All posts by Jen

04: Homemade marshmallows made even BETTER

I have a secret little love affair with homemade marshmallows. I blame Caitlin for introducing me to the possibility, Zingerman’s for making them blissfully commercially available, and Claire at xoJane for introducing me to a flavor that I didn’t know if I could live without – Maple Whisky! The extra push that brings the food porn to you here today was the realization that I could LASER ETCH them.  It. Is. On.

And my kitchen isn't yellow.  No amount of photo correcting was fixing that one, it seems.
My kitchen isn’t yellow. No amount of photo correcting was fixing that one, it seems.

Here is my kitchen.  Cramped, poorly lit and un-picturesque.  My career as a food blogger was over before it started.   If you want pretty and well-lit cooking shots, check out those for the original recipe at theKitchn, or Claire’s modified recipe at xoJane.  I do have one mid cooking photo for you: No one drinks alone, not even my mixer. (Maybe it’s better there are no more photos of that part…hi Mom!)

Drinking some Maker's Mark whisky for the boiled and whipped sugar that is being transformed into deliciousness.
Drinking some Maker’s Mark whisky for the boiled and whipped sugar that is being transformed into deliciousness.

Notes on Cooking the Marshmallows: This was my first attempt at this confectionery.  I actually found cooking making marshmallows quite easy, and not nearly as messy as I expected.  Clean up was a breeze if done immediately – the biggest disaster is actually my kitchen after cutting and powdering.  Powdered sugar and cornstarch everywhere. One thing I would do differently while cooking, for the laser application: get a proper sifter so the layer of powder keeping the ‘mallows from sticking to the pan was lighter and smoother.  Mine turned out a little more clumped than necessary, which contributed to a bit of the “craggy” look of my end product.

edited to add: Caitlin let me know oiling the pan also contributes to the “craggy” effect.  Too much oil + too much sugar dusting = sugar clumps.

Making them laser-friendly: To prepare the marshmallow block for the laser, I flipped it over onto a wooden cutting board, separated by parchment paper.  I figured the bottom would have a flatter surface than the top, given that it was in a glass pan.   The tops were relatively smooth after the set (more so than I expected, given the viscosity of the marshmallows) so I half wish I would have tried etching the top…it would have bypassed the clumpy sugar problem on the bottom.

All pretty, these vanilla Marshmallows are going under the
All pretty and pristine, these vanilla marshmallows are going under the knife…er…beam?  Also, notable that it is the very first food that has ever been on our laser.

Things we learned:

– On our 40 watt laser, we used 100% power, 25% speed to etch the raster design.  We tried a higher speed at first, thinking we’d keep the laser moving quickly so it wouldn’t over heat one area too fast. This etch proved too light and we had to slow it down.

– Etching sugar is an “on” or “off” kind of deal – half tones did not come out clearly, so we were left with black and white designs.

Left is one pass of the laser on vanilla, Right is two passes on Maple Whisky. (And why is American Kirby so angry all the time?)
Left is one pass of the laser on vanilla, Right is two passes on maple whisky. (And why is American Kirby so angry all the time???)

– For the first batch we did one pass of the design(s), being timid about the flavor and color.  The second batch we did two passes, throwing caution to the wind.  The dark look was more appealing and made the taste more pronounced.

All the designs laid out, pre cutting!
All the designs laid out on the Maple Whisky, pre cutting! I really like the patterned sections – I wanted to emulate those fancy printed chocolates with the look.

– The marshmallow took delicate designs surprisingly well, but there still needed to be some weight.  One pixel lines did not come through well.  Text fared pretty decently.  The smallest font size we used was 23 points, and each finished cube was roughly 2 inches.

– A pizza cutter was my cutting tool of choice.  Cutting did stretch and sometimes break the etched, caramelized portion, but they popped back into place pretty well.

– The etch wasn’t as sharp looking the next day – it seemed to bleed slightly.  Perhaps the moisture caused that?  Who knows – I’ve never tried to save a roasted marshmallow more than the time it takes to get in my mouth.

– The taste is awesome.  I want to just solid raster etch the whole top, no unlasered space left.  It is reminiscent of a roasted marshmallow, but it seemed more like a brûlée topping with its light, hard, crackly crunch.  And I highly recommend the maple whisky recipe – it was perfect.

And as promised: Foodie glamor shots!

Now, this is the glamor shot.
Dark and broody background, illustrating the complexity of simply being a marshmallow. (Forget food blogging – I’ve got the writing chops for ART SCHOOL! )
Sometimes, I can't tell which photo is better.  And I couldn't resist a lurking Kirby.
Sometimes, I can’t tell which photo is better. And I couldn’t resist a lurking Kirby.
Well...if you insist...
Well…if you insist…

03: Leather Cuffs

Ever since we got the laser, back in February 2011, I’ve been wanting to work with leather. It’s a versatile material that can be made into a nearly infinite number of things. My first exposure to leather craft was Girl Scout camp as a kid. The art shed was my favorite place and stamping on leather was the coolest thing! That, and the beading loom. Oh, and lanyard weaving…My mom would indulge my crafty whims, to a $$ point – I was able to purchase some belt blanks and a few stamps for use at home. There are only so many belts a person can make, and without good access to tools and leather, my new hobby went by the wayside. (Beading, though, stuck around, and I’m still making jewelry today!)

