cooking & recipes, eats, family fun

Adventures in Baking: Why my pants are too tight.

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Saturday was Dan’s birthday. He’s like an old man now and stuff. Or thirty. One of those. We celebrated by me trying not to drag him all over town running errands and by baking my first from scratch chocolate cake. Not one to mess around, I decided to make Valerie’s French Chocolate Cake that Smitten Kitchen blogged about a year and a half ago but I somehow never stopped dreaming about.

Guys, this cake is the stuff of dreams. Rich, chocolaty, moist, intense dreams like woah. Also her pictures are way better than mine, but in all fairness, I was using my cell phone in low lighting and my husband makes fun of me when I act like paparazzi over food stuffs. So.

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Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and that means I’m baking my weight in desserts. Hopefully I don’t literally double my body weight but with cookies this good there are no promises.

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I’m also making this apple pie and this peanut butter pie (except I’m just making the filling and calling it a dip) and these sweet potatoes. Where are my sweat pants again?

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Don’t worry, my husband is roasting brussels sprouts. So that makes the whole meal healthy again, right?

 

arts & crafts, eats

DIY: Making homemade labels for our spice jars.

labels

We’ve been storing our spices in a couple of cardboard boxes pretty much since the day we moved into our first apartment all those years ago. It started with one box and as our cooking skills grew we added another box – one for baking and one for cooking basically. But the boxes were impossible to organize – you’d take one jar out and the others would fall over or shift which meant alphabetizing them was a lost cause. This resulted in “Why do we have 3 bottles of cinnamon?” or “I know we have rosemary around here somewhere, but I can’t find it.”

After eight years of marriage and owning more cinnamon than we probably know what to do with, I decided it was time to try something else. The thing is – we’ve been looking for the perfect spice rack for years and never found one worth taking up the counter space. I.e. We’re picky. I don’t like those rotatey spice racks and didn’t want to live with the spices they thought we wanted.

We finally settled on 12 of these spice jars from World Market that were $1 each (sold online in packs of 6) along with this metal spice rack for just $10 that can either be hung on a wall or cabinet door or just placed on a counter if you have the room. World Market has a ton of different jar styles by the way. These were by far the plainest they had but that kind of appealed to us. You could also totally just keep your spices in the jars they came in and put them in the rack, but we were loving the idea of uniformity so we splurged on new jars. In the long run, we’re probably going to need another rack and more jars to hold the rest of our spices but this got us started with the spices we seem to use most often.

So we had our jars and a rack and we found a home for it that we could live with – now we just needed to pick twelve spices to move into the rack and label the jars. We were originally thinking of picking out labels in a store but didn’t find any we liked. Then we were going to use a sticker or label maker to make our own and went through the whole mental process of figuring that out, when my husband found this link to a tutorial for making your own labels using a laser printer and packing tape! I was skeptical but it totally worked! Head over to The Proper Pinwheel for further instruction on making the labels.

I designed my labels using PicMonkey which is an awesome online photo editor / graphic designer that is available for free though there are a lot of spiffy extras for people who pay for a Royale Membership (totally worth it, in my opinion). This label took me about five minutes to design. Feel free to steal it as long as you use it for good and not evil:

spicelabels5

Now you just need words. You could add the font for the label right on picmonkey if you want (and they have a lot of beautiful fonts) but I was worried that this would be tedious to then save 12 different images and then compile them all onto one page. In an effort to save time, I saved the logo above and then copied and pasted it 12 times into a LibreDraw file. LibreOffice is basically Microsoft Office but open source (i.e. free). I tried doing this in a word document and it was really difficult to get the text to line up where I wanted it. Helpful Hubby recommended the Draw program which let me make text boxes that I then positioned over each label.

Which method would have been faster in the end? I’m not sure. Either way, I finished the whole process in under and hour, printed the page and then we used the methods shared at The Proper Pinwheel to turn the laser printed page and packing tape into beautiful, homemade labels for our new spice jars.

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We are both really thrilled with the end result. The labels are so special to us because we designed them ourselves, making them truly unique and we love that if we want to use a bottle for a different spice, the label is just packing tape so it should be easy to remove (and it’s pretty water proof, too!). And having the spices right where we want them and finally, finally alphabetized is making it so much nicer to cook.

