March 30, 2015

Folk art plays a role in most of the Chloe Ellefson mysteries. Since Tradition of Deceit features bits of Polish culture, I decided to include wycinanki—the Polish form of paper cutting.

Wycinanki (pronounced vee-chee-non-kee) originated in the 1800s when shepherds passed quiet hours by snipping designs from leather or tree bark. Soon people were making intricate designs from paper, and pasting them on the walls or roof beams of their homes.

phoca_thumb_l_cottage interior

The Open Air Museum of the Łowicz Region Village in Maurzyce.

The Open Air Museum of the Łowicz Region Village in Maurzyce

The Open Air Museum of the Łowicz Region Village in Maurzyce.

In the way-back days, folk artists used sheep shears to cut their designs.

sheep shears

Distinct styles emerged from different regions of Poland. Cuttings from the Kurpie region are often quite intricate, and usually a single color.

Polish Paper Cutting (Wycinanki), early 20th century The tree of life motif and monochromatic scheme suggest that this paper cutting represents the Kurpie or Lasek regions of Poland. Gift of Mrs. Maria Laskowski.  Wisconsin Historical Museum object # 1956.4630a

Early 20th century.  The tree of life motif and monochromatic scheme suggest that this paper cutting represents the Kurpie or Lasek regions of Poland. Gift of Mrs. Maria Laskowski.
Wisconsin Historical Museum object # 1956.4630a

Wycinanki from  Łowicz in central Poland is made by layering different colors. The example below most closely matches the wycinanki I imagined Magdalena making in Tradition of Deceit.

Polish Paper Cutting (Wycinanki), early 20th century This paper cutting reflects the Lowicz region of Poland, famous for its multicolored paper cuttings. Separately cut pieces are pasted atop a basic design, creating a layered effect. Gift of Mrs. J.J. Gostomski.  Wisconsin Historical Museum object # 1956.4624

Early 20th century. This paper cutting reflects the Lowicz region of Poland, famous for its multicolored paper cuttings. Separately cut pieces are pasted atop a basic design, creating a layered effect. Gift of Mrs. J.J. Gostomski. Wisconsin Historical Museum object # 1956.4624

Circular or star-shaped medallions are called gwiazdy.

sheep shears

c. 1950.  Gwiazdy incorporates geometric designs with circles, stars, polygons, and snowflakes. Gift of Irena Epler. Wisconsin Historical Museum object # 1956.1051

South Side Settlement Museum

Floral pattern, Old South Side Settlement Museum, Urban Anthropology Inc., Donated by Konkel Family.

Old South Side Settlement Museum, Urban Anthropology Inc., Donated by Konkel Family.

Two examples of bird patterns, Old South Side Settlement Museum, Urban Anthropology Inc., Donated by Konkel Family.

Artists have continued to develop the art of wycinanki.  Masters produce amazingly intricate designs.

wycinanki RoosterPapercut0064_500

Rooster papercut by Magdelana Gilinsky Jannotta. American Folklfe Center, Library of Congress.

While writing Tradition of Deceit I enjoyed several workshops with artist Kasia Drake-Hames, seen here with her grandmother (left) and mom (right).  Kasia’s grandmother makes exquisite traditional wycinanki…

Poland Under Glass wycinanki

Poland Under Glass, Milwaukee Domes, 2015.

..while Kasia often adds a modern twist.

wycinanki kasia drake-hames

From simple cuttings made with sheep shears to amazingly detailed pieces painstakingly snipped with scissors, wycinanki has a rich history—and colorful—history.

Caroline’s Quilt – Part 2

March 24, 2015

It took a long time to piece or appliqué a quilt in Caroline’s day.  In Traitor in the Shipyard, friends help Caroline and Rhonda complete a beautiful quilt top. In the new Caroline mystery, The Smuggler’s Secrets, Caroline presents the quilt top to her cousin Lydia:

“Oh, thank you, Caroline.” Lydia’s eyes were shining. “Sometimes this little cabin feels quite dreary. Now I have something cheerful to look at every single day.”

