Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Real Life: American Girl Doll Huron Valley Catholic School Uniform

I have been too quiet here lately. The biggest culprit at present is the fact that I have 3 busy kids at a (wonderful) Catholic school (and 1 busy guy not yet at the wonderful Catholic school), and the parent community is the crux of its fundraising efforts. Every year, the (wonderful) parents join forces and put on a spectacular dinner auction to raise money for need-based tuition scholarships. Not only is the auction an ever-increasing success, the evening is filled with fun and friends. I have previously mentioned that both my husband and I are alumni of this (wonderful) school, and it is very much an establishment we are glad to support in dollars and hours and students. If you live in the Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Plymouth-Canton, Dexter, Saline or South Lyon area and are looking for the best imaginable education for your pre-K through 8th grade kids AND a supportive and faith-filled parent community, please stop by and have a look at Huron Valley Catholic School!

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This year, I am in charge of a couple parts of the auction, including managing the silent auction baskets. That particular job, in a nutshell, is to take the merchandise donated and make it look as attractive and cohesive as possible in shrink-wrapped baskets. It’s another job that is essentially the equivalent turning straw into gold… to maximize the profit, we try to work with what has been donated in terms of baskets, fluffy filler, and merchandise to produce a bid-worthy package. Of course, as with many crafty things, Pinterest has helped corral my inspiration... here’s my auction basket design board.

This year, the acquisitions volunteers procured an American Girl doll… Isabelle, the girl of the year for 2014. She came with a couple cute outfits but she was sadly lacking in school spirit. After a couple months of living the minutiae of benefit auction logistics, I needed a little creative outlet, and it came in the form of a pint-sized Catholic school girl uniform for Isabelle. I used my pattern software to build an 18” doll version of the jumper option our little girls can wear to school, complete with a t-shirt transfer miniature HVCS logo. I made the peter pan collar and sleeves attached to the jumper rather than a separate blouse, for simplicity’s sake. And here she is!

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I am so pleased with how this uniform turned out… it hit the spot for my creative needs and will hopefully help draw bigger bids for this package. More money = more kids who can attend = more lively school! Everybody wins!

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I am considering putting together some AG doll clothing patterns (including this jumper!) to make an affordable and versatile pattern bundle for moderately experienced sewists (meaning I’ll provide the pattern blocks that could be used for a variety of styles and it will be up to you to mix/match/assemble according to your vision). Like slopers for your AG doll… use them to dream big, test your design skills, and whip up a custom doll wardrobe! I will have to wait until after this year’s auction before embarking on that adventure (it’s in just 2 weeks! I see the light at the end of the tunnel!). So, in the meantime, if this concept is something you’d be interested in, join my email list below by the end of February 2015 with your preferences and you will get the package for FREE as a PDF when it’s ready!! ((your info is secure, and I only send about 4 emails per year))

I hope you are surviving this winter with whatever sustains your creative spirit when the sun is on vacation! It WILL be Spring again someday :)

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Double Chocolate Zucchini Bread (yeah, it’s cake)

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We just got 14+ inches of snow. Probably more like 16. And it’s flippin’ freezing out. Today is our second snow day from “The Blizzard of ‘15” in SE Michigan. So what could be more appropriate than a post about summer veggies from your garden? Read on…

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I was the lucky recipient of many a zucchini from my mom over at Fieldstone Farm. Delicious, organic zucchinis. In quantities with which I could not keep up. Enter the food processor. I shredded and froze a lot of that produce for the cold, dark days of winter. Days just like today!

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The nice thing about having frozen zucchini on hand is that you can thaw it any time and make yummy treats like this double chocolate zucchini cake bread! Take that, Blizzard! This recipe was adapted to my preferences from one found on movitabeaucoup.

Double Chocolate Zucchini Bread

Makes 1 9x5x3 loaf

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2  cups shredded raw zucchini (or frozen zucchini, thawed and drained)
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I love Rodelle cocoa, seasonally found at Costco)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup  canola oil
  • 1/2 cup granulated white sugar
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup semi sweet chocolate chips

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9x5x3 inch loaf pan.

