Friday, December 28, 2012

My New Year's Resolution

My family likes home-cooking. We want to eat food we like that's good for us. We're tired of eating fast food and pizza because I forgot to plan a meal and it's getting late, and we're sick of over-paying for mediocre food served by people who don't deserve the title of "server". We usually eat at home at least five nights a week, but we're definitely in a rut! Meals feel thrown-together and boring.

Our last restaurant meal began with sticky menus and ended with a $30 bill for two gourmet sandwiches with chips, a basket of soggy fries, and a kid's mac and cheese meal. On the way home, I mentioned that I could've made a wide range of delicious home-cooked meals for three (with leftovers) within that price range. As an added benefit, we'd even know what was in it, and under what conditions it was prepared. The next question was: Why aren't we doing it? That's when we decided.

For 2013, we're moving most of our restaurant budget into our grocery budget to upgrade our grocery purchases. Restaurant meals will be reserved for special occasions and when we can't be home for dinner.

A professor-friend touts the 5 P's: Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance! I think that's the key to good family dinners. So this week, I'm eagerly digging through my recipes, new and tried-and-true. We're all excited about trying some new ones and revisiting old forgotten favorites, shaking up our dinner routine, and eating better than ever!

I'll share what I'm learning and doing as we go along. Please join me in making 2013 a Year of Meal Planning!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Day After Christmas...

is such a peaceful day at my house! 

I enjoyed cooking big dinners for entertaining on Sunday and Monday, followed by lots of cleaning up! Christmas Day began at 7:30 with the opening of gifts and the dumping out of stockings, followed by a breakfast of Baked French Toast (from a compilation of several recipes found online). Most of the day was spent playing with our "toys", eating candy, and hanging out together- just the three of us- in front of the fireplace. 

We woke up this morning to snow and sleet, which was welcome since we had no plans to leave the house anyway. Today was a great day to catch up on a few projects from our "honey-do" lists. 

This has been the most relaxed and satisfying Christmas I've experienced in a long time. I seem to be learning how to take the pressure off myself (and my family) to make everything perfect, and just to enjoy the moments and memories!   

Monday, December 24, 2012

Tracking Santa

As I clean up from last night's dinner party and prepare for Christmas Eve dinner, we are tracking Santa! This is absolutely Madeline's favorite holiday tradition, and it's the only one that makes me wonder "what did we do before the internet?"! While old-fashioned values are very important to me, I'll be the first to admit that some of these electronic innovations are fun, too!

We'll be tracking Santa all day at Norad Tracks Santa. Santa is somewhere between Australia and Japan right now, and has already delivered over 812 million gifts.

Go Santa! We'll leave out hot chocolate and cookies for ya! (And carrots for the reindeer, too.)

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

What if You Don't Have Cake Flour? Make Your Own.

The Southern Living Brown Sugar Pound Cake Madeline and I wanted to bake called for three cups of cake flour. Naturally, we didn't have any in our pantry. Nor did we really know what it was. Did it matter? Could we use all-purpose flour instead? We really wanted to make this cake!

What is cake flour?

Well, according to the dictionary, cake flour is a softer flour which is higher in protein, has a higher starch content, and produces a lighter texture in baked goods than all purpose flour.

How to Make Your Own Cake Flour

Some sources suggest that one cup of cake flour is equal to one cup less two tablespoons of all-purpose flour, sifted. That solution seems to address the texture/softness issue, but what about the starch?

The subtitution that made sense to me scientifically (if I should even be using the words me and scientifically in the same sentence) was the following:

For each cup of cake flour needed, remove two tablespoons from one cup of all-purpose flour and replace it with cornstarch. Then sift four or five times for a lighter texture.

It occurs to me now that an easier way might be to put two tablespoons of cornstarch in a dry meauring cup and fill it the rest of the way up with flour.

Does it work?

I won't know how it tastes until it's cut, but the resulting Brown Sugar Pound Cake is pure baking p@rn (and smells delicious):

Look for this post to disappear tomorrow evening if this gorgeous cake tastes like sawdust! If it does, at least there's vanilla ice cream!

The rest of the menu for this Christmas-Eve-Eve dinner with our next-door-neighbors is:

Homemade Maryland-Style Crab Cakes w/ Mustard Sauce
Duchess Potatoes
Creamed Spinach
Corn Pudding
Yeast Rolls (frozen)
Plenty of wine 
and Bellinis (Prosecco and peach puree)

Lots of cream, butter, mayonnaise, sugar and other carbs with a little seafood and a few vegetables thrown in for good measure! We spare no calories for special holiday dinners. There's plenty of time to eat healthy later...

Hope you're able to enjoy your holiday meals without guilt!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Egg Yolk Cookie Paint

One of our favorite Christmas traditions is baking decorated sugar cookies. Many years ago I learned to make Egg Yolk Cookie Paint, and now it just doesn't seem like Christmas unless we use it on at least one batch. 