But the quilt itself was not complete. A quilt is like a sandwich, and the pieced quilt top was the top slice of bread.  Caroline and Lydia also needed a bottom slice of bread, which was often plain cloth.

In places with cold winters, the middle layer was usually made of wool. In the spring, farmers sheared their sheep.  It was a lot of work to clean the wool, pick out snarls, and comb out the fibers.


This 1883 painting shows a girl combing wool to remove tangles and get all the fibers running in the same direction. (Girl Carding Wool, by Maria Wilk)

Once enough wool had been cleaned and combed, the layers of the quilt could be put together. Women spread the bottom layer on a big wooden frame, arranged the combed wool, and then carefully put the pretty quilt top in place.

Then the three layers needed to be stitched together. These are called quilting stitches.


The women who made this quilt stitched straight lines through the blue and white blocks, but added a pretty quilted pattern in the open areas.

The frame was propped up at a height that was comfortable for women to sit and sew.


A Quilting Party, by Enoch Wood Perry, 1876.

A lot of stitches were needed to hold the layers together. In Caroline’s day, girls and women often invited friends to quilting bees. The work went faster, and everyone enjoyed catching up on the news while they sewed.


Quilting Bee, by Henry Mosler. It was painted about 1890, but shows an earlier time.

With luck and hard work, the quilting might be completed in a day. In the 1813 painting below, the woman on the left is removing a quilt from a quilting frame, and it looks as if a party is going to begin.


The Quilting Frolic, by John Lewis Krimmel.

Quilting bees aren’t as common as they were two hundred years ago, but  they still sometimes take place. The photo below was taken at my house in 1983, when I worked at Old World Wisconsin. My friends and I had pieced a quilt top at the historic site, but the season ended before we had a chance to finish it. It was fun, and the finished quilt was beautiful.


Whenever I see an old quilt, I wonder about the girls and/or women who made it. I know it took a lot of hours to complete, but I hope they also took joy in producing something both useful and beautiful.

Caroline’s Quilt – Part 1

March 16, 2015

In my first Caroline mystery, Traitor in the Shipyard, Caroline and her friend Rhonda decide to make a quilt as a gift for Lydia, Caroline’s cousin. Their first task was to choose a design for their quilt.

Many quilt tops were pieced together. Girls and women cut pieces of cloth and stitched them together to create colorful designs.

SHSW doll quilt

This sweet doll quilt is made of Nine Patch blocks. After the maker created nine blocks, she sewed the blocks together. (Wisconsin Historical Society 1951.2359)

Other quilt makers used a technique called appliqué to create pictures from fabric.

1847 grandrapidspublic mus det

This design was one of many appliquéd pictures made on an album quilt in 1847. Wouldn’t Caroline love the ship design? (Grand Rapids Public Museum Collection,  2006.8.1)

Some quilts from Caroline’s time include both pieced blocks and a central picture. Caroline and Rhonda decided to use this approach.

1811 hewson cincinnati art museum

This quilt, made in 1811, includes pieced blocks and a floral design in the center. (Cincinnati Art Museum Collection)

Caroline and Rhonda also wanted their quilt to show their patriotic spirit. If you made a quilt to show your patriotic spirit, what would it look like?

Brown-Francis Family’s Patriotic Quilt, believed to have been made some time between 1800 and 1820. (Smithsonian Collection, NMAH-78-9642)

Two hundred years ago, girls like Caroline made quilts to learn sewing skills and to create beautiful bed coverings. Piecing quilts also let women and girls use tiny scraps of fabric that might otherwise have been wasted. For someone like Lydia, living in a simple log cabin with no other decorations, a pretty quilt would have been a welcome gift!

The Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest

March 11, 2015

Although housed in the former Gold Medal Flour mill, the Mill City Museum interprets the broader story of flour milling in Minneapolis. The old Pillsbury Flour mill sits right across the river.

View from the observation tower at the Mill City Museum.

View from the observation tower at the Mill City Museum.

And you can’t talk about Pillsbury history without mentioning the famous Bake-Off (R).