Grate the zucchini, using a medium sized grater, and set aside. You do not need to squeeze the zucchini dry. In a large bowl whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of your electric mixer, beat the oil, sugars, eggs, and vanilla extract until well blended. Fold in the grated zucchini. Add the flour mixture, beating just until combined. Then fold in the chocolate chips. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean (about 55 to 65 minutes). Place on a wire rack to cool for about 10 minutes, then remove the bread from the pan and cool completely. Enjoy!

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

TaxACT Giveaway winners!

As promised, I am here to announce the winners of the TaxACT giveaway! The rafflecopter widget used the brains of random.org to select 3 random entrants. These lucky gals will all receive a TaxACT Online 2014 Deluxe 1040 return (with the option of a discounted state return) complements of the nice and hugely helpful people at TaxACT.

Our winners are Donna, Julie and Miriam!

So, lovely ladies, expect an email from them soon with the details on how to claim your return. Thanks for participating! Happy tax season, all!!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Be Your Best in 2015

A couple dear friends and I have decided that we needed a good, motivating motto for this new year we’ve got. After some deliberation and much joking about mottos past, our collective mantra turns out to be:

Be Your Best

(read: Be Yo’ Best)

And that means taking care of sick people and honoring commitments and taking a moment to just be around green things every now and again. Which is why writing a blog post about New Year’s mottos is happening 3 full weeks after the fact. Accepting my humanity, moving on…

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There are a few key areas of my life that I hope will benefit from mindfully endeavoring to be my best this year. They are:

Spiritual life – scheduling prayer time, consciously offering mortification for others, and choosing to do everything with greater joy

Family life – being more present for all my people in small ways each day; being more kind, patient and loving

Personal health – choosing more nutritious foods generally, while not beating myself up when a brownie is needed for quality of life purposes; making an effort to move more, but in ways that don’t hurt my back; choosing to love myself everyday, just as I am

Lifelong learning – not being afraid of challenges in learning new skills; following through with purely educational projects; making a real effort to do my very best work with proper technique; getting outside my comfort zone and not fearing failure

House projects – in an effort to be realistic, I have only a few stated goals for the house in 2015: make window treatments for two bedrooms (by May), paint the stairs and hallway (and all remaining doorway and other trim), and build a closet where the minibar currently exists in our sunroom. These are projects that will improve the user experience of the house in a very real way. I will do other work too, I’m sure, but those are the big goals.

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I did not make a category for my business pursuits. On purpose. I have realized that I am in a phase of my life where “making money” and “building my brand” are not what I want to really focus on. I do still  have that desire, but that cannot compete with my family needs this year and the time needed for other commitments I have made. This doesn’t mean I am shutting down, or even scaling back, but I choose to accept that I can’t drop everything else to make that a greater priority this year. I would love financial success without the effort, but that is not how this works. I will be better for saying it up front and putting my energy where it is needed in the bigger picture.

So… a little late, but better than never!

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And just a reminder that tomorrow is the last day for the TaxACT giveaway. As of this writing, there are but 10 entries for 3 prizes. You could call that either terrible blogging or excellent odds. I prefer to think positive!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

TaxACT Review and Giveaway!

So… we’re getting into tax season…

                                                                             Anybody excited?

                                                                                                                           I thought not.

Now, I am no accountant, but I have always done my own taxes. Even as a high schooler working a few hours after school, I handled my very own 1040-EZ (with some smart parents and a tax preparer [who also happened to be my future mother-in-law] to offer guidance as needed). I guess I’ve been a lifelong DIY fanatic. It’s not rocket science, though sometimes it feels like it.

(Just for kicks, here is a picture of me and my husband when we graduated 8th
grade. Waaay back in 1995. I am front and center and dorky behind the two studs taking
a knee, and my future husband is the kneeling stud on the right. Tee hee. The cute redhead
to my right married the other kneeling stud, and the standing guy in the dark jacket
married the demure darling in the dark floral dress to his right. Collectively, at last
count, we have 12 kids between us. Time flies when you're having fun!)