Organization never tasted so good!

 

eats, family fun

Eat it For Breakfast Cake: with fresh strawberries, raspberries and blueberries.

strawberry, blueberry, raspberry cake

Four years ago I was participating in Project 365 where you are challenged to take at least one photo every day for a year. I did this for two or three years – it was hard and fantastic and frustrating and inspiring. I think it improved my photography immensely (which is not to say that I’m an expert now, just better than I was before) and I also met some cool people and learned some cool things.

One of the women whose photography I just loved – and it’s been so long now that I can’t even remember her name – traveled with her husband each summer to their vacation home in Nova Scotia (I think). Her photos of this town absolutely drew me in to her world – their summer cat who seemed to show up at their door every year without fail; the amazing festivals and town events that always seemed to be going on; her friendships there and the easy way of life that she was enjoying. Basically, I want to be her when I grow up.

Another thing she shared with us was this cake which she made often for friends or just for breakfast. It’s a highly adaptable cake that works well with any fruit you have on hand. I first made it with blueberries and more recently I made it for BB’s 5th birthday party last month. It was the perfect cake for the day because we were having a morning party so something that felt more like breakfast was called for. And the friends we shared this cake with are those laid back easy friendships that make me feel like we’ve found a touch of that Novia Scotia lifestyle that I dream of right here at home. Here’s the recipe so you can enjoy it with your favorite friends, too.

Eat it For Breakfast Cake

Best Served with good friends and whipped cream.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup fruit – I used a mixture of chopped strawberries, blueberries and raspberries but you can use whatever you have on hand.
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk (Don’t have buttermilk? Use a scant 1/2 cup of milk and a 1/2 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice and let it sit for 5-10 minutes)

Directions

  1. Heat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Butter and flour a 9 inch pie plate or cake pan (or use that awesome baking cooking spray from Pam).
  3. Prepare your fruit (berries can be left whole, slice any larger fruit) and set aside.
  4. Beat butter & sugar. Add vanilla, egg and salt.
  5. Add flour, baking powder & baking soda; mix well.
  6. Add buttermilk. Pour into pie plate. Top with fruit.
  7. Bake for 30 minutes.
  8. Cool a bit and enjoy!

blowing out the candles

eats, family fun

What’s for dinner?

whats for dinner

Last week Anne @ Modern Mrs. Darcy blogged about some of the meals her family eats regularly for dinner. I’ll admit, her family’s regular meals may have made me weep a bit with envy: Sesame chicken, cauliflower, salsa verde beef, fritattas and paleo pizzas. That is her world and yeah I’m mildly jealous.

I’ve got a four year old who I’d suspect was a vegetarian if she didn’t devour bacon like it’s her job – and an eight year old who is trying so hard not to be a picky eater but failing miserably. Words like potatoes, chicken, rice, broccoli, seasoning, casserole or crock pot are fighting words to my kids. Simple foods have become the name of the game for this season of our lives. And when you throw in karate classes, cub scouts and other various afternoon and evening activities – suddenly super fast and easy are added to my list of requirements most evenings.

So what can I make that is healthy, balanced, of neutral palate for the kids but not too neutral for my husband, fast to prepare and affordable? Every night.

This is my life right now. I keep a long list of possible dinner ideas on pinterest but lately we are so busy that trying new stuff is rarely a good option so we’re getting by on tried and trues with a few frozen convenience options thrown in for sanity’s sake. And Dairy Queen. I’m not perfect. When a new meal does get prepared and is met with mostly smiling faces, I’ll pin it to my Dinner Wins Board. But a lot of my stand bys are not really “recipe” type meals so much as the “common sense get it on the plate” meals. Some favorites in our house include:

MONDAYS

On Mondays I am usually cranky that it’s Monday and throwing something together after karate. I want something tried and true and quick like:

  • Crock Pot BBQ Chicken is great because I can start it in the late morning / early afternoon and have it waiting when we get home. Use this recipe or just throw frozen chicken breasts in your crock pot and pour a bottle of BBQ sauce on top and heat. Only downside is my children hate chicken and will give me the death glare. Mac and cheese is often a usable peace offering side dish.
  • We also like this brown sugar maple crock pot pork tenderloin. And by “we” of course I don’t mean my children. They don’t like anything. If I really want to make them cry, I’ll serve it with mashed potatoes.
  • Tacos if I have a little extra time. If you are looking for a homemade taco seasoning recipe, we like Alton Brown’s. If my daughter declares that ground beef is the devil, I’ll make her a cheese quesadilla.
  • If I have a little more time – tacos sometimes turn into enchilada style mexican pizza, a recipe I’ve been adapting and tweaking for years. My daughter will not like it but the rest of us love this one. I’ve had to learn to accept that at least one person probably won’t like whatever I make.
  • Or I’ll come up with some reason why I can’t make dinner and try and talk my husband into picking something up or taking us out. Mondays are hard.

TUESDAYS

Tuesdays became Pasta Tuesday at some point when I was playing around with having themed evenings for meals. This is really the only theme that stuck but I like it and so it continues. Most evenings this just means a box of pasta meets up with that one bottle of sauce that everyone likes right now. Sometimes I throw in ground beef or crumbled italian sausage or frozen meatballs that I microwave while the pasta is cooking.

On days when the sun is shining and my motivation is super high (see also, once or twice every other month) I’ll make:

  • The Pioneer Woman’s Penne alla Betsy. My husband LOVES this dish and if I serve the kids before adding in the shrimp there is no blood loss.
  • This End of Summer Pasta recipe from Parents Magazine is one of my favorite things to cook. I found this the first time we bought a share in a local CSA and found ourselves with a mountain of vegetables. It’s pretty adaptable to whatever you have on hand and deeply satisfying if a bit ugly. Sometimes I’ll make the kids’ a version with raw tomatoes  and not much else because it’s prettier and easier for them to pick around. Also pasta with butter and parmesan cheese can go a long way in a pinch.
  • If I don’t make pasta, sometimes I’ll make this vegetarian french onion soup since Tuesdays are usually the only day I seem to have any spare time. It’s been awhile since I’ve made this but my husband and I both love it. The kids will often just have tomato soup from a can and leftover french bread.

WEDNESDAYS AND THURSDAYS

Afternoon and evening commitments-wise these evenings are pretty similar. We’re often rushed and crazy and short tempered. Usual dinner suspects include:

  • Frozen lasagna even though invariably one child will declare they don’t like lasagna (not always the same one) or Stouffer’s will change their recipe just to infuriate me.
  • Sandwiches in a pinch. Ham and cheese makes my son weirdly happy and my daughter would eat PB&J for every meal if we let her.
  • More pasta.
  • Soup – a can of tomato for the kids and maybe something more fun for us. Ramen Noodles if anyone is under the weather.
  • That awesome pre-made meal at the grocery store that just saved my life – sometimes there will be a pre-assembled chicken pot pie or we’ll pick up a rotisserie chicken and a bagged salad and call it a meal.

FRIDAYS

For Friday nights when we may watch a family movie and I have a little time:

  • French Bread Pizza is something I have been really into. Joy the Baker has some great tips and topping ideas.
  • If I have more time, I’ll make pizza dough in my bread machine and make homemade pizza. Pepperoni is the old stand by but we love to play around with toppings. I’ll make two pizzas – one for the kids and something more fun for Dan and I. BBQ chicken or spinach and mushroom on an alfredo sauce are favorites.
  • For a more rushed Friday night, I am not above frozen pizza or take out.
  • Breakfast for dinner is a nice way to end a long week, too. I really like this baked french toast and this waffle recipe.

WEEKENDS

On the weekends we can often have a little more fun with cooking – usually because my husband who loves to cook is home. When we aren’t grabbing something at a resataurant in between errands, some favorites that he may make include:

  1.  Potato soup or clam chowder (love this recipe passed over from my best friend).
  2. Parmesan baked salmon – my husband loves salmon and this is pretty much the only salmon recipe we’ve found that I like.
  3. This is also a time when we might try a *new recipe* – either something fun I’ve seen online or something my husband comes up with.
  4. Or if the weather is nice, we’re grilling hot dogs and bratwurst or fresh fish (and hot dogs).
  5. Or if the weather isn’t nice, we’ll have homemade pizza if we didn’t have pizza on Friday but he’ll make the pizza dough the way he likes to without the bread machine.