In 1949, Pillsbury celebrated its 80th birthday by sponsoring a “Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest.” Thousands of home bakers sent entries. The one hundred lucky finalists were invited to bake their original creations at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Eleanor Roosevelt was the honored guest.

The Waldorf Hotel back in 1893.  (Wikipedia)

The Waldorf Hotel back in 1893. (Wikipedia)

Can you imagine how exciting (and nerve-racking) the experience must have been for women (and a few men) who’d never  received any acknowledgment for their skill? The Grand Prize when to Theodora Smafield for her No-Knead Water-Rising Twists.

The response was so great that company executives decided to make the contest an ongoing event. The media called it a “bake-off,” and the company adopted and trademarked the name.

In the early years, the only required ingredient was Pillsbury’s BEST Flour. Scratch cakes dominated the entries for a decade or so. Other favorites included muffins, pies, and cookies.

Pillsbury Bake-Off Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Mrs. Verna Phelan’s first-prize winner, 1958.  Pillsbury Bake-Off Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

As the years went by, the contest reflected social changes. In 1969, as more and more women juggled family life with careers, a recipe using convenient refrigerated dough won the grand prize for the first time. Later themes included Regional American Foods, Family Favorites, and Ethnic Recipes.

Mill City Museum Bake-off Exhibit.

In 1996, the contest began celebrating “quick and easy” dishes. That year also saw the first male winner claim the Grand Prize. In 2014, for the first time, judges narrowed the field to four finalists and invited the public to vote for their favorite.

2014 Bake-Off cookbook

A few of the recipes that missed Grand Prize status went on to become part of American food culture. Freda Smith invented Peanut Butter Blossoms in 1957, when she realized she had no chocolate chips in her cupboard and decided to improvise. She baked her cookies and placed a Hersheys Kiss in the center of each hot cookie when it came out of the oven. Her family proclaimed the invention a hit, and ultimately Hersheys promoted the recipe.

Probably the most famous Bake-Off recipe is the Tunnel of Fudge Cake, Ella Rita Helfrich’s second-place winner of 1966.  (I found that so intriguing that I included it in Tradition of Deceit.  I knew Chloe would love it.) More on that one later.

Pillsbury celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Bake-Off by creating a Bake-Off Hall of Fame within the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “We wanted to recognize the most popular of our Bake-Off recipes,” said John N. Lilly, President of Pillsbury North America. “…These are real recipes from real people.  They are as terrific today as they were when they were first developed.” (Press release, May 25, 1999)

Ten recipes were chosen, “based on enduring consumer popularity,” to be inducted into the hall of fame:

1. Chocolate Praline Layer Cake (Julie Konecne Bengtson, MN)
2. Crescent Caramel Swirl (Lois Ann Groves, CO)
3. Dilly Casserole Bread (Leona Schnuelle, NE)

Dilly Casserole Bread


4. French Silk Chocolate Pie (Betty Cooper, MD)
5. Italian Zucchini Crescent Pie (Millicent Caplan Nathan, FL)
6. Magic Marshmallow Crescent Puffs (Edna Holmgren Walker, MN)



7. Peanut Blossoms (Freda Smith, OH)
8. Poppin’ Fresh Barbecups (Peter Russell, CA)



9. Salted Peanut Chews (Gertrude Schweitzerhof, CA)
10. Tunnel of Fudge Cake (Ella Rita Helfrich, TX)

For more Bake-Off history, check out the photos, video, and recipes on the Pillsbury site.

You can also spend some happy hours with one of the many Bake-Off cookbooks.

Best of the Bake-Off

Want to learn more?  At 2 PM on March 29, 2015, the Mill City Museum is featuring “Pillsbury Bake-Off Through the Years.”  See how history is revealed in a demonstration of Chocolate Cherry Bars, a Bake-Off winning recipe from 1974. Learn about the 60-year history of the Pillsbury Bake-Off, sample treats, get baking tips and take home a copy of the recipe.

I grew up eating Peanut Butter Blossoms, and only recently discovered the recipe’s origin.  Are there any Bake-Off favorites at your house?