How to Make Egg Yolk Cookie Paint

For each color paint, all you do is mix an egg yolk, about a teaspoon of water, and a few drops of food coloring in a small bowl. We only had two colors on hand and the cookies are going to a party at school in the morning, so we had to be creative with just green and red (we usually make yellow for the stars).

Line your  baking sheets with parchment paper to keep cookies from browning too much on the bottom.
Natural Parchment Paper (Google Affiliate Ad)

Just paint the egg wash on the cookies before you bake them. While it's still wet, shake on some sprinkles or colored sugar crystals.

Cool your cookies on wire racks to free up baking sheets sooner!
CHEFS Nonstick Wire Cooling Rack - Medium 15" (Google Affiliate Ad)

After the cookies are baked, the egg-wash turns into a beautifully shiny glaze. And who doesn't love a delicious hand-painted sugar cookie?  

Our batch tonight made 80 cookies cut with various size cutters! I suggested saving some of the dough for later, but Madeline insisted we decorate and bake them all. She tuckered out and went to bed at 9:00...  

Only five days 'til Christmas. Even if you don't feel ready, it's time to slow down and enjoy yourself!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Real Family, Fake Tree

I almost didn't post an image of our tree because I was feeling a bit inferior, having spent the last few days looking through Christmas magazines and blogs. Everyone seems to have a "designer tree", one with a theme or color scheme. I thought perhaps no one would be interested in seeing ours, filled with ornaments and memoribalia collected over the years. But guess what? Ours is a 20-year-old artificial tree which sheds a million synthetic needles each time its erected, but still looks good. And ours is a real family that just wants to relax and have fun at Christmastime! 

Our gifts are wrapped with inexpensive mix-and-match (although color coordinated) papers, recycled or homemade ribbons and bows, reclaimed department-store and mail-order tissue papers, gift tags that came free in a Vineyard Vines catalog, and re-used gift bags with the store name covered by stickers!

Since we rarely send out cards anymore, we don't get many. So each year we save a few of our favorites to round out the mantel display. And a few fall off each time the French doors are opened or closed if there's a fire in the fireplace, so they're always in disarray. But they remind us of dear friends and Christmases past.

I would've loved to impress you, but it just doesn't mean that much to me. In the words of Oscar Wilde:

"Be yourself; everyone else is already taken."

I hope you enjoy your holiday in your own special way without feeling obligated to comply with someone else's expectations! 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas Crumb Candle Mat

Last night I really felt like sewing! Pam and I are working on a program for our Quilt Guild called "A New Year's Resolution to Use Our Scraps!". So it made sense to make something using one of the techniques I plan to present. Bonnie Hunter at gives easy instructions for 3.5" "crumb" blocks. Crumbs are the little bits and pieces that aren't good for anything else (otehrwise known as the stuff most people throw away)! 

I kinda-sorta followed her instructions and made nine from my bin of Christmas scraps. The fun thing about crumb blocks is that when you rotary-cut them to size, your trimmings can be the beginning of the next little block. Now that's using every last bit of fabric.

The musical fabric had landed in the bin by accident, but since music is such an important aspect of our Christmas I put it in- and liked it. In fact, I thought it made the piece "sing". (OK, that was corny...) Then it cried out for musical binding, too!  

Here's the back- also made of scraps:

It was meant to be a potholder, but at 10"x10" it's a bit big. Also a tad too large for a mug mat. Four blocks would've been better for those uses. So it's trying out life as a candle mat on our kitchen table.

If you save "crumbs", maybe it's time you did something with them. Any other ideas?

OK, Now We're Ready...

for Santa! But is he ready for us?

The tree is decorated, the gifts wrapped, the stockings hung. Now all we need is snow!

We keep a little holiday tin full of ornaments hooks and extra fuses and bulbs handy- just in case we get a new ornament or a light goes out!

Hope you're ready, too!

Friday, December 14, 2012

My Favorite Part of Christmas

is decorating the tree! Our family has an eclectic collection of ornaments which always makes me smile. A few of my favorites we've hung so far include:

Old King Cole has been with me since the 60's. His paper eyes fell off, and are now painted on with a Sharpie!
A gift from my college years, painted on a real sand dollar, dated 1983.
I sent in some Snuggle Fabric Softener Sheet labels to get this one, dated 1986. It's a reminder of our "just-starting-out-and-couldn't-afford-ornaments" years.
My Mom gave me this one when I was pregnant- Christmas 1998.

Thanks to whichever Montessori pre-school teacher came up with this idea!

And hats off to me for having Madeline scribble her name and age on the back!  I loved how. when she ran out of room for her name, she jumped up above to continue writing. Soon after, she stopped making backward 4's. I'm so glad I captured that moment in her development.

