat.  Typically, a conversation will start about the pigeons and people are respectful of their space while we all try to stay warm in the cold air.  

The owl has been one of my favorite birds for a long time.  I like that it stands for wisdom and intuition, among other qualities.  Although they are predators, they are also very protective of their family.   Check out the Universe of Symbolism for more information on the owl symbolism and spirit guides.

Over the holidays, there was a great documentary on PBS about the white snowy owl - tracking an owl family as they braved the harsh winter.  The sole focus of the parents was protecting and feeding the owlets until the owlets could provide for themselves.  I was surprised at how invested I became in the survival story and found myself rooting for the owlet that was scared to cross the lake, mourning the owlet that didn't survive, and marveling at the soaring father owl.  

During the years when I planned and hosted weekend informational conferences for PhD students interested in management consulting, there was always a need for an icebreaker to get people talking.  One of the best things we would do is produce a paper Facebook that introduced everyone prior to the event and included answers to fun icebreaker questions.

One question that was always included is "If you were an animal, what would you be?" and my answer was the owl.  One year, I ended up having an interesting conversation with a participant of Chinese descent and learned that the owl is not viewed positively in Chinese culture.  Nevertheless, I will continue to enjoy them for my personal reasons.

Amigurumi, a Japanese craft of crocheted cute animals and other items, is one of my favorite uses of my crochet skills.  A number of amigurumi are featured in my Etsy shop, including these cute little owls.  

Owls are also included in my personal collection of handmade (by me) Christmas ornaments.  A set of cross-stitch owls always grace the limbs and celebrate one of the first crafts I learned as a child.  

So . . . before I wrote this post, I was planning to fix a chicken stir fry for dinner.  Now, that sounds like a horrible tide on a day that celebrates birds.  During my evening walk with Archie, I will need to reassess my plans.

Monday, January 4, 2016

National Spaghetti Day and Pop Music Chart Day

National Spaghetti Day!  

Who doesn't love a big dish of classic spaghetti and meatballs?  Or a more refined dish of spaghetti with pesto and shrimp (my plans for the evening)?  Or a late night snack of spaghetti carbonara?  Even a simple buttered spaghetti with a bit of parmesan hits the spot.

(above photo is of Ina Garten's Real Meatballs and Spaghetti)

One of the most classic family pictures is of my sister in her high chair after eating a bowl of spaghetti and marinara.  The red sauce and noodles were all over her face, in her hair, on the high chair tray, and likely on the floor and beyond.  I wish I had a scanned copy of the pic to post because it would bring a smile to everyone's face.

Growing up in a small town in mid-Missouri, I was not exposed to "real" Italian food but I didn't know that until later in life.  It wasn't something we had weekly -- probably a couple times a month.  Although I didn't know much about preparing spaghetti, I knew enough to be appalled when one of my friend's moms rinsed a big batch of prepared spaghetti in cold water and then added oil so it wouldn't stick together.  It was for a big gathering, so we served it anyway and I don't believe there were any complaints.

Once I moved of-campus in college, my two roommates and I would sometimes have spaghetti and meat sauce for family dinner.  We had a huge debate about tossing the spaghetti in the sauce or serving the sauce on top of the spaghetti.  The lines were drawn and no one was budging, so we served it both ways.  The Food Network did not exist at that time, so there was no one to tell us to always add pasta too the sauce so the pasta and sauce are properly incorporated.

As an adult, I enjoy experimenting with different types of pasta, sauces, ingredients, and spices and have found that it's difficult to mess up a pot of spaghetti as long as you don't overcook it and only add things you enjoy eating to the dish.

My plans tonight are simple -- I'll have spaghetti tossed with some pesto sauce I made this fall using the final harvest of basil and parsley from my garden plot and serve it with sautéed grape tomatoes and shrimp.  Easy, clean and delicious.

I know that a lot of chain Italian restaurants are offering National Spaghetti Day deals, but I just can't bring myself to order pasta out unless it's freshly made by the chef.  Which reminds me that a goal for the year is to learn how to make pasta from scratch, but that's likely another celebration to take place later in 2016.

More information about National Spaghetti Day can be found on this fun site

Pop Music Chart Day

I couldn't resist highlighting another January 4th celebration today -- Pop Music Chart Day.

I was completely obsessed with the pop charts starting in middle school and continuing through college.  In the 80s, I thought Casey Kasem had the best job in the world -- counting down the American Top 40 every week.  The only thing that was not good about this radio show is that it aired on Sunday mornings.

(Take some time to learn more about Casey!  He was an interesting guy and accomplished much more than having my dream job.  Casey's bio on Wikipedia)

Every Sunday, I listened to the American Top 40 in my room until it was time to go to church.  At the very last possible minute, I put a blank tape into the boombox and pressed record so I could listen to that hour's worth of music later that afternoon.  Sometimes, we got back home in time for me to hear the top 3 live before going to Grandma's for Sunday dinner.  On less fortunate days, I would be left hanging until I found someone who had heard the show and could tell me which song was #1 that week.

Rolling Stone was the other chart maker that I followed religiously.  I carefully reviewed the list in each issue, marking which songs and/or recordings I heard, owned or wanted to buy.  Much of my allowance was spent at Musicland.

If you're looking for a fun way to celebrate Pop Music Chart Day, check out E!'s Pop Music Quiz.

As I'm eating my spaghetti dinner, I think I'll listen to some of my favorite To 40s from the 80s -- starting with Pop Muzik by M.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Festival of Sleep Day

It's Festival of Sleep Day!  Yes, this is really an occasion; however, a quick google research attempt did not yield a source or year of origin.

What a perfect time for this festival.  The holidays are over, many have overindulged in food and drink, perhaps trying travel was experienced, and it's back to work on Monday.  Today in Chicago, it was cloudy and cold - perfect weather for a sleep.

Archie had no problem sleeping the day away.  When he's in winter long coat mode, I sometimes have to do a doubletake before locating his face.  There was a bit of snoring and some leg twitching, so I thick he enjoyed his quiet day wrapped in his Shark Attack! Pet Blanket

I do wonder if there are official events planned for the Festival of Sleep Day.  With some planning, I'd think a successful, yet quiet, festival could take place.  I imagine comfortable couches loaded with comfy pillows and cozy quilts and afghans, people dressed in their most comfortable lounging outfits, cuddly cats and dogs who are eager to snuggle up to take a nap, and dimmed lighting.  Classical music in the background lures people to sleep.  There's an option to join in the reading of bedtime stories.

When it's time to wake up, festival goers awake to the smell of bacon frying, cinnamon rolls baking and coffee brewing.

What a soothing festival!  Look out Jan 3, 2017.

Bed bugs are not typically thought of as desirable in any situation, but I think there's a clear case to be made that this sleepy knitted bed bug would be a cute festival gift.

The pattern is from one of Anna H's Mochimochi Land books.  Over the years, I've learned a lot about knitting cute little animals, people and food replicas from a number of sources, including Anna's adorable books.

Throughout 2016, I look forward to exploring obscure occasions as well as celebrating the classics.  During this journey, there will be lots to learn and enjoy.  For a peek at what Occasions by sonjabegonia already offers to celebrate occasions, check out my Etsy shop -- Occasions by sonjabegonia

Now I must sign off for tonight because Downton Abbey is beginning -- hot tea is awaiting me for the premiere!