Caroline’s Pocket

March 5, 2015

Did you know that pockets weren’t always sewn into clothes? Girls in Caroline’s day most likely used tie-on pockets.

Temptation:  Fruit Stall, Victoria and Albert Museum

In this painting, the woman has pulled up her skirt so she can reach into her pocket, which is tied on over her petticoat. (Temptation: Fruit Stall, Victoria and Albert Museum.)

In The Smuggler’s Secrets, my new mystery, Caroline has a problem when she travels to Lydia’s farm:

Caroline climbed to the loft and dug through her valise. She had no trouble finding her handkerchief, but… “Oh, feathers!” she said, frustrated.

“What’s wrong?” Lydia called.

Caroline came back down. “I forgot to bring a pocket. I do wish that pockets were just sewn into our skirts!” That would be so much nicer. She had two pockets at home that she’d stitched of cotton and decorated with embroidery. She usually tied one around her waist so it hung over her petticoat, hidden under her skirt. A little slit in the seam of her skirt let her reach into the pocket.


In this political cartoon, you can clearly see the big pockets two women are wearing on top of their aprons. (Scandal Refuted, or Billingsgate Virtue. Collection Guildhall Library, Artist C. Williams, 1818; Reference Number v9045412, Collage 18969)

Caroline usually wears her pocket beneath her skirt, but she chooses to wear one over her skirt during a quilting bee. Doing so let her keep thread, thimble, and needle case handy.

beechey - pocket

In this painting, a girl has reached beneath her apron to get coins.

In The Smuggler’s Secrets, Caroline makes a new patchwork pocket using scraps of cloth. I was inspired by this original pocket, which is on display at the Genessee Country Village & Museum in New York.

pocket Genessee Country Village

If you’ve read The Smuggler’s Secrets, you know that a pocket like this one got Caroline into trouble!  (Susan Greene Historic Clothing Collection, Genessee Country Village & Museum.)

Next time you put something in your pocket for safekeeping, think how much more complicated it was to tuck things away in Caroline’s time!

Lucky Winner of 31 Books Announced!

March 4, 2015

Drumroll please…


Kerry hails from Albuquerque, and entered here on Sites and Stories.

Huge thanks to all who entered! Your comments lifted my spirits and brightened my day. It’s just lovely to have so many reader-friends.


31 Books For 1 Lucky Reader Giveaway!

March 3, 2015

The Smuggler’s Secrets: A Caroline Mystery is now available from American Girl, independent bookstores, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, and Amazon.com.


This is my 31st title, and last month I promised to celebrate its publication with 31 giveaways. So far 30 winners have each received the book of their choice.

Here’s the grand finale: my 31 Books for 1 Lucky Reader Giveaway!

31BooksFor1LuckyReaderGiveaway03Mar15FB504w - Version 2

Someone will win a new, signed copy of each and every one of my 6 adult, 6 teen/YA, and 19 children’s printed books. Some are award-winners. Some are out of print and rare.

Imagine the possibilities! As the winner you could:

  •  Read one book per week from now through September.
  •  Gift books to your kids, grandkids, friends, library, etc.
  •  Create your own well-stocked Little Free Library.

To enter, leave a comment here by Midnight tonight, 3/3/15.  The winner will be chosen at random from all entries here and on my Facebook Author Page, and posted on 3/4/15.

You can learn more about all of my titles on my website.

Readers like you make it possible for me to do what I love, and I’m grateful. Good luck!

Pączki – Polish Doughnuts

February 19, 2015

In Poland—and Polish communities—Fat Thursday is observed on the Thursday before Lent.  People traditionally celebrate by eating pączki (pronounced POHNCH-kee), fried rounds of sweet yeast dough often filled with jelly. The doughnuts are eaten in such quantities that the day is called Pączki Day.

Polish culture and baking are two important themes of my 5th Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites Mystery, Tradition of Deceit.  I wrote the doughnuts into the historical plotline, which involves several generations of Polish immigrants. A young widow runs a boardinghouse in Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis, to make ends meet: Frania became famous for her poppyseed cakes, gingerbread, and especially pączki, the filled doughnuts Poles held dear.