As life went on, I accrued student loans, got married, bought real estate, had kids, started my own small business and bought equipment, joined a partnership and made charitable contributions, among many other things. And my taxes got more and more complicated too. A schedule C, more forms, more details to track. We had been using a different online tax preparing service, but when I needed to file a schedule C, they told me it was going to cost upwards of $65 to file my state and federal return with them. I’d never had complaints about their service, but that was a hefty pill to swallow. First I decided maybe it was time to hire a CPA. After learning their prices and knowing I would still  have to deliver all the organized information to them to do it, I decided I’d shop around a little more.

(the big day in 2003. such kids!)


Enter TaxACT. I found them through an internet search. Currently, they charge only $12.99 for a deluxe federal return and $17.99 for federal and state (they also offer a free basic federal return for everyone!). I have used the federal and state version since I found them about 5 or 6 years ago (who can remember that far back?), and they have handled everything I have thrown at them with ease and convenience. Schedule C on top of the 1040? No problem! Business property that needs to be depreciated? Sure! Remember your kids’ social security numbers and favorite charities? Of course! Once you make your first return with them, they remember all your info from the previous year which saves a ton of typing and paper cuts.

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They prompt you with questions to input correct and complete data, walk you through adding your W-2s, K-1s, and other forms, and they have buttons to explain anything that needs explaining along the way. They show you a side-by-side comparison of your current return and your last year’s return (if you used them last year) so you can see any big changes or discrepancies and double check your work. You can also compare your data to the national average. Filing the state return after the federal is very quick as they import the pertinent data automatically.

Last year, I accomplished File the Taxes Day and had a little personal party because it was finished with very little trouble on my part. The very next day, another W-2 arrived from the final paycheck from my husband’s previous employer. Oops. So I got to test out the Amended Return functionality of TaxACT. It was free, since we had filed the original return through them, and it was very quick to do! Surprisingly not scary or intimidating at all! I printed out the amended returns (both federal and state) and mailed them in with the small bit we owed. Done! For real! I was so pleased with how not painful it was, I wrote them an email to tell them so. I let them know that this year I would write up a candid review of my enthusiastically positive experiences using their products, and asked if they would like to offer a giveaway. And they do!

So, while tax returns may not be the most exciting thing to read about on a blog about all things happy home, I will posit that having a good tax experience definitely helps create Domestic Bliss in your home! Give them a try!



They are offering my three winners a free TaxACT Online 2014 Deluxe 1040 return, with the option of a discounted state return. They have a great price for what they offer, especially considering how well they perform, but free is even better! To enter the giveaway, please use the rafflecopter below. Entries will be accepted from 12AM 1/15/15 until 12 AM 1/22/15. The winners will be announced here on 1/24/14, and subsequently contacted by TaxACT with a code for the free return. Easy!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

If the above widget is not working for you, my apologies as a raffle copter newbie. I have heard some can't see it, so please try THIS LINK to my Facebook page where you can join the raffle just as well.

Thanks for stopping by!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Cookiemaggedon - 2014 Edition

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Happy Advent, everyone! Silence, silence, silence and then WHAM-O!!! Mega update in one night. That’s how I roll. It's been too busy to write amidst all the baking (except for all the catching up I just did). But I am very happy to report (from my desk, listening to jazz holiday on Pandora while the world sleeps) that I am now in the post-apocalyptic phase of cookiemaggedon wherein I am actively foisting cookies upon hapless visitors and friends. The real point of making hundreds of dozens of cookies (not exaggerating) was to create  nice, thoughtful gifts for my husband's sales clients. Translated for you: 29 platters of cookies to give away (plus 7 plates to keep for our own numerous Christmas functions, 2 packages to mail to out-of-town siblings, 3 plates for classroom parties, and 7 plates to give to wonderful neighbors new and old).

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I made 13 varieties of cookies over a period of 9 days. Not going to lie - it was intense. And intensely messy. A few dozen cookies got burnt. By the end, I was an oven-mitt-wearing, floury-be-aproned kitchen zombie. There were probably pecan bits and coconut flakes in my hair, but my hands had never felt more moisturized after rolling and cutting out about a million buttery cookies. Delicious... Buttery... Cookies...