So that’s our typical meal situation – what does your family like to do regularly for dinner?

Tell me the glorious and not so glorious details in the comments section!

eats, family fun, mama kat's writers workshop

7 Tips to Rule The Kitchen.

7 tips to rule the kitchen @ mommablogsalot.com

Some days it seems like I’ve pretty much got this cooking thing down. Things run like clock work and a dish totally comes together and maybe even the whole family eats it without sniffing it suspiciously and announcing, “I don’t like [insert perfectly innocuous food item here]”.

But the truth is most of the time I’m just making it up as I go along – trial and error and a lot of googling things like “how do you bake a potato?” or “why do people sift flour?” Basically just totally winging it, for better or worse. Either way – everyone gets fed.

But over the course of my 31 years on this planet and my almost eight years of motherhood (i.e. being placed in charge of the basic human needs of another) I’ve managed to learn a thing or two about cooking and how not to go crazy doing it. I’m linking up with Mama Kat’s Pretty Much World Famous Writer’s Workshop to share with you…

Seven things I’ve learned about cooking – the hard way.

  1. When you are baking something – like anything with flour, baking soda, etc. – use a food scale instead of measuring cups if you really want it to come out consistently good. When trying my hand at pizza dough, homemade bread, even pancakes from scratch – I often wondered, “How can this recipe come out so differently each time?” And the simple truth is that measuring by weight is much more accurate than scooping with a measuring cup and in baking – the ingredients are not very forgiving. Bonus points: Less dishes to clean afterwards!
  2. The solution to chopping onions without sobbing uncontrollably – is frozen, chopped onions which you can find in pretty much any grocery store. Yes, yes – sometimes prepackaged cheats are lacking in quality or super unhealthy or way too expensive, et cetera… But in this one instance – god send. Pure and simple. Plus your odds of cutting your fingers off decreases exponentially. But what to make? Try this amazing vegetarian French Onion Soup sometime. It’s shockingly simple (and frugal!) to pull together and so delicious. My husband loves this one.
  3. Make a menu plan each week, month, couple of days, etc. Find a time frame that works for you and stick with it (as long as it continues to work for you). Having to figure out “What’s for dinner,” every night for several years weighs on a person. And then you think of something great but  don’t have the three ingredients needed to pull it together. Make a plan of attack before you hit the grocery store and you’ll save time, money and stress. Side note: Sometimes the monotony of a meal plan eats at my soul and I take little hiatuses where I just sort of cook what sounds good, minute by minute and make it work until I am ready to run kicking and screaming back to my plan.
  4. not so much a domestic goddess
    not so much a domestic goddess

    Use a timer. Even when you are like, “I’m just gonna stand here and watch it,” use a timer anyway. If you are like me – you are very easily distracted and have very distracting tiny mammals vying for your attention or like a really good book or something. Use a timer, save the english muffin.

  5. Mise en place is not just a fun french saying. It’s your saving grace. Before you start cooking anything, make sure you actually have everything you need – if you have the time, go ahead and premeasure everything, dice and chop and get yourself organized and then enjoy feeling like a totally bad assed chef as you whip together the family meal in no time.
  6. Find a method to save all your favorite recipes in a way that makes sense to you. I have tried a few methods and failed a few methods and at the moment I’m calling pinterest my recipe box, but whatever method you use, it’s better than having no method and finding yourself saying, “Where the heck is that recipe???” every damn night. When you make a meal you love – save the recipe somewhere that you’ll be able to find quickly next time.
  7. Keep an assortment of easy cheats on hand for the nights where you accidentally dump the whole casserole on the floor or you have the flu and apparently your four year old doesn’t know how to cook. This can be frozen meals you’ve made ahead of time or cans of spaghettio’s – no judging. And on those hard days, remember that PB&J or ramen noodles or an emergency trip to Dairy Queen is not the end of your parenting world. You can be Super Mom tomorrow.

What are you favorite kitchen tips / lifesavers? What’s for dinner tonight at your house?

Mama’s Losin’ It