Needless to say, I had to try them.

I turned first to one of my favorite cookbooks, Wisconsin’s Folkways in Foods. The Wisconsin Home Economics Association produced the collection in 1948 to celebrate the state’s Centennial. All of the recipes were contributed by cooks from around the state, and organized by ethnic group. The Polish chapter included two recipes for Pączki.

After studying those—and a few others—I was ready to go.


2 c. milk
2 packets yeast
3/4 C. sugar
5-6 c. white flour
1 whole egg + 3 egg yolks
1-1/2 t. vanilla extract
1 t. salt + 1/4 t. salt
4 T. unsalted butter, melted
vegetable oil for frying (or your choice–peanut oil, canola oil, lard, etc.)
1.  Warm the milk. If you are not used to using scratch baking, use a thermometer to achieve a good temperature for the yeast, about 110 degrees. Pour the milk into a mixing bowl. (Note: you can mix everything by hand, of course, but a mixer works just fine.)
2.  Stir in the yeast and a pinch of the sugar. Let stand for 10-15 minutes. You should see bubbles starting to form.Polish doughnuts3.  Add 2 cups of flour to the milk mixture and stir gently (or at lowest speed) until smooth. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp towel and set in a warm spot for the first rising. Let rise for 30 minutes.

Polish doughnuts

Since I, alas, do not have a nice woodstove with warming oven, I heat my electric oven to 100 degrees, turn off the heat, and put the bowl in there.

Polish doughnuts

After 30 minutes the sponge has risen nicely, with lots of bubbles.

4.  In a separate bowl, whisk the egg and egg yolks until smooth. Add sugar, vanilla, and salt, and whisk again for at least a minute. Mixture should be light and frothy.

5.  Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and stir until smooth. If using an electric mixer, switch to the dough hook attachment. Add the melted butter. Add three cups of flour, one at a time, mixing after each addition.

6.  If necessary, add additional flour, 1/4 c. at a time, to make a soft dough that is just starting to hold its shape.

Polish doughnuts

Here the dough is beginning to pull away from the bowl, but it is not thick enough to form a ball.

7.  Lightly grease a second mixing bowl. Transfer dough to the new bowl.

Polish doughnuts

Cover with plastic wrap or a damp cloth and let rise in a warm spot for 20-30 minutes.

Polish doughnuts

This is what happens when you don’t keep a close eye on your dough. In 30 minutes it was overflowing the bowl. No harm done!

8. Use a wooden spoon to push dough down in bowl. Transfer a portion of dough to a clean, well-floured surface. Sprinkle with flour. Roll to about 1/2″ thick. Use a glass or biscuit cutter to cut rounds. Add more flour as needed to keep dough from sticking. Save the scraps to roll out again. Scrape the surface of any dough residue before rolling out the next batch.

Polish doughnuts

9.  OPTIONS FOR FORMING: Some recipes all for adding jelly before frying, and some don’t. Of those that do, some call for using one round, and some two. I decided to try each kind.

Polish doughnuts

The two dough balls on the left were formed by putting a dollop of jelly on a single round of dough, sealing the edges with my fingers, and rolling them between my palms to get a ball shape. For the other six rounds, I placed a second round of dough over the first and pinched the edges closed.

One of the 1948 Pączki recipes didn’t call for rolling the dough at all: “Pull off small pieces size of large egg. Stretch dough with hands to 1/2 inch thick. Put T. cooked, seeded prunes in center. Draw dough over filling, making ball, and pinch together.” (This woman’s recipe also called for 10 cups of flour, so she was making a whole lot of Pączki.)

I liked that cook’s style, so I decided to try a few that way. It worked best with the dough scraps that had already been rolled, and so had incorporated more flour.

Polish doughnuts

(Some people also form balls of dough, fry, and then add jelly by piercing a hole in each doughnut and piping it in. I did not try that version.)