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The 2014 line-up, hyperlinked for your convenience (the starred ones are new to me this year!):

Rolled and cut out cookies:
My family favorite Sugar Cookies
Classic Gingerbread

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Shaped cookies:
Cranberry Ribbon Icebox Cookies
Split Second Cookies (aka Jam Logs - some apricot and some serviceberry from our trees)

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Bar cookies:
*Raspberry Coconut Magic Bars
Magic Cookie Bars (though I only made them with 6 layers this year... No pecans)
*English Toffee Bars

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Drop cookies:
Gingerbread Drop Cookies (I will add more molasses next year so they aren’t the spiced twin of the PB cookies)
Mint Chocolate Chip Sugar Cookies
*Soft Peanut Butter Cookies
Natalie’s Chocolate Crinkles

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No bake cookies:
*Coconut Pecan Pralines
*Mint Oreo Bark

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Folks, THAT WAS A LOT OF COOKIES! But they were all scrumptious. My underdog favorite turned out to be the Pralines. Too good. Had to give them away! If you like German chocolate cake with The Frosting... Well... Mom and Dad, you'll love them.

I feel very happy and proud to have accomplished such a monumental task. Of course, as is always the case, other aspects of  life suffered… and there was a little bit of cookie snitching and hiding under TV tray tables… but overall it was a good BIG experience for me and filled my need for creativity in the absence of other, less-edible pursuits. And hopefully these small but numerous labors of love will be enjoyed thoroughly my husband’s clients as well as our family and friends.

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Snitched cookies are guilty pleasures.  Sneaking pictures of snitching munchkins… totally guilt-free!

No-Bake Coconut Pecan Pralines

My new favorite no-bake cookie! And gluten-free, if that’s your thing :)

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Coconut Pecan Pralines

Ingredients
  • 2-1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup evaporated milk
  • 1/2 cup corn syrup
  • 1 stick salted butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2-1/2 cups chopped pecans
  • 2 cups sweetened shredded coconut
Directions

1. In a medium sized bowl, combine coconut and pecans; set aside.

2. In a heavy saucepan over medium high heat, stir sugar, evaporated milk, corn syrup and butter. Cook and stir until mixture comes to a full rolling boil -- let boil and stir for 3 minutes.

3. Remove pan from heat and stir in vanilla and coconut and pecan mixture. Stir off the heat for about 4 minutes, until mixture starts to cool and thicken.

4. Drop by large spoonfuls on wax paper (small cookie scoops work well). Let harden completely – a couple hours-- before serving or storing.

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English Toffee Bars

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English Toffee Bars

Ingredients
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup pecan halves
  • ⅔ cup butter
  • ⅓ cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Chips
Directions

1. Heat oven to 350°F.

2. Combine flour and brown sugar in bowl of your food processor. Add butter and process until fine crumbs form. Press mixture onto bottom of ungreased 13x9x2-inch baking pan. Sprinkle pecans over crust. Prepare toffee topping; drizzle evenly over pecans and crust.

3. Bake 20 to 22 minutes or until topping is bubbly and golden; remove from oven. Immediately sprinkle milk chocolate chips evenly over top; press gently onto surface. Cool completely in pan on wire rack. Cut into bars.

TOFFEE TOPPING: Combine 2/3 cup butter and 1/3 cup packed light brown sugar in small saucepan; cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a boil. Continue boiling, stirring constantly, 30 seconds. Use immediately.