The Bon Voyage champagne cork from our cruise this summer... 
Decorating the tree is such a trip down memory lane! What's your favorite Christmas tradition? 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Christmas Decorating Progress

There is none. I hope to report tomorrow that we have at least gotten the Christmas stuff down from the attic! There are two saving graces here: One is that EVERYTHING Christmas related is stored in one place and well-organized; the other is that we only decorate one room plus the front door! Herein lies the advantage to being the Home Ec Dropout instead of, say, Martha Stewart. People don't expect as much fom you!

Gifts have been purchased, though, and the bar remains stocked from Thanksgiving, so all may be well after all!

I did manage to find a little holiday humor for you:

Hope your holiday preparations are going better than mine!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Christmastime is Here...

but we're not ready! We're a little slow getting started around here this year. The tree's not up yet, the gingerbread house isn't made (the kit isn't even bought), no decorations have even been brought down from the attic. But one tradition has begun.

We're listening to our favorite Christmas music- A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio!

What's your family's favorite Christmas album?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Ice Cube Trays: Not Just for Water Anymore!

The broth I made from the carcass of my rum-and-Dr. Pepper marinated Thanksgiving turkey filled 5 quart jars. I froze the remaining broth (after cooling) in the ice cube tray kept in my freezer for small amounts of leftover liquids. Once the tray is full (or almost full), I transfer the cubes to labeled freezer bags for storage. It's a great way to eliminate waste due to spoilage. When you need them, they thaw quickly.

So far, I've also had great luck with freezing:

  • heavy cream or half-and-half (use in sauces or cream soups)
  • fruit juice (use to replace some of the water in gelatin, blend cubes into smoothies, or use to cool fruity drinks)
  • vegetable juice (add flavor to soups or rice)
  • liquid from cooking sweet red peppers in broth (use in soups or rice, or to saute other veggies)

I've also heard you can freeze (and plan to try):
  • fresh herbs blended with a little water
  • leftover wine (if there ever is any...)
  • evaporated milk
  • tomato sauce
  • almost any vegetable puree
  • whole eggs, whites or yolks (with some preparation)
  • leftover coffee (cool iced coffee with cubes, or blend into a frozen drink) 
A standard ice cube tray, by my measurements, holds 2 cups of liquid (16 ounces). If your recipe calls for precise amounts, thaw the cubes first and measure carefully. Approximate cooking conversions follow:

1 cube  = 2 tablespoons = 1 ounce
2 cubes = 1/4 cup
4 cubes = 1/2 cup
6 cubes = 1 cup

Any other ideas?

Monday, December 3, 2012


Madeline and I made snickerdooodles for our first Christmas party of the season tomorrow night.

We have tried snickerdoodles with butter and snickerdoodles with shortening. Snickerdoodles with cream of tartar, snickerdoodles with baking powder, and snickerdoodles with both. Lots of snickerdoodle baking and tasting has led us to this recipe. It produces cookies that are little chewy while still warm, and crispy (yet soft and fluffy) once they're cool.

Our Favorite Snickerdoodles
Makes 48

1 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 3/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
extra cinnamon and sugar for coating dough balls (we often add colored sugar)

Cream shortening with electric mixer.
Gradually add sugar, beating well.
Add eggs. Beat well.
Stir in vanilla.

Sift together flour, baking soda, salt and cream of tartar in a medium mixing bowl.
Add to creamed mixture and mix well.


Refrigerate dough, covered in plastic wrap, for about an hour.

Shape dough into 1" balls. (If dough is still too soft and sticky to work with, chill a bit longer.)
Roll balls in cinnamon and sugar and place 2" apart on a lightly greased or parchment paper lined cookie sheets.

Bake at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes, until tops are cracked and lightly browned. Although they may look slightly under-baked when you remove them from the oven, they'll be just right once they cool.

When cookies are set and cool enough to remove from the baking sheets, place on wire racks (if you have them) to cool completely.

Try the shortening that comes in little blocks- much easier to measure, work with, and keep fresh, than the kind in a can.

If you haven't tried parchment paper, please do. It keeps cookies from browning too much on the bottom and prevents sticking.

If you don't have wire racks, get some. They keep cookie bottoms from being soggy.

We also made a batch of our Banana Pepper-Sharp Cheddar Cheese Spread. I'll write about that later!

What do you taking to potluck parties this season?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Easy Wine Stopper Makeover

I've have this wine bottle stopper for years. I use it all the time, but never thought it looked quite right. The image of a rural European, thatched-roof cottage wasn't complemented at all by the unfinished wood.

As I was retouching some scuffs on my kitchen cabinets, the solution came to me in the form of a Minwax Wood Finish Mahogany Stain Marker  (Google Affiliate Ad). I could've gotten a can of stain from my husband's cabinet and rubbed it on with a rag, but you know I would've made a mess! Plus, I've learned that if I don't act right away, the project just gets put on The List. And The List is really long! And the stain marker was right there in my hand...

Huge improvement- two minutes max and simple as pie. I love it now! Must drink more wine...