10.  Transfer the doughnuts to baking sheets. I don’t usually use parchment paper, but with this sticky dough it did help.

11.  Let rise in a warm spot for 20-30 minutes. They will puff up a bit.

Polish doughnuts

Bottom row: single, unfilled rounds. Middle row: jelly-filled balls made from a single round each. Top row: jelly-filled doughnuts made from 2 rounds, edges pinched together to close.

12.  While waiting, pour about 2″ of oil in a heavy kettle or large skillet with tall sides and place on stove over medium heat.  You’ll want the oil hot when the doughnuts are ready.

13.  Use a slotted spoon to transfer the doughnuts into the oil. If you have trouble getting transferring the dough to the spoon without it losing shape, it might be helpful to invert the doughnut over the spoon and slowly peel back the parchment paper. The hardest doughnuts to transfer were the unfilled ones. which tended to crinkle and lose their shape.

Polish doughnuts

14.  The oil is hot enough when a bit of dough dropped into the kettle immediately sizzles, about 350 degrees. Use a thermometer if in doubt. Let each doughnut cook until the bottom is golden, then carefully turn and cook other side.

Polish doughnuts

Remove with a slotted spoon and drain for a moment against the side of the pan. Transfer to a pan lined with paper towels to drain further. Repeat until all doughnuts are fried.

15.  Roll the warm doughnuts in granulated sugar. (Some prefer powdered sugar.)  Pączki are best served warm, but they will keep in an airtight container for a few days.

The prettiest doughnuts were the ones I had not rolled on a board, but instead just formed into balls in my hands. I was least satisfied with the unfilled doughnuts. I rolled the dough too thinly.

Polish doughnuts

Top: jelly-filled, made with two rounds of dough. Right: jelly-filled, formed by hand. Bottom: unfilled. Left: jelly-filled, formed from one round of dough.

I finally had the chance to sample real Pączki at Poland Under Glass, a wonderful event held at the Milwaukee Domes each winter. A Polish baker from Chicago provided hundreds, and sold out mid-day. They were much bigger than I’d made—next time I’ll know—and gloriously good.

Polish doughnut

In the name of scholarly research, Scott and I had to try different flavors.

Rosehip filling, From Olympia bakery, Chicago

Toward the end of Tradition of Deceit, Chloe makes Pączki to serve at a reception. “Oh – my – God,” says one of her friends, after trying one.  “The guests will love them.”

Curious?  No need to wait for Pączki Day. Make someone happy!

Polish doughnuts

Final Ten Book Tuesday Giveaway – Winners Announced!

February 17, 2015

Congratulations to Clara Martin and Karla Lawrence, winners in the Ten Book Tuesday Giveaway! (The other winners entered on my Facebook page.)

I will post another special Giveaway soon after my next book, The Smuggler’s Secrets:  A Caroline Mystery, is published at the end of the month.

* * *

In honor of my 31st book being published later this month, I’m thanking my wonderful readers by giving away 31 books!

Leave a comment here by midnight today, Tuesday February 17, to enter the third drawing.



Ten winners will each choose one of my titles and receive a signed, personalized copy. Winners will be chosen at random from entries here and on my Facebook page.  I’ll announce the winners tomorrow, so please check back then!

Gratitude Giveaway – Winners Announced!

February 10, 2015

Congratulations to Carole Dagg and Callie, winners in the Ten Book Tuesday Giveaway! (The other winners entered on my Facebook page.)

Everyone else – there will be more chances to win. I’ll hold another Giveaway next Tuesday.

Carole and Callie, you’ll find lots of information about all of my books on my website, kathleenernst.com. There’s also a contact form on the website. Please email me with your full name and postal address, the title you want, and to whom you’d like it personalized. Happy reading!

* * *

In honor of my 31st book being published later this month, I’m giving away 31 books in February.

Leave a comment here by midnight today, Tuesday February 10, to enter the second drawing.


Ten winners will each choose one of my titles and receive a signed, personalized copy. Winners will be chosen at random from entries here and on my Facebook page. I’ll announce the winners tomorrow, so please check back then!


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