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Cranberry Ribbon Icebox Cookies

I adapted this amazing recipe from a site called From My Sweet Heart, only because I was too lazy to type out the recipe shared with me by the Tholen family. My generous and fun college roommate was the lucky recipient of a care package from her mom one year near finals, and it contained some of these… I don’t think I had ever eaten anything rivaling my love of chocolate before then, but we agreed that these cookies were IT. And still are. Thanks for that care package, Mama Tholen!!
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I wanted to use only cranberry instead of the cherry preserves (which I did not have on hand, unlike the 4 pounds of fresh cranberries), so I made my own cranberry preserves to substitute (in case that suits your needs too). Pretty sure the jam recipe I used is here on Popsugar. I used some and put some up in jars some for the future. Tasty!
This recipe is so delicious and makes such pretty cookies, but it makes you work. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
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Cranberry Ribbon Icebox Cookies
Ingredients
  • 2 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt
  • 3/4 cup of sugar
  • 1 Tablespoons of unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 Tablespoon of pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 5 oz. of dried sweetened cranberries
  • 1/2 cup of cherry jam or preserves (I subbed my own cranberry jam)
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons of sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon of almond extract
Directions

For the cranberry filling:

Place the cranberries, jam and sugar in a food processor and process until it is coarsely pureed. Transfer to a small saucepan and heat over medium-high, stirring occasionally. When the mix just comes to a boil, remove from heat and let cool. Stir in almond extract and cover and refrigerate for 1 hr. and is well chilled. This can be made up to 4 days in advance.

For the shortbread dough:

Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside. With an electric mixer on medium, cream sugar and butter until smooth and well blended. Add the egg, vanilla and almond extracts and beat till well blended. Add the flour mixture and beat until well incorporated.
Line a 4 ½ by 8 ½ inch bread pan with tin foil (I used parchment paper), leaving about a 3 inch overhang over the long sides of the pan. On top of the foil, repeat this procedure using 2 long pieces of plastic wrap.

Divide the dough into quarters. Gently roll one quarter of the dough into a shape that will roughly fit the bottom of the bread pan. Place the dough into the pan and pat it to spread as evenly as possible. Smooth 1/3 of the filling over the top of the dough. It will be stiff, but an offset spatula works best to push the jam evenly over the dough. Repeat the process in the same way with the remaining dough and jam. Wrap the plastic wrap over the top of the dough and place the pan in the freezer for at least 1 ½ hours or longer.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Line your baking sheets with parchment or spray your pans with nonstick spray. Remove the dough from the pan using the tin foil ‘handles’. Remove the plastic wrap. Cut the loaf crosswise into thirds. Trim and cut the sides as necessary to make sure the blocks of dough are straight and not flared. Work with one block at a time, keeping the others in the fridge, and cut each third into ¼ inch thick slices. Wipe your knife clean between cuts if necessary. Place each slice on a baking sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake one sheet at a time, in the upper third of your oven for about 10-15 minutes, or until just slightly brown at the edges. Immediately transfer to wire racks to cool.

Store in an airtight container for up to a week or freeze for up to a month. (Yeah right! Good luck with them lasting that long!)

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I tripled this recipe and layered it in two long pullman loaf pans. That worked marvelously for my big batch needs, for those of you who also mass produce Christmas treats!

Classic Gingerbread Recipe for Rolled Cookies (also good for Gingerbread Houses)

Another worthy repost with updated pictures.

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Classic Gingerbread Rolled Cookies

Ingredients

· 6 cups sifted all-purpose flour
· 1 teaspoon baking soda
· ½ teaspoon baking powder
· 1 cup butter
· 1 cup packed dark-brown sugar
· 4 teaspoons ground ginger
· 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
· 1½ teaspoons ground cloves
· 1½ teaspoons salt
· 2 large eggs
· 1 cup molasses
Directions
In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Set aside. In an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Mix in spices and salt, then eggs and molasses. Add flour mixture and combine on low speed.
Divide dough in thirds and wrap in plastic and flatten into approximately 1” bricks. Chill for about 1 hour. Heat oven to 350°. On a heavily floured surface, roll dough 1/8”-1/4” thick (depending on preference). Cut into desired shapes. Transfer to ungreased baking sheets. If dough will not hold shape well, refrigerate cut-outs for 15 minutes before baking. If dough is too stiff to roll without cracking, allow to warm up before rolling and cutting.
Bake about 8 to10 minutes, until puffed but not darkened, or longer if you prefer crispier cookies. Allow cookies to cool on wire racks, and then decorate as desired.
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As with all of my hand-piped cookies, I use royal icing. Need specifics? Ask Martha.

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