Fast forward practically 20 years: I own a laser cutter! So many less punches to purchase, less manual cutting, so many more possibilities!  I had ideas, but I’m a bit of a perfectionist and didn’t feel like my finishing skills were up to snuff.  I first heard about the Chicago School of Shoemaking in 2011, thanks to their booth at the Renegade Craft Fair in Chicago.  After wanting to take a class for years, I decided a sandal making class was the perfect birthday gift.  It was amazing, the sandals are amazing, and I got to pick the brain of Sara, the master cobbler, to learn proper beginning leather working techniques and how to set snaps and rivets!  She was also interested in the possibilities of the laser, so I can only hope to collaborate more in the future!

TLDR, what you are here for?  Laser cut leather!  Bracelets seemed like the best way to start – simple, small, not much hardware required, and didn’t need sewing.  Time to use the bundle of scraps I picked up from The Leather Guy store!

I came up with 5 different designs to work with – plain, slits to make a neat fringe-y type bracelet, an intricate swirling design, and 2 different “string of pearls” type.  They were different types of leather, and the weights ranged from 2-3 oz (the light brown ostrich leather at the bottom) to 6-7 oz (the gorgeous burgundy red).

Here are the bracelets, pre-hardware.  Not all of these got finished, sadly.

What I learned when cutting leather:  The first several cuts turned out poorly; we assumed leather would be easier to cut than plastic.  Nope.  To get a nice clean cut, we had to use a higher power and go slooow – 5% speed. I also learned burning leather has an interesting and powerful smell.  And laser cut leather is incredibly sooty.

Types of things that went wrong when cutting
Types of things that went wrong when cutting – Top one was too close to the edge, middle didn’t cut cleanly all the way through, bottom bowed up, mid cut, creating the wobbly lines / not aligned circles.

The bracelets I designed to use with snaps went together easily enough, since the guide holes were cut right in (and thanks to a little internet setting refresher).  The red leather was a little thick and I had to shave it down to get them to set right (Alternatively, I could invest in snaps for thicker leather).  Snaps are standard for leather bracelets, but I’ve always felt they were a little chunky, not very elegant.  The fold over clasp is a good solution – or it would be, if I had right hardware!

To attach the clasp, I captured a jump ring in a loop of leather at the end of the bracelet, which I closed with a rivet.  I crimped on the clasp, and it looks fantastic!  I got one photo!  Then I tried to open the clasp, and the jump ring failed.

Looks good, felt solid, but when I tried to open the clasp, they rings turned into noodles.
Looks good, felt solid, but when I tried to open the clasp, the rings turned into noodles.

Try 2 involved a trip to the hardware store and investing in various sizes of washers.  The ones on the blue bracelet look fantastic, but they are just barely too small.  It takes a lot of determination to get the clasp through, as you can see.

The bracelet with the too small jump ring is wearable, but it takes some squishy and twisting and it's difficult one handed!
The bracelet with the too small jump ring is wearable, but it takes some squishing and twisting and it’s difficult to put on and remove one handed!

And any washer with a larger hole had a larger “collar” area.  The laser cut rivet holes were blocked and the clasp wouldn’t fit around. I really like this clasp, but I need to find a good source for 7mm wide, roughly 20 ga soldered jump rings.  But I’ll keep an eye out, and update when I have success.

The washer is so thick, I couldn't get the rivet in.  I could adjust for this, but the clasp couldn't fasten onto something this thick anyway
The washer is so thick, I couldn’t get the rivet in. I could adjust for this, but the clasp couldn’t fasten onto something this thick anyway, and I didn’t want to use different sized rings.  Prior noodle-ly jump rings visible in the background.

I love the finished result of these, and have actually taken to wearing them (and I never wear bracelets…except my Fitbit now that I got for Christmas.  Perhaps 2014 is the year of the bracelet?)  I have two favorites.  The plain cut is lovely because the texture of the leather is so gorgeous and I LOVE the English Point end (pointed a bit, like a belt).  My other favorite is the blue “string of pearls” bracelet.  The size between the large and small strips is based on the golden ratio, and the fold over clasp is nice and delicate – I just need better rings to make it easier to wear!

Seriously, one of the weirdest photos to get.  Thanks to Ryan who didn't mind getting cozy over my shoulder!
Seriously, one of the weirdest photos to get. Thanks to Ryan who didn’t mind getting cozy over my shoulder!